Content warnings for this episode include: Religious abuse, Ableism, Survivor’s Guilt, Violence, Death + Injury, Character Death, Blood, Gun Mention, Emotional Manipulation, Body horror, Religious Violence, Child Sacrifice, Metaphor involving a pig turned inside out, Rats (rat king as usual), explosives, house fires
Intro - Train Tracks
Never lie on the train tracks, they would say as you were growing up, but that never stopped you. You never saw the trains, only heard them in the distance some days. And now that it is all over, there are no trains either. Still, you hope as you stare up that there could be just one more, rolling out of the night, too quiet until it is suddenly too loud. Cold justice asserting itself.
For you fought hard to be the one who is still breathing. How many are not? How many did you trample over in those first mad days? Why are you the one that survived?
But then you hear a grinding from down the line, a hum in the iron, and in a moment, it is upon you—not a train but a judge, wrapped in chain and flame and furnace and iron bolero. He does not stop for you, for no matter what you tell yourself, you are not guilty. He thunders down the distant line of iron in search of sinners, as the sky resounds with a distant Hello From The Hallowoods.
Right now, I stand before a king. He knows that I am here, I think. A council of rats sits in the trees, crawls through the underbrush, watches the supplicants of the court—a vagabond and a wolf, seeking answers and safe passage. The theme of tonight’s episode is Crossings.
Story 1 - Repugnant Royalty
“Apollyon,” said Yaretzi, “Are you able to see all that I see?”
“I think so,” Polly said. “Disgusting, isn’t it?”
She stood somewhere between the forest and the night sky. The stars burned emerald green; a corruption of their sacred flame. Visions of a thousand unguarded suns. Here, where the forest of iridescent colors bled into the universe, they were not alone. The least of her worries were the rats, eyes glinting and kissed by green fire; they leapt and scurried and fell through every forest shadow, and squeaked a hundred whispered welcomes.
There were six beings that she could not identify as man or beast—strips of pale flesh and fat in curling ribbons, spotted purples and greens, with all the beauty of a pig turned inside out. They floated and twirled through the air like swollen kites, cackling and jabbering repulsive songs, unseeing eyes and ruined noses that filled her with a shiver of fear. She grew bigger still, revealed that many more teeth in her wolven jaws. They were, of course, only the jesters, gibbering cries joined together in one frightful harmony to welcome their king to the glade.
And the king frightened her the most. Antlers, twisted and sharp like outstretched hand. No eyes, no mouth, a lump of flesh melted away by the rain. Too many hands to count, descending its corpselike sides, forming a mass of arms and fingers on which it walked, one palm at a time, through the trees to approach them. It held itself like a god.
“I did not know such evil existed,” she growled in a low way. “What if this repugnant worm has hurt Mort?”
“Repugnant. Excellent word,” said Polly, and fixed his tie, cleared his throat, tapped his new umbrella politely on the ground. “That is what we are here to find out.”
“Silence,” whispered the countless swarm of rats, and Yaretzi stamped a claw to keep them from creeping too close. “The Faceless King speaks.”
The horrible court attendants fell from a blasphemous song to a mutter, replaced by a deep reverberation and a sound that made Yaretzi twitch her ears, too high to hear.
“What right has a courier of the soul-burner and a hound of the sun-hoarder to walk upon this holy ground?” said the Faceless King. She could see no mouth through which it spoke, but its voice echoed in her head the way Apollyon’s had when they first met.
“Stop that,” she grunted. “The screaming. It is painful.”
“I don’t hear anything,” whispered Polly.
“My ears are better than yours,” she growled. The Faceless King tilted a hand, and the frequency of its presence diminished. Polly took the opportunity to respond.
“We have no business with your soggy self,” he said. “Rest assured, I would not dirty my shoes here if I had the choice. A friend of mine has gotten lost. We are here to reclaim him and we will leave you to your moist devices.”
“Do you think a little insolence will hide so much fear?” said the King, calmly. Yaretzi watched its many twisting hands for any sign of a rush. “It must be strange after so long, to find a corner of the universe that does not belong to you. The forest keeps all that it claims.”
“Is he alive?” Yaretzi barked. A multitude of rats looked up in fear. “He is dead like yourself. He wears red armor. He is accompanied by a seabird. Is he alive?”
“Even if he is now, he will not be for long,” the Faceless King smiled. She hated him for it. “There is a guardian closer to the North, and they are far hungrier than I am. Your friend has made a grave mistake transgressing on this ground, as have you.”
“We already have enough intrusions, you understand,” whispered the rats. “Ephelzeph, Lolgmololg, the cats… the harbingers gather. They gather to watch the first flowering of the spring.”
“‘If’ he is alive,” Polly said. “So you did not kill him.”
“He is out of my hands now,” said the Faceless King, and raised three or four for effect. “If you do not retreat south, you will die with him. Despite their interference, the storm wanes. The dawn is near. The dawn of a new age.”
“Where did you see him?” Yaretzi said. “His scent is confusing, here. The path is splintered. We will take him and we will leave your… plans, in peace.”
“The demon cannot understand that some things do not belong to him,” said the Faceless King. “If that is his blind spot, perhaps time is yours. You are long out of it.”
One of the horrid jesters descended from the pine-tops like a sinking corpse, whispered with peeling lips against the side of the Faceless King’s skull.
“Delightful idea,” said the King, and returned his faceless gaze to Yaretzi. “I will humor you, Starwolf, I will tell you where your friend is. If you rip out this demon’s heart and eat it. I think I would like to see that.”
“You are a vile thing,” she spat, sharp teeth champing. “We will be on our way. Will you attempt to halt our progress?”
The Faceless King rose higher, pushed up from the earth on its many hands, and its ravenous jesters all twisted to stare at her, necks twisting all the way around.
“Go ahead,” Polly said, and popped open his umbrella, which spouted fire at its points as he twirled it. “We’ve dealt with the Industry. Your gift-wrapped bones don’t frighten me.”
“If I may, your majesty,” said the rats, surging like a wet black blanket across the forest floor between them. “Do not waste our precious time dealing with these interlopers. We have larger threats to mitigate. Leave these two to the bloodmass. Leave them to the spring.”
The Faceless King paused, glaring down at her eyelessly. She bared her teeth, shook her mighty head of fur and golden bands.
“You may walk,” said the Faceless King, and clasped four sets of hands. “Only by the grace of the Rat King may you walk. And by the walking, you may choose the nature of your destruction.”
The clearing was receding then, although she had not taken a step, and then she was lost with Apollyon in the pines that rippled with nameless colors.
“Which way are we to go?” she growled, her fur beginning to flicker back into her skin, her bones breaking back into smaller shapes as the fear overtook her ferocity.
“Lucky for us,” Polly said, and mustered a spiral of flame, another vortex in space to carry them closer still to Mort. “There’s only one way that matters now.”
Interlude 1 - A Hallowed Earth
Where does your world end, and the Hallowoods begin? This is a false question now, dreamer. The Black Rains are in every river, dwell in all your oceans, are lifted into the cloud and fall upon your earth. There are many forests now where the bark of the trees turns black, and ink soaks the threads of the leaves and needles, and miniscule horrors grow in their roots and nestle in their pine cones.
In Quebec there is La Forêt Maléfique, where the roots rise like fingers to pull the living down into their subterranean chasms. In Germany, the Schwarzwald, where writhing witch-hags lure survivors into their burrows with trails of rations. In the Amazônia in Peru, the pitcher plants have grown to swallow children and hounds whole, dissolving them to their bones. And the towering forests of the pacific northwest have turned from redwood to black, and deathly eagles descend from obsidian towers to impale what the wretched salamanders do not first devour.
Beyond the doors in the Gleamingbog of the Moormire that lead from many places to this forest, beyond the Pakenham Bridge that inexplicably leads from Mississipi Mills in Ontario to the heart of the Hallowoods, beyond the cabinets and keys and yawning pits in reality, there is no escape from the Hallowoods. The roots of this forest grow deep and in many places now. Yours is now a hallowed earth. Yours is a hallowed soul.
We go now to one who reaches the end of her journey in these woods.
Story 2 - It Keeps Going
Riot shook her head in the flying snow. She was seeing things again. They hovered on the edges of her vision, voices whispered in the wind around her, muttering nothing that she could remember.
Don’t fall asleep again. That was what Danielle had told her. If she slept, she was done. She held her sword ahead of her with both hands, as if to cut a path through the storm. Ice coated the blade, and her hands were frozen and numb around the handle, and her coat did nothing to keep the wind from scathing her skin, filling her barely mended lungs with pain.
And yet, one step at a time, she trudged forward. Her boots crunched against the ice, sword wavered ahead of her like the needle of a compass. She tried to keep thinking. Thinking about Danielle. About Clementine and her mother. She almost smiled. At least she wouldn’t be missed.
She wondered where Diggory and Percy were; what had happened to Mort and Cindy. Separated by the Creep, buried beneath the weight of the storm. How quickly it had all fallen apart. She worried most of all for Olivier. If they were alright, she knew, they would be here to shelter her from the wind, bend it around her as they did so gently. She was proud, really. That they’d managed to find the weather here, reach through the alien sky to call the storm to life. Even though it was lowering the temperature minute by minute. Even though it was killing her.
She found herself staring at the blade of the sword, her own reflection. An eye with frost encrusting the eyelashes. Scarred and freckled skin turned blue. She was not walking at all, she realized. She lay beside her sword in the snow, and the torrents of snow swept over her. Don’t fall asleep, Riot. Don’t you dare, she thought. She decided to rise to her feet again, but her bones were too cold to listen. Her muscles were frozen like curry in a tin. As she lay, she realized the rest was pleasant. The numb slopes of the snow as gentle as the pillow and comforter in her bunker. And she was so very, very tired.
The snow stopped, at some point. The wind slowed to a gentler rush, and the blizzard began to die out. It made her sad, although she did not know why. It made her glad, too, in a way. Because now she could see the stars above her, green as they were in her uneasy dreams when she still slept with a key beneath her pillow. And there were lights, northern lights, more beautiful than any she’d ever seen, bands of flame rippling across the universe.
She smiled. If the storm was over, maybe someone would make it. She wondered if it was deep night or early morning. There was no telling in this place, but she had always hated mornings.
She felt it before it arrived. The rush of its wings, huge and heavy above her, stirring the snow. That long beak, those iridescent black feathers, its wings blotting out the stars.
The Grackle tilted a huge head down to her, blinked a great eye. She might have told it to get lost, but she could not speak, nor move to gesture. But it gave a low croak, and somehow she knew what it asked. How many times had it hovered over her, just out of her vision? But there was no more running now. She was too tired even for fear, for grief. Ready to be free of the cold and the exhaustion and the hunger. Ready for a little rest.
The Grackle blinked, and plucked up her silver sword from the snow in its sharp beak. And snow scattered as it spread its massive wings, and enclosed her in its great knobby talons. And then with a gust of turbulence, she was flying, peeked from between its claws as the expanse of ice spun below her, and she could see her own body growing colder, smaller, until it faded away into the snow entirely, and she was carried into the far and beautiful North.
The Grackle did not carry her far.
Sixty feet, perhaps, and then it dropped her to tumble across the snow. She watched it wheel overhead, swooped down to a great nest of tree trunks. It dropped the sword into a vast trove of shining treasures, a thousand pieces of cutlery, necklaces, earrings, spectacles, pocketwatches, teeth, lighters, coins, wire, and in the snow, a Stonemaiden band pin. Riot sat up, although she sank through the blanket of snow beneath her, could see the horizon through her hands. Beyond them, a shadow of a man sat on a shelf of ice, staring at a shallow frozen basin.
“Well hey there kid,” said Walt, and winced with one ethereal eye. “I’d be lying if I said I was happy to see ya.”
Marketing - The Road Again
I can already feel it. I’m getting close now.
Just continuing on across the Canadian highway at this point. It’s going to be one long shot from here, up through Toronto, into the north. I should know enough about Canadian traffic; Box Polaris was a shipping nightmare. It was lucky the Prime Minister went missing when she did; she was making it difficult for us wherever she could. Import costs, construction permits. If you happen to be sleeping in Canada and wonder why there were only a few Dreaming Boxes in your country, you can blame your old PM, who was too stuck-up to just take a paycheck like the rest of the continent’s politicians.
Box Polaris is still one of the smaller Dreaming Boxes out there. But it’s the last signpost before I reach that forest.
And it sings to me, now. The water in the trees there is the water in me. Truth be told, when I think of my friend that lives there, sometimes I’m not thinking of a man. I’m thinking of the place itself. The kind of place I might belong…
Story 2, Continued - It Keeps Going
The Hallowoods are home to many unusual beings and souls cursed by misfortune. And none of them will know any peace or quiet if you arrive here. Find a different place to infect with your marketing and your god complex. There is enough of that with me around.
We return now to Riot Maidstone.
“Walt?” Riot said. The cold did not numb her thoughts now. She could not feel it at all. “I thought you were dead.”
“Ah, yeah,” said Walt. “Welcome to the club, I guess.”
She drew closer—her feet bled through the snow; she had no substance, and the world was blurred around her like a bad television picture, the sky above her heavy, a vortex leading into infinite darkness and light.
“Ghost dead and dead dead are not the same thing,” she said. “And I thought… no, nevermind, I got it. I’m dreaming as I freeze to death again. Danielle? Danielle.”
“You’re not dreaming,” Walt said, and winced, shrugged. “I think I’m up here because of this bird. I’m calling it a Soulguide Grackle. Large, seems to be solitary, grabs ghosts and brings them up here. Guess that’s what I am now. A phantom. Not sure why it does that yet. Maybe just to steal all their shiny trinkets. If we go too far away from it, just brings us back. Truth be told, I worried it’d bring you here one day. You’ve got a death wish on you. Didn’t expect that day to be so soon.”
“I’ve… I’ve really needed you,” Riot said, settling on the ledge beside him. “So much has happened, Walt. So much. And I’ve been trying so hard and I just couldn’t…”
She found herself burning white, the outlines of her transparent gloves, electric tears sparking in her eyes.
“Easy there kid,” he said, and patted her on the shoulder like a static shock. “Don’t be too hard on yourself. I’m sure whatever you were trying to do, it was important. And knowing you, probably selfless, and a bit too reckless. You tried. And there’s no shame in having tried a little too hard.”
“Everyone’s dying, Walt,” she sobbed, and might have buried her head in his shoulder, if he’d had a shoulder left. “We tried to go North. To get to the Heart, this thing…”
“The heart is north,” Walt said. “But you will not be there to stop the end. That’s what Dylan said to me, that night of the Spring Solstice. Guess he knew I wouldn’t be coming with ya.”
“So that’s it,” she sniffed, hands on fire with light. “You’re dead, I’m dead. Everyone’s going to die. It’s over.”
“What’s over?” he said, and leaned down to inspect the ice before him. “Look. Sh sh sh. You’re burning up too fast. Just look. What do you see?”
She peered over the ice. Something white and ghostlike fluttered beneath the surface.
“Is that a jellyfish?” she mumbled.
“It certainly is,” Walt said. “Now think about what a jellyfish up here has had to live through. The world got far warmer than these little guys are used to, and ice stopped forming up here for a while. Then it came back. There’s pollutants in the water, and a huge blackwater tangle sort of beast that consumes everything it touches. And yet. Despite all this calamity, jellyfish. Things change. They’re never over. Chapters end, but the story doesn’t. Whether it’s a story about an old Groundskeeper, or Riot Maidstone, or jellyfish. It keeps going.”
“It doesn’t seem like it goes anywhere good from here,” Riot said, sparks of anger and frustration. “What, you’ve been sitting up here alone all year? What kind of a keeps going is that?”
“I haven’t been alone,” Walt said, and waved a hand to the horizon. It glowed brightly, not with the reflection of snow or the northern lights, as she had thought, but with spirits, a thousand ghosts in every direction.
“Who are all these people?” Riot whispered, suddenly on guard. She remembered Solomon’s ghosts all too well.
“I wasn’t sure if there would be a heaven or a hell,” Walt said. “But it turns out, there’s not that many places to go. So we’ve got a community here. Call it a big support group, of sorts. The Grackle doesn’t like it if you try and get too far from here, but there’s one way out.”
He pointed upward, to the vortex, to the infinite call of the heavens.
“I don’t like the sky doom whirlpool,” she said.
“Yeah, my theory about that is since gravity doesn’t really affect us anymore, it feels like work to stay down here. Grounded. ‘Specially since you and I aren’t stuck to something like Mr. Reed’s poor souls. Lots choose to go, in their time. Get bored of the ice and decide to go see what’s out there. Wander forever I guess, or until you burn out.”
“But you haven’t,” she said. “You’ve been here in the arctic for like ten months?”
“Well, I’ve had good reason,” he grinned, and waved to a spirit drawing closer; the outline of a cheerful round woman, gentle smile a comfort despite the scars that wound across her face and cut through her waitress dress and apron and metal name tag.
“Hey Daphne,” he said. “Come say hello to a friend of mine.”
Interlude 2 - A Plague of Grackles
Vast is the Industry, and many its employees, agents, and operatives across the worlds that it occupies. Its demons, on rare missions to sow anguish and death, accelerate certain calamities, and to document and record all the comings and goings of life upon a world.
Its auditors, to enforce order among its employees and track down wayward spirits, recover any who aim to overthrow the order that has been enforced.
But for the vast majority of the work, the harvesting, no great power is necessary. Just great flocks of courier birds—call them Grackle or otherwise—that spirit away the glinting souls of trillions to store them in their creator’s mighty warehouses. And when a world is quarantined, cut off from the network of flame and forge, it is not uncommon for a bird or two to be left behind. And in the silence, to pursue their own devices in absence of a purpose, try to enforce the parameters of their work without ever understanding why.
We go now to one who has come to question the parameters of his work.
Story 3 - Losing Children
Jacob Wicker was silent through dinner, although dinner was a silent thing. Really more of a rushed few bites for some of his siblings before they were spirited off to bed, try to dismiss the events of the morning as a bad dream. A crowd of pale staring faces, an infinite evil upon the altar, a man in red and black robes waving a curved black knife, the face of God. Screaming his lungs out, gun in hand, as they backed away for the door. The disbelief that they were allowed to leave as the pale faces turned back to the altar and continued to sing. The silent crawl through the forest, truck with its covered back bound for home.
He sat in his chair where his father had once sat, just a year or two before. Funny, how long it felt that it had been already. He’d lost his father long before the man died, though. His mother was at the other end, where she always was, and they remained there until the voices upstairs faded into the dull hum of bedtime preparations.
“I didn’t tell you to shoot him,” she said. Good. He’d feel less guilty than if he’d been the one to bring it up.
“Nothing you didn’t do to dad,” he said.
She seemed to have nothing to say to that, only bared her horselike teeth.
“In cold blood, Jacob. You killed him.”
“He had a knife.”
“It wasn’t for you.”
“That’s why I killed him.”
“We could have just left. He didn’t need to die. And you had no right to bring your father into this conversation. What a terrible thing to say.”
“At least with this one you won’t have to lie to anyone here. Tell them that the water got him.”
“Jacob. Your father beat you. He beat your sisters. There was a demon in him that never came free, as much as he preached. He left me with no choice.”
“And a noble thing you did, so that you could beat us instead,” he said. It was all coming loose, tonight. It was all coming apart. He listened for the sound of the engines outside. “Do you expect me to say thank you?”
She crossed her arms, and glared at him. “What’s gotten into you, Jacob?”
“You’re going to lose us,” he said. She blinked. It was not what she’d expected to hear, he’d have guessed.
“Lose you?” she said. “The church will leave us alone, I think. And if they don’t, they’ll make enemies of Fort Freedom. I’m not going to let anything happen to you or your siblings ever again.”
“I’m not talking about the church,” he said, and rubbed his temples. “This is gonna be hard for me to say, so I’m gonna say it once and that’s it. You can listen or harden your heart and ignore it, either way. It’s your call.”
“Alright,” she said slowly, a hurt look on her face already. He wondered if she was already thinking about the plastic rod on the mantle behind her, the implement of a hundred lashes written upon knuckles and backs.
“You’re the reason Johannah runs away,” he said. “Because it never feels safe when you’re here. You say you want to protect us from people like dad, from people like the church, but you’re just as bad. You hurt us like he did. You put us down like he did.”
She began to speak, but at meeting his gaze, closed her mouth again.
“Johannah does it on the outside,” he said. ‘But everyone else is just waiting. When they’re old enough to leave and strong enough to say something to you, they will. And they’ll be gone. And if something doesn’t change, you’re going to be alone someday.”
“Are you suggesting I try to raise you without discipline?” she said. She was crying, but he no longer cared. “Without godly values? Do you want this family to end up like those Scoutpost heathens?”
“Discipline’s a bad excuse,” he said. “We’re not your things. We’re not your little soldiers. You can’t mold us in your image. Throw us out when we get too sick or hurt or disobedient to be useful to you. I know you love us, ma. I know you do. So listen to that, don’t bury it. You might still have a chance with them.”
“What do you mean, them?” she said, in between loud sniffles.
“The other kids,” Jacob said, and slid his chair back from the table, and grabbed his cane, stood up with it. “I’m already gone.”
He limped past the table, stopped by the door. There was the rev of an engine outside now; it was time.
“Jacob?” she said. “You sit down right now. We’re going to finish talking this out.”
“I’ve said what I needed to,” he said, and took the plastic whip from the mantelpiece, and broke it over his knee, and threw the pieces across the floor. She stared up in hurt and disbelief.
“Jacob? Where are you going?”
“Today you almost got my little brother killed by strangers,” he said. “You’re a bad mother. And I ain’t sticking it out anymore. Like I said, I’m already gone.”
She pleaded, and chased after him towards the door, but he slammed it in her face. He was tempted to wait, see if she opened it, see if she’d even want her crippled son back, see if she could love him after he’d talked back for once in his life. But he didn’t look back; not until he’d climbed up into the side of the truck and they were rolling off into the sunset. And her door did not open.
It was the better part of a forty minute drive to the Church, but he remembered the instructions well enough from that morning, was able to point them down the right paths. He’d been popular with Rick Rounds’ old raiding crew, and although he wasn’t allowed on their rides anymore, tonight was a special occasion.
Something changed in him as he sat in the back of the truck, keeping the bags still. No longer his mother’s lackey, no longer Buck’s replacement as the village entertainment. He was going to be something different. Something new.
And that something began with pitching makeshift explosives over the iron fences of the Church of the Hallowed Name, through the windows of their New Chapel, watching as the flames cast ungodly shadows through the black glass.
Outro - Crossings
Crossings. There is no chasm ahead of you, dreamer. There is no bridge you must choose to cross. There is a chasm beneath you. You are already upon the bridge. From past self to future, from history to uncertain tomorrow, you have walked and will always be walking.
What lies beneath may change, from train tracks to stream and river to deep gulch and glade. It is upon these crumbling stones that your journey will traverse it all. You may never see the other side in this lifetime, for you do not live very long.
But if there is an end in sight, a day where the crossing from one age into the next is finally complete, when we return to the solid ground from whence we came, I will let you know. Until the day when you step off the bridge into the future, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting transcendentally for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Flickering and is available on the Hello From The Hallowoods Patreon. Consider joining for access to all the show's bonus stories, behind-the-scenes and more!