Content warnings for this episode include: Al has no skin as usual, Violence, Death + Injury, Blood, Impaled by Spike, Needles, Birds, Gun Mention, Strangulation/suffocation, Emotional Manipulation, Body horror, Religious Violence, Child Sacrifice, Burning Alive, House Fires, Character Death
Intro - Linger at the Cradle
You do not want to admit it. You have lingered here far longer than you should. You can feel it above; the heat and crackle of some unveiled catastrophe, and yet, you sit. Waiting against hope. Perhaps there is still a little time. Perhaps at the very last minute, she will pull through. The sound you hear echoing down into your abyss is the sound of your life’s work burning. Do you go to investigate it? Can you leave the cradle even for a moment? If you leave this room, it is the final admittance of your failure. The spring came faster than you thought, and fate misled you, and none of your understudies were ready. A lesser partner, a lesser person if person you still are would pull themself away, from the verge of destruction, give up in the final hour. But this is what she wanted. This is what she worked for. And you will see it through, if it means that the embers of your life drift up in the night, form letters in the wind to spell Hello From The Hallowoods.
It is aflame, dreamer. Downing Hill burns. And we are here, yes, because it is important. Or because I hesitate to look North. There are final moments flickering here just as there are final moments there. Unfolding, truthfully, at once, as these things do. But we will look first here, then there. Yes. That is how we will do it.
The library burns. Flame breathes in its corridors, fanned by the rush of cosmic wind, carried through wall-paper and hallway, peeling back the veneer with charred edges to reveal the emptiness beyond. It was not designed as a lie, only as a comfort. A love letter. A good story. The theme of tonight’s episode is Flames.
Story 1 - Silver Hand, Golden Frame
Indrid Buckley walked through the fire, and her feet were not burned. The Sandals of Steady Footing extinguished the embers, and she kept her black cloak wrapped close around her to keep the edges from scorching, a red cloth tied around her mouth to keep the smoke at bay. There were others in the fire, peeling through the distant halls, screaming and shouting. For a moment she thought she caught a glimpse of a woman, the one with the shotgun who had provided the distraction the first time she came here. But she was gone before Indrid could be sure.
The flames reminded her of the ones that had claimed the New Chapel a night previous; Fort Freedom had come to seek some kind of ill-advised vengeance, despite having been shown the grace of leaving the Church of the Hallowed Name alive. The pews and carpets had served as tinder to heat the metal pillars within, and there was little water to be had. The Vicar might have been able to suffocate the flames with a snap of his fingers, but he was gone, pulled into the stone of the altar, and the altar was all that stood intact of the New Chapel.
But perhaps it is only a humbling piece of our journey, Indrid thought. A journey through flame. The trial through hellfire by which souls are purified. And for too long, she had been soft, vulnerable, harrowed by a past that threatened to crush her. You must leave your weakness in the fire, said the Dawn, or you will perish with it. And so Indrid walked through the flame, and came to stop in front of a painting.
She had caught a glimpse of it in passing when she fled Downing Hill with Mr. Wicker’s daughter in tow, had taken note of it. Knew now what it was. It depicted a field of sunflowers, where two figures stood in the distance, backs turned to her—a girl with white hair, and a man with an arm of silver bones.
She reached out to pull the golden frame from the wall.
“Mama?” whispered a voice, and she knew who it was instantly. She looked over to find Al hovering in the flames, skinless feet drifting amidst the embers. She grit her teeth. No, lord, she prayed. Anything but this. She felt the searing brand of the iron pressed against her soul.
“Did you come here to rescue me?” the ghost continued. “My drum, it’s stuck in a wardrobe downstairs. I don’t like the fire. I don’t want to die again. I always knew you’d come back for me.”
“My beautiful boy,” Indrid said, choking on her words. She stumbled towards him a step, remembered the painting, turned back for it.
“Mama, you’d better hurry,” said Al, a little panic in his voice. “It’s going to get me soon.”
“Al, I…” Indrid began, and stood up tall, closed her eyes.
“Please,” said Al, lidless eyes wide. The face she remembered in her dreams, ruined and butchered, no lips, no ears. A cruel mockery of her son. A memory that should have been allowed to die.
“You were never supposed to live,” Indrid said, grit her teeth. “You were supposed to die.”
“To make god happy,” Al whispered.
“Yes,” Indrid breathed. “That’s the way it was going to be. What am I going to do with the ghost of my boy? It is easier to forget. This has to happen. I loved you, Al. But it’s time for you to stop haunting me. I can’t let you pull me back into the past now. There is a future ahead for me. For the church.”
“Mama?” Al said, a silver outline in the embers.
“Goodbye, my son,” Indrid said, and turned away from him, pulled the painting from the wall, and held it under her robes as she fled through the flames. “I hope we meet in heaven.”
Interlude 1 - Non-Euclidean Fires
There are fires in space. And in the vacuum, free of gravity, it no longer resembles tattered whispers of fabric, reaching upwards and curling through the air, but a bubble, full of violent light and adrift, bursting into further singularities, burning blue and cool. Globules of flame like jellyfish, looking for something on which to feast.
A flame that burns in a non-euclidean space is not far off. The fire exists, feasts on sources near and far simultaneously, travels seemingly across hundreds of feet in an instant through the shortcuts in the physics of a place. And Downing Hill Public Library is an immense labyrinth of such spaces. Once a building built of concrete and stone, stretched into so much more by the weight of a million tomes of cosmic knowledge, artifacts that each bend the reality around them a little more. Downing Hill is deep now, and heavy, and as complex as the witch-math that structured its expanding wings.
A fire that burns in a non-euclidean space is nearly impossible to extinguish. How can you put out a fire that is in two places at once? How can you ever be sure you have put out every drifting globe of it, in all the unseen pockets beyond your walls? Downing Hill Public Library’s policies regarding fire have been severe, not just to protect their ancient manuscripts, but to prevent just such a thing from happening as is happening now.
We go now to one who is not afraid of the fire.
Story 2 - Zelda and Friends
“Al? Where did you go?” Zelda cried, and hobbled quickly through a large door of wooden beams. They came crashing down behind her, sent a shower of sparks flying through the air. She patted her hair to extinguish any live ones, and held her shotgun close, put her back to a stone wall for a moment.
“Al?” she called again, scanned the corridor for him. She coughed, and could not stop coughing. He had been leading her on through the halls, but she could not see him now; only remembered what he had said. Down to the visitor’s hall. A cabinet fallen onto its front. She hurried on, kicked a flimsy wooden door to find herself in a room like a large meal hall. Wooden tables and scattered chairs were spread out across a wide stone floor; fire crawled up the wooden rafters and into the ceiling, chandeliers squeaked and buckled as their chains threatened to warp. Tapestries of beardy old men were up in tatters. And, hovering a few paces ahead of her, a different shade of light than the oranges and reds that lit the room; a single green firefly.
Zelda kept a wide berth of the chandeliers; the stone felt warm beneath her rubber boots. She stopped as something came scuttling out from beneath a table, screaming shrilly; she did not hesitate. A swing down of her barrels, a click, and a blast from her shotgun, and something with tiny claws and shoes went flipping across the floor to collide with a dish cabinet on the far side of the room.
“Jeez, lady,” sputtered the tiny beast; its mouth was sewn on, its eyes were buttons. Her shell had ripped holes in its face to expose the cotton beneath; a tiny heart was wrapped in red taffeta in its threadbare chest. “What’d I do to deserve that?”
“Zelda, it’s us,” a voice called, and she looked from the ghastly little doll to the double doors on the far side of the hall. A girl came through, one that she knew she had seen before, but she could not summon the girl’s name. The one who had saved her things from her drowning house, once, and sold things at the market. The girl went over immediately to pick up the doll’s pieces, but another woman was coming towards her.
“Zelda my dear, this is not a good place for you to be,” Winona said, crow eyes glinting in the firelight. “It’s coming down around our ears. We need to get you out of here.”
“Winona?” Zelda said, and swung her gun in the woman’s direction. Winona held up immediately, tilted her head. “You’re not here. Why would you be? People in here, they play tricks. You’re trying to keep my grandson from me.”
“It’s no trick,” Winona said, palms upraised. She raised an eyebrow in a way that Zelda had a hard time disbelieving. “How many times do I have to track you down out here? Can’t you just sit and be happy somewhere? Now you’ve shot poor Tattery.”
“I’m okay,” said the doll in many pieces.
“Winona, we don’t have long before this place crumbles,” said one of Winona’s companions, another woman behind her whose arms were blanketed in tattoos. “I’ve never seen it like this. I’m going to fetch Laurence, alright? Get them out safely.”
“A thousand fires, one fire. Bleeding together. It’s beautiful, like a flower,” said a walking corpse, the last to come out from the hall, and she was wreathed in glowing fireflies that cast the room in a phosphorescent glow. She put a hand on Winona’s shoulder; whispered something in her ear.
But Zelda had stopped trying to make sense of the madness unfolding around her; it was one more bad dream. Instead, she focused on a far door at the end of the room, past two tables and a serving cart, where Al’s waving little shape beckoned and glowed brightly; tears sparked in his eyes.
“Zelda, who is that?” Winona whispered, glancing over to the glowing boy.
“That’s my grandson,” Zelda smiled, and began walking for him. “I’m going to find him and bring him home.”
“Habibti, you must come with us now,” Winona said, following after her like a flapping crow. “We have come to get you out of here. No more chasing ghosts. We do not have much time.”
“Please, Zelda. We came all this way for you,” said the girl cradling the doll; her name was Elena, Zelda remembered.
Zelda stopped, watched Al drift back through the door into some dark hallway beyond. The building was an inferno around her, her friends gathered here in the hall. She turned back to Winona, and threw her arms around Winona, tears streaking from her wrinkly face and causing her mascara to run.
“You’ve been a good friend to me, Winona,” she said, and squeezed her tightly, backed away a step. “But Grandma Zelda pulls through. I’m not leaving Al here and you know I won’t quit on this. Thank you for coming for me. But you can stop trying now. You should all get out of here. Go be safe. Take care of other people who need it more.”
And before Winona could say goodbye, because she knew Winona hated saying goodbyes, she turned and ran as fast as her ancient knees would carry her for the door, ignored the screams of her friends, and fell into the darkness beyond it.
Marketing - Kindling
Lady Ethel Mallory:
Well, a fire’s a fire. I’ve saved a copy of my autobiography, but the others I’ve used for tinder. Mm. It’s nice to be warm, for a change. I love feeling warm. If I’d stayed in California, outwaited the winter, it might have been a bit more comfortable. Wish I’d thought about that. But I’m getting close now. To the forest. And I know I hated the cold, last time I came. But I’ll stay at my friend’s house, for a little while, and then… what then?
I find myself in a peculiar state. One that’s bad for marketing. My old brand identity I’ve abandoned. The night I burned all my things. But what the new brand is going to be is what I wrestle with every day as I walk.
Because it’s tempting to think that oh, I can make a new life for myself. And I can start over, and I can do something. Work on some project out here to distract myself from the future. But the truth is I’ve been telling you a story, for decades. About who Lady Ethel Mallory is and what the Botulus Corporation is. And none of it’s been real, really. It’s all been made for you. So that you’ll think what I needed you to think.
And now, it’s not just a question of what I need you to think. Because I’m realizing there are consequences. Every day I walk and I’m surrounded by them. I’ve made myself into a monster no one wants to know. I’ve burned the soul out of the world and left all its cities empty. And it profited me… nothing. I fed a machine, and the machine never cared about me, only what I could do for it. And it ate me in time.
And I’m not sure, whether I’m going to find a new life out here. What that life could even look like for someone like me. Or if the bitterness will just eat away at me until it burns me into nothing.
Story 2, Continued - Zelda and Friends
Get a life. Any life would do. You need a guide? Would that keep you from complaining to an entire world of dream? Find a place for yourself. It needs a ceiling, and walls, and a floor if you are particular. Make it warm and dry. Fill it with things you like. Find people in your vicinity whose company you enjoy. Feed yourself. Create art. Spend time outdoors. Throw your dreamcaster away and never speak again. That would be a wonderful start.
We return now to Zelda Duckworth.
Al was a light to guide her, hovering ahead, beckoning through each door and painting and tunnel, until finally he came to hover in a wall of flame at the end of a stone passage; a set of double doors painted with elaborate flamingos, consumed by the blaze. The heat blasting from the room beyond scorched her skin and singed her hair; she coughed with each breath now, tried to cover her mouth with her sleeve, and leaned against the wall for support.
“Al,” she called, “I can’t get through here. Isn’t there another way?”
“This is the only door,” Al said, looking around the room on the other side.
“Alright,” she said, and grit her teeth. She dragged herself a few steps closer, coughed again, straightened up, and fired her shotgun into the fraying door. It came apart in splinters, collapsed into the room beyond. Smoke filled the room with an orange haze.
“Grandma Zelda, the cabinet is burning,” he said. “There’s fire inside too; it’s getting close to my drum.”
“I’m coming,” she panted, and stumbled towards the splintered remains of the door, stepped over it like walking through a lit fireplace. She kicked at the embers, and tripped over the frame, dragged herself out into the visitor’s hall.
Al hovered over a wardrobe that had, true to what he’d said, collapsed on its face. But she could see now more clearly, it had collapsed because a beam from the ceiling had fallen on top of it, twenty feet across and four feet wide. Impossibly large for her to move. It burned, along with a number of coats and rugs and fallen debris that piled along the wardrobe, which was itself half consumed by flames.
Zelda dropped her gun, and fell to her knees, breathing shallow.
“You’re here, Grandma,” said Al. “Can you… can you get me out?”
“I don’t know if I can, Al,” she said, coughed again, put her hands on the floor to brace herself. “Always my boys getting stuck in furniture.”
“Grandma Zelda? Are you okay?” said Al.
“I just need to breathe,” Zelda said, tried to get to her feet. “We’ll find a way out. Don’t you worry, Al, we’ll find a way out.”
She fell, again, came down hard on her hip, felt pain radiate through it as her skin and everything beneath it split.
“Grandma Zelda!” Al said, and he was hovering over her then, but she could barely hear his voice. She could not even breathe. She rolled to her back; the sound of the flame pulsed, a deafening roar that changed, beat by beat, into the sound of wings. She could not move as the smoke filled her lungs. Could only see the darkness gathering above her into the shape of a great black bird, spreading its wings over her. It croaked, a question as old as time itself.
She reached for her necklace, two wedding rings hanging on a bit of cord, and held it in a tight fist. How many people had she lost to the library? Dexter, always locked away in his office, and little Jonah, who’d fallen into a cabinet and never really come back, and Al, who they’d pulled in with their little offers and smiles and deals. She smiled. What a pleasure it was to see it burn.
“Scram,” she told the bird, and clutched her gun a little tighter. “Get lost or I’ll put a hole in you.”
The great black bird flew away, then, was gone into the flames, and so was Zelda. She stood over her withered body; it was turning black as the fire crept across the floor.
The first thing she noticed was the absence of pain, in her knees, in her achy wrists, in a thousand places that old age had revealed to her. The flames were not sharp, but blurred like wet paint on paper. The only clear thing was Al, hovering beside her. He reached out for her hand, and held it.
“Grandma Zelda?” he said. “Are you okay? I’m so so sorry.”
“I feel great,” said Zelda, and looked at the inferno around them, and smiled. “Al, Al, don’t cry. It’s alright. You got your wish, didn’t you? We can stay at the library for a little while. And we can play games. I think I’m finally going to be able to keep up with you. It’s going to be fine.”
And she held him close, as he wept electric tears, as the fire in the heart of Downing Hill raged around her.
Interlude 2 - Corrupting Fire
Who can say from whence the fire of souls comes? We know that it flourishes in all that lives, and most greatly in that which creates. And it is valuable, for it is sustaining. We know that a soul will burn of its own accord, for a time, until it grows dim and flickers out completely. We know that there are organisms that feed upon that fire. Yes, parasites like the Phantom Station or the Ward of the Wisps, but still greater other forms of indescribable life.
The Industry has worked hard to develop methods that allow them to harness the fire of souls, hammer it into weapons and armies, economically translate one resource into others. Is your spirit precious to you? You may be lucky, in a way, then, that Marolmar’s corrupting fire burns on this planet too, and what is touched by his black water burns green instead of white, and he has left all your souls to yourselves. No more spiriting them away to burn them for tinder.
No more does Earth feed his furnaces. But do not despise the Industry of Souls too much, for if they did not scatter life from world to world, raise it up like tall wheat to fell, who is to say if life would have come to your world at all. Yours is a world of lost souls, now, but after death your spirit is your own to do what you will with.
We go now to a free spirit.
Story 3 - Unlucky Penny
Penny had always been unlucky. She had been unlucky as a child, caught by strangers with detection radars and erudite devices and stolen away from her mother. She had been unlucky every time she tried to escape, forced again into the glass box where nothing bad ever happened.
And she was unlucky now, only amplified a hundred times by the dark power that roiled from her sister, because Mr. Raven screamed as his partner fell to the ground, and there was a flash of cyan light from the white plastic firearm in his hands, and something black and sharp was fired towards Friday and missed. It caught Penny in the shoulder and stayed there, and bright red flooded the white lace of her dress.
There was pressure; the immediate pressure of the stone spike crunching against bone, but more than that, something died in the air around her. The bad luck that always lurked within her; the good fortune that blessed everyone else, that was supposed to cancel out the worst of Friday’s ill tidings. All rendered nothing. Silent. A horizon empty of fate, a clarifying hum in her ears of her own blood failing to complete its circuit. She crumpled to her knees, dress folding around her, and Friday’s hand released her as her sister threw her knife at Mr. Raven.
The kitchen knife twirled twice through the air, and caught the old bird of a man in the ribs, and he coughed up blood across his white gun as he wavered on his feet.
Friday’s eyes were wide, her breathing heavy, and she squeezed Penny’s arm so tightly she thought it would break off.
“This is my fault,” Friday whispered. “I’m sorry, Penny, I’m sorry…”
“Apply pressure,” called Mr. Writingdesk. The huge man was sprawled on the floor, his much-stained jacket turning black with blood as the wound where the Blackwood Coven had removed the metal spike from his chest reopened. “Just like I told you!”
“It’s going to be alright, Penny,” Friday said, although she had never been very good at lying. Penny fell onto her back, and Friday ripped a section from her dress away, pressed it hard against the wound. Penny screamed as the pain settled, and looked up to find Mr. Raven staring at them, the gun in his hands, blue lights still charged. Penny caught his gaze for a moment, eyes she had met many times from behind a layer of glass. What are you going to choose now, Mr. Raven, she thought? He looked to her, and to Friday, still unwounded, and to Mr. Writingdesk. And he tossed down his gun, and crumpled beside Mr. Writingdesk, and lay there still.
“I shouldn’t have brought you here,” Friday whispered. “I knew something like this would happen. It always does.”
“Your bad luck is why this place is burning,” Penny smiled, and reached with her other hand to hold the cloth in place; there was a sickening pulse where the projectile met her skin. “My good luck is why anyone got out. Was getting out. It’s only fair.”
“The library burns, and all is lost!” called the Omen, an unkindness of ravens circling in the lobby beyond where Misters Raven and Writingdesk had fallen. “Last chance to seek the wind and frost!”
There was movement from behind them; the sound of urgent footsteps careening through the halls, fleeing over fallen debris. A whirlwind of sparks filled her vision, and then there were faces looking down at her.
“Get away from her,” Friday shrieked, and lunged out with her fists. An old woman stooped down, while a younger girl caught Friday’s hands.
“Come, let’s get you out of here,” said the woman; her hair was covered by a beautiful hood, and secrets hid in her eyes. She laid a hand on Penny’s shoulder, and shuddered. “Alice, can you help me?”
Penny’s vision began to swim, then; and she could not trust what she saw, because she saw a woman with green lights in her eyes, surrounded by little green insects that glowed and glimmered, reaching down to hold her, cradle her beneath a rotting jaw and begin to carry her for the lobby.
“Wait,” she whispered, and the thing that carried her stopped just past Raven and Writingdesk. “Let me down.”
“Get on,” said Mr. Writingdesk, who had pulled himself up against a stone wall, Mr. Raven sat beside him. Blood ran from Mr. Raven’s mouth down his chest, covered his hands, droplets that adorned his perfect eyebrows. He sat with Mr. Writingdesk’s arm around his shoulders.
“You could come with us,” said Penny dreamily. “There’s still time.”
“Some part of me would like to,” said Mr. Writingdesk, a curious look on his cumbersome face. “It really would. But I think I’m where I need to be.”
He raised an eyebrow, went searching through his jacket pocket, and came away with a thin plastic card, which he extended to her. It was stained with his bloody thumbprint.
“Take this,” he said. “You’ll need it if you ever go back. That’s the key to the front door. You take care of yourself, Penny, you and your sister.”
She nodded, and held the card close as she was hauled into the air again too soon, spirited through the lobby. The building was coming apart at the seams now; chandeliers falling and ripped through the air into a black void that was opening beyond the last bookshelves, papers and bookends and tomes of encyclopedias sailing into the nothingness. Friday stalked after her, screaming, pulled ahead by the other girl as the ravens clustered in rings at the entrance of Downing Hill, pointing the last of the survivors to the exit.
She was carried out through the rushing darkness, and into the bitter night wind, and there were stars above her, barely visible through the smoke that blackened the sky. Snowflakes flew, buffeted by the scorching wings pouring out of the library.
She lifted her head to see that the old woman had escaped, held a sobbing Friday close, and the girl with all the knives in her pockets, holding a ripped doll, and the corpse filled with fireflies that held her close to its warm fur coat, and the Omen pouring out from the darkness between the doors into the night sky.
And then the library trembled, and fell in upon itself, and then there was no fire, for there was no more Downing Hill Public Library, only a great square patch of dead earth where it had once stood, and a smaller patch than one would have expected given the size of the library within.
Outro - Flames
Flames. The light that burns for your kind, dreamers, burns only a little longer. It wavers, now, on the wick, for the wax is gone. Spirits and gods like moths cluster to the fire, watching to see if it will indeed go out forever. And we are watching. I, with eyes open everywhere, and you, with your eyes closed, listening to a story about a flame.
There is a fire. And it burns, and it burns, and it burns.
And there is a darkness, and it yearns, and it yearns, and it yearns.
The wind picks up, and the flame breathes brighter, rising with the oxygen. And it shudders, in the breeze, and for a moment appears to have gone out.
But there is still an ember, there, at the tip of the candle, trailing smoke, a breath away from a beginning.
Whether it dies out entirely, dreamer, or whether it lives to burn anew, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting incindiarily for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Light a Fire' 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! Until next time, dreamers, please identify the nearest emergency exit before taking your seat. Emergency exits may be hidden beneath chairs, behind other doors, inside of picture frames or pieces of furniture, or behind the wall of bricks in the cellar. Be aware of emergency exits at all times.