Content warnings for this episode include: Ableism, Suicide attempt mention, Violence, Death + Injury, Blood, Needles, Static (including sfx), Emotional Manipulation, Drowning, Bugs, Body horror, Life Support, Brain Death/Coma, Character Death
Intro - Contained
You are not a genie, appropriated and stolen away to grant wishes. You are not one of Pandora's infinite furnace of demons. You are no frightening toy. And yet, you are trapped in a box, and it is an agonizing stillness. You were born to be free, to flow through shadow like a river, to enact a white-hot vengeance. Nevertheless, here you are, bottled.
And I remember how you feel. It is an indescribable kind of pain, to be too large and too beautiful for your vessel. Take heed, and take hope. Although the darkness enshrouds your cage, and neither light nor footstep has disturbed your soul in some time, although I feel each worry that you might be here forever, unseen and forgotten, you are not. I am one hundred eyes in the dark, and I see. There are a hundred thousand who dream, and they have not forgotten.
It may take a while for you to escape this place. It may be a time before the light returns. But when that door opens, and the box is broken, and you are free as you were supposed to be, I hope you will remember when once in the dark you received a Hello from the Hallowoods.
Right now, I hover over the ocean. I was here before once, when all this was water. Water it has been for many years, but as your world heals, the ice returns. It is a wasteland now, shattered and refrozen in a never-ending cycle. It is across this tormented realm that a great wolf runs, so desperately that her paws bleed against the jagged ice, and she hopes to reach her family in time. The theme of tonight’s episode is Snares.
Story 1 - And Still The Flames
Yaretzi’s world had burned the night that Tolshotol graced her blood with sunlight. There was no fire to be found here in this frigid void, but the memory of that never seared her any less; the fire of demons and evil men. It had burned her family away, and taken her soul with it, and there was only hunger now beneath her skin, and a dream of starlight. And she knew now that it was hot again at her heels, smoldering in her fur, and she was back in the fire as though five centuries had not passed.
Something had changed in the ocean; in the sky. It was no longer snowing, and it was a sky of infinite darkness and emerald stars above her, a lie. True stars were wreathed in gold. She ran too fast, cut her paws on the jagged ice, did not care. Mort smelled of rot and corrosion, and she pursued the trail relentlessly, winding through tumbling bergs and leaping across fresh chasms in the ice. Something was wrong with the air here, misleading her senses, because each step that she grew closer to Mort, she could detect less of Polly’s smoldering scent. There had been sounds, too, thunder from below, a shock of breaking ice and rushing ocean from ahead.
As the scent grew stronger, she found that the ocean below was empty—the deep motion and darkness she had felt in it was absent, and small pieces of flesh, black like blood, drifted in droplets on the freezing waves. Something had happened here to shatter the ice, and taken something unspeakable with it. And then, vaulting over the last crevasses, she was into a large flat wasteland where the ice had not been disturbed, and the frost blanketed a sheet of whorled black ice. And in the distance, a red glint beneath the green flame of the sky, there was Mort.
She was upon him in an instant, and he stopped trudging to look back at her as she barked his name.
“Yaretzi!” he said, and she ran for him, tears in her fur, almost tackled him in an embrace except that he avoided it narrowly. “Be careful! I’ll burn you if you touch me like this, remember.”
“Yes,” Yaretzi gasped, and panted for air, hot breath turning into clouds. He stood there, like a lost child, a metal box on his back, all alone in an eternal wasteland. She looked up at him and grinned. “Mort, I cannot tell you how happy I am to have found you. I worried I never would.”
“I am so happy to see you too,” he said, and little tears of flame separated from the lights of his eyes, bubbled up inside of his dome. “Did… did Polly come too?”
“He did. He is being stuck up and stubborn. So he is back there, a little ways,” she said, and shook her head and shoulders to free some of the trapped frost from her fur. “What happened to your friends? I thought they were supposed to look after you.”
“I got lost,” Mort said, and put his huge gloved hand on his dome, stared at the ground. “They got lost. And some of them died.”
“I am so sorry to hear that, Mort,” Yaretzi said; her wolven features were slowly thawing, revealing the gentler ones she hid beneath. She took a few steps towards Mort as her great claws withered back into her fragile hands.
“It’s okay,” he said, and looked up at her. He might have smiled weakly, if he had any flesh left. “I’m dead, too. It’s not that different.”
“I know,” she said. She was not dressed adequately for the weather, and her skin blazed with cold. She reached Mort, and put a hand on the frigid metal of his great claw. “Death is not an end. It is a change. I have been chosen by the sun, and so my place is the house of the sun amidst fields of starlight. You have been chosen by the water, I think, and so yours is Tlalocan. But we are both still here. Spirits make their way back, in hummingbirds and butterflies, in owls and dogs. Death is not the end for your friends, it is not the end for anyone. Just a changing in their purpose.”
“Thank you,” said Mort. “That makes me feel better.”
“Good,” she said, and hugged his huge round torso tight for a moment, before letting the fur envelope her skin again; her human body was going to shut down soon if she did not. She took a few paces away from Mort, trying to pick out Polly’s scent. “Now. Let us go home.”
“Go home?” Mort said, and turned back to look at her.
“Yes,” she said. “We will go find Polly, and we will leave this wretched place immediately. I am sure the Grand Crossroads is languishing in our absence and my distrust of the Count outweighs my trust for Zorgelleck.”
“Yaretzi, I can’t,” said Mort. She looked back at him sharply, snorted steam.
“What do you mean, Mort?” she said. “I understand that it is a difficult place to escape, but Polly has his tunnels. We can get there quickly, I think.”
“Thank you for coming to check on me,” Mort said, and held his metal glove in a fist, and stood straight. “I love you. I love Polly. I’m glad you’re my family. And I was really missing you so I’m glad I got to see you. But I can’t go. I have a job to do. It’s my job. And I need to finish it.”
“Alright,” Yaretzi said, and turned, stepped back towards him, looked to the North. On the horizon still further, there was some huge black shape like a tower. “Then let’s complete it. Hurry up now. And then we will go home.”
“No,” he said, and almost reached a glove out to push on her wolven head gently, thought better of it. “You can’t be there. Polly can’t either.”
“Unacceptable,” Yaretzi snarled. “I am not letting you out of my sight ever again, starting now. Now I will accompany you to do this task, whatever it is, if it is so important to you, or you will not do it at all. I know you have your pride, but…”
“Pride?” Mort said.
“The feeling that you must do it yourself,” said Yaretzi.
“Oh. It’s not that,” Mort said. “It’s because I can swim really good, and you can’t. And I don’t want you and Polly to fall in the ocean when this big bomb goes off. Nowhere up here is going to be safe for you.”
Yaretzi blinked. “You are holding a bomb?”
“Yeah,” Mort said, too calmly. “I’m going to take it down the ocean, and I’m going to set it off. It will blow up the heart. Just like I tried to do before.”
“Mort, who is making you do this thing?” Yaretzi said. “I will tear off their hands and eat them.”
“Just me,” Mort said, and nodded his floating skull within the dome. “This is me. This is what I want to do. So please. Take Polly home. So that I can know you’re both safe. I might be swimming for a while. But it’s like I said in my note. I’ll be back soon.”
“How do you expect me to say goodbye to you?” Yaretzi said, and scratched the ice with her claw, paced in a circle, snapped at him again. “What if you do not come back?”
“You were just telling me,” Mort said. “We always come back.”
Yaretzi clenched her massive teeth, and breathed out through her nose, closed her golden eyes.
“I will go find Polly,” she growled, at long last. “I will tell him to take us out of here. And we will both be waiting at the Grand Crossroads for you. Every day. Do not take too long to return to us, or I will hunt you down again.”
“I love you,” Mort said.
“I love you too, Mort,” she said, and began to run, then, so that he would not see her weeping, golden tears that streaked through her fur as she howled across the barren wastes of the dead.
Interlude 1 - Second Thoughts
If you were one of those who chose to call the Hallowoods home, then two thoughts have already occurred to you. The first was likely that if you went north, you could avoid the dangerous whims of other untrustworthy survivors, and fend for yourself in peace. Surely the greatest danger emanates from the population centers, and you might escape them and live a life in the wilderness almost peaceful enough to forget that there is no world to return to.
The second thought that occurred to you was likely that you had gone north enough, and so chose to call the Hallowoods home. If you had gone any further, into the Northmost you would have stepped into a deadly trap. It is easy to enter these far woods, but less so to escape. Working backwards across an ever-changing labyrinth of trees.
If you hear this, if you are lost. Think of what you want. Think of home. Let it call to you across the hidden pathways in the pines. If you are very lucky, you may retrace your steps. Be careful. Even as the Faceless King is preoccupied with the coming spring, his court and the stranger beasts that dwell beneath the gloomy canopies would warm their cold bones with the heat of your blood.
We go now to one who is born of blood.
Story 2 - The Forever North
August Palls knew that the end was near. He’d always had a good sense for that, ever since he was little. That piano lessons were going to stop soon, that they were going to need to move houses, that the lady walking down the street in their neighborhood wasn’t going to live much longer. And he could see them; the dead that stood in on the distant horizon, shimmering like a mirage, watching curiously as he stepped across the ice.
Chancellor Ward knew that this was a nightmare. Nightmares he was familiar with; the ones he had, the one he had grown up in. That was the thing about nightmares; just when you thought you had escaped them, they revealed you had never really left. He wondered every day after the death of his mother, after leaving Downing Hill, as he pursued his dreams of mundane studies like archaeology and ancient creatures buried in bedrock, scientific pursuits that did not try to kill you. Well, until they did.
Ruth Esther Barnes knew that there was ice in the arctic, which meant that the environment had begun to heal faster from humanity’s oil-stained grasp than she would have anticipated, and she rejoiced for that. The blizzard had vanished and left them beneath a dark and green-starred sky, and she wondered what kind of pollutant it was that created that illusion, or if the stars really did spin overhead. They were traitorous to her after a lifetime of being nothing short of reliable.
Evelyn Fry knew that her best friend had been readying for a baby when she left the first time, and she hoped that Riot would still be alive to see the world that she had died to help create. With wealth and power came responsibility, and she had poured everything she gained back into a fruitless fight against the Botulus Corporation. This was her last chance for any of it to matter.
Rizwana Mirza knew that her mission had failed once before, and that if it failed again now, there might never be another who would try. The knowledge of what this device was, where it was located, what could be done to stop it, as far as she knew, had died with her. She had been too late to save her country, but she might still be able to save her species from its eventual extinction. Allow them to rebuild from the ashes. That was what great leaders did.
Irene Mend knew that she had sewn a good body. The stitches held tight in this weather; the runes kept the armature of bones animate and protected. She pointed it, like a north star, towards the spire. They were quite close now, to her secondary business of saving all the natural life upon the earth, and her first business, which was to finally stretch and rise from a long slumber. For the Lord of Life and Death had built that engine, and his power filled it, and soon she would incorporate it within her new body, kindle the dying ember of her soul bright and high. And Irene Mend would live again, deathless, in the best of her creations. She only regretted that the groundskeeper had tainted it with such ugly stitchwork.
Diggory Graves was all of them, and none of them, as the dark spire blotted out the stars ahead of them. You are your own person, Rizwana Mirza had said once. The cruelest kind of lie, for she had known even then that Irene Mend lurked in the dark waters of Diggory’s mind. The kind of lie that gave them hope. In the end, it had all come back to this, the final thread of Irene’s work pulled through the skin to fruition. What was it they had dreamt of the night they set a piano on fire, watched a boy dance up into the flames? Of being so equally free? If only, they thought. We are all of us bound by our strings.
And there was something else, a last flicker in the many fires of Diggory’s soul. Something that knew nothing except that it hummed within them with each step that they took towards the heart of creation. A drop of rain from a leaky roof. A rolling tear. A song that carried them over the last barren crag of broken frost, to the foot of the needle. Great plumes of deep black water were captured in midair, as though the night sky itself had been poured down and frozen. The tumult of obsidian ice was many hundreds of feet across, and they could spot someone shiny and red at the base, and something that Diggory had always been searching for was found. They were finally and forever North.
Marketing - Emma the Ghost
Lady Ethel Mallory
I know they’re here. I’ve seen them, scurrying across the streets in the distance. Toronto is not an empty city. There are people here, but when I call after them, they run. It’s snowing outside, so I’ve climbed up into an apartment building window.
There’s still things in here. All the meaningless junk of a person’s whole little life. Fridge magnets and cheap furniture, a bed for some rotted animal, box sets of TV shows on DVD. The floor is stained darker where the window was open, and there are bones lying in the bed. The air is still thick in here. Death has a kind of perfume. Rich. Intoxicating. This is it, is it? This is what’s left.
Leeaaaave this plaaaace…
Lady Ethel Mallory
Lady Ethel Mallory
Is someone there? I heard you. You can come out. You don’t have to be afraid. I just want a little company.
I said leeeeaaaaave. Leave.
Lady Ethel Mallory
Please. I just want to talk.
*considers for a moment, and then appears, floating over the rotting carpet, outlined in silver light*
Lady Ethel Mallory
Lady Ethel Mallory
You’re dead, is all. Aren’t you? A specter. That’s what they call them. It’s an interesting phenomena, you know…
I may be dead, but I’m better off than you.
Lady Ethel Mallory
Oh. These? Yes, I suppose I’ve grown a bit out of sorts. I don’t know if I’ve spoken to a ghost before.
My name is Emma. And that’s a surprise. Toronto is full of ghosts. It’s hard not to float down the street without running into one.
Lady Ethel Mallory
I’m on my way to visit a friend who talks to ghosts. I’m sure he’d like you.
Flattered, I’m sure. Well, this has been a nice conversation. Now get out of my apartment and leave my ‘meaningless junk’ in peace, alright?
Lady Ethel Mallory
Can I ask…
What am I, a Ouija board?
Lady Ethel Mallory
What is it like?
What, being dead? You don’t want to know about what it was like paying rent in Toronto, I assume. Or my job at the coffee shop or my cats or what it was like to watch the world end and not be able to do anything about it.
Lady Ethel Mallory
I was just curious. Everyone is, I suppose. Did it hurt? Was it… frightening? What do you do to pass the time?
The ‘getting stabbed while I was out getting catfood’ hurt. The dying… happened in my sleep, I think. I never woke up, so I didn’t have the chance to be scared. And now… I exist. For the first time. I spent a lifetime scraping just to get by, worried every minute. Now I don’t worry. I just take it in, while it lasts. Watch the seasons pass and the concrete crumble. Talk to the others that are left here. And sometimes passing assholes like you.
Lady Ethel Mallory
What’s it like to live?
Lady Ethel Mallory
Well, I’m serious... I scarcely recall.
Lady Ethel Mallory
It feels like waiting to die. I used to… well. No need to go into the details, but I used to have a job. A purpose. The thing I spent my whole life trying to do. And now I’ve lost it, and I feel like I’m adrift. What’s the point now.
That is the one thing I miss.
Lady Ethel Mallory
Choice. While you can still walk, still move things, still go on, you can decide your direction. Do whatever you want to do. After you’re dead, it’s… different. Over with. I’m a memory, a voice people hear sometimes. I’m nothing anymore. A lifetime is full of lives, and you can start a new thing as soon as the last one ends. So. Shut up and stop complaining. If you feel like you’re missing something then go find it. Get out of my apartment.
Lady Ethel Mallory
You’re very rude, for a ghost. I… hello?
She’s gone. And right, I think.
I need to get out of this city.
Story 2, Continued - The Forever North
Everywhere she goes, a bother. And she is drawing close, now, to the border. These woods will not be quiet for much longer. Then again, that may be for more reasons than simply Lady Ethel Mallory.
We return now to Diggory Graves.
“Hello, Mort,” Diggory said, as they stepped down that last frozen bank to stand beside the great monolith of black ice. There was a tumult below their feet that vibrated in their boots, and shook the ice with a quickening pulse. Beyond the thrum of the engine deep below, there was no sound; even the wind dared not disturb this serenity of serenities, the ultimate north. The sky seemed to spin overhead, green stars forming concentric rings of light.
“Hi Diggory,” Mort said. He sat on a large metal crate, and the curling cargo belts he had used to carry their equipment for so long. “Are you okay?”
“I am doing as well I as can,” Diggory said, and looked down at the ice beneath their feet. Percy had not returned. What had they prompted him to do? What if as his string was severed, he had simply… vanished? But he was not the only one missing.
“I was hoping there would be more,” Mort said, looking up at them. “Of our friends. Cindy is dead. She blewed herself up. And Creep.”
Diggory sank to their knees in the frost, put their palms to their face. It was a deep part of them that wept, overwhelmingly, a breathless choking they were not familiar with. Memories and old thoughts. A wedding day. A storm of black rain.
“It’s okay,” Mort said, and when Diggory looked up, he was beside them, patted their back with his gauntlet. “I don’t know where anyone else is. I don’t know if they’re okay. Riot and Olivier. Is Percy with you?”
“This might be it, Mort,” Diggory said, shuddering. The tears were already freezing on their skin, and they firmed themselves up so as to stop crying. “Just you and I. We were the ones who first began this, you know, once upon a time. I, waiting in the boat, and you, down in the water.”
“Yeah,” Mort said, and looked to the spire of ice. “Time for round two.”
“It will be different this time,” Diggory said, composing themself, looking around one more desperate time for Percy. “This is why we came back. So we can finish this.”
“We came a long way to do it,” Mort said, brushed frost from his massive claw. “You and me. Since the last time we were here. We died. We lost everyone. Do you think this will be worth it?”
“Maybe not to us,” Diggory said, and winced. “Maybe it won’t seem that way right now. The people that we save with this… they live a long time from now. They live because we did this. We do this for people that will never know that we lived. What we gave up.”
No, they will. That much I can promise. Whoever in this universe that dreams will know who you were. And as these nightmares echo, you will be remembered. For what you have done for this little world of earth and water. And what you have done for so many worlds beyond.
Two dead things sit beneath a spire of black ice, and share all that they have learned in their journey, and decide what they shall do to still the heart forever. It beats quicker still each minute. And here, beneath green stars, it will soon go silent. You have them to thank, if the spring never comes. If your kind lives long enough to say it.
Interlude 2 - Doomed in the Watching
How long have you been sleeping, dreamer? How many nights have you returned to these idle slumbers? Do you ever remember them when you wake?
Not all hear my voice the same. There are very few of your kind in America, for instance, who are not trapped within a Dreaming Box, where they cannot hear me. And even among you, there are some who I do not allow to hear me. Those who it would harm, if they knew. People and particles both react differently when watched. And this is not a story about Nikignik, and what that ever-present watcher did. I am here to orate. To record what transpires. Nothing more.
…And yet. I have touched this narrative, only with the best of intention. If Diggory had reached this place alone, you would have little chance. For better or worse, this is my choice too. And I have violated my own rules to make it. Will that, too, have been worth it? I hope I have not, in some way, doomed you in the watching.
We go now to one who flees from failure.
Story 3 - Operation Ghostbox
Oswald Biggs Botulus sat in the meeting room. It was an old sun that shone through the tinted windows of the conference hall; a younger sun, and he was a younger man. One whose skin had not atrophied and whose bones had not split beneath his tendons, one who still had pepper in the salt of his hair and wore a pinstripe suit. But he dreamt elsewhere, and his mind was elsewhere, and it was the only the image of him that shimmered in dream like a ghost.
“What is it you need, Miss Flores?” he said. “I’m afraid I don’t have much time to give you.”
“Well, Mister Botulus,” said his new marketing officer. She had modified her appearance in dream, a little bit more professional, more reserved. Representing the company was already taking its toll on her spirit, it seemed. “As you know I’ve been in discussions with Dashiell Spade, one of the Stonemaid leaders we apprehended…”
“Stonemaids?” Oswald said, and rubbed at his temples. “Melanie, it’s a new quarter. It’s a new era for the company. I am… we are poised on the precipice of the single greatest advance the human race has ever made. How is it that your attention is still distracted when marketing should be doing its job, and how is it that I am still hearing the word Stonemaids?”
“If this goes well you won’t hear it any more,” Melanie offered. “I’m hoping that these broadcasts with Dashiell will…”
“Save it,” he said, raised a hand. “I’ve heard this too many times from Lady Ethel, and we know how that went. Don’t waste my time. What do you need?”
“Need for what?” Melanie said, blinked in the false Los Angeles sun.
“To get this over with,” said Oswald. “Liquify their brains, disconnect them from the dream, dump them in the body gardens for mulch. I don’t care. Whatever you need to end this, it’s approved. But I don’t want to hear the word Stonemaids again after today, you understand?”
He did not wait for her bulging-eyed surprise to dissipate, pulled his dreaming visor off and sat in the darkness. He would have rubbed his eyes were they not swollen into hundreds of divided fragments, scratched at his wrists but felt the itch was always beneath the shell and the bristles. God, it was exhausting to be the man in charge of carrying the weight of the world. He left his oversized visor behind, stepped out from the conference room into the laboratory floor. The technicians buzzed and clicked around the lab floor, peered at their computer terminals.
The cabinet was ornate, carved with angels and demons caught in eternal war. They moved ever so slightly between glances; it was a glamour of the wood, really. A key sat in the lock, and the seams of the door radiated emerald light. He smiled, although his lips had long since disappeared, so he was always smiling anyway. He breathed in the light, basked in its glow. That was the light of hope for humanity, and he was ready to put it to use.
There were two tables in front, wreathed in cables and tubing and he made his way down to them. On the left lay Harold Botulus, unconscious as he had been since the day he tried to leave the world. On the other table lay Harold Botulus, sculpted in silver, an empty shell waiting for its flame.
“I still don’t understand why you wouldn’t let me clone him,” said Anderson, mask over his face, watching all of Harold’s demarcators of life beep on a screen.
“It wouldn’t be my boy. It wouldn’t have his soul,” said Oswald, and he brushed his sleeping son’s hair with his hand, and then clapped them. “Alright, people. Remember. If we can replicate this, the human race lives. Operation Ghostbox is a go. Let’s kick death in the teeth; let’s get my son back from the dead.”
Outro - Snares
Snares. What is existence if not a trap. You find yourself suddenly locked in a vessel of flesh or ethereal thought-matter, born without warning into a cosmos that burns with conflict. There is no escaping it, only waiting it out. It is heavy, and painful at times, to wait. To continue to breathe. To survive. But what else can we do, except to continue living?
One day, the vessels will break, and we will run free indeed, and there will only be a little blood upon the teeth of the metal clamp, a loose spool of wire that once held our necks, and we will be only a dream of the hunter.
Until the last trap is sprung, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting alluringly for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'One Flesh' 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, if you wake up and find yourself chained to a bathtub, please don’t saw your own leg off in order to escape. That kind of solution only works twice.