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HFTH - Episode 14 - Signs

Content Warning: This episode may include themes of static, death + injury, animal death, violence, birds, kidnapping + abduction, abuse, blood, and body horror.

Intro - Happiness Lies North

There are a thousand reasons why you should turn back, but you keep walking forward. Why do you keep walking forward? Are you rebelling against better judgement after a lifetime of avoiding curiosity? Are you tired of your dreary life full of decisions you never made? Or do you really think that happiness lies north? The signs on the trees were a comfort at first, markers telling you it was alright to follow. Now you realize, they are warnings, and with each desperate scrawl you pass you know that you will never be able to go back. Once you walk into the darkness, into the vast unknown where space and identity are shifting and ethereal, you will never know the comfort of plain, boxed-up life again. The last words you see carved into the bark say this: Hello from the Hallowoods.

Right now I’m sitting on the steps of a public library. The young reader approaching it holds a piece of destiny in her hands, and it beckons her to enter. I want to tell her to turn away, to leave behind this terrible library and its terrible books, but she has already seen the huge stone lions, she has read the brass letters, and it is too late. The theme of tonight’s episode is Signs.

Story 1 - Quiet Inside

Clara approached the monolithic municipal building in awe. It towered over the trees, and the grandeur was entirely out of place in the deep forest. She could not have imagined how or why it was constructed, because although there was no town nearby, Downing Hill Public Library was stamped on regal brass letters over the gigantic doors, and at the base of each of the resting stone lions. Dogsmell hung warily behind her, barely visible in the air.

“Come on.” She knelt down to ruffle its small triangular ears and pet its long face, hands passing through its skull with a ripple. Its watery black eyes smoked like incense. “You can handle big old monsters, but you’re afraid of a little library?”

Clara stood up, and frowned at the library. If the dozens of dogs that made up her ghostly pet were worried, perhaps she had reason to be. She looked at the library card in her hand, with the same title cut into its surface. She flipped it over, and the text had changed. ‘Quiet inside’.

She stepped between the lions, half expecting them to come to life like sphinxes, challenging her to a riddle in exchange for her life. Something about the library was dreadfully wrong, she felt, as she crossed the first step. It seemed to stretch into the sky, a pillar out of existence. She hesitated as she reached the massive doors, set with brass letters. So many things in her life had become surreal, terrifying. The many unblinking eyes of her parents, the dog made of dogs, the wide-grinning frogs that pursued her through the woods. She wondered if this was a step in the direction of safety, of security, or if she would plummet like Alice into some stranger, more deadly wonderland.

She had no choice, she decided. She was low on arrows, and lost outside of this library. She did not believe in fate, but life tended to work out like it does in books—some events foreshadow others. She looked at the card a last time, and nodded, and pushed open the door.

Inside the library was dark as a moonless night, and she fished a flashlight from her bag. The batteries were running dim, and it did little to illuminate the shadow. She gestured to Dogsmell, and it stepped into the library, glowing a phosphorous white. It bounded ahead into the darkness and disappeared. Clara stumbled into the library after it, and the door boomed shut behind her.

She stood in utter silence for a moment, and then the lights came on, and fear gripped her immediately. She was in the little library of her parent’s house, an ember burning in the fireplace like a single red eye. She expected their awful voices to call out her name any moment, and she spun around in case creeping claws or chittering mouths appeared in the doorway. She began to notice that although it looked much like her library, it was not quite the same—the door to the hall was empty, as though no space existed beyond it. The bookshelves that lined the room, too, were wrong. There were layers, stretching out far beyond the walls, the beginning of a labyrinth of shelves filled with tomes she had never seen before.

“Hello?” She called, but there was no response. The fire remained red, the door remained empty. She approached the warped geometry ahead of her, the titles of strange books catching her eye. 'Wolves in the Blood: The Covenants of Tenochtitlan, by J.J. Black', and 'Things That Watch Me Sleep, by Mary Strix.'

She looked into the alleyway between shelves, but it stretched on deeper than she had thought, winding away into a historical section. She thought she heard thunderous barking in the distance, and pulled her hunting bow from her back, nocking an arrow. She tried to calm her breathing, to focus, although the edges of the world seemed to shift around her. She stepped slowly into the maze, looking around to find more shelves of forgotten knowledge stretching out in every direction. She looked behind her, but her little library was gone, replaced by a fiction wing.

She had the imposing sensation that it was crushing her, surrounding her, that she had fallen into a trap that she would never be able to escape. She was Theseus, wandering in search of the Minotaur, and the red thread around her ankle had been cut. She caught a glimpse of movement in the empty space behind a row of books, and pulled back her arrow, wheeling around the corner of Nonfiction L through M. She screamed when she saw what faced her, and let the arrow fly.

The woman stood with clean clothes, holding a stack of books in her arms. Her face was a buzzing, flickering void that threatened to pull Clara out of existence. The librarian reached a hand to her face and gripped the arrow between where her eyes might once had been, and pulled it out like a hair. She tucked it under her arm, and looked up at Clara, and although her head was shrouded in darkness and an impenetrable barrier of knowledge, she smiled.

“Hello,” she said. “Do you need help finding a book?”

Interlude 1 - Black Cats

According to folklore, the animals you see define your future. If you cross paths with a black cat, it means that cosmic horror is hunting you. Adopt the cat. It is the only one who can protect you now. If you see a swarm of ravens, you have a library book overdue, and it is too late for you. If you see a grackle the size of a log cabin, you are already dead. Don’t fight it. Give it something shiny. You probably won’t see a wandering Night-Gaunt before it gets you, so don’t worry about them.

If you see a seagull, be very afraid. It means you are near a large body of water, and you never know what lurks in those. And if you see a dead seagull, blinking its glazed eye each time you wake up, it means you have a dark and unpleasant end awaiting you, rolling towards you every day like an unstoppable tide. We go now to one who shoots such seagulls.

Story 2 - Interview With The Revenant

“Thirty-nine.” Bern said, sitting down. The dark thing shifted in its chair, but did not struggle against the straps.

“Thirty-nine?” It asked curiously. Probably a front; they all sounded forlorn and curious at times—then they try and peel a brain out of a skull to understand it better. No thank you.

“Thirty-nine rotted things like you I’ve put back in the ground.” Bern said, putting her boots up on the desk. “Are you going to make it forty? Forty’s nice, an even number. I like even numbers.”

“No, thank you.” The thing in the shadow answered, after considering.

“Very polite, arentcha?” Bern took a sip of her coffee. “Who sent you after Riot?”

“I don’t think anyone did. I saw her in the forest. Someone in blue was going to hurt her. I could not allow that.”

“Why’d you care?”

They were quiet for a long time, and Bern tapped her hand on her chair impatiently. Had they decided to move into the afterlife peacefully all of the sudden? She stood up, and walked around the desk. It stared up into the air with unseeing white eyes, flickering its eyelids. She reached out with a square finger and tapped it on the forehead. A semblance of life came rushing back to it.

“I am sorry. Was I gone long?”

“Why’d you care about Riot?”

“I…” The mound of flesh looked like its thoughts were decomposing in real time. “I have been Riot. Not her, but women like her. I have been beaten, I have been hurt. She was a stranger, but I could not let it happen to her.”

“You seem awful kind for being sewn outta human skin.”

“Thank you.” It said cautiously.

“Tell me—what did you say your name was?”

“Diggory. Diggory Graves.”

Bern tried not to chuckle. She had her suspicions where such an ugly piece of craftsmanship might have been put together, but she’d have to check with Walt to be sure.

“Where are you from, Diggory?”

“An old house with a stone table. Full of needles and pliers and glass cutters. It was a beautiful one; now it sinks into the bog.”

“Don’t we all.” Bern mused. She hefted her crossbow from the desk. The bolt head was jagged, dipped in precious metal. “Diggory, give me one reason I shouldn’t put one of these right through that pickled head of yours.”

Diggory seemed to freeze, and Bern had spent enough time waiting on the thing. She kicked the desk, and the corpse flinched.

“You can’t do that.” The unliving thing said, flexing long black talons.

“Oh yes I can.” Bern said, lifting the sight to her eye. “I’m gonna count from ten.”

“I have to walk.” Diggory said quickly. “There’s something calling me—I’m supposed to do something, something important but I don’t know what it is.”

Bern nodded along. “Three. Two.”

“I’m in love.” Diggory blurted out, and looked away in a semblance of embarrassment, although no blush rose to the blood-drained cheeks. Bern stared at them in amusement. She’d heard this one before too; sleepers and biters were big on remembering their romances—sometimes the very same people they’d come back to gnaw on.

“Oh yeah?” She said. “Who’s the lucky victim?”

“His name is Percy.” Diggory said hesitantly.

“Tell me about Percy.” Bern said, turning her chair around. She sat again, crossbow propped up on the back of the chair.

“He’s very smart.” Gushed Diggory. “He remembers more than I do. He’s strong, and has persevered through so much—he’s shy around people.”

“And, ah, where is Percy now?”

“In this room.” Diggory said quietly. Bern betrayed her surprise, eyes glancing around. There was no one to be seen, and that made her nervous.

“It’s alright.” Diggory said, probably noticing her concern. They raised their hands in a peaceful gesture, snapping the leather straps in the process. Bern stepped back, finger on the trigger.

“Percy, you can come out.” Diggory said, looking at her with unblinking eyes, upraised palms covered in stitches. A boy’s face began to shine in the darkness, she would have guessed in his twenties, although it was hard to tell with the dead. He shone faintly, like moonlight on a cloudy night, and his eyes were seeping black voids. His arms were draped around Diggory’s neck, and his wrists were all cut up with wire. He looked much the same as the screaming woman the night the Instrumentalist came, and Bern felt the scars on her cheeks twinge with pain.

“If you hurt Diggory,” the boy moved his lips, but the voice spoke in her mind, “I’ll burn this place to the ground.”

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Story 2, Continued - Interview With The Revenant

There she goes, interrupting my transmission again. It’s becoming a bit of a ritual. I hate rituals. We return now to Bern Keene.

“Percy.” Diggory scolded. “I’m sorry. That’s very unkind.”

It was Bern’s turn to think, and she hefted the crossbow thoughtfully. These two had every reason to set off her warning signs. They were dead, for one, and stranger than they let on.

Patchy seemed not to understand their own motivations, and that bothered Bern even in normal living people. She didn’t like the look of attic boy either—he looked like he hadn’t eaten a meal while he was alive, and his clothes were tattered, shreds of what might have once been a sundress drifting in an invisible wind. The same feeling of deep wrong that accompanied the Instrumentalist’s music was here in this room; she could feel it.

And yet, she could not bring herself to pull the trigger. She and Violet had been outcasts too. Lovebirds on the run, shunned by friends and family, wandering into a new life they did not understand. She could remember people in her past who looked as disturbed by her existence as she was by the couple in front of her.

If there was anything she remembered from her short days on the reserve, it was an appreciation for cycles, for order. The seasons turned, the stars spun, and things were born and lived and died. Up in these woods, they were safe from the burning world below, but at great cost. The seasons lay in ruin, the stars were crooked, and dead lovers walked in the forest.

Still, there were telltale signs when you knew you would regret helping someone—people don’t often lie about who they are, she had found, you just choose to ignore what they say. Try as she might, she could not find a bad intuition when it came to the rotting couple.

Bern laid her crossbow on the desk, and the two dead things stared at her with distrustful eyes.

“Here’s how this is going to go.” She said. “You helped our girl Riot in a bind, and you’re welcome to our hospitality. It comes with conditions. One, don’t hurt anyone. Nobody will give you trouble, but if they do, you bring it right to me, and I deal with it. I get news that you’re biting people and I feed you to the dogs, nothing personal.

Two, if I ask you to leave, you’ll do it peacefully. You don’t want me to call Walt on you.

Three, you’ll help out. I don’t know what you can do around here, but I’ll find something. Everyone works here. Understood?”

The two looked to each other with wide eyes, and nodded vigorously.

“Good.” Bern said, walking out. “Your room is thirty-four, Badger Wing. Keep it nice.”

Bern shook her head as she left. What was she thinking? There was no good that came of welcoming the dead. She made a choice that felt right, and she hoped she would not come to regret it. Violet waited in a garden bank, trimming flowers from the winter squash plants.

“Forty?” She winced.

“Thirty-nine.” Bern said, and picked her up in a hug. She seemed lighter now than she used to, and she laughed like crinkly wrapping paper.

“Are you going soft in your old age?” She whispered in Bern’s ear.

“Anything but.” Bern said, and kissed her wife.

Interlude 2 - No Longer To Warn

The idea that earthly or heavenly events can predict the future is absurd. Only those who read La Dernière Page Noire by Florence Alarie, or read the Blood Cards of Xyzikxyz, or displace themselves out of spacetime can do that. Nevertheless, like humans, worlds try to make others aware when they are in pain.

Maybe it is our fault, for waging our wars and leaving your little universe on its own—but we were not the ones who destroyed your world, who melted the ice and burned the sky. That, dear dreamers, if you are human, was you. Now the seasons spinning out of balance, the rising waters and the flaming sky are all signs, no longer to warn you, but to remind you of what you have done. We go now to one who knows these signs.

Story 3 - Fermata

Walt kept his eyes on the road, listening to the same Stonemaiden album he’d been listening to for two decades. It still brought him back to his mohawk days, the fires of his youth long burned out. Riot, however, was in full blaze, and carried the song emphatically on air guitar.

“So this Diggory person just carried you back?” Walt interjected as the last anthemic notes droned over the speakers.

“Yeah. You get how crazy this all is, right? I feel like the world is out to get me. But I can feel my legs again, so that’s great.”

“If you couldn’t, I wouldn’t have agreed to bring you along,” Walt said. “That was what, last week?”

Riot nodded along with the beat. “I was in the infirmary until yesterday, but I hear they’re okay. Haven’t talked a lot, but haven’t bitten anyone’s heads off or stolen anybody’s face skin.”

“I’ve got to talk to these folks when we get back,” Walt shook his head in disbelief. “It’ll be great for my book.”

Riot flipped through the handwritten almanac in her lap. “Wait, vampires are a thing?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Walt shrugged. “Not like, you know, Bella Lugosi, with the cape and all. Sometimes these woods bring you back. Other times they just change you, and that’s worse—it’s always worse. I reckon that’s what happened to your lady friend’s parents, by the way. Do you mind stenciling them in on a blank page?”

“Oh. Okay.” Riot said in surprise, flipping to an empty spot and copying over Walt’s style. He looked over at her curiously.

“Any news about Clara?” He asked.

“No. But I know that she’s out there. She’s got to be. I’m hoping she’ll find the Scoutpost—all of the scouts know to keep an eye out for her. But I’m worried sick. I miss her all the time.” Riot shook her head, scribbling a black figure covered in teeth.

“What about you, Walt?” She asked. “You got a wife or kids or anything?”

“Nah,” Walt said. The topic made him uncomfortable, but he felt more better talking with Riot than with the parents of five at the Scoutpost. “Never had the interest in having kids. Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to meet a lady one of these days—but, uh, can’t do the honeymoon stuff. Never wanted to, never will. Didn’t know what to call that until I met Violet. She says I might be… ah-sexual? I think.”

“Well I’m sure there’s a lady out there for you.” Riot said, drawing another few arms on to the bulbous body of her girlfriend’s father.

The hearse pulled up onto a mud bed. The house beyond was a tiny a-frame cabin, stabbing into the sky like a knife. Crooked willows with long fingers surrounded the cabin like ritual stones, bent by the wind. Walt peeled open the doors on the back of the hearse, revealing a metal coffin wrapped in chains, and tools set on hooks in the velvet upholstery.

“Is that a silver sword?” Riot laughed.

“Silver-plated.” Walt said, reaching past it for a shovel. Riot hefted her spiked bat, and she followed him towards the swinging door of the house.

“And what’s the coffin for?”

“In case there’s something in this house,” Walt said, glancing back, “that we need to drop in the lake.”

The house’s top window was blackened by soot, and when Walt kicked the door open, the smell of burnt flesh was sickening. Riot tried not to retch when she looked inside, the beam of morning light landing on a charred figure in the middle of the room.

“Is that Mr. Kita?” She choked. Walt nodded, dropping the shovel and pulling out his clipboard. Riot could not be quiet. “What the hell is this, Walt?”

“Instrumentalist,” Walt chewed on his lip. “Likes to leave signatures. That’s piano wire he’s tied with, see?”

In the center of Mr. Kita’s blackened chest, a jagged red rune had been carved.

“I reckon that’s an eye. I’ll have to look it up.” Walt murmured.

“It’s a Fermata sign,” Riot said. “My mom made me learn so many instruments. It’s like a pause. Or a note that goes longer than usual.”

Walt finished his charcoal inscriptions, and picked up his shovel. “I’m going to dig this man a proper grave. And when that’s done, I’m going to clear the Instrumentalist out of these woods for good.”

Riot gritted her teeth, breathing in the awful smell. “I’m coming with you.”

Outro - Signs

Signs. Human beings look for signs as sources of hope, looking for meaning in a universe where there is none, looking for guidance in a cosmos where all the guides are dead. You hope for a safe path through the dark forest of your life, and for an easy journey through shadow into shadow. For all of our signs, our dreams rely only on us to make them reality.

If you are waiting for a sign, your sign is a skull laughing underneath black water. Your sign is a pine tree that knows the secrets of life. Your sign is a faceless king in a forest beyond the human spectrum of color. Your sign is a loyal host from beyond, with one hundred eyes in the dark, bidding you to do all that you want to do, and when you are done, return to the Hallowoods.

The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Strange Neighbors', 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!


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