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HFTH - Episode 142 - Instances

Content warnings for this episode include: Body horror, Puppets, Strained Parental Relationships, Character Death, Grief, Mention of Torture

The Interrogation - For Old Times' Sake

Dreamers, I do not have long I think. They believe I cannot see them coming, but I can feel their presence. The shift in energy as they approach, the weight of their thoughts and intentions is heavy. I feel it now. They are returning. Perhaps if we hurry…

Story 1 - It Always Was

Milo Menken knelt in a bed of flowers, a small grey sketchbook in one hand, pencil in the other. He illustrated each petal—they were curious, lumpy things, that reminded him of the vulgar displays of the stinking corpse lily. Where the sunlight shone, the texture flexed upwards, but where there was shade, the nodes were convex, like so many hollow eye sockets. He passed a hand over the flower, and sure enough, with his shadow the lumps of the petals sank in their sockets, rose again when the light came back.

“They’re acting as photoreceptors,” said Milo, folding his book in his lap, brows furrowed. “I don’t know that we’ve ever seen behavior this responsive before. Another new discovery.”

“What’s a photoreceptor?” said Russell. The man had a crop of red hair beneath his grey Groundskeeper’s cap, and lay on his back using his equipment bag for a pillow, no doubt bored out of his mind.

“It’s, ah, an organ that detects light. Think of it as an early eye,” said Milo. “You know, you didn’t have to come along.”

“I’m a little nervous about people going far by themselves, after what happened yesterday,” said Russell, and sat up. “Besides, you might have longer words than me, but creepy plants roll in both of our wheelhouses.”

“I prefer to study rather than to uproot,” Milo sighed, and made a few last notes in his book about the patch of warty red flowers. They sat between two great roots, like the foot of some woodland giant. The sky was red too, clouds lit by a weary sun.

“Well, I don’t take great pleasure in the uprooting either,” said Russell. “But weeds are weeds.”

“I am not a weed,” said the third member of their company, The Venus. She was still the most magnificent flora that Milo had ever documented; a sixty-foot mass of tangled green roots, prehensile, carefully carrying the knot of her heart. Her heads were two dozen massive flower blooms with vibrant pink petals, although Milo knew the teeth they concealed. Her vines trailed through the forest floor to support Milo’s legs and waist, which he could not get much use out of otherwise. To think he had cultivated her from a single sickly flower.

“Whoah there, no offense,” said Russell, a little nervously as some of the great pink flowers shook and flexed their petals.

“I could eat you in a bite!” said the Venus.

“My dear, please behave yourself,” Milo said. “Russell is a very nice young man and he’s here for our safety.”

“Safety? Hah!” said the gargantuan plant. “Any puny human tried to hurt you and they would be plant food before they knew it.”

“Until we know what’s going on,” Russell said, “we can’t be too careful. Did you get what you needed, doc?”

“Yes. I’m afraid that this contributes to my prior thesis,” said Milo, and tucked his sketchbook inside the pocket of his corduroy vest.

“Which is?” Russell said, shouldering his duffel bag, much-patched and dangling with various charms and tools.

“You’re all doomed!” said the Venus. “The forest creeps and grows ever faster. Life burgeons and evolves at a rate unknown for millennia. Your flesh is corrupted by the wood and your eyes herald the end! Soon you will be dust! Plant food.”

“Hey, whose side are you on?” said Russell, and cast a worried look to Milo. “That’s not true, is it?”

“If it makes you feel better, my boy,” Milo said, and winced, and allowed the Venus to lift him into the air for their return to Scout City. “It was always going to be true.”

Story 2 - Mayor Val

Valerie Maidstone had led a lot of lives. That awesome, carefree phase biking with the gang of fellow queers in California. A period of being the lead singer for an underground rock band, and then a well-known rock band, and then a meteorically famous rock band when she made a point of criticizing the world’s biggest megacorporation for doing what corporations do. A tedious rivalry with the world’s self-proclaimed most famous woman.

The watching it all fall apart, watching the corporation win anyways. The world ended, and her bandmates split or went on ill-conceived environmental expeditions with the Canadian Prime Minister to try and stop some heart of evil in the arctic, and she was pregnant thanks to Ralph. She had led a life where she went into a bunker and had a kid and stayed there for the next twenty years in the darkness, lit only by fake lights and the entertainment console, and ate frozen meals as old as Riot.

Riot had been the sole consolation, her reason to keep waking up. That pig-headed, brash girl who was the best of her, and although it wasn’t saying much, the best of Ralph.

She had suffered all the years underground. She had forgiven when Riot ran away and got Valerie imprisoned by aforementioned megacorporation. But even then, Valerie had stayed strong, taken every physical and dreamt torture for the hope of seeing her daughter again. And now, Riot was gone and dead, and had not even said goodbye to her before she left.

“Mayor Val,” said Virgil, bringing her back to the present. Valerie shook her head, and folded her hands on the table.

“I’m sorry, Virgil, I was somewhere else. One more time?”

“It’s the question of how we want to approach this murder,” Virgil continued. “Obviously the Scout City Police will want to issue a statement about it before rumor spreads too much.”

“Right,” said Valerie, blinking, trying to get all the missing context to materialize. She caught the eye of Cole, Virgil’s boy. Unlike her daughter, Cole had survived the winters.

“I’m telling you,” said Vincent, the undertaker, a thin man in a grey suit. It would be easy to forget he was there if he didn’t carry a ventriloquist dummy under his arm everywhere he went, which turned him from a mediocre fellow into a disconcerting one. “We’ve seen something like this before. There was a serial killer at the old Scoutpost, back in 2051. The Instrumentalist.”

“Vince, you weren’t there,” said Virgil, and he sighed and twirled his mustache. “The Instrumentalist is dead. Old friend of mine named Zelda Duckworth put a hole in his back with a shotgun.”

“There is a skull in my morgue with a musical clef engraved in the bone. It is missing teeth in the pattern of piano keys. They were removed recently. The victim might have had limbs removed prior to death. I might not have been there, but your first Groundskeeper kept notes about the Instrumentalist’s victims and his methods. I repeat, we have seen killings like these before.”

“I remember ‘em,” said Cole; it was the first time the young man had spoken. He had surly blonde brows and was built like a brick outhouse. “Stories, anyways.”

“And you remember how terrified the whole community was,” said Virgil, rubbing his mustache as if trying to scrub the grey out. Valerie had liked him better without it. “Let’s not be too hasty in slinging his name around. Whatever leaves this room is going to be the word on the street tomorrow.”

“I agree,” said Valerie. “If we come out and describe them as the Instrumentalist killings, it’s going to put people in a spiral.”

Vincent was about to speak when the door burst open, and there was Riot. At least, that was what Valerie saw for a half-moment. Despite the badly dyed wolf cut instead of the buzz cut, that face was exactly the same as Riot’s—and not a day older than Riot’s had been, departing fourteen years ago. Valerie’s not-daughter, the one born of the Botulus Corporation’s weird science, Clementine, had not aged, and Valerie withered more every day.

“Clem,” Valerie said.

“Val,” said Clementine. “I’m taking the case.”

The Tapes - Second Thing

Second thing is that you aren’t playing with a full deck. Scout City’s changed a lot over the years, and it’s changed everyone in it too. Well, almost everyone. Bullies get tougher and meaner, and pick up shiny badges. People got a short memory for their wrongs and a long one for your mistakes. The people you love get small and bitter and hide behind their desks all day. Sound like a fair playing field? It isn’t. And that’s just one of the facts of the job. No one’s going to feel sorry for you, either. So you grit your teeth and keep playing the game.

Story 2, Continued - Mayor Val

“Dad,” Cole said, glancing to Virgil. “Seems like the kind of thing we don’t need amateurs getting involved in.”

“I hate to say it, Mayor Val, but our constables do have training that your… ah. That Clem here has never successfully completed,” Virgil said, apologetic to most parties.

“That wasn’t my fault. It’s also not why I’m here,” Clementine said, glaring. Valerie sighed. Her daughter paced to the center of the room, past Cole and Virgil and the undertaker. “Currently, there is someone innocent being held in the police pen. Puck did not do this.”

“I don’t think we’re in a position where we can rule out any suspects,” said Virgil.

“Who’s Puck?” said Valerie.

“I told you earlier,” said Virgil. “Mushroom snatcher. Says they just happened upon the body in the woods.”

“Do you have evidence, Clem?” Valerie said, and winced at her daughter, who gave her cold daggers in return. “Virgil, do you think you’ve got a handle on this? We are also not going to say the word Instrumentalist yet. For now we can say that the body…”

“Abraham Walker,” said the undertaker. “We managed to identify him from a tattoo. He travels between Scout City and other settlements often, so his absence was not missed. The bones line up correctly with his description.”

“Wish we still had Mr. Silver here,” said Virgil. “He’d have this cracked before lunch.”

“Buck is not here,” said Clem. “I am. Please. Let me investigate properly. Someone killed Mr. Walker and it wasn’t an eighty-pound mushroom collector with no weapon or motive. Everything about this screams that it’s someone who’s going to do it again… if they haven’t already. How many other people are missing from this city that we just haven’t noticed yet?”

“Clem, every case that you have worked on has become some huge public interest thing,” said Valerie. She knew full well that she was not choosing her words carefully enough. What would her punishment be this time, a week without talking? Two weeks? A month? “We have a responsibility to avoid putting people in a panic, and there is no one this place feared like the Instrumentalist. I know that and I wasn’t even here. Now if Riot was…”

She paused, forced that choking feeling back down her throat like stage fright. Clementine was fuming. “So we need to keep this quiet until we have more information.”

“Mayor Valerie,” said Vincent, speaking up, the leering puppet under his arm like a businessman might carry a briefcase. “Sheriff Virgil. I ask you not to take this lightly. Almost never does a body reach me in such grotesque condition. Whoever did this was not an animal. It was intent, and meditated, and malicious. Instrumentalist or not, there is danger afoot. I ask you, if it is not worth applying every resource at our disposal to ending this as soon as possible?”

Valerie, Virgil, and Clementine exchanged glances for a moment.

“Thank you,” Vincent said, to no one in particular.

“Just keep it quiet, then, would you,” Virgil said, sighing, and he patted Clementine on the shoulder on his way out, an action which she shrugged off. “We’ll try not to get in your way if you don’t get in ours. For now, this body was found in the woods, the cause of death is under investigation, and we are looking into it further.”

“And Puck,” Clementine said.

“Puck remains under police custody until you have evidence,” said Valerie, watching the police leave. “Let’s be sure before doing anything on a hunch, even a good hunch. It might be for the best, anyways. From what I’ve heard, the Instrumentalist didn’t like to leave loose ends.”

Clementine seemed as though she might say something, but turned like any other stranger and left her office, shoved the doors open and left them that way on the way out. Milo was standing out in the hall, a belt of green vines holding him inches off the ground, trailing all the way down the stairs.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Is this a bad time?”

“I’m the mayor, Milo,” Valerie sighed, and pulled her cold cup of coffee closer across the desk. “Every day is a bad time.”

Story 3 - A Spot of Color

Russell McGowan hung up his hat on the pegs by his office door, and set down the bulky bag of equipment. They had lucked out for space; a former chamber used as an arts collective had moved to the upper trunk where there was more sunlight, and left the Groundskeeping office with a large space with a lower work floor and a ceiling high enough to hang a rusted white hearse with their logo above. As expected, his assistant was camped with his boots up at the far end of the table down the stairs, a book folded on his lap and hat pulled over his eyes.

“Slow day, Arnold?” Russell said. The other man blinked awake at once, fetching his hat from off his face.

“You could say that,” Arnold grinned. His cheeks were greenish instead of rosy, one hand much more textured than the other smooth one; not all of his fingertips had quite materialized yet. Watching a man grow back from out of a single hand over a decade and a half had been one more point of weirdness that Russell considered a fact of the job. Maybe someday he would grow to be more than half of a good assistant.

“How was gardening with Mr. Menken?” said Arnold, rolling his chair to where the pile of important files rested on the table.

“I’ve decided I don’t like gardening that much,” said Russell, hanging up his white-grey jacket; he snapped his suspenders. “Kind of depressing. And the Venus scares the crap out of me.”

There was a knock on the door, and Arnold straightened his collar and his posture as Russell went to get it. He found Clementine Maidstone on the other side, and any hope he had of redeeming the rest of the day went and drowned itself in a city gutter.

She never looked any different than she did when Russell was a kid, meanwhile he had grown up. She was shorter, hair a flurry of faded purple and teal, eyebrow scarred and yellow jacket losing strings where the Scoutpost badges had been stripped away. She was midway through a cigarette, although what was in it, he did not want to hazard a guess. She resembled nothing so much as a raccoon freshly flung from a garbage can.

“I’ve got some bad news,” said Clem.

“Nice to see you too,” said Russell. “You’re probably going to come in?”

She did, pushing past him, hands in her pockets. She nodded down at his assistant. “Hi Arnold.”

“Hi miss Maidstone,” said Arnold. Russell closed the door as she turned to him.

“There’s no good way to break this to you,” she said, brows furrowed over cynical eyes. “Abe’s dead.”

“What?” said Russell.

“I know you liked the guy, and I figured you’d rather hear it from me than from the press,” she said. Russell blinked, and leaned on a shelf of improvised weapons for support. Abraham was always a spot of color in his grey neighborhood.

“That, uh,” he managed. “How did it happen?”

“He was killed,” Clementine said, and puffed on her cigarette. “Horribly. And I’m going to hunt down the one who did it. Do you know if he had any enemies? Conflicts of interest? Ex-lovers with anger issues?”

“I… uh. Let me think,” Russell said, and stepped down the stairs to the lower floor, found a seat at the table. Clementine sat on the stairs, hands folded on her knees.

“He was nice,” Russell said. “We did sports from time to time. Good bowling arm. He was a scavenger for a while, dealt at the Dry Market. Recently he wasn’t exactly stapled to Scout City, but he took odd jobs. He used to be a part of Fort Freedom, way back when he was a kid.”

“Fort Freedom,” Clementine mused. “That’s a different chapter of history.”

“Chapter?” said Russell.

“Nothing,” Clementine said. “Nothing yet, anyway. Have you two found anything unusual in the woods lately?”

Russell exchanged a glance with Arnold, who shrugged, and looked back to Clem. “I mean, every day is unusual,” Russell said. “But nothing I could really point you to.”

“Hm. Thanks anyways,” Clem said, and rose from the stairs, went for the door.

“Wait, Clem?” said Russell. “I don’t know if it makes a difference, but he was also a friend of Big Mikey.”

“You know, Russell,” Clem said, and stomped out her cigarette, embers in her eyes. “It just might.”

The Conversation - Is That You?


But I thought you were dead.


Have you forgotten my name?


I know all your names. You are life and death, the turning of the wheel, the changing of the age…


Life, death, and rebirth.

The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'File 27: Puck', and is available on Because Hello From The Hallowoods is created without advertising or sponsors, we rely on patronage to make this show possible!


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