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HFTH - Episode 143 - Prints



Content warnings for this episode include: Animal death (numerous undead dogs), Dog stuck in bear trap, Cannibalism, Death + Injury, Blood, Body horror, Consumption of Inedible Materials (human femur), Needles, Puppets


The Interrogation - Let Us Begin

Nikignik

You’ve returned. I do not know what you expect to learn that I have not already told you.


The Auditor

That remains to be seen. We do not mean you any harm. All of this is only in pursuit of the truth.


Nikignik

You have not hesitated to harm me yet.


The Auditor

You have not been cooperative. There will be no pain as long as you do cooperate. Let us begin.



Story 1 - Peace Never Lasts Long For You

Living with Clementine had never been on the table—Shelby was not sure why, it was just that Clem had never offered it and Shelby had never thought to ask. Clem needed her solace in order to function, an echo chamber to understand her own thoughts, and giving her the space was as natural as loving her. So Shelby returned to her home in Badger District, which true to its name was buried beneath a great canopy of roots that formed one of the supports for the trunk of Scout City. The door was thin, and she knocked in their particular code—one, two two, one, two two, before opening it.


“You’re back early,” her brother called from down the hall as she stepped inside; there was a clatter of objects spilling from his office.


She said nothing, and did not take off her long coat or steel-toed boots; a grey tabby cat came to wind through her legs. She took her bag from its hook by the door, and set it on the busy table of their small living space, began assembling everything she might need. The cleaver remained in its sheath at her side, yes, that always stayed, but over many cases she had begun to identify the sort of things they always needed in the moment, and Clementine’s nose was often too close to the ground to plan much ahead.


“Oh god,” said her brother, leaning out of his office doorway at the end of the hall. Mulder had inherited less of his mother’s explosive dark hair, and a little more of their father’s thin face and meticulous hands.


“Peace never lasts long for you, does it?” he said.


“I’ll be back in a few days,” Shelby said. “Watch cat while I’m gone, would you?”


“Sure,” he said, and shrugged, although he did not mean it. “I’ll be here a lot. City’s planning a new loft expansion in the Stumps, more housing. Though if you’re back on the case then I suspect some apartments are about to open up.”


Shelby shot him a glance.


“Sorry,” he said, and raised his palms. “Shouldn’t make light of it, I know. I just… stay safe out there, alright? Can I ask who, or what, you’re chasing now?”


Shelby bit her lip, and her eyes must have flickered to her cleaver without meaning to.

“You really think so?” said Mulder, trying not to sound too hopeful, she was sure. “You think he’s still around?”

“I don’t know anything yet,” said Shelby, and paused in her packing to study her brother. They had both handled it differently; she had gone numb on the outside, and he had gone numb beneath the smile. “I just… I have a bad feeling. There’s been a murder, body left in pieces. Yeah. It reminds me of mom and dad. And if the monster that killed them is still around…”


She found her hand was on the cleaver blade. She found her grip tightening.


“If you find him,” said Mulder, and there was a rare spark of any kind of life at all in his eyes, “you make him pay. And you let him know it’s from both of us.”


“I’m not sure I want to find him,” Shelby said, adding a book, a length of chain, a telescope to her bag. “I don’t know what I’d do.”


“I trust you,” said Mulder, and came out from the hall with a large flashlight and spare batteries, and added them to her bag. He stayed there by the table, his thin arms written with blue veins. “Whatever you do. But to be honest, isn’t finding him someday the reason you go on these cases with Clementine? The reason why you don’t just do your butcher job and have a normal life?”


It’s half of it, Shelby thought.


“I think about it all the time,” he said, and began to meander back down the hall, stopped. “And I wait for the day I’ll be able to say that one of us got vengeance for us both.”


“Yeah,” Shelby said, and pulled the zipper shut on her bag. She knelt to give a forehead kiss to Cat, and held its tiny head in her hands, and thought about how you would remove the skull if you wanted to prepare the brain that lurked within. Like an egg.


“Keep an eye on him,” she told the cat, and stood, and shouldered her bag, and the case began.



Story 2 - Dogs Books Bones Emporium

Clementine was not the biggest fan of the woods, which was ironic considering that she lived in a city-sized tree in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by layers of bark-encrusted architecture descending into the Stumps and finally to the Outwoods, where the dregs of society formed the first line of defense against the horrors that the woods unleashed week after week.


The forest had grown huger in the years since her arrival, barely recognizable as its old self. Maybe she resented it for that, reinventing its image while she remained exactly the same. Whoever had designed the forest had planned for the ages to come, but Anderson Faust, assembling her whole inside a glass tube in a Botulus Corporation science facility, had not built her to last. She worried a loose tooth with her tongue as she paced beside Shelby through the last of the decrepit wooden dwellings of the Outwoods and emerged into the great muddy banks of roots on the edge of the city, where the pines—huge and titanic, but not quite as mythic in proportion as Scout City—consumed the horizon.


“Have you talked to this guy before?” said Shelby.


“Seen him once or twice, from a distance, years ago,” she said. “Has to have been a decade. Scout City’s come a long way since then.


“Easy conversationalist?” said Shelby, hoisting her bag and following Clem through the winding banks. Russell had been kind enough to provide hiking directions.


“Maybe too much so,” Clem said. “Be prepared, he’s… something else.”


“Weird rain mutations?”


“Whatever you’re thinking,” Clem said, “make it worse.”


It took the better part of an hour, and keeping a weather eye out for broken trees and trampled underbrush, before they stepped through the parting pines and were greeted by a building looming in a misty clearing ahead, and the unpleasant musk of animals. It had turned out to be a colder day of the spring, and clouds hung overhead and made the world blue. What they were approaching was a mansion of great felled pines, forty feet tall and with crude windows and a gigantic door. A sign hung over the doorway, which read in jagged letters, 'Big Mikey’s Dogs Bones Books Emporium'.


“No wonder he doesn’t live in Scout City,” said Clem. “Even Valerie’s house isn’t this big.”


Shelby seemed apprehensive, but Clem led the way across the lawn and rapped on the titanic bark door. There was a thunder of barking dogs from the other side, and a different thunder of something huge and heavy crashing across the room beyond, and then a third thunder as the first rumble of a coming rainstorm echoed in the blue clouds above.


And then the door rattled and came open, and a huge face peered through the crack at her level—a smoldering green eye the size of a fist, sunken in a wrinkled dark socket, skin mottled black and green, a flare of batlike nostrils and the sneer of jagged yellow teeth.


“Riot!” said the giant, and a grin stretched the long-dead contours of his face. “Now that’s a face I haven’t seen in a long time.”


The Tapes - Third Thing

Third thing, the most important thing. The gig ain’t forever. That might not comfort you some days. Some days it will. There’s an end, eventually, to the work and the horrors. If you’re lucky it’ll end in a nice retirement, go grow old with someone. If you’re lucky enough to grow old. I can’t take that for granted, after all. I know how it’ll end for me. I’ll take my last case, and I won’t know it. I’ll push it too far. I’ll go past my breaking point. And I feel it getting closer every passing day, because this body of mine is falling apart, and I have less and less to fight with. The gig ain’t forever.



Story 2, Continued - Dogs Books Bones Emporium

“My name is Clem,” she said, wavering a little on her feet, though because of the memories or that the blood didn’t always pass right through her veins or the giant’s breath, she was not sure. “Riot was… is… my sister. You knew her?”


“Oh. My apologies for the confusion. We were persistent friends, unlikely perhaps, but nevertheless,” said Big Mikey, and rose away from the door, gigantic face vanishing into the high darkness before the door swung open. “Won’t you come in? It looks like we’re going to see some rain.”


Behind her, Shelby was staring into the darkness with a blank look in her eyes, no emotion at all in her stone cold face, and Clementine raised an eyebrow as if to say, no need to make this a fight or flight situation. Shelby blinked, and bumped Clementine’s shoulder affectionately as she moved past her through the door. Clementine frowned, and followed into the lair of the undead giant.


The space was massive and open, a ceiling held up twenty feet high by rafters of raw pine trunks. Such trees would take Scout City a day to fell; she had no doubt that Big Mikey could snap them with a little elbow grease. A stairway of two-foot ledges, piles of log sections set end-up, trailed up into the second story.


Down here there was a large gated pen in the center of the space, which led to an open doorway in the back; a horde of dogs zipped and crowded around within it, yapping at the new guests or nipping at each other. Half of them were blackwater-affected, more legs or eyes or insectoid shells or thorns or half-developed wings or other false physicalities. The other half of them were dead. Clem did not trust dead dogs; the stares were blank and the fur was falling away and who knew what alien intelligence sat in the eyes that once belonged to man’s best friend.


Lining every vertical surface of the massive living space were tiny shelves, upon which sat hundreds, if not thousands, of books. And from the ceiling, an almost equal number of bones, animal and human, dangling on strings from the high rafters like morbid constellations.


“What is it you do exactly, Mr. Mikey?” Clem said, hands in her pockets, trying to seem unfazed by the overwhelming smells of the place.


“I consider myself a proprietor of all the essentials,” said Big Mikey. “Bones, for chewing. Dogs, for friends or for hunting. And books, for reading and the attainment of education. I’ve read all of these. Your sister used to read to me, once upon a time.”


“Interesting,” said Clem. “Big Mikey, we brought some bad news I’m afraid. I’m told you were a friend of an Abraham Walker, you might have known him as Abe. He’s dead.”


“Abe is dead?” said Big Mikey, and the giant paused, blinked with glowing eyes. “He was… aw. Special, to me.”


“Sorry,” Shelby added.


“Well,” said the giant, after a slow moment. He looked back to Clementine, sharp teeth peering through his smile. “Death isn’t that bad. Look at me. Maybe I’ll see him again.”


Doubt it, Clementine thought. But what she said was, “Have you seen anything unusual in the woods? You’re further out than most Scout City folk. Trails you didn’t leave. Strangers. Signs of violence. Bodies.”


Here the giant loomed down again, went down on one great knee so that his huge, toothy face could get closer to her. “Now, it would be poor business to give anything away for free,” he said, and she frowned at the warm front of his breath.


“Shelby?”


Shelby looked up from the shelf of mystery novels she had drifted over to, and circled back to Clem and the giant. Her assistant pulled a paper parcel from her bag, and offered it up to Big Mikey. He plucked it up with two gigantic jagged nails, and Clem shuddered at a momentary image of him pulling Shelby off the ground and biting her in half.


“Thirty-seven,” he said, examining his new read. “I don’t have this one yet. Very nice.”


He took several momentous steps to the wall, and reached up to slide the volume into a missing gap in a series of yellow spines.


“I did see something unfortunate last week,” Big Mikey said, stomping with one massive foot after the other across the room. Clementine eyed the horde of dogs in their pen, and they sat like a captive audience. “My dogs. I count my dogs. I have one hundred and thirty-seven dogs. But that night I only had one hundred and thirty-six. So I took Nosey and Lookey and Bitey and Fitzgerald and we went looking for who was missing. We followed the smell all through the woods, until I could hear her yelling. Barking. So we approached.”


As Big Mikey spoke, he reached down into the dog pen, and retrieved an animal with a single gargantuan hand, and stepped over to Clementine, kneeled to present it. It was a white beagle, with brown blotches of color, and amber eyes. She was not in great shape—one paw was mangled and bandaged in dirty linens, deep red cuts plastered over her side. Perhaps not blackwater-affected, yet, but with open wounds, the rain was probably already working its magic deep in her cells.


“Where’d she get those wounds? Dogfight?” said Clementine. “Or a Fisher?”


“I don’t know,” said Big Mikey. The dog did not seem to overly mind being caught in a giant blotched palm of dead flesh, and his emerald eyes flickered. “She was caught in a trap. And around were all dead people.”


“Dead people?” Shelby said, coming to stand at Clementine’s side, wet floorboards creaking beneath their feet.


“Yeah,” said Big Mikey. “A numerous quantity of dead people. All cut up into pieces.”


“But the dog was still alive,” Clementine mused, as the giant released the beagle to wander around outside the pen. “Could you show us where the bodies are?”


“Hm,” said Big Mikey, and looked perplexed as he stood again. “Sort of.”


“Did you disturb the evidence?” Shelby said.


“Well, dogfood is dogfood,” said Big Mikey, with half of a disjointed grin.


“You’re telling me there’s nothing left,” Clementine said, her lead cut loose and rapidly getting away. “Nothing we can study?”


“Oh!” Big Mikey said, and spit the bone from his mouth, which rattled across the boards to come to a stop at Clementine’s boots. It was warm, and shiny. It was a human femur.


“That’s the last one,” the giant shrugged. “The trap is still there, five miles north, near the big rock.”


“Thanks,” Clem said. “We’d better hurry. The rain is going to kill any chance of a lead that we’ve got.”


“Wait,” said Big Mikey, as Clementine made for the door with Shelby in her wake, “you don’t need anything else?”


Clementine stopped by the door, and looked back to Big Mikey, and to the injured beagle sitting beside his foot.


“You know what?” she said. “We’ll take the dog too.”



Story 3 - A Visit to the Tailor

Vincent carried Voltaire through the depths of the Root District, where the great trunk of Scout City lost the sunlight entirely and descended into underground pits and crevices in the roots where certain denizens nevertheless maintained their businesses in the shadow. He knew many of their purposes; a mortuary man was bound to deal with the cold underbelly of the city from time to time. Voltaire refused to ride in any bag or carrying case, and muttered from inside Vincent’s coat where he carried his hand, left a sleeve of his trenchcoat to dangle. He stopped at a large knot in the gnarled surface of a gigantic root, a pale round wound in the bark.


“I’d like to talk about a suit,” he said.


“Hope they haven’t changed the password,” muttered Voltaire after a moment. Before Vincent could reply, the door shuddered and slid open, revealing a tunnel into the wood beyond. Vincent stepped in quickly as the door returned to its place.


“Hello Vincent,” said a solemn-faced young man at a desk ten feet down into the tunnel; it was lit with a small lamp, and the tunnel beyond was plunged into shadow. “Are you after another suit for yourself, or for Voltaire?”


“I am actually here for other business,” said Vincent, smiled politely. “I’m afraid I need to talk to the Tailor.”


“You know as well as I do that the master does not like to be disturbed,” said the receptionist politely, and then a little less politely, “If you have no business for us then I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to leave.”


“Tell him what it’s for,” suggested Voltaire.


“Please,” said Vincent, “I need to speak with them about the Instrumentalist.”


“Goodbye, Vincent,” said the receptionist, and motioned for the door lever.


“Wait,” said a voice from deeper in the tunnel, and a figure stalked forward to stand at the edge of the lamplight. Vincent had never laid eyes on the Tailor before; seven feet tall, and skin encrusted with delicate black stitches, a regal suit of black with white stitchwork running in winding patterns across it, and long hands with fingertips that tapered into thin black needles.


“Let him enter,” said the Tailor. Vincent nodded to the boy, as did Voltaire, peeking from inside Vincent’s coat. Then he followed the Tailor into the darkness, through a maze of tunnels he had never seen before, winding into the surface of the great tree—this had been the work of barkbeetles, perhaps—and ended in a room where a great sewing desk was bedecked with meticulous implements, and seven mannequins stood clad in half-finished red band uniforms, a blank-faced audience.


“You knew him,” Vincent said, taking a seat in a plush upholstered chair. “The Instrumentalist.”

“Why are you trying to dig up the past, Vincent?” said the Tailor.


“Professional courtesy,” said Vincent. “I am worried he may return.”


“That is impossible,” said the Tailor, predictably, although the tall, thin-boned scarecrow of a being took a seat opposite Vincent. It was elegant, Vincent thought, how those disparate bodies had all been combined into one beast.


“So they tell me,” said Vincent, and found that Voltaire had found his way out of the coat to sit on the chair arm, wooden shoes dangling. “But you know what they say. Measure twice, cut once.”


“Measure nonce, cut a lot,” added Voltaire.


“It was a long time ago,” said the Tailor. “I was known as Stitchery Pins, then. When I first met the man named Solomon Reed, we did not know him as the Instrumentalist, but as the suitor of our master, Irene Mend. She was the seamstress who had sewn me and my siblings, unlocked the secrets of life through thread. Solomon had a fixation on trying to learn her method, but he was no artist, only a thief of other’s work. He killed her, and stole a bell we were constructed to obey. But that is long over. We stole the bell and buried it. We watched him face all the horrors of the forest, your own Scoutpost, Scout City included. And we watched him die, and his body be consumed by the woods.”


“A body that was never recovered,” said Vincent.


“The Instrumentalist is dead and buried and he will not return, that is all I have to say on the matter,” said Stitchery, a certain amount of aggravation bleeding into their steady candor. “If this is all you wished to discuss then I think we are done.”


“Diggory Graves,” said Voltaire.


Vincent was not sure what that meant, but glanced up to Stitchery.


“Does the name Diggory Graves mean anything to you?” said Vincent.


A different expression took Stitchery’s threaded face, and they looked down to their needle-like fingertips on the desk.


“It is a name that should mean much to everyone,” said Stitchery. “The last of Irene’s creations. They went North to the Heart. It was their destiny. They have never returned. I… I do hope, that they do.”


“If you can hold out hope for your kindred to return, is it not equally possible that this… Solomon, might still find a way to haunt us?” said Vincent. Stitchery’s pale eyes narrowed.


“What is it about him that you wish to know?” said Stitchery.


“I need to know everything about his methods that you remember,” said Vincent, breathing a sigh of relief, and fetched a little notebook with his free hand, a pen. “And please. Be as graphic as you can.”



The Conversation - Are You Surprised?

Marolmar

So? Are you surprised?


Nikignik

Surprised?


Marolmar

I thought it would be playful.


Nikignik

Playful.


Marolmar

A fun jest, you know. Did you miss me? Did you think I was really gone?




The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'File 25: Big Mikey', and is available on Patreon.com/hallowoods. Because Hello From The Hallowoods is created without advertising or sponsors, we rely on patronage to make this show possible!




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