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HFTH - Episode 148 - Violences



Content warnings for this episode include: Death + Injury, finding mutilated bodies in the woods, Blood, Birds, Body horror, Consumption of Inedible Materials (Joshua Wicker)


The Interrogation - Built for Judgement

Auditor

Whose murder?


Nikignik

Marolmar.


Auditor

Proceed.


Nikignik

He had been working on a device.


Auditor

Define it.


Nikignik

He called it his heart. It was a prototype.


Auditor

Purpose?


Nikignik

To corrupt the fire of souls. To turn the flame from white to green, to render it unusable to the forge of the Industry.


Auditor

Motive?


Nikignik

To kill your master.



Story 1 - Ugly Places

“It’s some cast of characters we’ve got here, Mr. Silver, I’ll say that much,” said Mr. Spade. His cigar burned like a pilot light over the black sea. Buck stood beside him, pipe in hand; it was a habit that did not help his physique, but it calmed the rampant pace of his nerves. Mr. Spade seethed with some deeper heat that Buck could only guess at. They were interrupted only occasionally by the routine call and flash of the night watchman’s lantern, patrolling the decks.


“I’ve noticed some unusual personalities in our fellow passengers, certainly,” said Buck, and leaned on the rail; the cargo ship churned forward into the dark ocean. “Care to compare notes?”


“I’ll humor you,” said Mr. Spade.


“The fellow with the boot on his head strikes me as dangerous,” said Buck. “Humble he may be in attire, but he commands looks, personal space from the other guests, like royalty. They try not to talk about him when they know he’s looking, though, so there’s controversy about him.”


“Ah. What you’re missing about the Humble Boot could be found in the Liberty City newspaper a few weeks ago,” said Dashiell. “He just went up against the Count in a bid for King of America. He almost won.”


“The people with the swords are on guard at all times,” said Buck. “I figure they’re either protecting someone valuable in their group, someone in danger. Or they’re looking for someone. Most of the other passengers are at least enjoying the voyage. These ones are on a mission.”


“That would be Saint Loris and her Knights of New England,” said Dashiell. “Some weird apocalypse cult turned prayer warriors, New Hampshire I think. They’re monster hunters.”


“I know the type,” said Buck. “I wish I could speculate about the Duchess of Boldt Castle, but I haven’t caught a glimpse of her since the boarding line. I’d be interested to speak with our mysterious benefactor.”


“I don’t have much on her either,” said Dashiell. “Boldt Castle is a fortress on the water in upstate New York. Apparently it’s been home to an isolated group of survivors. Not sure where her fortune came from, or why she’s bound for Europe.”


“Someone is pretending to be Valerie Maidstone,” Buck continued. “It’s not a bad likeness, if you’ve never met her. Valerie is the mayor of Scout City, these days, but I suppose that’s not common knowledge down here.”


“If they’ve heard of Scout City it’s from your own schlocky paperbacks,” said Mr. Spade. “I never met Valerie myself, but obviously the Stonemaids, her music was a rallying cry.”


“You were a part of the Stonemaids?” said Buck. “Fighting the corporation that bought the world. How noble.”


“I did my part,” said Dashiell. “Of course, Valerie isn’t the only name I remember from those days. You’ve chosen some world-class crooks to travel with, Mr. Silver. It casts you in a bad light.”


“You take issue with my companions?” said Buck, and breathed of his pipe. “What do you make of them?”


“I see Marco Torres, former chief of security for Botco’s former marketing mogul Lady Ethel Mallory. The scars tell me he starts fights without knowing if he can finish them. Brooklyn Williams was Mallory’s personal assistant, and would have overseen every dreamcast advertising blast, every PR statement, every heinous point in the propaganda schedule for the last year of Lady Ethel’s work. She’s worried about this trip in a different way than most of us—I’d suspect because Botco intelligence knows how difficult these seas were to travel. I don’t understand the, ah. Public displays of affection. Mr. Torres had his arm around both of you at dinner. Either he’s a touchy guy or you’re all… involved.”


“My relationship with Mr. Torres is… accommodating,” said Buck, and tapped his cane. He glanced over to the square-jawed Mr. Spade. “We have more in common than you might think. We’ve grown close. But I still have the freedom to explore other mysteries as I see fit.”


“If you’re coming on to me, Mr. Silver, you should know I don’t mingle with my suspects,” said Dashiell, and took a long draft of his cigar.


“And what is it exactly that you suspect me of?” said Buck.


“I suspect everyone on this ship, Mr. Silver,” said Mr. Spade. “We’ve got a captain who’s been the sole survivor of three shipwrecks. An exiled king, a fanatic monster slayer and her cronies, a faux rock star, a mystery duchess, and a world-famous detective who’s schmoozing with two of the worst corporation in history’s ex-executives. This is an old wooden barn with a great insurance policy waiting for a match.”


“If we’re only judging by our histories, then I’d hardly be classified as a detective,” said Mr. Silver. “I spent most of my life as a lackey for one wilderness tyrant after the other. It took a new environment, new people to show me a world where love meant something, where you could define your own shape, where I could be respected for my smarts instead of tread on for my weakness.


What you’re missing from Marco is that every one of those scars he got by throwing himself between me and danger. What you miss with Brooklyn is that there wouldn’t be any books or money in my line of work without her business know-how, and I woulda been done after my first case. We may have come from ugly places, Mr. Spade, but I hold out for a little good yet.”


“Optimism’s a dangerous thing in this line of work,” said Mr. Spade.


“You say that,” said Mr. Silver, “and yet here you are, crossing half the world for a little hearsay about your daughter.”


“I said it was dangerous,” said Mr. Spade. “Not that I wasn’t guilty of it. No, you keep your hopes, Mr. Silver, and I’ll keep mine. And if you’re smart, you’ll stay off the deck at night. There’s a storm brewing on this ship. They might need our services before we reach Europe.”


“You haven’t noticed?” said Buck, and tapped his pipe of ash, and put it away. “The night watchman hasn’t called or shined since our conversation began. I think it’s already started.”



Story 2 - The House Beneath the Woods

The flashlight was dim, both to save precious battery life—Scout City batteries were hack jobs and rationed carefully like food and fabric and everything else important—and also dim so as to attract as little attention as possible as Clem followed Shelby through the woods towards the northern logfall. They did not stop by Big Mikey’s Dogs Books Bones Emporium, although as they passed it there was a distant earth-shaking snore echoing from the giant’s cabin. No, they were bound further north, to the clearing where the rusted trap lay.


It was bathed in moonlight, although Clem could recall in deadly flashes of dream the stark daylight and the rivers of crimson that had been shed here the week before. Her boots squelched in puddles fed by the black rain and vestigial gore. Would any trace of them survive, she wondered, drops of blood and flesh mingling with the living growth of the forest, feeding memories to the roots beneath their feet? The forest had been rumored to speak, in its younger days, and who knew whose voices it had stolen. If she buried herself in the undergrowth, she wondered, would they feast on her, or reject her? Would she even decompose?


“Wait,” Clem said, and held up Shelby before she began to march onward. “Before we go to the logfall. There was a fourth man. Joshua Wicker. The first three died here, but he ran off that way. I want to see if anything was left.”


“Alright,” Shelby said, pivoting around. Shelby’s boots were heavy things, better suited for the muddy hike. “Lead the way.”


The area had been drowned by the rains of the previous night, and so Clementine did not expect to find much in the way of a trail. And yet, as she rarely was, she was lucky—glinting in the dim bulb of the light, there was a heavy bootprint, industrial, non-slip. There were more tracks beneath it, mottled by the storms, where Joshua had run ahead, perhaps. And the trail led on, disappeared into a large puddle between the bulky outcrops of the roots, and resurfaced as a set of muddy prints caked on the farther root cluster, and continued.


“This way,” said Clem, and crept on, following as intuitive a path as she could cut between the giant trees—the path of least resistance if you were running for your life from a serial killer with the face of a pig. A sudden left, a tempting right, a clear shot between two of the titanic pine boughs, and…


Fresh, delicious red, almost paintlike, oozing through the mud beneath her boots. She turned the light up a large root that trailed ten feet up to a gnarled tree, black bark peeling to reveal a hideous red wood within. There were three creatures above, watching her. The first two reminded her of ravens, but they were as large as horses, and clutched sharp-taloned hands to their bloody chests, and their skulls were ringed with halos of little glinting red eyes.


They were pressing their long bloodied beaks to the third creature, which was dead—a human, his Scoutpost jacket tattered and stained, and with two halves of a Scoutpost javelin rammed through his eye sockets to pin his corpse to the tree. His arms had been reduced to ribbons by the false ravens. The trash birds took off at the first glance of her flashlight, rising with a jarring tempest of noise into the night, and left only the half-eaten remains of Joshua Wicker.


“Clem,” Shelby said.


“I see it,” said Clem. What she saw was that Joshua had no shirt, and his chest had been carved with a symbol—the number 4 in jagged lines, and it had been written twice, one over the other.


“Because there were four deaths?” Shelby offered. “What does four four mean?”


“It’s a music thing,” Clem sighed. “It sets the pace. And then the music starts.”



The Tapes - On the Hunt

When you’re on the hunt, don’t get carried away. You’ll be dreaming about a million future possibilities, trying to connect all your threads, but don’t worry about all that yet. Just keep your head up and your eyes open. Take in everything that you can. Out there it’s the raw information, the gathering stage. There will be time to unpack it all later. And if you’re busy worrying about your theories, you might miss something important. You might not notice until too late.



Story 2, Continued - The House Beneath the Woods

The sheer scale of the logfall was too large to wrap her head around until they had retraced their steps to the bank that overlooked it, where Shelby had seen the pig the previous night. It was a dark canyon in the forest, at least a hundred feet deep, a pit where the rising network of roots had been eaten away by the barkbeetles during the last great infestation and left an open sore in the forest. It was filled with dead pines, hundreds of feet tall, jutting up into the air and laid across each other like a nest of needles.


One such needle formed a bridge into the decayed labyrinth, and Clem’s boots squeaked on the bark with each step. Shelby led the way this time, calm and still as the grave. She was almost a shadow in her big dark coat, hair a deathly shroud, and she was a stranger to Clem in that moment, as she sometimes was on the case. Adorably shy, secretly warm Shelby was gone, and cold sentinel Shelby remained, pacing steadily deeper into the darkness with the vigilance of an eternal hunter.


“If we get lost and die in here, it better have been worth it,” said Clem. Beneath the log that they walked on, there were more logs, and huge dead branches, and dangerous shadows that plummeted to much deeper depths.


“He went down this way,” Shelby said, and paused where the first mighty trunk laid upon two deeper paths of twisted bark. “Don’t drop the light, or we’ll have to wait until morning to climb out.”


The trunk creaked under the weight of their boots as they walked down its slope, and Clem looped the strap of her flashlight around her wrist just to be safe. And then they were so deep that they began to lose the night sky to a vaulted roof of gargantuan tree trunks and reaching branches. It was not that she doubted what Shelby had seen, but she was relieved when a few layers down there was a sign that there was something down here besides hallucinatory murder swine—an opening hacked through a wall of roots to form a roughly square doorway into deeper darkness. Shelby was right; someone had been down here indeed.


Shelby paused only once, to give her a look, and Clem returned it. It was something of a final note of appreciation in case things ended quickly and badly. And then it was, silently, through the door.


“He hides down here,” Shelby said, as they passed through the tunnel of roots. “He needs a hole somewhere to return to.”


“Remember, we’re just here to scout things out,” said Clem. “Not to pick a fight.”


“I know,” said Shelby. But one of her hands was on the handle of her cleaver, and the other was on the holster that held Bern’s crossbow, and so Clem was not sure she really knew at all.


“Hold up,” Clem said, and knelt before they emerged from the tunnel through the roots, pulled up something glinting that had been caught amongst the twisted fingers of wood; it was a length of rusted cable. “That’s interesting.”


“Shine the light ahead,” Shelby said, as Clem pulled the cable free of the roots and looped it around her arm. She pointed the flashlight forward, and illuminated the chamber ahead as best she could.

A single withered trunk stretched into a dark cavern in the logfall, a bridge over a deep and shadowed ravine. At the end of the bridge there was a house, clinging precariously to the tangle of logs—it was made of haphazard brick, and orange light ebbed in the windows, and a rusted sign depicting a smiling cartoon pig and the words ‘Shank’s Deli Cuts’ hung above the door. It seemed as though at any moment the house could tumble one way or the other, and plummet into the jagged abyss below.


“The hell is that,” said Clem. “Wonder if he’s home.”


Shelby touched her shoulder suddenly, and there was a steeled panic in her voice. They stood on the log bridge, the door behind them, the cursed meat house ahead, and nowhere else to run.


“He’s not,” Shelby said. “I can hear him. Listen. He’s coming down behind us.”

Story 3 - Poor Mr. Greenstreet

Cole Kane ignored the chill that the night had taken on in the absence of the rain—the spring had not yet relinquished all of winter’s attitudes. He scraped the plaque from his teeth with the sharp little legs that sprouted from the sides of his centipede tongue. He did not work without a flashlight intentionally; it was just that he saw better in the darkness year by year, and the lights made Oswin whine and complain, and Ignatius could provide any illumination that they required. Frankly, it was Ignatius that he’d wanted to spend this patrol with, and Oswin had more or less invited themself. He was happy enough not to have Heather lumbering along, or his father bickering.


“Ignatius,” Cole said, walking alongside the man, who wore his deputy’s Scoutpost jacket, yes, but also a black hood that was not to spec. “You’re all read up on ghosts and spirits and wizardly shit, right?”


“That was my vocation, during my study at Downing Hill,” said Ignatius, slicker than a duck’s back in an oil spill. “What, you want to hear campfire stories?”


“How likely is it that the Instrumentalist is really back?” Cole said. “In the flesh, or in the ghost or whatever.”


“I didn’t know you believed in ghosts,” said Oswin, from behind them; Cole had almost forgotten they were there.


“I believe in what I can see,” said Cole. “And the last time I saw a ghost I was a kid, and I don’t know how much of that was even real.”


“Ghosts were so rarely encountered throughout all of human history that they were thought to be a myth,” said Ignatius, stepping with one sharp boot after another through the tangle of black vines that lined the clearings between great trunks. “And then all of a sudden, we seem to have entered the golden era. So many sightings, reportedly, from people I’ve spoken to, in the years following the rains. Not sure what it was about them that caused the spirits to flourish so. But lately, I hear less and less. What causes a spirit to ‘stick’ is a question many have wondered and few have answered. But I have it on good authority that the Instrumentalist was one who knew how. Yes, I’d be surprised if he went quietly into that grand old dark.”


“Well,” said Cole, and felt for his baton and its lined silver bands, “at least we come prepared.”


It was, to his shame, Oswin that noticed it first, and they stared up at something twenty feet up among the pine boughs. Once he caught sight of it, he froze too.


“Ignatius, a little light?” he said. The officer of the Stumps provided, and drew a circle of fire in the air with his hands, and his eyes and hands burned with orange light. The circle illuminated a body. It dripped with fresh crimson, and was naked as a Vitruvian Man. Five lines of rusted silver cable ran through the trees, twisted through the branches, before forming five evenly spaced lines that ran through the night air, and ran through the corpse bent into a grotesque shape—the lowest punctured one ankle, and the next the other, the middle a silver bolt that stabbed through both thighs, the next ran through his bent spine and a palm, and the last the other. He was a musical note, skewered on his own lines.


“So much for a quiet patrol,” grunted Ignatius, bringing the circle of flame closer to illuminate the glistening corpse.


“So much for a quiet case,” said Cole. “Oswin, you recognize who that is?”


“I do,” said Oswin, and a black tear stained the white shroud that covered their face. “Poor Mr. Greenstreet. Poor Mr. Greenstreet.”


The Conversation - Where We Left Off

Marolmar

And then there’s the matter of the Industry. This was always going to be necessary, you see. I knew as soon as I began tinkering with the economy of souls that they were going to try and silence me forever.


Nikignik

I was so afraid of that happening.


Marolmar

I had it taken care of, clearly. When I wake, not only will we have the element of surprise, but when I strike, the message will be undeniable. There’s nothing they can do to me that I cannot come back from.


Nikignik

Some time to slumber has not dampened your goals for the Industry, then.


Marolmar

No. I am going to murder that old tyrant if it’s the last thing I do.



The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'File 22: Mr. Greenstreet', 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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