Content Warning: This episode may include themes of death + injury, blood, gambling, alcohol use, abuse, birds, kidnapping + abduction, suicide, and emotional manipulation.
Intro - Ace of Pines
There are three stacks of cards in front of you—one large, one small, and one a little crooked. You choose the crooked pile? Curious. They are combined with the crooked pile on top, and from it are drawn three facedown cards. They represent your past, your present, and your future. Your past is overturned to reveal the six of shadows. This may mean that you are running from something, that its claws still hold in you after all these years. Your present is the eight of masks—they are as many as the friends you know, hiding a little of yourself from each one. Why are you still hiding? Your future, well. Your future is the ace of pines, a single black tower reaching up into the night. It is inevitable, it is all-consuming, it is welcoming you. This one means 'Hello from the Hallowoods'.
Right now I’m sitting at a hotel bar. The bourbon in front of me is real, not brewed from black mushrooms or razor grass. I appreciate these things. It is one last refuge from the decay in the world beyond, but the audience betrays the times, and the green man at the end of the card table prepares to play for his life. The theme of tonight’s episode is Cards.
Story 1 - The Devil's Game
Ricou brushed a froglin off of the bar stool, and it croaked indignantly from the crowd. He sat down at the long velvet table, shaking it and the floor beneath with his weight. The other players glanced at him with confusion, but the figurehead at the far end of the table, the universal constant of the hotel, raised his hands and grinned.
“Ricou!” Barb roared, and flecks of blood came with the greeting. “It’s been a long time since you joined my table. What brings you out of the bog, you old fish?”
Ricou surveyed the table. It was a formidable group, and Barb was the worst of the lot. His eyes were covered in a filthy bandage, but his cards defied misfortune. Ricou tried to act as he had before he met Nolan, when he was still a solitary mountain in the darkness. He let no emotion show in his eyes or his facial fins.
“I’ve come to play cards.”
“I’ll admit, I’m surprised. Your thirteen years are almost up, I would have thought you’d learned your lesson. What have you brought to bet with?”
Ricou spread a handful of trinkets across the table; necklaces and amulets pulled from the broken necks of travellers. The red jewels glittered in the buzzing lights, and Barb grinned.
“I assume you’ve brought something special, but this will do for a start. Deal this man in.”
A person in a suit whose hair glittered like diamonds dealt, and ceremoniously, the game began. The cards were small and thin in Ricou’s webbed hands, but he held them adequately with his claws. There was much subterfuge in the other contestants; scattered looks and grim glares. Ricou had never understood the art of it, and he did not look away from Barb.
Grug was the first to go. Ricou had never expected that a Froglin would have the capacity for cards—and although it seemed to grasp the rules, it croaked loudly whenever it was dealt a good hand. The burly toad was ejected from the table, and Ricou felt the tension rise like the marsh tide.
Mx Morell followed soon after. The proprietor of the Museum of Broken Promises had been pouring whiskey into their gills throughout the game, and Ricou had never met a fungus person who could handle their drink. Spores floated from their head as they threw down their cards and stumbled out of the bar.
The remaining players were true threats, and Ricou began to wait for clues. The signs came to him quickly, and he survived narrowly through the next several rounds. Barb smiled the whole way through. He was a man of misfortune, the first blackfly to a corpse, waiting for Ricou to fall into the mud—but Ricou had learned his lesson. If you intend to play games with the devil, don’t make the mistake of playing by the rules.
The Quilt took longer to eject from the game, and by now the motley audience watched from the darkest corners of the hotel bar, green and red eyes glittering in the neon lights. The Quilt was vicious to behold, a tortured mass of ribbons and mummified skin, held together with patchwork and malice. It was also a talented card player, and would have been formidable to play in their own right—but Barb was determined to drive it out of the game, and Barb tended to get what he wanted. Every night except tonight.
The Countess was staring at Ricou between plays, sizing him up and possibly wondering what his blood tasted like. Ricou doubted it was her preferred vintage. Ricou waited a bit too long to make his play at one point, interpreting the signs he was given, and she glanced about suspiciously. A call too close for comfort, but soon it did not matter, for Barb was driving the stakes higher, higher, and all of Ricou’s winnings were pouring back into the pot. The Countess excused herself from the game, cutting her losses. With a twist of dark hair and crimson lips, she vanished into the shadow.
“You play much better than our last game, Ricou,” Barb grinned. “Who have you been playing with?”
“I’ll make you a deal,” Ricou hissed, teeth bared. The rest of the room was blurry and distant; only the infernal owner mattered. “I win, my debt is paid in full.”
Barb’s smile disappeared, his head crooking to one side. “And when I win, what do I get?”
“If you win,” Ricou said, “Our contract goes on for life.”
“Feeling lucky, are we?” Barb said, and Ricou worried that behind the bandages, Barb could see everything that Ricou could. The true bluff was one of bodies and eyes, and Ricou expected the ceiling to come crashing down, for a blade of fire to impale his lover, for the master of the house to tear him apart. But none of these things happened, and Barb wiped at the bandage across his eyes as it began to drip blood. “I accept these terms.”
The rounds that followed were full of thought and calculation. Barb sniffed and growled, humming aloud to himself. It meant that Ricou had ample time to read the signs and, when it came time to call or raise, to do it immediately. The final round arrived like death itself, wrapped in gravity and surreal wonder. Barb simmered at the end of the table, toweling away the drops of blood from his cheeks. There was a sudden distraction as a patron went toppling over into a waiter carrying a tray of drinks, and glass fragments scattered across the bar. Barb glanced at the disturbance, and moments later Ricou felt a card tucked into his hand.
The round resumed, and Barb seemed to realize what had occurred, glancing around as though the card up his sleeve had fallen to the floor. Ricou could sense the venom and panic rising in the loathsome master, but it was too late, and there was an audience.
“Straight flush.” Barb grinned, kicking back in his chair. “Looks like your contract’s coming up for renewal.”
Ricou looked at his cards somberly for a moment, before spreading them out in a fold of his webbed fingers. The joker danced darkly in a crowd of aces.
“Five of a kind.”
Ricou could see the twitching in Barb’s fingers, the disappearance of his smile, but there were too many spectators. Even in his own house, the game was sacred, and the rules transcended his authority. Finally, he looked up, no longer bothering to wipe the blood away from his dripping face.
“Well,” Barb said, and the contract peeled out of the air in the center of the card table, “I’ll have to find myself a new guard dog, won’t I?”
Ricou’s old signatures grew brighter in each box on the flaming form until the pages turned to sparks, shredding away into nothingness. The diamond dealer brushed the ash from the velvet surface of the card table.
Ricou nodded, and left the winnings on the table. He had no interest in the other boons; could think of better ways of spending an afternoon than chatting with the Countess or traversing the North with the Quilt. He left the bar behind and did not stop until he was well outside. The moon shone down on the hotel and the transportation parked beyond it. Neon red letters said ‘The Resting Place’, although the hotel was anything but. In the lot beyond, a great hound formed of crystal slept beneath the stars, and the Museum of Broken Promises sat still, with its spidery legs tucked beneath its Art Deco carapace.
Ricou laughed in the darkness as Nolan’s arms closed around him, and twirled with the invisible man in the night wind.
Interlude 1 - Night Life
If you are new to the Hallowoods, you should know that this region has a vibrant nightlife. Most of it wants to kill you, but there are exclusive bars and high-profile establishments as well. There is no barrier for entry at the Resting Place Hotel, although there is a high cost for your sanity.
You are probably not cool enough to be invited to the Pendulum, the secret bar beneath the Spirit Sky Observatory, but if you are you will have terrible nightmares, and when you wake up an obsidian card will sit on your nightstand. Every time you look at it, you will feel a little more drawn into the massive void of space above you, and a little less tethered to the mechanism of your body. There is also a bar within the Downing Hill Public Library, lost in a labyrinth of thought and memory. We go now to one who is familiar with it.
Story 2 - Choose A Card
Olivier had spent most of the morning in agony, pulling her broken bones back together, binding them with ancient words and terrible promises. Her beautiful embroidered cloak was smeared with her own blood, and no one had offered a cloth or a compress for her bruised face. She would knit together the skin when she gained a little more strength. The real problem was her record. She had never failed before, let alone to such a magnitude. It was a gnawing pit in her stomach, freezing her soul. She was a failure. She had been too gentle, too naive, and she had disgraced the Director and Downing Hill itself.
The ravens were the worst of all. The Omen sat in a red leather chair on the other side of the waiting room. The birds were coalesced into the shape of a person, melded into shadow so deep that their feathers did not glisten in the firelight.
“What are you looking at, vulture?” Olivier glared.
The ravens cackled, but did not respond. Olivier knew what they were here for—to keep her from running or taking her fate into her own hands. They seemed to enjoy watching her squirm. The two of them had competed so long for the director’s pride, and Olivier could tell by the wicked gleam in the Omen’s eyes that it was already celebrating victory.
There was little warning as the space around them changed. The dim fireplace became a desk, and Olivier’s chair was racing towards it as the ceiling rose and the walls turned grey. The office was not the small, warm bureau that Olivier had visited before, but a cavernous space that ascended into impossible geometry above.
“What are we today, Olivier?” the director asked from the other side of her desk, which glistened black like a sacrificial table, except for a small dish of peppermint candies to one side. The voids behind her glasses flashed with terrible energy.
“She, ma’am.” Olivier said quietly, breath forming chill clouds.
“Omen tells me you failed in your mission,” she said, and Olivier felt as though gravity would pull her into the ground.
“I had it under control. There were unexpected complications.”
“You are supposed to deal with complications.”
“The task given to you by the Instrumentalist remains incomplete?”
“And now,” the director said, each word a cold knife in Olivier’s stomach, “there is a girl here who claims that you gave her a library card.”
The surface of the desk turned watery, an image of the forest girl and her spectral dog glistening beneath it.
“She has a gift,” Olivier explained. “I thought she might be useful to you.”
“More useful than you, I would hope,” the director snapped, and Olivier wanted to disappear into cosmic particles. “You were played as a fool by your target, and you gave a Downing Hill card to a nobody in the forest. There is weakness in you. We have all tried to rid you of it, but perhaps you came here too late. You are not the star pupil I thought you were.”
“I promise I will not fail you again,” Olivier said, trying not to let the emotions rise in her voice. “There were revenants, they came from nowhere, I…”
“No excuses,” the director cautioned. “If you were a lesser pupil I would feed you to the books below. But your record has been good until now. Very good. So you will get to choose your fate.”
The director flourished her hands and turned her pure black eyes upwards, and blood began to pool in the center of the table, spreading until it dripped off the edge and ran in rivers on the floor. Three black cards rose out of the crimson surface, identical and facedown.
“Choose a card. Life, death, or the void.”
Olivier looked to the director, but there was no mercy in her eyes, and to the ravens. They were scattered across the room, anticipating the taste of her blood. Olivier reached out, and chose the card on the left.
Marketing - Business Training
Thank you for taking this Botulus Corporation Business Training Program. I’m Lady Ethel Mallory, here to talk about first impressions.
When you are meeting new colleagues who could further your network of professional contacts, having a firm handshake and well-designed business cards is very important. Make sure the font is sharp and deadly, like you. The paper should be thick and say that money means nothing to you, because those who live in the system worship the ones who profit from the system. Trick them into thinking you’re better than them with the way you dress, the way you shine your shoes, your choice of accessories and the murder in your eyes. If you wear makeup in the office, go for a light, yet refined look that says 'I am healthy! There is no sickness in me! I eat my enemies and their blood fills me with vitality!'
These are all the qualities employers look for in a first impression. There will only be six of you left by the time this course is complete, so please...
Story 2, Continued - Choose A Card
I will admit dreamers, that I never changed my appearance for business. I say radiate something that is delightful and unique in the universe, and you will find the place you were meant to be. Then again, I have been in my job for a long time. We return now to Olivier Song.
Olivier looked down at her hands, but they were not her hands. She recoiled, standing up from the chair, but the other girl remained. She looked uncomfortable in the director’s presence. They were in an aspect of the director’s office Olivier had never seen, full of books and a small tea kettle steaming on the desk. Neither of them seemed to see Olivier, as though she were watching their conversation from behind a half-silvered mirror.
“What is your name?” The Director said.
“Clara Martin,” the girl said, fixing her fluffy black hair. Her dog was there too, barely visible in the dim light. She held its head in her lap. “Sorry about the dog. It doesn’t like you.”
“I was never good with animals,” the director said, tapping a pen on her desk. “Not even the dead ones. You don’t fully understand where you are or who you’re talking to, Clara, and no one expects you to right now. What’s important is that you’re going to choose a card, and then we’ll know what comes next.”
Clara gasped in surprise as the scarlet stream spilled from the director’s hands, spreading across the desk. In the center, three cards pushed up from the thick red surface.
“One is very good, one is very bad, and one is unspeakable. You must decide.” The director said.
“Left,” Olivier whispered. “Choose the left.”
Neither Clara nor the director responded to this, although Olivier thought the Director’s black eyes flashed towards her for a moment.
“How will I know the difference?” Clara asked.
“If you truly belong here, you will know.” The Director sat back, waiting impassively.
Clara nodded, fixed her glasses, and examined them. They were identical, glittering in the warm light. She reached out to pick up the card in the center.
She turned it over.
“It says life.” She said, and the director clapped her hands, grinning like a hungry moon.
“Good. Welcome to Downing Hill, Clara Martin. I think you’ll be right at home here.”
Olivier realized she was holding her own card in her hand, and raised it quickly to examine. Her soul collapsed as she read the words ‘The Void’.
The ravens cackled behind her, and she backed away from the girl and the director, falling away from the gentle firelight into infinite darkness.
“You are to be returned,” said The Omen, “to the Instrumentalist. He is to administer whatever consequences he deems fit for your failure. You are outcast from Downing Hill and your library access is revoked. You are expelled from the Arcane Program, and never to return through these doors.”
Olivier wanted to scream, to reason with the director, to plead for her life, but she was choking as if underwater, and the ravens tore her away into a starless sky.
Interlude 2 - Shreds of Photographs
Dreamers, I have received confused comments from some of you who are not familiar with me. "Do you know the future," you ask? "What is going to happen next? I’m not too invested in these people you’ve been following around, you say, but I am curious about their eventual demise."
Well, I hate to disappoint you, but I don’t know what’s going to happen to Diggory Graves or Olivier Song or any of the others. I cannot tell the future, dreamers. I am not clairvoyant, and I am not omniscient. I am just in many places at once, and I am choosing to show you moments I have curated, like shreds of photographs taken at a bus stop over many years.
If I was not a reporter of horrible things happening in the darkest part of this little planet, I probably would have tried writing instead. I’m a romantic at heart, but I suppose it wasn’t in the cards for Nikignik.
We go now to another reluctant romantic.
Story 3 - Ignore The Stars
Hector had looked death in the eyes many times throughout his life, and had always been driven to look away, to survive, to see another sunrise. He looked now on the faceless king, and for the first time, he faltered. The tranquilizer pistol rattled in his hands, and he felt older than he ever had before. The smooth pale head glistened in the green light of the northern sky, a crown of antlers and twisting vines reaching for the stars. The endless hands below its stomach dripped with Jonah’s blood, a throng of arms cracking apart his bones somewhere deep within.
The faceless king did not approach any further, and Hector realized that although one of his German Shepherds stayed close by his heels, the other was in the center of the clearing, hackles raised. It was Heidi, with her broken back and pale, lidless eyes, and she growled at the nightmare with a muzzle of crowded teeth. There was a hissing from the king, escaping through vents in its neck and chest, and it grew into a shriek that pierced Hector’s ears, like hot steel spikes sinking into his skull, and he dropped to his knees in agony.
Heidi howled at the king, and the pale monstrosity backed away, twisting into the darkness between the pines. Hector pulled his hands away from his ears and realized blood was running down his fingers, and when Heidi came bounding over towards him, he could not hear her victorious barks.
He could not lay down here, he thought, he was no sleeper. The world sure might be ending, but that was no excuse to be lazy. But he looked towards the crimson-soaked undergrowth where Jonah had been standing, and he felt that there was no point left in walking. Life was an odds game, and he was sick of betting. The odds were very slim of meeting a man like Jonah in the empty north. The odds were very high of losing someone that you loved, out here in this world without rules, this forest of crooked stars and shimmering pines.
Hector tried to remain on his feet, hefting his bag towards a fallen tree —he did not know if the faceless king would return, but he could not trudge any further.
As safe as he could be, he slumped back against a tree. The stars seemed to spin in the sky above him, like a mobile above a crib. The trees around him were impossibly dark, and colors he could not identify glistened in their needles. One of his grenades peeked from inside his spilled bag, and it crossed his mind that if he pulled the pin, he would not be missed. His thoughts were interrupted as the dogs came to lay next to him. He scratched Heidi’s ears, and closed his eyes. It wouldn’t be fair to the girls, left out here alone. He had to get out of here, and that began with taking a step.
“Don’t you worry girls. We’re gonna get out of here, you hear me? We’re gonna go home.”
Hector spilled out the bag, and began taking inventory. It helped to calm him when he was concerned, feel like he had some semblance of control in a world of violence.
Camp knife, dredging hooks, bear trap. Water and rations for a day or two at best. One stale watercress sandwich. His compass and a well-worn machete. A tranquilizer pistol, nine rounds left. Lightweight tent, fire kit. He distributed the last of his salt jerky to the dogs. There was a small copper card in the bottom of his bag, and he plucked it out. He had pulled it from a Jeffery Stewart, who now slept comfortably in the bog. Some kind of library card. He almost set it with the rest of the inventory, but a flash of movement caught his eye.
Letters on the card were changing, and each time he looked, new words had appeared.
'Ignore the stars.'
'Walk two miles straight.'
'More directions to follow.'
Hector wondered if the woods had taken a piece of his mind, but he had nothing left to try. He pulled himself to his feet, gathered his things, and set off ahead. He was going to see another sunrise, or die trying.
Outro - Cards
Cards. They’re a fascinating little piece of human culture. I think your kind likes the symbology of them, dreamers. To you, existence must seem like a random game, every day the luck of the draw, delivering reward and consequence. Does it comfort you, to hold a little of that fortune in your trembling hands? Play with your cards, dreamers. Let them distract you from the impossible vastness of the universe above, the darkness that envelopes all worlds, just beyond your little blue sky. The stars are always there, like me, watching and waiting timelessly for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Room Service', 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!