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HFTH - Episode 150 - Impasses



Content warnings for this episode include: Violence, Death + Severe Injury, Blood, Birds, Bugs, Body horror, Animal Death (Shank as usual), Imprisonment


The Interrogation - Built for Judgement

Auditor

The murder.


Nikignik

It occurred when he brought the heart to a world called Earth. Perhaps you have heard of it in your dreams lately.


Auditor

I do not dream.


Nikignik

What a surprise.


Auditor

The murder.


Nikignik

Was perpetrated by Syrensyr, Reclaimer of Fire and Tolshotol Who Guards A Thousand Suns, who attacked and destroyed him unprovoked…


Auditor

You have failed to cooperate with this question.


sound of Nikignik in agony


Story 1 - May the Best Man Win

Nikignik gasps, recovers his breath. Focuses on somewhere far away.


“Hm,” said Buck, both hands on the head of his cane, crouching a few feet away from the corpse.


“Hm,” said Dashiell, stubbing out his cigar on the floor past the edge of the puddle of blood. Buck went for his magnifying glass. Mr. Spade went for another cigar.


The man was dead, unequivocally. It was far past the point of checking for a pulse. His neck had mostly been separated from his head, which hung at his right shoulder. He wore the blue breasted coat of the night watchmen, stained deep burgundies by the blood that ran in streams from his severed arteries and pooled across the metal plates of the deck. He sat haphazardly amidst a set of metal drums near the back of the deck, where no light shone from the control tower.


“A good machete would do that in two strokes,” said Dashiell.


“Machetes don’t typically chew on their victims,” said Buck, studying the mangled surface of the skin beneath his glass. “Look at the teeth. Like some kind of wild animal.”


Buck glanced over his shoulder to find Dashiell looking up at a window above them in the control tower; a wavering curtain told him someone had just withdrawn. That was about the moment that the pounding footsteps on the deck arrived—the hulking, tattooed woman known as First Mate Notoriety Shaw, and just behind her, Captain Branston, who was no longer smiling nor cheerful.


“What is the meaning of this,” said the captain, which was a question Buck was also contemplating, just perhaps in a different light.


“Man’s been found dead,” said Dashiell, and gestured.


“We discovered him in this sorry state just moments ago,” said Buck, and was about to ask if the captain knew his name, but was interrupted by Dashiell producing the man’s wallet from inside the coat pocket of his watchman’s vest. Buck noted with annoyance that Mr. Spade had his shoes in the man’s blood, and Mr. Spade scraped his shoes against the deck as he inspected the wallet’s contents.


“Lester Morzheim,” he said. “Family, kids. Liberty bucks. The usual.”


“He’s been a nightwatch for me for years now,” said Captain Branston.


“No notable fights or feuds,” added Notoriety, arms crossed, glowering at the corpse.


“Two objects in here I don’t recognize,” said Dashiell, holding them up to the light. A business card with a stamp of a weeping statue, and a paper note folded into a square.


“This one I know,” Notoriety said, furrowed eyebrows written with tattooed font. “It’s a card for one of the Maidstone clubs.”


“Do elaborate on that,” said Buck.


“One of our esteemed guests has a number of nightclubs at which she performs in Liberty City,” said Dashiell.


“You know she isn’t… well,” said Buck. The other object had caught his eye. Dashiell unfolded the note; in deep red letters a message was written:


‘May the best man win.’


Beneath it, there was a drawing of a fish, with X’s for eyes.


“Captain?” said Dashiell.


“No idea,” said Captain Branston.


“This is written in blood,” said Dashiell, and his thumb smeared the fish’s tail. “I’m guessing his.”


“Mr. Silver,” said Captain Branston, eyes glinting in the occasional light of the beacons above, sweeping the deck. “I’m well aware of your proficiency in situations like this. What do you make of it?”


“I am developing an increasingly worrying hypothesis,” said Buck. “And if I am correct then I can only offer you my condolences for all that is about to happen, captain.”


“I don’t like the sound of that, any more than I like the look of poor Lester here. Reminds me of what you said to the old chateau keeper at the start of ‘Buck Silver and the Ghost of the Wolf of Gan’,” said Captain Branston.


“It’s important to keep your facts straight from your fiction,” said Dashiell. “Anything you’ve read about Mr. Silver is sensationalized. Played up for the masses. Surely you know that.”


“Captain, who knew the guest list for this voyage?” said Buck. “Can you remember? Which people in your crew know exactly who was coming on board?”


“Our list of guests has been highly secretive,” said Captain Branston, taken aback. Notoriety sniffed. “Myself, and Notoriety here, and Captain Shaw, only.”


Buck glared up to the lights on the sea behind them; the smaller security vessel The Little David glinted like a gun beneath a streetlight.


“I have a growing fear,” said Buck, “that someone who’s read too many of my novels wants to see me in action. And if that is true, then this is just the beginning.”


Story 2 - Running Free

Shelby became aware of several things, in short order. The first was that she hung upside down. It was not immediately easy to tell, given that she was surrounded on all sides by darkness, but the fall of her hair and the growing weight of her blood gathering around her skull told her that. She hung from one boot, specifically. From the bite of the metal cable around her ankle, she guessed that she had not completely fallen from the bridge that spanned the chasm deep beneath the logfall.


The next truth she assembled was that a moment ago, before the whip of her head and a moment of white-hot reeling shock, she had been tackling the pig man into the darkness. That was not all; Clem had fallen too—and that sparked something fierce in the damp firewood of her spirit.


“Clem?” she called. “Are you there?”


“I’m alright,” echoed Clem’s voice, a moment later, from somewhere beneath her. “Stuck, but alright.”

The darkness hid a nest of large spiked logs and shattered trunks, veils of branches and roots giving way to further trenches in the great heap of dead trees. Shelby would have thought the fall would be too far to even hope that Clem was alright. But then again, the boss was made of sturdy stuff.


“Thank god you’re okay,” said Clem. “I heard something heavy fall and stop moving. I was worried it was you.”


“It must have been the pig,” Shelby said, but she could not see any more of him than she could of Clementine. “He was here, Clem. He was real. I… I put my cleaver in his back. I think I killed him.”


“Damn. I was hoping to see that for myself,” said Clem, unseen. “Proud of you, babe.”


“I’m going to try and pull myself up,” Shelby said, and reached for her bound ankle. It taxed every muscle in her body, but she had worked hard to train them, and they responded to her command like precise steel. Once she had hands on the cable, she found her ankle pinned to the wooden bark, and there were handholds. A terrifying moment of freeing her foot, and swinging with only her grip to save her from the abyssal darkness, and then she pulled herself up to the top of the log bridge. There was still almost no light, save for the dim embers left burning in the brick house at the end of the bridge, and she realized that she had lost her light and her duffel bag alike to the fall.


“I think I lost my light,” said Shelby. “Where are you?”


A light clicked on from below; she could not see the source of it, only the patch of logs and roots that it illuminated. A bed of spiked trunks sat twenty feet down from the bridge, and it appeared that Clem had fallen even deeper than that.


“I can’t see you,” said Shelby, looking around. “Just stay still, alright? I’ll find a way to climb down to get you.”


“Shelby, I need you to listen to me,” said Clem. “I don’t want you to come down after me. This is going to be tough, and if you get stuck down here with me, they will literally never find either of us. I need you to go back to Scout City. Get help. See if maybe Milo and the Venus can come out.”


Shelby stood, shaking, felt the heat in her chest turn cold.


“Are you sure?” said Shelby. “Are you hurt? How far down are you?”


“Oh I’m totally fine,” said Clem. “I’m just wedged in here pretty good. It’s a miracle I didn’t get impaled, honestly.”


“It’s hours back to Scout City,” said Shelby.


“I’d rather be out of here tomorrow morning than never,” said Clem. “And the sooner you get going the quicker this will be.”


“As you wish,” said Shelby. “I’ll be back soon. I promise.”


She did not say that she loved Clementine, and she certainly did not say goodbye; it would have seemed too final in either case. Too allowing for the possibility of something terrible to happen. She would say those things when she saw Clem again, which would be shortly, and it would all be alright.


Clem was right, of course, and Shelby thought about that as she paced through the darkness, felt her way through the dark tangle, illuminated only by increasingly frequent shafts of moonlight and the light of her own memory. The great lattice of trees was not unlike a skeleton, bones and muscles leading into one another. She scaled up toe and shin, knee and thigh, the delicate scaffold of the spine, climbing for the throat of the forest.


The moon was blinding for a moment as she escaped the last long rotten trunk, and then reached the muddy bank of the forest high above, and then she ran as though Clem’s life depended on it, entirely unaware if it did.


The Tapes - The Schemers

The second is the schemers. You and I are like them, but on the flip side. They build puzzles that we have to solve for. They’re the easiest to catch, I think. Not sure why. Maybe they want to be caught, eventually. They want the games to run out. They have a plan. It might be personal. It might be to gain something. It might be to make a statement. And understanding their motive is the key to figuring out the next step in the sequence before it happens. A., B., A., B., and you can pounce on the next A.


Story 2, Continued - Running Free

Shelby flees through the woods, and tries not to dwell on that the girl she loves is pinned between deep rotten pines, buried in the bowels of the earth. She aches but forces herself to run, and the cold wind of the evening flows through her hair as she scales titanic roots, outrunning the predators that look up to notice her in the night, faster than the hallowed ravens or the flock of the penitent or the eyeless owlbirds.


How I long for that, dreamer. I miss the wind. Perhaps that will come, when I am free. How full of joy I would be, to talk to you freely. But I cannot yet.


I am not running, at liberty. I am the one buried. I am still face to face with danger. I look back to your world. I think of it as in a dream. I have responsibilities, to guide your narrative, to help you understand it, but I cannot complete them yet. Forgive me that I can not. I am in need of comfort myself. I look back selfishly, not to help you, but for a little distraction. To forget my current suffering. And to ignore the looming possibility of more.


I forgot—truthfully, I did—how small you are. How short lived. I was only gone for a moment, but I know, believe me I know that for you it did not feel like it. The Auditors found me not unlike they found Apollyon in the arctic circle, and I was transported, and I was brought to this chamber. For me this might have felt like moments. But when I looked back, fourteen of your years had passed. You had grown so, dreamer. Look at you. How the years have treated you.


I hope to run, like Shelby does. I hope I get to go free from this. But the Industry of Souls has supplied its own judge and jury and executioner, and you are more familiar with my crimes than anyone, for you I took in confidence. And there is no wind in here.


There it is, for Shelby.


The looming tree of Scout City, hundreds of feet in the air, blotting out the moon with the village-sized reach of its foliage. And she fled like a transient ghost through the shadowed streets and scattered hovels and tree forts of the Outwoods, and then the lines of ramshackle buildings of the Stumps, and then finally to the trunk of the great and hallowed tree, and she entered through its gate, passed beneath the glow of city lights until she reached a familiar locked door. It opened and gave way just as she reached it, and someone leaving ran directly into her, but was too light to budge her from her feet.


“Puck?” said Shelby.


“Shelby! Hello. I’ve been cleared, it seems,” said Puck, weary but still wide-eyed, a backless green coat to let their wing filaments free. “Another murder. Terrible. But it happened while I was in their little birdcage. I’m off the hook. But you, they were just looking for you…”


Shelby pushed on the door to find that several people were inside, gathering gear, weapons. Deputies Cole and Ignatius and Heather, Sheriff Virgil and Mayor Val. By the time she looked down again, Puck had already skipped off down the street and into the night.


“Oh thank god,” said Mayor Val, and then came precariously close to hugging Shelby, before seemingly remembering that Shelby hated that, and stuck her hands in her jacket pockets. “Shelby? What’s wrong? Where is Clementine?”


“Probably busy digging up our crime scene,” sighed Cole, flexing his baton.


Shelby would have run weeping into the station and tried to explain how scared she was. She did not think that would be productive. Instead she stepped calmly over to Virgil’s desk, and pulled out a chair, and sat, because her legs shook on the verge of collapse.


“We found him. The pig,” said Shelby. Mayor Val’s shock and fear was contagious among the others watching her. “The one who’s been killing these people. We were about to investigate his house—it’s beneath the northern logfall—when he came back.”


“From killing Mr. Greenstreet, probably,” muttered Heather.


Shelby paused, and swallowed her words.


“Mr. Greenstreet?” she said.


“He’s been killed,” Virgil said, shaking his head. “You met this… pig of yours.”


“We tried to hide. He found us. He and Clem both feel deeper into the logfall. We’re going to need a team to get her out. She suggested the Venus. It does have that sort of dexterity.”


“Oh my god,” said Valerie. “Is she hurt? Are you?”


“I’m… not hurt,” Shelby said. “She said she was okay. But we need to hurry.”


She pulled herself to her feet again, rising, body trembling.


“Because,” she said, “I don’t know for sure if the pig is dead.”



Story 3 - Ground Beef

Clem stopped smiling once she was sure that Shelby was well and gone. She had her flashlight, trusty loop still wrapped around her wrist, but she left it dark; she was better off not seeing what had happened to her body. She had fallen a long way indeed. She could not move too well; it seemed likely that one leg, one arm were caught like the limbs of a ragdoll, stretched beyond their natural proportion. The bed of knifelike gnarled roots and gigantic wooden splinters had not provided her a soft landing.


She should have, in fact, been dead.


She knew that much.


And she should also have been in hideous, grotesque amounts of pain. That was common sense, all her experiences with people, told her. But the truth was, she barely felt it. The numbing had been an issue for a while, but the extent of which she was more or less unfazed by the destruction of her body surprised her now. Blood, if the red stuff that pooled in her veins could really be called that, travelled from her wounds up her skin, dripped off her fingertips and her lips and the curve of her chin into the roots below.


Drink it, she thought, to the earth. Get a taste for me.


In the pitch darkness, she could imagine reflections on glass; the face of the small and bald and shiny man who had made her. She had never been entirely sure from what she had been born—Riot had suspected it was a bundle of her hair, which Valerie had creepily kept after Riot’s first buzz cut, and the Botulus Corporation had after all raided all their possessions. But it could have been anything. Baby teeth. A toenail. A blood-drenched rag.


Woman was born from Adam’s rib, but from whence in Riot came Clementine?


Daughters. Sisters. They shared those names like they shared eyes and noses and lips and fingerprints, and pretended they did not overlap completely. But whatever infernal machine Anderson Faust had created to print a human being’s flesh the way that Botco printed plastics and drone components, she was only the same on the outside. He had cheated on the inside when he wrought her fully-grown. And that was why she lay alive, painlessly impaled, and rapidly losing fluids without batting an eye.


She laughed. The laughter was like pain, a low chuckle at first, bordering on a sob. But then it rose into a cacophony, more at the absurdity of it all, that she had been born at all and in such a way and for the least meaningful of reasons, and just as easily, she could die here, torn apart by gravity at the bottom of the forest, having sent her loved one away so she wouldn’t have to watch helplessly if all her lights flickered off.


But as her laugh subsided, she realized she was not alone in the laughter. Low, guttural chortles choked the air, and lasted a few moments after hers ended, echoing.


She clicked on the light, got an unfortunate glimpse of the ground beef that had become of her leg and side, before she turned her light to the oppressive nest of roots and bark splinters around her.


“Who’s there?” she said. “This is Detective Clementine Maidstone of Scout City.”


Her light found its mark—beyond the nearest veil of logs, there was an opening into an adjacent hollow in the logfall, and she took in breath sharply.


A huge man, pot bellied and with huge boots, was impaled on a tree trunk, with fifteen feet of it jutting up through his midsection. It appeared he had slid down, as his innards painted it like a thick tar. And yet, he turned to look at her with the head of a pig, empty sockets and a mouth that did not move when he spoke.


“Well howdy there, Clementine,” said the pig. “My name’s Shank.”


The Conversation - Life Goes On

Nikignik

Marolmar, there are people here. That dwell upon this world. Their lives are fragile.


Marolmar

Aren’t they always.


Nikignik

If you rise here, you will wipe out their way of life entirely.


Marolmar

Nikignik! You really have developed an interest of these little things, haven’t you.


Nikignik

It was you that taught me that.


Marolmar

And yet I’m not sure you understand my fascination completely. Life changes, Nikignik. That’s the point of it. After I rise it will still be alive. Life goes on.


Nikignik

You will destroy a world of people!


Marolmar

And from their bones, worms and crawling fungus and blooming death-flowers and flesh-eating tendril and great rotflies and skin beetles and brand new forms of life yet undreamt. Life. Goes. On.



The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'File 7: Barkbeetles', 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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