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HFTH - Episode 158 - Disturbances



Content warnings for this episode include: Terminal illness, Violence, Gore (no SFX), Art with Corpses, Death + Injury, Blood, Birds, Gun Mention, Body horror, Religious Violence


The Interrogation - Alone Again

Nikignik

They have left me alone a little while, again. I have never felt pain like this, dreamer. Not physically, at least. I have never subjected myself to such treatment. I have been a watchdog at a quiet gate. I have been locked away while the one I loved was murdered. And I have languished in little spaces watching the dread universe carry on about its business. When have I risked anything? Said a few choice words about the Industry on my broadcasts?


No. I crawl with my tail between my legs and I beg for their forgiveness. If I am to be anything, do anything, it will not be without pain. And what I must do will be the hardest thing I have ever done.


I told you once, that I hope you can forgive me. We will see if I can forgive myself.


Story 1 - One Last Quiet Hour

Clementine sat in her favorite chair, a plush recliner by the fireplace. She sat in silence, which was unusual for her. She could not remember being quite so still. She barely breathed. The thing that pretended to be her heart beat only sluggishly; after all, it was in no hurry to keep her alive. Her leg was frayed, her arm mangled, and there was nothing to be done. Her false blood soaked her bandages hourly, and there was nothing to be done. The strange and half-finished organs nestled in her gut were transitioning from living meat to dead meat and there was nothing to be done.


Except, of course, to solve the case.


And in the meantime, to watch Shelby sleep.


Shelby was huddled up on the sofa, sleeping soundly, with Cannibal curled up by her feet. Clem thought of Shelby as stronger than her most of the time, and so it was unusual to see her in such a state of quiet vulnerability. Special, even. Clinging to the pillow, slick hair tousled, the sounds of rushing wind and ringing civilization flowing past the window outside. It might have made her want to cry, to think that the moments of savoring this tranquility were numbered. That there were fewer left each passing second. But the truth was, that had always been the case. How long had she known?


She glanced across the crimson web of thread that spelled out her notes and thoughts across the wall. How long had she known?


Maybe always. That one day, she would break. That she’d take up a case and it would be her last one. That she had been built for a single use and she was long past her expiry date. All of this life, she had built out of spite. Acting as though she had a lifetime left when death was standing over her felt like a defiance. I can’t see you, death, you don’t matter. I have forever.


“We should have traded,” she said to herself, folding her ruined arm and her mildly less ruined one. “I should have gone. You should have stayed. That was all we needed to do. Somehow we got it backwards.”


It was a few more moments before Shelby began to stir uneasily in her sleep, and the twitching of her feet woke Cannibal, who hopped down, shook herself off, and came over to greet Clementine’s foot instead.


“What are you gonna do, huh?” Clem said, stooping down to pet the dog, scratch behind its spotted ears and neck. “You gonna eat me when I’m gone, huh? Use me for jerky strips? Bet I’m chewy.”


“Clem?” Shelby muttered, regarding her with one eye from where she lay facefirst in the sofa pillows.


“Hey babe,” Clem said, and rose from her chair, went over to sit in the middle of the sofa; Shelby wrapped around her back, head tucked against her thigh.


“Is everything okay,” Shelby muttered. “Are you good?”


“Yeah,” Clem said, reaching down to put her hand on the side of Shelby’s head, tugged a long strand of hair free of her eyelashes. “All good.”


Shelby put her head against Clem and closed her eyes.


“Are you going to die?” Shelby said, half-asleep.


“Someday, yeah. Doing something stupid, probably,” said Clem, and patted her gently. “But not today. Go back to sleep.”


Shelby shook her head.


“Shouldn’t be sleeping,” she murmured. “Shank’s on the loose.”


Clem blinked. “Shank is what?”


“I should have killed him,” Shelby said, grabbing Clementine a little tighter. “But I didn’t.”


“Do you think he’s the one behind everything?” Clem said.


“I’m not sure what to think,” said Shelby.


“When was this?”


“Not sure,” Shelby said. “What time is it? Yesterday afternoon I guess.”


“Okay,” said Clem, and closed her eyes. “We’ll find him. We’ll pull it all together. And we’ll make this our greatest case yet, okay?”


“We should get up now,” Shelby muttered. “Work to do.”


“I don’t want this moment to end,” Clem said, and sank down to fit into the hollow space in Shelby’s arms and lap and heart, felt a kiss on her neck. “I need it to last just a little longer.”


Story 2 - Judgement Comes Calling

Valerie Maidstone stepped out of the vehicle dockyard in the Lower Trunk and was hit immediately with a wave of mayoral responsibility. Clementine had barely spoken to her on the journey home, and Valerie for the first time had nothing to say. What could she? Her mind scrambled for answers. She had a soul to offer but no devil to bargain with. And all that was left was a life-devouring emptiness and the constant nauseous feeling that she was every minute closer to losing her one remaining daughter.


But Milo was trying to talk about plant aging phenomena and Sheriff Virgil had pressing concerns and a correspondent from the Scout City Almanac was badgering her for an answer about the end of Clementine’s detective career and a dozen other people were all clamoring for her attention as she stepped out of the dockyard doors into the southern exit alley of the Lower Trunk.


All of them were interrupted by the sound of a shotgun going off in the air. The crowd turned to look behind them; a rootcrawler was parked in the street beyond the bay doors, and standing on it was a tawny, blond-haired man. His eyes were blue and deadly, and he wore a military vest with nothing beneath and a threadbare camouflage baseball cap. He was not alone; a brother and sister of similar description stood on either side of the vehicle, although they did not carry such precious firearms.


“Dammit Jacob, there will be no firing weapons in Scout City,” called Sherriff Virgil. “You know the rules.”


“Rules be damned,” said Jacob Wicker, and he hopped down from the vehicle. Val could never keep straight which siblings were which, but she suspected the other two were Johannah, with the mischievous sort of glint in her eyes, and Jedediah, with a nearly apologetic look about him. “Mayor Val, while you been skippin’ town, our brother was found dead. And the man that killed him is runnin’ loose.”


“Everyone, one at a time, please,” said Val. The Wicker boy came striding towards her, siblings in tow.


“You all stay back,” said Virgil, stepping between Valerie and the Wicker boy, but she put a hand on his shoulder, pushed him off a bit.


“It’s alright,” she said. “I can handle it.”


“This happened on your watch!” said the young man, now with his finger in her face. “Joshua ain’t the only one. Scout City folk are dropping like flies. The Instrumentalist is leading us all to slaughter. And you’re letting it happen.”


“We are actively investigating this crime as we speak,” said Virgil, a hand raised.


“Investigating,” said Jacob, and he spat on Virgil’s boots. “People are dying, Sheriff! I don’t want the pig investigated, I want him dead. And if you don’t got the nerves for it, old man, then we’ll handle it ourselves.”


“You will do no such thing,” said Virgil.


“Sheriff Virgil, is the Instrumentalist killer still alive? Is he not confirmed dead as previously reported?” said the Almanac reporter.


“No comment,” said Virgil.


“I will be happy to take statements on this situation this evening,” Valerie said loudly. “Until then, please. A little space.”


She leaned in towards Virgil.


“Virgil, what the hell is going on? I told you not to move on the logfall. Did you kill someone?”


“There was a fire, Val. Not sure how it started. My boys swear it wasn’t them. But. We recovered a body. The pig guy Clem was talking about.”


“So it’s over,” said Val.


“Not quite,” said Virgil. “The body appears to have been stolen or walked off from Vincent’s funeral parlor last night. No one’s seen Vincent either. My deputies are scattered around town working on this right now—let’s get you home, for a start.”


It was at that point that a sound began; a chorus of bells that extended up the inside trunk of Scout City, ringing in the high boughs all the way down to the deep neighborhoods below. It was the emergency alarm, and there were voices now too, people pushing in the larger street beyond the entry dock, screaming about a murder.


The Tapes - Don't Stop Running

Remember, when you escape, don’t stop running. Not when it seems like a safe distance away. Last thing you want is to be catching your breath when they catch up. You are never in the clear.


Story 2, Continued - Judgement Comes Calling

Valerie stood in the center of the park. It was one of the larger hollows in the Lower Trunk, a division that extended away from the primary ascending street. Huge breaks in the giant strips of outside bark let in light and air from the forest beyond, and beds of earth and winding trails crisscrossed the space, which was filled with greater mosses and fungal shoots and smaller trees, still only saplings compared to the monoliths outside. It was their branches that had obscured, apparently, what was suspended in a back corner of the park for all of the morning. Until it had begun to drip. Until someone had looked up through the canopy of leaves, past the beams of light shining in, to the dark ceiling of the hollow.


Valerie had seen horrifying things. Countless tortured visions while in a permanent state of nightmare at the Botulus Corporation. All of the bodies of her best friends, sewn and stitched into one walking, talking amalgamation. And even Lady Ethel’s new and terrible domain at Box Polaris. And yet, out of all the things she had beheld, none of them had made her quite so dizzyingly sick to her stomach.


There were four bodies, more or less. It was hard to tell precisely. They were suspended with lengths of a rusty cable, similar to that which had been used to lift the late Mr. Greenstreet. They were not complete; some were missing feet, an arm here, a head there. And these parts had been used as accessories; a foot and leg were held like a trumpet, hands protruded like tiny wings from one corpse’s back, a circle of fingers formed a halo over a defaced head. They were four angels, cradling mock instruments, clothes drifting in tatters like the robes of cherubs, and they heralded a single object that hung in the center of their arrangement.


It was large, wooden, circular. It was an old political sign from her last campaign for re-election. But her slogans and messages had been scratched out, and where her face was painted across the middle, a word had been painted in jagged red letters across her eyes.


“Repent.”


“Mayor Val,” said Virgil, following up behind her. In the back, his deputies Heather and Oswin were clearing the scene, drawing lines of yellow rope around the corner of the park, trying to keep the curious crowds back from the spectacle. Virgil looked around warily. “I don’t think you’re safe here. I’m worried you may be a target.”


“So what,” said Val, looking back to the crowd. “Are we sure it’s the man who was living in the northern logfall who did this?”


“He seemed awful dead yesterday,” said Virgil. “But I’m not sure, Val, I’m just not sure. Mr. Greenstreet, Abe, the Wicker boy… it’s growing more elaborate. Whoever it is was here last night. And I doubt they’ve gone far.”


Valerie looked back to the crowd, wondered if any of the fifty Scout City residents pushing for a better look was there to kill her. She did not see him, but the face of a pig-headed man was in every corner of her vision.


“You can’t protect us!” called Jacob, held back by the brawnier deputy. “You can’t stop him! You’re going to let us all die! Unless we handle this ourselves! And mark my words, we will!”


“Don’t do anything rash, Val,” Virgil said, but she turned to address the crowd.


“Who did this?” Valerie called out to the crowd; for a moment quiet fell on them all, reporters and botanists and panicked residents alike; even Heather’s skeptical glance and Oswin’s veil.


“I know it was one of you!” Val said. “Someone in our own community. This cannot continue. I am declaring a state of emergency for Scout City. Please return to your homes. Look out for each other. Do not leave anyone alone. There is a deadly threat in our midst. We are mustering our deputies, we are mustering our Scouts. Scout City will have its answers today.”


Story 3 - Solomon's Grave

“I don’t know why you’re dragging us out here,” said Arnold, catching his breath. It seemed a condition of his regeneration that he could not breathe very well either above or below the water.


“Call it a hunch,” said Russell, a few strides ahead of him, shovel over his shoulder.


“You sure it’s even the right place?” Arnold said, pulling himself up again and scampering after Russell before he got too far away.


“Walter Pensive kept pretty precise notes,” Russell said. “Have a little faith.”


“No room for faith. Too full of anxious and bad lunch,” Arnold said, and he caught up to Russell, kept pace beside him. “Hey Russell? Do you think Harrow will ever come back? Xe would be really useful right about now.”


“I hope so,” said Russell. “I liked ‘em. To be honest, I just don’t know how long it takes to track down a missing library.”


“I thought it would take days, maybe,” Arnold said, and followed Russell up a hill. “Not years.”


The earth beneath them had changed from the titanic roots of great pines to a darker network of thin roots that sloped upward through the bases of the trees. Arnold muttered curses to propel himself up the hill, and came to stop beside Russell at the top. Beyond the hill, there was a valley, where gigantic black roots formed a barren crater in the forest over a hundred feet wide. Roots trailed in from the surrounding larger trees, but no trees grew in the circle itself, which was home only to small shrubs and hands of large frilled red fungi. The roots that formed the floor of the basin were gnarled like skeleton fingers.


“Let me guess, this creepy place is the spot?” said Arnold.


“You betcha,” said Russell, putting away his book and papers. “Look. I think you can still see a bit of his old house. Come on.”


Russell descended, sliding down a long root into the valley, and Arnold gulped and followed. It was not as treacherous as a logfall; where a logfall was a precarious stack of rotting wood waiting to collapse beneath your feet, this was a great expanse of woven roots that formed a canopy across the forest floor like a funeral seal.


“The later notes are from Riot,” said Russell, consulting his book again. “The old house would have stood… here.”


Where Russell gestured, there were the remains of a structure—support beams that still jutted from the ground, fragments of rubble, a few stone steps leading into a cellar filled with debris. All of it charred and blackened with a fire long past.


“And then we’re looking about thirty paces from the back of the house, towards the wall,” Russell said, pacing along, boots moving from one tangle of roots to the next. Arnold was careful to keep his footing too, and eventually came to stand over a pit.


“That’s convenient,” said Arnold. “The hole’s already done.”


Roots had been broken; the earth opened, and a shaft six feet deep carved down. There were decomposing tatters of red, the glint of a tarnished golden button left behind, scraps of moldering leather, but something had been pulled away, and there were no bones left in the empty nest of dirt, torn black roots jutting out from the walls of the pit.


“You’ve got to be kidding me,” said Russell.


“Someone stole his bits,” Arnold said.


“Either that, or he’s been soaking up the rains this whole time,” said Russell. “I don’t know if they burned him, Arnold. I think they just kind of left him here. And if he’s woken up, who knows what he could do to Scout City.”


The Conversation - Whining

Nikignik

Could you not sleep a little longer.


Marolmar

No, I think not. You’ll go whining to Xyzikxyz and before you know it the Industry will be reducing this world to embers.


Nikignik

I would not.


Marolmar

You already have.


The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'File 2: The Instrumentalist', 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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