HFTH - Episode 16 - Crowns


Content Warning: This episode may include themes of body horror, death + injury, abuse, kidnapping + abduction, mental illness, mushrooms, birds, homophobia, sexism, misgendering, and skin.


Intro - The Faceless Court

The thing in the darkness is not watching you. It has no eyes. It can sense your presence, of course. It can hear the rattle of your short breaths, taste the reverberations of your panicked heart. Your footsteps crash against the ground like cymbals. You are filled with fear, and you should be. You have erred in coming here. You know what you have done, and so does the Faceless King. You lose your footing between the glistening trees, sliding down a cliff into kaleidoscopic shadows. The king steps into the moonlight, antlers glistening like a crown, and you are no longer in the forest. You kneel before him, but it is too late. The faceless court is hungry. Their wild hands crawl towards you and into you, and the mad jesters sing “Hello from the Hallowoods."


Right now I’m sitting on a locked cabinet. A little green light glows from the keyhole, and glistens in the eyes of the woman bound to the wall. She has never dealt gracefully with life, but she is stronger in the face of adversity than a queen. The theme of tonight’s episode is Crowns.



Story 1 - Chocolate Cake

“Oh, Mr. Fredericks, that is so kind. You didn’t have to cook.” Zelda giggled.

Mr. Fredericks liked to hum as he stirred pasta to a boil. She put her arms around him. Mrs. Fredericks sat smiling at the dining table, swirling her wine to the rhythm of the polka on the record player. Zelda waltzed with Mr. Fredericks, the small kitchen transforming into a ballroom. He swung her back, but his moves became wild and unpredictable, and she cried out in fear. She realized that he didn’t have a face then, and neither did Mrs. Fredericks, and her ruby red lips were dripping like candle wax.

“I don’t want to dance anymore!” Zelda cried in the darkness, and the warm light of the kitchen was gone.


Back to the black, and the little flicker of green in the far corner of the basement—she was never quite sure if it was real. She suspected it came from the old cabinet. She shook her head, though she had long lost feeling in her wrists. It was hard to find clarity with the hunger gnawing in her stomach like rats, hard to keep track of what was real. She didn’t mind the dreams, they were much more pleasant than reality.

Solomon had stopped responding to her calls, and she wasn’t sure when she’d last heard the music. Perhaps the old buzzard had keeled over upstairs. That wouldn’t spell good things for Zelda, but anything was better than his infernal fiddle playing.


She was beginning to imagine other things in the darkness, too. Scraping and shifting, rattling from the instruments that hung on the walls. Something clattered in the depths beyond, and she looked up. She wondered if it was the start of another fantasy, but she could still see nothing. The metallic grating grew louder.


“I hope you brought food,” Zelda said. “I’m famished.”


The scraping stopped. She squinted in the shadow—it was almost certainly a trick of her eyes, but she could almost see a small person in the darkness, deeper than the shadow.


“It’s alright now. Don’t be scared.”


The shadow took a step. It was like Jonah when he was little, and carried itself just the same.


“Are you a little boy?” She asked the darkness.


“I’m not little. I’m almost eleven.” A whisper said in her ear.


Zelda laughed. The cuckoo had really flown her clock. At least if she was going wild, she had company.

“How old do you think I am?” she smiled, shrugging.


“Seventy-three. It’s your birthday today. My birthday’s in a week.” The whisper boy said. He was odd, somehow, but she couldn’t quite make him out.


“Well look at that,” Zelda laughed. “We’re birthday buddies, aren’t we?”


“Okay,” the child said, beginning to glow a little brighter. “I’ll get some cake. What kind do you like?”


“I’d like a big old slice of chocolate cake.” Zelda shook her head, tears falling down her cheeks. She wasn’t sure why she was crying. Maybe he reminded her of her little Jonah. He’d grown up into a big bearded man so fast, but he would always be that little boy to her.


“Okay!” The boy said, dashing out of the realm of Zelda’s vision. It was his face, something wrong with his face, she thought. But her worry was overwhelmed by hope—the faintest possibility that he was real, that she wasn’t alone, that he would find her something to eat before she starved. She rattled against the loops of wire that bound her, and screamed with delight.


“Do you hear that, Solomon? I’m getting birthday cake! It’s going to be chocolate! You old turkey!”


Minutes or hours might have passed before the boy returned, glowing in the gloom.


“Oh my goodness. I am so thankful to you, young man.”


The child approached, a little sharper in Zelda’s eyes, and despair washed over her as she got a good look at him.


You could see right through him, like he was made of jello dessert. He didn’t have any skin on, and his big ten-year-old eyes rolled in lidless sockets, and he smiled with exposed teeth. He wore a paper crown, and he cupped his raw hands like he was holding a plate.


“I brought you chocolate cake,” he said, and Zelda smiled. She began to giggle uncontrollably as he cut her a slice of invisible dessert, placing it on an imaginary saucer. She chewed thoughtfully as he fed her a bite, looking up at her expectantly.


“Is it good?”


“It’s wonderful,” Zelda laughed, tears streaming down her face. “It’s the best chocolate I ever had.”

She started to laugh, bursting in uncontrollable sobs, and the skinless boy hesitantly began to laugh too, clapping his hands in delight. He glowed a little brighter as he did, casting light on a little toy drum by the desk, skin stretched tight across its top, and wrapped in a newspaper crown.



Interlude 1 - Governing Bodies

The Hallowoods are wild, and woe to the one who aims to control these vengeful forests. That said, there are a number of governing bodies within the Hallowoods that a traveller should be aware of. In the west, the regrettably named Freedom Eagles keep a violent and chaotic domain, and are led by Rick Rounds. Many reserves have come together at Webequie First Nation and are overseen by Chief Roy Makade and his council. In the northern Hallowoods, a large survivor community exists in the Scoutpost, overseen by Violet and Bern Keene. No one is quite sure of the influence held by the Downing Hill Public Library, except that it is to be feared. The Faceless King rules in the endless north, and keeps his cruel court under strange stars. Tourism is highly discouraged in that particular region. The Instrumentalist keeps many controlled by fear, which is a staple of primary government. And unseen except on Sundays is the Church of the Hallowed Name, whose congregation has an active—and terrible—role in these darkening woods. We go now to one who is a congregation.



Story 2 - The Decaying Crown

The crew exchanged nervous glances, but Rizwana merely adjusted her harness. She knew what she was about to do was insane, but she had come too far to turn back now. She’d made arrangements for Cindy and her office, just to be safe.


“Pass me the torch,” she said. Barty tossed her a light, and prepared the winch.


“You run into anything, you call. We’ll have you up in a jiffy.” the burly man said, mustache frozen in the cold.


“Thanks, Barty.” she said, watching the platform. It hung precariously over the pit that seemed to fall endlessly into the earth.


“Are you sure it’s safe? I want to go with you.” Ruth asked, her quiet voice barely audible in the frigid wind. Rizwana nodded, although she had no way to be sure.


“I’ll be fine. But I have to go alone,” Riz replied. “I’ll be back.”


She made the last of her goodbyes, to Evelyn, Chance, and August, and hoped that they were temporary. Then, without ceremony, she stepped onto the lift platform, and it rocked lazily in the air above the yawning void.


“Let’s go!” she called, and Barty threw the levers, beginning her descent into the throat of the world. The voice in her head had not spoken to her for days, but she knew she was on the right track, she could feel it as though her bones were a compass.


“I’m here,” she said to the voice. “See you soon.”

There was no response, but she was not worried. The ground and the air itself hummed with the same presence, as though it were written in the cliff walls. She fell past the reaches of the wind and snow, and found herself much warmer as the platform sunk into the infinite shadow, dangling from its chain. The descent was slow, and it gave her time to balance her thoughts, control her emotions, and confront the impossible depths of the hole in the earth. Finally, there was a change—she tumbled down through time, passing archaeological layers that would have given Ruth days of new lectures, through the Canadian Shield, and into the strange layers beneath. She was unsure if she was witnessing ancient mineral formations or living shelf fungus, blanketing the stony walls with glistening purples and greens. There were patterns in the living stone that she recognized—she saw them behind her closed eyelids, and in her waking dreams. The fins and gills of the stone grew larger around her, writhing in networks of stony veins, and then the walls peeled away into an indomitable blackness, and she felt that she had crossed into hades, or a vast underground world lost to history. She saw a sign of movement in the dark, a glimmer in the spotlights far below her. She hit the control panel, pausing her descent, and angled the beam of light down below.

It illuminated a surface deep beneath, writhing and slick, and suddenly a cascade of fire was leaping up towards her. It was not fire, she realized after a moment, but an orange glow from hundreds of wet eyes, huge as craters, blinking open and rolling lazily like magma.

“Who are you?” Rizwana asked, clinging to the platform rail.

“My names,” the voice in her head said, “would drive you mad. But you may know me as Rothogroth, the Decaying Crown.”

Spores hung in the air like dust, drifting up from undulating shelves and polyps in the landscape below. Rizwana could barely imagine the scope of the subterranean chamber, and tried to focus on just the eyes below her.

“Are you causing the rains?” she asked.

“Your kind caused all of this,” the voice said in her head, but the reverberations echoed through the darkness. “You burned this world, and if you had not, you might have lived many more years. But all things die, in time. Even your kind. Even mine. Planets filled with life become old and wither, and when they do it is my task to break them down into dust. Rot away the bad flesh. Rejoin the universe, fertilize the life that is to come.”

“So you’re the end,” she said, feeling cold. The great fungus seemed to writhe, its eyes glancing around in irritation.

“The end of this world will not come for many millennia yet. Make no mistake, humanity’s time is done. But there were others before you, and already, new life rises in the still waters. Listen to the air, to the trees. They do not welcome you any longer.”


“I don’t accept that,” Rizwana said, calling into the living abyss. “There has to be a way. There are so many good people left. What can I do?”


The endless life was silent for a moment, before responding.

“There is nothing you can do to prevent your extinction, perhaps not even to prolong it. You may be able to stem the source of the decay. It is a wicked artifact, a corrupted heart—it lies north, once buried beneath the ice. This world will never be the same, but destroying it will slow the process of change.”

“Will it be enough?” Rizwana asked the abyss. “Can I save my people?”

The eyes blinked shut, one by one, returning to a vegetative slumber, until she was left in utter darkness.

“No.”


Marketing - Queens Hold Only Crowns

Welcome back to marketing with Lady Ethel Mallory. When I was a little girl I dreamed of being a princess. As I grew older I wanted to be a queen. It took years of business education to realize what I wanted, what I needed was power. The ability to control others and command them to my bidding, to profit from the flies that infest this earth. I underwent a transformation. I realized that a crown means nothing. A title means nothing. Do you think that governments and lawmakers control the masses? It is marketers. We know who you are—where you sleep, what advertisements you look at on the ceiling of the bus you take to work. We know what you buy and what you hope to be in your life, averaged by location and demographic and psychographic. When we tell you to do something, you listen. You love to love the authorities we present to you and buy the products we tell you your life was incomplete without. Your kings and queens are influencers that we employ to market our products. Queens hold crowns, but marketers hold the world, and your weak little subconscious begs us for it. As a Botco marketing representative, it is your duty to extend our influence at any cost...

Story 2, Continued - The Decaying Crown

Dreamers, I apologize for these interludes. I reign over the realm of nightmares, but I have competition for the throne, it seems. How unfortunate for her. We return now to Diggory Graves.


“Diggory,” a voice said, and Diggory realized that Percy was waving for their attention. “Are you alright?” They looked up to see the spectral boy perched on the bed, a silver light in the dim shadow of the room. “You were gone for a long time. Did you see anything you remember?”

“Scattered images. It’s hard to process. I was a woman. A leader, I think. She was having a conversation.”


Diggory shook their head, trying to clear away the cotton that enveloped their memories. The room around them had been supplied with blankets and crocheted pillows; charcoal pictures of badgers hung in small birch frames. Percy drifted from the bed to wrap around Diggory, crossing into their physical space.


“I’m afraid,” Percy whispered, looking up towards the door. The Scoutpost was buzzing with life, except for their little room. Dead things were out of place here. Diggory raised a stitched hand to the boy’s intangible hair.


“Your father?” Diggory said, closing their eyes. Percy nodded, and toyed with the glowing wire around his wrist, trailing into Diggory’s pocket and the piano key within.


“I know he’s out there. I can feel him. And if he learns that I’m here he’ll tear these people apart. I’ve been trapped for so long, most of my life. And after my life too, I guess. I can’t go back to that. I won’t. Diggory, are… are you listening to me?”


Diggory nodded, trying to remember where they had been moments ago, who they had been. They were missing something important, and it hung just out of reach, tantalizing and unsettling. Percy was talking, of course, but somewhere Diggory was rising into the cold morning light. The sun on the snow blinded her, and the faces of her friends, now her closest family, greeted her with relief. One thought dwelled in her mind, an all-consuming drive. It was pushing her onward, compelling her towards a destiny she knew she could change.


“North,” Diggory said.


“What?” Percy paused, cut off mid-sentence. Diggory stared at him with wide white eyes.


“North. The heart is north.”



Interlude 2 - Falling Back

I find it telling that in human mythologies, gods are often equated to royalty. Humans like to look for authority, for guidance, for validation. Dreamers, if I tell a human ‘you are doing a good job. You are a good person and you are exactly where you are supposed to be in this moment’, it fills them with an unwarranted sense of peace. It helps them feel safe, as though they have a purpose in a purposeless universe. It helps them ignore the infinite darkness above, and the eons of death below their feet. Life rises from the ash, and goes its course, and fades back into nothingness without consequence or plan. We are part of the universe, looking back at itself and wondering why, and by the time we realize what we have, it is already gone, and we are falling back into the void. Enjoy the moments you are granted, dreamers. They are never enough, but these memories and these dreams and these loves are all that we have. We go now to one who believes he will live forever.



Story 3 - Prodigals

Solomon smiled peacefully as his hands fell on the great organ keys. He would have to craft one, someday—perhaps with as many souls as pipes. Until then, he would have to be content with playing for the sunday service. He liked the power that flowed through his fingertips, and the sound of the instrument hung in the air like thunder—a sound that rose to the heavens in worship and torrential praise. Was this not a holy occupation, one that would cause the lord in his fiery crown to look down and smile?


The congregation sang their closing words, one of Solomon’s favorites. Praise the lord, the work is done. The altar dripped onto the warped floors, pooling in the worn crevices. Christ the lord is here.


He made his goodbyes and peace-be-with-yous, and stepped into the morning sun. He was old, yes, but the lord had kept him spry and full of joy, and he had much to be grateful for. Ever bountiful, the gifts that were bestowed upon a humble servant. He pulled himself up into the rusty red truck—the spirits had been out of tune since his spill at the Scoutpost, and there was no need to induce such power to travel when a short drive would suffice.


He felt that something was amiss as soon as he neared his home, the truck crawling through the woods towards the dense fortress of trees. The gnarled tunnel of roots was no darker than usual, but immediately he was alert. He felt for the flute in his breast pocket, always present in case of emergency. He pushed the truck through the passage, emerging into the daylight on the other side, and his suspicions were confirmed.


The servants had formed an angry circle around two figures in the center of his lawn, poised in the grass. By all means they should have rendered the intruders into pieces, but they were stilled by some witchery he was unfamiliar with. He pulled to a stop, clambering out of the vehicle.


“What is the meaning of this? You are trespassing on my grounds!” he roared, storming towards the pair.


He recognized the first—the boy from the library, who had stood impetuously at his door a few nights before. He looked bruised and battered now, and stared up with unnaturally blue eyes. His hair, his clothes, all spoke to strange fashions that Solomon did not trust. The second person, if it was a person at all, was a swarm of ravens heaped in the approximate shape of a man. A demon, if Solomon had ever seen one.


“This one has failed in their mission,” the ravens shrieked. “You may do with them as you see fit. At your request, a new agent from Downing Hill will be assigned to you.”


The ravens took flight, erupting into the circle of sky above, and leaving the broken boy in the grass. The serving staff resumed their motions, glancing around with crude sewn-up faces, but Solomon raised his hand before they tore into the boy. Solomon knelt next to the young man, eyeing him over coldly.


“I knew when I first saw you that you did not have the lord’s music in your heart.”


“I’m sorry, sir, I can explain,” the boy began to sputter.


“I have materials that are wasting! I need that key!” Solomon reached out to seize the boy’s collar and strike some sense into him. “A girl with a bat has laid you low?”


“It wasn’t her,” the boy wheezed. “There was a stranger, a revenant. That one caught me off guard, but there was a ghost too. I’ve never seen one in the woods.”


“A ghost,” Solomon paused, becoming aware that he was holding the boy by his neck, that his fingers were digging around his throat. He dropped the boy, who coughed against the green turf. “A spirit, you mean? There are no souls that walk the earth except those bound by the lord to his service. Bound by me.”


The world was spinning around Solomon as he began to think. He had only ever lost one of his instruments, and what a great loss it had been. It was not hard to bind a semblance of life into something dead—any old hag with a sewing kit could do it—but to contain a pure soul, a sinner harnessed for the will of god, required expertise. He knew of no other craftsmen like himself, at least none this far north.


“What did she look like?” he demanded.


“I’m... not sure it was a she.” The blue-haired boy squirmed on the earth. “She, he—they had dark eyes, dark hair too, I think. Just a twist of light, really—they wore rags. Might have been a dress. They hit me. Burned like hell.”


“Was there a piano?” Solomon asked, wringing his hands, staring with wild eyes at the boy. “Did you see a piano?”


“No, no piano.” The boy looked around cautiously at the ensemble of groundskeepers, stitched together and waiting.


“Who did you say,” Solomon asked, kneeling down to the boy’s level, finding the light in his eyes, “that she was with?”


“Something dead—looked just like your collection here. Dressed up like a punk from the eighties.”


“That girl,” Solomon said, standing up, “is my daughter. I hoped and I prayed to the lord that she was not lost to me, and in his wisdom, he has brought her back. Come. We are going to amend your mistakes.”

Solomon turned and began towards the house, consumed by thoughts of study. The boy scurried behind him, a few steps ahead of the hungry mouths of the serving staff. There was so much to do now, so much to orchestrate. His little Persephone was coming home.



Outro - Crowns

Crowns. Heavy is the head that wears one, and you are wearing one now, more likely figurative than literal. In as much as you are alive and have the capacity to feel—to make choices about your body and your mind and your time—you reign over your life. If someone displeases you, cast them out of your court. If your borders are crossed, go to war. And if you look around and are unhappy with what you see, command the change you desire. Rule your life from a glorious throne, and apologize to no lesser thing. I wear no crowns. I am only your loyal host, your nightmare bard, your court counsellor whispering in your ear and advising that you return to the Hallowoods.




The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'I Spy', 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!