Content Warning: This episode may include themes of static, body horror, death + dying, abuse, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, religious violence, sexism, violence, guns, animal death, and blood.
Intro - Old Bones
Your eyes do not open, for you have no eyelids. They are simply open now. You do not know how long you were asleep, but the lights in the bathroom are off. You slide open the shower curtain, and climb out of the tub. Your body shifts and cracks as you step into the darkness. The light switch does not work, and you step out into the agonizing morning light. You stop in front of the mirror in the hall. This is not the body you know. Your fingers are long, your hips skeletal, your face desiccated. You realize this does not horrify you. You have been haunted by your body all your life. It has defined every interaction with you, every assumption a stranger has made about you. Now you are unrecognizable. Now you are free. You put on a victorious black lipstick to match your abyssal eyes. This shade is called Hello From The Hallowoods.
Right now, I’m sitting in a rich velvet armchair. It is the same color as the curtains that bleed across the windows, and matches the coat that hangs by the door. A dim fire burns, fighting the chill spring morning. The scarlet light reflects on ivory crosses that hang on the walls, the gold trim of ancient books, and the centerpiece that sits on the dining table—a mummified human hand, wrapped in silver. The theme of tonight’s episode is Bones.
Story 1 - Second Chances
Olivier had not, for most of his life, been afraid. He had faced many terrors in the early days of his childhood, of course, and many worse since arriving at Downing Hill. He had approached them all with strength, with control, with impeccable displays of confidence. He had proved his worth in every moment, unshaken, watching as the others fell one by one.
Yet now, in the dim light of the Instrumentalist’s house, he could not control the shaking in his hands, or the cold sweat that ran down his forehead. The bane of the northern woods stalked around the room, quick despite his elderly appearance, taking books from his shelves and adding them to a growing pile on the dining table. Olivier’s mind raced. What could they say to address their failure? A lifetime in Downing Hill had taught them not to judge others based on appearance, and his instinct said that there was much more danger in this room than a white-haired old man. The deaths that were attributed to this person were uncounted and gruesome—an old master of torture, studious in the pursuit of pain. His inventiveness had impressed the director herself, and Olivier, feeling powerless for the first time in his life, trembled to think of his own fate.
The old man sprung towards Olivier, a small picture frame in hand. He placed it carefully on the table.
“This was the girl you saw?”
A child with long dark hair stood with a forced smile in between two adults—a woman with a pinched face, and a younger version of the Instrumentalist. His round glasses had remained the same, although his hair and beard were longer now, spilling across his collared shirt.
“Yes,” Olivier said. “I’m positive.”
The old man gazed at the photograph wistfully for a moment, before returning it to a shelf, and sitting down to the table.
“It is a grave matter," he said, glancing at Olivier from over his pile of volumes. “My daughter’s spirit has become untethered from its instrument—a grand piano. It was one of my finest pieces. Mahogany, you know. Bone shavings inset on the keys. Beautiful work. Spirits need control—especially those that were stubborn and unwilling to serve in life. My daughter was a troubled girl. If her bond has been broken, it will be most difficult to restore her to the lord’s will.”
Olivier nodded along, wide-eyed.
“What are you looking at, boy? Has your spine dissolved?”
“No sir. I…” Olivier stuttered, breathed, pulled his composure together. “Are you going to kill me?”
“Kill you?” the old man laughed, a sneer that exposed his yellowed teeth. “You have presented me with a problem, a great inconvenience. I need that key, do you understand?”
“Yes, I do, and I am so sorry that…”
“No excuses,” the instrumentalist barked, slamming a hand on the table. “I was promised a master of the arts, a star pupil, they said to me. If you are the best that Downing Hill has to offer then I have mistaken the reputation of that place. It matters not. You have seen my daughter, you have seen the abomination that holds her captive. You will lead me to them and you will help me reclaim her—and that key. Perhaps I will teach you something of my art, more than the fallen heads at your library seem to have taught you. You need to be made useful.”
A cold realization dawned on Olivier. He had misread the situation entirely. He had not been sentenced to death—there was merely a change in authority.
And Olivier could work with change. Under the Instrumentalist, he could succeed where he had failed at first. Perhaps with the books and the old wisdom of this dark messiah, he could find a way to impress the director. Perhaps she had not really wanted to send him away at all, she simply had appearances to maintain. That must be it.
“I can help you with that, sir,” Olivier said, the unshakeable calm beginning to restore itself. “What can I do?”
The Instrumentalist examined him with intent, and slid the stack of books over the table towards him.
“You will start by reading,” the sharp old man growled. “I have some research to do, several instruments to create. We have a formidable task ahead of us, you understand.”
Olivier nodded, recognizing some of the volumes by name. They were dark tomes, impossible to find copies of. Many had been on the acquisition list at Downing Hill as long as Olivier had been there. The old man rumbled on, stepping towards a dark door in the hall, stepping down a set of stairs into an unseen basement. His voice echoed from the cold depths.
“We must take back a key of creation from that wretch at the Scoutpost. We must unmake a revenant of great strength. And we must bind my daughter to a new instrument.”
Interlude 1 - Skeleton Park
The Skeleton Park was originally a graveyard, far south of the Hallowoods. Children would play in the grass among the headstones, but the graves were shallow, and dreadful things washed up after each fresh rain. Eventually the exposed corpses were moved, and the headstones carried away, but the park and its unknown denizens beneath remained.
Then the black rains fell, and the Skeleton Park began to wake. One brisk afternoon in October, the park began to shake, driving the children from its wooden castles and merry-go-rounds. Then the park was rising into the air, a great mass of bones and stones and dangling swing sets. Today the Skeleton Park is one of several destinations in the Hallowoods that frequently change location, and it wanders through the woods to settle in empty fields and solitary bogs. Children are not allowed to run, scream, laugh, or play at the Skeleton Park. Unless, of course, you want to be rid of them.
We go now to one who was never a child.
Story 2 - Foul Play at Fort Freedom
This is going to stain my suit, Polly thought, as he flung himself over a grassy bank. He rolled down the other side, soaking his trousers in the black mud, and snatched up his umbrella. Behind him, Mort came crashing over the hill, each footstep shaking the earth. Louder still was the roar of engines and gunfire behind them.
“Remind me not to bring you to negotiations,” Polly shouted, as Mort’s mechanical boots sloshed through the mire.
“Mort is not the problem,” Yaretzi hissed. “We should have hidden, not tried to reason with men. There is no point in it!”
The shouting was growing louder, and behind them a small all-terrain vehicle came screaming over the bank. Yaretzi leaped onto the driver, wolflike jaws sinking into his shoulder, and he shrieked as the vehicle rolled into the bog. She moved immediately into a run for the trees, and Polly began to sprint as the rest of the pack crested the hill.
The swarm of four-wheelers was bedecked with flags and unsightly trophies, and their riders were just as garish. Fashion had certainly taken a dive after the end of the world. More concerning than the poor pattern matching was the affinity for automatic firearms, and a spray of bullets sent wet soil flying through the air. The drivers screeched together in whooping cries as they came racing forward.
Polly darted for the trees, losing track of Yaretzi and Mort as they dashed in other directions. The thicket of black pines overcame much of the dry land, and with any luck would cut off the onslaught behind them.
“You animals!” Polly shouted to no one in particular as he scurried up a slope of rock, ducking behind it in time to miss another volley of bullets. He flipped open his umbrella, summoning the burning eyes that blinked open in the fabric. “Maybe you’ll understand this!”
He levelled the umbrella back at the oncoming troop, sending a volley of flame into the bog beyond. The energies went off like fireworks, and the swarm swerved to a stop as the fire crackled around them. One driver charged through the smoke, unfazed by the heat. Polly recognized him as the chief talker in the bunch, although clearly he was not much of a diplomat. He was gorgeous, blond, and had a set of vicious scars that ran from his eye to what remained of his ear. He flung himself from his vehicle and began sprinting towards the trees, weapon in hand.
Polly did not linger any longer, disappearing into the pines. The needles pulled at the satin threads of his jacket, and he fought to keep moving through the branches. He emerged into lighter vegetation, on the other side of the woods. There was muffled fire and shouting from somewhere in the distance, and Polly spun around, opening his umbrella and spinning it in his hands, ready to unleash another torrent at anything that crossed through the wall of trees. He began to mutter fiery directives as something large burst through the branches, but a flash of red chrome told him it was Mort. The sounds were dying out now, perhaps as the hunters gave up and returned to their vehicles and their petty lives in the wilderness.
“Why are those people so mean?” Mort asked in anguish. The dead seagull that seemed to haunt him came fluttering down out of the air, landing on his shoulder. It glared at Polly with a pale white eye.
“People like that,” Polly breathed, not daring to examine the state of his outfit, “are the reason this world has been retired. Now, let’s get moving before they decide to come back.”
Polly oriented himself—the object of his mission was still a far ways off, but looming closer each day. Polly imagined it might be an unpleasant business. He looked behind him to find Mort, still standing uncomfortably near the trees.
“Where’s Yaretzi?” Mort asked. His skull wobbled nervously inside his glass dome. Polly realized that he had quite forgotten her, and listened intently. No hardened survivalists were bursting through the treeline, but no wolf women either.
“I’m sure she’s fine.” Polly sniffed, and turned away. You had to leave others to manage their own affairs. If she happened to rejoin the group, very well. If she did not, well, then Polly would not have to worry about having his organs ripped out once his work was complete. He plucked a pine needle from his lapel.
“I’m not going without her,” Mort said. Polly twisted around again; the metal giant had sat down in front of the treeline like a human child throwing a tantrum.
“You’ll do whatever I say, Mort,” Polly announced, tapping his umbrella against the soil. “You and I have to survive here. There is important business we are attending to. If Yaretzi can’t keep up then we don’t need her. Besides, she has no great kindness for us.”
“That makes me sad,” Mort said. “I like Yaretzi.”
“You know precisely two people in the world, Mort. You’ll find others you like.”
“I’m not going without her.” Mort repeated, crossing his arm and his metal claw.
Polly snarled, his eyes burning. He marched back, almost at eye level with the sitting construct.
“Fine. But you’re going to wait right here until I come back. Understand?”
Mort nodded, green fires burning bright inside the black water of his dome. Polly said nothing more, and pushed back into the darkened woods.
Marketing - Final Arrangements
Hello dreamers. A reminder from Lady Ethel Mallory about the importance of being prepared. Here in the Dreaming Box, we do our best to supply you with nutrition, good exercise, and expert medical care all without disturbing your dreams. However, the human body has its limits, which is why now is a great time to think about your post-mortem wishes. You may spend your dreaming credits to have your body buried in a waterproof, non-biodegradable container in your hometown, guaranteeing that nothing unfortunate will happen to your mortal remains in the outside world.
If you so choose, you can also donate your body for free to the Botco sciences division, where it will be used to develop exciting new treatments and technology for the Dreaming Box users to come. Rest assured, any rumors you’ve heard about the Botco Sciences Division are purely untrue. Lastly, the default option as marked in your terms and conditions is that your body will be added to your local Dreaming Box Garden, where your organic material will be redistributed into valuable nutrients to feed the dreamers you’ve left behind. It’s all part of the beautiful cycle of life in the Dreaming Box...
Story 2, Continued - Foul Play at Fort Freedom
I would prefer to die a natural death—an implosion that consumes the universe, pulling every world into an endless silence, suns collapsing in the aftermath of my being, the ashes of the cosmos drawn into a singular point. From it a plane of being will be born, cascading into a new dimension, born of fire and antimatter—I understand death is a less dramatic affair for humankind. We now return to Apollyon.
Polly emerged from the trees in time to see a trio of camo print jackets, lifting a bound Yaretzi into the back of the leader’s truck.. The horde went driving off, leaving wet tire tracks across the banks and winding bogs. Polly followed behind, and although he was tempted to take a vorpal route, he did not have resources to spare. He had already burned more than his quota in the recent altercation.
By the time he arrived on the outskirts of the camp, night was beginning to fall. The brisk winds of winter had not quite relinquished their grip on the throat of spring, and he burned brightly in the dark. Tonight was going to be a colossal waste of energy—but, he told himself, it was to keep Mort happy. That was the only reason he was prepared to admit.
Large barricades of sharpened trees surrounded the camp, and the bog around them had been scattered with razor wire and steel traps, which Polly sidestepped nonchalantly. Guards were positioned at watchtowers, but their attentions were turned inward, towards a fiery light in the center of the camp. As Polly drew closer he noticed the makeshift fortress was festooned with warning signs—black froglike things impaled on spikes, and huge sections of antler sawed into pieces. The words ‘Fort Freedom’ were written in huge red letters across the entrance to the crude nest. Polly did not find it terribly creative.
He stood in the dim light, with both hands on the handle of his umbrella, and began to speak. It was an official form, a request for resources, a proposal with justified ends and means. He knew that nobody reviewed these things, anyways.
Space folded around Polly, and for a moment he remembered what it was like to be well and truly free, a thought in an endless void, a business entity in a universe of chaos. The stars stretched into cyclical patterns, and the night enveloped him.
He emerged into the light of a great bonfire, blazing in the center of a ramshackle collection of houses. A crowd cheered and roared with cruel obscenities, surrounding what appeared to be a large pit surrounded with curious bones—skulls with sharp teeth and too many eye sockets. Polly slipped in with the bystanders, hoping he would blend in enough in the dim firelight. He sensed his umbrella was drawing scattered glances. Gunmen at the edge had their weapons trained on something beneath in the pit. As he stepped closer, he realized it was Yaretzi.
“We have a new contestant tonight,” a small man with crooked teeth was screaming, “brought in on patrol today by our very own Rick Rounds!”
Polly arrived close to the edge of the pit, and realized the cheering audience was turning towards him, applauding. He turned around to see the blond man, winding back.
“Howdy,” he said, and threw his fist into Polly’s jaw.
The moments seemed to slow as Polly absorbed the impact. He had forgotten this aspect of having a physical form. Pain. The world was all stars for a moment and he was falling, plummeting into darkness. He collided with the mud bottom of the pit, and Yaretzi bounded over to him, standing up over him protectively as the weapons trained down.
“Nice of you to drop by!” hollered Rick, plucking up Polly’s umbrella from the ground, flipping it in his hands. “Folks, we got two contestants tonight, and I’d say both have a fair fighting chance. Let’s get this game started! Buck, would you do the honors?”
A round of wild screams went up from the crowd as Polly tried to sit up. Stars swirled in his vision, and he realized his disguise was fading—his eyes were burning, and his horns were probably showing. He glanced at Yaretzi—she was seeing him like this, too. Uncomposed. Undignified. He began to think the day could not get worse, but reconsidered as the small man on the platform above threw a winch, and a large grate began to rise from a cavity beneath it. Yaretzi roared at the guards above, who kept their sights trained on her. Polly pulled himself to his feet, his world spinning hard from the impact. This simply would not do. As the gate rose off the ground, a black spike the size of a tree came prodding beneath it, and as it rose completely, a massive creature emerged into the red light.
It was a bird, or once had been. It was wrapped in a storm of black and blue feathers, with a long snakelike neck, flashing a massive sharp beak like a harpoon. Lizard-like green eyes were trained on Yaretzi, and it began to rise on stilted legs, croaking like a champion. It flapped huge wings, and Polly realized its feathers had been clipped.
“Frogsticker!” Rick announced, and an uproar from the audience followed as they cast stones into the pit.
The bird came stalking towards them, calculating. Polly rolled to his feet, grabbing Yaretzi by her huge clawed hand, and whispered.
There was a flash of red light as the bird made a precise strike, needle-like beak stabbing to impale Yaretzi—but Polly was faster, and as the stars collapsed around them, Polly pulled her into the nothingness between worlds.
They emerged into the quiet night in front of Mort, who was still sitting patiently.
Polly gasped in the mud, clutching at his head. Yaretzi glanced around, ready for a fight, but her wolf features began to retreat as she realized they were safe.
“You came back," she said, looming over Polly despite her small height. “Why did you come back?”
“Hello Yaretzi.” Mort beamed, rocking happily.
Polly laid in the grass and closed his eyes. His suit was ruined for sure, and he had lost his good umbrella. This was turning out to be a most regrettable venture indeed.
Interlude 2 - More Pleasant Slumberings
Recently some of you have begun to question me, dreamers.
‘Nikignik’, you say, ‘I didn’t mind these awful dreams when you first began, but I hate the direction it’s going, if there is a direction at all. Please let me return to more pleasant slumberings’.
Do you forget who I am, dreamers?
I am your loyal host.
I am one hundred eyes in the dark.
I am here when you wake up in the middle of the night because you sensed that something terrible was watching you.
I am not here to stop the terror. I am only here so that you are not alone to face it.
I can do nothing to change the truth, and the truth is an awful thing. Shut me out if you wish—ignore the black pines you see as you close your eyes, struggle to forget names like Graves and Reed and Maidstone. It will not change the end that awaits you, and all that I seek to give you, you will have squandered.
We go now to a byproduct of my mistakes.
Story 3 - A Regrettable Outburst, Frankly
Jonah stood in the crypt of the ancients, yellow boots squeaking on the obsidian floors. He had never been much of one for reading—his father had always made it seem like a chore rather than an escape. He was fascinated now, though, by the story imprinted on the walls of the shrine.
The strange world outside spun slowly, black skies filled with green fire and strange melodies. It was the longest he had ever spent in this realm, this caustic world between life and death. There were recurring symbols on the walls that seemed to correspond with surreal imagery. The artist seemed to like eyes, there were a lot of those. Contorted forms and tentacles were common themes—Jonah saw similarities in the creatures he had been dredging up from the ocean all his life.
He was beginning to piece a story together, although he could not possibly understand the intricacies, the nuances. How ironic that he was being watched by the very being he struggled to understand, the very object of all the eyes he counted upon the walls.
What could a human know of real love, of cosmic grief? No human has experienced a tragedy that lasted more than a moment, no suffering that did not fade into eternity unremembered and unmourned. Jonah has no idea what he is looking at, the collision of powers that birthed this place, the sanctity of the grave on which he stands.
It was the least I could do.
Does a lord of life and death deserve to rest on a world of mud, like an animal? Does he deserve to be destroyed for doing what he was born to do?
There was nothing in the universe like him, nothing in an infinity of existence, and now he is gone, and there will never be another.
I mourn him in the starless night, I mourn the void in all that is that he left behind. How overjoyed I was to find that his work survived, that a semblance of his creativity and his joy and his darkness lived on. How in love I am with his black forests, his strange pines, his phosphorescent nights. How enraptured I am with his Hallowoods, and although I am broken, I will scream his memory to every distant corner of this cosmos. He would have liked nothing better than to be the subject of your nightmares, dreamers. That was just how he was, and I am not afraid to say I loved him for it.
We’ve quite forgotten Jonah here. Jonah is fine, for now.
Outro - Bones
Bones. We are all just bones in the end, a thought manifested for a brief moment in a timeless universe. We take them through joy and through grief, through dark days and glittering nights. This is what we are here for, is it not? It is an enormous gift to have life, to see the sunlight and hear the wind whistling in the darkness, to hold a loved one close and, in time, to watch them fade away. What else are we here for? Why else have we been given these forms of antimatter and flesh and bone? Until you are rendered back into thought, I will be here, dearest dreamer, waiting with teary eyes for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Doom Dreams', 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!