Content Warning: This episode may include themes of blood, smoking, alcohol use, religion, body horror, death + injury, homophobia, violence, and guns.
Intro - Special Assignment
You are clocking in to work. It is a workday not unlike the untold workdays that came before it—an infinity of time fading into your past just as it stretches out into your eternal future. You will not always be doing this, you tell yourself. You have told yourself this many times. The finances are in shambles, new office closures announced daily. You have been here since the start of the Industry’s activity here, fought for quarterly profits, for storehouses of reclaimed souls and careful campaigns of misery and subterfuge. Now, you sift through the dregs and unfinished paperwork, balancing the books at the end of the world. From beneath a fresh stack of seventeenth century audits, you find an assignment. A fresh assignment. You could send it off to someone else, but this will get you out of the office, and you are in desperate need of some air. After all, what could go wrong? The description begins with these words: Hello From The Hallowoods.
Right now I’m sitting in the lobby of the worst hotel in the Hallowoods, and for that matter, the only hotel in the Hallowoods. The travellers that pass through these great doors are violent, unfriendly and uncivil, and yet in this moment, all differences have been put aside as the unseeing lord of the hotel steps up onto the front desk. The theme of tonight’s episode is Devils.
Story 1 - Cheers to the End
“Ladies, gentlemen, frogs, witches and worms,” Barb said, rapping on his glass with a spoon, “a series of terrible misfortunes led me to this godforsaken swamp, to start this cockroach-infested hotel, and to meet all of you wretched people—and if I had to do it all again, I would. Thank you all—even you, Zorgelleck—for being fine friends in a lonely world, and more importantly for your paying patronage here at the Resting Place. Without you, my horrible guests, my hotel would not exist at all. A toast, then, to all our drunken nights together, to the old lives we remember too fondly, and to making the end of the world a good time. Cheers!”
The motley crowd raised their glasses in return, and the din of their conversation resumed. Barb looked over his work, his legacy in the gutter, and decided that it was good.
He gave an affectionate pat to the jukebox as he walked by, and it quickened with jovial light. The Quilt regaled a small group with tales from the underbelly of the world. It seemed to have cleaned its tattered rag face just for the event. The Diamond Rider passed out drinks to a table of travellers with fishlike eyes and curling jaws. Swamp oozes and mushroom folk mingled with the barren aristocrats and warlords, held raucous banter with Ascended Scientists and dead things. They were all welcome, and they were at home away from home.
“Look at this crowd,” Barb said to the Countess, as he approached the corner where she was hiding, wrapped in shadow and sipping a red wine. She smiled wryly.
“It’s a nice party you’ve thrown, but it’s a somber occasion, you know.”
Barb nodded, his toothy grin weakening a little. “Do you want to go to the roof?”
The top of the hotel overlooked miles of winding black lakes and scattered trees, and emphasized the infinite weight of the sky above them. The stars were out in full display, twinkling in the night, and the hotel’s neon sign was the only artificial light in sight.
Barb leaned against the fence, lighting a cigarette with his fingertip, and blowing smoke into the night.
“What are you so down for? Humankind wasn’t doing anything for ya. Last I checked life’s been easy on you after the end of the world.”
“A woman needs to eat," the countess said, the wine staining her lips blood red. “But it’s worse than that, Barb. The woods are moving south. Even the Quilt agrees. As they do, the North—the real, cosmic North—gets worse. You can barely enter without trespassing on the court of the Faceless King. You haven’t seen him, have you? I have. Never have I felt so out of place in this world, Barb. It’s changing without us. It’s becoming something entirely new.”
Barb shrugged. “We’ve always been on a doomsday clock, right? Nuclear war, toxic pandemic, meteor disaster. The world pulls a hard reset every so often. We’re all just mites on the skin of the planet. What are we supposed to do, eh? When the spirit of the age grows old and dies, well, who are we to disagree?”
The countess shook her head, pulling her black cloak around her in the chill night breeze.
“It’s different. This isn’t natural. This is something worse than us, older. I don’t think it’s supposed to happen this way.”
Barb laughed hoarsely, and coughed up blood. He took another drag of his cigarette, shaking embers into the air.
“You think there’s a plan? You think there’s ever been a plan? I’ve been in the drawing room at the Industry, honey, I’ve seen the math. There’s nothing. Just hungry devils vying for scraps, peeling a little fire out of this universe before it burns itself out. My eyes were a low price to pay to escape that rat race. What about you, you had former employers too. Ever hear from your head office these days?”
The countess shook her head. “We’ve all been cut loose, Barb. I’m not an idiot. They never cared about us—we were tools, and they left us behind after the job was done. I’m not an old goat like you, but I miss the good days too. The early days of Europe—you should have seen the girls, Barb. Dark eyes, dark souls, magnetized to me when I moved in next door. No one could resist me. What am I now? Hungry and alone, spending the last days of the earth with a broken devil and a house of swamp worms.”
Barb nodded, tugging at the bandage across his eyes. “You’re not alone. The rest is true, but you’re not alone.”
“I’m not going to stay for long," the countess said. “The forest will reach here soon enough—and what will we do, move south, become experiments for that accursed Botulus? No, I think not. I’m going to stretch my wings and take to the stars, travel with the Ascended Scientists. It may take an eternity, but there are other places to go. I know there’s no point in asking you to come with me.”
Barb raised his hands. “You got me. I was cast out of the fire into darkness, and I’ve filled it with neon lights. I’ll be pouring the champagne until this place is done. It’s where I belong.”
“Then,” the countess said, raising her glass, “cheers to a glorious end, old friend.”
“Yeah,” Barb smiled, finding a martini in the night sky, and raising it to hers. “Here’s to the end.”
Interlude 1 - Scream at the Stars
Humankind wants to believe that there are great truths hidden behind the veil of the universe. This is correct, but the truths are far less pleasant than you’d like to think. If you are looking for avenues to explore your spirituality in the Hallowoods, there are certainly options. Small communities of muslim and buddhist faiths have emerged in the Scoutpost, along with a non-demonimational spiritual circle. Webequie First Nation is home to an anglican church, as well as three sweat-lodges where you are welcome to become involved in the community’s traditional spirituality. If your religion is a mask for deep hatred of those you would like to see condemned on a cosmic level, then the Church of the Hallowed Name will welcome you with burning brands and open arms. There is always the purest form of connecting with the universe, which is to go outside and scream at the stars. Think of how impossibly far away they are, and what a small part of the universe you occupy, and what a strange accident it is that you can even think about this at all. You might as well keep doing that until you die—it’s not as though your life was going to be consequential anyways. We go now to one who is consequential, but not alive.
Story 2 - Shadows of Devils
Diggory looked at the fire, and the circle of chairs around it, and the smiling people that sat in the chairs, and wondered if they would ever be this happy in their life again. They held a bowl of steaming soup in their stitched hands, although they did not know if it was possible for them to eat it. It was, nevertheless, a comforting presence. Also comforting was the boy in the chair next to them, although the ghost was shy in the firelight, and the chair might at first glance have appeared to be empty.
“I can’t believe you’re Evie," Riot said, around a mouthful of venison. “Or part Evie. Or she’s part of you. You wrote so many of my mom’s songs.”
“I don’t remember everything.” Diggory said, watching the wisps of steam curl up from the soup. “I was… She was excited that your mother was going to have you. She wanted so badly to meet you. But something happened—she died, I think, and some part of her became me. Where is your mother? Where is Valerie?”
“Botco got her," Riot stabbed a piece of meat with her fork. “Do you know what that is?”
“Botco,” Diggory hissed, staring up at the stars.
“Many of our scouts had run-ins with Botco when they migrated. Never good,” Violet mentioned diplomatically. “But if you don’t mind my asking, why are they so fixed on you and your mother?”
“There’s one in particular, that lady on all the posters. Ethel,” Riot said.
“Ethel,” Diggory pondered.
“Yeah. She’s had a grudge against my mom ever since my mom’s first album—it was all, like, very against the Dreaming Boxes? She hated that. I think it’s my fault that my mom is gone—I blew our cover. I had no idea they were still watching all these years later. And Violet, I totally understand if you want me to leave.”
“Nonsense,” Walt said, looking up from his sketchbook. He had been staring at Diggory most of the night, taking notes. “With respect to you both, Violet, and I’d say the same to Bern if she were here, Botco has no quarrel with us. If they send someone to pick up Riot, we’ll talk it out. The real problem right now is the Instrumentalist. Riot here’s gonna help me take him out. We were wondering, actually, if you’d be willing to join us, Diggory.”
Diggory looked over to Percy for guidance, and noticed that the boy had fully materialized, gleaming like moonlight in the darkness. He bristled with shining energy, eyes burning like black fires.
“Yes,” Percy said. “He’s my father. He made me like this—like all the other people he’s killed and trapped in those instruments. I know how it works. He’ll never stop until he’s destroyed. Until he’s dead and gone for good.”
Walt, Riot and Violet looked at Percy with wide stares—Diggory had never seen Percy make himself so visible to anyone before.
“Sorry,” Percy said, and faded again into a flicker of light.
“No, it’s alright,” Violet said, raising her wrinkled hand. “I’d imagine that could be helpful for you, Walt?”
“Very much,” Walt said, jotting down a note. “It seems to me that he plays these instruments, and the instruments control, ah, ghosts. Spirits. Not sure which term you’d prefer, Percy?”
“'Ghost' is fine, I guess.” a voice said from Percy’s chair.
“Right. I imagine there’s a way to cut him off from those. Get him while his guard is down. Maybe figure out why he does the awful things he does—if he’s just some serial killer with a bad trick, or if it’s something worse.”
“Hard to get worse than losing our scouts.” Violet interjected.
“I just mean,” Walt said, “there’s something ritual about the way he kills. Ceremonial. Never know these days just what powers are rumbling in the woods.”
“So it’s settled,” Violet said. “You four will work on sorting out the Instrumentalist. Bern and I will deal with Botco, if they come, and keep our Scoutpost safe. Now, this is supposed to be a nice night. Can we talk about all this later?”
There was a round of agreements.
“Personally, I am glad for each and every one of you. If you told me a couple months ago that I would be spending Spring Solstice with the daughter of a rock star, a revenant and a ghost, I would have laughed at you. But here we are. It’s been a strange year, but you are all lovely people, and we will do our very best to keep us all safe, happy, and find anyone that we’ve lost. And when Bern gets back tonight,” Violet looked to Riot, “I hope that she has your girl Clara in tow.”
Diggory suspected the others could not see, but Percy rested on Diggory’s chest serenely. Neither of them breathed.
“I am proud of you,” Diggory whispered, as new conversations began. Suddenly there was a flash of light. They squinted in the headlights of a large, loud vehicle, and as their eyes adjusted, Riot leapt from her chair and began sprinting towards it.
“Clara!” she shrieked. “Clara, I’m here!”
Marketing - Ascendant Product
Welcome back to Marketing with Lady Ethel Mallory. As a Botco Marketing Representative, you need to remember the power of fear. As long as humans have crawled from their caves to walk in the sunlight, they have been afraid. Of the dark, and the darkness that exists beyond this life. They’ve painted it in with frowning gods and smiling devils. They want to think that as long as they keep their head down, and do what they’re supposed to do, they will be rewarded with eternal bliss and happiness. This is advantageous for us. Heavenly is part of the Dreaming Box brand persona. We want to connect generations of singular thought, of lusting for a better world, of ignoring reality, with our product. In a way, we are the book of revelation, we are the rapture, peeling the worthy away from the surface of the earth to dwell in light and community, and leave the ungodly to their unfortunate final years. What is heaven if not a place where you can be what you want to be, surrounded by your family and friends? What is heaven if not the rest and the play you never allowed yourself to enjoy? What is heaven if not a perfect dream? You are not just selling a Dreaming Box Happy Dreams Package, you are selling a spiritual transformation in the form of an ascendant product...
Story 2, Continued - Shadows of Devils
Dreamers, I have stood in black holes and confronted what lurks beyond. I have eyes in every corner of this universe, and I know every dark thing that lurks in it. I have come face-to-face with powers so terrible that your minds would melt from merely speaking their names. I have known true evil. And yet, when I hear Lady Ethel speak, I am deeply troubled. I am glad that I never went into business. We return now to Diggory Graves.
Diggory joined the small crowd that was gathering in the Scoutpost courtyard as the RV rolled to a stop. Diggory recognized the Stonemaiden logo on the side; a stone angel twisting apart a silver cube, surrounded by lightning. It was the same band logo that was tattooed on their own arm. ‘RV-lution’ was spraypainted in red letters. Riot went sprinting up to the door before the van finished rolling to a stop, trying to see through the camper’s dark glass. The headlights switched off and the door swung open, and Bern descended from the cabin. No one else followed.
For a moment, Riot looked utterly lost, and Diggory recognized the feeling. When they walked away from the burning piano, and believed that they would be alone forever, they had felt the same. Diggory held the piano key in their pocket a little closer, just to feel that Percy was near. How quickly they had forgotten what it was like to be alone.
Bern pulled Riot into her arms, and whispered something that Diggory could not hear. They could guess based on Riot’s response.
“Don’t lie to me!” Riot screamed, shoving the old woman back. “She’s been gone for weeks! If she was going to find me she would have by now. I’m not some dumb little kid, Bern! She’s dead, isn’t she? You know she’s dead!”
Riot turned and ran through the crowd, breaking out of the circle of light. Bern began to stomp after her, but Violet came up to hold her back.
“It’s alright,” Violet whispered. “Give her space.”
Diggory was not sure what to do, standing in the crowd. The weathered scouts and survivors still kept a wide berth, as though returning from the dead was contagious. They watched as Riot disappeared through the northern door, leading out to Lurch Lake. Diggory thought for a few moments, and then began to quietly walk after her, out of the warm firelight and lanterns of the solstice celebration, and into the darkened forest beyond.
“Are you alright?” Diggory asked Percy as they walked.
“Yeah,” Percy said in their head.
“You seem troubled.”
Percy did not respond.
Diggory walked down the narrow path that twisted through the woods, and came out on the other side to find a black pool of water, reflecting the night sky. Stars glittered on the surface, but glowing green lights burned beneath—countless pairs of eyes flickering beneath dim water.
They found Riot sitting on an overturned log, shaped like a dragon’s head. She sat with her face in her hands, and Diggory sat down next to her quietly. They did not speak for a long while.
“Why are you here?” she grunted at last.
“I am sorry,” Diggory said. “Do you want me to search for her? I can walk very long.”
“You can help by stopping the Instrumentalist,” Riot spat into the lake. “He got her. I know he did. He’s a serial killer, right? He went back for her like he came back for me. And I wasn’t there to protect her.”
Diggory opened their mouth, but was unsure what to say. Riot’s attention shifted to the lake, as twin points of green fire glowed brighter, until a crown of lily flowers broke the surface of the pond. A withered hand rose from the water, and then a skull with green embers for eyes, and then a full corpse was crawling out onto the mud.
“North. Have to tell Walt,” the dead thing said, eyes on fire, staring into Diggory’s soul. “The heart is north. It’s all north.”
Interlude 2 - Play With Fire
The universe is filled with fire. Stars burn brightly in the endless void; worlds churn with fury and unfathomable heat. Galaxies in all their glory flicker in the night, the candlelight of all existence. There is fire on little worlds of mud, as well—burning in every living thing, inexplicable and alive. How easy it is to play with that fire—to corrupt and turn its white brilliance to unholy green flame, or to harness it for its devastating potential. Like all resources, however, fire eventually burns out, fading into the ether and reborn in other forms. How ironic that when the fires die, the industry dies with it, and its salespeople and agents and operatives are left to seek new occupations, devils with empty souls and empty pockets. We go now to one who does not fear the devil yet.
Story 3 - Old Scratch
Rick rolled the umbrella over in his hands, running his rough fingers over the scarlet fabric. It was scaled like alligator skin, and there was a black mark in each section like a closed eye. It was a surprising find, and he still could not fully comprehend the stranger who had left it behind—the north got weirder every day, with ugly things showing up at the bottoms of lakes or lurking between the trees. The trio they’d run across on patrol had been especially odd—a floral suit in the marsh, a woman with fur, and some sort of robot, if that was possible. All the pretty boy had left behind was the umbrella, but try as he might, Rick couldn’t get it open.
“You been staring at that thing an awful lot,” Buck said.
“Put some clothes on,” Rick spat, and the smaller man tumbled out of Rick’s bed, throwing on trousers and a too-big camouflage print jacket.
“Still true. You worried about the rain or something?”
“Just thinking is all. Get going,” Rick muttered. He heard the tent flap as Buck stumbled out into the night. Best he could figure, it wasn’t an umbrella at all—it was a weapon. Designed with craft and weight, for a purpose he couldn’t quite make out. He felt as though it were from a different place, a different truth—that if he could just understand its secret, he could break through into somewhere new.
The tent flap opened, and Rick turned to tell Buck to get back to work, but the man in the floral suit was standing in the darkness.
“I’ve come to collect my umbrella.” |
Rick jumped back, almost falling over, and clutched it in his hand. His pistol was already in his other hand, and he raised it at the stranger.
“Who the hell are you?” Rick demanded. The stranger’s eyes burned with fire.
“I’m the messenger, gorgeous,” the stranger said, and began to step towards Rick. As he did, burning horns began to glow from the crown of his head, matching the fiery appearance of his eyes. “I’m the lost, the lie, and the end. I’m the last black page in the story of this godforsaken world. I am the fire that burns little souls like yours into ashes. I’m a statement. I am Appollyon. And I want my umbrella back.”
“Why’d you want this so bad? What’s it do?” Rick said, still aiming his pistol. The stranger was the very picture of his childhood nightmares, glowering like woodcuts from an old bible. Some part of him wondered if the devil was here because of him and Buck. The devil raised his hands.
“It really is easiest to demonstrate,” he said , and as he held out his hand, the umbrella lurched out of Rick’s grasp. The singular eyes along the fabric of the umbrella opened, burning in splendid flames as a whirlwind of fire enveloped the room. Moments later, the last sparks had flickered out, leaving Rick alone in the darkness. Rick sat back once he was sure the stranger was gone, shaking against his desk. The devil was real. The devil was real.
Outro - Devils
Devils. The issue has always really been one of consequences. Humans are, like most things besides myself, flawed. They bond more easily over hatred than love, and over fear rather than joy. Why do you require an eternity of punishment to live your life with basic decency? Why must there be fires below you and a sunny sky above in order to motivate you to do good? Live not as though you will be rewarded for what you do—the rewards are in front of you, in this moment, today. If you put off your love and your joy and your satisfaction until the end, it will already be too late, and you will have lived your brief life without those things. That is the worst consequence I can think of. For your motivation now and future, I am your loyal host, Nikignik, waiting cataclysmically for your Return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Devil's Tongue', 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!