Intro - Fishing, Gone
You launch the motorboat in the early hours of the morning. It is a form of meditation for you, a silent ritual. The birds and frogs sing warning songs that echo across the surface of the lake. It is turning from a black void to glorious crimson as the sun begins to rise over the distant trees. The clouds are red, and the sun is a burning eye, opening to glare at you. The boat skims across the surface of the water, and you stop once you are out in the open. You cast your line, and your hook lands amidst the last reflections of the stars. You are alone with your thoughts, and any fish that happen to be nearby. You are at peace. Then, suddenly, you are not, and the jaws from beneath crack your boat in two. Black tentacles are crawling up the sides like leeches, pulling it apart, and there is a terrible shriek that shakes the surface of the lake. It is a threat and a greeting, a victorious welcome to a strange new world. It is saying 'Hello From The Hallowoods'.
Right now, I’m sitting on a piece of wood shaped like the head of a dragon. You can almost imagine peeling scales and teeth in the shape of the twisted bark. Many people are sitting to my right, condensed with patchwork and stitches into one terrible humanoid form. To my left is a young woman who is grieving a terrible loss. Both of them are staring as a skeleton rises from the lake before them, and the sun begins to rise over the distant trees. The theme of tonight’s episode is Mornings.
Story 1 - Memories Are Scattered Things
Diggory felt as if they were looking at a twisted reflection of themself. Little more than bone held the stranger together, and the skull’s burning green eyes fizzled in dark sockets. Water poured from its empty ribs, and the face’s expression was cracked open in stark realization. Diggory watched in disbelief, and although they knew other thoughts should have taken precedence, the first thing that crossed their mind was ‘is this how other people see me?’ The idea made them want to hide their stitches, conceal their face again beneath a canopy of black hair.
“Where is Walt?” the skeleton whispered, forcing air through desiccated lungs. Diggory noticed a crown of white flowers clung to its skull.
Riot stared in shock, glancing with horror at the host of emerald eyes that still flickered beneath the surface of the lake beyond. Her hand went to her spiked bat.
“Walt is that way.” Diggory pointed down the trail towards the Scoutpost. Wordlessly the skeleton began to lurch down the path, thin limbs moving like a puppet on a string.
“Do you need help?” Diggory found themself asking. The stranger did not respond, but almost veered off the trail into the bushes. Diggory stood up and followed quickly after them, taking the skeleton’s arm and supporting them as they walked down the dark pathway into the forest.
“Hello,” Diggory said. “My name is Diggory Graves; what’s yours?”
“Democracy,” the lich replied. “What difference does it make to the dead? Mad destruction is wrought under all names. Any system of government is prone to the selfish potential of human nature, and at best prolongs our inevitable collapse. We were not made to walk on our own. The end was always foreseen from the beginning. This is why we dream to forget.”
“I see.” Diggory said. They did not see at all. They were aware of Riot following behind cautiously, and felt deep sympathy for her.
“I hope I never lose you.” Diggory whispered to their own personal ghost, although Percy did not reply.
They arrived at the Scoutpost’s northern door, the fading light of the spring festival casting a warm glow into the forest. The party, it seemed, had mostly faded in these early hours. They helped the skeleton in, walking it through the courtyard as the curiosity of the scouts turned to apprehension. The corpse shuffled across the grounds, arm in arm with Diggory, coming to an eventual stop in front of Walt.
Walt stood in his grey coveralls, talking with a worried Bern and Violet, and he looked up in shock.
“Dylan?” he said, stepping towards the lich. It let go of Diggory and reached out to grab Walt’s arms with thin, decayed fingers.
“Hey, back off, bud.” Riot said, swinging her bat as she approached.
“No, it’s okay, it’s okay.” Walt said.
“Walt,” the skeleton croaked, “it’s north—the heart is north. But you will not be there to stop the end. I am sorry.”
Walt cast a worried look to Diggory.
“You know this thing, Walt?” Riot interjected.
“What heart, Dylan? What are you talking about?” Walt stared into the burning green eyes, which were beginning to burn dim.
“Democracy?” Walt tried. “Where is this ‘heart’ thing? You’ve got to tell me what you mean, bud.”
“North,” the skeleton said, looking around wearily. “True north. I’m tired, Walt. I’m so tired.”
Walt shook his head. “Alright. Let’s get you back to bed. Diggory, would you mind?”
Diggory almost carried Democracy up the path back to Lurch Lake, and laid the skeleton to rest, sinking into the water as though it were a warm bed. Diggory stood beside Walt and Riot in the early morning light.
“I’ve been getting acquainted with Dylan—or Democracy—here since I started visiting the Scoutpost. Lakes up here are usually filled with these folks—sleepers. Waiting out whatever end of the world they think is coming, or already has. The things they say hold true, more often than not.”
“So any idea what that jumble meant?” Riot glowered, holding her spiked bat close to her chest. She glanced at Diggory with a look that they couldn’t quite place.
“Not the foggiest.” Walt shrugged.
“I might.” Diggory said. “I had a dream—or a memory—that involved something north. I cannot remember why.”
“That’s incredibly helpful.” Riot breathed.
“If, ah, you do remember, you let me know.” Walt said, and started back down the trail. Diggory noticed the man’s hands were shaking.
“I need you to promise me something,” Riot turned to Diggory, dark eyes gleaming like torches. “Promise me that you’ll keep Walt safe, when we start this fight.”
“Of course.” Diggory said, wide-eyed.
“I’m serious. I already lost everyone else I care about. My mom is gone. My girlfriend is gone. You’re a lot stronger than he is. Promise me you’re going to protect him no matter what. Swear it.”
“I, Diggory Graves, do solemnly and sincerely promise and swear that I will truly and faithfully, and to the best of my skill and knowledge, execute the powers and trusts reposed in me. So help me god.” Diggory said, unsure of where the words had come from. Riot looked at them in surprise, and nodded.
She turned, and followed in Walt’s direction as the sun lifted into the morning sky, casting pink light through the black pines. Diggory sat next to the lake, watching the green lights glimmer beneath the surface, and wondered if they would someday too lay down to sleep beneath the water.
Interlude 1 - 6:48AM
The sun rises at 6:48 AM. By 7:13, the dawn rays shine through your window, beginning to rouse you from your sleep. At 7:30, the alarm goes off. You are awake; you want to rise, to make coffee, to face the morning. But you cannot. Your body does not listen to your struggles or your panicked thoughts. It continues to lie in bed.
8, 9, and 10:30 pass in quick succession. You do not even have the power to scream, or you would call for help. Time has lost you entirely, and each moment that you blink, another hour has passed around your body, and you are still unable to move. When your life finally extends to your hands and feet, you pull yourself up to sit in bed. The time is 5:35PM. You drag yourself from bed, you go to the kitchen. You are too exhausted from your fight to muster much in the way of food. Your parents say little to you; a few veiled remarks on your laziness. You have had many conversations, but you have not been able to communicate the weight of your experience. Now it is 10:27PM. What are you supposed to do? Go back to sleep? You know that as soon as you do, the fight will begin again.
We go now to a morning person.
Story 2 - A Kind of Grand Ecosystem
Clara sat in the basement chamber, trying not to breathe in the smell of mildew. The dark confines of the space felt crushing, and only a small circular window in the ceiling let in the dawn light. Being packed in with all the other students made her want to scream, but she did not. She knew it was a test. Everything in Downing Hill was a test.
Her spectral dog lay on the ground nearby. Dogsmell’s wispy ears were flattened to its head, and it glared around the room with a wary expression. She could tell that other students detected the odor, but not the source.
As if born of the dust caught in the sunlight, a man with colorless eyes stepped into existence. He held a thin cane in his hands, and although Clara realized she had sat next to him at breakfast a day ago, she could notice now that his leg was missing from the thigh down. A prosthetic of gilded silver stabbed at the ground as he walked.
“Ladies, gentlemen, otherwise,” he said, laying his cane across his desk. “We have a new student today, as I am sure you are all well aware. I am Professor Henry O’Connor, and in my classes you’ll be learning about cosmic economics.”
Clara felt every eye in the room turn to her. Dogsmell growled in a low rumble, and curious glances travelled around the room. She was coming to rely on the revenant hound—it was the only resource she had at her disposal here. There was a darkness in this library, but it resonated with something in her, and she had nothing left except to pursue it. Her parents were lost to an awful fate and the black water; Riot had certainly fallen to the Instrumentalist. She would learn how to use whatever they planned to teach her, and when she was ready, she was going to hunt down that orchestral demon and tear it apart.
“This will not affect our original plans for today’s test.” the man said. Clara’s hand shot up, although she regretted it immediately.
“What is this test on?” She said. It was an expression of weakness, a wrong move. It was too late to take it back. He shook his head, and clapped his hands once. The small window above snapped shut, plunging the mass of students into darkness.
“There was no beginning to our universe, or the one that came before it. It was simply born of energy, transformation. It existed in time immemorial, as it will continue long after we are gone.” The professor’s grim voice resounded from every corner of the basement room. “However, it has never been empty. There are powers behind the stars, in the far corners of this cosmos, life forms greater than anything the human mind can even comprehend. To say we are dust to them would be an exaggeration, we are like cells in terms of simplicity and size. Thankfully, they live indefinitely longer than we do, and they might be asleep for the time it takes for an entire species to rise and fall. When they wake, they render worlds into atomic particles without noticing, the way you might step on an insect as you walk through the woods. These indescribable beings, or indies as the verbiage has devolved, have left a mark on this world. They, or their agents and servants, have influenced us in subtle ways throughout human history. They’re carved into the stone at Tenochtitlan, painted in the tombs of Egpyt. Those of you with gifts here, at some point or another, your ancestors crossed paths with one of these beings in some way. Every artifact we have, every method and ritual, all goes back to them. I remind you of this to give you some perspective on today’s assignment. You see these beings are not without their place in a kind of grand ecosystem. The energy that we call life, they feed on it. It grows in the universe as a natural resource and returns to them, and is recycled in other forms and other places. The value of this, I believe, is why we are not entirely ignored, and contributes to the idea that there is an economy in place, a system of value and balance, even for beings on a scale so much larger than our own. Typically when our lives end, any energy you might call a soul quickly disappears, stolen away. Less so today, and we’re not sure why, but there may be an opportunity. A soul, a ghost, usually decays if left to its own devices - any semblance of humanity fades, leaving behind primitive behaviors or cycles. We’ve seen examples, however, of a grounded spirit - something that could be used. Power that could be harnessed to face beings much stronger than humans. It is vital to the efforts of Downing Hill that we learn how to harness this power, and use it to save what is left of our human race. Many of you have never seen a ghost. Today, I expect you to survive one. All gifts are permitted, you have sixty seconds. Begin.”
Clara realized then that there was a person in the darkness, casting a light of their own. The woman was awful to look at, with a wet hood pulled taut over her skull, hinting at empty sockets and bared teeth. She hovered in the center of the room, burned feet dangling over the heads of terrified students, a tattered black cloak fluttering in intangible wind.
Then, she screamed, and Clara covered her ears as the woman swooped into the crowd. Clara could see traces of the other students as the woman reached out with long nails, slashing at unfamiliar faces. Immediately the crowd panicked with screams of their own, but those rattling on the door found that it was locked, and Clara felt she would be crushed by the mob. There was a girl laughing hysterically, although Clara could not be sure where.
Clara found herself thrown forward out of a corner, and landed on her hands and knees. Her glasses went skittering across the floor, and she reached in the darkness for them. Then, there were burnt toes in her field of vision, and she looked up to find the woman looming over her.
“Stop,” Clara said, and the woman froze.
“What do you want?” Clara whispered, putting her glasses back on.
The apparition did not respond, stretching its teeth against the tight fabric. Beneath her tattered cloak, Clara realized her clothes were surprisingly average—a blackened shirt and trousers wrapped around crisp flesh. She noticed a small object pressed into her blackened chest, glinting with an otherworldly light.
Clara stared up at the ghost, a shadow of a person, and reached out to touch her. She touched the object to reveal a silver locket, and realized that her fingertips flowed through the woman’s body like mist, but closed hard around the necklace. The woman had stopped chewing at the fabric, hovering calmly in the air, her head twisted to the side.
Clara pulled on the locket, and it came loose. It was shaped like a small heart, and she clicked it open hesitantly. In the dim light of the specter, she could see a woman holding a small girl.
“Is that your baby?” Clara said softly. The woman’s head lurched as if staring at a corner of the room, although Clara could not make out more than a girl in dark robes with braided hair. The girl did not react. When Clara turned back, the spectral woman was gone, and the screams of the crowd faded slowly into silence.
“Well everyone,” the professor said as the window snapped open to reveal the blood-soaked stone, “I have to congratulate you. Most of you survived.”
Marketing - Botco Morning Hour
Lady Ethel Mallory: Welcome to the Botco Morning Hour, with Lady Ethel Mallory. Today we’re focusing on the dangers of waking up. I’m here with Dreaming Box Special Technologist Anderson Faust. How are you, Andy? Anderson Faust: Oh, I’m just swell. But I do want to start this morning by offering my condolences to the families of anyone in Dreaming Box Aries, who experienced the drastic effects of ‘waking up’ as a result of awful sabotage by those Stonemaid terrorists. God help them. Lady Ethel Mallory: Yes, we are still in shock as well. The Stonemaid threat is still not over I’m afraid, as our fearless leader works to stem the tide of deranged rioters who wish to destroy our happy dreaming community. We have every confidence that Oswald Biggs Botulus will return us to peace very soon. Anderson Faust: Now that said, dreamers, it’s extremely important to recognize that waking up from a Dreaming Box is much more complicated than waking up from normal sleep. If you’re a little older like me, you may remember the days when you’d get up, glare at the sunlight, make some coffee! That was a hot chemical brew just to help you survive your gruelling day of work. Lady Ethel Mallory: That was before the freedom of the Dreaming Box. The children of today will never know the hardship of physical labor or customer service! Anderson Faust: Yes, and isn’t that beautiful? It’s our older dreamers especially that are prone to ideas of disconnecting from the Dreaming Box. However, disconnecting from the Prime Dream without following proper warmups, procedure, and Botco-certified transition training can cause some painful side effects, and could damage you for life.
Lady Ethel Mallory: What are some of those side effects? Anderson Faust: Well, there’s a great capacity for brain damage. The deep slumber and connectivity with others you enjoy in the Dreaming Box is a result of Botco special technology. Without proper disengagement, your mind could get stuck forever in a halfway state, or be dispersed into the Prime Dream, severed from your body. This has happened on several tragic occasions. Lady Ethel Mallory: And that’s not even considering the physical difficulties. Anderson Faust: Yes, that’s the other part of this. Dreaming Boxes are filled with powerful technology that brings us all together. But if you were to wake up inside and disconnect from your life-sustaining equipment, you would be exposed to powerful radiation. Not only that, but if you’re a dreamer who’s been in here a few years, you have no experience moving your own body. This can lead to some real physical problems that require a specialist’s help. Lady Ethel Mallory: You see dreamers, it is extremely dangerous to wake up. Those encouraging this are practically criminal, and they have wrought untold harm across our Dreaming Community in these last months. Anderson Faust: I will remind everyone, if you know someone you think could be a Stonemaid, please report them immediately. We need to stop the tide of damage they’re causing with their misinformation. We need to stop it now.
Lady Ethel Mallory: Up next on our segment, an update on contraband distribution of Valerie Maidstone’s banned music, and why your children could be at risk...
Story 2, Continued - A Kind of Grand Ecosystem
If you slumber in a Dreaming Box, I wish you could hear my voice from within those silver walls. I would tell you to wake up. Your life depends on it—a life that will go unlived if you continue to sleep, and you may never be able to extricate yourself from the Botulus Corporation’s webs. We return now to Clara Martin.
Clara lay awake in her room, as was quickly becoming her custom. The ever-shifting patterns of the wallpaper next to the bed would pull her in one day, she thought, and she would be gone. She would be much happier as a wallpaper pattern. Perfectly content, at least until they decided to redecorate the room.
She glanced over at the door and realized it was open—just an inch more than she had left it. She froze, and watched her unliving dog kick in its sleep, chasing some imaginary animal.
Suddenly Clara felt a crushing grip wrap around her throat, and she was clutching at the arm of a stranger poised above her.
“What did you do to Olivier?” a girl said darkly, her fingers clawing into Clara’s skin.
“Who is Olivier?” Clara gasped.
“Wrong answer.” the girl said, and squeezed. Clara felt her world shift into bright reds and blacks, and then there was a flash of white crackling light as Dogsmell leaped onto the stranger. Clara gasped for air as the dark stranger jumped back. Her ghostly hound stood on the bed between Clara and the other girl, bristling with electric energy. The stranger clung to the wall like a spider, and Clara got a glimpse of dark braids dangling around a pale face.
“Are you in my class?” Clara yelled.
The girl jumped up to the ceiling, and came running back. Clara rolled out of bed in time to avoid the girl’s leap, and watched as a black stone knife plunged into the pillow she had been resting on. The hound caught the girl then, tearing into her arm with gleaming white teeth, burning like a wildfire. THe girl shrieked, and fell off the other side of the bed, out of sight.
The dog growled at the unseen corner, and Clara pulled herself up.
“Down, Dogsmell. Down.” Clara whispered. She clambered up the side of the bed nervously. The stranger was sitting on the carpet between the bed and the wall, grimacing as she held her burnt arm.
“Did I say you could look at me?”
“Are you okay?” Clara asked, petting the invisible dog. The girl in the dark braids said nothing. Clara realized that the wounds along her arm were slowly pulling themselves back together, flesh knitting into smooth patterns. Clara stared in awe.
“How are you doing that?” she asked quietly.
The girl stopped, staring at Clara in confusion. “There is no way they let you in if you’re as stupid as you sound. Why do you think you’re here?”
“I don’t know,” Clara replied cautiously. “I have no idea what I’m supposed to be learning here—or what this place is.”
“You’re here to become a witch.” the girl said, fixing her bones into place.
“In a library?” Clara asked.
“Witchcraft has always been the domain of well-read women.”
“I’m Clara. I’m sorry—I really don’t know anyone named Olivier.”
The girl stayed on the floor, and crossed her arms. “I find that hard to believe, since you showed up right after they disappeared. What did the director offer you? You’ve got something she wants.”
“Um, someone with a blue cape, blue hair? Gave me this,” Clara pulled the copper library card from her bag, and turned it over in her hands. “It led me here. They gave me a place to stay. That’s all I know.”
The girl stared at her in disbelief. “Olivier chose you?”
Clara’s brows furrowed. “I guess so? Were you two close? What happened to them?”
“That’s none of your business.” she said, standing up and tucking her knife into the folds of her robe.
“I’m not going to kill you tonight,” she said, as she started towards the door. “My name is Friday.”
She vanished into the darkness of the hall, and closed the door on the way out. Clara did not return to sleep, and watched the wallpaper in confusion and anxiety until the sun began to rise.
Interlude 2 - Get Worse
Things are going to get worse. Right now you are reeling from the latest wounds that life has inflicted on you. You are trying so hard to be positive. ‘I will get through this’, you think, ‘and then everything will be okay’.
It can get worse.
It probably will. Each time you think you have hit rock bottom, you may find yourself surprised by how deep the trench goes.
But it will always get better.
Never all at once. Not immediately.
It may take months, or it may take years. But it will get better. There is no one night and no one morning in life. The sun will always give way to temporary darkness, but it will always rise on you again. Steel yourself for the dark, and know that it will alter the course of your life, but you will always be there for the dawn. The memory of the night will linger in your mind as you take in the bright mornings ahead of you, and as the sun sets, you prepare yourself again to walk beneath the stars, knowing full well their temporary terrors. We go now to one who waits for the dawn.
Story 3 - Hunter's Moon
From his small dwelling in the forest, David could hear the screams of people who had gone out to hunt at night and had instead found themselves hunted. The full moon gave them light, so that they could see the scuttling creatures that rummaged on the forest floor. The full moon brought other things with it too. He clutched a silver sword in his hand that his partner had given to him. This would protect him from the worst of the beasts that roamed the forest—and the creature that he dreaded encountering most of all. He knew that it would come for him again tonight. It was as though it always intended for him to be its last meal, always sure that one day it would arrive and he would not be holding the heavy silver blade. He imagined that it longed for the day that it would find him alone and unarmed.
Not today, he told himself, he just had to keep a tight grip on his weapon until the sun rose, then the thing would be gone until the next full moon. Every scream he heard in the forest made him picture it closing in on unsuspecting victims. In his mind, he saw it ripping out their throats with its sharp, pointed teeth. They would suspect nothing until they heard the crack of the wind in its black, leathery wings as it swooped down. They would look up to see the blood-red eyes and wide-open mouth. There was no way to match the strength of the thing unless you knew about its aversion to silver. Just the smell of the metal was enough to keep it from breaking into David's home and devouring him before the sun came up. Sometimes, David imagined throwing the sword out of his small cabin, and opening the door to the beast. One day he might end this waking nightmare.
David could hear the sound of the creature's wings beating slowly closer to where he waited. He heard its feet hitting the ground outside his door, and hungry sniffing as it moved around his cabin. The creature's claws scraped on the wood as it slowly walked to the back door and began to sniff again. The sound was enough to make David want to scream and run from the cabin. He would have to wait until sunrise with the beast teasing and tormenting him, always scheming to find a way to its desired meal. After the sun rose, he would go out and bring his partner back inside. Then he would begin his monthly ritual of cleaning the blood from his lover's skin. Scraping the dark, dry remnants from under his nails as Leo’s body slowly returned to its human form.
He had seen many anomalies in those born in recent years, but until he met Leo, he had never seen anything like this. Every full moon, the skin under his arms and on his chest would start to loosen and stretch to form terrible wings. His teeth would bend back into his mouth as a row of sharper, pointed fangs pushed their way through his gums. His eyes would fill with blood as he writhed in agony. David always made sure that he had the sword out of the locked box before his partner's skin started to bruise and darken. By then, there was nothing left of his lover until the morning; he would see David as nothing more than raw meat. Leo saw it as a birth defect, a simple evolutionary misstep. David was unsure. He could not shake the feeling that a door had opened to other things. Things that should never have been allowed to walk the earth. Ancient, deadly creatures with an unending thirst for blood.
The sniffing and scratching were driving him insane and he longed to wrap himself in the arms of his lover. He missed how they huddled together, listening to the things that lurked in the forest at night, and Leo's strong arms wrapped around him as they waited for sleep to come. But now, like one night every month, he had to go through it alone. He could not talk to anyone about what occurred every full moon, but he wondered if this was the only case of such a thing happening. Perhaps some of those other beasts that stalk the forest in the night look just like us in the morning.
The sun started to creep through the gaps around the door. He heard the thing screaming and howling in pain. Slowly those sounds became more human and he knew that Leo would be waiting outside. He would be confused and in pain as his teeth recede, moaning as his skin starts to lighten and shrink. Thankfully, the memories of the night would leave him as soon as he claimed his body back from the darkness that consumed it once a month. David wished that he could forget these nights so easily. He could not look at his partner without remembering the horrors, the time he ripped open a hunter's throat outside their cabin. David wanted to forget the dread that crept over him as Leo returned home at the end of these long, dark, lonely nights. He wanted to feel those strong arms around him as they faced the many other horrors of this world together. As the last groans died away , David set aside his sword, and stepped up to confront the morning.
Outro - Mornings
Mornings. You have fewer of them left than you would like to think. The sun rises on your kind every day, as it ris es on your life. Like the sunset, the light is vanishing for your life and for your species, and you will drift into the cosmic darkness to rest.
Make the most of your mornings, dreamers. Spend them in a way that makes you happy. If it is in bed, or working on your miniscule life’s achievements, or walking in a dark forest filled with songbirds that only sing melodies from your forgotten childhood, then good. No one can tell you your purpose for living, because only you know that. All that matters is that you are pursuing it daily. Relentlessly. If you are not, what are you waiting for? One day you will run out of mornings, and all that you waited to do until you were happier, better, more talented, more confident, will go forever undone.
Undone forever and embracing every morning, I am your loyal host, Nikignik, waiting with breakfast ready for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Friday' 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!
'Hunter's Moon' is a guest story by author Callum Pearce. Callum is a Dutch storyteller, originally from Liverpool. He is a lover of the magical as well as the macabre. He lives in a foggy old fishing town in the Netherlands with his husband and a couple of cat shaped sprites. Click here to visit his author website!