Content Warning: This episode may include themes of Abuse, Violence, Kidnapping and Abduction, Death + Injury, Blood, Guns, Emotional Manipulation, and Body Horror.
Intro - There Are Mountains
There were no mountains when you were young. Great expanses of wetlands, stone, and scattered forests surrounded your childhood. Your parents told you to respect the environment, your grandmother said to love the land. You have watched the black rains fall on the earth, you have seen the elder pines rise, the forest stretch out into unknown wilderness, the stars shift like fireflies. The environment does not respect you any longer. The land does not love you anymore. Now, abominations grow in the streams, terrible animals stalk between the trees and dangle your friends from their antlers. The pines are greater and darker than any forest you have ever seen, and on the horizon of the far north, there are mountains. The world around you is bidding goodbye to your kind, and in a victorious shout it is saying ‘Hello From The Hallowoods’.
Right now I’m sitting on a sexy motorcycle. Its singular front headlight and sidecar make it seem more old-fashioned than it is, although it is a miracle that any gas-powered vehicles are still in operation after all these years. This is a prized possession in this land of uneven terrains and fast-moving terrors, a comfort in the rocky uncertain slopes of life. The theme of tonight’s episode is Mountains.
Story 1 - The Long Way Down
Hector breathed a sigh of relief as he reached the cluster of plastic lawn flamingos by the roadside. The roads had begun to look the same after walking long enough, and it was hard to tell exactly where he was. Rations had been supplanted by foraging—strange mushrooms that glanced around with wet juicy eyes, and grotesque sour vegetables that he could not identify. He had brought down a deer, but decided against eating it after discovering that it had three eyes and a second set of teeth. His german shepherds had no such concerns.
They followed him now past the flamingos and down the winding path to Zelda’s house. He emerged into the lakeside clearing he had left so many mornings ago. A wave of relief washed over him as he spotted his old bike, still parked in the brush off to the side. He ran to greet it like an old friend, leaning into the black chrome. He dropped his bags and dug into the rations he had left behind, hungrily peeling open a can of kernel corn. It was a golden luxury, but he had journeyed through too much to care.
There are mountains in life, Hector thought, and you do your best to scale the cliffs of terror, but the time will come when you stop at the highest point, look at the view, and begin the easy descent into the valley. There was still one last rocky slope he had yet to face, and that was to tell Zelda that her son was never coming home. He had spent much time thinking about his words.
‘I’m sorry, Zelda. Your son is dead.’ The details haunted him, and he felt that he wronged them by omission. ‘He came back from the dead at least twice, but not this time’ raised too many questions for a grieving mother. ‘I think I loved your son, Zelda, and I have never missed anyone more than I have missed him these empty weeks’ seemed too personal. No. ‘I’m sorry, Zelda. Your son is dead’ was all he could say.
He glanced across the clearing, and noticed that the rusty red truck was gone—perhaps she had gone out to the Dry Market. The house had sunk halfway into the lake now, its splintering front porch jutting out at an odd angle. The door, he realized, was ajar. It occurred to him that perhaps she had finally left for the Scoutpost like Jonah had insisted, but the open door made him uneasy.
Grabbing his machete from his sheath, he stepped up the broken front steps and peeled away the screen door.
There was no response, and he stepped inside. The floor had taken on a steep angle as the lake consumed the house. There was a flurry of movement on his right, and Hector swung his blade instinctively, connecting only with the wall. The rotted paper crumpled away, and squirming from the shadows behind told him all he needed to know.
“...shleps. I hate shleps.”
The pinpoint white eyes of the writhing invertebrates stared at him as he shook his head and kept moving. The house itself seemed to writhe, rotting from the inside out. The lake worms only hastened the process. The cardboard boxes were beginning to dissolve as the water rose out of the basement stairs.
“Zelda?” he asked again, stepping into the kitchen. Immediately he knew something was wrong. A plate of small sandwiches lay unfinished and moldering on the counter. A sponge and a shattered plate lay on the ground near the sink. There were other curiosities as well—two sets of muddy shoes on the kitchen floor, a cloth on the table, a bottle of superglue.
Hector pulled out a chair and gave in to his shaking legs, collapsing. If he had thought he was coming down from a steep passage before, a new peak was rising ahead of him, a choice that towered into the clouds.
He was starved, exhausted beyond belief, and the weight of losing Jonah was dragging him down into places he’d hoped never to return to. Now, Zelda was gone, and he’d say taken by someone she was familiar with, although she didn’t usually welcome strangers with anything other than a shotgun. If she wasn’t already floating in the water somewhere around, then they had taken her in the truck.
Hector groaned, and Jackie came up to put her head in his lap. He brushed her ears with his hand. He could walk away. Salvage what was left in the house, pack as much as he could onto his bike, sell enough at the Dry Market to buy food for a month. He would have, once, without a second thought. That was just how you got through life.
But he had been through some terrible storms on this last summit, and he had not returned the same man. His dog had become Hallowed, his morning body recovery had stretched into a weeks-long search and rescue, and he had lost a man whose kind eyes melted his defenses to a faceless horror in the north. Now, he couldn’t bring himself to forget it all, and although there was nothing left of him, he knew he had to climb, for all the friends and lovers he had lost, for all the frigid versions of himself that had died on the cold slopes of his life.
Hector left the house, glancing across the lawn. The tracks in the mud were old, would not be easy to follow. He had no choice, though, and he knew that he could. The dogs hopped into the side car, resuming their familiar places. Hector started the cycle with a roar, and drove.
Interlude 1 - The Shuddering Peaks
Attention, dreamers who enjoy hiking, climbing, and walking up into forlorn mountains alone at night. The shuddering peaks should be avoided at all costs. You may look up at the horizon one night as you wash the dishes after another dinner alone, and realize that there is a mountain on the horizon, and you may wonder if you ever noticed it before.
Each night you complete the same routine, each night you feel the mountain has gotten a little closer. You begin to feel a peculiar call from outside as your window approaches the foothills of these impossible peaks, distant snow-capped heights beckoning from the sky as they blot out your view of the constellations. If you dare to walk outside and leave your warm home behind, if you choose to answer the call and enter that unfathomable wilderness, you will climb forever, passing bodies frozen in place along the trail. Turn back when you see them—they are not a challenge, they are a warning.
If you choose to climb anyway, please bring appropriate safety gear, wear a helmet, and stay hydrated. We go now to one who has mapped out these trails.
Story 2 - Make It Better
Walt wrapped the old volume in brown paper, breathing in the almost magical must of its pages, before tucking it into his bag. He had done as much research, he expected, as he could on the subject of ghostly instruments—even in the library of darkness itself, there wasn’t much to go off. He made a note in his day planner to return the book well before its due date, and underlined it. Shutting the door to his hearse, he looked out across the Scoutpost.
The air buzzed with nervous tension, voices low. A pall had been cast across the fort since the lich came to interrupt the spring solstice. Even the air itself was quiet and heavy, as though it was waiting with bated breath. Children kept to the indoor halls, and scout training had come to a temporary pause. Their world was waiting to see what Walt was planning. He wished they knew just how tired he was. There was no time to rest, and he knew he wasn’t the only one hurting either.
He veered across the grounds to find the RV Bern had recovered with her rescue scouts, parked in the back lot between the handful of trucks and four-wheelers the Scoutpost had managed to keep in working shape. There was no light on, but he walked up to the side door. Large claws had scarred the metal, and ‘RV-Lution’ was spraypainted in red across the side, along with the Stonemaiden logo. It was hard to believe that the hand which had decorated this campervan belonged to Valerie Maidstone of all people; that he had the privilege of meeting her daughter. He knocked gently on the door.
“Riot?” he said. There was no response, and he opened the door. Riot’s bat lay by the door inside, and he peeked up in the loft bed. Riot glared at him from the darkness, wrapped in a blanket, her face blotchy and tearstained.
“Hi Walt,” she sniffed.
“Hi there sport,” Walt sighed, sitting down at the small dining table below. Riot pulled herself to the edge of the loft, peering over.
“How are you doing?” he asked.
“Fine,” she said.
“You can talk about this stuff. It’s okay,” Walt said, picking up the bat and examining it. The end was barbed with bent nails, and the handle was wrapped in red fabric that might once have been a band t-shirt.
“I’ve lost people, you know,” he mused. “Rains started to fall, but life kept on as long as anyone could make it last. Can you believe that when these crazy—those black storms begin to roll across America, right?—and all the rich folks I worked for, all they cared about was keeping their lawns green. I had enough, told ‘em to buy plastic, and I quit all my landscaping contracts.
I was seeing a sweet woman named Daphne. You woulda liked Daphne. She didn’t mind that I was—aces? Am I saying that right? She had a smile that lit up my favorite breakfast diner. Always put an extra pancake on my order. I drove that day to get her, take her away from all the craziness. Drive north, carve out a little life somewhere. I didn’t make it in time, I guess. One of her neighbors fell into a swimming pool full of black rain, broke into half the houses on that block, pulling people apart. I put ‘em down with a shovel, but, ah, he got my Daffy first.”
Walt rubbed at his eyes.
“I’m sorry, Walt,” Riot said, looking like she might cry again.
“It’s alright,” Walt said. “Those memories are as old as you are. But I’m so sorry about your girl Clara. I know nothing makes it better.”
“I didn’t even get to say goodbye to her,” Riot blurted out. “The Instrumentalist caught us at night, and I was like, I’ve got to stop him before he gets both of us. And I woke up that morning and I was so fucking happy, Walt, because I was gonna get to see her again. I was stupid, because I’m still here, and she’s not. She should be the one getting gross licorice from Bern and socks from Violet. I don’t deserve to be here. I don’t deserve any of it.”
“You gotta be gentle with yourself, kid,” Walt said, fixing a loose nail on the bat. “You can’t do that to yourself. I know you did your best. That’s why you left your mom’s bunker in the first place, right? Putting yourself in harm’s way to help someone. I’m sure Clara would be proud of you. I sure am.”
Riot said nothing in the darkness. Walt continued.
“Things happen in life—awful things. You lose people all of a sudden, and you wonder, is it because of me? If I’d quit mowing lawns a day sooner, would Daffy be here with me today? But it’s not because of you. Life is a bittersweet thing, and sometimes more bitter than sweet. But if the years have taught me anything, it’s that it’s okay. It’s never the same, but let the time pass. It will be okay.”
“It’ll be okay when I body that murdering old creep,” Riot sniffed.
Walt nodded. “That is first on my mind, sure. That’s not going to make it better though, you know that?”
Riot shook her head. “No, Walt. That’s gonna feel great. Did you find anything in your books?”
Walt shrugged. “Not much we didn’t already know, and I figure we’ll meet up with Diggory before we get started—put together everything we’ve got.”
Walt stood up, fixed his baseball cap, and opened the door to the bright overcast day. “Just let me know when you’re ready.”
Marketing - The American Dream
When the founding fathers discovered this great country, they envisioned a place where freedom reigned, where tranquility and luxury stretched from sea to shining sea. And what has brought this nation together more than the Botulus Corporation?
To join a Dreaming Box is not just a choice that guarantees your life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but it is patriotic. Our founder Oswald Biggs Botulus started our great corporation in his garage with just a pair of goggles and a dream. He saw through the lies and the corruption of government, he saw the rich ruling over the hard workers that slaved away to keep the country running.
No more, he thought. No more.
From the golden deserts to the snow-capped mountains, the Dreaming Boxes sparkle in the landscape of our great nation. A testimony to the power of people with a shared dream, of a population independent and yet united for the good of every citizen. You dream because that is what our country was born to do. You dream because you deserve a good life. You dream because the American Dream is the Dreaming Box...
Story 2, Continued - Make It Better
For the most part, dreamers, I am content with my abilities and my character. I am fine with being near omnipresent, a glorious flame, wheels within wheels, a watchdog of the pyramids, one hundred eyes in the dark, a loyal host and anything else that people may perceive me as. But occasionally I listen to the voice of Lady Ethel Mallory and I wish I had the destructive potential that many of my peers do. Nothing I have ever come across makes me as irrationally angry as the sound of her voice, cutting into my carefully woven fabric of dream.
We return now to Walter Pensive.
Walt extended a cup towards the dead person. It stared back at him with those same white pale eyes, and he tried not to think of Daphne, but he winced at the memories.
“Tea?” he asked.
“Yes please.” Diggory replied. Walt poured a cup and passed it over. Diggory’s stitched hands wrapped around the steaming mug. Riot sipped hers, looking over the materials on the table. She had traded the comfort of the blanket for her usual studded vest, which was patched with band logos.
“I want to lay some ground rules for this hunt,” Walt said. “Diggory, if anything—I mean anything—goes wrong, I need you to get Riot to safety.”
Diggory looked to Riot with a confused glance, and Walt didn’t know how to interpret the look Riot gave back.
“The only reason I’m bringing you, Riot, is because honestly I don’t think I could keep you away from this fight,” Walt continued.
Riot nodded emphatically. “Better believe it.”
“Now,” Walt said, spreading his hands over the notes, illustrations, and forms on the table, “what do we know?”
“I know how to play the piano.” Diggory raised their hand.
“Thank you Diggory. I mean, what do we know about the Instrumentalist? Well. We know he’s, for lack of a more severe term, a serial killer. His real name is Reed, and he’s got a house in central Hallowoods. Guarding that house are a lot of things like you, Diggory.”
“Like me?” Diggory’s eyes widened.
“I’d bet on it,” Walt said. “Do you remember someone named Irene?”
The revenant looked at Walt with a distant, blank expression. “Did she make me? I need to know more about her, I…”
Walt held up his hand. “Diggory, I’d be happy to go through all this you when we have time. Right now though, we’ve got to deal with this before it’s too late. Mister Reed’s got a small army of revenants like you. His house is protected somehow—the forest all around it is just dying to break in and tear it up, but it’s pushing up against a barrier I can’t see. So I propose we take him out of his home—somewhere we have an upper hand.”
“I’ve got this too.” Riot said, taking the skeleton key out of her vest, and setting it on the table. “Walt, did you find anything about this?”
Walt shook his head. “I asked—nothing in the library.”
“What library?” Riot asked curiously.
“It’s for the cabinet,” a voice whispered like television static, and Walt realized there was a pale transparent form hovering over the table, examining the key. “When he’s finished the instrument and… finished with his victim, he opens this cabinet and combines them somehow.” Percy said. “I watched him do it a few times. I think I was the first. That’s the key, and if you have it, then he can’t turn anyone new into a cello or a drum or something.”
Riot looked at the empty chair in surprise. “So if he took someone like, recently, he can’t do anything to them right now.”
“I don’t think he would. I think he’d want to get that key back,” Percy said. Walt could see the gears turning in Riot’s mind, and he didn’t want her to dive down a rabbit hole of hope and desperation.
“Now, he wants that key,” Walt said. “We can bait him with that. And he doesn’t know we have Diggory—so we’ve got some surprise there. Percy, you, ah, mentioned that this is your father. Are you going to be alright facing him like this? I need to know I can count on you.”
There was no response from the chair.
“Yes,” Diggory said. “I destroyed the piano that Percy used to live in. If he has any quarrel, it is with me. This is what Percy wants.”
Walt rubbed at his temples. “Right. So we lure him out, surprise with Diggory—this is a mountain of a task, maybe the biggest hunt of my career. One way or another, we have to get this man out of this forest. Folks here don’t deserve to live in fear, any more than they usually do. So we’ve got all the pieces we need, I think. And I may have just the place.”
Riot sat forward, dark eyes glistening. Diggory spilled some scalding tea on their hand, but didn’t seem to notice.
“Have any of you heard of the Shuddering Peaks?”
Interlude 2 - Mountains in Space
There are mountains in space. Great peaks rise, born of scattered dust and cosmic wind. Forests of stars lay between shimmering nebulas, spinning across the dark expanse. Your kind looks up and sees emptiness, but that only tells you that the universe was not built for beings so small.
In my youth I would get lost, plummeting into a vast wilderness that no one had yet explored. I met travellers in the twilight plains, communed with wise ones in their reliquaries on the edge of black holes. I met the mentor who taught me to speak to you. And in the darkest caverns beneath the rocky heights, lost in a void of cosmic green fire, I met him, and the darkness into which I fell was the sweetest abyss. I have not wandered into this wilds in a long time. Perhaps, when all of this is over, I will go travelling again.
We go now to one at home in the mountains.
Story 3 - The Devil's Friends
“Are you sure about this, Rick?” Buck whined, limping along behind him. Rick ignored him, marching for the platform. He didn’t mind Buck most of the time, but he knew he was dealing with something important—possibly the only chance they were going to get to climb over the rest of the rats in the race. He slammed on the button on the tower base. The blaring sirens wailed, echoing across Fort Freedom. The population came scuttling out like insects—worn faces and panicked eyes, good people who’d learned too many times that there were no good people. The ragged crowd gathered around the pit, and in the cage below, he heard the Frogsticker squawking. Rick turned off the siren and picked up a megaphone, slapping the side to encourage the batteries.
“Eagles!” he roared. “As surely as god is up there in heaven, watching and guiding us, we have had a close brush with the devil.”
Murmurs began to spread across the motley families. Rick knew they did not expect religious proselytizing from him.
“I do not mean some meta-horrical nonsense, I mean literally, end times, the devil himself born on earth. The antichrist, the end of days. Some of you know I ain’t always there on Sunday mornings, but a couple nights ago we brought something terrible into our camp. That wolf woman who we tried to dispose of in a pure and righteous fashion—the man on fire came and took her away, old scratch himself. Y’all saw it. He came back for me last night, try and finish me off. His eyes were like laser pointers, and he came walking towards me. I told him, ‘No, devil. These people have crossed too many mountains and woods to fall to the likes of you. We’re god’s holy people, and by god’s grace, you are going to leave now.’ Now he didn’t like that much, but he promised me, he said ‘I’m gonna come back and I’m gonna tear y’all apart’. Boys, you know where I’m going with this.”
He paced the stage, and his buddies shouted out, shaking their firearms. The cold eyes of a gaunt mother stared up at him, and he glared at her from the stage.
“We’ve faced too many terrors to back down now, to give in to that timeless evil. We’re going to find whatever form he’s taken on our territory, and we’re going to do what we do best, Eagles. We’re going to fill him full of bullets. We’re going to show him who really rules around here. In twenty minutes I am riding out to hunt him down. Men of the Freedom Eagles, who’s gonna ride with me?”
A round of cheers went up, some more reluctantly than others. He took stock of the reactions, making notes on whose support he could really rely on. He abandoned his megaphone for a rifle, and stormed towards the four-wheelers. If the man on fire had travelled back for his friend and the umbrella, he could not be far, and he knew which direction they had been crossing the other day. He felt a hand grab at his shoulder, and he whirled around.
“Mrs. Wicker. What do you want?” he tried to control his anger.
The sallow woman stared at him with angry winter eyes, although they never quite pointed the same direction. One of her sons was tucked beneath her arm.
“The devil also comes to visit his friends,” she hissed.
“I’m sure he does,” Rick spat. “What the hell are you trying to say?”
Her mouth opened and closed like an anglerfish, but her eye was staring past him. Rick turned to look, and caught Buck bringing up his helmet.
“Wheelers are ready to go, boss,” Buck said expectantly.
“Good,” Rick said, and stormed off to his ride, painted with an eagle surrounded by stars, claws streaked with blood. Mrs. Wicker was going to step over her bounds one of these days—she was too suspicious for her own good—but what could you do against a widowed mother of eight, former wife of a pastor? Buck brought him his helmet, and his clammy hands worked under Rick’s chin to clip the buckle.
“Stay safe out there, boss. I want you back in one piece now,” Buck said.
“Yeah,” Rick grunted, and shut the visor. The roar of the engines helped to drown out his thoughts, and he started into the barrens, the hunting party following close behind.
Outro - Mountains
Mountains. Mountains are a matter of perspective. Your mountains are piles of dust for me, just as my mountains are inconceivable to you. Nevertheless, you struggle to overcome your challenges as I work to triumph over mine. You never quite know which mountains someone is attempting to pass over in a given moment, and what is a steep cliff to them may be an easy hike for you. Do not forget that we are all climbing, all reaching for the next handhold to rise up the face of our personal summits. Others may never know how high you have climbed to be where you are, but at the end of your struggle, you still stand on the highest peak and look down over where you have been, and you will appreciate the journey that brought you there. I will be standing alongside you, proud as a parent, and welcoming your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Shudder' 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!