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HFTH - Episode 23 - Sunsets

Content Warning: This episode may include themes of Abuse, Violence, Kidnapping and Abduction, Death + Injury, Blood, Birds, Guns, Strangulation/suffocation, Emotional Manipulation, Drowning, Body Horror, and Smoking.

Intro - Frostwriter

The last of the spring frosts has fallen, descending upon the world outside your home in the night. You know that in the early darkness, terrible things come out in the living room beneath you—your parents, deep in another vicious argument. They howl and scream, tearing raw wounds in their long-dead relationship. You turn to the window, and realize there are words written in the frost.

‘Are you okay?’

You are confused and concerned. There is no one outside, and your room is on the second story.

‘Yes’, you write in the condensation.

More letters appear, following yours. ‘Won’t be forever’.

‘I know.’ You write. ‘Hello.’

A gigantic clawed finger reaches out to draw words in the ice. It writes, ‘Hello from the Hallowoods’.

Right now, I’m in a lightless room. We’ve been here before, and for its only living inhabitant, it is also getting old. For its many dead inhabitants, it is home. There is a point when you become unmoored from the rhythm of reality, disconnected from its orderly beats. In places like these, time passes in strange measures, and the indicators of the day are absent. The theme of tonight’s episode is Sunsets.

Story 1 - Time For Rest

“It’s going to be dark soon,” Zelda said. “You need to come inside and go to bed.”

The child was standing there without a coat, and mumbled something Zelda didn’t catch.

“What did you say?”

“I said be quiet.” The child stepped into focus—not a child at all, in fact, though not quite an adult.

“You have the most beautiful blue hair,” Zelda said.

“I said be quiet,” the child replied. “You should rest.”

“I don’t want to rest,” Zelda said, sudden waves of panic rising. “Please don’t turn off the lights.”

“Like you said,” the child said, walking away from her and flipping the switch. “It’s going to be dark soon.”

Zelda cried, but nobody came. In the utter darkness, a dimly shining form emerged.

“Jonah!” she cried.

“I’m not Jonah. I’m Al!” the little boy said cheerfully. She remembered Al—he was a funny one. The fact that he had no skin didn’t seem to bother him much, and his little paper crown sat askew on his head. His lidless round eyes swiveled up to her. She could practically see through him into the darkness, and tried to ignore the unfinished harp that stood behind him.

“Are we going to play another game today? ” he asked.

“Oh yes,” Zelda smiled. “We’re going to play a new game. It’s called super-secret super spy. Want to know how it works?”

The skinless boy nodded enthusiastically.

“Now I’m the prime minister,” Zelda said. “You’re the very best spy in the world. I need you to go find out what some very bad men are planning.”

“Why?” Al asked.

“Because if you don’t, the entire country will be in danger.”

“Wow. You can count on me!” said Al.

“Good, agent,” Zelda said. “Your first mission is to go upstairs and listen to the voices. I want to know everything. Your reward for this mission…”

“What’s the reward?”

“It’s a brand-new baseball bat,” Zelda said.

Al nodded, and leaned in to whisper, eyes wide, “Do you mean I need to go real upstairs? I’m not allowed up there.”

“That’s why you’re a ‘secret’ agent,” Zelda winked.

Al nodded, and vanished into the shadow. Alone in the dark, all Zelda could do was think. She was less hungry now, and it was easier to organize her thoughts, although clarity came and went. At least in the shadow she could not see the unfinished harp, or wonder how long it would be until she became a part of it. She wondered if she would be like Al and his little drum. If she was going to be stuck the same forever, she wished she was a few decades younger.

It wouldn’t happen, she knew. Hector would find Jonah, and they would know she was gone, and they would come looking. She just needed to stay alive until then, and the more information she had, the more she could defend herself.

Al returned an indefinite amount of time later, appearing suddenly beside her.

“Ah! You are sneaky!” Zelda said.

“I listened a whole bunch,” Al whispered.

“What did you get for me, agent?”

Al sat down next to her in the dark. “They’re going to go get a girl and a key. I think the girl is the bad man’s daughter? They’re going for the scout place. One of the bad men said it’s going to snow,” Al said.

“Very good,” Zelda nodded. “Your bat’s right on the table over there. Good work, agent.”

Al grinned, but then again, he was always grinning. He went to pick up an imaginary bat from the table, giving it a few good swings. Imaginary items had become a commonplace part of their interactions.

“Thanks boss!”

Zelda smiled. She did not know where Solomon’s house was located, but she guessed they would be gone on that errand for at least a few hours. She tugged at her hand. She had long lost feeling in them, but that blue-haired child had undone the binds, bandaged her wrists in fabric, and wound the wires back up much looser than they had been before. If she pulled, she thought, they might give.

She closed her eyes and tried to sleep. She would only get one chance, because if they returned and she was still stuck like a fly in a glue trap, that was it for old Zelda. It was dark, and Zelda went to bed. In the morning, she would try for freedom.

Interlude 1 - Crepuscular Animals

If you dwell in the Hallowoods, some knowledge of biology will help you a great deal. Animals tend to be either diurnal—that is, active during the day—or Nocturnal, where they creep and consume human flesh in the night. There is, however, a third category. Crepuscular animals are most active in the brief time between the setting of the sun and the utter darkness that follows.

Be wary of walking at sunset in the Hallowoods, for the twilight is the most dangerous hour of all. Fishers are primarily crepuscular, along with Blinking Cats and three-eyed deer. Wandering Night-Gaunts awake from their daytime slumber at this hour. Be most aware of the eyeless owls, which emerge from their roosts at sunset and can descend on you almost silently. If they eat you, you will remain undead in their gizzard for an unpleasant amount of time. We go now to one who does not know what crepuscular means.

Story 2 - Always Say Complicated

“What does crepuscular mean?” Mort asked. He imagined it meant creepy.

“Twenty-seven. Twenty-seven questions this hour alone, Mort.” Polly sighed, shaking his head and taking a drag of his cigarette.

“You cannot expect him to know what every word means,” Yaretzi growled. “Crepuscular, in Spanish. Twilight. This is more common. Why would you call anything 'crepuscular', it’s unnecessary.”

“Twilight, then, fine. Dusk. The gloaming hour. What I’m trying to say is that we should camp.”

“Agreed.” Yaretzi said. “It would be unwise to enter the woods at this hour.”

Mort looked up, and noticed that far away, the trees turned from scattered green spruces, fresh and full of life, into towering black pines. They were a bad place, a warning, although he couldn’t help but feel he had seen them before.

“I don’t want to go in there,” he said. “It looks creepy.” Bert the seagull croaked as he landed on Mort’s shoulder, choking down a small fish.

“That is exactly where we’re going,” Polly said, twirling his umbrella at the distant forest. “And you’d better be ready for a fight.”

“I don’t want to fight,” Mort said in surprise. “Why would I fight?”

Yaretzi watched with hungry interest, gathering materials for a fire.

“Out there,” Polly pointed into the towering forest, “shining like a beacon in my brain, is a stockpile of souls, concentrated in one person. Souls fall through the cracks left and right these days, but whoever carries all that fire is quite intentional about it. We’re going to find them. And tear them apart. Abuse of power is negated, I get a promotion before my next assignment, and the end of this age can proceed without incident. Tiff would have handled this in his glory days, but I figured I could use some air. And he was… retiring, wasn’t he, Yaretzi? That is why I need you, Mort.”

“Me?” Mort said. He never quite understood Polly’s business. “Why me?”

Polly rapped on Mort’s large metal claw with his umbrella.

“You are a weapon Mort, through and through. You were made to kill things like that, or things like her,” Polly nodded towards Yaretzi.

“Or things like you,” Yaretzi hissed in return.

“Point is, Mort, you’re along for the ride. I just need you to do your job. In this case, it’s to help me dispose of a monster.”

“I don’t want to ‘dispose’ of anybody. Maybe we can be friends,” Mort said hopefully.

Polly snapped his fingers, and the pile of tinder burst into flame, almost the same color as the sunset sky above.

“Don’t you worry about it, Mort. It’ll be over in a flash, if your immense strength is any indicator. And then you can go do whatever you want. Go back to sleep in the ocean, for all I care.”

“I want to stay with you,” Mort said, and was surprised that the words had left him. He kept his distance from the fire, finding a boulder to sit on. “You’re my friend.”

“Unfortunately, I have a deal to uphold with Yaretzi here. I believe it involves her eating the heart of this physical body of mine? Liver perhaps? I’m a veritable buffet, but it’s an unpleasant choice of ingredients nonetheless.”

“Do you have to do that?” Mort asked Yaretzi. She glanced off into the trees, looking confused. She seemed small without her wolf features, a little brown woman in the dying light.

“Don’t try and make me the bad guy here, demon,” she snapped at Polly, who grinned and blew a puff of smoke from his lips.

“All in good time Mort. I’ll admit, you both are surprising. I did not expect to enjoy this journey. Any part of it. I hate this world of apes and birds and frogs. But. You two are at least entertaining. And I think I may even miss you when I go back to the Industry.”

“I want you to stay,” said Mort.

“I have obligations, Mort.”

“Why?” Mort said. He was getting indignant. All he ever got were more questions, never answers. He was sick of just being expected to do whatever he was told, without any explanation. He never got to make his own choices. He slammed his claw down on the boulder, creating a resounding sound that echoed into the evening. It was oddly satisfying. Polly and Yaretzi stared at him in surprise.

“Why can’t you stay?” Mort said.

Polly held up his hands, breathing out smoke and stamping out his cigarette. “Everything I have is tied to my position. It’s more complicated than just staying.”

“You always say complicated,” Mort said, standing up and stepping towards Polly. “I don’t care. I want you to stay!”

Polly opened his mouth to reply, but then Mort’s whole world was on fire. Bursts of flame and booming weapons surrounded him, the air filled with gunshots and a terrible roar of engines. As a truck jumped across the banks around them, racing towards them, Mort was sure he had seen it before—it was painted with an eagle. Mort wondered if eagles were crepuscular. A metal canister hit Mort in the chest, expanding into an inferno, and all Mort could see was white.

Marketing - Nothing To Hide

I am Lady Ethel Mallory, here with a security announcement from Botco. Despite the best efforts of Mr. Botulus and his dream security teams, the Stonemaid terror continues to ravage our precious Dreaming Boxes. Rampant acts of sabotage, vandalism and destruction have spread across the Prime Dream.

We have had enough. All of us have had enough. If the citizens of our Dreaming Boxes cannot ask for change in a constructive way that keeps all of us safe, or if they are too corrupt to see rationally, then we must create additional protective measures for our dreaming population. Starting today, we will begin a full diagnostic check of all Dreaming Box dreamers, beginning with those who have displayed suspicious activity, are known associates of the Stonemaids, or have high levels of comparable brain activity. You will each be detained for questioning, and if necessary, rehabilitation, over the next six months.

Please do not worry. These checks are merely so that we can be sure you are one of the loyal dreamers we want to protect. You will be perfectly safe as long as you have nothing to hide...

Story 2, Continued - Always Say Complicated

Dreamers, I fear for anyone in a Dreaming Box. It should come as no surprise that Botco exacts a terrible price—but this has always been true.

We return now to Mort.

The world around Mort was too bright, and there was shouting all around that confused him, and he was very unhappy. He sat down on the ground and cried, although he could not breathe, and that made him even more upset once he realized it.

Beyond a wall of fire, Mort could see a shape that might be Polly, and an umbrella flying open. On the other side of him, Yaretzi had all her teeth and claws out, and was thrown back by a flash of light. A cluster of armed men leaped over the bank, wiedling rifles and gleaming silver knives.

“Mort, help him!” she roared, leaping into the trio and tearing a man’s head from his body like snapping a twig.

Mort looked up, and several soldiers in painted helmets were closing in around him. The guns they held rattled bullets against his chest, and struck the glass barrier that held in his skull. It shook unpleasantly under the impact.

“Stop it!” Mort shouted. “That’s not nice!”

They did not listen. There was weight on him, then, as someone leaped onto his back, pulling a hood over Mort’s dome. Mort reached up to knock the man off, but as the hood peeled away, Mort realized he had reached up with his claw hand, and his assailant slid off in pieces.

Mort shook them off and screamed. He stomped through the small crowd, and through the fire that was beginning to burn on the surface of the water nearby. He ran without stopping, looking for Polly. Polly could tell him what was going on. Polly could tell him what to do.

It was getting dark now, and there was a flash of orange light from up ahead, lighting up some of the black trees. Mort hesitated, but he could not wait here. He charged into the trees, pushing branches aside.

“Polly?” He cried. “Where are you?”

Another flash of fire between the trees in the distance told him where to go, and he kept rumbling forward.

“Where did you go?” Mort yelled. Up ahead, he could hear sounds.

“Don’t come any closer if you want to keep your life, insect,” Polly was shouting. Mort stopped and stood for a moment, before he realized Polly was not talking to him. Polly screamed then, and Mort went tromping in his direction. He broke through a row of dense bushes, but could barely see between the black trunks in the dark. He caught a glimpse of Polly as he stepped between the trees farther into the forest, clutching his shoulder.

“Polly!” Mort shouted. “I need help! What should I do?”

He could not see Polly ahead anymore, and Mort rushed around a clump of dark pines, finding himself alone again. Still, his voice echoed from the trees beyond.

“You have no idea what you’re dealing with,” Polly warned, and Mort spun around to find him brandishing his umbrella. He was backed up against a tree, and standing in front of him was a man wearing black clothes and a helmet. He held a long silver knife, and had several weapons strapped to his back. Polly pulled a dagger out of his shoulder and shrieked as he did, and the man stepped towards him.

“No!” Mort screamed, stomping towards Polly. The man in black swung for Polly’s arm with the blade, and the umbrella fell out of Polly’s hands. The man in black snatched it up and began to run as Mort broke into the clearing. Polly bent over, mud soaking into his floral suit. The wounds in his shoulder flickered with an orange light.

“Are you okay?” Mort asked.

“It’s gone,” Polly sobbed. “My umbrella is gone.”

Mort stared blankly in the direction the man had gone. The umbrella was Polly’s favorite thing. Mort did not own any things, but if he did, it would probably make him sad to lose them. A feeling was rising in Mort that he wasn’t used to. He was angry. This man had just burst in and ruined their night, and hurt everyone, and stolen something that didn’t belong to him. Mort found himself bursting through the trees, snapping their trunks as he vaulted through them. He quickly caught up with the man in the black helmet beyond a twisted veil of trees, and the man whirled around with the umbrella in his hands.

“You back away now!” he roared. “Or I’ll use this on you!” He waved the umbrella menacingly.

“That belongs to my friend.” Mort said, and stepped towards the man, who was trying to peel open the umbrella. He couldn’t seem to manage it, and gave the mechanism several hard thrusts.

“Give it back and leave us alone!” Mort bellowed.

The umbrella arms cracked open, red eyes opening in the fabric. “Last chance!” the man shouted, lifting the umbrella towards Mort.

“You’re not listening to me!” Mort shouted, and as he did, realized he was raising his huge metal claw.

The man opened the umbrella, and for a moment Mort was worried as the flaming eyes appeared across its sections. Their attention, however, was fixed backwards at the man, and Mort realized the handle was glowing as if it were red-hot, and the man in the helmet was screaming then, holding it outstretched, seemingly unable to let it go.

Mort walked up to him, and before he could think through what he was doing, his claw had snapped shut around the man’s hand, and cut it like paper. The man in the black helmet collapsed against the tree, holding the smoldering remains of his wrist. The umbrella collapsed, the small gloved hand tumbling away from the handle as it fell.

Mort picked it up, and as he turned to stomp away, a new feeling rose in him. He felt good.

“You ain’t seen the last of me!” the man screamed, throwing away his helmet. One of his eyes was scarred over, and his face was twisted in agony. “I’m Rick Rounds, and I’m gonna be back for you, you hear?”

“I’m Mort. Goodbye.” Mort said simply, and kept walking into the dark woods. For once, he had no interest in being friends.

Interlude 2 - Sunset Symbolism

I have always been taken by the beauty of sunsets, dreamers. In essence they are a laughable thing to romanticize. Oh look, a star is moving exactly as it always has, and the mass of minerals on which I stand is moving around that! Isn’t it beautiful?

Nevertheless, there is symbolism that I relate to. There are mornings, full of light and promise, and the days run long and joyous until they finally pass into night, and the day is forgotten. Just the same, humans have enjoyed the dawn and the daylight hours of their kind, and you have brought about a night that will envelope the world for generations. More than anything, I remember watching the sunsets with my friends, with the people I loved, and wishing that those brief, beautiful moments would last just a little longer before the darkness fell. We go now to two in the sunset of their lives.

Story 3 - Sixteen Bolts

“Should I pack twelve bolts or sixteen?” Bern asked. Violet fixed her scarf in the mirror, and looked over at her wife. All of Bern’s weapons were spread out on the bed, neatly sorted and organized.

“Hopefully you won’t need any of them,” she responded, and went up behind Bern to put her arms around her waist, breathing in the back of Bern’s neck. “But go with sixteen. Just in case.”

Bern nodded, but did not move to grab the bolts, swaying in place.

“I don’t think I can take much more excitement like this, Bernie bear.” Violet confided in her wife’s neck. Bern turned around, putting her arms around Violet. She relaxed a little, although the daylight vanishing outside did not help.

“We’ve made a good run of it,” Bern said. “We used to be some cool young ladies. Outrunning Botco, fighting dumb preppers and raiders, building a home up here. I know it ain’t quite the home you dreamed of.”

Violet stood on her tiptoes to kiss Bern. Her lips were chapped like always, and her breath smelled like licorice, but nothing felt more like home to Violet. “It’s exactly what I dreamed of,” she said.

“Then we’ll keep it safe, one more night.” Bern said, and released Violet, inspecting her horde.

“What do you think will happen?” Violet whispered, sitting on the bedside, carefully moving an oversized hunting crossbow and a very old pistol.

“I like Walt’s plan in that it keeps the Instrumentalist away from us. Away from you,” Bern said, “And it’s better than waiting for whatever the Instrumentalist does next. I bet that old buzzard has been out there scheming, I don’t want to know what about. But Walt’s taking the fight into those awful northmost woods, and we won’t be there to help him. It’s just him, Riot, and old tall and spooky, and the ghost boy if he counts in a fight. I don’t know how much any of them know about fighting ghostly ladies.”

Bern pointed to the scorch marks across her face. “Clearly, I don’t know anything either though. And on top of that, I just know Botco is out there somewhere, watching us.”

“You think?” Violet looked out the window.

“They left a note for Riot in her mom’s bunker, there. They were expecting her,” Bern said. “I bet you they’ve had eyes on us ever since. They want her. But my guess is they’re waiting for something. Not sure what. But I’m shooting down any drone I see.”

Violet nodded. “Do you ever regret taking her?” she asked.

“Don’t reckon I do,” Bern said. “It’s why we started this home of ours. To save good people from the world out there. Teach them how to survive it. Hang on to the little bit of sweetness left in the world.” Bern kissed her wife’s forehead. “And we did a good job, too.”

Violet nodded.

“Sun’s going down. I should get up there, it’ll be a long night guarding the walls,” Bern said, strapping the last of her arsenal to her waist. “How do I look?”

“Just like you did when we first met in Scout camp. Overprepared and a little surly,” Violet grinned. She followed her wife outside. The sun was retreating behind the distant rows of trees, casting red light into the heavy clouds beyond.

“It’s chilly tonight. Think it’s going to snow?” Violet shivered.

“Don’t think so, but you never know around here,” said Bern. She gave her wife a squeeze, and started up the ramparts. “Whatever happens, we’ll be ready.”

Outro - Sunsets

Sunsets. You take them for granted until there is no longer a sun, and the great shockwaves of fire envelope all that exists around it, and its precious worlds are plunged into eternal darkness, corpses of worlds decomposing beneath the distant starlight. You won’t have to worry about that, dreamer. Your life will be short, but filled with sunsets. I hope you spend them wisely, laughing with the people you care about, or taking a moment of silence to reflect on your own life and your ability to appreciate sunsets. One of them—you never know which one—will be your last. It will set on your life, in a sense, and you will travel into a night that does not end. You won’t have to worry, then, either. I will be there with you, as I am in all places, telling you that it is alright, and promising your return to the Hallowoods.

The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Sunflowers 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!


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