Content Warning: This episode may include themes of Abuse, Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Blood, Dementia, Sexism and Misogyny, Transphobia, Homophobia, Misgendering, Emotional Manipulation, Body Horror, and Alcohol.
Intro - The Woods Watch
You are not alone in the forest. The trees flying past as you run have black leaves, black needles. You have never seen woods this deep, and their branches seem to reach out to catch in your hair and clothes as you race into shadow. You are becoming unsure if the music behind you could possibly be as bad as the unknown that is ahead.
You emerge into a clearing that is different. The sky above is no longer a cold spring blue, but black and filled with fire. The trees that surround you are covered in eyes, white knots in their bark, twisted limbs writhing in the wind. They are not just perceiving you, but all that you are—you feel your life flashing in your mind. You are left momentarily breathless in the dark, in this clearing at the end of your life, and although you are far from home, you are not alone. “Hello”, the Watching Trees whisper, “Hello From The Hallowoods”.
Right now, I’m sitting on a log by the edge of a thick swamp. It’s not particularly pleasant, and neither is the traveller wading through it. Like so many in these ethereal woods, he is searching for someone, and his wanderings will never be quite complete. What is it in us that compels our souls to search for others? The theme of tonight’s episode is Spirits.
Story 1 - The Ward of the Wisps
Jude clambered out of the swamp, his clothes hanging thick with the mire. His lungs screamed for respite, and his mood was darker than the slivers of void-black night offered through the canopy above. He might consider himself lucky to have traversed another night in the Hallowoods; to pass safely through any part of it was a miracle. But, in the world as it was, even miracles were melancholic.
He’d held his frayed little travel bag above his head to keep it clean, and with great effort, flung it to softly thud against the creeping roots of an ancient, mammoth tree. He crawled in its wake, until he, too, was curled against the bark. At this point Jude wanted more than anything to sleep, and if he died? So be it.
He lay for a while on his back, gasping for air, and, in the darkness of his mind and world, he pictured his only beacon of light.
'I’m trying, Benjy. I promise', he thought.
He slipped into a world in which nightmares were kinder than reality, but as with every dream, he heard the same voice calling. “Jude, please. Come find me. Come to me.”
Benjy’s face was altered beyond recognition, yet, somehow no different than the day they shared their last kiss.
“Jude,” he called. “Keep going, please.”
Jude tried to call back, as always, but he was mute, bodiless, powerless.
“Jude,” a voice called, but it was no longer Benjy’s. “Wake up.”
Jude opened his eyes, and he could just make out the rapid approach of a reptilian monstrosity, its razor teeth glistening in the silvery moon.
Then, without warning, he was rushing upwards. Jude dared to open his eyes, to find himself dangling upside down. Beneath he could see his would-be reaper glaring upward, hissing with wide-open jaws. After a moment the creature slunk away, disappointed. Jude realized that he had been snagged by a branch, wrapped around his ankle, and turned his attention in awe to the tree.
“Ah, Jude the Wanderer,” the same voice called. “We’ve been watching you.”
“What?” Jude replied, unsure to who, or what, he was talking to.
“Your journey has been something of a spectacle for us,” the voice said wryly, and Jude’s attention turned to the knots in the bark, flickering like eyes. He’d heard tall tales of trees that spoke, trees that watched.
“We’ve grown somewhat fond of you. You’ve received our aid in your passage.” The branches shivered with a sudden gust of wind, and Jude could hear a chorus of whispers within the leaves. “We see much, Jude, but we ask for an answer. Why do you walk? What are you looking for?”
Images flashed in Jude’s mind and on his tongue. His parents plucking him up without warning during the great exodus to the north. Being torn away from Benjy in the journey. The desperate years spent in the settlement, the call of his partner’s voice in his dreams every night. The loss of his parents, the experience of having nothing, no one, no reason to remain. Setting out in search of the voice that only sleep offered him.
“This ‘Benjy’ you dream of,” the voice spoke at last. “A Benjamin Whyte, perhaps?”
Jude felt a surge of joy for what felt like the first time in two decades, and almost plummeted out of the tree’s grasp. “Yes! Yes, Benjy! That’s him! Where is he?”
The boughs of the Watching Tree seemed to droop, lowering Jude towards the ground.
“We last saw this man entering the Ward of the Wisps. We have not seen him emerge. We are sorry for your loss.”
The tree fell silent, eyes sliding shut into darkness. Jude demanded more information, he sobbed, and slammed his fists against the trunk, but all that he was left with were bloodied fists and stinging tears.
Other travelers had mentioned the Ward of Wisps, a stretch of bogs not known for prowling monsters or twisted wildlife – but for the very absence of such. Every inch of The Hallowoods crawled with diabolical surprises – and if they avoided a place, it was only because of a greater threat. But, if Benjy was there?
"I’ve already accepted I may die on my journey," Jude mused, "why should the destination be any different?"
In the days of walking that followed, each person he encountered pointed him in the same direction, but offered the same advice. “The ferrywoman can get you close, but you’ll find nothing but death in the Ward.”
Jude didn’t care. Whether it was Benjy or demise, he was tired, empty, and ready for either possibility.
It was weeks before he found himself in a small hotel called the Resting Place, drunk on a black moonshine, speaking to a woman who was the epitome of a barbarian. She was almost double his height, and her biceps could have put the Ancient Watcher’s branches to shame. The skin beneath her rawhide outfit was lacerated with a mass of scars. When he mentioned his destination, he saw something in her expression, in her one remaining eye, that seemed an uncommon visitor: Fear.
The next morning, Jude was woken by the lumbering giantess above his figure, and she beckoned for him to follow. They journeyed through the mire, and the fog grew thicker with every step, until Jude felt a sudden hand on his chest.
She pointed beyond them, and Jude saw a vast pool of water. It was crystal clear which, though beautiful, was incredibly unsettling seeing as even the drinking water in Hallowoods was often murky. She guided him along the bank, and as he watched the swirling fog above the surface whirled, and danced in a haunting fashion. The tendrils seemed to call him, imploring him to join them, but the woman kept him on track.
Soon, they were on a precarious raft that looked barely fit for purpose. She’s the Ferrywoman, Jude realized. The ferry glided across the crystal waters without the faintest echo of a ripple, and the fog seemed to clear for them as they crossed.
Soon, the raft knocked into the other end of the expanse, and the woman gestured for Jude to alight. He did so, and before he could turn to thank her for the help, she was already pushing off, and within seconds was lost from sight and sound.
Jude turned, shaking with nerves, he pushed onward. It was strange, no beasts, no shadows, no snagging roots or darting bugs—just flatland and fog. He journeyed into the expanse until finally, he could make out a ring of tall, slender trees, and beyond them only darkness of the Ward. He tried to enter, but his legs were rooted – he couldn’t move, try as he might.
Despairing tears began to trickle down his cheeks, and with a flare of frustration he called “Benjy!”
Somewhere within the Ward, he saw one light, then another, and another. Millions of them sweeping from behind the thin trunks, burning with alien light, mesmerizing and horrifying.
The thin trunks that stood at the edge of the Ward shifted to form a perfect gateway, and within Jude could hear a chorus of voices ringing with cherubic grace. He stepped in, like a moth to a flame, unable to tear his focus away.
He heard one voice, clear above the others. “Jude,” it said, the voice from his dreams, Benjy’s words. “You came!”
And as Jude rushed into the starlit darkness, he didn’t realize the gateway behind him was already sliding shut. All he could do was walk, and follow, and hope.
Interlude 1 - Hierarchy of Strange Powers
Dreamers, you may have noticed that your world is filled with terrors. This has always been true, but notably more so in recent years. The black rains hasten the turning of your age, the end of life as you know it and its rebirth into something new. I can understand how this would be a concerning event for you. We do tend to greet the unknown with fear. I encourage you not to worry. Change is the normal course of things. In your case, change is just a little early.
Unfortunately, some events have complicated the hierarchy of strange powers at play in these beautiful forests. Some of you have taken it upon yourself to pull the fires of life into forms for your own bidding, with skeleton keys or silver needles. And for still others, the fires continue to burn after the body is gone. Tethers of emotion and will and loss can be just as strong as wire and thread—just enough to keep you from falling off the face of the earth.
If you are a ghost or ghostly person living in the Hallowoods, you are lucky that the great industries above you have not come to collect. Enjoy your freedom. See the sights. And avoid other parasites and snares, for there are many. We go now to one who will soon be a spirit.
Story 2 - Death Waits For No Duckworth
Zelda stared at the small green light from the cabinet keyhole. It flickered in and out of focus with her mind. That blue-haired child had not been back to feed her in what seemed like days, and her strength ebbed and flowed like the memories that poured through her head.
There was a sound, she realized, a faint knocking. It was hard to hear, as were most things for her. It came from across the room, and she would have sworn that the cabinet door was, ever so slightly, shaking.
“What’s that sound?” a voice said, and she realized that the skinless boy was sitting by her feet, casting dim light.
“Just the wind,” Zelda said. “Don’t you worry now.”
“He’s coming,” another voice said, and Zelda noticed a second boy in the dark, hair glowing softly. His lips were perforated with holes. So many children! His piercing eyes glanced up the stairs behind Zelda, she guessed to the basement door.
Suddenly her world was blinding white as the door at the top of the stairs swung open. It closed again, and she heard the lock twist before creaking steps descended into the shadows.
“Solomon, is that you?” Zelda said. It was hard to remember who he was. Her neighbor, perhaps. “It’s getting dark so early these days. Your boys shouldn’t be out playing on a night like this. They’ll all catch colds.”
There were steps in the pitch blackness, but Zelda could see two pinpoints of emerald light, gleaming like a bad polaroid picture. They stared at her with a predator’s focus.
“Zelda Duckworth,” Solomon said, “the time has come for your redemption.”
The basement lights flicked on, and Zelda caught sight of the unfinished harp standing on the floor in front of her like an omen of death. With it came a sudden rush of clarity, all the dark whispers that had filled her ears the last few nights.
“Is this what you did to Abigail?” she said.
Solomon was a terrible sight to behold, his glasses shining like great eyes, coat soiled, and his hair damp against his skull. He stepped closer, his glowering face far too close to hers.
“Who told you that name?” he demanded.
“Did you keep her trapped like this too, you old vulture? Before you turned her into that flute in your pocket? I’ve never been a spiritual woman, but do you think god or anyone else will forgive you for what you did to her? What you’re about to do to me?”
She tried to remember the words she’d been given, and hoped that they would be enough. Solomon stared at her with wide, unblinking eyes, and put a trembling hand on his desk.
“You can still make this right, Solomon. You can let me go. You don’t have to do this. I have a son, just like you. You know my Jonah? Are you going to take his mother away?”
Solomon seemed to contemplate this, but his eyes darted over to the desk. A single piano key sat upon it among the tools and scrap wood, and when he turned back to Zelda, he was grinning wide.
“I do not have a son,” he spat. “Persephone is sick. She has told you all these things, yes? Hoping to buy your way out of the fire? It is in the nature of sinners to resist the will of God, even when it is best for them. You will never be afraid again after this, Zelda. You will have perfect clarity on the will of the lord for you, for your purpose. All you do will be right.”
He stepped around his desk, beginning to assemble a collection of tools. Carving knives, odd hooks and latches, a silver pair of scissors.
“This will only be painful for a short time. I have refined this process for many years. You will find no hands more skilled than mine.”
The lights switched off suddenly then. Zelda looked around, and gasped. The boy with the holes in his lips was close by Zelda then, and smiled darkly.
“Which one of you did that?” Solomon growled, and then Zelda’s world lit up in radiant fire.
The basement was filled with a crowd of people, shouting and running, stirring up a whirlwind of light. The skinless boy, a woman with broken teeth, and so many others that Zelda had caught only glimpses of stormed around the basement, and Zelda felt her hand break free from the wire as the boy at her side burned through it with his palms.
Zelda slipped her other hand out of the loose coils and fell to the floor, groaning in relief. Solomon’s shouting filled Zelda’s ears as he berated the screaming horde around him. Then, in a terrible instant, it all came to a halt.
Each person froze in place, and the fires died, and Zelda could not find the strength to pull herself up. In the middle of the room, Solomon held his hands outstretched. The instruments that lined the walls were all floating, pulling at their hooks and tethers, and Zelda’s head was filled with music as each one joined in a terrible song.
“Enough!” Solomon roared. “I will not tolerate this disobedience! Do I not polish and tune you, was it not by my hand that you became hallowed instruments of God?”
He flicked his wrist, and the boy by Zelda’s side went flying into the middle of the room, hanging in the air.
“You, of all people, my own daughter? You have caused all of this mayhem, and you shall be punished for your disrespect when this work is done. You are no longer to act as some wild animal—you are in my house, and you will respect my authority. Now.”
He moved his hands, and one by one, the spirits disappeared, until only he and Zelda remained, and the instruments clattered back against the walls. He flicked the lights back on.
“There is work to be done,” he said, pulling an object from his coat. “We have wasted enough time. Let us begin.”
He held the object deftly—a small key with a skull set in the handle—and walked towards the cabinet. He inserted it, and the reverberations of the lock shook the room. Zelda cried out and tried to pull herself to her feet, but she could not muster the strength. Then the cabinet door flew open, and green light poured into the room like the dawn.
Marketing - Personal Complications
Lady Ethel Mallory: Hello dreamers, I am Lady Ethel Mallory, and I’m here with some good news. I know that when one member of our Dreaming Community is hurt, we ALL are hurt, and many of you have been concerned about Valerie Maidstone after her arrival to the Prime Dream. I am here with good news. She has been confirmed for recovery after her personal complications, and will be joining you all in the Prime Dream within a few weeks. If you are in any way involved with the terrorist group Stonemaids, know that Valerie Maidstone has never supported your violence and destruction. Our rigorous testing procedures have already suspended several key members of this aggressive organization, and they will be detained for rehabilitation until this crisis has been averted...
Story 2, Continued - Death Waits For No Duckworth
Dreamers, I do not trust that what remains of Valerie Maidstone is well. I also do not trust anything that Lady Ethel Mallory says. We return now to Zelda Duckworth.
For a moment, Zelda could see only light, flashing green into blinding white. She could barely see the workbench of knives or the wicked old man or the or the harp that awaited her bones. All she could see was a hand, reaching through the doorway of light on the far side of the room, and it was followed by a face and a soft round body as a man stepped into the basement. His eyes shone like emeralds, and his face radiated strange light, and that was the moment Zelda knew she must be dead, because she recognized the face of the angel.
“Jonah,” she sobbed, curled up on the floor, as he walked towards her. “You’re here to take me to heaven, aren’t you?”
“Ma?” he whispered, kneeling next to her, and he brushed the hair from her face. “What is this place? What are you doing here?”
The cabinet door clicked shut, and the brilliant fires flickered out, and a number of things happened at once, almost too fast for Zelda to register.
Solomon was still standing at the far side of the room, stooped in shadow, his eyes wide with terror, and he blew a single high note on a little white flute.
As he did, a woman appeared behind Jonah, an awful beauty in her gaunt face and billowing hair. She went racing across the room, hands reaching for Jonah’s throat, but stopped as a word filled Zelda’s head, and the whistle of the flute came to a sudden halt.
“Run,” the voice was saying, and Zelda realized that the boy with the holes in his lips was holding a pair of silver scissors to Solomon’s throat. “Run!”
Zelda’s vision blurred as she was picked up in the arms of her stepson. He seemed bigger, somehow, than he had been before. She was carried up the stairs, shook as the door broke open, and winced as she saw daylight for the first time in quiet ages.
There was a scream from below, from the boy, and she wished for all she had that she could help him, but she was too weary to keep her head up, and the sunflowers of the lawn blurred into yellow and green. There were people with sewn-together faces, staring blankly, and then she was deposited gently in the passenger seat of Jonah’s truck.
Jonah clambered into the driver’s side, finding the keys still in the ignition. It roared to life with a comforting growl, and as it rolled away, she could see the sewn-up people waving, as though she were a queen. Zelda waved back, laughing softly, and nodded into darkness, a cavern of tree trunks and terrible roots, and left the house in the distant afternoon sun.
Interlude 2 - The Economy of Souls
The concept of a soul is an amusing one. You look at the less expressive life forms around you and believe that because they function less than you, they do not have the same spark of life. If this were true, then perhaps I would have a soul, and you would not. All that lives burns with the fire of existence, some more intensely and in different colors.
Naturally, there are some that look at the universe and think immediately of how to profit from it. Botco may look at souls and dreams and wonder how to monopolize these ripe industries, but they cannot imagine the scale of machinations that exist across this and other galaxies.
For all their fire and darkness, what is Syrensyr if not a chief executive officer, the head of the serpent that devours all life, the grinding gears of the economy of souls? You talk of angels and devils as though they are different things, as though they will guide your soul to an afterlife because of good or evil deeds—but have you wondered why? Who pays them? Who commissioned their swords and parasols? What does anyone want with a human soul?
You wouldn’t like the answers to these questions, and to be honest it’s all rather complicated... I’ve never had an eye for business. We go now to an ex-employee.
Story 3 - Rose Bubbles
Barb sighed in relief as he pulled the bandages from his eyes and sank into the tub. If you were going to burn your resources, you might as well invest in a good bath. The bubbles threatened to overflow, rising in heaps and smelling faintly of roses, as all good bubbles do.
There was a knock, unfortunately, on the door.
“Can I get ten minutes to myself?” Barb sighed loudly.
“It’s important,” the Countess called through the doorway. “Are you decent?”
“As decent as I get,” Barb rubbed at the base of his broken horns, and switched off the record player. The door swung open and the Countess strode in, followed by the Quilt, flaps of parchment skin and fabric drifting in the steam. The countess looked at Barb with her usual vague disgust.
“I know it,” Barb grinned. The Quilt hovered eyelessly near the counter. “What’s the crisis?”
The quilt’s unhinged jaw dropped open, and Barb’s mind was assaulted with memories, feelings, colors—a patchwork of reality as discordant as the Quilt itself.
But the fires, the scents, were unmistakable.
There was an Agent of Syrensyr in the Hallowoods, burning bright like a little candle.
Barb stared at the Quilt with wide, bleeding eyes. Earth was closed for business, had been for a long time. What could possibly… the next images brought Barb even more surprise. There were three others in proximity—travelling together, although that would deny every regulation in the book.
There were two revenants—and no offence to the Quilt, but that was like a boat cleaner making friendly with the barnacles. The last person, though was the most shocking. A starhound, a hunting dog, a werewolf, a jolly old fire-snuffer. Without feeling it out for himself, he would have said it was impossible.
“I didn’t know there were any of those still around,” Barb hissed. His bathwater felt suddenly cold. “Tolshotol hasn’t thrown out covenants in centuries, I don’t think.”
“Are you in danger?” the Countess said. The Quilt closed its gaping maw, and the images ended. Barb eyed his toe claws in the bubbles.
“Eh. I’ve been in danger since I flew the coop. Am I in more danger than usual? I don’t think so. I don’t work for that cinderblock anymore. Not my circus, not my flaming clowns. I don’t got any quarrel with our furry friend.”
“She may not see it that way,” the Countess said.
“Listen, I don’t see eye to eye with… just about anyone,” Barb laid his head back on the edge of the tub. “If it becomes a problem, I’ll deal with it.”
“Don’t you dare go without me,” the Countess warned. “I know what those things can do to your kind.”
“Is that sentiment I detect?” Barb rolled his head to face her.
“No,” the Countess said, beckoning the Quilt and starting for the door. “I just don’t want to lose my room.”
Barb smiled as the door clicked shut, and flipped the hot water handle with his toes, relaxing as warmth flooded back into the bath.
Another pretty boy from the Industry, here to prance around and run errands. He smiled, and closed his eyes, letting them bleed down his cheeks and into the water.
But no goody-two-shoes, either, if the company he kept was any indication. Perhaps there was potential. How easily Barb had fallen, and yet, he wouldn’t go back for all the beautiful eyes and horns in the world. He flicked the switch on the record player, and sighed happily. Plans could wait for after bathtime.
Outro - Spirits
Spirits. You take comfort in knowing that you hold something special in your hands and in your heart—a spark of life in a dark universe, the ability to create, to make art, to look back at the stars that birthed you and taunt them in defiance.
Be proud, dreamers.
Be proud to be alive.
Be proud that in this moment, your spirit burns in a body that is all yours, and as long as you still have moments to breathe, this universe, this experience, belongs to you. All the life and beauty of your little planet burns as one, a twinkling of light between the stars. Caught for a moment in a sunbeam, you have emerged from the darkness, and one day you will drift back into shadow, and you will only be left with the memory of the beauty you made, the power of the love you shared, and a little spark of fire.
Until every fire goes dark, I am your loyal host, waiting quietly for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Friendly' 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!