HFTH - Episode 29 - Strangers


Content Warning: This episode may include themes of Animal death, Needles, Kidnapping and Abduction, Death + Injury, Birds, Drowning, Emotional Manipulation, Body Horror, Eye Injuries, and Smoking.


Intro - Doppelganger

You wake up to a clatter from downstairs. You pull on as much clothing as you would need for a fight with a home intruder, and you grab your curved blade from beside the door as you make for the stairs. There is whimpering in the living room below, and you switch on the light as you enter it. You are shocked by who you see. Standing terrified in the middle of your rug is you—but not the weathered survivor of today.


Her hair has not yet begun to grey with power and age, her eyes are still warm and bright, and she has never felt the caustic black rains against her skin. She looks at you with awe and horror. You drop your weapon, walking towards her with open arms.


There are so many things you want to tell her. That she should have listened to the voices deep within her soul. That she was always worthy. That every hour of study and hardship will be worth it. Not to open those buried books with the red trim. But the first words that escape from your mouth are a welcoming whisper: Hello, from the Hallowoods.



Theme.


Right now I’m in the rafters of a small room in the Badger Wing at Scoutpost One. This room has not had a living occupant in some time, and out of its two dead residents, only one remains, listening to the sounds of who they once were on a small music player. The theme of tonight’s episode is Strangers.



Story 1 - Golden Slumbers

Diggory Graves lay awake, as they always did, staring at the ceiling. Percy took up no physical space, and was often not more than a flicker of light, but even so the room seemed impossibly empty without him. All that Diggory could think of to pass the time was to listen to the music that, in some distant way, they had helped create.


They studied their arm, each cryptic tattoo beneath their leathery skin a hint about a life they could not remember. These had belonged to Evelyn Fry, songwriter and pianist, as well as some fragment of their mind, they had to suspect, and possibly other traces here and there that were less easy to identify.


When Valerie Maidstone sang, Diggory knew which word would come next in the song, flickers of memory tied to each phrase, long nights of writing and heartache that had gone into every verse. Diggory was thankful that Riot had given them the chance to listen to this piece of their own history, but it did little to drown out the noise in their mind.


Conflicting directions pulled at the seams of their head—in one direction, Percy, in the other the unnamed north. If Walt had not asked them to wait, they would already be marching towards the Instrumentalist’s house.


Diggory reached the last track of the final album, and lay in the silence for a few minutes. There was a knock on the door.


“Can’t sleep, eh?” Walt said, entering.


“I do not sleep,” Diggory said.


“Are you able to sleep?” Walt sat down in a rocking chair in the corner.


“I have never tried. Would I enjoy it, do you think?”


“I think it would be good for you. Missing Percy?”


“Missing does not begin to describe the emptiness I feel, Walt. I am… desperate. Anxious. These feelings crawl in my chest like worms. I know Percy is not alright. He’s in danger. His father is a cruel and terrible man. One who broke his son’s bones into shavings to make a piano, who allowed years of abuse, who does not see Percy for who he is.”


Walt nodded. “I know. But—and please don’t hate me for saying this—it won’t do Percy a lick of good if you stomp in there and Solomon rings that little bell, and suddenly you’re planting his daisies. Or if Cloud Kid scraps you for parts again. We’re only gonna get one good shot, Diggory, and I’m prepared to cash in all my chips on this. Please work with me though. Together, you and I have a chance.”


“This is the only reason that I have not already left.”


“Good,” Walt said, standing up. “If you can wait one more day, I’d appreciate it. I’ve got friends to talk with, stuff to get together. Then we’re going to fix all this.”


He started towards the door, and paused for a moment.


“You know, it never worked for me, but people say if you say ‘Granny Mend’ three times in a mirror, she’ll help you sleep. Personally, I don’t see why the ghost of Irene would be helping people get their Z’s, but hey. Never know around here. Goodnight, Diggory. Thank you for staying.”


Walt was gone, and the lights were off, and the Mp3 player was silent. Diggory laid in the darkness, and glanced occasionally at the mirror over the desk. Anything would be worth quieting their thoughts. They slipped out of bed, and stepped over to the mirror.


Their own reflection was a rare sight to behold. They liked their hair more since Percy had cut it with the little silver scissors; they could see their eyes now, and the new stitches that crossed their face—Walt’s handiwork was a little uneven compared to the older seams.


“Granny Mend,” Diggory said. “Granny Mend. Granny Mend.”


Diggory waited a moment, but only their reflection stared back.


They sighed, and returned to bed, staring at the rafters for minutes or hours. Then, a low creaking reached their ears, and Diggory looked down to see a dark figure hunched in the rocking chair.


“Hello?” Diggory whispered, pulling the blankets close.


“Golden slumbers kiss your eyes,” a quiet voice sang, “smiles await you when you rise. Sleep, pretty baby, do not cry, and I will sing a lullaby.”


The words were heavy in Diggory’s mind, and their vision spun into soothing darkness, but they could not ignore the woman in the chair. Diggory tried to catch a glimpse of what lay beneath her dark bonnet.


“Irene? Ms. Mend? Is that you?”


She rose with a sudden lurch, a piece of embroidery falling out of her lap. With dragging steps, she scraped closer, and Diggory found they were powerless to move. They could not look away or turn their eyes from the shadowed woman, and a point of light gleamed from beneath her bonnet. Diggory noticed with fear that her hands were pierced through with sewing needles.


“Why did you make me?” Diggory could barely speak the words.


She reached out with crawling fingers, and as she bent close, Diggory could see that the handle of a dinner knife gleamed in her eye, the other a dark cavity.


“Hush,” she said, and Diggory could not find any trace of recognition in her face. She pulled Diggory’s covers up to their chin, tucking them in. “Go back to sleep.”


Diggory felt a powerful weariness, a gravity they had never been affected by before.


“What happened to you? Can you even hear me?” Diggory asked.


She paused, and stared.


“You’re going to be very special, Diggory Graves. Very special,” she whispered, and kissed Diggory on the forehead.


Black tears rolled down Diggory’s face as she shambled back to her chair, and as she began to rock again, Diggory fell asleep.



Interlude 1 - Customary Greetings

Dreamers, if you go walking in the Hallowoods, you are likely to wander for great periods of time without encountering another person. These black lakes and midnight trees stretch across seemingly endless miles, and actually endless miles if you walk far enough North.


However, if you do come across other travellers, it is both polite and prudent to use one of the region’s customary greetings. If you are unsure as to whether a traveller is living or not, try making obvious bird noises. The living will be confused and suspicious, but the unliving will be pleased. Birds and the dead have a close friendship.


If the person appears to be a froglin, or frog-adjacent, scream Lolgmololg. Lolgmololg. It will tell them that you are a friend and worship their abhorrent, mud-dwelling deity... or at least, that you are a willing sacrifice for their blood rituals.


If you are from the Scoutpost, make the sound of a wild Griffocaugh bleating. Anyone except a knowledgeable scout would know to run from this sound.


If you carry a Downing Hill Public Library Card, flash it briefly, and if the other person does not show you one in turn, dispatch them before they tell someone.


And if you are greeting a member of the Church of the Hallowed Name, say “May the deep, the darkness, and the dawn dwell in your eyes.” If someone says this to you, reply “And in yours, until the Hallowed Name is spoken on all tongues.”


We go now to someone who knows this greeting.



Story 2 - Bad Feelings

Winona dangled the needle from a twist of thread, smiling as the hallowed German Shepherd’s gaze followed it. Clearly, the man was not without some skills of his own, if he could keep a dog in this condition. She beckoned for it to sit—the living dog growled at Elena, who had her knife to the man’s throat.


“Call off the dog,” Winona barked, leveling her khopesh as she stepped towards the man. It is an ugly blade, dreamers, and I wish it did not exist at all.


Elena kept her dagger tight, and the man waved his hand. “Down, Jackie, down. It’s alright.”


“Do you know where Zelda is?” Winona said, squinting. His eyes were hard to read.


“No,” the stranger growled, palms in the air. “That’s something I’m working on.”


Winona adjusted her hijab and crouched down, face to face. “When did you last see her?”


“Not sure that’s any of your business,” he muttered.


Winona gave him a threatening eyebrow. “Unless you start talking, it won’t be anyone’s business.”


He glanced at the dogs, seemingly looking for assistance. They looked back at him nervously.


“If we kill him I call dibs on the sweater,” Elena said, knife still in hand.


“Fine,” he spat. Winona smiled. “Her son, Jonah, went missing. She asked me to help find him. When I… when I couldn’t bring him back, I came to let her know. But she’s not at the house. Signs of a struggle. I’m stocking up and getting back on her trail, if your crony here doesn’t open up my jugular.”


“Get off him, Elena,” Winona said.


“Aw,” Elena said, and put her knife away. The man rubbed at his throat, standing up.


“We got together when Zelda disappeared,” Winona said. “She’s a market regular—always stops to chatter. We’ve been worried about her for a while, all alone up there. She came up a few weeks ago—bought a few groceries, said Jonah was visiting but he’d gone missing. We’d about given up hope by now—then a strange man shows up in the market, asking questions. You understand.”


“Sure,” he said, snapping his fingers. The dogs came padding over beside him. “Name’s Hector. I find people. Body recovery, missing persons.”


“Rifling through pockets, by the look of your wares.”


“Living folks got more needs than the dead ones.”


“You any good at what you do?”


“Best I ever met.”


“Tell you what,” Winona said. “I’ll pay whatever your going rate is, if you get her back alive.”


“She probably ain’t alive. Statistically.”


“Alright,” Winona said, sheathing her sword. “To find her in whatever state she’s in.”

“Fair enough,” Hector nodded. “Hey, get away from my bike.”


Elena looked up from rifling through the man’s saddlebags, maps and a bear trap in hand.


“Elena, put the man’s things away and bring the van around.”


“Ugh. Fine.”


There was something odd about his eyes, she decided. At first she’d just thought he was dead—not in the flesh, but in the soul. Just another animal surviving in the woods. But she looked deeper, and there it was. A touch of magic, of the unspeakable. He’d brushed with something indescribable, she was sure.


“You get any good leads on Zelda while you sat there selling trinkets?” Hector said.


“We searched the woods around her house for a week when we knew she was gone. Where were you?”


“Like I said. Busy. Those tracks that lead out from her house ain’t easy to follow, but I’ve got a direction. Red truck that belonged to Jonah is missing, I figure whoever took her drove off in it.”


Winona watched as the van rolled up through the brush, Elena’s arm hanging out the window.


“You a friend of Zelda’s?” Winona said. He did not have many friends, she thought.


“One of the only folks I know this far north. Visit whenever I’m up this way. Usually less tragic all around. If you’re ready to get started then I am. I don’t know how long a ride we’re looking at.”


“I’ve closed up shop,” Winona said. Let’s not waste daylight.”


The rusty van pulled up alongside Hector’s motorcycle, and Elena honked the horn. “Are we going or what?”


Winona turned and swung up into the passenger side, and watched as the man’s dogs hopped into the sidecar of his bike. Hector revved the engine, and went rolling down the path towards the packed surface of the road, and Elena shifted into gear, following close behind.



Marketing - End This Soon

Lady Ethel Mallory: My dearest Dreaming Box family, you see it around you every day: the mark of the terrible Stonemaids upon our beautiful Prime Dream. Try as they might, Botulus Regulators governed by our noble founder himself have been unsuccessful in removing this stain of terror from the carpet of our collective home. The Stonemaids could be anyone—a stranger, or your very own children. Do not trust anyone you are not certain of, and report any suspicious activity at a Botulus Corporation Contact Terminal so that they can be properly removed and re-educated.


You understand, dreamers. You are not idiots.


You have invested in your future and the future of this country. You did not join your local Dreaming Box blindfolded. You know exactly who you are, what you stand for, and what you want.


How dare these Stonemaids try to take that from you. They won’t be happy until everyone is starving in the cold, running from the sounds in the dark. Is that what you want? I thought not. Let’s end this soon.




Story 2, Continued - Bad Feelings

Dreamers, my happiness would be greatly increased if I never heard that voice again in all my millions of years. Unfortunately, it seems the one thing Lady Ethel Mallory cannot do, for all her talents, is be quiet. We return now to Winona Carline.


Winona sat in the passenger seat of the old bus, chewing on a nail. The ornaments and symbols dangling from the rearview mirror glittered in the sunlight, her cat slept on the bed that took up the back row of seats.


Something was wrong. She always had a sense for things, almost as long as she’d been studying. With someone who could track Zelda’s trail, pick her like a needle out of this haystack of a forest, things should be feeling right. She was getting closer every minute to getting her best friend back. And yet, with each passing wave of black trees, following in the wake of Hector’s motorcycle, her stomach twisted itself into knots. The planets in her future were tumbling out of alignment, the cards were spilled across the table, and something was wrong.


Ahead of them, Hector slowed to a snail’s pace, glancing at the packed dirt of the road as though it contained the secrets of life. The cleared trails began to give way to less familiar passages through the trees, w he roots and branches had begun to reassert their claim. As the hours passed the forest grew denser around her, thick black towers surrounding the trail. It was an unpleasant place, she thought, and the air was whispering in her ear to turn back.


“Road’s going to get pretty tight,” Elena said, squinting over the wheel. It wasn’t hard to see what Hector was following now - a rut of tire tracks led deeper between the pines.


“We’ll follow as far as we can,” Winona said, hand on the pommel of her khopesh. Ahead of them, Hector’s tail light glowed like a red eye beneath the shadow of the forest. There was something ahead, towering over the woods—a dark mountain. Finally, Hector stopped, and ahead of them was something Winona had never seen before.


A dense wall of twisted trees and branches rose above the surface of the forest like a boil. A single dark opening had been burned through the center, a large tunnel leading through their roots into darkness.

Winona climbed out of the van, shocked by the aura that poured from the gateway—the forest itself was trying to break apart whatever lay within, and incredible pain echoed from the passageway into her mind.


“You have any idea what this is?” Hector said, staring up. His dogs remained close to his cycle, glancing around. Hector began to pull gear from his bag—a gun of some kind, a grappling hook.


A realization struck Winona; she knew not the place, but the feelings it created. She had slept easier for many years in its absence. There was only one way to be sure without stepping foot in that tunnel. She unbuckled the khopesh from its sheath, and stood in front of the black tunnel’s entrance, lifting the curved sword into the air.


She closed her eyes, yielding herself to the vision, and felt her sight pour into the blade. The eye trapped in the carnelian pommel opened, and burned in her mind like wildfire.


“Voss nen xorn Nikignik, om nen xorn Nikignik,” she whispered, and the eye shuddered, and suddenly she was rushing through the tunnel of root and branch, pushing into the domain of death itself. In the center of the wall of trees there was a house—as decrepit as its owner. A green lawn and rich gardens surrounded it, and two dead things shifted about, trimming the hedges. There was an empty garage—a rusted moving van parked in the back lot.


There was a man sitting on the porch, sipping iced tea from a glass.


She knew his face.


It was Solomon. From the church.


His glazed eyes swiveled up to stare at her.


Winona gasped in shock, and dropped the sword, and suddenly she was seeing only with her real eyes as she stumbled backwards from the tunnel.


“Heck was that?” Hector said, buckling a machete to his belt.


“We can’t be here,” Winona whispered. Elena stepped over to her, and she held onto the younger woman for support.


“What is this place, Winnie?” Elena whispered.


“This is the house of the Instrumentalist,” Winona said. “He might know we’re here. We have to move. Now. Before he kills us all.”


“I don’t understand,” Hector said. “What’s an instrumentalist?”



Interlude 2 - To Know and Be Known

‘Stranger’ is a fun concept, dreamers. Here is a person, whose life has been full of experiences much like yours. They probably have not been that far from you all these years. Then, suddenly, their stream of thoughts and motivations crosses paths with yours, and in that moment you are fully aware of each other, the universe looking at itself as though in a mirror.


And how quickly you can go from strangers into tangled souls, dreamers. You can plummet into a lifetime of friendship, of intimacy and deep secrets, of heartbreak and loss as easily as you might trip over a stone.


Perhaps it is a weakness to know and be known, for it is so frightfully easy to lose the ones you love. Even I, who span the cosmos, wish for a little more permanence. I imagine it is even worse for your mortal kind.


Still, here I am, making myself known to you. I was never as strong as my peers in this regard.


When you meet that stranger’s eyes for the first time, a question is being asked. Is knowing you worth the pain of someday losing you? More often than not, dreamers, I think it is.


We go now to three who are strangers no longer.



Story 3 - To Make a Choice

Polly sat with his umbrella in his lap, clutching his injured shoulder. Repairing it was a slow process, and the pain brought fire to his eyes as he reformed his flesh beneath the surface.


“I warned you about the knives,” Yaretzi mused.


“I’m really not in the mood for I-told-you-so’s.”


Mort sat in a ball by the other side of the fire, trying to pet the seagull resting on his claw. Why was it so hard to get rid of birds? It stared at Polly with a singular dead eye.


“And you, Mort. Thank you for getting my umbrella back.”


“I think I did something bad,” Mort said, his skull looking up in its glass dome. The burning points of his eyes were as green as the northern lights above.


“Did you hurt the bad man?” Yaretzi said, cleaning blood from beneath her fingernails.


Mort nodded.


“Good,” Yaretzi grinned, pointed teeth shining in the firelight. “If he ever comes back, hurt him again.”


“I don’t like hurting people,” Mort said quietly. “Even if they’re mean.”


“That’s good, Mort,” Polly cast a sideways look at the wolf woman. “You should never take pleasure in that kind of thing. However, it’s good to know how to defend yourself. Protect people, you know? I’m grateful you did.”


“Protection is why you made Mort, isn’t it?” Yaretzi said, licking her lips.


“I didn’t ‘make’ Mort,” Polly finished his impromptu surgery and laid back against the black tree trunk, exhausted. “Just fished him out of the ocean.”


“What was I doing there?” Mort asked.


“Haven’t the foggiest,” Polly said, closing his eyes. “I expect you made some poor choices.”


“Like what?”


“Oh I don’t know. Wearing that deep-sea-exoskeleton-whatever-it-is into monster-filled arctic water? Terrible place for a swim.”


“I don’t remember doing that.”


“That’s probably for the best. I can’t imagine it was one of your better days.”


“Why did you come back for me?” Yaretzi asked. “When they threw me in that fighting pit. You could have walked away.”


Polly thought hard for a moment. It was a question he had not asked himself, and that troubled him.

“Believe me, canine, I was ready to leave you to become birdfood. But Mort threw a tantrum.”


Yaretzi smiled at Mort, a little sadly. “You understand I still have to complete my purpose.”


“I guess,” Mort said, skull sinking sadly. “But I don’t want you to hurt him. Just like I don’t want you to get hurt. I feel like you two are my… my…”


Polly glared at Yaretzi, and she stilled her suggestion.


“I don’t know the word. But I wish we could stay together.”


Polly sighed, standing up. “That would be… nice, Mort. Unfortunately, all of us have jobs to do.”

He was angry, he realized, and he couldn’t put a finger on why.


“Mort, you’re a tool for killing ghosts and other less than describable things. Yaretzi is a flesh-eating monster on her best days, and I, well, I’m a top-of-my-class agent of Syrensyr the Reclaimer of Fire, and the Industry that burns in his belly. Made to file paperwork immaculately and deal with problems judiciously. And when our purposes are finished, there is nothing left, and we will go our separate ways. So don’t get attached.”


Polly’s horns were showing, he realized, and he extinguished them quickly. Mort’s eyes flickered in his dome.


“I was not always a servant of Tolshotol, Who Guards a Thousand Suns,” Yaretzi said, quietly. She looked at Polly with odd sympathy in her liquid gold eyes. Pity perhaps.


“I was a child. I danced, I laughed. I enjoyed food that was not demon hearts. I lived a life of color and light. It was good. And when your people arrived I made a covenant to protect my father and mother, my sisters and brothers. To save my family from burning men and thunderous weapons.”


“Family,” Mort said. “That was the word.”


Yaretzi smiled. “And when I had feasted on the blood of many demons I slept, and waited for the stars to shine for me. But all this time I thought you were like me. That you too made a covenant. Were you never just a person, Apollyon? Did you not get to make a choice?”


Polly realized he was trembling, and fire welled in his eyes. He turned into the forest. “I’m going for a walk.”

“Don’t try to run,” Yaretzi said, looking tired. “I could smell you across a thousand forests.”


She shed the last of her wolf features, and draped herself across Mort’s claw next to the seagull. Mort seemed to blink in surprise, and patted her head with his huge metal hand.


Polly stumbled into the forest. It reeked of death, and worse than death—corruption. The odd artificial transformation of the ages. He’d thought the black water in Mort was offensive, but the very ground here was steeped in the stuff, soaked into the trees. A garden of the end, truly.


Something caught his eye in the distance—a rustling in the treetops, and a flicker of fire. A burning weapon like himself. No one else was intended to be here, as far as he’d seen on departure day.


“Who’s there?” he called, readying his umbrella. In the distance, an unkindness of ravens burst into the air from the treetops, a storm of black feathers carrying into the night.


“Birds,” Polly said, sitting against a tree, and running his hands into his hair. He let his horns burn as brightly as the tears on his face. “Always the birds with this wretched planet.”


The emotions flashing in him were unusual. Was this place infecting him somehow? Dirtying his spirit like it muddied his shoes? This wasn’t what—who—he was supposed to be.


“Perfect,” he said. “Perfect. I am perfect. Poised. Respectable. Who trained you, hm? Tiff, Typhon the Terrible himself. Top of the line. There’s a reason he put you through everything he did and it was so you could be great. What is wrong with you, you blubbering heap. You’re acting like a broken, is that what you want? You want to add those pretty eyes to the jar on Tiff’s desk, hm? I thought not. Pull yourself together now. Find the target, sic Mort, wrap mission. That’s all. That’s all you need to do.”


The tears had stopped, and Polly nodded matter-of-factly. When he returned to the clearing, the fire was low, and Mort and Yaretzi slept. Polly sat against his tree, pulling a cigarette from the air. The end couldn’t come soon enough.



Outro - Strangers

Strangers. It’s funny that you imagined, just now, what a stranger looks like. The image of that person was made by you, and if you simply imagined a name for them, they would be a stranger no longer. In the same way, a stranger is a shadow—a barrier you have created between yourself and someone else. They remain strange only if you never speak to them, for once you know a name, a feeling, an opinion on the weather, their moment of crossing with your life has become no longer strange, but significant.


Conversations with strangers have led me into the most important journeys I have ever taken, and although many have long since left my trails, it would have been an empty eternity without them. You and I were strangers, dreamers, until I began speaking into your nightmares, sharing thoughts and memories from yet other strangers that dwell in these black forests.


It is funny, I think, how much you trust me given how little you really know about who I am.


I am beauty and true darkness.


I am one hundred eyes in the dark.


I am your loyal host, Nikignik, waiting strangely for your return to the Hallowoods.




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