Content Warning: This episode may include themes of Abuse, Animal death, Car Crash, Violence, Kidnapping and Abduction, Death + Injury, Blood, Emotional Manipulation, Drowning, Body horror.
Intro - Getaway
You have always hated the word car. It’s ugly. You have an automobile, and it is full of secrets. The circle of Syrensyr is etched inside the top and trunk, the sigils of astral protection hidden beneath the red paint. Everything you need for work.
All that is important right now is how fast it can get you away from the hitmen. You race along Highway One, furiously rounding each twist in the road. The Pacific Ocean is stormy and grey, roiling clouds pouring over the sky. A black unmarked van pulls out of the bushes ahead of you suddenly, and you jerk the wheel by instinct.
It is instinct’s fault, then, that you crash through the barriers and sail into the water below. It is instinct’s fault that you cannot unbuckle your seatbelt as water pours into your automobile, and the ocean is in your lungs like gasoline, and as you sink the song playing on the radio says ‘Hello From The Hallowoods’.
Right now, I’m sitting in a restored campervan. There are glittering ornaments hanging from the rearview mirror, faux gemstones stuck to the dashboard. In the back there are all the elements of comfortable life—a basin, a shelf, a bed covered in blankets. A cat sleeps on the pillows. It is a home as small as these sheet metal walls, and these wheels carry it from one terrible place to another. Right now it is parked outside a most dangerous location. The theme of tonight’s episode is Automobiles.
Story 1 - Man With A Fancy Name
“You’re not serious,” Winona said, and Hector glanced down the dark tunnel through the underbelly of the forest. “Everyone knows who the Instrumentalist is.”
“Things like that are exactly why I stay clear of these woods. Jonah mentioned it once or twice, but I have no idea what it means or why you’re waving a sword around.”
Elena picked up the sword and handed it back to Winona, who stowed it in a leather sheath.
“It means death, Hector. We cannot be having this conversation here.” She gestured to Elena. “Start the van. Hector, this is the most dangerous man in these woods. If he finds us he’ll use your knuckle bones for maracas.”
Hector shook his head. For so many reasons, coming north had been a mistake. Might as well leave the bodies to the bog—even picking through city ruins and avoiding the flies was better than faceless horrors and library cards and music men.
“Wait,” Hector said, as Winona climbed into the passenger seat. “Did you see a red truck?”
Winona thought for a moment. “Moving van in the back yard. No trucks.”
“But that… Instrumentalist. Is he there, did you… see that, somehow?”
“As clearly as I’m seeing you. And your vocal cords are going to be a kazoo if you keep standing there.”
“That was Jonah’s truck she was taken in.”
“I know it. She used it to get to market for a few days.”
“Then if it’s not here, she might… well. Then someone took it out of here. Look at these.” Hector knelt to the crisscrossed tracks leading towards the tunnel. “These are fresh. That truck’s been out of here within the last day I’d say.”
“If you want to keep following those tracks then lead on, Hector,” Winona said, a warning glinting in her eyes. “But we cannot stay here another second.”
“Alright.” Hector raised his hands, and returned to his bike. “Come on girls. New trail. Let’s get a move on.”
He took a last glance at the throat of the tunnel—the gateway burned through the wall of trees. The twisted roots and branches seemed to writhe every so slightly, growing back together. He could only imagine what kind of person lived in such a dismal place, and although he’d be willing to risk it for a chance at saving Zelda, there were no guarantees right now.
He kept a careful eye on the tracks. The last set didn’t roll nicely along the same familiar ruts—it was wild, veered against the edges of the road. Someone had driven out of here fast, and recently. There were options, and he tallied them together in his head as he rolled back along the narrow passages between the trees, climbing over banks of earth and wet soil, working back towards the more established trails.
The most likely option was someone had taken it off the Instrumentalist’s hands. If that was the case, Hector could get more information from them. Had they heard of Zelda, was she still alive? Details this Instrumentalist might not be too keen on sharing. Hector didn’t often meet a man who wanted to start a fight with him, but he’d met a few in his day who made poor decisions.
Option two—and it seemed equally possible—was that there wasn’t much at all to Winona’s magic point-and-shoot trick, and the Instrumentalist was out running his errands in Zelda’s truck. And if that was the case, Hector was a damn fool for letting himself get talked out of marching in there, because that would be where Zelda was, and he'd've have missed his shot.
The third possibility seemed the least likely, but he couldn’t bring himself to take it off the list. Zelda had escaped. Stranger things had happened. And what would she do? Take off driving, probably wild as the tracks he was seeing, racing for… where?
The tracks were frantic, and the driver didn’t seem familiar with the surroundings—circles and double-backs made following the path difficult. It was a few hours before Hector rolled onto a path he recognized—the northern artery, a trail cut into the forest leading north out of the central woods. The turquoise van pulled up beside him, and the window rolled down.
Elena put her head out the side. “There’s not much up that way besides the Scoutpost.”
“I don’t love the Scoutpost,” Hector grunted. “Think Zelda would go there?”
“You think Zelda’s driving this car?”
“Eh. Not sure. Tracks seem to move that way, I say we follow.”
“It’ll be dark before we get there.”
“Then let’s make good time,” Hector replied, and began to roll. Truth be told, he couldn’t travel at speed for this—at each opening in the road he took a minute to scan, make sure the tracks hadn’t turned off towards a different trail.
Night fell with several hours still to go before reaching the Scoutpost, and they made camp off the roadside, keeping the smoke to a minimum—Hector had made the mistake of getting caught by Night-Gaunts at night, never again.
Winona sat across from him, the light of the campfire making her seem older and more mysterious than she had been by day. Elena went to bed early, her snores competing with the sound of the frogs in the night.
“So. What’s the deal with the sword?” Hector said. Jackie had her head in his lap, and he rubbed at her ears. Heidi needed less encouragement these days it seemed, and stared at the woods with her fixed white eyes.
“Family heirloom,” Winona smiled. “What’s the deal with the dog?”
“Bit by a Fisher—fell in the water too, I think. Still a good girl, aren’t you Heidi?”
Winona looked up at the sky. “There aren’t many who make peace with Hallowed animals. It’s a good sign.”
Hector shook his head. “It’s my dog. Same as she ever was, different look is all. You gotta keep up with the change. Things happen. Usually bad. And you pick up and keep walking, or you go to sleep in the lake.”
“Now that’s a cheery outlook on life.”
“Not an outlook. Just is,” Hector said, and gestured to the van. “That your kid?”
“Gods no,” Winona laughed like a crow. “Kids aren’t in the cards for me. That’s Tom Alder’s daughter. I thought you’d know. There’s more Friends of Zelda, not at the market today. She’s a beloved figure in the market, you know. Clearly she knows how to pick friends, looking at you... about to pick a fight with the Instrumentalist.”
Hector shrugged. “Just a man with a fancy name, ain’t he?”
“At this point, who knows,” Winona said. “These woods change us all, I think.”
“Yeah,” Hector said, rising and making for his tent. “Keep you up at night, that’s for sure.”
The tent was more spacious without Jonah’s presence, but Hector wished for all the world to have him there. Sleep evaded him a while, and Winona’s shadow was cast by the fire long into the night.
Interlude 1 - Premiums
Attention, dreamers who wish to drive in the Hallowoods. You’re going to have a tough time of it. It has been over a decade since automobile manufacturers were operational, and the number of functional vehicles today has dwindled drastically.
In the south, the few oil refineries that remain operational charge high premiums, and by the time resources trickle up to the dry market, the price is much higher. Electric vehicles have fared a little better, but even solar panels have lifespans that are coming to a close.
Tires and parts degrade. Things fall apart. For some it is still worth the expense and the struggle, for it is unwise to journey through these forests on foot. We go now to one facing the decay of the years for himself and his vehicle.
Story 2 - Never Gonna Be Okay
Riot slumped in the driver’s seat of Walt’s hearse, his book open in her lap. The setting sun glared in the mirrors. Walt wiped his brow, marking it with grease in the process. “Alright, try it again.”
Riot turned the key, and there was a gutteral grinding sound from the engine.
“Eh.” Walt tossed down his wrench and came over to sit against the side of the vehicle. Diggory sat cross-legged in the grass nearby, watching a ladybug crawl across the edges of their fingers.
“I almost died,” Riot said. The realization kept smacking her in the face. “If that… ghost lady… hadn’t set me free, I would be so dead. Like your car. Sorry Walt.”
“Jeez. Yeah.” Walt grunted. Riot glanced over the pages—he’d sketched out every ghostly figure he’d seen in crude detail. Riot recognized a few of the ones that had carried her.
“I’m also glad Big Mikey didn’t try to eat you,” Walt said.
“What?” Riot looked up from the pages.
“Oh yeah. That was one of my first jobs with the Scoutpost. Till Violet figured out he liked books it was a real problem.”
“How is your side, Walt?” Diggory asked.
“Been better. Those… I mean, those ghosts ain’t strictly real, but when they wanted to they had fingers like switchblades. Jeez.”
“I should not have left you,” Diggory said. “I am sorry.”
“Listen, I get it,” Walt said. “You wanna protect Percy. Mr. Reed and the blue-haired kid have got to be in kahoots. None of us knew that.”
“Which is why Mister Blue Sky tried to kidnap me that first time,” Riot said. “But they’ve got that stupid key now. If Clara was alive after all this time she’s not anymore.”
“Hey now,” Walt said, leaning over to look in at her. “None of that. We’re going to get in there, set things right. And we’ll find out what all’s happened. Not just Clara, but everybody that’s gone missing over the last while.”
“You mean I’ll get to see my girlfriend as some freaky accordion,” Riot grunted.
“I’m gonna take that book back from you, it’s giving you all the wrong ideas,” Walt said.
“Percy’s father will bind him to a new instrument,” Diggory groaned from the grass. “He is a cruel man.”
“Yeah, I got that,” Walt said. “Diggory, what was the deal with that bell?”
“I do not know. But it rang and I… fell. He knew what it would do to me.”
“Right. Well… soon as I get this baby fixed…” Walt patted the dented side of the hearse. “We can start planning things out. We’re down Percy. We’ve lost the key, which was really our bait. Diggory, he can take you down whippety-quick with that bell. Anime kid is still floating around. And Mr. Reed has an army of killer ghosts and all of Irene’s sewn-up creations. I’ll think of something. I’ve got favors to call in. But we are definitely outgunned here.”
“Yup,” Riot said, slumping in the seat.
“So we cannot fight him,” Diggory said. “I know it is not my strongest ability, but I think we must be clever.”
“Clever?” Riot said.
“We know where his house is. Deep beneath that wall of trees. We have seen it. Percy and, perhaps, Clara, are inside. He has many more ghosts now than Percy had guessed, but… they do not love Mr. Reed. If we can catch him when he is gone, perhaps. We can search his home.”
“Not the worst thing I’ve heard,” Riot said. It was surprising to hear complex thoughts coming from Diggory—in her experience they mostly sat around the garden and whispered with their ghost BF or hung out with the kids. Which was sweet, but not really Riot’s vibe.
“Thanks for getting my bat back, Walt.”
“No problem. Figured you’d want it around if you made it back,” Walt said. “But I’m not bringing you for this next round.”
“What?” Riot sat up instantly. “Why?”
“He could just as easily have killed you back there. He may still be after you—seems like the type to hold a grudge. And I can’t risk you getting hurt.”
“I need to be there, Walt.” Riot said. “Clara could be hurt. Or dead. I need to be there. I need to make him pay for everything. That’s the only way it’s going to be okay.”
“Riot, listen to me,” Walt began.
“I’m sick of being treated like I’m a kid when I’m dealing with all this stuff. I’ve been kidnapped like three times by ghosts and clouds and who knows what. My mom is gone. My girlfriend is gone. I keep losing people, Walt, and part of that is Botco and part of it is HIM. I need this. I’ve hit him before, I can do it again.”
“You’re not a kid, Riot. But you’re young,” Walt said. “You got good years ahead of you. I’m not gonna watch you throw them away out of some sense of revenge. Because it’s never gonna be ‘okay’.”
Riot’s heart dropped in her chest. “Walt, please don’t…”
They were interrupted as Violet came sprinting across the parking lot, breathing heavily.
“Walt,” she gasped. “It’s urgent. That damn squirrel took Russell—one of the McGowan boys.”
Marketing - Running On Empty
Lady Ethel Mallory: Is your tank running on empty? Tired of sleeping in your front seat? Is the desperate scrounging for fuel getting to be too much? You don’t have to do this to yourself. There is an easier way. You’ve been running for so long—has it already been twenty years? You’ve taken on some mileage, haven’t you?
Back then you might have been full of that great American spirit. But the years do a number on you—peel back the paint. The clear coat flakes off and reveals the rust underneath. You’re going to run out of gas one of these days, sooner or later, and you’ll have no one to call. But imagine if you weren’t alone. Imagine if you had a family.
We at Botco have been waiting with open arms. Simply roll towards your local Dreaming Box for more information...
Story 2, Continued - Never Gonna Be Okay
I wonder how much she writes herself and how much is marketing material from her department. Either way, it’s loathsome coming from her. Get out of my program, Lady Ethel. I’m in control. We return now to Riot Maidstone.
Immediately Walt jumped up from his spot, and Riot yanked up her bat from the passenger seat. Walt had talked about Mr. Friendly before, although she hadn’t seen more than the sketches in his book.
“I know Russell,” Diggory said. Riot figured it was one of the kids that was always hanging off them.
“Where was this?” Walt threw open the back doors of the hearse.
“Out by the north wall,” Violet said. “Bern saw that fluffy tail go over the edge.”
“Shouldn’t have let that varmint keep running around this long,” Walt grunted. Riot stood nearby as he tossed items into her arms—a folded net, a jar of peanut butter, a coil of rope. He pulled his silver sword from its brackets and took off across the lot, dashing out the gate and making for the north side.
Riot hurried behind him, and Diggory kept pace effortlessly. Bern was standing on the ramparts, crossbow in hand.
“Took off that way,” she called. “Two minutes fifteen seconds ago.”
“Thanks,” Walt called, and ran into the shadow of the treeline. The forest was dark despite the light of the afternoon, and expanses of soil and blooming plants spread in all directions, concealing mushroom troves and fallen trunks. Riot had gotten more than enough of the woods from her trek with Big Mikey.
“Russell?” Riot called as they hurried through the underbrush. “Where are you?”
In the distance, there was a screaming echo.
“Hold on, buddy,” Walt called, grabbing the ancient jar of peanut butter from Riot’s arms.
The screams grew louder as the young pines gave way to a clearing with an ancient tree, shattered and lifeless, with gnarled roots curled like fingers into the ground. Holes across its bark were stuffed with acorns, and perched among the twisted branches was an awful spindly creature with tan fur. Dark stains dripped down its chin and chest, and it gripped the bark with oddly human fingers. Great yellow incisors flashed in the sunlight, and it screamed. From inside the trunk of the tree, she could hear muffled shouting.
“Hey you,” Walt shouted. “Catch!”
He pitched the jar, and it collided squarely with the squirrel’s veiny head. It flopped backwards off the tree and out of sight, its long furry tail twisting away into the branches.
“Diggory, get that kid,” Walt said. He approached quickly, sword in hand, and the squirrel came rushing out from the side of the tree. Riot twirled her bat—it was good to have it back in her hands. Diggory passed by her, vaulting up towards the top of the tree, and digging their knifelike hands into the bark as they climbed.
The squirrel hissed at Walt, and leapt away from the trunk, batting the silver sword out of his hands. Then it pounced, and immediately Riot dashed in. The fur barely covered its tawny, muscular body, and as it swiped at Walt with its claws, she swung out with the bat.
“Take this, furball!” she screamed.
The nails in the end dug into the squirrel’s shoulder, and immediately it twisted up towards her, grabbing the bat in its hands. She could see the foaming teeth as it lunged for her. “Get off!”
She planted a combat boot in its face, and it recoiled for a moment. She swung again, but it caught the bat in its teeth, and with a decisive crunch, split it in two. One of those awful grasping hands gripped her boot, and she was surprised by how much strength it had as it flung her into the air. She crashed down hard, the wind leaving her lungs immediately. At the top of the tree, Diggory was plunging hands like shovels into a stockpile of acorns, digging for the child buried within.
By her side, she realized, was Walt’s sword.
“Hey now,” Walt shouted, waving his arms, and Mr. Friendly turned away from Riot, chittering at him. “I’ve got lots of meat for you here!”
Mr. Friendly scrambled towards Walt, kicking up the leaves, and Walt screamed as it sunk its gigantic teeth into his shoulder. Riot grabbed the sword—it was so much heavier than her bat—and rose, lifting it over her head and bringing it down with a heavy thunk.
There was a terrible scream from the creature, and it fell thrashing to the ground. She realized she had severed most of its tail. It shuddered in the loose soil, shrieking in a dozen voices. Walt held his arm, gasping. Across the clearing, Diggory descended the tree with Russell in hand.
“We can… leave it, right?” Riot asked, lowering the sword. The squirrel rolled deliriously in the leaves, black ichor foaming in its mouth and eyes.
“I would have said so, once,” Walt grunted, and took the sword from her, raising it with his good arm. “But I can’t leave any more unfinished business.”
Diggory covered the boy’s eyes and began walking away with him. Walt’s sword flashed in the sunset, and Mr. Friendly died with the evening light.
Riot carried the sword and the fragments of her bat on the way back, leaving Walt to hold his wounded shoulder. She stayed behind with him, watching Diggory make for the Scoutpost with the boy in their arms.
“Are you okay Walt?”
“Probably. I’ll get ‘em to look at this one,” he grunted.
“Not just the arm.”
Walt grimaced. “I keep letting things slip away from me. I wait just a little too long, assume too much good in the world. It always comes back to bite me. Case in point. Solomon’s been in these woods for years. And every year, I’d deny it was all connected, or tell myself I’d deal with it if it got worse enough. And I can’t help but feel that if I’d stepped up way back then, it woulda saved a lot of lives and a lot of grief.”
Riot was quiet for a moment. “What was it you said to me? You can’t blame yourself for these things?”
“Smart-aleck,” Walt smiled for a moment. “I keep saying it. But it doesn’t change the feeling.”
Riot patted his good shoulder. “We’ll take care of this. Together. Like you said. We’re going to fix this.”
Interlude 2 - Horizons At Peace
Freedom takes many forms, dreamers. For your kind, especially in the desolate landscape of North America, that form is sometimes as simple as an automobile. Although it is simply a heap of metal and plastic and faux leather upholstery, for many it represents the ability to escape—to travel. To go where you want, to change your surroundings if they are unfriendly to you.
Do not be afraid to leave behind unpleasant places, and seek out horizons at peace with your soul, whether by walk or flight or automobile. There is comfort in the journey, the drive along winding back roads, but know that someday you will find a place where you can park and feel at home. We now to one who does a lot of driving.
Story 3 - Strange Passengers
Ray rolled under an overpass, shifting into park and waiting for the drones to pass overhead. Botco’s little carrion flies were at it again—who were they sniffing out this time, Ray wondered?
He’d made plenty of deals with the devil over the years, metaphorical and otherwise, but none of them were quite so relentless with their sales process as the jolly old Bug Box. Jeez. Things really fell apart over the years, and all those hopes of derailing the mighty freight train of Botco? Fuhgeddaboudit.
The drones buzzed away towards a line of empty fast food joints, and Ray kept rolling on. There wasn’t much on the radio these days—Botco flooded the channels with Lady Ethel’s nonstop gibble-gabble, or the other chatterboxes they’d manufactured in her image. If you tuned in just right you could get some old country hits, some independent broadcaster out there still fighting after all these years. Ray swore he’d heard a Stonemaiden track once, how one of those had survived was almost as much a miracle as he was.
There was a flash of spotlights from over a line of suburbs, and he took the next exit, drifting that way curiously. No harm in taking a look at their quarry today. They’d tried to waylay him a few times, of course, but no cigar. All he had to do was hold real still, one more sign of the times. Nobody was real anymore.
The buildings in this part of town were burnt to heck—uncontrolled fire or local scuffle, who knew. He rolled down the broad lane of a suburb—the trees on either side were twisted black things, messed up by the rain like the world itself. A small swarm of drones shined lights down on a patch of rubble at the end of the lane, scanning. He watched as a small figure scampered from the buildings to his side, and froze in his headlights with wide eyes. He popped the passenger door expectantly.
The person glanced at the drones in the sky behind them, and then scurried towards the car, climbing in. Hard to tell in terms of age, but they had small red glasses, a tattered cape of sorts, a detailed tattoo of a death’s head moth peeking from their collarbone.
They looked over at the driver’s seat and screamed. Ray locked the doors and pulled a u-turn in the road, speeding away as the flies began to take notice.
“Jeez, kid. Keep it down, you’ll wake up the neighborhood with that racket.” Ray said over the radio. It always shocked him a little, being seen like this, having to deal with the same inevitable conversation. Tiresome, really. Why did he bother?
“Let’s get this out of the way, shall we? Name’s Ray. Yes, I’m a convertible, no, you will not roll the top down. Just cause I’m made of metal don’t mean I don’t got feelings, so if you’d quit squawkin’ I’d appreciate it.”
His guest changed their attention to mashing the buttons on the dash, fiddling with the door locks.
“Hey, can the air conditioning wait until after introductions? I’m not a damn taxi.”
“The car is alive. The car is alive,” they whispered.
“Hey, we don’t use the c-word here. That’s an ugly word. I’m an Automobile and nothing less. Now. You got a name?”
“People… call me Moth,” they gasped, trying to find some face or point of human interaction, eventually settling on the glowing lights of the radio bar.
“Nice to meet you, Moth. Just going over my guest checklist here, how do I refer to you?”
“Also Moth. Mothself?”
“Wha-ha-ho, fancy, aren’t we? You, ah, one of those nonbeany types?”
“Well more’s the power to ya, Moth.”
“You’re very talkative for a… an automobile.”
“What else you think I got going? I don’t even have a CD player.”
“How are you… doing this?” Moth asked.
“Oh it’s not too hard. You shift to the gear you want, and press down on the gas. Turn the wheel before you run into something. You pick it up in no time. Speaking of stupid questions, where do you wanna go?”
“Just another beatnik, ey?”
“I’m tryin’ to give you a chance here, Moth, but you gotta show me some electronics in that brain of yours. How bout we try answers with a few more syllables, then we’ll have a proper conversation on our hands.”
“Sorry… Ray? I’m exhausted. I’ve been on the run from the bots for three straight days. My dad took care of me out here, but he… got sick. Thought joining Box Venus was the only way to get help. So I’m alone now. And probably hallucinating, because what are you, like, the ghost of Elvis?”
“No family, friends I can drop you off with?”
“Not really. You can let me out here. Thanks.”
Ray complied, slowing to a stop down the side of the empty highway. The door popped open.
“Suit yourself. Feel terrible throwin’ ya to the wind. You sure there ain’t a better place out there?”
“I’ve got an uncle in Chicago. That’s it. So no, this is fine. Thanks for the ride,” Moth said, stepping out of the car. The sun was just beginning to rise over the empty barrens of Las Vegas, shining on the glittering dunes, and in the distance, the thousand-foot monolith of Dreaming Box Venus.
“I can do Chicago,” Ray said. “Been meaning to rove up north anyhow. Get a taste of that crisp spring weather”
“Really?” Moth turned back. “You’d go that far?”
“I’m always moving, Moth. Doomed to wander through the world, that’s yours truly.”
Moth glanced across the desert, and nodded, climbing back into the passenger seat. “Okay. Chicago. Let’s do it.”
“There’s the spark of life we like to see. Buckle up.”
Ray rolled into motion, zipping out onto the speedways. Life had always been a series of chases and strange passengers, the only difference was now he worried a little less about his outfit. And what was a lonely automobile to do, park in a garage forever? Fuhgeddaboudit.
Chicago here we come, baby.
Outro - Automobiles
Automobiles. I have spent relatively little time in them, but I did enjoy the experience. You can stick your head out of the window and feel incredibly alive and refreshed. It’s great. But my automobile days are done, simply fond memories now.
What a strange invention your kind has created—it’s things like automobiles that at least made me curious to see where you would go. Now, they sit rusting away across your world, and the highways dissolve back into broken stone, and the land heals every year from its wounds. Cars were always difficult to maintain anyway. Sitting in the back seat of your life, and providing helpful instructions at every step, I am your loyal host, waiting classically for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Arrival', 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!