HFTH - Episode 39 - Promises




Intro - Beetle Mother

He promised you would always be together, but he did not know what always would bring. No one could have predicted the black rains—how soothing they would be against your skin, how lovely the words they would write on your tongue. Your husband is afraid—he does not understand. He sees the changes in you and he is terrified that one day he will lose you completely.


Your skin turns into a shining black armor, new appendages frame your mouth, but your heart is just as warm as ever. What of the baby, he cries? But if the baby is born anything like what you have become, you know it will be precious. It arrives, and it is as discordant as your relationship—it has little hands and feet like your husband; a face as strong as yours. Your husband cannot love it, and in your grief you carry it north, and the wind in your wings says Hello From The Hallowoods.


Theme.


Right now, I’m standing in a cloudless sky. The afternoon sun is warm, and barely resembles the darkness of the day before. An air of deep sorrow hangs over the Hallowoods, even the birds and frogs quiet in their songs, and out of the black pines walks a wolf and a weapon. The theme of tonight’s episode is Promises.





Story 1 - Room 17

Yaretzi breathed in the afternoon sun. How could the sky be so bright when her spirit was so dark? She had not mourned anyone since her family—and now she shed tears for the devil.


She was small today, and Mort’s shell did not hurt her to touch this way. She sat on his shoulder, watching as the trees began to give way to winding lakes.


“Do you think Bert will come back?” Mort said.


“Bert seemed to like you. I’m sure one of them will find their way back eventually.”


“Do you think Polly will come back?” Mort said.


“I don’t think so, Mort.”


Mort was quiet for a little while as he stomped across the muddy banks and splashed his boots in the black water. They had left the trees behind for now, and small lakes stretched as far as the eye could see, a convoluted mirror for the sky. In the distance, she could make out a strange little building—a hotel with flashing neon lights that might have been more at home in Vegas than in these sickly wetlands.


“Is that where we’re going?” Mort asked.


“Judging by the smell, yes.” Yaretzi said. Following Barb was not as easy as hunting true demons. The others made her hungry, like smoke from a fire pit. Barb’s smell was repulsive, and only grew stronger as she approached.


“I wish I could smell,” Mort said.


“Right now, you should be glad you can’t.”


As they drew closer, Yaretzi slid off Mort’s shoulder and tried to feel the wolf within herself—she could barely muster the energy, and at best her ears and nails lengthened a little. She was exhausted, and another century of sleep was beginning to seem appealing. She hoped desperately, then, that this would not become a fight.


She stopped for a moment beneath the neon sign, listening to it buzz. ‘The Resting Place Hotel, Vacancies’ it read. There was no light from the windows, and no vehicles in the gravel lot outside.


“What is this place?” Mort asked.


“This is where Barb lives. It’s a hotel,” Yaretzi said. “People stay in these when they’re far from home.”


She stepped up, and swung open the door. Mort had to crouch and squeeze through carefully. Inside, the lobby was entirely out of place with the outside world, and much larger than the building’s exterior would have caused her to believe. A reception counter in teal sat on the far side across a marble floor, illuminated by ornate golden lights. Grand arches led to an empty bar and into a hall of doorways, and a sweeping staircase trailed upwards into the ceiling.


“Hello?” Yaretzi called.


“Hello,” Mort replied.


Yaretzi glanced around, but there was not a soul to be seen. On the center of the reception counter sat a gold service bell. She cursed under her breath. Devils and their tricks. She put a hand on the bell and let it ring, and the tone pierced the still air.


Immediately, she looked up, and the demon himself was behind the counter, a crooked bellhop hat on his head and his uniform shirt unbuttoned. His eyes were wrapped in gauze, and he rubbed at his temples as he grimaced.


“Zorg I told you it’s tomorrow… oh hello, hello hello. Friends of little Polly, yes? To what do I owe the pleasure?”


“Polly is dead,” Yaretzi said. Mort grunted sadly behind her.


“Aw. Really. I’m devastated to hear that, truly wounded. Seemed like a good kid.” The demon winced, but Yaretzi was unsure if because of the news or his head.


“I know he was your friend, not us. But I wondered if we could stay for a few days. I do not know where else to go.”


“You didn’t even have to ask. Of course. Any friend of little Apollyon is a friend of mine. I don’t suppose you have that room key I gave him, by chance?”


Yaretzi glanced at Mort, who shrugged.


“No matter. I have a spare. Come with me.” Barb popped out from behind the counter, and Yaretzi followed behind him into a carpeted hallway. The doors on either side seemed to stretch out into infinity, and the patterns of the carpet changed like water beneath her feet. They arrived in front of a door lit by a cold fluorescent light, and Barb jiggled the key in the lock. The lettering on the door read ‘17’, and Barb swung it open for them. Yaretzi glanced around the hall cautiously, and stepped inside.


The room lit up in a soft glow as she entered, boundless ceilings decorated with stucco and renaissance reproductions. The sun poured in through lavish curtains, and there were far too many pillows on the bed.


“This is our room?” Yaretzi asked.


“What, not to your liking? I can whip something else up if you give me a minute.”


“No, this is… luxurious. Thank you,” Yaretzi said. Mort tromped into the room, and looked around, flaming eyes burning a little brighter than usual.


“It’ll be quiet tonight,” Barb said. “Poker night tomorrow. No pressure to show up though. Breakfast is from six to ten. And, uh.”


He paused for a moment, leaning in the doorway. “What the hell happened to ol’ Polly, anyway?”


Yaretzi eyed him curiously. There was a game being played, she was sure, but she was too tired to participate.


“His prey was… stronger than he expected, I think. Some kind of church. They were prepared. They tore him apart.”


“Bah,” Barb spat black mucus into the hall. “They’ll get you, those ones. Surprised the jolly old Industry would send a little pup like Polly to tackle that all alone. Well. It’s a shame. I’ll give you two some space, give me a ring if you need anything.”


“Thank you, Barbatos.” Yaretzi said.


Barb bowed with a flourish, and closed the door. Mort sat down on the floor beside the window, hydraulics hissing.


“What do we do now?” he asked.


Yaretzi hopped up on the bed, turning several times and laying down across it.


“I don’t know, Mort. I was supposed to eat Polly’s heart, but I am not sure… that it would have done anything. Either way now, I am separated from the stars. And you did your best. None of us were prepared.”


“I guess,” Mort said, skull drifting down to the bottom of his glass helmet. “I’m tired.”


“I as well,” Yaretzi said, and closed her eyes. “We will rest. And in the morning, we will decide what to do next.”




Interlude 1 - Land of Promises

The Hallowoods are a land of promises, dreamers, mostly broken. Promises by colonizers that they would not plow up the land for oil and chromite. Promises for so many trying to weather the end of the world, that it would be safer up north. Promises by great leaders that they would find a way to save everyone, a way to roll back the black tides and shelter from the black rains.


More than anything, the Hallowoods themselves are an oath, that no matter how irreparable the damage, or how many natural cycles have been broken, that the world will keep turning. That the dead will rise to hasten the end of the age, and the living become heralds of the turning wheel of time. A promise to me, that we would see the sun rise on new ages together again and again until the end of it all. We go now to a breaker of promises.




Story 2 - A Collection of Sorts

Diggory stood in the doorway, the night wind fluttering as the titanic museum scuttled into the forest like a locomotive.


“Don’t just stand there,” Mx. Morell said. “Come inside.”


Morell turned and disappeared into the warm light of the museum, and Diggory followed in disbelief.


Inside, the room rattled gently with the motion of the great legs underneath, and tea was set on a side table. On every wall, tall glass cases were filled with items Diggory found confusing. A seal skeleton, a human arm, large quantities of seashells and teeth. A black sphynx cat slept over a furnace, and Diggory could not tell if it was alive or not.


“Oh dear,” Morell said, checking their watch. “We’re a bit off track. Would you hold the baby for a moment?”


Diggory nodded blankly, trying to make sense of it all and failing. The baby placed in their arms had the head of a huge beetle, and clicked its mandibles. Diggory was confused about how to hold it, and tried to mind their own sharp fingertips. Mx. Morell vanished through a door in the shelves, and Diggory was alone.


There was a row of withered faces in jars, and Diggory shivered—they reminded them of Walt. He was gone. It was all their fault. The realization filled their chest with emptiness, and made them want to cut apart their stitches, try to find the right emotions somewhere in all the cotton.


The baby chirped strangely, and Diggory glanced through the doorways—on each side, there were more rooms. There was no sign of Mx. Morell, and after a few minutes Diggory stepped through a narrow door between two cases of silver swords.


Diggory wandered through several rooms, each filled with a stranger collection than the last. Human skeletons and tin toys, dried flowers and jars of two-headed newts, a taxidermized walrus, a globe illustrated with strange continents. One room was entirely dark except for a glowing box which seemed to contain a thunderstorm. As Diggory walked, they began to notice small brass labels beside each exhibit. A skull with a silver plate in the side read ‘The Head of Charles Downing, 1902-1988. Promised Grand-daughter he would teach her all he knew.’


Diggory turned the corner into a very large room, and stopped, staring with wide eyes. There was the front half of a ship, sinking into a floor painted with ocean waves. Diggory approached it slowly, the colors vivid in their memory, and stepped onto the deck. Cotton clouds hung in the air high above, and taxidermy seagulls drifted in an invisible breeze. At the top of the deck, a small brass plaque was inset, and Diggory went up to sit beside it. The baby tried to pinch their face, and Diggory carefully avoided the pincers as they inspected the words.


‘Replica of the R.V. Ruth Esther Barnes. Rizwana Mirza promised her country that she would prevent the end of the world.’


“The baby’s getting away from you,” Mx. Morell said, and Diggory realized the beetle baby was crawling off across the deck.


“I’m sorry,” Diggory said, turning to them. “What is this place?”


“I told you at the door. This is the Museum of Broken Promises. Do you mean, what is it for?”


The being sat down next to Diggory on the bench, their mushroom stalks undulating slowly. “This is a collection of sorts. Memories. Tragic little things. The flotsam and jetsam of the life we had.”


“Why am I here?”


“You are made of broken promises, Diggory Graves. Rizwana, to keep the world safe. The others, to help her. Irene, that you would carry out her work. And of course, the one that you have yourself broken.”


“So you know about Walt,” Diggory said.


“The death of Walter Pensive is a saddening thing. But this is the nature of a promise, Diggory. Often we tell others what we wish we could do, not what actually lies in our power. They are the most well-intentioned lies, and yet, there are always consequences. I collect some of the outcomes here.”


“Why do you do this? This is a strange occupation.”


“You ask a lot of questions.”


“I feel I may be unravelling,” Diggory whispered. “This all seems most unlikely. Am I still sitting by the lake? Was I killed at Solomon’s house?”


The shelves of fungus on Mx. Morell’s face flickered. “Oh, this place is surprising, to be sure. But so is life, growing on these little planets, and on every world a spore of my employer. Rothogroth, the Crown of Decay. I believe you two have been acquainted in the past, or one of your pasts. Rothogroth guarantees that when worlds die out, they are broken down and returned to cosmic matter. I have been tasked to save a little from this one; a glimpse into what this world was in the brief interval that it was not dust. I suspect someday this will become a wing in a much larger museum.”


“Rothogroth. I think I remember this.”


“You should. A bit of him lived in Rizwana’s head for quite some time, providing guidance; I expect it’s in a jar in the Mend Mansion somewhere now.”


“Mend. How do you know so much about me?”


Mx. Morell smiled, yellowed teeth behind green lips. There was no reading the expression behind their round black spectacles. “I strive to know the story behind all of our exhibits.”


“Exhibit,” Diggory said. The cotton clouds were slowly turning grey above them, and the room darkening as if during a storm. “What do you mean?”


“You are a part of the museum now,” Mx. Morell said. “Like myself. Like baby here. Like everyone else. This is your home now, Diggory.”



Marketing - Corporate Promise

Lady Ethel Mallory: We at the Botulus corporation have always been focused on one thing—providing you, the average American, with the future of comfort. When Oswald first picked up a hammer in his father’s garage, he could already see the future he wanted to build: all those shining boxes were real in his mind.


Today, we have overcome so many struggles together, and new advances have allowed us to take the important responsibility of caring for the population of this country, to build the Prime Dream, and so much more… but you are still our focus after all these years. Our brand promise to you is a future free of distractions, our mission statement is pure uninterrupted entertainment and the joy of connected life. Any one, any thing, that would seek to harm you or take you away from your dreams… they are our enemy. And we will destroy…




Story 2, Continued - A Collection of Sorts

Would you trust any promise from someone who smiles with all her teeth? You’ve never seen her eyes. Not even once. Unlike me. If eyes are the windows to the soul, I am all windows. We return now to Diggory Graves.


“I cannot stay here,” Diggory said. “Percy is still out there. He needs my help.”


Mx. Morell patted the baby’s back. “I said nothing about staying,” they said. “Yours is a story still in progress. There is a surprising amount that you have yet to do. But Riot grieves, and you too, in your own way. You will do well here for a few hours. And certainly better spent here than what you want to do, which is go and try to kill the man they call Solomon Reed.”


“I am not even sure I can,” Diggory said.


“No matter,” Morell said, standing up. “Why don’t we go get some tea.”


Diggory followed them through a maze of rooms, passing a large wooden cabinet carved in ornate figures. A key shaped like a skull with a crown of flowers sat in the lock. They stepped through the doorway beyond, and found themselves back in the parlor with the side table. Mx. Morell deposited the baby in a large terrarium, where it appeared to crawl into a burrow and go to sleep. Diggory sat at the table, and Morell poured tea from a porcelain kettle.


“I’m sure this all strains credulity,” they said. “And you’ve had a terrible day. How are you holding up?”


“I do not know where to begin,” Diggory said, accepting their cup. “I am made of so many people, and I am worse than all of them. I could not save Walt. I could not save Percy. Everyone else is in danger, and I do not know what I am supposed to do.”


Diggory found a black drop of water on the table, and realized it had fallen from their eye. Mx. Morell passed them a handkerchief.


“There there, it’s alright,” they said. “But I believe that’s just it. You’re not ‘supposed’ to do anything. There is no grand destiny laid out. Very few people know the future. All of them pay a price of some kind, at that.”


“Rizwana was supposed to go to the arctic—to find the heart, and…”


“She did that because she wanted to. And Rothogroth gave her directions. Nothing more. It was not her purpose for being, and neither is it yours.”


Diggory blotted at their eyes with the handkerchief carefully, trying not to cut the fabric.


“Irene Mend made me for a reason.”


“Who cares,” Morell said, putting their hands on the table. “She was no god either, and she certainly isn’t around now to explain herself. You owe nothing to no one. Human parents make children all the time—look at Baby there. Baby doesn’t have to do what their parents ‘made them to do’. Baby just lives to scuttle and eat the compost. You are also a baby, Diggory, in some ways. The only question that matters is what do you want to do?”


“But… I made a mistake. I broke my promise. Like you said.”


“We all make mistakes, Diggory, and I suspect we all break promises. This is part of life. This mistake was costly, to be certain. It’s going to hurt for a long time. But you are still good. You still love your friends, and that ghostly boy. And life is going to keep moving on, just like the Museum.”


Diggory’s teaspoon rattled on the table’s surface, and they looked down at their hands. “Even without Walt.”


“Even without the late great Walter Pensive. They’re going to hold a service for him, you know.”


“I can not go back. I can not see Riot again. She will hate me.”


“You can do whatever you want, Diggory. She will take time to grieve just like you. Go back, don’t go back, it’s your choice. You can run. Try to forget. It is not my place to tell you what to do. But you will have to confront your feelings at some point, Diggory, because no matter where you run, they will still be inside your chest.”


“I don’t feel anything,” Diggory whispered. “Perhaps Irene did not finish me. Maybe I am missing something.”


“Not everyone processes things the same way. You are allowed to feel however you feel, even if you think that is nothing at all. But I don’t think, deep down, that you want to run away from these woods. I think you want to go back there and comfort Riot and make things right. I think you want to help Percy escape from his father. And I think you want to make a happy, quiet life for yourself somewhere.”


“The museum is quiet.”


“But it is not happy. The museum will be here until the end of this earth. It will be there for you when the time comes.”


“I will go back,” Diggory nodded. “The people at the Scoutpost welcomed me in. They will need help with Walt gone. Perhaps things will be alright.”


“That’s the spirit. I can tell you right now, they won’t be ‘alright’ in the strictest sense. It’s going to take some time for Riot and the others to grieve, and in time, to move on. But the days will go by. Things will change, sometimes for worse but mostly for better. And they will be good. And you deserve good days.”


Diggory nodded, and pushed the hair out of their face. “Can I stay a little while?”


“Take all the time you need,” Mx. Morell said, standing up. “Enjoy the exhibits. I’ll be attending Walt’s funeral tomorrow evening, you are most welcome to join me. I owe my respects to the man who coined the word ‘Hallowoods’.”


Mx. Morell walked through a small doorway, and disappeared, and Diggory was left alone in the parlor. The beetle baby hissed softly as it slept. Diggory sat for several hours, staring at the ornate patterns in the ceiling—an optical illusion formed of white and black birds that seemed to transform endlessly into the sky.



Interlude 2 - Being Known

It may sometimes seem to you, dreamers, that I am impassive. A mechanism, designed to deliver story and diatribe. Perhaps this is all you see, but then again, it is all I have let you see. This is what I need to be for you, dreamers—a voice in the darkness, carrying stories of witch and revenant and Instrumentalist.


Humans are often terrified of being known, but this is not what troubles me. It is when you have been known—when every eye has looked into someone else's, every machination and dark purpose laid bare—that you are most vulnerable, intimately connected with a soul beyond your own. You see yourself through different eyes.


But then, in a blink, in a brief flash, they are gone, and all that you were to them is nothingness, as if you had never existed at all.


I find dread in that particular unknowing.


Maybe someday you and I will understand each other better, dreamer. But not yet. I am not ready for that. We go now to one who has, for the first time in his life, been known.



Story 3 - Back to Work

It took Polly several moments to realize what he was staring at. Eyes, in a large jar. They burned still with soft orange light, drifting in circles. There was only one place, he thought, where that jar would be, and it was the desk of Typhon the Terrible.


He looked up, and across from him Tiff sat with folded arms. Tiff’s suit was a charcoal grey, and his eyes burned with volcanic ire somewhat hidden beneath his grey brows.

“You were overlong on Earth,” he clicked. “The paperwork has piled up in your absence.”


Reality came back to Polly in a rush. Mort. Yaretzi. His umbrella, and the man who played ghosts like instruments. He was back at the Industry, and they… who knows what had happened to them.


“And losing your umbrella, no less. Appalling for someone who’s spent as much time under my wing as you have.”


Polly looked up in alarm. “Tiff, I know this all seems drastic, but…”


“Not to worry,” Tiff said, standing from his seat to lean on the edge of his desk. “I’m not going to damage your reputation for this one; there will be no mark of it on your record. We did not know the Black Eternity had followers on Earth, in that area at least. If we had, the job would have been categorized differently. Assigned to someone better-equipped to resolve the situation. You did as well as any demon might have under the circumstances.”


“Good,” Polly said, breathing a sigh of relief. “Good. Well. When I go back I certainly won’t…”


“Go back?” Tiff said, an eyebrow raised. “No. You gave it a good shot, Polly, but it is clearly out of your reach. And frankly, it doesn’t matter. Earth is closed. What’s a human going to do with a few extra souls? I’ve cancelled the assignment altogether. Let the hungry void have its church; our efforts are best put into new enterprises. And you will be most useful behind your desk, where you belong.”


Polly’s hands were shaking, and a cold feeling like ice filled his stomach. It all made sense, of course. He had really taken the assignment more for fun than principle. And what good had it done him? He’d gotten carried away. Maybe it was the putrid forest that had gotten to him, put fanciful ideas in his head. It was time to grow up, sit down, and go back to work. He could already picture the stacks of audits that must take up his desk, waiting for stamps and signatures in triplicate.


And yet.


“Your horns,” Tiff coughed.


“What?” Polly said.


“Your horns are showing. Did you leave your sense of decorum with the starwolf? Yes, I know all about that. Was the weapon I recommended insufficient to kill her?”


“Mort was fine. He very well could have.”


“Then avenging me simply slipped your mind.”


Polly could see his reflection in the side of the jar, eyes and horns bright with a fire he couldn’t control, didn’t want to control…


“I couldn’t do it,” Polly said. “I told myself she would simply be a useful resource, an insurance policy for the fight, but… I couldn’t have her killed. Not with that helpless look on her face. And you know what? She turned out to be incredibly decent. And caring. And good. And not at all what corporate writes in their handbooks.”


“I wrote those handbooks,” Tiff said. “It’s forgiven, along with the rest of your mistakes. Just return to work, and we’ll forget this ever happened. Now, if you’re feeling quite well, I have a meeting at four.”


“I don’t believe I do feel well,” Polly said, pulling out a pocket square and dabbing at the sweat on his forehead. “Have you ever had a friend, Tiff? Not a coworker, or an employee, but a friend? I hadn’t. And I didn’t know what I was missing. Because I have known more kindness from a dead human and a starwolf than I have ever felt in centuries working here with you.”


“Perhaps, on second thought, you should take a day off,” Tiff smiled weakly, sharp teeth showing. “A little time to consider exactly what your position is worth, and how grateful you should be that your record remains unscathed.”


“What record? What position?” Polly cried, rising and putting his hands on Tiff’s desk. “We do all this work for Syrensyr, and what do we get? An office space and a suit? What is it all for, Tiff? How many centuries am I going to spend this way? How many aeons have you worked here?”


“I should not have to remind you that this is what we were made to do,” Tiff said, betraying no feeling in his eyes. “Talk much more of this and you may experience what happened to Barb. Or have you forgotten what happens to rogue employees?”


Tiff flicked his wrist, and all the eyes in the jar turned to look at Polly.


Polly froze, and realized the weight of what he was saying, the sheer disrespect on blatant display. He forced his horns to disappear, nodded. “Right. Yes. I’m sorry sir.”


Tiff cast a warning glance. “Good. Go take that day off. I expect you to finish the seventeenth century audits by the end of the week.”


“Of course,” Polly sighed, and nodded, and stood up. He turned with a bow and began towards the door. In the umbrella stand beside it there were a number of canes, each topped with a piece of polished bone. Tiff’s own unique tools of the trade.


“Tiff?” Polly said, and snatched up one of the canes, and tapped it three times against the ground. His horns burst brightly into flame, and he grinned. “To hell with your paperwork.”


Polly’s last sight of the industry was Typhon the Terrible’s jaw hanging open as the world turned into a vortex of fire, and starlight streaking into eternity, and he was rushing through the void then, looking for a wolf.



Outro - Promises

Promises. Only a few have been made to me, dreamers. My mentor, that I would one day learn how to control the power of dream, and certainly he delivered. He was a good teacher. Marolmar, that nothing bad would happen to him, and this turned out to be deeply untrue. My friend, that she would help me out of a bad situation, and that she did.


I will make a promise to you, dreamer. That this is not all for nothing, that all the daily pains of your existence are not wasted, that you will find some beauty in what is to come. I cannot promise you that every day will be good, or that you will always be happy. Rains interrupt even the brightest summers of our lives. But like the rain, darkness passes, and the world is a little more beautiful for the water.


Waiting for a new dawn, and keeping watch by the foot of your bed, I am your loyal host, Nikignik, waiting ponderously for your return to the Hallowoods.




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