HFTH - Episode 49 - Rescues



Content Warning: This episode may include themes of Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Strangulation, Static (including sfx), Emotional Manipulation, and Body horror.



Intro - Welcome Home

Darker than your dreams, and creeping closer every year, there is a forest where life and death meet. Ladies, gentlemen, and indescribable beings, it has been a while since my abhorrent eyes lit the darkness beneath your bed, my voice rattled the skeletons in your closet, or your nightmares were filled with dead things walking beneath unfriendly pines.


Did you miss our little interludes? I enjoyed my time in the heavens, but I have yearned for this expanse of black branches, and I’ve come to feel at home in the solemn corridors of your mind.


The forest is as dark as ever, its survivors take shelter from a broken sky, and the sleepers beneath these lakes dream of the end of the world. Welcome home, and Hello From The Hallowoods.


Theme.


Right now I’m hovering over the Hallowoods—a colossal wall of pine and spruce that rises from the corpse of former wetlands. It borders on the strange, the terrible, and the holy, from which there is no true return. Beneath us, a blond-haired boy runs right into it, and is gone in the shadow. The theme of tonight’s episode is Rescues.



Story 1 - Beautiful Colors

Jedediah Wicker tripped on a root and flew down a bank of pine needles and mud; his palms were bloody when he stood up. He almost cursed, but dared not in case his mother would somehow hear. He looked around, but he could not see his sister between the trees.


“Johannah?” he called.


A sound cut through the forest—a burst of laughter, or perhaps the shriek of an animal. He turned to look at the sun shining over the bank behind him, just in case he wouldn’t get to see it again, and sprinted deeper into the twilight.


“Always running off,” he said between breaths. “Why are you always running off?”


There was a full scream then.


“Johannah! I’m coming!” he yelled, and burst through a bush with berries as red as the scratches it left on his arms. On the other side, he found a gulch where the roots of a half-dozen trees converged to form a webbed chasm in the earth. There was a flash of motion in the darkness below, and a shrill cry that sounded like his sister, and a strange chuckle that did not.


“I’m here,” he called, and hurried to the edge.


In the gully, Johannah was a mess of soil and skinned knees. She scrambled backwards as another shape crossed into the light. Jedediah caught a glimpse of pale red fur, and too many legs shifting.


He looked around quickly, but he had nothing; no rope, no ladder, not even a long branch within reach. He unclipped the knife from his belt loop. It seemed pitifully small for what he was about to do. There was another flurry of motion below, and Jedediah could wait no longer. He jumped.


The wind was in his hair for a moment, and he wondered if there was a verse about laying down your life for your kid sister. There should be, he thought, and then the ground caught up with him violently.


“Jed!” she said.


“Try and climb out,” he replied, pushing himself up from the floor of tangled roots. A little light streamed through the opening above them, but not nearly enough to give him comfort. He lifted his inch-long blade and tried to make himself seem as big as he could, facing the darkness.


“Stay back!” he screamed.


Something responded by kicking up soil, and through the clouds of earth he saw a long maw of teeth like curved daggers. Red fur blanketed the sinews of a huge body, and there were no eyes in its slick skull. The fox laid its black ears back and filled the cavern with barking laughter. It had dozens of paws, and they expanded towards Jedediah like the legs of a hunting spider. He screamed and stabbed for the nearest limb as it drew close. If his knife hit anything, it wasn’t enough, and a huge tail of red and black quills whipped out of the shadow, slapping him back against the stony wall. The fox grinned, and its laugh echoed again in the grotto.


Johannah dangled by a root, climbing for the opening above. The huge foxlike head snaked out of the shadow, opening its jaw as it reached for her feet, and Jedediah could not close his eyes, or get air into his lungs.


Suddenly, there was light, brighter than the sun, and he was not sure what color it was—none he had ever seen before, or perhaps all of them at once.


The fox let out a cry that pierced his ears, and skittered back into the recesses of the gulch, searching for any shadow. Jedediah realized there were two figures standing between them and the fox, and the light shone from the strangers and not the world above.


One had a radiant face, glittering stone with facets like a pirate’s diamond, and the other was a dog whose head almost touched the roof of the cave, a gigantic hound in a thousand colors. Jedediah could breathe again, but he did not dare.


“Get on now,” the diamond person said, and the hound barked, shaking earth from the roots above them. In the light, Jedediah could see the fox in its entirety—a mess of squirming legs hanging from its ribs. The fox lunged for the diamond dog with a snap that would have cut Jedediah in half, but as it did the cavern grew still brighter, and the light itself seemed to warp and crystallize around the blind fox, and in the next moment it was gone entirely, as if claimed by the rapture.


Johannah dropped from her root on the ceiling, and the stranger caught her effortlessly in one hand, lowering her down to the earth. Jedediah rose to his feet, keeping a close eye on the dog as he stepped towards the stranger.


“Are you an angel?” he asked.


A rainbow of light shifted around the cavern as the stranger turned their head.


“No.”


“Are you the devil?” Johannah asked, though Jedediah had been thinking it. The Devil had eaten up Rick Rounds, after all.


“No,” the stranger said. “I’m Dimes. I’m just me. Let’s take you both home, shall we? This is a bad place to play.”


“Yes please,” said Johannah, and in the next moment the stranger lifted her onto the back of the great glass animal. The dog’s white eye glared at Jedediah, and he felt as though it could devour cities in a single bite.


Dimes held out their hand to Jedediah; their palm sparkled in the dark.


“You’re the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen,” he found himself saying. Tears were in his eyes, though he didn’t know why.


“Thank you,” Dimes said. “What’s your name?”


“Jed,” he said. “Jedediah.”


“That’s a nice name,” Dimes said, and took his hand. There was a feeling in him, ever so quiet—could people be this lovely and strange? Could he?


“It’s a beautiful world, Jedediah,” the diamond rider said, helping him up onto the back of the hound. Its fur was all angles that crawled beneath his fingers. There was a smile on the rider’s godlike face, so bright Jedediah could barely look. “You’re going to find it’s filled with beautiful people.”


The stones and roots around them fell away like salt dissolving in water, and there was a flash of indescribable color, and Jedediah found himself standing beside his sister outside the gates of Fort Freedom. There was no sign of the rider or the hound; just the afternoon sun shining over the treetops.


“Please stop running away,” Jedediah whispered.


Johannah nodded with wide eyes. “Never again.”



Interlude 1 - Don't Get Lost

If you find yourself lost in the Hallowoods, dreamer, you’ll be happy to know that this is fairly common, and it’s not a reflection on you. You’ll be unhappy to know that finding your way out is not common at all.


All forests are alive, but this one holds grudges. The watching trees gather stories told by the whispering wind, record the passage of travellers in their rings. Their roots shift and grow restless; they have no respect for fire or axe.


And of course, the Northmost woods are evolving constantly, a labyrinth of needles and stars transforming into the endless north and concealing the black heart of the forest.


If you get lost, stay very still. It will make it easier for others to find you, and you’ll be well-rested if they never do. We go now to one with a great sense of direction.



Story 2 - Wrong Box

Diggory Graves was a shadow in a forest of shadows. They were silent as they stalked through the trees, fingers like outstretched knives, pale eyes seeking a strange light.


Equally quiet was the boy who sailed through the air behind them, the light casting Diggory’s shadow. Puncture marks lined his lips, and his eyes were an endless abyss.


“I love you,” Percy said.


“I love you too,” Diggory said, and stopped. The song of bird, frog and cricket were a constant companion in these woods, but all had become utterly quiet. A few feet ahead of Diggory’s boots, there was a line of dead sparrows and crows, stretching off into the forest on both sides. Their outstretched ribs and wings were a warning Diggory understood.


“Aw,” Percy whispered. “Poor little guys.”


Diggory pulled the walkie-talkie from their pocket and pressed the button carefully, leaving a scar in the plastic.


“We’ve reached the ring of birds.”


“Be there in a minute,” a voice crackled back. “Olivier, where are you?”


“I’m in position,” a second voice said, wind crackling in the speaker. “Heads up, everyone. We’re in for some bad weather.”


Diggory looked up as an object bounced through the pine needles beside them—a small white pebble which came to rest in the heart of a swallow. Then the clouds were turning dark in the sky above, and the air was alive with hailstones, and a red light glared from beyond the trees.


“Shall I approach?” Diggory asked into the speaker.


“Wait until the light goes away,” Riot replied. “Olivier, really need you to take that hail to the next level if we’re going to mess with their motion sensors.”


“Just try and stay on the road,” Olivier growled.


Diggory waited for a moment longer, and the icy stones were the size of eyes, scattering around their shoulders and head. Diggory could not feel the pressure or the cold. Beside them, the hail struck through Percy’s shining silhouette, slicing through his light.


And then the red glow died, and Riot’s voice buzzed over the speaker. “Now, everybody. Let’s move.”


Diggory stepped carefully over the ring of birds, and slipped into the pines beyond. The ground was turning white, piling up with ice, and there was a boom of thunder as Diggory emerged from the forest, and stared up for a moment in awe.


“Dreaming boxes,” the voices in their head were saying in past conversations, “they’re going up fast now. You’re going? Just like that? The problem is you, it’s always been you, and you’ll be alone in there and you’ll deserve it...”


“Not now,” Diggory whispered, holding their head.


“I only ever saw them from far away,” Percy said, and his voice was a quiet tie to the present.


At first, Diggory could not see the Dreaming Box. Ahead of them, the forest had been cleared for a mile around, and Diggory realized that there was a shape in the storm of hail, big as a mountain, with sides that reflected the forest like mirrors, disappeared into the writhing clouds above.


“Don’t you dare let that hail stop,” Riot breathed.


“I’m good at what I do,” Olivier responded. “I’m just waiting on you.”


Diggory tugged up their jacket sleeve, just to be sure. ‘Wait at the ring of birds’, the second note on their wrist said. The third was just an arrow, pointing to a little square in the base of the box.


“Heading in,” Riot crackled. “Let’s go get my mom back.”


“Are we on the right side?” Diggory said, looking over to Percy.


“All the sides are the same,” the ghost said, smiling in the storm. “Let’s go.”


Diggory leaped from the treeline, bounding thirty feet and getting a running start across the pavement. It was uneven, broken in places by the roots of the forest beneath, and Diggory’s footsteps scattered the gathering hailstones.


Above them, a small shape sailed through the dark clouds, and there was a roar of an engine a hundred yards away as a boxy RV spraypainted with band logos burst from the trees. Diggory kept pace with the vehicle as it drifted for a moment across the roadway before finding new traction. It slowed for a moment as Diggory dashed ahead, approaching the great silver monolith.


“Um, everyone?” Riot’s voice said from Diggory’s pocket. “I just passed a sign that said ‘Box Polaris’.


“Oh good, you’re at the right place!” Olivier quipped, disappearing for a moment in the storm above.


“That’s the thing,” Riot said, and Diggory watched as the RV swerved to a stop, skidding across the lot. “She said Box Andromeda.”


“What?” Olivier’s voice buzzed, and Diggory slid to a stop as well, boots grinding against the ice. The small figure dropped out of the sky, carried by a flurry of wind, and circled back towards them.


“We’re at the wrong box,” Riot said, and Diggory caught a glimpse of her in the window of the campervan, illuminated by a red glow. Diggory realized in that moment that the hail was no longer tumbling from the sky, and in the gigantic face of Dreaming Box Polaris, a glowing eye blinked open, shimmering like a fire burning beneath the water, and it grew as red and bright as the sun.



Marketing - Blissful Silence

Can you hear it?


That blissful silence.


The hum of beautiful, collective dream.


After so many months of terror at the hands of the Stonemaid activists, we have peace in the Prime Dream once again. We are connected in love, in harmony, and the wonderful experience of life in a Dreaming Box.


Valerie Maidstone, former lead singer of the Stonemaiden band—that was so long ago, wasn’t it?—has joined the Prime Dream along with her daughter Riot. All around us, of course, we are still cleaning up what remains of the Stonemaid movement.


The mandatory psychological stability test has proven wonderfully effective in discovering the Stonemaids in our midst, but those affected by this terrible time may never entirely heal. The survivors from Box Aries are expected to return to the Prime Dream next week after months of rehabilitation. The tragedy that occurred at Box Aries will never be forgotten. After all, we must remember these things if we are to learn better for the future...



Story 2, Continued - Wrong Box

If there was one thing I did not miss in my time away, it was Lady Ethel Mallory. It’s my first night back, but perhaps it was too much to hope it would be free of interruptions. Once again, the Botulus Corporation’s old puppet has no right to use my domain for these advertisements. Your nightmares are mine.


We return now to Diggory Graves.


“What do you mean, wrong box?” Olivier said from the walkie talkie, and then the great eye blazed with light, and a red beam lit up the sky, and Olivier fell.


Immediately, Diggory ran, flying across the field to intercept Olivier’s plummeting body, bounding across the field of hail and broken cement. A gust of wind seemed to catch Olivier at the last moment, yanking them to the side and sending them careening across the lot. Diggory knelt beside the blue-haired witch; the clouds embroidered on their cape were disappearing as fast as the storm above.


“Hang on,” Riot said, and Diggory looked up to see the RV racing towards them, and it slid to a stop nearby as the huge burning eye of Box Polaris began to boil again, a thermal vent beneath the ocean, lightning about to strike.


“New plan,” Riot said, calling from the RV’s window. “Let’s get out of here!”


Diggory seized Olivier by the back of their cloak, hefting them under one arm, and leapt up to the back of the RV. They slid inside the rear door, and set Olivier at the little table as they pulled the door shut.


“Drive quickly,” Diggory said.


“On it,” Riot replied, and the vehicle lurched into motion.


“They’re going to hit us again!” Percy said, ducking beneath the ceiling. “Take a hard left!”


Riot wrenched the wheel, and Diggory grabbed the handle on the ceiling for support as the whole world seemed to tilt on its side, and for a moment it felt as though they might flip and roll. There was another flash of brilliant red light in the windshield and rearview mirror and Riot’s wide eyes, and then they were free and into the cover of the trees.


“Olivier, are you okay?” Riot called back, and Diggory knelt by the table. They put their fingertips against Olivier’s wrist, only for Olivier to yank their hand away.


“What do you think?” Olivier groaned.


“If you’re still talking, that’s better than I expected,” Riot said.


“It didn’t hit me,” Olivier snapped. “I blocked it—you didn’t mention it was going to be like that!”


“Riot, what do you mean ‘wrong box’?” Diggory said, sliding up into the passenger seat.


“Box Andromeda,” Riot said, eyes darting between Diggory and the road. “The girl I keep dreaming about? Danielle? She says they have my mom at Box Andromeda. I just thought they’d take her to the closest one, you know?”


“How many are there?” Olivier said from the back.


“I’m not sure,” Percy said, a boy wrapped in white light, appearing between the seats of the camper. “So where is Box Andromeda then?”


“No idea,” Riot said.


“Well. Sorry about your mom,” Olivier said, holding their head. Blue hair curled around their face, and their eyes ebbed with a light as blue as the sky.


“I’m not giving up,” Riot said quietly.


“Focus on the road,” Diggory said.


“Right,” Riot replied, rubbing at her buzz cut as they sped through the trees, making for the life they had found in the north. “Focus on the road.”




Interlude 2 - The Void Visits

Did you enjoy falling asleep for so many evenings and having only the usual dreams? Thoughts about your day and wild contemplations wrapped in old imagery, your fears and insecurities reflected in temporary darkness. Perhaps you enjoyed a moment without my voice.


I certainly had a nice time on my so-called vacation. It is easy to lose yourself in the stars, those translucent galaxies and groves of young planets, and there were a few moments where I began to wonder—should I go back, to that little place? To those little people? Continue to broadcast their last moments across this universe?


But I missed this place, and I missed you, so here I am again, and will continue to unfold these stories from the forest that lies at the end of your world, walk in again on these twisted pines. To leave before the red sun has set on your kind would be to leave your story half-finished. When you are everywhere at once, nowhere is home, but the Hallowoods are close to my heart.


We go now to one who has no love for this forest.



Story 3 - Couldn't Be Any Farther

“There’s what?” Riot said.


“Three hundred or so,” Bern said. The woman’s dark eyes were buried beneath furrowed brows, and she spread out a map with hands that could open cans without an opener.


“This map is probably out of date,” Bern’s wife said helpfully, stepping over a pile of books to carry a tray of tea to the table. “They’ve had another… ten? Fifteen? Years since we got this.”


The others gathered behind Riot, peering over her shoulders. A stylized Lady Ethel grinned from the corner of the paper, and said 'You’re always close to your new home!' Beyond her outstretched hand, a cartoon map of the United States was home to dozens of icons—each a Dreaming Box, some decorated with hats or cuter eyes than Riot remembered from the night before.


“You’re sure it was Andromeda?” Violet said, pouring tea into several chipped mugs.


“Oh yeah,” Riot said, scanning for the name. Betelgeuse, Aquarius, Pisces.


“Why are there so many?” Diggory asked from behind her shoulder, and Riot shivered.


“A little space, Diggory.”


“Well, a lot of people live there,” Violet said, fixing her fluffy grey hair. “Less than there used to be, I imagine.”


“Up to a million in a box,” Bern said. “Some more, some less, depends where you’re at. We’ve lost plenty to Box Polaris over the years.”


“All of which to say,” Violet said with one of her sincere looks, “that we’re very sorry. I know it’s…”


“There,” Olivier’s tiny hand had landed on a box beside Riot’s elbow. “Box Andromeda.”


Riot blinked for a moment, taking it in. “And where are we on the map again?”


“About up here,” Bern said, and pointed to her tea mug, a few inches up from the top edge of the paper, and almost the entire length across.


Riot put a hand to her head; her vision was swimming, and she was exhausted from the drive. Box Andromeda. The cartoon cube was perched between some illustrated trees on the inner edge of California, dangerously close to boxes Orion and Cassiopeia, guarding a Hollywood sign and a Golden Gate Bridge. Of course that would be where they were keeping her mom—right under Botco’s nose.


“That’s across the whole country,” Riot breathed. “It almost couldn’t be any farther.”


“Like I was saying,” Violet said. “We’ve all lost people to the Dreaming Box—any of us that remember a life before, anyway. It isn’t easy at first, but time does make the loss hurt less. Care for any sugar?”


“No,” Riot said, and pushed her tea away. “I’m not giving up on her.”


Violet glanced at Bern for a moment, and back to Riot. “You may not have a choice, Riot.”


“Gas would be your biggest issue,” Bern said, and Violet elbowed her a little.


“I could fly there,” Olivier said. Riot glanced over to them—Olivier had their arms crossed, and still looked like they’d gotten hit by a tornado. “But I’m not great with passengers.”


“I noticed that,” Riot said, and slumped down in her chair.


“It’s hard to accept at first, I know,” Violet said. “But your mother would want you to be safe. Happy.”


“You don’t know her,” Riot said, standing up.


Violet pursed her lips and looked away. “I’m sure any mother would.”


“She’s not gone,” Riot said, and she could feel the heat rising in her face. “She’s not dead. She is out there right now and she needs me and she’s in danger. I’m done with staying behind and hoping no one gets hurt. I have to go after her.”


Bern and Violet exchanged glances, and Diggory stepped up to Riot’s side, pale white eyes shining in the low light, and put their sharp black fingers on the tabletop.


“The rest of you are exhausted, I am sure,” Diggory said. “Shall we return to this conversation in the morning?”


“Fine by me,” Riot said, and left the door open on her way out.


The night was cool against her skin, and she looked out over the Scoutpost walls. The Botulus Corporation was out there, she felt. They had left a message at the bunker, and for what? It was hard to shake the feeling that somehow they were watching, but there was nothing overhead but empty stars.


She lay awake in the loft bed of the RV for what seemed like hours, worries growing into stomach-churning anxiety. California. A world away. And even if she got her mom back, somehow pried her from the teeth of Lady Ethel Mallory, what would that do? Was there anywhere on earth where they would be safe after that?


She wasn’t aware she had fallen asleep until she looked over to find Clara sleeping beside her, and she could hear the gentle patter of rain on the roof above them, the faint smell of dog that followed Clara everywhere.


“I miss you,” Riot said quietly. As she sat up she could see herself lying in the bed, but she didn’t recognize her own face. Riot shrugged. Dreams were weird.


“Hi there,” Danielle said, and Riot looked over to see a pretty blonde girl standing in the open door. Water poured in from behind her, carrying weeds and little tadpoles.


“Danielle,” Riot said, and slid out of the bed quickly. “Awkward timing.”


“Trust me, I’ve seen worse,” Danielle said. “How’s it going? Are you close? You don’t seem close.”


“Not exactly,” Riot said. “I went to the wrong box.”


“You did what?”


“I thought they would have taken my mom to the closest one. But I guess that’s Polaris, not Andromeda.”


“You didn’t get that? Yeah. I guess it’s next to Yosemite national park? I’m not sure what it looks like outside of here. So you… haven’t left?”


“About that,” Riot said. An eel slithered past her ankle, and the floor of the campervan had begun to fill with water. “I’m not sure if I’ll be able to go. It was a couple days just to reach this one. It would be… I don’t know. Weeks? To get to you? Everyone says it’s too dangerous.”


“Oh,” Danielle said, and looked out of the door. There was the faint sound of a fiddle, echoing like distant thunder.


“I’m sorry,” Riot said.


“It’s… okay. I understand,” Danielle breathed. “I’ll find someone else.”


Riot winced, and Danielle turned to the door. The water was up to Riot’s waist, washing the mugs off the coffee table, and she could see green lights far below her feet.


“There’s one other thing,” Danielle said. “There’s someone with your face on all the channels lately—talking with your mom. There’s another Riot.”



Outro - Rescues

Rescues. How grateful we are, in the dark caverns of life, to find a saving hand outstretched or a light beckoning us to an exit. If only I could be that for you, dearest dreamer, but the sun is low on your horizon, and the waters rise on all your shores. Soon it will be night, and only a world of frogs and deep lakes where you once walked, malignant oceans and black pines.


And yet, if I cannot save you, keep you from sinking into the end you have sought, I will offer a friend in the darkness, a little comfort as the waters blot out the stars. And if we are very lucky, well, there may still be cause for hope.


Relieved to be back in this forest, glad to dwell again in your nightmares, I am your loyal host, waiting as I always have for your return to the Hallowoods.




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