Content Warning: This episode may include themes of animal death, mental illness, abuse, violence, death or injury, blood, kidnapping and abduction.
Intro - Gnarled Roots
Your first memory is drinking. You are waking up—in your drowned roots, in your rotting branches—you stretch as if after a long sleep. You soak up the water that has risen around you. It is unlike the rains you have tasted before, and as you drink deeply of it, your awareness grows. Now you are two trees, a dozen trees, a hundred thousand trees. You revel in the starlit nights and in the new life that springs forth beneath your boughs. You are not alone—the ones who felled you, who cut you, who burned you, now seek refuge in you. You welcome them with ire, gnarled roots and grasping limbs reaching out to say Hello from the Hallowoods.
Right now I’m sitting at the dining table in a small recreational vehicle. There is a dog curled up on the floor, or what was once a dog, or once many dogs. It can see me, but it does not growl. It knows that we are kindred spirits, and that the great trees towering outside these little windows hold much greater concerns. The theme of tonight’s episode is Forests.
Story 1 - All Your Anger
Clara could not breathe, because it wasn’t just the fight that was sending her into a spiral of panic, but all the hours of fear and isolation and loneliness that were weighing down on her paralyzed chest. Her father put his arm around her, but she threw it off. Her father sat back a little, watching her with worried eyes that glinted in the light of the fireplace. She curled up in a ball on the sofa, shuddering for air. Her father watched from the other side of it, always the mediator, always playing both sides. Clara hated crying in front of him; if he cried at all, it was never in her presence. She tried to get out words in between the uncontrollable shaking.
“She’s being unreasonable. She’s worse every day. Do you care about her at all?”
He only nodded, looking off at the dying fire. A portrait of some old white man and a dog glared back from above the mantle. “You’re angry.” He said softly. “That’s good. That’s healthy. I was angry once too. I marched in the streets, you know. With your mother. I like to think it made a difference.”
He glanced at her, and there was a vulnerability in his expression that Clara rarely saw.
“But me, you, your mother—we can’t get away from one another, even with all the rooms in this house. We have to work together to survive this. If we don’t, the world out there is hungry.”
Clara blinked away tears, but the dimly lit parlor of the Rathbone house was gone, and the memory of her father with it. She sat in front of the RV, stirring apricot jelly mushrooms as they sizzled on a single burner camping stove. The grass was wet with morning dew, and she flipped through her new notebook—her journals, like the things that haunted her dreams, had been left behind at the old house. Riot had been thoughtful enough to bring a blank one for her. If she’d been thoughtful like that when they’d run into the dark orchestra, instead of jumping out with a bat and no plan, they would still be together.
Clara glanced over the rendezvous clearing with apprehension as something stirred in the underbrush beyond the trees.
“Riot?” she shouted. “Is that you?”
The thing that looked and smelled of dog peeled itself out of the morning mist, greenish fur rippling in an unseen current. It regarded her with a certain distrust, but positioned itself between Clara and the woods to which she called. It frightened her less each time she saw it, although she suspected its presence was the cause of the odor in the RV. She had come to expect the phantoms in basements and between the trees, but they never stayed for long. She suspected the phantom dog had not left her side yet.
She would have guessed the dark shape in the forest was a tree stump or fallen log, except that beady eyes glinted in the darkness. She clicked off the camp stove and leaped to her feet, and noticed a second form clinging to the side of a tree much closer, and a third in the shadows beneath it. A deep reverberation echoed across the clearing, a powerful thrumming of unearthly sound. Clara was running then for the side door of the RV, not daring to look back as the shapes sprung from the shadows into the dawn, and their awful throaty cries grew nearer.
“All your anger, your frustration.” Her father said, holding a fist in front of his forehead. “You gather it right here. It is the ocean, and you are the shore. It is a fog, but you are a mighty forest.” His eyes glinted in the red light of the fire. Clara thought this was the most he had ever talked about his feelings, and it was ironic that he was telling her how to crush them. “They do not control you. You will be standing long after they are gone. You will always go on.”
Clara gasped as she fell on the floor of the RV, tripping in the door. She kicked it shut, but it did not latch. She scrambled for the passenger seat, and the door flew open behind her. Outside she could hear the baying of the misty hound, like the sound of cracking lake ice. She reached for the weapon Riot had given her—because nothing says romance like a compound bow. It was awkwardly shaped, and got stuck between the seats as she tried to whirl around.
A huge head was pressing into the RV’s central room behind her, flat and rough, with large glossy eyes that swiveled in her direction. The bass tones that came whistling from the beast shook the floor, and its maw stretched open to reveal ridges of teeth. Clara glanced outside the passenger window, and although the dog crackled with phosphorous energy as it raced through the clearing, there were so many more of the dark shapes. She could feel the fear freezing in her chest, seizing up her lungs, choking her from inside.
Tears rolled down her cheeks as she held a fist in front of her forehead, her father watching intently. The screaming fights with her mother, the countless hours trapped in this house, the fear of every dark shape that shook the trees beyond their grounds, the friends she had left behind and the life she had not lived—she held them all, in her mind and in her trembling hand.
“Now,” her father whispered, “let the fear go, and breathe.”
Clara opened her eyes to the bulbous creature that was crawling into the RV, with little webbed claws scrabbling on the floor.
She breathed, and the noise of the hound and the humming from outside faded, and her hands became more steady as they gripped the twisted bundle of metal, notching an arrow.
She breathed, and time slowed as the beast lunged towards her with its mouth gaping wide, and the bow reels spun as she pulled back the string.
She breathed, and let her fear go with the arrow, and as black ichor spewed from the hungry horror she lunged for the wheel.
Interlude 1 - Wandering Night-Gaunts
A red sun rises over the great expanses of spruce and pine trees, over the black rippling pools crowned with lily flowers, over the jagged hills with their unknown caverns. Great toads worship the morning, and songbirds join them in melody. These are the Hallowoods, and they are perhaps nature’s greatest treasure.
Dreamers, if you are travelling, hiking, or camping in the Hallowoods, please treat this wondrous environment with great respect, and do not leave garbage, food, or the bodies of your companions behind.
One of the woods’ common species, the Wandering Night-Gaunts cannot see you, for they have no eyes, but they can smell the smoke of a campfire. They stalk silently, brushing the treetops, reaching out to pierce your tent with their great clawed fingers. They have begun keeping plastic items from camp sites, and even hang future meals from their long antlers with fishing wire.
For the sake of our Night-Gaunts and many other creatures that dwell here, please take only memories and leave only footprints as you make your one-way-trip into the Hallowoods. We go now to one whose journey is leaving many footprints.
Story 2 - Steal No Longer
Riot held the yellow raincoat close around her, watching the lightning flash across the canopy of the forest. She imagined that she was with Clara, curled up in the loft bed of the RV during a gentler storm. They had laughed then, and wondered why the ghostly dog, barely visible underneath the dining table, was afraid of thunder. She would give anything to be back in that moment, running her hands across Clara’s dark skin and tasting her honey lips.
“What’ve you got there?” A voice interrupted, and Riot turned to find Bern climbing up into the watchtower. Riot realized that she had been turning the gleaming skeleton key in her hand.
“Just a souvenir.” She said quietly, tucking it inside her jacket. Bern ambled over to sit next to her, a great military vehicle of a woman. They sat in silence for a few moments.
“Licorice?” Bern offered from a small tin. They were black and smelled like blood, but Riot accepted.
Bern nodded, watching the storm batter the woods. “I’m not too good with social cues, but I think you’ve been avoiding me. Why’s that?”
Riot frowned. “I’m not. You’re fine.”
Bern shrugged, and waved a hand to indicate the mass of sheet metal, plastic siding, and fresh lumber that made up the fort beneath them. “Everyone here, just about, was running from something when they showed up. Froglin, griffocaugh, night-gaunt, doesn’t matter. We’ve run ‘em all off. I can promise we’ll do our best, but we’ve lost a lot of good people to the Instrumentalist.”
Riot flinched at the name, though she did her best not to show it. The unearthly tones of that music haunted her dreams lately. Bern was quiet for a moment, watching her expectantly, before speaking again.
“It’s going to try tonight.”
Riot glanced at the old woman. “How do you know that?”
Bern stood up, shouldering the crossbow. “It likes rain. It likes the dark. Has a real flair for the dramatic, whatever, whoever it is. But dontcha worry. If it has two eyes, I’ll put a bolt right between ‘em.”
She patted Riot on the shoulder, then descended the ladder. Riot did not find this comforting. When she was sure Bern had left, she examined the key in her pocket. She could barely remember what happened after she threw herself in the Instrumentalist’s path—perhaps her swinging bat had landed, because for a brief moment, the key swung loose as if on a necklace, and it shone in the dark beneath great round eyes. She glanced over the forest as she clutched it close, and she would have sworn that for a moment, a bent shape stood between the trees below, eyes white in the lightning.
The drums came first, deep and echoing throughout the forest, and you could almost lose their sound among the rain that beat down on the trees. The strings that grew louder, like the howls of great hunting dogs, were impossible to ignore. Warning sirens erupted from the other watchtowers, and Riot snatched up her bat. It was a fight, and fights were Riot’s specialty. The surreal notes of a cello seemed to come from everywhere at once, and as the storm grew worse, the power and complexity of the music rose.
Lightning flashed over the clearing around the Scoutpost, and Riot swore that there were pale figures of light standing between the trees. She backed away from the edge of the platform, shaking, and the screeching violins pounded in her head. There were panicked shouts from below, and barking from the guard dogs.
Riot realized that there was a figure rising in the air just beyond her platform, luminescent like a full moon. She was a woman, with a face frozen in a scream that bared her teeth and caused her eyes to bulge from her head. The rain pierced her as if her body was made of mist, and the frills of her old marching band uniform floated freely in the storm. The strokes of music in Riot’s mind corresponded with her jerking, sudden movements, and with each note she flickered closer.
Everything in Riot told her to run, that she had no idea what she was dealing with. Instead she screamed, and sprung forward with her spiked bat in hand, putting her weight into the swing. Riot watched as she drew close, far too close, to those unseeing eyes and broken teeth, and then she was falling off the ledge and into the night air.
She hit an iron roof below her hard, and cried out as she felt her arm twist unnaturally. The sloped metal was slick, and she reached out to stop herself, but her arm seized with burning pain, and the rain carried her off the edge. She slipped past the makeshift wall of the fort, crashing into the wet earth far below it, and the ringing in her head drowned out the mad orchestra and the splitting pain in her side alike. In the strange, disconnected silence, she could make out a shadow standing in the clearing with her.
“Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work.” Lightning crackled across the sky, illuminating round discs for eyes, and a form like a crooked man. “You have stolen something from me, young lady—and there is much work to be done.”
The man was crossing the clearing of felled stumps then, and in his hands holding strange objects—a small violin and a bow, Riot realized as he drew closer, but she could not pull herself to her feet, and the blood pounding behind her eyes was as red as the man’s long scarlet coat.
Marketing - For Safety Reasons
Hello dreamers. I’m Lady Ethel Mallory, with an important safety announcement from Botco. If you’re like me, then peace of mind is worth more than anything. We want to reassure dreamers everywhere that your Dreaming Box is absolutely secure from the terrors of the outside world, and no interruptions can take place. Our localized power system means the lights stay on in your dreams forever, and our failsafe security measures will remove any unwanted visitors in a quarter-mile radius with the utmost prejudice.
Rest assured, we at Botco take your security very seriously. For safety reasons, leaving the Dreaming Box has been strictly forbidden, so as to guarantee your peace of mind. Attempts to leave the dreaming box will be met with...
Story 2, Continued - Steal No Longer
Dreamers, I apologize for this disturbance in my program. I will look into resolving this myself. We return now to Riot Maidstone.
“Get away from her, sir!” Bern shouted from somewhere in the haze that enveloped Riot. Her arm hurt too badly to wipe the rain from her eyes, but the dark figure of the Instrumentalist stood above her, and distorted shapes hung in the air around him. He raised his hands, and the forms shifted, and Riot realized they were instruments. The deluge of string and trumpet and horn felt like it would split her skull open.
“I said get away from her right now, sir!” Bern shouted, and there was a hiss as her crossbow released. Riot twisted on her bad side to look up, and the glowing woman with the screaming face was there suddenly, standing inches off the ground, the razor bolt caught in her outstretched palm. White flame sparked across her body and in her bulging eyes, and lit the shaft transfixed in her hand until it burned away.
The Instrumentalist flicked his wrist, and the woman flew towards Bern, skeletal fingers reaching out. The Instrumentalist waved an arm, and the twitches of his gloved hand matched the rhythm of Bern’s screams.
His focus shifted to Riot, and she rolled towards her spiked bat as he stepped towards her.
“Where is my key?” he whispered, and the sound burned in Riot’s mind like hot coals. “You are a wicked child.”
Wicked is right, Riot thought, and with all the momentum she could gather, she swung the bat into his shin.
The crescendo of music in her mind shuddered, as if the violin strings had snapped, and Riot ignored the pain long enough to roll to her feet and swing a second time for his face. The music came to a screeching halt then, and the dark instruments surrounding him crashed to the ground as he roared in pain, one of his gleaming eyes shattered, the one on the left. The mess of nails at the end of her bat came away wet. Riot collapsed again, and as a starless void swum in her vision, she thought she could see a parade of white spectres marching him off into the trees.
“Twice.” Riot grinned, and spat out blood, and fell asleep. She dreamed she was with Clara, nestled together in the RV they called home, and the rain was pattering softly on the roof of the camper, serenading them as they fell into darkness.
Interlude 2 - Favor To A Friend
Dreamers, I have received questions from some of you regarding why I am here, in the Hallowoods, bringing these scattered moments into the realm of your nightmares.
"Nikignik," my peers tell me, "we thought better of you than to take interest in such fleeting mortal things. These creatures are not deserving of your time. Why then do you take to lurking around in pine trees and campervans?"
In part, I owe it as a favor to a friend no longer with us. I promised her that when her kind burned out like the embers of a dying fire, that I would remember them. In part, the Hallowoods remind me of an earlier time, when the stars were young and life and death collided in the yawning forests between the constellations. I remember running between trees of light and shadow, wild with abandon—but there I am, lost in nostalgia.
Dream of other things, if you will, but do not dismiss these little creatures, or laugh at their final moments, for all things—even our kind, dreamers—will one day end. We go now to one who questions this.
Story 3 - For The Best
The problem with life is that the rules are never made clear, Hector thought as he followed behind his dogs. Nobody gets their questions answered—why are we here? How do you best tell a mother that her son is gone for good? And what does it mean when a dog comes back from the dead?
Everyone just ambles along ignoring these things, hoping it will work out for the best. Heidi and Jackie looked back at him curiously. The dogs were no longer twin german shepherds, as Jackie smiled at him with a jaw cracked open and pale, lidless eyes. Hector shuddered. You just had to accept these things, or go mad.
The dogs were brooding on the shore up ahead, and Hector approached warily. “What’ve ya got there, girls?”
Hector glanced over the bank—dried blood crusted a tumult of muddy footprints, boots overlaid with the huge paws of the Fisher. They had passed this site just a few hours before, although it seemed much longer ago. More than likely Jonah had been mauled here and carried back to the den for breakfast.
“We’ve been over this one already.” Hector called, starting across the scene. “Come on now.”
The dogs stood, waiting, and Hector stopped his march to kneel next to them. “What’s the matter with you two, eh? Beside the obvious.”
He brushed Heidi’s ears, and furrowed his brow as he glanced over the bank. A pair of the same boot prints, but fresher and more distinct, appeared side by side in the middle of the bank, as if dropped there standing still.
“These are new.” Hector muttered to himself.
The tracks shuffled a little, then walked straight across the jumble of violent impressions, making for the brush beyond the shore, where Jackie was waiting with her disfigured grin, panting.
“That ain’t right. I can’t have missed these. These were not here two hours ago.”
Hector followed the prints carefully, but they were set in the story they told, and the tracks led off into the scattered shrubs and eventually the forest beyond. He shouldered his bags and gave a low whistle.
“Well girls, I guess we’ve got a new lead.”
Hector left the shore and the blood-streaked mire, tramping into the underbrush and the trees beyond. The problem with life is that the rules are never made clear, Hector thought as his dogs picked out the trail ahead. What does it mean to be alive? How does a man show up to the scene of his own murder? And if he does, do you even want to find him? Hector ambled along into the darkened pines and hoped it would work out for the best.
Outro - Forests
Forests. They are a dark and primeval part of us, dreamers. They represent the unknown, where your compass spins, where your map means nothing, where creatures as ancient as the trees go walking. Heed the call, dreamers. You hear it singing from beyond the pines. It is watching you and has always been watching you. Walk into the trees, as the day becomes a flickering light before disappearing altogether, and you discover great expanses of the forest floor where the sun has not shined in centuries, and the mouths of caves untouched by human hands, and banquets of mushrooms shrouding corpses you cannot identify.
Confront the forest in you. You came from here once, long ago, and at the end of your time, you will come back to it. When you do, dreamer, I will be waiting quietly for your Return to the Hallowoods.