Content warnings for this episode include: Animal death (Heidi, Bert as usual), Violence, Death + Injury, Birds, Smoking, Electrocution
Intro - Wrong Turn
You should have asked for a map. Is it fear or pride that keeps you from asking others for help? Either bravery or humility, then, might have brought you safely home. The night sky above is the darkness in you, and you are lost to the world and to the sun.
You step out of the car; the rain falls heavy on your head. You have lived a life without maps, and never once have you known where you were supposed to go. The right places have a way of finding you when you least expect them; the wrong turns have made you who you are. It is a slight comfort as you walk into the storm, but you can already feel that there are no road signs where you are bound—only the lightning, illuminating a grim house on a distant hill and streaking across the sky to spell Hello From The Hallowoods.
Right now, I’m sitting in a bank of lilies. They’re a soft white; a surprising color in this increasingly stygian forest, a marker to tell the dark grass from the water. In the distance, two men sit in a small boat. One does not know where he is going, and one is afraid to find out. The theme of tonight’s episode is Maps.
Story 1 - Lights Beneath Shallow Water
Jonah Duckworth held no malice in his heart, and a fishing rod in his hands. It wasn’t that he meant any ill will to the perch or bass that drifted beneath the water, but drawing them up for market or supper had proven to be one of his only skills, and the fish were doing well for themselves these days anyways.
“This one is for pike, isn’t it?” the man sitting in the front of the boat said. His cable-knit sweater was full of holes, and his beard might have been hacked out of obsidian, but he was one of Jonah’s favorite sights in the world. A nice catch indeed. The piece of tackle in his hands glittered white and red.
“It is,” Jonah said, looking away from his line. “That’s the dazzler all right. Who taught you how to fish?”
“Woulda been my dad,” Hector replied, looking through the tackle box. Each plastic compartment hid a different rubber worm or neon lure. “Haven’t done much since—land’s easier to work with. Dredging for bodies ain’t quite the same.”
“Yeah, well, when you get a yank while fishing, it’s a good thing,” Jonah said. “First time you’ve mentioned your dad.”
“Yep,” Hector said, clipping the dazzler onto his line.
“Not the best time?” Jonah asked.
“Nope,” Hector said, and cast out. The hook flapped over a few feet and plunked into the water, and he began to reel it in again.
Jonah sensed some weight in the clouds and changed the topic.
“Spent a few years fishing out of Bits’o’Boston—that’s what they call it, since regular Boston is gone. Shoulda seen some of the lunkers we pulled up. Not in any fishing guide I’d ever read. Cooked up okay though.”
“Mm,” Hector said, sending his line flying far across the water and snagging it in a patch of bulrush.
“But I’ve been thinking about Georgia. It’s warmer there in the winters, and I think ma would like to live by a beach. I hear there are flamingoes down there, real ones.”
“Haven’t been that far south in a while,” Hector said. “I wouldn’t miss Canadian winters. Not sure I’d want to see what goes walking in the snow here anyway.”
“The spring wildlife’s been plenty bad I think,” Jonah agreed, and shuddered. Needle teeth and bent hands and a huge shape beneath the water still woke him up in the middle of the night sometimes. He half-expected dozens of glowing eyes to shine up at their boat any moment.
“Why’d your family hike up to this neck of the woods?” Hector said.
“Ma got it in her head that we’d all be safer up north, where no one could bother us,” Jonah said. “And I’m not sure if Pa’s work followed him, or he followed it, but sure enough he had a house and a job with the library arranged snappy quick.”
“And you didn’t know they were brewing up kids with naturally blue hair or library cards that boss you around?” Hector said. The mist hung only faintly above the water, and beyond it the forest’s bleak expanse shrouded the horizon. The ripples from the boat upset the reflected clouds on the surface of the lake.
“I wasn’t really around by then,” Jonah said. “It was like he was scared of us. Or didn’t care. Either way, he was always in his study, and I figured I’d go do things on my own. The world changed a whole bunch, but fishing is fishing. I felt kinda free on the water. No one to please. Just me.”
“I can understand that,” Hector said, and paused. “You hear a sound?”
Jonah quieted, but could detect nothing. “My ears ain’t the best on the market, Hec.”
Hector stared off for a moment, but shrugged and returned to his line. “So how long are we thinking?”
“Thinking for what?” Jonah said.
“We leave tomorrow, we could make it down in a few weeks I bet.”
“Oh,” Jonah said, and had the sudden sensation he was being dragged—like a trout with a hook in its lip. “Probably not that soon. We’ll have to plan our route, get Ma ready to travel, figure out where we’ll camp… and besides, I’ve been a part of the Scoutpost for a few years now. I’d hate to leave without a goodbye.”
“Right,” Hector nodded. “Maybe next week.”
“Do you not like the Scoutpost?” Jonah said.
“It’s alright,” Hector said. There was a tug on his line, and he reeled it in quickly. A clump of black lake weed came up with the hook, and he tossed it back into the water.
“That wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t exactly an answer either,” Jonah said hesitantly. He tried not to remind Hector too often about his new senses and such.
“They’re too familiar,” Hector said. “Everyone’s nose is in everyone’s business. Someone’s always singing or banging away on an instrument. You can’t go anywhere to be alone.”
Jonah stifled a chuckle, and Hector raised a scarred eyebrow.
“You’d hate life on a boat,” Jonah said, whipping his line across the water. “The Scoutpost feels plenty spacious by comparison.”
“Maybe I would at that,” Hector sighed. “I like being alone.”
They were quiet for a moment. Jonah was about to ask if Hector was alright, and had his dreams about the Fisher gone away, but Hector spoke up and began reeling in his line quickly.
“Froglins,” he said. “Hunting song. We need to get back.”
Jonah dropped his thoughts into the lake and jumped into motion as well. The worm was missing from his hook, he noticed. Sneaky fishes. He kicked up the motor, and neither of them spoke as they puttered back for the shore.
Hector’s german shepherds were lying patiently by the water’s edge, and perked up as they approached. He would have to wait until a different time to tell Hector that he still dreamed about the Other Place; the mausoleum beneath green starlight which he had fallen into and perhaps never really left. He would have to wait to tell Hector that when he woke up this morning, he could see the constellations lurking behind the blue morning sky, as if the atmosphere was shallow water and they were lights burning beneath.
Another time, Jonah thought, as they pulled the boat up onto the shore and began trekking back for the Scoutpost. Another time.
Interlude 1 - The Lowlands
If you are tempted to try and navigate in the Hallowoods—perhaps you wish to reach one of the few remaining settlements, or some forgotten home built for summer vacation, or you remember the coordinates of a hidden disaster bunker—a map will not help you much. The sea levels have risen significantly since the age of print, new lakes and shorelines have formed, and the coastal cities of old have become home only to fish and barnacle.
And of course, maps of the Hudson Bay Lowlands were not a first choice at the average gas station anyway, and the improbable rise of a forest from this wetland has rendered the landscape unrecognizable. That is alright. The landscape does not recognize you either; it resists you and your understanding of the world, grows to spite the life that came before. It is a haughty and a proud forest, and it is bold of you to think that a piece of paper will help to keep you from becoming lost in its expanse, wrapped in its roots, drowned in its nameless bogs. Your map will not save you from the endless north.
We go now to one who holds maps in her mind.
Story 2 - Changing Lines
Bern fired her crossbow, and the bolt sank into packed straw with a satisfying thud. She was a few inches to the left of her mark, and went to pluck out the bolt before circling back to her trainee.
“Give it a shot,” she said, and passed the weapon over carefully. They turned it over in their stitched hands, each fingertip a long blade except for the trigger fingers. Huntington Waites nodded, tucked the crossbow neatly against their shoulder, and fired with frightening speed.
Bullseye, Bern noted, and shook her head.
“You’ve never used a crossbow before?”
“Never, ma’am,” Huntington said, and handed her back the weapon.
“This comes naturally to ya, then,” Bern said.
“It is my area of expertise,” they said. With those pale white eyes, Bern had a hard time telling whether they were sassing her.
“Give it a few more tries,” Bern said. “Not that you need the practice.”
“Thank you,” they said. They were stockier than most of the so-called ‘Mendies’, and the whole family of them had been given new clothes to replace the blood-red costumes of the Instrumentalist.
“I’m going to go make my rounds,” Bern said. “I’ll be needing that crossbow back when you’re done.”
“Of course,” Huntington said. “I’ll return it shortly, Mrs. Keene.”
“Bern is fine,” she called as the patchwork hunter raised the crossbow, and hammered another shot into the center ring. Scary good, these people were. She supposed that was the point. She felt set in her ways sometimes, but they made her look easygoing by comparison.
Typically it was her wife who paced the fort and checked in on everybody, but Bern had been trying to keep an eye on the new arrivals—the sewn-together family had passed their entry interview, but she didn’t quite rest easy that they’d invited a small horde of the undead to join their Scoutpost family. There were almost as many pale eyes and knife fingers as there were McGowans.
Townsend Rhodes she got along alright with—they had roughly the shape and personality of a refrigerator, and the patchwork butler had found a new project in restoring the Scoutpost’s battered vehicles. She waved as she passed the gravel lot, and got a polite nod in return.
Cookery Potts, likewise, seemed to fit right in—Cookery was cute as a button, although perhaps she just liked people who could make a good dinner. They were consorting with a few of the other scouts in charge of meal planning.
She passed an open door and bid hello to Floris Scrubbs, who ignored her. Hard to get through with that one—they’d thrown fits about dust on the windowsills and the mud on the floors and the books piled haphazardly in her room. Bern did appreciate, though, that the Scoutpost looked almost clean in Floris’ wake.
Stitchery Pins she did not like, and it wasn’t just the needle fingers. No amount of embroidered scout patches would change it. They walked around like a vampire and whispered like an evil advisor out of one of Violet’s fantasy novels.
The weeks had gone by, though, and not a one of them had been less than pleasant. Maybe she was the particular one after all, stuck with her crossbow and her judgements and her thirty-nine dead things in the ground. It was hard to kill old habits, she thought, and came across all seven feet of Leyland Blooms working in one of Violet’s garden beds.
“Hi Leyland,” she said. A pair of white eyes and a dour face turned to her; there was a flower in their hair.
“The petunias are starting to rot,” Leyland said. “At the roots. I’ll have to pull them up, cut the bad away. Leave them out to air a little while.”
“I suspected I was watering them too much,” Bern’s wife said, coming around a trellis. The sun turned her fluffy grey hair into a halo, and her apron was stained with green. Bern kissed Violet’s forehead, ignoring the dirt.
“Think you can handle the Petunia situation, Leyland?” Violet asked.
“Of course,” Leyland said, hands piercing the earth like spades and pulling the flowers up.
“Great. Thank you very much,” Violet said, sticking her gardening gloves in her apron. “I’m feeling ready for tea. Will you join me, dearest?”
“Sure,” Bern said, taking Violet’s arm in hers, and walking through the inner gardens. “How’s Leyland?”
“Very industrious,” Violet said. “And sweet. I’ve certainly appreciated the help.”
“Have you seen Diggory lately?” Bern said.
Violet thought for a moment. “Not sure that I have—they seem to spend a lot of time with Riot and, ah, Olivier. Now that’s about the last thing I thought I’d hear myself say.”
Bern nodded—the Instrumentalist’s former lackey had stopped bringing down lightning storms on the Scoutpost every time they threw a tantrum, which was an improvement.
“Still feeling alright about it?” Violet said quietly, making for the dining hall.
“I think so,” Bern said.
“What is it?” Violet said, and poured glasses of a sweet tea that had become the taste of Scoutpost summers. “I can get Big Mikey to talk about his feelings, and I know you much better. You’re brewing like a kettle.”
“Everything's different, all at once,” Bern said, and held her glass in both hands. The coolness was calming on her palms. “Big Mikey drops us the daughter of a rock star, and she brings Botco with her. Right up into our neck of the woods. There are eight dead people hanging out with us now, one of them’s the son of the man who killed dozens of our friends. Plus we’ve got a kid who can ruin our summer crops with a mood swing.
And we lost Walt, and all those people who showed up for him—I still wonder about all the things I saw. The Instrumentalist is gone. Finally. I’m glad about that. But I just wonder now—what’s next? Who’s going to step up and take his place? Nothing has ever been easy for us.”
Violet nodded, setting down a dish of biscuits. “I can’t quite believe that it’s over either—we were so frightened for so long. Even though I know he’s buried beneath all those roots now, I still can’t help but expect some mornings that I’m going to hear violins in the trees. But we made it, Bernie Bear.”
She put a hand on Bern’s shoulder. “We’re still here. And we live in a quieter forest.”
There was a ringing outside, then, as the alarm bells sounded from the lookout’s nest.
“Speak of the devil,” Violet said.
And he shall appear, Bern thought, and felt for her crossbow. Damn it, it was still with Huntington. She dashed out the door regardless.
“What are we dealing with?” she hollered. It was Russel McGowan sliding down the ladder from the lookout’s nest, yellow jacket dotted with patches.
“Froglins at Lurch Lake,” he called. “And they’ve got Griffocaughs!”
Marketing - National Dreaming Box Day
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Story 2, Continued - Changing Lines
I have visited the Grand Archives of Zelkryzelk on several occasions—to sneer at the Nameless One, and for other… research. As you can imagine, there is a surplus of dry content on those eternal shelves, but I cannot imagine any of it less interesting than what we’ve just heard.
We return now to Bern Keene.
Bern dashed up the ramp for the eastern wall. The deep song of overgrown toads filled her ears and shook in her skull like thunder. The Scoutpost’s residents scattered around her like birds—some to get to safety, others running for spears and bows. She glanced around but could not spot Huntington, and for a moment thought she saw Riot stepping out of her and Violet’s office on the far side of the fort. There was no time, though, and she reached the edge of the wall.
The road to Lurch Lake was barely a path through the trees, branches tied back with colorful pieces of fabric, a little wisdom courtesy of Walt. Now, though, the darkness between the trees seemed to boil with small forms, webbed feet and glassy eyes darting out of the sunlight. There was a furious bray from beyond the bend in the trail.
“Get the door closed!” Bern called. Around her, the walls came alive with archers, and she felt the doors slam shut beneath her feet.
The wild shrieks of the froglin war song reached a crescendo, and then the Griffocaughs burst from the trees and barreled down the trail for the Scoutpost.
“Hold!” Bern shouted. The archers kept their arrows ready.
There were six, by her count, huge unruly animals with twisted antlers overgrown with flowers and sharp yellow incisors. If they veered off the trail, the frogs were quick to correct them with flashes of spears or sharp sticks, goading them on for the gate.
“Hold,” Bern called, and she could feel the bowstrings tighten.
The gigantic stags were almost beneath them now, shaking the earth with their hooves, sharp quills flying from their tails.
She began to give the command, but a figure leapt past her and over the edge of the wall. Her crossbow clattered against the ground and came to rest by her feet.
“Hold,” she yelled again, and watched as Huntington landed in the dirt twenty feet below, rolled to their feet with sharp fingers splayed, and roared at the approaching stampede.
The pack broke in two—one reared up in front of Huntington, kicking the air. Bern had seen those hooves cleave a man in half. The rest peeled around, stomping for the gates. There was a crack from the wall beneath her feet, and for a moment she was reminded how fragile their life of pine wood and sheet metal really was.
Another splintering crash from below, but Bern did not leave her post, and propped up her crossbow as Huntington seized a pair of gigantic antlers, bringing the beast down into the trail with a wrestler’s finesse.
The frogs, of course, were staying well out of range, but she saw several of them cross the path in the distance, watching and croaking with excitement.
“Keep them outside,” Bern shouted, flying down the ramp in time to see a pair of hooves like fire axes bust through the planks and binding of their back gate.
“The heck is that?” a voice cried from her side, and Bern realized she was standing next to Riot. The kid had her sword in both hands and not a clue in the world.
“That,” Bern said, and the goatlike face peering through the splintered door shrieked, “is a griffocaugh. Stay back.”
There was a flash of blue in her peripheral vision, and Olivier landed beside them, staring at the gate in shock.
“I said stay back!” Bern said.
“Olivier, shoot it with lightning or something!” Riot said.
There was another kick, and with a final groan the wood buckled, and the back gates flew open on cracked hinges. The first griffocaugh stepped over the shattered boards, a destructive glint in its soulless eyes.
There was a loud hiss, then, that reverberated from behind Bern, and she turned to find a shadow with knives for hands racing for the doorway. Diggory Graves seemed to draw the beast’s attention, and the griffocaughs bleated in unison, baring yellow teeth and scattering flowers from their horns. More than that, the reflections changed in their eyes—the shape of a boy wrapped in white fire which Bern could not see in the daylight.
The massive creatures poised on the precipice, large as a moose and ten times as disagreeable, but in the next moment they were not more than a twist of long striped quills, dashing off into the woods. On the trail up towards Lurch Lake, Bern swore for a moment she saw a frog—a head weighed down with mud-caked skulls. It stared at her, and grinned, and was gone.
“Oh my goodness,” Violet said, stumbling around the corner and finding Bern’s arm to cling to. Bern kept her crossbow ready in the other.
“Whyever would they do that,” Violet continued. “We’ve done nothing to them.”
“The lines are changing,” Bern muttered. “Nothing to scare ‘em. They’ll be back.”
“We’ll have to get on fixing those doors right away,” Violet said. “Who knows what would come wandering in here.”
“Those things are way bigger than they looked in Walt’s book,” Riot breathed, and placed her sword back in the strap on her waist. She fumbled for a moment; she was also carrying a satchel stuffed with papers. Bern sighed and stepped over to the gate, assessing the damage.
“People, let’s get on these repairs,” she called. “We need at least a barrier here by nightfall.”
“I’ll go keep an eye on the walls,” Riot said, and stepped up towards the ramparts. The witch and the revenant followed in her wake.
It was not until the sun had set, until an array of scavenged boards had been assembled to fill the wound in her home, until her wife had fallen asleep beside her, that Bern reflected on the day and found something she had missed.
There had been a colorful piece of paper jutting from Riot’s bag.
The Botco Map; with a cartoon graphic of dreaming boxes scattered across America.
She’s really going to do it, Bern thought. She’s going to try and leave.
Interlude 2 - Make Sense of the Void
I find it quaint that humans have tried to make sense of the void around them, build models and equations to calculate the shape of the heavens. But your eyes can perceive so few colors, your telescopes cannot tell what sleeps in the black hole or make known to you what lives at the edge of the visible universe—your visible universe.
If these maps of the cosmos were drawings by a child, and if I had a home, I would hang them on its walls and be proud. Perhaps it is for the best. I am eyes across this almost eternal expanse, from the low caves where the fishers make their dens to the caverns of faraway moons where Ascended Scientists stage their calculations and cold experiments. You should see the maps they have of the stars. If you visit the Spirit Sky Observatory, you can—it’s almost visible from the Scoutpost this week.
Perhaps, though, it is best for you not to understand how truly small you are. Small and unimportant are not the same.
We go now to one who is neither small nor unimportant.
Story 3 - Looking For A Carnival
“Are we there yet?” the skull with the burning eyes said. It was trapped in a dome of glass, and that within a hulking metal body that glinted red in the low evening light. Polly sighed, and tapped his cane against the sidewalk. Another ghost town; a place the devil might haunt. And just in time; his feet were tired.
“You’ll know we’re there when you see lots of flashing lights,” Polly said. Half of a seagull sat on Mort’s shoulder, and gave a lazy squawk.
The wolf said nothing as she paced beside them. She had been quiet today, and remained as animal as she came—long black fur wrapped around teeth and golden eyes.
“Here’s as good a place to camp as any,” Polly said, and gestured to a nearby rooftop. He liked having the high ground, lately. It gave him some small extra percentage of peace of mind, and he’d take all he could get right now. Yaretzi said nothing, but bounded up two stories with a leap, vanishing from view. Polly looked to Mort, and shrugged.
“Fine,” said Mort. “I’ll take the stairs.”
Polly tapped his cane, and fire flashed at its base. The bone and gold insets were stylish, but it was more than an accessory—it was a well-stocked furnace, an engine burning with a nuclear heart. With a few flaming steps, he danced up to the roof.
“You’ve been quiet today,” he said, arriving to find the wolf lying on a bed of gravel and concrete. “Not feeling peckish I hope?”
“There is not really a carnival, is there?” she growled, head resting on her paws. Her eye glowed like the sunset. There was a crash from somewhere below as Mort worked his way to the stairs.
“I’m sure there’s one out there,” Polly said, taking a seat on a silver box that might have been an air vent. “Gives Mort something to look forward to.”
“Yes,” Yaretzi said, “but what are we looking forward to? Be honest with me, Apollyon. Are we in danger from your old employers?”
Polly felt a surge of panic; someone breathing on the fire in his chest. Damn it, she could probably smell fear.
“No,” Polly said. “Hardly think so.”
He could not identify the look she gave him, and he might have said something more, but Mort’s giant claw of a hand lifted the access door off its hinges, and he stomped up onto the roof.
“I can’t wait,” Mort said. “I’ve never been to a carnival.”
“I’ve been with you most of the duration of your life, Mort.” Polly smiled weakly. “I know.”
Mort sat down with a thud, hydraulics hissing. His skull bubbled low in his tank.
“You want to know a secret, Mort?” Yaretzi said, and when Polly looked back to her she was more woman than wolf—a small brown shape against a gigantic sky. “I have never been to a carnival either.”
“First time for everything,” Polly said, plucking a cigarette from the air, and lighting it with his lips. “You’ll both be in for a treat.”
Mort fell asleep quickly, his burning eyes not more than little green slivers of light, and the night sky was painted with a thousand stars.
“Are you worried they’ll come for you?” Yaretzi murmured, almost asleep herself. “Is that why you stay up at night?”
“Sleep would be inefficient. I’m not built for it,” Polly said. “Besides, maybe it’s Rick Rounds you should be worried about.”
Yaretzi snorted. “If he ever comes crawling back I’ll bite his head off.”
“Good,” Polly sighed.
“I worry,” Yaretzi said. “I was to eat your heart, drink deep of your blood, breathe in your fire. I think you are the last real demon on Earth now. I do not intend to eat you, Apollyon. Tolshotol, Who Guards a Thousand Suns, has not spoken to me in centuries. Even so, I feel I have betrayed him... that he would not smile on me now if he saw me. You are sure they simply let you leave the Industry? To stay here with us?”
“I’m not sure,” Polly whispered, and thought for a moment he saw light in the distance. “But I think we’re safe here.”
The starwolf was quiet a moment longer, and Polly almost thought she had fallen asleep.
“What are we doing,” she muttered.
“I suppose,” Polly replied just as quietly, and closed his eyes. “We’re looking for a carnival.”
Outro - Maps
Maps. How desperately we may wish that we had one when we needed it most—a promise that the places to which we must go are already known, that the roads we are called to walk are well-travelled. It is a luxury to have your destination on paper, transforming metal card or sphere of black glass. There are no maps for me, and every step into this unknowable cosmos is a question—is this alright? Am I doing this correctly? Is this where I am supposed to be?
If you find yourself no longer lost, dreamer, and you enjoy the landmarks around you, make a map. Show others where to find you. You may discover that you were not a wanderer but an explorer, and the terrors you face today will be buried beneath the homes of tomorrow, and those who follow in your footsteps will have a map to guide them. Until every star is drawn, I am your loyal host, Nikignik, waiting cartographically for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Super Spy', 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!