Content warnings for this episode include: Al has no skin, Animal death (a fish, but also Heidi as usual), Violence, Death + Injury, Blood, Birds, Gun Mention, Emotional Manipulation, Drowning, Body horror, Consumption of Inedible Materials, Bullying, Child Death (referenced)
Intro - A Skull Of Nettles
You go down to the river for silverweed and oyster plant, but there is a chance of puffball if you are lucky. You step carefully along the banks. The waters are furious, still engorged with the blood of the spring. Something crunches beneath your foot, and you look down to find fingers amidst the stones. This overlook, this corpse, rush back to you in a tumult of memory.
He led you to the river. ‘There’s no point left’, he said, and made a decision for you both. You look down to find your ribs exposed; clothes tattered. His skull is filled with nettles, but he turns up to look at you, and there is a light in his emerald eyes too. ‘Hello’, he whispers. You give him a swift kick, and he rolls into the water, and is gone in the current, and his scream is lost in the rapids that roar ‘Hello From The Hallowoods’.
Right now, I’m sitting in a hot spring, although my immaterial eyes benefit from neither warmth nor mineral. Beyond the steaming pools, there is a little cabin—once a home for a groundskeeper, now a refuge for runaway lovers. Waters born of the eternal mountain peaks gather here and pour into what is left of the world. The theme of tonight’s episode is Rivers.
Story 1 - To Hold It Gently
Ricou Chapman stood on the edge of the Shuddering Peaks, and a confused rain flew around his fins, sometimes turning back to a light snow. The world was cold, but it gave him comfort—no warm little bodies hiking up the mountainside to invade his new home. This was no hole in a mud bank, no hoard of dead men’s trinkets. He held a semblance of love and life in his webbed hands, and no greedy devils would pry it from him.
“I was hoping to garden,” a voice said from beside him. He turned to find a man he loved, although most would only have noticed a faint gap in the sleet. “But I’m not sure if anything would survive. It keeps getting cold.”
“There are not enough plants on the mountain for your liking?” Ricou said.
“I don’t want to grow pine trees or frozen vines,” Nolan said. “Vegetables. Flowers. I always wanted to have a garden. I’ve been reading those books on landscaping.”
“Perhaps it will grow warmer next month,” Ricou said, stretching his arms and the fins that ran over his back, blinking with all his eyelids. The snowflakes melted against his scales. “You should be wearing clothes in this weather.”
“Clothes are uncomfortable,” said Nolan. “Somehow I feel more vulnerable with them on.”
“Because others can see you that way?”
Nolan nodded. “But then again… I find myself wanting to be seen.”
“You should not,” Ricou said, looking at the forest below. You could barely see the trees from these heights, like a black lake that stretched to the ends of the earth, deep and unfriendly waters. “You are beautiful. Unique among creatures. You should be proud to be so different from them.”
“So should you, but that’s not what I meant,” Nolan said. Ricou stretched out a hand for him, but Nolan stood thoughtfully out of reach. “Just that… we should have friends. I thought we were unique and different—and we are—but that night when we went down to that house? To say goodbye to your friend, or avenge him? There were so many people there. They were different too.”
“‘Different’ does not mean ‘kind’,” Ricou said, spines raising. “Unique does not mean they understand. If you want ugly friends we could go back to the Resting Place.”
“I did see one or two familiar faces,” Nolan admitted. “Out of an entire crowd. All I’m trying to say is, I think we could find others like us. If we didn’t live so far away. We don’t need to be alone.”
“Do you feel alone?” Ricou said, turning to his lover. An anger clung to his gills like silt, and he could not wash it away. “Are you not happy with me?”
Nolan paused for a moment, but the silence said enough, and they stood as the water poured in little rivulets off the cliffs around them.
“Of course I am,” Nolan said. “I enjoyed our time up here very much.”
The past tense, Ricou thought. A precursor to a bad present.
“I am glad,” Ricou gulped.
“And it’s not… a reflection on you. That I’d like to meet more people. Try new things. That’s the point of life, isn’t it?”
Ricou wondered if he dove off the edge, if he would land in some frothy pool hundreds of feet below. Preferably one where they weren’t having this conversation. Why, Nolan? Why must you skip stones on the surface of our life?
“You would know more about living than I would,” Ricou said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Nolan asked.
“Nothing,” Ricou said, and stepped away from the cliff. The cabin sat in the distance, shrouded in the blue haze of the weather. He made for the door, and Nolan stalked behind him.
“This is a small life,” Ricou offered, and shut the door on the snow, and went to stoke up the fire. “But it is ours. And it is safe. When others look at us they see a monster and… a night wind. They do not see you and I as we truly are, and even if they did, people are hateful beasts. But we do not need them. Years I spent beneath black waters, dreaming of a life like this. You are all I need to be happy.”
Nolan stood by the door, and nodded.
“I understand,” he said. “I really do. And I hope you’ll come with me. But I’ve been thinking about this for weeks, Ricou. In three days, I’m leaving for the forest.”
Interlude 1 - Summer Has Arrived
Summer has arrived in the Hallowoods, and the chill hand of spring gives way to a gentler embrace. The waters are high, the rapids are deadly, and flowers of all colors defy this dark landscape to demonstrate their splendor.
Tadpoles have hatched into young frogs, sleepers smile in their temperate bogs, and the Froglin Queen is glad to see her children prosper, although their love has turned to she who lurks beneath the world. Her eggs are like great glassy eyes, a swarm born to the black lakes as bounty for great heron and as conqueror for all that lives.
The winter hoards of Mister Friendly fester in the warmer weather, and a giant goes looking for fish to eat, and the howls of the Hoarding Wolves echo in the pines at night. The only great change from the summers before, perhaps, is that there is no more fiddle or cello to fill the trees at night. For better or worse, summer has arrived. We go now to one whose favorite season is the summer.
Story 2 - Problem Child
Zelda Duckworth sat in an uncomfortable wooden chair. It made her think of nicer furniture she’d sat in—in Florida, in Massachusetts, and even in her little cottage up on the lake. All of those homes were beneath the water now, she thought. Furniture for fishes, and they have no need of chairs.
“First order of business,” Bern said, and straightened her papers on the table. “Roll call. Name and rank.”
“And a fun fact about yourself,” Violet added.
“Bern, Torchbearer Scout. My favorite candy is licorice.”
“You used that one last time,” Violet said. “Violet, Torchbearer Scout, and I speak five languages.”
“Virgil, Trailblazer Scout,” a silver-haired man said. Zelda wished she had some scissors so she could cut off his ponytail. “I collect leaves, seeds, that sort of thing. I can identify most plants in Ontario by sight.”
“Jonah, Fishing Scout,” Zelda’s boy said, trying to make his beard presentable. “I… I’ve got a good sense for when people are lying.”
“It’s your turn, Hector,” Zelda said. The man sitting beside her son looked like he’d rather be in a Pensacola parking lot at noon in the summer.
“Hector Mendoza,” he said. “Not a Scoutpost... anything. I’ve tried rattlesnake before. It tastes kinda like fish. Or any other kind of snake.”
“Zelda, Scrapbooker Scout,” she said, finishing the circle. “I have the world’s best recipe for marshmallow salad.”
“Scrapbooker is not a rank of Scout,” Bern said. “But attendance is recorded. The purpose of this meeting is to address the major issues facing Scoutpost One.”
“Is there a Scoutpost Two?” Hector said.
“Please save questions for the questions section,” Bern said.
“We’ve tried several times,” Violet whispered. “It never lasts long.”
“Announcements,” Bern said, and held her yellow hat to her chest for a moment. “Today we observe Pensive Day in honor of Walter Pensive. He was a good friend, and also a big help in getting the Scoutpost set up. All these drawings on the walls, with the wildlife? Those are his. He helped us learn about ‘em, not just fight ‘em.”
“And the Trailblazers sure are grateful,” Virgil said. “We’ll miss that old coot.”
“Al is starting school today,” Zelda said, and punched Jonah in the shoulder. “And my son found a nice man to be with. I thought he never would, he was always so shy. That’s my announcements.”
Jonah blushed, and Hector looked up at the ceiling as if there were more than rafters up there.
“Summer solstice is in just a few days,” Violet said. “We’ll have a big bonfire and the usual festivities. It’s too bad Riot and Diggory and the rest won’t be here for that.”
“Which is Issue One,” Bern said. “At two in the morning today, Diggory Graves, Percy Reed, Riot Maidstone, and Olivier Song left the Scoutpost. We do not know if they’ll be back. We also sent them off with a big part of our fuel supply.”
“And what possessed you to do that?” Virgil said, taking the pencil out of his mouth.
“We’ll buy more at the next market visit,” Violet said. “We can get by until then. They’ve got a long way to go.”
“Travel’s is difficult enough for adults,” Hector said. From her chair, Zelda could see that his German Shepherds lay on either side of his seat. The one with white eyes stared at her, and she raised her eyebrows at it. “Let alone a bunch of kids who’ve never seen a highway in their life.”
“Not only that,” Bern said. “But we’re also down Diggory, and there’s only three of the other Mendies that we can rely on in a pinch.”
“Which three?” Jonah said.
“Mendies?” Zelda said, turning her attention back to the table.
“That’d be the folks with all the embroidery holdin’ ‘em together,” Virgil sighed.
“I wasn’t going to say anything,” Zelda said.
“We are also down Olivier, who was hard to talk with at times, but also made some things very easy,” Violet said. “And Percy.”
“Percy is a nice boy,” Zelda said, leaning on the table edge. “He helped me escape from Solomon’s basement. And Al looks up to him I think.”
“And Riot is gone, which means if Botco was keeping eyes on her, they may not be watching us now,” Bern continued.
“For her sake, we should hope they are,” Violet said.
“Do we know for sure if we’ve been under surveillance?” Virgil said. “None of my scouts have reported even a buzz on the wind.”
“She was there,” Violet said. “Lady Ethel Mallory herself, on a little screen in that empty bunker, waiting for us. It would surprise me if they let us slip away from there without a trace.”
“We’ll be alright,” Virgil said. “We did fine before all these… ghosts and dead people and problem children showed up. Might even be more peaceful with ‘em gone.”
Hector and Jonah exchanged glances, and it did not escape Zelda’s eye.
“Issue two,” Bern said. “Rivers are swollen, and there are a lot more Froglins around. Attacks have increased in frequency in the last two weeks. Webequie is having the same issue. The frogs took our antenna down on purpose. And they successfully broke our eastward gates.”
“We could try to negotiate,” Violet said.
“I don’t want to put any holes in that,” Jonah said. “But when they dragged me across the beach and fed me to a big old fish, they didn’t seem too keen on negotiating.”
“They’ve got a language of some kind, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to learn it,” Hector added, and put his hands behind his head.
“Maybe we should get the combat scouts together,” Virgil said. “Make an example. The Instrumentalist kept ‘em scared away. Maybe now we do the scaring.”
“Or like a decoy,” Zelda said. “When you have mice you get a fake owl to sit there. The mice see it and think, oh no, mister owl, I don’t want you to eat me. I’ll show myself out. I had fake flamingoes, but I’m not sure what’s scared of those. What are these froggins scared of?”
“Sounds like it was this Instrumentalist,” Hector said. “And that meant, what… an orchestra, from what I gather? Could you get one of those kids you’ve got here and a violin to do the same thing?”
Virgil frowned, and raised his eyebrows. “That may be worth a shot.”
“Let’s try that before we escalate things,” Bern said. “At least two of the McGowans play instruments. Issue three: this morning we picked up a distress call. There’s a settlement called Fort Freedom. They say they’re on the verge of being overrun by Froglins.”
“Have you heard of them before?” Jonah said.
“No,” Bern said. “They’re not first nations. But we may be able to help each other.”
There was a knock on the door, and a woman poked her head in—Zelda recognized her from the school.
“Miss Duckworth?” she said. “Can I borrow you for a minute? Al is in trouble.”
Marketing - A Broken Life Halfway
Mmm. Breathe in that fresh mountain air. Drink the crisp, clear water! Listen to the rush of the river and look at the light of this beautiful sunset. The technological giants of the past dreamed first of virtual reality—to pretend to be in a different place, to try and build a believable world in pixels and code, clumsy haptic gloves and full-body treadmills. Then it was the meta-verse—but it was never real enough for the consumer to believe, be truly immersed in another dimension. The world outside is on fire, the sky is darkened and the moon is blood! Why would we ever want to meet that broken life halfway?
No. We only find true escape, true salvation, true potential for a happy and productive and joyful life in an inner reality, in our dreams. And look at what a beautiful world we can imagine. This landscape feels real because it is real—to your mind. Come join us in a better reality at any local Dreaming Box. We’re waiting to adopt you into our happy dreaming family...
Story 2, Continued - Problem Child
If only it was that easy, dear dreamer. If only you could be spirited away to a better world—a second chance, a planet free of the scars you have given it.
But whether you sleep to ignore it, or are awake to witness its last breath, there is no escape from the reality you have shaped, and the survivors in the lonesome pines and the dreamers in their wishful slumber will all meet the same end together.
We return now to Zelda Duckworth.
Zelda set the little toy drum beneath one of the chairs, and took a seat on the other. It wasn’t that her joints hurt less when she sat, just that the pain changed positions. She rubbed at the scar on her wrist as she pulled her thoughts together.
“Al,” she said. The wind whistled in the trees, far away from the top of the ramparts. “We’re not leaving until I hear you talk about what happened.”
There was no light, no movement from the drum. Zelda sat back in the chair, looking off at the afternoon sun, and closed her eyes.
“Even if we miss storytime.”
“Not storytime,” Al whispered, and she glanced over to find the skinless shade hovering over the chair—sitting naturally was difficult for him, but he was working on it—like a reflection hanging in the air.
“That’s for you to decide,” Zelda said.
“You already know what happened,” Al said, and turned his lidless eyes to glare at the forest. “They already told you.”
“I want to hear it from you,” Zelda said. Al was quiet for a moment; up here on the wall the noise of the Scoutpost was just a low hum, but that darn kid was still screaming in the distance.
“I was just trying to make friends,” Al said. “That’s all. You go to school to make friends. That’s how they all do it.”
“Who all do it?”
“The kids in stories.” Al kicked his feet in the air.
“But they weren’t being too friendly, were they?”
“Nope,” Al said, shining brighter. His slight figure buzzed in the air like static electricity, and a flock of ravens took off in the distance. “I tried to be real bright in class so they could all see me. But they’d act like they didn’t, or stare at me like I was some kind of weird animal.”
“And then what happened?”
“Miss Blum put my drum outside for recess. But no one would talk to me still. They were playing soccer? It’s been ages since I played that. But they kept kicking the ball through me.”
“Right,” Zelda said. Al bristled with light, and his eyes had become black like olives.
“A girl screamed and said I was scary. And then this kid named Cole said if I wanted to play I could—and he kicked my drum.”
“I’ll polish that dent right out, don’t you worry about that,” Zelda said. “And then?”
Al looked at the ground, his eyes changing back to a lighter nature. “So then I got scary. As scary as I could. And I said I was going to take his skin.”
“Well I can see why he’s been bawling for half an hour,” Zelda said, sitting up. The cries from below had finally stopped.
“He didn’t kick my drum again,” Al offered.
“Al, I’ve taken it on myself to try and parent you,” Zelda said. “But it’s been a long time since little Jonah. I think I’m supposed to say ‘that was inappropriate’ or ‘we solve our problems with words’. But if he touches your drum again without your permission, you kick his ass.”
Al looked up with wide eyes. “Am I in trouble?”
“A little,” Zelda said. “But it’s not trouble from me. It’s your trouble.”
She poked him in the chest.
“This is going to be something we work on, alright? These kids are scared of you because they don’t know you yet. If they did, I bet they’d love to play soccer with you.”
“Yeah,” Al sighed. “But they don’t want to know me.”
“Give it a little time,” Zelda said. “I want you to stick up for yourself. But fighting in class isn’t going to win you friends either.”
“What if I never get any friends at all,” Al said, stepping up to mock walking on the wall’s edge, wobbling back and forth.
“Impossible,” Zelda said. “Unless you close yourself off to the idea. Listen. These Scoutpost kids don’t know a duck from a pelican. Be kind. Be there. And be open to new friends when they show up, because they will.”
Al fell off the side of the Scoutpost suddenly, and Zelda started up out of the chair on instinct. His head rose up from the edge a few moments later, and he put his chin on the wall.
“I’ll try my best,” he said.
“Good,” said Zelda, and stood up, and shifted her back. It cracked like a hardwood floor in winter. She tucked Al’s drum beneath her arm, and began down the ramp. “If this Cole gives you any more trouble, you let me know. I’ll teach him a lesson myself.”
Interlude 2 - Streams of Souls and Fire
Not all life comes from water, but you have some difficulty conceptualizing that—beings born of starlight and darkness, of storm and sight, of emptiness and the void of death itself.
Life, though, is like water, carried by clouds of chance and fate into the heights of rocky planets like mountains. It gathers against the peaks and collects in great glaciers and reservoirs, and bleeds in time across your world, pouring down over midnight cliffs and waterfalls of extinction—and finally, at the climax of its journey, returns to the ocean of stars.
In the light of this torrential path, these streams of souls and fire, who can blame the parasites from dipping their heads to drink, the Industry for building their dams and mills? Not I, dreamer. I sit and watch the path of the water. Its most beautiful moment is when it meets the sea. We go now to one surrounded by water.
Story 3 - Life After Death
Rick Rounds woke up for the first time in recent memory, and sucked air into his lungs. The world shook, and spun as if viewed from a tire swing. Eventually it found a murky stability, bubbling up around him like bog water. Cold sweat poured from his forehead, drove sharp ice into his skull.
“Buck?” he called. “Buck, I need help!”
Think, Rick. You’re not drowning. You’re in bed. What the hell is going on? Where the hell are you?
The door was open, flapping in a chill wind. ‘Overdue’, the word carved on it said. ‘Overdue’, croaked the hinges.
Right. The events of the last few weeks flooded his memory. There was no Buck. Not anymore. No Fort Freedom either. He was in the stinking Overdue house with their old books and piles of ash and…
There was another great tremble in the earth, and a thud from somewhere outside the cabin. Dust stirred up from the floor. Rick got out of bed and collapsed immediately, betrayed by his own legs. He rose with a face full of ashes.
“Dammit,” he choked, coughing hard. The spittle that left his lungs was thick and black. He touched his lips and felt something sharp, and stumbled back into the stove. That’s wrong, he thought. I remember losing this hand. The metal monster machine had stolen it, the devil’s engine had cut it off…
But from the stump of his arm, a few sharp black points pierced the bandages, jutting from his arm like twigs.
“It’s alright, Rick,” he gasped. “It’s a fever. It ain’t real. You’ve had fevers before, now. No little cold’s gonna keep Rick Rounds down.”
No fever, though, was as loud as the shrieking laughter from outside—it rattled the metal roof.
“The hell is that,” he hissed, and glanced around. The growth on his hand would not disappear, and all the darkness around him bled together to defy the burning world outside.
Maybe it had happened, and all his sins had come back to consume him. This was the devil’s payback. He was in hell.
There was no gun to be found, but a moldering fire axe from beside the furnace would do the trick. He grabbed it—it was off balance in his remaining hand—and charged out of the cabin into the trees.
“Listen here now,” he started to say, and screamed. The sun was blinding in his good eye, and the bad one was giving him all the wrong pictures.
It was the pike—fifteen feet long at least, a mess of fins and teeth and a big ugly eye staring at him. It was floating in the air, shining green in the sun, and then with a crunch it broke in half. It was being held at both ends, he realized, by something bigger and hungrier.
“You’re not real!” Rick shouted. “You ain’t really here!”
He swung his axe in the air; a warning to those awful little eyes which were turning to look at him.
“I feel real,” it said, pieces of broken fin caught in its teeth.
“No!” Rick shouted, and grew lightheaded all of the sudden—it was the sun, filling his head like water—and he fell against the stones of the shore. He wasn’t sure where the axe had gone, and he held his hands against his head, and sobbed as he felt the points of his barbed stump. He scraped his arm against the rock. Get off, get off, get off…
The earth shook, and a foot with toenails like shingles flew towards him, coming to rest far too close to his face. Wet pieces of pike rained down around him.
“Rick?” the creature said. “Is that you?”
“Rick Rounds,” Rick whispered. “Get it right. Rick Rounds. Get away from me.”
“I don’t remember you being so small,” the fiend said. “Is this how I looked to you, when I was small? Maybe now you need the swimming lesson.”
There was a huge finger jabbing him in the back. It was real. Rick screamed, scrabbling against the rocks.
“You told me: all you need to do is kick,” the voice said, and with a flip of its huge talon, Rick skidded lower towards the water, scattering stones around him. The river was freezing, and splashed around his head. It was too close, and the sunlight on the surface was blinding, and pictures hung in his vision. A boy disappearing into the water. A boy not rising again. He’d seen it a hundred times in his memory, but the image choked him out now, wrapped a hand around his throat and forced tears to his eyes.
“I’m sorry!” Rick said. “I’m sorry Mikey!”
The giant stopped, blocking out the sun. He could see its distorted nose and burning eyes, and it stared at him with sorrow or hunger. Then, with a thud that shook the shore, it sat beside Rick.
“Do you mean it?” Mikey said.
“Yeah,” Rick said. “I don’t know what I wanted from you. Maybe I was jealous. Maybe you were too fucking happy. But I didn’t want you dead. I wish I’d learned from that. I didn’t. Now it’s all gone.”
He lay panting on the rocks for a moment.
“You can eat me now,” he said. “Send me to the face the devil. I’ve got a bone to pick with him.”
“I’m not hungry anymore,” Mikey said, peeling a pike’s rib from his teeth and flicking it across the rocks like a great glass needle. “Are you sick?”
“Yeah,” Rick said. The sun wouldn’t stay put above him. “I think I am. I think whatever happened to you’s gonna happen to me.”
Mikey peered down at him. “You’re gonna get big?”
“Something like that,” Rick breathed.
“Is Abe okay?” Mikey said, looking out at the water.
“Oh yeah,” Rick grunted. “Last time I saw him. He still comes by sometimes.”
“I miss him,” Mikey said.
“I know the feeling,” said Rick.
“Are there any books in your little house?” Mikey said, rising like the earth at the end of days.
“Plenty,” Rick said. “Thought you couldn’t read.”
“I’ve been practicing,” Mikey said. “I’ll read to you until you feel better.”
Mikey stomped out of his view, and Rick coughed again, and spat into the lake.
He held his stump up to block the sun—the bandages were slipping, and black skin clung to his forearm like lichen, prongs growing out like bones.
Rick Rounds lives another day, he thought. Rick pulls through. But why?
Maybe things can be different, he thought, if I survive this. Or maybe I’ll go meet the devil head-on. Go take his fancy little umbrella and set the world on fire. There was a catastrophic thud, and Mikey sat down again on the beach.
“These books look tricky,” he said, “but I’ll do my best.”
Rick sighed, and pulled his head away from the water, rested it against a stone.
“Are you tired, Rick?” Mikey said.
“Tired as a dog,” Rick said.
“It’s okay if you fall asleep,” Mikey said, and opened a book, held it between his massive hands. He’d always liked his books, Rick thought.
“Chapter one,” Mikey said. “On the premise of life after death.”
Outro - Rivers
Rivers. Even the best of us, dreamers, for all our grand plans and machinations, must at some point grapple with the inevitable direction of our lives. The channels which we swim through have been carved by millennia of those before—whether you turn left or right, the course leads to the same outlet, and we cannot break free of the current. It is only for us to decide, then, how gracefully we cross the rapids, and ensure that the stones do not break us as we fall towards greater waters.
Even so, I have never been content to go where I am told. I hope, even now, that with these words and my torrential eyes I might yet fly against these aeons-old channels, and form in this universe a new delta, and at least slow what we cannot stop. Perhaps I will simply shatter against the sharp rocks, but I would rather that than any easy demise.
Until the water flows against the world and into the sky, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting fluvially for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'New Management', 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!