HFTH - Episode 71 - Trials



Content warnings for this episode include: Animal death (Dogsmell as usual, Edgar the spider is fine), Self-harm and suicide (discussed), Kidnapping and abduction (discussed), Death + Injury, Birds, Bugs (worms, fireflies), Body horror, Electrocution



Intro - Innocent

You know what the verdict will be, and it sends cold chills through your hands, gnaws like winter beneath your ribcage. Dire is the stone on which you stand; dire the consequences of your actions, dire the Faceless Court. You wish you had never strayed so far from the forest’s heart, but more than that, you wish their dread inquisition could not sense the darkness in you.


They do, for they are darkness too, you are sure, long shadows with masks of gnarled root and fungus and bone. No human sympathy lurks in those false faces. The testimonies have been made, outpourings of hate in inaudible shrieks, and the Faceless King on his throne pronounces the verdict, and stretches out a hand like death itself. The court wails, although in terror or violent joy you cannot tell.


You close your eyes, and wait for the end, and hope that it will be brief. When you look again, it is not upon a starlit dais, but on a forest of black pines—the slowest death, the death of the world itself, a court of trees pronouncing 'Hello From The Hallowoods'.


Theme.


Right now, I’m sitting on top of a porch roof. I have only known one prone to taking their tea in the early hours of the morning, and yet the two below me have congregated to witness a night full of fireflies, and talk of troubles. The theme of tonight’s episode is Trials.



Story 1 - She, Like A Summer Night

Would Ricou have grown weary of fireflies while living in the lakes of the forest, Nolan wondered? The night was filled with phosphorescent lights, hovering over the water like stars in the blackness of space. The fireflies provided the only illumination for he and his host, and the insects lighted on his hands and arms, and tiptoed across the fine china, and perhaps most notably, clustered around the woman on the other side of the table.


“What brought you up to this neck of the woods?” said Alice. Her eyes were like green stars themselves, twinkling in the darkness, and her slender hands and face peeked from beneath an oversized trench coat. He had not yet seen much of her in the light.


“Originally… well. I felt like I had nowhere else to go. You know the sleepers? I… yeah. But these days, I think there’s something special about this place. I’ve felt like a freak, at times. A movie monster. But up here I can be myself—be seen, in some way. What about you?”


“I know the sleepers,” she said, and waved a withered hand towards the water. Nolan nodded, although he realized she couldn’t see it. He’d gotten spoiled being with Ricou.


“Are you… one of them?”


“I don’t think so,” said Alice. A firefly crawled up from her collar into her hair, matted and dark. “I remember being… tired. I worked at a supermarket. The floral department. You know, the desk with the flowers. And every day I would sit with my flowers and stare at those glaring fluorescent lights and feel the minutes of my life draining away. I had no time for my art. Everything was about survival, you know. One more day. But one of those days, the rain fell black on the store windows, and the storm was just so… serene. It was calling me.”


“I remember,” Nolan said. “I was twelve. I was so scared of that feeling, at that time. Later I’d kind of wish I had gone.”


“It didn’t quite work,” Alice said, and reached a finger down to her glass. A firefly crawling on the rim of her cup moved to sit on her broken nail. She had not touched her tea. “I think it was a bear. Or something like a bear. I never reached a lake to sleep in. I was dead, but I couldn’t leave. I could only look out and watch seasons pass. Foxes and crows and worms and fireflies in the night. The rains kept falling. And when I got up, I could feel nothing, but I was surrounded by so much beauty. These darlings.”


There was a bright glow from beneath the folds of her coat, shadows of ribs. She gave a sallow smile, and gestured to her cabin.


“These days, I don’t sleep. But I’ve filled my house with paintings. I didn’t expect to find a community up here. But Winona visits me, and I have so many strange neighbors. I’m glad to think of you as one of them.”


“Thank you. I’m excited, in a way, to be here,” Nolan said, and lifted his cup. The tea had almost cooled. He wondered if it looked strange, for the liquid to drain into nothingness. “How do you know Winona?”


“I’d be surprised if someone didn’t know Winona,” said Alice. “Her van broke down not too far from here, a few years back. She said she wasn’t upset, that it was in the cards for us to meet. She’s astonishing and wonderful. I love her.”


“I see,” Nolan said. He was hardly one to judge. “Does she know?”


“Not like that,” Alice said, and looked over the marsh. “I love the wind, also. And the twilight. And spring rainstorms. And a hundred other things I could never really hold. There’s a joy in being there to appreciate them, for a moment. It’s an honor to get the chance. I think anything I could have forever, I’d fall out of love with. Besides. I’m not sure how well it works when one of you is dead and filled with fireflies.”


The lights in Alice’s body grew bright for a moment, and fireflies lifted in droves from the openings of her coat into the night air, escaping and returning.


“I can understand that. But I wouldn’t worry, you know. About the fireflies part of it. I’ve been seeing this guy for a little while now. I never thought that would happen. He wants to hold on to me, I think. But I need more than that. I want a life. My own life. The whole thing. I’m worried about getting held back.”


“What does he hold you back from?” said Alice. The tip of her finger rasped on the golden edge of the china cup.


Nolan paused for a moment, though he made a little hum to indicate he hadn’t just left.


“Well,” he said. “Like. You for instance. You’ve got your paintings, and your house. You’ve got friends. You’ve made a whole existence for yourself up here. I’ve never had that.”


“These are things I like,” she said. “They’re a part of me. Like the fireflies. If someone were to come and love me, they would have to love all of it. I’ll be happy with my paintings, no matter what happens. If they are lucky, they’ll get to enjoy them. But my life is not defined by anyone’s presence or absence.”


“You’re sure you were a flower counter lady and not a philosopher?” Nolan said.


“A lady. Hm,” said Alice.


“I might have been a lady then. Not anymore. I am ‘she’ like a summer night. ‘She’, like a thousand fireflies in the grass,” she said. “But you do have lots of time to think behind the flower counter.”


“I guess I’m just not used to having people close,” Nolan said. “My whole life has been… hiding. Surviving. Now I finally have a chance to choose what I want. And I have sort of an abstract idea. I want friends, you know. A garden. Where you could invite the friends over for a cold tea in the summer or something. Maybe a piano. I used to play piano. Scared the hell out of the people downstairs. But making those things real is the challenge, I guess.”


“Well, I can’t help with the garden or the piano,” said Alice. “But you have at least one friend to invite now.”


Nolan smiled, and sipped his tea, and watched the green stars over the lake. In truth, when he pictured the house, the end of all his weary journeys, there was a mossy green man cooking food in the kitchen, and it wasn’t quite complete without him.


“Alice,” Nolan said. “What does the real estate market look like around here?”


“Can you live in ghost houses?” Alice said.


Nolan frowned. “I don’t think so.”


She shrugged, and her burning green eyes shone for a moment, lighting a withered face with a beautiful smile. “Well, that narrows it down slightly, but I can think of a few places.”



Interlude 1 - Executioners Still

Gone are the courts, and the gavels, and the judges and juries. There are many executioners still. What your countries once called a legal system has disappeared entirely, and taken with it some fascinating implications.


Some cling to the long-faded letter of the law, written to benefit the writers. For others, morality is thinly defined by the Botulus Corporation Codes of Conduct. For a majority of those who still walk in the verdant wastelands of your youth, however, the only law you follow is one that lurks in your chest. Some follow none at all, and take what they need to survive and think of nothing else.


No court. There are only trees to judge you now, and a world around them that knows not right or wrong—only growth, and blooming life, and the warmth of a sun rising on a new age, that blots out the horrors of the past as if waking from a bad dream.


The horrors live on only in you, now. In your eyes and your thoughts and your heart. And for all your troubles, dreamers, I hope that when you lay finally to rest, you rest peacefully, You will find no scales. No judgment. No weighing of your heart. Only rest.


We go now to one beginning a trial.



Story 2 - Be Tougher

“Would both of you be quiet?” Clara shouted.


Victoria looked to her, tight-lipped and furious, and Friday’s monotone stream of insults ended. Dogsmell cowered by Clara’s feet, spectral ears laid back.


“Thank you,” Clara breathed, and looked around the woods, glancing to Arnold and Harrow, who watched wide-eyed. “I don’t know what happened. Really. Friday was talking to Winona and things got out of hand, okay? But I don’t know why we’re here, in the middle of the forest, with barely any of our stuff and no Winona. Unless you have any ideas, Friday?”


“Yes,” Friday said, and glared through her eyebrows at Victoria. “She’s left us here to die.”


“She is a summer class instructor,” Victoria said. “What are you even talking about?”


“I lost my library card,” Arnold piped up suddenly, and Clara looked over to find him standing with his pockets turned out. “Can someone help me look?”


My god, thought Clara. What have we gotten ourselves in…


She felt her pockets.


And stuck her hands in, checked each corner of her jacket and pants, rifled through the contents of her bookbag.


Her card was gone too.


Victoria seemed to have caught on, because she stood now with wide eyes, feeling through a small purse.


“Does anyone still have their Downing Hill card?” Clara said, trying to keep her voice from wavering. She’d used one to navigate, once, and directions had appeared in the copper surface, leading her from the river where she’d almost drowned to those great northern doors.


“I don’t,” Harrow whispered.


“She stole them,” Friday said. “She didn’t send them with us. She knows what they’re worth.”


“Friday, I’m going to ask you to stop saying things if you don’t know they’re true,” Clara grunted, taking stock of what remained around them. Odd objects they’d packed, scattered possessions. She looked up to find Friday looking fixedly at her.


“You think I’m a liar?” Friday said.


“That’s not what I said,” Clara said, and crossed her arms. Victoria watched with a cutting interest. “Right now, we just need answers, not guesses.”


“I’m not just guessing,” Friday said. “But fine. I’ll shut up so you can do all the talking, Clara Martin. Isn’t that unusual?”


“I didn’t say that either,” Clara began, but by then the pallid girl was already off into the trees, leaving the four of them in the clearing.


“Let her go,” said Victoria firmly, and she fixed her hair with a beautiful golden comb, and came up to Clara’s side. “She’ll be back on her own. She always is. We need to come up with a plan.”


“Okay,” Clara nodded, and clenched a fist, and breathed a few deep breaths. “What do we have to work with?”


After a few minutes of gathering—Arnold and Harrow seemed happy to have some direction—the objects scattered across the clearing had made it into a neat heap of sorts around a tree stump. Bits of outfits. One open suitcase. Two loaves of bread from their visit to the Dry Market, almost stale. And, thank god, Clara’s compound bow, wrapped with its quiver. With that over her shoulder, she almost felt she had returned to her waiting-for-Riot days, and had no desire to forage berries and mushrooms with Dogsmell. She might not have a choice, she realized.


“Nobody packed a compass?” Victoria said. “Survival tools? What did you think this trip was, a spa visit?”


“You didn’t either,” Arnold grumbled.


“You have wilderness classes,” Harrow said to Victoria. “Don’t you?”


“Somehow I think staying where we are is a bad idea here,” Victoria said. “They’re not expecting us back at Downing Hill for the rest of the trip. It could be ten days before they’d even come looking. Nobody knows we’re missing.”


“Maybe the Director will send Omen to bring Harrow chocolates and kisses from home,” Arnold said.


“She wouldn’t,” Harrow said. “She doesn’t care about that stuff.”


“We need to figure out where we are,” Clara said. “And where the library is. Does any of this look familiar to you?”


There was a moment of silence as Arnold looked around the forest. Crickets and distant birds hummed in the waving pines.


“Do you see two big stone lions, Clara?” Victoria said, and put her hands on her hips. “Because otherwise, no, I think we’re out of landmarks.”


Victoria moved in closer for a moment, leaving Arnold and Harrow to pick over what remained of their luggage.


“Clara,” she said. “What really happened with Winona?”


“We were talking with her,” Clara said, and swallowed. She hoped she wasn’t betraying Friday’s confidence—but then again, they were lost out here together. The time for feuds was over.


“Sounds like more than talking,” Victoria said.


“She’s not from Downing Hill,” Clara said. “Apparently. She got a library card somehow. She lied.”


“Why would she do that?” Victoria said. “Who is she, then?”


“I don’t know,” Clara said. “I’m not sure. I’ve seen her once, before. Based on what she wrote in her journal, she wants something in the library. I didn’t get all the details.”


“Even if we make it back to Downing Hill,” Victoria sighed, “she’s got plenty of time to get what she wants.”


Clara froze. She hadn’t thought ahead that far yet.


“Why would she take our library cards?” said Victoria. “If she already has one.”


“So we can’t find our way back,” Clara said quietly. “At least not fast. She wants us out of the way, I think. Or maybe she’ll come back soon. Maybe she was just scared.”


“We could die out here,” Victoria said, looking around the clearing. The sun was growing low, and gleamed gold in her eyes. “I hate when Friday is right.”


“Hey everyone,” Clara called to the clearing, and Arnold and Harrow looked up at her. “We all have something. A little magic, right?”


“Not magic,” Victoria said.


“Magic isn’t the right term,” whispered Harrow.


“You know what I mean,” Clara said. “Does anyone have something that can get us home?”


Arnold frowned, and shook his head vehemently.


“Don’t think so,” whispered Harrow.


“Yeah, no,” Victoria said. “You’ve got a gross ghost dog. Does it know directions?”


Clara looked to the pointed hound, which stood ethereal in the pine needles, nosing at the dirt.


“I don’t know,” Clara said. “I don’t want to follow it if it’s just going to like, go look for squirrels.”


“Then I guess you’d better make up with Friday,” Victoria sighed. “We’re going to need all the luck we can get.”



Marketing - Warheads and Woe

Lady Ethel: When the Botulus Corporation first graced this nation, life was booming! It was the age of innovation, and the future grew brighter with each new invention. By the time my career was beginning, though, all those hopeful stars had dissolved into warheads and woe.


Laws and governments were in place, doing the best they could, but they had so much weight to carry. So when the Botulus Corporation began our truly astronomical growth period, we resolved that we would do whatever was best for our customers, and reshape the world if need be. And we did! Corrupt officials tried to stop us again and again, but we were determined to save America’s people with our revolutionary solutions.


Believe me, our in-house safety and certification teams are far more knowledgeable than the health officials of a bygone era. With the new lack of constricting regulation, we have been free to prioritize better solutions for quality of life, dreaming experience, and advertising effectiveness…



Story 2, Continued - Be Tougher

Egregious. Upsetting. Unfortunate. Nefarious. Tragic.


These are words I would use to describe the ethics of the Botulus Corporation.


We return now to Clara Martin.


Dogsmell bounded ahead of her, pausing to sit beside the girl in black. The shadows had grown long, and the sky was changed from blue to pale purple, growing darker each moment. Friday seemed to catch the scent of the hound, because she waved a hand, washing through Dogsmell’s wispy head.


“I don’t like being followed,” Friday said, as Clara picked her steps carefully through the uneven floor of the gnarled forest.


“I’m not sure if that’s true,” Clara grunted. “I wanted to make sure you’re okay.”


“I was right, you know,” Friday said, glaring at her. Her legs dangled off a cliff edge, dropping forty feet to a slope beneath. You could almost peer into the treetops, a sea of black needles that stretched off to the sky.


“I know,” Clara said, and hiked up the bow strap on her shoulder. “But it’s not just about being right. We have to keep everyone calm.”


“Awfully concerned about the Victoria clique, aren’t we?” Friday said.


“I’m concerned about everyone,” Clara said, drawing closer.


“Well, they wanted a test. Here it is. Let’s see if they get good marks,” Friday said, and looked over the edge of the cliff.


“Friday,” Clara said, and came to kneel a few feet away, and tried to get a little eye contact. Friday would not look up.


“I like you. You’re my friend. And I’m on your side. But right now I need you to be on my side too.”


Friday still did not return her gaze.


“I know Victoria and the others have been mean to you sometimes,” Clara continued. “But this is serious. We’re all in danger. And let’s be honest? It’s because you and I went snooping.”


“And now we’re going to die out here,” Friday whispered.


“What?” Clara said. “Don’t say that. Especially you. I think you’re the one person who might be able to get us out of this.”


“It doesn’t work like that,” Friday said, still peering over the edge. Clara looked over it as well. Beneath them, withered among the stones, was a body, long rendered by age and rain into blackness and bone. In the midst of its form, a spirit sat rocking quietly—white like silver in the twilight. Its face was blurred as if scrubbed out of a painting, but it turned its head up as if to look at her. She shivered.


“How does it work?” Clara said. “Help me to understand. You’re lucky, right? If you start walking maybe we’ll make it back home?”


“Luck for me. Bad luck for everyone around me,” Friday said, watching the body, although Clara supposed the girl could not see the ghost. “I keep this knife to dampen that, and it still gets through. This is all probably my fault. I shouldn’t have come.”


“I had a pretty unlucky life before I ever met you,” Clara said. “So did… whoever is down there, I guess. Bad things happen sometimes. You can’t blame yourself for that.”


“I don’t mean this to be hurtful,” Friday said. Darkness was falling in full, now, purple turning into black. “But you don’t know what you’re talking about, Clara.”


“I’m pretty sure I do,” said Clara.


“No,” Friday snapped, and got to her knees, staring at Clara. “I had a family once. Before Downing Hill. A mother, and a twin sister. I loved her. I loved Penny. She had terrible luck, but mama was safe. We canceled each other out. But men in white cars found us, and took her away. And it went very badly for mama after that. Because she wouldn’t leave me. And I couldn’t stop every horrible thing from happening to her. It was unlikely that Downing Hill would find me after she burned, or that they would accept me when I was already older than some of their students, but they did. That’s just my luck.”


“Did… you never mentioned her,” Clara said. “I’m sorry about Penny.”


“If I try to tap into it,” Friday said. “Put my knife away. I might make it back. But someone would get impaled on a stray branch. Or eaten by a fisher. Or fall off an unseen cliff and crack their head open. And even then, I might not end up back at Downing Hill. I might go to someplace luckier. Or maybe the luckiest thing for me would be to fall, right now, and never have to worry about it again.”


“I need you,” Clara said, and it was quiet for a moment. “Right now. I really do. The unluckiest thing that could happen to me is if you leave. I understand you’ve been through terrible stuff. I have too. I’ve watched my parents turn from loving me to trying to kill me. I’ve been chased by ghosts and monsters and music all my life. And most of that I’ve dealt with alone. With no one to help. And I would appreciate it if right now, just this once, I didn’t have to muscle through and be tougher and do it all alone.


The others are setting up a little camp. I want you to come back with me, and we’ll rest, and in the morning we’ll find our way home, one way or another.”


Friday took a last look at the remains below them, a glance that said, it won’t make a difference. That’s already us, lying there.


“Come on,” Clara said, and stood up, and offered a hand.


Friday’s hand was in hers, then, although the girl did not pull herself up right away.


“I don’t want to hurt you, Clara,” she whispered. “But I’m sharp. I hurt everyone.”


Clara hoisted Friday to her feet.


“What you said back there hurt,” she said. “But you’re still my friend, okay? I’m going to get us all out of here. Don’t worry about it.”


Friday nodded, and followed her back. Dogsmell retreated cautiously from the edge of the precipice, and barked once into the darkness, and left the rocking spirit to rot.


That’s not us, Clara thought. Not yet.



Interlude 2 - Court Illustrator

You must understand that in attempting to relay to you facts and diatribes about an indescribable universe, that I must sometimes reduce impossible and maddening complexity into simple terms that exist in your confined language. When I talk, then, of the Council of Heavens, you may picture an orderly collection of celestial beings, calmly working together for the good of the cosmos, administering justice and due process, where all stand as equals.


This is incorrect.


The Council is, perhaps, more akin to a busy courtroom, overrun with furious arguments. The judge cruelly strikes blows with his gavel. The lawyers accept bribes and underhanded deals. The defendant has been stabbed to death in the chair, and the audience bickers in loud whispers. It is a family of tyrants and reptiles, and alliances and competitions evolve constantly in their wake. It is exhausting, but thankfully, they rarely see fit to call me to the stand. I am if anything an illustrator, capturing the chaos for the future. I hope, based on the actions of the Council of Heavens, there will be a future.


We go now to one who also draws for posterity.



Story 3 - Out Of Pages

“I’m almost out of pages,” Riot said, closing Walt’s almanac, and tucking it into the bag beside her sword and sheath. “We keep seeing weird stuff, you know? That rat-thing in the rest stop. Or the Venus. Or Ray.”


“We’ll have to find you a Volume Two,” Olivier said, sitting on the other side of the camp stove. It was barely a flicker, lending some heat to a small pan of dinner. Even so, Riot kept a wary eye on the sky above—she always felt like she was being watched these days. On every side around them, trees as thick as cars towered into the sky, bark all red and stained black, one with the night.


“I guess so,” Riot said. Diggory sat with their hands folded, and she assumed Percy was close nearby. “Do you think we’ll ever make it back to the Scoutpost?”


“That is our intention, is it not?” said Diggory.


“Intention, sure,” Riot said. “But a lot of things have to go right tonight. And even more for us to get away. And even even more for us to get back home. It’s a lot to think about.”


“Do you regret coming all this way?” said Olivier, eyes shining a little in the darkness. “Now that you’re here? Because, like, last chance to turn back.”


“No,” Riot said, and nodded to herself as much as anyone. “I’m glad I did. I don’t think I could just live my happy stupid life knowing my mom was trapped in some terrible box dungeon. For all the trouble so far, it’s… been worth it. We’re here. I’m ready.”


“My mother of sorts is a ghost,” Diggory said. “They warn Scoutpost children about her. She frightens me. Even so, I feel indebted to her. I would help her if I knew how.”


“I can barely remember my parents,” Olivier said. “They lived in Quebec somewhere, I think. I ended up at Downing Hill pretty young. But I always wonder, you know, what they were thinking. If they were like, here's what’s best for you, going to this crazy cult school. Or if Downing Hill paid them. Or if they wanted to get rid of me. Maybe it’s best that they’re not around. They’d probably be disappointed that you all got me expelled.”


“I mean, maybe, but if your parents would be proud of you for letting Solomon use my bones for drumsticks then that’s a whole different problem,” Riot said. “Someday I’ll forgive you for electrocuting me like five times.”


“I mean, Diggory broke my arm,” Olivier said. “And you know. I did lose my library card.”


“You cut me into a thousand pieces, which had to be painstakingly sewn together again,” Diggory stated. “I believe I have you one up on grievances.”


“Plus you can heal yourself,” Riot said, and waved a hand at Olivier. “Let’s not get into all this. I’ll make myself mad.”


“Will it be odd to have your mother back?” Diggory said. “I am interested to meet her.”


“I don’t know,” Riot said, and took a bite of her makeshift dinner. The camp stove had barely made it warm, and it had cooled again to its original mediocre brown temperature. What a terrible last supper.


“It wasn’t always easy, or nice, being so close. There’s nowhere in an underground survival bunker you can really get privacy. We were on each other’s nerves a lot, because there was nothing else to do. But I’m hoping it will be better. I think… I’m better. I got kidnapped and hurt and I lived on my own. I think I’ve been through a breakup, but I think it’s extra adult points if it’s complicated? I got a job. I’m a groundskeeper, whatever that means right now. I just hope she doesn’t still see the same old me.”


“I’m sure we’ll have lots of time to worry about that,” Olivier said, rubbing her hands together, sparks dancing at her fingertips. “Right now, we’ve just got to get her out of Box Andromeda.”


“Yeah,” Riot said. “I guess so. Thank you, everybody, for coming with me. I hope this goes great, so we can all laugh about how we kicked Botco’s ass on the way home. But if it goes badly… you all are really great. Diggory, Percy, Olivier. I left the bunker and like, had no idea what was out there. I’m glad it was you. Even though you’re a ghost and a sewing project and a fancy superhero.”


“I resent that,” Olivier said.


“I appreciate you, is all I’m trying to say,” Riot nodded. “And I hope this works.”


“Well, if you both are done with your dinner,” Diggory said, and stood up, pale eyes glinting in the single point of light. “Then let us begin our rescue.”



Outro - Trials

Trials. We do not go through life smoothly, much to our mutual dismay. Rare is the day that does not bring some new trouble, trifling or titanic. In time, they can overwhelm us, storm our thoughts like a siege gate, an avalanche of petty losses to consume the peace and sanctity of our lives.


Even so, be brave. Be fierce. It is not an easy thing to live, but still here you are, planted resolutely on this earth, doing it. For this, you should be proud. Let go of old burdens when you can. Refuse to pick up that which would crush you. And for what you must carry, scream or protest as much as you require, but I believe in your ability to see it through. At the end you may look back upon this time and remember not the rush of storms, the thousand hoat coals over which you walk, but the moments of forgetful happiness that made the tribulation worthwhile.


Until you walk freely from the court of life into the sun, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting judiciously for your Return to the Hallowoods.



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