Content warnings for this episode include: Eating a dead bird, Abuse, Animal death (lots of birds, Heidi and Bert as usual), Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Blood, Birds, Gun Mention Strangulation/suffocation, Emotional Manipulation, Drowning, Bugs (Beetle Baby, Ethel’s pets), Body horror, Character Death
Intro - By The Gates
All the universe is night, an abyss in which the deathly moons and flaming stars drift, nameless planets tumbling in the emptiness. There are flashes of light, civilizations springing up and gone again, flickering upon their scarred worlds, barely long enough to carve their names into the stone before they are gone.
But you sit by the gates.
The far-off grove whence your multitude of visions were born glints with golden starlight; its rolling fields are nebulas in phantasmal purples and phosphorous greens, and they beckon you back to when you were young.
But still you sit by the gates.
The tyrants of grey kingdoms stream from their solitudes, clad in vestments of dying suns, and you greet them, but they say nothing to you as they enter the gates.
Is it any wonder, then, that when you dream, you dream of far-away places, of distant reaches of the universe where life blooms like fields of flowers, that you dream of running free, of chasing the melody that begins with ‘Hello From The Hallowoods’.
Right now, I’m sitting on the floor, watching a German Shepherd. She stares with pale white eyes, ears twitching as I move. She looks for threats, but does not count me among them. How wrong she is. The theme of tonight’s episode is Sentries.
Story 1 - A Smooth River Rock
Hector gave a wave to Riot and Olivier and their company as the group departed, and Zelda closed the door again. She sat in a chair in front of it, and held a bowl of candy in her lap, and waited like a tunnel spider for the next trick-or-treaters to arrive.
It was warm in Zelda’s room, and Hector had abandoned his usual sweater for a black t-shirt that emphasized his arm of living tree bark—the symbols he’d carved were a little less visible than they’d used to be, but still there nonetheless.
Jonah, on the other side of the dining room table, was dressed like a party clown, which did not make the conversation they were having any easier.
“You said it yourself,” Jonah said in a voice hushed enough that Zelda could not hear it; Jonah’s stepmother was dressed like a duck, and hummed to herself by the door. “There are some places I go that you can’t follow. And this is one of them.”
“When I said that I was talking about your mystery desert deathworld,” Hector grunted. Jonah had white facepaint smudged in his beard. “This is a walk north. Practically a hiking trail. I can follow. I’m good at this kind of thing.”
“You were all about warning Cindy how deadly it…” Jonah began, and was interrupted by Zelda quacking loudly at a new wave of trick-or-treaters, and she jovially handed out expired candy for a few moments while the cold air blasted in. And then the kids were gone, and the door shut again, and Jackie and Heidi looked back to him from the living room floor.
“...about how deadly the North is,” Jonah finished. “You know it is. We were both there. And I have a feeling we didn’t even get far.”
“Only one of us walked back from those woods,” Hector said, brows furrowed. There was a glint in Jonah’s eyes, green as starlight.
“And I’m so glad that you did,” Jonah said, and paused, a sudden thought. “That card you used to get out—do you still have that?”
“Sold it as salvage,” Hector said, and laid his arm of wood on the table. “Do you think that you’d be able to get us out of the doldrums now?”
“I couldn’t last time,” Jonah muttered.
“Your eyes weren’t green last time they looked on those trees,” Hector frowned. “You didn’t have a crown. You couldn't make the sky and the forest move. I bet you could get us free of that place now.”
“There is no us,”, Jonah said, and put his hands on the table, watched Hector with a dour seriousness that Hector rarely saw. “Not for this. I am going, and you are not. Because I walk back when I die, and you don’t. No matter how this expedition goes, I will come back to you. We will be alright. But I can’t do that if you’ve been torn apart by the guy with no face and a hundred hands.”
Hector glared at him for a moment, scraped his wooden fingertips across the table edge.
“What if you don’t?” Hector grunted, locked eyes with Jonah. “You don’t really know where you’ve gotten all this power, right? Maybe there is something out there that could hurt you. Or take it away. I don’t know if you’re going to be alright unless I’m there with you.”
“I’m asking you to trust me,” Jonah said.
Hector was about to respond when he glanced up to find Zelda looming over their table, watching him.
“Ma, you snuck up on me,” Jonah said, and laughed as he did when he was relieving the tension in a conversation. “Did you run out of candy?”
“You think I wouldn’t hear all this bickering?” Zelda said, a wry face peering out from the bill of the duck. She set her half-filled bowl of candy on the table.
“Sorry, missus Duckworth,” Hector said, and rubbed at the bridge of his nose. There was a knock at the door.
“Come back later!” she shouted, and pulled up a chair, and sat down at the table. “Now. What is all this about?”
Jonah shot Hector a warning glance, half panicked, and Hector sighed, raised a hand across the table.
“I’m sure your darling son would be happy to explain.”
Jonah blanched beneath his facepaint.
“Alright. Jonah?” Zelda said, and looked to him expectantly.
“It’s… nothing, really, ma,” Jonah said, and raised an eyebrow at Hector with a certain amount of betrayal.
“Not going to tell me, eh?” Zelda sighed, and crossed her arms, which were laden with scraps of fabric like a duck’s feathers. She turned to Hector. “Hector?”
Hector looked up to Jonah, who shook his head ever so slightly, eyes wide. Hector thought of doing something vengeful, but Zelda had half adopted him as much as she had Jonah.
“Like Jones said,” Hector sighed, and uncrossed his arms. “It’s nothing at all.”
“A couple’s spat,” Zelda nodded sagely; the yellow tassels on her head bobbled. “Happens to the best of us. Your father and I used to have our fights, Jonah. Some of them didn’t end so well. But I realized, I was always trying to tell him what the problem was—not because I like complaining, but because I thought I could help fix ‘em. But he always had to do things his way, and if he didn’t get it, he’d wall himself off in his study, or be gone at work longer than he needed. He made himself lost to me. And that was the worst, because I couldn’t even try to make things right or help or apologize. He was just gone.”
She sniffed, and pried open an expired peppermint, and popped it in her mouth, rolled it around as she spoke.
“So whatever it is, don’t run. Talk about it until all the edges are gone, and it’s smooth and dull as a river rock. And you’ll wake up tomorrow and that will be that, and whatever the problem is, it’ll be behind you.”
She nodded to herself, satisfied, and then cast a glance to Hector.
“Unless it comes out that you’ve been hurting my baby boy,” she said. “In which case I may be old, but I can still hit my mark with my shotgun…”
“Jeez, ma, nothing like that,” Jonah said, and waved a hand. “But thank you for your advice.”
“Mm,” Hector agreed, and stared at his wooden hand, lost in thought. Zelda rose, and kissed Jonah on the forehead, and went to open the doors to a swarm of waiting children.
“So?” Hector said, watching the emotions pass like clouds on Jonah’s face. The one that won out was one that he liked; a gentle smile, although a distant sorrow lingered beneath Jonah’s bushy grey brows.
“Alright,” Jonah said, and nodded. “We do this together.”
Interlude 1 - A Deadly Moat
Were you to have a treasure, ornately crafted and beautiful to behold, a masterpiece of creation, you would not wish to have it lay in the field, where it might be destroyed by the weather or stolen by your enemies. You would build walls around it; give it a space to inhabit befitting of its brilliance.
But if your enemies were great, or the threat of rot and creeping insects picking at it severe, you might not stop there. You might build around its hiding place a fortress, dead ends and high parapets, ring upon ring of towering wall and deadly obstacle, and fill the battlements with sentinels to safeguard it.
And around the fortress, you might place a moat, to drown those who cannot swim, fill it with hungry beasts that rend and tear and spill blood in the water.
The northern expanse of the Hallowoods, where the stars lose their meaning and the trees turn from black to the unseeable colors beyond, is a deadly moat indeed.
We go now to one who is dead.
Story 2 - A Collection Of Tragedies
“Take one more step towards Diggory and I will burn this place to the ground with you in it,” Percy said, and blazed bright within the silver shell he wore, let the light smolder from his eyes, heat the metal of his hands. Sparks danced at his silver fingertips. Beside him, Diggory flinched, flickered out their dagger fingertips like a threatened cat.
Ahead of them both, ten feet away in the moonlight, stood Mx. Morrell, the fungus-headed proprietor of this gigantic moving structure which was apparently a museum. The balcony swayed as the museum continued to crawl through the forest, trees flitting by in the night below.
“Forgive me,” said Mx. Morrell, and raised their hand. The dark lenses of their glasses flashed with passing stars. The being smiled with teeth that were surprisingly human given their mycelial skin. “I have been sent here to kill you, Diggory, but let me make it clear I have no intention of doing so. Personally, I consider you one of my favorite additions to the collections. So much significance. But my employer seems to think otherwise, lately. He has been quite vocal about wishing you dismantled. I wonder if you have any insight as to why that may be.”
“Diggory, what are they talking about?” Percy said, light still bristling at his hands. He looked away from the mushroom person only for a moment, to see Diggory watching with wide pale eyes.
“Percy, I have not yet brought this into conversation as… I find it difficult to explain. I… belong here,” Diggory said.
Percy squinted at them. “What do you mean, you ‘belong here’? You belong at the Scoutpost. With me.”
“Yes, of course,” Diggory said quickly, and raised a sharp hand. “For now. But I…”
“‘For now’? What does that mean?”
“Perhaps I can lend you some clarification,” Mx. Morrell said, raising a bony hand riddled with squirming fingers. “Why don’t we step inside for some tea…”
“We are not going inside,” Percy said, and glanced between Diggory and Mx. Morrell. “You just threatened to kill Diggory.”
“It was a statement, not a threat—” Mx. Morrell began, but Percy did not wait for another statement. He took a step forward, and let his spirit burn bright, silver flame that spread across his skin like oil on water.
“You are going to step away, go inside,” Percy said. “And Diggory and I are going to leave. I don’t know who you think you are, but whatever business you have with them, it’s done.”
“Percy…” Diggory said.
“I’m afraid it really is important that I speak with Diggory,” Mx. Morrell said, and took a step forward, a hand in one pocket.
It was enough for Percy. He lunged out with a metal fist, protective rage manifesting in a burst of flame like a lightning strike. It flashed through the air five feet to connect with Mx. Morrell’s waistcoat buttons.
The proprietor screamed, an otherworldly howl as the flame exploded across their body like fireworks, left black smoldering craters in their flesh, jutting rotted ribs and green writhing insides through the holes of their suit.
“Percy!” Diggory cried, and put a hand on his shoulder, pulled him back a few steps, and Percy let the flame die.
Half of Mx. Morrell still stood on stiltlike legs, burning scabs of fabric and fungal matter dropping away. Their mouth was half disintegrated in a frozen scream, and their smoldering spectacles clattered to the ground.
Percy stood still for a moment, and his anger dissipated to leave behind a silent horror. Diggory said nothing; stared in shock as the flames died, and Mx. Morrell’s pitted corpse still stood.
“I… I’m sorry,” Percy whispered, to Diggory, and to himself. “I… I wasn’t trying to…”
There was a shudder, then, in Mx. Morrell’s body, a twitch along their spine. Percy wanted to back away, to escape with Diggory before something awful happened, but he could not take his eyes off the person he had just incinerated.
And then there was another lurch, and movement began across Mx. Morell’s body, glistening stalks emerging from their skin as if through fresh soil, brown matter knitting together over blackened bones. Their shrewd purple lips reformed around their skeletal teeth, cheeks repopulated with lichen, and new ridges and frills bloomed from their bouquet of a skull.
Mx. Morrell stood for a moment, whole again, clothes still smoldering and ridden with residual craters, clusters of little white mushroom caps blooming where their eyes might have been.
And then Mx. Morrell plucked up their glasses, and cleaned the lenses on what remained of their waistcoat, and put them on, and smiled pleasantly.
“I’m so sorry,” Percy said. “We have a bad habit of doing that.”
“That’s quite alright,” Mx. Morrell said. “You will find it difficult to kill me in any significant fashion. But what a beautiful attempt! Alas, I am bound to a purpose. Death is a mercy I will never be granted.”
They dusted the ash from their waistcoat, and looked up.
“If you are quite finished setting me on fire,” Mx. Morrell said, “let’s get some tea, and sort all of this out.”
They walked across the balcony, and Percy exchanged a nervous look with Diggory as the proprietor swung one of the museum doors open. He could not see much beyond a hint of baroque carpet inside.
“Is it safe?” Percy whispered.
“If it is not,” Diggory replied, and took his hand, “we will handle it together.”
Percy nodded, and followed Diggory through the door. Mx. Morrell beckoned them in, a leering smile in the night.
“Welcome,” they said, “to the Museum of Broken Promises.”
Marketing - A Feast
Welcome back to Marketing with Lady Ethel Mallory. Tonight I’ll explain why it’s always best to open your pitch with a…
Ugh. I can smell them from here. It’s distracting.
There’s a line of dead birds between me and Box Cassiopeia. It goes in either direction, as far as the eye can see. And if I take one step over it, back towards my throne, my future, a red eye is going to open in the side of the box. It’ll see me, for a moment. And if my old employees were sitting at their chairs, they’d power it down, so I could go back…
But then again, not one of them stood up for me when I was practically pushed out into the dirt.
They smell sweet.
Like a strawberry shake left in the sun for too long. Nothing dead should smell that sweet.
Oswald and Anderson don’t seem to mind; that’s what I’ve named my pets. For them this is a feast.
And I am starving…
*a grasping sound*
*a wet crunch*
It’s not the worst.
But I prefer when they’re alive and squirming…
Story 2, Continued - A Collection Of Tragedies
Ah, to sit around all day, gnawing on birds with my champers. What an idyllic life that would be. Sadly I have responsibilities, like broadcasting my program to a universe of dreaming minds. What a shame.
We return now to Percy Reed.
Percy thought for a few moments that he had found his way back into his father’s study. Each wall of the museum was home to a different collection of esoteric objects—shields emblazoned with chipped paint, typewriters with half-printed sheets of paper, chess sets and ivory carved knicknacks and strings of dangling crucifixes.
They sat in a room with high mahogany shelves, chairs pulled around a tea table. The silverware clattered slightly on its surface, as did everything else in the museum, as though a subway passed below. Mx. Morrell poured tea, but Percy was more concerned with a toddler that stumbled along in a far doorway, with a diaper and a black shelled head and mandibles like a stag beetle.
“This place doesn’t feel right to me,” Percy whispered to Diggory.
“Oh, it can certainly be offputting,” Mx. Morrell clucked, and set down the kettle. Diggory only held their cup in their hands; Percy was not sure what the point of serving tea was at all.
“This museum is a collection of tragedies—and as much as I find a certain beauty in each of them, they are not fare for the light of heart. Anyone care for a biscuit?”
“We’re dead,” Percy said, and tapped a silver finger on the side of the china cup. “Seems like you are too.”
“Oh, me? Not at all,” Mx. Morrell said, and produced a butter cookie from a rusted tin, and bit into it decidedly. “I am alive, dreadfully so.”
“If you do not mind my asking,” Diggory said, “perhaps you might tell us why you have returned. For that matter, what exactly you are.”
“I might have once considered myself a man,” Mx. Morrell said, an sat own to join them at the table. “I dug things out of the earth and pocketed them, or sold them to museums. One man’s treasure is another man’s historically significant artifact, you know. I’ve come to regret my career. I’ve had a lot of time to reflect.
One of the tombs I opened was lined with spores, and they clung black in my lungs, grew in my eyes, planted mycelium in my skull. I was entirely new when the growth ended… or old, very old, as the spores were of an ancient being. Rothogroth, the Crown of Decay. There’s a bit of him on this world, and most others for that matter—he breaks them down into dust, when they’re good for nothing else. So they can be recycled.
One of his bodies grows in your world, and he speaks in my head. By and large, I simply tend to this museum as I have been instructed. Curate its contents. But lately, Rothogroth asks harm to come to Diggory. I wonder, Diggory, if you’ve angered him lately?”
“Not to my knowledge,” Diggory said, and paused, looked down at the steaming teacup in their hands. “Although one of these spores, like the one that changed you, grew in the head of Rizwana Mirza, did it not? Gave her instructions? Her mind is part of mine, now—and I agreed, recently, to go with Rizwana’s wife on an expedition. To go north, where there is something called a Heart. The cause of all this calamity.”
Mx. Morrell stared at Diggory, and frowned.
“Still the heart?” Mx. Morrell said. “You really think that’s possible?”
“I do not know,” Diggory said.
“Well that would… hm,” Mx. Morrell continued. “Upset the hierarchy of things quite a bit. I’d rather assumed it was too late for all that saving the world business.”
“Cindy thinks it can be stopped,” Percy spoke up, eying the proprietor. He jumped as the beetle baby bumped into his knee beneath the table, and it stumbled off again.
“But at what cost?” Mx. Morrell said, with a shrug. “What’s there left to salvage? Surely it’s easier just to accept the change that has happened.”
“Too late for Diggory and I, maybe,” Percy said, “but we have friends who are alive. Who don’t work in creepy bug museums. Who have regular lives. And if we stop this, they get to keep that.”
“Rizwana also believed it could be stopped,” Diggory said, and furrowed their brows. “And she spoke to Rothogroth about this.”
“Did she?” Mx. Morrell sniffed. “Regardless, I…”
“She did,” Diggory said, firmly. “It is one of my memories. I do not remember what Rothogroth said, exactly. But I remember his eyes.”
Diggory looked down for a moment, then to Percy, and finally Mx. Morrell.
“I wish to seek an audience with Rothogroth, the Crown of Decay,” Diggory said.
“Diggory, I am not sure that is wise,” Mx. Morrell said, and put their multitude of fingertips together. “Rothogroth is titanic. He wants you destroyed. It would not be safe for you.”
“Do you care about me?” Diggory said, and put their dagger-tipped hands on the table. “Or only about the state of my body, which you have decided to reserve for your collection?”
“We have not talked about that as a couple, by the way,” Percy said, and crossed his arms with a clink.
“Of course I care about you,” Mx. Morrell said, and raised their brows over their dark glasses. “You are an intriguing person. You could do anything. You are not bound like humanity to extinction. The new and rising world is yours. I simply don’t want you to throw away your brand new life for a quest that isn’t your responsibility. You are not Rizwana. She is part of Diggory Graves. You owe her memory nothing.”
“And yet, Mx. Morrell, this IS what I want,” Diggory said, and stood, left their tea on the table. “Take me to your master.”
Interlude 2 - Evolutions Of Self
Do I regret it? I am not sure.
I think on the past, some nights, and the decisions that I have made. I could have stayed sitting by the gates of eternity, a guardian of the vaults of the cosmos, and waited for all time to pass. That is what I was born to do, according to the ones who came before.
Maybe it would have been enough simply to watch, to let my vision wander a little between visitors. Why was I not content? Why was I so fascinated, so entranced by that which dwells in the stars, the life that clings to the dust?
Why did I leave? Why did I wander? Why did I open my heart to the song and the emerald flame, the burning embrace of change and creation?
I would have saved myself more than a little heartache, dreamer, if I had stayed. I would never have been hurt. But I would have missed entire evolutions of myself. For I became a different being by knowing Marolmar. By losing him. By finding companionship again, even if it was short-lived. And again when I began this narrative. Again when I spoke to you.
The garden of the end may not have transformed the universe, dreamer, but it did change me.
We go now to one who watches a door.
Story 3 - Second Skin
“The suit’s in good shape,” Barty said, and cracked his knuckles. “It should be. I’ve run it through all the checks a half-dozen times.”
“It hasn’t been tested at these depths, though, correct?” Ruth said. She was a sharp little woman, tough as a leather belt, although she’d developed a hacking cough as they drew north.
“It’s been tested,” Barty repeated, and looked up to her, and to Riz. “And at this point, we either do it or we don’t. No room for worrying. If it helps, I’m the one going into the water, while you all sit up here cozy.”
“I can go,” Riz said, and brushed a strand of dark hair out of her face; even at the harrowed end of their journey, she wore a bindi dot on her forehead, and kept her shirt collars neat when not fully suited up in waterproof layers. “If you’ve changed your mind. I’ll go down there myself.”
“Oh no, I’m the one on the end of the line,” Barty said, and raised an eyebrow. “I’m the one with the diving experience. The suit can get claustrophobic, you know, like a second skin. And you’re all so… important. I can’t run a country or make climate change models. If I die, it’s not the end of the world.”
“You’re as important as everyone else here, Barty,” Rizwana said, and reached out to put a hand on his shoulder. “Please, come up safe. Remember, this is only a scouting mission. Now that we’re here, we can take our time. You see anything, you come right back up.”
“I know,” Barty said, and smiled, and glanced out the window. The water was pitch black; an ocean of night, and the stars overhead cast green reflections on the surface. “I’ll play it safe.”
Rizwana opened her mouth wide, too wide for any human being, and stared at Barty with bright yellow eyes and shrieked…
“Bert, stop it,” Mort grunted, and sat up in his bed. The dead seagull stood on the nightstand, screaming like an alarm clock, and continued to until Mort reached out and patted its head with his glove.
Mort sat in his bed for a moment, and stared at the green glow-in-the-dark star stickers on his bedroom ceiling. It had been so much easier when he just laid on the seafloor, and watched the fish all day. But now, he was a grown-up… or at least, trying to act like one. And that meant helping with the work.
The metal Alaskan King creaked as he rolled out of it, thumped his hydraulic boots on the floor, and stood up. All the water inside his suit bubbled and hissed as he changed positions, and he clicked his claw hand a few times, tested the pincer movement, worked out the burrs.
Then he went to the mirror, and found his little bellhop cap, and hung his jacket off one of his metal shoulderpads, and stomped out to begin working the night shift at the Grand Crossroads Hotel.
“Good morning, Mort,” a voice called as Mort trundled past the office door; one of many in the back hallways of the first floor.
“It’s not morning,” Mort said, peeking his dome in. “It’s almost sunset.”
“Is it? I’ve lost track of the time,” Polly said, and looked up from his desk, and straightened a stack of papers. “I’ve been trying to reconstruct Barb’s billing model, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the Countess never paid a dime for her stay.”
“Is that bad?” Mort said.
“Well I’m not about to start charging her now,” Polly shrugged. “You know what’s been going on with her and Yaretzi and all.”
“What’s been going on with her and Yaretzi and all?” Mort said.
Polly stared at him a few moments, and shook his head. “Nothing, Mort. How about you go visit Yaretzi, hm? Tell her I said hi.”
“I will,” Mort said, and left, and then changed his mind and peeked around the doorframe again. Polly looked up.
Mort was silent for a moment.
“I love you,” Mort said. “I’m glad you’re my family.”
Polly set his papers down, and smiled.
“I love you too, Mort,” he said. “Have a good night at work.”
Mort trundled down the halls, passing golden candle fixtures and ornate oil paintings of dark pines, ceilings of golden embossed seagulls. The lights were dim, and would remain so until the guests for the night began to arrive. He reached the manager’s office, and tapped on the frosted glass with the point of his claw.
“Yaretzi?” he said. “I’m awake. Polly says hi!”
There was a sudden rumble and clatter from the other side, urgent whispers, and a thud.
“One moment,” Yaretzi called. When she opened the door, her collar shirt buttons were mismatched, and her features melting from half wolf to mostly human. The shadows in the back of her office flickered dark a moment, and then faded back into gentle candlelight.
“Is there anything special happening tonight?” Mort said.
“Well, let’s see,” Yaretzi coughed, and paced back to her desk, turned a page in the reservation book.
“Not much,” she said. “We have two booked for the spa later, under a mister Thair, but Polly can handle them. Card tournament in the games hall for 3AM. Other than that, just the usual. Man the desk. Take check-ins. And help me bounce anyone who stirs up trouble. Should be a good night.”
“Alright,” Mort said, and walked for the reception desk, Bert flapping behind him. Not too busy. He liked nights when it wasn’t too busy. The guests were kind of like fish, drifting in through the front doors, batting their tails as they moved from gambling den to bar to spa to rooms.
And yet, he was worried.
Why was he worried?
It was going to be a good night.
Outro - Sentries
Sentries. Wherever a door exists, there will be one who is tempted to guard it. To check each other that enters, and repel those they decide do not belong. ‘You are the grand emperor of souls, the engine of life, the forge of living flame; you may pass. You are the asteroid crawler, the dust worm, the hungry scavenger; pass you may not.’ The sentinel makes these judgements, but the door was always open.
And if you wonder whether you fit, whether you might belong, whether you qualify for good company, know there was never a criteria to enter, no key needed to unlock. The doors have long been pried off their hinges, and they are open to you, if you arrive in earnest and mean no harm, if ever you choose to join those on the other side.
Until the gates stand empty, I am your loyal host, Nikignik, waiting freely for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Checking In', 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!