Episode 5: Shadows of the Echowood – Tales of the Echowood
CONTENT WARNING: Discussions of death, loss, and the afterlife, existential dread, low rumbling sound effects, and some disturbing imagery.
Helping Grael locate a bottle of wine down in the inn’s cellar, the Traveler stumbles upon a door in the wall… A door that opens into a hellish cavern below the inn. Clearly shaken, Grael tells them the story of a spirit’s passage through the underworld of the Echowood, and what they found at the end of that journey.
Starring Sam Taylor as Grael, with original music by Jesse Haugen. Written and produced by Trevor Van Winkle, and made possible by our supporters on Kickstarter, Patreon.com/homesteadcorner, and ko-fi.com/homesteadcorner. Executive produced by Axel Allcock.
For more information, additional content, and episode transcript, visit homesteadonthecorner.com/tote005
CONTENT WARNING: Discussions of death, loss, and the afterlife, existential dread, low rumbling sound effects, and some disturbing imagery.
[Creaking trees, birds, insects – A living forest]
Before we get started, this episode contains discussions of death, loss, and the afterlife, existential dread, and some disturbing imagery. Content warnings and a full transcript are available in the show notes.
[Forest sounds fade out]
[Bubbling mud, wind, and a distant crumbling, cracking noise]
[Grael’s wings approaching before he lands]
[Sound of something heavy and distant crumbling away]
[Grael takes a breath]
Turn and turn and turn thrice more…
[Flash of magic, rising pulse]
Time and tide and torrent pour… Raise and rise and life restore – Till all the doors stand open.
[Music swells, sounds of tearing earth and growing trees]
[Sounds of living forest rise, then fade away]
[Bubbling, dead swamp]
Why did you leave us? This world… Did you think it could carry on without you? That I could? We needed you, Rowan. We still need you. I need you. And now you’re gone, I…
Am I doing the right thing? Can I really… Should I be doing this? I know I’m lying to them, but…
No. No, I know what you’d say. I know what you’d tell me. And you’d be right.
[Grael’s wings flutter as he takes flight]
But you left us behind a long time ago. And you can’t hear me, even if I wanted you to. You made your own choices… And now it’s time to make mine.
Homestead on the Corner presents: Tales of the Echowood
[Main theme ends]
[Whistling wind in a small cellar, dripping water, sound of rain outside]
[Footsteps in soft earth]
[Box opened, rummaging through glass bottles]
Any luck over there?
[Fabric rustles as Traveler shakes their head]
[Wings, rummaging through bottles]
Gods, I could have sworn I just saw it. It has to be down here somewhere.
[Traveler holds up bottle for inspection]
No, no, that’s not it… I said ochre label, red wine.
[Rummaging through bottles, stops]
No, that’s yellow. Apricot, maybe. Keep looking.
[Faint sound as the Traveler sighs, then continues searching]
Is everything alright? You seem a bit… I don’t know. Quieter than usual.
[The Traveler stops and shoots him a look]
Right, right… Of course. Look, I am trying to figure out how to get your voice back, I promise. But the arch is a much older piece of magic than I normally deal with, so it’s going to take a while before I can even get my head around the spell. It’s not like I’m… huh? Traveler? Traveler?
[Grael’s voice grows more distant]
[Footsteps in soft earth, then sound of a door handle turning]
Wait, don’t open that!
[Door opens to a howling, echoing, screaming place]
Traveler! Hang on, I’m coming!
[The Traveler struggles to hang on]
[Fabric flaps and dishes rattle as the door is pulled open by the change in pressure]
[Grael’s wings approach, and he struggles to close the door]
[The door slams shut, and all returns to normal]
[Grael and the Traveler try to catch their breath]
Still with us? No broken bones?
[Fabric rustles as the Traveler looks, then gesticulates annoyance]
Ah. Yes, I probably should have told you about that before we came down here. It’s just… Sometimes I forget how new you are to all this. My mistake.
[The Traveler stands, irritated]
Yes, yes, I know that isn’t an explanation… But the countess is arriving in less than an hour, and if I don’t find that bottle it might just be my head.
[Fabric rustles as the Traveler crosses their arms]
Alright… I suppose we do have time for one story. I’ll just have to keep it short.
[Grael flies over to a nearby barrel and sits down]
[The Traveler walks over and sits down across from him]
[Sounds of the basement fade out]
Well… I guess we’ll start simple. What you saw through that door… To your eyes, I’m sure it looked like hell: Hades, the abyss, the end… and I suppose that’s not too far off. All those myths and legends speak of an underworld: a place below the green and growing surface where the dead reside. In most worlds, it’s just a story… A way of explaining where the bright spark that made a person move and speak and live goes after they die. I don’t know if those places exist somewhere else beyond those realms… It’s really not my place to say.
But here in the Echowood… There is an underworld, in the most literal sense: a world that feeds the world, where the dead reside. Not all of them, but a good many more than you might expect. It is not a place of judgement or fire or punishment, nor an elysian paradise for the righteous, nor a drinking hall for the victorious dead. It’s a place for those who were none of those things: a place for those who found themselves at the end of their lives without ever having chosen a path for themselves. A place for those who left their lives unlived.
A long time ago, somewhere in the Echowood, someone died. It matters little who they were before… Their life had been lived in quiet obsequience, bending to the whims and wishes of everyone they met, biting their tongue and holding themselves back from anything that might resemble a choice, until there was nothing that separated them from their neighbors beside a name. Oh, I’m sure they had a soul, and a rich inner life… It was simply buried so deep that it never seemed to break the surface. They worked hard… Often harder than they wanted to and longer than they should have. They paid their dues, more costly than they should have been, but who were they to argue? They kept silent, unknown even to those who claimed to love them the most, for if they spoke their mind, stood up for themselves, insisted on living out their truth… Then they might hurt their loved ones’ feelings. So instead they died, quiet and more alone than they could bear, and when they closed their eyes for the last time in the world above… They opened again in the dead-lands below.
[Howling wind, dripping water – a desolate cavern]
No… That’s not quite right. Their eyes didn’t open, exactly – they didn’t have eyes anymore, or a face for them to sit in, or any kind of body at all… Just the memory of one. But they could still see, in a way. They could still feel, though all sensation was far away and distant, hidden behind a numbness that pervaded their being. They could hear, but there was no sound in this world of silent still unbeing they found themself in… No voices raised in elation or despair, no music, no screams: just the howl of the wind through caverns large as cities stretching miles below the surface. There was no light to illuminate this shadowed realm, but still the dead one saw the vast, grey, colorless expanse of their new home in dull tableau. Low, motionless fog hung over every surface, not even pretending to swirl away when the other shades wandering the paths of the dead moved through it. Stalactites hung from the towering ceiling, so old they’d long ago reached the stalagmites below, forming huge stone columns like the bars of a prison cell. It was cold… At least, the dead one thought it looked cold, though truth be told they could feel no chill. They just knew there was no heat in this place… No heat, no light, no water, and no food. Not that they needed any of those things now. They had spent their entire life pretending that they didn’t need anything, and now, it was finally true.
So they wandered. It seemed the thing to do down here, joining the countless lost souls drifting through the cavern in no particular direction. They were already facing further into the cave, so they moved that way, narrowly avoiding the other shades as they went about their listless journeys, drifting through one of them as they passed like smoke.
[Distant sound of laughter]
There was a brief flash of memory: a glimpse of the other’s life before they appeared in the underworld. But the life the dead one saw was much the same as their own, and so they disregarded it and drifted on.
They left the first cavern quickly enough, though there was no way of saying how long it took them to travel down that unmarked, unhurried path. It could have been hours or days or years, or it could have happened in an instant. Like all other sensation, the passage of time felt muted… If time even passed in this place.
[Low rumble, gusting wind]
In any case, the dead one soon found themselves in another cave much like the first — though if that first one was a towering cathedral, this one was a narrow catacomb, long and thin and snaking down and around in a long, slow spiral. The walls were smooth and worn down, marked here and there with ridges that almost looked like the ribs of some great beast.
They drifted on, down and around and down again, miles and leagues below the surface that already felt like a distant memory. Every once in a while, they caught a glimpse of another shade: always just ahead of them, always out of sight around the corner… and always moving down. Wherever they were going, it seemed that no one was making a return trip. Had the dead one felt more like themself… Had they not been so used to ignoring their own instincts and fears and intuitions… They might have noted that fact and felt a rush of dread. They might have turned around and returned to the larger cave, tried to find another way down, maybe even a way back to the surface world… But no. Fear is a thing for the living.
So even as they drifted further and further down into the dark, still moving their non-existent feet in a vague memory of what it was like to walk, they barely felt uneasy. Not even when the walls began to grow narrow. Not even when the ceiling fell so low that they felt compelled to hunch, then stoop, then crawl. Not even when the cave constricted to a space too narrow for any living thing to pass through, and their shadowed form glid forward like smoke through the solid stone and earth. All was numbness and darkness and emptiness, and as their vision began to swim, they finally emerged into the next cavern.
[Howling wind in a huge underground space, rumbling]
What thoughts passed through the dead one’s mind as they looked upon the vast ravine stretching down and away from them? What occupied their consciousness as they beheld the glowing specters of the unquiet dead, tracing the knife-thin edges of the canyon with deliberate slowness? What memories stirred as they glanced down and beheld the ancient rivers of lava which formed the chasm, now frozen into solid stone, yet still flowing down, down, down in misty streams of cold, dull fire?
Regret. Regret. Regret. Words unspoken. Chances never taken. Dreams abandoned on the road, left starving and wasted behind. They had carried these regrets for all their days, regrets that might have spurred them on, sparked their soul, made them sit up and take notice of the time that was always slipping away. But they did nothing of the sort. All they brought was pain: a pain that paralyzed them with the fear that any choice might be the wrong one. Better to make no choices, fork no lightning. Safer. Quieter. More certain.
They thought of their parents as they drifted forward. Both of them were long dead, their quiet lives above ended long ago. The dead one briefly wondered if they were wandering the same paths now, lost to the underworld… Before they saw the sheer number of other souls wandering the ravine, and the thought passed from their mind. Even if their parents were here, there was no way to find them in a place this vast and populous… And even if there were, the dead one doubted they had the strength of will to search them out.
[Distant, dulled sounds of a village]
They thought instead of their home, the little village they’d lived in all their life… But found they could recall none of it with any real clarity. The shape of it was there: the high street, the faces of those they worked with, the house their family had lived in for seven generations… But they were just images. The souls of that place and those people and their history were gone, and all that remained was a desiccated husk, devoid of life: grey, dry, and choked with ash. And though they had no heart in their chest… the dead one began to feel it beating faster.
The pathway carried them down along the razor’s edge of the chasm and into the depths, past the channels of lava shining black and cold into the frozen darkness of the underworld, into another chamber far below, opening up like a toothy maw. A single line of bare earth cut through the center of it, weaving this way and that to avoid the skeletal remains of great prehistoric beasts buried here by endless time: elephantine creatures with forked and sharpened tusks, winged titans stripped of flesh and staring out from empty eye sockets, even what looked to be the skeleton of an enormous shark, each of its teeth twice as tall as the dead one. All of these sights might not have bothered them if they hadn’t looked up and seen the outline of an enormous spine and ribcage embedded in the wall of the cavern hundreds of feet above their head, forming the stomach of some incomprehensibly huge animal. It was at that point that the dead one began trying to move faster.
It was not easy, and they still could not change the direction they traveled – nor did they really want to. But even so, they began to accelerate: drifting faster through the nightmarish underworld, passing by the other shades as they continued to shamble forwards into the fathomless depths. Fear now did in death what it could never do in life: it drove them forward. Towards what they did not know, but the world around them was growing clearer as the fear sharpened their senses and quickened their mind. They did not know where they wanted to go, but they knew that it was not here.
And so they ran… or at least, it felt like running, their heart hammering in their chest even if their legs weren’t truly moving. The dark grey walls and the glow of disembodied souls begin to fly past, streaking into lines of colorless light as they descended further and further into the labyrinth below. They caught glimpses of other chambers, other paths: strange citadels of ancient rulers rotting to dust; the shattered hull of a tall ship protruding from a solid, stony wall; a creature of knotted limbs and contorted features twisting in on itself at the end of a long square corridor… but they ignored all of these sights, moving down the path with all the speed their mind could conceive. They pumped their non-existent arms, swung their unformed legs in a memory of a sprint, felt the idea of a heart and lungs burning within them, but they moved faster now than any living thing could, seeing the world contort around them, their vision shifting blue as they lost all sense of where and what and who they were before finally… They came to a sudden stop in a small room with no exits.
[Music cuts out, whistling wind and dripping water]
They staggered for a moment, trying to catch their breath… Then realized they had no breath to catch and stood up, feeling a little foolish. They didn’t know where they were, but it didn’t seem like a place they should be afraid of. There were no other shades within, no sign of any bones or creatures that might have frightened them before. It was a round, low-ceilinged cave just tall enough for them to stand up in, broken here and there with thick stalactites that hid the far side of the room from view. The flat, grey ghost-light was all-but-gone this far down, and even with their dulled senses the dead one could feel the enormous heat and pressure of creation itself weighing down on this chamber. Had they been alive, they would have been smothered and crushed by the air… but as it was, they just felt vaguely suffocated in the dark, stuffy room. Even so, the dead one thought they might stay there a while: everything was still, dark, and quiet, isolated from the billions of souls wandering the underworld. Perhaps this was the one place in all the worlds where they could be truly alone, truly safe. No judgments, no connections… No one to make them feel small and insecure. Just them.
[Low pulse, music]
Then they heard it: a faint thumping noise from somewhere deeper within the cave. They could hear it clearly through the thick air and their dulled senses, cutting through their mind like a blade. Then there was another thump… And another, nearly five seconds later… And another… And another…
[Sound of a heartbeat]
The dead one felt their heart begin to hammer again, but forced down the fear. There was no one else in here. They were in the deepest place in all the universe, buried under leagues of earth and rock and petrified bone. There was only one way in or out of this chamber, and they’d seen no one enter since they arrived. But that dull, persistent thumping continued from somewhere just out of sight behind the stony pillars… And after a few moments trying to convince themself it was nothing… they drifted further forwards into the chamber.
The cavern was small, so it didn’t take long to find the source of the noise… But it took a while longer for the dead one to make sense of what they were seeing. About ten feet ahead of them, in the exact center of the chamber, was another stone pillar, much like all the others… in all but one regard. The stalagmite and stalactite that formed it were not fully joined, leaving a gap a few inches wide. Lodged between them, held in place by the immense weight of the earth above, was a small object carved of stone: mostly round and smooth, slightly longer than it was wide, and coming almost to a point at the bottom. It looked like a large piece of fruit or an acorn carved of some smooth, volcanic stone… before it suddenly convulsed with the same low, heavy thump the dead one heard before, and black, oily blood began to flow from the frozen arteries onto the stalagmite below.
The dead one ran. They were moving before they even realized it, fleeing back up the narrow tunnels and wide caverns they’d crossed before, blind with a mortal fear they could not name. Their heart – the heart that was no longer in their chest, but beating sure as that heart of stone – felt like it might explode as their hazy vision of the underworld distorted with the impossible speed of their flight towards the far-off surface of the world, past the buried ruins of uncounted ages and histories long forgotten by anyone living, through kingdoms of dead souls lost in their schemes of revenge, across seas of fire and ice and stone waiting for the end of all days and the remaking of worlds, further up and up and up until they at last found themselves in that first, wide open chamber where their life below had started… And the path ran out.
[Music ends, howling wind and dripping water]
They stared in disbelief. The road they had followed all the way to the core of reality ran short a few feet from where their dead eyes had opened a few short hours ago… Or was it years? They couldn’t say. It felt endless, and so had the road… But here it was. The end of the path. The earth surrounding it was soft and shifting grey, loose ash as thick as snow covering everything in sight. There were no footprints to follow, no signs to point which way to go, not even another shade wandering off their assigned path to guide their steps. In every direction for as far as they could see, the underworld looked the same… And they had no idea what to do.
They tried to think logically, but quickly gave up on it: logic had no place in this world, and they knew that following it would only lead them astray. They stared at the flat grey walls and towering ceilings for hours, trying to find any clue what lay beyond them, any sign of a way out… but no. Try as they might to find a path out of this place, it seemed there was no right way to go.
After a long moment of despair, the dead one finally rose, looking out once again at the cavern surrounding them. The hundreds of thousands of lost souls continued to move down and away from them, crisscrossing and gliding through each other with all the purpose of dust floating through the air. They were on a path, sure… But few seemed to be aware that they were even moving. With a sudden start, the dead one realized that it didn’t matter if they made the right choice. It didn’t even matter if there was a right choice. All that mattered was that they made a choice… Any choice. It might not lead them where they wanted to go, but at least it would lead them away from here, and that was all they needed it to do right now.
And so they turned, looking across the cave to see a distant stalagmite rising out of the mist and fog. Their feet moved beneath them… Somewhat clumsy and sluggish as their ghostly form kept trying to move back towards the path, but they refocused on the distant pillar every time they began to drift, moving by sheer force of will.
[Distant sounds of cries and groans, rising drone]
As they did, their hearing began to grow sharper, and they heard the distant wails and sobs of the other shades. Their sense of touch grew closer, and they realized for the first time that they were weeping openly… that they’d been weeping the entire time and hadn’t realized. A sharp jolt of grief cut through their chest, and the dead one almost laughed. Although it hurt, it was so much better than the emptiness they felt before, and as they wiped away the tears in their eyes and their vision began to clear, they saw something they did not expect, just to the right of the pillar: an old wooden door, cut into the side of the cavern wall. The dead one grit their teeth and focused on its shape and color as they forced their being towards it. They had no idea what was behind that door, but they didn’t care: that was where they were going.
[Sounds of the underworld fade out]
The innkeeper Tobias Olum was a simple man: the son of an innkeeper, son of an innkeeper unto the tenth generation. His establishment predated the nearby villages by nearly half a century, and he took a special pride in the fact that no one had ever been turned away from his door in all that time. If some wandering soul came down the road without luck or money to spare, he couldn’t just leave them out in the cold and wet to die on someone else’s doorstep… of course he couldn’t! There was always work to be done in an inn, and he was more than happy to trade a few nights’ stay for some sets of clean dishes or some freshly stacked firewood. And if you couldn’t do any of that, well… You could always tell him a story. It was easy to run short of fresh tales in this part of the world, and as an innkeeper, he could hardly afford to let that happen. He had a reputation to uphold, after all.
Winter had just ended: a harsh, cold winter that had buried the surrounding country in snowdrifts ten feet deep for four months, and closed the road to all passers by. Tobias had been fine, of course… It was hardly the worst winter he or his forebears had survived, and he’d had more than enough food and firewood to outlast it. His stores were beginning to run dry though, and he was down in the root cellar taking stock of what remained when there came the sound of movement from behind a stack of old crates. They were spares made by his great-great-grandfather, and hadn’t been used – or indeed moved – since he ran the inn. Tobias had always assumed they simply covered another blank wall, resting against the bare earth and stone at the edge of the basement. But there was no denying that something was moving behind it: something that rattled and shook with a creaking wooden sound.
Tobias considered just leaving it alone and forgetting about it for the briefest of moments… Then decided against it. The roads were still impassible and he had little to do besides investigate. Besides, this was his inn, and he prided himself on knowing all its secrets. If there was something he’d missed after all these years, he had to know.
Carefully pulling down and re-stacking the boxes in the center of the room, Tobias soon realized what they’d been hiding: a plain, wide door of dark-stained wood with a simple deadbolt holding it in place. He wasn’t sure where it could lead: as far as Tobias knew, there was nothing on the other side of that wall besides more earth. But then the door rattled on its hinges again. Much as he didn’t want to accept the idea, it was clear that there was someone on the other side who wanted to be let out.
And so, after fetching the heavy quarter-staff he kept beside the front door for just such occasions, Tobias slowly slid the deadbolt open, then jumped away as the door swung open, slamming against the wall. On the other side, he saw a dark, yawning cave stretching away into the infinite distance, heard the cries of misery and despair echoing from within… and felt a ghostly presence enter the room, sweeping past him like the breath of winter. After a few stunned seconds, Tobias leapt forward, slamming the door shut and throwing the lock. In an instant, the horrifying sights and sounds vanished, and he breathed a sigh of relief at his narrow escape… Before he turned around and saw a shimmering, glowing figure floating just above the floor behind him, staring at him as their hair fluttered in a non-existent breeze.
[Fireplace, wind, and distant sounds of the forest]
[Running up stairs, slamming door, moving furniture]
Tobias was up the stairs and out of the basement faster than he’d ever moved, shoving a heavy table in front of the door before he realized what he was doing. He knew plenty of stories of ghosts and shades and shamblers… some of them even came from what he considered to be reputable sources. But he’d never believed they were real. Of course he didn’t. Dead was dead, and they didn’t come back! But what else could that strange figure in the basement be? Had he imagined it? Had his mind finally snapped in the long solitude, making him see things? Or was it…
[Rattling door knob and dishes]
The door rattled slightly, shaking the table shoved against it. At that, the oddest emotion came over Tobias: embarrassment. Someone was trying to get into his inn, and he’d barred the door against them. That didn’t just go against his own code of morals: it was an affront to his very profession. Could he really leave whatever… whoever, that was in his frigid basement and still call himself an innkeeper? He certainly didn’t think so.
[Furniture moving, door opened, sound of cold wind]
After a few moments, the table was moved, the door was open, and the dead one was standing – or floating, rather – in the common room of Tobias’ little inn. The two didn’t speak for a long moment, just trying to think of something to say. After what felt like an hour, Tobias finally cleared his throat, coughed, then asked: “So, uh… You dead or something?”
Tobias got his answer, and then some. As the dead one told their story, the innkeeper’s eyes grew wider and wider: not because of what they described, but because this was a story he was sure no one had ever heard: a tale no living soul could have imagined. He doubted very seriously any bard or innkeeper would be able to out-tell him now… Not a chance. Quite by accident, Tobias Olum had hit the jackpot.
His neighbors were somewhat less excited when they heard it… Even less so when he told them that its source was staying in one of the upstairs rooms. The inn sat deep in the Echowood, in the high northern foothills where few travelers wandered. The nearby townsfolk and shepherds were an insular, superstitious lot, and though the idea of a dead person returning to the world went well beyond any warning uttered by their elders before bedtime, they all knew it meant nothing good.
At first, they gave the innkeeper subtle hints that continuing to lodge the dead one might be bad for business. Then the hints became less subtle, and a few regulars stopped spending their evenings in his common room. As spring rolled into summer and the dead one remained in the inn, the village leaders, who very rarely appeared at the inn at all, arrived with a warning that keeping such a creature in his inn would only bring ruin, poisoning their crops and livestock with the touch of death. Vernes Barnwater, an aged scholar and community leader in the village of Hewn, was the most vocal of the bunch.
He was a notorious busybody, gossip, and fiend, and he’d never liked Tobias, his inn, or those who stayed there… But especially disliked the dead one. “You’ll rue this, Olum,” he shouted at the poor innkeeper, “Keeping that thing here will bring nothing but disaster! Think of the children! Think of how many will starve because of you!” Tobias, of course, refused to listen. The dead one was a guest in his inn, and by law of hospitality could not be turned out into the cold against their will. The same, however, could not be said about the village leaders… and so the white-haired old men left, with Vernes sputtering curses on his way out the door.
[Fireplace, distant birds and wind]
Months passed. The vague warnings continued from every passer-by who knew of the dead one’s presence, and more and more the common room was empty come nightfall, even as Toby began to notice the ale brewing in his back room was coming out stronger than before.
[Sounds of a hoe digging, animals, village life]
In the villages and fields nearby, crops were sown, cattle were raised, and sheep were pastured in the high meadows of the northern mountains… But all felt a sense of impending change in the air. They knew it was because of the dead one, and in a few darkened cellars and quiet corners of the village, plans of violence and fire were whispered against the innkeeper who kept them. Tobias was well liked by most everyone… But if the predictions of ruin came true and the harvest was sickly, then no amount of good will could save the old storyteller.
[Fireplace, sounds of a crowd in the inn]
Tobias, of course, knew nothing of this, nor did he mind the abnormal quiet around his inn. There were still enough patrons who stuck around to keep the evenings lively, and they too were beginning to notice the stronger, sweeter drink in their cups. The inn had been in Toby’s family for time out of mind. It would take more than one bad season to force him out of business. And besides, if nothing else… he had the dead one’s company.
Despite his job and his reputation, Tobias was one of those solitary souls who was always alone in a crowded room, no matter how many people he talked to or how many claimed to be his friend. Oh he tried, but his longing to be a good host meant he could rarely share the pains of his heart or the thoughts that weighed heavy on his mind. He had been an only child, his youth wasted working to the bone in the kitchen and cellar of the inn, only rarely seeing children his own age. When he was about sixteen, one such child passed through the inn: a quick witted juggler from a band of wandering troubadours. They’d stayed at the inn for nearly a month, entertaining and traveling to the nearby villages and communes, and Tobias had spent many an evening talking with the juggler long after everyone else had gone to bed. He thought he might even have loved him, but before he could gather the courage to admit it to himself, the travelers left – vanishing down the road. Tobias never saw them again, and when his parents died a few years later and left the inn entirely to his care, he tried to forget the heartbroken feeling that had never quite left his soul… But it was always there, waiting for him when he closed his eyes.
Much as he loved to tell stories, Tobias had never told that tale to anyone… at least, not until the dead one arrived. It took several months for the words to come tumbling out, but once they did, Tobias was stunned to hear the dead one say that they understood: when they were alive, there had been many people they’d loved and lost for lack of asking, lack of telling… And they still knew the hurt, even in death. It was faint, but the months spent above ground had restored some of the feeling and color to their existence. Many of the emotions were not necessarily pleasant, but they didn’t care: they felt alive again, and they had Toby. After so long in the colorless, lonely world below the surface… That was more then enough.
[Fireplace, distant sounds of morning birds]
Oddly enough, it seemed they were not the only one being restored by their stay at the inn. As more and more of the regular customers returned, drawn by the rumors that Toby’s ale was the best it had ever been, people began to notice an odd feeling in the hours and days after they left… A feeling of restoration and balance in their bodies, a renewed energy and wholeness they couldn’t explain. The handful of couples traveling the road also began to notice it, and when Toby realized that no fewer than four of them had pledged themselves to one another on the doorstep of his inn, he helped spread the rumor that it was good for relationships… or at the very least, it seemed to clarify them a bit. There were at least as many lovers who decided to split following their stay. But the rumors still worked, and Toby began to see his common room full of people once again.
[Sounds of a crowd]
[Low drone rising]
But when the morning air began to bite at his lungs and the leaves outside the inn began to turn yellow and red, Tobias felt the chill deeper than most. Autumn was on its way. The harvest would soon be upon them, and though he didn’t know about the villagers’ plans, he was still nervous. A bad harvest meant they would be looking for someone or something to blame, and outsiders were always the first target. Tobias didn’t know if they would try to hurt the dead one, or if that was even possible. But they could hurt him for letting them stay in his inn for… What, nearly seven months now? For a while, Toby kept those concerns to himself… But eventually, he realized that the dead one could tell he was hiding something. And so he told them: told them that he was worried for their safety and his if the potatoes came up moldy, or a sudden frost killed their wheat. He didn’t actually believe the dead one’s presence would cause such things… he didn’t hold the same superstitions as his neighbors. But he knew they would believe it, and do violence to restore what they saw as the proper order of the world. He couldn’t force the dead one to stay if they didn’t want to, he said, looking away in shame… but maybe it would be best if they left.
After a moment’s silence, Toby felt a soft warmth on the back of his hand. He looked up to see the dead one’s ghostly palm held carefully against it, just close enough that they didn’t phase through. That was the most surprising thing Tobias had learned about his guest: despite their appearance, the dead one’s form was not cold like morning fog, but held a soft, gentle warmth, like candlelight, or a cooling stove. Toby looked up into their eyes, glowing faintly with a distant, pale light. “If they do come,” they said quietly, in a voice that brooked no arguments, “We’ll face them together.”
Tobias listened carefully to what news he could glean from his exhausted patrons over the next few weeks. The harvests had begun down in the small crofting villages, and so far they seemed to be healthy… More so than usual, it seemed. The farmers seemed only able to complain about how much hay they needed to bale, how long it would take to get all those damned potatoes out of the ground, how many extra hands they would need to can and preserve the apples and berries weighing their branches almost to the ground. Up in the hills, the shepherds found their flocks had doubled seemingly overnight, with bright eyed lambs bouncing around the pastures as the sheepdogs ran themselves ragged trying to keep up with them. There even seemed to be more travelers on the road than usual, and Tobias found himself running out of open rooms as autumn turned towards winter. All in all, it seemed like the predictions of ruin and famine had all proved false… All but one, at least.
[Sounds of village life, wind]
For all his power, Vernes Barnwater could not keep Toby’s rumors from spreading or deny the obvious bounty of the harvest… But he did have one recourse. The old man kept a sickly little patch of carrots and a tiny chicken coop on his estate, more to keep himself occupied than to feed his stomach, as he could afford to buy from the market whenever he fancied. In spite of everything happening at the inn and the surrounding fields, it seemed his words had come true.
Near the end of the harvest season, when nearly all of the crops had been collected and gleaned, Vernes blustered into the sheriff’s office and deposited a sack of black, shriveled carrots and a collection of emaciated chicken corpses on his desk. The dead thing staying in Tobias Olum’s inn had cursed his land, he said – and he demanded justice. If not on the dead one, then on the foolish innkeeper who’d let the ghostly figure into their world.
The sheriff didn’t want to arrest Toby, but Vernes was on the village council, and he had produced evidence of his claims… And so the Sheriff, Vernes, and a handful of bailiffs arrived on the doorstep of the inn later than morning with a warrant for his arrest.
[Sound of chains]
Vernes could hardly keep the smile off his face when he saw the shackles go over Toby’s wrists. The sheriff informed him that he would be held in the village jail until a judge arrived to officiate his trial… probably not until the winter ended and the snow melted again. They were just about to march Tobias out when suddenly, a ragged looking gardener burst through the door, eyes wild with fear and begging the sheriff to save him, save him please, he didn’t know what he was doing!
[Footsteps and rustling fabric]
Everyone went quiet at that, and stayed that way until the sheriff finally managed to ask what he was talking about. Vernes tried to butt in and say that it was nothing, but the sheriff ordered him to stay quiet before asking the terrified man again what he’d done.
The gardener, glancing nervously at Vernes every once in a while, said that he worked on his estate, taking care of his crops and animals. A few weeks ago, his master had asked him to start sowing a new fertilizer in with the carrots, and adding a special medicine to the chickens’ water. He’d done it without question: after all, his master was a man of learning, and more than that didn’t like to be questioned. So he’d followed his instructions, only to wake up that morning and find that the garden had been dug up, and the chicken coup was empty. He tried to get answers, but there was no one in the house.
[Rising drone, sounds of wind and howling screams]
Then, without warning, a ghostly, glowing figure had appeared through the walls, demanding to know what he’d done. The gardener, understandably terrified, blurted out the whole story, only then realizing what his master had been doing: poisoning his own crops and animals for some nefarious purpose. The spirit of vengeance had listened, then pondered, then finally told him to run to the inn, and tell the sheriff exactly what he’d told them.
And so he had, finishing his story by falling to his knees and begging for mercy. The sheriff, a little unsure what to make of this whole display, gently assured the gardener that it was okay… Before turning to his bailiffs and telling them to arrest Vernes for false witness.
[Chains, rustling fabric]
The old man screamed that they couldn’t do this, but it was clear to everyone watching that they could. Soon enough he was out the door with the bailiffs, leaving the inn quiet and still once more. Toby looked around, sighed, and then told the dead one to come out. They appeared through the back wall a moment later, ghostly face split with a delirious grin. That, they said, was the most fun they’d had in two lifetimes.
As late autumn turned to early winter, the tales of the three wonders – the stronger ale, the refreshed patrons, and the unusual rate of couples pledging to each other – spread far and wide, mostly due to Tobias’ tale-telling. But there was a fourth sign, unknown to all except the shade and the innkeeper himself. Not a thing that could be weighed or measured, but a thing that was felt. And when the dead one finally decided to leave the inn a few months later, as the first snow of winter began to fall, both were cut to the quick with grief.
The dead one didn’t know quite why, but they felt the underworld calling them back. Their form had begun to grow fainter as the weather cooled, and they expected it might fade away entirely if they didn’t return for a season. The dead one looked into Toby’s eyes as they assured him that they’d be back with the first sign of spring. “Just try not to block the door this time, alright?” They said, and Toby let out a pained laugh, promising he wouldn’t. With that, the two souls – one dead, one alive – parted ways, knowing they would find each other again… Knowing for the first time in their lives what they wanted. After all… Death has always fed life, as the underworld feeds the Echowood and the Echowood feeds the world below. They will always return to one another, as life is renewed into all its endless shapes and forms.
[Sounds of Grael’s root cellar return]
[Grael sits back, then laughs]
[Fluttering wings and movement of a glass bottle]
Has that been there the entire time? Land sakes, I must be losing my touch.
[Grael uncorks bottle, pours a glass]
[Raises the goblet in toast]
To life and light and the time we have… May it not run dry before we drink our fill.
Tales of the Echowood. Episode Five: Shadows of the Echowood. Starring Sam Taylor as Grael, with original music by Jesse Haugen. Written and produced by Trevor Van Winkle, and made possible by our supporters on Kickstarter and Patreon.com/homesteadcorner. Our executive producer was Axel Allcock. To learn more about the series and listen to our other podcasts, visit Homesteadonthecorner.com. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, feel free to connect with us on Twitter and Instagram @echowoodpod, and leave a review on Apple Podcasts or the podcatcher of your choice. I’m Trevor Van Winkle, this is Homestead on the Corner, and you’re listening to: Tales of the Echowood.