enter cultists stage left

Neal deemed Feathers health improved enough to try tracking Madelyn yesterday.

They’ve been keeping him in the haunted house on Circum street, so Julian picked us up at lunch and brought us to Circem street. Yes, I skipped school again. No, I don’t care.

When we pulled up Neal was in the sprawling back yard, throwing apples for Feather Dog like he was a big, hungry Labrador.

“Aren’t we worried about what the neighbors might see?” Georgia asked and Julian sighed.

“Try telling him that,” he said, gesturing at Neal and my expression must have been horrified because Julian smiled and quickly added, “you’d be surprised what people don’t notice,” he said. “You think anyone in town is calling the police over a monster in the backyard of the most haunted house in town?”

Feather Dog is still near skeletal, but his feathers have a new sheen on them. He greeted Georgia exuberantly. It’s difficult to believe that he’s from another world — his behaviors are disarmingly dog-like despite the fact that he’s the size of a horse and half covered in feathers. He even wags his big feathery tail.

But I’m getting distracted here. I could spend the entire post marveling at Feather Dog, but a lot of other shit happened.

“How are we getting Feather Dog around town?” I asked Julian, just in time to watch Neal — GET THIS — hoist himself onto the creature’s back!!! Like a horse!! Giant bird dog horse!!! Unreal.

“No way,” Georgia said. Feather Dog shivered a big long shiver but apart from that seemed totally amenable.

Julian shrugged. “Neal has a gift,” he said.

I have no comment on that.

We started by giving Feather Dog a t-shirt of Madelyn’s to smell. He started off at once and seemed to know where he was going. Neal kept us posted on the phone, directing us out to the lake and I swear I thought for like a minute that we were really gonna find her. Obviously we didn’t. Feather Dog just stood on the shore, sniffing. So who knows what he was on to, but it wasn’t Madelyn. He must have gotten confused.

So then we went back to the Black Lake Coven Homestead. Neal figured we could at least get some smells from the cult members, maybe try tracking them.

We did one better.

The homestead was once again abandoned when we arrived at it. Feather Dog was especially interested in the garden. Neal let him eat all the pumpkins before urging him to follow any scents.

Feather Dog sniffed the air and then sat his butt in the yard and refused to budge.

“Well what are we supposed to do now?” Georgia asked.

Julian shrugged and might have been about to say something but before he could Neal held up a hand.

“What?” I said, like an idiot, and Neal covered my mouth with his palm. So — and look, I’m not proud of this, but I was acting on instinct — I bit him.

He hissed about what you’d expect — something like, “Oh — god, come on really?” He put a finger to his lips and pointed over our head to where people were approaching us on the path. We ran for the bushes.

Looking back I imagine there being a moment of suspense, you know — a swelling of violins or something for the big reveal. But actually I was doing my best to duck into the ferns and Georgia’s boot was in my hip and Neal was frantically trying to drag a confused Feather Dog into the trees and out of sight.

And then there they were, striding purposefully out of the woods.

“What the fuck,” Georgia breathed. Julian shushed her, but I was right there with her because the five monsters responsible for locking Madelyn in a cellar were our history teacher, Mr. Herman, Ms. Baker the librarian, a pregnant girl I didn’t recognize, a waitress from Beth Ann’s diner and, to my profound horror (but not exactly my surprise) Sheriff Roger Marlow, Tilly’s father.

So looks like we were definitely right about that.

They were arguing about something. Something to do with whether or not they should fix the porch, I don’t know. I wasn’t really thinking about their conversation. I was a little preoccupied with Mr. Fucking Herman, most attractive teacher in school™ surrounded by fucking cultists. And that wasn’t even acknowledging Tilly’s father — the SHERIFF in charge of finding Madelyn.

Julian took a firm grip on the back of my jacket to keep me from storming up and throwing punches.

Behind us, Feather Dog made a strange melodic whimper and all five of them paused on their walk to scan out into the woods.

We all held our breath.

The waitress recovered first. “It was just a bird,” she said. She climbed the creaky porch steps and went into the house. The pregnant woman followed her, then the librarian and Mr. Harmon. And then, after a long moment, Sheriff Marlow.

“We have to go,” Julian whispered.

“Are you crazy, they’re all right here,” I hissed, at which point Julian picked me up by the back of my jacket and dragged me back into the trees.

I put up a fight but lol he’s like triple my size.

“What do you think they’ll do if they find you?” he said in his most soothing Julian voice, once we were out of sight of the homestead.

“Who cares?” I said, making to storm back to that clearing, but Julian blocked me and I swear that dudes like a fuckin tree trunk it’s so annoying.

I pushed him. “They have Maddie,” I said, and my voice cracked when I said her name. I wanted to fight and rage and pummel him. Instead I stood there trying to breathe as he put a hand on my shoulder and bent to look me in the eye.

“If you keep on like this, you’re going to blow this case. Take a deep breath, alright? I need you to hear this,” Julian said. “If they still had Madelyn, why would they be tracking you through the woods in the middle of the night?”

I stared at him.

“Think about it,” he said. “They were going to sacrifice her, right? And now they need you.”

And I, inevitably, started crying again. “You think she’s dead,” I said.

Julian shook his head. “No,” he said. “I think she ran away.”

I pushed him again. “That what Sheriff Marlow told you?” I said, gesturing back towards the cabin.

Julian only squeezed my shoulder gently. “They were going to kill her,” he said. “And she went along with it for a long time. Because she wanted to save you, right? Because she foresaw your death and she thought she could stop it.”

Anger is fortifying, but fear and grief just make you shaky and useless. I could feel the anger leeching out and everything that was rushing in to replace it was of the shaky, useless variety.

“But then she met with Celeste’s coven, and they told her that there was no magic that could save you. Right?”

Tears fell onto my cheeks and I smeared them away.

“So,” Julian said, relentless. “When she found out magic couldn’t save you — what do you think she would have done?”

I sat in the dirt and hid my face in arms.

“She wouldn’t have left me here,” I said and my voice was all shrill and pathetic.

But I think that’s exactly what she did, and I can’t even be mad at her. Would I have stayed back to be murdered by a bunch of cultists, just for her to die anyways? Of course not. And who was she supposed to go to? The police? Can I expect her to stay here and watch me die?

Watch me die. Fucking hell.

Julian knelt to be on my level. “I know this is hard,” he said. “But if we can put a stop to this, then maybe we can stop any other girls ever getting into this same mess. You think they’ll stop if they can’t use you for a sacrifice? What about Tilly?”

“Sheriff Marlow wouldn’t hurt his own daughter,” I said.

Julian didn’t reply but his expression was bleak. I wonder what kind of fucked up shit they’ve seen.

“If we can stop them hurting girls, maybe we can make it safe for Madelyn to come home,” he said. “But getting you killed, or getting us all arrested isn’t going to help us, right?”

I nodded.

“You think she could come home?” Georgia asked.

Julian shrugged. “We’d have to find her,” he said. “We don’t know what’s happened to her since she left. We don’t know where she is. But maybe.”

That conversation might have continued except that Feather Dog had joined us and seemed to be queued into the fact that I was upset because he was snuffling insistently around at my face, trying to lick up my tears.

“We alright?” Neal asked.

Julian caught my eye and raised his eyebrows.

I nodded. Julian helped me to my feet and we started the trek back to the car, Feather Dog nosing me nervously.

They brought Georgia and I home. They made both of us promise not to go out by ourselves and then they left.

I think I feel hopeful. Julian’s logic is so sound — Madelyn really might be out there. We know who hurt her and now we can stop them, and maybe she can come home.

I wish more than anything in the world that I could call Tilly.

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