Hehehe sorry about the cliff hanger (I’m not sorry 🤠)but it turns out lemniscate venom gets into your joints and really makes them painful, so my fingies were hurting and I wanted to stop typing.
So anyways, where were we? Ah, yes. I was back in the woods in Black Lake, standing in the casting circle. I was confused, staring around the familiar clearing, the trees, the torch light, the looming archway.
To be clear, it isn’t unusual for me to find myself in that damn clearing. I pretty much end up there every night. My eyes close and my brain says open season on Shiloh’s most traumatizing memories, and that clearing in those woods is pretty much the source of all my problems. Those dreams are always super vivid, too, they never feel like dreams when I’m in them.
But this was so real. I could smell it and taste it.
“Kneel,” Angelica Mission said, and I did.
A slight haze of light began to emerge from deep inside that little cave, but no matter how I squinted I couldn’t see what was inside. But that wasn’t right, was it? I knew what that light was now, didn’t I?
When I felt the knife on my throat I felt the same kick of panic that I felt then, but when the federal agents appeared, same as they did that first time, that was when I felt the real panic set in.
I knew what was coming. Didn’t I? Hadn’t I been reliving these five minutes every night for months? But everything I felt that night — the horror, the surprise, the desperation — all felt so real that the part of my mind that knew this was a hallucination felt murky and distant.
“This is the FBI put your hands up!”
Someone fired a warning shot, and this time I saw that it was Agent Steva. The knife fell into the bowl and, before I could think, acting totally on instinct, I took off running.
In my nightmares I always scream at myself to run away right then, after that first gun shot, but in my dreams I’m never able to. I just kneel there helplessly until the moment I have to stand or Mulligan is going to shoot the creature. But my hallucination felt so real, and my options were limitless.
I ran until my heart was screaming and my legs were jelly. I ran until I made it to the highway, and I didn’t stop. When I couldn’t run anymore, I walked, and when morning came and I was exhausted, I went and lay down under some ferns and I fell asleep.
I didn’t wake up again until Mr. Herman said, “It’s time Shiloh.”
I opened my eyes. I was back in the woods, stepping into the casting circle.
“Kneel,” said Angelica Mission, and I did so, right over the bowl.
My head was spinning. Wasn’t I just here? Didn’t this just happen? Was I dreaming?
The warehouse with the lemniscate felt so far away, like it was an old dream I couldn’t quite remember.
The knife touched my throat, and I felt the kick of panic, and remembered that the agents were coming and I just took off, took off running right there. Sheriff Marlow called after me in surprise, but no one followed. I ran towards the highway again, ran until a car passed and stuck out my thumb. It was an old woman with long hair and brightly colored clothes.
“You okay honey?” She asked.
“I gotta get out of here,” I gasped and she gestured that I should get in.
“Come on,” she said. “You’re fine now. Where do you need to go, I can take you anywhere.”
I didn’t know where to go.
“Well I’ve got a long drive ahead of me,” she said. “Why don’t you just tell me when to stop.”
She gave me a water bottle and a bag of apple slices. She put on a Grateful Dead album and turned up the car heat. I was asleep before we made it to Bellingham.
And then, swimming out of the gloom, Mr. Herman’s voice: “It’s time Shiloh.”
I screamed in frustration. I didn’t even bother look around the clearing in the woods that time, I just took off running.
This time I ran to the hospital.
“MOM,” I bellowed, bursting in the ambulance doors.
Nurses, EMTs and security all sorta swarmed me at once, but when they figured out who I was — I’ve known some of those nurses most of my life — they immediately went and found my mom.
It was so fucking real. It was her, I would have sworn to it, it was her right down to the little worry wrinkle between her eyebrows, and the nervous way she scratches my back when I scare her.
“What’s wrong?” she asked and I told her everything. I told her EVERYTHING that happened last year.
The hallucination version of my mother just listened, and she believed me. And you know what sucks? Now that I’ve had some time away and some space to sort through my feelings, I just… I mean I feel like she — my real mother — would have believed me, too. I mean she was a nurse. She was seeing the weird shit in the hospitals every day and coming home to me coming unhinged, like even if she’d been skeptical she would have been so relieved just to know what I was thinking and feeling that she would have at the very minimum tried to believe me. I mean, remember how quickly my classmates took to patrolling the streets for monsters?
This is neither here nor there, but damn. I’m super sorry, Mom.
My hallucination mother brought me to an empty waiting room.
“Okay,” she said. “We’re just going to leave town, okay? We can re-do this whole horrible year, fresh start, okay?”
It was okay. It was so okay. I could feel all the — awfulness — rushing away from me. When she left to go make arrangements with her boss, I was asleep on the waiting room seats within minutes.
“It’s time, Shiloh.”
Let me just take this moment to say FUCK you Mr. Herman.
I was back in the woods, and I was tired. Decidedly more tired than I had been. I had to wait a little bit longer this time, just to get my breath back, but I ran before the agents arrived. I ran toward the hospital again, but I was more careful to take a more direct route through woods this time. I was tired, and though the memory of the warehouse and the lemniscate was distant, I could feel a rising sense of dread the more exhausted I felt. I knew I had to conserve my energy.
On the new route I ran headlong into Tilly and Georgia in the woods.
“Shiloh? Oh thank god,” Tilly gasped and kissed me, full on, a desperate, knee-knocking kind of kiss. She smelled so good. “We thought you were — we thought —” she was so frantic she couldn’t even get the words out; instead she kissed me again.
“Guys,” Georgia said. “Guys, did you hear that?”
Indeed someone was following me through the woods. I heard them, distantly, calling for me.
“We have to go,” I said. I could feel in my head, a gnawing paranoia, like I was forgetting something, but I didn’t want to look directly at that. I only wanted to look at Tilly.
I gripped her hand, and we ran.
I only made it maybe 30 feet before I tripped on a log and fell hard. My head hit a rock. I was out like a light.
“It’s time, Shiloh.”
My head still hurt from the rock, I was still breathing hard from running, but I was back in that damn clearing.
I don’t know how many times I did the loop. I don’t know how far I ran, or what I tried. But every time I fell asleep I woke up in that damn clearing again.
It felt like days, but eventually, I just couldn’t run anymore.
“Kneel,” Angelica Mission said, and I did it. I felt the knife on my throat, and no panic came. I knew she wasn’t going to kill me.
When the agents arrived, I just closed my eyes and breathed through it. Steva shot her warning shot into the air, the humming stopped and the knife fell into the stone bowl.
“Agent Steva,” Sheriff Marlow said, struggling to keep his voice calm. “I’m going to ask you to lower your gun —”
“Yeah you’d like that, wouldn’t you,” Agent Mulligan said. “I don’t think that’s going to be possible. Everyone lay down on your bellies with your hands behind your head —”
“We’re gonna do everything you ask,” Sheriff Marlow said. “But it’s very important that you don’t have your weapons drawn right now.”
I knew it was true, I knew they had to drop their weapons. It was disrespectful, it was wrong to have weapons near a creature so pure. I knew it, but I was also very tired.
“Miss Tamblyn we’re going to get you out of here,” Agent Mulligan said very kindly, not lowering his weapon at all.
“Please you have to listen to me,” I said, but I was so tired. I got to my feet very slowly. “You have to put down your guns.”
I knew what was coming.
“On your knees!” Agent Steva shouted, facing me full on, hand gun pointed directly at me. And this time, I did as I was told. When she saw the creature, and she dropped her weapon, and Agent Mulligan whirled to protect her and the shot went off — I wasn’t there to stop the bullet.
The creature stumbled. It didn’t seem to entirely understand. Light beamed out of the bullet wound in it’s face, lancing across the trees as it lurched and crumpled forward.
I can’t really describe the pain I felt watching that creature hurt. My mind shies away from it like a spooked horse.
There was a flash of light so bright it blinded all of us, and when the darkness settled again there was a small, gnarled tree where the creature had fallen, but apart from that — everyone was okay.
Tilly and Georgia came skidding into the clearing.
“Get away from her!” Tilly screamed. Her father was so stunned by the creatures death that when she pushed him he fell.
“Are you okay?” Georgia gasped. They helped me to my feet.
“You scared me to death!” Tilly shouted at me and then flung my arms around my neck and cried. I held onto her, dazed, and I swear, I swear for a moment I forgot that this wasn’t real. I knew it wasn’t — could feel the memory of the lemniscate and the warehouse and the Hawthornes scratching at the back of my brain. But she felt so real in my arms, and she was so upset and I was so relieved that we were safe and together.
The whole Black Lake Cult was arrested.
“Shiloh, tell them, tell them you volunteered for this,” Sheriff Marlow said and Tilly smacked him across the face.
My mom met us at home. While I explained everything Tilly held one hand and Georgia held the other. My mom made me tea. I was so tired I couldn’t even make it through the cup before she sent all three of us to bed.
“We should go to California,” Tilly whispered when we were all cuddled up in bed. “Just us three.”
“Let’s get out of this town,” Georgia agreed.
“We’ll swim in the ocean every day,” Tilly said. She yawned.
“We’ll have to bring Feather Dog,” Georgia said. “And Warren Miller will probably want to come.” Tilly laughed sleepily. They were asleep within minutes, and I was so tired, I wanted so much to join them.
It’s funny the kind of doublethink we’re capable of. I knew that when I fell asleep I would wake up I’d be back in those woods again. I knew that I was hallucinating because a terrifying insect monster was trying to wear me down until I stopped fighting my own imminent death. I had figured out by this point that when I finally did give up and allow myself to be shot in the face, that was when the lemniscate was coming for my life.
But it felt so damn real, and I wanted so badly to stay. I know that this was all concocted inside my own brain. I don’t know what really would have happened if I hadn’t intercepted that bullet — for all I know, the unicorn would have exploded, killing us all, or fuck, maybe it can’t be killed; goodness knows it’s got some kind of power over life and death.
But what if I hadn’t stood up? How differently might this year have turned out?
I couldn’t sleep. I went to the bathroom and studied my face in the mirror. A normal face with two normal eyes in it. Nothing remarkable at all. I lifted my eyelids and looked at the little red veins.
Tilly turned over in her sleep. I thought, we’re going to California to swim in the ocean. At the same time I thought, did you to go to College this year? And under that, a quiet, persistent needling: This isn’t what happened.
I had to go to sleep and I knew it. Standing in that bathroom it felt like I was choosing this future, with Tilly and Georgia and home, or choosing a future on the road with the Hawthornes, but that’s not how the venom works. I didn’t have the choice to stay in this alternate universe where I never died. The exhaustion was pulling me under. I was either going to pass out on the bathroom floor or I was getting back into bed and fall asleep there.
For what it’s worth, I went and got in bed.
“Good night,” I whispered to Tilly and she murmured in her sleep.
“It’s time, Shiloh,” Mr. Herman said.
I felt nothing.
“Kneel,” Angelica Mission commanded and I did so. I waited through the knife, the shouting, the FBI arriving. When the agents wouldn’t put down their weapons, I stood up.
“On your knees!” Agent Steva shouted, facing me full on, hand gun pointed directly at me. She turned, saw the creature, dropped her weapon.
Agent Mulligan whirled, pointing his.
It didn’t feel like I was giving up, I swear it didn’t. I just couldn’t give that other future up again. I stood up again as the gun went off, caught it in the eye, and died instantly.
Now, if I was anyone else, that would have been the end for me. The hallucination was a full body thing, my brain straight up thought I died. It was shutting everything down, lights out, everybody go home. My life force (or whatever) was served up on a platter, ready for eating.
I’m not everyone else.
I woke up back in the cave with the backwards stream and Madelyn was bent over me, shaking me. Madelyn Sexton, coming in clutch, as always.
“Shiloh,” she said. “You have to wake up.”
“What?” I gasped. I was confused as shit. “I thought you were —” I stopped because whatever Madelyn is, it’s too complicated to say in one word.
“I am,” she said. “But that doesn’t matter, because I’m not her.”
“What?” I said.
“I’m you,” she said. “You’re hallucinating. Now listen to me. That thing is literally on it’s way to kill you, so you have to hurry. When you wake up on the other side — remember how much it hates sound.”
I was blubbering. I never thought I’d see her again and here she was.
“GO,” she said. “I’m fake! Run!”
So I did. I ran as fast as I could, back down into the depths of that cave, as far and fast as I could. I think I was still running when I woke up.
“It’s time Shiloh.”
It felt like I hadn’t been in the factory for a hundred years, but it was still light out, so I couldn’t have been out for long.
The lemniscate was bent over Julian nudging him around with his scythe claws.
I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking, but instinct just took over.
“HEY!” I reached for the nearest thing to me, an old scrap of 2×4, and chucked it as hard as I could at the creature.
It turned towards me. It didn’t have an discernible face, but it’s claws were angled towards me and that was the problem area.
I just ran for it. My limbs screamed at me; whatever that venom does, my muscles hated it. I didn’t have much in me, I didn’t know what would happen to me if I got a second dose of venom, and I didn’t want to find out.
I was running down an aisle of the cannery, and this horrible creature was chasing me, hot on my tail, and I knew I was likely to collapse at any moment. So I just dove into the closest available hiding spot — it was a retort.
For those of you who don’t know what a retort is, it’s what factories cook canned goods in. They’re these big, round, pressurized cookers with a round door on the front.
I dove into the nearest open one, and scrambled around to try and pull it shut behind me. I was too late. The lemniscate caught a claw in the entry and wrenched open the door.
I shoved back as fast as I could, but I hit the back of the retort. The creature crouched. It was a tight fight, but it followed me in, it’s chitinous joints crackling.
I really thought I was a goner.
And then I remembered, and I screamed.
It was an enclosed metal container and that thing was right up in my face.
It shuddered. It’s feet slipped on the metal. I gasped for air, and then screamed again.
It recoiled, but with the echoing couldn’t seem to figure out where to go. I just tucked my chin and dove under it’s belly, between it’s many legs, screaming like a banshee all the way, and when I pulled myself out onto the cement floor I turned and slammed the retort door shut. It had a wheel crank to lock the door shut, and I cranked that son of a bitch all the way closed.
After that everything becomes sorta blurry. The venom hadn’t really worn off, so I was feeling pretty woozy. I couldn’t wake the Hawthornes — they were totally limp, breathing shallowly. Eventually, exhausted, I just curled up between them and fell asleep. I had really fucked up nightmares, but what else is new.
The next time I woke up it was dark. Everything hurt. Someone a long way away was saying my name.
When I opened my eyes four faces swam into view over me.
“Oh, fuck me,” Neal gasped, deflating with relief. “You made it.”
“Somehow we all did,” said Jessamine Kelliher. I recognized her and her brother from White Pyre. “But where’s the lemniscate?”
“It’s in a retort,” I said. They all stared at me, so I pointed in the general direction. My muscles screamed. “I had to lock it in.”
No one stopped gaping at me.
So I had to explain, somewhat haltingly, what happened. It was much easier to explain how I trapped it in the retort with the power of screaming, so I focused on that, not how I managed to wake up out of the hallucination.
The Kellihers were impressed which was deeply satisfying.
“Shit,” Lodge said, leaning back against the dusty machinery. “How old did you say you were?”
The Kellihers were battered. It turns out that thing has been trying to feed on them for literally days, and they’ve been running that I-refuse-to-die loop for DAYS.
“Did you hear about that hunt we did out at the Grand Canyon? The desert shrews?” Lodge said. “Well, there was this one moment, I was tussling with this thing, and we fell over the cliff — I mean, I managed to catch a ledge on my down, but I really thought I was a goner.” He shook his head. “I’ve fallen off that cliff a thousand times now.” He grinned. “Still never missed the ledge though.”
Hahaha I was under for like an hour before I let myself get shot in the face hahahahaha. I’m pretty sure the Kellihers are the toughest people I’ve ever met.
Paul Rivers and April Spitz from the emporium flew out with a bunch of equipment literally the next day to help us get the lemniscate out of the retort. They’re gonna have to road trip her back to the emporium, and she is NOT a happy camper.
“I’ve never seen a lemniscate like this before,” Paul said, peering in at her through the slats of the modified horse trailer they were going to use to move her. “The only ones we’ve ever seen have been small, and relatively slow moving. This creature isn’t just bigger, she has extreme anatomical differences like those I’ve only ever seen in insects.”
“I wonder if they pupate,” April said. They were talking about her as if she was a cuddly if somewhat crabby koala or some such thing, not a gigantic scorpion lobster mantis that tried to kill us all. Neal even discovered that she calmed down a bit when he sang to her, even more when April, who has a very pretty voice, harmonized with him. Something about the vibrations or something, according to Paul. Lemniscates, as we know, are very sensitive to sound.
We did a few more sweeps of the cannery, just in case, but we found nothing. April and Paul left that same evening, in a hurry to get the lemniscate home to where they could feed her.
Since then the five of us — Hawthornes, Kellihers, me — have been recovering at a big ass cabin out in the hills. It overlooks a river, and there’s no one else as far as the eye can see. We pretty much just drink beers and eat food. The Kellihers are literally always hungry.
I think we’re all putting on a show of being okay though. I couldn’t stand trying to sleep a few night ago, so I went to go get some water and found Jessamine watching TV on the couch, a haunted expression on her face. Lodge has been waking up from falling dreams all week.
As for the Hawthornes, they’re both a mess I can tell.
The first night the Kellihers went to bed and we were out on the deck, nursing our sore, aching limbs, drinking tea and popping Vicodin like gummy vitamins.
“What was it for you?” Neal asked.
“Mom and dad,” Julian replied. “You?”
“That last rot snake with Nolan,” Neal said. “That snake almost had me, but Nolan just —” He blew out his breath. “Shiloh?”
“The woods,” I said.
“Is that how you fought the venom?” Julian asked. “You died, and came back?”
I nodded. “I ran out of the cave and woke up on this side.”
“Your timing,” Julian said, “was very, very good.”
I didn’t need to ask why my timing was so good, and I didn’t ask what happened to their parents. At a certain point it’s just like… we know what happened, you know? They were horrifically murdered. If I someday learn how, so be it.
On the up side, I think it’s kind of helped my sleeping. Being back inside all that trauma over and over again, and realizing all the choices I had and the choices I made, and how ultimately, I think I made the right choice — well, it helps. I slept through the whole night last night and woke up feeling genuinely rested.