1. We got a phone call Friday night that I forgot to write down because honestly it didn’t feel like that big of a deal when it happened. It lasted all of three minutes.
It was Lana’s sorceress, Lily.
“Hey,” she said, audibly uncertain. “So… I’ve had reports that some of our psychics felt a tremor earlier, and we’ve done a little bit of investigation it seems like it’s coming from the pacific northwest so…”
“Yeah,” Neal said. “That was us, we’re on it.”
“You’re on it?” she repeated.
“We’ve got it under control,” Julian assured her.
“Okay, well, even so,” she said, forced pleasant. “I think we’re going to send someone out your way just to be certain.”
“That’s really not necessary,” Neal said, taking the phone. “We’re handling it,” I heard him say, somewhat forcefully as he left the room.
I was relieved, at the time, that Lana wasn’t coming here. I thought, that’s the last thing we’d need.
I also thought, how in the fuck did someone on the other side of the country know about this magic?
But according to Julian it’s not actually that surprising. “Palefish makes a point to keep an eye on where magic is coming from,” he said. “Certain psychics are magic sensitive, and Lana hires them keep an eye on things.”
I can’t say I was surprised to know that it was powerful magic, and Neal came in a few minutes later to essentially say it was all taken care of.
And that was that, so I thought.
2. Did we really think we could instigate some big ass magic in the woods not even a mile from the old coven homestead and not attract the attention of the two literal witches living there? Of course not.
I got a sorta confused phone call from Georgia Saturday morning.
“Hey,” she said. “So… did something happen in the woods last night?”
To which I said something like, “hehe, uh…”
“It’s just that we all had sorta crazy dreams, and Sophie and Iph are sorta… I mean they’re okay, they’re just sorta —” there was a strange thumping sound on her end and Georgia finished: “loopy.”
So I explained to her about Billy Ace — the cliffnotes version, I mean there’s no nuanced way to explain in 2 minutes that a tech bro with a revenge streak has recently decided to take a bulldozer to the three pillars (hunters, Palefish, witchcraft) of the hunting world because he had his son injected with hungry fog from another planet.
And as I was explaining this, someone in the background was saying, “give me the phone,” there was a rustling and then Celeste said, “Shiloh? I’m gonna need to see what happened. Come to the house.”
And she hung up.
Which left me to go tell the Hawthornes that we’d been summoned by Celeste, and you can imagine how that went over. Neal’s mood took an absolute nosedive. I don’t think they’ve spoken since last time we were in Black Lake, and to be honest, keeping those two apart is like… usually our best bet. They’re both way too pretty and stubborn to be in the same room together.
But still, strange upside down magic dead boy tree wasn’t going to investigate itself, so we drove out to the Black Lake Coven homestead to meet them.
The house was in chaos.
When we pulled up the front door burst open and Iphigenia came pelting out of it stark naked, sprang hands first down the porch steps and by the time she landed she’d turned into a sleek black hare and went streaking out into the woods as Tilly and Warren ran after her as fast as they could.
“What the fuck,” Neal said.
“Is that… possible?” I asked.
“I guess so,” Julian said, blinking after her.
People were shouting at each other inside. As we climbed the porch steps and opened the screen door, Sophie was shouting, “I DON’T WANT TO GO HOME I WANT TO GO OUTSIDE WITH IPHY.”
And then fell onto her hands and knees right in front of us, and with a horrible retching sound, vomited something huge and solid onto the floorboards. It hit the floor with a muffled thump, and to my absolute horror, it was moving.
“Okay, so you’ve got a situation,” Neal observed, kneeling down beside poor spluttering Sophie. The thing she’d puked up had turned onto it’s side and had begun, very slowly, to unwrap its wet, gummy wings.
“Yes thank you Neal, well observed,” Celeste snapped. “Georgia, don’t let Sophie go anywhere.”
And then Sophie wailed, “I want to see the treeeee.”
“What tree?” Celeste cried, in a tone that suggested that they’d been arguing about a tree for a while now. “You’re in the middle of the forest Soph, you’re gonna need to be more specific, what special tree are you talking about?”
“Oh,” Julian said and Celeste turned to scowl at him.
“What the fuck did you do?” she demanded.
They both held up their hands simultaneously to proclaim their innocence and my heart sank.
“Um — ” I squeaked, cleared my throat and tried again: “This was actually my fault potentially.”
Celeste stopped. She settled her eyes on me, and finally sighed. “Okay. Come on. Show me the damn tree.”
And then when Sophie started to get up, Celeste added, “Keith, keep her here. She doesn’t leave the house, do you understand?”
I hadn’t even noticed Keith there, but he nodded solemnly.
“Sophie, I’m sorry I’m locking you in,” Celeste added. “Georgia — come along.”
Sophie let out a guttural snarl of frustration, as on the floor in front of her, the gigantic moth she’d thrown up began to gently shake out its wrinkled wings.
Warren and Tilly were climbing the porch, clutching onto a frantically breathing black rabbit, and looking exhausted.
“You good caught her,” Celeste said, and Tilly and Warren exchanged a look.
“Actually…” Warren began and jabbed a thumb over his shoulder at Feather Dog who cocked his head and wagged his little tail excitedly.
“He was really gentle!” Tilly added quickly.
We all took a moment to absorb how horribly wrong that could have gone while the little black rabbit breathed hard, the whites of her eyes showing all the way around.
Neal and I exchanged a look and worked very hard not to laugh.
“Tilly, come with us,” Celeste said finally, moving on. “Warren, keep an eye on the rabbit. I’m locking you all inside the house. If an emergency strikes, break a full bottle of wine on the floor and the spell will break. Go inside.” And then to us, “Come on, let’s do this.”
I lead the way while Julian explained to Celeste everything that had happened with Billy and the unicorn. But the thing is, Julian’s telling of it left a lot out. There was just no way for him to understand the creatures perspective, and no real way for me to explain it to them.
When I looked back over my shoulder at them all though, Celeste was watching me with this expression that suggested that she at least knew there was more to the story, story that maybe only I knew.
The tree was still hanging there in thin air, roots reaching upward, branches hanging down, right in the center of the clearing in front of the the bramble archway — right where Tilly, Georgia and I each woke up in the woods last year. There’s a slope down now, a divot in the forest floor as if to make space for the rounded treetop.
The tree was shimmering softly, leaves rustling.
“Whoa,” Tilly breathed, and that about summed it up really.
It was even stranger and more beautiful than I remembered, hanging there, suspended in midair. I kept straining against my eyes, as if it were an optical illusion I was trying to blink away.
It’s beautiful. It’s also very obviously absolutely pulsating with magic. You can feel it, smell it in the air coming off it.
Celeste just stood there, the light of the tree reflected in her dark eyes.
“This is more magic than I’ve ever seen on this earth,” she finally said. “More magic than should be possible here. This came from somewhere else.”
She crossed the clearing to the tree. It was maybe triple her height, the lowest of the leaves barely skimming the dirt. She reached out a hand, hesitated, and then touched a branch.
Her body went rigid for a long moment, as if she’d grabbed a live wire, and when she finally let it go she literally collapsed where she stood — Neal had to lurch forward to catch her.
“He’s in there,” she gasped. Her eyes were a little wild, her expression horrified. “Oh god, there’s a kid in there.”
The Hawthornes exchanged a glance.
“Like… should we get an ax?” Neal asked hesitantly, as if any of us could imagine taking an ax to the likes of this tree and Celeste made a horrified face.
“No, fuck Neal, no,” she said, pushing him off her. “No, he’s in the tree. His consciousness… is in there.”
We were all silent, staring at the tree.
I wish I could say I was surprised. I wasn’t. I’ve known was in there since it happened. I don’t know why and certainly can’t explain how, but the kid was in there and I knew it.
The other thing I know? He’s not alive. Like, he has no body obviously so he’s not alive in the… heart beating, brain firing electrical signals sense, but that’s not quite what I mean. Even if he was in his body, and even if it was technically functioning, I don’t think he’d be… alive.
That was the part of the story I couldn’t tell them. The kids in that tree, the unicorn brought him back and put him in a tree.
Does that make sense? No. Do I care to explain further? No. I am as confused as you are. Maybe more so!
“The creature,” Celeste said. “Is she still here?”
She asked me specifically, but all three of us, Tilly, Georgia and I all nodded. Tilly pointed towards the bramble arch.
Celeste blew out a long breath. “Okay,” she said. “I’m calling in the rest of the coven. This is… more than I knew it was going to be. Come on, we need to get back, goodness only knows what’s going on with Sophie and Iphigenia.” She hugged herself and looked at the tree warily. “They’ve never been exposed to magic like this, they need some distance from this place.”
So we set off back out of the woods again. I could feel the magic on my back though, warm not quite like sunlight, a soft hum I couldn’t quite hear.
On the walk home, Neal asked Celeste if she was alright.
“I’m okay,” she assured him, and then, after a moment, quietly, “I’m sorry about Cara.”
I glanced at Julian and we shared an uh oh moment, but Neal just said, “it’s not your fault.”
“There um,” she had to clear her throat. “There was some discussion among the covens about whether we should intervene.”
None of us knew what to say to that. Georgia turned back at me and mouthed, “who’s Cara?” and I could tell by her expression she was just trying to pick up the gossip and I felt a total flash of panic at the thought of having to reveal to her how much of that tragedy was mine.
“I fought to intervene,” Celeste added, voice soft like she couldn’t decide whether she actually wanted to be heard.
Neal didn’t respond for a long moment and I thought maybe he wasn’t going to, but then he paused in the path to wrap an arm around her shoulder briefly and press a kiss to her temple. He said something in her ear and I skipped to catch up with Georgia to give them a moment.
Idk what their deal is but it’s so dramatic — lmfao obviously what else could we expect from Neal Hawthorne’s love life. At least there’s less open hostility now.
When we got back to the coven house, there were like ten moths the size of dinner plates banging against the windows, which exploded out the door the moment Celeste opened it. We all spun to watch them flap skyward but they didn’t make it far before disintegrating into dark, glittering dust, which settled on our hair and shoulders as Warren Miller dove to catch the rabbit formerly known as Iphigenia before she bolted out the door.
“No magic,” Celeste said to Tilly and Georgia as she loaded the wildly struggling black rabbit into the back of her car. “I don’t care what comes up, I don’t care if it’s not your fault, absolutely no magic here, do you understand?”
Sophie slammed the door so hard the whole house rattled as she stormed past to get in the car.
“We get it,” Tilly promised.
“I’ll be back soon, and I’ll bring backup,” Celeste said, and then added with an awkward look back over her shoulder at the girls in the car. “Hopefully once they’re away from this magic, they’ll come back to their senses. I’ll have them call you.”
All of them looked genuinely relieved. I realized that they’ve been living with Iphigenia and Sophie for a year, they must all be really close now and felt a sad little pang.
Celeste turned back to the Hawthornes. “I recommend you guys get out of here, too,” she said, more quietly and with a furtive glance at me. “She seems okay, but… I mean, you know.”
“We’re worried about Ace. We don’t know where he is or what he’s doing,” Julian said.
“I’ll have backup here by tomorrow morning,” she promised. “By tonight if I can manage it.”
“We’ll leave tomorrow morning then,” Neal replied, and then, slightly uncertainly. “Good luck.”
She managed a slight smile. “It’s always something, huh?”
And then when they drove away, Neal watched her go, bemused, shaking his head slightly.
So that’s the second thing I’m thinking about from this weekend. Weird magic.
Here’s the third thing:
3. We woke up in the woods last night. All three of us, Tilly, Georgia and me, we woke up in the softly glowing light of the tree branches in the middle of the night.
Isn’t that a fun blast from the past.
The difference is, we weren’t alone this time.
All of this happened so quickly and so suddenly after I woke up in an unexpected place it all feels like sort of a dream, so bear with me here.
I’ve woken up out here unexpectedly three times in my life now. The first two times I woke up feeling like I’d woken up from the best most peaceful dreams of my life. So much so that it felt strange to slowly realize how cold and naked and alone in the woods I was.
The third time I woke up still wearing Julian’s sweater, which I’d worn to bed, and I woke up TERRIFIED. I woke up so afraid that I was relieved to find myself somewhere at least familiar if unexpected.
“Shiloh?” Georgia whispered, confused. We were almost nose-to-nose. Tilly on my other side and sat up with a lurch, breathing hard, her bonnet snagging on the leaves and twigs.
“What’s happening?” she said, wincing away from the branches, and then the beam of a flashlight beamed over us.
“The fuck?” It was a man’s voice, young and uncertain, but I couldn’t see his face beyond the flashlight. “Hey, Billy? We’ve got some company.”
“Who?” I heard Billy Ace say, and then the light caught my face — and of course, my unmistakable eye.
“Oh,” he said. “Of course. I suppose I could have guessed that, huh?”
“What are you doing here?” I demanded, still fuzzy with sleepiness. I dragged myself out from under the tree, leaves and twigs catching on my sweater.
“What do you think we’re doing?” another of the men said, and I finally recognized the voice — that was Merl Allen, without a doubt. My eyes were adjusting to the weird light, and I could see more of them now, at least 6 men with weapons and headlamps and flashlights. “We’re hunting, which is exactly what the damn Hawthornes should have done when they were here, for what, nearly six months? The better question I think is what were they doing?”
And that’s when two more men came out from under the bramble arch, dragging the unicorn behind them. She was hogtied and wasn’t struggling and for a horrible, gut-rending moment I thought she was dead. I must have screamed, I must have rushed towards her, I don’t honestly know what my plan was, but it didn’t matter; they grabbed me before I could get anywhere. Rudy Allen caught me, specifically, so it was his foul breath on my neck, his voice in my ear saying, “whoa there, little lady, none of that.”
Hahahahaha yeah fuck you my dude, I went fucking crazy, limbs flailing, screaming at the top of my damn lungs.
“Jesus christ,” Rudy grunted as I elbowed him in the gut but didn’t let me go.
“Shut her up,” someone else barked, and Rudy snapped, “You shut her up, she’s fucking hysterical!”
Billy was kneeling over the unicorn, but got to his feet to come and face me.
“Shiloh,” he began, but I was on fire with rage. “Shiloh I know you feel you have an attachment to this creature,” I barely heard him, I was fighting too hard. I felt my fingernails come in contact with someone and scratched as hard as I could. Rudy howled.
“Hold her still,” Billy said and I felt a third hand grab into my hair and drag my face up to look at Billy. “This is a dangerous wild animal,” he said. “We can’t have creatures like this running wild in our world, it’s too dangerous.” I barely heard him, I was shrieking and snarling like a wild animal myself hahaha.
“Okay,” Billy said, with an air of calm resolve, and slapped me briskly across the face. He didn’t hit me particularly hard, just hard enough to startle me silent for a moment. “There you go,” he said into the — relative, because Georgia and Tilly were making a ruckus of their own behind me — quiet. “Shiloh, considering what this creature has cost you, I’d have thought you’d be grateful that someone was at last taking care of it.”
I spat in his face and felt a surge of pleasure when his cool slipped.
Behind me, Tilly escaped the kid who had been holding onto her, an awkward, gangly, curly-haired kid barely older than we are, and ran for the creature.
“She’s alive!” she called and I felt a flood of somewhat irrational relief — do we really think the unicorn can die? Idk I’m skeptical. All I know is that seeing her body like that, limp and tied up, was literal nightmare material, so when Tilly confirmed that she was alive I relaxed enough that I was almost surprised when a newly enraged Billy Ace leaned closer to me, wiped my spit out of his eye and said,
“Not yet, but we’ll figure out how.” He smiled just a little and added, in a low voice, “Can you imagine the kind of power a person with the ability to raise the dead would have? The implications are terrifying.”
But his smirk said he’d imagined that kind of power pretty thoroughly, and with his expression dimly lit by the tree that somehow contained his son, I got the idea that he’d pretty much schemed this out to the conclusion we all feared.
“Sorry, kiddo,” Rudy Allen said, which I hate because Neal is the only one allowed to call me kiddo, you condescending sack of shit. “But magic isn’t meant for this world. No monsters, no magic, or we’ll never have a moment’s peace.”
Billy Ace smiled, just the ghost of a smile, but it was so smug I wanted to scream.
So I headbutted him. I mean, I couldn’t head butt him very hard because I didn’t have a lot of space to work with, what with Rudy Allen still holding a handful of my hair, but it was hard enough to make Billy recoil with a gasp.
And that was when the cavalry arrived.
They showed up so quietly and suddenly that I suspect there was some magic involved — but one moment I was worried that this son of a bitch was gonna pull out a handful of my hair and the next Neal was there with a gun. There was a soft click as he cocked it.
“You okay?” he asked as Rudy Allen slowly let me go. I sidestepped right into Julian who protectively attempted to steer me closer to him, but I dodged him to go check on the unicorn.
I was so single minded that when Lana started talking I genuinely hadn’t already noticed she was here.
“So you’re Billy Ace,” Lana said, somewhere behind me. I was dimly aware that Lana hadn’t come alone, and that despite Billy’s 7 other hunters we weren’t outnumbered anymore.
There was serious danger in the air, but I literally didn’t couldn’t have cared less.
The unicorn was on her side, breathing calmly, despite being hogtied and muzzled (lol they muzzled her)
“I think she’s okay,” Tilly said. Her hands were shaking. “But the knots are too tight.” As she said it, she gave an end a helpless tug and the knots came undone instantly, like they were slipknots. Our eyes clicked together for just a moment, but neither of us commented on whether or not that was strange. There was too much going on.
We fumbled the ropes off her and the unicorn got delicately to her feet, shook herself off, and then her horn began to glow. Then her strange, alien eyes, then her cloven little hooves.
“Neal!” I called, uncertain.
The rest of the clearing was having a fairly serious, this-town-aint-big-enough-for-the-two-of-us style stand-off and weren’t paying attention to us.
Billy said something like, “you don’t own this creature, you have no authority over what is done with it, and we know for a fact that it’s killed at least one girl, and inspired at least one cult. It dies. That’s that.”
“You don’t get to decide something like that,” Lana replied, but I could hear the rage in her voice and Billy was totally calm, reasonable, level headed.
“But you do?” he asked. “Why? Because you have the magic to do so?” He made a face. “The moral high ground you’re standing on is a bit uneven, don’t you think?”
“Neal!” I repeated. “Jude!”
They looked just in time for the space below the bramble archway to open.
The other world appeared like a thorny hedge growing from a seed, sped up impossibly fast. One moment it was a speck of light on the ground, just a little shoot, then it rippling, uneven, thorny hole in the world. Beyond it, a soft dusky light shone through. I could smell something strange and spicy blow through from that place to this one.
She’d opened a rift. The whole clearing turned in time to see her step through it, and see that thorny little hole collapse in on itself, weave itself back together, and then finally close.
The unicorn was gone, and Madelyn with her. I just knelt there and felt the loss crash over me repeatedly, one horrible wave after another.
Then behind me, Merl Allen said, “It’s gone,” and Billy Ace cursed violently.
“Neal, Julian,” Lana said, urgency barely masked by calm. “Take the girls.”
But she didn’t need to say anything, I was already dragging Tilly upright. Georgia hurried forward to help me pull her to feet. We knew the way out of there and led the way, left Lana and Lily and the rest in the clearing to deal with Billy and his posse.
Georgia, Tilly and I all climbed into Georgia’s bed and slept for a few hours. We barely spoke, we just existed in shock together.
Julian woke me up early in the morning.
“We have to go,” he said. “Are you coming?”
I nodded, obviously and slipped out of bed, barely conscious.
“Good,” he said as I padded down the hall after him. “Because I don’t know if leaving you here is a real option at this point.”
Celeste was already downstairs speaking quietly to Neal. It looked like he hadn’t really slept. They both looked up when we came down, and Neal managed a tired smile.
“Ready?” he asked.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“We need to talk to Jade,” Julian told me.
“Is everything okay?” I asked, because something indiscernible had shifted.
“One of Billy’s boys took a shot at Lily last night after we left,” Neal said. My eyes must have gotten really weird because he added, “she’s okay, she was wearing a charm that held her together. Shooter was really green, we think he just panicked. But —”
The Hawthornes exchanged a glance, but it was Celeste that finally said it.
“The kid’s dead,” she said. “It was an accident, Lily lashed out when he fired. She did her best to save him, but it was too late. He died. You need to clear out of here. Before people start waking up.”
I knew it was bad, but I didn’t get it at first. I wrote Tilly and Georgia a note saying goodbye and we were gone before dawn, heading east.
It wasn’t until Julian was talking to Beverly hours later that I finally understood.
“Someone put a brick through our window,” she said. “We’re closing up, not letting anyone in.”
“Do you need us to come?” Neal asked.
“Nah, Knock and Daryl are here, the Kellihers are on their way. We’ll be okay. You go talk to Jade, maybe she can see something we can’t.”
And Julian said, “be careful, alright?”
She promised she would and when she hung up, Julian didn’t for a moment he just stared at the call ended screen.
He’s scared. They’re both scared.
It’s only gotten worse in the 24 hours since then. On the phone earlier, Rook told me that someone had spray painted the kid’s face on the side of the Crossroads.
When I asked what he thinks is going to happen, Rook said, “people are going to fight.”