Zoe is waiting for him on the sidewalk outside her house, eyes wide and phone clutched in her hand.
"Eli!" She starts running as soon as she sees him, and they crash together bodily in the middle of your street. "Eli, I got your text. What happened? What did you do?" She reaches a hand up to ghost it around the dark halo of his hair, currently even more fried than usual. "You look like you've been electrocuted!"
"I saw it!" Eli grabs Zoe's forearms, hauling her forward. "Zee, I saw it! I saw the monster!"
"Monster?" Zoe's expression twists, dubious, and she pulls back just slightly. "What monster? Ee, what are you talking about?"
"The monster, Zoe," Eli says. "The one that killed that dude. It's real. I saw it. Addi is out again and I was going to make tacos but we didn't have the ingredients," it comes out all in one big rush. "So I was walking to the ShopStop down that road that goes behind the houses, y'know? Where you wanted to do the photoshoot? And anyway I saw it. It was . . . it had these antlers and was kind of like a deer, but it had wings, too, and—"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa." This time, Zoe does extract herself, stepping backwards and out of Eli's grasp. "Ee, are you high?"
"No!" God. Monsters nothing. His Aunt would kill him. "Zoe, I know it sounds crazy but you gotta believe me. I saw the monster. It attacked me!"
Zoe looks him up and down, at the grazing on his hands and the bruise forming on his face. "I believe something attacked you," she says finally. "You said it was . . . a deer?"
"Kinda. I mean . . . part of it? It's hard to—" An idea strikes. "Wait. I'll show you. C'mon."
"I ain't gonna go see no monster," Zoe calls. But Eli is headed towards her house, and after a moment he hears her start jogging to follow him.
He leads her down into the basement, through the outside door (it's not locked, because things often aren't, in Rosemont Heights). Zoe's parents are even bigger nerds then Zoe, and they have a whole room beneath their house set aside for game nights. Of the Dungeons and Dragons variety.
The room is wall-to-wall bookshelves laid out around two huge tables. The remnants of past games are everywhere: piles of dice and pencils, half-built decks for whatever trading card game Ms. Chung is currently working on, Mr. Chung's armies of painted miniatures.
Eli finds what he's looking for on a shelf underneath a giant painting of a dragon, flying over grassy islands that float in the sky like balloons. He hauls the book from the shelf and starts flicking through the glossy pages.
"The Monster Manual?" Zoe asks, incredulous. "You go attacked by, what? Two d-four of kobolds at the ShopStop?"
"No," Eli says, finding what he's looking for. "I got attacked by this."
Zoe squints at the page, then at Eli, like she can't quite tell if he's yanking her chain or not. "A peryton?" she finally says. "You got attacked by CR-two of peryton?"
"Har har, Eli. Very funny. And to think I was almost—"
"I'm serious, Zoe!" Eli says. "I know it sounds crazy, and I know what I saw. And it was this. It nearly bit my leg off," he adds, suddenly deeply aware of just how mad he must sound and just how strangely Zoe is looking at him.
Zoe glances back at the book's page. The image of the peryton snarls back at her; half-bird, half-deer. "And it looked, what. Exactly like this?"
Eli studies the images. "Not exactly," he confesses. "It was black. And the horns were different—"
Eli rolls his eyes. "And it was . . ." he pauses, unsure. The creature, the peryton, was death in a feather boa. Like a rotting, festering wound in the flesh of What Should Be. Like taking a bite of a burger and finding half a turd instead of an all-beef patty. "It was messed up," he finally settles on.
Zoe sighs, looking between Eli's obviously injured face and the book. Eventually, she says, "Well. I believe you got attacked by something. How did you get away?"
The question jolts Eli back into action. A moment later, he fishes his savior out of his pocket and holds it out for Zoe's inspection. "This."
It's the amulet. Or, at least, what's left of it.
"Is that . . ." Zoe looks at the burnt-out husk of cotton and walnut. "It's the amulet I made for you."
Eli nods. "Zee," he says, "it worked. The preyton—"
"Whatever. It, like . . . I figured I could escape it if I ran into the trees. Except it got me first, dragged me halfway down Old Coe Road. I thought . . ." Eli swallows, the sudden realization of what he'd thought—that he could've died—hitting him with unexpected, painful force. "It attacked. I had your . . . your thing in my hand, and I raised my arms up, y'know." He mimes the gesture, arms crossed over his face. "And then . . . boom! Like a freakin' force-field, man. Tall Dark and Feathered bounces off and I book it before it can recover."
Zoe holds out her hand, frown setting a deep line between her brows. Eli hands her the burnt-out husk of amulet, and she studies it critically. "It . . . 'force field?'"
"I dunno what else to call it," Eli confesses. "Like, blue light. But solid. Smelt like a rainstorm, y'know."
"I . . ." Zoe swallows. Seems to reconsider and starts again, "Ee," she says. "The . . . the magic stuff. It's not supposed to . . . I mean. It's subtle, y'know? Not like in video games."
"Well, I dunno what to tell you. 'Cause this? This was totally like in video games." A thought occurs. "Maybe the presence of the monster like, activated it somehow?" That sounds reasonable, right?
"Maybe," Zoe says, still eyeing the depleted amulet. "Whatever happened, I guess it's ruined, now."
"Can you make more?" Eli asks. "In case it co—" He's interrupted by the creak of footsteps on the stairs and, a moment later, Mr. Chung's head appearing around the door jamb.
"A-hah!" he announces. "I thought I heard voices. Elias, good to see you." He grins, big and slightly goofy.
"You too, Mr. Chung."
"Please, call me Max," says Mr. Chung, for about the millionth time.
Max Chung is a rail thin man with a long dark ponytail and an easy grin framed by a neat, greying goatee. He works in tech, though Eli's not clear on the details, other than that it has something to do with a startup sold for millions and currently funding the Chungs' relaxed, semi-rural lifestyle.
Near as Eli can tell, Mr. Chung likes him, because he's friends with Zoe, who hasn't always been overflowing in the popularity department. Which is perhaps why Mr. Chung's eyebrows shoot up in paternal concern when he gets a closer look at Eli's face.
"Elias, good God," he says. "What happened to you? Is everything all right?"
"Fine, sir," Eli lies. "Was jogging in the woods and tripped, is all."
Mr. Chung makes a sympathetic noise. "Zoe, honey," he says. "How about you help Elias get cleaned up, then he can stay for dinner?"
Which is how Eli ends up sitting on the edge of the bath in the guest bathroom, Zoe hovering very close and dabbing something that smells like honey and rosemary onto his face.
"It's a healing salve," she explains.
"I hope it works as well as your amulets." Eli gives a rakish grin, and tries not to notice the way the skin beneath Zoe's fingers tingles with warmth. Zoe is very close, brows knitted in concentration as she applies her salve. She's out of costume and out of make-up; Eli can see the strips of acne that bloom, blotchy and red, across her brow and her cheeks. The sight of it makes something warm squirm in his stomach. Like he's being let in on a secret.
After Zoe decrees Eli is appropriately salved, they go and fetch dinner from Mr. Chung. It's some sort of salmon-and-kale-chips thing Mr. Chung is trying to replicate from, "that time we went to the place with Jim in the Valley, y'know?", to which Ms. Chung's response is, "mm" from where she's organizing game cards on the kitchen table.
Dinner at the Chungs' is not a communal affair. Zoe's parents have Raid Night in their MMO guild, so vanish into their studies to scream obscenities into their computer mics. Zoe and Eli, meanwhile, set up in Zoe's room, books spread across the floor around them.
"Okay." Eli's back to studying the Monster Manual with great intent. "It says here the peryton can be summoned by a powerful sorcerer. To, like, get revenge on enemies."
Zoe looks up, giving her best Star Trek eyebrow. "'Says here'?" she repeats. "What, in the powerful bestiary written by the legendary occult scholar, the Wizard of the Coast?"
"Har har. Do you have anything better?" Eli ignores Zoe's muttered maybe and continues. "Anyway. Apparently the sorcerer swaps his shadow for the peryton's shadow. So long as he—"
"Who says the sorcerer is a he?"
"So long as they control the shadow, they can control the peryton. And when they control the peryton, they can make it do whatever they want."
Zoe considers this. "Okay, so, what? We just have to get everyone in town to line up in front of a bright light, and see whose shadow looks like some hideous deer monster?"
"Why make it kill the guy at the gas station, though? I mean, if you could summon and control monsters, why get them to do that?"
Eli shrugs. "I don't know," he says. "What would you do? If you had a pet monster, I mean?" He tries not to think about yellow eyes and a shredded hoodie.
"If it had wings? I'd go flying, duh."
"You wouldn't try to, I dunno. Get revenge on people or whatever?"
Zoe looks guilty, but only slightly. "Well," she says, "maybe. I might, like, scare them a little. But I'd never kill anyone!" She picks at her food, carefully separating the salmon from the kale. Zoe hates kale. So does Eli, but doesn't want to mention it when he's a guest eating someone else's food, and so chokes it down.
"I cursed Tiffany McIntyre in eighth grade," Zoe suddenly blurts.
Eli pauses, mid-kale-filled-chew. "Huh?"
"I cursed her," Zoe repeats. "She was just . . . such a horrid bitch. She was mean to me and she'd trip me up in the hall and . . . and I got sick of it and I cursed her."
"Katie thought she was so great because she was going out with Matt Sanderson. So I got a pin and a candle and I cast a . . . a break-up revenge spell." Zoe's face goes bright pink as she says it, old shame rushing in. "A week later, Matt told the whole school Katie blew him behind the basketball court. Katie was . . . she was really upset. People started saying horrible things about her and she ended up dropping out. I think her parents started homeschooling her. They were . . . they were really strict, you know?"
Eli nods, unsure what else to do.
"And I've always . . ." Zoe cuts herself off, studies her nails (stripped of today's polish, not yet sporting tomorrow's). "That was me, what happened. Black magic."
Thing is, it's not like Eli believes in magic. Not really, and the last few days notwithstanding. But he believes in Zoe's feelings, and he believes Katie McIntyre and Matt Sanderson were both probably assholes who deserved each other. Which is why he says:
"Maybe it wasn't you. Maybe this Matt guy was just a douche. That would've happened whether you'd cast a spell or not."
Zoe gives a weak little smile. "Casting aspersions on my mad witchy powers, Drake?"
Eli grins in return, big and bright. "Not at all, girl," he says. "In fact, was gonna ask if you could brew us up something to catch this monster."
Zoe makes a pfft sound, smile returning in earnest. "In my sleep, could I." Her expression abruptly sobers. "Um. Ee?" she says. "Thanks. I've never . . . I've never told anyone about what happened with Katie before. Thanks for, for not . . ." She trails off, then looks down. "Just. Thanks."
"Anytime, man. That's what friends are for, right? Knowing all your deep, dark secrets?"
Eli keeps the smile fixed on his face as he says it, and tries not to think of too-sharp teeth.