The circuit around town is a bust. Zoe picks up and examines several black feathers along the way but Eli knows, without knowing how he knows, that they aren't feathers from the peryton. Several times he gets a strange feeling, like he's being watched, but he never catches sight of anything unusual and nothing jumps them from the shadows.
Eventually, they end up back outside the Chungs', Zoe regarding her feathers with a critical eye.
"Well," she says, "I can make up some of the locator charms with these tonight. We can meet up tomorrow to test them out."
Eli nods in agreement, then they say their goodbyes. Zoe offers him a lift back to his place ("I'm sure Dad won't mind"), but Eli declines. The clouds have finally lifted and the sky above is clear and studded with stars, moon hanging like a big silver grin against the dark.
It's getting cold, but Eli doesn't mind. He likes night times out here. Back home—back in his previous home—the city was so bright that the closest they ever got to dark was a kind of dull, yellow twilight. In Rosemont, there are actually stars.
Eli is so busy watching them, in fact, that he doesn't notice the peryton until he almost runs into it.
It's just standing in the middle of the road, at the end of Zoe's street, watching him. It's definitely there for him, judging by the way it rucks up its wings and lowers its antlers when it meets his eyes.
It growls, one scythe-clawed talon pawing at the bitumen, and Eli has exactly enough time to say:
Then it leaps, and he runs.
He means to head back up Jefferson, back to the Chungs' place, but the peryton is one step ahead and gets there before he does. It moves in a half-run, half-glide, the gusts from the downstrokes of its wings heavy enough to make Eli stumble. He adjusts his trajectory, into the trees that separate the Chungs' and Window Adeline's. He has a mad, half-formed idea that maybe he can boost Adeline's security fence and can already see the dark edges of it between the branches when he realizes just what a stupid idea that would truly be.
The peryton, after all, can fly. Eli, not so much.
He can hear the peryton behind him, crashing and lumbering through the wood. Eli has one vicious, futile little moment of joy to realize he was, at least, right about it being more awkward here than in the open.
On the other hand, so is Eli. The woods are dark and he's not even running half-speed. Every second step feels like the ground is shifting beneath him, piles of half-decayed leaves and long-fallen logs just waiting to open up under his feet. To send him plummeting to the ground where, this time, there won't be any miraculous save-by-magic. He should've gotten an amulet from Zoe. She even made some, except Lacroix took them, because of course she did. And now Eli is going to die here, in the woods behind Window Adeline's mansion, torn to shreds by a deer-eagle that shouldn't even exist because why not?
And then, up ahead, the path runs out.
Eli's been lapping the mansion, keeping the fence to his right as he runs to avoid getting lost in the woods. So he's not lost, but he's never been out here before and what he was not expecting, not at all, is the massive jut of rock that rears up ahead. The mansion fence ends along the edge of it, and the rock is too high and too sheer to climb. Eli can lunge left except the forest starts there in earnest, dark and closed-in and real and Eli's hands slam into the stone before he realizes that he's trapped.
That he's trapped himself.
He howls into the night; terror and frustration. This can't be how it ends. It just can't. He's going to die a virgin sacrifice in the woods and Zoe is going to blame herself, for the rest of her life, even though there was nothing she could have done.
"At least Lacroix will know I wasn't you," Eli tells the peryton.
When he turns, it's behind him. Pacing, but no longer running. Like it knows there's nowhere left for him to go.
Eli swallows, thick and heavy. The hot tingling beneath his skin is back. Something big and curled and ready to spring.
"Screw it." Eli has nothing, just himself and his backpack. He drops the latter. "Guess if I'm gonna die," he says, "I'm gonna die fighting." Then he lunges.
So does the peryton.
Something . . . happens. The hot, shivery feeling explodes beneath Eli's skin. He hears fabric ripping, feels his skin stretch. It hurts, but it's a good hurt; like standing up after a lifetime sitting down. His scream gets deeper, something shifting in the way his body moves through the air. The peryton suddenly starts to look a lot smaller.
Eli hits it half-way. It gets caught in his momentum and they both go crashing backwards into a tree. It's not a small tree but the wood makes a crack like thunder when they hit it, the entire thing tilting backwards, branches shaking.
The peryton shrieks its horrible shriek, but there's something different about it now, something panicked. This close, it smells even more like old meat and flaking rust and its feathers feel crusty beneath Eli's palms. It struggles, but Eli is stronger and he has it pinned.
"Hah! Didn't expect that, did you, assfeather?"
There's something different about Eli's voice. It sounds deeper, but with a strange, almost electronic edge to it. Like distortion from a bad mic, run through Autotune set two octaves down.
The sound of his own voice startles him, and the peryton notices; it lets loose another awful shriek, then its maw opens and razorblade teeth sink into Eli's shoulder.
It hurts, and he roars, falling backwards. He staggers back and something about his body feels very strange. Heavy and wrong. Like he has a kid bear-hugging his shoulders and another wrapped around his waist. Not heavy enough to be a problem, but awkward.
He doesn't have time to think about it. Not when the peryton pushes forward again; talons and teeth flashing. Eli doesn't think, just lashes out with a hand, and—
And it's not a hand. It's moving in front of his face where his hand should be, but it isn't a hand.
It's a claw. A huge, dark-scaled claw. Attached to a huge, dark-scaled limb with heavy spikes between the wrist and elbow.
The claw, Eli's claw, connects with the peryton's face. Talons gouge four thick rents through its flesh, thick black streamers of blood, of ichor, trailing in their wake.
The blow knocks the peryton to the side. It rolls across the ground like a broken doll before finally hitting a tree and coming to a stop. It struggles weakly, but Eli isn't looking at it. He's looking at himself.
"I'm a . . . a dragon?"
It sounds ridiculous, but he has no other words for what he sees; a scaled belly and clawed hind-limbs. A long, dark tail. And wings, rainbow with iridescence, arcing out above his shoulders.
"Oh, hells yeah! I'm a freakin' dragon! That's it, you stag-headed freak of nature! You're going down!"
The peryton looks impressed by neither Eli's words nor his posturing (dragon posturing!), but it has managed to get to its feet. It's staring at Eli now, its one good eye gone as wild as a real deer, confronted by a real predator. When it opens its wings and tenses its legs, Eli knows it's about to fly, not fight.
"Oh no you don't!"
He catches it halfway up, sort of. His own wings open and beat against the air, but achieve very little bar stirring up a lot of leaves. The peryton is fast, but Eli is bigger, and his claw closes around its leg as it attempts to run. He pulls, and the thing drops from the sky, slamming back down onto the dirt with a whimper.
The fight afterwards is not, in retrospect, much of one at all. Eli is larger and stronger but has no idea how to use his new body. The peryton is faster and more motivated; when fleeing fails, it turns on Eli in a whirlwind of talons and teeth.
His new hide is up to the challenge, thick and scaled like kevlar, but it still feels like trying to hold onto an angry cat. And so, instead, they end up rolling across the small clearing between the rocks and the security fence, spitting and shrieking and really doing very little. Because, yeah. That's the other thing:
Eli does not want to kill the peryton.
Which is to say, he knows he should. He just . . . can't. He's never killed anything bigger than a spider before. He hasn't gone fishing or shot buck or slaughtered chickens. There's a gulf, he thinks, a big one, between having his jaws around something's neck and biting down hard enough to sever it.
Eli realizes this, of course, while said jaws are clamped around said neck.
He can't let the peryton go. It's killed people and, near as Eli knows, will kill more. Someone has to stop it. Someone who is Eli. Someone who—
It's a lucky shot, really, that decides things for him. He's got the struggling peryton pinned, huge jaws clamped around its throat. He's trying to hold down its thrashing limbs as he does, and thinks he's doing a pretty good job. At least, he does until the monster manages to get one wing free.
It hurts, being hit by a peryton's wings. Eli had always thought wings were gentle, delicate things. But no, apparently they're like feather-covered boxing gloves, and this one slams right up into his throat. It's a lucky shot, but it leaves him gagging, rearing back and struggling for breath. The peryton does not waste any time as he does; one free wing turns into two, then two wings and a claw. It's the claw that gets him, raking painfully across the soft scales beneath his forelimb. Eli goes down, hard, onto his back, mind blanked from the shock of the sudden, searing agony. The next thing he knows, the peryton is launching itself into the air; a dark, winged shape rising fast above the treelike.
Eli doesn't think; his body just moves. Just flips itself over even as strong back legs brace themselves against the ground.
He doesn't even need to fly. One huge leap and he's caught up to the peryton, claws sinking into the hot flesh of its belly. It screams, the noise dying into a wet gurgle as Eli's teeth close around its throat and snap shut. Hot, filthy blood spills out across his snout and leaves him coughing, and it's about then that gravity decides to cough politely.
Moments later, the peryton lands with a sharp crack on the forest floor, followed fast by Eli, whose massive bulk lands right on top.
After that, the peryton does not move.
Eli does, though it takes him a few moments. Hitting the ground hurt. He doesn't think anything is broken, but it knocked the breath out of his lungs and the thoughts out of his head. He groans, claws twitching in the dirt.
From the corner of his eye, he sees movement. It's accompanied by a sound, a flat little rhythmic noise: plec-plec-plec.
The fall left Eli's vision kind of hazy, and also upside-down, given the way he landed. He struggles to his feet, stumbles, then remembers four is fine and he doesn't need to shoot for two. As the world resolves itself, the movement gets closer. It still takes Eli a moment to process what he's seeing.
It's Window Adeline. Her moon-white hair is in rollers and the feathers on the collar of her silk bathrobe flutter softly in the breeze. She's not wearing make-up, which means she has no eyebrows, and coupled with her milky, translucent skin she looks alien in the moonlight.
She's also clapping. That's what the noise is.
"Well," she says, although with her accent it comes out more like vell. "For your first try, not so bad, I would think. A little sloppy, but we can fix that. You have beautiful form, boy."
"What?" Eli says, or tries to. His voice comes out more like a croaking hiss, sucked out even as his body feels as if it's crumpling in on itself.
The world tilts, and suddenly seems to get much larger. The last thing Eli sees are his hands—his human hands—utterly failing to stop his head from slamming into the forest floor.