It’s nearly eleven by the time Eli gets to Zoe’s place, mostly care of him taking a good twenty minutes trying to figure out how to change back into a human. When he finally gets it, he’s surprised how . . . wrong the shape feels; too small and too fragile and too smooth. Widow Adeline just laughs at his discomfort, feeds him another plate of bacon and sausages, and sends him on his way.
Eli’s head is in such a spin by the time he’s standing at Zoe’s front door that he’s almost forgotten why he’s supposed to be here. His eyes keep drifting to the sky, at the blue peeking between silver clouds. He could be up there, right now. Just him and the wind. It’s a strange thought; makes him feel restless and uneasy.
The Chungs are not early risers, so Eli gets offered breakfast for the third time. Mr. Chung is making crepes, stuffed with mascarpone and berry compote and smothered with maple syrup. Eli loves Mr. Chung’s crepes, except today something about the smell of the syrup and berries makes his stomach turn. He tries one anyway, minus the syrup; the crepe is like eating paper and the berries are so sweet it makes his teeth hurt. The mascarpone tastes okay, so he eats as much as he can, then pushes away the rest with a muttered apology about having already eaten.
“Your loss!” Zoe announces, and promptly devours everything he didn’t.
Today, Zoe is in her Supernatural outfit; a cute black dress and little blue tie underneath a long tan duster. Her earrings are two little black feathers, which Eli finds somewhat ironic when he pulls the tattered peryton feather from his satchel.
Zoe’s eyes go very, very wide. “Is that—?”
“Yeah,” Eli confirms. “I found it on the way home last night. It can’t be from a regular bird, right?” He’s practiced this story on the way over, while he was busy fetching the feather from the festering remains of the peryton he ki— he destroyed. It’s not that he doesn’t want to tell Zoe how he really got it so much as he keeps hearing Widow Adeline’s warnings in his head. He doesn’t want anything to happen to Zoe because of him. Not ever.
Zoe takes the feather with awe. “No way this came from a bird. It has to be the peryton. Ee, you’re a genius!”
Eli has the bruises to prove it, though doesn’t say as much.
Zoe puts the feather aside and pulls out her grimoire instead. She opens it to a page full of her overly ornate, loopy writing curled around some kind of sigil. At the top of the page, Eli can read the title: To traſe a Warlocke by his ſpells.
“You spelt ‘trace’ wrong,” Eli points out, earning a withering glare for his efforts.
“So I was thinking,” Zoe says, pointedly, “that we don’t actually really want to find the peryton at all, do we?”
“No,” says Eli, trying not to think of the mangled corpse behind Widow Adeline’s.
“Right. What we actually need is to locate whomever summoned it in the first place. So I did some research, and I’ve found a spell that should do just that.” A pause. “I think.”
“Okay,” says Eli. “How does it work?”
So Zoe explains. She talks a lot about ley energies and astral resonances and things that Eli would’ve assumed were nonsense, this time last week. Today, he’s spent all morning as a dragon and is less prepared to dismiss Zoe’s ramblings out-of-hand. He still remembers the flash of light from the amulet she made, the crackling smell of power as the peryton had bounced off the magical shield.
He helps Zoe carry her equipment out into the woods behind the house. She has an altar set up here, on an old, mostly flat stone. Things hang from the branches of the trees around them; feathers and shards of glass, old beads and little dolls made from twigs. Even if the magic doesn’t work, at least the setting is appropriate.
Zoe lays out her paten—not the one Lacroix stole, but the big one she keeps at home—and starts to set out a bunch of colored candles. She’s using some app on her phone to align them. Not against the compass points; Eli thinks maybe it’s stars or something astrological, but doesn’t ask.
Once the candles are in place, Zoe pulls out a little jug. It looks like the sort of thing her dad uses to pour fancy olive oil over sourdough, except when Zoe tilts it, a line of salt trickles out. Using the salt, she draws the symbol from her grimoire onto her paten, lines linking each of the candles in a complicated pattern.
When she’s done, she places the peryton feather in the centre, then huffs out a breath.
“Okay,” she says. “You ready?”
Eli, who’s sitting across from her on the far side of the stone, nods. “Yeah.”
“You have to help me,” Zoe says. “This is powerful magic.”
“I mean it, Ee.” Zoe looks anxious, eyes flicking between Eli and the feather. “I’ve never . . . I mean. I’ve never tried anything this big a deal before. I don’t know what will happen.” Then, softer, “Maybe nothing.”
“I believe in you, Zee,” Eli says, because he does. “Whoever’s doing this, summoning this monster and killing these people, you can find him.” Your little witch friend, Widow Adeline had said. Widow Adeline, who spoke to dragons and kept a grotto full of faeries. If she believed in Zoe . . .
Zoe takes another deep breath. “Okay,” she says. “Okay, so. Close your eyes”—Eli does—”and I want you . . . I want you to imagine the peryton for me.”
“No problem there.” Honestly, Eli’s been having trouble not imagining it; all sharp claws and stench and shrieking.
“Now imagine someone behind it. Not any particular someone. Just . . . whoever’s summoning the monster. Like, the idea of them, or whatever.”
“Okay.” Eli imagines a figure, shrouded by a black robe, summoning monsters. He figures black robes are a must for evil sorcerers.
“Okay,” says Zoe. “Okay, so . . .” She clears her throat. Then, louder, if not more confidently: “Stars of the sky and spirits of the land, we call upon your aid. We beseech you, lend us your wisdom that we might find the master of this foul beast whose feather we have offered. Um . . .” A snap, then the smell of a lighter flame.
“By the tread of his feet, o spirits of Earth, lend us your strength so he might be found.
“By the sweat of his brow, o spirits of Water, lend us your wisdom so he might be found.
“By the gust of his breath, o spirits of Air, lend us your guile so he might be found.
“By the beat of his heart, o spirits of Flame, lend us your rage so he might be found.”
And the thing is, Eli . . . Eli feels it. When Zoe speaks, at each candle she lights (because, yeah, Eli peeked) he can feel something stirring in the forest around them. A rumble of stones, a burble of water.
“It’s working,” he whispers, every hair on his body standing on end.
Zoe has three more candles to light. When she speaks, her voice is shaking.
“B-by the scent of his soul, o spirits of Void, lend us your smell so he might be found.
“By the whisper of his mind, o spirits of Aether, lend us your hearing so he might be found.”
One final candle. By now, Eli’s eyes are wide open, and he meets Zoe’s own, terrified gaze across the altar. Whatever’s happening, she feels it too as she says:
“A-and by the sh-shape of his form, oh spirits of Stars, lend us your sight so he might be found!”
When she touches the lighter to the final candle, the flame that erupts is as blue-white as a star, and arcs up like a firework. Zoe shrieks, and jerks back, as the six other candles also flare and grow, each burning a different color: green, blue, yellow, red, pink, and purple. A wind whips around them, summoned from nowhere, sending Zoe’s hair thrashing like blue-black tentacles. The lines of salt on the paten seem so bright they’re almost glowing and, no. No, they are glowing. They’re glowing, and the feather is rising, levitating in the air with the tip pointed down.
“Oh, goddess,” Zoe says. Her eyes are huge and white and terrified. “It’s never . . . I mean . . . oh. Oh, man.”
The feather isn’t the only thing that’s levitating; the flames are, too. Rising from their candles and circling like witch-lights. Slowly, first, then with increasing speed as they’re drawn towards the feather. As they move, Eli can feel the magic building. In the air, in the earth. In his blood and his bones and the dragon inside him thrashes and roars and it takes every ounce of everything he has to it it back and keep it locked inside.
The flames burn brighter and spin faster and the wind gets more violent as the magic builds. The ground beneath them rumbles like an earthquake and Zoe screams, “Eli!” in the one second before the seven flames flare one final time and slam into the feather with a burst of light and power so bright and strong that Eli dives against the forest floor. As he does, he feels the magic crackle over him; a wave of energy like being buffeted in the surf.
It only lasts an instant. When it’s over, he hears a sound like a metal plate, dropped onto stone.
When Eli looks up, Zoe is staring at him, wide-eyed, from the far side of the ruined altar. And “ruined” is right; the salt lines are blown out and the candles have been incinerated down to waxy nubs. Even Zoe’s paten looks charred and worse for wear. The only thing that looks untouched in the feather, now lying innocuous and still atop the paten.
“I’m okay,” Eli says, swallowing hard. He runs a hand over his frazzled hair. “You?”
Zoe nods, though she’s pale and shaky. “It’s never . . . before, I mean. I didn’t expect . . .”
Eli nods, picking himself up and dusting dirt and leaves from his hoodie. “I know,” he says. Seems a lot of things no one was expecting have been happening recently.
They both eye the feather, wary, but it continues to sit and do nothing. Eli can still feel the magic in it; the oily corrupt feeling of the peryton itself, but now overlaid by the clean, crisp feeling of what must be Zoe’s spell. “What now?” he asks.
Hesitantly, Zoe reaches towards the feather. She gasps when her fingers touch it, but doesn’t pull back and no further explosions occur. “Um,” she says. “We’re supposed to, like. Attach it to a string or something and use it like a dowsing stone.”
Eli eyes the feather; it’s easily as long as Zoe’s forearm. “It’s a bit big to tie to a string,” he says.
“Yeah. But . . . maybe if I . . .” Zoe hold her hand out, feather balanced on the palm. They both watch as, very slowly, the feather begins to turn. Like a compass needle.
When it finally come to a stop, they both continue to look at it for a while until Zoe finally says:
“Well. I guess that’s where we go.”
The feather takes them on a hike, around the outside of Rosemont Heights and into the woods at the base of Mount Rhodes. They quickly discover that the feather is a compass, not a GPS route; it doesn’t care about cliffs or crevasses or otherwise impassable terrain. There are trails up the mountain—for walking and for hunting—and they stick to those as best they can, especially as the ground gets steeper and the trees denser.
“This would be a hell of a lot easier if we could fly,” Zoe pants at one point, as Eli helps her over the remains of a rockslide.
“Yeah,” he says, and tries not to look up.
The sun is high and bright by the time they spot the shack. It looks to have once been some kind of bird hide or hunting shed; small and crude but deceptively sturdy. It’s half-obscured between the trees and beneath a cascade of ferns, and they probably would’ve walked straight past it if not for the feather pointing dead ahead.
Neither of them speak.
There’s something ominous about the shack. Some queasy, greasy feeling in the air. Zoe’s hand threads through Eli’s and he squeezes her fingers with a reassurance he doesn’t feel. He keeps telling himself there’s nothing to worry about—he’s a dragon, the peryton is already dead—but it doesn’t help.
This place feels wrong.
They approach the shack as quietly as they can, barely even breathing. The thing has no door in the frame and holes for windows positioned in a way that make it look like an endlessly screaming face. Inside, is dark and full of cobwebs. It stinks like mould and there are sodden, half-rotted piles of blankets on the bare concrete floor. There doesn’t seem to be anyone here.
“I’m not sure what we were looking for,” Eli finally says. “But this doesn’t feel like it.” He keeps having to force his voice to rise above a whisper.
Zoe is still balancing the feather on her hand, or trying to; it keeps tipping towards the floor, as if weighted at the tip. “Maybe . . .” she murmurs, distracted.
Eli leaves her to it, ducking outside and back into the woods. There’s a little clearing in front of the shack, a place where the ferns don’t grow. Right now, it’s covered in fallen leaves that gleam gold like a dragon’a hoard. Eli sighs. Dragons are supposed to be greedy, right? Is he going to develop a sudden obsession with gold? Deck himself out in rings and chains like a TV gangster? Mom had always been big into jewelry. He could dig her stuff out of storage, maybe. Pile it up on his bed and curl on it and—
One minute Eli is pacing, kicking up leaves, the next he’s face-first in the dirt. It doesn’t hurt, at least nothing more than his pride, and Eli stands and dusts himself off. He turns to scowl at whatever tripped him and sees an odd-looking rock. It’d been covered by the leaves. Now it isn’t.
There’s something carved into the top. Some kind of rune or sigil; Eli doesn’t recognize it exactly but can recognize the style from Zoe’s grimoire. It looks to have been chiseled out of the rock and stained a dark rust color Eli does not like one little bit. The earth surrounding it also looks to be scorched; black and lifeless in a patterns like a T, with the rock positioned at the intersect.
Eli starts kicking away more leaves, even as he knows what he’s going to see.
It’s a summoning circle. The diameter is slightly longer than Eli is tall, the circumference a burnt black line marked with six more rune-cut stones. There are more burnt lines in the centre of the circle, though Eli doesn’t reveal them all. He’s seen enough.
“Zoe!” he calls, at the exact moment he hears, “Eli!”
“Come look at this,” they both end up saying. Zoe appears in the door to the shack just as Eli is about to walk through it, and they share a glance before both saying: “I found something.”
Zoe’s discovery turns out to be a trapdoor. “It was buried under the gross blanket pile,” she says. “The feather pulls right towards it.” She demonstrates by dropping the feather entirely; it lands on the trapdoor, balanced impossibly on its point.
The trapdoor is also super, super locked. There’s a huge, shiny padlock on a heavy shiny bolt, and Eli takes one look and says, “Someone wanted to keep people out.”
Eli tries not to shudder.
“Maybe there’s a key?”
It’s a terrible idea, but it’s Eli’s terrible idea, so he looks around the shack while Zoe inspects the summoning circle. Well, that’s the excuse. What he’s really doing is inspecting the trapdoor, because the lock might be new but the wood it’s screwed into isn’t.
“Okay, Dragon Boy,” Eli mutters to himself. “No problem, right?”
He grabs the padlock, wrapping his fingers around the U-shaped part. He doesn’t want to risk a full transformation—the shack is too small, if nothing else—but maybe if he can just reach down inside, pull up some of that draconian strength, and—
The lock comes free so easily it sends Eli tumbling back on his ass in the dirt. It’s noisy, too—a big, loud crack of splintering wood—and that brings Zoe running back with an, “Eli? Eli, are you okay?”
“Ta da!” He holds the lock aloft, intact and still locked around the torn-free bolt, splinters of wood still shedding from the screws.
Zoe laughs, helping him off the floor. “That’s one way to do it.”
“No point putting a new lock on old wood.” It’s not exactly a lie, so Eli doesn’t exactly have to feel bad about saying it.
Together, they peer down at the trapdoor, now sporting a ragged hole on one edge. Eli pushes it open with his toe, revealing a narrow concrete chimney with rusty ladder rings bolted into one side.
“I . . . guess I’ll go first?” he suggests.
Zoe elbows him. “I see you, Elias Drake! Trying to get a look up my skirt!”
Eli laughs, but it’s as anxious and edgy as Zoe’s taunting. “Not my fault you didn’t dress for spelunking,” he says. The hole in the floor gapes at them, dark and claustrophobic.
Thing was, back before . . . Back Before, the most dangerous thing Eli had ever done in his life was once tell his parents he was going to the cinema to see the latest Avengers when he had, instead, snuck next door to watch an entirely forgettable yet deeply R-rated film involving a lot of blood and sex scenes.
Before Rosemont, Eli had been the son of a Harvard Law graduate and a diamond heiress. His bedroom had a view of Central Park and his school had heraldry and a uniform. He’d once panicked so badly when he’d been given a C in gym class his parents had sent him to therapy.
Before Rosemont, Eli’s idea of a big night out was sitting with his laptop making nightcore remixes of Homestuck themes. Before Resemont, Eli would never have tracked a murderous sorcerer to a dark shack in the woods.
Before Rosemont, Eli had been human.
He goes first down the ladder.
As far as life-defining events, it’s no knock-knock-there’s-been-an-accident. It’s just a ladder. Rust flakes off around Eli’s hands but it doesn’t take him long to get to the bottom. It’s barely over eight feet down and he can feel his hair brushing up against the filthy concrete ceiling.
“How it is?” Zoe’s face appears over the hole.
“I’m going to be picking spiders out of my hair for a year,” Eli answers.
“Close your eyes. I’m coming down.”
Eli does not, in fact, close his eyes, which means he does get a flash up Zoe’s skirt. Except she’s wearing devil’s trap leggings and Eli’s seen her in them before with just a tshirt on top, so he figures it doesn’t count.
The ladder chimney is narrow and Zoe . . . isn’t, which means she ends up with a lot more wall grime on her by the time she gets to the bottom. Eli helps her down the last few rungs, then makes a valiant attempt to brush dirt off her back and shoulders.
“My coat!” she says, pouting as she inspects the damage.
“It’ll wash.” Zoe is warm and soft under Eli’s hand, which is about when he decides he should stop touching her.
He steps back, but not far; the ladder leads down to a long, narrow passageway that twists into the dark. It reminds Eli of a mirror-world version of Widow Adeline’s hallway, and for one mad moment he wonders if they’re going to find another dragon cave at the end of it.
“It stinks down here.” Zoe’s voice is barely a whisper. The hallway is narrow enough they have to walk single-file, phone flashlights casting mad shadows around the rough, concrete walls.
“It’s the peryton.” Eli is walking ahead, sleeve held across his nose to try and block the smell. Rot and death and something more a feeling than a scent; corruption and evil.
“D-do you think it’s still here?” Zoe asks.
“How do you know?”
Because I killed it, Eli can’t say. So, instead, it’s: “Too small. It wouldn’t fit.”
“Oh. Right. Good.”
The tunnel is neither as long as Widow Adeline’s, nor as straight; Eli rounds the third corner and finds himself not in a tunnel but in a room. It’s the same rough-cut concrete construction as the rest of the place, and is strewn with the detritus of habitation. There are several cinder block bookshelves and a sleeping bag. Plus a pile of old food tins, and a card table set up like a makeshift desk. One corner near the entryway is even a curtained-off toilet pit. The curtain does nothing whatsoever to disguise the stink.
“Oh my god,” Zoe says. “Was someone . . . living here?”
Eli scans the shelves. There are old survivalist magazines and wilderness manuals, none of which look like they’ve been published in the last few decades. But there are newer things, too: a textbook he recognizes from English class; a pile of bright candy wrappers; the charger for an iPhone.
“Maybe not living,” he says, examining the wrappers. “But someone’s been here recently.” There’s a pencil sticking out from between the dog-eared pages of the textbook.
“Ee?” Zoe’s voice has suddenly shifted; some new thready quality that has Eli headed her way even before she says, “Ee? You better come look at this.”
It’s a shelf of jars. Seven of them, in fact. Big Mason jars with the tattered remains of their labels still clinging to the outside. Three of the jars are empty. The other four . . .
The other four are holding hearts, suspended in liquid. As in the organ, not the shape. Each heart is about the size of Eli’s fist. One of the hearts lies at the bottom of its jar, pale and lifeless. The other three float and bob in their liquid, glowing faintly and beating.
“W-what . . .?”
“It’s magic,” Eli says, then feels like an idiot. Of course it’s magic. He can feel it; congealed around the jars like rancid fat in a cheap diner’s exhaust fan. The three glowing hearts are green, violet, and red. Like the candles.
“Do you think they’re . . .?”
“Yeah,” Eli says, because he does. Human hearts in jars.
“Why do you think this one’s . . . dead?”
“Who knows.” A lie, but . . . it’ll do for now.
“Do you think we should, I dunno. Break the others?”
“Do I think we should break the evil magic jars of human hearts?”
“When you put it like that, it doesn’t sound like a great idea, does it?”
“No it does not.”
There shelf of hearts is sitting next to the room’s makeshift table. There’s a bunch of stuff on it Eli recognizes from Zoe’s own magic; candles and bowls and things like that. Plus a black-handled dagger. It doesn’t look much like Zoe’s athame; those are plain things with straight blades and unadorned grips. The dagger here looks like a crappy 90s tribal tattoo made in metal, all unnecessary curves and carved symbols blackened with what Eli isn’t even going to pretend isn’t blood.
Zoe told him once that getting blood on an athame made it unusable. Something about spiritual tainting that Eli hadn’t paid much attention to at the time, but which suddenly seems viscerally relevant. This time last week, Eli hadn’t even believed in magic. Now he knows enough to know evil sorcery when he sees it.
“Ee, look at this.”
Zoe is holding a book. It’s a tattered old thing, with yellow pages and a hardback cover that’s long since lost its dust jacket, assuming it ever came with one. It looks like a library book from a hundred years ago; the print inside thick-inked and closely spaced.
“It’s a grimoire,” Zoe explains. She flicks through pages and pages of dense text, interspersed with the odd diagram or sigil. “Or . . . a treatise on magic, really.”
“What’s the difference?”
“It’s not spells, exactly,” Zoe says. “I think . . . it’s more like how magic works, not how to cast it. Like the difference between a sewing pattern and a book on tailoring. One will teach you how to make a single dress or shirt. The other will tech you how to make anything.”
There are notes in the book’s narrow margins. Lots of them. Marginalia, Eli remembers it’s called. His father had told him, back when Eli had been very small. Mom was very adamantly against marginalia. Or dog-earing pages or cracking spines. Books were only ever treated with reverent care, in the Drake household.
One of the notes in the spell book reads:
7 sins、7 virtues、7 legacys、7 powers。Paterns repeat。
“What’s up with the funny punctuation?”
Zoe scowls at the page, fingers tracing over the letters like she’s trying to remember something. “It’s Japanese,” she finally says. “The tōten and kuten.” Pointing to the commas and full stops, respectively.
“Our evil sorcerer is a weeaboo?”
“If he was Japanese,” Eli points out, “why would he write his notes—”
It’s about this time they hear the crash. It’s accompanied by a loud curse—the voice male and adult—coming from the direction of the bunker’s exit.
Both Eli and Zoe freeze. Their eyes meet in the darkness, the pale light from their phones making the sclera almost seem to glow.
A second voice joins the first. The voices are too distant to hear clearly, but they’re accompanied by the loud thumping of feet and, a moment later, a hollow metal clanging like boots on a ladder’s rung.
Oh shit, Zoe mouths.
Hide! suggests Eli.
The room goes dark as they both shut off their phones, the only illumination coming from the eerily beating hearts. The place has only one exit and there are people coming down it and, oh man, Eli is so screwed. If Aunt Addi catches him down here he is going to be grounded for, like, ever and then he won’t get to visit Widow Adeline and he won’t get to be a dragon and—
It’s Zoe who grabs him, not gently, and starts manhandling him across the room. It’s only when the smell hits and his eyes start watering something fierce that he realizes she’s dragged them behind the curtain around the toilet pit.
“Zo—” he starts, and is promptly muffled by a hand, slapped over his mouth.
Of the two of them, Zoe’s clothes are lighter—with the tan jacket and white shirt—so she’s huddled as best she can between Eli and the wall. The toilet isn’t exactly spacious, and there are only so many places Eli can put his feet, at least if he wants not to end up in the literal shit. Meaning he’s pressed up against quite a lot of Zoe. She’s very warm against him, breath coming fast from fear and adrenaline. Eli can smell her; like sweat and incense, sandalwood and patchouli.
It smells better than the toilet, at any rate.
Very slowly, the voices get closer. Two of them, two men. One has the sort of thick, Brooklyn accent that makes Eli homesick. The other sounds like an extra on Fargo.
“—quiet all goddamn week and finally it pings now?” Brooklyn is saying.
“Kids these days,” says Fargo. “That circle out the front? Back in my day, you didn’t get sloppy work like that. None of this . . . dank caves shit, either.”
“Think there’s someone here?” Then, louder: “C’mout c’mout, wherever you are.”
Eli feels Zoe’s breath hitch. He squeezes her hand.
“Cut that out,” snaps Fargo. “Jesus.”
The voices, and the footsteps, have been getting louder. There’s a torch-beam, too; bouncing around the room like a hyperactive strobe. The light makes the two men difficult to see, when they finally enter the room. Eli only gets vague impressions: one is taller, thinner. One is stocky and paunchy around the middle. It’s the tall one who’s doing a bad job with the flashlight, but he’s doing it one-handed. The other is held up, and Eli does not miss the ugly, black shape of a pistol.
Zoe is breathing very, very fast. She must’ve seen the gun, too. Both men’s guns, because, yes, they’re both armed.
They sweep the room with both the light and their weapons. There’s a tense moment as they move out of sight; until Eli can only track them by their footsteps and the shadows cast by the flashlight. Then, Fargo says:
“I don’t think anyone’s here.”
Zoe makes a sound. Just one: a high-pitched, squeaking sob.
“What was that?” The shadows swing wildly across the rough concrete roof as Brooklyn swings around.
“Probably a goddamn rat,” Fargo says. “Stop being so jumpy.” A pause, then: “Jesus. Look at this.” From the direction of the voice, Eli thinks the men have found the heart jars.
“Christ,” Brooklyn says. “Lacroix was right.” And then it’s Eli’s turn for his heart to skip a beat.
Lacroix. Brooklyn and Fargo aren’t deputies. Eli would know if they were. He’s met all four of Rosemont’s Finest, thanks to Aunt Addi. But the two men here, he’s never seen before. That means they must be working for Lacroix. That means . . .
It’s almost funny, thinking that word about the two men Eli glimpsed through the toilet curtain. With their bad haircuts and ill-fitting suits. He’ll laugh about it later. When his claws don’t itch beneath his fingers and his scales aren’t trying to peel through his skin.
“Four foci,” Brooklyn is saying. “That means four of those damn demons out there somewhere.”
“Three,” Fargo corrects. “This one looks dead.”
“Who in this gentrified backwater hell-hole could take out an utukku?”
Eli mouths the word. It sounds like one of things Widow Adeline keeps saying. He’ll have to ask her about it. As soon as they get out of this place. Which they’re going to do. Right now. While Marty and Rust are distracted.
Eli shakes Zoe, gently, and gestures to her that they should move. She shakes her head; a tiny, terrified movement like an anxious terrier.
It’ll be okay, Eli mouths to her. Trust me. If nothing else, he can turn dragon in the hallway and physically block the exit while she escapes.
Lacroix’s goons are still looking at the hearts, arguing loudly, when Eli starts to move. Slowly, edging his way around the toilet pit. He gets past the curtain and out into the room proper when he realizes Zoe isn’t following him. She’s frozen, rooted to her place against the wall, gripping onto his outstretched hand. There are tears streaming down her cheeks and she’s mouthing something Eli thinks might be don’t leave me, over and over.
He glances at her, then at the goons. They don’t have much time. C’mon, he mouths. It’ll be okay.
“—ground chimera bone,” Brooklyn is saying. “Where the hell do kids these days even get chimera bone?”
“eBay,” says Fargo. “Where else? Most of its fake, but I guess some people get lucky.”
“Get unlucky, you mean.”
Eli tugs on Zoe’s hand, just gently. They have to move. He’s out in the middle of the room and if either of the goons turn around, they’ll see him.
And then, inch by agonizing inch, Zoe steps forward.
She’s shaking so hard she nearly slips into the toilet pit. Eli catches her, but the movement of his sneakers makes a crunching sound on the concrete. They both freeze at the noise, brutally loud to their own ears, but . . .
“ . . . my day sorcerers really knew how to live, y’know? None of this dank bunker bullshit. It was all red velvet and gilt all round.” Fargo is holding the flashlight while Brooklyn photographs the desk. They don’t seem to have heard anything.
Zoe stumbles out of the toilet area, lighter and quieter than Eli would’ve given her credit for. After that, they creep quietly towards the exit, Eli praying to whatever gods it is dragons pray to to keep them safe. Zoe is shaking so hard Eli is surprised she can even walk, but she is, and he has a sudden, fierce flush of pride over her bravery.
Hand in sweaty, shaking hand, they escape the bunker. After the first bend in the tunnel leading out, a wave of physical relief hits Eli so strongly that he stumbles. Zoe catches him, and Eli shoots her a grateful look as he tries to unwind the tendons in his clenched jaw. His entire body feels too-tight and too-small, every muscle poised for fight or flight. Maybe literal flight, if the pressure behind his shoulder blades has anything to say about it.
They reach the ladder without further incident. Eli sends Zoe up first, hands guiding her hips as she climbs, ready to catch her if she falls.
She does not fall; instead makes it out of the hatch and into the shack. Then she’s leaning back into the hole, hands reaching for Eli as he makes his own shimmying way up the ladder.
He’s nearly out when it happens; his pocket, catching on the edge of the hatch’s trapdoor. It only lifts up a little but it comes down hard, the sound ringing through the corridor beneath like a gunshot. Zoe gives a startled yelp, and somewhere down below Eli can hear, “What was that? Who’s there?”
“Run!” he hisses to Zoe, hauling himself the last few feet out of the hole.
Zoe doesn’t need to be told twice, her fingers wound with Eli’s as they lunge out of the shack and back into the woods.