Very little happens for the rest of the weekend. Eli goes back to see Widow Adeline on Sunday morning, where he’s promptly made to prune a huge hedge made of roses. It leaves him scratched and bleeding and irritated, although the wounds heal up as soon as he assumes his dragon-shape in Adeline’s grotto. It feels good to be out of his human skin, and the sun is shining for the first time in like forever, so Eli lazes around on the warm rocks while Adeline tries to teach him Xyl’tha, the language of dragons.
Eli never did have much of a way with languages, and the dragons’ in particular is . . . odd. It’s all back-of-the-throat hissing and tongue-clicks. Nothing with the lips, which Eli supposes makes sense, given he doesn’t really have any in this shape.
The writing system is more interesting, in his opinion. It looks a little like the cuneiform he’s seen on little clay tablets in the Met; all carved lines and angles. And it’s sort of like Chinese, in that it’s made of little symbols, not letters. Except the symbols are syllables, not pictures, and are made up of a part that represents a vowel and a consonant. So what looks like a complex language of thousands of characters is actually only made up of a few dozen different lines. It’s pretty cool, and Eli is writing in it in no time: transcribing English as best he can onto a whiteboard with a chunky marker that sits in his claw like one of Zoe’s ridiculously tiny Asian ballpoints.
The other thing about Xyl’tha is that it’s gendered, except not like Spanish, where words are “masculine” or “feminine.” Instead, the dragons apparently divided up the world as “dragon things,” “mortal things,” and “evil things.” So to themselves, the dragons are asa, humans are asyu, and monsters are asàk. Which Eli figures is kind of cool, because so long as he knows one word in a trinity, he can start to work out the others by the endings.
The language lesson reminds Eli of Saturday, so he asks Widow Adeline about the word he’d heard Brooklyn and Fargo use: utukku.
“It’s Akkadian,” Widow Adeline tells him. “The language they spoke in ancient Mesopotamia. The utukku were evil spirits. Monsters. It’s a corruption of the Xyl’tha word, asàkki.”
“So why is it the go-to noun for our resident dragonslayers?
Widow Adeline sighs. “The Lyddan Group has had many names over the ages. Some believe their oldest to be the Sworn of Gilgamesh.” Then, when the name elicits no reaction in Eli: “The first dragonslayer. To the takkan, he is Khil’kánek. He and his lover, Ankitsu, slew the Great Dragon of Cedar, Unkàtsa.”
“I see,” says Eli, who totally doesn’t.
So Xyl’tha is hard, in other words, and Widow Adeline spends the entire morning drilling it into Eli until his head hurts and his claws ache from gripping the pen. By lunchtime, he still can’t pronounce the difference between xshoyu (eating) and shoyu (sandal), let alone xshóyu (will be eating) and xshòyu (was eating).
“I’ll never learn this,” he says, human again, in Widow Adeline’s foyer. He’s tried a few words in human form and they’re even harder to pronounce than when he’s a dragon.
“You will,” says Adeline, patting him on the cheek with a sly half-smile.
After Adeline’s, Eli goes to hang out with Zoe. They don’t do much. He’s brought his laptop and his ‘pad so he messes around with a few half worked-out tracks. Zoe’s is still hunched over the spellbook she took from the sorcerer’s bunker, flipping between reading it and taking notes in her own grimoire.
“I figured out why the magic works,” she announces at one point.
“It’s the peryton”—xa’rìk, Eli thinks, but doesn’t correct—“or, rather, its . . . body parts, I guess?”
“Yeah. It’s kind of complicated, but . . . like, the stuff you use in spells, right? The candles and the herbs and stuff? They all have a resonance. That resonance maps them against what the spell uses them for. So, like, walnuts, right? They’re used for protection, so that’s their resonance. But resonances aren’t usually active in mundane items, or if they are, they’re very weak.”
“Gotcha,” Eli says. “No witchlights in the woods from unactivated walnuts.”
“Right. So to get the big magic, you need to activate the resonances of the items in your spell. And the only way to activate a mundane item is to use something that’s in itself magical.”
“Like the feather from a magical monster,” Eli says. Or the sweat of a frightened dragon, he doesn’t.
“Exactly!” Zoe looks up, just briefly, just long enough to give Eli a grin. Then she’s back to studying again. “That’s why so many Ye Olde Magicke Spells call for things like dragon’s blood”—Eli tries not to shudder—“or unicorn horns or whatever.”
“So, in order to keep the magic up, you just have to, what? Go hunting unicorns?”
Zoe sighs. “Something like that.”
Eli thinks of all the little faevern in Widow Adeline’s grove. They’re almost certainly magical. He briefly considers catching one to offer Zoe, but the mental image of her pulling off its wings to make potions is too horrific. Besides, he doesn’t think she could actually bring herself to do it. “You could try eBay?” he suggests instead.
Zoe just gives a thoughtful hum, and goes back to taking notes.
School on Monday is both exactly the same and yet, somehow, completely different. It feels . . . small, somehow. Childish. Eli sits through his first period in a daze, the words of his teachers drowned out by the part of him that keeps wanting to conjugate verbs in Xyl’tha.
Afterwards, one of Arthur Lacroix’s goons tries to bodycheck him in the hall on the way to Chemistry. Eli decides he doesn’t want to be bodychecked and so when the board-shouldered asshole tries to slam him, Eli simply doesn’t give. He’s a goddamn dragon. He’s not going to get sent sprawling because some teenager rammed him in the hall.
Instead, it’s the goon who winds up on the Lino. Eli doesn’t even stop, or turn around when he hears, “What the fuck? Hey! Hey, Drake! Don’t you walk away from me, man!”
Elias Drake walks away. The power of it sends a strange thrilling rush down his spine, even as he thinks, Begone from my sight, mortal.
In Chemistry, he realizes he’s misplaced his textbook.
“Don’t worry, man,” says Jake Smith. “We can share.”
They’re balancing equations today which is basically math so Eli enjoys it. He finds the numbers relaxing, and wonders if there’s a word in Xyl’tha for “helium,” or if the language is too ancient. Phonetically, he thinks it would be íl’iàn, and writes the symbol for it in the margin of his notebook.
“That’s cool,” Jake says, trying to get a look at the shape. “What is it?”
Eli shrugs. “Just something we made up at my old school.”
“It looks like runes or some shit.”
Counting in Xyl’tha starts from zero and goes: yiá, yusá, ítsh, xshì—
“You should teach me.”
Eli realizes he’s been writing the Xyl’tha symbols for the numbers in his Chemistry equations. Crap. “Yeah, man,” he says. “Sure. Later.” He won’t, though. It’s not that it’s forbidden for mortals to know the language of dragons—Widow Adeline had been clear enough on that—its just that if Eli is going to teach anyone it’s going to be Zoe, not Jacob “slice-of-white” Smith.
After Chemistry, Eli has History and Jake has Japanese with Zoe, so they head to meet up at the latter’s locker. They’re turning into that segment of hallway when every single hair on Eli’s body stands up and won’t settle.
Jake notices. “You alright, man?”
My dragon sense is tingling, Eli doesn’t say.
It’s not really like something supernatural, anyway. More like there’s something wrong with the way people are clustered in the corridor, the way they whisper behind their hands or text furiously on their phones when they see Eli coming. The way there’s a too-big cluster, including too many boys, around the door to the girls’ bathroom, down the far end of the hall.
The way Zoe isn’t waiting for them by her locker. Her open locker.
“Get the hell away from that!” Eli snarls and shoulders some Seniors from ogling the inside of Zoe’s locker. They yelp but jump aside and he slams the door shut and makes sure it’s locked.
“Where’s Zoe?” he demands the nearest Senior. “The girl who owns the locker. Where’s Zoe Chung?”
The girl opens her mouth as if to answer, but it’s about then Eli hears the scream. It’s muffled almost as soon as it starts, but there’s no mistaking the voice.
The sound came from the direction of the crowd, so that’s where Eli heads, feet chewing up beige Lino in his haste. As he gets closer to the closed door of the girls’ bathroom, he can hear chanting. It’s not coming from inside the bathroom. It’s coming from the phones of everyone standing nearby. They’re in groups of threes and fours, hunched over their screens, a dozen tinny speakers blaring out a chant in almost-unison.
“Drown the witch! Drown the witch! Dro-oo-oo-oo-own!”
And then the edge of a scream. And the sound of a toilet flushing.
Eli feels a wave of anger rise in him so powerfully it sends his sight tunnel-vision black. All he can see is the door to the girls’ bathroom, innocuous and seafoam green. As he approaches, two guys step forward to stop him. They aren’t tall but they’re wearing short sleeved t-shirts with an intent to show biceps, of which they have plenty. Eli thinks they might be football players, and has a vague memory that one might be called Dean.
The one who is not-Dean puts a hand out as if to stop Eli as he approaches. “Hey,” he says. “You can’t go in there, man.”
Eli shoulders past him. Or tries to; both maybe-Dean and not-Dean try to stop him, and all three of them end up in an awkward scuffle. Eli can still hear the toilet flushing behind the door—the third time now, he’s been counting—and the hot, itchy feeling is coming beneath his skin again. He knows he’s half a second away from going dragon in the middle of the corridor, and possibly the only reason he hasn’t already is because it would make him too big to fit through the bathroom door.
“Hey. Hey, you some kind of weirdo or something?” maybe-Dean is saying. “I said, you can’t go in there.”
Behind the door, the flushing stops. Eli can hear the chanting again, and sobbing, but less of it is coming from the phones lining the corridor. From the corner of his eyes, Eli can see a lot of those phones are now turned on him, filming him with their blank, dead-glass eyes.
“Get. Out. Of. My. Way.” Eli spits each word so hard he’s surprised he doesn’t see fire.
Not-Dean crosses his arms. “Or what?” he says.
Behind the door, the chant’s intensity is rising. Eli knows he doesn’t have much time.
“Or this,” he says and, before he’s really thought about it, lashes out with a fist aimed just beneath maybe-Dean’s ribcage.
There’s a part of Eli—the one, tiny rational part that’s hiding beneath the rage—that doesn’t think it will work. That he’s going to miss, or not hit hard enough, or . . . or something. That he’s going to be left standing here in the middle of a hallway, facing off with two assholes from the football team.
He thinks that, for half a second, right before maybe-Dean goes down like the Marianna Trench.
“Jesus fuck!” says not-Dean. He barely spares Eli another glance, just lunges sideways to where his idiot friend is gasping on the floor, arms wrapped around his waist.
Eli doesn’t stick around to see the aftermath. Instead he darts around them, and slams through the door to the girls’ bathroom just in time to hear the start of another round of flushing.
“You get the fuck away from her!”
It’s not the best opening line but it sure does prompt a lot of screaming. Half a dozen girls are all suddenly staring his way, eyes wide. At least four of them are jammed into one of the toilet stalls, holding down someone between them. From the stripped leggings sticking out of the stall and the half-ruined papier-mâché candy-cane horns discarded on the floor, Eli knows it’s Zoe.
There’s a very loud, metallic clatter as the girl who was filming the event—streaming it live, even—drops her phone onto the tiles. The sixth girl in the room, the final girl, doesn’t even so much as blink.
Somehow, Eli isn’t surprised to see Morgan Lacroix.
“You shouldn’t be in here,” she says. “This is the girls’ bathroom.”
Zoe’s black Mary Janes clatter against the floor as she tries to lift her head out of the toilet bowl. There’s something weak about the movements Eli doesn’t like.
“Let her go,” he says.
“Get back, Elias,” Morgan says. “This is girl stuff. You wouldn’t understand.” There’s a look in her eye that’s almost . . . sad. Eli doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like it one little bit.
“I understand plenty,” he tries. “Let her go, Morgan. I don’t want to hurt you.” He doesn’t. He really, really doesn’t. Not even enough to add a but I will to the end of the sentence.
“You don’t get it,” Morgan says. “I know you think she’s your friend, but I found this in her locker.” It only occurs to Eli that Morgan is holding something when she lifts it up to show him. Eli recognizes it immediately: Zoe’s grimoire.
Or, rather, what’s left of it.
“What did you do?”
Half the book is a torn-out mess; most of the pages Zoe’s written on, in fact. Eli sucks in a sharp breath as he catches sight of the crumpled remains of several sheets, wet and scattered in the stall where Zoe’s being held.
“Have you . . .” he starts. “Have you been flushing them?” Tearing out Zoe’s book page-by-page, throwing the paper in the toilet, then pushing her face down into the bowl to give her a good, close look at what they’re doing. “You’re monsters!”
“‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,’” Morgan quotes. “She’s evil, Eli. I’m sorry.” The worst part is, she does look sorry. Morgan is pale and thin and her eyes are anime-huge; great big smoke-shadow pools of blue looking up at him in earnest sympathy. “Look,” she holds out a page. “There were more like it. Lots more.”
Almost in spite of himself, Eli takes the offered paper. He sees scraps of Zoe’s pseudo-archaic handwriting: red ſilk corde, wyte ſtones, roſe talowes.
“It’s a love spell,” Morgan says, taking a half-step closer to Eli. “She was trying to control people’s minds. That’s why they’re dangerous, Elias.”
“Enough!” The only reason Eli doesn’t crumple the page in his fist is because he’d never do that to something of Zoe’s.
But Morgan isn’t listening. “And look,” she says instead, holding up something else. “It was pressed between the pages.”
It’s a tuft of hair, dark and curly and carefully tied up with red thread.
“This is your hair, isn’t it?” Morgan says.
In the stall, Zoe has gone very, very still. From the corner of his eye, Eli can see her shoulders shaking. She’s sobbing, very softly.
Eli doesn’t reach up to feel the hair at the base of his neck, but it’s a close thing. He wonders when Zoe cut it. And she must’ve cut it; the chunk is small but too even to have been collected any other way.
Morgan takes another half-step forward. “Elias,” she says, eyes still large, soft pools of summer-sky blue. “I’m sorry. But you can see we can’t allow this to go on. It’s not okay.”
Eli feels his lips thin down into a hard, sharp line. “No,” he says. “It’s not okay.”
Morgan’s shell-pink lips curl, soft and sad. “I knew you’d—”
“None of what you’re doing is okay.” He grabs what’s left of the grimoire, tearing it from Morgan’s grasp. She shrieks in surprise, yelping as she hops backwards.
Eli turns to the girls in the stall. “Let her go,” he says. Then, when they don’t move: “Now.” He puts his dragon-self into the word, so much that it’s more of a roar. The girls shriek and leap away from Zoe like she just caught fire. She crumples, not into the toilet (thankfully), but just beside it, fingers white-knuckled around the bowl. She still won’t look at Eli, not even when he walks right up to her.
“Hey, Zee. C’mon, let’s get out of here.” When his fingers touch Zoe’s shoulder, she flinches as hard as if he’d slapped her.
“Don’t touch me!” she hisses.
“Don’t!” she snaps. Then, softer, “Just go, Eli.”
“Zoe, don’t do this. C’mon we gotta get out—”
“I said leave me alone, Elias Drake!”
Zoe’s shriek all-but bounces in the hard-surfaced space of the bathroom. She’s turned, just enough to glare up at Eli. Her face is wet and her eyes and red and her make-up is a Joker-smear of red and black. She has one huge zit on her forehead and a constellation of its smaller fellows smeared across her cheeks in an awful parody of a blush. Her skin is red and blotchy and exposed where the concealer has been washed away.
Eli backs up, hands raised. “Okay,” he says. “Okay. I . . . okay.” There’s something wrong in his heart and his gut but he’ll think about it later. “We’re going.” He shoots a look at Morgan. “All of us.”
“Elias . . .”
“All of us,” he snaps, over Morgan’s protest. He glares, vicious as he can, at her until she relents. One little head tilt at her coterie and the other girls start shuffling to the door.
Morgan follows them, slamming the door open with both hands as she stalks out. “Show’s over, folks,” she snaps as she does. “Don’t you losers have classes to get to?” Eli knows the hall will be empty by the time he follows.
He gets halfway to the door before he turns around. Zoe hasn’t moved; is still hunched over the toilet bowl, face buried in one hand. She looks small and ashamed and alone. Her discarded horns are bleeding orange paint all over the tiles.
“Zoe . . .” Eli starts. Then doesn’t know what to say.
He watches Zoe for a while longer, but she doesn’t move. Eventually, he sighs, and walks out the door.
As expected, the corridor outside is mostly empty.
“Dude. What happened in there?”
Empty except for Jacob Smith, that is.
“Leave it,” Eli says. Very carefully, he slips the torn love spell back into the remains of Zoe’s grimoire.
“Holy sh— is that Zoe’s—?”
“I said leave it, Jake.”
“But what about—?”
It’s like Eli left some part of himself behind in that bathroom. The part of himself that would’ve stopped him from grabbing Jake by the front of his hoodie, hauling him up to eye-level and snarling, “Shut. Up.” Before dropping Jake so hard he staggers.
Jake glances between Eli and the toilet door, and there’s . . . a moment. Tense and ugly. Eli wonders, very briefly, if Jake is going to fight him.
Jake does not fight him. Instead, he visibly deflates, then takes two steps backwards. “Right,” he says, still not meeting Eli’s eye. “Yeah, right. I’ll just . . .” he makes an abortive movement with his head. “Right.”
“Yeah,” says Eli. “You do that.”
“Right.” One step, then another, then a third. “S-see ya, Elias.”
Eli watches, unmoving, until Jake disappears around the corner. Then he sighs, and slumps against the wall.
He’s still leaning there when the bell for next period rings.
He doesn’t see Zoe leave the bathroom, or at all for the rest of the day.