Eli keeps expecting someone to haul his ass up over the Bathroom Incident, but no one does. People avoid him in the hallways, though. Where before he was invisible, now he’s feared. It’s not a feeling he’s unused to, exactly, and it’s definitely not a feeling he enjoys. Like hanging out with a whole school filled with the old women in fur coats who won’t sit next to him on the subway.
The rest of the day passes in a sort of flat daze. Eli keeps jumping between buzzing numbness and cold, sharp rage. He isn’t sure who he’s more angry with: Morgan, for ruining everything, or Zoe for sending Eli away. After he’d saved her. After she’d, what? Tried to bewitch him?
He wants to tell himself the magic would never have worked, but Zoe’s own words keep coming back to him: the only way to activate a mundane item is to use something that’s in itself magical. Like the hair of a dragon, for example. Eli keeps running his hand through his curls, trying to find the chunk that’s missing. He thinks maybe there’s a piece low near the back but he can’t be sure; if it was cut, it’s mostly grown back by now. Which means Zoe must haven taken it ages ago, maybe right when Eli first came to the school.
Addi is out again when Eli gets home which, honestly, he’s fine with. He has a mountain of homework built up that he’d been too busy playing draconic Scooby Doo to work on, so he attacks the pile now with vicious enthusiasm. He puts on dubstep loud enough to shake the walls, and tears through algebra problems like the rotting flesh of a peryton.
An hour later, the sun is down, Aunt Addi still isn’t home, and Eli’s homework pile has shrunk to essays for History and English. They aren’t due tomorrow and he can’t focus on them tonight, so instead he eats half a cold pizza straight out of the box in the fridge, and decides to go running.
It’s dark out, darker than it should be; the clouds are still hanging low and leaded and they bring the twilight quickly, even for this time of year. There’s a bite to the air but Eli warms up well enough after a block or so, feeling the comforting heat begin in his legs and his lungs.
Running in Rosemont is nothing like running in Manhattan. It’s barely seven o’clock but the streets are all-but deserted, just the odd car zooming beneath dull streetlights.
Manhattan is never empty, and never dark, and suddenly Eli misses it with such a powerful ache that it stops him dead. He doubles over, hands on his knees and eyes clenched shut hard enough to send black and red fireworks blooming behind the lids.
He misses his city. His friends. His school.
It’d been okay, in Rosemont. Almost like a holiday; a dislocated summer out of the city. He’d found Zoe in the library and they’d hit it off and—
And now even that memory is broken. Seeing Zoe sitting by herself, reading Iron Man, “Because I just saw the film and wanted to check out the comic, y’know? For . . . research.” A little bite of her red-glossed lip Eli would later learn was her way of stopping herself from confessing she was reading the comic to research her latest Stony fanfic.
“Extremis is okay,” Eli had said, “but I always thought Ellis’s indie work was better, y’know?” The next day, he’d brought in copies of Fell and The Authority to prove it, and that’d been the start of . . . of everything, really.
Eli wonders, now, how real that memory is. Whether Zoe’s enchantment was working on him even then. Drawing him to her so they could, what? Geek out about comics?
Zoe hasn’t messaged Eli since the Incident, but he hasn’t messaged her, either. He has his phone in his hand and is staring at their chat history before he’s really realized what he’s doing. Just talk to me, he wants to type. Tell me you didn’t . . . do what Morgan said you did.
Eli does not send the message. He can’t. Because what if the answer is “yes” and what if the one friend that Eli’s made since he came here he made because of some stupid magic spell? It’s not Zoe’s fault she didn’t know it would work—-didn’t know Eli’s stupid magic dragon hair would make it work—but so what? She still wanted it to. Wanted to . . . to ensorcel him, like some kind of crappy CW filler episode villain.
Eli stares down at his phone for a long time. Finally, he closes out of the messages app.
He’s just about to check Zoe’s Tumblr, just in case, when he hears the scream.
It’s a girl’s scream, high and terrified, and is followed by a horrific, and horrifically familiar, shriek.
“No!” Eli breathes, to no one in particular. “No, I killed you.”
The scream comes again, and Eli heads towards it, jamming his phone back in his pocket as he does.
It’s coming from the direction of the school. Rosemont isn’t big enough to have that many places to jog to, and the route to and around the school is familiar, so it’s the one Eli’s legs have taken him on.
He reaches the school’s parking lot just in time to see a pink and white streak dash across it, followed closely by the unmistakable shadow of a peryton.
Eli doesn’t think. The dragon wants to rise, so he lets it; feels his limbs thicken and his claws lengthen, feels the wings burst from his back. He lunges mid-transformation, but by the time he crashes into the peryton his dragon is out and ready to fight.
The peryton seems surprised to see him, and so does the girl, who screams again. Eli has one moment to look up and realize the girl is Morgan, of all people, clutching a black instrument case in front of herself like a shield. Eli has a vague recollection she’s in the band, which explains her presence at the school after hours, if not the lack of a crowd brandishing other instrument standing behind her.
Their eyes meet across the car-park. Morgan seems frozen—Eli supposes the appearance of two mythical beasts will do that to a person—and the peryton is stunned, but probably not for long.
Eli yells, “Run! Get inside, I’ll handle this one!”
Morgan shrieks, just slightly, before saying, “I can’t! There’s one in there, too!”
Halfway through the last sentence, something else heavy and dark and full of claws slams into Eli’s side.
It’s enough to throw him, and he ends up rolling over and over on the blacktop in an awkward tangle of wings and tail. His arc is eventually stopped by a car, a large Chevy SUV that ends up with a dent in the side and a loudly protesting alarm.
He scrabbles to his feet, tearing the side mirror off the SUV as he does, and has to blink three times before he realizes he hasn’t hit his head and that, yes, there really are two peryton standing in front of him.
“There’s more of you?” Eli exclaims, aggrieved, in the single moment he gets before one peryton lunges for him and the other heads for Morgan.
Eli leaps at the latter, not even thinking, just moving, and manages to rake his claws into its flank even as he feels the second peryton land on his back.
“Run!” he roars at Morgan.
She does, tearing off with a sprinter’s grace not towards the school but into the surrounding woods. The two peryton notice and make chase, or try to; the one Eli’s holding doesn’t get far but the other kicks off his back and into the air.
What follows is, perhaps, one of the most awkward fight ever enacted. Whatever drives the peryton, it seems “killing Morgan” outranks “not being killed.” Eli will lunge at one only to be overtaken by the other, rinse and repeat. They’re halfway across the oval and Morgan has vaulted over the boundary fence and into the woods by the time the peryton get their act together and start the actual teamwork. This involves one devoting its entire attention to Eli while the other escapes towards Morgan; when Eli tries to make chase towards the latter, he’s quickly stopped by flashing talons and a snapping, razor-toothed maw.
Hoping Morgan can hold out long enough to find a good hiding place, Eli turns to the monster on his case. Fighting it is easier than fighting the first one; he’s more sure in his body, now, feels more like his limbs are his own rather than some kind of avatar he’s controlling from the outside.
He’s bigger and faster and the peryton knows it has no chance as soon as Eli’s teeth sink heavily into its shoulder. It screams and flails and its blood tastes like copper and asphalt, but Eli holds on. He’s seen enough nature documentaries to know the bite will be fatal if he just waits, pinning the peryton with his body and shaking his jaws every time it twitches.
It seems to take a very long time to stop twitching. As it does, Eli imagines an eerily glowing human heart, slowly going dark as it sinks to the bottom of a jar.
He doesn’t get time to dwell on the image, not when another scream comes from the woods, followed closely by the howl of the second peryton.
Eli regrets Morgan’s directional choices as soon as he hits the tree-line. He’s not as ungainly on land as the peryton are, but he’s bigger, and crashing his way through the woods knocks over more trees and snaps more branches than he’s really comfortable with. It’s going to look like someone drove a car through here. A car with four claws. So much for not leaving evidence of his existence.
Morgan is screaming pretty solidly, which makes her easy to find. For Eli and for the peryton, who has Morgan bailed up in the branches of a tree and is snapping and leaping towards her. Morgan gets a few good whacks in on it with her instrument case, but from her expression Eli can tell she knows it won’t be enough.
He roars, lunging. The peryton is too focused on Morgan to notice him and it goes down with an indignant squark as he buries his claws into its back and his teeth into its neck. He tries not to think too much about how much revolting black blood he’s getting all over his face, and what it’s going to look like when he changes back.
The third peryton goes down easier than the first two, and Eli gives himself a moment of silent congratulations on getting the hang on the whole protecting-mortals-from-monsters business. This, of course, is about when he hears the whimper, and remembers Morgan’s still stuck up the tree.
Eli stands up, on his haunches, which puts him about eye level with Morgan. She’s shivering in a way that has nothing to do with the few drops of rain that have started to make their way through the leaves.
“Hey. Are you okay?” Eli asks, because he feels he should.
Morgan’s ice-blue eyes flick between him and the dead peryton and back again as she blurts, “You can talk!”
“Um . . . yeah?” Eli wonders if he should have pretended otherwise, though supposes there’s no point starting now.
“You— you’re a dragon!” It’s not quite a question, not quite an exclamation.
Eli looks down at himself—at the soft, pale scales of his belly—before feeling like an idiot and looking back up again. “Yeah?” He hopes his voice is different enough like this that Morgan won’t recognize it.
“You saved me!”
“That’s what we do,” Eli says. “Us dragons. We save people.”
Morgan breathes in, a sort of reverse gasp, and an expression unfolds on her face. It takes Eli a moment to place it as wonder.
“Thank you,” she breathes. Her eyes are huge and her lips are a plump, pink O as she reaches out a hand. Eli doesn’t realize what she’s about to do until she’s already done it; her soft pale fingers ghosting across the side of his muzzle. “You’re beautiful,” she says. “Like . . . like stars.”
“I’ve never seen a dragon before. I didn’t . . . I didn’t think they were real.”
“There aren’t many of us,” Eli says. “And we’re, y’know. Hunted.” By people like your mom, he doesn’t add. “So we have to hide,” he does.
Morgan nods so hard her hair blurs around her in a thrash metal halo. “I understand,” she says. “I won’t tell anyone about you. I swear.”
“Thanks.” Eli glances down at the peryton, already half-rotted into the grass. “What happened?”
Morgan’s expression falls from glossy wonder into storm-cloud anger. “We had practice,” she says, indicating her instrument case. “After school. I stayed late. I usually do, y’know? For some peace from . . .” She pauses, looks away. “For some peace. Mr. Browne doesn’t mind. Tonight, as I was leaving, I heard a noise behind me in the hall, and . . . and that . . .” Her voice chokes.
“It’s a peryton,” Eli says, because he figures knowing is better than not knowing. “A monster.”
Morgan nods. “There was another one at my car. They were . . . they were waiting for me.” Her voice hitches again, as if the implications have only just struck her. “They . . . the murders,” she says. “They’re what’s been causing the murders!”
Eli nods. “I think so. I though there was only one, and I killed it the other day. I didn’t realize there’d be more.”
“I don’t know,” Eli says, even as his mind counts jars and supplies four. “We think they’re being controlled by someone. They need to be summoned.”
He knows it’s a mistake by the way Morgan’s eyes light up, sharp and interested. “‘Someone’ like a witch?”
“Er . . .”
“I know who’s doing it.” She’s talking quickly, now, leaning forward with the urgency. “There’s a girl. At the school. Zoe Chung. She’s horrible. Creepy and weird. And she . . . she does things to people. Casts spells on them. My friend, Jayla? She’s in Zoe’s gym class. They were playing basketball and Zoe says Jayla pushed her into the wall. Jayla totally didn’t! Even the teacher knew she didn’t. The next day, though, Jay came down with, like, the worst case of zits. Like, all over her face. She was so upset. And Zoe? She just laughed, and said Jay deserved it and now everyone could see how ugly she was.”
“Uh . . .” says Eli.
“Don’t you see?” And, there it is. The family resemblance between Morgan and her mother, shining bright and terrifying. “Zoe cursed Jay! Jayla is going to have scars, like, forever because of that. Because of that vicious little witch!”
Eli blinks, once, and considers his next words carefully.
“Even if that were true,” he says, “it’s a bit of a step up from pimples to murder. Serial murder. And why . . . why would you be targeted?”
Of all things, Morgan blushes. Bright enough that Eli can even see it under her makeup.
“I . . .” she starts, then sighs. “Don’t, like, groan all at once, but there’s this boy. He’s new. New-ish. From New York. He . . . hesreallycute,” Morgan blurts out, all in a rush. She’s blushing so hard she might burst into flames. Eli, meanwhile, is suddenly deeply, unaccountably grateful he’s both covered in scales and looks kind of like a lion.
“Zoe . . . I guess she figured I had a . . . a crush. On this boy,” Morgan continues. “She cast a spell on him. So he’d fall in love with her.”
“Er . . .” says Eli.
“It’s true!” Morgan has that Lacroix Look about her again. “I found her spellbook. She had a lock of his hair. And love spells and . . .” She pulls herself straighter. As much as she can without falling out of the tree. “And Mom always said magic is evil. That we should fight it whenever we find it. Kids, they read Harry Potter or play video games and they think it’s all a joke! Just waving wands and chanting silly words and making lights appear. But it’s not! Magic is evil. It’s sent by demons to tempt us to sin. When I found out what Zoe had done to . . . to the boy she ensorcelled”—Eli tries not to wince at the echo of his own, earlier thoughts—”then I got so angry I . . .”
“You?” he prompts, when Morgan falters.
She looks away, shoulders trembling. “I’m not . . . proud,” she says. “Of what I did. I was just so mad and . . . and so we dragged Zoe into the bathroom and we flushed her.” Then, when Eli says nothing: “It’s what they used to do. In the olden days. They used to dunk witches in the river until . . .”
“Until they drowned?”
Morgan says nothing, but she still won’t look at Eli.
“And you think Z— this girl. You think she sent the peryton after you in revenge?”
Morgan nods, unhappy and, maybe, just a little ashamed.
Eli is the son of a lawyer and the nephew of a cop and he supposes, at a stretch, it could be true. Zoe has the book from the bunker, after all. It might have described the ritual to summon the peryton. Except . . . she’d need some piece from a magical beast to jump-start it, right? And a human heart maybe? Eli isn’t sure, but even still, he’d be willing to bet money that summoning giant monsters took a bit more than weaving protective charms and locator spells.
“The sort of magic needed to summon one peryton,” Eli starts, “let alone several, is . . . not easy. It might be beyond the skills of a high school hedge witch”—sorry-not-sorry Zoe—”but . . . I’ll keep what you’ve said in mind.” Eli is totally, a-har, winging things right now but, hey. He’s hoping the fact he’s a dragon the size of a car will convince Morgan he knows what he’s talking about.
Morgan nods, obviously unhappy with the answer, but willing to defer to Eli’s obvious dragon-ness for now. “I’m Morgan,” she says suddenly. “Morgan Lacroix.” She turns her eyes back on Eli, big and hopeful, and Eli is struck with the sudden, horrible realization he needs to give her something in return.
“Íl’iàn,” he blurts, because it’s the only thing that comes to mind. “Um. Yeah. Íl’iàn”—what had Widow Adeline called him?—”Blacklight of the Tch’ku.”
“Íl’iàn,” Morgan repeats, mangling the tones only slightly more than Eli himself. “That’s such a pretty name. What does it mean?”
What does “Morgan” mean? Eli does not ask, and instead says, “Erm. ‘Of the Bright Star.’” Because it’s true enough.
Morgan is doing the hair-thrashing nodding thing again, eyes anime-huge in her thin, pale face. “That’s so beautiful,” she says. “It suits you.”
“Erm . . .” says Eli, because it’s the only thing he can think of to say. Morgan is pretty, yeah, but she is . . . she is so not Eli’s type it’s not funny. Eli’s last girlfriend, Radia, had been whip-smart and wry and absolutely brutal with a softball bat. They’d broken up about two months before . . . before The Accident, mostly because Radi had decided she needed to focus on “studying, not boys.” They’re still friends on Facebook, and they send each other texts and photos and have nebulous, not-quite-plans to go to Yellowstone between high school and college. Radi, Eli knows, is His Type: bookish and driven and kind, with thick eyebrows and soft curves and silky dark hair he’d always thought about and tried not to look at, the few times it’d slipped from underneath her hijab.
Morgan is like the anti-Radi. Even if she is looking at him like her very own My Little Pony doll come to life. Especially because she’s looking at him like that, in fact.
“Hey, how ‘bout I get you down from that tree?” Eli suggests. “You should probably, y’know. Get home?” He doesn’t mean it to sound like a question, but Morgan doesn’t seem to notice. She’s too busy looking at his outstretched claws. Not in fear, though. Whatever that expression is, it’s definitely not fear. Honestly, if Morgan asks to ride him, Eli is done. So, so done.
He does help her down from the tree, though. She feels cool and light and fragile in his claws, her hair disheveled and makeup smudged. She’s lost one shoe in her escape, and, because this is Eli’s life, the second she gets her feet (or, well, foot) on the ground, the drizzling rain finally makes up its mind and starts coming down for real.
So that’s how Eli ends up sitting in the woods with Morgan Lacroix for the better part of an hour. She curls up against his side, his wing opened above her like a big umbrella. She is absolutely enjoying the experience more than Eli is, particularly when she opens the instrument case to reveal a violin inside.
It’s not that Morgan is bad at playing the violin, because she isn’t. It’s what she chooses to play.
The song is familiar in a way that nags at Eli, long enough for him to finally ask, “What music is that?”
Morgan stops mid-note and flushes a delicate, shell pink. “Um,” she says. “Don’t laugh, but . . . you remember that boy I told you about? He, um. He makes music. Like, with a computer?” Lilting up like a question, in case Eli doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
Eli knows what she’s talking about, though. Oh, how he does. Because the song suddenly clicks; it’s his song. “Increment IV,” he’d called the upload, the same one that’d done sort-of-not-really all that great on YouTube.
“It sounds pretty different on the violin,” Morgan is saying which, yeah. Go figure, it sure does. “But I think . . . it’s got, like, a really sweet melody. The original kind of hides that behind all the bass and whatever.” Eli tries not to wince at, like, forty hours of effort being reduced to bass and whatever. Morgan doesn’t even notice, just powers on with, “And it’s not really my thing, you know? But Arthur—that’s my brother—he, like, played the track non-stop for like three months”—wait, what? Arthur is a closet fan of Eli’s?—”and I guess part of it kinda stuck?” Morgan is still saying. “And then Elias, that’s . . . y’know, the guy . . . he transferred to our school! Small world, right? And he’s really, y’know.” Cue more blushing. “But he won’t even look at me, he’s too much in the thrall of that witch Chung. And I guess it’s stupid but I thought . . . I thought maybe if I could get his song right, and then play it for him . . . y’know?”
“I guess?” is about the most coherent answer Eli can give. Holy crap but this is . . . this is not information he was expecting to have to deal with tonight. Jeeze.
Morgan is pretty good at playing, though, and eventually Eli finds himself sort of . . . humming along. His voice as a dragon is a deep, bass reverb that almost sounds like that throat singing Buddhist monks get up to in the mountains. Morgan picks up what he’s doing and starts kind of riffing along with it.
And thus Elias Drake ends up singing a duet in the rain with Morgan Lacroix, next to the fast-rotting corpse of a mythical monster.