The next day is awful.
The first thing Eli sees when he walks into Rosemont High is Yvonne Lacroix. She’s standing there with her two lackeys, Fargo and Brooklyn, and for one, heart-stopping moment all Eli can think is:
Which is irrational, of course. Even if Morgan had told her mom she’d spent yesterday evening in the forest with a dragon, why would Lacroix think that dragon was Eli, of all people? Unless Lacroix has some kind of magic dragon-sniffing mojo but . . . but surely Widow Adeline would’ve mentioned something like that, right? For being pretty, yanno. Life-or-death and whatever? Eli would totally text her to ask except Widow Adeline is like a thousand years old and still has a phone with a cord and a dial on the front. And not even in an ironic way.
Yvonne Lacroix, as it turns out, does not appear to have magic dragon-sniffing mojo. She does, however, give Eli a very tight smile when she sees him, accompanied by a slight incline of her head.
“Mister Drake,” she says. “My daughter, Morgan, explained our little . . . misunderstanding. I must extend my apologies, for everything that’s been done to you. Rest assured, such injustices will not happen again.”
“Um,” says Eli. “Yeah. Sure. Don’t worry about it.” He edges away from Lacroix and around the corridor before he lets himself slump down hard against a bank of lockers, hand coming up to grasp around the dragon-scale pendant, hidden safely beneath his hoodie. He knows, down in the depths of his flaming nebula dragon-heart, that he absolutely cannot allow Lacroix to see the pendant. Or know where Eli got it from.
He’s so busy being paranoid about the pendant that Lacroix’s actual words don’t start making sense to him until third period. It’s Economics and he’s supposed to have it with Zoe, and by the time he’s sitting at his desk he feels like he’s run a marathon, what with all the sweating and heart-pounding.
He hasn’t seen or talked to Zoe since the Bathroom Incident yesterday. He caught a glimpse of her, briefly, this morning in the hallway so he knows she’s here. Their eyes had met, kinda, and Eli had been about to step forward and say something when Zoe had looked down and changed directions, hair falling in front of her face like blue-black GAME OVER screen.
im not mad, Eli had texted her. just wanna talk.
He’s pretty sure it’s true. Like, maybe 86.53% sure it’s true. Even if he is mad, he wants to hear Zoe’s side of the story. Dad had always been big on that; not judging until you’d heard both sides. Because maybe Zoe did some bad magic but maybe also Morgan was lying about the whole love spell thing. Morgan who, Eli now knows—or, rather, “Íl’iàn” now knows—has all kinds of reasons to lie about Zoe, at least where Eli is concerned.
Except, if Morgan had been lying, why is Zoe now avoiding him?
God. Why is everything so difficult? Being a teenager sucks. And that’s not even counting all the monsters and dragons and the pop quiz Mr. Raddatz has decided they’re all doing. Or all of them except for Zoe, who still hasn’t appeared.
She hadn’t been in cosplay, Eli had noticed. When he’d seen her in the hall, earlier. Just jeans and a plain black knit jumper. Eli hadn’t even really known Zoe owned outfits that didn’t relate to fictional characters in some way. Even Zoe’s pajamas were character-themed.
Eli blows through the test pretty easily, despite not really being in the game. Economics is just math, mostly, so it’s not that hard. Afterwards, he finds Jake in the corridor, outside his locker, and is about to try and ask him about Zoe when the dude slams his door near-hard enough to bend it.
“Hey, Jake, have you seen—?”
And that’s when Eli’s life goes totally inside-out nuts, because Jacob “Sliced-White” Smith, totally bodychecks Eli with his shoulder. It isn’t very effective—Eli is strong now he’s a dragon—but Jake more than makes up for it with his snarled, “We have nothing to talk about, Drake.”
“Dude!” Eli says, startled. “What the hell, man? I just—”
Jake shoves him. Full-on shoves, sending Eli slamming back against the lockers out of surprise if nothing else. “Fuck off,” Jake says. “You’ve done enough damage.” Then he sneers, and stalks off.
Eli’s too shocked to do much but watch him go.
Things get even weirder at lunchtime. Zoe isn’t at their usual table, and neither is Jake, and Eli’s feeling at a bit of a loss. Like it’s his first day all over again, knowing no-one. And maybe he has been kinda insular since he got here, it’s just . . . he’d been having so much fun with Zee and . . . and he just hadn’t really gotten around to making any other friends and . . .
“Hey! Elias! Over here!”
And, suddenly, there’s Morgan Lacroix, smiling and waving at him from across the cafeteria.
It’s a trap! thinks Eli, very clearly, before walking right into it.
Morgan is sitting with a bunch of her friends, all the other pretty, popular girls who’d helped try and drown Zoe yesterday. They have bright white smiles like circling sharks, and Eli watches them with just as much trepidation.
“Hey,” he says, sitting down next to a girl he thinks is called Ainsley. He’s on the end of table—a good place for a fast exit—and eyes Morgan warily as he picks at his low-fat-low-sodium-low-taste fauxburger.
“How are you feeling?” Morgan asks. “After yesterday, I mean?” She’s not talking about the peryton, Eli is pretty sure. At least, he hopes she isn’t. If Morgan works out he’s the dragon? Yeah, he’s screwed.
“Fine,” he says. Then, “Haven’t seen Z— Chung around today.”
Morgan gives her hand a floppy sort of wave. “Mom’s got her in interrogation,” she says. Eli wonders if dragons are cold-blooded, like lizards, or whether that’s just the terror that’s giving him the chills. Morgan continues, oblivious: “Something about . . . some cabin? On the weekend? They found hearts. Human hearts. In jars. Mom says Chung is a ‘person of interest.’” Some of the other girls giggle, apparently at the idea anyone could consider Zoe Chung interesting. Eli hates every last one of them.
“Human hearts?” he says, instead, which earns him a wide-eyed nod as Morgan leans forward, reaching out until her hand is laid across Eli’s.
“Don’t worry,” she says, with all apparent seriousness. “She won’t get away with what she did to you. Mom will make sure of it.” Morgan’s top, Eli notices, is rather low cut. She’s also wearing earrings shaped like dragons. He wonders if Yvonne Lacroix would approve.
Eli doesn’t talk much after that, just picks at his burger while Morgan and her friends chat about shows they like and the math class Ana-with-one-N is flunking. Which is about when Morgan says, “You’re good at math, right Elias?”
“Maybe you can help us study sometime?”
“Sure,” says Eli, who has absolutely no intention of doing anything of the sort.
Instead, he excuses himself not long after, muttering something about the fauxburger making him want to hurl. It kinda did, honestly, but that’s not why he bolts out of the cafeteria. Instead, he has roughly ten minutes to go hunting for Zoe before he needs to get to English.
He has absolutely no idea what he’s going to say to her if he does find her, though does briefly entertain the idea of just dragon-ing it up and busting her out the wall of the building, away from Lacroix’s clutches. As it turns out, his plan doesn’t get much further than that because that’s about when the third Lacroix find him and slams him up against a wall.
“You,” Arthur Lacroix sneers, pretty, pasty-ass face far too close to Eli’s for Eli’s comfort. “You stay away from my sister.”
And, suddenly, just like that, things click. Why Arthur can seem to hate him and be a fan of his music all at the same time.
Eli laughs. It’s dark and ugly and almost like a growl, but he is just so sick of this shit. People are dying. He doesn’t have time for Arthur Lacroix’s bro code bullshit.
He pushes Arthur off him, not bothering to hide his strength. Arthur stumbles and nearly ends up on his ass, which is about when Eli notices Arthur is alone.
“No knights today, King Arthur?” Eli says.
“I don’t need them,” Arthur says, though Eli notes he doesn’t attempt to get all back up in Eli’s face. “Not to deal with the likes of you.”
“I told you, man. Keep talking like that, you’re going to start getting letters from the ACLU.”
“Listen, asshole.” Now Arthur does take a stop closer, or half of one. “If you so much as breathe near my sister, I swear to god I’m going to hunt you down and make a goblet out of your evil lizard horns.”
Eli’s eyebrows shoot up. Shit, he thinks, even as his mouth says, “What the hell are you talking about, Lacroix? I wouldn’t touch your skank-ass sister if you paid me.”
Which, of course, in the way of bro-on-bro trash talk, is what gets Arthur really riled up.
“Hey, fuck you, Drake. What the fuck you saying’s wrong with my sister?”
“Uh, asides from the part where that psycho bitch tried to drown my best friend?” Eli rolls his eyes, big and exaggerated. “Like I said, you couldn’t pay me to go near that crazy.”
“You don’t talk about Morgan that way, you hear me? In fact, you don’t talk about her at all. You don’t talk about her, you don’t talk to her, you don’t go near her or so much as look at her, you hear me?”
“Fine by me.”
“Because if you do, there won’t be enough of you left to—”
Eli is spared from the tedium of further threats when the bell rings. Arthur swears, glancing between Eli and the door to the cafeteria, listening to the swell of noise headed their way.
“This isn’t over, Drake,” he says, apparently coming to a decision.
“Whatever, Lacroix.” Arthur has more, from the look of him, but Eli’s done listening, and he turns and walks away. He hears the scuff of shoes on Lino as Arthur makes as if to follow, but doors on both ends of the hall bang open and the lunch rush floods back in. Eli darts between the bodies, losing himself in the crowd before Arthur can so much as process the influx of people. Eli is good at hiding in crowds—he’s from Manhattan, of course he’s good at hiding in crowds—and he uses it now, slipping down hallways and up staircases. He can be five, maybe ten minutes late to class. Ms. Worthington hates him anyway, and he has the same excuse he gave to Morgan if he needs it. Of course, Zoe’s supposed to be in English, too, but something tells Eli she won’t be. Not if Lacroix has her hands on her.
He should call Mr. Chung, he knows he should. Assuming Zoe hasn’t already. Except, what did Morgan say? Cabin in the woods. Which means Lacroix knows, or thinks she knows, they were there at the sorcerer’s lair. And Eli can’t rat Zoe out, not even after yesterday, not even to her dad.
In the end, he finds Zoe in the councillor’s office, because apparently it’s now Lacroix’s designated interrogation chamber. Lacroix is sitting at the table, across from Zoe, a series of photographs in the space between them. Zoe is trying very hard not to look at the photographs. Eli can’t see them very well from where he’s standing but he can see enough to know they each contain an awful lot of red.
Before he’s really thought about it, Eli opens the door and strides into the room. His eyes meet Zoe’s, briefly, and he sees a moment of something that might even be hope before it’s shuttered away. Eli has half a second to do the same before Lacroix has turned to face him, eyebrow raised with a, “Mr. Drake?”
“Sorry, Ms. Lacroix.” Eli tries very, very hard to keep his voice in the apathetic-to-slightly-annoyed register. There’s no way he’s getting away with this otherwise. “Ms. Worthington sent me to get Zoe. For English.”
Lacroix sighs, carefully sweeping up her photos and turning them face-down on the table. Closer, Eli can see they’re absolutely positively pictures of eviscerated human corpses, chests burst open and faces contorted with pain and terror, even in death. A part of Eli, the part that sounds like his father, wonders if that’s even legal, showing photos of murders to a minor. It feels like the sort of thing that shouldn’t be.
“We normally knock, Mr. Drake,” Lacroix says. “When we enter rooms.”
“Sorry.” Eli’s fingers itch, like he can feel the claws trying to push through beneath the nails. One bite. It’s all it would take. A maw full of fangs to the artery and . . .
And he’d be no better than the peyton, no better than Lacroix expects him to be. Morality, Eli thinks, in that moment, really sucks. What’s the point of being a giant flying monster if you don’t even get to eat a few people?
“I told Lola I’d need Miss Chung for the rest of the day,” Lacroix is saying, and it takes Eli a moment to realize she must be talking about Ms. Worthington. “She’d agreed it would be acceptable.” She doesn’t sound suspicious, exactly. But definitely like she could get suspicious at any moment.
Which is why Eli just sighs and shrugs. “Whatever. Keep her if you want, I don’t care. I’m just the messenger.”
“Sent to collect your ‘friend?’” Lacroix’s weird flesh-toned lips curve up into a smirk.
Eli scoffs, turning as if to leave. “Whatever. I’ll tell her you’re busy.”
“No, no.” Lacroix stands, rising like a salt pillar in Eli’s peripheral vision. “I think we’re done here. Please.” She gestures, half to Eli, half to Zoe. After a moment, Zoe stands up. She still won’t meet Eli’s eyes.
“Remember what we talked about, Miss Chung,” Lacroix says, as Zoe moves past her. “We know you weren’t alone at the cabin. I think you’ll find things will go a lot smoother if you just let us know who you were with.”
Zoe says nothing, following Eli out of the room like a shuffling shadow. He heads back to English and Zoe follows, two steps behind and silent bar the occasional sniffle. Eli doesn’t dare break the silence until they’re three corridors and a staircase away from anywhere Lacroix might be listening. Then he stops, and turns.
“Zoe—” he starts.
“I didn’t rat you out,” Zoe says, before he can add much more. “So don’t worry about that. Besides, it’s not like Lacroix would believe me, now you’re besties with Morgan.” Her voice is bitter, hateful in a way Eli’s never heard before. In a way he doesn’t like.
“What are you talking about?”
“You know,” Zoe hisses. “I heard about your little love-in.”
Something about that doesn’t sit right, not at all. “Heard about from whom?” Eli asks. “And when?”
This earns him a curled lip. “Taking interrogation tips from Lacroix, now, are you?”
“Jake was right about you!” Zoe is backing up, a strange, glassy look in her eye. Eli feels something, like a shiver just beneath his scales and a churn in his belly, all at once.
This isn’t right, he thinks. Something isn’t right here . . .
“Zee,” he says, trying for calm. “Zee, please. This is important. What did Jake say about me? Was he the one . . . did he say he saw me with Morgan Lacroix?”
Zoe blinks and, for a moment, Eli sees her come back to herself. Her eyes are wide and startled and she’s looking at Eli like she has no idea where he came from or why they’re talking.
“Zoe,” he says again, taking a step forward. “I think something bad is happening, I—” And he puts his hand on Zoe’s arm.
It’s a light touch, barely more than a brush of fingers, but the effect is explosive. Literally explosive; a burst of oil-black magic that flares a sickly purple-green and throws Eli back against the wall. His entire soul seems to protest at the contact, shuddering in rage and disgust and it’s all he can do to bite down against the transformation that wants to take him then and there. To tear open his fragile human shell and unleash claws and fangs and purifying flame against the vicious coils of dark magic he can feel roiling off Zoe like oily smoke. Feel and see, and Eli’s breath sucks in at the sight; Zoe wreathed in sickly dark tendrils, eyes dark like black holes as she sways back and forth, ever so slightly.
On the wall behind her, cut in much greater detail than the diffuse light in the corridor should allow, Eli sees the tattered shadow of a peryton.
“No . . .” The word forces out of him in a breath. Then, louder, as he staggers to his feet. “No! Let her go!” He feels something thrumming in his chest. Not the dragon, something else. It feels a bass-line and tastes, impossibly, like starlight. It loathes the darkness; loathes the corrupted black void currently growing from Zoe like a cancer.
Zoe, the thing controlling Zoe, laughs. It’s dark and heavy and twisted, an over-produced reverb echo, and yet there’s something familiar at the core. Like Eli is listening to a voice he knows beneath the distortion. “Drop the white-knight act, Drake. It doesn’t fit you.”
“Damn right,” Eli says. “Things like me eat white knights for breakfast.”
He lunges. Not with fangs and claws, but he has a half-assed idea that if he can get to Zoe, get her on the ground, then—
Then she’s flicking her fingers, dismissive, congealed smoke flying off the ends like oil. When the drops hit Eli’s chest it’s like being caught with a punch from Saitama. He goes flying backwards again, this time hard enough to leave cracks when he hits the wall. It hurts. Not a much as it should, but enough to force the air from Eli’s lungs and leave him gasping for more. He struggles to right himself, sliding up against the wall while the not-Zoe raises its hands once more. It grins, sharp and cruel and feral, and Eli braces himself for whatever it has in store.
The scream rings down the empty hallway, followed by the squeak of trainers as Zoe stumbles backwards. When Eli next looks up, Zoe is Zoe again; dark smoke still coils around her but it’s clearer, and her eyes are her own. Sweat beads on her brow and her whole body trembles, as if with the effort of keeping the shadow at bay. When her eyes meet Eli’s they shine with tears.
“Zoe!” Eli takes a step forward, arm reaching out. Zoe takes a step back just as fast. Then another, then another.
“O-oh gods,” she’s saying. “Oh gods . . . s-stay away from me! Stay away!”
There’s another pulse of magic, like something inside Zoe just went supernova. Except this is more silvery moonlight than oily black hole, and it does nothing more to Eli than ruffle the edges of his hair.
The shadow fares less well, receding like a cockroach in a torch-beam. It doesn’t flow into Zoe, Eli notices; it flows into her backpack, and he tucks that thought away for later. Zoe gives him one final, panicked look, then flees. Eli lets her go.
She never does make it to English class but, then again, neither does Eli.