Aunt Addi is gonna be pissed about Eli skipping class, but he figures she can deal. This is an emergency.
It’s an emergency that sees Eli ringing the buzzer of the mansion atop Rosemont Heights, hoping desperately Widow Adeline doesn’t have bridge club or Power Yoga or whatever else it is old women get up to during the day.
He gets buzzed in, which is a good sign, and Adeline greets him at the top of the driveway. She’s wearing knee-length yoga pants and some sort of crop-top/loose-shrug ensemble that really shouldn’t look so good on someone so old.
Widow Adeline, as it turns out, is kinda ripped.
Eli is sweaty and panting from running all the way from the school, but Adeline looks about the same. “By the stars, boy,” she says. “Whatever’s the matter?”
“I think my friend’s been possessed,” Eli blurts, because it’s the nearest explanation he has for the oil-smoke and malevolent presence he’d felt on Zoe.
Widow Adeline regards him for a moment, head tilted. Her hands and feet are taped up and she has sweat stains on her top, and Eli suddenly wonders if he’s interrupted kickboxing practice. Is the old lady at the top of Rosemont Heights secretly some kind of martial arts master as well?
He’ll think about it later. Right now, Adeline sighs and invites him inside. They sit in her huge kitchen, oddly modern and minimalist compared to the rest of the house, and Eli blurts out everything he can about the peryton, the cabin, and Zoe.
He omits the part where he spent the evening with Morgan Lacroix. As a dragon. Somehow, he doesn’t think Adeline will approve.
“From your description,” Adeline says when Eli is through, “I suspect your little witch friend is under the influence of a rísók.”
“A reesawk?” Eli butchers, and Widow Adeline sighs.
“Rísók. There’s . . . no good single word for it in English. A talisman, I suppose, but the connotation is evil.”
“Right.” Eli picked as much up from the ending. Bad words in Xyl’tha end in k, or kki if there’s more than one. By extension, Eli supposes that if a rísók is an evil talisman, then a rísóa must be a good one. Like the protection amulet Zoe made him, what seems like a thousand years ago now. “How do I destroy it?” he asks.
“With the xyl’kóa, of course,” Widow Adeline says, as if it should be obvious. Then, at Eli’s blank stare. “The dragon fire, my dear. Your dragon fire.”
“I can’t breathe fire,” Eli points out.
“Not yet, no,” Adeline says. “But eventually, yes. And the kóa does not burn so much as purify. If your friend is pure, she’ll be quite safe.”
It takes Eli a moment to work out what Adeline is saying. “Are you . . . are you saying I should breathe fire all over Zoe?”
“Yes, of course.” Window Adeline waves a hand, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world.
“Isn’t that . . . dangerous?”
“Only if her heart is impure, my dear. Only the shyu’ìk, those who practice dark magics, have anything to fear from the kóa. If your friend is shyu’ìyu, the fires should do her no harm. I’m even told they can be . . . invigorating.”
Yu is the neutral ending. Eli wonders about that, about why Adeline would use that rather than shyu’ìa, which Eli assumes would be the word for “good witch.”
Is Zoe a good witch? Eli wants to think so, but . . .
But he remembers a lock of hair, pressed between the pages of a grimoire, and suddenly isn’t so sure.
“Okay,” he says. “So . . . assume I can’t do the fire breath thing, what’s plan B?”
Adeline sighs. “‘Plan B,’” she echoes, as if the words are distasteful, “is that you find the rísók itself, and attempt to destroy it conventionally.”
“It depends on the rísók. For an item made of wood or paper, fire will be sufficient. But if your shyu’ìk is clever, he will have used a less destructible material; metal or stone.”
“In which case I need to, like, chuck it into Mount Doom?”
The corner of Window Adeline’s lip curls, just slightly. “You know, Tolkien was no friend to our people,” she says.
“You don’t have to tell me that.” Eli gestures to himself, which earns him a shrewd glance from Window Adeline, then a slight nod.
“No, I suppose not. But in any case, yes. A volcano would be sufficient to destroy even the most powerful of rísókki. Though I doubt it will come to that.” Even still, she says it like tossing things into volcanoes is a totally normal thing to do. Maybe for mythical flying lizard monsters, it is.
“The, like, the smoke or whatever,” Eli says. “I think it was coming from Zoe’s bag.”
“There are many ways to create rísóur,” Adeline says. That’s the neutral plural form, meaning she’s talking about any kind of talisman, good or evil. “Some are keyed to a specific individual, and can inflict good or ill over distance. Others must be kept on the person, and their corruption can be spread from target to target.”
“Uh . . . does that mean if I touch this thing, that it might do to me what it did to Zoe?”
Window Adeline huffs, lips pressing into a thin line. “It is . . . possible,” she admits. “It would depend on the power of the shyu’ìk. Corrupting the heart of a xyl’takka is no simple matter, but it, unfortunately, can be done. I would . . . advise caution, if handling becomes necessary.”
“I’m guessing gloves aren’t gonna cut it?”
“Not unless they’re magic gloves.” Adeline is smirking when she says it, just slightly.
Eli doesn’t run into Zoe on the way out of Window Adeline’s giant gated mansion, and tries not to feel too disappointed by the fact. He does consider going to her house, but he isn’t sure what sort of reception he’ll get from her parents; whether Zoe told them about . . . whatever.
He’s considering sending a text, wondering if the wording hey check ur bag i think sum1 slipped u the bad juju would successfully convey what he means, when the day takes a sudden turn for the even worse.
“Yo, Drake. We’ve got unfinished business.”
Zoe and Window Adeline aren’t the only people who live in the Heights, as it turns out. So does Arthur Lacroix.
Eli is on one of the side roads, more of a walking track than something designed for cars. The nearest houses are a quarter mile in each direction, completely swallowed by the surrounding trees. Even if Eli screamed, they might not hear him.
Arthur is behind Eli, about a dozen feet back, one of his goons—Val, Eli thinks, although they’re somewhat interchangeable—standing by his side. Neither of them look like they’re here to talk.
“Don’t be an idiot, Lacroix,” Eli says. “This is a public road, not the school.”
“I’ve told you before,” Arthur says, stalking forward, “your kind’s not welcome here.”
“Dude, seriously. And I’ve told you you need to cut that shit out.” Eli knows Arthur means the whole turning-into-a-monster thing but, still. C’mon.
Arthur makes a low, disgusted growling sound, close enough to reach out and grab Eli by the hoodie. Eli doesn’t try and prevent it. Let Arthur posture and threaten; he can’t actually hurt Eli, not any more.
“You listen to me you piece of shit,” Arthur hisses. “You stay away from my sister—”
“—you stay away from my house—”
“—you stay away from my mom—”
Val’s hand on Arthur’s shoulder finally jerks him out of his tirade. He rounds with a snarled, “What?” except . . .
Except, oh. That snarl? It’s not from Arthur. It’s not from anything human at all, in fact.
Val’s grip is white-knuckled against Arthur’s shoulder. He’s staring into the trees, off to the side and just behind Eli’s shoulder. Arthur follows his gaze, and it’s almost comical the way his eyes big out and his skin goes a kind of ashy white.
Eli doesn’t even need to turn to know what they’re looking at. He can feel the presence of the peryton behind him, like oily black smoke oozing up his spine. It makes his claws itch beneath his fingertips, even as he says, very calmly, “It’s behind me, isn’t it?”
Arthur’s eyes flick to him, just briefly, then back again. His mouth gapes open and closed, choked little half-sounds escaping from his throat.
“I tried to tell you,” Eli says, feeling he’s being very reasonable, given the circumstances. “But now? Now I suggest you run.”
Arthur makes a noise that can only be described as a squeak. Then he turns tail, and heads straight for the trees on the far side of the road. Which would be fine. But for the fact his fingers are still wound in Eli’s hoodie.
“Move!” Apparently Arthur has his voice back. “Move move move move move!” He’s pulling Val along with the hand not holding Eli, and the three of them barrel into the woods together in a rough tangle of limbs. Behind them, the peryton screams and makes chase.
Eli’s mind is racing. He has to get away from Arthur and Val. He can take down the peryton on his own but he doesn’t want to transform in front of Arthur Lacroix, of all people. He has to get them to leave him behind, except he can’t for the life of him think of a reason. He’s still not thinking of a reason when the ground decides on one for him, snagging a root around his trainer and sending him to the ground with a crash. He bites his tongue hard enough to taste blood and the momentum of the fall sends his bag slamming into the back of his skull. It hurts—too many heavy textbooks, for one—although somewhere through the daze he manages to think, Yes, perfect.
The heavy tha-thump of the peryton’s awkward run is approaching and Eli manages somehow to struggle out of his bag and flip himself over. His vision won’t focus right and everything is a confusing riot of thumping footsteps and blurry shadows. He tries to reach inside to find the dragon, fingers just closing around its smooth-scaled tail when he’s startled out of the transformation by strong hands, hauling him upright. “C’mon!” a voice yells in his ear. “Move!”
“‘Rth’a?” he manages. “No! No, y’were—” Supposed to run, he can’t quite make his mouth say.
“Jesus, Drake. Shut up and get moving!” is all Arthur says in response, hauling Eli up and slinging and arm over his broad shoulders. Eli’s feet stumble and trip, but he manages a step or two.
“P’ryton,” he slurs. He must’ve hit his head harder than he though; everything feels very fuzzy and distant and talking is nearly impossible.
“Mo is buying us some time,” Arthur says, and Eli has no freaking clue who he’s talking about.
Except that’s when he hears Val scream out something lot like, “Die, monster!”
Turning his head is weird and floaty, but Eli manages it just enough to see Val lunge towards the peryton, a fallen branch clutched in his hands like a sword.
After that, time seems to move in slow motion. Eli hears himself scream “No!” clearer and louder than anything he’s managed since tripping. He tries to lunge forward, tries to grab the dragon’s tail, to summon wings and claws and damn whomever’s watching but he’s still too slow. Like he’s playing a videogame of his own body with his hands and the controller set in jell-o.
The peryton shrieks it’s awful death-shriek, opening its jaws far wider than it looks like its face should allow. It strikes forward, Val brings down the branch.
He hits it—Eli will always remember that, whatever else, Val hit the damn thing—and the branch shatters. The peryton? The peryton doesn’t even flinch. Instead, it tilts its head to the side, jaws catching around Val’s throat. It pushes him to the ground, and that’s about when Arthur starts screaming, too.
Val goes down beneath the peryton, its jaws closing into his skin with a spray of—
It doesn’t kill him, not like that. Instead, it shifts its weight to one awful, taloned claw. Brings the other one up and shoves it through Val’s chest with a sound like snapping branches and tearing canvas. Val jerks, just once, and then the peryton is hopping backwards, dripping claw closed around a fleshy lump.
“Oh, fuck,” says Arthur, and throws up all over Eli’s shoes.
The lump is trailing . . . cords, and the peryton snaps them free with its jaws. Then it gives another awful shrieking howl as the thing in its talon begins to glow.
Now, Eli thinks. I should kill it now.
Except he can’t. He can’t move, can’t think, can barely breathe. It’s like that night, all over again, two cops in his doorway and I’m sorry son there’s been an accident and Aunt Addi crying and an endless cold corridor that stinks of bleach and rotting meat.
Something is happening to the peryton. It’s shaking, a weird jerky vibration like a horror-film special effect. A too-fast-too-slow Jacob’s Ladder hum, sticky bright light pulsing at the centre. The humming builds, the sound tearing apart like it’s trying to hit both ends of the octave all at once. The shaking follows suit, violent enough now that it looks like the peryton is in two places at once, overlaid like bad 3D until, with one final shrieking mitosis tear . . . it is.
And there are two peryton, standing over a dead body.
“Holy. Shit,” Arthur says.
Well, Eli thinks. At least we know how it reproduces.
Out loud, however, he says:
The peryton are disoriented, ungainly feet rustling through the leaf litter. It isn’t going to last, though, and Eli grabs a handful of Arthur’s letter jacket. He hauls as he starts running, not in any direction more particular than “away,” when he feels Arthur start pulling him to the side.
“No, this way!” Arthur says. “C’mon! I know a place.”
They don’t have time to argue, so Eli follows. He can already hear the peryton snap and shift behind him.
He runs with Arthur, deeper into the wooded area in the centre of the Heights. The houses are arranged vaguely in a ring, Eli recalls; a central circuit feeding off into the little side cul-de-sacs with one or two or three mansions nestled in the trees. The centre, though, is undeveloped. Just trees and a looming shape up ahead. A pile of huge, jagged stone towering up like an artificial mountain. Excavated from the mansions’ basements, maybe, and left here to save the cost of removal.
It’s this structure Arthur dives towards. Behind them, the peryton are chasing once again, feet thundering on the ground in a way Eli more feels than hears. He’s running so madly he doesn’t have time to stop, just slams into the rock pile, jagged edges cutting into his palm.
“Here! Here! Quickly!”
Arthur is hauling him sideways again, and suddenly Eli finds himself being stuffed between a crevice in the stones. The fit is tight enough that he hears the rip of fabric as his hoodie catches on the edge, and he’s halfway through protesting when he suddenly pops sideways and ends up sprawled in a space much more open than he expects. Arthur follows—faster and with fewer dramatics—mere moments before the hulking green-black shadow of a peryton falls over the gap.
Eli sees one mad, grime-crusted eye rolling between the stones, then a long talon reaches through.
He lets out a startled curse, scrabbling back and out of reach. His back hits shotcrete, not stone, and the ground beneath is paved with large, neat tiles.
Tiles the peryton’s claw is currently scratching grooves into the surface of. Trying madly to reach them. It can’t, though; the space inside is too big for its claw, the gap outside too small for its body.
The peryton shrieks in rage, changing claws, trying to shove its snout into the hole as well. Like some kind of awful cartoon cat, pawing at a mouse-hole, and the image makes Eli laugh.
It’s not nice laughter, shaky and thin, but he can’t seem to stop it. After a moment, Arthur joins in.
Eventually, the peryton gives up trying to get through the hole, and instead just sits down to wait. Eli isn’t sure where the second one’s gone; for a while, there are some awful noises overhead that suggest it might be climbing up the rocks, but eventually they fade. Which just leaves him and Arthur, alone in a dark, damp, concrete dungeon.
There’s no cell reception, because of course there isn’t.
“Rebar in the concrete,” Arthur says, when he sees Eli waving his phone around and cursing. “You won’t get signal.” His head is bobbing and weaving, trying to get a glimpse of the peryton as it stalks outside. “Shit,” he breathes. “What is that thing?”
“Peryton,” Eli says. “Monster summoned by an evil sorcerer.”
“That . . . that’s what’s been killing people.”
“Now do you believe it wasn’t me?”
Arthur turns, eyes wide and mouth gaping. “I . . .” he says. Then he swallows, slowly and deliberately. “Yeah,” he says. “I . . . I’m sorry.”
Eli shrugs. “I’m sorry too,” he says. “About . . . y’know . . .” He makes an abortive gesture outside.
Arthur winces, closing his eyes and looking away. “Mo . . . Jesus, Mo . . .”
Eli can’t help himself, “I thought that dude’s name was Val?”
Arthur gives one choked-off not-laugh. “That . . . that was a nickname.” He’s still not looking at Eli, his voice cracked and thready. “Val . . . he was Sir Percival.”
“Your little Knights of the Round Table thing.”
A nod. “We . . . it was funny, y’know? Dad, he’s an Arthurian scholar. Hence . . .” He gestures at himself. “I met Lance in grade school. He really is Lance, and our ‘rents thought it was, y’know. Cute, or whatever. So we started doing nicknames.”
“Shit.” Eli gives up on the phone and slumps down against the wall, instead. “I’m sorry, dude.” He doesn’t know what else to say. Arthur is a douche and his goons are worse, but there’s a mile between that and getting a heart torn out by a monster.
“I’m gonna kill it,” Arthur says. “For Mo. I’m gonna fucking kill it.”
“They don’t go down easy,” Eli says, before he’s really thought about it.
Arthur turns to him, eyes wide. “You’ve killed one before?”
“Yeah,” Eli says. More than one, he doesn’t add.
“Shit.” A long pause, then: “Mom would know what to do.”
Eli scoffs, he can’t help it. “Your mom,” he says, a sneering emphasis on the word, “is too busy trying to get me to admit to murder because ‘Sir Lance’ is a narking little turd.”
This earns him a narrow-eyed glare. “Lance didn’t say squat to Mom.”
“Well, someone did.”
“It wasn’t any of us.”
“Sorry to break it to you, dude, but no one else out there is convinced I’m some kind of heart-eating monster.” Mostly, people just think he’s kind of a loser. It’s not a perception Eli has tried to change.
Arthur just scowls and looks away. After a while, he says, “Your other groupie, what’s his name?”
“Yeah. I’ve seen him talking to Mom.”
Eli gets a very strange feeling, a tingling sort of chill shivering across his hidden scales. “When?”
Arthur shrugs. “I dunno. Couple of days ago? I saw him leaving the office. Mom asked if I knew him.”
“What did you say?”
Arthur makes a gesture Eli interprets as, What is there to say?
“Jake didn’t rat us out either.” Eli tries to make his voice confident, but there’s something there, some niggling edge . . .
Whatever it is, Arthur doesn’t need to know about it.
“You said you killed one! C’mon, we can’t just sit here!”
“I didn’t do it with my bare hands, numbnuts,” Eli had snapped in response. He’d spent most of their time under the rock pile sitting on the cold, damp ground, back against the stones. Arthur had taken to pacing, and to seeing how close he could creep to the exit.
When he’d ended up on his ass with the front of his jacket ripped to shreds, Eli had just sighed.
Eli had been considering transforming anyway when he’d heard the scream. A woman’s voice, back in the direction of the road. Eli made out the words, “Oh God, John, call 911!” in between the hysteria.
“I guess they found Mo,” Arthur had said.
The peryton had cleared off about the time the Sheriff had shown up. After some bickering, Eli had followed Arthur out of their hiding place and down towards the bright flashing lights of the cruisers.
Aunt Addi is covering Val’s body when Eli and Arthur finally make it back to the scene. It takes her a moment to process his presence; she just stares, blank-faced and blinking, like she can’t believe he could possibly be at the scene of a crime. Then she’s rushing forward, pulling him into a fierce hug even as she turns his gaze away from Val’s glassy-eyed corpse.
“Elias!” Her voice sounds almost broken. “You can’t be here, baby. You have to go. This isn’t—”
“I saw it,” Eli says. “I saw who killed him.” The words feel strange on his lips. Numb, almost. Like maybe up until now Val hadn’t really bitten the big one; had just been joking around, playing pranks.
Except this isn’t a prank. This is cops and body bags and I’m sorry son there’s been an accident. This is real.
“He chased us,” Eli is saying. “We hid in the rocks.”
Aunt Addi holds him out at arms’ length, face folding into what Eli thinks of as a Cop Expression. Piercing and distant. “You saw it?” she asks him. “You saw who killed this boy.”
Eli pointedly does not look at Arthur. They’d agreed on the story before they’d emerged from the cave. Eli nods. “Not well,” he adds. They’d agreed on that, too.
“I want to speak to my mother,” Arthur says, voice a little too-loud and too-shrill. He’s standing with his back to the body, looking sort of sweaty and ashen.
In the end, both Arthur and Eli get driven to the station. Not by Addi, by one of the other deputies. Eli doesn’t know the guy’s name but he’s got the same air of quiet, affected kindness Eli remembers from the night his parents . . . from The Night.
Yvonne Lacroix meets them at the station. As soon as she sees Arthur she rushes forward to embrace him, crying his name. It’s the most human gesture Eli’s ever seen from her, and he looks away, his heart suddenly sick for his own mother. For her honey-gold eyes and soft, warm skin.
Lacroix’s maternal fussing drops as soon as she has Eli and Arthur alone in one of the offices. It’s not an interview room and they’re not being recorded, and none of it feels like anything that would hold up in court. As soon as Arthur blurts out, “We saw it, Mom. We saw the monster,” Eli knows court is not where any of this is going to end up.
Eli lets Arthur do the talking, interrupting only to give the monster’s name. Arthur’s account of the incident wavers a bit when he gets to Val’s murder, but otherwise remains steady and is reasonably factual. Eli tries not to be surprised. There’s a part of him that expected Arthur to embellish the story, to invent bravery or heroics. The fact that Arthur doesn’t . . . Eli will store away for later.
For now, Lacroix is looking at him, eyes shrewd and cold. “And you,” she says, “do you have anything to add?”
Eli shrugs. “No.”
“But you’ve seen the Emanations before?” That’s the word the Lacroixs use to describe the peryton. Apparently “monsters” isn’t secret-society enough.
“A few times,” Eli says.
“And you didn’t think to tell me this before?”
Eli just stares at her, disbelieving. Then scoffs, and looks away.
“People are dead, Mister Drake,” Lacroix says. “If you think I have time for your petty little wounded-boy ego, you’ll find you are quite mistaken.”
“Two days ago,” Eli reminds her, “you seemed pretty convinced I was the one killing people.” In the corner of the room, Arthur is making frantic shut up idiot gestures behind his mom’s back.
Lacroix tilts her pale, thin face. “We know you were with the Chung girl at the cultist’s hideout.”
Eli has just enough time to feel a sweeping hot-cold roil of anger and fear before Lacroix is adding:
“Miss Chung wouldn’t say as much, of course, but my agents aren’t blind, Mister Drake, and your appearance is . . . distinctive.” She gives him a raking glance from head-to-toe. Mostly head, though, and Eli fights down the urge to run his hand over his hair.
Instead, he shrugs. “We were just messing around in the woods. It was there. We didn’t do anything wrong.”
“And yet you told no one of what you found? Potential evidence in a murder investigation.”
“Your goons showed up,” Eli says. “So we figured you had it covered.”
“And so you ran?”
“Yeah. There’d been enough trouble. We didn’t want more.”
He gets another one of those sharp, scrutinizing stares from Lacroix. She drums her fingers against her thigh, just once, then:
“How did you find the . . . ‘shack?’” She says the word as if it’s physically distasteful. Eli figures she probably has some fancy Lyddan Group word for it she wants to use instead. Like “Sanctum” or “Arcanorium” or whatever.
Eli gives another noncommittal shrug. “Like I said, we were out in the woods. We’d never seen it before and it looked cool, so . . .” he trails off, hopes Lacroix can fill in her own blanks.
“We can detect arcanic vibrations,” is what gets written into the space. “There was quite a significant disturbance. That’s how my people found you.”
“Lady, I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Which is a lie, and information Eli files away for later. He’ll have to tell Zoe to be careful.
Lacroix gives a mean little smile. “Of course you don’t. Just like Miss Chung, I’m sure, also has no idea.”
Eli doesn’t bother to respond.
“Very well,” Lacroix says after a moment of silence. “If you have nothing further of value to add, I’ll take my leave. I’m sure someone will be in to take a formal statement shortly. I trust you’ll know what to say when they do.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Arthur says, even as Eli wishes he’d thought to record this conversation when it started. A whole chunk of his life starts looking easier if he can get Yvonne Lacroix taken down for encouraging two kids to lie to the Sheriff about a murder investigation.
Isn’t that what you’ve already done? asks Eli’s traitorous inner voice. He squashes it down because, well. Monsters. Literal, claws-and-fangs monsters. What’s the Sheriff, compared to that?
“You shouldn’t do that,” Arthur says, when Lacroix is out of the room.
“Treat Mom like that. She’s not the bad guy. She’s just trying to protect people.”
“Not people like me,” Eli’s mouth says before his brain can stop it.
Arthur makes a frustrated clicking sort of sound in the back of his throat. “Dude,” he says. “Seriously? Not everything is about—” he waves a hand in Eli’s direction.
“About what?” Eli challenges. Say it, he thinks. Say it out loud.
But all Arthur does is stare at him, throat working and eyebrows drawn down into a petulant scowl. After a moment, he looks away. “Whatever, Drake,” is all he says.
Eli just stares resolutely at the wall until a deputy comes to take him away.