On Wednesday, Aunt Addi lets Eli stay home from school. Barely.
“I want you to call,” she says, hands on his shoulders, eyes staring earnestly into his. “Every hour, okay? If you don’t call, I’m going to, to—” Her voice chokes.
“It’s okay, Aunt Addi,” Eli says. “I’ll call.”
“No texting,” Addi adds. “I want to hear your voice.” Eli nods, so she adds: “And I’ve got an appointment for you with Doctor Mallory, tomorrow at 3pm. It’s . . . it’s the earliest I could get. I’m sorry. Do you need me to come home and take you?”
“No, it’s okay. I’ll be fine, Aunt Addi. I promise.”
Addi stares at him a moment longer, searching for some sign of . . . something. Eli isn’t sure. He doesn’t even know if she’s found it or not when, a moment later, she pulls him tight against her. “Oh, sweetheart,” she says. “I’m sorry. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not here. Not in Rosemont.”
“It’s okay,” Eli says, because he isn’t sure how else to respond. “I’ll be okay.”
Eli thinks about whether that’s a lie or not as he listens to Aunt Addi leave for work. His fingers dance idly across his Launchpad, beats and samples of something not-yet-formed falling against each other in a jagged, unharmonious throb.
Mo “Sir Percival” Dhillon is dead. Eli didn’t even know the guy’s full name until he heard it yesterday at the station, yet the guy died because of Eli. Maybe not directly, but . . .
“I could’ve saved him,” Eli tells his laptop. If he hadn’t been so afraid of transforming in front of Arthur.
But he had been, and now Val is dead, a jagged hole in his chest where his heart used to be. Thinking about it—about the thick, rubbery cords of vein and artery handing from the peryton’s jaw—makes Eli retch. So he doesn’t. Instead, he boxes the whole incident up and shoves it to the back of his mind, in the section marked DO NOT OPEN. That section’s a lot more crowded that it was a year ago.
Eli messes around doing not very much for a good hour after Addi leaves. He’s set his phone to alert him at the appropriate check-in intervals, and when it buzzes he dutifully calls his aunt and has a brief, somewhat awkward conversation.
“We should have a codeword,” Eli suggests.
“Any word that starts with the same letter as the hour you’re calling,” Aunt Addi immediately replies. “So if it’s ten o’clock, say tombone or telephone. If it’s eleven, it’d be elephant or egg. Like that. Any other word, and I’ll know you’re not okay.”
“Egregious echidnas, Aunt Addi,” Eli says in reply, because it’s currently 8:06.
Aunt Addi laughs, and the code is set.
At 8:14, Eli leaves the house and heads to school.
He’s in the halls by 8:30, melding into the crowd as people stream out of Homeroom and head to their lockers. If anyone notices he’s not supposed to be in today, they don’t mention it, even if he does get more furtive glances that usual. News travels fast in a small town, he supposes. Especially murder news.
He lurks around the corner from Morgan Lacroix’s locker for a good five minutes like a huge creeper, trying to stay inconspicuous between a concrete pillar and a drinking fountain that’s never worked since Eli arrived. When Morgan herself appears, she’s dressed in all black, right down to the little lace gloves and veil-draped hat. She looks kind of ridiculous—like a network TV stereotype of a goth kid—but comes over when Eli catches her eye.
“Elias,” she says, instantly moving in for a hug. “I’m so, so sorry.”
Eli pats her on the back, awkwardly, before glancing around. Morgan’s crew—today just as down with the black and the lace as she is—is loitering but giving their boss space. Which is why Eli says, “Arthur tell you what happened?” He keeps his voice low, obviously conspiratorial.
Morgan nods, doing something with her lip that’s not quite bite enough to disturb her impeccable lipstick. “Val was . . . he was sw-sweet,” she says. “He di-didn’t deserve . . .” And then she really is crying, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue that comes away smudged with charcoal and beige.
This time, Eli hugs her for real. She’s thin and tiny in his hands, fine-boned like a bird. She tucks her head against his chest as her shoulders shake in true, raw grief.
Aw, hell, Eli thinks, rubbing one hand up and down the bony nodules of Morgan’s spine. He tries to remind himself this is Morgan Lacroix, who tried to drown his best friend and whose mother wants to hunt him for his scales. He’s supposed to hate her.
He’s supposed to, but it’s hard. When she’s crying into his shoulder, obviously grieving.
It doesn’t last that long, maybe a minute. Then Morgan is stepping back, dabbing at her eyes and sniffing. “Thanks,” she says. “Thanks, I just . . .”
“‘S okay,” Eli says. “I know it sucks.”
Morgan’s eyes flick to his, then away again. “Yeah,” she says. “I guess . . . yeah.” She takes a big, shuddering breath, in and out, and Eli can see her trying to pull herself back together. She rummages in her bag for a moment, emerging with a compact, and immediately sets about fixing up her makeup.
Reapplying her armor, the little voice inside Eli adds.
“Did . . . I didn’t expect you to be at school today,” she says.
“I’m not,” says Eli, because it’s as good an opening as any. “I . . . um. Look, I kind of . . . need a favor? Maybe?” Then, because Morgan starts to look guarded: “It’s about the peryton.”
Morgan’s eyes and mouth form into sweet little Os, and she nods, just once.
“I need to find out who the other victims were,” Eli says, because he’s been thinking about this since last night.
“You think it’ll help you figure out who’s controlling them?”
Eli nods. “They’ve come after me three times now. That can’t be a coincidence.”
Morgan’s mouth thins, as if she’s turning something difficult over in her mind. That something turns out to be, “They’ve come after me, too.”
Belatedly, Eli realizes this is supposed to be news to him. “Morgan!” he exclaims. “Are you . . . how did you escape?” Oh, man. He hopes he’s not laying it on too thick. Acting. How does that even work?
“I . . . I ran into the forest,” Morgan says, eyes not quite settling on Eli as she does. “I heard noises behind me but . . . by the time I stopped running, I was alone.”
Eli pops his eyes wide and tries to look like he believes the lie. “Geeze, girl,” he says. “That’s intense.”
“I haven’t told anyone,” Morgan confesses, voice little more than a whisper.
“Not even your mom?”
A tiny shake of Morgan’s head, barely a twitch side to side. “Not Arthur, either.”
“Why not?” Eli presses, maybe just to see how Morgan replies.
She replies by taking a half-step backwards, tossing long blonde hair over one shoulder. “What does it matter?” she says. “All Mom would do is freak out and ban me from ever leaving the house. Arthur is even worse. Besides,” she sniffs, imperious. “We already know who’s doing this.” She stares at Eli, eyes pale and intense. Zoe, he realizes. Morgan is talking about Zoe.
“Morgan,” he says, slowly. “I really don’t think Zoe—”
“Ugh! I don’t believe you, Drake!” Morgan throws her hands up. Like, literally makes the gesture. “She bewitched you! We found evidence.”
Eli remembers the tuft of hair and his hand goes to touch at the base of his neck before he can think to stop it. Morgan notices, eyes glittering diamond sharp.
“I know you don’t want to think it’s true, but—”
“How did you know to search Zoe’s locker?”
Morgan blinks, momentarily derailed. “What?”
“Zoe’s locker. The other day, when you destroyed her grimoire . . . why?”
“I . . .” Morgan’s eyes flick sideways, then back. “There was . . . a tip-off,” she says, slowly.
“A note. I found it in my locker that morning. It said . . . someone had seen Zoe casting spells.”
“I don’t know. The note was anonymous.”
Eli gets that prickling feeling beneath his scales again. Something’s not right here, not right at all.
“Do you still have it?” he asks. “The note?”
Morgan shakes her head. “I burnt it.” A pause, during which Eli is trying to scan the ceiling for security cameras and wondering how difficult it would be to get access to the footage. Except then Morgan is saying.
“I remember the handwriting, though. Of the note? Because it was kinda weird.”
“Weird how?” Except Eli knows. He just knows what Morgan is going to say before she says it.
“It was the punctuation, y’know? Like, little circles for full-stops and kinda . . . backwards commas? Weird. Not something I’m going to forget.”
Eli is as certain of that as he’s certain that person isn’t Zoe. Because no way would Zoe tip off Morgan to search her own locker, and no way would Zoe use some evil mind-warping rísók mojo on herself, either. But someone at the school is.
Honestly, a week ago, Eli’s money would’ve been on Morgan. She’s had a hate-on for Zoe since grade school, at least the way Zoe tells it, and Eli doesn’t trust a girl like that not to be doing evil magic on the sly while preaching loud about its dangers. People are hypocrites, he knows, particularly when it comes to condemning in others what they’re all over doing themselves.
So he would’ve picked Morgan, if not for the incident the other night. She really had been chased by two peryton and really had seemed legit scared by it all. She also hadn’t given up Eli’s secret—or, rather “Íl’iàn’s” secret—or even vaguely hinted about it. So . . . he still doesn’t like Morgan, and certainly doesn’t trust her, but he’s pretty sure she’s not doing anything more evil than regular high school bullying.
Ditto for Arthur. Surely he wouldn’t have let his friend die if he’d really summoned the peryton. Plus, again, he’d seemed legit freaked out when they’d been hunkered down in the cave.
The whole thing is making Eli’s head hurt. He needs more evidence, which Morgan has promised to try and dig up from Lacroix, assuming Lacroix takes her work home with her.
Eli, meanwhile, has to first call Aunt Addi (“negative Nancies”), then try and find some way to sneak into the girls’ locker rooms. Because this period? Zoe has Gym. Which means her bag will be in the locker room, unattended. And if Eli can get to it, he can try and find the rísók and destroy it.
He’ll apologize to Zoe afterwards.
Eli’s pretty sure that Zoe’s class is doing track for their current unit. Zoe hates track. Zoe hates Gym in general, but track in particular, right behind gymnastics which she’d once confessed to being her version of the Special Hell.
“Like, I think, if I end up murdering someone or whatever and go to hell? It’s just going to be gymnastics class for all eternity.”
“You’d get good at it, though, wouldn’t you?” Eli had said, after some thought. “Like, after the first century or so you’d be springing backflips no probs.”
That conversation had been months ago, now, not long after Eli had arrived in Rosemont. People had still be tip-toeing around him, then, trying not to mention the D-E-A-T-H word like somehow not saying it would make his parents somehow still alive. Only Zoe hadn’t seemed to care; had just blithely barreled through morbid conversations as if it didn’t even occur to her why Eli was supposed to find them uncomfortable. It’s one of the reasons they’d become friends in the first place.
One of the reasons. Eli tries not to think of that lock of hair, or of the look on Zoe’s face when Morgan had found it. He’ll destroy the rísók and then he and Zoe can sit down and talk properly. He’ll figure out what to do next after that.
The girls’ locker rooms are behind the gym hall itself, mirrored from the boys’. Eli hasn’t even been around this side in passing, and it feels weird just to stand outside the short corridor leading to the door; like a dark, yawning forbidden cave.
He tells himself to stop being stupid—if nothing else, he’s a dragon, so caves should be his natural habitat, right?—and slips into the space. There’s no one in the gym so he’s pretty sure he hasn’t been seen, unless someone reviews the security camera footage, which they’re not going to, because no way is Eli doing anything wrong.
He’s just . . . sneaking into the girls’ locker room to rummage around in his best friend’s schoolbag without her knowledge. It’s fine. No problem.
The door to the locker room is painted an ugly, industrial sort of pink, a peeling white vinyl decal of that abstracted, 1950s-housewife shape doubling down on the message that this is Not Eli’s Place.
“Yeah, well. Fuck the gender binary,” he mutters, to no one in particular, then pushes the door open.
The first thing that hits him is the absolute reeking wall of stank. It’s so powerful and unexpected that Eli staggers back and step. He’s used to stank in the locker room, of course; the boys’ room smells like boy and Axe and that’s all kind of a given. Somehow, he hadn’t expected the girls’ locker room to smell the same. Or, mostly the same. The usual reek of sweat and fear is there, but instead of the overlay of musk-and-manliness, Eli’s getting assaulted by some lab-brewed approximation of strawberry and vanilla and a whole bouquet of flowers he doesn’t know the names of. The pungency of it makes his eyes water. He doesn’t know if it’s a dragon thing—he hasn’t particularly noticed his senses have improved, but who knows—or just an Eli-thing, but the reeky smell is not nearly as appealing as perhaps gossip in the boys’ lockers had lead Eli to believe.
This is not a place, Eli suddenly realizes, of sexy half-naked jostling, furtively witnessed though a peephole. This is a place were girls go to shrug off the humiliation and shame of an hour spend being reminded of every way they’ll never be good enough, thin enough, or beautiful enough. It’s a place of cruel giggles and averted eyes, of self-loathing with no outlet but the next girl over. It is, in other words, a place not entirely different from the boys’ locker room. Just with a different paint-job.
Eli steels himself against the bitter reek of soured vanilla and plunges headlong into the room. His whole body protests; something about the smell and the taboo of even being here swirling together in that uncomfortable, scale-itching way.
The locker room itself is essentially identical to the one Eli’s used to, and just as misnamed; there aren’t actually any lockers here, just long benches covered in backpacks and satchels, plus a row of toilet stalls and a barely used shower. About the only real difference Eli can see is the lack of a urinal. Otherwise, he may as well have just stumbled into a mirror-verse version of the boys’ room.
Zoe’s bag is easy enough to identify. It’s sitting by itself in the furthest corner of the room, covered in buttons and pins depicting pride flag-recolored Pokémon and anime characters and superhero logos.
It also . . . oozes. Something dark and rotten. Not literally, but somehow, in his mind, Eli knows. Like he can sense the presence of the rísók, and it makes his lip curl and his teeth try and shift into fangs. The feeling is so overpowering Eli is surprised when he touches the bag and feels canvas, not greasy, rotting meat. It’s like what he’s seeing with his eyes and what his brain thinks he should be seeing don’t match up. By the former, his perfectly ordinary hands are undoing the buckles on a perfectly ordinary canvas satchel. By the latter, his iridescent talons are sinking into the filthy hide of something corrupted and cruel.
Zoe’s bag is mostly full of books. Plus a pencil case, another pencil case Eli knows Zoe uses for make-up, and a third she uses for her witch’s tools. Eli opens each in turn; the first is full of pencils, most special-ordered from Japan. The second is lip crayons and concealer sticks and other, more esoteric, things. Neither are the source of the rísók’s corruption.
The third bag has Zoe’s magic stuff; sachets of teas and odd assortments of stones and nuts and string. Even a few animal bones. There are half-woven protection charms and half-carved runestones, and Eli’s skin tingles when he touches them. It’s magic, but it’s not malicious. It’s just Zoe, the same feeling Eli got when activating the charm during his encounter with the first peryton. It’s a good feeling; shivery and exciting, but safe too, in the way of a scary film or a rollercoaster. Zoe’s magic won’t hurt him, and in that moment Eli knows—from his wings to his tail, he just knows—that, whatever the reason behind the chunk of his hair in Zoe’s grimoire, it wasn’t because she was trying to bewitch him.
Eli zips the magic case back up, and starts looking through the satchel’s other pockets. The left has Zoe’s keys and wallet. The right is her phone and a big jumble of white headphone-and-charger cable-spaghetti. The front pocket has random things Zoe uses for cosplay; necklaces and spare troll horns. None of it is the source of the oozing awfulness he can still feel emanating from the bag.
He huffs in frustration, is just about to upend the whole thing and start again, when he remembers the inside back zip pocket.
It’s sort of concealed; inside the bag itself, zipper obscured by a flap of canvas. Eli opens it, and the pungent wave of rotting filth that escapes is enough to make him stagger backwards, gasping in alarm. It’s not a smell, exactly—Eli doubts any human would be able to detect it—but his mind struggles to process it any other way.
“Found you,” he mutters, and knows he’s right.
Forcing himself to reach into the pocket is an effort. He no more wants to put his hand in there than he wants to kiss a peryton or cuddle up to a week-old corpse. He forces himself to do it anyway, face screwed up into an expression of disgust, gooseflesh crawling across skin that desperately wants to put a layer of scale between itself and the corrupt miasma.
Zoe keeps nothing in her satchel’s secret pocket. It’s as tall and wide as her bag, but barely deep enough to hold an iPad. Eli’s fingers touch bottom without encountering any obstructions, and he waves his hand around inside the space, searching.
“C’mon, where are you?”
The rísók itself is so small and innocuous Eli nearly misses it. May have done so, in fact, if not for the painful jolt it gives when his pinkie brushes against it. It’s the same sort of feeling he gets from Zoe’s magic, except opposite. Zoe’s magic is clean and fresh and exciting. The rísók is greasy and stale and fills Eli with a sort of apathetic dread. It’s evil, he can feel that in his very soul. The same soul that knows this piece of magical filth needs to be destroyed, by any means necessary.
Eli pulls the object out of Zoe’s bag. It’s lodged right down in the corner—maybe by gravity but Eli’s betting by design—and is no bigger than a guitar pick. It’s a feather—no prizes for guessing from what—but small and fluffy rather than the long pinion Eli had given Zoe for her locator spell.
This feather has a braided thread wrapped around the pointed end. Eli’s pretty sure the thread is made of hair. Blue hair. Zoe’s blue hair. The whole object is so tiny and so innocuous and would almost look sort of cute, in a boho hipster sort of way, if not for the fact it oozes so much corruption that the scales unfold on Eli’s palm.
He can’t touch this filth with his skin any more than he could plunge his hand into a barrel of toxic waste.
Eli’s lip is curled into a disgusted sneer and he’s patting at his pockets with his free hand when he hears the door behind him open and a voice say:
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”