“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Eli doesn’t flinch at the voice, doesn’t drop the bag, doesn’t try to hide. Instead, he very calmly turns around. His heart is absolutely racing and a cold sweat has burst out along his brow and shoulders, but he tries not to let either show. Instead, he turns and says:
“What I have to.”
Zoe is standing in the doorway to the locker room. She’s wearing gym shorts and a Evangelion t-shirt so old it’s gone from black to grey. She’s sweaty and breathing heavily, her hair pulled into a messy braid over her shoulder. She looks pissed, but exhausted, too. Worn and faded like her t-shirt.
“Have to what?” she sneers, vicious and angry. “Go through my bag?”
“Yeah,” says Eli. “I’m sorry, Zee, but—”
“Did Morgan put you up to this?” Zoe walks into the room proper. Her strides are heavy and purposeful, and Eli can feel the sick tendrils of magic as they ooze from the rísók and try and lure Zoe forward. “Where is she?” Zoe is saying. “Where’s that skanky little bitch hiding?” Her eyes roll in their sockets, white-ringed and feral.
“Zoe,” Eli says, trying to keep his voice calm, professional. Like the voice Dad used to use on the phone with panicked clients. “Zoe, listen to me. You’re under a spell. Someone’s ensorcelled you.”
“I saw you!” Zoe snaps, not listening. “With her. Conspiring. Laughing at me.”
Eli has the rísók in one hand, a lighter in the other. The lighter’s in his pocket and he pulls it out, shows it and the rísók to Zoe.
“I found this in your bag,” he says. “I don’t know who put it there but it’s bad magic, man. It’s making you paranoid.”
“You went through my bag. My bag!” It’s not a question, more like something she’s repeating to herself as a reminder. But Zoe’s eyes are glassy and unfocused, and Eli gets the impression she isn’t quite all at home behind them.
“Zee, listen. I’m going to burn this thing. It’s bad magic. I’m going to—”
Except Zoe screams, and lunges the last few feet towards Eli. The idea that Zoe, even a possessed Zoe, would physically attack him is so far out of Eli’s expectation that when the fist connects with his jaw, he just drops.
It’s an awkward punch, but it’s got weight behind it, and fury, and the next thing Eli knows the world is sideways. He hears the clatter as the dropped lighter goes skidding away, has no idea where he dropped the rísók, and is just blinking and trying to sit upright when hot, heavy hands grab him and shake him so hard the back of his skull cracks against the bench.
“I knew it!” Zoe is saying, voice vicious and hurt even as she tries to shake Eli’s brain out his nose. “I knew you weren’t really my friend! Knew you were just trying to spy on me for that anorexic slut Morgan Lacroix! To humiliate me! You nearly had me, but he warned me, he did. I didn’t want to believe him but—”
“Zoe!” Somehow, Eli manages to pull enough brain cells together to bring his hands up. He threads them up between Zoe’s arms then pushes them apart, forcing her grip away from his shoulders. God, he doesn’t want to hurt her. But he has to destroy the rísók and—
And, this time, Zoe punches him like she means it.
Her fist catches him on the cheek, just below the eye socket. It hurts, and Eli feels the scales erupt across his skin in retaliation. Not a full transformation, but enough to freeze Zoe in place, hand raised for a second blow.
She blinks, once, and for one moment, her eyes lose their drugged sheen. “Eli? What—?”
Eli doesn’t waste time explaining. Instead, he lurches up, grabbing Zoe with hands more like claws, and rolls them both over. Zoe is . . . heavy (fat, Eli’s inner Zoe-voice supplies), but Eli is strong now and they end up sprawled awkwardly on the tiles, Zoe on her back and blinking up at the ceiling.
Eli takes advantage of her distraction, scrambling forward to reach under the bench to grab the fallen lighter.
His hand has scales. Iridescent black, like the scales of his dragon-shape, and his nails have turned into claws of rainbow bismuth. He’s not fully shifted—is still in a decidedly human body—but he’s manifesting draconic traits and—
He has horns. Not as big as in his full shift, but big enough to peek out beneath his curls. Not to mention, when he runs his hand down it, he can feel a smattering of scales framing his face.
Behind him, Zoe struggles to her feet. The he risks a glance, she’s watching him, slack-jawed and wide-eyed.
“Zoe?” he says, into the stillness. “Zoe, you have to listen to me, please. There’s—”
Except the glassy look is creeping back into Zoe’s expression, the coils of corrupted magic once again oozing their tendrils into her soul.
“Oh, Ee-ee-eli-ii,” she sing-songs. “You’ve been keeping se-ee-ecrets. From your bestie Zoe-boe.”
“Zoe.” Eli scrambles to his feet. Zoe is advancing on him, almost sashaying, arms outstretched and hands curling into claws.
“What are you?” Zoe asks.
“Zee, please. We don’t have time for this. I promise I’ll explain everything, okay, I just—”
But Zoe isn’t listening. “You’re like them,” she says instead. “Like the witch-birds.” By which Eli assumes she means the peryton.
Except Zoe’s face splits into a terrible, almost dreamy grin. “You’re a monster,” she breathes. Then giggles. It’s a sick, dark sound and some part of Eli is surprised when she doesn’t start choking up black bile to go along with it.
“Zoe,” he tries again. “C’mon. Stop this.”
“Oh, Ee,” she says. “This is so much better than what we had planned. Humans are such a pain to control, you know that, right? But monsters? Monsters are easy.” Her hand darts out, gripping the lower half of Eli’s face, black-lacquered nails gouging sharp little semicircles into his face.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Eli says, voice slightly muffled by Zoe’s hand. He’s not afraid, exactly. But he is telling the truth; he doesn’t want to hurt Zoe, and he doesn’t want Zoe to do anything that will hurt herself.
Except, at his words, all she does is grin. “Oh,” she says. “There’s no risk of that. Ik’thit!”
The last is barked sharply and strongly and, while Zoe’s accent is kind of off, is still so obviously a word in Xyl’tha that Eli freezes. Or, rather, his mind freezes. His body, meanwhile, shudders in revulsion as he feels a wave of corrupted magic roil over him, forcing him out of Zoe’s grip and to his knees.
Zoe shrieks with laughter. The sound is desperate, unhinged. “This is the way it should be,” she says. “Don’t you see? It’s the natural order of things. The Beast, kneeling before his Witch.”
“Zoe, c’mon girl,” Eli says. “This isn’t you.” He struggles to his feet. His body feels sluggish and uncooperative, the magic still coiling around his limbs, trying to force him into obedience. But Eli knows something Zoe doesn’t; that he’s one of the xyl’takka, not a lowly monstrous asàk like Zoe assumes.
“Oh, Elias,” Zoe says, watching him rise with a vicious little smirk. “This is exactly who I am. Ik’thit!”
This time, Eli’s ready for the magic. It hits him like a wave of oily filth and he imagines himself burning with iridescent fire in response. His knees buckle, but he stays upright, and Zoe’s eyes widen in shock for one moment before her face curls into an ugly sneer.
“Don’t think you can defy me, Beast,” she says. “Ik’ko!” She makes a gesture as she says it; hands together at the heels, fingers splayed, arms pushing forward. She looks like a Dragonball character throwing a Kamehameha, and Eli has one moment to give her a quizzical look before a ball of green-black fire hits him in the chest and sends him flying across the locker room.
He slams into one of the far benches, back cracking painfully against the edge before gravity takes over and he ends up in a tangle of bags and spilled books and sweaty-sweet girls’ clothes.
The awful, corrupted fire still licks along his skin but it doesn’t hurt, exactly. It’s more a sort of tingling itch, like Eli remembers from the one time he accidentally spilled bleach on his hand as a kid. When the fire touches one of his manifested scales, it pops and flares and splutters out.
“I said, ik’ko!”
This time, Eli gets out of the way. He feels the wave of magic brush against his back as he does, like a blast of hot, sewer-stinking air. It hits the wall of the locker room but without Eli in the way all it manages is to lightly ruffle some textbook pages.
“You can’t burn me, Zee,” Eli says, as he darts around the room, always slightly ahead of Zoe’s magic. He’s pretty sure it’s true. He’s a freakin’ dragon, after all. They’re pretty immune to fire, right?
Zoe gives a little shriek of frustration. Eli is circling closer to her, still moving but trying to get within grabbing distance. If he can just get close enough to take her down, then—
The next blast takes him by surprise. He dodges away from where he thinks Zoe’s aiming, but she’s ready for him to do it. She’s switched tactics, he thinks, from trying to hit him to trying to hit where she thinks he’ll be. It’s Space Invaders 101 stuff but it works, and he goes flying again.
He’s still sort of banged up from the first blast—he’s going to have a pretty intense bruise across his lower back come tomorrow—and this time he cracks his head against the tiles as he goes down. The world goes sort of blurry and fuzzy for a moment, and by the time he’s blinked that away, Eli realizes he’s under one of the benches. Overhead, he can see the shadow of what he’s pretty sure is Zoe’s bag.
Eli tries to scramble upright, forgets he’s under the bench, and ends up cracking his head again. He loses time. Not much, just enough that he’s back on the floor again, cheek pressed against the tiles.
A hot, too-strong hand clamps around his ankle.
“You’ve been a very naughty boy,” Zoe sing-songs. “You know what happens to naughty boys?” She pulls on his leg, and Eli is dragged a few inches back before he manages to get his claws into a line of grout between the tiles. It stops the motion, but probably not for long. He has maybe half a second to come up with a plan and his head is throbbing and the world is spinning and the corrupted miasma of the rísók is so think he’s nearly choking with it and—
Eli blinks, then blinks again, but . . . yes! The rísók. It’s there, under the bench, against the wall. Despite all odds Eli still has the lighter gripped in one hand and the other darts out to grab the tiny peryton feather. As it does, Zoe gives another sharp tug on his leg. Enough for Eli to be dragged out from under the bench entirely. It doesn’t matter, though. Not now.
Eli flips onto his back. Zoe is looming over him; a huge, dark shape, oozing wicked malevolence. A fairytale evil witch, face contorted into an ugly sneer.
Eli grins at her, holds up the lighter in one hand and the rísók in the other.
“Hey, Zoe?” he says. “It’ll all be fine. I promise.”
Zoe’s expression crumples into confusion. Then Eli strikes the lighter—it bursts to life easily on the first try—and thrusts the rísók into the flame.