The Rosemont High gymnasium pulls double-duty as an auditorium, meaning one end is dominated by a long stage. There are rooms behind it, hidden and disused except during plays and assemblies, and Eli and Zoe hide out in one now.
“I hate crying.”
Zoe is sitting in the corner, hunched over her own bag. Her tears have mostly stopped, but she’s still sniffling. She’s still in her gym clothes, too, unkempt and unarmored.
“How do you feel?” Eli asks. He wants to sit next to Zoe, to wrap his arm around her and pull her close, but isn’t sure if she’ll allow it. So he leans against the far wall, instead, hands shoved deep in the pockets of his hoodie.
“Headache,” Zoe says eventually. “And . . . my mouth tastes gross.” She smacks her lips a few times to demonstrate. “Like I’ve been licking garbage.”
Eli doesn’t bother to ask how she knows what garbage tastes like. He can taste it too. Not strong, but: “It’s the rísók, I think.”
Zoe looks up at him, narrowing eyes red-rimmed from crying. “The what-awk?”
Eli bites his lip. “Um,” he says. “How . . . how much do you remember? About . . .?” He waves a hand, noncommittal.
“I . . . I warded my bag,” Zoe says, looking down at the object in question. “After Morgan. I . . . I didn’t want . . .” She stops, takes a deep, shuddering breath, and starts again: “We were outside. Running, y’know? When I felt, like . . . It was the ward. I can’t explain how I knew, but I knew. You know?”
Eli nods. He does know.
Zoe continues: “So I faked an asthma attack, and came back inside. That’s when . . . when I saw you.” She pauses. “I was so mad. It was . . . my vision went black. Like, literally black. I didn’t know that really happened. But it did. And, after . . .” She sniffs, two heavy teardrops falling on top of her bag. “There are, like. Gaps. In my memory,” she finally admits.
“The other day,” Eli says, “in the hall. You remember?”
“Not . . . not really.”
Eli nods, even though Zoe isn’t watching him. “When you attacked me, I knew it wasn’t you. Not really. I could feel . . . something evil. A curse.”
“Someone cursed me.” It’s not a question, and Eli can feel the anger hiding somewhere behind it. Not close yet, but getting there.
“Yeah. I . . . did some research. The thing that came up is called a rísók. It’s like . . . an evil charm, I guess? You put it on someone and it works its evil juju on them. I knew it was in your bag—”
“I dunno,” Eli says. “I just knew, y’know?” Zoe’s glance flicks up and Eli gives her a weak smile. She doesn’t return it, not quite, but she looks like she’s thinking about it.
“Yeah. I know. You found it, then?”
“Yeah. Burnt it. Dunno if you remember.”
“A little, maybe? Things are . . . it was like I was asleep. You know how in dreams sometimes you just, I dunno. Yell and scream and hit people? Just because it’s a dream and you can and it doesn’t matter and—” A thought seems to occur, and she gasps sharply. “I hit you!” Her face is a picture of devastation that crumples into something even worse a moment later. “I threw a fireball at you! Eli—!”
“I’m fine! I’m fine, Zee. See?” He holds out his arms for inspection. The scales and claws have long since faded, vanishing along with the rísók’s bitter magic.
“It wasn’t you,” he adds, quickly. “I could tell it wasn’t. The magic—”
“It was me, though,” Zoe says, voice small and fragile. “I mean, the curse might’ve . . . I dunno. Made it worse. But it was still me.”
“Not in any way that would hold up in court.” Assuming he could convince a court to believe in magic, that is.
“You really believe that?”
Eli grins, pointing to himself with both thumbs. “Lawyer’s son, right here.” He sobers quickly. “Everyone has the potential to do horrible things. Like, we think bad things about people we know aren’t true. Or dream about, I dunno. Murdering our enemies or whatever. But it’s not that we sometimes have those thoughts, it’s that we recognize them for what they are, and don’t let them take hold of us. Like, brush them aside and let our better selves take over. I think maybe what the curse did, was just, like, stop your better thoughts? But that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, Zee. It just means you’re human.”
Zoe gives him a weak smile. “Something you heard in therapy?”
“Better believe it. Except the part about the curse. Pretty sure Doctor Rice doesn’t believe in magic.”
“What did it look like? The . . . ri-whatsit? I mean, to work it would’ve had to’ve had a part from a magical creature, so . . .?”
Eli winces. “Peryton feather.”
Zoe nods. “That means whoever is summoning those things goes to this school.”
“That’s what I was thinking.”
Eli shakes his head. “I asked Morgan to see if she can get her mom’s case notes.” Which earns him an eyebrow hike.
“Why not get them from your aunt?”
Eli scoffs. “Are you kidding me? I’m not getting Addi in trouble!”
Zoe blinks at him, silent, for one awful moment. Then another. Then her lips quirk up into an honest-god grin, and she giggles.
Once she starts, she doesn’t seem to be able to stop. And Zoe’s giggles set off Eli’s, until both of them are cackling in the tiny backstage room, voices echoing off the painted brick. It’s not that the joke was even funny. It’s just . . . just everything. The Lacroixs and the peryton and the rísók and—
“Do you think she’ll do it?” Zoe eventually asks, when she can get the words out. “Morgan, I mean.”
“I think she’ll try.” Eli thinks for a moment, then decides, what the hell, and adds: “She’s got a crush on me.”
But Zoe just rolls her eyes. “Duh, Ee. Everyone knows that.”
“I didn’t know that!”
“Why do you think Arthur hates you so much?”
“I don’t know! Who even knows why guys like him do what they do?” Which starts Zoe giggling again, which sets Eli off as well.
Everything will be okay, Eli thinks as he watches Zoe’s shoulders shake. It’s still a bit more hysteria then humor, but that’s okay. Whatever got broken between them—by Morgan, by the rísók—it isn’t gone forever. They can fix it.
And then Zoe says:
“Eli? I need to ask . . . Before, the wards on my bag. They . . . they shouldn’t’ve worked. Not really. They didn’t have a focus. Same with . . . with the fireball. But they work around you. Magic always works around you. And . . . and when we were fighting, before. I thought I saw . . .” She stops, swallows. Looks away then looks back again, eyes clearer. “What did I see?”
Eli opens his mouth, then closes it. Makes a decision, and thinks, Widow Adeline is going to kill me.
Out loud, he says:
“Can you skip the rest of the day? There’s something I need to show you.”
Zoe gets changed in the backstage room while Eli stands guard outside (and calls his aunt, terrible terror). When Zoe emerges, she’s dressed as Scarlet Witch, in a short black dress, long black socks, black bracers and a bright red jacket. Eli doesn’t realize how much he’s missed her fashion sense until he has it back. Trying to guess who Zoe’s going to be on any one day is pretty much the best part of his morning.
They sneak off school grounds without so much as a querying look from any authority. Eli takes them up into the woods, around behind the school and headed towards the Heights. He tells Zoe about Morgan and the peryton as they walk.
“Wait,” Zoe says. “You’re telling me you talked to her for like half an hour and she didn’t know it was you.”
“You’ll see.” Which earns him a punch in the shoulder, but it’s playful, not angry.
“Are you, like, the Batman or something?”
Eli thinks of broad, webbed wings shimmering like nebulas. “Kinda,” he says. “I told Morgan my name was Íl’iàn.”
“That’s pretty,” Zoe says. Then, after a moment: “Or, y’know. Manly. Whatever. Where’d you get it from?”
“It’s just ‘helium’ pronounced funny,” Eli admits. “It’s not even . . . anything, really. She just asked and I panicked. I’d had Chem earlier. I dunno. It was what I thought of.”
“Secret Agent Heliuman,” Zoe says. “Monster hunter at large!”
“Something like that.”
“What does that even mean, anyway? ‘At large?’”
“I think it means you’re, like, running from the cops.”
“Hm.” Zoe seems to think about this for a moment. “Well. It kinda makes sense, I guess. Except instead of the cops, you have Lacroix.”
Eli stops. They’re pretty well into the woods by now, sounds from the school swallowed up by the towering oaks and scrubby ground-covers. “Okay,” he says. “This is probably far enough.”
“Far enough for what?”
Eli bites his lip, looks at Zoe. The thing that broke between them is still healing, and he sees the edge of fear in her expression. It’s a measure of trust, he suddenly realizes, that she would follow him alone into the woods like this. The fear is there because she wants to trust him, but isn’t sure that she should.
Eli takes a step backwards. “I’m going to show you something,” he says. “And . . . it’s really important. You can’t tell anyone. Not your parents, not anyone at school. And especially not Lacroix.”
“Eli,” Zoe says. “Okay, like. Now you’re freaking me out.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” Eli takes another step backwards. “Just . . . No Lacroix, okay?”
Zoe nods, though it takes her a moment. “Fine,” she says. “No Lacroixs.”
“Okay,” Eli says, mostly to himself. “Okay.” He jiggles a little in place, glances around again. Then he takes a deep breath, and closes his eye. “Just . . . try not to scream.”
And then he calls the dragon.