Eventually, they make their way back to the main part of the cave. Zoe has pages and pages of notes and half a lunchbox stuffed with glowing mushrooms and impossible flowers, and they’re so busy arguing over whether or not she should take them home (“What if your mom finds them, Zee?”) that neither of them notice Widow Adeline until they’ve all-but run into her.
“School’s out for the day, is it?”
Eli yelps, which comes out as a kind of strange bark, and his immediate instinct is to rear up on his hind legs and spread his wings to try and hide Zoe. As if Widow Adeline hadn’t seen them coming from yards away.
“I assume I don’t want to know,” Adeline says. Then, tilting her head to the side as if to peer around Eli’s wing: “Good afternoon, Miss Chung.”
Zoe, bravely, steps out from behind Eli. “Um. Hello, Ms. Desmarais,” she says which, actually, Eli thinks is the first time he’s ever heard someone call Window Adeline anything other than “Widow Adeline.”
“Desmarais, darling,” Adeline says. Correcting Zoe’s pronunciation, Eli assumes, although he can’t hear the difference.
“Oh, well, I mean. It’s Chung, not ‘Chung’”—that difference, Eli can hear—“but, yanno . . .” Zoe shrugs.
“Touché. I see Elias has let you in on his little secret.”
Zoe looks between Eli and Adeline, brows arching, and Eli says, “It’s okay. She knows. She’s been helping me.”
“Attempting to teach you the language and history of your ancestors, yes. And you, Miss . . . Chung”—better, this time—“I hear you’ve also been indulging in some extracurriculars.” She gestures at Zoe’s lunchbox, brimming with flora.
“Uh . . .”
“Here.” Widow Adeline has a small stack of books, and she holds them out for Zoe to take. “Master Drake attends instruction with me. If you’re going to pursue this little witchcraft game of yours, I’ll expect your presence also.”
“I, um—” Eli holds Zoe’s lunchbox and her bag so she can take Adeline’s books. “I’m not sure—”
“It’s not optional,” Widow Adeline says, voice prim and arch. “Magic is dangerous. Deadly. Now that you’ve grasped the basics, you need to learn to apply that knowledge responsibly.”
“These are grimoires,” Zoe says, flicking through the tomes she’s been handed. There are three of them, ranging from the leather-bound-hand-lettered variety to something that looks like it was printed on the cheap from someone’s CreateSpace account.
“Yes. Read the first two chapters of Malikan’s Primer by Saturday morning. I’ll expect you here sharpish, along with Master Drake. Oh, and please do leave the mushrooms here. You’ll find they won’t survive outside the cave.”
Zoe looks between Adeline and the lunchbox, small and strange in Eli’s claw. “ . . . Really?”
Adeline makes a mhm sort of noise. “Incorrect etheric resonances,” she says. “You’ll learn about it in chapter six. For now . . .” She holds out her hand, clearly expecting the lunchbox to be handed over. After a brief nod from Zoe, Eli complies.
“You, ah . . . you’re not mad, then?” he says. “That, y’know. I told Zoe about the whole—” He gestures to himself.
“Absolutely furious,” Adeline says, voice not so much as quavering. “It was incredibly foolish. But it’s done, and can’t be undone. And as far as allies go, you could have done far worse than a witch.”
“She’s my friend,” Eli says, feeling oddly unsettled at the accusation that he, what? Only told Zoe because she could be useful to him.
“She’s still in the room,” Zoe reminds them both, although her voice is distracted and her eyes haven’t left the book she’s reading. Not the Primer, Eli notes, which is the kind of crappy looking print-on-demand volume. Zoe, meanwhile, is engrossed in the big, leather-bound tome, lips moving as she struggles to read the indecipherably ornate and looping handwriting.
“It’s traditional, at least,” Adeline says. “The shyu’ìur have always been close followers of the xyl’tkkan.”
Shyu’ìyu. Eli rolls the word around in his mind, watching Zoe from the corner of his eye. “‘Cause we invented magic?” he asks, memories of previous lectures surfacing.
Adeline laughs. “I suppose it depends on whom one asks. Most tkkan would certain agree, although yí’asyu historians have their own versions of the story.”
“Yí’asyu . . .” The word is unfamiliar, but the components parts aren’t. “Yí is . . . to speak, right?”
“Future tense, but yes.”
“And asur are... animals?” Then, at Adeline’s nod: “So . . . ‘animals that will speak.’ Humans?”
“That’s not patronizing at all,” Zoe mutters into her book.
“Aah, says homo sapiens, the thinking ape.”
“‘Homo’ means ‘man,’ not ‘ape.’”
“The name that was given to humanity by itself. I suppose it must be strange, to have one’s parochial notions of anthropocentrism challenged by an outside intelligence. And one that watched your evolution as it happened, at that.”
Zoe does look up at that, squinting at Adeline with a kind of disbelieving outrage. “Are you . . . do you seriously think I’ve never encountered othering language before? Because, spoiler alert, I’ve—”
“Oh, crap!” Eli claps his foreclaws together to forestall the argument. It’s not that he thinks Zoe is wrong, exactly, so much as that he doesn’t think getting into a yelling match with Widow Adeline over intersectionality is going to help them. Besides, he’s just remembered:
“I was supposed to call Aunt Addi! Oh, oh crap she’s gonna kill me!”
Aunt Addi does not kill him, but it’s close. The second he shifts back into human form his phone nearly explodes from all the messages (“where does it go?” Zoe asks, to which Eli has no answer), although they cut off abruptly around eleven thirty. Apparently, that was when Addi had thought to call Widow Adeline.
“I told your poor aunt you were weeding my garden,” she says, smirking in a way Eli knows, just knows, means he has hours of weeding ahead of him. “Very distracted by your work, and reception is so spotty out here.”
“I never have any—” Zoe starts, before she catches on with an, “Ooooh.”
When he calls her, Aunt Addi sounds more relieved than angry which, somehow, makes Eli feel even worse. “I can’t lose you too,” she says, and it’s the little hitch in her voice that’s nearly fatal. “I won’t.”
“You won’t,” Eli promises. “I swear. I’ll be fine.” The worst part is, he’s pretty sure it’s true. He’s the freakin’ dragon, after all. It’s everyone else, everyone like Val, who—
Yeah. No. He can’t think about that. Not yet.
Addi wants Eli safe and so, at Zoe’s urging, he tells her he’ll spend the afternoon at the Chungs’. The suggestion gives him a guilty sense of unease, at first. Things with Zoe are still kind of raw, and he doesn’t know if she told her parents about their . . . fight. Eli likes the Chungs and he doesn’t want them to think badly of him, but Zoe insists it’s fine and, more importantly tempts him with her dad’s cooking. After spending the last few hours in his dragon skin, Eli is ravenous, and it’s enough to overcome his hesitation. So Adeline lets them out the front door of her house and they retire to the Chungs’ to scavenge food, Zoe’s head glued into her books the entire time.
Eli isn’t sure how they’re going to explain skipping school to the Chungs—both of whom work from home—although Zoe assures him it’ll be fine and, as it turns out, it is.
“Bad day at school, honey?” says Mr. Chung, coming to greet them in the kitchen. There’s a sort of tightness to his expression as he says it, not anger exactly but . . . something close. And not directed at Zoe.
“Things still kinda suck,” Zoe says, which isn’t even a lie. “I just . . . y’know.” She makes a vague gesture, and Mr. Chung nods.
He also, as promised, makes them lunch (“About time I took a break, anyway”) of fried rice and reheated pork buns. Eli eats about ten thousand of the latter and a truckload of the former. Mr. Chung just laughs and says something about “growing boys,” then disappears back into the house with two much more modest plates, for himself and for Ms. Chung.
Zoe is still busy reading, so Eli busies himself with his phone for a while, flicking through Facebook to see what his old friends back in New York are up to. It still makes him homesick, although now that feeling is cut by a searing curiosity of what it would be like to soar on his wings through the Manhattan skyline. Even as he’s imagining it, he knows it’ll never happen. Not with people like Yvonne Lacroix and her Lyddans out for his blood.
Eli is halfway through his fifth pork bun when Zoe abruptly looks up from her book and announces: “I still think it’s Morgan.”
“Huh?” says Eli, blinking away thoughts of soaring over Central Park.
“The sorcerer,” Zoe clarifies. “I think it’s Morgan.”
“I . . . why?”
“Because. Because of . . . y’know. What happened to me. Who else hates me that much?”
Eli thinks of the girl who’d sat with him in the rain. “It’s not just about that, though. People’ve . . . y’know. Died.” I watched while it killed them, he doesn’t add, because he can’t. “Val. Why would Morgan kill her brother’s best friend?”
Zoe squints at Eli like he’s just asked why Zoe would think the sky is blue. “Boys,” she mutters, as if that’s some kind of explanation.
“Anyway,” Eli continues, “the peryton came after Morgan. I saved her, remember?”
“It could’ve been a set-up?” Except even Zoe sounds dubious. “Okay, well . . . do you have any better ideas, Mr. Dragon Sherlock?”
Eli shakes his head. “No,” he says. “And that’s what’s bothering me.”
He spends the rest of the afternoon at the Chungs’, doing homework and watching Zoe make herself a new amulet out of wire and a chunk of amethyst. To activate the crystal, Zoe uses a single glowing star-shaped flower she smuggled from Adeline’s grotto. Eli watches as Zoe burns the flower atop a pile of salt in her ritual bowl, every hair on his neck standing on end as the yellow flame turns into pure white light and vanishes into the amethyst when Zoe passes it through, chanting words in Xyl’tha.
“There,” she says when she’s done. “No more mind control curses!” She threads a leather cord through the wire and ties the newly formed rísóa around her neck. The stone seems to glow very faintly, as if lit from behind by a softly pulsing LED, and gives off the fresh, clean texture-smell Eli’s come to associate with shyu’ìur magic.
Just after three, he gets a text from Aunt Addi: Stay safe. Going to bed early.
Apparently Aunt Addi’s been texting Mr. Chung, too, who invites Eli to stay for dinner (Korean spicy fried chicken). Afterwards, Mr. Chung insists on driving him home.
“Just . . . in case,” he says, despite Eli’s protests that he’ll be fine.
If anyone in town is going to be fine, it’s Eli. It’s everyone else he has to worry about. Which is why he gives one wave to Mr. Chung at the door, then does one lap of the house to make sure Aunt Addi is asleep (she is). Then he slips out the back, and goes hunting for peryton.
Hunting is not very eventful. Eli spends more time avoiding well-intentioned adults trying to send him home than he does battling monsters. Murders aren’t much of a thing in Rosemont, and after what happened with Val, it seems every adult is on edge. As Eli jogs through the woods, he thinks about what Zoe said, about Morgan being the sorcerer behind the peryton. He doesn’t think it’s true but he also has no idea who it could be instead. Rosemont High isn’t a big school, but it’s still a few hundred kids of which Eli knows about a dozen and, honestly, Eli wouldn’t even know how to tell if one of them was using evil magic anyway. Would he be able to smell it, the same way he can smell the good magic on Zoe? Maybe he should try and check.
He’s thinking of potential strategies, in fact, when he hears the shriek. That awful, unearthly scream he can feel in his bones, that echoes in his nightmares. He’s running towards it before he can think, already feeling the claws push through his fingertips and the spines burst out along his back.
It’s about then he hears the gunshot.
A gunshot and voices. Men’s voices. The peryton shrieks again, this time in pain, and Eli thinks it’s close. The ground dips away not a hundred yards up ahead, and he can smell the stink of it now, rotting in the valley.
“—flank it!” one of the men is saying. “Don’t let it fly!”
Is that Fargo’s voice? Crap. Eli thinks it might be Fargo.
More gunshots, and the sounds make something in Eli recoil in a way the peryton, for all its unnatural horror, never could. Still, he keeps running to the crest of the valley, throwing himself flat at the top of it, claws receding and (hopefully) hidden in the brush.
It is Fargo. And Brooklyn. They’ve got a peryton pinned down below, one wing dragging broken and useless behind it as it limps, cornered and panicked. It’s bleeding, too; the blood like thick, rotting tar, bubbling and burning where it hits the ground.
“Eat shit you piece of shit!” Brooklyn yells, not particularly articulately, and fires another three rounds into the dying beast. Eli isn’t an expert at firearms—the closest he’s ever been to an actual gun has been in videogames—but something about Brooklyn’s pistol seems . . . not right. It’s too big, somehow, and too . . . something. Magic, maybe, but something Eli’s never seen before; not the clean, fresh feeling of the shyu’ìur, nor the rotten corruption of the shyu’ìkki. It doesn’t feel wrong, exactly, just . . . out-of-context. Like watching an eagle swim.
Even so, Eli knows he doesn’t want to get closer.
Neither does the peryton. Brooklyn is a terrible shot, and two of his rounds go wide. He curses again, even as the peryton screams and lunges forward. It isn’t close, exactly, but Brooklyn still stumbles back a step in fear, and as he does his foot catches on something Eli can’t see. A rock or a root, or just the ground. Either way, Brooklyn goes down.
Fargo yells what Eli assumes is Brooklyn’s name, but it’s drowned out by the peryton’s roar. Sensing weakness, it lunges forward, this time opening its wounded-but-powerful wings and flapping once, twice. Enough to propel it forward and onto Brooklyn’s chest.
Eli freezes. It’s Val all over again, but worse. These men are his enemy, he knows—knows they’d kill him in an instant, or worse, that it’s their job to do as much—but that doesn’t mean he can let them die. He should find his scales, find his wings and his claws and his fangs. Take them and his courage and leap forward and—
A gunshot. And another. And another. Bang bang bang, too loud and somehow not loud enough between the trees. And the peryton, giving one final scream that cuts off hideously into a wet, choking gurgle.
Then the thud as it hits the ground. Then silence.
For a moment, Eli can barely breathe. Then:
“Fuck. Almost . . . almost had me.”
“Not today.” Fargo lowers his gun, slowly, like his body doesn’t quite want to give up its tense, wide-legged stance. The first shot had hit the peryton dead between the eyes, had taken off half its head. The others had just been to make sure it stayed gone. “It hurt you?”
“Just my pride.” Brooklyn goes to stand, stumbles, then accepts Fargo’s hand when it’s offered. As he does, he looks at the corpse of the peryton, already starting to decompose into oily ash and smoke. “One more down.”
“God only knows where they keep comin’ from. Should’ve got the last of ‘em when the techs purged the jars.”
“Asshole must’ve kept one in reserve,” Brooklyn says. “And with that kid the other day . . .”
Silence, both men watching the peryton’s corpse. Then:
“What . . . whatcha think got the others?”
“The dead jar,” Brooklyn clarifies. “Something’d been at it before we got here.”
Fargo eyes him, assessing. “Don’t ask questions above your pay grade,” he says eventually. “Things’ll work out a helluva lot smoother the quicker you learn.”
“ . . . Like that, huh?” Brooklyn doesn’t sound happy about it.
“Look, it . . . it ain’t nothin’ personal. But this town . . . it’s G-Class.”
“That why Lacroix is stationed out here? In this pisshole?”
They’re talking about him, Eli realizes. Because he killed the peryton before they could. And he has no idea what “G-Class” is—the way Fargo had said it, it sounded official—but if it has something to do with Lacroix . . .
But Lacroix’s been in Rosemont for years; Arthur and Morgan went to grade school here. So if she wasn’t here for Eli, then . . . what?
The grotto, he thinks. It’s something to do with Widow Adeline’s grotto. Had it belonged to another dragon, once? Something Lacroix hunted? Or killed? He should ask. Maybe there are a lot of things he should be asking, except there’s been so much else going on, and . . .
And below, Brooklyn and Fargo have started doing something to the peryton’s corpse. They’re distracted, but not for long, and Eli is suddenly far-too aware that the forest is far-too silent.
He needs to get out of here.
His heart is hammering as he inches himself slowly out of his hiding place, barely daring to breathe lest the men below hear it. At every rustle of leaves he freezes, terrified, but the voices don’t get closer and, after what feels like an eternity, Eli has crept far enough away that he dares to stand. He tiptoes for another few hundred feet, painfully aware of every step. Then, when he thinks he’s far enough away, breaks into a run.
Nothing follows him home.
That night, sleep does not come easy.