“You don’t look so good. Are you . . . are you okay?”
Thursday morning, and Eli feels like his head is ready to burst and his eyelids have rusted shut. He is one-hundred percent not ready, in other words, to deal with Morgan Lacroix.
“Yeah,” he says. “Just . . . rough night, y’know?”
Morgan nods. She’s still in all-black but it’s not quite the lace-and-lamentation of yesterday. “I’m sorry,” she says and, near as Eli can tell, sounds sincere. “If you need anything . . .” She trails off, biting her lip and looking away, almost as if she knows how futile the offer is.
“‘m okay,” Eli lies. “Just . . . need time, y’know?”
Morgan has cornered him just outside the school, and there’s an awkward moment where neither of them seem to know what to say. Eli’s trying to figure out an excuse to leave when Morgan’s eyes suddenly dart between him and their surroundings, and she leans forward to hiss:
“I got it.”
“Huh?” says Eli, eloquent as always.
“The . . . the files,” Morgan clarifies, or tries to. “About the murders.”
“Oh,” says Eli. Then, when the memory clicks in place: “Oh!”
“From Mom’s laptop. I took photos. I don’t— I need your number. I’ll text them. Then I have to delete them”—said with great urgency—“Mom can never know I took these. You understand, right?”
“Yeah,” says Eli, who does. “Of course.”
He exchanges numbers with Morgan and, a moment later, a series of photos ping into his messaging app. They’re grainy and low-res, obviously taken of the screen of another computer, but they’re readable enough.
“Is that . . . is that what you needed?” Morgan asks.
The photos haven’t come through in any particular order than Eli can tell. Discovery, maybe. He’ll have to piece the rest together himself. Out loud, he says:
“Yeah. Yeah, man. This is great. Thanks.”
“Anytime,” Morgan says, although Eli doesn’t think she really means it. Maybe that she thinks she means it, but . . .
“I just,” Morgan is saying, “I just really think—”
Except Eli never finds out what Morgan really thinks, because she goes suddenly stiff.
“Morgan? Hey, Morgan?”
“I . . . I should go.” Morgan’s eyes are fixed on a point beyond Eli’s shoulder. He can’t see what she’s looking at directly, but they’re around near the science block lab windows, and the light is just right that Eli can make out the round dark silhouette of what can only be Zoe.
“I’ll see you around, Elias.” Morgan is afraid, Eli realizes. Of Zoe. And for one terrible moment he wonders if Zoe . . . did something. Under the influence of the rísók.
God, he hopes not. For Zoe’s sake, he really, really hopes not.
He doesn’t stop Morgan when she goes to leave, and he doesn’t try and follow her. Instead, he waits until Zoe comes close enough to say:
She doesn’t sound angry, though. Just curious. Thank the stars, as Widow Adeline would say.
“Library?” Eli counters. He wants to talk to Zoe, but not here.
Zoe, understanding, just nods.
They find an empty aisle in the fiction section, S-U, down the end where no-one goes. Zoe’s dressed as the Doctor today, in a grey coat and yellow bracers, nails flashing Dalek gold and Time Vortex red.
“Morgan got me photos,” Eli says, when he’s sure they’re alone. “Of the victims.”
“From the—?” Zoe says, eyes going wide at the word she doesn’t dare say. Then, at Eli’s nod: “Who—?”
They both crowd close to Eli’s phone, flicking through the images of the reports Morgan found. Seven in total, describing four victims. “Like the hearts,” Zoe says, and Eli nods. The reports have embedded photos—photos of photos, Eli supposed—and he thinks he recognizes some of the images from the ones Lacroix was showing Zoe the other day, although they’re thankfully blurry.
None of the victims’ names mean anything to him. Devin Steadman, male, age 46. Truck driver, found in the ruins of his truck after crashing near the interstate, about six miles out of Rosemont proper. Originally written off as a traffic accident, the missing heart described as post-mortem scavenging by local wildlife. It’d been the case that had tipped the Lyddans off.
Next victim: Pixie Hayworth, female, age 32.
“I’ve seen her around,” Zoe says, pointing to Hayworth’s mug shot. She’s hollow-cheeked and sunken-eyed, looking much older than her age in the way of someone who’s life has had few comforts. “She’s homeless, I think. And . . . y’know. Drugs and stuff.”
“Someone no one would miss,” Eli mutters. Except someone had; Hayworth’s mother, living in a nursing home in Florida, who’d reported her daughter missing after she hadn’t picked up for their weekly phone call.
She was a troubled girl, is the statement from Mrs. Hayworth, written in blurry text. But she never missed our calls. Never.
Pixie Hayworth had eventually been found near Old Coe Road. Official cause of death: exposure and, again, post-mortem scavenging. The only strange thing had been the remains of black feathers, pulled from her teeth. Like she’d been biting a bird before she died. There’s a note, presumably from Lacroix: Same found in grille of V1’s truck.
Victim number three: John Doe, male, estimated to be in his mid-twenties. A presumed undocumented migrant worker, found dismembered in the woods. More signs of post-mortem animal scavenging. Found as V3, read the notes, but TOD likely before V2/V1.
And, finally, victim number four: Philip Singleton, male, age 57. Found near Lake Travers amidst the remains of his fishing gear, after being reported missing by his supervisor at the Rosemont Sunoco. Assumed cause of death: heart attack, though the heart itself was missing due, again, to post-mortem animal scavenging.
“Four deaths,” Eli says.
“There were four hearts,” Zoe says, voice low and quiet. “In the . . . y’know.”
“Yeah.” A detail niggles, though, and Eli flicks back through the photos to confirm it. “Except . . . all of these deaths,” he says. “They all talk about animal attacks, or feathers, or whatever.”
“Well . . . it’s the peryton, right?”
Eli nods, tight and unhappy. “I . . . When I saw . . . With Val. That peryton, it—”
He’d been doing all right, Eli thought. Just kinda . . . getting on with things. Not thinking about . . . about that. About wet screams and the sound of snapping bones. About the horrible unnatural tearing sound as the peryton took Val’s heart and—
“Eli?” Zoe’s hand is on his arm, carefully covering the phone’s screen and lowering it from his sight. His knuckles are pale from holding the device so tightly, and Eli forces himself to relax. He can’t crush his phone. The photos are on his phone.
“It’s okay, Ee,” Zoe is saying. “If you don’t want to talk about it—”
“It made a copy,” Eli blurts, because he does. He does want to talk about it. He wants Zoe to know, because he doesn’t want to have to be the only person that does. “The peryton. It ate Val’s heart and— and suddenly there were two of it.”
“You . . . you’re saying this is, what? How they reproduce?”
“Yeah, I . . . I guess.” If something so vile, so unnatural as the peryton could even be said to do such a thing. “And all these people, Zee,” he adds. “The peryton, a peryton, killed them. Not a human.”
“So, Zee.” Eli turns to her, wide-eyed and hush-voiced, and says:
“So where did the first one come from?”
The worst part is, they still have to go to classes. It’s not quite like it used to be, though, and somehow that’s worse. Val’s death hangs low and heavy over the school, rumors flying about the man who supposedly killed him. There are even posters, pinned up discreetly near the front office. Have you seen this man? If you have information please call . . . There’s a sketch, too, of a sort of nondescript white dude in a hoodie and coat. Based off the lies Eli and Arthur told the Sheriff, backed up by the Lyddans, and the sight of it makes Eli feel sick to his stomach. His father was an officer of the court, and somehow lying to the cops, about a series of murders, feels like Eli’s just dug up Dad’s grave and pissed in the coffin.
He’s lightheaded and shaking by the time he gets to Chem, and barely registers Jake sitting down next to him.
“Hey,” Jake says. “I, um. Sorry ‘bout the other day.”
“Y’know. I was kind of . . .” Jake trails off, making a nothing-sort of flapping gesture with his hand. “I saw Zoe. She says . . . she says you’re cool, now.”
“Oh,” says Eli. Right, of course. “Yeah. Yeah, we’re cool.”
“Cool,” says Jake, although his voice does not sound like someone who thinks that’s cool at all. Jake and Zoe have known each other since grade school. Eli wouldn’t have said they were close, and neither would Zoe, but he thinks maybe Jake doesn’t see it that way.
He’s, y’know. Hasn’t had such a great time, Zoe had told Eli once. With what happened with his mom, and his dad being in jail. He lives with his grandma in Rose Grove, but she’s, like, super-old. Jake’s kinda the adult in the house, I think. So . . . I feel kinda bad, y’know?
Eli thinks of how many lasagnes and tacos he’s cooked when Aunt Addi’s been pulling late night at the station, and maybe he does know. And if Jake kinda has a crush on Zoe, who could blame him? Zoe’s great. And if maybe she spends more time with Eli now—especially now now, after everything—then maybe Jake’s been getting a bit lonely.
Things will change, in high school, Dad had said once, smirking that smirk he used to get, when he thought he knew something Eli didn’t. (So, like. Always.) People I thought I’d be best friends with forever . . . nowadays, I’d never even remember their names if they didn’t keep adding me on Facebook.
“Hey, um, Elias?”
Jake’s voice, and Eli blinks, banishing the memory of Dad’s voice. He’s been doodling Xyl’tha again. He should probably stop that. At least until this stuff with Lacroix blows over.
Out loud, he says:
“Did you, um. Do you have my textbook?”
Eli does not. Hadn’t even remembered Jake had loaned it to him, in fact, and he winces. “Oh, damn, man. Sorry. It’s just . . . with everything, y’know.”
“Yeah,” Jake says. “Yeah, of course. No problem.”
“I’ll get it for you tomorrow, okay?”
“Yeah, thanks man.”
Of course, that means neither of them have a book for the class. Eli gets the impression Mr. Roughton wants to tell them off but doesn’t, muttering something instead about that being understandable “considering the circumstances.”
Eli, meanwhile, is still trying not to think of the circumstances.
As it happens, he never does get the book back to Jake.
Lunchtime. Eli’s at Zoe’s locker, standing guard while she sorts her things, just in case Morgan gets any more ideas. Turns out, he’s been worrying about the wrong Lacroix.
Arthur is alone again today, dressed in a black button-down and black jeans. Eli’s wearing a purple hoodie and suddenly feels like maybe he shouldn’t be. A guy just died, after all. Eli just watched a guy die.
Not that he owns much all-black clothing. Walking around wearing all-black clothing is . . . sometimes not the safest choice, for guys like Eli.
Arthur doesn’t look angry, or threatening, even dressed in all-black. He looks kinda . . . furtive. Guilty, too-blue eyes constantly darting around, like he’s worried someone’s gonna notice him having a chat with the school pariahs.
“Yeah,” says Eli. “Sure.” The guy did save him from a monster. Eli supposes that buys a fair slab of benefit of the doubt.
“Um.” Arthur looks at Zoe, then away. “Maybe, like. In private?” Then, when Eli just crosses his arms and raises an eyebrow: “It’s about t— the other day. Something you said.”
The other day. The peryton, Eli thinks. It must be.
“Zoe’s cool,” he says. “Anything you wanna say to me, you can say in front of her.”
He waits for Arthur to argue but, surprisingly, the guy doesn’t. Just thins his lips for one moment and makes a breathy kind of huff. “Right,” he says, in the voice of someone fitting a piece into a particularly tricky puzzle. “Yeah, of course. Of course she’d—” He cuts himself off. “Not here, though. Follow me.”
He takes a few steps away, and Eli uses the opportunity to shoot a look at Zoe. She just shrugs an makes an I dunno kind of expression, but goes to follow. Eli takes the rear guard.
Arthur leads them into an empty classroom, in which an ambush and/or beating does not materialize, so Eli takes it that they’re making progress.
“All right,” he says. “What’s up?”
“The other day,” Arthur says. “With the . . . When Val—” His voice cuts off, like it can’t make itself articulate what it doesn’t want to be true. Eli knows that feeling, so just nods, and Arthur’s whole body seems to sag in relief. “You, uh. You said you’d killed one before,” Arthur continues. “One of the— the Emanations.”
“Peryton,” Eli says, because he refuses to use Lacroix’s word for them.
“Right. You said you’d killed one, but . . . but you didn’t tell Mom that.”
Eli feels his scales itch beneath his skin. If Arthur is back onto his Drake-is-a-monster crap . . .
Except Arthur must read his expression, and adds: “It’s not— I’m not gonna rat you out. To Mom, or whatever you’re thinking. I just . . .” He pauses, looks around again like he expects Yvonne to come leaping out from behind the desks. “You did it with magic, didn’t you?” Almost a whisper.
Eli exchanges another look with Zoe, and she nods, just barely, wide eyed and fascinated.
“Yeah,” he lies. At least, he thinks it’s a lie. He isn’t magic. He’s just . . . a dragon.
“Good,” says Arthur. He’s nodding, but not to Eli. Maybe not to anyone but himself. And then he says the absolute last thing Eli expects to hear: “I want you to teach me.”
Eli’s mouth drops open, he can’t help it. He didn’t think that really, literally happened to people but, apparently it does. Because it’s happening to Eli, right now.
Did Arthur Lacroix, son of Yvonne Lacroix of the Lyddan Group, sworn nemesis of all that is magical . . . Did that Arthur Lacroix just ask Eli to teach him magic?
“Ex-cuse me?” Apparently it’s Zoe who finds her voice first. “You want Eli to what?” She isn’t angry when she says it. She’s furious. Eli’s surprised the desks aren’t levitating or catching fire or something with the rage.
Not even Arthur can miss it, and it must scare him, because he takes a step backwards and holds up both hands, placating. “You’re right,” he says. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I should’ve asked you.”
Whatever Zoe was expecting him to say, apparently that hadn’t been it. “What?”
“It . . . it’s you, isn’t it?” Arthur says, voice dropping low again as his eyes scan around the room. “Morgan’s right about that at least. You’re a witch.”
“Hey, now—” is as far as Eli gets.
“A good witch!” Arthur hurries to add. “Is . . . is there a different word? But you are, right? You know how to use magic to . . . to fight things like the Em— the preything.”
“Peryton,” Zoe corrects. “And . . . yeah. And that’s still not a crime.”
Arthur shakes his head. “I know. Mom is . . . Mom. But I saw that thing, what it— what it did. To Val. And if you know how to destroy it, I want to know too.”
“Your mom is gonna burn you at the stake if she finds out.”
Arthur winces. “I know,” he says. “But I have to do something. For Val.”
A pause, long and tense, and how Zoe manages to stare down Arthur when he’s got a good foot over her in height Eli will never know. But she manages. Assessing his sincerity, Eli assumes, and Arthur must as well, because he stares back, expression open yet determined.
“All right,” Zoe says, finally. “I can teach you some basic stuff. Warding, shielding”—then, when it looks like Arthur’s going to protest—“and then, if I find out I can trust you. Then we can move on to the harder stuff.”
“You don’t just turn into a monster hunter overnight,” adds Eli who, he has to admit, kind of did.
“Come over tonight,” Zoe says, looking as if she can’t believe the words are being spoken from her very own lips. “Pretend I’m helping you in, I dunno.”
“English?” suggests Arthur.
They make a time, and exchange numbers. It all feels very strange, and Eli hopes Arthur really is as sincere as he seems. Hopes it’s not just some ploy to get inside Zoe’s house, to find evidence for Yvonne, and—
And . . . what is Eli thinking? Zoe’s right; nothing she’s doing is illegal. She’s not responsible for the peryton or the murders and it’s not illegal to cast spells, even if only for that fact that the law doesn’t believe in them. So even if Arthur did manage to find irrefutable proof Zoe was making magic amulets or brewing healing potions, there’s nothing Yvonne could do about it. Rat Zoe out to her folks, maybe, except the Chungs know about Zoe’s witch thing—they buy her most of her stuff, even—and think it’s all harmless because they don’t believe in it either. They don’t even go to church, and Eli is pretty sure that they’re atheists, if only because he’s overheard Mrs. Wilcox down at the store gossiping about it.
(For that matter, he isn’t even convinced adults whose literal jobs it is to play pretend magic games all day would think actual, objectively demonstrated magic was scary anyway. Ms. Chung would probably just make Zoe go to witch school to learn how to cast fireball correctly.)
So it’ll be fine. Eli thinks. Just . . . fine.
“Hey, um. Elias?”
They’re back in the hallway again, Arthur hanging behind as the super-secret-Scooby-Gang meet-up is over and hubbub of the school catches up with them. So Eli is not expecting it when Arthur says:
“So. We’re having a, y’know. A thing. For Mo. On Friday, at our place. I, um. He really loved your stuff, so it’d mean a lot if . . .” Arthur trails off, suddenly awkward, as if suddenly catching on to the implications of asking Eli to play at the wake of a guy who’d beaten him up more than once.
“You . . . want me to do a mix,” Eli asks, just for clarity.
“Um. Yeah.” Then, more clearly: “Look, I’d totally get it if you’re not into it. I know we— We’ve been assholes to you since you got here. I just—”
“What was his favorite track?” Eli isn’t here for Arthur’s change-of-heart pity-party. Not right now.
Except Arthur answers, no hesitation: “‘Waifu Perfect Class 2.’” Then, like he’s just realized how ridiculous that sounds out loud, laughs. “I mean. He was such a fuckin’ weeb. Mo, I mean.”
Eli would not have picked that, but he supposes that’s the point. “Waifu Perfect Class 2” was one of Eli’s early attempts to mess around with Vocaloid, and it both kinda sucks and is so embarrassing Eli almost didn’t post it. Not something Arthur would be picking to make Val look cool. So . . . saying Val liked it is probably legit. Huh.
“And it’s at your place?”
“Well, the rec centre.” Arthur nods at Zoe. “She knows it. And, um. You’re invited too.”
“What a way to make a girl feel special.” But Zoe just rolls her eyes and adds, to Eli: “It’s the building next to the pool.”
At the Heights, right. Eli’s seen it from the outside but Zoe’s never taken him in. It’s been too cold for swimming, and as far as Eli can tell the place is mostly just used by the Heights’s other residents to run their bridge clubs and whatever.
So Eli nods. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, of course man.” Walking right into the lion’s den, a.k.a. The Lacroix family home, he’s not that into. But the Rosemont Heights Recreational Centre he can do.
Arthur visibly relaxes at Eli’s acceptance. “Thanks, man,” he says. “It . . . it means a lot. And for what it’s worth, I’m sorry about everything.”
Don’t say sorry, Dad always used to say. “Sorry” is just words. Do better, instead. And isn’t that what Arthur’s trying? To do better. Eli can work with that.
They wave Arthur goodbye and it’s all almost . . . cordial. Not like they’re friends, but like they maybe could be. When Arthur’s vanished around the corner, Zoe exhales very suddenly and very loudly. “Well,” she says. “Never in a million—”
“Were you just . . . making plans with Arthur Lacroix?”
Zoe cuts herself off, and she and Eli both turn with a start to where Jake has apparently been watching them from behind a bank of lockers. He looks . . . kinda pissed off.
“It’s nothing,” Zoe says, much more convincingly than Eli ever could. “Lacroix is flunking English and wants a tutor. So he came to the best.” She points at herself, grinning. “Plus, he asked Eli to do some mashups at Val’s, like, wake thing.”
“Yeah,” Eli says, nodding. “Tomorrow. At the rec centre at the Heights.”
“It’ll just be all Lacroix’s crew,” Zoe adds. “Kinda sucks, but the guy just died, so . . .” She gives a little what are you gonna do? shrug.
Jake nods. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, sure.” He sounds like he’s trying to convince himself more than anything.