He doesn’t, as it turns out, get far. Instead, he runs straight into Zoe in the hallway. Her eyes are wide and she’s breathing hard, like she’s been running too, which—
“Zee, I have to—” Eli blurts, at the same time as Zoe says: “Eli! Listen, I—”
They both stop, stare at each other for a moment, then blurt:
“No, me first!”
And it would be funny, maybe, if things weren’t so dire and Zoe didn’t look so panicked. Come to think of it, why did Zoe look so—
Eli doesn’t even get to finish the thought. Not when Zoe blurts:
“I saw it, Ee! In the flash. From the lightning. We were just, I dunno. Talking. Then the lightning hit and the lights went out, and everyone screamed. And it was kinda funny, y’know? Except, Ee. Ee, there was another one. More lightning. And in the flash, Ee. I saw it.”
And somehow, Eli just knows what she’s going to say. That little half-forgotten memory, from what seems like another lifetime, rushing to the fore:
“Eli. His shadow. It wasn’t his, it was the peryton’s.”
The peryton’s shadow. Just like the evil sorcerers in Zoe’s parents’ dumb Dungeons & Dragons book.
“Jake,” Eli says, and Zoe’s eye get even wider, whites seeming to almost glow both from the gloom and from the dark eyeshadow framing them.
It’s about that time, however, that the screaming starts. For real this time, not just the half-hearted shock of before. In between the sound, Eli can feel something. A sort of static hum and a thudding bass, like being too close to a live wire and too close to a concert speaker, all at once.
Zoe must feel it too, because she says: “The wards. Something . . . something’s trying to get in.”
“Wait here,” Eli says, as if that . . . as if that’s going to do anything. Zoe seems to realize it too, because she calls his name indignantly as he bolts down the short corridor and into the rec centre’s main room.
People are definitely screaming. Eli has to muscle his way through the crowd, which is pressing itself against the walls, as far away from the windows as possible. They run one whole side of the room, big floor-to-ceiling plate glass looking out over the pool, hinged like they open up during summer.
They’re closed now, though. Which is good. Because outside, the dark, hulking shape of a peryton looms. As Eli watches, it spreads open its putrid wings, lowering its head and screaming. Then it lunges at the glass.
More screaming, from inside this time. Then a strange, almost crystalline crashing as the peryton hits, not the glass of the window, but the crackling blue-white forcefield of Zoe’s wards. It’s the same sort of magic that protected Eli, when all of this first started, except now it’s covering the entire building. Eli can feel it, bright and crisp and vibrant. Keeping the corruption outside at bay.
“It’s okay!” someone shouts. “We’re safe inside. It can’t get in.” Arthur. It’s Arthur, pushing his way to the front of panicked group of teens, regal and confident like his namesake.
“It’s a monster!” comes another voice. Then a third: “It killed them! Those people!”
“It killed Val.” Arthur strides right up to the window. “I saw it.” Then, to the peryton snarling at him from outside: “You’re going to die you monstrous piece of shit!”
Another crash of lightning, illuminating both Arthur and the beast. Then, when it clears, the sound of a single set of hands. Clapping.
“Oh, bravo. Bravo. Very heroic. I’m inspired, are you?”
“No . . .” says Eli, voice barely a whisper.
It’s Jake. He’s standing on what Eli realizes must be Val’s memorial table. Standing on top of Val’s memorial, pages of the guestbook crumpling beneath his muddy trainers. The crowd is pulling back from him, uncertain, glancing between him and the peryton as if unsure who they should fear the most.
“You.” Arthur’s expression crumples into a confused scowl. “You’re . . . you’re Drake’s friend.”
Jake makes an exasperated clicking sound, shoulders and arms heaving in the over-exaggerated gesture to go along with it. “‘Drake’s friend?’” he snarls. “Really? That’s all I get? ‘Drake’s friend?’ We’ve been going to school together since grade school, you mogging chad! And you don’t even remember my fucking name! None of you. Ever. Remember. My fucking. Name!”
He’d buried his hands in the pockets of his coat, but as he speaks he pulls them out, gesturing at the crowd.
In the right, he’s holding a pistol.
“He’s got a gun!” someone shouts. There’s a half-second of panic that turns to screaming as Jake shoots a round into the ceiling.
“Shut up!” he howls. “Shut the fuck up and stay where you fucking are! I’ll fucking kill you!”
The crowd hits the floor, diving under tables, friends huddling together, trying to protect each other with their bodies. Active shooter drills are a thing, even at Rosemont High.
Eli drops with them. There’s a table nearby with the punch and the snacks, covered in a white tablecloth that goes to the ground, and Eli rolls underneath it. Two girls he vaguely recognizes from English class stare at him with wide-eyed terror as they clutch each other. He puts one finger to his lips, miming for silence, then mouths to them: Everything will be okay.
Funny, Eli thinks. He doesn’t feel afraid. He doesn’t know if dragons are bulletproof but he supposes he’s about to find out. That should frighten him, maybe, but it doesn’t. Watching helplessly while Val was torn apart frightened him. Doing something, though? Protecting people? He’s a freaking dragon. Protecting people was what what he was born for.
Outside, beyond the tablecloth, Arthur is saying: “Jesus, I . . . Jake, right? It’s Jake. Yeah. Just . . . just put down the gun, okay? We don’t— There’s a freakin’ monster outside, dude. Just . . . just be chill. And we’ll be okay.”
“Oh,” Jake says. “I know about the ‘monster.’ Don’t I, buddy? Sit, boy! Sit! Who’s a good boy? Who’s gonna get to eat so many fuckin’ normies? Yes you are! Yes you are!”
Next to Eli, one of the girls begins to cry, sobs muffled in her friend’s shoulder. Eli’s nails, meanwhile, have turned to claws and are gouging heavy rents in the wooden floor. Soon, he thinks to himself. Soon. Just keep him talking, Lacroix. Just a little longer. He can’t see much from beneath the tablecloth. He’s going to have to guess where Jake is, and he’s going to have to be fast, and he’s going to have to be right.
“This . . . this was you?” Arthur is saying, horror dripping from his words. “All those deaths—”
“It was cute,” Jake says, “warding the place. That roastie gook bitch do that for you? I used to think she was cool, y’know? Kinda hot, for a landwhale. Then that fucking city ni—”
“Jesus, Jake,” Eli mutters. He doesn’t want to listen to this.
Neither does Arthur, apparently.
“Oh, fuck off,” Arthur snaps. “You know what, that’s enough. That’s fucking enough. You don’t get to do this, make your big speech about how fucking hard things are. You’re having a shitty time? Join the fucking club! We’re all having a shitty time, asswipe! This is high school! That doesn’t mean you get to—”
“Don’t pretend you fucking understand!” Jake wails. And, there. A gasp in the crowd, the faintest metallic click.
He doesn’t think about it, doesn’t think about how many people might be watching. He just leaps forward. The space isn’t big enough for his full dragon-shape, but the claws push through his fingertips and the spines erupt from his shoulders and arms.
He can’t get to Jake, not from where he’s been hiding, not with the huddled crowd in the way. But he can get to Arthur, and Eli slams into him now at full force, throwing Arthur to the ground just as the gunshot hammers through the rec centre, too loud and not loud enough, all at the same time.
Eli feels it pass overhead, feels the wake of it stripping through the air. For one moment, his eyes lock with Arthur’s, who’s looking up at him, wide and astonished.
“ . . . Drake?” Arthur mutters, the word punctuated as the window behind them shatters into a thousand shards.
Eli feels the wards break, a weird popping behind his ears like with the descent of an airplane.
“The wards!” he says. “Get everyone out of here!” Somewhere nearby, Jake is screaming. (“Kill them! Kill them all!”)
“Do it!” Eli punctuates his shout with a shake, the edge of a roar creeping into his voice. “I’ll deal with the peryton!”
Arthur nods, just briefly, and that’s done. Eli rolls one way and Arthur rolls the other. “Get out!” he yells. “Everyone! This way!”
From somewhere in the crowd, Jake screams again, and this time it’s accompanied by the rancid taste of bad magic. Eli doesn’t bother to look and see, can’t bother to look and see, not while the peryton is hopping forward, through the shattered window, bile drooling from its razor-toothed maw.
“Oh,” Eli says. “You’re fucking done!” And he pounces.
It isn’t a boy that lands on top of the beast; it’s a dragon, rain-slicked scales shimmering like nebulas. The peryton screams and thrashes but Eli doesn’t give it a chance, momentum sending them both out of the rec center and into the storm, skidding across slippery wet tile. Eli is just . . . he’s done. So fucking done with all of this. So he clamps his jaws over the peryton’s throat, biting down until his mouth is flooded with the vile black ichor of the beast’s blood. It makes him want to gag and hurl but he fights the urge down, thinking of Zoe and Arthur and Morgan and everyone else. Safe. They just need to be safe. Nothing else matters.
Eventually, the peryton stops thrashing, struggles growing weaker and weaker. Eli waits until it’s totally still, until he feels the wicked, corrupted life seep out of it. Then he rears up and stumbles backwards, desperately spitting black gunk and opening his mouth to the rain to wash it clean.
Behind him, he hears a familiar clapping.
Eli turns. It’s Jake, of course. His jacket is torn and singed and he looks like he’s take a few hits to the face. Like some of the other kids have tried to take him out. Good.
“What,” he says, “the fuck. Are you supposed to be? A . . . a weredragon?”
“Jake,” Eli says. “Enough. It’s over.” It’s worth a try, he supposes. Even if Jake is oozing black smoke and bad magic, corrupted and filthy. Stars, it should’ve been so obvious. How did Eli not notice it?
“Oh, no,” Jake is saying. “When the dragon shows up it’s not over. It’s just starting!” He gestures with one hand, and a dark shape lands behind him with a ground-rumbling thud. Another peryton, but bigger than the ones Eli’s seen before. Bigger and . . . wronger, somehow.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” Jake says, gesturing to the monster. “Now, I mean. Before . . . yikes.” He recoils as if in disgust at the memory. “But this magic, it’s like technology, y’know? Like, you make a great piece of art, then you shove it in a photocopier and get out a shitter version on the other side. Then you put that in, and get an even shittier version. It was like that, y’know. With the others. But this one, she was the first. And the best.” Almost as if it understands the praise, the ur-peryton shifts its stance and opens its wings. Preening, grotesque and proud.
“Jake,” Eli says. “I just . . . why, man?”
Jake shrugs, like none of this even matters. “I mean, at first I thought maybe if I could, like, do something cool then Chung would finally fucking put out, y’know? I mean, years I’ve been doing nice shit for that ungrateful bitch. Just waiting for her to fucking wise up, realize she’s not going to do better. So I though, yeah. Magic, she likes that shit. But maybe if I could do real magic . . . And, hey presto!” He gestures to the ur-peryton. “Ebay, right? That’s the real fucking magic right there. And it was working, too. I had real fucking game. Right up until you came along. Then suddenly it was all, ‘Ooh, Elias this,’”—he puts on a grotesque falsetto as he says it, simpering with his hands clasped beneath his chin—“‘Elias that. He’s such a fucking Tyrone, Jake. I bet he has a hu-uu-uge dick, Jake. He’ll fuck me so wide—‘”
“Dude!” Eli rears back, claws raised in repulsion. “What the— She’s you fucking friend, dude!”
“She’s not a ‘friend!’” Jake spits. “They never are, those fucking sluts! They just fucking use you!”
“Jesus, Jake . . .”
And Eli . . . Eli has no idea what to do. Not with this. Monsters, he can fight. Magic, he can deal with. But . . . this? What good is being able to turn into a dragon in the face of this?
“You need help,” Eli finally says. “Like . . . real help, dude.” Help and jail and . . . something.
“Fuck you. I don’t need help. For the first time, I can finally fucking. Help! Myself!” And he gestures, and the ur-peryton lunges.
Eli’s ready for it, or should be, but the ur-peryton hits him like the backdraft of a jet takeoff. He goes sprawling, wings beating uselessly and claws straining to keep the ur-peryton’s teeth from his throat. It’s so close, its fetid breath gusting into his face and—
More lightning, and in the flash, Eli sees the ur-peryton’s eyes. Not the mad goat-slats of the others, but faded blue-grey and all-too-human. Like Jake’s eyes, almost, except Eli’s never seen Jake with an expression of such pure, unfettered anguish.
The ur-peryton is crying. Even in the rain, Eli can see that.
“I’m sorry,” Eli tells it, suddenly hit with the horrifying realization that there’s still something human inside the beast. “I’m so sorry this happened to you.”
The ur-peryton’s eye widens, just for a moment, then seems to flood with what Eli thinks is relief. That someone saw it. The eye closes, determined, and for a moment, the peryton falters.
It’s just enough, and Eli throws the beast from him. It staggers backwards but doesn’t go down, but it’s still enough for Eli to scramble to his own feet.
“Fight, you dumb bitch!” Jake screams. He thrusts a hand forward, the black-green light of foul magic curling between his fingers, and—
Something bright and brilliant blue-white slashes through the air. Jake jumps back before it can hit his arm, and—
It is, too. Arthur Lacroix. He’s holding something in his hands, a Lacrosse stick. Except it’s glowing with the blue-white of Zoe’s magic.
Jake sees it too. “She made you a magic fucking weapon? No!” He rakes the air with a hand, summoning a sickly green-black fireball. Arthur, star player of the Rosemont High Lacrosse team, knocks it aside easily with his crosse, the magics sparking and crackling as their conflicting energies clash.
It’s all of the fight Eli gets to see. Whatever moment of clarity the ur-peryton had, it’s gone; the human subsumed once more beneath the corrupted magic of the beast. The thing roars, and lunges, and this time Eli dodges, raking it across the shoulder as it passes. It’s stronger and bigger than the other peryton he’s fought, but it’s still clumsy, and he’s still faster. So he uses that, darting around its attacks, leading it around the far side of the rec centre pool. Every now and again a clot of Jake’s balefire goes sizzling overhead, but most of the shouts are his, too, and Eli hopes that means Arthur is winning.
The rain is still pelting down and it’s that that gives Eli an idea. The pool area is tiled and the ur-peryton’s awkward feet keep slipping in the wet, its claws too big and too clumsy to get a grip. There’s a garden bed on this side of the pool, and Eli’s currently trampling all the flowers, which he’ll feel bad for later. Mostly, though, he’s going for the garden hose.
It extends from the outside wall of the rec centre, left lying across the tiles from whomever last used it. Eli crouches low to the ground, like he’s about to pounce, and the peryton roars and readies itself for the impact.
Eli doesn’t pounce, though. Eli’s own claw is curled around the hose’s nozzle. He waits. Half a heartbeat. Then he pulls.
The peryton is standing right on top of the hose’s length.
It isn’t much, but the force of Eli’s yanking pulls the hose taught, lifting the ur-peryton’s right foot as it does. The peryton squawks, surprised and off-balance, as it stumbles one step, then two. Then, quite abruptly, there’s no more ground for it to stand on, and it tumbles into the pool.
Eli doesn’t waste time, dropping the hose and leaping to the pool’s edge. When the peryton’s head breaks the water’s surface he’s ready for it, pushing it back down into the inky dark.
If the peryton isn’t made for walking it really isn’t made for swimming. It thrashes, desperate, soaking Eli all over again with the salt-chlorine pool water. But he holds it down, muscles in his arms straining beneath the scales, and the beast never manages to resurface.
“I’m sorry,” he tells it, as it gulps in huge lungfuls of water in its panic. “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.”
And then, with one last, futile gasp, the beast falls still. As it does, its too-blue too-human eye looks up through the water at Eli, and he thinks that maybe, just maybe, he sees relief.
When he stands, he sees Arthur watching him. “Is it—?” is as far as he gets. Because Arthur had thought he’d dealt with Jake, maybe, except he hadn’t been watching. And Jake surges upright now, emerging behind Arthur like a shadow.
This time, he’s holding the gun.
“Move, and I blow his fucking brains out.” He presses the gun’s barrel against Arthur’s temple.
Arthur closes his eyes, resigned, and there’s a clatter and the zap of clean-blue magic as his battered crosse falls from his fingers to the tiles.
“Enough, Jake,” Eli says. “This is enough.”
“Fuck—” Jake starts, but Eli isn’t listening.
Because he means it; this is enough. He feels that inside him, churning like a nebula, blazing like a star.
Only the shyu’ìk, those who practice dark magics, have anything to fear from the kóa, Widow Adeline had told him. If your friend is shyu’ìyu, the fires should do her no harm.
And Arthur’s only had one lesson for Zoe, but Eli hopes—prays, to whatever is listening out there in the void—that it’ll be enough.
And so Eli reaches inside, and reaches out, and calls down the stars.
The dragonfire, the xyl’kóa, doesn’t come from Eli’s mouth. He’s sort of . . . surprised about that. Maybe he doesn’t know much about dragons, but in everything he’s seen, they definitely breathe out the fire or ice or whatever.
Eli does not. Eli’s kóa comes from the sky; a massive pillar of blinding pink-purple-blue, so bright it registers as white, that slams into Arthur and Jake. The latter screams, and even through the glare Eli can see the gun melt straight out of his hand. Melt straight through his hand, and Jake has one moment to stumble back, clutching his limb, before he collapses.
When the dragonfire clears, a moment later, aftereffects glitters like falling stars between the rain, only Arthur is left standing.
For a moment, he seems paralyzed. The he exhales, very big and very slow.
“I’m . . . alive?” he says. Motes of glowing kóa cling to his hair and to his shoulders, twinkling like the stars.
“Only the shyu’ìk have anything to fear from the kóa,” Eli repeats.
“Er, right,” says Arthur. “Sure.”
He blinks, then seems to gather himself. He turns to look at Jake, crouching beside the boy’s crumpled body. “He’s alive,” he says, after a moment of taking Jake’s pulse. “I . . . honestly, I’m not sure how I feel about that.”
“Yeah,” agrees Eli. It’s not that he wants to have killed Jake, exactly, but . . .
He’s about to say more, or maybe Arthur is, except they can hear the sirens now. Distant, beneath the rain, but getting closer.
“Zoe calls the cops,” Arthur says, standing. “And . . . and Morgan called Mom.”
Eli rears up, spines bristling with uncertainty. He can’t let Lacroix catch him. Especially not now.
Except, for the first time, it seems maybe Arthur is thinking the same thing. “Go,” he says. “Go. I’ll . . . I’ll think of some cover story. I’ve fooled Mom before.”
I know, Eli doesn’t say. “Yeah,” he does instead. “Thanks.”
Arthur just nods.
Eli returns it, opens his mouth to say something, then realizes he has no idea what. So instead he rears up, opens his wings, and leaps off into the woods.