Chapter 7

Chapter 7

 

Dirk sat in the living room, ignoring the football game on the TV in front of him while he listened to the noises in the kitchen.

Norma, the housekeeper his father had hired from the Philippines, was clanking plates into the dishwasher. Bridget sat at the kitchen table drawing pictures and chatting away to Norma, oblivious to the fact that the woman didn’t understand a quarter of what she said. With Bridget, that sort of thing didn’t matter. Cassie was in the kitchen as well, washing the china she didn’t trust anyone else to handle.

After the first couple days, their father had moved Aaron to a room in the house and had been purposely lax about guarding him. Aaron had agreed to stay, and his freedom was a test to see if, given the chance, he would bolt. So far he hadn’t.

His father had taken Aaron to the enclosure over an hour ago. They’d gone to feed Khan the turkey carcass but obviously, his father had more planned. It took about ten seconds for a dragon to eat dinner. They weren’t big on chewing.

Dirk tapped his thumb against the remote control, nervous for Aaron and irritated all over again that his father had abducted the kid.

It wasn’t just the wrongness of the kidnapping that bothered Dirk. He’d had an unwanted sense of responsibility thrust on him. Now he had to worry about Aaron, had to act as an intermediary, and most problematic, he had to figure out whether he should help the kid escape.

Back when he’d first seen Aaron, scared and trying to get away at the fair, Dirk had decided he couldn’t stand by and see his brother shanghaied. Dirk would just need to figure out how to help him get home in a way that didn’t implicate himself in the process.

But now he didn’t know.

Tori would help Dirk if he asked her. He could tell her to meet him somewhere and hand Aaron off to her. And he would get to see Tori again. Although with a twelve-year-old around, the meeting wouldn’t end like the last had.

Dirk smiled at the thought of their kiss. He could convince Tori to join him. He just needed more time. If he contacted her about Aaron…

But maybe it was pointless to even make those sorts of plans. Aaron didn’t seem all that eager to leave. After his first burst of outrage at being taken, his anger had fizzled into sporadic resentment, occasional homesickness, and a stubborn insistence that his cell phone be returned.

Most of the time, he seemed happy to be here. He was interested in the dragons, wanted to learn everything about them, and was almost equally curious about their father. Every time Aaron was with their dad, he peppered him with questions about his life, his likes, his dislikes, and his plans to take over.

Their father never answered questions about his attack plans, but over the last five days he’d talked more about himself and told more stories about growing up in St. Helena than Dirk had ever heard. His father lapped up the hero-worship.

Aaron loved the fact that he’d inherited superpowers, was in awe of their father and was more than willing to be bribed. But Aaron was also keeping secrets. Dirk could sense that. Aaron was a bad liar—too nervous, too unused to lying to be casual about it.

Some of the lies Dirk understood. Aaron had lied about where he’d lived to protect their mom. He’d lied about being an only child to protect whatever siblings he had. Dirk would have done the same thing.

But at other times Aaron seemed to be hiding things Dirk couldn’t even guess at. His deception was there in his questions, some lurking agenda that Aaron was always trying to shuffle away from Dirk’s notice. Every time Aaron called their father “Dad” which he’d done since the second day, there was a little bit of a lie mixed in with the word.

Which didn’t make sense because the one thing Dirk was sure about was that they shared a father.

Dirk set down the remote. Maybe he should go to the enclosure and see what was taking his father and Aaron so long. Before he got up, his father’s voice boomed through the kitchen. “You’re looking at a boy who can fly—not twenty feet, not thirty feet—but miles.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful!” Cassie said. When she talked to Aaron, her voice was always a little too sugary. She apparently hadn’t made up her mind about whether having Aaron here was a good thing or not and was overcompensating.

Bridget said, “Yay! When can you take me on a flying piggyback ride?”

“Not for a while,” their father answered. “He needs to work on his landings before we saddle him up and make him haul around little girls.”

“Can you take me then, Daddy?” Bridget asked.

Dirk hoped their father said yes because now that she’d gotten the idea of flying into her head, she wouldn’t be happy until someone took her. And Dirk was the only other someone who could fly.

“In a few minutes,” their father said, getting closer. “I’ve got to give Aaron something first.”

Their father sauntered into the living room and over to the end table where his tablet was charging. He unplugged it and handed it to Aaron with a flourish. “I’ve connected you to a site that you can use to call your mother and tell her about your new achievement.”

Aaron brightened. “Awesome! Thanks!”

Awesome? It was like the kid had already forgotten that talking to his mom didn’t use to be a privilege.

“However,” their father went on, “I’ll take the tablet back after I’m done with Bridget, so don’t waste your time calling your friends. They wouldn’t believe you about flying anyway.”

Aaron hesitated before putting in a phone number. His gaze went to Dirk. “If I make the call, will anyone be able to track it?”

His father picked up Bridget with one arm, making her giggle and grab onto his neck. “No need to worry about that. My IP address is automatically rerouted.”

Dirk answered the question Aaron was really asking. “No one will be able to tell where your mom is either.”

Satisfied with the answer, Aaron tapped in her number and flung himself on the couch, half leaping, half flying. He crashed into it so hard the piece of furniture wobbled and nearly fell over.

“No flying in the house,” their father called over his shoulder and left the room.

“Sorry, Dad,” Aaron called back.

Dad. Liar.

Aaron turned his attention to the phone. “Hey Mom, it’s me. I’m fine—”

Dirk hadn’t expected that he’d feel a pang of anger when he heard Aaron say the word ‘mom’ but he did, sharp and strong. He wasn’t sure who the feeling was directed at—his father for not letting Dirk talk to his mother all these years and then allowing Aaron to do it after five days, at his mother for skipping out on his life and choosing to raise Aaron instead, or at Aaron for being the one that she chose.

Dirk was caught between the desire to storm out of the room and the urge to stay and listen to half of his mother’s conversation. She was so close. Close enough that if Dirk turned off the TV he might be able to hear her voice.

“I have no idea,” Aaron said. “I’ve only gone from the house to enclosure. The weather seems normal so I guess I’m not in the tropics or anything.”

Dirk turned up the TV a couple of notches. He didn’t need to hear his mother’s voice. He’d gone long enough without it, without her. And he was perfectly fine. Perfectly. Fine.

“It’s not like I’m locked up or anything,” Aaron said. “Everything’s cool. I’m learning about dragons and today I figured out how to fly. You should have seen me. I’d send you video, but I’m not allowed to take pictures of the dragons or myself flying.”

A pause.

Aaron lowered his voice. “There aren’t any other houses around. And besides, if I did something like that he wouldn’t trust me anymore. I want him to teach me dragon lord stuff. I’m fine, really.”

Bianca must have instructed Aaron to leave the house and find help so he could go back to her. How sweet. How motherly. She was telling Aaron to leave but she’d made sure Dirk stayed.

Dirk turned off the TV and headed out to the front porch for some fresh air. His mother could tell Aaron how much she missed him in private.

Once outside, Dirk leaned against the porch railing and looked out over the mile of property they’d lived on since last month. All sorts of fresh air and he still felt like he was suffocating. The place didn’t feel like home. He hadn’t even unpacked all his boxes yet.

He tried to see the property the way Aaron saw it—the tangle of trees that surrounded them, an entire forest that ran up the surrounding hills. The carpet of discarded leaves browning on the ground around them. No sign of civilization. Aaron wouldn’t be able to escape without help. Fifteen-foot fences surrounded the property, the doors and windows were alarmed, and the yard was riddled with motion sensors. The nearest neighbors were miles away. If Aaron knew and planned to circumvent those things—which would be easy enough with the power of flight and a good excuse to go outside—he still wouldn’t make it far. While he’d been unconscious on the airplane, their father had injected a tracking chip into his left hip. As long as it was in place, their father would always be able to find Aaron.

Minutes went by. Dirk saw no sign of his dad flying with Bridget. The two must be on the other side of the property. Dirk had gone outside without a jacket and the cold November air was pushing through his shirt like it wasn’t there. He tucked his fingers under his arms to keep them warm and leaned against a porch column. He didn’t want to go back inside yet.

The door swung open and Aaron stepped out, tablet in his hand. “Mom wants to talk to you.” He held out the tablet.

For a moment Dirk just stared at it, anger fighting with a decade old longing to hear her voice. “She wants to talk to me?” he repeated, buying himself time to decide whether to not to speak to her.

What would she say? Did she want to apologize? Maybe she just wanted to ask him to help Aaron escape.

“Yeah,” Aaron kept holding out the tablet.

Dirk took it. He would at least give her the chance to explain why he hadn’t been good enough, why she’d chosen a baby she’d never even seen over him.

“Hello,” he said.

“Dirk, is that you?” He’d thought he would recognize her voice. He’d heard it enough times on the videos from his early years. But her voice sounded lower, breathier.

“Yeah, it’s me.”

She didn’t say anything else for a moment, and he wondered if he’d lost the call. Then he heard her crying.

Crying.

It should have moved him. And maybe it did. But it also frustrated him. You were supposed to comfort crying people and he wasn’t ready to do that yet. She hadn’t given him any sort of explanation.

“Sorry,” she said. “It’s just that you sound so grown up.”

He recognized her voice then, the lilt of it. “Well, it’s been twelve years.”

“I know. And I’ve thought of you every single day.”

Thinking of him was probably easier than being there for him. “Have you?” he asked.

“Of course. And every birthday I wondered where you were and what you were doing.”

Well, that made two of them. She wasn’t apologizing and she wasn’t explaining. Man, that meant she just wanted to ask him to help Aaron.

“I want to know everything about you,” she said. “What’s happened in your life?”

A memory flashed through his mind from the night she left. He hadn’t understood what her absence meant back then, only that his father was really angry about it. His father had picked up Bianca’s china cabinet and flung it into the dining room wall. The cabinet had cracked, shattered, and then lay in a heap of splintered wood bits of dishes.

Dirk knew the broken glass was dangerous, but he’d seen an undamaged teacup resting in the wreckage. He’d wanted to save it for his mom. After his father stormed out of the room, Dirk waded through the shards. A jagged piece of wood scraped across his ankle and when he put out a hand to steady himself, he sliced his fingertip. But he didn’t cry out because he knew if he made a sound, his father would return and take the cup from him.

He’d hidden it in his toy room and waited for his mother to come home. He’d figured she would be upset that his father had broken her dishes, but Dirk would be able to produce the cup and make her happy again.

Eventually Dirk forgot about the cup. Years later, one of the housekeepers found it and brought it to the kitchen. As soon as his father saw it, he threw it in the trash. Dirk hadn’t protested. By then he’d realized he couldn’t make his mother happy.

With the tablet in his hand, Dirk could find no words to say to his mother about his life. He stepped away from the porch column, ready to go inside. “I don’t want to take up your time. Aaron only has a little while to talk. I’ll let you get back to him.” He handed the phone to his brother.

Dirk knew he shouldn’t leave Aaron outside, unsupervised. He would be too tempted to listen to their mother’s advice and make a break for it. If the kid wanted to run, he needed to know what he was up against and do it right.

As Dirk opened the door to go inside, he said, “Don’t go anywhere. You’re not supposed to know this, but you’ve got tracking chip in your left hip.”

There. He’d done his duty by his mom. He’d helped Aaron so he didn’t make a mess of his escape.

Dirk went inside, marched upstairs to his bedroom, and stayed there the rest of the night.

***

The next morning while Dirk was still asleep, his father strolled into his bedroom and announced, “I’ve got work to see to. Take Aaron out on the grounds and help him with his flying. He’s got a lot to learn. He should practice most of the day.”

Dirk didn’t get up, didn’t even open his eyes. One handed, his father picked up the side of the bed and toppled Dirk onto the floor.

There were definite drawbacks to having a parent who got extra strength every time he visited the dragons.

Dirk groaned and sat up. “Fine. I’m awake.”

“Good. Aaron just got up too. Make sure he has breakfast before you go out.”

Ten minutes later, Dirk was dressed and downstairs in the kitchen. Bridget had made toast and was putting a thick layer of jam on her bread. Aaron was sifting through the cereal cupboard. “Don’t your parents believe in sugar cereal?” he asked Bridget. “Why does every box in here have the word bran on it?”

Dirk opened the fridge, took out a piece of pumpkin pie and an apple, then motioned for Aaron to follow him. “Come on. We’ll eat while we walk to the enclosure.”

Outside, clouds covered the sky, a white backdrop against the gray-brown of the trees. Their bare branches reached upward, skinny and scrawny and brittle. Everything looked dead, but it wasn’t. The trees were just smart enough to keep their energy deep inside where winter couldn’t destroy it. They learned they didn’t have to fight the cold, they just needed to endure it.

As Dirk headed down the stairs, he handed Aaron the pie. “Breakfast. It’s the most important meal of the day.”

Aaron narrowed his eyes at Dirk. “You know you’re a complete jerk, right?”

Dirk switched the hand he held out. “Fine. Have the apple if you want it.”

Aaron took the apple but hardly seemed to notice it. They headed across the wet layer of leaves toward the enclosure. “Do you know how long Mom has waited to talk to you? Do you know how badly she’s wanted it? You didn’t even speak to her for an entire minute. What’s wrong with you?”

Dirk took a bite of the pie, felt the tang of cinnamon on his tongue. “My problem is I’m scarred from a bad childhood. You see, my mom left me when I was six.”

“Only because Dad wouldn’t let her take you. She didn’t want to lose you.”

“She didn’t lose me,” Dirk said. “I didn’t wander off in the woods. Kids aren’t like car keys and spare change that you misplace. She took off. She’s got to live with that now. I can’t undo it.”

Aaron stared at him, dumbfounded, noting not just Dirk’s words but the emotions behind them. Apparently it had never occurred to Aaron that Dirk would feel so strongly about being abandoned.

How nice to be twelve and think your parents loved you.

“It wasn’t like that,” Aaron said, begrudgingly taking a bite of the apple. “It wasn’t her fault. You should talk to her.”

Dirk bit into another piece of pie, but hardly tasted it. “Maybe next time when you call her.” He only said this so Aaron would drop the subject.

“She didn’t want things to be this way,” Aaron said, but he didn’t push the issue. Not while they finished the walk to the enclosure or trudged down the stairs, even though his sullen footsteps said it hadn’t completely left his mind.

The two went into the enclosure to charge their powers, then Dirk flew with him around the property showing him how to dive, turn, and land. Before their powers wore off, they flew back to recharge them. At noon, sack lunches waited for them at the enclosure door.

Aaron was a quick learner. Mostly because he was fearless. He didn’t worry about knocking into trees or hitting the ground wrong during a landing. Speed didn’t faze him. By the end of the day he was bruised, cut, and had done considerable damage to some trees, but he’d learned a lot—enough that it would be easy for him to fly off the grounds and go halfway across the state before his powers wore off. Had to be tempting. The idea tempted Dirk sometimes, and he didn’t have as many reasons to run away.

Before going back home for dinner, Dirk took Aaron to some thick branches in an old maple to rest for a bit. Dirk liked this spot. From it, you could see a stream that cut through the forest. Some still-green bushes lined the water, stubbornly refusing to abide by the rules of autumn.

He and Aaron would have to head home soon or Cassie would complain about them coming late for the meal. She had a thing for punctuality. But Dirk had to take care of one thing first. “You heard me when I told you about the tracking chip, right? You realize if you take off, you’d better find a way to gouge that thing out first or Dad will track you down. And when he finds you, sunroofs will be the least of your worries.”

“Yeah.” Aaron flicked a piece of bark with his fingernail. “Thanks for the warning.”

Dirk waited for the obvious question, but it didn’t come. “You’re not going to ask me how to get it out?”

Aaron shrugged. “I don’t want you to think I’m planning on leaving. You might tell Dad.”

Aaron was testing him, trying to see how loyal Dirk was to their father.

“Actually, I wouldn’t tell Dad, because then I’d have to admit I told you about the chip in the first place. He wouldn’t be pleased with that.”

Aaron’s gaze darted to Dirk. “Is he keeping you here somehow? Is he forcing you to do what he wants?”

How should Dirk answer that question? Should he mention that he’d tried to run away last year and his father had sent a dragon to bring him back? Should he admit that the only reason his friends were still alive, especially Tori, was that Dirk was doing everything their father asked him to do?

Dirk leaned back against the tree trunk. “Nah, I just like Ferraris.”

Dirk felt the flash of disappointment—disgust really—that went through Aaron. Well, fine, let the kid be judgmental. That was easy when you were twelve. Besides, it wasn’t like Dirk wanted Aaron to look up to him anyway. He wasn’t role model material.

Aaron shifted on the branch. “Won’t EMP from the dragons destroy the chip?”

“I’m sure it’s been radiation hardened.” Instead of explaining the science behind that, Dirk just said, “Which means, no. An EMP won’t affect it.”

“So,” Aaron said slowly, “just out of curiosity, and not because I’m planning on leaving—how do I get the chip out?”

“I don’t know.”

Aaron swore and shook his head.

Dirk laughed, not because it was funny, but because Aaron had taken such careful precautions to guard his emotions when he insisted he didn’t want to leave, and then had completely ruined the effect by swearing in frustration.

“Can you tell where it is?” Dirk asked. “Do you feel the chip?”

“I can’t feel it, but I know where it is. There’s a red bump on my skin that didn’t use to be there. But I can’t just go digging around in my hip with a knife. What if I hit a major vein or something?”

“Research tracking chips,” Dirk said. “Maybe we could find a way to block its signal or something.”

Aaron tilted his head. “You would help me leave?”

Dirk didn’t answer for a moment. Over on the stream, images of tree branches rippled along the surface of the water, refusing to stay still and straight. “Dad wants you here so you’ll help with the dragons. That way instead of attacking with two dragons, he can attack with three. He wants it so badly he thinks he can make it happen. And maybe he can. If he can’t convince you that revolution is needed, or buy you off with promises of power and mansions, then he might abduct a few of your friends or family and threaten to leave them in the dragon enclosure. He has ways of getting what he wants.”

Dirk had expected Aaron to be repulsed by this statement or if Aaron really had begun to idolize their father, defensive on his behalf. But Aaron didn’t even register any surprise. He already knew what was expected of him in the revolution and apparently, he’d worked out the consequences if he didn’t help.

“Personally, I think you’re too young to be involved,” Dirk went on, “and even if you weren’t, well, if Dad has to coerce you to stay here and take part, you’ll be more of a danger than an asset. If you’re a danger, we should let you leave before you can do any damage.”

Aaron tilted his head. “So, are you saying you’d help me leave or just that you’d tell Dad that he should let me go?”

Committing to that answer was best done in degrees, carefully, in order to hide the truth from their father as long as possible. “I’ll decide that when you tell me you want to leave”

Dirk could feel Aaron drawing back. Hiding behind his walls again. He stared at the fallen, decaying leaves instead of at Dirk. “I don’t want to leave, but I still want to know how to get rid of the tracking chip. It makes me feel like I’m cattle or something.”

“Yeah, I know. After I found out about your chip, I did a thorough check on myself, just in case.”

Aaron’s gaze returned to him. “Find anything?”

Dirk sighed for effect. “My muscles are so massive, it’s hard to find something that small.”

Aaron rolled his eyes. The kid was too used to being the top dog at his school—confident he would always be the strongest and the fastest. Dirk had been that way too until he’d gone to camp and met the Slayers.

“Think you could take me on?” Dirk challenged.

Aaron at least had the intelligence to shake his head. “Nah, but someday I will.” With a smile, he added, “and I’ll win.”

Dirk took Aaron’s arm and held it up, comparing their biceps. “Well, today ain’t that day. Break is over. Practice your diving on the way back to the house.”

***

On Saturday, Dirk went to the mall by himself. He told his father he was going Christmas shopping, and he did pick up some presents to make the story believable, but the real reason he’d gone was so that he could buy a new phone. One his father wouldn’t know about. That way he could set up a new account on the dark web for Tori and him to talk, and he could use this phone to access it. His dad wouldn’t be able to snoop on his conversations with Tori anymore.

That night when he got home he went into Vesta’s enclosure to tell Tori what he’d done. The fledglings didn’t have large enclosures like Khan and Minerva. Their habitats were only the size of a basketball court—large enough for them to fly around a bit but small enough for them to understand that they lived in captivity, that they were dependent on humans, and should obey their rules.

Asleep, Vesta looked like a rhino-sized boulder. She didn’t stay that way for long. As soon as she caught Dirk’s scent, she lifted her wings, spreading them like enemy flags raised before a charge. *Her gray scales hung on her loosely, like armor that was too big. She was still growing so fast that her body overcompensated by giving her room.

Before she could shriek, he took control of her mind and put her back to sleep. It bothered Tori to hear dragons screeching, and Vesta was still young enough that she challenged anyone who came in her vicinity. She hadn’t learned yet that there was no point fighting a dragon lord.

Besides, Vesta was finally getting big enough that every once in a while her shrieks produced EMP, and he didn’t want to risk having her fry his new phone. The dragon’s EMP was a good thing, in that regard, actually. Dirk was sure his father didn’t bug the room.

Dirk sat down next to the sleeping dragon, using her side as a backrest. An uncomfortable backrest at best. Her scales were too hard.

“Tori, I’ve set up a new site where we can talk—it’s untraceable so you don’t have to worry about me finding you and I don’t have to worry you’ll send the Slayers after me.” He gave her the address and password. “My dad hacked either your account or mine so we can’t use our regular site anymore. At least not for real conversation. You should still contact me on it every once in a while so my dad doesn’t figure out I’ve got a new site and start looking for it.”

Dirk put his hands behind his head. “You could go on and on about how awesome I am. That would be believable. You could also tell me how much you miss me, that sort of thing.” He repeated the address and password a few more times, then waited a couple of minutes to see if she wrote anything to him. She didn’t. But that wasn’t entirely a surprise. Sometimes she was at places where she couldn’t access the internet. She would write to him eventually, probably by tonight.

Chapter 6

Chapter 6

 

On Monday, Tori tried to find Jesse before first period so they could talk, so she could apologize to him again. She’d called and texted Jesse yesterday—overtures which he’d completely ignored. Perhaps she deserved his anger, but she also deserved more consideration than he was giving her.

Last Friday night, Tori had agreed to meet Dirk and he’d taken her to see one of the dragons. She still wasn’t sure which had been her biggest mistake: kissing Dirk in order to get information from him or telling Jesse about it.

She’d bought Jesse a stuffed donkey—a politically themed peace offering. On Saturday before she ruined things between them, he’d given her a stuffed elephant.

Jesse wasn’t anywhere in the hallways. No sight of his dark hair or broad shoulders. At 6’2 he was tall enough that he was hard to overlook among the sea of students. She finally had to put the donkey in her locker and go to class.

He came in late for journalism, didn’t ever glance back at her, and then made a bee-line for the door as soon as the bell rang. By the time she followed the crowd out of the room, he’d disappeared in the hallway.

At lunch, he sat at the table with the jocks, ignoring her.

How long was he planning on acting this way? Hours? Days? The school week was short due to Thanksgiving, and she didn’t want to wait until next Monday to work things out.

After school, instead of heading out to meet Lars, her driver, she waited for Jesse by his locker.

He walked over with an air of determined nonchalance, said a curt, “Hello,” then twirled his combination, keeping his attention there.

“I realize you’re angry with me,” she said, “But it would help to know whether you’re angry because of Dirk or because of Aaron.”

“Both,” he said still not looking at her.

“I’d like to remind you, that in both situations, I was doing my best to help the Slayers.”

Jesse huffed in disbelief. “The kid is twelve.”

“You were eleven when you became a Slayer. You still knew what you were doing, didn’t you?”

Jesse opened his locker with more force than the task required. “If Overdrake brainwashes Aaron like he brainwashed Dirk, we’ll be fighting three dragons at the same time. You didn’t think the rest of us deserved a say about that?”

“Aaron won’t join Overdrake. He wants to protect his brother by helping us. I could tell that about him.”

Now Jesse looked at her, his brown eyes hard. “I’m not sure I trust your judgment when it comes to knowing what guys are really like.”

She decided to ignore that jab. “Overdrake has more dragons than we could ever fight. If I can learn to control them, that knowledge could save us. Isn’t that worth taking some risks?”

“And what about the fact that going into a dragon’s mind makes killing them harder?”

Dirk had let her use her dragon lord powers to explore Khan’s mind, encouraged it even. The knowledge had cost her. “Harder doesn’t mean impossible.”

“Even hesitating could cost lives.”

Why couldn’t he at least try and see her point of view? She shifted her books in her arms. “When I made decisions about Aaron and about Dirk, I did what I thought was best. I’m sorry if I was wrong. Really. I am.”

He considered her, eyes still hard. “Do you have feelings for Dirk?”

“He’s my counterpart. Of course I have feelings for him.” She cleared her throat uncomfortably. “But only counterpart feelings.” Was she blushing? Why did her cheeks suddenly feel hot?

Jesse looked far from convinced. “So you’re saying you didn’t enjoy kissing him?”

“No,” she said too quickly. The answer was a knee-jerk denial.

“No you didn’t enjoy it, or no you can’t tell me you didn’t?”

“I didn’t…” He was looking at her with so much scrutiny that she couldn’t help but flush. “I was . . . it was just. . . I mean . . .” She was speaking gibberish, she knew that, but she was suddenly having flashes of memory—Dirk’s arms around her. And the last time she’d kissed him. She hadn’t needed to do that. Not really. So did that mean she had enjoyed it? “It wasn’t like …it was just, I mean . . .” and now she repeating the gibberish she’d already said.

Jesse folded his arms, his open locker forgotten. “That’s convincing.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“It should be.”

The words stung because he was right. She still had feelings for Dirk and she shouldn’t. But that didn’t mean she’d been lying to Jesse about being his girlfriend. It didn’t mean that she’d wanted any of what had happened last Friday to happen. She’d stopped Dirk at first and then only let him kiss her for strategy sake. “Jesse . . .”

He put up a hand to stop her. “Until you figure out what you want—who you want—the two of us should go back to being just teammates.”

“You’re breaking up with me?”

“No, I’m pretty sure you did that when you made out with another guy.”

That wasn’t fair. “You know very well why I kissed him.”

“Yeah because you haven’t decided whether you’re a Slayer or a dragon lord. That’s another thing that you really ought to figure out.”

He turned and strode away, leaving her staring after him, stunned.

He didn’t think she’d decided she was a Slayer? He’d broken up with her, just because she’d been trying to get information from Dirk?

Okay, so maybe she had enjoyed kissing Dirk a little, but she hadn’t kissed him because she wanted to cheat on Jesse. She’d done it to save lives. Could she help it if Dirk was a good kisser? Jesse should be a little bit understanding. She could have kept the whole event a secret, but she was trying to be honest, trying to do the right thing.

She pushed her way through the crowded hall, fast-paced, and angry. She had new plans for the stuffed donkey in her backpack. It was going to become Brindy’s next dog toy.

On Tuesday, Tori didn’t try to talk to Jesse and he didn’t talk to her. On Wednesday she would have talked to him if he’d made any indication that he wanted to talk to her, but he didn’t. In fact, he seemed happy enough to chat with Tacy before journalism. He was smiling as they talked, that smile that usually just belonged to her.

Fine. Let him be that way.

On Thursday, Tori helped her mother make Thanksgiving dinner. A nice leisurely dinner with her family would have been nice—the sort where everyone played a few card games or watched a movie afterward, but Thanksgiving was never that way at her house. A lot of the staffers and interns at her father’s office didn’t have family close by, so her parents always invited at least a dozen people over. And her mother prided herself on providing a home-cooked meal.

The visitors couldn’t all fit at one table, so her parents dragged the kitchen table into the dining room and then Tori and Aprilynne were supposed to play hostess for all the people that hadn’t managed to get seated at her parents’ table. This was never fun because the guests really wanted to sit near her father, so basically, Tori spent the meal trying to make small talk with a bunch of disappointed social climbers.

It wasn’t like she had anything in common with her father’s employees anyway. They saw her as an uninteresting high school kid and usually talked among themselves and ignored her.

This year, since Aprilynne had started working at her father’s office, she was bound to know all their inside jokes and gossip, and Tori would be the only one silently waiting for it to end.

Usually Tori didn’t mind the work that went into Thanksgiving dinner, but right now the last thing she wanted to deal with was hours of cooking, cleaning, and then eating with strangers. Couldn’t her family for once be like all the other families, slobbing around and just being with each other?

When her mother cheerfully called her into the kitchen, Tori stood in the doorway and didn’t take the apron her mother offered. “Please, can we just go to a restaurant, buy the stuff, and pretend we made it? I’ll drive.”

Aprilynne snorted. She was at the far counter turning sweet potatoes into a dish that more closely resembled a brown sugar casserole than an actual vegetable. “Nice try. Like I don’t suggest that every year.”

Tori’s mother strolled over and draped the apron around Tori’s neck. “We need to get the mashed potatoes going.”

“It’s a holiday. We’re supposed to relax.”

“Our guests work very hard for your father. This is the least we can do for them.” Tori’s mother stepped behind her, took hold of the apron strings and tied them. “You’re a Hampton. That should mean something to you.”

“Yeah, it means Thanksgiving dinners always suck.”

Tori’s hefted a bag of potatoes off the counter and handed them to her. “We give our guests our best. The work is part of the gift.”

Tori had heard this before. Sometimes this little truism even convinced her that work wasn’t so bad. Today it just seemed like a trite excuse to make her suffer. “After I go to college,” she announced, “I’m never coming home for Thanksgiving. I’m going to enjoy a peaceful meal in the cafeteria.”

“The peeler is by the sink,” her mother said and breezed off to cut up celery for the stuffing. Her homemade specialty stuffing. Because, obviously, the kind from the box wasn’t good enough.

Tori peeled, cut up, and boiled the potatoes. Maybe her mother would let her pretend she was sick so she could watch a movie in her bedroom. Surely there would be enough fake smiling and mindless flattery going on that hers wouldn’t be needed. But of course she was a Hampton and that meant there could never be enough fake smiling and mindless flattery.

She was draining the potatoes when she heard noises in her mind, a voice in the dragon enclosure. She maximized the sound, letting it grow louder.

“I shouldn’t need to remind you,” Overdrake said, “but I will. You should watch what you say.”

Was he speaking to Tori? Was this some sort of threat?

“I thought Tori only heard what Vesta heard.” Aaron’s voice. She felt herself relax. “Why do I have to watch what I say here?” Aaron continued.

Tori heard what Vesta heard? That was news. And apparently wrong. Which dragon was she listening to now? Khan still? She’d been connected to him when Overdrake had introduced Aaron last Saturday.

“We can’t be certain Tori will always be connected to Vesta,” Overdrake answered. “Do you need a refresher on the necessity of precaution?”

“No.” And then as though Aaron was repeating a motto, added, “If I make a mistake around a dragon, it might be my last.”

“Precisely. Don’t ever treat them like pets. They’re not.”

“Yeah. I know.”

Tori put the drained pot back on the stovetop and went to the fridge for the butter and milk.

A pair of footsteps went very near the dragon and Overdrake murmured, “Here you are, boy. We saved the bones and dark meat for you.”

Ah, even though Khan wasn’t a pet, he still got Thanksgiving leftovers. Tori supposed that was better than feeding the dragon stray dogs. One faint crunch sounded in her mind—the noise of Khan biting into bones. Didn’t take much effort for a dragon to swallow something as small as a turkey.

Tori dropped a cube of butter into the pot, measured out the milk, and waited for Overdrake and Aaron to walk out of the enclosure. Instead, Overdrake spoke again. “I’ve been giving your inability to fly some thought, and the only reason I can see for it is that you need an added incentive.” Words with a cool sharp edge.

“I’m making progress,” Aaron protested. “I can fly twenty feet at a time. Sometimes thirty.”

“That’s not flying, it’s leaping. Perhaps the problem lays in your practice sessions. You haven’t sufficiently felt that you were in danger. There is, of course, an easy way to remedy that.”

Aaron groaned.

“Look, Khan is staring at you and he doesn’t seem pleased.”

“Oh, come on,” Aaron said, his voice picking up anger. “I’m trying to fly. It’s not my fault I always land instead.”

“Your choices are the same as when you were here last. You can throw the boulders—a bad choice. Control the dragon—which won’t happen as long as I’m in his mind. Or fly to that hole in the in the roof.”

Overdrake was setting a dragon on his own son again? Wow, Aaron was having an even worse Thanksgiving than she was. And here she’d thought forcing your kids to cook all day was bad.

The dragon made a low rumbling sound in his throat, a warning.

“I’ll check back in a half an hour and see how you’re doing,” Overdrake said.

“Don’t!” Aaron said. “You can’t—” He didn’t finish, and for a horrible moment Tori wondered if the dragon had killed him. No, Overdrake wouldn’t let it go that far.

Tori stood in front of her pot, the masher gripped in her hand like a weapon and breathlessly waited.

The next thing she heard from Aaron was a stream of swear words. For a twelve-year-old, the kid had a mouth on him. And he had some pretty creative ways to use his swear words. Not necessarily grammatically correct ways, but creative.

Overdrake made a tsking sound. “You’ve already forgotten to watch what you say. I hope my other instructions are more firmly rooted in your mind.”

She heard the door clang closed.

Overdrake had left Aaron alone in the enclosure with Khan.

She felt sick for him, wished she had some way to talk to him. Overdrake told you he had control of the dragon, she wanted to say. That means he won’t really let it kill you.

Of course, that didn’t mean the dragon wouldn’t hurt him. It had probably been instructed to do just that.

“Tori?” Her mother walked by on the way to get a mixing bowl. “Are you all right?”

Tori startled and realized she’d been standing there frozen, the potato masher still lifted like she was going to stab something with it. “Yeah. I’m fine.” She pushed the masher into the potatoes, half stirring them, while she listened for Aaron.

Her mother watched her. “You’ll never get the lumps out that way.”

“Uh huh,” Tori said.

Her mother sighed and went back to seasoning the stuffing.

Aaron had stopped swearing and was panting, taking in deep breaths. “Stay away from me,” he yelled at the dragon. “Stay back!”

Khan roared; the kind that involved fire. Had Aaron managed to jump out of the way? She knew from experience that although fire wouldn’t burn him, the heat was still painful.

“Back off!” Aaron called. He was trying to control the dragon. It wouldn’t work as long as Overdrake had hold of Khan’s mind.

Fly, she thought. Your body knows how. He was probably over thinking it. Flying wasn’t like riding a bike that took coordination, balance, and practice. It was instinctual. You needed to go somewhere high, you leaped up, and you soared there.

A thudding sound in the enclosure made her wince. She’d heard the sound before—a dragon’s tail smacking something. Hopefully the ground and not Aaron.

“If you can hear me,” Aaron said, “I’m saying right now, that my Ferrari had better have a sunroof.”

Ferrari? Tori supposed Aaron wasn’t talking to her. Man, Overdrake was buying him a Ferrari?

“I’ve done everything you asked,” Aaron went on, “and you haven’t let me talk to my mom, you haven’t let me go outside—you haven’t even told me where I am!”

Hold on, maybe Aaron was letting Tori know he didn’t have any information yet.

Another thud. “You know, Child Protective Services would probably have something to say about this!”

A sound like a rock shattering echoed through the enclosure. “Despite what you think, I do remember the stuff you tell me. I know to enter a dragon’s mind, I’m supposed to follow my senses and let them pull me in. After I’m there, I split my focus so I can enter the dragon’s second level of consciousness and find the control center. See, I’ve been listening.”

Aaron was talking to her, passing on Overdrake’s instructions. Tori already knew how to enter a dragon’s mind. And she’d figured out when she was with Dirk that to get to Khan’s control center, she needed to envision herself walking through his mind. What else had Overdrake taught him? She shut her eyes, leaned forward, all her attention focused on the enclosure.

“Once I’m in the control center, I’m supposed to envision the dragon’s will like it’s an actual object and clutch it in my hand. It’s not my fault I can’t do it. You’re always there controlling it first.”

If another dragon lord wasn’t already there, could she envision the dragon’s will as an object and take control that way? Did it matter what object she envisioned? Did it have to be the same object every time?

She couldn’t ask, and it didn’t sound like Overdrake had actually given Aaron the chance to practice it.

The dragon roared again, and the sound of fire crackling filled her ears. She was familiar with that noise, could almost feel the heat creeping along her skin.

Aaron let out a yell that made Tori flinch. Had the dragon done something—swiped him with his claws? Bitten him?

And then the yell turned into a laugh. Aaron wasn’t yelling in pain; he was whooping happily. “Sweet!” he said, still laughing. “Check out this action. This ain’t no leap!” More laughter, joyful and unbridled. “I’m freaking Peter Pan.”

Khan had gone quiet. All Tori heard was the sound of Aaron’s laughter zooming farther and then closer to the dragon. The door opened and then there was the sound of clapping.

“You did it.” Overdrake’s pride was evident. “I knew you would.” He stopped clapping. “However, if I hadn’t commanded Khan to stay on the ground, he would have caught you within two wingbeats. You were supposed to fly to the hole to escape, not circle around the enclosure like a skating rink.”

“Sorry!” Aaron called back. “I couldn’t help it. Flying is awesome. Look—double flip!”

Tori expected Overdrake to be angry or at least give him a reprimand for making mistakes around dragons. Instead he laughed, a deep, affectionate laugh. The sort you expected from fathers.

“You were born to fly,” Overdrake he went on, pride ringing. “You’re my son, after all.”

“How do I stop myself?”

“One of three ways. You run into something, you run out of energy, or you will yourself to stop, just like you willed yourself to fly. I suggest the latter.”

“Willpower isn’t working. But hey, check out this spin.”

Overdrake laughed again. “I’ll keep Khan calm while you practice. Take as long as you’d like. And then we’ll talk about your sunroof.”

Tori minimized the sound so it wasn’t as loud. She had thought listening to Overdrake talk to her was bad. His voice always dripped with disdain if not outright hatred. But listening to this was worse somehow. Hearing Overdrake praise Aaron—hearing him so happy—it was chilling.

Tori mashed the potatoes harder, smashing anything that looked vaguely lumpy.

Aaron . . . what else was happening to him? Her counterpart sense told her that he was exultant, not just because he was flying, but because he had Overdrake’s approval.

Aaron shouldn’t want that. He should be repulsed by Overdrake’s fatherly pride and the suggestion that sports cars could buy his loyalty. But Aaron wasn’t. She could tell he wasn’t.

What had Tori been thinking to send a twelve-year-old to Overdrake? Were twelve-year-olds-brains even done developing yet?

She wished she had a way to remind Aaron that before Overdrake was clapping and talking about Ferrari sunroofs, he’d locked Aaron in the enclosure with a fire-breathing, fifty-ton carnivorous animal. Aaron seemed to have forgotten that fact.

Aprilynne strolled over to their double oven and cast Tori a look. “Are you trying to mash the potatoes or beat them into submission?”

Tori looked down at the pot. Bits of potatoes had splattered over the stovetop, polka-dotting the whole thing.

Tori’s mom swept up to check the potatoes. “I’m sure those are . . .”

“Pulverized,” Aprilynne supplied.

“Done now,” her mother said. She picked up the pot and whisked it away before Tori could do more. “Why don’t you, um, set the tables?”

A task she couldn’t mess up. Really, when had Tori become that child? The difficult one. The one that her parents needed to make allowances for?

Chapter 3, 4 & 5 (because they’re short)

Maybe if I keep posting chapters, it will encourage me to get all the revisions done. (Estimated release date Jan1-15)

Chapter 3

 

Overdrake glided from the enclosure, humming with satisfaction. Such good news. He had another son. A boy with strength, intelligence, and bravery. A boy who would grow up to be every bit as tall and handsome as Dirk. Perhaps Overdrake was foolish to take so much pride in his sons’ appearance, but why not? Their good looks were more proof that he fathered superior children.

He flew across the property separated the enclosure from his house, still humming. Later he would let himself feel the fury of Bianca’s betrayal. Right now he would bask in fortune’s generous gift to him. Aaron was old enough to be of real use and yet still young enough that he could be molded. And Overdrake would train him right, wouldn’t make the mistakes he’d made with Dirk. Sending Dirk to the Slayer camp, for all its advantages, had been an error. Dirk’s friendship with the Slayers had made him soft, soft and reluctant to do what needed to be done.

He didn’t worry that Tori might have heard the scene between Aaron and Khan play out. She was connected to Vesta. He knew this because he’d checked the time stamps from Tori’s messages to Dirk with the door logs at the dragon nursery. Whenever Dirk had been in the enclosures during their conversations, he was always with Vesta—even though Overdrake routinely switched Vesta’s and Jupiter’s locations. Hatchlings couldn’t be left in the same place for too long or they became overly territorial.

Overdrake had even tested his theory of Tori’s connection to Vesta. He’d fed a dog to the dragon while warning Tori that if she crossed him, her family would meet the same end. Tori had heard him just fine.

Dragon lords felt the presence of whichever dragon was closest but could choose to stay connected to any dragon they were familiar with, even if that dragon flew hundreds of miles away. So whether Tori consciously knew it or not, she was choosing to stay connected to Vesta unless one of the other dragons came much nearer. Most likely, Vesta’s signal was the one that turned on Tori’s powers when she was a baby. She went to that dragon by default.

Still, Overdrake would take precautions while he trained Aaron. He’d limit Aaron’s exposure to Vesta and only give him information outside of all the dragons’ hearing.

As Overdrake went into the house, he pulled Aaron’s phone from his pocket. Finding Bianca’s number wasn’t hard. He scrolled through the contacts until he came to Mom. By the time he sat down in his den chair, he had it memorized. He used his computer to make the call. It automatically rerouted his IP address through a dozen cities in countries around the world, making the call untraceable.

The pressures of his job were many, as were the frustrations, but being a dragon lord did have a few perks, and he planned on savoring this one: crushing your enemies.

Bianca picked up immediately. “Hello?”

“Hello Bianca,” he said. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”

She gasped and didn’t speak for a moment. “Who is this?”

“It hasn’t been that long. You recognize my voice. Don’t say you don’t.”

“Where’s Aaron?” she demanded. Even when she was upset, her voice had that melodic, feminine tone.

“He’s with me, that’s why I rang you up.”

“Where are you?” A tone of desperation made its way into her voice. She knew, yes, she already knew she’d lost. “Let me talk to him. Please.”

He leaned back in his chair. “You hid him from me. That was unwise.”

“Brant, please.” Her words became shaky. “We can work out some sort of arrangement. Where is he?”

Overdrake had planned on letting her grovel for several minutes before he hung up, had looked forward to it as one of the spoils of the war. But her voice pulled at his sympathy. That was his problem. He’d always had a weak spot for her. Apparently it was still there. “He’s fine. That’s all you need to know.”

“Don’t do this,” she pleaded. “You already took Dirk from me.”

He gripped the armrests, leaving imprints of his anger in the fabric there. “I didn’t take Dirk from you. You can’t take something that is already rightfully yours.” He ended the call with a sharp, final keystroke.

He’d done her the courtesy of letting her know where Aaron was. That was more than she’d done to him. This was so typical of the way their marriage had been—he’d always done more for her, and she’d never appreciated it. She’d never understood family loyalty. But his sons would. And there was nothing Bianca could do about it.

 

 

Chapter 4

 

Dr. B called Tori at six on Sunday morning. She picked up her watch from her nightstand and answered it groggily. “Yes?”

She’d already called him last evening and confirmed that Overdrake had Aaron. She’d heard it all play out in Khan’s enclosure—the fear in Aaron’s voice, and then the anger. It felt like she’d lived it with him, not just the first time, but a dozen more times as she lay in bed trying to sleep.

Had she made the right decision to send him? Did “rightness” even matter if it ended badly? Overdrake hadn’t sounded like he trusted Aaron. Or even liked him, for that matter.

Really, what sort of parent threw a child in with a dragon and then calmly waited around to see if the child could defend himself? Was that what Overdrake had done to Dirk when he was younger?

The thought made her ache for Dirk as well as Aaron.

Dr. B’s voice came over Tori’s watch speaker. “Brant called Bianca last night to gloat. As you can imagine, she’s quite distressed.”

“I’m sorry,” Tori said automatically. And then felt a pinch of anger towards Dr. B. He had taught the Slayers how to make decisions but hadn’t ever taught them how to deal with the guilt that came along with those decisions. Guilt had thick, cold spikes that embedded themselves in your chest. Ones that felt as though they would never go away. Perhaps the only way to deal with them was to wait until all the feeling left you, until you were hard enough inside that the spikes couldn’t stab you as much.

“Bianca wants to know if you can contact Dirk and ask for his help to get Aaron back home.”

If Aaron was in danger, that might be their best option. But was he? Overdrake knew he was a dragon lord now. If Aaron wasn’t being harmed, it would be a shame to abort the mission before they gave it a chance to work.

Dirk might not realize Tori knew about Aaron’s kidnapping. He didn’t know she had any contact with Bianca, and if Tori hadn’t been connected Khan, she wouldn’t have heard Overdrake take Aaron into a dragon enclosure. Perhaps it would be easier to get information from Aaron if the other dragon lords didn’t know she knew his whereabouts.

So many angles to consider.

“Asking Dirk for help won’t do any good,” she pointed out. “He either changed his mind about involving Aaron and told his father about him, or Overdrake has a way to spy on my messages to Dirk. If the first is the case, Dirk won’t help us. If the second is the case, Overdrake will see my request and make sure Dirk doesn’t help us.”

And Overdrake would most likely use the information to set some sort of trap for them.

“Granted,” Dr. B said, “you couldn’t plan anything without hearing Dirk’s voice. You’d have to make sure he was telling the truth…” he let his voice drift off as in thought. Tori waited. Dr. B didn’t speak. It was unlike him to be unsure about what actions to take, unlike him not to plan out options as though life was a chess game and he’d already thought through every possible move.

Dr. B let out a sigh. “I was on the phone with Bianca for an hour last night. She was practically hysterical. I told her I would ask for your help. I need to offer her some hope.”

Spikes of guilt again. It was more important to comfort a worried mother than to hope for an advantage by pretending ignorance of Aaron’s capture. “Fine, I can message Dirk and find out how Aaron is doing. That way you’ll at least be able to reassure her.”

“Good. Let me know when you hear something.”

Tori shifted the watch from one ear to the other. “Did you tell the other Slayers what Aaron and I did?” She’d expected to get a barrage of messages on her watch phone last night but they hadn’t come. The silence was almost worse, the waiting. She’d spent half of last night imagining what her friends would say and wondering if they were still speaking to her.

“I told them,” he said. “They were, of course, upset that you acted without their input or consent, but on the whole, they understand your motives.”

He was probably understating their reaction. Lilly, A-team’s fire quencher, hardly trusted Tori because she was part dragon lord—and that was after Tori had fought with the Slayers and helped kill two dragons. Lilly wouldn’t be happy about anything that could end up benefitting Overdrake.

“I informed them of your probation,” Dr. B continued, “and emphasized that we need to move on from this incident. In-fighting will destroy our team.”

“You also told them not to message me about it, didn’t you?”

“I decided it was best if they cooled down before they spoke to you.”

Oh. It was that bad. What had Jesse thought? That realization hurt the worst—that he might think even less of her.

Dr. B’s voice softened. “They know you meant well. They’re still your friends. Remember that.”

After Dr. B hung up, Tori pulled herself out of bed and switched on her light. Time to figure out what she should write to Dirk. If she hadn’t planned on Aaron being taken and then heard Overdrake threatening him in the enclosure, she’d be mad about it, outraged. She had hoped Dirk would have a nice chat with his brother, and instead, Aaron was missing and his mother was devastated.

As she sat down at her desk, she groaned in aggravation at herself. Last night she’d been so torn up with guilt and worry that she hadn’t been thinking straight. She should have messaged Dirk right after she heard Aaron in the enclosure. That would have been her natural reaction. When she’d thought Overdrake had fed her dog to a dragon, she’d written Dirk right away.

So she ought to pretend she hadn’t heard it. But then, what explanation would she give Dirk for knowing Overdrake had Aaron?

She had to tell him something. Bianca was waiting.

Was it safe to tell Dirk that his mother had contacted Dr. B? Or would that be as good as admitting that the Slayers had talked to her?

Tori sifted through the options and implications while she opened her phone and went to the site where she messaged Dirk. A note was already there waiting.

I’ve got a sore throat. Medicine not working. I’ll get more later.

Slayer code from camp. It meant Don’t try to talk to me. I’ll contact you when we need to communicate again.

Well, that probably answered the question of whether Overdrake was spying on their messages. When Overdrake decided to kidnap Aaron, Dirk had figured out the site wasn’t secure and now he was warning Tori against using it.

Either that or Dirk’s message meant that he’d already figured out that she’d sent Aaron to spy on Overdrake. Aaron might be worse at keeping secrets from a counterpart than Tori had hoped and now Dirk was so angry he didn’t want to talk to her.

She stared at Dirk’s words as though they would change, as though they might tell her something more. They didn’t. Still, she hesitated to exit the site. Closing it seemed so final, like shutting a door to your only escape route.

She left her desk and lay back on her bed with a thud. She couldn’t assure Bianca that Aaron was all right. And worse, she had no way to contact Dirk.

She hadn’t realized how much that door meant to her until it had been shut.

 

 

Chapter 5

 

Aaron woke up at six fifteen, despite the fact that he hadn’t set his alarm clock. Prisoners shouldn’t have to set alarms. He’d planned on making that point by still being in bed at seven when training time started, but in the end, got up. No reason to tick off Overdrake, not when he wanted to earn the man’s trust.

Once Aaron’s anger and fear had faded, the desire to learn about dragons became a tangible thing, an energy swirling through his brain that had kept him up long after his powers faded. Dragons were real: huge, powerful, flying beasts. And Aaron would be able to control them. Almost as cool—when dragons were nearby, he would have superhero strength and eventually be able to fly.

Who wouldn’t want that? All he had to do was put up with his father’s enormous ego. The man obviously had plenty of that. Aaron still couldn’t believe his own father had men chase him through the Renaissance festival, drugged him, and then set a dragon on him. Seriously, it was no wonder his mother left.

He wanted to talk to her now, to tell her he understood why she’d never let him see Overdrake. But he couldn’t. He was locked up and completely cut off from the rest of the world. No phone. No computer.

Even though he didn’t want to escape, he went to the door and tried the handle. Still locked from the outside.

He took a shower then rifled through the dresser for clothes. Several sizes of jeans were folded there along with an assortment of T-shirts, boxers, and socks.

He got dressed, then sat on his bed and watched TV. His gaze kept going to Bridget’s crayon drawing. Seemed so incongruous. His father was keeping him a prisoner, and his half-sister was drawing him pictures.

At seven, with only a short knock as a warning, Dirk unlocked the door and strode in carrying a plate with eggs and bacon. Aaron’s stomach flipped at the smell.

Dirk set a glass of milk on the bedside table. “Sleep well?”

“No.”

Dirk handed him the plate. “Well, that doesn’t matter. I still have to teach you about dragons. I’m supposed to give you dragon safety facts while you eat. Try to pay attention so you’re not killed quickly. If you die today, it will look like I have sibling rivalry issues.”

Aaron picked up his fork and dug into the eggs. Waking up early had taken its toll and he was starving.

Dirk dropped into the desk chair and watched him. “I’m also supposed to report on your anger level.” He cocked his head. “I’m not picking up as much hatred as I’d expected.”

“I could try and hate you more if you want.”

Dirk continued to stare at him with narrow eyes. “Aren’t you going to ask me to help you escape?”

“Nah, I’ve decided I want to study dragons for a while. They’re kinda cool. And eventually I’ll be driving a Ferrari.”

“Keeping up a brave front. Good. Dad respects that sort of thing.”

“Maybe I really am brave.” Aaron had meant to sound tough, but mostly he sounded petulant.

Dirk just laughed. “Good. Because you’ll need all the bravery you can get.”

 

weigh in on Slayers 4 prologue and first two chapters

I thought I’d finished writing Slayers 4, but then the first two beta readers pointed out that Jesse was hardly in the book and I realized I needed to mention a plot thread that got dropped in Slayers 4 but is important in Slayers 5–so now I’m writing two or three more chapter and fruitlessly trying to figure out the layout of Village A in Georgetown (but that’s another story)

In the meantime, I’d like people to weigh in on the prologue and first two chapters. I didn’t know how to fix the formatting so it would look like a book but rest assured it will have normal paragraphs when it comes out.  I just want general feedback. Enjoy!

 

Prologue

You should never make promises you can’t keep.

 

Fifteen years ago

 

 

Alastair Bartholomew was about to make a deal with the devil, or at least a deal with his father—which felt like the same thing. Alastair hadn’t even asked for the loan yet, but he knew there would be a price to pay, a little bit of his soul thrown in with the bargain.

He glanced over the maps, brochures, and realtor flyers he’d spread over his kitchen table. Buying land was the first step to building the Slayer training ground. He’d been looking at properties for the last six months. A stack of construction bids for cabins, stables, an indoor rifle range, and a cafeteria sat next to the brochures. He would also need money for research. He not only had to figure out what sort of electric pulse a dragon’s heart put out, he would need to build a machine to replicate it. There were so many expenses.

Alastair turned his attention to the maps of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. Was seclusion more important in a campsite or accessibility to the DC area? The closer his camp was to DC, the more expensive the land would be.

Shirley, his wife, had put their two-year-old daughter, Bess into her favorite white pajamas and was now patiently waiting for the toddler to finish her bottle.

Even at two years old, it was a battle of the wills.

“Aren’t you done yet?” Shirley cooed. “It’s time for a story and then bed.”

Bess regarded her mother while taking slow sips of her bottle. In her fuzzy white footie pajamas, she always reminded Alastair of a baby polar bear. Bess’s hair was a wild disarray of curls. Her blue eyes were much too alert for this time of night.

Shirley bent lower to be on Bess’s level. “Don’t you think it’s time for your bottle to go bye-bye? You’re a big girl now. Big girls use sippy cups.”

Bess popped the bottle out of her mouth. “No,” she said, “Ba-ba mine.” Then she inserted the bottle back in her mouth.

Shirley sighed, checked the kitchen clock, and turned to her husband. “I’d better put her to B-E-D before you-know-who comes, or we’ll never get her to sleep.”

Bess let the bottle drop from her mouth. Her eyes lit up with happiness. “Ice cweam twuck!” she exclaimed and toddled fast-pace to the front door.

Instead of going after her, Shirley narrowed her eyes at Alastair. “How come every time I use the term ‘you-know-who’ Bess thinks I’m talking about an ice cream truck?”

Alastair kept his gaze firmly on the stack of septic tank bids in front of him. “I have no idea.”

Shirley put one hand on her hip. “You shouldn’t feed Bess ice cream. She won’t eat healthy food if you give her junk food.”

The doorbell rang, saving Alastair from further discussion of what he and Bess did while Shirley was gone. “That’s probably my father,” Alastair announced and went to the front room. Bess was already on her tippy-toes doing her utmost to get around the child-proof handle on the doorknob. She loved opening doors. Unfortunately, she also loved dashing outside and shedding her clothes on the sidewalk.

Alastair opened the door. His father—Roderick Bartholomew to people who knew him in the states—stood there, hands thrust into his jacket pocket. Years of ranch work had given Alastair’s father a lean, muscled build that was only now giving way to the softness of middle-age. He had always had a stern expression and the lines in his face had grown increasingly deeper in the years since they’d fled St. Helena. Alastair never asked how often his father thought of Nathan. Alastair knew his father thought of him every day, the evidence was there in the grooves of his father’s face.

Now that Alastair had a child of his own, he understood the force of that emotion even more completely. You didn’t forget it when someone killed your child.

Bess saw her grandpa and lifted her small hands up in glee. “Bampa!”

The sternness on Roderick’s face melted. He bent down and swooped Bess into his arms. “How’s my princess?” He snuggled his face into her neck, a move that always made Bess shriek with laughter. After he’d extracted enough shrieks to ensure that Bess wouldn’t sleep any time in the near future, Roderick carried her into the living room and sat down on the couch with Bess on his lap. She immediately began rifling through his pockets to see if she could extract treasures such as keys, pens, or lint. Alastair and Shirley sat down on the adjoining loveseat.

“So,” Roderick said, “You want a loan.” He was always got right to the point.

No one would have known by looking at Roderick’s plain clothes and worn jacket that he was a wealthy man. His businesses—some of which he discussed with Alastair, some of which he didn’t—were quite successful. Roderick had a talent for making money, perhaps because he didn’t let things like rules, laws, or ethics stand in his way.

“I need a loan for the Slayer camp,” Alastair clarified. He stayed away from his father’s money for the most part. Any time his father paid for something—usually lavish gifts for Bess—Alastair felt vaguely like he was condoning insider trading. He had only decided to ask for his father’s help because there was nowhere else to turn. He could get a bank loan that would cover the price of land and a few cabins, but he couldn’t very well explain to financial institutions that he also needed to build a second specialized camp that would serve as a secret training ground. “It’s our best way to stop Overdrake,” Alastair told his father. “When he attacks DC, we’ll have a group of Slayers who are capable of killing his dragons.”

Alastair had mentioned his idea of a training camp to his father before. He’d never asked for funding, though. The weight of the request felt like a yoke around his neck. It would take more than two million dollars to get the camps functional, and who knew how long it would take for the regular camp to start returning the investment.

Roderick didn’t speak for a moment. Alastair was used to his father’s silences. He waited.

“You only know where one Slayer child is,” Roderick finally said. “One. And that’s Bess. How can you build an entire camp on the hope that more Slayer kids will somehow find their way to it?”

“It’ll be a dragon slayer themed camp,” Alastair pointed out. “I’ll advertise with knights taking on fire-breathing beasts. The right children will be drawn to it.”

Bess had pulled a penny from her grandfather’s pocket. He took it from her before she could see how it tasted. “They’ll be drawn to it? That’s a long shot, and you know it.”

Shirley and Alastair exchanged a glance. “I’ll show him,” Shirley said. She walked out of the room. A minute later she came back with a bag of stuffed animals.

She sat down in front of Bess and took out a cat. “What’s this?”

Bess dropped the pen she had just liberated from her grandpa’s jacket and glanced at the cat. “Ki-ki.”

“That’s kitty,” Shirley interpreted for Roderick. She pulled a stuffed dog from the bag. “What’s this?”

Instead of answering, Bess made barking noises, jumping up and down with each bark.

“Right. A doggy.” Shirley reached into the bag again. “What’s this?” She slowly took out a stuffed dragon.

Bess stiffened and scowled. “Bad dwagon!” She slid from the couch, grabbed the toy and flung it on the floor. “No, no!” she yelled and stomped on the toy several times.

Roderick watched, his mouth slightly ajar. “You taught her to do that.”

“We didn’t,” Shirley said. “You should see what she did to the fairy tale picture books I checked out of the library. I didn’t realize they had dragon pictures in them until it was too late.” She shook her head at the thought. “I had to pay the library thirty-six dollars to replace them.”

Bess stepped off the toy and watched it, seemingly checking it for signs of life. She waved a scolding finger at the animal. “No, no, bad dwagon!”

Alastair regarded his daughter with a sense of resignation. “I have to keep all my dragon research books on high shelves. Otherwise I’m afraid she’ll impale them.”

Satisfied that her dragon toy would not be bothering the family again, Bess picked up the stuffed animal, trotted across the room to a garbage can, and dropped the toy inside. “All bedder!” she chimed and padded back over to the others. She tried unsuccessfully to climb onto the couch by herself until Roderick picked her up and put her on his lap. “Conquering dragons before you’re potty trained, eh princess?”

“All bedder!” she said again.

It wasn’t all better. Alastair couldn’t stand the thought of his daughter ever seeing, let alone fighting, a real dragon. And yet, that’s what he was planning. That’s what he was asking his father to give him a loan for.

Alastair did let himself dwell on the implications or what they meant for Bess’s future. He had time until the dragons attacked. Fifteen to twenty years. He would find and train so many Slayers, his daughter would only bare a small portion of the danger.

“Slayers are natural dragon fighters,” Alastair reminded his father. “Any Slayer children in the area will want to come to camp. My goal is to have the regular facilities open in three years. That way when the Slayer children are old enough to go to camps, mine will already be well established. I’ll offer scholarships for families who can’t afford the cost. We’ll find and train all of the Slayers.”

Roderick turned his attention to Bess. She was busily shoving his car keys between the couch cushions. He didn’t give his disappearing keys any notice. Instead he ran a hand over Bess’s wispy curls. “She reminds me of Nathan.”

“I know,” Alastair said. Bess was determined, mischievous, and exuberant. Just like Nathan had been.

Roderick’s gaze swung back to Alastair, all his former sternness restored. “I don’t want her anywhere near a dragon. Brant Overdrake can’t even know she exists.”

Alastair gave the answer he told himself every time he had the same thought. “All of the Slayers, including Bess, will be safer from both dragons and Overdrake if they’re trained.”

His father couldn’t argue with that. If Nathan had known that he was a Slayer and that Overdrake was a dragon lord, Nathan would probably still be alive.

Roderick brushed one of Bess’s curls behind her ear. His hands looked rough and worn against the little girl’s smooth skin. “You can train Bess,” Roderick conceded. “But I don’t want her anywhere near a battle.”

“None of us do,” Shirley said. She had been uncharacteristically quiet and somber during this conversation. But then, how could one look at your child and talk about their future battles lightly?

“We’ll hope for the best,” Alastair added. “However, we have to prepare for the worst,”

With the keys now swallowed by the couch, Bess sat down beside her grandfather and tried to pry his wedding ring from his finger.

“Fine then,” Roderick said in a tone that indicated he’d made up his mind about the issued. “I won’t give you opinions or platitudes, I’ll just tell you my terms for funding your camp. You can train Bess, but when Overdrake attacks, she stays out of it.”

“I don’t want her to fight. I don’t want her anywhere near dragons.” Alastair glanced across the room at the garbage can and the dragon tail that stuck out. “But how am I going to keep her out of it?”

“You’re the parent. You’ll figure something out. And speaking of parents, don’t tell your mother any of this. It will just make her worry.”

Over the years, Alastair and his father had kept a long list of things from his mother.

Unable to pull off her grandpa’s ring, Bess bent down to bite it. Roderick gently moved his hand away. “No, no,” he told her.

Bess laughed and tried to bite his finger again.

Shirley stood up, walked over, and picked up their daughter. “No biting, Sweetie.”

Bess chomped her teeth together. “I a cwocodile.”

Shirley made a tsking noise and carried Bess into the kitchen, most likely to have a talk with her about appropriate animal behavior.

Alastair watched them go and inwardly sighed. “We can’t even keep her from biting people. What makes you think we’ll be able to control her when she’s a teenager?” He lifted one hand in frustration. “Has anyone figured out yet how to control teenagers? I missed that announcement.”

Roderick leaned back against the couch. “I’ll give you ten million to build your camp and buy equipment clear and free. It won’t be a loan. It’s a gift.”

A gift, that was, as long as Alastair went along with his father’s demands. Alastair didn’t answer right away. He knew his father wanted the slayer children found and trained just as much as Alastair wanted it, more maybe. Nathan’s death wouldn’t be completely avenged until Overdrake was defeated.

“I could go to the government for funding,” Alastair said, attempting to force his father into a better bargaining spot. “They might help me.”

Roderick only shook his head. “You have no way to prove anything to the government. Dragons and dragon lords—they’ll think you’re crazy. Probably put you on one of those watch lists so you’re frisked every time you go to an airport.”

A silence stretched out between them. Alastair looked at the ceiling then back at his father in aggravation. “It will take years to train the children. They’ll trust me. They’ll depend on me. How am I supposed to tell them I’m sending them into a fight that I won’t let my daughter go to?”

“So don’t tell them,” Roderick said. “When the time comes, Bess can call in sick.”

“And what will Bess think of me for making this sort of deal?”

Roderick pulled his phone from his breast pocket. “I don’t care what she thinks as long as she’s alive.” He turned on his phone. “Give me your bank account number, and I’ll have the funds to you by Monday.”

Ten million dollars. Alastair could buy the land within the week and start the zoning process. And would it really be such a bad thing to keep Bess out of the fight? Wasn’t a part of him already breathing a sigh of relief at the thought?

“Well?” his father asked. “Do we have a deal?”

Alastair thought of the stacks of bids and lists of expenses sitting on the table. What other choice did he have? If he depended on outside financing, maybe the camp would never get off the ground. Wasn’t it better to assure that the rest of the Slayers were trained to fight instead of standing on principle and having none be trained at all?

Alastair nodded at his father. “All right.” A part of him felt like he had sold out, that he had compromised himself. Another part felt an overwhelming sense of relief. Bess wasn’t allowed to fight. He wouldn’t lose her the way he’d lost his brother.

Alastair would just have to come up with a way to tell her about this stipulation before the battle began.

 

 

Chapter 1

 

Tori paced across her bedroom. The problem with having a vivid imagination was that it was far too easy to envision bad endings to failed missions. Beatings. Imprisonment. Death. Or maybe her imagination wasn’t to blame. Maybe her experience with Overdrake was what was making her worry on Aaron’s behalf.

He was twelve years old—only a child—and she’d purposely leaked his location to Overdrake. She’d done it because Aaron wasn’t just a child, he was the son that Overdrake hadn’t realized he had. A dragon lord. Bait too irresistible for Overdrake to resist.

Had the man already found Aaron and taken him?

Tori tried to banish thoughts of any brutal interrogations he might be enduring. Overdrake wanted Aaron because he had dragon lord powers. He would train him, not hurt him. That was, unless he found out that Aaron planned on becoming a mole for the Slayers. Then who knew what the man would do.

Tori glanced at the clock hanging on her bedroom wall. It was a French antique that her mother had acquired during one of her trips to Europe. She’d insisted on putting it in Tori’s room and had threatened to put several more up if Tori didn’t get better at keeping track of time. A hopeless expectation. Tori could not only lose track of minutes, she misplaced entire hours if something caught her interest.

Now, however, she felt each second ticking by with relentless precision. Aaron had snuck out of his house this morning and gone to the Renaissance Festival supposedly to sell a dragon scale. In reality, he was waiting for his father to come for him. Tori had told Dirk about him in a message and she suspected Overdrake read those.

What sort of persuasion would Overdrake use on Aaron? Would he explain he was Aaron’s father and ask him to come live with him? Demand it? Threaten his mother if he didn’t?

Then again, Overdrake would most likely use more finesse. Bribery of some sort. He wouldn’t want to turn Aaron into an enemy. Overdrake would try and convince Aaron that his upcoming attacks on America were warranted, just like he’d convinced Dirk.

Another glance at the clock. Four fifteen. She paced back the other direction.

Her gaze fell on a small framed picture on her dresser. Her and her sister posing atop the Empire State building on a trip to New York for last spring’s fashion week. That life had disappeared somewhere, burned to cinders by dragon fire. Tori might look the same—long golden brown hair, green eyes, camera-ready smile, but everything else about her had changed. Life as a Slayer was secrets, strategy, training, fighting—and as of today, doing what she’d never thought she’d do—playing God with someone else’s life.

Another glance at the clock. Four nineteen. The frustrating thing was that Tori didn’t even know whether she should be worrying. She had no way of knowing whether Aaron had even followed through with their plan. She couldn’t call him. Overdrake might have his phone, or for that matter, Bianca, his mother might have it. Tori’s one stipulation to Aaron had been that he leave a note for his mom, telling her what he’d done and why he’d done it. An unexplained disappearance would have been too cruel.

But for all Tori knew, Bianca had found the note early and dragged Aaron home from the fair long before Overdrake arrived. Either way, Bianca would be furious when she found out Aaron had put himself in danger to help the Slayers. She would no doubt call Dr. B. Was it better to call him first and confess her part in everything, or should she wait until he called her?

The fair ended at five-thirty. If she called Dr. B and Overdrake hadn’t taken Aaron yet, she could blow his whole plan.

Tori kept pacing, kept checking the clock, didn’t call. She wished she could call Jesse and talk to him about this. He was Team Magnus’s captain and her boyfriend. Or at least he had been her boyfriend. They’d fought this morning and now she wasn’t sure he wanted to be her boyfriend anymore, let alone discuss the intrigue she’d just facilitated. She couldn’t think about all of that yet.

At five-fifteen a message from Dr. B appeared on her Slayer watch.

Aaron snuck out this morning to sell dragon scales and hasn’t returned home. He may be purposely staying out because he knows he’ll be in trouble when he gets home, but it’s possible he’s run afoul of a dealer, a customer, or even that Overdrake may have captured him. Bianca has notified the local police of his disappearance but he hasn’t been gone long enough to worry them. She’ll keep me posted.

Tori’s pacing came to a halt as she read and then reread the message. Overdrake must have Aaron. Why didn’t Bianca already understand what his disappearance meant? Had she missed his note? But no, she must have read it or she wouldn’t know his cover—that he’d gone to sell a scale.

Another message from Dr. lit up her watch. This one sent only to her. Could you possibly go to North Carolina with me? Your skill as a counterpart may be able to help locate Aaron.

Counterparts could sense each other if they were within a few dozen yards and Tori was counterparts with both Dirk and Aaron. Wouldn’t be much help in this case. Aaron was long gone from the fairgrounds.

It’s a slim hope, Dr. B went on, but Bianca is distraught and it’s all I have to offer her. She’s worried someone knifed Aaron, stole the scale, and now he’s lying in a ditch somewhere.

A tight ball of recrimination formed in Tori’s stomach. Bianca didn’t know what Aaron had done. Was it possible he hadn’t been clear enough in his note?

Tori called Dr. B on her watch phone.

He answered immediately. “If you can go, I’ll have the jet ready by the time you reach the airport.”

“I’m pretty sure Aaron is with Overdrake. He was supposed to explain everything in a note to Bianca.” She swallowed and plunged on. “He and I had a plan. His plan, actually. He said he’d go to Overdrake by himself if I didn’t help him.” It was perhaps cowardly of Tori to emphasize how little choice Aaron had given her, but she wanted to emphasize that she hadn’t forced him to offer himself up.

“You planned on selling the scales with Aaron?” Dr. B asked. “Why?”

“He didn’t go to the fair to sell scales.” Perhaps it was better to back up. “Do you know what Aaron said in his note?”

“I’ve got a scan of it. Hold on.” A moment later, Dr. B read, “I’m going to find a buyer for the scales. I’ve got to do it to protect our family. I don’t want to leave any evidence in the house that could let Overdrake know the truth about me.”

Really? Tori had given Aaron one stipulation, and he hadn’t done it. He hadn’t told his mother what he was doing.

She rubbed her forehead in frustration. The last sentence of his note was most likely written for Tori, not Bianca. Aaron had told her in a roundabout way that he wasn’t giving his mother an explanation because he didn’t want to leave any evidence that Overdrake might find. Perhaps Aaron thought Overdrake’s men might search his house.

Whatever his reasoning, he’d left Tori to break the news to Dr. B. She took a deep breath. “You have to understand—Aaron has grown up hearing stories about your brother, how Nathan was drawn to the dragons on St. Helena, and Overdrake’s father killed him because of it. Aaron is afraid that when Overdrake attacks, the same thing will happen to his brother.” Aaron had inherited both dragon lord and Slayer genes, but his younger half-brother Jacob was only a slayer. And therefore a natural threat to Overdrake.

“Aaron asked me to leak his location so Overdrake would come for him. He’s going to work against Overdrake on the inside by passing information to me.”

Tori was connected to whichever dragon she was closest to and heard whatever it did. If Aaron spoke while he was near that dragon, he could communicate with her. He would just have to figure out which dragon was closest to her or give the same information around each of them.

Dr. B’s voice came through her watch, sharp with judgment. “You sent a twelve-year-old to spy on a ruthless tyrant? What sort of information do you think Overdrake would give a child? The name of his government contacts? His battle plans?” Dr. B had never yelled at Tori before. She’d always thought the man was made of patience. His anger now, although not loud, cut twice as deep.

“No,” she said quietly, “but Aaron was determined to go and he might be able to give us information about Overdrake’s location. If nothing else, Aaron can pass along information about how to control dragons. Isn’t that worth something?”

Dr. B didn’t answer. He was either considering her point or was too furious to form words.

Tori began pacing again. “Both times when we fought dragons, luck saved us as much as skill—that, and Dirk’s help. Next time, we might not have either. But if I can control a dragon, or even if I can break Overdrake’s control on one for a little while, that might be the difference between life and death for all of us. So yes, I thought sending Aaron to Overdrake’s was worth the risk. Tell Bianca I’m sorry.”

“I won’t tell her that,” Dr. B voice was controlled now, his temper back in check, “and neither will you. At this point, telling her the truth will only further wound her. She can’t know that Aaron chose to leave her because he thought her so incapable of protecting Jacob, he decided to take on Overdrake himself.”

Guilt twisted through Tori. “Aaron didn’t want to hurt his mother. I can reassure her of that.”

“Telling Bianca the truth would turn her against the Slayers, so I doubt she would find anything you said after your confession very reassuring. We need her as an ally, and right now she trusts us. I won’t ruin that by making her think we’re willing to sacrifice her children to our cause. I’ll tell her we have reason to believe that Overdrake has Aaron, and promise that as soon as you have more information about him, I’ll call her.”

A small offering, but one she could do. “As soon as I hear anything from him, I’ll let you know.” In the last few hours all she’d heard from the dragon were the normal sort of sounds: the occasional footsteps as the dragon moved around, lapping noises while it took a drink.

“Your actions in this affair,” Dr. B went on, “are unacceptable, to say the least.”

Tori sank down onto her window seat, leaning against a row of pillows there. “I only—”

Dr. B didn’t let her finish. “Not because you helped Aaron enact this plan, but because you did so without any consultation from the rest of the slayers. Sending Aaron in may prove to be a valuable strategy, but you shouldn’t make far-reaching decisions without any debate or vote. Doing away with democracy is Overdrake’s plan, not ours.”

That stung. Granted, Dr. B always made the Slayers discuss any important mission beforehand, but he’d also taught her that being a captain meant that sometimes you had to make hard decisions alone. He’d appointed her as A-team’s captain. Didn’t he trust her? “I didn’t tell the other Slayers because I knew they wouldn’t look at the issue objectively. They’re predisposed not to trust dragon lords. Jesse doesn’t want me to even try to learn how to control dragons.”

It was what they’d fought about this morning. Well, that and the fact that she’d let Dirk kiss her in an attempt to get information from him. In her defense, she was trying to get information about controlling dragons. “The Slayers refuse to see the potential of training Aaron,” she said.

“And you refuse to see the danger. Twelve-year-olds are impressionable and easily influenced. What if Overdrake converts Aaron to his side? If Dirk and Aaron both help during an attack, we’ll be forced to simultaneously fight three dragons. What will our chances be then?” Dr. B let out an unhappy breath. “Captains can’t function without the trust of their team and I’m afraid this bit of subterfuge will cost you the other Slayers’ trust. You’ve left me no choice but to put you on probation.”

Probation meant that she would still be on A-team, but no longer the captain. Tori had expected Dr. B to be angry, had dreaded his disappointment, but she hadn’t anticipated this. His pronouncement felt like he was telling her that he no longer liked her and he doubted the Slayers would either.

Her voice lodged halfway in her throat and she had to force herself to speak. “For how long?”

“That will depend on the other Slayers. When I tell them about Aaron, I’ll emphasize that you had the best intentions. I’ll point out that we may gain invaluable information. I’ll reassess things in a few weeks. Until then, Ryker will be A-team’s captain.”

Ryker was the other flyer on the team. He’d only been with the Slayers since Halloween, less than a month.

“I understand,” she said. She did understand. But she still didn’t like the decision.

Dr. B said his goodbyes and Tori went and laid on her bed, exhausted.

It was stupid to feel so hurt. After all, she hadn’t wanted to be a captain in the first place, but having the position taken away from her as a punishment made her feel small and breakable and completely wrong about everything she’d done. She’d been trying to do the right thing. Why did it make her feel so completely horrible?

She buried her face in her pillow, shut her eyes, and enlarged her dragon hearing as far as it could go. She longed to hear Aaron’s voice in the background, some reassurance that he was okay. All she heard was the slow rattle of the dragon’s breath.

Where was Aaron right now?

Be okay, she thought. Be strong. And she lay there wishing she had some way to tell him those things.

 

 

Chapter 2

 

When Aaron woke up, he lay on the floor of a small living room, one that vibrated with a loud hum. He sat up quickly, heart racing. His head felt like it weighed ten pounds. He shook it, trying to clear his mind. Part of his brain was screaming at him to get up and run. He’d meant to meet his father and go with him—but not like this. He hadn’t planned on being drugged and kidnapped.

As his vision focused, he realized this wasn’t in a living room. He was on an airplane, a moving one. Not the sort of commercial plane he’d flown on before. A smaller private jet.

Two oversized chairs sat behind a bolted-down coffee table. Dirk sat in one of them, a calculus book open in his lap. It was odd to look at Dirk—and not just because he was the older brother his mother had always talked about with so much wistful reverence, the guy might have been a mythological being instead of a person. It was odd because everyone had told Aaron how much he looked like Dirk. They had the same blond hair, blue eyes, and features similar enough that Tori and Dr. B had pegged them for brothers as soon as they’d met Aaron. Dirk was taller with broader shoulders and a squarer jaw, but that was because his brother was almost eighteen. Once Aaron was the same age, he’d probably have those things too.

How could Aaron look at Dirk without wondering if he was looking at his future?

Dirk only gave Aaron a passing glance, then went back to writing equations in a notebook next to his calculus book. Somehow seeing him do math problems ticked Aaron off. If you were going to kidnap someone, you shouldn’t do something as normal as homework while it was happening.

“You’re awake,” a voice behind him said. “Good.”

Aaron turned and saw Overdrake sitting on a couch. He didn’t look much different from the photos Aaron had seen in his mother’s old photo albums. His dark hair was streaked with gray, and he had more wrinkles around his brown eyes. Other than that, he hadn’t changed much. He was tall, fit, and stern-looking. The sort of person who could dissect you with a gaze.

Overdrake looked Aaron over with smug approval. “It’s hard to keep a dragon lord drugged for long. We have a resistance to drugs. The fact that you’re up already is a piece of proof that you’re my son. Although we’ll need to go to my compound to see for certain.” Overdrake gestured to the seat next to Dirk’s, inviting him to sit. “Your mother told you about me, I assume. You know who I am?”

Aaron got to his feet, still feeling clumsy and tired from the drug. He slumped into one of the leather chairs. “Yeah, you’re Brant Overdrake. I’ve seen pictures of you.” Aaron brushed his hand against his pocket, checking for his phone. Gone. “Where is my phone?”

“In a safe place.”

Aaron kept his voice even. No point in losing his temper. “Can I have it?”

“Later. How is Bianca these days?”

He sounded so polite, so civilized. It was hard to believe this was the guy who’d had men chase Aaron down and sedate him. “Why did you drug me and where are you taking me?”

“Didn’t I make that clear? I’m sorry. You’ll be going to my home for a paternity test. You look like Dirk, true, but for all I know you could just be some look alike the Slayers found so they could try and track me.”

Aaron rubbed his forehead. “Dude, they sell paternity tests at Walmart. You don’t have to fly me anywhere for a test.”

Overdrake picked up a glass from a cup holder and took a casual drink. “I drugged you because you ran away. Which, I assumed meant you knew I wanted to talk with you but you weren’t willing to come with me peacefully. Sometimes parents have to use force with their children. You understand that.” He said this as though drugging and kidnapping him was the same as sending a five-year-old to their room. “What exactly did Bianca tell you about me?”

Aaron ran his hand along the chair’s arms. They were softer than any chairs he had in his house. “She doesn’t talk about you much. She told me you had dragons and you were going to use them to take over the government. She didn’t want me to be a part of it, so that’s why she left when she was pregnant with me.”

Aaron hadn’t thought Dirk was listening, but the bottom half of his pencil snapped in two like he’d been pressing it too hard. That was the downside of extra strength, he supposed, you broke stuff easier.

It occurred to Aaron that dragon lords, like Slayers, got their extra powers when they’d been close to a dragon. Dirk had been strong at the fair and still was. “Is there a dragon somewhere nearby?” he asked.

Overdrake watched him casually. “Do you really have to ask that question?”

Uh, what did he mean by that? “You’re saying I’m not allowed to ask questions?”

“I’m saying that if you really are a dragon lord, and a dragon was nearby, you would feel it. Did your mother not tell you that much at least?”

Aaron still wasn’t thinking clearly. Overdrake wouldn’t have brought a dragon out into public. Like the Slayers, he must have a simulator—a machine that mimicked a dragon’s heartbeat so closely that its pulse turned on a dragon lord’s powers. Once they’d been in contact with it, they would have extra strength, night vision, heightened senses, and the ability to fly. Those powers would last as long as the simulator was within a five-mile range, and for an hour afterward.

Aaron couldn’t tell Overdrake he knew about simulators. He didn’t want to admit that he knew anything about the Slayers. “My mom has said things about dragons, but I haven’t paid a lot of attention. It’s not like I’ve ever run into one.”

Overdrake smiled. “You just sell their scales.”

Aaron’s mother had taken dragon scales from Overdrake when she’d left him. Aaron had never believed they were real until he’d sold some—a sale that had led the Slayers to his doorstep. Aaron shrugged. “Selling stuff isn’t illegal.”

Overdrake swirled the liquid in his glass. “No, but it isn’t always wise. The wrong people could start asking questions.”

“Fine. I won’t sell them anymore. I’m glad we’ve had this talk and you can take me back to the fair.”

“This isn’t about the scales,” Overdrake said patiently. “This is about you and how you should be raised.”

Aaron shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Keep calm, he told himself. You wanted this. But it was hard not to be freaked out. Before, when he’d thought about contacting his father, it had always been a choice, something he could back out of if he wanted. Now there was no backing out. “Did you tell my mom you were taking me?” he asked. That’s what any normal kid would ask in this situation. “She’s going to freak out if I just disappear.”

“She disappeared with you thirteen years ago,” Overdrake said, calmly taking another drink. “You know what they say, turnabout is fair play.”

“She’ll call the police and tell them you kidnapped me.”

Overdrake waved his hand, dismissing the protest. “This isn’t a kidnapping, it’s a custody dispute. They happen every day in America and the police don’t do much about it. Really, considering she denied me custody for twelve years, I think my turn with you is long overdue.”

“You didn’t let her see Dirk,” Aaron pointed out. That got his brother’s attention. Dirk stiffened, frowned. He didn’t look up though. He was concentrating firmly on his equations.

“It was unfortunate but necessary,” Overdrake said. “Bianca knew when we married that I needed sons to help me. You can’t imagine how upset it makes me to know she’s hidden you away from me all this time. And, no doubt, she’s told you horrible things about me.”

For the first time, Aaron wondered if his mother really had lied to him about his father. “You’re not going to use the dragons to attack cities?”

“See, this is exactly what I mean. She’s poisoned you against me. I’m going to use the dragons to set cities free.”

Uh huh. “Does setting them free involve burning things and killing people?”

Overdrake laughed. “Is that the sort of person you think I am? Someone who enjoys destroying things?” He shook his head. “A leader builds things, not destroys them.”

What did he mean by that? “So you’re not going to attack with the dragons?”

Overdrake sighed as if Aaron was a little kid asking whether Santa was real. “This is what you need to know. I plan on building a great future for this country. Think of me as an architect with blueprints for an amazing palace. Whenever a builder creates a new structure, he needs to clear the ground first. Get rid of the rubble and weeds. Things that shouldn’t be there to begin with. Clearing them takes work and effort, but what he builds is so much better, that it’s worth it. Do you understand?”

Not really. But Aaron suspected that the answer to his earlier question was: yes, Overdrake did plan on using the dragons to attack. Aaron nodded uncertainly.

“Good,” Overdrake said, “Now tell me about yourself. I assume you play sports.”

Aaron didn’t just play sports, he dominated them, was the best athlete in his grade. “Yeah. Football, basketball, and some soccer.”

Overdrake nodded as though he expected as much. “Dirk’s always been varsity. Your grades?”

“As and Bs.” More Bs than his mother liked. She wanted him to be straight As.

“Where do you live?”

Aaron tried not to swallow. Swallowing would make him look guilty. “Charleston.” His family had vacationed there enough times that he could fake it. No way was he going to tell Overdrake his real address. “You’re going to give me my phone so I can call my mom, right?”

“I’ll let her know you’re safe. Did she ever remarry?”

“No. She’s single.” It was partly true. She and Wesley, his stepdad, were separated. Aaron didn’t want Overdrake to consider that she might have any Slayer children.

“Really?” he asked. “I always imagined she would remarry quickly.”

Aaron swallowed again despite his best efforts not to. She’d married Wesley not long after Aaron was born.

Overdrake didn’t seem to notice his discomfort, or at least didn’t press the subject. Instead he spent the next twenty minutes asking about Aaron’s hobbies, his school, and bits of his life.

Aaron answered them carefully, making sure not to accidentally give information about his mom or brother.

After the plane landed, Overdrake turned to Dirk. “So, do you have counterpart abilities with Aaron? Could you tell if he was lying about anything?”

Aaron froze. Tori had said counterparts could sometimes tell when the other was lying, but Aaron had assumed he would have to be talking to Dirk for him to detect a lie. Now he worried. If Dirk knew he had lied about their mother remarrying, he might figure out why. And his address—he’d lied about that too.

Dirk picked up his homework. “As far as I could tell, the kid wasn’t lying about any of it.”

Overdrake smiled, happy with that piece of news.

Aaron just stared at his brother. Because he could tell Dirk was lying. Somehow his emotions felt it as strongly as if he’d been the one lying.  This was both good and bad news. Good news, because Dirk didn’t rat him out. Bad news, because it was apparently a lot easier to tell when a counterpart lied than Aaron had hoped.

***

Overdrake blindfolded Aaron before he led him off the plane. Aaron remained blindfolded for a car ride that must have been at least an hour long. He didn’t know whether to be worried or think all the cloak and dagger stuff was lame. He wasn’t allowed to take off the blindfold even after Overdrake led him out of the car. They walked down an uneven path for ten minutes, maybe more. Then they went into a building, climbed down several flights of stairs, and walked through a hallway.

It didn’t matter how many times Aaron asked, “Where are you taking me?”

Overdrake always answered in a variation of, “You’ll see when you get there.”

Aaron didn’t see though, he smelled it. Something like old car parts. A door opened, Overdrake walked him through it, and then the door shut with a loud metallic clang. Were they in some sort of mechanic’s shop?

“This,” Overdrake said, “Is where we’ll administer your paternity test.” Finally, he took off the blindfold.

They stood in some sort of dimly lit cave. It was several stories high and as wide as three or four basketball courts. Had the echoing feel of a basketball court too. A pool of water sat by an outcropping of boulders, with a hill of boulders behind that. Smaller boulders lay near Aaron’s feet. The odd thing about the cave was that they’d come in a door to get here. Weirdest place ever. Dirk and Overdrake stood beside Aaron, looking bored.

“Can you see?” Overdrake asked him.

“What am I supposed to see?” Aaron asked.

Overdrake grunted like he wasn’t pleased with the answer.

And then Aaron saw that the black shape he’d thought was a hill of boulders wasn’t rock at all. It was alive and moving toward them. A huge, slinking beast. Aaron took a step backward, almost tripping over his own feet. “Is that a dragon?”

“It is,” Overdrake said, his voice sounding pleased again. “Meet Khan. He’ll most likely kill you if you can’t protect yourself, so you have three options.” He pointed to a small opening in the ceiling of the cave wall. “You can fly up there and hide, you can go into the dragon’s mind and control it, or you can pick up those rocks to your side and use them as weapons.”

Aaron took another step backward. “Are you insane?” He should never have come here. Never should have told Tori he’d do this.

“If you’re my son, the dragon’s fire won’t hurt you. If you’re an imposter, well, you’ll die. But you’ll have learned a very important lesson before you do, which is that you should never impersonate someone.”

The man was insane. He was standing there calmly talking about the dragon frying him like this was all some game that didn’t mean anything.

Aaron shouldn’t have to prove himself. He hadn’t come to Overdrake claiming to be his son. The man had kidnapped him from the fair and brought him here. Aaron wanted to yell all at Overdrake, but Khan was coming closer. He needed a plan. He needed to do something—fight or hide.

But all Aaron could manage was to stand motionless, gawking at the dragon. With its dark scales, it looked like a shadow that had come to life, some sort of inky nightmare. The thing was so huge it could have easily ripped an elephant to part. It lifted its long neck, glared at him with a pair of golden eyes, and growled showing rows of dagger-like teeth.

Aaron didn’t know how to fly or control a dragon—even though he remembered his mother talking to Tori about it. She’d said something about making your dragon vision into a door and stepping through it. No time to figure out what that meant.

The boulders to his side were the size of large ice coolers. Too heavy for him to normally pick up, but he must have his dragon lord strength now. The dragon was closer than five miles—it was almost closer than five yards. Aaron hefted up the corner of a boulder, and it lifted his hands as easily as though it had been a pillow. He held it over his head, stepped into the throw, and launched it at Khan’s throat.

The dragon dodged easily enough and in return, shot a blast of fire in Aaron’s direction. Long churning flames. Aaron wasn’t about to stand there and see if he was really fireproof. Instinct made him leap sideways, a motion that took him higher and farther than he’d planned on. When he landed, he was a good fifteen feet away from the boulders, his only weapons.

A stupid move. He searched around for something else to throw. There wasn’t anything. He’d have leap back there.

Fly, he told himself Fly!

Nothing happened. His feet didn’t leave the ground.

The dragon turned and took a heavy threatening step in his direction.

Overdrake held up his hand. “Enough,” he said, and the dragon halted. Within the span of seconds, it went from an attack stance to calmly sitting, eyes half shut in boredom.

Overdrake clicked something on his remote and the lights in the cave brightened. “You passed your test. You do indeed have powers when you’re near a dragon. Although I must mention that of the three options I gave you, attacking a dragon is the most foolish one. But then, we have plenty of time to work on your education.”

Aaron planted his hands on his hips, his breaths coming out fast. “You call this a test? Hey, I’ll tell you what you can do with your education.” He then arranged every swear word he knew into one sentence and spat them all out at his father. He was still shaking from the fear and adrenaline and his heart felt like it was about to hammer its way through his chest.

Overdrake shook his head. “You’ll need to work on your temper. I don’t stand for that sort of disrespect from my sons.”

“I could have been killed!” Aaron yelled and added a few more sentences of mostly swear words.

Dirk rose a half a foot into the air and glided over to him. It looked weird seeing him just levitating off the ground that way. He took hold of Aaron’s arm and pulled him toward the door they’d come in. “I’ll show Aaron around and take him to his room.”

The door was steel and looked like something that belonged in a prison, but it opened easily. Aaron was still cursing when Dirk dragged him out into the hallway and shut the door behind them. “Calm down,” Dirk said, landing on the ground again. “You were never in any danger. My father had control of the dragon the whole time.”

“It shot fire at me!” Aaron shook off Dirk’s grip. He could do that now that he had extra strength. “If I wasn’t a dragon lord, I would have been burned alive. What sort of psycho test is that?”

“Khan only shot fire at you after you’d thrown the boulder. By that point, it was clear you were legit, and dragon lords don’t burn.” Dirk motioned for Aaron to follow him down the hall.

Aaron didn’t really have a choice. He didn’t want to be standing there in the hallway when Overdrake came out. He grudgingly followed Dirk. “He’s crazy, isn’t he? Like, legitimately mental.”

“No,” Dirk said. “He just likes to make a point. And the point he was making today is that he is in charge and there are consequences for anyone who crosses him. Once you’ve learned that lesson, everything will be much smoother.” He said the words like they didn’t bother him, but how could they not? “Oh, and by the way—welcome home.”

Home. They both knew it wasn’t. Aaron wasn’t sure if Dirk was trying to be friendly or just ironic.

They kept walking down the hall, their footsteps clanging on the floor.

“Back at the fair, when you saw me, you told me to run. Why?”

Dirk seemed unruffled by the question, but his voice had a note of bitterness. “Because my mother gave me up in order to protect you—in order to keep you from being trained as a dragon lord.” He opened a door and went up a stairwell. “Seemed like a shame to have that sacrifice be for nothing.”

Aaron let out a sharp breath and followed after Dirk. He suddenly felt like he’d betrayed his mom, done something horribly wrong.

Instead of walking, Dirk lifted off the ground and flew over the first few steps. Aaron leaped up a few stairs, bumped into the stairwell, did the same thing at the next bend, and gave up the idea of using his powers to shorten the climb. He trudged up them the normal way.

Dirk checked over his shoulder to see if Aaron was keeping up. “Don’t look so depressed,” he said. “Being a dragon lord isn’t a bad thing. You’ll get the hang of leaping eventually. Plus you’ll get to control dragons and fly.”

Aaron kept trudging up the steps. He could have leaped up but didn’t want Dirk to think he was enjoying himself. “Is this like good cop-bad cop, and you’re the good cop?”

Dirk chuckled, then stopped himself. “Sorry for laughing. I just never thought of myself as the good cop sort.” Dirk landed on the steps beside Aaron and resumed climbing the stairs with him. “You’ll be staying at the dragon enclosure for a while. Once my dad,” he paused amending the term. “Once our dad feels he can trust you, you’ll move with the rest of the family to the house.”

“Who’s the rest of the family?”

“Cassie is our stepmother. Bridget, our half-sister, is seven, and we’ve got a baby brother on the way. How about your family? Do I have any half-siblings there?”

Aaron didn’t answer the question. He didn’t want to tell the truth and worried Dirk would be able to tell if he lied. He glanced around the stairwell. Cinderblocks lined the walls. The whole place had the atmosphere of a prison. The sooner he figured out exactly how things were going to work here, the better. “How are you going to keep me from leaving? Are you going to lock me in my room?”

Dirk shook his head. “You’ve already forgotten the point of today’s lesson. Dad is in charge and if you cross him, there will be consequences.”

“So he’ll hurt me if I try to escape?”

“You’re too valuable for that. He’ll find other ways.”

“What do you mean?”

Dirk scoffed. “Do you really have to ask? Look, I’m ticked at my mom for leaving me as a kid. I won’t pretend I’m not. But that doesn’t mean I want to see her hurt. So just do both of us a favor and don’t give our father any reasons to track her down to make his point in a bigger way, okay?”

Aaron’s stomach lurched and a feeling of dread pressed into him. He held his chin steady though. He didn’t like being threatened. “He won’t be able to find her.”

“Please. He’s got your cell phone with her number on it. Do you think he can’t figure out a way to get to her? He’s probably already noticed that none of your contacts have South Carolina area codes. Where are you really from, North Carolina?”

Aaron didn’t answer, just grit his teeth and followed Dirk down the hallway. He should’ve thought to erase his contacts.

Dirk exhaled slowly, and Aaron could feel his sympathy mixed with concern. “None of this will be as bad as it seems right now. I’ll give you some advice for dealing with our father. Don’t bother fighting him. He’ll make sure he wins. The best way to sway him is to bargain. What do you want—well, besides a new dad and a plane ticket home?”

“I want to call Mom and talk to her.”

“Okay. So tell Dad you’re willing to stay as long as you get to call home once a week, and he buys you a Ferrari.”

“I’m twelve. I can’t drive.”

“That doesn’t matter. Ask for a car anyway. He’ll buy one for you because he understands people who can be bought. It’s the ones that can’t who make him nervous.”

A Ferrari would be cool. “Any other advice?”

Dirk glanced over at him with a sad smile. “Yeah, next time I tell you to run, make sure you do.”

***

Aaron walked down a hallway with Dirk, running a hand along the cement walls. How far below the surface were they? This whole place made him feel claustrophobic.

Dirk opened a metal door and motioned for him to go inside.

Instead of cement, the walls were some sort of metal: dull gray that blurred his reflection. A simple bed, dresser, and desk sat in the room. No windows, obviously. Amazing how much a bedroom looked like a cell without sunlight. An alarm clock perched on the dresser and small TV hung on the far wall. A doorway in the back. A bathroom?

“This is where you guys live?” Aaron asked. He’d expected someone with as much money as Overdrake to have nicer rooms.

“No, but this is where you’ll live until we decide we can trust you.” Dirk pointed out a plate of food on the desk: a sandwich, chips, apple, and a bottled water. “Cassie left some stuff for you in case you’re hungry. Try to get some sleep. Dad believes in being an early riser so you’ll start training at seven every morning.”

“Is there some reason all the walls are metal?”

“They’ll keep the dragon signal from reaching you so your powers will wear off. Otherwise you’d have too much energy to sleep.”

The metal walls probably also made the place harder to break out of. Real cozy.

Aaron walked over to the bed. A crayon drawing lay on his pillow.

“That’s a welcome gift from Bridget,” Dirk said. “A self-portrait.”

Dirk had told Aaron that they had a seven-year-old sister, but she hadn’t seemed real until now. He had a little sister. He had no idea how to treat sisters or seven-year-olds. Did they cry easily? Throw temper tantrums?

Aaron picked up the drawing. It showed a dark-haired girl smiling and reaching her stick figure arms up into the air. To Aaron was written on the top. “Is she doing yoga or surrendering?”

“She’s reaching out to hug you.”

“Oh. Good.” Aaron looked around the room again. “I wasn’t sure what the norm for your family was. Glad yoga’s not expected.”

Dirk laughed and shook his head. “I can tell you’re a lot like me, which means we’ll probably get along.” He put his hand on Aaron’s shoulder. It was a friendly gesture until he fixed him with a penetrating gaze. “But I need to tell you one more thing. If you ever do anything to hurt Bridget, I’ll know, and I’ll make you suffer.”

Aaron dropped the picture back on the bed and stepped away from Dirk’s grip. “Sheesh. I wouldn’t hurt a little kid. What sort of person do you think I am?”

“I think you’re fine which is why I’m willing to let you go near Bridget.” Dirk paused as though realizing he’d forgotten something. “I should have clarified that the last message was from Cassie.” He shrugged in apology. “She’s pregnant so she goes through frequent periods of hormonal snippiness.” Dirk casually slipped his hands into his back pockets. “You don’t want to know what I’d do to you if you hurt Bridget.”

Aaron held up his hands. “I won’t even talk to her.”

“You’ll have to talk to her. She’d be crushed if you didn’t. She also loves to play Uno and Wii, so plan on getting drafted into several games a day.” Dirk smiled and then walked to the door. “If she likes you, she might let you win sometimes.”

Advice on Overcoming Writer’s Block/ Why Slayers series is taking so long

I didn’t always believe in writer’s block. Not really. Yes, there were bumpy patches in every book and at times I needed a break. But those were always temporary things.

I didn’t really discover what writer’s block was until I started Slayers 3 (Back then I thought it was going to be one book and that it would probably take me 6-9 months to write and about 6 months to edit. Ah, those naive, carefree days.)

I’m pretty sure the writer’s block happened when Feiwel told me they’d decided not to do the third book of the series. Basically, I felt like they were telling me that the series wasn’t good enough–that it hadn’t sold well enough–for them to put out any money into a third book.

I was sad but not devastated. I knew I could write the third book on my own and put it up as an indie book. That’s what I immediately planned to do. I was busy with some other book at the time. I’ve forgotten which. So I didn’t get to it immediately.

But when I did get to Slayers 3, the writing was hard. I wasn’t happy with the first chapter. It all seemed so much worse than the first two books, which I loved. I needed the third book to be just as good.

On a long drive home from a family reunion, I started writing another book that I’d been thinking about for a few years. (I have a large list of those). It was a book to write for fun, one that I didn’t have to concentrate on. (Because who can concentrate with a car full of children and a grandchild?) I loved that book from its first sentence: The demons came again in the night.

I decided to finish it and that manuscript became The Girl Who Heard Demons. I didn’t feel like I had writer’s block for Slayers 3, though. Sometimes one idea becomes irresistible and you have to write it.

With my demons out of the way, I went back to Slayers 3. I think I wrote on it for a week, and then I started writing another book I’d thought about for a while. One in which a German navigator is shot down over England during WWII and ends up hiding out, wounded, in the heroine’s barn. In just a few days, I had about fifty pages done on that book. That’s when I realized I had writer’s block. I wanted to write anything but Slayers.

Well, the way to get through writer’s block is to sit down and write. I told myself I could get back to English farm girls when I was done with Slayers.

It was so hard. And it continued to be hard for the two years I’ve worked on Slayers 3,4 and 5.

With that in mind, here are some things that help with writer’s block.

1. First, check to make sure the issue isn’t being caused by a plot problem in your story. Authors frequently get writers block when their story is going in the wrong direction. Usually the problem is a lack of conflict. The story doesn’t have enough tension and so everything stalls. Look at your previous scenes and ask yourself what the character’s problem and goal are. What is standing in their way? If your character doesn’t have a problem/goal/obstacle, that is usually what needs to be fixed. But if the writer’s block isn’t due to plot trouble, try the next methods.

2. Morning pages: These are three pages of longhand, stream of conscious writing that you do every day. (You can learn more about them from Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way.) You’re not allowed to edit or show these pages to anyone. They are written just for the sake of writing and they take away the fear of the blank page. They also give you time to take long looks at the issues you’re dealing with in your life. Good all around.

3. Do housework: No, really. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been stuck on something and then while I’ve been mopping the floor the ideas I need come to me. Monotonous work will make the gears in your mind turn. It’s like your brain says, “Hey, I don’t want to clean the fridge. I’ll start spitting out ideas.”

4. Reading novels: Sometimes you just have to remember that you love stories and you want to tell them. Reading a book or two or five is a good way to remember that and rekindle your creative fires.

5. Professional help: In my case I talked with Forrest Wolverton (Dave Farland’s son) Dave mentioned in one of his posts that his son had taken psychology classes (and I’ve forgotten whether Forrest is a psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor, or what have you) and how his son had helped him overcome writer’s block with one session. I was so mired in writer’s block–hating every day that I wrote–I figured it was worth a try to hire him.

I called him and we set up a time to talk. It was about an hour-ish session. I remember two things about our conversation. He asked me to visualize myself before I had the writer’s block, he asked me what I thought had caused the writer’s block, and then asked me what would I tell that first self.

I also remember that I cried during that phone conversation, which completely surprised me because I hadn’t thought this was a cry-worthy subject. Writer’s block was frustrating but it wasn’t like we were talking about personal things. Sometimes writer’s block becomes a personal thing, though.

6. Give yourself pep talks. I took a class at the Storymakers conference on overcoming writer’s block. (I did mention I had writers block for two years, didn’t I?) And the teacher there did a great job of having you identify a problem, (For example: I’m not a bestseller) then identify the conclusions you draw from the problem (I must not be a good writer) and then have you rethink your conclusions. (A lot of good authors aren’t bestsellers. A lot of bestselling authors didn’t start out that way. etc) You can reshape how you see things and that can make all of the difference.

7. Allow yourself to write the story badly. A main component of my problem has been that I’ve wanted so badly to write an amazing story. It’s a daunting task. I set the bar high for myself and don’t want to disappoint fans. Even though I know that first drafts are always bad, I still expected myself to come up with a perfect story. I finally had to just tell myself to write a bad story and trust in the process–trust that I could fix the manuscript in revisions.

One of my friends has writer’s block right now while she’s trying to write the last few scenes of her book. I told her to write them as dialog only. Most of us can commit to throwing some dialog on a page because we know that a bunch of dialog doesn’t have to be perfect. But once you have something down, you can start revising it. It’s always in the revisions that stories become what they were meant to be.

8. Pray. I know several authors who pray before they write. I’ve become one of them. If you’re not the praying sort, try a few moments of meditating before you write. Do what you need to in order to tap into the creativity inside of you.

With that said, I’m finally, finally doing revisions on Slayers: The Dragon Lords (which is now Slayers 4 and Slayers: Into the Firestorm will be Slayers 5) I’m shooting for a Dec/Jan release date.

Here is a rough idea of the cover. Every time I see the wording, I laugh.

Slayers: Into the Firestorm is 90% done. I need to write a few more scenes in each version. (Yes, I’ve written one ending for Team Jesse fans and one for Team Dirk fans) I don’t have a release date for it but I’m aiming for 3-5 months afterwards, depending on, you know, life.

A Perfect Fit is released!

For those of you who’re wondering why the fourth Slayers book isn’t out yet–writing this latest novella was partly to blame.
I know, you suddenly feel an intense hatred toward this poor novella, don’t you? But never fear, Slayers 4 (and probably 5… yeah, I think I need to break this book up again) is coming along and in the meantime, you have this 135-page romantic comedy to read. And I promise not to agree to be in any more romance anthologies until it comes out.
Here’s the back blurb: Do you remember your first love? Have you ever wondered what would happen if you had a second chance to follow your heart? In this collection of novellas written by award-winning and bestselling authors, come home to Echo Ridge as summer winds down and hearts once broken and lost are given one more chance, a second chance to love.
(Although if you read my novella My Fair Lacey–this is the story about Lacey’s roommate, Jojo.) You can order it here:

 

Slayers 4 (and other projects) update (sorry I’ve been AWOL)

I haven’t looked at my blog in weeks. This has mostly been because I was in England for 17 days, then had my three out-of-state kids and two grandkids visiting for 3 1/2 weeks, and all last week I had my downstairs floor torn up and tiled. (As I write this, my downstairs toilet and sink are sitting on my back patio, making me look like the white trash house in the neighborhood.) Also, I’ve been helping my sons with their books. Yes, both of my sons–neither of which liked to read growing up–have written books. My daughters who love to read and have actually considered writing books–they haven’t written anything for you.

James’s book already has a publisher, (They contacted him with the idea of writing a book–which never happens to authors.) and will be out in April 2018. It will probably sell more than all of my books combined, but whatever. No one is more proud of his success as a youtuber than I am.

Anyway, you’ll be glad to hear that throughout the renovations, I’ve been busy working on Slayers 4.

It’s now about 500 pages long and I still have a few scenes to add. Plus I haven’t decided whether to leave one of the characters dead or unkill him. I’ve written the ending two different ways–one for Team Jesse and one for Team Dirk. Yes, I am trying to make everyone happy… and I have to say, it’s sort of weird. Like, my brain doesn’t know which ending is the truth. This is probably why more authors don’t use this technique.

My romantic comedy novella A Perfect Fit is done–yay–and will be out in September.

I also am waiting from my Disney editor to get back to me on several projects, and hoping I can finish the Slayers series before putting anything else on my plate.

And I’m avoiding talking to my agent about that WWII romance that I’ve been researching for the last year. It doesn’t need to be written right now…

So that’s the update. Someone create more time and send me some!

Leading a directionally challenged life…

I just came home from an awesome week of teaching at WIFYR. I always take my work-out clothes and tennis shoes when I go to writers’ conferences—which proves that I am an optimist and that I don’t learn from past experiences. Because I never have time to exercise at conferences. I am talking with other authors into the night and then reviewing student’s manuscripts.

Continue reading

Ten Erasing Time audio books to give away!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Erasing Time is now available as an audio book, which means I will soon have some audio codes for reviewers. I thought I would do a giveaway on my blog. Here’s what you’ll need to do for a chance to win one:

  1. Have an Audible.com account or be willing to set one up for a month so I can give you a code. (You can cancel afterwards, although to tell you the truth, you might become addicted to audio books the way I have. It’s so much more fun to clean, drive, or put on makeup while listening to a book.)
  2. Be willing to review the audio book (and you can use the same review to review the regular book on Amazon.)
  3. Leave me a comment telling me where you’d go if you had a time machine.

Here’s info about the book:

When twins Sheridan and Taylor wake up 400 years in the future, they find a changed world: domed cities, no animals, and a language that’s so different, it barely sounds like English. And the worst news: They can’t go back home.

The 25th-century government transported the girls to their city hoping to find a famous scientist to help perfect a devastating new weapon. The same government has implanted tracking devices in the citizens, limiting and examining everything they do. Taylor and Sheridan have to find a way out of the city before the government discovers their secrets. To complicate matters, the mob-like Dakine has interest in getting hold of them, too. The only way for the girls to elude their pursuers is to put their trust in Echo, a guy with secrets of his own. The trio must put their faith in the unknown to make a harrowing escape into the wilds beyond the city.

Full of adrenaline-injected chases and heartbreaking confessions, Erasing Time explores the strength of the bonds between twins, the risks and rewards of trust, and the hard road to finding the courage to fight for what you believe in.

If you already have an audible account and just want to order it (or if you want to set up an account–new accounts earn one free book) here’s the direct link: Order Erasing Time!

The best sort of losers

Another Whitney Awards has come and gone and I know you’re all wondering if I managed to retain my title of: Author with the Most Books Nominated Who Has Never Actually Won a Whitney.

Yes, yes I have.

On the plus side, I’ve got some awesome Loser Cheesecake photos to share.  I love that Julie Wright is wiping her tears with Dan Wells’s tie.

Here are Heather Moore, Dan Wells, and I. All of us were nominated for three Whitneys this year and none of us won. But on the plus side: three desserts. So yeah…there’s always that.

Fitting or not, I feel that my most lasting legacy to the writing world will be the annual Loser Cheesecake photos.

This tradition was born the second year of the Whitney Awards when Julie Wright and I began a photo shoot depicting the effects of losing a Whitney. Mostly, the effects involve eating large amounts of chocolate.

We quickly dragged James Dashner and Jessica Day George into the photo shoot.

I admit that this picture makes me laugh every time I see it.

This year, Tamara Heiner came up to me after the awards and told me she thought I was very gracious and handled losing well. I should have told her that practice makes perfect but I’m not nearly as witty as my characters. Maybe I’ll use that line in a book someday, though.

On the bright side, I did win the James Dashner Shrine that they give away at conference. This consists of a paper James Dashner mask, a framed picture of him and Jeff Savage, and plastic cup and notebook with his movie title misspelled. I proudly posted the picture on Facebook and had about twenty people congratulated me as though it was an actual accomplishment. In actuality, James pulled my name out of a bowl. Still, I’ll take my congratulations where I can.