To lead up to the Slayers 3 book launch, I’ll be posting two chapters a day until Aug 2. And you don’t want to miss the book launch because I’ll be giving away a ton of books; mine, and my cool author friends. Technically, I’m not allowed to tell you that I will give a signed paperback copy of Slayers (1) to everyone who leaves an Amazon review of Slayers:Playing With Fire from Aug 2- 4 (Hey, I’m giving you three days to read the rest of it) but lets just say you will get bonus points for doing so which will increase your odds of winning prizes. Also in the mix: five 20 dollar Amazon gift cards, A T-shirt similar to the one I wore at the Slayers launch, an animation squad bag signed by my very talented son (TheOdd1sOut) and an original TheOdd1sOut dragon sketch. (It’s cute and cuddly, not fierce.)
The downside to being married to a dragon lord
Thirteen years ago
Bianca Overdrake’s entire future hinged on the results in the doctor’s envelope. She took it from him with a shaking hand. “I hope I’m having a girl.”
Hoping wouldn’t affect the outcome, but the words popped out anyway. They’d been replaying nonstop in her mind through the entire exam. A girl. A girl. It has to be a girl. A daughter wouldn’t inherit dragon lord genes and could live a safe life.
The doctor smiled. “You’ll find out when you open the envelope.”
Was his smile sad? Happy for her? She couldn’t tell.
She tucked the envelope into her purse, left the office, and climbed into her Cadillac. All the way to her friend Ruth’s house she felt numb, too exhausted to deal with the future and its uncertain twists and pitfalls.
Bianca had meant to go somewhere private to open the envelope. She couldn’t bring herself to touch it, though. Not yet.
Her future wasn’t the only one in question. Dirk’s was too. Her son was only five, too young to understand the decisions she had to make, and much too young to lose a mother. And yet, she might have to disappear, leave him and everyone she knew. She had the baby’s safety to consider. She had to be a mother to that child too.
Bianca pulled up to Ruth’s house. Dirk was playing there with Ruth’s son, Thomas, while Bianca had gone to the OB’s. She hadn’t told Dirk about the baby. He wouldn’t be able to keep that sort of news a secret from his father, and Brant didn’t know about the pregnancy.
She was four months along, and her baggy clothes wouldn’t hide her secret for much longer. If the baby was a girl, Bianca would claim that she hadn’t told Brant beforehand because she had worried about having another miscarriage. Over the course of their marriage, she’d had three. But this baby was healthy, on track, its heartbeat swishing a strong rhythm at every checkup.
After so many losses, so many children she never got to hold, Bianca loved this baby fiercely already.
She went to the door, repeating the mantra: Let it be a girl. Brant would be disappointed, but he also wouldn’t train her to be a fighter in his upcoming war. Daughters couldn’t control dragons the way sons could.
Bianca rang the doorbell, and a few moments later, Ruth answered. She was petite, with blonde hair and delicate features that belied her true personality: Ruth was a force to be reckoned with.
She looked Bianca over, as if trying to read her expression. “You’re not crying. It must be good news, then. A girl?”
Bianca shook her head and pulled the envelope from her purse. “I had the doctor write down the ultrasound results. I haven’t opened it yet.”
She’d been afraid that if she started sobbing on the exam table, the doctor would wonder why. But he didn’t question her when she asked for the results to be sealed in an envelope. Women did that sort of thing all the time. They planned reveals at baby showers or special events.
Ruth opened the door wider and stepped aside. “You can’t put it off forever.”
“I know.” Bianca walked into the living room, glancing around for Dirk.
He came roaring into the living room, laughing as he and Thomas chased each other around with foam swords. Dirk spied Bianca, and his blue eyes lit up.
“Mommy!” he yelled, and rushed over to give her a hug. He didn’t let go of the sword. If it had been real, he would have impaled her.
Bianca knelt down and gathered Dirk into a hug, shutting her eyes as she pressed her cheek to his mop of blond hair. He was so small and soft, and he smelled of peanut butter and laundry soap. She couldn’t ever leave him, no matter what the results said. Why had she ever entertained it as an option? For Dirk’s sake, she’d stay with Brant and make the relationship work.
Dirk wriggled out of her embrace, oblivious to her adoration and done being hugged. “Can I stay longer?” he asked. “Thomas and me are still killing stuff.”
”What are you killing?” Bianca asked.
“Monsters,” he replied. “The big kind that have lots of crazy arms.”
Bianca nodded, forcing a smile. “We can’t have those wandering around the house. You and Thomas had better take care of them.”
“Yeah,” Dirk said, raising his sword like a banner.
Thomas lifted his sword in the same gesture. “Yeah!” he shouted, and the two boys dashed out of the room to parts of the house unseen.
Bianca slowly got to her feet. She still clutched the envelope, rumpled a bit now.
Ruth motioned for Bianca to follow her to the couch. She kept her voice low in case the boys came back. “Finding out your baby’s gender is supposed to be exciting.” She plunked down on the couch, shaking her head. “Why are you so worried about what Brant thinks? A normal husband wouldn’t care one way or the other.”
Bianca sank into the loveseat, still clutching the envelope. She hadn’t told Ruth everything about her life. She hadn’t mentioned how Brant kept dragons in an enclosure on their property, or explained that he wanted sons to help him control the dragons. But Ruth did know that Brant wanted to attack the government someday, that he was dangerous.
“Brant wants sons,” Bianca said flatly. He needed them. Only boys inherited the ability to link minds with dragons, so only boys could control them.
Ruth’s cup sat on the coffee table. She picked it up and took a sip. “I don’t know why you stay with him. You’re not happy and haven’t been for a long time.”
Bianca had been happy with Brant once, or at least, she’d been awed and enamored. Out of all of the women who’d swooned at his wealth and charisma, he’d chosen her. She’d been poor and ordinary, and he’d told her he would make her a queen. She’d been too flattered to think about what his desire for power would mean to her children.
After Dirk was born, though, she understood. Brant wanted to raise their son to be a terrorist. He wanted to pit him against the government and engulf him in his own personal war. Nothing she said on the subject, no amount of begging, reason, or tears could sway her husband.
Bianca’s hands began to tremble. She clenched them to keep them still. “Brant would never let me take Dirk away from him. If I want to keep my son, I have to stay.”
Ruth replaced her cup on the table with a thud. “Not if you get a half-way decent lawyer.”
It wasn’t that easy. “The law doesn’t matter to Brant. He would take Dirk and disappear. If I ask for a divorce, the only way I’ll ever get to see Dirk is if I give Brant full custody. That way, he won’t feel threatened, and he’ll let me visit.”
“Or he’ll be spiteful and never let you visit.”
That was a possibility too. Brant could be spiteful.
Ruth leaned forward, putting her hand on Bianca’s knee. “Maybe you’re the one who should take Dirk and disappear.”
Bianca had considered the idea, had thought of it every day of her pregnancy. “Brant would have every FBI agent, police officer, and private investigator in the country searching for us.” As well as some less-savory bounty hunters.
“Brant’s rich, not omnipotent. He doesn’t have that much pull.”
He had more pull than Bianca liked to admit. He was already placing his own people in the government, making alliances that would help him later. “If I took Dirk, and Brant found me . . .” She didn’t think he’d actually have her killed, but she didn’t want to test the theory or find out how much revenge he’d exact. “He wouldn’t just take Dirk away from me. He’d take the baby, too.”
And if the baby was a boy, Brant would train him to be a dragon lord. What would her second son’s chances of survival be against artillery and tanks?
Ruth’s eyes were still on her, heavy with sympathy. “There’s got to be something you can do.”
Bianca smoothed out the envelope on her lap. “Maybe I’m worried about nothing. I might be having a girl.”
Ruth let out a sigh, letting Bianca know she’d missed the point. “And having a girl would somehow erase your marriage problems?”
Bianca didn’t answer. Before she could think about it anymore, she opened the envelope. Let it be a girl, she thought, and took hold of the slip of paper.
One sentence was written on the paper: Congratulations, you’re having a boy!
A wave of dizziness swept over Bianca. She put her hand to her mouth and tried to breathe. Her eyes stung, watered.
“Are those relieved tears or upset tears?” Ruth asked. “What is it?”
A death sentence, Bianca thought. He’ll fight armies, face gunfire and missiles. Both of her children would end up dead.
Ruth took the paper from her hand and read it. Instead of slumping into the couch like Bianca was doing, she sat straighter. “You don’t have to stay with Brant. Take Dirk and go to a safe house.”
The room felt like it was closing in. The future already seemed to be twisting away from her, changing into something dark and perilous. Bianca shook her head wearily. “Brant has too many connections. He’d find out where the safe houses are.”
Ruth was undeterred. “Then go somewhere else, somewhere he won’t suspect.” She pulled her cellphone from her pocket and opened her contact list. “My brother lives in North Carolina. He’s single and lives in a four-bedroom house, so he has plenty of room. You and Dirk can stay there until you get back on your feet.”
The offer made Bianca laugh. Not happy laughter; disbelieving laughter. “Your brother would take in a stranger with a dangerous ex who’s looking for her?”
“Wesley’s a great guy. He’ll understand.” Ruth began texting. “Really, you’ll like him. And maybe living with him for a while will show you what normal men are supposed to be like.”
Bianca couldn’t run with Dirk; Brant wouldn’t calmly accept that sort of loss. Especially since Dirk was the only other dragon lord around. Brant would have people investigating every friend Bianca had ever made. And he would become increasingly violent in his methods of finding information.
If Bianca wanted to escape her marriage and protect her unborn child, she’d have to do it without Dirk. This knowledge had haunted her for the last four months, rearing its head every time she wondered about the baby’s gender. Now she felt the weight of the decision suffocating her.
“I have to go alone.” Bianca’s words were no more than a choked whisper. “He’ll let me go if he doesn’t know about the baby.” She gulped, and her hands tightened around the envelope, crumpling it. “After he’s born and I make sure he’s safe, maybe I’ll be able to . . .” Figure out a way Brant couldn’t track her down. Find a place beyond his reach. “To come back and take Dirk.” It was a faint hope, a plan that would endanger both her and the baby, but right now, she couldn’t bear the thought of losing Dirk altogether. It was hard enough to think of not seeing him until after the baby was born.
Ruth fingered her phone, clearly unhappy with Bianca’s decision. “When you come back, Brant might not let you spend any time alone with Dirk. He might suspect your intentions.”
He probably would, but Bianca would have to deal with that problem later. She had no choice but to leave, not unless she wanted both of her sons dead. She might or might not be able to protect Dirk from Brant’s plans, but she could still protect this baby.
Ruth’s phone buzzed with a text. She glanced down at it and smiled. “Wesley says, ‘sure’. I told you he was a great guy.”
Good. Then it was decided. Bianca took the doctor’s note from Ruth and tore it into pieces. She couldn’t leave any evidence of the baby, no matter how slight the chance Brant would find it. “I’ll go to North Carolina,” she said. “I need to leave right away. Today.” She had some money hidden away and could withdraw a few thousand in cash from the bank to tide her over. “This evening, I’ll call Brant and tell him to pick up Dirk here. I’ll tell him that I want a separation, and that I need time to think things over by myself for a few months.” She’d have to get rid of her cell phone so he couldn’t trace her. What else did she need to do?
“Are you sure you can be ready to leave so soon?” Ruth asked.
“I have to,” Bianca said. “If I let myself take time to think about going, I won’t be able to do it.” She got up and made her way to Thomas’s room.
She found the boys on the floor, surrounded by stuffed animals. “I thought you were killing monsters,” she said. Her voice sounded too high, unnatural.
“These are the monsters’ hostages,” Dirk said.
A five-year-old shouldn’t know what hostages were. One more thing to thank Brant for. “You said I could stay longer,” Dirk said with a frown. “It isn’t longer yet.”
“I know,” she said. “I have to go somewhere, so I’m leaving you here for a while.”
Leaving you, leaving you. Would those be the words he remembered when she’d gone?
“Okay.” He turned back to Thomas and the stuffed animals.
She knelt on the floor beside him. “Give me a hug goodbye.”
He wrapped his arms around her neck. She cried despite herself and couldn’t let him go.
“You’re squeezing me,” he protested.
“Sorry.” She released him and wiped at her tears. It was a hopeless task. More tears came.
Dirk saw her face and his blue eyes went wide. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Sometimes mommies just cry.”
He watched her, probably debating whether to believe her. She took deep breaths and did her best to compose herself. She’d have plenty of time to fall apart later. She needed to be strong for a few more minutes.
“I want you to remember two things,” she said. “Can you do that?”
He nodded solemnly.
She reached out for his hand, felt his small fingers wrapping around hers. She wanted to engrave the memory of this moment into her mind so she’d never forget it. She held up one finger. “I love you.” She held up a second. “And I’ll come back for you. Will you remember those two things?”
He nodded again.
She gave his hand one last squeeze. “I love you, and I’ll come back for you.” Then she stood up and left.
Only one thing could ruin a night of soaring on a dragon, and that was Dirk’s assignment: scouting military bases in Maryland for possible attack. Bases weren’t shown on public record satellite images, and his father wanted photographs of them to analyze. While Dirk was out, he was also supposed to decide on a couple of east coast cities to cripple during their first strike.
Choosing them was harder than he expected. He’d been mulling over cities all night and still hadn’t come up with a single one that would satisfy his conscience. He couldn’t use the dragon’s electromagnetic pulse on Philadelphia or New York. Both had too many people, which meant too much suffering. But even smaller cities had hospitals. If all of the electronics in a city were fried, anyone on life support would die within minutes. The point of the first strike wouldn’t be to kill, but to instill fear, show what the dragons could inflict even without landing.
He took a turn around Baltimore’s business district. Perhaps he could purposely miss the hospitals. But a partial strike would tick off his father. He’d call it sloppy work.
Dirk circled the city one last time and then decided to check out some areas near DC. On a whim, he leapt off the dragon and flew on his own. He had to make sure his flying skills didn’t get rusty, and besides, he enjoyed the sensation of speed and the feel of wind rushing around him.
He gave Khan the mental command to fly ahead and used the updraft to gain height. Head southwest, he told the dragon. The words were directed from Dirk’s mind to Khan’s. Speaking wouldn’t have done any good. Dragons didn’t obey their masters because they wanted to. They did it because dragon lords connected with their minds—mentally hacking into their brains and forcing the dragon to obey their commands.
Dirk could feel Khan’s frustration at the new instruction. He’d been flying fast for nearly three hours, and Dirk had just told him to fly away from home instead of toward it.
For an hour, Dirk and Khan zoomed over lit-up cities, sleepy suburbs, and dark land that looked like a messy quilt. Farms maybe, or parks. When he grew tired, he climbed back onto the riding seat tethered to the dragon’s back. He should probably start acting like a dragon lord again. Time to figure out which cities to suggest to his father. Dirk let several possibilities run through his mind, judging each on importance and strategic location. Population. Resources. Transportation routes.
The city that kept popping into his mind was McLean, Virginia. Not for potential destruction, but because Tori Hampton lived there. Tori, his counterpart.
Years ago when Dirk had first gone to camp, he’d seen the Slayers match up with their counterparts. People with the same dragon-fighting ability had a bond, a way to read each other as though they’d known each other their whole lives. They could also sense each other’s presence. Knowing where your counterpart was and what they were likely to do helped in a fight.
Dirk had always figured he couldn’t have a counterpart. After all, he wasn’t a Slayer; he was a dragon lord pretending to be one so he could spy on them. But then Tori had arrived at camp—a senator’s daughter, a socialite with a model’s face, the last sort of person he’d expected to be a Slayer. And inexplicably, the two of them were counterparts. It was one of those surprises life liked to throw at you when you thought you had things under control.
Dirk was so used to living a double life that he’d never expected anyone to see beyond the act he put on, let alone understand him. But Tori had understood him too well. She’d stolen his heart with unintentional ease, then figured out who he was and told the other Slayers.
Boston. Chicago. McLean. It would be so easy to fly to her house for a visit.
Dirk hadn’t seen her for two weeks, not since the mission when Tori outed him as a dragon lord, but she still messaged him online. Mostly trying to convince him to leave his father. A lost cause, really.
Fortunately, he didn’t need to rely on technology to contact Tori. She was not only a Slayer, she was half dragon lord which meant she automatically connected to whichever dragon she was closest to. Specifically, she heard whatever it did. Living in McLean, she was generally closest to the dragon nursery, and he’d learned from trial and error that of the two fledglings there, she always connected to Vesta. But if Dirk flew near her house, she’d connect to Khan. Then Dirk could speak aloud, and she would hear anything he said.
He headed that way, letting his mind roam to Tori: Her long brown hair, mint-green eyes, the tilt of her head that made her look both sophisticated and vulnerable. He knew her every expression, including the smile that had been just his, a smile she’d given him even when she’d started dating Jesse.
Thirty minutes later, Dirk was ten miles from McLean. Close enough by far for Tori to connect with Khan. The city lay below him, the streetlights lit like candles glowing in the darkness. Only a few cars lumbered through the streets. Most people were asleep at this hour. He skimmed through the air, feeling like Peter Pan about to stop at Wendy’s window.
In the story, Peter lost his shadow at Wendy’s, and he went back to search for it. That part had never made sense to Dirk as a child, but it did now. Tori had a piece of Dirk too. Not his shadow. Nothing so insubstantial.
He flew toward an area of McLean dotted with mansions and sprawling yards. “Tori, wake up. I have a proposition for you.” He couldn’t be sure she was awake, but he went on. “I’m not far from your house. If I come in range, will you fly out to meet me?”
Tori’s powers, like those of all Slayers and dragon lords, turned on whenever a dragon came within five miles. Then she could fly, had extra strength, and had night vision.
“I want to talk,” he said. “I want to show you what a dragon is really like. Give me your answer.”
He took his phone from his pocket, went to the site where they exchanged messages, and waited to see if she would answer. After a moment, she did.
I already know what a dragon is like, thanks. Why are you flying around in the middle of the night?
He ignored her question. “I mean I want to show you what a dragon is like when he isn’t attacking you. They’re amazing, Tor—sleek and powerful. If you gave yourself a chance, you’d love them. You’re half dragon lord. This is what you were born for.”
He waited for her response to show up, hoping she’d say yes. The two of them could sail over the city, effortlessly gliding underneath the stars, and forget they were enemies for a while.
I’m pretty sure I was born for travel, chocolate, and sleeping in. You keep telling me I’m part dragon lord, but we couldn’t be counterparts unless you were part Slayer. Why can’t you be loyal to that side for a change?
Dirk wasn’t sure she was right. At least, his father didn’t want to admit that Dirk’s genealogy, or worse, his own, might be contaminated with Slayer genes. Dirk repeated his father’s explanation to Tori.
”The original Slayers and dragon lords both used dragon DNA to create their powers. That’s why the two groups have similar abilities.” Slayers weren’t the only ones with extra strength, night vision, and if they were lucky, the ability to fly. Dragon lords had all of those abilities too. “Crossover in other areas was bound to happen. If more dragon lords were around, some of them would probably have counterparts too.”
He had no way to test that theory, because he and his father were the only other dragon lords around.
“Say you’ll meet me,” Dirk persisted.
Did I ever mention that your last dragon tried to eat me?
“I’ll make sure this one behaves.”
Right. I’m not even sure you’d behave.
He laughed and missed Tori all over again. “I’ll make sure I behave too. When I come close enough that your powers turn on, fly out of your window, straight up. I’ll watch for you.”
Her words appeared on his phone screen fast now. Each sentence by itself. Dirk could tell she was angry.
I can’t fly off with you at three in the morning for a. rendezvous.
You seem to have forgotten that we’re on opposite sides of the whole your-father-wants-to-take-over-the-country issue.
You already betrayed us and tried to lead us into traps, twice.
How can I trust you anymore?
He winced. He didn’t like to remember his betrayals. Last summer he’d led the Slayers into an ambush in a dragon enclosure. In the middle of the fight, he’d had a change of heart, and he got them back out again—a fact that made his father set up the second ambush last Halloween. That was when Tori had figured out who he was.
“I was trying to protect the Slayers, not hurt them.” Dirk had told Tori the same thing before, but she refused to see his point of view. “If they lose their powers, they won’t fight dragons and get hurt. Do you think I want to see my friends killed?”
In theory, taking away Slayer powers should have been an easy thing. When Slayer were drugged to the point of unconsciousness, the brain pathways controlling their abilities were destroyed, turning them into normal people again. What’s more, a Slayer who’d been drugged lost all of their Slayer memories. They didn’t remember ever having powers.
The problem was that Slayers had highly acute senses even when their powers weren’t turned on. They could tell when someone around them had a spike of adrenaline that signaled fear or an impending attack. It was hard to take a Slayer by surprise.
“I’ve never wanted you to lose your powers,” Dirk insisted. “I want you to start using your dragon lord ones. Come out, and I can show you how.”
Maybe you want to kidnap me. That way you’ll eliminate one of the flyers who can kill your dragons.
“I’m not leading you into a trap. I’m your counterpart. You’d know if I were lying.”
I didn’t before.
“Yes, you did. That’s how I got caught.”
Well, I couldn’t tell the first time.
Dirk kept Khan in a circling pattern. The dragon glided, wings outstretched over winding roads. “You hadn’t known me long enough yet.”
I spent most of the summer with you at camp and never realized you were a traitor.
He didn’t answer right away. He wasn’t sure whether to admit that after the first ambush, he’d switched sides. He hadn’t been pretending at camp. His loyalties really had been with the Slayers then. But when summer ended, common sense kicked in again. He was a dragon lord. With or without his help, his father would take over the country. So Dirk had to help. His father’s revolution would be less violent and more humane if Dirk had a part in it.
“Well,” he said, “you apparently learned how to tell when I’m being deceitful. You’d know now.”
She didn’t answer for a full minute. He imagined her sitting in the darkness of her bedroom, her long hair messy with sleep as she stared at her screen, debating.
“Come,” he whispered.
I’m not a dragon lord. Not if they’re like your father—playing God with other people’s lives. I can’t do what you’re doing.
“Come,” he said again. “Maybe you can convince me the error of my ways. I’ll let you try.”
If you want to talk, let me choose the time and place. And I can already tell you that it won’t be three in the morning. What are you doing flying around Virginia anyway?
Was she fishing for information—something to pass on to the Slayers? He couldn’t give any hint of the coming attacks, or of the cities that would be affected. Otherwise the Slayers would be waiting.
“It has to be now. I can’t hear your voice, so I can’t tell whether you’re lying. If I let you choose the time and place, you would almost certainly lead me into a trap.”
You don’t trust me, but you expect me to trust you?
“You can hear my voice.”
That doesn’t mean I can trust you.
He thought she’d finished writing, and he was forming a response, when she added, That will always be our problem, won’t it? How can we trust each other?
Maybe their counterpart senses worked better over large distances than he’d thought. He knew she wouldn’t ever come and meet him, if for no other reason than to make a point that she didn’t trust him anymore—punishment for his betrayal.
He’d offered her a chance to meet a dragon: to touch it, to fly on its back and see the world how it should be seen, but she’d turned him down to make a point.
He shut off his phone and slid it into his pocket. “I’ll let you get back to bed.” He turned the dragon away from McLean, cutting a quick line into the night air. “While you fall back asleep, remember this. Last summer, I helped you destroy my own dragon instead of letting it kill the Slayers. And on Halloween, I could have kidnapped you when we were together, but I let you return to the Slayers. And then I saved all of your lives by warning you that a dragon was about to attack your plane. You have more reasons to trust me than I have to trust you. But I’m the one who made you the offer tonight, and you’re the one who refused it.”
She probably had a reply to that. He didn’t check his phone to see it. That was one of the only benefits of these one-way conversations. He could always have the last word.
He flew back toward Pennsylvania, toward the dragon enclosure hidden in the middle of forest land. This time as he deliberated over cities again, he considered them with less compassion. His father thought Philadelphia was a strategic choice. Fine. Philadelphia would be city number one. He’d avoid as many hospitals as possible, and the rest of the population would have a firsthand look at how the colonials once lived.
Maybe he’d make McLean his second choice. Let Tori live without electricity for a while. It was petty he knew, vengeful.
Then again, he was his father’s son.
By the time Dirk walked into the house, his temper had worn off, and he was worrying again that crippling Philadelphia was too much for a first strike. He found his father sitting in the living room, maps spread in front of him, waiting for a report.
Dirk sat down beside his father, noting the map and the cities circled on it.
“Did you have any trouble with the military bases?” his father asked.
“No.” Dirk put the camera on the table. Dragon scales absorbed radar, so none of the equipment on the base had detected him coming or going.
His father picked up the camera and reviewed the pictures. “I’ve decided you should hit New York City on the first night. That’ll throw a wrench in the machinery of world trading. Which reminds me, I need to move my stocks to Tokyo.”
Dirk hid his reaction, didn’t let any emotion show as he thought of the eight million people who lived in New York City. How many hospitals were there in a place that big? Was it even possible to avoid them all? He picked up one of the pencils and tapped it against the table. “Strategically speaking, I don’t think New York should be first on our strike list.”
“New York is the largest city in the country.” His father spoke with exaggerated patience, as if he didn’t like explaining the obvious. “More people live there than in most states. If you combined Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, both Dakotas, Delaware, Montana, Rhode Island, and Maine, their populations would still be smaller than New York City. It is one of the most, if not the most, important targets. Unless we take it out the first night, the government will send anti-aircraft to protect it.”
“Which is why we leave it alone,” Dirk countered. “As long as New York is functioning, the government will have to protect it. They’ll tie up a large portion of troops and artillery there. If we take New York out first, the government will spread those troops out around the rest of the country, making it harder to strike other areas. Besides, we want to keep the most productive cities functioning. We’ll need the profits.”
His father considered the argument. “You make valid points.” He put the camera down and sent Dirk an approving look. “You may yet become another Alexander.”
His father’s standard for military genius had long been Alexander the Great. More than once, his father had told him how Julius Caesar wept when he turned thirty-one, because Alexander had conquered so much more territory by that age. Dirk’s father always ended the story by saying, “but you will best them both. You’ll help take down the most powerful country on earth before you turn twenty.”
Dirk was two months shy of eighteen. His father was ahead of schedule.
Dirk leaned over the maps, noting that Boston was circled. So were Chicago, Atlanta, and Baltimore. “I think we should hit small targets at first. Our goal is to instill fear, not destroy the places we want to control.”
His father returned his attention to the map, making notations next to port cities. “We need to show a force of power. Japan didn’t surrender in World War II after normal bombing raids. It took two—not one—atomic bombs to convince Japan that they couldn’t win. Do you think they would have surrendered if the US had dropped those bombs on small villages?”
“Maybe,” Dirk said. “The Japanese would have seen the bombs’ power either way.”
His father let out a scoff, indicating that he didn’t think Japan would have been so reasonable. “The bombs were a good thing because they ended the war, ended all of the killings. Fewer than a quarter of a million people died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Sixty million died from the other effects of the war. The same principle will be true when we rule. The country will suffer losses during the first attacks, but in the long run, everyone will be better off.”
When his father talked about the revolution, he always insisted the country would be better off in the long run, and usually Dirk believed him. That was harder to do tonight with the memory of flying over cities fresh in his mind.
His father leaned back in his chair, surveying Dirk. “Which cities do you suggest?”
“Philadelphia and Florence, South Carolina.”
“Florence?” his father repeated. “I’ve never even heard of it. What strategic advantage would it give us?”
“Taking out a small city will instill more fear. If we only hit big cities, everyone else will think they’re safe. They’ll be more defiant. If we take out a small city, people will realize that no one is safe. Anyone could lose their technology.”
His father nodded. “True.” He moved the map of the east coast, revealing a map of the United States beneath it. “But it’s more important to obtain our strongholds during the first strike.” He tapped his pencil against the western coastline. “I’ll have troops waiting on both sides of the country. Boston, Baltimore, and Norfolk, Virginia will give them footholds in the east, and Seattle and Portland in the northwest. The southwest will be more complicated.”
Complicated because his father didn’t have a dragon enclosure there. He’d built facilities to house and hide his dragons in the Midwest, the East, and the wooded West, but hadn’t bothered with the Southwest. Most of the land there was too open, barren of trees and cover. Attacks in that part of the country would have to be launched from their Oregon base.
“We need to take out the military bases in California on the first night.” He circled Vandenberg and Edwards. “I don’t know if it’s worth pushing Khan up to Portland after we’ve taken care of California. I don’t want to overtire him.”
“When will you take Khan to the West?” Dirk asked. That move would signal that the attacks were about to start.
His father’s gaze left the map and examined Dirk’s expression. Dirk tried to look only interested, not worried.
After a moment of scrutiny, his father returned his attention to California. “You don’t need to know those details right now.”
Message received: Dirk’s father still didn’t completely trust him. Ever since he’d freed his friends from the dragon enclosure last summer, his father had treated him like an employee—giving him as few details as possible, always questioning his loyalty.
And his father didn’t even know that Dirk had warned the Slayers about the second dragon attack. If his father ever figured out that bit of deception, he’d never let Dirk go near the dragons again.
No, that wasn’t true. Dirk’s father wanted his help, needed it so he could attack multiple fronts. Dirk was the only other person in the family who had the power to control dragons. Bridgett, his half-sister, had no powers. Girls typically didn’t. Tori probably had them only because her Slayer genes somehow gave her access to her dragon lord abilities as well.
But he wouldn’t be his father’s only son for long. His stepmother, Cassie, was pregnant with a boy. If Dirk didn’t prove his loyalty, then in another decade or so, he’d be replaced.
“If you don’t need me for anything else,” Dirk said, standing, “I’ll go to bed.” After all, if his father wouldn’t share details, he couldn’t expect Dirk to stick around.
His father looked as if he wanted to protest, but remained silent.
Dirk went up the stairs, flying so his footsteps didn’t wake his sister or stepmother. He paused in front of Bridgett’s room. She was only seven years old. Too young to realize any of what was going on.
He continued down the hallway, wishing he had someone to talk to. No one understood his divided loyalties or the frustration that came from having no one who trusted him. Worst of all was the feeling that he’d lose no matter what. Someday he would have to fight the Slayers, his friends, and he was powerless to stop any of it from happening.
When he got to his bedroom, he kicked off his shoes in the general direction of the closet. He didn’t turn on the light. No need; he could still see in the dark. His phone had died during the flight home, so he plugged it into the charger on the desk. His gaze fell on his computer. Tori had probably written him back.
He told himself to ignore her and go to bed, but somehow found himself sitting at the desk and logging on. She was the person who came closest to understanding him. Maybe that was the real reason he couldn’t let her go.
A new message from Tori sat at the top of his notifications. I do think about you saving us—and I’m grateful for it. Really grateful. I know you have good intentions, and you don’t want to hurt anybody. That’s why I don’t understand why you’re staying with your father. You can still come back and join the Slayers. Dr. B would find a place for you to live. I want you to come back.
Her words melted him, made him want to fly straight to McLean and spend the rest of the night talking to her. But he couldn’t go back to the Slayers. Not now. He’d turned his friends into enemies, and although Tori was blind to that fact, he wasn’t. The Slayers would never forgive him for what he’d done or who he was, and they would certainly never trust him again. Seeing them would only be a painful reminder.
He wrote back: You only feel the way you do because you went to a Slayer camp and trained to kill dragons. If I’d found you first and taught you about dragons, you wouldn’t be trying to destroy them. You’d be looking for ways to protect them. Don’t you think you owe it to yourself to learn about your dragon-lord half before you decide what you do with the rest of your life?
She probably wouldn’t answer for a while. She had most likely gone to sleep after sending the message, but just in case, he would leave the screen open while getting ready for bed. As he pushed his chair away from the desk, he noticed his father standing behind him, hovering a few inches off the ground. He had silently flown into the room, and was now reading over Dirk’s shoulder.
“You still talk to her?” His father managed to sound both amused and reproachful. “Passing along secrets?”
“Of course not.” Dirk hid the spike of panic gripping him. Had anything in Tori’s messages revealed how he’d warned her about the second dragon attack? He skimmed the screen. No, her reply said only that she was grateful he’d saved them. She could have been talking about the time he’d let them out of the dragon enclosure and saved them from losing their powers.
His father shouldered his way closer to the computer, and then scrolled through the rest of the messages, reading each one.
Irritation flared through Dirk. “Do you mind? That’s a private conversation.” Tori’s texts showed only half of most conversations. Dirk had been speaking for many of them, not writing. Still, he nearly turned off the monitor on his father. He only stopped himself because doing so would make him look like he was hiding something.
His father ignored his protest and kept reading. Dirk had already erased most of their earlier conversations, a precaution he was suddenly glad he’d taken. His father wouldn’t be happy to know how often he and Tori had talked over the last couple weeks.
When his father finished reading, he straightened. “Why did you ask Tori to meet you tonight? What game are you playing?”
“She’s a dragon lord,” Dirk said. “I want to convince her to join our side. Didn’t the messages make that clear?” He turned off the computer and stood up. “She knows what side I’m on. I wonder why you don’t.”
His father relaxed his stance, pleased with Dirk’s reaction, pleased with this new evidence of his loyalty. “Well . . .” his father said, lengthening the word while he thought. “I admit that having another dragon lord around would be helpful. But Tori seems to think she can turn you into Slayer. How do I know she’s not right?”
“Because I’m still here. If I wanted to switch sides and leave, I could have done it tonight.”
“She asked how you justified your actions,” his father said, referring to one of their earlier conversations. “What did you tell her?” He’d figured out that when only Tori wrote, Dirk had been talking to her near a dragon.
“I told her sometimes you need a revolution to improve a civilization.”
“True enough.” Dirk’s father nodded. “But you shouldn’t bother with justifications. Alexander didn’t depend on votes to obtain his power. No one elected Genghis Khan. Men of action conquer. Plain and simple. You and I have dragon DNA. Nature gave us the ability to conquer, and that gives us the right to do it.”
“Tori isn’t a fan of Genghis Khan or Alexander the Great. Go figure. She needs better reasons.”
His father glanced at the computer as though he could still see Tori’s messages there. When he spoke again, his voice was neutral; the tone he used when concealing his thoughts. “Perhaps you’re right, and we’ll find a way to bring Tori to our side. I won’t forbid you from trying as long as you keep me informed.” A smile spread across his lips, one that was calculating. “Perhaps I’ll even think of a way to help you.”
Dirk bristled. Maybe it was because of his father’s smile. It made his words seem sinister. “Don’t,” he said. “Let me handle her. I know how her mind works, and you—well, you’ve already tried to kill her twice.”
His father held his hands up, conceding the point. “And I’m beginning to see the folly of that strategy. You’re right—if we’d found a way to engage her dragon lord side instead of triggering her Slayer instincts, things might be very different now.” He let his hands drop, then tapped one against the side of his leg, still thinking, doing more of whatever calculations were running through his mind. “Perhaps it’s not too late.” Another smile. “Have you thought about the fact that if the two of you married, your children would all be dragon lords, even your daughters?”
Dirk stared at him in surprise, unsure how to answer. Was he serious? Plotting something? If so, what? It seemed weird that in one conversation, his father had gone from hating Tori to discussing the benefits of marrying her. Dirk had always figured that if he did persuade Tori to switch sides, his father would need just as much persuasion to trust her.
“Stop looking so suspicious,” his father said with a laugh. “I’m allowed to change my mind once in a while.” He held up a hand, making a pledge. “I promise I won’t try to kill Tori again. Unless, of course, it’s really warranted.”
“Thanks,” Dirk said, still guarded. Perhaps his father was just changing tactics. Perhaps he wanted Dirk to set up a meeting with Tori so he could capture her. Is that why he wanted to be kept informed?
His father must have seen the doubt. He let out a sigh and went toward the door. “It’s been a long night, and we both need sleep. Just promise to do your part in the revolution, and I won’t care who you choose for a girlfriend. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” Dirk said. But despite his father’s words, he was more worried about Tori’s safety than he had been before.
Ever since Tori had learned she had superpowers, she’d been making a mental list of their drawbacks. Foremost on the list today was that people didn’t respect her private time.
At least Dr. B never had. It didn’t matter that she specifically told him she was going to see Wicked today—or that she and her sister had purchased the tickets seven months ago. He decided to call a Slayer meeting at the same time anyway.
While Tori sat in the red velvet seats of the Kennedy Center waiting for the musical to start, her watch phone beeped. And beeped again. Should she keep ignoring the sound or give in and answer?
Aprilynne, her older sister, glanced at the watch and rolled her eyes. “I can’t believe you wore that thing here.”
No one with any style or taste would believe Tori wore it anywhere. It was a high-tech Slayer phone disguised as a watch, and a sadly dismal fashion choice all wrapped up into one piece of tacky wrist-wear—clunky black plastic.
The beep was Jesse’s chime. He was probably calling her to ream her out about skipping practice. Again. In her defense, it was harder for her to get away than it was for the rest of the Slayers. Tori had a busier schedule, and she frequently had bodyguards tailing her. One sat in the row behind her now.
Aprilynne cast Tori another reproving glance before flipping open her program. “You better turn off whatever alarms you have on that watch. You don’t want it going off during the performance.”
Tori pushed a button on the side twice, a signal that she’d call Jesse in a few minutes when she got to a private location. The show was a Saturday matinee and didn’t start until one. She had twenty minutes to make her apologies to him and return to her seat. Plenty of time.
Tori forced a surprised gasp for Aprilynne’s sake. “I set the alarm to remind myself to call Jesse and cancel a date. I can’t believe I forgot. I’d better call him before he leaves to pick me up.”
“Jesse?” Aprilynne repeated. She’d met him once, and if she didn’t exactly approve of their clandestine relationship, she at least understood Jesse’s draw. Tall, dark, handsome, and all that.
“I’ll be right back.” Tori slung her purse over her shoulder, got to her feet, and waved to Lars, the bodyguard who doubled as their driver. He was a burly, humorless guy who hardly spoke to Tori, frequently scowled at her friends, and exuded an air of general hostility. “I’m just going to the lady’s room,” she told him. “No need to come with me.” She scooted past the other chairs and hurried out of the theater before he could complain. She was supposed to stay with Aprilynne at all times so Lars could keep an eye on them both.
The wide, red-carpeted hallways of the Kennedy Center were filled with patrons making their way to theaters. Tori wound through the crowd in the grand foyer and took the elevator upstairs. The upper theaters were smaller, so fewer people milled around the hallways. From there, she headed out to the balcony, a vast structure more proportioned for giants than the average arts patron looking for fresh air or a view of the Potomac. A cluster of people stood smoking by one of the fountains, but otherwise, the balcony was empty. Tori strolled to the railing thirty yards away and turned so they couldn’t see her having a conversation with her watch. She always felt ridiculous talking to her wrist, like she was part of a hokey spy movie.
She pushed the button sequence to reach Jesse. “You called?”
“Glad you picked up.” His deep familiar voice came over the speaker, a sound that always made her heart purr a little. “You were supposed to meet us fifteen minutes ago. Location Alpha.”
The Air and Space Museum. Dr. B insisted on clandestine language, and ever since Dirk betrayed them, all the code names had changed.
“Where are you?” Jesse asked.
“At the Kennedy Center, just like I texted everyone. I couldn’t get away.”
“You’ve missed every practice this week.”
Meaning three. Which was way too many sessions for Dr. B to hold during the school year.
“It’s been a busy week.”
Jesse let out a disapproving grunt. “You’re the other captain. You can’t keep missing practice.”
Granted, Tori was A-team’s captain, but Dr. B had only given her the job because she was a flyer. When he made the assignment, he hadn’t known she was part dragon lord. If he had, he probably would have done things differently.
“People’s lives are depending on you,” Jesse went on. “What’s more important than defending your country?”
Tori checked over her shoulder to make sure no one was near. “Right now, Wicked. With the Broadway cast.”
“You’ll lose your edge if you don’t train.”
Even though the people by the fountain hadn’t moved, Tori couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was watching her. She moved toward the side of the building for more privacy. “I’m sure Dr. B will work me twice as hard next time to make up for it.”
“Wrong,” Jesse said, and not on the phone. He’d landed by her side.
Tori jumped in surprise and put her hand to her chest.
“See?” he said with a smirk. “You’ve lost your edge. You didn’t hear me coming.” His brown hair was mussed by his flight, and his dark eyes looked triumphant. He wore a navy blue jacket that was a little beat-up but still looked good on his broad shoulders. Well, really anything looked good on Jesse. He was handsome in a serious, down-to-earth way, which was twice as attractive because he didn’t realize the sway of his looks.
Tori turned off her watch’s phone function. “It’s not nice to sneak up on people.” In her defense, it was hard to hear a flyer approaching; they made no sound.
“Yeah,” he said, drifting closer, “and Overdrake hasn’t been nice to us on more than one occasion.” Jesse’s eyes were still on hers. “That’s why you can’t skip training.”
She took a step backward, which wasn’t usually what she did when Jesse was around. The two of them had secretly met in DC more than once, pretending to be normal teenagers who did things like date and hold hands in movie theaters. “Tell Dr. B I’ll make the next practice for sure. I can’t disappear from the Kennedy Center right before a performance.” She held her hands up in apology. “I’m a presidential candidate’s daughter. I’d have every security guard in the building searching for me.”
Jesse smiled. Not one of the flirty smiles he gave while they were tucked away in some café having covert french fries. It was a smile of determination that said he knew he was going to win this argument. “Just tell your sister you’re leaving. Then no one will worry.”
“I don’t want to leave.” Tori planted her hands on her hips. “And don’t you dare fly off with me.”
He glided closer, still smiling. He’d been around a dragon simulator, so he had his powers. She didn’t, which meant she couldn’t do anything to stop him from hauling her into the sky.
She took another step backward. “I’ve been waiting seven months to see this show. A good boyfriend would be understanding.”
He shrugged, not looking sorry. “We agreed that while we were at practice, we would put our relationship aside and act only as Slayers.”
“I’m not at practice,” she said.
“But I am.” He moved closer, then stopped and let his gaze drift over her, taking in her tight-fitting skirt and heels. “Okay, I need a thirty-second break from being a Slayer to tell you that you look amazing.”
“Thanks.” She didn’t mean it.
“And also, I’m sorry I have to do this.” He glanced at his watch. “Ten seconds left. That’s not nearly long enough to kiss you.”
Oh, she wasn’t going to let him kiss her. She shuffled backward. “If you fly off with me, someone will see you. Probably a lot of someones. Several pedestrians, and whoever is looking up at this balcony, will question their sanity. Do you want that on your conscience?”
Jesse was apparently unconcerned with the mental wellbeing of random people passing by. “I said I was sorry.” He flew over, grabbed Tori around the waist, and pulled her to him. “Dr. B ordered me to bring you back. I’m Team Magnus’s captain. I’ve got to set a good example, remember?” He shot into the sky, going fast and high.
Tori put her hands against Jesse’s chest and let out a groan that was swallowed by the wind. “Next time you call, I’m answering you in the ladies restroom—and I don’t care who hears the conversation.”
That was another problem with the watch phones. Not only did you look stupid talking on them, you sounded stupid talking in code words—or worse yet, forgetting to talk in code words and saying things like, “I haven’t seen any signs that the dragon lord is stalking me.”
Jesse kept his eyes on the sky, twirling midair to adjust his direction. With his powers in full force, he was immune to the cold air rushing around them. Tori, however, shivered as she watched the Kennedy Center shrink in the distance.
“What am I supposed to tell Aprilynne?”
“You’ll think of something.”
Easy for him to say. Every time she went to a practice, she had to sneak off or come up with a plausible excuse for being absent for several hours. This frequently made her look flakey, selfish, and secretive.
Jesse zoomed higher until the cars below seemed like multicolored beaded necklaces curving through a maze of blocks. Tori usually loved flying. Sailing through the air made her feel free and powerful. And she usually loved being in Jesse’s arms. But now she was cold, and the wind was making her hair whip around her face in tangles. A perfectly good hairstyle ruined.
“You owe me a date to Wicked,” she said. “And I expect good seats.”
He laughed in a way that was far too charming for someone who had just wrecked her afternoon. “I’ll do my best.”
She reached for her purse. “Aprilynne might have already turned off her phone, and then she’s going to . . .” With Jesse’s arms around her, she couldn’t manage to open her purse without spilling the contents. “This really isn’t the best position to fly in.”
He’d leveled out, tilting to soar horizontally, and was holding her in an awkward reclining position.
She expected him to turn her to face the same direction. Instead he put his hands under her knees and flipped her around, carrying her like a bride.
She pulled her cell phone from her purse, still miffed. “Now we’re acting out scenes from Superman?”
He gave her another smile. “If the cape fits . . .”
She ignored him and called Aprilynne, shielding the phone as best she could from the wind. “Slow down,” Tori told Jesse. “I need to hear my sister.”
Jesse slowed a little, but not enough to make much difference. If Tori’s hearing hadn’t been exceptional, she wouldn’t have been able to hear what Aprilynne was saying.
“Tori, where are you? Why are you calling me?”
She was flying high in the air over a grid of apartment buildings. The trees below wore their last change before winter, leaves of yellow, red, and orange. “Um, I’ve had a change of plans. See, Jesse went to a lot of work for our date, and now he’s laying this major guilt trip on me.” She gave him a pointed look. “You’d think he’d be more understanding since I’ve had our tickets for seven months, but no, he’s being completely unreasonable, and demanding I go with him. He’ll drop me off at home later. Don’t tell Mom and Dad, okay?”
“Are you serious?” Aprilynne’s voice was incredulous. “You’re the one who insisted we come to this play, and now you’re making me watch it by myself?”
“Can’t you just get Jesse a ticket? Throw Dad’s name around. I bet they can find him a seat.”
“I wouldn’t feel right doing that.” That, at least, was true. Her father’s fame was something Tori endured, not reveled in.
“But you feel right about ditching me for Jesse?”
“I’ll make it up to you.”
Aprilynne let out a huff. “You’ve had a lot to make up for lately. When are you going to stop making apologies and start making things up?”
“I make up things all the time,” Tori protested, then glared at Jesse when he laughed at the phrase. “And by make up things, I don’t mean lies. . .”
Aprilynne hung up, obviously ticked.
Well, that went great.
“Freudian slip?” Jesse asked.
Tori slid her phone back into her pocket. “The rest of you have it easy. Your families can’t question where you’re going or what you’re doing.” After Overdrake had discovered the Slayers’ addresses, Dr. B sent men posing as FBI agents to the other Slayers’ homes. The parents were told that their children had witnessed a drug cartel crime and had agreed to testify in the federal case. Because of that, the whole family were given new identities and relocated in the Witness Protection Program.
Dr. B moved the families to Virginia and had been finding new jobs for the Slayers’ parents ever since. Whenever he held a practice, the other Slayers told their parents that they were needed for the case. The parents couldn’t ask questions about the ongoing legal situation. Problem solved.
But Tori hadn’t been part of the relocation. She couldn’t be. Not when her father was a senator. He would have checked his government sources and found out that Dr. B’s men weren’t really FBI. And even if Dr. B had found a way to make himself look legitimate, her dad wouldn’t have changed his identity. He’d already spent millions of dollars on his presidential campaign.
Tori hoped the bodyguards and precautions her family took would not only keep disgruntled constituents away from their home, but also megalomaniac dragon lords.
She shivered again. Her outfit didn’t offer a lot of warmth in the high altitude, and the wind rushing across her bare legs and arms made goosebumps bloom on her skin.
“Hold on to my neck,” Jesse told her. “I’ll give you my coat.”
She put her arms around his neck, too cold to refuse. She ignored the feel of his muscles under her arms, wouldn’t let herself get distracted by his closeness.
He let go of his hold on her to shrug out of his jacket. Not long ago, dangling from a guy’s neck thousands of feet above the ground would have freaked her out. Over the last few months, she’d spent so much time in the air that she had to remind herself not to let go of Jesse’s neck, because she couldn’t fly on her own.
Jesse circled her waist with one hand so he could give her his jacket with the other. She slipped it on, enjoying the warmth of the material and the way the coat smelled like him—some sort of spicy scent she could never quite identify.
The landscape spreading below showed that they’d left the DC area, but they weren’t headed to the gymnasium where they’d held practice lately.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“Long flight. You’re going to get tired.”
“I’m just flying to the van. A jet will do the rest.”
He was serious. Dr. B wouldn’t send them on a trip to another state if it wasn’t important. Which meant this wasn’t practice; it was a mission. That’s why Jesse had really come for her: She was supposed to act as A-team’s captain.
She pulled the jacket around her tighter. “What’s in North Carolina?”
“Hopefully a clue to the dragons’ location. One of Dr. B’s sources reported someone in Huntersville selling actual dragon scales on the black market—five thousand dollars a piece.”
“Why would anyone want to buy a dragon scale?”
Jesse flew lower, gliding toward a high school surrounded by fields and bleachers abandoned for the weekend. “Scales are fireproof and bullet proof, and, according to Chinese lore, if you grind them up and eat them, they’ll give you long life and cure everything from madness to heart problems.”
The Chinese were clearly optimists.
In the parking lot, Tori spotted a lone white van waiting for them. Dr. B’s van. Jesse veered toward it. “The scales in North Carolina might be fake, but if not, the seller must be one of Overdrake’s men making some money on the side. No one else would have access to dragon scales. We need to find him and convince him to give us the dragons’ location.”
“Convince him how?”
“The guy wants money. Hopefully a big enough bribe will work.”
Tori smiled, thinking over the implications. The Slayers finally had a lead that could give them an advantage. If they could find the dragons’ location, they could plan a surprise attack.
“Where exactly is the guy running his business from?”
“Exactly where you’d expect someone to sell dragon scales—one of the country’s largest Renaissance fairs.”
A few minutes later, Tori and Jesse climbed into the white fifteen-passenger van. She’d expected to see all of the Slayers inside, with Dr. B behind the wheel. Instead, Bess sat in the driver’s seat, and Ryker was the only other passenger.
Bess was tall and athletic looking, with shoulder-length brown curls she did her best to tame and blue eyes that often had a mischievous glint to them. Lately those eyes had spent a lot of time gazing in Ryker’s direction. At 6’ 4”, he was the tallest of the Slayers, with short, dark hair and features ready-made for an action-movie hero.
“Hey, stranger,” Bess said as Tori sat in the seat behind her. “How was Wicked?”
Tori clicked her seatbelt. “Wish I could tell you.”
Bess started the ignition and headed across the parking lot toward the street. “Don’t worry about missing the play. We’ll have plenty of wicked stuff to deal with today.”
“Where is everybody else?” Tori asked.
Bess stopped at the exit, checking for traffic before she pulled onto the street. “They’re loading the jet with our equipment. My dad wants to leave as soon as we get there.”
Bess was Dr. B’s daughter, a fact the two of them did their best to forget during practice. Dr. B because he didn’t want to show favoritism. Bess because she didn’t want to receive it. A lot of times, his favoritism involved giving her long commentaries about how she could improve her performance.
Jesse motioned to Ryker. “Let’s fill Tori in on the mission.”
Ryker moved from the front seat to sit on Tori’s other side. He had a tablet opened to the North Carolina Renaissance Festival website, his blue eyes all concentration.
Tori liked Ryker; she did. And she was relieved to have another flyer in the group. But she couldn’t help feeling a twinge of resentment toward him. He was not only Jesse’s counterpart—a role she’d once hoped was hers—he was a natural leader too. Smart, confident, and never at a loss for what to do. The other Slayers acted like it was only a matter of time before he took over as A-team’s captain.
Jesse leaned toward Tori. “We don’t know exactly where the dragon scales are being sold, just that it’s in the back room of one of the buildings in the Renaissance festival, and the seller goes by Rudolpho. He meets prospective customers of his most expensive items only by appointment. We’re hoping that if we flash around enough money, we can find him.”
“I can hardly wait to flash around money,” Bess called cheerfully from the front. “It’s always been a lifelong goal of mine.” She was rarely serious unless someone was about to be killed. This was one of the reasons Tori liked her so much.
“We’ll split into three groups to search for Rudolpho,” Jesse went on. “Theo will stay with the simulator in the festival parking lot to run surveillance.”
Theo was a tech genius Dr. B hired years ago, and he took care of all things electronic or computer related.
“Once someone finds Rudolpho,” Ryker said, “they’ll signal for backup.”
He tilted the tablet toward her, which now showed a tourist map of the festival grounds. “The fair is on twenty-two acres surrounded by another two hundred and fifty acres of woodland. It’s got dozens of permanent buildings, twelve stages, and over a hundred craft shops.” He pointed to an area in the middle of the map. “I’ll take Willow and Lilly and cover this part.” He circled another spot. “Kody, Shang, and Dr. B will look here. You, Jesse, and Bess take this area.”
Tori gazed at the map, memorizing as much of it as possible. “What if Rudolpho doesn’t go for the money?” She hadn’t had a lot of experience with bribing people. It was one of the few things Dr. B hadn’t covered at camp.
Ryker zoomed in the screen, enlarging the shops area. “Then we’ll have to use another form of persuasion.”
She could guess what that would be. She gestured to her heels and the skirt hugging her legs. “You should have told me what we were doing. I’m not dressed for a fight.”
Ryker gave her a pointed look. “You knew we had practice today.” He glanced at Jesse, waiting for him to agree.
Jesse just grinned. “Hey, I have no complaints about Tori’s outfit.” His eyes shifted to her. “I already told you that you look amazing, right?”
Bess slowed for a red light. “My dad brought some clothes for you. I can’t say they’re fashionable, but at least they won’t be so restrictive.”
Ryker moved the map, as though a different angle would give him more information. “If we can’t find a way to get the truth from Rudolpho, we’ll bag the guy and take him with us. Theo rigged up some tranquilizer darts that connect to the bottom of our watches.”
“Wait,” Tori said. “We’re going to kidnap someone?”
Ryker shrugged. “Only if we can’t convince him to cooperate.”
Tori’s gaze went to Jesse to see his reaction. He looked unsurprised. He already knew about this part of the plan and had agreed to it. She let out a sigh. “Kidnapping is a federal offense. That means jail time.”
“This is war.” Jesse’s voice became soft, asking her to understand. “We can’t always play by the rules. You know that. Sometimes the ends justify the means.”
“Funny, that’s what Dirk said to justify his father’s actions.”
Jesse had the grace to wince at the comparison, but he didn’t change his tone. “Yeah, except that we’re trying to protect the nation, not take it over.”
True. And they’d already had a turn on the slippery slope of justification. Last summer they invaded Overdrake’s compound, hoping to destroy a pair of dragon eggs. If they’d been caught, the police would have charged them with breaking and entering with the intent to destroy personal property. The risk had seemed worth it. But this . . .
“Did I mention that my father is a presidential candidate?” Tori asked. “Having his daughter commit a felony would look really bad for his campaign.”
“I guess so,” Ryker said. “But dragons destroying cities would look even worse.”
Jesse’s tone was gentler. “Maybe she’s right. Maybe she should sit out on this part and join the teams after we have intel on the dragons’ location.”
Ryker shook his head. “Who knows how many men Rudolpho has or what sort of security he’s using? Tori can’t sit out. We need as much help as we can get.”
And there were Ryker and Jesse, sitting on either side of her, acting like captains as they decided the matter without her input. She lifted a hand to get their attention. “How are we going to sneak an unconscious body out of a Renaissance fair?”
Jesse opened his mouth to speak, then caught a look from Ryker, and nodded at him in answer instead. This was one of those counterpart things—understanding each other with less information than other people needed. “It’s better if you don’t know the details,” Jesse said. “That way if we get caught, you can honestly say you didn’t know what we were planning.”
Ryker leaned back in his seat. “Besides, we’re not kidnapping anyone. In fact, we’re not doing anything illegal. See? Now you can tell the feds that I assured you this is all a normal business deal.”
“That’s right,” Bess chimed in. “You’re just our high-end shopping consultant.”
As if the FBI would let her off that easy. She’d have to make sure she didn’t get caught. “If Rudolpho is one of Overdrake’s men,” she pointed out, “he’ll know that teenage Slayers are hunting for the dragons. He might even recognize us.”
With a flick of her hand, Bess brushed off the objection. “My dad’s got disguise stuff on the jet—hats, glasses, wigs. Things like that.”
“But we’ll still look like teenagers,” Tori said. “Just different teenagers.”
“We’ve got an hour until we land in Charlotte,” Bess said without concern. “That gives us time to practice looking like innocent tourists.”
Tori didn’t press the issue. Bess meant there wasn’t a better solution, and she had a point. Even if Dr. B rounded up enough trusted adults and gave them the task of finding Rudolpho, they wouldn’t have Slayer training or abilities. Bess could throw shields up that blocked dragon fire and bullets. Kody’s skill was shooting freezing blasts and fireballs. Shang and Lilly could extinguish fire, and Rosa specialized in healing burns. No one knew if Willow had an extra power. None had manifested yet, but her other Slayer abilities were enough to make her an asset. All of them had acute senses, extra strength, night vision, and could leap ten to fifteen feet in the air.
So the Slayers had to be the ones hunting for Rudolpho. No one else could do it, even though Overdrake’s men knew the Slayers existed and were most likely watching for them.
And facing one of Overdrake’s men would be worth it if doing so led them to the dragons.
“What if this is one of Overdrake’s traps?” Tori asked. “He could have set up shop here, knowing that Dr. B would eventually find out about the scales and send us in to dig around.”
Ryker shook his head at the idea. “Even if Overdrake is behind the operation, he won’t know we’re coming today. We’ll just have to be careful.”
Jesse pulled his attention away from the map to look at her. “As captain of A-team, don’t you think looking for the scales is worth the risk?”
She hesitated, but only for a moment. “Yes.”
When the group reached the private jet, the other Slayers were already onboard, dressed in jeans and T-shirts with their jackets slung over their seats. They looked like an average group of teenagers. Well, mostly. The guys were all more athletic than average, and Shang was probably dressier, wearing a polo shirt and brand-new jeans, their creases still visible.
At camp, he’d always been the most organized one—never forgetting a schedule, never late for practice. He was also the only reason the guys’ cabin hadn’t been heaped with trash and dirty clothes. He insisted that messiness was bad feng shui.
Lilly sat by Shang, her nails painted a don’t-mess-with-me black and her long hair bleached platinum blonde. The last time Tori had seen it, it was regular blonde. Miss a few practices, and you missed the makeovers.
Lilly barely glanced over, which was the amount of attention Lilly usually paid to Tori, so she didn’t mind. As long as Lilly followed orders when Tori was acting as captain, it didn’t matter if she ignored her the rest of the time.
Kody, who was also on A-team, gave Tori a playful salute. He had short blond hair and a body builder’s physique: all hulking, broad shouldered and biceps as big as salad plates. He was too good natured and friendly to care that Tori—who had years’ less experience than he did—was in charge of the team. Besides, when he got it in his mind to do something, he generally disregarded the captains anyway, so being under her command probably didn’t seem like much of an imposition to him.
Willow and Rosa motioned for Tori and Bess to come sit in the seats near them. Willow was tall, thin, and had the sort of natural grace that belonged to dancers and tree nymphs. Today her curly blonde hair was twisted into a bun, making her look like she ought to be at a rehearsal for Swan Lake. “I told you Bess wouldn’t crash the van,” Willow told Rosa. “They’re all in one piece.”
Ryker dropped into a seat behind them. “We would have been here sooner if Bess had let me drive.”
Bess sent him a patient smile. “You’re not allowed to drive the van again until you understand the difference between the beltway and a NASCAR racetrack.”
“Oh, I understand the difference,” he said with mock offense. “One has more traffic to get around.”
Rosa shook her head at him. She was petite and pretty, with china-doll features and dark brown hair that hung loose down her back. She was also the gentlest of the group and had the habit of worrying about the rest of them. “You know,” she said directing her gaze to Ryker, “you won’t be much use to us in a body cast.”
Willow nodded in agreement. “And if you do something stupid that puts you in one, I’ll sign your cast, ‘I told you so.’”
She was Ryker’s cousin and had no problem ribbing him. Which, Tori decided, partially made up for the way the rest of the girls acted all deferential and flirty around him. He’d been with the group for only a few weeks, so he still had hot new guy status, whereas the other guys were just boring, everyday hot.
Dr. B stepped from the flight deck into the seating area, carrying a plastic shopping bag. At practices, he usually wore Dockers and a button-down shirt, the sort of outfit you’d expect a professor of medieval history to wear. With his wavy gray hair and wire-rim glasses, he’d always looked the part of a dignified intellectual.
Today, he was dressed in a belted tunic, leggings, and pair of knee-high leather boots. Tori blinked and stared.
“I know,” Bess said in a whisper. “I told him not to wear that, but he thinks it’ll help him blend in with the Renaissance crowd.”
Dr. B noted Tori’s presence and smiled. “Good to see you. Looks like we’re ready to go.”
Jesse was still up front of the plane. Dr. B handed the plastic bag to him. “Give this to Tori so she can change, won’t you?” Then he motioned to the group. “Seatbelts on, everyone.” Without waiting, he returned to the cockpit to fly the plane.
Jesse walked down the aisle, sat beside Tori, and reluctantly handed her the plastic bag. His reluctance should have been her first clue that something was wrong.
“Just so you know,” Bess said, “I told him you’d hate it.”
Oh no. A sinking feeling went through Tori’s stomach. She reached into the bag and pulled out a dress with a long brown skirt and maroon corset. The shirt had poofy, flowing white sleeves—some sort of Renaissance servant’s dress. “I’m supposed to wear this?”
“Yeah,” Willow said in an apologetic tone. “You get to be a saucy barmaid.”
The label on the costume did indeed read, “Saucy barmaid.”
Tori gazed around at the rest of the Slayers in their jeans. “Come on, this is a joke, right?”
The plane began taxiing down the runway. Jesse put on his seatbelt. “Dr. B wants one of us in costume in case we need to access any staff-only areas.”
Rosa shrugged sympathetically. “I’d trade, but you wouldn’t fit into my clothes.” Rosa was a half a foot shorter than Tori.
“Sorry,” Bess said. “I refuse to put on anything that makes me look like I’m wearing a matching outfit with my dad.”
Willow lifted her shoulders and let them fall. “I don’t have the figure to pull off a saucy barmaid. The costume would look stupid on me.”
Tori sat back in her seat with a huff. “It’ll look stupid no matter who’s wearing it.”
Lilly finally pulled herself away from her conversation with Shang. “If you don’t like it, don’t show up for the next mission in a cocktail dress and heels.”
“This isn’t a cocktail dress,” Tori said. “It’s from Dior’s casual line. If you want to insult someone, you should at least be accurate.”
Bess gestured to the overhead compartment. “And to complete your outfit, your boots are in there with the rest of the gear.” She meant her fighting boots: black, steel-toed, fireproof boots. Not exactly period wear, but the dress was long enough to mostly hide them.
Shang, who shared counterpart abilities with Lilly—but not her impatience toward Tori—said, “Lots of people dress up at these things. No one will think twice about your barmaid outfit.”
“Unless they’re really thirsty,” Bess added. “Then they’ll order you to go to ye old tavern and fetch them a frothy brew.”
Tori leaned her head back against her seat. This was going to be a long day.