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.
At three o’clock, the group walked through the gabled gates of Fairhaven and into the expansive grounds. Tori strode along with the others, pretending not to hate her outfit. The two- and three-story buildings, complete with high-pitched roofs and wood trim, seemed as though they’d been plucked from a fairy tale. Nearby, a flute player trilled out a tune while jesters juggled pins for a crowd. People in jeans mixed among those dressed in ball gowns, all of them slowly flowing down the wide dirt streets.
The simulator was back in the parking lot, so the Slayers could use their powers. Helpful, but also distracting. The noise from the musicians and the shuffling crowd felt louder, the scent of the different foods was more pungent. Turkey, roasted nuts, coffee, bread, and beer mixed together with the sweat of tourists—all of it heightened.
Dr. B gave everyone last-minute instructions before they split into their groups. “Remember, subtlety is the better part of stealth. Use as little force as necessary. We don’t want anyone to remember we’ve been here.”
Under her breath, Bess whispered, “Then you shouldn’t have worn leggings.”
Tori was glad to finally head off with Jesse and Bess to search their area. If Tori had to hear Ryker call her, “Wench,” one more time, she was going to slap him with her barmaid satchel. It held enough stacks of hundred dollar bills to make a decent weapon.
Along with her dress, Tori wore a curly black wig and a serving cap. Bess had on a pair of hipster glasses and a blond wig she kept swishing over her shoulder. Jesse wore a baseball cap pulled low over his forehead, glasses, and a bulky jacket. Not much of a disguise. He was still handsome enough to draw attention from passing girls.
The group strolled by a blue-and yellow-striped tent, where a king and queen held court and loudly discussed the burdens of royalty.
Jesse side-stepped a man sweeping by on stilts. “Watch your purse,” he told Tori. “This would be a bad time to be pickpocketed.”
He was right; she carried the price of one dragon scale plus ten thousand in bribe money. The other groups had been given the same amount, which made Tori wonder, not for the first time, where the mysterious Sam, who funded the Slayers, got his money.
“Five thousand dollars per scale,” Jesse muttered. “If I’d known they sold for that much, I would have pried some off the last two dragons we killed.” He glanced at Bess. “Is your dad going to sell the ones he took?”
Bess shook her head. “He’s experimenting on ways to break them. Although I have to say, I think he’s developed an unhealthy attachment to them. He’s always getting them out and staring at them. Soon he’s going to give them names like Shnookums and Precious.
Tori hadn’t remembered Dr. B taking scales from either of the dragons they’d killed, but she’d been in a state of sickened shock at the time and hadn’t paid attention to that sort of thing. She hadn’t wanted to look at the dragons, to see their broken forms and know she’d been responsible for their deaths.
That was the problem with being half Slayer and half dragon lord. Her genetics had programmed her to kill dragons, but unfortunately also made her feel guilty about it afterward.
Tori wound past a family heading the opposite direction. “I wonder if the Chinese are right about dragons having medicinal uses. What if we were to kill them all and then found out their scales could cure cancer?”
Bess and Jesse exchanged a look, one that indicated that they thought Tori was being naive about medicinal uses. Jesse said, “I’m willing to take that chance.”
“Ditto,” Bess said.
They made their way around a stage where belly dancers clanged their finger cymbals and swayed to an exotic, soulful tune.
“Overdrake is the real problem,” Tori insisted. “If we take care of him, the dragons would—”
“Still be huge, flying carnivores who want to eat us,” Bess finished. She turned to Jesse, peering over the rim of her glasses. “Is there any way to unplug Dirk from her mind? I think he’s brainwashing her.”
“I wish there was,” Jesse said. He didn’t like that Dirk could talk to Tori any time he wanted. “And speaking of dragon lords, have you talked to your parents about moving, Tori?”
The fact that Overdrake knew where Tori lived worried all of the Slayers, especially Jesse, and most of all, Tori. But the problem wasn’t an easy one to fix.
“I tried. I made up stories about seeing suspicious men scoping out the house, and I told my parents that I thought political whackos were going to break in.”
“Didn’t that concern them?”
“Oh, they’re concerned—about me. They think I’m getting paranoid. They checked the footage of our security cameras and didn’t see anything worth worrying about.”
Although Aprilynne had suggested that a family of boogey men might have moved in down the street and were waiting for the opportunity to relocate under Tori’s bed.
Tori adjusted a strand from her wig that kept knocking into her face. “I’m just going to have to depend on our security system, the bodyguards, and our German shepherd to keep me safe.”
Jesse frowned. “It’s not enough.”
“I don’t know. Brindy’s a pretty smart dog.” Not remotely true. Brindy was hopelessly trusting and would allow burglars entrance to the house or lead them to the valuables as long as they gave her dog treats in the process.
Jesse’s gaze went to Tori’s and stayed there. He was probably trying to look stern, but somehow managed to look like a brooding cologne model instead. “You’re not taking this seriously.”
Tori pulled her attention away from him and surveyed the surrounding shops. “Dirk said his father promised not to hurt me.” He had assured her of this fact more than once during their talks.
Jesse let a grunt. “Yeah, and we know how much Dirk’s word means. Overdrake has already sent two dragons to kill us. I don’t think he cares what he promised Dirk.”
Jesse had a point, but what could she do about it? She had no way to convince her parents to move.
The group spent the next hour trudging into buildings, perusing the wares, and asking if Rudolpho was around. Since Tori carried the money, it fell to her to play the part of the interested buyer.
“You’ve got to be the one,” Bess had said at the first shop. “Jesse and I would have a hard time faking being rich, but you don’t have to pretend.”
They’d gone into five stores, and in each one Tori had acted like she knew that Rudolpho would be inside, that she had connections who had directed her to that place to meet him. And in each shop, the proprietors looked at her as if she was confused and perhaps not all that bright.
Jesse and Bess would have a hard time faking they were rich. Right. They were just smart enough to avoid the role of confused/half-crazy buyer. Well, that would teach Tori to skip out on practices where they planned these sorts of things.
They wandered into The Black Unicorn Shoppe, and Tori pretended to eye the silver tiaras while she scanned the store. Several tourists milled among the goods. A woman dressed in a blue corset stood behind the counter, ringing up purchases. A man in a tunic and leggings helped a middle-aged woman with a dragonfly necklace. No watchful security men seemed to be guarding anything of value.
Bess, Jesse, and Tori meandered across the room, admiring shelves filled with pewter knights and unicorn figurines. So many dragon prints hung on the wall, they looked like they were part of a parade. The artists had gotten the color completely wrong. Dragons weren’t brown or grayish, lizard-like colors. They didn’t have to blend into their surroundings. They were flashy, proudly wearing the colors of danger. The dragons she’d seen were red and bright blue.
The shopkeeper finished helping his customer and strolled over. “Sir, my ladies, may I be of service?”
Tori gave him a bashful smile. “I hope so. I’m looking for something special.”
He swept his hand toward the shelves. “We’ve many a special trinket here. What, pray tell, has caught your fancy?”
“Actually, I want to speak to Rudolpho.”
The man paused, hesitated, and took in Tori again. He seemed to note how young she was. “Do you?” he asked, still measuring her.
“I hear he sells some, um, authentic souvenirs.” She sashayed closer. “Dragon scales. Don’t worry. I have cash.” She reached into the cloth purse. While she did, she hit the button at the side of her watch that contacted Dr. B and let him hear her conversation. She pulled out a stack of hundreds and flashed them at the man. “Can you take me to Rudolpho, please?”
Dr. B’s voice immediately came through the earpiece hidden in Tori’s ear. “You’ve found him?”
Tori smiled at the shopkeeper again. “Seeing Rudolpho is really why I came to the fair.” That should answer Dr. B’s question.
The man nodded at the sight of her bills. “He usually requires an appointment, but If you give me your name, I can ask if he’s available.”
Tori slipped the money back into her purse. “Tell him Emily Morgan would like to see him.” Tori had chosen the name because everyone knew a few Emilys. Emilys were hard to keep track of.
The man gave them a slight bow, said, “Wait here,” and went through a door behind to the counter.
Jesse turned so the woman at the counter couldn’t see his face. “We’re at The Black Unicorn,” he whispered into his mic.
In Tori’s earpiece, Dr. B reported the news to the other teams. They’d convene here soon. “Theo,” he said. “You’ve got the horse?”
“And the armor,” Theo answered. “I’m heading to the shop now.”
Horse? Armor? What were they planning to do if Rudolpho didn’t cooperate? She really should have insisted they give her those sorts of details.
Then again, maybe Jesse was right. If things went wrong, she could honestly tell her parents she didn’t know what had been on the day’s agenda. She would just hope that none of their watches were confiscated. The police might notice that the timepieces had each been equipped with a tranquilizing dart.
Dr. B’s voice came over her earpiece. “Be sure to examine the scale to make sure it’s genuine before you offer money. Authentic scales have an interlocking micro pattern.”
Tori had never looked at a scale up close, but she’d seen enough of the real kind that she should be able to identify one.
Her phone buzzed in her purse. She pulled it out, checked the screen, and let out a disheartened sigh. “Bad news.”
Jesse’s gaze swung to her. “What?”
“My parents know I’m AWOL. They want to know where I am and when I’ll be home.”
“Oh,” he said, relieved, and went back to scoping out the store. “Tell them we’re at a movie, it’s about to start, and you have to turn off your phone now.”
Tori typed in the sentence, sent it, and slipped her phone into her purse. “I hope this mission doesn’t take all day. I’m still on probation for disappearing last time.”
The shopkeeper came back and made a summoning motion to Tori while holding open the back door. “This way, please.”
When Bess and Jesse followed after her, the shopkeeper raised a hand to stop them. “Only one buyer at a time in the room.”
“But we’re with her,” Bess protested.
“Then I’m surprised you don’t already know the rules,” he said. “One buyer.”
Tori faltered, but couldn’t think of a way around the rule. “Fine.” She flicked her hand in Jesse’s direction. “Can you get me a soda while you wait? This dress is hot.” She was really giving him an excuse to leave the shop and scout around the building until the other Slayers arrived. Bess would stay inside in case Tori needed backup.
He nodded. “I’ll see what’s around.”
Tori trailed after the man, hoping Rudolpho could be easily bribed. That would make the meeting so much simpler.
The man led her down a short hallway, and then took her up a flight of stairs. “I hope I don’t trip,” she said to let the other Slayers know where she was going. “It’s so hard to navigate stairs in a long dress.”
A narrow hallway waited at the top of the stairs. He led her down it, bypassing two doors and coming to a stop at the third. “First things first,” the shopkeeper said, still maintaining the British accent. “I need to make sure you’re not, as you Yanks say, packing heat.” He picked up a metal detector wand that hung by the door and ran it over her.
She held her hands up, showing they were empty. “Security already checked our bags when we came into the fair. For a place that sells swords in every other shop, you people worry a lot about weapons.”
Satisfied she didn’t have a gun on her, the man hung the detector up and opened the door. “This way.”
A portly middle-aged man dressed in nobleman clothes sat behind a large desk. He had sharp eyes, graying brown hair that brushed against his shoulders, and an overgrown, bushy beard. Tori wondered if the beard was period accurate, or whether he just didn’t like to shave.
A hulkingly tall man in regular clothes stood in the corner of the room, arms folded, watching her. Probably Rudolpho’s security. The dark jacket he wore on his sizable chest undoubtedly hid a firearm.
Tori stepped into the room, automatically surveying it for tactical information. It was medium-sized with a window on the back wall. No other doors besides the one she’d come in. The window faced the forest, not the festival grounds. If she had to fly out of it, at least she wouldn’t be videotaped by tourists in the process.
A tapestry depicting a unicorn hung on one wall. Two crossed swords and a heraldry shield hung on the other. Green opaque curtains blocked the view but not the sunlight. Which meant Tori couldn’t destroy the overhead light to get the advantage of fighting in the dark with night vision.
The shopkeeper who’d taken Tori to the room followed her in, locked the door, and leaned against the wall. If things went badly, Tori would have three men to take care of, and at least one of them was armed. Could she bribe them all? She hoped so, because her watch only shot one dart. There hadn’t been room for more than that. Bess and Jesse were supposed to be around to help with crowd control.
Tori made her way to a chair that sat in front of the desk, ignoring Rudolpho’s penetrating stare. Several different magnifying glasses lay on the desk, along with a lamp and a long, black box. The keypad on the box told her it was a safe.
Rudolpho leaned back in his chair, revealing an oversized stomach. “You’re younger than my usual clients.”
“Thank you,” she said, as though it was a compliment and not a statement of suspicion. “I do what I can to keep up my appearance. That’s one of the reasons I’m interested in dragon scales. I have it on good authority that taking powdered scale promotes long life.”
Rudolpho steepled his fingers, a pose of confidence. “Quite true, although grinding them isn’t an easy task.” His gaze went over Tori again. “I’m always curious to learn how people find out about my business. Who should I thank for referring you?”
She didn’t hesitate with her rehearsed answer. “I met a man in DC’s China Town who spoke highly of you—an artifact dealer named Lee.” When Rudolpho showed no recognition of the name, Tori shrugged. “He may not have given me his real name. Some of his artifacts weren’t exactly legal.”
Rudolpho smiled though she wasn’t sure if he believed her or whether the smile was because he found her story amusingly easy to see through. He gestured at her purse. “Before I show you a scale, I need to make sure you have sufficient cash. The price is five thousand dollars. No refunds.”
She opened her purse, wondering how far away the other Slayers were from the building. It would have been nice if Dr. B was issuing instructions through her earpiece, but he remained quiet. For the most part, Dr. B let the Slayers run ops themselves and intervened only when he had information to add.
Tori took out a stack of hundred-dollar bills, one containing five thousand dollars, and fanned the bills out on the desk. “Can I see a scale now?” All of this would be a lot of effort for nothing if the scale turned out to be fake.
Rudolpho eyed the money then pushed a few buttons on his safe’s keypad. The top unlatched, he flipped it open, and revealed a blue dragon scale. It was about the size of Tori’s palm, the bright blue bleeding into purple at the tip. He picked up the scale, laid it on the desk, then handed her a jeweler’s magnifying glass.
He didn’t have to bother. She’d recognized the scale as soon as she saw it: one of Kiha’s. On Halloween, the Slayers had killed that dragon in a deserted part of the Catskill Mountains. The sight of the scale made Tori gulp, made the memory come back in searing force—the fear as she fled through the trees from Overdrake and his dragon, the bullets and fire.
Had one of Overdrake’s cleanup crew cut off some of Kiha’s scales before disposing of her? The scale looked smaller than the ones she’d seen on the dragon’s torso and chest. Perhaps it had come from some small area—around her claws or from her face.
Tori took the magnifying glass and held it to her eye to examine the scale. Dr. B had said scales were made up of small, interlocking parts. Under magnification, this scale appeared to be made of blue crystals, like an exotic sapphire. How odd that something so beautiful belonged to such a deadly creature.
She ran a finger across the scale. It was as smooth as polished stone. She hadn’t expected that. Funny, she’d fought two dragons—been torched, bludgeoned by wings, and even connected with a dragon’s mind—but she’d never run her fingers over a scale until now.
She set the jeweler’s glass down. “Looks authentic.” The words were for the Slayers listening on her earpiece. The trail here was real; one they could follow. And Rudolpho would lead the Slayers to Overdrake, whether he wanted to or not.
Tori picked up the scale and let the weight of it press into her fingers. It was heavier than she imagined, more substantial. “Where did you get this?”
Rudolpho gave her an indulgent look, as if she were a child who’d asked for the moon. “My suppliers are private. I’m sure you understand how these things work.”
“Of course.” Tori placed the scale back on the desk and pulled the second stack of hundreds from her purse. “Ten thousand. You see, I’m more interested in finding your supplier than I am in buying the scale.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, unmoved by the money in her hand. “A good dealer never reveals his sources. That would mean creating competition for myself.”
“How about fifteen thousand? I have friends here with more cash.”
Rudolpho squinted at her in disbelief. “Fifteen grand? You have that much money to spend?”
“I have a deep interest in dragons.” She shrugged and fluttered her hand in an attempt of nonchalance. “If you sell scales, you’ve got to expect that people will want to see the dragon.”
Rudolpho stroked the end of his beard, watching her. “There’s nothing left to see. Dragons are extinct. That’s why their scales are so valuable.” He spoke easily enough, expecting her to believe his words.
“Are you sure they’re extinct?” she asked.
He made a huffing noise to let her know the topic wasn’t worth discussing. “Do you want to buy the scale or not?”
He might not be one of Overdrake’s men after all, but he had to know someone who was. That scale was real, and it must have come from Kiha. Tori pushed the stack of money toward him. “I want to know the dragons’ location.”
Without another word, Rudolpho picked up the scale, tucked it back into the safe, and shut the lid with unmistakable finality. “I’m afraid I can’t help you. My sources aren’t for sale.” He sent the shopkeeper a look that said, I’m through. Take care of her.
The shopkeeper stepped away from the wall toward Tori. “I’ll show you out. You and your friends are not to bother Mr. Rudolpho again.” No accent this time. His words came out low and firm.
In Tori’s earpiece, Jesse said, “The other Slayers are almost here. Which room are you in? Back, front? Left, right?”
The room was in the back of the building, but Tori wasn’t sure whether he was asking for directions based on facing the front of the building or facing the rear.
“Back . . . to bargaining,” Tori said, not leaving her chair. “I don’t know what the right price is, or what’s left to negotiate. But how does twenty thousand sound?”
Rudolpho let out a small laugh and waved her away. “I was willing to believe someone your age could come up with five grand—although trust me, I check for counterfeit bills. Your problem is that you stretched your credibility too far. You don’t really have ten thousand, let alone twenty. Go find someone else to hustle, and stop wasting my time.”
“Check the bills,” Tori said, gesturing to money. “Check them all.”
Rudolpho shook his head. “I’ve got real customers to worry about.” To the shopkeeper, he said, “See her outside.”
Really? Tori thought. You’re turning me down because I don’t look rich enough? The other Slayers were going to think that was hilarious.
She slid the money into her purse, slung it over her shoulder, and stood. “You’re making a mistake.”
The shopkeeper took hold of Tori’s arm, more than willing to drag her from the room. As he peered at her, his eyes focused on her ear, and his hand tightened on her arm. “What’s that?”
Oh no. If he could see her earpiece, then Tori’s wig no longer covered it. He knew she was wired. This was about to get very bad.
Jesse and Bess were too far away to help. Tori would have to take care of this herself. Three against one. Well, that was just a normal day at Slayer practice.
The shopkeeper reached for her ear. She yanked him forward, sending him tumbling onto the desk. The security guard stepped from the corner and headed her way, reaching into his jacket for his gun. That left her no choice. Rudolpho might be the target, but she had to take out the guard. She aimed her watch at his neck and pushed the release button.
The man flinched, slapped the dart from his neck, then went for his gun again. The drug wouldn’t take full effect for at least a minute, probably longer with his body mass. Until then, she’d have to dodge bullets.
The shopkeeper straightened, pushing himself away from the desk. With one leap, she placed herself behind him. Hopefully the security guy wouldn’t shoot his own man to get at her.
Rudolpho glared at her from the desk but didn’t join the fight. He obviously thought she didn’t stand a chance against his men, that she was about to be subdued.
The shopkeeper turned and lunged at her, bending at the waist. No good. She was losing her shield. She dropped to a squat and used the man’s momentum to flip him over her shoulder and into the back wall.
The thud and groan behind her told her he wouldn’t be a threat for a few seconds, but she still had two men to deal with, one of them armed. Time to improve her odds. The code word for requesting backup was “crowd.” Tori was about to say it, then remembered they’d changed the word after Dirk’s betrayal. What had they switched it to?
The security guard leveled his gun at her. No time to think about code words. “Uh,” was all she got out before she sprang sideways, half leaping, half flying toward the nearest wall. A pop sounded from the gun, and a bullet whizzed by her shoulder. Too close. Even with a silencer, the noise still sounded loud in the small room.
“T-bird?” Jesse asked, using her code name. “What was that noise?”
She was concentrating too hard to answer. She pushed off the wall to the desk and grabbed the safe. It probably weighed fifty pounds, but felt like nothing in her hands. In one smooth motion, she flung it at the security guard.
Jesse spoke in her earpiece again. “What’s going on? Are you still in the building?”
The safe hit the guard in the chest and he flew backward, arms flung out to his sides, until he smacked the wall with a thud. She hoped he would drop the gun, but as he slid to the floor, he kept hold of it. That was dedication to the job. Who said you couldn’t hire good help anymore?
It would take him a moment to aim at her again. Rudolpho was still sitting at his desk, gaping at her in open-mouthed shock. She ignored him. The shopkeeper was coming up behind her, panting out determined breaths.
She ran to the nearest wall, took three steps up it, and grabbed the hanging tapestry. As she flipped back down to the floor, the wall hanging ripped away. She flung it at the security guard, covering him in the woven hunt scene. That should keep him from shooting for half a minute. How many seconds were left before he passed out? Ten? Twenty? What if the tranquilizer didn’t completely work on someone his size?
“Not crowd!” she said into her mic. “You know what I mean.”
She dashed to the next wall, took two steps up it, and kicked the shield from its spot. She caught it on the way back down and spun around to face the shopkeeper. He kept a wary distance now that he’d seen that she was dangerous. She’d meant to fling the shield into him, but waited when something metallic flashed in his hand. As he raised his arm, she realized what he held—a pair of ninja stars.
Seriously? Only at a place where people got all geeky about weapons would someone be armed with ninja stars.
As the stars whizzed toward her, she lifted the shield, blocking them. They thunked harmlessly into the metal and pinged to the floor.
Rudolpho had been rifling through a desk drawer, now he came toward her, a stun gun in hand.
“‘Not crowd’?” Jesse repeated in her ear. He obviously didn’t know what she meant. “Beta, has T-bird come back out of the room?”
“No,” Bess said.
Before Rudolpho could use the stun gun, Tori kicked at his hand. Her long skirt tangled around her legs, and a rip sounded as her foot connected with his arm. Stupid dress. Say what you wanted about Wonder Woman’s skimpy crime-fighting outfit; at least the thing never tripped her during a kick.
The weapon flew from Rudolpho’s grip and slid under his desk. He swore and stepped backward, shaking his hand in pain.
“Go in,” Jesse told Bess. “Something’s wrong.” It would take them a couple minutes to get inside and then figure out which room she was in.
Rudolpho looked over Tori’s shoulder, where the security guard was trying to get the tapestry off himself. “Shoot her!”
The man hadn’t passed out yet? Tori flung the shield toward the shopkeeper and lunged at Rudolpho. Grabbing his arm, she pulled him in front of her and held him there.
“Wait, don’t shoot!” Rudolpho called.
The security guard unsteadily got to his feet, swaying as he stood. His eyes were glassy, his hands wavering as he tried to focus.
The shopkeeper rushed at Tori, probably meaning to knock her down and break her grip on Rudolpho.
Fine. Right before the shopkeeper plunged into her, she let go of Rudolpho and stepped back. The shopkeeper slammed into his boss and sent him sprawling against the wall. She grabbed the shopkeeper by the arms, pinned them behind his back, and spun him around. New guy as a shield, but basically the same situation.
“Shoot her!” Rudolpho rasped from his spot on the floor. “She’s robbing us!”
“Don’t shoot!” the shopkeeper called in disbelief.
That was the thing about employee loyalty: Sometimes it only went one way.
Tori never found out which instruction the guard would have obeyed, because the drug finally took effect. His head lolled, and he toppled forward. The sound of his crash to the floor was almost as loud as the sound of the door splintering from its hinges behind her.
Bess stepped into the room, arm raised, and hand on her watch, ready to shoot a tranquilizer dart. Her gaze flew between Tori holding the shopkeeper, and Rudolpho, now cowering on the floor.
“Situation?” Bess asked.
“Shoot the guy by the wall,” Tori said. “Subtlety didn’t work out so well.”
Rudolpho raised his hands in protest. “No!” he croaked. “I’ll tell you what you want!”
Bess swung her arm in Rudolpho’s direction and shot. The dart penetrated his cheek, making him grimace. He wiped at it wildly. “Why did you do that?”
The shopkeeper stopped struggling in Tori’s grip as if fear had taken hold of him. “I don’t know anything about his contacts,” he stammered. “Rudolpho was the only one who met with the guy.”
Tori didn’t release him.
Bess addressed Rudolpho. “You have sixty seconds to tell us where you got the scale, or we’ll have to haul you out of here and get the information from you in a different way.”
“Don’t make us do that, Rudolpho,” Tori added sweetly. “I’ve got a busy day as it is.”
“I don’t know where the scale came from,” Rudolpho said in a shaky voice. He raised his hands in surrender. “But I’ll tell you what I know. My contact is Conner. He lives in Huntersville. We always exchange goods at the post office, but I had him followed once, so I know he lives on Grassy Creek Drive. Brick house with black shutters. A two-story. I can get you the address. It’s in my phone.” Still raising his hands, he got to his feet.
“Stay where you are,” Bess said. “I’ll get your phone.”
Jesse’s voice came over Tori’s earpiece. “I’m heading up the stairs.” He was letting her know so she wouldn’t mistake him for one of Rudolpho’s men.
“It’s in the . . .” Rudolpho slumped back to the floor. He blinked at the desk blankly, and his fingers made strokes at the air.
Tori didn’t hear Jesse come up the stairs. Her first indication he’d arrived was the shopkeeper flinching in her grasp. Then she saw a tiny dart sticking out of the back of the man’s neck. Jesse had shot him.
“I don’t know anything about this Conner guy,” the shopkeeper sputtered, indignant. “Why are you drugging me?”
“No one is going to hurt you,” Tori assured him. She shook her head at Jesse. “I can’t believe you took that shot. You could have hit me.”
“Not with my aim. Some of us don’t skip out of practice.” Jesse sent her a meaningful look as he walked into the room. His gaze ran over her, checking for injuries, and then he glanced back at the stairs. “The others are keeping the sales clerk busy, but someone is bound to come up here before long. We’ve got to hurry.”
As if in answer, a scratching noise came from the window.
“What’s that?” the shopkeeper asked. “What are you doing?”
“I don’t know,” Tori said, holding onto him more loosely now. “I missed the planning meeting. Want to lie down?”
Everything she said felt odd. For the last few minutes, roughing up unsuspecting merchants, she’d felt like the villain. The shopkeeper didn’t answer. He was gawking at the window and the outline of a person floating outside.
Jesse pushed aside the curtains and opened the window. Ryker hovered outside, standing in the sunshine against a backdrop of fall trees. His arms were full of knight armor, a shiny leg sticking out one way, an arm piece poking out another. He handed some of them to Jesse and flew in with the rest. Jesse strode over to Rudolpho, lifted the man’s head, and put the helmet on him.
The shopkeeper began to sway in Tori’s grip, so she helped him to the floor. While she did that, Ryker, Jesse, and Bess strapped armor onto Rudolpho’s unconscious form, maneuvering his arms into the costume as though he was a large, middle-aged doll.
That’s how they’d planned on getting the man out of the fair—disguised in armor and sitting on a horse. The armor would hold him in place, and no one would recognize him or realize he was unconscious.
Tori sighed. “He gave us the address. Why are we taking him?” She’d hoped the illegal portion of their trip to the Renaissance fair was over. Apparently not.
“Because he might have lied.” Jesse latched shut the armor around Rudolpho’s chest. “We won’t get a chance to question him again for a while, so we’ll keep him until his info checks out.”
She understood the logic, but didn’t like the situation. “We’re going to end up as a story on one of those crime shows—and I’m the one who did most of the assaulting.”
Jesse lifted Rudolpho so Bess and Ryker could slide his metal pants on. “Speaking of which, why didn’t you ask for backup earlier? My clue you need help shouldn’t be the sound of angry men swearing at you.”
“I forgot the signal, but I said, ‘Not crowd.’”
“Which I thought meant you didn’t want backup.” Jesse shifted Rudolpho, tugging up the leg armor. “I thought you’d forgotten that we changed the word.”
“I remembered.” Tori felt along her wig. Some of the pins had come loose during the fight. She fastened them back in place. “I just couldn’t remember what we changed it to.”
“It’s ‘reverse,’” Jesse said.
Reverse. Because when you put a car in reverse, you back up.
Rudolpho was ready, ensconced in a knight’s outfit that, if not completely authentic, at least did a good job disguising him. Ryker put his arms around the man’s torso and hefted him toward the window as easily as if he were a child.
Lilly’s voice came over the earpiece. “You’re about to have company. The sales clerk sent someone to check on you.”
“We’re leaving,” Jesse said. “Aspen, is the way clear?”
“Still clear,” Willow answered. “But your horse is getting antsy.”
Without another word, Jesse glided just out of the window, then turned back, reaching for the unconscious man. Ryker handed him to Jesse then flew out himself. Tori followed, carrying Bess.
Once on the ground, they split into groups and walked out of the fair, casually, unnoticed. Dr. B led the horse. Metal braces in the back of the armor kept Rudolpho securely upright and in place. Several passing tourists waved at the knight, but he never waved back.
Tori had to wait until Dr. B drove the Slayers to a motel in Huntersville before she could change out of her barmaid costume and into her battle gear: Black bulletproof jackets and matching pants, both with plenty of pockets for weapons and ammo. The outfits were stiff, but the protection was worth losing a little mobility. And best of all, with her helmet on, she’d be unrecognizable so her picture was much less likely to end up splashed across the tabloids.
The Slayers left Kody to guard Rudolpho while the rest of them drove to the address he’d given them. If his information panned out, he would be set free. Dr. B didn’t seem to worry about Rudolpho going to the authorities to report being kidnapped. He wouldn’t want to tell the police about his business. According to Dr. B, scales weren’t the only thing the man sold on the black market. He also had a variety of stolen artifacts from countries who weren’t as adept at protecting their antiquities as they should have been.
Conner’s neighborhood was in an upscale area not far from the festival grounds. By the time the Slayers reached it, darkness was settling in, providing them with cover. Colonial-style houses with manicured lawns backed up against an undeveloped stretch of land that looked like it had aspirations of one day becoming a golf course. Conner, whoever he was, clearly had money.
How well did Overdrake pay his men? She had no idea what the going salary rate was for minions. Perhaps Conner needed to supplement his income with some clandestine sales to pay his mortgage.
Dr. B parked the van a few houses away. He brought up a satellite picture of the home on his laptop and waited for Theo to access additional material from a blueprint database he’d hacked into.
Rosa, dressed in her normal clothes and using an infrared sensor, took a walk past the house to see how many people were inside. She always did reconnaissance. With her petite size and innocent-looking features, no one ever suspected her being up to anything.
After a few minutes, she returned and climbed back into the van. “Two people are in the house, both on first floor.”
By then, Theo had pulled up the house’s schematics. While Dr. B handed out equipment, the Slayers surveyed the layout, committing it to memory. Four bedrooms upstairs, everything else downstairs.
“They’ve got an alarm,” Theo said, reading a stream of numbers on his laptop. “But it’s not turned on right now.” He grunted and shook his head. “Nobody ever activates their systems when they should. You’d think Overdrake’s men would be more careful.”
Yes, you would. Tori hoped an unarmed system didn’t mean they were about to break into some innocent person’s home. An invasion of this sort would be hard to explain to a couple of random strangers.
“I’ll call the attack plan.” Jesse said. His eyes shifted to Tori in explanation. “I know you want to stay out of this one as much as possible.”
She wasn’t sure whether to protest being excluded or not. When Jesse called the plans, he had a tendency to put her in the safest position. A sweet but unnecessary gesture.
“Lilly and Rosa,” he went on, without giving her time to decide, “you have outside reconnaissance. Jump the fence, tranquilize any dogs, and do an updated scan of the house to make sure the targets haven’t moved locations. See if the back door is locked. If it is, stay in the yard unless someone calls for backup.” He sent Tori a look. “And the code word for backup is?”
“Reverse.” She sent him a look right back. “If I had really needed your help, I would have found a way to ask sooner, but I was taking care of things pretty well by myself.”
Jesse tilted his chin down, unhappy with her response. “Three armed men attacked you, and you didn’t think you needed help? Overconfidence leads to mistakes.” He didn’t add, although his expression implied, that her safety was of more than casual importance to him.
That was the problem with dating the other captain—he worried about her too much.
“Only two of them were armed,” she said, taking one of a tranquilizer guns from Dr. B. “I mean, ninja stars hardly count.”
“We’ll talk more about that later,” Jesse said, unconvinced. “When we’re alone.” He returned his attention to the computer screen.
He obviously didn’t get as sidetracked as she did by the thought of them being alone.
Jesse pointed to an upstairs window at the back of the house. “Ryker, if the back door is locked, fly here, cut the glass, and go inside. Tori, you carry Willow and follow after Ryker. When Theo gives the all clear, Ryker will fly downstairs and open the back door for Shang, Bess, and me.”
Tori’s phone buzzed. She took it out of her jacket pocket to check the screen. Her parents had texted, asking when she’d be home.
Jesse stopped his instructions. “I thought you turned that off.”
“I had to turn it back on. A movie would be over by now.” Tori opened the message, then texted back a reply. “I’m telling my parents we’re getting something to eat and the service is really slow.” After all, she still had an hour-long flight home to account for.
“Don’t forget dessert,” Rosa put in.
“And the making out afterwards,” Bess added. “Jesse will take you to a romantic overlook in DC for that.”
Tori coughed in disbelief and put her phone back into her pocket. “Like I’d tell my parents that. They’d never let me out of the house unchaperoned again.”
“Just imply it,” Bess said.
“Um,” Jesse said, breaking into the conversation. “We need to get back to the mission.” He turned to Tori and lowered his voice. “Please don’t ever tell your parents anything that will make them sic Secret Service on me.” His eyes went back to the screen, and he stared at it blankly. Another moment went by. “Where was I?”
Ryker let out a small laugh. “Apparently deep in thought about a romantic overlook in DC.”
“I remember,” Jesse said, “I was putting Ryker in danger. He’ll fly downstairs, open the door, and he, Shang, Bess, and I will surround the targets. With the element of surprise, we shouldn’t have much of a fight”
Willow leaned over the computer, scrutinizing the floorplan. “What are Tori and I supposed to do upstairs while the rest of you are downstairs?”
Jesse’s gaze flicked briefly to Tori, then went back to the diagram. He pointed to one of the upstairs bedrooms. “This window has a ledge. Someone could use it to escape the house. You and Tori will stand guard at the top of the stairs to prevent that from happening.”
“You need two people to do that?” Tori asked, eyebrow raised.
Jesse didn’t look at her. “Two people are in the house, so yeah, it makes sense to have two of us waiting at the top of the stairs.”
Uh-huh. Jesse just wanted her someplace safe and out of the action. Really, she forgot one code word, and he lost all confidence in her.
A protest sat on the edge of Tori’s tongue, but she bit it back. She’d already participated in this mission more than was prudent—especially if any of Rudolpho’s men ended up going to the police and were able to give a description of her. Better to lie low during this part of the mission.
Willow let out a huff. “You think I don’t know how to fight, don’t you?”
Jesse shook his head, perhaps too quickly. “No, tactically, it’s always better to keep some players in reserve.”
Yeah, Tori didn’t buy that excuse, and she doubted Willow did either.
Ryker checked his tranquilizer gun, then put it in its holster. “No one’s going to do much fighting. Once Conner and his accomplice are surrounded, they’ll give up.” He patted Willow on the shoulder. “Your job will mostly be making sure Tori doesn’t ditch us like she usually does during practice.”
“Hey,” Tori said, adjusting her neck mic. “I can’t help it if I have other commitments.”
“Consider it girl bonding time,” Ryker added, ignoring Tori. “You can talk about guys.”
Tori put in her earpiece. “And I know which guy we’ll be talking about first.”
Dr. B handed out the last of the tranquilizer guns. “Remember, do your best to keep out of sight.”
If anyone saw people in black clothes and helmets breaking into a house, they’d no doubt call the police. Theo was monitoring the police scanner. If any calls went out, he’d hear them and warn the Slayers.
Dr. B returned to the driver’s seat and guided the van toward the house, glancing up and down the street to check for wandering pedestrians. Satisfied the van wasn’t being watched, he stopped a little way from Connor’s house, then hit the button to open the side door.
Rosa and Lilly slipped outside. They hurried across the side lawn, shadow-like, and disappeared into the backyard. A couple of minutes later, Lilly’s voice came over the earpiece.
“No dogs. The back door is locked. Ryker will need to go in and open the door. Scanner is still picking up two people downstairs—one in the family room, and I think the other is in the den.”
“Understood,” Jesse said, and gestured to the other Slayers. “Proceed as planned.”
Jesse, Ryker, Willow, and Tori poured out of the van.
Nothing will go wrong, Tori told herself. Whoever Conner is, he isn’t expecting us. Couldn’t be.
In truth, this mission would probably be less dangerous than some of her past practice sessions. Even so, her adrenaline pumped in a way that set her nerves on edge. She ran toward the house, silently keeping pace with the others. Ryker leapt over the fence without breaking stride. Jesse went over next, also clearing the top in one fluid motion.
“Flyers make it look so easy,” Willow muttered, and leaped, kicking her legs up like a pole vaulter. Tori flew over at the same time, and wondered if she should grab Willow midair and help her over, but Willow managed to straighten her legs and land on her feet. Tori dropped down to the ground and waited for Willow to come around behind her and take hold of her shoulders. Carrying another Slayer was easier that way because it left the flyer’s hands free.
Ryker glided up to a second-story window, a glass cutter in one hand and a suction cup in the other.
“This is so awkward,” Willow said, gripping Tori’s collar. “I hate dangling off of other people.”
“Just don’t let go.” Tori took to the air, moving slowly. Willow was the only Slayer who hated flying—something Dr. B kept saying would lessen with practice. So far, it hadn’t. Tori could feel Willow’s fingers digging into her jacket.
Tori hovered behind Ryker and waited. He cut the glass with fast, practiced strokes, outlining a large section of the window. After that was done, he placed the suction cup on the middle of the glass and pushed inward. The pane made a small creak, a feeble protest, as it came loose. He maneuvered the cut portion onto the floor by the window, then flew into the room.
“Careful not to touch the edges.” Ryker’s voice was only a whisper. During a mission, the Slayers kept their voices low, but their neck mics picked up the sound well enough.
Tori leaned forward, stomach down, and gingerly slid through the window, making sure she didn’t bump Willow into the cut glass.
She found herself in what was probably a guest room. A bed with an ornately carved white headboard stood by the far wall with a pale cedar chest at its foot. A rose quilt lay on top of the bed, matching a flower arrangement sitting on an antique dresser. Wainscoting and crown molding tied the whole theme together.
“Wow,” Tori breathed out.
“What?” Jesse asked over her earpiece, concerned.
“Nothing.” Tori straightened, but didn’t land. It wouldn’t do to have anyone downstairs hear footsteps. “I just hadn’t expected any of Overdrake’s men to decorate shabby chic.”
“Oh,” Willow cooed, peering around. “I love that armoire.”
Ryker looked over his shoulder at Tori and Willow. “Would the two of you stop admiring the furniture and get in position?” He opened the bedroom door and glided out.
Tori went across the room, silently carrying Willow. Right before they reached the door, her gaze landed on the dresser and zeroed in on the framed picture of a young teenage boy. Blond hair, blue eyes, familiar face, cocky grin. The resemblance couldn’t be a coincidence.
She let out a gasp. “There’s a picture of Dirk in here.”
“What?” Willow’s head swung around, and she squinted at the frame. She’d never met Dirk, but she’d seen a photo of him.
The picture on the dresser must have been an old one, taken during Dirk’s junior high years. He stood at the top of some rock formation, smiling as though he’d conquered it.
“If that’s Dirk,” Willow whispered, “this must be Overdrake’s house. He’s the one selling dragon scales?”
Rosa’s voice came over the earpiece urgent with worry. “You guys need to get out of there. This must be a trap.”
“Captains?” Dr. B asked, waiting for their opinions.
If Overdrake was selling scales, would he expect the Slayers to find out about it and come here? Was this some elaborate setup?
“I doubt it’s a trap,” Jesse said sounding more excited than apprehensive. “If it were, Overdrake wouldn’t leave pictures of Dirk lying around for us to find. He doesn’t know we’re coming.”
Tori looked back at the window. The yard was empty, unchanged. Part of a neighbor’s house was visible, but the rest was shrouded by trees. “Does the infrared show any signs that people are converging on the house?”
“Negative,” Dr. B said. “We haven’t picked up anyone moving closer.”
“Then we continue,” Tori said.
Lilly broke into the conversation. “Why would Overdrake have a house in the suburbs with no security?”
“He may have houses in several locations,” Dr. B answered. “That would make disappearing easier.”
“Selling dragon scales seems like a sloppy way to earn extra money,” Shang said.
Tori turned to Dirk’s picture again, and her pulse started to hammer. Was this his house? Could he be one of the people downstairs? The thought filled her with an optimistic and completely unreasonable happiness.
Dirk was her enemy. He was dangerous.
But she wanted to see him.
Part of her was certain that if the Slayers could get him away from his father, they could turn him back to their side.
She used her counterpart sense to search for him, seeing if she could feel his presence nearby. She didn’t. Yet she felt something, a sort of vague familiarity. Was she imagining it because she wanted him to be here?
She must be. The idea of capturing Dirk and un-brainwashing him was so appealing that she was creating wisps of his presence. “I don’t think either of the people downstairs is Dirk,” she said. “But I’m not certain.”
“If Overdrake is in the house,” Dr. B said, “he’ll put up a fight.”
“We’re ready for him,” Jesse answered.
A soft click sounded over the earpiece—Ryker unlocking the back door.
“We’re going in,” Jesse said.
Tori quietly sailed to the top of the stairs and set Willow down by the banister. The two of them stared into the darkened staircase and listened.
They waited as a minute ticked by. Only soft creaking sounds came from below. Then Jesse’s voice—both over the earpiece and coming from a room downstairs—said, “Put your hands up where we can see them.”
A woman screamed, a sound like a startled bird. Dirk’s stepmother?
Footsteps pounded across the floor. The woman screamed again.
“We don’t want to hurt you,” Bess said. “We just want to talk. Put your hands up so we know you’re unarmed.”
Tori waited, unconsciously gripping her hands into fists at her side.
A moment later Jesse said, “We’ve got a woman contained in the den. Obviously not Conner. Where’s our man?”
“On his tail,” Ryker said. “But it’s not Overdrake. Too young.”
Too young? Could it be Dirk after all? No, Ryker had seen a picture of Dirk. He would have recognized him.
A door slammed. “He went into the laundry room,” Ryker said.
The guy had probably been trying to make it to the garage door, seen Ryker, and locked himself in that room instead. A dead end. According to the blueprint, the laundry room had no window. But Conner might have weapons stashed there.
Tori didn’t need to point that out to Ryker. They’d all had those sorts of details drilled into them at practice.
“We need a shield,” Shang said.
“On my way,” Bess called.
The woman in the den was speaking to Jesse, but Ryker’s voice was louder. “Come out of there!” he yelled. “Hands above your head!”
No one answered from the laundry room. Only the woman’s voice came over the line, high pitched with fear. “Who are you? What do you want?” She spoke with a slight British accent, the same sort Overdrake had.
“We want information,” Jesse said.
“Don’t hurt us,” the woman pleaded. “We’re unarmed.”
The fear in her voice sent prickles of guilt into Tori’s stomach. She did her best to push them away. This lady wasn’t some innocent bystander. She was connected with Overdrake—an assistant or a secretary, someone who knew about the dragons and was helping him raise money to fund his upcoming attacks.
Willow covered her mic so her words wouldn’t be picked up. “I guess Ryker was right about these people not fighting. You know, I sort of expected more from Overdrake’s henchmen.”
So had Tori. Was it possible the Slayers had burst in on an unfortunate house sitter?
“Chameleon,” Dr. B said, “What do you mean, your man’s too young? Did you get a visual on him?”
“He’s a kid,” Ryker said. “fourteen, maybe.”
Tori inwardly sighed. She’d had most likely missed Wicked to terrorize Renaissance fair merchants and house sitters.
“We need the dragons’ location,” Jesse said. “That’s all we want from you.”
“The what?” the woman replied. “Who are you?” If the woman didn’t know about Overdrake’s business, she probably thought Jesse was crazy.
Ryker was still talking to the kid in the laundry room. “Come out here. Your mom won’t like it if I have to break down the door.”
In the den, Jesse went on. “Rudolpho gave us your address. We know you’re involved with the dragons.”
Ryker’s voice: “Hey! Put the fire extinguisher down. Now!”
A hissing indicated the kid had ignored Ryker’s instructions and sprayed the foam. Ryker cursed. Apparently the kid’s aim had been accurate.
Willow took a tentative step toward the stairs. “Do you guys need some, uh, reverse?”
“No,” Ryker snapped. “I’ll take care of this.” Then he called, “Jump him!”
Something crashed into a wall.
“Sorry,” Shang said, “The kid is fast.”
Willow turned to Tori, head cocked to better hear what was going on downstairs. “So what exactly are we supposed to do in this sort of situation?”
Tori shrugged. “We’re supposed to be bonding and letting the others take care of things.” She leaned against the banister. “Let’s talk about fashion.”
Jesse probably wouldn’t appreciate her sarcasm during a mission, but really, what did he expect? He and Ryker had taken charge of everything and sent her and Willow to guard an empty stairway.
“I think overalls are always a bad choice,” Tori said.
“I agree,” Willow said.
In the den, the woman was emphatically denying any knowledge of Rudolpho or dragons.
Ryker hadn’t subdued the teenager yet. “Come away from there,” he said. Then, “We both know you’re not really going to throw that chair.”
A crash sounded somewhere below. “Okay,” Ryker said, “your mom is going to be ticked about that.”
Willow peered down the staircase. “Are you sure we shouldn’t help?”
“They haven’t said, ‘reverse.’”
The boy shouted, “Get away from me, all of you!”
His mother must have heard him. Light-switch fast, the fear in her voice turned to anger. “What are you doing to my son?”
“Nothing,” Jesse said, then added, “Chameleon, bring the kid in here so his mother can see he’s safe.”
Another crash. “Working on it,” Ryker said.
“How hard can it be?” Jesse asked, clearly bothered.
Scuffling sounds. “He’s strong,” Shang said. “Slayer strong.”
“Can’t be,” Ryker said. “Wrong age. He’s not old enough.”
Tori straightened, Shang’s words repeating in her ears. Slayer strong?
Forget her post; she had to see the kid herself. As she flew down the stairs, she heard footsteps coming up them. And then he stood in front of her. The boy in the picture. Not Dirk, and yet enough of a lookalike to be a younger version of him. He had the same face shape, the same surfer boy blond hair and startling blue eyes. He wasn’t as tall as Dirk, and yet he was still tall enough to make her think that he might reach Dirk’s 6’2” in a few more years. Dirk didn’t have any brothers. How was it that this stranger looked so much like him?
When he saw her standing there, floating off the floor, the boy stopped. He seemed to not know whether to fight his way past her or turn away and run.
“Who are you?” she asked.
Perhaps it was the urgency in her voice, or perhaps it was just surprise that one of the people invading his house was a girl. Whatever the reason, the boy’s gaze swung to hers, trying to see her face through her smoky visor. The moment of hesitation cost him. Ryker flew up from behind and wrapped his arms around the boy’s chest, pinning his arms to his side. Then Ryker flew the kid, kicking and struggling, toward the den.
Tori followed, skimming through the air.
“Let me go!” The kid thrashed in Ryker’s arms, legs flailing. “You better not hurt my mom!”
Ryker tightened his grip. “Your mother isn’t the one I’m thinking of hurting.”
The group rounded the corner into the living room and nearly ran into Dr. B. He had always overseen missions from a distance, never joining in the fighting, and yet today, he’d abandoned the van and come inside. He wasn’t armed or even disguised. Ryker and Tori both hesitated, staring at him in disbelief.
“Put the boy down,” Dr. B said. “We’ve frightened him enough.”
Ryker didn’t move, didn’t let go of the kid.
But the boy seemed to realize that something had changed. He stopped thrashing and took deep breaths.
“Jaybird,” Dr. B called, using Jesse’s code name, “bring the woman into the living room so we can talk civilly about this situation.”
Ryker reluctantly lowered the kid to the ground and let him go. The boy pushed away from Ryker, glaring at everyone. “Who are you?” he demanded.
Dr. B looked the boy up and down. “I should ask you the same question. However, I believe I already know the answer, Conner.”
At the name, the kid’s gaze snapped to Dr. B, and some of the angry flush drained from his cheeks, replaced by pale dread.
“Is that your real name?” Dr. B asked calmly, almost conversationally. “Or is Connor just a name you gave Rudolpho? Did you tell him you were someone’s delivery boy? Hard to believe he’d make deals with someone as young as yourself.”
Bess eyed the kid. “Maybe he was using Conner as an adjective.”
Conner, or whatever his name was, clamped his lips together in defiance. “I don’t have to answer your questions.”
Jesse walked into the room, towing a middle-aged, blonde woman by the wrist. She was thin and pretty, the sort who looked like her clothes had always been on the cusp of fashion. Her hair was twisted in a French knot, her makeup perfectly applied.
Her blue eyes fixed on Dr. B and widened in surprise. “Jameson? Is that you?”
Jameson? Dr. B’s first name was Alastair.
Dr. B showed no confusion, gave no denial of the name. “Hello, Bianca.”
The two regarded each other, unspeaking, but the emotion in their eyes, their familiarity, showed that they had a history. Judging by the pain in Bianca’s expression and the accusation in his, it wasn’t a good one.
That’s when Tori remembered: Dr. B had changed his name when he left St. Helena. And he’d mentioned Bianca before. She was one of his old girlfriends—the one who married Overdrake.
Bianca was Dirk’s mother.
“I’m sorry for the intrusion,” Dr. B said calmly, as though this were a social call and not an attack. “We didn’t know this was your home. We’ve come for information about the dragons’ locations.”
“I don’t keep up with Brant’s whereabouts.” Bianca pulled her wrist away from Jesse and strode over to her son. She looked him over, checking to make sure he was okay. When she was satisfied that he was unhurt, she turned and stood protectively in front of him. Her gaze darted around the room, taking in a toppled couch, an overturned end table, and a side chair that now lay in pieces on the floor. The chandelier still swayed in a reproving rhythm.
“And why would you think I’d tell you anything after you broke into my home and destroyed my things?”
“Actually,” Shang said, joining the semicircle they’d made in front of Bianca. “We didn’t do any of this. Your son did.”
Bianca gawked at the broken chair. “Aaron couldn’t have.”
The boy, apparently Aaron, surveyed the wreckage as well. He seemed surprised to see bits of broken wood strewn on the floor. “I didn’t mean to. It was the adrenaline, I guess.”
“He’s Overdrake’s son,” Dr. B said flatly. “The simulator triggered his powers. He has extra strength right now.”
Bianca stiffened and lifted her chin. She looked statuesque standing there, even though she was a good inch shorter than Aaron. “He’s not Brant’s son. We divorced years ago, before Aaron was born.”
Dr. B shook his head, an unspoken sigh on his lips. “Bianca, there’s no point in denying it. He looks too much like Dirk.”
Tori had thought Bianca looked shocked when she’d first seen Dr. B, but now her eyes went even wider. “You know Dirk? You know what he looks like?”
Dr. B nodded wearily. He walked over to the toppled end table and lifted it, setting it right. “Dirk pretended to be a Slayer and trained with me for several years. We only recently found out who he was.”
Bianca’s hand went to her chest. “Where is he?”
Dr. B picked up an overturned candle and picture frame and returned them to the table. “I don’t know.” He straightened the frame. “I suppose Dirk is wherever Brant and the dragons are. I hoped that whoever was selling dragon scales to Rudolpho could give me that information.”
“Selling dragon scales?” The words fell from Bianca’s mouth in disbelief. She turned and landed a penetrating gaze at Aaron. “You sold the dragon scales?”
He gulped and shrank back. “Sorry. I didn’t think that . . . I mean, the guy at the fair was willing to pay a lot for them, and you said we needed money. I didn’t think they were actually real . . .”
She gestured pointedly at the Slayers. “Do you see why I didn’t sell them? Do you see what danger you put us in?”
Dr. B pushed aside a broken chair leg with his foot. “You’re not in danger from us, but would you be if Brant found you?”
Bianca didn’t answer, just adjusted her position so she stood between her son and the Slayers again. She whispered to Aaron, “Don’t tell them anything.”
“Bianca,” Dr. B said with more firmness. “If we found you because of the dragon scales, so can Brant.” His gaze went to hers, demanding her attention. “Would you be in danger if he found you?”
She still didn’t speak, although Dr. B seemed to read an answer in the stubborn set of her shoulders and the trembling of her lips: Yes, she would be in danger.
Dr. B’s voice grew soft with sympathy. “I’m sorry. I’d hoped things would turn out differently for you.”
Bianca’s expression wavered. She swallowed, let out a tired breath, and slumped a little. “Brant doesn’t know he has another son. I left so he wouldn’t find out.” She sent Dr. B a pleading look. “I don’t want Aaron to have anything to do with his father.”
Tori spoke without thinking. “But you left Dirk with him? That was okay?”
The accusation hung in the air. Tori could feel the other Slayers staring at her.
A flash of pain went through Bianca’s eyes, replaced immediately by coldness. “You wouldn’t understand my reasons.”
“You’re right,” Tori said. “I don’t. And neither does Dirk. How could you have left him and never even—”
“That’s enough,” Dr. B cut her off. “This isn’t the place.”
“Right,” Bess said, drawing out the word uncomfortably. “We should get back to threatening these folks and leave family counseling to the professionals.”
Aaron stepped out from behind his mother. “Who are you? What do you want with the dragons?”
“I’ve told you about them,” Bianca answered, looking over the group as she spoke to Aaron. “They’re Slayers, and they want to kill the dragons. Now will you believe that I’m not making up stories?”
“Slayers,” Aaron repeated, examining the group more closely. He seemed to be trying to see their features beneath the reflections of their helmets. “So you guys have all kinds of powers, and you’re like, obsessed dragon killers?”
“We’re not obsessed.” Bess said, sounding offended as she crossed her arms. “I mean, it’s not like we do this sort of thing twenty-four/seven. We have day jobs.” She hiked her thumb in her father’s direction. “Or at least, he does.”
“They’re teenagers,” Bianca said. She looked at Dr. B with a mixture of resignation and reprimand. “I should have known you would be the one training them. You weren’t about to let go of the past, were you?”
“Not true,” Dr. B said, matching her crisp tone. “It’s not the past I can’t let go of, it’s the future. I’ve never wanted a future where Brant Overdrake is in charge.”
Bianca took a step toward him. “And what about Dirk? Are you planning on killing him, too?”
“No,” Tori answered emphatically. She’d thought about fighting Dirk, but somehow she’d never thought about the fact Dirk could be killed—that one of her friends could be the one to kill him.
Dr. B answered more calmly. “We’ve no wish to hurt Dirk.”
“But you might hurt him?” Bianca asked. She shook her head scornfully. “You can see why I won’t help you.”
Tori folded her arms. “You’re about eleven years late in worrying about what hurts Dirk.” The other Slayers were still staring at her. She didn’t care. She looked Aaron up and down. “And your son has got to be older than eleven, which makes me wonder if you’re telling us the truth about when and why you left Overdrake.”
Bianca’s gaze swung to Tori, eyes narrowed. “It’s so nice to be young and sure you’re right. I remember being that way once myself.”
Tori gestured to Aaron. “You’re what, thirteen? Fourteen?”
“Twelve and a half,” he said, looking to his mother for explanation. He didn’t seem to know what to make of Tori’s accusation.
“I left when Dirk was five,” Bianca told him. “After you were born, I left you with a friend for a bit and went back for your brother.” She paused as though it was hard to say the next words, as though even the memory had sharp edges. “I couldn’t take him. Brant made sure of that.” She wrapped her arm around Aaron and leaned in to him, shutting her eyes. “I’m trying to move on from that part of my life.”
Tori had never told the other Slayers that she messaged Dirk online. They wouldn’t understand. She was about to admit everything, to give Bianca Dirk’s contact information, but the words died on Tori’s lips.
Bianca was trying to “move on” from that part of her life. What did that mean? Was she trying to forget Dirk? Cut her losses? Would she risk talking to him? If Tori told Dirk that she’d given his information to his mother and then she didn’t contact him, he’d feel rejected and unimportant all over again.
Bianca’s eyes looked tight and tired. She kept her arm around Aaron, but addressed Dr. B. “When I left Brant, I took some scales that the dragons had shed. I wanted something to show Aaron that would prove the things I told him about his father were true. I don’t know where Brant or the dragons are now.”
Dr. B listened to Bianca’s explanation, then remained silent for a moment more. Some sort of decision hung in that silence, although Tori couldn’t tell what it was. He pulled his phone from his pocket, brought up an image, and walked over to Bianca. “This is a recent picture of Dirk.”
Tori knew which picture it was—the one she’d taken in his car last September. His blond hair was mussed, his blue eyes watching her with assurance. He had a half-smile on his face, but it was genuine. He was happy she’d come to see him.
The Slayers hadn’t been allowed to take pictures of one another, but she and Dirk had broken the rule. After his defection, she’d given Dr. B a copy in case it would help him track Dirk down.
Bianca took the phone from Dr. B with shaking hands. Her expression softened, then crumbled. She put her hand to her mouth and let out a choked laugh. “No wonder you recognized Aaron. They look so much alike.”
Aaron peered at the picture too, studying it.
Bianca held the phone closer, almost cradled it. “Dirk is so grown up. I can’t believe how much.”
“Yeah,” Ryker said with a grunt. “Dirk’s all grown up and taking over the world.”
Dr. B sent him a stern look then returned his attention to Bianca. “I spent the last five summers with Dirk. You’ll think I’m making this up, but he reminds me of Nathan. He has the same humor, charm, and I believe he has the same goodness, too.”
Nathan was Dr. B’s brother, a Slayer killed by Overdrake’s father when he was only thirteen years old. It occurred to Tori that Bianca must have known Nathan, must have known what happened to him. Tears brimmed in her eyes, then ran down her cheeks. She didn’t bother wiping them away.
“I don’t think you’re making it up. That’s how Dirk was as a boy.”
Dr. B extended a hand as if to comfort her, then seemed to think better of it. “I don’t want to hurt Dirk. If anything, I want to get him away from Brant. Certainly, you must want to help me do that?”
Bianca didn’t take her eyes off Dirk’s picture. “I don’t know where Brant is.” Her voice had a note of suffering, of fear. “We used to live in Winchester, Virginia. On Dirk’s eighth birthday, I went back. I thought Brant would let me see him, but I found new people living in the house. They said he’d moved to Louisiana.”
He hadn’t. Overdrake must have just bought a new house in the same city, because Dirk had still been living in Winchester until last month when they’d found out who he was.
Dr. B nodded at the information. “We’re aware of the compounds in Winchester. But thank you for sharing that information.” He took his phone from her. “Tell me your number, and I’ll send you Dirk’s picture.”
She hesitated, thinking over the request.
Dr. B let out a laugh, one that almost sounded amused. “Are you worried about giving it to me? If I need to contact you, wouldn’t you rather I called instead of dropping by your house again?”
That seemed to convince her. She told him the number.
Good. That meant Tori could talk to Dr. B later about whether she should give Bianca Dirk’s contact information or vice-versa.
While Dr. B forwarded the picture he said, “I apologize for the state we’ve left your living room in. I’d stay and clean up, but I need to return the Slayers to their homes.” He slipped the phone into his pocket. “If you need to relocate, I can help make sure Brant doesn’t find you.”
Bianca put her arm around Aaron, her composure coming back. “We’ll be fine.”
She and Dr. B stared at each other silently for another moment. Tori wasn’t sure what passed between them, but theirs was the gaze of people who knew each other well, and were calculating strategies.
“I’d like to talk to you later,” Dr. B finally said. “Perhaps we could find ways to mutually benefit each other.”
Her lack of enthusiasm at the suggestion was apparent, but she forced a smile. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
And then, as though it had really been a normal visit, the Slayers left through the front door. Tori was the last one out. Before she left, she turned around and looked back.
Bianca’s arms were around Aaron, her face buried into him. She was crying, her shoulders shaking. As Aaron watched the Slayers leave, his expression reminded Tori of one of Dirk’s: Firm resolve.
Perhaps Tori had some sort of counterpart skill with Aaron too, because she knew what he was thinking.
I’ll learn everything about you I can, and next time, I’ll protect my mother. I won’t let any of you ever bother her again.
Tori didn’t go out the doorway. “We’re not your enemies.”
“Could have fooled me,” he said.
“We’re just trying to protect the country from dragons.”
“Yeah,” he said. “They’re a huge problem. I often think, If only someone would do something about our country’s dragon infestation. I can’t walk to school without batting one away.”
He was determined to be their enemy. It felt like losing Dirk all over again. The other Slayers were already making their way to the van, but Tori turned off her mic and walked back to Aaron.
When he saw her come back inside, he straightened, and Bianca looked up, startled. “What do you want?” she asked.
Tori hated that they were afraid of her, although she couldn’t blame them. She was an unknown assailant in a helmet. She did the only thing she could think of to lessen their fear; she took off her helmet and let them see her face, her expression, her eyes.
“I was Dirk’s friend,” she said. “I mean, I’m still his friend.” Instead of explaining more, she said, “I want to see if Aaron has counterpart abilities like Dirk.”
“If I what?” Aaron asked.
Bianca said nothing. She stared at Tori, incredulous.
Tori pulled off a glove. Back at camp, she hadn’t known she was Dirk’s counterpart right away. It wasn’t until the third day when they’d touched, that her senses had zeroed in on him, bonded with him as though she’d known him all her life. No, that wasn’t right. It was before they’d touched. With her eyes closed, she’d still known where he was.
“Shut your eyes,” she told Aaron. “I’m going to hold up my hand, and I want you to tell me where it is.”
From over the earpiece she heard Jesse say, “Where’s Tori?” She didn’t have much time until someone came back for her.
Aaron didn’t shut his eyes. Instead he cocked an eyebrow at her. “Why do you want me to tell you where your hand is? Don’t you already know where it is?”
Tori let out an aggravated sigh. “Hey, let me be the first to tell you that you’re as smart-mouthed as your brother. Just do it. I’m seeing if you’re like him in other ways.”
“Counterpart abilities?” Bianca asked. “What are those?”
From her earpiece, Jesse said, “Tori, where are you?”
She flicked on her mic. “Talking to Aaron. Be there in a second.” She turned the mic back off. She didn’t have time for explanations. “Shut your eyes.”
Aaron did, then flinched and jerked them open again. “What the . . .”
“What?” Tori and Bianca asked together. Bianca came around to better see his face.
Aaron looked from Tori to his mother. “Nothing,” he said.
Liar. Something had freaked him out. Tori didn’t have time to question him about it.
“I can tell you’re lying,” she said. “Now let me show you that you can tell when I’m lying too. Shut your eyes again and don’t open them.”
He did, this time bracing himself. Tori held her hand a few inches in front of his shoulder. “Do you know where my hand is?”
“Um, I’m guessing it’s still at the end of your arm?”
He was worse than Dirk; he was a twelve-year-old version of Dirk. “Is that a no?”
When Dirk had done the test with her, she’d known exactly where his hand was to the point that she raised hers and put it exactly against his, matching every finger with his. But perhaps only two people could be counterparts. Perhaps the right genes were only one aspect of it.
With his eyes still shut, he pointed to Tori’s hand.
Tori smiled. “Open your eyes.”
He did and blinked in surprise. “How did I know?”
“You knew,” Tori said, “because we’ve got counterpart abilities. When I’m close, you’ll know where I am. You’ll also know if I’m not telling the truth. So believe me when I tell you, the Slayers aren’t your enemies.”
Bianca shook her head, her lips pressed into a tight line. “We’re supposed to believe you just because Aaron could tell where your hand was? You’ll excuse me for remaining skeptical.”
Tori heard footsteps approaching the doorway. “T-bird, what are you doing?” Dr. B sounded horrified. Most likely because she’d taken her helmet off and revealed who she was.
She hadn’t expected him—the maker and worrier about all the rules—to be the one who came back for her. She put her helmet on and headed for the door. “Coming. Sorry.”
Dr. B stood there, waiting until she went out. He didn’t speak until Tori was half way across the lawn, so he probably didn’t mean for her to hear him speak to Bianca, but she had exceptional hearing. Dragon hearing. Thank you, DNA.
“Now you know one of my secrets,” Dr. B said. “I trust you’ll keep it as well as I keep yours.”
“The senator’s daughter was never here,” Bianca replied.
“Who?” Aaron asked.
“Never mind,” Bianca said. “We have things to talk about.”
Tori climbed in the van and leaned her head against the seat. The mission had been a failure, and Bianca had recognized her. Still, Tori didn’t regret coming. If the Slayers hadn’t found Aaron, Overdrake eventually would have. Now at least Aaron wouldn’t do stupid things to attract attention to himself, like selling more dragon scales.
Knowing he was a counterpart was such an odd thing. She’d just met Aaron, and already she felt a protective streak for him. She’d have to do her best to dismiss the feeling. She would probably never see him again.
Dr. B started the van. “Seatbelts on?” The question was typical. Dr. B could lead them into danger one moment, and then turn into a concerned parent the next. As he pulled away from the curb, he called Kody and told him to release Rudolpho. No point detaining him longer. The address hadn’t been a bluff.
The Slayers all took off their helmets, which were too hot and stuffy to keep on. Ryker glanced over his shoulder at the receding house. “We’re not really going to just leave, are we? We need to post some sort of watch, keep those two under surveillance.”
“Why?” Bess asked, running a hand through her hair to smooth it down. “Do you think they know something they didn’t tell us?”
“The kid is a dragon lord,” Ryker replied as though it were obvious. “That means he’s potentially dangerous. We can’t let random dragon lords wander around.”
Rosa and Bess both glanced at Tori, then awkwardly looked away. Tori had never admitted to anyone except Jesse and Dr. B that she was half dragon lord, but the others suspected. How could they not? She was Dirk’s counterpart.
“Not all dragon lords are evil,” Rosa put in.
Ryker took off his gloves and laid them on the seat. “It’s not a matter of being evil; it’s a matter of genetics. Dragon lords want to protect dragons, and we have to kill them. Overdrake could find out about Aaron and use him. If we’re not careful, the kid could turn into a huge liability. We might end up fighting three dragons at a time. We have to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Dr. B cast a look at the Slayers through the rearview mirror. “Captains? What are your thoughts?”
Jesse unbuttoned his jacket, his dark eyes serious. “Being a dragon lord doesn’t automatically make someone a liability. People choose whether to work for the good of society or against it.”
From the passenger seat, Lilly rolled her eyes. “Says the guy who is dating a dragon lordess.” She turned to Dr. B. “Come on, you can’t have the captains decide this issue when one of them is a dragon lord.”
“Dragon lords are always men,” Bess reminded her. “The genes don’t pass down to women. Tori can’t be one.”
If the other Slayers agreed, they would have jumped to Tori’s defense. But no one said anything. Perhaps they felt the same way about her that Ryker did about Aaron—that she might be a liability.
Dr. B pulled up to a stop sign and looked around the van before proceeding through the intersection. “Have any of you had a reason to doubt Tori’s loyalties?”
“Yes,” Lilly said. “I doubted them when I found out she was a dragon lord.”
A flash of anger went through Tori. “And I doubt your intelligence all of the time, but I try not to hold that against you.”
“Tori’s a Slayer,” Jesse said firmly.
Bess tossed her helmet on the van floor. “Lilly’s hair bleach is too strong. It’s killed off her brain cells.”
Lilly started to respond to that, but Dr. B cut her off. “Stop it, all of you,” he snapped, showing more anger than he had all day. “Your best defense will always be unity. Lose that, and you’ll lose everything.”
No one said anything for a few moments. Bess glared at Lilly, something that seemed to have no effect on her. She stared back at Bess with self-righteous dignity. Rosa and Willow kept sending Tori sympathetic glances, which somehow made her feel worse. Jesse looked out the window, clenching his jaw in agitation, although she wasn’t sure what he was upset about—Tori being a dragon lord, or Lilly trying to out her for being one.
“Has Tori done anything,” Dr. B asked, composed again, “that makes any of you question her loyalties?”
A chorus of “No” went around the van.
Lilly said, “Dirk didn’t do anything to make us question his loyalties, but then he led us into a trap.”
Bess leaned back in her seat. “I have it on good authority that Tori isn’t Overdrake’s kid. In fact, I’m pretty sure we all know who her father is.”
“I’m not being mean,” Lilly insisted, raising her voice to emphasize the point. “I’m just saying that genetics make us who we are. We can’t ignore that fact. Especially not when it comes to dragon lords.”
“Genetics don’t make us who we are,” Jesse maintained. “Our choices do. Tori helped kill two dragons, and she unmasked Dirk. She’s one of us.”
Tori wanted to agree that her genetics didn’t matter, to claim she was only a Slayer. She knew that everyone expected her to say at least that much in her own defense, but the memory of the last dragon attack was repeating in her mind. When the dragon had come after her, she had a clear shot at the dragon’s heart—just for one second—and she hadn’t taken it. Somehow she couldn’t bring herself to kill the dragon, and she’d nearly paid for that mistake with her life.
She relived that moment sometimes, horrified at how close she’d come to death. If she found herself in that situation again, would she act differently? What if someone else’s life had hung in the balance? What if Jesse hadn’t been there to shoot the dragon before it reached her? Well, there was no ambiguity about that one. The dragon would have killed her.
Would some genetic part of her short circuit all reasoning during the next attack? “I’m not going to betray any of you or join up with Overdrake,” she finally said.
“Okay,” Ryker said, impatient, “We all love Tori. We’re agreed on that. Now what do we do about dragon lord junior back there?”
Shang pulled off his gloves and laid them neatly across his lap. “We watch him. Dr. B should put some people on surveillance.”
“And do what?” Bess asked. “Slap his hand if he does anything pro dragon?”
Jesse looked upward, thinking. “We should keep track of him for his own protection. Make sure Overdrake doesn’t find him.”
Rosa slid her helmet under her seat. “We already asked Bianca if she wanted our help keeping away from Overdrake. She said no. What more can we do?”
“It’s like eating vegetables,” Ryker said. “We force our help on them for their own good.”
“Time for broccoli,” Bess agreed.
“Willow?” Dr. B said, “What’s your opinion?”
She shrugged, making a section of her curly blonde hair slide off her shoulder. “I’ve only been a Slayer for a few weeks. I don’t know what to do.”
Dr. B shook his head, refusing to accept her answer. “Ryker hasn’t been a Slayer any longer than you have, and he has an opinion.”
“That’s because he has an opinion about everything,” Willow said.
“And I’m usually right,” Ryker added.
Lilly looked back toward the neighborhood. “He’s right this time, anyway. We’ve got to keep track of the kid.”
“Captains?” Dr. B asked. “What are your official positions?”
Bess let her head tip backward on the seat. “Is this one of those training moments when you ask people’s opinions and then end up telling us why we’re wrong? Because if it is, could you just cut to the chase?”
Dr. B didn’t answer her. “Jesse?”
“It won’t hurt to watch him,” he said.
“Unless he figures out we’re watching him,” Tori put in, “and then he’ll think we’re invasive, or dangerous, or just plain creepy. We don’t want him to see us as the enemy.”
“Newsflash,” Lilly said. “We are his enemy. And by the way, what were you doing in the house after we left?”
Tori unzipped her jacket. “I was trying to convince him that we’re not the enemy.”
Lilly waved a hand in Tori’s direction, her black fingernails flicking the air. “See, this is exactly what I was talking about. It’s genetic. She’s making friends with other dragon lords.”
Tori ignored her. “My opinion as a team captain is that we should train Aaron.”
“As a Slayer?” Jesse asked, surprised.
“No,” Tori said, letting her gaze fall on each of her friends so they would know she was serious. “I think we should train him to be a dragon lord.”
She didn’t get to say anything else, because everyone started speaking on top of one another.
“Are you crazy?” That was Ryker.
“Yeah,” Bess said, “let’s tell him our secrets so he can pull another Dirk on us.”
Shang shook his head, lips pursed in disapproval. “Bad idea. Excessively bad.”
“Told you so,” Lilly said. Apparently she’d told the other Slayers many things about Tori and was enjoying being right about all of them.
Tori held up her hands to stop the barrage. “Has it ever occurred to you that we don’t need to kill the dragons to win?”
Bess let out a moan and rubbed her eyes. “I can’t believe this. I finally agree with Lilly about something.” She sent Tori a firm look. “Of course we need to kill the dragons. They’re weapons that will be used against us and every person in this nation. But mostly against us.”
Tori still held her hands up. “The first dragon lords used their powers to turn dragons away from villages, not to attack them. Dirk may have been brainwashed by his father, but Aaron hasn’t been. And neither have I.” She could tell from their blank expressions they didn’t know why she’d said the part about her not being brainwashed.
“Technically,” she added. “You could say I’m a dragon lord.”
She’d expected at least a little surprise at the confession. But the only reaction was a sigh from Jesse, some exchanged looks between Rosa and Bess, and Lilly’s smug exclamation, “I have been saying so.”
Tori ignored Lilly. “If Aaron and I learned how to access our dragon lord powers, maybe we could take the dragons out of Overdrake’s control and stop him that way.”
Silence filled the van while everyone considered the idea.
“It might work,” Shang said. “In China, dragons are revered and considered lucky. The dragon lords who lived there must have had success controlling them.”
Jesse’s tone was more skeptical. “During our last fight with Overdrake, you got into the dragon’s mind but couldn’t budge Overdrake’s control on it. What makes you think you’ll ever be able to take control from him?”
Bess’s mouth dropped open. “You knew back then that Tori was a dragon lord?” She turned to Tori. “You went spelunking in a dragon’s mind and never told us?”
Tori looked back at her pleadingly, asking her to understand. “It doesn’t change anything.”
“Except our strategy,” Ryker said, and he sounded excited about the possibility. “I don’t know about bringing Aaron into the group, but Tori should definitely learn how to control dragons.”
“I wish she could,” Dr. B said. “Unfortunately, in all of my studies, I’ve never uncovered information about how dragon lords do what they do. They’ve kept their secrets to themselves.”
“Dirk knows,” Tori said. “He could teach me.”
Jesse tilted his head, clearly unhappy with the idea. “Why would he do that?”
They wouldn’t like her answer. Jesse especially. “When Dirk talks to me, sometimes I answer him online. Last night he flew with a dragon near McLean, and he wanted me to come out and see him. He told me that if I was around a dragon that wasn’t attacking me, I would love it.”
Jesse shook his head, his movements suddenly taut. “No. You should absolutely not go with him. It’s another one of his traps. Overdrake sees you as a threat to be eliminated.”
“Dirk could have eliminated me last October,” Tori pointed out. “He didn’t. He wants me to keep my powers so I can be a dragon lord.”
Jesse was still shaking his head. “Don’t go anywhere near Dirk. He’s too dangerous.”
“And fighting dragons isn’t?” Tori asked. “When we agreed to be Slayers, we accepted that it would be dangerous.”
Rosa looked at Tori sympathetically, as if she understood Tori’s position but thought she was being naïve. “You won’t be able to double cross Dirk. He’s your counterpart. He’ll know you’re asking for information to use against him.”
She was right, of course. Tori slumped into her seat, deflated. She hadn’t thought of that. How could she get Dirk to teach her about dragons while hiding her motives for wanting to learn? “I can ask him to tell me things online. He can’t tell whether I’m lying when I write.”
“Dirk wouldn’t go for it,” Jesse said. “He’s not that stupid.”
Tori didn’t want to let the idea go. Being able to control a dragon could be the difference between winning and losing a fight. “Maybe Bianca knows how to do it. She lived with Overdrake for years. He must have told her things.”
“That’s a possibility,” Dr. B said, “an option worth exploring.”
Bess stretched her legs into the aisle. “I hate to rain on your exploration, but Bianca didn’t seem all that willing to talk to us.”
Another inconvenient fact. Why was everyone so eager to point out that her plan wouldn’t work?
“We’ll have to find a way to convince her,” Tori said, though she wasn’t sure how. Bianca had obviously been afraid of Brant, maybe too afraid to give them any useful information.
“Wait,” Willow said, breaking into the conversation. “I’m still trying to understand all this. I thought only guys could be dragon lords. How is Tori one?”
“I’m part Slayer, part dragon lord,” Tori said. “Dirk told me that women probably inherit powers but usually don’t have a way to access them. For some reason, when my Slayer powers turn on, it activates my dragon lord ones too.”
Willow cocked her head in confusion. “So if your ability to fly and your hearing are actually dragon lord powers, what’s your Slayer power? Shouldn’t you be able to extinguish fire or heal burns or something?”
“My Slayer power must be flying,” Tori said. “Any other power would have shown up by now.” Which would perhaps explain why she’d sometimes felt like she had counterpart abilities with Jesse.
“And the fact you’re counterparts with Dirk,” Willow went on, “Does that mean he’s got Slayer genes too?”
“I hope so,” Tori said. “Because that would mean part of Dirk wants to be loyal to us.”
“It would mean other things too.” Dr. B suddenly slowed the van. “Bianca may have Slayer genes. Why didn’t I think of that before?”
“Why does it matter?” Jesse asked.
Instead of answering, Dr. B turned the van around and pulled out his phone. “Booker, let surveillance know we’re going back to the house. I need to speak to Bianca again.”
“What?” Tori asked. “You already set up a surveillance team, and you let us sit here and debate the issue like it’s not already decided?”
He didn’t take his eyes from the road. “It’s my job to train you as leaders. However, that doesn’t mean I’m not still in charge of ground ops.”
Tori and Dr. B walked up to the house while the other Slayers waited in the van. This time, they knocked on the front door. Tori still didn’t know what he needed to talk to Bianca about, or why he was taking her with him to the meeting. She supposed he wanted her to hear anything Bianca might reveal about dragon lord powers.
Tori still wore her black jacket and pants. Her wardrobe choices for this meeting had been battle gear, a form-fitting skirt, or the Saucy barmaid costume. Battle gear just seemed like the best choice.
After a couple of minutes, Bianca cautiously opened the door. She didn’t look happy to see them, and she didn’t open the door wider or invite them in. “Back so soon?”
“I’m sorry to bother you again,” Dr. B. said slowly, “but what I have to say is best said in person. I must warn you that you may have Slayer genes.”
Tori had expected him to ask about how to control dragons, and wondered why he’d started with a warning instead. What good would it do Bianca to know about her Slayer genes?
“I don’t,” she said, her expression showing that she thought it was a ridiculous assertion. “If I had, my children would have been Slayers, not dragon lords.”
“They would be both,” Dr. B said. “At least, the first two would be.”
The first two?
Dr. B continued, his gaze on Bianca’s eyes. “I’m sure you understand the implications of what I’m saying. When you were pregnant with your third son, you didn’t ever go near a dragon, did you?”
Bianca froze, just stared at Dr. B.
Bianca didn’t speak, but her mouth dropped open in a silent protest.
Dr. B motioned toward the living room. “I saw your family picture on the end table. You remarried. Aaron has a younger brother.” Bianca still didn’t speak. Dr. B’s voice grew worried. “Bianca, you understand what I’m asking?”
Tori hadn’t seen the picture, but she remembered Dr. B picking it up and returning it the table. Bianca had a child with another man, a child who would have inherited only Slayer genes, not dragon lord ones.
The color drained from Bianca’s face. Her eyes were stunned circles. “Why are you telling me this? Why would you think I have Slayer genes?”
“Because Tori has counterpart abilities with Dirk—”
“And Aaron,” Tori added.
Dr. B didn’t comment on that revelation. “Unless you have knowledge of dragon lords also being capable of having counterpart abilities, Dirk and Aaron have inherited Slayer qualities.”
Bianca held up a hand to show that she didn’t quite follow. “What are counterparts?”
Dr. B shifted his position into a pose of patience and used his teaching tone. “I didn’t know about the phenomenon myself until I began training the children. Counterparts are Slayers that not only share skills, but also the ability to read one another. Tori is counterparts with your first two sons, which indicates that they both have Slayer genes.”
Bianca shook her head, perhaps hoping her refusal would keep his words from being true. “What Slayer abilities does Dirk have? Can he heal burns or throw force fields up?”
“No,” Dr. B said, “but if his Slayer ability is flight, it would be indistinguishable from his dragon lord power.”
“Indistinguishable?” Bianca said. “So if Dirk is part Slayer, Brant wouldn’t know?”
“Brant knows that Dirk and I are counterparts,” Tori said. “He probably understands the implications.” Even if he didn’t want to admit the possibility of Dirk or himself not being completely dragon lord.
Bianca’s voice wavered. “The Slayer genes might not have come from me. They could have come from Brant’s mother or grandmother—someone in his line.”
“That’s possible,” Dr. B said. “But if he got those genes from you, then your youngest son would have inherited them too. So I ask again, did you go near a dragon while pregnant with him?”
Tori had thought Dr. B would want to find another Slayer, but the sympathy in his voice said otherwise.
“I can’t have Slayer genes,” Bianca insisted. “I can’t.”
Bianca’s fear meant one thing: There could be another Slayer.
Tori wasn’t sure whether she felt more hopeful or sick. The Slayers needed all the help they could get, but if the boy was Aaron’s younger brother, he couldn’t be more than ten. Too young to fight. And even if Overdrake’s next attack didn’t happen for years, how could the boy ever fight his own half-brother, or his brothers’ father? That was too much to ask of anyone.
Bianca leaned against the doorframe as if too drained to stand. Dr. B took her arm, pushed open the door and led her inside. “You need to sit down.”
“This can’t be happening,” she muttered.
He guided her to the living room couch. The broken chair still lay in pieces on the floor, untouched. “Was your youngest son exposed, then?”
She sank onto the couch, still pale. “I didn’t do it on purpose. I went to see Dirk when he was about seven. I wanted to take him with me—I had a new life. All I needed was a way to get Dirk. I thought . . . I didn’t know I was pregnant again. I wouldn’t have gone near a dragon enclosure if I had.”
Dr. B sat down next to Bianca. Tori, unsure what she was supposed to do, sat in a nearby recliner.
“I never would have endangered my child on purpose.” Bianca swallowed hard, then let out a small cry. “What am I going to do? Brant wants to wipe out the Slayers. If he knows Dirk is half Slayer, he’ll know that any other children I have might be too. What if he decides to find me to check?”
Dr. B put his hand on her arm, consolingly. “As you pointed out, the Slayer genes might have come from Brant. Or we might be wrong about the reason for Tori’s counterpart connection with your sons. On the other hand, Brant might already be looking for you. How old is your youngest son?”
“Jacob just turned eleven,” she said.
“Eleven,” Dr. B repeated. “That’s the age I began to train the other Slayers.”
Bianca let out an incredulous cough and shook her head. “He’s not joining you. I won’t let him hunt dragons or break into people’s homes.”
“We don’t break into a lot of houses,” Tori said. “Mostly we run drills, shoot weapons, and play with fire.”
Dr. B spoke without any sign he’d taken offense. “Jacob is too young to join us, but you can still protect your children by helping us fight Brant.”
Bianca stood, agitated, and paced across the living room. “I can’t fight him. He has armies and dragons.”
“You don’t have to fight him,” Dr. B said. “We’ll do that. But you have information we need. At least, I’m hoping you do.”
Bianca didn’t seem to hear him. “Jacob would be a flyer. Those are the most dangerous Slayers, the ones that go after the dragons.” She wrapped her arms around herself, a poor attempt to hold herself together. “I only stayed in the states because I hoped—I don’t know, I still hoped to find Dirk someday. But I’ve got to think of my other children. We need to leave the country.”
Dr. B wasn’t the sort of man who raised his voice. A terse tone was generally the closest he got. Now his voice went low with anger. “You’ve never been a coward. Don’t teach your children that running away is the answer.”
Her gaze snapped to his. “I won’t let you use my children to satisfy your revenge.”
His expression hardened. “All I want is to prevent Brant from wreaking havoc on this country. Don’t tell me about the need to protect your children. My daughter has already fought two of Brant’s dragons.” Dr. B stopped and took a breath to compose himself. He clearly hadn’t meant to tell Bianca about Bess.
“Your daughter?” Bianca stopped pacing to stare at him in surprise.
Dr. B nodded, let out a sigh. “When I left St. Helena, I didn’t realize I was moving to the one place my pregnant wife would come into contact with dragon eggs.”
“I’m sorry,” Bianca said. “We never meant to expose anyone. Brant and I were en route to the dragon enclosure with some eggs when I went into labor with Dirk. We were forced to land at BWI. Everyone in the airport was in range of the eggs.” A hint of weariness shone in her eyes. “It all comes around, doesn’t it? The parts we play while hurting each other? Brant’s father killed your brother. Your father killed Brant’s father. Next it will be your daughter and my son.”
“No,” Dr. B said. “I still have hope for Dirk.”
Tori felt Aaron’s presence behind the wall separating the living room from the kitchen. He’d been there for a while, she realized. Perhaps during the entire conversation. Tori had been too caught up in the emotion in the room to notice him. She looked at the wall and wondered if she should tell Dr. B and Bianca that he was listening.
“I hope you’re right.” Bianca shook her head wearily. “Fate has dealt us both badly.”
“Perhaps. But fate has also given us an opportunity today.” Dr. gestured to Tori, including her in the conversation. “We want to know how dragon lords control the dragons. Tori is half dragon lord. She needs to learn.”
Bianca regarded Tori, then turned to Dr. B with obvious skepticism. “Women aren’t dragon lords. You want to train Aaron. That’s what this is really about.”
“Women don’t usually have dragon lord capabilities.” Dr. B held up a hand, conceding the point. “But we’ve learned that if a woman also has Slayer genes, she can then access her dragon lord side.”
Bianca stepped away from Dr. B, distancing herself from him. “Aaron is only twelve. I don’t want him anywhere near dragons, and I certainly won’t pit him against Brant and Dirk.”
Ironic, Tori thought, that after hiding her dragon lord abilities for weeks, she finally wanted to claim them, and Bianca didn’t believe her. “I’ve been inside a dragon’s mind,” Tori said, “but I couldn’t take control from Brant.”
“Of course not,” Bianca still look unconvinced about Tori’s claim. “Once someone has hold of a dragon’s mind, it’s nearly impossible for another dragon lord to shake off his grasp. And trust me, when Brant attacks, he’ll have control of his dragon. Involving Aaron would be pointless.”
Tori leaned forward in the chair. “What if we found a dragon when Overdrake didn’t have control of it? He’s not always in a dragon’s mind, is he? You must have an idea where he built his other dragon enclosures.”
Bianca raised an eyebrow. “We—meaning you and Aaron?”
“He wouldn’t have to do any fighting with the guards,” Tori said, “But it would be nice to have his help hijacking a dragon.” After all, what if she only had some dragon lord powers?
Bianca dropped her voice to a harsh whisper. “I won’t have Aaron involved. I don’t even want him to know about any of this.”
“Too late for that.” Tori motioned to the wall. “He’s been over there listening for a while now.”
Bianca’s head whipped around to look down the hallway. No one was visible there.
Tori shrugged. “He’s in the kitchen. I don’t have to see him to know. It’s one of those counterpart things.”
Bianca turned in that direction. “Aaron?” she called.
He stepped sheepishly out of the kitchen. Tori hadn’t considered the possibility someone else could have come to the house while the Slayers had been gone, but Aaron wasn’t alone.
A younger, brown haired boy stood with him—eyes large with wonder. “Does this mean I can fly?”
Tori studied the boy—Jacob. With his dark hair and eyes, he didn’t look like Dirk or Aaron. He was tall, but still had the thin arms and full cheeks of a child. So young. Much too young to train to fight.
Bianca walked over to her sons, hands on hips. “No. And don’t even think about jumping off something to try.”
Dr. B stood as well. His gaze ran over Jacob as if judging him for combat ability. Perhaps he couldn’t help it when it came to Slayers. “Testing him is easy enough. He’s within range of a simulator right now. If he can see in the dark or has extra strength, then he’s got Slayer genes.”
Jacob brightened with excitement.
Aaron pointed at an empty recliner. “Jake, see if you can pick that up.” In a confidential whisper, he added, “I threw the other one across the room.”
Without hesitation, Jacob strode to the chair, took hold of its sides, and hefted it into the air. He held it above his head like he was lifting weights. Light weights. “This is so cool.” He grinned and turned to his mom. “How long does it last?”
She stared back, unspeaking.
Dr. B ran a hand through his hair. “I’m sorry,” he told Bianca.
Jacob set the chair down, letting it drop the last couple inches to the floor. “What about flying? How does that work?”
Tori answered because she didn’t think Bianca or Dr. B would. “Your powers will only last for a half an hour after we leave, and you have to be in range of a dragon or a simulator for them to turn on again. Flying is tricky at first. Usually those powers don’t kick in unless you’re in danger.”
Bianca took Jacob by his shoulders. She’d grown pale again. “You’re not to put yourself in danger. Do you understand? You’re not to have anything to do with Slayers or dragon lords.” She turned to Aaron. “The two of you go upstairs. I’ll talk to you later.”
It was like watching Ryker’s parents all over again, although Tori doubted Bianca would relent the way his parents had. Not with Aaron and Jacob being so young. Not with Overdrake being Aaron’s father.
The boys hesitated, looking as though they wanted to ask more questions, but they headed up the stairs anyway.
After they’d gone, Bianca sank back down on the couch and put her head in her hands.
Dr. B sat next to her, fingers steepled across his knees. “If you want to protect your sons, help us defeat Brant.”
She didn’t answer.
“You do want to protect your sons, don’t you?”
Her gaze went to Dr. B’s eyes and stayed there. “If I tell you what I know, you’ve got to promise you’ll never tell Brant about my children.”
“Agreed,” Dr. B said. “We don’t want Overdrake to know about them any more than you do.”
Bianca took a deep breath and held it as if it were a note in a song. “When Brant was teaching Dirk to connect to a dragon, Brant said to take the part of his mind that saw what the dragons saw, picture it as a door, and walk through it into the dragon’s mind. Once there, his consciousness would join the dragon’s.”
Tori nodded. The time she’d gone into the dragon’s mind, she hadn’t thought about how she’d done it, but Bianca’s description made sense—follow the link Tori already had and put herself on the other side of it.
“Dirk was supposed to find the dragon’s control center, imagine the dragon’s will as an object, and turn it into a shape he could grasp.”
Turn it into an object? How was Tori supposed to do that?
Bianca paused, remembering. “Brant always turned the dragon’s will into a knife he could wield, but Dirk didn’t like that. I’d told him not to touch knives.” She paused again, forcing herself to leave her memories and return to her instructions. “Once Brant controlled the object, he controlled the dragon.”
But how specifically was it all done? Tori felt like she’d been given clues, not instructions. “How do I find a dragon’s control center?”
“I don’t know,” Bianca said, shrugging. “I never heard that part. Brant went into the dragon’s mind with Dirk and showed him how to find it.”
Of course he did. Parents didn’t teach a child to ride a bike by telling them about it. They put their kids on bikes and made them pedal. Tori’s hopes for easy answers sputtered and sank. She would not only have to figure out how to ride the bike, she would have to find it too.
Dr. B frowned as he considered Bianca’s answer. “What else do you know about controlling dragons?”
She ran her fingers across her lips, thinking. “When a dragon first hatched, Brant had to see the dragon to connect to its mind, but before long he could keep control of a dragon even when it was miles away.”
“How many dragons does Brant have?” Dr. B asked.
“We brought Kiha and Tamerlane with us to America. Brant planned on leaving Khan and Minerva in St. Helena where it was safer. He used to go back there a couple of times a month to exercise them. After a year, that became too much trouble, so he brought them to the States too.”
“We killed Kiha and Tamerlane,” Dr. B said. “But new eggs hatched last September.”
Four dragons to contend with. Tori had suspected as much. Dirk told her once that there were enough dragons for her to have one too, and they came in pairs.
Bianca’s mouth fell open. “You killed two dragons? How?”
With a chain, an assault rifle, and a lot of luck.
Dr. B wasn’t as specific in his answer. “Overdrake set the dragons on us. The Slayers simply did what they were trained to.”
Bianca’s eyes flickered in surprise, although Tori couldn’t tell whether she was surprised Overdrake had set dragons on teenagers, or that they’d managed to defend themselves.
“So there are four dragons,” Dr. B said grimly.
Bianca shook her head. “No. Dragon lords can force dragons to lay more eggs than they would in the wild. Before I left, Brant had four eggs from Kiha, two from Minerva, and he also planned on mating Minerva with Tamerlane. She was his favorite for breeding because she was the biggest. She could have laid another four by now. And Kiha could have laid another pair as well.”
A chill raced across Tori’s spine, and her mouth went dry. Too many dragons, so many that fear made it hard for her brain to add the figures and come up with exact number. Fear and math weren’t compatible. She forced herself to concentrate. Twelve eggs, four adults, but the Slayers had already killed two.
Dr. B reached the number a moment before she did. “Fourteen? That’s madness. How does Brant expect to take care of that many dragons?”
Bianca lifted a hand in explanation. “He planned for the nation to become a different place, a place where he didn’t have to keep them hidden. And he thought he’d have more sons to help.” She sent a look in the direction of Aaron’s bedroom.
“When will they hatch?” Tori asked.
Bianca shut her eyes, doing the calculation. “If Kiha’s first set hatched in September, Minerva’s first clutch will probably hatch within a year, and then more dragons could hatch every year or two.”
Tori felt ill. How could the Slayers ever fight that many? They couldn’t. They’d be killed. And if they didn’t stop Overdrake, he would mate the hatchlings as well. “He can’t think he’ll control that many,” Tori said numbly. “He must be planning on releasing them into the wild.”
But there weren’t that many wild places anymore. Most livable land was populated. Would that matter to him?
Bianca let out a bitter laugh. “I doubt he’d ever give up control of the dragons by releasing them. He knows some of them will be killed in combat, and he’s making sure he always has a supply.”
Fourteen dragons. More dragons than Slayers. Tori’s mind wouldn’t let go of the number, and her heart pounded in fear, in worry. The Slayers would have to find a way to destroy the eggs before they hatched.
“Who is working for Overdrake?” Dr. B asked. “Where is he getting his army?”
Bianca shifted uncomfortably on the couch. “If he finds out I helped you, he’ll kill me.”
Dr. B leaned toward her, his eyes full of sympathy. “Remember what happened to Nathan. Then think of Jacob’s safety. When he’s old enough, Jacob will be drawn to fight the dragons whether you like it or not. How formidable of a foe do you want him to face?”
Bianca drew a sharp breath. “Venezuela,” she said. “He’s made deals with some of their leaders. He also has men inside the US government. People who give him information and will help him disable things when he attacks.”
“Who are his men in the government?” Dr. B asked. “And what sort of things will they disable?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Military things. He never told me specifics, just that he had sleeper agents installed in key positions. He’s been planning this takeover for two decades.” She raised her hands in a gesture of frustration. “That’s all I know.”
Dr. B nodded. “Thank you for your help.” He stood to go, then hesitated. “Aaron and Jacob would be safer if they learned how to use their powers. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last five years: teaching children to use their powers.”
She didn’t glance at Dr. B, just shook her head. For all her earlier bravado, she looked small somehow, sitting on the couch and trembling with emotion. She needed protection as much as her children did, but she was refusing Dr. B’s help.
“If you change your mind,” he said, “you know how to reach me.” He motioned for Tori to follow him, and they left the house for the second time that night.