Chapter 15, 16 & 17 (because they’re short) and preorder link

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Chapter 15

Jesse switched off the display screen on his watch and shook his head. What was Tori thinking? And when had she become so reckless? The Slayers stood around Dr. B’s golf cart, their practice momentarily forgotten and their horses making good use of the time to wander off and sample some nearby bushes.

Willow’s gaze circled the group. “Is Tori serious about going by herself?

Rosa sighed. “Probably.”

Jesse scowled. “Definitely.” Tori was putting too much trust in Aaron and her connection with him. The kid was twelve and probably couldn’t tell real information from a set-up. Jesse needed to see her, talk some sense into her. “Even if she can sense a dragon egg in the building, that doesn’t mean the information is legit. Overdrake might be willing to use an egg to bait a trap.”

Kody’s eyebrows dipped as he thought. “You think Overdrake would risk losing an egg?”

“Most definitely,” Dr. B said. He held a tablet in his hands and zoomed in on the picture on his screen, getting a closer look at the building. “After all, he was willing to risk sending his son to camp with Slayers every year in order to trap us. An egg is a small price when he has nine others.”

“But it could be the real deal,” Kody pointed out.

Now it was Lilly’s turn to snort. “We got this information from a dragon lordette, who got it from a dragon lordling, who got it from Overdrake. It’s a trap.”

Ryker leaned forward to get a better view of Dr. B’s screen. “It’s suspiciously similar to the first ruse Overdrake used. He knows we’ll have a hard time resisting the chance to destroy dragon eggs. It’s the lure of an easy kill. Maybe he fed information to Aaron in order to test him. That way he not only finds out if the kid is loyal, he also catches us.”

Jesse nodded. “We have to be careful not just on our account, but Aaron’s too.”

Dr. B closed the site that showed the building. “I’ll take Theo and Booker to Pennsylvania and see what sort of security the building has. We’ll continue this discussion afterward. Meanwhile, I see no reason to delay practice further.” He waved a hand at the Slayers. “Let’s get back to work.”

Jesse whistled for General and waited as the horse cantered over. Tori wouldn’t like having her information called into question, but he would talk to her at school tomorrow and make her see reason. She couldn’t go off half-cocked by herself on a dangerous mission. If Overdrake had the chance, he’d kill Tori. He’d already tried more than once.

For the rest of practice, Jesse’s concentration was off. He couldn’t shake images of Tori being captured, shot, or fed to the dragons.

He would have to convince her not to do anything rash. It was bad enough that he’d lost her to Dirk. Jesse wasn’t about to lose her to Overdrake.

 

Chapter 16

Thursday, on the flight back to Maryland, Tori sat by the window. Since Overdrake’s attack on the Slayer’s jet Halloween night, being in planes had made Tori feel—well, not exactly claustrophobic. What she felt was more of the general variety of panic.

Now whenever Tori traveled with her family, she insisted on a window seat. She felt the compulsive need to look out it every few minutes and search for the dark shapes of incoming dragons.

Overdrake had contacts in the FAA who’d told him which flight the Slayers had been on. Despite Dirk’s assurances that his father would leave her family alone, it was entirely possible that Overdrake might find out her dad’s flight schedule and attack the plane.

She couldn’t explain her fears to her family, just as she couldn’t tell them why she’d acquired the habit of nervously tapping her foot on the floor.

Tori’s mother sat next to her answering emails on her laptop. Her father and Aprilynne were across the aisle. “Shouldn’t you be doing your homework?” her mother asked.

Tori’s book was open, but her pencil languished unused on her lap. “It’s too hard to concentrate here.”

What would she do if she heard a dragon in flight, if she felt her powers turn on? Even if she could manage to open a door in time, could she save all of her family? She would have no way of explaining to them that they needed to hold onto her while she leaped from the plane.

It was thinking of those sorts of scenarios that made calculus hard.

“Flying didn’t use to bother you,” her mother said.

“It’s not the flying that bothers me,” Tori said. “It’s the possibility of crashing violently.”

Her mother patted her hand reassuringly. “We’ve got an experienced pilot. We’ll be fine.”

“I know,” Tori said, but perhaps her mother could still sense her nervousness.

Her mother didn’t return her attention to her laptop. Instead, she leaned over and gazed out at the view. “That’s an interesting cloud.” She pointed at a bunchy one that was stretching out at both ends. “What do you think it looks like?” Tori’s mother had played this game with her when she was little. They would lay out on the lawn and find shapes in the clouds. It had been a relaxing way to pass the time.

“A dragon,” Tori said. A dragon with its wings tucked.

Her mother didn’t comment, just gestured to another cloud. “What about that one?”

The cloud was long and mostly shapeless. “A stream of fire, I guess.”

Tori’s mother pointed to another cloud, this one C-shaped. “How about that one?”

“A mouth about to bite something.”

Her mother turned and gave her father an are-you-paying-attention-to-this sort of look. He was paying attention, and the wrinkles around his eyes deepened in worry.

That’s when Tori realized her mother hadn’t been reviving a childhood game to keep her mind off of flying, she’d been giving Tori her own version of the inkblot test. She was checking for some sort of blossoming psychosis, and apparently she thought she’d found it.

Just great. When Aprilynne had said all of that stuff about Tori worrying their parents, Tori hadn’t taken her seriously. But her sister hadn’t been exaggerating.

Tori turned back to the window. “Now that I look at that cloud again, it seems more like a river. A nice river where people picnic. And that cloud over there totally looks like a flower garden. Oh, and that one is a rabbit.”

Her mother turned to her again, speaking in the sympathetic tone parents used when they wanted to show they understood the problem. “Honey, a lot of people experience periods of anxiety. Being a teenager is stressful enough without the national attention on your family. I can understand why you might struggle with things. Sometimes it’s best to talk about your issues with a doctor and learn coping techniques. Why don’t I set up an appointment for you?”

No. Tori was not about to go to a counselor. What would she be able to say that wouldn’t make her sound delusional? She’d have to make up issues just so the counselor wouldn’t think she was holding out.

Not for the first time, Tori considered tracking down the blueprints Ryker had used to build his simulator and showing her parents that she had powers. It would be proof that Slayers were real and she was one of them. As soon as the idea passed through Tori’s mind, she dismissed it, the same way she’d done every time before. If her parents knew the truth, they wouldn’t let her be a Slayer. They wouldn’t let her fight dragons or Overdrake. They would pull her out of the team the same way Bess’s grandfather had. “I’m not crazy, Mom.”

“I know you’re not, sweetheart.”

Her father leaned across the aisle, his voice filled with concern. “Going to a counselor doesn’t make you crazy any more than going to a doctor makes you a hypochondriac.”

“I’m fine, really.” And then because she didn’t think her parents would drop the subject, she added, “I guess I’ve been watching too many shows with plane crashes. They’ve made me a little tense. That’s different than anxiety. A lot of people worry about flying.”

Her mother and father exchanged another look, but they didn’t say more.

Tori forced herself to work on a math assignment after that, or at least pretended that she was. This was one more thing she had to thank Overdrake for, one more way he’d made her life hard. She wouldn’t feel badly about paying him back on Saturday at all.

 

Chapter 17

On Friday morning, Jesse texted Tori that he wanted to talk to her, then went to her locker and waited for her to show up. He needed to convince her not to do anything rash tomorrow. She’d always told him the Slayers were much too willing to fight dragons, that it would be their downfall. Maybe she was right about that. But Tori’s downfall would be fighting Overdrake by herself.

She may have decided that she didn’t need Jesse, but that didn’t mean she didn’t need the rest of the Slayers. And they certainly needed her.

Finding a way to talk to Tori privately would be difficult because girls had a way of migrating toward her and forming little clumps of chatter around her. And then there was Roland, her ex from last year. Whenever he spotted Tori walking in the hallway, he barnacled himself to her side. Jesse had developed a profound dislike of the guy.

Still no sign of Tori among the stream of students drifting by in a sea of plaid and red polos. He kept watching. He knew the exact shade of her brown hair—golden brown with caramel highlights—and could have picked her out of crowd with only a glimpse of it.

After a couple of minutes, Tori appeared through the crowd, strolling down the hall, phone in hand. Alone for once. Her long hair swung around her shoulders and her mint green eyes were trained on her screen. Perhaps reading his text.

Even though she wore the same uniform as every other girl in school, she somehow still managed to make it look better. He wasn’t sure whether he should feel happy or just tormented about seeing her every day. The emotions went hand in hand lately.

She slid her phone into her pocket, glanced up, and noticed him. “Hi.” It wasn’t an overly-friendly “Hi.” Not like the ones she used to give him, full of personal subtext. She was professional, aloof. One more thing he had to live with now.

As she spun her combination, he began his speech. “I appreciate that you want to destroy the eggs. So do I. But we have to weigh the benefits of any mission against the danger. Even if you connect to an egg inside the building, you’ll still have no guarantee that Overdrake hasn’t put an egg nearby to lay a trap for us. If the information is legitimate, then waiting a few more days or even weeks while we investigate won’t matter. We don’t need to rush into anything.”

“I’ve already heard all of the objections.” She opened her locker and slid her backpack from her shoulders.

“Good. Then you’ve had time to think about the merits of caution. Or the merits of teamwork, whichever seems most persuasive.”

She took off her coat and hung it in her locker, hardly listening to him. “Do you think I act like I’m crazy?”

“I don’t know,” he said slowly. “Are you going to agree with me about Saturday or not?”

She put her backpack inside her locker with an unhappy shove. “I used to think the worst part of being a Slayer was fighting dragons—and okay, it still is, but having to keep a secret identity sucks too.” She pulled her journalism book from her shelf and tucked it under her arm with the air of a martyr. “This is why Batman and Superman don’t live with their parents.”

“What?” Jesse cocked his head. “What’s going on with your parents?”

“They think I have anxiety issues because of the Slayer stuff.”

“Why? Did you tell them you hear voices?”

“No. I don’t explain any of it. That’s the problem.” She took a pen from her backpack and gave her bag a push further into her locker. “If Batman was real, trust me, people would wonder why Bruce Wayne was always talking into his bat-watch and disappearing at odd times.”

“I don’t think he had a bat-watch.”

She shut her locker door with a clang. “Of course he did. He had bat-everything. The point is, the movies never show us the aftermath when Bruce Wayne is giving out lame excuses for his bizarre behavior and everyone is looking at him like he’s had a nervous breakdown.”

Jesse surveyed her silently for a moment. “So you’re going to stay home on Saturday, right?”

Instead of moving down the hallway, Tori leaned against her locker. “My parents will be out of town on Saturday, and Aprilynne won’t care if I’m gone. Those are rare events for me. I have to take advantage of them.”

She wasn’t taking this mission seriously enough. She hadn’t foreseen all of the things that could go wrong: like gunmen shooting her or Overdrake capturing her. “An excuse to be gone isn’t a valid reason for putting your life in jeopardy.”

Tori folded her arms, still clutching her journalism notebook. “This morning at breakfast, my mother told me that there are lots of perfectly safe medications for anxiety.”

Still no reason to act rashly. “We can come up with an excuse for you to make the trip later.”

Tori sighed. “And later the rest of you will change your mind about intel from dragon lords? Why risk the possibility of Overdrake moving the eggs somewhere else when we know where they are right now?” Her green eyes found his. Those eyes, the same color as sunlight on sea glass, were asking for his support. It would have been easy to fall under their spell the way he’d done so many times—give her whatever she wanted just to make her happy. But he couldn’t this time, not when her safety was in question.

“Waiting won’t hurt,” he said. “Not waiting could definitely hurt.”

She arched a meaningful eyebrow at him. “Since when are you so concerned with whether I get hurt or not?”

She wasn’t talking about the mission anymore, but he met the accusation and raised eyebrow without flinching. “Since always.”

She leaned away from the locker, dismissing his words. “Taking no action isn’t always the right decision.” She seemed to be talking about more than Saturday, but before he could be sure of her meaning, the warning bell rang, announcing they had five minutes until class started. As they started toward their class, Tacy and another girl ambled up, putting a quick end to mission talk.

“Are you ready for the game?” Tacy asked Jesse, all smiles.

For a moment, he stared at her, not sure what she meant.

“The game against Maret,” she clarified.

And then he remembered; basketball. The team was playing tonight. When he first enrolled in Veritas, he hadn’t wanted to join. He hadn’t planned to play any sports this year because he knew afterschool practice would end up conflicting with Slayer training. But Jesse’s parents had insisted. His father talked to the coach and told the man that Jesse had started for the varsity team at his last school. His mother went on and on about how colleges were bound to offer scholarship money if they saw him play. His father was already in contact with people from some universities.

Jesse could use scholarship money, although he couldn’t help but think part of his mother’s insistence he play was due to the fact that she wanted to keep him busy with sports so he didn’t have time to hang out with Tori. Ironic. Turned out his mom hadn’t needed to keep them apart at after all.

“Yeah,” Jesse told Tacy. “Should be a good game.”

Technically he shouldn’t have been playing in today’s game since he missed a practice yesterday. He’d faked an illness so he could meet with the other Slayers. But the coach had seen his three-pointer enough times that he was playing him anyway.

That was the thing about being a Slayer. You had better aim, accuracy, and reaction time even when your powers weren’t turned on.

“We’ll be there rooting for you,” Tacy purred, and then seemed to remember that Tori was walking down the hallway too. “Are you going tonight?” she asked.

Tori forced a smile. “I wouldn’t miss it.”

Jesse wondered what sort of meaning was behind that smile long after journalism class started.

Chapter 14 and preorder link

Preorder the book for 2.99 (Jan 23 release date) because in February the price will go up to 4.99

Slayers: The Dragon Lords is officially at the copy editor. Although that doesn’t mean that I’m not still thinking of things to change or add. Because that process happens until the book comes out.

Speaking of changes, for those of you who have been reading the book here on the website, the plot is essentially still the same although changes have occurred. The first half of the first chapter is different. And a few other places have been changed as well. (I added more of Jesse’s feelings toward Tori since someone pointed out that we didn’t see a lot of those. (Thanks Beta readers!) The chapters may be off if I decide to add another short chapter from Aaron’s pov–still debating on that one.) But the ending of the book will still make sense if you’ve read this then read the rest of the book picking up where you left off.

Tori was at a political rally in New York when she heard from Aaron. She was sitting in her seat beside Aprilynne and her mother, trying to maintain an interested and supportive expression in case any of the camera’s panned to her during her father’s speech. In the dragon lord part of her mind, she heard Aaron come into the enclosure and begin a training session with Khan. He did these every other day, sometimes with Dirk, sometimes with Overdrake, and most of the time he didn’t say anything that was informative. Usually it was stuff like, “Hey dragon, you’re looking especially big and fearsome today.” Or “Down boy,” or “Show me some respect, dude, because I can make you stand on your tiptoes and pirouette like a ballerina.”

This playful talk always worried Tori because she could tell Aaron was enjoying himself. Perhaps too much. If Tori had gained a bond with Khan after one trip into his mind—an unwanted bond that would make it harder for her to kill him during a battle—what were Aaron’s repeated excursions into the dragons’ minds doing to him?

Would his loyalty to his younger brother always be enough to keep him on the Slayers’ side? Perhaps before long, he wouldn’t be able to bring himself to give Tori intel. Not when he knew she’d use it to kill the dragons.

Tori enlarged the sound from Khan’s enclosure in her mind. She was listening for information but also wondering if Dirk was with Aaron today. It was always odd to hear Dirk’s familiar voice, to hear him joking around with his brother. He never gave any indication that he thought she might be eavesdropping. He never spoke directly to her.

More than once, she’d gone to the website where they exchanged messages to see if Dirk had written anything new there. He hadn’t. The code phrase about having a sore throat was the last thing there—the message not to contact him. Nothing else by way of an explanation. She’d considered writing him anyway, but what if he’d put up the warning because Overdrake had found a way to trace what she wrote there? She couldn’t risk her security or her family’s just because she wanted to talk to Dirk.

But really, how long did he plan on being silent? Almost three weeks had gone by.

“Yo, Lizard Legs,” Aaron called. “Your master is here.”

The dragon made a growling sound. A rustling noise came next: the dragon unfurling his wings.

Dirk hadn’t said anything today. Maybe he hadn’t come with Aaron this time. That meant Overdrake was probably around.

“None of that salty attitude,” Aaron said. “We’ve got work to do.”

The dragon let out a roar so loud Tori winced and pulled her focus away, minimizing the sound. Her eyes swept over the cameramen. All were still focused on her father. Good. None of them had caught her wincing while her father expounded on the importance of education.

“If any listening devices were in here,” Aaron said, “hopefully they’re fried now. That’s the best benefit of EMP as far as I can tell.”

Wait, Overdrake must not be in the enclosure. Aaron was talking to her. She leaned forward eagerly and enlarged the sound again.

“I found out where the eggs are. Four are going to hatch in the next few years. Those are here in the compound so the vets can watch over the shell thinning process. Although, I still don’t know where here is.”

Four. Even if the Slayers managed to kill all the dragons Overdrake was using now, four more would take their place soon enough.

“Two eggs are in a protected steel building in Venezuela,” Aaron continued. “They’re payment to someone for some sort of help. The leaders insisted on having the eggs, which Overdrake thinks is funny because once they hatch, they’re likely to kill whoever is keeping them. Their owner obviously doesn’t understand the whole concept of what a dragon lord is. Overdrake is planning on taking either Dirk or me to Venezuela to reclaim them as soon as they start to hatch.”

Overdrake had a dark sense of humor if that was the sort of thing he found humorous.

“The other six eggs are being stored in 2045 Water Street, Lock Haven, Pennsylvania. The place has round the clock security guards. I’m not sure how many, but I don’t think it’s a lot. Overdrake is going to move them someplace closer before he attacks. I don’t know where or when that is.”

Tori hadn’t expected such important information, at least not this soon. She needed something to write with. She repeated the words 2045 Water Street, Lock Haven in her mind as she grabbed her purse and searched for a pen.

Aprilynne shot her a sideways glance. “What are you doing?” she whispered.

Tori didn’t answer. 2045 Water Street, Lock Haven.

She didn’t have a pen. All she had was makeup.

Aaron began speaking again. “As far as controlling dragons, I’ve learned a couple of things.”

She wasn’t ready to remember more things yet. She still had to write down the address so she wouldn’t forget it.

“After I go into the dragon’s mind, at first it feels like I’m just sharing the dragon’s senses. I’ve got to go beyond that to control it. I picture a path that leads to its control center, and it’s sort of freaky because once I think about the path, it appears in front of me—like it’s a real thing. At first, Overdrake had to show me each of the paths while we were in the dragon’s mind together, but now I can do it on my own.”

She uncapped a blue eyeliner pencil and as inconspicuously as she could manage, wrote 2045 Water Street on her arm.

She wasn’t inconspicuous enough. Aprilynne leaned over, horrified. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing.” She added Lock Haven, in deep blue letters. The word almost reached her wrist.

Aprilynne’s gaze darted to the camera. They were still trained on their father. “That’s not nothing. That’s an address written on your arm.”

“Shhh,” Tori said.

“… path is like wading across a dark, thick river,” Aaron continued. Tori had missed the first part of his sentence. “Jupiter’s is like finding a waterfall in a bunch of lights.”

“You’re shushing me?” Aprilynne hissed. “You’re the one making a mess all over your arm. How are you going to keep people from seeing that?”

“Shhh,” Tori said again.

“Vesta’s is like pushing through a wall of rubber branches—sort of bumpy and jiggly. And Khan’s path is more like walking through strings of seaweed.”

Yes, that’s what it had been like—seaweed that sprouted from the ceiling instead of the floor. Tori needed to jot down the others so she remembered them. Under the address, she wrote: V branches, J lights, which meant the dark river must belong to M, Minerva.

Aprilynne coughed in disbelief, then leaned back into her chair shaking her head. “It’s these sort of things that make Mom and Dad worry about your mental stability.”

“Once you get to the control center, you give the dragon’s will a shape by picturing it as an object. It can be anything as long as it’s small enough to hold, but you should use the same thing each time until it becomes automatic. As long as you’re holding the object, you’ve got control. If another dragon lord got there before you and has a control object, yours won’t work. That’s all I’ve learned so far.” Aaron was silent for a moment, then said, “I nearly got caught finding out the information about the eggs, so I don’t know when I’ll be able to tell you anything else.” Another, longer pause. “I don’t know how long I can hide stuff from Dirk. I have to make myself not think about you most of the time. I have to…I don’t know. Maybe I’ll have to really be a dragon lord for a while so they don’t catch me.”

What did Aaron mean, he would have to really be a dragon lord for a while?

What did being a dragon lord entail? Overthrowing a few cities? Plotting the Slayers demise?

Aprilynne nudged her. “Stop glowering or everyone will wonder why you hate Medicare.”

Tori replastered her supportive smile on her face and tried to look interested again.

“I hope you’re connected to Khan or Minerva,” Aaron said with a sigh in his voice. “Because I don’t know when I’ll get time to talk around the fledgling dragons. Overdrake doesn’t leave me alone with them. They’re mean and unpredictable.” His voice changed, turned into the sing-song voice people used when speaking to animals. “Not like you, boy. You’re just a big scaly dog, aren’t you?”

Aaron was already too attached to Khan. Tori couldn’t help frowning again.

After that Aaron didn’t say anything else. Tori kept listening, straining to hear more, but the only sounds were those of the dragon’s heavy footsteps and then wingbeats. The dragon was moving around the enclosure, probably obeying Aaron’s unspoken instructions.

She should send the information about the egg’ locations to Dr. B and then wipe off the eyeliner before anyone saw it. An address would be a particularly bad thing for the cameras to catch if Overdrake happened to be watching coverage of this speech.

Tori pushed the button on her watch that signaled she had a message for Dr. B, then began slowly texting out the address into her watch. Speaking into it would have been faster, but she didn’t want Aprilynne to hear. Her sister wouldn’t be reassured about Tori’s mental health if she suddenly began to hold a conversation with her wrist about how the voice in her head had told her where the dragon eggs were hidden.

Once the address was sent, she put the other information in a text and sent it to herself. When she was done, she leaned over Aprilynne and asked her mother for a tissue. Her mother pulled two from her purse and handed them to Tori with barely a glance in her direction. “If you have to blow your nose, wait until you’re sure the cameras aren’t on you.”

Aprilynne looked upward. “Oh, we’re so beyond anything Miss Manners could fix.”

Tori wiped the eyeliner off her arm as discreetly as she could manage, making sure the cameras stayed pointed at her father. While she did, she checked her watch for a return message from Dr. B.

No answer yet.

He’d called a practice for this afternoon and in all likelihood, it was still going on. With the Slayers already assembled, perhaps they were busy planning a mission to the address. The group would need to scope out the building first. If only a few security guards were around, taking them out wouldn’t be too hard. Or at least it wouldn’t be if Bess were with them.

Tori fought another frown. They’d just have to do the job without her shield. Kody could knock guns from the security guards’ hands.

Tori’s arm had become a smudge of blue. That’s what she got for buying the expensive brand of eyeliner. This stuff wasn’t coming off. She kept surreptitiously wiping. Both tissues were blue and her arm looked like she had a large bruise.

Dr. B wrote back Where did Aaron get this information from?

Tori glanced at the cameras and then answered. He didn’t say. He only mentioned he’d almost been caught finding it. He also said he was going to have act like a dragon lord for a while. Although Tori couldn’t bring herself to admit that part to Dr. B.

Dr. B didn’t ask any other questions. Tori waited for ten minutes then fifteen. Finally she wrote When are we going to Lock Haven?

We’ve been studying satellite pictures, he replied. The address is listed as the Energize Nutrition office building. Very rural, wooded area. We’re currently debating the merits of a mission.

Debating the merits? It shouldn’t be a question of ‘if’. This was the inside information they’d been waiting for. This was the whole reason she’d sent Aaron into enemy territory. He’d taken risks to get them intel that would give the Slayers an advantage. They couldn’t ignore the lead.

The merits are obvious, she wrote back. Six fewer dragons to fight. The debate should be about the best way to destroy them.

A few moments later, Dr. B’s answer showed up on her watch. I’ll let the others tell you about their concerns.

A stream of messages made their way across her watch face in quick succession.

From Jesse: Are you sure you can read Aaron well enough to tell whether he’s telling the truth?

From Ryker: Aaron has only been a mole for a few weeks. How likely is it that Overdrake gave him important information and then left him alone with dragons—even though Overdrake knows Aaron could pass those details on to you? One or both are up to something.

From Kody: I say let’s kick this pig. If you can’t run with the big dogs, stay under the porch.

Was that a concern or a vote of confidence? With Kody, sometimes it was hard to tell.

From Rosa: Overdrake might have given false information to Aaron in order to see if he passes it along to you. If we show up at the building, Overdrake will know Aaron is helping us.

From Lilly: How stupid do you think we are? We already went on a mission to destroy dragon eggs, and we were nearly killed. Now you’re suggesting it again? You might be able to read Aaron, but none of us can read you. This is the exact same thing as Dirk did to us. How do we know you haven’t switched sides?

Well, so much for Lilly and Tori’s truce. It had probably been doomed from the start. Tori was too impatient to type out an answer to Lilly so she lifted her watch to her lips, pretending to scratch her ear while she whispered into it. “You know I haven’t switched sides because if I had, the first thing I would have done is teach you some manners.”

Aprilynne shot Tori a look. “What?”

“Nothing.”

Tori lowered her hand, glancing at the message from Lilly that flashed across her watch face. Try it and you’ll have your ask handed back to you on a tray.

The reply almost made Tori laugh out loud. Theo apparently hadn’t programmed the voice recognition software to repeat swearwords.

Tori lifted her watch to her lips again. “Really?” she murmured. “What else will be on that tray besides my ask?”

A moment later Lilly wrote Go to help.

Priceless.

Aprilynne let out an exaggerated sigh and kept her voice low. “Is this some sort of cry for attention? Are you trying to get Mom and Dad to worry about you? Because if that’s why you go through these episodes where you act insane, you’re being selfish. Dad needs your support right now.”

“Sorry,” Tori said. And she waited a couple of minutes before she typed I can tell Aaron isn’t lying and I doubt Overdrake would feed Aaron false information. He realizes what the rest of you have forgotten. If I don’t connect to an egg when I get close to the building, I’ll know they’re not there.

Dr. B was the one who wrote back this time. We need to investigate the building further. We’ll contact you with our decision.

Their decision. The phrase shouldn’t have irked Tori, but it did. Granted, she knew the drill—decisions that affected the group were supposed to be made by the group. She was only one vote among many. She understood that. But why couldn’t the rest of them see the opportunity Aaron had given them—six fewer dragons to fight. And how were they going to investigate the building? She was the only one that would be able to tell them what they needed to know—whether or not dragon eggs were inside.

But Dr. B hadn’t even asked her when she would be able to take a trip to Lock Haven.

He hadn’t asked because he knew the Slayers wouldn’t vote to attack the building. They were too suspicious of the source.

Frustration welled inside of her. She wasn’t going to let Aaron’s sacrifice be for nothing, and she wasn’t going to sit idly by while six more dragons hatched. Each of those dragons was just another way for her friends to die. Whether they appreciated it or not, she would do everything in her power to save their lives. If that meant taking care of the eggs herself, so be it.

This weekend her parents were leaving for a campaigning trip to Iowa. Tori could invent a shopping date with friends on Saturday and be gone most of the day without worrying her sister. Tori wrote back I’m going to take a look at the building on Saturday night. Anyone who wants to come with me will need battle gear.

A moment later, Dr. B’s answer paraded over her watch. We work as a team.

We should, Tori answered. But I’m afraid my team will be pretty small on Saturday.

Big surprise, Lilly wrote. Tori has decided her way is the best.

Dr. B’s response was immediate. No one is going anywhere Saturday. Tori and I will discuss this later.

That was the end of the messages, which was perhaps a good thing since Aprilynne leaned over. “Why do you keep playing with your watch? This is live television.”

“I think it’s broken,” Tori whispered back.

“If it’s dead, don’t try to revive it. The thing belongs in the graveyard of bad fashion choices—right next to plastic shoes and headbands that go across people’s foreheads.”

Tori sat silently for the rest of her father’s speech, attempting not to look frustrated, discouraged, or anything else a wandering camera could interpret as being sullen about her father’s agenda.

What were the chances the Slayers would approve the mission? They didn’t trust Aaron because he was a dragon lord. They thought he would betray them like Dirk had. When it came down to it, they wouldn’t put their lives on the line for her plan. Or maybe they just didn’t trust her judgment.

How had she gone from not wanting the responsibility of being A-team’s leader to being angry because the Slayers wouldn’t follow her?

And here’s another preorder link so you can read the rest

Chapter 13 and preorder link!

Preorder the book for 2.99 after the book is released it will be 4.99 so get it now!

The book will be out Jan 23 so you’ll be able to read the rest of it then. Until then, here is Chapter 13

A week passed. Dirk still hadn’t heard from Tori. Maybe she hadn’t been able to write down the site and password he’d given her the first time he’d told it to her. He went to Vesta’s enclosure and gave her the information again.

Another week passed, and still no word. Maybe Tori hadn’t answered because she was investigating the site to make sure communications between them were untraceable. Could her silence mean she’d decided not to have anything to do with him? No, that didn’t seem like her. She was too intent on persuading him to come back to the Slayers to give up their conversations.

While he was out with Vesta he told Tori to post something on the old site, so that he knew she was okay. Gaining access to Vesta wasn’t hard. Dirk worked with the dragons every day after he finished school work. Some kids had to practice the piano, Dirk had to train two and a half-month-old fledglings, taming them enough that they would retain orders even when their dragon lord wasn’t close by. Eventually Aaron would take over some of the training, but not until Dirk had broken in Vesta and Jupiter.

Tori didn’t post anything on the old site.

Was she mad at him? She might have found out about Aaron’s disappearance and blamed him for that.

The next day Dirk tucked his phone in his pocket and made his way to Vesta’s enclosure. He could bring electronics near the dragons as long as he had hold of their minds and kept them from letting out EMP producing screeches.

Dirk walked across the room’s cement floor, ignoring the scent of dragon dung mixed with disinfectant. The older dragons were trained to relieve themselves in the same area so that Dirk or his father could subdue the dragons and the vets could clean up the place, but the fledglings enjoyed making messes in as many places as they could.

Dirk stepped around a pile and breathed through his mouth. How did the dragons stand the smell?

Vesta turned to him, hissing and raising her wings in defiance. Her golden eyes glared at him and she bared a row of sword-like teeth. Pointless dramatics. She was still determined to resist control.

His father would have punished her by sending pain impulses through her body. Dirk didn’t. Eventually Vesta would understand her opposition was futile. His method took longer, but the dragons hated him less during the process, so the extra time was worth it.

She shot a warning stream of fire that was too far away to reach him. Putting on a show. Which meant she was finally getting old enough—smart enough—to recognize that he wasn’t prey. He was a dragon lord, someone to reckon with. Before too long, she would realize that fighting against him was useless.

He slipped into her mind, today imagining her control center as a game console remote that he could pick up at will. His father liked to imagine the dragon’s control centers as beating hearts that he could grip and squeeze the life out of if he needed. Game consoles seemed less violent.

Come on, Vesta. Time to fly.

Her resistance evaporated as soon as she understood he was taking her outside. She was as happy as a dog going for a walk. He had to remind her to stay still so he could put on her saddle.

Once Dirk flew out of the enclosure, he spoke out loud to Tori. “Why haven’t I heard from you?” She would know he was talking to her.

While Vesta circled the property, he took out his phone and checked it. No answer. He was getting used to that response. He ran Vesta through a set of drills, making her dip, turn, slow, and speed up.

Still no answer from Tori. She had to be home from school by now. She must have found out about the kidnapping and was upset with him.

“I didn’t tell my father about Aaron,” he said. “My dad learned about him from your message. If you’re mad about that, you’ve been mad at the wrong person.” Dirk slid from the dragon’s back and flew next to her, skirting through trees.

At present, the fledglings looked more like overgrown gargoyles rather than sleek, beautiful dragons. In a month or so, new scales would begin to grow in. Either red, blue, black or green, depending on which genes Vesta had inherited from her from her parents.

“Besides,” Dirk went on, “Aaron doesn’t want to leave. He’s having a great time. The only time he ever complains is when he has to stop practicing with the dragons in order to do school work.” Their dad was making Aaron and Dirk do online classes—accelerated no less—because he was sure his children were brilliant, and if any of them weren’t above grade level, they were slacking off.

No answer.

No answer.

“Talk to me,” Dirk cajoled, “and I’ll tell you a dragon lord secret.”

That at least should get a response. He wasn’t sure what he’d tell her, but he could think of something that wouldn’t cause too much damage.

Still no response. Something was wrong.

Nothing serious could have happened to her, could it? The news would have reported on that. And he’d seen a photo of her on the internet a few days ago. Her dad had taken his family with him on the campaign trail and news sites had shown pictures of her smiling during a rally.

Tori might have been too far away to connect to Vesta during her campaign travels, but she should have heard some of his message over the last couple of weeks. She should be hearing this one now. Her family was back on the east coast, well within range.

Dirk landed on his lawn and practiced controlling Vesta while remaining at a distance.  He shut off his phone and then slipped it into his pocket. He wouldn’t have been so worried about Tori’s silence, except he could think of one really bad explanation for it: His father had done something to her, maybe drugged her so she’d lost her Slayer abilities. If that was the case, it would mean she’d forgotten everything about the Slayers and forgotten Dirk too. Would any of her dragon lord abilities remain? Normally, drugging a dragon lord didn’t affect their abilities but neither he or his father were sure how Tori’s Slayer and dragon lord abilities were connected. Drugging her might make her lose both.

As Dirk considered the idea, it seemed more likely with every passing minute. He impatiently ran Vesta through the rest of her exercises. Instead of letting her strain against his will—allowing her to have some choice about whether or not to struggle and prolong the pressure of his commands, Dirk held onto her mind with a tight grip and left her no room for disobedience. Fast, easy, quick.

Even though Dirk returned Vesta to her enclosure fifteen minutes earlier than usual, the dragon was exhausted and cross. Oh well. Maybe they’d both be in a better mood tomorrow.

Dirk returned to the house and made a beeline up the stairs. Bridget sat in the hallway, singing to one of her dolls. He ignored her and marched to the den. His father didn’t like to be interrupted when he was working, but today Dirk didn’t care.

He knocked loudly on the door. He wanted to storm in, but his father didn’t allow anyone to come in without his permission. The den was where he kept all of his confidential records, where he contacted his agents, and in general, brokered the deals to buy the nation.

A shuffling sound came from behind the door—things being moved on the desk—but no answer.

Dirk wasn’t about to go away just because his father hadn’t answered. He opened the door and strode in.

His father wasn’t in the room. Aaron was. Which was odd because when their father wasn’t in the den, he always locked the door.

His brother stood by their father’s desk, an enormous cherry wood structure that pushed up against the right wall, so the computer screen wasn’t visible from the door. Aaron moved to the door, probably trying to give the impression that he’d been on his way out when Dirk came in. The guilt and fear rolling off of him, however, suggested he wasn’t in the room innocently.

Dirk cocked his head. “What are you doing in here?”

Aaron swallowed. “Same as you. Looking for Dad.”

Dirk glanced around the room to see if anything was out of place. Nothing seemed to be, but he’d definitely heard things shuffling on the desk.

“I thought Dad was here,” Aaron continued, trying a little too hard to be casual. “The door was open a crack, so I came in. But he’s not here, so now I’m leaving. You probably should lock the door when you go. He wouldn’t like it if he found it unlocked.”

Was Aaron offering to leave Dirk alone in here as a sort of bribe—a way of buying his silence?

Aaron tried to pass by Dirk to leave, but Dirk took hold of his arm and stopped him. “I’m impressed. How did you get past the lock?” The door had a keypad and his father didn’t give out the code.

Aaron pulled his arm away from Dirk. “I told you, the door was open.”

Hard to tell whether that was the truth or not. Aaron’s main emotion was fear. Any guilt he possibly felt for lying didn’t even make a dent in that sentiment.

Dirk still didn’t let him pass. “What were you looking for?”

“Dad,” Aaron said.

“If that were the truth, you wouldn’t be so afraid.”

Dirk could feel Aaron trying to control his emotions, trying to bottle up his fear. “I’m only afraid that you’re going to tell Dad about this and make him think I was doing something wrong.”

Aaron wasn’t lying about that. It was exactly what he was afraid of.

“Look,” Dirk said. “I don’t want to get you in trouble. I know you were probably in here searching for a way to call your mom or something. But you can’t ever come in here like this again. Dad has confidential stuff in here. Things he’d kill to protect. If he found you in here messing around—”

“Our mom,” Aaron said, and some of his fear vanished, replaced by annoyance.

“What?”

“You said I was looking for a way to call my mom. She’s your mom too. And you don’t have a reason not to call her. Dad didn’t take away your phone. I can give you her phone number any time you want.”

Dirk dropped Aaron’s arm. “I have plenty of reasons not to call her. Reasons you’re too young to understand. And stop trying to get me off topic. We were talking about you breaking into Dad’s den and how it’s a really stupid idea.”

“He’s coming,” Aaron said, hurrying to the door. “We’ve got to go.”

“How do you know he’s coming?” Dirk asked, more alarmed than curious. Being here when their father came in wasn’t an option. He followed after Aaron.

“I saw his car out the window.”

“You weren’t looking out the window.”

“Didn’t have to. I saw it in the reflection of the picture frame.”

Dirk wasn’t about to stay and check to see what could be seen from reflections. He stepped out into the hallway and hit the lock button on the keypad. A moment later the sound of the garage door officially announced their father’s arrival.

Aaron disappeared down the hallway. Dirk would worry about getting the truth from him later. Right now he was going to talk to their father. He still needed to find out what, if anything his father had done to Tori. Dirk located him in the kitchen, pulling leftovers out of the fridge. He wore a suit and tie but had already loosened his collar.

Dirk folded his arms and got to the point. “Did you do something to Tori?”

His father hardly paused while he took out a container of stir-fry. “Not today. Why?”

“Have you done anything to take her memories away?”

His father shut the fridge, suddenly interested. “Why? Did she lose her memories?” He sounded surprised, amused, but not like he was responsible.

“I don’t know,” Dirk said. “I haven’t heard from her since November.”

His father took this information in, nodding while he put the stir-fry in the microwave. “Well, that’s troubling. You probably had plans for some sort of Christmas gift exchange, didn’t you?” He went to the silverware and grabbed a fork and knife. “Maybe this is Tori’s way of telling you she just wants to be friends, or in your case, enemies.”

Dirk didn’t say anything. He was judging his father’s reaction. Could he read his father as well as he thought? Was he just feigning innocence?”

“It’s not you,” his father went on, enjoying himself, “it’s her. Her misplaced loyalty, her short-sightedness, and her inability to recognize a man of quality.” The microwave dinged and his father took his plate out. “I’m beginning to feel quite offended on your behalf. Do you want me to find her and exact revenge?”

“No,” Dirk said stiffly. “That’s exactly what I don’t want you to do.” He stalked out of the kitchen before his father could suggest anything else. Dirk would have to find a way to speak to her himself. Tori had tracked him down at one of his school events, he could do the same. Even though her family had changed houses, chances were she was going to a high-security private school in the DC area. There were a limited number of those around. He’d start with the one she’d attended before her move: Veritas Academy.

Once he reached his bedroom, he checked Veritas Academy’s website. They had an away game on Friday with Maret. If he hadn’t heard from her by then, he’d figure out a way to go there and try to find her.

Chapter 12

I’m currently going over the manuscript looking for overused words. (Don’t ask me how many times I used the word ‘just’ in the story) Then I’ll read through it one more time, it will go to the copyeditor, and then poof, it will be available on Amazon. I may have a preorder link up as early as tomorrow.

Sam? Oh crap. The man who funded the camp. The man behind the Slayer operation, who Dr. B wouldn’t talk about. He’d driven out onto the playing field, and Tori had ripped him off his bike and held him hostage in the air.

Definitely not her best moment. Although on the plus side, at least she hadn’t pulled him from his motorcycle and beaten him up.

 “Sorry,” she said. The word seemed inadequate. She suddenly wasn’t sure whether she was holding Sam too tight or not tight enough. She began a slow descent, so gradual she wouldn’t startle him further. “We were in the middle of a training session. I thought you were one of Overdrake’s men.”

“In a real attack,” he said icily, “are you going to assume that every person you come across is one of Overdrake’s men? Will you pull random fleeing strangers from moving vehicles and threaten them?”

 “In a real attack, I imagine people will be fleeing in the opposite direction of the dragons.” Tori was half way to the ground. “Do you want me to take you to Dr. B? He’s in the control tower.”

“Tell him to meet me down here. I want to talk to all of you.”

And by the sound of his voice, he wasn’t delivering good news. Or maybe she was jumping to conclusions. Maybe his voice only sounded disapproving because he was angry at her.

Dr. B had undoubtedly heard the instruction through Tori’s neck mic, but she repeated it anyway. “Dr. B, Sam requests an audience.”

“Yes,” Dr. B said. “Tell him I’m on my way.”

Tori relayed that message as well.

A-team had also been listening on their earpieces and had overheard everything that had transpired. Seen it too, all of their heads were tilted up, watching the scene play out. Whatever questions or comments they had, either awe or worry was keeping them silent. Willow dismounted and went to Sam’s bike to set it upright. Lilly rode across the field towards the spot Tori would land, watching. Team Magnus was moving downfield as well, must have switched to A-team’s frequency.

Dr. B used an override signal that broke into both A-Team and Team Magnus’s channels. “Please assemble midfield.”

He didn’t mention that their visitor was Sam, but Kody had left the dead zone and joined Team Magnus on their way across the field. He was pointing to Tori, most likely filling them in on any details they’d missed.

Tori set Sam gently on his feet, then stepped to his side, giving him space. “I’m Tori, but I suppose you already know who all of us are.”

He glanced at her long enough to nod, then straightened his coat, pulling it down where it had ridden up. He didn’t seem to have more to say to her. Was it better to apologize again or just pretend the whole thing never happened? Well, Sam might go for the latter, but the other Slayers were never going to stop talking about it.

Ryker and Jesse landed not far from Sam, standing as straight as soldiers meeting a general. Kody, Bess, and Rosa rode over and joined the others forming a half circle. Across the field, Dr. B was speeding toward them in the golf cart, still a few minutes from reaching them.

Jesse removed his helmet, something the Slayers weren’t supposed to do around anyone but Dr. B, Theo, and Booker. One by one the rest of the Slayers followed suit. It was an honor they wouldn’t have bestowed on any other outsider.

Sam surveyed them silently but left his helmet on. Perhaps he meant to keep his identity a secret. Perhaps they would never know exactly who he was.

Had it been a mistake to take off their helmets? Instead of seeing the gesture as an honor, maybe Sam saw it as an indication they didn’t take rules as seriously as they should have. Tori fiddled with the ridge of her helmet, wishing Dr. B was here already.

Jesse stepped up to Sam. His brown hair was mussed from sweat and smoke, and he’d managed to get a streak of dirt on his cheek, but his bearing was solemn, one of utter respect. “I’m glad to finally meet you, Sir. I’ve wanted to thank you for a long time for what you’ve done for us and for the nation.”

Sam’s posture stiffened at the compliment and his gaze turned in Bess’s direction. “You’re welcome. But I didn’t do it for the nation. I did it for my granddaughter.”

Bess’s eyes went wide and her mouth dropped open in recognition. “Grandpa?” She dismounted from her horse and walked to him for a closer look.

Bess was Sam’s granddaughter? The surprise showed on each of the Slayer’s faces. They couldn’t have known, and yet as soon as the information was out, Tori felt as though they should have, as though it was a missing puzzle piece that had been sitting in front of them all along. Who else would want to stop Brant Overdrake so fervently that he would have planned and invested in the Slayers all of these years? Overdrake’s father had killed Dr. B’s brother, and now Dr. B’s father was doing his best to make sure that Brant Overdrake didn’t succeed in his takeover attempts.

Sam pulled off his helmet and smiled at Bess. He didn’t look like the sort of man who smiled very often. He was in his late sixties with weathered features and deep lines that spread across his forehead and down the sides of his mouth. His gray hair was receding and messy from the helmet. He didn’t bother fixing it. “How are you doing, missy?”

She walked right up to him, her blue eyes bright. “You’re Sam?” The name obviously wasn’t his real one.

Sam—Mr. Bartholomew—reached out and pulled her into a hug. For a moment his whole countenance changed and softened. He was not the gruff man who’d snapped at Tori or the stern one who’d brushed off Jesse’s gratitude, he was a grandpa. “Are you really so surprised? You always knew I’d move heaven and earth for you.”

Bess pulled away from him, looking embarrassed but happy. “Why didn’t you tell me you funded Slayers?”

He shrugged, a teasing gesture. “If you realized how much your old grandpa was worth, that second-hand Honda I gave you wouldn’t seem like such a great birthday gift.”

Bess laughed and her gaze went over him again in disbelief. “Yeah. Why don’t we revisit that decision?”

Mr. Bartholomew shook his head. “Not a chance. All my extra cash goes to this place.” He turned his attention to the helicopters that now lay placidly on the ground—innocent except for their menacing painted faces. “It goes to whatever those infernal contraptions are.” He squinted, examining them more closely, taking in the blackened nozzles that shot fire. “Those blades could chop your head clean off.”

 “We know how to avoid them,” Jesse said. His stance was still soldier-straight, but his expression was more defensive and less admiring than it had been.

“I’m with you, Mr. Bartholomew,” Tori muttered. “The helicopters are unnecessarily dangerous.”

Mr. Bartholomew tucked his helmet under his arm. “Well, at least I know it was the safety-conscious flyer who yanked me off my bike while I was going twenty miles an hour.”

Dr. B reached midfield at last. He shut off the cart and hurried up to the group, his unbuttoned coat flapping out behind him like an uncertain flag. “You didn’t tell me you were coming.”

Mr. Bartholomew’s earlier smile melted away. “Maybe if you’d answered my last dozen phone messages, I could have.”

Dr. B swept his hands at the field and rocked back on his heels. “As you can see, I keep busy training the kids.” He didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands and finally settled on tucking them behind his back. “I apologize that Tori mistook you for an enemy. But you shouldn’t come to a practice unannounced. You could have been hurt.”

“More likely one of the kids will be hurt.” Mr. Bartholomew jerked a thumb at the helicopters, his scowl much more impressive than the painted ones on the machines. “You have the flyers darting around moving blades.”

Tori nodded. “They also shoot out fifteen-foot flames.”

Dr. B gave her a sharp look. She smiled back at him. It was nice to hear from a reasonable adult for a change.

Mr. Bartholomew frowned at the scorch marks that crisscrossed the grass. “Camp was supposed to teach the Slayers to use their powers in order to protect themselves but this . . .”

“Is training them to do just that,” Dr. B insisted. He glanced at his watch, a gesture too unsettled to be casual. “Let’s go somewhere to talk while the Slayers finish the round.”

Mr. Bartholomew didn’t move. “Fine. We’ll take Bess with us.” The words came out as a challenge, although Tori couldn’t guess what that challenge was.

Dr. B knew, though. It registered on his face—a mixture of discomfort and stubbornness. “Bess needs to practice.”

Mr. Bartholomew shook his head. “Not anymore.”

Bess’s gaze traveled, unconcerned, between her father and grandfather. Her nonchalance made it clear she was used to seeing them disagree. “It’s okay, Grandpa. I can see you when I’m finished with this round.”

Mr. Bartholomew kept his eyes on Dr. B, not through with his challenge. “We had an agreement. It’s time you told her about it.”

Dr. B gestured to the cart and he lowered his voice. “We’ll discuss this privately.”

Tori’s gaze circled to the other Slayers. They were all standing there, awkward and trapped, spectators stuck in an argument between their leaders. It wasn’t polite to hear all of this but they had no choice.

Mr. Bartholomew folded his arms. Something about the stance reminded Tori of a bull right before it charged. He wasn’t going to back down and could run over anyone who opposed him. “Enough is enough. She’s already fought two dragons.”

“We were attacked,” Dr. B said, in the weary tone one uses when the point has been made repeatedly made before. “And her powers helped to not only save the lives of the other Slayers but to kill two dragons—dragons Overdrake would have unleashed on innocent people.”

 “I’m glad for it,” Mr. Bartholomew countered. “No one wants to take Overdrake down more than I do, but not at the cost of Bess’s life. I already lost Nathan. I won’t lose her too.” He pointed a finger at Dr. B, a sharp gesture. “We had an agreement.”

Bess stepped in between the two men, hands raised. Her gaze bounced between them. “What agreement? What are you talking about?”

Yes, what? Tori’s heart was beginning to beat faster as though her body had already figured out what her mind hadn’t. This was bad news.

Mr. Bartholomew waited for Dr. B to speak. He didn’t. His lips remained firmly clamped together in either defiance or frustration.

Mr. Bartholomew turned to address the group. “I agreed to fund this camp on the condition that when Overdrake attacked, Bess would stay out of it. She could be trained so she would know how to protect herself, but that was all.”

No. The words spun in Tori’s mind. They couldn’t be true. She hadn’t heard right, and yet she couldn’t have misinterpreted what had been said. Mr. Bartholomew was insisting Bess not fight.

Their shielder. The Slayers couldn’t lose her. No one else could stop bullets.

Across from her, the other Slayers stared at Mr. Bartholomew, pale and stunned—worse, wounded.

Tori’s gaze turned to Dr. B. He’d never shown favoritism to any of the Slayers, not even his daughter. He wouldn’t have made a deal to exclude her from fighting when the rest of them needed her too much. And yet he stood there, not denying any of it.

Tori felt like something had come loose inside her. No, not inside her—some part of the world had come loose, and its neat stacks of order, logic, and moral codes were precariously swaying.

How could Dr. B—their leader—have done this to them?

And after everything the Slayers had accomplished, how could their funder come here and casually announce he was taking Bess away from them? They couldn’t hope to take down Overdrake and the dragons without a shielder. The last time he attacked, he would have shot and killed them all if it hadn’t been for Bess.

Lilly was the first to recover from the shock. With hands planted on her hips, she said, “So the rest of us are supposed to march off and face death, but not Bess. That was your deal?”

Mr. Bartholomew cast her an unconcerned glance. “I never claimed to be a fair man, just a rich one.”

Several of the Slayers called out protests, all of them drowned out by Bess’s own voice. “It’s not your choice whether I fight. It’s mine.”

Mr. Bartholomew didn’t budge. “No Bess. Your father gave that choice to me when he took my millions. I’m sorry.” His glance traveled around the rest of the Slayers. “Believe me, I am sorry.”

No, he wasn’t. He obviously wasn’t or he wouldn’t put them in more danger by taking Bess.

And still, Dr. B stood there, jaw clenched, and said nothing.

Mr. Bartholomew turned back to Bess and held out his hand. “You’ll be staying with your grandmother and me for a while.”

Finally, Dr. B stepped forward. “You don’t have parental consent to take her anywhere.”

“You’re right,” Mr. Bartholomew retorted. “But I’ve got a few of these kids’ parents on my payroll, not to mention salaries for Theo, Booker, and yourself. And let’s not forget whose paying for the horses and all your equipment. You can’t afford to lose my funding.”

Bess smacked her helmet into the side of her leg. “Stop it. I’m not leaving my friends unprotected. You can’t ask me to do that.”

“Bess,” Dr. B broke in. He was calm again. In an instant, he’d gone from an argumentative son to the same patient teacher who always oversaw their training exercises. “Go with your grandfather. We’ll talk about this later.”

Bess whirled on him, stunned. “You’re giving in? Just like that?”

Dr. B ran a hand across his mouth and let out a long sigh. “It will be months, maybe years before Overdrake attacks. We have time to discuss this with your grandfather. For now, it’s better if you go with him.”

Bess took a step back, blinking back emotion.

Mr. Bartholomew didn’t exactly smile, but he looked relieved, triumphant even. Apparently, he had no doubt how any future discussions would turn out. “Come on, Bess,” he said, and without waiting for her answer stalked off to his motorcycle with quick determined strides.

Bess’s hands shook, making her fumble with her helmet as she put it on. “I thought you were better than the other parents, more sacrificing.”

“Bess—” Dr. B started, but she went on as though he hadn’t spoken.

“You’re a hypocrite. You’re asking the others to risk their lives when all along you knew I wouldn’t be allowed to fight.” She turned sharply and followed her grandfather, jogging to catch up with him.

Dr. B’s face had grown a shade redder but whether from anger or embarrassment., Tori couldn’t tell. When he turned back to the other Slayers, he couldn’t keep the note of defeat from his voice. “Today’s practice is over.”

Jesse crossed his arms, his expression a mix of pain and disappointment. “How could you have made that agreement?”

Kody put it more bluntly. “You sold us out.”

Tori still felt as though parts of the world had come loose and fallen to the ground. It was hard to speak when reason and fairness lay in shambles at her ankles. “I can’t believe this.”

Dr. B raised his hands to stop the protests, which at this point were coming from every single Slayer except for Rosa. She put her hand to her mouth. Her shoulders shook up and down, quick breaths, that heralded tears.

Dr. B spoke over the top of them. “I made that agreement when Bess was two years old because I didn’t have any other choice for funding this camp—for finding and training you. I needed to teach you how to use your powers so that when dragons attacked, you didn’t all die quickly.”

Lilly huffed. “Now we can die more slowly. Thanks.”

Dr. B’s hands were still up. “Did I keep Bess from fighting during the last two dragon attacks?”

No one answered. They knew he hadn’t.

He let his hands fall to his sides. “Do you think I don’t realize how important a shielder is? We’ll get Bess back. And if I can find a way, we’ll get Shang, Alyssa, Danielle, and Leo back too. Until then, we carry on the best we can. It’s our only option.” Without waiting for more discussion, he turned and trudged back to the cart, head bent as though he was dragging a weight behind him.

The Slayers silently watched him go. The silence was not because they didn’t have more to say, but because they weren’t going to say it while he was around.

The cart hummed to life and headed toward the silo. Both helicopters lifted from the ground and whirred that direction as well. The horses had wandered off, busily grazing on weeds, but no one moved to get them.

Willow tugged at her bun until her hair fell back around her shoulders. “I wonder what other things Dr. B hasn’t told us.”

“He isn’t like that,” Rosa insisted. She’d stopped crying, but tears were still evident on her cheeks. “He loves us like a father.”

“No,” Ryker said bitterly. “He’s Bess’s father. He didn’t make bargains to spare any of the rest of our lives. He’s training us to fight and to die.”

“He didn’t have a choice,” Rosa said. “He had to fund the camp.”

Lilly let her helmet fall to the ground with a thud. Her expression spoke clearly of her intention. She hadn’t dropped it by accident. The helmet lay in the charred grass like a resignation letter. “First Dirk, and now Dr. B.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Jesse broke in. His dark eyes flashed with intensity. “We’ve only ever had two options. We either fight or we sit back and hope someone else can stop Overdrake. Because if he ends up ruling, he’s not only going to hunt us down, he’s going to take out anyone who he knows has Slayer genetics, and that means our families.” Jesse’s gaze traveled around the group, emphasizing his point. “Overdrake won’t risk letting our brothers and sisters and cousins have children—one accidental exposure to his dragons, and new Slayers would be born. He’s probably already tracing our family trees so he can put our relatives on his hit list.”

That thought had never occurred to Tori, and judging from the others’ reactions, most of them hadn’t considered the possibility either. Her mother’s side of the family—Dirk had already decided that’s where Tori got her Slayer genes from—if Overdrake ruled, they could all be slaughtered.

“He wouldn’t . . .” Rosa said. “People wouldn’t stand by and let him do that.”

“Rulers have done a lot worse,” Kody pointed out.

No one argued that point.

“I’m going to fight Overdrake,” Jesse said with firm determination. “Even if I’m the only one left, I’ll do everything I can to stop him.”

Yes, Tori thought, you’ll be the first to sign up for a noble death. Should she admire his courage or cry in frustration because of it?

Kody sighed and tugged at the collar of his jacket. Due to his muscular build, his fighting clothes never fit him like they should. “Me too. I’m fixing to whoop some dragons—no matter who else lets us down, betrays us, or turns out to be a dragon lord.” His gaze cut to Tori. “No offense.”

“Um, none taken,” Tori said.

 “Overdrake’s already come after my family,” Ryker said. “I’m fighting.”

Lilly picked up her helmet. She looked like she wanted to chuck it, but she tucked it under her arm instead. “Fine. I still owe Overdrake for what he’s done to Alyssa and Shang.”

Rosa nodded. “When he attacks, I’m going to be there for all of you.”

All eyes seemed to turn to Tori, waiting for her to chime in. The Slayers hardly had a chance against Overdrake, but what else could she say? She wasn’t going to let her friends down. They’d already fought alongside her twice. “I’ll be there too,” she said.

“On which side?” Lilly muttered.

Seriously? Had Tori just been thinking that Lilly was worth fighting for? Clearly a mistake.

 “Stop it,” Jesse told Lilly. “We need to work together as a team, now more than ever.”

Tori wasn’t plowing into Lilly and having it out right now, which was showing more restraint than she felt. “Whatever else I am, I’m not one of Overdrake’s tools.”

“Need to work as a team,” Jesse reminded her.

Lilly snorted. “Then what do you call reuniting dragon lord junior with his despot daddy?”

“Teamwork,” Jesse snapped.

Tori hardly heard him. “I sent Aaron because we need more people on our side.” She was surprised at the emotion that shook her voice. “I did it because I care about all of you. In fact, sometimes I think I care more about your lives than you do. Criticize my genetics if you want, but I am and always will be a Slayer.”

For once, Lilly didn’t say anything, didn’t even roll her eyes. She just stared at Tori as though she wanted to believe her. It was probably only a momentary lapse of ill-will, but it was there just the same, that flash of hope.

Lilly hesitated, then nodded, and the tension among the group seemed to melt away.

“Good,” Jesse said, “We’re all on the same team and the same page.”

 “Speaking of being a team,” Willow put in, “I notice none of you asked if I was going to be there during the fight.”

“What?” Jesse and Ryker asked at the same time. The question was also identical: not what did you say but what are you talking about?

Willow waved a hand at them. “None of you even noticed that I didn’t join in your Slayer death pledge, did you? It’s like I’m invisible or something.”

“Of course not, Wills.” Ryker started to say more but she didn’t let him finish.

“I’m not completely useless, you know. Back when Overdrake’s men attacked my house, I was the one who took out three armed thugs using household furniture.”

With an air of patience, Ryker said, “When Overdrake attacks, are you going to be there for us?”

“Yes,” she said sweetly. “Thanks for asking.”

Jesse put his hands together in a way that pronounced he was ready to move on from that line of conversation. “We’re agreed then,” he said. “We keep training no matter what.”

Ryker, Kody, Rosa, Lilly, and Willow nodded.

They were so undermanned. A small group of teenagers on a darkened field agreeing to take on a man who commanded dragons, a man who knew them each by name. Willow was right; everyone was most likely pledging their deaths. Tori knew that and nodded anyway.

Chapter 11

(Author’s note: I’ve realized as I’m making revisions to the story, that I really posted it all too soon. The first half of Chapter 1 is completely different. I want to take everything down and put up the latest version…but instead, I’ll just put up Chapter 11–which I haven’t revised yet–because I know people are waiting for it. And by the way, I just went through my spam and found a bunch of legitimate emails that people had written me. Which makes me wonder how many I haven’t seen. So if you ever emailed me and I never replied–sorry, your email probably was sent to the spam bucket.)

Chapter 11

 

Tori went into the barn, a weathered red building that was quaint enough for a country-themed calendar. The quaintness had happened completely by chance, she supposed, since Dr. B only cared about function, not beauty. The inside looked almost industrial: gray divided stalls and a sterile looking tack room.

She was met with the familiar scent of hay mixed with horse and manure. A comforting smell. Probably because for years it had been the smell of long rides through wooded trails with her sister and parents. Nature. Freedom.

All of that seemed so long ago.

Booker, Dr. B’s usually-silent and frequently grumpy right-hand man, stood by the stalls saddling up the extra horses. Two were always kept ready in case one of the Slayers mounts had a problem during practice. Most of the other Slayers were still in the barn cinching on saddles or putting their gear on. They all looked over when she walked in.

And that’s when she remembered Jesse wasn’t the only one angry at her. Most of the Slayers were.

She held up her hands to gather their attention and took a deep breath. “Look guys, I’m sorry I didn’t let you know what I was doing with Aaron. I know I should have but he didn’t want me to tell anyone. I had to make the call alone.”

Ryker stopped brushing his horse and fixed her with a gaze. Since he was 6’4, his gazes always carried extra weight. “You weren’t supposed to—” he made air quotes, “let us know. You were supposed to let us have a say in the matter. Adding a third dragon lord to Overdrake’s arsenal affects all of us.”

Her shoulders stiffened. “Aaron is on our side. He can help us, but the rest of you don’t trust him because he’s a dragon lord.”

Ryker went back to brushing his horse. “We don’t mistrust Aaron because he’s a dragon lord, we mistrust him because he’s a child.”

Lilly, Tori’s blonde-haired nemesis, hefted a saddle on her horse. “I mistrust him because he’s a dragon lord. By nature, they’re power-hungry and back-stabbing.”

“Thanks.” Tori made her way toward the tack room. “I appreciate that. If I decide to stab someone in the back, you’re making the choice a lot easier.”

Bess left her horse tied to a post and intercepted Tori with a sympathetic smile. She was tall with blue eyes and shoulder-length brown curls, but her best feature was her smile. Her frequently playful, always loyal smile. She gave Tori a hug. “I’d tell you not to listen to Lilly, but since that’s been standard policy for years, I won’t bother.”

For a moment, Tori melted into Bess’s hug, lived on it. As long as she still had friends here, everything would be fine. Even after Bess let her go, Tori kept a tight hold on that knowledge.

Booker walked the backup horses toward the door. “Listen up! You’ll have time for chatting when you’re dead. Get your horses ready and get on out of here.”

He most likely meant they would have time for chatting after they’d been symbolically killed during practice and were sitting out waiting for the next round. But with Booker, it was hard to be sure.

Tori took Bane from his stall. He was a black gelding, a beautiful creature, who seemed to dislike everyone but her. He gave her a welcoming whinny and nudged her with his velvety nose. She petted his neck and murmured to him, then led him to the far end of the barn so she could brush his coat and see to his hooves. Despite her familiarity with the routine, this time everything felt disconnected like she was watching someone else prepare the horse.

After she suited up in her fireproof gear, she saddled Bane and led him from the barn. Usually she hated wearing her helmet because it was hot and stuffy. Today she hoped Dr. B would keep the pre-game instructions short so she could put it on. That way, she wouldn’t have to work on keeping her expression stoic.

She picked up her pellet rifle, mounted Bane, and then rode across the grassy field. The area was about the size of a football field, but felt larger, perhaps because hopeful bushes and saplings dotted the land. They wouldn’t last on the field for long. If the horses didn’t trample or eat them, the practice dragons—small remote helicopters that shot out fire—would eventually burn them.

Booker had already set out an assortment of civilian-shaped plywood pieces around the field. They represented bystanders that the Slayers were supposed to avoid killing during the course of practice. Each fallen or damaged cut-out cost the team a hundred points from their score, and the losing team had to muck out the stalls afterward.

At the far end of the field, Dr. B surveyed the practice from the silo headquarters. He controlled one heli-dragon while Theo, Dr. B’s resident tech genius, ran the other. Theo was a twenty-something guy who took way too much pleasure in trying to blister the Slayers, a fault Dr. B never fully paid attention to.

Tori rode down the field to where the Slayers were gathered and took a spot beside Rosa. She was petite with long dark hair, gentle brown eyes, and features that made her look closer to fourteen than her seventeen years. One would never assume she could shoot a rifle with deadly accuracy, which was why the Slayers always used her when they needed to case out a place.

At camp, Rosa, Tori, and Bess had been inseparable.

“Are you doing okay?” Rosa asked Tori.

“Yeah,” Tori said.

“Are you lying?” Rosa worried too much, which balanced Bess out, who didn’t worry about anything.

“A little,” Tori said.

“We all still love you.”

Hardly the truth, since Lilly had never loved her in the first place. But Tori didn’t argue the point. Rosa thought the best of everyone, and at the moment, Tori appreciated that quality.

Bess and Ryker were mounted and talking so intently they seemed oblivious to Tori’s arrival. Bess frequently found ways to station herself beside him. Her crush was understandable. Ryker was custom made to invite crushes: black hair, blue eyes and the ability to fly. He was almost as attractive as Jesse.

Tori inwardly sighed. She had to stop thinking things like that. He wanted a platonic relationship, and anyway, she couldn’t afford to be distracted.

Jesse joined the group a minute later, stationing his horse by Willow’s and Lilly’s. The two girls were both blonde, but their similarities ended there. Willow’s hair was long and curly. Lilly’s was bleached with a new blue streak. Willow was tall and soft-spoken. Lilly was about as short as Rosa, although no one would have ever described her as petite. Petite implied delicate and sweet. Lilly was an in-your-face, flip-you-off, prima donna.

Ryker looked at Jesse, tilting his head in question. “Dude, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” There was only a little stiffness in Jesse’s voice.

Everyone turned their attention to him, though. He looked calm enough; ready to fight dragons and crush opponents.

Ryker’s gaze flicked in Tori’s direction. “Oh,” he said with understanding.

Which made everyone turn to Tori.

“Did I miss something?” Willow asked, her gaze bouncing between Ryker and Jesse.

“It’s a counterpart thing,” Bess said, “You can’t expect counterparts to make sense or explain themselves to anyone else.”

“I wish I had a counterpart,” Willow said.

“We all wish we did,” Rosa said sadly.

Ryker and Jesse were the only counterparts left. The thought made the group seem so small and doomed. They’d lost half their fighters.

Kody was the last to join the group. He’d been by a pile of firewood, tossing the things up in the air and sending freezing blasts at them that sent them spinning; his own personal warm-ups. He could also send out fireballs but didn’t do that nearly as often. Fire didn’t damage dragons.

He gave the group one of his usual smiles. “All right, y’all. Ready to get her done?” Perhaps it was his southern charm, but Kody seemed perpetually optimistic and good-natured. Which was probably fortunate for the guys he went to school with. Even without his Slayer powers, Kody had enough muscle to do serious damage to anyone who got on his bad side.

No one said more because Dr. B was driving up on a souped-up golf cart, one that went so fast it could probably be classified as a small jeep. He lurched the thing to a stop in front of them and climbed out. “Everyone here? Good.” He picked up the tablet that he used to take notes about their performances. “I have some things to go over before we start.”

The Slayers turned and maneuvered their horses into a tighter circle around him.

“The bug on Senator Ethington’s phone has provided some information of note. It seems the government has granted Venezuela permission to perform some military exercises near the west coast.”

Several Slayers groaned. They’d already learned that Overdrake had allies in Venezuela who’d help him, most likely by providing troops.

“Overdrake also has ties to Columbia,” Dr. B went on, “and they’ll be delivering shipments of supposed goods on the west coast at the same time Venezuela is sending ships to the east coast. The tentative date is the end of April. It may or may not be the time Overdrake chooses to attack, but we’ll need to be ready, just in case.” His gaze turned to Tori. “Hopefully we’ll be able to record Senator Ethington saying something that gives us a reason to alert your father of his doings, but so far he’s been fairly careful to speak using euphemisms.”

Dr. B turned his attention back to the others. “The good news is that Senator Ethington’s relationship with Overdrake is becoming strained. In his own words, he’s tired of Overdrake acting like he’s his boss. Perhaps before long, the senator will be less willing to carry out his bidding.”

Lilly snorted. “He’s a politician. That means he has no backbone.”

Usually Tori let those sorts of comments slide. She wasn’t in the mood today. “Honestly, Lilly, do you ever think about what you’re saying?”

Lilly looked at her with surprise. “Since when did you become a Senator Ethington fan?”

“I’m not talking about Senator Ethington. I’m talking about all the other politicians, including my father, who have a backbone.”

And that was pretty much how practice started.

After three rounds of fighting against a helicopter dragon, Tori had spent a total of about fifteen minutes alive. The rest of the time she sat out as one of the dead. Her emotions were making her careless. She’d only managed to shoot her dragon once, and truth be told, that was because Ryker had disabled the chains and Kevlar vest from the dragon, allowing her to get the shot in before the dragon could kill her.

Before the start of round four, the Slayers rode their horse to the troughs that dotted the playing field. The other Slayers usually let Tori have a trough to herself since Bane tended to nip at the other horses, but this time, Jesse rode up.

General, Jesse’s horse, kept a good distance from Bane while he got his fill. Jesse took a drink from his water bottle and considered her. “Are you all right?”

He no longer had the right to ask her those sorts of questions. “I’m fine,” she said airily.

He screwed the lid of his water bottle back on. “You’re not concentrating.”

“Oh, I’m concentrating. I’m just mostly concentrating on all the reasons I’m mad at you.”

He sighed—the sort of sigh he’d used when she’d first joined the Slayers and he thought she was missing some horribly obvious point. “I know you don’t want to take instructions from me right now, but I’m telling you this because I don’t want you to die during a real attack: You’ve got to be able to set your feelings aside when you’re fighting.”

“Yeah, that’s one of the top reasons I’m mad at you. You don’t have a hard time setting your feelings aside.”

He tucked his water bottle back into his saddle. “I don’t always succeed, but when it’s important, I at least make an attempt.”

He might have continued his pep talk about responsibility and saving people’s lives, but Willow rode up to their trough. She pulled off her helmet, letting her hair spill out onto her shoulders. “I’d like to make an official complaint.”

Willow wasn’t one to complain—at least not seriously, and Tori wasn’t sure whether she was serious now. “What’s wrong?”

Willow pulled out her water bottle a swig. “I’m tired of being killed. Just once, I’d like to do some damage to the dragon before it eviscerates me.”

“Join the club,” Tori said.

“It’s not the same,” Willow protested. “You die in the sky because the dragon attacked you before you could kill it. I just wander around aimlessly, following after the rest of you, until Dr. B or Theo decides to terrorize me with their helicopters of death.”

“Willow—” Jesse started.

She raised a finger at him. “Don’t you dare tell me I’m a valuable member of the team. My life doesn’t seem valuable to anyone but me.”

“Willow—” Tori tried.

Willow didn’t let her finish either. “And, Tori, I know you’re busy, but you’ve got to stop missing practice. Every time you’re not here, Ryker sends me out as bait to draw out the dragons.”

Tori hadn’t realized this. She looked at Jesse for confirmation. “He does?”

Jesse shrugged. “I’m sure he wouldn’t do it in a real battle.”

“Then he shouldn’t do it in practice.” Willow sent a glare over her shoulder in her cousin’s direction. “Seriously, what is even the point of having me practice? I can’t do anything. Tell Dr. B to let me do civilian triage on the sidelines.”

Dr. B had assured Willow that eventually her extra power would manifest itself. But a month later, it still hadn’t happened. Tori supposed they had all begun to wonder what none of them would admit: Maybe Willow didn’t have an extra power.

Bane flicked his mane in annoyance. He didn’t like the other horses standing close to him. Tori patted his neck. He always calmed down for her. “This time you won’t die,” she told Willow. “Your assignment next round will be to stay by Rosa and protect her.”

Rosa could heal burns. In a battle, she would be what kept a lot of them alive. They usually had her stay far away from the dragon.

“Protect her how?” Willow moaned. “She’s a better fighter than I am.”

“Not true,” Jesse said. “You’re a good fighter. Rosa is just more experienced. And she became experienced by practicing. That’s why we’re here: to get better.”

Willow sighed dramatically. “Fine.” She twisted her hair into a coil and put her helmet back on. “I’ll go stick by Rosa and wait for the helicopters of doom to find me again.” She gave her horse a nudge and trotted back toward where the others were assembling.

Jesse leaned toward Tori and lowered his voice. “In a real battle, have Willow work crowd control.”

“She’s not that bad,” Tori said, immediately defensive.

Jesse tilted his chin at her. “I’m saying that because I like her, not because I don’t. I don’t want her in over her head.”

He was right, but Tori still felt the need to defend Willow. Not that long ago she’d been the new girl without combat experience or a decent power to help her fight. “She just needs time to get up to speed.”

Jesse didn’t comment on that. She knew what he was thinking anyway. They might not have much time.

“She can protect me while I try to take control of a dragon,” Tori offered.

Jesse shook his head. “We need you in the air fighting.”

A helicopter shot above the tree line and hovered there, ending the conversation. Round four had officially started. It was Jesse’s turn to lead the teams until the second heli-dragon showed up.

“Positions!” Jesse yelled to the others. Before he left, he turned back to her with a half-smile. “Look, if you’re going to be mad at me, at least put your anger to good use. Show me up. Kill your dragon so fast that you put me to shame.”

She tugged Bane’s reins, turning him to the field. “I don’t need tips on how to be angry at you.”

“Good,” he said, smile becoming a smirk. “Now channel that resentment at the dragon.”

She would have told him what he could do with his advice but he’d ridden off by then.

She put her helmet back on, leaned forward on Bane, and the horse was off before she had even tapped his flanks. A-team was heading south to circle the dragon. Time to concentrate. The worst part of Jesse’s advice was that if she did manage to kill her dragon first this round, she’d look like she’d followed his counsel and he’d been right. If she didn’t kill hers first, she’d look like she hadn’t managed the art of mastering her emotions.

Man, it was going to be such an uncomfortable ride back to Jesse’s house.

Across the field, Kody whooped and charged forward toward the heli-dragon.

Ryker, who seemed to be in his own personal competition to determine who had the most testosterone in the group, answered with his own war-cry. Guys. Seriously.

Tori did a quick search of the sky for the second helicopter. Didn’t see it. Once it arrived, A-team would break off to engage it. She urged Bane into a cautious trot. Training with horses here always made Tori feel like she was playing a game of polo—with things that wanted to kill her.

Dr. B claimed the Slayer horses were descendants of the stallions bred by the original Slayer Knights and used to defeat the dragons of the Middle Ages. They were fearless, obedient, and strangely willing to charge at large carnivorous beasts. To Tori’s mind, this made the horses more foolish than the regular, more cowardly variety. Animals should instinctively know to run in the opposite direction of fire-breathing death.

Booker, who took care of the horses, dismissed Dr. B’s theory about their breeding. “Slayers just have a natural way with horses,” he’d told Tori once. “A Slayer can take the orneriest cantankerous piece of horsehide and turn him into a lap dog.”

Case in point: Bane. As they rode across the field, he actually snorted angrily at the helicopter. It spurted a stream of fire at Tori as if answering the horse’s challenge.

Ryker rushed at the helicopter from the opposite direction. He was close enough that he should have flown off his horse and gone after the copter in the air. Instead, he rode under it. “Behind you!” he called to Tori. “A-team, split!”

Tori still wasn’t used to Ryker calling the commands and he’d been doing it for three rounds already.

Tori gave Bane two taps on the haunches. This was the signal she was leaving him and he should go to a safe place and wait. She was fairly certain Bane understood the direction. The fact that he usually wandered around eating shrubbery instead indicated that he was either too smart to be fooled by the mechanical dragon or not smart enough to avoid danger when food was around. She had no idea what he’d do in an actual attack on a city. Perhaps rummage through the garbage cans for leftovers.

Tori flew upwards, twisting mid-air to follow the helicopter. She felt weightless in the sky, as though gravity had lost its grip on her. Moving became instinctual here, more thought than effort.

She took note of each member of her team below. In their dark suits, they were hard to distinguish from each other, but if Tori hadn’t recognized their horses, the symbols on the back of their jackets would let her know who was who. Kody rode to the south of the robo-dragon. Lilly trailed behind him. Willow and Rosa waited with their horses by trees on the sidelines, watching.

With Rosa in reserve, Jesse and Bess were left to handle the first dragon by themselves. Two people. It wasn’t enough. A-team had four fighters, five if you counted Willow. Dr. B would have to rearrange the teams soon. Probably the only reason he hadn’t done it already was that he wanted to see what Jesse and Bess could do against impossible odds.

Today, they’d done pretty well. Or maybe it just seemed that way compared to Tori’s dismal performance.

Ryker reached the helicopter first. He flew above it, diving in towards the section that represented the Kevlar straps. He had to press the buttons that represented cutting them. The machine tilted upward, shooting a stream of fire that arced toward Ryker.

A moment later the flames disappeared, leaving only a trail of smoke. Lilly had extinguished it.

Ryker swooped downward, in an attempt to get out of the line of fire. The helicopter swung that way, following him.

Tori wheeled upwards to help him. They had a system worked out. She flew in front of the dragon and drew its attention. Since her dragon lord abilities made her immune to fire, she could be hit by a stream that melted her flame-resistant suit and still come out unblistered.

Hot, yes. Sweaty, definitely. And if she was really unlucky—naked. So far the naked part hadn’t happened, but she worried one day it would. Anyway, when fire hit her, she felt like she’d walked into an oven, but she emerged from the flames unscathed.

Tori soared in front of the dragon, gun raised and shot. Her airsoft rifle didn’t damage the helicopter, just as a real rifle wouldn’t do more than irritate a dragon. The only part of a dragon that was unprotected from scales was a soft spot on its underbelly, and Overdrake covered that part with Kevlar.

Theo had painted an angry face on the machine, complete with fangs. Tori took an extra shot, hoping to knock off some of that paint.

Fire spurted from a nozzle underneath the helicopter.

She spun to the left but was too slow to avoid the reach of the flames. They hit her on the side, making her suit sizzle. The acrid scent of burning plastic enveloped her.

Well, that lovely smell was going to be hard to explain to her parents. Study group had just taken an ugly turn.

“Are you paying attention?” Tori called to Lilly.

“Sorry!” Lilly chimed back.

No, she wasn’t. Since Lilly had found out that Tori couldn’t be burned, she’d become slow to extinguish the flames that came in Tori’s direction.

“I couldn’t cut the strap,” Ryker called, his frustration evident. “Sequel.” That meant he was going to try again. Risky, as the dragon was no longer paying attention to Tori, but had turned toward Ryker. Instead of darting away, he hovered in the air, letting the machine come nearer. She knew he would stay there, a stationary target, and then right before the dragon reached him, he would dart upward, putting himself above the dragon so he could take a shot.

But Theo and Dr. B, who controlled helicopters, knew the move too and would likely be planning for it. As would Overdrake when he actually attacked with dragons. Dirk had told him all their moves, strategies, and tactics.

Did Ryker not understand this? He had no caution when it came to fighting, which made Tori twice as wary. She felt like she had to watch out for him.

She pulled a paint bomb from her vest and called out “Trident!” to tell Ryker she was about to use a sticky grenade.

If a paint bomb landed near the straps, they blew off both the chains and the Kevlar, and best of all, the flyers didn’t have to get as close to the dragons to use them.

Ryker darted away from the dragon and out of the trajectory of Tori’s grenade just in case she missed. Which happened occasionally. Tori had good aim, but dragons were fast. If a grenade missed and exploded on the ground it would most likely splatter a few of the people-shaped wooden cutouts.

She decided not to worry about civilians today. Life was hard, after all, and they should have noticed the dragon and taken cover somewhere else besides the playing field.

The dragon jerked downward to get away from her. Using explosives was more dangerous when the dragon was flying low to the ground—higher chance of causalities even if the grenade stuck to the dragon—but Tori wanted to win this round quickly. She flung the grenade, fast and hard. It hit the target with a clang that made the copter shiver. Instead of sticking, it bounced off—right toward Kody.

“Freeze it!” she called to him.

His arms were already drawn back. “Got it!” He hurled an icy blast to knock the grenade away.

Since A-team didn’t have a shielder, Kody’s bursts were A-team’s only defense against rogue grenades. Usually he managed to swing the grenade away from the team, although more than once he’d accidentally swung into the path of a teammate. This time his first blast missed, and he had to shoot a second with his other hand. A concentrated stream of cold air hit the grenade, sending it to the ground a few feet away from him.

Too close. An explosion of red paint splattered Kody, his horse, and a couple wooden civilians. He was dead until the round ended.

Kody spat paint from his mouth. “How come those things don’t stick like they’re supposed to?”

“Dragons are slippery,” Ryker called.

Kody rode off the field muttering.

Tori muttered too. She couldn’t afford to kill off anyone else, which meant no more not-so-sticky grenades unless the dragon was far away from the other Slayers.

The helicopter swooped low, focusing on Lilly. She urged her horse into a gallop, in an effort to keep out of range. She could avoid the dragon’s fire but not its teeth or claws. Tori and Ryker flew over the machine’s back, trying to reach the buttons that would signify they’d cut the Kevlar straps. Pushing the buttons was only half of the job. They also had to shoot the buttons a second time to show they’d blasted through the chains that kept the shield in place.

By the time Lilly found cover in a copse of trees, Tori had pushed one button and Ryker had taken care of the other.

Now they just had to shoot the buttons. That was easier to do. They didn’t have to be as close.

Willow rode downfield toward A-team. Jesse must have noticed Kody’s untimely death and sent her back to help out.

The helicopter noticed her. It rose with a lurch, then dived toward her, zigzagging to prevent Tori and Ryker from getting a clear shot. Before the machine reached Willow, she bolted into the trees. The copter skimmed over the canopy, searching for her.

Tori and Ryker both tailed the helicopter. Before they reached it, the machine careened back to the playing field. Ryker followed, but Tori hesitated. A low buzz was coming from the direction of the road.

A motorcycle. She inwardly groaned. That noise meant Dr. B was sending in camp personnel to pretend to be Overdrake’s men. Couldn’t be a stranger. The fence kept out anyone who didn’t know the gate code. Now she would have to worry about guns and nets and whatever other devices Dr. B wanted to spring on them.

And this after she’d already lost Kody, their only protection from guns. He could blast the weapons out of the owners’ hands.

The motorcycle was far enough away that only Tori, with her more sensitive hearing, could pick up the sound. She looked over at Team Magnus’s side of the field. Bess was still in play. Tori switched her mic to Team Magnus’s frequency. “Bess, we’ve got an incoming motorcycle. He’ll be armed. Can you help us out?”

Technically, Tori wasn’t supposed to ask for help from Team Magnus unless they’d already killed their dragon, but Tori was hot, tired, and didn’t feel like playing by the rules. If this had been an actual attack, she would’ve asked for Bess’s help.

“Negative,” Jesse called back on her earphone. “We’ll have incoming over here too.”

He was right, of course. What one team got, they usually both got. Before long a motorcycle would be coming at Jesse’s team too.

So what sort of defense did that leave her? The motorcycle was louder now, closer.

Willow rode out of the trees, the bike trailing after her. A big man sat there, his identity hidden by his helmet and coat.

The Slayers wore bullet-proof jackets, but the last time Overdrake’s men had attacked, they’d been using armor-piercing bullets. So a hit from this motorcyclist’s pellet gun would still count as a kill. None of them were safe. Well, except Team Magnus. Bess could throw a shield up to protect them.

In a real battle, Bess wouldn’t be told to protect her own team and leave A-team to be picked off by a gunman.

Willow would be the first one shot. The biker hadn’t pulled out a gun yet. He was gazing around the field, slowing his motorcycle.

Killing the dragon was Tori’s first priority. She should concentrate on that—but she didn’t like leaving Lilly and Willow vulnerable on the ground to gunfire. Hadn’t she told Willow she wouldn’t let her die this round? Ryker could deal with the dragon for a few minutes.

Keeping high in the air, Tori circled behind the man so he would have to turn to fire at her. He would be wearing bulletproof armor and since the Slayers didn’t carry armor piercing bullets—they accidentally shot each other on occasion—she wouldn’t be able to take the biker out of play with gunfire.

She didn’t recognize the man’s build. He wasn’t one of the regulars who played Overdrake’s underlings. Probably some new martial art champion Dr. B had added to his cadre to show the Slayers they weren’t invincible.

As though Tori’s repeated deaths hadn’t already taught her that.

Her choices in battle were always fight or flight. Flight meant something different to her and she chose that option.

She dived down, wrapped her arms around his chest, and plucked the man from his seat. He jerked in surprise, hadn’t seen her coming.

His problem. She shot upwards. The bike teetered then fell, wheels spinning while the engine uselessly hummed. The man thrashed in Tori’s grip, then went still as he realized how quickly the ground was receding beneath them.

“I wouldn’t recommend struggling,” she said. “I might drop you.”

His words came out as a growl. “Put me down!”

Dr. B’s voice pinged in her earpiece. “Tori, what’s going on?”

Yeah, he was bound to be unhappy about this turn of events. She’d abandoned her main priority—dragon shooting—in order to protect her team. “I’ve never had my own prisoner,” she said cheerily. “Maybe this could work out for me.” She shifted the man in her arms slightly. “What kind of information, my captured minion, can you give me about Overdrake’s location?”

“Take me to Alastair, immediately!” the man said, the growl still in his voice. He was not afraid and not amused by this.

Tori had never heard Dr. B swear, but he did then. It was an uttered exclamation of disbelief. “Tori, don’t hurt him. He’s not part of the game.”

Not part of the game? Impossible. This field was fenced off, locked up tight. No one got in here without knowing the gate code.

Out on the field, both helicopters descended onto the ground, signaling the round was over. That also never happened until the dragons or all the Slayers were killed.

Tori was so surprised that she just stood there, hovering a hundred feet above the ground, holding the stranger. “Wow. Who are you?”

The man let out a laugh. Not the happy kind. “You know me as Sam.”

Chapter 10

(Perhaps I should add that this is Chapter 10 at the moment. All of the other chapters you’ve read have changed in one way or another.)

Tori didn’t hear from Jesse over the break, didn’t hear from Dirk either, for that matter. Although she did hear from Bess and Rosa, her closest Slayer friends. Dr. B didn’t like the Slayers to use their watches for personal communications, but Tori ignored this rule and messaged both Bess and Rosa. Whether you agree with what I’ve done or not, please understand I did it to help—because I’m trying to keep us all safe. Don’t be mad.

Back when Tori had agreed to join the Slayers, she’d known she might face death, but she’d never thought about how much her life would change. Not just because of the secrets, but because her knowledge of the danger and dragons set her apart from her family and friends in a way she hadn’t expected. So many things seemed different to her now. She knew of Overdrake’s threat, and had faced and fought him and his men more than once. She’d flown through the sky, rode on dragons, and delved into the mind of one. She wasn’t the same person anymore—was better, deeper, stronger but she couldn’t explain any of it to them. Really, only the other Slayers understood her. A small group. And she couldn’t bear the thought that she’d disappointed them.

Rosa had written back right away. Tori had known she would. Rosa was too sweet, too kind to ignore an apology.

I understand and I’m not angry anymore. But next time talk to us first. You’ve got to learn to trust us.

Bess didn’t reply for a few hours—perhaps she had to think over her response, or perhaps she was out somewhere busy with her social life. Or both.

We’re cool. Either your gamble will pay off and everyone will be forced to agree it was brilliant, or we’ll be dead and it won’t matter. Well played, my friend.

Typical Bess. She refused on principle to take most things seriously.

When Tori walked into journalism class on Monday, Tacy, the class’s residing ultra-blonde cheerleader, was nearly draped over Jesse’s desk. And Jesse didn’t seem to mind. He was chatting happily with her.

Jealousy spiked through Tori. She supposed that was Jesse’s intent. He was showing her how easy it was for him to move on and forget about her.

Tori was so not in the mood for this. She ignored him through class and through lunch too.

Dr. B sent a private message to her watch during last period.

I’ve called a Slayer practice after school. Have your driver drop you off at Jesse’s house to study. Jesse will tell his parents that the two of you are going out on a date and he’ll drive you to the practice grounds. Let me know if you can’t comply.

Dr. B understood Tori’s restrictions well enough to know that her parents were more likely to let her go to a study group than go out with Jesse on a school night. Apparently, Jesse’s parents weren’t as strict.

A few seconds later he texted her Jesse’s address.*(mention that it’s okay for her to know his address?)

Well, that was just what she wanted to do—spend time in a car with Jesse, then face the Slayers. How many of them were still angry at her because she’d helped Aaron go to Overdrake?

But there was no getting around it. She’d already missed too many Slayer practices and she was on probation. Time to face them. She phoned her mother and told her about the study group.

After school, Tori gave Jesse’s address to Lars and he dutifully drove her there.

Jesse lived in an average suburb: narrow streets lined with cars. Homes made of brick and clapboard siding. Yards with bare trees and the occasional forgotten toy laying on the grass, soon to be buried until the spring thaw. *The first thin coating of snow had found the city, but the white covering had been a half-hearted attempt on nature’s part. Just a warning of things to come.

Jesse’s house was a boxy, one-story brick with black shutters and sit-down porch that attempted charm, but didn’t quite manage it. Too sparse. The chairs sitting there looked like an afterthought, as though they hadn’t fit in the kitchen and had therefore been relegated outside.

Lars scanned the area, opened his door, and got out, his hands never straying far from the gun he kept tucked in his holster. He doubled as a bodyguard, making sure she got where she needed to go. “You don’t have to see me to the door,” Tori said.

He headed up the walk anyway, swaggering as if in an attempt to intimidate the surrounding shrubbery. “I take orders from your parents, not you.”

Okay, maybe she had ditched him once too often, but she’d had good reasons. Now he made a habit of giving her curt little lectures or pointedly asked her if she was trying to get him fired. You wouldn’t think a 6’4 war veteran would be so touchy. But yeah, he was.

She walked up to the door with him and rang the bell.

After a few moments, Jesse’s mother answered the door. She was a middle-aged woman with straight dark hair cut in a no-nonsense bob. Her brown eyes were similar to Jesse’s but her other feature seemed to belong only to her. Crisp, professional, unforgivably competent. She was a new teacher at Veritas Academy, Tori’s school. She and Jesse’s father had both started teaching there when Dr. B had found new jobs for the Slayers’ families. Tori had to pretend she didn’t know her real last name was Harris. She went by Richardson now, just as Jesse went by Jonathan.

Mrs. Harris-now-Richardson looked from Lars to Tori with surprise. “Hello,” she said. Tori could tell she meant, “Why are you standing on my doorstep?”

Hadn’t Jesse told her they were going on a date? Then again, maybe that was for the best. Lars thought she’d come for a study group.

“Hi,” Tori said. “I’m here to see Jonathan.”

Mrs. Harris stared at her blankly.

“We’re studying,” Tori added.

Mrs. Harris’s eyes turned to Lars, a question forming on her lips.

“Lars isn’t staying,” Tori said. “He just drives me around and makes sure I’m not kidnapped on the way to people’s doorsteps.” She gestured to her bodyguard. “See, I’m fine. I’ll give you a call when we’re done.”

Jesse had apparently been changing out of his school uniform. He sauntered into the room wearing jeans and pulling a T-shirt over his head. “Hi, Tori.”

The sight of him—that flash of his abs—shouldn’t have made Tori stare. She’d gone swimming with Jesse a dozen times during the summer, and besides, most of the Slayer guys had considered shirts optional at camp. But months had passed since then. Her immunity had worn off.

Mrs. Harris moved out of the way to allow Tori entrance. “Come in.”

Tori’s gaze snapped back to Jesse’s mother. Had she seen Tori gawking at her son? “Thanks.” She walked inside trying not to blush.

Mrs. Harris smiled, but it was decidedly forced and a little bit horrified. She had disliked Tori at first sight. Must have thought she showed too much interest in her son. “The two of you are studying?”

“Yeah,” Jesse said. “We’re going out to eat and we’ll do some studying afterward.”

“Oh,” Mrs. Harris said. “How nice.” To her credit, by the time she said the last sentence, her disapproval was hidden in politeness. “Don’t stay out too late. It’s a school night.”

“Might take a while,” Jesse said. “We’ve got a lot to go over.” He walked to the window and glanced out—no doubt checking to make sure Lars hadn’t stationed himself out front—then motioned for Tori to follow him through the house to the garage.

His home was about what she’d imagined it would be. Worn furniture spread through the rooms, the kind that looked comfortably lived in. A large family picture hung on the wall. Jesse smiled in a way that was more posed than natural. His real smile lit up his eyes, made everything about him seem warm and shining. But even his posed smile looked nice. It was probably hard to take a bad picture of Jesse.

 The bookshelves in the living room told her that this family took reading seriously. Bound to happen when both parents were teachers.

It was odd to see this part of Jesse’s life, to see the place where he was just a normal teenager and not a Slayer captain. And it was especially odd to be alone with him after they’d spent the last week ignoring each other.

In the garage, an aging silver Prius waited for them among the stacks of moving boxes. Tori climbed in the passenger side and wished she’d been able to change out of her school uniform. Her fireproof pants and jacket were much more comfortable when worn over jeans.

Jesse got in beside her, opened the garage door, and drove out onto the street. Out in the yards they passed, dead patches of grass poked up through the snow. Bits of brown leaves clumped together at the edges of the street, discoloring the snow there.

The silence that hung between them was thick with all of the things that still needed to be said. “So,” she began as though this were any other conversation, “why didn’t you tell your mom the two of us were going out?”

Jesse’s gaze stayed on the street. “I told her I was going out. I just didn’t specify who with.”

 “Does she dislike me because my dad is a Republican or for some other reason?”

“She doesn’t dislike you.” He barely stopped at a stop sign before turning onto another street. “I told her she shouldn’t vote for Senator Ethington. She thinks you’re converting me to the Republican party.”

Tori let out a scoff. “I can’t even get you to listen to my Slayer strategies. I doubt I’d have much luck with politics.”

 “I listen to you about Slayer stuff. I just question the dragon lord stuff.”

Ever since Thanksgiving, whenever Tori had thought about Aaron, she’d felt a sense of dread well up inside of her. She wasn’t about to admit to Jesse that Aaron had wanted Overdrake’s approval, that Aaron wanted to please him. “You’re the one who told me that in battle you can’t play it safe. You’ve got to take chances. That’s what I did by sending Aaron in. I took a chance.”

Jesse shook his head, tight jawed. “It’s Dirk who always said you can’t play it safe. I tend to err on the side of caution.”

Jesse was right. It was Dirk who encouraged her to take chances. She’d just heard the advice so often, she thought it had come from Jesse too.

He was still shaking his head. “I can see how you’d get us mixed up, though.”

She didn’t miss the barb in his words. “I kissed Dirk for a strategic advantage. If kissing some girl gave you a strategic advantage against Overdrake, you’d do it, wouldn’t you?”

He didn’t answer. Which meant he knew she had a point. “And I would be more understanding about it,” she added.

“How attractive is the girl in question?”

“Why does that matter?”

“I think it would matter in how understanding you were afterward.”

He was determined to be difficult. “I would be understanding either way. I’d just be less happy if she was hot.”

Jesse tapped his fingers against the steering wheel and put on a contemplative expression. “Tacy might have dragon lord information.”

“She doesn’t.”

“You never know.”

Time to change that line of conversation. “The last time we talked, you told me I needed to figure out if I was a Slayer or a dragon lord. But I think I can be both. Our best bet during a fight might be if I’m down on the ground, hidden somewhere, while I try to get control of the dragon. At the very least, I’ll be able distract Overdrake.”

He looked far from convinced. “Distracting Overdrake isn’t enough. We need you in the sky as a flyer. We wouldn’t have killed either of the last dragons without your help.”

“If I can control a dragon, we won’t have to kill it.”

“And if you try to control it, you might not be able to kill it.” Jesse shot her a quick glance. “Dirk obviously thinks that if he turns you into a dragon lord, you’ll switch to his side. How do we know he’s not right?”

She refused to let her mind wander to Dirk’s techniques. “I guess you’ll have to trust me.”

Jesse huffed out a breath, one that mixed with the hum of the tires on the road. They’d come to the highway and the Prius shook slightly while attempting higher speeds. “No one ever thinks they’re vulnerable. But sometimes people aren’t as strong as they imagine.”

She thought of Aaron again, of the pleasure he’d felt on the day he’d learned to fly and he’d earned Overdrake’ approval. Aaron had thought he wouldn’t be vulnerable to his father’s influences, but maybe he was.

Tori wasn’t vulnerable, though. She couldn’t be won over by Ferraris. Or dragon rides. Or Dirk’s kisses. “You’ll have to trust me,” she said again. More quietly she added, “If I wanted to date Dirk, I could. I don’t though. I want you.” She wished she could slip her hand into his and scoot closer to him. Doing that would make everything feel normal again. But he was keeping both hands on the wheel and she was belted in. And besides, things weren’t normal between them.

Jesse’s gaze slid from the road to her, then back again. “Are you going to see Dirk again? Because we both know he’ll be happy to offer you as many chances for that sort of strategic advantage as you’ll take.”

Tori leaned back in her seat with a sigh. Jesse made the issue seem simple, but it wasn’t. “Probably not. I don’t know.”

“Yeah, well as long as you don’t know the answer to that question, we shouldn’t be seeing each other.”

He was giving her an ultimatum. She was just supposed to cut Dirk off. Her heart cracked a little right then, but sadness didn’t seep through the fissures, anger did. “You’re telling me to forget what’s good for the Slayers and the country and put our relationship first?”

“No, I’m telling you I’m not going to sit by while you see Dirk again—not when he’s our enemy and you keep making out with him. Sorry, but I’m not that understanding.”

She looked out of the window, out at the cars on the highway they were passing. “I should have never told you the truth about Dirk, and I’ll think twice about what I tell you from now on.” It was a petty thing to say, but she didn’t care. Her choices had been to break into tears or be petty, and she didn’t feel like crying.

Jesse’s voice softened. “When we’re done fighting Overdrake, things will change.”

Nope. They wouldn’t.

Another petty thought and a stupid one. Of course things would change. Overdrake had four dragons and ten eggs. Even if the Slayers were lucky and managed to kill the next two dragons he attacked with, he would eventually whittle their numbers away.

One of Dirk’s lessons on World War Two came to mind, a joke he’d told her about a German and an American soldier talking after the war. The American said, “I heard that in a battle, one German Tiger Tank was worth ten of our American Sherman Tanks.”

“You heard right,” the German said.

“Then how did we win the war?” The American asked.

“When we had a battle, you always brought eleven tanks.”

Overdrake certainly had enough dragons to kill the Slayers. Flyers were the most vulnerable, the ones that Overdrake targeted first. She and Jesse might not both make it out alive and then the whole dating point would be moot. Jesse must know this, but he still wanted to spend their remaining time together as nothing more than teammates.

He shifted his grip on the steering wheel. “I’m not saying all of this because I don’t care about you. I’m saying it because I care too much.”

How was she supposed to respond to that? Tell him to care about her less? His words were just an easy out. A more noble sounding version of: It’s me, not you. So she didn’t respond at all. She pulled homework from her backpack and worked on it—firmly, stiffly, and without being able to concentrate on it.

Five miles before they reached the practice field, Tori’s powers kicked in—the simulator’s doing. Her senses grew sharp and her energy picked up. She was more resistant to cold now, could leap fifteen feet without effort, and would be able to see in the dark later on when the sun went down. Best of all she could fly. The ability to float and drift in the sky, to glide beneath the stars—it almost made up for the rest of practice.

A few minutes later, Jesse’s car reached the driveway to the old farm where they trained during the school year. An overgrown orchard surrounded the place, hiding it from the main road. It’s once orderly rows had been overrun with unruly trees intent on turning the land back into the forest. Sam, the unknown patron of the Slayers, had bought it a decade ago and surrounded the whole place with a fifteen-foot barbed wire fence. Jesse pulled up to the gate and punched in the code to open the doors.

Then the Prius jiggled down the uneven road and over to the stretch of dirt where the Slayers parked. Before Jesse had even completely turned off his car, Tori opened her door, got out and slammed the door harder than she intended. With her powers turned on, things broke easier. She stormed off toward the stable to get her horse.

Within a few steps, Jesse caught up with her. “Look, I’m sorry.”

Three words that didn’t change anything. They were little stitches that couldn’t hold together the wounds between them. “Yeah, I’m sorry too. The problem is I think we’re sorry about different things.”

“I shouldn’t have laid all of that on you right before practice. We should have waited until afterward to talk.”

“I’m fine,” she said, steeling her voice to make it sound truer. Breathe, she told herself. Just breathe. She headed to the stables so she didn’t have to keep hearing him apologize for not caring about her enough—or for caring about her too much. In the end, it worked out to be the same thing.

She had to get through this practice—no, not get through it. Even though she felt horrible, she had to prove to the other Slayers and Dr. B that she was ready to be a captain again, that she deserved it. She was going to slay her dragons faster and better than she ever had—or at least faster and better than Jesse did.

Chapter 9

As Jesse stared at Ryan, the back of his neck tingled with a warning. When Slayers’ powers were turned on, they picked up on the adrenaline levels of the people around them. Fear, anger, and aggression all transmitted as strongly as smells and sounds. Jesse hadn’t sensed any of those emotions at the party, but suddenly all three spiked from Ryan.

Not normal emotions. Not normal levels. The only times Jesse had felt that sort of hostility was when Overdrake’s men were attacking.

“Crap,” Bess muttered. She’d felt it too. The guy must be on Overdrake’s payroll and he’d recognized them.

Ryan reached into his jacket pocket. Was he going for a gun? “Shield,” Jesse hissed.

He’d barely finished saying the word before he figured out where she’d put the forcefield. A guy strolling away from the table smacked into it and fell backward. His drink splashed on a couple of girls who stood at the table. Both shrieked in annoyance.

Ryan kept his gaze on Jesse. When his hand lifted from his pocket, he held a phone, not gun.

He must be calling for backup. In the span of two seconds Jesse had analyzed his options. He could tell Bess to drop the shield, rush over, grab Ryan’s phone, and crush it. But he might not get to the phone fast enough to prevent a warning, and crushing a stranger’s phone would cause a scene. Leo especially wouldn’t understand that sort of thing.

Jesse could shoot Ryan with the tranquilizer dart. But he wouldn’t go unconscious for a minute—too long to prevent him from warning whoever was on the other end of the phone. Besides, once he started staggering around, Leo would worry about him and refuse to leave. He’d probably insist on staying until the paramedics arrived.

In fact, any sort of altercation with Ryan would only drive a wedge between Jesse and Leo.

Man, Jesse hated when the only option was fleeing.

“We’ve got to go,” he told Bess. Ryan hadn’t produced a weapon, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have one. He might just be refraining from using it among so many witnesses. “Keep your shield between us and him.”

Bess’s hands fisted at her side. “We can’t leave Leo.”

Leo probably wasn’t in danger. Still, Jesse didn’t like leaving him either—vulnerable and unaware that he was friends with the enemy. It felt like letting Overdrake win. “Leo,” Jesse called and waved to him. “Let’s go.”

Leo was still on their side of the shield. He’d momentarily stopped his march toward Ryan, distracted by the guy who’d fallen and the girls who were wiping angrily at their hair. He turned his attention back to Ryan and gestured behind him at Jesse and Bess. “Hey, I’m going to chill with some old friends for a while. Don’t leave without me, okay?”

Ryan plastered on a smile that did nothing to decrease his adrenaline levels and held the phone away from his mouth to talk to Leo “Have them stay. The party is just getting started.”

He wanted them to stay until more of Overdrake’s men got here. He probably didn’t realize that Jesse and Bess knew what he was.

“We’ll be back,” Leo said.

No, they wouldn’t. While Ryan and Leo spoke, Jesse tapped the side button on his watch, sending Dr. B his own distress message: Enemy nearby.

“You’ve gotta stay.” Ryan muttered something into the phone, then slipped it into his pocket. “I just told Amelia you were here and she’s on her way over to see you. If you leave now, she’ll think you ditched her.”

“Amelia?” Leo repeated, his resolve wavering.

“You know what would be fun?” Bess called to him. “We should go see Rosa.”

Jesse nodded. “She lives nearby.” He had no idea where she lived.

His watch lit up, Dr. B asking for more details and reporting that he would call the police. It would take law enforcement a few minutes to get here. Fortunately, it would most likely take Overdrake’s men even longer to arrive. He probably didn’t have men stationed nearby. Ryan was counting on Jesse and Bess staying for a while.

Leo ambled back to Jesse and Bess. “I’d love to go with you but I probably should stay. Amelia is a friend who has been having a hard time. I owe her.”

Amelia hadn’t been on the phone with Ryan unless she was also working for Overdrake.

Time for a new strategy. Jesse shrugged. “No problem. We can stay.”

Bess shot him a sharp look. Ryan eyed him suspiciously.

Jesse nodded toward the catwalk. “Let’s go where it’s quieter and we can catch up on old times while you wait for your friend.”

“Okay. Let me get some food first.” He marched past them to the food table. “I’m starving.”

Bess leaned over to Jesse and whispered, “This isn’t a good place for a shield. I’m already sliding it all over the place to avoid more accidents.”

Ryan shuffled over to them, pretending casualness. “So how do you guys know Leo?”

“We’re his age,” Bess said. “How do you know him?”

Ryan laughed and shoved his hands into his pants pockets. Not enough room there for a gun. If he had one of those it would be in his jacket. “I’m only a year older than Leo,” Ryan said. “We went to the same high school. I’m trying to convince him to come to Georgetown.”

Ryan seemed older than a freshman. Had Overdrake discovered where Leo went to high school and hired someone to infiltrate the place or had Overdrake just convinced one of Leo’s friends to work for him? In the end, Jesse supposed it didn’t matter. The result was the same.

Ryan continued to stare at them, waiting for them to answer his question. No point in denying where they met. Overdrake already knew the information, and Leo would answer if Jesse didn’t.

“We went to camp together,” Jesse said matching Ryan’s casualness. “Every summer since junior high.”

Hopefully Ryan didn’t realize that he and Bess were onto him. Ditching him would be easier that way.

Leo finally finished filling his plate and returned to the group with his mouth full of potato chips. “Dragon camp,” he said. “Back when I was a nerd.”

“You were never a nerd,” Bess said. Her gaze only shot to Leo for a moment then was back to Ryan. Her shield must have been right in front of Jesse’s face. If Leo walked forward, he’d knock into it.

Leo put his hand on the side of his mouth as though letting Ryan in on a secret. “Bess’s dad ran the camp. She’s a little biased.”

Ryan forced a grin. “Dragon camp. Sounds interesting. What sort of thing did you do? Paint ceramic dragons?”

He was trying to keep them talking until his backup arrived. How long would Overdrake’s men take? A half an hour? Longer?

“We did normal camp stuff,” Leo said. “Archery, horseback riding, running around and nearly burning down the forest.”

They’d also leaped from tree branches and dodged fireballs. Did Leo remember any of that? Jesse would have to ask him later. Right now he needed to get rid of Ryan and take Leo someplace where he and Bess could explain the situation. If they showed him their powers, maybe they could convince him to leave with them. At the very least, they needed to warn him about Ryan. The guy was being paid to watch him.

While Leo was telling Ryan about all the jogging they’d had to do at camp, Jesse broke into the conversation. “We should let Ryan get back to his beer pong.” He took one of Leo’s potato chips and bit into it. “Nice meeting you.”

“I was done watching the game,” Ryan said. “I don’t mind hanging with you guys.”

Bess smile apologetically. “Sorry, but we need to talk to Leo privately. He can get back to you in a few minutes.” She hooked her hand through Leo’s arm. “Let’s go downstairs.”

“You can’t leave the party.” Sharpness bled into Ryan’s words. “The tenants don’t want strangers roaming around the building.”

“We won’t go far,” Bess said, already pulling Leo with her.

“Seriously,” Ryan said. “Don’t leave the rooftops.”

Leo glanced over his shoulder at Ryan. “Relax. I’ll be back soon.”

Not if Jesse could help it. He walked beside Bess as she towed Leo to the right side of the building. He hoped they’d find stairs there. Otherwise they’d have to use the main catwalk and it was crowded and in plain sight.

“What did you want to talk to me about?” Leo asked, keeping his pace slow.

“It’s hard to explain this without looking crazy,” Jesse said. “but we’re going to try. We want you to come back to the Slayers.”

“You mean camp?” Leo shook his head. “Wish I could, but I’ve got to work during the summer.”

Bess let out a huff. “Leo, you used to have superpowers and you need to get them back.”

Jesse smiled at her stiffly. “Remember how we weren’t going to look crazy?”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t have the patience for subtlety and I can’t pretend it doesn’t matter.”

The music was too loud to hear footsteps following them. Was it Jesse’s imagination, or did he sense them anyway? If Ryan had a gun, would he use it once they went around the side of the building? Even with silencers, gunshots were loud. Probably louder than the music. Might not be that kind of gun though. Shane had been hit with a tranquilizer gun. Those didn’t make a lot of noise.

 “We need you,” Bess went on. “I’ve already fought two dragons. Me. One shielder. Do you have any idea how much we need your help?”

Leo pressed his lips together and then turned to Jesse. “What is she talking about?”

“And that’s another thing,” Bess said, waving her free hand at him. “You just forgot our entire mission. How could you think that wouldn’t matter? If it was just your life at stake, ok, then be an idiot if you want, but you knew it wasn’t just your life. It was all of our lives. And it was the lives of people across the nation. Why would you do this?”

Leo shot Jesse another look. “Does she need some medication or something?”

Bess narrowed her eyes at Leo. “I need you to remember who you are for two minutes.”

“Bess,” Jesse broke in, “this isn’t helping.”

They rounded the corner. A walkway wound across the building giving way to narrow metal stairs. A matching set lined the next building over.

They weren’t wide enough for two so Bess maneuvered Leo so that he was in front and propelled him forward. He went down a half dozen steps, nearly stumbled, then swatted Bess’s hand. “Stop pushing. You’re going to make me fall.”

“Hurry,” she told him. “We’ve got to get away from Ryan. He’s not who you think he is.”

Leo planted his feet and turned to face her. “What are you talking about?”

Bess didn’t keep pushing him. If she had, he might have toppled down the whole staircase.

“Ryan works for Overdrake,” Jesse said, glancing over his shoulder. The guy hadn’t rounded the corner yet, but he could be close.

“Who’s Overdrake?” Leo asked.

“A terrorist,” Jesse said.

 “Right,” Leo said. “Is this some sort of joke?”

Bess glanced at Jesse. “Should I just carry him?”

Before Jesse had a chance to answer, the sound of clanging footsteps echoed below them on the first-floor staircase.

Ryan’s backup couldn’t be here already, could it? One glance confirmed Jesse’s fears. Three guys were on the bottom staircase, rushing upward. They looked college-age. No dark jackets like Overdrake’s men had worn before, but he couldn’t discount them as students who were in a hurry. His gut was telling him these were Overdrake’s people.

In a few minutes, he and Bess would have two fronts to contend with, more if they ran back to the terraces and the guys chasing them spread out. And these men would definitely have weapons.

Bess drew in a sharp breath. “We should go to the stairs at the main catwalk.” She took hold of Leo’s arm and turned that way.

The stairs there were their best bet to keep ahead of the men, but to reach them they’d have to get past Ryan. Still, better to face one combatant, than three.

Ryan’s voice came from the side of the building, sounding smug and self-assured. “I told you that you weren’t supposed to leave the party.”

He sauntered toward the stairs, hands behind his back. He wouldn’t have been so confident if he’d known they had powers that were turned on. He must have thought that they’d come to see Leo on a whim or had run into him accidentally.

Leo glanced at the men running up the stairs then at Ryan questioningly. “What are you doing? “

“I’m getting a bonus,” Ryan said. He swung his arm forward, pointing a gun in their direction. Jesse couldn’t tell whether it shot bullets or tranquilizers.

“Plow him,” Jesse told her.

Instead of keeping her shield stationary, separating the group from Ryan, Bess pushed it toward him fast and hard. It slammed into him, tossing him to the ground like a bowling pin. The gun clattered from his hand.

“To the catwalk?” she asked.

“Yes,” Jesse nodded at the staircase on the adjacent building, “but we’ll use those stairs. I’ll take Leo.”

Leo had frozen on the stairs, staring open-mouthed at Ryan. Bess jumped onto the railing and then leaped the ten feet separating the staircases. Leo’s mouth fell further open. “What the—”

Jesse hooked his arms underneath Leo’s and sprung into the air, half leaping, half flying across the gap. Leo let out a startled scream of protest. When they landed on the other staircase, Jesse released Leo. He nearly fell forward, not because he didn’t have footing, but because his knees had given out. He grabbed hold of the side of the building for support. “I can’t believe you jumped! Next time you want to risk your life, don’t drag me with you.”

Jesse, Bess, and Leo were at the next building, which meant they had a head start to the stairs at the main catwalk. But they wouldn’t keep that lead for long. Ryan had gotten to his knees and was crawling toward the gun. In a moment he would get to his feet and shoot at them again.

Bess bounded up this the remaining stairs, taking them two at a time.

Jesse didn’t have time to argue with Leo. Jesse could have left him there, but now that Overdrake’s men were closing in, now that Ryan had dropped his façade and had openly pulled a gun, Leo might not be safe. Maybe Overdrake’s men would think he’d seen too much.

Jesse grabbed Leo by the middle, flung him over his shoulder, and flew up the remaining stairs. When he reached the top, he put Leo down, but only so people wouldn’t think Jesse was kidnapping him. He took hold of Leo’s elbow and yanked him into a run. “Those men will start shooting at us soon, including your buddy Ryan. If you don’t want to be hit, move faster.”

Leo stumbled along next to him, glancing over his shoulder. “Why would he—what’s going on?”

Bess darted around a couple of people. “I should have mentioned that Ling Zhi makes you stronger. Bet you want some now.”

They were almost to the end of the terrace, almost to the catwalk. “We were trying to tell you before, now we don’t have time. You’ll just have to trust us.”

That’s when Jesse’s attention was drawn to the end of the catwalk on the right. Two police officers had emerged from the elevators.

Jesse should have felt relieved. The police Dr. B had called were here. Overdrake’s men wouldn’t shoot into a crowd if police could return fire. But the relief didn’t come. Instead Jesse’s adrenaline ratcheted up a notch. It took a moment for him to realize what his senses were telling him. Something wasn’t right. One of the policemen was walking at a normal pace—looking at the students like a father who’d caught his children up past their bedtime. Disapproving, but not alarmed. The other was hurrying, trying to get around people.

The man’s aggression, fear, and adrenalin were spiking. He wasn’t here to help. He was on the hunt.

Did Overdrake have men in the police department as well? He’d known Dr. B had been a professor here, maybe he’d concentrated men here for that reason. Jesse didn’t like the other explanation that came to him—that Overdrake had this many men in all the cities surrounding DC.

Bess slowed. “Police on both sides of the catwalk. Where do I put my shield?”

As soon as she spoke, Jesse caught sight of the second pair of policemen making their way, calmly enough on the left side. Didn’t matter if those ones were legitimate cops, as long as one of them was crooked, Jesse and Bess were in trouble. Police were going to take the word of one of their own over a bunch of teenagers every time. The cop hurrying across the catwalk hadn’t pulled any weapons yet, still too many people blocking his path, but that wouldn’t last long. Students were moving out of his way as fast as they could.

“Put the shield behind us,” Jesse said. “We’re going straight.”

“Straight?” Leo repeated. He shook his head, took a step backward.

“I’ve got him,” Jesse told Bess. “Go.”

Leo kept shaking his head and moving backward. “You haven’t got me because if you jump off the roof you’ll break both our necks.”

Leo shouldn’t have worried so much. The roof below them wasn’t that far down.

Jesse took hold of Leo’s arm and ran forward, dragging Leo along. Bess streaked forward in front of them. People stumbled out of their way, hurling angry exclamations at them. More and more heads turned to watch them. As Bess hurdled over the catwalk railing and disappeared over the edge, a collective gasp went up from the crowd.

“No, no, no,” Leo said and kept saying the word as Jesse propelled him toward the catwalk. Two feet in front of the railing, he leaped into the air, hauling Leo with him. He glided down to the roof below and landed with a thunk. Leo pitched forward, almost fell. Jesse didn’t let go of him. They had two more roofs to run across before they hit the street.

A whooshing noise came from behind him, something spinning through the air. He turned to see two dark objects smack into Bess’s forcefield.

“Come on!” Bess called. She was at the end of the roof and ready to jump down to the next.

Jesse forced Leo forward. He wanted to fly, but at this point, a dozen students were probably videoing this event. It was better to pretend they were normal people or at least normal people with good leaping skills.

As they went over the next roof, Leo let out a gurgled moan, but he didn’t protest. He said nothing while they ran over the last roof. When they leaped from that one, Jesse moved his arm to take hold of Leo’s waist. On the street, they’d be close enough to the building to be shielded from view from of those on the top. It was safe to fly. He swooped through the air, catching up to Bess. As he went by her, he slowed and called her name. Without breaking stride, she jumped onto his back and wrapped her arms around his neck.

Not the most comfortable way to travel, but it was faster than running. Leo clutched Jesse’s arm. “How is this happening?” he demanded, and then almost immediately added, “Someone slipped something into my drink, didn’t they? None of this is real.”

Dr. B’s truck was in sight. He sat behind the wheel, motor running. “I’m dropping you off with Dr. B,” Jesse said. “He and Bess can explain things to you. I’ve got to get to my car.” The sooner they got away from here the better.

He hoped his keys hadn’t fallen out during all of his leapings. He patted his front pants pocket. Yep, still there. Pausing briefly in front of Dr. B’s van, he deposited Leo and Bess jumped from his back.

As Jesse turned to go to his car, Dr. B’s opened the side door for Bess and Leo to get in. “It’s good to see you again,” he said to Leo as though he was making a polite social visit. “Do get in the van. We’ve things to discuss.”

***

Half an hour later, Jesse was sitting with Dr. B, Bess, and Leo at a café in DC. Leo’s hands shook as he took sips of coffee. Dr. B had ordered sandwiches and fries for all of them, but most of it sat on the table untouched. Jesse wasn’t hungry. Bess was only fiddling with her fries.

Dr. B and Bess had explained everything to Leo on the drive here, but he seemed too stunned to take it in. So they had reiterated most of the information again while watching Leo drink coffee.

“We need to decide how to best protect your safety,” Dr. B said. “Even though Overdrake probably doesn’t see you as a threat, you’re still a potential liability to him. And now that you know of his existence, he might not be so willing to let you live in peace.”

“I don’t know of his existence,” Leo said with frustration. “I only know what you’ve told me and I’m not sure how much to believe about that. I’m just supposed to accept that my memories are wrong and things I don’t remember happened?”

Why was it so hard for him to accept? Jesse leaned forward over the table. “We showed our powers to you. I flew with you down on the street. You saw Bess’s shield knocked into Ryan. How can you doubt what we’re telling you?”

“Yeah,” Leo said. “I saw you do some weird stuff. But I’ve also seen magicians saw women in half and make people disappear. Just because I can’t explain it, doesn’t mean you’re telling me the truth.”

Bess folded her arms. “I can hit you with my shield again if you’d like.”

He glared at her. “Don’t do that anymore. It’s annoying.”

Again? Apparently Jesse had missed a few things while he drove here.

“You saw Ryan pull a gun on us,” Jesse said. “Doesn’t that tell you something?”

Leo picked up a fry and took a bite. “Maybe he was trying to protect me because the two of you were dragging me off somewhere. I know him a lot better than I know you. You’re completely different people than I thought.”

Best let out a long breath. “You do know us, Leo. We’ve been your friends for years.”

“According to you, the friends I knew from camp were different from the friends I actually remember. You want me to believe I had a completely different life that I don’t remember.” He finished the fry and took another. “How much food do you need to have in your stomach to dilute the effects of alcohol?”

“I don’t know,” Bess said, “but I think you’ve had enough coffee. You’re shaking.”

“The caffeine isn’t why I’m shaking.”

“We need to talk about your safety,” Dr. B said trying to gently turn the conversation back to his original topic.

Leo made a sound that was half grunt, half laugh. “You want me to trust you with my safety? You’re the ones that were running from the police and jumping off rooftops.” He leaned back in his chair and ran a hand through his hair. “Man, are they going to charge me with fleeing from the police?”

“I doubt it,” Jesse said. “There’s probably video to show that you weren’t acting on your own accord.”

Dr. B steepled his fingers on the table. “We can move your family and provide you with a new identity so that Overdrake won’t know how to find you. However, you’ll have to break ties with everyone you know. As we’ve seen from Ryan, some of them could be operatives for Overdrake.

Leo lifted his hands, protesting the idea. “You want me to give up my whole life?”

Pretty much, Jesse thought. That’s the cost. That’s what we’ve all had to do. But confirming this wouldn’t make Leo feel better.

“I want you to give up your life,” Dr. B said, “in order to protect it.”

“I can protect my life just fine.” Leo held his hand, palm upwards, to Dr. B. “Now if you give me my phone back, I’ll call for a ride home.”

Dr. B. reached into his pockets, took Leo’s phone from one and the battery from the other. He handed them both to Leo. “Once you’ve had some time to think about what we’ve told you, we’ll contact you again.”

“Right,” Leo pushed his chair back from the table and stood. “I’ll keep a lookout for the bat signal.”

Jesse rubbed his forehead. This had all gone so badly and now Leo was leaving, still unconvinced about everything they’d told him. How could he just ignore the facts?

Leo took three steps toward the door then thudded against Bess’s shield. He cursed and rubbed his nose. “Would you stop that?”

“At least buy some Ling Zhi and start taking it,” she said.

“Fine,” he said, still facing toward the door. “Just let me go.”

She took a sip of her water. “You know I can tell when you’re lying.”

“I’ll take them,” Leo said louder then marched forward, one hand lifted in front of him to check for shields.

Bess leaned toward her father and lowered her voice. “We can’t let him leave. Do something.”

Dr. B looked at Leo’s retreating back with the mournful expression. “He has a choice in the matter. I can’t make him choose us.”

“But his life is in danger,” she persisted. “Sometimes you have to kidnap someone for their own good.”

Dr. B shook his head. “If we forced him to come with us the FBI would investigate and we would put our whole operation at risk. And what for? Leo would hate us.” He let out a heavy sigh. “I’ll have some of our people keep an eye on him and help him if he’s in trouble. We can’t do more than that.”

Leo opened the café door and strode outside, phone in hand, without looking back at them.

He was gone and they might never see him again. Overdrake might make sure of that.

Bess opened her mouth to speak, then swallowed the words instead. She put her elbows on the table, buried her face in her hands, and began to cry. Jesse reached over and rubbed her back in consolation.

Even though they’d done their best, they’d failed. He hated that he couldn’t change that fact, and he hated that he could do nothing to make Bess feel better.

Chapter 8

Friday night Jesse drove to Georgetown University. He’d told his parents he was going to a movie with friends. In reality Dr. B had sent him a message that he was needed for a mission. When Jesse pulled into the mostly empty library parking lot, he recognized Dr. B’s truck even though Dr. B had a way of changing vehicles and never seemed to use the same license plate twice. Jesse recognized it because the simulator lay in the truck bed. The machine was covered by a tarp, but Jesse knew the thick, rectangular shape well enough from camp.

So, it was going to be a mission where he needed his Slayer powers. That meant he would either need to fly somewhere or the mission might involve fighting. He parked his car and walked over to the truck for details. Dr. B got out, peered around the lot to make sure they were alone, then motioned for Bess to join him at the back of the truck.

Although they were father and daughter, the two didn’t look much alike. Granted, they were both tall, had blue eyes, and Jesse supposed that Dr. B’s unruly gray hair must have one day been brown curls like Bess’s. But Dr. B had an air of perpetual intellectualism and seriousness, as though he was always pondering some significant manner. If Bess was ever pondering something, it was probably her next practical joke.

“What’s up?” Jesse asked.

Bess zipped up her jacket. “My dad’s hopes.”

Dr. B gave her a sharp look, which she ignored. “I’ve been working with Shane,” he said, “trying different methods to help him regain his memory. I can’t say for certain that anything we’ve done has actually helped. He’s recalled a few vague things, but I’m not sure whether he’s remembering because the pathways in his brain are regrowing or because he wrote a novel about his experience and is just making logical correlations.”

“But he might have remembered some things? Jesse asked. Excitement flickered inside him. “What has he done to help his memory?”

“Meditation. Revisiting places we’ve been. Practicing the things we practiced. He still has quite a bit of muscle memory. He may not consciously remember our plays but when confronted by a heli-dragons he instinctively follows them—or at least tries to. It’s harder without his powers.”

Jesse raised his eyebrows. “Wait, you’ve had him practice with the helicopter dragons?” They were like six-foot humming birds that shot out fifteen-foot flames.

Dr. B straightened. “Not with flames running. Just normal harmless routines.” He said this as though it were perfectly normal to dodge moving blades.

“Shane has also been eating the Ling Zhi mushroom. They’ve been used medicinally in China for two thousand years to promote long life and boost spirituality. For all I know, the original Slayers could have used them to help one another regain their memories.”

Dr. B had researched the early Slayers but hadn’t discovered much information on how Slayers could regain lost memories. He knew if a Slayer kept away from mind-altering substances that destroyed new pathways in the brain, eventually those pathways would regrow and memories and powers would return. But the medieval records also talked about a quicker way. Some of the medieval Slayers had lost their powers but had them restored in time to join the next dragon fight.

“Shane has been adding powder made from the mushrooms to his food for the last week. Although the benefits are inconclusive, I feel that Shane’s improvement is enough for us to try the powder on another Slayer. Leo, as a shielder is especially important.”

“Because we’re the MVPs,” Bess put in. Shielders could protect people not only from dragon fire but from bullets.

Dr. B opened his briefcase and pulled out a large vitamin bottle that read: Ancient Apothecary and Ziploc bag full of what looked like bits of brown Styrofoam. Not exactly appetizing. “I’m hoping the two of you can convince Leo to try it.”

Jesse inwardly sighed. The entire idea of this mission was just wishful thinking. The mushrooms might help Leo, but they might not. Leo had no memory of his lost powers, Overdrake, or what was at stake. How were Jesse and Bess supposed to get Leo to try ancient Chinese mushrooms without looking weird? And not just a little weird, but crazy, laugh-about-you-later weird. Leo wouldn’t go for it.

Unlike Shane and Alyssa, who’d lost their memories and abilities when Overdrake had drugged them, Leo lost his Slayer identity because he started drinking and at some point had drunk himself unconscious. He’d either been too careless to protect his powers or he’d decided he didn’t want to fight Overdrake. Even if he regained his skills, he might not want to rejoin the Slayers.

Still Jesse took the bag from Dr. B. He couldn’t refuse. Despite being mad at Leo for abandoning the rest of the group, Jesse still wanted him back. If there was any chance these mushrooms would help, Jesse would do his best to convince Leo to take them. And not just because Leo was a shielder but because he’d been a friend. Hopefully still was.

Leo had been the quiet guy of the group—the first to notice if any of the others were homesick and lend a listening ear. He’d been the last to insult anyone and the easiest to make blush. The one who was so unlike Bess, his counterpart, at least until the two of them got together. Whenever Leo had been around Bess he was quicker to smile and laugh. It was as though the two of them always had some running inside joke.

Jesse put the bottle into one pocket and the bag into the other. It didn’t fit right, too bulky. “How are we supposed to get him to eat Chinese mushrooms? What’s our story?”

“I’m doing a science fair project,” Bess said, “and I need to test subjects willing to take Ling Zhi and record whether they have an increase in energy. I’ve already enlisted your help, and gave you your supply tonight, which is why you have the stuff with you.”

“Okay.” An almost normal request. It might have a chance of working.

Dr. B took a remote from his coat pocket and pressed the button. “In case that doesn’t work, I’m giving you permission to tell him about the Slayers and prove it to him by showing him your powers. That’s why I brought the simulator.”

The trailer behind his truck let off a faint hum, the simulator turning on. A moment later a surge of energy hit Jesse, sharpening his senses. The night seemed brighter, as though the moon and stars had been on a dimmer switch and had just been cranked up. He could hear the music playing from one of the buildings. The smells from the parking lot intensified: spilled oil, spent exhaust, old tires. The cold seemed to disappear. He was warm, ready, alert. He had to quell the urge to take to the air and fly. He wasn’t here for recreation, no matter how much he longed for that weightless feeling of sailing through the sky.

Dr. B slipped the remote back into his pocket and took out folded pieces of paper. He handed one set to Jesse and the other to Bess. “Leo texted his friends about going to a party in Village A. He should be here by now.”

A party at a university. Did his friends realize Leo was only a high school senior?

Dr. B glanced around the parking lot again, a habit of surveillance. “I was able to call in a favor from a professor friend. If anyone questions your invitation to the party, tell them you’re friends of Brock Booher. One of my associates is adding twenty points to his last test in exchange for getting you in.”

Dr. B had been a professor at Georgetown for years but had gone on sabbatical after he learned that Overdrake knew who he was. The Slayers weren’t the only ones that had to worry about Overdrake finding them.

Jesse unfolded the papers. The first was a map of campus. The Village A apartment complex was circled. Eight buildings, a short distance from the library. The second was a map of the complex itself—or rather four maps, since the footprint of each story in the main buildings was different. Catwalks connected the five central buildings. The place looked like a maze. Staircases sprouted throughout the complex like weeds. Could there really be that many stairs scattered around? Why?

Jesse turned the paper even though he knew seeing it from a different angle would help. “Who built this thing?”

Dr. B sighed. “Someone who was trying to steer away from the usual sort of floor plan, I’m afraid.”

Bess only gave the papers a glance. “It was obviously designed by someone who was trying to replicate King Minos’s labyrinth. We may have to fight a minotaur once we go inside.”

“How are we even going to find the right party?” Jesse asked.

“The party is on the fourth floor rooftops,” Bess said, pointing to that floor plan. “A catwalk spans the length of the buildings, so once we get to the fourth floor, we should be able to walk along it and spot the party.”

“You got that from the map?” Jesse asked. He was still trying to figure out what the scattered lines meant.

“Dad took me around yesterday so I’d have a feel for the place.”

Good. At least they had a chance at finding it.

Dr. B lowered his voice. “If you have to show Leo your powers make sure no one else sees you. We don’t want video of you flying to turn up on the internet. Also, be on the lookout for any of Overdrake’s men. He may have someone watching Leo.”

Bess tucked her papers into her pocket. “Only if he’s a pessimist. Leo isn’t a threat anymore.”

Jesse had to agree with Bess. “Why would Overdrake waste manpower on Leo?” he asked Dr. B.

 “Because Leo could regain his powers,” Dr. B said. “But more importantly, Overdrake knows the other Slayers might visit him. Therefore, Leo is effective bait.”

Bess leaned against the back of the truck. “Overdrake isn’t having Alyssa followed, is he?”

Rosa and Lilly had visited Alyssa a few times. Dr. B had always done recon on her house beforehand to make sure no one was watching it. And no one seemed to be.

“That doesn’t mean he’s not watching Leo.” Dr. B folded his arms behind his back, undeterred in his opinion. “He knows how valuable shielders are.”

“True,” Bess said with a smirk. “It’s like I said, we’re the MVPs.”

Jesse put his maps away as well. “Should that be the MVSs? At any rate, you have my vote. We have plenty of flyers, and we usually botch things.” Neither said what they both knew. The flyers carried most of the burden of killing the dragons. They were the ones who confronted them in the air, avoiding fire and teeth in order to remove the Kevlar shield that protected the one vulnerable spot on a dragon: its underbelly.

“Lastly…” Dr. B reached into his breast pocket, then handed Jesse and Bess each a small dart. Tranquilizers to attach to the bottom of their watches. Once loaded there, they could be shot by pushing a button.

“I’m hesitant to provide such scant protection,” Dr. B said, “but it seems unwise to try and gain entrance to a party while armed. If anyone checked for weapons, you’d find yourself in serious trouble.”

Jesse and Bess both loaded their darts into their watches.

“Any questions?” Dr. B asked.

“Yeah,” Bess said, pushing her sleeve away from her watch. “What sort of parties did you go to in college that you’re worried about pat-downs and metal detectors?”

“If you wish to take handguns,” Dr. B answered patiently, “I’ll get them from the truck, but we’ll need to go over reminders about shooting near crowds.”

Bess held up her hand to stop him. “We’ll be fine.”

Their heightened senses and extra strength were more than enough protection from drunken frat boys.

 “Very well,” Dr. B said. “I’ll wait here unless you request backup. If you need a police distraction, I can always call and report underage drinking.”

 “I doubt we’ll need backup,” Jesse said. It would be just his luck to be caught in a raid, dragged to the police station, and then have to call his parents to pick him up. They wouldn’t let him out of the house again.

Dr. B gave them a fatherly smile of encouragement. “I’m glad we’re doing this. It’s time we reminded Leo who he is.”

If only it could be that easy. Hey Leo, you used to have superpowers…

Jesse and Bess headed across the parking lot, walking close together. “Leo will ask why we’re at a college party,” he said. “What’s our story?”

 “We’re out on a date, and I wanted to go to a chick flick and you wouldn’t take me because you’re a guy and therefore hate all movies that aren’t peppered with weapons. You thought we should go paintballing, but hello, I spent time doing my hair. I obviously don’t want it covered in paint. Your friend Brock told you about the party and we decided to check it out. I may or may not be so ticked at you that I’ll ditch you and go off with Leo.”

Perhaps Bess had too much time on the drive over to concoct a story. “Why do I have to look like a jerk in this scenario?”

“Sometimes it can’t be helped. The necessities of plot, and all that.”

They came to the walkway that led through the red brick buildings. Fall leaves, turned gray by the night, littered the ground. “How about we’re together tonight because we’re friends. My girlfriend just dumped me for another guy, and you’re not seeing anyone, so we decided to hang out.” The part about his girlfriend dumping him was true, even if Bess didn’t know it yet. Or maybe she did. Tori might have told her about Dirk. Jesse wasn’t about to ask. He already regretted not coming up with a different story. Whenever he thought about Tori, his chest felt like he’d been punctured and his soul was slowly seeping out into the atmosphere.

“Speaking of me not seeing anyone…” Bess let her sentence drift off uncertainly. “Do you and Ryker ever talk about girls?”

They’d talked about Tori. More specifically, Ryker had told him, “You’re way too invested in her. She’s Senator Hampton’s daughter. She’s going to dump you, go for some rich and famous jerk, and you’ll be carrying your heart home in confetti-sized pieces.”

And that’s pretty much what had happened last Friday. Tori could claim she kissed Dirk for strategic reasons, but she and Dirk had a history. They’d gotten together last September. For that matter, they’d gotten together her third day at camp. The two apparently couldn’t be alone together for long without their lips meeting up.

“And if you do,” Bess said, bringing him sharply back to the present. “Does Ryker ever talk about anyone in specific?”

“We mostly talk about training,” Jesse said.

“Have you ever talk about me?”

Oh, that’s where this was going. He should have guessed as much. Whenever Bess was around Ryker she always got either flirty or demure. She’d even started wearing makeup to practice.

“He’s not seeing anyone right now if that’s what you’re asking.”

“I know that much. Willow and I talk.” Ryker and Willow had stayed at Dr. B’s house when they first became Slayers. Might still be. Dr. B kept those sorts of details secret. “I was just wondering,” Bess continued, “since you’re his counterpart if you knew what he thinks of me.”

“He thinks you’re an amazing Slayer and he likes you.”

She cocked her head, trying to read more from his expression. “How much does he like me?”

“I don’t know.”

She let out a sigh. “You’re his counterpart. If he liked me, you’d know, which means he must not.”

“It’s not that.” Ryker was just smart enough to realize that girls made confetti out of your heart. “He’s too busy thinking about dragons to think about girls.”

Bess kicked a loose stone in their path, sending it skittering down the walkway. “That’s one more reason to hate dragons.”

The music grew louder, percussion and angry electric guitars. They’d reached the Village A apartment complex. From the outside the structure looked normal enough, boxy red brick buildings interspersed with terrace patios and the occasional balcony. An official-looking sign on the sidewalk read: If you SEE something SAY something, then gave the number of the Georgetown police department. Hopefully no one would be calling about the two of them.

“There’s a staircase this way,” Bess said and strode into an opening between two of the buildings. Metal steps edged along both buildings, leading to what looked like a free-standing catwalk that went between the two. Even from down here the scent of beer was overwhelming. He’d be able to smell it even without the help of his Slayer senses

(* Greta, I’m looking at pic 18 and assuming this is what they’d see. where do they go from here?) Bess headed up the stairs, taking them fast. They passed so many discarded red Solo cups, they might have been left as a trail by Hansel and Gretel in their later, drunken years.

A few people were coming down the stairs in various stages of soberness. Jesse and Bess remained silent when anyone was nearby, but after they’d passed by the last couple, Bess said, “Let me do the talking. I’m Leo’s counterpart. There has to be some part of him I can reach.”

“If anyone can bring him back, it’s you.”

“But no pressure, right?” Her pace increased. “I keep wondering if I could have done something to stop Leo from losing his memories. Maybe I should have warned him to be careful more. Maybe I should have broken the rules and kept in contact with him.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Jesse said.

“I know. But knowing something and feeling it are two different matters.”

They turned from one staircase, twisted around and went up the next* (Is this right?)

Finally they reached the top floor and the main catwalk which had not one, but two railings—a simple tan one that resembled a picket fence, and another of gray mesh that had obviously been added later, when the first proved unsuccessful at corralling the wandering humans. From up here, the map of the buildings made a little more sense. The footprints for the stories were different because the building in front of them was only three stories, the one in front of that was two, and on the other side of the road was a row of one-story buildings. Each had its own terraces.

The view was worth creating buildings with stair-step outlines. Past a row of trees, the Potomac River flowed by like a wide dark street. Beyond that, the city lights of Rosslyn glowed.

Jesse pulled his gaze away from the attraction of the landscape. On his other side, were rows of apartments. Each building had two apartments side by side that shared a large terrace deck. The catwalk connected them all, leaving ten-foot gaps between the buildings.

Several people jostled by him on the catwalk. More than one party was going on up here. Looked like three. The one in the middle had a table set up and a group of people was gathered around cheering on a couple guys who were playing beer pong.

“Do you see Leo anywhere?” Jesse asked.

“Not yet, but if he’s here, I’ll find him.” Counterparts could always find one another when they were close.

They wandered past the first party. Bess shook her head and kept going. “If he’s not on any of the terraces, we’ll have to go inside the apartments to look for him.”

They reached the middle party. A food table sat between apartments and a few people milled around it. A couple of guys were filling cups from the keg at the end of the table. A row of space heaters did their best to warm the area.

“This one,” she said.

Two upperclassmen guys stood nearby monitoring the traffic. Jesse smiled at them in a casual manner. “Brook Booher invited us.”

“Great,” the first guy said, friendly enough. “The cover charge is ten dollars.”

Jesse pulled out his wallet, but Bess beat him to it with a twenty. “Thanks.”

She and Jesse made their way past the guys. He peered at the people on the terrace talking and laughing trying to spot Leo. The guy was tall, thin build, with shaggy brown hair.

“There he is,” Bess said, pointing to the food table. She hurried that way and Jesse followed, still not seeing Leo. He couldn’t be either of the guys filling glasses at the keg. They were too short and stocky. The only other guy nearby had hair past his shoulders and wore a trench coat.

 “Leo!” Bess called.

The guy in the coat turned. Jesse had to blink twice at him before he recognized him. Quiet, reserved Leo had turned goth. A swath of hair swept across his face, nearly hiding one of his eyes. He wore skintight black jeans, a T-shirt with skulls, and… was he wearing eyeliner?

Bess let out a squeal of pretended surprise. “Leo, it is you!”

He startled at the sight of them, then smiled and walked toward them. “Bess! Jesse!”

Instead of answering, Bess launched herself into his arms, nearly plowing him into the table. “It’s so good to see you!”

He hugged her back then held her at arm’s length to look her over. “Man, I can’t believe it. What are you doing here?”

“I’m thinking about going to Georgetown,” Jesse said, changing his story on the spot. “I wanted to check out the place.”

“Cool.” Leo’s gaze bounced between the two of them, still taking them in. “Are the two of you dating?”

“Yes,” Bess said at the same time Jesse said, “No.” They’d never decided on that point. Something, Jesse now realized, they really should have done on the walk here instead of talking about Ryker.

Leo cocked his head at them in confusion.

Bess pursed her lips at Jesse and made an aggravated grunting sound. “No? Is this your way of breaking up with me? So classy.”

“Um, I…” Jesse stammered.

“First the paintball fiasco and now this.” Bess folded her arms with the air of a martyr. “Men.”

Leo laughed and shook his head at her. “You’re such a liar. You haven’t changed at all.”

Bess laughed then too, letting her arms drop to her sides. “I’ve definitely changed. My lies are more interesting now.”

Leo had seen through Bess’s story so easily. Were his counterpart senses still working? Jesse shouldn’t have gotten his hopes up. The lie hadn’t been a good one. But a part of him hoped anyway.

“What about you?” Bess asked Leo. “How are your lies coming along?”

“I’m an expert, of course. I lie so well even I believe me most of the time.”

Her gaze went over him and she flipped a strand of hair off his shoulder. “Your hair is longer.”

“So is yours,” he said with a note of defensiveness.

“I didn’t say I didn’t like it.” She tilted her head, considering him. “I’m sure those bangs will come in handy should you ever need to hide your identity from surveillance cameras.”

“I was almost about to say how much I’ve missed you. Now I’m rethinking.”

She playfully swatted him in the arm. “And you told me you were a good liar. You’ve missed me like crazy. Admit it.”

He grinned. “Fine I admit it, but only so you won’t hit me again.” He glanced behind Bess and Jesse, his gaze sweeping the terrace.

“We didn’t bring Rosa with us,” Bess said.

Leo’s gaze snapped back to her in embarrassment. “I wasn’t… I didn’t ask if you had.” So easily flustered. He was actually blushing. Maybe he hadn’t changed as much as Jesse had thought.

“You were wondering it,” Bess said with mock offense. “I swear the only reason you ever hung out with me at camp was because I was Rosa’s friend. She’s doing fine. She’s as sweet and adorable as always and as far as I know, single.”

Leo brightened. “Good. You’ll have to give me her number. I’ve been kicking myself that I never got it at camp.”

Well, that was the first problematic request of the evening. With the exception of Tori and Jesse, the Slayers didn’t have each other’s phone numbers. They communicated through their watches. Dr. B had made this a rule so that if Overdrake ever captured any of them, he wouldn’t be able to locate the other Slayers’ by tracking their phones.

Tori and Jesse probably shouldn’t have exchanged numbers but after they’d started dating, they’d needed a way to communicate. They weren’t about to set up dates through the Slayer channels. Besides, now that they went to the same school, keeping that sort of information private seemed pointless.

Bess dug through her jacket pocket and pulled out a pen. “I don’t have my phone with me, but give me your number and I’ll text you Rosa’s.” She put the pen tip on the back of her hand, ready to write. When Bess did text him, the number would be from a computer with an untraceable IP address. Ditto for Rosa’s contact information.

Leo rattled off his number, then added, “We should all get together again—have a camp reunion party.”

“Absolutely,” Jesse said. Taking Leo to some of their old practice spots might shake a few memories loose

“You know what would be even better?” Bess’s eyes widened as though she’d just thought of the idea. “You could help me with my science fair project.”

“How would that be better than a party?” Leo asked.

“You’d get to see more of me. I need one more volunteer. It will be super easy. You just need to eat Ling Zhi.”

Leo pushed his bangs away from his eyes. “Ling what?”

“Ling Zhi mushrooms. The ancient Chinese used them to promote health and long life. I’m having people take them for two months and tracking their energy and mood.”

Leo made a face, showing his distaste for the idea. “You know I hate mushrooms. Remember how I always picked them off my pizza?”

“Don’t be a wuss,” Bess said. “You can take it in capsules, although you’ll have to take a lot to get the same results.”

Leo’s expression of distaste didn’t change.

“Don’t you want more energy?” she asked. “Ling Zhi is also an antioxidant so you’ll get sick less. Some people claim it even helps with cancer.”

Leo cocked an eyebrow at her. “Are you doing a science project or starting a multi-level marketing company?”

Bess ignored his question and turned to Jesse. “Can you give Leo the Ling Zhi, I just gave you? That way I won’t have to make a special trip to Leo’s house until his supply runs out”

“Sure.” Jesse produced the bottle and Ziploc bag. He shook the bottle making the capsules rattle. “This is the version for wusses.”

Bess took the items and held them out to Leo. “The powder is good in smoothies. One heaping tablespoon three times a day.”

Leo didn’t take the stuff from her hand. “You want me to drink mushroom smoothies for two months?”

“This is for science,” Bess insisted.

Leo shook his head. “Look, we both know if I say yes, I’ll gag down some for a day or two and then forget about the whole thing until you call for my results. I don’t want to ruin your science project and I don’t want you mad at me. So I’d better pass.”

“I’ll call daily and remind you.” Bess still held the bag out in an offering.

He shook his head again. “I’m sure you can find some people at your school who want to help you cure cancer.”

Strike one. “Rosa is part of the experiment,” Jesse put in. “If you are too, you’ll have something to talk to her about when you call.”

Leo rocked back on his heels, unimpressed by the suggestion. “I know I used to be shy, but I’ve changed since camp. I can come up with something to say to Rosa that doesn’t involve mushroom smoothies.” His gaze traveled around the crowd. “But if you really need another participant, my friend Ryan is a health nut. Runs cross country. He’d probably eat pinecones if you told him it would help his time on the mile.”

Bess sighed and gave Jesse the bag and bottle. Plan B it was, then. They’d tell him the truth and show him the proof.

Jess put the Ling Zhi back in his pockets. “It’s kind of loud out here. Let’ go somewhere and talk. We’ve got a lot to catch up on.”

 “You want to leave already?” Leo asked. “You haven’t even gotten any drinks yet.”

Cups of beer sat lined up on the table next to the potato chips and dip. Leo picked up a couple and turned back to Bess and Jesse.

Jesse had known that Leo drank, but somehow seeing the proof, casually held in his hands, still stung.

“We don’t drink,” Jesse said.

Leo shrugged. “No worries. There’s soda in the ice chest.” He put one of the drinks back on the table. The other, he took a sip from.

“You shouldn’t drink,” Bess said, perhaps too sharply.

Leo took another sip and smiled, goading her. “Why not?”

Bess stepped over to him nonchalantly. “Because you’re underage, it’s bad for you and,” she knocked the cup from his hand before he could bring it to his lips again. “it’s really messy.”

The beer spilled down Leo’s shirt. He swore and pulled at his shirt while arching his back. “What the—why did you do that?”

“Because I care about you,” Bess said, still sweet. “This is what love feels like.”

Jesse grabbed some napkins from the table and handed them to Leo. “Sorry. Bess is just…” too emotionally involved in Leo’s choices. “…is just Bess.”

She folded her arms. “Right. So let’s go somewhere and talk.”

Leo pressed the napkins to his shirt. A hopeless task, really. He was standing in a puddle. “Only if you know a place with a Laundromat.”

“Again, sorry about the beer.” Jesse gave Leo a few more napkins. “But we really need to talk.”

Leo kept dabbing at his chest. “And I’ve really got to get out of this wet shirt.”

There was one way to fix this. Jesse slipped off his jacket, handed it to Bess, then took off his shirt. “Here,” he said, holding it out. “I’ll trade you.”

Leo shook his head. “Nah, I’m not going to make you wear my wet shirt.”

“Really,” Jesse said, “Trade me. I’m not cold.” Perks of having his Slayer powers on.

Leo kept wiping his shirt with napkins. Most of them were ripping into wet shreds. “You don’t have to do that.”

Bess rolled her eyes. “Just take Jesse’s shirt so we can go somewhere else. Seriously, every girl on the roof is staring at him now.”

Jesse glanced across the terrace. Yep. Quite a number of girls were eyeing him. Some with blatant approval. One swirled her drink invitingly and winked.

Bess took the shirt from Jesse’s hand and shoved it into Leo’s. “We have something important to tell you. Switch shirts with Mr. Eyecandy before one of the gawkers decides to come over and attach herself to him.”

“Fine.” Leo gingerly peeled off his shirt and gave it to Jesse. “Where did you want to go?”

“Down by the library,” Bess said. “No one will be there.”

Jesse pulled Leo’s shirt on. It was a little too tight. Just what he needed. Now girls were staring at him while he wore a tight, wet T-shirt. He put his jacket back on. “Let’s go.”

“Just a sec,” Leo said. “Let me tell Ryan where I’m going. He’s my ride.” He looked around the terrace until his gaze landed on the beer pong table. “Ryan!” he called.

No one paid attention to him. Too noisy.

Leo walked toward the table. “Yo, Ryan!”

One of the spectators turned. He was average height, beefy, with thick arms and a neck that looked too big for his head. His hair had been cut so it looked like a dark halo. “What?” he called back and then noticed Jesse and Bess standing there.

That’s when everything changed. Because it only took that single look for Jesse to realize Ryan was going to be a serious problem.

Chapter 7

Chapter 7

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But now he didn’t know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aaron brightened. “Awesome! Thanks!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry, Dad,” Aaron called back.

Dad. Liar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A pause.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” Aaron kept holding out the tablet.

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

“Hello,” he said.

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

“Yeah, it’s me.”

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

Crying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know.”

Aaron swore and shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 6

Chapter 6

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Even hesitating could cost lives.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s not that simple.”

“It should be.”

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

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

“You’re breaking up with me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fine. Let him be that way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, it means Thanksgiving dinners always suck.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. I know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aaron groaned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She heard the door clang closed.

Overdrake had left Aaron alone in the enclosure with Khan.

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh huh,” Tori said.

Her mother sighed and went back to seasoning the stuffing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do I stop myself?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pulverized,” Aprilynne supplied.

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

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