I thought I’d finished writing Slayers 4, but then the first two beta readers pointed out that Jesse was hardly in the book and I realized I needed to mention a plot thread that got dropped in Slayers 4 but is important in Slayers 5–so now I’m writing two or three more chapter and fruitlessly trying to figure out the layout of Village A in Georgetown (but that’s another story)
In the meantime, I’d like people to weigh in on the prologue and first two chapters. I didn’t know how to fix the formatting so it would look like a book but rest assured it will have normal paragraphs when it comes out. I just want general feedback. Enjoy!
You should never make promises you can’t keep.
Fifteen years ago
Alastair Bartholomew was about to make a deal with the devil, or at least a deal with his father—which felt like the same thing. Alastair hadn’t even asked for the loan yet, but he knew there would be a price to pay, a little bit of his soul thrown in with the bargain.
He glanced over the maps, brochures, and realtor flyers he’d spread over his kitchen table. Buying land was the first step to building the Slayer training ground. He’d been looking at properties for the last six months. A stack of construction bids for cabins, stables, an indoor rifle range, and a cafeteria sat next to the brochures. He would also need money for research. He not only had to figure out what sort of electric pulse a dragon’s heart put out, he would need to build a machine to replicate it. There were so many expenses.
Alastair turned his attention to the maps of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. Was seclusion more important in a campsite or accessibility to the DC area? The closer his camp was to DC, the more expensive the land would be.
Shirley, his wife, had put their two-year-old daughter, Bess into her favorite white pajamas and was now patiently waiting for the toddler to finish her bottle.
Even at two years old, it was a battle of the wills.
“Aren’t you done yet?” Shirley cooed. “It’s time for a story and then bed.”
Bess regarded her mother while taking slow sips of her bottle. In her fuzzy white footie pajamas, she always reminded Alastair of a baby polar bear. Bess’s hair was a wild disarray of curls. Her blue eyes were much too alert for this time of night.
Shirley bent lower to be on Bess’s level. “Don’t you think it’s time for your bottle to go bye-bye? You’re a big girl now. Big girls use sippy cups.”
Bess popped the bottle out of her mouth. “No,” she said, “Ba-ba mine.” Then she inserted the bottle back in her mouth.
Shirley sighed, checked the kitchen clock, and turned to her husband. “I’d better put her to B-E-D before you-know-who comes, or we’ll never get her to sleep.”
Bess let the bottle drop from her mouth. Her eyes lit up with happiness. “Ice cweam twuck!” she exclaimed and toddled fast-pace to the front door.
Instead of going after her, Shirley narrowed her eyes at Alastair. “How come every time I use the term ‘you-know-who’ Bess thinks I’m talking about an ice cream truck?”
Alastair kept his gaze firmly on the stack of septic tank bids in front of him. “I have no idea.”
Shirley put one hand on her hip. “You shouldn’t feed Bess ice cream. She won’t eat healthy food if you give her junk food.”
The doorbell rang, saving Alastair from further discussion of what he and Bess did while Shirley was gone. “That’s probably my father,” Alastair announced and went to the front room. Bess was already on her tippy-toes doing her utmost to get around the child-proof handle on the doorknob. She loved opening doors. Unfortunately, she also loved dashing outside and shedding her clothes on the sidewalk.
Alastair opened the door. His father—Roderick Bartholomew to people who knew him in the states—stood there, hands thrust into his jacket pocket. Years of ranch work had given Alastair’s father a lean, muscled build that was only now giving way to the softness of middle-age. He had always had a stern expression and the lines in his face had grown increasingly deeper in the years since they’d fled St. Helena. Alastair never asked how often his father thought of Nathan. Alastair knew his father thought of him every day, the evidence was there in the grooves of his father’s face.
Now that Alastair had a child of his own, he understood the force of that emotion even more completely. You didn’t forget it when someone killed your child.
Bess saw her grandpa and lifted her small hands up in glee. “Bampa!”
The sternness on Roderick’s face melted. He bent down and swooped Bess into his arms. “How’s my princess?” He snuggled his face into her neck, a move that always made Bess shriek with laughter. After he’d extracted enough shrieks to ensure that Bess wouldn’t sleep any time in the near future, Roderick carried her into the living room and sat down on the couch with Bess on his lap. She immediately began rifling through his pockets to see if she could extract treasures such as keys, pens, or lint. Alastair and Shirley sat down on the adjoining loveseat.
“So,” Roderick said, “You want a loan.” He was always got right to the point.
No one would have known by looking at Roderick’s plain clothes and worn jacket that he was a wealthy man. His businesses—some of which he discussed with Alastair, some of which he didn’t—were quite successful. Roderick had a talent for making money, perhaps because he didn’t let things like rules, laws, or ethics stand in his way.
“I need a loan for the Slayer camp,” Alastair clarified. He stayed away from his father’s money for the most part. Any time his father paid for something—usually lavish gifts for Bess—Alastair felt vaguely like he was condoning insider trading. He had only decided to ask for his father’s help because there was nowhere else to turn. He could get a bank loan that would cover the price of land and a few cabins, but he couldn’t very well explain to financial institutions that he also needed to build a second specialized camp that would serve as a secret training ground. “It’s our best way to stop Overdrake,” Alastair told his father. “When he attacks DC, we’ll have a group of Slayers who are capable of killing his dragons.”
Alastair had mentioned his idea of a training camp to his father before. He’d never asked for funding, though. The weight of the request felt like a yoke around his neck. It would take more than two million dollars to get the camps functional, and who knew how long it would take for the regular camp to start returning the investment.
Roderick didn’t speak for a moment. Alastair was used to his father’s silences. He waited.
“You only know where one Slayer child is,” Roderick finally said. “One. And that’s Bess. How can you build an entire camp on the hope that more Slayer kids will somehow find their way to it?”
“It’ll be a dragon slayer themed camp,” Alastair pointed out. “I’ll advertise with knights taking on fire-breathing beasts. The right children will be drawn to it.”
Bess had pulled a penny from her grandfather’s pocket. He took it from her before she could see how it tasted. “They’ll be drawn to it? That’s a long shot, and you know it.”
Shirley and Alastair exchanged a glance. “I’ll show him,” Shirley said. She walked out of the room. A minute later she came back with a bag of stuffed animals.
She sat down in front of Bess and took out a cat. “What’s this?”
Bess dropped the pen she had just liberated from her grandpa’s jacket and glanced at the cat. “Ki-ki.”
“That’s kitty,” Shirley interpreted for Roderick. She pulled a stuffed dog from the bag. “What’s this?”
Instead of answering, Bess made barking noises, jumping up and down with each bark.
“Right. A doggy.” Shirley reached into the bag again. “What’s this?” She slowly took out a stuffed dragon.
Bess stiffened and scowled. “Bad dwagon!” She slid from the couch, grabbed the toy and flung it on the floor. “No, no!” she yelled and stomped on the toy several times.
Roderick watched, his mouth slightly ajar. “You taught her to do that.”
“We didn’t,” Shirley said. “You should see what she did to the fairy tale picture books I checked out of the library. I didn’t realize they had dragon pictures in them until it was too late.” She shook her head at the thought. “I had to pay the library thirty-six dollars to replace them.”
Bess stepped off the toy and watched it, seemingly checking it for signs of life. She waved a scolding finger at the animal. “No, no, bad dwagon!”
Alastair regarded his daughter with a sense of resignation. “I have to keep all my dragon research books on high shelves. Otherwise I’m afraid she’ll impale them.”
Satisfied that her dragon toy would not be bothering the family again, Bess picked up the stuffed animal, trotted across the room to a garbage can, and dropped the toy inside. “All bedder!” she chimed and padded back over to the others. She tried unsuccessfully to climb onto the couch by herself until Roderick picked her up and put her on his lap. “Conquering dragons before you’re potty trained, eh princess?”
“All bedder!” she said again.
It wasn’t all better. Alastair couldn’t stand the thought of his daughter ever seeing, let alone fighting, a real dragon. And yet, that’s what he was planning. That’s what he was asking his father to give him a loan for.
Alastair did let himself dwell on the implications or what they meant for Bess’s future. He had time until the dragons attacked. Fifteen to twenty years. He would find and train so many Slayers, his daughter would only bare a small portion of the danger.
“Slayers are natural dragon fighters,” Alastair reminded his father. “Any Slayer children in the area will want to come to camp. My goal is to have the regular facilities open in three years. That way when the Slayer children are old enough to go to camps, mine will already be well established. I’ll offer scholarships for families who can’t afford the cost. We’ll find and train all of the Slayers.”
Roderick turned his attention to Bess. She was busily shoving his car keys between the couch cushions. He didn’t give his disappearing keys any notice. Instead he ran a hand over Bess’s wispy curls. “She reminds me of Nathan.”
“I know,” Alastair said. Bess was determined, mischievous, and exuberant. Just like Nathan had been.
Roderick’s gaze swung back to Alastair, all his former sternness restored. “I don’t want her anywhere near a dragon. Brant Overdrake can’t even know she exists.”
Alastair gave the answer he told himself every time he had the same thought. “All of the Slayers, including Bess, will be safer from both dragons and Overdrake if they’re trained.”
His father couldn’t argue with that. If Nathan had known that he was a Slayer and that Overdrake was a dragon lord, Nathan would probably still be alive.
Roderick brushed one of Bess’s curls behind her ear. His hands looked rough and worn against the little girl’s smooth skin. “You can train Bess,” Roderick conceded. “But I don’t want her anywhere near a battle.”
“None of us do,” Shirley said. She had been uncharacteristically quiet and somber during this conversation. But then, how could one look at your child and talk about their future battles lightly?
“We’ll hope for the best,” Alastair added. “However, we have to prepare for the worst,”
With the keys now swallowed by the couch, Bess sat down beside her grandfather and tried to pry his wedding ring from his finger.
“Fine then,” Roderick said in a tone that indicated he’d made up his mind about the issued. “I won’t give you opinions or platitudes, I’ll just tell you my terms for funding your camp. You can train Bess, but when Overdrake attacks, she stays out of it.”
“I don’t want her to fight. I don’t want her anywhere near dragons.” Alastair glanced across the room at the garbage can and the dragon tail that stuck out. “But how am I going to keep her out of it?”
“You’re the parent. You’ll figure something out. And speaking of parents, don’t tell your mother any of this. It will just make her worry.”
Over the years, Alastair and his father had kept a long list of things from his mother.
Unable to pull off her grandpa’s ring, Bess bent down to bite it. Roderick gently moved his hand away. “No, no,” he told her.
Bess laughed and tried to bite his finger again.
Shirley stood up, walked over, and picked up their daughter. “No biting, Sweetie.”
Bess chomped her teeth together. “I a cwocodile.”
Shirley made a tsking noise and carried Bess into the kitchen, most likely to have a talk with her about appropriate animal behavior.
Alastair watched them go and inwardly sighed. “We can’t even keep her from biting people. What makes you think we’ll be able to control her when she’s a teenager?” He lifted one hand in frustration. “Has anyone figured out yet how to control teenagers? I missed that announcement.”
Roderick leaned back against the couch. “I’ll give you ten million to build your camp and buy equipment clear and free. It won’t be a loan. It’s a gift.”
A gift, that was, as long as Alastair went along with his father’s demands. Alastair didn’t answer right away. He knew his father wanted the slayer children found and trained just as much as Alastair wanted it, more maybe. Nathan’s death wouldn’t be completely avenged until Overdrake was defeated.
“I could go to the government for funding,” Alastair said, attempting to force his father into a better bargaining spot. “They might help me.”
Roderick only shook his head. “You have no way to prove anything to the government. Dragons and dragon lords—they’ll think you’re crazy. Probably put you on one of those watch lists so you’re frisked every time you go to an airport.”
A silence stretched out between them. Alastair looked at the ceiling then back at his father in aggravation. “It will take years to train the children. They’ll trust me. They’ll depend on me. How am I supposed to tell them I’m sending them into a fight that I won’t let my daughter go to?”
“So don’t tell them,” Roderick said. “When the time comes, Bess can call in sick.”
“And what will Bess think of me for making this sort of deal?”
Roderick pulled his phone from his breast pocket. “I don’t care what she thinks as long as she’s alive.” He turned on his phone. “Give me your bank account number, and I’ll have the funds to you by Monday.”
Ten million dollars. Alastair could buy the land within the week and start the zoning process. And would it really be such a bad thing to keep Bess out of the fight? Wasn’t a part of him already breathing a sigh of relief at the thought?
“Well?” his father asked. “Do we have a deal?”
Alastair thought of the stacks of bids and lists of expenses sitting on the table. What other choice did he have? If he depended on outside financing, maybe the camp would never get off the ground. Wasn’t it better to assure that the rest of the Slayers were trained to fight instead of standing on principle and having none be trained at all?
Alastair nodded at his father. “All right.” A part of him felt like he had sold out, that he had compromised himself. Another part felt an overwhelming sense of relief. Bess wasn’t allowed to fight. He wouldn’t lose her the way he’d lost his brother.
Alastair would just have to come up with a way to tell her about this stipulation before the battle began.
Tori paced across her bedroom. The problem with having a vivid imagination was that it was far too easy to envision bad endings to failed missions. Beatings. Imprisonment. Death. Or maybe her imagination wasn’t to blame. Maybe her experience with Overdrake was what was making her worry on Aaron’s behalf.
He was twelve years old—only a child—and she’d purposely leaked his location to Overdrake. She’d done it because Aaron wasn’t just a child, he was the son that Overdrake hadn’t realized he had. A dragon lord. Bait too irresistible for Overdrake to resist.
Had the man already found Aaron and taken him?
Tori tried to banish thoughts of any brutal interrogations he might be enduring. Overdrake wanted Aaron because he had dragon lord powers. He would train him, not hurt him. That was, unless he found out that Aaron planned on becoming a mole for the Slayers. Then who knew what the man would do.
Tori glanced at the clock hanging on her bedroom wall. It was a French antique that her mother had acquired during one of her trips to Europe. She’d insisted on putting it in Tori’s room and had threatened to put several more up if Tori didn’t get better at keeping track of time. A hopeless expectation. Tori could not only lose track of minutes, she misplaced entire hours if something caught her interest.
Now, however, she felt each second ticking by with relentless precision. Aaron had snuck out of his house this morning and gone to the Renaissance Festival supposedly to sell a dragon scale. In reality, he was waiting for his father to come for him. Tori had told Dirk about him in a message and she suspected Overdrake read those.
What sort of persuasion would Overdrake use on Aaron? Would he explain he was Aaron’s father and ask him to come live with him? Demand it? Threaten his mother if he didn’t?
Then again, Overdrake would most likely use more finesse. Bribery of some sort. He wouldn’t want to turn Aaron into an enemy. Overdrake would try and convince Aaron that his upcoming attacks on America were warranted, just like he’d convinced Dirk.
Another glance at the clock. Four fifteen. She paced back the other direction.
Her gaze fell on a small framed picture on her dresser. Her and her sister posing atop the Empire State building on a trip to New York for last spring’s fashion week. That life had disappeared somewhere, burned to cinders by dragon fire. Tori might look the same—long golden brown hair, green eyes, camera-ready smile, but everything else about her had changed. Life as a Slayer was secrets, strategy, training, fighting—and as of today, doing what she’d never thought she’d do—playing God with someone else’s life.
Another glance at the clock. Four nineteen. The frustrating thing was that Tori didn’t even know whether she should be worrying. She had no way of knowing whether Aaron had even followed through with their plan. She couldn’t call him. Overdrake might have his phone, or for that matter, Bianca, his mother might have it. Tori’s one stipulation to Aaron had been that he leave a note for his mom, telling her what he’d done and why he’d done it. An unexplained disappearance would have been too cruel.
But for all Tori knew, Bianca had found the note early and dragged Aaron home from the fair long before Overdrake arrived. Either way, Bianca would be furious when she found out Aaron had put himself in danger to help the Slayers. She would no doubt call Dr. B. Was it better to call him first and confess her part in everything, or should she wait until he called her?
The fair ended at five-thirty. If she called Dr. B and Overdrake hadn’t taken Aaron yet, she could blow his whole plan.
Tori kept pacing, kept checking the clock, didn’t call. She wished she could call Jesse and talk to him about this. He was Team Magnus’s captain and her boyfriend. Or at least he had been her boyfriend. They’d fought this morning and now she wasn’t sure he wanted to be her boyfriend anymore, let alone discuss the intrigue she’d just facilitated. She couldn’t think about all of that yet.
At five-fifteen a message from Dr. B appeared on her Slayer watch.
Aaron snuck out this morning to sell dragon scales and hasn’t returned home. He may be purposely staying out because he knows he’ll be in trouble when he gets home, but it’s possible he’s run afoul of a dealer, a customer, or even that Overdrake may have captured him. Bianca has notified the local police of his disappearance but he hasn’t been gone long enough to worry them. She’ll keep me posted.
Tori’s pacing came to a halt as she read and then reread the message. Overdrake must have Aaron. Why didn’t Bianca already understand what his disappearance meant? Had she missed his note? But no, she must have read it or she wouldn’t know his cover—that he’d gone to sell a scale.
Another message from Dr. lit up her watch. This one sent only to her. Could you possibly go to North Carolina with me? Your skill as a counterpart may be able to help locate Aaron.
Counterparts could sense each other if they were within a few dozen yards and Tori was counterparts with both Dirk and Aaron. Wouldn’t be much help in this case. Aaron was long gone from the fairgrounds.
It’s a slim hope, Dr. B went on, but Bianca is distraught and it’s all I have to offer her. She’s worried someone knifed Aaron, stole the scale, and now he’s lying in a ditch somewhere.
A tight ball of recrimination formed in Tori’s stomach. Bianca didn’t know what Aaron had done. Was it possible he hadn’t been clear enough in his note?
Tori called Dr. B on her watch phone.
He answered immediately. “If you can go, I’ll have the jet ready by the time you reach the airport.”
“I’m pretty sure Aaron is with Overdrake. He was supposed to explain everything in a note to Bianca.” She swallowed and plunged on. “He and I had a plan. His plan, actually. He said he’d go to Overdrake by himself if I didn’t help him.” It was perhaps cowardly of Tori to emphasize how little choice Aaron had given her, but she wanted to emphasize that she hadn’t forced him to offer himself up.
“You planned on selling the scales with Aaron?” Dr. B asked. “Why?”
“He didn’t go to the fair to sell scales.” Perhaps it was better to back up. “Do you know what Aaron said in his note?”
“I’ve got a scan of it. Hold on.” A moment later, Dr. B read, “I’m going to find a buyer for the scales. I’ve got to do it to protect our family. I don’t want to leave any evidence in the house that could let Overdrake know the truth about me.”
Really? Tori had given Aaron one stipulation, and he hadn’t done it. He hadn’t told his mother what he was doing.
She rubbed her forehead in frustration. The last sentence of his note was most likely written for Tori, not Bianca. Aaron had told her in a roundabout way that he wasn’t giving his mother an explanation because he didn’t want to leave any evidence that Overdrake might find. Perhaps Aaron thought Overdrake’s men might search his house.
Whatever his reasoning, he’d left Tori to break the news to Dr. B. She took a deep breath. “You have to understand—Aaron has grown up hearing stories about your brother, how Nathan was drawn to the dragons on St. Helena, and Overdrake’s father killed him because of it. Aaron is afraid that when Overdrake attacks, the same thing will happen to his brother.” Aaron had inherited both dragon lord and Slayer genes, but his younger half-brother Jacob was only a slayer. And therefore a natural threat to Overdrake.
“Aaron asked me to leak his location so Overdrake would come for him. He’s going to work against Overdrake on the inside by passing information to me.”
Tori was connected to whichever dragon she was closest to and heard whatever it did. If Aaron spoke while he was near that dragon, he could communicate with her. He would just have to figure out which dragon was closest to her or give the same information around each of them.
Dr. B’s voice came through her watch, sharp with judgment. “You sent a twelve-year-old to spy on a ruthless tyrant? What sort of information do you think Overdrake would give a child? The name of his government contacts? His battle plans?” Dr. B had never yelled at Tori before. She’d always thought the man was made of patience. His anger now, although not loud, cut twice as deep.
“No,” she said quietly, “but Aaron was determined to go and he might be able to give us information about Overdrake’s location. If nothing else, Aaron can pass along information about how to control dragons. Isn’t that worth something?”
Dr. B didn’t answer. He was either considering her point or was too furious to form words.
Tori began pacing again. “Both times when we fought dragons, luck saved us as much as skill—that, and Dirk’s help. Next time, we might not have either. But if I can control a dragon, or even if I can break Overdrake’s control on one for a little while, that might be the difference between life and death for all of us. So yes, I thought sending Aaron to Overdrake’s was worth the risk. Tell Bianca I’m sorry.”
“I won’t tell her that,” Dr. B voice was controlled now, his temper back in check, “and neither will you. At this point, telling her the truth will only further wound her. She can’t know that Aaron chose to leave her because he thought her so incapable of protecting Jacob, he decided to take on Overdrake himself.”
Guilt twisted through Tori. “Aaron didn’t want to hurt his mother. I can reassure her of that.”
“Telling Bianca the truth would turn her against the Slayers, so I doubt she would find anything you said after your confession very reassuring. We need her as an ally, and right now she trusts us. I won’t ruin that by making her think we’re willing to sacrifice her children to our cause. I’ll tell her we have reason to believe that Overdrake has Aaron, and promise that as soon as you have more information about him, I’ll call her.”
A small offering, but one she could do. “As soon as I hear anything from him, I’ll let you know.” In the last few hours all she’d heard from the dragon were the normal sort of sounds: the occasional footsteps as the dragon moved around, lapping noises while it took a drink.
“Your actions in this affair,” Dr. B went on, “are unacceptable, to say the least.”
Tori sank down onto her window seat, leaning against a row of pillows there. “I only—”
Dr. B didn’t let her finish. “Not because you helped Aaron enact this plan, but because you did so without any consultation from the rest of the slayers. Sending Aaron in may prove to be a valuable strategy, but you shouldn’t make far-reaching decisions without any debate or vote. Doing away with democracy is Overdrake’s plan, not ours.”
That stung. Granted, Dr. B always made the Slayers discuss any important mission beforehand, but he’d also taught her that being a captain meant that sometimes you had to make hard decisions alone. He’d appointed her as A-team’s captain. Didn’t he trust her? “I didn’t tell the other Slayers because I knew they wouldn’t look at the issue objectively. They’re predisposed not to trust dragon lords. Jesse doesn’t want me to even try to learn how to control dragons.”
It was what they’d fought about this morning. Well, that and the fact that she’d let Dirk kiss her in an attempt to get information from him. In her defense, she was trying to get information about controlling dragons. “The Slayers refuse to see the potential of training Aaron,” she said.
“And you refuse to see the danger. Twelve-year-olds are impressionable and easily influenced. What if Overdrake converts Aaron to his side? If Dirk and Aaron both help during an attack, we’ll be forced to simultaneously fight three dragons. What will our chances be then?” Dr. B let out an unhappy breath. “Captains can’t function without the trust of their team and I’m afraid this bit of subterfuge will cost you the other Slayers’ trust. You’ve left me no choice but to put you on probation.”
Probation meant that she would still be on A-team, but no longer the captain. Tori had expected Dr. B to be angry, had dreaded his disappointment, but she hadn’t anticipated this. His pronouncement felt like he was telling her that he no longer liked her and he doubted the Slayers would either.
Her voice lodged halfway in her throat and she had to force herself to speak. “For how long?”
“That will depend on the other Slayers. When I tell them about Aaron, I’ll emphasize that you had the best intentions. I’ll point out that we may gain invaluable information. I’ll reassess things in a few weeks. Until then, Ryker will be A-team’s captain.”
Ryker was the other flyer on the team. He’d only been with the Slayers since Halloween, less than a month.
“I understand,” she said. She did understand. But she still didn’t like the decision.
Dr. B said his goodbyes and Tori went and laid on her bed, exhausted.
It was stupid to feel so hurt. After all, she hadn’t wanted to be a captain in the first place, but having the position taken away from her as a punishment made her feel small and breakable and completely wrong about everything she’d done. She’d been trying to do the right thing. Why did it make her feel so completely horrible?
She buried her face in her pillow, shut her eyes, and enlarged her dragon hearing as far as it could go. She longed to hear Aaron’s voice in the background, some reassurance that he was okay. All she heard was the slow rattle of the dragon’s breath.
Where was Aaron right now?
Be okay, she thought. Be strong. And she lay there wishing she had some way to tell him those things.
When Aaron woke up, he lay on the floor of a small living room, one that vibrated with a loud hum. He sat up quickly, heart racing. His head felt like it weighed ten pounds. He shook it, trying to clear his mind. Part of his brain was screaming at him to get up and run. He’d meant to meet his father and go with him—but not like this. He hadn’t planned on being drugged and kidnapped.
As his vision focused, he realized this wasn’t in a living room. He was on an airplane, a moving one. Not the sort of commercial plane he’d flown on before. A smaller private jet.
Two oversized chairs sat behind a bolted-down coffee table. Dirk sat in one of them, a calculus book open in his lap. It was odd to look at Dirk—and not just because he was the older brother his mother had always talked about with so much wistful reverence, the guy might have been a mythological being instead of a person. It was odd because everyone had told Aaron how much he looked like Dirk. They had the same blond hair, blue eyes, and features similar enough that Tori and Dr. B had pegged them for brothers as soon as they’d met Aaron. Dirk was taller with broader shoulders and a squarer jaw, but that was because his brother was almost eighteen. Once Aaron was the same age, he’d probably have those things too.
How could Aaron look at Dirk without wondering if he was looking at his future?
Dirk only gave Aaron a passing glance, then went back to writing equations in a notebook next to his calculus book. Somehow seeing him do math problems ticked Aaron off. If you were going to kidnap someone, you shouldn’t do something as normal as homework while it was happening.
“You’re awake,” a voice behind him said. “Good.”
Aaron turned and saw Overdrake sitting on a couch. He didn’t look much different from the photos Aaron had seen in his mother’s old photo albums. His dark hair was streaked with gray, and he had more wrinkles around his brown eyes. Other than that, he hadn’t changed much. He was tall, fit, and stern-looking. The sort of person who could dissect you with a gaze.
Overdrake looked Aaron over with smug approval. “It’s hard to keep a dragon lord drugged for long. We have a resistance to drugs. The fact that you’re up already is a piece of proof that you’re my son. Although we’ll need to go to my compound to see for certain.” Overdrake gestured to the seat next to Dirk’s, inviting him to sit. “Your mother told you about me, I assume. You know who I am?”
Aaron got to his feet, still feeling clumsy and tired from the drug. He slumped into one of the leather chairs. “Yeah, you’re Brant Overdrake. I’ve seen pictures of you.” Aaron brushed his hand against his pocket, checking for his phone. Gone. “Where is my phone?”
“In a safe place.”
Aaron kept his voice even. No point in losing his temper. “Can I have it?”
“Later. How is Bianca these days?”
He sounded so polite, so civilized. It was hard to believe this was the guy who’d had men chase Aaron down and sedate him. “Why did you drug me and where are you taking me?”
“Didn’t I make that clear? I’m sorry. You’ll be going to my home for a paternity test. You look like Dirk, true, but for all I know you could just be some look alike the Slayers found so they could try and track me.”
Aaron rubbed his forehead. “Dude, they sell paternity tests at Walmart. You don’t have to fly me anywhere for a test.”
Overdrake picked up a glass from a cup holder and took a casual drink. “I drugged you because you ran away. Which, I assumed meant you knew I wanted to talk with you but you weren’t willing to come with me peacefully. Sometimes parents have to use force with their children. You understand that.” He said this as though drugging and kidnapping him was the same as sending a five-year-old to their room. “What exactly did Bianca tell you about me?”
Aaron ran his hand along the chair’s arms. They were softer than any chairs he had in his house. “She doesn’t talk about you much. She told me you had dragons and you were going to use them to take over the government. She didn’t want me to be a part of it, so that’s why she left when she was pregnant with me.”
Aaron hadn’t thought Dirk was listening, but the bottom half of his pencil snapped in two like he’d been pressing it too hard. That was the downside of extra strength, he supposed, you broke stuff easier.
It occurred to Aaron that dragon lords, like Slayers, got their extra powers when they’d been close to a dragon. Dirk had been strong at the fair and still was. “Is there a dragon somewhere nearby?” he asked.
Overdrake watched him casually. “Do you really have to ask that question?”
Uh, what did he mean by that? “You’re saying I’m not allowed to ask questions?”
“I’m saying that if you really are a dragon lord, and a dragon was nearby, you would feel it. Did your mother not tell you that much at least?”
Aaron still wasn’t thinking clearly. Overdrake wouldn’t have brought a dragon out into public. Like the Slayers, he must have a simulator—a machine that mimicked a dragon’s heartbeat so closely that its pulse turned on a dragon lord’s powers. Once they’d been in contact with it, they would have extra strength, night vision, heightened senses, and the ability to fly. Those powers would last as long as the simulator was within a five-mile range, and for an hour afterward.
Aaron couldn’t tell Overdrake he knew about simulators. He didn’t want to admit that he knew anything about the Slayers. “My mom has said things about dragons, but I haven’t paid a lot of attention. It’s not like I’ve ever run into one.”
Overdrake smiled. “You just sell their scales.”
Aaron’s mother had taken dragon scales from Overdrake when she’d left him. Aaron had never believed they were real until he’d sold some—a sale that had led the Slayers to his doorstep. Aaron shrugged. “Selling stuff isn’t illegal.”
Overdrake swirled the liquid in his glass. “No, but it isn’t always wise. The wrong people could start asking questions.”
“Fine. I won’t sell them anymore. I’m glad we’ve had this talk and you can take me back to the fair.”
“This isn’t about the scales,” Overdrake said patiently. “This is about you and how you should be raised.”
Aaron shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Keep calm, he told himself. You wanted this. But it was hard not to be freaked out. Before, when he’d thought about contacting his father, it had always been a choice, something he could back out of if he wanted. Now there was no backing out. “Did you tell my mom you were taking me?” he asked. That’s what any normal kid would ask in this situation. “She’s going to freak out if I just disappear.”
“She disappeared with you thirteen years ago,” Overdrake said, calmly taking another drink. “You know what they say, turnabout is fair play.”
“She’ll call the police and tell them you kidnapped me.”
Overdrake waved his hand, dismissing the protest. “This isn’t a kidnapping, it’s a custody dispute. They happen every day in America and the police don’t do much about it. Really, considering she denied me custody for twelve years, I think my turn with you is long overdue.”
“You didn’t let her see Dirk,” Aaron pointed out. That got his brother’s attention. Dirk stiffened, frowned. He didn’t look up though. He was concentrating firmly on his equations.
“It was unfortunate but necessary,” Overdrake said. “Bianca knew when we married that I needed sons to help me. You can’t imagine how upset it makes me to know she’s hidden you away from me all this time. And, no doubt, she’s told you horrible things about me.”
For the first time, Aaron wondered if his mother really had lied to him about his father. “You’re not going to use the dragons to attack cities?”
“See, this is exactly what I mean. She’s poisoned you against me. I’m going to use the dragons to set cities free.”
Uh huh. “Does setting them free involve burning things and killing people?”
Overdrake laughed. “Is that the sort of person you think I am? Someone who enjoys destroying things?” He shook his head. “A leader builds things, not destroys them.”
What did he mean by that? “So you’re not going to attack with the dragons?”
Overdrake sighed as if Aaron was a little kid asking whether Santa was real. “This is what you need to know. I plan on building a great future for this country. Think of me as an architect with blueprints for an amazing palace. Whenever a builder creates a new structure, he needs to clear the ground first. Get rid of the rubble and weeds. Things that shouldn’t be there to begin with. Clearing them takes work and effort, but what he builds is so much better, that it’s worth it. Do you understand?”
Not really. But Aaron suspected that the answer to his earlier question was: yes, Overdrake did plan on using the dragons to attack. Aaron nodded uncertainly.
“Good,” Overdrake said, “Now tell me about yourself. I assume you play sports.”
Aaron didn’t just play sports, he dominated them, was the best athlete in his grade. “Yeah. Football, basketball, and some soccer.”
Overdrake nodded as though he expected as much. “Dirk’s always been varsity. Your grades?”
“As and Bs.” More Bs than his mother liked. She wanted him to be straight As.
“Where do you live?”
Aaron tried not to swallow. Swallowing would make him look guilty. “Charleston.” His family had vacationed there enough times that he could fake it. No way was he going to tell Overdrake his real address. “You’re going to give me my phone so I can call my mom, right?”
“I’ll let her know you’re safe. Did she ever remarry?”
“No. She’s single.” It was partly true. She and Wesley, his stepdad, were separated. Aaron didn’t want Overdrake to consider that she might have any Slayer children.
“Really?” he asked. “I always imagined she would remarry quickly.”
Aaron swallowed again despite his best efforts not to. She’d married Wesley not long after Aaron was born.
Overdrake didn’t seem to notice his discomfort, or at least didn’t press the subject. Instead he spent the next twenty minutes asking about Aaron’s hobbies, his school, and bits of his life.
Aaron answered them carefully, making sure not to accidentally give information about his mom or brother.
After the plane landed, Overdrake turned to Dirk. “So, do you have counterpart abilities with Aaron? Could you tell if he was lying about anything?”
Aaron froze. Tori had said counterparts could sometimes tell when the other was lying, but Aaron had assumed he would have to be talking to Dirk for him to detect a lie. Now he worried. If Dirk knew he had lied about their mother remarrying, he might figure out why. And his address—he’d lied about that too.
Dirk picked up his homework. “As far as I could tell, the kid wasn’t lying about any of it.”
Overdrake smiled, happy with that piece of news.
Aaron just stared at his brother. Because he could tell Dirk was lying. Somehow his emotions felt it as strongly as if he’d been the one lying. This was both good and bad news. Good news, because Dirk didn’t rat him out. Bad news, because it was apparently a lot easier to tell when a counterpart lied than Aaron had hoped.
Overdrake blindfolded Aaron before he led him off the plane. Aaron remained blindfolded for a car ride that must have been at least an hour long. He didn’t know whether to be worried or think all the cloak and dagger stuff was lame. He wasn’t allowed to take off the blindfold even after Overdrake led him out of the car. They walked down an uneven path for ten minutes, maybe more. Then they went into a building, climbed down several flights of stairs, and walked through a hallway.
It didn’t matter how many times Aaron asked, “Where are you taking me?”
Overdrake always answered in a variation of, “You’ll see when you get there.”
Aaron didn’t see though, he smelled it. Something like old car parts. A door opened, Overdrake walked him through it, and then the door shut with a loud metallic clang. Were they in some sort of mechanic’s shop?
“This,” Overdrake said, “Is where we’ll administer your paternity test.” Finally, he took off the blindfold.
They stood in some sort of dimly lit cave. It was several stories high and as wide as three or four basketball courts. Had the echoing feel of a basketball court too. A pool of water sat by an outcropping of boulders, with a hill of boulders behind that. Smaller boulders lay near Aaron’s feet. The odd thing about the cave was that they’d come in a door to get here. Weirdest place ever. Dirk and Overdrake stood beside Aaron, looking bored.
“Can you see?” Overdrake asked him.
“What am I supposed to see?” Aaron asked.
Overdrake grunted like he wasn’t pleased with the answer.
And then Aaron saw that the black shape he’d thought was a hill of boulders wasn’t rock at all. It was alive and moving toward them. A huge, slinking beast. Aaron took a step backward, almost tripping over his own feet. “Is that a dragon?”
“It is,” Overdrake said, his voice sounding pleased again. “Meet Khan. He’ll most likely kill you if you can’t protect yourself, so you have three options.” He pointed to a small opening in the ceiling of the cave wall. “You can fly up there and hide, you can go into the dragon’s mind and control it, or you can pick up those rocks to your side and use them as weapons.”
Aaron took another step backward. “Are you insane?” He should never have come here. Never should have told Tori he’d do this.
“If you’re my son, the dragon’s fire won’t hurt you. If you’re an imposter, well, you’ll die. But you’ll have learned a very important lesson before you do, which is that you should never impersonate someone.”
The man was insane. He was standing there calmly talking about the dragon frying him like this was all some game that didn’t mean anything.
Aaron shouldn’t have to prove himself. He hadn’t come to Overdrake claiming to be his son. The man had kidnapped him from the fair and brought him here. Aaron wanted to yell all at Overdrake, but Khan was coming closer. He needed a plan. He needed to do something—fight or hide.
But all Aaron could manage was to stand motionless, gawking at the dragon. With its dark scales, it looked like a shadow that had come to life, some sort of inky nightmare. The thing was so huge it could have easily ripped an elephant to part. It lifted its long neck, glared at him with a pair of golden eyes, and growled showing rows of dagger-like teeth.
Aaron didn’t know how to fly or control a dragon—even though he remembered his mother talking to Tori about it. She’d said something about making your dragon vision into a door and stepping through it. No time to figure out what that meant.
The boulders to his side were the size of large ice coolers. Too heavy for him to normally pick up, but he must have his dragon lord strength now. The dragon was closer than five miles—it was almost closer than five yards. Aaron hefted up the corner of a boulder, and it lifted his hands as easily as though it had been a pillow. He held it over his head, stepped into the throw, and launched it at Khan’s throat.
The dragon dodged easily enough and in return, shot a blast of fire in Aaron’s direction. Long churning flames. Aaron wasn’t about to stand there and see if he was really fireproof. Instinct made him leap sideways, a motion that took him higher and farther than he’d planned on. When he landed, he was a good fifteen feet away from the boulders, his only weapons.
A stupid move. He searched around for something else to throw. There wasn’t anything. He’d have leap back there.
Fly, he told himself Fly!
Nothing happened. His feet didn’t leave the ground.
The dragon turned and took a heavy threatening step in his direction.
Overdrake held up his hand. “Enough,” he said, and the dragon halted. Within the span of seconds, it went from an attack stance to calmly sitting, eyes half shut in boredom.
Overdrake clicked something on his remote and the lights in the cave brightened. “You passed your test. You do indeed have powers when you’re near a dragon. Although I must mention that of the three options I gave you, attacking a dragon is the most foolish one. But then, we have plenty of time to work on your education.”
Aaron planted his hands on his hips, his breaths coming out fast. “You call this a test? Hey, I’ll tell you what you can do with your education.” He then arranged every swear word he knew into one sentence and spat them all out at his father. He was still shaking from the fear and adrenaline and his heart felt like it was about to hammer its way through his chest.
Overdrake shook his head. “You’ll need to work on your temper. I don’t stand for that sort of disrespect from my sons.”
“I could have been killed!” Aaron yelled and added a few more sentences of mostly swear words.
Dirk rose a half a foot into the air and glided over to him. It looked weird seeing him just levitating off the ground that way. He took hold of Aaron’s arm and pulled him toward the door they’d come in. “I’ll show Aaron around and take him to his room.”
The door was steel and looked like something that belonged in a prison, but it opened easily. Aaron was still cursing when Dirk dragged him out into the hallway and shut the door behind them. “Calm down,” Dirk said, landing on the ground again. “You were never in any danger. My father had control of the dragon the whole time.”
“It shot fire at me!” Aaron shook off Dirk’s grip. He could do that now that he had extra strength. “If I wasn’t a dragon lord, I would have been burned alive. What sort of psycho test is that?”
“Khan only shot fire at you after you’d thrown the boulder. By that point, it was clear you were legit, and dragon lords don’t burn.” Dirk motioned for Aaron to follow him down the hall.
Aaron didn’t really have a choice. He didn’t want to be standing there in the hallway when Overdrake came out. He grudgingly followed Dirk. “He’s crazy, isn’t he? Like, legitimately mental.”
“No,” Dirk said. “He just likes to make a point. And the point he was making today is that he is in charge and there are consequences for anyone who crosses him. Once you’ve learned that lesson, everything will be much smoother.” He said the words like they didn’t bother him, but how could they not? “Oh, and by the way—welcome home.”
Home. They both knew it wasn’t. Aaron wasn’t sure if Dirk was trying to be friendly or just ironic.
They kept walking down the hall, their footsteps clanging on the floor.
“Back at the fair, when you saw me, you told me to run. Why?”
Dirk seemed unruffled by the question, but his voice had a note of bitterness. “Because my mother gave me up in order to protect you—in order to keep you from being trained as a dragon lord.” He opened a door and went up a stairwell. “Seemed like a shame to have that sacrifice be for nothing.”
Aaron let out a sharp breath and followed after Dirk. He suddenly felt like he’d betrayed his mom, done something horribly wrong.
Instead of walking, Dirk lifted off the ground and flew over the first few steps. Aaron leaped up a few stairs, bumped into the stairwell, did the same thing at the next bend, and gave up the idea of using his powers to shorten the climb. He trudged up them the normal way.
Dirk checked over his shoulder to see if Aaron was keeping up. “Don’t look so depressed,” he said. “Being a dragon lord isn’t a bad thing. You’ll get the hang of leaping eventually. Plus you’ll get to control dragons and fly.”
Aaron kept trudging up the steps. He could have leaped up but didn’t want Dirk to think he was enjoying himself. “Is this like good cop-bad cop, and you’re the good cop?”
Dirk chuckled, then stopped himself. “Sorry for laughing. I just never thought of myself as the good cop sort.” Dirk landed on the steps beside Aaron and resumed climbing the stairs with him. “You’ll be staying at the dragon enclosure for a while. Once my dad,” he paused amending the term. “Once our dad feels he can trust you, you’ll move with the rest of the family to the house.”
“Who’s the rest of the family?”
“Cassie is our stepmother. Bridget, our half-sister, is seven, and we’ve got a baby brother on the way. How about your family? Do I have any half-siblings there?”
Aaron didn’t answer the question. He didn’t want to tell the truth and worried Dirk would be able to tell if he lied. He glanced around the stairwell. Cinderblocks lined the walls. The whole place had the atmosphere of a prison. The sooner he figured out exactly how things were going to work here, the better. “How are you going to keep me from leaving? Are you going to lock me in my room?”
Dirk shook his head. “You’ve already forgotten the point of today’s lesson. Dad is in charge and if you cross him, there will be consequences.”
“So he’ll hurt me if I try to escape?”
“You’re too valuable for that. He’ll find other ways.”
“What do you mean?”
Dirk scoffed. “Do you really have to ask? Look, I’m ticked at my mom for leaving me as a kid. I won’t pretend I’m not. But that doesn’t mean I want to see her hurt. So just do both of us a favor and don’t give our father any reasons to track her down to make his point in a bigger way, okay?”
Aaron’s stomach lurched and a feeling of dread pressed into him. He held his chin steady though. He didn’t like being threatened. “He won’t be able to find her.”
“Please. He’s got your cell phone with her number on it. Do you think he can’t figure out a way to get to her? He’s probably already noticed that none of your contacts have South Carolina area codes. Where are you really from, North Carolina?”
Aaron didn’t answer, just grit his teeth and followed Dirk down the hallway. He should’ve thought to erase his contacts.
Dirk exhaled slowly, and Aaron could feel his sympathy mixed with concern. “None of this will be as bad as it seems right now. I’ll give you some advice for dealing with our father. Don’t bother fighting him. He’ll make sure he wins. The best way to sway him is to bargain. What do you want—well, besides a new dad and a plane ticket home?”
“I want to call Mom and talk to her.”
“Okay. So tell Dad you’re willing to stay as long as you get to call home once a week, and he buys you a Ferrari.”
“I’m twelve. I can’t drive.”
“That doesn’t matter. Ask for a car anyway. He’ll buy one for you because he understands people who can be bought. It’s the ones that can’t who make him nervous.”
A Ferrari would be cool. “Any other advice?”
Dirk glanced over at him with a sad smile. “Yeah, next time I tell you to run, make sure you do.”
Aaron walked down a hallway with Dirk, running a hand along the cement walls. How far below the surface were they? This whole place made him feel claustrophobic.
Dirk opened a metal door and motioned for him to go inside.
Instead of cement, the walls were some sort of metal: dull gray that blurred his reflection. A simple bed, dresser, and desk sat in the room. No windows, obviously. Amazing how much a bedroom looked like a cell without sunlight. An alarm clock perched on the dresser and small TV hung on the far wall. A doorway in the back. A bathroom?
“This is where you guys live?” Aaron asked. He’d expected someone with as much money as Overdrake to have nicer rooms.
“No, but this is where you’ll live until we decide we can trust you.” Dirk pointed out a plate of food on the desk: a sandwich, chips, apple, and a bottled water. “Cassie left some stuff for you in case you’re hungry. Try to get some sleep. Dad believes in being an early riser so you’ll start training at seven every morning.”
“Is there some reason all the walls are metal?”
“They’ll keep the dragon signal from reaching you so your powers will wear off. Otherwise you’d have too much energy to sleep.”
The metal walls probably also made the place harder to break out of. Real cozy.
Aaron walked over to the bed. A crayon drawing lay on his pillow.
“That’s a welcome gift from Bridget,” Dirk said. “A self-portrait.”
Dirk had told Aaron that they had a seven-year-old sister, but she hadn’t seemed real until now. He had a little sister. He had no idea how to treat sisters or seven-year-olds. Did they cry easily? Throw temper tantrums?
Aaron picked up the drawing. It showed a dark-haired girl smiling and reaching her stick figure arms up into the air. To Aaron was written on the top. “Is she doing yoga or surrendering?”
“She’s reaching out to hug you.”
“Oh. Good.” Aaron looked around the room again. “I wasn’t sure what the norm for your family was. Glad yoga’s not expected.”
Dirk laughed and shook his head. “I can tell you’re a lot like me, which means we’ll probably get along.” He put his hand on Aaron’s shoulder. It was a friendly gesture until he fixed him with a penetrating gaze. “But I need to tell you one more thing. If you ever do anything to hurt Bridget, I’ll know, and I’ll make you suffer.”
Aaron dropped the picture back on the bed and stepped away from Dirk’s grip. “Sheesh. I wouldn’t hurt a little kid. What sort of person do you think I am?”
“I think you’re fine which is why I’m willing to let you go near Bridget.” Dirk paused as though realizing he’d forgotten something. “I should have clarified that the last message was from Cassie.” He shrugged in apology. “She’s pregnant so she goes through frequent periods of hormonal snippiness.” Dirk casually slipped his hands into his back pockets. “You don’t want to know what I’d do to you if you hurt Bridget.”
Aaron held up his hands. “I won’t even talk to her.”
“You’ll have to talk to her. She’d be crushed if you didn’t. She also loves to play Uno and Wii, so plan on getting drafted into several games a day.” Dirk smiled and then walked to the door. “If she likes you, she might let you win sometimes.”