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.