There are good people in the world

For the last three days, the world of kidlit has undergone scrutiny over sexual harassment allegations. It’s enough to make anyone despair about the state of humanity in general and the children’s publishing in specific. I feel for the victims and worry about the state of the souls of the perpetrators. Guilt does its own damage to a person, but that is a topic for another blog.

My agent (The awesome Tim Travaglini) called me this morning to see whether I was “on the ledge” because he knew one of my friends had been named in the allegations. I was touched that he was concerned enough to take time out of his day to talk with me.

Which made me realize, yet again, that I know so many wonderful, caring people in this business. I expected many things when I became a writer, but I never imagined that the greatest benefits of putting pen to paper (Or more accurately sitting alone in front of a computer) was the many friendships I would gain.

I know so many wonderful, kind, generous people–people who have helped me and others with no thought of benefitting themselves. So no matter what happens next, I just want to say that I am glad I know so many of you. The world is still a good place.

FAQ about Slayers: The Dragon Lords (Yes, there is a fifth book)

Will there be a fifth book?

I got an email last night from a lady telling me that the book didn’t seem to be complete. “So many issues were left unresolved,” she told me. “I thought you said this was the last book and you were going to write two different endings.”

Yeah. I did say that. And if you didn’t read the dedication (who reads those?) or you didn’t catch my posts on Facebook bemoaning the fact that the book was too long and I was having to split it once again, you might be very unsatisfied by the ending.

Yes, there is one last book in the series. It is mostly written. (I have a couple scenes left to write) And there will be a Team Jesse ending and a Team Dirk ending so you’ll have to choose which one you want to read.

Will the book be available in paperback?

Yes.

Before a physical cover can be designed, the book needs to be typeset, which is happening now. So it will still be a few weeks until it’s available. It would already be available if I didn’t have the habit of changing things right until the last moment. But no. I’m probably still going to make some small changes from the ebook to the physical book.

If you have any other questions, ask in the comment section and I’ll answer them.

Chapter 18–the whole book will be out on Jan 23

Won’t you be glad to read the rest of the book? And because you’ve gotten a head start, you’ll leave reviews really fast, right? Right? Please? I don’t want the other dragon books to mock mine. Anyway, without further ado, here is the chapter and preorder link

Preorder for 2.99 before it goes up to 4.99

“Why exactly did we come to the game?” Melinda asked. She was sitting beside Tori in the bleachers, mostly checking her phone and taking selfies. The crowd around them had erupted in a cheer—Jesse had made another basket—and the guy next to Melinda jostled her, making her spill popcorn on her lap.

“School spirit,” Tori said.

“Uh huh.” Melinda wasn’t a sports fan, which had always seemed like a good thing. For the most part, Tori avoided sports events. The yells from the crowd, the clapping, the sound of players thumping across the floor—and worst of all, the shrill referee whistles—it was a constant assault of sound.

But after Jesse had joined the basketball team, Tori had undergone a sharp increase of interest in the game. Tonight she’d told her parents she was going to Melinda’s house and then dragged her to the game. That way, she didn’t have to bring her bodyguard with her.

Melinda cast a glance at Jesse. “I thought you were over Jonathan.”

“I am. Sort of. It’s complicated.”

Melinda rolled her eyes. “He’s hot and acts all unattainable. That’s not a complication, that’s a challenge. And you’ve fallen for it just like every other girl in the school.”

At first, Jesse had acted unattainable to the other girls because he’d been seeing her. But even after their split, he wasn’t seeing anyone. Was that because he still had feelings for her or because he didn’t want any entanglements that would keep him from his Slayer duties?

The crowd erupted into another cheer, drawing Tori’s attention back to the game. Well, not really to the game—she was only paying attention to Jesse. He ran down the court with a stride that had a grace and flow that made everything he did look effortless.

He’d stolen the ball from the other team and was winding his way around their players to the school’s basket. He pivoted around the guard and went up for a layup. Two points. The crowd whooped its approval.

He didn’t even pause before he headed down to the other basket to play defense. For a moment his gaze flickered to the crowd and Tori wondered if he saw her sitting on the bleachers.

Probably not. Jesse had a way of concentrating on what needed to be done and forgetting about the unimportant details. In this case: her, staring at him like some groupie.

The guy who sat on the other side of Tori was talking to a friend beside him. “We’re going to bury Maret. That new kid is on fire.”

He was. Tori hoped some of the scouts from local colleges would want him. It would be a pity if he had to turn down out-of-state offers because Dr. B had instructed the Slayers to stay in the area. She let herself wonder what Jesse’s life would be like if he weren’t a Slayer. He not only had athletic potential, the guy was smart and had a good head on his shoulders. He could go anywhere. He was the sort of person whose future should be wide open and limitless.

A familiar sensation bloomed inside of Tori, made her catch her breath. It was the feeling that a counterpart was close. Dirk. Her eyes searched the gymnasium. He was somewhere nearby.

Even as the thought occurred to her, she dismissed it. Why would he be at this basketball game? And yet that feeling of familiarity—of him—was there.

People were coming and going through the door. When her gaze turned in that direction, he wasn’t hard to spot. He was tall, broad-shouldered, blond, and handsome. Those sorts of guys always stood out.

He wandered toward the bleachers, scanning the crowd, and the next moment his eyes connected with hers. He smiled but there was a tinge of worry, a hesitation in his expression. He crossed the floor, still holding her gaze.

Was this coincidence or had he come to see her on purpose? If it were on purpose, it could be good news—or very bad news. She peered at the area behind Dirk to see if anyone was with him. Overdrake maybe or an assortment of henchmen.

He seemed to be alone. No one who was burly, armed, or sinister trailed him. Eyes still on her, he made his way to her section of the bleachers.

How had he found her? Well, she shouldn’t really wonder. He’d known she’d gone to this school before she moved. It wasn’t surprising he would check here—but why had he come? Was he about to deliver some sort of ultimatum to the Slayers? That’s what the bad guys in movies always did when they showed up unexpectedly. Her breaths came faster, her heart pounded, and she wasn’t exactly sure whether it was from worry or happiness—because, frustratingly, even though she was worried, another part of her was just happy to see him.

He climbed the steps, and then people scooted over, letting him edge through her row. When he was still a couple feet away, she asked, “What are you doing here?”

He stopped on the bleacher beneath her, waiting for people to shift away from her to make room. “I came to talk to you, to make sure you were okay.”

The guys on Tori’s side didn’t move. They were too engrossed in the game to notice Dirk standing there. Melinda didn’t move either, but that was because she was staring, starstruck, at Dirk.

He spoke without sitting down. “Why didn’t you answer any of my messages?”

She blinked at him, confused. “Your last message said not to contact you.”

It was his turn to look surprised. “You haven’t heard anything from me since then? You didn’t hear my new contact information?”

She shook her head. Should she admit that she was connected to Khan now and not Vesta? If Dirk ever had another warning for her, she wanted to make sure she heard it. But at the same time, Overdrake hadn’t let Aaron be alone with Vesta. If Dirk knew Tori could hear what Khan heard, would Aaron be kept from that dragon? Perhaps Overdrake’s restrictions on the fledglings weren’t only due to their unpredictable nature. Maybe he was making sure Aaron didn’t leak anything to her.

Before she could decide what to say next, her attention shifted. The crowd had momentarily grown quiet, seemed to be suspended in a collective gasp. The ref’s whistle chided a shrill complaint. Something was wrong.

She didn’t see the basketball hurtling toward the back of Dirk’s head. She couldn’t see it because he was blocking her view of the court. But he turned—split-second fast—reached into the air and caught the ball before it hit his head.

Several people in the stands let out exclamations, some of relief that no one had been hurt, others in pure appreciation of the sort of skill it took to catch a ball going fast and hard when your back was turned.

But most of the crowd just gaped in disbelief, some at Dirk, some at Jesse.

Tori knew Jesse was the one who’d hurled the ball into the stands even before she tilted her head to see him standing in the middle of the floor glaring up at Dirk.

Jesse had apparently seen Dirk in the stands and his first reaction had been to stop the game and fling the only hard object he had at Dirk’s head.

Jesse should have known it wouldn’t work. The Slayers had done this sort of thing often enough at camp—pitched things at each other to test one another’s reaction times. Dirk was hard to catch off guard.

“Well,” Dirk said wryly, “look who’s playing on your team.”

Jesse stormed toward the stands, saying something that was drowned out by the ref’s scolding whistle. Perhaps Jesse’s teammates were close enough to hear him, or perhaps his look of determination was enough to announce his intentions because a couple guys grabbed Jesse’s arms to hold him back.

Dirk smiled at Jesse, took aim at the opponent’s basket, and threw the ball in that direction.

The ball swooshed through the net and the crowd let at an assortment of hoots and cheers. The guy sitting next to Tori raised his hand to give Dirk a fist bump. “Dude, that was so awesome!”

What it was, was proof that Dirk’s powers were turned on. None of them could have so effortlessly landed that shot without their extra abilities, but it was the sort of thing all of them did at camp. Dirk had done it to make a point: He had extra strength and Jesse didn’t.

Jesse stopped struggling against his teammates. His gaze went to Tori and the apprehension in his eyes made his thoughts clear. She didn’t have extra strength right now. If she needed to fight off Dirk, she wouldn’t be able to do it.

While the guy sitting next to Tori asked Dirk where he played, Tori held up a hand to Jesse, making the Slayer sign that everything was fine. Dirk wouldn’t hurt her. She didn’t sense any aggression or hostility from him. He’d come to make sure she was okay.

Jesse didn’t look all that reassured, but at least he wasn’t marching into the bleachers to confront Dirk.

Most people in the stands were still staring at both Dirk and Jesse, trying to piece together what had happened. Melinda was just staring at Dirk as if hoping if she waited long enough a priest would appear and marry them. “Tori,” she chimed. “You haven’t introduced me to your friend.”

Dirk shook off his fanboy and turned back to Tori and Melinda. “I’m Dirk,” he said with a forced smile. “I’m here to take Tori home.”

She couldn’t leave with him. They were, after all, enemies. “I can’t,” she said. On the basketball court, the ref had retrieved the ball and was trying to get the game started again. The coach was at Jesse’s side yelling but Jesse’s gaze was still on the stands, a fact that was making the coach’s face turn an unnatural shade of red.

She tapped the All’s Well button on her watch and sent the message to Jesse so he wouldn’t make things worse.

“We’re old friends,” Dirk told Melinda. “And we’ve got lots to catch up on. Sorry to take her away.”

Melinda smiled back at him. “I’m one of her old friends too. Which means we probably have lots of other things in common.”

Dirk took hold of Tori’s wrist, a soft grip but an insistent one. “Let’s leave. I’m blocking people’s view of the game.”

Tori tried to tug her wrist away from him, a pointless gesture against his strength. “You know I can’t leave with you.”

Melinda leaned toward him and giggled. “Hey, I’ll leave with you.”

Really, when had Melinda become this much of a flirt?

Dirk didn’t let go of Tori’s wrist. His voice went low, serious and teasing at the same time. “Don’t make me carry you out of here.”

“Don’t even think about it,” Tori said. “This is a public place.”

She looked at Jesse again, and Dirk followed her gaze. Jesse was walking to the benched players, pressing buttons on his watch. No doubt, he was calling for reinforcement. Dr. B would bring a simulator so the Slayers could fight and capture Dirk. How long would it take them to get here?

“The watches,” Dirk said in a tone that reminded her of Overdrake. Confident and plotting. When Dirk was a Slayer, he’d owned one, so he knew what they did and how important they were to the team’s communication. Before she realized what he was doing, he hooked his finger underneath her watch and pulled. With the force of his strength, the band snapped and came loose from her wrist.

He held it up. “Do you want this back?”

She lunged for it and nearly toppled down the bleachers. He took hold of her waist, steadying her. He smelled of aftershave, a scent that brought to mind parties where men wore tuxedos. “Throwing yourself at me?” he murmured, then set her on her feet again. “This is a public place.”

Melinda laughed, clearly missing the undertone of the conversation. “Are you okay, Tori?” She saw the watch in Dirk’s hand. “Did that thing finally break? Good. Now she can get something decent.”

Tori held her hand out to Dirk with an impatient wave of her fingers. “Give me my watch.” Theo had recalled and changed all of their watches when Overdrake captured Alyssa and took hers. Tori didn’t want to go through that again. As much as she hated the way her watch looked, it was handier than a phone and more secure. Her conversations with the other Slayers were automatically encrypted.

“I just want to talk to you,” Dirk said, turning to go. “You can tell I’m not lying about that.”

Without another word, he strode down the bleachers. His message was clear. If she wanted her watch back, she had to come with him.

She did want to talk to him, but not like this. She didn’t like being forced into it or hurried so that she didn’t have time to consider all the implications and dangers of going with him.

Still, he wanted to talk to her and he hadn’t had a lot of ways to reach her since he didn’t know she was connected to Khan. And what if he’d come to give her information or broker some sort of deal? Her gaze went to Jesse again. He’d noticed Dirk moving to the door. Jesse had his wrist lifted, pretending to wipe sweat from his forehead. A practiced move to hide the fact that he was speaking into his watch.

Jesse was not going to be happy when he noticed her leaving the gym and realized what she’d done, but then she supposed that was par for the course. The Slayers didn’t want her to speak to Dirk and she kept disappointing them. She would just have to live with whatever grief Jesse gave her.

She made her way down the bleachers, her footsteps tapping against the floor. She hardly heard them over the pounding of the game and the noise of the crowd. Most everyone had returned their attention to the floor. Only a few people watched her make her way to the door.

Dirk waited in the foyer, standing casually by the trophy cases and looking every bit the golden boy who could win them. He read her watch face, and without glancing up, said, “Jesse texted and asked what you’re doing.” Dirk spoke out loud as he wrote back. “I’m leaving the rest of you and running off with the man of my dreams. YOLO.”

Tori marched over to him, hand out. “Give me that.”

“Let’s go talk first.” He headed out the front doors, leaving her no choice but to follow him.

She reluctantly did so. She still sensed no aggression from him, no deceit. If he wanted a private place to talk, fine. The school steps were private enough. The cold night air pressed against her throat and face. She’d only worn a light jacket.

Dirk stood at the bottom of the school steps, had probably leapt down there.

She walked down them slowly. “What did you want to talk about?”

“Not here.” Dirk sauntered out onto the parking lot, reading messages on her watch again. “Ryker will arrive in ten minutes. Fifteen if Dr. B gets held up in traffic with the simulator.” Dirk shook his head as he ambled through a row of cars. “DC traffic. The bane of commuters and dragon Slayers alike.”

Tori’s watch buzzed and Dirk checked it. “Jesse says to stop being flippant and take the situation seriously.” Dirk spoke as he wrote back. “Like when you chucked a ball into the crowd, Mr. Good Example?” He pointed to his black Porsche sitting in the back of the parking lot. “My car is over there.”

He wanted to drive someplace. This just kept getting riskier. She stopped walking. “Where exactly did you want to talk?”

Instead of answering her, he increased his pace, pulling further ahead of her.

She hesitated. She shouldn’t get in a car with an enemy. But then again, if Dirk wanted to kidnap her, he could have already done it. He could have carried her off and she wouldn’t have been able to stop him. She grudgingly followed after him again. He was several yards ahead and wasn’t slowing down. “Why aren’t you waiting for me?” she asked.

“Because I need to do this.” The Volkswagen bug he was passing had a window that was cracked down an inch. He slipped her watch through the opening, then checked to make sure the car doors were locked.

She reached the car and peered inside. Her watch lay on the driver’s seat forlornly, one panel lit up to indicate she had a new message. “You said you were going to give it to me.”

“You’ll get it back,” Dirk said. “As soon as Jesse tells Dr. B you left with me, he’ll trace your watch’s position and find it here. Ryker or Jesse will break into the car and get it.”

Tori kept looking at the watch. “You were the only one who was good at breaking into cars. You remember that, don’t you? Ryker is new and Jesse…”

“Is lacking in many skills. I do remember that.” Dirk took her hand and led her toward his car.

She wondered if Dirk had somehow seen the Slayers breaking into Alyssa’s car last October. Jesse hadn’t been able to get the tool to work and they’d all ended up crowded around the car conspicuously while people strolled by giving them dirty looks. Tori felt the need to say something in their defense, or at least Jesse’s defense.

“Jesse is trained to fight dragons. Breaking into cars doesn’t come up much during those sorts of fights.”

“Don’t worry about him,” Dirk said. “The Volkswagen’s owner probably won’t catch Jesse trying to jimmy his lock, and if he does—how tough can the owner be? He drives a bug.”

They’d reached Dirk’s Porsche. He unlocked the car, then held the passenger side door open for Tori.

“You know,” she said, not moving to the car. “I don’t think we have a very well-defined hero-villain relationship. I bet Wonder Woman never got in a car with…who did she fight, anyway?”

“Guys who could be stopped with a lasso. I see you didn’t bring yours.” Dirk kept holding the door open. “I only want to talk to you. Villains and heroes do that all the time.”

Tori wrapped her arms around herself to keep from shivering. “You’re not going to kidnap me, trick me, trap me—anything I’ll regret later?”

He shrugged his shoulders in mock innocence. “How would I know what you’ll regret later? What did you regret last time?”

She didn’t want to answer that question. “Just promise me that you’ll let me go anytime I want.”

“I’ll let you go anytime you want.” He said the words with too much mischief seeping into his sincerity, but that was part of his personality—an underlying mischief and way of stirring things up for his own personal amusement. He wasn’t feeling guilty enough to make her think he was lying.

She got in the car and pulled her jacket tighter around her. Once Dirk got in, he turned the heater on high, then drove across the parking lot. As he pulled onto the street, he glanced back at the school. “So you see Jesse every day. How’s that working out?”

“That’s not what you came to talk to me about.”

“Yeah, but it’s what I want to talk about now.”

“I’d rather not talk about it.”

“Hmm,” he said with a smile. “Not so well then.”

It was one of those times when she didn’t like being Dirk’s counterpart. He seemed to know all the things she wasn’t saying. Tori watched the rows of colonial houses file past her window. A thin layer of snow covered the lawns, hiding the dead grass beneath. “Now that you know Jesse’s location, Dr. B will probably move him.”

Dirk nodded. “Bummer.” Another smile.

Tori’s cell phone dinged, announcing she had a text message.

“That’s probably Jesse now,” Dirk said.

It was. His message read Are you okay? Where are you?

She texted an explanation about the watch, reiterated that she was fine, and told him she would call him when she was done talking to Dirk.

Jesse was going to have a lot to say about that, was probably already composing a lengthy text. She planned on ignoring it.

“So where are you taking me?” she asked.

Dirk turned from the street they’d been on. “To a remote, secluded location.”

She crossed her arms. “That sounds like you’ve planned my untimely death, not a polite conversation. How about we go to a restaurant instead? There’s a good Thai place a few miles back.”

He kept driving straight. “I know a place you’ll like better.”

“I’m not so sure about that. I prefer Thai to ‘remote and secluded’. What will we be talking about?”

“My dad hacked my last account with you. That’s why I told you not to contact me. So only post things there that you wouldn’t mind him reading. I set up an untraceable account on the dark web. The login and password are on that slip of paper on top of the dashboard.”

Tori picked up the paper. While she entered the information into her phone, Dirk said, “How come you haven’t heard any of my spoken messages?”

There was no point trying to keep the truth about her connection with Khan from him. She couldn’t come up with some other explanation for why she hadn’t heard Dirk speak when he was near Vesta. With almost a jolt, she remembered she should pretend to be angry that Overdrake had kidnapped Aaron. “I’ve heard you speak while you were with a dragon, but you never said anything that was directed at me.” She turned to face Dirk and concentrated on her worry for Aaron. She didn’t have to fake that. “I know your father has Aaron. I didn’t think you wanted that. Why haven’t you done something to free him?”

Dirk’s gaze snapped to Tori and look of surprised realization washed over him. “Your link is with Khan.” He said the sentence with self-reprimand. “I should have figured that out.” He released a slow breath as though figuring things out now. “Your default changed when you went into his mind. Before that, you were always connected to Vesta unless another dragon got a lot closer.”

“Why Vesta?” she asked.

He shrugged. “Her egg probably turned on your dragon lord genes, so she became your default. But after you went into Khan’s mind, you were more familiar with him so you’ve stayed there.” Dirk drove in silence for a few moments, thinking about this.

Tori focused her thoughts on her worry for Aaron again. He was so young, so easily influenced, so unused to dealing with people like Overdrake. “Are you even going to comment on the fact that your father abducted Aaron?”

Dirk tapped his thumb against the steering wheel, unconcerned. “Aaron is fine. In fact, he’s getting along better with my father than I am.”

“Dirk—” she began.

“My father has parental rights. Any court in the nation would agree with him about that. And besides, Aaron doesn’t want to leave. He’s never even asked me for help getting back to his mom.”

“Your mom,” Tori said. “She’s your mom too.”

Dirk grunted. “So I’ve been told.”

Tori could feel the emotion stirring in him at the mention of her. Anger. Frustration. Pain. She hadn’t expected these sorts of feelings, or at least not in the quantity he felt them.

“Have you talked to her?” Tori asked. “Aaron would give you her number.”

Dirk hesitated. His grip on the steering wheel grew tighter. “I talked to her once for about a minute.”

“Why only a minute?”

“I didn’t have anything to say.”

Not true. He had twelve years of things to say. “I wouldn’t believe that even if I weren’t your counterpart. If you squeeze the steering wheel any tighter, you’re going to snap it in half.”

His grip on the wheel lessened. He didn’t say anything, though.

She waited. Finally, she said, “You can fake a lot of things. Apathy isn’t one of them.”

He hit his turn signal with a sharp flick, then stopped a bit too abruptly at a traffic light. “She chose to leave me so that she could be with Aaron. She can’t undo that now and pretend she cares about me.”

Tori worded her sentence carefully. She couldn’t admit she’d talked to Bianca and seen the pain in her eyes. “Maybe she wasn’t choosing Aaron over you. Maybe she knew she couldn’t take you away from your father. She couldn’t protect you from him because he knew about you and would make sure that no matter where she ran, he’d find you. But that wasn’t the case for Aaron.”

Tori didn’t feel any softening in Dirk, just the continuing rumble of pain within him. He was determined not to forgive his mother, determined to hold onto his resentment as tightly as he’d been gripping the steering wheel. She put her hand on his knee, half expecting to feel the intensity of his emotions buzz her skin like an electric pulse. “I’m sure your mom was brokenhearted to lose you.”

Perhaps Tori said the sentence with too much certainty. Dirk took his eyes from the light to check her expression. “How would you be sure about that?”

“Because I can’t imagine anyone not loving you.”

Dirk laughed and his anger and pain faded into the background of his thoughts. “I can think of several people who don’t love me.” He glanced at the clock on the dashboard. “Some of them are converging on your school right now.”

She placed her hand back in her lap. “Loving you and disagreeing with you are two different things.”

His eyes cut to her again, reading her. “Do you love me, Tori?”

“Of course.”

He returned his attention to the road. The light had turned green. “But not the way I want.”

When she’d answered the question, she’d been thinking of him as her counterpart. She’d been thinking of how hard it was to see him willfully make bad decisions. She wasn’t going to talk about the sort of love Dirk wanted.

He turned onto the freeway entrance. The spot he had in mind must be even more secluded and remote than she’d thought. “You say Aaron is okay, but I’m not so sure. Face it, your father is a horrible parent. What sort of man tosses a twelve-year-old into a dragon enclosure, tells him to fly, and then leaves?” She eyed him. “Was that how he taught you to fly?”

“I was younger. It wasn’t so hard for me.” Dirk rethought his words. “Or maybe it was harder because I didn’t know that my father was in the dragon’s mind, that he had control of him.”

Poor Dirk. She hated thinking of him as being young, vulnerable, and at the mercy of Overdrake. “Doesn’t your father’s ruthlessness bother you? You wouldn’t treat your own children that way, would you?”

“No,” Dirk said, as though he’d already given it thought. “I’m going to be like Dr. B. He’s what a father should be.”

The statement caught her by surprise and not just because Dr. B seemed entirely too willing to put the Slayers in danger. “How can you say you want to be like Dr. B and then fight against everything he believes in?”

She was prepared to elaborate on this topic, but Dirk lifted his hand to stop her. “I didn’t say I would have the same beliefs, just the same methods. Dr. B taught us to be strong, but he never let us forget that he cared about us.” Dirk picked up speed, weaving around a slow-moving car. “Although I don’t suppose Dr. B cares that much about me now.”

“He does,” Tori said. “You know he still does.”

“Yeah, I do,” Dirk didn’t sound like he was all that happy about the fact.

Tori glanced at the signs, noting the upcoming exits. “What restaurant are you taking me to?”

“We’re not going to a restaurant. I’m taking you to see Minerva.”

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

Preorder at the 2.99 price before it goes up to 4.99!

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.