Chapter 11

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

Chapter 11

 

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

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

All of that seemed so long ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you doing okay?” Rosa asked Tori.

“Yeah,” Tori said.

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

“A little,” Tori said.

“We all still love you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which made everyone turn to Tori.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that was pretty much how practice started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Join the club,” Tori said.

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

“Willow—” Jesse started.

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

“Willow—” Tori tried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fire spurted from a nozzle underneath the helicopter.

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

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

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

“Sorry!” Lilly chimed back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Freeze it!” she called to him.

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

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

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

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

“Dragons are slippery,” Ryker called.

Kody rode off the field muttering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs. Harris stared at her blankly.

“We’re studying,” Tori added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How attractive is the girl in question?”

“Why does that matter?”

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

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

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

“She doesn’t.”

“You never know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nope. They wouldn’t.

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

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

“You heard right,” the German said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Man, Jesse hated when the only option was fleeing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’ll be back,” Leo said.

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

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

“Amelia?” Leo repeated, his resolve wavering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s Overdrake?” Leo asked.

“A terrorist,” Jesse said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Plow him,” Jesse told her.

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

“To the catwalk?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The caffeine isn’t why I’m shaking.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 8

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

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

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

“What’s up?” Jesse asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesse and Bess both loaded their darts into their watches.

“Any questions?” Dr. B asked.

“Yeah,” Bess said, pushing her sleeve away from her watch. “What sort of parties did you go to in college that you’re worried about pat-downs and metal detectors?”

“If you wish to take handguns,” Dr. B answered patiently, “I’ll get them from the truck, but we’ll need to go over reminders about shooting near crowds.”

Bess held up her hand to stop him. “We’ll be fine.”

Their heightened senses and extra strength were more than enough protection from drunken frat boys.

 “Very well,” Dr. B said. “I’ll wait here unless you request backup. If you need a police distraction, I can always call and report underage drinking.”

 “I doubt we’ll need backup,” Jesse said. It would be just his luck to be caught in a raid, dragged to the police station, and then have to call his parents to pick him up. They wouldn’t let him out of the house again.

Dr. B gave them a fatherly smile of encouragement. “I’m glad we’re doing this. It’s time we reminded Leo who he is.”

If only it could be that easy. Hey Leo, you used to have superpowers…

Jesse and Bess headed across the parking lot, walking close together. “Leo will ask why we’re at a college party,” he said. “What’s our story?”

 “We’re out on a date, and I wanted to go to a chick flick and you wouldn’t take me because you’re a guy and therefore hate all movies that aren’t peppered with weapons. You thought we should go paintballing, but hello, I spent time doing my hair. I obviously don’t want it covered in paint. Your friend Brock told you about the party and we decided to check it out. I may or may not be so ticked at you that I’ll ditch you and go off with Leo.”

Perhaps Bess had too much time on the drive over to concoct a story. “Why do I have to look like a jerk in this scenario?”

“Sometimes it can’t be helped. The necessities of plot, and all that.”

They came to the walkway that led through the red brick buildings. Fall leaves, turned gray by the night, littered the ground. “How about we’re together tonight because we’re friends. My girlfriend just dumped me for another guy, and you’re not seeing anyone, so we decided to hang out.” The part about his girlfriend dumping him was true, even if Bess didn’t know it yet. Or maybe she did. Tori might have told her about Dirk. Jesse wasn’t about to ask. He already regretted not coming up with a different story. Whenever he thought about Tori, his chest felt like he’d been punctured and his soul was slowly seeping out into the atmosphere.

“Speaking of me not seeing anyone…” Bess let her sentence drift off uncertainly. “Do you and Ryker ever talk about girls?”

They’d talked about Tori. More specifically, Ryker had told him, “You’re way too invested in her. She’s Senator Hampton’s daughter. She’s going to dump you, go for some rich and famous jerk, and you’ll be carrying your heart home in confetti-sized pieces.”

And that’s pretty much what had happened last Friday. Tori could claim she kissed Dirk for strategic reasons, but she and Dirk had a history. They’d gotten together last September. For that matter, they’d gotten together her third day at camp. The two apparently couldn’t be alone together for long without their lips meeting up.

“And if you do,” Bess said, bringing him sharply back to the present. “Does Ryker ever talk about anyone in specific?”

“We mostly talk about training,” Jesse said.

“Have you ever talk about me?”

Oh, that’s where this was going. He should have guessed as much. Whenever Bess was around Ryker she always got either flirty or demure. She’d even started wearing makeup to practice.

“He’s not seeing anyone right now if that’s what you’re asking.”

“I know that much. Willow and I talk.” Ryker and Willow had stayed at Dr. B’s house when they first became Slayers. Might still be. Dr. B kept those sorts of details secret. “I was just wondering,” Bess continued, “since you’re his counterpart if you knew what he thinks of me.”

“He thinks you’re an amazing Slayer and he likes you.”

She cocked her head, trying to read more from his expression. “How much does he like me?”

“I don’t know.”

She let out a sigh. “You’re his counterpart. If he liked me, you’d know, which means he must not.”

“It’s not that.” Ryker was just smart enough to realize that girls made confetti out of your heart. “He’s too busy thinking about dragons to think about girls.”

Bess kicked a loose stone in their path, sending it skittering down the walkway. “That’s one more reason to hate dragons.”

The music grew louder, percussion and angry electric guitars. They’d reached the Village A apartment complex. From the outside the structure looked normal enough, boxy red brick buildings interspersed with terrace patios and the occasional balcony. An official-looking sign on the sidewalk read: If you SEE something SAY something, then gave the number of the Georgetown police department. Hopefully no one would be calling about the two of them.

“There’s a staircase this way,” Bess said and strode into an opening between two of the buildings. Metal steps edged along both buildings, leading to what looked like a free-standing catwalk that went between the two. Even from down here the scent of beer was overwhelming. He’d be able to smell it even without the help of his Slayer senses

(* Greta, I’m looking at pic 18 and assuming this is what they’d see. where do they go from here?) Bess headed up the stairs, taking them fast. They passed so many discarded red Solo cups, they might have been left as a trail by Hansel and Gretel in their later, drunken years.

A few people were coming down the stairs in various stages of soberness. Jesse and Bess remained silent when anyone was nearby, but after they’d passed by the last couple, Bess said, “Let me do the talking. I’m Leo’s counterpart. There has to be some part of him I can reach.”

“If anyone can bring him back, it’s you.”

“But no pressure, right?” Her pace increased. “I keep wondering if I could have done something to stop Leo from losing his memories. Maybe I should have warned him to be careful more. Maybe I should have broken the rules and kept in contact with him.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Jesse said.

“I know. But knowing something and feeling it are two different matters.”

They turned from one staircase, twisted around and went up the next* (Is this right?)

Finally they reached the top floor and the main catwalk which had not one, but two railings—a simple tan one that resembled a picket fence, and another of gray mesh that had obviously been added later, when the first proved unsuccessful at corralling the wandering humans. From up here, the map of the buildings made a little more sense. The footprints for the stories were different because the building in front of them was only three stories, the one in front of that was two, and on the other side of the road was a row of one-story buildings. Each had its own terraces.

The view was worth creating buildings with stair-step outlines. Past a row of trees, the Potomac River flowed by like a wide dark street. Beyond that, the city lights of Rosslyn glowed.

Jesse pulled his gaze away from the attraction of the landscape. On his other side, were rows of apartments. Each building had two apartments side by side that shared a large terrace deck. The catwalk connected them all, leaving ten-foot gaps between the buildings.

Several people jostled by him on the catwalk. More than one party was going on up here. Looked like three. The one in the middle had a table set up and a group of people was gathered around cheering on a couple guys who were playing beer pong.

“Do you see Leo anywhere?” Jesse asked.

“Not yet, but if he’s here, I’ll find him.” Counterparts could always find one another when they were close.

They wandered past the first party. Bess shook her head and kept going. “If he’s not on any of the terraces, we’ll have to go inside the apartments to look for him.”

They reached the middle party. A food table sat between apartments and a few people milled around it. A couple of guys were filling cups from the keg at the end of the table. A row of space heaters did their best to warm the area.

“This one,” she said.

Two upperclassmen guys stood nearby monitoring the traffic. Jesse smiled at them in a casual manner. “Brook Booher invited us.”

“Great,” the first guy said, friendly enough. “The cover charge is ten dollars.”

Jesse pulled out his wallet, but Bess beat him to it with a twenty. “Thanks.”

She and Jesse made their way past the guys. He peered at the people on the terrace talking and laughing trying to spot Leo. The guy was tall, thin build, with shaggy brown hair.

“There he is,” Bess said, pointing to the food table. She hurried that way and Jesse followed, still not seeing Leo. He couldn’t be either of the guys filling glasses at the keg. They were too short and stocky. The only other guy nearby had hair past his shoulders and wore a trench coat.

 “Leo!” Bess called.

The guy in the coat turned. Jesse had to blink twice at him before he recognized him. Quiet, reserved Leo had turned goth. A swath of hair swept across his face, nearly hiding one of his eyes. He wore skintight black jeans, a T-shirt with skulls, and… was he wearing eyeliner?

Bess let out a squeal of pretended surprise. “Leo, it is you!”

He startled at the sight of them, then smiled and walked toward them. “Bess! Jesse!”

Instead of answering, Bess launched herself into his arms, nearly plowing him into the table. “It’s so good to see you!”

He hugged her back then held her at arm’s length to look her over. “Man, I can’t believe it. What are you doing here?”

“I’m thinking about going to Georgetown,” Jesse said, changing his story on the spot. “I wanted to check out the place.”

“Cool.” Leo’s gaze bounced between the two of them, still taking them in. “Are the two of you dating?”

“Yes,” Bess said at the same time Jesse said, “No.” They’d never decided on that point. Something, Jesse now realized, they really should have done on the walk here instead of talking about Ryker.

Leo cocked his head at them in confusion.

Bess pursed her lips at Jesse and made an aggravated grunting sound. “No? Is this your way of breaking up with me? So classy.”

“Um, I…” Jesse stammered.

“First the paintball fiasco and now this.” Bess folded her arms with the air of a martyr. “Men.”

Leo laughed and shook his head at her. “You’re such a liar. You haven’t changed at all.”

Bess laughed then too, letting her arms drop to her sides. “I’ve definitely changed. My lies are more interesting now.”

Leo had seen through Bess’s story so easily. Were his counterpart senses still working? Jesse shouldn’t have gotten his hopes up. The lie hadn’t been a good one. But a part of him hoped anyway.

“What about you?” Bess asked Leo. “How are your lies coming along?”

“I’m an expert, of course. I lie so well even I believe me most of the time.”

Her gaze went over him and she flipped a strand of hair off his shoulder. “Your hair is longer.”

“So is yours,” he said with a note of defensiveness.

“I didn’t say I didn’t like it.” She tilted her head, considering him. “I’m sure those bangs will come in handy should you ever need to hide your identity from surveillance cameras.”

“I was almost about to say how much I’ve missed you. Now I’m rethinking.”

She playfully swatted him in the arm. “And you told me you were a good liar. You’ve missed me like crazy. Admit it.”

He grinned. “Fine I admit it, but only so you won’t hit me again.” He glanced behind Bess and Jesse, his gaze sweeping the terrace.

“We didn’t bring Rosa with us,” Bess said.

Leo’s gaze snapped back to her in embarrassment. “I wasn’t… I didn’t ask if you had.” So easily flustered. He was actually blushing. Maybe he hadn’t changed as much as Jesse had thought.

“You were wondering it,” Bess said with mock offense. “I swear the only reason you ever hung out with me at camp was because I was Rosa’s friend. She’s doing fine. She’s as sweet and adorable as always and as far as I know, single.”

Leo brightened. “Good. You’ll have to give me her number. I’ve been kicking myself that I never got it at camp.”

Well, that was the first problematic request of the evening. With the exception of Tori and Jesse, the Slayers didn’t have each other’s phone numbers. They communicated through their watches. Dr. B had made this a rule so that if Overdrake ever captured any of them, he wouldn’t be able to locate the other Slayers’ by tracking their phones.

Tori and Jesse probably shouldn’t have exchanged numbers but after they’d started dating, they’d needed a way to communicate. They weren’t about to set up dates through the Slayer channels. Besides, now that they went to the same school, keeping that sort of information private seemed pointless.

Bess dug through her jacket pocket and pulled out a pen. “I don’t have my phone with me, but give me your number and I’ll text you Rosa’s.” She put the pen tip on the back of her hand, ready to write. When Bess did text him, the number would be from a computer with an untraceable IP address. Ditto for Rosa’s contact information.

Leo rattled off his number, then added, “We should all get together again—have a camp reunion party.”

“Absolutely,” Jesse said. Taking Leo to some of their old practice spots might shake a few memories loose

“You know what would be even better?” Bess’s eyes widened as though she’d just thought of the idea. “You could help me with my science fair project.”

“How would that be better than a party?” Leo asked.

“You’d get to see more of me. I need one more volunteer. It will be super easy. You just need to eat Ling Zhi.”

Leo pushed his bangs away from his eyes. “Ling what?”

“Ling Zhi mushrooms. The ancient Chinese used them to promote health and long life. I’m having people take them for two months and tracking their energy and mood.”

Leo made a face, showing his distaste for the idea. “You know I hate mushrooms. Remember how I always picked them off my pizza?”

“Don’t be a wuss,” Bess said. “You can take it in capsules, although you’ll have to take a lot to get the same results.”

Leo’s expression of distaste didn’t change.

“Don’t you want more energy?” she asked. “Ling Zhi is also an antioxidant so you’ll get sick less. Some people claim it even helps with cancer.”

Leo cocked an eyebrow at her. “Are you doing a science project or starting a multi-level marketing company?”

Bess ignored his question and turned to Jesse. “Can you give Leo the Ling Zhi, I just gave you? That way I won’t have to make a special trip to Leo’s house until his supply runs out”

“Sure.” Jesse produced the bottle and Ziploc bag. He shook the bottle making the capsules rattle. “This is the version for wusses.”

Bess took the items and held them out to Leo. “The powder is good in smoothies. One heaping tablespoon three times a day.”

Leo didn’t take the stuff from her hand. “You want me to drink mushroom smoothies for two months?”

“This is for science,” Bess insisted.

Leo shook his head. “Look, we both know if I say yes, I’ll gag down some for a day or two and then forget about the whole thing until you call for my results. I don’t want to ruin your science project and I don’t want you mad at me. So I’d better pass.”

“I’ll call daily and remind you.” Bess still held the bag out in an offering.

He shook his head again. “I’m sure you can find some people at your school who want to help you cure cancer.”

Strike one. “Rosa is part of the experiment,” Jesse put in. “If you are too, you’ll have something to talk to her about when you call.”

Leo rocked back on his heels, unimpressed by the suggestion. “I know I used to be shy, but I’ve changed since camp. I can come up with something to say to Rosa that doesn’t involve mushroom smoothies.” His gaze traveled around the crowd. “But if you really need another participant, my friend Ryan is a health nut. Runs cross country. He’d probably eat pinecones if you told him it would help his time on the mile.”

Bess sighed and gave Jesse the bag and bottle. Plan B it was, then. They’d tell him the truth and show him the proof.

Jess put the Ling Zhi back in his pockets. “It’s kind of loud out here. Let’ go somewhere and talk. We’ve got a lot to catch up on.”

 “You want to leave already?” Leo asked. “You haven’t even gotten any drinks yet.”

Cups of beer sat lined up on the table next to the potato chips and dip. Leo picked up a couple and turned back to Bess and Jesse.

Jesse had known that Leo drank, but somehow seeing the proof, casually held in his hands, still stung.

“We don’t drink,” Jesse said.

Leo shrugged. “No worries. There’s soda in the ice chest.” He put one of the drinks back on the table. The other, he took a sip from.

“You shouldn’t drink,” Bess said, perhaps too sharply.

Leo took another sip and smiled, goading her. “Why not?”

Bess stepped over to him nonchalantly. “Because you’re underage, it’s bad for you and,” she knocked the cup from his hand before he could bring it to his lips again. “it’s really messy.”

The beer spilled down Leo’s shirt. He swore and pulled at his shirt while arching his back. “What the—why did you do that?”

“Because I care about you,” Bess said, still sweet. “This is what love feels like.”

Jesse grabbed some napkins from the table and handed them to Leo. “Sorry. Bess is just…” too emotionally involved in Leo’s choices. “…is just Bess.”

She folded her arms. “Right. So let’s go somewhere and talk.”

Leo pressed the napkins to his shirt. A hopeless task, really. He was standing in a puddle. “Only if you know a place with a Laundromat.”

“Again, sorry about the beer.” Jesse gave Leo a few more napkins. “But we really need to talk.”

Leo kept dabbing at his chest. “And I’ve really got to get out of this wet shirt.”

There was one way to fix this. Jesse slipped off his jacket, handed it to Bess, then took off his shirt. “Here,” he said, holding it out. “I’ll trade you.”

Leo shook his head. “Nah, I’m not going to make you wear my wet shirt.”

“Really,” Jesse said, “Trade me. I’m not cold.” Perks of having his Slayer powers on.

Leo kept wiping his shirt with napkins. Most of them were ripping into wet shreds. “You don’t have to do that.”

Bess rolled her eyes. “Just take Jesse’s shirt so we can go somewhere else. Seriously, every girl on the roof is staring at him now.”

Jesse glanced across the terrace. Yep. Quite a number of girls were eyeing him. Some with blatant approval. One swirled her drink invitingly and winked.

Bess took the shirt from Jesse’s hand and shoved it into Leo’s. “We have something important to tell you. Switch shirts with Mr. Eyecandy before one of the gawkers decides to come over and attach herself to him.”

“Fine.” Leo gingerly peeled off his shirt and gave it to Jesse. “Where did you want to go?”

“Down by the library,” Bess said. “No one will be there.”

Jesse pulled Leo’s shirt on. It was a little too tight. Just what he needed. Now girls were staring at him while he wore a tight, wet T-shirt. He put his jacket back on. “Let’s go.”

“Just a sec,” Leo said. “Let me tell Ryan where I’m going. He’s my ride.” He looked around the terrace until his gaze landed on the beer pong table. “Ryan!” he called.

No one paid attention to him. Too noisy.

Leo walked toward the table. “Yo, Ryan!”

One of the spectators turned. He was average height, beefy, with thick arms and a neck that looked too big for his head. His hair had been cut so it looked like a dark halo. “What?” he called back and then noticed Jesse and Bess standing there.

That’s when everything changed. Because it only took that single look for Jesse to realize Ryan was going to be a serious problem.

Chapter 7

Chapter 7

 

Dirk sat in the living room, ignoring the football game on the TV in front of him while he listened to the noises in the kitchen.

Norma, the housekeeper his father had hired from the Philippines, was clanking plates into the dishwasher. Bridget sat at the kitchen table drawing pictures and chatting away to Norma, oblivious to the fact that the woman didn’t understand a quarter of what she said. With Bridget, that sort of thing didn’t matter. Cassie was in the kitchen as well, washing the china she didn’t trust anyone else to handle.

After the first couple days, their father had moved Aaron to a room in the house and had been purposely lax about guarding him. Aaron had agreed to stay, and his freedom was a test to see if, given the chance, he would bolt. So far he hadn’t.

His father had taken Aaron to the enclosure over an hour ago. They’d gone to feed Khan the turkey carcass but obviously, his father had more planned. It took about ten seconds for a dragon to eat dinner. They weren’t big on chewing.

Dirk tapped his thumb against the remote control, nervous for Aaron and irritated all over again that his father had abducted the kid.

It wasn’t just the wrongness of the kidnapping that bothered Dirk. He’d had an unwanted sense of responsibility thrust on him. Now he had to worry about Aaron, had to act as an intermediary, and most problematic, he had to figure out whether he should help the kid escape.

Back when he’d first seen Aaron, scared and trying to get away at the fair, Dirk had decided he couldn’t stand by and see his brother shanghaied. Dirk would just need to figure out how to help him get home in a way that didn’t implicate himself in the process.

But now he didn’t know.

Tori would help Dirk if he asked her. He could tell her to meet him somewhere and hand Aaron off to her. And he would get to see Tori again. Although with a twelve-year-old around, the meeting wouldn’t end like the last had.

Dirk smiled at the thought of their kiss. He could convince Tori to join him. He just needed more time. If he contacted her about Aaron…

But maybe it was pointless to even make those sorts of plans. Aaron didn’t seem all that eager to leave. After his first burst of outrage at being taken, his anger had fizzled into sporadic resentment, occasional homesickness, and a stubborn insistence that his cell phone be returned.

Most of the time, he seemed happy to be here. He was interested in the dragons, wanted to learn everything about them, and was almost equally curious about their father. Every time Aaron was with their dad, he peppered him with questions about his life, his likes, his dislikes, and his plans to take over.

Their father never answered questions about his attack plans, but over the last five days he’d talked more about himself and told more stories about growing up in St. Helena than Dirk had ever heard. His father lapped up the hero-worship.

Aaron loved the fact that he’d inherited superpowers, was in awe of their father and was more than willing to be bribed. But Aaron was also keeping secrets. Dirk could sense that. Aaron was a bad liar—too nervous, too unused to lying to be casual about it.

Some of the lies Dirk understood. Aaron had lied about where he’d lived to protect their mom. He’d lied about being an only child to protect whatever siblings he had. Dirk would have done the same thing.

But at other times Aaron seemed to be hiding things Dirk couldn’t even guess at. His deception was there in his questions, some lurking agenda that Aaron was always trying to shuffle away from Dirk’s notice. Every time Aaron called their father “Dad” which he’d done since the second day, there was a little bit of a lie mixed in with the word.

Which didn’t make sense because the one thing Dirk was sure about was that they shared a father.

Dirk set down the remote. Maybe he should go to the enclosure and see what was taking his father and Aaron so long. Before he got up, his father’s voice boomed through the kitchen. “You’re looking at a boy who can fly—not twenty feet, not thirty feet—but miles.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful!” Cassie said. When she talked to Aaron, her voice was always a little too sugary. She apparently hadn’t made up her mind about whether having Aaron here was a good thing or not and was overcompensating.

Bridget said, “Yay! When can you take me on a flying piggyback ride?”

“Not for a while,” their father answered. “He needs to work on his landings before we saddle him up and make him haul around little girls.”

“Can you take me then, Daddy?” Bridget asked.

Dirk hoped their father said yes because now that she’d gotten the idea of flying into her head, she wouldn’t be happy until someone took her. And Dirk was the only other someone who could fly.

“In a few minutes,” their father said, getting closer. “I’ve got to give Aaron something first.”

Their father sauntered into the living room and over to the end table where his tablet was charging. He unplugged it and handed it to Aaron with a flourish. “I’ve connected you to a site that you can use to call your mother and tell her about your new achievement.”

Aaron brightened. “Awesome! Thanks!”

Awesome? It was like the kid had already forgotten that talking to his mom didn’t use to be a privilege.

“However,” their father went on, “I’ll take the tablet back after I’m done with Bridget, so don’t waste your time calling your friends. They wouldn’t believe you about flying anyway.”

Aaron hesitated before putting in a phone number. His gaze went to Dirk. “If I make the call, will anyone be able to track it?”

His father picked up Bridget with one arm, making her giggle and grab onto his neck. “No need to worry about that. My IP address is automatically rerouted.”

Dirk answered the question Aaron was really asking. “No one will be able to tell where your mom is either.”

Satisfied with the answer, Aaron tapped in her number and flung himself on the couch, half leaping, half flying. He crashed into it so hard the piece of furniture wobbled and nearly fell over.

“No flying in the house,” their father called over his shoulder and left the room.

“Sorry, Dad,” Aaron called back.

Dad. Liar.

Aaron turned his attention to the phone. “Hey Mom, it’s me. I’m fine—”

Dirk hadn’t expected that he’d feel a pang of anger when he heard Aaron say the word ‘mom’ but he did, sharp and strong. He wasn’t sure who the feeling was directed at—his father for not letting Dirk talk to his mother all these years and then allowing Aaron to do it after five days, at his mother for skipping out on his life and choosing to raise Aaron instead, or at Aaron for being the one that she chose.

Dirk was caught between the desire to storm out of the room and the urge to stay and listen to half of his mother’s conversation. She was so close. Close enough that if Dirk turned off the TV he might be able to hear her voice.

“I have no idea,” Aaron said. “I’ve only gone from the house to enclosure. The weather seems normal so I guess I’m not in the tropics or anything.”

Dirk turned up the TV a couple of notches. He didn’t need to hear his mother’s voice. He’d gone long enough without it, without her. And he was perfectly fine. Perfectly. Fine.

“It’s not like I’m locked up or anything,” Aaron said. “Everything’s cool. I’m learning about dragons and today I figured out how to fly. You should have seen me. I’d send you video, but I’m not allowed to take pictures of the dragons or myself flying.”

A pause.

Aaron lowered his voice. “There aren’t any other houses around. And besides, if I did something like that he wouldn’t trust me anymore. I want him to teach me dragon lord stuff. I’m fine, really.”

Bianca must have instructed Aaron to leave the house and find help so he could go back to her. How sweet. How motherly. She was telling Aaron to leave but she’d made sure Dirk stayed.

Dirk turned off the TV and headed out to the front porch for some fresh air. His mother could tell Aaron how much she missed him in private.

Once outside, Dirk leaned against the porch railing and looked out over the mile of property they’d lived on since last month. All sorts of fresh air and he still felt like he was suffocating. The place didn’t feel like home. He hadn’t even unpacked all his boxes yet.

He tried to see the property the way Aaron saw it—the tangle of trees that surrounded them, an entire forest that ran up the surrounding hills. The carpet of discarded leaves browning on the ground around them. No sign of civilization. Aaron wouldn’t be able to escape without help. Fifteen-foot fences surrounded the property, the doors and windows were alarmed, and the yard was riddled with motion sensors. The nearest neighbors were miles away. If Aaron knew and planned to circumvent those things—which would be easy enough with the power of flight and a good excuse to go outside—he still wouldn’t make it far. While he’d been unconscious on the airplane, their father had injected a tracking chip into his left hip. As long as it was in place, their father would always be able to find Aaron.

Minutes went by. Dirk saw no sign of his dad flying with Bridget. The two must be on the other side of the property. Dirk had gone outside without a jacket and the cold November air was pushing through his shirt like it wasn’t there. He tucked his fingers under his arms to keep them warm and leaned against a porch column. He didn’t want to go back inside yet.

The door swung open and Aaron stepped out, tablet in his hand. “Mom wants to talk to you.” He held out the tablet.

For a moment Dirk just stared at it, anger fighting with a decade old longing to hear her voice. “She wants to talk to me?” he repeated, buying himself time to decide whether to not to speak to her.

What would she say? Did she want to apologize? Maybe she just wanted to ask him to help Aaron escape.

“Yeah,” Aaron kept holding out the tablet.

Dirk took it. He would at least give her the chance to explain why he hadn’t been good enough, why she’d chosen a baby she’d never even seen over him.

“Hello,” he said.

“Dirk, is that you?” He’d thought he would recognize her voice. He’d heard it enough times on the videos from his early years. But her voice sounded lower, breathier.

“Yeah, it’s me.”

She didn’t say anything else for a moment, and he wondered if he’d lost the call. Then he heard her crying.

Crying.

It should have moved him. And maybe it did. But it also frustrated him. You were supposed to comfort crying people and he wasn’t ready to do that yet. She hadn’t given him any sort of explanation.

“Sorry,” she said. “It’s just that you sound so grown up.”

He recognized her voice then, the lilt of it. “Well, it’s been twelve years.”

“I know. And I’ve thought of you every single day.”

Thinking of him was probably easier than being there for him. “Have you?” he asked.

“Of course. And every birthday I wondered where you were and what you were doing.”

Well, that made two of them. She wasn’t apologizing and she wasn’t explaining. Man, that meant she just wanted to ask him to help Aaron.

“I want to know everything about you,” she said. “What’s happened in your life?”

A memory flashed through his mind from the night she left. He hadn’t understood what her absence meant back then, only that his father was really angry about it. His father had picked up Bianca’s china cabinet and flung it into the dining room wall. The cabinet had cracked, shattered, and then lay in a heap of splintered wood bits of dishes.

Dirk knew the broken glass was dangerous, but he’d seen an undamaged teacup resting in the wreckage. He’d wanted to save it for his mom. After his father stormed out of the room, Dirk waded through the shards. A jagged piece of wood scraped across his ankle and when he put out a hand to steady himself, he sliced his fingertip. But he didn’t cry out because he knew if he made a sound, his father would return and take the cup from him.

He’d hidden it in his toy room and waited for his mother to come home. He’d figured she would be upset that his father had broken her dishes, but Dirk would be able to produce the cup and make her happy again.

Eventually Dirk forgot about the cup. Years later, one of the housekeepers found it and brought it to the kitchen. As soon as his father saw it, he threw it in the trash. Dirk hadn’t protested. By then he’d realized he couldn’t make his mother happy.

With the tablet in his hand, Dirk could find no words to say to his mother about his life. He stepped away from the porch column, ready to go inside. “I don’t want to take up your time. Aaron only has a little while to talk. I’ll let you get back to him.” He handed the phone to his brother.

Dirk knew he shouldn’t leave Aaron outside, unsupervised. He would be too tempted to listen to their mother’s advice and make a break for it. If the kid wanted to run, he needed to know what he was up against and do it right.

As Dirk opened the door to go inside, he said, “Don’t go anywhere. You’re not supposed to know this, but you’ve got tracking chip in your left hip.”

There. He’d done his duty by his mom. He’d helped Aaron so he didn’t make a mess of his escape.

Dirk went inside, marched upstairs to his bedroom, and stayed there the rest of the night.

***

The next morning while Dirk was still asleep, his father strolled into his bedroom and announced, “I’ve got work to see to. Take Aaron out on the grounds and help him with his flying. He’s got a lot to learn. He should practice most of the day.”

Dirk didn’t get up, didn’t even open his eyes. One handed, his father picked up the side of the bed and toppled Dirk onto the floor.

There were definite drawbacks to having a parent who got extra strength every time he visited the dragons.

Dirk groaned and sat up. “Fine. I’m awake.”

“Good. Aaron just got up too. Make sure he has breakfast before you go out.”

Ten minutes later, Dirk was dressed and downstairs in the kitchen. Bridget had made toast and was putting a thick layer of jam on her bread. Aaron was sifting through the cereal cupboard. “Don’t your parents believe in sugar cereal?” he asked Bridget. “Why does every box in here have the word bran on it?”

Dirk opened the fridge, took out a piece of pumpkin pie and an apple, then motioned for Aaron to follow him. “Come on. We’ll eat while we walk to the enclosure.”

Outside, clouds covered the sky, a white backdrop against the gray-brown of the trees. Their bare branches reached upward, skinny and scrawny and brittle. Everything looked dead, but it wasn’t. The trees were just smart enough to keep their energy deep inside where winter couldn’t destroy it. They learned they didn’t have to fight the cold, they just needed to endure it.

As Dirk headed down the stairs, he handed Aaron the pie. “Breakfast. It’s the most important meal of the day.”

Aaron narrowed his eyes at Dirk. “You know you’re a complete jerk, right?”

Dirk switched the hand he held out. “Fine. Have the apple if you want it.”

Aaron took the apple but hardly seemed to notice it. They headed across the wet layer of leaves toward the enclosure. “Do you know how long Mom has waited to talk to you? Do you know how badly she’s wanted it? You didn’t even speak to her for an entire minute. What’s wrong with you?”

Dirk took a bite of the pie, felt the tang of cinnamon on his tongue. “My problem is I’m scarred from a bad childhood. You see, my mom left me when I was six.”

“Only because Dad wouldn’t let her take you. She didn’t want to lose you.”

“She didn’t lose me,” Dirk said. “I didn’t wander off in the woods. Kids aren’t like car keys and spare change that you misplace. She took off. She’s got to live with that now. I can’t undo it.”

Aaron stared at him, dumbfounded, noting not just Dirk’s words but the emotions behind them. Apparently it had never occurred to Aaron that Dirk would feel so strongly about being abandoned.

How nice to be twelve and think your parents loved you.

“It wasn’t like that,” Aaron said, begrudgingly taking a bite of the apple. “It wasn’t her fault. You should talk to her.”

Dirk bit into another piece of pie, but hardly tasted it. “Maybe next time when you call her.” He only said this so Aaron would drop the subject.

“She didn’t want things to be this way,” Aaron said, but he didn’t push the issue. Not while they finished the walk to the enclosure or trudged down the stairs, even though his sullen footsteps said it hadn’t completely left his mind.

The two went into the enclosure to charge their powers, then Dirk flew with him around the property showing him how to dive, turn, and land. Before their powers wore off, they flew back to recharge them. At noon, sack lunches waited for them at the enclosure door.

Aaron was a quick learner. Mostly because he was fearless. He didn’t worry about knocking into trees or hitting the ground wrong during a landing. Speed didn’t faze him. By the end of the day he was bruised, cut, and had done considerable damage to some trees, but he’d learned a lot—enough that it would be easy for him to fly off the grounds and go halfway across the state before his powers wore off. Had to be tempting. The idea tempted Dirk sometimes, and he didn’t have as many reasons to run away.

Before going back home for dinner, Dirk took Aaron to some thick branches in an old maple to rest for a bit. Dirk liked this spot. From it, you could see a stream that cut through the forest. Some still-green bushes lined the water, stubbornly refusing to abide by the rules of autumn.

He and Aaron would have to head home soon or Cassie would complain about them coming late for the meal. She had a thing for punctuality. But Dirk had to take care of one thing first. “You heard me when I told you about the tracking chip, right? You realize if you take off, you’d better find a way to gouge that thing out first or Dad will track you down. And when he finds you, sunroofs will be the least of your worries.”

“Yeah.” Aaron flicked a piece of bark with his fingernail. “Thanks for the warning.”

Dirk waited for the obvious question, but it didn’t come. “You’re not going to ask me how to get it out?”

Aaron shrugged. “I don’t want you to think I’m planning on leaving. You might tell Dad.”

Aaron was testing him, trying to see how loyal Dirk was to their father.

“Actually, I wouldn’t tell Dad, because then I’d have to admit I told you about the chip in the first place. He wouldn’t be pleased with that.”

Aaron’s gaze darted to Dirk. “Is he keeping you here somehow? Is he forcing you to do what he wants?”

How should Dirk answer that question? Should he mention that he’d tried to run away last year and his father had sent a dragon to bring him back? Should he admit that the only reason his friends were still alive, especially Tori, was that Dirk was doing everything their father asked him to do?

Dirk leaned back against the tree trunk. “Nah, I just like Ferraris.”

Dirk felt the flash of disappointment—disgust really—that went through Aaron. Well, fine, let the kid be judgmental. That was easy when you were twelve. Besides, it wasn’t like Dirk wanted Aaron to look up to him anyway. He wasn’t role model material.

Aaron shifted on the branch. “Won’t EMP from the dragons destroy the chip?”

“I’m sure it’s been radiation hardened.” Instead of explaining the science behind that, Dirk just said, “Which means, no. An EMP won’t affect it.”

“So,” Aaron said slowly, “just out of curiosity, and not because I’m planning on leaving—how do I get the chip out?”

“I don’t know.”

Aaron swore and shook his head.

Dirk laughed, not because it was funny, but because Aaron had taken such careful precautions to guard his emotions when he insisted he didn’t want to leave, and then had completely ruined the effect by swearing in frustration.

“Can you tell where it is?” Dirk asked. “Do you feel the chip?”

“I can’t feel it, but I know where it is. There’s a red bump on my skin that didn’t use to be there. But I can’t just go digging around in my hip with a knife. What if I hit a major vein or something?”

“Research tracking chips,” Dirk said. “Maybe we could find a way to block its signal or something.”

Aaron tilted his head. “You would help me leave?”

Dirk didn’t answer for a moment. Over on the stream, images of tree branches rippled along the surface of the water, refusing to stay still and straight. “Dad wants you here so you’ll help with the dragons. That way instead of attacking with two dragons, he can attack with three. He wants it so badly he thinks he can make it happen. And maybe he can. If he can’t convince you that revolution is needed, or buy you off with promises of power and mansions, then he might abduct a few of your friends or family and threaten to leave them in the dragon enclosure. He has ways of getting what he wants.”

Dirk had expected Aaron to be repulsed by this statement or if Aaron really had begun to idolize their father, defensive on his behalf. But Aaron didn’t even register any surprise. He already knew what was expected of him in the revolution and apparently, he’d worked out the consequences if he didn’t help.

“Personally, I think you’re too young to be involved,” Dirk went on, “and even if you weren’t, well, if Dad has to coerce you to stay here and take part, you’ll be more of a danger than an asset. If you’re a danger, we should let you leave before you can do any damage.”

Aaron tilted his head. “So, are you saying you’d help me leave or just that you’d tell Dad that he should let me go?”

Committing to that answer was best done in degrees, carefully, in order to hide the truth from their father as long as possible. “I’ll decide that when you tell me you want to leave”

Dirk could feel Aaron drawing back. Hiding behind his walls again. He stared at the fallen, decaying leaves instead of at Dirk. “I don’t want to leave, but I still want to know how to get rid of the tracking chip. It makes me feel like I’m cattle or something.”

“Yeah, I know. After I found out about your chip, I did a thorough check on myself, just in case.”

Aaron’s gaze returned to him. “Find anything?”

Dirk sighed for effect. “My muscles are so massive, it’s hard to find something that small.”

Aaron rolled his eyes. The kid was too used to being the top dog at his school—confident he would always be the strongest and the fastest. Dirk had been that way too until he’d gone to camp and met the Slayers.

“Think you could take me on?” Dirk challenged.

Aaron at least had the intelligence to shake his head. “Nah, but someday I will.” With a smile, he added, “and I’ll win.”

Dirk took Aaron’s arm and held it up, comparing their biceps. “Well, today ain’t that day. Break is over. Practice your diving on the way back to the house.”

***

On Saturday, Dirk went to the mall by himself. He told his father he was going Christmas shopping, and he did pick up some presents to make the story believable, but the real reason he’d gone was so that he could buy a new phone. One his father wouldn’t know about. That way he could set up a new account on the dark web for Tori and him to talk, and he could use this phone to access it. His dad wouldn’t be able to snoop on his conversations with Tori anymore.

That night when he got home he went into Vesta’s enclosure to tell Tori what he’d done. The fledglings didn’t have large enclosures like Khan and Minerva. Their habitats were only the size of a basketball court—large enough for them to fly around a bit but small enough for them to understand that they lived in captivity, that they were dependent on humans, and should obey their rules.

Asleep, Vesta looked like a rhino-sized boulder. She didn’t stay that way for long. As soon as she caught Dirk’s scent, she lifted her wings, spreading them like enemy flags raised before a charge. *Her gray scales hung on her loosely, like armor that was too big. She was still growing so fast that her body overcompensated by giving her room.

Before she could shriek, he took control of her mind and put her back to sleep. It bothered Tori to hear dragons screeching, and Vesta was still young enough that she challenged anyone who came in her vicinity. She hadn’t learned yet that there was no point fighting a dragon lord.

Besides, Vesta was finally getting big enough that every once in a while her shrieks produced EMP, and he didn’t want to risk having her fry his new phone. The dragon’s EMP was a good thing, in that regard, actually. Dirk was sure his father didn’t bug the room.

Dirk sat down next to the sleeping dragon, using her side as a backrest. An uncomfortable backrest at best. Her scales were too hard.

“Tori, I’ve set up a new site where we can talk—it’s untraceable so you don’t have to worry about me finding you and I don’t have to worry you’ll send the Slayers after me.” He gave her the address and password. “My dad hacked either your account or mine so we can’t use our regular site anymore. At least not for real conversation. You should still contact me on it every once in a while so my dad doesn’t figure out I’ve got a new site and start looking for it.”

Dirk put his hands behind his head. “You could go on and on about how awesome I am. That would be believable. You could also tell me how much you miss me, that sort of thing.” He repeated the address and password a few more times, then waited a couple of minutes to see if she wrote anything to him. She didn’t. But that wasn’t entirely a surprise. Sometimes she was at places where she couldn’t access the internet. She would write to him eventually, probably by tonight.

Chapter 6

Chapter 6

 

On Monday, Tori tried to find Jesse before first period so they could talk, so she could apologize to him again. She’d called and texted Jesse yesterday—overtures which he’d completely ignored. Perhaps she deserved his anger, but she also deserved more consideration than he was giving her.

Last Friday night, Tori had agreed to meet Dirk and he’d taken her to see one of the dragons. She still wasn’t sure which had been her biggest mistake: kissing Dirk in order to get information from him or telling Jesse about it.

She’d bought Jesse a stuffed donkey—a politically themed peace offering. On Saturday before she ruined things between them, he’d given her a stuffed elephant.

Jesse wasn’t anywhere in the hallways. No sight of his dark hair or broad shoulders. At 6’2 he was tall enough that he was hard to overlook among the sea of students. She finally had to put the donkey in her locker and go to class.

He came in late for journalism, didn’t ever glance back at her, and then made a bee-line for the door as soon as the bell rang. By the time she followed the crowd out of the room, he’d disappeared in the hallway.

At lunch, he sat at the table with the jocks, ignoring her.

How long was he planning on acting this way? Hours? Days? The school week was short due to Thanksgiving, and she didn’t want to wait until next Monday to work things out.

After school, instead of heading out to meet Lars, her driver, she waited for Jesse by his locker.

He walked over with an air of determined nonchalance, said a curt, “Hello,” then twirled his combination, keeping his attention there.

“I realize you’re angry with me,” she said, “But it would help to know whether you’re angry because of Dirk or because of Aaron.”

“Both,” he said still not looking at her.

“I’d like to remind you, that in both situations, I was doing my best to help the Slayers.”

Jesse huffed in disbelief. “The kid is twelve.”

“You were eleven when you became a Slayer. You still knew what you were doing, didn’t you?”

Jesse opened his locker with more force than the task required. “If Overdrake brainwashes Aaron like he brainwashed Dirk, we’ll be fighting three dragons at the same time. You didn’t think the rest of us deserved a say about that?”

“Aaron won’t join Overdrake. He wants to protect his brother by helping us. I could tell that about him.”

Now Jesse looked at her, his brown eyes hard. “I’m not sure I trust your judgment when it comes to knowing what guys are really like.”

She decided to ignore that jab. “Overdrake has more dragons than we could ever fight. If I can learn to control them, that knowledge could save us. Isn’t that worth taking some risks?”

“And what about the fact that going into a dragon’s mind makes killing them harder?”

Dirk had let her use her dragon lord powers to explore Khan’s mind, encouraged it even. The knowledge had cost her. “Harder doesn’t mean impossible.”

“Even hesitating could cost lives.”

Why couldn’t he at least try and see her point of view? She shifted her books in her arms. “When I made decisions about Aaron and about Dirk, I did what I thought was best. I’m sorry if I was wrong. Really. I am.”

He considered her, eyes still hard. “Do you have feelings for Dirk?”

“He’s my counterpart. Of course I have feelings for him.” She cleared her throat uncomfortably. “But only counterpart feelings.” Was she blushing? Why did her cheeks suddenly feel hot?

Jesse looked far from convinced. “So you’re saying you didn’t enjoy kissing him?”

“No,” she said too quickly. The answer was a knee-jerk denial.

“No you didn’t enjoy it, or no you can’t tell me you didn’t?”

“I didn’t…” He was looking at her with so much scrutiny that she couldn’t help but flush. “I was . . . it was just. . . I mean . . .” She was speaking gibberish, she knew that, but she was suddenly having flashes of memory—Dirk’s arms around her. And the last time she’d kissed him. She hadn’t needed to do that. Not really. So did that mean she had enjoyed it? “It wasn’t like …it was just, I mean . . .” and now she repeating the gibberish she’d already said.

Jesse folded his arms, his open locker forgotten. “That’s convincing.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“It should be.”

The words stung because he was right. She still had feelings for Dirk and she shouldn’t. But that didn’t mean she’d been lying to Jesse about being his girlfriend. It didn’t mean that she’d wanted any of what had happened last Friday to happen. She’d stopped Dirk at first and then only let him kiss her for strategy sake. “Jesse . . .”

He put up a hand to stop her. “Until you figure out what you want—who you want—the two of us should go back to being just teammates.”

“You’re breaking up with me?”

“No, I’m pretty sure you did that when you made out with another guy.”

That wasn’t fair. “You know very well why I kissed him.”

“Yeah because you haven’t decided whether you’re a Slayer or a dragon lord. That’s another thing that you really ought to figure out.”

He turned and strode away, leaving her staring after him, stunned.

He didn’t think she’d decided she was a Slayer? He’d broken up with her, just because she’d been trying to get information from Dirk?

Okay, so maybe she had enjoyed kissing Dirk a little, but she hadn’t kissed him because she wanted to cheat on Jesse. She’d done it to save lives. Could she help it if Dirk was a good kisser? Jesse should be a little bit understanding. She could have kept the whole event a secret, but she was trying to be honest, trying to do the right thing.

She pushed her way through the crowded hall, fast-paced, and angry. She had new plans for the stuffed donkey in her backpack. It was going to become Brindy’s next dog toy.

On Tuesday, Tori didn’t try to talk to Jesse and he didn’t talk to her. On Wednesday she would have talked to him if he’d made any indication that he wanted to talk to her, but he didn’t. In fact, he seemed happy enough to chat with Tacy before journalism. He was smiling as they talked, that smile that usually just belonged to her.

Fine. Let him be that way.

On Thursday, Tori helped her mother make Thanksgiving dinner. A nice leisurely dinner with her family would have been nice—the sort where everyone played a few card games or watched a movie afterward, but Thanksgiving was never that way at her house. A lot of the staffers and interns at her father’s office didn’t have family close by, so her parents always invited at least a dozen people over. And her mother prided herself on providing a home-cooked meal.

The visitors couldn’t all fit at one table, so her parents dragged the kitchen table into the dining room and then Tori and Aprilynne were supposed to play hostess for all the people that hadn’t managed to get seated at her parents’ table. This was never fun because the guests really wanted to sit near her father, so basically, Tori spent the meal trying to make small talk with a bunch of disappointed social climbers.

It wasn’t like she had anything in common with her father’s employees anyway. They saw her as an uninteresting high school kid and usually talked among themselves and ignored her.

This year, since Aprilynne had started working at her father’s office, she was bound to know all their inside jokes and gossip, and Tori would be the only one silently waiting for it to end.

Usually Tori didn’t mind the work that went into Thanksgiving dinner, but right now the last thing she wanted to deal with was hours of cooking, cleaning, and then eating with strangers. Couldn’t her family for once be like all the other families, slobbing around and just being with each other?

When her mother cheerfully called her into the kitchen, Tori stood in the doorway and didn’t take the apron her mother offered. “Please, can we just go to a restaurant, buy the stuff, and pretend we made it? I’ll drive.”

Aprilynne snorted. She was at the far counter turning sweet potatoes into a dish that more closely resembled a brown sugar casserole than an actual vegetable. “Nice try. Like I don’t suggest that every year.”

Tori’s mother strolled over and draped the apron around Tori’s neck. “We need to get the mashed potatoes going.”

“It’s a holiday. We’re supposed to relax.”

“Our guests work very hard for your father. This is the least we can do for them.” Tori’s mother stepped behind her, took hold of the apron strings and tied them. “You’re a Hampton. That should mean something to you.”

“Yeah, it means Thanksgiving dinners always suck.”

Tori’s hefted a bag of potatoes off the counter and handed them to her. “We give our guests our best. The work is part of the gift.”

Tori had heard this before. Sometimes this little truism even convinced her that work wasn’t so bad. Today it just seemed like a trite excuse to make her suffer. “After I go to college,” she announced, “I’m never coming home for Thanksgiving. I’m going to enjoy a peaceful meal in the cafeteria.”

“The peeler is by the sink,” her mother said and breezed off to cut up celery for the stuffing. Her homemade specialty stuffing. Because, obviously, the kind from the box wasn’t good enough.

Tori peeled, cut up, and boiled the potatoes. Maybe her mother would let her pretend she was sick so she could watch a movie in her bedroom. Surely there would be enough fake smiling and mindless flattery going on that hers wouldn’t be needed. But of course she was a Hampton and that meant there could never be enough fake smiling and mindless flattery.

She was draining the potatoes when she heard noises in her mind, a voice in the dragon enclosure. She maximized the sound, letting it grow louder.

“I shouldn’t need to remind you,” Overdrake said, “but I will. You should watch what you say.”

Was he speaking to Tori? Was this some sort of threat?

“I thought Tori only heard what Vesta heard.” Aaron’s voice. She felt herself relax. “Why do I have to watch what I say here?” Aaron continued.

Tori heard what Vesta heard? That was news. And apparently wrong. Which dragon was she listening to now? Khan still? She’d been connected to him when Overdrake had introduced Aaron last Saturday.

“We can’t be certain Tori will always be connected to Vesta,” Overdrake answered. “Do you need a refresher on the necessity of precaution?”

“No.” And then as though Aaron was repeating a motto, added, “If I make a mistake around a dragon, it might be my last.”

“Precisely. Don’t ever treat them like pets. They’re not.”

“Yeah. I know.”

Tori put the drained pot back on the stovetop and went to the fridge for the butter and milk.

A pair of footsteps went very near the dragon and Overdrake murmured, “Here you are, boy. We saved the bones and dark meat for you.”

Ah, even though Khan wasn’t a pet, he still got Thanksgiving leftovers. Tori supposed that was better than feeding the dragon stray dogs. One faint crunch sounded in her mind—the noise of Khan biting into bones. Didn’t take much effort for a dragon to swallow something as small as a turkey.

Tori dropped a cube of butter into the pot, measured out the milk, and waited for Overdrake and Aaron to walk out of the enclosure. Instead, Overdrake spoke again. “I’ve been giving your inability to fly some thought, and the only reason I can see for it is that you need an added incentive.” Words with a cool sharp edge.

“I’m making progress,” Aaron protested. “I can fly twenty feet at a time. Sometimes thirty.”

“That’s not flying, it’s leaping. Perhaps the problem lays in your practice sessions. You haven’t sufficiently felt that you were in danger. There is, of course, an easy way to remedy that.”

Aaron groaned.

“Look, Khan is staring at you and he doesn’t seem pleased.”

“Oh, come on,” Aaron said, his voice picking up anger. “I’m trying to fly. It’s not my fault I always land instead.”

“Your choices are the same as when you were here last. You can throw the boulders—a bad choice. Control the dragon—which won’t happen as long as I’m in his mind. Or fly to that hole in the in the roof.”

Overdrake was setting a dragon on his own son again? Wow, Aaron was having an even worse Thanksgiving than she was. And here she’d thought forcing your kids to cook all day was bad.

The dragon made a low rumbling sound in his throat, a warning.

“I’ll check back in a half an hour and see how you’re doing,” Overdrake said.

“Don’t!” Aaron said. “You can’t—” He didn’t finish, and for a horrible moment Tori wondered if the dragon had killed him. No, Overdrake wouldn’t let it go that far.

Tori stood in front of her pot, the masher gripped in her hand like a weapon and breathlessly waited.

The next thing she heard from Aaron was a stream of swear words. For a twelve-year-old, the kid had a mouth on him. And he had some pretty creative ways to use his swear words. Not necessarily grammatically correct ways, but creative.

Overdrake made a tsking sound. “You’ve already forgotten to watch what you say. I hope my other instructions are more firmly rooted in your mind.”

She heard the door clang closed.

Overdrake had left Aaron alone in the enclosure with Khan.

She felt sick for him, wished she had some way to talk to him. Overdrake told you he had control of the dragon, she wanted to say. That means he won’t really let it kill you.

Of course, that didn’t mean the dragon wouldn’t hurt him. It had probably been instructed to do just that.

“Tori?” Her mother walked by on the way to get a mixing bowl. “Are you all right?”

Tori startled and realized she’d been standing there frozen, the potato masher still lifted like she was going to stab something with it. “Yeah. I’m fine.” She pushed the masher into the potatoes, half stirring them, while she listened for Aaron.

Her mother watched her. “You’ll never get the lumps out that way.”

“Uh huh,” Tori said.

Her mother sighed and went back to seasoning the stuffing.

Aaron had stopped swearing and was panting, taking in deep breaths. “Stay away from me,” he yelled at the dragon. “Stay back!”

Khan roared; the kind that involved fire. Had Aaron managed to jump out of the way? She knew from experience that although fire wouldn’t burn him, the heat was still painful.

“Back off!” Aaron called. He was trying to control the dragon. It wouldn’t work as long as Overdrake had hold of Khan’s mind.

Fly, she thought. Your body knows how. He was probably over thinking it. Flying wasn’t like riding a bike that took coordination, balance, and practice. It was instinctual. You needed to go somewhere high, you leaped up, and you soared there.

A thudding sound in the enclosure made her wince. She’d heard the sound before—a dragon’s tail smacking something. Hopefully the ground and not Aaron.

“If you can hear me,” Aaron said, “I’m saying right now, that my Ferrari had better have a sunroof.”

Ferrari? Tori supposed Aaron wasn’t talking to her. Man, Overdrake was buying him a Ferrari?

“I’ve done everything you asked,” Aaron went on, “and you haven’t let me talk to my mom, you haven’t let me go outside—you haven’t even told me where I am!”

Hold on, maybe Aaron was letting Tori know he didn’t have any information yet.

Another thud. “You know, Child Protective Services would probably have something to say about this!”

A sound like a rock shattering echoed through the enclosure. “Despite what you think, I do remember the stuff you tell me. I know to enter a dragon’s mind, I’m supposed to follow my senses and let them pull me in. After I’m there, I split my focus so I can enter the dragon’s second level of consciousness and find the control center. See, I’ve been listening.”

Aaron was talking to her, passing on Overdrake’s instructions. Tori already knew how to enter a dragon’s mind. And she’d figured out when she was with Dirk that to get to Khan’s control center, she needed to envision herself walking through his mind. What else had Overdrake taught him? She shut her eyes, leaned forward, all her attention focused on the enclosure.

“Once I’m in the control center, I’m supposed to envision the dragon’s will like it’s an actual object and clutch it in my hand. It’s not my fault I can’t do it. You’re always there controlling it first.”

If another dragon lord wasn’t already there, could she envision the dragon’s will as an object and take control that way? Did it matter what object she envisioned? Did it have to be the same object every time?

She couldn’t ask, and it didn’t sound like Overdrake had actually given Aaron the chance to practice it.

The dragon roared again, and the sound of fire crackling filled her ears. She was familiar with that noise, could almost feel the heat creeping along her skin.

Aaron let out a yell that made Tori flinch. Had the dragon done something—swiped him with his claws? Bitten him?

And then the yell turned into a laugh. Aaron wasn’t yelling in pain; he was whooping happily. “Sweet!” he said, still laughing. “Check out this action. This ain’t no leap!” More laughter, joyful and unbridled. “I’m freaking Peter Pan.”

Khan had gone quiet. All Tori heard was the sound of Aaron’s laughter zooming farther and then closer to the dragon. The door opened and then there was the sound of clapping.

“You did it.” Overdrake’s pride was evident. “I knew you would.” He stopped clapping. “However, if I hadn’t commanded Khan to stay on the ground, he would have caught you within two wingbeats. You were supposed to fly to the hole to escape, not circle around the enclosure like a skating rink.”

“Sorry!” Aaron called back. “I couldn’t help it. Flying is awesome. Look—double flip!”

Tori expected Overdrake to be angry or at least give him a reprimand for making mistakes around dragons. Instead he laughed, a deep, affectionate laugh. The sort you expected from fathers.

“You were born to fly,” Overdrake he went on, pride ringing. “You’re my son, after all.”

“How do I stop myself?”

“One of three ways. You run into something, you run out of energy, or you will yourself to stop, just like you willed yourself to fly. I suggest the latter.”

“Willpower isn’t working. But hey, check out this spin.”

Overdrake laughed again. “I’ll keep Khan calm while you practice. Take as long as you’d like. And then we’ll talk about your sunroof.”

Tori minimized the sound so it wasn’t as loud. She had thought listening to Overdrake talk to her was bad. His voice always dripped with disdain if not outright hatred. But listening to this was worse somehow. Hearing Overdrake praise Aaron—hearing him so happy—it was chilling.

Tori mashed the potatoes harder, smashing anything that looked vaguely lumpy.

Aaron . . . what else was happening to him? Her counterpart sense told her that he was exultant, not just because he was flying, but because he had Overdrake’s approval.

Aaron shouldn’t want that. He should be repulsed by Overdrake’s fatherly pride and the suggestion that sports cars could buy his loyalty. But Aaron wasn’t. She could tell he wasn’t.

What had Tori been thinking to send a twelve-year-old to Overdrake? Were twelve-year-olds-brains even done developing yet?

She wished she had a way to remind Aaron that before Overdrake was clapping and talking about Ferrari sunroofs, he’d locked Aaron in the enclosure with a fire-breathing, fifty-ton carnivorous animal. Aaron seemed to have forgotten that fact.

Aprilynne strolled over to their double oven and cast Tori a look. “Are you trying to mash the potatoes or beat them into submission?”

Tori looked down at the pot. Bits of potatoes had splattered over the stovetop, polka-dotting the whole thing.

Tori’s mom swept up to check the potatoes. “I’m sure those are . . .”

“Pulverized,” Aprilynne supplied.

“Done now,” her mother said. She picked up the pot and whisked it away before Tori could do more. “Why don’t you, um, set the tables?”

A task she couldn’t mess up. Really, when had Tori become that child? The difficult one. The one that her parents needed to make allowances for?

Chapter 3, 4 & 5 (because they’re short)

Maybe if I keep posting chapters, it will encourage me to get all the revisions done. (Estimated release date Jan1-15)

Chapter 3

 

Overdrake glided from the enclosure, humming with satisfaction. Such good news. He had another son. A boy with strength, intelligence, and bravery. A boy who would grow up to be every bit as tall and handsome as Dirk. Perhaps Overdrake was foolish to take so much pride in his sons’ appearance, but why not? Their good looks were more proof that he fathered superior children.

He flew across the property separated the enclosure from his house, still humming. Later he would let himself feel the fury of Bianca’s betrayal. Right now he would bask in fortune’s generous gift to him. Aaron was old enough to be of real use and yet still young enough that he could be molded. And Overdrake would train him right, wouldn’t make the mistakes he’d made with Dirk. Sending Dirk to the Slayer camp, for all its advantages, had been an error. Dirk’s friendship with the Slayers had made him soft, soft and reluctant to do what needed to be done.

He didn’t worry that Tori might have heard the scene between Aaron and Khan play out. She was connected to Vesta. He knew this because he’d checked the time stamps from Tori’s messages to Dirk with the door logs at the dragon nursery. Whenever Dirk had been in the enclosures during their conversations, he was always with Vesta—even though Overdrake routinely switched Vesta’s and Jupiter’s locations. Hatchlings couldn’t be left in the same place for too long or they became overly territorial.

Overdrake had even tested his theory of Tori’s connection to Vesta. He’d fed a dog to the dragon while warning Tori that if she crossed him, her family would meet the same end. Tori had heard him just fine.

Dragon lords felt the presence of whichever dragon was closest but could choose to stay connected to any dragon they were familiar with, even if that dragon flew hundreds of miles away. So whether Tori consciously knew it or not, she was choosing to stay connected to Vesta unless one of the other dragons came much nearer. Most likely, Vesta’s signal was the one that turned on Tori’s powers when she was a baby. She went to that dragon by default.

Still, Overdrake would take precautions while he trained Aaron. He’d limit Aaron’s exposure to Vesta and only give him information outside of all the dragons’ hearing.

As Overdrake went into the house, he pulled Aaron’s phone from his pocket. Finding Bianca’s number wasn’t hard. He scrolled through the contacts until he came to Mom. By the time he sat down in his den chair, he had it memorized. He used his computer to make the call. It automatically rerouted his IP address through a dozen cities in countries around the world, making the call untraceable.

The pressures of his job were many, as were the frustrations, but being a dragon lord did have a few perks, and he planned on savoring this one: crushing your enemies.

Bianca picked up immediately. “Hello?”

“Hello Bianca,” he said. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”

She gasped and didn’t speak for a moment. “Who is this?”

“It hasn’t been that long. You recognize my voice. Don’t say you don’t.”

“Where’s Aaron?” she demanded. Even when she was upset, her voice had that melodic, feminine tone.

“He’s with me, that’s why I rang you up.”

“Where are you?” A tone of desperation made its way into her voice. She knew, yes, she already knew she’d lost. “Let me talk to him. Please.”

He leaned back in his chair. “You hid him from me. That was unwise.”

“Brant, please.” Her words became shaky. “We can work out some sort of arrangement. Where is he?”

Overdrake had planned on letting her grovel for several minutes before he hung up, had looked forward to it as one of the spoils of the war. But her voice pulled at his sympathy. That was his problem. He’d always had a weak spot for her. Apparently it was still there. “He’s fine. That’s all you need to know.”

“Don’t do this,” she pleaded. “You already took Dirk from me.”

He gripped the armrests, leaving imprints of his anger in the fabric there. “I didn’t take Dirk from you. You can’t take something that is already rightfully yours.” He ended the call with a sharp, final keystroke.

He’d done her the courtesy of letting her know where Aaron was. That was more than she’d done to him. This was so typical of the way their marriage had been—he’d always done more for her, and she’d never appreciated it. She’d never understood family loyalty. But his sons would. And there was nothing Bianca could do about it.

 

 

Chapter 4

 

Dr. B called Tori at six on Sunday morning. She picked up her watch from her nightstand and answered it groggily. “Yes?”

She’d already called him last evening and confirmed that Overdrake had Aaron. She’d heard it all play out in Khan’s enclosure—the fear in Aaron’s voice, and then the anger. It felt like she’d lived it with him, not just the first time, but a dozen more times as she lay in bed trying to sleep.

Had she made the right decision to send him? Did “rightness” even matter if it ended badly? Overdrake hadn’t sounded like he trusted Aaron. Or even liked him, for that matter.

Really, what sort of parent threw a child in with a dragon and then calmly waited around to see if the child could defend himself? Was that what Overdrake had done to Dirk when he was younger?

The thought made her ache for Dirk as well as Aaron.

Dr. B’s voice came over Tori’s watch speaker. “Brant called Bianca last night to gloat. As you can imagine, she’s quite distressed.”

“I’m sorry,” Tori said automatically. And then felt a pinch of anger towards Dr. B. He had taught the Slayers how to make decisions but hadn’t ever taught them how to deal with the guilt that came along with those decisions. Guilt had thick, cold spikes that embedded themselves in your chest. Ones that felt as though they would never go away. Perhaps the only way to deal with them was to wait until all the feeling left you, until you were hard enough inside that the spikes couldn’t stab you as much.

“Bianca wants to know if you can contact Dirk and ask for his help to get Aaron back home.”

If Aaron was in danger, that might be their best option. But was he? Overdrake knew he was a dragon lord now. If Aaron wasn’t being harmed, it would be a shame to abort the mission before they gave it a chance to work.

Dirk might not realize Tori knew about Aaron’s kidnapping. He didn’t know she had any contact with Bianca, and if Tori hadn’t been connected Khan, she wouldn’t have heard Overdrake take Aaron into a dragon enclosure. Perhaps it would be easier to get information from Aaron if the other dragon lords didn’t know she knew his whereabouts.

So many angles to consider.

“Asking Dirk for help won’t do any good,” she pointed out. “He either changed his mind about involving Aaron and told his father about him, or Overdrake has a way to spy on my messages to Dirk. If the first is the case, Dirk won’t help us. If the second is the case, Overdrake will see my request and make sure Dirk doesn’t help us.”

And Overdrake would most likely use the information to set some sort of trap for them.

“Granted,” Dr. B said, “you couldn’t plan anything without hearing Dirk’s voice. You’d have to make sure he was telling the truth…” he let his voice drift off as in thought. Tori waited. Dr. B didn’t speak. It was unlike him to be unsure about what actions to take, unlike him not to plan out options as though life was a chess game and he’d already thought through every possible move.

Dr. B let out a sigh. “I was on the phone with Bianca for an hour last night. She was practically hysterical. I told her I would ask for your help. I need to offer her some hope.”

Spikes of guilt again. It was more important to comfort a worried mother than to hope for an advantage by pretending ignorance of Aaron’s capture. “Fine, I can message Dirk and find out how Aaron is doing. That way you’ll at least be able to reassure her.”

“Good. Let me know when you hear something.”

Tori shifted the watch from one ear to the other. “Did you tell the other Slayers what Aaron and I did?” She’d expected to get a barrage of messages on her watch phone last night but they hadn’t come. The silence was almost worse, the waiting. She’d spent half of last night imagining what her friends would say and wondering if they were still speaking to her.

“I told them,” he said. “They were, of course, upset that you acted without their input or consent, but on the whole, they understand your motives.”

He was probably understating their reaction. Lilly, A-team’s fire quencher, hardly trusted Tori because she was part dragon lord—and that was after Tori had fought with the Slayers and helped kill two dragons. Lilly wouldn’t be happy about anything that could end up benefitting Overdrake.

“I informed them of your probation,” Dr. B continued, “and emphasized that we need to move on from this incident. In-fighting will destroy our team.”

“You also told them not to message me about it, didn’t you?”

“I decided it was best if they cooled down before they spoke to you.”

Oh. It was that bad. What had Jesse thought? That realization hurt the worst—that he might think even less of her.

Dr. B’s voice softened. “They know you meant well. They’re still your friends. Remember that.”

After Dr. B hung up, Tori pulled herself out of bed and switched on her light. Time to figure out what she should write to Dirk. If she hadn’t planned on Aaron being taken and then heard Overdrake threatening him in the enclosure, she’d be mad about it, outraged. She had hoped Dirk would have a nice chat with his brother, and instead, Aaron was missing and his mother was devastated.

As she sat down at her desk, she groaned in aggravation at herself. Last night she’d been so torn up with guilt and worry that she hadn’t been thinking straight. She should have messaged Dirk right after she heard Aaron in the enclosure. That would have been her natural reaction. When she’d thought Overdrake had fed her dog to a dragon, she’d written Dirk right away.

So she ought to pretend she hadn’t heard it. But then, what explanation would she give Dirk for knowing Overdrake had Aaron?

She had to tell him something. Bianca was waiting.

Was it safe to tell Dirk that his mother had contacted Dr. B? Or would that be as good as admitting that the Slayers had talked to her?

Tori sifted through the options and implications while she opened her phone and went to the site where she messaged Dirk. A note was already there waiting.

I’ve got a sore throat. Medicine not working. I’ll get more later.

Slayer code from camp. It meant Don’t try to talk to me. I’ll contact you when we need to communicate again.

Well, that probably answered the question of whether Overdrake was spying on their messages. When Overdrake decided to kidnap Aaron, Dirk had figured out the site wasn’t secure and now he was warning Tori against using it.

Either that or Dirk’s message meant that he’d already figured out that she’d sent Aaron to spy on Overdrake. Aaron might be worse at keeping secrets from a counterpart than Tori had hoped and now Dirk was so angry he didn’t want to talk to her.

She stared at Dirk’s words as though they would change, as though they might tell her something more. They didn’t. Still, she hesitated to exit the site. Closing it seemed so final, like shutting a door to your only escape route.

She left her desk and lay back on her bed with a thud. She couldn’t assure Bianca that Aaron was all right. And worse, she had no way to contact Dirk.

She hadn’t realized how much that door meant to her until it had been shut.

 

 

Chapter 5

 

Aaron woke up at six fifteen, despite the fact that he hadn’t set his alarm clock. Prisoners shouldn’t have to set alarms. He’d planned on making that point by still being in bed at seven when training time started, but in the end, got up. No reason to tick off Overdrake, not when he wanted to earn the man’s trust.

Once Aaron’s anger and fear had faded, the desire to learn about dragons became a tangible thing, an energy swirling through his brain that had kept him up long after his powers faded. Dragons were real: huge, powerful, flying beasts. And Aaron would be able to control them. Almost as cool—when dragons were nearby, he would have superhero strength and eventually be able to fly.

Who wouldn’t want that? All he had to do was put up with his father’s enormous ego. The man obviously had plenty of that. Aaron still couldn’t believe his own father had men chase him through the Renaissance festival, drugged him, and then set a dragon on him. Seriously, it was no wonder his mother left.

He wanted to talk to her now, to tell her he understood why she’d never let him see Overdrake. But he couldn’t. He was locked up and completely cut off from the rest of the world. No phone. No computer.

Even though he didn’t want to escape, he went to the door and tried the handle. Still locked from the outside.

He took a shower then rifled through the dresser for clothes. Several sizes of jeans were folded there along with an assortment of T-shirts, boxers, and socks.

He got dressed, then sat on his bed and watched TV. His gaze kept going to Bridget’s crayon drawing. Seemed so incongruous. His father was keeping him a prisoner, and his half-sister was drawing him pictures.

At seven, with only a short knock as a warning, Dirk unlocked the door and strode in carrying a plate with eggs and bacon. Aaron’s stomach flipped at the smell.

Dirk set a glass of milk on the bedside table. “Sleep well?”

“No.”

Dirk handed him the plate. “Well, that doesn’t matter. I still have to teach you about dragons. I’m supposed to give you dragon safety facts while you eat. Try to pay attention so you’re not killed quickly. If you die today, it will look like I have sibling rivalry issues.”

Aaron picked up his fork and dug into the eggs. Waking up early had taken its toll and he was starving.

Dirk dropped into the desk chair and watched him. “I’m also supposed to report on your anger level.” He cocked his head. “I’m not picking up as much hatred as I’d expected.”

“I could try and hate you more if you want.”

Dirk continued to stare at him with narrow eyes. “Aren’t you going to ask me to help you escape?”

“Nah, I’ve decided I want to study dragons for a while. They’re kinda cool. And eventually I’ll be driving a Ferrari.”

“Keeping up a brave front. Good. Dad respects that sort of thing.”

“Maybe I really am brave.” Aaron had meant to sound tough, but mostly he sounded petulant.

Dirk just laughed. “Good. Because you’ll need all the bravery you can get.”

 

weigh in on Slayers 4 prologue and first two chapters

I thought I’d finished writing Slayers 4, but then the first two beta readers pointed out that Jesse was hardly in the book and I realized I needed to mention a plot thread that got dropped in Slayers 4 but is important in Slayers 5–so now I’m writing two or three more chapter and fruitlessly trying to figure out the layout of Village A in Georgetown (but that’s another story)

In the meantime, I’d like people to weigh in on the prologue and first two chapters. I didn’t know how to fix the formatting so it would look like a book but rest assured it will have normal paragraphs when it comes out.  I just want general feedback. Enjoy!

 

Prologue

You should never make promises you can’t keep.

 

Fifteen years ago

 

 

Alastair Bartholomew was about to make a deal with the devil, or at least a deal with his father—which felt like the same thing. Alastair hadn’t even asked for the loan yet, but he knew there would be a price to pay, a little bit of his soul thrown in with the bargain.

He glanced over the maps, brochures, and realtor flyers he’d spread over his kitchen table. Buying land was the first step to building the Slayer training ground. He’d been looking at properties for the last six months. A stack of construction bids for cabins, stables, an indoor rifle range, and a cafeteria sat next to the brochures. He would also need money for research. He not only had to figure out what sort of electric pulse a dragon’s heart put out, he would need to build a machine to replicate it. There were so many expenses.

Alastair turned his attention to the maps of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. Was seclusion more important in a campsite or accessibility to the DC area? The closer his camp was to DC, the more expensive the land would be.

Shirley, his wife, had put their two-year-old daughter, Bess into her favorite white pajamas and was now patiently waiting for the toddler to finish her bottle.

Even at two years old, it was a battle of the wills.

“Aren’t you done yet?” Shirley cooed. “It’s time for a story and then bed.”

Bess regarded her mother while taking slow sips of her bottle. In her fuzzy white footie pajamas, she always reminded Alastair of a baby polar bear. Bess’s hair was a wild disarray of curls. Her blue eyes were much too alert for this time of night.

Shirley bent lower to be on Bess’s level. “Don’t you think it’s time for your bottle to go bye-bye? You’re a big girl now. Big girls use sippy cups.”

Bess popped the bottle out of her mouth. “No,” she said, “Ba-ba mine.” Then she inserted the bottle back in her mouth.

Shirley sighed, checked the kitchen clock, and turned to her husband. “I’d better put her to B-E-D before you-know-who comes, or we’ll never get her to sleep.”

Bess let the bottle drop from her mouth. Her eyes lit up with happiness. “Ice cweam twuck!” she exclaimed and toddled fast-pace to the front door.

Instead of going after her, Shirley narrowed her eyes at Alastair. “How come every time I use the term ‘you-know-who’ Bess thinks I’m talking about an ice cream truck?”

Alastair kept his gaze firmly on the stack of septic tank bids in front of him. “I have no idea.”

Shirley put one hand on her hip. “You shouldn’t feed Bess ice cream. She won’t eat healthy food if you give her junk food.”

The doorbell rang, saving Alastair from further discussion of what he and Bess did while Shirley was gone. “That’s probably my father,” Alastair announced and went to the front room. Bess was already on her tippy-toes doing her utmost to get around the child-proof handle on the doorknob. She loved opening doors. Unfortunately, she also loved dashing outside and shedding her clothes on the sidewalk.

Alastair opened the door. His father—Roderick Bartholomew to people who knew him in the states—stood there, hands thrust into his jacket pocket. Years of ranch work had given Alastair’s father a lean, muscled build that was only now giving way to the softness of middle-age. He had always had a stern expression and the lines in his face had grown increasingly deeper in the years since they’d fled St. Helena. Alastair never asked how often his father thought of Nathan. Alastair knew his father thought of him every day, the evidence was there in the grooves of his father’s face.

Now that Alastair had a child of his own, he understood the force of that emotion even more completely. You didn’t forget it when someone killed your child.

Bess saw her grandpa and lifted her small hands up in glee. “Bampa!”

The sternness on Roderick’s face melted. He bent down and swooped Bess into his arms. “How’s my princess?” He snuggled his face into her neck, a move that always made Bess shriek with laughter. After he’d extracted enough shrieks to ensure that Bess wouldn’t sleep any time in the near future, Roderick carried her into the living room and sat down on the couch with Bess on his lap. She immediately began rifling through his pockets to see if she could extract treasures such as keys, pens, or lint. Alastair and Shirley sat down on the adjoining loveseat.

“So,” Roderick said, “You want a loan.” He was always got right to the point.

No one would have known by looking at Roderick’s plain clothes and worn jacket that he was a wealthy man. His businesses—some of which he discussed with Alastair, some of which he didn’t—were quite successful. Roderick had a talent for making money, perhaps because he didn’t let things like rules, laws, or ethics stand in his way.

“I need a loan for the Slayer camp,” Alastair clarified. He stayed away from his father’s money for the most part. Any time his father paid for something—usually lavish gifts for Bess—Alastair felt vaguely like he was condoning insider trading. He had only decided to ask for his father’s help because there was nowhere else to turn. He could get a bank loan that would cover the price of land and a few cabins, but he couldn’t very well explain to financial institutions that he also needed to build a second specialized camp that would serve as a secret training ground. “It’s our best way to stop Overdrake,” Alastair told his father. “When he attacks DC, we’ll have a group of Slayers who are capable of killing his dragons.”

Alastair had mentioned his idea of a training camp to his father before. He’d never asked for funding, though. The weight of the request felt like a yoke around his neck. It would take more than two million dollars to get the camps functional, and who knew how long it would take for the regular camp to start returning the investment.

Roderick didn’t speak for a moment. Alastair was used to his father’s silences. He waited.

“You only know where one Slayer child is,” Roderick finally said. “One. And that’s Bess. How can you build an entire camp on the hope that more Slayer kids will somehow find their way to it?”

“It’ll be a dragon slayer themed camp,” Alastair pointed out. “I’ll advertise with knights taking on fire-breathing beasts. The right children will be drawn to it.”

Bess had pulled a penny from her grandfather’s pocket. He took it from her before she could see how it tasted. “They’ll be drawn to it? That’s a long shot, and you know it.”

Shirley and Alastair exchanged a glance. “I’ll show him,” Shirley said. She walked out of the room. A minute later she came back with a bag of stuffed animals.

She sat down in front of Bess and took out a cat. “What’s this?”

Bess dropped the pen she had just liberated from her grandpa’s jacket and glanced at the cat. “Ki-ki.”

“That’s kitty,” Shirley interpreted for Roderick. She pulled a stuffed dog from the bag. “What’s this?”

Instead of answering, Bess made barking noises, jumping up and down with each bark.

“Right. A doggy.” Shirley reached into the bag again. “What’s this?” She slowly took out a stuffed dragon.

Bess stiffened and scowled. “Bad dwagon!” She slid from the couch, grabbed the toy and flung it on the floor. “No, no!” she yelled and stomped on the toy several times.

Roderick watched, his mouth slightly ajar. “You taught her to do that.”

“We didn’t,” Shirley said. “You should see what she did to the fairy tale picture books I checked out of the library. I didn’t realize they had dragon pictures in them until it was too late.” She shook her head at the thought. “I had to pay the library thirty-six dollars to replace them.”

Bess stepped off the toy and watched it, seemingly checking it for signs of life. She waved a scolding finger at the animal. “No, no, bad dwagon!”

Alastair regarded his daughter with a sense of resignation. “I have to keep all my dragon research books on high shelves. Otherwise I’m afraid she’ll impale them.”

Satisfied that her dragon toy would not be bothering the family again, Bess picked up the stuffed animal, trotted across the room to a garbage can, and dropped the toy inside. “All bedder!” she chimed and padded back over to the others. She tried unsuccessfully to climb onto the couch by herself until Roderick picked her up and put her on his lap. “Conquering dragons before you’re potty trained, eh princess?”

“All bedder!” she said again.

It wasn’t all better. Alastair couldn’t stand the thought of his daughter ever seeing, let alone fighting, a real dragon. And yet, that’s what he was planning. That’s what he was asking his father to give him a loan for.

Alastair did let himself dwell on the implications or what they meant for Bess’s future. He had time until the dragons attacked. Fifteen to twenty years. He would find and train so many Slayers, his daughter would only bare a small portion of the danger.

“Slayers are natural dragon fighters,” Alastair reminded his father. “Any Slayer children in the area will want to come to camp. My goal is to have the regular facilities open in three years. That way when the Slayer children are old enough to go to camps, mine will already be well established. I’ll offer scholarships for families who can’t afford the cost. We’ll find and train all of the Slayers.”

Roderick turned his attention to Bess. She was busily shoving his car keys between the couch cushions. He didn’t give his disappearing keys any notice. Instead he ran a hand over Bess’s wispy curls. “She reminds me of Nathan.”

“I know,” Alastair said. Bess was determined, mischievous, and exuberant. Just like Nathan had been.

Roderick’s gaze swung back to Alastair, all his former sternness restored. “I don’t want her anywhere near a dragon. Brant Overdrake can’t even know she exists.”

Alastair gave the answer he told himself every time he had the same thought. “All of the Slayers, including Bess, will be safer from both dragons and Overdrake if they’re trained.”

His father couldn’t argue with that. If Nathan had known that he was a Slayer and that Overdrake was a dragon lord, Nathan would probably still be alive.

Roderick brushed one of Bess’s curls behind her ear. His hands looked rough and worn against the little girl’s smooth skin. “You can train Bess,” Roderick conceded. “But I don’t want her anywhere near a battle.”

“None of us do,” Shirley said. She had been uncharacteristically quiet and somber during this conversation. But then, how could one look at your child and talk about their future battles lightly?

“We’ll hope for the best,” Alastair added. “However, we have to prepare for the worst,”

With the keys now swallowed by the couch, Bess sat down beside her grandfather and tried to pry his wedding ring from his finger.

“Fine then,” Roderick said in a tone that indicated he’d made up his mind about the issued. “I won’t give you opinions or platitudes, I’ll just tell you my terms for funding your camp. You can train Bess, but when Overdrake attacks, she stays out of it.”

“I don’t want her to fight. I don’t want her anywhere near dragons.” Alastair glanced across the room at the garbage can and the dragon tail that stuck out. “But how am I going to keep her out of it?”

“You’re the parent. You’ll figure something out. And speaking of parents, don’t tell your mother any of this. It will just make her worry.”

Over the years, Alastair and his father had kept a long list of things from his mother.

Unable to pull off her grandpa’s ring, Bess bent down to bite it. Roderick gently moved his hand away. “No, no,” he told her.

Bess laughed and tried to bite his finger again.

Shirley stood up, walked over, and picked up their daughter. “No biting, Sweetie.”

Bess chomped her teeth together. “I a cwocodile.”

Shirley made a tsking noise and carried Bess into the kitchen, most likely to have a talk with her about appropriate animal behavior.

Alastair watched them go and inwardly sighed. “We can’t even keep her from biting people. What makes you think we’ll be able to control her when she’s a teenager?” He lifted one hand in frustration. “Has anyone figured out yet how to control teenagers? I missed that announcement.”

Roderick leaned back against the couch. “I’ll give you ten million to build your camp and buy equipment clear and free. It won’t be a loan. It’s a gift.”

A gift, that was, as long as Alastair went along with his father’s demands. Alastair didn’t answer right away. He knew his father wanted the slayer children found and trained just as much as Alastair wanted it, more maybe. Nathan’s death wouldn’t be completely avenged until Overdrake was defeated.

“I could go to the government for funding,” Alastair said, attempting to force his father into a better bargaining spot. “They might help me.”

Roderick only shook his head. “You have no way to prove anything to the government. Dragons and dragon lords—they’ll think you’re crazy. Probably put you on one of those watch lists so you’re frisked every time you go to an airport.”

A silence stretched out between them. Alastair looked at the ceiling then back at his father in aggravation. “It will take years to train the children. They’ll trust me. They’ll depend on me. How am I supposed to tell them I’m sending them into a fight that I won’t let my daughter go to?”

“So don’t tell them,” Roderick said. “When the time comes, Bess can call in sick.”

“And what will Bess think of me for making this sort of deal?”

Roderick pulled his phone from his breast pocket. “I don’t care what she thinks as long as she’s alive.” He turned on his phone. “Give me your bank account number, and I’ll have the funds to you by Monday.”

Ten million dollars. Alastair could buy the land within the week and start the zoning process. And would it really be such a bad thing to keep Bess out of the fight? Wasn’t a part of him already breathing a sigh of relief at the thought?

“Well?” his father asked. “Do we have a deal?”

Alastair thought of the stacks of bids and lists of expenses sitting on the table. What other choice did he have? If he depended on outside financing, maybe the camp would never get off the ground. Wasn’t it better to assure that the rest of the Slayers were trained to fight instead of standing on principle and having none be trained at all?

Alastair nodded at his father. “All right.” A part of him felt like he had sold out, that he had compromised himself. Another part felt an overwhelming sense of relief. Bess wasn’t allowed to fight. He wouldn’t lose her the way he’d lost his brother.

Alastair would just have to come up with a way to tell her about this stipulation before the battle began.

 

 

Chapter 1

 

Tori paced across her bedroom. The problem with having a vivid imagination was that it was far too easy to envision bad endings to failed missions. Beatings. Imprisonment. Death. Or maybe her imagination wasn’t to blame. Maybe her experience with Overdrake was what was making her worry on Aaron’s behalf.

He was twelve years old—only a child—and she’d purposely leaked his location to Overdrake. She’d done it because Aaron wasn’t just a child, he was the son that Overdrake hadn’t realized he had. A dragon lord. Bait too irresistible for Overdrake to resist.

Had the man already found Aaron and taken him?

Tori tried to banish thoughts of any brutal interrogations he might be enduring. Overdrake wanted Aaron because he had dragon lord powers. He would train him, not hurt him. That was, unless he found out that Aaron planned on becoming a mole for the Slayers. Then who knew what the man would do.

Tori glanced at the clock hanging on her bedroom wall. It was a French antique that her mother had acquired during one of her trips to Europe. She’d insisted on putting it in Tori’s room and had threatened to put several more up if Tori didn’t get better at keeping track of time. A hopeless expectation. Tori could not only lose track of minutes, she misplaced entire hours if something caught her interest.

Now, however, she felt each second ticking by with relentless precision. Aaron had snuck out of his house this morning and gone to the Renaissance Festival supposedly to sell a dragon scale. In reality, he was waiting for his father to come for him. Tori had told Dirk about him in a message and she suspected Overdrake read those.

What sort of persuasion would Overdrake use on Aaron? Would he explain he was Aaron’s father and ask him to come live with him? Demand it? Threaten his mother if he didn’t?

Then again, Overdrake would most likely use more finesse. Bribery of some sort. He wouldn’t want to turn Aaron into an enemy. Overdrake would try and convince Aaron that his upcoming attacks on America were warranted, just like he’d convinced Dirk.

Another glance at the clock. Four fifteen. She paced back the other direction.

Her gaze fell on a small framed picture on her dresser. Her and her sister posing atop the Empire State building on a trip to New York for last spring’s fashion week. That life had disappeared somewhere, burned to cinders by dragon fire. Tori might look the same—long golden brown hair, green eyes, camera-ready smile, but everything else about her had changed. Life as a Slayer was secrets, strategy, training, fighting—and as of today, doing what she’d never thought she’d do—playing God with someone else’s life.

Another glance at the clock. Four nineteen. The frustrating thing was that Tori didn’t even know whether she should be worrying. She had no way of knowing whether Aaron had even followed through with their plan. She couldn’t call him. Overdrake might have his phone, or for that matter, Bianca, his mother might have it. Tori’s one stipulation to Aaron had been that he leave a note for his mom, telling her what he’d done and why he’d done it. An unexplained disappearance would have been too cruel.

But for all Tori knew, Bianca had found the note early and dragged Aaron home from the fair long before Overdrake arrived. Either way, Bianca would be furious when she found out Aaron had put himself in danger to help the Slayers. She would no doubt call Dr. B. Was it better to call him first and confess her part in everything, or should she wait until he called her?

The fair ended at five-thirty. If she called Dr. B and Overdrake hadn’t taken Aaron yet, she could blow his whole plan.

Tori kept pacing, kept checking the clock, didn’t call. She wished she could call Jesse and talk to him about this. He was Team Magnus’s captain and her boyfriend. Or at least he had been her boyfriend. They’d fought this morning and now she wasn’t sure he wanted to be her boyfriend anymore, let alone discuss the intrigue she’d just facilitated. She couldn’t think about all of that yet.

At five-fifteen a message from Dr. B appeared on her Slayer watch.

Aaron snuck out this morning to sell dragon scales and hasn’t returned home. He may be purposely staying out because he knows he’ll be in trouble when he gets home, but it’s possible he’s run afoul of a dealer, a customer, or even that Overdrake may have captured him. Bianca has notified the local police of his disappearance but he hasn’t been gone long enough to worry them. She’ll keep me posted.

Tori’s pacing came to a halt as she read and then reread the message. Overdrake must have Aaron. Why didn’t Bianca already understand what his disappearance meant? Had she missed his note? But no, she must have read it or she wouldn’t know his cover—that he’d gone to sell a scale.

Another message from Dr. lit up her watch. This one sent only to her. Could you possibly go to North Carolina with me? Your skill as a counterpart may be able to help locate Aaron.

Counterparts could sense each other if they were within a few dozen yards and Tori was counterparts with both Dirk and Aaron. Wouldn’t be much help in this case. Aaron was long gone from the fairgrounds.

It’s a slim hope, Dr. B went on, but Bianca is distraught and it’s all I have to offer her. She’s worried someone knifed Aaron, stole the scale, and now he’s lying in a ditch somewhere.

A tight ball of recrimination formed in Tori’s stomach. Bianca didn’t know what Aaron had done. Was it possible he hadn’t been clear enough in his note?

Tori called Dr. B on her watch phone.

He answered immediately. “If you can go, I’ll have the jet ready by the time you reach the airport.”

“I’m pretty sure Aaron is with Overdrake. He was supposed to explain everything in a note to Bianca.” She swallowed and plunged on. “He and I had a plan. His plan, actually. He said he’d go to Overdrake by himself if I didn’t help him.” It was perhaps cowardly of Tori to emphasize how little choice Aaron had given her, but she wanted to emphasize that she hadn’t forced him to offer himself up.

“You planned on selling the scales with Aaron?” Dr. B asked. “Why?”

“He didn’t go to the fair to sell scales.” Perhaps it was better to back up. “Do you know what Aaron said in his note?”

“I’ve got a scan of it. Hold on.” A moment later, Dr. B read, “I’m going to find a buyer for the scales. I’ve got to do it to protect our family. I don’t want to leave any evidence in the house that could let Overdrake know the truth about me.”

Really? Tori had given Aaron one stipulation, and he hadn’t done it. He hadn’t told his mother what he was doing.

She rubbed her forehead in frustration. The last sentence of his note was most likely written for Tori, not Bianca. Aaron had told her in a roundabout way that he wasn’t giving his mother an explanation because he didn’t want to leave any evidence that Overdrake might find. Perhaps Aaron thought Overdrake’s men might search his house.

Whatever his reasoning, he’d left Tori to break the news to Dr. B. She took a deep breath. “You have to understand—Aaron has grown up hearing stories about your brother, how Nathan was drawn to the dragons on St. Helena, and Overdrake’s father killed him because of it. Aaron is afraid that when Overdrake attacks, the same thing will happen to his brother.” Aaron had inherited both dragon lord and Slayer genes, but his younger half-brother Jacob was only a slayer. And therefore a natural threat to Overdrake.

“Aaron asked me to leak his location so Overdrake would come for him. He’s going to work against Overdrake on the inside by passing information to me.”

Tori was connected to whichever dragon she was closest to and heard whatever it did. If Aaron spoke while he was near that dragon, he could communicate with her. He would just have to figure out which dragon was closest to her or give the same information around each of them.

Dr. B’s voice came through her watch, sharp with judgment. “You sent a twelve-year-old to spy on a ruthless tyrant? What sort of information do you think Overdrake would give a child? The name of his government contacts? His battle plans?” Dr. B had never yelled at Tori before. She’d always thought the man was made of patience. His anger now, although not loud, cut twice as deep.

“No,” she said quietly, “but Aaron was determined to go and he might be able to give us information about Overdrake’s location. If nothing else, Aaron can pass along information about how to control dragons. Isn’t that worth something?”

Dr. B didn’t answer. He was either considering her point or was too furious to form words.

Tori began pacing again. “Both times when we fought dragons, luck saved us as much as skill—that, and Dirk’s help. Next time, we might not have either. But if I can control a dragon, or even if I can break Overdrake’s control on one for a little while, that might be the difference between life and death for all of us. So yes, I thought sending Aaron to Overdrake’s was worth the risk. Tell Bianca I’m sorry.”

“I won’t tell her that,” Dr. B voice was controlled now, his temper back in check, “and neither will you. At this point, telling her the truth will only further wound her. She can’t know that Aaron chose to leave her because he thought her so incapable of protecting Jacob, he decided to take on Overdrake himself.”

Guilt twisted through Tori. “Aaron didn’t want to hurt his mother. I can reassure her of that.”

“Telling Bianca the truth would turn her against the Slayers, so I doubt she would find anything you said after your confession very reassuring. We need her as an ally, and right now she trusts us. I won’t ruin that by making her think we’re willing to sacrifice her children to our cause. I’ll tell her we have reason to believe that Overdrake has Aaron, and promise that as soon as you have more information about him, I’ll call her.”

A small offering, but one she could do. “As soon as I hear anything from him, I’ll let you know.” In the last few hours all she’d heard from the dragon were the normal sort of sounds: the occasional footsteps as the dragon moved around, lapping noises while it took a drink.

“Your actions in this affair,” Dr. B went on, “are unacceptable, to say the least.”

Tori sank down onto her window seat, leaning against a row of pillows there. “I only—”

Dr. B didn’t let her finish. “Not because you helped Aaron enact this plan, but because you did so without any consultation from the rest of the slayers. Sending Aaron in may prove to be a valuable strategy, but you shouldn’t make far-reaching decisions without any debate or vote. Doing away with democracy is Overdrake’s plan, not ours.”

That stung. Granted, Dr. B always made the Slayers discuss any important mission beforehand, but he’d also taught her that being a captain meant that sometimes you had to make hard decisions alone. He’d appointed her as A-team’s captain. Didn’t he trust her? “I didn’t tell the other Slayers because I knew they wouldn’t look at the issue objectively. They’re predisposed not to trust dragon lords. Jesse doesn’t want me to even try to learn how to control dragons.”

It was what they’d fought about this morning. Well, that and the fact that she’d let Dirk kiss her in an attempt to get information from him. In her defense, she was trying to get information about controlling dragons. “The Slayers refuse to see the potential of training Aaron,” she said.

“And you refuse to see the danger. Twelve-year-olds are impressionable and easily influenced. What if Overdrake converts Aaron to his side? If Dirk and Aaron both help during an attack, we’ll be forced to simultaneously fight three dragons. What will our chances be then?” Dr. B let out an unhappy breath. “Captains can’t function without the trust of their team and I’m afraid this bit of subterfuge will cost you the other Slayers’ trust. You’ve left me no choice but to put you on probation.”

Probation meant that she would still be on A-team, but no longer the captain. Tori had expected Dr. B to be angry, had dreaded his disappointment, but she hadn’t anticipated this. His pronouncement felt like he was telling her that he no longer liked her and he doubted the Slayers would either.

Her voice lodged halfway in her throat and she had to force herself to speak. “For how long?”

“That will depend on the other Slayers. When I tell them about Aaron, I’ll emphasize that you had the best intentions. I’ll point out that we may gain invaluable information. I’ll reassess things in a few weeks. Until then, Ryker will be A-team’s captain.”

Ryker was the other flyer on the team. He’d only been with the Slayers since Halloween, less than a month.

“I understand,” she said. She did understand. But she still didn’t like the decision.

Dr. B said his goodbyes and Tori went and laid on her bed, exhausted.

It was stupid to feel so hurt. After all, she hadn’t wanted to be a captain in the first place, but having the position taken away from her as a punishment made her feel small and breakable and completely wrong about everything she’d done. She’d been trying to do the right thing. Why did it make her feel so completely horrible?

She buried her face in her pillow, shut her eyes, and enlarged her dragon hearing as far as it could go. She longed to hear Aaron’s voice in the background, some reassurance that he was okay. All she heard was the slow rattle of the dragon’s breath.

Where was Aaron right now?

Be okay, she thought. Be strong. And she lay there wishing she had some way to tell him those things.

 

 

Chapter 2

 

When Aaron woke up, he lay on the floor of a small living room, one that vibrated with a loud hum. He sat up quickly, heart racing. His head felt like it weighed ten pounds. He shook it, trying to clear his mind. Part of his brain was screaming at him to get up and run. He’d meant to meet his father and go with him—but not like this. He hadn’t planned on being drugged and kidnapped.

As his vision focused, he realized this wasn’t in a living room. He was on an airplane, a moving one. Not the sort of commercial plane he’d flown on before. A smaller private jet.

Two oversized chairs sat behind a bolted-down coffee table. Dirk sat in one of them, a calculus book open in his lap. It was odd to look at Dirk—and not just because he was the older brother his mother had always talked about with so much wistful reverence, the guy might have been a mythological being instead of a person. It was odd because everyone had told Aaron how much he looked like Dirk. They had the same blond hair, blue eyes, and features similar enough that Tori and Dr. B had pegged them for brothers as soon as they’d met Aaron. Dirk was taller with broader shoulders and a squarer jaw, but that was because his brother was almost eighteen. Once Aaron was the same age, he’d probably have those things too.

How could Aaron look at Dirk without wondering if he was looking at his future?

Dirk only gave Aaron a passing glance, then went back to writing equations in a notebook next to his calculus book. Somehow seeing him do math problems ticked Aaron off. If you were going to kidnap someone, you shouldn’t do something as normal as homework while it was happening.

“You’re awake,” a voice behind him said. “Good.”

Aaron turned and saw Overdrake sitting on a couch. He didn’t look much different from the photos Aaron had seen in his mother’s old photo albums. His dark hair was streaked with gray, and he had more wrinkles around his brown eyes. Other than that, he hadn’t changed much. He was tall, fit, and stern-looking. The sort of person who could dissect you with a gaze.

Overdrake looked Aaron over with smug approval. “It’s hard to keep a dragon lord drugged for long. We have a resistance to drugs. The fact that you’re up already is a piece of proof that you’re my son. Although we’ll need to go to my compound to see for certain.” Overdrake gestured to the seat next to Dirk’s, inviting him to sit. “Your mother told you about me, I assume. You know who I am?”

Aaron got to his feet, still feeling clumsy and tired from the drug. He slumped into one of the leather chairs. “Yeah, you’re Brant Overdrake. I’ve seen pictures of you.” Aaron brushed his hand against his pocket, checking for his phone. Gone. “Where is my phone?”

“In a safe place.”

Aaron kept his voice even. No point in losing his temper. “Can I have it?”

“Later. How is Bianca these days?”

He sounded so polite, so civilized. It was hard to believe this was the guy who’d had men chase Aaron down and sedate him. “Why did you drug me and where are you taking me?”

“Didn’t I make that clear? I’m sorry. You’ll be going to my home for a paternity test. You look like Dirk, true, but for all I know you could just be some look alike the Slayers found so they could try and track me.”

Aaron rubbed his forehead. “Dude, they sell paternity tests at Walmart. You don’t have to fly me anywhere for a test.”

Overdrake picked up a glass from a cup holder and took a casual drink. “I drugged you because you ran away. Which, I assumed meant you knew I wanted to talk with you but you weren’t willing to come with me peacefully. Sometimes parents have to use force with their children. You understand that.” He said this as though drugging and kidnapping him was the same as sending a five-year-old to their room. “What exactly did Bianca tell you about me?”

Aaron ran his hand along the chair’s arms. They were softer than any chairs he had in his house. “She doesn’t talk about you much. She told me you had dragons and you were going to use them to take over the government. She didn’t want me to be a part of it, so that’s why she left when she was pregnant with me.”

Aaron hadn’t thought Dirk was listening, but the bottom half of his pencil snapped in two like he’d been pressing it too hard. That was the downside of extra strength, he supposed, you broke stuff easier.

It occurred to Aaron that dragon lords, like Slayers, got their extra powers when they’d been close to a dragon. Dirk had been strong at the fair and still was. “Is there a dragon somewhere nearby?” he asked.

Overdrake watched him casually. “Do you really have to ask that question?”

Uh, what did he mean by that? “You’re saying I’m not allowed to ask questions?”

“I’m saying that if you really are a dragon lord, and a dragon was nearby, you would feel it. Did your mother not tell you that much at least?”

Aaron still wasn’t thinking clearly. Overdrake wouldn’t have brought a dragon out into public. Like the Slayers, he must have a simulator—a machine that mimicked a dragon’s heartbeat so closely that its pulse turned on a dragon lord’s powers. Once they’d been in contact with it, they would have extra strength, night vision, heightened senses, and the ability to fly. Those powers would last as long as the simulator was within a five-mile range, and for an hour afterward.

Aaron couldn’t tell Overdrake he knew about simulators. He didn’t want to admit that he knew anything about the Slayers. “My mom has said things about dragons, but I haven’t paid a lot of attention. It’s not like I’ve ever run into one.”

Overdrake smiled. “You just sell their scales.”

Aaron’s mother had taken dragon scales from Overdrake when she’d left him. Aaron had never believed they were real until he’d sold some—a sale that had led the Slayers to his doorstep. Aaron shrugged. “Selling stuff isn’t illegal.”

Overdrake swirled the liquid in his glass. “No, but it isn’t always wise. The wrong people could start asking questions.”

“Fine. I won’t sell them anymore. I’m glad we’ve had this talk and you can take me back to the fair.”

“This isn’t about the scales,” Overdrake said patiently. “This is about you and how you should be raised.”

Aaron shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Keep calm, he told himself. You wanted this. But it was hard not to be freaked out. Before, when he’d thought about contacting his father, it had always been a choice, something he could back out of if he wanted. Now there was no backing out. “Did you tell my mom you were taking me?” he asked. That’s what any normal kid would ask in this situation. “She’s going to freak out if I just disappear.”

“She disappeared with you thirteen years ago,” Overdrake said, calmly taking another drink. “You know what they say, turnabout is fair play.”

“She’ll call the police and tell them you kidnapped me.”

Overdrake waved his hand, dismissing the protest. “This isn’t a kidnapping, it’s a custody dispute. They happen every day in America and the police don’t do much about it. Really, considering she denied me custody for twelve years, I think my turn with you is long overdue.”

“You didn’t let her see Dirk,” Aaron pointed out. That got his brother’s attention. Dirk stiffened, frowned. He didn’t look up though. He was concentrating firmly on his equations.

“It was unfortunate but necessary,” Overdrake said. “Bianca knew when we married that I needed sons to help me. You can’t imagine how upset it makes me to know she’s hidden you away from me all this time. And, no doubt, she’s told you horrible things about me.”

For the first time, Aaron wondered if his mother really had lied to him about his father. “You’re not going to use the dragons to attack cities?”

“See, this is exactly what I mean. She’s poisoned you against me. I’m going to use the dragons to set cities free.”

Uh huh. “Does setting them free involve burning things and killing people?”

Overdrake laughed. “Is that the sort of person you think I am? Someone who enjoys destroying things?” He shook his head. “A leader builds things, not destroys them.”

What did he mean by that? “So you’re not going to attack with the dragons?”

Overdrake sighed as if Aaron was a little kid asking whether Santa was real. “This is what you need to know. I plan on building a great future for this country. Think of me as an architect with blueprints for an amazing palace. Whenever a builder creates a new structure, he needs to clear the ground first. Get rid of the rubble and weeds. Things that shouldn’t be there to begin with. Clearing them takes work and effort, but what he builds is so much better, that it’s worth it. Do you understand?”

Not really. But Aaron suspected that the answer to his earlier question was: yes, Overdrake did plan on using the dragons to attack. Aaron nodded uncertainly.

“Good,” Overdrake said, “Now tell me about yourself. I assume you play sports.”

Aaron didn’t just play sports, he dominated them, was the best athlete in his grade. “Yeah. Football, basketball, and some soccer.”

Overdrake nodded as though he expected as much. “Dirk’s always been varsity. Your grades?”

“As and Bs.” More Bs than his mother liked. She wanted him to be straight As.

“Where do you live?”

Aaron tried not to swallow. Swallowing would make him look guilty. “Charleston.” His family had vacationed there enough times that he could fake it. No way was he going to tell Overdrake his real address. “You’re going to give me my phone so I can call my mom, right?”

“I’ll let her know you’re safe. Did she ever remarry?”

“No. She’s single.” It was partly true. She and Wesley, his stepdad, were separated. Aaron didn’t want Overdrake to consider that she might have any Slayer children.

“Really?” he asked. “I always imagined she would remarry quickly.”

Aaron swallowed again despite his best efforts not to. She’d married Wesley not long after Aaron was born.

Overdrake didn’t seem to notice his discomfort, or at least didn’t press the subject. Instead he spent the next twenty minutes asking about Aaron’s hobbies, his school, and bits of his life.

Aaron answered them carefully, making sure not to accidentally give information about his mom or brother.

After the plane landed, Overdrake turned to Dirk. “So, do you have counterpart abilities with Aaron? Could you tell if he was lying about anything?”

Aaron froze. Tori had said counterparts could sometimes tell when the other was lying, but Aaron had assumed he would have to be talking to Dirk for him to detect a lie. Now he worried. If Dirk knew he had lied about their mother remarrying, he might figure out why. And his address—he’d lied about that too.

Dirk picked up his homework. “As far as I could tell, the kid wasn’t lying about any of it.”

Overdrake smiled, happy with that piece of news.

Aaron just stared at his brother. Because he could tell Dirk was lying. Somehow his emotions felt it as strongly as if he’d been the one lying.  This was both good and bad news. Good news, because Dirk didn’t rat him out. Bad news, because it was apparently a lot easier to tell when a counterpart lied than Aaron had hoped.

***

Overdrake blindfolded Aaron before he led him off the plane. Aaron remained blindfolded for a car ride that must have been at least an hour long. He didn’t know whether to be worried or think all the cloak and dagger stuff was lame. He wasn’t allowed to take off the blindfold even after Overdrake led him out of the car. They walked down an uneven path for ten minutes, maybe more. Then they went into a building, climbed down several flights of stairs, and walked through a hallway.

It didn’t matter how many times Aaron asked, “Where are you taking me?”

Overdrake always answered in a variation of, “You’ll see when you get there.”

Aaron didn’t see though, he smelled it. Something like old car parts. A door opened, Overdrake walked him through it, and then the door shut with a loud metallic clang. Were they in some sort of mechanic’s shop?

“This,” Overdrake said, “Is where we’ll administer your paternity test.” Finally, he took off the blindfold.

They stood in some sort of dimly lit cave. It was several stories high and as wide as three or four basketball courts. Had the echoing feel of a basketball court too. A pool of water sat by an outcropping of boulders, with a hill of boulders behind that. Smaller boulders lay near Aaron’s feet. The odd thing about the cave was that they’d come in a door to get here. Weirdest place ever. Dirk and Overdrake stood beside Aaron, looking bored.

“Can you see?” Overdrake asked him.

“What am I supposed to see?” Aaron asked.

Overdrake grunted like he wasn’t pleased with the answer.

And then Aaron saw that the black shape he’d thought was a hill of boulders wasn’t rock at all. It was alive and moving toward them. A huge, slinking beast. Aaron took a step backward, almost tripping over his own feet. “Is that a dragon?”

“It is,” Overdrake said, his voice sounding pleased again. “Meet Khan. He’ll most likely kill you if you can’t protect yourself, so you have three options.” He pointed to a small opening in the ceiling of the cave wall. “You can fly up there and hide, you can go into the dragon’s mind and control it, or you can pick up those rocks to your side and use them as weapons.”

Aaron took another step backward. “Are you insane?” He should never have come here. Never should have told Tori he’d do this.

“If you’re my son, the dragon’s fire won’t hurt you. If you’re an imposter, well, you’ll die. But you’ll have learned a very important lesson before you do, which is that you should never impersonate someone.”

The man was insane. He was standing there calmly talking about the dragon frying him like this was all some game that didn’t mean anything.

Aaron shouldn’t have to prove himself. He hadn’t come to Overdrake claiming to be his son. The man had kidnapped him from the fair and brought him here. Aaron wanted to yell all at Overdrake, but Khan was coming closer. He needed a plan. He needed to do something—fight or hide.

But all Aaron could manage was to stand motionless, gawking at the dragon. With its dark scales, it looked like a shadow that had come to life, some sort of inky nightmare. The thing was so huge it could have easily ripped an elephant to part. It lifted its long neck, glared at him with a pair of golden eyes, and growled showing rows of dagger-like teeth.

Aaron didn’t know how to fly or control a dragon—even though he remembered his mother talking to Tori about it. She’d said something about making your dragon vision into a door and stepping through it. No time to figure out what that meant.

The boulders to his side were the size of large ice coolers. Too heavy for him to normally pick up, but he must have his dragon lord strength now. The dragon was closer than five miles—it was almost closer than five yards. Aaron hefted up the corner of a boulder, and it lifted his hands as easily as though it had been a pillow. He held it over his head, stepped into the throw, and launched it at Khan’s throat.

The dragon dodged easily enough and in return, shot a blast of fire in Aaron’s direction. Long churning flames. Aaron wasn’t about to stand there and see if he was really fireproof. Instinct made him leap sideways, a motion that took him higher and farther than he’d planned on. When he landed, he was a good fifteen feet away from the boulders, his only weapons.

A stupid move. He searched around for something else to throw. There wasn’t anything. He’d have leap back there.

Fly, he told himself Fly!

Nothing happened. His feet didn’t leave the ground.

The dragon turned and took a heavy threatening step in his direction.

Overdrake held up his hand. “Enough,” he said, and the dragon halted. Within the span of seconds, it went from an attack stance to calmly sitting, eyes half shut in boredom.

Overdrake clicked something on his remote and the lights in the cave brightened. “You passed your test. You do indeed have powers when you’re near a dragon. Although I must mention that of the three options I gave you, attacking a dragon is the most foolish one. But then, we have plenty of time to work on your education.”

Aaron planted his hands on his hips, his breaths coming out fast. “You call this a test? Hey, I’ll tell you what you can do with your education.” He then arranged every swear word he knew into one sentence and spat them all out at his father. He was still shaking from the fear and adrenaline and his heart felt like it was about to hammer its way through his chest.

Overdrake shook his head. “You’ll need to work on your temper. I don’t stand for that sort of disrespect from my sons.”

“I could have been killed!” Aaron yelled and added a few more sentences of mostly swear words.

Dirk rose a half a foot into the air and glided over to him. It looked weird seeing him just levitating off the ground that way. He took hold of Aaron’s arm and pulled him toward the door they’d come in. “I’ll show Aaron around and take him to his room.”

The door was steel and looked like something that belonged in a prison, but it opened easily. Aaron was still cursing when Dirk dragged him out into the hallway and shut the door behind them. “Calm down,” Dirk said, landing on the ground again. “You were never in any danger. My father had control of the dragon the whole time.”

“It shot fire at me!” Aaron shook off Dirk’s grip. He could do that now that he had extra strength. “If I wasn’t a dragon lord, I would have been burned alive. What sort of psycho test is that?”

“Khan only shot fire at you after you’d thrown the boulder. By that point, it was clear you were legit, and dragon lords don’t burn.” Dirk motioned for Aaron to follow him down the hall.

Aaron didn’t really have a choice. He didn’t want to be standing there in the hallway when Overdrake came out. He grudgingly followed Dirk. “He’s crazy, isn’t he? Like, legitimately mental.”

“No,” Dirk said. “He just likes to make a point. And the point he was making today is that he is in charge and there are consequences for anyone who crosses him. Once you’ve learned that lesson, everything will be much smoother.” He said the words like they didn’t bother him, but how could they not? “Oh, and by the way—welcome home.”

Home. They both knew it wasn’t. Aaron wasn’t sure if Dirk was trying to be friendly or just ironic.

They kept walking down the hall, their footsteps clanging on the floor.

“Back at the fair, when you saw me, you told me to run. Why?”

Dirk seemed unruffled by the question, but his voice had a note of bitterness. “Because my mother gave me up in order to protect you—in order to keep you from being trained as a dragon lord.” He opened a door and went up a stairwell. “Seemed like a shame to have that sacrifice be for nothing.”

Aaron let out a sharp breath and followed after Dirk. He suddenly felt like he’d betrayed his mom, done something horribly wrong.

Instead of walking, Dirk lifted off the ground and flew over the first few steps. Aaron leaped up a few stairs, bumped into the stairwell, did the same thing at the next bend, and gave up the idea of using his powers to shorten the climb. He trudged up them the normal way.

Dirk checked over his shoulder to see if Aaron was keeping up. “Don’t look so depressed,” he said. “Being a dragon lord isn’t a bad thing. You’ll get the hang of leaping eventually. Plus you’ll get to control dragons and fly.”

Aaron kept trudging up the steps. He could have leaped up but didn’t want Dirk to think he was enjoying himself. “Is this like good cop-bad cop, and you’re the good cop?”

Dirk chuckled, then stopped himself. “Sorry for laughing. I just never thought of myself as the good cop sort.” Dirk landed on the steps beside Aaron and resumed climbing the stairs with him. “You’ll be staying at the dragon enclosure for a while. Once my dad,” he paused amending the term. “Once our dad feels he can trust you, you’ll move with the rest of the family to the house.”

“Who’s the rest of the family?”

“Cassie is our stepmother. Bridget, our half-sister, is seven, and we’ve got a baby brother on the way. How about your family? Do I have any half-siblings there?”

Aaron didn’t answer the question. He didn’t want to tell the truth and worried Dirk would be able to tell if he lied. He glanced around the stairwell. Cinderblocks lined the walls. The whole place had the atmosphere of a prison. The sooner he figured out exactly how things were going to work here, the better. “How are you going to keep me from leaving? Are you going to lock me in my room?”

Dirk shook his head. “You’ve already forgotten the point of today’s lesson. Dad is in charge and if you cross him, there will be consequences.”

“So he’ll hurt me if I try to escape?”

“You’re too valuable for that. He’ll find other ways.”

“What do you mean?”

Dirk scoffed. “Do you really have to ask? Look, I’m ticked at my mom for leaving me as a kid. I won’t pretend I’m not. But that doesn’t mean I want to see her hurt. So just do both of us a favor and don’t give our father any reasons to track her down to make his point in a bigger way, okay?”

Aaron’s stomach lurched and a feeling of dread pressed into him. He held his chin steady though. He didn’t like being threatened. “He won’t be able to find her.”

“Please. He’s got your cell phone with her number on it. Do you think he can’t figure out a way to get to her? He’s probably already noticed that none of your contacts have South Carolina area codes. Where are you really from, North Carolina?”

Aaron didn’t answer, just grit his teeth and followed Dirk down the hallway. He should’ve thought to erase his contacts.

Dirk exhaled slowly, and Aaron could feel his sympathy mixed with concern. “None of this will be as bad as it seems right now. I’ll give you some advice for dealing with our father. Don’t bother fighting him. He’ll make sure he wins. The best way to sway him is to bargain. What do you want—well, besides a new dad and a plane ticket home?”

“I want to call Mom and talk to her.”

“Okay. So tell Dad you’re willing to stay as long as you get to call home once a week, and he buys you a Ferrari.”

“I’m twelve. I can’t drive.”

“That doesn’t matter. Ask for a car anyway. He’ll buy one for you because he understands people who can be bought. It’s the ones that can’t who make him nervous.”

A Ferrari would be cool. “Any other advice?”

Dirk glanced over at him with a sad smile. “Yeah, next time I tell you to run, make sure you do.”

***

Aaron walked down a hallway with Dirk, running a hand along the cement walls. How far below the surface were they? This whole place made him feel claustrophobic.

Dirk opened a metal door and motioned for him to go inside.

Instead of cement, the walls were some sort of metal: dull gray that blurred his reflection. A simple bed, dresser, and desk sat in the room. No windows, obviously. Amazing how much a bedroom looked like a cell without sunlight. An alarm clock perched on the dresser and small TV hung on the far wall. A doorway in the back. A bathroom?

“This is where you guys live?” Aaron asked. He’d expected someone with as much money as Overdrake to have nicer rooms.

“No, but this is where you’ll live until we decide we can trust you.” Dirk pointed out a plate of food on the desk: a sandwich, chips, apple, and a bottled water. “Cassie left some stuff for you in case you’re hungry. Try to get some sleep. Dad believes in being an early riser so you’ll start training at seven every morning.”

“Is there some reason all the walls are metal?”

“They’ll keep the dragon signal from reaching you so your powers will wear off. Otherwise you’d have too much energy to sleep.”

The metal walls probably also made the place harder to break out of. Real cozy.

Aaron walked over to the bed. A crayon drawing lay on his pillow.

“That’s a welcome gift from Bridget,” Dirk said. “A self-portrait.”

Dirk had told Aaron that they had a seven-year-old sister, but she hadn’t seemed real until now. He had a little sister. He had no idea how to treat sisters or seven-year-olds. Did they cry easily? Throw temper tantrums?

Aaron picked up the drawing. It showed a dark-haired girl smiling and reaching her stick figure arms up into the air. To Aaron was written on the top. “Is she doing yoga or surrendering?”

“She’s reaching out to hug you.”

“Oh. Good.” Aaron looked around the room again. “I wasn’t sure what the norm for your family was. Glad yoga’s not expected.”

Dirk laughed and shook his head. “I can tell you’re a lot like me, which means we’ll probably get along.” He put his hand on Aaron’s shoulder. It was a friendly gesture until he fixed him with a penetrating gaze. “But I need to tell you one more thing. If you ever do anything to hurt Bridget, I’ll know, and I’ll make you suffer.”

Aaron dropped the picture back on the bed and stepped away from Dirk’s grip. “Sheesh. I wouldn’t hurt a little kid. What sort of person do you think I am?”

“I think you’re fine which is why I’m willing to let you go near Bridget.” Dirk paused as though realizing he’d forgotten something. “I should have clarified that the last message was from Cassie.” He shrugged in apology. “She’s pregnant so she goes through frequent periods of hormonal snippiness.” Dirk casually slipped his hands into his back pockets. “You don’t want to know what I’d do to you if you hurt Bridget.”

Aaron held up his hands. “I won’t even talk to her.”

“You’ll have to talk to her. She’d be crushed if you didn’t. She also loves to play Uno and Wii, so plan on getting drafted into several games a day.” Dirk smiled and then walked to the door. “If she likes you, she might let you win sometimes.”

Advice on Overcoming Writer’s Block/ Why Slayers series is taking so long

I didn’t always believe in writer’s block. Not really. Yes, there were bumpy patches in every book and at times I needed a break. But those were always temporary things.

I didn’t really discover what writer’s block was until I started Slayers 3 (Back then I thought it was going to be one book and that it would probably take me 6-9 months to write and about 6 months to edit. Ah, those naive, carefree days.)

I’m pretty sure the writer’s block happened when Feiwel told me they’d decided not to do the third book of the series. Basically, I felt like they were telling me that the series wasn’t good enough–that it hadn’t sold well enough–for them to put out any money into a third book.

I was sad but not devastated. I knew I could write the third book on my own and put it up as an indie book. That’s what I immediately planned to do. I was busy with some other book at the time. I’ve forgotten which. So I didn’t get to it immediately.

But when I did get to Slayers 3, the writing was hard. I wasn’t happy with the first chapter. It all seemed so much worse than the first two books, which I loved. I needed the third book to be just as good.

On a long drive home from a family reunion, I started writing another book that I’d been thinking about for a few years. (I have a large list of those). It was a book to write for fun, one that I didn’t have to concentrate on. (Because who can concentrate with a car full of children and a grandchild?) I loved that book from its first sentence: The demons came again in the night.

I decided to finish it and that manuscript became The Girl Who Heard Demons. I didn’t feel like I had writer’s block for Slayers 3, though. Sometimes one idea becomes irresistible and you have to write it.

With my demons out of the way, I went back to Slayers 3. I think I wrote on it for a week, and then I started writing another book I’d thought about for a while. One in which a German navigator is shot down over England during WWII and ends up hiding out, wounded, in the heroine’s barn. In just a few days, I had about fifty pages done on that book. That’s when I realized I had writer’s block. I wanted to write anything but Slayers.

Well, the way to get through writer’s block is to sit down and write. I told myself I could get back to English farm girls when I was done with Slayers.

It was so hard. And it continued to be hard for the two years I’ve worked on Slayers 3,4 and 5.

With that in mind, here are some things that help with writer’s block.

1. First, check to make sure the issue isn’t being caused by a plot problem in your story. Authors frequently get writers block when their story is going in the wrong direction. Usually the problem is a lack of conflict. The story doesn’t have enough tension and so everything stalls. Look at your previous scenes and ask yourself what the character’s problem and goal are. What is standing in their way? If your character doesn’t have a problem/goal/obstacle, that is usually what needs to be fixed. But if the writer’s block isn’t due to plot trouble, try the next methods.

2. Morning pages: These are three pages of longhand, stream of conscious writing that you do every day. (You can learn more about them from Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way.) You’re not allowed to edit or show these pages to anyone. They are written just for the sake of writing and they take away the fear of the blank page. They also give you time to take long looks at the issues you’re dealing with in your life. Good all around.

3. Do housework: No, really. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been stuck on something and then while I’ve been mopping the floor the ideas I need come to me. Monotonous work will make the gears in your mind turn. It’s like your brain says, “Hey, I don’t want to clean the fridge. I’ll start spitting out ideas.”

4. Reading novels: Sometimes you just have to remember that you love stories and you want to tell them. Reading a book or two or five is a good way to remember that and rekindle your creative fires.

5. Professional help: In my case I talked with Forrest Wolverton (Dave Farland’s son) Dave mentioned in one of his posts that his son had taken psychology classes (and I’ve forgotten whether Forrest is a psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor, or what have you) and how his son had helped him overcome writer’s block with one session. I was so mired in writer’s block–hating every day that I wrote–I figured it was worth a try to hire him.

I called him and we set up a time to talk. It was about an hour-ish session. I remember two things about our conversation. He asked me to visualize myself before I had the writer’s block, he asked me what I thought had caused the writer’s block, and then asked me what would I tell that first self.

I also remember that I cried during that phone conversation, which completely surprised me because I hadn’t thought this was a cry-worthy subject. Writer’s block was frustrating but it wasn’t like we were talking about personal things. Sometimes writer’s block becomes a personal thing, though.

6. Give yourself pep talks. I took a class at the Storymakers conference on overcoming writer’s block. (I did mention I had writers block for two years, didn’t I?) And the teacher there did a great job of having you identify a problem, (For example: I’m not a bestseller) then identify the conclusions you draw from the problem (I must not be a good writer) and then have you rethink your conclusions. (A lot of good authors aren’t bestsellers. A lot of bestselling authors didn’t start out that way. etc) You can reshape how you see things and that can make all of the difference.

7. Allow yourself to write the story badly. A main component of my problem has been that I’ve wanted so badly to write an amazing story. It’s a daunting task. I set the bar high for myself and don’t want to disappoint fans. Even though I know that first drafts are always bad, I still expected myself to come up with a perfect story. I finally had to just tell myself to write a bad story and trust in the process–trust that I could fix the manuscript in revisions.

One of my friends has writer’s block right now while she’s trying to write the last few scenes of her book. I told her to write them as dialog only. Most of us can commit to throwing some dialog on a page because we know that a bunch of dialog doesn’t have to be perfect. But once you have something down, you can start revising it. It’s always in the revisions that stories become what they were meant to be.

8. Pray. I know several authors who pray before they write. I’ve become one of them. If you’re not the praying sort, try a few moments of meditating before you write. Do what you need to in order to tap into the creativity inside of you.

With that said, I’m finally, finally doing revisions on Slayers: The Dragon Lords (which is now Slayers 4 and Slayers: Into the Firestorm will be Slayers 5) I’m shooting for a Dec/Jan release date.

Here is a rough idea of the cover. Every time I see the wording, I laugh.

Slayers: Into the Firestorm is 90% done. I need to write a few more scenes in each version. (Yes, I’ve written one ending for Team Jesse fans and one for Team Dirk fans) I don’t have a release date for it but I’m aiming for 3-5 months afterwards, depending on, you know, life.

A Perfect Fit is released!

For those of you who’re wondering why the fourth Slayers book isn’t out yet–writing this latest novella was partly to blame.
I know, you suddenly feel an intense hatred toward this poor novella, don’t you? But never fear, Slayers 4 (and probably 5… yeah, I think I need to break this book up again) is coming along and in the meantime, you have this 135-page romantic comedy to read. And I promise not to agree to be in any more romance anthologies until it comes out.
Here’s the back blurb: Do you remember your first love? Have you ever wondered what would happen if you had a second chance to follow your heart? In this collection of novellas written by award-winning and bestselling authors, come home to Echo Ridge as summer winds down and hearts once broken and lost are given one more chance, a second chance to love.
(Although if you read my novella My Fair Lacey–this is the story about Lacey’s roommate, Jojo.) You can order it here: