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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Contemporary

Dragon Guard

 

 

Dragon Guard

Book 1: Prophecy of the Dragon

 

By E.J. Krause

 

Copyright 2017 E.J. Krause

 

Shakespir Edition

 

Copyright 2013 Eric J. Krause

Copyright 2017 E.J. Krause

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

 

Thank you for downloading this ebook. You are welcome to share it with your friends. This book may be reproduced, copied and distributed for non-commercial purposes, provided the book remains in its complete original form. If you enjoyed this book, please return to your favorite ebook retailer to discover other works by this author. Thank you for your support.

 

NOTE:

Dragon Guard was originally published in 2013 by Hunt Press under the name Eric J. Krause. This could be considered a second edition. A few minor changes have been made to the text from that version, but nothing concerning plot or structure has been changed.

 

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

About the Author

Chapter 1

Ben Phillips dragged his feet and hated the heft of his backpack. Not that it was heavy, but it reminded him that his math homework wasn’t in there. He’d planned to do it last night, but made the mistake of turning on his Xbox before cracking the books. Neither Mom nor Dad would walk in on him, so his only enemy was willpower, which he thought he could beat. He kept getting in better and better battle groups, and before he knew it, it was after eleven. Even with their constant bickering, Mom and Dad would notice him still up that late on a school night. Probably.

Okay, so maybe playing video games instead of doing homework wasn’t that rare of an occurrence. It wouldn’t be such a big deal if it wasn’t for Mr. Simms’s class. The math teacher notoriously yelled at students who didn’t finish their assignments. Ben was pretty good about getting math homework done as he’d been on the receiving end of the browbeating before, and it wasn’t fun. Since today was Monday, it would be worse. Sure, he had all weekend to finish, but he also had other classes. Why didn’t teachers get this?

Something buzzed on the back of his neck. It was a prickly feeling, like when he woke his foot up after it fell asleep, that feeling of a thousand tiny needles sticking him. His hand flew up there, but nothing sat on his neck. He looked around and found himself in front of that house that sold a few weeks back. He still hadn’t seen who moved in. Whoever it was, they certainly didn’t come out very often.

Come to think of it, the whole neighborhood was quiet this morning. Usually there were people leaving for work, walking their dogs, or out to get their morning paper. But this morning? Nothing.

The prickly sensation hit harder, moving up his head and down his back. Movement caught his eye at the sidewalk by the property boundary. He let out a yell and stepped back. His foot fell on the edge of the grass and sidewalk, and he tumbled onto his butt. Instead of pushing back up, he turned and scurried on all fours up the lawn towards the porch. There was no way he saw what he thought he did.

Ben bolted up to the front door and spun to look, sure his imagination had gotten the best of him. It was a holdover in his mind from the zombie mode in Warfare Zone, the first-person shooter he’d been playing last night. Instead of an empty lawn, though, there were two people lumbering towards him. No, not people, not really. They were walking corpses, zombies. Had to be. Their skin was a pale mixture of blue and green, and open sores littered every bit of exposed surface. Their tattered dress shirts and pants wore stains of dirt and who knew what else. Both of their jaws moved up and down as if they were trying to speak. Or, more likely, ready to chew up anything that got in their way.

If he ran quick enough, he could skirt past them. These looked to be the classic slow-moving zombies, not the super fast ones from some of the more recent horror flicks. But weren’t they, regardless of speed, relentless? If they were after him, they wouldn’t give up, no matter where he ran, until they caught him.

Hysterical giggles threatened to overwhelm him. Here he was, trying to sort this out as if it were science, not fiction. Then again, there were two creatures he could only think of as zombies stumbling towards him. How much more real could this get?

He turned to knock on the door but stopped himself. What right did he have to bring trouble to these nice people? Assuming they were nice, anyway. Maybe he’d be in worse shape if he got their attention. The zombies might be the lesser of two evils. And what if they were in league with the zombies? Not that he believed that, but all kinds of horrible scenarios ran though his mind. Before he made a decision, the door opened and a big hand grabbed his upper arm and dragged him inside.

“Should have run, boy. They weren’t after you.”

Ben turned and looked at the man. He was huge, standing at least six and a half feet tall and built like a truck, as Ben’s dad liked to say. He had short dark hair and a thick mustache, but the thing that stood out most, which both scared and comforted him, was the man’s piercing dark blue eyes. It was as if they saw right through Ben’s skull and directly into his soul.

Ben gave a start and looked away. A woman also stood there, probably the guy’s wife. The two appeared to be in their mid-30s, about the same age as his parents. She stood much shorter than the hulking man, at around five and a half feet tall, and she was quite pretty. It helped that her eyes were plain green, not so noticeable as her husband’s. Her hair was a stylish short blonde, dropping down just below her jaw line. He knew it was stylish because it looked similar to how his mom often appeared after a trip to the salon, and she always kept up on the latest trends.

“No need to scare him, Lee,” the woman said. “I’m sure he’s already freaked out enough.”

The man, Lee, let go of Ben, who backed away. Would his shoulders have bruises from the grip? He looked at the adults. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing to concern yourself with, sweetie,” the woman said. “Why don’t you head into the kitchen for a minute? There are some granola bars on the counter if you’re hungry. I’ll drive you to school in a few moments so you’re not late. I assume you go to Valley Citrus?”

He nodded and headed down the entry hall. He didn’t know these people, so why should he trust them? For some reason, though, he did. The floor plan wasn’t much different from his own house and others in the neighborhood. The entryway opened into a living room, and a door to the left led to the kitchen. Were all the houses in the area just copies of each other?

He could tell these people hadn’t been here very long. The living room had a half-finished feel to it. The furniture and television and other big stuff were set up, but the walls were bare, and there were a few boxes in the corner with family photos and other decorations peeking out. Everything had a new smell that he figured was from carpet cleaners. He remembered the scent from when Grandma Phillips passed a couple of years back. His parents, along with his aunts and uncles, cleaned her house top to bottom in order to sell it.

The kitchen held more clutter. Dishes, cooking utensils, and other things lay in a few of the open boxes. If he poked through the cupboards, pantry, and refrigerator, he knew he wouldn’t find much. No breakfast odor lingered. The granola bars were indeed on the counter, but even if he hadn’t already eaten, he wouldn’t have the appetite for one now.

The front door thudded open, and Ben couldn’t stand it. He had to see what was going on. He snuck into the living room and peeked around the corner to the entry hall. The two zombies stumbled in through the open door, and the man, Lee, moved too fast for Ben to see. The first zombie fell, decapitated. The woman leapt at the second, two swords in her hands. A few quick swipes and it dropped headless next to the first on the tile floor. Lee slammed the door shut and the lady headed back towards Ben, who retreated to the kitchen.

“Don’t see that sort of stuff everyday, do you?” the woman said as she walked in.

Did she know he’d been watching, or had she meant zombies in general? His “No,” wasn’t a lie either way.

“Sorry you had to get mixed up in that. Let me get you to school. I wouldn’t want you to be late on top of everything else.”

Ben nodded, not trusting his voice enough to mutter an “Okay,” and followed her though a side door in the kitchen which led to the garage. School wasn’t too far away, just a couple more blocks. Normally he’d have turned down a ride, but today he didn’t want to risk running into any more zombies. Or worse, if there was such a thing.

A sporty red four-door and a big blue SUV sat parked in the garage. She unlocked the four-door, and he climbed in the passenger seat. As she backed out, she started talking as if nothing weird had happened.

“As you can tell by the mess, we just moved in. Today’s our daughter’s first day of school. She’d usually be leaving by the time you showed up, but she wanted to get there early to get a lay of the land, so to speak. We picked up her schedule on Friday, but didn’t have a chance to explore. What grade are you in?”

“Tenth.”

“Wonderful! A sophomore. So is my daughter, Alexandria. And I’m sorry, sweetie, I forgot to ask your name.”

“Ben. Ben Phillips.”

“Nice to meet you, Ben, though I wish it could be under better circumstances. I’m Cassandra Thomas, and you met my husband, Leon. Maybe you’ll meet Andi later today.”

“Yeah.” He couldn’t think of anything to add to that.

Like most mornings, there was a huge line getting into the parking lot, so he had Cassandra, Mrs. Thomas he should call her, stop across the street. Before he got out, she put a hand on his arm.

“Ben, it might be best for all involved if you chose not to mention what you saw this morning.”

Somehow he managed to smile. “I don’t think anyone would believe me anyway.”

“Yeah, I kind of doubt it,” she said with a chuckle. “If you see Andi, don’t be afraid to go up to her and say hi. I’m sure she could use a friend today. You’ll know her when you see her. She looks quite a bit like me except for her eyes and her hair color. Those she got from her father.”

Ben said he would and thanked her for the ride. She gave a wave as she drove off. He sighed and headed for the crosswalk. At least all of that had taken his mind off his unfinished math homework.

Chapter 2

“So you played all night instead of doing homework for Simms’s class?” Randy said, laughing.

“Man,” Jay said. “Even if you found perfect groups, it couldn’t make up for the wrath of Old Man Simms.”

“I didn’t mean to,” Ben said. “Every group I joined couldn’t lose. I kept saying I was going to get to my homework, but all of the sudden it was after eleven.”

“You should have seen it,” Vince said. “Simms was in fine form. Especially since Ben was the only one who didn’t finish.”

His three friends laughed while Ben polished off the bag of potato chips he brought for a snack. “Glad you guys are enjoying this. It was a pretty crappy morning.” He sighed. And they didn’t know the half of it. In a way, he didn’t mind the tongue lashing Old Man Simms gave him. It felt normal.

Jay punched Ben’s arm. “Melissa says hi, by the way.”

“When are you going to ask her out again?” Randy said. “She’s going to keep bugging us until you do.”

Ben was about to say something about finding the right time when she caught his eye. Not Melissa, but the new girl, Mrs. Thomas’s daughter. What was her name? Angie? Annie? Andi? Yes, Andi. As Mrs. Thomas said, there was no doubt who her parents were. She had long dark hair, the color of her father’s, the petite, athletic frame and good looks of her mother, and…

She looked up at him, and her bright blue eyes pierced through him, like her father’s. But unlike his stare, which brought intimidation, hers filled him with a sense of peace and happiness. It was unlike anything he’d ever felt before. She smiled, and he tried to smile back, hoped he did. He didn’t dare look down because he was afraid he’d find himself floating a few inches off the ground.

His buddies burst out laughing.

“What?” he said, breaking eye contact. When he glanced back, she was already on her way in the opposite direction.

“Nothing,” Vince said. “It was just perfect timing. We’re talking about Melissa, and you’re making eyes at the new girl.”

“Yeah,” Randy said. “That chick’s pretty hot. You should’ve introduced yourself, Benny.”

“I don’t know…”

“Sure, like he did with Melissa last year,” Jay said. “Oh, wait, that never happened. She had to force him to ask her out.”

Randy took a turn punching him in the arm. Like Jay’s punch, it didn’t hurt. Luckily, Ben’s friends were all built the same as him, more for video games than physical activity. “For a guy with no game, you sure are a chick magnet.”

“Whatever.”

Before he had to endure any more, the bell rang, ending break and signaling the start of third period. The guys all said bye and headed for class. Ben hurried to Language Arts, hopeful this would be the one he shared with Andi Thomas.

*****

Ben walked from his normal lunch spot to fifth period PE, a smile on his lips. His friends had resumed their teasing from break, but it had been good-natured, so he didn’t mind. Besides, each got a turn in getting picked on about a girl, so it was all fair. He supposed he liked Melissa well enough, and they’d probably go out again, as soon as she pushed the topic enough for him to ask her. But there was something about the new girl. He’d never felt this way about Melissa, and he hadn’t even talked to Andi Thomas yet. She’d been in his thoughts nonstop since break. He’d hardly even thought about the zombies.

Whoa! He stopped in his tracks. What was stranger? The fact that he’d seen what he assumed were real zombies, or that a few hours later it hardly phased him? Shouldn’t something like that consume his thoughts? Give him walking nightmares? But it didn’t bother him at all.

He looked to his left and saw Andi by herself at a drinking fountain. It was the perfect opportunity. With the distraction of everyone heading to class, no one would notice him talking to her. Her mom did tell him to say hi, right?

Who was he kidding? He couldn’t do that. What would he say? Yes, he’d dated Melissa last year, but the guys were right. If she hadn’t initiated it all, basically insisted, they’d have never gone out. And they’d been flirting on and off since elementary school. How would he start something with a girl he didn’t even know?

She finished her drink and turned towards him. He should go, continue on to the locker room for PE, but his feet wouldn’t move. What was it about this girl? He needed to at least look somewhere else so she didn’t think he was some creepy stalker.

Too late. Her eyes caught his, and she smiled, ducked her head, and looked up again. C’mon, do it! There would never be a better opportunity. He’d faced zombies that morning. This whole day had to be a dream anyway, right? Go up to her. Say hi.

His legs obeyed even as him mind screamed, “No!” What was he doing? He couldn’t think of anything to say. Wasn’t his first remark supposed to be witty or funny or something? This could only end with him looking dumb.

Thankfully, or maybe unfortunately, she didn’t run away. Her smile brightened and her cheeks blushed, but she held eye contact.

“Hi,” he said when he was close enough. “My name’s Ben.” Somehow his voice came out comprehensible.

“Hi, I’m Andi. Well, Alexandria, but I go by Andi.”

“Cool. First day, huh?” What? Lead with that? Stupid-stupid-stupid.

“Yeah. Seems like a good school. People have been great so far.”

“Nice. Where are you off to next?” Better.

“Algebra with Mr. Simms. Do you have him?”

“Yeah. First period. Always do your homework, and you’ll be fine.”

“You can pretty much say that for any class, though, right?” she said with a laugh.

“He gets mean when you don’t do it. Way more than other teachers. I’m still stinging from this morning.”

“I bet it motivates you to finish your assignments for the rest of the week.” A half-smile lingered on her lips.

“Yeah, you’re probably right.”

“So there you go.” She gave him a playful nudge on the arm, and a spark shot between them. Not like a static electricity shock, but something deeper, something he couldn’t explain. She felt it, too, because her eyes went wide.

“Can I eat lunch with you tomorrow?” he asked, the question coming out all at once. “I mean, unless you already have someone to sit with. Or something.” He had no clue where that came from, but it sounded way too lame for her to accept.

“Yeah, that sounds great.”

Wait, had he heard her right? She said yes? Yeah, she did. “Meet me here and we’ll pick a spot.” Did she notice he had a hard time getting it out without hyperventilating?

Her slight smile said yes, but instead of commenting, she said, “Sounds good. I’ll be here.”

“Awesome.”

“We better get to class. You already skipped homework today, so you don’t want to get a tardy, too.”

“I’ll be fine. I have PE. But you shouldn’t be late to Simms’s class. I’ll see you tomorrow, if not later today.”

“Sounds great. Thanks for everything.”

She smiled, waved, and headed towards the math building. He watched for a second, and then turned towards the locker rooms. As he did, he gave a start. Across the way stood Melissa, dressed head to toe in her signature pink, staring at him with a big frown on her face. He contemplated waving, but that might make things worse. Instead he ducked his head and pretended he hadn’t seen her. It wouldn’t work, but at least it would keep him out of a confrontation for the moment. As he walked into the locker room, it came to him that he didn’t care if he smoothed things over with Melissa. There was something special about Andi Thomas.

Chapter 3

Andi walked into this new house and yelled out, “I’m home!” even if it didn’t feel like home yet.

“In the kitchen,” her mom called. “Come in and tell me about your day.”

As she breezed through the short entry hall, a strange scent hit her. It was mostly cleaning disinfectant, but something she couldn’t place lay underneath. Something that hadn’t been there this morning. Something yucky. It faded as she passed through the living room, which still had boxes stacked against the bare walls. Mom must’ve tackled other parts of the house today.

She pushed into the kitchen and found her mom pulling plates out of the dishwasher and stacking them in one of the cabinets above the sink. When she saw Andi, Mom stopped and turned towards her.

“How was your first day?”

“Same as any first day, I guess.”

“Meet any nice people?”

Andi shrugged, and though she tried her hardest not to, her face flushed. “There was this one guy.”

Her mom had started stocking the cabinet again, but that statement froze her. Only her amazing dexterity kept her from dropping a plate. “Doesn’t sound like a normal first day to me.”

“Whatever. Not like it matters. Even if I liked him and started going out, it wouldn’t mean anything. We’ll still have to leave in a couple of years.”

“What’s wrong with having fun until then? Be a teenager.”

She wanted to. For some reason, she really liked Ben, even though she didn’t know anything about him. Sure, he looked good, with his playfully unkempt brown hair and understated fashion sense of a plain t-shirt and simple jeans that actually fit right, unlike how many boys wore them nowadays. Aside from his looks, though, there was something different about him, something she’d never noticed in any of the other boys she’d ever met. She felt it from that first second they locked eyes at break. And what about that shock when she’d touched his arm after lunch? That was definitely a first.

“I guess,” she said. “Do we have any venison jerky left?”

“Sorry, your dad polished it off. We’ll get more this weekend.” Mom turned to the mostly empty fridge. “We do have bacon. I can heat it up, if you’d like.”

“That’s okay. I like it cold.” Andi opened the package, pealed a strip off, and took a bite.

Mom took a seat in one of the chairs opposite her. “So, tell me about this boy. His name wasn’t Ben, was it?”

Andi stared at her mom. “How did you know?”

Mom had a hard time hiding a smile. “That poor boy had an interesting morning. I told him to say hi if he saw you.”

“Wait. What’s going on?”

“We had a couple of, uh, strange visitors this morning, and poor Ben got caught in the middle on his way to school.”

Andi got up and crossed to the refrigerator. “Did you buy any soda yet?”

“Wouldn’t you rather have milk?”

“Not after I found out my mother’s trying to set me up with boys. So what do you mean by strange visitors and him being caught in the middle?” She found a can of generic caffeine-free soda and popped it open.

“A couple of walking corpses paid us a visit, and Ben was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Poor kid thought they were after him for a minute. Your father pulled him into the house, and I sent him in here while we dispatched them in the hallway.”

Andi wrinkled her nose. “I knew I smelled something gross in there.”

“Yeah, I’m sure you and your father will gag over it for a few days. It’s times like these that I’m glad I don’t have your sense of smell.”

Andi picked up her bacon slice and continued nibbling. “There doesn’t seem to be any disturbance out there, so the neighbors must not have noticed.”

“We’re guessing whoever sent them put a spell on the neighborhood, imploring everyone to stay inside for a few minutes.”

“Who did it?” She finished the first piece of bacon and pulled off a second.

“Don’t know. We’ve stayed out of the supernatural spotlight since you were born, so neither of us can figure it out. Might have been a random attack. Someone lost control of their zombies and they were drawn to our magic. We’ll have to wait and see if anything comes of it.”

“Why didn’t Ben mention any of this when we talked?” Andi asked. “It would have made a pretty big impression on my day, and I know this stuff exists.”

“Maybe he convinced himself it didn’t happen. Though I don’t know how he can believe it was a hallucination after I drove him to school.”

“You what? You drove him to school? Jeez, Mother, you really are trying to set me up.”

“I swear I’m not. I didn’t want him to be late on top of everything else.” She paused and gave Andi a piercing stare. “Though I did feel something special about him.”

“I did, too.” Andi squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head. “No, no, no. I can’t feel anything for him. I’ve purposely avoided this every time I’m at a new school because it’ll end in heartbreak.”

“Not necessarily,” her mom said, almost too low to hear.

“What do you mean? He’s going to grow up, and I’m going to look exactly the same.”

Her mother stood and returned to the dishwasher. “Eat your snack and think about it. Do you have any idea what I am?”

She started to say, “Of course,” but didn’t have anything to add after that. She took a sip of soda and concentrated on the bubbles running down her throat. Mom wasn’t a dragon, not like her and Dad, but other than that, she never gave it much thought. Mom aged at the same rate, roughly one dragon year for every fifty human years, but besides her almost superhuman dexterity, she seemed normal.

“Well?”

“I don’t know. You’re my mom. Other than having a dragon age, you’re human.”

“I am human,” Mom said as she put a few more plates into their new home. “Or at least I was. Now I’m a Dragon Guard, your father’s bound mate.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I’m your father’s one and only. We share a bond stronger than any other. Only dragons and their guards have it. I always know where he is and what he’s feeling, and when he’s in his true form, we can communicate without speaking, but you already know that. Plus so much more.”

“Wait, what are you saying? You think Ben is this to me?” She jumped out of her chair. “No, he can’t be my one true love or any of that sappy Disney princess stuff. I just met him.”

“Like I said, I felt something about him this morning, but I mostly ignored it. We never told you any of this because fate almost always waits until the dragon and her guard are in their late teens, dragon-year-wise, before introducing them. That way both are physically and mentally able to handle it all. They never meet earlier unless…” Mom’s eyes went wide, and this time she did drop a plate, though it was a cheap plastic one that didn’t break.

“Unless what?”

Mom took a deep breath and headed out of the kitchen. “Finish up, Andi, and then hit the books. I need to talk to your father.”

When Andi was alone, she said, “Okay, that was weird.” When did Mom ever care if she did her homework? She sealed the bacon up with the zip top packaging, placed it back in the fridge, and headed out to find her parents. If she was quiet enough, they’d have no idea she was listening. She’d done it before.

A quick glance around showed them out in the backyard. If the window upstairs in the extra bedroom, which was right above the patio, was open, she’d have no problem hearing the conversation. Luck was on her side. Though Mom didn’t look to have worked in here, the window was up. She snuck over as quiet as she could and listened.

“She’s too young,” her father said. “She’s barely 750 years old. The earliest her mate should come is at 900, and I’d much prefer 1000.”

“I know, I know,” Mom said. “And it’s not just about her. The boy is far too young at 15. He looked like a deer in headlights this morning. But we’re not in charge of choosing, no matter how much you believe it to be true. It’s fate’s decision, and there’s nothing we can do to change that.”

Dad grunted. “It doesn’t matter anyway. She’s a teenaged girl. She has a crush. I don’t like that, either, but it’s not a big deal.”

With the tone of her voice, Andi guessed Mom had rolled her eyes. “She’s the equivalent of a fifteen year old girl. I’m assuming she’s had crushes before, but has she ever brought one up? No. And you can’t deny you sensed something in that boy. I felt it, too. Don’t be stubborn, admit it.”

Her father didn’t say anything for a minute, and when he spoke again, it was in a low voice, almost a whisper. “Being bound, married, at 15 might have been fine in the past, but it’s not appropriate for this day and age.”

“Fair enough, but you know as well as I that dragon laws can’t always fit into human society. Do you think it coincidence that the boy showed up at our doorstep this morning? We haven’t been troubled by anything supernatural since Andi was born. His being here means something big is on the horizon, and whatever powers he possesses are there to keep her safe. If you refuse to acknowledge that, you do nothing but needlessly endanger both of their lives.”

Andi could almost hear her father’s teeth grind. She might have done the same if she wasn’t being ultra-careful to stay silent. All of this sounded big, too big. She’d just met Ben. He couldn’t be her mate, her husband, or whatever it was they were talking about. Dad was right; they were too young. If danger was coming, what could Ben possibly do about it? Having said all that, though, why in the world couldn’t she get him out of her mind?

“Fine,” her father said. “Since you’re so big on fate, we’ll let it make the next move. If it points to the boy again, we’ll give them a minor binding. That will give him enough power to get through this. Whatever is coming will be directed at us, not them.”

Her mother let out a frustrated sigh. “I can’t argue with you when you’re being pigheaded for the sake of it. There’s too much to do inside.” The sliding glass door opened and closed with exaggerated gentleness.

Andi snuck back to her room so her mom wouldn’t catch her eavesdropping. As she went, she heard her father mutter, “Why can’t fate ever make any of this easy?”

Chapter 4

“You didn’t,” Andi said, her hand pressed to her mouth. They’d walked home together and were almost to her house.

“Yeah. He all but asked for it by being an ass. Randy and Vince filled a lunch sack with dog doo, and Jay borrowed one of his dad’s lighters. I rang the doorbell as soon as Jay had the bag lit, and we ran like hell. We couldn’t see from our hiding spot, but by the way he cursed, we knew he stamped it out. Hopefully with his indoor slippers.”

“Oh no,” Andi said, this time not successfully holding back the laughter. “I’ve made friends with a hooligan. Not doing homework yesterday, and telling me about lighting dog poop on fire today.”

He winked at her. “Yeah, you better watch out. I’m dangerous.”

She lost it even more and gave him a half-hug to keep from toppling over as she laughed. Ben took a deep breath and held it, but he didn’t think she noticed. Good.

They walked a little ways further, and she wiped away some tears that had spilled out. By the time she regained control, they were in front of her house. “Thanks for walking me home,” she said. “It’s nice to have company.”

“Glad to. You’re fun to be around.” And nice to look at, he thought, but didn’t dare say it aloud. She dressed like most girls at school, with jeans and a tight white shirt, but he had to admit he liked the way she looked in the clothes better than any other girl.

“I don’t know about that.” She nudged his arm. “I’ve never even thought about leaving a flaming bag of poop on a doorstep.”

He nudged her back. “I’m guessing you have some secrets you haven’t told me yet.”

“Maybe. You’ll have to wait and see if I share.”

Had she hesitated and looked nervous before she said that? No, he was being silly and reading too much into everything. “I can be patient,” he said.

“We’ll see.” She turned towards her house, but before she moved, she looked back at him. “Hey, since you walk this way anyway, would you mind if I joined you on the way to school?”

His breath caught in his throat, but he managed to nod and choke out, “I’d like that.”

“Me too.” She moved her face close to his, then stopped, blushed, and hurried up to her house. Whoa, she almost kissed him. Too bad she stopped. That would have been cool.

He started towards home, not sure his feet were even touching the ground. He hadn’t felt this good the time he and Melissa had made out, and Andi’s lips hadn’t even touched his. Weird. Plus she was so easy to talk to. He always ran out of stuff to say to Melissa, but with Andi he felt like he could talk for hours without repeating anything. Even better was that they could be silly together. Melissa didn’t tolerate that. They spent half of lunch today coming up with new ways to shorten different names after she said she went by Andi because no one expected Alexandria to be shortened like that. Everyone, predictably, tried to call her Alex.

Before he lost himself in more thoughts, he spun back towards her house. That strange tingling sensation assaulted his neck again, just like yesterday morning. No, that was impossible. All of that seemed like such a dream. How could the zombies be back now?

There were four shuffling around the house. Like people, each had different features and such, but all shared the same limping stride and pale bluish-green skin tone like the two yesterday. This group moved around the front porch and pushed through the side gate to the backyard. Ben dropped his backpack on the lawn and followed at a safe distance. He’d see what they were up to and then ring the doorbell to warn Andi.

A quick peek into the backyard showed Andi and her parents already waiting for the zombies. Her mom had the same two short swords she used yesterday morning, but neither Andi nor her dad had any weapons at all. As the zombies lumbered forward, none of the Thomas’s looked frightened, but that was okay, as Ben’s heart beat fast enough for everyone put together.

Without warning, Mrs. Thomas leapt, skewering a zombie’s torso with one sword, while decapitating it with the other. In the same motion, she lunged at a second. While that was going on, something happened to Andi and her father. Their necks stretched, his about ten feet, hers not quite as long, and their heads morphed into some sort of blue reptile. No way. He was hallucinating again. But that wasn’t true, and he knew it.

As her mother decimated the second zombie, Andi and her father each bit the remaining two in half. When all four lay in still wiggling pieces, Andi and her dad reverted back to normal. Ben blinked hard to see if all of this had really just happened.

“Andi, the lighter fluid is in the garage,” her dad said. “It’s next to the box marked BBQ. Go grab it before they start to regenerate.”

“Wait,” Mrs. Thomas said. She looked towards Ben, and Andi and her dad tensed, ready to jump back into action. Ben pulled his head back and hoped she hadn’t seen him. He thought about running, but before he moved, she said, “It’s okay, Ben. Come on out.”

When he did, Mr. Thomas frowned, looking every bit as menacing as he had yesterday morning. “You again? Are you spying on us?”

Ben shook his head and tried to say he’d come to warn them, but he couldn’t get the words out. He glanced at Andi. Her face held an expression that was both horrified and embarrassed, and he couldn’t blame her. If he was some sort of monster and she found out, he’d feel the same way. But she didn’t need to. For reasons he couldn’t figure out, he didn’t care. He still felt the same about her as when she almost kissed him a few minutes ago. How in the world was he not more freaked out about this? About any of this?

“You know darn well he’s not spying on us, Lee,” Mrs. Thomas said. “And you know why he’s here, too. Even if he doesn’t.” She flashed a warm smile his way which made him feel a lot better.

“Fine,” Mr. Thomas said. He growled something under his breath, and then barked, “Andi, lighter fluid. The damn things are moving closer.”

As he said, they were. The body parts had been strewn across the backyard in heaps, but now looked like they’d been carefully placed for future reattachment. Ben guessed burning them was the only way to kill them. Had Mr. Thomas torched the ones from yesterday?

Andi came out with the lighter fluid, but wouldn’t meet Ben’s eyes. Did she think he wouldn’t like her after what he saw? Or did she not like him anymore? He wanted to say something, but didn’t dare in front of her parents, especially her dad. They were all silent until the zombies were well on their way to becoming ash.

Mr. Thomas spoke first, his voice calmer than Ben had yet heard. “Zombies burn easily. It’s one of the few ways to ultimately stop them.” Ben realized it was directed at him, so he nodded to show he understood. In fact, even though he had no business knowing, he could have told them that, and he didn’t think that knowledge came from watching zombie movies and playing video games.

“Since you haven’t run off,” Mrs. Thomas said, “you’re obviously who we think you are.”

He glanced over to Andi, saw her blush, and then back to Mrs. Thomas. “What do you mean? Who am I?”

“Let’s discuss it in the house where it’s not as smelly.” She wrinkled her nose and looked at the burning bodies to emphasize her point. “I know Andi and Lee will agree with that.”

Once inside, everyone sat around the kitchen table. Ben sat next to Andi and across from her mother’s chair, while she sat opposite her dad. Mrs. Thomas placed a basket of potato chips in the middle. “What would you like to drink, Ben? I’m afraid all we have is soda, milk, and tap water. I haven’t had much of a chance to grocery shop yet.”

“Doesn’t matter. I’ll have what Andi’s having.” He cringed inside when he said it and wished he’d just made a decision. Mrs. Thomas hid a smile, Andi blushed and again refused to meet his eyes, while Mr. Thomas frowned.

She pulled four cans of soda out of the refrigerator and set them down in front of everyone. They each popped the tops and took sips, no one saying anything for a few beats. Mrs. Thomas broke the silence. “There’s no need to hide anything, Ben, but I’m curious as to what you think you saw.”

He grabbed a chip to give himself a few extra seconds to think. Should he go with the truth, or would they hold that against him? They were a different sort, that was for sure, and they might cover it up at any cost, including burying him in the backyard.

No, he’d seen too many movies and cop procedurals. Whatever Andi was, and he honestly had no clue, she was a good person. Or whatever. Her mom, too. He glanced at Mr. Thomas as he swallowed his chip; the jury was still out on him, though he couldn’t imagine he’d be evil when Andi and her mom were so nice.

“I, uh, felt the zombies, and when I turned, I saw four at the front of your house, moving to the side gate.”

“You felt them?” Mr. Thomas said.

“Yeah, like pins and needles on the back of my neck. Just like yesterday morning.”

Mr. Thomas started to say something else, but Mrs. Thomas jumped in. “Lee, let him finish. What next?”

“I figured I should warn you guys, so I followed them into the backyard to see what they were up to, but you were already there, waiting.”

“I noticed them right after I got in the house,” Andi said. She finally looked at him, and they shared a smile.

Mrs. Thomas prompted him to continue. “And you saw us…”

“I saw you chop two up with a couple of swords, just like yesterday morning, and I saw…”

“Say it, boy,” Mr. Thomas said. It sounded like a dare.

“I saw you and Andi turn into…” He almost said monsters, but caught himself. “…something.”

Mr. Thomas flashed a wicked grin that proved he knew what Ben almost said.

“I’m a dragon, and so is my dad,” Andi blurted out. “Don’t hate me.”

“If he hated you, or was even frightened by you, he’d be long gone,” Mr. Thomas said. “Not sitting here sharing an afternoon snack, as meager as it is.”

“Yes, Lee, I’m well aware you want me to go to the grocery store,” Mrs. Thomas said as she rolled her eyes. “I’ll do it tomorrow.”

Ben and Andi’s eyes met, and she gave him a shy smile before concentrating on her soda can. What Mr. Thomas said was true, though. Andi being a dragon, whatever that meant, didn’t frighten him one bit. And he certainly didn’t hate her. Quite the opposite. That didn’t mean it didn’t confuse him to no end, though.

“Besides,” Mr. Thomas said, “he’s your guard. He’s programmed to not hate you, and you him.” He gave Ben a hard stare. “But just because I acknowledge it doesn’t mean I condone you putting your hands all over my daughter.”

“Daddy!”

“Lee!”

Ben could only sit there and wonder what was going on. He hadn’t even been close to putting his hands all over her. They’d almost kissed, sure, but she started that, not him. And what did he mean that Ben was her guard? Why would a dragon need a guard? None of this made any sense.

“What?” Mr. Thomas said to his wife. “I’m stating my feelings. I thought you liked it when I displayed them.”

“I also know you understand the concept of tact, but you’re choosing not to show any of that at the moment.”

“Excuse me,” Ben said, hoping he spoke loud enough to be heard. He had, as all three looked at him. “Uh, well, I mean…” He took a deep breath, and though Mr. Thomas kept his sour expression trained on him, smiles on the faces of both Mrs. Thomas, and more importantly, Andi urged him on. “What do you mean I’m her guard?”

“It’s fate, dear,” Mrs. Thomas said. “You’re destined to be Alexandria’s Dragon Guard.”

Chapter 5

“What is a Dragon Guard?” Ben asked. “I’ve never heard of that.”

“You’ve also never heard of dragons outside of storybooks, either,” Mr. Thomas said.

“Lee, be nice.”

“Yeah, Dad. He’s your future son-in-law, after all.”

What? He looked at Andi, but she rolled her eyes as she said it, so she was joking. Right? Oh, god, why hadn’t he gotten scared and run when he had the chance? This was getting to be too much.

Her dad gave Andi a withering look, but Mrs. Thomas just shrugged and said, “She’s right.” Mr. Thomas turned his gaze on his wife, but this time it held annoyance rather than anger.

“Mom! I was kidding. We’re way too young to even think about getting married or being bound or whatever you call it.”

Mr. Thomas motioned to Andi. “Yes. Thank you. Finally my daughter shows she can display some common sense.”

Mrs. Thomas stood up, anger bubbling up on her face, but instead she burst out laughing. “What?” Andi and her dad both demanded, while Ben sat there taking it all in and trying to remember how to breathe.

She shook her head and took a long pull from her soda can. “Nothing. It’s just that this wasn’t how I pictured explaining this process to my daughter and her future guard.”

“You already explained it to me, and it sounds ludicrous,” Andi said. “Maybe it’ll make sense in a couple hundred years, but not yet.”

“I told you very little, and of that you seem to remember only the portion you’re most uncomfortable with.”

Andi turned to Ben. “It’s stupid. You agree, right?”

He tried to think of something, anything, to say, but all that came out was, “I don’t even know what’s going on,” which brought out more giggles from Mrs. Thomas, and caused the rest to stare at her again.

“I say we leave it at nothing is going on,” Mr. Thomas said. “Alexandria said it best. This whole situation is ludicrous.”

Mrs. Thomas sat back down a grabbed a potato chip. “Need I remind you that it was your idea to let fate decide? And it has. Ben witnessed us fight zombies, and he’s still sitting here. How much more do you need?”

Mr. Thomas gave a non-committal grunt and finished his soda. He looked at Ben. “What did you mean earlier when you said you sensed the zombies? You got a feeling of pins and needles?”

“Uh-huh. It was like a bunch of them were being stuck in the back of my neck. It didn’t hurt, not really. I don’t remember it ever happening before. Just today and yesterday. Does it happen to most people around zombies?”

“Of course not. Why else would we think you are out daughter’s future guard?”

“Enough of the attitude, Lee. Why don’t you go out and sweep up zombie ash?”

They stared at each other for a few seconds, each squinting like they had splitting headaches. Ben glanced over at Andi and saw confusion and a bit of worry written on her face. So this wasn’t normal behavior. He had a suspicion that almost everything happening here was new to her, too. Finally their headaches stopped. Mrs. Thomas leaned back and massaged her temples, while Mr. Thomas stood and headed out of the kitchen, presumably towards the sliding glass door in the living room.

Ben gaped as he left. If his parents had started an argument like that, they would have gone for each other’s throats, and if Mom told Dad to leave, he’d have been in her face the rest of the night. As weird as this all was, he began to see it might be better to hang out here than at home.

Mrs. Thomas looked at Ben and smiled. “I bet you never dreamed you’d get this much entertainment today after school.”

That was an understatement. But did this count as entertainment? He was pretty sure he wasn’t having much fun. Out loud he said, “No ma’am.”

“So what’s going on, Mom? Yesterday you said Ben and I were connected, and by the way Daddy’s acting, I’m guessing it’s more true than I imagined.”

“All I can say is, get used to each other. You’re going to have a long life together.” She gave Ben a pointed look. “Longer than you know.”

He frowned and turned towards Andi, but she blushed and busied herself with her empty soda can. “What do you mean?”

“Sometime soon you two are going to go through a ceremony where we’ll bind your souls together. After that, Ben, your aging process is going to change to that of a dragon. You’ll age at the same rate as Andi, roughly one year for every 50 human years.”

It took him a few seconds to wrap his head around that. “So how old are you?” he asked Andi.

She smirked at him. “See? If you remembered to do your math homework, you could figure it out on your own.”

“So this is the attitude I have to put up with for an eternity?” he shot back.

She and her mother laughed. He couldn’t believe he’d come up with that quip so quick. He couldn’t do that around most girls. Maybe they really were meant to be together.

Andi gave him a playful swat on the shoulder. “That and more.”

When Andi didn’t offer up her age, he worked the calculations in his head, with a bit of help from his fingers. “So you’re 750 years old?”

“758 to be exact,” she said. “But I’m also 15, same as you.”

“Wow.” What else could he say?

“There’s much more to this than age and love.”

“Mother! We just met. Quit with the L-word.”

Ben snickered. He tried to keep it quiet, but Andi heard and gave him a little shove. Her hand lingered a second on his arm, and he certainly noticed that. She did, too, and blushed.

“Fine, fine. Let me go over it all again so Ben can hear. You’ll always know where the other is, and what each other’s emotions are. For example, I know Lee is in the garage, likely getting a broom and a trash bag. He’s still a bit worked up, but he’s beginning to calm down. You’ll also be able to communicate telepathically, but it will only work when Andi is in her true form. It’s strange at first to have someone else in your head, but necessary. It’s been over 1000 years, and I still can’t decipher even the easiest piece of dragon language. You can also talk telepathically when Andi is in her human form, but that’ll give you both a splitting headache.”

“Is that what you guys did right before Daddy went out back? I’ve never seen you do that.”

“Yes, and you saw how unpleasant it was. We do our best to not have to talk that way, which is why you’ve never noticed. You’ll understand what I mean when you try it right after the binding. And you will try, I guarantee it,” she added with a wink.

Ben wasn’t sure he wanted to get bound at all, and he knew for a fact that he didn’t want to give himself a headache on purpose. Knowing each other’s emotions would be pretty cool, though; if his parents could do that, it’d cut down on their stupid fights. But having Andi in his head all the time when she was a dragon? That sounded scary.

“In addition to those shared powers, you’ll gain a nifty assortment of your own, Ben. We’ll have no idea what until after the binding ceremony, but since someone is sending zombies after us, I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet your powers have something to do with battling the undead, especially since you can already sense them. That’s only a guess on my part, though.”

“What are your powers, Mom?”

Ben looked over at Andi. Wow, this all must be new to her if she didn’t even know what her own mother could do.

“I’m a master of all weapons. Put something in my hand, and I can make it deadly. I can also build up a charge of energy, a mini explosion, in something I’m holding so it’ll give an bit of damage to whomever or whatever I’m fighting.”

“Wait,” Andi said. “How come I’ve never noticed any of this either?”

“As I said yesterday, your father and I have stayed off the radar since you were born. Looks like someone has caught up to us.”

“Who?”

“No idea. We can’t think of any old enemies with control of the undead.” She looked at Ben. “But enough about me. You must have a ton of questions.”

He managed to nod, but couldn’t think of where to start. He could start asking questions and not stop until tomorrow or the next day. Even that might not be enough time.

Mrs. Thomas smiled and nodded, as if she knew exactly what he was thinking. “I get it. Too many to ask. Tell you what, why don’t you let it all sink in, and you can ask your specifics later. Until then, let’s go test something out.” She stood and headed out of the kitchen, turning back when she reached the door. “Come on, you two. Let’s go see what Ben will be proficient with.”

He and Andi looked at each other, and she gave him a shrug. They both stood and followed her to one of the extra bedrooms. This one had no furniture in it at all. Ben frowned. What did she mean be proficient? Proficient at what?

Mrs. Thomas pulled open the closet, and two big racks of weapons sat in there, like an armory from one of his medieval-themed video games. He glanced at Andi, and her reaction proved she’d never seen these before. Mrs. Thomas reached in, grabbed a huge axe, and handed it to him. He took it, but now what?

“Attack me.” She reached down and pulled out her two short swords from hidden scabbards on her thighs. He hadn’t even noticed them.

“What?”

“Attack me with the axe. Don’t worry, you won’t hurt me.”

He examined the weapon. It was beautifully designed with an ancient battle scene carved into the head, while the shaft had jewels and gems encrusted into it. He lifted it over one shoulder – it was a heck of a lot lighter than he imagined – and swung. She swatted it aside with one of her blades.

“No. Come on, like you mean it. It’s a waste of both our times if you don’t.”

He nodded and lunged at her, swinging for her left shoulder. She again swatted his attack away as if it were an annoying gnat coming at her.

“Better,” she said. She lifted the axe out of his hands and replaced it with a huge hammer. “Maybe that’s more your style.”

The hammer was heavier than the axe, and not nearly as neat looking. It reminded him of a bulky sledgehammer. He tried hitting her again, but got no closer than with the axe. She replaced the hammer with a huge sword. They went through the same exercise with the same result. Next she gave him a smaller sword, one easy to handle with one hand, and a shield. He paused before swinging. The other weapons had felt clunky, out of place in his hands. This one felt right.

“Okay, Ben, come at me.”

He swung the sword with more precision, and while she knocked it away as easily as the others, it looked like she had to put some actual effort into it. While he was still in motion, Ben brought the shield forward and tried to knock her off balance. She trapped the top between her arm and body and twisted to the ground. Ben went head over asskettle, as his dad liked to say, and looked up at her smiling face. Andi gasped and rushed to his side.

“Mom! What was that? Are you okay, Ben?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” He looked back up to Mrs. Thomas, who still wore a huge smile. “Sorry. I don’t know why I swung the shield.”

“I do. It’s because we found your weapon. When you’re bound, you’ll be a match even for me. For now, I can train you well enough to protect yourself.” She glanced up at the doorway where Andi’s dad now stood. “But we’ll save that for another day.”

Mr. Thomas grunted, but it wasn’t the angry sound he’d used earlier in the kitchen. “Sword and shield. Makes sense if we’re right about the holy warrior aspect.”

“Huh?” Ben said as Andi helped him to his feet.

“Nothing. A discussion for another time. We’ve kept you here long enough today.”

Mrs. Thomas pulled out her cell phone and checked the time. “Oh, goodness. I hope your parents don’t get mad at us for keeping you so late.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Ben said. “They’ll think I stopped at a friend’s house. Which I guess I did.” He doubted his parents would notice at all. Or if they did, it would be to pull him into one of their never-ending arguments.

All three walked him to the front door. “I’m sorry we had to lump all of this on you today,” Mrs. Thomas said. “But I suppose it was necessary.”

“Yes,” Mr. Thomas said. “But just think, kid. Maybe you’ll wake up tomorrow and find it’s all been a dream.” Andi and her mother rolled their eyes and said goodbye while Mr. Thomas bellowed out an evil but goofy laugh. Ben said his own goodbye and turned for home, picking up his abandoned backpack from the lawn where he’d tossed it what seemed like days ago.

Chapter 6

The sounds of his parents screaming at each other assaulted Ben before he opened the front door. Another one of those nights. Hopefully they’d see he was home and he could escape to his room for most of the evening. He tried to sneak upstairs, but as soon as he hit the living room, they burst in from the kitchen.

“Look, Trent, just look. The walls are boring and bland.”

“Jeez, Heidi, they look fine. That’s why we hang pictures. If we paint them light blue, it’ll look like an infant’s room.”

He tried to stay as still as possible and hope neither noticed him. If they didn’t pay him any mind, they might burn through their argument quicker and keep their behavior mild the rest of the evening. If they brought him into it, though, they’d both go into a frenzy to try to get him on their side. It was like they were planning for a divorce and already fighting for custody, and that thought made his stomach hurt.

Despite his best efforts, his father saw him. “Ask your son, Heidi. He’ll tell you how stupid light blue paint would look in a freaking living room.”

“Don’t bring him into this. This is between you and me. You hadn’t even noticed the color until I told you I wanted to change it. Whatever I want, you have to go against it. It’s a never ending cycle, and it’s just to tick me off.”

“That’s ridiculous. And of course I didn’t notice the color. That’s the whole point of white. It lets the pictures and decorations speak for the room. Ben would say the say the same thing because he’s not a crazy person like you. Right, son?”

“Uh…”

“There’s no way he didn’t know the color of the walls. He’s not devoid of that section of his brain that recognizes major details.”

His dad threw his hands in the air. “So I’m brain damaged? And since when is white paint a major detail? By its very purpose it’s a minor detail at best.”

They continued arguing, breaking down into more insults. Ben snuck towards the stairs and almost gave a fist pump when he reached the top and they didn’t call him back down. Once he made it to his room, he closed the door and let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

He tossed his backpack onto the bed and crashed down next to it. What a day. From enjoying lunch and a walk home with Andi, to finding out she was a dragon and he was her guard, which meant superpowers of some sort and a long lifespan which might as well be forever, and then coming home to one step closer to living in a single-parent home. He covered his face with his hands. Was today a win or a loss? That hinged on whether he was happy about this Dragon Guard thing or not. While he didn’t know her very well yet, he liked Andi, and truth be told, the thought of having superpowers was pretty cool. But he wasn’t ready to get married, and from what he took from that conversation, when they got bound or whatever, that’s what they’d be doing. Setting aside the fact that they were way too young, he didn’t want to end up like his parents. He didn’t want to hate Andi in a few years.

He sat up and looked at his Xbox. A few minutes of blasting noobs would bring out a better mood, but before he got up to turn it on, his hand brushed his backpack. He had plenty of homework tonight, and he should get that done first. At least his math. No way he wanted the wrath of Simms twice in one week. He chuckled at the memory of Andi telling him the tongue-lashing would motivate him to do his homework for the rest of the week. She was right, and he didn’t want to let her down, too.

As soon as he had his book open to the correct page, his cell phone rang. Andi. He picked it up and said hi.

“Hi, Ben. Sorry to bug you.”

“You’re not bugging me. You can call me anytime. Except in the middle of the night when I’m asleep, but my phone will be off anyway,” he added with a laugh.

“Well, I’ll be sleeping, too.”

“I don’t know. Are your sleep patterns the same as mine?”

It was her turn to laugh. “Yeah, unless you’re the weirdo.”

“Sorry, sorry. I guess I don’t know much about you.”

“I’ll be happy to fill you in. Besides, I’m sure there’s a ton about you that I’ll have to get used to. Anyway, I’m not interrupting anything?”

“No, I was just about to start my homework.”

“Oh, good, you’re not going to blow it off like normal.”

“Miss one assignment…” he said with an exaggerated sigh.

“Yeah, I’m sure that was the first one you’ve ever missed.”

“As far as you know.”

She must’ve taken the phone away from her face because he could hear her muffled laughter in the background. A few seconds later, she was back. “Sorry, but that was a good one. Anyway, as hard as it is to believe, I didn’t call for this quote-unquote witty banter.”

“No, it’s just a pleasant side effect.” His face was starting to hurt from trying to keep from losing it himself.

“Yeah, sure, if that makes you feel better about yourself.”

That did it, and this time he had to take the phone from his ear. Melissa never made him laugh like this, either on the phone or in person. Truth be told, he’d never felt anywhere near as comfortable with her as he did with Andi. And he never would have been quick-witted enough to have a conversation like this. As scary as it sounded, maybe there was something to this belonging together business.

“The reason I called,” she said when they’d both composed themselves, “is that we’re going camping in the mountains this weekend. My dad and I need to be dragons for a couple of days, and they think it’d be a good time for you to start training with the sword and shield. We’ll leave right after school on Friday, and get back late Sunday. Will your parents let you come? Make sure they know it’s my parents’ idea, and that we’ll do homework while we’re there.”

“Uh, yeah, maybe. My mom will want to talk to your mom first, though, so expect a call.”

“Yeah, sure, no problem. We have a tent for you, and a sleeping bag if you need it. My dad says you should bring your stuff over Thursday evening or Friday morning so he can pack the car. We’ll leave right from school.”

“Okay. I’ll ask during dinner and call you later.” He’d rather talk to them separately, but if he did that, the one he didn’t go to first would be pissed and likely say no out of spite. Hopefully by the time they sat down to eat, they’d be acting civil towards each other.

“Good. So I guess I should let you get back to your homework. I know I have enough, and it’s just my second day.”

They said goodbye and hung up, leaving Ben staring at his math book. Before he got too far along, Dad called him down to dinner. He sighed. Hopefully the stupid argument about stupid paint was over if not forgotten. This would be the best way to ask about the trip this weekend. Neither could accuse him of playing favorites.

Dinner started quiet enough, with Dad even complementing Mom on the casserole, her specialty, a baked mac and cheese with chunks of potato and bacon. Good, maybe this would prove easy. If he waited too long, though, they’d find something to snip at each other about.

“I met a new girl at school. Yesterday was her first day.”

Dad nodded as he chewed, and Mom asked, “What’s her name? Is she in one of your classes?”

“Her name is Andi, but she’s not in any of my classes. I met her yesterday. We had lunch today, and then walked home together. She hasn’t really made any other friends yet.”

“That’s nice of you to be her friend,” Mom said.

“Are you going to ask her out?” Dad asked with a wink.

“Trent, jeez, can’t he just be friends with a girl?”

“What? Yes, of course, but if he goes out with this girl, maybe he’ll stay away from that other one.”

“That’s not nice one bit,” Mom said, and she looked ready to fight.

Oh no, this wasn’t how he needed this to go.

Dad puffed himself up, ready to go at her, too, but Mom surprised them both by striking a smile. “Melissa is a bit pushy and manipulative, isn’t she?” She reached over and gripped Ben’s forearm. “Sorry, sweetie, we shouldn’t be talking about her like that.”

He wanted to bust out laughing, but played it cool. This couldn’t be going any better. He already knew their feelings about Melissa, and though he never saw any of it before, now that he had Andi – forever, if that was to be believed – he could see it now. After all, she’d pushed for them to date, not him; she’d dictated everything they did and everywhere they went; she’d instigated their one and only make-out session. Though he’d enjoyed himself with her, especially that day they’d made out, he wanted to be on level ground with his girlfriend. She always had the upper hand.

“That’s okay. Actually that’s kind of where this is going.”

His parents continued eating, but he had their attention. He took a bite himself to draw them in even more. His father bit first. “Okay, so where’s this going?”

“I met Andi’s parents today after school, and they’re going camping this weekend. They’re glad she made a quick friend, so they wanted to know if I’d like to go with them. It’s up in the San Bernardino Mountains, near Big Bear. They even have a pup tent and sleeping bag I can use.”

“What’s wrong with your sleeping bag?” Dad asked. “You don’t think your little girlfriend will climb in with you when she sees it’s the Power Rangers?”

Ben groaned and his mom shouted, “Trent, that’s not appropriate.”

“I’m clearly joking, Heidi. I wish I could pinpoint when you lost your sense of humor.” He turned to Ben. “You knew I was kidding, right?”

Ben nodded and managed a weak smile.

“It’s still not a good message to send our son.” She turned to Ben. “Don’t listen to him. You shouldn’t be letting this girl climb into a sleeping bag with you, no matter how it’s decorated.”

Now Dad groaned, and Ben wanted to join him. He was sure his face was beet-red, but he jumped on the opportunity they presented him with. “Her parents will be there, so she won’t be able to get into my sleeping bag,” then quickly added, “Not that I’d let her anyway.”

“Good catch,” Dad said.

“So I can go?”

“We didn’t say that,” Mom said, while Dad said, “Not so fast,” at the same time.

“But…”

Mom put up her hand, and he stopped. If he played this cool, he might still get them to agree. If he fought them, they’d say no and stick to it out of principle.

“You hardly know this girl or her parents.”

“Her parents are nice.” Well, her mom was, anyway. Her dad didn’t seem to like him one bit.

“I’m sure they are. Do you have their phone number? I’d like to talk to them before we decide one way or the other.” She looked over at Dad, but Ben could tell she did so grudgingly.

“Your mother is right.”

Ben did his best not to show relief. No doubt if they talked to Mrs. Thomas, they’d let him go. “Yeah, it’s in my phone. I’ll bring it down after dinner.”

The rest of the meal went relatively smooth. Ben managed to ignore the few verbal jabs his parents threw at each other. As soon as they were done eating, he retrieved Andi’s home phone number, and his mom promised to call soon.

Once he was back up in his room, his cell rang. Melissa. Crap. He picked up and said hi.

“Hi, Ben. Take me out this weekend. We’ll go to dinner and a movie. Dance Like You Mean It comes out on Friday.”

“I, uh, can’t this weekend. I’m going out of town.”

“Where are your parents taking you?”

“To the mountains. I’m going camping.”

Her disbelief dripped through the phone. “Your parents don’t seem like the camping type. You never mentioned anything like that before.”

“I didn’t say I was going with my parents.”

“So who are you going with? The new girl?”

“Goodbye, Melissa. I have homework to do.” Wow, had he just said that? He’d never shut her down like that before.

The brief silence on her end proved she noticed. When she spoke again, malice laced her voice. “Listen, Ben, you need to choose between me and her. And if you choose her, I’ll make it my business to show you she’s no good for you. I’ll get the whole school on my side.” With that, she hung up without saying goodbye.

Great, just what he needed. As if learning he was a Dragon Guard wasn’t enough, now he had to worry about the whole school ganging up on him. He sighed and fell back on his bed.

Chapter 7

Ben and Andi sat at a planter near the math building, finishing their lunch. He’d asked if she had raw steak or something, and she replied, as if his question had been serious, that she preferred ham and cheese at school. Then she winked to show she knew he was kidding. He also asked if she spit fire. No, dragons spewed acid. The fire myth came about because the acid was highly flammable. Sometimes dragons lit their breath for a more devastating result.

As they finished, and he threw both their lunch sacks away, a thought struck him. “How many times have you gone to high school? I mean, you’ve been about this age awhile, right? At least by human standards.”

She got a far away look in her eyes and said, “I’ve been going to different schools for almost a hundred years. I start as a freshman, and stay in school until I’m a senior, usually leaving sometime during the year. Then we’ll move away so I can start the process over again. Sometimes I’ll take a few years off if we’re living where no one will notice. That way we can stay put that much longer.”

“Wow, it must get boring to go through the same grades over and over.”

“At first it was exciting, but, yeah, it got tedious pretty quick. It doesn’t help that I never learn much.”

“How come?”

“I already know so much, more than the teachers.” She blushed and looked at the ground. “It sounds like I’m bragging, but I’m not. It’s just how it is.”

He nudged her and put a mocking tone in his voice, trying to get her to smile again. “So dragons are smarter than everyone else?”

“Yeah. Our brains are different from yours. Plus my parents home schooled me since I was a baby. And I’ve been a voracious reader since I could get books, so that helped with my education.” She blushed even brighter. “Now I sound like a pompous ass, don’t I?”

“No, you don’t. You’re just answering my question.” He rubbed her back and shoulders, and she gave a shiver. A good one, he knew, because he felt the same. It was amazing how comfortable he was around her, especially after just a couple of days.

“Anyway,” she continued, “school was important. Not for the book stuff, but for learning to be with people. I lived a pretty sheltered life, and I can probably count the number of friends I had on one hand for my first 650 years. Now I just go because it’s socially expected. Mom and Dad don’t even care anymore. I still like coming, though. It keeps life interesting.”

“Those first 650 years must have been lonely,” Ben said. Not that he had many friends himself, but at least he got along with most everyone at school. He could always find people to talk and joke with in his classes. And he hung out with Randy, Jay, and Vince when he wanted, though he doubted he’d see them very often anymore now that he had Andi. It wouldn’t take them long to forget about him, either.

“I didn’t know any different, so it was fine, but when I started school, there were suddenly a bunch of kids my own age – relatively, I mean – who I could talk to and have fun with. I learned so much those first three years, and then was heartbroken when we had to leave. It wasn’t like I could keep in touch with them.”

She looked out amongst the campus as if remembering a time long past. He sat quiet next to her, letting her choose when she wanted to continue. Besides, this way he could look at her, admire her perfect beauty, without feeling like he was staring. After a moment, she said, “This cycle continued at the next couple of schools until I told my parents I couldn’t take it anymore. Instead of fighting me, they moved us out into the country where I didn’t have to go to school. We stayed there for about five years until I figured it out.”

“What?”

“They have to move every few years, too. I don’t think it bothers my dad very much, but I’m betting you can guess my mom is a people person. I know she misses the friends she made. That’s when it dawned on me; I’ll be losing friends my entire life. That’s the curse of being a dragon.” She gasped, tears overflowing in her eyes, spilling down her cheeks. “And I’ve cursed you, too.”

Ben gathered her in his arms and wiped a few of the tears away. He didn’t trust himself to speak; none of this dragon stuff, this long future with her, seemed real yet, despite the things he’d heard and seen. He did know that he liked her, and it likely went beyond that. No doubt she was his girlfriend now, and they hadn’t even been on a date yet.

She turned towards him and smiled, and he did the boldest thing of his entire life, as far as he could remember. He leaned into her and gave her a kiss. If it shocked her, she didn’t show it. The kiss didn’t last long, wasn’t much more than a peck on the lips, as they were both aware many people could see them, but neither let that diminish the moment.

They pulled apart and smiled at each other. He wiped the remaining tears from her cheek, and she snuggled into him. He took a quick peek around to see if anyone was staring, but everyone was going about their own business.

Except Melissa. Uh-oh. She’d seen it, and was stomping away, he long, curly blonde hair trailing behind her. This wasn’t good.

“Melissa saw us,” he said.

Andi turned and looked. “Guess now she knows she needs to go find somebody else.” She gripped Ben’s arm and giggled. “She needs to stay away from my man.”

“You don’t understand,” he said, and relayed the threatening phone call from last night.

When he finished, Andi said, “Welcome to high school. This sort of thing has been going on since I started.”

“Yeah, but not to me. I could always ignore it when it happened to someone else.”

She reached up and caressed his cheek. “It’ll blow over. Don’t worry.”

“Easy for you to say,” he said, and she chuckled. Then a thought struck him. “You said you always start as a freshman, but you didn’t this time. How come?”

She didn’t answer for a minute.

“I don’t know,” she finally said. “For some reason, I thought it was important for me to be a sophomore. My parents didn’t argue.” She shivered, and looked at him, a bit of fear in her eyes.

“What?”

“I guess it’s just that now we know why.” She scrunched her nose and frowned. It was the cutest thing he’d ever seen. “Fate is weird.”

He let that thought sink in while enjoying her sitting so close. The bell rang signaling the end of lunch before he was ready. She stood slowly, also not eager to part. As she picked up her backpack, she said, “Go show ‘em what an awesome soccer player you are.”

“Yeah, my mad PE skills of trying not to sweat will blow them away.”

She giggled and leaned forward for another kiss. This one wasn’t much longer than the first, but their tongues met for a split second. She gave a quiet moan, and he had to fight hard not to grab her in a hug and keep the kiss going. When they broke apart, she smiled and bit her bottom lip, then said goodbye and hurried towards the math building. He watched her go and wondered if he was in love.

*****

“I enjoyed talking to your mother, Ben,” Mrs. Thomas said. “She was very nice.”

“Thanks, she is.” When she’s not fighting with my dad, he wanted to add, but didn’t.

He and Andi sat in the back of the SUV on the way to the mountains. They weren’t yet too far from home, heading east up the 91 freeway. With the music on, old rock songs from the 60s, most of which Ben had never heard before, he and Andi could talk quietly and not feel like they were being listened to. As they discussed their days at school, he still had a hard time believing how easily he could converse with her, more like they’d been a couple for years instead of days. He couldn’t tell for certain, but with certain looks she gave him, she felt the same.

“So, Ben,” Mrs. Thomas called from the front seat, “did Andi explain what was happening this weekend?”

“Sort of,” he said, while Andi chimed in with, “Not really.”

“There’s not much to it, anyway,” Mrs. Thomas said. “Basically these two,” she motioned to Andi and Mr. Thomas, “are going to spend all day Saturday and part of Sunday doing dragon things deep in the mountains. While they’re out there hunting and frolicking or whatever, the two of us will practice with your sword and shield.”

“We don’t frolic, Cassandra,” Mr. Thomas growled from the driver’s seat.

“How would I know? I’ve never been invited.”

“You’re not a dragon.”

Mrs. Thomas rolled her eyes and then winked at them. The way Andi laughed, it must’ve been an old argument, long played out and now done just for fun. He vaguely remembered his parents doing that before every fight became serious.

“Dad and I will bring back an awesome dinner tomorrow.” She smiled and nudged him. “One of the perks of having a dragon for a spouse.”

“Alexandria,” her father said, a warning tone in his voice. Ben didn’t like that his eyes were on him instead of her in the rearview mirror.

“What? You guys said when we get bound it’ll be like getting married.”

Mr. Thomas grunted, his eyes still boring into Ben. “Yes, but it’ll be quite some time before it happens.”

“We’ve decided that you two should wait until you’re 18,” Mrs. Thomas said. Her tone of voice made Ben think she hadn’t agreed with the decision.

“That’s typically the earliest a Dragon Guard enters the dragon’s life,” Mr. Thomas said. His eyes were thankfully back on the road instead of staring at Ben.

“Not that I’m arguing,” Ben said, “but if we wait until I’m 18, won’t Andi still be 15?”

“We’re talking dragon years, sweetie, not human years,” Mrs. Thomas said. “We’ll bind you two soon, but it’ll be a minor binding. This way you’ll gain a few of the powers the full binding will bring, but they’ll be muted. We’re doing it because it’ll put you, Ben, on a dragon life cycle. That means you’ll both be the equivalent of 18 in about 150 years. Then we’ll perform the full binding ceremony.”

Ben took a deep breath and felt lightheaded. This was all happening. As a concept, it was a little scary, but not too bad. Now that her parents flat out said they were getting bound soon, even if it was minor, he wasn’t sure what to think. He glanced over at Andi and saw she looked a little bit worried, too, maybe somewhat pale. He wasn’t sure he was ready, but at least he wasn’t alone in that feeling.

The rest of the trip was pretty quiet. Andi’s parents talked in the front, but he couldn’t hear what they said over the music. He and Andi played an unintentional game of avoiding each others gazes while simultaneously sneaking peeks and smiling. As nervous as he was, he had to admit his heart raced a little faster with each smile she gave him.

Chapter 8

Saturday morning started with a breakfast of bacon and eggs. Everything tasted great, and Mrs. Thomas insisted Ben have thirds because he needed as much energy today as he could get. Neither Andi nor her father ate much, and when he asked why, Mr. Thomas said they’d have their share later. Mrs. Thomas expanded on that answer by saying the wild animal population would take a hit this weekend.

After breakfast was cleaned up, they piled into the SUV and drove through the mountains until they reached the middle of nowhere. They needed to be far away from everything so no one could catch a glimpse of Andi or her father in their dragon forms. They drove over dirt roads that looked and felt as if they hadn’t been used in years, and after about an hour, Mr. Thomas pulled into a small clearing with a scenic view of more peaks covered in evergreen forests. As soon as they parked, Andi leapt out and sprinted to the edge of the clearing. Her father wasn’t as obvious about it, but he shared her enthusiasm.

“They don’t get to let themselves go as often as they’d like,” Mrs. Thomas said.

“Is it hard for them to stay human?”

“No, dragon evolution has seen to that, but that doesn’t mean they don’t prefer their natural shape.”

Andi ran back and practically tackled him with a hug. “Are you ready to see me change?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“Daddy, ready?”

“You first. Give the boy a show.”

She leaned in and gave Ben a quick kiss.

“That’s not what I meant,” Mr. Thomas growled, a frown encompassing Ben.

She giggled and took a few steps back. “Ready?” she asked him, her voice a bit breathless.

Her transformation took mere seconds, but Ben saw every detail. Her skin went from soft pale-pink to a brilliant blue that matched her eyes, complete with scales that looked stronger than the shield he held earlier in the week. Even her jeans and shirt transformed along with the rest of her. She grew to the size of an elephant, and her legs expanded accordingly to support her new mass. Wings, the same blue color and easily the size of a small airplane, unfolded from her back and gave powerful flaps, fanning him with a blast of air. Her neck elongated, and her head morphed into that of a large reptile, like he remembered from the zombie attack at her house on Tuesday. But now with the rest of her transformed, it looked natural. To round it all out, a tail jutted out of her back.

“Wow,” he said, and she let out a couple of low rumbles.

“She asked if you like the way she looks,” Mrs. Thomas said.

“I thought you couldn’t understand them,” he said.

“I can’t, but Lee can, and our minds are linked when he’s in this form.”

Ben glanced over at Mr. Thomas. He basically looked the same as Andi, but he was quite a bit bigger, and his skin and scales were a darker blue, like his eyes. Ben turned back to Andi and said, “Yeah. Tell her she looks way cool.”

Andi let out a few rumbling coughs that sounded like laughter. “She says thank you,” Mrs. Thomas said. “And you can talk right to her. She understands you.”

“But I’ll never understand dragon speech?”

Mr. Thomas barked out something, his voice, like his form, bigger than Andi’s. “Be nice, Lee,” Mrs. Thomas said. “He has no way of knowing.” Andi let out a few rumbles at her father that sounded a bit chastising.

“You won’t be able to figure out their language, dear, no matter how long you study it. There are too many inflections and minor nuances that only their brains can comprehend. Our brains transform to handle more during the binding, but not to that level. It may sound like grunts and roars, but it’s actually a very sophisticated way to communicate. But, remember, once you two are fully bound, learning the language won’t matter.”

He walked up closer to Andi and said, “It’s just weird that you can understand me, but I can’t understand you.”

She said something, which Mrs. Thomas translated through her husband. “She’ll prove it. Just give the word.”

What word? He frowned up at her and said, “Okay, prove it.”

Her head swooped down and took his legs out from under him. Their shared momentum propelled him along her neck until he landed on her back, right between her wings. Before he could utter a sound, she took off into the sky, carrying him along. Once his mind worked its way around what just happened he screamed for her to take him back down, that he had nowhere to hold on, and that he was going to plummet to his death. A few seconds after that, however, he realized he didn’t need to hold on; she flew in a pattern that kept him as safe and secure as if he were belted in.

“Wow, this is so cool, Andi!” She made the grunting cough again that had to be laughter. This must be what it was like to hang glide, slicing through the air, no sounds of motors, seeing all around. The sights all had a similar look of tree-covered peaks and valleys topped by bright blue skies with occasional white puffs of cloud. He’d love to come back in the winter after a storm had dropped some snow. That would be the only way this scene could be any better.

“It’ll be neat to talk to you while we’re up here,” he yelled over the wind driving past them. “I’d like to know what you see, what you feel. This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done.”

She turned her head and he could have sworn she gave him a wink. He laughed and rubbed her back, not knowing if she could feel it through her thick scales. She zipped down to the tree level, and then up as high as the highest mountain top, all the while keeping Ben perfectly stable. It was hard to believe this was his girlfriend, and that he was as happy as could be about it. He never imagined his life being so exciting, so exotic.

After a few minutes, Andi settled back down at the clearing. She helped him off and roared something before launching back out into the wilderness with her father. He and Mrs. Thomas watched until they disappeared around one of the neighboring mountain peaks.

“She says she can’t wait until you two can talk up there, too,” Mrs. Thomas said. “And she was glad that she could be there for the coolest thing you ever did.”

“I guess she made her point.”

“Yup. Exhilarating, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah.”

She headed back to the car. “They’ll be gone most of the day, but that doesn’t mean we have time to waste.”

“Can you still hear him?”

“No,” she said as she rummaged around in the back of the SUV. “We need to be relatively close. Shouting distance, you might say.” She pulled a large duffle bag out and tossed it to the ground. It made a loud clatter. “But I can sense him. I know exactly where he is, and what he’s feeling. Emotionally, I mean, not physically.” She gave a smile and gazed off towards the mountain they flew behind. “Right now he’s full of pure, unadulterated joy. I imagine Andi feels the same.”

“You can’t sense her emotions?”

“No, that’s for you and you alone. I’m her mother, but you’re her chosen.”

She reached into the bag and tossed him a sword, which he caught as if he’d been practicing with it his entire life. “Yes, that’s definitely your weapon. When you and Andi are bound, you’ll be one of the best on the planet. You might be able to take me out in a fair fight.” She picked a small dagger out of the bag, held it for a second until it had a faint glow, and hurled it at a tree at the edge of the clearing. The tree exploded as if she’d thrown a stick of dynamite.

“Whoa,” Ben yelled and jumped back.

Mrs. Thomas winked at him. “But only in a fair fight.”

He strapped his shield to his left arm and took a few practice cuts with the sword. He was a great sword fighter in video games, but he never thought he’d have a chance to do the real thing. Without saying a word, Mrs. Thomas lunged at him. He didn’t have time to think; he threw his shield up, blocked her attack, and spun out of striking distance.

“Good instinct,” she said. “Later you’ll know how to turn that into an offensive opportunity, but for now that’s your best move. Until you have the minor binding, I want to get you comfortable with having those in your hands.”

“You said when the full binding takes effect, I’ll be good enough to beat you. But what does it mean for the minor binding?”

She thrust at him again, and this time he parried the attack with his own sword and threw in a clumsy counter-attack, which she easily blocked. “You’ll be an excellent fighter, as good or better than most, but still far from perfect. That’s why I want to train you. You’ll keep this knowledge in the minor bind.”

She attacked again, and he blocked it with his shield and threw a foot out to trip her up. She hopped out of the way as if he hadn’t even tried.

“Again, excellent instinct. After today, you’ll be dangerous without either binding.”

They practiced for a couple of hours until Mrs. Thomas let him collapse in the shade at the edge of the clearing. She proved to be an excellent teacher, armed with an endless supply of patience, and a knack for explaining things in an easy to understand fashion. His right hand felt as if it was made of a huge blister topped with dozens of tiny blisters, and both arms were about ready to fall off. She assured him he’d feel better after lunch. She brought a small cooler over from the SUV and set it next to him.

“Not nearly the feast they’re enjoying,” she said, motioning out towards the mountains, “but we’ll make due.”

She handed him a roast beef sandwich and a cold soda. There were also a few bags of fresh fruits and veggies in the cooler, which she encouraged him to eat plenty of to rebuild his energy. Gripping a couple of ice cubes also helped his sore hands.

As they ate, a question he’d had since Tuesday, which burned brighter this weekend, popped into his head. “How come Mr. Thomas doesn’t like me?”

She laughed. “You haven’t dated many girls, have you?”

“Just one.”

“Dads tend to be protective of their daughters, but with those two, it’s a bit different, a bit more complicated because they share that extra bond of being dragons.”

Ben must’ve given her a funny look because she laughed again. “Just know that he doesn’t hate you. It might not seem so at times, but it’s true. Okay?”

“Okay. But I don’t like some of the looks he gives me. They’re scary.”

“Yeah, they’d probably scare me, too, if I were in your shoes. But don’t worry. Treat Andi right, as I know you will, and he’ll warm up.”

Before long, lunch was over, and she pulled him back to the clearing for more training.

*****

Andi zipped through the treetops of the valley, hot on her father’s tail. They’d fed on some deer not long ago and now played follow the leader. She had a good time with her dad when they were human, but he was at his best in his natural form. Their flight times usually turned into bouts of tag, follow the leader, and other fun games.

Dad plummeted down to the base of the trees, pushed off the ground, and rocketed back up into the sky before barrel-rolling back into the treetops. She followed every movement, which had been intended to throw her off track, but didn’t have time to be smug as he dove into a few more complicated maneuvers. They’d played these games all her life, but it wasn’t until recently that he started flying faster and pulling off more difficult tricks. Today he was doing things she’d never seen before. It had to be because of Ben.

Ben. Had she really kissed him in front of Mom and Dad? That was reckless, but she couldn’t stop herself. Besides, maybe the flight afterwards erased it from their minds. Dad praised her for keeping him safe even when she flew her fastest. She took that as a good sign.

While she contemplated it all, she missed a dive and flew over his head. She headed back to see if he wanted to play something else, but instead he hovered there, seething with anger.

“You can’t drop your concentration, even for an instant, Alexandria.” Though Dragon Speak came easier for her than any human language, she marveled at how Ben would never be able to understand it. Probably not what Dad wanted her dwelling on at the moment.

“It’s just a game,” she said. “No need to get upset.”

“A game now, but danger is coming. Not only should the undead have shown you that, but the boy’s presence, as well. He shouldn’t be here for another couple hundred years. That he is means you need to be constantly vigilant. Your mother and I will protect you the best we can, but you’ll need to stay on your toes.”

“Dad, he has a name, and it’s not That Boy.”

“But he is still a boy, as you are still a girl. You may think you’re all grown up, but you’re not, despite how many years you’ve been on this earth. And now whatever is after us is tying to rob you of that innocence of youth. When fate decides to present you with your guard this early in life, hardship cannot be far behind.”

She wanted to roll her eyes and tell him he was overreacting. The zombies were easy enough to kill, and she liked being with Ben, more than she’d ever liked being with anyone before. What was the problem with them being together, especially if they weren’t going to be allowed to be properly bound anyway?

But whatever with all that. For now she wanted to fly. She zipped past Dad, slapped her wing against him, and yelled, “Tag!” She darted as fast as she could through the treetops of the valley floor towards the nearest mountain peak. She didn’t have to check to see if he followed as his laughter proved he was already gaining.

Chapter 9

The sun had just set as they pulled onto the Thomas’ street. Mrs. Thomas wanted to grab a wooden practice sword for Ben before they drove him home. She felt it important for him to practice the stances and thrusts she taught him, but not with the real sword. That should stay hidden in a place where he could get it without trouble. As for the shield, he could use that, as long as he was careful. It wasn’t like that would be confused for a deadly weapon.

The sword and shield from this weekend were now his, a gift from Mrs. Thomas. He tried to refuse, but she assured him she had others. It felt strange accepting those and now a wooden practice sword, but she insisted. Though it wouldn’t be official for quite some time, he was now family. He’d smiled when she said it, but the thought gave him a stomach ache. All he could think about was how awful his parents treated each other, and he didn’t want that with Andi.

As they pulled into the driveway, the buzzing hit the back of Ben’s neck, and he managed to spit out, “Zombies.” Mr. Thomas slammed the car into park and leapt out, followed closely by Mrs. Thomas. Ben and Andi unbuckled their seatbelts and raced after them.

Once they reached the front door, Andi’s parents had already dispatched the first undead creature. Ben had no idea how many were in there, but it was more than the one. They raced through the living room, which hadn’t been disturbed, and found two in the kitchen. While Mr. and Mrs. Thomas took them out, the warning on the back of Ben’s neck intensified. He spun and found another lumbering up behind him and Andi. Without thinking, he lunged at it with his sword, just as he’d practiced all weekend. The blade slid though the zombie’s chest, and he swung his shield into its pale face to distract it while he pulled the sword free. Andi transformed her neck and head into her dragon form and struck, ripping the zombie’s head off and tossing it across the room.

“Nice job, you two,” Mrs. Thomas said as she hacked the arms and legs of the zombie into pieces. “We’ll burn them when this is over.”

“How many more?” Mr. Thomas asked before it hit Ben that he’d helped kill a zombie.

“I don’t know. I can only tell that there are more, not how many.”

“Fair enough,” Mr. Thomas said, and he zipped out to check the rest of the house. It didn’t take long to discover the downstairs was clear, so they hurried upstairs, Andi’s parents in the lead. Once on the second floor, two more attacked, but Mrs. Thomas quickly dismembered them with her blades.

The prickles on Ben’s neck almost knocked him over as he stepped towards what he guessed was the master bedroom. He gripped his sword tighter and said, “Over here.” Andi’s parents pushed the door open. Inside stood another zombie. It looked like the others, except it didn’t move.

“A trap?” Mr. Thomas asked.

Mrs. Thomas approached it with caution. “Probably. Andi, Ben, go stand in the doorway and be ready to duck out of the way.”

They complied, Ben’s muscles tight in anticipation. He looked over to Andi, and mouthed, “Be careful.” She nodded, and they turned their attention back to the still-inert living dead creature.

“Here goes,” Mrs. Thomas said. She drew back the sword in her right hand and stabbed it through the neck. A quick twist of her wrist snapped off the head, and the body tumbled to the floor. In its place stood a ghost, or what Ben assumed was a ghost anyway. It was mostly transparent, and looked like an ancient, hump-backed man wrapped in a black robe. The only bit of skin showing was his face, and it was wrinkled and droopy, reminding him of Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi.

Andi’s parents gasped and took a step back, though Ben no longer felt anything on the back of his neck. This ghost, or whatever it was, wouldn’t harm them. He glanced at Andi to gauge her reaction, and found she looked as confused as he felt. His entire concentration went back to the ghost when it talked.

“Do you remember me, Leon? Cassandra? Did you think me gone forever, never to seek my revenge? At first, I, too, thought you had won. How could I escape from a demon’s prison in a realm that wasn’t my own? But I had nothing but time, and the demon underestimated my abilities. In fact, he never saw my strike coming, and I soaked up his powers to go along with my own. You’ve met my pets; no, they weren’t meant to be a challenge. I used them as a way to keep tabs on you. You see, Leon, Cassandra, I will have my revenge. I’ve been planning it for so very long, and I’m close to enacting it. But while I couldn’t take you two for my own tonight, I’m at least happy I found temporary replacements.” It laughed, a sound that chilled Ben to the bones. “Until we meet again.”

The ghost disappeared, though by now Ben realized it had been a holographic message from another dimension. How he knew that, he didn’t know, as he didn’t even know other dimensions existed. Something whispered the knowledge in the back of his mind, and he knew it to be true. As if all this wasn’t weird enough. Andi’s expression hadn’t changed, but both Mr. and Mrs. Thomas stared at each other, fear in their eyes, their faces as pale as the zombies they’d been fighting.

“What was that?” Andi said. “Mom? Dad? Who was it?”

“Someone from long ago,” Mr. Thomas said. “From a time before you were born.”

“It was Derian, wasn’t it, Lee? But how is that possible?” Mrs. Thomas shuddered and reached out for her husband.

“It’s not possible, but…”

“But what?” Andi said. “What the heck is going on? Was that a ghost or what?”

“Not a ghost,” Ben said. “It was a recording. Sort of.”

Mr. Thomas nodded, but didn’t say anything. Mrs. Thomas brushed her hand through Andi’s hair. “He was a sorcerer who tried to kill us. As he said, we put him into a demon realm. I never thought we’d see him again.”

“No,” Mr. Thomas said.

“Wait,” Ben said. “You guys trapped him in a demon realm? What is that? I didn’t even know demons existed.”

“They exist, all right,” Mr. Thomas said. “Think of a demon realm as a different dimension. That’s where demons live, where they’re strongest. And there should be no way a mortal could best a demon in its own realm.”

“Derian was arguably the most powerful sorcerer to ever walk the earth,” Mrs. Thomas said. “But, yeah, he should have remained a prisoner there forever.”

“The last statement worries me the most,” Mr. Thomas said. “Who did he take in our stead?”

“I don’t know, but I think you know what we need to do, Lee.” She looked at Ben and Andi.

“I know,” he said, a frown creasing his face.

They had to mean the binding. Ben looked at Andi, fear bubbling in his stomach. Her eyes were wide, staring back at him.

“And you know how far we have to go, Lee. You’ve seen what we’re up against.”

“We can’t, Cassie. He’s after us, not them.”

What was going on? What couldn’t they do? Ben knew Mr. Thomas didn’t want them bound, but he’d already said they were going to. At least the minor one. So what was going on? Mrs. Thomas grabbed his hand and shoved it into Andi’s.

“Never thought I’d use this spell,” Mr. Thomas muttered before adding, “Ready, Cassandra?” When Mrs. Thomas nodded, they both winced and clutched their heads, and tingly sparks shot between Ben and Andi. When it was done, Mrs. Thomas grabbed Andi and gave her a big hug, and then had one for Ben. Mr. Thomas scooped Andi up into his arms.

That was it? He didn’t feel any different. He was about to ask what happened when a wave of emotion gushed off Andi. He could tell she felt nervous, excited, and a bit confused, all at once. It wasn’t that he was making educated guesses based on her facial expressions, but he actually knew.

“Okay, kids, say goodnight,” Mrs. Thomas said. “I’ll drive you home, Ben. Grab your sword and shield. I’ll get you that practice sword tomorrow. Stop by after school. We have a ton to discuss anyway.”

He nodded and looked at Andi. He wanted to walk over, take her in his arms, and kiss her, but he didn’t dare in front of her parents. She wanted the same; he sensed that without a doubt. This was going to take some getting used to.

“I’ll go along for the ride,” Andi said.

“No,” Mr. and Mrs. Thomas said at the same time.

Before she could protest, Mr. Thomas grabbed her arm and said, “It’s a school night. Off to bed with you.”

“What? I don’t even have a bedtime.” Frustration pulsed off her, and he had no doubt she felt the same from him.

“Then you can read a book or watch TV. I don’t care as long as you go to your room.”

Ben took a step towards her, but Mrs. Thomas grabbed his arm and dragged him into the hallway. “Get your weapons and let’s go. You’ll see her in the morning.” Her voice sounded as nice as ever, but underneath was an edge that said he should listen.

By the time she got him to the car, he wanted to run back in. Mrs. Thomas shoved him into the passenger seat of the SUV and locked the door. “Sorry, Ben, but you need to stay away from her for now. Your feelings are going to be enhanced for the next few hours.” She chuckled and he saw that she did feel bad for him. “Wait until you get your true binding. This’ll seem like a cake walk compared to how much you want her then.”

He couldn’t believe anything would be as bad as this. He knew she was up in her room as if she had a GPS attached to her. He also felt lust overtaking all her other emotions, just as he felt the same in himself. Right now he didn’t care who that demon killing magician was or anything else. He only wanted to be with Andi.

Chapter 10

On the short drive to his house, Mrs. Thomas talked Ben through the basics of what just happened. His feelings for Andi were true, but amped up to the Nth degree. He’d be able to sense both where she was and what she was feeling, though nowhere near as well as when they were bound proper.

“She’s back at the house, feeling lonely, nervous, and confused,” he said, but didn’t add her lust as he couldn’t imagine her mom wanted to hear about that. The smile she gave him, though, showed she’d guessed.

She also mentioned that a few of his powers would manifest themselves, but they wouldn’t know what he could do until it happened. Though they wouldn’t be nearly as potent as with a full binding, that didn’t mean he wasn’t stronger than he was an hour ago. She had no doubt his sword and shield skills would be among them, and after school tomorrow, they could find out how good he’d become.

When they pulled into the driveway, he grabbed his duffle bag and shield. The bag was long enough for his sword, but the shield didn’t fit. They’d come up with the story that he could tell his parents it was a decoration that Andi’s family didn’t want anymore, so Ben was welcome to it. His parents would buy that, if they even cared to ask.

Mrs. Thomas pulled away, and he waved before turning towards his front door. After a few steps, the warning tingle prickled on his neck. It felt a bit different from before. Maybe it was a side effect from the binding. Even though it intensified, his thoughts went to Andi. What he wouldn’t give to be with her right now. Nothing would be better than to hold her in his arms and give her continuous kisses. The guys at school would laugh at him for only wanting that, but it was true. Not that he’d say no to more. Well, maybe.

As soon as he opened the front door, the buzzing on the back of his neck almost knocked him to his knees. This was no side effect. Something was wrong. The house was too quiet. Even if Mom and Dad weren’t arguing, there should be ambient sounds here and there. He’d called an hour ago on his cell to let them know he’d be home soon.

“Mom? Dad?” He dropped the duffle bag, pulled out the sword, and fastened the shield to his forearm. A quick look downstairs turned up nothing. Halfway up the stairs, he knew he was on the right track. The pins and needles moved up his skull and down his spine. He gripped his sword tight and continued up, turning towards his parents’ room once up top.

His whole body buzzed as he peered into their room. A figure stood next to the bed, and for a second he thought it was another image like the old sorcerer. When it started talking, he realized this was an actual ghost. That same voice in his mind that explained the extra-dimensional hologram also told him this was true.

“Hello, Benjamin. Do you wonder where your parents are?”

Ben took a tentative step forward. “Who are you?”

“No one important. A simple messenger. Would you like to see them?”

“Bring them back,” Ben said, hoping his voice sounded forceful rather than scared.

The ghost laughed and drifted towards him. “I assure you I have neither the authority nor the ability.”

Ben’s sword lashed out with more speed and precision than he’d shown all weekend of training, but instead of hurting the ghost, his sword passed right through its neck. He shot his shield forward to buy himself time for another strike, but it, too, did nothing. The ghost laughed louder and clutched Ben’s hand.

“Look where your ma and pa are, Benjamin. And pray you don’t join them.”

Ben screamed.

*****

Andi stared out her window towards Ben’s house. Her parents could do this. They always knew where the other was. What a strange sensation. Ben had just arrived at his house, though no other details came. Since it would be more powerful when they had their real binding, she’d probably be able to tell when he was in his bedroom, getting a snack from the kitchen, or vegging out in front of the TV.

She could also sense his emotions, as if he were telling her what they were. Right now he wanted her, but was nervous about it. No doubt he felt that coming from her, too. Would this become second nature after awhile? With practice, she might not even notice unless there was a drastic change or she made a point of thinking about him.

Since he’d left, she spent half her time longing for him, and the other half laughing at herself for doing so. If he was here and they were unsupervised, she didn’t know what she’d do. She wouldn’t let him go, that was for sure. And the quick kisses they’d shared before would look like nothing. When her dad walked her to her room, he’d warned that her feelings tonight were artificial, but they’d both grow into them. That didn’t diminish the hurt at not being with him.

As she stared out her window, Ben’s feelings changed. Nervous energy flashed into her mind. His parents weren’t getting along, so maybe that was why. He’d confided that he was worried they might get a divorce. What if he walked into a big blowup? Now she wished she was there with him more than ever. She needed to comfort him.

Shock, then anger, filled her mind. Andi tensed, not sure what to do. She stepped away from the window, ready to run and tell Dad something was wrong. But she didn’t have a chance. As Ben’s terror filled her, she didn’t think. She ran to the window and leapt out, transforming into her dragon form as soon as she was far enough away from the house. Mom drove up at that moment, but Andi didn’t care whether she saw her or not. All that mattered was getting to Ben.

*****

Ben hovered above some sort of huge rock, which hung high over a sea of fire, nothing holding it in place. The rock was round and about a mile in circumference, roughly the size of the field at school. The fire below gave it an eerie orange glow, brighter along the edges and almost perpetual twilight closer to the center. Much of the top looked to be covered with dirt, and besides a small hill on one end, nothing else seemed to exist on the rock.

Until two small buildings along the far edge caught his eye. He’d not noticed them, as they were made from the same stone underneath and blended into the surroundings. He wanted to investigate closer, and with that simple thought, found himself at the window of one of the buildings. This one was empty, just a room with nothing inside. He glanced to the second building and looked in the window of that one. It wasn’t empty.

“Mom, Dad!” he yelled, but they didn’t hear. They sat huddled on the ground next to the wall furthest from Ben. He tried to will himself inside, but couldn’t move. Neither appeared hurt, but terror shone in their eyes. What was stranger, what he hadn’t noticed at first glance, were their intertwined hands. They’d gone the last few years trying to avoid any physical contact with each other, and now this. They must be more frightened than he could comprehend if they were holding hands.

“Can you hear me?” They didn’t. He attempted to enter the room again, but couldn’t. He sighed, not sure what to do next. Andi’s parents. Of course! They’d be able to help.

Now he hovered back where he started, looking down on the entire rock. The only difference this time, apart from knowing his parents were trapped here, was the prickling on the back of his neck. It wasn’t a feeling of danger, but of something trying to get his attention. Evil was near, though he was out of harm’s way for the moment. At the edge, on top of the small hill, which stood as tall as a two-story building, sat a rocky throne. And in that throne was the sorcerer from the projection at Andi’s house, though he was no longer a mere sorcerer, but a necromancer, master of the dead, and he had the power of a demon inside of him. Like before, that new voice in his head laid this out for him.

The necromancer looked up at him and flashed an evil grin. It spoke a promise of pain, of death, as clearly as if the threat had been uttered. Ben screamed and found himself back in his parent’s bedroom with the ghost looming over him.

*****

Andi touched down on Ben’s front porch and changed back to her human shape. She lunged at the door, frantic about what she’d do if it was locked. Ben still felt frightened, and he was still in the house. Sort of. He also seemed a million miles away. Not literally, but far enough where she had no clue where he could be. Maybe he wasn’t even in this dimension, though she didn’t know how that was possible.

The front door pushed open, and she exploded through the house to the stairs. Halfway up, Ben’s entire essence popped into her mind, all of him somewhere upstairs. Her inner Ben GPS led her to the left at the top to what she figured was his parents’ room. She burst through and found a see-through man standing above a prone Ben. She didn’t think, but transformed her neck and head into her dragon form and launched.

*****

Ben sensed Andi before she jumped into the room. This time he didn’t bat an eye as her head turned into a dragon’s. He lay still for a second and collected himself as she clashed with the ghost. Like him, she couldn’t do anything against it either, so he pushed himself to his feet and grabbed his sword.

The ghost laughed at her, though it, too, couldn’t gain any sort of advantage. Ben swung his sword at its torso, and it sliced as if going through smoke. “Wait your turn, boy,” it said. “I can send you to be with your family when I’m done. In the flesh this time.”

Ben snarled and struck again, this time concentrating on the blade. It slid through the incorporeal form, but a spark of energy ignited. The ghost’s eyes went wide, and it vanished. The prickling on his neck left with it, and he and Andi were alone.

“What happened?” she asked, back in full human form.

“I killed it, I think,” though he had no clue as to how he did it.

She nodded, questions still etched on her face, but neither could wait any longer. They leaped into each others arms, and their lips joined as if drawn by magnets. Nothing else existed for either of them.

Chapter 11

Ben didn’t know Andi’s parents were there until Mr. Thomas grabbed his shoulder and tore the two of them apart.

“What is going on here? Do either of you know what self-control is? Why do you think we separated you?”

“But…” Andi tried before her mother cut her off.

“Do you have any idea how many people could have seen you flying? We can only pray I was the only one. You two have eons together. There’s no need to be stupid about this.”

“But…” Andi tried again. This time Ben cut her off. He sensed how flustered she was and hoped he’d do a better job of explaining. Besides, this was all his fault.

“She came to help me against the ghost. I’m not sure I could have killed it on my own.”

Her parents looked at him, shock evident on their faces. He moved quickly to cover the uncomfortable silence. “It took my parents and showed me where they were.” He paused and frowned. “But I don’t know where it is.”

Mrs. Thomas moved forward and gripped his arms. “It took your parents?”

“Yeah.”

“Where?” Mr. Thomas said, his rage gone. “Describe what you saw.”

“It was a big rock island floating over a sea of fire. They were in a small room made out of the same rock, and they were sitting next to each other holding hands. They hate each other and wouldn’t do that unless…” His words failed him. He needed Mr. and Mrs. Thomas to make this okay right now.

Dread, already lining his stomach, threatened to bubble over with the look of horror Mr. and Mrs. Thomas shared. He hardly noticed Andi by his side, her arms around him in an attempt to comfort him. He wanted to scream at them, to make them share what they knew, but he held his tongue until he could muster up the courage to speak calmly.

Andi took the burden off him. “What’s going on? Where did it take them?”

“The demon realm,” her father said. “Where we exiled Derian a thousand years ago.”

“The sorcerer we saw in your room?”

“He’s not a sorcerer anymore. At least not just a sorcerer.” All eyes shifted to Ben. “I saw him, and I knew that right away.”

“What is he?” Mrs. Thomas asked, her voice almost too soft to be heard.

Would they laugh when he said it? His answer, after all, was absurd enough to be silly. “He’s a demon-infused necromancer.”

That brought more silence. He would have preferred if they had laughed. Then he would have known it wasn’t possible.

Confusion swirled off Andi, while Mr. Thomas took a deep breath and turned away. Mrs. Thomas stood looking at the ground, her face scrunched in concentration. She was the first to break the silence.

“It makes sense. How else would he have been able to get back here?”

“But is he using the demon, or is the demon using him?” Mr. Thomas said. “It seems there’d be no doubt the demon controlled him, except…”

“Why come after us?” She finished. “We had no conflict with it.”

“Indeed. Which leaves us with the improbability that Derian is in control.”

“Wait,” Ben said, tears forming in his eyes. “Why would he take my parents? They never did anything to him. They didn’t even know he existed.”

Andi nuzzled up next to him, her hand rubbing his back. That helped. He blinked back any tears before they fell.

“Bait,” Mr. Thomas said. “He knows we’ll go after them.”

“He took my parents so he could set a trap?”

“Afraid so,” Mrs. Thomas said.

“So we proceed with extra caution,” Mr. Thomas said. “We defeated him once, though then we didn’t have to contend with the powers of a demon.”

“Lee, it’s obvious his powers are made for this fight. He’s here for a reason. It should be now.”

Ben thought for a second that Mrs. Thomas was talking about the necromancer, but then it dawned on him. Were they going to bind them for real? Weren’t they going to wait until they were 18? Even if it was still 150 years away, he could handle dating for that long. According to them, the binding was like marriage. He liked Andi, liked her a lot, but there was no way he was ready for that. Only a little part of him disagreed and wanted them to bring it on. What scared him even more was that Andi, though fear bled off her, didn’t have nearly the aversion to the full bind he did.

“No,” Mr. Thomas said. “Absolutely not.”

“You’re not thinking this through, Lee.”

“No, Cassie, you’re not thinking it through. We’ll discuss it later.”

She firmed her jaw, ready to argue, but before she said anything, they both clutched their heads. Why would they do that if it hurt so bad? Ben wasn’t sure if he’d ever talk to Andi like that. There wasn’t much worse than a huge headache.

“Fine,” she said, their argument apparently over. Ben marveled over that fact that he didn’t feel as relieved as he thought he would. He looked at Andi and smiled, now happy that her disappointment outweighed her relief. What was wrong with him? Hadn’t he just told himself waiting was better?

“Ben, go pack,” Mr. Thomas said. “Quickly. Enough for a few days. You’ll be staying with us until we get your parents back.”

“Yes, sir.” He hurried out and over to his room. Andi started to follow, but was stopped by her father.

“You stay here, Alexandria. The boy can manage on his own.”

Ben chuckled under his breath and felt annoyance directed at him, what he took as the emotional equivalent of an eye roll. It wasn’t until he swapped out the dirty clothes in his duffle bag for clean ones that the severity of the situation crashed down on him. He fell to a knee and had trouble breathing. Andi rushed in and tackled him with a bear hug. He cried into her shoulder.

By the time her parents came in a few moments later, he’d pulled himself together and had finished packing. Mrs. Thomas gave him a hug and a kiss on the forehead, and he even got a smile and a fatherly pat on the shoulder from Mr. Thomas. Everything would be okay; they’d see to it.

*****

Ben lay in the bed of the Thomas’s guestroom, staring at the ceiling. There wasn’t much in here yet, for which both Mrs. Thomas and Andi apologized, citing no time to decorate. He didn’t care. All that mattered was the bed was comfortable. As amazing as it seemed, they’d moved in just a week ago, and he’d known Andi less than that. He felt so close to her, as if he’d known her his entire life.

He did his best not to think about his parents. He hoped his vision was correct. Yeah, they were scared, but at least they were unharmed. He hated to think of them getting hurt because of what he was, what Andi and her parents were. His thoughts drifted to them holding hands in there. It was an extreme situation, but maybe that was what it would take to get their marriage back on track. Maybe they wouldn’t end up divorced.

He sensed Andi moving, and seconds later she was at his door. She put a finger to her lips to get him to stay quiet and motioned him towards her. He walked over, treading lightly in case any floorboards creaked, and made it without causing a sound. He couldn’t help but notice how hot she looked in her flimsy white nightgown. She took his hand and led him to the bathroom, where they stopped in the doorway. He leaned over to ask what was going on when she pointed to the air vent. He stared up at it and heard her parents’ voices.

“So we do this tomorrow?” Mrs. Thomas said.

“We can head out as soon as they go to school.”

“You know where he is?”

Mr. Thomas gave the annoyed grunt Ben was so familiar with. “Last I heard he spends every day fishing at the Newport pier. As if he has nothing better to do with his time.”

“Now, Lee, be nice. We need information.”

Ben put his mouth up to Andi’s ear. “Who are they talking about?” She shrugged and shook her head.

“I’m sure he’ll rope us into having dinner with them. That’s the last thing we need.” He gave a humorless chuckle. “The joke will be on him, though; we very well could end up dead.”

“When did you get so pessimistic? Honestly. We’ll get through just fine, and when we do, if we go over for dinner, we’ll enjoy Nix’s wonderful cooking.”

Mr. Thomas grunted.

“I’m more worried,” Mrs. Thomas continued, “about your flat out refusal to bind them. You’re being stubborn.”

“They’re too young, Cassie. The boy won’t be physically ready to handle his powers. You know as well as I that guards are almost always 18 before they are chosen.”

This time Mrs. Thomas let out a long sigh. “You need to get over it, Lee. She can’t be Daddy’s Little Girl forever. Fate wouldn’t have brought us here, or Ben to us, if he wasn’t ready. Besides, when was the last time you heard of a guard with powers before a binding?”

“All guards show potential with their weapon before they’re bound. You said yourself that you had an uncanny ability to turn anything you picked up into a weapon.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about. He could sense the zombies before he saw them. That’s not normal. If he could do that, how can you even question if he’s ready to be her guard?”

“I’ll not discuss this any longer, Cassie. You know why they can’t be bound. It’s too dangerous in the heat of the moment. They’ll need a few days to get used to it, and we don’t know if that’s possible.”

“Lee, just because…” Silence filled the space for a few seconds. “Fine. I’ll drop it. For now.”

Ben looked down at Andi to see what she made of all that and discovered she was cuddled into him. His arms were around her and latched at her waist, while she had one arm back around his neck and the other lingering on his hands. When had that happened? In his mind, it was a pose reserved for those truly in love, and they’d done it without thinking. He squeezed, and she looked up and smiled before leaning up and kissing his neck. Then they went back to listening.

“Do you suppose Max will have the location?” Mrs. Thomas asked.

“If he doesn’t know it offhand, I’ll march him right off his little pier to find it. It’s in his records, if not his mind.”

“That’s fine, but remember to be nice. Max might be a bit brash, but he’s always been helpful in the past.”

Mr. Thomas grunted again, and they were silent for a couple of seconds until Mrs. Thomas said, “You don’t suppose the kids can hear any of this, do you? Remember how Andi used to eavesdrop on us in that house in Virginia?”

“That was almost 400 years ago. Besides, they’re both no doubt in their beds, pining for the other.”

Mrs. Thomas laughed. “Remember the day we were bound? You certainly didn’t have to pine for me.”

Ben heard the scowl in Mr. Thomas’s voice. “That’s exactly why we can’t bind them fully yet. Alexandria is far too young for that sort of thing. The boy is, too.”

Waves of nervous energy flowed from Andi at the allusion to sex, and Ben had no doubt the same came from him. He talked a good game about wanting to go all the way when he joked with the guys at school, but he wasn’t so sure he was ready. He looked down at her and smiled at the fear in her eyes. Good, it looked like they were on the same page. Hopefully they could get by with kissing and cuddling for awhile. That was fun.

“Lee, you know you can’t use age…”

“Enough, Cassandra. You can pester me about it later. But for now, let’s go to bed. Tomorrow will be a long day.”

“Fine.”

Andi pushed him away from the vent and led him back to his room. She stopped in the doorway and gave him a quick kiss, and then leaned her mouth to his ear. “We’re going with them tomorrow. No matter what they say. Right?”

He nodded and leaned to her ear. “It’s my parents we need to save. Try and stop me.”

She smiled and gave him another quick kiss. Their fingers intertwined and lingered together as they moved slowly apart. When she left, he closed his door and let out a big sigh. He missed her already. This Dragon Guard stuff was going to take some getting used to.

Chapter 12

Mrs. Thomas woke Ben at 6:30 for breakfast. He dragged himself down to the kitchen and found everyone already downstairs. Andi had on a pair of pink sweatpants and a white long-sleeved shirt instead of the flimsy nightgown she wore last night. Too bad. He’d have liked to see her in that in brighter light.

He shook his head to knock that thought from his mind. Stop it, her parents were here. Besides, looking at her now, and thinking about how he’d lusted after her last night, brought out a blush. That had been way too weird.

Andi gave him a shy smile, her emotions singing the same song. Her dad gave him a slight nod and mumbled “Good morning,” while her mom greeted him with a plate full of pancakes, eggs, bacon, and sausage. Everyone else had the same.

“Morning, Ben. I thought we could all use a hearty breakfast.”

“Are we going after my parents soon?”

Andi shot him a look to not let on that they’d eavesdropped. He didn’t think he tripped anything, though, since they’d have to go after them sometime.

“Cassie and I are,” Mr. Thomas said. “You two are going to school.”

“But, Dad, we can help.”

“Yeah. They’re my parents.”

Mrs. Thomas set a bottle of syrup in the middle of the table. “We’ll discuss it after breakfast.”

“But, Mom…”

“After breakfast, Andi. I promise.” She winked at Ben. “I usually make them fend for themselves in the morning.”

“It’s good,” he said after he stuffed half a syrup-drenched pancake into his mouth. As he chewed, Andi motioned to the side of her face. She also wore a strange look, and feelings that reminded him an awful lot of last night poured off her.

“Alexandria, knock it off,” her dad said. His tone was even, but he meant business.

“What? I didn’t do anything.”

Her mom hid a smile behind her hand and said, “He knows the look. I’ve licked syrup off his face a time or two.”

“Mom!”

“Cassie!”

Ben’s face heated up, and Mrs. Thomas gave him a playful nudge. “Welcome to the family.” She cackled, which caused Andi to roll her eyes and Mr. Thomas to shake his head. Ben couldn’t help but laugh.

As breakfast went on, Ben found himself drifting from any conversation going on at the table. He hadn’t slept very well. It took forever to fall asleep in the first place, and then when he did, bad dreams plagued him. He jumped a bit when Andi put a hand on his arm. “What’s the matter? You aren’t quite here.”

“Sorry. I had nightmares every time I closed my eyes last night.”

“Nightmares?” Mr. Thomas asked. “Do you get them often?”

“Uh, no, but I sort of expected them. They were of my parents in that awful place.”

“Were they more vivid than normal?”

He looked around the table and saw Andi and her mother staring at him, waiting for an answer. Mrs. Thomas seemed to know where this was going, but confusion bled off Andi. Good, Ben wasn’t alone in the dark here.

“They seemed like normal bad dreams. I mean, they were real enough when I was having them, but once I woke up, I knew they were just dreams.”

Both Andi’s parents relaxed. “Good,” Mr. Thomas said.

“Maybe that world can’t affect them until they’re fully bound,” Mrs. Thomas said.

“Another excellent reason to put it off as we discussed.”

“Are you going to share any of this with us?” Andi asked.

“It’s not important today,” Mrs. Thomas said as she cleared the table.

“Fine,” Andi said. “And about us going with you?”

“No,” her father said.

Mrs. Thomas nodded. “You may not need school, but this is Ben’s first time through. It should be a priority.”

“But I won’t be able to concentrate,” Ben said. “It might get me into more trouble than if I wasn’t there.”

Mrs. Thomas opened her mouth to argue, but nothing came out. Instead, she shrugged and looked at Mr. Thomas. “He makes a good point.”

Mr. Thomas sighed. “Indeed. Besides, they may be safer with us for the day.”

“Congratulations,” Mrs. Thomas said. “You don’t often win arguments with parents, but you did today.” She winked at them both. “Don’t get used to it.”

“There’s a condition,” Mr. Thomas said. “You do what we say. To the letter. Even if it doesn’t make sense. Understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Yes, Daddy.” Andi leaned over and gave her father a kiss on the cheek. “We’ll be good. Promise.”

Mrs. Thomas walked over to the phone. “I better call the school.”

A light bulb went off in Ben’s head. “Can we stop at my house before we go? I should call both my parents’ work so they don’t get fired for not showing up.”

“Good idea. Now both of you go up and get dressed. This may be a long day.”

As they headed up the stairs, Ben had to fight hard to not grab Andi’s hand. Her dad wouldn’t approve, and he didn’t want to get sent to school at the last moment as punishment. Andi grinned at him, no doubt aware of what he was thinking. Yeah, this was definitely going to take some getting used to.

Ben rushed to get dressed. They were supposedly heading to Newport Beach first, and it’d be chilly down there, so he threw on a light jacket over his t-shirt. As he left the guestroom, Andi stepped out of her bedroom.

“How are you holding up?” she asked.

“I’m doing alright, I guess. I’m mostly tired right now.”

She gave him a hug. He squeezed back and enjoyed the feeling of her melting into him. She felt right in his arms in a way no other girl ever would, he supposed.

Andi reached up and massaged the back of his neck for a few seconds, and then pulled his head down to hers for a kiss. Before it could be much more than a peck, Mrs. Thomas came up behind them.

“Would you two knock it off?” He and Andi jumped apart. Mrs. Thomas’s expression was a mix of annoyance and amusement. “Act like normal teenagers and sneak around to do that so you don’t get caught.”

Ben muttered an apology, but Andi rolled her eyes and gave an exaggerated sigh. “Aren’t we basically engaged now? Why shouldn’t we kiss?”

“You’re too young to be worried about anything like that. Both of you. I don’t care if you make out, but I don’t want to see. And you better do all you can not to get caught by your father. Am I clear?”

“Yes, Mom.”

“Yeah.”

“Remember, all of this stands if I manage to change his mind about the binding.” She motioned them down the stairs. “You two will be fully bound, but you’ll still be high school students in our eyes. Your father won’t allow any shenanigans until you’re 18. Am I still clear?”

Andi scoffed and said, “I’m way over 18, if you want to get technical.”

“Don’t be stubborn, Andi. You know darn well how age works. You’re a long way from being 18 in our world, and Ben is 15 no matter which way you cut it. Regardless of my thoughts on this matter, realize how hard this is on your father. I hope this third time is crystal clear.”

Ben nodded. That made him feel better. They wouldn’t have to be married until they were ready. Andi, however, wasn’t quite done. “Why is it so hard on him? I get that he doesn’t want me to grow up, but so what? Stuff happens.”

Sadness spread over her face. “We don’t have time right now to talk about it. Besides, I can’t tell you without his blessing, and I doubt we’re going to get that anytime soon. Not under these circumstances.” She leaned in and hugged them both, and then quickly retreated downstairs. Ben wasn’t positive, but he thought he saw tears in her eyes. He turned to Andi, who looked back at him with a bewildered look on her face. They gripped hands one last time, and then followed Mrs. Thomas down the stairs.

*****

Less than fifteen minutes later, they arrived at his house, and Ben called both of his parents’ workplaces. The two calls went smoothly, with no follow up questions about the food poisoning he’d claimed they had. As soon as he hung up, he dashed back to the SUV, and they were off to the beach, though Ben needed to remember he and Andi weren’t supposed to know that yet.

Once they hit the 55 freeway south, Mr. Thomas let them know they were on their way to the Newport pier. “We need a spell to get to Derian’s realm. In order to do that, we must discover where Rico is.”

“Rico?” Andi asked.

“He deals in magical goods and services,” Mrs. Thomas said. “Think demon pawn shop.”

“And his name is Rico?” Ben asked. That sounded too normal for a demon.

“His real name is much more complicated,” Mr. Thomas said. “Rico is about as close as the mortal tongue can get, so that’s what he goes by.”

“And Rico has the spell?” Andi asked.

“Yes. He’ll want a favor in return, but we’re hoping it won’t be too difficult. We’ve completed tasks to his satisfaction before. That’ll help him look on us more favorably.”

“Are we going to have to do the favor before he gives us the spell?” Ben asked.

“No,” Mr. Thomas said. “Unless he has an urgent task. More likely he’ll bring us in sometime in the not-too-distant future.”

“What did you guys need from a demon pawn shop?” Andi asked. Ben perked up at the question. What sort of stuff was even at a demon pawn shop? Besides spells to other realms like they needed, of course.

“That’s a tale for another time,” Mrs. Thomas said. “Let’s focus on the here and now so we can save Ben’s parents.”

As much as he wanted to hear the stories, she was right. He didn’t want to imagine what Mom and Dad were going through in that horrible place. They needed to get them out of there on the double.

Andi took his hand and smiled before turning back to her parents. “So you think this Rico is at the beach?” Ben was glad she asked because he almost blurted out the question of who Max was. That would have proved they’d been listening last night.

Mr. Thomas shook his head. “It’s doubtful, though that would make things easier. We’re going to meet a record keeper. If anyone knows where Rico is, he will.”

“Record keeper?” Ben asked. “Then why are we going to the pier? Shouldn’t he be at a library or office building or something?”

Mrs. Thomas shook her head. “He doesn’t need to consult most things. Dragon brains are a bit more complex than human brains, as you’ll find out.” She motioned to Andi, who rolled her eyes. “And if he doesn’t know offhand, his house won’t be far off. We’ll walk him back to find the answer.” Ben remembered Mr. Thomas threatening to march this Max back to his books if need be.

“And then we go meet this Rico, get the spell to the demon realm, and rescue my parents?”

“That’s it in a nutshell.”

Sounded easy enough. There was nothing more to do for the moment than hope it all went as smooth. Late morning rush hour traffic slowed them down on the freeway, but Ben didn’t mind. He enjoyed Andi’s hand in his, and also managed to doze a bit. It wasn’t much, but by the time they pulled into the half-empty parking lot at the beach, thanks to it being a Monday morning in October, he felt refreshed.

Though the morning overcast was burning off, it was still cool out, so Ben zipped up his jacket. Andi had on a long sleeve shirt, but it did little against the stiff breeze. Ben put his arm around her to keep her warm. The scowl from Mr. Thomas proved he didn’t like it, but he didn’t say anything. Mrs. Thomas took her husband’s mind off of it by snuggling up to him.

There weren’t many beach goers around the pier, but fishermen packed the end. Ben looked over the side as they walked out. He went to the beach once every week or two in the summer with family or friends, but not often did he get to any of the piers. He enjoyed watching how the waves moved through the wooden posts, and five or six years ago, he’d even witnessed a few dolphins playing under the pier up at Seal Beach. If circumstances had been different he might have asked to stop and stare, but they didn’t have time today.

“I see him,” Mr. Thomas said. “At the end.”

Ben looked down past the other fishermen, most of whom appeared to be retirees, and saw a man who wasn’t much older than Andi’s parents. Though, truth be told, in human years he was many centuries older than any of the white-hairs fishing. He had his line cast out and was puffing a cigar. He wore a floppy fisherman’s hat, and had on a vest that had a ton of pockets all around it to hold his hooks or whatever. He might be a dragon, but he was much smaller than Mr. Thomas in both height and overall build, closer to Ben’s size, though with a bit of a protruding belly. He had short brown hair peaking out from beneath his hat, and sported a neatly-trimmed mustache and goatee combo.

The man, this Max, didn’t notice them approach. Or, at least, he didn’t acknowledge them. Ben had a feeling he knew everything going on around the pier.

“Max,” Mr. Thomas said in a pleasant voice when they were close enough. “Long time no see.”

Max turned, a frown etched on his face. “So you won’t bind them, but you’ll bring them out to face danger.”

“We didn’t realize your pier was fraught with danger, Maximilian,” Mrs. Thomas said.

“That’s not what I meant, Cassandra, and you know it. You plan on taking these two into the lion’s den, and you’re hamstringing not just them, but the entire world, by not bringing them to their full potential.”

Mr. Thomas barked a laugh. “A bit melodramatic, Max? That’s not a normal trait for you.”

Max fiddled with his fishing pole and knocked some ash from his cigar into the ocean. “I wish it were melodrama I was spinning, my old friend. This may start with you two, but it doesn’t end there. From what I’ve heard, Derian stole that demon’s essence and plans on using it to enslave humanity. And now fate sends you a potent weapon and you refuse to release the safety.”

“The boy has power. We’ve bound them enough for that.”

Max pulled his cigar from his mouth and spit in the ocean. “You’ve given them a horse piss binding. Might as well make them walk into battle with one hand tied behind their backs. It’s not safe, Lee. For anyone.”

Fire flashed in Mr. Thomas’s eyes. He stepped forward and jammed a finger into Max’s chest. “They’re too young. No one will change my mind about that.”

Mrs. Thomas moved between them. “We’ll keep them safe. And we’ll deal with Derian before he can harm anyone else. But our single objective at the moment is rescuing Ben’s parents. You will help us, won’t you? For old time’s sake?”

Max looked like he wanted nothing more than for them to leave, but after a few seconds, he sighed and nodded. “Of course I’ll help, Cassie.” He pulled a piece of paper from his pocket, wrote something, and folded it in two before handing it to Mrs. Thomas. “You’ll figure out what it means.”

“Thank you, Max.” She leaned over and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Give our best to Nix.”

“Yeah, yeah. She’ll be sorry she didn’t come today. She enjoys seeing you.”

Mr. Thomas stepped forward, his arm outstretched to shake hands. “Yes, thank you, Max.”

He grabbed Mr. Thomas’s hand and pulled him close to stare him right in the eyes. “Don’t thank me, you old lizard. Get the job done. And forget all this Daddy’s Little Girl business and bind your daughter to her mate. You know as well as anyone that fate decides when a dragon and her guard are ready. Let your daughter grow up when she needs to, Lee, not when you think she’s supposed to.” With that he let go of Mr. Thomas’s hand and turned back to his fishing pole.

Mrs. Thomas said, “Max,” but Mr. Thomas put a hand on her shoulder. He motioned for everyone to head back to the car. Ben glanced back and saw Max ignoring them again. But he’d given them what they needed, right? Andi only shrugged.

Chapter 13

“What does it say?” Andi asked once they were in the car.

Mrs. Thomas unfolded the paper. Ben couldn’t see, but she didn’t keep them in suspense for long. “Reach for the Sky at Orangeville Acres.”

Ben smiled, while Andi let out a gasp. A wave of excitement flowed off her.

“Orangeville Acres?” Mr. Thomas said. “Isn’t that an amusement park?”

“Yeah,” Ben said. “Reach for the Sky is one of the rides. It shoots you out at a hundred miles an hour into a loop and then straight up. Once you reach the top, you feel weightless for a few seconds.”

“Cool,” Andi said, but her dad grunted.

“You went fast, did loops, and were weightless without being strapped into anything this weekend,” he said.

“Doesn’t mean I can’t love rollercoasters, too.”

Mrs. Thomas gave him a playful slap to the shoulder. “Quit being a Grumpy Gus. You enjoy those rides, too.”

“Fine, I do, but I want everyone to remember that we’ll be there on business today. Got it?” They all nodded. “Ben, do you know how to get there from here?”

“Yes, sir. Take the 55 North and get off on Katella. Turn right and follow the signs. They’re everywhere.”

Mr. Thomas nodded and started the car. While Mr. and Mrs. Thomas talked up front, Ben turned to Andi.

“Have you ever been?”

“No,” she said. “We’ve done Disneyland a few times over the years, but I’ve always wanted to go to Orangeville Acres.”

“The themes and decorations and stuff aren’t nearly as good as Disney, but the rides are way better.”

They talked about their trips to various theme parks. Andi had been to quite a few, many of which he’d never heard of. She’d visited Disneyland in its first month, which made him think she was joking until he remembered how old she actually was. He sobered even more when he realized he now shared the same elongated lifespan. She proved how in-tune they were when she immediately started talking about newer places and attractions. He wanted to lean over and give her a hug for that, but both the seatbelt and the ire of Mr. Thomas stopped him.

Before long they arrived. The parking lot wasn’t crowded, but Ben hadn’t expected it to be. He’d never been on a non-vacation weekday, but some kids from school had, and they said it was the best time to go. There were hardly any crowds and most everything was still open. He wished he was here for fun instead of the grim business of rescuing his parents. He prayed they wouldn’t be too late.

Mr. Thomas waved Ben off when he said he’d pay them back for his ticket. He never thought about what dragon families did for money, but they must have a lot since neither was at work today. Or maybe they’d called out sick today, too. He’d have to ask Andi about it sometime.

As they walked through the main gate, Ben angled them towards Reach for the Sky. It sat at the rear of the park, so they got to see a good deal of everything on the way. Near the exit of Mine-Car Racer was a gift shop filled with both plastic gems and real jewelry. Despite their hurry, both Andi and her father stopped, as if in a trance.

“Come on, you two,” Mrs. Thomas said, nudging them forward.

“Just looking, Cassie.”

“Not like we were going to be long, Mom.”

“I’ve heard that before. We’ll come back sometime soon, I promise. Then you can look all you want.”

Andi rolled her eyes while her father gave a grunt, but both complied and kept moving.

“Dragons,” Mrs. Thomas muttered to Ben.

“What was that all about?” he whispered.

“Shiny objects. Practically incapacitates them. You’ll get used to it.”

As they neared Reach for the Sky, Mr. Thomas stopped them over to the side where no one could overhear. “I have the incantation in my mind. The rest of you concentrate both on me and Rico.” He turned to Ben. “Picture me and keep saying Rico’s name. He’ll know and drag us into his realm. Okay?”

Ben nodded, and they entered the queue. There was no wait to speak of, with just a couple car-loads of people in front of them. And this was one of the main rides at the park. Yeah, he definitely needed to come back on a school day.

The train exploded out of the station at 100 MPH. Ben’s stomach lurched just watching it, while Andi exclaimed, “Cool!” The car barreled down the straightaway, into the loop, and up the 90 degree angled track.

As it neared the apex, Mr. Thomas leaned over and said, “He’ll take us at the top, I’m sure of it. Be concentrating by the time we get to the loop.”

“And hold on,” Mrs. Thomas said.

Mr. Thomas scoffed. “Andi and I are faster than that,” causing Andi to giggle. She couldn’t fool Ben, though. He could feel the excitement coursing off her.

The train roared through the station backwards and braked on the other side. Ben’s stomach tightened. He loved this ride once it shot off, but the anticipation killed him.

“Nervous?” Andi asked with a mischievous grin.

“Yeah,” he admitted. “But good nerves.”

The ride took off again. With her parents focused on it, Andi stretched up and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. He rubbed her lower back, and then it was time. They hopped in. Andi and Ben sat in the first row of their car, with her parents behind them.

Right before they pulled their shoulder harnesses down, Mr. Thomas leaned forward and said, “Don’t forget, this isn’t a pleasure trip.”

“Got it, Daddy,” Andi said, while Ben nodded.

“Picture my dad and say Rico’s name over and over,” Andi reminded him. “Nothing to it.” She squeezed his forearm.

Ben took a deep breath and started concentrating so he wouldn’t forget and miss the window of opportunity. Reach for the Sky didn’t give any formal indication of take off – no countdown or red-to-yellow-to-green lights – but there were some tell-tale signs. The track made clicking noises, and the whole train jerked back an inch or two, so Ben knew when to brace himself.

As they fired out, he let out a hearty “Whoo-hoo-hoo!” to help his stomach with the acceleration. He still left it back at the station, but the yell brought it back sooner. Now that the dreadful anticipation was over, he could enjoy the rush. This part was fun.

The wind pounded against his face and chest. As the train zipped into the loop, his hands shot up for a split second until he remembered the mission. He hoped he wasn’t too late. As they screamed up the 90 degree ramp, he had Mr. Thomas in his mind and Rico’s name on his lips. They continued up, up, up, further than the height of the track. The air flashed bright colors all around – blues, reds, greens, oranges, yellows – until they muted and turned to whites, blacks, and grays. The rollercoaster train no longer propelled him, but he kept moving.

Then he stopped. All at once. They were in a business office inside a cave. Before him stood a desk littered with papers, a swiveling leather executive chair, and a file cabinet with a folder jammed into the middle drawer. That mundane scene was contrasted by the rocky walls. The room was a huge cavern, about the size of one of the warehouse stores he went to with his parents, though usually one or the other because if they both went, it would undoubtedly end up in a fight.

Before Ben could ask if this was where they were supposed to be, a man appeared in the chair as if he’d been sitting there all along. Ben was certain it had been empty just seconds before. The man, or demon, looked like a normal person except for the bright red tint to his skin. He dressed like a stereotypical mob boss Ben had seen in movies and on television, with a pin-stripped suit, a thick gold chain around his neck, and a half-dozen heavy rings on his fingers. He expected the demon to sound like Marlon Brando, straight out of The Godfather, his dad’s favorite movie, and one he made Ben watch with him at least once a year, but when he spoke and had no accent at all, Ben almost found it funnier.

“Leon, Cassandra, so nice to see you again. And this must be your daughter, Alexandria, and her mate.” His eyes devoured Ben. They were hypnotic, and he couldn’t place their color, as if they swirled through the spectrum. “Benjamin, is it?”

He nodded and tried to say, “Yes, sir,” but no words came out. The demon’s slight smile showed he noticed.

“Rico,” Mr. Thomas said. “Thank you for admitting us.”

“Of course, Leon. You should know you’re always welcome here.” He again turned his attention to Ben and scrutinized him. It wasn’t a look of malice, but Ben didn’t like those eyes on him. Unease spilled from Andi, too.

“I notice you haven’t bound them,” the demon said. “Although the boy is no longer human.”

“Lee decided…we decided a minor bind would be for the best,” Mrs. Thomas said.

“Not the way I would have gone, but it’s not my call, is it?” Rico chuckled. “Early binds seem to run in the family, don’t they, Leon?”

“Wait, what?” Andi asked.

“I can’t help what fate decides, Rico.”

“Seems you’re doing what you can to fight it, though.”

“What does that mean?” Andi turned to her mother when her father ignored her. She squeezed Ben’s forearm hard, and he doubted she even knew she did it.

“Not now, Andi.”

The demon, Rico, eyed the scene with a half-smile. Ben didn’t like the way he leered at her. Or him, for that matter. Rico seemed to like, maybe even respect, Andi’s parents, but he held none of it for Ben and Andi. There wasn’t any hostility, but they better watch themselves around the demon. Andi felt his trepidation because she squeezed his arm one more time and then looked at him. He gave a quick head shake and hoped she didn’t ask what was wrong. She gave him a questioning look, but kept quiet.

Rico gave a little laugh as if he’d heard every thought. Had he? Ben took a deep breath and did all he could to clear his mind, just in case. Andi slid her hand into his, and that helped. He focused on her soft, warm skin, and the funny feelings she caused in his belly.

Rico stood up from behind his desk, his eyes on Andi’s parents. “You know it’s Derian. And you know that he’s defeated the demon and taken its essence.” These weren’t questions, but Mr. and Mrs. Thomas nodded as if they were answering affirmative.

“You know he’s set his sight on you two, so you’ll get no help from other dragons.”

“Why?” Ben whispered. He’d meant for only Andi to hear, but Rico picked up on it.

“Why, Mr. Phillips?” He paused, as if rolling Ben’s name around on his tongue. “Yes, Mr. Phillips.” He turned to Andi. “I suppose when your parents decide you’re ready to be bound, you’ll take Benjamin’s name. Surnames. Such a silly notion in the mortal realm. They hold such power for some, and none at all for most. And yet even the lowliest human believes theirs contains magic.” He stepped out from behind his desk. “How many names have you two had, Leon, Cassandra? How many has you daughter had?” His gaze turned to Andi. “What difference does another one make? How long before Benjamin gains a new one?”

Ben shifted his weight to get himself more in between the demon and Andi. She didn’t seem to notice, but Rico did. He raised his eyebrows, and his half-smile grew.

“But that wasn’t your question, was it, Benjamin? No. Why won’t other dragons help? So many secrets in the dragon world. I’m sure it’ll be centuries before you even scratch the surface of the secrets of dragon society. Didn’t you find that to be true, Cassandra?”

“Yes,” she mumbled. Ben looked back at Andi’s parents and saw they weren’t scared, but they did look uncomfortable. Why, when the demon seemed to like them?

“In this case, Benjamin, no other dragons will help because of pride. Such a silly thing, but so important. Isn’t that right, Leon?”

Mr. Thomas shook his head. “I wouldn’t ask, and they wouldn’t accept.” Ben glanced at Andi. She nodded at her father’s words.

“But that’s crazy,” Ben said, not sure who he was addressing. “The necromancer isn’t going to stop with us, is he?”

Rico sat on the edge of his desk and rubbed his chin. “Very perceptive, Benjamin.” The demon smiled at Andi. “Fate may have chosen a winner for you, Alexandria.

“But, Benjamin,” Rico continued, “if Derian, the necromancer as you call him, puts his energy, planning, and everything else into killing you four – and he is – the rest of the world is safe. Other dragons have no need to get involved.”

“But it’d be better…” Ben started to say when Mrs. Thomas put her hands on his shoulders.

“Ben, honey, if you asked Lee, Andi, or any other dragon to think logically about it, they’d agree it’d be smarter to team up at the beginning to end the menace. But try to put it in practice, and it won’t happen. It’s just a part of the dragon world that you’ll have to get used to.”

“Thank you, Cassandra,” Rico said. “Not sure I could have put it better myself. Anyway, I know why you’re here, so why don’t we get right to it and discuss price? I’ll go with my standard opening offer of your first born.”

What? “No way!” Ben stepped between the demon and Andi before anyone else could react. Rico looked at him for half a second before bursting out in laughter.

“You continue to surprise me, Benjamin. Yes, there is much hope for you if you live through this adventure. And no worries. It’s merely a long-standing joke. I have no intentions of touching your beautiful bride-to-be. I’ll leave all the touching to you.”

Ben’s face heated up, and embarrassment rolled off Andi. He also heard a quiet chuckle from her mother and a disgusted groan from her father. Rico appeared quite pleased with himself.

“Since we’ll be ridding the world of such a threat, shouldn’t that be enough?” Mr. Thomas asked.

“I’m sure the other dragons and humans will appreciate it, but what does it matter to me? Most of my business comes from other realms. I’d miss your world, I won’t lie, but I’d get over it.”

“I hope you’ll take our past performance into consideration.”

“Of course, Leon, of course. You and Cassandra were superb last time. Tell you what. I promise whatever job I come up with won’t go against your morality. It’ll be something you’ll want to do. Deal?”

“Deal,” Mr. and Mrs. Thomas said. Andi echoed them.

“Benjamin? I need your word, too.”

He looked to Andi’s parents, and Mrs. Thomas nodded at him. Okay, what the heck. He had no clue what he was agreeing to, but he trusted them. “Deal.”

“Excellent. I’ll be in touch.” Rico snapped his fingers, and all four of them stood at the exit of Reach for the Sky. Without a word, they headed back to the front of the park and the parking lot.

Chapter 14

Andi stared out the window of the SUV, watching the various rides inside Orangeville Acres. Somewhere in the back of her mind she looked forward to coming back and trying them out, just as somewhere in the back of her mind she was aware of Ben’s hand in hers. Mostly she dwelled on certain parts of the conversation with the demon. Two points in particular.

First, her parents had met him before, and preformed some sort of task. That wasn’t the surprising part since they’d said as much already, but what had they done to pay back Rico? And what did he have planned for them this time? Especially since she and Ben were included.

The second thing seemed more important. What had Rico meant when he said early bindings ran in her family? She’d never thought about what age her parents had gotten bound. It had never come up. The way her dad was so insistent that they wait, she figured they’d done so at the appropriate age. But if they hadn’t, why was he so against her and Ben binding? Mom didn’t seem to care, but this morning she said there was a legitimate reason Dad was so upset. She wanted to ask, but now wasn’t the time.

She glanced over at Ben and found him fixated on the top of Reach for the Sky. Confusion trickled off him, and she assumed he was searching for any sign of the realm they’d just visited. He wouldn’t find it. She didn’t know much about it herself, but they hadn’t actually been above the ride. Technically they hadn’t been anywhere on this planet, and maybe not even this universe. She squeezed his hand and smiled when he turned to her. He smiled, squeezed back, and returned his focus to the ride.

She’d never felt like this for anyone, not even close. Yeah, she’d found some guys cute in the past, but never had the urge to act on it. But with Ben, she couldn’t not act. She wanted to always be touching him, even if it was just holding his hand like right now. It rattled her nerves that she wanted to give her body to him, but it scared her even more that she wanted to give him her soul. The scariest thing of all, though, was that she had no doubt he felt exactly the same.

As they pulled out of the large, half-empty parking lot and turned towards home, Ben broke the silence that had hung heavy since they’d exited Rico’s realm. “Okay, so what just happened? What did he give us, and how does it help save my parents?”

“You can’t feel it?” Andi asked. She knew the spell was in her head the moment Rico put it there.

“Feel what? I don’t get any of this.”

Mom turned around and said, “He put the key to the demon’s realm in our heads. Now we can get to your parents.”

Ben frowned and Andi sensed the concentration burrowing through him. She moved as close to him as the seatbelt allowed and put her other hand on his knee. Dad growled something, but to his credit didn’t say anything else.

“I don’t think he got it in me.” Tears sprang into Ben’s eyes, and Andi wanted to leap into his lap and comfort him, but with her parents in the front seat, that would no doubt have the opposite effect. How could Rico skip him? Did the spell only stick if they were bound? Or had Ben agreed too late?

“It’s there,” Mom said. “You can’t feel it because you and Andi aren’t linked yet. Not properly anyway.”

“It’ll work fine,” Dad said. His eyes found hers in the rearview mirror, and she took her hand from Ben’s knee. Dad nodded and returned his gaze to the road.

“So I can help rescue them?” He blinked back his tears, and she smiled at the enthusiasm in his voice.

“You’re stuck whether you want to or not,” Mom said.

“They’re my parents. Of course I want to.”

Dad barked a humorless laugh. “You say that now. I’d sure like to sit it out if I had the option.”

Mom smacked his shoulder. “Lee, no need to scare them.”

“I’d say both could use a healthy dose of fear.”

They rode in silence for awhile. Andi thought about what Dad had said. She’d been so focused on Ben that she hadn’t considered what they were going to have to do to rescue his parents. Fight Derian, she supposed. From how Ben described the demon realm, it was empty except for the necromancer and the cell that held his parents. Mom and Dad beat him before, so this time should be no different. She hoped.

As they pulled off the freeway, almost home, Ben broke the silence again. “What did we agree to? When Rico put the spell in us, I mean. I know you said we have to do a job for him, but how does it work? Are we going to have to kill someone?”

Andi’s eyes opened wide. “Is that what you guys did last time?”

“What we did last time isn’t any of your concern,” Dad said.

“It might be necessary,” Mom said. “We won’t be killing a someone, but a something. A demon or monster. Rico will choose a task we won’t be morally opposed to. Maybe it’ll be a retrieval mission. Or reconnaissance. We have no way of knowing. Rico isn’t one of the good guys, but he’s not our enemy, either.”

“Why can’t you say what you did last time?” Andi asked. “Did he vow you to secrecy?”

“Some things don’t need to be discussed,” Dad said. “Not at the moment, anyway.”

She frowned. Why wouldn’t they talk about it, especially since they’d have to do something similar soon? Hadn’t Dad said they needed to have some fear injected into them? Why was he protecting them now? She wanted to press the issue, but the stony look on Dad’s face proved it would do no good. Mom wouldn’t be of any help, either; not in this case.

As they pulled into the driveway, Ben put a button on the whole conversation. “So when do we rescue them?”

“Tomorrow morning,” Mom said, and Andi’s stomach sank. Mom was never afraid of anything, but there was no hiding the quake of fear in her voice.

*****

Trent huddled at the wall of the rock cell, his hand entwined with Heidi’s. The worst part of this whole mess was not knowing what was going on. At all. He had no idea where they were, who put them here, why they were here, or even how long it had been. It seemed like days, but that wasn’t possible. Neither of them had slept nor even felt sleepy. Nor hungry or thirsty. They’d discussed it, in a civil manner for a change, and decided even through the worry, they should feel pangs of hunger and thirst.

“Do you suppose Ben’s okay?” Heidi asked.

“How should I know?” he snapped.

She started crying. “I don’t know. I was just wondering. He must’ve been so worried when he got home and we weren’t there. I hope they didn’t take him, too.”

Trent took a deep breath, scooted closer, and wrapped his arms around her. It was the most he’d touched her in, well, years. “Heidi, honey, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap. It’s just…”

She looked at him, the pain of the world etched on her face. “We haven’t been very nice to each other lately, have we?”

He shook his head, tears of his own flooding into his eyes. “I’m sure Ben is fine. You said it yourself, that girl’s parents seemed very nice. I’m sure they’re taking care of him.”

He shocked them both by kissing the tip of her nose. Heidi gasped, her eyes wide, and then snuggled into him. He hugged back. How could they have drifted so far apart? They’d hurt each other, hurt Ben, and for what? Some stupid argument that neither would budge on. He couldn’t even remember what it was about. Everything snowballed, and neither of them would back down. How stupid was that? Sobs wracked through him, built up from years of staying emotionally distant, and they triggered hers.

Just as he had no idea how long they’d been in this strange cell, Trent couldn’t tell how long they cried in each other’s arms. Once they used up all their tears, they held each other. He leaned in and kissed her, and to his delight, she kissed back. Their first real kiss in forever.

A loud bang jarred them apart. A stooped-over man with a withered face stepped into the cell. “How sweet. Love rekindles in the face of adversity.” None of the apparent age on his face sounded in his voice.

Trent pushed himself to his feet. “Who are you? What in the world is going on?”

The evil-looking man – Trent couldn’t think of a more appropriate description – sneered and pointed at him. Some sort of sickly black energy flowed from the finger into Trent. It didn’t hurt, not exactly, but it felt like every bit of moisture was sucked out of his body. He gasped, hunger and thirst wracking him for the first time since they’d been there. He slumped against the wall, and then toppled to the ground when his legs couldn’t support his weight.

Heidi screamed. “What did you do to him?

“I’d be more worried about yourself,” the evil man said. “Pray your rescuers come soon, or you’ll be next.”

“What do you want from us?” Heidi’s voice rose to near hysterics.

“To be terrified.” With that, the evil man walked out, and the door to the rocky cell slammed shut. Heidi rushed to his side.

“Trent, are you okay?”

He wanted to sit up, to be brave for her sake, but it proved impossible. All he managed to squeak out was, “Water,” though he knew she couldn’t provide any. As she cried on his chest, he lay there and wonder who the rescuers were that the evil man mentioned. Ben?

Chapter 15

Ben lay in bed, trying to sleep, but thoughts of tomorrow made it impossible. How were they going to save his parents from a demon realm? Were they even still alive? Yes, they had to be, but he couldn’t shake that thought. He snapped back to the moment. Andi stood outside his room.

She opened and closed the door without a sound before tiptoeing to the bed. “Scoot over,” she whispered and climbed in with him. He couldn’t sense anything other than concern, so maybe she wasn’t expecting anything…well, anything he wasn’t sure he was ready for, especially with her parents a few doors down.

She must have sensed his apprehension because as soon as she pulled the covers over them, she said, “Don’t worry. My parents are asleep. I knew you couldn’t sleep, so I figured you’d want to talk.”

He nodded, but couldn’t force any words out. The thoughts of tomorrow pushed to the side by her lying next to him wearing that nightgown. He tried again to talk, and her eyes went wide.

“Oh, Ben, I’m sorry. I didn’t think about this.” She motioned to being in bed with him. “I should go.”

“No, don’t. I’d like to talk. You…you took me by surprise. You’re so pretty, and…”

She blushed and turned to snuggle her back into him so his face was right next to her ear. “There,” she said, a bit breathless, “now we can talk in whispers so there’s no way they’ll hear us.” His hands wrapped around her, and he was hyper-aware of how they brushed against her stomach.

It took a minute, but they both regained their composure. “What worries you the most?” Andi said, opening the conversation.

“If they’re still alive,” he said, his voice shaking.

She squeezed his hands. “They are. And we’re going to save them. You got it?”

“Yeah. I hope so.” He sighed.

“What?”

“I don’t know. They’ve hated each other so much these past few years that I wonder what’s going to happen when they find out what I am, what you are. Is it going to drive them apart even further? It’s stupid, but…”

“But you can’t help but blame yourself for all of it. Even though it’s not your fault.”

“You sound like a therapist,” he said with a snort.

“Well, I do have a few years on any of them.”

They both giggled, and he brushed her neck with his lips, causing her to shiver. He admonished himself for trying to start something when what he really needed was to talk. He already felt better.

“So, how do you think this is going to go tomorrow?” he asked. That hadn’t been brought up yet, at least not around him.

“Other than we use the spell to get there, I don’t know. I’m not sure if Mom and Dad do, either.”

Yeah, the spell. The one that was supposedly in his head. Even after Mr. and Mrs. Thomas assured him it was there, he wasn’t convinced. He’d tried to feel it swimming around somewhere in his brain, but couldn’t. Nothing seemed different.

Andi craned her neck and gave him a soft kiss on the side of his jaw. “Don’t worry, it’s there.”

“How did you know that’s what I was thinking about?”

“It wasn’t hard. When I mentioned it, I felt dread and concern on you.”

“I could have been worried about the whole thing in general.”

“Maybe, but I guessed right, didn’t I?” He heard the smile in her voice. “I’m just making this all up as I go along. I haven’t been in a relationship, unlike some people in this room.”

It was Ben’s turn to leave a lingering kiss on the side of her jaw. “Don’t be jealous. Besides, I wasn’t really in a relationship. Melissa was, and I went along for the ride.”

Andi turned and punched him lightly on the shoulder. “I’m not jealous…mostly. But at least I’ll always be able to say my first real kiss was with you.”

Ben was about to shoot back something when he remembered a text from earlier in the day. Andi must have felt his mood change because she said, “Ben, I’m teasing. It doesn’t bother me. Honestly.”

“No, that’s not it. I just remembered that she sent me a text earlier today.”

“Well, you text her right back. Be firm but gentle. You’re spoken for.”

He shook his head. “Too late. She’s already pissed. She called you a slut and said we’d have fun when we decided to come back to school. I think she meant it as a threat.”

Andi snuggled back into him and rubbed his forearms. “Of course she meant it as a threat. This is high school.”

“How can you be so calm?”

“Oh no, she called me a slut and told awful lies to everyone about us. We’ll be a laughing stock to the whole school.”

“Exactly.”

“I’ve seen this sort of thing more times than you can imagine. I’m sure we’ll have a rough week, maybe two, and then everyone will move onto the next big scandal.”

“Easy for you to say. This is my first trip through, and I’m not very good at it, even without the mocking and hate and all that.”

“At least we’ll go though it together.”

“Yeah. Party of two to the gallows. Terrific.”

“Everything will be fine. You’ll see.” She turned in his arms and poked him playfully in the ribs. He retaliated, and both had to bite their lips to keep from busting out laughing. In it all, Ben’s hand dropped down to her bare knee, and she didn’t push it away.

They stared into each other’s eyes, neither breathing, and he slid his hand a few inches up her leg. What was he doing? This was a dangerous situation. With her parents just a couple rooms away, he could get them into huge trouble.

When she didn’t knock his hand away this time, he pushed it a little further, halfway up her thigh. No, no, no. This was bad. At some point he’d love to continue, but not tonight. Too many things were playing against them: rescuing his parents in the morning, possible future undead attacks, her parents down the hall. All excellent reasons to stop, but his hand had an agenda all its own. It inched higher, eliciting a soft moan from Andi.

The door flew open, and they jumped apart. Her dad stormed in and pointed at Andi. “To your room.” He turned to Ben, but before he could say anything, Mrs. Thomas walked in.

“Lee, calm down. We knew it was going to happen. That’s why the wards are in place.”

“What wards?” Andi asked. “What are you talking about?”

Mr. Thomas spun and glared at her. “The wards that warn us when you two get out of hand. And it’s a damn good thing we installed them.”

“Lee, that’s enough. Why don’t you go back to bed? You’ve saved the day.”

He grunted and gave her a sour look. “This is not a laughing matter, Cassandra.” He turned, gave the stink-eye to Ben, and stomped out. Ben stayed lying on the bed, wishing he could crawl under it.

“What was that all about?” Andi asked from the doorway.

“Magical wards to warn us when you two start to go too far. We’ve included them in every room, including both the front and back yards. And soon we’ll get them to Ben’s house, too, so his parents can monitor you two when you’re over there.”

“Unbelievable,” Andi said, throwing up her hands. She stomped to her room in the same manner as her father.

When she was gone, Mrs. Thomas turned to Ben and smiled. “Lee’s insistence, of course. I have it set so you can share some kisses without us knowing. But, remember, I still don’t want to see it, so be subtle.” She gave him a wink. “You two did a much better job of that tonight.” She said goodnight and closed his door.

Oh, god, Mrs. Thomas’s reaction aside, how could that have gone any worse? He lay there, feeling like he was going to burst into flames from embarrassment. How was he supposes to go downstairs in the morning and face Mr. Thomas? If he didn’t hate Ben enough already, now he’d really have it out for him.

Anger and embarrassment flooded through the walls from Andi. A bit of frustration also bubbled under it all, which freaked him out. She wanted him to keep moving his hand up. And if her parents hadn’t busted in, he would have. He tried to push that out of his mind so he didn’t start hyperventilating.

As if on cue, the back of his neck prickled. He sat up, and the tingles ran down his spine. This was different from anything he’d felt before. With the zombies and the ghost, he couldn’t tell what was going on or where they were, other than a general area. But this time he knew he needed to get downstairs to the sliding glass door. Something dangerous was about to happen.

Ben grabbed his sword and shield and hustled down the stairs. He didn’t bother keeping quiet, since he’d be glad for any help, but neither did he call out. This warning felt so different, so much more direct, that maybe he was inventing it. He had wanted to think of something else, after all. If he pulled everyone out of bed for a false alarm right after that fiasco, he’d have to leave and never show his face here again.

By the time he hit the bottom step, his shield was strapped on, and he had a firm fighting grip on his sword. This was no hallucination. Evil prickled though his entire body, now not relegated to his neck. Battle lust swarmed his soul. Calling for help no longer occurred to him, though somewhere in the back of his mind he felt Andi taking notice.

Once next to the sliding glass door, Ben flicked on the patio light. Outside stood a monster. It was a mix between a giant bat and a man. Its body was that of a human, but with the membrane of wings beneath each arm. Its face was pure bat, straight out of an Animal Planet special. It had huge ears, beady eyes, and sharp teeth. This was a real vampire. Hollywood, from the olden days until now, had always gotten them wrong.

Ben took a step back, raised his shield, and motioned it towards him. The vampire tilted its head in a way that said, “Okay, I accept your challenge,” and exploded through the glass. It smashed into his shield, knocking him onto the floor. He twisted, throwing it off, and braced for another assault. The vampire swiped at his face with sharp claws, which he saw on both hands, as well as its feet. As he parried the attack with the smooth face of his sword, he heard commotion upstairs. The cavalry was on its way, led by Andi and her thoughts of dread that she might lose him. He couldn’t have her always worrying about him, so he needed to prove he wasn’t a liability. He blocked another swipe by the vampire with his shield, spun, and brought his blade down on its neck, severing its head.

“What’s going on?” Mr. Thomas yelled, but Ben couldn’t answer. The evil vibrations on his neck incapacitated him for a beat. He managed to shout, “Incoming!” seconds before three more vampires burst through the now destroyed sliding glass door. One flew straight at Andi, one towards her parents, and one towards him.

He smacked the one coming at him with his shield, stunning it. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Andi fall backwards. He screamed, “No!” lopped off the head of the vampire at his feet, and leaped in to help her. She transformed her neck and head into a dragon’s, but before she could strike, Ben concentrated on his blade, like he did with the ghost, and stabbed it through the heart. It disintegrated, not even leaving behind dust.

Ben and Andi spun to help her parents, but it wasn’t necessary. All evil pricklings had stopped, and they found her mother standing over their dismembered vampire. It was a mix between Mr. Thomas’s powerful jaws and Mrs. Thomas’s deadly short swords. She watched them with a smile of approval on her face.

“Dad?” Andi asked.

“He’s fine. He went to get a wooden stake.”

Ben nodded and said, “But that and sunlight killing them are about all the movies and books got right.”

Surprise flashed off Andi, and her mom’s face read the same. “Yeah,” Mrs. Thomas said. “Those were the only two ways, but you seemed to have found a new one.”

He shrugged and walked over to the one she and Mr. Thomas tore apart. He concentrated again and plunged the blade through its chest. All the scattered parts disappeared. He walked over to the one he’d taken care of before helping Andi and did the same. A slight buzzing, almost undetectable, hit the back of his neck. The first vampire’s body clawed its way towards its head, but he destroyed it before it got there. The buzzing stopped.

He turned towards Andi and her mom. “We’re safe.”

Before either could answer, Mr. Thomas walked in. He looked around the now vampire-free room and nodded at Ben. “Well done. Though a little heads-up would have been nice.”

“Jeez, Lee, since when has it been so hard for you to give a compliment?”

Ben started to say it was fine, that it had been the most support Mr. Thomas had ever given him. Before he could, Mr. Thomas said, “He’s proven he’ll make an excellent guard to Andi.”

“There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?”

That brought another grunt, but this one followed by an approving nod to Ben, who smiled both at the comment and the joy permeating off Andi.

“And speaking of him being a Dragon Guard, Lee, he’s also proven he’s going to have some spectacular powers against the undead. Talk about an asset against a necromancer, right?”

Mr. Thomas sighed, which caused Andi to gasp and reach for Ben’s arm. Oh no, was this it? He wasn’t ready. He was too young to be married, bound. But he also couldn’t wait. He almost giggled in a manic, crazy way because the feelings oozing off Andi matched his own so perfectly.

“No, Cassie, we can’t.”

“What? No, you can’t. I…”

Andi’s parents both clutched their temples. Their telepathic conversation lasted a few seconds, and then they shook their heads. The looks they gave Ben and Andi proved there would be no bindings tonight. Now that it was decided, Ben wasn’t sure if he was happy or not.

“Okay,” Mrs. Thomas said. She reached out, grabbed Andi’s hand, and pulled her to the kitchen. He thought he heard her say something about a mother-daughter talk.

Mr. Thomas let out a sigh. “I’d better patch up the door.”

“Uh, do you want me to help?” Ben didn’t know where the question came from, but he figured it would be best asked.

Mr. Thomas gave him a hard look before his expression softened. “No, but thank you, Ben. Not just for the offer, but for getting rid of those things. They could have entered undetected if you didn’t sense them.”

He nodded. “Yeah, they don’t need to be invited in. Those myths aren’t true.”

“Indeed.” Mr. Thomas smiled and slapped his shoulder. “I do like you, Ben, though I’m sure it doesn’t show. You’ll make a good addition to our family, but not yet.”

“We’re too young,” Ben said.

“Exactly, but that’s not all.” He glanced over to the kitchen. “I’m sure her mother is filling Andi in on most everything, so you can ask her about it later. I do have a good reason for not binding you tonight, I promise. Nothing personal, okay?”

Ben nodded and looked towards the kitchen. Andi was learning something surprising, but he had no idea what. He wanted to ask more, but he also didn’t want to ruin this new-found common ground with Mr. Thomas, who’d already stood to start fixing the sliding glass door.

“Head up to bed, Ben. You might not feel it at the moment, but you’re exhausted. You discovered quite a bit of power tonight, and you’re not used to using it. You’ll need even more tomorrow if we’re to succeed.”

Ben moved towards the stairs. Would his parents be home safe by this time tomorrow? He hoped so. Mr. and Mrs. Thomas would see to it. And Mr. Thomas was right about how tired he was. The second his head hit the pillow, sleep dragged him under.

Chapter 16

During breakfast, Andi acted a bit shy around Ben. It must have had to do with the talk with her mom last night. It didn’t bother him; it was cute. Besides, her true feelings for him shone through more clearly than anything else.

Once they finished eating another big meal of pancakes, eggs, and bacon – “I cook other things, too,” Mrs. Thomas said about the repeat from yesterday morning, “but everyone enjoyed this so much.” – it was time. Ben strapped on his shield and held his sword. Mr. Thomas explained they only needed to concentrate on the spell while he invoked it. Ben’s eyes went wide. He still couldn’t feel the spell. How could he concentrate on it?

Andi stepped forward. She threw a withering glance at her father and said, “Chill out, Daddy, this is necessary.” Mrs. Thomas laughed as Andi engulfed Ben in a hug. He looked to Mr. Thomas with wide eyes, hoping he wouldn’t step over and rip his head off. Instead, he got an annoyed but accepting look. Mrs. Thomas winked at Ben and turned her husband away.

“Do you trust me?” Andi whispered in his ear.

“Yes, of course.”

She reached up and kissed him. “Good. You saw the place where your parents are. Picture it in your mind. Not just the room they’re being held in, but the whole big rock. Keep it in mind when my dad says to, and you’ll be fine. Okay?”

“Okay.”

She smiled and gave him another kiss, a deeper one.

“Overkill, Alexandria,” her mother said. Andi didn’t jump away like normal when they’d been caught kissing, but instead slowly peeled herself away and brushed his cheek with her hand. Like at breakfast, good feelings flowed from her, but she also put out a bit of fear and regret. What was that about?

Before he could dwell on it, or ask her point-blank, it was time. “Concentrate,” Mr. Thomas said. Ben pictured the demon realm, from the cell his parents inhabited, to the rocky throne the necromancer sat in, to all of the nothing in between. The atmosphere in the room grew thick, and then disappeared altogether. Ben found himself somewhere new, breathing air with a slight sulfur tinge he remembered from a trip to the geysers of Yellowstone Park when he was eight.

This reminded him of his vision. Exactly. They stood on the ground in front of the ledge that held the necromancer’s throne. The dirt underfoot felt solid, baked hard by the fire surrounding them. They were far enough away from the edge to not fry, but the heat still brought drops of sweat to his brow. A nearby hole in the dirt showed it went down about six feet before hitting the rock, with the top layer of dirt baked solid. The rest was damp, though not quite mud.

Andi gripped his arm, and they shared a look. Where was the necromancer? He wasn’t in his throne, and there was nowhere else to hide. Unless he was in torturing his parents. Ben needed to get them out. After only a minute here himself, he wanted to puke from the awful taste in his mouth.

“Those are the cells, Ben?” Mrs. Thomas asked, pointing to the rocky rooms. When he nodded, she said, “Maybe we can spirit them out of here before Derian notices.”

“I’m sure they would appreciate it,” a voice from the no longer empty throne said. Ben recognized it at once as that of the necromancer.

“They have nothing to do with this, Derian,” Mr. Thomas said. He kept his voice low, but its power still reverberated through the realm. “Let them go.”

Ben stepped forward and pointed his sword at the necromancer. “You better not have hurt them.” Andi grabbed him and tried to pull him back, but he wouldn’t be budged until he knew they were okay.

The necromancer laughed, a sound where humor went to die. Death itself. “I assure you they’re fine, boy. A bit uncomfortable, but nothing rest and hydration in your mortal realm won’t cure. In fact, you and the daughter are free to liberate them. It seems I have my prize.” He licked his lips and stared down at Mr. and Mrs. Thomas.

Mr. Thomas grabbed Ben’s shoulders and dragged him back. “Your prize, Derian? We defeated you once, and we’ll do so again.”

The necromancer leaned back in his throne and let out a belly laugh. His skin stretched against his bones, making him look like nothing but a skin-wrapped skeleton. And maybe that’s all he was. Something moved underneath his stretched out skin. Ben couldn’t make out any definite shapes. It reminded him of sea creature movies where the beast would brush the surface, letting the audience know it was there without giving up its true appearance.

“You caught me by surprise before, Leon,” the necromancer said. “We seem to be on even ground this time, so to speak. Plus, I now control the demon.” He held out his hand, and a puff of acidic smoke popped from his palm, revealing a monstrous head. He clutched his hand into a fist, and the demon dissipated.

Ben glanced over at Andi. Her mother whispered something into her ear. She nodded, her eyes wide, and fear, but also determination, gushed off her. She stepped over to Ben and pulled him close so she could whisper.

“If it comes to a fight, you stay behind me and watch our backs. Don’t be reckless. When Mom says so, grab me, and I’ll fly us to your parents. We’ll get them out of here, and my parents will follow. Okay?”

He nodded. In the background, Mr. Thomas and the necromancer postured with more threats. A quick glance around showed nothing else on this huge rock, so how would the necromancer fight all four of them at once?

“And Ben?” Andi said, pulling him into a hug.

“Yeah?”

“Don’t do anything stupid, and I won’t either. Okay? I love you.”

He gasped, getting more of the sulfurous air into his lungs, and fought hard to keep from choking. He knew she loved him, could and had felt it on her, but this was the first time she’d said it. He also couldn’t fight the feeling. As scary as it was, he loved her, too. Before he could say it, his whole body shook in the prickling warning of impending evil.

“Watch out,” he managed to shout. Mrs. Thomas crouched down in a battle pose, while Andi and Mr. Thomas transformed into their natural dragon forms. The ground crackled and shook like an earthquake, and zombies pushed out of the hardened dirt all around them.

This battle went nothing like the previous ones. During those, Ben felt in control, not really in danger. This was absolute chaos. Too many zombies came at him at once. He swung his shield as much as his sword, keeping the lumbering monsters off-balance and at bay. He didn’t knock many out of commission, but Andi and her parents made up for that. The dragons spit out streams of acid that burned the zombies down to nothing, and while they waited for their breath weapon to build back up, their powerful jaws and claws dispatched more. Mrs. Thomas was a blur, a shifting shadow of death. She leaped, twirled, and struck, leaving severed bodies in her wake. Ben did his best to stay out of their way and keep any from sneaking up on Andi.

For the first time, he wished 100 percent that they’d been bound. Power bubbled under the surface, but he couldn’t access it. He grit his teeth and fought through the aggravation. It also would have been nice to speak to Andi directly. He yelled a few warnings to watch behind her when he couldn’t cut off a zombie, and she understood, but having no idea what her growls meant frustrated him. Mrs. Thomas would relay her important messages via Mr. Thomas, but that wasn’t how dragons and their guards fought.

After what seemed like hours but was probably a lot less, Mrs. Thomas yelled for Ben to grab Andi and hold on. They were no closer to defeating the countless zombies, so he realized it was time to rescue his parents. He beheaded two of the nearby undead and sheathed his sword before latching onto her tail. She let loose another blast of acid to clear their way and launched into the air. Ben glanced back; none of the undead chased them. The unholy music of the necromancer’s laugh continued in the background. Would he really let them leave?

Andi touched down in front of the rocky cells, and Ben drew his sword. A half-dozen zombies stepped out to greet them, but Ben wouldn’t let them stop him from rescuing his mom and dad. He smashed the first with his shield, knocking it back against another, and slashed two other heads off. Urgent energy pulsed off Andi, but he ignored it, instead launching himself in the middle of the four remaining zombies. He gave into the battle lust like he’d never done before. His sword struck true, and his shield parried possible killing blows. Before long, all six zombies lay unmoving at his feet.

Andi used her tail to nudge him out of the way before letting loose a blast of acid that melted the zombie parts into nothing. She morphed back into her human form and threw herself into his arms. “Don’t do that! I could have burned them at the very beginning.”

He wanted to explain that he couldn’t help it, that it just happened, but instead his brain pushed, “I love you,” out of his mouth. Whoa, he must really have meant to say it earlier.

She giggled, kissed him, and grabbed his elbow. “Come on. Let’s get them out of here.”

To their surprise, the solid stone door opened with little pressure. He dashed inside and let out a cry. Mom and Dad were mummies. Not wrapped in linens like ancient Egyptian pharaohs, but dry skin and bones. Only when Dad moved his head and let out a groan did Ben breathe again.

“Grab him,” Andi said as she ran over to his mom. “We have to get them home. They’ll be fine. Think about your parents’ bedroom, and we’ll go right there. Ready?”

Ben knelt next to Dad and mimed Andi’s actions of wrapping his arms around him. He brought up a clear picture of their room and yelled, “Go!”

Seconds later, he, Andi, and his emaciated parents lay in the middle of the bedroom. “Grab some food and water,” Andi said. “I’ll get them as comfortable as I can.”

Chapter 17

Andi mopped a bit of sweat off Mrs. Phillips’s brow. Both she and Mr. Phillips looked much better every half-hour or so. Andi and Ben started slowly, giving them small drinks of water until they didn’t look as dry as paper, and then added juice, chicken broth, and finally solid foods. It took almost six hours of slow, constant gorging, but now both appeared human again. Still pale and gaunt, but overall okay. Through it all, they faded in and out of consciousness. Neither said a word, but after the first couple of hours, Andi could see in their eyes that they knew where they were, and at least some of what was going on.

Another strange phenomenon she noticed was a blue light, like an aura, leaking off Ben. She didn’t see it all the time, and then only out of the corner of her eye, but she had no doubt that the power helped accelerate the healing process. Would it be even stronger when they were fully bound? When she questioned him about it, he had no clue what she was talking about.

Finally, Mr. and Mrs. Phillips drifted off to sleep. She and Ben picked up the various cups and plates stacked around the bed and carried them to the kitchen. They’d done a pretty good job of cleaning as they went, so now they needed only to load the dishwasher. Ben didn’t want to start it in case it woke his parents.

Once they finished cleaning, it hit Andi that her parents were still trapped in the necromancer’s evil realm. All hopes of them being able to get back had faded. They’d have been here by now. They must’ve all had to leave at the same time, so when she and Ben had left, it locked them there.

Ben stepped over and engulfed her in a hug. “We’ll save them,” he said between butterfly kisses on the top of her head. She buried her face into his chest and let a few tears fall. She was too tired to be strong, and to his credit, Ben understood and held her.

She dried her tears on his shirt, causing them both to laugh, and leaned up for a soft but passionate kiss. After a few minutes, they broke apart, and Ben sat at the kitchen table. Andi thought about sitting in another chair, but instead opted for his lap.

“I wonder how powerful that healing aura will be once we’re bound,” she said.

He shrugged. “I didn’t feel anything. Are you sure you weren’t seeing things? We’re both pretty tired and under a ton of stress.”

“That’s the thing,” she said, massaging his neck. “I wasn’t that tired while we were feeding them. I think you helped all of us – them getting better, and us with the energy to keep tending them.”

Ben slumped against her. “Doesn’t seem to be working anymore.”

“No, it doesn’t.” She slumped right back against him.

They sat in silence for a few minutes. He mulled over some thoughts, and she didn’t want to interrupt. At least it kept her from falling asleep as they needed to check back in on his parents soon. When Ben broke the silence, his question didn’t surprise her.

“What did your mom talk about with you last night? You know, after the vampires? Your dad wouldn’t tell me. He said I should wait and ask you.”

She climbed out of his lap and took a chair of her own, though she stayed close enough to keep holding his hand. “She told me some more about our binding. About why they didn’t do it. Dad, of course, thinks we’re too young.”

“He said that last night.” Ben turned to the kitchen window, and she followed his gaze. The sun wasn’t yet up, but dawn was close. “Or two nights ago now, I guess. But he also promised me there was a better reason.”

“Yeah. Turns out when you get bound, your feelings are hypersensitive towards each other. Like way more than what we felt with this minor thing.”

“No way. That’s kind of hard to imagine.”

“I know, right? But I guess it’s true. My parents were afraid we’d be so focused on each other that we’d ignore other dangers. We’d be reckless.”

“But if we could talk telepathically, it would counteract that, wouldn’t it? We’d work together even better.”

“I said that, too, when I tried to get them to bind us. She said the vampires convinced her that Dad was making the right decision. You went after the one attacking me without ever checking the other. If it had somehow beaten them, it could have ambushed us.” She paused, not sure how much more she should say, but decided she wouldn’t keep any secrets from him. Besides, it wasn’t like Mom told her very much anyway. “Something happened when my parents were bound. Something bad. I couldn’t find out what, but I guess that’s the biggest reason my dad is being so stubborn in all of this.”

A mess of different emotions poured off Ben, so many that it was hard to piece them all together. She thought at first that he was mostly confused about the vampire sneaking up on them, or what happened to her parents, but that wasn’t it.

“You tried to get them to bind us?”

Andi’s face heated up. She had, hadn’t she? It hadn’t dawned on her until he said it point-blank. “Yeah, I guess I did.”

“So you want to be bound to me? Right now?” His voice came out husky, like he had to fight to get them out. She could also tell he wanted to look down at the tabletop, but didn’t. She made sure to hold eye contact, too.

“Yeah, kind of.” Now her face felt like it was on fire, but she giggled a bit when she realized it wasn’t any more red than his. He blushed so hard that he might burst into flames at any second. “Do you?”

He nodded and tugged her arm. She let him drag her back to his lap, and their lips met. Nothing existed but them at that moment. She didn’t even worry about her parents for those few minutes.

When they broke their kiss, Ben swept her bangs from her eyes and said, “There’s something else, isn’t there?”

He was right, and she hadn’t even thought about it until he brought it up. Wow, he already knew her so well; what would this be like when they were fully and truly bound? “When we’re bound, we’re totally bound. If one of us is killed, we both die.”

“As if this weren’t serious enough already,” he said with a laugh.

“Really. Mom said that this way, if one of us did, uh, bite it, the other would still have a chance to rescue your parents.”

“Makes sense, I guess.” His face wasn’t red anymore, but quite pale. They sat there, her in his lap, both lost in their own thoughts. She enjoyed him unconsciously tracing patterns on her knee with his fingertips. There was something personal, familiar, in that act, as if they’d been together much longer than just this week.

After a few minutes, he stopped and gave her a smirk.

“What?”

“Nothing, I was just thinking.”

“That’s a scary thought.”

“Whatever. Anyway, I don’t mean any disrespect or anything, but I can’t believe I’m in love with a dragon. An actual dragon.”

“Yeah, I feel the same way about you being human.” They both laughed, her because she didn’t mean that. Though she had no clue about Dragon Guards, she’d known from an early age she’d be marrying a human, not another dragon. That never happened, though she never asked why. Another thing in an endless list she’d taken at face value.

She didn’t know how she managed, since she was already in his lap, but she pushed closer to him. Their lips again met, and this time, after another slow, tender build up, their passion ignited, and they kissed as if they were trying to devour each other’s soul. In the moment, there was no doubt, if there ever was, that Ben was her one and only. This was the first time she’d ever felt truly alive as a human. The only thing better was screaming through the sky in her true form, and even that was debatable.

“Yeah, you two should probably stop now.”

Andi squeaked and leapt from his lap. Even with her natural grace, Ben had to grab her elbow to keep her from tumbling to the ground, likely flat on her face. Ben’s mom stood in the doorway. Like before she fell asleep, she still looked too pale and too thin, but otherwise fine. Andi was a bit relieved to see a look of humor hidden beneath her stern mothering glare.

Ben bounced to his feet. “Mom, you’re okay!”

“I don’t even get a clumsy teenage excuse for what I just walked in on? So your father and I can laugh about it later?”

“Uh…”

The hard gaze turned on Andi. With the fear coming from Ben, he’d obviously missed both her joking tone and the twinkle in her eye. Andi didn’t. “We were practicing CPR?”

Mrs. Phillips let out a surprised laugh. “I used that one when I was your age.” She stepped forward and engulfed Andi in a hug. “You must be Andi. Thank you so much for helping us.” She grabbed Ben and pulled him into the embrace. “Both of you.”

“Boy, that was some fever you two had,” Andi said. His parents needed to know everything because of what she was, and especially because of what Ben was going to be, but this wasn’t the time. Ben picked up on her plan quick.

“Yeah. You guys were sure muttering some weird things in your sleep.”

Mrs. Phillips stared at them for a few seconds. “Dad and I talked about it before I got up.” For some reason that brought out a spike of happiness from Ben, though he kept his expression neutral. “Not only did we share the same horrible experience, which is impossible, but we both saw what we looked like before you two rescued us. Being alive and that skinny isn’t right, especially since we’re almost back to normal now. I’m not sure how long we were out, but it wasn’t the weeks it should have taken.”

Andi started to say something to still spin it as a strange dream, but Ben cut her off. “But you feel okay now?”

Before she could answer, Ben’s dad walked in. Like his wife, he was too pale and thin, but otherwise fine. “Hey, am I missing all the fun down here?”

Mrs. Phillips went to him and put one arm around his waist. There was no mistaking the happiness that came from Ben that time. “Just giving thanks to our saviors.”

“I see. And this must be Andi. Nice to meet you when I’m more than half-coherent. Trent Phillips.” He stuck out his hand, and she shook it.

“Hi, yeah, I’m Andi.” She let out a surprised gasp when he pulled her over and gave her a hug.

“You, too, ya lug,” he said to Ben. He came over, and all four of them shared a hug. Andi felt almost giddy with the amount of joy on Ben.

They broke apart, Mr. and Mrs. Phillips’ arms around each other, while Ben’s was draped over Andi’s shoulders. “That was nice,” Mrs. Phillips said. “I didn’t think we’d ever be able to do that again.”

“Yeah,” Mr. Phillips said. “I thought we were goners for sure.” With the look they shared, Andi wasn’t sure if they were talking about being in the demon realm, their marriage in general, or both.

“Andi, dear,” Mrs. Phillips said, “do your parents know you’re here?”

Andi opened her mouth to answer when her world spun out of control. Tears overwhelmed her, and the more she fought to get herself under control, the worse she got. Somewhere through her haze, she heard Ben’s parents asking her if she was okay, while Ben nudged her into a chair and held her. That, him, his closeness, got her through. When the crashing wave of sadness passed, leaving minor ripples, she whispered, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” over and over, her head buried in Ben’s neck so she wouldn’t have to look at anyone. The embarrassment over having fallen apart in front of everyone now worse than the emotions of not knowing if her parents were okay or not. She wiped her eyes, took a deep breath, and mustered up a weak smile. “Sorry. I think I’m better now.”

Ben kissed the top of her head, while both his parents answered that it was fine, quite understandable given the circumstances. Ben must’ve filled them in while she’d incapacitated herself.

Mrs. Phillips dried her cheeks with a tissue. “You’re exhausted. Both of you. What day is it?”

“Wednesday morning,” Ben said.

“Wednesday?” Mr. Phillips said. “Oh, jeez, work’s going to be pissed.”

“No, I called you both in,” Ben said. “You have food poisoning.”

“Well, if anyone notices I’ve lost weight, that’ll be a good excuse,” Mrs. Phillips said, poking her stomach.

“Good thinking, Ben,” Mr. Phillips said. “I’ll call later to see if I can get the rest of the week off.”

“Me, too,” Mrs. Phillips said. “But what about school? Neither of you would do much good today.”

“My parents called us in Monday and Tuesday,” Andi said. “So it shouldn’t be a problem for you to do it.”

His mom frowned. “I don’t like you guys missing so many days. You need to go back. Tomorrow for sure. But for now, off to bed, both of you. Ben, show Andi the guest room. The linen on that bed is fresh enough.” She looked at Andi. “Let me know if anything’s wrong with it, okay, dear?”

She smiled and nodded.

“And Ben.” Her stern mother look was back, but Andi had to bite back a laugh at the twinkle in her eye, just like when she’d first come in.

“Yeah?” With the apprehension coming from him, he obviously couldn’t see it. They really must’ve been one messed up family before this.

“Show her the room and then go to your own. Got it?”

This time Andi couldn’t hold back, though she did her best to wait until they were out of the kitchen to laugh. What made it even funnier was Mr. Phillips asking what that was all about, as well as the embarrassment from Ben. It turned to confusion at her laughter, but he didn’t say anything, and she didn’t explain. Let his mother have that power over him for a bit longer.

The guest room had a homey feel, with a country farmhouse vibe. The bright, cheery colors and countryside landscape paintings made her feel at home. She’d lived in a few places similar to this. Maybe she could suggest to Mom that they decorate their guest room the same. She made sure to tell herself when, not if. They’d find a way. Somehow.

Ben’s eyes darted to the stairs and back to her, and then he planted a quick kiss she didn’t have time to return. “Don’t worry,” he said, fire smoldering behind his eyes. “We’ll save them.”

She nodded, grabbed his hand, and lifted it to her lips for a kiss. “Thanks. Goodnight. Or good morning, I guess.” They both chuckled, and then he headed for his bedroom. She watched him go, and they smiled at each other one more time before heading inside their respective rooms. Despite everything, Andi floated to bed.

*****

Cassie catapulted over a half-dozen zombies, decapitated a ghoul, and ran her sword through a vampire’s heart. With a quick warning from Lee, she ducked out of the way, and he melted them all with his acid breath. Before she could let out a sigh of relief, she turned to face the next wave.

“Such entertainment,” came a cackle from the rocky throne. Derian hadn’t thrown any of his spells into the mix, instead hurling comments and insults down their way. She and Lee agreed this was nothing but theater to him. He was toying with them before taking them to one of the cells, and then who knew what horrible fate awaited them. With no way out now that the escape spell was gone, it was more a question of when, not if.

She held a brief hope Andi and Ben would come back, but Lee’s logic had crushed that. Since they weren’t properly bound, the kids couldn’t expect much help with her and Lee still alive. The pride of dragons saw to that. Someone would bind them, but only when she and Lee were dead, and no doubt Derian had plans for them other than death.

A dozen ghosts made up the next wave. Hoots of deranged laughter spilled from the throne. This was another sign he was just playing with them. If he wanted them captured now, he’d send all of his undead minions at once like he did with the zombies when Andi and Ben were here. Once the kids escaped, Derian sent his minions a few at a time.

“Behind you, Cass,” Lee said into her mind. She spun into a whirlwind, bringing the evil spirits down. Though she couldn’t destroy the undead like Ben, her blades were blessed to take them out of commission for awhile. And here, when she did, they sank back down under the earth instead of regenerating on the spot. Yet another indicator Derian was prolonging the entire procedure.

Lee took out the next wave, a few skeletons, some zombies, and a mummy, with his acid. Cassie appreciated the short – way too short – break. Her thoughts, her wishes, returned to rescue, but harsh reality interrupted. Even if the kids somehow got Max to reveal the incantation into Rico’s realm, there was no way the demon would help. It first went back to the fact that they weren’t bound, something Rico would see as a weakness, but would ultimately come down to that they were already in his debt. She couldn’t imagine a demon, and Rico in particular, offering a double debt to an unproven duo. He might do it for her and Lee, but even that wasn’t a given.

Another group of zombies approached. With Lee’s acid not yet built back up, she launched herself into them. He flew above and picked some off with his sharp teeth. Though none of these monsters proved much of a challenge, even in their large groups, their nonstop attacks would eventually wear them down. She wasn’t yet close to surrendering, but the time would come. With the unknown horrors of captivity after that, she and Lee needed to prolong the fight as long as possible.

The next wave of undead, more ghosts and skeletons, shuffled forward.

Chapter 18

Ben’s cell phone woke him with the text message alert. He grabbed it, first noticing it was almost 3:30 in the afternoon. Good thing Mom and Dad called the school because he slept right through the day. When he viewed the text, which was from Melissa, his heart sank. Crap. It read, “Even your friends think ur an a-hole.” No-no-no. This is bad. Very bad.

About a minute later, Andi came in. She had on the same clothes from yesterday. They’d have to go back to her house later to get her packed. Some of his stuff was still in her guest room, too.

“What’s the matter?” she asked, concern on her face.

He didn’t say anything, just handed her the phone. She read it, her face weary, but when she finished, she laughed. “I already told you not to worry. It’ll blow over.”

“Easy for you to say,” he muttered.

She handed the phone back and kissed him on the cheek. That brightened his day a bit, and he grabbed her hand.

“She must really like you,” Andi said. “Poor girl. You broke her heart, and now she wants to make you hurt as much as she is.”

“Hey, you helped,” he pointed out. “Besides, I don’t think that’s it. She’s mad I didn’t choose her. I was an object, a way for her to say she had a boyfriend without all the give and take. All she did was order me around.”

“So why did you stay with her?”

He shrugged. Good question. “I guess it was kind of cool to say I had a girlfriend. Besides,” he added with a smirk, “sometimes she let me kiss her.”

Andi rolled her eyes and smacked his shoulder. “Nice,” she said.

“I was just…” teasing, he was going to finish, but she didn’t give him the chance. She pounced on him and assaulted his mouth with hers. He tried to kiss back, or even breathe, but she was in firm control. It didn’t last long, but wow.

When she broke off, she gave a “hurumph” and turned away from him. “I bet she never kissed you like that.”

Ben started to apologize, but stopped himself. Instead he chuckled and put his arms around her. When she didn’t respond, he kissed her neck right above her shirt and ran his tongue up to her earlobe, which he gave a quick nibble. Her shiver proved she enjoyed that.

“No,” he whispered in her ear. “She never kissed me like that.” She giggled and turned to hug him back.

“Maybe I ought to get you jealous more often,” he said with a laugh. She smacked his shoulder again, but this time while laughing herself.

After a minute of sitting there and cuddling, Ben asked, “How are you doing?” He meant her parents and figured she’d get that. She did.

“Okay, I guess. I’m scared, but they’re still alive.”

“You can sense them?”

She shrugged, and then put her head down on his shoulders. “I didn’t think I could, and it doesn’t work like it does with you, but I know they’re still alive. And that they’re not in this realm.” He could hear the tears in her voice and feel the sudden rush of sadness on her. “At least I hope so. It may just be wishful thinking.”

He squeezed her tighter. “It’s not. They’re fine. Keep up the hope, and we’ll save them. I promise.”

She didn’t say anything, just nodded. He held her for a minute before another thought jumped into his mind.

“Do you need to call their work? Like I did for my parents?”

“No.” Her voice sounded normal again. “They don’t work, so no need.”

“Really? What do you guys do for money?”

“My dad’s a dragon. He’s been collecting treasure his whole life. Just like his dad before him, and so on and so forth. And me, too, though treasure’s not as easy to come by anymore.” She winked at him. “Shiny pennies don’t add up like gold coins.”

Ben’s mind flashed back to Orangeville Acers when she and her father were mesmerized by the jewelry store. “So that’s what your mom meant when she said you guys were easily distracted by shiny objects.”

“She said that?”

“Basically,” Ben said, and then grinned. “Maybe not in those exact words.”

She rolled her eyes. “You’re already too good at being with a dragon.”

He laughed and kissed her neck again, which brought out a purr from her. “So you guys live on treasure?”

“Now we live on interest. Remember, we’ve been alive a long time. My parents are excellent at investing our money, and I’m learning. Plus we don’t live extravagantly, since that draws too much attention. But we’re always comfortable.”

“Nice,” Ben said. Then his eyes went wide. “Wait. Does that mean we won’t have to work, either?”

“Nope. I’ve already got us a nice nest egg that’s going to grow. And you’re lucky. Other than needing to occasionally buy jewelry and other sparkly stuff, I’m pretty low maintenance.” She scoffed. “Unlike your other girlfriend. She sounds pretty high maintenance.”

Ben was about to defend himself, say Melissa wasn’t still his girlfriend, but instead got a better idea. “Way high maintenance. Jealous enough to kiss me like before?”

Instead of a kiss, he was rewarded with a third smack to his shoulder. It proved lucky, though, as Dad walked into the room.

“Hey, guys. Good, you’re both up.” If he didn’t like how close they were sitting, he didn’t mention it.

“Hi, Dad. How are you feeling?”

“Fine. Much better.” He still looked pale and skinny, but nothing like this morning. Most people wouldn’t notice anything wrong. “Anyway, we were all too tired earlier, but now would be a good time.”

“For what?”

Dad gave him a look like, “Get a clue,” but instead said, “To let your mother and I know what in the world is going on. What do you say you two join us downstairs?”

“Sure,” they both said. Oh boy, this should be interesting.

*****

Like Dad, Mom didn’t look perfect, but much better than before. She sat on the couch, and the two armchairs, usually spaced out in the corners of the living room, were now positioned right across from the couch, like this would be an interrogation rather than a friendly chat. That brought a few butterflies to his stomach, but those were eased a bit when Dad kissed the top of Mom’s head and sat down right next to her. When was the last time he’d seen him, or her, do that?

“Sit down, kids,” Dad said, motioning to the armchairs.

“Nothing to be nervous about,” Mom said. “We just want to figure out what’s going on.”

“Yeah. We’re lost.”

Ben looked over at Andi. What was he allowed to say? Could they know anything?

Andi picked up on his question and shrugged. “The truth,” she whispered. “They’ll need to know sometime.”

After everyone sat down, Mom got the ball rolling. “We’ve both talked it over. Like I said earlier, we know it wasn’t a dream.”

“You two rescued us,” Dad said. “What do you know?”

“It was a demon realm,” Ben said. Heck, they wanted the truth, so there was no need to sugar coat it.

Mom and Dad looked at each other. “That thing that shriveled us up was a demon?” Mom asked.

“Not exactly,” Andi said. “He was a sorcerer who my parents banished to that place, but he ended up taking the demon’s powers. Now he’s a necromancer.”

“A necromancer?”

“Yeah,” Ben said. “He controls zombies and the undead and stuff.”

Both his parents turned even more pale. Which wasn’t good. They hadn’t even gotten to the hard parts yet.

“Okay,” Dad said. He drew the word out, but Ben couldn’t tell if that was because he didn’t believe them, or if he was having trouble wrapping his head around it all. “But if your parents banished him, Andi, how come nothing like that made the news? Sounds serious.”

“It sort of happened before the evening news,” she said.

“But they report things at all times of the day.”

“No, Dad, she doesn’t mean before as in time of day, but like years ago. Andi’s older than she looks.”

His parents both shifted their gaze to her. “I’m 758. But that’s in human years. In this form, I’m 15, same as Ben.”

Neither of his parents said anything, so Ben jumped in. “She’s a dragon. So when it happened before the news, it was centuries before cable news.”

Mom was the first to nod. “Alright. So you’re a dragon. Does that mean your parents are dragons, too? And how does Ben fit into all of this?”

Dad, meanwhile, just sat back and listened. Ben couldn’t believe the looks of acceptance on their faces. Everything they were saying was true, but how were they buying it? It didn’t even sound plausible to him, and he’d lived through a bunch of it.

“My dad is a dragon,” Andi said. “My mom is a Dragon Guard. Same as Ben is to me. Or will be, once we’re fully bound.”

“Wait,” Dad waved his hand. “Dragon Guard, fully bound? Slow down, you’re losing me.”

They went into an explanation about what Ben could do, what Andi could do, and what they’d be able to do together once they were fully bound. They hit on what they’d already done, and how the rescue had gone down. Then, inevitably, talk turned to Andi’s parents. Ben glanced at Andi to make sure she was okay.

“We left them fighting zombies,” she said, “and presumably that’s where they still are. I hope they’re still fighting, anyway. Who knows what the necromancer will do when he catches them.”

Ben clutched her hand and was pleased that although he felt the sadness, she held the sorrow that brought tears at bay. She squeezed his hand and gave him a smile.

“Wow, that certainly is an outrageous story,” Mom said. Dad agreed.

“Did you buy it?” Ben asked.

Dad raised his eyebrows and said, “Should we not?”

“I doubt I would,” he said, and everyone laughed.

“Besides your parents being in danger, Andi,” Mom said, “what I don’t like about this whole situation is the explanation of how you two are basically engaged. You’re way too young. Even you, Andi. You may be seven-hundred-and-whatever, but if what you say about dragons is true, you’re still just a 15 year old girl.”

Ben groaned, but Andi barked out a laugh. “You sound like my parents. My dad is against us being bound until we’re 18, and even though my mom wants us bound, she says they won’t let us be married until we’re 18. Even though we’ll be considered mates in the dragon world. She’s just saying it because of my dad, but still.”

Dad nodded. “Sounds like your parents have good heads on their shoulders. I think we’ll adopt that rule, too.” He turned to Mom. “What do you think?”

“I agree. Bound is fine, but it’ll be bound and dating until you’re both 18.”

“Yeah, in 150 years,” Ben said with a groan. But secretly he was quite pleased. Mom and Dad were not only being nice towards each other, but they seemed to enjoy getting along.

Andi frowned at him. Confusion and annoyance fought to be her primary emotion. He guessed that was because he felt so happy after just being told they couldn’t get married when they were bound as was supposed to happen. That, and the fact that his parents, like hers, were meddling in their personal life. He’d clear it up with her later.

“So what are we going to do about your parents, Andi?” Dad asked.

“I guess we’ll have to retrace our steps. We need the spell from Rico, but we can’t go straight there because I don’t know the incantation to get to him. So we’ll have to go ask that Max guy at the Newport pier. I’m guessing he’ll know it.”

“Do you think he’ll help?” Ben asked.

“I’m not worried about Max,” she said. “He wasn’t happy about all of this, but he seemed nice enough. It’s the demon, Rico, who might not cooperate.”

“Yeah. He didn’t seem to like us very much.”

Dad threw his hands up and waved them around. “Wait, wait, wait. A guy at the Newport pier? A demon? What’s going on now?”

“Yeah,” Mom said. “Why are you going to ask for help from a demon? Especially if he doesn’t like you. Aren’t all demons evil?”

Andi shook her head. “Rico isn’t evil. He’s not good, either, but he helped us rescue you two. He will want a favor, though.”

“A favor?”

“We don’t know what, but Andi’s parents didn’t think there was any problem paying it.”

“Besides, what choice do we have? Let’s hope he’ll even consider it.”

Both Ben’s parents started to say something, but they swallowed their words. Instead, Dad said, “What do you need from us?”

“A ride to the Newport pier tomorrow morning. Sounds like Max fishes there everyday. And then to Orangeville Acres.”

“The amusement park?” Mom asked.

Ben chuckled. This sounded so insane, didn’t it? “Yeah, we have to ride Reach for the Sky to get to the demon.”

“That super-fast one that loops and shoots into the air?” Dad asked. “I’ve always wanted to go on that.”

Mom patted his knee. “Some other time, Trent.”

“You can go on it while we visit the demon. My parents will pay you guys back for all the tickets.”

Mom waved her hand. “No need for that. It’s the least we can do. But I do have a problem with your timetable.”

“What do you mean?” Andi asked with a frown.

“Well, we can’t go in the morning. Tomorrow is a school day. You’ve both missed too many days already.”

“Aw, come on, Mom. This is important.”

“So is school. Orangeville Acers stays open until eight during the week, and the beach doesn’t close, so we can do it after school.”

Andi shook her head. “We need to get to Max early. I have no idea how long he fishes for. Besides, I’m only going to school for show. I’ve been in high school for almost a century now.”

“Wow,” Dad said. “That long? Really?”

“I could teach each subject if I wanted.”

“Okay,” Mom said. “Can you talk to this Max guy without Ben?”

“I’d rather not, but yeah. He’ll have to be there for Rico, the demon, though.”

“Fine. So we’ll go to Newport while Ben is in school, and then we’ll hit Orangeville Acres after school. Sound good?”

Andi nodded, but Ben couldn’t be left out. “No, Mom. I’m Andi’s Dragon Guard. I can’t stay behind.”

“It’s okay, Ben,” Andi said.

At the same time, Mom said, “You need school, young man.”

“Come on, Dad. Tell her I need to go. Please?”

“Now, Heidi, maybe he…” Dad stopped and shook his head. “No, Ben, your mother is right. You need to go to school. Three days off in a row is too much for you.” Mom smiled at Dad and clutched his hand, but Ben didn’t care about the health of their marriage at the moment. How was he even supposed to concentrate at school, especially since Melissa was going to make life miserable? It was all so unfair.

He got up and stomped to his room. No one stopped him. Andi wanted to follow, but he was glad she didn’t. He needed to be alone.

*****

As soon as all the lights were out, Andi snuck down to Ben’s room. She didn’t know if his parents were sound sleepers or not, but she knew they’d check on them during the night. They hadn’t liked how close she and Ben were already, and though they hadn’t made a big deal about it, they would be monitoring them. Without wards like at her house (yet), they’d have to do so the old fashioned way. It was better to see him now before the check-ins started.

She stepped into Ben’s room, and though she couldn’t see clearly in the dark, she could feel his eyes on her. She smiled at the fact that he was glad to see her despite the lingering anger bleeding off of him. He hadn’t said a word to her or his parents at dinner. When he’d stormed back to his room, his mom apologized for him. She and his father had fostered an atmosphere of resentment these last few years. It was easier for Ben to sulk and avoid confrontations than for him to get involved with the fights. It would be a hard habit for him to break.

Mrs. Phillips also apologized about sending Ben to school tomorrow. She knew Andi would want to get to her parents as soon as possible, but the school had called that morning. Turned out each of Ben’s teachers was concerned about all of the time he was missing. He already was struggling in each class, and the teachers and administrators were afraid that he’d fall so far behind he wouldn’t be able to catch up.

“He’s a bright kid,” his mom said, “as I’m sure you’ve discovered, but he spends way too much time with those video games. Neither Trent nor I bothered to put a stop to that these past few years.” She paused, and tears formed in her eyes. “The principal didn’t say it, but it was implied that the school thinks Trent and I are being bad parents. Even if I’m reading too much into it, it doesn’t matter. We were horrible, horrible parents to Ben, and I need to start fixing that problem.”

Andi gave her a hug, and Mrs. Phillips cried in her arms for a few minutes. When the tears stopped, Andi said, “It’s okay. If I thought a few hours would ruin anything, I would have insisted we go right away. But you saw first-hand that time works differently in that realm, so it’s good that he’s going to school.” She gave Mrs. Phillips a grin. “I even promise to make sure he does all his homework from now on. How about that?”

That brought out more tears from her, but this time while she laughed. “It’s a deal. I’m glad you’re a part of his life, Andi. I’m glad you get to be a part of our lives.”

“Me, too,” she said.

Ben’s mom took her back to her house to get her and Ben’s things, and then the rest of the evening was spent comparing life stories. It mostly consisted of Andi telling hers. It was the first time she’d ever shared so much about her past, and though Mr. and Mrs. Phillips were enthralled with such a long lifespan, she never realized what a sheltered, boring life she’d led. Through most of it, Mom and Dad had placed them far from any civilization, interacting with others only when necessary. It wasn’t until this past century, when most wild frontiers vanished in America, their home since the times of the first settlers from Europe, that they joined society. For a few years at a time, anyway. She knew more about most historical events because of history books, not through personal experience. That was sort of depressing.

As she reached the edge of Ben’s bed, he smiled up at her. Though she’d told herself she was just going to kneel next to the bed in case one of his parents came in, she climbed under the covers. She was painfully aware her nightshirt slid up as she did, but luckily when he embraced her, his arms looped around her middle back. Though as she melted into him, she wanted his hands lower.

“Still mad at me?” she whispered into his ear. Did he hear how husky her voice sounded? She hoped not and vowed to control herself.

He nuzzled her neck before moving up to whisper in her ear. “No. Not at you. At me. Sorry I was such a jerk. I want to help. I should be there with you.”

“It’s just Max at the beach. It’ll take two seconds. He’ll give me the incantation as quick as possible to get me out of his hair. You saw how he wanted nothing to do with this.”

“Yeah. It’s just…”

“What?” Anger, resentment, and remorse all fought to be the dominant emotion in him. “Tell me.”

He let out a sigh and buried his head into her neck. His tongue gently traced circular patterns, and his hand moved a little lower, still over her nightshirt, but brushing the top of her behind. She swooned, going lightheaded. What was wrong with her? His touch, his kisses, shouldn’t affect her like this. Not until they were fully bound. Especially after he’d been such a butthead all night.

Ben relented on her neck and came up to her ear, where he whispered, “You didn’t want me to go with you. That hurt.”

That’s what this was all about? And it wasn’t even true. “But I did. I said that. Remember?”

“You threw me to the school wolves quick enough.” The bitterness from earlier crept back into his voice.

She grabbed his face between her hands and forced him to look into her eyes. “There was no winning that battle. Sorry. Your mom was sending you to school, no matter what we wanted. This way we can see Rico tomorrow afternoon. Okay?” She didn’t bother to tell him about the call from school. It wasn’t her place; not yet.

He nodded, and tears sprang into his eyes. Seconds later he buried his head back into her neck and sobbed as quietly as he could. The pain and guilt pouring out of him brought tears to her own eyes, but she bit back any crying fits she might have. She ran her hands though his hair and whispered for him to let it all out, though she wasn’t quite sure what brought this on. She wished she could take all his pain away so she never had to see him hurt like this. She loved him too much.

She fought back a gasp, and her eyes went wide. Yes, she did love him. She told him as much in the necromancer’s realm, but that was more out of fear something bad would happen to one of them. But this? This was real, too real, and it scared her. According to what Mom had explained, his touch, his kisses, shouldn’t feel this strong with just their minor binding. They were synced up, but not as powerfully as she felt all the time around him. So what did it mean? Were they truly destined to be together? Beyond the dragon-Dragon Guard relationship? Yeah, like she said, scary.

Ben stopped and wiped his eyes on the back of his hand. “What is it?”

She didn’t quite understand the question. “What do you mean? I should be asking you that.”

“No, something startled you. I felt it.”

Oh. Yeah, he would have. But she couldn’t tell him her revelation, not yet. Not until she had time to think about it, examine what her feelings meant. Luckily a little white lie, and not even that much of one, popped into her head. “I don’t know. I guess it was because you were so upset.”

He looked at her for a second, but then nodded. “Sorry about that. For years I’ve wanted my parents to be happy together again, like they were when I was little. Now they seem like they might be, and the first thing I do is try to play them against each other. I’m not just a bad son, I’m a terrible person.”

Before he could start crying again, and he was headed that way, she kissed him. Hard, right on the lips. Their tongues entwined, and she pushed herself as close to him as she could. His parents could walk in right now, and she wouldn’t care. All that existed anywhere in the world at this moment was the two of them, and she never wanted it to end.

Until Ben’s hand moved down and rested on her butt. The both gasped into each other’s mouths and stared. Her nightshirt had risen up to her waist, so he felt only her underwear and a bit of skin. If that extra layer of nightshirt had been between them, it would have been nice, but this was too close, too much, too soon.

They jumped apart. “Sorry, sorry,” Ben said. “I didn’t know…”

“No, no, it’s my fault,” she said. “I didn’t realize it had slipped so far up.”

His face was etched in so much embarrassed horror, and she guessed hers was, too, that she didn’t know what to say. Then he started to giggle, she joined in, and they hugged again (of course after she’d suitably pulled her nightshirt down as far as it would go). She really did love him. They’d just embarrassed each other almost as much as she could imagine, and they were already laughing about it.

He kissed her cheek. “Maybe we could, uh, try that again sometime. When we’re both ready, I mean.”

She held back another giggle as she felt how much courage that took him to say. “Yeah, I’d like that. But not with your parents in the house. I should get back to my room before…”

“I’m surprised they didn’t already walk in.”

She caressed his cheek, gave him another soft but quick kiss, and climbed out of his bed. “Goodnight, Ben. I love you.” Oh god, she said it again, and this time neither one of them might die in the next few minutes. She rushed out of the room, trailed by Ben’s confusion, but as she climbed into bed, she felt the love coming from his room. Even when he said it to her on the necromancer’s realm, it hadn’t been anywhere near that strong. She suppressed a squeal and pulled up the covers.

Chapter 19

Thank goodness that class was over. Mrs. Reynolds, his biology teacher, had let them work in small groups to get ready for the chapter test, but no one would partner with him. They hadn’t been outright hostile about it or anything, but he’d been ignored. On purpose. No doubt about it.

Melissa’s texts hadn’t been idle threats. She’d spread rumors and lies about him, and it’d managed to make it though campus in three days. Probably less. Now everyone thought he was a jerk when it was Melissa, and though no one knew Andi, they already hated her. It wasn’t fair. All because Melissa was a spoiled brat who didn’t get her way. Why didn’t she get someone else to go out with her? Why did it have to be him?

He headed over to his normal break spot, a patch of dirt under a few trees near the Language Arts building. He, Randy, and Vince all had Language Arts third period, though Randy and Vince had a different teacher than him, so this was a nice close spot that was out of the way of where most people hung out. It didn’t work for Jay, who had PE after break, but he was outnumbered.

Ben rounded the corner and saw his friends. At least they’d talk to him. Since he hadn’t had time to play video games, he couldn’t get online and chat with them like he usually did. When Jay saw him, though, he said something to the other guys, and they all hurried away. Randy looked back at him and shrugged, but didn’t stop. Yeah, he got the message: No hard feelings, but why should they risk being ostracized, too? Ben got to the tree and sighed. This bad day could only get worse.

*****

Mr. Phillips parked the car at a metered spot close to the Newport pier. Though they’d be five minutes at the most, he fed in an hour’s worth of coins, just in case. All three marveled at the option to use a credit card to pay. Andi remembered when a nickel would buy you an hour instead of the $1.50 today. She was about to bring that up when depressed feelings spilled from Ben.

“Ben’s not having a good day,” she said.

“Poor dear,” Mrs. Phillips said. “I do feel bad about sending him to school, but I couldn’t let him miss any more days. He doesn’t need to get any further behind.”

“It’s those damn video games,” Mr. Phillips said. He then turned to Andi and asked, “You really know what he’s feeling from here?”

“Yeah. It’s almost as strong as if we were in the same room. I also know he’s at school. It’s as clear as if I had a satellite map on him. And sounds like, when we’re fully bound, I’ll be able to tell which classroom he’s in. Maybe even which seat.”

“Amazing,” Mr. Phillips said. “You’ll be handy to have on speed dial when I need the kid to mow the lawn.”

They all laughed and continued to the base of the pier, where Andi stopped to gather her courage. Mrs. Phillips put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed.

“You could have used his moral support, huh? I’m sorry about that. He must be having a bad day because he’s still mad about not being here.”

“No, he’s mostly over it. He knew I could handle this on my own. I’m sure it’s Melissa that’s causing him trouble. She’s been texting him nasty messages ever since he chose me over her.”

“Ugh. I do not like that Melissa girl,” Mrs. Phillips said. “I don’t know what Ben saw in her. She’s a little brat.”

Andi giggled, while Mr. Phillips nodded.

“We met her a couple of times,” he said, “and neither was very pleasant. You’d have thought Ben was her servant. I’m glad he didn’t get suckered into staying with her. She wasn’t daughter-in-law material. Not like you. I can already tell you’ll be great.”

Andi sucked in her breath and her face heated up. Mrs. Phillips must have noticed because she jumped in. “Why don’t you go grab us a late morning snack, Trent? Andi says this thing with the guy will just take a minute.”

“Yeah, sure. What do you want?”

She kissed his cheek. “Surprise us.”

When Mr. Phillips left, Andi and Mrs. Phillips slowly walked up the pier. “He’s a bit dense,” Mrs. Phillips said, “but I love him.” She let out a sigh. “I wish I could have remembered that five years ago. Ben would have had a nicer time growing up, that’s for sure. I’d say you need to remember that for yourself, but I guess the magic that brought you together will see to it. I have to be honest, I envy that.”

Andi didn’t like all this marriage talk. Though she was looking a lot more forward to it now that she realized she loved Ben, it was still too weird. Anyway, she needed to get through this thing with Max, but she did have a nagging question for Mrs. Phillips that had been bugging her since yesterday.

“How is it that you two believed so easily? Most people would have been thrilled to chalk up everything in the demon’s realm to a fever dream. And then all the stuff about me being a dragon and Ben being my Dragon Guard. You guys barely batted an eyelash. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m glad. It sped up the process of going after my parents, but it still seems strange.” They stopped and leaned on the railing, looking out at the ocean. Max could wait another couple of minutes.

Mrs. Phillips didn’t answer for a few seconds. When she did, her voice had a wistful quality to it. “I always knew there was something special about Ben. I’m his mother, so of course I sensed greatness in him, but it was even beyond that. I can’t explain it, even now, but there was, is, a hidden magic to him. I’d basically forgotten about it when Trent and I started having our problems. When that monster kidnapped us, my thoughts went back to Ben’s magic. I had no doubt he’d rescue us.”

“Did he ever do anything that made you think that?” According to Mom and Dad, the magic abilities shouldn’t have started until they were at least given a minor bind. But he had sensed the zombies before that.

“Nothing overt,” Mrs. Phillips said. “Mostly it was a vibe he threw off. I think his father felt it, too, but we never discussed it. I mean, he couldn’t be magic, right? As far as we knew, magic didn’t exist. But there were little things. He healed faster than he should have, but nothing too outrageous. I assumed his constitution was higher than most people’s. He broke his arm skateboarding once, and it healed a few weeks before the doctor predicted. There were always little things like that.”

“He bathed you both in a healing light when we were taking care of you,” Andi said. “He had no clue.”

Mrs. Phillips chuckled. “He can be pretty dense sometimes. He gets that from his father. So get used to it.” She gave Andi a hug, one which she happily returned.

Once they broke apart, Andi said, “But what about me? I expected to have to go through a whole explanation and transform right there in your living room, to get you guys to believe I was a dragon.”

“Andi, dear, do you think anything would have surprised us yesterday after what we went through at the hands of the sorcerermancer?”

“Necromancer,” she said, absently correcting Mrs. Phillips. Then she nodded and said, “I see your point.”

“Besides, it goes back to what I knew about Ben. Your revelation made as much sense as anything.”

Andi smiled and nodded. Then thoughts of her task filled her. “I should get this over with. Wait here. I see him down at the end.” Mrs. Phillips wished her luck and gave her another hug.

As she approached, Max look at her, but his whole body stiffened. That might be a good thing. If he didn’t want to talk, he’d just give her the incantation and let her go.

“Hi, Max.” She pushed past him and leaned on the pier railing, staring out at the ocean.

“You realize he’ll be after you next, right? You shouldn’t be here.”

“Afraid he’ll take you out, too?”

He cast his line out. “He won’t attack here. He’ll wait until you’re alone. With or without the gimp you call a mate.”

“He’s not a gimp, and he’s not my mate. Not yet. He’ll be strong enough when we’re fully bound.”

Max chuckled as he trolled his line back. “You don’t know the half of it. But neither of us is wrong. He’s far too weak until the true binding ceremony, but once you’re bound? Watch out.”

She turned and looked at him for the first time. She didn’t like the way his eyes sparkled. “What do you mean?”

“Nothing, nothing. Forget I said anything. I just meant the boy is going to be powerful.”

A short lady with long red hair, wearing similar fishing attire, spoke up. “No wonder so many despise you. You talk in riddles, and they’re not very good at that.”

“Hush, Nix. No one asked you. I’m trying to conduct business here.”

Nix? Why did that name sound familiar? Wasn’t that what her parents called Max’s wife? She sounded like an ally, so Andi liked her right away.

“You’re not conducting any business. You’re lecturing and stonewalling the poor girl for things that aren’t her fault.”

Max stopped pulling in his line and glared at his wife. “If you’re not going to help me, why don’t you go home? Or at least pick another spot to fish.”

“Oh, sweetheart, but I am helping. I’m keeping you from making yourself look stupid.” She winked at Andi, who gave a sliver of a smile. She didn’t want to give more in case it upset Max.

“You know I couldn’t help her even if I wanted to.”

“Can’t and won’t are two very different things, you stubborn old lizard.”

“Please,” Andi said. “All I need is the incantation to get into Rico’s realm, and then I’ll leave you alone.”

Max shook his head and continued reeling in his fishing line. “You’re not bound, so unless your parents are here, I can’t help. It’s dragon law.”

Nix smacked him on the shoulder. “Etiquette, not law. And you know it. Quit taking your anger towards her parents out on her. You know darn well you can make exceptions, especially in cases such as this.”

Max pulled his empty line in and cast it out again. Once it splashed into the ocean, he turned to Andi, his features softened. “Nix is right. I’m being harsh because of your father, and I’m sorry.”

“So you’ll help?”

He shook his head, and Nix started to argue again, but he cut her off before she could get a head of steam. “I won’t help, but it’s for your own good. If I give you that incantation, and you somehow get Rico to help, which, by the way, is highly unlikely, you’ll be going to your death. Without a proper guard, you’re not strong enough. For most things, to say nothing of this demon killing madman.”

“But I have to try.” Andi felt tears building up, but she fought them. She couldn’t look any weaker than he already thought she was. “Besides, you said it yourself. He’s going to come after me next, so I’m doomed anyway.”

Max slammed his fishing pole into a holder at the railing and grabbed her shoulders, a manic look in his eyes. This time Andi couldn’t help letting out a yelp. “No, he won’t get you or your mate. I’ll see to it. You can’t hide on your own, but I’ll take you to the Dragon Council. We’ll leave right away. We can stop by the boy’s school and get you both to safety. Even Derian can’t get through the council’s security.”

Nix put a hand on Max’s shoulder. This time Andi didn’t like the look on her face. She wasn’t an ally anymore. Maybe not an enemy, but certainly not a friend.

“You know the prophecy speaks of two outcomes. Saving the boy could be the worst course of action.”

“Wait, what?” Andi wasn’t following everything going on lately, but that one came way out of left field.

“Nothing,” Max said before turning to Nix. “I trust the fates more than you. Leon and Cassandra’s child wouldn’t be subjected to such evil.”

“Evil? What are you talking about? And what prophecy?”

“Fine,” Nix said. “You believe in fate so much, why don’t we let it decide? Give her the incantation, and we’ll see what Rico does. If he gives her the spell, so be it. If not…”

“If not,” Max said, turning back to Andi, “you come back here and we’ll get you to the council. Okay? There’s nothing else I can do.”

Nix let out a hurumph and said, “That’s true enough. Take the deal, dear.”

“I don’t understand what’s going on. What prophecy, and why would Ben be evil?”

Nix smiled at her, her features again read friend, though Andi was a bit wary. “Max and I should have discussed that part in private, headaches be damned. I, we, apologize.” Max nodded in agreement. “You worry about convincing Rico to give you that spell so you can rescue your parents.”

“But if Rico won’t help, we can come back here, and you’ll help?”

Her gaze again turned icy. “He will. And despite my better judgment, I won’t interfere.” With that, Nix walked away.

They watched her go, and then Max said. “She’ll be back soon enough. She loves that fishing pole too much to leave it unattended for long. What do you say we get you on your way before she comes back? If she wasn’t my guard, my mate, I know I wouldn’t want to see her at the moment.” His smile brought one out of Andi. He placed his hands on her temples, and a flash of energy passed between them. “There. You’re all set.”

She nodded, rolling the strange word around in her head. Demon language, she assumed. “Thank you.” She glanced over to the other side of the pier to where Nix had gone and shuddered. She wanted to forget all about Max’s Dragon Guard, but something in the back of her mind told her Nix knew more about the prophecy than even Max.

Andi started to walk away, but before she made it three steps, she turned back. He shook his head. “Not yet. You’ll learn all about it when the time is right. Trust me.”

“Okay.” The look in his eyes told her arguing was useless. How did adults know how to use that look so well? She turned and headed back to Ben’s parents. They’d been waiting long enough. Besides, she had what she came for.

Chapter 20

Ben stared out the window of the car, trying to forget all about school. Not only had everyone ignored him or given him dirty looks, but to top it all off, his teachers stacked him high with all the homework he’d missed. Plus, depending on how long it took to rescue Andi’s parents, he had no clue when he’d get to it. At least Andi offered to help. Since she already knew the answers, the work would be easier.

When he complained about his day, everyone told him not to worry, that it’d all pass. While that ticked him off, he took solace in the fact that they at least felt bad for him. Andi gave him a quick hug, and then held his hand all the way to Orangeville Acres, which was nice. Mom and Dad voiced their dislike for Melissa more than once. Both called her a spoiled brat, and how they were glad he’d found Andi. They all had his back, which brightened his mood that much more, but that didn’t mean he wanted to go back tomorrow. Maybe the spell would have to be used in the morning, and he’d be forced to skip school.

He asked Andi how it went at the pier, and though she said fine, she wore a look that said to ask her later. He also wanted to talk about last night when she said she loved him, but he couldn’t bring that up around Mom and Dad. Her emotions had been way different, way more intense, than the first time in the demon’s realm. What was that about? Since she appeared deep in thought, and Mom and Dad were talking to each other up front, he sat there, staring at the nearing park, and trying not to think about anything at all.

Once they reached the parking lot, they found it as slow as Monday. Yes, he and Andi needed to come here for fun some school day. They’d have the run of the place. Mom handed everyone a ticket. Dad bought them online earlier to save time, but with no line at the ticket booths, it didn’t matter much. Which was too bad as he might have been able to talk them into season passes. Ah well, maybe for Christmas. Maybe Andi’s parents would get her one, too. Wait

“Do you celebrate Christmas?”

She frowned at him for a second, totally taken off guard by the question. “Yeah. Mom and Dad go way out for it. One of the few times they draw attention to themselves. Wait until you see all the decorations. Why?”

“I don’t know. It just popped into my mind.”

Her face brightened, and she clutched his arm as they hurried to the front gate. “Season passes?”

It was his turn to frown. “How’d you know?”

“Please.” She rolled her eyes. “I can read you like a book without feeling your emotions. And that’s after a week and a half.”

He groaned. “It’s going to be a long bunch of centuries.”

“Yeah, right. You know you love it.”

There was that L-word again. He stumbled, but luckily Andi still had a hold of his arm, keeping him from toppling over. She snickered and apologized, embarrassment coming from her, and he knew it had nothing to do with him tripping.

“Tumbling into love there, Sport?” Dad said from behind them.

His face heated up fast, and he turned and mouthed, “Stop it.” Both his parents busted up laughing. He turned to tell Andi he was sorry, but she was having a hard enough time fighting to keep from laughing. He sighed and shook his head. At least Mom and Dad were holding hands. That was pretty cool.

Once inside, he and Andi took off towards Reach for the Sky. They didn’t run since a security guard might stop them, and that would take longer than power walking the entire way. They had their cell phones on to call Mom and Dad when they were done. Hopefully it wouldn’t be a wasted trip. Rico seemed to dislike him, so they’d have to see if that would keep him from helping.

On the way, he asked her again about the pier. It hadn’t been as easy as she hoped, but in the end, Max had given her the incantation. He tried to pry more details from her, but she clammed up. She’d learned something disturbing and didn’t want to share, that much was clear. He didn’t press the issue. For now.

Reach for the Sky had no line, so they got on without having to wait even as long as on Monday. “Picture me and his realm while you say his name,” Andi said. He nodded and they exploded out of the station. What a rush! He could ride this all day, but he remembered their task and had Andi and Rico’s realm in his mind before they hit the loop. Once at the apex of their climb, reality flashed, and they stood in front of the demon’s desk. He wasn’t thrilled to see them.

“If it isn’t Alexandria and her half-powered friend.” Rico laughed. It sounded like acid bubbling out. “Where are my manners? You’re not even close to half-powered, are you?” He laughed again.

“We assume you know what happened to my parents,” Andi said.

“Of course,” Rico said. “My sympathies, but you’ll be interested to know they’re still fighting. And no matter what happens with them, the debt still stands.”

“Fine. But can you give us the spell again so we can bring them back?”

“Give it to you?” A sinister grin popped up on his face. “My dear girl, I don’t eek out a living giving things away.”

“We’ll go double in debt,” Ben said, but his words were met with a contempt-filled stare.

“Please,” Andi said. “We’ll do anything.”

“Anything, you say?”

She nodded, and Ben followed suit.

“Interesting. I’ve always joked about it, but in truth, I have wanted a baby dragon. If you two are willing to pledge me your child, we have a deal.”

Andi gasped, and Ben stepped forward, anger fuelling him to the point that he could barely spit out, “Don’t even joke about it, demon.”

Before he could even blink, Ben found himself flat on his back on the other side of the cavernous room with Rico perched on his chest. Was there actual acid in the demon’s mouth? With the look of hate etched on his face, it was quite possible.

“Someday you’re destined to be one of the most powerful beings anywhere, but don’t mistake the future for the present. I could snap you like a twig without trying.”

Ben tried to look for Andi, but Rico pushed his head down so he had to stare into the demon’s eyes. “You realize if fate hadn’t intervened, made you her Dragon Guard, she may never have looked at you twice. Your powers might have gone unfulfilled because you’d have had no clue what was happening. You’d be stuck in a dead-end existence with that other girl.”

Andi, in her dragon form, snatched Rico and flung the demon across the cavern. As gracefully as if he’d jumped, Rico landed on top of his desk. “I have to admit, I admire the fire in the two of you. To be honest, if you do ever manage to merge into your intended life, I’d like you on my side.”

“Give us the spell and we will be,” Andi said, back in human form.

Rico did a front somersault off his desk to the floor in front of them. “Tempting, but I’d hate to see such a spell wasted. I don’t think you two have a rescue mission in you.”

“Give us a…” Ben started to say, but Rico cut him off.

“But, if you can prove to me you’re worthy, I will give you the spell. For the regular price, of course.”

Andi leaned over and whispered, “I don’t think we’re going to get a better deal.”

“Indeed you’re not,” Rico said, though there was no way he should have been able to overhear her.

They both looked at him and nodded.

“Splendid.” Rico snapped his fingers, and an envelope appeared in Andi’s hand. “When the sun has risen tomorrow in your mortal realm, open that envelope. It will have your instructions. But don’t open it until then.”

“Why not?” Ben asked.

“Mouthy little cur, aren’t you, boy?” Distinct hate bled from Rico’s voice. Why did the demon hate him so much? “Don’t open it before that because if you do, it’ll be blank, and our deal will be off. And I can already hear the question of why coming to your feeble brain. Because that’s the way things work.”

“Thank you,” Andi said. “We won’t open it until morning.”

“And we’ll pass whatever test you throw our way,” Ben said.

“Good. Of course, too bad your parents are captured. I’d trust them sight unseen on a double debt.”

“Why?” Andi said. “They never told me what they had to do for you. They never even told me why they came to you in the first place, other than that Derian was involved. How did he come into their lives?”

Rico’s delighted, evil-looking smile grew back on his face. “They never told you about their war with Derian? Why, I’d be delighted to enlighten you. And you know how I said I never give anything for free? I’ll break that just to see your face as you watch.” He snapped his fingers, and everything went dark.

Chapter 21

Vernon saw them crest the hill not long after sunrise. It wasn’t much of an army, merely a handful of soldiers on horseback, but more than enough to seize control of the farmstead if that was their aim. The group moved in no hurry, and Vernon reckoned it might be halfway to noon or later before they reached the farm. Soldiers weren’t often seen this far out in the undeveloped lands, but it wasn’t unheard of. Likely they were simply passing by. He’d be thrilled to offer each a slab of bread and cheese if they’d like. Harvest had been kind this season.

Cassandra moved from nest to nest, collecting geese eggs. A group of soldiers from the distant kingdom had been approaching for the last few hours, but since neither Mother nor Father showed the least bit of interest, she paid them little mind. There was too much to do. By the time she walked back to the kitchen with the eggs, the soldiers had reached the edge of the farm. Each wore chain armor, and she eyed their weapons with interest. How often in her childhood had she picked up loose sticks and pretended they were her swords used to fight evil? The only rider without weapon or armor appeared to be the leader. He wore a brown robe and carried a wooden staff. Not the sort of thing to wear into battle. Shouldn’t the soldiers be leading him?

Mother took the eggs and set them on the table. “Stay hidden, Cassandra. Everything will be fine, but no need to be careless.” She and Mother peered out the kitchen window. Father walked over and hailed the approaching group. Words were spoken, first in a friendly tone, but soon they turned heated. Cassandra couldn’t pick up much of what was said, but she clearly heard Father yell at the soldiers to leave. The one dressed in wool refused and raised his hand. It glowed orange, and a ball of fire shot out and engulfed Father. He fell and didn’t move.

Cassandra cried, and soon bordered on hysterics. Mother, tears in her own eyes, grabbed her shoulders and slapped her hard across the face. The slap stung, but, more importantly, it shocked the tears from her.

“Run and fetch Silas,” Mother said. “He will know what to do.” She pushed Cassandra out the door. “Quickly, child, don’t look back.”

She ran. And ran. As quick and hard as she could ever remember, and that was saying something as Cassandra loved to run. She did disobey Mother once. When she reached the outer fields, she looked back. Mother now lay beside father, smoke rising off both. She kicked aside her sandals and redoubled her efforts to get to their distant neighbor, Silas.

Something felt off. As Leon churned butter, he scanned the surrounding horizon, but couldn’t find an explanation. For some reason, Cassandra, the pretty girl who lived on the neighboring farm, out beyond the goat pastures, came to mind. Not that thoughts of her were unusual. He often dreamed of running away with her and starting a farm of their own, but it was a silly dream. Mother and Father assured him he’d find a mate, but she wouldn’t appear for another 150 years, at least, generations after Cassandra was dead and gone. Leon sighed and returned to the butter.

A few minutes passed before thoughts of Cassandra returned. This time he couldn’t ignore them. She was both close and in distress. Leon stepped away from the churn and gazed in the direction of her farm, sure she’d appear. And she did, almost that very instant, jogging in from the goat pastures. He sprinted forward to meet her, catching her in the middle of the recently harvested fields. His heart skipped a beat or two as he held her. He didn’t care what Mother or Father said. Cassandra would be his mate.

She clutched him, doing what she could to catch her breath. She hadn’t run so far or fast since she’d been a child. It didn’t help that now that she’d stopped, the anguish of her parents’ murders caught up to her. Or that she was grasped firmly by the gorgeous Leon, who had to be her one true love. None of the other boys she’d ever met, be it at market or when they arrived to help Father in the fields, made her feel like he did. Her knees turned to water when he so much as glanced at her, and now he held her tight. She didn’t want him to let go, for then reality would begin again, and she wasn’t sure she could bear it.

“I need your father,” she managed at last to gasp out. “My mother, father, both killed by soldiers.”

“What?” He pushed her to arms-length to look into her eyes, and then pulled her back into his embrace. “Father!” he called. “Father!”

His father, Silas, burst out of their barn, while his mother, Phoebe, zipped out of the cottage. Both were by their sides before what Cassandra thought possible.

“What is it?” Silas asked.

“Soldiers killed her parents.” Leon’s arms were still wrapped protectively around her.

“What happened?” Silas asked.

“They approached from the hills. Father went out to greet them. The one in front, he wore no armor and carried but a staff for protection. He lifted a hand and threw fire at Father. Mother sent me to fetch you. When I’d gone a good distance, I turned back and saw Mother lying dead next to Father. Smoke rose from them both.”

“Derian, the court wizard from Castle Donovan,” Phoebe said. “Who else holds such power?”

“Or would commit such a brazen act?” Silas said. “The king wants more land and sent out his sorcerer to take it without negotiations.”

“We must stop them,” Cassandra said, rage overcoming her sorrow. “I can help. Father taught me to use both a pitchfork and a scythe as weapons.”

Both Silas and Phoebe squinted as if powerful headaches had overcome them. Cassandra glanced up at Leon to gauge his reaction, but he didn’t seem worried. Before she could voice her concern, they looked fine.

Silas patted her shoulder. “I’m sure he taught you well, girl, but Vernon was no warrior. Leon, you stay with Cassandra. If those soldiers show up before we return, use whatever force necessary to stay safe. Remember, there is no dishonor in running. We can always come back and retake the farm. Lives are not so easily regained.”

Leon nodded. Father stepped away and took his true form. Mother leapt to his neck and steadied herself, and they bolted into the sky towards Cassandra’s farm. Leon looked down and found Cassandra watching with interest, but not surprise. He clutched her tighter, and she returned the embrace. If Father would transform in front of her, and she didn’t run in fear, maybe fate had picked her to be his mate.

Phoebe watched the land move from their farm to that of their now deceased neighbors. The 25 furlongs vanished quickly beneath Silas’s powerful wing strokes. Neither said anything to the other, both focused on finding the small battalion of soldiers and their dangerous leader.

“I see them.” Silas’s smooth, calming voice made her realize, like always, everything would turn out fine.

They swooped down in front of the wizard Derian and his troops, intent on initiating a dialog, but the wizard would have none of it. Two fireballs blasted at them, and a quick maneuver by Silas kept them from being singed. Silas retaliated with a burst of acid, but the wizard threw up an invisible shield that dropped the acid to a harmless pool on the ground. The soldiers rushed forward.

Phoebe flipped off Silas’s back, her battle axe ready to taste blood. Six solders, no matter how well trained, were no match for her. Silas exploded into the air to keep the wizard occupied.

She dove into their ranks, her axe blade tasting the blood of all six, though not mortally wounding any. That was a warning. They were now free to retreat. After the next pass, that wouldn’t be an option.

Silas outmaneuvered two more fireballs and a bolt of force before dive-bombing the wizard. His razor sharp teeth sank into what should have been flesh, but proved nothing but smoke. He dodged another magical attack, and then retreated to check on Phoebe.

The soldiers charged, and even Silas almost couldn’t follow her movements. She dove into the middle of the group, aiming to kill. Her deadly axe severed two heads and spilled the intestines of a third. The remaining soldiers turned and suffered the same fate. Had they even had time to notice their fallen comrades?

With only the wizard Derian left, Phoebe turned her attention on him. Silas spit more acid to keep him from hurling more spells. Another invisible shield kept the wizard safe, but it gave her the opportunity to close the gap unimpeded.

Before she could strike, the wizard vanished. They both scanned the area, ready for another magical assault, but instead of an attack, his voice rang out. “You have won for now. But be prepared. This is not over.”

With that, he was gone.

Leon met his parents outside the cottage, Cassandra at his side. The look on Mother’s face, and then on Father’s when he changed back to human, proved Cassandra hadn’t been exaggerating. She saw it, too, and buried her face into his chest and sobbed, while he shed a few tears of his own. He hadn’t known her parents well, but they were good people.

Father broke them out of their mourning. “Leon, do you love this girl?”

He looked down at her face, red and puffy from her tears, and knew no one could prove more beautiful. Today, with his parents gone to investigate her farm, had been the longest time he’d ever spent with her. How could he love her already? Yet he did, of that there was no doubt. He nodded.

“Cassandra, dear,” Mother said, “do you love Leon?”

She looked up into his eyes and nodded. “With all my heart.” He placed a gentle kiss on her forehead, his heart swelled to a size it had never before been.

“Then it is decided,” Father said. “You two shall be bound. Phoebe, prepare the ceremony while I scout the area to make sure the wizard has truly gone.” He transformed to his dragon form and took flight.

*****

Cassandra stepped into the kitchen to offer Leon’s mother help with dinner. She sensed Leon outside by the barn, chopping firewood. She smiled at his joy, at how pleased he was with himself, and wondered if the same feelings came from her. Her sorrow over her parents’ murder still hung heavy in her heart, but it was overshadowed, overwhelmed, by her intense feelings of love for Leon. They’d consummated their marriage not long after their binding, but she still longed to be entwined with him in his, their, bed. Only chores kept that from being a reality.

His mother looked up and gave her a wink. “Are you enjoying being bound, dear?”

Cassandra’s face heated up, but she couldn’t help but nod enthusiastically. “It’s wonderful. I can’t see him from here,” she said, gazing out the window, “but I know where he is.”

“And how does he feel?”

“He feels joyous.” Cassandra couldn’t suppress a giggle. “And he’s quite proud of himself.”

“Men usually are after their first time. Doesn’t matter if they’re dragon or human. Did you enjoy your ride?”

Her eyes went wide. “What?”

“I meant when he was a dragon. On his back, through the countryside. I don’t need to know about the bedroom. That’s etched clearly on your face.”

Cassandra blushed again, but soon joined his mother in laughter. After a minutes, she asked, “Does it ever stop feeling so invasive? I mean our silent communications, before you believe my mind covered in smut.”

“Yes. It’ll feel like second nature before long. Have you tried communicating when he was in human form?”

She winced from the memory. “It hurt horribly. I don’t think we’ll be doing that again.”

“It does come in handy.” Then with a chuckle, she said, “But, no, we don’t talk like that often, either. I doubt many do.” Her eyes then looked Cassandra up and down. She reached for a huge carving knife in the butcher block. “Catch,” she said, tossing it end over end towards Cassandra, who caught it easily.

Once she realized what had happened, she dropped the large knife, just missing severing her toe as it clattered to the hard wood floor. “Why did you do that?” She thought his mother liked her.

“You didn’t hurt yourself. I couldn’t have caught it. In fact, I doubt Silas or Leon could have made it look so easy.” She stepped around Cassandra, again eyeing her up and down. “Pick it up, dear,” she said, motioning to the knife. “Throw it so it sticks above the door.” When Cassandra hesitated, Leon’s mother leaned in close and whispered, “Trust me.”

Cassandra followed her instructions and picked up the knife. She ran her fingertips over every inch. It felt natural in her hands, the way no knife ever had before. She could gut the wizard without thinking. She pictured his face above the kitchen’s door and hurled it. The tip stuck deep in the middle of a knothole. She gasped.

Leon’s mother gave a satisfied sniff. “I have a feeling any weapon you pick up will become deadly. I guessed when you bragged about your prowess with a pitchfork and scythe. Your Dragon Guard powers don’t manifest before the binding, but they give hints. We’ll have to play around with different weapons to make sure. Other powers will appear as we test you.”

Cassandra started to ask Phoebe what her powers were, but before she could, shock and surprise rang out from Leon. Silas must have radiated similar feelings because Phoebe jumped at the same instant. They hurried to the door, with Cassandra yanking the knife free as they went.

Leon sprinted to the house. The wizard had returned, and the barn was alight with magical fire. He needed to get to Cassandra, make sure she was safe. Father, already a dragon, swooped down on the other side of the barn. His roar made it clear that though the wizard was alone, they couldn’t take him lightly.

“Into the house, Cassandra. You need to stay safe.”

Mother grabbed him by the shoulders. “Faith, Leon. The binding made her strong. Help your father. We’ll be there momentarily.”

He wanted to argue, but the iron glare Mother gave him forced a nod. He stepped to his beloved and gave her a hard kiss before running towards the barn. He was in his true form and in the air after a few strides. The evil wizard stood on the other side, jousting with Father. He’d throw his magical fire and then dissipate into smoke when Father bit at him, only to reappear not far away, and the battle would start anew.

“Blast him when he appears,” Father roared.

The wizard’s fireballs missed Father, who dove again at him. When he dissipated into smoke, Leon watched for his reemergence. Once the wizard appeared, Leon spewed his entire acid sac. It almost worked. Surprise was evident on the wizard’s face, but he still raised his invisible shield. It allowed Father an unimpeded attack, which the wizard only just parried with a bolt of force.

“We’re here,” Cassandra’s voice said into his mind. Such a strange feeling, but much welcomed.

“Be safe,” he said.

“I’m fine, love. I’ve never felt so much power.”

He chuckled and dove at the wizard, who again disappeared into smoke. It left a bitter taste, which he ignored and searched for the reappearance.

As he soared above the battlefield, Father roared instructions. “Protect your mother. She’ll launch a mental bolt at the wizard, but she’ll need time to charge it. I’ll distract him.”

“Yes, Father.” The wizard popped up on the other side of Cassandra and Mother. He landed in between them.

“When I say so, Leon, move,” Mother said.

“Tell her I understand,” he informed Cassandra, who relayed the message.

Father blasted more acid at the wizard, who again blocked it. Cassandra chose that moment to hurl her knife at the wizard’s exposed back. It flew true, but halfway there, it stopped in mid-flight and reversed its course, faster than her throw.

“No,” Leon yelled and moved from Mother to Cassandra to block the knife with his thick scales. Instead of striking him, it veered off towards Mother and punctured her chest. She fell back, and on the other side of the wizard, Father tumbled from the sky and thudded hard into the soil. Both were dead before Leon could blink.

Evil laughter spouted from the wizard, and Leon launched himself at him. A fireball erupted from the wizard’s hands and exploded in Leon’s face.

“Leon, no! Retreat!”

He touched down, pain spreading over his head and down his neck, and leapt to Cassandra. “Jump on my back.” When she did, he raced for the horizon. The battle with the wizard would continue when he could see straight. If he remained, he’d be careless in his bid for revenge for his parents, and that would endanger his beloved Cassandra. He wouldn’t do that.

*****

They took turns the next few days crying in each other’s arms. Cassandra wept for her mother and father, while Leon did the same for his own. Both also bitterly blamed themselves for his parents’ demise. Cassandra knew if she hadn’t thrown the knife, it wouldn’t have happened. Phoebe’s power would have overwhelmed the wizard, and they’d have won the day. Leon knew if he’d have stayed on guard of his mother, Cassandra could easily have dealt with the knife. Why had his mind been so clouded that he couldn’t see that? Both Mother and Father would be alive if he’d simply performed his duty.

After another meager supper of scrawny roast rabbit, Cassandra lay weeping in his arms. Tears of his own threatened to overtake him, but before they could, strong hands gripped their shoulders and tugged them apart.

“This is getting embarrassing.” A gruff older man stood above them, a scowl etched on his face. “It’s sad the wizard bested both sets of parents, but it won’t be solved by wallowing in self-pity. You’re a dragon and his guard. You can seek the type of vengeance mortals only dream about.”

“He’s too powerful,” Cassandra said at the same time Leon asked who he was.

“Let’s just say I keep an eye on things here for the Dragon Council. And, yes, he is too powerful for the two of you. That’s why I’m going to offer some help.”

“You’ll help us fight him?” Leon asked.

“Of course not. Your mind gained access to the council’s laws the moment you were bound. If you’d stop feeling sorry for yourself and dig into that information, I wouldn’t need to tell you that. This is still a family matter, and no other dragon can stick his or her nose into another family’s business. But I will tell you how to get to someone who can help.”

*****

Leon set down on the outskirts of his family’s land. The demon had placed knowledge of the riches that lay buried beneath the root cellar into the wizard’s head, sure it would drive him there. He’d also made the wizard think there were magic trinkets among the mundane treasures. Though that wasn’t true, the wizard didn’t know it, and the demon promised it would get him there alone. They would then sneak up on him and cast the spell, which would send him to a realm from which he could never escape.

The spell etched in Leon’s brain felt as if it were pulsing, ready to be let free. Cassandra mentioned hers did the same. Both itched to get to the wizard, their sorrow and pity now buried and replaced by a much healthier need for revenge. The demon, Rico, let slip that Leon and Cassandra had earned the watchful eye of the Dragon Council. This Derian had not yet made a move, but the council feared he would spark a war which might engulf all of humanity. If dragon law allowed it, every council member would be there making sure the wizard was put in his place.

“Anything?” Cassandra asked. Already her voice coming straight into his mind felt natural.

“Nothing yet. Hopefully Rico was right about him returning tonight. I’m done sleeping in ditches and haystacks.”

“A bed would be nice,” she said with a sigh.

A shimmering ball of energy chose that moment to materialize at the door of the cottage. The wizard looked around, was satisfied he was alone, and entered the house.

Cassandra clutched onto Leon as he flew forward. Would she ever be used to flying? The jump left her stomach back at the edge of the field, but she didn’t have time to let it slow her down. She slid off Leon’s back, and he transformed into his human shape to fit through the door. They shouldn’t need his dragon might if they could surprise the wizard and get the spell off quickly. The demon said it would take less than a second.

They raced back to the root cellar. There wasn’t much room down there, and more importantly, nowhere for him to hide. They reached the wizard just as he’d flung the trap door open, and he had only time to look up before they loosed the spell. A silent scream exploded on his face, and he was gone.

Cassandra slumped into Leon. It was over. The price they’d promised the demon was high, but worth it. She felt the pride of vengeance swell in her chest. The same came from her beloved, who smiled and tugged her towards their marital bed.

Chapter 22

Andi sat stunned as the vision dissipated. Ben’s hand settled on her shoulder. When Mom had brought her into the kitchen that night after the vampire attacks to explain binding even deeper, she’d hinted about Andi’s grandparents, and how they were at the heart of Dad’s reluctance to bind her and Ben, but she hadn’t expanded on it. Whenever she’d asked about her grandparents in the past, all she got was a quick answer that they were dead. Looking back on her childhood now, how could she have taken everything at such face value? If she’d questioned her parents more often, maybe everything wouldn’t be a surprise.

“That’s why your dad hates me,” Ben said, his voice barely above a whisper. Sadness seeped from his every pore. “I remind him how his parents died, since it was when his guard showed up.”

She leaped into his arms and hugged him tight. “No, that’s not true. He doesn’t hate you.” And he didn’t. It was the situation he hated. She kissed Ben’s cheek. “He’s just overprotective. I’m sure you’ll be exactly the same way if we have a daughter.”

“Maybe, but I’ll at least try to be civil.”

She started to defend her daddy, but pushed it from her mind for the time being. She leaned up and kissed Ben on the lips, but didn’t stop there. She shoved her tongue into his mouth, bringing out a grunt of surprise from him. They might have continued for hours had Rico not started laughing.

“Delectable. Simply delectable. Your expressions throughout made it all worth my time, and then I’m rewarded with a show at the end.”

Andi had forgotten the demon was there, and wished she could crawl under a rock. Ben would be right there with her.

Rico picked up on their feelings and laughed all the harder. When he finished with the mocking, he said, “I hope you children learned what you needed because it’s not often I give something away for free. But enough of that.” He pointed to the envelope. “Remember, follow the instructions, but not until tomorrow morning. Open it before then and it will be forever blank, and you’ll receive no further help.” He snapped his fingers, and they found themselves at the exit of Reach for the Sky. Andi checked her cell phone. They’d been gone only a couple of minutes. She placed the envelope safely in her purse and nudged Ben to call his parents.

*****

Cassie decapitated another vampire while kicking a skeleton in the ribs, displacing its hips from its upper body. After that it was an easy enough task to hack its head from its shoulders. All the while, Lee made quick work of his group of zombies.

“Cassie?” he asked as they waited for the next wave.

“I’m fine,” she said, a bit more harsh than she meant. He’d know she was lying. They’d been fighting for days, weeks, years. She had no idea how long, and her body was close to giving out. If her mind didn’t first.

Lee gave a grunt, and since his voice didn’t flutter into her mind, she took it for what it was. She didn’t dare ask how he was holding up, though his constitution in his natural form put hers to shame. He’d be able to keep up the fight long after she dropped. As long as she didn’t die, of course.

Derian’s maniac laughter filled her ears. “You two have preformed admirably. I didn’t expect there to be this much fight in you. Believe it or not, you’ve managed to defeat every one of my undead minions in this realm. I suppose I could say valiant effort and let you go.” He let loose another blast of insane laughter. “Or I could force you to run through the gauntlet again. This time all at once.”

The ground shook like an earthquake, and every type of undead monster they’d already bested, from the pale-skinned zombies to the raw-fleshed ghouls to the semi-transparent ghosts, rose out of the soil. Cassie couldn’t do it. She fell to her knees and dropped her swords. Lee reverted to his human form and knelt down beside her.

“You win, Derian. Call them off.”

“With pleasure.” The monsters disappeared, and the world blinked. Cassie and Lee found themselves in one of the small rock rooms where Andi and Ben had rescued the Phillips. Derian flashed an evil grin, and Cassie’s blood ran cold. He waved his hand out in front of them, and they flew back to the wall, crashing hard into the solid rock. Though they weren’t shackled, neither could move.

“I can’t wait to inflict just a portion of the pain you forced me to endure. But first I’ll bring in your daughter so you can watch as I ever so slowly, ever so painfully, carve her up in front of you.”

Cassie opened her mouth to tell Derian where he could stick his plans to hurt Andi, but a blinding headache, followed by Lee’s voice, cut her off. “He may be bluffing about Andi. Don’t make him bring her into this out of what he might think is wounded pride.”

She nodded and slumped down as best she could, defeated.

*****

Andi stood waiting at the edge of campus, a smile on her face. It was a welcome sight. Today had been like yesterday, except now he received more dirty looks than people ignoring him. He wasn’t sure which was worse. Melissa deliberately avoided him a few times. Subtlety wasn’t her strength, so he guessed she was letting him stew in this mess.

“I don’t have to ask how your day went,” Andi said, grabbing his hand when they were close enough.

“Good. I don’t want to relive it.”

“Will it make you feel better if I tell you you’ll have forgotten all about this in a month? Maybe less?”

“Nope. Won’t make me feel one bit better.”

She giggled, pounced in front of him, and gave him a quick peck on the lips. Before he could kiss back, she was at his side, a smug smile plastered on her face.

“More stuff like that’ll make me feel better, though.”

Her smile grew more pronounced, and he could swear she was strutting. He busted up laughing for the first time today. She snuggled up next to him as they walked.

“Did you find anything out about the envelope?” he asked. They’d opened it together that morning, and it had read, “Find the key to dreams. Four guard it. Defeat them before they can sound the alarm. Once you’ve acquired it, discover your next path.” It also listed an incantation for them to both speak before they went to bed. Andi stayed home to scour the Internet for any clues.

“No, nothing.”

“You’d think he’d have given us more.”

“I think it’s part of his test. Though I wish it could have been rescuing my parents. We would have killed two birds with one stone.”

He grunted his agreement, and she stopped and looked at him. “What else is wrong?”

He gave a little jump and stared back at her. Whoa, he’d only just started thinking about it. She was good. “Uh, nothing, not really. I was thinking about a thing Rico said. When he pinned me to the ground.”

She rolled her eyes and said, “And I have to get pliers to force it out of your mouth.”

“No,” he said with an eye roll of his own. “He said if fate hadn’t interfered, you wouldn’t have looked at me twice.”

“As if,” she said. “That’s not the real problem. The real one is you wouldn’t have given me the time of day.”

“What? No way. You’re totally hot.”

“So? You’d have been wrapped around Melissa’s little finger, thinking you were a happy little boyfriend, but secretly miserable. It might have even been a secret to you. Besides, I so would have looked at you twice.” She blushed. “You’re a total hottie.”

He laughed and said, “No, I’m not, but thanks for saying it.”

She stepped in front of him and kissed him again, this one lingering a bit longer than the earlier peck. “I’m not just saying it. But, seriously, that was bugging you? I don’t even think it’s true.” She paused, and he could sense her choosing her words carefully. “I think fate would have put us together no matter what. For something that doesn’t have to do with you being my guard.”

They started walking again. Yeah, she was right, but that was too scary to think about. Instead, he said, “Rico said something else.”

“What?”

“He said one day I’d be one of the most powerful beings anywhere.”

Andi stiffened, and the blood drained from her face.

“Andi?”

“Max and his wife. Yesterday at the pier they mentioned something about a prophecy. It seems it’s about you.”

“Me? A prophecy? What did it say?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know. Something about you being either good or evil. Max thought you’d turn out good, but Nix wasn’t so sure.”

“What? No way. How could I go evil? I’m helping fight evil right now, aren’t I?”

“I know, right?” She shrugged her shoulders. “They wouldn’t tell me anything. Sorry, I should have said something sooner.”

He draped an arm over her shoulders. “No, it’s fine. I probably would have brooded over it. Mom and Dad say I have a tendency to do that.”

“Yeah, I noticed a couple of days ago. Believe me.” She nudged him with her hip, knocking him a bit off balance.

“Hey.” He pushed her shoulder, shoving her away. Before she could get too far, he grabbed her hand and yanked her back into his arms. “Cool. Girlfriend yo-yo.” He did it a few more times, planting a quick kiss on her each time she flew back to him. Both of them were laughing, nothing existing in the world except for them. Until the buzzing of the undead assaulted the back of Ben’s neck.

“Zombies,” he said. Without realizing it, they’d wound up right in front of her house.

“Where?” She noticed where they were. “Inside?”

“Yeah.” They zipped up the lawn to the front door. “I can’t tell how many, so be careful. There’s a lot.”

She unlocked the door and grabbed the knob. “Go straight to my mom’s weapon room. It’s our best bet.” She glanced up at him before opening it. “But why are they here?”

“No idea. Do you think they’re at my house, too?” Mom and Dad had gotten the rest of the week off from work, so both should be home at that moment.

She didn’t look at him, but the worry bleeding off gave her away. “I don’t know. Let’s figure this out first, and then we’ll go check.”

He started to argue, but stopped himself. She was right. The zombies had to be here for a reason. Maybe his house was their next stop, and if they defeated them, there would be no problems at home.

“Okay, ready? Remember where the weapon room is? And stay behind me until you’re armed. I’m sure she has another sword and shield in there.”

“Yeah-yeah, fine. Go.”

She took a deep breath and shoved the door open. A stench of decay greeted them, but no zombies rushed forward. Or stumbled forward anyway. They dashed through the entry into the living room and turned right towards that hallway. The weapon room was at the end. Before they could get to the hall, Ben stiffened when he felt the familiar prickling on his neck, his sixth sense alerting him to imminent danger.

“Watch out, Andi,” he yelled. The zombies were all around, seemingly climbing out of the walls. He couldn’t count how many.

“Stay behind me,” she growled. “Fight through them. We’ll get there.” With that, her neck elongated, and her true head, her dragon head, appeared. She snapped at the closest ones, ripping a few arms and hands off. Fingers brushed Ben, but only his clothes, so he couldn’t feel the clammy, dead skin. He pressed into Andi’s back as she pushed forward, snapping at any zombie in her way with her powerful jaws.

Halfway down the hall, too many zombies jammed in so they couldn’t move. She’d done an excellent job of keeping him safe, but now the sheer numbers made it impossible. She reached down and lifted him by the back of his shirt with her mouth, and flung him down the hall. He hit the back wall and tumbled unceremoniously to the floor. He didn’t bother to take stock to see if he’d been injured as he rolled into the weapon room. That movement in itself proved he was fine. He quickly located a sword and shield and rushed to help Andi.

She’d turned her skin completely to blue dragon scales. While it would be too thick for the zombies to hurt her, that didn’t look to be their objective. They weren’t fighting to injure, but to overwhelm and incapacitate. No doubt the necromancer had sent them to drag her back to that horrible place. And if she wasn’t with him, there’d be no way he could use the spell on his own. He couldn’t even get to Rico to beg for help, which he wouldn’t get anyway.

He shoved his sword into the nearest zombie, and then ripped it out, slicing two others off at the chest. The zombies pushed towards him. He managed to keep the mass of undead bodies at bay with various thrusts and slices, parries and jabs. Andi escaped from her predicament and zipped behind him. With his shield blocking almost every conceivable attack from the front, and the walls at their back covering their flanks, they were free to take pot-shots at the rest of the undead creatures.

A scream echoed through the house. A very human scream that sounded like a girl. He glanced back at Andi, but couldn’t read the expression on her dragon face. Her confusion made it clear she didn’t know who it was, either.

Though they couldn’t converse, Ben remembered she could still understand him. “This time follow close to me.” He didn’t wait for a response. His shield knocked zombies out of the way, and they made it back to the living room. Melissa lay in a ball in the middle of the room, whimpering unintelligible words while three zombies stared down at her. Ben leapt forward and hacked them all in half, while Andi, back in her fully-human form, helped Melissa to her feet. Ben waded back into the hallway and finished off the rest of the undead.

“There’s so many of them,” Andi said, glancing around the room. “How are we going to burn them all before they reattach themselves?”

Melissa followed her gaze to all of the fallen zombies. The body of one of the first dispatched already began to twitch towards its head. Her eyes rolled back into her skull, and Ben thought she’d pass out, but instead she let out an ear-piercing scream.

“Shut her up before one of the neighbors calls the police,” Ben said. “I’m going to try something.” It had worked with the vampires, so maybe it would get rid of zombies, too.

He positioned his sword above one and concentrated. Andi had somehow gotten Melissa to stop, so that helped. He plunged the sword down, and the zombie’s rotting flesh melted away around the blade until it was just a pool of putrid bile. That, too evaporated, and the carpet wasn’t even damp. The detached head also disappeared.

“Cool,” Andi said, “but it’s going to take you forever to get them all.”

“Better than dragging each one outside and starting a bonfire.”

“True. But Melissa could help.”

Melissa’s eyes went wide. “What? No! Ewww.” She started crying again, but at least this time at a much lower volume.

As Andi comforted Melissa and implored that she’d been kidding, something on one of the zombies caught Ben’s attention. He’d sliced its neck clean through, and where the blade had touched, the flesh melted like when he concentrated, though at a much slower rate. So far there was just a dime-sized puddle below, but given enough time, it’d melt all the way. And when he did concentrate on the blade, he wouldn’t need to keep it in each zombie very long at all to accelerate the melting process.

“Andi, check this out.”

Melissa tried to cling to her, to keep from being left alone on the couch, but Andi gently nudged her way free. When she saw, she smiled. “I’m guessing you weren’t using your undead killing mojo when you did this?”

He shook his head.

“Imagine how well it will work when we’re fully bound.” She then gasped.

“What?”

“You really are going to be powerful.”

“Yeah, I guess.” He frowned, thinking about the prophecy she’d mentioned. What if it was true? What if he wouldn’t handle the power well and did turn evil?

She gave him a hug and kissed his neck. “You won’t turn evil. I won’t allow it.”

“But what if you can’t stop me? What if I turn you evil, too?” He grabbed her shoulders and looked into her eyes. “Wait, how do you keep doing that? Can you read my mind already?”

“Like I needed any special powers to know what you were thinking.” She jabbed her thumb back towards the couch. “I bet Melissa even picked up on it.”

As if on cue, Melissa cleared her throat. “Guys, maybe you should pay attention to the creepy monsters. More of them are starting to move.” Though her voice sounded normal, there was a hint of hysterics underneath.

They looked around and saw she was right, but they weren’t in any danger yet. No need to waste time, though. Ben concentrated on the sword and stabbed zombies as he walked through the living room and hallway. The rotted bodies melted as quick as the first one, even though he didn’t keep the blade in place. After a few minutes, the house looked as if there’d never been a zombie attack. No pins and needles also meant they were safe from any others for the time being. Melissa jumped up, her face pale and eyes wide, and pointed at them.

“You guys are…are…”

Oh no, what was she going to say? Visions of this story running through the rumor mill at school entered his mind. And it would be worse than that. She’d post it all over the Internet. Had she seen Andi with her dragon neck and head? Though he doubted anyone would believe her, he guessed that the dragon world would frown on her story circulating in any form.

“…zombie hunters.”

Andi nodded and sat Melissa back down on the couch, while Ben let out a relieved sigh. “Sorry you had to be here for that. They wanted revenge for the last nest we took out.”

Melissa nodded vigorously. “Now that it’s over, it was actually pretty cool. Sorry I freaked out. When they came at me, I…”

“No worries,” Andi said, patting her shoulder. “If we weren’t zombie hunters, I’m sure we would have freaked out, too.” She looked up at Ben and winked. He fought hard to keep a straight face.

Melissa leaped off the couch and bounded towards Ben, practically tackling him in a bear-hug. “Oh, Ben, I’m so sorry about all the rumors I started. I swear I’ll fix everything.”

The blood drained out of his face as he looked over her shoulder to Andi. He hadn’t wanted Melissa to hug him, so she couldn’t be mad, right? Instead he found her hiding a smile behind her hand and doing her best not to burst out in laughter.

“And now I see why you had to choose her over me. I understand you need to keep the world safe. Don’t worry. Always keep our special time together close to your heart, and you’ll be fine.” She planted a wet kiss on his cheek. Now Andi was biting her fingers and having a hard time breathing. He rolled his eyes at her.

He gave Melissa a few stiff pats on her back and said, “Uh, yeah, you were a good girlfriend.”

She beamed at him and kissed his cheek again, lingering a bit this time. Andi had to look away to save herself from laughing out loud. Seconds later, though, when Melissa turned around with a smug look, Andi sat on the couch with a perfectly neutral expression on her face. She was beet-red, but Melissa didn’t notice.

“You realize you can’t tell anyone about us or the zombies, right?” Andi said. Ben couldn’t believe how smooth she kept her voice.

“Of course not,” Melissa said. “Who’d believe me anyway?”

Ben let out a sigh. That was a load off his mind. Then the question he should have wondered right from the start popped into his mind. “Why are you here?”

It was Melissa’s turn to blush. “I don’t know. I guess I figured you guys were sneaking away to have sex, and I wanted to get it on video. You know, to pass it around school. Sorry about that. I didn’t know the truth.”

“You didn’t get the zombies on camera, did you?” Andi asked.

“You can’t show it to anyone,” Ben added. “You promised.”

She sighed, slumped her shoulders, and pointed towards the kitchen door. Her phone lay shattered in a million pieces. “I got scared and threw it at one of them. The stupid meanie caught it and crushed it. Then he tossed it over there. I’ll probably have to wait until tomorrow before Daddy will buy me a new one.” She brightened up. “Unless I catch him before dinner. Maybe he’ll take me to Phone Town City tonight.” She squealed and zipped towards the door, shouting she’d fix everything at school as soon as she had her new phone. And just like that, she was gone.

Andi couldn’t hold it in any longer. She rolled off the couch and collapsed on the floor, laughing so hard she could barely breathe. Ben merely chuckled and shook his head. That whole scene was perfect Melissa. How had he dealt with her for so long last school year? He knelt down and gathered Andi in his arms.

In between giggles and gasps for air, she asked, “What’s this for?”

“I think you can figure it out.”

“And remember it. Because if you tick me off royal, I’ll make her think she has a chance with you.” She managed to say it with a straight face, and then lost it again. He sighed, kissed her forehead and walked out of the room to call home, though a voice in the back of his mind told him they were done with zombie attacks for the day.

Chapter 23

They decided going to bed before 10 o’clock would look fishy. Ben didn’t want to alert Mom and Dad of what they’d planned. Since they’d be fulfilling Rico’s task in their dreams, there was nothing his parents could do, but why cause them needless worry? It felt strange spending a nice evening at home, not anticipating a huge argument to erupt. Strange, but awesome.

The four passed the night watching television, though none paid much attention. Mom and Dad cuddled up on the couch, talking and enjoying being a happy couple again, while Ben and Andi sat on the floor, him leaning on the recliner, her leaning on him. His parents didn’t seem to mind their seating arrangement, but when either he or Andi planted a kiss on the other’s cheek or neck, they were told to knock it off. It soon became a game to see how many they could get away with.

Earlier, Ben had placed his sword and shield under the covers of his bed in hopes that if he held it when he fell asleep, they’d appear with him in the dream. Other than that, they didn’t have a plan. With no idea what kinds of guardians awaited them, all they could do was play it by ear and hope everything worked out.

Ten finally arrived, and both made a show of giving big yawns. As they started up the stairs, Mom’s voice called out, “I’ll be checking on you both throughout the night. Stay in your own beds, please.”

“Sure thing,” he said. “No need to worry.” At least about that, he amended in his head.

“We’ll be good,” Andi said.

“How can we not trust those two little balls of hormones?” Dad said in a mock whisper, and then waved. “Good night, kids.”

Ben groaned but managed a good night back, while Andi giggled as she called down her good night.

As they reached the hallway at the top of the stairs, Ben said, “So we just say the incantation before we get into bed, and we’ll be there when we fall asleep? What happens if one of us gets insomnia?” He hoped she’d call him silly, and his heart sank when she didn’t.

“I don’t know. We’ll have to trust everything will work out. Don’t cut yourself on the sword while you try to sleep, either.” No laugh after that gave the butterflies in his stomach butterflies.

“I won’t.” He hoped.

“Then I guess that’s all there is to it. See you on the other side.”

He nodded and stepped over to her, softly placing a kiss on her lips. He’d been so nervous about kissing her for so long, and now it felt second nature. He liked second nature.

Before they got too hot and heavy, Mom cleared her throat. “That’s what I figured was going on. Okay, fun’s over. March to bed. Both of you.”

They shared one more look, and then went to meet whatever adventure lay ahead.

*****

Ben found himself in a large room, about the size of the school gym when the bleachers were pushed back. His sword and shield lay comfortably in his hands, and Andi stood beside him. Weird. Not two seconds before he lay in bed murmuring the strange incantation. Good thing they’d gone to bed with their jeans and long-sleeved t-shirts on; it would have looked silly if they were here in their pajamas.

There was nothing much of note in the room, and no sign of the four guardians who kept watch on the key of dreams, whatever that was. Ben half-expected it to be a fluffy pillow. That sure keyed his dreams. The alarm was easy enough to spot, as it looked like one of those pull-down fire alarms that were all over campus, the kind that got pulled as a joke at least once a school year. It hung on the wall to their right.

“Where are the guardians?” he asked. It was nice to have a minute to get oriented, but not knowing what they were up against made his palms sweat.

“Look.” Andi pointed to the corner to their left. Four human-shaped beings sat around a table. The air glimmered around them, like some sort of fog, and obscured everything but their shapes. It looked like they were playing some sort of card game. Jeez, was poker popular even in the demon realms?

“We must have been sent with a glamour,” Andi said.

“A what?”

“A glamour. It’s keeping us mostly invisible, but it looks like it did the same for them.”

“Should we attack them before they see us? They have to be the four guardians the note told us to kill.”

Andi hesitated, and then nodded. “Yeah, let’s get them.” She grew into her dragon form, but before they could advance, the glamour wore off and the guardians spotted them.

As Ben had seen through the strange fog, they were human-shaped, but that’s where the similarities ended. Three of the four were identical. They stood maybe seven feet tall, had green-tinted skin, and nasty-looking claws. Their faces reminded him of nothing he had ever seen outside of video games. Their mouths took up most of their faces, going right across the middle as if bisecting a circle. As they approached, each opened those mouths, displaying a gaping maw lined with large teeth he certainly wanted no part of.

As impressive as those three were, there was no mistaking the fourth as the leader. It stood well over ten feet tall, dwarfing even its large companions. The only difference between it and the others, despite the size, was that its head was completely bald, where as the others had green stringy, seaweed-like hair that ran to their shoulders. The three proved scary, but the leader was downright nightmare-inducing.

Ben and Andi stayed put and met the charge. The first rammed his shield, forcing him back. He twisted and knocked the monster off balance, and slashed at the second guardian, who parried the blow with its claws. It swiped at his head, but he managed to duck, and rammed his shoulder into the beast’s chest, pushing it back.

Andi struck the huge leader with her powerful hind legs, sending it sprawling. She sprayed the third smaller guardian with a shower of acid. It screamed out in an incomprehensible language and melted on the spot. Without missing a beat, she zipped in and intercepted Ben’s two guardians. He glanced to the leader, who pulled itself to its feet and stumbled towards the alarm.

Oh no. He couldn’t let the monster reach it. That was their main task: Don’t let the guardians pull the alarm. Ben sprinted, intent on cutting it off. Though the big guy had a head start, it hadn’t caught its balance, and Ben gained ground. After a few steps, he knew he wasn’t going to win this race, but instead of panicking, he refused to give up. Without thinking, leaving it all up to his new-found skills, Ben leaped forward, his sword leading the way. The leader screamed as Ben pinned its hand to the wall. Smoking green blood dripped down. The leader swung his other hand around and caught Ben flush on the cheek, knocking him backwards. Before the monster could turn back around and pull the alarm, Andi swooped in and smashed her full weight against it. The monster’s hand ripped out of the pinned sword, throwing more disgusting green blood everywhere. It fell, stunned. Ben leaped up, tore his sword from the wall, and in the same motion, brought it down into the leader’s chest. It gave a loud gurgle as it died. Ben looked to the center of the room and saw the other two guardians, the ones that hadn’t been burnt up by Andi’s acid breath, lying dead.

Andi returned to her human form and tackled Ben with a hug. “You were magnificent.”

“Not half as good as you. You got three and a big assist on the fourth.”

“Yeah, but I let the big guy get away. If it hadn’t been for your quick thinking, he’d have sounded the alarm.”

Ben kissed her, mostly to stop her dwelling on the battle. “We won, that’s all that matters. Besides, when we can talk telepathically, things like that won’t happen.”

Her face brightened. “You’re right.” She kissed him back and hugged him tighter. “Now let’s find the key to dreams, whatever that is.”

They walked the perimeter of the large room. Nothing seemed out of place at first glance, but maybe a closer inspection would show something they missed. The wall around the alarm was smooth with no hidden cracks. The alarm box itself might open, revealing the key, but they didn’t want to chance setting it off. It would be their final option.

The guardians’ table in the corner was their best bet, especially since it was the only other object in the room. Andi knocked on it, but it sounded solid. Ben examined the cards. There was a fantasy creature in the middle of each – fairies, trolls, mermaids, and plenty of others – and a number in the upper right corner. The creature would occasionally move and change the number. For example, the fairies would cast a spell on it, and the ogres would smack it with their clubs.

“I wonder what game you play with these. Looks neat.”

Andi shrugged and said, “Pretty cool, but let’s find what we’re looking for.” She examined each leg of the table and ran her hand underneath, while Ben stacked the cards in a single pile and examined the top of the table. He found no breaks or openings.

A buzzing sensation filled his mind and ran down his neck. It wasn’t like his built-in undead sensor, but it was telling him something nevertheless. Once it reached the middle of his shoulder blades, it pushed forward out of his chest. A small white ball of pure light, about the size of a golf ball, floated down under the table and hung midway between the ground and the tabletop, directly in the center.

“Wow, do you see that?”

She shook her head. “What are you looking at?”

How could she not see it? It was so bright. “I think it’s showing us where the key to dreams is.”

“Where is it?” She tried lining her sight up with his, but confusion poured from her.

“Right under the table.” He reached out and tried to grab the ball of light, but his hand ran right through it. So where was it? “Maybe if we move the table.” He grabbed one end and pointed Andi to the other side. “Let’s try sliding it out away from the wall.”

She frowned, but complied. The table didn’t want to move at first, but something snapped underneath, and it came out as if on a track. A small podium rose out of the ground. On top of it sat an old fashioned brass key. Once the podium stopped rising, the key sat bathed in the small ball of light, which dimmed out.

Andi stared at him, her eyes narrowed, and her mouth hanging slightly open.

“The key to dreams is an actual key,” he said with a chuckle.

“Yeah. How did you do that?”

He picked up the key and saw it lay on an envelope. “Look. It says to open it now.”

Andi didn’t look at the envelope. “Ben, seriously, how did you know where it was?” A tiny bit of fear flashed from her.

“I don’t know. It just happened. Why are you upset?”

She shook her head. “I’m probably just being stupid.”

“But?”

She looked up at him, and he wasn’t sure she was going to answer. Finally, she sighed and said, “You shouldn’t be able to do this stuff yet. Mom explained to me what she guessed your abilities would be with our minor binding, and you’re already surpassing that. Not just finding the key, but melting the zombies, and things like that.”

What was she talking about? He reached out to grab her hand, and she flinched away. They both gasped, and tears flooded her eyes. She jumped into his arms and cried into his chest.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Ben. I didn’t mean to.”

Why was she so scared that he had more powers than he was supposed to? Wasn’t that a good thing? And then it came to him.

“It’s the prophecy, right? The one Max and his wife talked about? And Rico?”

Andi nodded, trying to control her breathing.

“We’ll get through it.” He kissed the top of her head. “You’re too nice to let me go evil.”

She wiped her eyes. “You mean it?”

“Of course I mean it.” He ran a finger across her cheek to catch a renegade tear. “Besides, the prophesy never said I’d go evil, right?”

She gazed deep into his eyes for a few seconds, and then nodded. “You’re right. You’ll stay good. I love you.”

“I love you, too.” He strained a bit to say it, not because he didn’t mean it with all his heart, but because his mouth wasn’t used to saying such momentous words.

They stared into each other’s eyes for a few more seconds before Andi broke the contact and looked down at the envelope. “I guess we should find out what it says.”

Chapter 24

The slip of parchment inside the envelope read, “Only the key can pacify the savage beast. Speak the word of dreams to continue.” Another incantation was listed below. Like the one Rico gave them, Ben had no idea what the strange word was, but its pronunciation formed in his mind.

“Why do you suppose these clues keep mentioning dreams?” Andi asked.

“I don’t know. Because we’re in a dream?”

“Maybe.” She studied the paper. “I wonder if the incantations are dream words.”

“You don’t know what they mean?”

She shook her head. “What sort of beast is pacified by a key?”

“Maybe it’s a weapon,” Ben said, examining it. “When the beast appears it turns into a sword or something? Maybe like a Keyblade?”

Andi studied the paper another minute, and then shrugged her shoulders. “I guess we move on and take it as it comes.”

She spoke the incantation, and though it sounded so strange in Ben’s ears, he knew she pronounced it correctly. The wall rumbled in front of them where the table had rested. First the podium sank back into the floor, and then a doorway-sized chunk of the wall flowed away like melting ice. A long, skinny passageway appeared through the opening. The floors, walls, and ceiling were all constructed out of grey chunks of smooth stone. They couldn’t see more than a few feet, as the only light came from the room they were already in.

“Where do you think it goes?” Ben asked.

“To the beast, I guess.”

“How are we supposed to fight it if we can’t see?” He examined the key again. “Maybe it’s a flashlight. You know how some animals freeze when you shine a bright light in their eyes? Maybe that’s what we do to the beast.” He couldn’t see where the light would come out, and there was no way to turn it on, anyway.

“I don’t know. Be ready for anything.” She sighed. “I wish I could be in my full dragon form, but the passage is too small. I guess a partial transformation will have to do if we run into trouble.”

They stepped in, Ben leading the way with his shield held steady in front to protect them. As soon as they were a few feet in, the door closed behind them, but instead of trapping them in complete darkness, the stones glowed with an eerie green light. The passageway ran about as long as a football field. As often as he had to run around the school’s field during the mile runs in PE, he should know. It ended with another wall, trapping them in, but a treasure chest sat next to the ending. No doubt that was their goal.

“I bet that’s what the beast is guarding,” Andi said, leaning forward. “Do you suppose there are coins and jewels in there?”

Ben chuckled at the lust in her voice. “Down girl. There will be plenty of time for treasure later. I’m more worried about the beast.”

“Oops. Yeah, sorry.”

They shuffled forward, Ben’s shield leading the way. Andi had the key ready in case the beast leapt out at them. For the first half of the tunnel, nothing happened. They kept up their careful pace, heads on a swivel, but the beast didn’t make an appearance. They also had to be careful not to step on the small stones from the walls and ceiling that littered the ground. It wouldn’t do to trip on one and sprain an ankle. At the halfway mark, pins and needles climbed up and down the back of Ben’s neck.

“Wait. Something’s here.”

“The beast?” she asked.

“I don’t know. I don’t think so.” He clutched his eyes shut and concentrated. There was something wrong right in front of them, but he couldn’t figure out what. “Hey, Andi, pick up one of those rocks and toss it out in front of us.”

She gave him a strange look but followed the directions without arguing. Andi grabbed a stone the size of a baseball and threw it a few feet forward. A boom erupted from the floor, and a pit fell open a couple of steps ahead of them. It dropped twenty feet and jagged spikes lined the bottom.

Andi kissed his cheek. “Like I said, you’re full of surprises.” He was glad her fear at that sentiment had left. But should he be more afraid?

There was about a foot of floor space to walk between the wall and the pit. The warning sensation had left him, so Ben figured as long as they were careful, they’d be safe. Once across, they continued towards the chest.

“This is too easy,” he said. “Keep your eyes open for that beast.”

“I don’t know about easy. If you weren’t here, I would have fallen in.”

“And if it weren’t for you, the guardians would have overwhelmed me.”

“So we make a good team.”

They continued like before, with Ben and his shield leading the way. Once they reached the chest, butterflies flapped around his stomach. Why hadn’t they been attacked yet? Or why weren’t there any more traps? “I think I’d rather something come at us.” When Andi gave him a funny look, he said, “At least then we wouldn’t be waiting for it. The suspense is the worst part.”

“Maybe they figure that pit will get most people. The chest probably has a trap built in to get the rest.”

Ben concentrated, but didn’t feel any sort of warning. “Maybe the beast is the chest. An unlocked treasure chest is pacified, if you think about it. The clue might be saying something as simple as we need to unlock it with the key.”

“Seems possible.” Andi reached forward, aiming the key at the keyhole. As she got close, the tingling ran up and down his neck. He grabbed her and pulled back.

“It’s a trap!”

The chest burst to life and lunged at Andi’s outstretched arm. If Ben hadn’t warned her, it would have clamped down. They tumbled back and scrambled into a defensive posture as the animated chest hopped around, looking for an opening. The lid top, which was lined with sharp teeth, formed its mouth, and the keyhole was its nose. Two jeweled decorations on top now served as eyes. It didn’t grow any legs, but bounced from side to side, more than nimble enough.

Ben used his shield to move into position and struck with his sword. The blade bounced harmlessly off the reinforced wood and iron covering. He swung again, harder this time, and didn’t cause a dent.

“I need to stick the key in its nose,” Andi said. “You were right. It is the beast.”

“I liked my description of the inert chest better.”

“At least your suspense is over.”

The chest smashed into his shield and knocked him backwards. “Okay, so maybe that wasn’t as bad as this.”

As Ben kept it at bay as best he could, Andi snuck behind it. He thrust his sword hard into its open mouth, and it clamped down. Andi leapt over the top, jammed the key in, and turned it. The chest went lifeless at once, releasing Ben’s sword. He fell back onto the stone floor and caught his breath. His sword didn’t have a scratch. What kind of metal was it made out of? He thought for sure he was going to get it back in two or three pieces.

Andi helped him to his feet. “Shall we see what our prize is?”

He fought back a grin at her excitement and nodded. The lid popped open, but this time as a normal treasure chest, not a possessed demon one. Inside lay a small map. It showed a picture of a simple maze, one that could be in an activity book aimed at first graders. Underneath was a group of a dozen arrows, pointing up, down, left, or right.

“What does that mean?” Ben ran through the maze quickly in his head. “The arrows don’t match the solution.”

“And I don’t see any other clue,” Andi said.

“Did you check the back?”

She turned the map over and found a short sentence. She mumbled something under her breath that sounded like, “Sure, if you want to be logical about it.”

He wanted to poke a little fun at her, but could tell this wasn’t the time. Instead, he said, “What’s it say?”

“Begin by pushing open the door.”

They looked around, but didn’t see any door. They checked both sides of the map again for an incantation, but there wasn’t any. Andi even ran her hand around the inside of the chest to check for hidden compartments, but came up empty. Ben breathed a lot easier when she pulled her arm back without the chest waking up.

“This is hopeless,” he said, leaning against the back wall. As he did, it shifted.

“You found it.” She rushed over and pushed. When he realized what was going on, he joined in. Soon the hidden door was propped all the way open.

The passage on the other side looked an awful lot like the one they were already in. Except, like the map showed, it turned to the left not too far in front of them.

And also unlike the corridor they were just in, once they entered the labyrinth, danger prickled constantly on the back of his neck.

Chapter 25

Andi didn’t like the fear pulsing from Ben. When she asked him about it, he said he couldn’t tell where the danger was, that it was like the whole labyrinth was a trap in itself. They’d be fine if they went slow. The tone of his voice said he believed it, but he couldn’t hide his true emotions from her.

As they approached the first corner, Ben grunted and stumbled. Andi grabbed him under his arms to steady him, but his entire body shook. “Too much,” he said. “Too much buzzing. Danger all around us.” His teeth chattered together as he talked, and even with her hanging onto him, he was on the verge of toppling over.

Andi wrapped him in a bear hug and fell backwards against the wall, pulling him with her. “You’re concentrating too hard, Ben. Don’t try to find everything. Let it come to you.”

His shakes continued to the point where she wasn’t sure how long she could hold him. “Can’t stop. Danger…everywhere.”

“You can. I believe in you. Turn it down.” His shakes slowed, but didn’t stop. She concentrated all her energy on flooding him with the positive emotions of her belief in him, her love of him, and everything else. They slid down the wall so she was sitting with him lying on top of her. She could barely move, but managed to work a hand loose to stroke his hair. She kissed his forehead and whispered encouraging words.

It took a minute, but his shakes subsided, and his ragged breathing returned to normal. She held him tight for another moment, and then he gave a deep breath and rolled off of her. “That was weird,” he said. Sweat dripped down his face. “It was like the labyrinth itself was attacking me. The dangerous feelings kept ramping up higher and higher until I couldn’t do anything about it. If you weren’t here…I don’t know. My flesh might have shaken right off my bones.”

She did her best to mop off his forehead. “But I was here for you. I’ll always be here for you.”

He cuddled into her. A wave of love pulsed from him, and the joy of that caused her to give a shudder of her own. Wow, she’d never get tired of that.

“We should get going,” she said, though all she wanted was to lie down next to him and snuggle, but that wouldn’t get them any closer to finishing Rico’s task and rescuing Mom and Dad.

They helped each other up and rounded the first corner, which was two quick lefts for a U-turn, and they were heading back the way they came, though one hallway over. It was slow going, just like before, with Ben and his shield leading the way. Andi checked for anything that might attack while monitoring Ben’s emotions. Whatever had ramped his power up to an unbearable level seemed to be gone, but she wanted to nip it in the bud if it came back.

Halfway down this stretch of corridor, Ben stopped. “Something above us. I don’t know what.”

She looked up but didn’t see anything. She nudged him forward, but kept her eyes positioned skyward. After a couple more steps, the ceiling cracked. Andi wrapped her arms around him and jumped forward. A second later, a huge stone crashed down behind them, centered exactly where they’d been. They’d have been squished flat.

“Good reflexes,” Ben said, dusting himself off. “We’re safe for the moment.”

They got to their feet and continued to the right turn ahead. The next hallway stretched as long as the first two put together. There was also an option to turn right about halfway down, but the map showed this led to a dead end. Without the map, would they have chosen that route? And what nasty surprises would they have run into down there?

“I’m getting some buzzing, but it’s not danger,” Ben said. “Not exactly.”

“Just stay focused.” Would he know exactly what his warnings meant when they were fully bound, or was this already a product of him being prophesized to have so much power? She shook her head to knock the question from her mind. This wasn’t the place. They could worry about such stuff later. Together.

As they approached the turn off, Ben whispered, “Something’s going to happen,” but he didn’t elaborate. She started to ask what, but bright lights flashed, like giant strobes, cutting her off. Ben grunted, and Andi clutched her eyes shut, though it did no good. The lights blinked right through her eyelids.

“I still don’t sense any danger,” Ben said, his voice raised even though the labyrinth was as quiet as before. Andi understood. The strobe effect was so bright it was like thunderous white noise accompanied it.

“What do we do?” she said, her own voice too loud.

“Keep walking. The map shows we go straight until the end.”

She folded her arms around his chest and they shuffled forward together. Was he able to see anything? She didn’t open her eyes to find out, instead relying on him to lead the way. After a few more timid steps, a wave of dizziness overtook her, but it passed as quickly as it came. They moved until the flashing lights ceased.

“Oh, thank goodness.” She opened her eyes, but everything still had that blinking effect, so it took a few seconds before she could see.

They walked to the end of the corridor and looked down the new passage. According to the map, it should run straight and turn right at the end. And it did, but something was wrong. In the middle of the floor lay the huge boulder that almost crushed them.

“We got turned around,” Ben said. “Look at the map. We should have turned right, not left. This is the same rock.”

“That makes sense. Did you feel dizzy for a second back there?”

He nodded.

“The floor spun. I didn’t feel it move, but…”

“Yeah. That annoying light messed with our heads. What should we do?”

“Once we feel dizzy, we can walk backwards until the light goes out.”

“Okay, yeah, good,” Ben said.

They moved forward until the powerful strobe started again. Ugh. It even made her teeth hurt. She could swear she felt the light particles bounce off her skin. They continued until the dizzying sensation hit.

“Start backwards,” Ben said, again louder than necessary. They took four or five steps back when she rammed square into the wall.

“Ow! What happened?”

“It must spin randomly,” Ben said. “Let’s go forward again and see how it spins us this time. Sooner or later it should point the right way.”

Andi put her hand on his shoulder before he could move. “Remember the map. We can side-step to the left. That should get us there, too, unless we trigger another spin.”

“I like your plan better.”

They stepped left, and the floor stayed still. They kept moving, straddling the wall, until the strobe light shut off. Though it was hard to see clearly, thanks to the residual light beating around her brain, they were in the correct spot. Ben rewarded her quick thinking with a peck on the cheek. She then moved back into position behind him, letting his shield and instinct guide them.

The next corridor, as the map showed, was another long, straight hallway. Ben tensed and said, “There’s something deadly down there. Be alert.”

As they walked, Andi checked the ground in front, the ceiling above, and the passage behind in case whatever it was decided to sneak up on them. At not quite the halfway point, Ben tensed. A hissing sound exploded from their left, and he pulled his shield to the side. Something thudded into it, and he pushed her back, where they collapsed in a heap.

“What happened?” she cried. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. Something told me to move my shield just in time.”

They looked down and found an arrow, now snapped in half, lying at their feet. Andi reached down to pick it up when Ben grabbed her wrist. “No, don’t.” He pointed to the grayish-green liquid bubbling out of the cracked shaft. “I don’t know for certain, but I’d guess that’s a potent poison.”

Andi nodded and backed away. “Are there more?”

“Uh-huh, but I can’t tell how many.”

She checked his shield. It didn’t have a scratch on it. “Let’s walk with that pointed to the wall. It seems sturdy enough.”

“What if they shoot from the other wall, too? Even if this early warning system in my head says something, there’s no way I can swing the shield around in time.”

“So we’ll walk with it in front. You proved you’re fast enough.”

“No way. It told me something was coming, but not which way. What if I just guessed right?”

“But if…” She stopped. This was stupid. She was a dragon. She might not have the room to transform into her true body, but she could bring parts of it to her human form. A quick thought changed her soft human skin into hard blue dragon scales.

“Whoa,” Ben said. “That’s like scary and hot all at once.”

“Whatever. You saw me like this before.”

“We were in the middle of a fight then, and I didn’t have a chance to check you out. Wow.”

She sighed and rolled her eyes, but was secretly glad he approved. “Let’s get out of here before your boy hormones take over.”

“Sorry.”

She hid a smile at the way he blushed.

“What are we going to do?” he asked. “Will your dragon skin deflect the arrows?”

“I don’t know,” she said, taking a few steps back. “Hopefully we won’t find out.” Without another word, she took off running down the corridor. In two steps she was at full speed, and the first arrow shot out and passed behind her. As more arrows came, she tumbled into some flips and spins in case running alone wasn’t enough to dodge them. She didn’t stop until she landed next to the far wall.

“That was amazing,” Ben called from the other end of the hallway. “An Olympic gymnast couldn’t have done any better.”

“Thanks, but did it work?”

“You tell me. You didn’t get hit, did you?”

“Don’t be dense, Ben. Are there more arrows?”

His face went blank for a second, and then he said, “No. There’s still a little bit of a tingle, but I think that’s to not touch the poison.”

The busted arrows all leaked the grayish-green guck. “Good, but stay alert as you come over here.”

He took her advice, but there was no need to worry. She’d triggered them all. When he reached her, she grabbed him in a hug. He squeezed back and whispered, “Weird.”

“What?”

“Nothing. You feel like you, but like you’re wearing a suit of armor.”

“I guess I sort of am,” she said with a shrug.

They studied the map again and saw the labyrinth didn’t hold any trickery for awhile, at least in the shape of the maze. Even if they took a wrong turn, they’d discover their mistake after just a few steps. Neither needed to remind the other that the real dangers weren’t a part of the maze layout anyway.

A right and a left got them almost to the halfway point. They turned left and a buzzing assaulted their ears. Andi tensed, glad she’d stayed in her scales, and that Ben didn’t care she looked strange. Would she have gone back to her more vulnerable flesh if he had been grossed out? Probably.

“I don’t know what it is,” Ben said, “but it’s something bad.”

As soon as he said it, a cloud of bugs burst out of the corridor that led to a dead-end. She pulled Ben back into a corner where his shield could best protect them. Maybe the swarm would miss them and fly off somewhere else.

“What are they?” he whispered. “Besides bugs, I mean.”

“They look like locusts.”

“Are they poisonous?”

“Who knows? The ones back home aren’t. But if they’re here, they’re dangerous.”

Ben was silent for a second, and then said, “Don’t they eat through crops and stuff real fast? Think these will treat us like crops?”

She gave a shiver. That’s exactly what she thought. There were so many that the cloud might as well have been a wall. Even if she thought they had a chance of outrunning the swarm, there was no way they could get past it in the first place. Maybe Ben could do something about it. He’d been full of surprises so far.

“Concentrate,” she said. “You might be able to kill or control them or something.”

He shook his head. “Not unless they’re zombie bugs. And even then I’d just be able to sense them, and there’s no need for that. They’re right there.”

“Just try,” she said. “And hurry!” The entire swarm assembled, and new movements came from the middle of the cloud.

“Fine,” Ben said. He ducked further beneath his shield, his face relaxed, but she could sense the urgency in him. It didn’t seem to have any effect on the bugs. A thick limb, comprised of thousands of individual locusts, grew from the swarm cloud. Then a second one emerged, completing the look of a pair of arms. Two more grew lower, giving the illusion of legs. She waited to see if they’d form a face, but instead it lumbered forward, as if walking. She’d always laughed when she saw swarms of insects do such things in cartoons, but it wasn’t funny now. She reminded herself to breathe.

“Ben, hurry,” she said, more to herself than to him. The humanoid insect swarm took another couple of steps, now almost in striking distance. She didn’t want to know what would happen when that thing hit them. Would the combined weight of so many bugs crush them, or would the arms break apart and start devouring them? Her scales might hold out for a minute or two, but Ben wouldn’t last five seconds.

It took another step and raised its buzzing fist. She tensed and got ready to run. With the swarm in this concentrated form, at least they’d be able to zip past. It would give chase, but they wouldn’t be sitting ducks.

“Now, Andi.” Ben grabbed her in a tight hug. “Concentrate on wanting them dead. Do it!”

She clutched her eyes shut and repeated, “Die, bugs, die,” over and over. A strong energy burst out of her, but too late. Thousands, millions, of bugs fell on top of her and Ben. She screamed, waiting for the pain to hit. Tears came to her eyes as she realized his would come first.

After a few seconds, nothing happened. In fact, all she could feel from Ben was relief.

She opened her eyes and found all the bugs lying dead. “Gross,” she said. Ben had already climbed to his feet, so he helped her up. “What happened?”

“I couldn’t do anything about them on my own, but I knew together we could get rid of them.”

They stepped through the pile of dead bugs, crunching plenty with each step. “That’s not possible.” She thought back to everything Mom and Dad had told her about the dragon-Dragon Guard partnership, and nothing about shared powers, besides communication, came up. She was there basically to be the flying, acid-spewing muscle, as Dad described it. And that was when they were fully bound, which they weren’t yet.

He shrugged. “Possible or not, it happened.”

Once they were past the dead locust, she grabbed his shoulders and forced him to look her in the eyes. “You shouldn’t be able to do so much of this, Ben. I’m not kidding when I say this is impossible.” She hugged him tight. “You’re scaring me.”

“The prophecy?”

She nodded into his chest.

“But we already talked about this. Evil isn’t the only option. Remember?”

She tried not to cry, but tears ran down her cheeks. He was right, but it was all too much. “Nix seemed like such a nice lady, but she wanted you dead. She thought the world would be safer.”

“But you said Max believes that’s not true,” he said, wiping a tear from her cheek.

“I know, but I think Nix knows more about it all than Max. Don’t ask me how. It’s just a feeling.”

“We’ll get through it. Anyway, let’s worry about it later. For now, shouldn’t we be happy about these powers? We might as well use them, right?”

She nodded and wiped away the rest of her tears. Yes, that made sense. Whatever the prophecy said, it wouldn’t happen until after they were fully bound, and they’d need every bit of power to even get there.

He kissed her forehead and said, “Do you love me?”

Her voice stuck in her throat. He knew she did right? She managed to nod, which brought out a smile in him.

“Good. Then use that love and trust me. I won’t do anything to hurt you. I promise. Okay?”

“I know,” she said.

They stood there, clutching each other tight, until he chuckled and kissed her forehead. “You realize we’re standing in the middle of a maze filled with a bunch of stuff trying to kill us, right?”

Andi sighed but smiled. “You and your logic.”

“But, hey, who knows. Maybe that was the last of the bad guys. Knock on wood.” He rapped his knuckles against the side of his head, bringing out another laugh from her.

They continued on, again with him and his shield in the lead, and her behind, scanning every inch of where they were headed. Why did she trust Nix over Max? He’d seemed nicer than her. But Ben was right; she should be happy he had so much power. And starting now, she would be.

Yeah. Ultimatums to one’s self always worked, right? She let out a deep breath and focused on the left turn up ahead.

Chapter 26

As they neared the next turn, Ben did his best to not think about Andi saying everything he was doing was impossible. They needed to get through all of this first. He had to admit, while his unexpected powers scared her, they gave him a thrill. He’d never been much of a superhero comic fan, but he’d be lying if he didn’t admit he occasionally had fantasies of superpowers. Now he actually had them.

“What do you sense?” Andi whispered behind him. “You’re excited.”

“Nothing, sorry. Thinking about something else.” She rolled her eyes. As fun as it was, he still wasn’t used to all of this. Whenever he thought he had a handle on Andi’s emotions, he was reminded she could sense his, too. What was it going to be like when they could communicate inside each other’s heads? Would she be able to read his thoughts whenever she wanted, or did he have to give them to her? He’d ask, but he was sort of afraid of the answer.

They rounded the corner, and Ben’s instincts lit up. He feared at first it was a replay of his warning system overreacting like when they first entered the labyrinth, but real danger appeared at the end of the hall and charged. He nudged Andi back and yelled, “Don’t let it touch you.”

He ran at the wraith, careful to keep his shield up. This creature looked like every clichéd caricature of the infamous Death. Its long black robes fluttered behind it, while skeletal hands and feet peeked out. Its face couldn’t be seen under the oversized hood, but two glowing red eyes shone out of the blackness. Though the wraith looked substantial, Ben knew he’d have to concentrate on his blade to connect with his swing, let alone land a killing blow. It was basically a ghost, though a supercharged one. He marveled for a second at how these facts, along with its name, filled his mind, as all things undead had since the minor binding. No, that wasn’t true. He’d known all about the zombies when he first saw them on that fateful morning before school. His conscious mind hadn’t trusted the info yet for him to believe it.

They met in the center of the corridor. The wraith grabbed for him, while Ben jammed his sword at it. Neither managed, as Ben maneuvered his shield into its way and the wraith contorted its insubstantial body away from his blade. Andi’s rage bubbled up. He wanted to shout for her to stay out of this, but two against one worked much better. If anything happened to her…

She struck at the wraith, her head transformed to a dragon’s. It reached for her, and Ben slashed its arm. It didn’t do much, if any, damage, but the blow kept it from touching her.

“Careful,” he said. “I’m not kidding. A single touch can kill you.”

Her emotions said she understood. She snapped at the wraith, and then flipped over its head. Ben gasped and struck with his sword to distract the monster. What was she doing? She needed to stay behind him, behind his shield.

The wraith whirled around and swung at Andi. Ben lunged hard, putting all his weight behind his sword, and ran the blade straight through the monster. It bellowed an inhuman howl, a sound he’d never heard and hoped to never to hear again. Before he could yank the sword free, the wraith turned on him, his blade still firmly in its body, but swishing around as if the monster was made of pure liquid. Andi growled out in her dragon language, and fear erupted from her. The wraith rammed his shield, and they tumbled to the ground, Ben pinned beneath. He couldn’t believe how heavy it was, considering it was made of nothing but energy. It freed one hand, but Andi’s jaws latched onto the robe. Ben concentrated, thrust his sword up through its body to its hidden face, and the creature disappeared, never to return.

Andi leapt onto of him, showering his face with kisses. She was much more welcome on top of him than the wraith. “I thought you were dead. I thought it got past your shield and touched your chest.”

He managed to corral her and maneuver them up. “It would have got me at the end if you hadn’t stepped in. Now, come on, according to the map, we’re almost there.”

“What else can there be?” she wondered aloud. He didn’t bother answering because she was right. What else could this place throw at them?

They passed down a U-shaped pair of corridors before taking a left to get to the home stretch. No warnings came, but he didn’t let down his guard. This place had already thrown them enough surprises.

Ben rounded the corner out of the final U-shaped corridor and stopped. There was a wall where one shouldn’t be. The map showed two choices. They could go straight, but that turned left to a dead-end, or they could turn left now. They’d face an immediate right that went nowhere, or another right after that one that led to the end of the maze, but that final choice wasn’t here in the actual labyrinth, as their remaining options were dead-ends.

“What do we do?” she asked.

“Maybe it’s a fake wall,” he said. “And if not, one of the other ways might be the new path.”

She shivered. “That doesn’t feel right.”

“I don’t feel anything,” he said. He shut his eyes, but no warning tingles or supernatural help came to him.

They stepped forward to where the unmapped wall was, and a voice rang out. “Paved over. Turn around and go left. That leads to the exit.”

“Who said that?” Ben asked.

Andi pointed to the right of where the open passage should be. “It’s a mouth.”

He looked closer. Whoa, it was a mouth, about as big as a football, connected to the wall. No other facial features were there, just the mouth. It had to be some sort of trick, maybe a projection, but the closer they got, the more real it looked.

“Go back, go back,” it said. “The great builder decided this wasn’t the way. The other path is far superior.”

Ben turned to follow the mouth’s instructions, but Andi grabbed his arm. “Where are you going?”

“The way it told us to. It knows a lot more about this place than we do.”

“I do,” the mouth said. “I watched them wall this passage up. On your way now. You have a maze to finish.”

Andi kept him from moving as he tried to go back. What was she doing? Why did she look so concerned? This was over. All they had to do was follow the directions, and they were done.

“That’s right, son, go on,” the mouth said. “Don’t let the girl dissuade you.”

Andi said something, but he couldn’t make it out. She had her normal human face, even if it was covered with blue scales, so he shouldn’t have any trouble understanding her. He pulled against her grip, but she wouldn’t let go.

“Use your sword, son,” the mouth said. “You won’t hurt her. She has tough skin. That will get her to let go. And if you jab real hard, maybe you’ll get lucky.”

That would be one way to get free. She was yelling now in her dragon grunts. Why didn’t she just speak English? It wasn’t like she didn’t know how. They’d already talked a lot. Hadn’t they? His thoughts were all swimmy. His sword hand tightened on the hilt, and he prepared to bring it up, but didn’t he want her to go with him?

In his confusion, he relaxed enough for her to gain the upper hand. She flung him back towards the wall that shouldn’t exist. He braced himself, ready for impact, but instead sailed straight through the rock and landed in a heap on the other side. The wall was gone. Andi stood on the other side, concern spilling off her.

“Ben? Ben, can you hear me?”

He understood her again. She’d stopped speaking Dragon. He shook his head, and it felt as if he were stepping out of a thick fog into a bright spring afternoon. Somehow the thought she’d been speaking a different language seemed silly now. He was the one who caused the momentary rift.

“Ben?”

Her panic, more than her voice, reminded him to speak up. “Andi, it’s okay. There is no wall. It’s an illusion. Come on through. The map is right.”

She didn’t hesitate, and when she was through, she rushed into his arms. “What happened? You were gone. Your mind was, anyway. Your eyes stared at me, but they weren’t yours.” She shook her head. “I don’t know. Does that make sense?”

“Sort of, I guess. I think the mouth cast some sort of spell on me. It was like there was no doubting whatever it said, and I couldn’t understand anything you said. You were talking Dragon.”

“No, I wasn’t.” She let out a deep breath. “But that must’ve been what you heard. What do you mean about the mouth? It just kept repeating the same thing over and over. ‘Paved over. Turn around and go left. That’ll lead to the exit.’”

“It said that the first time, but then it said all sorts of other things to get me to go the new way. It even tried to get me to stab you to let me go.” He shuddered as he said it.

She reached up and kissed his cheek. “I notice you didn’t.” She kept a straight face, but he heard the smile in her voice.

“I thought about it. Not real hard, but it crossed my mind.” He hugged her tight. “But I wouldn’t hurt you. Not now, not ever.”

This time she kissed his lips, and he savored everything about her. With her blue scales, her lips weren’t as soft as normal, but that didn’t matter. And he meant what he said. No piece of magic could ever cause him to bring harm to her.

He pulled out the map. “We’re almost there.” He looked around their current corridor. They had to follow it until it turned right, and that would lead them to the exit. But what horrors lay between here and there? His neck didn’t tingle, but that didn’t mean they were home free. They had to stay careful.

Nothing attacked, nothing shot at them, nothing dropped from the ceiling, and the floor didn’t give out. They rounded the final corner and found a solid wall where the map showed the exit. What differentiated this wall from any others were four arrows pointing in four directions: up, down, left, and right. It reminded Ben of the directional buttons on a video game controller.

“Now what?” Andi said. She pushed on the bricks, and these were no illusions.

Ben didn’t say anything at first. At the bottom of the map were those strange arrows. Could they be…? No, that was silly. Why would that be in a demon realm? But…

“Andi, I know what to do. Push the arrow I tell you to. It’s like a video game cheat code.”

She turned back, ready to argue, but when she looked at him, she sighed and nodded.

“Okay, good. Push the up arrow.” She did, and it slid into the wall, popping back out when she let go. There were twelve arrows in all: up, right, up, left, left, right, down, up, down, up, left, right. He read each off to Andi, and she pushed the corresponding one. When she pushed the final right-pointing arrow, instead of popping back out, a grinding noise sounded from somewhere in the wall. The other three arrows also sunk inside, and each brick pivoted and slid away from the center, opening into a doorway. It led to a huge room, like the field of a gigantic football stadium, though instead of grass, the ground was covered with dirt.

“Never bet against a boy and his video games,” Andi said. “Look out in the center. What is that?”

He followed her finger and saw a golden statue resting on a marble pedestal in the very middle of the coliseum’s floor. “Maybe that’s what we’re supposed to bring back to Rico. It looks big, but not unwieldy.”

She nodded and gazed in every direction. He did the same. Other than that idol, there was nothing worth looking at. Just dirt and walls. “Sense anything?”

Ben closed his eyes and concentrated. “There’s danger here, but nothing immediate.”

“Okay,” Andi said, taking a deep breath. “I guess we should get to this, then.”

They stepped out onto the dirt, and nothing attacked. His tingles still warned to stay vigilant, but that was it. The area was lit as if by the sun, but there was no sky or ceiling above them, just emptiness. Now that they were out of the maze, the walls all vanished, too. Even the labyrinth’s exit disappeared. The dirt went on as far as his eye could see in every direction.

“This is spooky,” Andi whispered.

“Just keep going. We’re safe enough at the moment. Maybe once we grab the statue, Rico will whisk us back to his realm.”

They reached the golden idol with no problems. It depicted some sort of ugly demon with four arms, two heads, and plenty of sharp claws and teeth. Despite its horrible, nightmare-inducing appearance, a genuine feeling of good radiated from it. What was this thing, and what demon did it represent? Ben thought back to the original clue Rico had given them. Did this have something to do with dreams?

Andi reached for it, but hesitated and glanced at him. “Go ahead,” he said. “Even when you reach for it, I still only feel the nagging warning.”

“Okay,” she said. “But be ready for anything when I touch it.”

As soon as her hand made contact with the idol’s gold skin, the pins and needles almost ripped Ben’s head off. “Andi, move!” He jumped back, sword and shield ready, and watched her twist out of the way, transforming into a dragon as she did. They moved just in time. A giant claw swished through the air right where they’d been not seconds before. When Ben saw what the claw was attached to, he had a tough time breathing.

The huge monster dwarfed even Andi in her dragon form. It was roughly humanoid in shape, with bulging muscles to go along with its razor-sharp claws. It didn’t have scales like Andi, but the leathery skin looked as formidable. Would his sword even slice through? It also had a pair of membrane-covered wings that stretched out twice as far as it was tall. Its face reminded him of a cartoon bat, with long pointed ears, beady black eyes, and fangs that meant business. It looked like a vampire on steroids. If there was anywhere to run, Ben would have much preferred that option.

Andi threw the first metaphorical punch in the fight as she spit a stream of acid at the beast, which struck its left wing. A howl of pain tore through the air, and the wing disintegrated down to its stalk. Instead of shrinking away, the demon turned towards her and charged. Since it couldn’t fly because of its damaged wing, Andi evaded it by hovering high above.

Ben took the opportunity and lunged at the beast, thrusting the tip of his blade into its calf. As he’d feared, the thick skin didn’t give, and all he managed to gain was its attention. It looked down, let out a sulfurous scream, and kicked him. Luckily, his shield got in the way, or the thing’s sharp toenails might have pierced his chest. As it was, he sailed through the air and landed hard on his back. The breath whooshed from his lungs.

Andi let out a thunderous roar and dove at the demon’s head. She smashed into the beast, momentarily knocking it off balance, but before she could do any real damage, it grabbed her and flung her aside. She regained her flying form and torpedoed into its chest, ripping into its flesh and tearing through the tough, leathery skin, drawing out moldy green ichor. The beast again let out that inhuman howl and tried to pull her off. She flipped out of its reach and flew a safe distance away. She looked over to Ben, and he felt her concern, so he pulled himself to his feet and waved.

“Andi!” he yelled. “Knock him down here!”

The demon, drawn by his voice, turned on Ben and advanced. It was so big it wouldn’t take long for it to get there. He braced himself and drew back his sword, ready to strike. If he concentrated on the blade, maybe it would slice through the thick skin. It was worth a shot.

Andi readied another blast of acid. It exploded into the demon’s back, and as it yelled out again, she blew past it, threw on the brakes, and slammed into its already injured chest. This time it didn’t have a chance to catch its balance and tumbled to the dirt. Ben didn’t miss his opportunity. He sprinted to its head, concentrated on his sword, and slashed through its thick neck. The blade slid through as if the demon was made of butter. It bucked a few times, and then went still, its life force gone. Ben backed up before any of the gross green blood got onto his shoes.

Andi zipped down to him, transformed as she hit the ground, and was in his arms. “Are you okay? You hit the ground so hard when it kicked you.”

“I’m fine. It knocked the wind out of me, but no damage done. Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” She grinned. “Now that I know you are, that was kind of fun. Daddy told me stories of real dragon fights and drilled me in combat, but that was the first time I’ve ever let myself go. Even when we fought in the necromancer’s realm, I held back so we could get to your parents.” She chuckled. “Yeah, that was fun.”

Ben kissed her cheek. “You were magnificent.”

“Thanks. You, too. I can’t wait until we can talk to each other in our heads. I can’t wait until we’re fully bound.”

She launched her lips to his and kissed him hard. Though he kissed back with gusto, butterflies invaded his stomach. With all his thoughts of how powerful he’d be when they were fully bound, he’d forgotten what it meant personally. For so long he’d dreaded the thought of being fully bound to her, but now he mostly welcomed it. That thought was almost as scary as when he wanted no part of it.

As they broke apart, she smiled and rubbed his cheek before stealing another quick kiss. Okay, maybe 150 years like both their parents wanted was a bit too long, but he certainly didn’t want it to be tomorrow. Rescuing her parents was priority number one. He glanced over at the gold idol, sure it was what Rico sent them after, and realized they were one step closer to saving them.

*****

The idol blinked them back to Rico’s realm as soon as they both touched it. Rico didn’t say anything, didn’t even look at them, while he examined every square centimeter of the idol. Once he was done, he turned to them and grinned. Ben wasn’t sure if he liked the smile or not.

“Impressive. Yes, very impressive. I’d guessed you wouldn’t make it back.” He eyed Ben a little too close for comfort. “And you, here I thought you were the weak link, but no.” He prodded Ben in the chest with his finger. If they didn’t need the spell to rescue Andi’s parents, he might have knocked the hand away. Rico sensed that and laughed. “That anger in you is what makes the prophecy cloudy.”

Andi stiffened next to him. Her voice came out in a hoarse whisper. “What does the prophecy say? How could Ben possibly turn evil?”

Rico weighed his words before speaking. Ben almost fell over he was leaning in so close to hear every word. “The prophecy encompasses both of you, not just him. It doesn’t say specifically which direction will ultimately prevail. That’s the cloudy part. Those actions have yet to be determined.”

“By us or by fate?”

Rico wagged his finger in front of his face. “Ah-ah-ah. You’ll get no more free information from me.”

“Please. I…we need to know.”

Rico chuckled and waved his hand in front of them. “Save your parents. The spells are in place.”

Andi started to argue, but Ben nudged her. “Thank you,” he said. Andi’s annoyance at him for not pushing the issue was apparent, but he ignored it.

“And thank you,” Rico said, again examining the golden idol. “But remember, you now owe me two favors.” With that, he snapped his fingers and Ben found himself back home in his own bed. The early morning light shone through the cracks in his blinds. Like before, he couldn’t feel the spell, but this time he had faith it was in place.

 

Chapter 27

 

Cassie fought from screaming out, fought from telling Derian to step away from Lee. That’s what he wanted. The best way to get through this was to stay quiet, stay calm. He wanted to see their pain, see their anger, see their desperation. If they didn’t give it to him, he’d end this that much sooner. She didn’t want to die – no, that was a lie; at this moment she did – but with her and Lee dead, it was more likely Derian would leave Andi alone, and dragons everywhere could band together to stop him.

Pain laced off of Lee. While he bore it well, giving Derian no satisfaction, she had to battle that much harder to stay under control. Derian turned to her with an evil grin etched on his face. She hissed in a deep breath as she saw the burn marks on Lee’s chest from the hateful magic.

“Another millennium of this and I may consider us close to even for what you did to me. Of course, I have ways of evening the score a bit quicker.”

He reached out and touched Cassie’s cheek with his fingertip, searing her skin. She grit her teeth and felt the finger slide all the way through into her mouth. She contemplated biting him, but he’d end up taking it out that much worse on her.

“I love how you two heal just fast enough to keep me from inflicting permanent injuries, but not so quick that I can’t see and enjoy my handiwork. If you didn’t have that tiny bit of healing magic, you’d be dead right now, and if you had too much, this wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying. Of course, I’d keep it up, but it wouldn’t be the same.” He chuckled. It took all of Cassie’s self control not to spit in his face.

He walked back over to Lee and sliced his chest open. He did it without preamble, and it caught her off-guard. She let out a gasp at his pain, and Derian smiled back at her. “Lucky for you two, I don’t plan on keeping this up for hundreds of years. I’ve absorbed about as much of the demon’s power as my body can ever dream of possessing. I now must separate my demon and mortal beings. That was one fact I hadn’t considered when I took control of the demon. His essence cannot leave this realm, and I can’t be the one to sever it. I’d allow one of you to have the honor, but somehow I doubt either of you would lift a finger against me to do it.”

Derian put his palm on Lee’s upper leg, and a blast of energy popped against him, causing Lee to let out a screech. Cassie couldn’t hold back a yell of her own at her mate’s pain. No doubt the bone had snapped in half.

“That’s the scream I’ve been waiting for. It’ll mend back better than ever. If we’re still playing this game, maybe I’ll break it again.” He turned to Cassie and a bolt of lightning shot from his fingertips into her chest. It burned her, and her breathing labored, no doubt the result of singed lungs.

“We all know where this is going, don’t we? As I speak, my minions are out hunting down your precious daughter. Once she’s back here, I’ll force you to watch me give her this same treatment.”

“You won’t touch Alexandria,” Lee choked out through his haze of pain. Derian whirled around and smacked his face, an explosion of energy erupting at the point of impact.

“It’s not your place to talk, Leon. You’re here to endure whatever I throw your way. You’ve earned every inch of beating I give you, Cassandra, and whoever else I choose.”

Lee spit out gobs of blood and teeth. Cassie broke down. Between watching him bear the brunt of Derian’s torture, to hearing Andi, their beloved Alexandria, was next, and knowing Ben likely would not survive the abduction, she couldn’t take any more. Tears spilled down her cheeks to the dusty earth, where they mixed with her blood.

“When I tire of hurting her,” Derian continued as if he hadn’t been interrupted, “I’ll transform her into one of my minions. How much power will a zombie dragon wield? Or a vampire dragon? The possibilities will be interesting to ponder. When I’ve changed her, she’ll have the honor of disposing of you two. I haven’t yet decided whether to raise you as undead beings or not. I suppose we’ll wait and see how your darling daughter turns out.”

This time both she and Lee struggled against their unseen shackles to get to the evil necromancer, but they couldn’t break free. Derian pushed out his arms, throwing them both violently back against the stone wall. Cassie longed to black out, to lose herself to the sweet nothingness of unconsciousness, but that wasn’t to be in this realm.

*****

“We’re trusting you both,” Mom said.

“We’ll be good, Mrs. Phillips,” Andi said. “We promise.”

“Okay,” Mom said, though Ben could tell from her tone of voice she still wasn’t sure. She and Dad needed this night out, though, they all knew it. They hadn’t been out on a “date” in years.

Dad pulled Ben aside and spoke in a low voice. “I know we haven’t had that talk yet, but I’m guessing you pretty much know all that stuff by now.”

“What talk?” Oh, wait…gross! This wasn’t happening right now, was it?

Dad blushed and stammered something about “that talk.” Oh, god, no. He sensed Andi’s silent laughter, but was glad she also felt embarrassed for him. At least she didn’t have to hear it, just get the horrible second-hand sensations.

Before Dad could go any further, killing him with embarrassment in the process, he interrupted. “Dad, I swear we’re only going to research how to save Andi’s parents. Nothing else.”

That got Dad to stand up a bit straighter and smile at Mom. “Okay then. I, uh, we just want you two to be careful is all.”

Ben groaned inside. “We’re fine, I promise. Go, go, go.” He nudged first Dad, then Mom, towards the door. “You’re going to be late for your dinner and movie.”

His parents let themselves be herded out. “We won’t be too late,” Mom called back.

He and Andi watched until they’d driven away. Only then did Ben let out a loud moan. “Oh, man, that was painful.”

Andi giggled. “They’re just concerned about you.”

“I know, but yuck.” He took her hand. “I guess they have cause to be. You know, if…”

“If circumstances were different,” she finished. That sobered them both.

“Let me go get my sword and shield, and we can go.”

She followed him up the stairs to his room. “I wonder if we can put ourselves right into the cell? Maybe we can grab them and be out in less than a minute.”

“That would be cool. Do you think all we need to do is think about the cell while we cast the spell?”

“I don’t know, but let’s try it.”

As soon as Ben grabbed his weapons from the closet, a loud bang rang out from everywhere. The window in his room shattered, along with, from the sound of it, every other window in the house. Various creatures, from zombies to vampires to ghosts and more, pushed in. Ben could hardly move at the sudden onslaught of pins and needles down his back. Andi pulled him out of the room and down the stairs, but by the time they hit the bottom, the undead flooded the house.

Ben swung his sword at those nearest, but no matter how hard they fought, even if Andi transformed into her true form, they’d be overwhelmed in no time. “The spell,” he shouted, and she said the strange words. Like last time, Ben concentrated on the necromancer’s realm, and in the blink of an eye, he was there. Andi wasn’t. She was still back at the bottom of the stairs, unhurt but scared. He imagined just as she’d finished with the important words, the monsters had grabbed her, ruining her concentration.

He was in the same spot they’d arrived at last time. He hadn’t had a chance to think about the cell. The mass of zombies was now gone, though the pock-marked dirt all around the area showed signs they’d been here. The throne on the rock was again empty, which was no surprise. No doubt the necromancer was in with Andi’s parents. Hopefully they were okay, but he couldn’t take them back without Andi. The undead would bring her here, and he wouldn’t leave without her. If he beamed both her parents back, she’d be stuck, and he wouldn’t allow that. He’d wait for her and find a way to save her and her parents together. Or, if he couldn’t do that, he’d choose her. That sounded harsh, but there it was. He’d sacrifice Andi’s parents to save her.

He took a deep breath and headed towards the stone cells. Maybe being evil wasn’t as far off as he thought.

*****

As soon as the vampire grabbed her, breaking her concentration, she was sure this was it. It’d reach out and suck her blood or hold her there for the others to tear her apart. At least Ben got away, though unless he rescued her parents, it was all for naught. But he wouldn’t. He’d do everything in his power to save her. She knew because if she was in his shoes, she’d do exactly the same.

Surprisingly, pain didn’t hit. She should have known. The necromancer wanted her, too. As they dragged her to the center of the room, she thought of Ben. He was terrified, though mostly for her, but he was safe. At least for the time being.

Without a big ceremony or spell, she found herself in the stone cell with her parents and the evil necromancer. A cry arose in her throat as she saw them, how awful they looked. How had the fiend kept them alive to do so much damage?

“Andi? Run!” Mom shouted, while Dad looked up with pleading eyes.

Before she could tell them no, that she was here to save them, her whole body went rigid. She tried to move, but not even her fingers or toes would obey. The necromancer stepped in front of her.

“So nice of you to join us, child.”

“Stay away from her, you bastard!” Dad yelled.

“Andi, fight it,” Mom pleaded.

The necromancer gave a laugh that chilled her to the bone. “But you just got here. You’ll miss all the fun.” He lifted a hand to her face, and searing pain ran along her cheek. She screamed as her flesh peeled down her face.

*****

Ben made it halfway to the cells when Andi popped in, and he sprinted the rest of the way. Once at the door, he moved to peek in when the pain hit. Her pain. Rage bubbled through him, and he burst in to see Andi standing stiff as a board in the middle of the room, her left cheek covered in blood. The necromancer stood in front of her, an evil smile etched on his face. Ben charged, intent on knocking that grin straight off.

A few steps away, an energy gripped his chest and hurled him face-first into the wall. His nose exploded, spraying blood all over everything. He fell down and slumped against the wall. Andi screamed his name, and somewhere in the back of his mind he heard her parents. He looked around the room, but couldn’t see much through his red haze.

The necromancer laughed. “So glad you decided to join us, boy. This is getting deliciously fun. But I have so many decisions to make. Do I continue on the girl while you watch?” Andi screeched as another line of blood scratched across her right cheek. As her parents screamed and protested, the crimson fog lifted from Ben’s vision. He gripped his sword and stood, ready to run the evil toad through. “Or do I kill you in front of her? It’s a feast of options.”

“Or three, I kill you!” Ben lunged forward, but the necromancer threw up his hand, catching Ben in his tracks, unable to breathe.

“No,” Andi whimpered. She still couldn’t move.

“Fight it, Ben,” Mr. Thomas yelled. Ben glanced over and saw for the first time how awful he looked. A quick peek at Mrs. Thomas showed her in the same state. If he died here, it wouldn’t be long before Andi looked like that, too. He couldn’t let that happen.

Ben thrust his shield up and broke the magic hold on his throat. Air, glorious air, flooded his lungs. He staggered a bit, but managed to step towards the necromancer, who laughed.

“You are more of a treat than I imagined. Killing you will be fun. But first, I’ll allow you to say goodbye to your would-be mate.” The necromancer waved his hand, and Ben cartwheeled into Andi, who tumbled with him, free of the magic restraints.

“Andi, Ben,” Mr. Thomas called. “Mix your blood.”

Ben wasn’t sure what that meant, but Andi grabbed his head and jammed his broken and still bleeding nose into her torn cheek. Both yelled out from the pain, but it didn’t last. Her parents uttered some strange words, and then his world went fuzzy. All that existed was Andi. Previously he could sense agony and fright, but now he felt the adrenaline coursing though her veins, hear her heartbeat, and recognize that her pain centered on both her cheeks. He also felt a tidal wave of love erupting from her, and he knew she felt the same from him.

Ben did what he could to push everything away and focus on the necromancer. Dispose of this monster and his Andi, his Alexandria, would be safe. Ben hefted his sword and shield with more grace than he’d ever before possessed. Power pulsed through him, and fear was a foreign concept.

The necromancer cursed but didn’t back down. “You haven’t won. In fact, you’ve prolonged your suffering.” He hurled a bolt of black energy, which Ben knocked aside with his shield. Another bolt dissipated on the blade of his sword. Fear, real fear, now shone in the necromancer’s eyes.

While this happened, Andi ran to her parents and broke their magical bindings. Ben didn’t so much as glance her way, but he saw her free first her father, then her mother, as if he’d been standing right beside her. She helped them hobble to the far side of the room, out of the way of the battle.

Ben swatted away another spell and spun closer to the necromancer, his sword aimed at neck level. “No Ben!” Mr. Thomas yelled, but it was too late. His blade sliced through the necromancer’s neck, but it wasn’t the euphoric sense of victory he’d hoped. Even as the head tumbled to the dirt, the necromancer laughed. A bright green smoke hissed out of his body.

“Quickly,” Mrs. Thomas said. “We’ll regroup at home.”

Ben turned and rushed to her. Andi already had her father in her arms, and as soon as he reached her mother, he yelled, “Back to my house.” He had to make sure the monsters weren’t still around when his parents got home. Andi nodded, and they blinked out of the demonic necromancer’s realm and landed in his living room, thankfully now clear of the multitude of undead that had invaded earlier. Too bad the windows, doors, and all the furniture were busted. Mom and Dad were going to have a conniption.

Chapter 28

“Alexandria, Benjamin, behave yourselves.” Mr. Thomas’s voice was as hard as ever, despite his battered body. One leg couldn’t support any weight, while the rest of him looked to have been worked over by a mix between a sledgehammer and a blowtorch. Mrs. Thomas didn’t look to be in much better shape, but at least she was mobile.

“Patience, Lee. Remember how we were after we were bound.”

Mr. Thomas’s face went bright red, and he spat out, “There will be none of that tonight or any other night in the near future.”

Ben followed the conversation, but most of his attention was focused on Andi, his Alexandria. Her hand ran under his shirt and caressed his chest, her touch both fire and ice. He supposed that was what her father complained about, but he made no effort to stop his new dragon bride. In fact, if he could, he would slide his hand under her shirt, just to feel the smooth skin of her flat belly on his fingertips. But even in this lust-driven state, he had enough wherewithal to keep himself in check. No doubt Mr. Thomas, broken leg or not, would get up and punch him in the face if he tried. Though he knew Andi would welcome his touch. In fact, she hungered for it. Just a half-hour earlier, that thought would have scared him to death, but no longer. Now she was his, as he was hers.

“Geez, Lee, you need to get a grip. Andi, take your hand out of Ben’s shirt before your father bursts some more blood vessels. He can’t afford to lose anymore tonight.”

She obeyed her mother, though only Ben realized how hard it was for her. As her touch fluttered on his skin, he couldn’t tell where her heartbeats started and his ended. Once her hand was free, her father started talking, his voice softer, more under control.

“You two are now fully bound, though I’m sure you figured that out. We’re sorry you had such an abrupt, brutal binding, but it was necessary.

“We wanted to make it special,” Mrs. Thomas said, “but obviously we couldn’t. We’ll make it up to you at your human wedding.”

That, too, no longer struck terror into Ben. In fact, he’d marry her right now if they’d let him. They weren’t still going to make them wait 150 years, were they? He couldn’t bear that. Andi glanced back at him. She, too, was uneasy they may still have to wait to truly belong together.

“You’re going to notice subtle things, both of you,” Mrs. Thomas said. “In a few minutes, we’ll leave you alone to test telepathy and other shared powers.”

“But that’s all you’ll be doing,” Mr. Thomas snapped.

“Yes, Lee, they get it.”

“I hope so.” His stare bored a hole into Ben. “Anyway, Alexandria, your entire life you’ve only been using half your brain’s capacity. The binding opened the rest. You’ll find you now know things you never learned.”

“And Ben,” Mrs. Thomas said, “you’re going to notice you can now do things that were hinted at before with the minor binding. For example, your nose is almost completely healed, and Andi’s cheek wounds might have happened days ago, not minutes.”

“He could already heal,” Andi said.

“What?” her parents asked simultaneously.

“When we saved his parents, I saw energy radiating off him onto them. They were practically mummies, but Ben healed them faster than possible. He also kept us awake and alert.”

Her parents shared a strange look. “You don’t suppose…” Mrs. Thomas said.

Mr. Thomas cut her off. “Now’s not the time, Cassie.”

“What’s not the time?” Andi asked. “Is this about the prophecy?”

The look they gave her proved it was, though Mr. Thomas didn’t budge. “As I said, now is not the time. Derian could strike at any moment. I’m hoping we have until morning, at least, but we need to be ready.”

“I shouldn’t have cut his head off,” Ben said. “I’m sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry for, sweetie,” Mrs. Thomas said. “I’d have done the same thing in your shoes.” She grinned at him. “Felt good, didn’t it?”

Ben smiled back. “Yeah. Very satisfying.” He reached for Andi’s hand while he said it.

“I don’t fault you, either,” Mr. Thomas said. “Though we should have waited a few days for revenge. I’m afraid if he strikes soon, neither of us,” he pulled Mrs. Thomas to him, “will be of much use. You two are going to have to defeat him on your own.”

“But I still don’t understand,” Andi said. “Why isn’t cutting his head off a good thing?”

“Search your mind,” her father said. “You should find the answer.”

Andi frowned for a second, and then her face lit up. “Oh, yeah. Hmm, that is a problem.”

“Word of caution, Ben,” Mrs. Thomas said. “She’s now a walking encyclopedia. No doubt she’ll be a know-it-all like her father.”

Ben chuckled and squeezed Andi’s hand tighter, while Andi rolled her eyes and Mr. Thomas growled at his wife. Ben then asked, “So why is it bad?”

“You unleashed the demon essence from him,” Mr. Thomas said. “It was the only thing holding him in that realm. He’s absorbed all of the demon’s powers, but he had to live with that leash. Now he’s free to move around the multiverse as he likes.”

“So why doesn’t he come straight for us? Why is he waiting?”

“Lucky for us,” Mr. Thomas said, “his head won’t reattach instantly. He’ll be here as soon as it does.”

“And once he’s here on this realm,” Mrs. Thomas said, “it won’t reattach at all. He’ll be as powerful as a demon, but with the mortal vulnerabilities.”

Mr. Thomas let out a sigh. “Like I said, it would have been better to wait until we could help, but you two can do it. As Cassie reminded me so many times before we were captured, you seem to be built for this coming battle, Ben.”

Andi smiled at her father’s compliment – it was still weird how he knew that without even looking at her face – and snuggled into him. Ben had to bite back a smile at the way her father gritted his teeth at that.

Before anything more could be said about the demon, the front door opened, and Ben’s parents walked in. The horror was evident in their eyes from across the room. “How…” Dad said while Mom just stared.

“Trent, Heidi,” Mrs. Thomas said. “It’s so great to finally meet you. Sorry about the mess. We’ll have it taken care of in the morning. I promise.”

“But the outside,” Dad said. “It looks fine.”

Before anything could be said, Mom snapped out of her trance. “Cassie, Lee, you’re back. So great to meet you, too, though I feel like we already know you.” She grimaced at their injuries. “What happened?” She gave them both a careful hug. Though he was pleased, Ben still couldn’t get over the change in his parents. Just last week, his mom would have spiraled out of control if the front rug would have been mussed out of place. Now with the entire house destroyed, she practically ignored it.

“An exciting story, I assure you,” Mr. Thomas said. “But it’ll have to wait. We need to talk about other things at the moment.” He motioned towards the kitchen, and then turned to Andi and Ben. “Behave.” With that, he limped out of the room.

“How are you walking, Lee?” Mrs. Thomas asked. “I can’t heal you that fast.” She turned to Ben, her eyes wide. “I feel better than I should, too. Thank you.”

“Uh, yeah, sure.”

“What’s going on?” his mom asked. “What did Ben do?”

Mrs. Thomas took her arm and led her towards the kitchen. “We’ll explain. There’s a lot to talk about.” Before they disappeared from view, she shot them both a “be good” look.

As soon as they were out of sight, Andi leapt into his arms, her lips devouring his. He pulled her closer, closer than should be possible, and kissed her back for all he was worth. He wanted to carry her to his room and tear her clothes off, and she wanted that more than anything, too. But they couldn’t. With both sets of parents in the kitchen, they’d never get away with it.

After a few more passionate kisses, Andi pulled away from him. Both her feelings and the way she looked at him spoke to not wanting to leave his arms, but he understood. They had other business to attend to. She mouthed, “Ready?” and he nodded.

Pain flashed into his head, first just a small twinge, but then he had to grab his temples to keep his head from feeling like it was going to tear apart.

“Jeez, this hurts. Can you hear me?” Her voice was as clear as if she’d spoken aloud.

“Yeah, I hear you, but let’s stop.”

The pain died away all at once, and they let out simultaneous sighs, and then laughed. Their lips found each other’s again, and Ben lost himself in her, as he would for the rest of eternity. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t eternity, but with this expanded lifespan, it might as well be. As long as they survived what was coming.

He gasped at that thought, and she pulled away, a sudden fear bleeding off her. “What is it?”

“Nothing, sorry. I was just thinking about the danger that was coming. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

“You didn’t. Well, not really. It’s not your fault, anyway.” She grabbed him in a hug. “I can’t lose you now that you’re truly mine.”

He stroked her cheek and placed a kiss on her forehead. “It works both ways, you know.”

“I know.” She chuckled.

“What?”

“It’s nothing. I was just wondering if we were going to be one of those couples.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know when you go to the mall and see a couple that can’t keep their hands off each other? They’re in their own little world, while everyone around them is gagging. Are we going to be them?”

He shook his head. “Nah. I’m sure we won’t be able to keep our hands off each other long enough to hit the mall.”

She burst out laughing, smacked his shoulder, and melted into him. As she did, he looked around the room at the broken furniture, the busted in windows, and the front door hanging by a single hinge.

“Andi, can I ask you something?”

“Do I have to let go?”

“No, I’d rather you didn’t.”

“Good. Ask away.”

“It’s about when my parents came home. They said they didn’t notice anything was wrong until they walked in. But there’s no way they wouldn’t have noticed all this destruction from outside.”

“I don’t know. Give me a second.” She pressed her face into his chest, and then looked up at him. “It’s a spell. The house looks fine from the outside, no matter what’s happening in here. We could blow it up, and until the spell wears off, no one would even notice.”

“Makes sense. It explains how all those undead critters got in here without anyone calling the cops. Especially nosy Ms. Sherridan across the street.” He looked down at her. “Wait, you had that stored in your head?”

“I know! Isn’t it cool?”

He chuckled and kissed the top of her head. “Your mom is right. You are going to be a know-it-all.”

“Whatever. Knowing a lot of stuff and being a know-it-all are two very different things.” She twitched as she said it, and he felt how anxious she was.

“Hey, I’m just teasing. No need to get upset.”

“I know you are. And I’m not upset. But would you mind if I transformed? I’ve been fighting the urge for a few minutes. I don’t think I can wait any longer.”

“Sure. Do you have enough room?”

“Yeah.”

She kissed him once more, a quick one on the lips, and stepped back. Seconds later, she stood before him in her full dragon glory. The room did have plenty of space for her, as long as she didn’t spread her wings. Every time he saw her as a dragon before, he’d thought it neat, but it didn’t go too far past that. Now? She was spellbinding, and he was just as in love with her as in her human shape. It was strange to no longer think of her as dragon Andi and human Andi; she was simply Andi, his Alexandria, no matter what.

“You look magnificent.” He was halfway through saying it when he realized it was in his mind, not out loud.

“Thanks,” she said, loud and clear. “You’re not so shabby yourself.” She nuzzled up next to him and wrapped her neck around his chest. He hugged back.

“Talking like this is way better,” he said. “Next time we need to say something secret, you should transform so we don’t get a headache.”

“I kinda doubt that’s going to be possible very often. Can you imagine if you wanted to share something private in school? Dragon form wouldn’t be ideal. Let’s hope we don’t need to keep secrets very often because that really hurt.”

A loud gasp came from the kitchen area. He turned and saw Mom and Dad staring. “Hey, guys,” he said. “You haven’t seen Andi like this yet, have you?”

Mom shook her head, while Dad managed to say, “No, not yet.”

“Make sure they know I can understand them.”

“She’s the same Andi, just in a different shape.” He ran a hand along her neck as he talked. “She understands you perfectly, though she’ll need me to relay her words.” He glanced over at Andi’s parents. Mrs. Thomas stood there beaming, while Mr. Thomas gave him a nod and a half-smile.

Mom stepped forward first, her eyes glued to Andi. “I knew this was all true. I think I would have even if we hadn’t been taken to that…place. I don’t know why. I can’t explain it, even to myself.” Her gaze flickered to Dad, who nodded. “Even in our darkest days, when we couldn’t stand to look at each other, we couldn’t leave. We needed to be there for Ben.” She put her arm around Ben. “It sounds strange, but divorce might have made growing up easier for you, sweetie, but we couldn’t. Something special was coming. We knew that, even if we couldn’t admit it.”

“Yes,” Dad said, his voice strained.

She looked into Andi’s eyes, which were down next to Ben. “And here you are, well worth the wait.” She hesitated at first, but then reached out and stroked Andi’s smooth, scaly cheek. “I can tell, just by looking at Ben, that, even at this young age, you’ve made him the man we always hoped he’d grow into. Welcome to our family, sweetheart.”

Andi transformed to human in an instant, and leapt into his mom’s arms. She whispered, “Thank you,” in between tears, which Mom sported down her own cheeks. Dad took a tentative step forward, and then hurried to them, engulfing both in a hug and sharing their tears.

Ben contemplated joining when the pins and needles assaulted the back of his neck. Though it was quite a jolt, they didn’t incapacitate him like before. Instead, the warning spurred him to action that much quicker.

“Mom, Dad, move. Behind Andi’s parents. We have company.”

Chapter 29

His mom and dad followed the orders before a half-dozen zombies burst into the house through the paneless windows and broken front door. Ben let instinct take over, and he banged his sword into his shield. Energy burst off and slammed into the zombies, disintegrating them.

“What did you do?” Mr. Thomas’s voice held wonder and surprise, while Mrs. Thomas whispered, “Amazing.”

“I don’t know. I just acted. More are coming. Andi, maybe you should…” But before he finished, she transformed. Three vampires zipped into the house, and he tried his energy blast on them. Though it knocked them back, momentarily stunning them, they didn’t disintegrate like the zombies. Were vampires stronger than zombies, or did the power of the blast diminish with each use?

As the monsters regrouped, Andi coated the creatures with her acid breath. They didn’t stand a chance.

“Teamwork,” she said. He could hear the smile in her voice.

“Don’t get cocky, sweetie. Here come some more.”

Ben heard her scoff in his mind and chuckled. They didn’t have to wait long for the next wave. This time it was a mixed group of zombies, vampires, and ghosts. He hit his shield, and like with the previous two groups, each undead creature flew backwards. The zombies again disintegrated, while the vampires and ghosts lay stunned for a few seconds. Since Andi’s acid breath wasn’t charged up yet, he surged forward and attacked. As his sword passed through one ghost, it disappeared from existence without him even concentrating on the blade. He dodged a swipe from the other, and then dispatched it, as well. He turned and ran his sword through the three scattered vampires, all of whom Andi had taken down.”

“We’re invincible against the undead, babe,” she said, a giddiness seeping into her voice. “Bring on the ugly necromancer.”

Before he could remind her about overconfidence, her father called out, “Ben, Alexandria, remember to stay focused. Derian will prove to be an exponentially more dangerous opponent. He’s merely testing you at the moment. Neither of you worry about us when he gets here. Got it?”

“Yeah,” he called back.

Ben grunted as the pins and needles hit him harder than he could ever remember. Just a few hours ago a jolt that big would have knocked him on his butt. He didn’t have to warn Andi, as she sensed the change in him and readied herself for the next wave of battle. The final wave, it seemed, as the necromancer pushed the front door all the way off its hinges.

“Quite a display,” Derian said. “I knew they wouldn’t be able to touch you, but I must admit I didn’t think you would dispose of them so easily. It’s a shame I have to put you down.” He licked his lips as if savoring the thought. “You would make interesting living pets. But you’ll have plenty of uses when I reanimate you.”

Ben’s anger flared, and Andi reminded him to stay calm. From behind them, a dragon roar filled the room, making Ben jump a bit. The entire roof exploded outwards as Mr. Thomas flew through it, Mrs. Thomas and Ben’s parents on his back. That’s what he meant by not worrying about them during the fight; they weren’t going to be close enough to need protection.

“Even the mighty Leon and Cassandra know your battle is lost,” Derian said. “But not to worry. After I dispose of the two of you, I’ll hunt them down once and for all.”

“Hardly,” Andi told Ben. “They’ll be back soon. They need to get your parents to a safe distance in case…” She didn’t finish the thought, and he didn’t press it.

“Where are my manners?” Derian said. “Let’s have some fun before I kill you.” He raised his hands, and four zombies walked in. These weren’t just zombies, but something more. They didn’t move in the same jerky motions. In fact, they moved with more grace than even a ghost. Each wore a sword on its belt, which Ben had no doubt, based on their dexterity, they’d wield with expert skill.

“What are they?” Andi asked. Could she feel their power, or had it been his emotions that gave them away?

“Zombies, but more. Super zombies, I guess. My undead index doesn’t seem to have a name for them. Let’s see how they like this.” He smashed his sword into his shield, but the resulting blast didn’t even slow the creatures. Each put a hand up in front of their eyes as if they were blocking out the sun’s glare, but that was the extent of it.

“Uh-oh,” he said, and Andi murmured her agreement.

Derian laughed. “You’ll have to be better than that, young Dragon Guard.”

With that, the four zombies drew their swords and surged forward. Andi spewed a stream of acid at the two who assaulted her, but they dodged the blast without breaking stride. Ben fended off the first strike from his two, but couldn’t manage a counterstrike. As he guessed, these zombies knew how to fight.

“Andi? You okay?” he asked as he parried a few more blows with both his shield and sword.

“For now. If things get too intense, I’ll hover and stay out of harm’s way.”

Ben parried another potentially fatal blow from one and managed a counter-attack, but the other blocked it. As he did, a burst of fiery energy flashed past his head and exploded against the wall. He glanced up to see the necromancer’s evil grin. No doubt one-on-one he could dispatch the zombies. He might even manage to best them two-on-one. But could he do so with Derian hurling spells?

Andi dodged attacks from her two zombies and let loose acid towards Derian. He threw up a magical shield, rendering her breath weapon useless. “Should I launch myself at him?” she asked. “With him gone, this ends.”

“No, not yet,” Ben said. “We’ll take out the zombies and team up on him.” He didn’t want to mention that he didn’t think she’d survive a head-on encounter with the necromancer. Or that he’d live through all four zombies attacking at once.

“But he’ll pick us off if we don’t do something.”

Ben didn’t answer. She was right. He battled his zombies, neither gaining nor losing an inch, while keeping his extra senses trained on Andi. So far she handled herself as well as him, maybe even better. Her teeth and claws parried their attacks the same as his sword and shield. He also kept an eye on Derian, who hurled spells that barely missed and laughed with glee. It was a game to him, but when he grew bored, the spells would strike true.

He slashed at one zombie’s head, and when it parried, he used the momentum to swing his shield at the other. That caught it off guard, knocking it back. He pressed his advantage, hopeful he could destroy one before the second rejoined the fight, but Derian flung multiple balls and bolts of energy, keeping him off balance. He barely got his shield up in time to block a few or to defend against the rain of blows by the remaining zombie.

Andi screamed in her dragon voice and spewed another stream of acid at Derian. While he again saved himself with a force shield, it stopped the barrage of spells. Before Ben could take out one zombie, the other rejoined the fray. Andi was right; they needed to kill Derian now to end this. And he had an idea.

“Fling me at him.” He blocked simultaneous blows with his shield.

“What?”

“As hard as you can. Don’t hold back, but don’t let him know what you’re doing.”

“No, Ben. No way. Do you realize how hurt you could get? How dead?” She snapped at one of her zombies, but missed, and then had to angle her neck enough to not get it slit. He wasn’t sure how tough her scales were there.

“It’s the only way, Andi.” Two near misses from his zombies drew his full attention back. He came closer to striking them, in fact almost had them figured out, but then what? As soon as he cut down these two, would more appear? Or would Derian burn him where he stood? Burn them both, though that didn’t matter. If one died, so did the other. There was no other way. They had to kill Derian now before he got tired of toying with them.

Andi’s zombies then made a mistake. Both leapt at her, but she read it and snatched them in her powerful hind legs and crushed. It didn’t kill them, but mangled their bodies enough to incapacitate them for the time being. The necromancer laughed, enjoying this turn of events. That wasn’t good. What did he have planned next?

“Andi, it has to be now. As hard as you can. And don’t let him know what we’re up to. Trust me, it’ll work.”

Fear and doubt bled from her, but also acceptance. He did his best to keep his attention on his zombies so as not to telegraph the plan himself. He found a few holes in their attacks, and could have cut them both down in no time flat, but he kept them there as a diversion. The necromancer hurled bolts of energy that Andi had no problem dodging. She maneuvered herself to Ben, making it look like she was going to help against the zombies, but instead let loose a stream of acid at Derian. As his invisible shield blocked the blast, she grabbed Ben by the back of his shirt and hurled him straight for the necromancer. Derian lowered his shield as soon as the acid was done. When Ben rocketed towards him, he threw his hands up to protect himself, but it was too late. The sword pierced first his chest, and then his heart. As Ben smacked into the ground, and slid hard into the wall, Andi’s emotions told him they’d won.

Everything went dark.

Chapter 30

Ben opened his eyes and blinked out the light coming from the window. He was in the guest room of Andi’s house that had been his for a couple of nights. Had it all been a dream? Were his parents still prisoners in the demon realm?

As soon as he sat up, Andi tackled him, pinning him back on the bed, her lips assaulting his. As soon as he got over the shock, he kissed back.

“Alexandria,” came her father’s voice. “Let the boy breathe.” Ben was surprised, but glad, that there was actual amusement in his voice.

She climbed off of him, her gaze locked on his eyes. “Sorry,” she said, which caused him to chuckle. She wasn’t sorry at all. Neither was he. Especially since he felt her emotions so clearly. None of it had been a dream.

Mom and Dad stood with Andi’s parents. They all wore smiles, but he had no doubt worry had creased each of their faces minutes before. “How long have I been out?”

“Twelve long, stupid hours,” Andi said. “I told you throwing you as hard as I could was dangerous.”

“Worked, though, didn’t it?”

She rolled her eyes. “Yes, but…”

He cut her off with a quick kiss. It worked, as she smiled and melted into his arms.

“That’s enough of that,” Mr. Thomas said, his voice back to the annoyed anger of whenever Ben and Andi were too close.

“Before they get back,” Mrs. Thomas said, ignoring her husband’s tone, “we need to discuss Rico.”

Ben glanced to the doorway and saw his parents no longer there. Before he could ask where they went, Andi said, “We owe him a second favor now. Which is totally unfair because we already got some ugly statue for him.”

“Be glad that was all he had you do,” Mr. Thomas said. “He must sense real potential.” His eyes were on Ben when he said it.

“He said…” Andi started, but her father cut her off.

“Tell me later. I have a good guess of what he said, but let’s get through this first. I don’t want to scare Trent and Heidi.

“Rico will call on us when it suits him, not us. He’ll wait for a moment when it won’t alert mortals, but other than that, we’re fair game. And we’ve given our word, which is a binding contract for him, meaning we’ll be compelled to complete whatever task he sets out for us, regardless of the danger.”

“It’ll be something we want to complete, though,” Mrs. Thomas said. “Even if he hadn’t promised, Rico is good about that. He knows motivation gives the best chance of success.”

“When will he call us?” Ben asked.

“Could be tomorrow, could be in 100 years,” Mr. Thomas said. “It depends when he needs us. Remember, always be ready. He’ll have the four of us complete one task together, but you two are on your own for the second.”

They nodded, and Ben’s parents came in. Mom held a donut box, while Dad had two glasses of milk. He handed one to Ben and one to Andi, while Mom set the donuts on the bed in front of them. There were two glazed, two raspberry jellies, and two maple bars, all his favorites, and, no surprise, hers, too.

They both grabbed a maple bar. “Andi refused to eat until you were better,” his mom said. With his mouth full, Ben could only roll his eyes at his beautiful mate. She should have eaten. She nudged him with her elbow and rolled her eyes back. No, she shouldn’t have.

Dad cleared his throat. “Maybe this would be a good time to share with the kids what we discussed.”

“Excellent idea,” Mrs. Thomas said, followed by nods from everyone else.

Andi leaned over to whisper in Ben’s ear. “I knew they were talking about us, but they wouldn’t let me join in.”

“We were, and, no, we didn’t,” Mrs. Thomas answered in a mock whisper, which brought out a chuckle from Ben and another eye roll from Andi.

“Don’t we already know?” Ben said. “We have to pretend we’re dating for 150 years, right?” Andi gave an internal wince at that, which Ben shared. They should be together every second possible now, not follow some silly rule of waiting fabricated by overprotective parents.

“Things have changed,” Mrs. Thomas said. She looked at Mr. Thomas and took his hand. “For all his bravado, Lee knows he never would have been able to wait for me for so long. Nor I for him. So, in three human years, you two will be married.”

“We’ll have big wedding. Huge!” Ben’s mom said. She rushed forward and gave Andi a crushing hug. “Oh, you’ll be such a beautiful bride. We can start planning soon, and take everything slow since it’s still a few years away. This is going to be so much fun.”

Andi was too shocked to speak, so Ben asked their question. “Why three years? Why not wait until we’re 18 in dragon years like you said? Or just do it now?” Which is what he and Andi wanted.

“No son of mine is getting married before he’s 18,” Dad said.

“Sorry, kids,” Andi’s mom said. “Society is different from when we were bound. In three years, you’ll both be 18, at least as far as everyone knows.”

“Ha,” Andi said, a sour look on her face. “If we’re going by human years, it’s not a problem for me.”

“It’s against my wishes,” Mr. Thomas said, “But I know it’s necessary. So when you two graduate from high school, you’ll wed.”

Excitement flared in Andi, and it had nothing to do with talk of the wedding. “I get to graduate? You’re going to let me graduate?”

Her mom laughed and went over to give her a big hug, while her dad gave her a smile and a wink. Andi cried tears of joy and practically crushed Ben’s fingers as she reached over to take his hand. He couldn’t quite make out what the big deal was, but he’d find out later.

“Yes, you get to graduate,” her father said. “But since we have a few years to worry about that, as well, why don’t you two tell us all about what happened while we were stuck out there. I’ve been patient long enough.”

He and Andi explained everything that happened while her parents had been trapped in Derian’s realm. None of it much mattered anymore since they’d won, but they went over every detail. Her parents didn’t interrupt the story, which Ben and Andi took turns telling, and the only parts they showed any sort of reaction to at all were Ben’s supposedly impossible feats. Ben tried to downplay what he did while he told the story, but Andi wouldn’t let him. He wanted to say she exaggerated her tellings, but she didn’t, not really.

When they were through, Ben’s dad was the first to speak. “Wow, that was quite something. You guys didn’t tell us all of it.”

“We didn’t want to freak you out too much,” Ben answered.

His mom smiled. “I always knew you were destined to be something great. And I don’t mean that because I’m your mother.”

“That’s more true than you know, Heidi,” Mrs. Thomas said. “It’s more than likely he’d have had much of this power without having become Andi’s guard. Those powers look to be simply complimentary. When we found out he could sense the undead before the two of them were even given a minor binding, we…”

“That’s enough, Cassie,” Mr. Thomas said, while Ben and Andi simultaneously said, “What?”

The silence in the room was deafening, with Ben, Andi, and Ben’s parents waiting breathlessly for an explanation, while Andi’s parents said nothing. Aloud, anyway. Both had the severe headaches of telepathic communication. Once their pain subsided, Mrs. Thomas broke the silence.

“We’ll talk about it another time. We promise.”

“No,” Ben and Andi said, but Mr. Thomas ended any debate.

“Later,” he said. The tone of his voice was such that even Andi didn’t argue.

Ben looked at his parents, and a thought struck him. “At least you guys will get to see the wedding.” He hadn’t given it much thought, but now he realized they would end up missing most of his life. That sucked. No, that was beyond suck. Especially now that they were back to the type of parents he wanted.

“Actually, kid, we’re going to see a lot more than just the wedding,” Dad said.

Huh? “But if I only age one year for every fifty human years, how is that possible?”

“Cassie and Lee offered us a gift, and we accepted,” his mom said. She beamed at Andi’s parents and gave Mrs. Thomas a hug. “The most wonderful present we could ever imagine.”

“It’s unfair for the Dragon Guard’s parents to be robbed of their child,” Mr. Thomas said. “So it’s within our power to offer the dragon lifespan to them.”

“Yeah,” Mrs. Thomas said, her arms still around Ben’s mom. She winked. “You can’t expect them to miss out on meeting their grandchild, can you?”

What? Grandchild? But how…? “We haven’t…”

The adults all laughed, even Mr. Thomas. Andi’s look of horror mirrored his own.

“That’s right. You haven’t,” Mr. Thomas said, but with his humor surprisingly intact. “And you won’t until we allow you to have a mortal wedding.”

Before either could say anything (and what could they say to that, anyway, especially to their parents?) Mrs. Thomas said, “Don’t worry. Dragons are physically unable to conceive or create a child until they are around 1000 years old. But without that worry, it’ll make your first couple hundred years of marriage that much more fun.”

“Mother!” Andi yelled, while her father screamed, “Cassandra!”

Ben’s parents laughed, but also pulled her parents out of the room. “Okay, let’s leave the kids alone for awhile,” his mom said. She glanced back at them with a stern look. “As long as the door stays open and you promise to be good.”

Ben chuckled and nodded, but Andi was still too embarrassed by her mother’s words. When they were alone, she glanced at him shyly.

Then she pounced.

 

To be continued in Book 2: Dragon Dreams

 

About the Author

E.J. Krause lives minutes from Disneyland, and he does his best to grab the spare creativity the place bleeds off. He writes speculative fiction for many different age groups. Please visit him in his stomping grounds on the World Wide Web:

 

Website: http://ejkrauseblog.wordpress.com

Twitter: http://twitter.com/EJKrauseYA

 

I’d love for you to give Dragon Guard a review wherever you’d like to help spread the word (Goodreads, your blog, the retailer you picked this up at, etc.). Thank you!

 

 


Dragon Guard

As if high school wasn't hard enough. Sophomore Ben Phillips thought his biggest problems were homework and his bickering parents, but when he runs into a couple of wandering zombies on his way to school, he realizes there is a whole multiverse of worse things out there. His life gets even weirder when he falls for the new girl at school, Andi Thomas, who is a 758 year-old dragon in a fifteen year-old girl's body. If all of that isn't enough, fate has decided that Ben should be Andi's Dragon Guard, her soul-bound mate with superpowers straight out of comic books and video games. When a demon-infused necromancer kidnaps first Ben's parents, and then Andi's, those powers are the only thing that could save them. Unfortunately, Ben and Andi are only partially bound, meaning their powers aren't anywhere near full strength. Will they be strong enough to save the day? Oh, and there's also the matter of a mysterious prophecy that Ben and Andi are at the center of… NOTE: This book was originally published in 2013 by Hunt Press with a different cover. This is no longer a Hunt Press publication. I've made a few minor changes in the text, but nothing changed plot or structure-wise. If you already own Dragon Guard, there is no need to purchase this edition.

  • Author: Eric J. Krause
  • Published: 2017-04-05 20:20:29
  • Words: 72219
Dragon Guard Dragon Guard