Seventeen years later
From the passenger side of her sister's BMW, Tori surveyed the camp parking lot. It was dirt, with no white lines, so cars were parked at odd angles. True, the surrounding forest had a picture-perfect beauty to it. The oak and maple trees crowded together, their thick branches perfectly still in the early summer sun. But the buildings seemed shabby. The paint was faded in places on the main lodge, and even if it hadn't been, it still would have looked boxy and spare--rundown, really.
The sign read ST. GEORGE AND THE DRAGON, with the word CAMP tacked up underneath the other words like it was an afterthought.
Tori made sure she had her registration confirmation, then slid her purse onto her shoulder. Her mom was supposed to have driven her here, but ended up having to host a party for senators and their wives instead. The job had then fallen to Tori's older sister, Aprilynne.
Aprilynne lowered her sunglasses enough to consider the stream of people making their way through the parking lot. "It's just what I thought. Riffraff, gangster wannabes, and probable orphans."
Tori refused to be disappointed, at least yet. "They're normal kids," she said.
"Exactly my point."
"It will be fun." Tori opened the car door, stepped out, and swatted at some gnats. Two teenage boys with squirt guns darted past and chased each other into the forest.
Aprilynne wrinkled her nose. "They're not even clean now, and camp is just starting."
"They're campers, not doctors performing surgery on me."
Aprilynne pushed a button on the dashboard and the trunk popped open. Tori slid out of the BMW and went around to the back to get her luggage.
Through the open window, Aprilynne said, "Why come here for a month when you could be at a good camp? What about that one you went to in Cancún last summer? I thought you liked it there."
"That was a finishing school at a resort, not a camp."
"I bet the mattresses here aren't clean. You'll come home with lice or something even more disgusting."
Tori hefted one suitcase and then the other out of the trunk. Each weighed a ton. She had probably brought too many shoes and books. She had packed some romances in case camp turned out to be boring, and then had thrown in a few classics from her English reading list in case camp turned out to be really, really boring. She shut the trunk of the car with a thud. "Tell Mom I'll call her later."
It was probably better that her mom wasn't here to see the camp, Tori decided. She undoubtedly would have found several reasons why it wasn't suitable.
Aprilynne hung her head out the window. "You realize your friends have a bet going to see how long you'll last here. Now that I've seen the place, I think I'll wager a hundred dollars on three days."
Tori grabbed her matching shoulder bag from the backseat of the BMW. "I've got my stuff. You can go now."
Aprilynne started up the car, then glanced back again. "You know, there's no point in being rich if you act poor."
Tori ignored the comment. She should have never told Aprilynne that some kids came to Dragon Camp on need-based scholarships. Aprilynne wasn't impressed by that type of largesse. She had only rolled her eyes and said, "You mean, not only is dragon camp made up of Renaissance Faire rejects, but they're all broke, too?"
The BMW pulled out of the parking lot going too fast--Aprilynne's normal driving speed--and soon nothing was left of her sister but a trail of dust and designer perfume hanging in the air.
Tori walked slowly toward the main building and the hand-printed sign that read REGISTER HERE. She pulled her two suitcases, wishing too late that she hadn't brought the good luggage. The dust would probably ruin the canvas by the time she made it to her cabin. Still, she couldn't very well pick them up and haul them around; they were too heavy. Several kids streamed around her, jostling by with backpacks and duffle bags.
How had they managed to fit everything they needed for a month into a duffle bag? Tori's shoes alone took up that much space. Still, it had been a mistake to pack so much, or maybe just a mistake to come. Maybe Aprilynne was right. That occasionally happened. The beds would be hard, the food bad, and the stuff about dragon classes that had made her want to come in the first place--a bunch of hype to attract little kids.
Besides, she was too old for a camp like this. She was sixteen and a half, and most of these kids didn't look much older than the required entrance age of eleven.
Tori pulled her suitcases harder. They bumped along on the uneven ground, nearly falling over.
She thought about the cell phone tucked into her shoulder bag. Aprilynne probably hadn't even reached the main road yet. If Toricalled her now, the car would be back here in minutes. They could be somewhere shopping by early afternoon.
Tori stared at the road leaving camp and wondered who would win the bet. Had anyone wagered she would only last five minutes?
As Tori pulled, her biggest suitcase gave a shudder and tipped over. A cloud of dust rose from the ground at the point of its demise. She bent to straighten it, and as she did, her shoulder bag slid down her arm, knocking into her other suitcase, which then joined the first one on the ground. She let out a huff of exasperation, set the shoulder bag down, then righted her suitcases.
Stupid dirt parking lot. Fine, it was a camp, but every camp Tori had ever attended had paved parking lots and sidewalks between the cabins. By the look of it, this one had neither. A worse thought came to her: What if this camp didn't have real toilets? What if it had outhouses?
She walked slower, searching for a restroom among the rustic log cabins that were scattered through the forest. The words from the brochure came to her mind: Step into the world of dragon slayers. Campers will practice fencing, horseback riding, archery, and everything a young dragon slayer needs to save the world. Older campers can apply what they learn in medieval history class for college credit.
The college credit part had been new this year and had finally sold her parents on the idea. She had wanted to go to St. George for the last four summers, but every time she'd asked, her parents had sent her to a camp they deemed better. One with a wider range of facilities. A higher camper-to-counselor ratio. More exclusive clientele. Ones for horseback riders, ice skaters, or debutantes.
But Tori had wanted knights, or answers, or perhaps magic. She had wanted a place where people understood her and her crazy dragon obsession, because then maybe she could understand herself.
Tori looked from the dirt parking lot to the huddled log cabins andgray trash cans. This place had nothing even remotely magical about it. Probably all she'd get out of the summer was a succession of sunburns, a few rashes, and a healthy appreciation of bug spray.
Did any decent restaurants even deliver out here?
And did any of these kids really have lice? None of the kids who poured past her seemed to be scratching, but if Aprilynne mentioned it, then it might be a real concern. After all, Tori had never even been to a public school.
The thunking of her suitcases suddenly stopped, and the next moment she felt them lifted away from her.
She turned to see two guys about her age hefting her suitcases off the ground. Both wore mirrored sunglasses, and both were tall, perhaps six two. One was blond, with muscular arms covered in a layer of dirt. The other guy had wavy dark brown hair, or perhaps it was just uncombed. His biceps were equally impressive, or at least they would have been if they weren't holding onto her luggage. With the sunglasses hiding their eyes, she probably wouldn't even be able to identify them once they made off with her possessions.
Tori held onto her luggage straps fiercely. "There's nothing of value in here--only my clothes--and if you don't let go, I'll scream."
The brunet set her suitcase down and turned to the other guy. "I don't want her on my team. You get her."
The blond shook his head. "No way. It's my turn to choose, and I've already got Lilly. You get this one, pal."
The brunet peered over the rim of his sunglasses at Tori. "We're not stealing your luggage. We're carrying them to your cabin--unless you want to drag these things across camp by yourself." He picked up her suitcase again, moving it from one hand to another. "What do you have in here anyway, your lead collection?"
Tori blushed and let go of the luggage straps. "Sorry. I didn't know the camp had bellhops."
The blond groaned and walked past her. The brunet forced a smile in her direction. "We're not bellhops. We're campers who happen to be doing you a favor."
"Oh, sorry. I didn't know ..."
He walked past her shaking his head, which she supposed meant that tipping them was out of the question. She followed after him awkwardly. He picked up his pace. Not only were these guys strong, they weren't going to wait for her. She tried to keep up, but her platform sandals proved more decorative than useful, and pebbles and bits of twigs wedged into them as she walked. With every step, she fell farther behind.
This was off to a great start.
"Maybe she isn't--," the blond said to his friend in a voice low enough that most people wouldn't have heard it. Tori's hearing had always been exceptional.
"Dr. B thinks she is. Why else would she be here?"
If the blond had an answer to this question, he didn't give it, which was too bad. Tori was beginning to wonder herself.
The guys hauled her luggage into the lodge. Instead of setting her suitcases next to the front desk, where younger campers stood in noisy lines waiting to check in, the two went around the desk and down a hallway. The blond knocked on a door, only then glancing back to see if Tori had followed.
A voice called, "Come in," and the guys disappeared inside. Tori went in, too, taking off her sunglasses to let her eyes adjust to the light. The room looked like any small office: shelves lined the wall and a large metal desk was parked in the middle of the room. Books, pencils, and photos frames cluttered its surface. A middle-aged man with wire-rimmed glasses smiled as she walked over. He was tall, slightly overweight, and his thick gray hair had a sort of Einstein disarray to it. He had no wrinkles to match the gray hair, though, and it gave him the odd appearance of being both old and young.
His office window looked out on the parking lot. He had probably seen her struggling with her luggage and sent these guys out to help her. He'd undoubtedly also seen her reaction, and now before she'd even registered, she'd done something wrong.
Tori wished she was more like Aprilynne, who didn't care what she said, but Tori felt the weight of her father's job too keenly. Politicians stayed in office by making friends, not insulting people. Their daughters were supposed to do the same.
The man held his hand out to her. She'd been wrong about the wrinkles. His eyes crinkled when he smiled. "Welcome to Dragon Camp. You're Victoria Hampton?" He had the hint of an accent, but she couldn't place it. British maybe? Australian?
She shook his hand. "I go by Tori."
"Tori, then." He gave her another smile, which was good news. He probably wouldn't have kept smiling if he was going to yell at her for assuming everyone at camp was either a thief or a menial worker. She relaxed, but only slightly. Why was she here instead of out in the registration line?
"I'm the camp director, Dr. Bartholemew. Most everyone calls me Dr. B. It's easier."
She remembered reading about him in the camp literature. He was a professor of medieval studies at George Mason, which was why his class was good for college credit.
Tori cast a quick glance at the two guys. Both had taken off their sunglasses, and it didn't make her feel better to see they were both on the extremely warm side of hot--as in, way to make a fool of herself in front of what were likely to be the only cute guys her age here.
She turned back to Dr. B with an inward sigh.
"I've always admired your dad," he said.
"Thanks." She wasn't sure whether to be surprised that he knew her father was a senator. Hopefully her mother hadn't called and made a big deal about it. Sometimes her mom liked to throw the titlearound to drum up preferential treatment. Tori could imagine her phoning and saying things like, "You have adequate supervision, don't you? The boys and girls cabins are chaperoned? It would be such bad publicity for your camp if anything happened to a senator's daughter ..."
"I'm glad you could join us at Dragon Camp," Dr. B went on. He glanced at the guys and some hidden meaning passed between them before Dr. B returned his attention to Tori. "I noticed from your application that you signed up for the advanced section of horseback riding and fencing. You've done those before?"
"And you didn't sign up for the tae kwon do class."
"I'm already a fourth-degree black belt."
"Ahh." He sent another meaningful look to the guys. "Any other lessons you've taken?"
"Ice skating." She had been competing since age twelve and had a shelf full of state and regional trophies to show for it. Her coach kept telling her she could go to nationals if she put in more practice time.
"Have you ever used a rifle?" Dr. B asked. "Gone hunting, perhaps?"
"I've done target practice." Her father had originally taken her shooting to impress his NRA supporters, but she'd liked it and had kept going. "Why do you ask?"
Dr. B clasped his hands behind his back and grinned. "I'm always curious to see what kind of people come to our camp. You'll find you have a lot in common with many of the other campers." He gestured in the direction of the guys. "Both Dirk and Jesse are black belts, as well. Jesse is the state champion for his age in fencing, and Dirk, well, one day I think we'll see him win a medal for archery."
If Dr. B thought this information would make them feel friendlier, it didn't work. Both guys regarded her with expressions that were atbest guarded and at worst disapproving. She wondered which was Dirk and which was Jesse.
The blond was probably the one most girls would go for first. He was good-looking in a flashy, sensual sort of way, and he had a swagger in his walk that said he knew it. His hair was a little too long and scruffy, but when you had a square jaw and perfect features, you could get away with that sort of thing. Tori tended to avoid guys that were cocky, though. They always ended up being trouble.
The brunet was handsome in a serious, understated way that Tori liked best. She let her eyes linger on him for a moment. His eyes were dark and piercing, as though they knew secrets.
"I see you signed up for the dragon mythology class," Dr. B continued. "You have an interest in that topic?"
She had played an imaginary game of knights as a child, read every book she could find about dragons, and for the last few years perused websites on the subject. She probably knew more about dragons than Dr. B. "Yes," she said.
"Then I'll look forward to talking with you about them this afternoon in class." He gave a pronounced nod, signaling the interview had ended. "Dirk and Jesse will take you down to your cabin."
"Which cabin?" the brunet asked.
"Number twenty-seven," Dr. B said.
The guys glanced at each other and then back at Dr. B. "You're sure?" the blond asked.
"Quite," Dr. B said, then smiled at Tori. "You're in the same cabin as my daughter, Bess. She'll be here tomorrow. Right now she's busy with ..." he hesitated, "something important."
He made it sound mysterious, but didn't elaborate. Instead, he picked up a sheet of paper from his desk and handed it to Tori. "I hope you'll fit in well here. I hope it very much."
Tori's name was printed across the top of the paper, with herschedule listed underneath. She noticed, without trying to, that hers had been the only schedule on his desk.
The brunet picked up her largest suitcase, swung it onto his shoulder, and headed out the door. The blond picked up her smaller suitcase and shoulder bag, then left, too. Tori had no choice but to go after them. As she shut the door behind her, Dr. B murmured, "Now if we could only find Ryker."
But she could have heard wrong. It was an odd phrase for a person to say as he stood alone in a room.
SLAYERS. Copyright © 2011 by C.J. Hill. All rights reserved.