I’m not sure how long this is going to end up being (three parts, maybe?), but here’s the first installment. Title suggestions are welcome.
It’s just past four in the morning when the juddering old Ford pulls up to Mark’s place, yellow headlights knifing through the fog. He jumps up from the front step, backpack bouncing on his shoulder, and comes around to climb into the passenger seat.
“Tell me you brought coffee,” Kenna says from the back, pulling her hair up with a rubber band scavenged from the car floor.
Mark shakes his head and closes the door as Lex shifts into reverse. “Didn’t think of it,” he says; then, at Kenna’s protest, “You can survive for a couple hours. We’ll drive through Starbucks on the way back to celebrate.”
“You always assume we’re gonna be alive to celebrate after these things,” Lex remarks with a sideways glance at Mark.
“Optimism never hurt anybody,” Mark answers, grinning. He roots through his backpack and comes up with phone, Pop-Tarts, and roll of aluminum foil. The foil he tosses back to Kenna. “Everybody owes me two bucks for that,” he announces.
Lex snorts. “Soon it’ll be cheaper to just use actual coins.”
“Why am I always stuck with crinkling duty?” complains Kenna. She’s already started on the foil, though, tearing off strips and crumpling them into palm-sized disks.
Mark points to Lex. “Driver.” Then to himself – “Tactician.” Then he jerks a thumb over his shoulder into the back seat. “Crinkler. It’s the natural order of things.”
“Fill us in, then, tactician,” says Lex. The scrape of foil, briefly indignant, settles into a resigned background constant.
“Like I said yesterday, we’re headed to Peck Hill.” Mark tears open his breakfast and tucks in as he goes on, “The Institute called it in – one of the old dens has a new tenant. Just one, according to the brief, but a big guy. Third or fourth shed, at least. He’s got bright blue scales and a fancy crest coming in.”
Lex frowns at the road ahead. “Breeding season doesn’t start until November. Early bloomer?”
“I guess. Anyway, he’s aggressive and the Institute wants him taken care of before things get any worse.”
“We came to Peck Hill last year, right?” asks Kenna. “The red with the bit-off tail?”
“No, that was Adirondack.” Mark has a good memory for their trips, and backs it up with careful digital records. In a moment he’s pulled up the file on his phone. “We were at Peck Hill with Jen and Patrick to take out that breeding pair.”
They all remember that, now he’s mentioned it. Kenna’s ribs healed without issue, but the scars on Lex’s upper arm are still lumpy and inclined to ache; the squiggly top edge of Mark’s burn is just barely visible between hair and hoodie, like splayed fingers wrapped around the back of his neck. It was the nestlings that had really thrown them off; there were too many of the damned things running around their ankles, big enough to trip you up while you were trying to get out of the way of their pissed-off mother. Jen and Patrick had suffered similar injuries. The report Mark had sent back to the Institute was full of offhand remarks about the misuse of human resources and the utter pointlessness of trying to cut back on costs by sending fewer slayers. It hadn’t done much good, but they’d all gotten a nice bonus.
Lex stops rubbing her arm and turns up the radio. A fluorescent miasma of 80s pop music fills the car. Kenna sings along, and Lex hums; Mark is on his phone, surveying the terrain around the den. They’ve dealt with much worse conditions before, but as far as stats are concerned, today’s mark is the biggest the team will have handled on their own. Mark is still assuming they can handle it. No point in thinking otherwise. Still, he’s tapping his foot just the slightest bit out of time with the music, and from that Lex knows they’re up against trouble.
“Any new gear?” she asks, nodding to his backpack.
“Some nice gloves. Better heat resistance than my old ones. My parents chipped in, or I wouldn’t have been able to afford them.”
“I’ve got a new sword!” Kenna puts in with evident delight. “Well – new to me. One of the good ones the Institute puts up for resale. Not even a nick on it.”
“You can have first blood, to baptize it,” Mark promises.
The car continues along the hazy deserted road, an aging charger bearing three champions into battle. Three swords rest strapped into cases in the trunk, seeming somewhat out of place beside the spare tire and coil of jumper cables. But certainly it would never do to bear any other weapon when one goes to face down dragons.