In which our heroes learn that love knows no boundaries–and neither do the lengths young wizards will go to get even.
CHAPTER 8: LOVE HURTS
Tentatively, with all the subtlety of a nuclear physicist prodding at a uranium pile with tweezers, Lucas’s eyes narrowed beneath the goggles strapped to his forehead as he poked at the meal on the tin tray before him, which resembled something between shrimp fried rice and apple pie. As Jack and Danny watched him from the opposite side of the table, he slowly scooped up a bit with the fork in his hand, delivered it to his mouth, and chewed on it for a long moment. Then, he visibly shuddered.
“Well,” he said matter-of-factly, putting down the fork and pushing his goggles back up to the top of his head. “That’s atrocious.”
“Yeah,” Danny sighed, pushing his own tray away from him with a mixture of regret and relief. “I figured. Thanks for the warning, Lucas.”
“What he said,” Jack agreed, with an apologetic smile. “Sorry to disappoint, man. On the bright side, all the food here might taste like an old shoe, but eventually you’ll realize that’s just because it is an old shoe. So at least they’re consistent.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Lucas asked, tilting his head to the side inquiringly.
“Nah, not really.”
“Oh, good. It didn’t. Speaking of which, I’ve been giving it some thought, and I’ve realized I’ve got a bit of a conundrum.”
“Don’t say that out loud,” Jack cautioned him, glancing over his shoulder at the laughing group of Centaur girls seated across the mess tent. “You’ll scare all the chicks away.”
“Jack, I think he means he has a problem,” Danny groaned. “Why? What’s up, Lucas?”
“What’s that?” Lucas asked, too busy staring at the back of Jack’s head to hear. “Oh, sorry. I meant that since everyone else around here is magical and I’m not, it’s only a matter of time before someone else finds out. Those agents from the Bureau of Magical Affairs scooped me up by mistake because of my brain chip experiment, and from everything you’ve told me, the alternatives to staying at this camp after having learned about its highly-classified existence don’t sound very pleasant.” He peered skeptically at the food again, and then at his surroundings in the ramshackle tent. “Although I’m still weighing my options.”
“So what are you going to do?” Danny asked.
“My theory is that if I somehow found a way to use technology to harness magic once, I should be able to do it again. Perhaps in a more controllable fashion this time. I’m working on a few ideas at the moment, but I’ll need more time before I have a final proof of concept.”
“Wow, that’s so cool.” Danny looked over at Jack. “You’re like Tony Stark with magic. Isn’t that cool, Jack?”
But Jack had become much more interested in the aforementioned girls, above all the familiar one with a blonde pixie cut who had just joined them at their table.
“Sweet,” he said. “She’s here. I’m going to talk to her. Got to break the ice somehow, right?”
“But Jack,” Danny whined, “you don’t know anything about her. Just because she’s been stalking us or whatever doesn’t mean she likes you.”
“Danny, you’ve got a lot to learn about why girls do stuff,” Jack chuckled, shaking his head at his friend’s naivety. “And I do too. I asked around. Her name’s Tessa Stone. She’s a second-year, so it’s not that big of a difference. Plus, I’m pretty sure she’s single.”
“How do you know that?” Lucas asked.
“Well, I heard the last guy who went out with her and tried to go for second base got his nose broken.”
“Ah. And that doesn’t make you nervous?”
“No way, man,” Jack said with a shrug. “I made sure I had a couple beers earlier. If she’s going to beat me up, at least she’ll do it while I’m nice and buzzed.”
With that, he got up from his seat and made for the table where the Centaur scouts were gathering as Lucas and Danny looked on, the first in awe and the second in terror. His passage drew the eyes and raised the eyebrows of many other scouts as he crossed the tent and plopped down on the bench next to Tessa, causing her and the girls surrounding her to look up from their chatter and vague contemplation of their meals.
“Ladies,” he said brightly. “How’s it going?”
The girls all stared at him like he was speaking in Japanese.
“Ugh,” one of them said, her raven hair pulled back in a tight bun. “Great. Looks like a little piece of trash just blew over to our table.”
“Yeah,” the red-head next to her agreed, giving Jack a dirty look. “Get lost, slacker. Who said you could talk to us?”
“Well, nobody, I guess,” Jack said, unruffled by the insults. “Just wanted to say hi.” He turned to look specifically at Tessa, who regarded him coolly. “Especially to you. I don’t think I ever got to introduce myself when we ran into each other at the welcome banquet. The name’s Jack. Jack Ferguson. And let me tell you, it’s really, really nice to meet you.”
“Tessa, what’s going on here?” the red-headed girl demanded. “Do you know this loser?”
“Relax, Rachel,” Tessa replied, looking a little uncomfortable, but with enough authority in her voice to make her friend snap her mouth shut. “Yeah, I know who you are, Jack. It’s kind of hard not to: people talk around here. A lot. That run-in you had with Drake Masterson is all over the camp now. Plus, something happened in Sphinx Troop the other day. They say you actually saved some newbie from going nuclear.”
“Aw, you know,” said Jack modestly. “It was nothing. But yeah, sounds like you’re pretty up to speed. Almost like you were there, huh?”
At that remark, Tessa bit her lip and looked only slightly guilty, but enough to make her friends sit up and take notice.
“Sure, whatever. Well, as nice as it was to meet you and everything,” bun girl spoke up, her glare and tone conveying that she meant exactly none of what she was saying, “we’re actually kind of in the middle of something more important here. You know, like not eating our lunch. So why don’t you do us a favor and buzz off?”
Seeming like she wanted to say something but couldn’t, Tessa stayed silent, giving Jack an apologetic look as the other Centaur guys and girls from the far end of the table started to sit up and take notice of the exchange. But Jack didn’t seem bothered.
“Hey, who served you guys?”
The girl named Rachel blinked.
“I think it was that guy over there. The one with the goatee?”
“Oh, Malcolm?” asked Jack, raising an eyebrow. “Huh. No way. They’re letting him handle food again?” He shrugged. “I guess he must be all better then.”
“What do you mean?” the girl with the bun asked. “All better from what?”
Jack thought for a moment, and then shook his head.
“Never mind. Don’t worry about it.”
All the girls collectively groaned and simultaneously pushed their trays away from them, with the notable exception of Tessa, who smiled a little.
“Real nice,” she said, though not unkindly. “You think you’re pretty funny, don’t you?”
“Well, I try not to argue with public opinion,” Jack said with a grin. That got a chuckle from Tessa as the other girls just looked on, confused.
“Tessa,” the girl named Rachel muttered, “don’t encourage him.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Tessa said mockingly. “I didn’t realize you all were still here. Don’t you have something else to do? Like wash your hair?”
“Okay, great. Don’t let me hold you up.”
With disapproving looks directed mostly at Jack, the five other girls all got up, picked up their trays and walked away. Jack watched them go, surprised.
“Wow. Didn’t see that coming.”
“Yeah,” Tessa sighed. “Sorry about that. Don’t listen to them. They’re not really bad. Well, not that bad, anyway. They just get on my nerves sometimes with their classist crap. People in Centaur Troop tend to do that. But we’re not all the same.”
“Clearly,” said Jack. “Some of you are way more attractive than others.”
“Oh, good one. Bet you were working on that for a while.”
“Most of the morning, yeah.”
Tessa laughed, shaking her head.
“Okay, okay. Cool your jets, hotshot. Maybe we should get to know each other a little first, huh?”
“Sure,” Jack consented. “So where did you come from? I mean, where have you been all my life?”
“Denver,” said Tessa, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. “I live there with my dad and three brothers. I was just going to start military school when I found out I was magical.”
“No way,” said Jack. “You want to be a soldier? Really? I totally don’t get that from you. I mean, you definitely seem like you could kick some butt and stuff, but you’re not—well—a hard-ass.”
“You mean like Chad and the rest of them?” Tessa asked, rolling her eyes. “Yeah, right. They all act like they’re tough, but they mostly got sent here on free rides because their parents are generals. It’s different for me: sort of a family thing. My dad’s a vet and all my brothers are in basic training already. None of them has magic, though. I’m the only one. I know they love me, but I think it still freaks them out a little. What about you? How’d your family react?”
“Well, I guess they didn’t really. But that’d be kind of difficult since I don’t really have one.”
“Umm—what?” Tessa stammered, embarrassed. “Oh, I didn’t know. I’m sorry.”
“Nah, don’t worry about it,” Jack said with a shrug, but his face falling a bit more than his carefree attitude would suggest. “I mean, if they didn’t want to know me, it’s their loss, right? I’ve been in foster care mostly, and then—well, other places.”
“Still, it must have made growing up tough. I can’t even imagine.”
“Yeah,” Jack murmured, seeming miles away as his brow furrowed in thought. “It was tough. I think. Honestly, I don’t remember most of it. Is that weird?”
“Not really. I’m kind of fuzzy on some stuff myself. What don’t you remember?”
“Oh, pretty much everything until my late teens.”
“Okay—that might be a little weird.”
“I don’t know what it is,” said Jack, massaging his forehead with a few fingers. “It’s just all foggy. And every time I try to concentrate on it, I start getting a headache. Huh.” He lingered on the thought for only a moment before shaking his head and giving her a devious smile. “Enough about me, though. I’ve got it. You had to keep up with your brothers, I bet. Am I right?”
“What? Uhh—no. No way. Shut up,” Tessa said, confused and off-balance for a second but smiling a bit in spite of herself.
“I will if you tell me why you’ve been following me around.”
The girl sighed.
“Yeah. About that. Don’t take this the wrong way, but Jackalope Troop is bad news. For the people in it, I mean. Word on the street is that the scoutmaster’s personally angling to take you guys down this year. I don’t have anything against your troop, but there’s a lot of Centaurs and Quetzals that don’t feel the same way.”
“Why?” asked Jack, scratching at his head. “What did we ever do to them?”
“At this point you could probably ask ‘What didn’t you do?’” said Tessa, her pretty face getting more serious. “But honestly, if you want my advice, stay away from some of the other guys in your troop. They can be pretty irresponsible, and they pull a lot of dumb pranks that just get everyone in trouble. No offense.”
“What are you talking about? All I want to know is why I haven’t met these guys already. They sound awesome,” said Jack, excited. “I think I’ve got a bunch of ideas to help them step up their game, too.”
“Yep,” Tessa muttered under her breath. “That would be the wrong way to take it.” She reached over at put a hand on Jack’s arm, which made him look up at her again. “Seriously, you need to be careful, Jack. Messing with Drake was one thing, but you don’t want to screw with Hasselberry. He might not be a great commander, but what he doesn’t have in terms of leadership skills he makes up for in rottenness. I really think this camp needs more people who are willing to stick their necks out for each other and look past all the differences that have been forced down our throats. But you can’t do that if you make stupid decisions and get yourself kicked out.”
Jack nodded solemnly.
“Okay. I understand,” he said. “I just have one question.”
“Does this mean we’re dating now, or—”
“Ugh, come on,” Tessa groaned, about to say something else when a meaty hand slammed down on the table between her and Jack.
“Hey,” Chad Fordman growled, his face red as a brick as he loomed over them. “What the spell is this? What’s going on here, Stone? This slacker bothering you?”
“Unbelievably, sir,” said Tessa, smiling and attempting to defuse the situation. “But it’s nothing I can’t handle. We were just talking.”
“You think you could handle me, huh?” Jack asked, tone-deaf and grinning. “That’s a challenge if I’ve ever heard one.”
Before Tessa could react, he was pulled bodily to his feet by Chad’s fist wrapping around his blazer collar.
“I don’t like your attitude, rookie,” he hissed, his terrible breath washing over Jack’s face in waves as his hulking goons Hector and Craig stood at his shoulders. “You don’t get fresh with my scouts. You don’t even get to talk to them.” He smirked. “Bet you didn’t think I’d remember you, huh? You’re the guy that whammied me on the train when I wasn’t ready for it. Well guess what? I didn’t forget.”
“Okay,” said Jack, squinting in puzzlement. “Good, I think. Because I did. Who are you, again?”
“It seems as though Jack has gotten himself into some hot water,” Lucas observed, still seated at the other table. “Should we do something?”
“Sure,” Danny replied from his new position cowering under the table. “Absolutely. Great idea. You first.”
“Sir, it’s fine, really,” said Tessa, getting up as she elbowed Jack in the ribs and lowered her voice. “Jack, shut up. Just stop talking and maybe you’ll get to walk out of here.”
“Zip it, Stone,” Chad snapped, silencing her. “You’ve talked too much already today as it is. Dismissed.”
“Hey, you can’t just order her around like that,” Jack protested. “Not cool, man. Show some respect.”
“Seriously, Jack, shut up,” Tessa hissed, but Jack ignored her, glaring instead at Chad, who shoved him back a step and folded his arms.
“Actually, I can,” the troop leader said. “I’m the superior officer here. And you’re obviously a curse-catching, spell-lunking jerkwand.”
“Well, I’d rather be that than a—uhh—” Jack paused for a moment, trying to come up with a similar caliber insult. Failing that, he just settled for one he was comfortable with. “—dick.”
Everyone in the tent immediately froze in place, their jaws dropping, as Chad paled visibly and his knuckles tightened until they were white.
“That does it, rookie,” he said, furious, dropping his hand to his belt so he could pull out his wand. “You’re dead meat. I’m going to drop-kick you into the middle of next week. Then we’ll see how well you laugh off a couple broken limbs. Let’s settle this, right here, right now.”
“Uhh—boss?” Hector spoke up, putting a hand on his arm. “You sort of, you know, can’t do that, remember? You’re in remedial spellcasting.”
Jack snickered, and all the other scouts present had to bite their lips to keep from laughing.
“Remedial spellcasting?” Jack echoed. “That’s a thing? And you’re calling me a loser.”
“Shut up, Hector!” Chad barked, embarrassed. “Whatever. Like I was saying, we’ll settle this tomorrow morning.”
“Not tomorrow morning, boss,” Craig chimed in from his other side. “That’s when you have remedial spellcasting.”
Chad ground his teeth.
“What about tomorrow night?” he snapped. “We got anything tomorrow night?”
Hector and Craig looked at each other and shrugged.
“Nope. Nah. You can kill him tomorrow night. Sure.”
“Good,” said Chad, recovering his smug, predatory smile. “And no magic. I’m going to beat your brains out like God intended: with my bare hands.”
“Dude, I don’t know anything about the Bible, but I’m pretty sure Jesus never said anything about beating people up,” Jack said.
“Who cares what Jesus said?” Chad shot back. “He was a sucker. That whole turning the other cheek thing? Lame. Come on, guys, let’s go. Enjoy your last day alive, slacker.”
He and the other Centaurs walked out of the tent, laughing menacingly, leaving Tessa standing alone and fuming at Jack, who looked satisfied and unconcerned.
“Okay, what was that?” she demanded. “Did you listen to literally anything I just said?”
“Hey, you’re welcome,” said Jack. “I was just defending your honor. I don’t care what his rank is. People shouldn’t talk to each other like that. You can thank me later. Over dinner, maybe?”
“Unbelievable,” Tessa groaned. “Get this through your head, Jack: I don’t need you to defend me. I can take care of myself. Everything was under control, but no. You’d rather go pick a fight with Chad and get yourself killed. You know, there’s a lot of new scouts around here that look up to you for what you’ve done so far, and even more of them would want to. That is, if you’d quit staring in the mirror for five seconds and stop showing off. God!”
With that, she threw her hands up and stormed out of the mess tent. Danny and Lucas slowly walked over to stand beside Jack, who stared after Tessa with a dazed look on his face.
“Wow,” Danny said cautiously. “She was, like, really mad at you. Are you okay?”
“Okay?” Jack asked, starting to grin again. “Did you see how amazing she looked just then, when she was angry? I don’t think I’ve ever been more turned on in my entire life.”
“Then you’re not upset?” asked Lucas, cocking his head to one side.
“Upset? I think I’m in love. She’s totally into me. You guys got that, right? It’s not just me?”
“Jack, I don’t think you’re seeing the big picture here,” Danny said. “You’re going to fight with Chad tomorrow, and he’s going to completely annihilate you. What are we going to do?”
“Please, Danny,” Lucas scoffed. “There’s no need to panic. The fight can be called off. It has to be. Chad is by far the superior physical specimen, but an inferior mind. Only a cavalier fool would accept his challenge.”
Jack, meanwhile, tightened his fist.
“Chad. Who does that jerk think he is, anyway? I’m going to take him down a peg. This is so on.”
Danny gave Lucas a sharp look.
“Forgot who you were talking to for a second there, didn’t you?”
“Don’t sweat it, little man,” a new voice spoke up. “I think we might be able to help you guys out.”
The three boys turned to see two new scouts walking toward them from across the tent, both wearing yellow Jackalope Troop blazers. The first was taller, lanky, and had dark, spiked-up hair as well as almond-shaped eyes and brownish skin that made him look vaguely Filipino. The second was paler, with a freckled face and fiery red hair in a messy comb-over job.
“Hey, guys,” said Jack. “What’s happening? I’m Jack Ferguson. This here’s Danny, and the guy with the goggles is Lucas.”
“Yeah, yeah, we know,” said the Asian-looking boy, the same one who had spoken before. “Word gets around. I’m Leo Scott. This is my buddy Oliver Mack. We were watching what went down just now, and I’ve got to say, it was pretty great. It’s about time somebody else stuck it to Chad. I can’t stand that guy.”
“Dude, is he not the worst?” Oliver agreed. “And we’re both second-years here, so we’ve been dealing with him for two years too many now. Somebody’s got to shut that joker up once and for all. But you know you can’t actually take him, right? I mean, I get that you’re into Tessa, but that chick’s an ice queen, so that can’t be all.”
“Plus, we heard what went down with Drake Masterson, too,” Leo added slyly. “You think you could do that again? Magic your way out?”
“Sorry,” Jack said, smiling and shaking his head. “I don’t know what it is. I’ve tried doing it again a bunch of times, but the only thing that happens is I keep knocking jugs of water over.”
“On me,” Danny grumbled. “And you didn’t even warn me. You got me wet so many times it’s not even funny.”
“That’s totally what she said,” Jack snickered. Danny’s face turned red and he bit at his lip in embarrassment as Oliver’s contorted with confusion.
“Huh?” he asked. “But then—how were you planning on winning this thing? What’s your angle?”
“Nah, no angle,” said Jack. “Just standing up for the little guy, you know? Somebody has to show him he can’t push people around whenever he wants.”
Leo and Oliver looked at each other, then at Jack, and then back at each other. Leo put a hand on Oliver’s shoulder.
“Sidebar,” he said, spinning both of them around. “Are you getting this, man? Seriously, what’s this kid’s deal?”
“No clue,” said Oliver, shaking his head. “Either he’s super slick, or he’s just an idiot or something. Standing up for the little guy? It’s like he doesn’t have an ulterior motive or anything. Is he just doing the right thing? Who does that?”
“Whatever,” said Leo. “That’s not important. You know what is? We’ve got to get this kid to win that fight.”
“Because he’s perfect, man. The whole nothing-going-on-upstairs thing is great. He’s the looks, and we’re the brains. Plus, if we ever get caught doing something against the rules, we can just pin the whole thing on him. He’s higher profile than us even. Get it?”
“Have I ever told you I love the way you think?”
“Every night before we go to sleep. But if you want to do it again, I won’t tell you not to.”
“Umm—guys?” Danny stammered. “You know we can totally hear you, right?”
Leo and Oliver quickly turned back around, putting their hands behind their backs and smiling innocently.
“Sorry about that,” Leo said. “My pal and I were just talking over a few things. So here’s the deal: like we say in Jackalope Troop, if you can’t beat them, cheat. We know a guy in Quetzal who’s great with potions and stuff. I bet if he can whip up some knockout juice, we could put it in Chad’s water just before the fight. You dance around for a few minutes, he drops like a sack of really stupid bricks, and you’re in the clear.”
“Sleep potion?” Jack laughed. “Sounds pretty fun, man. Count me in.”
“Jack, didn’t you hear what they were saying about you?” Lucas asked, alarmed.
“Sure. We’re going to hang out together. It’s going to be a blast.”
“Right,” said Oliver, crossing his fingers behind his back. “Now we just have to convince our guy to make that potion for us.”
“How are you going to do that?” Danny asked.
“Well, the one piece of dirt we have on him is that he’s a hypochondriac,” said Leo mischievously, rubbing his hands together. “I swear, you make up any disease you want, and he’ll believe he has the thing. Oliver, why don’t we go check on him? Make sure he hasn’t come down with that incredibly life-threatening virus that’s going around?”
“What incredibly life-threatening virus?” Danny asked.
“I don’t know,” said Oliver. “Give us a minute.”
The two boys started plotting and scheming between themselves as Danny’s shoulders sagged and he sighed, looking exhausted.
“Oh, man. Do you guys get the feeling that we’re in way over our heads here?”
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” said Jack, cracking a massive smile. “With how short you are, you probably feel that way all the time.”
He burst out laughing, slapping Danny on the back and holding his stomach, nearly jarring the glasses off the smaller boy’s face. Danny turned to Lucas for support, who merely shrugged.
“When Jack’s right, he’s right, Danny.”
Pushing his glasses back up on his nose, Danny folded his arms and pouted.
“Yeah,” he muttered. “Thanks. My friends suck.”
Standing in the middle of the mess tent as dozens of scouts began to gather around him, Jack craned his neck as he stared all about.
“Hey, check it out, bro,” he said, grinning at Danny, who stood only a few feet away looking nervous. “Looks like we’re getting a pretty big crowd up in here. I guess people really do want to see this fight, huh?”
“Jack?” Danny asked, wiping the sleeve of his blazer over his sweaty forehead. “I hate to be a downer about this, and I know Leo and Oliver said they were going to get that potion so we can cheat and stuff, but do you think maybe you should have, you know, practiced a little bit?”
Jack looked blank.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, we didn’t really prepare you for the fight or anything. You didn’t train at all. No push-ups, no punches—you know, nothing. Just in case you actually have to hit Chad.”
“Hit him?” Jack chuckled. “No way, dude. Why would I want to do that? Anyway, Leo and Oliver seem like stand-up guys. They’ll get that potion. Quit worrying. It’ll be fine.”
Danny moaned, wringing his hands in consternation as Lucas pushed his way out of a nearby knot of purple-wearing Sphinx scouts.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” he said, adjusting his goggles and brushing his wild bangs over to one side. “I thought you might be interested in knowing that there’s a great deal of money being thrown around on this bout. The odds are actually quite good.”
“Hey, see? Look at that,” said Jack with a grin. “Good odds. How good are they, pal?”
“Oh, did I say good? I meant lucrative. They’re currently running 7,536 to 1 against you. People really seem to be getting in on it.”
Danny gulped, but Jack was unconcerned.
“Yeah, whatever,” he said. “Don’t have a cow, Danny. You know, ninety percent of numbers can be made to say whatever people want them to say sixty percent of the time. That’s something I heard once. Besides, at least I know you’ve got my back, right?”
“Ah,” said Lucas, snapping his fingers and stepping toward Danny, to whom he held out a hand. “That reminds me. Danny, I can take your bet now if you have it.”
“Not now,” Danny mumbled, but Lucas persisted.
“You said you’d remember to bring it to the fight. It was twenty dollars on Chad I believe, correct?”
“Later!” Danny hissed, and glanced up at Jack with a sheepish smile. Jack, in turn, screwed his cap on backwards and glared at him.
“Et tu, Danny? Really?”
“Sorry, Jack,” Danny replied, his face red as he looked down and kicked at the grass with his shoe, “but this month’s Aquaman isn’t going to buy itself, you know?”
“Great. Screwed over by geeks again,” Jack groaned as Leo and Oliver pushed through the crowd toward him, holding a water bottle over their heads triumphantly.
“We got it,” said Leo, grinning like a maniac. “The fix is in, guys. We nabbed Chad’s water bottle just now and slipped Mulligan’s potion in. He takes one sip of this, and five minutes later he takes a nap. Bam.”
“That guy’s done,” Oliver added, taking the bottle from Leo and sitting it down on the grass several feet away from them. “You want to be a good sport and give him a chance to surrender first?”
“Hey, slacker. You ready to cry like the little girl that you are?”
Chad Fordman muscled his way through the milling scouts along with several of his Centaur Troop cronies, looking tanned, toned, and supremely confident.
“You know what?” said Leo. “Forget it. Good sportsmanship is overrated.”
“But real talk for a second,” said Oliver, pulling him aside and lowering his voice. “You put half our money on Chad and half on Jack, right? If Jack gets his butt handed to him, we still win?”
“Duh,” said Leo, rolling his eyes. “Of course I did. Mulligan’s not that good with potions.”
The two were suddenly shoved apart as Tessa stormed by and confronted Jack, making sure she put the Jackalopes between her and Chad.
“Come to wish me good luck, Tessa?” Jack asked, smiling at her.
Tessa didn’t smile back.
“I came to try to talk you out of this insanity,” she said. “Last chance, Jack. You’re a nice guy and all, but you can’t beat Chad. It’s just not happening.” She jerked her thumb over at Leo and Oliver. “And if you trust these guys, you’re dumber than I thought. They’ve never done anything to help anyone else in their lives unless there was something in it for them.”
“I take offense to that, Tessa,” said Oliver, looking hurt.
“Yeah,” Leo agreed. “Just for that, I’m not selling any more tickets to your daily runs.”
Disgusted, Tessa turned once again to Jack, who just shrugged.
“Come on, Tessa. Don’t worry. They’ve got a plan, and it’s pretty good. It’s no big deal. It’s just a prank.”
“Fine,” said Tessa, shaking her head and producing an open beer can from behind her back. “Here, I brought this for you. Figured you might want a little sip before. For luck.”
Jack grinned as he grabbed the beer and took a swig, sighing with pleasure.
“Thanks. That was pretty nice,” he said. “Of course, I was kind of hoping for a kiss, but I guess we can’t always get what we want.”
“Yeah, right,” said Tessa, sighing deeply before taking a long drink from the beer herself.
Meanwhile, Chad warmed up, cracking his neck and his knuckles simultaneously.
“All right, Ferguson,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for this all day. And yesterday, too. I’m calling you out, punk, so let’s see you put your money where your mouth is. Unless you’re too chicken.”
Tessa, along with Danny, Lucas, Leo, and Oliver all stepped back as the rest of the campers—especially the Jackalopes—held their breath. But Jack, never losing his easy smile, shook his head.
“No chickens here, man,” he said. “Although honestly, I could go for some fried chicken. Maybe after we’re done.”
The Jackalopes cheered and Jack turned back to grin at them, raising his hands and playing to the crowd. He turned back just in time to see Chad’s massive fist whizzing toward his face. The punch hit him square in the temple and he fell on his back, to the jeers of the Centaurs and Quetzals and boos from the Jackalopes.
“Yeah, right,” Chad snorted. “Only if you can drink it through a straw, slacker.”
“Hey,” Danny exclaimed, jumping forward and waving his hands. “No fair. That was totally a cheap shot. Jack wasn’t even ready.”
“If you really want to win, you do whatever you have to, pipsqueak,” Chad spat as he kicked the groaning Jack in the ribs while he was down and turned to glare at him. “Now shut your trap unless you want to be next in line for a pounding. I’m not done with Ferguson yet, but I could always take a break.”
Danny gulped and stepped back again as Oliver glanced at Leo, looking confused.
“What’s going on? How come Chad’s not drooling on the ground right now? I put enough of that potion in his water to take down an elephant.”
“No clue,” said Leo with a casual shrug. “But it’s a good thing we bet on both of them, huh? At least we might break even then. Maybe Chad’s better at holding his sedatives than we thought. He could be sleepwalking. Then again, he gets a lot of practice while he’s awake.”
“I’ve got another theory,” Tessa hissed, poking her head out from behind some startled Jackalopes and pointing frantically at the water bottle, which was inexplicably lying in the dirt behind Chad with its cap off and emptied. “Maybe it has something to do with that? I think somebody was onto your little plan, you jerkwands. And anyway, didn’t either of you even think about what would happen if Chad decided not to drink anything before the fight?”
Leo and Oliver looked at her, then at each other, and back at her again, baffled.
“Huh,” they said in unison.
“Great,” Tessa muttered. “I swear, I’ve never met two more irresponsible morons in my life.”
Pulling back and threading quickly through the crowd until she found a clear spot where she could stay out of sight and still see the fight, she glanced at the beer in her hand once again before discarding it on the ground.
“Okay,” she sighed, steeling herself for battle and raising her fists like a martial artist preparing for a bout, “here goes something. I guess we’ll see if I followed that potion recipe right. You owe me one, Jack.”
Meanwhile, Chad leaned forward over Jack’s still motionless body, taunting the Jackalope scout.
“You still there, Ferguson? Bet you’re wishing you chickened out now, huh?”
Jack blinked, dazed, and gave a lopsided grin.
“Chad? Oh, hey, man. What are you doing at the prom? I mean, where am I?”
“About to get your butt kicked, slacker.”
“Okay. Now for the big question: who am I?”
“Oh, crap,” Danny moaned as Chad pulled back his fist for another punch. “His eggs are scrambled. Come on, Jack. Get up. Please.”
But Jack did a lot more than that, as he suddenly leaped bodily to his feet, as if controlled by invisible puppet strings, and deftly blocked Chad’s careless haymaker with the back of his hand before striking the Centaur Troop leader in the nose with a jab from his opposite hand. There was a crunch and Chad howled in pain, stumbling backward and clapping his hands to his face, which was now bleeding profusely. Then, with a furious roar, he lunged at Jack once again, bringing up both his hands as if to choke him, but Jack’s hand knifed out and speared him in the throat, bringing Chad up short choking and gasping for air. Then, with one fluid motion, Jack jumped, spun in the air, and slugged the bigger boy across the chin with the back of his fist before plowing a foot into his chest. Behind him, and the crowd at large, Tessa recovered from her own identical spin, sweat dripping down her forehead from effort as she landed the move, mirroring Jack’s finish, and then sighed, releasing her control over his body as Chad fell face-first to the ground, out cold.
There was a single moment of deadly silence. Then, all the scouts in yellow erupted in wild cheers and applause as the Centaurs and Quetzals just stared, stunned, at the body of their fallen champion. Jack stumbled, but managed to keep his feet, a bruise forming above his eye as Danny and Lucas rushed out of the crowd to celebrate with him. Leo and Oliver, meanwhile, exchanged another look of confusion.
“What the—?” Oliver asked. “Did you see that? Holy crap, that was awesome. Who is this kid, anyway?”
“Who cares?” Leo interrupted him. “He’s on our side. And we’re rich, baby. Filthy rich!”
The boys cackled madly and jumped up and down with joy as Danny tugged at Jack’s sleeve.
“Jack, that was incredible,” he exclaimed. “You were just like, pow, pow, pow. And Chad was totally done. Where’d that come from?”
“Indeed,” Lucas agreed with a nod. “It appears you’ve been holding out on us, Jack. The people I took bets from are not going to be happy about this.”
Jack just frowned slightly in puzzlement, looking at his hands and then back at them.
“Yeah,” he said, sounding a bit distant still. “Weird. I don’t know, honestly. I never knew I had it in me. I’m just finding out all kinds of stuff about myself, huh?”
“Well, there is sort of another thing,” Danny said, shifting anxiously from foot to foot and nodding over to where the water bottle still lay on the ground. “None of us saw anything, but somebody got to Chad’s water before he did and poured it out. There’s no way it could’ve been him, and nobody else knew about Leo and Oliver’s potion. Jack, I think you might have, like, a nemesis or something.”
“Get real, Danny.” Jack cast a skeptical eye over at Danny as he tugged his baseball cap on tighter. “What is this, a James Bond movie? Nobody actually has a nemesis. And anyway, Chad’s the only guy who wants to kill me around here, and he started it. I’m just a live-and-let-live kind of guy. Who else in this camp could have something against me?”
Check out Kyle Robertson’s new novel, Camp Ferguson, available online now at Amazon.com and via Kindle devices!