Camp Ferguson: Chapter 13

In which we wonder who the real villain is here. Just kidding: it’s still Drake.

 

CHAPTER 13: THE DIRTY HALF-DOZEN

 

Squealing on their rusty hinges, the rickety double doors banged open and a hot, dusty wind swept into the mess tent as the boy stepped inside. One hand rested tellingly on the butt end of the wand sticking out of his hip holster as all chatter and conversation stopped, along with the honkey-tonk background music of a piano, and he scanned the numerous sets of eyes that turned to stare at him with a combination of fear, loathing, and suspicion.

Letting the doors swing shut behind him, he swaggered forward, past the watchful scouts from all different troops, his footfalls kicking up more dust from the ground with each step of his boots. Walking across the length of the tent, he approached the ramshackle bar set up at the far end and slapped his palm down on it meaningfully, rattling the little wooden sign that hung above it reading FALCO’S BAR AND GRILL.

“What’ll you have, stranger?” the bartender asked in a high, reedy voice as his head remained ducked underneath the counter, shuffling the stock items around.

“Whiskey,” the boy drawled, spitting over the shoulder of his blazer and onto the ground. “Strongest stuff you’ve got. And leave the bottle.”

“Uhh—we don’t have any whiskey.”

“Damn,” the boy snapped irritably. “Fine. What do you have?”

“Well, we sort of have—milk.”

Leaning forward and putting his elbows on the bar, Drake Masterson’s dark eyes narrowed as his face wrinkled with disgust.

“Milk?” he repeated. “You better pray that you’re just screwing with me down there. That way, I’ll only burn your one hand off instead of both of them.”

“Hey, you can’t—” Danny started to say as he stood up, wincing at the crack of his back, but he clammed up when he saw who he was talking to and his face went pale. “Oh. Hey, Drake. I—umm—didn’t realize it was you.”

“Who were you expecting, short stack?” Drake said snidely. “The Easter Bunny? I should’ve figured it would be you running this sorry outfit. Too much of a wimp to actually get out there and put up a fight, huh? Now quit holding out on me. Where’s the booze?”

Danny gulped, slowly shaking his head.

“I promise I’m not holding out, Drake. I swear. Scoutmaster Hasselberry confiscated all the alcohol in camp right before he suspended the rules for the field test and him and Crowley left for that meeting with Scout Marshal Rhodes.”

“You mean before they decided to skip town,” the Quetzal muttered, banging his fist on the bar and making Danny jump. “That rotten fink Hasselberry. You want to know something, Falco? I’m cursed. I really am.”

“Seriously?” Danny asked, cautiously curious and looking a bit concerned. “With what?”

“Perfection.”

The concern dropped right off Danny’s face, replaced with a bored irritation.

“Oh.”

“You said it. You know what it’s like being right about everything, all the time, and never having anyone believe you? It sucks, that’s what it’s like. I told Hasselberry that slacker Ferguson was smart, and then he goes and blames it on me when he outplays us again. It’s not my fault. My plan was perfect. Hurry up with that whiskey, shrimp.”

“But I told you we don’t have any,” Danny groaned. He froze and his eyes crossed, however, as he suddenly found the tip of Drake’s wand planted between them.

“And I told you, check again,” Drake growled as several Jackalopes seated at a nearby table jumped up in defense of their troop-mate.

“Hey,” one of them said, a tall boy with curly brown hair hanging down to his shoulders and a spotty soul patch on his chin. “You can’t do that in here, man. Mess tent’s neutral territory. Scoutmaster said so.”

“Oh yeah?” the Quetzal sneered, glaring at him. “You want to do something about it? And do I look like I care what Hasselberry says? Besides, you should probably worry a little more about that fire on your table right now.”

“What fire?” a red-haired Jackalope girl next to the first boy asked, frowning. “There’s no fire on our table.”

Drake rolled his eyes.

“You people really just walk right into these things, don’t you?” he asked, quickly re-aiming his wand and unleashing a blast of fire that scorched the wood and set it alight as the scouts dove for cover. “There is now, you scrubs. So how about that drink, Falco?”

He twirled his pistol-grip wand between his fingers and shoved it expertly back into its holster as Danny nodded mechanically.

“Yeah—I maybe might have something like that,” he squeaked. “But it’s kind of, you know, Jack’s.”

“If I’m taking it from Ferguson, it’ll just taste that much better. Give it.”

Drake held out his hand with an impatient look, and Danny disappeared momentarily to dig around under the bar before coming up with the bottle of amber liquor. Snatching it away, Drake pulled the cork out of the end and took a long gulp before smacking it down again, wiping his mouth on the sleeve of his green blazer. Behind him, the Jackalopes hurriedly beat at the fire with their blazers, finally managing to put it out as smoke billowed up through the rips and holes in the canvas roof.

“That jerkwand,” the boy muttered under his breath, glaring at Drake’s back. “Who does he think he is, anyway?”

“Maybe, like, the best wizard in camp, Tommy?” the girl next to him hissed, punching him in the arm. “Shut up. He might hear you, and then he’ll probably kill you instead of just our card game. He’s more powerful than all of us combined.”

“He can’t be that powerful,” Tommy scoffed, shaking his head. “Remember the welcome banquet? Jack Ferguson totally schooled him, and that was on the first day. Now that guy’s a wizard. Drake’s just a loudmouth with a bad attitude. I bet I could take him.”

“You know what I heard?” a rookie Centaur scout spoke up as he leaned over from one of the neighboring tables. “I heard Scoutmaster Hasselberry busted Drake out. I mean, he’s screwed up so many times just trying to one-up Ferguson and his crew. How good can he really be?”

“Nah, he’s not busted out,” a Quetzal girl next to him said. “Just down. They gave command of our troop back over to Conrad. Hasselberry was so pissed about the whole movie fiasco that if Drake slips up one more time, he’s had it at Camp Prospero. At least, that’s what Conrad told us.”

“Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy,” the Centaur boy chuckled. “You know, for all the threats he throws around, I’ve never actually seen Drake do anything. I think he just coasted here because of his family. What a loser.”

Overhearing all of it, Drake’s fist tightened on the bottle, which groaned ominously, but he said nothing as he pounded more whiskey down angrily.

“So you have nothing to drink, there’s a winner-take-all slaughter-fest on, and you decide it’s a great time to go into bartending,” he snorted. “What kind of game are you playing here, Falco?”

“The safe kind,” Danny said, lowering his voice and gesturing around at the scouts who were engaged in playing cards, chatting, or just otherwise relaxing. “Since the mess tent was neutral and all, I just sort of moved in. It’s a really good place to hide. No way I’m leaving. Nobody’s taking my medals.”

“I should’ve known,” Drake replied with a sneer. “Too chicken to go out there, huh?”

“I can’t,” the Jackalope whined. “Compared to all those guys—well, and most of the girls, too—I suck. I put one foot out that door, and I’m dead. I can’t even go to the latrine.”

“It’s been four days. What have you been doing for that this whole time?”

“Don’t ask,” Danny groaned, looking sick. “Just a little bit ago I saw some Quetzal get hit by, like, four Centaurs just to get the one medal he had on him. There’s so few people left now, everyone’s getting desperate. It’s crazy.”

“Whatever,” Drake said, unimpressed. “I took out six of them at once when they tried to jump me. But that’s just what you can do when you’re awesome. This dumb test is the only thing between me and getting out of this camp. I don’t care what it takes. I’m going to be the last man standing, I’m going to take everyone’s medals, and then I’m going to shove them right in Hasselberry’s face. And my family’s faces. I’ll show them. I’ll show them all.”

Danny blinked behind his glasses.

“Oh. Okay. I didn’t know you had a family.”

“Everybody has a family, moron,” Drake spat, shaking his head and taking another long drink of whiskey. “Mine just happens to be a bunch of scrubs. They’ve got the nerve to do everything they can to screw me over, give Hasselberry all kinds of leverage on me, and then they tell me I’m not trying hard enough. What a bunch of tools. I can’t believe they’re related to me sometimes.”

“You can’t?” Danny asked, genuinely confused, but gulped as Drake glared up at him.

“Shut up. They’re just obsessed, that’s what it is. The plan, the plan, it’s always about the plan. I never stop hearing about it. Isabella’s got the media, Adrian’s got the business, Pierce and dad have the politics. They just need me to be the pretty face on the whole thing. As long as I get by in magic, then the Mastersons will rule the world. Or something.” Seeing Danny’s blank look, he laughed ruefully to himself. “Yeah, it never made sense to me, either. All I know is they just want to use me for whatever they want, and they expect me to lie down and take it.” His eyes narrowed. “And why am I talking to you about this?”

“Umm—I don’t know,” Danny stammered, raising his hands. “Maybe because deep down you respect me on some level and you think I’ll understand?”

“Yeah, right,” the Quetzal said sarcastically. “That’s definitely it. If by respect, you mean I’m totally disgusted by you in every way. Try again.”

“Because you’re a dick?” Danny muttered sullenly out of the corner of his mouth.

“What?”

“What?” Danny echoed, quickly snatching up a rag and moving to the other end of the bar to scrub at a nonexistent stain. “Nothing. But you know, if I’m being honest, I do kind of understand. My brother never wanted me around, either. He still doesn’t. Ever since the duel he hasn’t said a word to me.”

“Right,” Drake smirked through a mouthful of whiskey. “I heard you got your butt handed to you. Good going.”

Danny sighed, his shoulders sagging.

“Yeah. Sam was always better at everything than me, and he had everything, but he still hated me. Like it’s my fault he ended up coming to Camp Prospero.” He kicked at the bar in frustration. “It’s not fair. He just thinks I’m a joke. That I’m pathetic and I’ll never amount to anything without him. Plus, my parents were always so proud of him. I feel like I just kept disappointing them because I never measured up, you know? Families really suck sometimes.”

He carried on working for another moment, and then looked up to see Drake staring at him.

“Are you trying to bond with me?” the Quetzal asked flatly.

“Well—umm—maybe a little.”

“Then cut it out. It’s embarrassing for both of us. Mostly me. In case I haven’t been clear, I don’t care about you. At all. Oh, and by the way, your hack of a brother’s right. You are pathetic. Now why don’t you shut your cake-hole and just leave me alone?”

Seeming even more disheartened, Danny returned to his mindless, purposeless chores as Drake now looked at the half-empty bottle and frowned.

“God, what’s wrong with me?” he murmured. “Even stepping on people isn’t making me feel better. Well, at least I don’t have to put up with any more inane conversations.”

Just then, the doors of the mess tent behind him busted open and a group of newcomers rushed inside before slamming the gates shut behind them.

“Yee-hah!” Leo shouted, his face scuffed and dirty and one sleeve of his yellow blazer torn. “That was so sweet. I love the smell of anarchy in the morning.”

“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me,” Drake grumbled, letting his head thud down on the bar as Danny dropped what he was doing and rushed over to the group.

“Guys!” he exclaimed. “Jack. Leo. Oliver. You’re all here. You’re okay!”

“I’m okay, too,” Tessa spoke up, making sure the door was secure before thrusting her wand back into her blazer pocket. “Thanks for asking. But you idiots didn’t help. What were you thinking hanging me out to dry back there in Quetzal Troop? I turned around for, like, two seconds, and you all were gone. I had to take those three guys out by myself.”

“Don’t be a drama queen, Tessa,” Leo said dismissively. “We needed you to be the distraction so we could sneak into their tents and get their alcohol.”

“Yeah,” Oliver agreed. “Those dummies always keep everything valuable under their beds like it helps them sleep at night. Makes it so easy to steal from them.”

“Oh, great,” Tessa muttered, one hand on her hip as the other wiped the sweat off her face and she accidentally smeared the war paint under her eyes. “So instead of abandoning me, you really just used me. I feel so much better now.”

“Hey, it’s not like that,” Jack said, smiling at her as he patted Danny reassuringly on the shoulder. “We knew you could handle it. I mean, I a hundred percent know that I did. I saw some of it, too. Those moves you pulled were awesome, Tessa.”

The girl’s stare softened a bit.

“Well, I guess I should say thanks.”

“No problem. You’re welcome.”

“I didn’t actually say thank you.”

“You were going to,” Jack said with a shrug, nodding over at the bar. “And anyway, you were the one who said we should head over here. So, did you finally decide to take me up on that offer of a drink? I mean, I’m flattered, but don’t you think there’s a time and a place?”

“Oh, my God,” Tessa groaned, rolling her eyes. “Seriously, you are infuriating sometimes, Jack. How many ways do I have to say no already?”

“Good thing I thrive on rejection,” Jack joked, but Tessa just pushed him aside.

“Whatever. Does anyone else feel like this whole suspension of the camp rules was a horrible idea? Things are totally breaking down, and the people who are supposed to be the leaders here just left. It’s ridiculous.”

Danny nodded profusely in agreement, while Leo, Oliver, and Jack looked at each other and shrugged.

“I think you’re pretty much the only one, yeah,” Leo said lightly. “Besides, as long as it keeps Hasselberry out of our hair for a while, I’m fine with it.”

“Look, I’m not a big fan of the scoutmaster either,” Tessa said, “but if this goes on for much longer, you’re going to wish he was back, or you can kiss Camp Prospero goodbye. It looks like what Jackalope Troop looks like after one of your wild, out of control parties out there.”

“Oh, okay,” Jack grinned. “So not that bad, then.”

“Shut up. But that’s not all. You can’t trust anybody anymore. Before I hooked up with you guys, I tried to team with a bunch of people, even from my own troop, and every single one of them tried to stab me in the back.” The Centaur girl threw up her hands in frustration. “What is that, huh? It might be a lawless wasteland out there, but at least have a little integrity.”

“Said the pot to the kettle,” Oliver shot back. “Don’t act like you’re not in this to win it, Tessa. How many people have you taken out? Plus, when it gets down to just us left, how long’s it going to take before you try to get us?”

“You know, I get really sick and tired of you guys making me out to be the bad guy here,” Tessa said, glaring at him with her steely blue eyes. “I’m sorry I actually still have some respect for authority and don’t just think about myself 24/7. But to answer your question, a few. I don’t actively hunt anyone down, but if someone comes after me, I’m going to defend myself.”

“You know you’re just playing right into Hasselberry’s game, right?” Leo challenged her. “The whole us against them, social division crap? It’s what he wants. You’re part of the problem. So why do it?”

Tessa sighed and put her hands on her hips, frustrated.

“Maybe because he’s our commanding officer, and he said so? And he holds all our futures in his hands? I can’t afford to just flunk out like you guys apparently can. I don’t like it either, but some of us actually have things called goals in life. You know, other than just lounging around cracking jokes. What do you want me to do about it?”

“I don’t know,” Leo said smarmily. “How about, like, something? Just spitballing here.”

“You want a spitball, Leo?” said Tessa, reaching for her wand. “Fine. I’ll shove a spitball right up your—”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Jack interrupted them, stepping between the fired-up scouts as everyone else in the tent tensed and put their hands on their own wands. “Let’s just take it easy, okay? Nobody’s betraying anybody. We all promised when it got down to the finals, it’s every man for himself. But we’re not there yet. Got it?”

“Don’t worry about it, buddy,” said Oliver, with an easy smile. “I’m a reasonable guy. I’ve got your back.”

“Me too,” Leo agreed grudgingly, disengaging with Tessa before giving a suspicious glance at Oliver. “You know, until we’re the last ones left. We can’t all be winners.”

The two best friends looked at each other for a moment, their eyes narrowing, before simultaneously whipping out their wands and pointing them at each other in a Mexican standoff. Danny, meanwhile, looked the group over again and noticed people were missing.

“Wait. Where’s Quentin and Lucas?”

“Quentin got knocked out yesterday,” Jack explained. “Like, literally. Some Centaurs just knocked him out from behind with a rock. Pretty lame if you ask me. He’s back at Jackalope Troop right now. Said something about getting in some overdue sleeping, I think. Plus, he might have a concussion. Lucas stuck with your brother over at Sphinx Troop. There’s still a few of them left from when the Centaurs and Quetzals ganged up to wipe them out the first day.”

“My brother’s still in it?” Danny asked, unable to hide the note of disappointment and looking away as Jack frowned in concern. “I mean—oh, okay. So you’re, like, still in this, right, Jack? How many medals do you have so far?”

“Meh. A few,” the boy said, reaching into the rucksack slung over his shoulder and pulling out a fistful of the small tin medallions. He let them drop back into the bag, which clinked as the medals connected with the stack still inside, and resumed checking out the nearby girls as the three boys just stared at him.

“Whoa, man,” said Oliver. “I didn’t even know that. That’s more than a few. What’s your secret? I mean, I know you’re, like, pretty solid with magic and stuff, but I didn’t think that−”

“Nah,” Jack murmured, only half paying attention. “I don’t know. I got some like that. Mostly people just walk up and give them to me. No idea why, but I’m not complaining.”

“Wow,” Danny breathed. “Maybe you are that good. I guess word gets around. Nobody wants to face you.”

“Whatever,” Leo said, envious. “I bet it’s just the whole telepathic mind-blast thing. I forgot about your stupid, strange ability to just make people like you. You know, if that bag of medals is getting too heavy for you, I could carry some of them for a little while.”

“Yeah, me too,” Oliver added quickly, nudging his shoulder with an elbow.

“Come on, you guys,” Jack grinned. “You know how it works. At the end of the week, the person with the most medals gets the best score, and so on. I have to keep them.”

“Oh, right,” said Oliver, exchanging a glance with Leo and making a show of snapping his fingers and looking embarrassed. “That’s how it works. Never mind. Just, you know, an idea.”

“It figures,” Tessa said, shaking her head. “It really, really does. Every single time something important comes up, you don’t ever take it seriously. Not even for a second. And the one time you do decide to care, it’s when it screws other people the most. You know there are people in this camp who really need to pass this test, don’t you? It doesn’t even matter to you. It’s all just one big joke.”

“Hey, come on, Tessa,” Jack said, trying to placate her. “I’m just kidding around. Where’s this coming from?”

Meanwhile, Drake, who was still seated at the bar with his blazer pulled nearly over the spiky tips of his hair to try and block out all the noise, finally gave it up. He growled and spun around, slamming his fist down on the wood and making sparks fly as his eyes lit up with the fire of rage.

“God, will you idiots just shut up already?” he spat. “I’ve had it up to here with you posers just yakking about your problems all the time. Nobody cares! Get that through your heads.”

“Oh, great,” Oliver groaned, rolling his eyes. “Look who decided to let themselves in.”

“Joke’s on you, Mack. I was already here. And just in case you were wondering, this tent’s not big enough for the six of us. So why don’t you get lost before you become a casualty of war?” Drake rested his hand threateningly on his wand holster. “I’m really not in the mood right now.”

“Why don’t you buzz off, Drake?” Leo replied, unafraid. “I don’t know about anyone else, but I hit my rich tool quotient about a month ago.”

“You volunteering, Scott?” Drake asked with a scowl as flames danced between his fingers. “Works for me. If punching out morons was a sport, you’d be the gold medal round.”

“Hey, I could take you on, Drake,” said Jack. “We’ve never really gone head to head before. I’m kind of curious about who would win.”

“Jack, are you crazy?” Danny hissed, but Drake only scoffed.

“Look, Ferguson, I know you think you’re the king of jokes and everything, and you’re kind of right: you are a joke. But you can stop making them every once in awhile. You versus me? Get real. That wouldn’t even take effort.” His eyes narrowed at Danny as he got up and stalked forward. “Then again, maybe that’s the right idea. Hey, short stack, why don’t you hand over your medals now before someone has to get a dust buster to clean your ashes off the ground?”

“You’re not the only one who’s not in the mood, Drake,” said Tessa, stepping between Danny and the Quetzal with a glare. “If you don’t shut your big mouth, someone’s going to put you in the ground one of these days. You know the rules. Hasselberry set them up. This tent is neutral territory. Nobody fights, gets threatened, or has to do anything in here.”

“That’s a good point, Stone,” said Drake, folding his arms. “But you know what else Dudley Do-Nothing is?” He looked over one shoulder, and then the other. “Not here. Neither is his dopey sidekick.”

“But then, if they’re not here, who’s in charge?” Jack wondered.

“Well, if nobody else has the guts to take command around here, it might as well be me,” Drake said, jabbing a thumb at himself. “It’s not like anyone’s going to stop me. That would imply I actually had an equal.”

“You’re unstable,” Tessa snorted in disgust. “You think you’re such hot stuff, don’t you?”

“What can I say?” Drake shrugged. “The concept of doing whatever I want and having no accountability whatsoever just really turns me on.”

“I don’t think I needed to know that,” Oliver muttered.

“And on the subject of hot stuff,” the Quetzal continued, smiling as he snapped his fingers and a fire burst forth in the palm of his hand, “I think the facts pretty much speak for themselves on that one.” Letting the flame flicker out, he pulled open his blazer so the scouts could see the rows upon rows of medals pinned to the inside of the jacket. “Don’t even kid yourselves. None of you wannabes could ever take me, so get over it. I get to do whatever I want, whenever I want. That’s just what people with real talent can do. And that’s why you wouldn’t know anything about it, Stone. You don’t have what it takes.”

“Dude, hold up for a minute,” said Jack, starting to look worried. “Chill out, okay? Nobody’s saying they’re better than you, but quit dumping on Tessa. If you really want to fight somebody, I’m right here to—”

But Tessa, now red-faced and furious, had had enough.

“Shut up, Jack,” she interrupted him, staring daggers at Drake. “I told you before, I don’t need you to defend me. Drake, I’m done with your ego and your attitude and your putting everyone down all the time. You aren’t any better than any of us, and I’m going to prove it.” She clenched her fists at her sides. “You really want a fight? Fine. You’ve got one.”

“Tessa, don’t you think that—” Jack started, but Drake cut him off.

“Can it, Ferguson. Mommy and daddy are talking.” He gave Tessa a hard sneer. “I’m glad you brought that up. I’m pretty fed up with your defender of the weak saint act myself. Because I see right through it. You can say whatever you want, but everyone who puts on one of those blazers is Hasselberry’s stooge.”

“What does that say about you?” the girl shot back, hands on her hips. “You’re wearing one, too.”

“That’s different,” Drake spat. “But whatever. You brain-dead bozos wouldn’t understand. A wizard duel, then? I mean, been there, done that, but fine. I haven’t had a warm-up in a while. We’ll go tomorrow.”

“Oh, what? At high noon?”

“I know this might be hard for you, Stone, but don’t be a moron. Noon. As if. What kind of scrub gets up that early? No, three o’clock. I want to have my room service catered from the cafeteria before I finish you off.”

“Well, if you’re early, I’d be more than happy to shove it down your throat for you,” Tessa replied, smiling sweetly. “Three o’clock. You’re on.”

Drake glared at her for a moment, but just spun around to walk away instead and saw all the scouts in the tent staring at him in silence.

“What are you looking at?” he shouted, kicking over a nearby chair in fury before storming out the door. Jack, meanwhile, put a hand on Tessa’s shoulder.

“Hey,” he said. “That was pretty gutsy of you, Tessa. You okay?”

“Yeah,” said Tessa, shrugging him off as she turned back around. “I’m fine. God, that guy drives me crazy. I can’t wait to shut him up.” She looked up, grim and determined, but with a tiny flicker of doubt in her face. “I mean, you all think I can do it, right?”

The boys all exchanged a worried look.

“Uhh—sure, Tessa,” said Danny. “Yeah. Absolutely.”

“Yeah, we believe in you and stuff,” said Oliver. “You can count on us, Tessa. We’ll be there to support you.”

“Or just carry you out after,” Leo murmured darkly. “You know, whichever way it turns out.”

***

The sun hung midway down in the afternoon sky as Jack glanced with concern over Tessa’s shoulder.

“Hey,” he said, trying his best not to check her out as the girl stretched, touched her toes, and rolled her shoulders back and forth. “I’m not trying to be a nag or whatever, but you sure you want to do this? I mean, there’s probably a lot easier ways to win this test thing.”

“This isn’t about winning, Jack,” Tessa grunted as she cracked her neck, followed by her knuckles, and practiced drawing her wand. “And for the five hundredth time, yeah, I’m sure. So will you quit asking me already? I thought you were backing me up on this.”

“Well, I was,” Jack said. “I mean, I am. Totally. But just in case, I know you didn’t like the idea before, but me and the guys came up with a plan. If Drake tries to pull a fast one, we can definitely—”

He trailed off as Tessa turned her fiercely determined blue eyes toward him.

“I said no, and I meant no,” she said. “You don’t get it, Jack. And of all people, I thought you would. I have to do this. Somebody’s got to show people like Drake that they can’t get away with just doing whatever they want.”

“Yeah, I get that. But that’s what we do.”

“With pranks,” Tessa sighed, frustrated. “Practical jokes. Kid stuff. If you really want to make a point, you have to deal with your problems head on. I have to beat him fair and square playing his own game. Guess we’re going to find out if all that hot air can live up to the hype. Look, can you leave me alone, please? I need to concentrate right now.”

She looked away and returned to her exercises as Jack stepped off to the side where Leo, Oliver, and Danny were waiting.

“I’m guessing you couldn’t sell the whole cheating idea, huh?” Oliver asked.

“I know, right?” Jack groaned. “Seriously, I never knew Tessa could be this obtuse. Plus, is it weird that it’s kind of attractive to me? I can’t make a good argument when I’m distracted like that.”

“Okay, tiger,” said Leo, shaking his head. “So Operation Rub Drake Masterson’s Smug Idiot Face In It is a no-go. What else have we got?”

“Well, maybe she’ll actually beat him,” Danny spoke up hopefully. “Who knows, right?”

“Dude, Drake’s a hundred and fifty percent dirty,” Oliver chided him. “There’s no way he’s going to do this fairly, so Tessa’s going to be fighting with one hand tied behind her back. We have to even the playing field somehow.”

“I don’t know,” said Jack, looking over his shoulder at Tessa again. “She seemed kind of upset with me when she thought I didn’t think she could win on her own. Maybe Danny’s right. We should just trust her. She knows what she’s doing.”

“She’s angry, man,” said Leo. “That’s not a place to be making good decisions from.”

“And this coming from the king of bad decisions,” Oliver chimed in.

“Well, yeah. So I should know.”

Jack once again walked over to Tessa and put a hand on her shoulder.

“You know, if you want, I could totally stand in for you,” he said. “I’ll take on Drake. I guess it is kind of our thing. It’ll be safer that way.”

“Safer for who, Jack?” Tessa shot back, shrugging him off. “You can cut the whole ‘save the damsel in distress’ routine any time. It’s not cute. It’s just annoying.” She sighed heavily. “Going to military school, and then coming here and getting bossed around by Chad and his goons, I’ve always had to work harder because I’m a girl. Plus, you guys have been messing around with Drake, Hasselberry, and the rest of them this whole summer, and the only thing it’s gotten you is deeper in trouble. If you don’t play by the rules, you’re no better than the people you’re fighting. So can you just leave me alone for once and not come up with some stupid, half-baked plan to try and bail me out? I’m fine.”

Jack opened his mouth to reply, but saw Tessa’s hard stare and just closed it and nodded instead. He backed away and turned back to the group, where Danny, Leo, and Oliver were all sheepishly looking away trying to pretend like they hadn’t been eavesdropping.

“I’m guessing you guys heard all that, huh?” he asked, folding his arms in annoyance.

“Heard what?” Danny asked innocently, but yelped as Oliver punched him in the shoulder.

“Shut up, Danny,” the red-haired boy said. “Yeah, man, we heard. But you do realize this is Tessa, right? I mean, I’m not crazy about how inflexible she can be sometimes, but she could still kick all our butts like twenty times over.”

Jack tugged at his baseball cap, looking worried.

“I don’t know, bro. Usually I can tell when somebody’s just bragging, and I don’t get that from Drake. What if he really is as good as he says he is?”

“Well, if we were going to find out, I think it would’ve happened by now,” said Leo, grabbing Oliver’s wrist and checking his watch. “It’s quarter past three. Maybe Master-jerk decided to chicken out.”

“Not likely, Scott,” a derisive voice spoke up, as Drake pushed him and Oliver aside and strode right between them, his mouth set in a thin line rather than his usual smirk. “Didn’t think you were going to show, Stone. Guess you’re more man than most of the scrubs around here.”

Tessa whirled around to meet him, bristling but managing to control herself.

“You’re the one who’s late, Drake. You said three. Having second thoughts?”

“It’s called being fashionably late,” the Quetzal scout shot back, looking her up and down critically. “Not that you’d know anything about fashion. Seriously, do you just have a wardrobe somewhere with a million pairs of that same tank top and those same gym shorts? Sounds like you’re just in a hurry to get destroyed. Fine by me.”

He stalked about fifty feet downfield before turning and planting his feet, unzipping his green blazer and pushing it back from his leather wand holster, muttering and whisper-singing under his breath.

“Okay. Okay. You’ve got this. You’re awesome. You’re the best around, and nothing’s gonna ever keep you down—”

The crowd of onlooking scouts that had begun to form around them gathered in a rough circle, coming slowly out of hiding behind boxes and tents to satisfy their curiosity, but still watching each other warily for signs of a trick. Battered, dirty, and bruised, with torn uniforms, various socks and other things tied around their heads, and stained, days-old clothing, they looked like extras from an apocalypse movie. Jack, meanwhile, looked back and forth between Drake and Tessa, unsure of what to do.

“Tessa,” he started, “I—”

“Don’t, Jack,” Tessa interrupted him. “Just don’t. Hey, Drake, try not to cry too much after I win, okay? I can’t promise I won’t make it hurt.”

“Who’s got the big mouth now, Stone?” Drake shot back, his fingers twitching and flexing over his wand. “Don’t write checks you can’t cash. You know, like any of them. Because your little jarhead family’s so poor. Seriously, what kind of chump joins the Army, anyway?”

That provocation was all Tessa needed, and with a shout of anger drew her wand, speaking brief spell. A jet of water shot out of it right at Drake’s head, but the boy countered it by whipping his own wand out of its holster and blasting fire at her. The two elemental spells collided in the middle of the field, hissing as the fire turned the water to steam, neither clearly more powerful than the other.

“Come on,” Drake yelled over the noise, digging in with his back foot and bracing himself. “Is that all you’ve got? A little water? What are you going to do, splash me?”

“Screw you,” said Tessa, grunting with the effort of maintaining the spell. “You don’t know me. You don’t know my life. Quit pretending like you do.”

“What, the whole little girl can’t measure up to daddy complex? I thought it was obvious to everyone.” Drake gritted his teeth, looking even more frustrated. “You think you’re the only one with problems? Yeah, right. Trust me, I know all about it.”

“About what? Being a little girl?” Tessa taunted him, the runes on her wand lighting up again and a strange pattern forming around her free hand. “All right. Time to kick this up a notch.”

She spoke another set of magic words and thrust out her hand, a runic symbol blazing with cold light. There was a crackling sound and the other scouts gasped in awe as the water pouring from her wand began to freeze, turning instead into ice. The effect rushed up through the jet of water and impacted the fire, instantly beginning to gain ground and shrink the distance to Drake.

“Whoa,” Danny breathed. “That’s cool. No—uhh—pun intended.”

“Dude, that’s what I’m talking about,” said Jack, brightening up. “That’s my girl, Tessa! Well, not my girl, but you know what I mean. Go get him!”

“Ha,” Leo said. “Called it. Knew she was an ice queen.”

“Shut up, man,” said Oliver, elbowing him in the ribs. “Quit ruining the moment. I really want to savor Drake getting schooled here.”

The rush of ice powered forward, easily overwhelming and shattering the fire before it, right up to the tip of Drake’s wand, where it doused the flame and blasted the pistol-grip right out of the Quetzal’s hand. It landed on the grass several feet away as Drake cried out in pain and staggered back, grasping at his hand, which was bright red and frozen solid by frostbite.

“Ouch,” Tessa observed, taking a few steps forward and readjusting her aim. “That looks like it hurts, Drake. You sure you don’t want to rethink things now? I don’t think you’ll be doing much shooting with that hand from now on. Or, you know, anything else.”

The crowd of scouts hooted and jeered as Drake bared his teeth and glared at her, murder in his eyes.

“Okay,” he hissed. “Now I’m pissed. You’re making a big mistake, Stone.”

“The only big mistake any of us made was not shutting you up months ago,” Tessa replied with a hard smile. “I’ll give you one last chance, Drake. Surrender now, and I promise I won’t humiliate you in front of everyone here. Well, any more than you already have to yourself.”

“Come on, Masterson,” Leo muttered, crossing his fingers. “Don’t surrender. Be an idiot. I can’t get enough of this.”

But Jack was starting to look slightly more concerned.

“Is it just me, or does anyone else think Tessa’s getting a little overconfident?” he asked.

“It’s not overconfidence if you’re good, bro,” said Oliver. “Look at them. I can’t believe I was ever worried about this. Drake sucks.”

“Yeah,” Danny piped up. “I mean, she froze his hand and disarmed him. What can he do now?”

“Last chance, Drake,” said Tessa, her wand glowing with power. “What do you say?”

“What do I say?” Drake seethed, boiling with red-hot rage as some of the surrounding scouts even started to laugh at him. “I say screw you, Stone. Screw all of you. There’s no way I’d ever surrender, especially not a lackey like you. So do your worst. Or you can try, anyway.”

“Have it your way.” A beam of ice once again erupted from Tessa’s wand, aiming to coat Drake’s legs in a solid casing of ice. But the Quetzal scout, who had contracted and pulled his arms to his chest as though bracing for the hit, suddenly looked up at her with a malignant smirk.

“Time to show these clowns what a real wizard can do,” he hissed, and with a primal roar, he thrust his arms out and forward as his palms flared with energy. The nearby scouts were pushed back as a searing wave of heat rolled over them, melting the ice as it flew and leaving Tessa stunned.

“What?” Oliver exclaimed, unable to believe his eyes. “Did anyone else see that? Did Drake just use magic without a wand? I thought that was impossible.”

“It’s not impossible,” Danny squeaked, looking terrified. “Just really, really dangerous. Without something to focus magic, the power can just run wild. Drake should know better.”

“Oh, he does,” Leo said grimly. “He just doesn’t care. I knew that guy would play dirty.”

Forcing his hands, still crackling with unstable energy, into fists, Drake grimaced in concentration as the magic welled up inside him: explosive, uncontrollable, searching for an exit.

“Dude, I think he’s going to blow,” a nearby Sphinx scout quailed.

“Fat chance,” Drake said, and with a cry released the energy through his frozen right hand. There was a burst of hot, fiery light, and when it faded away, the Quetzal scout was left panting but unbowed, once again with two perfectly pink and healthy hands. The jaws of all the onlookers dropped.

“Uh-oh,” Jack said.

Tessa, meanwhile, had recovered from her shock at the spectacle enough to try again.

“Nice trick, Drake,” she said, “but it won’t save you.”

She spoke the words of another spell as Drake’s right hand shot out, palm down, toward where his wand sat in the grass. The Quetzal then flipped his hand over and beckoned with his fingers just as the girl fired off three dart-like chunks of ice, their sharpened points flying right toward him. As if on strings, Drake’s wand leaped off the ground and rocketed back into his hand. Swinging around and firing from the hip, Drake let loose three quick fireballs that expertly intercepted two of the three bolts of ice, shattering them in mid-flight. The third seared by his face, so close that it drew a bloody gash across his cheek with its sharp point and made him falter, but he recovered in seconds and pointed the tip of his still smoking wand at Tessa.

“You know what?” Drake seethed, the tip of his wand still smoking as he leveled it at Tessa. “I’m done taking it easy with you morons. You asked for it, Stone.”

Shouting a series of harsh syllables, Drake’s wand once again belched fire, but it a torrent of near-inferno proportions. Tessa was taken aback by the ferocity of the onslaught, only able to defend with another wave of ice. Clearly straining with the effort, she first took one step back, and then another, as Drake pressed forward, with no sign that he was tiring at all.

“See?” he hissed, his eyes beginning to blaze with an unnatural red light. “This is what happens when you make me have to try. Let me let you all in on a little secret: a fire mage’s power comes from anger and rage. And trust me, I’ve got way more reasons to be angry than you do to be whatever you’re trying to be. I’ve had it with all you of slackers in this lousy, stinking camp. You think you know who I am? Well, guess what? You don’t know jack.”

Over on the sidelines, Jack bristled.

“Hey, I feel like people should start paying me royalties for that.”

“Why are his eyes glowing like that?” Danny asked nervously. “That doesn’t seem good.”

“It most certainly is not, Mr. Falco,” a stern voice spoke up, and the scouts next to them parted hurriedly as Scoutmaster Hasselberry shoved his way through their lines, with Crowley at his side. “Mr. Masterson has tapped into the uncontrollable power of raw magic, and as such he is beginning to lose his grip on reality. Psychosis is one of the first signs. Take a lesson from this, you cretins: don’t ever use magic without a wand.”

“Gee, thanks, Encyclopedia Brown,” Leo said, waving an arm at the unfolding battle. “Where have you been? You want to stop lecturing us for two seconds and actually get off your ass and do something for a change? Stop this.”

“Wise and eloquent as always, Mr. Scott,” Hasselberry sniffed, folding his arms and doing nothing. “By all means, let’s go confront the ticking time bomb of arcane energies and make him even more volatile. After you.”

“God, you suck,” Leo muttered. “You’re such a bad leader, it’s crazy. As much as it kills me to say it, you’re the boss around here, dude. This is kind of your problem.”

“And risk my possible physical injury or even death, thus depriving the world of my brilliance?” The scoutmaster scoffed. “Now that would be irresponsible. Don’t talk nonsense, Mr. Scott. Although in that field, I defer to your far superior expertise.”

“You still didn’t answer the question, man,” Oliver persisted, raising an eyebrow. “Where have you been?”

“The scoutmaster doesn’t need to explain himself to you of all people, Mr. Mack,” Crowley snapped, but Hasselberry gave him a harsh glance.

“Shut up, Crowley. I’ll do what I like. For your information, I was temporarily detained in Washington for some highly important meetings with senior figures.”

“You mean you were getting chewed out by Scout Marshal Rhodes for being such a giant moron, don’t you? Classic,” Leo snickered, making Hasselberry stiffen and pursed his lips in annoyance.

“No,” he said, convincing no one, as Jack got their attention again.

“Look, guys,” he said earnestly, “that’s great and all, but we seriously need to do something about this. We can’t just let Drake and Tessa keep fighting. Somebody might get hurt. Well, I mean, more than they have already.”

“You know the rules, Mr. Ferguson,” Hasselberry replied, without an ounce of compassion. “Or at least you should, if you knew how to read. Miss Stone brought this on herself. She’s always been quite ambitious, but she’s simply bitten off more than she can chew this time. It’s a shame, really. She is quite talented. In fact, the reason she made it to Camp Prospero in the first place was on BMA financial aid. A pity that will probably be yanked away once she is knocked out of this field test and fails to place in the top ten.”

Stunned and looking for words, Jack could only gape helplessly as the blasts of Drake’s fire magic became more and more vicious, and Tessa’s skin began to blister from the heat as she countered with increasing franticness. Infuriated by her persistence, Drake shoved his wand back into his holster, raised both palms, and unleashed a torrent of fire that forced all the spectators back a pace, the muscles in his neck straining with effort. The explosion blew Tessa off her feet and through the air, landing hard on her back and smacking her head against the ground. Her wand fell out of her grasp as she woozily tried to stand, but failed as Drake glared down at her, fire still blazing on his hands as they fell to his sides and his red eyes narrowing. His trademark smirk was gone and he no longer looked amused in any way. All that was left was pure hatred and contempt.

“I’d say you gave it a good try, Stone, but I’d be lying,” he spat, kicking the wand Tessa had dropped aside as blood oozed down his cheek from the cut on his face. “I knew you weren’t on my level.” He glared around at the now quiet and fearful scouts. “None of you are. You don’t get it: magic is power. Power means you win. And winning is the only thing that matters.” His voice took on a strange, echoing quality as the light leaking out of his eyes blazed hotter. “We’re not even human anymore. We’re better. You pathetic slackers don’t deserve to be wizards.”

“So what are you going to do, Drake?” Tessa asked, spitting blood into the grass as she glared up at him. “Embarrass me? Publicly humiliate me like we’ve done to you a thousand times? I don’t care. I can take anything you can dish out.”

“Oh, we’re way past that,” Drake seethed. “After this, nobody’s going to mess with me ever again.” He raised a hand and pointed his searing palm at her like a cannon. “I think I’ll kill you. How does that sound?”

The surrounding scouts all gasped and clamored at once, with Oliver managing to yell over the din.

“Whoa, man, are you crazy?” he demanded. “Look, you won. Whatever. Just leave it alone. When did this escalate to murder all of a sudden?”

“I’m not crazy,” Drake snapped, giving him a quick and terrifying glare. “You’re crazy! And I guess when I decided it did, Mack. I’m sending you all a message. You want to be next? Huh? Who else?”

“Way to de-escalate the situation, dude,” Leo said sarcastically, elbowing Oliver in the ribs.

“Oh, yeah. Like you could’ve done better.”

“Well, for starters, I’m not the one calling out the psycho rich brat while he has a temper tantrum.”

Drake growled and his fingers clenched together, small cracks starting to appear around the corners of his eyes that burned with the same vengeful fire. Jack stepped forward, raising his hands non-threateningly.

“Hey, Drake,” he said, trying his best to grin. “Slow down, okay? What’s the point of hurting anyone? Just take her medals if that’s what you want. You don’t want to do this.”

“You have no idea what I want, Ferguson,” Drake hissed. “I’m so done with you people making assumptions about me. You don’t know what I’m capable of. Back off, or your girlfriend gets it. Right now.”

“She’s not my girlfriend,” Jack said, at the exact same time Tessa said in a dazed tone of voice, “He’s not my boyfriend.”

“Way to really sell that one,” Leo muttered under his breath.

“Where’s Lucas?” Danny asked, staring around at the crowd in consternation. “I thought he was supposed to have our backup plan.”

“He was,” Oliver said, looking equally worried. “What a time for that guy to start being late.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Jack, turning his baseball cap around and slinging his rucksack down off his shoulder. “Somebody has to do something, and I guess it’s going to be me. Drake, I’m serious. You don’t want to do this. Put the hand down.”

He let out his breath and concentrated hard on the Quetzal scout, harder than he ever had before, feeling his body buzz with the effort of mustering and reaching out with his mind. On the battlefield, Drake suddenly flinched as if struck, gritting his teeth and pounding at his temple with his free hand.

“You think if you couldn’t do this before, you can now, Ferguson?” he growled. “Bad move. Get out of my head.”

With a roar of effort, he turned as his eyes flamed and fire poured from his hands, lighting a swathe of flames in a circle around himself and Tessa, isolating them and driving the onlookers back. As the scouts and their leaders milled about in fear and disarray, Drake planted his foot again and raised both his hands at Tessa.

“Got any last words, Stone, before I roast you like a pig?”

“Forget it, Drake,” the girl replied, sticking her chin out defiantly. “I’m not going to beg for anything from a sellout like you.”

“Too bad,” Drake snarled, conjuring a fireball of radiant energy between his burning hands. But just as he released the magical force to blast toward Tessa, an object suddenly flew out of nowhere straight in between the two scouts. The fireball intercepted the object and blew it apart, showering the spectating scouts in a rain of smaller silvery objects.

Confused, the Quetzal scout lowered his smoking palms and stared, unable to believe his target was still there. Tessa, meanwhile, picked up a charred piece of canvas from the ground beside her, along with one of the silver objects.

“What the—” she said, recognizing it in an instant. “This is a camp medal. But who—”

A thump made them both shift their gaze to their right, where Jack had leaped through the wall of fire and sank to his knees, his wand out and smiling thinly.

“I told you, Tessa,” he said, panting from the heat and exertion as he lowered his arm, no longer holding his sack full of medals, from the throw he had just made. “I’ve got your back. No matter what.”

“But why?” Tessa asked, looking at him in wonder. “You basically gave up your chance on the field test to help me. You won’t pass now.”

“Meh. I figure easy come, easy go. Anyway, I’m pretty sure I might, like, break the universe or something if I actually got first place in something for once.” Jack rose to his feet and pointed his pencil wand at Drake casually. “Look, man, I don’t want to fight you. Although I am kind of interested in how that would turn out. I’m just tired today. But why don’t you just take some of my medals, let Tessa go, and call it even?”

“Or what, Ferguson?” Drake sneered, turning away from Tessa and focusing on his true nemesis. “You’ll stop me?”

Jack shrugged. “I mean, yeah, I guess so.”

The Quetzal laughed: it was a high, harsh, and thoroughly unhinged sound as his fists clenched and the wreaths of fire around them blazed hotter.

“Ferguson, the fact that you just continue to live when you probably don’t have enough brain cells to breathe is a never-ending source of fury for me,” he said, taking several steps forward as Jack retreated and froze as his back hit the ever-strengthening wall of fire. “And the worst part is, I don’t think you even care that you’re doing it. If you’re going to make my life miserable, the least you could do is act like you’re enjoying it.” He raised his hands. “How about we fix all that?”

“Well, I didn’t want to do this, but—” Jack spoke a few magic words and jabbed at Drake with his wand, but nothing happened. He tried again, but all that came out of his wand was a puff of air, not the jet of water he was trying to summon.

“Jack, it’s the heat,” Tessa called from behind Drake. “He’s suppressing our water magic. Get out of there!”

But Jack had nowhere to go as Drake conjured another fireball between his palms and bared his teeth.

“Oh, I’m going to enjoy this,” he said, the echo and distortion in his voice getting deeper and harsher.

“Guys, what are we going to do?” Danny moaned from the sidelines. “Drake’s about to blow away Jack and Tessa. He’s lost it. Don’t we have anything?”

But just then, a reedy and exhausted voice rang out over the crowd.

“Excuse me. Oh, pardon me. Coming through. Make a hole, please.”

The scouts next to Danny parted as Lucas pushed his way through, looking even more disheveled than usual, his tie askew and purple blazer hanging halfway off his arm.

“Apologies for my lateness, gentlemen,” he said, breathing and sweating heavily. “I’ve been tinkering in my workshop since late last night, and I simply lost track of time.” His eyebrows raised as he took in the scene, with the wall of fire, and injured Tessa still on the ground, and Drake slowly advancing on a powerless Jack. “Oh. What did I miss? Is there a problem?”

“Not much,” Leo said sarcastically. “Just Tessa getting her butt kicked, Jack trying to save her, Drake going nuts, and now he’s probably going to kill both of them. What do you think, Duh-Vinci? Do you have the thing or what?”

“Oh, yes,” Lucas nodded, beaming with pride and holding out the object he had clutched in his hands: a glove and sleeve-like construct intricately created with weaved pieces of what appeared to be a rainbow-hued filigree metal. “I don’t mean to blow my own horn, as it were, but it’s really quite brilliant.”

“Wow,” Danny breathed. “It’s beautiful, Lucas. But—uhh—what is it?”

“Well, I’m so glad you asked, Danny. Remember when I asked you to help me with those chemistries and potential energy calculations? I discovered that the secret to creating a substance that could utilize magical energies was to simply give it the potential to be any kind of material I wanted. It can shape itself at will, mimic any charge, construct itself to overcome any obstacle, and all through direct mental control.” Lucas smiled, a bit bashfully. “I must admit I haven’t obtained a patent as of yet, but I believe I’ll call it ‘arcanium’. It’s a new addition to the periodic table. I can’t wait to get on the lecture circuit and talk about—”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Oliver interrupted him as Danny stared at the gauntlet in wonder. “Can you guys stop having a geek convention for a second and speak English? Lucas, will it help?”

“I suppose it could,” Lucas frowned, once again surveying the situation, “but I’m not sure how best to approach—”

“Give it to me.”

The group looked up to see Tessa, who had pulled herself to her feet, standing before them, her form flickering and distorted among the flames. The battered and bruised Centaur girl held out her hand insistently.

“Come on, Lucas. Toss it over. We don’t have time to think about this. I’ll use it.”

“But I haven’t had time to properly field test it,” Lucas insisted. “I have no idea what it will do, or if it will even respond for you.”

“We don’t have a choice. I have to save Jack from Drake.” Tessa rolled her eyes. “Well, maybe more from himself. Classic Jack. But I don’t care. Just give it to me. Go long.”

With that, she started to run toward Jack and Drake, holding out her hands and looking over her shoulder as she did so. Lucas frowned in consideration.

“I’m not sure what an inexact measurement of distance has to do with this.”

“Oh, my God,” Leo groaned, rolling his eyes and snatching the gauntlet. “She means throw it, genius. Do I have to do everything around here? I should start getting paid for the times I save the day.”

He planted his foot, swung his arm back, and let fly. The device soared through the air in a perfect spiral, and Tessa caught it only moments later, slapping it onto her right arm and feeling the gauntlet spring to life. The filigreed metal buzzed and hummed against her skin, glowing as its interlocking parts shifted and snapped into place, tightening to fit her arm and enclosing her fist in a flexible metallic casing.

But nobody else was paying attention to this. Everyone else was too busy starting at Leo, who just massaged his shoulder and shrugged.

“What?” he asked. “I played football in high school. I wasn’t a total loser. Fight me.”

“Nice,” Tessa grunted. “So if this thing’s supposed to work by thinking, I guess here goes—something. Ugh. I’m starting to sound like Jack.”

With a cackle of triumph that was part laugh and part scream, Drake’s entire body blazed in a corona of flame and the fabric of his green blazer began to burn as he thrust out his hands and blasted the fireball straight at Jack’s head. Just in time, Tessa leaped in between the two of them, throwing her arm in front of herself as the metal of the gauntlet reformed and spun out like silk, shaping itself into a glowing and glittering shield. The fireball rebounded off of it with a clang and blew straight back at Drake, who only had time to widen his red eyes in surprise before it hit him in the chest and threw him back nearly ten feet in a burst of smoke and flame.

Both Tessa and Drake in the ground hard, but Drake by far got the worst of it as he lay on his back, a hole burned straight through his shirt but the skin beneath untouched. The raging light left his eyes as though snuffed out, and he groaned, the wind knocked out of him, as the lines of fire keeping the scouts at bay slowly flickered out. Picking herself up, mud smearing the sleeves of her blazer and the front of her tank top, Tessa regarded the gauntlet as the metal retracted back to its original shape.

“Huh. Yeah, I’ve got to get me one of these.”

“Cool gear, Tessa,” said Jack, grinning slightly from where he had fallen to a sitting position in the charred grass.

“By the way, you’re welcome for me saving your life,” Tessa said.

“I didn’t say thanks yet.”

“Oh, you were going to.”

Tessa raised an eyebrow at Jack, who thought about it for a moment before snorting with laughter.

“Smooth. I’m rubbing off on you, huh?”

“You wish,” Tessa said, grabbing his arm and helping him to his feet again, managing to hide her slight blush as she tucked some hair behind her ear. “But seriously, you do owe me a thank-you. Drake would’ve killed you.”

“Come on,” Jack scoffed, tipping his cap back with a chuckle. “Why would he want to do that?”

“Umm—maybe because he’s crazy and he hates you?”

“No he doesn’t. He was just trying to mess with me. But joke’s on him. I don’t scare that easy. I was dating this girl once where I couldn’t eat meat, or like, eggs or anything. Just sprouts. Now that was scary.”

“Do you take anything seriously? Like, ever?” Tessa sighed and looked Jack right in his two differently-colored eyes. “Look, Jack, I meant what I said before. I don’t need anyone to protect me, and I can take care of myself. And I did end up having to save you because you tried to butt in. But still, for what it’s worth, I’m glad you were there for me today.”

“You bet, Tessa,” Jack replied, smiling at her. “What are friends for, right?”

“Friends?” the girl asked, blinking in surprise for a moment.

“Yeah, sure. Friends.”

“That’s all? Really?”

But Tessa instantly bit her tongue as Jack burst out laughing.

“Gotcha,” he chuckled, winking at her. “I knew it. You do like me. Admit it.”

“Shut up.” Tessa gave him a shove and walked off ahead, shaking her head. “I never said that.”

As Leo and Oliver laughed and Danny and Lucas just looked confused, Hasselberry shuddered in disgust and shook his head as he stalked over to the barely conscious form of Drake Masterson, who was lying on his back in the grass. The scar on the boy’s cheek was still bleeding, and the skin around his eyes and on his hands was blackened with soot from his fire magic. Unsympathetic, the scoutmaster poked at the him with the toe of his boot.

“Mr. Masterson. Mr. Masterson, can you hear me?”

Drake groaned, his eyelids fluttering as he looked groggily up at the adult.

“Hasselberry.”

“Yes, that’s right. You’ve managed to come somewhat back to your senses, clearly.”

“Moron.”

“Well, perhaps a bit too much,” Hasselberry muttered, glaring down at him. “I may have no respect for the individual scouts in this camp. I may not care a whit about the dignity of Camp Prospero as a whole. But if there is one thing I do care about, it’s me, myself, and I, and I’m telling you that you have crossed a line here today. Your lack of even a basic amount of self-control jeopardized not only my carefully-laid plans, but also my position and reputation, and I simply will not tolerate it any longer. If you ever, for any reason, disappoint me again, it will be the last mistake you ever make at this institution. The only reason I continue to indulge your presence here is because you may yet be a tool for my own advancement.”

He folded his arms decisively and looked down on his one-time assistant with utter contempt.

“Just remember that you are nothing. You mean nothing to anyone, except for how you can best be used. An irresponsible, reckless, and stupid loose cannon like yourself will never be anything more.”

With that, he turned heel and strode away along with Crowley, leaving Drake all alone in the middle of the field. The few scouts who remained gave him uncertain and uncomfortable looks before walking away or fading back behind the nearby tents, but of course not after picking up the few medals of both Drake’s and Jack’s that remained on the ground. Too exhausted to even muster a word in his own defense, the Quetzal just let his head thump back on the grass, no longer angry but instead looking only frustrated, beaten, and alone.


Check out Kyle Robertson’s new novel, Camp Ferguson, available online now at Amazon.com and via Kindle devices!

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