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"Dude, you can't let it bother you." Sali glanced sideways at Ashe as they walked away from school. Three weeks. Three more miserable weeks of school before summer break. Ashe had been taunted (again) by Chad and Jeremy as they drove away from Cloud Chief Combined in Jeremy Booth's new car. Jeremy's parents had given him an early graduation gift and both boys boasted about the shiny, red automobile whenever possible. Granted it wasn't the sports car Jeremy had bragged he'd get, but it was a new car, nonetheless.
The Grand Master had recently approved Mr. and Mrs. Booth's application to adopt Chad Daniels into their family, although it was unheard of for shapeshifters to adopt a werewolf child. Ashe knew it would mean trouble the moment the Grand Master's signature came back on the required paperwork. That meant that somehow, Chad would likely end up with a new car, too.
Ashe and Sali were finishing eighth grade and Ashe would turn fourteen in a few weeks, with Sali's birthday a month after that. Jeremy and Chad had gone back to calling Ashe empty, though everyone knew about the bat. The tiny, insignificant, mostly embarrassing bumblebee bat that was Ashe's alter ego.
"If they knew what else you could do, man," Sali kicked at a stray clump of dirt, sending the offending clod and a trail of brown dust sailing into the field beside the road.
Only a narrow, graveled lane ran through Cloud Chief, enabling the residents to drive to and from scattered rural homes or away from Cloud Chief and onto a nearby county road. No humans knew that Cloud Chief was anything other than a ghost town, hidden away on a western Oklahoma prairie. Ashe's vampire father and Nathan Anderson, Cloud Chief's other vampire resident, helped keep it that way. They were aided in their efforts by concealment spells a traveling witch placed around the community every year.
"Dad says we can't tell anyone about the misting," Ashe grumbled. Ashe could turn to mist in a blink, becoming invisible to everyone. Not only was he undetectable to the werewolves who had keen scenting ability, he could sail right through the smallest of cracks and could somehow travel through solid surfaces if he wanted. It was a bit disorienting if he did that, so he kept it to a minimum.
"Yeah. My dad says the same," Sali kicked at another clump of dirt, but this one disintegrated when he made contact instead of rolling into the field as the last one did. "What do you think you'll get for your birthday?"
"Mom still says no on the cell phone," Ashe had resigned himself to living without any sort of communication technology for another year. He and Sali desperately wanted cell phones. Their parents said fifteen was the magic age for that bit of technology. "I think I might get a new tablet, though."
"Not the same," Sali grumped. "Marco might come home after school's out in Austin," he added. Sali's older brother attended the University of Texas, studying engineering.
"For how long? Is he gonna work for Mr. Winkler again?"
"I think so. Mr. Winkler pays for Marco's classes and gives him extra money for working over the summer with his security company. Wish I could do that." Ashe watched Sali closely. Sali was back to being envious of his older brother, it seemed. William Winkler was a security magnate with a nationwide company that provided armored car services, guards and electronic security for banks and other businesses. Ashe had been quite impressed with the Dallas Packmaster when he'd met him more than a year earlier.
"Come on, Mom pays us for working at Cordell Feed and Seed."
"Yeah. But it's not the same as working security for Mr. Winkler."
Ashe didn't point out that neither he nor Sali had turned fourteen yet—they were much too young to work for Mr. Winkler's company. Sali's werewolf had grown, though. He was quite impressive when he turned, now. Ashe had also grown—he was barely under six feet tall but still quite thin. Aedan, his father, smiled whenever Ashe's mother suggested that he would be as tall as his dad.
"The good news is that we'll be ninth graders next year and Chump and Wormy will be in college," Ashe said, squinting in the bright afternoon sunlight. He had sunglasses, but Principal Billings didn't allow anyone to bring personal items to school. The Principal had also suggested uniforms for the students, but there hadn't been enough support from parents for that to be pushed through at a school board meeting.
Ashe had used nicknames for Chad and Jeremy—he was careful to say them only when he was away from the young werewolf and his shapeshifter best friend-turned-brother. Weldon Harper, Grand Master for all werewolves, had approved Chad's adoption after lengthy consideration. Ashe would never forget the circumstances surrounding Chad's mother's death; she'd attempted to kill him, Sali and their mothers after compulsion was laid by Dark Elemaiya.
Ashe often wondered about the Elemaiyan race—he was of the Bright Elemaiya, but still knew next to nothing about that part of his ancestry. When he'd asked his father if there was anything written about them, Aedan immediately directed the conversation to other topics.
"Yeah. They'll have to find someone else to insult at college. I hope it's somebody bigger and badder," Sali muttered, referring to Chad and Jeremy.
"And Mrs. Booth is so nice," Ashe said.
"She makes good cookies," Sali agreed.
"Dude, are you hungry again?"
"I think there's microwave popcorn in the pantry," Ashe offered.
"That might get me through till dinner," Sali grinned. Both boys took off running toward Ashe's house.
"Mom, we're home now," Ashe said over the phone as the microwave dinged across the kitchen. Sali waited impatiently in front of the kitchen appliance while Ashe phoned his mother at Cordell Feed and Seed. "How are sales?"
"I wish we could enlarge the store, that's how busy we are, and I'm running out of everything," Adele Evans sighed. "And I wish you and Sali were old enough to drive. I could use your help right now."
"Mom, I could get Sali and me there in a few minutes," Ashe offered. He could. All he had to do was turn to mist and fly to Cordell.
"Ashe, you know your father wouldn't like that."
"Yeah." Ashe sounded so hopeful for a moment, causing Sali to look up from the freshly popped bag of popcorn he was devouring. The young werewolf watched as Ashe's face fell when his mother rejected the idea. Misting was the safest way to get anywhere and Ashe's parents wouldn't allow him to use it.
"Hon, you could be placed in danger because of that," Adele cautioned.
"I know." Ashe's day had definitely gotten worse. First the taunting and now this.
"Ashe, don't be depressed about that. Look, I have to go. I'll bring chicken and dumplings home from Betsy's." Ashe hung up when his mother did.
"Dude, that sucks," Sali said sympathetically, holding the popcorn bag out to Ashe. Sali had vacuumed up more than half the bag in the space of a few seconds. Waving the nearly empty bag away, Ashe slumped onto a barstool at the kitchen island. The house wasn't even a year old—the last one had been blown up by Paul Harris, the former English teacher for Cloud Chief Combined—with a little help from the Dark Elemaiya. The Anderson home had also been destroyed; Paul Harris was prejudiced against anyone that wasn't werewolf and Nathan Anderson, being vampire, was a prime target.
Aedan Evans and Nathan Anderson, the community's two remaining vampires, rebuilt afterward. Aedan had built a larger home this time, giving Adele the spacious kitchen she wanted and a deck outside the solarium. Ashe liked the kitchen, too; windows lined the walls facing east and north, but the north window was wide and curved at the top, overlooking the sink. Just as before, the garage was through the kitchen door on the west side of the house. Ashe and his parents had spent the past year replacing personal items destroyed in the blast. The loss of his library grieved Ashe the most; he was still struggling to find copies of favorite books that had gone out of print.
"Come on, dude, let's watch TV," Sali pulled Ashe toward the door leading to the lower, underground level of the house. They clumped downstairs and settled on the sofa in the media room. His mind wandering instead of focusing on the program Sali had chosen, Ashe wished he were anywhere except where he was.
* * *
"This is all that's left?" Bill Jennings, Director of the Joint National Security Agency and Homeland Security Office glanced up at his assistant. Six names on a piece of official letterhead had been passed to the aging Director. Bill was two months away from retirement and the president and other high-ranking officials were already vetting candidates to fill his position.
Bill shook his head at the list of children still living. Another piece of paper resting under his hand listed the names of the dead. There were nearly seven hundred of those and he still wasn't sure they'd gotten information on all the children involved. He worried about many other children listed as missing—had they been abducted? How could he explain these things to the president, let alone someone coming in to take over his job? Bill sighed heavily. "Where are they now?" he asked.
"These six," Vince Jordan, Bill's assistant, tapped the paper containing the names of the half-Elemaiyan children still living, "are relocated, but we've seen how unsuccessful that has been in the past. You know where the seventh one is, through Mr. Winkler."
"Yes. I do know where the seventh one is," Bill agreed. His once dark hair was now completely white and had thinned over the years. His brown eyes now required glasses to clear fading vision. His face, too, he barely recognized in the mirror most mornings. When he had time to examine it, that is. Wrinkles and lines—that's mostly what Bill saw when he looked.
Winkler, the werewolf security mogul who provided the government with facial recognition software and other security measures, being what he was, still appeared quite young. Most people would think him thirty or so, although Bill knew the Dallas Packmaster was more than one hundred years old.