Chapter 17–and the Jesse version will be put this week, really

I’m waiting for the last of the copyediting to be done (and am so ready to be done with this that I may put it up before.) I’ve decided to put up the Jesse version first because–again, I’m really ready to be done with this. (And I’m sad too. I will miss these characters after living with them for years. Not sad enough to write another book, but sad.)

For all of you Dirk fans, I’m planning to have that version done in a week or two.

Here’s chapter 17:

Tori kept racing toward Capitol Hill, wind rushing around her so loudly it was hard to hear anything except for Dr. B’s voice in her earpiece. “Most of the jets and helicopters in the area are down and the ones that aren’t are engaging enemies in Virginia and North Carolina. We won’t have much help from that sector.” 

So far, they hadn’t had help from any sector. She hadn’t seen any tanks or men, hadn’t even heard any sirens wailing their way toward Capitol Hill. Nothing. Vehicles clogged the roads, more casualties of EMP.

 “I’m at the Capitol building,” Ryker said. “T-bird, where’s the dragon?” 

Through Jupiter’s eyes, she saw the backs of three men running down a hallway. A glass chandelier swayed, reflecting the yellow light of unseen flames. Something was burning behind the dragon. “North wing. I’m nearly there. Jaybird where are you?”

 “Not far from DC,” he said. 

“Come straight to Capitol Hill with Aspen and…” Ryker didn’t know what Alyssa’s code name had been. “…and B-lisa.”

Well, that was going to be what Tori called her from now on whether she liked it or not. 

Tori’s phone rang; her father’s ringtone. She didn’t answer. He was only going to tell her to come back. 

Jupiter bounded into the Senate chamber, talons shredding the blue carpet. He rammed into a row of desks, toppling them like wooden dominoes. The remnants lay splintered under his feet. It was surreal to see him in there. That room was where history had happened and where her father sometimes worked. It was supposed to be a safe place.

“He’s in the Senate chamber,” she reported.

 Jupiter beat his wings and launched into the air, making a loop around the huge galleries that overlooked the floor. He spotted a young brown-haired woman who’d been hiding behind one of the desks, probably an intern. Her eyes were wide and frightened. They were eyes that saw their own death circling overhead. The woman shrieked, scrambled to her feet, and rushed out of the room. 

Jupiter swooped toward her, happy for a new chase. The woman sprinted down a hallway. Her arms pumped frantically as though she was trying to grab something in the air in front of her. 

A door stood at the end of the hallway. Close enough to offer a chance for protection. She skidded up to it and tried the handle. Locked. She checked over her shoulder, face pale and growing paler. The only way out of the hallway was to go past the dragon. And Jupiter wasn’t about to let her do that.

He landed, mouth watering in anticipation, and took slow thudding steps forward like a massive cat stalking game. 

“He’s in a hallway now.” Tori hated that she had to narrate this, that she could do nothing to stop it. The woman banged on the door again, crying, breathing hard. Jupiter hissed and moved toward her.

“Stop. Don’t!” Tori said into his mind. She knew he wouldn’t listen, but said the words anyway. She couldn’t help herself.

Jupiter wouldn’t follow her instructions unless she had control of him, and Tori couldn’t even attempt that without losing consciousness and plummeting to the ground. If only she’d had more time to practice going into a dragon’s inner mind, she might have been able to manage it. If only she hadn’t turned Dirk into an enemy—if onlys were such horrible things.

“Stop? Don’t?” Overdrake repeated in Jupiter’s mind. His tone was pure mockery. “Are you talking to me or my dragon? Well, it doesn’t matter. Neither of us take orders from you.”

As though that’s what this was about. “What’s wrong with you?” Tori demanded. “Are you really so messed up that you want your dragon to eat a defenseless woman?” He wasn’t making Jupiter attack, but he wasn’t stopping it either. “Don’t you have any mercy?”

“What I don’t have is patience,” he said. “Especially with you.” The dragon halted, though. Jupiter pawed at the floor, tail flicking in agitation. The woman rattled the doorknob desperately, still crying.

 “If you want to save the girl, turn yourself over to me. Then I’ll make sure Jupiter leaves her alone.

Right. Turning herself over would be stupid and it would just allow Overdrake and his dragons to do more damage—which was why Dr. B had strictly forbidden that sort of bargaining. Overdrake knew this because Dirk did. But then, Tori had already abandoned the people in the Capitol by putting her father’s life first. Maybe Overdrake thought she’d stopped following rules altogether.

“No answer?” Overdrake asked. “Too bad for the woman. I always suspected your high ideals wouldn’t count for anything if it were your life on the line.”

Honestly, the man had such a skewed view of reality.

Jupiter charged down the hallway, the woman in his sites. Reflexively, Tori turned her head. She didn’t want to see what would come next. The motion did no good. She was still connected to the dragon’s vision. The woman lifted her arm to her face and screamed.

Tori was about to disconnect from Jupiter’s mind altogether, when shots rang through the hallway, pelting the dragon’s haunches. She could feel Jupiter’s irritation at their impact. He swiveled, tail slashing into the wall. 

Ryker hovered in the air at the mouth of the corridor. Tall, dark, and deadly. He lowered his rifle. “Got your attention?” 

Anger pulsed through the dragon’s mind. Anger, but no fear. Jupiter lunged toward Ryker, already anticipating the crunch of bones between his teeth. 

“So,” Overdrake said, “you did bring friends to my inauguration party. How did you know I’d be here? Who told you?”

She wasn’t about to answer that question.

Overdrake’s voice was oddly calm, which made it seem that much more sinister. “I suspected Senator Ethington was leaking information, and you saw what happened to him. Don’t think I won’t find out who your source is.” 

Aaron. For a moment it wasn’t Senator Ethington’s body she saw twisted on the stairs. It was Aaron’s. And his eyes stared reproachfully at Tori.

She had no way to protect him, no way to even warn him. 

Ryker zipped off, leading the dragon down the corridor toward the main rotunda. Ornately decorated walls flashed by, statues and paintings. “I could use backup!” he called.

Tori was close enough to Capitol Hill that she could see the lights of a couple police cars flashing as they headed toward the building. The vehicles must be EMP proof or were optimistic. Either way, the police probably wouldn’t have more luck stopping the dragon than the secret servicemen did. She just hoped they had the sense to stay out of the building and away from Jupiter.

 “I’ll be there in two minutes,” Tori said.

“I’ll be there in five,” Kody said. 

“We’ll be there in five too,” Bess said. “Less if we can get around all this traffic.”

Willow spoke over the earpiece next. “I think Jesse’s lost. We may be a while.”

“I’m not lost,” Jesse protested. “We’ll be there soon.”

Ryker weaved around the marble columns of the small senate rotunda. Jupiter wasn’t as agile and clipped a column with his shoulder. Above, the heavy crystal chandelier swayed in protest, thousands of crystals shivering. 

Ryker dashed into the main rotunda room. It was a good strategy. The massive dome was nearly two hundred feet tall and one hundred feet wide. It offered plenty of space to maneuver. 

Wall-sized nineteenth-century paintings decorated the bottom of the rotunda. Higher up, a frieze depicting American history ringed the room. Above the balcony, arched windows let in light. A mural of George Washington attaining godhood adorned the inside of the dome. 

Ryker pulled the pin on a sticky grenade and hurled it at the dragon’s face, fast and hard.

Jupiter let out a stream of fire that knocked the grenade from its path. It tumbled to the floor and stuck there, right below a painting of Columbus claiming the land for Spain. 

Tori winced even before the explosion sent bits of wall, canvas, and wood splinters across the room. When the smoke cleared only shreds of the painting remained.

“Be careful,” she said into her mic. “That was a piece of historic artwork.”

Ryker huffed and sped upward toward the windows. “When you started that sentence, I thought you were worried about me. It’s nice to know where your priorities lie.”

Jupiter followed Ryker upward, wings flapping in the chalky air. He was waiting and watching to see which way his prey dodged next.

Ryker pulled out another grenade and took aim. 

“Avoid the painting of Pocahontas,” Tori said. “It’s my favorite.” 

Ryker flung the explosive, this time sending it toward Jupiter’s chest. The difference in trajectory didn’t matter. Jupiter breathed a blast of fire that knocked the grenade into the arched framework surrounding a window. It exploded, shattering the window. Shrapnel flew everywhere, some pummeling into Ryker. 

He brushed off pieces of debris. “The good news is Pocahontas is still intact. I think. My vision is patchy right now.” He shook his head, attempting to clear it.

Ahead of her, Tori could see the dome of the Capitol Building lifting out of the fog, but she was still too far away to help. “Get out of there,” she said. Jupiter had realized that Ryker was stunned, and the dragon was no longer wary. He was about to come in for the kill.

Ryker drifted backward, adjusting his helmet. 

“Move!” Tori yelled.

He did. He pushed off the arch behind him and dove sideways, away from the dragon’s snapping jaws. Jupiter slammed into the wall, making it shudder. Chunks of molding already loosened by the explosion broke off and shattered on the ground. 

Wings flapping, the dragon righted himself. He snorted two spouts of flame, then slashed his tail into an archway. Bits of sandstone crumbled and sent dusty clouds into the air.

“Don’t throw another grenade,” Tori said. “You’ll bring the entire roof down on top of you.”

Jupiter lunged toward Ryker, snarling. Ryker shot out of the way and yanked his blade from its sheath. “You’re just worried about the paintings.” He careened toward the ground, then pulled up at the last moment. Jupiter couldn’t switch direction as quickly and skidded across the floor. The move allowed Ryker to put some distance between them.

He adjusted his helmet. “Is the building making a ringing noise or is that just my ears?”

“It’s your ears. Or maybe my phone. My dad keeps calling. At any rate, if you’re hurt you need to leave.”

Jupiter sprung into the air and flapped toward Ryker again. “Can’t,” Ryker said. “Someone has to keep the dragon busy until the rest of you slackers show up.” 

Tori sped toward the Capitol Building. The fastest way in would be to go through one of the rotunda windows that had been blasted open. As Tori flew over the portico in front of the dome, she grabbed the flagpole and ripped it from its moorings. Then she sailed through a window, the flag fluttering behind her. 

Being inside Jupiter’s mind gave her one clear advantage. She knew where he was and where he was headed. She hardly had to aim before she launched the pole, javelin style, at his neck. 

The pole hit its mark, flag juddering on impact. Jupiter’s head snapped back, and he tumbled for a moment, wings waving like gray sheets. The pole clanged to the floor and Jupiter straightened, hissing at her. Tori hadn’t done any real damage to the dragon, but at least she’d gotten him to stop chasing Ryker. 

Jupiter circled, surveying her. It was an odd sensation, seeing herself from the dragon’s golden eyes. Distracting. 

“I’ll keep the dragon busy,” she said into her mic. “You cut his Kevlar straps.”

Ryker veered upward. “You realize I’m your captain, right?” 

Yeah, she realized it. She just kept forgetting. But there was no time to argue about those sorts of details now. Jupiter pitched toward her, flames spewing from his mouth. Wrong tactic. She was fireproof. The heat surrounded her but didn’t scorch her with pain. She used the blaze as cover to change direction. 

She darted underneath the dragon and circled around so that when the smoke cleared, she was closer to the Kevlar straps than Ryker was. Her suit had probably melted in places—hopefully not embarrassing spots—but she was fine. When she didn’t show signs of injury, Overdrake would know which flyer she was, but that couldn’t be helped. 

Tori pulled out her knife and swooped downward. “I’ve got this,” she told Ryker. She refused to feel guilty about killing Jupiter, or at least she refused to let herself think about the fact that she would feel guilty afterward. This had to be done. 

Jupiter looped sideways, away from her. She wheeled after him, taking deep breaths. Her chest felt like it was constricting. Apparently, her body knew what her mind wouldn’t admit. She already felt guilty. Every flap of Jupiter’s wings was a reminder that only a handful of dragons were left. The survival of the entire species was at stake. 

Tori gained on Jupiter until she was directly above him. He had already killed at least one person and would kill again if she didn’t stop him. In fact, if she wasn’t careful, she and Ryker would both end up dead. She didn’t have a choice.

She stabbed the blade into the Kevlar strap. Jupiter felt the motion and jerked away, wrenching the dagger out of her hand. It stuck there in the strap and was carried off as the dragon twisted away.

Tori trailed after him. She’d been so close to cutting the strap. She just needed to get hold of her knife and give it one more good yank. Once all of the straps were taken care of, the shield would fall off, and she’d be able to shoot the dragon’s vulnerable spot. Her mind skipped ahead to that moment. What if she couldn’t bring herself to kill Jupiter, just like she hadn’t been able to kill Kiha and the hatchlings? Tori was half dragon lord. A part of her—an insistent part, it turned out—kept reminding her that she was supposed to protect dragons. That desire was stitched into her DNA, and she couldn’t change it any more than she could change her eye color. 

And yet what else could she do? Her country was under attack. Her father had nearly been killed.

She picked up speed. She was almost to the knife hilt, but she didn’t reach for it. Her hands felt sweaty. All of those times she’d assured Jesse that she would be able to kill a dragon—it turned out she was a liar. 

Well, getting to know oneself wasn’t always what it was cracked up to be. 

She glanced at Ryker. He was darting around in front of the dragon, drawing Jupiter’s attention so she could cut the straps. He was putting himself in danger to help her. She couldn’t let his risk be for nothing. She couldn’t let him or the rest of the Slayers down.

She reached out for the knife. When it came to taking a fatal shot, she might not be able to pull the trigger, but she could remove the dragon’s shield. Once that was done, she would have leverage to use to bargain with Overdrake. She would tell him that he had to relinquish control of Jupiter to her, or the Slayers would destroy the dragon. The other Slayers would have no problem pulling the trigger.

She pulled on the knife. Instead of cutting through the Kevlar, it only budged half an inch and then came loose in her hand.

Ryker darted over, about to go for the straps himself. Before he could, Jupiter turned and lashed his tail. The blow smashed Ryker in the stomach and he spiraled into the wall. He hit with a thud, and then slid downward, boots scraping against the sandstone. 

Tori rose over the dragon’s back to work on the Kevlar again. She expected Ryker to pull up and fly away. He didn’t. He seemed dazed by the hit, unable to regain his bearings. And by the time Tori realized he was in trouble, she was in the wrong position to help.

Jupiter plunged toward Ryker, mouth open and showing a row of shark-like teeth. 

Her heart felt as though it stopped. Not Ryker. Not Jesse’s best friend. “No!” she shouted and wasn’t sure who she was yelling at—the dragon or Overdrake. 

Before Jupiter’s mouth closed on Ryker, the dragon jerked sideways. His jaws snapped shut on air, on nothing, and he shrieked in fury. It was only when Tori saw Jesse letting go of the dragon’s tail, that she understood what had happened. He’d flown in the window and yanked Jupiter away from Ryker. 

That, she supposed, was the disadvantage of attacking with a smaller dragon.

Jupiter whipped his tail into Jesse, sending him spinning and careening downward. He barely managed to flip midair before he slammed into a statue of Jefferson. 

Ryker pushed away from the wall, going slower than normal.

Inside Jupiter’s mind, Overdrake made tutting sounds. “One of your teammates isn’t doing so well. Is that Ryker? Jupiter will catch him soon. If you don’t want to see him torn to pieces, we could work out a trade. His life for the name of the informer.”

Tori couldn’t make those sorts of negotiations. “Chameleon,” she whispered into the mic, “Overdrake is targeting you. Get out of here until you’re up to speed.”

“I’m fine,” Ryker said. “I just got the wind knocked out of me.” But he glided toward one of the doors, positioning himself there for an easy exit. 

Overdrake laughed and the sound of it echoing in the dragon’s mind was eerie. “I threatened the wrong Slayer, didn’t I? You don’t care that much about Ryker. But Jesse… would you give his life for the name of the informant?”

“Jaybird,” Tori said, “he’s targeting you now.”

“Let him,” Jesse said. “I’ll hold him off while you cut the straps.”

Had she really expected a different answer from him? Tori withdrew from the dragon’s mind. She didn’t want to encourage Overdrake to make more bargains with her. She’d speak to him again once she had leverage. 

Shang’s voice came over the earpiece. “We’re in the building.”

Kody added, “It’s a good thing my horse can jump police barricades.” 

Before he’d finished speaking, a sound like a crack of thunder shook the walls. For a moment, Tori had the sensation of being in a snowglobe: a feeling that the world was no longer steady. Several windows shattered and bits of glass and sandstone rained down, tinkling as they hit the floor. Even the dragon paused and peered about. 

 Lilly swore and her voice went high with alarm. “What kind of explosives are you using?” 

“I’m with Blossom on this one,” Leo said. “Tone the attack way down.”

Tori wiped bits of plaster from her visor and surveyed the room, looking for the cause. “That wasn’t one of our grenades. It was something bigger.” Although what, Tori didn’t know.

Jesse floated upward to peer out a window. “Is the military lobbing explosives at us?”

“They wouldn’t.” With a cautious eye on Jupiter, Tori lifted toward a different window. “George Washington laid the foundation for this building.” She saw no signs of a military presence outside, just trees, lawn, and part of the parking lot, but that didn’t mean someone wasn’t there. The police cars she’d seen earlier must have gone somewhere.

The dragon skimmed up one side of the rotunda, glaring at them. He kept his back to the wall to prevent flyers from getting near the Kevlar straps.

Without warning, another blast shook the room. This one made pieces of columns tumble, and the whole dome shuddered unsteadily. So much dust drifted through the air, the place looked like the fog had crept inside. A fan inside Tori’s helmet kicked on and whirred, filtering the air. 

Ryker retreated farther out of the room. Jesse edged toward one of the broken windows. “T-bird, call your dad. Have him stop whoever is trying to bring the building down.” 

Tori didn’t have to call, she just had to answer her phone. He’d been calling nonstop since she left.

While Jupiter circled the top of the rotunda, Tori pulled her phone from her pocket. “Dad, tell the military and law enforcement to stop attacking the Capitol Building. People are inside. Including me.”

“Then get out of there!” Her father’s voice was insistent and loud. “Go someplace safe!”

“So, that means you’re going to talk to the military, right?”

“Tori—”

“Busy fighting a dragon. Gotta go.” She ended the call and returned the phone to her pocket. 

The other Slayers had finally reached the doorway. Leo and Bess came in first, tentatively stepping inside. Their shields were undoubtedly already raised against the possibility of fire. Kody followed close behind them, rifle eagerly drawn. Four others slipped into the room, black figures that moved as confidently as a winning sports team taking the floor. Two Slayers were missing. Tori didn’t have to ask to know that Rosa and Alyssa were searching the building for burn victims. She hoped they found the man she’d seen earlier.

Jupiter was still at the top of the rotunda, hovering, probably waiting for Overdrake’s instructions. The dragon presented an odd sight, hanging there against the backdrop of George Washington and a host of happy angels. 

There was no way to get above Jupiter to reach the Kevlar straps. They’d have to wait for him to come lower. 

Jesse took out one of his sticky grenades. Well, there was that option too. Although Tori wasn’t sure how many more explosions the rotunda could take. “Try not to destroy the fresco,” she told Jesse. “It’s pretty.”

“Yeah, so am I,” Ryker said. “Worry about the rest of us for a change.” He glided in after the others, flying fast and straight again. Good. He was back in the game.

Jupiter surveyed the group with eyes that were angry slits. He growled, then breathed a plume of fire that blossomed out, obscuring his location. When it cleared, he was sailing toward a broken window. He was too big to fit through. If he tried to go out that way, he’d get stuck, which would make it easy for the flyers to cut his straps. Tori lifted higher, positioning herself.

The dragon’s head plunged through the window, but instead of holding him, the wall between the windows gave way in a shower of plaster, rubble, and shards of glass. 

And then he was gone. Tori dove after him, angry at herself for letting the dragon have a head start. “Seriously, with all of the money Congress spent renovating this place, you’d think they’d have made the walls stronger.”

Jesse darted out of the window after her, following in the chase. Jupiter was flying fast and low, wings pumping. He skimmed above the lawn and trees. 

“Heading toward Independence Ave,” Jesse told the others and pulled ahead of Tori. “Chameleon, grab the shielders and catch up to us. When you get close, throw Beta to me.” 

Bess’s voice came over the line. “When he said throw, he meant: carefully hand.”

Tori took her parachute shooter from her thigh holster. It only held one parachute. Was this the best time to slow down the dragon, or should she wait and see if she needed it later—perhaps to save someone? During practice, it was easy to gamble. Here, she hesitated. 

And then shot. A white missile launched and struck the dragon’s haunches. It furled open—a crisp white flower—but only slowed Jupiter for a second. The dragon’s momentum yanked him free and the parachute fluttered downward, petals wilting. 

Tori grunted and considered hurling the gun at the dragon. “The parachute didn’t stick.” 

“It should have,” Theo replied, clearly affronted. “I tested it on a moving car. Overdrake must have put some substance on the scales to repel adhesives.”

Figured. After all, Dirk had practiced with sticky grenades. 

The dragon flew over the Cannon House Office building, his bat-like wings nearly touching the roof. He sprayed a stream of fire that obliterated an American flag and left a blazing trail beneath him. 

The building looked like it was entirely made of marble, but the roof wasn’t stone. Flames bloomed from its surface and spread fast. Perhaps Overdrake had planted something flammable there earlier. 

 “The Cannon is on fire,” Tori reported.

“Hugh,” Jesse called to Shang. “Do what you can to put it out. Blossom, keep with the group.” 

Ahead, Jupiter tilted, turning toward the Supreme Court. Frustration welled inside of Tori. She hadn’t been able to do anything to stop the last fire and she couldn’t prevent another one. She was just shadowing the dragon, watching it destroy things.

Her father’s ring tone sounded from her phone. She answered without giving him time to speak. “If there’s anyone at Cannon, they need to evacuate.” 

“Why?”

“The roof is on fire. The Supreme Court might be next. Let emergency dispatch know.” Fire stations farther away wouldn’t have been affected by the EMP. One of them could send trucks. Tori gazed around at the clogged streets, six lanes of stalled cars, and scowled. Fire trucks would have a hard time getting through all of that. “Also let them know the area has been hit with EMP and might be hit again.”

Her father repeated the information to someone nearby and then spoke to her. “You need to leave Capitol Hill. The military didn’t attack the building. Explosives were planted in the tunnels. Augustus knew people would flee from the building that way and laid a trap for them.”

The words made Tori’s stomach turn. All of those people—wounded and trapped. Jupiter had never been the real threat—just a method to push fleeing people into an ambush. How many of the nation’s leaders had been killed in the tunnels? How many were stuck there still?

“He’s a dangerous man,” her father said. “I don’t want you anywhere near him.”

Her father would probably not be comforted to hear that Overdrake knew her personally and had just been chatting with her.

Up ahead, the dragon dipped, streaking toward the street. Pedestrians scattered out of the way and dodged for cover under cars and into doorways. Jesse trailed Jupiter like a tail on a kite, still too far away to reach the Kevlar straps.

“I’ve got a dragon to deal with,” Tori said. “Don’t worry, though. I’m trained. ”

Her father’s voice raised several decibels. “You’re not trained; you’re a teenager! Come back to the Pentagon!”

The dragon zipped upward again. He was nearly to the Supreme Court. 

The building stood back from the street like a Greek temple: Sweeping stairs, huge white pillars, and statues depicting Justice. Jupiter sailed along the length of the roof and lined it with a stream of fire. The reaching flames glowed yellow and orange, crackling from the heat. 

“The Supreme Court is on fire,” Tori told her father. “I need to hang up so I can concentrate.” Before ending the call, she added, “I love you.” She had to tell him that, at least.

“Chameleon!” Jesse yelled up ahead of her. “Hurry! We need shielders before the dragon burns down the entire city.”

“Coming!” Ryker called. He was gaining on them, but not quickly enough.

Tori’s watch beeped with a message from Dr. B. “Split it read. Dirk just hit Anacostia with EMP and is flying west. Probably targeting Reagan International or the Pentagon. Head that way to intercept.

Anger pulsed through Tori. Not the Pentagon. Not after she’d taken her father there. She had the unreasonable thought that fate wasn’t playing fair, that it wouldn’t let her win. She pulled out her phone to warn her father. Without waiting for Ryker to call a plan, she flipped in the air and sped toward the Pentagon. He could work it out with Jesse. She had to stop Dirk.

Turned out, she wasn’t much of a team player when her father’s safety was in question.

Chapter 16 and so close to being done.

When I first started putting up chapters, I figured I was about two months away from being done. That would mean eight chapters. Yeah. Now I’m putting up chapter 16. But the Jesse version is almost done and hopefully the Dirk version won’t take much longer. (Should I laugh at my own optimism?) Anyway, here is 16.

Dirk sat atop Khan, crouched low in his seat to avoid the barrage of gunfire. He cursed the stupidity of it all. What had his father hoped to accomplish, hitting the nation’s premier Air Force base in broad daylight? The dragon couldn’t be detected on radar, but at fifty tons, he was easy enough to pick out by eye, even with fog shrouding everything. Those sorts of facts apparently didn’t matter to his father. He’d ordered Dirk to hit the place with EMP then drop off a dozen men, each with a man-portable missile strapped on his back. 

The men were now running around the base blowing up hangars like a dozen idiots with short life expectancies. It was amazing his father had convinced them to sign up for this mission. Supposedly, inside men were waiting by the main gate with an escape vehicle, but judging by the number of angry MPs swarming the area, his father’s men had a hard fight ahead of them. 

Dirk hadn’t used any of the Stingers strapped on the side of the saddle chair. His first priority was keeping Khan safe, not hanging out at the base to demolish more jets.

Khan winged upward, sending out another EMP blast in the process. Hopefully, it would disable any vehicles the military had pulled out of the hangers since the last blast. No matter the damage it did, the two of them weren’t safe. After the first attacks, the bases must have stationed some EMP-proof jets and copters at every base. His father’s men couldn’t destroy them all. Some might come after him.

 Dirk pushed Khan higher into the air, lying as low as he could against the dragon’s back. Dirk wore his bullet-proof gear, but a missile could take him out. He needed to present as small a target as possible. He didn’t dare look over Khan’s side to check if anything was coming. Right now, the dragon’s body acted as a shield. Instead, Dirk counted. Thirty more seconds. That’s how long it would take for him to be out of range. 

Without radar, the men wouldn’t be able to shoot with enough accuracy to immobilize  him. And if the EMP hadn’t knocked out their radar, it would still take them at least a few seconds to realize the dragon wasn’t showing up on their screens. Then they would try to hit him manually. He and Khan had to be out of sight by then.

Thirty seconds passed, then sixty. The base shrunk below him until the runways looked like ribbons among dark boxes. Then the fog erased it all. Maybe in the confusion on the ground, Khan had slipped past the military’s defenses.

An angry buzz from below deflated this hope. Jet engines spooling for takeoff. The sound grew into a controlled thunder and moments later two jets lifted into the air. They were either coming for him or heading to Capitol Hill to fight his father. Either way, they would find him easily enough–a black dragon plastered against the white sky. The fog was too thin to blot out a dark color, and he was still too low to hide in the clouds. 

Khan he said Another EMP. The dragon screeched, letting out a high-pitched sound like ripping metal. The jets kept coming, streaking across the sky.

Weapons it was, then. Dirk swiveled in his seat and aimed the Stinger. He tried not to think about the pilots or whether they had families waiting for them at home. They had ejector seats, and Dirk was defending himself. 

Before he could shoot, missiles screamed by on either side of Khan, both going wide. Hard to aim without computer guidance. 

Dirk fired the Stinger and jolted from the kickback. The smell of sulfur filled the air. A trail of smoke headed toward the plane. The next moment, a flash of orange bloomed against the left wing and the jet spun away, pinwheeling across the sky. One down.

Another set of missiles tore by Khan, so close that their wind pushed into Dirk. He loaded the next Stinger, put the jet in his sites, and fired. Another trail of smoke and flash of orange. The shot hit where he’d intended. The spot where the right wing connected. It was a blow that would take down the plane but wouldn’t destroy the cockpit. 

Higher, he told Khan. He needed to get into the clouds before the next set of jets spotted him. He still had to fulfill more of his father’s orders. While Dirk flew, he took his phone out of its Faraday case and sent his father a message. I delivered your men. Expect jets your way. Already took down two that shot at me.

The message was Dirk’s way of letting his father know that his plan sucked. Perhaps if his father realized his men couldn’t neutralize all the jets, he’d call an early exit. 

A few moments later, a return message showed up. Don’t worry about the jets. I have sleeper agents launching from nearby bases. Soon the military won’t be able to tell friend from foe. 

Don’t worry about the jets? Dirk had already been shot at twice. If the pilots had better aim, nothing of Dirk would have been left for a funeral. He didn’t point this out to his father. In his father’s mind, there were only two kinds of men: strong and weak. Complaining meant you were weak.

Dirk just needed to get this over with so he could go back home.

Chapter 15 & a sale

I’m hoping to have the Jesse version (maybe even the Dirk version) available within the next two weeks. Yay!!! I can’t express how many exclamation marks I want to put after that word.

Anyway, so that people can reread the last couple of books, if they want, starting Oct 8 Book three will be free for a few days and book four will be .99. (Please leave Amazon reviews! Also, imagine a lot more exclamation marks with that plea.) I will try to remember to put the links here on Tuesday but we all know what my memory is like, so….

 

Tori rocketed toward the Capitol steps. Another round of shots rang out. The sound was muffled in the mayhem of screams and the clatter of fleeing footsteps. A bullet hit her and knocked her back in the air, but it didn’t penetrate her jacket. She wasn’t even sure whether the shot was meant for her or the dragon. Didn’t matter. She had to find her father. 

Jupiter dropped the Senator’s body. It hit the steps with a dull thud and lay there motionless, his black suit coat rumpled and gaping open. Tori wanted to look away but couldn’t. The man’s neck was bent in an unnatural position, his eyes blank. Trickles of blood seeped down the steps below him. 

Ryker’s voice blasted in her earpiece, directing all the Slayers to go immediately to the Capitol Building. Tori hardly heard him. The words that ran through her mind were the instructions Dr. B had given earlier. Your first priority is killing the dragons. Your second is protecting civilians.

Well, that was one more order she was going to ignore, because she wasn’t fighting anything until she made sure her father got to safety.

Amid the frenzy, she was having a hard time finding him. He hadn’t had time to run back into the building, but she didn’t see him heading the other direction. One cameraman ran down the stairs, shooting footage of the dragon over his shoulder as he went. That was either extreme dedication or stupidity. 

She finally spotted her dad helping a woman to her feet. The reporter wore heels so high they could have been considered a death trap even if she hadn’t needed to evade a carnivore.

Tori wheeled toward them, arms outstretched. During practice, she’d carried two people often enough, but she’d always had time to situate them properly—one person on her back, the other clutched in her arms. No time for that now. With one hand, she grabbed her father’s arm, with the other, she hooked the woman by the back of her coat. The two only had time to look up at her, startled, before Tori yanked them into the sky.

The woman shrieked in surprise and tried to thrash free but only managed to lose her shoes. Hopefully they didn’t impale anyone below. Her father yelled something unintelligible and jerked in her grasp. Apparently he too had decided that falling was a better option.

“Keep still,” Tori barked. “I’m saving your lives.” The commotion on the steps shrunk away as she soared higher. 

Her father stopped struggling and stared at her darkened visor. “Tori? Is that you? What are you—How are you doing this?”

He’d said her name. Way to blow her cover in front of a reporter. “We’ll talk about it later, Senator. Right now, we’ve got to lose a dragon.” And then because she couldn’t help herself, she added, “Which, I’d like to point out, is completely real.” 

She scanned the area, searching for a safe place to take her father. The senate building was close, but if Overdrake planned to take out the nation’s leaders, it might be his next target. She couldn’t risk going there. 

She’d find someplace else out of the way. She swooped toward the Grant Memorial. The statues of charging cavalry soldiers looked appropriately horrified by the chaos.

Her father craned his head to see the Capitol Building’s stairs. The dragon was letting out a blaze of fire that encompassed several steps. “Put me down. I need to . . .” He paused, seeming to realize how little he could do. “I need to call the authorities.”

Now you want to use your phone,” Tori said. “I’ve been calling you for the last three hours.” She flew over the reflecting pool, dragging their images across the water.

Her father took hold of the bottom of her jacket to steady himself. “I’ve got to warn the other congressmen.” 

“I’m pretty sure the screaming people rushing into the building is warning enough.” Tori pulled her father closer so she could change her grip to put her arm around his waist. 

The reporter was clutching Tori’s leg with her free hand so tightly, Tori didn’t dare try to peel her off. Moving the woman would just freak her out and she was already breathing so quickly she was probably hyperventilating. 

 “What was that thing?” the reporter gasped out. “Dragons aren’t possible.”

“So I’ve heard,” Tori said.

Her father gaped down at Third Street passing beneath them, at cars tooling along without concern. “Speaking of impossible, how are you flying?” 

She’d never been exactly sure herself. “I kind of got involved in this superhero gig. If you ask me, it should come with a flexible curfew. Just saying.”

Traffic moved in its usual slow place, perhaps even slower due to the fog. The drivers didn’t know. They didn’t realize that an EMP blast was almost certainly coming. Their cars would stop working and they’d be trapped in the city with a rampaging dragon. In fact, it seemed strange that Overdrake hadn’t already hit the city with EMP. Maybe this time he wanted the cameras to record the dragon attack. Maybe he wanted to put that bit of violence in front of everyone’s eyes. 

Into her earpiece, Bess said, “T-bird, status?”

 “Fleeing with passengers.” The other Slayers probably wouldn’t approve of this, but they’d understand. “I’ve got Senator Hampton,” she emphasized. Overdrake had a personal vendetta against Tori and if he could, he’d use her father’s safety to control her. 

“Don’t take long,” Ryker said. “I’ll need help fighting the gargantuan lizard.”

Tori glanced over her shoulder, and that’s when she saw Jupiter in the air. His wings looked like dark knife blades against the white clouds. And he was flying her direction. Was he pursuing her—or worse, her father? Tori picked up her speed. She wouldn’t let the dragon catch them, vulnerable in the sky.

She kept her voice low while she spoke into her mic. “He’s flying over Third Street.” Her father and the woman hadn’t noticed Jupiter yet and Tori wasn’t about to mention that the dragon might be hunting them. More hysteria wouldn’t help the situation.

Her father kept staring down. His cheeks were red from the cold and he had to squint against the wind. “This is breaking all the laws of gravity.” 

“It’s not the only law I’ve broken lately,” Tori said. Now that her Dad knew she was a Slayer, she ought to warn him about those sorts of other details.

The reporter’s hair whipped around her in wild disarray and her coat flapped out behind her. “Where are you taking us?” 

That was the question. Where could Tori put her father that would be safe from Jupiter? Only office buildings and highways spread out around them. The Potomac lay ahead.

“The Pentagon,” Tori decided. It was just over the river, had armed security, and was close enough to Fort Meyers that backup was probably already on the way. She changed trajectory, heading that direction.

Her father looked behind them. “Is that thing chasing us?” 

“Probably,” Tori said. Into her mic, she added, “I could use some help.”

“Heading your way,” Ryker said.

The reporter peered over her shoulder, took several deep breaths, and made high pitched squeaking sounds.

“He won’t catch us,” Tori assured them. But she wasn’t positive. Once they flew across the river, nothing would be between them and the dragon. Tori wouldn’t be able to maneuver or hide. And with her hands full, she couldn’t even access her weapons. She’d just be easy prey. 

Had it only been a couple of days ago that Tori had struggled with a desire to protect the dragons? That had been a stupid impulse. Clearly misguided. She wanted to snatch back those desires like they were a gift she’d decided to keep.

Instead of heading into the open, she dropped low and weaved around a building, using it as a screen. She skimmed over traffic, noting the startled faces that peered up at her from cars. A bicyclist ran into the curb and tumbled onto the sidewalk with a clang. Tori swished away from the traffic and around the corner of another building.

She wasn’t sure if she’d lost the dragon, but she had an advantage in this chase. She could go into Jupiter’s mind and see what he saw. She hesitated to do it. A trip into his brain would make it harder to kill him later and that was a complication she didn’t want. On the other hand, she needed to keep track of the dragon so she could tell the Slayers where to find him.

She wouldn’t go into his control center—this would be a bad time to faint—she’d just go into the first level of his mind. The sound of the wind, the noise of the city, and the chatter of the Slayers in her earpiece had drowned out her dragon hearing. She enlarged it, focusing on the noise around Jupiter. She let her mind follow that link like it was a trail until she breached the distance and entered his consciousness. 

It was a feeling of enlargement. A feeling like coming home. Her senses could stretch here and grow. With her own eyes, she still saw the boxy buildings, barren trees, and streets shrouded by fog, but she also saw the landscape from farther up. 

And along with those senses, she noticed Overdrake’s presence in Jupiter’s mind like a shadow that encompassed everything. “Tori.” His voice echoed with contempt. “What are you doing in DC?”

She didn’t answer. Talking to Overdrake never did any good. 

“Are you here alone,” he asked, “or did you bring your friends?”

He’d know soon enough.

Jupiter slowed and soared higher, probably searching for her. The fog would only do so much to conceal her. She rounded the corner of the International Spy Museum and pressed up against the side of the building. The dragon wouldn’t be able to smell her this far away, not with the layer of exhaust that blanketed the city. 

Jupiter scanned the buildings. He didn’t see her. Good. She would wait until he looked elsewhere to dart away.

“Put me down,” the woman murmured, then immediately swallowed and shook her head. “Wait, don’t. The dragon will eat me before I can make it inside.”

Tori was so focused on Jupiter that it took her a moment to realize she was drawing attention from inside the museum. A group was gathering at the window to gape at the three people pressed against the glass. 

Her father gave them an uncertain wave.

“Hide if you want,” Overdrake said in Jupiter’s mind. “You won’t always be able to protect Daddy.” 

Maybe, but it wouldn’t be for lack of trying. Jupiter flapped his wings in a way that made him hover. He swished his tail, screeched in anger, then flipped in the air and headed back the way he’d come. She didn’t disconnect from him. It was better to know where he was.

Inside the museum, the lights blinked out. Startled horns from the cars below announced they’d been hit with EMP as well.

But Jupiter was leaving. That was the important thing. Tori waited another moment to make sure the dragon didn’t circle back, then she peeled away from the building and sped toward the river, passengers firmly in hand. Reaching the Pentagon would only take her another minute, and her father would be safe there. Then she’d do something about Overdrake. 

Tori flew past a marina and over the cold dark waters of the Potomac. As the river lapped along, the smell of water and fish intermingled with the wind. Safety was close. She could see the Pentagon. 

 “Go ahead and run away,” Overdrake told her in Jupiter’s mind. “Tell the Slayers how you couldn’t stop me.”

 “Tori,” her father said, pulling her attention to him. He’d been speaking to her.

She didn’t answer. She had to tell the Slayers Jupiter’s location. “He turned around,” she said into her mic. 

“What?” her father asked. “Who are you talking to?”

 “I need specifics,” Ryker said. “East? North?”

“Toward Capitol Hill,” Tori said. And the dragon was heading there fast. 

“I’m on it,” Ryker said. “Keep me updated.”

“Tori,” her father said louder. “Why aren’t you answering me?”

 “Maybe she needs to concentrate.” The reporter tightened her grip on Tori’s leg. “We shouldn’t bother her.”

They were passing over the lagoon in front of the Pentagon. Tori slowed her speed and descended toward the manicured grass at the entrance. The reporter didn’t loosen her grip. “Too fast! Don’t drop us!”

Tori had planned on dropping them a few feet above the ground, but the woman’s alarm was a reminder that Tori wasn’t dealing with Slayers. The public was so much more prone to fits of panic. “Relax. I’ll set you down.”

Before Tori touched the ground, half a dozen burly men in battle gear rushed out the door with their rifles aimed at her. Pentagon security guards. They were all nerves and adrenaline. “Arms over your head!” one yelled. 

“She’s with me,” Tori’s father called back. “You recognize me, don’t you? I’m Senator Hampton. This is my daughter.”

Really, her dad had no concept of a cover. 

None of the men changed their stance. They’d planted themselves in front of the door with their rifles held straight and unwavering. “She still needs to turn over her weapons!” one called.

Tori didn’t have time to humor the locals. She slowly set her passengers down. “I’m leaving these two in your custody.”

A row of faces glowered at her.  Their guns’ barrels followed her movements. 

The reporter took a stumbling step and raised her hands. “Don’t shoot!” The woman edged away from Tori, taking gulping breaths of relief. 

Tori’s father didn’t let go of her arm. “You need to stay with me.”

She wished she could, but she’d already been gone too long. She stepped backward, easily breaking his grip. “I’ve got to go.” Every second she stayed here, Jupiter flew farther away. Even if she hadn’t been able to hear his wings slicing against the air, she would have felt them. They were the sound of an impending battle with the Slayers, and Tori had to be there.

In her letter back home, she’d explained her reasons for becoming a Slayer eloquently and thoroughly. Now she only had time for a few words. “Not everyone can fight dragons, but I can. So I have to.” And then she took to the air. 

“Tori!” her father shouted. She didn’t turn around, didn’t answer even though he called her name again. The men didn’t shoot. She knew they wouldn’t. Not with her father there. 

She headed across the Potomac again, flying quicker now that she didn’t have to worry about dropping anyone. Through Jupiter’s eyes, she could tell his location. “The dragon is nearly back at Capitol Hill.”

“I wish he’d stay put,” Bess said.

“Not likely,” Shang said. “Sounds like killing Ethington wasn’t his only task in that area.”

What was on Overdrake’s to-do list?

The Senate and House office buildings were both on Capitol Hill. So was the Supreme Court. Tori was too far away to stop the dragon from doing damage. All the Slayers were. She continued to fly that direction. Jupiter didn’t veer off his course. In the dragon’s sight, the Capitol Building grew larger.

Senator Ethington’s crumpled body was still there. Smears of soot and bright red blood coated the white steps around him. 

Four security guards stood on the stairs. Two at the top, surveying the area with raised automatic rifles, two helping an injured man up the steps. Bandages wound around his torso and leg. Jupiter must have attacked him while she’d been flying off with her father. 

Run, she silently told the men. They could make it inside if they hurried.

The two guards at the top of the steps spotted Jupiter and opened fire, a noise like an explosive drum roll. Bullets pinged off Jupiter’s scales. He only felt pinpricks of pressure, as though he was flying into a sandstorm. And it annoyed him.

Run, run, run Tori thought. The security guards took the steps two at a time, dragging the injured man between them. His feet thunked and bounced against the stairs. More shots rang out, as useless as the first. 

The guards hauled the injured man through the door. One agent followed, the other held his ground, firing. The rifle vibrated in his hands from the kickback, each bullet urgent and useless.

Jupiter swooped down and blew a stream of flames that bloomed outward in orange fury and engulfed the area.

As the dragon pulled up, the fire disappeared, revealing the charred man. Tori couldn’t see his face under his visor, but his clothes were black and smoldering, burned completely off in places. The exposed skin was already red and weeping. The man dropped his gun and staggered toward the door, coughing. Tori opened her mouth to tell Rosa she had an emergency to take care of, but she wasn’t sure the man would make it inside. 

Jupiter didn’t seem to think he would. The dragon already felt the satisfaction of destroying something that had bothered him. He landed nearby, jaws snapping, ready to finish the kill.

The door opened and an agent lunged out, grabbed the burned man, and pulled him inside. He was safe, at least for the moment.

Tori was finally able to speak. “Burn victim inside the Capitol Building. Hurry.” 

Jupiter flattened his wings against his body and sprang up the steps. Thick columns lined the exterior of the building’s entryway. They would have kept out a bigger dragon, but Jupiter squeezed through them. He delivered a blast of fire that encompassed the wooden door, burning it and blackening the surrounding stone. Flames licked both sides until it looked like the entrance to Dante’s inferno.

The dragon rammed his head into the remains, sending out an explosion of sparks. The door held, but a small hole appeared. A weakness. An invitation. Jupiter crashed into it again. The door splintered, gave way, and he pushed his way inside.

“Jupiter is in the Capitol Building,” Tori relayed. He would be more contained while he was inside—which should have made her happy, but she only felt dread for everyone on the other side of that door.

“I’ll be there soon,” Ryker said.

Dr. B’s voice came over the earpiece. “Bad news. My sources are reporting an attack at Joint Base Andrews.”

Kody spoke next. “What sort of attack?”

“Unclear,” Dr. B said. “I’ll update you when I know more.”

If it was another dragon attack, that meant Dirk was nearby. Tori hadn’t wanted to fight him. But she might not have a choice.

 

Chapter 14

First off, I want to say that I just realized–and I mean moments ago–that I’ve been doing revisions on Slayers 5 for eleven months. Eleven months! It has never taken me so long to revise a book and I’m not even sure why it has taken so long. Yes, I’ve had two new grandchildren added to the family, and I’ve revised my screenplays, and helped my son with his book–but still, it shouldn’t have taken me this long to revise a book. I think someone must have stolen a good portion of the days allotted to me in the last eleven months. That’s the only explanation. If anyone finds the stolen days, please return them to me.

And here’s chapter 14. Tomorrow I’m going to start work on the Dirk epilogue.

Because yeah, I’m still not done. Sigh.

 

Aaron found Bridget in her bedroom, hosting a Barbie pool party. Cassie was in the family room, waiting for news of the attack on DC. It couldn’t be much longer. Once that coverage started, she wouldn’t check on either of them for a while. 

Unless the cameras showed Slayers fighting the dragons. Then Cassie might wonder how the Slayers knew the dragons would be there. If their presence in DC wasn’t enough to immediately implicate Aaron, well, Dirk would take care of that when he got home and began questioning him.

Aaron sat down on Bridget’s bed. “Ready to play spy again? We never finished our last mission.”

Bridget glanced up at him, a doll poised mid-dive who’d apparently decided to wear a tutu to this pool party. “We aren’t allowed to play that anymore. Remember, Dirk told us not to.”

“Right.” Aaron pretended to recall that instruction. “Let’s play dragon lords and Slayers instead. We’ll pretend that Dirk, Dad, your mom, and Norma are all Slayers and they want to hurt the dragons.”

Bridget dropped her Barbie doll in the pool, making a splashing sound effect. “Okay. I’ll play, as long as I get to be a dragon lord.”

Aaron sat on his hands so he didn’t start biting off his fingernails. Norma, the housekeeper, was around somewhere and she checked on Bridget every so often. He didn’t have a lot of time. “Did you get Minerva’s lock code, like I asked you back when we were spies? I might need to fly her to safety.” 

Dirk and Overdrake used a thumbprint to open the enclosures during Aaron’s practice, but when they were out exercising the dragons, the cleaning crew used a number sequence to get in. Overdrake never worried about them sneaking inside when they weren’t supposed to. The dragons would have happily eaten trespassers. 

Bridget stood up, more enthusiastic now. “I wrote the numbers down like you said.” 

The nice thing about Bridget was that people were used to her hanging around and getting underfoot. The cleaning crew had probably just smiled politely and shooed her away when they found her waiting outside Minerva’s enclosure. And since Bridget had no powers of any kind, Dirk couldn’t use his counterpart skills on her to check if she was doing anything underhanded.

She went to her dresser and took a piece of paper from her bottom drawer, then flounced back over to him. The paper had been folded sloppily into a blob. In crayon, she’d written 82479. 

He sat down on her bed and repeated the numbers over and over.

Bridget stood by his side peering at him in question. “Why are you saying it out loud?” 

“So I’ll remember the numbers.”

“But that’s why I wrote them down.” She cocked her head. “Aren’t you pretending to be the smart type of dragon lord?”

“I just don’t want the paper to fall into the Slayer’s hands.” If things didn’t go the way Aaron planned, he couldn’t risk being caught with the access code on him. No way he’d be able to talk his way out of that. “Eight seven four… or was it four seven?” Bridget’s chattering had already made him forget the order. “Dang.” Turned out he wasn’t the smart type of dragon lord. He looked at the paper again. Eight two four seven nine.

Bridget sat next to him on the bed and swung her legs back and forth. “The cleaners remember it because of Pompeii.”

“What do you mean?” 

She shrugged. “I don’t know. I just heard a man say that was how he remembered it. I thought maybe there was a Volcano inside, but Dirk says there isn’t.” She huffed in a way that raised her shoulders. “I can’t go inside by myself to check or the dragons will eat me.”

And then Aaron figured out what the sequence was. A date. Pompeii’s destruction: August 24, 79 AD. 

The other enclosures’ codes were probably also the dates of disasters, but he had no way of checking. History had too many disasters. Besides, he only needed one dragon and he wasn’t about to take Vesta. She was too unpredictable and dangerous. 

Aaron ripped up the paper. He would flush it down the toilet before he went to the enclosure. “Do you know where Cassie’s purse is?”

Bridget nodded. “She keeps all of them in her closet.”

“We may need money to buy food for our dragons. Sneak through them and bring me a few bills. If someone catches you, claim you were looking for candy.”

Almost before he finished speaking, Bridget was out the door.

His next task would be harder. He pulled a small knife from his sock. He’d stolen it from the kitchen earlier in order to dig out the tracking chip Overdrake had inserted into him. He undid his jeans, found the spot behind his hip with the raised bump, and gingerly jabbed at his skin with the blade. He stopped every time a poke grew too painful, which was pretty much always. 

He’d never get at the chip this way. Small beads of blood prevented him from seeing how deep he’d gone. He couldn’t even see the edges of the chip. He wiped at the blood in annoyance.

The doorknob rattled, startling him. As the door swung open, he hitched his pants back up, suddenly realizing how bad this looked. If Norma saw him—

His heartbeat only returned to normal when Bridget skipped in and shut the door behind her. She clutched several bills in her hand. His sister had been faster than he’d thought.

“Anyone see you?” 

She didn’t answer. “Why do you have a knife?”

He wiped what little blood was on the blade onto the side of his jeans. “In case I run into monsters.”

“Why were you putting it in your butt?

“Ok, let’s be clear on this, I wasn’t putting it in my butt.” After he left, he didn’t want her last memory to be that she’d walked in on him while he’d—for some mysterious reason—been stabbing himself in the rear end. “This is my hip.” He touched the spot and grimaced. “A bad guy shot me here and I was trying to dig out the bullet. Didn’t quite get it.” 

Bridget put a hand over her mouth and giggled. “A bad guy shot you in the butt.”

Time to change the subject. “Did you find any money?”

He’d been expecting five or ten dollars. She handed him a fifty and two twenties. Cassie clearly carried more cash in her wallet than his mom ever had.

Bridget stepped away from him and glanced at the knife. “I don’t want to play anymore if I have to get shot in the butt.”

Aaron took the money and shoved it into his pocket. “No one will ever shoot you because you’re the best dragon lord ever.”

She beamed. “Yeah, I’m pretty cool.”

“We’re done saving the dragons for the day.” Aaron bent over to slip the knife back into his sock. His jeans rubbed against the cut, making it hurt again. “I was able to kill all the bad guys, you know, after they shot me in the hip.” 

She giggled again.

He waved his hand over the injury. “This is definitely the hip area. So don’t go telling anyone I have butt wounds, okay?”

Her giggles increased.

He picked up a doll and tossed it to her. “Better get back to Barbie. She wants to swim again.”

Bridget didn’t try to catch the doll. Instead she launched herself at him and hugged him around the legs. “Don’t go yet. I want you to stay.”

She meant she wanted him to stay and play with her, but the words still made his throat tighten. He ruffled his hand through her dark hair. He’d never felt like she was actually his sister until this moment, until he was standing here planning on running away. Bridget was his family just as much as his brother Jacob was, and he was leaving her to be raised by Overdrake. She would grow up to despise Aaron, their father would make sure of that.

Bridget’s eyes brightened. “Are you going to visit Minerva now? You can take me flying.”

Bridget loved when he soared around the house with her riding piggyback. That’s how he’d convinced her to get the passcode for one of the dragon’s doors. He’d told her he’d be able to fly with her more often if he could visit a dragon whenever he wanted. 

“Later,” he said. “Can you draw me two pictures first? One of you and one of our entire family.”

It was a stupid request—asking for a crayon rendition of the family. He would be gone before she finished them. But he wished he could take them. He didn’t have any pictures of her and he was going to miss her constant smiles and innocent adoration. 

She nodded, went to her desk, and pulled out crayons and paper, humming. She laid them in front of her, all concentration.

Was there any way to take her with him? His mom wouldn’t mind having Bridget around. In fact, she’d probably like doing girly stuff with her. Aaron dismissed the idea as soon as it came to his mind. When his mom had left his dad, she hadn’t even taken Dirk with her because it was too dangerous. Overdrake would never let Aaron get away with taking Bridget. He probably wouldn’t let him get away with stealing a dragon. 

Suddenly Aaron felt himself wavering about whether he should actually do that. He could fly out of here on his own, but his powers would wear off once he’d been away from a dragon for an hour, and he had no idea where he was or how far it was to his home in North Carolina. He might not even reach civilization in an hour. He still had a chip implanted in him and getting it out wasn’t going to be as easy as he hoped. If Overdrake came after him, Aaron would need to defend himself. And a dragon was about the best defense he could have.

Also, it would be easier to convince authorities that his father was a dangerous dragon lord if he had a fifty-ton visual aid. Otherwise, Aaron would have no way to prove that anything he said was true. The government would think he was just some runaway making stuff up. They might even turn him back over to his father.

Aaron listened at the door, checking for any approaching footsteps. He had to get away from here and find a place to call his mom. She would know how to get him safely home. 

Bridget drew with a silver glitter crayon. “I’m going to draw Dirk sparkly so he’ll be happy again.”

Aaron didn’t want to talk about Dirk. His older brother was in league with their father. If Dirk didn’t feel warm and sunshiney about what was happening, that was his problem.

On an impulse, Aaron went over to Bridget’s desk and hugged her. “Draw me sparkly too.”

And then he left. 

No one was in the hallway. He made his way to the kitchen door, opening it as silently as he could, then slipped outside. If Cassie heard him go, she didn’t bother to come after him to see what he was doing.

With every step Aaron took to the enclosure, he questioned himself. Maybe he should stay. For all he knew, the Slayers wouldn’t even go to DC. He didn’t know whether Tori had gotten his message. And even if she had, maybe she’d just warned the military so they’d be on alert. He’d come here to help the Slayers, to feed Tori information. Didn’t he owe it to them to stay longer? 

But another part of him was busy imagining all sorts of horrible things Overdrake would do to him when he got home. If he realized someone tipped off Tori about the attack on DC, it wouldn’t take him long to figure out that Aaron was to blame for that and for telling her where to find the dragon eggs. What sort of pain would his father inflict for that crime?

Aaron wouldn’t have many moments like this—when Dirk and Overdrake were gone and Cassie was too engrossed to keep tabs on him. Time to end this game. He’d heroed enough.

Aaron hurried through the enclosure doors and strode downstairs to Minerva’s section. Other people were around sometimes, vets or cleaners. Aaron had been prepared with a story about how his father had asked him to check on Minerva, but he was spared having to lie. The hallway was empty. 

He went to the door, punched in Pompeii’s destruction date, and then was inside. 

The smell always hit him first. Dragon dung mixed with the scent of disinfectant the cleaners uses. It didn’t matter how fast the cleaners took care of the waste, whiffs of it still permeated the place.  Minerva lay on the ground, wings tucked at her sides, her neck wrapped around her body. She was both a piece of art and a giant glistening red mound of a dozen ways to die. She sleepily blinked open her golden eyes and sniffed the air to see if he’d brought food. When she realized he hadn’t, she found him uninteresting and shut her eyes again. If he’d walked into Vesta’s cave, she would have tried to rip his throat out the moment he stepped inside.

Aaron connected to the dragon’s mind, pushed his way into the control center, and imagined Minerva’s will as a video game remote. He didn’t have to try hard to conjure that image. He was familiar enough with it now. 

Come here he told her. 

She rose to her feet and lumbered over. 

Stand still he commanded.

He took the Kevlar shield from the closet, flew around the dragon, and strapped it to her chest. He hated that it took so long, but he had no choice but to put it on her. Minerva would be vulnerable to gunfire otherwise. After Overdrake hit DC, everyone would be on the lookout for dragons. 

Aaron didn’t attach a saddle chair. He didn’t want to take any more time delaying his escape. He only had one thing left he needed to do: get his chip out, and he needed to do that fast. Messing with the knife again would be too slow.

He landed in front of Minerva. I need your help. Put the tip of your smallest claw on my left hip. Here… He lowered the side of his jeans to expose the skin. Careful, he told her. Don’t scratch me until I tell you and then only do it very slightly. I need you to dig a small chip out. 

Minerva felt no puzzlement at this odd request. The dragons never wondered why they were given any particular command. Their only emotion was either willing compliance or resentment. Perhaps all of the dragon lords’ commands were equally odd to them.

Minerva lowered her head until her muzzle nearly touched Aaron’s hip. Only scratch me a little, so you don’t hurt me. Perhaps using a dragon as a scalpel was a bad idea, but he was committed now. Can you smell it?

The dragon didn’t answer, but Aaron smelled what the dragon smelled—the scent of blood and something else; something with the buzz of electronics not far below the wound. 

I need you to make the tiniest hole possible to get the chip out. Not a deep hole or a big hole—the tiniest one possible.

Aaron hadn’t been able to hurt himself, but Minerva had no such qualms. As soon as Aaron finished giving the command, the tip of her claw dug into Aaron’s hip. Pain flashed through him so sharply he let out a gasping scream and jumped away from the dragon’s reach.

Blood bloomed across Aaron’s hip. He put his hand over it and swore. Several times.

He’d brought bandages in his pocket, but the cut seemed too big to be stopped by a few patches of gauze. He pulled them out anyway, hands shaking. I told you to make the tiniest hole possible. Do we need to work on your hand-eye coordination?

Minerva didn’t answer, of course. She just licked the blood off her claw. His blood.

Don’t get used to it, Aaron told her. That’s all you’re going to get.

Minerva lowered her head, about to lick up the bloodied chip on the floor. Don’t, Aaron said. 

The last thing he needed was for the dragon to eat the chip so Overdrake could still track them. As it was, his father might have chipped the dragon. He could have even set up the chip to signal him if a dragon left the enclosure. But Overdrake was far away and busy right now. Aaron’s best bet was still taking Minerva. 

Later, when he was a safe distance away, he’d call Tori and ask her what he should do with a dragon. Maybe keeping her would be worth the risk if it meant Minerva could fight for them. 

With his hand pressed over his wound, Aaron pulled the lever that opened the roof. The ceiling slid open, revealing clouds so heavy, they looked like they were trying to suffocate the ground. Good. They’d provide cover.

He leaped onto Minerva’s back and held onto her neck. Fly!

He had to get far, far away from here while he could.

Chapter 13

Tori and Kody rode out of Rock Creek Park near Dupont Circle and headed across the city. The horses’ rhythmic clopping was usually a soothing sound, but here it was just a reminder of how painfully slow she was moving. Her gaze darted to the sky every few seconds, checking for wings in the mist. 

Cars drove by in orderly lines of traffic, exhaust dissolving into the gray sky. People bundled in coats, chins down, hurried by as they traversed the sidewalks. Everything appeared so ordinary that it somehow seemed to defy reason that Overdrake was about to attack this place. 

So many people. So vulnerable. The Slayers should warn them.

But was that what Overdrake wanted? Did he expect the Slayers to run around DC warning about an attack that wouldn’t come?

Maybe he wanted a bunch of false alarms so no one would believe them when the real attack did come. Or maybe he had stationed men around the city to look for the Slayers. There were too many things to worry about.

 As Tori and Kody rode by, they got a few casual glances from those they passed, but no one paid the horses too much attention. That would probably change the closer they got to Capitol Hill. They would have to keep their distance from the White House, Senate, and House buildings or they would run into real mounted police. If that happened, Tori hoped she could fake some sort of police district confusion. It wouldn’t do for any of them to get arrested right now. Especially Tori.

Dr. B had instructed the Slayers to stagger their reports so one came every five minutes. 

The first all-clear came from Lilly and Shang. Tori reported the same. The next report came from Rosa and Bess. She’d finally managed to join the group. At the very least, the Slayers would have a shielder. 

Before long Ryker’s voice came over Tori’s earpiece. “I’m back with my new and slightly dazed friend, Lion.” That must be Leo’s code name. Away from the mic, he said, “The battle gear is over there. Suit up. We’ve got places to go and things to kill.”

A-team would have its own shielder. Things were definitely looking up.

In the background, a guy’s voice said, “It’s been so long since I practiced. I’m not sure I remember the plays.” He did sound dazed.

“We changed them anyway,” Ryker said. “Dirk knows the old ones. If fire or bullets come our way, block them. Keep in mind that T-bird is immune to fire, but you still need to protect her from bullets.”

Leo’s voice grew louder. He’d put on his mic. “With three flyers, how will I tell which one is T-bird?”

Bess spoke next, “She’s the one that flies like a girl. Have you missed me, Lion?”

Honestly. “I’m sure you meant ‘flies like a girl’ as a compliment,” Tori said.

Bess ignored Tori. “Did you at least miss me as much as you missed Rosebud? I mean, you never asked me to show up to your house wearing anything flirty.” Rosa and Bess had clearly been discussing him.

Leo laughed, a sound that said he was happy to hear her voice. “You would have shown up wearing old jeans and hit me.”

“I still might,” Bess said. “I haven’t forgiven you for not coming back to camp last summer or for refusing to believe us about any of this.”

“I don’t blame you.” A note of misery was in Leo’s voice. “I haven’t forgiven myself.” 

“You’re back now,” Rosa said, finally joining the conversation. “That’s the important thing.”

“And you’re going to make it up to us,” Lilly added, “By shielding really well. That’s also the important thing.”

Kody guided his horse, hands loose on the reins in an unhurried way. “I bet you missed having all these girls boss you around.”

“Yeah,” Bess said, “We’re bossy, pushy, and even speak our minds sometimes.”

“Just wait,” Lilly put in. “I haven’t even begun to speak my mind.” 

Ryker’s voice came over the line, silencing more commentary. “Lion and I are on our way downtown. We’ll head along the river and catch up with the rest of you.” 

If Leo was half as good as Bess, Tori might not get shot today. Was it too much to hope that he’d be up to speed soon? He hadn’t practiced with the other Slayers in over a year, but then again, he’d practiced with them for years before that. 

Bane seemed to sense Tori’s tension. His gaze swept around the street as frequently as hers, and he kept nervously flicking his ears. He also kept trying to turn his walk into a trot and several times she had to pull on the reins, slowing him. 

Tori and Kody turned onto Vermont, heading toward the White House and Mall. The next round of reports came in: all clear. It was after four and nothing had happened. Perhaps Aaron’s information really had been wrong. Or perhaps Overdrake was just waiting until dark. That wouldn’t take long. This time of year, the sun was down by five-thirty.

Ten minutes later, Dr. B said, “Welcome back. We’ve missed you.” Danielle had come. Jesse didn’t say anything over the line. He’d probably dropped her off while he was still flying ten feet off the ground and then turned in the air and headed to Alyssa’s.

Near Dr. B’s mic, the sound of muffled crying came over the earpiece. “Don’t,” Dr. B said soothingly. “It’s all right.”

Danielle made more muffled sounds while she put on her equipment. “I’m sorry. But for so many years Overdrake never did anything. I thought he wasn’t really going to attack. I didn’t think you needed me. You all hate me now, don’t you?”

Lilly’s voice came over the earpiece. “That remains to be seen. How are your fighting skills these days?”

“Of course we don’t hate you,” Rosa interjected.

“As you can tell,” Bess said, “Lilly Blossom didn’t change while you were gone.”

Tori turned to Kody to see his reaction. Danielle was his counterpart. Tori had never seen him get emotional before and hardly thought he possessed any moods except for his perpetual optimistic goodwill or—when fighting—his reckless, determined concentration. 

His eyes misted and he had a hard time speaking. “I’m glad you’re back. The rest doesn’t matter.”

Tori felt her own chest tighten. She wasn’t sure which was affecting her more—hearing her friends’ counterparts return or knowing that hers never would.

 “You’re not alone,” Shang said. “A few of us have been AWOL.”

Too many of them had been. “Gear up as fast as you can,” Bess said. “Then meet up with Rosebud and I. We can show you some of the new signals.” 

“I’m on my way.” Tears were still evident in Danielle’s tone. She hadn’t managed to compose herself yet.

The group’s dynamics would change now that Danielle and Leo were back, although Tori couldn’t predict in which ways. She hardly knew anything about them and had no idea how much Jesse and Ryker had told the two of them about her. What did they think about having a Slayer on the team who was half dragon lord? Would they automatically distrust her?

Tori and Kody had nearly reached the Washington Monument’s grounds. Tori stopped Bane altogether and scanned the area for any other security forces. “We’re at Fifteenth Street and Constitution Avenue,” Tori told Ryker over the mic. 

“If we go much farther,” Kody added, “it will be like spitting at a hornets’ nest. We’re bound to rile something up.”

Bess said, “Please tell me that’s some quaint Southern phrase and not personal experience.”

Kody grinned, a broad smile that was all mischief. “Naw, if I wanted to rile some hornets, I’d use a stick. Spitting doesn’t do enough damage.”

Rosa tsked. “I’m surprised you’re still alive.” 

Out on the street, a passing car honked at another driver. Bane whinnied disapprovingly.

Ryker cut into the conversation. “Wyoming, hold your positions until I get closer. T-bird, I’m sending you with Team Magnus to give them flying support until J-bird and Aspen come back. Head toward Chinatown to be closer to them.”

“Okay.” Tori tapped Bane’s flanks and the horse turned that way. As part of Team Magnus, she would have a shielder, a healer, an extinguisher, and someone who could throw fire or ice. A full team. She’d practiced plenty of times with less. Things today might actually work out in their favor.

Theo’s voice came over the line. “I’m watching the news feeds. Looks like the senate adjourned.”

“That’s good news,” Rosa said. “Senator Ethington is done for the day and Overdrake never attacked.”

“Not good news,” Theo said, suddenly sounding worried. “He just called a press conference on the stairs. He’ll be addressing reporters in five minutes.”

Even though Tori couldn’t see the Capitol Building from her position, her gaze snapped in that direction. She knew how these sorts of press conferences worked. Senator Ethington would give a speech to the cameras before taking questions. Was that when Overdrake had planned his assault—not when the senator spoke on the floor, but when he spoke outside in the open? 

“A press conference,” Rosa mused. “Do you think Ethington will issue demands in Overdrake’s behalf?” 

Kody shook his head. “He doesn’t need Ethington for that. Overdrake issued them just fine by himself.” 

And Senator Ethington wouldn’t out himself as one of Overdrake’s men in a place where he would be surrounded by people who could arrest him. The man wasn’t stupid.

 “Maybe Ethington will surrender in Congress’s behalf,” Lilly put in.

“Overdrake would need the president for that,” Shang said.

Tori didn’t comment. Her mind replayed Aaron’s words again, this time hearing them differently. While Senator Ethington gives his speech today, Jupiter is going to be the one that attacks.

She’d thought Senator Ethington’s speech would be a trigger or signal for the dragon to attack some target in DC. But that might not be it at all. Overdrake hadn’t been happy with the senator lately and the botched attempt to buy weapons couldn’t have helped his standing. What if Aaron had meant that Jupiter was going to attack Senator Ethington during his speech? 

Maybe when Overdrake fired someone, he did it literally.

The senator had been an enemy, but it didn’t seem right to stand by and do nothing while he was murdered. Tori nudged her heels into Bane to set him trotting toward the Capitol Building. She was a mile and a half away, too far to be of any help unless she hurried. “Senator Ethington might be the target. We’ve got to get there fast.” If they arrived soon enough, they could intercept the dragon. And if Ethington knew Overdrake was trying to kill him, maybe he’d give evidence on the man in exchange for his safety.

“You think Ethington is the target?” Rosa repeated doubtfully. “Would Overdrake really kill one of his own people?”

No one responded. They all knew the answer.

“Dr. B,” Ryker said, “better call Senator Ethington and warn him.” 

“I’m trying,” Dr. B responded, “but he won’t pick up his phone during a press conference. And his aids won’t take a warning from an unknown source seriously.”

Tori twisted her reins in aggravation. “Why would he give a press conference outside?” She already knew the answer. Political leaders often talked to the press after important presidential decisions. With all the extra security lately, politicians found it easier to talk with reporters outside instead of allowing them into the Capitol Building. 

 “Chameleon,” Kody said, “what’s your order? Do we head to Capitol Hill?”

Kody’s words were a reminder that Tori was supposed to be following orders, specifically, Ryker’s orders—or perhaps Bess’s. She wasn’t sure since Ryker had lent Tori to Team Magnus and Jesse still wasn’t back. 

Well, either way, it didn’t matter. Tori tapped her heels into Bane’s flanks again, taking him from trot to canter. “We’ve got to get there in time to engage the dragon.” 

Riding Bane wouldn’t get her to the Capitol Building very quickly, but her only other option was flying. If she took to the air, people would see her, including the security personnel stationed around DC. They’d probably try to shoot her down.

“A-team,” Ryker said. “Head to the Capitol Building in case T-bird’s hunch is right, but don’t draw attention to yourself by riding too fast.” He paused for a moment and then added, “I can hear someone galloping. T-bird, is that you?”

“I’m not flying. I figured it was a fair compromise for inconspicuousness.”

Ryker let out a less than patient sigh. “Overdrake hasn’t hit the city with EMP so he must not be close yet. We have some time.”

Bane’s speed was drawing attention. Passing drivers stared at Tori and then looked around to see what was wrong. She didn’t slow down. “Or Overdrake hasn’t hit the city with EMP yet because he wants the cameras rolling. That’s probably why he’s attacking during a press conference. He’s done hiding the dragons. He wants people to be afraid.” She concentrated on the part of her hearing that was connected to a dragon. Was the hum of traffic coming from the cars around her or perhaps from the dragon’s ears? She couldn’t tell. She couldn’t separate the sounds well enough to distinguish them.

“Dr. B,” she said, “have you gotten ahold of Senator Ethington?” 

“No one’s answering,” Dr. B replied.

She glanced at her watch. If she slowed Bane’s pace, she might not reach the Capitol Building in time, but if she kept galloping, she’d probably be stopped by security guards and asked to show her credentials. The guards might be able to tell hers were faked. They might even recognize her. 

 She considered flying again and wondered how well armed the Capitol Building’s security detail was. Did they just carry guns, or perhaps missiles? At the very least, if they saw her fly in, they would attempt to figure out who she was. Was her safety worth Ethington’s?

And she wasn’t sure Overdrake would attack the senator. That was just a guess. Overdrake might have other targets in mind.

Tori hated these sorts of decisions, especially since either choice could cost lives. She needed to think about this logically like she’d been trained. Whose safety was more important, the civilians who would need her later or a man who worked for Overdrake? Not really a contest. She slowed Bane. Ethington would have to fend for himself. The Slayers should wait until they were certain of an attack before they gave themselves away.

Time to blend in and act like a normal police officer. 

Aaron’s words ran through her mind again. All of those politicians who didn’t give Dad what he wanted, they’re going to regret it when DC is burning.

All those politicians. A lot of the United States’ leadership was gathered together in the Capitol Building right now. Most of them wouldn’t go outside. Tunnels under the grounds allowed them to travel to their office buildings that way. 

And then with a sickening thud in her stomach, Tori realized why Overdrake might be using one of his fledglings. “A smaller dragon could force his way through the Capitol Building doors and go inside,” she said. “All the politicians are in danger.”

Including her father. She leaned forward and gripped the saddle. Bane must have heard the hitch in her breath and sensed her distress. Even before she tapped his flanks, he took off in a gallop. She pulled her phone from her pocket. Maybe now that the session was over, her father would answer her calls.

She hit his number. It rang once, twice…

 “T-bird,” Theo said, his voice coming through her earpiece higher pitched than normal, “Senator Hampton is preparing for press conference too. He just walked out onto the steps.”

Tori’s heart slammed into her chest. No. Not that. Not her father. Had he been the target all along, not Senator Ethington? No. Overdrake had promised Dirk he wouldn’t hurt her family. But then, those sorts of assurances must have vanished when Tori helped destroy the dragon eggs. 

A cry rose involuntarily in her throat. She shouldn’t have ever slowed Bane. The irony stung. She’d never been on her way to save Senator Ethington: she’d been on the way to save her father. 

Her phone was still uselessly trying to connect with him. He wouldn’t pick up now, not when he was about to talk to reporters. She had to fly. 

She pressed the button on her helmet to darken the visor. “Stay,” she told Bane, then flew from the horse, rocketing over the street. She didn’t check to see how many of the people had seen her do this, but below her, a set of breaks shrieked. A horn honked. 

Her call went to voicemail. She slapped her phone back into her pocket and sped on, the whir of wind muffling everything around her. Only a minute more and she’d be there. Through the fog, she tried to search the horizon for any sign of a dragon. She could see nothing roaming the sky except heavy, dismal clouds.

The Secret Service agents on the Capitol balcony would spot her soon and assume she was some sort of hostile entity. She’d have to be careful. Normal gunfire wouldn’t affect her, but if they shot something more substantial, they could kill her. 

The eastside of the Capitol Hill came into sight. The Capitol Building was a huge structure; three buildings of white marble hitched together like a Romanesque mansion that didn’t know when to stop—all topped by a massive dome. Each building had its own set of sprawling stairs, and she could make out two clusters of people on the north ones, where the senators held press conferences. 

One group of reporters circled Senator Ethington, the other her father. She wasn’t close enough to tell which was which. Heading that way, she scanned the grounds for a place to land. She also kept her eye on the agents positioned around the building. They’d spot her soon.

A dark shape in the sky stole her attention, seemed to cut through the clouds. She recognized the outline—the bat-like wings, smooth neck and lashing tail of a dragon. 

“Jupiter,” she announced. He was smaller than the other dragons she’d seen and his scales were a mottled gray that turned to blue around their edges. No one rode him. Overdrake must be controlling him from somewhere else. 

“What?” Ryker asked.

The word didn’t register in Tori’s mind. Her attention was riveted on the dragon, panic clawing at the inside of her stomach.

Jupiter slid down from the clouds, still unseen by those gathered on the stairs. He was on the other side of the building, flying over it toward them. She only had seconds.

Tori abandoned thoughts of landing, didn’t care about putting herself in the Secret Service agents’ sites. She pushed herself to fly faster, knowing even as she raced toward the people congregating on the steps that Jupiter would reach them first.

Which group held her father—left or right?

The dragon tucked his wings closer to his body, diving.

No, no, no! The word repeated in her mind to the tempo of her heart thumping in her chest. Not my father! She hadn’t thought she’d said the words out loud, but Ryker spoke again, louder, “What’s going on?”

“Dragon attack” was all she managed.

Shots rang out, useless pops that followed Jupiter’s decent. More shots. Some may have been aimed at Tori. They didn’t hit her. She flew arrow-like, undeterred.

Where was her father?

She needed to go faster and couldn’t. She couldn’t reach him.

With one beat of his wings, Jupiter plunged toward the group on the left, neck stretched and mouth open. A triumphant growl rang from his throat. The reporters below screamed and scattered, a blur of dark coats, camera equipment, and hysteria. Some went down the stairs. Others darted up toward the building’s doors, footsteps clomping. 

Only one man in the group stayed, unmoving, on the steps. Senator Ethington. He gaped upward, mouth hanging open in disbelief. Did he think Overdrake wouldn’t hurt him—that Overdrake had set this up to make him look brave and presidential in front of the cameras? Or maybe he just knew he didn’t have time to escape.

Jupiter’s mouth flashed open and his teeth clamped onto the senator’s shoulder. The dragon yanked him into the air like a dog ripping apart a toy. Ethington shrieked, arms raised and hands flailing. Blood splattered the steps.

“Oh no,” Dr. B’s voice was a stunned whisper. 

“The news is getting all of this,” Theo added. “No EMP yet.”

“What’s happening?” Ryker asked.

Tori didn’t answer and barely registered the explanation Dr. B gave. She flew across the courtyard, searching for her father among the scattering crowd. If Overdrake knew he was nearby, he would be Jupiter’s next target. She had to reach him before then.

Chapter 12

Jesse flew as high as he could while still staying under the radar level. Cold air rushed into his neck and burrowed past his coat. This wasn’t the first time he’d flown in broad daylight over the city. He’d done it last month when he’d picked up Tori from the Kennedy Center to take her to a mission. No one had seen him—or at least no one had filmed them and posted it online. He might not be so lucky this time. The fog could only do so much to obscure him, and since the EMP attacks, everyone was being more careful and watching the sky for anything suspicious. 

A risk worth taking, though, if dragons attacked today. The Slayers didn’t have the time to be careful. 

A few feet away from Jesse, Ryker sped through the air with Willow. Even though her jacket was hooked to his, she held tightly onto his shoulders. She’d never liked flying and always refused to look down at the ground. Today it wouldn’t have mattered much. The land went in and out of focus like the fog was a magician performing a shell game. They’d have to depend on their GPS today. 

“So what’s the plan?” Willow shouted over the wind. “How am I going to convince a stranger to let me touch his head?”

Jesse flew closer to Ryker to make it easier to talk. “We’ll tell him Rosa sent us to take him to a meeting spot.”

“And,” Ryker added, “Rosa gave Willow something to deliver to him—a kiss. While you’re kissing him, you touch his face. Easy.”

Willow’s mouth dropped open. “Easy?” she sputtered. “I can’t just kiss some stranger while the two of you hang around watching. That would be completely weird.”

Ryker gave what passed for a shrug. “We don’t have to hang around. We can give you some privacy.”

Willow smacked Ryker on the back of his helmet. “Privacy isn’t the issue. The issue is me kissing a stranger who likes my friend.”

Ryker looked over his shoulder. “So you’re saying you do want us to hang around?”

There had to be another way for Willow to touch Leo’s face, but nothing came to Jesse. His thoughts were too cluttered with other issues. Where was Overdrake most likely to strike in DC? And when was he going to do it? Every minute Jesse flew farther away from the city increased the time it would take to return if the other Slayers needed his help.

 “Hello, do you even know me?” Willow went on. “I’ve never kissed a guy before, and you want my first kiss to be while luring some stranger to let me touch his face?”

Ryker laughed at her protest. “If you need the practice, you can kiss Jesse beforehand. He’s an expert.”

Um, what?

She smacked Ryker again. 

“Hey,” Ryker said, “don’t abuse the only thing keeping you from plummeting to an untimely death.” 

“You’re not helping,” Willow said.

“Of course I am.” Ryker gave Jesse a knowing look. “Jesse needs someone to help him get over Tori.”

Jesse’s turn to smack him. “You’re not helping.”

 “I don’t hear either of you coming up with ideas,” Ryker said. 

Yeah, well, that was the problem. The last time Jesse had seen Leo, the guy hadn’t appreciated the way Jesse flung him across stairwells and dragged him over rooftops in order to evade Overdrake’s men. Leo probably wouldn’t be happy to see him now.

“Just try to act non-threatening,” Jesse said. “I’ll explain things to him.” 

Willow relaxed a bit. “Good.”

Jesse didn’t know exactly how he’d explain any of it. Even though Leo had run into Bess’s shields and flown with Jesse off the rooftop, he still didn’t believe what they’d told him about Slayer powers. He thought they’d used some sort of tricks to perform those feats.

The group didn’t speak again until the GPS informed them that they’d almost reached Leo’s house, then they dropped through the fog. A blue two-story on a cul-de-sac came into sight, sitting pale and unsuspecting with the other homes. A dusting of scattered brown leaves covered the lawn.

“There it is,” Jesse said. Fortunately, none of the neighbors were outside. No one to witness this. If Leo was looking out the window and saw them land, he’d realize this wasn’t a normal visit. He might even freak out and bolt. And what was Jesse going to say to him? Hey buddy, we just stopped by to see if you wanted to fight some fire-breathing dragons with us… 

Jesse slowed and descended, skimming over the street. Ryker followed, and for the first time, Willow let go of her death-grip on his neck. 

When Ryker was about three feet from the ground, he asked, “Ready?” 

In answer, Willow leaped from his back and took running steps to slow herself. Jesse and Ryker landed on Leo’s lawn next to her. 

Leo didn’t appear in the window. At least, Jesse couldn’t see him peeking through any of the blinds. The group pulled off their helmets and strode to the door. They placed them on the porch where they wouldn’t be as noticeable—no motorcycles in sight to explain them—and then rang the bell.

A few moments later, Leo opened the door, phone in hand. He looked much the same as he had when Jesse had seen him last, long dark hair with bangs that swept over one eye. He wore a gray T-shirt and black fingerless gloves. So unlike the shy, slightly awkward guy he’d been at camp. This Leo looked like he was on his way to some brooding goth concert. 

Leo blinked at them and took a startled half-step backward. “Jesse,” he coughed out. “What are you … How did you know where I live?”

 “I came to talk to you about something.” Jesse forced a smile and hoped he looked friendly and not menacing. “It’s important.”

Leo didn’t move to let them in. His gaze flicked over Ryker and Willow then returned to Jesse. “The last time you said you had to talk to me, one of my friends flipped out, pulled a gun, and shot at us.”

Jesse lifted his hands and gave a half shrug. “That wasn’t my fault. You need friends who aren’t on Overdrake’s payroll.” Jesse didn’t have to ask what had become of Ryan. Dr. B had kept tabs on Leo since the incident. Ryan dropped out of Georgetown and left his apartment without a forwarding address. 

Leo raised an eyebrow at Jesse’s response but still didn’t move. “You hauled me off three rooftops to evade the police.”

“We hadn’t done anything illegal,” Jesse pointed out. “It’s not a crime to leave a party, really quickly.”

Leo pushed his bangs away from his face. “Look, I don’t know what the deal with you is, but the next time you’re trying to get yourself killed, don’t drag me into it.” 

Willow pursed her lips. “Well, that suddenly makes our trip here seem wasted.”

Jesse wasn’t going to comment on that. No point in getting ahead of himself. “This is Willow and Ryker.” He gestured to them as though this was a casual meeting. “They’re friends of mine. Can we come inside for a minute?” 

Leo looked behind them to the cul-de-sac then slipped his phone into his pocket. “This isn’t a good time. I’m expecting someone. I thought you were her, actually.” 

Ryker put on a polite smile. “Rosa isn’t coming. She sent us to, um, explain.”

Leo’s eyes narrowed and went over Ryker again, giving him a more thorough examination.

“Can we come inside?” Jesse repeated, impatience leaking into his voice. He still had to fly to Danielle’s and Alyssa’s. If Overdrake attacked while he and Ryker were in the suburbs, Tori would be on her own in the sky fighting a dragon.

Leo shook his head warily. “My parents aren’t home. They wouldn’t like it if I had people over.”

His parents weren’t going to like a lot of things about today. Willow folded her arms. “You just said you were expecting Rosa.” 

“And she’s worth breaking the rules for,” Leo said.

He wasn’t going to make any of this easy. Ryker nudged Jesse and made an upward motion with his hand. He wanted to grab Leo, fly off with him, and have this conversation somewhere else. Probably a few hundred feet in the air.

Jesse gave a slight shake of his head. Not a good idea. Leo would scream and it would alert neighbors.

Ryker made an upward nod of his chin. He didn’t want to waste more time trying to reason with Leo.

Perhaps Willow could read Ryker as well as Jesse could because she sighed, then turned and smiled at Leo, all forced confidence. “Rosa wants us to take you to her. And she wanted me to give you something from her while you’re waiting.”

She stepped forward, put her arms on Leo’s shoulders, and leaned toward him.

Leo’s head jerked in surprise and he took a step backward. “Uh…” He laughed uneasily. “Thanks, but no.”

He took another step backward, trying to break Willow’s grasp. He couldn’t. Slayer strength had its advantages. 

Still smiling, Willow stepped into his house, following after him like this was all a game. “If it’s any consolation, I feel even more uncomfortable about this than you do.” 

“I doubt that.” Leo’s eyes were wide.

This was just getting worse. Jesse went inside, motioning to Ryker to wait on the porch. No need to alarm Leo any more than he already was, especially since Leo had his phone and it wouldn’t take him long to call 911. Leo’s parents didn’t need to come home to a squad car on the driveway.

“Willow isn’t going to kiss you,” Jesse assured Leo. “But she does need to touch your face for a few moments.”

Willow lifted her hand. Leo batted at it. “Are you all crazy?”

“No, but we’re in a hurry.” Jesse rose off the ground until he was a foot in the air. “You’re one of us, Leo. It’s time you remembered that.”

Leo stopped struggling and stared at Jesse in stunned surprise. He swore and shook his head as though trying to clear it. “How are you doing that?”

Jesse floated toward Leo. “We need you to shield. You have no idea how much we’ve missed you.”

Jesse landed beside Leo and put a hand on his shoulder. It was more than a gesture of friendship. He was holding Leo still for Willow. She rested her fingers on his cheeks. 

Leo tried to jerk away. “Let me go.” He grabbed Willow’s wrists but couldn’t break her grip. He couldn’t even budge it. “What are you doing?”

“Helping you remember who you are,” Jesse said with more patience than he felt. 

 Willows fingers ran up to his temples then threaded through Leo’s hair. She shut her eyes, concentrating. 

“Seriously, let go of me!” Leo’s face flushed with anger. “I mean it. I don’t…” The anger faded and his words drifted off. He blinked several times and his eyes went unfocused. He seemed to be seeing something that wasn’t in the room. Perhaps past summer days were coming into focus. The days when he’d been a different person. 

Leo took several deep breaths and swayed. The color in his cheeks had drained away, leaving him pale and trembling. “I think I’m going to be sick.” 

That had not been the reaction Jesse was expecting. 

Willow didn’t move away but her eyes fluttered open. “Does that mean you remember being a Slayer or you don’t?”

Leo sucked in another breath and then grimaced like he was in pain. “What have I done?” 

Jesse let go of him. “He remembers.” Jesse knew because that phrase was exactly what he would say if he’d done something stupid that cost him his powers.

Willow dropped her hands away from Leo and stepped back. “Do you know who the Slayers are?”

Leo wouldn’t meet Jesse’s eyes. He stared across the living room trying to catch his breath.

Willow cocked her head uncertainly, waiting. “Do you remember who you are?” 

Leo rubbed his hand across his face and his eyes. His voice was no more than a ragged whisper. “I remember who I used to be. I’m not…I’m not that person anymore. I messed up and lost everything.” 

Right. He was back. He could work through his guilt later. Leo needed to pull himself together now. “It’s not what you’ve done that I care about,” Jesse said. “It’s what you’re going to do now. Willow restored your powers. Once you’re near a simulator, they’ll turn on. Which is a good thing because DC will be under attack soon and we’ve got two dragon lords to stop. We need your help.” 

Leo coughed. “Two dragon lords?” 

“Three,” Willow said, “if Aaron goes bad.”

“Who’s Aaron?” Leo asked. 

Jesse had forgotten how much Leo didn’t know, how much he had to get caught up on. They’d have to explain on the flight back to Rock Creek Park.

Willow headed to the door, glancing over her shoulder to answer Leo’s question. “Aaron is Overdrake’s twelve-year-old son.” 

“Turns out Dirk is also Overdrake’s son,” Jesse said. “See, you’re not the only one that messed up.”

“What?” Leo asked, shocked and unmoving. “Dirk is a dragon lord?”

Willow opened the door. “Tori is too, but she’s on our side.”

“Tori?” Leo repeated. 

Jesse strode to the door, motioning Leo to follow him. “It was a busy summer.” 

Ryker was waiting for them on the front porch, helmet back on. He held Jesse’s under his arm and was spinning Willows on the tip of his finger. 

 “Are you coming?” Jesse called to Leo.

 “Are you ready?” Ryker asked at nearly the same moment.

Leo slowly stepped outside. “I’m not ready, but I’m coming anyway.”

Jesse grinned. Leo was back. One down, two more lost Slayers to find.

Chapter 11

Update:I’m going through the copyedits for the Jesse version. It will be done before the Dirk version (because I still need to write an epilogue to that one and have the parts that are different copyedited.) I’m not sure whether to release the Jesse one first or wait until they’re both ready. What’s your vote?

And now here’s chapter 11…

Sneaking out of the house wasn’t hard. Tori pretended to go to bed, locked the door so Lars couldn’t check on her, and crawled out her second-story window. A maple tree grew near the house and she climbed down it without much trouble–practice making perfect, and all of that. Getting the car from the garage without being heard took a bit more stealth and patience, but she managed that as well. Again, practice.

The day was cold for January, and the cloudy white sky of earlier seemed intent on sinking to earth in the form of fog. Just what the Slayers didn’t need during an attack: less visibility. 

As she drove to DC—always a slow trip through the abundant traffic, and now made slower by the weather—she tried to review strategies and techniques. Her mind wouldn’t focus on those. Instead it replayed Aaron’s words. DC would be burning in a few hours. Jupiter would attack when Senator Ethington gave his speech. But Ethington had already spoken, and for that matter, why would Overdrake use Jupiter in an attack? The fledglings were smaller and harder to handle. Wouldn’t he use a larger, more powerful, and better trained dragon?

Could Overdrake have fed Aaron false information to see if he passed it along to Tori? After the Slayers destroyed five eggs, he might have grown suspicious of Aaron and suspected he was giving her information. But how would Overdrake be able to tell if the Slayers congregated in DC? He didn’t know where any of them lived. He had no way to trace them.

Except that he knew where Tori went to school. One of his men could have been watching to see if she left early. And she had. So had Jesse. 

Worse still, Aprilynne had called Senator Ethington’s office to see when he was speaking. If the information had been a trap, Senator Ethington would undoubtedly let Overdrake know that Tori’s sister had called. 

Tori inwardly groaned for not considering this before. A trap seemed like a probable scenario, and she’d given Aaron away so easily. She had no way to contact him and tell him that his position as a spy may have been compromised.

What would Overdrake do to him?

The thought made Tori’s stomach clench in all sorts of uncomfortable ways. She never should have allowed Aaron to go in as a mole. He was twelve. What had she been thinking?

She took deep breaths and forced those scenarios from her mind. No reason to draw conclusions yet. The information might not be a trap. The attack might have been postponed for some reason and this was the tip the Slayers needed to finally intercept Overdrake. 

Tori took one hand off the steering wheel and shook out a cramp forming in her hand. The uncertainty was the worst part of all this. She didn’t know whether she should be chastising herself or worrying about dying. 

In the part of her mind that was connected to a dragon, she heard the flapping of wings. Sometimes that happened for short periods of time—the dragons stretched their wings and flew around their enclosures for a bit. This time the noise didn’t end after a few minutes. 

A dragon was out. That definitely wasn’t normal for the middle of the day. 

Well then, perhaps it was safe to say she could stop worrying about Aaron and start worrying about dying.

She looked up at the sky, even though she knew she wouldn’t see anything through the fog. The weather seemed ominous now, like the misty set of a murder movie, where people jumped out wielding knives.

Tori pressed the code on her watch for a dragon outside and kept driving toward their meeting spot at Rock Creek Park. As she drove, the buildings around her faded in and out of the fog. She finally reached Beach Drive, one of the narrow streets that wound its way through nearly three miles of trees. The noise of the city faded away, replaced by the rustle of nature. Everything was brown here: the layer of leaves covering the ground, the bare trees, and the dirt edging the road.

Dr. B sent out a group message. Turning on the simulator. He was letting those of them still traveling to the location know so that when their powers turned on, they didn’t have to worry that a nearby dragon had caused it. 

Tori was within five miles, so almost immediately, she felt a surge of energy and her senses sharpened. The sound of her wheels humming along the road grew louder and she noticed details she hadn’t before: the shadows of birds flying in the mist and a deer peering through a tangle of branches in the trees nearby. 

After a couple of minutes, she pulled into the parking lot and stepped out of her car. The first thing she saw were the trailers that hauled the Slayer’s motorcycles—powerful bikes that were ten times as expensive as the normal sort because they were EMP proof. Those stood next to the horse trailers which were dinged and scratched in places, victims of.camp life. Booker, Dr. B’s perpetually sullen and silent right-hand man was saddling up Kody’s quarter horse, a tan mare named Ruffian. Booker wore a police jacket, complete with a gun holster and radio. His usual baseball cap had been replaced by a helmet. His usual scowl, still present.

Tori’s horse, Bane, was also saddled. He was a large black gelding with a stallion’s attitude. He saw her, flicked his tail, and nickered impatiently as if to say, “What took you so long?” 

Dirk’s and Alyssa’s horses were saddled as backups. They were waiting for their owners, waiting for people who wouldn’t come, and it was an unwelcome reminder of how their numbers had dwindled. 

Kody, Ryker, Willow, Lilly, and Jesse were all milling around by the supply van, either getting dressed in their battle gear or packing their ammunition. Jesse loaded a rifle, his fingers running over it with as much familiarity as a musician tuning an instrument. He turned when he saw her and gave her an encouraging smile. 

It struck her that she’d always taken that smile for granted. But one of them might die today, or for that matter, both of them might. She returned his smile and tried to return a portion of his encouragement too.

 An unexpected pang of regret hit her. Things between them seemed so unfinished, so unnecessarily formal. That emotion was quickly followed by a dose of frustration because she hadn’t chosen for it to be this way. Jesse had. 

She strode over to the pile of supplies to pick up a police uniform. The van also held rifles, sticky grenades, and parachute launchers that looked like a cross between a gun and a pipe. Its missiles had a sticky end, which, upon impact, bloomed into a parachute to slow the dragon down. The result would only last until the dragons incinerated them. Just a few moments. But those moments could be the difference between life or death.

Theo stood near a box at the back of the van, unpacking black police helmets. Dr. B was using the hood of Booker’s truck as a table to put the finishing touches on fake police credentials, IDs that had their pictures and aliases. He kept glancing in the direction of the street, as though waiting for someone else to arrive. 

Tori could guess who. “Is Bess coming?” 

Nearby, Ryker buckled on a holster. “She’ll be here soon.” At six foot four, most people wouldn’t look twice at Ryker in a police uniform. That was, except for women, who might look twice because of his dark hair, blue eyes, and the whole chiseled jaw thing. 

Tori’s gaze went from him to Kody, who wasn’t as tall but had shoulders like a linebacker. Her gaze moved to Jesse: tousled brown hair and warm brown eyes. She inwardly sighed. The group was supposed to blend in, and she was with three guys who looked like they were auditioning for a hot cops calendar. 

Willow, Ryker’s cousin, was strapping on her ammo belt. She was tall with curly blonde hair and would be able to pass for an officer as long as she stayed on a motorcycle or horse. The girl moved like a ballerina, gliding around her own personal stage. Cops had to move with some swagger and authority.

Lilly was pulling on a jacket that was a little too big for her. She wasn’t as tall as most police officers and the red streak in her hair probably wasn’t law enforcement approved fashion, but at least Lilly had the don’t-mess-with-me attitude down. The girl was a queen bee without a hive, but with a stinger, just the same. She acted like she was Tori’s arch-nemesis, which was saying something since Dirk was actually the one who’d betrayed them all. He should have had the role all to himself.

Theo whistled to gather the Slayer’s attention and motioned for them to come over. “Before you head out, I need to go over some features in your outfits. You’ve probably noticed that your jacket pockets are lined with metal. This is so your cell phones will be protected from EMP.”

Good. Tori was tired of making up excuses for how hers had gotten ruined.

Theo picked up a helmet and ran a hand along the visor. “A special coating bounces the light back so your features will appear blurry in any cameras you pass.” He pushed the letter P in the word Police that ran across the rim. The visor completely darkened. “Once you start fighting, hide your faces.”

“Will do.” Jesse held out his hand for one.

Theo kept addressing the group. “They have a built-in earpiece and mic, and yes, both are EMP proof. And if you happen to need to use your cell phones, take them out of your pocket and they’ll connect automatically to your internal earpiece. That way, you don’t have to take off your helmets.”

“Great,” Jesse said, still holding his hand out.

“What I’m telling you,” Theo went on, “is that these babies cost more than your cars. Well, maybe not Tori’s car, but the rest of your cars, so you need to be careful with them.”

Jesse was still holding his hand out. “Are you going to give it to me, or do you need longer to say your goodbyes?”

Theo grudgingly relinquished the helmet. “You don’t appreciate the technology or expense that went into this. None of you ever do. But the people at the lab were all duly impressed when I came up with the idea.” 

Tori leaned toward Willow. “We have a lab?” 

“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” Willow said.

Theo made a chuffing noise. “Where did you think I made all of…never mind. I’ll stop throwing my pearls before swine. I’ll just remind you that although you all have superpowers, you wouldn’t get anywhere without my brain.”

Lilly took her helmet, rolling her eyes. “Does your brain want to come fight the dragon with us? You can show us how it’s done.”

Ryker nodded in agreement. “I’d be careful if I were you,” he told Theo. “In the movies, that’s the sort of cocky thing someone says right before their spectacularly gruesome death.”

Tori zipped up her jacket. “Better stay in the van, Theo. With the windows rolled up. You don’t want to tempt fate.”

Kody laughed as he adjusted his helmet. “Who bet on Theo for first death?”

Theo scowled at him and made more grumbling noises. “The next time you need tech help,” Theo pointedly handed her a helmet, “I’ll remind you of this conversation.”

Such a prima donna.

“Teamwork, people.” Dr. B breezed up to the group to hand out the IDs. “Without teamwork, we wouldn’t be anywhere.”

 “True,” Willow whispered to Tori. “Without this team, I’d be safely in Vermont.”

“I’m glad you’re here.” Tori twisted her hair up and slipped her helmet on. She didn’t like the clear visor. It wouldn’t hide her features well enough. She would just have to hope no one recognized her with her hair tucked up inside. 

Dr. B strolled over and handed Tori her police ID. “What have you heard from the dragon?”

“Just more flying sounds.” The familiar rhythmic wingbeats were still there in her ears, strong and steady. Tori slipped her ID into her jacket pocket. “Aaron said Overdrake would attack with Jupiter, but I don’t know which dragon I’m hearing. It’s not close enough for me to enter its mind.”

Once it was in close range, she could slip inside easily enough. What’s more, she could go even deeper into the dragon’s inner mind: its control center. She’d already been in Khan’s and Minerva’s so she knew how to reach that part of their brain, and Aaron had told her how to navigate through Jupiter’s and Vesta’s. Whoever was controlling the dragon would have an avatar there—a piece of their consciousness that held a control object. If Tori could force out the dragon lord, get him to drop his control object, or even distract him, it might make all the difference during a fight.

Dr. B nodded in reply to her information then walked past her to give Kody his ID. Willow followed after him, asking him about mission parameters. 

Ryker stepped over to Tori. “About going into the dragon’s mind, Jesse mentioned your attempts to control the dragons. Don’t try it today. We’re already spread thin. We need you to fight, not faint.”

Unlike Dirk and Overdrake, Tori was so new to splitting her consciousness in order to go into a dragon’s control center, the two times she’d tried it, her body had ended up limp and unmoving in Dirk’s lap. 

Tori nearly told Ryker, “What I do isn’t your decision” and then realized it was. Ryker was giving her a command as A-team’s captain.

By now, she ought to have accepted that he’d taken her place, but it still struck her as something new and slightly painful. She was no longer giving orders; she was taking them.

Ryker headed back toward the ammunitions stash, making it clear the matter wasn’t open for discussion. Somehow his confident stride irked her today. 

Jesse appeared by her side, pulling on his gloves. “I know what you’re thinking. Don’t do it.”

Tori checked to make sure her rifle’s safety was on, then slid it into its sling. “You don’t know what I’m thinking. You’re not my counterpart.”

“I’ve been your boyfriend, so it works out to the same thing.”

She adjusted the sling, tugging it into position. “A boyfriend is completely different from a counterpart.”

Lilly snorted while passing by them. “Not with Tori.”

Tori glared at her back. Really, the girl didn’t know when to keep her mouth shut.

“I can tell what you’re thinking,” Jesse said, ignoring Lilly’s comment, “because I recognize that defiant tilt of your chin. You’re thinking about going into the dragon’s mind, even though Ryker just told you not to.”

Tori tilted her chin at him, probably defiantly. 

Jesse opened his mouth to speak, but Rosa’s voice cut through the parking lot behind them. “Guess who I brought?”

Tori turned to look. All the Slayers did. Rosa emerged from the fog at the back of the parking lot, her dark hair swishing around her shoulders, her cheeks flushed from either the cold or excitement. 

Beside her was Shang. He wore a dark wool coat, something that looked more like it belonged on a businessman than a Slayer, and his dark hair was short on the sides and long on top, gelled so that it was nearly spiked up.

He smiled at them, serious but resolute. 

Had he somehow regained his powers? Why else would he be here? Hope lifted inside Tori, like a waiting breath. They needed all the help they could get today. They needed him.

Lilly left her rifle on the ground and ran to meet him. “You’re here!” she called, and threw her arms around him, hugging him so intently her feet momentarily lifted from the ground. She didn’t let go until the others had joined them. Everyone spoke at once.

“Do you remember everything?” Ryker asked.

“Do you remember anything?” Jesse asked.

Kody slapped Shang on the shoulder, his grin going full blast. “You’re a sight for sore eyes!” 

Shang winced from Kody’s shoulder-slapping, which was an answer in and of itself. Shang didn’t have extra strength even though he was within range of the simulator. 

Kody fell back a step. “Sorry,” he said, abashed. “I thought you were…” he stopped before he said what they were all thinking. I thought you were one of us again.

Shang stretched his shoulder to shrug off the pain. “I don’t remember any of the Slayer stuff. I wrote myself a story about it, though.” His gaze traveled around the group, taking in their weapons, cataloging everything. “I told Dr. B that when you guys went to battle, I wanted to help.”

A noble gesture. Also idiotic.

Jesse frowned at the idea. “Without your powers?” 

Shang rubbed his shoulder then dropped his hand away as though the gesture were a sign of weakness. “When the dragons attack, none of the civilians will have extra powers, but they’ll still have to fight.”

“Or they’ll run away screaming,” Tori said. She was in agreement with Jesse on this one. Anyone without powers should stay out of the fight.

Lilly took hold of Shang’s hand, suddenly all sweetness. “That’s so incredibly selfless.” She directly turned to Dr. B and her sharpness returned. “You’re not going to let him actually fight with us, are you? He’ll be killed.”

Dr. B lifted his hands in a calming gesture. “Shang will help me. He can run weapons runner, do triage for civilians, that sort of thing.”

Tori stepped toward Dr. B to get his attention. “He could watch over my body and wake me if I needed it.” It was the perfect solution. When the attack happened, she and Shang could find a place to hide out, somewhere tucked away in a building out of the way.

Shang fixed her with a perplexed look. “I must have left some details out of my novel. What are you talking about?”

Dr. B didn’t answer. Instead he looked at Ryker. “That’s up to your captain to decide.”

Jesse shook his head, his lips set into a firm line. “No way.”

Tori favored him with another one of her defiant chin tilts. “You’re not my captain.”

Jesse gestured toward Ryker, motioning for him to speak. 

“No way,” Ryker said, matching Jesse’s inflections. 

That was so like Ryker. Honestly, the guy never disagreed with Jesse. It was like they had a pact where she was concerned. “You’re just saying that because Jesse’s your counterpart and he doesn’t want me to try it.”

Ryker smiled with forced but firm patience. “My reasoning doesn’t matter. I’m your captain.”

She clamped her teeth together to keep herself from saying things she would regret later. It was time to be logical, not reactionary. So, she would follow orders. Unless her ideas were better than Ryker’s. Then A-team might have a problem. 

Dr. B put his hand on Shang’s shoulder. “Dress in your battle gear, and I’ll give you first aid supplies.”

Willow hadn’t said anything since Shang came. She’d just stared at him, head cocked in curiosity. Tori assumed this was because Willow hadn’t known Shang well and didn’t know what to say to him. But now she spoke. “Shang, you look wrong. Empty. Like you need help.”

He stiffened in offense and folded his arms together. “Thanks, Willow. You look great too.”

“I didn’t mean it as an insult.” She was still eyeing him like he was an oddity.

He started toward the stack of jackets and helmets. “Yeah. ‘Wrong, empty, and in need of help’ aren’t exactly compliments.”

Willow caught up to him with a leaping step that made her hair whip against her back. She took hold of his hand to stop him and moved directly in front of him. “I want to help you. Let me try.” 

Without further explanation or permission, she put her hand on his cheek and ran her fingers upward through the hair at his temples. A look of concentration came into her eyes, an intensity that was unusual for her. 

Shang blinked, obviously uncomfortable. “Um…” His eyes darted around the group, checking to see if this was some sort of joke or forgotten ritual, but he didn’t push Willow away.

Lilly sputtered in indignation, stormed over to Willow, and planted her hands on her hips. “Excuse me. This isn’t exactly the time to make the moves on a guy who—if he could remember it—is my boyfriend.”

Shang had stopped paying attention to Lilly. He didn’t even seem to be paying attention to Willow. His head jerked and he gasped, eyes wide. He stumbled backward, away from Willow’s touch, peering around and breathing deeply. “Everything got brighter.” 

It hadn’t. The sky was still overcast.

He scanned the sky anyway. “Brighter and warmer too.” 

Had his Slayer senses returned? Was that possible? What had Willow done to him? Willow stood beaming at Shang without offering any explanation.

Jesse stepped over to him, eagerness making his words quick. “Are you stronger?” They were all thinking it now, wanting it to be true.

Instead of answering, Shang’s gaze circled the group as though seeing each for the first time. “I remember things.” He opened his jaw, snapped it shut, then repeated the action. “I remember fighting a dragon. Twice.” He muttered something in Chinese and ran his hand over his forehead. “We nearly got killed both times. I can’t believe we’re here doing this again.” He didn’t sound disbelieving though, he sounded happy.

Lilly drew in an excited breath, her blue eyes eager. “Can you extinguish flames?” His memories had returned, but his powers might not have. She motioned to Kody, her fingers fluttering her request. “Hurry. Set something on fire.”

Dr. B cleared his throat and raised a hand to get Kody’s attention. “Something small and safe.”

Kody, in his exuberance, had charred several trees at camp along with an unfortunate restroom. He swung his arm and a fireball lit up a branch of a nearby tree. A birthday candle complete with a wish, waiting to be blown out. 

The Slayers watched in silent, hopeful expectation. Please, Tori thought, please.

Shang waved a hand in the tree’s direction and the fire vanished, leaving only a trail of smoke snaking upward until it vanished in the fog.

A jolt of happiness went through Tori, the first she’d felt in a long time. As though with one voice, the Slayers let out a cheer—Shang loudest of all. Lilly moved toward him, arms outstretched, but Kody beat her there. He picked Shang off the ground in a hug. “Dude! You’re back!”

“A good thing,” Shang pushed Kody away with a laugh. “Because otherwise, you would have just broken my ribs.”

Tori hugged Willow, nearly knocking her over in her enthusiasm. “Willow found her superpower!”

Tori wanted to laugh and cry, and the sounds that came from her throat were a bit of both. Dr. B’s medieval records had said a way existed for Slayers to get their powers back quickly, but the manuscripts had never mentioned what the method was. And now they knew. It was an ability like quenching fire, shielding, and flying. Willow could restore powers. With this one turn of events, the Slayers weren’t as outnumbered as they’d supposed.

Willow grinned in the attention. “Who just became a valuable member of this team? Oh, that would be me.” 

Rosa nearly bounced up and down with excitement. “Willow can help Alyssa, Leo, and Danielle.”

They all turned to Dr. B. He was already on his phone, scrolling through contacts. He motioned to Lilly. “Call Alyssa and find out where she is. Tell her you and Jesse are on your way to see her.”

Lilly pulled out her phone, already dialing. “You want me to go with Jesse?”

“No, but she doesn’t know who Willow is. If she’s expecting you, you’ll be able to set up a meeting place. We need to contact everyone before their cars and cell phones die.” 

They might not have much time. 

Next Dr. B motioned to Kody. His words were shotgun fast. “Call Danielle. Tell her Jesse and you need to talk to her immediately.” To Rosa, he said, “I’ve got Leo’s number. Tell him you want to see him.” 

He turned to Jesse last of all. “As our most experienced flyer, I need you here. However, I’ve no choice but to send you. Leo and Danielle don’t know Tori or Ryker. Bring Leo back first. We need shielders. Then Danielle, then Alyssa.”

Jesse zipped up his jacket and grabbed his gloves. “Leo won’t want to talk to me.” 

A few weeks ago, Bess and Jesse had contacted Leo and tried to help him regain some of his memories. They were attacked by Overdrake’s men in the process and now Leo knew hanging around them could be dangerous.

“Leo will talk to Rosa,” Dr. B said. 

He was probably right. During camp, Leo had an unspoken crush on her. None of the Slayers had realized Dr. B had known about that. Perhaps he wasn’t as oblivious as they’d supposed.

“Two flyers should go.” Ryker said, pulling off his helmet. “That way as soon as Willow finishes restoring Leo’s powers, I can fly him back here and Jesse can fly Willow straight to Danielle.”

Kody speed-dialed the number, his gaze on Willow. “I just wish you had discovered your power yesterday.”

Tori understood why she hadn’t. “Until now, Willow has never been around anyone who’d lost their powers.” 

Kody put her phone to her ear. “Well, you’re about to meet three of—Hey, Danielle, it’s Kody. I need to see you as soon as possible. It’s an emergency.” A pause. “Trust me. This is worth ditching basketball practice.”

While Kody went on with his conversation, Willow took off her helmet and handed it to Theo. He gave her a motorcycle helmet in return. It would hide her identity while she flew but wouldn’t make her look like a cop when she landed. 

“Wait,” Willow said, as much to herself as the others, “how am I supposed to tell three strangers that I want to touch their heads? This has awkward situation written all over it.” She tied back her hair with shaking hands. “Is it too late to change my superpower?”

 “You’ll figure something out.” Dr. B turned toward Lilly, maps on his phone screen. “What’s Alyssa’s location?”

“She’s home,” Lilly mouthed, still on the phone.

Willow adjusted the collar of her jacket. “Like…I’m just supposed to say, ‘Hi, you don’t know me, but I need to feel your skull for a few moments.’” 

“Yes,” Dr. B said. He headed toward the van, punching a number in on his phone. “Rosa,” he called over his shoulder, “where’s Leo?”

Rosa slid her phone back into her pocket. “He’s still at school, but he’ll be at his house in ten minutes. He’s expecting me to bring him a surprise.” She lowered her voice and tilted her chin at Tori in a conspiratorial way. “He asked if I was wearing something flirty.”

“And you are.” Ryker took his rifle off for the trip and laid it against the side of the van. “Your battle gear is totally flirty.”

Rosa huffed. “How are you going to explain why you guys came and I didn’t?” 

Jesse smiled and laid his rifle next to Ryker’s. “That’s the surprise.”

Rosa huffed again. “Leo never wanted to see me in any flirty little outfits back when we went to camp together. Unlike the rest of you, we kept that no dating rule.”

Jesse checked the GPS on his phone, already planning his route. “You can be a rule breaker like the rest of us as soon as the dragons are dead.”

“Maybe he’s not my type anymore,” Rosa said airily. “I mean, what sort of guy asks a girl he hasn’t seen in months to flirtify herself for him?”

Dr. B, thankfully, had been too busy talking to Booker at the van to hear the wardrobe conversation. He strode back over, his scarf dangling and precariously close to falling off. “Booker will drive a simulator in your direction, so you don’t lose power.” He motioned to Jesse and Ryker. “Fly beneath the radar. Go.”

“But—” Willow started. She didn’t get to finish. Ryker scooped her up and he and Jesse shot into the sky. Within seconds, they were dark spots against the gray clouds. Still too visible until they got higher. All of this would have been easier if it were darker. 

Booker unhooked the simulator from the van and attached it to a three-wheeled motorcycle. It was more maneuverable than a car. 

Tori finished loading her weapons, then mounted Bane. She and Kody would head to the mall area, where mounted police patrolled. The other groups would be on motorcycles in other parts of DC. If the attacks happened before Jesse and Ryker got back, she would be the only flyer, and therefore, the default captain.

Dr. B took his laptop from the van and turned it on. His motions were businesslike, but a nervous energy gave his voice an edge. “I’ll wait here for the others to return. When they and Bess come, I’ll send them out to different areas of the city. Try to be as inconspicuous as possible. Remember that your first priority is killing the dragons. Your second is protecting civilians.”

He had given these exact orders often enough during practice, but never with so much worry in his blue eyes. “Your natural instinct will be to reverse that order, but don’t let yourself. If you save civilians and let the dragon escape, it will just strike again somewhere else, and you won’t be around to stop it.” He paused and swallowed. “Be careful, be focused, be triumphant.” He stepped aside and swept a hand in the direction of downtown. “Tori, you’re the interim captain.”

Normally, at least one of the Slayers would have called out something a little disparaging. Lilly would have had some sort of complaint about Tori’s temporary promotion. But everyone just nodded at Dr. B and turned their motorcycles and horses toward the city. This wasn’t a normal drill, and they all felt the weight of that knowledge pressing against them.

Chapter 10 of Slayers into the Firestorm

Author’s note: It will  probably surprise people to learn that one of my favorite characters in this series is Lars, Tori’s bodyguard. So this was one of my favorite chapters in the whole book.

At school, Tori found it hard to concentrate on her classes. A somber mood had descended on the faculty and students. The usual chatter and laughter that filled the hallways had been replaced by hushed talk of the attacks and speculation about whether McLean would be hit. In just a few days’ time, the future had become a dark, murky place. It didn’t help that Cliff, the president’s son, hadn’t come to school since the first attack. It was as though the administration was admitting they couldn’t do anything to keep the students safe.

And Tori had her own set of worries. Pittsburgh, Raleigh, and Richmond had been hit last night. All cities that could be reached from the east coast. Was Overdrake back on this side of the country for a particular reason?

The thought made her uneasy.

During second period, she was sitting at her desk making a half-hearted attempt to decipher math equations, when she heard Aaron’s voice next to a dragon. “You should be jealous, Minerva. While Senator Ethington gives his speech today, Jupiter is going to be the one that gets to attack.”

Tori straightened, stopped breathing in order to hear better.

“All of those big shot politicians who ignored Dad,” Aaron went on, “they’re going to regret it when DC is burning. They won’t have long to wait now. Just a few more hours.”

Then Aaron stopped talking.

Tori leaned forward as though this could prompt more information. When and where was Senator Ethington giving his speech? A few hours could be three or ten. Some of her dad’s speeches had been at evening events. But if the attack was happening in the evening, Aaron would have said tonight instead of today. The only noise in Minerva’s enclosure was the sound of the dragon chomping on something. Aaron had gone.

With shaking fingers, Tori texted Dr. B and told him the news. Then she slogged up to her teacher’s desk. Tori needed an excuse to leave school. Dr. B would be messaging the Slayers soon, telling them where to meet. “I’m not feeling well,” she said. “I have to go home.”

Her teacher’s head tilted with concern. “You’re as pale as a sheet. Do you need help to the nurse’s office?”

“No.” She didn’t bother saying more, just turned and left.

She shouldn’t be pale and shaky. She should be brave and clear-thinking. That’s what she’d trained for.

The hallway was empty and her hurried footsteps echoed too loudly in it. She had to find out when Senator Ethington was giving a speech. And more importantly, she needed to warn her father and sister to get out of DC.

She called her father, but he didn’t pick up. Probably in some meeting with his phone silenced. Hopefully he’d see a text.

Dad, I have reliable information that DC will be attacked in a few hours. It will happen when Senator Ethington is giving a speech. Go someplace safe. 

What was Senator Ethington speech about anyway? Perhaps he would urge Congress to submit to President Augustus’s demands. Whatever he said, he wouldn’t admit to being one of Augustus’s supporters.

Tori’s watch lit up. The sign Dr. B was calling a mission. The message relayed what Tori had told him and added that in two hours time, he would be at location kappa. Rock Creek Park. Come as soon as you can. From there, I’ll send you out in teams to scout out key areas of DC.

And then they’d wait for the fight to begin.

Tori dialed Aprilynne’s number. Her sister would have a way to get a hold of their father.

Aprilynne answered the phone with a “Hey, aren’t you supposed to be in school?”

“This is an emergency.” Tori’s words tumbled out, seemed louder than normal in the silent hallway. “DC will be attacked in a few hours. You and Dad need to leave. Tell your office to evacuate. Tell the whole building.”

“What?” Aprilynne asked. “Where did you hear that?”

“A trusted source. The attack will start during Senator Ethington’s speech. How can I get a hold of Dad?”

“He’s in session right now.” Aprilynne’s voice held worry, but also doubt. “So is Senator Ethington. What do you mean the attack will start during his speech? Do you mean when he speaks on the floor?”

“I’m not sure. Probably.” The problem with this answer was that speeches on the floor didn’t have specific schedules. Senators spoke when the Speaker of the House called on them and they spoke as long as they wanted. “Maybe Senator Ethington is going to contact Overdrake and let him know when he starts talking. Dad should keep him from taking the floor.” As soon as Tori said it, she changed her mind. “No—Dad should just evacuate everyone.”

But what if that sort of action triggered Overdrake to attack early? Aaron hadn’t said where his father was, just that he’d be using Jupiter. Frustration and fear made it hard to think straight. “I don’t know what Dad should do, but he needs to leave. You both do.”

Aprilynne didn’t respond.

Tori glanced around the hallway. Still empty. Only the lockers, standing at attention, heard her words. “This is one of those times when you need to trust me.”

Aprilynne’s voice was calm. “Who is your source?”

“I can’t tell you some things, so you’ll just have to trust me.”

Aprilynne sighed, a sound that didn’t sound much like trust. “Okay. I’ll send a page over to deliver a message to Dad. I’ll let you know what he says.”

Good. At least Aprilynne was doing that much. Tori was almost to the nurse’s office. “Hurry,” she urged. “Make sure he gets the message.” Then she hung up.

Tori was about to press her mother’s number, then remembered she was in Maryland speaking to a service organization. She wouldn’t answer a text, but Tori sent her and her bodyguard one anyway; a warning about the pending attack.

She reluctantly slid her phone back into her pocket. She would have liked to talk to her mom. If Tori didn’t come back from this mission…no, she wouldn’t let herself think that way. She’d lived through three attacks. She would make it through this one too. In fact, tonight when everything was over, she’d probably have to spin some wild tale about where she’d been and her parents would think she’d lost her mind. Just another normal day.

Behind her, a door opened and a set of footsteps gained on her. She turned to see Jess approaching.

He wore the red polo of the Veritas uniform, but always managed to make it look like a costume. A guy who flew as well as Jesse belonged in fighting gear, not a preppy school uniform.

He caught up and walked beside her. “Are you going home sick too? Something must be going around.”

She couldn’t joke back. Her nerves were strung tight. “Overdrake is attacking during daylight. Why would he let people see him?”

Jesse considered the question and then shrugged. “He’s making a statement. Why else would he attack DC when he knows we all live in the area? He wants to show everyone that no one can stop him. Not us, not the military.”

Jesse was probably right. No one had been able to stop Overdrake thus far. He probably thought that even though the Slayers would be alerted to an attack by their powers turning on as he soared by on a dragon, he would be in and out of DC before the team assembled. Only the flyers could tail him, and maybe that’s what he wanted. They’d be vulnerable without a shielder to protect them.

“He might attack with two dragons,” Tori said, and didn’t add: Dirk could be there too. The idea of fighting him—of physically having to hurt him–it felt wrong, like being asked to turn a weapon on a family member. But what else could they do if he showed up with a dragon?

As Jesse walked beside Tori, he tapped out a message on his phone. He didn’t look nearly as overwhelmed as she felt. “We’ll be fine. We’re trained, capable, and will have the element of surprise on our side. Overdrake won’t expect us to be waiting for him. You were right about sending Aaron in as a mole.” He glanced at her, a half-smile quirking up the corners of his lips. “Feel free to tell me that you told me so.”

“It takes all the fun out of it when you suggest it.”

“I don’t see why.” His smile spread. “You generally don’t listen to my suggestions.”

“I usually listen to your suggestions,” she countered. “It’s just that the exceptions to that rule tend to be…notable.”

His smile faded and she wondered if he was thinking about her and Dirk. Yeah, that had been a notable exception.

His brown eyes turned serious. “Let’s not be notable today.” He paused, “What I mean is…” Another pause as though he didn’t know exactly what he meant to say. “Just promise me you won’t take any unnecessary risks.”

“If I was promising that,” she said. “I never would have joined the Slayers in the first place.”

A ghost of his smile returned. “I’m glad you did.”

Maybe he shouldn’t be. They’d never fought two dragons at the same time. Had she just sentenced all her friends to death? But then, Dirk wouldn’t kill any of them. Would he?

Only a few minutes had passed since Tori spoke to her sister, but she found herself glancing at her phone, checking for messages anyway. Once her father and sister were safe, all of this would be so much easier to handle.

Jesse returned his attention to finishing his text, then slipped his phone into his pocket. “If Bess makes it on this mission and we have to split, I want her to go with A-team. I’ll take Kody.”

He wanted Tori to have more protection. Just like the last mission. It was a sweet gesture, but not one Tori would accept. Just like the last mission. “Dr. B would never allow that. No favoritism. That’s one of the rules.”

Usually Jesse took his responsibility as captain too seriously to abandon rules, but now there was a stubborn lift to his chin. “During a battle, the captains call the plays, not Dr. B.”

She reached over and brushed her hand against Jesse’s arm. “You need a shielder more than I do. I’m immune to fire.”

They’d nearly reached the front office, a series of boxy rooms filled with order and adults. She took Jesse’s hand and squeezed it. “I appreciate the offer, though.”

He didn’t let go of her hand. Instead he pulled her close and dropped a kiss on her cheek. His nearness made her catch her breath, made her remember times when she’d wrapped her arms around him. Before she could decide how to react, he let her go. “I’ll see you downtown.”

***

Lars, the man who was her bodyguard as well as her chauffeur, came to the school to pick up Tori. He moved at an annoyingly slow rate while he checked her out of school, and he didn’t drive nearly fast enough on the way home.

They puttered through tree-lined roads, sprawling yards, and equally sprawling colonial houses until they finally reached the main road. Lars always drove home using a different route so as to throw off any ninjas or would-be assassins that may be lurking along the road.

Tori tapped her foot against the car floor for a minute and then leaned forward to better speak to Lars. “The police won’t pull you over if you go a few miles above the speed limit.”

He scanned the street in his casual practiced way, searching for anything suspicious. “Your father pays me, and he wants me to drive the speed limit.”

“I’ll slip you fifty if you ignore that rule today.”

Lars didn’t increase his speed. “Sorry. Your father already pays me extra to ignore those sorts of requests.”

“What?” Was Lars serious?

“That blank look you see on my face while I’m your bodyguard—that’s me contemplating a vacation in Acapulco with my bonus cash.”

The light ahead of them changed from green to yellow. She flicked her hand in its direction. “You can make that.”

He stopped the car instead.

She slapped her hand back to her side. “Yellow is a legal color.”

“Margaritas on the beach every night,” he said.

Tori would have told him what she thought of his margaritas, but her phone rang. Aprilynne was calling.

“I heard back from Dad,” her sister said, her tone reassuring. “Senator Ethington already finished addressing the floor and nothing happened. So apparently your source has some credibility problems.”

That didn’t make sense. “Are you sure?”

“Senator Ethington spoke this morning.”

He’d spoken before Aaron’s warning. “It must be a different speech,” Tori said. “Senator Ethington must be addressing some group later.”

“I already thought of that,” Aprilynne said. “So I called Senator Ethington’s office and asked about his speaking schedule for today. He doesn’t have anything else planned. And by the way, Senator Ethington’s staff is completely rude. They treated me like I was planning on coming to heckle him or something.”

Had Aaron gotten the day wrong? He’d said the attack would happen in a few hours. Or maybe the staff had lied to Aprilynne. Tori frowned. “It’s still better to be safe than sorry. Get hold of Dad again and convince him to go home.”

“Tori, he’s in session. It’s a big deal. The president is asking for an emergency funding bill. Dad can’t leave before the vote.”

There was no point in arguing with Aprilynne. Tori would text her father again and hope she could get through to him. “Dad may be stuck in session, but you don’t have to stay in DC,” Tori said. “Head home now. Call a cab. Get on a bus. Just get out of there.”

“Tori—”

“Humor me, okay. Sometimes that’s what you have to do with crazy people.” In a lower voice, she added, “Please. So I don’t have a panic attack.”

“Fine,” Aprilynne conceded. “I’m getting my purse now. Are you satisfied?”

“I will be when you reach home. Thanks.” Tori hung up the phone, held it clutched against her stomach, and took deep breaths.

Lars gave her a curious look. She didn’t bother explaining herself. One of the benefits of being crazy: No explanation needed. “I’m feeling nauseous,” she said. “I hope the trip home doesn’t take so long that I accidentally throw up in here.”

Let him think about that instead of his margaritas.

He glared at her, but when the light turned green, he picked up his speed.

When they finally reached Tori’s house, she went straight to her room. She called Dr. B, then related her conversation with Aprilynne while changing out of her school uniform. “Maybe Aaron got the day wrong,” she said.

“We’ll still proceed,” he said. “If nothing else, this will be a good drill for us.” He didn’t sound like he thought it was a drill. “I’ll see you soon.” Then he hung up.

She took an envelope from its hiding spot in her dresser and propped it against the family picture on her desk. After she’d come home from camp, she’d written a letter to her parents explaining why she’d become a Slayer. If she didn’t come home tonight, her parents would find the letter and know why.

Putting on her shoes and jacket took too long. Every motion she made was too tense. It’s a false alarm, she told herself. Just a drill.

But she couldn’t make herself believe it. Overdrake would attack. The problem was she didn’t know where or when and she had the nagging feeling she was missing something, some vital clue that would help Aaron’s message make more sense. Unless she figured it out, the Slayers wouldn’t be prepared.

Chapter 9 and Slayers 5 update

Just wanted to let you all know that I’m almost done with revisions. I’m at that stage where I’m tweaking prose trying to make it cleaner, prettier, and flow better. These  were actual sentences that have made it through until last night:

Her fingers ran through them, feeling the life pulsing through them. Once she found the green and black strands, she pushed through them and stepped into Khan’s control center.

Yep, I used the words ‘through them’ three times in two sentences. And only noticed it after about the sixth round of revisions.

The problem with this sort of tweaking is that it can be endless.

Anyway, it won’t be long now.  Here’s chapter 9

 

Long after his brother left the room, Aaron’s gaze flicked to the doorway. Had Dirk gone up to their father’s room to try and convince him that Aaron was in league with the Slayers? Dirk was getting too close to the truth, and if he was able to convince their father about any of it, Aaron was likely to find himself locked in a room for a very long time. Or worse.

His father wouldn’t actually kill him, would he?

Hopefully not. After all, Dirk had helped the Slayers kill Tamerlane, and their father had forgiven him for it.

Then again, Tamerlane had been one dragon and Dirk had acted in self-defense. Aaron had given the Slayers information that allowed them to kill five dragon eggs. Five. And his father had been enraged about that. The table was short several chairs because he’d taken out his frustration in the kitchen.

Dirk should’ve been a little understanding about Aaron helping the Slayers since he’d done it enough times himself. But no. Dirk had suddenly chosen to become loyal to their father’s insane plans. Dirk was all intent on outing Aaron, and now that they were all back living in the same house, Dirk would try and turn their father against him. How long would it take until he succeeded? Aaron would have to be careful, have to make sure he didn’t say anything around the dragons that sounded like a message to Tori.

Aaron picked up the remote and turned on the TV so he would at least look like he was watching a show. Stay calm he told himself. Their father had no way to distinguish whether Aaron was telling the truth or whether Dirk was. Overdrake had no Slayer genes or counterpart abilities. As long as Aaron didn’t give him reasons to suspect he was lying, he’d be fine.

Part of him wanted to bolt out the door and take his chances on escape anyway. He couldn’t do that, though. He’d come here to protect his little brother. Jacob had only inherited Slayer genes from their mother—a flyer, no less. If Overdrake found out about him, if Jacob was drawn into the fight against dragons, well, there were a lot of ways his brother could end up dead.

A few minutes passed and then Overdrake’s voice called from the top of the stairs. “Aaron, come here. I need to talk to you.”

Over the last few days, Aaron had gotten used to judging his father’s requests from the tone of his voice. Was guilt freaking him out or was there an edge, a sharpness to his father’s words? Aaron put the remote down and noticed his hands were trembling.

“Coming,” he called back.

He trudged up the stairs, doing his best to look unconcerned and not guilty. His father stood at the top still dressed in his pajamas. Blue silk. The sort of thing a sultan would wear. He was staring at his phone screen so Aaron couldn’t read his expression. Was it the sort of icy glare he reserved for his enemies?

His father looked up, his eyes calculating. “I have something to discuss with you.”

Oh no. Dirk had told him stuff, and now Aaron was going to need to deny everything.

“I want you to feed Jupiter, put his Kevlar shield on, then cover him with protectant. I’ll be busy for the next few hours, so I won’t have time to remind you.”

Aaron had been so worried about being questioned, he wasn’t sure he’d heard the name of the dragon right. “You’re using Jupiter?” His father had never used one of the fledglings to attack. With their smaller size, they weren’t as strong or powerful as Minerva and Khan.

“Yes, Jupiter. Sometimes being the youngest has its advantages.” His father delivered that line with half a smile. It was only then that Aaron relaxed. Dirk hadn’t said anything to their father. At least not yet.

“Do you want me to saddle him?” Aaron asked because he hadn’t listened to that part in his instructions.

“No saddle. Just the Kevlar and protectant.”

Protectant was a non-flammable oil they used to repel any sort of sticky grenades that Slayers might throw. And no saddle meant his father would control the dragon, but not ride him. Aaron nodded. “When do you want him ready? Midnight?”

“Get him ready as soon as he’s finished eating.” Overdrake slid his phone into a pocket and then his attention turned to Aaron with the patience of a teacher explaining a point to a student. “Every war needs its quota of drama and spectacle. The citizens won’t be convinced they need to come to the bargaining table until they see some from me. I have to send a message that I’m done playing games with the so-called leaders of this nation.”

He put his hand on Aaron’s shoulder. “After I leave, watch the news. Jupiter will attack when Senator Ethington gives his speech. The performance should make for good footage: DC burning.” He dropped his hand and started down the stairs. “Oh, and while you’re at the enclosure make sure the other dragons have been fed and watered too.”

So that Dirk wouldn’t be bothered with the boring tasks. His father had claimed he needed sons to help with the revolution, but so far Aaron’s only contribution had been as a glorified pet sitter. Well, Aaron wouldn’t complain about the extra chores today. It gave him a chance to pass on information to Tori.

“Do a good job,” Overdrake said. “Those dragons are the most valuable thing I own.”

It was not just an instruction, it was a warning.

All the way to the enclosure, Aaron thought of the way his father had smashed the kitchen chairs. He needed to find a way to leave this place.

chapter 8

For the next three nights, Dirk flew Minerva along the eastern part of the nation, hitting one city a night with EMP. His father made his way back across the country, taking out two cities along his route and then hiding Khan in outposts he’d set up beforehand.

That way, the cities would seem to be chosen at random and the government wouldn’t suspect that Overdrake was traveling east, back home.

The first night, Dirk picked Lancaster, Pennsylvania to hit. When his father called and yelled at him, Dirk pretended not to know the city was mostly Amish. He was tired of hearing news stories about looters and shivering children. The Amish had fireplaces and weren’t the looting sort.

After that, his father sent him a message to attack Columbus. Dirk chose Marietta instead. It was a small city that only had a couple hospitals to avoid, and it was near enough to other cities that it wouldn’t take long for relief workers to reach the people.

His father called him the second morning and spoke to him in a clipped tone. “Is it so hard to follow directions?”

Dirk continued eating breakfast, unconcerned. “I was worried your directions had been leaked. I figured no one would be expecting an attack in the suburbs.”

“Leaked,” his father repeated.

“You can’t be too careful.” Dirk ate a bite of cereal. “After all, you’ve had problems with leaks.”

“You think your brother . . .” His father huffed in aggravation. “Never mind. I’m not going to argue with you about it. Just hit an important target tonight.”

The third night, Dirk chose Abita Springs, Louisiana. A small town in a warm climate. They probably didn’t even use their heaters much. Which meant he wouldn’t have to see reports of those residents bracing themselves against the winter weather.

When Dirk returned to the house that morning, he found his father sitting in the kitchen, drinking coffee while he searched through internet sites on his laptop. He took a slow sip from his mug and gave Dirk a considering stare. “Abita Springs? That has a population of what—two thousand?”

Dirk wandered to the fridge to find something to eat. “I was making the point that your mandate applies to everyone. Even small towns are at risk if they don’t obey. Now everyone will worry their city could be next. It’s a sound strategy.”

His father scrolled through a page of links, scowling.

“No one new has surrendered?” Dirk guessed.

“Plenty of people have surrendered. The internet is clogged with videos of individuals who’re either applying for jobs or begging for mercy. Just not any more mayors.”

The day after his father’s demands, hundreds of mayors had posted videos asking that their residents not be harmed. Four mayors had pledged their allegiance in return for their city’s safety.

The backlash from the rest of the nation had been immediate. Protesters drove to those cities, bashed in windows, spray painted cars, and set fire to buildings. City officials had to leave their homes. The news had shown rioters chanting until the president interrupted the coverage with a press conference calling for unity, patience, and restraint.

Since then, no other mayors had posted anything.

Dirk’s father shook his head, scrolling through information with dissatisfaction. “Imbeciles. That’s what people are. As long as the President keeps reassuring everyone that he has the situation under control, they’ll all sit back like idiots and believe him.”

Dirk took some leftover enchiladas from the fridge and reheated them in the microwave. “Well, we can’t destroy cities indefinitely. We’ll be the ones who have to rebuild them once we take over. Or was your dream to rule over a smoldering heap of rubble?”

His father didn’t respond. Fox news was picking apart a speech Senator Ethington had made earlier this morning.

Dirk sat down at the table and ate in wary silence. The longer his father listened to Senator Ethington, the more he clenched his jaw. Cue the bad mood. A caustic remark would be coming in five, four, three…

His father’s eyes narrowed in on the video. “Speaking of imbeciles, there’s the man who couldn’t manage a simple weapons pickup, let alone smuggle anything to my operatives.” He listened to the speech for another minute and then shook his head in disdain. “The money I paid to put him where he is… Ethington is supposed to be the voice of reason. He’s supposed to be suggesting concessions. Instead he’s acting the patriot to save his own skin. He thinks he can play both sides of this war.”

Dirk took a bite of his enchilada. Despite the spices, it tasted dull on his tongue. “You didn’t really expect the politicians to resign right away. They’ve got to at least make a show of courage.”

“We’ll give them a show.” His father tapped his fingers against the side of his coffee cup. “It’s time the country knew they can’t depend on their leaders for protection. Perhaps a show of our own will unloosen some of the mayors’ tongues.”

Dirk felt too exhausted to argue for more patience. “What sort of show?”

His father brought up a map of DC on his laptop. “Political theater. The dragons need to make their debut.”

An attack on DC already? “We don’t have troops in place for a successful attack,” Dirk regretted bringing up the point as soon as he said it. He didn’t want his father to call in troops. An offensive of that sort would be much bloodier. Dirk was playing both sides of this war too, and urging for restraint in the present might make the future worse.

“This won’t be a full-scale invasion,” his father said calmly. “Not yet. We’ll simply demonstrate that we have every ability to take down those who oppose us, including this country’s bloated leadership.” His gaze went to Dirk, and he regarded him with a hard intensity. “I’ll need you to follow my orders—exactly. You think you can handle that?”

“As long as your orders don’t involve killing civilians.” That was always the sticking point for Dirk.

“As long as civilians support the leadership that opposes us, they’re culpable. They’ve decided to take their chances with Congress. It’s not our fault they’re backing the wrong horse.”

Dirk jabbed his fork at the enchilada. “They don’t really have a choice. Especially the kids.”

His father finished off his coffee in one quick swallow, then began typing an email. “In life, the strong do what they want and the weak suffer what they must.” This was one of his father’s favorite sayings, uttered by Thucydides, an Athenian leader. For all the Athenian’s democracy, they loved the spoils of war. Slaves, land, riches. In their height of power, there weren’t two consecutive years that they didn’t vote to go to war.

Dirk’s father lifted his gaze from his computer. “Will you be strong? Or will you be among the weak who’ll suffer what they must?”

Dirk didn’t speak. There was only one right answer to this question and he’d already given it to his father enough times. Strength was all his father understood.

His father went back to typing. “I gave you orders about the cities you were to take down. The last three nights, you did as you pleased.” He held up his hand in a conceding gesture. “I’m not saying your strategies don’t have merit, but when we go to DC, I expect exact obedience to my plans.”

“Civilians?” Dirk pressed. He knew his father wouldn’t give him a detailed plan of the attack beforehand. He didn’t trust him enough for that.

“We won’t target any civilians, but I can’t promise none will be hurt. Buildings will burn. I’m not going to stick around to make sure everyone gets out.”

Burning a few buildings didn’t sound so bad. As long as the dragons only hit the upper parts of the structure, the exits would be free. “Fine,” Dirk said. “We want people to fear us, not hate us. We should—”

His father held up his hand to silence him. “After you’ve proven yourself in DC, after you’ve shown unwavering support, I’ll give you more say in how I run the revolution. Until then, we do it my way.” He lowered his hand back to the table with all the finality of a judge issuing a ruling. “You understand what I’m saying?”

Dirk understood. If he wanted to save lives in the long run, he had to do things his father’s way in the short run. “I’ll follow your commands.”

“Good,” his father said.

Dirk didn’t finish eating his enchiladas. He’d lost his appetite. His father didn’t seem to notice that the food ended up in the garbage. He’d gone back to looking at an aerial view of DC on his laptop and was zooming in on Capitol Hill.

Dirk left him to his plans, went upstairs, and opened Aaron’s door. The bedroom was empty. He considered tracking down his brother before he went to sleep, then decided against it. Aaron couldn’t avoid Dirk forever. Besides, it was probably better if their next conversation didn’t happen when Dirk was tired and his father was around.

Dirk trudged to his room, peeled off his clothes, and threw them in the general direction of his hamper. Then he wandered into the bathroom and popped a couple of sleeping pills. Without them, he lay in bed, stared at the ceiling, and relived images from the night. City lights snuffed out. A tide of darkness expanding beneath him.

When he awoke six hours later, he roamed through the house searching for his family, well, mostly Aaron. His father was still asleep. Cassie was in the upstairs great room, shopping online for baby clothes. She’d already bought enough stuff to keep a set of triplets dressed. He went downstairs and found Bridget and Aaron lounging in recliners, watching a movie.

Bridget sat with her legs tucked under her, twisting one of her brown pigtails around her fingers. Several stuffed animal ponies were scattered at her feet, part of a larger herd that she shepherded around the house. Those were the perks of being seven.

Aaron’s gaze was firmly fixed on the TV, his relaxed stance a little too forced. He was blond and blue eyed like Dirk, a miniature of him in many ways. And Dirk had liked the kid right up until the time Aaron had told their father that Dirk offered to help him escape. Aaron had stabbed in him the back, and now that he was back home it was finally time for the two of them to have a little talk.

“Bridget,” Dirk said cheerfully, “Cassie wants your opinion on which baby clothes are the cutest. Go help her.”

“Okay,” Bridget said. She didn’t move. Her eyes were glued to the TV.

“Now,” Dirk told her and picked up the remote. “Our baby brother’s cuteness is at stake. You don’t want him dressed like a dork, do you?”

She still didn’t move. He turned off the TV.

“Oh, all right,” Bridget grumbled and got to her feet. She trudged out of the room, making a point to stomp. “But I get to watch TV when I’m done.”

Aaron’s gaze ran over Dirk’s pajamas—old flannel pants and a stained T-shirt. “I guess it was too late to save you from dorkiness.”

Dirk didn’t take the bait. He let his gaze drill into his brother. “I know what you are.”

Aaron picked up a second remote from the side of his chair and turned the TV back on. “I know what you are too—jealous.”

Dirk took slow steps toward his brother. “Jealous?” He glanced at the ceiling as if deep in thought. “That’s not exactly the emotion I was feeling. Try again and use your counterpart sense this time.”

Dirk was not only counterparts with Tori, but with Aaron as well. The ability had been a surprise when it showed up last summer at camp. Slayers with the same ability were counterparts, and Dirk hadn’t realized he had any Slayer DNA, let alone that Tori’s mix of Slayer and dragon lord genes would make her his counterpart. Aaron had inherited that same mix and being his counterpart was about to come in handy.

Aaron shrunk further back into his chair, still gripping the remote like he might use it to fend Dirk off. “If you hurt me, I’ll tell dad. He knows you have it out for me.”

Dirk folded his arms. “You’re the reason five dragons are dead. I just don’t know why you did it. Care to explain?”

Aaron gulped. “I don’t have to explain anything to you.”

“Why would a dragon lord help the Slayers?”

Aaron picked at a button on the remote and let the question hang in the air. Dirk waited, feeling Aaron’s nervousness grow.

“Why?” Dirk asked again.

Aaron still didn’t answer. The kid apparently realized that if he said something, he might reveal more to Dirk than he wanted. Right now, all Dirk could pick up from him was fear.

“Have you told Tori anything else?” Dirk demanded.

Aaron showed no increased guilt. So probably not. Or maybe his lack of shame was just proof that he didn’t feel bad about the dragons’ deaths.

“Is she in contact with you?” Dirk asked.

Aaron rolled his eyes. “I’m not in contact with anyone. Dad took my phone.”

The resentment in his voice was real. Dirk felt that emotion clearly enough but not anything that suggested Tori had contacted him.

That was good news at least. “Are you planning to tell Tori something else?”

A flash of anger went through Aaron. Which could mean anything. He might be angry at their father, angry at Tori, or just angry that Dirk kept grilling him. Dirk eyed Aaron, trying to decipher his emotions. Could Aaron have accidentally told Tori about the eggs? After all, he’d thought Tori was connected to Vesta. Still, if the leak had been an accident, wouldn’t Aaron have felt some sense of remorse? Maybe Dirk had missed that emotion in the swell of Aaron’s anger and fear.

“Tell me how you feel about Tori Hampton,” Dirk said.

Aaron craned his head to see the TV. “I hardly know her.”

True. “Are you trying to help her?

Aaron didn’t answer. He was still radiating fear and anger. Dirk didn’t sense any other emotions. Was his fear the fear of getting caught or just the fear of Dirk? Tori was so much easier to read as a counterpart. She was all concern and hope, softness.

Aaron lifted his chin, defiantly. “I’m going to tell Dad you’re harassing me. If I yell and wake him up, he’ll be ticked at you.”

Now the kid was threatening him? Seriously? Dirk had to suppress the urge to pick him up, push him into a wall, and finish the conversation with him upside down.

Instead Dirk let out a controlled breath. Aaron was only twelve. He didn’t realize the sort of game he was playing. “Do yourself a favor,” Dirk said slowly, “and keep this in mind: I’ll be able to tell If you betray us. And I won’t let you get away with it.”