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.”

Chapter 7 of Slayers: Into the Firestorm

Dr. B sat on his couch, staring at his phone with such intensity he didn’t hear his wife speak to him. It was only when Shirley stood in front of him that he stopped trying to guess Overdrake’s next targets and gave her his attention. Her black hair was twisted into a messy bun, curls escaping here and there. The smile that usually accompanied her expression was gone, replaced by weariness.

She picked up a Journal of Archaeological Science that had been draped over the couch arm and returned it to the coffee table. “We’re all packed. Nathan is putting his things in the car. Katie is in her room pretending if she doesn’t come out, the universe will readjust itself in her favor.”

“She’ll forgive us eventually.” His youngest two children had no Slayer powers. He’d never spoken of them to Slayers and had made sure Bess hadn’t either—an attempt to keep Overdrake from finding his children and using them as leverage.

Dr. B had tried to give them normal lives. But now there was no normal and he had to send his family to live with his father in Bluemont, Virginia. Less than three thousand people lived there, mostly in homes nestled into the base of the Blue Ridge Mountain. Such a small place would escape becoming one of Overdrake’s targets.

Shirley glanced over her shoulder in the direction of Katie’s room. “I keep telling her we’ll be safer the farther away we are from DC, but she wants to stay with you.”

“I imagine her friends are also part of that request.”

Shirley shook her head. “She’s convinced if you stay behind, Overdrake will end up killing you.”

Her sudden fear was probably the result of his gunshot wound. He adjusted his arm in the sling, testing to see how much pain the movement caused. The injury seemed to be healing. It felt like a nail digging into his muscle rather than a railroad spike. “She knows Overdrake has no way to track me and I intend to keep it that way.”

Dr. B himself had never done any actual fighting in Slayer-dragon battles, a fact that made him feel useless and somewhat cowardly. He was asking teenagers to fight fifty-ton carnivorous reptiles, while he stayed out of the way.

He had no choice, though. He didn’t have any skills that would give him an advantage against a dragon and at the best of times was only a decent shot. “I’ll talk to Katie,” Dr. B added.

Shirley gestured to the phone in his hand. “Who are you calling?”

“Bianca.”

“Well, isn’t that’s nice.” Shirley tilted her chin down, only half teasing in her reproach. “You can’t even wait until your family leaves town before you call an ex-girlfriend?”

Dr. B grunted, refusing to rise to the bait. “Trust me, it’s not that sort of phone call.”

Shirley pursed her lips. “Isn’t Bianca thin and pretty?”

He brought up her contact information. “I’ll call her while you’re here so you don’t imagine up ridiculous things I might have said to her.”

“That’s not necessary,” Shirley started, but he took hold of her hand and pulled her onto the couch next to him.

“In just a moment you’ll be completely reassured.” He hit the call button and held the phone far enough away from his ear that Shirley could hear.

Bianca picked up after a couple of moments. “Hello, Jameson.” Her voice had a hopeful lilt to it as though he might have good news about Aaron of Dirk. He hated to disappoint her.

“Hello Bianca.” He cleared his throat uncomfortably. “I’m calling to ask you to come to DC for a bit.”

Shirley raised her eyebrows and mouthed the words, “I’m completely reassured.”

He ignored her. “I’ve been in contact with a few congressmen,” he said into the phone. “I’d like you to testify to a committee and inform them about Brant.”

“Absolutely not.” Bianca didn’t bother to hide her incredulity. “I might as well come out of hiding and stand about with a target on my forehead.”

“We’ll be discrete. Brant won’t know you’re here.”

“He’ll know,” Bianca said. “He has people in the government.”

“Who?”

Bianca sighed, a sound that still managed to sound like a protest. “I don’t know names. But if I say anything about Brant, he’ll find out. He’ll find a way to punish me—”

“And what’s the alternative—live in a country where Brant rules? Is that what you want for your children?”

“Of course not—”

“Then you’ll have to be one of the people who stands up to him.”

Bianca paused, then let out a breath. “If I give the government information, they might end up hurting Dirk or Aaron. Both are with Brant.”

Shirley patted Dr. B’s knee, wordlessly encouraging him not to back down.

“None of us want that,” he said. “That’s one of the most important reasons for you to talk to the committee—to tell them that Brant has kidnapped Aaron and is using Dirk against his will.”

The silence on the phone stretched as Bianca considered his words. They both knew that Dirk was probably not being used against his will, but there was a fine line between persuasion and brainwashing. Overdrake had undoubtedly crossed it.

“The committee will only know what you tell them,” Dr. B emphasized. “You’ll let them know that Dirk has done what he could to protect the Slayers—including helping them kill Tamerlane.”

Shirley’s eyes widened at this statement. Bianca’s tone conveyed the same surprise. “You’re going to tell the committee about the Slayers?”

“I’ll inform them that Slayers exist but won’t reveal who they are. Congress needs to know about the Slayers so they can make sure armed forces don’t attack them during a fight.”

Bianca made an incredulous sound. “Congress won’t believe anything about dragons.”

“Probably not, which is why you’ll bring one of your scales. Experts should be able to determine it’s not man-made. Sooner or later, people will see the dragons for themselves. When that happens, the committee will remember your testimony.”

Bianca stayed quiet for a long time. Finally, she said, “I’ll need some guarantees from the committee before I talk to them.”

Dr B. wasn’t in a position to make many demands of congress. “What sort of guarantees?”

“I’ll think about it and let you know. If you hear anything about Aaron or Dirk, call me.” Bianca hung up after that. She probably wanted to end the conversation before he could ask anything else of her.

Dr. B set down the phone and took Shirley’s hand in his. “And that is why you don’t have to worry about Bianca and me. She’s not my type. My type is brave and self-sacrificing, like you.”

Shirley leaned her head against Dr. B’s shoulder and her curls brushed against his neck. “I don’t feel brave, running off and leaving you here.”

“It’s necessary.” Dr. B dug around in his pocket, searching for the key he’d put there earlier. “That reminds me, I have something for you to give to Bess.” He pulled it out and handed it to his wife.

She turned the key over in her hand. “Is this for Bess’s car?”

“Booker drove it to Bluemont yesterday and parked it three streets behind my father’s house.”

Shirley stared at the tiny Honda symbol, then back at him. “You want her to run away from your parent’s house?”

Dr. B held up a hand in protest. “I have suggested nothing of the sort, and if questioned, I can honestly say I don’t know any of Bess’s plans. My instructions have always been that she should stay with her grandparents. I simply found that key and gave it to you.”

Shirley shut her eyes for a moment, gripping the key. “Maybe I’m not as brave or self-less as you think. I don’t want to give it to her.”

“I know.” He reached out and put his arms around her. She buried her face in his chest and hugged him back. It was such a familiar action, something they’d done thousands of times—most of the time without much thought. Now he felt her warmth, her heartbeat, and smelled the soft scent of her shampoo. Even simple things meant more since the attacks began. “Perhaps you shouldn’t give Bess the key,” he said. “Perhaps I’ll never forgive myself if you do. But how can I send the other Slayers into battle without a shielder?”

Shirley lifted her head. “We could leave. All of us. We could take the Slayers and their families, get on a plane and fly to the other side of the world.”

“And then we’d be happy? Knowing we could have helped, could have tried to protect this country, but we ran away instead?”

“The Slayers are just teenagers,” Shirley pointed out, misery twining through her words. “It would be different if Overdrake had waited five or ten years to attack, but . . .” She didn’t finish. Five or ten years wouldn’t have really made any of this easier. In fact, more time could make things harder. In ten years, the Slayers could all be parents.

He shook his head with resignation. “Even if we decided to run, we wouldn’t be able to convince the Slayers to come with us. They’re fighters. And so is Bess. If we don’t help her, she’ll never forgive us.”

Shirley didn’t answer. She just laid her head back on his shoulder.

chapter 6

The next morning when Tori went downstairs, Aprilynne was sitting at the table, dressed for work, going through email while she ate cereal. Their father wore one of his usual black suits and was speaking to someone on the phone as though it were any other day.

The news show in the kitchen proclaimed it definitely wasn’t. A reporter stood in front of a Detroit church where relief workers handed out blankets to a line of people. “Witnesses described seeing some type of small aircraft or large drone soaring over the city during the attack. Although due to the nature of EMP, no reliable footage of the aircraft survived. An estimated six hundred thousand people are without electricity in Detroit alone.”

Six hundred thousand. She couldn’t picture, had no way to visualize how many people that was.

A banner on the bottom of the screen reported that San Francisco and Denver had also been hit. Three cities. Just like Overdrake promised.

That news put their small victory last night in perspective.

Her father ended his call and grabbed a couple of English muffins from the toaster.

Tori paced over to him in nervous agitation. “Where was the military when the attacks happened?”

He ran the butter knife across a muffin. “The bulk of our forces were guarding larger cities.”

“So they couldn’t do anything,” Tori said flatly.

“They most likely kept the terrorists away from the larger cities. That’s something.”

Small comfort. “Is the government just going to sacrifice the smaller cities?”

Her father spread butter on his second muffin. “No, we’re going to find and eliminate the terrorists.” He put the English muffins on a plate, then went to the fridge. “The schools will be open today, but if you don’t feel like going, I understand.”

Tori didn’t move from the counter. “What’s Venezuela doing?”

Aprilynne took a bite of her cereal. “They’re probably going to school.”

As Tori’s father took a juice bottle from the fridge, he sent Aprilynne a scolding look.

“What?” Aprilynne asked innocently. “I’m using humor to lighten the mood. It’s a coping technique.”

“Venezuela,” her father said, “Requested permission to do military exercises off our shores in the spring. Tori thinks they may be involved with the attacks. It is a possibility.”

Aprilynne’s blue eyes widened. “Why? What is Venezuela doing now?”

He didn’t speak for a moment and Tori could tell he was debating whether to say more or not. “Venezuela has offered to send troops to support our efforts.”

Clearly, a ploy to position themselves to help Overdrake attack. Tori huffed in aggravation. “You’re not going to fall for that, are you?” She’d told him about Venezuela’s intentions before. Her father hadn’t dismissed her accusations, but he wasn’t quite convinced either.

He poured himself a glass of juice. “I’m against letting any armed foreigners near our shores. Others think we should accept all the help we can get. Canada and Great Britain have offered services that we’ve accepted. Intelligence mostly. Senator Ethington claims my suspicions will cost us more cities. It’s one of the things we’ll be discussing today.” He picked up the plate with his muffins and motioned to Aprilynne that it was time to go.

Tori watched him, wishing she could pry more information out of him and simultaneously wishing he could pry more information out of her. “Senator Ethington is working for the wrong side.” And hopefully he wouldn’t be on Capitol Hill today. But just in case he was, she added, “Don’t let him win the debate.”

Her father headed toward the garage with Aprilynne in his wake. “I never do.”

***

When Tori arrived at school, Jesse was waiting by her locker. She spoke to him in a low voice while she put her backpack away. “What have you heard about Senator Ethington?”

She could tell from Jesse’s expression that the news wasn’t good. Irritation churned in his eyes. “According to Dr. B’s contacts, Ethington claimed he was attacked by a terrorist group who also planted the guns in his car. He had a harder time explaining the guns in the front seat with him, especially since residue on his hands made it clear he’d been firing one. But the police found the tranquilizer darts in the car, so that corroborated part of his story. He’s free pending an investigation. Who knows how long that will take or how it will turn out.” 

Jesse ran a hand through his hair in frustration. “In hindsight, I shouldn’t have knocked him and his bodyguard out, but I thought if I gave them any time, they’d ditch the guns, or shut the trunk and somehow weasel their way out of a search. I didn’t want to risk letting Ethington actually keep the guns.”

Tori put her hand on Jesse’s arm, a gesture of support. “You were trying to protect people on Capitol Hill, including my family. I would have definitely knocked him out.” She added a smile. “The important thing is that security will watch him closely now. Maybe he’ll end up being arrested or resigning. At the very least, when the news catches wind of the story, he’s going to lose public support.” 

Jesse nodded but didn’t look like he felt any better.

“I’m the one that blew our cover in the first place,” she reminded him. “Did Senator Ethington destroy the bug in his phone?” 

“Yep.” 

She’d known this would happen. Still, her shoulders slumped. All that inside information—gone.

“Don’t beat yourself up.” Jesse’s eyes were warm and consoling. “You did your best. We can’t control every outcome.”

Even when he felt bad himself, he was still trying to cheer her up. Impulsively, she grabbed his hand and gave it a squeeze. “I’m glad you’re on my side.”

He squeezed her hand back. “I’ll always be on your side.” He didn’t let go of her hand and seemed to want to say something else.

“What?” she asked. It felt so comfortable to hold his hand and at the same time so intimate that it was hard not to become distracted by it. The warmth of his fingers wrapped around hers, the way he was standing close–it was all quite distracting.

“I’ve been thinking about some things,” he said slowly. 

That sounded like a promising beginning of a conversation. One with all sorts of  possibilities. And possibilities were such lovely things.

He shifted his weight uncomfortably. “You know that I’ve been worried about how we’ll act during the next dragon attack.”

Oh, he wanted to talk about Slayer things. The swirl of possibilities that had just encircled her all seemed to deflate and fall limply to the ground.  She dropped his hand and turned to her locker so she didn’t have to see the lecture that was no doubt forming on his lips. “This is about the dragon eggs, isn’t it?” During that mission, she’d balked at bludgeoning a hatchling with her jackhammer and then insisted the group take an egg with them instead of breaking it into pieces.

“The dragon eggs?” Jesse asked, hedging.  He probably didn’t want to put his criticism into words. 

She spared him the effort. “You’re afraid I won’t be able to kill a dragon because I couldn’t destroy the dragon eggs.” 

He blinked at her. “Should I be worried about that?”

“No. But…I just don’t…maybe we don’t have to kill all of the dragons.”

Jesse pressed his lips together, an indication that she hadn’t reassured him. “As long as Overdrake has access to dragons, they’re a danger we can’t afford. You realize that, right?”

How could she not? The images of the lawlessness of the last two days would stay seared in her mind for years. She took her journalism book out of her locker. “Yes.”

He leaned against the door next to hers, eyes concerned. “You’re a good fighter. You and Kody finished off a group of armed criminals before Ryker and I even started with our guys. But even hesitating against a dragon could cost you your life.”

When Kiha had attacked them, Tori had a clear shot of the dragon’s heart, and she hadn’t taken it. That decision had almost been fatal. Apparently Jesse saw her inability to destroy the dragon eggs as a sign her dragon lord side was growing stronger. And maybe it was.

She pulled out a notebook and pen without speaking. 

His eyes didn’t leave her. “Tori, I need to know that when you fight, your mind is going to be in it one hundred percent.” He sighed and his voice grew softer, almost a whisper. “No distractions. None at all.”

 “I know,” she said. “My duty is to protect the country. It’s all there in my superhero contract.”

His gaze was still on her, weighing her reaction. “Promise me that the next time we fight Overdrake, you won’t hesitate to kill any of the dragons.”

She didn’t mean to hesitate with her answer, but her tongue had its own ideas. An image of Minerva flashed through Tori’s mind, her cherry red scales gleaming. That image was followed by Khan who was as sleek and black as the night sky. Both dragons were so powerful, so beautiful. And so absolutely dangerous. “I promise,” she finally said. “I’ll kill them if it’s necessary.”

Jesse let the subject drop, but she could tell by the worried dip of his eyebrows that he didn’t quite believe her promise.

She wasn’t quite sure she believed herself.

chapter 5

Jesse stood next to Theo’s van, pulling on his boots over his bulletproof pants. He couldn’t help checking the sky every few moments for Tori and Kody. The van was on the shoulder, down the road from the intersection Ethington and Voodoo would have to use to get to the main street. Jesse should have been keeping his gaze on that.  Instead, he let Ryker and Theo handle that task.

Finally, he spotted Tori and Kody in the sky. Her hair was loose and streaming out behind her, something that made Kody tilt his head to avoid being whipped by the strands.

Jesse’s eyes scanned her, checking for injuries. He hadn’t quite recovered from hearing those gunshots on her feed. It wasn’t ever going to get easier, knowing that she was in danger and not being able to protect her.

Beside him, Ryker said, “Just tell her you want her back and be done with it.”

Jesse pulled on his gloves with more force than the task required. “Getting back together would only make things worse. We’d both be even more distracted. I need to put the nation’s safety first.”

He expected Ryker to agree. Instead Ryker said, “You know, every once in a while, you can put what you want first.”

For a moment Jesse considered that idea, imagined what it would be like to hold onto his own happiness and let all his other responsibilities topple around him. Tori would be at the center of that happiness and he would keep her safe.

Happiness. It seemed so easy. It wasn’t, of course. If he protected Tori and people died because of that choice, how would he live with himself afterward? At the same time, how would he live with himself if he didn’t do everything he could to protect Tori and she was killed?

It always came down to that—a stalemate between two horrible sorts of pain. Back when Jesse had joined the Slayers, he’d thought that choosing to sacrifice his life for the good of the country would be the hardest choice he’d ever have to make. Now that decision seemed like the easy one.

He never should have allowed himself to fall in love and if he was smart, he’d do everything he could to keep emotional distance from Tori until they were all through defending the country.

She and Kody landed by the van door. Her jeans were peppered with tears and spots of blood dotted them. Gunfire wounds? Worry pricked his stomach. “What happened to your legs?”

Tori helped Kody unhook himself from the back of her jacket. “Either bullets or bark. I’m not sure which.”

“What?” Jesse stepped closer for a better look. “If you’ve been shot, we need to take you to a hospital.”

Theo handed Kody a stack of gear without any concern. “If she’d been shot, she’d know it. Must just be wood shrapnel.”

Dr. B’s voice came from over the line. He couldn’t drive as fast as the flyers and was still a few minutes away. “Not necessarily. Adrenaline can mask pain. Check for excessive bleeding.”

Tori ran her fingers across her jeans, unhappily. “Oh no.”

Jesse’s worry spiked. “Bullets?”

“No.” She dabbed at a spot. “But how am I going to explain to people why I have all of these shrapnel cuts on my legs?”

“Shaving accident?” Ryker suggested.

She took a pair of bulletproof pants from Theo and began pulling them over her jeans. “Yeah, because I want people to think I’m incompetent with a Bic razor.”

Jesse picked up a lockpick and tucked it into his jacket. “Look, I’ll take Kody and handle this. You need to get your wounds taken care of.”

“I’m fine,” she said. “And I’m not letting Senator Ethington take those guns anywhere near Capitol Hill.”

Theo gestured toward the road. “Ethington’s car just pulled out. Looks like Voodoo is behind him.”

There wasn’t more time for discussion. He put on his helmet and took to the air so fast the wind rushed around him. For the rest of this mission, Jesse needed to concentrate on protecting the country. And he’d just have to obsessively worry about Tori in silence. Later, he would talk to her about the two of them. Or not. Depending on whether he was feeling patriotic or like a normal teenage boy. Could he even be a normal teenage boy anymore?

Kody and Tori shoved their helmets on and attached themselves together. Theo barely had time to hand them rifles and tranquilizer guns before they were lifting in the air.

Ethington’s Cadillac turned right. The SUV turned left.

Jesse headed left, making sure his rifle’s suppressor was on before he slid its sling. The quieter they could keep this, the better. “We’ve got the SUV.”

Dr. B’s voice came over the line again, his words quick and firm. “J-bird and Chameleon you follow the senator’s car. T-bird and Wyoming, you take Voodoo. When they reach less busy streets, you may stop the vehicles. No casualties.”

Jesse inwardly groaned. The SUV was the more dangerous vehicle. Tori would have to face a bunch of underworld thugs, while he and Ryker dealt with only one marksman and a middle-aged senator who probably couldn’t shoot straight.  But Jesse had been given a direct order to follow Ethington. The other Slayers weren’t going to let him ignore it. Ryker had already flipped in the air, changed directions, and was tailing the Cadillac. Reluctantly, Jesse did the same.

Ryker muted his mic so the others wouldn’t hear him speak. “She’ll be fine. She’s got better firepower than we do.” Kody literally had firepower and freezing blasts as well.

Ryker didn’t unmute his mic, which meant he wasn’t done with this line of conversation. Jesse muted his mic as well. Kody and Tori were using a separate channel, but Dr. B was still listening in.

Ryker glided through the air, arms relaxed at his side. “Really, you need to talk to her. The way the two of you flirt and then act like you’re part of a tragedy is getting old.”

“We don’t flirt.” Jesse was careful to tamp those feelings down and Tori had acted aloof towards him since he’d broken up with her.

“Back at the lake, she couldn’t take her eyes off of you.”

“Really?” Jesse’s voice rose in hope. He couldn’t help himself.

Ryker laughed at his response. “Seriously, what’s the point in dying with your pride intact?”

“You’re sure I’m going to die?”

“Well, you are the favorite in the first death bets.”

“Nah, most of the money is on you. If for no other reason than I put a hundred on you myself.” Jesse hadn’t but was going to now, just to spite Ryker.

“Doesn’t matter. You’ll always be the favorite. Everyone knows you’re too self-sacrificing.” Ryker said this as though it were a bad thing.

“That’s like accusing me of caring about the rest of you too much. It’s impossible to be too self-sacrificing.”

Ryker shook his head, a motion indicating he thought Jesse was a lost cause. “We’ll put that on your headstone: It’s impossible to be too self-sacrificing. And hey, if you can manage a few miracles, the Catholic Church might offer you sainthood.”

“If we manage to stop Overdrake, that will be miracle enough.” Jesse flipped his mic back on. It was time for him to get his head in the game.

He was soaring so high above the road, he could see it stretch out in front of him for quite some distance. Only a few cars besides the Cadillac hurried along, unhampered by the usual evening traffic. After a few minutes, the senator’s car slowed, a sign he’d be turning off soon.

Ryker swung his rifle from its sling on his back and checked the safety. “We’re probably following Ethington for nothing. What are the chances Voodoo handed over the weapons without getting full payment first?”

“Maybe he knows Ethington is good for the money.”

“He didn’t strike me as the trusting sort.”

“True.” Jesse pulled his rifle from its sling as well. “But I won’t feel bad trashing his car anyway.  The guy just shot at my girlfriend.” He caught his mistake immediately. “Ex-girlfriend.” Jesse paused, could feel Ryker’s reaction to his slip bubbling up. The words: See, that proves you want to get back together with her were about to jump off his tongue. Jesse held up a hand. “Don’t say it.”

Theo’s voice came over the line with mock innocence. “Was that instruction meant for me or Chameleon? Because I usually don’t get to weigh in on your love life.”

And he still didn’t get to. “It was meant for both of you.” Jesse should have used Tori’s code name when he was talking about her. He was getting careless. Or pathetic. “Aren’t you following T-bird and Wyoming?” he asked Theo. “Why are you on this channel?”

“Doctor You-Know-Who switched with me. He wants to be closer to the SUV. So now you two get to benefit from my expertise and knowledge. Of course, you’ll ignore it. You always do.”

“I’d comment about that,” Jesse said. “but I’m ignoring you.”

Dr. B would still be monitoring both channels. He didn’t chime in, though even now while they were talking about him. As a policy, he made no unnecessary remarks during missions that could distract the Slayers.

The Cadillac turned onto a side street, heading away from the river. A golf course and some neighborhoods lay up ahead. No other cars were nearby. Best of all, the senator’s car was coasting toward a stop sign. At almost the same time, Jesse and Ryker dropped lower. The Slayers could shoot with fair precision at five hundred feet away—too far away for most people to accurately respond in kind.

As Jesse dipped closer to the car, he noted that the bodyguard wasn’t driving, Ethington was. Only one reason for that. Ethington was worried about being followed and wanted the better marksman to have his hands free.

“I’ll take the right side,” Jesse said. “Call me self-sacrificing. Wait, you already did.” Without giving Ryker a chance to argue, he dived downward, rifle at the ready. Since the bodyguard sat on the right hand, he would undoubtedly shoot at Jesse, not lean across his boss to aim out of the other side to hit Ryker.

Jesse fired at the back tire, then the front. The bullets hit the rubber with satisfying thwacks, echoes of Ryker’s shots on the other side.

Almost immediately, Jesse took return fire. There was a popping sound, then bullets whizzed past him like angry bees. Those had been closer than he expected. The bodyguard had been watching for them and he wasn’t a bad shot.

The sky didn’t offer any cover, but it was hard to hit what you couldn’t see. Jesse darted directly over the top of the car and motioned for Ryker to do the same. This way, if the bodyguard wanted to reach them, he’d have to lean out of the car to do it.

The Cadillac lurched through the intersection and sped down the street. Jesse followed, hovering over the car while he waited for it to sink to the ground. Shouldn’t take the tires long to go flat.

This didn’t happen. The car kept moving, traveling faster than it should have been able to.

Ryker made a grumbling noise. “Bulletproof tires.”

“He’ll have matching glass.” The problem with bulletproof glass was that it protected passengers inside the car while still allowing them to shoot out.

“We can work with that.” Ryker flew higher and pulled ahead of the car enough to get a clear shot of the windshield, then fired several times.

Undoubtedly none of the bullets made it through, but each hit made the glass crack and craze, leaving it white with damage so it was opaque and distorted. “If Ethington can’t see, he’ll have to stop.”

The bodyguard leaned toward the windshield for a counter attack. More popping sounds stuttered through the night. Ryker had to rocket away to avoid being shot. Even with a suppressor, the noise had been too loud.

The car picked up speed. As long as any part of the windshield was undamaged, the senator could keep driving.

Jesse motioned for Ryker to come back to the top of the car. “If we keep shooting, people will hear the gunfire and call the police. We need to throw something into the car’s path and make it crash.” There had to be something around they could use: a trailer, a discarded Christmas tree, an unsuspecting shed.

While Jesse scanned the area, he tuned to Tori’s channel. “Our vehicle’s bulletproof. Yours probably is too.”

“Understood,” she said.

In the background of her feed, a man shouted out death threats. That probably wasn’t a good sign. “What’s going on?” Jesse asked.

“Wyoming turned the SUV’s back wheels into wheelcycles, and when someone got out to see what was wrong, our man: Mr. Statehood sent a fireball inside. The men all exited and now we’re picking them off with tranquilizers.”

“Wyoming for the win!” Kody crowed.

Somewhere near Tori and Kody, a man screamed an obscenity, making the word stretch out like a rebel yell.

“That guy sounds too close,” Jesse said.

“He’s not close,” Tori said. “He’s just really loud.”

“Be careful.”

“I always am.”

That was part of the problem. Tori really thought she was being careful as she took on too many armed men, or got too close to dragons, or almost as bad, too close to Dirk. “Be more than your usual amount of careful,” Jesse pressed.

“How are things on your end?” Tori asked.

The question was enough to remind him that he was supposed to be doing something besides hovering over the senator’s car like a party balloon. “We’re still working on it.”

“Yeah,” Ryker said, “We’re sticking close to Ethington’s car, hoping that eventually he’ll run out of gas. When that happens, he’s ours.”

Okay, granted, Jesse had gotten a little distracted talking with Tori, but that wasn’t a reason for sarcasm. “Gotta go,” he said and switched off her channel.

The Cadillac veered down a side street, making its way through an upscale neighborhood. A scattering of houses stood back from the road, keeping their distance behind winding driveways. The senator wasn’t heading toward his house. He either was trying to lose Jesse and Ryker or he was driving toward someone who could give him backup. The second scenario seemed most likely, which meant they needed to strike soon.

Ryker peered down the street. “Why don’t any of these people have easily throwable boats?”

Jesse’s gaze darted between the houses they passed. “We’ll have to settle for something else. Fortunately, the attacks have made people patriotic.”

He spotted what he was looking for around the next curve. A large American flag that hung over someone’s balcony. “I’ll be right back. Cover for me.”

Ryker slid to the left, rifle raised, and shot Ethington’s side window. While the bodyguard was adjusting his gun so as not to accidentally shoot his boss, Jesse arced backward toward the house with the flag: a well-lit two-story brick mansion.

He flew to the balcony, took hold of the flag, and ripped it from the pole. Only after the material was in his hands, did Jesse notice two pajama-clad boys, staring at him from a bedroom window. One looked about ten, the other eight, and both were gaping at him with open mouths.

“It’s gotta be that Augustus dude,” the younger yelled. “Now he’s stealing people’s flags!”

Well, even if Jesse had wanted to explain, he didn’t have time. He jumped off the balcony and glided, upright, across the grass. That way if the kids snapped a picture of him, at least he wouldn’t look like he’d flown away.

When he was out of sight, he missiled upwards. “Position?” he asked Ryker.

“Going north-east. Nearing a church.” The banging noises in the background were proof that the led was still flying. Apparently Ryker had given up any attempt to be stealthy.

Jesse wheeled north-east, searching for a steeple.

Tori’s voice came onto his channel. “We searched the SUV. The weapons aren’t here. Have you guys stopped Ethington’s car?”

“No,” Ryker said, “but he can’t have more than a half a tank left. You know what gas guzzlers these luxury sedans are.”

“Do you need our help?” She had the grace to sound surprised.

“We’ve got it under control,” Jesse assured her. He didn’t want her to face even more gunmen. “How are your legs?”

Tori didn’t seem to hear him. “Voodoo might have stashed the guns somewhere in the woods. Someone else could be picking them up right now.”

That, in retrospect, would have been the smart thing for Voodoo to do if he’d suspected he would be followed. Although he probably hadn’t worried much about that outcome. Not many people were foolish enough to follow a vehicle filled with automatic rifles.

“If you don’t need us,” Tori said, “we’ll double back to check that area.”

“Understood,” Jesse said. “Hopefully we’ll find the guns in Ethington’s car. Then we can move them to Edison’s van.”

“Only if there’s no police around,” Theo cut in. “I’m listening to their dispatches. I can’t risk being pulled over for breaking curfew and then being caught with illegal weapons. I’m too pretty to go to prison.”

“Hate to break it to you,” Kody said with a snort, “but you ain’t that pretty.”

Dr. B cleared his throat. “Concentrate on finding the weapons. We’ll worry about the quality of Edison’s prison life later.”

The chatter went silent after that. Jesse skimmed over the church steeple and spotted Ryker flying above the Cadillac’s roof like a persistent shadow. He’d stopped firing, and from what little window glass was still clear, Jesse could see the bodyguard twisting in his seat to search the night sky.

Jesse needed a way to descend in front of the car without getting shot. “When I say the word, make a distraction. Copy?”

“Copy.” Ryker dropped lower, still staying centered over the car roof.

Jesse waited until the road began to wind through another curve, then sailed passed the car to get in front of it. He sunk, in a few more yards would be in the bodyguard’s line of sight. “Now.”

He’d expected Ryker to fire at something in the street, make some noise. Instead, Ryker plummeted down, momentarily landing on top of the Cadillac’s roof. Perhaps not the safest distraction since the bodyguard immediately swiveled his gun that direction. He didn’t shoot, though. Bulletproof ceilings had their drawbacks.

Jesse dropped until he hung almost directly in front of the car, the flag stretched between his arms. He let it go and the material fluttered for a moment, fell like a sigh, and then the car smacked into it. The flag pressed against the windshield, completely obscuring Ethington’s view.

Jesse was just able to dash out of the way before the car hurtled by him, brakes squealing. It rattled off the road and slammed into a tree. Bits of bark, plastic, and headlights exploded from the car. The tree shuddered from the impact, its branches waving back and forth in reproach. The hiss of airbags sounded and the headlights flickered off.

Had the entire neighborhood heard the crash?

Jesse and Ryker both lifted in the air, watching the car from a wary distance. Two houses were near enough that Jesse could see their front doors. No one came out to check on the noise. Neither Ethington or his bodyguard climbed out of the car.

“They could be hurt,” Jesse said.

“Or waiting for us to come close so they can fire on us.”

Jesse needed to get to the trunk but didn’t want to be that close to the car doors if two armed men were about to get out.  The Cadillac’s windows were so pocked and fractured, the glass looked like it was covered in snow in places. Only blurry shapes were visible inside. They moved a little. Someone moaned, low and long.

Perhaps the airbags hadn’t worked as well as they should have. “If they need medical care,” Jesse whispered, “we’ve got to help them. I can’t tell my mom I killed off her favorite presidential candidate.”

“And that’s why we don’t tell our parents stuff. After we’ve got the guns, we’ll call nine-one-one. Edison, are you close?”

“Two minutes away. But I’m not coming within firing distance unless you disarm everyone.”

Another moan came from the car. Was that real pain or a ploy to lure them closer?

Either way, Jesse needed to get the trunk unlocked. He’d be vulnerable as he flew down behind the car. The darker it was, the safer he’d be. He took aim at the nearest streetlight and shot. The glass cracked, the light blinked out, and bits of debris tinkled onto the pavement. There was still more light than he liked but extinguishing all of it would be impossible. Too many lit windows.

“Give me a diversion,” he told Ryker. Then Jesse plummeted toward the ground.

Ryker careened forward and shot the front windshield, trying to focus the men’s attention there. It only half worked. Ethington returned fire at Ryker. The bodyguard let loose a round at Jesse.

A spray of bullets hit his chest like a hammer swing, stealing his breath and pushing him back through the air several feet.

“Got one!” the bodyguard yelled.

Jesse dived for the Cadillac’s back wheels. He reached them, was safe for the moment. In this position, no one in the car could see him here, let alone angle their gun to hit him. He ran his hand across his chest to reassure himself that none of the bullets had penetrated his Kevlar or body plates. No blood there, just a bruised feeling.

“You okay?” Ryker asked.

“Yeah.” Jesse adjusted himself into position, crouching behind the trunk.

Ryker had moved above the car roof again and batted a tree branch out of the way. “Those guys were way too happy about hitting you. That should cost Ethington your mom’s vote. Just saying.”

That and a lot of other things. Jesse pulled out his lockpick. “They’ve got to be using Voodoo’s rifles.” The bullets had come too fast for handguns and besides, Ethington hadn’t expected to be followed tonight. He wouldn’t have brought so many rounds of ammo with him. “Maybe the guns aren’t in the—” Jesse didn’t finish the sentence. When he touched the trunk handle, an electric current slapped through his arm.

Jesse dropped the lockpick and shook his hand, trying to bring feeling back to it. “The doors are electrified.”

The senator certainly had tricked out this Cady.

Ryker cursed. “If this turns into a waiting game, Ethington wins. He’s probably already called for help.”

“I don’t know about Ethington,” Theo broke in, “but someone called the police. You’ve got about four minutes before this place is crawling with cops. I’m down the street but I’m not coming closer and I can’t stay long. Maybe two minutes.”

Ryker surveyed the Cadillac, hands on his hips. “We’ve got to disarm the battery so you can take care of the lock.”

If they tried, they’d be too slow.

Dr. B spoke, his voice a forced calm, “You may have to abandon the mission.”

“We still have two minutes,” Jesse said. “How’s the front windshield’s visibility?”

“Completely gone,” Ryker said.

Good. “We need it darker. Hit the rest of the lights.”

Ryker flew upward until he had a clear view of the other streetlights.

Crack. One light snuffed out. A second crack. The night grew even darker. Now the only light came from house windows, which annoyingly all seemed to be turned on. But it was dark enough.

“What’s the plan?” Ryker asked.

“Blunt force.”

The Caddy’s motor grumbled in an effort to start. Ethington had probably seen Jesse in the backup camera and was attempting to back up and run over him. Fortunately, the motor didn’t manage to turn over.

Fine. If the senator and his bodyguard were watching, they could watch Jesse disappear under the car and wonder what he was doing under there.

A moment later Jesse emerged from Ethington’s side of the car and flew to the windshield. Bullets from the outside might not be able to pierce the glass, but the two men had very considerately shot dozens of holes from their side.

Jesse aligned his gun to one at the very top of the windshield. “Open the trunk or I start shooting.”

To emphasize the point, he let the end of his barrel clack against the glass.

Immediately, both men fired on the area under Jesse’s gun. Shots cut through the night in an insistent drumbeat. Bits of glass burst from the windshield, sparkling like glitter. Even bulletproof glass had its limits, and the men had just breached that limit. When their ammo ran out, large chunks of the window were missing.

None of the bullets had hit Jesse. People who couldn’t fly just assumed that others kept their feet below them. Jesse was hanging upside down, arm outstretched, most of his body angled behind the car roof. He’d moved his hand as soon as they started shooting.

Now, still hanging upside down, he lowered himself to take advantage of the new, bigger holes. Both men were in the process of reloading. Jesse pointed his gun inside the car before they could achieve that goal. “Drop the weapons!”

The bodyguard scowled and reluctantly let his rifle fall to the floor, fingers twitching in anger. Ethington dropped his gun almost as slowly. “Think this through, boy. I know who you are. I may not know where to find you, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make Tori pay for this.”

Jesse had never wanted to kill anyone before. Now he was tempted. “Open the trunk.”

“Overdrake’s men will be here in ten minutes.” Ethington kept his hands raised, made no move to open the trunk. “You take anything of mine, and they’ll hunt you down.”

Ryker joined Jesse, gun in hand. “I’ll worry about that in ten minutes.”

Ethington scowled at him. “All three flyers are out tonight. I feel special.”

Jesse pulled out his tranquilizer gun and pointed it at Ethington with his left hand. “You’ll feel more than special if you don’t open that trunk. I won’t ask again. I’ll lean over your limp body and do it myself.” Let him wonder which gun Jesse would use.

Ethington pursed his lips and hit a button on his dash. The trunk latch clicked, releasing the door.

Jesse jutted his chin in that direction. “See what’s there.”

Ryker glided to the back of the car. “Jackpot.”

Ethington growled out another threat, but Jesse hardly heard it. Theo was talking. “The police will be here in two minutes. I’ve got to go.”

“We just found the guns.” Ryker began stacking boxes in his arms. “You can wait another sixty seconds. If we try to carry all of these, we’ll drop half of them.”

“Sorry,” Theo said. “I left my get-out-of-jail card at home.” The sound of a gunning engine came over the line.

“That better be you driving in this direction,” Ryker said.

But Jesse had just thought through this scenario. “Never mind,” he said. “We’re not taking the guns.”

“What?” Ryker asked.

Ethington smiled. “Having second thoughts? Smart boy. You might live through the night.”

Tori’s voice came over the line. “J-bird, you can’t let him have those weapons.”

How long had she been tuned to his channel? He allowed himself one second to wonder if she’d been worried when she’d heard him getting shot at. “Sorry,” Jesse said. “It’s safer if we leave the guns.”

“Safer for who?” Tori protested.

“What are you thinking?” Kody added.

“Hold on,” Jesse told them, then fired the tranquilizer gun twice. Easy shots to the neck.

Both men swore and grabbed the darts, pulling them out. “What did you do that for?” Ethington yelled, rubbing his neck. The bodyguard reached for his gun.

Jesse turned his rifle on him. “Hands back up. Those were just tranquilizers. That way you won’t shoot us as we leave.”

Sixty seconds until they passed out. Jesse would stick around until then. Or until the police showed up.

Ethington muttered a stream of curses while the bodyguard tried to burn holes in Jesse with his eyes.

“J-bird,” Tori said. “If Overdrake arms people on Capitol Hill, my father and sister could be killed. You know Overdrake wants revenge.” Her voice broke. “My family—they’re the only ones who couldn’t go undercover.”

Ethington worked in the same office building as her father and sister and that alone put them at greater risk. And that’s why Jesse stayed where he was, waiting for the sound of approaching cars. “I know. Trust me.” He didn’t want to say more, not with Ethington listening. No point in letting him know what Jesse was thinking.

She can trust you,” Ryker said, “but I’m taking these.”

If Ethington and the bodyguard heard Ryker fly off, they made no sign of it. Their eyes were still fixed—and mostly alert—on Jesse’s gun.

Tori dragged in a deep breath. “Is trust supposed to feel like I want to rip my hair out? Because that’s what happening.”

Despite himself, Jesse smiled. “Your hair is too pretty to rip out.”

Ethington and the bodyguard exchanged a puzzled glance before staring at Jesse again. “Who are you talking to?” Ethington asked.

Yeah, Jesse’s last comment had probably sounded strange. “You,” he said. “I’ve always been a fan of your hair.”

Senator Ethington wrinkled his nose in distaste. “Touch me and I’ll make sure you’re…you’re…” He blinked, then blinked again. “You’re…”

“Is this a fill in the blank sort of thing?” Jesse asked.

No answer this time. Senator Ethington slumped in his seat, fighting to keep his eyes open. The bodyguard’s hands dropped to his lap, and his head lolled forward. His face thunked against the dashboard. That was going to hurt when he woke up.

Headlights shone down the street, flitting through patches of trees as they came closer. “That’s my friendses,” Ethington slurred.

It wasn’t. A squad car was hurrying toward them. A second set of headlights from the other direction was joining them. When the officers got here, they would find that Senator Ethington and his bodyguard had been knocked unconscious in a car crash. The car had clearly been part of a shootout, which would require a police investigation.  The officers would notice both the guns in the front of the locked car and the ones in the trunk. Unlicensed, illegal, and in Senator Ethington’s possession.

Jesse took to the air, only pausing to note two other squad cars were converging on the scene.  Good. Even if one or two of the policemen happened to be on Overdrake’s payroll, the others wouldn’t be. They would make sure the rifles went to the proper authorities.

“J-bird, are you okay?” Tori’s voice. It was nice that she was worried about him, even though she didn’t understand what he’d done.

“I’m fine,” he said. “And here’s my explanation: If we’d taken the guns, Ethington could have just gotten a hold of more. We wouldn’t know when or how to stop him. But once the police find him with smuggled assault rifles, yeah, he’s not going to be able to sneak a water bottle onto Capitol Hill, let alone a bunch of weapons.”

Tori made a sound that was half-sigh, half-laugh. “I knew there was a reason I trusted you.”

“And the reason is I’m awesome,” Jesse said.

“You are,” she agreed.

The compliment alone was enough to power his flight back. Every once in a while, Ryker had said, you can put what you want first. How often was every once in a while? Should he talk to her, change the way things stood between them?

“I trusted you too,” Ryker said. “Mostly. But now what am I supposed to do with my armful of illegal contraband?”

“We’ll put them with our other slightly illegal supplies,” Dr. B said. “We made need them someday. And that someday may be sooner than we’d like.”

chapter 4

I’ve been watching the grandlings all week. (Do not ask me why my website flipped this picture. I don’t know how to fix it, so you all will just have to turn your monitors upside down.) I love having family here, but I get nothing done. (I’m gonna have to change that now because chapter 5 is the chapter I’m rewriting. So it’s got to be more than gibberish by next week.) Here’s chapter 4, though.

An hour and a half later, Tori was in an upscale neighborhood in Potomac Maryland, laying flush against a roof, binoculars in hand. It was her turn to watch Senator Ethington’s house. It looked the same as it had from the time they’d arrived: A large brick colonial mansion with gabled windows and an old-fashioned porch.

A light shone in the downstairs living room. Upstairs, the bedroom curtains lay open enough to reveal a TV that played a cooking show. No other signs that anyone was home. Theo was parked somewhere nearby with a simulator. An occasional sneeze was the only indication that he hadn’t fallen asleep. Hopefully Jesse and Ryker were having more luck with their man.

Kody lay next to Tori, scanning the neighborhood with his binoculars. “Anything happening?” he asked.

“Nope. For an evil henchman, Senator Ethington lives a boring life.”

“Maybe we’ll get lucky and he’ll watch something interesting after the baking show.”

An alert chimed on Tori’s watch. Ten minutes had passed. Kody’s turn to stare at the house.

They switched targets, and she swept her gaze through the manicured grounds to the west, the section of road visible through the trees, then the large grassy field to the east. “I guess I shouldn’t complain, but after Overdrake attacked, I always imagined myself doing more than sitting on a roof wondering whose quiche will be fluffiest.”

“Oh, things will definitely get worse.” Kody’s upbeat tone didn’t match his words. “Sooner or later, Overdrake will bring a dragon around here.” He adjusted the zoom on his binoculars. “Who are you betting on for first death?”

During a practice last month, Ryker had gotten mad at Lilly for not paying attention and had predicted her gruesome and untimely death. She’d insisted she would outlive Ryker, and the argument had evolved into everyone making wagers on who would die first in battle. Bess was keeping the list of bets because she insisted she would outlive them all. And she might, considering her grandfather’s edict.

Tori turned her binoculars on the street, then to the front of the house. “I put my money on Overdrake dying first.”

Kody chuckled. “Wish I’d thought of that. I’ll have to put another ten on President Augustus.”

In Ethington’s bedroom, the TV showed contestants whipping eggs with more focused determination than Tori had ever given breakfast. “Who did you pick?” Tori asked.

Kody got along with all the Slayers and was perpetually optimistic about their chances. She couldn’t imagine him predicting any of their deaths.

“I voted for myself. Because once I get a hold of Overdrake or one of his dragons, ain’t no way I’m gonna retreat.”

Tori wasn’t sure how to respond to that. Should she criticize Kody for not valuing his life enough or applaud him for being so courageous? Finally Tori said, “You can’t die first. You’re too crucial to our success.”

The words weren’t just praise intended to make Kody feel special. With Bess stuck at her grandfather’s, Kody’s blasts were the Slayers only protection against armed men. Which is why, Tori suddenly realized, Jesse had insisted Kody come with her. If any gunmen were around, he wanted Kody to protect her.

A foolish sentiment, since she wasn’t likely to go anywhere tonight. Really, what were the chances Ethington would do any of his dirty work himself?

Kody leaned forward. “Well looky there.”

Tori turned her binoculars to see what had drawn his attention. The garage door opened and a gold Cadillac emerged onto the street. And Ethington wasn’t alone. His bodyguard was driving, a man that had so much height and muscle he almost looked cramped in the confines of the front seat.

Senator Ethington lounged in the back seat, head bent, his figure barely visible. Tori knew what he looked like well enough. He was a favorite of the media, always posturing at rallies and posing at homeless shelters with his too big smile and his hair so * thick it couldn’t have been real.

Tori tucked her binoculars into her jacket. “I guess we’ll have to find out how to perfect our quiche some other time.”

Kody lifted his watch to his lips to report in. “The senator is on the move. We’re heading out.”

Tori’s jacket had a hook harnessed to the back of and Kody had a loop harnessed to the front of his so they would both have their hands free while she carried him. He attached himself and she rose from the roof, hurrying to get high enough into the air that if anyone looked up, she wouldn’t easily be seen.

“Anything happening on your end?” Tori asked Jesse through her watch. Senator Ethington’s trip could be unrelated to the meeting with Voodoo.

“Eaves hasn’t gone anywhere yet,” he replied.

Maybe Ethington really was the one making contact then.

Below, the streets wound their way around darkened homes and yellow yards. Barren trees looked like brown smudges in the landscape. Tori trailed the Cadillac out of the neighborhood and onto River Road. “Edison,” she said, using Theo’s code name, “are you reading us?” He needed to track Tori in order to follow them with the simulator. If they got further than five miles away, their powers would wear off after half an hour.

“GPS is working,” Theo answered. “Wish I could say the same for the video feed.”

The Slayers knit hats had been equipped with cameras for this mission, but movement and low light never made for good reception. “I knew I should have gone with a higher ISO,” Theo went on. “Right now, my view is a blur of streets.”

That was all there was to see for the next fifteen minutes. Not many cars were on the road—maybe because curfew was nearing, or maybe people were worried about another EMP strike and wanted to keep their cars safe. The internet was already full of tutorials about turning your garage into a giant Faraday cage. Tori spotted Theo’s van trailing far enough behind the Cadillac that Senator Ethington couldn’t see him. Then the senator turned onto a one lane road heading towards the Potomac. No other cars were on the road. Nothing seemed to be around but barren trees, branches held up like pitchforks. So probably not some innocent errand.

Without light posts lining the road in helpful illumination, Tori had to fly lower to make sure she didn’t lose the car down some hidden turnoff.

“We’ve got a problem,” Theo reported. “A man pulled the entrance gate closed after Ethington went by.”

Tori hadn’t noticed a gate, but someone must have been expecting the senator and didn’t want anyone following him.

Dr. B’s voice came over the line. “Edison, pull off the road somewhere as close as you can. T-bird you’ll most likely fly out of range soon.”

Which meant she and Kody would only have their powers for another half an hour.

Tori glanced at her watch. “It’s nine twenty. Ethington has to be close to his contact.”

Or the senator was running late for his rendezvous. She couldn’t see any buildings. “Where does this road lead?”

Dr. B always had satellite photos of the mission areas and would be tracking her progress. “A parking lot by the river.”

A charming meeting spot at midnight in January.

“You’ve got fifteen minutes,” Dr. B said, then amended, “make that fourteen to give yourself some margin. After that, you’ll have to fly back into range. I don’t want you to fall or get stuck out in the dark.”

“We’ve got sixteen minutes,” Kody whispered. “We’re not out of range yet and margin is for sissies.”

“Fourteen,” Dr. B insisted. “Margin is for people who want to stay alive.”

Jesse’s voice joined the conversation. “Should we abandon Eaves and join you?”

“Not yet,” Dr. B said. “Eaves could still be our man. Keep an eye him until nine thirty.”

Tori flew on, checking the minutes as she trailed the car like a drifting shadow.  The woods grew thicker, wilder.

Five minutes passed. Then six. What if all of this had been some decoy, or worse, a trap? Could Ethington know the Slayers would follow him and so he was leading them away from safety?

The Cadillac reached a small parking lot not far from the river shore. An SUV waited there, headlights on.

Tori slowed. “I think we found the contact.”

Dr. B’s voice came over her earpiece. “Don’t let yourself be seen.”

The Senator’s car eased to a stop behind the SUV.

Tori flew to the largest tree she saw and dropped behind its trunk. Even though she and Kody were a good distance away, she landed softly, making sure her boots only made a slight thud on the ground. The place smelled of decaying leaves, of autumn’s last moments before winter took over. Quietly, Tori read off the SUV’s license plate number. Hopefully that would give them some information about the man.

“We need to be closer,” Kody whispered. “We won’t be able to hear them.”

“I will.” Tori had exceptional hearing. It was a part of being a dragon lord that she didn’t appreciate most of the time, but once in a while came in handy.

Senator Ethington climbed out of his car, his hat pulled low and a scarf wrapped around his chin. His bodyguard followed. The bulge in his jacket indicated he was toting a gun.

Four armed men emerged from SUV, three in ski masks. A little less subtle as disguises went. The fourth had a hooked nose and brown hair fringing from the bottom of his hat. Since his face wasn’t hidden, he was probably Voodoo, the one Ethington knew by sight.

“At least five are packing,” Tori said into her watch.

“We’re on our way,” Jesse said. “Should take us about twenty minutes.” Unless this deal took a long time, he and Ryker would be too late.

Voodoo turned on a flashlight and the SUV cut its lights, leaving only a small beam to illuminate the area. Didn’t matter. Slayers had night vision. The color of the trees around them dimmed to shades of gray, but Tori could make out Ethington nod in greeting and stride to his trunk.

“Closer,” Kody urged. “It’s better if we can both hear them.”

Tori didn’t move. “I would listen to you about that sort of thing, but you plan on dying first.”

“The camera needs to be able to pick up their conversation.”

Might be all that the camera picked up, dark as it was.

Tori drifted to a tree that was a little closer. The tree was half the size of the last. Not great cover.

“This ain’t much better,” Kody protested.

She didn’t answer. Out in the forest, a fox screamed its eerie mating call. Tori jolted and had to force herself to relax again. Fox calls always sounded like some hapless woman was being assaulted.

Senator Ethington pulled a medium-sized suitcase from his trunk and wheeled it, clacking, toward the front of his car.

Voodoo sauntered over to him, his breaths making icy puffs in the night air. “It’s good to finally meet you.”

Senator Ethington mumbled something that Tori couldn’t make out, which meant that Kody was right, and they did need to get closer.

None of the men were looking into the woods right now. As long Tori didn’t make a noise to draw attention to herself, she’d be fine. She floated upward about twenty feet then glided over to a tree that was only a few yards away from the road. Its bare branches didn’t hide them, but under the cover of darkness, they’d be okay unless one of the men shined a flashlight in this direction. And if the men decided to look for interlopers, they most likely wouldn’t be scanning so high in the treetops. Although even at that, she wished she was wearing her helmet. The Morticia wig and hipster glasses didn’t offer much protection.

Ethington placed the suitcase on the ground and opened it. Voodoo jutted his chin at one of his men, gesturing for him to check it. The man approached the case with a penlight, and the beam of light landed on stacks of money.

Tori had never estimated money by the suitcase, but that had to be a lot of wealth going for a ride.

The senator straightened. “Now, if you’ll show me the items.”

Yes, the mysterious items.

Voodoo strolled to the back of the SUV and opened the hatch. The vehicle light revealed a cargo of long, thin plastic boxes. He pulled out one and lifted the lid. The content was hard to see from this angle, but Tori still knew what was inside.

“Guns,” Kody muttered.

Automatic rifles. And by the number of boxes in the back of the SUV, Ethington was buying a few dozens of them.

Voodoo handed Senator Ethington the box for inspection. “You can have them when we’re done counting the cash.”

Dr. B’s voice came over the earpiece. “You’re not going to steal those.” The Slayers already had guns. No point taking risks to get more, especially since at least five of the men down below them were armed. But that didn’t mean Tori was going to just let Senator Ethington have the weapons. Not when he had plans to sneak some of them onto Capitol Hill. Her father worked there.

As though Dr. B had read her mind, he added, “I don’t want you taking on five gunmen.”

“Seven,” Theo said, “Senator Ethington and Voodoo’s driver might be armed too.”

If Ethington wasn’t armed now, he would be soon.

Tori didn’t respond. She was too busy calculating the possibilities. She and Kody had two tranquilizers. Not enough. And even if Jesse and Ryker made it here before this deal closed, that only gave them two more tranquilizers. She had no way to fly off with that many boxes. She’d end up dropping them.

Could she and Kody overcome the driver, take the SUV, and drive off with it? Probably not without getting shot. The Slayers wore bulletproof clothing, but Voodoo’s men might be using armor-piercing bullets. Kody could protect the two of them from one gun, but not six.

Still, she couldn’t just stand here watching. Senator Ethington was probably going to arm people in Capitol Hill so when Overdrake attacked DC, his men could take out the nation’s leadership from within.

Perhaps because Tori hadn’t spoken, Dr. B repeated his instruction. “Don’t do anything dangerous. Let the transaction happen and we’ll alert police that Senator Ethington is carrying undocumented weapons in his car.”

A lot of good that would do. The police weren’t going to listen to an anonymous source who accused a presidential candidate of doing something wildly illegal. But if Dr. B was able to send this video as well, that might warrant a search.

“Is the picture of this coming through?” Tori asked.

“Not really,” Theo answered. “I’m getting shadowy disguised figures looking at indistinct objects. All we’ll be able to prove from the footage is that the suitcase holds money or something that looks like it.”

Not good enough. They needed better proof that Ethington was committing a crime.

One of the men wearing ski-masks hefted the suitcase on top of the Cadillac hood.

Senator Ethington waved a gloved hand at him. “Don’t put that on my car. You’ll scratch it.”

Voodo’s man didn’t move the suitcase. Perhaps he didn’t speak English, or perhaps he would just rather scratch the hood than sit on the ground to count bills. Another of the men in ski-masks joined the first, and the two moved the stacks to the hood.

The exchange was going to take place and Tori was sitting here uselessly hanging in the air. This wasn’t what she’d trained for. This wasn’t what she’d risked sneaking out of her house for.

Dr. B’s voice came through her earpiece. “You have two minutes until you need to leave. You don’t want to walk back here.”

Tori didn’t move. “We’ve got to stop this.” She wanted permission and more importantly ideas. “What’s the point of having superpowers if we don’t use them?”

“I need your powers to fight dragons,” Dr. B said, “not to stop every illegal transaction that happens.”

Well, that might be true if Ethington wasn’t sneaking guns into the place her father worked. He could easily be a target.

Tori turned her head to speak to Kody. “Can you hit the money with a fireball?”

She was asking for his opinion, not issuing an instruction, but instead of answering, he lifted his arm and swung it forward. The night air rippled with the waver of heat and a flash of light scorched across the Cadillac’s hood. The stack of bills exploded into flames.

The men jumped backward with startled yells.

“Yep,” Kody said. “I can hit it.”

Voodoo whipped out his gun and dived for cover behind the SUV. The other men crouched behind the still flaming Cadillac. Some of the money fluttered like confetti in the air but the bulk curled and burned in the fire.

Over the earpiece, Theo swore. “Do you ever listen to us?”

Probably a rhetorical question. Tori didn’t answer.

The bodyguard peered around the side of the vehicle, gun drawn, looking for assailants. One of the ski-mask men edged around the back of the car, uncertain which direction to point his weapon.

As it turned out, Ethington did have a gun on him. He stood behind his car, visible through the windows as he scanned the road. Which meant he either had bulletproof glass or he didn’t understand the physics of gunshots.

Dr. B spoke in a deliberate whisper, as though afraid the men might hear him. “Be careful.”

It was only then that Tori realized her mistake. She and Kody had been hidden in the darkness, but the roadside was no longer dark. A small bonfire of money lit up the area. And Kody couldn’t protect them from seven guns.

Would movement draw attention and give them away? Maybe the men wouldn’t think to look up in the trees. The Slayer’s jeans and dark jackets might provide enough camouflage. Neither she or Kody spoke, didn’t dare make a noise. The only sound was the wind shifting through the bare branches.

Below them, the men’s heads still swiveled, searching for something to shoot.

“Was this some kind of trick?” one of the men barked to Ethington. “Were you trying to blow us up?”

Ethington shook his head in confusion. “Don’t be absurd.”

None of the men left the cover of the vehicles, but it was clear they weren’t buying the senator’s innocence. “You trying to kill us?” Voodoo called. “You thought you’d be out of here before your explosion went off?”

“Of course not,” Ethington snapped, more indignant this time.

Well, this was a fortunate turn of events. Yes, Tori silently told the men. Blame Ethington and stop searching the trees.

The money was still burning on the top of the Cadillac hood, smoke curling into the sky. Before long the flames would die down, taking the light with them. Then Tori and Kody could safely make an exit.

“This has nothing to do with me. Look—” Ethington pointed to the scorch marks that had left a trail across his hood. “Someone shot something at us. One of us must have been followed.”

It was hard to tell if the men in the ski masks knew enough about scorch marks to believe his story. Voodoo was easier to read. He stepped from the SUV, eyes narrowed. “We have the road blocked. No one followed us and no one followed you either.” He motioned to one of his men. “Put the merchandise away. No sale tonight.”

Senator Ethington beat his glove against some charred bills at the edge of the hood. He probably meant to save them, but the motion fanned the flames, kicking up the fire. “Someone must have come another way and…” His sentence trailed off and then his head whipped upward, searching the sky. “Slayers.”

That answered the question of whether Ethington knew about them or not.

“What?” Voodoo asked.

Tori slowly drifted upward. Light or not, it was time to leave.

Senator Ethington’s gaze swung to the trees and his eyes landed on her. The flickering light from the fire showed his eyes transform into icy, insistent hatred. He raised his gun. “Up there!”

Tori dived backward, twisting to make herself a smaller target.

Gunfire split through the air with a noise that beat like thunder in her ears. Pieces of wood exploded around her, bit into her jeans. She had to get away, had to get Kody to safety.

She bulldozed through branches, hardly able to see where she went. Twigs crackled and broke. Her wig caught on a tree and ripped from her head.

“T-bird?” Jesse’s voice came over her earpiece.

She didn’t answer, couldn’t concentrate on anything but getting out of here.

More shots came, this time not as loud. It was hard to tell whether the bark hitting her was from branches she broke or from gunfire. She lifted above the treetops to go faster, needed get out of range.

“Are you okay?” Jesse’s voice again, worry infused into every word.

“I think so,” she said.

Kody’s body shook against her. Had he been shot? Was he having convulsions? She didn’t dare slow down to check.

Only when the firing stopped, did Tori check over her shoulder. “Were you hit?”

“Naw, I’m fine.” His voice was tinged with laughter. Laughter. That’s why he’d been shaking.

“What’s so funny?”

“Ethington. I’m not sure what worried him more, seeing all of that money go up in flames or the scorch marks on his Cady.”

Tori continued to speed in the direction of the main road. Cutting across the woods instead of following the road would save her some time. She needed to get back into range of the simulator.

“Hey Edison,” Kody said, “Did you get all that on camera?”

“Oh yeah. And I’m sure Dr. B will be able to use it the next time he’s giving a lesson about not following orders.”

Ok, so this mission hadn’t gone as planned, but it could still be salvaged. “We’ll get in our battle gear and return for the guns,” Tori said. Dr. B and Theo had equipment in their vans. Wouldn’t take her and Kody long to grab helmets, guns, and slip on bullet-proof pants.

“The men are armed,” Dr. B reminded her, “and they’ll be looking for you now. It’s best if we head home. I called the police, gave them an anonymous tip about a gun deal, and reported SUV’s license plate and location. Hopefully, they send officers to find them.”

That plan depended too much on hope. “You didn’t report Ethington’s license plate?”  Voodoo might have given him the guns and agreed to take payment later.

“If I had,” Dr. B answered,” the police would run that plate, see it was the senator’s, and assume I’m just a prank caller making trouble.”

In other words, if Ethington had the guns, he would get to keep them. That wasn’t acceptable. Not when her father could easily be a target.

“There’s only one road leading out the area,” Tori said. “If we’re fast, we can intercept them and find a way to take the guns.”

“I bet we could tip over their vehicles,” Kody put in.

“We’re nearly to Edison,” Jesse said. “We’ll handle Voodoo’s SUV, you take Ethington’s car.” For once Tori was glad that Jesse didn’t like backing away from a fight, but that didn’t mean she was going to let him go after the more dangerous vehicle.

“Kody and I should take the SUV,” she said. “It has more armed men.”

“That’s why Ryker and I will take it,” Jesse said.

Tori sighed, but she smiled while she did it. “You can’t keep taking the harder missions to protect me.”

“Right,” Ryker said. “And thanks for caring about my safety, bro.”

“Fine,” Dr. B said as though they’d all been asking for his permission. “You can stop the vehicles but once the vehicles are inoperable, we’ll let the police take over. If there are civilians around, avoid gunfire at all costs. None of you will do anything, and I do mean anything, until you’re suited up. I’m only agreeing because, after tonight, Senator Ethington won’t be of any use to us. He’ll realize we’ve had him under surveillance.”

Tori shut her eyes in frustration. She hadn’t considered that. Ethington would run sweeps for bugs now. They wouldn’t be able to get more information from him.

She and Kody had just made things harder for the Slayers.

 

chapter 3

At seven thirty, Tori followed Dr. B’s instructions and drove into a neighborhood that bordered Lake Accotink in Springfield, Virginia. She parked along the road, among little brick houses and tidy yards. Jesse’s beat-up Prius sat further down the street. He was here and would be part of the mission. Her heart did a little flip, which was totally unjustified. Jesse had broken up with her and her heart should have realized that by now.

She headed down a trail toward their meeting place at the lake. She would be casual, calm, and force her heart to stay where it belonged.

The trees along the way lifted their tangled branches, making the night sky look like it had cracks running across it. She tugged her scarf tighter and wished Dr. B was already here with the simulator. Once her powers turned on, she wouldn’t feel the chill anymore.

The landscape opened up, revealing a lake as dark as black ink. Moonlight rippled along its surface.

The Slayers hadn’t met at a lake since camp, a time that seemed longer than just five months ago. Camp was a time of sunshine, thick green canopies, and nights around glowing fires. So different from this cold lonely place.

A couple of empty picnic tables waited near the water. She spotted a figure leaning against a tree. Jesse. His silhouette was the same one she’d seen so many times at camp when the two of them snuck out for midnight rendezvouses.

He was gazing out at the water, hands in pockets, his brown hair hidden under a knit hat. If he’d been a regular guy, she could have paused and admired him for a moment, traced the lines of his face with her eyes. His looks deserved consideration, but Slayers had good senses, and even though he didn’t turn to her, she knew he’d already heard her coming. She wasn’t about to be caught oogling him.

She strolled over, unhurried. “I should have known you’d be the first one here.”

He finally turned to her, his lips lifting into a smile. “Because I’m punctual?”

Because his role as Slayer was all-important to him. She couldn’t imagine him without his perpetually stoic expression, as if he was responsible for the fate of humanity. “Yes, because you’re punctual. That and many other things.”

His eyebrow quirked up. “I probably shouldn’t ask what other qualities you think I have.”

Not long ago, he would have taken her hand, pulled her close, and teasingly demanded to know. Now everything between them was coated in restraint and regret.

Jesse looked away from her, scanning the trees and trail behind them, then checked his watch. Probably wondering why everyone else wasn’t punctual.

Maybe the regret was only on her part.

He turned back to her and his dark eyes rested on her with a look of…what? After dating him for months, she ought to be able to read those intense, penetrating looks.

“How has your dad taken all of this?” he asked.

Tori folded her arms and tucked her gloved hands close to her body. “I told him about Overdrake and the dragons.” She kicked at some loose stones on the ground, sending them skittering across the frozen ground. “I know we weren’t supposed to tell our parents anything, but my father is a senator. How could I not warn him?”

Instead of passing judgment, Jesse just said, “How did he react?”

About the way anyone would react when their teenage daughter told them dragons were causing power outages. “He probably thinks I’m insane.”

Jesse grinned and patted her arm. It was almost a playful gesture, a bit of the past resurfacing. “Don’t worry. I still think you’re sane.” He smirked. “At least, most of the time.”

She nudged his shoulder with hers. “Most of the time is all I can hope for.”

He laughed and she was struck all over again by that smile. Momentarily, the weight of responsibility lifted from his eyes and left them as they were meant to be: warm brown, full of possibility.

Tori wanted to say something else that would keep him smiling but couldn’t think of anything. On a day like today, joking around felt wrong. She looked out at the black depths of the lake. “Overdrake wasn’t planning on attacking until April. If we hadn’t destroyed the dragon eggs–”

Jesse didn’t let her finish. “This isn’t our fault.”

She didn’t argue, just kept staring at the lake. If Overdrake announced what she’d done the next time he went on TV, the people who’d lost all their technology might not hold her blameless.

Dirk certainly thought she was responsible for killing the eggs. Was he completely her enemy now? The thought made her stomach twist. Which was a stupid reaction. Would she have felt better about fighting him if the two of them were still on kissing terms?

Jesse took hold of her arm and turned her to face him. “Look, I know I’ve criticized you for a lot of things. Maybe I shouldn’t have. But, don’t ever think–”

Tori didn’t find out what she wasn’t supposed to ever think because just then Kody’s voice rang out. “Look who else is gonna break curfew.”

He jogged the last few steps to them. A gray ski jacket made his broad shoulders look even broader and his sandy blond hair was hidden under a hat with earflaps. Judging by his cheerful expression, he might have been on his way to something fun—but to be fair, he usually looked that way. Tori just hadn’t expected his cheer to hold out through the fall of democracy.

“Are we going to be out past curfew?” Tori asked. She’d told her parents she was going over to her friend Melinda’s to study and they’d told her to be home by ten.

Kody clapped his gloved hands together, warming them. “Who all’s coming?”

Usually the Slayers waited for Dr. B to tell them mission details, but sometimes he consulted the team captains first. Jesse was the captain of Team Magnus.

He glanced around the trees and picnic tables to make sure no outsiders were around. “We’ll be out until at least nine-thirty and Ryker is coming too.” He was the Slayer’s other flyer and A-team’s captain. “That’s everybody.”

Kody nodded, clearly understanding the implications. “Mission can’t be too dangerous if Dr. B wants all the flyers for it.” Kody laughed and corrected himself. “Or it’s so dangerous, he needs the heavy hitters. Are guns involved?”

The Slayers had two ways to stop gunfire. Bess could throw a shield up that blocked bullets and Kody could send either freezing blasts or fireballs to make people drop their weapons. Bess was harder to get a hold of for missions now. Her grandfather had insisted she move in with him and threatened to cut the Slayers’ funding if she participated in anything dangerous.

“Guns might be involved,” Jesse said. “Senator Ethington is making a secret purchase from someone in the underworld tonight. The man’s code name is Voodoo. Whatever the purchase is, Senator Ethington is nervous about it.”

Jesse scanned the trees again, still on guard. “Overdrake thinks Ethington will be able to sneak whatever it is past security on Capitol Hill. If we’re lucky, it will be a computer file for some of Overdrake’s government contacts and we’ll find out who else is working for him. But it might be something completely different. Theo’s guessing it’ll be a USB drive with a computer virus.”

Theo was the Slayer’s twenty-something tech genius, a title he never let any of them forget. He created the Slayers tech gadgets, some of which were questionably legal.

“So, what’s our part?” Tori asked.

“We don’t know who Voodoo is,” Jesse said, “where the deal will take place, or who will actually pick up the item. We do, however, know the time they’re meeting: nine-thirty. I doubt Senator Ethington will risk being out so close to curfew, let alone get caught paying off criminals. He’ll probably send his top aide: A guy named Albert Eaves who knows about Overdrake. That way if Eaves gets caught, Ethington can claim he had no knowledge of anything.”

Kody huffed and his breath hung frozen on the air. “Sounds like a politician.” He cut a glance at Tori. “No offense.”

Yeah, her friends at school might be impressed that her dad was the Republican frontrunner for the next election, but the Slayers weren’t.

“Ryker and I will stake out Eaves’s home,” Jesse went on. “You two take Ethington’s. If he leaves the property, follow. Get as close as you can to him and get footage of the exchange. After the deal goes down, we’ll look for an opportunity to steal the item. That may involve breaking and entering.”

Great. An opportunity to land in jail. A mission wouldn’t be complete without a class three felony.

Jesse held up a hand, anticipating Tori’s protest. “We’ll try not to make you do anything that would result in embarrassing headlines.”

“Thanks.” She relaxed a bit. It was one thing for the rest of them to be arrested, it was quite different for Tori. She was always walking that fine line between helping keep the nation safe and ruining her father’s career.

Jesse slipped his hands into his pockets. “Since we don’t know where the deal will take place, we won’t wear our battle gear or take rifles.”

Probably for the best. They couldn’t inconspicuously follow someone down a street or through a mall in black bulletproof clothes and helmets. They’d look like they belonged to some emo biker gang.

“Until we know what the deal is about,” Jesse continued, “we’re just doing recon. Dr. B is bringing us disguises.”

This wasn’t necessarily good news. The last time he’d brought disguises, Tori had ended up in a Renaissance barmaid outfit.

“We’re going in unarmed?” Kody asked.

Jesse held up his wrist so that his Slayer watch peeked from his sleeve. “We’ll have to rely on our tranquilizers.” The Slayer watches had room for one small tranquilizer dart. Once shot, they could take down a person in sixty seconds. The problem was, an armed man could get off a lot of shots in a minute.

“Any hint yet that Ethington know about us?” Tori asked. The Slayers weren’t sure if he even knew about the dragons, let alone them.  If he didn’t know, she would be able to spy on him easier. He wouldn’t look up in the sky for a tail. But that wasn’t the only reason that Tori occasionally asked this question. She didn’t like the thought of Ethington working in the same building as her father if he knew Tori was one of his enemies. That sort of knowledge might endanger her father.

Jesse shrugged. “Still no mention of us in his phone conversations.” Of course, that didn’t mean Overdrake hadn’t told the senator about the Slayers. It only meant Ethington hadn’t been talking to people about them.

Kody brushed snow from the picnic table and sat down. “Does Ethington know which cities are gonna be attacked next? Because I wouldn’t say no to a kidnapping if that’s the case.”

Interrogating Ethington could be a great idea… or another opportunity for jail and a life of regrets. A tough call.

Jesse shook his head, dismissing the idea. “He doesn’t know. Last we heard, he argued with Overdrake for unleashing EMP without telling him first. Ethington said if the revolution fails, it will be Overdrake’s fault for starting early.”

If only making the revolution fail could be that easy. So far, Overdrake had done pretty well for himself. Six cities. No resistance. Panicked people.

Jesse checked the time. “Dr. B and Theo will be here with our stuff soon. And Ryker is…” He cocked his head and spoke louder. “Testing my patience.”

Jesse stepped sideways just as Ryker dropped from the sky and landed almost exactly where he’d stood.

Having Ryker plow into you wouldn’t have been a small thing. He was 6’4, lean, and muscular. In the dim light, his blue eyes looked as dark as his black hair. He smiled brightly at Jesse. “I almost had you that time.”

“Bro,” Jesse said. “I’ll always know when you’re coming.”

Ryker pointed a finger at him, not conceding the point. “But this time, you didn’t move until the last second.” Ryker was Jesse’s counterpart, so sneaking up on him was almost impossible. When counterparts were close, they could detect each other’s locations.

Kody strolled over to a fist bump Ryker. “Where’s Dr. B?” Ryker and his cousin Willow both lived with Dr. B’s family, so it was odd for them not to arrive together.

“He’ll be here soon.” Ryker did a quick scan of the area. “I wanted to fly the rest of the way so I could keep Jesse on his toes. Besides, you never know when you’ll need to launch yourself out the window of a vehicle doing sixty-five. Had to practice it at least once.”

Tori shook her head. “I hope no one saw you.”

Ryker turned to Tori for the first time, considering her like she was a riddle. Then he glanced at Jesse for the solution. Which was another thing about counterparts—they could sense each other’s emotions. Since Tori and Jesse had broken up, Ryker was always gauging Jesse’s reaction to being with Tori. If they fought, he knew, and he always took Jesse’s side.

No tension of that sort tonight.

“Good,” Ryker said, then added, “I mean, it’s good we all could make it.”

Right.

The night suddenly grew brighter, the air warmer, and energy pulsed through Tori with a sort of pent up restlessness. Her Slayer powers had turned on, a sign that either a simulator or a dragon had come within five miles. Almost certainly the simulator, this time. She stretched her shoulders, adjusting to her added energy.

Jesse motioned for the others to follow him. “Let’s head to the parking lot to meet up with Dr. B.”

The group moved along the water’s edge until they reached an empty parking lot next to more picnic benches. All deserted. A nearby carousel, closed for the winter, sat motionless, creaking a sigh in the wind.

Before long, a large gray van pulled into the parking lot and Dr. B stepped out. His thick gray hair was in a disarray; it’s usual state. Underneath his coat, he wore medical scrubs. Probably so that if he was pulled over while driving the Slayers around, he could claim he was a medical professional. The disguise wasn’t convincing. His own arm was in a sling—the result of being shot during the last mission. His wire-rim glasses perched on his nose and a scarf hung forgotten around his neck. Probably something his wife Shirley had insisted he wear.

“Oh good,” he said when he saw the group. “You’re all here.”

He waved for them to come over, then opened the side door where a pile of supplies was waiting for them: wigs, glasses, hats, scarves, and jackets. The jackets, at least, were bulletproof. That would give them some protection.

Kody picked up a scraggly brown wig and grinned. “A mullet. I’m gonna need a selfie with this.”

“Absolutely not,” Dr. B said.

Tori picked up the only long wig with less enthusiasm. Straight black hair, reminiscent of Morticia from the Adam’s family. “No one had better take a picture of me in this.”

Theo climbed out of the passenger side. A gray beanie hid most of his curly brown hair and an oversized puffy jacket made his thin legs look even thinner. His pale skin was flushed, his large nose, red. He took a tissue from a coat pocket and blew his nose. “I should be home in bed with chicken soup and hot tea. I’d say: I hope you appreciate my sacrifice, but you never do.”

Jesse gave him a stiff smile. “Good to see you too. I just finished telling Kody and Tori about the mission.”

Ryker peeled off his coat and grabbed one of the jackets. “And thus begins the opening games of dragon Armageddon. So far, the score is Dragon Lord six, Slayers zero.”

Kody kicked picked up a jacket of his own. “Let’s even out that score.”