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’s the news on the senator?”

She could tell from Jesse’s expression that the news. “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 he 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 done the same thing.” She added a smile. “The important thing is that security will watch him closely now. Maybe he’ll end up being arrested or resigning. In 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 said. “We do our best and accept that 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 cocked his head in surprise at her touch then squeezed her hand back. “I’ll always be on your side.” He didn’t let go of her hand, seemed to want to say something else.

“What?” she asked.

“I’ve been thinking about some things.” He shifted his weight uncomfortably. “Well, you know I’ve been worried about how we’ll act during the next dragon attack.”

She dropped his hand. “This is about the dragon eggs, isn’t it?”

He didn’t answer, probably didn’t want to put his criticism into words. She spared him the effort. “You’re worried I won’t be able to kill a dragon because I couldn’t destroy the dragon eggs.” During that mission, she had balked at finishing off a hatchling with her jackhammer and then insisted that they take an egg with them instead of breaking it into pieces.

“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 or any other dragon lord 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 into her mind for years. She dropped his hand and turned back to her locker. “Right.”

He leaned against the door next to hers, eyes doubtful. “Tori, 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. I don’t want that.”

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 took her journalism book out for first period without speaking.

His eyes didn’t leave her. “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 hesitations. No distractions.”

“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. “The next time we fight Overdrake, you’re sure you’ll be able to kill the dragons?”

She didn’t mean to hesitate, but her tongue had its own ideas. “Yes,” she finally said. “If it’s necessary.”

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

Prologue, Chapter 1 & 2

Slayers: Into the Firestorm

By CJ Hill

 

Prologue

 

Six years ago.

Never underestimate friendship.

 

Dirk Overdrake stood in front of a glass case in the Bonaparte Residence Museum and wondered how many years in prison people got for stealing priceless historical artifacts. A replica of Napoleon’s laurel leaf coronation crown was nestled securely behind the glass. The exhibit label reported that the original had disappeared after Napoleon’s death and no one knew where it currently was. Well, no one except Dirk, because he was pretty sure he’d seen one just like this in his father’s bedroom vault.

His father wandered over to the case, done looking at the previous display. Even while on vacation, his father looked crisp and professional, as though it were some sort of sin to put on jeans and Nikes. He wore beige pants and expensive Italian shoes, his dark hair perfectly in place.

Dirk pointed to the crown. “Hey, don’t you have one like this?”

His father made a curt shushing noise to indicate he shouldn’t speak of it here. Which pretty much answered Dirk’s question. Should he be impressed or ashamed that his father had somehow managed to get a hold of the original? He wasn’t surprised. After all, his father also had a golden breastpin worn by Julius Caesar and a small silver horse statue that had belonged to Alexander the Great. His father liked to collect souvenirs from conquerors.

Dirk’s father motioned for him to follow, and the two walked out of the museum onto the streets of Ajaccio, France. They’d already passed one statue of Napoleon on the way to the museum, and now they headed toward another.

Dirk’s father slipped a pair of sunglasses over his eyes. “Do you know why I brought you here?”

Yeah. Because his father had no idea what normal families did on vacation. Dirk’s friends were all at Disney World and the beach. Places twelve-year-olds actually wanted to go.

Dirk knew better than to say those words. “You like Napoleon because he used to live on St. Helena?”

Napoleon had been exiled on the island where his father grew up. Every time Dirk had visited St. Helena, he’d been forced to visit the Napoleon shrine there too.

“No,” his father said, drawing out the word to indicate he was turning this into one of those annoying teaching moments. “I brought you here to see the people lined up, eager to pay their money just so they can walk around the home where Napoleon was born.”

His father waved a hand in the direction of the museum. “The curators were able to recreate the drapes and wallpaper because so many people cut off pieces and saved them—as though they were relics of the saints.”

Dirk and his father had reached the second town statue of Napoleon. He sat atop a horse, wearing his gold leaf crown and gazing triumphantly out on the plaza.

“I brought you here,” his father went, “for the same reason I brought you to Julius Caesar’s tomb. Thousands of years after his death, people still daily leave flowers on his grave. What does that show you?”

Dirk shrugged. “Tourists like to throw away money?”

“No. People admire greatness. It doesn’t even matter that Napoleon lost in the end or that Caesar was murdered by his friends. Both had the wherewithal to take control of their nation’s destiny and meld it to their will.” He gestured at the statue. “War is like love. It’s better to have fought and lost than never to have fought at all.” He lowered his voice. “And of course, it’s better still to win.”

Dirk nodded because he knew his father would continue lecturing if he didn’t think Dirk was listening. Mostly Dirk was wondering if Napoleon would have taken his kids to Disneyland or whether he would have dragged them around to look at statues.

His father wasn’t done. “Do you want to be the sort of person Napoleon and Caesar were?”

Banished from civilization or murdered by his friends? Not really.

His father didn’t give him time to answer. “Do you want to have cities across the world named after you like Alexander the Great? Or do you want to be like one of these pathetic tourists, so devoid of your own greatness that you pay money just to see the places where a great man once stood?”

Dirk knew the right answer to this question, still he looked skyward as though pondering it. “Dirk the Great has a nice ring to it.”

His father laid his hand on Dirk’s shoulder with approval. “To be a great leader, you need to know who your enemies are. You must know how they think, where you can find them, and how they plan to destroy you.”

Dirk nodded again. It was always better to agree with his father when he went on about leadership.

His father dropped his hand from Dirk’s shoulder. “That’s why I signed you up for Dragon camp.”

Dirk cocked his head, not understanding. “There’s a camp for dragons?”

His father turned away from the statue. “No, there’s a camp for Slayers and this summer you’re going to attend. It’s time to meet your enemies.”

Dirk’s father had warned him about the Slayers enough times: kids his own age who would try to kill the dragons and him too if he got in their way. How many of them went to this camp? “You want me to fight them?” Before Dirk could decide whether to feel pumped or terrified by the idea, his father laughed.

“Not yet. You’ll learn their secrets first, their weaknesses, so you’ll know how to fight them. Never underestimate the power of friendship.”

 

Chapter 1

 

Dirk rode dragons so often that sometimes he forgot how powerful they were. But tonight wasn’t one of those times. He sat in a saddle chair astride Minerva, acutely aware that she carried danger in every wingbeat.

At Dirk’s command, Minerva raced toward Philadelphia with arrow-like determination.

Bullets wouldn’t pierce her, radar couldn’t detect her, and her talons could rip through a car like she was shredding tinfoil. But the dragon’s most destructive weapon was the electromagnetic pulse she sent out when she shrieked. Minerva had already crippled most of Boston.

Cold air whipped around Dirk, making a shrill reproachful sound. He hardly heard it. Another sound was still playing in his mind: the screams of five hatchlings, bludgeoned to death by the Slayers. He hadn’t actually been there, hadn’t heard the noise, but it replayed in his mind anyway, wouldn’t fade away into acceptance.

Down below, the shimmer of Philadelphia came into view. Time for the second strike.

When Caesar crossed the Rubicon, an action of defiance that began the Roman Civil War, he’d said, “The die is cast.” Those same dice were tumbling now, falling through the air. Dirk had taken a stand against his own country. No turning back now.

Fly lower, he told Minerva.

The dragon dipped lower until she skimmed a few hundred feet above the buildings. Disabling the city this way wasn’t as safe as hitting it from higher above, but with more directed pulses he could spare the areas around the hospitals. Taking out people’s lights, cars, and electronics was one thing. Taking out people’s backup generators for life support was another.

His father would probably think it was sloppy work—too compassionate—but the point of tonight’s attacks was a show of strength. And that point would still be made. Everybody would understand how vulnerable they were. The government wouldn’t know where the attacks had come from, let alone be able to prevent more.

Not even the Slayers could stop him. By the time they realized a city had been hit, Dirk would be long gone. All that practicing at camp had been for nothing.

Roar, he told Minerva.

The dragon drew in a breath, energy swelling in her lungs, then let out a shriek that matched her size. Darkness rolled outward like a black wave, extinguishing lights.

He tried not to listen for the screech of brakes or the sound of smashing metal. He didn’t want to hear the noises from drivers who’d been plunged into blindness and found their power brakes were out.

He always heard them anyway. He wondered, with a certain amount of bitter satisfaction, if Tori heard them too. The last time she’d been with Dirk, she’d gone into Minerva’s control center, but after that she’d had a run in with Khan so she might be connected to either.

More than once he’d nearly spoken to her and then decided against it. What more was there for either of them to say? Tori had chosen whose side she was going to be on, and it wasn’t his.

Dirk circled to another section of the city, blotting out more lights, ruining technology. When the dragon was done, Dirk pulled higher into the sky and turned toward Baltimore. That was the next unlucky city to receive a visit.

By the time Dirk made it home, the edges of dawn peeked over the horizon. His anger had dimmed with the stars and remorse was seeping its way into the cracks of his thoughts.

How much damage had this night’s work done?  How much suffering would it cause?

Well, this was just par for the course. No matter what he did, he was going to feel horrible. When he was loyal to his Slayer friends, dragons died. When he acted like a dragon lord, this happened.

Minerva flew across his family’s property, across the acres of trees that stood between the Overdrake’s house and the freeway. They were all bare now, just jumbles of reaching sticks. She headed to the dragon enclosure without Dirk even commanding it. She knew the drill. And this was just another night flight. Except it wasn’t.

Not my fault, Dirk told himself. Revolutions came with a cost.

Thomas Jefferson had said that the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. That’s all Dirk was doing: making sure that the tree of liberty didn’t wither and die under the weight of America’s bureaucrats. It was time for some pruning.

Besides, people weren’t worth feeling remorse over. People did nothing but let you down.

Dirk took Minerva into her enclosure, unsaddled her, and fed her a half dozen sheep carcasses. She’d worked up an appetite. By the time he’d finished unpacking the weapons from the saddle, she’d devoured her meal and lain down, tail curled around herself, ready to sleep. He stopped by the fledglings’ enclosures and tossed them each a carcass so he wouldn’t have to worry about feeding them later.

As he was leaving the enclosure, he got a call from his father. “Any problems?” his father asked.

Oh, Dirk had problems but none his father wanted to hear. Dirk headed to the house, gliding above the leaf-strewn path. “I didn’t encounter any resistance.”

He’d known the first few cities wouldn’t have time to protect themselves, but he’d expected that once the nation realized it was under attack, other cities would at least try to mount a defense. But none had. The strikes had been frighteningly easy. Good thing he’d talked his father out of hitting New York and Chicago. Those two cities comprised 11 million people.

“Perfect,” his father said. “Things went flawlessly on this coast too. The nation is one step closer to shaking off the shackles of mismanagement.”

Dirk didn’t answer. Maybe his silence carried its own message.

“No one mourns the death of bureaucracies,” his father said. “Future generations will thank us.”

They might, but everyone without electricity was probably not feeling the gratitude.  Dirk’s breath came out in puffs that hung in the air, proof of the chill. And January would only get colder.

His father’s voice turned light. “My only problem is that I’ve started second guessing my decision to go by President Augustus.”

Yesterday, his father had settled on the title president because he figured it would be an easier transition for the masses. The title Augustus was from Roman history. Caesar had chosen it for himself because Augustus meant great.

“Taking over may be so easy,” his father continued, “perhaps I don’t need to help the population grasp the idea of a new dynasty. Perhaps I should go with First Citizen.” That’s what Caesar had called himself when he took power.

Dirk landed on the back patio, unlocked the door, and went inside. “First Citizen sounds like you’re taking numbers for a communist deli.”

“President it is, then. Get some rest. We’ll have another long night in front of us.” His father said the words cheerfully. He was happy, and for the first time in a long time, his father was also happy with Dirk. Proud of him.

That should have brought Dirk some comfort. Probably would later. Right now, despite his ability to fly, he felt as though his limbs were being dragged downward.

Cassie, Dirk’s stepmom, sat in the family room watching the news on TV. She was wrapped in a blanket, her dark hair tucked into its folds.

A solemn-faced man stood in front of a Costco relating how many people in Boston were without heat and transportation.

Looked like reporters from other cities had showed up before the police.

Cassie turned to Dirk, a smile perched on her lips. “Glad you’re home safe.” She returned her attention to the TV, resting her hand on her abdomen as though checking the baby. Was she glad her own children weren’t risked in the attacks or was she was eager for her son to grow up so he could take part?

The news anchor went on, “All night widespread looting has plagued the city. Alarm systems are down, phones inoperable, and police are without the vehicles or the manpower to respond to crimes.” As if to prove her point, a steady stream of people emerged from the store behind him, pushing grocery carts piled with items. The food Dirk could understand, but the furniture? And the guy hauling the big screen TV clearly didn’t understand what EMP did.

Dirk had known theft would happen, but he hadn’t anticipated so many people would be unmasked and unconcerned, strolling out of the store.

“Hospitals and pharmacies were hit especially hard,” the reporter continued.

Dirk stared at the TV in disbelief. He’d spared the hospitals and all the buildings around them. They should have been fine.

“Armed thugs forced their way into both Massachusetts General and Shriners Hospital, held staff at gunpoint and demanded narcotics and other drugs.”

While the reporter detailed more of the crime, Dirk turned away from the TV. He shouldn’t have been surprised by any of it. What had he expected—for people to pull together and help one another out? He ought to know by now not to overestimate human nature.

Cassie clicked the remote, flipping through channels. “Six cities are in near anarchy. The government will have to give Brant whatever he demands.”

An optimistic hope. Politicians never relinquished power easily, even if it meant making people suffer. “They won’t surrender after the first day.”

His father was staying at an enclosure he’d built in California and would make his way back to Pennsylvania, traveling at night and hitting more cities along the way.

“They’ll see reason soon enough.” Cassie settled on another news report. “Have you fed the dragons?”

“Yeah.” Dirk headed toward his bedroom before Cassie could think of more chores to give him. Originally Aaron was supposed to stay here and help Dirk, but their last fight had convinced their father to take Aaron with him. His brother had leaked the location of the eggs to the Slayers. Dirk was sure of it.

What was Aaron doing now? Trying to get more tactical information out of their dad? Well, it would serve his father right if Aaron betrayed him and blew the whole mission.

Dirk shouldn’t think that way. As of tonight, he’d committed himself to the revolution. No point in wishing for failure. The only way all the damage and looting would be worth it was if it led to a better government. Dirk would have to watch his brother carefully and make sure he didn’t cause more damage. And on the bright side, as long as Aaron was with his father, he couldn’t easily contact Tori and spill any other secrets.

Not that Aaron knew many. Their father hardly told Dirk anything and Dirk was a key player in the revolution. No way would his dad entrust important details to a twelve-year-old.

Dirk went to his room, threw off his clothes, and climbed into bed. He waited for sleep to wash away his thoughts. He didn’t want to think about children waking up and shivering because their houses no longer had heating. Or water pumps that no longer worked.

An hour later when his phone rang, he was still awake. Awake, but not alert. If he’d been alert, he would’ve checked the ID instead of assuming the call was from his father.

His mother’s voice poured from the phone, high with emotion. “Dirk, I’m sorry for everything you’ve been through. I shouldn’t have left you with your father. I should have found a way to take you.”

It was surreal to hear her voice. It belonged to the past, to the place of half-forgotten childhood memories, the soundtrack of years long gone. She’d been larger than life then, tall and graceful with shiny blond hair that framed her face like a halo.

“If you had a choice,” she went on, “I know you wouldn’t have been involved with this.”

How had she gotten his phone number? Dirk knew the answer as soon as he thought of the question. At some point he’d left his phone unattended and Aaron had gotten ahold of it. He’d called their mom and given her this number.

She wouldn’t be able to trace him with it. His phone was a specialized computer with a program that routed their IP address through dozens of cities.

“Dirk, are you there?” she asked.

“Yeah.” He rubbed his forehead wearily. He was too tired for this; his thoughts were too raw. “Aaron isn’t here.”

She let out a pained laugh. “I want to talk to you.”

Doubtful. He shut his eyes and let his head sink back into his pillow, not even sure if the emotion that was pulsing through him was anger or guilt.

“I love you, Dirk.”

She was only trying to manipulate him. “You don’t know anything about me.”

“I do,” she insisted. “I spent years with you—how could I not know? You were the boy who used to slide tissue paper underneath my bedroom door when you heard me crying. You have more tenderness inside you than your father will ever be capable of.”

Dirk hadn’t remembered about the tissue paper until she mentioned it, and then the memory came back: the fights his parents had that always left his mother crying.

“That was a long time ago,” he said. “You don’t know me anymore.”

“I know you hate what you’ve just done.”

He didn’t answer, couldn’t contradict her.

“Find a way to leave your father,” she urged. “Go to the nearest police station and tell them you’re my son. I’ll come and get you.”

Dirk lowered his voice. “You want me to leave so I’ll take Aaron to you. He’s the one you really want.”

“I want you too.” Her voice was ragged insistence. “I’ve always wanted you.”

But not enough to take him when she skipped out. She couldn’t undo the past with a few words.

“Tell me where you are,” she said. “I’ll come for you.”

A surge of worry went through him, one that verged on protectiveness. His father had probably bugged this phone. “Don’t say that.” Dirk’s father wouldn’t appreciate hearing him warn his mother, but he had to do it anyway. “And don’t ever make a deal with my father. You’ll end up being used as pawn to force either Aaron or me into doing something we don’t want to do. Just stay away. You shouldn’t call this phone again. It isn’t safe for you.”

“Dirk, leave him. Take Aaron and go.”

How could he tell her Aaron didn’t want to go—that Dirk had already offered to help him escape and Aaron had refused?

“I can’t. I’m already a part of this.” And because he didn’t like hearing her so upset, he added, “I’m not the person you think you know. That person is gone.” He’d become someone else last night—a revolutionary. Someone whose hands were no longer clean.

He hung up, put his phone away, then went into the bathroom to find some sleeping pills. There was no way he was going to get any sleep without them and he had to get some rest. He would have to go out with Minerva tomorrow night, and this time the government would be watching for him.

 

Chapter 2

 

As Tori Hampton watched images from the news story parade across the TV screen, she put her hand to her mouth. Store windows broken, looters pouring out of buildings, police in riot gear, and army trucks making their way around deserted cars. The pictures looked like something from a war zone, not downtown Boston.

This is my fault, she thought. She’d killed the dragon hatchlings. She’d struck hard at Brant Overdrake and now he was making the country pay.

Logically, she knew these attacks had been planned before she was even born. They would have come sooner or later. But that it was sooner—her fault. And every scene of abandoned cars on the freeway increased the weight of guilt.

She never should have taken the Slayers to destroy the eggs. Maybe the Slayers could have found some other way to stop Overdrake. Maybe… but there was no use shuffling through more maybes. The war had started.

A national news reporter with perfect makeup and an expensive coat stood in front of the Faneuil Hall solemnly relaying the facts. Six cities on the East and West coasts were hit. Damages estimated to be in billions of dollars, people without electricity, and five people dead due to armed conflicts with police.

Aprilynne sat nearby on the couch, working on her laptop. Her long blond hair was pulled back into a ponytail, but she still wore makeup, because even an attack on the nation didn’t constitute a reason to slack off on her beauty regimen. Their father had gone into work early again and left Aprilynne home to handle emails and other nonessential tasks.

Their mother was pacing across the room, talking on her phone. All morning she’d been speaking to one group chairman or another. Now she was coordinating relief efforts with someone from the Red Cross. She was an older version of Aprilynne, poised and pretty, someone who always took the duties of senator’s wife in stride without missing a beat. Only the crease between her eyebrows showed her worry.

Tori hadn’t changed out of her pajamas. Her brown hair lay in uncombed tangles down her back. She’d been so glued to the TV since she’d come downstairs for a breakfast that she’d forgotten to eat. Even though DC hadn’t been hit, her school had been canceled. A lot of politicians’ kids went to Veritas Academy and the administration worried it could be a target for attack.

The reporters went on listing the facts. The outages were obviously part of EMP blasts, but officials hadn’t released any information about what caused them. No one had claimed responsibility yet.

Between lulls in the updates, the station replayed a statement the president gave an hour ago. The Commander-in-Chief stood between two draping American flags, his suit as crisp as ever. His gaze was stern, unruffled, but the flush of his cheeks betrayed his lack of composure. “America has always stood against terrorism and condemns the cowardly acts of last night.”

The words came and went through Tori’s mind in a numb procession.

“…steps being taken to protect cities… promise retribution to those who attack us… must remain vigilant but calm.”

The next news story told about runs on grocery stores in every state. Ditto for the camping supply stores and anywhere that stocked ammunition. Shelves were empty. Bat-wielding thugs had taken to the street in all the cities that had been attacked. The TV showed National Guard members clad in camo gear, spraying people with tear gas. Apparently the country had their doubts about the government’s protection.

The president had also issued a nationwide curfew. Starting tonight, only citizens with essential tasks were allowed out of their homes after ten. Although no one clarified what constituted an essential task or whether the police would be enforcing the curfew.

All of it was happening so fast—this lawlessness, this loss of control. And Tori was sitting in her family room watching it unfold, as helpless as everyone else. The Slayers didn’t know where Overdrake would strike next. They couldn’t patrol the entire nation.

Dr. B had messaged them all this morning and said he would consider what options they had. He’d written  Eventually Overdrake will come within striking range. When he does, we’ll take action against him.

Not a lot of comfort.

The TV went black. The picture just blinked out. Tori sucked in a panicked breath. It must be EMP. They’d been hit. McLean would turn into one of those lawless cities with criminals roaming around.

Then a shrill chime went through the room and bars of colors lit up the TV. It wasn’t an EMP attack, but an emergency broadcast. She wasn’t sure whether she should feel relieved or not. On this day, what constituted an emergency?

Tori’s mother held the phone away from her ear. “Now what?”

All three of them stared at the TV, waiting. Seconds later, video of a man appeared.

He was dressed in black army fatigues and stood in front of a plain white backdrop. His helmet obscured his forehead and his sunglasses hid his eyes. In fact, the picture seemed to have a computer-generated quality to it—like someone had changed it to hide the man’s identity, but Tori still recognized him. It was Overdrake.

Tori’s mother said a quick goodbye to the Red Cross, then stepped toward the TV. “Who is that?”

Before Tori could answer, Overdrake spoke. “Last night I crippled six cities. I regret that it had to be done, but now you understand your position.” He didn’t sound regretful. He sounded smug. His voice also sounded deeper, slightly computerized. “The old government is corrupt and has lived past its usefulness. It’s strangling the people, not supporting them. Incompetent leaders cannot stand, let alone protect the country.”

He smiled at the camera and held out his hands in a welcoming motion. “A new era is here. One that sheds the bloated shell of useless bureaucracy and delivers hope for the people. My era. As of now, you may refer to me as President Augustus.”

Tori’s mother shook her head, her lips tight with disapproval. “He’s deranged.”

Aprilynne stared at the TV, open-mouthed. “How did he take over the Emergency Broadcast system?”

“Citizens who wish to preserve their cities,” he continued, “will instruct their mayors to post videos on the internet pledging their allegiance to my presidency. If you follow that instruction, your local government will remain intact. The only difference will be that instead of obeying laws created to promote politicians and their interests, you’ll obey laws put forth by a sensible leader.”

Sensible. Obviously.

“The old and ineffective president will resign immediately. Otherwise I’ll have to make an example of three more cities tonight and every night.”

Tori’s mother kept shaking her head. “He’s a megalomaniac with a death wish.”

Probably, but Tori couldn’t break her gaze from Overdrake. She felt like he was speaking to her, like he could see her there in her living room, watching. “If you don’t want your city to be one of those examples, I suggest you call or email your mayor now.”

The screen returned to the Emergency Broadcast pattern.

Tori sunk onto the couch.  Overdrake hadn’t said anything directly to her, hadn’t told the nation how this was all her fault. But what he had said was bad enough. “He’s trying to turn the people against their leaders.”

Would he be able to do it? How many frightened people were reaching for their phones right now?

Tori’s mother turned her phone back on. “He underestimates the American people. They won’t call their mayors.”

“They won’t,” Aprilynne agreed, “but only because most of them don’t know who their mayors are or how to get a hold of them.” She slumped on the couch. “I hope the authorities find that whackjob soon.”

“It’s Overdrake,” Tori said. “He’s the one I warned you about.” Yesterday, she’d told her family he’d been responsible for the attack on several military bases. Perhaps they might have believed her if she hadn’t also mentioned he was attacking with dragons.

Tori’s mother exchanged a look with Aprilynne. “The man’s face was mostly hidden,” her mother gently pointed out. “And he’s using a computer to change his voice.”

Yeah. But Tori still knew it was him. She couldn’t tell them that she’d fought him before, though. If she did, they wouldn’t let her out of the house again, and it was already hard enough to sneak away. What could she say that wouldn’t give away her identity as a Slayer?

Once again, she had to suppress the desire to use a simulator and prove she had powers. Her parents wouldn’t let her be involved in a fight against guns and dragons. The other Slayers needed her too much to risk anything. Besides, even if they believed her that Overdrake was President Augustus, what would it change? Her father wouldn’t be able to convince the nation they needed to be on the lookout for dragons.

The emergency broadcast symbol still shined resolutely from the TV screen. Tori picked up the remote and flipped through channels. Didn’t matter. The symbol was on all the stations.

Aprilynne turned her attention to her computer. “I should be able to get some live news online.”

She was right about that. Overdrake may have hijacked TV stations’ signals but he couldn’t block the internet. Tori leaned over to get a better look at her sister’s screen. Aprilynne brought up a site that showed a couple of dazed looking reporters trying to come up with something informative to say about Overdrake’s demands.

“A terrorist who has identified himself as Augustus has just issued demands.” The anchor fiddled with his earpiece. “We’re waiting for a response from government officials and will have that for you as soon as it comes in.”

Tori couldn’t watch it anymore. She pushed away from the couch, tromped into the hallway, and messaged Dirk. You don’t have to be a part of this. Leave your father. I can help protect you. At least she hoped she could. Certainly the government would protect Dirk in return for his help bringing down his father.

He didn’t answer. She hadn’t really expected him to.

Please she wrote.

No answer to that either.

Dr. B probably didn’t have anything new to report but she tapped out a message to him on her Slayer watch anyway.

Do your contacts in the government have any leads about where Overdrake is?

A few moments later he wrote back. No, but I’m keeping tabs on Senator Ethington. Senator Ethington was the Democratic front runner and one of Overdrake’s inner circle. Completely corrupt. Fortunately, the Slayers had managed to bug in his cell phone. It wasn’t the burner phone he used when he needed to speak of covert things, but since the senator usually still had his phone with him, Dr. B managed to hear part of his conversations.

Another message came from Dr. B. Have you overheard anything near the dragon that could be useful, any telling details?

Tori was half dragon lord, which meant she was always connected to one of the dragons and heard whatever it heard. Overdrake knew about this ability, however, so he never said anything near a dragon that could be useful. She got an occasion threat from him, frequent sarcastic musings, and he’d forced her to listen to the Bee Gees greatest hits multiple times. Mostly, she minimized the dragon sounds in her mind so they didn’t interfere with her life. This morning she’d listened intently. She hadn’t heard anything. Seemed like the dragon was sleeping.

No she wrote. And really, even if she did hear a dragon taking flight, the information wouldn’t be useful. Overdrake had already told the nation he would attack three cities a night. She wouldn’t be able to tell which direction the dragon was flying. For her to get that sort of information, a dragon had to be close enough that she could go deeper into its mind. And Overdrake was not likely to get that close.

She ought to be able to do something, but she couldn’t.

Dr. B wrote again. I need flyers for a mission tonight involving the senator.

Tori wrote back immediately. I’m in.

Slayers: The Dragon Lords (book #4)

A spy’s life is never safe.Tori knew that sending Aaron to Overdrake to act as a mole would have its risks. Overdrake might find out the truth about Aaron’s intentions—or even worse, convince Aaron that his revolution is necessary. The rest of the Slayers are less than enthusiastic about Tori and Aaron’s decision. If Aaron switches sides, they’ll have to contend with three dragons during an attack—odds that will certainly doom them. Tori, however, is positive they can trust Aaron. Trusting Dirk is another matter. He’s still convinced that if he shows Tori what dragons are truly like, he’ll trigger her dragon lord side. And he’s not wrong. Tori knows that learning how to control dragons may be the key to saving her friends, but the more time she spends with them, the more she wants to save them, not kill them. When the next face-off comes, choosing sides isn’t as easy as it used to be.

Slayers: Playing With Fire (book #3)

Having superpowers is overrated. It requires Tori to go to way more team practices than can comfortably fit into a normal teenager’s schedule. Being a dragon slayer has other drawbacks too—like fighting dragons and keeping one step ahead of power-hungry dragon lords, all without blowing her cover.
Tori Hampton is a presidential candidate’s daughter, which means she not only has a public reputation to maintain, she also has a humorless bodyguard to ditch every time she needs to go on a mission.

And Dr. B has plenty of missions for the Slayers. When he discovers that someone is selling dragon scales on the black market, he’s convinced the seller can give him the dragons’ location. A surprise strike could turn the tide in the Slayers favor, but when they track down the seller, they find more than they’ve bargained for.Suddenly, strategies need to change, alliances shift, and Tori finds herself caught in the precarious middle.

Jesse, the captain of the other Slayers team, is everything she wants, but then there’s Dirk, the dragon lord’s son—who also happens to be her ex-boyfriend. He’s determined to convince her that she should love dragons, and love him too. The fact that he and his father plan to overthrow the government? Details not worth arguing about.

Tori believes she can turn Dirk around and convince him to rejoin the Slayers, but he’s just as convinced that she should leave the Slayers and become a dragon lord. Dirk can teach Tori how to control dragons, and it’s a skill she desperately wants. It could make all of the difference in a battle. It could save her friends’ lives. When Dirk offers to let her ride a dragon, she knows that meeting him is like playing with fire.

Echo in Time

Echo in Time delivers on “the possibility of an equally thrilling sequel” (Kirkus Reviews) to Erasing Time.

After being pulled 400 years into the future, twins Taylor and Sheridan have found some refuge from the government of Traventon, which used the dangerous Time Strainer to yank the girls from the past. Yet the threat of the dangerous technology still looms. Taylor and an ally, Joseph, are selected to go on a mission to destroy the time machine and weapon. But their actions before they do may have major consequences for the future and the past.

Action-packed and romantic, this futuristic sequel to Erasing Time is perfect for fans of dystopian and sci-fi novels such as The Maze Runner by James Dashner, Across the Universe by Beth Revis, and Matched by Ally Condie.

The Wrong Side of Magic

The Phantom Tollbooth gets a modern-day spin in this magical middle grade fantasy filled with adventure and humor that will whisk readers away!

Hudson Brown stopped believing in magic long ago. That is, until the day he is whisked away to the magical land of Logos by a curious compass given to him by his off-beat neighbor, Charlotte.

Hudson discovers that Logos is a land ruled by words, thoughts, and memories. A fairy might ferry you across the river for the price of one memory. But be sure to look out for snarky unicorns, as they will see through those who are not pure of heart.

Not understanding the many rules of Logos, Hudson is quickly saddled with a troll curse. Charlotte, who, along with her father, was banished from Logos, can help get rid of the curse–but only if he agrees to find the lost Princess of Logos in return.

How I Met Your Brother

The best day of his life, the worst day of hers.

Back in college, Marco Dawson never thought of Belle as anything more than a friend. If she had crossed his mind on his wedding day, it was probably only to wonder why she hadn’t shown up to be a bridesmaid. After all, his new wife was her old roommate. Seven years have passed since then, and Belle just found out that Marco is divorced and vacationing with his family in an elegant Cancun resort. She’s not about to let the right man get away twice. She heads to the resort where she plans to casually bump into Marco and ignite some romantic flames.

But Belle hadn’t planned on one thing: Flynn Dawson, Marco’s handsome, charming, and determined twin brother. He thinks Marco and his ex-wife can make amends and he’s not about to let Belle stand in the way.