Author’s note: It will probably surprise people to learn that one of my favorite characters in this series is Lars, Tori’s bodyguard. So this was one of my favorite chapters in the whole book.
At school, Tori found it hard to concentrate on her classes. A somber mood had descended on the faculty and students. The usual chatter and laughter that filled the hallways had been replaced by hushed talk of the attacks and speculation about whether McLean would be hit. In just a few days’ time, the future had become a dark, murky place. It didn’t help that Cliff, the president’s son, hadn’t come to school since the first attack. It was as though the administration was admitting they couldn’t do anything to keep the students safe.
And Tori had her own set of worries. Pittsburgh, Raleigh, and Richmond had been hit last night. All cities that could be reached from the east coast. Was Overdrake back on this side of the country for a particular reason?
The thought made her uneasy.
During second period, she was sitting at her desk making a half-hearted attempt to decipher math equations, when she heard Aaron’s voice next to a dragon. “You should be jealous, Minerva. While Senator Ethington gives his speech today, Jupiter is going to be the one that gets to attack.”
Tori straightened, stopped breathing in order to hear better.
“All of those big shot politicians who ignored Dad,” Aaron went on, “they’re going to regret it when DC is burning. They won’t have long to wait now. Just a few more hours.”
Then Aaron stopped talking.
Tori leaned forward as though this could prompt more information. When and where was Senator Ethington giving his speech? A few hours could be three or ten. Some of her dad’s speeches had been at evening events. But if the attack was happening in the evening, Aaron would have said tonight instead of today. The only noise in Minerva’s enclosure was the sound of the dragon chomping on something. Aaron had gone.
With shaking fingers, Tori texted Dr. B and told him the news. Then she slogged up to her teacher’s desk. Tori needed an excuse to leave school. Dr. B would be messaging the Slayers soon, telling them where to meet. “I’m not feeling well,” she said. “I have to go home.”
Her teacher’s head tilted with concern. “You’re as pale as a sheet. Do you need help to the nurse’s office?”
“No.” She didn’t bother saying more, just turned and left.
She shouldn’t be pale and shaky. She should be brave and clear-thinking. That’s what she’d trained for.
The hallway was empty and her hurried footsteps echoed too loudly in it. She had to find out when Senator Ethington was giving a speech. And more importantly, she needed to warn her father and sister to get out of DC.
She called her father, but he didn’t pick up. Probably in some meeting with his phone silenced. Hopefully he’d see a text.
Dad, I have reliable information that DC will be attacked in a few hours. It will happen when Senator Ethington is giving a speech. Go someplace safe.
What was Senator Ethington speech about anyway? Perhaps he would urge Congress to submit to President Augustus’s demands. Whatever he said, he wouldn’t admit to being one of Augustus’s supporters.
Tori’s watch lit up. The sign Dr. B was calling a mission. The message relayed what Tori had told him and added that in two hours time, he would be at location kappa. Rock Creek Park. Come as soon as you can. From there, I’ll send you out in teams to scout out key areas of DC.
And then they’d wait for the fight to begin.
Tori dialed Aprilynne’s number. Her sister would have a way to get a hold of their father.
Aprilynne answered the phone with a “Hey, aren’t you supposed to be in school?”
“This is an emergency.” Tori’s words tumbled out, seemed louder than normal in the silent hallway. “DC will be attacked in a few hours. You and Dad need to leave. Tell your office to evacuate. Tell the whole building.”
“What?” Aprilynne asked. “Where did you hear that?”
“A trusted source. The attack will start during Senator Ethington’s speech. How can I get a hold of Dad?”
“He’s in session right now.” Aprilynne’s voice held worry, but also doubt. “So is Senator Ethington. What do you mean the attack will start during his speech? Do you mean when he speaks on the floor?”
“I’m not sure. Probably.” The problem with this answer was that speeches on the floor didn’t have specific schedules. Senators spoke when the Speaker of the House called on them and they spoke as long as they wanted. “Maybe Senator Ethington is going to contact Overdrake and let him know when he starts talking. Dad should keep him from taking the floor.” As soon as Tori said it, she changed her mind. “No—Dad should just evacuate everyone.”
But what if that sort of action triggered Overdrake to attack early? Aaron hadn’t said where his father was, just that he’d be using Jupiter. Frustration and fear made it hard to think straight. “I don’t know what Dad should do, but he needs to leave. You both do.”
Aprilynne didn’t respond.
Tori glanced around the hallway. Still empty. Only the lockers, standing at attention, heard her words. “This is one of those times when you need to trust me.”
Aprilynne’s voice was calm. “Who is your source?”
“I can’t tell you some things, so you’ll just have to trust me.”
Aprilynne sighed, a sound that didn’t sound much like trust. “Okay. I’ll send a page over to deliver a message to Dad. I’ll let you know what he says.”
Good. At least Aprilynne was doing that much. Tori was almost to the nurse’s office. “Hurry,” she urged. “Make sure he gets the message.” Then she hung up.
Tori was about to press her mother’s number, then remembered she was in Maryland speaking to a service organization. She wouldn’t answer a text, but Tori sent her and her bodyguard one anyway; a warning about the pending attack.
She reluctantly slid her phone back into her pocket. She would have liked to talk to her mom. If Tori didn’t come back from this mission…no, she wouldn’t let herself think that way. She’d lived through three attacks. She would make it through this one too. In fact, tonight when everything was over, she’d probably have to spin some wild tale about where she’d been and her parents would think she’d lost her mind. Just another normal day.
Behind her, a door opened and a set of footsteps gained on her. She turned to see Jess approaching.
He wore the red polo of the Veritas uniform, but always managed to make it look like a costume. A guy who flew as well as Jesse belonged in fighting gear, not a preppy school uniform.
He caught up and walked beside her. “Are you going home sick too? Something must be going around.”
She couldn’t joke back. Her nerves were strung tight. “Overdrake is attacking during daylight. Why would he let people see him?”
Jesse considered the question and then shrugged. “He’s making a statement. Why else would he attack DC when he knows we all live in the area? He wants to show everyone that no one can stop him. Not us, not the military.”
Jesse was probably right. No one had been able to stop Overdrake thus far. He probably thought that even though the Slayers would be alerted to an attack by their powers turning on as he soared by on a dragon, he would be in and out of DC before the team assembled. Only the flyers could tail him, and maybe that’s what he wanted. They’d be vulnerable without a shielder to protect them.
“He might attack with two dragons,” Tori said, and didn’t add: Dirk could be there too. The idea of fighting him—of physically having to hurt him–it felt wrong, like being asked to turn a weapon on a family member. But what else could they do if he showed up with a dragon?
As Jesse walked beside Tori, he tapped out a message on his phone. He didn’t look nearly as overwhelmed as she felt. “We’ll be fine. We’re trained, capable, and will have the element of surprise on our side. Overdrake won’t expect us to be waiting for him. You were right about sending Aaron in as a mole.” He glanced at her, a half-smile quirking up the corners of his lips. “Feel free to tell me that you told me so.”
“It takes all the fun out of it when you suggest it.”
“I don’t see why.” His smile spread. “You generally don’t listen to my suggestions.”
“I usually listen to your suggestions,” she countered. “It’s just that the exceptions to that rule tend to be…notable.”
His smile faded and she wondered if he was thinking about her and Dirk. Yeah, that had been a notable exception.
His brown eyes turned serious. “Let’s not be notable today.” He paused, “What I mean is…” Another pause as though he didn’t know exactly what he meant to say. “Just promise me you won’t take any unnecessary risks.”
“If I was promising that,” she said. “I never would have joined the Slayers in the first place.”
A ghost of his smile returned. “I’m glad you did.”
Maybe he shouldn’t be. They’d never fought two dragons at the same time. Had she just sentenced all her friends to death? But then, Dirk wouldn’t kill any of them. Would he?
Only a few minutes had passed since Tori spoke to her sister, but she found herself glancing at her phone, checking for messages anyway. Once her father and sister were safe, all of this would be so much easier to handle.
Jesse returned his attention to finishing his text, then slipped his phone into his pocket. “If Bess makes it on this mission and we have to split, I want her to go with A-team. I’ll take Kody.”
He wanted Tori to have more protection. Just like the last mission. It was a sweet gesture, but not one Tori would accept. Just like the last mission. “Dr. B would never allow that. No favoritism. That’s one of the rules.”
Usually Jesse took his responsibility as captain too seriously to abandon rules, but now there was a stubborn lift to his chin. “During a battle, the captains call the plays, not Dr. B.”
She reached over and brushed her hand against Jesse’s arm. “You need a shielder more than I do. I’m immune to fire.”
They’d nearly reached the front office, a series of boxy rooms filled with order and adults. She took Jesse’s hand and squeezed it. “I appreciate the offer, though.”
He didn’t let go of her hand. Instead he pulled her close and dropped a kiss on her cheek. His nearness made her catch her breath, made her remember times when she’d wrapped her arms around him. Before she could decide how to react, he let her go. “I’ll see you downtown.”
Lars, the man who was her bodyguard as well as her chauffeur, came to the school to pick up Tori. He moved at an annoyingly slow rate while he checked her out of school, and he didn’t drive nearly fast enough on the way home.
They puttered through tree-lined roads, sprawling yards, and equally sprawling colonial houses until they finally reached the main road. Lars always drove home using a different route so as to throw off any ninjas or would-be assassins that may be lurking along the road.
Tori tapped her foot against the car floor for a minute and then leaned forward to better speak to Lars. “The police won’t pull you over if you go a few miles above the speed limit.”
He scanned the street in his casual practiced way, searching for anything suspicious. “Your father pays me, and he wants me to drive the speed limit.”
“I’ll slip you fifty if you ignore that rule today.”
Lars didn’t increase his speed. “Sorry. Your father already pays me extra to ignore those sorts of requests.”
“What?” Was Lars serious?
“That blank look you see on my face while I’m your bodyguard—that’s me contemplating a vacation in Acapulco with my bonus cash.”
The light ahead of them changed from green to yellow. She flicked her hand in its direction. “You can make that.”
He stopped the car instead.
She slapped her hand back to her side. “Yellow is a legal color.”
“Margaritas on the beach every night,” he said.
Tori would have told him what she thought of his margaritas, but her phone rang. Aprilynne was calling.
“I heard back from Dad,” her sister said, her tone reassuring. “Senator Ethington already finished addressing the floor and nothing happened. So apparently your source has some credibility problems.”
That didn’t make sense. “Are you sure?”
“Senator Ethington spoke this morning.”
He’d spoken before Aaron’s warning. “It must be a different speech,” Tori said. “Senator Ethington must be addressing some group later.”
“I already thought of that,” Aprilynne said. “So I called Senator Ethington’s office and asked about his speaking schedule for today. He doesn’t have anything else planned. And by the way, Senator Ethington’s staff is completely rude. They treated me like I was planning on coming to heckle him or something.”
Had Aaron gotten the day wrong? He’d said the attack would happen in a few hours. Or maybe the staff had lied to Aprilynne. Tori frowned. “It’s still better to be safe than sorry. Get hold of Dad again and convince him to go home.”
“Tori, he’s in session. It’s a big deal. The president is asking for an emergency funding bill. Dad can’t leave before the vote.”
There was no point in arguing with Aprilynne. Tori would text her father again and hope she could get through to him. “Dad may be stuck in session, but you don’t have to stay in DC,” Tori said. “Head home now. Call a cab. Get on a bus. Just get out of there.”
“Humor me, okay. Sometimes that’s what you have to do with crazy people.” In a lower voice, she added, “Please. So I don’t have a panic attack.”
“Fine,” Aprilynne conceded. “I’m getting my purse now. Are you satisfied?”
“I will be when you reach home. Thanks.” Tori hung up the phone, held it clutched against her stomach, and took deep breaths.
Lars gave her a curious look. She didn’t bother explaining herself. One of the benefits of being crazy: No explanation needed. “I’m feeling nauseous,” she said. “I hope the trip home doesn’t take so long that I accidentally throw up in here.”
Let him think about that instead of his margaritas.
He glared at her, but when the light turned green, he picked up his speed.
When they finally reached Tori’s house, she went straight to her room. She called Dr. B, then related her conversation with Aprilynne while changing out of her school uniform. “Maybe Aaron got the day wrong,” she said.
“We’ll still proceed,” he said. “If nothing else, this will be a good drill for us.” He didn’t sound like he thought it was a drill. “I’ll see you soon.” Then he hung up.
She took an envelope from its hiding spot in her dresser and propped it against the family picture on her desk. After she’d come home from camp, she’d written a letter to her parents explaining why she’d become a Slayer. If she didn’t come home tonight, her parents would find the letter and know why.
Putting on her shoes and jacket took too long. Every motion she made was too tense. It’s a false alarm, she told herself. Just a drill.
But she couldn’t make herself believe it. Overdrake would attack. The problem was she didn’t know where or when and she had the nagging feeling she was missing something, some vital clue that would help Aaron’s message make more sense. Unless she figured it out, the Slayers wouldn’t be prepared.