Tori and Kody rode out of Rock Creek Park near Dupont Circle and headed across the city. The horses’ rhythmic clopping was usually a soothing sound, but here it was just a reminder of how painfully slow she was moving. Her gaze darted to the sky every few seconds, checking for wings in the mist.
Cars drove by in orderly lines of traffic, exhaust dissolving into the gray sky. People bundled in coats, chins down, hurried by as they traversed the sidewalks. Everything appeared so ordinary that it somehow seemed to defy reason that Overdrake was about to attack this place.
So many people. So vulnerable. The Slayers should warn them.
But was that what Overdrake wanted? Did he expect the Slayers to run around DC warning about an attack that wouldn’t come?
Maybe he wanted a bunch of false alarms so no one would believe them when the real attack did come. Or maybe he had stationed men around the city to look for the Slayers. There were too many things to worry about.
As Tori and Kody rode by, they got a few casual glances from those they passed, but no one paid the horses too much attention. That would probably change the closer they got to Capitol Hill. They would have to keep their distance from the White House, Senate, and House buildings or they would run into real mounted police. If that happened, Tori hoped she could fake some sort of police district confusion. It wouldn’t do for any of them to get arrested right now. Especially Tori.
Dr. B had instructed the Slayers to stagger their reports so one came every five minutes.
The first all-clear came from Lilly and Shang. Tori reported the same. The next report came from Rosa and Bess. She’d finally managed to join the group. At the very least, the Slayers would have a shielder.
Before long Ryker’s voice came over Tori’s earpiece. “I’m back with my new and slightly dazed friend, Lion.” That must be Leo’s code name. Away from the mic, he said, “The battle gear is over there. Suit up. We’ve got places to go and things to kill.”
A-team would have its own shielder. Things were definitely looking up.
In the background, a guy’s voice said, “It’s been so long since I practiced. I’m not sure I remember the plays.” He did sound dazed.
“We changed them anyway,” Ryker said. “Dirk knows the old ones. If fire or bullets come our way, block them. Keep in mind that T-bird is immune to fire, but you still need to protect her from bullets.”
Leo’s voice grew louder. He’d put on his mic. “With three flyers, how will I tell which one is T-bird?”
Bess spoke next, “She’s the one that flies like a girl. Have you missed me, Lion?”
Honestly. “I’m sure you meant ‘flies like a girl’ as a compliment,” Tori said.
Bess ignored Tori. “Did you at least miss me as much as you missed Rosebud? I mean, you never asked me to show up to your house wearing anything flirty.” Rosa and Bess had clearly been discussing him.
Leo laughed, a sound that said he was happy to hear her voice. “You would have shown up wearing old jeans and hit me.”
“I still might,” Bess said. “I haven’t forgiven you for not coming back to camp last summer or for refusing to believe us about any of this.”
“I don’t blame you.” A note of misery was in Leo’s voice. “I haven’t forgiven myself.”
“You’re back now,” Rosa said, finally joining the conversation. “That’s the important thing.”
“And you’re going to make it up to us,” Lilly added, “By shielding really well. That’s also the important thing.”
Kody guided his horse, hands loose on the reins in an unhurried way. “I bet you missed having all these girls boss you around.”
“Yeah,” Bess said, “We’re bossy, pushy, and even speak our minds sometimes.”
“Just wait,” Lilly put in. “I haven’t even begun to speak my mind.”
Ryker’s voice came over the line, silencing more commentary. “Lion and I are on our way downtown. We’ll head along the river and catch up with the rest of you.”
If Leo was half as good as Bess, Tori might not get shot today. Was it too much to hope that he’d be up to speed soon? He hadn’t practiced with the other Slayers in over a year, but then again, he’d practiced with them for years before that.
Bane seemed to sense Tori’s tension. His gaze swept around the street as frequently as hers, and he kept nervously flicking his ears. He also kept trying to turn his walk into a trot and several times she had to pull on the reins, slowing him.
Tori and Kody turned onto Vermont, heading toward the White House and Mall. The next round of reports came in: all clear. It was after four and nothing had happened. Perhaps Aaron’s information really had been wrong. Or perhaps Overdrake was just waiting until dark. That wouldn’t take long. This time of year, the sun was down by five-thirty.
Ten minutes later, Dr. B said, “Welcome back. We’ve missed you.” Danielle had come. Jesse didn’t say anything over the line. He’d probably dropped her off while he was still flying ten feet off the ground and then turned in the air and headed to Alyssa’s.
Near Dr. B’s mic, the sound of muffled crying came over the earpiece. “Don’t,” Dr. B said soothingly. “It’s all right.”
Danielle made more muffled sounds while she put on her equipment. “I’m sorry. But for so many years Overdrake never did anything. I thought he wasn’t really going to attack. I didn’t think you needed me. You all hate me now, don’t you?”
Lilly’s voice came over the earpiece. “That remains to be seen. How are your fighting skills these days?”
“Of course we don’t hate you,” Rosa interjected.
“As you can tell,” Bess said, “Lilly Blossom didn’t change while you were gone.”
Tori turned to Kody to see his reaction. Danielle was his counterpart. Tori had never seen him get emotional before and hardly thought he possessed any moods except for his perpetual optimistic goodwill or—when fighting—his reckless, determined concentration.
His eyes misted and he had a hard time speaking. “I’m glad you’re back. The rest doesn’t matter.”
Tori felt her own chest tighten. She wasn’t sure which was affecting her more—hearing her friends’ counterparts return or knowing that hers never would.
“You’re not alone,” Shang said. “A few of us have been AWOL.”
Too many of them had been. “Gear up as fast as you can,” Bess said. “Then meet up with Rosebud and I. We can show you some of the new signals.”
“I’m on my way.” Tears were still evident in Danielle’s tone. She hadn’t managed to compose herself yet.
The group’s dynamics would change now that Danielle and Leo were back, although Tori couldn’t predict in which ways. She hardly knew anything about them and had no idea how much Jesse and Ryker had told the two of them about her. What did they think about having a Slayer on the team who was half dragon lord? Would they automatically distrust her?
Tori and Kody had nearly reached the Washington Monument’s grounds. Tori stopped Bane altogether and scanned the area for any other security forces. “We’re at Fifteenth Street and Constitution Avenue,” Tori told Ryker over the mic.
“If we go much farther,” Kody added, “it will be like spitting at a hornets’ nest. We’re bound to rile something up.”
Bess said, “Please tell me that’s some quaint Southern phrase and not personal experience.”
Kody grinned, a broad smile that was all mischief. “Naw, if I wanted to rile some hornets, I’d use a stick. Spitting doesn’t do enough damage.”
Rosa tsked. “I’m surprised you’re still alive.”
Out on the street, a passing car honked at another driver. Bane whinnied disapprovingly.
Ryker cut into the conversation. “Wyoming, hold your positions until I get closer. T-bird, I’m sending you with Team Magnus to give them flying support until J-bird and Aspen come back. Head toward Chinatown to be closer to them.”
“Okay.” Tori tapped Bane’s flanks and the horse turned that way. As part of Team Magnus, she would have a shielder, a healer, an extinguisher, and someone who could throw fire or ice. A full team. She’d practiced plenty of times with less. Things today might actually work out in their favor.
Theo’s voice came over the line. “I’m watching the news feeds. Looks like the senate adjourned.”
“That’s good news,” Rosa said. “Senator Ethington is done for the day and Overdrake never attacked.”
“Not good news,” Theo said, suddenly sounding worried. “He just called a press conference on the stairs. He’ll be addressing reporters in five minutes.”
Even though Tori couldn’t see the Capitol Building from her position, her gaze snapped in that direction. She knew how these sorts of press conferences worked. Senator Ethington would give a speech to the cameras before taking questions. Was that when Overdrake had planned his assault—not when the senator spoke on the floor, but when he spoke outside in the open?
“A press conference,” Rosa mused. “Do you think Ethington will issue demands in Overdrake’s behalf?”
Kody shook his head. “He doesn’t need Ethington for that. Overdrake issued them just fine by himself.”
And Senator Ethington wouldn’t out himself as one of Overdrake’s men in a place where he would be surrounded by people who could arrest him. The man wasn’t stupid.
“Maybe Ethington will surrender in Congress’s behalf,” Lilly put in.
“Overdrake would need the president for that,” Shang said.
Tori didn’t comment. Her mind replayed Aaron’s words again, this time hearing them differently. While Senator Ethington gives his speech today, Jupiter is going to be the one that attacks.
She’d thought Senator Ethington’s speech would be a trigger or signal for the dragon to attack some target in DC. But that might not be it at all. Overdrake hadn’t been happy with the senator lately and the botched attempt to buy weapons couldn’t have helped his standing. What if Aaron had meant that Jupiter was going to attack Senator Ethington during his speech?
Maybe when Overdrake fired someone, he did it literally.
The senator had been an enemy, but it didn’t seem right to stand by and do nothing while he was murdered. Tori nudged her heels into Bane to set him trotting toward the Capitol Building. She was a mile and a half away, too far to be of any help unless she hurried. “Senator Ethington might be the target. We’ve got to get there fast.” If they arrived soon enough, they could intercept the dragon. And if Ethington knew Overdrake was trying to kill him, maybe he’d give evidence on the man in exchange for his safety.
“You think Ethington is the target?” Rosa repeated doubtfully. “Would Overdrake really kill one of his own people?”
No one responded. They all knew the answer.
“Dr. B,” Ryker said, “better call Senator Ethington and warn him.”
“I’m trying,” Dr. B responded, “but he won’t pick up his phone during a press conference. And his aids won’t take a warning from an unknown source seriously.”
Tori twisted her reins in aggravation. “Why would he give a press conference outside?” She already knew the answer. Political leaders often talked to the press after important presidential decisions. With all the extra security lately, politicians found it easier to talk with reporters outside instead of allowing them into the Capitol Building.
“Chameleon,” Kody said, “what’s your order? Do we head to Capitol Hill?”
Kody’s words were a reminder that Tori was supposed to be following orders, specifically, Ryker’s orders—or perhaps Bess’s. She wasn’t sure since Ryker had lent Tori to Team Magnus and Jesse still wasn’t back.
Well, either way, it didn’t matter. Tori tapped her heels into Bane’s flanks again, taking him from trot to canter. “We’ve got to get there in time to engage the dragon.”
Riding Bane wouldn’t get her to the Capitol Building very quickly, but her only other option was flying. If she took to the air, people would see her, including the security personnel stationed around DC. They’d probably try to shoot her down.
“A-team,” Ryker said. “Head to the Capitol Building in case T-bird’s hunch is right, but don’t draw attention to yourself by riding too fast.” He paused for a moment and then added, “I can hear someone galloping. T-bird, is that you?”
“I’m not flying. I figured it was a fair compromise for inconspicuousness.”
Ryker let out a less than patient sigh. “Overdrake hasn’t hit the city with EMP so he must not be close yet. We have some time.”
Bane’s speed was drawing attention. Passing drivers stared at Tori and then looked around to see what was wrong. She didn’t slow down. “Or Overdrake hasn’t hit the city with EMP yet because he wants the cameras rolling. That’s probably why he’s attacking during a press conference. He’s done hiding the dragons. He wants people to be afraid.” She concentrated on the part of her hearing that was connected to a dragon. Was the hum of traffic coming from the cars around her or perhaps from the dragon’s ears? She couldn’t tell. She couldn’t separate the sounds well enough to distinguish them.
“Dr. B,” she said, “have you gotten ahold of Senator Ethington?”
“No one’s answering,” Dr. B replied.
She glanced at her watch. If she slowed Bane’s pace, she might not reach the Capitol Building in time, but if she kept galloping, she’d probably be stopped by security guards and asked to show her credentials. The guards might be able to tell hers were faked. They might even recognize her.
She considered flying again and wondered how well armed the Capitol Building’s security detail was. Did they just carry guns, or perhaps missiles? At the very least, if they saw her fly in, they would attempt to figure out who she was. Was her safety worth Ethington’s?
And she wasn’t sure Overdrake would attack the senator. That was just a guess. Overdrake might have other targets in mind.
Tori hated these sorts of decisions, especially since either choice could cost lives. She needed to think about this logically like she’d been trained. Whose safety was more important, the civilians who would need her later or a man who worked for Overdrake? Not really a contest. She slowed Bane. Ethington would have to fend for himself. The Slayers should wait until they were certain of an attack before they gave themselves away.
Time to blend in and act like a normal police officer.
Aaron’s words ran through her mind again. All of those politicians who didn’t give Dad what he wanted, they’re going to regret it when DC is burning.
All those politicians. A lot of the United States’ leadership was gathered together in the Capitol Building right now. Most of them wouldn’t go outside. Tunnels under the grounds allowed them to travel to their office buildings that way.
And then with a sickening thud in her stomach, Tori realized why Overdrake might be using one of his fledglings. “A smaller dragon could force his way through the Capitol Building doors and go inside,” she said. “All the politicians are in danger.”
Including her father. She leaned forward and gripped the saddle. Bane must have heard the hitch in her breath and sensed her distress. Even before she tapped his flanks, he took off in a gallop. She pulled her phone from her pocket. Maybe now that the session was over, her father would answer her calls.
She hit his number. It rang once, twice…
“T-bird,” Theo said, his voice coming through her earpiece higher pitched than normal, “Senator Hampton is preparing for press conference too. He just walked out onto the steps.”
Tori’s heart slammed into her chest. No. Not that. Not her father. Had he been the target all along, not Senator Ethington? No. Overdrake had promised Dirk he wouldn’t hurt her family. But then, those sorts of assurances must have vanished when Tori helped destroy the dragon eggs.
A cry rose involuntarily in her throat. She shouldn’t have ever slowed Bane. The irony stung. She’d never been on her way to save Senator Ethington: she’d been on the way to save her father.
Her phone was still uselessly trying to connect with him. He wouldn’t pick up now, not when he was about to talk to reporters. She had to fly.
She pressed the button on her helmet to darken the visor. “Stay,” she told Bane, then flew from the horse, rocketing over the street. She didn’t check to see how many of the people had seen her do this, but below her, a set of breaks shrieked. A horn honked.
Her call went to voicemail. She slapped her phone back into her pocket and sped on, the whir of wind muffling everything around her. Only a minute more and she’d be there. Through the fog, she tried to search the horizon for any sign of a dragon. She could see nothing roaming the sky except heavy, dismal clouds.
The Secret Service agents on the Capitol balcony would spot her soon and assume she was some sort of hostile entity. She’d have to be careful. Normal gunfire wouldn’t affect her, but if they shot something more substantial, they could kill her.
The eastside of the Capitol Hill came into sight. The Capitol Building was a huge structure; three buildings of white marble hitched together like a Romanesque mansion that didn’t know when to stop—all topped by a massive dome. Each building had its own set of sprawling stairs, and she could make out two clusters of people on the north ones, where the senators held press conferences.
One group of reporters circled Senator Ethington, the other her father. She wasn’t close enough to tell which was which. Heading that way, she scanned the grounds for a place to land. She also kept her eye on the agents positioned around the building. They’d spot her soon.
A dark shape in the sky stole her attention, seemed to cut through the clouds. She recognized the outline—the bat-like wings, smooth neck and lashing tail of a dragon.
“Jupiter,” she announced. He was smaller than the other dragons she’d seen and his scales were a mottled gray that turned to blue around their edges. No one rode him. Overdrake must be controlling him from somewhere else.
“What?” Ryker asked.
The word didn’t register in Tori’s mind. Her attention was riveted on the dragon, panic clawing at the inside of her stomach.
Jupiter slid down from the clouds, still unseen by those gathered on the stairs. He was on the other side of the building, flying over it toward them. She only had seconds.
Tori abandoned thoughts of landing, didn’t care about putting herself in the Secret Service agents’ sites. She pushed herself to fly faster, knowing even as she raced toward the people congregating on the steps that Jupiter would reach them first.
Which group held her father—left or right?
The dragon tucked his wings closer to his body, diving.
No, no, no! The word repeated in her mind to the tempo of her heart thumping in her chest. Not my father! She hadn’t thought she’d said the words out loud, but Ryker spoke again, louder, “What’s going on?”
“Dragon attack” was all she managed.
Shots rang out, useless pops that followed Jupiter’s decent. More shots. Some may have been aimed at Tori. They didn’t hit her. She flew arrow-like, undeterred.
Where was her father?
She needed to go faster and couldn’t. She couldn’t reach him.
With one beat of his wings, Jupiter plunged toward the group on the left, neck stretched and mouth open. A triumphant growl rang from his throat. The reporters below screamed and scattered, a blur of dark coats, camera equipment, and hysteria. Some went down the stairs. Others darted up toward the building’s doors, footsteps clomping.
Only one man in the group stayed, unmoving, on the steps. Senator Ethington. He gaped upward, mouth hanging open in disbelief. Did he think Overdrake wouldn’t hurt him—that Overdrake had set this up to make him look brave and presidential in front of the cameras? Or maybe he just knew he didn’t have time to escape.
Jupiter’s mouth flashed open and his teeth clamped onto the senator’s shoulder. The dragon yanked him into the air like a dog ripping apart a toy. Ethington shrieked, arms raised and hands flailing. Blood splattered the steps.
“Oh no,” Dr. B’s voice was a stunned whisper.
“The news is getting all of this,” Theo added. “No EMP yet.”
“What’s happening?” Ryker asked.
Tori didn’t answer and barely registered the explanation Dr. B gave. She flew across the courtyard, searching for her father among the scattering crowd. If Overdrake knew he was nearby, he would be Jupiter’s next target. She had to reach him before then.