I’m waiting for the last of the copyediting to be done (and am so ready to be done with this that I may put it up before.) I’ve decided to put up the Jesse version first because–again, I’m really ready to be done with this. (And I’m sad too. I will miss these characters after living with them for years. Not sad enough to write another book, but sad.)
For all of you Dirk fans, I’m planning to have that version done in a week or two.
Here’s chapter 17:
Tori kept racing toward Capitol Hill, wind rushing around her so loudly it was hard to hear anything except for Dr. B’s voice in her earpiece. “Most of the jets and helicopters in the area are down and the ones that aren’t are engaging enemies in Virginia and North Carolina. We won’t have much help from that sector.”
So far, they hadn’t had help from any sector. She hadn’t seen any tanks or men, hadn’t even heard any sirens wailing their way toward Capitol Hill. Nothing. Vehicles clogged the roads, more casualties of EMP.
“I’m at the Capitol building,” Ryker said. “T-bird, where’s the dragon?”
Through Jupiter’s eyes, she saw the backs of three men running down a hallway. A glass chandelier swayed, reflecting the yellow light of unseen flames. Something was burning behind the dragon. “North wing. I’m nearly there. Jaybird where are you?”
“Not far from DC,” he said.
“Come straight to Capitol Hill with Aspen and…” Ryker didn’t know what Alyssa’s code name had been. “…and B-lisa.”
Well, that was going to be what Tori called her from now on whether she liked it or not.
Tori’s phone rang; her father’s ringtone. She didn’t answer. He was only going to tell her to come back.
Jupiter bounded into the Senate chamber, talons shredding the blue carpet. He rammed into a row of desks, toppling them like wooden dominoes. The remnants lay splintered under his feet. It was surreal to see him in there. That room was where history had happened and where her father sometimes worked. It was supposed to be a safe place.
“He’s in the Senate chamber,” she reported.
Jupiter beat his wings and launched into the air, making a loop around the huge galleries that overlooked the floor. He spotted a young brown-haired woman who’d been hiding behind one of the desks, probably an intern. Her eyes were wide and frightened. They were eyes that saw their own death circling overhead. The woman shrieked, scrambled to her feet, and rushed out of the room.
Jupiter swooped toward her, happy for a new chase. The woman sprinted down a hallway. Her arms pumped frantically as though she was trying to grab something in the air in front of her.
A door stood at the end of the hallway. Close enough to offer a chance for protection. She skidded up to it and tried the handle. Locked. She checked over her shoulder, face pale and growing paler. The only way out of the hallway was to go past the dragon. And Jupiter wasn’t about to let her do that.
He landed, mouth watering in anticipation, and took slow thudding steps forward like a massive cat stalking game.
“He’s in a hallway now.” Tori hated that she had to narrate this, that she could do nothing to stop it. The woman banged on the door again, crying, breathing hard. Jupiter hissed and moved toward her.
“Stop. Don’t!” Tori said into his mind. She knew he wouldn’t listen, but said the words anyway. She couldn’t help herself.
Jupiter wouldn’t follow her instructions unless she had control of him, and Tori couldn’t even attempt that without losing consciousness and plummeting to the ground. If only she’d had more time to practice going into a dragon’s inner mind, she might have been able to manage it. If only she hadn’t turned Dirk into an enemy—if onlys were such horrible things.
“Stop? Don’t?” Overdrake repeated in Jupiter’s mind. His tone was pure mockery. “Are you talking to me or my dragon? Well, it doesn’t matter. Neither of us take orders from you.”
As though that’s what this was about. “What’s wrong with you?” Tori demanded. “Are you really so messed up that you want your dragon to eat a defenseless woman?” He wasn’t making Jupiter attack, but he wasn’t stopping it either. “Don’t you have any mercy?”
“What I don’t have is patience,” he said. “Especially with you.” The dragon halted, though. Jupiter pawed at the floor, tail flicking in agitation. The woman rattled the doorknob desperately, still crying.
“If you want to save the girl, turn yourself over to me. Then I’ll make sure Jupiter leaves her alone.”
Right. Turning herself over would be stupid and it would just allow Overdrake and his dragons to do more damage—which was why Dr. B had strictly forbidden that sort of bargaining. Overdrake knew this because Dirk did. But then, Tori had already abandoned the people in the Capitol by putting her father’s life first. Maybe Overdrake thought she’d stopped following rules altogether.
“No answer?” Overdrake asked. “Too bad for the woman. I always suspected your high ideals wouldn’t count for anything if it were your life on the line.”
Honestly, the man had such a skewed view of reality.
Jupiter charged down the hallway, the woman in his sites. Reflexively, Tori turned her head. She didn’t want to see what would come next. The motion did no good. She was still connected to the dragon’s vision. The woman lifted her arm to her face and screamed.
Tori was about to disconnect from Jupiter’s mind altogether, when shots rang through the hallway, pelting the dragon’s haunches. She could feel Jupiter’s irritation at their impact. He swiveled, tail slashing into the wall.
Ryker hovered in the air at the mouth of the corridor. Tall, dark, and deadly. He lowered his rifle. “Got your attention?”
Anger pulsed through the dragon’s mind. Anger, but no fear. Jupiter lunged toward Ryker, already anticipating the crunch of bones between his teeth.
“So,” Overdrake said, “you did bring friends to my inauguration party. How did you know I’d be here? Who told you?”
She wasn’t about to answer that question.
Overdrake’s voice was oddly calm, which made it seem that much more sinister. “I suspected Senator Ethington was leaking information, and you saw what happened to him. Don’t think I won’t find out who your source is.”
Aaron. For a moment it wasn’t Senator Ethington’s body she saw twisted on the stairs. It was Aaron’s. And his eyes stared reproachfully at Tori.
She had no way to protect him, no way to even warn him.
Ryker zipped off, leading the dragon down the corridor toward the main rotunda. Ornately decorated walls flashed by, statues and paintings. “I could use backup!” he called.
Tori was close enough to Capitol Hill that she could see the lights of a couple police cars flashing as they headed toward the building. The vehicles must be EMP proof or were optimistic. Either way, the police probably wouldn’t have more luck stopping the dragon than the secret servicemen did. She just hoped they had the sense to stay out of the building and away from Jupiter.
“I’ll be there in two minutes,” Tori said.
“I’ll be there in five,” Kody said.
“We’ll be there in five too,” Bess said. “Less if we can get around all this traffic.”
Willow spoke over the earpiece next. “I think Jesse’s lost. We may be a while.”
“I’m not lost,” Jesse protested. “We’ll be there soon.”
Ryker weaved around the marble columns of the small senate rotunda. Jupiter wasn’t as agile and clipped a column with his shoulder. Above, the heavy crystal chandelier swayed in protest, thousands of crystals shivering.
Ryker dashed into the main rotunda room. It was a good strategy. The massive dome was nearly two hundred feet tall and one hundred feet wide. It offered plenty of space to maneuver.
Wall-sized nineteenth-century paintings decorated the bottom of the rotunda. Higher up, a frieze depicting American history ringed the room. Above the balcony, arched windows let in light. A mural of George Washington attaining godhood adorned the inside of the dome.
Ryker pulled the pin on a sticky grenade and hurled it at the dragon’s face, fast and hard.
Jupiter let out a stream of fire that knocked the grenade from its path. It tumbled to the floor and stuck there, right below a painting of Columbus claiming the land for Spain.
Tori winced even before the explosion sent bits of wall, canvas, and wood splinters across the room. When the smoke cleared only shreds of the painting remained.
“Be careful,” she said into her mic. “That was a piece of historic artwork.”
Ryker huffed and sped upward toward the windows. “When you started that sentence, I thought you were worried about me. It’s nice to know where your priorities lie.”
Jupiter followed Ryker upward, wings flapping in the chalky air. He was waiting and watching to see which way his prey dodged next.
Ryker pulled out another grenade and took aim.
“Avoid the painting of Pocahontas,” Tori said. “It’s my favorite.”
Ryker flung the explosive, this time sending it toward Jupiter’s chest. The difference in trajectory didn’t matter. Jupiter breathed a blast of fire that knocked the grenade into the arched framework surrounding a window. It exploded, shattering the window. Shrapnel flew everywhere, some pummeling into Ryker.
He brushed off pieces of debris. “The good news is Pocahontas is still intact. I think. My vision is patchy right now.” He shook his head, attempting to clear it.
Ahead of her, Tori could see the dome of the Capitol Building lifting out of the fog, but she was still too far away to help. “Get out of there,” she said. Jupiter had realized that Ryker was stunned, and the dragon was no longer wary. He was about to come in for the kill.
Ryker drifted backward, adjusting his helmet.
“Move!” Tori yelled.
He did. He pushed off the arch behind him and dove sideways, away from the dragon’s snapping jaws. Jupiter slammed into the wall, making it shudder. Chunks of molding already loosened by the explosion broke off and shattered on the ground.
Wings flapping, the dragon righted himself. He snorted two spouts of flame, then slashed his tail into an archway. Bits of sandstone crumbled and sent dusty clouds into the air.
“Don’t throw another grenade,” Tori said. “You’ll bring the entire roof down on top of you.”
Jupiter lunged toward Ryker, snarling. Ryker shot out of the way and yanked his blade from its sheath. “You’re just worried about the paintings.” He careened toward the ground, then pulled up at the last moment. Jupiter couldn’t switch direction as quickly and skidded across the floor. The move allowed Ryker to put some distance between them.
He adjusted his helmet. “Is the building making a ringing noise or is that just my ears?”
“It’s your ears. Or maybe my phone. My dad keeps calling. At any rate, if you’re hurt you need to leave.”
Jupiter sprung into the air and flapped toward Ryker again. “Can’t,” Ryker said. “Someone has to keep the dragon busy until the rest of you slackers show up.”
Tori sped toward the Capitol Building. The fastest way in would be to go through one of the rotunda windows that had been blasted open. As Tori flew over the portico in front of the dome, she grabbed the flagpole and ripped it from its moorings. Then she sailed through a window, the flag fluttering behind her.
Being inside Jupiter’s mind gave her one clear advantage. She knew where he was and where he was headed. She hardly had to aim before she launched the pole, javelin style, at his neck.
The pole hit its mark, flag juddering on impact. Jupiter’s head snapped back, and he tumbled for a moment, wings waving like gray sheets. The pole clanged to the floor and Jupiter straightened, hissing at her. Tori hadn’t done any real damage to the dragon, but at least she’d gotten him to stop chasing Ryker.
Jupiter circled, surveying her. It was an odd sensation, seeing herself from the dragon’s golden eyes. Distracting.
“I’ll keep the dragon busy,” she said into her mic. “You cut his Kevlar straps.”
Ryker veered upward. “You realize I’m your captain, right?”
Yeah, she realized it. She just kept forgetting. But there was no time to argue about those sorts of details now. Jupiter pitched toward her, flames spewing from his mouth. Wrong tactic. She was fireproof. The heat surrounded her but didn’t scorch her with pain. She used the blaze as cover to change direction.
She darted underneath the dragon and circled around so that when the smoke cleared, she was closer to the Kevlar straps than Ryker was. Her suit had probably melted in places—hopefully not embarrassing spots—but she was fine. When she didn’t show signs of injury, Overdrake would know which flyer she was, but that couldn’t be helped.
Tori pulled out her knife and swooped downward. “I’ve got this,” she told Ryker. She refused to feel guilty about killing Jupiter, or at least she refused to let herself think about the fact that she would feel guilty afterward. This had to be done.
Jupiter looped sideways, away from her. She wheeled after him, taking deep breaths. Her chest felt like it was constricting. Apparently, her body knew what her mind wouldn’t admit. She already felt guilty. Every flap of Jupiter’s wings was a reminder that only a handful of dragons were left. The survival of the entire species was at stake.
Tori gained on Jupiter until she was directly above him. He had already killed at least one person and would kill again if she didn’t stop him. In fact, if she wasn’t careful, she and Ryker would both end up dead. She didn’t have a choice.
She stabbed the blade into the Kevlar strap. Jupiter felt the motion and jerked away, wrenching the dagger out of her hand. It stuck there in the strap and was carried off as the dragon twisted away.
Tori trailed after him. She’d been so close to cutting the strap. She just needed to get hold of her knife and give it one more good yank. Once all of the straps were taken care of, the shield would fall off, and she’d be able to shoot the dragon’s vulnerable spot. Her mind skipped ahead to that moment. What if she couldn’t bring herself to kill Jupiter, just like she hadn’t been able to kill Kiha and the hatchlings? Tori was half dragon lord. A part of her—an insistent part, it turned out—kept reminding her that she was supposed to protect dragons. That desire was stitched into her DNA, and she couldn’t change it any more than she could change her eye color.
And yet what else could she do? Her country was under attack. Her father had nearly been killed.
She picked up speed. She was almost to the knife hilt, but she didn’t reach for it. Her hands felt sweaty. All of those times she’d assured Jesse that she would be able to kill a dragon—it turned out she was a liar.
Well, getting to know oneself wasn’t always what it was cracked up to be.
She glanced at Ryker. He was darting around in front of the dragon, drawing Jupiter’s attention so she could cut the straps. He was putting himself in danger to help her. She couldn’t let his risk be for nothing. She couldn’t let him or the rest of the Slayers down.
She reached out for the knife. When it came to taking a fatal shot, she might not be able to pull the trigger, but she could remove the dragon’s shield. Once that was done, she would have leverage to use to bargain with Overdrake. She would tell him that he had to relinquish control of Jupiter to her, or the Slayers would destroy the dragon. The other Slayers would have no problem pulling the trigger.
She pulled on the knife. Instead of cutting through the Kevlar, it only budged half an inch and then came loose in her hand.
Ryker darted over, about to go for the straps himself. Before he could, Jupiter turned and lashed his tail. The blow smashed Ryker in the stomach and he spiraled into the wall. He hit with a thud, and then slid downward, boots scraping against the sandstone.
Tori rose over the dragon’s back to work on the Kevlar again. She expected Ryker to pull up and fly away. He didn’t. He seemed dazed by the hit, unable to regain his bearings. And by the time Tori realized he was in trouble, she was in the wrong position to help.
Jupiter plunged toward Ryker, mouth open and showing a row of shark-like teeth.
Her heart felt as though it stopped. Not Ryker. Not Jesse’s best friend. “No!” she shouted and wasn’t sure who she was yelling at—the dragon or Overdrake.
Before Jupiter’s mouth closed on Ryker, the dragon jerked sideways. His jaws snapped shut on air, on nothing, and he shrieked in fury. It was only when Tori saw Jesse letting go of the dragon’s tail, that she understood what had happened. He’d flown in the window and yanked Jupiter away from Ryker.
That, she supposed, was the disadvantage of attacking with a smaller dragon.
Jupiter whipped his tail into Jesse, sending him spinning and careening downward. He barely managed to flip midair before he slammed into a statue of Jefferson.
Ryker pushed away from the wall, going slower than normal.
Inside Jupiter’s mind, Overdrake made tutting sounds. “One of your teammates isn’t doing so well. Is that Ryker? Jupiter will catch him soon. If you don’t want to see him torn to pieces, we could work out a trade. His life for the name of the informer.”
Tori couldn’t make those sorts of negotiations. “Chameleon,” she whispered into the mic, “Overdrake is targeting you. Get out of here until you’re up to speed.”
“I’m fine,” Ryker said. “I just got the wind knocked out of me.” But he glided toward one of the doors, positioning himself there for an easy exit.
Overdrake laughed and the sound of it echoing in the dragon’s mind was eerie. “I threatened the wrong Slayer, didn’t I? You don’t care that much about Ryker. But Jesse… would you give his life for the name of the informant?”
“Jaybird,” Tori said, “he’s targeting you now.”
“Let him,” Jesse said. “I’ll hold him off while you cut the straps.”
Had she really expected a different answer from him? Tori withdrew from the dragon’s mind. She didn’t want to encourage Overdrake to make more bargains with her. She’d speak to him again once she had leverage.
Shang’s voice came over the earpiece. “We’re in the building.”
Kody added, “It’s a good thing my horse can jump police barricades.”
Before he’d finished speaking, a sound like a crack of thunder shook the walls. For a moment, Tori had the sensation of being in a snowglobe: a feeling that the world was no longer steady. Several windows shattered and bits of glass and sandstone rained down, tinkling as they hit the floor. Even the dragon paused and peered about.
Lilly swore and her voice went high with alarm. “What kind of explosives are you using?”
“I’m with Blossom on this one,” Leo said. “Tone the attack way down.”
Tori wiped bits of plaster from her visor and surveyed the room, looking for the cause. “That wasn’t one of our grenades. It was something bigger.” Although what, Tori didn’t know.
Jesse floated upward to peer out a window. “Is the military lobbing explosives at us?”
“They wouldn’t.” With a cautious eye on Jupiter, Tori lifted toward a different window. “George Washington laid the foundation for this building.” She saw no signs of a military presence outside, just trees, lawn, and part of the parking lot, but that didn’t mean someone wasn’t there. The police cars she’d seen earlier must have gone somewhere.
The dragon skimmed up one side of the rotunda, glaring at them. He kept his back to the wall to prevent flyers from getting near the Kevlar straps.
Without warning, another blast shook the room. This one made pieces of columns tumble, and the whole dome shuddered unsteadily. So much dust drifted through the air, the place looked like the fog had crept inside. A fan inside Tori’s helmet kicked on and whirred, filtering the air.
Ryker retreated farther out of the room. Jesse edged toward one of the broken windows. “T-bird, call your dad. Have him stop whoever is trying to bring the building down.”
Tori didn’t have to call, she just had to answer her phone. He’d been calling nonstop since she left.
While Jupiter circled the top of the rotunda, Tori pulled her phone from her pocket. “Dad, tell the military and law enforcement to stop attacking the Capitol Building. People are inside. Including me.”
“Then get out of there!” Her father’s voice was insistent and loud. “Go someplace safe!”
“So, that means you’re going to talk to the military, right?”
“Busy fighting a dragon. Gotta go.” She ended the call and returned the phone to her pocket.
The other Slayers had finally reached the doorway. Leo and Bess came in first, tentatively stepping inside. Their shields were undoubtedly already raised against the possibility of fire. Kody followed close behind them, rifle eagerly drawn. Four others slipped into the room, black figures that moved as confidently as a winning sports team taking the floor. Two Slayers were missing. Tori didn’t have to ask to know that Rosa and Alyssa were searching the building for burn victims. She hoped they found the man she’d seen earlier.
Jupiter was still at the top of the rotunda, hovering, probably waiting for Overdrake’s instructions. The dragon presented an odd sight, hanging there against the backdrop of George Washington and a host of happy angels.
There was no way to get above Jupiter to reach the Kevlar straps. They’d have to wait for him to come lower.
Jesse took out one of his sticky grenades. Well, there was that option too. Although Tori wasn’t sure how many more explosions the rotunda could take. “Try not to destroy the fresco,” she told Jesse. “It’s pretty.”
“Yeah, so am I,” Ryker said. “Worry about the rest of us for a change.” He glided in after the others, flying fast and straight again. Good. He was back in the game.
Jupiter surveyed the group with eyes that were angry slits. He growled, then breathed a plume of fire that blossomed out, obscuring his location. When it cleared, he was sailing toward a broken window. He was too big to fit through. If he tried to go out that way, he’d get stuck, which would make it easy for the flyers to cut his straps. Tori lifted higher, positioning herself.
The dragon’s head plunged through the window, but instead of holding him, the wall between the windows gave way in a shower of plaster, rubble, and shards of glass.
And then he was gone. Tori dove after him, angry at herself for letting the dragon have a head start. “Seriously, with all of the money Congress spent renovating this place, you’d think they’d have made the walls stronger.”
Jesse darted out of the window after her, following in the chase. Jupiter was flying fast and low, wings pumping. He skimmed above the lawn and trees.
“Heading toward Independence Ave,” Jesse told the others and pulled ahead of Tori. “Chameleon, grab the shielders and catch up to us. When you get close, throw Beta to me.”
Bess’s voice came over the line. “When he said throw, he meant: carefully hand.”
Tori took her parachute shooter from her thigh holster. It only held one parachute. Was this the best time to slow down the dragon, or should she wait and see if she needed it later—perhaps to save someone? During practice, it was easy to gamble. Here, she hesitated.
And then shot. A white missile launched and struck the dragon’s haunches. It furled open—a crisp white flower—but only slowed Jupiter for a second. The dragon’s momentum yanked him free and the parachute fluttered downward, petals wilting.
Tori grunted and considered hurling the gun at the dragon. “The parachute didn’t stick.”
“It should have,” Theo replied, clearly affronted. “I tested it on a moving car. Overdrake must have put some substance on the scales to repel adhesives.”
Figured. After all, Dirk had practiced with sticky grenades.
The dragon flew over the Cannon House Office building, his bat-like wings nearly touching the roof. He sprayed a stream of fire that obliterated an American flag and left a blazing trail beneath him.
The building looked like it was entirely made of marble, but the roof wasn’t stone. Flames bloomed from its surface and spread fast. Perhaps Overdrake had planted something flammable there earlier.
“The Cannon is on fire,” Tori reported.
“Hugh,” Jesse called to Shang. “Do what you can to put it out. Blossom, keep with the group.”
Ahead, Jupiter tilted, turning toward the Supreme Court. Frustration welled inside of Tori. She hadn’t been able to do anything to stop the last fire and she couldn’t prevent another one. She was just shadowing the dragon, watching it destroy things.
Her father’s ring tone sounded from her phone. She answered without giving him time to speak. “If there’s anyone at Cannon, they need to evacuate.”
“The roof is on fire. The Supreme Court might be next. Let emergency dispatch know.” Fire stations farther away wouldn’t have been affected by the EMP. One of them could send trucks. Tori gazed around at the clogged streets, six lanes of stalled cars, and scowled. Fire trucks would have a hard time getting through all of that. “Also let them know the area has been hit with EMP and might be hit again.”
Her father repeated the information to someone nearby and then spoke to her. “You need to leave Capitol Hill. The military didn’t attack the building. Explosives were planted in the tunnels. Augustus knew people would flee from the building that way and laid a trap for them.”
The words made Tori’s stomach turn. All of those people—wounded and trapped. Jupiter had never been the real threat—just a method to push fleeing people into an ambush. How many of the nation’s leaders had been killed in the tunnels? How many were stuck there still?
“He’s a dangerous man,” her father said. “I don’t want you anywhere near him.”
Her father would probably not be comforted to hear that Overdrake knew her personally and had just been chatting with her.
Up ahead, the dragon dipped, streaking toward the street. Pedestrians scattered out of the way and dodged for cover under cars and into doorways. Jesse trailed Jupiter like a tail on a kite, still too far away to reach the Kevlar straps.
“I’ve got a dragon to deal with,” Tori said. “Don’t worry, though. I’m trained. ”
Her father’s voice raised several decibels. “You’re not trained; you’re a teenager! Come back to the Pentagon!”
The dragon zipped upward again. He was nearly to the Supreme Court.
The building stood back from the street like a Greek temple: Sweeping stairs, huge white pillars, and statues depicting Justice. Jupiter sailed along the length of the roof and lined it with a stream of fire. The reaching flames glowed yellow and orange, crackling from the heat.
“The Supreme Court is on fire,” Tori told her father. “I need to hang up so I can concentrate.” Before ending the call, she added, “I love you.” She had to tell him that, at least.
“Chameleon!” Jesse yelled up ahead of her. “Hurry! We need shielders before the dragon burns down the entire city.”
“Coming!” Ryker called. He was gaining on them, but not quickly enough.
Tori’s watch beeped with a message from Dr. B. “Split it read. Dirk just hit Anacostia with EMP and is flying west. Probably targeting Reagan International or the Pentagon. Head that way to intercept.
Anger pulsed through Tori. Not the Pentagon. Not after she’d taken her father there. She had the unreasonable thought that fate wasn’t playing fair, that it wouldn’t let her win. She pulled out her phone to warn her father. Without waiting for Ryker to call a plan, she flipped in the air and sped toward the Pentagon. He could work it out with Jesse. She had to stop Dirk.
Turned out, she wasn’t much of a team player when her father’s safety was in question.