Part 16

Footsteps.

Moordryd woke, but he didn't move.

Someone was walking down the stairs, stepping quietly as they tried not to wake anyone.

In the darkness, Moordryd's eyes slowly acclimated to the faint light coming from the monitors. The computers still whirred and counted the percentages of the gauntlets. Except for the gray glow around the screens, the room was filled with silhouettes.

Artha breathed softly beside him. Somehow as they slept, Artha had shifted so that he lay half on top of Moordryd, tangling both of their legs in the blanket. At least Moordryd still lay on his side, comfortable despite the stone beneath him. And he could feel the rumbling of Penn's dragon as it snored, sending little vibrations though the floor.

If Moordryd listened hard, he could hear Kitt and Parmon as well. Then who had he heard walking around? Maybe Connor had gotten up for some reason and was trying not to wake anyone else.

Maybe.

The footsteps skirted around the edge of the room, blindly feeling for anything in the way.

Moordryd cursed that he didn't have his gear with him. A simple jackstick, his whip, anything... Should he wake Artha? No. He didn't think stable brat could wake up quietly. Moordryd waited for the steps to come close, tensing in case he was attacked...and the steps kept going, shuffling once against the stone floor.

He's heading for the gauntlets, Moordryd realized.

And he froze as fear paralyzed him. Armeggadon, he thought. It had to be. His breath hitched as he thought that Armeggadon might be in side, only a few feet away, intent on stealing the gauntlets to create new boosters that would obey him, Armeggadon ready to cut them apart while they slept...

...and then Armeggadon tripped over the fallen blankets and hit the floor, yelping loud enough to make the dragon startle up.

Moordryd blinked. No. Not who he thought it was. And as the blankets behind him shifted as Artha and the crew woke, Moordryd was already sitting up, sliding his hand along the floor to find his penlight.

"Mini-brat," he growled, "I swear I'm gonna feed you to your own dragon!"

In the darkness, the footsteps suddenly darted for the monitors. Moordryd could barely make out a hand falling on the nearest one and then sprinting for the gauntlet. Finally Moordryd found his flashlight bunched up in the saddle blanket and turned it on. The slender beam swept up the stairs and touched the heels of familiar blue and black shoes as they escaped.

"What happened?" Artha said, coming to his feet. "Moordryd-"

"Mini-brat just grabbed a gauntlet!" Moordryd was already heading up the stairs. "Where's your father?"

"I don't know!" Artha said, following right behind him. "I thought he was down here with us!"

Behind them, Parm and Kitt tangled up in each other's blankets as they struggled to stand, finding that in their sleep they'd curled closer for warmth. While Kitt muttered several drowsy curses, she eventually flung Parm off and stumbled toward the stairs, Parm hopping after her as he put on his second shoe.

The door flew open, briefly revealing Lance's silhouette as he held a gauntlet clutched against his chest. Then he moved out of sight, leaving the glare of the gold stable lights in Moordryd's eyes.

"Lance!" Artha yelled. "Get back here!"

They came out onto the arena sand, and Moordryd skidded to a stop as he looked around. Beside him, though, Artha kept going, grabbing his shoulder briely as he ran by.

"This way," Artha said. "Around the stables!"

Moordryd cursed under his breath and followed. The arena was deceptively plain, with so much of the open area disguising the L-shaped dragon stalls that any visitor would easily overlook. Even after breaking in a couple of times, Moordryd didn't know the actual layout of Penn's home. Disabling security and sneaking along the edge of the arena couldn't give him the same kind of knowledge as someone who'd lived here.

As they came around the corner, they found Lance at the very end of the row of stalls. Here the stables were all empty, the Penn dragons sold off to new riders before the start of the next racing season. The lights were all out and the neon advertisements from the streets above didn't reach here, but the circle of Moordryd's penlight swung around and caught Lance just as he snapped the gauntlet over his wrist.

Lance grimaced as the gauntlet slid off his hand, too large to fit, and he went to his knees and slid it over his wrist again, holding up his hand so it wouldn't fall off again.

"Drop it!" Artha said, lunging toward him, arms out.

From years of living with his brother, Lance instinctively leaned back, letting Artha fly by him. As Artha landed in a heap, Lance stood up and backed away as he pulled the amulet from his pocket.

"You can't catch me," Lance sing-songed, and he smacked the amulet into the gauntlet's matching groove.

Wisps of electricity sparked over the gauntlet, playing along the edges of the amulet, and then the whole gauntlet lit up as if powered by a battery. Much like the Shadow and Dragon booster in the throes of their transformation, Lance rose several inches into the air, held aloft and tipped back.

"Whoa," Lance gasped. "Cool..."

"The amulet," Moordryd said, reaching out toward him. "It's starting to-"

The air around Lance sizzled with arcing static, and Moordryd pulled back as a powerful shock cracked against his palm. Hissing, Moordryd looked down and found an angry red welt across his skin.

"Scales," Moordryd said, holding his hand against his side. "Don't go near him."

"But he's in the middle of that," Artha said, watching from the other side of Lance. "We have to get him out of there."

As if he couldn't hear them, Lance closed his eyes. "What should I say? Release the dragon? No, no, Moordryd says unleash...um, unleash the energy? No, that sounds stupid..."

"This is taking too long," Artha said, trying to reach out and wincing as static popped at his fingers. "It shouldn't take this long."

"Maybe the gauntlet's busted," Moordryd said. "Or it's 'cause he's so little?"

"I got it!" Lance said suddenly. "Release the lightning!"

The metal of the gauntlet turned white as blue sparks played over Lance, suddenly defining the sphere around him in visible electrical surges. The sphere began to shrink, growing tighter and tighter, and still Lance didn't look up, expecting to feel armor form around him any moment.

Instead the surface of the field struck him, and he went completely rigid as he started to scream. The light engulfed him and he became a dark blue silhouette held helpless in burning energy.

"Lance!"

"We can't get near him," Moordryd said, backing toward Artha. "What do we do?"

Artha reached for him only to be thrown back by a sharp snap of lightning, stumbling against the wall. He shared a glance at Moordryd, and they both nodded and activated their own gauntlets, transforming into their booster armor. Accompanied by Lance's cries, the instantaneous change felt like it took ages.

Transforming didn't grant them sudden insight to save Lance, but neither hesitated to reach for him, again forced back. Their armor only safeguarded them from burns, the lightning shooting wildly across the smooth plating.

Artha looked around as if he might find the answer lying on the ground. His gaze fell on Moordryd's gauntlet.

"Hold up your arm," he said, raising his forearm. "Like when we first fought together. Maybe it'll show us what to do."

Too stunned by Lance's screams, Moordryd managed to mimic Artha's motion even if he didn't understand. As soon as as the gauntlets touched, an image unfolded in their minds' eye-the Energy Booster of ancient legend caught in a similar feedback loop, held rigid in a trap of the gauntlet's own making, and the Fire Booster beside her, her red gear somehow manipulating the energy like draconium.

The vision faded. Artha took a deep breath, then put his hands out the same way the ancient Fire Booster had done, reaching out as if it wasn't electricity but Beau's draconium energy.

The lightning surrounding Lance began to ripple, responding to Artha's efforts. The sphere's edge wavered and began to break apart, revealing glimpses of white and blue armor. And then the lightning began to creep up Artha's arms, smoking along the joints of his own armor.

"I don't think..." Artha grimaced, his legs starting to buckle. "Don't think I'm as good at this as she was."

Moordryd reacted, bringing up his own hands and following Artha's lead. The Energy gauntlet's lightning was nothing like Decepshun's draconium, slipping through his fingers instead of readily coalescing. He seemed to do worse than Artha, only managing to lessen the flow against the golden armor.

Somewhere in the arena came a bright red flare, followed swiftly by green. Neither of them could turn from trying to lift the lightning off of Lance, forced to focus on the bursts of energy trying to jolt them through their armor. Moordryd saw black streaks shooting across Artha's arms and shoulders, scorched increasingly higher and higher, and he winced as he stepped closer, trying to shield Artha from some of the electrical waves.

And then all at once the energy field stopped shooting wildly. The blue streaks of lightning smoothed into an even sphere around Lance, and the white light began to fade.

Artha swayed, going to one knee, and Moordryd knelt and put an arm around him. Holding him straight, Moordryd kept one hand toward Lance, relieved to see Artha still doing the same. When he looked up, Moordryd was suddenly glad for the full face plate of his helmet.

Kitt would never have let him live it down if she saw him gasp.

The red flare had been her transformation into the Fire Booster, and a blazing flame flowed up behind her, glowing darkly. Her own hands lay on the surface of the energy field, and the lightning flowed at her touch, rushing around her so that the sand blew away around them. Beside her, the green Power Booster lent his own help, bracing her so the energy wouldn't force her back.

Surrounded by all four Boosters, Lance finally stopped yelling. The energy field finally began to fade, revealing white and blue armor wrapped around Lance, and then the light vanished completely and the Energy Booster lay panting on the sand.

Moordryd breathed out, then stumbled over as Artha completely fell against him.

"Stable brat," Moordryd grunted, "either it's your or your armor, but something''s gotta lose weight."

No reply. Moordryd shifted so that he was holding Artha and lifted the visor. Red burns scarred his friend's face, branching out like small lightning bolts.

"Stable brat?" Moordryd put his hand on Artha's amulet, then hesitated. What if the armor was keeping him alive like it had kept Moordryd alive before? "Wake up..."

A few last crackles sparked along the Energy booster armor. Moaning, Lance turned on his hands and knees, sitting up with a loud sigh. The armor was similar to Artha's, only with white plates and blue joint accents that visibly pulsed with a neon glow. His helmet wrapped around like Moordryd's but with a transparent faceplate like Artha's.

"Is he...?" Parmon asked. He knelt by Lance and looked over him, peering through the faceplate. "He's breathing, but...oh my..."

"Is anyone hurt?" Connor came up behind Kitt and Parmon, taking in who was standing and who was unconscious. "Oh no...Moordryd, can you take Artha back down? I have a medical station there."

"Sure." Moordryd put his arms under Artha, intending to carry him, and he managed to rise halfway before his arms began to tremble. As he sank back down, Kitt came around and caught him enough to help him gently back to the ground.

"Um..." Moordryd huffed. "Maybe not. Feel like I'm gonna shake myself apart, actually."

"Sir," Parmon said, waving toward Lance. "I think you should look at this."

"I realized already," Connor said, exhaling as if a thousand pounds had landed on his back. "But Lance isn't in danger yet and Artha and Moordryd are hurt."

"I'll take Artha," Parmon said, coming toward them. When he lifted Artha off the ground, Moordryd boggled at how easily Parmon simply cradled the other boy, carrying him as if he weight no more than his hand computer. So the Power Booster armor wasn't simply a name.

"Then I got the Payne," Kitt said without any heat to her voice. "Don't think I can give you a comfy ride, though."

Kitt braced herself, putting Moordryd's arm over her shoulders before she stood. His weight plus the armor was not insubstantial, but he managed to gather his legs under himself as she moved.

"I can walk," he assured her, but he didn't try to pull away. "Just not straight. Gimme a sec..."

He slipped the amulet out of his gauntlet, releasing the armor from around himself. Immediately he and Kitt both sighed in relief as the weight lessened.

Before they could pass Lance, however, Moordryd stopped. Lance was trying to stand, and Connor put out his hand, helping his son rise. Something was wrong. Lance wasn't screaming anymore, his armor looked fine and his face through the visor looked fine. Tired, but fine. So why did something feel wrong?

Kitt realized first, breathing in sharply. "Scales...he's as tall as me."

Moordryd blinked. That was it. Lance turned and, through the clear blue faceplate, looked him eye to eye.

"Oh, drac," Lance whispered. "Am...Am I older...?"

"I only hope," Connor said, putting a hand on his shoulder. "That you haven't lost those years completely."

Lance faced him, now only a tiny bit shorter than his father, and if Lance remembered any of the pain he'd just suffered, he didn't show it. Grinning broadly, he threw his fist up in the air and jumped.

"Now I can fight, too!" He popped up the faceplate, wanting to see everyone clearly. A smattering of freckles still covered his nose. "I'm not just a kid anymore."

He didn't understand why none of them were smiling or congratulating him. Connor stared at him as if he was mortally wounded, and Kitt didn't seem happy, not even now that she'd tried on her own Booster armor. And resting against her, Moordryd muttered a curse.

"What...what's wrong?" Lance's voice, changed only slightly, came softer. "I know I stole the gauntlet, but it now you've got five boosters, right?"

"Consideration of others is the first step away from childhood." Connor came around him and grabbed the shoulder of his armor, leading him so he couldn't run yet again. "Get downstairs, and above all, do not remove that gauntlet. I don't know what will happen if it comes off."

Lance's eyes widened, and he clamped his hand over the amulet as if it might suddenly fall out. The night seemed suddenly colder and darker as they left the stables.

TBC...