Witchlight (Chapter 3)

Keller turned her head quickly.

Nissa was standing there, cool and imperturbable as always, one hand on her hip. Her short mink-colored hair wasn't even ruffled; her eyes, just a shade or two darker, were steady. And she was holding an ironwood fighting stick with a very sharp point.

Keller growled faintly in relief. You couldn't ask Nissa to be creative-her mind didn't work that way. But on any question of logic, she was unbeatable, and she had nerves of ice. More important right now, she was a superb fighter.

"If you want to play, why don't you try me?" she suggested, and whipped the fighting stick around expertly a few times. It whistled in the air, traced a complicated figure, and ended up casually across her shoulder. Then she slowly extended the point toward the vampire's throat.

"Yeah, and don't leave me out." This voice was husky and shaky but still grim. It came from behind the counter. Winnie was pulling herself up. She coughed once, then stood straight, facing the vampire.

Energy, orange and pulsating, flared between her cupped hands. Witch power.

You're alive, Keller thought. She couldn't suppress the flash of relief.

The vampire looked from one girl to the other. Then he glanced at Keller, who was lying on her side, feebly trying to make her legs work. Her tail lashed furiously.

"Come on!" the other vampire shouted. He was staggering under the weight of the dragon, heading for the door. "Let's get Azhdeha out of here. He's the most important thing."

The first vampire hesitated one instant, then whirled and plunged after his friend. Together, they hustled the dragon out into the mall.

Then they were gone.

Keller gave one final gasping snarl and felt herself change. This time, it felt more like a snail falling out of a shell. Her claws dissolved, her tail withered, and she slumped into her human body.

"Boss! Are you okay?" Winnie came toward her, a little unsteadily.

Keller raised her head, black hair falling on either side to the floor. She pushed herself up with her arms and looked around, taking stock.

The shop was quiet It was also a wreck. Winnie's impact with the wall had knocked off most of the decorative plates and clocks there. Keller's fight with the dragon had trashed a lot of the shelves.

There were shattered Christmas ornaments everywhere, little glittering fragments of scarlet and holly green and royal purple. It was like being in a giant kaleidoscope.

And outside, chaos was gathering. The entire fight had only taken about five minutes, but all the time it had been going on, people had been running away from the shop and screaming. Keller had noticed them; she had simply filed them away in her mind as unimportant. There had been nothing she could do about them.

Now, there were security officers closing in, and someone had undoubtedly called the police.

She pushed with her arms again and managed to stand up.

"Nissa." It hurt her throat to speak. "Where's the car?"

"Right down there." Nissa pointed at the floor. "Directly below us, parked outside the Mrs. Fields cookie store."

"Okay. Let's get Diana out." Keller looked at the young girl with the shimmering hair who as yet hadn't spoken a single word. "Can you walk?"

Iliana stared at her. She didn't say anything. Stunned and frightened, Keller guessed. Well, a lot had happened in the last few minutes.

"I know this all seems bizarre to you, and you're probably wondering who we are.Ill explain everything. But right now, we have to get out of here. Okay?"

Iliana shrank a little, trembling.

Not exactly a hero, Keller thought. Or quick on the uptake. Then she decided she was being unfair. This girl was the Witch Child; she undoubtedly had hidden strengths.

"Come on," Galen said to Iliana gently. "She's right; it isn't safe here."

Iliana looked up at him earnestly. She seemed about to agree. Then she gave a little shiver, shut her eyes, and fainted.

Galen caught her as she fell.

Keller stared.

"She's too pure to deal with this kind of stuff," Winnie said defensively. "Violence and all. It's not the same as being chicken."

It was at that exact moment that Keller could pinpoint her first real doubts about the new Wild Power. Galen looked down at the girl who lay in his arms like a broken lily. He looked at Keller.

"You take her; well surround you and cover you," Keller said, cutting him off. She knew her hair was in complete disarray, a wild cyclone of black around her. Her sleek jumpsuit was torn and stained, and she was clutching her right shoulder, which still throbbed in agony. But she must have looked fairly commanding, because Galen didn't say another word, just nodded and started toward the door.

Nissa led the way in front of him. Winnie and Keller fell in behind. They were ready to fight, but when the security guards with walkie-talkies saw Nissa whirling her stick, they backed away. The ordinary people, curious onlookers attracted by all the noise, not only backed away but ran. Lots of them screamed.

"Go," Keller said. "Fast. Go."

They made it to Mrs. Fields without anybody trying to stop them.

A girl with a red apron flattened herself against a wall as they thrust their way behind the counter and into the sanctum full of industrial-sized ovens in the back. A gangly boy dropped a tray with a clang, and lumps of raw cookie dough scattered on the floor.

And then they were bursting through the back entrance, and there was the car, a white limousine illegally parked at the curb. Nissa whipped out a key chain and pressed a button, and Keller heard the click of doors unlocking.

"Inside!" she said to Galen. He got in. Winnie ran around the car to get in the other side. Nissa slid into the driver's seat. Keller ducked in last and snapped, "Go!" even as she slammed the door.

Nissa floored it.

The limousine shot forward like a dolphin-just as a security truck sped up from the rear. A police car appeared dead in front of them.

Nissa was an excellent driver. The limo swerved with a squeal of tires and peeled out of another of the parking lot's exits. A second police car swung toward them as Nissa dodged traffic. This one had lights and sirens on. Nissa gunned the engine, and the limo surged forward again. A freeway on-ramp was ahead.

"Hang on," Nissa said briefly.

They were passing the on-ramp-they were past it. No, they weren't. At the last possible second, the limo screamed into a ninety-degree turn. Everyone inside was thrown around. Keller clenched her teeth as her wounded arm hit the window. Then they were shooting up the on-ramp and onto the freeway.

With a little patter, cat's paws of rain appeared on the windshield. Keller, leaning forward to look over Nissa's shoulder, was happy. With icy rain and the low, gray fog, they probably wouldn't be chased by helicopter. The big limousine roared past the few other cars on the road and Winnie sat looking out the rear window, murmuring a spell to confuse and delay any pursuit.

"We lost them," Nissa said. Keller sat back and let out her breath. For the first time since she'd entered the mall, she allowed herself to relax minutely.

We did it.

At the same moment, Winnie turned. She pounded the backseat with a small, hard fist. "We did it! Keller-we got the Wild Power! We…" Her voice trailed off as she saw Keller's face. "And, uh… I guess I disobeyed orders." Her pounding was self-conscious now; she ducked her strawberry-blond head. "Um, I'm sorry, Boss."

"You'd better be," Keller said. She held Winnie's gaze a moment, then said, "You could have gotten yourself killed, witch-and for absolutely no good reason."

Winnie grimaced. "I know. I lost it. I'm sorry." But she smiled timidly at Keller afterward. Keller's team knew how to read her.

"Sorry, too, Boss," Nissa said from the front seat. She slanted a glance at Keller from her mink-colored eyes. "I wasn't supposed to leave the car."

"But you thought we might need a little help," Keller said. She nodded, meeting Nissa's eyes in the mirror. "I'm glad you did."

The faintest flush of pleasure colored Nissa's cheeks.

Galen cleared his throat.

"Um, for the record, I'm sorry, too. I didn't mean to charge in like that in the middle of your operation."

Keller looked at him.

He was smiling slightly, hesitantly, the way Winnie had. A nice smile. The corner of his mouth naturally quirked upward, giving him a hint of mischief in all but the most serious moments. His green-gold eyes were apologetic but hopeful.

"Yeah, who are you, guy?" Winnie was looking him up and down, her dark lashes twinkling. "Did Circle Daybreak send you? I thought we were on this mission alone."

"You were. I belong to Circle Daybreak, but they didn't send me. I just-well, I was outside the shop, and I couldn't just stand there…" His voice died. The smile died, too. "You're really mad, aren't you?"

he said to Keller.

"Mad?" She took a slow breath. "I'm furious."

He blinked. "I don't-"

"You stopped me. I could have killed him!"

His gold-green eyes opened in shock and something like remembered pain. "He was killing you."

"I know that," Keller snarled. "It doesn't matter

what happens to me. What matters is that now he's free. Don't you understand what he is?"

Winfrith was looking sober. "I don't know. But he hit me with something powerful. Pure energy like what I use, but about a hundred times stronger."

"He's a dragon," Keller said. She saw Nissa's shoulders stiffen, but Winnie just shook her head, bewildered. "A kind of shapeshifter that hasn't been around for about thirty thousand years."

"He can turn into a dragon?"

Keller didn't smile. "No, of course not. Don't be silly. I don't know what he can do-but a dragon is what he is. Inside." Winnie suddenly looked queasy as this hit home. Keller turned back to Galen.

"And that's what you let loose on the world. It was the only chance to kill him-nobody will be able to take him by surprise like that again. Which means that everything he does after this is going to be your fault."

Galen shut his eyes, looking dizzy. "I'm sorry. But when I saw you-I couldn't let you die…."

"I'm expendable. I don't know who you are, but I'm willing to bet you're expendable. The only one here who isn't expendable is her." Keller jerked a thumb at Iliana, who lay in a pool of pale silver-gold hair on the seat beside Galen. "And if you think that dragon isn't going to come back and try to get her again, you're crazy. I'd have died happy knowing that I'd gotten rid of him."

Galen's eyes were open again, and Keller saw a flicker in them at the "don't know who you are."

But at the end, he said quietly, "I'm expendable. And I'm sorry. I didn't think"

"That's right! You didn't! And now the whole world is going to suffer."

Galen shut up and sat back.

And Keller felt odd. She wasn't sorry for slapping him down, she told herself. He deserved it.

But his face was so pale now, and his expression was so bleak. As if he'd not only understood everything she'd said but expanded on it in his own mind. And the look of hurt in his eyes was almost insupportable.

Good, Keller told herself. But then she remembered the moment she'd spent inside his mind. It had been a sunlit place, warm and open, without dark corners or shadowed crevasses. Now that would be gone forever. There was going to be a huge black fissure in it, full of horror and shame. A mark he would carry for the rest of his life.

Well, welcome to the real world, Keller thought, and her throat tightened and hurt. She stared out the window angrily.

"See, it's really important that we keep Iliana safe," Winfrith was saying quietly to Galen. He didn't ask why, and Keller had noticed before that he hadn't asked why Iliana wasn't expendable. But Winnie went on telling him anyway. "She's a Wild Power. You know about those?"

"Who doesn't these days?" He said it almost in a whisper.

"Well, most humans, for one thing. But she's not just a Wild Power; she's the Witch Child. Somebody we witches have been expecting for centuries.

The prophecies say she's going to unite the shape-shifters and the witches. She's going to marry the son of the First House of the shapeshifters. And then the two races will be united, and all the shapeshifters will join Circle Daybreak, and well be able to hold off the end of the world at the millennium." Winnie finished out of breath. Then she cocked her strawberry-blond head. "You don't seem surprised. Who are you, guy? You didn't really say before."

"Me?" He was still looking into the distance. "I'm nobody, compared to you people." Then he gave a little wry smile that didn't reach his eyes. "I'm expendable."

Nissa caught Keller's eye in the rearview mirror, looking concerned. Keller just shrugged. Sure, Winnie was telling this expendable guy a lot. But it didn't matter. He wasn't on the enemy side; and anyway, the enemy knew everything Winnie was saying. They had identified Iliana as the third Wild Power; the dragon proved that. They wouldn't have sent him if they hadn't been sure.

But still, it was time to get rid of this interfering boy. They certainly couldn't take him to the safe house where they were taking Iliana.

"Nobody tailing us?" Keller said.

Nissa shook her head. "We lost them all miles ago."

"You're sure?"

"Dead certain."

"Okay. Take any exit, and we'll drop him off." She turned to Galen. "I hope you can find your way home."

'I want to go with you."

"Sorry. We have important things to do." Keller didn't need to add, And you're not part of them. "Look." Galen took a deep breath. His pale face was strained and exhausted, as if he'd somehow lost three days' sleep since he'd gotten into the limo. And there was something close to desperation in his eyes. "I need to go with you. I need to help, to try and make up for what I did. I need to make it right."

"You can't." Keller said it even more brusquely than she meant to. "You're not trained, and you're not involved in this. You're no good."

He gave her a look. It didn't disagree with anything she'd said, but somehow, for just an instant, it made her feel small. His greeny-gold eyes were just the opposite of the dragon's opaque ones. Keller could see for miles in them, endless light-filled fathoms, and it was all despair. A sorrow so great that it shook her. She knew it must be costing him a lot to show her that, to hold himself so open and vulnerable. But he kept looking at her steadily.

"You don't understand," he said quietly. I have to help you. I have to try, at least. I know I'm not in your class as a fighter. But I…" He hesitated. "I didn't want to say this-"

At that moment, Iliana groaned and sat up.

Or tried to. She didn't make it all the way. She put a hand to her head and started to fall off the seat. Galen steadied her, putting an arm around her to keep her propped up.

"Are you all right?" Keller asked. She leaned forward, trying to get a look at the girl's face. Winnie was leaning forward, too, her expression eager.

"How're you feeling? You're not really hurt, are you? You just fainted from the shock."

Diana looked around the limousine. She seemed utterly confused and disoriented.

Keller was struck again by the girl's unearthly beauty. This close, she looked like a flower, or maybe a girl made from flowers. She had peach-blossom skin and hazy iris-colored eyes. Her hair was like corn silk, fine and shimmering even in this dim light. Her hands were small and graceful, fingers half curled like flower petals.

"It's such an honor to meet you," Winnie said, and her voice turned formal as she uttered the traditional greeting of the witches. "Unity, Daughter of Hellewise. I'm Winfrith Arlin." She dimpled. "But it's really 'Arm-of-Lightning.' My family's an old one, almost as old as yours."

Diana stared at her. Then she stared at the back of Nissa's mink-colored head. Then her eyes slid to Keller.

Then she sucked in a deep breath and started screaming.