Witchlight (Chapter 5)

Everything hung in the balance, and for a moment Keller thought that they had won. Diana's face looked different, older and more clearly defined. For all her flower-petal prettiness, she had a strong little chin. But she didn't say anything, and her eyes were still hazy.

"Toby," Grandma Harman said abruptly. "Put in the video."

Her apprentice went to the VCR. Keller stared at the tape in his hand, her heart picking up speed. A video. Could that be what she thought it was?

"What you're about to see is-well, let's just say it's very secret," Grandma Harman said to Iliana as the apprentice fiddled with the controls. "So secret that there's only one tape of it, and that stays locked up in Circle Daybreak headquarters at all times. I'm the only person I trust to carry it around. All right, Toby, play it."

Iliana looked at the TV apprehensively. "What is it?"

The old woman smiled at her. "Something the enemy would really like to see. It's a record of the other Wild Powers-in action."

The first scene on the tape was live news coverage of a fire. A little girl was trapped in a second-story apartment, and the flames were getting closer and closer. Suddenly, the tape went into slow motion, and a blue flash lit the screen. When the flash died away, the fire was out.

"The blue fire," Grandma Harman said. "The first Wild Power we found did that, smothered those ordinary flames with a single thought. That's just one example of what it can do."

The next scene was of a dark-haired young man. This one was obviously deliberately filmed; the boy was looking directly into the camera. He took a knife from his belt and very coolly made a cut on his left wrist. Blood welled up in the wound and dripped to the ground.

"The second Wild Power," Grandma Harman said. "A vampire prince."

The boy turned and held out the arm that was bleeding. The camera focused on a large boulder about thirty feet away. And then the tape went into slow motion again, and Keller could actually see the blue fire shoot out from his hand.

It started as a burst, but what followed was a steady stream. It was so bright that the camera couldn't deal with it; it bleached out the rest of the picture. But when it hit the rock, there was no doubt about what happened.

The two-ton boulder exploded into gravel.

When the dust settled, there was only a charred crater in the ground. The dark-haired boy looked back at the camera, then shrugged and targeted another boulder. He wasn't even sweating.

Keller's breath came out involuntarily. Her heart was pounding, and she knew her eyes were glittering. She saw Galen glance sideways at her but ignored him.

Power like that, she thought. I never really imagined it. If I had that power, the things I could do with it… Before she could help herself, she had turned to him. "Don't you see? That's what you'll bring to our side if you choose to fight with us. That's what's going to give us a chance against them. You have to do it, don't you understand?"

It was the wrong thing to say. Diana's reaction to the video had been completely different from Keller's own. She was staring at the TV as if she were watching open-heart surgery. Unsuccessful open-heart surgery.

I don't – I can't do anything like that!"


"And I don't want to! No. Look." A veil seemed to have dropped down behind Diana's beautiful eyes.

She was facing Keller, but Keller wondered if she actually saw anything. She spoke rapidly, almost frantically.

"You said you had to talk to me, so I listened. I even watched your-your special effects stuff." She waved a hand at the screen where the boy was blowing up more boulders. "But now it's over, and I'm going home. This is all-I don't know. It's all too weird for me! I'm telling you, I can't do that kind of thing. You're looking at the wrong person."

"We looked at all your cousins first," Grandma Harman said. "Thea and Blaise. Gillian, who was a lost witch like yourself. Even poor Sylvia, who was seduced over to the enemy side. But it was none of them. Then we found you." She leaned forward, trying to hold Diana with her eyes. "You have to accept it, child. It's a great responsibility and a great burden, but no one else can do it for you. Come and take your place with us."

Iliana wasn't listening.

It was as simple as that. Keller could almost see the words bouncing off her. And her eyes…

Not a veil, Keller thought. A wall had dropped down. It had slammed into place, and Diana was hiding behind it.

"If I don't get home soon, my mother's going to go crazy. I just ran out for a few minutes to get some gold stretchy ribbon-you know, the kind that has like a rubber band inside? It seems like I'm always looking for that. We have some from last year, but it's already tied, and it won't fit on the presents I'm doing."

Keller stared at her, then cast a glance heavenward. She could see the others staring, too. Winnie's mouth was hanging open. Nissa's eyebrows were in her hair. Galen looked dismayed.

Grandma Harman said, "If you won't accept your responsibilities as a Wild Power, will you at least do your duty as the Witch Child? The winter solstice is next Saturday. On that night, there's going to be a meeting of the shapeshifters and the witches. If we can show them a promise ceremony between you and the son of the First House of the shapeshifters, the shapeshifters will join us."

Keller half expected Iliana to explode. And in the deepest recesses of her own heart, she wouldn't really have blamed her. She could understand Iliana losing it and saying, What do you think you're doing, waltzing in and trying to hitch me up to some guy I've never met? Asking me to fight is one thing but ordering me to marry-giving me away like some object-that's another.

But Iliana didn't say anything like that. She said, "And I've still got so many presents to wrap, and I'm not anywhere near done shopping. Plus, this week at school is going to be completely crazy. And Saturday, that's the night Jaime and Brett Ashton-Hughes are having their birthday party. I can't miss that."

Keller lost it.

"What is wrong with you? Are you deaf or just stupid?"

Iliana talked right over her. "They're twins, you know. And I think Brett kind of likes me. Their family is really rich, and they live in this big house, and they only invite a few people to their parties. All the girls have crushes on him. Brett, I mean."

"No," Keller answered her own question. "You're just the most selfish, spoiled little brat I've ever met!"

"Keller," Nissa said quietly. "It's no good. The harder you push her, the more she goes into denial."

Keller let out her breath. She knew that it was true, but she had never been more frustrated in her life.

Grandma Harman's face suddenly looked very old and very tired. "Child, we can't force you to do anything. But you have to realize that we're not the only ones who want you. The other side knows about you, too. They won't give up, and they will use force."

"And they've got a lot of force." Keller turned to the old woman. "I need to tell you about that. I didn't want to say it on the phone, but they already tried to get Iliana once today. We had to fight them at the mall." She took a deep breath. "And they had a dragon."

Grandma Harman's head jerked up. Those steely lavender-gray eyes fixed on Keller. "Tell me."

Keller told everything. As she did, Grandma Harman's face seemed to get older and older, sinking into haggard lines of worry and sadness. But all she said at the end was, "I see. Well have to try to find out how they got him, and what exactly his powers are. I don't think there's anybody alive today who's an expert on-those creatures."

"They called him Azhdeha."

"Hmm-sounds Persian."

"It is," Galen said. 'It's one of the old names for the constellation Draco. It means 'man-eating serpent'"

Keller looked at him in surprise. He had been sitting quietly all this time, listening without interrupting. Now he was leaning forward, his gold-green eyes intense.

"The shapeshifters have some old scrolls about dragons. I think you should ask for them. They might give some idea about what powers they have and how to fight them. I saw the scrolls once, but I didn't really study them; I don't think anybody has."

He'd seen the ancient scrolls? Then he was a shapeshifter, after all. But why hadn't she been able to sense an animal form for him?

"Galen-" Keller began, but Grandma Harman was speaking.

'It's a good idea. When I get them, I'll send copies to you and Keller. He's one of your people, after all, and you may be able to help figure out how to fight him."

Keller wanted to say indignantly that he wasn't any connection to her, but of course it wasn't true. The dragons had ruled the shapeshifters, once. Their blood still ran in the First House, the Drache family that ruled the shapeshifters today. Whatever that monster was, he was one of her people.

"So it's decided. Keller, you and your team will take Iliana home. I'll go back to Circle Daybreak and try to find out more about dragons. Unless…" She looked at Iliana. "Unless this discussion has changed your mind."

Iliana, unbelievably, was still prattling, having a conversation about presents with nobody in particular. It was clear that her mind hadn't changed. What wasn't clear to Keller was whether she had a mind.

But Keller had other things to worry about. Tm sorry-but you're not serious, are you? About taking her home?" "Perfectly serious,*' Grandma Harman said. "But we can't"

"We can, and we have to. You three girls will be her bodyguards-and her friends. I'm hoping that you can persuade her to accept her responsibility by Saturday night at midnight, when the shapeshifters and the witches convene. But if not…" Grandma Harman bowed her head slightly, leaning on her cane. She was looking at Iliana. "If not," she said in a barely audible voice, "you'll just have to protect her for as long as you can."

Keller was choking. 1 don't see how we can protect her at all. With all respect, ma'am, it's an insane idea. They have to know where her house is by now. Even if we stick beside her twenty-four hours a day-and I don't see how we can even do that, with her family around-"

The white head came up, and there was even a faint curve to the old woman's lips. 'Illtake care of that.

Ill have a talk with her mother-young Anna, Elspeth's granddaughter.Ill introduce myself and explain that her daughter's long-lost cousins' have come to visit for Christmas."

And undoubtedly do something witchy to Anna's mind, Keller thought Yeah, after that they'd be accepted, although none of them looked a bit like Iliana's cousins.

"And then I will put up wards around that house." There was a flash like silver lightning in Grandma Harman's eyes as she said it "Wards that

will hold against anything from the outside. As long as nobody inside disturbs them, you'll be safe." She cocked an eyebrow at Keller. "Satisfied?"

"I'm sorry-no. It's still too dangerous."

"Then what would you suggest we do?"

"Kidnap her," Keller said instantly. She could hear Iliana stop babbling in the background; she wasn't gaining any Brownie points there. She bulldozed on grimly. "Look, I'm just a grunt; I obey orders. But I think that she's too important for us to just let her run around loose where they might get hold of her. I think we should take her to a Circle Daybreak enclave like the ones where the other Wild Powers are.

Where we can protect her from the enemy."

Grandma Harman looked her in the eye. "If we do that," she said mildly, "then we are the enemy."

There was a pause. Keller said, "With all respect, ma'am-"

"I don't want your respect. I want your obedience. The leaders of Circle Daybreak made a firm decision when this whole thing started. If we can't convince a Wild Power by reasoning, we will not resort to force. So your orders are to take your team and stay with this child and protect her as long as you can."

"Excuse me." It was Galen. The others had been sitting and watching silently. Nissa and Winnie were too smart to get involved in an exchange like this, but Keller could see that they were both unhappy.

"What is it?" Grandma Harman asked.

"If you don't mind, I'd like to go with them. I could be another 'cousin.' It would make four of us to watch over her-better odds."

Keller thought she might have an apoplexy.

She was so mad, she couldn't even get words out While she was choking uselessly, Galen was going on.

His face still looked pale and strained, like a young soldier coming back from battle, but his dark gold hair was shining, and his eyes were steady. His whole attitude was one of earnest pleading.

Tm not a fighter, but maybe I can learn. After all, that's what we're asking Iliana to do, isn't it? Can we ask anything of her that we're not ready to do ourselves?"

Grandma Harman, who had been frowning, now looked him up and down appraisingly. "You have a fine young mind," she said. "Like your father's. He and your mother were both strong warriors, as well."

Galen's eyes darkened. 'Td hoped I wouldn't have to be one. But it looks like we can't always choose."

Keller didn't know what they were talking about or why the Crone of all the Witches knew the parents of this guy she'd met in a mall. But she'd finally gotten the obstruction out of her throat.

"No way!" she said explosively. She was on her feet now, too, black hair flying as she looked from Grandma Harman to Galen. "I mean it. There is no way I am taking this boy back with us. And you may be the leader of the witches, ma'am, but, no offense intended, I don't think you have the authority to make me. I'd have to hear it from the leaders

of Circle Daybreak themselves, from Thierry Descouedres or Lady Hannah. Or from the First House of the shapeshifters."

Grandma Harman gave an odd snort. Keller ignored it. 'It's not just that he's not a fighter. He's not involved in this. He doesn't have any part in it."

Grandma Harman looked at Galen, not entirely approvingly. "It seems you've been keeping secrets. Are you going to tell her, or shall I?"

"I-" Galen turned from her to Keller. "Listen. I'm sorry-I should have mentioned it before." His eyes were embarrassed and apologetic. 'It just-there just didn't seem to be a right time." He winced. "I wasn't in that mall today accidentally. I came by to look for Iliana. I wanted to see her, maybe get to know her a little."

Keller stared at him, not breathing. "Why?"

"Because…" He winced again. "I'm Galen Drache… of the First House of the shapeshifters," Keller blinked while the room revolved briefly.

I should have known. I should have realized. That's why he seemed like a shapeshifter, but I couldn't get any animal sense from him.

Children of the First House weren't born connected to any particular animal. They had power over all animals, and they were allowed to choose when they became adults which one they would shift into.

It also explained how he'd known which pressure points to use to get her off the dragon. And his telepathy-children of the First House could connect to any animal mind.

When the room settled back into place, Keller realized that she was still standing there, and Galen was still looking at her. His eyes were almost beseeching.

'I should have explained," he said.

"Well, of course, it was your choice," Keller said stiffly. There was an unusual amount of blood in her cheeks; she could feel it burning. She went on, "And, naturally, I'm sorry if anything I've said has given offense."

"Keller, please don't be formal."

"Let's see, I haven't greeted you properly, or given you my obedience." Keller took his hand, which was well made, long-fingered, and cold. She brought it to her forehead. "Welcome, Drache, son of the First House of the shapeshifters. I'm yours to command, naturally."

There was a silence. Keller dropped Galen's hand. Galen looked miserable.

"You're really mad now, aren't you?" he observed.

"1 wish you every happiness with your new bride," Keller said through her teeth.

She couldn't figure out exactly why she was so mad. Sure, she'd been made a fool of, and now she was going to have to take responsibility for an untrained boy who couldn't even shapeshift into a mouse. But it was more than that.

He's going to marry that whiny little flower in the corner, a voice in Keller's head whispered. He has to marry her, or at least go through a promise ceremony that's just as binding as marriage. If he doesn't, the shapeshifters will never join with the witches. They've said so, and they'll never back down. And if they don't join with the witches . .. everything you've ever worked for is finished.

And your job is to persuade the flower to do her duty, the voice continued brightly. That means you've got to convince her to marry him. Instead of eating her.

Keller's temper flared. I don't want to eat her, she snapped back at the voice. And I don't care who this idiot marries. It's none of my business.

She realized that the room was still silent, and everyone was watching Iliana and Galen. Iliana had stopped prattling. She was looking at Galen with huge violet eyes. He was looking back, strained and serious.

Then he turned to Keller again. "I'd still like to help, if you'll let me come."

"I told you, I'm yours to command," Keller said shortly. "It's your decision. I'd like to mention that it just makes things a little harder on my team. Now we're going to have to look out for you as well as her. Because, you see, you're not expendable after all."

"I don't want you to look out for me," he said soberly. "I'm not important."

Keller wanted to say, Don't be an idiot. No you, no promise ceremony, no treaty. It's as simple as that. We've got to protect you. But she'd already said more than enough.

Toby was retrieving the tape from the VCR. Grandma Harman was making getting-ready-to-rise motions with her cane. "I think we've stayed here long enough," she said to Keller.

Keller nodded stiffly. "Would you like to come in

the limo? Or would you rather follow us to her house?"

Grandma Harman opened her mouth to answer, but she never got the chance. Keller's ears caught the sound of movement outside just before the living room window shattered.