Witchlight (Chapter 6)

It was a full-force invasion. Even before the echoes of breaking glass had died, figures in black uniforms were swarming through the window.

Dark ninjas, Keller thought. An elite group made up of vampires and shapeshifters, the Night World experts at sneaking and killing.

Keller's mind, which had been roiling in clouds of stifled anger, was suddenly crystal clear.

"Nissa, take her!" she shouted. It was all she needed to say. Nissa grabbed Diana. It didn't matter that Iliana was screaming breathlessly and too shocked to want to go anywhere. Nissa was a vampire and stronger than a human Olympic weight lifter. She simply picked Iliana up and ran with her toward the back door.

Without being told, Winfrith followed close behind, orange energy already sizzling between her palms. Keller knew she would provide good cover-

Winnie was a fighting witch. She made full use of the new powers that all the Night People were developing as the millennium got closer. As one of the ninjas lunged after them, she let loose with a blast of poppy-colored energy that knocked him sideways.

"Now you!" Keller shouted to Galen, trying to hustle him into the hallway without turning from the ninjas. She hadn't changed and didn't want to if she could avoid it. Changing took time, left you vulnerable for the few seconds that you were between forms. Right now seconds counted.

Galen got a few steps down the hall, then stopped. "Grandma Harman!"

I knew it, Keller thought. He's a liability.

The old woman was still in the living room, standing with her feet braced apart, cane ready. Her apprentice, Toby, was in front of her, working up some witch incantation and tossing energy. They were right in the flow of the ninjas.

Which was as it ought to be. Keller's mind had clicked through the possibilities right at the beginning and had come to the only reasonable conclusion.

"We have to leave her!"

Galen turned to her, his face lit by the multicolored energy that was flying around them. "What?"

"She's too slow! We have to protect you and Hiana. Get moving!"

His features were etched in shock. "You're joking. Just wait here-I'll bring her."

"No! Galen-"

He was already running back.

Keller cursed.

"Go on!" she yelled to Nissa and Winnie, who were at the entrance to the kitchen, where the back door was. "Take the limo if you can get to it. Don't wait for us!"

Then she turned and plunged into the living room.

Galen was trying to shield Grandma Harman from the worst of the energy being exchanged. Keller gritted her teeth. This group of ninjas was only the first wave. They were here to breach the wards and make an opening for whatever was going to follow.

Which could be a dragon.

The ninjas hadn't finished their job, though. Most of the wards were holding, and the one that had fallen was on a small window. The dark figures could only squirm in one at a time. The house shook as whoever was outside slammed power at it, trying to break a bigger entrance.

Faintly, Keller heard an engine rev up outside. She hoped it was the limo.

Galen was pulling at Grandma Harman. Toby was grappling hand-to-hand with a ninja.

Keller batted a couple of the sneaks out of her way. She wasn't trying to kill them, just put them out of commission. She had almost reached Galen.

And then she heard the rumbling.

Only her panther ears could have picked it up. Just as the first time when she'd heard it, it was so deep that it seemed both soft and frighteningly loud. It shook her to her bones.

In a flash, she knew what was coming.

And there was no time to think about what to do.

Galen seemed to have sensed it, too. Keller saw him looking at the roof just above the door. Then he turned toward Grandma Harman, shouting.

After that, everything happened at once. Galen knocked the old woman down and fell on top of her. At the same time, Keller sprang and landed on top of both of them.

She was changing even as she did it. Changing and spreading herself out, trying to make herself as wide and flat as possible. A panther rug to cover them.

The brick wall exploded just as the window had, only louder.

Shattered with Power, Keller thought. The dragon had recovered… fast.

And then it was raining bricks. One hit Keller in the leg, and she lashed her tail in fury. Another struck her back, and she felt a deep pain. Then one got her in the head, and she saw white light. She could hear Galen shouting under her. It seemed to be her name.

Then nothing.

Something wet touched her face. Keller hissed automatically, pawing at it in annoyance.

"Lemme lone."

"Boss, wake up. Come on, it's morning already."

Keller opened heavy eyes.

She was dreaming. She had to be. Either that, or the afterlife was full of teenage girls. Winnie was bending over her with a dripping washcloth, and Nissa was peering critically over her shoulder. Behind Nissa was Iliana's anxious little heart-shaped face, her hair falling like two shimmering curtains of silvery-starlight gold on either side.

Keller blinked. "I was sure I was dead."

"Well, you got close," Winnie said cheerfully. "Me and Toby and Grandma Harman have been working on you most of the night. You're going to be kind of stiff, but I guess your skull was too thick to crack."

Keller sat up and was rewarded with a stabbing pain in her temples. "What happened? Where's Galen?"

"Well, golly gee, Boss, I didn't know you cared-"

"Stop fooling around, Winnie! Where's the guy who's got to be alive if the shapeshifters are going to join Circle Daybreak?"

Winnie sobered. Nissa said calmly, "He's fine, Keller. This is Iliana's house. Everybody's okay. We got you guys out-"

Keller frowned, struck by a new worry. "You did? Why? I told you to take the girl and go."

Nissa raised an eyebrow wryly. "Yes, well, but the girl didn't want to go. She made us stop and turn back for you."

"For Galen," Keller said. She looked at Diana, who was wearing a pink nightgown with puffy sleeves and looked about seven. She tried to make her voice patient. 'It was good to think of him, but you should have followed the plan."

"Anyway, it worked out," Nissa said. "Apparently, the dragon blew the house down on top of you, but then he walked right over you trying to get to us."

"Yeah. I was kind of hoping he wouldn't realize

Galen was there," Keller said. "Or wouldn't realize he was important."

"Well, when he found we'd already gotten away in the limo, he and his buddies took after us in cars," Winnie said. "But Nissa lost them. And then Iliana… insisted, and so we circled back. And there you were. Galen and Toby were digging you out. We helped them and brought you here." "What about Grandma Harman?" "She came out of it without a scratch. She's tougher than she looks," Winnie said. "She talked to Iliana's mom last night," Nissa added. "She fixed everything up so we can stay here.

You're supposed to be a distant cousin, and the rest of us are your friends. We're from Canada. We graduated last year, and we're touring the U.S. by bus. We ran into Iliana last night, and that's why she was late. It's all covered, nice and neat." "It's all ludicrous," Keller said. She looked at Iliana. "And it's time to stop. Haven't you seen enough yet? That's twice you've been attacked by a monster. Do you really want to try your luck for a third time?"

It was a mistake. Iliana's face had been sweet and anxious, but now Keller could see the walls slam down. The violet eyes hazed over and sparked at the same time.

"Nobody attacked me until you guys came!" Iliana flared. "In fact, nobody's attacked me so far at all. I think it's you people they're after-or maybe Galen. I keep telling you that I'm not the one you're looking for." This was the time for diplomacy, but Keller was too exasperated to think. "You don't really believe that. Unless you practice being stupid-"

"Stop calling me stupid!" The last word was a piercing shriek. At the same time, Diana threw something at Keller. She batted it out of the air automatically before it could hit.

"I'm not stupid! And I'm not your Witch Child or whatever you call it! I'm just a normal kid, and I like my life. And if I can't live my life, then I don't want to-to do anything." She whirled around and stalked out, her nightgown billowing.

Keller stared at the missile she'd caught. It was a stuffed lamb with outrageously long eyelashes and a pink ribbon tied around its white neck.

Nissa folded her arms. "Well, you sure handled that one, Boss."

"Give me a break." Keller tossed the lamb onto the window seat. "And just how did she make you two turn around and come back for us, by the way?"

Winnie pursed her lips. "You heard it. Volume control. She kept screaming like-well, I don't know what screams like that. You'd be surprised how effective it is."

"You're agents of Circle Daybreak; you're supposed to be immune to torture." But Keller dropped the subject. "What are you still hanging around for?" she added, as she swung her feet out of bed and carefully tried her legs. "You're supposed to stick with her, even when she's in the house. Don't stand here staring at me."

"You're welcome for putting you back together again," Winnie said, her eyes on the ceiling. In the doorway, she turned and added, "And, you know, it wasn't Galen she kept screaming we had to go back and get last night. It was you, Keller." Keller stared at the door as it shut, bewildered.

"You can't go to school," Keller hissed. "Do you hear me? You cannot go to school."

They were all sitting around the kitchen table. Iliana's mother, a lovely woman with a knot of platinum hair coiled on her neck, was making breakfast. She seemed slightly anxious about her four new houseguests, but in a pleasantly excited way. She certainly wasn't suspicious. Grandma Harman had done a good job of brainwashing.

"We're going to have a wonderful Christmas," she said now, and her angelic smile grew brighter. "We can go into Winston-Salem for a Christmas and Candle Tea. Have you ever had a Moravian sugar-cake? I just wish Great-aunt Edgith had been able to stay."

Grandma Harman was gone. Keller didn't know whether to be relieved or frustrated. Despite what she kept saying, as long as the old woman was around, Keller would worry about her. But with her gone, there was nobody to appeal to, nobody who could order Iliana into safekeeping.

So now they were sitting and having this argument. It looked like such a normal breakfast scene, Keller thought dryly. Iliana's father had already left for work. Her mother was bustling around cheerfully. Her little brother was in a high chair making a mess with Cheerios. Too bad that the four nicely dressed teenagers at the table were actually two shapeshifters, a witch, and a vampire.

Galen was directly opposite Keller. There were shadows under his eyes-had anyone gotten any sleep last night?-and he seemed subdued but relaxed. Keller hadn't had a chance to speak to him since the dragon's attack.

Not that she had anything to say.

"Orange juice, Kelly?"

"No, thank you, Mrs. Dominick." That was what this family thought their last name was. They didn't realize that witches trace their heritage through the female line and that both Iliana and her mother were therefore Harmans.

"Oh, please, call me Aunt Anna," the woman said. She had her daughter's violet eyes and the smile of an angel. She was also pouring Keller juice.

Now I see where Iliana gets her scintillating intelligence, Keller thought. "Oh-thanks, Aunt Anna. And, actually, it's Keller, not Kelly."

"How unusual. But it's nice, so modern."

"It's my last name, but that's what everybody calls me."

"Oh, really? What's your first name?"

Keller broke off a piece of toast, feeling uncomfortable. "Raksha."

"But that's beautiful! Why don't you use it?"

Keller shrugged. "I just don't." She could see Galen looking at her. Shapeshifters usually were named for their animal forms, but neither Keller nor Raksha fit the pattern. "I was abandoned as a kid," she said in a clipped voice, looking back at Galen. Diana's mother wouldn't be able to make anything of this, but she might as well satisfy the princeling's curiosity. "So I don't know my real last name. But my first name means 'demon.'"

Diana's mother paused with the juice carton over Nissa's glass. "Oh. How… nice. Well, then, I see."

She blinked a couple of times and walked off without pouring Nissa any juice.

"So what does Galen mean?" Keller said, holding his gaze challengingly and handing her full glass to Nissa.

He smiled-a little wryly-for the first time since sitting down. " 'Calm.'"

Keller snorted. "It figures."

"I like Raksha better."

Keller didn't answer. With "Aunt Anna" safely in the kitchen, she could speak again to Diana. "You understood before, right? That you can't go to school."

"I have to go to school." For somebody who looked as if she were made of spun glass, Diana ate a lot. She spoke around a mouthful of microwave pancake.

"It's out of the question. How can we go with you? What are we supposed to be, for Goddess's sake?"

"My long-lost cousin from Canada and her friends," Diana said indistinctly. "Or you can all be exchange students who're here to study our American educational system." Before Keller could say anything, she added, "Hey, how come you guys aren't at school? Don't you have schools?"

"We've got the same ones you do," Winnie said. "Except Nissa-she graduated last year. But Keller and I are seniors like you. We just take time off for this stuff."

"I bet your grades are as bad as mine," Diana said unemotionally. "Anyway, I have to go to school this week. There are all sorts of class parties and things. You can come. It'll be fun."

Keller wanted to hit her with the pot of grits.

She had a problem, though. Iliana's little brother Alex had escaped from his high chair and was climbing up her leg. She looked down at him uneasily. She wasn't good with family-type things, and she especially wasn't good with children.

"Okay," she said. "Go on back and sit down." She peeled him off and tried to start him in the right direction.

He turned around and put his arms up. "Kee-kee. Kee-kee."

"That's his word for 'kitty,'" Iliana's mother said, coming in with a plate of sausages. She ruffled his white-blond hair. "You mean Kelly, Kelly," she told him.

" 'Keller, Keller!" Winnie corrected helpfully.

Alex climbed into Keller's lap, grabbed her hair, and hoisted himself into a standing position. She found herself looking into huge violet baby eyes. Witch eyes.

"Kee-kee," he said flatly, and gave her a sloppy kiss on the cheek.

Winnie grinned. "Having trouble?"

The kid had two chubby arms around Keller's neck now and was nudging her chin with his head like a kitten looking for pets. He had a good grip, too. This time, she couldn't peel him off.

"It's just-distracting," she said, giving up and petting him awkwardly. It was ridiculous. How could she argue with baby giggles in her ears?

"You look kind of sweet together," Iliana observed. Tm getting dressed for school now. You guys can do whatever you want."

She floated off while Keller was trying to think of a reply.

Nissa and Winnie hastily followed her. Galen got up to help Iliana's mother with the dishes. Keller tugged at the baby, who clung like a sloth. Maybe there was shapeshifter blood in this family. "Kee-kee… pui!" That was what it sounded like.

"Pwee?" Keller glanced nervously at his diaper.

"He means 'pretty" Iliana's mother said, coming back in. "It's funny. He doesn't usually take to people like that. He likes animals better."

"Oh. Well, he has good taste," Keller said. She finally succeeded in detaching him and gave him back to his mother. Then she started down the hallway after Iliana, muttering, "Too bad about his eyesight."

"I think his eyesight's just fine," Galen said, right behind her.

Keller turned, realizing they were alone in the hall.

His faint smile faded. "I really wanted to talk to you," he said.