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Witchlight (Chapter 12)

They were all on their feet by now. Keller's early warning system was screaming hysterically.

"I can't stand it anymore," Diana hissed. "What's going on?"

Just then, Nissa said in a quenched voice, "All right, we will. Yes. "Bye." She carefully replaced the handset.

Then she turned very slowly to face the others.

Or not to face them exactly. She was looking down at the floor in an unfocused way that scared Keller to death.

"Well, what is it?" Keller growled.

Nissa opened her mouth and raised her eyes to look at Winnie. Then she looked down again. "I'm sorry," she said. "Winnie, I don't know how to say this." She swallowed and then straightened, speaking formally. "The Crone of all the Witches is dead."

Winnie's eyes went huge, and her hands flew to her throat. "Grandma Harman!"

"Yes."

"But how?"

Nissa spoke carefully. "It happened yesterday in Las Vegas. She was outside her shop, right there on a city street, in broad daylight. She was attacked… by three shapeshifters."

Keller stood and listened to her pounding heart.

Winnie breathed, "No. That's not possible."

"A couple of wolves and a tiger. A real tiger, Keller, not any smaller cat. There were human witnesses who saw it. It's being reported as some bizarre escape from a private zoo."

Keller stood rigid. Control, control, she thought. We don't have time for grieving; we've got to figure out what this means.

But she couldn't help thinking about Grandma Harman's good old face. Not a beautiful face, not a young face, but a good one, with intelligence and humor in the keen gray eyes. A face with a thousand wrinkles-and a story to go with each one.

How would Circle Daybreak ever get along without her? The oldest witch in the world, the oldest Hearth-Woman.

Winnie put both hands to her face and began to cry.

The others stood silently. Keller didn't know what to do. She was so bad at these emotional things, but nobody else was stepping forward. Nissa was even less good at dealing with emotion, and right now her cool face was sympathetic and sad but distant. Iliana looked on the verge of tears herself, but uncertain. Galen was staring emptily across the room with something like despair.

Keller awkwardly put an arm around Winnie. "Come on, sit down. Do you want some tea? She wouldn't like you to cry."

All pretty stupid things to say. But Winnie buried her strawberry-blond head against Keller's chest, sobbing.

"Why? Why did they kill her? It isn't right." Nissa shifted uneasily. "Paulie said something about that, too.

He said we should turn on CNN." Keller set her teeth. "Where's the remote?" she said, trying not to sound rough. Iliana picked it up and punched in a channel. An anchorwoman was speaking, but for a second Keller couldn't take in what she was saying. All she could see were the words on the screen:

"CNN SPECIAL REPORT: ANIMAL PANIC."

And the footage, rough video from somebody's camcorder. It showed an unbelievable scene. An ordinary city street, with skyscrapers in the background-and in the foreground ordinary-looking people all mixed up with… shapes.

Tawny shapes. About the same size she was in panther form, and sinuous. They were on top of people.

Four of them… no, five. Mountain lions. They were killing the humans. A woman was screaming, flailing at an animal that had her arm in its mouth to the elbow. A man was trying to pull another lion off a little boy.

Then something with a white-tipped muzzle ran directly at the camera. It jumped. There was a gasping scream and for an instant a glimpse of a wide-open mouth filled with two-inch teeth. Then the video turned to static.

"-that was the scene at the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles today. We now go to Ron Hennessy, live outside the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce…"

Keller stood frozen, her fists clenched in helpless fury.

"It's happening everywhere," Nissa said quietly from behind her. "That's what Paulie said. Every major city in the U.S. is being attacked. A white rhino killed two people in Miami. In Chicago, a pack of timber wolves killed an armed police officer."

"Shapeshifters," Keller whispered.

"Yes. Killing humans openly. They may even be transforming openly. Paulie said that some people claimed to see those Chicago wolves change. She took a deep breath and spoke slowly. "Keller, the time of chaos at the end of the millennium… it's happening now. They can't cover this up with a "private zoo" story. This is it-the beginning of the time when humans find out about the Night World."

Diana looked bewildered. "But why would shapeshifters start attacking humans? And why would they kill Grandma Harman?"

Keller shook her head. She was rapidly approaching numbness. She glanced at Galen and saw that he felt exactly the same.

Then there was a choked sound beside her.

"That's the question-why," Winnie said in a thick voice. Usually, with her elfin features and mop of curls, she looked younger than her age. But right now, the skin on her face was drawn tight, and her birdlike bones made her look almost like an old woman.

She turned on Keller and Galen, and her eyes were burning.

"Not just why they're doing it, why they're being allowed to do it. Where's the First House while all this is going on? Why aren't they monitoring their own people? Is it because they agree with what's happening?"

The last words were snapped out with a vicious-ness that Keller had never heard in Winfrith before. Galen opened his mouth, then he shook his head. "Winnie, I don't think-"

"You don't think! You don't know? What are your parents doing? Are you saying you don't know that?"

"Winnie-"

"They killed our oldest leader. Our wise woman. You know, some people would take that as a declaration of war."

Keller felt stricken and at the same time furious at her own helplessness. She was in charge here; she should be heading Winnie off.

But she was a shapeshifter like Galen. And along with the ability to transform and the exquisitely tuned senses, they both shared something unique to their race.

The guilt of the shapeshifters.

The terrible guilt that went back to the ancient days and was part of the very fabric of Kellers mind. No shapeshifter could forget it or escape it, and nobody who wasn't a shapeshifter could ever understand.

The guilt was what held Galen standing there while Winnie yelled at him, and held Keller unable to interrupt.

Winnie was right in front of Galen now, her eyes blazing, her body crackling with latent energy like a small but fiery orange comet.

"Who woke that dragon up, anyway?" she demanded. "How do we know the shapeshifters aren't up to their old tricks? Maybe this time they're going to wipe the witches out completely-"

"Stop it!"

It was Hiana.

She planted herself in front of Winnie, small but earnest, a little ice maiden to combat the witch's fire. Her nose was pink and swollen, and she was still wearing those teddy bear slippers, but to Keller she somehow looked valiant and magnificent.

"Stop hurting each other," she said. "I don't understand any of this, but I know that you're not going to get anywhere if you fight. And I know you don't want to fight." All at once, she flung her arms around Winnie. "I know how you feel-it's so awful. I felt the same way when Grandma Mary died, my mom's mother. All I could think of was that it was just so unfair."

Winfrith hesitated, standing stiffly in Diana's embrace. Then, slowly, she lifted her own arms to hold Iliana back.

"We need her," she whispered.

I know. And you feel mad at the people who killed her. But it's not Galen's fault. Galen would never hurt anybody."

It was said with absolute conviction. Hiana wasn't even looking at Galen. She was stating a fact that she felt was common knowledge. But at the same time, now that she was off her guard, her expression was tender and almost shining.

Yes, that's love, all right, Keller thought. And it's good.

Very slowly, Winnie said, 'I know Galen wouldn't. But the shapeshifters–"

"Maybe," Galen said, "we should talk about that" If Winnie's face was pinched, his was set in steel. His eyes were so dark that Keller couldn't distinguish the color.

"Maybe we should talk about the shapeshifters," he said. He nodded toward the kitchen table, which was still strewn with the parchments. "About their history and about the dragons." He looked at Diana. "If there's any chance of-of a promise ceremony between us, it's stuff you ought to know."

Iliana looked startled.

"He's right," Nissa said in her calm voice. "After all, that's what we were doing to start with. It's all tied together."

Keller's whole body was tight. This was something that she very much didn't want to talk about But she refused to give in to her own weakness. With a tremendous effort, she managed to say steadily, "All right. The whole story."

"It started back in the days humans were still living in caves," Galen said when they were all sitting down at the kitchen table again. His voice was so bleak and controlled that it didn't even sound like Galen.

"The shapeshifters ruled then, and they were brutal. In some places, they were just the totem spirits who demanded human sacrifice, but in others…" He searched through the parchments, selected one. "This is a picture of a breeding pen, with humans in it. They treated humans exactly the way humans treat cattle, breeding them for their hearts and livers. And the more human flesh they ate, the stronger they got."

Iliana looked down at the parchment scrap, and her hand abruptly clenched on a tissue. Winnie listened silently, her pointed face stern.

"They were stronger than anyone," Galen said. "Humans were like flies to them. The witches were more trouble, but the dragons could beat them."

Iliana looked up. "What about the vampires?"

"There weren't any yet," Galen said quietly. "The first one was Maya Hearth-Woman, the sister of Hellewise Hearth-Woman. She made herself into a vampire when she was looking for immortality. But the dragons were naturally immortal, and they were the undisputed rulers of the planet. And they had about as much pity for others as a 7. rex has." "But all the shapeshifters weren't like that, were they?"

Iliana asked. "There were other kinds besides the dragons, right?"

"They were all bad," Keller said simply. "My ancestors–the big felines-were pretty awful. But the bears and the wolves did their share."

"But you're right, the dragons were the worst," Galen said to Iliana. "And that's who my family is descended from. My last name, Drache, means 'dragon.' Of course, it was the weakest of the dragons that was my ancestor. The one the witches left awake because she was so young." He turned to Winnie. "Maybe you'd better tell that part. The witches know their own history best."

Still looking severe, Winnie thumbed through the parchment scraps until she found one. "Here," she said. 'It's a picture of the gathering of the witches. Hecate Witch-Queen organized it. She was Hellewise's mother. She got all the witches together, and they went after the shapeshifters. There was a big fight. A really big fight."

Winnie selected another piece of scroll and pushed it toward Diana.

Diana gasped.

The parchment piece she was looking down at was almost solid red.

"It's fire," she said. 'It looks like-it looks like the whole world's on fire."

Galen's voice was flat. "That's what the dragons did. Geological records show that volcanoes all over the world erupted around then. The dragons did that. I don't know how; the magic's lost. But they figured that if they couldn't have the world, nobody else would, either."

"They tried to destroy the world," Keller said. "And the rest of the shapeshifters helped."

'It almost worked, too," Winnie said. "But the gathering of witches managed to win, and they buried all the dragons alive. I mean, they put them to sleep first, but then they buried them in the deepest places of the earth." She bit her lip and looked at Galen. "Which probably wasn't very nice, either."

"What else could they do?" Galen said quietly. "They left the dragon princess alive-she was only three or four years old. They let her grow up, under their guidance. But the world was a scorched and barren place for a long time. And the shapeshifters have always been… the lowest of all the Night People."

"That's true," Nissa put in, her voice neither approving nor disapproving, simply making an observation. "Most Night People consider shapeshifters second-class citizens. They try to keep them down. I think, underneath, that they're still afraid of them."

"And there's never been an alliance between the shapeshifters and the witches," Keller said. She looked directly at Diana. "That's why the promise ceremony is so important. If the shapeshifters don't side with the witches, they're going to go with the vampires-"

She stopped abruptly and looked at Galen.

He nodded. "I was thinking the same thing."

"Those animal attacks," Keller said slowly. 'It sounds as if the shapeshifters are already making their decision. They're helping to bring about the time of chaos at the end of the millennium. They're letting the whole world know that they're siding with the vampires."

There was a shocked silence.

"But how can they decide?" Winnie began.

"That's just it," Nissa said. "The question is, is it just the ordinary shapeshifters who're doing it, or is it official? In other words, has the First House already decided?"

Everyone looked at Galen.

"I don't think so," he said. "I don't think they'll make any decision yet, at least not in public. As for what they're doing in private, I don't know." His voice was still flat; it made no excuses.

He looked around the table, facing all of them. "My parents are warriors. They don't belong to Circle Daybreak, and they don't like the witches. But they don't like the vampires, either. More than anything, they'll want to be on whichever side is going to win. And that depends on which side gets the Wild Powers."

"I think they want something else," Keller said. "like?"

They want to know that the witches are treating them fairly and not just trying to use them. I mean, if they thought that Circle Daybreak had found the Witch Child but wasn't going to promise her to their heir, well, they wouldn't be happy. It's not just a matter of having a kinship bond with the witches. It's a matter of feeling they're being treated as equals."

Nissa's light brown eyes narrowed, and she seemed almost to smile. "I think you've summed it up very well."

"So what it all comes down to," Keller said pointedly, "is what happens on Saturday night. If there's a promise ceremony, it means the witches have found the Wild Power and that they're willing to tie her to the shapeshifters. If not…"

She let the sentence trail off and looked at Hiana.

There, she thought. I've put it so plainly and simply, you can't deny it now. And you can't help but see what's at stake.

Diana's eyes were like faraway violet storm clouds. Keller couldn't tell what she was thinking. Maybe that the situation couldn't be denied but that she herself wasn't involved.

Winnie took a deep breath. "Galen."

Her face was still drawn and unhappy, but the burning anger in her eyes was gone. She met Galen's gaze directly.

Tm sorry," she said. "I shouldn't have said those things before. I know you're on our side. And I'm not like those people who don't trust the shapeshifters."

Galen smiled at her faintly, but his eyes were serious. "I don't know. Maybe you shouldn't trust us. There are things in our blood-you can't get rid of the dragon completely."

It was strange. At that moment, his eyes looked not only dark but almost red to Keller. Exactly the opposite of their usual golden-green. It was as if a light were smoldering somewhere deep inside them. Then Winnie abruptly extended her hand across the table. "I know you," she said. "And there's nothing bad in your blood. I won't mistrust you again."

Galen hesitated one instant, then reached out with something like gratitude and took her hand.

"Thanks," he whispered.

"Hey, if I were the Witch Child, I'd promise to you in a minute," Winnie said. Then she sniffled, but her smile was much more like the old Winnie's smile.

Keller glanced at Iliana almost casually and was riveted by what she saw.

The girl had changed again. Now she didn't look like a princess or an ice maiden but like a very young soldier about to go into battle. Or maybe a human sacrifice who could save her tribe by jumping into a volcano.

Her hair seemed to shine, silvery and pale, and her eyes were deep, deep violet in her small face. Her slight shoulders were back, and her chin was determined.

Slowly, staring at something invisible in the center of the table, Iliana stood up.

As soon as the motion drew their attention, the others fell quiet. It was obvious to everyone that something important was happening.

Iliana stood there, her hands clenched by her sides, her chest rising and falling with her breathing. Then she looked at Galen. Finally, she looked at Keller.

Tm not the Witch Child any more than Winnie is. And I think you know that by now. But…" She took a breath, steadied herself.

Keller held her own breath.

"But if you want me to pretend to be, I'll do it. I'll go to the promise ceremony with Galen-I mean, if hell do it with me." She gave a half-embarrassed glance at Galen, looking shy and almost apologetic.

"Will he ever!" Winnie said enthusiastically. Keller could have kissed her. Galen himself didn't rise to the occasion properly at all; instead, he opened his mouth, looking uncertain.

Fortunately, Iliana was going on. "Then I'll go through with it. And maybe that will be enough for the shapeshifters to join with the witches, as long as they don't find out I'm a fake." She looked unhappy. She was so adamant that for a moment Keller was shaken. Could it be she wasn't the Wild Power? But no. Keller knew she was. She just hasn't awakened her power yet. And if she continued to deny it, she never would.

She said, "Thank you, Iliana. You don't know how much, how many lives you're going to save. Thank you."

Then the excitement got the better of her, and she took Iliana by the arm and gave her a sort of shaking squeeze of affection.

"You're a trooper!" Winnie said, and hugged her hard. "I knew you'd come through all the time, I really did."

Nissa smiled at her with genuine approval. Galen was smiling, too, although there was something in his eyes…

"There's just one thing," Iliana said a little bit breathlessly, rubbing her arm where Keller had gripped it.

"Ill do this. I said I would. But I have two conditions."

Keller's excitement deflated. "Conditions?"

"You can have anything you want," Winnie said, blinking away happy tears. "Cars, clothes, books…"

"No, no, I don't want things," Diana said. "What I mean is, I'm doing this because I can't just stand around and not do anything when stuff like that is going on." She shivered. "I have to do anything I can to help. But. I'm still not the right person. So the first condition is that while I'm pretending to be the Wild Power, you guys have somebody out looking for the real one."

Keller said smoothly, "I'll tell Circle Daybreak. They'll keep looking and checking other Harmans. They'll do it for as long as you want them to."

They would, too. It was a small price to pay.

"And the other condition?" Keller asked.

"I want to go to Jaime's party on Saturday."

Instant uproar. Even Nissa was talking over people. Keller cut short her own exclamations and gestured for everybody to shut up.

Then she looked Diana dead in the eye.

'It's impossible. And you know it's impossible. Unless you've found a way to be in two places at once."

"Don't be stupid," Diana said. That small, determined chin was tight. "I mean before the promise ceremony thing. I want to go just for an hour or two. Because she's one of my very best friends, and she's gotten attacked twice because of me."

"So what? You're already making it up to her. You're saving her life and her twin brother's life and her parents' lives-"

"No, I'm not. I'm faking being a Wild Power when I know it isn't true. I'm acting a lie." There were tears in Diana's eyes now. "But I'm not going to hurt Jaime's feelings, and I'm not going to break my promise to her. And that's that. So if you want me to go through with your little charade, I'll do it, but I want to go to the party first."

There was a silence.

Well, she's stubborn, I'll give her that, Keller thought. Once she decides on something, she absolutely won't be budged on it. I guess that will be helpful when the Wild Powers fight the darkness someday. But right now, it was simply infuriating.

Keller drew a very long breath and said, "Okay."

Winnie and Nissa looked at her sharply. They hadn't expected her to give in so fast, and they were undoubtedly wondering if their boss had some trick up her sleeve.

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