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Witchlight (Chapter 15)

But she could hear Alex's sobbing even when she got in the car, and it seemed to follow in her head even when they had left the house behind.

They checked with the "road crew" stationed right outside the Ashton-Hughes front gate. It looked extremely professional, with bright lights and all the accoutrements.

"All secure," the witch in charge said cheerfully when Keller rolled down the window. He shifted his reflective vest. "Thirty cars in, nobody out. There hasn't been one for a while-I think you're fashionably late." He winked.

"Thirty?" Keller said. "How many people per car?"

"Two in most of them, but some were packed."

Keller glanced at Iliana beside her. "And that's what they call only inviting a few people?"

Iliana shrugged. "You haven't seen the house."

"Anyway, it's safe," the witch foreman said. "No dragon has gotten in, I can promise you that. And none is going to get in, either."

Keller nodded at him, and they drove on.

Diana was right. In considering how big the party was, you had to see the size of the house. Keller had studied the plans, but it wasn't the same.

They passed something like a peach orchard on one side of the driveway, and then a carriage house that seemed to have swallowed up a dozen cars. But Nissa dropped them off by the front steps, below the stately white columns that decorated the magnificent porch.

Impressive place, Keller thought.

They walked in.

In the cavernous, softly lit entry hall, there was a girl in a dark uniform who took their coats. There was also Brett. When he saw Diana, he pounced.

"Blondie! I thought you weren't going to make it!"

"You knew I wouldn't miss this," Diana said gently. But Keller thought she looked much less interested in Brett than the last time she'd spoken to him.

She's learned a lot, Keller thought. And, of course, now that she knows Galen, she sees this loser for what he is.

Brett was looking the others over in his meat-appraising way. "So just which of these lovely ladies is your cousin? I never got a chance to ask."

"Oh… that one." Diana pointed a random finger.

"You?" Brett's eyes ran up and down Keller's tallness

and her blue-black hair. "I never would have guessed."

"We're sort of… foster cousins," Keller said.

She didn't like Brett. That was nothing new, but somehow tonight she realty didn't like him. There was something almost creepy in the way his eyes clung to girls, and when he looked at Diana, it was like watching a slug crawl over a peach blossom.

"Well, come with me and join the fun," he said, gesturing expansively and flashing a smile. Keller almost asked "Where?" but in a moment she realized that it was pointless. The party really seemed to be all over the house.

The entry room itself was big enough to have a party in, and it had a wide, sweeping staircase just like a proper Southern mansion. Above, on the second floor, Keller could see a hallway lined with portraits and statues.

Brett led them through room after room, each one impressive. Some seemed to be real sitting rooms; others just looked like displays in a museum. Finally, they went through one last open archway into a ballroom.

Paneled walls. Painted ceiling. Chandeliers. An ocean of floor. And the college band at one end playing music that was definitely modern. A few couples were dancing a slow dance, very near the band. They looked small enough to rattle in the enormous room. Keller almost giggled, but Diana looked dreamy.

"It's beautiful."

Brett looked satisfied. "There's food over there on the sideboard. But most of the food's downstairs in the game room. You want to see that?"

"I want to see Jaime," Iliana said.

"She's down there."

The game room was amazing, too. Not just pool tables and darts but arcade-style video games, old-fashioned pinball machines, an indoor basketball hoop, and generally just about everything you'd find at a superior arcade.

As soon as they walked in, a guy in black pants, white shirt, and black vest offered them a tray of tiny quiches and mini-pizzas. A caterer, Keller decided, not part of the regular staff of the house. She shook her head at the food and went on looking around, keeping her senses open so she could take in everything at once.

This was the first time Iliana had been out in public since she'd gone to school last Monday, and it was nerve-wracking. The game room was much more crowded than the ballroom, and everybody was laughing and talking at once. On top of that, this old mansion had some very modern renovations. The band music was being piped into the other rooms.

"Jaime!" Iliana said as a figure emerged from the crush of people.

Jaime looked good. Her face had a healthy color, and her dark blue eyes were wide open and shining. Her brown hair was fluffed softly, and she was wearing a very pretty blue dress.

Iliana." She hugged Iliana hard, speaking in her flat but oddly pleasant voice. "It seems like forever. How are you?"

"Fine. My cold's better, and my hand-" Iliana held up her right hand. There was a neat bandage around the palm to protect the stitches. 'It itches sometimes, but that's all. How about you?"

"I still have headaches. But I'm getting better." Jaime smiled at Keller and the others. "I'm so glad you all could come."

"Yeah, so are we," Keller said politely, feeling a stab of instinctive guilt. It was irrational, but she kept expecting this girl to look at her and say, "You're the one who attacked me! The monster cat!"

And she wasn't glad that they had come. Her early warning system was clamoring already; she felt as if her fur was standing on end. She couldn't explain it, but there was something wrong about the house.

"Keep alert," she said quietly to the others as Jaime led Iliana to the food tables. "Remember, two of us are with her at all times. The other two can wander the house, check the perimeter, look for anything suspicious. And keep in touch." She put a finger to her brooch.

That was when they found that their transmitters didn't work. Keller had no idea why. All any of them could hear was static like white noise.

Keller cursed.

"Well keep in touch physically, then," she said grimly. She checked her watch. It was almost nine. "And well get her out of here in an hour. Ten o'clock. Just to be safe."

"Good idea," Galen said.

Winnie and Nissa said, "Right, Boss."

Keller stuck close to Iliana, telling herself that they were taking every precaution and that all she had to do was stay cool and they could get out safely. But as time went on, she only got more and more uneasy.

The dragon was going to attack.

She was certain of it.

But how? What form would the attack take? Was it going to be a battering ram of dark power like the one that had brought down the roof of the safe house? Or something tiny and sneaky, some clever way to get past the wards?

A mouse? Or an insect? No ordinary shapeshifter could turn into a bug, but it was a kind of animal, after all. Could something like that slip through the wards undetected?

What was it she was missing?

Nothing to do but keep her senses, open, search every face for enemies, and be prepared for anything. As it turned out, though, she was entirely unprepared when it happened.

Nissa and Galen were the two wandering the house at that point. Keller and Winnie were sticking with Iliana. Keller herself didn't plan to leave Diana's side all night.

But as she was watching Jaime and Iliana laughing and chattering by one of the food tables- which offered everything from barbecue to shrimp to exotic fruit-Brett walked up chewing his lip. He was heading for Iliana, but he looked undecided and genuinely unhappy.

Keller headed him off reflexively. She preferred to keep him away from Iliana just on principle. "Anything wrong?"

He glanced at her with something like relief in his dark blue eyes. For once, he didn't look arrogant or patronizing or even well groomed. "Uh, there's something… I need to tell Iliana about… I guess." He gulped, his face twisted.

"You guess?" Keller herded him into a relatively private niche beside a video game. "What do you mean, you guess?"

"Well, I do have to tell her. I just hate to." He lowered his voice so that Keller had to lean closer to hear him. "Her mom's on the phone. And she says that her little brother is missing."

Ice water sluiced over Keller. For five seconds, she didn't breathe at all. Then she said, "What?"

Brett grimaced. "He's missing from his bedroom. And, I mean, I hate to scare Iliana with it, because he's probably just crawled out the window or something-he's that age, you know? But her mom wants to talk to her. She's sort of hysterical." He wet his lips. "I guess we should all go over there as a search party."

He's really worried, Keller thought dazedly, while another part of her mind, a clear, cold part, clicked through possible solutions. So there's something under that brand-name facade after all. In spite of the "he probably crawled out of the window" crap, he's worried about the kid-and he's worried about telling Iliana, too.

Because Diana's going to go ballistic, the cold part of her mind put in. She's going to get as hysterical as her mom and insist on rushing back there. And a search party-that would mean all of us outside the wards, crawling around between houses in the dark…

No. It couldn't happen. It was undoubtedly just what the dragon wanted.

But how had he gotten to the baby? With all those wards and the agents watching the house-how?

It didn't matter. Right now, she had to deal with the situation.

"Brett-don't tell Iliana."

"Huh? But I have to."

"No, you don't. Ill talk to Mrs.-to Aunt Anna. I'm her niece, remember? And I have an idea where the baby might have gone. I think he's safe, but she has to know where to look."

Brett gawked at her. "You have an idea?"

"Yeah. Just let me talk to her. And don't say anything to Iliana just yet." Keller glanced toward the game room bar, which was set up like an English pub. There was a phone, but a girl with red hair was talking animatedly into it, while eating nuts from a bowl.

"It's the other line, Jaime's line," Brett said. "She said she called on that one first, but it was busy."

"Okay, where's the other line?"

"Jaime's room."

Keller hesitated, looking at Iliana. Winnie was on one side of her and Jaime on the other. They were the center of attention, something like the heart of a rose, with other people surrounding them like petals.

At least she was in full view of everyone. And

somebody trying to get to her would have to go through all of them first, and that would alert Winnie.

But I wish Nissa and Galen were here to take over from me.

She glanced at her watch. Fifteen minutes before they were supposed to come back to the game room.

The baby couldn't wait that long.

She forged through the crowd and touched Winnie's shoulder.

"I have to run for a minute-a phone call. Nothing to worry about yet. I'll make it fast," she murmured in Winnie's ear.

Winnie glanced at her, surprised, but then she nodded. "Problems?"

"Maybe. Stay alert." Keller said it through a smile for Iliana's benefit.

When she got out of the throng, she said to Brett, "Take me there."

Actually, she knew where Jaime's bedroom was from the plans. But she didn't want Brett hanging around Iliana. His face alone would give away the show.

They hurried up the wide staircase. Keller's mind was racing, making plans.

I can calm her down, at least. And I can call Circle Daybreak and tell them-if they don't already know. They'll make a much better search party than humans. Iliana doesn't need to know about it at all until after the ceremony. And then…

Her mind stalled, and the sick feeling in her stomach grew.

No. It wouldn't be enough. She knew what she really had to do.

I have to go back there. Just me. I owe Diana that much. I owe the whole family that much. I'll be the best one to search. I can drive over to the house feist and see what's going on. Borrow a car from Brett. That way, when the dragon attacks-and he's going to attack-I'll be the only one there. You'll be the only one dead, a snide little voice in her mind pointed out. But Keller gave it the cold shoulder.

She knew that already. It wasn't important.

You're going to risk your life-give up your life- for a baby? One who's not a Wild Power, not even a shapeshifter?

At least I'll get another chance at the dragon, she told the voice.

You're going to risk the mission, the alliance, the whole daylight world, for a single individual? the voice went on.

This was a better point. But Keller had only one thing to say to it.

I have to.

"Here." Brett gestured at the open door of a pretty bedroom, then followed Keller when she went in.

"Um, can I help you?" He was getting over his worry and trying to cozy up to her again.

"No."

"Oh. Well, I'll leave you alone, then." He slid out the door, closing it behind him.

And Keller let him. Later, that was what she couldn't quite believe. That she had been stupid enough to walk into the trap and stand there while it snapped shut.

She picked up the phone. "Mrs. Dominick?"

Silence. .

At first, just for a moment or two, she thought Hiana's mother might have stepped away from the phone.

But then the nature of the silence got to her.

There were no sounds in the background at all. It was dead air.

Keller hit the plunger to hang up the phone. Nothing happened.

No dial tone.

She glanced at the phone cord; it was plugged into the wall. She pushed the plunger rapidly, four times, five.

Then she knew.

She'd been suckered.

In one motion, she whirled and sprang to the door.

Only to twist the handle uselessly.

It was locked.

And it was a good, sturdy door, made out of solid wood, the kind they used to make. She found this out by throwing herself against it hard enough to bruise her shoulder. It had been locked with a key from the outside, and the bolt was a good, sturdy one, too.

White icy-hot rage swept over Keller. She was more angry than she could ever remember being in her life. She couldn't believe it-she'd been fooled by an idiot human boy. The Night People must have gotten to him somehow, must have bought him…

No.

Keller knew she wasn't a genius. But sometimes ideas came to her in a flash, allowing her to see a complete picture all at once where other people saw only fragments. And right now, like a bolt of lightning, realization dawned on her, and she understood.

Oh, Goddess, how could we have been so stupid?

She knew how the dragon had done it.

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