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Witchlight (Chapter 16)

We were so careful, she thought, setting up wards three days early and having agents watch the house. Nothing got inside during those three days; we were sure of that, and so we thought we were safe. But we didn't stop to think-what if the dragon was already inside when we put the wards up?

Brett.

He's the dragon.

It could take on any shape, assume any animal's form, and know all that the animal knew. A human being was an animal.

So why couldn't it touch a human and know all the human knew?

It would be the perfect disguise.

And we all fell for it, Keller thought. I knew there was something creepy about him, but I just put it down to him being obnoxious. And he's been here all the time, inside the wards, laughing at us, waiting for Iliana to come.

And Iliana's with him right now.

Keller felt sure of that in her gut.

She wanted to throw herself against the door again, but that wouldn't do any good. She needed to be calm now, to think, because she couldn't afford to waste any time.

The window.

Keller tried to open it, looking down at a hedge of rhododendron bushes below. The sash was stuck, nailed fast. But it didn't matter. Glass was more breakable than wood.

She stepped back and changed.

Melting, flowing, jumpsuit becoming fur. Tail shooting free. Ears. Whiskers. Heavy paws thumping down. A single long stretch to get used to the new body and being on four feet instead of two.

She was a panther, and she felt good. Strong and mean. Her muscles were like steel under her soft coat, and her big paws were twitching to bat someone silly. That dragon would be sorry he'd ever messed with her.

With a rasping yowl that she couldn't help, she gathered herself and sprang straight at the window. The full weight of her panther body hit the glass, and it shattered, and then she was flying in the cold night air.

She got cut. Panthers actually had thin and delicate skin compared to other animals. But she was indifferent to the pain. She landed and took off running, shaking her paws in flight to get rid of little bits of glass.

She raced around the mansion, looking for a place to enter. Eventually, she found a low, unshuttered window, and once again, she gathered herself and jumped.

She landed in a sitting room with glass falling all around her onto a fine, old carpet Brett.

And Iliana.

She would smell them out.

She lifted her muzzle, smelling currents in the air. At the same time, she expanded her sense of hearing to its fullest.

No Iliana. She couldn't get even a whiff of her. That was bad, but she would try again from the game room, where Iliana had been last. That was where she was going anyway, because that was where Brett was.

Not Brett, she reminded herself as she loped through corridors and rooms. The dragon.

She raced through the ballroom and heard a scream. She barely turned her head to notice a girl standing frozen, just lifting her hand to point. The college band crashed to a halt, almost as one, except the drummer, who went on playing for a moment with his eyes shut.

Keller ignored them all, running at top speed and leaping down the stairs, her heavy front paws hitting the carpeted floor first, then her back paws hitting almost on either side of them. Each spring propelled her into the next.

She burst into the game room.

For an instant, she stood still, taking in the scene. She wanted to make sure with her eyes that what her ears and her nose told her was true: Iliana wasn't here.

It was true. Winnie was missing, too, and Keller couldn't smell them anywhere.

Then someone spotted her, a full-grown panther, jet black, with glowing eyes and long teeth just showing as she panted gently, standing in the doorway with her tail lashing.

"Oh, my God!" The voice soared over the babble. "Look at that!"

Everyone looked.

Everyone froze for an instant.

Chaos erupted.

Girls were screaming. Boys were yelling. Plenty of boys were screaming, too. They saw her, and they fell over themselves, diving for the exits or for hiding places. They poured out of the room, dragging each other, sometimes trampling each other. Keller gave a loud, snarling yowl to help them on, and they scattered like chickens.

The only one Keller cared about was the Brett-dragon.

He turned and ran down a corridor. Luring her? He must be. Maybe he didn't realize she had found out yet Maybe he had some reason for continuing the charade.

She threw her head back and gave a snarl that resounded through the house. It wasn't just anger. It was calling Nissa and Galen. If they could hear her, they would understand and come running.

Then she took off after the dragon.

As she loped down the corridor, she changed again. This time, she couldn't just try to kill him; she needed to be able to talk. But she also needed her claws, so she changed to her half-and-half form, fur shriveling off her arms, body rearing up to run on booted feet, hair flying out behind her.

The dragon was almost at the end of the corridor when she jumped him.

She knocked him down and rolled him over, straddling him. She was braced to feel the agony of the dark power crackling through her, but it didn't come. She pinned his arms and showed her teeth and screamed in his face.

"Where is she? What did you do with her?"

The face looked back at her. It looked just like Brett, just like a human. It was sickly white, with rolling eyeballs and spittle at the corners of the mouth. The only answer she got was a moan of what sounded like terror.

"Tell me! Where is she?"

"-it's not my fault…"

"What?" She lifted his body and banged it down again. His head flopped on his neck like a dead fish. He looked like someone about to faint

Something was wrong.

"She's in the bedroom with my parents. They're all asleep-or something-"

His forehead. When she shook him, his hair flew around. It was uncharacteristically messy, but the forehead underneath was smooth.

"I couldn't help it He did something to my brain. I couldn't even think until a few minutes ago. I just did what he told me to do. I was like a robot! And you don't know what it was like, having him in the house the last three days, and feeling like a puppet,

and when he let go a few minutes ago, I thought I was going to be killed-"

The babbling went on, but Keller's mind had disengaged.

She had lots of thoughts all at once, like layers in a parfait.

Chalk up another ability for dragons: telepathic mind control. Of weak human subjects, anyway. Nissa was right* the Night World did know what had happened in the music room. The substitution was probably made right after that. They could have grabbed Jaime on her way back to class.

The car incident was designed to make us sympathetic and to lull our suspicions before they began. We thought of her as a victim.

The doctors at the hospital must have been controlled, too. They had to have been-they'd looked at Jaime's head.

Jaime's headaches have kept her at home for the past three days, so she never had to cross the wards.

Diana trusts Jaime implicitly and would go anywhere with her without a fight

Jaime wears bangs.

And on the last layer, rushing at her cold and sharp as crystal: Jaime is the dragon.

Jaime is the dragon.

A vast, silent calm seemed to have filled Keller. She felt as if there was too much space inside her head. Very slowly, she looked down at Brett again.

"Stop talking." It was almost a whisper, but his gabble stopped as if she'd turned off a faucet "Now. Who's in the bedroom with your parents? Your sister?"

He nodded, terrified. Tears spurted out of his eyes.

"Your real sister."

He nodded again.

They must have brought her in sometime, Keller thought. Certainly before we put the wards up and started checking cars, maybe even before the fake Jaime got back from the hospital.

Why they'd kept her alive was a mystery, but Keller didn't have time to worry about it "Brett," she said, still in a careful whisper, "what I want to know is where Iliana is. Do you know where she's been taken?"

He choked. '1 don't know. He didn't tell me anything, even when he was in my mind. But I noticed-4here were some people down in the cellar. I think they were making a tunnel."

A tunnel. Under the wards, of course. So we were made fools of twice.

She had to grit her teeth to keep from screaming. The floor plan of the house was a blur in her mind. She hauled Brett up by his shirt and said, "Where's the basement door? Show me!"

Ic-can't-"

"Move!"

He moved, staggering. She followed, pushing him along, until they got to a door and stairs.

Then he collapsed. "Down there. Don't ask me to go with you. I can't. I can't look at him again." He huddled, rocking himself.

Keller left him. Three stairs down, she bounded back up and grabbed him by the shirt.

"That phone call from Iliana's mother-does he really have the baby?" She need to know if it came to bargaining.

"I don't know," Brett moaned in a sick voice. He was clutching his stomach as if he were wounded. "There wasn't any phone call, but I don't know what he's been doing." He threw her a desperate look and whispered hoarsely, "What is he?"

Keller dropped him. "You don't want to know," she said, and left him again.

She took the stairs very quietly but very quickly. Her senses were open, but the farther she went down, the less useful they were. They were being swamped by an overpowering sickly-sweet odor and by a rushing sound that seemed to fill her head.

By the time she got to the last step, her fur was bristling, and her heart was pounding. Her tail stood out stiffly, and her pupils were wide.

It was very dark, but details of the room slowly came into focus. It was a large furnished basement, or had been. Now every piece of furniture seemed to be broken and piled in a heap in the corner. There was a raw hole in one concrete wall, a hole that opened into a black tunnel. And the sickly-sweet smell came from piles of dung.

They were lying on the floor all around, along with giant scratch marks that had dug grooves into the tile.

The entire place looked like nothing so much as a huge animal's den.

She couldn't sense anything alive in the room.

Keller moved toward the tunnel, fast but stealthy. Ripple, freeze. Ripple, freeze. Leopards could move this way across grassland bare of cover and not be seen. But nothing jumped out to attack her.

The mouth of the tunnel was wet, the soil crumbly. Keller climbed in, still moving lightly. Water dripped from the mat of roots and earth above her. The whole thing looked ready to cave in at any moment.

He must have made it The dragon. Goddess knows how; maybe with claws. Anyway, he wasn't too fussy about it; it was meant to be a temporary thing.

The smell was just as powerful here, and the rushing sound was even clearer. There must be an underground stream-or maybe just water pipes- very close.

Come on, girl, what are you waiting for? You're a grunt, it's your job to move! Don't stand around trying to think!

It was hard to make herself go deeper and deeper into that damp and confining place. Her senses were all useless, even sight, because the bore twisted and turned so she could never see more than a few feet ahead. She was heading blind and deaf into she had no idea what. At any moment, she might reach a shaft or a side tunnel where something could attack her.

And the feel of the earth above her was almost crushing.

She kept going.

Please let her be alive. He doesn't need to kill her. He should try to make her join him first Please, please, don't let him have killed her.

After what seemed like forever, she realized that the angle of the tunnel was changing. She was heading up. Then a current of air swirled to her, barely sniffable under the thick dragon smell, and it was fresh.

Night air. Somewhere ahead. The end of the tunnel.

A new panic invaded her.

Please don't let them have gotten away.

She threw aside all caution and sprinted.

Up, up-and she could smell it clearly now. Cold air, unfouled. Up, up-and she could hear sounds. A yell that suddenly broke off. The voice sounded like-

Galen! she thought, and her heart tore.

Then she saw light Moonlight. She gathered her muscles and jumped.

She scrambled out of the mouth of the tunnel.

And there, in moonlight that hurt her eyes, she saw everything.

A car, a black Jeep, parked under a tree. The engine running but the seats empty. And in front of it, what looked like a battlefield.

There were bodies everywhere. Several were vampires in black-dark ninjas. But also on the ground were the bodies of Nissa and Winnie and Galen.

So they followed, a distant part of Keller's mind said, not interfering in the slightest with the part that was getting ready for the fight. They followed the dragon-which must have done something to Winnie to get Iliana away from her. That was why I couldn't smell anybody; they all went into the tunnel while I was upstairs with brother Brett.

She couldn't tell if they were dead. They were all tying very still, and there was blood on Winnie's head and on Nissa's right arm and back. Blood and daw marks.

And Galen… he was sprawled out full-length, with no signs of breathing. He wasn't even a warrior. He'd never had a chance.

Then Keller saw something that drove the others out of her head.

The dragon.

It was standing near the Jeep, but frozen, as if it had just wheeled to face her. It was holding a limp figure in silvery-white casually, almost tucked under its arm.

And it still looked like Jaime Ashton-Hughes.

It was wearing Jaime's pretty blue dress. Its soft brown hair blew gently about its face, and Keller could feel its dark blue eyes fixed on her.

But there were differences, too. Its skin was deadly pale, and something yellowish was oozing from a cut on its cheekbone. Its lips were drawn back from its teeth in a grinning snarl that Jaime never could have managed. And when the wind blew the soft hair off its forehead, Keller could see horns.

There they were. Stubby and soft-looking-or at least soft on the outside, like downy skin over bone. They were so obviously real and yet so grotesque that Keller felt her stomach turn.

And there were five of them.

Five.

The book said one to three! Keller thought indignantly. And in rare cases four. But this thing has five! Five seats of shapeshifting power, not to mention the black energy, mind control, and whatever else it's been keeping up its sleeve just for me.

I'm dead.

Well, she had known that from the beginning, of course. She'd known it six days ago when she first leaped for the dragon's back in the mall. But now the realization was more bitter, because not only was she dead, so was all hope.

I can't kill that thing. It's going to slaughter me as easily as the others. And then take Iliana.

It didn't matter. She had to try.

"Put the girl down," she said. She kept her half-and-half shape to say it. Maybe she could startle it by changing suddenly when she sprang.

"I don't think so," the dragon said with Jaime's mouth. It had Jaime's voice down perfectly. But then it opened the mouth, and basso profundo laughter came out, so deep and startling that Keller felt ice down her spine.

"Come on," Keller said. "Neither of us wants her hurt." While she was talking, she was moving slowly, trying to circle behind it. But it turned with her, keeping its back to the Jeep.

"You may not," the dragon said. "But I really don't care. She's already hurt; I don't know if she'll make it anyway." Its grin spread wider.

"Put her down," Keller said again. She knew that it wouldn't. But she wanted to keep talking, keep it off guard.

She also knew it wasn't going to let her get behind it. Panthers naturally attack from behind. It wasn't going to be an option.

Keller's eyes shifted to the huge and ancient pine tree the Jeep was parked under. Or they didn't actually shift, because that would have given the dragon a clue. She expanded her awareness to take it in.

It was her chance.

"We haven't even properly introduced ourselves-" she began.

And then, in mid-sentence, she leaped.

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