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Witchlight (Chapter 17)

Not for the dragon. She jumped for the tree.

It was a good, tall loblolly pine, whose drooping lower branches didn't look as if they could support a kitten. But Keller didn't need support. As she leaped, she changed, pushing it as fast as she could. She reached the tree with four paws full of lethal claws extended.

And she ran straight up the vertical surface. Her claws sank into the clean, cinnamon trunk, and she shot up like a rocket. When she got high enough to be obscured by the dull-green needles on the droopy branches, she launched herself into the air again.

It was a desperate move, betting everything on one blind spring. But it was all she could think of. She could never take the dragon in a fair fight.

She was betting on her claws.

In the wild, a panther could shear the head off a deer with a single swipe.

Keller was going for the horns.

She came down right on target. The dragon made the mistake of looking up at her, maybe thinking that she was trying to get behind it, to land on its back again and kill it. Or maybe thinking that she might see the pale face of an innocent girl and hesitate.

Whatever it thought, it was a mistake.

Keller was already slashing as she landed. A single deadly swipe with all her power behind it. Her claws peeled the forehead off the creature in a spray of blood and flesh.

The screaming roar almost burst her eardrums.

It was the sound she'd heard before in the mall, a sound so deep in pitch that she felt it as much as heard it. It shook her bones, and it reverberated in every tree and in the red clay of the ground.

And that was another mistake, although Keller didn't know it at once.

At the same instant as she heard the roar, she felt the pain. The dark power crackled through her like a whiplash and tore her own involuntary scream from her. It was worse than the first time she'd felt it, ten times worse, maybe more. The dragon was much stronger.

And it followed her.

Like a real whip, it flashed across the clearing after her. It hit her again as she hit the ground, and Keller screamed again.

It hurt.

She tried to scrabble away, but the pain made her weak, and she fell over on her side. And then the black energy hit her right shoulder-exactly where it had hit the first time in the mall.

Keller saw white light.

And then she was falling in darkness.

Her last thought was, I didn't get it. I couldn't have. It still has power.

Diana, I'm sorry…

She stopped feeling anything.

She opened her eyes slowly.

Hurts…

She was looking up at the dragon.

It had dropped Iliana; Keller couldn't see where. And it was staring down at her in malevolent fury, obviously waiting for her to wake up so she could feel it when it killed her.

When he killed her. He'd taken on the shape he'd been wearing in the beginning. A young man with clean, handsome features and a nicely muscled if compact body. Black hair that shed rainbow colors under the moonlight and looked as fine and soft as her own fur. And those obsidian eyes.

It was hard to look away from those eyes. They seemed to capture her gaze and suck her in. They were so much more like stones than eyes, silver-black, shiny stones that seemed to reflect all light out again.

But when she managed to drag her gaze upward, she felt a thrill of hope. His forehead was a bleeding ruin.

She had gotten him. Her slash had carved a nice hamburger-sized piece out of his scalp. Somewhere on the ground in the clearing were two little stubby horns.

But only two; there were three left on his head. He must have turned at the last instant. Keller would have cursed if she had a human throat.

"How're you feeling?" the dragon said, and leered at her form under the gory mess of his scalp.

Keller tried to snarl at him and realized that she did have a human throat. She must have collapsed back into her half-and-half form, and she was too weak to change back again.

"Having trouble?" the dragon asked.

Keller croaked, "You should never have come back."

"Wrong," the dragon said. "I like the modern world."

"You should have stayed asleep. Who woke you up?" She was buying time, of course, to try and regain some strength. But she also truly wanted to know.

The dragon laughed. "Someone," he said. "Someone you'll never know. A witch who isn't a witch. We made our own alliance."

Keller didn't understand, and her brain was too fuzzy to deal with it. But just at that moment, she noticed something else.

Movement behind the dragon. The figures that had been lying on the ground were stirring. And they were doing it stealthily, in ways that showed they were awake and with their wits about them.

They were alive. She could see Galen's head lift, with moonlight shining on his hair as he looked at her. She could see Winnie turn toward Iliana and

begin to crawl. She could see Nissa's shoulders hump and then fall back.

Later, when they were asked, they would all say the same thing had brought them to awareness: a deep rumbling sound that vibrated in their bones. The dragon's roar.

Or, at least, three of them would say that. Galen would always say that all he heard was Keller's scream and his eyes came open.

The surge of hope she felt made Keller's heart beat hard and wiped away the pain-for the moment, at least. But she was terrified of giving the dragon some clue.

She didn't dare look at Galen any longer. She stared at the dragon's black stone eyes and thought with all her strength, Get away.

Get away, take the Jeep, take Diana. He may not be able to follow you. Run.

"Your time's over," she told the dragon out loud. "The shapeshifters don't want you anymore. Everything has changed."

"And it's changing again," the dragon said. "The end of the world is coming, and the beginning of a new one. It's time for everything that's sleeping to wake back up again."

Keller had a horrified vision of hundreds of dragons being dug up and brought back to life. But there was something going on in the clearing that was even more horrifying to her.

Galen wasn't getting away. He was slithering on his stomach toward her.

And Winnie, the idiot, was beside Diana nowbut

she wasn't dragging her to the Jeep. She seemed to be whispering to her.

Keller felt a hot wave of utter desperation.

What can I do?

If the dragon sees them, they're all dead. There's nothing any of them can do against him. Galen's not a warrior-he can't change. Nissa looks too hurt to move. Winnie's orange fire won't even singe the dragon. And Diana will get swatted like a butterfly.

They can't do anything. I have to.

She was so tired and hurt, and her claws were much less lethal than in her full panther form. But she had to do it, and she had to do it now.

"Go back where you came from!" she shouted. She bunched her muscles and jumped.

Right for him. Straight on. That was what took him by surprise, the sheer insanity of the attack. He threw the black energy at her, but he couldn't stop her leap.

Her claws ripped into his forehead again, and then she fell back.

The dragon's scream split the heavens. Dizzy with pain and shock, Keller stared at him, hoping desperately…

But she'd taken only one horn off. He still had two.

He thrashed around in wounded fury, then threw the dark power at her again. Keller shuddered and lost her balance. She crashed to the ground and lay there, limp.

"Keller!" The scream was full of such raw anguish

that it hurt Keller's throat to hear it. It made her heart throb hard and then fall in sick dismay. Galen, no, she thought. Don't bother with me. You have to get Iliana away.

"Keller!" he screamed again, and then he was beside her, holding her.

"No . ? ." she whispered.

She couldn't say more than that. She looked at him pleadingly with the eyes of a dumb beast. If he died, too, it would make her own death meaningless.

The dragon was still screaming, both hands to his forehead. He seemed to be too angry to attack. "Keller, hang on. Please, you have to hang on." Galen was dripping tears on her face.

"Run…" she whispered.

Instead, he did the most gallant thing she had ever seen.

He was already holding her, his shaky hand stroking the hair off her face, brushing one of her tufted ears. Now, suddenly, he gripped her hard, and his expression changed.

His jaw tightened, and a white line showed around his mouth. And his eyes… seemed to darken and glow red.

Too late, Keller realized.

He was taking her impression. Learning her shape.

No. You were meant to be something gentle.

Galen stood up.

And changed.

But something was a little off. Maybe it was the fact that he had to hurry when he took the impression, or some extra twist from his own genes. Because, instead of becoming a soot-black panther, he became a gleaming golden leopard.

The same animal. Different colors. This leopard was the dark rich gold of Galen's hair, and its eyes were the incredible green of his eyes.

He was marked with perfect black rosettes, each with an even darker gold center. His body was sleek and supple and almost seven feet long with the tail. He was a big leopard, at least a hundred and sixty pounds.

And before Keller had time to think, he was in motion.

A good spring. Untutored but full of the real killer instinct. The coughing yell he let out as he jumped was the kind a cat makes when its fury is too great to hold in.

The dragon whirled to face him. But it was too late. Once again, the crackling dark power hit but couldn't stop the rush. The dragon's human body couldn't fend off a hundred and sixty pounds of solid feline muscle.

Keller saw Galen swipe.

The dragon bellowed, clapping a hand to his head.

And Keller wanted to cheer.

She couldn't. She didn't have the strength left. But her heart was singing inside her with sheer pride. You did it. Oh, Galen, my prince, you did it.

She saw his body falling, struck by the black energy. She saw it hit the ground and lie still.

And she was sorry that they were both going to

die. But with the dragon dead, too, and Iliana alive, there would still be hope. There would be people to carry on.

Then she looked at the dragon, and time stopped, and her heart turned to ice.

He still had a horn left. The one right in the middle.

They hadn't done it after all.

He still had power. He was going to kill them now, and Iliana, too. And neither she nor Galen could do anything to stop him.

The noises the dragon was making were beyond description. He seemed to be out of his mind in pain and fury. And then Keller realized that it was more than that. He was screaming in sheer blood-lust-and he was changing.

So strange-she hadn't even thought about the dragon changing before. But she could take on most animals. She knew to go for the juncture between head and neck for rhinos, the belly for a lion. But this… what it was shifting into…

No.

I don't believe it, Keller thought.

It looked more like a moth being born than a shapeshifter changing. It split its human skin like a chrysalis. More of the yellowish liquid she had seen on Jaime's cheek oozed from the splits. And what was revealed underneath was hard and greenish-yellow, flat, smooth.

Scaly.

The smell was the smell from the basement Sickly-sweet, pungent, an odor to make your stomach lurch.

Powerful back legs bunched, and the figure grew and stood against the moonlit sky.

It was huge.

In her mind, Keller saw a scene from the past. Iliana, her violet eyes huge, saying, "He can turn into a dragon?"

And Keller's scornful answer, "No, of course not. Don't be silly."

Wrong, Keller thought.

It actually looked more like velociraptor than a dragon. Too big-it was more than fifteen feet long, counting the powerful tail. But it had the same look of alien intelligence, the same reptilian snout, the same saberlike hind claws.

It's not a mindless animal, Keller thought. It's smart. It even has things like hands on its forelegs; It's where evolution took a different turn.

And it had power. Maybe more power this way than in its human form. Keller could feel its mind even at this distance, the terrible ancient core of hatred and malice, the endless thirst for blood.

It opened its mouth, and for an instant Keller expected to see fire. But what came out was a roar that showed huge spiky teeth-and a flood of black energy. The dark power crackled around it like an aura of lightning.

Nothing-no shapeshifter, no witch, no vampire-could stand against this creature. Keller knew that absolutely.

That was when she saw Iliana getting up.

Stay down, you idiot! Keller thought.

Iliana stood straight.

There's no point, don't attract its attention…

"Azhdeha!" Iliana shouted.

And the monster turned.

There they were, the maiden and the dragon, face to face. Iliana looked twice as small as ever before in contrast to this giant. Her silver-gold hair was blowing loose in the wind, and her dress shimmered around her. She was so delicate, so graceful-and so fragile, standing there like a lily swaying on its stalk. I can't watch, Keller thought. I can't see this. Please…

"Azhdeha!" Iliana said, and her voice was sweet but ringing and stern. "Hashteher! Tiamat!"

It's a spell, Keller thought. Winnie taught her a spell? When they were lying there, whispering together? But what kind of spell would Winnie know against dragons?

"Poisonous Serpent! Cold-blooded Biter! Rasta-ban! Anguis!"

No, they're names, Keller realized slowly. Its names. Dragon names.

Old names.

"I am a witch and the daughter of a witch. Mine was the hand that took your power; mine was the hand that buried you in silence. Hecate was the most ancient of my mothers. Hecate's hand is my hand now."

Winnie couldn't have taught her that. Nobody could have taught her that. No witch alive today.

Keller could see Winnie's pale face watching in surprise from beyond Iliana, her eyes and mouth dark O's.

"Mine is the hand that sends you back!"

Diana's palms were cupped now, and orange fire crackled between them.

Keller's heart plummeted.

Golden-orange fire. Witch fire. It was impressive, from a girl who'd never been trained, but it wasn't nearly enough. It was about as dangerous to the dragon as a firefly.

She heard Winnie's voice in the silence, small and frightened but determined.

"Aim for the horn!"

The dragon threw back its head and laughed.

That was what it looked like, anyway. What came out was a roar like all the other roars and a belch of black energy that fountained skyward. But in her head, Keller heard maniacal laughter.

Then it swung its head back down and pointed the horn straight at Iliana.

Die! it said. The word wasn't spoken but sent on a cold wave of pure energy.

"Mine is the power of the ages" Iliana shouted back. "Mine is the power-"

The golden flare in her palms was changing, blazing white, blinding hot…

"-OF THE END OF THE WORLD!"

Something like a supernova was born between her hands.

The tight shot up and out, exploding. It was impossible to look at. And it was no longer white but dazzling, lightning-brilliant blue.

The blue fire.

The Wild Power had awakened.

I knew it, Keller thought I knew it all along.

Keller couldn't see what happened to the dragon;

the light was simply too bright. While it flared around her, she was bathed in radiance that seemed to shine through her, humming inside her and lighting up her bones. She tried to lift her own hand and saw nothing but a vague rainbow shape.

But she heard the dragon's scream. Not low like the roar but high and squealing, a sound like icicles driving into her ears. It went up and up, higher in pitch until even Keller couldn't track it. And then there was a thin sound like distant glass shattering, and then there was no sound at all.

There were shooting stars in the blue-white light.

For the second time that evening, Keller fainted.

"Boss! Please, Boss, hurry. Wake up!"

Keller blinked open her eyes. Galen was holding her. He was human. So was she.

And Winnie and Nissa were trying to drag both of them somewhere.

Keller gazed up into those gold-green eyes. The exact color of a leopard's, she thought. Only leopards don't cry, and his were brimming with tears.

She lifted a languorous hand and stroked his cheek. He cupped his own hand over it.

Keller couldn't think. There were no words in her mind. But she was glad to be here with him, for this last moment in the moonlight. It had all been worth it

"Boss, please!" Winnie was almost crying, too.

"Let me die in peace," Keller said, although she didn't realize she was saying it aloud until she heard the words. Then she added, "Don't you cry, Winfrith. You did a good job."

"Boss, you're not dying! The blue fire did something-it healed us. We're all okay. But it's almost midnight!"

Keller bunked. She blinked again.

Her body didn't hurt anymore. She'd assumed it was the blessed numbness that comes just before death. But now she realized that it wasn't. Her blood was running in her veins; her muscles felt firm and strong. She didn't even have a headache.

She stared beyond Winnie to the girl in white.

Diana was still slight and childlike, almost fairy-like of figure. But something had changed about her. At first, Keller thought she looked as distant and beautiful as a star, but then she smiled and wasn't distant at all. She was simply more beautiful than the dreams of mortals.

And really shining with her own light. It pooled around her in soft, silvery radiance. Keller had never seen a Wild Power do that before, not on any of the tapes.

But she's not just a Wild Power, the voice in her head whispered. She's the Witch Child.

And Goddess alone knows all that she's meant to do.

For a moment, Keller felt so awed that it was almost like unhappiness. But then Winnie's message finally sank in.

She snapped her head up. "Midnight?"

"Yes!" Winnie said frantically.

Keller bolted upright. "Nissa?"

"Right here, Boss."

Keller felt a flood of relief. Nissa was the one who had seemed closest to death on the ground there. But now she was standing on her own two feet, looking cool and imperturbable, even though her shirt was bloody and in rags.

"Nissa, can you drive that Jeep? Can you figure out how to get to Charlotte?"

"I think so. Boss."

Keller had never been so grateful to hear that calm voice in her life. She jumped up.

"Then let's go!"

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