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Witchlight (Chapter 18)

The ride to Charlotte passed in a blur. All Keller could remember was hanging on while Nissa did some of the wildest driving she'd ever experienced. They went offroad for a good deal of the way.

It was one minute to midnight when they squealed into a parking lot in front of a long, low building. "Go in, go in!" Nissa said, slamming to a stop in front of a set of double doors.

Keller and Galen and Winnie and Iliana ran.

They burst into a large room that seemed very brightly lit. A sea of chairs with bodies sitting in them swam in front of Keller's eyes. Then she focused on a platform at the front.

"Come on," she said tersely.

There were a number of people sitting at a table on the platform, facing the audience just like any ordinary panel, with glasses of water and microphones

in front of them. But Keller recognized some of the people as she got closer, and they were anything but ordinary.

That little dumpling-shaped woman with the round face was Mother Cybele. Mother of all the Witches, just as Grandma Harman had been Crone. With Grandma Harman dead, she was the witches' leader.

The tall girl with the lovely features and the cafe au lait skin who sat beside her was Aradia. The blind Maiden of the Witches mentioned in the prophecies.

And that regal-looking man with the golden hair and beard, sitting by the queenly woman with flashing green eyes…

They could only be the leaders of the First House of the shapeshifters.

Galen's mother and father.

There were others, too, important people from Circle Daybreak, but Keller didn't have time to focus on them. Mother Cybele was on her feet and speaking. She must have been a little short-sighted, because she didn't appear to see Keller and the others coming up on the side. Her voice was slow and concerned.

"I'm afraid that since it's now past midnight-"

Keller glanced at her watch. "It's just midnight now!"

Mother Cybele looked up, startled, over her glasses. Every head on the panel turned. And every face in the audience was suddenly fixed on Keller's group.

A low murmur like the humming of bees began,

but it swelled very quickly to something like a muted roar. People were pointing openly as Keller ran up the steps to the stage.

She glanced back at the others and realized why. They were a pretty sad-looking bunch. Every one of them was dirty and ragged. Winnie's strawberry-blond hair was dark red with blood on one side. Galen's sweater was in shreds. And she herself was filthy from the tunnel and all the dirt she'd encountered in the clearing.

Only Diana looked reasonably clean, and that was probably because the glow kept you from focusing too closely.

Mother Cybele gave a little cry of joy that sounded quite young, and she dropped the index cards she'd been holding. Aradia stood up, her beautiful blank eyes turned toward them, her entire face shining with joy. Galen's parents looked extremely startled and relieved.

But some guy in a dark suit grabbed Keller's arm as she reached the top of the steps.

"Who are you supposed to be?" he said.

Keller shook him off and stood with her hair swirling around her. "We're the people who're bringing you the Wild Power," she said. She spotted Nissa just coming in the door and beckoned to her. "And we're also the ones who killed the dragon."

The big room fell so silent that you could have heard a paper clip drop.

"Well, actually, she killed the dragon," Keller said, pointing to Diana.

Aradia said in a hushed voice, "The Witch Child. She's come to us."

Iliana walked slowly up onto the stage and stood straight. "I didn't kill it alone," she said. "Everybody helped, and especially Keller and Galen."

Galen's father's golden eyebrows went up, and Galen's mother gripped her husband's arm. Keller glanced sideways at Galen and saw that he was blushing.

"They fought it and fought it until they were both almost dead. But then, when I used the blue fire, they got better again."

She said it so simply, speaking to Mother Cybele alone, or so it seemed. She didn't look in the least self-conscious, or in the least arrogant.

I suppose she's used to having everybody looking at her, Keller thought.

Mother Cybele actually clasped her little soft hands together and shut her eyes. When she opened them again, they were shining with tears.

But all she said was, "Welcome, my child. Grandma Harman's last words were for you. She hoped you would find your power."

"She did," Keller said. "Winnie helped her."

I didn't help her do that," Winnie said candidly. "What she did back there and what she said. I just tried to show her how to use the orange fire. But when she started talking-" She shook her curly head. "I don't know where she got all that stuff about Hecate."

'It just came to me," Iliana said. "I don't know. It was as if somebody was saying it to me, and I was just repeating it."

But who could have said it? Keller thought. Who else but somebody who was there the first time, when the dragons were put to sleep? Who else but Hecate Witch-Queen herself?

Even though she'd been dead thirty thousand years.

It's time for everything that's sleeping to wake back up again.

Keller realized that she was hearing a noise from the crowd. At first, she thought that they were muttering in disbelief again, or maybe in annoyance at these people who were standing on the stage and chattering.

Then it got louder and louder, and she realized it was applause.

People were clapping and cheering and whistling. It was echoing off the ceiling and walls. And just when Keller thought it couldn't possibly get any louder, a new wave would come and prove her wrong.

It took a long time for Mother Cybele to get them all quieted down. Then she turned to Keller and said formally, "So you've completed your mission?"

Keller realized that it was a cue. And in the midst of the dizzy happiness she'd been feeling, something twisted in her heart.

She kept it from showing on her face. She kept herself standing erect.

"Yes," she said to Mother Cybele. "I've brought the Witch Child." She swallowed hard.

"And here is the son of the First House of the shapeshifters," Galen's father said. He stepped over to Galen and took his hand. His face was stern but glowing with pride.

Galen's face was pale but set. He looked at Keller-for just one moment. And then he looked straight out at the audience with unseeing eyes.

Mother Cybele looked toward Iliana. To take her hand, Keller supposed, and join it with Galen's. But Iliana was holding some whispered conversation with Aradia.

When she finally turned around, Iliana said, '1 want Keller to do it. She's the one responsible for all this."

Keller blinked. Her throat was so swollen, it was impossible to swallow again. But she wouldn't have thought it of Iliana. Really, it seemed so pointlessly cruel to make her do it.

But maybe she doesn't understand. That's it, she doesn't realize, Keller thought. She let out a careful, shaky breath and said, "Okay."

She reached for Diana's hand-

And felt a stab in her palm.

She looked down, astonished. Iliana had a knife in that hand, a perfectly serviceable little knife. She had cut Keller with it, and Keller was bleeding. In fact, Iliana seemed to be bleeding, too.

"Sorry," Iliana hissed. "Ick, I hate blood."

Then, grabbing Keller's hand again, she faced the audience and raised it up high.

"There!" she said. "Now we're blood sisters. And she's already been like a sister to me, because she saved my life over and over. And if that's not good enough for an alliance between the witches and the shapeshifters, I don't know what is."

The entire audience gaped at her. Mother Cybele blinked rapidly.

"Are you saying…" Galen's father looked incredulous. "Are you saying that you won't marry my son?"

"I'm saying that she ought to marry your son- or promise to him, or whatever they want. She's the one he's in love with. And I don't see why you should make him miserable for his whole life just because you want the shapeshifters tied to the witches. Keller and I are tied together, and we always will be. And Galen, too. Why can't that be enough?"

A sound was starting from the crowd again. Keller's heart seemed to soar on it. But she was still staring at Iliana, afraid to believe.

"But… what if the witches don't agree to it?" Galen's father said feebly.

Iliana stamped her foot She actually did.

Tm the Witch Child. They'd better listen to me. I didn't go through all of this for nothing."

Then the crowd was thundering applause even louder than before, and the wave seemed to sweep Keller right into Galen's arms.

Sometime later, in the middle of a lot of hugging and kissing, Keller whispered to Iliana, "Are you sure?"

'Td better be sure, don't you think? Or Galen's going to be pretty upset."

"Iliana-"

'Tm sure," Iliana whispered. She squeezed Keller. "I really do care about him. I guess I'm sort of in love with him, too. But I saw. I saw his face in the clearing when he thought you were dead. And I heard the way he said your name. And then… I knew, you know? The two of you were meant to be. So I'm sure."

"A leopard?" Galen's mother said, shaking out her topaz-colored hair. "Why, dear, that's wonderful. Your great-great-grandmother was a leopard."

"You gave up being a bird for me," Keller whispered in his ear.

"I think I could learn to like running," he murmured, and took the chance to touch his lips to her cheek.

"No, ma'am, I'm really sorry I woke you up," Keller said. "Yes, ma'am, I do know how late it is." She strained to hear the voice on the other end of the phone. She had a finger in her ear to try and block out the noise of the wild celebration around her, but it wasn't doing much good.

"Because I honestly don't think it's funny," Diana's mother said. "The baby is just fine; he's been in his bed all night. Why would you think he wasn't?"

"Well, ma'am, it's hard to explain…"

"And now he's awake, and he's going to start crying-well, he's not crying. But now he wants to eat the phone… Alex!"

A voice on the other end squealed and said distinctly, "Kee-kee!"

"Yeah, it's Kee-kee," Keller said, startled. "Um, I'm glad you're okay, kid. And, see, I didn't go bye-bye after all. So you may think you're pretty smart,

but you still have something to learn about precognition, hotshot. Right?" Keller added, "You know I thought for a minute once that you might be the Wild Power. But I guess you're just a good old-fashioned witch baby."

Diana, who was passing by, gave her a very strange look. "Keller, are you having a conversation with my baby brother?"

"What exactly did the dragon say?" Mother Cybele asked anxiously. Although she looked like a big dove and her eyes were always kind, there was a firmness about her plump chin that Keller liked.

"I asked who woke him up. And he said"-Keller reached for the exact words-"he said, 'Someone you'll never know. A witch who isn't a witch. We made our own alliance.'"

"A witch who isn't a witch," Mother Cybele repeated.

Aradia's face was sober. 'I wonder who that could be. And where they are now."

Mother Cybele said quietly, "Time will tell."

"The police are already inside," Nissa said, holding the cell phone to her ear as she talked to Keller. "I guess the kids at the party called them when they saw a panther. They've found the family… Mr. and Ms. Ashton-Hughes and Jaime and Brett. They're taking them to the hospital."

She snapped the phone shut. "We'd better send some witches to the hospital. But as long as they're alive, they have a pretty good chance, don't you think? After all, we've got a Wild Power with healing fire. Now, can't you relax and try to enjoy yourself?"

It was two days later. Keller was sitting in a sunny alcove in the safe house where Hiana and Galen and the others had been brought to protect them from the Night World. And to give them a chance to recover.

It was nice to be still for a while. To sit and read… and think. And it was even nicer to be able to do it with Galen around.

He came in the door quietly-he always moved cat-quietly now. She smiled at him. He looked so wonderfully dear with his golden hair and fairytale looks and leopard-green eyes.

"I wrote you a poem," he said, sitting down beside her. "Well, no, that's not true. I kind of stole what your mother wrote and made it into… something. I don't know what. But I think maybe it's what she really meant to say, after all."

Keller blinked at him, then looked down at the piece of paper he gave her.

People die… so love them every day. Beauty fades… so look before it's gone. Love changes… but not the love you give. And if you love, you'll never be alone.

"Actually, I was going to say, 'And you will always be alone… so don't rely on others for your happiness, but don't stop loving, either, because then you'll end up empty and alone instead of alone and strong and able to give without worrying about

what you're going to get back.' But that was kind of long, and it didn't scan," he said.

Keller stared down at the paper blindly.

"I'm sorry," he said. "If you don't like it-"

Keller threw her arms around him, and her tears spilled over. "I'm going to burn the other one," she said.

"And I love you. Kiss me."

He grinned. "Yes, Boss."

And he did.

One from the land of kings long forgotten; One from the hearth which still holds the spark; One from the Day World where two eyes are watching; One from the twilight to be one with the dark..

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