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Witchlight (Chapter 2)

They'd gotten a dragon.

Keller's heart was pounding.

Somehow, somewhere, the people of the Night World had found one and awakened him. And they'd paid him-bribed him-to join their side. Keller didn't even want to imagine what the price might have been. Bile rose in her throat, and she swallowed hard.

Dragons were the oldest and most powerful of the shapeshifters, and the most evil. They had all gone to sleep thirty thousand years ago-or, rather, they had been put to sleep by the witches. Keller didn't know exactly how it had been done, but all the old legends said the world had been better off since.

And now one was back.

But he might not be fully awake yet. From the glimpse she'd had, his body was still cold, not much heat radiating from it. He'd be sluggish, not mentally alert.

It was the chance of a lifetime.

Keller's decision was made in that instant. There was no time to think about it-and no need. The inhabitants of the Night World wanted to destroy the human world. And there were plenty of them to do it, vampires and dark witches and ghouls. But this was something in another league altogether. With a dragon on their side, the Night World would easily crush Circle Daybreak and all other forces that wanted to save the humans from the end of the world that was coming. It would be no contest.

And as for that little girl in there, Iliana the Witch Child, the Wild Power meant to help save humankind-she would get swatted like a bug if she didn't obey the dragon.

Keller couldn't let that happen.

Even as Keller was thinking it, she was changing. It was strange to do it in a public place, in front of people. It went against all her most deeply ingrained training. But she didn't have time to dwell on that.

It felt good. It always did. Painful in a nice way, like the feeling of having a tight bandage removed. A release.

Her body was changing. For a moment, she didn't feel like anything-she almost had no body. She was fluid, a being of pure energy, with no more fixed form than a candle flame. She was utterly… free.

And then her shoulders were pulling in, and her arms were becoming more sinewy. Her fingers were retracting, but in their place long, curved claws were extending. Her legs were twisting, the joints changing. And from the sensitive place at the end of her spine, the place that always felt unfinished when she was in human form, something long and flexible was springing. It lashed behind her with fierce joy.

Her jumpsuit was gone. The reason was simple: she wore only clothes made out of the hair of other shapeshifters. Even her boots were made of the hide of a dead shifter. Now both were being replaced by her own fur, thick black velvet with darker black rosettes. She felt complete and whole in it.

Her arms-now her front legs-dropped to the ground, her paws hitting with a soft but heavy thump. Her face prickled with sensitivity; there were long, slender whiskers extending from her cheeks. Her tufted ears twitched alertly.

A rasping growl rose in her chest, trying to escape from her throat. She held it back-that was easy and instinctive. A panther was by nature the best stalker in the world.

The next thing she did was instinctive, too. She took a moment to gauge the distance from herself to the black-haired boy. She took a step or two forward, her shoulders low. And then she jumped.

Swift. Supple. Silent. Her body was in motion. It was a high, bounding leap designed to take a victim without an instant of warning. She landed on the dark boy's back, clinging with razor claws.

Her jaws clamped on the back of his neck. It was the way panthers killed, by biting through the spine. The boy yelled in rage and pain, grabbing at her as her weight knocked him to the ground. It didn't do any good. Her claws were too deep in his flesh to be shaken off, and her jaws were tightening with bone-crushing pressure. A little blood spilled into her mouth, and she licked it up automatically with a rough, pointed tongue.

More yelling. She was dimly aware that the vampires were attacking her, trying to wrench her away, and that the security guards were yelling. She ignored it all. Nothing mattered but taking the life under her claws.

She heard a sudden rumble from the body beneath her. It was lower in pitch than anything human ears could pick up, but to Keller it was both soft and frighteningly loud.

Then the world exploded in agony.

The dragon had caught hold of her fur just above the right shoulder. Dark energy was crackling into her, searing her. It was the same black power he'd used against Winnie, except that now he had direct contact.

The pain was scalding, nauseating. Every nerve ending in Keller's body seemed to be on fire, and her shoulder was a solid red blaze. It made her muscles convulse involuntarily and spread a metallic taste through her mouth, but it didn't make her let go. She held on grimly, letting the waves of energy roll through her, trying to detach her mind from the pain.

What was frightening was not just the power but

the sense of the dragon's mind beneath it Keller could feel a terrible coldness. A core of mindless hatred and evil that seemed to reach back into the mists of time. This creature was old. And although Keller couldn't tell what he wanted with the present age, she knew what he was focused on right now.

Killing her. That was all he cared about.

And of course he was going to succeed. Keller had known that from the beginning.

But not before I kill you, she thought.

She had to hurry, though. There almost certainly were other Night People in the mall. These guys could call for reinforcements, and they would probably get them.

You can't… make me… let go, she thought.

She was fighting to close her jaws. He was much tougher than a normal human. Panther jaws could crush the skull of a young buffalo. And right now, she could hear muscle crunching, but still she couldn't finish him.

Hang on… hang on…

Black pain… blinding…

She was losing consciousness.

For Winnie, she thought.

Sudden strength filled her. The pain didn't matter anymore. She tossed her head, trying to break his neck, wrenching it back and forth.

The body underneath her convulsed violently. She could feel the little lapsing in it, the weakening that meant death was close. Keller felt a surge of fierce joy.

And then she was aware of something else. Someone was pulling her off the dragon. Not in the fumbling way the thugs had. This person was doing it skillfully, touching pressure points to make her claws retract, even getting a finger into her mouth, under the short front teeth between the lethal canines.

No! Keller thought. From her panther throat came a short, choking snarl. She lashed out with her back legs, trying to rip the person's guts out.

Afo. The voice didn't come in through Keller's ears. It was in her mind. A boy's voice. And it wasn't afraid, despite the fact that she was now scrabbling weakly, still trying to turn his stomach to spaghetti. It was concerned and anxious but not afraid. Please-you have to let go.

Even as he said it, he was pushing more pressure points. Keller was already weak. Now, all at once, she saw stars. She felt her hold on the dragon loosen.

And then she was being jerked backward, and she was falling. A hundred and ten pounds of black panther was landing on whoever had yanked her free.

Dizzy…

Her vision was blurred, and her body felt like rubber. She hardly had enough strength to twist her head toward the boy who had pulled her away.

Who was he? Who?

Her eyes met blazing green-gold ones.

Almost the eyes of a leopard. It gave Keller a jolt. But the rest of the boy was different. Dark gold hair over a rather pale and strained face with perfectly sculpted features. Human, of course. And those eyes seemed to be blazing with worry and intensity rather than animal ferocity.

Not many people could look at an angry panther like that.

She heard his mental voice again. Are you all right?

And then, for just an instant, something happened. It was as if some barrier had been punctured. Keller felt not just his voice but his worry inside her head. She could feel… him.

His name… Galen. And he's someone born to command, she thought. He understands animals.

Another shapeshifter?

But I can't feel what animal he turns into. And there's no bloodtbirstiness at all….

She didn't understand it, and her panther brain wasn't in the mood to try. It was grounded in the here and now, and all it wanted was to finish what she had started.

She wrenched her eyes away from Galen and looked at the dragon.

Yes, he was still alive but badly wounded. A little snarl worked out of Keller's throat. The vampire thugs were still alive, too; one was picking up the injured dragon and hauling him away.

"Come on!" he was shouting in a voice sharp with panic. "Before that cat recovers-"

"But the girl!" the second vampire said. "We don't have the girl." He looked around. Diana was standing by a display of porcelain figures, looking just as pale and graceful as any of them. She had both hands at her throat and seemed to be in shock.

The second vampire started toward her.

Afo, Keller thought. But she couldn't get her legs to move. She could only lie helplessly and stare with burning eyes.

"No!" a voice beside her said, out loud this time. Galen was jumping up. He got between the vampire and Diana.

The vampire grinned, a particularly nasty grin. "You don't look like a fighter to me, pretty boy."

It wasn't exactly true, Keller thought. Galen wasn't pretty; he was beautiful. With that gold hair and his coloring, he looked like a prince from a storybook. A rather young and inexperienced prince. He stood his ground, his expression grim and determined.

"I won't let you get to her," he said steadily.

Who the hell is this guy? Keller thought

Iliana, pale and wide-eyed, glanced up at him, too. And then Keller saw her… melt. Her drawn features softened; her lips parted. Her eyes seemed to quiver with light. She had been cowering away from the vampire, but now her body relaxed just a little.

He certainly looked more like a champion defender than Keller had. He was clean, for one thing.

Keller's fur was matted with her own blood and the dragon's. More, she couldn't help the little raspy snarls of rage and despair she was making, showing dripping teeth in a red-stained muzzle.

Too bad he was about to be slaughtered.

He wasn't a fighter. Keller had seen the inside of his mind, and she knew he didn't have the tiger instinct.

The vampire was going to massacre him.

The vampire started forward.

And a voice from the front of the store said, "Hold it right there."

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