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Witchlight (Chapter 8)

Keller was tempted to check the wards, but she knew it wouldn't do any good. She wasn't sensitive enough to the witch energies to gauge them. They'd been put up by Grandma Harman and checked by Winnie, and she would have to trust to that.

The wards were keyed so that only the Dominick family and ordinary humans could come inside. No Night Person could enter except Nissa, Winnie, Keller, and Galen. Which meant, Keller thought with a grim smile, that any lost witch relatives of Iliana's mother who came by were going to get quite a surprise. An invisible wall was going to be blocking them from crossing the threshold.

As long as nobody on the inside removed the wards, the house was safer than Fort Knox.

Grandma Harman had also taken the limo, Keller found. Sometime during the night, it had been replaced by an inconspicuous Ford sedan parked at the curb. The keys had been in a manila envelope dropped through the mail slot in the front door, along with a map of Lucy Lee Bethea High School.

Circle Daybreak was efficient. "I didn't finish my hair," Iliana complained as Nissa hustled her to the car. "It's only half done." "It looks terrific," Winnie said from behind her. And the thing was, it was true. There was nothing that could make that shimmering waterfall of silvery-gold look anything less than beautiful.

Whether it was up or down, braided or pinned or falling loose, it was glorious.

I don't even think the little nitwit has to brush it, Keller thought. It's so fine that she couldn't make two hairs tangle if she tried. "And I left my scarf"

"Here it is." Keller lassoed her. The scarf was ridiculous, crushed velvet in muted metallic colors, with a six-inch fringe. Purely decorative.

Iliana choked as Keller wound it around a few times and pulled it tight "A little aggressive, Boss?" Winfrith asked, extricating Iliana before she could turn blue. "Worried about being late," Keller said shortly. But she saw Nissa eyeing her, too.

Galen was the last to come out of the house. He was pale and serious-that much Keller saw before she shifted her eyes past him. Iliana's mother actually remained standing at the door with the baby in her arms.

"Say bye-bye to your sister's friends. Bye-bye." "Kee-kee," the baby said. "Kee-kee!"

"Wave to him," Winfrith stage-whispered.

Keller gritted her teeth. She half-waved, keeping her senses opened for any sound of an impending attack. The baby held out his arms toward her.

"Pui!"

"Let's get out of here." Keller almost shoved Iliana into the backseat.

Nissa took the wheel, and Galen sat up front with her. Winnie ran around to get in the back on the other side of Iliana.

As they pulled out, Keller saw the outside of the house for the first time. It was a nice house-white clapboard, two and a half stories, Colonial Revival. The street was nice, too, lined with dogwoods that would be a mass of white when they bloomed. The sort of street where people sat outside on their rockers in spring and somebody was bound to have a stand of bees in the side yard making sourwood honey.

Although Keller had been all over the United States, sent from one Circle Daybreak group to another, the hospital where she'd been found had been near a neighborhood like this.

I might have grown up someplace like this. If they'd kept me. My parents…

Do I hate her? Keller wondered suddenly. I couldn't. It's not her fault.

Oh, no, of course not, the voice in her mind said. Not her fault that she's beautiful and perfect and has parents who love her and blue fire in her veins and that she is going to be forced, whether she wants it or not, to marry Galen…

Which I don't care about, Keller thought. She was shocked at herself. When had she ever let emotion interfere with her job? She was allowing herself to be distracted-she had allowed herself to be distracted all morning-when there was something vitally important at stake.

No more, she told herself fiercely. From now on, I think about nothing but the mission. Years of mental discipline came in handy now; she was able to push everything to the side and focus with icy clarity on what had to be done. "-stopped a train in its tracks," Winfrith was

saying.

"Really?" There was faint interest in Kiana's voice. At least she'd stopped talking about her hair, Keller thought.

"Really. It was one of those BART trains in San Francisco, Like a subway train, you know. The two girls were on the tracks, and the Wild Power stopped the train dead before it could hit them. That's what the blue fire can do."

"Well, I know I can't do anything like that," Iliana said flatly. "So I can't be a Wild Power. Or whatever." The last words were tacked on quickly.

Nissa raised a cool eyebrow. "Have you ever tried to stop a train?"

While Iliana bit a fingertip and pondered that, Winnie said, "You have to do it right, you know. First, you have to make blood flow, and then you have to concentrate. It's not something you can expect to do perfectly the very first time."

"If you want to start practicing," Nissa added, "we can help."

Diana shuddered. "No, thank you. I faint when I see blood. And anyway, I'm not it."

"Too bad," Nissa murmured. "We could use the blue fire on our side today."

They were pulling up to a charming old brown brick high school. Neither Galen nor Keller had said a word throughout the ride.

But now Keller leaned forward. "Nissa, drive past it. I want to check the layout first."

Nissa swung the car into a circular driveway that went past the school's oversized front doors. Keller looked right and left, taking in everything about the surroundings. She could see Winnie doing the same thing-and Galen, too. He was focusing on the same danger spots she was. He had the instinct for strategy.

"Go around the block and circle back," Keller said.

Iliana stirred. "I thought you were worried about me being late."

"I'm more worried about you being dead," Keller interrupted. "What do you think, Nissa?"

"The side door on the west. Easy to pull up reasonably close, no bushes around it for nasty surprises to hide in."

"That's my pick, too. Okay, everybody, listen. Nissa's going to slow the car down in the right place. Slow down, not stop. When I give the signal, we're all going to jump out and go directly to that door. We are not going to pause. We are going to move as a group. Iliana, are you paying attention? From now on, you don't go anywhere unless Winnie's in front of you and I'm beside you."

"And where's Galen?" Iliana said.

Keller cursed herself mentally. She wasn't used to working with a fourth team member. "Hell be behind us-okay, Galen?" She made herself look his way.

"Yes. Whatever you say." There wasn't the slightest hint of sarcasm in his face. He was dead serious. Absolutely miserable, earnest, and dead serious.

"And Nissa, once you've parked, you join us and take the other side. What room's your first class in, Iliana?"

"Three twenty-six," Iliana said dismally. "U.S. History with Mr. Wanamaker. He went to New York to try to be an actor, but all he got was some disease from not eating enough stuff with vitamins. So he came back, and now he's really strict unless you can get him to do his impressions of the presidents-"

"All right," Keller broke in. "We're coming to the door."

"-and he's actually pretty funny when he does Theodore Roosevelt-or do I mean the other one-"

"Now," Keller said, and pushed her as Winnie pulled.

They all made it out smoothly, although Iliana yelped a little. Keller kept a good grip on her arm as they hurried to the door.

"I don't think I like this way of coming to school."

"We can turn right around and go back home," Keller said. Iliana shut up.

Galen kept pace behind them, silent and focused.

It was Nissa's usual position when the team wasn't heading for a car, and Keller couldn't help feeling the difference. She didn't like having someone behind her she couldn't trust absolutely. And although the enemies didn't seem to know yet that Galen was important, if they found out, he'd become a target; Face it, she thought. This setup is a disaster, security-wise. This is a horrendous accident waiting to happen.

Her nerves were wound so tightly that she jumped at the slightest sound.

They shepherded Iliana to her locker, then up a staircase to the third floor. The halls were almost empty, which was exactly as Keller had planned it.

But of course that meant they were late for class.

Nissa slid in beside them just as they opened the door. They entered as a group, and the teacher stopped talking and looked at them. So did everybody else in the room.

Quite a few jaws dropped open.

Keller allowed herself a grim inner smile.

Yeah, they were probably a bit of a shock for a small town. Four Night People-well, former Night People, anyway. A witch who was almost as small as Iliana, with a mop of vivid strawberry-blond curls and a face like a pixie on holiday. A vampire girl who looked like cool perfection straight out of a magazine, with cropped mink-colored hair and a strangely penetrating gaze. A shapeshifter boy who could have taken the place of any prince in a book of fairy tales, with hair like old gold and classically sculptured features.

And, of course, a panther. Which happened to be walking on two feet at the moment, in the guise of a tall girl with a tense, wary expression and black hair that swirled witchlike around her.

And, of course, there was Iliana in the midst of them, looking like a ballet dancer who had blundered in from the Nutcracker Suite.

There was a silence as the two groups stared at each other.

Then the teacher snapped shut his book and advanced on them. Keller held herself ready. He had a neatly trimmed beard and a dangerous expression.

It was Iliana who took him on, though. She stepped forward before Keller could draw a breath to speak.

"Mr. Wanamaker! These are my cousins! Well- some of them are my cousins. They're from…California. Hollywood! They're here to… do research for . . "."

"We're really just visiting," Keller cut in.

"A new show about a high school. Not like that other show. It's more of a reality-based-"

'It's just a visit," Keller said.

"But your dad is a famous producer," Iliana said. She added in an undertone to Mr. Wanamaker, "You know, like that other producer."

All eyes, including the teacher's, fixed on Keller.

"Yes-that's right," Keller said, and smiled while clenching her teeth. "But we're still just visiting." She nudged Winnie with her elbow, but it wasn't necessary. Winnie was already staring at the teacher, brainwashing him with witch power.

Mr. Wanamaker bunked. He weighed the book he was holding as if he were Hamlet holding Yorick's skull. He looked at it, then he looked at Winnie and blinked again.

Then he shrugged and looked at the ceiling. "Okay. Whatever. Sit down. There are some chairs at the back. And I'm still marking you tardy." But Keller noticed that as he returned to his desk, his posture was very erect.

She did the best she could to glare at Iliana without drawing any further attention to them. "A famous producer?" she whispered through her teeth.

"I don't know. It was more interesting than just saying you're friends."

You don't need life to get any more interesting, Bubblebrain, Keller thought, but she didn't say anything. She found one thing out that surprised her, though, and she found it out quickly. Her job was made harder by the fact that everyone at the school was in love with Iliana.

It was strange. Keller was used to getting attention from guys-and ignoring it. And Nissa and Winnie both were the type that had to beat them off with sticks. But here, although the guys looked at her and Nissa and Winnie, their eyes always seemed to return to Iliana.

At break, they crowded around her like bees around a flower. And not just guys, either. Girls, too. Everyone seemed to have something to say to her or just wanted to see her smile.

It was a bodyguard's nightmare.

What do they see in her? Keller thought, frustrated almost beyond endurance as she tried to edge Iliana away from the crowd. I mean, aside from the obvious. But if all this is about her looks…

It wasn't. It didn't seem to be. They weren't all hitting on her for dates.

"Hey, Iliana, my granddaddy loved that get well card you made."

"Illie, are you going to tie the ribbons this year for the Christmas benefit bears? Nobody else can make those teeny-weeny bows."

"Oh, Iliana, something awful! Bugsy had five puppies, and Mom says we can't keep them. We've got to find them all homes." "Iliana, I need help-" "Wait, Iliana, I have to ask you-" Okay, but why come to her? Keller thought as she finally managed to detach the girl from her fan club and steer her into the hall. I mean, she can hardly be the best problem solver in this school, can she?

There was one guy who seemed to like Iliana for the obvious. Keller disliked him on sight. He was good-looking in a carefully manicured way, with deep chestnut hair, deep blue eyes, and very white teeth. He was wearing expensive clothes, and he smiled a lot, but only at Iliana.

"Brett," Iliana said as he accosted them in the hall.

Brett Ashton-Hughes. One of the rich twins who were having the birthday party on Saturday night Keller disliked him even more, especially when he gave her a coolly appreciative once-over before returning his attention to Iliana.

"Hey, blondie. You still coming Saturday?"

Iliana giggled. Keller stifled the urge to hit something.

"Of course, I'll be there. I wouldn't miss it."

"Because, you know, it would kill Jaime if you didn't come. We're only inviting a few people, and well have the whole west wing to ourselves. We can even dance in the ballroom."

Diana's eyes went dreamy. "That sounds so romantic. I always wanted to dance in a real old-fashioned ballroom. I'll feel just like Scarlett O'Hara."

No, Keller thought. No, no, no. No way is she going there. She's going to the Solstice Ceremony, where the shapeshifters and the witches are meeting, even if I have to drag her by the hair.

She caught Nissa's eye and saw that Nissa was thinking the same. Galen and Winnie were simply watching Brett with troubled looks on their faces.

"Yeah, and I can be Brett Butler," Brett was saying. "Plus, the indoor swimming pool will be heated. So if you get tired of being Scarlett, you can be a mermaid for a while."

"It sounds wonderful! Tell Jaime I said so."

Winnie bit her lip. Keller got a fresh grip on Diana's arm and started guiding her away.

"So it's a promise, right?" Brett called after her.

Keller squeezed.

"Yes, but-oh." Iliana managed to smile and wince at the same time, her arm limp in Keller's grasp. "Oh, Brett, there's one thing. I've got my cousin and her friends staying with me."

Brett hesitated an instant, giving each girl on Keller's team the appraising look. Then he shrugged and flashed a smile. "Hey, no problem. Bring them all. Your friends are our friends."

"That wasn't what I was trying to tell you," Keller said when they were away from Brett. Iliana was rubbing her arm with an aggrieved expression. "Then what? I thought it would be fun for you to go." "What do you mean, 'then what'? You're going to the Solstice Ceremony that night, so you shouldn't have promised him." "I am not going to the Solstice Ceremony that night, because I'm not the one you're looking for." It wasn't the time to argue. Keller kept her moving down the hall. Keller wasn't happy. Her nerves were all prickling, and she felt like a cat with its fur standing on end. Very soon, Iliana wasn't happy, either. 'I always eat lunch in the cafeteria!" "Not today," Keller said, knowing she sounded as brusque and tired as she felt. "We can't risk it You've got to be in a room, alone, someplace where we can control access to you." "The music room," Winnie said helpfully. "I saw it on the map and asked a girl about it in English

class. It's open during lunch, and there's only one door."

"I don't want to-"

"You don't have a choice!"

Iliana sulked in the music room. The problem was that she wasn't very good at sulking, and you could only tell she was doing it because when she offered her cookies to Nissa, she only insisted once. Keller paced nervously in the hallway in front of the door. She could hear Winnie and Galen inside talking. Even Galen's voice sounded white-faced and strained.

Something's wrong… I've had a bad feeling ever since we got to this school… and it isn't any easier having him around.

Part of her was worried that he might take this opportunity to come and try to talk to her. And part of her, a very deep inside part, was furious because he wasn't doing it.

Goddess! I've got to get my mind clear. Every second that I'm not in control of my emotions means an opportunity for them.

She was so absorbed in yelling at herself that she almost missed the girl walking past her. Keller was almost at the end of the hall, and she had to do a double-take to realize that somebody had just calmly slipped by.

"Hey, wait," she said to the girl's back. The girl was medium-sized and had hair the soft brown of oak leaves, slightly longer than shoulder-length. She was walking fast She didn't stop. "Wait! I'm talking to you, girl! That door is off limits."

The girl didn't turn, didn't even pause. She was almost at the door to the music room. "Stop right there! Or you're going to get hurt!"

Not even a hesitation in the girl's step. She turned into the door. A thousand red alerts went off in Keller's head.

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