Table of Contents
-CHAPTER 1-CHAPTER 2-CHAPTER 3-CHAPTER 4-CHAPTER 5-CHAPTER 6-CHAPTER 7-CHAPTER 8-CHAPTER 9-CHAPTER 10-CHAPTER 11-CHAPTER 12-CHAPTER 13-CHAPTER 14-CHAPTER 15-CHAPTER 16-CHAPTER 17-CHAPTER 18
The mall was so peaceful. There was no hint of the terrible thing that was about to happen.
It looked like any other shopping mall in North Carolina on a Sunday afternoon in December.Modern. Brightly decorated. Crowded with customers who knew there were only ten shopping daysuntil Christmas. Warm, despite the chilly gray skies outside. Safe.
Not the kind of place where a monster would appear.
Keller walked past a display of "Santa Claus Through the Ages" with all her senses alert andopen. And that meant a lot of senses. The glimpses she caught of herself in darkened storewindows showed a high-school-aged girl in a sleek jumpsuit, with straight black hair that fellpast her hips and cool gray eyes. But she knew that anybody who watched her closely was likelyto see something else-a sort of prowling grace in the way she walked and an inner glow when thegray eyes focused on anything.
Raksha Keller didn't look quite human. Which was hardly surprising, because she wasn't. She wasa shapeshifter, and if people looking at her got the impression of a half-tamed panther on theloose, they were getting it exactly right.
"Okay, everybody." Keller touched the pin on her collar, then pressed a finger to the nearlyinvisible receiver in her ear, trying to tune out the Christmas music that filled the mall."Report in."
"Winnie here." The voice that spoke through the receiver was light, almost lilting, butprofessional. "I'm over by Sears. Haven't seen anything yet. Maybe she's not here."
"Maybe," Keller said shortly into the pin-which wasn't a pin at all but an extremely expensivetransmission device. "But she's supposed to love shopping, and her parents said she was headedthis way. It's the best lead we've got. Keep looking."
"Nissa here." This voice was cooler and softer, emotionless. "I'm in the parking lot, drivingby the Bingham Street entrance. Nothing to report- wait." A pause, then the ghostly voicecame back with a new tension: "Keller, we've got trouble. A black limo just pulled up outsideBrody's. They know she's here."
Keller's stomach tightened, but she kept her voice level. "You're sure it's them?"
"I'm sure. They're getting out-a couple of vampires and . . . something else. A young guy, justa
boy really. Maybe a shapeshifter. I don't know for sure; he isn't like anything I've seenbefore." The voice was troubled, and that troubled Keller. Nissa Johnson was a vampire with abrain like the library of Congress. Something she didn't recognize?
"Should I park and come help you?" Nissa asked.
"No," Keller said sharply. "Stay with the car; we're going to need it for a fast getaway.Winnie and I will take care of it. Right, Winnie?"
"Oh, right, Boss. In fact, I can take 'em all on myself; you just watch."
'You watch your mouth, girl." But Keller had to fight the grim smile that was tugging at herlips. Winfrith Arlin was Nissa's opposite-a witch and inclined to be emotional. Her odd senseof humor had lightened some black moments.
"Both of you stay alert," Keller said, completely serious now. "You know what's at stake."
"Right, Boss." This time, both voices were subdued.
They did know.
The girl they were looking for could save the world-or destroy it. Not that she knew that . . .yet Her name was Iliana Harman, and she had grown up as a human child. She didn't realize thatshe had the blood of witches in her and that she was one of the four Wild Powers destined tofight against the time of darkness that was coming.
She's about to get quite a surprise when we tell her, Keller thought
That was assuming that Keller's team got to her before the bad guys did. But they would. Theyhad
to. There was a reason they'd been chosen to come here, when every agent of Circle Daybreak inNorth America would have been glad to do this job.
They were the best. It was that simple.
They were an odd team-vampire, witch, and shapeshifter-but they were unbeatable. And Keller wasonly seventeen, but she already had a reputation for never losing.
And I'm not about to blow that now, she thought. "This is it, kiddies," she said. "No moretalking until we ID the girl. Good luck." Their transmissions were scrambled, of course, butthere was no point in taking chances. The bad guys were extremely well organized.
Doesn't matter. Well still win, Keller thought, and she paused in her walking long enoughreally to expand her senses.
It was like stepping into a different world. They were senses that a human couldn't evenimagine. Infrared. She saw body heat. Smell. Humans didn't have any sense of smell, not really.Keller could distinguish Coke from Pepsi from across a room. Touch. As a panther, Keller hadexquisitely sensitive hairs all over her body, especially on her face. Even in human form, shecould feel things with ten times the intensity of a real human. She could feel her way in totaldarkness by the air pressure on her skin.
Hearing. She could hear both higher and lower pitches than a human, and she could pinpoint anindividual cough in a crowd. Sight. She had night vision like-well, like a cat's.
Not to mention more than five hundred muscles that she could move voluntarily.
And just now, all her resources were attuned to finding one teenage girl in this swarming mall.Her eyes roved over faces; her ears pricked at the sound of every young voice; her nose sortedthrough thousands of smells for the one that would match the T-shirt she'd taken from Iliana'sroom.
Then, just as she froze, catching a whiff of something familiar, the receiver in her ear cameto life.
"Keller-I spotted her! Hallmark, second floor. But they're here, too."
They'd found her first.
Keller cursed soundlessly. Aloud, she said, "Nissa, bring the car around to the west side ofthe mall. Winnie, don't do anything. I'm coming."
The nearest escalator was at the end of the mall. But from the map in her hand, she could seethat Hallmark was directly above her on the upper level. And she couldn't waste time.
Keller gathered her legs under her and jumped.
One leap, straight up. She ignored the gasps- and a few shrieks-of the people around her as shesprang. At the top of her jump, she caught the railing that fenced off the upper-level walkway.She hung for a second by her hands, then pulled herself up smoothly.
More people were staring. Keller ignored them. They got out of her way as she headed for theHallmark store.
Winnie was standing with her back to the display window of the store beside it. She was short,with a froth of strawberry curls and a pixie face. Keller
edged up to her, careful to keep out of the line of sight of the Hallmark.
"There's three of them," Winnie murmured in a barely audible voice. "Just like Nissa said. Isaw them go in-and then I saw her. They've got her surrounded, but so far they're just talkingto her." She glanced sideways at Keller with dancing green eyes. "Only three-we can take themeasy."
"Yeah, and that's what worries me. Why would they only send three?"
Winnie shrugged slightly. "Maybe they're like us-the best."
Keller only acknowledged that with a flicker of her eyebrows. She was edging forward centimeterby centimeter, trying to get a glimpse of the interior of the Hallmark shop between thestockings and stuffed animals in the display window.
There. Two guys in dark clothing almost like uniforms-vampire thugs. Another guy Keller couldsee only as a partial silhouette through a rack of Christmas ornaments.
And her. Iliana. The girl everybody wanted.
She was beautiful, almost impossibly so. Keller had seen a picture, and it had been beautiful,but now she saw that it hadn't come within miles of conveying the real girl. She had thesilvery-fair hair and violet eyes that showed her Harman blood. She also had an extraordinarydelicacy of features and grace of movement that made her as pretty to watch as a white kittenon the grass. Although Keller knew she was seventeen, she seemed slight and childlike. Almostfairylike. And right now, she was
listening with wide, trusting eyes to whatever the silhouette guy was saying.
To Keller's fury, she couldn't make it out. He must be whispering.
"It's really her," Winnie breathed from beside Keller, awed. "The Witch Child. She looks justlike the legends said, just like I imagined." Her voice turned indignant. "I can't stand towatch them talk to her. It's like-blasphemy."
"Keep your hair on," Keller murmured, still searching with her eyes. "You witches get soemotional about your legends."
"Well, we should. She's not just a Wild Power, she's a pure soul." Winfrith's voice was softlyawed. "She must be so wise, so gentle, so farsighted. I can't wait to talk to her." Her voicesharpened. "And those thugs shouldn't be allowed to talk to her. Come on, Keller, we can take-them fast. Let's
It was too late. Winnie was already moving, heading straight into the shop without any attemptat concealment.
Keller cursed again. But she didn't have any choice now. "Nissa, stand by. Things are going toget exciting," she snapped, touching her pin, and then she followed.
Winnie was walking directly toward the little group of three guys and Iliana as Keller reachedthe door. The guys were looking up, instantly alert. Keller saw their faces and gatheredherself for a leap.
But it never happened. Before she could get all
her muscles ready, the silhouette guy turned-and everything changed.
Time went into slow motion. Keller saw his face clearly, as if she'd had a year to study it. Hewasn't bad-looking-quite handsome, actually. He didn't look much older than she was, and he hadclean, nicely molded features. He had a small, compact body with what looked like hard musclesunder his clothes. His hair was black, shaggy but shiny, almost like fur. It fell over hisforehead in an odd way, a way that looked deliberately disarrayed and was at odds with theneatness of the rest of him.
And he had eyes of obsidian.
Shiny silver-black, with nothing clear or transparent about them. They revealed nothing; theysimply threw light back at anyone who looked into them. They were the eyes of a monster, andevery one of Keller's five hundred voluntary muscles froze in fear.
She didn't need to hear the roar that was far below the pitch that human ears could pick up.She didn't need to see the swirl of dark energy that flared like a red-tinged black aura aroundhim. She knew already, instinctively, and she tried to get the breath to yell a warning toWinnie.
There was no time.
She could only watch as the boy's face turned toward Winnie and power exploded out of him.
He did it so casually. Keller could tell that it was only a flick of his mind, like a horseslapping its tail at a fly. But the dark power slammed into Winnie and sent her flying throughthe air, arms and
legs outstretched, until she hit a wall covered with display plates and clocks. The crash wastremendous.
Winnie! Keller almost yelled it out loud.
Winnie fell behind the cash register counter, out of Keller's line of sight. Keller couldn'ttell if she were alive or not. The cashier who had been standing behind the counter wentrunning and screaming toward the back of the shop. The customers scattered, some following thecashier, some dashing for the exit.
Keller hung in the doorway a second longer as they streamed out around her. Then she reeledaway to stand with her back against the window of the next shop, breathing hard. There werecoils of ice in her guts.
He was a dragon.
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'dpaid him-bribed him-to join their side. Keller didn't even want to imagine what the price mighthave 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 allgone 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 hadbeen 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, notmuch 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 ofthem to do it, vampires and dark witches and ghouls. But this was something in another leaguealtogether. With a dragon on their side, the Night World would easily crush Circle Daybreak andall other forces that wanted to save the humans from the end of the world that was coming. Itwould be no contest.
And as for that little girl in there, Iliana the Witch Child, the Wild Power meant to help savehumankind-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, infront of people. It went against all her most deeply ingrained training. But she didn't havetime to dwell on that.
It felt good. It always did. Painful in a nice way, like the feeling of having a tight bandageremoved. A release.
Her body was changing. For a moment, she didn't feel like anything-she almost had no body. Shewas fluid, a being of pure energy, with no more fixed form than a candle flame. She wasutterly... free.
And then her shoulders were pulling in, and her arms were becoming more sinewy. Her fingerswere 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 thatalways 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 ofother shapeshifters. Even her boots were made of the hide of a dead shifter. Now both werebeing replaced by her own fur, thick black velvet with darker black rosettes. She felt completeand whole in it.
Her arms-now her front legs-dropped to the ground, her paws hitting with a soft but heavythump. Her face prickled with sensitivity; there were long, slender whiskers extending from hercheeks. Her tufted ears twitched alertly.
A rasping growl rose in her chest, trying to escape from her throat. She held it back-that waseasy 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 fromherself to the black-haired boy. She took a step or two forward, her shoulders low. And thenshe jumped.
Swift. Supple. Silent. Her body was in motion. It was a high, bounding leap designed to take avictim without an instant of warning. She landed on the dark boy's back, clinging with razorclaws.
Her jaws clamped on the back of his neck. It was the way panthers killed, by biting through thespine.
The boy yelled in rage and pain, grabbing at her as her weight knocked him to the ground. Itdidn't do any good. Her claws were too deep in his flesh to be shaken off, and her jaws weretightening with bone-crushing pressure. A little blood spilled into her mouth, and she lickedit up automatically with a rough, pointed tongue.
More yelling. She was dimly aware that the vampires were attacking her, trying to wrench heraway, and that the security guards were yelling. She ignored it all. Nothing mattered buttaking the life under her claws.
She heard a sudden rumble from the body beneath her. It was lower in pitch than anything humanears 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 cracklinginto her, searing her. It was the same black power he'd used against Winnie, except that now hehad 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 ametallic taste through her mouth, but it didn't make her let go. She held on grimly, lettingthe 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 ofmindless hatred and evil that seemed to reach back into the mists of time. This creature wasold. And although Keller couldn't tell what he wanted with the present age, she knew what hewas 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. Theseguys 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 couldcrush the skull of a young buffalo. And right now, she could hear muscle crunching, but stillshe 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 tobreak his neck, wrenching it back and forth.
The body underneath her convulsed violently. She could feel the little lapsing in it, theweakening 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 thefumbling way the thugs had. This person was doing it skillfully, touching pressure points tomake her claws retract, even getting a finger into her mouth, under the short front teethbetween the lethal canines.
No! Keller thought. From her panther throat came a short, choking snarl. She lashed out withher 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 itwasn't afraid, despite the fact that she was now scrabbling weakly, still trying to turn hisstomach 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 atonce, 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 blackpanther 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 twisther 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, ofcourse. And those eyes seemed to be blazing with worry and intensity rather than animalferocity.
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 beenpunctured. 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 inthe 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. Thevampire thugs were still alive, too; one was picking up the injured dragon and hauling himaway.
"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 wasstanding 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 andstare with burning eyes.
"No!" a voice beside her said, out loud this time. Galen was jumping up. He got between thevampire and Diana.
The vampire grinned, a particularly nasty grin. "You don't look like a fighter to me, prettyboy."
It wasn't exactly true, Keller thought. Galen wasn't pretty; he was beautiful. With that goldhair and his coloring, he looked like a prince from a storybook. A rather young andinexperienced 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 drawnfeatures softened; her lips parted. Her eyes seemed to quiver with light. She had been coweringaway 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 littleraspy snarls of rage and despair she was making, showing dripping teeth in a red-stainedmuzzle.
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 thetiger 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."
Keller turned her head quickly.
Nissa was standing there, cool and imperturbable as always, one hand on her hip. Her shortmink-colored hair wasn't even ruffled; her eyes, just a shade or two darker, were steady. Andshe was holding an ironwood fighting stick with a very sharp point.
Keller growled faintly in relief. You couldn't ask Nissa to be creative-her mind didn't workthat way. But on any question of logic, she was unbeatable, and she had nerves of ice. Moreimportant right now, she was a superb fighter.
"If you want to play, why don't you try me?" she suggested, and whipped the fighting stickaround expertly a few times. It whistled in the air, traced a complicated figure, and ended upcasually across her shoulder. Then she slowly extended the point toward the vampire's throat.
"Yeah, and don't leave me out." This voice was husky and shaky but still grim. It came frombehind the counter. Winnie was pulling herself up. She coughed once, then stood straight,facing the vampire. Energy, orange and pulsating, flared between her cupped hands. Witch power.
You're alive, Keller thought. She couldn't suppress the flash of relief.
The vampire looked from one girl to the other. Then he glanced at Keller, who was lying on herside, feebly trying to make her legs work. Her tail lashed furiously.
"Come on!" the other vampire shouted. He was staggering under the weight of the dragon, headingfor the door. "Let's get Azhdeha out of here. He's the most important thing."
The first vampire hesitated one instant, then whirled and plunged after his friend. Together,they hustled the dragon out into the mall.
Then they were gone.
Keller gave one final gasping snarl and felt herself change. This time, it felt more like asnail falling out of a shell. Her claws dissolved, her tail withered, and she slumped into herhuman body.
"Boss! Are you okay?" Winnie came toward her, a little unsteadily.
Keller raised her head, black hair falling on either side to the floor. She pushed herself upwith her arms and looked around, taking stock.
The shop was quiet It was also a wreck. Winnie's impact with the wall had knocked off most ofthe decorative plates and clocks there. Keller's fight with the dragon had trashed a lot of theshelves.
There were shattered Christmas ornaments everywhere, little glittering fragments of scarlet andholly green and royal purple. It was like being in a giant kaleidoscope.
And outside, chaos was gathering. The entire fight had only taken about five minutes, but allthe time it had been going on, people had been running away from the shop and screaming. Kellerhad noticed them; she had simply filed them away in her mind as unimportant. There had beennothing she could do about them.
Now, there were security officers closing in, and someone had undoubtedly called the police.
She pushed with her arms again and managed to stand up.
"Nissa." It hurt her throat to speak. "Where's the car?"
"Right down there." Nissa pointed at the floor. "Directly below us, parked outside the Mrs.Fields cookie store."