Witchlight (Chapter 13)
Winnie and Nissa exchanged unhappy glances. But they didn't say anything.
Keller looked at Diana. "The one thing is, you have to be at the Solstice Ceremony at midnight They're meeting in Charlotte, so that's about twenty minutes' drive, and we'd better leave plenty of time for safety. Say an hour at the least. If you're not there, where the shapeshifters and the witches are meeting, at exactly midnight-"
"My coach turns into a pumpkin' Diana said tartly. She swabbed her nose with a tissue.
"No, the shapeshifters walk out, and any chance of an alliance is gone forever."
Diana sobered, stared at the table. Then she met Keller's eyes. 'I'll be there. I know it, and you know why? Because you'll get me there."
Keller stared at her, astonished. She heard Winnie give a short yelp of laughter and saw that Nissa was hiding a smile.
Then she felt a smile pulling up the corner of her own lip. "You're right; I will. Even if I have to drag you. Here, shake on it." They did. And then Diana turned to Galen. She had been watching him out of the corner of her eye ever since she'd first started talking. And now she looked hesitant again.
"If there's anything-any reason I shouldn't do it.. ." She fumbled to a stop. Keller kicked Galen's ankle hard.
He glanced up. He still didn't look like the Galen she knew. Talking about the dragons had done something to him, thrown a shadow across his face and turned his eyes inward. And Diana's announcement hadn't lightened anything.
Keller stared at him intently, wishing she had telepathy. Don't you dare, she was thinking. What's wrong with you? If you mess this up, after all the work we've done and with so much at stake…
Then she realized something. Before, when he'd been telling the history of the dragons, Galen had looked brooding and a little scary. Now, he still looked brooding but unutterably sad. Heart-stricken-and full of such regret.
She could almost hear his voice in her head. Keller, I'm sorry…
Don't be an idiot, Keller thought, and maybe she wasn't telepathic, but she was certain that he could read her eyes. What have you got to be sorry for? Hurry up and do what you're supposed to do. Her heart was pounding, but she kept her breathing tightly controlled. Nothing mattered but Circle Daybreak and the alliance. Nothing. To think of anything else at a time like this would be the height of selfishness.
And love is for the weak.
Galen dropped his eyes, almost as if he had lost a battle. Then he turned slowly from Keller to Diana. Who was standing with tears about to fall, hanging like diamonds on her lashes. Keller felt a twisting inside her chest.
But Galen, as always, was doing exactly the right thing. He took Diana's hand gently and brought it to his cheek in a gesture of humility and simplicity. He could do that without stopping looking noble for a moment. After all, he was a prince. "I'd be very honored to go through the promise ceremony with you," he said, looking up at her. "If you can bring yourself to do it with me. You understand everything I was telling you before- about my family…"
Iliana blinked and breathed again. The tears had magically disappeared, leaving her eyes like violets freshly washed in rain. "I understand all that. It doesn't matter. It doesn't change anything about you, and you're still one of the best people I've ever met." She blinked again and smiled.
Nobody could have resisted it. Galen smiled back.
"Not nearly as good as you."
They stayed that way for a moment, looking at each other, holding hands-and glowing. They looked perfect together, silver and gold, a fairytale picture.
That's it. It's done. She'll have to go through the ceremony now, Keller thought. As long as we can keep her alive, we've recruited a Wild Power. Mission accomplished.
I'm really happy about this.
So why was there a heaviness in her chest that hurt each time she breathed?
It was late that afternoon when the second call came.
"Well, they found the driver of the car," Nissa said.
Keller looked up. They'd moved the box full of scrolls to Diana's bedroom when Mrs. Dominick came back from shopping. Now they had them untidily spread out on the floor while Iliana lay on the bed heavy-eyed and almost asleep. She perked up when Nissa came in.
"Who was it?"
"A shapeshifter. Name of Fulton Arnold. He lives about ten miles from here."
Keller tensed. "Arnold. 'Eagle ruler.'" She glanced at Galen.
He nodded grimly. "The eagles are going to have some explaining to do. Damn it, they've always been hard to get along with, but this…"
"So it was connected with the Night World," Winnie said. "But did Circle Daybreak figure out why?"
Nissa sat down on the chair in front of Iliana's gold-and-white vanity. "Well, they've got an idea." She looked at Galen. "You're not going to like it."
He put down a piece of scroll and sat up very straight, bleak and self-contained. "What?"
"You know all our theories about why shapeshifters are attacking humans? Whether it's just the common 'shifter on the street or orders from the First House and so on? Well, Circle Daybreak thinks it's orders, but not from the First House."
"The shapeshifters wouldn't take orders from vampires," Galen said stiffly. "So the Night World Council is out."
"They think it's the dragon."
Keller shut her eyes and hit herself on the forehead.
Of course. Why hadn't she thought of it? The dragon giving direct orders, setting himself up as a legendary ruler who had returned to save the shapeshifters. "It's like King Arthur coming back," she muttered.
On her bed, Iliana was frowning in shock "But you said dragons were evil. You said they were cruel and horrible and tried to destroy the world."
"Right," Keller said dryly. Only Iliana would think that this constituted a reason not to follow them. "They were all those things. But they were also strong. They kept the shapeshifters on top. I'm sure there are plenty of 'shifters who'd welcome a dragon back." She looked at Galen in growing concern as she figured it out. "They're going to think it means a new era for them, maybe even a return to shapeshifter rule. And if that's what they think, nothing the First House says is going to make any difference. Even the mice are going to rally 'round Azhdeha."
"You mean the promise ceremony is no good?" Iliana sat up. The interesting thing was that she didn't look particularly relieved-in fact, Keller thought, she looked positively dismayed.
"No, so don't even get that idea," Keller said shortly. "What it means is-" She stopped dead, realizing suddenly what it did mean. "What it means is…"
Galen said, "We have to kill the dragon."
Keller nodded. "Yeah. Not just fight it. We have to get rid of it. Make sure it's not around to give orders to anybody. It's the only way to keep the shapeshifters from being split."
Iliana looked down soberly at the snowstorm of paper that covered her floor. "Does any of that stuff tell you how to kill a dragon?"
Keller lifted a piece of parchment, dropped it. "So far, none of this stuff has told us anything useful."
"Yeah, but we haven't even looked through half of it," Winnie pointed out. "And since you and Galen are the only ones who can read the writing, the parts Nissa and I have gone through don't really count."
There was definitely a lot of work left. Keller stifled a sigh and said briskly, "Well, we don't need to worry about killing the dragon right now. If we can fight him off long enough to get through the promise ceremony, we can worry about destroying him afterward. Winnie, why don't you and Nissa start trying to figure out a way to protect Iliana at the party Saturday? And Galen and I can stay up tonight and read through these scrolls."
Winnie looked concerned. "Boss, you're trying to do too much. If you don't sleep sometime, you're going to start cracking up."
I'll sleep on Sunday," Keller said firmly. "When it's all over."
Keller had meant that she and Galen could study the scrolls separately that night. But when everybody else headed for their bedrooms, he stayed in the family room with her and watched the eleven o'clock news. More animal attacks.
Keller pulled out her pile of scroll fragments. It was her way of saying good night, and much easier than looking at him.
But he just said quietly, "I'll get my half," and brought them out.
Keller felt uncomfortable. It wasn't that she could find any fault with what he was doing. He was studying his pieces of scroll intently and letting her do the same.
But every now and then, he would look at her. She could feel his eyes on her, feel that they were serious and steady and that he was waiting for her to look up.
She never did.
And he never said anything. After a while, he would always go back to his parchments. They worked on and on in silence.
Still, Keller was aware of him. She couldn't help it She was a panther; she could sense the heat of his body even three feet away. She could smell him, too, and he smelled good. Clean and a little bit like the soap he used, and even more like himself, which was something warm and golden and healthy. Like a puppy with a nice coat on a summer afternoon.
It was very, very distracting. Sometimes the words on the scrolls blurred in front of her eyes. But worst of all, worse than feeling his heat or smelling his scent or knowing his eyes were on her, was something more subtle that she couldn't exactly define. A connection. A sense of tension between them that she could almost touch. The air was buzzing with it. It lifted up the little hairs on Keller's arms. And no matter how she tried to will it away, it only seemed to grow and grow. Somehow the silence made it worse, made it more profound. I have to say something, Keller thought.
Something casual, to show that I'm not affected.
She stared at the scrolls, which she was beginning to hate. If only she could find something useful… Then she saw it. Right there on the scroll she was studying.
"Galen. There's something here-in a copy of the oldest records about dragons. It's talking about what the dragons can do, what their powers are besides the dark energy."
She read from the scroll, hesitating on words that were less familiar to her. " 'A dragon has only to touch an animal and it is able to assume that animal's form, know all that the animal knows, do all that the animal can do. There is no'-I think it says 'limit'-'on the number of shapes it can master. Therefore, it is a true shapeshifter and the only one worthy of the name.' I told you this stuff was old," she added. "I think the original was written by the dragons' press agent during the war."
" 'No limit on the number of shapes it can master,'" Galen repeated with growing excitement. "That makes sense, you know. That's what the First House has inherited, only in a diluted form. Being able to pick whichever shape we want to become- but only the first time. After that, we're stuck with it, of course."
"Do you have to touch an animal to learn its shape?"
He nodded. "That's how we choose. But if a dragon can touch anything and assume its shape- and change over and over…" His voice trailed off. "Yeah. It's going to be awfully difficult to spot them,"
Keller said. The tension in the air had been somewhat discharged by talking, and she felt a little calmer. At least she could talk without the words sticking in her throat.
But Galen wasn't helping. He leaned closer, peering down at her scroll. "I wonder if it says anything else, anything about how to identify… wait. Keller, look down here at the bottom."
To do it, she had to bend her head so that his hair brushed her cheek. "What?"
"Horns, something about horns," he muttered almost feverishly. "You're better at translating than I am. What's this word?"
" "Regardless'? No, it's more like 'no matter.'" She began to read. " 'But no matter what form it takes, a dragon may always be known-'" " 'By its horns,'" he chimed in, reading with her. They finished together, helping each other. "'A dragon has from one to three horns on its forehead, and in some rare cases four. These horns'"-both their voices rose-" 'which are the seat of its power are most cruelly removed by the witches who capture them, to steal from them the power of changing.'"
They both stopped. They kept staring at the parchment for what seemed endless minutes to
Keller. Galen was gripping her wrist so hard that it hurt.
Then he said softly, "That's it. That's the answer."
He looked up at her and gave her wrist a little shake. "That's the answer. Keller, we did it; we found it."
"Shh! You're going to wake up the whole house." But she was almost as shaky with excitement as he was. "Let me think. Yeah, that guy Azhdeha could have had horns. His hair was all messy, covering his forehead, and I remember thinking that was a little strange. The rest of him looked so neat."
"You see?" He laughed breathlessly, exultantly.
"Yes. But-well, do you have any idea how hard it would be to try and take off a dragon's horns?"
"No, and I don't care. Keller, stop it, stop trying to dampen this! The point is, we found it. We know something about dragons that can hurt them. We know how to fight!"
Keller couldn't help it. His exhilaration was infectious. All at once, all the bottled-up emotions inside her started to come out. She squeezed his arm back, half laughing and half crying.
"You did it," she said. "You found the part."
'It was on your scroll. You were just about to get there."
"You were the one who suggested we look at the scrolls in the first place."
"You were the one-" Suddenly, he broke off. He had been looking at her, laughing, their faces only inches apart as they congratulated each other in whispers. His eyes were like the woods in summertime, golden-green with darker green motes in them that seemed to shift in the light.
But now something hike pain crossed his face. He was still looking at her, still gripping her arm, but his eyes went bleak.
"You're the one," he said quietly.
Keller had to brace herself. Then she said, "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Yes, you do."
He said it so simply, so flatly. There was almost no way to argue.
Keller found one. "Look, Galen, if this is about what happened in the library-"
"At least you're admitting that something happened now."
"-then I don't know what's wrong with you. We're both shapeshifters, and there was a minute when we sort of lost our objectivity. We're under a lot of stress. We had a moment of… physical attraction. It happens, when you do a job like this; you just can't take it seriously."
He was staring at her. "Is that what you've convinced yourself happened? 'A moment of physical attraction?'"
The truth was that Keller had almost convinced herself that nothing had happened-or convinced her mind, anyway.
"I told you," she said, and her voice was harsher than she'd heard it for a long time. "Love is for weak people. I'm not weak, and I don't plan to let anything make me weak. And, besides, what is your problem? You've already got a fianc��e. Diana's brave and kind and beautiful, and she's going to be very, very powerful. What more could you want?"
"You're right," Galen said. "She's all those things. And I respect her and admire her-I even love her. Who could help loving her? But I'm not in love with her. I'm-"
"Don't say it." Keller was angry now, which was good. It made her strong. "What kind of prince would put his personal happiness above the fate of his people? Above the fate of the whole freaking world, for that matter?"
"I don't!" he raged back. He was speaking softly, but it was still a rage, and he was a little bit frightening. His eyes blazed a deep and endless green. "I'm not saying I won't go through with the ceremony. All I'm saying is that it's you I love. You're my soulmate, Keller. And you know it."
Soulmate. The word hit Keller and ricocheted, clunking inside her as it made its way down. When it hit bottom, it settled into a little niche made especially for it, fitting exactly.
It was the word to describe what had really happened in the library. No stress-induced moment of physical attraction and no simple romantic flirtation, either. It was the soulmate principle.
She and Galen were soulmates.
And it didn't matter a bit, because they could never be together.