Witchlight (Chapter 9)
She did it on the leap this time. Rushing the process along, pushing it from behind. She wanted to be entirely a panther by the time she landed on the girl's back.
But some things can't be rushed. She felt herself begin to liquefy and flow… formlessness… pleasure… the utter freedom of not being bound to any single physical shape. Then reformation, a stretching of all her cells as they reached to become something different, to unfurl like butterfly wings into a new kind of body.
Her jumpsuit misted into the fur that ran along her body, up and down from the stomach in front, straight down from the nape of her neck in back. Her ears surged and then firmed up, thin-skinned, rounded, and twitching already. From the base of her spine, her tail sprang free, its slightly clubbed end whipping eagerly.
That was how she landed.
She knocked the girl cleanly over, and they both went rolling on the floor. When they stopped, Keller was crouching on the girl's stomach.
She didn't want to kill the girl. She needed to find some things out first. What kind of Night Person the girl was, and who'd sent her.
The only problem was that now, as she knelt with her hands gripping the girl's arms, staring into dark blue eyes under soft brown- bangs, she couldn't sense anything of the Night World in the girl's life energy.
Shapeshifters were the uncontested best at that. They could tell a human from a Night Person nine times out of ten. And this girl wasn't even in the "maybe" range. She was giving off purely human signals.
Not to mention screaming. Her mouth was wide open, and so were her eyes, and so were her pupils. Her skin had gone blue-white like someone about to faint. She looked utterly bewildered and horrified, and she wasn't making a move to fight back.
Keller's heart sank.
But if the girl was human and harmless, why hadn't she listened when Keller had shouted at her? "Boss, we have to shut her up." It was Winnie, yelling above the girl's throaty screams. As usual, Nissa didn't say a word, but she was the one who shut the music room door. By then, Keller had recovered enough to put a hand over the girl's mouth. The screaming stopped.
Then she looked at the others.
They were staring at her. Wide-eyed. Keller felt like a kitten with its paw in the canary cage. Here she was, sitting on this human girl's midriff, in her half-and-half form. Her ears and tail were a panther's, and she was clothed from her snug boots to her shoulders in fur. It fit her like a black velvet jumpsuit, a sleeveless one that left her arms and neck bare. The hair on her head was still a human's and swirled around her to touch the floor on every side.
Her face was human, too, except for the pupils of her eyes, which were narrow ovals, reacting to every change of light and shadow. And her teeth. Her canines had become delicately pointed, giving her just the slightest hint of fangs.
She blinked at Galen, not sure what she saw in his expression. He was definitely staring at her, and there was some strong emotion pulling his face taut and making that white line around his mouth.
Horror? Disgust? He was a shapeshifter himself-or he would be if he could ever make up his mind. He'd seen her in panther form. Why should he be shocked at this?
The answer flashed back at Keller from some deep part of her brain. Only because I'm a monster this way. Panthers are part of nature and can't be blamed for what they do. I'm a savage thing that doesn't manage to be either an animal or a person.
And I'm dangerous in this form. Neither half of me is really in control.
Someone who's never changed could never understand that.
Galen took a step toward her. His jaw was tense, but his gold-green eyes were fixed on hers, and his hand was slightly lifted. Keller wondered if it was the gesture of a hostage negotiator. He opened his mouth to say something.
And Iliana came to life, jumping up and running past him and shrieking at Keller all at once.
"What are you doing? That's Jaime! What are you doing to her?"
"You know her?"
"That's Jaime Ashton-Hughes! She's Brett's sister! And she's one of my best friends! And you attacked her! Are you all right?"
It was all shrieked at approximately the same decibel level, but on the last sentence, Iliana looked down at Jaime.
Keller moved her palm from Jaime's mouth. As it turned out, though, that didn't seem to be necessary. Jaime raised her free hand and began to make swift, fluid gestures at Iliana with it.
Keller stared, and then her insides plummeted.
She let go of the girl's other arm, and the gestures immediately became two-handed.
Oh. Oh… darn.
Keller could feel her ears flatten backward. She looked unhappily at Iliana.
"She's got a hearing impairment!" Iliana glared at Keller, all the while making gestures back at Jaime. Her motions were awkward and stilted compared to Jaime's, but she clearly had some idea what she was doing.
"I didn't realize."
"What difference does it make how well she can hear?" Diana yelled. "She's my friend! She's president of the senior class! She's chair for the Christmas Benefit bazaar! What did she do to you, ask you to buy a teddy bear?"
Keller sighed. Her tail was tucked up close to her body, almost between her legs, and her ears were flatter than ever. She climbed off Jaime, who immediately scooted backward and away from her, still talking rapidly with her hands to Diana.
"The difference," Keller said, "is that she didn't stop when I told her to. I yelled at her, but… I didn't realize. Look, just tell her I'm sorry, will you?"
'You tell her! Don't talk about her as if she isn't here. Jaime can lip-read just fine if you bother to face her." Diana turned to Jaime again. "I'm sorry. Please don't be mad. This is terrible-and I don't know how to explain. Can you breathe now?"
Jaime nodded slowly. Her dark blue eyes slid to Keller, then back to Diana. She spoke in a hushed voice. Although it was flat in tone and some of the sounds were indistinct, it was actually rather pleasant. And the words were perfectly understandable.
"What… is it?" she asked Diana. Meaning Keller.
But then, before Diana could answer, Jaime caught herself. She bit her lip, looked at the floor for a moment, then braced herself and looked at Keller again. She was frightened, her body was shrinking, but this time her eyes met Keller's directly.
"What… are you?"
Keller opened her mouth and shut it again.
A hand closed on her shoulder. It was warm, and it exerted brief pressure for an instant. Then it pulled away, maybe as if revolted because it was resting on fur.
"She's a person," Galen said, kneeling down beside Jaime. "She may look a little different right now, but she's as much of a person as you are. And you have to believe that she didn't mean to hurt you. She made a mistake. She thought you were an enemy, and she reacted."
"An enemy?" There was something about Galen. Jaime had relaxed almost as soon as he got down on her level. Now she was talking to him freely, her hands flying gracefully as she spoke aloud, emphasizing her words. Her face was pretty when it wasn't blue with suffocation, Keller noticed. "What are you talking about? What kind of enemy? Who are you people? I haven't seen you around school before."
"She thought-well, she thought you were going to hurt Diana. There are some people who are trying to do that."
Jaime's face changed. "Hurt Diana? Who? They'd better not even try!"
Winnie had been twitching throughout this. Now she muttered, "Boss…"
"It doesn't matter," Keller said quietly. "Nissa's going to have to blank her memory anyway." It was too bad, in a way, because this girl's reaction to the Night World was one of the most sensible Keller had ever seen. But it couldn't be helped.
Keller didn't look at Diana as she spoke; she
knew there was going to be an argument. But before it started, she had one final thing to say.
"Jaime?" She moved and got instant attention. "I'm sorry. Really. I'm sorry I frightened you. And I'm really sorry if I hurt you." She stood up, not waiting to see if she was forgiven. What difference did it make? What was done was already done, and what was about to happen was inevitable. She didn't expect to be forgiven, and she didn't care.
That was what she told herself, anyway.
Diana did argue. Keller tried not to let Jaime see much of it, because that would only make her more scared and miserable, and the end really was inescapable. Leaving her memory intact would be dangerous not only for Iliana but for Jaime herself.
"It's death for a human to find out about the Night World," Keller said flatly. "And it's worse than death if the dragon and his friends think she's got any information about the Wild Power. You don't want to know what they'll do to try and get it out of her, Iliana. I promise you don't."
And, finally, Iliana gave in, as Keller had known she would have to from the beginning. Nissa moved up behind Jaime like a whisper and a shadow and touched her on the side of her neck.
Although witches were the experts at brainwashing, at inserting new ideas and convictions, vampires were the best at wiping the slate clean. They didn't use spells. It was something they were born with, the power to put their victim into a trance and smooth away hours or even days of memoiy. Jaime looked into Nissa's silvery-brown eyes for maybe seventy seconds, and then her own blue eyes shut, and her body went limp. Galen caught her as she feU.
"She'll wake up in a few minutes. It's probably best if we leave her here and get out," Nissa said. "Lunch is over, anyway," Keller said. In the quiet minutes while Jaime was being hypnotized, Keller had finally managed to convince her body that there was no danger. It was only then that she could relax enough to change back.
Her ears collapsed, her tail retracted. Her fur misted into jumpsuit and skin. She blinked twice, noticing the difference in brightness as her pupils changed, and the tips of her fangs melted into ordinary teeth. She stood up, shifting her shoulders to get used to the human body again.
They were all subdued as they escorted Iliana back to classes. The quietest of all was Keller.
She had overreacted, let her animal senses throw her into a panic. It wasn't the first time in her life. The first time in her life had been when she was about three… but better not to think about that. Anyway, it wasn't even the first time in her career as an agent for Circle Daybreak.
An agent had to be ready for anything at any moment. Had to have radar running, in front, in back, and on all sides, all the time, and be prepared to react instinctively at the slightest stimulus. If that sometimes caused mistakes-well, it also saved lives.
And she wasn't sorry. If she had to do it over, she'd do it again. Better one nice brown-haired girl scared than Iliana hurt. Better, Keller thought with
bleak defiance, one nice brown-haired girl killed than Iliana in the hands of the enemy. Iliana represented the future of the entire daylight world.
Maybe she was getting too old for this kind of job. Or maybe too jumpy.
Iliana sat moodily during afternoon classes, like a fairy who'd lost her flower. Keller noticed Winnie and Nissa being extra vigilant-just in case their boss got preoccupied. She flashed them a sarcastic look. "You waiting for me to slack off?" She poked Nissa in the ribs. "Don't hold your breath."
They smiled, knowing they'd been thanked.
Keller didn't want to think about Galen. He sat quietly but intently through each class, and she could tell his senses were expanded. He didn't try to speak to her, didn't even look at her. But Keller noticed that every so often he rubbed his palm against his jeans.
And she remembered the way his hand had pulled back from her shoulder. As if he'd touched something hot.
Or something repulsive…
Keller gritted her teeth and stared at various blackboards with dry and burning eyes.
When the last bell finally rang, she made the whole group wait in the chemistry classroom while the school emptied out. Iliana watched and silently steamed as her friends all left without her. Even the teacher packed up and disappeared.
"Can we go now?"
"No." Keller stood at the second-story window, looking down. All right, so I'm a tyrant, she thought. A nasty, unsympathetic, whip-wielding dictator who jumps on innocent girls and won't let people out of school. I like being that way.
Iliana wouldn't argue. She stood rigidly a few feet away, looking out the window herself but refusing to acknowledge Keller's presence.
Finally, Keller said, "All right. Nissa, get the car."
Galen said, "I'll do it."
The answer to that, of course, was, "No way." But Galen was going on.
"It's something useful I can do. I've been standing around all day, wishing I was trained at something. At least driving I can handle. And if anybody comes after me, I can run fast."
The answer to that was still no. But Keller couldn't bring herself to say it, because she couldn't bring herself to face him for a long debate. She was afraid of what she might see in the depths of those gold-green eyes.
It would be funny if she'd managed to turn the prince of the shapeshifters off from shapeshifting altogether. Wouldn't it?
"Go on," she said to Galen, still looking down onto the circular driveway in front of the school. After he had gone, she said to Nissa, "Follow him."
That was how everyone happened to be where they were in the next few minutes.
Keller and Iliana were at the window, staring out at a cool gray sky. Winnie was at the door to the chemistry room, watching the hallway. Galen was a floor beneath them somewhere inside the school, and Nissa was a discreet distance behind him. And standing beside the circular driveway, obviously waiting for a ride, was a girl with familiar brown hair. She was reading a book that didn't look like a textbook.
It all happened very fast, but there were still distinct stages of warning. Keller was aware of them all. The first thing she noticed was a blue-green car that cruised down the street in front of the high school. It was going slowly, and she narrowed her eyes, trying to catch a glimpse of the driver.
She couldn't The car passed on.
I should make her get away from the window, Keller thought. This wasn't as obvious a conclusion as it seemed. The Night People weren't in the habit of using sharpshooters to pick off their targets.
But it was still probably a good idea. Keller was tiredly opening her mouth to say it when something caught her attention.
The blue-green car was back. It was at the exit of the circular driveway, stopped but facing the wrong way, as if it were about to enter.
As Keller watched, it revved its engine.
Keller felt her hairs prickle.
But it didn't make any sense. Why on earth would Night People want to park there and draw attention to themselves? It had to be some human kids acting up.
Hiana was frowning. She had stopped tracing
patterns in the dust on the windowsill. "Who's that? I don't know that car."
The car roared again and started moving. Coming the wrong way along the driveway.
And Jaime, right below them, didn't look up.
Diana realized at the same time Keller did.
"Jaime!" She screamed it and pounded the window with one small fist. It didn't do the slightest good, of course.
Beside her, Keller stood frozen and furious.
The car was picking up speed, heading straight for Jaime.
There was nothing to do. Nothing. Keller could never get down there fast enough. It was all going to be over in a second.
But it was horrible. That giant metal thing, tons of steel, was going to hit about a hundred and ten pounds of human flesh.
"Jaime!" It was a scream torn from Diana.
Below, Jaime finally looked up. But it was too late.