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 days until 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 and open. And that meant a lot of senses. The glimpses she caught of herself in darkened store windows showed a high-school-aged girl in a sleek jumpsuit, with straight black hair that fell past her hips and cool gray eyes. But she knew that anybody who watched her closely was likely to see something else—a sort of prowling grace in the way she walked and an inner glow when the gray eyes focused on anything.
Raksha Keller didn’t look quite human. Which was hardly surprising, because she wasn’t. She was a shapeshifter, and if people looking at her got the impression of a half-tamed panther on the loose, they were getting it exactly right.
“Okay, everybody.” Keller touched the pin on her collar, then pressed a finger to the nearly invisible 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, but professional. “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 expensive transmission device. “But she’s supposed to love shopping, and her parents said she was headed this 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, driving by the Bingham Street entrance. Nothing to report—wait.” A pause, then the ghostly voice came back with a new tension: “Keller, we’ve got trouble. A black limo just pulled up outside Brody’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, just a boy really. Maybe a shapeshifter. I don’t know for sure; he isn’t like anything I’ve seen
before.” The voice was troubled, and that troubled Keller. Nissa Johnson was a vampire with a brain 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 her lips. Winfrith Arlin was Nissa’s opposite—a witch and inclined to be emotional. Her odd sense of 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 that she had the blood of witches in her and that she was one of the four Wild Powers destined to fight 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. They had to. There was a reason they’d been chosen to come here, when every agent of Circle Daybreak in North 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 was only 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 more talking until we ID the girl. Good luck.” Their transmissions were scrambled, of course, but there was no point in taking chances. The bad guys were extremely well organized.
Doesn’t matter. We’ll still win, Keller thought, and she paused in her walking long enough really to expand her senses.
It was like stepping into a different world. They were senses that a human couldn’t even imagine. 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 had exquisitely sensitive hairs all over her body, especially on her face. Even in human form, she could feel things with ten times the intensity of a real human. She could feel her way in total darkness by the air pressure on her skin.
Hearing. She could hear both higher and lower pitches
than a human, and she could pinpoint an individual 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 sorted through thousands of smells for the one that would match the T-shirt she’d taken from Iliana’s room.
Then, just as she froze, catching a whiff of something familiar, the receiver in her ear came to 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 of the 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 see that 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 she sprang. 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 the Hallmark 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. I saw them go in—and then I saw her. They’ve got her surrounded, but so far they’re just talking to her.” She glanced sideways at Keller with dancing green eyes. “Only three—we can take them easy.”
“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 centimeter by centimeter, trying to get a glimpse of the interior of the Hallmark shop between the stockings and stuffed animals in the display window.
There. Two guys in dark clothing almost like uniforms—vampire thugs. Another guy Keller could see 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
the silvery-fair hair and violet eyes that showed her Harman blood. She also had an extraordinary delicacy of features and grace of movement that made her as pretty to watch as a white kitten on the grass. Although Keller knew she was seventeen, she seemed slight and childlike. Almost fairylike. 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 just like the legends said, just like I imagined.” Her voice turned indignant. “I can’t stand to watch them talk to her. It’s like—blasphemy.”
“Keep your hair on,” Keller murmured, still searching with her eyes. “You witches get so emotional about your legends.”
“Well, we should. She’s not just a Wild Power, she’s a pure soul.” Winfrith’s voice was softly awed. “She must be so wise, so gentle, so farsighted. I can’t wait to talk to her.” Her voice sharpened. “And those thugs shouldn’t be allowed to talk to her. Come on, Keller, we can take them fast. Let’s go.”
It was too late. Winnie was already moving, heading straight into the shop without any attempt at concealment.
Keller cursed again. But she didn’t have any choice now. “Nissa, stand by. Things are going to get 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 reached the door. The guys were looking up, instantly alert. Keller saw their faces and gathered herself 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. He wasn’t bad-looking—quite handsome, actually. He didn’t look much older than she was, and he had clean, nicely molded features. He had a small, compact body with what looked like hard muscles under his clothes. His hair was black, shaggy but shiny, almost like fur. It fell over his forehead in an odd way, a way that looked deliberately disarrayed and was at odds with the neatness of the rest of him.
And he had eyes of obsidian.
Shiny silver-black, with nothing clear or transparent about them. They revealed nothing; they simply threw light back at anyone who looked into them. They were the eyes of a monster, and every 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 around him. She knew already, instinctively, and she tried to get the breath to yell a warning to Winnie.
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 horse slapping its tail at a fly. But the dark power slammed into Winnie and sent her flying through the air, arms and legs outstretched, until she hit a wall covered with display plates and clocks. The crash was tremendous.
Winnie! Keller almost yelled it out loud.
Winnie fell behind the cash register counter, out of Keller’s line of sight. Keller couldn’t tell if she were alive or not. The cashier who had been standing behind the counter went running and screaming toward the back of the shop. The customers scattered, some following the cashier, some dashing for the exit.
Keller hung in the doorway a second longer as they streamed out around her. Then she reeled away to stand with her back against the window of the next shop, breathing hard. There were coils of ice in her guts.
He was a dragon.