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The Return: Midnight (Chapter 13)

Elena, sleeping serenely with one hand locked onto Stefan's, knew she was having an extraordinary dream. No, not a dream – an out-of-body experience. But it wasn't like her previous out-of-body visits to Stefan in his cel . She was skimming through the air so quickly that she couldn't real y make out what was below her.

She looked around and suddenly, to her astonishment, another figure appeared beside her.

"Bonnie!"she said – or rather tried to say. But of course there was no sound. Bonnie looked like a transparent edition of herself. As if someone had created her out of blown glass, and then put in just the faintest tint of color in her hair and eyes.

Elena tried telepathy. Bonnie?

Elena! Oh, I miss you and Meredith so much! I'm stuck here in a hole –

A hole? Elena could hear the panic in her own telepathy. It made Bonnie wince.

Not a real hole. A dive. An inn, I guess, but I'm locked in and they only feed me twice a day and take me to the toilet once –

My God! How did you get there?

Well… Bonnie hesitated. I guess it was my own fault.

It doesn't matter! How long have you been there, exactly?

Um, this is my second day. I think.

There was a pause. Then Elena said, Well, a couple of days in a bad place can seem like forever.

Bonnie tried to make her case clearer. It's just that I'm so bored and lonely. I miss you and Meredith so much! she repeated.

I was thinking of you and Meredith, too, Elena said.

But Meredith's there with you, isn't she? Oh my God, she didn't fall, too? Bonnie blurted.

No, no! She didn't fall. Elena couldn't decide whether to tel Bonnie about Meredith or not. Maybe not just yet, she thought.

She couldn't see what she was rushing toward, although she could feel that they were slowing down. Can you see anything?

Hey, yeah, below us! There's a car! Should we go down?

Of course. Can we hold hands?

They found that they couldn't, but that just trying to kept them closer together. In another moment they were sinking through the roof of a smal car.

Hey! It's Alaric! Bonnie said.

Alaric Saltzman was Meredith's engaged-to-be-engaged boyfriend. He was about twenty-three now, and his sandy-blond hair and hazel eyes hadn't changed since Elena had seen him almost ten months ago. He was a parapsychologist at Duke, going for his doctorate.

We've been trying to get hold of him for ages, Bonnie said.

I know. Maybe this is the way we're supposed to contact him.

W here is he supposed to be again?

Some weird place in Japan. I forget what it's called, but look at the map on the passenger seat.

She and Bonnie intermingled as they did, their ghostly forms passing right through each other.

Unmei no Shima: The Island of Doom, was written at the top of an outline of an island. The map beside him had a large red X on it with the caption: The Field of Punished Virgins.

The what? Bonnie asked indignantly. What's that mean?

I don't know. But look, this fog is real fog. And it's raining.

And this road is terrible.

Bonnie dove outside. Ooh, so weird. The rain's going right through me. And I don't think this is a road.

Elena said, Come back in and look at this. There aren't any other cities on the island, just a name. Dr. Celia Connor, forensic pathologist.

What's a forensic pathologist?

I think, Elena said, that they investigate murders and things.

And they dig up dead people to find out why they died.

Bonnie shuddered. I don't think I like this very much.

Neither do I. But look outside. This was a village once, I think.

There was almost nothing left of the vil age. Just a few ruins of wooden buildings that were obviously rotting, and some tumbledown, blackened stone structures. There was one large building with an enormous bright yel ow tarp over it.

When the car reached this building, Alaric skidded to a stop, grabbed the map and a smal suitcase, and dashed through the rain and mud to get under cover. Elena and Bonnie fol owed.

He was met near the entrance by a very young black woman, whose hair was cut short and sleek around her elfin face.

She was smal , not even Elena's height. She had eyes dancing with excitement and white, even teeth that made for a Hol ywood smile.

"Dr. Connor?"Alaric said, looking awed.

Meredith isn't going to like this, Bonnie said.

"Just Celia, please,"the woman said, taking his hand. "Alaric Saltzman, I presume."

"Just Alaric, please – Celia."

Meredith real y isn't going to like this, Elena said.

"So you're the spook investigator,"Celia was saying below them. "Well, we need you. This place has spooks – or did once. I don't know if they're stil here or not."

"Sounds interesting."

"More like sad and morbid. Sad and weird and morbid. I've excavated al sorts of ruins, especial y those where there's a chance of genocide. And I'l tel you: This island is unlike any place I have ever seen,"Celia said.

Alaric was already pul ing things from his case, a thick stack of papers, a smal camcorder, a notebook. He turned on the camcorder, and looked through the viewfinder, then propped it up with some of the papers. When he apparently had Celia in focus, he grabbed the notebook too.

Celia looked amused. "How many ways do you need to take down information?"

Alaric tapped the side of his head and shook it sadly. "As many as possible. Neurons are beginning to go."He looked around. "You're not the only one here, are you?"

"Except for the janitor and the guy who ferries me back to Hokkaido, yes. It started out as a normal expedition – there were fourteen of us. But one by one, the others have died or left. I can't even re-bury the specimens – the girls – we've excavated."

"And the people who left or died from your expedition – "

"Well, at first people died. Then that and the other spooky stuff made the rest leave. They were frightened for their lives."

Alaric frowned. "Who died first?"

"Out of our expedition? Ronald Argyl . Pottery specialist. He was examining two jars that were found – Well, I'l skip that story until later. He fel off a ladder and broke his neck."

Alaric's eyebrows went up. "That was spooky?"

"From a guy like him, who's been in the business for almost twenty years – yes."

"Twenty years? Maybe a heart attack? And then off the ladder – boom."Alaric made a downward gesture.

"Maybe that's the way it was. You may be able to explain al our little mysteries for us."The chic woman with the short hair dimpled like a tomboy. She was dressed like one too, Elena realized: Levi's and a blue and white shirt with the sleeves rol ed up over a white camisole.

Alaric gave a little start, as if he'd realized he was guilty of staring. Bonnie and Elena looked at each other over his head.

"But what happened to al the people who lived on the island in the first place? The ones who built the houses?"

"Well, there never were that many of them in the first place.

I'm guessing the place may even have been named the Island of Doom before this disaster my team was investigating. But as far as I could find out it was a sort of war

– a civil war. Between the children and the adults."

This time when Bonnie and Elena looked at each other, their eyes were both wide. Just like home – Bonnie began, but Elena said, Sh. Listen.

"A civil war between kids and their parents?"Alaric repeated slowly. "Now that is spooky."

"Well, it's a process of elimination. You see, I like graves, constructed or just holes in the ground. And here, the inhabitants don't appear to have been invaded. They didn't die of famine or drought – there was stil plenty of grain in the granary. There were no signs of il ness. I've come to believe that they all killed one another – parents kil ing children; children kil ing parents."

"But how can you tel ?"

"You see this square-ish area on the periphery of the vil age?"Celia pointed to an area on a larger map than Alaric's. "That's what we cal The Field of Punished Virgins.

It's the only place that has careful y constructed actual graves, so it was made early in what became a war. Later, there was no time for coffins – or no one who cared. So far we've excavated twenty-two female children – the eldest in her late teens."

"Twenty-two girls? Al girls?"

"Al girls in this area. Boys came later, when coffins were no longer being made. They're not as well preserved, because the houses al burned or fel in, and they were exposed to weathering. The girls were careful y, sometimes elaborately, buried; but the markings on their bodies indicate that they were subjected to harsh physical punishment at some time close to their deaths. And then – they had stakes driven through their hearts."

Bonnie's fingers flew to her eyes, as if to ward off a terrible vision. Elena watched Alaric and Celia grimly.

Alaric gulped. "They were staked?"he asked uneasily.

"Yes. Now I know what you'l be thinking. But Japan doesn't have any tradition of vampires. Kitsune – foxes – are probably the closest analog."

Now Elena and Bonnie were hovering right over the map.

"And do kitsunes drink blood?"

"Just kitsune. The Japanese language has an interesting way of expressing plurals. But to answer your question: no. They are legendary tricksters, and one example of what they do is possess girls and women, and lead men to destruction – into bogs, and so on. But here – Well, you can almost read it like a book."

"You make it sound like one. But not one I'd pick up for pleasure,"Alaric said, and they both smiled bleakly.

"So, to go on with the book, it seems that this disease spread eventual y to al the children in the town. There were deadly fights. The parents somehow couldn't even get to the fishing boats in which they might have escaped the island."

Elena – I know. At least Fell's Church isn't on an island.

"And then there's what we found at the town shrine. I can show you that – it's what Ronald Argyl died for."

They both got up and went farther into the building until Celia stopped beside two large urns on pedestals with a hideous thing in between them. It looked like a dress, weathered until it was almost pure white, but sticking through holes in the clothing were bones. Most horribly, one bleached and fleshless bone hung down from the top of one of the urns.

"This is what Ronald was working on in the field before al this rain came,"Celia explained. "It was probably the last death of the original inhabitants and it was suicide."

"How can you possibly know that?"

"Let's see if I can get this right from Ronald's notes. The priestess here doesn't have any other damage than that which caused her death. The shrine was a stone building –

once. When we got here we found only a floor, with al the stone steps tumbled apart every which way. Hence Ronald's use of the ladder. It gets quite technical, but Ronald Argyl was a great forensic pathologist and I trust his reading of the story."

"Which is?"Alaric was taking in the jars and the bones with his camcorder.

"Someone – we don't know who – smashed a hole in each of the jars. This is before the chaos started. The town records make note of it as an act of vandalism, a prank done by a child. But long after that the hole was sealed and the jars made almost airtight again, except where the priestess had her hands plunged in the top up to the wrist."

With infinite care, Celia lifted the top off the jar that did not have a bone hanging from it – to reveal another pair of longish bones, slightly less bleached, and with strips of what must have been clothing on it. Tiny finger bones lay inside the jar.

"What Ronald thought was that this poor woman died as she performed a last desperate act. Clever, too, if you see it from their perspective. She cut her wrists – you can see how the tendon is shriveled in the better-preserved arm – and then she let the entire contents of her bloodstream flow into the urns. We do know that the urns show a heavy precipitation of blood on the bottom. She was trying to lure something in – or perhaps something back in. And she died trying, and the clay that she had probably hoped to use in her last conscious moments held her bones to the jars."

"Whew!"Alaric ran a hand over his forehead, but shivered at the same time.

Take pictures! Elena was mental y commanding him, using al her wil power to transmit the order. She could see that Bonnie was doing the same, eyes shut, fists clenched.

As if in obedience to their commands, Alaric was taking pictures as fast as he could.

Final y, he was done. But Elena knew that without some outside impetus there was no way that he was going to get those pictures to Fel 's Church until he himself came to town – and even Meredith didn't know when that would be.

So what do we do? Bonnie asked Elena, looking anguished.

Well…my tears were real when Stefan was in prison.

You want us to cry on him?

No, Elena said, not quite patiently. But we look like ghosts –

let's act like them. Try blowing on the back of his neck.

Bonnie did, and they both watched Alaric shiver, look around him, draw his windbreaker closer.

"And what about the other deaths in your own expedition?"he asked, huddling, looking around apparently aimlessly.

Celia began speaking but neither Elena nor Bonnie was listening. Bonnie kept blowing on Alaric from different directions, herding him to the single window in the building that wasn't shattered. There Elena had written with her finger on the darkened cold glass. Once she knew that Alaric was looking that way she blew her breath across the sentence: send all pix of jars 2 meredith now! Every time Alaric approached the window she breathed on it to refresh the words.

And at last he saw it.

He jumped backward nearly two feet. Then he slowly crept back to the window. Elena refreshed the writing for him. This time, instead of jumping, he simply ran a hand over his eyes and then slowly peeked out again.

"Hey, Mr. Spook-chaser,"said Celia. "Are you al right?"

"I don't know,"Alaric admitted. He passed his hand over his eyes again, but Celia was coming and Elena didn't breathe on the window.

"I thought I saw a – a message to send copies of the pictures of these jars to Meredith."

Celia raised an eyebrow. "Who is Meredith?"

"Oh. She – she's one of my former students. I suppose this would interest her."He looked down at the camcorder.

"Bones and urns?"

"Well, you were interested in them quite young, if your reputation is correct."

"Oh, yes. I loved to watch a dead bird decay, or find bones and try to figure out what animal they were from,"Celia said, dimpling again. "From the age of six. But I wasn't like most girls."

"Well  – neither is Meredith,"Alaric said.

Elena and Bonnie were eyeing each other seriously now.

Alaric had implied that Meredith was special, but he hadn't said it, and he hadn't mentioned their engagement to be engaged.

Celia came closer. "Are you going to send her the pictures?"

Alaric laughed. "Well, al this atmosphere and everything – I don't know. It might just have been my imagination."

Celia turned away just as she reached him and Elena blew once more across the message. Alaric threw his hands up in a gesture of surrender.

"I don't suppose the Island of Doom has satel ite coverage,"he said helplessly.

"Nope,"Celia said. "But the ferry wil be back in a day, and you can send pictures then – if you're real y going to do it."

"I think I'd better do it,"Alaric said. Elena and Bonnie were both glaring at him, one from each side.

But that was when Elena's eyelids started to droop. Oh, Bonnie, I'm sorry. I wanted to talk to you after this, and make sure you're okay. But I'm falling…I can't…

She managed to pry her lids open. Bonnie was in a fetal position, fast asleep.

Be careful, Elena whispered, not even sure who she was whispering it to. And as she floated away, she was aware of Celia and the way Alaric was talking to this beautiful, accomplished woman only a year or so older than he was.

She felt a distinct fear for Meredith, on top of everything else.

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