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The Return: Midnight (Chapter 25)

"Sleeping in the storage room with every wal covered in Post-it Note amulets,"added Meredith grimly. "If we have enough. I got another packet, but it doesn't go very far when you're trying to cover a room."

"Okay,"Elena said. "Who's got Shinichi's key?"

Matt raised his hand. "In my – "

"Don't tel me!"exclaimed Elena. "I've got hers. We can't lose them. Stefan and I are one team; you guys are the other."

They half-led and half-supported Misao out of Stefan's room and down the stairs. Misao didn't try to run away from them, to struggle, or to speak to them. This only made Matt more suspicious of her. He saw Stefan and Elena glance toward each other and knew they were feeling the same way.

But what else was there to do with her? There was no other way, humanely, or even inhumanely, to restrain her for days.

They had her star bal , and according to books that was supposed to al ow them to control her, but she was right, it seemed to be an obsolete notion, because it didn't work.

They'd tried with Stefan and Meredith holding her tightly, while Matt got the star bal from where he'd been keeping it in a shoebox on the upper shelf above the clothes in his closet.

He and Elena had tried to get Misao to do things while holding the almost empty sphere: to make Misao tel where her brother's star bal was, and so on. But it simply didn't work.

"Maybe when there's so little Power in it, it doesn't apply,"Elena said final y. But that was smal comfort at best.

As they took Misao to the kitchen, Matt thought that it had been a stupid plan of the kitsune: imitating Stefan twice.

Doing it the second time, when the humans were on guard, that was stupid. Misao didn't seem as stupid as that.

Matt had a bad feeling.

Elena had a very bad feeling about what they were doing. As she looked around at the faces of the others, she saw that they did too. But nobody had come up with a better plan.

They couldn't kil Misao. They weren't murderers who could kil a sickly, passive girl in cold blood.

She figured that Shinichi must have very keen hearing, and had already heard them walking on the creaking kitchen floorboards. And she had to assume that he knew – by mindbond, or just logic, or whatever – that Misao was right above him. There was nothing to lose by shouting, through the closed door, "Shinichi, we've got your sister here! If you want her back you'l stay quiet and not make us throw her down the stairs."

There was silence from the root cel ar. Elena chose to think of it as submissive silence. At least Shinichi wasn't yel ing threats.

"Okay,"Elena whispered. She'd taken a position directly behind Misao. "When I count to three, we push as hard as we can."

"Wait!"Matt said in a miserable whisper-shout. "You said we wouldn't throw her down the stairs."

"Life isn't fair,"Elena said grimly. "You think he doesn't have some surprise for us?"

"But – "

"Leave it, Matt,"said Meredith quietly. She had the stave ready in her left hand and with her right was ready to push on the panel for opening the door. "Everybody ready?"

Everyone nodded. Elena felt sorry for Matt and Stefan, who were the most honest and sensitive of al of them.

"One,"she whispered softly, "two, three."

On three Meredith hit the concealed wal switch. And then things began to happen in very slow motion.

By "two"Elena had already begun to shove Misao toward the door. On "three"the others joined her.

But the door seemed to take forever to open. And before the ending of forever, everything went wrong.

The greenery around Misao's head spread twigs in al directions. One strand shot out and snagged Elena around the wrist. She heard a yel of outrage from Matt and knew that another strand had gotten him.

"Push!" Meredith shouted and then Elena saw the stave coming at her. Meredith whisked with the stave through the greenery connected to Misao. The vine that had been cutting into Elena's wrist fel to the floor.

Any remaining misgivings about throwing Misao down the stairs vanished. Elena joined in the crowd trying to push her through the opening. But there was something wrong in the basement. For one thing, they were shoving Misao into pitch-darkness…and movement.

The basement was ful of – something. Some things.

Elena looked down at her ankle and was horrified to see a gigantic maggot that seemed to have crawled out of the root cel ar. Or at least a maggot was the first thing she could think of to compare it to – maybe it was a headless slug. It was translucent and black and about a foot long, but far too fat for her to have put a hand around it. It seemed to have two ways of moving, one by the familiar hunch-and-straighten method and the other by simply sticking to other maggots, which were exploding up over Elena's head like a hideous fountain.

Elena looked up and wished she hadn't.

There was a cobra waving over them, out of the root cel ar and into the kitchen. It was a cobra made of black translucent maggots stuck together, and every so often one would fal off and land among the group and there would be a cry.

If Bonnie had been with them, she would have screamed until the wineglasses in the cupboards shattered, Elena thought wildly. Meredith was trying to attack the cobra with the stave and reach into her jeans pocket for Post-it Notes at the same time.

"I'l get the notes,"Elena gasped, and wriggled her hand into Meredith's pocket. Her fingers closed on a smal sheaf of cards and she tugged it out triumphantly.

Just then the first glistening fat maggot fel on her bare skin.

She wanted to scream with pain as its little feet or teeth or suckers – whatever kept it attached to her – burned and stung. She pul ed a thin card from the sheaf, which was not a Post-it Note but the same amulet on a smal rather flimsy note card, and slapped it on the maggot-like thing.

Nothing happened.

Meredith was thrusting the stave into the middle of the cobra now. Elena saw another of the creatures fal almost onto her upturned face and managed to turn away so that it hit her col ar instead. She tried another card from the sheaf and when it just floated away – the maggots looked gooey but weren't – she gave a primal scream and ripped with both hands at the ugly things attached to her. They gave way, leaving her skin covered with red marks and her T-shirt torn at the shoulder.

"The amulets aren't working,"she yel ed to Meredith.

Meredith was actual y standing under the swaying, hooded head of the maggot-cobra, stabbing and stabbing as if to reach the center. Her voice was muffled. "Not enough amulets anyway! Too many of these grubs. You'd better run."

An instant later Stefan shouted, "Everybody get away from here! There's something solid in there!"

"That's what I'm trying to get!"Meredith shouted back.

Frantical y, Matt yel ed, "Where's Misao?"

The last time Elena had seen her she had been diving into the writhing mass of segmented darkness. "Gone,"she shouted back. "Where's Mrs. Flowers?"

"In the kitchen,"said a voice behind her. Elena glanced back and saw the old woman pul ing down herbs with both hands.

"Okay,"Stefan shouted. "Everybody, take a few steps back.

I'm going to hit it with Power. Do it – now!"

His voice was like a whiplash. Everyone stepped back, even Meredith who had been probing the snake with her stave.

Stefan curled his hand around nothingness, around air, and it turned to sparkling, swirling bright energy. He threw it point-blank into the cobra made of maggots.

There was an explosion, and then suddenly it was raining maggots. Elena had her teeth locked so as to keep herself from screaming. The oval translucent bodies of the maggots broke open on the kitchen floor like overripe plums, or else bounced. When Elena dared look up again she saw a black stain on the ceiling.

Beneath it, smiling, was Shinichi.

Meredith, lightning quick, tried to put the stave through him.

But Shinichi was faster, leaning out of her way, and out of the next thrust, and the next.

"You humans,"he said. "Al the same. Al stupid. When Midnight final y comes you'l see how stupid you were."He said "Midnight"as if he were saying "the Apocalypse."

"We were smart enough to discover that you weren't Stefan,"Matt said from behind Shinichi.

Shinichi rol ed his eyes. "And to put me into a little room roofed with wood. You can't even remember that kitsune control al plants and trees? The wal s are al ful of malach grubs by now, you know. Thoroughly infested."His eyes flickered – and he glanced backward, Elena saw, looking toward the open door of the root cel ar.

Her terror soared, and at the same time Stefan shouted, "Get out of here! Out of the house! Go to somewhere safe!"

Elena and Meredith stared at each other, paralyzed. They were on different teams, but they couldn't seem to let go of each other. Then Meredith snapped out of it and turned to the back of the kitchen to help Mrs. Flowers. Matt was already there, doing the same thing.

And then Elena found herself swept off her feet and moving fast. Stefan had her and was running toward the front door.

Distantly, she heard Shinichi shout, "Bring me back their bones!"

One of the maggots that Elena batted out of the way burst its skin and Elena saw something crawling out. These real y were malach, she realized. Smal er editions of the one that had swal owed Matt's arm and left those long, deep scratches when he pul ed it out again.

She noticed that one was stuck on Stefan's back. Reckless with fury, she grabbed it near one end and ripped it off, yanking relentlessly even though Stefan gasped in pain.

When it came free she got a glimpse of what looked like dozens of smal children's teeth on the bottom side. She threw it against a wal as they reached the front door.

There they almost col ided with Matt, Meredith, and Mrs.

Flowers, coming through the den. Stefan wrenched the door open and when they al were through Meredith slammed it shut. A few malach – grubs and Still-wet flying ones – made it out with them.

"Where's safe?"snapped Meredith. "I mean, real y safe, safe for a couple of days?"Neither she nor Matt had released their grip on Mrs. Flowers and from their speed Elena guessed that she must be almost as light as a straw figure. She kept saying, "My goodness! Oh, gracious!"

"My house?"Matt suggested. "The block's bad, but it was okay the last time I saw it, and my mom's gone with Dr.

Alpert."

"Okay, Matt's house – using the Master Keys. But let's do it from the storage room. I do not want to open this front door again, no matter what,"Elena said.

When Stefan tried to pick her up she shook her head. "I'm fine. Run as fast as you can and smash any malach you see."

They made it to the storage room, but now a sound like vipvipvip – a sort of high-pitched buzzing that could only have been produced by the malach – was fol owing them.

"What now?"Matt panted, helping Mrs. Flowers to sit on the bed.

Stefan hesitated. "Is your house real y safe, do you think?"

"Is anywhere safe? But it's empty, or it should be."

Meanwhile, Meredith drew Elena and Mrs. Flowers aside. To Elena's horror, Meredith was holding one of the smal er grubs, gripping it so that its underside was turned upward.

"Oh, God – "Elena protested, but Meredith said, "They look a lot like a little kid's teeth, don't they?"

Suddenly Mrs. Flowers became animated. "They do indeed!

And you're saying that the femur we found in the thicket – "

"Yes. It was certainly human but maybe not chewed by humans. Human children,"Meredith said.

"And Shinichi yel ed to the malach to bring back our bones…"Elena said and swal owed. Then she looked at the grub again. "Meredith, get rid of that thing somehow! It's going to pop out as a flying malach."

Meredith looked around the storage room blankly.

"Okay – just drop it and I'l step on it,"Elena said, holding her breath to hold in her nausea.

Meredith dropped the fat, translucent, black thing, which exploded on impact. Elena stamped on it, but the malach inside didn't crush. Instead, when she lifted her foot, it tried to skitter under the bed. The stave cut it cleanly in two.

"Guys,"Elena said sharply to Matt and Stefan, "we have to go now. Outside are a bunch of flying malach!"

Matt turned toward her. "Like the one that – "

"Smal er, but just like the one that attacked you, I think."

"Okay, here's what we figured out,"Stefan said in a way that immediately made Elena uneasy. "Somebody has to go to the Dark Dimension anyway to check on Bonnie. I guess I'm the only one to do that, since I'm a vampire. You couldn't get in – "

"Yes, we could,"Meredith said. "With these keys, we could just say 'Take us to Lady Ulma's house in the Dark Dimension.'Or 'Take me to wherever Bonnie is.'Why shouldn't it work?"

Elena said, "Okay. Meredith, Matt, and Mrs. Flowers can stay here and try to figure out what 'Midnight'is. From the way Shinichi said it, it sounded bad. Meanwhile, Stefan and I go to the Dark Dimension and find Bonnie."

"No!"Stefan said. "I won't take you to that horrible place again."

Elena looked him straight in the eye. "You promised,"she said, indifferent to the other people in the room. "You promised. Never to go again on a quest without me. No matter how short the time, no matter what the cause. You promised."

Stefan looked at her desperately. Elena knew he wanted to keep her safe – but which world was truly safe now? Both were fil ed with horror and danger.

"Anyway,"she said with a grim smile, "I have the key."

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