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The Return: Midnight (Chapter 29)

"Oi!"Damon shouted from outside the palanquin. "Is anybody else looking at this?"

Elena was. Both Stefan and Bonnie had their eyes shut; Bonnie was wrapped in blankets and cuddled against Elena.

They had rol ed down al the curtains of the palanquin except one.

But Elena had watched through the single window, and had seen how tendrils of fog had begun drifting by, first just filmy tatters of mist, but then longer, ful er veils, and final y blankets, engulfing them whole. It seemed to her that they were being deliberately cut off from even the perilous Dark Dimension, that they were passing a border into a place they weren't meant to know about, much less enter.

"How do we know we're going in the right direction?"Elena shouted to Damon after Stefan and Bonnie woke. She was glad to be able to talk again.

"The thurgs know,"Damon cal ed back. "You set them on a line and they walk that line until somebody stops them, or – "

"Or what?"Elena yel ed out of the opening.

"Until we get to a place like this."

This was obviously bait, and neither Stefan nor Elena could resist taking it – especial y when the thurg they were riding stopped.

"Stay here,"Elena said to Bonnie. She pushed a curtain out of the way and found herself looking too far down at white ground. God, these thurgs were big. The next moment, though, Stefan was on the ground holding up his arms.

"Jump!"

"Can't you come up and float me?"

"Sorry. Something about this place inhibits Power."

Elena didn't give herself time to think. She launched into the air and Stefan caught her neatly. Spontaneously, she clung to him, and felt the familiar comfort of his embrace.

Then he said, "Come look at this."

They had reached a place where the land ended and the mist divided, like curtains being held to either side. Directly in front of them was a frozen lake. A silvery frozen lake, almost perfectly round in shape.

"Lake Mirror?"Damon said, cocking his head to one side.

"I always thought that was a fairy tale,"Stefan said.

"Welcome to Bonnie's storybook."

Lake Mirror formed a vast body of water in front of them, frozen right into the ice sheet below her feet, or so it seemed.

It did look like a mirror – a purse mirror after you'd breathed softly on it.

"But the thurgs?"Elena said – or rather whispered. She couldn't help whispering. The silent lake pressed on her, as did the lack of any kind of natural sound: There were no birds singing, no rustling in the bushes – no bushes! No trees!

Instead, just the mist surrounding the frozen water.

"The thurgs,"Elena repeated in a slightly louder voice. "They can't possibly walk on that!"

"Depends on how thick the lake ice is,"Damon said, flashing his old 250-kilowatt smile at her. "If it's thick enough, it'l be just like walking on land for them."

"And if it isn't?"

"Hmm…Do thurgs float?"

Elena gave him an exasperated glance and looked at Stefan. "What do you think?"

"I don't know,"he said doubtful y. "They're very large animals.

Let's ask Bonnie about the kids in the fairy tale."

Bonnie, Stillwrapped in fur blankets that began col ecting chunks of ice as they dragged on the ground, looked at the lake grimly. "The story didn't go into detail,"she said. "It just said that they went down, down, down, and that they had to pass tests of their courage and – and – wittiness – before they got there."

"Fortunately,"Damon said, smiling, "I have large enough amounts of both to make up for my brother's entire lack of either – "

"Stop it, Damon!"Elena burst out. The moment she'd seen the smile, she'd turned to Stefan, pul ed him down to her height, and begun kissing him. She knew what Damon would see when he turned back toward them – her and Stefan locked in an embrace, Stefan hardly aware of anything being said. At least they could Stilltouch with their minds. And it was intriguing, Elena thought, Stefan's warm mouth when everything else in the world was cold. She looked quickly at Bonnie, to make sure she hadn't upset her, but Bonnie was looking quite cheerful.

The farther I seem to drive Damon away, the happier she is, Elena thought. Oh, God…this is a problem.

Stefan spoke up quietly. "Bonnie, what it comes down to is that it has to be your choice. Don't try to use courage or wit or anything except your inner feelings. Where do we go?"

Bonnie glanced back at the thurgs, then looked at the lake.

"That way,"she said, without hesitation, and she pointed straight across the lake.

"We'd better carry some of the cooking stones and fuel and backpacks with iron rations in them,"Stefan said. "That way, if the worst happens, we'l Stillhave basic supplies."

"Besides,"said Elena, "it'l lighten that thurg's load – if only by a little."

It seemed a crime to put a backpack on Bonnie, but she insisted. Final y, Elena arranged one fil ed entirely with the warm, curiously light fur clothes. Everyone else was carrying furs, food, and poop – the dried animal dung that would from now on be their only fuel.

It was difficult from the first. Elena had only had a couple of experiences with ice that she had reason to be wary of – but one of those had almost been disastrous for Matt. She was ready to jump and whirl at any crack – any sound that the ice was breaking. But there were no cracks; no water flowing up to slosh onto her boots.

The thurgs were the ones who seemed actual y built for walking on frozen water. Their feet were pneumatic, and could spread out to almost half again their original size, avoiding putting too much pressure on any one section of ice.

Crossing the lake was slow, but Elena didn't see anything particularly deadly about it. It was simply the smoothest, slickest ice she had ever encountered. Her boots wanted to skate.

"Hey, everybody!"Bonnie was skating, exactly as if she were in a rink, backward and forward and sideways. "This is fun!"

"We're not here to have fun,"Elena shouted back. She longed to try it herself, but was afraid to make cuts – even scuffs – in the ice. And beside that, Bonnie was expending twice as much energy as she needed to.

She was about to cal out to Bonnie and tel her this, when Damon, in a voice of exasperation, made al the points she had thought of, and a few more.

"This isn't a pleasure cruise,"he said shortly. "It's for the fate of your town."

"As if you care,"Elena murmured, turning her back on him and touching the unhappy Bonnie's hand both to give comfort and to get them going at arm's length again. "Bonnie, do you sense anything magical about the lake?"

"No."But then Bonnie's imagination seemed to fly into high gear. "But maybe it's where the mystics from both dimensions al gathered to exchange spel s. Or maybe it's where they used the ice like a real magic mirror to see faraway places and things."

"Maybe both of them,"Elena said, secretly amused, but Bonnie nodded solemnly.

And that was when it came. The sound Elena had been waiting for.

Nor was it a distant booming which could be ignored or discussed. They had been walking at arm's length from one another to avoid stressing the ice, while the thurgs walked behind them, and to either side – like a flock of geese with no leaders.

This noise was a dreadful y near crack like the report of a gun. Immediately, it sounded again, like a whiplash, and then a crumbling.

It was to Elena's left, on Bonnie's side.

"Skate, Bonnie,"she shouted. "Skate as fast as you can.

Scream if you see land."

Bonnie didn't ask a single question. She took off like an Olympic speed skater in front of Elena, and Elena swiftly turned.

It was Biratz, the thurg Bonnie had asked Pelat about. She had one monstrous back leg in the ice, and as she struggled, more ice cracked.

Stefan! Can you hear me?

Faintly. I'm coming for you.

Yes – but only come as close as you need to Influence the thurg.

Influence the – ?

Make her calm, put her out, whatever. She's ripping up the ice and it'll just make it harder to get her out!

This time there was a pause before Stefan's answer came.

She knew though, by faint echoes, that he was talking telepathical y with someone else. All right, love, I'll do it. I'll take care of the thurg, too. You follow Bonnie.

He was lying. Or, not lying, but keeping something from her.

The person he'd been sending thoughts to was Damon. They were humoring her. They didn't mean to help at all.

Just at that moment she heard a shril scream – not so far away. It was Bonnie in trouble – no! Bonnie had found land!

Elena didn't lose another second. She dumped her backpack on the ice and skated straight back to the thurg.

There it was, so huge, so pathetic, so helpless. The very thing that had kept it safe from other Godawful Hel acious monsters in the Dark Dimension – its great bulk – was now turned against it. Elena felt her chest tighten as if she were wearing a corset.

Even as she watched, though, the animal became calmer.

She stopped trying to get her left hind leg out of the ice, which meant that she stopped churning up the ice around it.

Now Biratz was in a sort of crouching position, trying to keep her three dry legs from going under. The problem was that she was trying too hard, and that there was nothing to push against except breakable ice.

"Elena!"Stefan was within earshot now. "Don't get any closer!"

But even as he said it, Elena saw a Sign. Just a few feet away, lying on the ice was the tickle-prod that Pelat had used to get the thurgs going.

She picked it up as she skated by and then she saw another Sign. Reddish hay and the original covering for the hay – a giant tarpaulin – were lying behind the thurg. Together they formed a broad wide path that was neither wet nor slick.

"Elena!"

"This is going to be easy, Stefan!"

Elena pul ed a pair of dry socks out of her pocket and drew them up over her boots. She fastened the tickle stick to her belt. And then she started the run of her life.

Her boots were fur with something like felt underneath and with the socks to aid them, they caught on the tarpaulin and propel ed her forward. She leaned into it, vaguely wishing Meredith were here, so she could do this instead, but al the time getting closer. And then she saw her mark: the end of the tarp and beyond it floating chunks of ice.

But the thurg looked climbable. Very low in back, like a dinosaur halfway into a tar pit, but then rising up along the curved backbone. If she could just somehow land there…

Two steps til jump-off. One step til jump-off.

JUMP!

Elena pushed off with her right foot, flew through the air for an endless time, and – hit the water.

Instantly, she was soaked from head to foot and the shock of the icy water was unbelievable. It caught hold of her like some monster with a handful of jagged ice shards. It blinded her with her own hair, it squeezed al the sound out of the universe.

Somehow, clawing at her face, she freed her mouth and eyes from hair. She realized that she was only slightly below the surface of the water, and that was al she needed to push upward until her mouth broke the surface and she could suck in a lungful of delicious air, after which she had a coughing fit.

First time up, she thought, remembering the old superstition that a drowning person wil rise three times and then sink forever.

But the strange thing was that she wasn't sinking. There was a dul pain in her thigh but she wasn't going under.

Slowly, slowly, she realized what had happened. She had missed the back of the thurg, but landed on its thick reptilian tail. One of the serrated fins had gashed her, but she was stable.

So…now…al I have to do is climb the thurg, she puzzled out slowly. Everything seemed slow because there were icebergs bobbing around her shoulders.

She put up a fur-lined gloved hand and reached for the next fin up. The water, while making her soaking clothes heavier, supported some of her weight. She managed to pul herself up to the next fin. And the next. And then here was the rump, and she had to be careful – no more footholds. Instead she grabbed for handholds and found something with her left hand. A broken strap from the hay carrier.

Not a good idea – in retrospect.

For a few minutes that qualified as among the worst in her life she was showered with hay, pounded with rocks, and smothered in the dust of old dung.

When it was final y over she looked around, sneezing and coughing, to find that she was Stillon the thurg. The tickle stick had been broken but enough remained for her to use.

Stefan was frantical y asking, both aloud and by telepathy, if she was All right. Bonnie was skating back and forth like a Tinker Bel guide, and Damon was cursing at Bonnie to get back to land and stay there.

Meanwhile Elena was inching up the rump of the thurg. She made it through the crushed supply basket. She final y reached the thurg's summit, and she settled just behind the domed head, in the seat where a driver would sit.

And then she tickled the thurg behind the ears.

"Elena!"Stefan shouted, and then Elena, what are you trying to do?

"I don't know!"she shouted back. "Trying to save the thurg!"

"You can't,"Damon interrupted Stefan's answer in a voice as cold and Stillas the place they were in.

"She can make it!"Elena said fiercely – precisely because she herself was having doubts about whether the animal could. "You could help by pul ing on her bridle."

"There's no point,"Damon shouted, and turned about-face, walking quickly into the mist.

"I'l give it a try. Throw it out in front of her,"Stefan said.

Elena threw the knotted bridle as hard as she could. Stefan had to run almost to the edge of the ice to grab it before it fel in. Then he held it aloft triumphantly. "Got it!"

"Okay, pul ! Give her a direction to start in."

"Wil do!"

Elena tapped Biratz again behind her right ear. There was a faint rumble from the animal and then nothing. Elena could see Stefan straining at the bridle.

"Come on," Elena said, and slapped sharply with the stick.

The thurg lifted up a giant foot, placed it farther on the ice, and struggled. As soon as she did, Elena smacked hard behind the left ear.

This was the crucial moment. If Elena could keep Biratz from crushing al the ice between her back legs, they might have a chance.

The thurg tentatively lifted her left hind leg and stretched it until it made contact with the ice.

"Good, Biratz! Now! "Elena shouted. Now if Biratz would only surge forward…

There was a great upheaval underneath her. For several minutes Elena thought that perhaps Biratz had broken through the ice with al four legs. Then the thrashing changed to a rocking motion and suddenly, dizzyingly Elena knew that they had won.

"Easy, now, easy,"she cal ed to the animal, giving her a gentle tickle with the stick. And slowly, ponderously, Biratz moved forward. Her domed head drooped farther and farther as she went, and she foundered at the edge of a bank of mist, breaking the ice again. But there she only sank a few inches before meeting mud.

A few more steps and they were on solid ground. Elena had to suck in her breath to stifle a scream as the thurg's domelike head slumped, giving her a short and scary ride to where the tusks re-curved on themselves. Somehow she slid right between them and had to hastily scramble off Biratz's trunks.

"It was pointless, you know, doing that,"Damon said from somewhere in the mist beside her. "Risking your own life."

"What d-do you mean p-pointless?"Elena demanded. She wasn't frightened; she was freezing.

"The animals are going to die anyway. The next trial is one they can't manage and even if they could, this isn't a place where anything grows. Instead of a quick clean death in the water, they're going to starve, slowly."

Elena didn't answer; the only answer she could think of was,

"Why didn't you tel me earlier?"She had stopped shivering, which was a good thing, because a moment ago her body had felt as if she might shake herself apart.

Clothes, she thought vaguely. That was the problem. It certainly couldn't be as cold here in the air as it had been in that water. It was her clothes that were making her so cold.

She began, with numb fingers, to take them off. First, she unfastened her leather jacket. No zippers here: buttons. That was a real problem. Her fingers felt like frozen hot dogs, and only nominal y under her direction. But somehow or other she managed to undo the fastenings and the leather dropped to the ground with a muffled thump – it had taken a layer of her inner fur off with it. Ick. The smel of wet fur. Now, now she had to –

But she couldn't. She couldn't do anything because someone was holding her arms. Burning her arms. Those hands were annoying, but at least she knew who they belonged to. They were firm and very gentle but very strong. Al that added up to Stefan.

Slowly, she raised her dripping head to ask Stefan to stop burning her arms.

But she couldn't. Because on Stefan's body there was Damon's head. Now that was funny. She'd seen a lot of things that vampires could do, but not this swapping heads business.

"Stefan-Damon – please stop,"she gasped between hysterical whoops of laughter. "It hurts. It's too hot!"

"Hot? You're frozen, you mean."The deft, searing hands were rubbing up and down her arms, pushing back her head to rub her cheeks. She let it happen, because it seemed to be only sense that if it was Damon's head, they were Stefan's hands.

"You're cold but you're not shivering?"a grim Damon-voice said from somewhere.

"Yes, so you see I must be warming up."Elena didn't feel very warmed up. She realized that she Stillhad on a longer fur garment, one that reached to her knees under her leather breeches. She fumbled with her belt.

"You're not warming up. You're going into the next stage of hypothermia. And if you don't get dry and warm right now, you're going to die."Not roughly, he tilted her chin up to look into her eyes. "You're delirious now – can you understand me, Elena? We need to really get you warm."

Warm was a concept as vague and faraway as life before she had met Stefan. But delirious she understood. That was not a good thing. What to do about it except laugh?

"All right. Elena, just wait for a moment. Let me find – "In a moment he was back. Not quick enough to stop her from unwrapping the fur down to her waist, but back before she could get her camisole off.

"Here."He stripped off the damp fur and wrapped a warm, dry one around her, over her camisole.

After a moment or two she began to shiver.

"That's my girl,"Damon's voice said. It went on: "Don't fight me, Elena. I'm trying to save your life. That's al . I'm not going to try to do anything else. I give you my word."

Elena was bewildered. Why should she think that Damon –

this must be Damon, she decided – would want to hurt her?

Although he could be a bastard sometimes…

And he was taking off her clothes.

No. That shouldn't be happening. Definitely not. Especial y since Stefan must be somewhere around.

But by now Elena was shivering too hard to talk.

And now that she was in her underwear, he was making her lie down on furs, tucking other furs around her. Elena didn't understand anything that was happening, but it was al starting not to matter. She was floating somewhere outside herself, watching without much interest.

Then another body was slipping in under the furs. She snapped back from the place she had been floating. Very briefly she got a look at a bare chest. And then a warm, compact body slid into the makeshift sleeping bag with her.

Warm, hard arms went around her, keeping her in contact al over her body.

Through the mist she vaguely heard Stefan's voice.

"What the hell are you doing?"

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