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The Return: Midnight (Chapter 33)

Elena was waiting for the fog to disperse. It had come in as always, bit by bit, and now she was wondering if it would ever leave, or if it were actual y another trial itself. Therefore, when she suddenly realized she could see Stefan's shirt in front of her, she felt her heart bound for joy. She hadn't messed anything up lately.

"I can see it!"Stefan said, pul ing her up beside him. And then, "Voil��…" – but in a whisper.

"What, what?"cried Bonnie, bounding forward. And then she stopped too.

Damon didn't bound. He strol ed. But Elena was turning toward Bonnie at the time, and she saw his face as he saw it.

In front of them was a sort of smal castle, or large gateway with spires that pierced the low clouds that hung above it.

There was some kind of writing over the huge cathedral-like black doors in front, but Elena had never seen anything like the squiggles of whatever foreign language it was.

On either side of the building, there were black wal s that were nearly as tal as the spires. Elena looked left and right and realized that they disappeared only off at the vanishing point. And without magic, it would be impossible to fly over them.

What the boy and girl in the story had discovered only by fol owing the wal s for days, they had simply walked straight into.

"It's the Gatehouse of the Seven Treasures, isn't it, Bonnie?

Isn't it? Look!"Elena shouted.

Bonnie was already looking, both hands pressed against her heart, and for once without a word to say. As Elena watched, the diminutive girl fel to her knees in the light, powdery snow.

But Stefan answered. He picked up Bonnie and Elena at the same time and whirled them both. "It is!"he said, just as Elena was saying "It is!" and Bonnie, the expert, gasping,

"Oh, it real y, really is!"with tears freezing on her cheeks.

Stefan put his lips to Elena's ear. "And you know what that means, don't you? If that is the Gatehouse of the Seven Treasures, you know where we are standing now?"

Elena tried to ignore the warm, tingling sensation that shot up from the soles of her feet at the feeling of Stefan's breath on her ear. She tried to focus on his question.

"Look up,"Stefan suggested.

Elena did – and gasped.

Above them, instead of a fog bank or incessant crimson light from a sun that never stopped setting, were three moons.

One was enormous, covering perhaps a sixth of the sky, shining in swirls of white and blue, hazy at the edges. Just in front of it was a beautiful silvery moon at least three quarters as big as it was.

Last, there was a tiny moon in high orbit, white as a diamond, that seemed to be deliberately keeping its distance from the other two. Al of them were half ful and shone down with gentle, soothing light on the unbroken snow around Elena.

"We're in the Nether World,"Elena said, shaken.

"Oh…it's just like in the story,"Bonnie gasped. "Exactly like.

Even the writing! Even the amount of snow!"

"Exactly like the story?"Stefan asked. "Even to the phase of the moons? How ful they are?"

"Just exactly the same."

Stefan nodded. "I thought they would be. That story was a precognition, given to you with the purpose of helping us find the largest star bal ever made."

"Well, let's go inside!"cried Bonnie. "We're wasting time!"

"Okay – but everyone on your guard. We don't want anything to go wrong now,"Stefan said.

They went into the Gatehouse of the Seven Treasures in this order: Bonnie, who found that the great black doors swung open at a touch, but that she could see nothing, coming in from bright sunlight; Stefan and Elena, hand in hand; and Damon, who waited outside for a long time in the hopes, Elena thought, of being deemed "a different party."

Meanwhile the others were having the most pleasant shock since they'd taken the Master Keys from the kitsune.

"Sage – Sage!"Bonnie shril ed as soon as her eyes adjusted. "Oh, look, Elena, it's Sage! Sage, how are you?

What're you doing here? Oh, it's just so good to see you!"

Elena blinked twice, and the dim interior of the octagonal room came into focus. She went around the only piece of furniture in the room, the large desk in the middle. "Sage, do you know how long it seems? Did you know that Bonnie almost got sold for a slave at a public auction? Did you know about her dream?"

Sage looked as he always had to Elena's eyes. The bronzed, terminal y fit body, like a model of a Titan, the bare chest and bare feet, the black Levi's, the long spiraling tangles of bronze hair, and the strange bronze eyes that could cut steel, or be as gentle as a pet lamb.

"Mes deux petits chatons," Sage was saying. "My two little kittens, you have astounded me. I have been fol owing your adventures. The Gatekeeper is not provided with much entertainment and is not al owed to leave this fortress, but you were most brave and amusing. Je vous felicite."He kissed first Elena's hand and then Bonnie's, then embraced Stefan with the Latin two-cheeked kiss. Then he resumed his seat.

Bonnie was climbing Sage as if she were a real kitten. "Did you take Misao's star bal ful of Power?"she demanded, kneeling on his thigh. "Did you take half of it, I mean? To get back here?"

"Mais oui, I did. But I also left Madame Flowers a little – "

"Do you know that Damon used the other half to open the Gate again? And that I fel in too, even though he didn't want me? And that because of that I almost got sold as a slave?

And that Stefan and Elena had to come after me, to make sure I was okay? And that on the way here Elena almost fel off the bridge, and we're not sure if the thurgs are going to make it? And do you know that in Fel 's Church the Last Midnight is coming, and we don't know – "

Stefan and Elena exchanged a long, meaningful glance and then Stefan said, "Bonnie, we have to ask Sage the most important question."He looked at Sage. "Is it possible for us to save Fel 's Church? Do we have enough time?"

"Eh bien. As far as I can tel from the chronological vortex, you have enough time and a little to spare. Enough for a glass of Black Magic to see you off. But after that, no dawdling!"

Elena felt like a crumpled piece of paper that had been straightened and smoothed. She took a long breath. They could do it. That allowed her to remember civilized behavior.

"Sage, how did you get stuck way out here? Or were you waiting for us?"

"Helas, no – I am assigned here as punishment. I got an Imperial Summons that I could not ignore, mes amis."He sighed and added, "I am just Out of Favor again. So now I am the ambassador to the Nether World, as you see."He waved a languid hand around the room. "Bienvenue."

Elena had a sense of time ticking away, of precious minutes being lost. But maybe Sage himself would do something for Fel 's Church. "You real y have to stay in here?"

"But assuredly, until mon p��re – my father" – Sage said the word savagely and resentful y – "relents and I am al owed to return to the Infernal Court, or, much better, to go my ways without ever returning. At least until someone takes the pity on me and kil s me."He looked inquiringly around the group, then sighed, and said, "Saber and Talon, they are well?"

"They were when we left,"Elena said, itching to get on with their real business here.

"Bien," Sage said, looking at her kindly, "but we should have your entire group in here for the viewing, no?"

Elena glanced at the doors and then again at Stefan, but Sage was already cal ing – both with voice and telepathy –  "Damon, mon poussinet, do you not want to come in with your comrades?"

There was a long pause, and then the doors opened and a very sul en Damon stepped in. He wouldn't reply to Sage's friendly, "Bienvenue," instead saying, "I didn't come here to socialize. I want to see the treasures in time to save Fel 's Church. I haven't forgotten about the damned hick town, even if everyone else has."

"Alors maintenant," Sage said, looking wounded. "You have al passed the tests in your way and may look upon the treasures. You may even use magic again, although I am not sure that it wil help you. It al depends upon which treasure you seek. Felicitations! "

Everyone but Damon made some gesture of embarrassment.

"Now,"Sage continued, "I must show each gate to you before you can pick. I wil try to be quick, but be cautious, s'il vous pla?t. Once you choose a treasure, that is the only door that wil open again for any of you."

Elena found herself clutching at Stefan's hand – which was already reaching for hers – as one by one the doors shone with a faint, silvery light.

"Behind you,"said Sage, "is the very gate you entered to get into this room, yes? But next to it, ah…"A door brightened to show an impossible cavern. Impossible because of the gems lying on the ground or sticking out of the cave wal s.

Rubies, diamonds, emeralds, amethysts…each one as big as Elena's fist, lying thick in great piles for the taking.

"It's beautiful, but…no, of course!"she said firmly, and reached out to put a hand on Bonnie's shoulder.

The next door lit up, brightened, then brightened more so that it seemed to disappear. "And here,"Sage sighed, "is the famous kitsune paradise."

Elena could feel her eyes widen. It was a sunny day in the most beautiful park she had ever seen. In the background a little waterfal spil ed into a creek, which ran down a green hil , while directly in front of her was a stone bench, just the size for two, underneath a tree that looked like a cherry in ful bloom.

Blossoms were flying in a breeze that rustled other cherry and peach trees nearby – causing a rain of dawn-colored petals. Although Elena had only seen the place for a moment, it already seemed familiar to her. She could just walk into it…

"No, Stefan!"She had to touch his arm. He had been walking right into the garden.

"What?"he said, shaking his head like someone in a dream.

"I don't know what happened. It just seemed as if I were going to an old, old home…"His voice broke off. "Sage, go on, please!"

The next door was already lighting, showing a scene with rack after rack of Clarion Loess Black Magic wine. In the distance, Elena could make out a vineyard with lush grapes hanging heavily, fruit that would never see the light of the sun until it was made into a famous liquid.

Everyone was already sipping at their glasses of Black Magic, so it was easy to say "no"even to the luscious grapes.

As the next door brightened Elena heard herself gasp. It was bril iant midday. Growing in a field as far as she could see were tal bushes thick with long-stemmed roses – the blossoms of which were a velvety-looking black.

Startled, she saw that everyone was looking at Damon, who had taken a step toward the roses as if involuntarily. Stefan put an arm out, barring his way.

"I didn't look very closely,"Damon said, "but I think these are the same as the one I…destroyed."

Elena turned to Sage. "They're the same, aren't they?"

"But yes,"Sage said, looking unhappy. "These are al Midnight roses, noir pur – the sort in the white kitsune's bouquet. But these are al blanks. The kitsune are the only ones who can put spel s on them – like the removal of the curse of a vampire."

There was a general sigh of disappointment among his listeners, but Damon just looked more sul en. Elena was about to speak up, to say that Stefan shouldn't be put through this, when she tuned in to Sage's words and the next gate, and felt a surge of simple, selfish longing herself.

"I suppose you would cal it ' La Fontaine of Eternal Youth and Life,'"Sage said. Elena could see an ornate fountain playing, the effervescent spray at the top making a rainbow. Smal butterflies of al colors flew around it, alighting on the leaves of the bower that cradled it in greenery.

Meredith, with her cool head and straightforward logic wasn't there, so Elena dug her nails into her palms and cried "No!

Next one!"as quickly and forceful y as she could.

Sage was speaking again. She made herself listen. "The Royal Radhika Flower, which legends say was stolen from the Celestial Court many mil ennia ago. It changes shape."

A simple enough thing to say…but actual y to see it…

Elena watched in astonishment as a dozen or so thick, twining stems, topped by gorgeous white cal a lily blossoms, trembled slightly. The next instant she was looking at a cluster of violets with velvet leaves and a drop of dew shining on a petal. A moment later, the stems were topped with radiant mauve snapdragons – with the dewdrop Stillin place.

Before she could remember not to reach out and touch them, the snapdragons had become deep, ful y open red roses.

When the roses became some exotic golden flower that Elena had never seen, she had to turn her back.

She found herself bumping into a hard, masculine, bare chest while forcing herself to think realistical y. Midnight was coming – and not in the form of a rose. Fel 's Church needed al the help it could get and here she was staring at flowers.

Abruptly, Sage swung her off her feet and said, "What a temptation, especial y for a lover of la beaute like you, belle madame. What a foolish rule to keep you from taking just a bud! But there is something even higher and more pure than beauty, Elena. You, you are named for it. In old Greek, Elena means 'light'! The darkness is coming fast – the Last, Everlasting Midnight! Beauty wil not hold it back; it is a bagatel e, a trinket, useless in times of disaster. But light, Elena, light wil conquer the darkness! I believe this as I believe in your courage, your honesty, and your gentle, loving heart."

With that, he kissed her on the forehead and set her down.

Elena was dazed. Of al the things she knew, she knew best that she could not defeat the darkness that was coming – not alone.

"But you're not alone,"Stefan whispered, and she realized that he was right beside her, and that she must be wide open, projecting her thoughts as clearly as if she were speaking.

"We're al here with you,"Bonnie said in a voice twice her size. "We're not afraid of the dark."

There was a pause while everyone tried not to look at Damon. At last he said, "Somehow I got talked into this insanity – I'm Stillwondering how it happened. But I've come this far and I'm not going to turn around now."

Sage turned toward the final door and it brightened. Not by much, however. It looked like the shady underside of a very large tree. What was odd, though, was that there was nothing at allgrowing under it. No ferns or bushes or seedlings, not even the normal y ever-present creepers and weeds. There were a few dead leaves on the ground, but otherwise it was just dirt.

Sage said, "A planet with only one corporeal form of life upon it. The Great Tree that covers an entire world. The crown covers al but the natural freshwater lakes it needs to survive."

Elena looked into the heart of the twilit world. "We've come so far, and maybe together – maybe we can find the star bal that wil save our town."

"This is the door you pick?"asked Sage.

Elena looked at the rest of the group. They al seemed to be waiting for her confirmation. "Yes – and right now. We have to hurry."She made a motion as if to put her cup down and it disappeared. She smiled thanks at Sage.

"Strictly speaking, I shouldn't give you any help,"he said. "But if you have a compass…"

Elena had one. It was always dangling from her backpack because she was always trying to read it.

Sage took the compass in his hand and lightly traced a line on it. He gave the compass back to Elena and she found that the needle no longer pointed to the north, but at an angle northeast. "Fol ow the arrow,"he said. "It wil take you to the trunk of the Great Tree. If I had to guess at where to find the largest star bal , I would go this way. But be wary! Others have tried this path. Their bodies have nourished the Great Tree – as fertilizer."

Elena scarcely heard the words. She had been terrified at the thought of searching an entire planet for a star bal . Of course, it might be a very smal world, like…like…

Like the little diamond moon you saw over the Nether World?

The voice in Elena's mind was both familiar and not. She glanced at Sage, who smiled. Then she looked around the room. Everyone seemed to be waiting for her to take the first step.

She took it.

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