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The Return: Midnight (Chapter 7)

Bonnie was in her new first-floor bedroom, and was feeling very bewildered. Black Magic always made her feel giggly, and then very sleepy, but somehow tonight her body refused to sleep. Her head hurt.

She was just about to turn the bedside light on, when a familiar voice said, "How about some tea for your headache?"

"Damon?"

"I made some from Mrs. Flowers's herbs and I decided to make you a cup as wel . Aren't you the lucky girl?"If Bonnie had been listening closely, she might have heard something almost like self-loathing behind the light words – but she wasn't.

"Yes!"Bonnie said, meaning it. Most of Mrs. Flowers's teas smel ed and tasted good. This one was especial y nice, but grainy on her tongue.

And not only was the tea good, but Damon stayed to talk to her while she drank it al . That was sweet of him.

Strangely, this tea made her feel not exactly sleepy, but as if she could only concentrate on one thing at a time. Damon swam into her field of view. "Feeling more relaxed?"he asked.

"Yes, thank you."Weirder and weirder. Even her voice sounded slow and dragging.

"I wanted to make sure nobody was too hard on you for the sil y mistake about Elena,"he explained.

"They weren't, real y,"she said. "Actual y everybody was more interested in seeing you and Matt fight – "Bonnie put a hand over her mouth. "Oh, no! I didn't mean to say that! I'm so sorry!"

"It's al right. It should heal by tomorrow."

Bonnie couldn't imagine why anyone would be so afraid of Damon, who was so nice as to pick up her mug of tea and say he'd put it in the sink. That was good because she was feeling as if she couldn't get up to save her life. That cozy.

That comfy.

"Bonnie, can I ask you just one little thing?"Damon paused. "I can't tel you why, but…I have to find out where Misao's star bal is kept,"he said earnestly.

"Oh…that,"Bonnie said fuzzily. She giggled.

"Yes, that. And I am truly sorry to ask you, because you're so very young and innocent…but I know you'l tel me the truth."

After this praise and comfort, Bonnie felt she could fly. "It's been in the same place al the time,"she said with sleepy disgust. "They tried to make me think they'd moved it…but when I saw him chained and going down to the root cel ar I knew they hadn't real y."In the dark, there was a short shake of curls and then a yawn. "If they were real y going to move it…they should have sent me away or something."

"Wel , maybe they were concerned for your life."

"Wha'?…"Bonnie yawned again, not sure what he meant. "I mean, an old, old safe with a combination? I told them…that those old safes…could be…real y be…easy to… to…"Bonnie let out a sound like a sigh and her voice stopped.

"I'm glad we had this talk,"Damon murmured in the silence.

There was no answer from the bed.

Pul ing Bonnie's sheet up as high as it would go, he let it drift down. It covered most of her face. "Requiescat in pace,"Damon said softly. Then he left her room, not forgetting to take the mug.

Now… "him chained and going down to the root cellar."

Damon mused as he washed out the mug careful y and put it back in the cupboard. The line sounded strange but he had almost al the links now, and it was actual y simple. Al he needed were twelve more of Mrs. Flowers's sleeping cachets and two plates heaped with raw beef. He had al the ingredients…but he'd never heard of a root cel ar.

Shortly thereafter, he opened the door to the basement.

Nope. Didn't match the criteria for "root cel ar"he'd looked up on his mobile. Irritated and knowing that any moment someone was likely to wander downstairs for something, Damon turned around in frustration. There was an elaborately carved wooden panel across from the basement, but nothing else.

Curse it, he would not be thwarted at this point. He would have his life as a vampire back, or he didn't want any life at al !

To punctuate the sentiment, he slammed a fist against the wooden panel in front of him.

The knock sounded hollow.

Immediately al frustration vanished. Damon examined the panel very careful y. Yes, there were hinges at the very edge, where no sane person would expect them. It wasn't a panel but a door – undoubtedly to the root cel ar where the star bal was.

It didn't take long for his sensitive fingers – even his human fingers were more sensitive than most – to find a place that clicked – and then the whole door swung open. He could see the stairs. He tucked his parcel under one arm and descended.

By the il umination of the smal flashlight he'd taken from the storage room, the root cel ar was just as described: a damp, earthy room to store fruit and vegetables before refrigerators had been invented. And the safe was just as Bonnie had said: an ancient, rusty combination safe, which any whiz cracker could have opened in about sixty seconds. It would take Damon about six minutes, with his stethoscope (he'd heard once that you could find anything in the boardinghouse if you looked hard enough and it seemed to be true) and every atom of his being concentrating on hearing the tumblers quietly click.

First, however, there was the Beast to conquer. Saber the black hel hound had unfolded, awake and alert from the moment the secret door had opened. Undoubtedly, they had used Damon's clothes to teach him to howl madly at his scent.

But Damon had his own knowledge of herbs and had ransacked Mrs. Flowers's kitchen to find a handful of witch hazel, a smal amount of strawberry wine, aniseed, some peppermint oil, and a few other essential oils she had in stock, sweet and sharp. Mixed, this created a pungent lotion, which he had gingerly applied to himself. The concoction formed for Saber an impossible tangle of strong smel s. The only thing the now-sitting dog knew was that it was surely not Damon sitting on the steps and tossing him hearty bal s of hamburger and delicate strips of filet mignon – each of which he gulped down whole. Damon watched with interest as the animal devoured the mix of sleeping powder and raw meat, tail whisking on the floor.

Ten minutes later Saber the hel hound was sprawled out happily unconscious.

Six minutes after that, Damon was opening an iron door.

One second later he was pul ing a pil owcase out of Mrs.

Flowers's antique safe.

In the glow of the flashlight he found that he did indeed have a star bal , but that it was just a little more than half ful .

Now what did that mean? There was a very neat hole dril ed and corked at the top so that not one precious droplet more need be wasted.

But who had used the rest of the fluid – and why? Damon himself had seen the star bal brimful of opalescent, shimmering liquid just days ago.

Somehow between that time and now someone had used about a hundred thousand individuals'life energy.

Had the others tried to do some remarkable deed with it and failed, at the cost of burning so much Power? Stefan was too kind to have used so much, Damon was certain of that. But…

Sage.

With an Imperial Summons in his hand, Sage was likely to do anything. So, sometime after the sphere had been brought into the boardinghouse, Sage had poured out almost exactly half the life force from the star bal and then, undoubtedly, left the rest behind for Mutt or someone to cork.

And such a colossal amount of Power could only have been used for…opening the Gate to the Dark Dimensions.

Very slowly, Damon let out his breath and smiled. There were only a few ways to get into the Dark Dimensions, and as a human he obviously could not drive to Arizona and pass through a public Gateway as he had the first time with the girls. But now he had something even better. A star bal to open his own private Gateway. He knew of no other way to cross, unless one was lucky enough to hold one of the almost-mythical Master Keys that al owed one to roam the dimensions at wil .

Doubtless, someday in the future, in some nook, Mrs.

Flowers would find another thank-you note: this time along with something that was literal y invaluable – something exquisite and priceless and probably from a dimension quite far from Earth. That was how Sage operated.

All was quiet above. The humans were relying on their animal companions to keep them safe. Damon gave the root cel ar a single look around and saw nothing more than a dim room completely empty except for the safe, which he now closed.

Dumping his own paraphernalia into the pil owcase, he patted Saber, who was gently snoring, and turned toward the steps.

That was when he saw that a figure was standing in the doorway. The figure then stepped smoothly behind the door, but Damon had seen enough.

In one hand the figure had been holding a fighting stave almost as tal as it was.

Which meant that it was a hunter-slayer. Of vampires.

Damon had met several hunter-slayers – briefly – in his time.

They were, in his consideration, bigoted, unreasonable, and even more stupid than the average human, because they'd usual y been brought up on legends of vampires with fangs like tusks who ripped out the throats of their victims and kil ed them. Damon would be the first to admit that there were some vampires like that, but most were more restrained. Vampire hunters usual y worked in groups, but Damon had a hunch that this one would be alone.

He now ascended the steps slowly. He was fairly certain of the identity of this hunter-slayer, but if he was wrong he was going to have to dodge a stave launched straight down at him like a javelin. No problem – if he were stil a vampire.

Slightly more difficult, unarmed as he was and at a severe tactical disadvantage.

He reached the top of the stairs unharmed. This was real y the most dangerous part of climbing steps, for a weapon of just the right length could send him crashing al the way back down. Of course a vampire wouldn't be permanently injured by that, but – again – he was no longer a vampire.

But the person in the kitchen al owed him to climb al the way out of the root cel ar unhindered.

A kil er with honor. How sweet.

He turned slowly to measure up his vampire hunter. He was immediately impressed.

It wasn't the obvious strength that al owed the hunter to be able to whip off a figure eight with the fighting stave that impressed him. It was the weapon itself. Perfectly balanced, it was meant to be held in the middle, and the designs picked out in jewels around the handhold showed that its creator had had excel ent taste. The ends showed that he or she had a sense of humor as wel . The two ends of the stave were made of ironwood for strength – but they were also decorated. In shape, they were made to resemble one of humankind's oldest weapons, the flint-tipped spear. But there were tiny spikes extruding from each of these "spear flakes,"set firmly into the ironwood. These tiny spikes were of different materials: silver for werewolves, wood for vampires, white ash for Old Ones, iron for al eldritch creatures, and a few that Damon couldn't quite work out.

"They're refil able,"the hunter-slayer explained. "Hypodermic needles inject on impact. And of course different poisons for different species – quick and simple for humans, wolfsbane for those naughty puppies, and so on. It real y is a jewel of a weapon. I wish I had found it before we met Klaus."

Then she seemed to shake herself back into reality.

"So, Damon, what's it going to be?"asked Meredith.

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