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The Return: Midnight (Chapter 8)

Damon nodded thoughtful y, glancing back and forth between the fighting stave and the pil owcase in his hand.

Hadn't he suspected something like this for a long time?

Subconsciously? After al , there had been that attack on the grandfather, which had failed to either kil him or to erase his memory completely. Damon's imagination could fil in the rest: her parents seeing no reason to blight their tiny daughter's life with this gruesome business – a whole new change of scenery – and then giving up the practice in the provincial, protected little town of Fel 's Church.

If they had only known.

Oh, doubtless they had made sure that Meredith had had self-defense and various martial arts training since she was a child, while swearing her to absolute secrecy – even from her best friends.

Wel , now, Damon thought. The first of Shinichi's riddles was already solved. "One of you has a lifetime secret kept from everyone." I always knew there was something about this girl…and this is it. I'd bet my life that she's a black belt.

There had been a long silence. Now Damon broke it.

Your ancestors were hunters too? he asked, as if she were telepathic. He waited a moment – stil silence. Okay – no telepathy. That was good. He nodded at the magnificent stave. "That was certainly made for a lord or lady."

Meredith wasn't stupid. She spoke without glancing away from his eyes. She was ready, at any instant, to go into kil ing mode. "We're just ordinary folk, trying to get a job done so innocent humans wil be safer."

"By kil ing the odd vampire or two."

"Wel , so far in recorded history saying 'Naughty, naughty, Mama spank'has failed to convert a single vampire to vegetarianism."

Damon had to laugh. "Pity you weren't born early enough to convert Stefan. He could have been your grand triumph."

"You think that's funny. But we do have converts."

"Yes. People wil say anything while you're holding a pointed stick at them."

"People who feel that it's wrong to Influence other people into believing they're getting something for nothing."

"That's it! Meredith! Let me Influence you!"

This time it was Meredith who laughed.

"No, I'm serious! When I'm a vampire again, let me Influence you not to be so much afraid of a bite. I swear I won't take more than a teaspoon. But that would give me time to show you – "

"A nice big house of candy that never existed? A relative who died ten years ago and who would have abhorred the thought of you taking my memory of her and using it as a lure? A dream of ending world hunger that doesn't put food into one mouth?"

This girl, thought Damon, is dangerous. It's like a Counter-Influence that they've taught to their members. Wanting her to see that vampires, or ex-vampires, or Once and Future Vampires had some good qualities – like courage – he let go of the pil owcase and grasped the end of the fighting stave with both hands.

Meredith raised an eyebrow. "Did I not just recently tel you that a number of those spikes you've just driven into your flesh are poisonous? Or were you not listening?"

She had automatical y grabbed the stave as wel , above the dangerous zone.

"You told me,"he said inscrutably – he hoped.

"I particularly said 'poisonous to humans as wel as to werewolves and other things' – recal it?"

"You told me that, too. But I'd rather die than live as a human, so: Let the games begin."And with that, Damon began to push the two-headed stave toward Meredith's heart.

She immediately clamped down on the stave as wel , pushing it back toward him. But he had three advantages, as they both soon realized. He was slightly tal er and more strongly muscled even than lithe, athletic Meredith; he had a longer reach than hers; and he had taken up a much more aggressive position. Even though he could feel poisoned little spikes biting into his palms, he thrust forward and up until the kil ing point was once again near her heart. Meredith pushed back with an amazing amount of strength and then suddenly, somehow, they were even again.

Damon glanced up to see how that had happened, and saw, to his shock, that she also had grasped the stave in the kil ing zone. Now her hands were dripping blood onto the floor just as his were.

"Meredith!"

"What? I take my job seriously."

Despite her gambit, he was stronger. Inch by inch, he forced his torn palms to hang on, his arms to exert pressure. And inch by inch she was forced backward, refusing to quit – until there was no more room to back up.

And there they stood, the entire length of the stave between them, and the refrigerator flat against Meredith's back.

Al Damon could think of was Elena. If he somehow survived this – and Meredith did not – then what would those malachite eyes say to him? How would he live with what they said?

And then, with infuriating timing, like a chess player knocking over her own king, Meredith let go of the spear, conceding Damon's superior strength.

After which, seeming to have no fear of turning her back on him, she took a jar ful of salve from a kitchen cupboard, scooped out a dol op of the contents, and motioned for Damon to hold out his hands. He frowned. He'd never heard of a poison that got into the blood that could be cured by external measures.

"I didn't put real poison in the human needles,"she said calmly. "But your palms wil be torn and this is an excel ent remedy. It's ancient, passed down for generations."

"How kind of you to share," – at his most sharply ironic.

"And now what are we going to do? Start al over again?"he added as Meredith calmly began to rub salve into her own hands.

"No. Hunter-slayers have a code, you know. You won the sphere. I assume you're planning to do what Sage seems to have done. Open the Gate to the Dark Dimension."

"Open the Gate to the Dark Dimensions,"he corrected.

"Probably I should have mentioned – there's more than one.

But al I want is to become a vampire again. And we can talk as we go, since I see we're both wearing our cat burglar costumes."

Meredith was dressed much as he was, in black jeans and a lightweight black sweater. With her long shining dark hair she looked unexpectedly beautiful. Damon, who had considered running her through with the stave, just as his obligation to vampire-kind, now found himself wavering. If she gave him no trouble on his way to the Gate, he would let her go, he decided. He was feeling magnanimous – for the first time he had faced down and conquered the fearsome Meredith, and besides, she had a code as he did. He felt a sort of kinship with her.

With ironic gal antry, he waved her on before him, retaining possession of the pil owcase and the fighting stave himself.

As Damon quietly shut the front door he saw that dawn was about to break. Perfect timing. The stave caught the first rays of light. "I have a question for you,"he said to Meredith's long, silky dark hair. "You said that you didn't find this gorgeous stave until after Klaus – that wicked Old One – was dead. But if you're from a hunter-slayer family you might have been more help in getting him dispatched. Like mentioning that only white ash could kil him."

"It was because my parents didn't actively pursue the family business – they didn't know. They were both from hunter families, of course – you have to be, to keep it out of the tabloids and – "

" – police files – "

"Do you want me to talk, or can you do your stand-up routine alone?"

"Point taken" – hefting the extremely pointed stave. "I'l listen."

"But even though they chose not to be active, they knew that a vampire or werewolf might decide to pick on their daughter if they found out her identity. So during school, I took

'harpsichord lessons'and 'riding lessons'one day a week each – have done since I was three. I'm a Black Belt Shihan, and a Taekwondo Saseung. I might start Dragon Kung Fu – "

"Point taken once more. But then how exactly did you find that gorgeous kil ing stick?"

"After Klaus was dead, while Stefan was babysitting Elena, suddenly Grandpa started talking – just single words – but it made me go look in our attic. I found this."

"So you really don't know how to use it?"

"I'd just started practicing when Shinichi turned up. But, no, I don't real y have a clue. I'm pretty good with a bo staff, though, so I just use it like that."

"You didn't use it like a bo staff on me."

"I was hoping to persuade you, not kil you. I couldn't think of how to explain to Elena that I'd broken al your bones."

Damon kept himself from laughing – barely.

"So how did a couple of inactive hunter-slayers end up moving to a town on top of a few hundred crossing ley lines?"

"I'm guessing they didn't know what a line of natural Power was. And Fel 's Church looked smal and peaceful – back then."

They found the Gateway just as Damon had seen it before, a neat rectangular piece sliced out of the earth, about five feet deep.

"Now sit down there,"he adjured Meredith, putting her on the opposite corner from where he lay the stave.

"Have you given a thought – even the briefest – as to what wil happen to Misao if you pour out all the liquid in there?"

"Actual y, not one. Not one microsecond's worth,"Damon said cheerful y. "Why? Do you think she would for me?"

Meredith sighed. "No. That's the problem with both of you."

"She's certainly your problem at the moment, although I may stop by sometime after the town's destroyed to have a little t��te-��-t��te with her brother about the concept of keeping an oath."

"After you've gotten strong enough to beat him."

"Well, why don't you do something? It's your town they've devastated, after al ,"Damon said. "Children attacking themselves and each other, and now adults attacking children – "

"They're either scared to death or possessed by those malach the foxes are stil spreading everywhere – "

"Yes, and so fear and paranoia keep spreading too. Fel 's Church may be little by the standards of other genocides they've caused, but it's an important place because it's sitting on top – "

"Of al those ley lines ful of magical power – yes, yes, I know.

But don't you care at al ? About us? Their future plans for us?

Doesn't any of it matter to you?"Meredith demanded.

Damon thought of the stil , smal figure in the first-floor bedroom and felt a sick qualm. "I told you already,"he snapped. "I'm coming back for a talk with Shinichi."

After which, careful y, he began to pour liquid from the uncorked star bal at one corner of the rectangle. Now that he was actual y at the Gate, he realized he had no idea what he should do. The proper procedure might be to jump in and pour out the star bal 's entire liquid in the middle. But four corners seemed to dictate four different places to pour, and he was sticking to that.

He expected Meredith to try to foul things up somehow.

Make a run for the house. Make some noise, at least. Attack him from behind now that he had dropped the stave. But apparently her code of honor forbade this.

Strange girl, he thought. But I'l leave her the stave, since it real y belongs to her family, and, anyway, it's going to get me kil ed the instant I land in the Dark Dimension. A slave carrying a weapon – especial y a weapon like that – won't have a chance.

Judiciously, he poured out almost al of the liquid left into the final corner and stepped back to see what would happen.

SSSS-bah! White! Blazing white light. That was al his eyes or his mind could take in at first.

And then, with a rush of triumph he thought: I've done it! The Gateway is open!

"The center of the upper Dark Dimension, please,"he said politely to the blazing hole. "A secluded al ey would probably be the best, if you don't mind."And then he jumped into the hole.

Except that he didn't. Just as he was starting to bend his knees, something hit him from the right. "Meredith! I thought – "

But it wasn't Meredith. It was Bonnie.

"You tricked me! You can't go in there!"She was sobbing and screaming.

"Yes, I can! Now let go of me – before it disappears!"He tried to pry her off, while his mind whirled uselessly. He'd left this girl – what? – an hour or so ago, so deeply asleep that she had looked dead. Just how much could that little body take?

"No! They'l kil you! And Elena wil kil me! But I'l get kil ed first because I'l stil be here!"

Awake, and actual y capable of putting together puzzles.

"Human, I told you to let go,"he snarled. He bared his teeth at her, which only caused her to bury her head in his jacket and cling on koala-bear style, wrapping both her legs around one of his.

A couple of real y hard slaps should dislodge her, he thought.

He lifted his hand.

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