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The Return: Nightfall (Chapter 10)

Elena was serenely happy. Now it was her turn.

Stefan used a sharp wooden letter opener from his desk to cut himself. Elena always hated to see him do this, use the most efficient implement that would penetrate vampire skin; so she shut her eyes tightly and only looked again when red blood was trickling from a little cut on his neck.

"You don't need to take a lot – and you shouldn't," Stefan whispered, and she knew he was saying these things while hecould say them. "I'm not holding you too hard or hurting you?"

He was always so worried. This time,she kissedhim .

And she could see how strange he thought it was, that he wanted kisses more than he wanted her to take his blood. Laughing, Elena pushed him flat and hovered over him and went for the general area of the wound again, knowing that he thought she was going to tease him. But instead she fastened herself on the wound like a limpet and sucked hard,hard , until she had made him sayplease with his mind. But she wasn't satisfied until she made him sayplease out loud as well.

In the car, in the dimness, Matt and Meredith thought of the idea at the same time. She was faster, but they spoke almost together.

"I'm an idiot! Matt, where's the seatback release?"

"Bonnie, you have to unfold her seat backward! There's a little handle, you should be able to reach it and pull up!"

Bonnie's voice was hitching now, hiccupping. "My arms – they're sort of poking into – my arms – "

"Bonnie," Meredith said thickly. "I know you can do it. Matt – is the handle right – under – the front seat or – "

"Yes. At the edge. One – no, two o'clock." Matt didn't have breath for more. Once he had grabbed the tree, he found that if he loosened pressure for an instant, it pushed harder on his neck.

There's no choice, he thought. He took as much of a deep breath as he could, pushed back on the branch, hearing a cry from Meredith, andtwisted , feeling jagged splinters like thin wooden knives tear his throat and ear and scalp. Now he was free of the pressure on the back of his neck, although he was appalled by how much more tree there was in the car than the last time he had seen it. His lap was filled with branches; evergreen needles were thickly piled everywhere.

No wonder Meredith was so mad, he thought dizzily, turning toward her. She was almost buried in branches, one hand wrestling with something at her throat, but she saw him.

"Matt…get…your own seat! Quick! Bonnie, Iknow you can."

Matt dug and tore into the branches, then groped for the handle that would collapse the backrest of his seat. The handle wouldn't move. Thin, tough tendrils were wrapped around it, springy and hard to break. He twisted and snapped them savagely.

His seatback dropped away. He ducked under the huge arm-branch – if it still deserved the name, since the car was full of similar huge branches now. Then, just as he reached to help Meredith, her seat abruptly folded back, too.

She fell with it, away from the evergreen, gasping for air. For an instant she just lay still. Then she finished scrambling into the backseat proper, dragging a needle-shrouded figure with her. When she spoke, her voice was hoarse and her speech was still slow.

"Matt. Bless you…for having…this jigsaw puzzle…of a car." She kicked the front seat back into position, and Matt did likewise.

"Bonnie," Matt said numbly.

Bonnie didn't move. Many tiny branches were still entwining her, caught in the fabric of her shirt, wound into her hair.

Meredith and Matt both started pulling. Where the branches let go, they left welts or tiny puncture wounds.

"It's almost as if they were trying to grow into her," Matt said, as a long, thin branch pulled away, leaving bloody pinpricks behind.

"Bonnie?" Meredith said. She was the one disentangling the twigs from Bonnie's hair. "Bonnie? Come on, up. Look at me."

The shaking began again in Bonnie's body, but she let Meredith turn her face up. "I didn't think I could do it."

"You saved my life."

"I was so scared…."

Bonnie went on crying quietly against Meredith's shoulder.

Matt looked at Meredith just as the map light flickered and went out. The last thing he saw was her dark eyes, which held an expression that made him suddenly feel even sicker to his stomach. He looked out the three windows he could now see from the backseat.

It should have been hard to see anything at all. But what he was looking for was pressed right up against the glass. Needles. Branches. Solid against every inch of the windows.

Nevertheless, he and Meredith, without needing to say anything, each reached for a backseat door handle. The doors clicked, opened a fraction of an inch; then they slammed back hard with a very definitivewham .

Meredith and Matt looked at each other. Meredith looked down again and began to pluck more twigs off Bonnie.

"Does that hurt?"

"No. A little…"

"You're shaking."

"It's cold."

It was cold now. Outside the car, rather than through the once-open window that was now completely plugged with evergreen, Matt could hear the wind. It whistled, as if through many branches. There was also the sound of wood creaking, startlingly loud and ridiculously high above. It sounded like a storm.

"What thehell was it, anyway?" he exploded, kicking the front seat viciously. "The thing I swerved for on the road?"

Meredith's dark head lifted slowly. "I don't know; I was about to roll up the window. I only got a glimpse."

"It just appeared right in the middle of the road."

"A wolf?"

"It wasn't there and then itwas there."

"Wolves aren't that color. It was red," Bonnie said flatly, lifting her head from Meredith's shoulder.

"Red?" Meredith shook her head. "It was much too big to be a fox."

"Itwas red, I think," Matt said.

"Wolves aren't red…what about werewolves? Does Tyler Smallwood have any relatives with red hair?"

"It wasn't a wolf," Bonnie said. "It was…backward."

"Backward?"

"Its head was on the wrong side. Or maybe it had heads on both ends."

"Bonnie, you arereally scaring me," Meredith said.

Matt wouldn't say it, but she was really scaring him, too. Because his glimpse of the animal had seemed to show him the same kind of deformed shape that Bonnie was describing.

"Maybe we just saw it at a weird angle," he said, while Meredith said, "It may just have been some animal scared out by – "

"By what?"

Meredith looked up at the top of the car. Matt followed her gaze. Very slowly, and with a groan of metal, the roof dented. And again. As if something very heavy was leaning on it.

Matt cursed himself. "While I was in the front seat, why didn't I just floor it – ?" He stared hungrily through branches, trying to make out the accelerator, the ignition. "Are the keys still there?"

"Matt, we ended up half in a ditch. And besides, if it would have done any good, I'd have told you to floor it."

"That branch would've taken your head off!"

"Yes," Meredith said simply.

"It would havekilled you!"

"If it would have gotten you two out, I'd have suggested it. But you were trapped looking sideways; I couldsee straight ahead. They were already here; the trees. In every direction."

"That…isn't…possible!" Matt pounded the seat in front of him to emphasize each word.

"Isthis possible?"

The roof creaked again.

"Both of you – stop fighting!" Bonnie said, and her voice broke on a sob.

There was an explosion like a gunshot and the car sank suddenly back and left.

Bonnie started. "What was that?"

Silence.

"…a tire blowing," Matt said at last. He didn't trust his own voice. He looked at Meredith.

So did Bonnie. "Meredith – the branches are filling up the front seat. I can hardly see the moonlight. It's getting dark."

"I know."

"What are we going todo ?"

Matt could see the tremendous tension and frustration in Meredith's face, as if everything she said should come out through gritted teeth. But Meredith's voice was quiet.

"I don't know."

With Stefan still shuddering, Elena curled herself like a cat over the bed. She smiled at him, a smile drugged with pleasure and love. He thought of grasping her by the arms, pulling her down, and starting all over again.

That was how insane she'd made him. Because he knew – all too well, from experience – the danger they were flirting with. Much more of this and Elena would be the first spirit-vampire, as she'd been the first vampire-spirit he'd known.

But look at her! He slipped out from beneath her as he sometimes did and just gazed, feeling his heart pound just at the sight of her. Her hair, true gold, fell like silk down to the bed and pooled there. Her body, in the light of the one small lamp in the room, seemed to be outlined in gold. She truly seemed to float and move and sleep in a golden haze. It was terrifying. For a vampire, it was as if he'd brought a living sun into his bed.

He found himself suppressing a yawn. She did that to him, too, like an unwitting Delilah taking Samson's strength away. Hyper-charged as he might be by her blood, he was also delightfully sleepy. He would spend a warm night in – or below – her arms.

In Matt's car it only got darker as the trees continued to cut out the moonlight. For a while they tried yelling for help. That did no good, and besides, as Meredith pointed out, they needed to conserve the oxygen in the car. So they sat still again.

Finally, Meredith reached into her jeans pocket and produced a set of keys with a tiny keychain flashlight. Its light was blue. She pressed it and they all leaned forward. Such a tiny thing to mean so much, Matt thought.

There was pressure against the front seats now.

"Bonnie?" Meredith said. "No one will hear us out here yelling. If anyone could hear us, they would have heard the tire and thought it was a gunshot."

Bonnie shook her head as if she didn't want to listen. She was still picking pine needles out of her skin.

She's right. We're miles away from anybody, Matt thought.

"There is something very bad here," Bonnie said. She said it quietly, but as if every word was being forced out one by one, like pebbles thrown into a pond.

Matt suddenly felt grayer. "How…bad?"

"It's so bad that it's…I'venever felt anything like this before. Not when Elena got killed, not from Klaus, not fromanything . I'venever feltanything as bad as this. It'sso bad, and it's sostrong . I didn't think anything could be so strong. It'spushing on me, and I'mafraid – "

Meredith cut her off. "Bonnie, I know we can both only think of one way out of this – "

"There'sno way out of this!"

" – I know you're afraid – "

"Who is there to call? I could do it…if there were someone to call. I can stare at your little flashlight and try to pretend it's a flame and do it – "

"Trancing?" Matt looked at Meredith sharply. "She's not supposed to do that anymore."

"Klaus is dead."

"But – "

"There's nobody to hear me!" Bonnie shrieked and then she broke down into huge sobs at last. "Elena and Stefan are too far away, and they're probably asleep by now! And there isn't anyone else!"

The three of them were being pushed together now, as branches pressed the seats back onto them. Matt and Meredith were close enough to look at each other right over Bonnie's head.

"Uh," Matt said, startled. "Um…are we sure?"

"No," Meredith said. She sounded both grim and hopeful. "Remember this morning? We are not at all sure. In factI'm sure he's still around somewhere."

Now Matt felt sick, and Meredith and Bonnie looked ill in the already strange-looking blue light. "And – right before this happened, we were talking about how a lot of stuff – "

" – basically everything that happened to change Elena – "

" – was all his fault."

"In the woods."

"With an open window."

Bonnie sobbed on.

Matt and Meredith, however, had made a silent agreement by eye contact. Meredith said, very gently, "Bonnie, what you said you would do; well, you're going to have to do it. Try to get through to Stefan, or waken Elena or – or apologize to…Damon. Probably the last, I'm afraid. But he's never seemed to want us all dead, and he must know that it won't help him with Elena if he kills her friends."

Matt grunted, skeptical. "He may not want us all dead, but he may wait until some of us are dead to save the others. I've never trus – "

"You've never wished him any harm," Meredith overrode him in a louder voice.

Matt blinked at her and then shut up. He felt like an idiot.

"So, here, the flashlight's on," Meredith said, and even in this crisis, her voice was steady, rhythmic, hypnotic. The pathetic little light was so precious, too. It was all they had to keep the darkness from becoming absolute.

But when the darkness became absolute, Matt thought, it would be because all light, all air, everything from the outside had been shut out, pushed out of the way by the pressure of the trees. And by then the pressure would have broken their skeletons.

"Bonnie?" Meredith's voice was the voice of every big sister who ever had come to her younger sibling's rescue. That gentle. That controlled. "Can you try to pretend it's a candle flame…a candle flame…a candle flame…and then try to trance?"

"I'm in trance already." Bonnie's voice was somehow distant – far away and almost echoing.

"Then ask for help," Meredith said softly.

Bonnie was whispering, over and over, clearly oblivious to the world around her: "Please, come help us. Damon, if you can hear me, please accept our apologies and come. You gave us a terrible scare, and I'm sure we deserved it, but please, please help. It hurts, Damon. It hurts so bad I could scream. But instead I'm putting all that energy into Calling you. Please, please, please help…"

For five, ten, fifteen minutes she kept it up, as the branches grew, enclosing them with their sweet, resinous scent. She kept it up far longer than Matt had ever thought she could endure.

Then the light went out. After that there was no sound but the whisper of the pines.

You had to admire the technique.

Damon was once again lounging in midair, even higher this time than when he'd entered Caroline's third-story window. He still had no idea of the names of trees, but that didn't stop him. This branch was like having a box seat over the drama unfolding below. He was starting to get a little bored, since nothing new was happening on the ground. He'd abandoned Damaris earlier this evening whenshe had gotten boring, talking about marriage and other subjects he wished to avoid. Like her current husband. Bo-ring. He'd left without really checking to see if she'd become a vampire – he tended to think so, and wouldn't that be a surprise when hubby got home? His lips trembled on the edge of a smile.

Below him, the play had almost reached its climax.

And you really had to admire the technique. Pack hunting. He had no idea what sort of nasty little creatures were manipulating the trees, but like wolves or lionesses, they seemed to have gotten it down to an art. Working together to capture prey that was too quick and too heavily armored for one of them alone to manage. In this case, a car.

The fine art of cooperation. Pity vampires were so solitary, he thought. If we could cooperate, we'd own the world.

He blinked sleepily and then flashed a dazzling smile at nothing at all. Of course, if we could do that – say, take a city and divvy up the inhabitants – we'd finish it off by divvying up one another. Tooth and nail and Power would be wielded like the blade of a sword, until there was nothing left but shreds of quivering flesh and gutters running with blood.

Nice imagery, though, he thought, and let his eyelids droop to appreciate it. Artistic. Blood in scarlet pools, magically still liquid enough to run down white marble steps of – oh, say, the Kallimarmaron in Athens. An entire city gone quiet, purged of noisy, chaotic, hypocritical humans, with only their necessary bits left behind: a few arteries to pump the sweet red stuff out in quantity. The vampire version of the land of milk and honey.

He opened his eyes again in annoyance. Now things were getting loud down there. Humans yelling. Why? What was the point? The rabbit always squeals in the jaws of the fox, but when has another rabbit ever rushed up to save it?

There, a new proverb,and proof that humans are as stupid as rabbits, he thought, but his mood was ruined. His mind slid away from the fact, but it wasn't just the noise below that was disturbing him. Milk and honey, that had been…a mistake. Thinking about that had been a blunder. Elena's skin had been like milk that night a week ago, warm-white, not cool, even in the moonlight. Her bright hair in shadow had been like spilled honey. Elena wouldn't be happy to see the results of this night's pack hunting. She would cry tears like crystal dewdrops, and they would smell like salt.

Suddenly Damon stiffened. He sent one stealthy query of Power around him, a circle of radar.

But nothing bounced back, except the mindless trees at his feet. Whatever was orchestrating this, it was invisible.

Right, then. Let's trythis , he thought: Concentrating on all the blood he'd drunk in the last few days, he blasted out a wash of pure Power, like Vesuvius erupting with a deadly pyroclastic explosion. It encircled him completely in every direction, a fifty-mile-per-hour bubble of Power like superheated gas.

Because it was back. Unbelievably, the parasite was trying to do it again, to get into his mind. It had to be.

Lulling him, he supposed, rubbing the back of his neck with absentminded fury, while its packmates finished off their prey in the car. Whispering things into his mind to keep him still, taking his own dark thoughts and echoing them back a shade or two darker, in a cycle that might have ended in him flying off to kill and kill again for the pure black velvet enjoyment of it.

Now Damon's mind was cold and dark with fury. He stood, stretching his aching arms and shoulders, and then searched carefully, not with a simple radar ring, but with a blast of Power behind each stab, probing with his mind to find the parasite. It had to be out there; the trees were still going about their business. But he could find nothing, even though he'd used the fastest and most efficient method of scanning he knew: a thousand random stabs per second in a Drunkard's Walk search pattern. He should have found a dead body immediately. Instead he'd foundnothing .

That made him even angrier than before, but there was a tinge of excitement to his fury. He'd wanted a fight; a chance to kill where the killing would be meaningful. And now here was an opponent who met all the qualifications – and Damon couldn't kill it because he couldn't find it. He sent a message, lambent with ferocity, in all directions.

I have already warned you once. Now ICHALLENGEyou. Show yourself – OR ELSE STAY AWAY FROM ME!

He gathered Power, gathered it, gathered it again, thinking of all the different mortals who had contributed it. He held it, nurturing it, crafting it for its purpose, and raising its strength with all that his mind knew of fighting and of the skill and expertise of war. He held the Power until it felt as if he were holding a nuclear bomb in his arms. And then he let it go all at once, an explosion speeding in the opposite direction, away from him, nearing the speed of light.

Now, surely, he would feel the death throes of something enormously powerful and cunning – something that had managed to survive his previous strafings designed only for eldritch creatures.

Damon expanded his senses to their widest reach, waiting to hear or feel something shattering, combusting – something falling blind, with its own blood tumbling nearby, from a branch, from the air, fromsomewhere . Fromsomewhere a creature should have plummeted to the ground or raked at it with huge dinosaur-like claws – a creature half-paralyzed and completely doomed, cooked from the inside out. But although he could feel the wind rising to a howl and huge black clouds pooling above him in response to his own mood, he still could sense no dark creature close enough to have entered his thoughts.

How strong was this thing? Where was it coming from?

Just for a moment, a thought flashed through his mind. A circle. A circle with a dot at its center. And the circle was the blast he'd shot away in all directions, and the dot was the only place his blast didn't reach. Inside him alre –

Snap! Suddenly his thoughts went blank. And then he began, sluggishly, slightly bewildered, to try to put the fractured pieces together. He had been thinking about the blast of Power he'd sent out, yes? And how he'd expected to feel something fall and die.

Hell, he couldn't even sense any ordinary animals bigger than a fox in the woods. Although his sweep of Power had been carefully made to affect only creatures of his kind of darkness, the ordinary animals had been so spooked that they'd gone running wildly from the area. He peered down. Hm. Except the trees around the car; and they weren't after him. Besides, whatever they were, they were only the pawns of an invisible killer. Not really sentient – not within the boundaries he had crafted so carefully.

Could he have been wrong? Half his fury had been for himself, for being so careless, so well-fed and confident that he'd let down his guard.

Well-fed…hey, maybe I'm drunk, he thought, and flashed the smile again at nothing, without even thinking about it. Drunk and paranoid and edgy. Pissed and pissed off.

Damon relaxed against the tree. The wind was screaming now, swirling and freezing, the sky full of roiling black clouds that cut out any light from the moon or stars. Just his kind of weather.

He was still edgy, but he couldn't find any reason to be. The only disturbance in the aura of the woods was the tiny crying of a mind inside the car, like a trapped bird with only one note. That would be the little one, the redheaded witch with the delicate neck. The one who'd been whining about life changing too much.

Damon gave a little more of his weight to the tree. He'd followed the car with his mind out of absent interest. It wasn't his fault that he'd caught them talking about him, but it did degrade their chances of rescue a bit.

He blinked slowly.

Odd that they'd had an accident trying not to run over a creature in approximately the same area he'd almost crashed the Ferrari trying to run one over. Pity he hadn't had a glimpse of their creature, but the trees were too thick.

The redheaded bird was crying again.

Well, do you want a changenow or don't you, little witch? Make up your mind. You have to ask nicely.

And then, of course,I have to decide what kind of change you get.

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