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The Return: Nightfall (Chapter 27)

When Damon woke up, he was wrestling with the wheel of the Ferrari. He was on a narrow road, heading almost straight into a glorious sunset – and the passenger door was waving open.

Once again, only the combination of almost instantaneous reflex and perfectly designed automobile allowed him to keep out of the wide, muddy ditches on either side of the one-lane road. But he managed it and ended up with the sunset at his back, gazing at the long shadows down the road and wondering what the hell had just happened to him.

Was he sleep-driving now? The passenger door – why was it open?

And then something happened. A long, thin thread, slightly waving, almost like a single strand of gossamer, lit up as the reddish sunlight hit it. It was dangling from the top of the passenger window, which was shut, with the roof down.

He didn't bother to pull the car to one side, but stopped in the middle of the road and went around to look at that hair.

In his fingers, held toward the light, it turned white. But turned toward the dark of the forest, it showed its true color: gold.

A long, slightly waving, golden hair.

Elena.

As soon as he had identified it, he got back into the car and began to backtrack. Something had ripped Elena right out of his car without putting so much as a scratch on the paint. What could have done that?

How had he managed to get Elena to go for a spin anyway? And why couldn't he remember? Had they both been attacked…?

When he backtracked, however, the marks by the passenger's side of the road told the entire grisly story. For some reason, Elena had been frightened into jumping out of the car – or some power had pulled her. And Damon, who now felt as if there were steam rising from his skin, knew that in all the woods there were only two creatures that could have been responsible.

He sent out a scouting probe, a simple circle that was meant to be undetectable, and almost lost control of the car again.

Merda!That blast had come out as a sphere-shaped killing strafe – birds were dropping out of the sky. It tore through the Old Wood, through Fell's Church, which surrounded it, and into the areas beyond, before finally dying out hundreds of miles away.

Power? He wasn't a vampire, he was Death Incarnate. Damon had a vague thought of pulling over and waiting until the turmoil inside himself had stopped. Where had such Power come from?

Stefan would have stopped, would have dithered around, wondering. Damon just grinned savagely, gunned the engine, and sent thousands of probes raining from the sky, all attuned to catch a fox-shaped creature running or hiding in the Old Wood.

He got a hit in a tenth of a second.

There. Under a black cohosh bush, if he wasn't mistaken – under some unspeakable bush, anyway. And Shinichi knew he was coming.

Good. Damon sent a wave of Power directly at the fox, catching it in akekkai , a sort of invisible rope-barrier that he tightened deliberately, slowly, around the struggling animal. Shinichi fought back, with killing force. Damon used the kekkai to pick him up bodily and slam the little fox body into the ground. After a few of these slams Shinichi decided to stop fighting and played dead instead. That was fine with Damon. It was the way he thought Shinichi looked best, except for the bit about playing.

At last he had to stash the Ferrari between two trees and ran swiftly to the bush where Shinichi was now fighting the barrier around him to get into human form.

Standing back, eyes narrowed, arms crossed on his chest, Damon watched the struggle for a while. Then he let up enough on the kekkai's field to allow the change.

And the instant Shinichi became human, Damon's hands were around his throat.

"Where is Elena, kono bakayarou?" In a lifetime as a vampire you learned a lot of curse words. Damon preferred to use those of a victim's native language. He called Shinichi everything he could think of, because Shinichi was fighting, and was Calling telepathically for his sister. Damon had some choice things to say aboutthat in Italian, where hiding behind your younger twin sister was…well, good for alot of creative cursing.

He felt another fox-shape racing at him – and he realized that Misao intended to kill. She was in her true shape as a kitsune: just like the russet thing he'd tried to run over while driving with Damaris. A fox, yes, but a fox with two, three…six tails altogether. The extra ones usually were invisible, he gathered, as he neatly caught her in a kekkai as well. But she was ready to show them, ready to use all her powers to rescue her brother.

Damon contented himself with holding her as she struggled vainly within the barrier, and saying to Shinichi, "Your baby sister fights better than you do,bakayarou . Now,give me Elena. "

Shinichi changed forms abruptly and leaped for Damon's throat, sharp white teeth in evidence, top and bottom. They were both too keyed up, too high on testosterone – and Damon, on his new Power – to let it go.

Damon actually felt the teeth scrape his throat before he got his hands again around the fox's neck. But this time Shinichi was showing his tails, a fan that Damon didn't bother to count.

Instead he stomped one neat boot on the fan andpulled with his other two hands. Misao, watching, shrieked in anger and anguish. Shinichi thrashed and arched, golden eyes fixed on Damon's. In another minute his spine would crack.

"I'll enjoy that," Damon told him sweetly. "Because I'll bet that Misao knows whatever you know. Too bad you won't be here to seeher die."

Shinichi, rabid with fury, seemed willing to die and condemn Misao to Damon's mercies just to avoid losing the fight. But then his eyes darkened abruptly, his body went limp, and words appeared faintly in Damon's mind.

…hurts…can't…think…

Damon regarded him gravely. Now, Stefan, at this point, would release a good deal of the pressure on the kitsune so the poor little fox could think, Damon, on the other hand, increased the pressure briefly, then released it back to the previous level.

"Is that better?" he asked solicitously. "Can the cute little foxie think now?"

You…bastard…

Angry as he was, Damon suddenly remembered the point of all this.

"What happened to Elena?Her trail runs out up against a tree. Is sheinside it? You have seconds left to live, now. Talk."

"Talk," seconded another voice, and Damon barely glanced up at Misao. He'd left her relatively unguarded and she'd found power and room to change into her human shape. He took it in instantaneously, dispassionately.

She was small-boned and petite, looking like any Japanese schoolgirl, except that her hair was just like her brother's – black tipped with red. The only difference was that the red in her hair was lighter and brighter – a truly brilliant scarlet. The bangs that fell into her eyes had blazing fiery tips, and so did the silky dark hair falling over her shoulders. It was striking but the only neurons that lit in Damon's mind in response were connected to fire and danger and deception.

She might have fallen into a trap,Shinichi managed.

A trap?Damon frowned.What kind of trap?

I'll take you to where you can look into them,Shinichi said evasively.

"And the fox can suddenly think again. But you know what? I don't think you're cute at all," Damon whispered, then dropped the kitsune on the ground. Shinichi-as-a-human fountained up, and Damon dropped the barrier just long enough to let the fox in human form try to take his head off with one punch. He leaned away from it easily, and returned it with a blow that knocked Shinichi back into the tree hard enough to bounce. Then, while the kitsune was still dazed and glassy-eyed, he picked him up, slung him over one shoulder, and started back to the car.

What about me?Misao was trying to curb furious and sound pathetic, but she really wasn't very good at it.

"You're not cute, either," Damon said, recklessly. He could get to like this super-Power thing. "But if you mean, when do you get out, it's when I get Elena back. Safe and healthy, with all her bits attached."

He left her cursing. He wanted to get Shinichi to wherever they had to go while the fox was still dazed and in pain.

Elena was counting. Go straight one, go straight two – untangle crutch from creeper, three, four, go straight five – it was definitely getting darker now, go straight six, caught by something in hair,yank , seven, eight, go straight – damn! A fallen tree. Too high to scramble over. She'd have to go around it. All right, to the right, one, two, three – a long tree – seven steps. Seven steps back – now,sharp right turn and keep walking. Much as you'd like to, you can't count any of those steps. So you're at nine. Straighten yourself because the tree was perpendicular – dear heaven, it's pitch dark now. Call that eleven and –

– she was flying. What had caused her crutch to slip, she didn't know, couldn't tell. It was too dark to go frisking around, maybe finding herself a case of poison oak. What she had to do was to think about things, to think so that this all-pervading hellish pain in her left leg would quiet down. It hadn't helped her right arm either – that instinctive windmilling, trying to catch something and save herself. God, that fall had hurt. The whole side of her body hurt so much –

But she had to get to civilization because she believed only civilization could help Matt.

You have to get up again, Elena.

I'mdoing it!

Now – she couldn't see anything, but she had a pretty good idea which way she'd been pointed when she'd fallen. And if she was wrong, she would hit the road and be able to backtrack.

Twelve, thirteen – she kept counting, kept talking to herself. When she reached twenty she felt relief and joy. Any minute now, she'd hit the driveway.

Any minute now, she'd hit it.

It was pitch black out, but she was careful to scuff the ground so she would know, the minute she hit it.

Any…minute…now…

When Elena reached forty she knew she was in trouble.

But where could she have gone so far wrong? Every time some small obstacle had made her turn right, she'd turned carefully left the next time. And there was that whole line of landmarks in her way, the house, the barn, the small cornfield. How could she have gotten lost?How? It had only been half a minute in the forest…only a few steps in the Old Wood.

Even the trees were changing. Where she had been, near the road, most of the trees had been hickory or tulip. Now she was in a thicket of white oaks and red oaks…and conifers.

Old oaks…and on the ground, needles and leaves that muffled her foot-hops into soundlessness.

Soundlessness…but she needed help!

"Mrs. Dunstan! Mr. Dunstan! Kristin! Jake!" She threw the names out into a world that was doing its best to muffle her voice. In fact, in the darkness she could discern a certain swirling wispy grayness that seemed to be – yes – it was fog.

"Mrs. Dunstaa – a-aan! Mr. Dunstaa-aa-an! Kriiiissstiiiinnn! Jaaa-aaake!"

She needed shelter; she needed help. Everything hurt, most of all her left leg and right shoulder. She could just imagine what a sight she would make: covered in mud and leaves from falling every few feet, her hair in a wild mop from being caught on trees, blood everywhere….

One good thing: she certainly didn't look like Elena Gilbert. Elena Gilbert had long silky hair that was always perfectly coifed or charminglydishabille . Elena Gilbert set the fashions in Fell's Church and would never be seen wearing a torn camisole and jeans covered with mud. Whoever they thought this forlorn stranger was, they wouldn't think she was Elena.

But the forlorn stranger was feeling a sudden qualm. She'd walked through woods all her life and never had her hair caught once. Oh, of course she had been able to see then, but she didn't remember having to step out of her way often to avoid it.

Now, it was as if the trees were deliberately reaching down to catch and snag her hair. She had to hold her body clumsily still and try to whip her head away in the worst cases – she couldn't manage to stay upright and get the tendril torn out as well.

But painful as the tearing at her hair was, nothing scared her like the grabbing at her legs.

Elena had grown up playing in this forest, and there had always been plenty of room to walk without hurting herself. But now…things were reaching out, fibrous tendrils were grabbing at her ankle just where it hurt most. And then it was agony to try to rip with her fingers at these thick, sap-coated, stinging roots.

I'm frightened, she thought, putting into words at last what all her feelings had been since she stepped into the darkness of the Old Wood. She was damp with dew and sweat, her hair was as wet as if she'd been standing in the rain. It was so dark! And now her imagination began to work, and unlike most people's imaginations it had genuine, solid information to workwith . A vampire's hand seemed to tangle in her hair. After an endless time of agony in her ankle and her shoulder, she had twisted the "hand" out of her hair – to find another curling stalk.

All right. She would ignore the pain and get her bearings here, here where there was a remarkable tree, a massive white pine that had a huge hole in its center, big enough for Bonnie to get into. She would put that flat at her back and then walk straight west – she couldn't see stars because of the cloud cover, but shefelt that west was to her left. If she were correct, it would bring her to the road. If she were wrong and it was north, it would take her to the Dunstans'. If it were south, it would eventually take her to another curve of the road. If it were east…well, it would be a long walk, but it would eventually take her to the creek.

But first she would gather all her Power, all the Power she'd been unconsciously using to dull the pain and give her strength – she would gather it and light up this place so she could see if the road was visible – or, better, a house – from where she stood. It was only a human's power but, again, the knowledge of how to use it made all the difference, she thought. She gathered the Power in one tight white ball and then loosed it, twisting to look around before it dissipated.

Trees. Trees. Trees.

Oaks and hickories, white pine and beech. No high ground to get to. In every direction, nothing but trees, as if she were lost in some grimly enchanted forest and could never get out.

But shewould get out. Any of those directions would take her to people eventually – even east. Even east, she could just follow the stream until it led to people.

She wished she had a compass.

She wished she could see the stars.

She was trembling all over, and it wasn't just from the cold. She was injured; she was terrified. But she had to forget about that. Meredith wouldn't cry. Meredith wouldn't be terrified. Meredith would find a sensible way to get out.

She had to get help for Matt.

Gritting her teeth to ignore the pain, Elena started off. If any of her wounds had happened to her in isolation, she would have made a big fuss about it, sobbing and writhing over the injury. But with so many different pains, it had all melted into one terrible agony.

Be careful now. Make sure you're going straight and not tilting off at an angle. Pick your next target in your straight line of sight.

The problem was that by now it was too dark to see much of anything. She could just make out deeply grooved bark straight ahead. A red oak probably. All right, go to it. Hop – oh, it hurts – hop – the tears washing down her cheeks – hop – just a little farther – hop – you can make it – hop. She put her hand out on shaggy bark. All right. Now, look straight in front of you. Ah. Something gray and rough and massive ahead – maybe a white oak. Hop to it – agony – hop – somebody help me – hop – how long will it take? – hop – not that far now – hop.There. She put her hand on the wide rough bark.

And then she did it again.

And again.

And again. And again. And again.

"What is it?" Damon demanded. He'd been forced to let Shinichi lead once they were out of the car again, but he still kept the kekkai loosely around him and he still watched every move the fox made. He didn't trust him as far as – well, the fact was, he didn't trust him at all. "What's behind the barrier?" he said again, more roughly, tightening the noose around the kitsune's neck.

"Our little cabin – Misao's and mine."

"And it wouldn't possibly be a trap, would it?"

"If you think so, fine! I'll go in alone…." Shinichi had finally changed into a half-fox, half-human form: black hair to his waist, with ruby-colored flames licking up from the ends, one silky tail with the same coloration behind him waving behind him, and two silky, crimson-tipped twitching ears on top of his head.

Damon approved aesthetically, but more important, he now had a ready-made handle. He caught Shinichi by the tail and twisted.

"Stop that!"

"I'll stop it when I get Elena – unless you waylaid her deliberately. If she's hurt, I'm going to take whoever harmed her and cut him into slivers. His life is forfeit."

"No matter who it was?"

"No matter who."

Shinichi was quivering slightly.

"Are you cold?"

"…just…admiring your resolve." More inadvertent quivering. Almost shaking his entire body.Laughter?

"At Elena's discretion, I would keep them alive. But in agony." Damon twisted the tail harder. "Move!"

Shinichi took another step and a charming country cabin came into view, with a gravel path leading up between wild creepers that loaded the porch and hung down like pendants.

It was exquisite.

Even as the pain grew, Elena began to have hope. No matter how turned around she was, shehad to come out of the forest at some point. She had to make it. The ground was solid – no sign of mushiness or slanting downward. She wasn't headed for the creek. She was headed for the road. She could tell.

She fixed her sights on a distant, smooth-barked tree. Then she hopped to it, the pain almost forgotten in her new feeling of certainty.

She fell against the massive, peeling, ash-gray tree. She was resting against it when something bothered her. Her dangling leg. Why wasn't it bumping painfully against the trunk? It had knocked continually against all the other trees when she turned to rest. She pulled back from the tree, and, as if she knew it were important, gathered all her Power and let it go in a burst of white light.

The tree with the huge hole in it, the tree she had started from, was in front of her.

For a moment Elena stood completely still, wasting Power, holding the light. Maybe it was some different…

No. She was on the other side of the tree, but it was the same one. That washer hair caught in the peeling gray bark. That dried blood washer handprint. Below it was where her bloody leg had left a mark – fresh.

She'd walked straight out and come straight back to this tree.

"Noooooooooooooo!"

It was the first vocalized sound she'd made since she'd fallen out of the Ferrari. She'd endured all that pain in silence, with little gasps or sharp breaths, but she'd never cursed and screamed. Now she wanted to do both.

Maybe it wasn't the same tree –

Nooooooo, nooooooo, noooooooooooo!

Maybe her Power would come back and she'd see that she'd only hallucinated –

No, no, no, no, no, no!

It just wasn't possible –

Nooooooo!

Her crutch slipped from under her arm. It had dug into her armpit so deeply that the pain there rivaled the other pains. Everything hurt. But worst was her mind. She had a picture in her mind of a sphere like the Christmas snow globes you shook to make snow or glitter fall through liquid. But this sphere had trees all over the inside. From top to bottom, side to side, all trees, all pointing toward the middle. And herself, wandering inside this lonely sphere…no matter where she went, she'd find more trees, because that was all there were in this world she'd stumbled into.

It was a nightmare, but something like it was real.

The trees were intelligent, too, she realized. The little creeping vines, the vegetation; even now it was pulling her crutch away from her. The crutch was moving as if being passed from hand to hand by very small people. She reached out and just barely grabbed the end of it.

She didn't remember having fallen to the ground, but here she was. And there was a smell, a sweet, earthy, resinous aroma. And here were creepers, testing her, tasting her. With delicate little touches, they wound into her hair so that she couldn't pick her head up. Then she could feel them tasting her body, her shoulder, her bloody knee. Nothing about it mattered.

She squeezed her eyes shut, her body heaving with sobs. The creepers were pulling at her wounded leg now, and instinctively she jerked away. For a moment the pain woke her up and she thought,I've got to get to Matt , but the next moment that thought was dulled, too. The sweet, resinous smell remained. The creepers felt their way across her moving chest, across her breasts. They encircled her stomach.

And then they began to tighten.

By the time Elena realized the danger, they were restricting her breathing. She couldn't expand her chest. As she let out her breath, they only tightened again, working together: all the little creepers like one giant anaconda.

She couldn't tear them away. They were tough and springy and her nails couldn't cut through them. Working her fingers under a handful, she pulled as hard as she could, scraping with her nails and twisting. Finally one fiber sprang loose with the sound of a harp's string breaking and a wild whipping in the air.

The rest of the creepers pulled tighter.

She was having to fight to get air now, fight not to contract her chest. Creepers were delicately touching her lips, swaying over her face like so many thin cobras, then suddenly striking and going taut around her cheek and head.

I'm going to die.

She felt a deep regret. She had been given the chance of a second lifetime – a third, if you counted her life as a vampire – and she hadn't done anything with it. Nothing but pursue her own pleasure. And now Fell's Church was in peril and Matt was in immediate danger, and not only was she not going to help them, she was going to give up and die right here.

What would be the right thing to do? The spiritual thing? Cooperate with evil now, and hope she'd have the chance to destroy it later? Maybe. Maybe all she needed to do was to ask for help.

The feeling of breathlessness was leaving her light-headed. She would never have believed it of Damon, that he would put her through all this, that he would allow her to be killed. Just days ago she had been defending him to Stefan.

Damon and the malach. Maybe she was his offering to them. They certainly demanded a lot.

Or maybe it was just that he wanted her to beg for help. He might be waiting in the darkness quite close, his mind centered on hers, waiting for a whisperedplease .

She tried to spark the last of her Power. It was almost depleted, but like a match, with repeated striking she managed to get a tiny white flame.

Now she visualized the flame going into her forehead. Into her head. Inside. There.

Now.

Through the fiery agony of not being able to draw a breath, she thought:Bonnie. Bonnie. Hear me.

No answer – but she wouldn't hear one.

Bonnie, Matt is in a clearing in a lane off the Old Wood. He may need blood or some other help. Look for him. In my car.

Don't worry about me. It's too late for me. Find Matt.

And that's all I can say, Elena thought wearily. She had a vague, sad intuition that she hadn't gotten Bonnie to hear her. Her lungs were exploding. This was a terrible way to die. She was going to be able to exhale one more time, and then there would be no more air….

Damn you, Damon, she thought, and then she concentrated all her thoughts, all her mind's reach on memories of Stefan. On the feeling of being held by Stefan, on Stefan's sudden leaping smile, on Stefan's touch.

Green eyes, leaf green, a color like a leaf held up to sunlight…

The decency he had somehow managed to retain, untainted…

Stefan…I love you….

I'll always love you….

I've loved you….

I love…

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