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The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 12)

Elena checked the edges of the hotel room's draperies for signs of dawn. Bonnie was curled up, drowsing in a chair by the window. Elena and Meredith had been up all night, and now they were surrounded by scattered printouts, newspapers, and pictures from the Internet.

"It's already spread beyond Fell's Church," Meredith explained, pointing to an article in one of the papers. "I don't know if it's following ley lines, or being controlled by Shinichi – or is just moving on its own, like any parasite."

"Did you try to contact Alaric?"

Meredith glanced at Bonnie's sleeping figure. She spoke softly, "That's the good news. I'd been trying to get him forever, and I finally managed. He'll be arriving in Fell's Church soon – he just has one more stop first."

Elena drew her breath in. "One more stop that's more important than what's going on in that town?"

"That's why I didn't tell Bonnie about him coming. Or Matt either. I knew they wouldn't understand. But – I'll give you one guess as to what kind of legends he's following up in the Far East." Meredith fixed dark eyes on Elena's.

"Not…it is, isn't it? Kitsune?"

"Yes, and he's going to a very ancient place where they were supposed to have destroyed the town – just as Fell's Church is being destroyed. Nobody lives there now. That name – Unmei no Shima – means the Island of Doom. Maybe he'll find something important about fox spirits there. He's doing some kind of multicultural independent study with Sabrina Dell. She's Alaric's age, but she's already a famous forensic anthropologist."

"And you're not jealous?" Elena said awkwardly. Personal issues were difficult to talk about with Meredith. Asking her questions always felt like prying.

"Well." Meredith tipped back her head. "It isn't as if we have any formal engagement."

"But you never told anybody about all this."

Meredith lowered her head and gave Elena a quick look. "I have now," she said.

For a moment the girls sat together in silence. Then Elena said quietly, "The Shi no Shi, the kitsune, Isobel Saitou, Alaric and his Island of Doom – they may not have anything to do with each other. But if they do, I'm going to find out what it is."

"And I'm going to help," Meredith said simply. "But I had thought that after I graduated…"

Elena couldn't stand it anymore. "Meredith, I promise, as soon as we get Stefan back and the town calmed down, we'll pin Alaric down with Plans A through Z," she said. She leaned forward and kissed Meredith's cheek. "That's a velociraptor sisterhood oath, okay?"

Meredith blinked twice, swallowed once, and whispered, "Okay." Then, abruptly, she was her old efficient self again. "Thank you," she said. "But cleaning up the town might not be such an easy job. It's already heading toward mass chaos there."

"And Matt wanted to be in the middle of it all? Alone?" Elena asked.

"Like we said, he and Mrs. Flowers are a solid team," Meredith said quietly. "And it's what he's chosen."

"Well," Elena said drily, "he may turn out to have the better deal in the end, after all."

They went back to the scattered papers. Meredith picked up several pictures of kitsune guarding shrines in Japan.

"It says they're usually depicted with a 'jewel' or key." She held up a picture of a kitsune holding a key in its mouth at the main gate of the Fushimi Shrine.

"Aha," Elena said. "Looks like the key's got two wings, doesn't it?"

"Exactly what Bonnie and I thought. And the 'jewels'…well, take a close look." Elena did and her stomach lurched. Yes, they were like the "snow globe" orbs that Shinichi had used to create unbreakable traps in the Old Wood.

"We found they're called hoshi no tama," Meredith said. "And that translates to 'star balls.' Each kitsune puts a measure of their power into one, along with other things, and destroying the ball is one of the only ways to kill them. If you find a kitsune's star ball, you can control the kitsune. That's what Bonnie and I want to do."

"But how do you find it?" Elena asked, excited by the idea of controlling Shinichi and Misao.

"Sa…" Meredith said, pronouncing the word "sah" like a sigh. Then she gave one of her rare brilliant smiles. "In Japanese, that means: 'I wonder; hmm; wouldn't want to comment; my gosh, golly, I really couldn't say.' We could use a word like that in English."

Despite herself, Elena giggled.

"But, then, other stories say that kitsune can be killed by the Sin of Regret or by blessed weapons. I don't know what the Sin of Regret is, but – " She rummaged in her luggage, and came up with an old-fashioned but serviceable-looking revolver.

"Meredith!"

"It was my grandpa's – one of a pair. Matt's got the other one. They're loaded with bullets blessed by a priest."

"What priest would bless bullets, for God's sake?" Elena demanded.

Meredith's smile turned bleak. "One that's seen what's happening in Fell's Church. You remember how Caroline got Isobel Saitou possessed, and what Isobel did to herself?"

Elena nodded. "I remember," she said tautly.

"Well, do you remember how we told you that Obaasan – Grandma Saitou – used to be a shrine maiden? That's a Japanese priestess. She blessed the bullets for us, all right, and specifically for killing kitsune. You should have seen how spooky the ritual was. Bonnie almost fainted again."

"Do you know how Isobel is doing now?"

Meredith shook her dark head slowly. "Better but – I don't think she even knows about Jim yet. That's going to be very tough on her."

Elena tried to quell a shudder. There was nothing but tragedy in store for Isobel even when she got well. Jim Bryce, her boyfriend, had spent only one night with Caroline, but now had Lesch-Nye disease – or so the doctors said. In that same dreadful night that Isobel had pierced herself everywhere, and cut her tongue so that it forked, Jim, a handsome star basketball player, had eaten away his fingers and his lips. In Elena's opinion they were both possessed and their injuries were only more reasons why the kitsune twins had to be stopped.

"We'll do it," she said aloud, realizing for the first time that Meredith was holding her hand as if Elena were Bonnie. Elena managed a faint but determined smile for Meredith. "We'll get Stefan out and we'll stop Shinichi and Misao. We have to do it."

This time it was Meredith who nodded.

"There's more," she said at last. "You want to hear it?"

"I need to know everything."

"Well, every single source I checked agrees that kitsune possess girls and then lead boys to destruction. What kind of destruction depends on where you look. It can be as simple as appearing as a will-o'-the-wisp and leading you into a swamp or off a cliff, or as difficult as shapeshifting."

"Oh, yes," Elena said tightly. "I knew that from what happened to you and Bonnie. They can look exactly like someone."

"Yes, but always with some small flaw if you have the wits to notice it. They can never make a perfect replicate. But they can have up to nine tails, and the more tails they have, the better at everything they are."

"Nine? Terrific. We've never even seen a nine-tailed one."

"Well, we may get to yet. They're supposed to be able to cross over freely from one world to another. Oh, yes. And they're specifically in charge of the 'Kimon' Gate between dimensions. Want to guess what that translates to?"

Elena stared at her. "Oh, no."

"Oh, yes."

"But why would Damon take us all the way across the country, just to get in through a Demon Gate that's run by fox spirits?"

"Sa…But when Matt told us you were headed to someplace near Sedona, that was really what decided Bonnie and me."

"Great." Elena ran her hands through her hair and sighed. "Anything else?" she asked, feeling like a rubber band that had been stretched to its utmost.

"Only this, which ought to really bake your cookies after all we've been through. Some of them are good. Kitsune, I mean."

"Some of them are good – good what? Good fighters? Good assassins? Good liars?"

"No, really, Elena. Some of them are supposed to be like gods and goddesses who sort of test you, and if you pass the test they reward you."

"Do you think we should count on finding one like that?"

"Not really."

Elena dropped her head to the coffee table where Meredith's printouts were scattered. "Meredith, seriously, how are we going to deal with them when we go through that Demon Gate? My Power is about as reliable as a low battery. And it's not just the kitsune; it's all the different demons and vampires – Old Ones, too! What are we going to do?"

She raised her head and looked deeply into the eyes of her friend – those dark eyes that she had never been able to classify as this color or that.

To her surprise, Meredith instead of looking sober, tossed back the dregs of a Diet Coke and smiled.

"No Plan A yet?"

"Well…maybe just an idea. Nothing definite yet. What about you?"

"A few that might qualify for Plans B and C. So what we're going to do is what we always do – try our best and fall all over ourselves and make mistakes until you do something brilliant and save us all."

"Merry" – Meredith blinked. Elena knew why – she hadn't used that diminutive for Meredith for more years than she could remember. None of the three girls liked pet names or used them. Elena went on very seriously, holding Meredith's eyes, "There's nothing I want more than to save everybody – everybody – from these kitsune bastards. I'd give my life for Stefan and all of you. But…this time it may be somebody else who takes the bullet."

"Or the stake. I know. Bonnie knows. We talked about it while we were flying here. But we're still with you, Elena. You have to know that. We're all with you."

There was only one way to reply to that. Elena gripped Meredith's hand in both of hers. Then she let out her breath, and, like probing an aching tooth, tried to get news on a sore subject. "Does Matt – did he – well, how was Matt when you left?"

Meredith glanced at her sideways. Not much got past Meredith. "He seemed okay, but – distracted. He would go off into these fits where he'd just stare at nothing, and he wouldn't hear you if you spoke to him."

"Did he tell you why he left?"

"Well…sort of. He said that Damon was hypnotizing you and that you weren't – weren't doing all you could to stop him. But he's a boy and boys get jealous – "

"No, he was right about what he saw. It's just that I've – gotten to know Damon a little better. And Matt doesn't like that."

"Um-hm." Meredith was watching her from under lowered eyelids, barely breathing, as if Elena was a bird that mustn't be disturbed or she'd fly away.

Elena laughed. "It's nothing bad," she said. "At least I don't think so. It's just that…in some ways Damon needs help even more than Stefan did when he first came to Fell's Church."

Meredith's eyebrows shot up, but all she said was, "Um-hm."

"And…I think that really Damon's a lot more like Stefan than he lets on."

Meredith's eyebrows stayed up. Elena finally looked at her. She opened her mouth once or twice and then she just stared at Meredith. "I'm in trouble, aren't I?" she said helplessly.

"If all this comes from less than one week riding in a car with him…then, yes. But we have to remember that women are Damon's specialty. And he thinks he's in love with you."

"No, he really is – " Elena began, and then she caught her lower lip between her teeth. "Oh, God, this is Damon we're talking about. I am in trouble."

"Let's just watch and see what happens," Meredith said sensibly. "He's definitely changed, too. Before, he would have just told you that your friends couldn't come – and that was it. Today he stuck around and listened."

"Yes. I just have to – to be on my guard from now on," Elena said, a little unsteadily. How was she going to help the child inside Damon without getting closer to him? And how would she explain all she might need to do to Stefan?

She sighed.

"It'll probably be all right," Bonnie muttered sleepily. Meredith and Elena both turned to look at her and Elena felt a chill go up her spine. Bonnie was sitting propped up, but her eyes were shut and her voice was indistinct. "The real question is: what will Stefan say about that night at the motel with Damon?"

"What?" Elena's voice was sharp and loud enough to awaken any sleeper. But Bonnie didn't stir.

"What happened what night at what motel?" Meredith demanded. When Elena didn't answer immediately, she caught Elena's arm and swung her so that they were face-to-face.

At last Elena looked at her friend. But her eyes, she knew, gave away nothing.

"Elena, what's she talking about? What happened with Damon?"

Elena still kept her face perfectly expressionless, and used a word she'd learned just that night. "Sa…"

"Elena, you're impossible! You're not going to dump Stefan after you rescue him, are you?"

"No, of course not!" Elena was hurt. "Stefan and I belong together – forever."

"But still you spent a night with Damon where something happened between you."

"Something…I guess."

"And that something was?"

Elena smiled apologetically. "Sa…"

"I'll get it out of him! I'll put him on the defensive…."

"You can make a Plan A and Plan B and all," Elena said. "But it won't help. Shinichi took his memories away. Meredith, I'm sorry – you don't know how sorry. But I swore that nobody would ever know." She looked up at the taller girl, feeling tears pool in her eyes. Can't you just – once – let me leave it that way?"

Meredith sank bank. "Elena Gilbert, the world is lucky there is only one of you. You are the…" She paused, as if deciding whether to say the words or not. Then she said, "It's time to get to bed. Dawn is going to come early and so is the Demon Gate."

"Merry?"

"What now?"

"Thank you."

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