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The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 14)

"All right," Damon said as he and Elena reached Bonnie and Meredith. "Now comes the hard part."

Meredith looked up at him. "Now comes…?"

"Yes. The really hard part." Damon had finally unzipped his mysterious black leather bag. "Look," he said in a bare murmur, "this is the actual Gate that we have to get through. And while we're doing it, you can have all the hysterics you want because you're supposed to be captives." He pulled out a number of pieces of rope.

Elena, Meredith, and Bonnie had drawn together in an automatic show of velociraptor sisterhood.

"What," Meredith said slowly, as if to give Damon the final benefit of some lingering doubt, "are those ropes for?"

Damon put his head to one side in an oh-come-on gesture. "They're for tying your hands."

"For what?"

Elena was amazed. She had never seen Meredith so obviously angry. She herself couldn't even get a word in. Meredith had walked up and was looking at Damon from a distance of about four inches.

And her eyes are gray! some distant part of Elena's mind exclaimed in astonishment. Deep, deep, deep, clear gray gray. All this time I've thought they were brown, but they're not.

Meanwhile Damon was looking faintly alarmed at Meredith's expression. A T. rex would have looked alarmed at Meredith's expression, Elena thought.

"And you expect us to walk around with our hands tied up? While you do what?"

"While I act as your master," Damon said, suddenly rallying with a glorious smile that was gone almost before it was there. "The three of you are my slaves."

There was a long, long silence.

Elena waved the entire pile of objects away with a gesture. "We won't do that," she said simply. "We won't. There has to be some other way – "

"Do you want to rescue Stefan or not?" Damon demanded suddenly. There was a searing heat in the dark eyes he had fixed on Elena.

"Of course I do!" Elena flashed back, feeling heat in her cheeks. "But not as a slave, dragged along behind you!"

"That's the only way humans get into the Dark Dimension," Damon said flatly. "Tied or chained, as a vampire's or kitsune's or demon's property."

Meredith was shaking her head. "You never told us – "

"I told you that you wouldn't like the way in!"

Even while answering Meredith, Damon's eyes never left Elena. Underneath his outward coldness, he seemed to be pleading with her to understand, she thought. In the old days, she thought, he'd have just lounged against a wall and raised his eyebrows and said, "Fine; I didn't want to go anyway. Who's for a picnic?"

But Damon did want them to go, Elena realized. He was desperate for them to go. He just didn't know any honest way of conveying that. The only way he knew was to –

"You have to make us a promise, Damon," she said, looking him directly in the eyes. "And it has to be before we make the decision to go or not."

She could see the relief in his eyes, even if to the other girls it might seem as if his face was perfectly cold and impassive. She knew he was glad she wasn't saying that her previous decision was final, and that was that. "What promise?" Damon asked.

"You have to swear – to give your word – that no matter what we decide now or in the Dark Dimension, you won't try to Influence us. You won't put us to sleep by mind control, or nudge us to do what you want. You won't use any vampire tricks on our minds."

Damon wouldn't be Damon if he didn't argue. "But, look, suppose the time comes when you want me to do that? There are some things there that it might be better for you to sleep through – "

"Then we'll tell you we've changed our minds, and we'll release you from the promise. You see? There's no downside. You just have to swear."

"All right," Damon said, still holding her gaze. "I swear I won't use any kind of Power on your minds; I won't Influence you in any way, until you ask me to. I give my word."

"Right." At last Elena broke the stare down with the tiniest of smiles and nods. And Damon gave her an almost imperceptible nod in return.

She turned away to find herself looking into Bonnie's searching brown gaze.

"Elena," Bonnie whispered, tugging on her arm. "Come here for a sec, okay?" Elena could hardly help it. Bonnie was strong as a small Welsh pony. Elena went, casting a powerless look over her shoulder at Damon as she did.

"What?" she whispered when Bonnie finally stopped dragging her. Meredith had come along as well, figuring it might be sisterhood business. "Well?"

"Elena," Bonnie burst out, as if unable to hold the words back any longer, "the way you and Damon act – it's different than it used to be. You didn't used to…I mean, what really happened between you two when you were alone together?"

"This is hardly the time for that," Elena hissed. "We're having a big problem here, in case you hadn't noticed."

"But – what if – "

Meredith took up the unfinished sentence, pushing a dark lock of hair out of her eyes. "What if it's something Stefan doesn't like? Like 'what happened with Damon when you were alone in the motel that night'?" she finished, quoting Bonnie's words.

Bonnie's mouth fell open. "What motel? What night? What happened?" she almost shrieked, causing Meredith to try to quiet her and get bitten for her pains.

Elena looked at first one and then the other of her two friends – the two friends who had come to die with her if necessary. She could feel her breath come short. It was so unfair, but…"Can we just discuss this later?" she suggested, trying to convey with her eyes and eyebrows Damon can hear us!

Bonnie merely whispered, "What motel? What night? What – "

Elena gave up. "Nothing happened," she said flatly. "Meredith is only quoting you, Bonnie. You said those words last night while you were asleep. And maybe sometime in the future you'll tell us what you're talking about, because I don't know."

She finished by looking at Meredith, who just raised one perfect eyebrow. "You're right," Meredith said, completely undeceived. "The English language could use a word like 'sa.' It would make these conversations so much shorter, for one thing."

Bonnie sighed. "Well, then, I'll find out for myself," she said. "You may not think I can, but I will."

"Okay, okay, but meanwhile does anyone have anything helpful to say about Damon's rope stuff?"

"Such as, do we tell him where to stuff it?" Meredith suggested under her breath.

Bonnie was holding a length of rope. She ran a small, fair-skinned hand over it.

"I don't think this was bought in anger," she said, her brown eyes unfocusing and her voice taking on the slightly eerie tone it always did when she was in trance. "I see a boy and a girl, over a counter at a hardware store – and she's laughing, and the boy says, 'I'll bet you anything that you're going to school next year to be an architect,' and the girl gets all misty-eyed, and says, yes, and – "

"And that's all the psychic spying I care to hear today." Damon had come right up to them without making a sound. Bonnie jumped violently, and almost dropped the rope.

"Listen," Damon continued harshly, "just a hundred meters away is the final crossing. Either you wear these and you act like slaves or you don't get in to help Stefan. Ever. That's it."

Silently, the girls conferred with their eyes. Elena knew that her own expression said clearly that she wasn't asking either Bonnie or Meredith to go with her, but that she herself was going if it required crawling behind Damon on her hands and knees.

Meredith, looking directly into Elena's eyes, slowly shut her own and nodded, letting out her breath. Bonnie was nodding her head already, resigned.

In silence, Bonnie and Meredith let Elena tie their wrists in front of them. Elena then let Damon tie her wrists and thread a long rope between the three of them, as if they were a chain gang of prisoners.

Elena could feel a flush coming up from below her chest to burn in her cheeks. She couldn't meet Damon's eyes, not this way, but she knew without asking that Damon was thinking about the time that Stefan had dismissed him from his apartment like a dog, in front of just this audience, plus Matt.

Vengeful cad, Elena thought as hard as she could in Damon's direction. She knew the last word would hurt the most. Damon prided himself on being a gentleman…

But "gentlemen" don't go into the Dark Dimension, Damon's voice in her head said mockingly.

"All right," Damon added aloud, and took the lead rope in one hand. He started walking briskly into the darkness of the cave, the three girls crowding and stumbling behind him.

Elena would never forget that brief journey, and she knew neither Bonnie nor Meredith would either. They walked across the shallow opening of the cave and into the small opening in the back, which gaped like a mouth. It took some maneuvering to get the three of them into it. On the other side the cavern flared out again, and they were in a large cavern. At least that was what Elena's enhanced senses told her. The everlasting fog had returned and Elena had no idea which way they were going.

Only a few minutes later a building reared up out of the thick fog.

Elena didn't know what she had been expecting from the Demon Gate. Possibly huge ebony doors, carved with serpents and encrusted with jewels. Maybe a rough-hewn, weathered colossus of stone, like the Egyptian pyramids. Perhaps even some sort of futuristic energy field that flickered and flashed with blue-violet lasers.

What she saw instead looked like a ramshackle depot of some kind, a place for holding and shipping goods. There was an empty pen, heavily fenced, topped with barbed wire. It stank, and Elena was glad that she and Damon had not channeled power to her nose.

Then there were people, men and women in fine clothes, each with a key in one hand, murmuring something before opening a door in one side of the building. The same door – but Elena would bet anything that they weren't all going to the same place, if the keys were like the one she had briefly "borrowed" from Shinichi's house a week or so ago. One of the ladies looked as if she were dressed for a fancy masquerade, with fox ears that blended into her long auburn hair. It was only when Elena saw under her ankle-length dress the swishing of a fox tail that she realized that the woman was a kitsune making use of the Demon Gate.

Damon hastily – and none too gently – led them to the other side of the building, where a broken-hinged door opened into a dilapidated room that, strangely, seemed larger on the inside than on the outside. All sorts of things were being bartered or sold here: many looked as if they had to do with the management of slaves.

Elena, Meredith, and Bonnie looked at one another, round-eyed. Obviously, people bringing wild slaves in from the outside considered torture and terror all in a day's work.

"Passage for four," Damon said briefly to the slump-shouldered but heavyset man behind the counter.

"Three savages all at once?" The man, eyes devouring what he could see of the three girls, turned to look at Damon suspiciously.

"What can I say? My job is also my hobby." Damon stared him straight in the eyes.

"Yeh, but…" The man laughed. "Lately we bin gettin' maybe one or two a month."

"They're legally mine. No kidnappings. Kneel," Damon added casually to the three girls.

It was Meredith who got it first and sank to the ground like a ballet dancer. Her dark, dark gray eyes were focused on something no one but she could see. Then Elena somehow untangled the single syllable from the others. She focused her mind on Stefan and pretended she was kneeling to kiss him on his prison pallet. It seemed to work; she was down.

But Bonnie was up. The most dependent, the softest, the most innocent member of the triumvirate found that her knees had gone solid.

"Redheads, eh?" the man said, eyeing Damon sharply even as he smirked. "Maybe you'd better buy a little tingler for that one."

"Maybe," Damon said tightly. Bonnie just looked at him blankly, looked at the girls on the ground and then threw herself into a prostrate position. Elena could hear her sobbing softly. "But I've found that a firm voice and a disapproving look actually work better."

The man gave up and slumped again. "Passage for four," he grunted and reached up and pulled on a dirty bell rope. By this time Bonnie was weeping in fear and humiliation, but no one seemed to notice, except the other girls.

Elena didn't dare to try to comfort her telepathically; that wouldn't fit in with the aura of a "normal human girl" at all, and who knew what traps or devices might be hidden here in addition to the man who kept undressing them over and over with his eyes? She just wished she could call up one of her Wings attacks, right here in this room. That would wipe the smug look off the man's face.

A moment later, something else wiped it off as completely as she could have desired. Damon leaned across the counter and whispered something to him that turned the slumped man's leering face a sickly color of green.

Did you hear what he said? Elena communicated this to Meredith using her eyes and eyebrows.

Meredith, her own eyes crinkling, positioned her hand in front of Elena's abdomen, then made a twisting, ripping motion.

Even Bonnie smiled.

Then Damon led them to wait outside the depot. They had only been standing a few minutes when Elena's new vision spotted a boat gliding silently through the mist. She realized that the building must be on the very bank of a river, but even with Power directed solely to her eyes she could barely make out where the nonreflective land gave way to shining water, and even with Power directed solely to her ears she could barely hear the sound of swift deep water running.

The boat stopped – somehow. Elena couldn't see any anchor dropped or anything to fasten it to. But the fact was that it did stop, and the slumped man put down a plank, which stayed in place as they boarded: first Damon, and then his bevy of "slaves."

On board, Elena watched Damon wordlessly offer six pieces of gold to the ferryman – two for each human who presumably wouldn't be coming back, she thought.

For a moment she was lost in the memory of being very young – only three or so, she must have been – and sitting on her father's lap while he read to her from a wonderfully illustrated book about the Greek myths. It told about the ferryman, Charon, who took spirits of the deceased over the river Styx to the land of the dead. And her father telling her that the Greeks put coins on the eyes of those who died so they could pay the ferryman….

There's no coming back from this journey! she thought suddenly and violently. No escape! They might as well be truly dead….

Strangely, it was horror that saved her from this morass of terror. Just as she lifted her head, perhaps to scream, the dim figure of the ferryman turned from his duties briefly as if to look back over the passengers. Elena heard Bonnie's shriek. Meredith, shaking, was frantically and illogically reaching for the bag in which her gun was stowed. Even Damon didn't seem to be able to move.

The tall specter in the boat had no face.

He had deep depressions where his eyes should be, a shallow hollow for a mouth, and a triangular hole where his nose should have protruded. The uncanny horror of it, on top of the stink from the depot pens, was simply too much for Bonnie, and she slumped sideways, limp against Meredith, in a faint.

Elena, in the midst of her terror, had a moment of revelation. In the dim, moist, dripping twilight, she had forgotten to stop trying to use all her senses to their fullest. She was undoubtedly better able to see the inhuman face of the ferryman than, say, Meredith. She could also hear things, like the sounds of long-dead miners tapping at the rock above them, and the scurrying of enormous bats or cockroaches or something, inside the stone walls all around them.

But now, Elena suddenly felt warm tears on her icy cheeks as she realized that she had completely underestimated Bonnie for as long as she'd known about her friend's psychic powers. If Bonnie's senses were permanently open to the kinds of horrors Elena was experiencing now, it was no wonder that Bonnie lived in fear. Elena found herself promising to be a hell of a lot more tolerant the next time Bonnie faltered or started screaming. In fact, Bonnie deserved some kind of an award for keeping a grip on sanity this far, Elena decided. But Elena didn't dare do any more than gaze at her friend, who was completely unconscious, and swear to herself that from now on Bonnie would find a champion in Elena Gilbert.

That promise and the warmth of it burned like a candle in Elena's mind, a candle she pictured held by Stefan, the light of it dancing in his green eyes and playing over the planes of his face. It was just enough to keep her from losing her own sanity on the rest of the journey.

By the time the boat docked – at a place just slightly more traveled than the one where they had embarked – all three of the girls were in a state of exhaustion brought on by prolonged terror and wrenching suspense.

But they hadn't really used the time to think over the words "Dark Dimension" or to imagine the number of ways its darkness might be manifested.

"Our new home," Damon said grimly. Watching him instead of the landscape, Elena realized from the tension in his neck and shoulders that Damon was not enjoying himself. She'd thought he'd be heading into his own particular paradise, this world of human slaves, and torture for entertainment, whose only rule was self-preservation of the individual ego. Now she realized that she had been wrong. For Damon this was a world of beings with Powers as great or greater than his own. He was going to have to claw out a foothold here among them, just like any urchin on the street – except that he couldn't afford to make any mistakes. They needed to find a way not just to live, but to live in luxury and mingle with high society, if they were to have any chance to rescue Stefan.

Stefan – no, she couldn't allow herself the luxury of thinking about him at that time. Once she started she would become undone, begin to demand ridiculous things, like that they go round to the prison, just to stare at it, like a junior high kid with a crush on an older boy, who just wanted to be driven "by his house" to worship it. And then what would that do to their plans for a jailbreak later? Plan A was: don't make mistakes, and Elena would stick to that until she found a better one.

That was how Damon and his "slaves" came to the Dark Dimension, through the Demon Gate. The smallest one needed to be revived with water in the face before she could get up and walk.

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