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The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 20)

Elena had seldom felt such relief as she did when she heard Damon's knock at Dr. Meggar's door.

"What happened at the Meeting Place?" she asked.

"I never made it there." Damon explained about the ambush, while the others covertly studied Sage with varying degrees of approval, gratitude, or sheer lust. Elena realized that she'd had too much Black Magic when she felt ready to pass out at several points – although she was sure that the wine had helped Damon to survive a mob attack which might otherwise have killed him.

They, in turn, explained Lady Ulma's story as briefly as possible. The woman was looking white and shaken by the end.

"I do hope," she said timidly to Damon, "that when you inherit Old Drohzne's property" – she paused to swallow – "that you'll decide to keep me. I know the slaves you brought with you are beautiful and young…but I can make myself very useful as a needlewoman and such. It's just my back that's lost its strength, not my mind…."

Damon was perfectly still for a moment. Then he walked over to Elena, who happened to be closest to him. He reached up, unclasped the last loop of rope that had been trailing from Elena's wrist, and threw it hard across the room. It whipped and wiggled like a snake. "Anyone else wearing one can do the same thing, as far as I'm concerned," he said.

"Except the throwing," Meredith said quickly, seeing the doctor's eyebrow clashing as he looked at the many breakable glass beakers stacked along the walls. But she and Bonnie lost no time in losing any final vestige of rope that was still trailing.

"I'm afraid mine are…permanent," Lady Ulma said, pulling the fabric away from her wrists to expose the welded-on iron bracelets. She looked ashamed at being unable to obey her new master's first command.

"Do you mind a moment of cold? I have enough Power to freeze them so they'll shatter," Damon said.

There was a soft sound from Lady Ulma. Elena thought she had never heard such desperation in any one human noise. "I could stand in snow to my neck for a year to get these awful things off," the Lady said.

Damon put his hands on either side of one bracelet and Elena could feel the rush of Power that emanated from him. There was a sharp cracking sound. Damon moved his hands and came up with two separate pieces of metal.

Then he did it again, on the other side.

The look in Lady Ulma's eyes made Elena feel more humble than proud. She had saved one woman from terrible degradation. But how many more remained? She would never know, or be able to save them all if she found out. Not with her Power in the state it was now.

"I think Lady Ulma really ought to get some rest," Bonnie said, rubbing her own forehead under tumbled strawberry curls. "And Elena, too. You should have seen how many stitches her leg took, Damon. But what do we do, go look for a hotel?"

"Use my house," said Dr. Meggar, one eyebrow up and one down. Obviously, he had become enmeshed in this story, swept along by its sheer power and beauty – and brutality. "All I ask is that you don't destroy anything, and that if you see a frog, don't kiss it, and don't kill it. There are plenty of blankets and chairs and couches."

He wouldn't take a single link from the heavy gold chain Damon had brought to use as income in exchange.

"I…by rights I should help you all get ready for bed," Lady Ulma murmured faintly to Meredith.

"You're the worst hurt of all; you should get the best bed," Meredith replied tranquilly. "And we will help you get into it."

"The most comfortable bed…that would be in my daughter's old room." Dr. Meggar fumbled with a ring of keys. "She married a porter – how I hated to see her go. And this young lady, Miss Elena, can have the old bridal chamber."

For an instant Elena's heart was torn by conflicting emotions. She was afraid – yes, she was very sure it was fear she felt – that Damon might sweep her up in his arms and make for the bridal suite with her. And on the other hand…

Just then Lakshmi looked up at her uncertainly. "Do you want me to leave?" she asked.

"Do you have anywhere to go?" Elena asked in turn.

"The street, I guess. I usually sleep in a barrel."

"Stay here. Come with me; a bridal bed sounds big enough for two people. You're one of us, now."

The look Lakshmi gave her was one of sheer thunderstruck gratitude. Not at being given a place to stay, Elena understood. For the statement, "You're one of us, now." Elena could feel that Lakshmi had never been "one of" any group before.

Things were quiet until almost "dawn" the next "day," as the city's inhabitants called it, although the light hadn't varied all night.

This time a different sort of crowd had gathered outside the doctor's complex. It was mostly made up of elderly men wearing threadbare but clean robes – but there were a few old women, too. They were led by a silver-haired man who had a strange air of dignity.

Damon, with Sage as backup, went outside the doctor's complex and spoke to them.

Elena was dressed but still upstairs in the quiet bridal suite.

Dear Diary,

Oh, God, I need help! Oh, Stefan – I need you. I need you to forgive me. I need you to keep me sane. Too much time around Damon and I'm completely emotional, ready to kill him or to…or to – I don't know. I don't know!!! We're like flint and tinder together – God! We're like gasoline and a flamethrower! Please hear me and help me and save me…from myself. Every time he even says my name…

"Elena."

The voice behind Elena made her jump. She slammed the diary shut and turned around.

"Yes, Damon?"

"How are you feeling?"

"Oh, great. Fine. Even my leg is b – I mean, I'm fine all over. How are you feeling?"

"I'm…well enough," he said, and he smiled – and it was a real smile, not a snarl twisted into something else at the last second, or an attempt to manipulate. It was just a smile, if a rather worried and sad one.

Elena somehow didn't notice the sadness until she remembered it later. She simply suddenly felt that she weighed nothing; that if she lost grip on herself she could be miles high before anyone could stop her – miles away, maybe even as far as this insane place's moons.

She managed a shaky smile of her own at him. "That's good."

"I came to talk to you," he said, "but…first – "

In another moment, somehow, Elena was in his arms.

"Damon – we can't keep on…" She tried to pull away gently. "We really can't keep doing this, you know."

But Damon didn't let go of her. There was something in the way he held her that half terrified her, and half made her want to cry with joy. She forced back the tears.

"It's all right," Damon said softly. "Go ahead and cry. We've got a situation on our hands."

Something in his voice frightened Elena. Not in the half-joyful way she'd been fearful a minute ago, but entirely frightened.

It's because he's afraid, she thought suddenly in wonderment. She had seen Damon angry, wistful, cold, mocking, seductive – even subdued, ashamed – but she had never seen him afraid of anything. She could hardly get her mind around the concept. Damon…frightened…for her.

"It's because of what I did yesterday, isn't it?" she asked. "Are they going to kill me?" She was surprised at how calmly she said it. She felt nothing except a vague distress and the desire to make Damon not afraid anymore.

"No!" He held her at arm's length, staring. "At least not without killing me and Sage – and all the people in this house, too, if I know them." He stopped, seeming out of breath – which was impossible, Elena reminded herself. He's playing for time, she thought.

"But that's what they want to do," she said. She didn't know why she was so certain. Maybe she was picking up something telepathically.

"They have…made threats," Damon said slowly. "It's not the case of Old Drohzne really; I guess there are murders around here all the time and winner takes all. But apparently overnight word of what you did has been spreading. Slaves in nearby estates are refusing to obey their masters. This entire quarter of the slums is in turmoil – and they're afraid of what will happen if other sectors hear about it. Something has to be done as soon as possible or the whole Dark Dimension may just explode like a bomb."

Even as Damon spoke, Elena could hear the echoes of what he'd been told by the assembly who had come to Dr. Meggar's door. They had been afraid, too.

Maybe this could be the start of something important, Elena thought, her mind soaring away from her own small problems. Even death wouldn't be too high a price to pay to free these wretched people from their demonic masters.

"But that's not what will happen!" Damon said, and Elena realized that she must be projecting her thoughts. There was genuine anguish in Damon's voice. "If we had planned things, if there were leaders who could stay here and oversee a revolution – if we could even find leaders strong enough to do it – then there might be a chance. Instead, all the slaves are being punished, everywhere that the word has spread. They're being tortured and killed on mere suspicion of sympathy with you. Their masters are making examples all over the city. And it's only going to get worse."

Elena's heart, which had been soaring on a dream of actually making a difference, came crashing down to the ground and she stared, horrified, into Damon's black eyes. "But we've got to stop that. Even if I have to die – "

Damon pulled her back in close to him. "You – and Bonnie and Meredith." His voice sounded hoarse. "Plenty of people saw the three of you together. Plenty of people now see all three of you as the troublemakers."

Elena's heart went cold. Maybe the worst thing was that she could see from a slave economy's point of view that if one incident of such insolence went unpunished and word of it spread…the tale would grow in the telling….

"We became famous overnight. We'll be legends tomorrow," she murmured, watching, in her mind, a domino toppling into another which hit another until a long string had fallen down spelling the word "Heroine."

But she didn't want to be a heroine. She had just come here to get Stefan back. And while she could have faced giving her life to stop slaves from being tortured and killed, she would herself kill anyone who tried to lay a hand on Bonnie or Meredith.

"They feel the same way," Damon said. "They heard what the congregation had to say." He held her arms hard as if trying to brace her. "A young girl named Helena was beaten and hung this morning because she had a similar name to yours. She was fifteen."

Elena's legs gave out, as so often they had done in Damon's arms…but never for this reason. He went with her. This was a conversation you had sitting on bare floorboards. "It wasn't your fault, Elena! You are what you are! People love you for what you are!"

Elena's pulse was hammering frantically. It was all so bad…but she had made it worse. By not thinking. By imagining that her life was the only one at stake. By acting before evaluating the consequences.

But in the same situation she would do it again. Or…with shame, she thought, I would do something like it. If I knew that I would put everyone I loved in danger I would have begged Damon to bargain with that slave-owner worm. Buy her for some outrageous price…if we had the money. If he would have listened…If another stroke of the whip hadn't killed Lady Ulma…

Suddenly her brain went hard and cold.

That is the past.

This is the present.

Deal with it.

"What can we do?" She tried to pull free and shake Damon; she was that frantic. "There must be something we can do now! They can't kill Bonnie and Meredith – and Stefan will die if we don't find him!"

Damon just held her more tightly. He was keeping his mind shielded from hers, Elena realized. This could either be good or bad. It might be that there was a solution he was reluctant to put to her. Or it could mean that the death of all three of the "rebel slaves" was the only thing the city leaders would accept.

"Damon." He was holding her much too tightly to get free, so Elena couldn't look him in the face. But she could visualize it, and she could also try to address him squarely, mind to mind.

Damon, if there's anything –  even any way we can save Bonnie and Meredith – you have to tell me. You have to. I order you to!

Neither of them were in a mood to find that amusing or even to notice the "slave" giving orders to the "master." But at last Elena heard Damon's telepathic voice.

They say that if I take you back to Young Drohzne now and you apologize, that you can be let off with just six strokes of this. From somewhere Damon produced a pliant cane made of some pale wood. Ash, probably, Elena thought, surprised at how calm she was. It's the one substance equally effective on everyone: even on vampires – even on Old Ones, which they undoubtedly have around here.

But it has to be in public so that they can get the rumors started the other way. They think then that the turmoil will stop, if you – the one who started the disobedience – will admit your slave status.

Damon's thoughts were heavy, and so was Elena's heart. How many of her principles would she be betraying if she did this? How many slaves would she be condemning to lives of servitude?

Suddenly Damon's mental voice was angry. We didn't come here to reform the Dark Dimension, he reminded her, in tones that made Elena wince away. Damon shook her slightly. We came to get Stefan, remember? Needless to say, we'll never have a chance to do that if we try to play Spartacus. If we start a war that we know we can't win. Even the Guardians can't win it.

A light went on in Elena's mind.

"Of course," she said. "Why didn't I think of it before?"

"Think of what before?" Damon said desperately.

"We don't fight the war – now. I haven't even mastered my basic Powers, much less my Wings Powers. And this way they won't even wonder about them."

"Elena?"

"We come back," Elena explained to him excitedly. "When I can control all my Powers. And we bring allies with us – strong allies we'll find in the human world. It may take years and years but someday we come back and finish what we started."

Damon was staring at her as if she'd gone mad, but that didn't matter. Elena could feel Power coursing through her. This was one promise, she thought, that she would keep if it killed her.

Damon swallowed. "Can we talk about – about the present now?" he asked.

It was as if he had hit a bull's-eye.

The present. Now.

"Yes. Yes, of course." Elena looked at the ash cane contemptuously. "Of course, I'll do it, Damon. I don't want anyone else hurt because of me before I'm ready to fight. Dr. Meggar is a good healer. If they allow me to come back to him."

"I honestly don't know," Damon said, holding her gaze. "But I do know one thing. You won't feel a single blow, I promise you that," he said quickly and earnestly, his dark eyes very big. "I'll take care of that; it'll all be channeled away. And you won't even see a trace of a mark by morning. But," he finished much more slowly, "you'll have to kneel to apologize to me, your owner, and to that filthy, scrofulous, abominable old – " Damon's imprecations carried him away for a moment so that he lapsed into Italian.

"To who?"

"To the leader of the slums, and possibly to Old Drohzne's brother, Young Drohzne, as well."

"Okay. Tell them I'll apologize to as many Drohznes as they want.

Tell them quick, in case we lose our chance."

Elena could see the look he gave her, but her mind was turned inward. Would she let Meredith or Bonnie do this? No. Would she allow it to happen to Caroline if by any means she could stop it? Again, no. No, no, no. Elena's feelings about brutality toward girls and women had always been exceedingly strong. Her feelings about the worldwide second-class citizenship of females had become remarkably clear since her return from the afterlife. If she had been returned to the world for any purpose, she had decided, helping to free girls and women from the slavery that many of them could not even see, was part of it.

But this wasn't just about a vicious slaveholder and faceless oppressed women and men. It was about Lady Ulma, and keeping her and her baby safe…and it was about Stefan. If she gave in, she would be just an impudent slave who caused a small ruckus in the road, but was firmly put back into her place by authorities.

Otherwise, if their party was scrutinized…if someone realized that they were here to release Stefan…if Elena was the one who caused the order to come: "Move him into stricter security – get rid of that silly kitsune-key thing…."

Her mind was ablaze with images of ways that Stefan could be punished, could be taken away, could be lost if this incident in the slums took on undue proportions.

No. She would not abandon Stefan now to fight a war that could not be won. But she wouldn't forget, either.

I'll come back for all of you, she promised. And then the story will have a different ending.

She realized that Damon still hadn't left. He was watching her with eyes as keen as a falcon's. "They sent me to bring you," he said quietly. "They never thought of a no for an answer." Elena could briefly feel the fierce rage of his fury at them and she took his hand and squeezed it.

"I'm coming back with you in the future, for the slaves," he said. "You know that, don't you?"

"Of course," said Elena, and her quick kiss became a longer kiss. She hadn't really absorbed what Damon had said about channeling away the pain. She felt she was due just one kiss for what she was about to endure, and then Damon stroked her hair and time meant nothing until Meredith knocked at the door.

The bloody-red dawn had taken on a bizarre, almost dreamlike quality by the time Elena was led to an open-air structure where the slumlords in charge of this area were seated on piles of once fine, now threadbare cushions. They were passing back and forth bottles and jeweled leather flasks filled with Black Magic, the only wine vampires could really enjoy, smoking hookahs and occasionally spitting into the darker shadows. This was regardless of the huge audience of street people dizzily attracted by word of a beautiful young human's public punishment.

Elena had been rehearsed in her lines. She was marched, gagged, hands manacled, before the hawking and spitting authorities. Young Drohzne was sitting in somewhat uncomfortable glory on a golden couch, and Damon was standing between him and the authorities, looking tense. Elena had never been so tempted to improvise a part since her junior play, when she had thrown a flowerpot at Petruchio and brought down the house in the last scene of The Taming of the Shrew.

But this was deadly serious business. Stefan's freedom, Bonnie's and Meredith's lives might depend upon it. Elena moved her tongue around inside her mouth, which was bone dry.

And, oddly, she found Damon's eyes, the man with the stick, uplifting her. He seemed to be telling her courage and indifference without using telepathy at all. Elena wondered if he himself had ever been in a similar situation.

She was kicked by one of her escorts and remembered where she was. She'd been loaned an "appropriate" costume from the discarded wardrobe of Dr. Meggar's married daughter. It was pearl-colored indoors, which meant it was mauve in the everlasting crimson sunlight. Most important, worn without its silken undershirt, its back plunged to below Elena's waistline, leaving Elena's own back completely bare. Now, in accordance with custom, she knelt in front of the elders, and bowed until her forehead rested on an ornate and very dirty carpet at the feet of the elders, but several steps lower. One of them spat on her.

There was excited, appreciative chattering, and ribaldry, and thrown missiles, mostly in the form of garbage. Fruit was too precious here to think of wasting. Dried excrement, however, was not, and Elena found the first tears coming to her eyes as she realized what she was being pelted with.

Courage and indifference, she told herself, not even daring to sneak a look up at Damon.

Presently, when the crowd was felt to have had its due playtime, one of the hookah-smoking civic elders stood up. He read words Elena couldn't understand from a creased scroll. It seemed to go on forever. Elena, on her knees, with her forehead against the dusty carpet, felt as if she were smothering.

At last the scroll was put away and Young Drohzne leaped up and described in a high, almost hysterical voice, and flamboyant language, the story of a slave who attacked her own master (Damon, Elena noted mentally) to tear herself free of his supervision, and then attacked the head of his family (Old Drohzne, Elena thought) and his poor means of living, his cart, and his hopeless, impudent, slothful slave, and how all this had resulted in the death of his brother. To Elena's ears, at first, he seemed to be blaming Lady Ulma for the entire incident because she had fallen under her load.

"You all know the kind of slave I mean – she wouldn't bother to wave away a fly walking across her eye," he shrieked, appealing to the crowd, which responded with fresh insults and a renewed pelting upon Elena, since Lady Ulma wasn't there to punish.

At last, Young Drohzne finished recounting how this bold-faced hussy (Elena) who, wearing trousers like a man, had caught up his brother's own ne'er-do-well slave (Ulma) and had carried away this valuable property bodily away (all by myself? Elena wondered ironically) and had taken her to the home of a highly suspicious healer (Dr. Meggar), who now refused to give her, the original slave, back.

"I knew when I heard this that I would never see my brother or his slave again," he cried, in the shrieking wail that he had somehow been able to maintain throughout the entire narrative.

"If the slave was so lazy, you should have been glad," a joker in the crowd called out.

"Nevertheless," said a very fat man whose voice reminded Elena irresistibly of Alfred Hitchcock's: the lugubrious delivery and the same pauses before important words, which served to make the mood more grim and entire business even more serious than anyone had heretofore thought. This was a man with power, Elena realized. The ribaldry, the pelting, even the hawking and spitting had fallen silent. The large man was undoubtedly the local equivalent of a "godfather" to these painfully poor residents of the slums. His word would be that which determined Elena's fate.

"And since then," he was saying slowly, crunching with every few words some irregularly shaped, golden-colored sweetmeat from a bowl reserved for himself, "the young vampire Damien has made reparation – and most generously, too – for all the property damage." Here there was a long pause as he stared at Young Drohzne. "Therefore, his slave, Aliana, who started all this mischief will not be seized and put up for public auction, but will make her humble obeisance and surrender, here, and of her own will, receive the punishment she knows is her due."

Elena found herself dazed. She didn't know whether it was from all the smoke that had floated down to her level before curling away, but the words "put up for public auction" had sent a shock through her that almost led her to black out. She had had no idea that that could happen – and the pictures it brought to mind were extremely unpleasant. She also noticed her new alias, and Damon's. It was actually quite fortunate, she thought since it would be nice if Shinichi and Misao never heard about this little adventure.

"Bring the slave to us," the fat man concluded, and sat back down on a great pile of cushions.

Elena was lifted off her feet and roughly marched upward until she could see the man's gilded sandals, and remarkably clean feet, as she kept her eyes down in the manner of an obedient slave.

"Have you heard these proceedings?" The Godfather-type was still munching on his delicacies and a waft of breeze brought a heavenly smell to Elena's nose, and suddenly all the saliva she could ask for flooded to her dry lips.

"Yes, sir," she said, not knowing what title to give him.

"You address me as Your Excellence. And do you have anything to add in your defense?" the man asked, to Elena's astonishment. Her automatic response of: "Why ask me, since it's all been fixed up beforehand?" was stilled on her lips. This man was somehow – more – than any of the others she had met in the Dark Dimension – in fact, in her entire life. He listened to people. He would listen to me if I told him all about Stefan, Elena thought suddenly. But then, she thought, regaining her normal level-headedness, what could he do about it? Nothing, unless he could do some good and turn a profit out of it – or gain some power, or take down an enemy.

Still, he might make for an ally when she returned to level this place and freed the slaves.

"No, Your Excellence. Nothing to add," she said.

"And you are willing to prostrate yourself and beg my forgiveness and that of Master Drohzne?"

This was Elena's first scripted line. "Yes," she said, and she managed to get through her prefabricated apology clearly and with just the hint of a gulp at the end. Up close she could see flecks of gold on the large man's face, in his lap, in his beard.

"Very well. A penalty of ten ash rod strokes is laid upon this slave as an example to other mischief-makers. The punishment will be delivered by my nephew Clewd."

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