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The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 21)

Pandemonium. Elena whipped her head up, confused as to whether she was supposed to be the repentant slave any longer. The community leaders were all babbling at one another, pointing fingers, throwing up their hands. Damon had physically restrained the Godfather, who seemed to regard his part in the ceremony as concluded.

The crowd was hooting and cheering. It looked as if there would be another fight; this time between Damon and the Godfather's men, especially the one called Clewd.

Elena's head was whirling. She could catch only disjointed phrases.

" – only six strokes and promised me that I could administer – " Damon was shouting.

" – really think that these little flunkies tell the truth?" someone else – probably Clewd – was shouting back.

But isn't that exactly what the Godfather was, too? Just a bigger, more frightening, and, undoubtedly, more efficient flunky who reported to someone higher up, and didn't cloud his mind with dope-smoke? Elena thought; and then ducked her head hastily as the fat man glanced toward her.

She could hear Damon again, this time clearly above the hubbub. He was standing by the Godfather. "I had believed that even here there was some honor once a bargain was struck." His voice made it obvious that he no longer thought negotiations were possible and that he was about to go on the attack. Elena tensed, horrified. She had never heard such open menace in his speaking voice.

"Wait." It was in the Godfather's lackadaisical tones, but it caused an instant of silence in the babble. The fat man, having removed Damon's hand from his arm, turned his head back toward Elena.

"I will waive, for my part, the participation of my nephew Clewd. Diarmund, or whoever you were, you are free to punish your own slave with your own tools."

Suddenly, surprisingly, the old man was brushing bits of gold out of his beard and speaking directly to Elena. His eyes were ancient, tired, and surprisingly discerning. "Clewd is a master at whipping, you know. He has his own little invention. He calls it the cat's whiskers and one blow can flay the skin from neck to hip. Most men die from ten lashes. But I'm afraid he'll be disappointed today." Then exposing surprisingly white and even teeth, the Godfather smiled. He extended to her the bowl of golden sweetmeats he'd been eating. "You might as well taste one before your Discipline. Go on."

Afraid to try one, afraid not to, Elena took one of the irregular pieces and popped it in her mouth. Her teeth crunched pleasantly. A walnut half! That's what the mysterious sweets were. A delicious half walnut dipped in some kind of sweet lemon syrup, with bits of hot pepper or something like that clinging to it, all gilded with that edible gold stuff. Ambrosia!

The Godfather was saying to Damon, "Do your own 'discipline,' boy. But don't neglect to teach the girl how to cover her thoughts. She has too much wit to be wasted here in a slum-brothel. But then why do I not think she wishes to become a famous courtesan at all?"

Before Damon could answer or Elena look up from her genuflection, he was gone, carried by palanquin bearers to the only horse-drawn carriage Elena had seen in the slums.

By now the arguing, gesticulating civic leaders, egged on by Young Drohzne, had come to a sullen agreement. "Ten lashes, and she need not strip, and you may give them," they said. "But our final word is ten. The man who negotiated with you has no more power to argue."

Almost casually, one lifted by a tuft of hair a bodiless head. Absurdly, it was crowned with dusty leaves in anticipation of the banquet after the ceremony.

Damon's eyes flared with true rage that set objects around him vibrating. Elena could feel his Power like a panther rearing back against a leash. She felt as if she were speaking against a hurricane which cast every word back into her throat.

"I agree to it."

"What?"

"It's over, Da – Master Damon. No more yelling. I agree."

Now, as she prostrated herself on the carpets before Drohzne, there was a sudden keening of women and children and a fusillade of pellets aimed – sometimes badly – at the smirking slave owner.

The train of her dress was spread behind her like a bride's, the pearl overskirt making the underskirt a shimmering burgundy in the eternal red light. Her hair had fallen free of its high knot, making a cloud around her shoulders that Damon had to part with his hands. He was shaking. From fury. Elena didn't dare look at him, knowing that their minds would rush together. She was the one who remembered to say her formal speech before him and Young Drohzne so this entire farce would not have to be reenacted.

Say it with feeling, her drama teacher, Ms. Courtland, had always excoriated the class. If there was no feeling in you there could be none in the audience.

"Master!" Elena shouted in a voice that was loud enough to be heard above the women's lamentations. "Master, I am but a slave, not fit to address you. But I have trespassed and I accept my punishment eagerly – yea, eagerly, if it will restore to you but one hairsbreadth of the respectability you enjoyed before my unwonted evildoing. I beg you to punish this disgraced slave who lies like discarded offal in your gracious path."

The speech, which she had shouted in the unvarying glassy tones of someone who had been taught each word by rote, hadn't actually needed to be more than four words, "Master, I beg forgiveness." But no one seemed to have recognized the irony that Meredith had put into it, or to find it amusing. The Godfather had accepted it; Young Drohzne had already heard it once, and now it was Damon's turn.

But Young Drohzne wasn't finished yet. Smirking at Elena, he said, "Here's where you find out, Missy. But I want to see that ash rod before you use it!" – stumbling to Damon. A few practice swishes and blows to the cushions surrounding them (which filled the air with ruby-colored dust) satisfied him that the rod was all that even he could want.

Mouth visibly watering, he settled on the gold couch, taking in Elena from head to toe.

And finally the time had come. Damon couldn't put it off any longer. Slowly, as if every step was part of a play that he hadn't rehearsed properly, he sidled alongside Elena to get an angle. Finally, as the gathered crowd became restless, and the women showed signs of losing themselves in drink, rather than in keening, he picked his spot.

"I ask forgiveness, my master," Elena said in her no-expression voice. If left to himself, she thought, he wouldn't even have remembered the necessities.

Now, indeed, was the time. Elena knew what Damon had promised her. She also knew that a lot of promises had been broken that day. For one thing, ten was almost twice six.

She wasn't looking forward to this.

But when the first blow came, she knew that Damon wasn't one of the promise-breakers. She felt a dull thud, and a numbness, and then, curiously, a wetness which had her glancing up through the latticework of boards above them for clouds. It was disconcerting to realize that the wetness was her own blood, spilled without pain, running down her side.

"Make her count them," Young Drohzne slurred in a snarl, and Elena said "One" automatically, before Damon could put up a fight.

Elena went on counting in the same clear, unaffected voice. In her mind she wasn't here, in this foul-smelling horrible gutter at all. She was lying with her elbows propped up to support her face, and looking down into Stefan's eyes – those spring-green eyes that would never be old, no matter how many centuries he accumulated. She was dreamily counting for him, and ten would be their signal to jump up and begin the race. It was raining gently, but Stefan was giving her a handicap, and soon, soon she would scramble off him and run away through lush green grass. She would make this a fair race and really put her muscle into it, but Stefan, of course, would catch her. Then they would go down on the grass together, laughing and laughing as if they were having hysterics.

As for the vague, far-off sounds of wolflike leers and drunken snarls, even they were gradually changing. It all had to do with some silly dream about Damon and an ash rod. In the dream, Damon was swinging hard enough to satisfy the most exacting of onlookers, and the blows, which Elena could hear in the increasing silence, sounded more than hard enough, and made her feel a bit nauseated when she reflected that they were the sound of her own skin splitting, but she felt no more than dull cuffs up and down her back. And Stefan was drawing up her hand to kiss!

"I'll always be yours," Stefan said. "We belong together every time you dream."

I'll always be yours, Elena told him silently, knowing he would get the message. I may not be able to dream of you all the time, but I am always with you.

Always, my angel. I'm waiting for you, Stefan said.

Elena heard her own voice say "Ten," and Stefan kissed her hand again and was gone. Blinking, bewildered, and confused by the sudden inrush of noises, she sat cautiously up, looking around.

Young Drohzne was hunched into himself, blind with fury, disappointment, and more liquor than even he could stand up under. The wailing women had long ago gone silent, awed. The children were the only ones who still made any noise, climbing up and down on the boards, whispering to one another and running if Elena should happen to glance their way.

And then, with an entire lack of ceremony, it was over.

When Elena first stood up the world made a complete double circle around her and her legs folded. Damon caught her, and called to the few young men still conscious and inclined to look at him, "Give me a cape." It wasn't a request, and the best-dressed of the men, who seemed to have been slumming, tossed him a heavy cape, black, lined with greenish blue, and said, "Keep it. The performance – marvelous. Is it a hypnotist's act?"

"No performance," Damon snarled, in a voice that stopped the other slummers in the act of holding out business cards.

"Take them," Elena whispered.

Damon snatched up the cards in one hand, ungraciously. But Elena forced herself to toss the hair off her face and smile slowly, heavy-lidded, at the young men. They smiled somewhat timidly back.

"When you – ah – perform again…"

"You'll hear," Elena called to them. Damon was already carrying her back to Dr. Meggar, surrounded by the inevitable entourage of children plucking at their cloaks. It was only then that it occurred to Elena to wonder why Damon had asked for a cloak from some strangers, when he, in fact, was already wearing one.

"They will be having ceremonies somewhere, now that there are this many of them," Mrs. Flowers said in genteel distress as she and Matt sat and sipped herbal tea in the boardinghouse parlour. It was dinnertime, but still quite light outside.

"Ceremonies to do what?" Matt asked. He had never made it to his parents' house since he'd left Damon and Elena more than a week ago to come back to Fell's Church. He'd stopped by Meredith's house, which was on the edge of town, and she'd convinced him to come by Mrs. Flowers's first. After the conversation the three of them had had with Bonnie, Matt had decided it was best to be "invisible." His family would be safer if no one knew that he was still in Fell's Church. He would live at the boardinghouse, but none of the children who were making all the trouble would realize that. Then, with Bonnie and Meredith safely gone to meet Damon and Elena, Matt could be a sort of secret operative.

Now he almost wished he'd gone with the girls. Trying to be a secret operative in a place where all the enemies seemed to be able to hear and see better than you could, as well as to move much faster, hadn't turned out to be nearly as helpful as it had sounded. He spent reading most of the time the Internet blogs that Meredith had marked, looking for clues that might do them some good.

But he hadn't read of the need for any kind of ceremonies. He turned to Mrs. Flowers as she thoughtfully sipped her tea.

"Ceremonies for what?" he repeated.

With her soft white hair and her gentle face and vague, amiable blue eyes, Mrs. Flowers looked like the most harmless little old lady in the world. She wasn't. A witch by birth, and a gardener by vocation, she knew as much about black magic herbal toxins as about white magic healing poultices.

"Oh, doing generally unpleasant things," she replied sadly, staring into the tea leaves in her cup. "They're partly like pep rallies, you know, to get everyone all worked up. They probably also do some small black magic there. Some of it is by way of blackmail and brainwashing – they can tell any new converts that they are guilty now by reason of attending the meetings. They might as well give in and become fully initiated…that sort of thing. Very unpleasant."

"But what kind of unpleasant?" Matt persisted.

"I really don't know, dear. I never went to one of them."

Matt considered. It was almost 7:00, which was curfew for children under eighteen. Eighteen seemed to be the oldest that a child could be and become possessed.

Of course, it wasn't an official curfew. The sheriff's department seemed to have no idea of how to deal with the curious disease that was working its way through the young girls of Fell's Church. Scare them straight? It was the police that were frightened. One young sheriff had come tearing out of the Ryan house to be sick after seeing how Karen Ryan had bitten off the heads of her pet mice and what she had done with the rest of them.

Lock them away? The parents wouldn't hear of it, no matter how bad their child's behavior was, how obvious it was that their kid needed help. Children who were towed off to the next town for an appointment with a psychiatrist sat demurely and spoke calmly and logically…for the entire fifty minutes of their appointment. Then, on their way back they took revenge, repeating everything their parents said in perfect mimicry, making startlingly real-sounding animal noises, holding conversations with themselves in Asian-sounding languages, or even resorting to the clich�� but still chilling backward-talking routine.

Neither ordinary discipline nor ordinary medical science seemed to have an answer to the childrens' problem.

But what frightened parents the most was when their sons and daughters would disappear. Early on, it was assumed that the children went to the cemetery, but when adults tried to follow them to one of their secret meetings, they found the cemetery empty – even down to Honoria Fell's secret crypt. The children seemed to have simply…vanished.

Matt thought he knew the answer to this conundrum. That thicket of the Old Wood still standing near the cemetery. Either Elena's powers of purification had not reached this far, or the place was so malevolent that it had been able to resist her cleansing.

And, as Matt knew well, the Old Woods were completely under the domination of the kitsune by now. You could take two steps into the thicket and spend the rest of your life trying to get out.

"But maybe I'm young enough to follow them in," he said now to Mrs. Flowers. "I know Tom Pierler goes with them and he's my age. And then so were the ones who started it: Caroline gave it to Jim Bryce, who gave it to Isobel Saitou."

Mrs. Flowers looked abstracted. "We should ask Isobel's grandmother for more of those Shinto wards against evil she blessed," she said. "Do you think you could do that sometime, Matt? Soon we'll have to ready ourselves for a barricade, I'm afraid."

"Is that what the tea leaves say?"

"Yes, dear, and they agree with what my poor old head says, too. You might want to pass the word on to Dr. Alpert as well so she can get her daughter and grandchildren out of town before it's too late."

"I'll give her the message, but I think it's going to be pretty hard tearing Tyrone away from Deborah Koll. He's really stuck on her – hey, maybe Dr. Alpert can get the Kolls to leave, too."

"Maybe she can. That would mean a few less children to worry about," Mrs. Flowers said, taking Matt's cup to peer into it.

"I'll do it." It was weird, Matt thought. He had three allies now in Fell's Church and they were all women over sixty. One was Mrs. Flowers, still vigorous enough to be up every morning taking a walk and doing her gardening; one was Obaasan – confined to bed, tiny and doll-like, with her black hair held up in a bun – who was always ready with advice from the years she had spent as a shrine maiden; and the last was Dr. Alpert, Fell's Church's local doctor, who had iron gray hair, burnished dark brown skin, and an absolutely pragmatic attitude about everything, including magic. Unlike the police, she refused to deny what was happening in front of her, and did her best to help alleviate the fears of the children as well as to advise the terrified parents.

A witch, a priestess, and a doctor. Matt figured that he had all his bases covered, especially since he also knew Caroline, the original patient in this case – whether it was possession by foxes or wolves or both, plus something else.

"I'll go to the meeting tonight," he said firmly. "The kids have been whispering and contacting each other all day. I'll hide in the afternoon someplace where I can see them going into the thicket. Then I'll follow – as long as Caroline or – God help us, Shinichi or Misao – isn't with them."

Mrs. Flowers poured him another cup of tea. "I'm very worried about you, Matt, dear. It seems to me to be a day of bad omens. Not the sort of day to take chances."

"Does your mom have anything to say about it?" Matt asked, genuinely interested. Mrs. Flowers's mother had died sometime around the beginning of the 1900s, but that hadn't stopped her from communicating with her daughter.

"Well, that's just the thing. I haven't heard a word from her all day. I'll just try one more time." Mrs. Flowers shut her eyes, and Matt could see her crepe-textured eyelids move around as she presumably looked for her mother or tried to go into a trance or something. Matt drank his tea and finally began to play a game on his mobile.

At last Mrs. Flowers opened her eyes again and sighed. "Dear Mama (she always said it that way, with the accent on the second syllable) is being fractious today. I just can't get her to give me a clear answer. She does say that the meeting will be very noisy, and then very silent. And it's clear that she feels it will be very dangerous as well. I think I'd better go with you, my dear."

"No, no! If your mother thinks it's that dangerous I won't even try it," Matt said. The girls would skin him alive if anything happened to Mrs. Flowers, he thought. Better to play it safe.

Mrs. Flowers sat back in her chair, seeming relieved. "Well," she said at last, "I suppose I'd better get to my weeding. I have mugwort to cut and dry, too. And blueberries should be ripe by now, as well. How time flies."

"Well, you're cooking for me and all," Matt said. "I wish you'd let me pay you bed and board."

"I could never forgive myself! You are my guest, Matt. As well as my friend, I do so hope."

"Absolutely. Without you, I'd be lost. And I'll just take a walk around the edge of town. I need to burn off some energy. I wish – " He broke off suddenly. He'd started to say he wished he could shoot a few hoops with Jim Bryce. But Jim wouldn't be shooting hoops again – ever. Not with his mutilated hands.

"I'll just go out and take a walk," he said.

"Yes," said Mrs. Flowers. "Please, Matt dear, be careful. Remember to take a jacket or Windbreaker."

"Yes, ma'am." It was early August, hot and humid enough to walk around in swimming briefs. But Matt had been raised to treat little old ladies in a certain way – even if they were witches and in most things sharp as the X-acto knife he slipped into his pocket as he left the boardinghouse.

He went outside, then, by a side route, down to the cemetery.

Now, if he just went over there, where the ground dipped down below the thicket, he'd have a good view of anyone going into the last remnant of the Old Wood while no one on the path below could see him from any angle.

He hurried toward his chosen hide noiselessly, ducking behind tombstones, keeping alert for any change in birdsong, which would indicate that the children were coming. But the only birdsong was the raucous shriek of crows in the thicket and he saw no one at all –

– until he slipped into his hideout.

Then he found himself face-to-face with a drawn gun, and, behind that, the face of Sheriff Rich Mossberg.

The first words out of the officer's mouth seemed to come entirely by rote, as if someone had pulled a string on a twentieth-century talking doll.

"Matthew Jeffrey Honeycutt, I hereby arrest you for assault and battery upon Caroline Beula Forbes. You have the right to remain silent – "

"And so do you," Matt hissed. "But not for long! Hear those crows all taking off at once? The kids are coming to the Old Wood! And they're close!"

Sheriff Mossberg was one of those people who never stop speaking until they are finished, so by this time he was saying: "Do you understand these rights?"

"No, sir! Mi ne komprenas Dumbtalk!"

A wrinkle appeared between the sheriff's eyebrows. "Is that Italian lingo you're trying on me?"

"It's Esperanto – we don't have time! There they are – and, oh, God, Shinichi's with them!" The last sentence was spoken in the barest of whispers as Matt lowered his head, peeking through the tall weeds at the edge of the cemetery without stirring them.

Yes, it was Shinichi, hand in hand with a little girl of maybe twelve. Matt recognized her vaguely: she lived up near Ridgemont. Now, what was her name? Betsy, Becca…?

There was a faint anguished sound from Sheriff Mossberg. "My niece," he breathed, surprising Matt that he could speak so softly. "That, in fact, is my niece, Rebecca!"

"Okay, just stay still and hang on," Matt whispered. There was a line of children following behind Shinichi just as if he were some sort of Satanic Pied Piper, with his red-tipped black hair shining and his golden eyes laughing in the late-afternoon sunlight. The children were giggling and singing, some of them in sweet nursery school voices, a remarkably twisted version of "Seven Little Rabbits." Matt felt his mouth go dry. It was agony to watch them march into the forest thicket, like watching lambs riding up a ramp into an abattoir.

He had to commend the sheriff for not trying to shoot Shinichi. That would really have caused all hell to break loose. But then, just as Matt's head was sagging in relief as the last of the children entered the thicket, he jerked it back up again.

Sheriff Mossberg was preparing to get up.

"No!" Matt grabbed his wrist.

The sheriff pulled away. "I have to go in there! He's got my niece!"

"He won't kill her. They don't kill the children. I don't know why, but they don't."

"You heard what sort of filth he was teaching them. He'll sing a different tune when he sees a semiautomatic Glock pistol aimed at his head."

"Listen," Matt said, "you've got to arrest me, right? I demand that you arrest me. But don't go into that Wood!"

"I don't see any proper Wood," the sheriff said with disdain. "There's barely room in that stand of oak trees for all those kids to sit down. If you want to be of some use in your life, you can grab one or two of the little ones as they come running out."

"Running out?"

"When they see me, they're going to scatter. Probably burst out in all directions, but some of 'em will take the path they used to go in. Now are you going to help or not?"

"Not, sir," Matt said slowly and firmly. "And – and, look – look, I'm begging you not to go in there! Believe me, I know what I'm talking about!"

"I don't know what kind of dope you're on, kid, but in fact I don't have time to talk any more right now. And if you try to stop me again" – he swung the Glock to cover Matt – "I'll cite you for another account of trying to obstruct justice. Get it?"

"Yeah, I get it," Matt said, feeling tired. He slumped back into the hide as the officer, making surprisingly little noise, slipped out and made his way down to the thicket. Then Sheriff Rich Mossberg strode in between the trees and was lost to Matt's field of vision.

Matt sat in the hide and sweated for an hour. He was having trouble staying awake when there was a disturbance in the thicket and Shinichi came out, leading the laughing, singing children.

Sheriff Mossberg didn't come out with them.

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