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The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 28)

They walked right by the weeping door-guards. But very quickly, they discovered that while almost everyone was listening to Lady Fazina, in each room of the palace that was open to the public, a black-clad, white-gloved steward awaited, ready to give out information, and to keep a watchful eye on his lady's possessions.

The first room that gave them any kind of hope was Lady Fazina's Hall of Harpery, a room devoted entirely to the display of harps, from ancient, bowlike, single-stringed instruments, undoubtedly played by individuals who were similar to cavedwellers, to tall, gilded, orchestral harps like the one Fazina was now playing, the music audible throughout the palace. Magic, Elena thought again. They seem to use it here instead of technology.

"Each kind of harp has a unique key to tune the strings," Meredith whispered, looking down the length of the hall. On each side the line of harps marched into the distance. "One of those keys might be the key."

"But how will we even know?" Bonnie was fanning herself lightly with her peacock feather fan. "What's the difference between a harp key and the fox key?"

"I don't know. And I've never heard of a key being kept in a harp, either. It would rattle around the sound box every time the harp shifted slightly," Meredith admitted.

Elena bit her lip. It was such a simple, reasonable question. She should feel dismayed, should be wondering how they could ever find one small half of a key in this place. Especially considering that the clue they had – that it was in the Silver Nightingale's instrument, suddenly seemed absurd.

"I don't suppose," Bonnie said a little giddily, "that the instrument is her voice, and that if we reach down her throat…"

Elena turned to look at Meredith, who was looking heavenward – or at whatever was above this hideous dimension. "I know," Meredith said. "No more drinks for birdbrain here. Although I suppose it's possible that they give out little silver whistles or instruments as favors – all big parties used to do that, you know – give you a gift."

"How," Damon said in a carefully expressionless tone, "would they possibly get the key into a favor for a party being given at least weeks away, and how could they ever hope to retrieve it? Misao might as well have told Elena, 'We threw the key away.'"

"Well," began Meredith, "I'm not at all sure that they did mean for the keys to be retrievable, even by them. And Misao could have meant 'You'd have to search all the garbage from the night of this gala' – or some other party Fazina performed at. I imagine she gets asked to play at a lot of other people's parties, too."

Elena hated bickering, even though she was a champion bickerer herself. But she was a goddess tonight. Nothing was impossible. If only she could remember…

Something like white lightning struck her brain.

For just an instant – one instant – she was back, struggling with Misao. Misao was in her fox form, biting and scratching – and snarling out a reply to Elena's question about where the two halves of the fox key were. "As if you would understand the answers I could give. If I told you that one was inside the silver nightingale's instrument, would that give you any kind of idea?"

Yes. Those had been the exact words, the real words that Misao had spoken. Elena heard her own voice, repeating the words distinctly now.

And then she felt something like an arc of lightning leave her mind – only to meet another's not far away. The next thing she knew her eyes were flying open in surprise because Bonnie was speaking in that blank toneless way she always did when making a prophecy:

"Each half of the fox key is shaped like a single fox, with two ears, two eyes, and a snout. The two fox key halves are gold and covered with gems – and their eyes are green. The key you seek is yet in the Silver Nightingale's instrument."

"Bonnie!" Elena said. She could see that Bonnie's knees were trembling, her eyes unfocused. Then they opened and Elena watched as confusion surged in to fill the blankness.

"What's going on?" Bonnie said, looking around to see everyone looking at her. "What – what happened?"

"You told us what the fox keys look like!" Elena couldn't help this exclamation – almost a shout of joy. Now that they knew what they were looking for they could free Stefan; they would free Stefan. Nothing would stop Elena now. Bonnie had just helped move this quest to an entirely different level.

But while she was quaking inside with joy at the prophecy, Meredith, in her own level-headed way, was taking care of the prophet. Meredith said quietly, "She's probably going to faint. Would you please…"

Meredith didn't have to ask further, for the vampires, Damon and Sage, were each quick enough to catch and support Bonnie on opposite sides. Damon was staring down at the diminutive girl in surprise.

"Thanks, Meredith," Bonnie said, and let out a breath, blinking. "I don't think I'll faint," she added, and then with a glance up at Damon through her lashes, "But it's probably just as well to make sure."

Damon nodded and got a better grip, looking serious. Sage turned half away, seeming to have something stuck in his throat.

"What did I say? I don't remember!"

And after Elena had solemnly repeated Bonnie's words it was just like Meredith to say, "You're sure now, Bonnie? Does that sound right?"

"I'm sure. I'm positive," Elena cut in. She was positive. The Goddess Ishtar and Bonnie had unlocked the past for her and shown her the key.

"All right. What if Bonnie and Sage and I take this room, and two of us can be distracting the steward, while the third looks in the harps for keys?" Meredith suggested.

"Right. Let's do it!" Elena said.

Meredith's plan proved to be more difficult in practice than it sounded. Even with two glorious young girls in the room and one terminally fit guy, the steward kept spinning in little circles and catching one or another of them handling and peering into a harp.

Naturally, the handling was strictly forbidden. It put the harps further out of tune and it could easily damage them, especially since the only way to make absolutely sure that a small golden key was not in a harp's sound box was to actually shake the harp and listen for rattling.

Worse, each of the harps was displayed in its own little nook, complete with dramatic lighting, a flamboyant painted screen behind it (most of them portraits of Fazina playing the harp in question), and a plush red rope across the front of the nook that said "Keep Out" as plainly as a sign.

In the end Bonnie, Meredith, and Sage resorted to having Sage Influence the steward to be entirely passive – something he was only able to do for a few minutes of time, or the steward would notice the gaps in Lady Fazina's program. They would then each frantically search harps while the steward stood like a wax figure.

Meanwhile Damon and Elena were wandering the palace, looking through the rest of the mansion that was off-limits to visitors. If they found nothing, they intended to search the more available rooms as the gala continued.

It was dangerous work, this stealing in and out of darkened, cordoned-off – often locked – empty rooms: dangerous and strangely thrilling to Elena. Somehow, it seemed that fear and passion were more closely related than she had fully realized. Or at least, it seemed that way with her and Damon.

Elena couldn't help noticing and admiring little things about him. He seemed to be able to pick any lock with a single little implement he produced from inside his black jacket, the way other people produce fountain pens, and he had such a swift, graceful way of taking the pick out and putting it back in. Economy of motion, she knew, earned by living for around five centuries.

Also, no one could argue it: Damon seemed to keep his head in any situation, which made them a good pair right now when she was striding around like a goddess who could not be bound by the rules of mortals. This was even enhanced by the scares she got: shapes that looked like guards or sentries looming up at her turned out to be a stuffed bear, a slim cupboard, and something Damon didn't allow her more than a glimpse of, but what looked like a mummified human. Damon wasn't fazed by any of them.

If I could just channel some more Power to my eyes, Elena thought, and things immediately brightened up. Her Power was obeying her!

God! I'll have to wear this dress for the rest of my life: it makes me feel so…powerful. So…unashamed. I'll have to wear it to college, if I ever get to college, to impress my professors; and to Stefan's and my wedding – just so people understand I'm not a slut; and – to the beach, just to give the guys something to ogle…

She stifled a giggle and was surprised to see Damon glance with mock reproach at her. Of course, he was as closely focused on her as she was on him. But it was a slightly different case, of course, because, to his eyes, she wore a big label with STRAWBERRY JAM written on it, tied around her neck. And he was getting hungry again. Very hungry.

Next time I'm going to see that you eat properly before you go out, she thought at him.

Let's worry about succeeding this time before we start planning for next time, he returned, with just the faintest firefly hint of his 250-kilowatt smile.

But it was all mixed in, of course, with a little of the sardonic triumph that Damon always carried with him. Elena swore to herself that laugh at her as he might, beg her as he might, threaten or cajole as he might, she wouldn't give Damon the satisfaction of even one nip tonight. He could just pop the top off another jam pot, she thought.

Eventually, the sweet music of the concert was stilled and Elena and Damon dashed back to meet with Bonnie, Meredith, and Sage in the Harpery Hall. Elena could have guessed the news by Bonnie's stance, even if she hadn't already known from Sage's silence. But the news was worse than Elena could have imagined: not only had the three found nothing in the Harpery Hall, but they had finally resorted to quizzing the steward, who could speak, if not move, under Sage's Influence.

"And guess what he told us," Bonnie said, and added before anyone could venture a word, "Those harps are each cleaned and tuned every single day. Fazina has, like, a whole army of servants for them. And anything, anything that didn't belong to a harp would be reported at once. And nothing has been! It just isn't there!"

Elena felt herself shrink from omniscient goddess to baffled human. "I was worried it would be like this," she admitted, sighing. "It would have been just too easy the other way. All right, Plan B. You mingle with the gala guests, trying to get a look at each room that's open to the public. Try to dazzle Fazina's consort and pump him for information. See if Misao and Shinichi have been here recently. Damon and I will keep looking in the rooms that are supposed to be closed off."

"That's so dangerous," Meredith said, frowning. "I'm afraid of what the penalty might be if you're caught."

"I'm afraid of what the penalty might be to Stefan if we don't find this key tonight," Elena retorted shortly, and turned on her heel, leaving.

Damon followed her. They searched endless darkened rooms, now not even knowing whether they were looking for a harp or something else. First Damon would check if there were a breathing body inside the room (there might be a vampire guard, of course, but there wasn't much to do about that), then he picked the lock. Things were working seamlessly until they reached a room at the end of a long hall facing west – Elena had long since gotten lost in the palace, but she could unerringly tell west, because it was where the bloated sun hung.

Damon had picked the lock of this room and Elena had originally started forward eagerly. She searched the room, which contained, frustratingly, a silver-framed picture of a harp, but with nothing as bulky as the half of the fox key inside it, even when she had carefully used Damon's lock pick to unscrew the backing.

It was while she was placing this picture back on the wall that they both heard the thump. Elena winced, praying that none of the black-suited "security servants" who roamed the palace had heard the noise.

Damon quickly put a hand over her mouth and dialed the gaslight knob into darkness.

But they both could hear it now…footsteps approaching from outside in the hallway. Someone had heard the thump. The footsteps stopped outside the door and there was the distinct sound of an upper servant's discreet cough.

Elena whirled, feeling in that moment as if Wings of Redemption were within her reach. It would only require the slightest rise in adrenaline and she would have the security worker on his or her knees, sobbing in the penitence of a lifetime's work at evil. Elena and Damon would be gone before –

But Damon had another idea, and Elena was startled into going along with it.

When the door opened silently a moment later, the steward found a couple locked in such a tight embrace that they seemed not even to notice the intrusion. Elena could practically feel his indignation. The desire of a couple of guests to discreetly embrace in the privacy of Lady Fazina's many public rooms was understandable, but this was part of the private household. As he turned the lights up, Elena peeked at him out of the corner of her eye. Her psychic senses were open enough to catch his thoughts. He was going over the valuables in the room with an experienced but bored gaze. The exquisite miniature vase with the trailing roses picked out in rubies and emerald-encrusted vines; the magically preserved 5,000-year-old wooden Sumerian lyre; the twin pair of solid gold candlesticks in the shape of rearing dragons; the Egyptian funerary mask with its dark, elongated eyeholes seeming to watch out of its brilliantly painted features…all were here. It wasn't even as if her ladyship kept anything of great value here, but still, "This room is not part of the public display," he told Damon, who merely clasped Elena closer.

Yes, Damon seemed very determined to put on a good show for the steward…or something like that. But hadn't they already…done so? Elena's thoughts were losing coherency. The last thing…the very last thing that they could afford…was to…lose the chance of…finding the fox key. Elena started to pull away, and then realized that she mustn't.

Mustn't. Not couldn't. She was property, expensive property to be sure, decked out the way she was tonight, but Damon's to dispose of as he chose. While someone else was looking on, she must not seem to disobey her master's wishes.

Still, Damon was taking this too far…farther than he had ever taken liberties with her, although, she thought wryly, he didn't know that. He was caressing the skin left unprotected by the ivory goddess dress, her arms, her back, even her hair. He knew how she liked that, how she could somehow feel it when her hair was held and the ends caressed softly or gently crushed in a fist.

Damon! She was down to the last resort now: pleading. Damon, if they detain us, or do anything to us that keeps us from finding the key tonight – when will we have another chance?…She let him feel her desperation, her guilt, even the treacherous desire she had to forget everything and let each minute carry her further on this wave of ardor that he had created. Damon, I'll…say it if you want. I'm…begging you. Elena could feel her eyes prickling as tears flooded them.

No tears. Elena heard Damon's telepathic voice gratefully. There was something strange about it, though. It couldn't be starvation – he'd had her blood not much more than two hours ago. And it wasn't passion, for she could hear – and sense – that, all too clearly. Yet Damon's telepathic voice was so taut with control that it almost frightened her. More, she knew he could feel that it frightened her and that he chose to do nothing about it. No explanation. No exploration, either, she realized as she found that behind the control, his mind was entirely shut to her.

The only thing she could liken the feeling that she got from his steely control was pain. Pain that was just on the edge of the endurable.

But from what? Elena wondered helplessly.

What could cause him pain like that?

Elena couldn't waste their time on wondering what was wrong with Damon. She turned up the Power of her own hearing and began to listen at the doors before they entered.

It was while she was listening that suddenly a new idea solidified in Elena's mind, and she stopped Damon in a pitch-dark hallway and tried to explain to him what kind of room she was looking for. What, in modern days, would be called a "home office."

Damon, familiar with the architecture of great mansions, took her, after only a few false starts, into what was clearly a lady's writing room. Elena's eyes were by now as keen as his in the dimness as they searched by the light of a single candle.

While Elena was being frustrated after searching a remarkable desk with pigeonholes for secret drawers, and not finding any, Damon was checking the hallway.

"I hear someone outside," he said. "I think it's time to leave now."

But Elena was still looking. And – as her eyes raced across the room – she saw a small writing desk with an old-fashioned chair and an assortment of various pens, from ancient to modern, flaunting themselves from elaborate holders.

"Let's go while it's still clear," Damon murmured impatiently.

"Yes," Elena said distractedly. "All right…"

And then she saw.

Without an instant's hesitation she strode across the room to the desk and picked up a pen with a brilliant silver plume. It wasn't a genuine quill pen, of course; it was a fountain pen made to look elegant and old-fashioned – with a plume. The pen itself was curved to fit her hand, and the wood felt warm.

"Elena, I don't feel very…"

"Damon, shhh," Elena said, ignoring him, too absorbed in what she was doing to really hear. First: try to write. No go. Something was blocking the cartridge. Second: unscrew the fountain-pen carefully, as if to refill its cartridge, while all the time her heart was clamoring in her ears and her hands were shaking. Keep moving slowly…don't miss anything…for God's sake don't let anything fall away and bounce in this dimness. The two parts of the pen parted in her hand…

…and onto the dark green desk pad fell a small, heavy, curved piece of metal. It had just fit inside the widest part of the pen. She had it in her hand and was reassembling the pen before she could get a good look at it. But then…she had to open her hand and see.

The small crescent-shaped object dazzled her eyes in the light, but it was just like the description Bonnie had given Elena and Meredith. A tiny representation of a fox with a nominal body and a jewel-encrusted head that sported two flat ears. The eyes were two sparkling green stones. Emeralds?

"Alexandrite," Damon said in a bedroom whisper. "Folklore has it that they change color in candlelight or firelight. They reflect the flame."

Elena, who had been leaning back against him, recalled with a chill the way Damon's eyes had reflected flame when he had been possessed: the bloodred flame of the malach – of Shinichi's cruelty.

"So," Damon demanded, "how did you do it?"

"This is really one of the two pieces of the fox key?"

"Well, it's hardly something that belongs in a fountain pen. Maybe it's a Crackerjack prize. But you went right to it the moment we entered the room. Even vampires need time to think, my precious princess."

Elena shrugged. "It's too easy, actually. When it was clear that all those harp keys were no goes, I asked myself what else was an instrument that you'd find in someone's house. A pen is a writing instrument. Then I just had to find out whether Lady Fazina had a study or writing room."

Damon let out a breath. "Hell's demons, you little innocent. You know what I've been looking for? Trap doors. Secret entries to dungeons. The only other instrument I could think of was an 'instrument of torture' and you'd be surprised at how many of them you'll find in this fair city."

"But not in her house – !" Elena's voice rose dangerously, and they were both silent a moment to make up for it, listening, on tenterhooks, for any sound from the hallway.

There was none.

Elena let out her breath. "Quick! Where, where will it be safe?" She was realizing that the one fault of the goddess dress was that there was absolutely no place to hide anything. She'd have to speak to Lady Ulma about that for next time.

"Down, down in the pocket of my jeans," Damon said, seeming to be as urgent and shaking as badly as she was. When he had jammed it deep into the recesses of his black Armani jeans he caught her by both hands. "Elena! Do you realize? We've done it. We've actually done it!"

"I know!" Tears were leaking out of Elena's eyes and all of Lady Fazina's music seemed to be swelling in one great, perfect chord. "We did it together!"

And then somehow – like all the other "somehows" that were getting to be a habit with them, Elena was in Damon's arms, sliding her own arms under his jacket to feel his warmth, his solidity. She wasn't surprised, either, to feel a double piercing at her throat when she dropped her head back: her lovely panther was really only a little tamed, and needed to learn a few basics of dating etiquette; such as you kiss before you bite.

He had said he was hungry earlier, she remembered, and she had ignored him, too enthralled by the silver pen to put the words together. But she put them together now, and understood – except why he seemed to be so exceptionally hungry tonight.

Maybe even…excessively hungry.

Damon, she thought gently, you're taking a lot.

She could feel no response but the raw hunger of the panther.

Damon, this could be dangerous…for me. This time Elena put as much Power as she could into the words she sent.

Still no response from Damon, but she was floating now, down into darkness. And that gave her the vague thread of an idea.

Where are you? Are you here? she called, picturing the little boy.

And then she saw him, chained to his boulder, curled up in a ball, with his fists covering his eyes.

What's wrong? Elena asked immediately, floating near to him, concerned.

He's hurting! He's hurting!

Are you hurt? Show me, Elena said instantly.

No! He's hurting you. He could kill you!

Husshh. Husshhh. She tried to cradle him.

We have to make him hear us!

All right, Elena said. She really was feeling odd and weak. But she turned, along with the child, and cried voicelessly: Damon! Please! Elena says stop!

And a miracle happened.

Both she and the child could feel it. The little sting of fangs being withdrawn. The stop of energy flow from Elena to Damon.

And then, ironically, the miracle began to take her away from the child, with whom she really wanted to speak.

No! Wait! she tried to tell Damon, clinging to the child's hands as hard as she could, but she was being catapulted back to consciousness as if by a hurricane. The darkness faded. In its place was a room, too bright, its one candle blazing like a police searchlight aimed directly at her. She shut her eyes and felt the warmth and heaviness of the corporeal Damon in her arms.

"I'm sorry! Elena, can you speak? I didn't realize how much – " There was something wrong with Damon's voice. Then she understood. Damon's fangs were unretracted.

Wha – ? Everything was wrong. They'd been so happy, but – but now her right arm felt wet.

Elena pulled away from Damon entirely, staring at her arms, which were red and with something that wasn't paint.

She was still too worked up to ask questions properly. She slipped behind Damon and pulled his black leather jacket off him. In the brilliant light she could see his black silk shirt marred by line after line of dried, partially dried, or just plain wet blood.

"Damon!" Her first reaction was horror without a touch of guilt or understanding. "What happened? Did you get in a fight? Damon, tell me!"

And then something in her mind presented her with a number. Since she had been a child, she had been able to count. In fact. she'd learned to count to ten before her first birthday. Therefore, she'd had seventeen full years of learning to count the number of irregular, deep, still-bleeding cuts in Damon's back.

Ten.

Elena looked down at her own bloody arms and at the goddess dress, which was now the horror dress because its pure milky whiteness was marred with brilliant red.

Red that should have been her blood. Red that must have felt like sword slashes into Damon's back as he channeled the pain and the marks of the Night of her Discipline from her to him.

And he carried me all the way home. The thought came swimming in from nowhere. Without a word about it. I would never have known….

And he still hasn't healed. Will he ever heal?

That was when she started screaming on all frequencies.

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