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The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 36)

"What?" shouted Damon over the music, while adding: Run – go! telepathically to Elena.

If it had merely been Elena's life, she would have been glad enough to die here with the thunderous beauty of Firebird all around her, rathr than facing those steep, invisible steps alone.

But it wasn't just her life. It was Stefan's life, too. Still, the flower maiden didn't look particularly menacing, and Elena couldn't summon up enough adrenaline to try making it down that hidous stairway.

Damon, let's both go. We have to search the Great Ballroom outside. Only you're strong enough….

A hesitation. Damon would rather fight than face that enormous, impossible green field outside, Elena thought.

But Bloddeuwedd, despite her words, was now spinning the room around them again, so that she, at the edge of some invisible walkway, could find the exact orb she wanted.

Damon lifted Elena in his arms and said: Shut your eyes.

Elena not only shut her eyes, but put her hands over them as well. If Damon was going to drop her, she wasn't going to help matters by shouting "Look out!" as he did it.

The sensations themselves were sickening enough. Damon leaped from step to step like an ibex. He seemed barely to touch the steps in going down and Elena wondered – quite suddenly – if anything were after them.

If so, it was information she needed to know. She began to lift her hands and heard Damon whisper-snarl "Keep them shut!" in a voice that few people liked to argue with.

Elena peeked out between her hands, met Damon's exasperated eyes, and saw nothing following them. She clamped her hands back together and prayed.

If you were really a slave, you wouldn't last a day here, you know, Damon informed her, taking a final leap into space and then setting her down on invisible – but at least level – ground.

I wouldn't want to, Elena sent coldly. I swear, I'd rather die.

Be careful what you promise, Damon flashed his splendid smile down at her suddenly. You may end up in other dimensions trying to fulfill your word.

Elena didn't even try to one-up him. They were out, free, and racing through the glass house down to the stairs to the lower floor – a little tricky in her state of mind, but bearable – and finally out the door. On the grass of the Great Ballroom they found Meredith and Bonnie…and Sage.

He was actually in white tie as well, although his jacket strained at his shoulders. In addition, Talon was sitting on one – so the problem might be taken care of fairly soon, as she was ripping the material and drawing blood. Sage didn't seem aware of it. Saber was at his master's side, looking at Elena with eyes too thoughtful to be mere animal eyes, but without malice.

"Thank God you came back!" Bonnie cried, running to them. "Sage came and he has a marvelous idea."

Even Meredith was excited. "You remember how Damon said we should have brought a diviner? Well, we have two now." She turned to Sage. "Please tell them."

"As a rule, I don't take these two to parties." Sage reached down to scratch under Saber's throat. "But a little bird told me that you might be in trouble." His hand moved up to stroke Talon, ruffling the falcon's feathers slightly. "So, dites-moi, please: Just how much have you two been handling the half-key you do possess?"

"I touched it tonight and in the beginning, the night we found it," said Elena. "But Lady Ulma handled it and Lucen made a chest for it and we've all handled that."

"But outside the box?"

"I've held it and looked at it once or twice," said Damon.

"Eh bien! The kitsune smells should be much stronger on it. And kitsune have very distinctive smells."

"So you mean that Saber – " Elena's voice gave out for pure faintness.

"Can sniff out anything with the smell of kitsune on it. Meanwhile, Talon has very good eyesight. She can fly overhead and look for the glint of gold in case it's in plain sight somewhere. Now show them what they will be searching for."

Elena obligingly held out the crescent shaped half-key for Saber to sniff.

"Voil��! And Talon, now you take a good look." Sage backed away to what was, Elena supposed, Talon's optimal seeing distance. Then when he came back, he said, " Commençons!" and the black dog exploded away, nose to ground, while the falcon took off in grand, high, sweeping circles.

"So you think the kitsune were on this grass?" Elena asked Sage, as Saber began racing back and forth, nose still just above the grass – and then suddenly veered out onto the middle of the marble steps.

"But assuredly, they were here. You see how Saber runs, like a black panther, with his head low, and his tail straight? He has business in hand, him! He is hot on the scent."

I know someone else who gives off the same feeling, Elena thought as she glanced back at Damon, who stood with his arms folded, motionless, coiled like a spring, waiting for whatever news the animals would bring.

She happened to glance at Sage at the same moment, and she saw an expression on his face that – well, it was probably the same expression she'd been wearing a minute ago. He glanced at her and she blushed.

"Pardonnez-moi, Monsieur," she said, looking away quickly.

"Parlez-vous français, Madame?"

"Un peu," Elena said humbly – an unusual condition for her. "I can't really keep up a serious conversation. But I loved going to France." She was about to say something else, when Saber barked once, sharply, to attract attention and then sat bolt upright at the curb.

"They came or left in a carriage or litter," Sage translated.

"But what did they do in the house? I need a trail going the other way," Damon said, looking up at Sage with something like raw desperation.

"All right, all right. Saber! Contremarche!"

The black dog instantly turned around, put its nose to the ground as if it afforded him the greatest delight, and began running back and forth across the stairs and the lawn that formed the "Great Ballroom" – now becoming pitted with holes as people took shovels, pickaxes, and even large spoons to it.

"Kitsune are hard to catch," Elena murmured into Damon's ear.

He nodded, glancing at his watch. "I hope we are, too," he murmured back.

There was a sharp bark from Saber. Elena's heart leaped in her chest.

"What?" she cried. "What is it?" Damon passed her, grabbed her hand, and dragged her in his wake.

"What has he found?" Elena gasped as they all reached the same point simultaneously.

"I don't know. It's not part of the Great Ballroom," replied Meredith. Saber was sitting up proudly in front of a bed of tall, clustering pale lavender (deep violet) hydrangeas.

"They don't look like they're doing too well," said Bonnie.

"And it's not below any of the upper ballrooms, either," Meredith said, stooping to get at Saber's height and then look up. "There's just the library."

"Well, I know one thing without a question," Damon said. "We're going to have to dig up this flower patch and I don't fancy asking Ms. Larkspur-eyes-Now-I-have-to-kill-you for her permission."

"Oh, did you think they were larkspur, her eyes? Because I thought of bluebells, rahthah," said a guest behind Bonnie.

"Did she really say she had to kill you? But why?" another guest, nearer to Elena asked nervously.

Elena ignored them. "Well, let's put it this way, she's certainly not going to like it. But it's the only clue we've got." Except, I suppose, if the kitsune meant to leave it here, but then took off in a coach, she added voicelessly to Damon.

"So that means the show can commence," cried one of the young vampire fans, stepping toward Elena.

"But I don't have my amulet back," Damon said flatly, moving in front of Elena like an impenetrable wall.

"But you will in minutes, surely. Look, couldn't some fellows backtrack with the dog to wherever the bad guys came from – came to the estate from, if you get me? And meanwhile we can be getting on with the show?"

"Can Saber do that?" Damon asked. "Follow a carriage?"

"With a fox in it? But of course. Actually, I could go with them," Sage said quietly. "I could make sure that these two enemies are caught if they are on the other end of the trail. Show them to me."

"These are the only shapes I know." Damon reached out two fingers and touched Sage's temple. "But, of course, they'll have more forms, possibly infinite ones."

"Well, they are not our priority, I assume. The, ah, amulet is."

"Yes," Damon said. "Even if you don't land a blow on them, get the key half and race back."

"So? Even more important than revenge," Sage said softly, shaking his head in wonder. Then he added quickly. "Well, I will wish us good luck. Any adventurous types who want to go with me? Ah, good, four – very well, five, Madame – is enough."

And he was gone.

Elena looked at Damon, who was looking back with blank, black eyes. "You really expect me to do – that – again?"

"All you need to do is stand there. I'll make sure you lose as little blood as possible. And if you ever want to stop we can have a signal."

"Yes, but now I understand. And I can't handle it."

His face went cold suddenly. Shutting her out.

"You're not required to handle anything. Besides, isn't it enough if I say it's a fair bargain for Stefan?"

Stefan! Elena's entire body went through some sort of elemental change. "Let me share it," she begged, and knew that she was begging and knew what Damon was going to say.

"Stefan is going to need you when we get out. Just make sure you can handle that."

Stop. Think. Don't bash his head in, Elena's brain told her. He's pushing your buttons. He knows how to do it. Don't let him push your buttons.

"I can handle both," she said. "Please, Damon. Don't treat me as if I were – one of your one-nighters, or even your Princess of Darkness. Talk to me as if I were Sage."

"Sage? Sage is the most frustrating, cunning – "

"I know. But you talk to him. And you used to talk to me, and now you're not. Listen to me. I can't bear to go through this scenario again. I'll scream."

"Now you're threatening – "

"No! I'm telling you what will happen. Unless you gag me, I'll scream. And scream. As I would scream for Stefan. I can't help it. Maybe I'm breaking down…."

"But don't you see?" Suddenly he had whirled around and taken hold of her hands. "We're almost at the end. You, who've been the strongest all along – you can't break down now."

"The strongest…" Elena was shaking her head. "I thought we were right there, on the verge of understanding each other."

"All right." His words came as hard chips of marble now. "What if we do five?"

"Five?"

"Five strokes instead of ten. We'll promise to do the other five when the 'amulet' is found, but we'll run when we do find it."

"You would have to break your word."

"If it takes that – "

"No," she said flatly. "You say nothing. I'll tell them. I'm a liar and a cheat and I've always played with men. We'll see if I can't finally put my talents to good use. And there's no point in trying any of the other girls," she added, glancing up. "Bonnie and Meredith are wearing gowns that would fall right off if you slashed them. Only I have a bare back." She pirouetted in place to show off how her dress met only very high at the neck in a halter and very low in the back in a V.

"Then we're agreed." Damon had a slave refill his goblet and Elena thought: we're going to be the tipsiest act in history, if nothing else.

She couldn't help but shiver. The last time she had felt an inner trembling was from Damon's warm hand on her bare back as they danced. Now, she felt something much icier, just a draft of cold air perhaps. But it drew her mind to the feeling of her own blood running down her sides.

Suddenly Bonnie and Meredith were there beside her, forming a barricade between her and the increasingly curious and excited crowd.

"Elena, what's happened? They said a barbarian human girl was to be whipped – " began Meredith.

"And you just knew it had to be me," completed Elena. "Well, it's true. I don't see how I can get out of it."

"But what have you done?" Bonnie asked frantically.

"Been an idiot. Let some fraternity-type vampire boys think that it was a sort of magic act," Damon put in. His face was still grim.

"That's a little unfair, isn't it?" Meredith asked. "Elena told us about the first time. It sounded as if they jumped to the conclusion that it was an act all by themselves."

"We should have denied it then. Now, we're stuck with it," Damon said flatly. Then, as if he were making an effort, "Oh, well, maybe we'll get what we came for, anyway."

"That was how we found out – some idiot came running down the steps yelling about an amulet with two green stones."

"It was all we could think of," Elena explained wearily. "It's worth it for Damon and I to do this if only we can find the other half of the key."

"You don't have to do it," Meredith said. "We can just leave."

Bonnie stared at her. "Without the fox key?"

Elena shook her head. "We've already been through all that. The unanimous decision was to do it this way. She looked around. "Now where are the guys that wanted to see it so much?"

"Looking in the field – that used to be a ballroom," Bonnie replied. "Or getting shovels – lots of 'em – from Bloddeuwedd's gardening compound. Ow! Why'd you pinch me, Meredith?"

"Oh, my, did that pinch? I meant to do this – "

But Elena was already striding away, as eager now as Damon was to get it over with. Half over with. I just hope he remembers to change into his leather jacket and black jeans, she thought. In white tie – the blood –

I won't let there be any blood.

The thought was sudden and Elena didn't know where it came from. But in the deepest reaches of her being, she thought: he's been punished enough. He was trembling in the litter. He thought about another person's well-being from minute to minute. It's enough now. Stefan wouldn't want him to be hurt any more.

She glanced up to see one of the Dark Dimension's small, misshapen moons moving visibly above her. This time the surrender she made to it was bright red, a feather shining in sullen crimson light. But she gave herself up to it unreservedly, body and soul, and it rested on the hallowed spring of eternal blood that was her womanhood. And then she knew what she had to do.

"Bonnie, Meredith, look: we're a triumvirate. We have to try to share this with Damon."

No one looked enthusiastic.

Elena, whose pride had been entirely broken from the moment she first saw Stefan in his cell, knelt down in front of them on the hard marble step. "I'm begging you – "

"Elena! Stop that!" Meredith gasped.

"Please get up! Oh, Elena – " Bonnie was a breath away from tears.

And so, it was small, softhearted Bonnie who turned the tide. "I'll try to teach Meredith how. But anyway, we'll at least share it between the three of us."

Hug. Kiss. A murmur into strawberry hair, "I know what you see in the dark. You're the bravest person I know."

And then, leaving a stunned Bonnie behind, Elena went to collect spectators for her own whipping.

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