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The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 39)

Elena waded into the crowd feeling like a soldier. She didn't know why. Maybe because she had thought of a quest and had managed to complete it and stay alive and bring back loot. Maybe because she bore honorable wounds. Maybe because above her there was an enemy who was still out for her blood.

Come to think of it, she thought, I'd better get all these noncombatants out of here. We can keep them in a safe house – well, a few dozen safe houses and –

What was she thinking? Safe house was a phrase from a book. She wasn't responsible for these people – idiots, mostly, who had stood, slavering, and watched her being whipped. But – despite that, maybe she should get them out of here.

"Bloddeuwedd!" she cried dramatically and pointed to a wheeling silhouette above. "Bloddeuwedd is free! She gave me these!" – pointing to the three lacerations on her back. "She'll go after you, too!"

At first most of the angry exclamation seemed to be about the fact that Elena now had a marked back. Elena was in no mood to argue. There was only one person here she wanted to talk to now. Keeping Bonnie and Meredith close behind her, she called.

Damon! Damon it's me! Where are you?

There was so much telepathic traffic that she doubted he would hear her.

But finally, she caught a faint, Elena?…Yes…

Elena, hold on to me. Think of holding me physically, and I'll take us to a different frequency.

Hold on to a voice? But Elena imagined holding on to Damon tightly, tightly, while she physically held Bonnie's and Meredith's hands.

Now can you hear me? This time the voice was much clearer, much louder.

Yes. But I can't see you.

But I see you. I'm coming to – WATCH OUT!

Too late, Elena's senses warned her of a huge shadow plummeting from above. She couldn't move quickly enough to get out of the way of a snapping, alligator-sized beak.

But Damon could. Leaping from somewhere, he gathered her and Bonnie and Meredith all in one great armful and leaped again, hitting grass and rolling.

Oh, God! Damon!

"Is anybody hurt?" he asked aloud.

"I'm fine," Meredith said quietly, calmly. "But I suspect I owe you my life. Thank you."

"Bonnie?" Elena asked.

I'm okay. I mean, "I'm okay. But Elena, your back – "

For the first time, Damon was able to turn Elena and see the wounds on her back. "I…did that? But…I thought…"

"Bloddeuwedd did that," Elena said sharply, looking upward for a circling shape in the deep red sky. "She just barely touched me. She has talons like knives, like steel. We have to go, now!"

Damon put both hands on her shoulders. "And come back when things have calmed down, you mean."

"And never come back! Oh, God, here she comes!"

Something out of the corner of her eye became baseball-sized in an instant, volleyball-sized in a second, human-sized in a moment. And then they were all scattering, leaping, rolling, trying to get away, except Damon, who seized Elena and shouted, "This is my slave! If you have any argument with her, you first argue with me!"

"And I am Bloddeuwedd, created by the gods, condemned to be a murderer every night. I'll kill you first, then eat her, the thief!" Bloddeuwedd called back in her raucous new voice. "Two bites is all it will take."

Damon, I need to tell you something!

"I'll fight you, but my slave is out of it!"

"First bite; here I come!"

Damon, we have to go!

A scream of primal pain and fury.

Damon was standing slightly crouched with a huge piece of glass held in his hand like a sword and great black drops of blood were dripping from where he had – oh, God! Elena thought – he'd put out one of Bloddeuwedd's eyes!

"YOU WILL ALL DIE! ALL!"

Bloddeuwedd made a charge at a random vampire directly below her and Elena screamed as the vampire screamed. The black beak had caught him by one leg and was lifting him.

But Damon was running forward, jumping, slashing. With a scream of fury, Bloddeuwedd took to the sky again.

Now everyone understood the danger. Two other vampires rushed to take their comrade from Damon, and Elena was glad that her friends were not responsible for another life. She had too much on her hands already.

Damon, I'm leaving now. You can come with me or not. I've got the key.

Elena sent the words on the frequency that they were more or less alone on, and she sent it without dramatics. She had no room for drama left. She'd been stripped of everything except the need to get to Stefan.

This time, she knew Damon heard her.

At first, she thought Damon was dying. That Bloddeuwedd had somehow come back and pierced him through his entire body, as with a spear made of light. Then she realized that the feeling was rapture, and two tiny child hands reached out of the light and clung to hers, allowing her to pull a thin, ragged, but laughing child away free.

No chains, she thought dizzily. He's not even wearing slave bracelets.

"My brother!" he told her. "My little brother's going to live!"

"Well, that's a fine thing," Elena said shakily.

"He's going to live!" A tiny frown line appeared. "If you hurry! And take good care of him! And – "

Elena put two fingers over his lips, very gently. "You don't need to worry about anything like that. You just be happy."

The little boy laughed. "I will! I am!"

"Elena!"

Elena came out of – well, she supposed it was a daze, although it had been more real than many other things she'd experienced recently.

"Elena!" Damon was trying desperately to restrain himself. "Show me the key!"

Slowly, majestically, Elena lifted her hand.

Damon's shoulders tensed, for – something – went down.

"It's a ring," he said dully. The slow and majestic bit hadn't worked on him at all.

"That's what I thought at first. It's a key. I'm not asking you, or seeing if you agree with me; I'm telling you. It's a key. The light from its eyes points to Stefan."

"What light?"

"I'll show you later. Bonnie! Meredith! We're leaving."

"YOU'RE NOT IF I SAY YOU'RE NOT!"

"Watch out!" screamed Bonnie.

The owl was diving again. And again, at the last second, Damon gathered the three girls and leaped. The owl's beak struck not grass nor shards of glass but the marble steps. They cracked. There was a scream of pain and another, as Damon, nimble as a dancer, slashed at the giant bird's one good eye. He got in a cut right above it. Blood began to fill the eye.

Elena couldn't stand any more. Ever since starting out on this journey with Damon and Matt, she had been a vial filling with anger. Drop by drop, with each new outrage, that anger had filled and filled the vial. Now her rage was about to fill it to overflowing.

But then…what would happen?

She didn't want to know. She was afraid she wouldn't survive it.

What she did know was that she couldn't watch any more pain and blood and anguish right now. Damon genuinely enjoyed fighting. Good. Let him. She was going to Stefan if she had to walk the whole way.

Meredith and Bonnie were silent. They knew Elena in this mood. She wasn't fooling around. And neither of them wanted to be left behind.

It was exactly at that moment that the carriage came rumbling up to the base of the marble stairs.

Sage, who obviously knew something about human nature, demonic nature, vampiric nature, and various kinds of bestial nature, jumped out of the carriage with two swords drawn. He also whistled. In a moment a shadow – a small one – came streaking to him out of the sky.

Last, slowly, stretching each leg like a tiger, came Saber, who immediately pulled back his lips to show an amazing number of teeth.

Elena leaped toward the carriage, her eyes meeting Sage's. Help me, she thought desperately. And his eyes said just as plainly, Have no fear.

Blindly, she reached behind her with both hands. One small, fine-boned, lightly trembling hand was thrust into hers. One slim, cool hand, hard as a boy's but with long tapering fingers grabbed her other one.

There was no one here to trust. No one to say good-bye to, or leave messages of good-bye with. Elena scrambled into the carriage. She got into the backseat, the farthest from the front, to accommodate incoming humans and animals.

And in they did come, like an avalanche. She had dragged Bonnie with her, and Meredith had followed, so that when Saber leaped into his accustomed place he landed on three soft laps.

Sage hadn't wasted a moment. With Talon clamped on his left wrist, he left just enough room for Damon's final spring – and a spring it was. Cracked and broken, oozing black fluid, Bloddeuwedd's beak hit the end of the marble stairs where Damon had been standing.

"Directions!" shouted Sage, but only after the horses were heading at a gallop – somewhere, anywhere, away.

"Oh, please don't let her hurt the horses," Bonnie gasped.

"Oh, please don't let her split this roof like cardboard," said Meredith, somehow able to be wry even when her life was in danger.

"Directions, s'il vous plaît!" roared Sage.

"The prison, of course," panted Elena. She felt that it had been a long time since she had been able to get enough air.

"The prison?" Damon seemed distracted. "Yes! The prison!" But then, he added, pulling up something like a pillowcase filled with billiard balls, "Sage, what are these?"

"Loot. Booty. Spoils! Plunder!" As the horses swung in a new direction, Sage's voice seemed to get more and more cheerful. "And look around your feet!"

"More pillowcases…?"

"I wasn't prepared for a big haul tonight. But things worked out well anyway!"

By now, Elena was feeling one of the pillowcases for herself. The case was, indeed, full of clear, sparkling hoshi no tama. Star balls. Memories. Worth…

Worthless?

"Priceless…although of course we don't know what's on them." Sage's voice changed subtly. Elena remembered the warning about "forbidden spheres." What, in the name of the yellow sun, could they possibly forbid down here?

Bonnie was the first to pick up a disk and put it to her temple. She did it so quickly, with such flashing, birdlike movements, that Elena couldn't stop her.

"What is it?" Elena gasped, trying to pull the star ball away.

"It's…poetry. Poetry I can't understand," said Bonnie crossly.

Meredith had also picked up a sparkling orb. Elena reached for her but once again she was too late.

Meredith sat as if in a trance for a moment, then grimaced and put the sphere down.

"What?" demanded Elena.

Meredith shook her head. She wore a delicate expression of distaste.

"What?" Elena almost yelled. Then as Meredith put the star ball by her feet, Elena lunged at it. She clapped it to her own temple and immediately was dressed in black leather from head to toe. There were two broad, square men in front of her, without a lot of muscle tone. And she could see all of their musculature because they were stark naked except for rags such as beggars wore. But they weren't beggars – they looked well-fed and oily and it was clearly an act when one of them groveled, "We have trespassed. We beg your forgiveness, O master!"

Elena was reaching to take the sphere off her temple (they stuck gently, if you put a little pressure there) and saying, "Why don't they use the space for something else?"

Something else was immediately all around her. A girl, in poor clothing, but not sacking. She looked terrified. Elena wondered if she were being controlled.

And Elena was the girl.

Pleasedon'tletitgetmepleasedon'tletitgetme –

Let what get you? Elena asked, but it was like watching a movie or book character while they were going into a lonely house in a howling storm and the music had turned eerie. The Elena who was walking in fear could not hear the Elena who was asking practical questions.

I don't think I want to see how this one comes out, she decided. She put the star ball back at Meredith's feet.

"Do we have three sacks?"

"Yes, ma'am, yes, ma'am; three sacks full."

Oh. That didn't work out very well. Elena was opening her mouth again, when Damon added quietly: "And one sack empty."

"Really? We do? Then let's all try to divide these. Anything – forbidden – goes in one sack. Weird stuff like Bonnie's poetry reading goes into another. Any news of Stefan – or of us – goes in the third. And nice things, like summer days, go in the fourth," Elena said.

"I think you are being optimistic, me," Sage said. "To expect to find an orb with Stefan on it so quickly – "

"Everybody, hush!" Bonnie said frantically. "This is Shinichi and Damon talking him into it."

Sage stiffened, as if taking a lightning bolt from the stormy sky, then he smiled. "Speak of the devil," he murmured. Elena smiled at him and squeezed his hand before taking another ball.

"This one seems to be some kind of legal stuff. I don't understand it. A slave must be taking it because I can see all of them." Elena felt her facial muscles tighten with hatred at the sight – even in a sort of dream – of Shinichi, the kitsune who had done so much harm. His hair was black, except for an irregular fringe around the edges, which made it look as if it had been dipped in red-hot lava.

And then, of course, Misao. Shinichi's sister – allegedly. This star ball must have been made by a slave, because she could see both of the twins and a lawyerly-looking man.

Misao, Elena thought. Delicate, deferential, demure…demonic. Her hair was the same as Shinichi's, but it was held up and back in a ponytail. You could see the demonic part if she raised her eyes. They were effervescent, golden, laughing eyes, just like her brother's; eyes that had never had a regret – except perhaps for not exacting enough revenge. They took no responsibility. They found anguish funny.

And then something odd happened. All three of the figures in the room suddenly turned around and looked straight at her. Straight at whoever had made the sphere, Elena corrected herself, but it still was disconcerting.

It was even more disconcerting when they continued to advance. Who am I? Elena thought, feeling half-frantic with anxiety. Then she tried something she had never done before, or seen or heard of being done. She carefully extended her Power into the Self around the orb. She was Werty, a sort of lawyer's secretary. She/he took notes when important deals were done.

And Werty definitely didn't like the way things were going right now. The two clients and his boss closing in on him like this, in a way they never had before.

Elena pulled herself out of the clerk and put the ball down to one side. She shivered, feeling as if she'd been plunged into ice-cold water.

And then the roof crashed in.

Bloddeuwedd.

Even with her crippled beak, the huge owl tore off quite a bit of the roof of the carriage.

Everyone was screaming and no one was giving much good advice. Saber and Damon had both damaged her: Saber by raising right off the three soft laps he was sitting on and lunging straight up for Bloddeuwedd's feet. He had torn and shaken one before letting go to fall back into the carriage, where he almost slid off the back. Elena, Bonnie, and Meredith grabbed at whatever portions of canine anatomy they could reach, and hauled the huge animal into the backseat again.

"Scoot over! Give him his own seat," wailed Bonnie, looking at the shreds of her pearl-colored dress where Saber had taken off and ripped right through the gauzy material. He'd left red welts in his path.

"Well," Meredith said, "next time we'll request steel petticoats. But I really hope there isn't going to be a next time, anyway!"

Elena prayed fervently that she was right. Bloddeuwedd was skimming in from a lower angle now, undoubtedly hoping to snap off a few heads.

"Everybody grab wood. And spheres! Throw the spheres at her as she comes close to us." Elena was hoping that the sight of star globes – Bloddeuwedd's obsession – might slow her down.

At the same time Sage shouted, "Don't waste the star balls! Throw anything else! Besides, we're almost there. Hard left, then straightaway!"

The words gave Elena new hope. I have the key, she thought. The ring is the key. All I have to do now is get Stefan – and get all of us to the door with the keyhole. All in one building. I'm practically home.

The next sweep came in even lower. Bloddeuwedd, blind in one eye, with blood filling the other one, and her olfactory senses blocked by her own dried blood, was trying to ram the carriage and knock it over.

If she manages it, we'll be dead, Elena thought. And any who're still writhing like worms on the ground, she can pick off.

"DUCK!" She screamed the word both vocally and telepathically.

And then something like an airplane flew so close to her that she felt tufts of hair being pulled out, caught in its claws.

Elena heard a cry of pain from the front seat but didn't raise her head to see what it was. And that was good, for while the carriage suddenly slammed to a halt, the next instant a whirling, screaming, bird of death came searing out on the same course. Now Elena needed all of her attention, all her faculties, to avoid this monster that was buzzing them even lower.

"The carriage, she is finished! Get out! Run!" Sage's voice came rumbling to her.

"The horses," screamed Elena.

"Finished! Get out, damn you!"

Elena had never heard Sage swear before. She dropped the subject.

Elena never knew how she and Meredith did get out, tumbling over each other, trying to help and only getting in each other's way. Bonnie was already out, by virtue of the coach having hit a pole and sending her flying. Fortunately, it had sent her into a square of ugly but springy red clover, and she wasn't seriously injured.

"Ahhh, my bracelet – no, there it is," she cried, grabbing something glittering out of the clover. She cast a cautious look upward into the crimson night. "Now what do we do?"

"We run!" came Damon's voice. He came around the wreckage of the corner where they had fallen in a heap. There was blood on his mouth, on the previously immaculate white at his throat. It reminded Elena of those people who drank cow's blood as well as milk for nutrition. But Damon only drank from humans. He would never stoop to equine blood…

The horses will still be here and so will Bloddeuwedd, a harsh voice explained in her head. She would play with them; there would be pain. This way was quick. It was…a whim.

Elena reached for his hands, gasping. "Damon! I'm sorry!"

"GET OUT OF HERE," Sage was roaring.

"We have to get to Stefan," Elena said, and grabbed Bonnie with her other hand. "Help guide me, please. I can't see the ring very well." Meredith, she trusted, would get to the Shi no Shi building on her own resources.

And then there was a nightmare of running and flinching and false alarms by a shaken Bonnie. Twice the horror from above came skimming straight toward them only to crash just in front of them, or a little to the side, breaking wood and tile road alike, throwing up clouds of dust. Elena didn't know about all owls, but Bloddeuwedd swooped down at an angle on her prey, then opened her wings and dropped at the last moment. Part of the worst thing about the giant owl was her silence.

There was no rustling to warn them of where she might be. Something in her own feathers muffled the sound, so that they never knew when she was going to drop next.

In the end they had to crawl through all sorts of rubbish, going as fast as they could, holding wood, glass, anything sharp over their heads, as Bloddeuwedd made another pass.

And all the time Elena was trying to use her Power. It was not a Power she had used before, but she could feel its name shaping her lips. What she could not feel, could not force, was a connection between the words and the Power.

I'm useless as a heroine, she thought. I'm pathetic. They should have given these Powers to someone who already knew how to control such things. Or, no, they should have given them to someone and then given the someone a course on how to use them. Or – no –

"Elena!" Rubbish was flying in front of her, but then she was cutting left and somehow getting around it. And then she was on the ground and looking up at Damon, who had protected her with his body.

"Thank you," she whispered.

"Come on!"

"I'm sorry," she whispered and held out her right hand, with the ring on it, for him to take.

And then she doubled up, heaving with sobs. She could hear the flapping of Bloddeuwedd right above her.

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