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The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 41)

"Stefan!" Elena screamed and knew that she sounded like a madwoman when she screamed it.

There was no answer.

She was running. Following the light. "Stefan! Stefan!"

An empty cell.

A yellowed mummy.

A pyramid of dust.

Somehow, subconsciously, she suspected one of these things. And any one would have caused her to run out to fight Bloddeuwedd with her bare hands.

Instead, when she reached the right cell, she saw a weary young man, whose face showed that he had given up all hope. He lifted a stick-thin arm, rejecting her utterly.

"They told me the truth. You were exported for aiding a prisoner. I'm not susceptible to dreams anymore."

"Stefan!" She fell to her knees. "Do we have to go through this every single time?"

"Do you know how often they re-create you, bitch?"

Elena was shocked. More than shocked. But the next moment the hatred had faded from his face.

"At least I get to look at you. I had…I had a picture. But they took that, of course. They cut it up, very slowly, making me watch. Sometimes they made me cut it. If I didn't cut it, they would – "

"Oh, darling! Stefan, darling! Look at me. Listen to the prison. Bloddeuwedd is destroying it. Because I've stolen the other half of your key from her nest, Stefan, and I am not a dream. Do you see this? Did they ever show you this?" She held out the hand with the double fox ring on it. "Now – now – where do I put it?"

"You are warm. The bars are cold," Stefan said, clutching her hand and speaking as if reciting out of a children's book.

"Here!" Elena cried triumphantly. She didn't need to take the ring off. Stefan was holding her other hand, and this lock worked like a seal ring. She placed it straight into a circular depression in the wall. Then, when nothing happened, she turned it right. Nothing. Left.

The cell bars slowly began to lift into the ceiling.

Elena couldn't believe it and for an instant thought she was hallucinating. Then when she turned sharply to look at the ground she saw that the bars were already at least a foot above it.

Then she looked at Stefan, who was standing again.

Both of them fell back to their knees. They would have both gotten down and wriggled like snakes if necessary, the need to touch was so great. The horizontal struts on the bars made it impossible for them to hold hands as the bars lifted.

Then the bars were over the top of Elena's head and she was holding Stefan – she was holding Stefan in her arms! – appalled to feel bones under her hands, but holding him, and no one could tell her he was a hallucination or a dream, and if she and Stefan had to die together, then they would die together. Nothing mattered but that they not be separated again.

She covered the unfamiliar, bony face with kisses. Strange, no half-grown, gone-to-the-wild beard, but vampires didn't grow beards unless they had them when they became vampires.

And then there were other people in the cell. Good people. People laughing and crying and helping her create a makeshift litter out of stinking blankets and Stefan's pallet and no one screamed when lice jumped on them because everyone knew that Elena would have turned and ripped their throat out like Saber. Or rather, like Saber, but as Ms. Courtland had always said, with feeling. To Saber it was just a job.

Then somehow – things had begun to become disconnected – Elena was watching Stefan's beloved face and gripping his litter, and running – he didn't weigh anything – up a different corridor than the one she'd fought and shouldered and pushed and floundered in on her way in. Apparently all the Shi no Shi's salmon had chosen the other corridor to swim up. Undoubtedly there was a safe place for them at the end on that side.

And even as Elena wondered how a face could be so pure, and handsome, and perfect, even when it looked almost like a skull, she was thinking, I can run and stoop. And she bent over Stefan and her hair made a shield around them, so that it was just the two of them inside it. The entire outside world was shut out, and they were alone, and she said in his ear: "Please, we need you to be strong. Please – for me. Please – for Bonnie. Please – for Damon. Plea – "

She would have gone on naming all of them, and probably some over and over, but it was too much already. After his long deprivation, Stefan was in no mood to be contrary. His head darted up and Elena felt more than the usual pain because he was at the wrong angle, and Elena was glad because Stefan had struck a vein down its length and blood was flowing into his mouth in a steady stream.

They had to go a little more slowly now, or Elena would have tripped and colored Stefan's face maroon like a demon's, but they were still jogging. Someone else was guiding them.

Then, very suddenly they stopped. Elena, eyes shut, mind locked on to Stefan's, would not have looked up for the world. But in a moment they were moving again, and there was a feeling of spaciousness all around Elena and she realized that they were in the lobby and she had to make sure everyone knew.

It's on the left side of us now, she sent to Damon. It's close to the front. It's a door with all sorts of symbols above.

I believe I'm familiar with the species, Damon sent back dryly, but even he couldn't hide two things from her. One was that he was glad, actually glad to feel Elena's elation, and to know that it was he, in the main part, that had brought it about.

The other was simple. That if there was a choice between the life of himself and the life of his brother, he would give his own life. For Elena's sake, for his own pride.

For Stefan.

Elena didn't dwell on these secret things she had no right to know. She simply embraced them, let Stefan feel them in all their raw vibrancy, and made sure there was no feedback to tell Damon that Stefan knew. Angels were singing in heaven for her. Black Magic rose petals were scattering around her body. There was a release of doves and she felt their wings. She was happy.

But she was not safe.

She only learned it as she entered the lobby, but they were very lucky that the Dimensional Door was on the side it was. Bloddeuwedd had methodically destroyed the other side until it had collapsed into a mound that was nothing but splintered wood. Elena and Bloddeuwedd's feud might have started out as a quarrel between a hostess who thought her guest had broken the house rules and a guest who just wanted to run away, but it had become a war to the death. And given the way vampires, werewolves, demons, and other folk down here in the Dark Dimension reacted, it had created a sensation. The Guardians had their hands full keeping people out of the building. Dead bodies lay strewn on the street.

Oh, God, the people! The poor people! Elena thought, as this at last came into her field of view. As for the Guardians, who were keeping this place clear and fighting Bloddeuwedd on her behalf – God bless you for that, Elena thought, envisioning a standing-room-only lobby as they tried to race with Stefan across the floor. As it was, they were alone.

"Now we need your key again, Elena," Damon's voice, just above her, said.

Elena gently pried Stefan off her throat. "Just for a moment, my darling. Just for a moment."

Looking at the door, Elena was confounded for several moments. There was a hole, but nothing happened when she put the ring in it and pushed, jammed, or twisted left or right. Out of the corner of her eye she saw some dark shadow above her, dismissed it as irrelevant, and then had it come screaming at her like a dive-bomber, steel talons reaching for her.

There was no roof. Bloddeuwedd's talons had methodically ripped it away.

Elena knew it.

Because somehow Elena suddenly saw the whole of the situation, not just her part in it, but as if she were someone outside her body, who understood many more things than puny little Elena Gilbert did.

The Guardians were here to prevent collateral damage.

They could or would not stop Bloddeuwedd.

Elena knew that, too.

All the people running down the other corridor had been doing what an owl's prey normally does. They had been dashing for the bottom of their burrow. There was an enormous safe room there.

Somehow, Elena knew it.

But now, blurrily but definitely, Bloddeuwedd saw the ones she had been after in the first place, the nest robbers, the ones who had forever put out one of her huge round orange far-seeing eyes, and cut her so deeply that the other eye was filling with blood.

Elena could feel it.

Bloddeuwedd could see they were the ones who had caused her to smash her beak. The criminals, the savages, the ones she would tear to pieces slowly, slowly, a limb at a time, switching from one to another as she clutched five or six in one set of claws, or as she watched them, unable to run from lack of limbs, writhing beneath her.

Elena could sense it.

Beneath her.

Right now…they were directly beneath Bloddeuwedd.

Bloddeuwedd dove.

"Saber! Talon!" shouted Sage, but Elena knew that there would be no distraction now. There would be nothing but killing and tearing, slowly, and screams echoing off the single lobby wall.

Elena could picture it.

"It won't open, damn it," shouted Damon. He was manipulating Elena's wrist to move the key in the hole. But no matter how he pulled or pushed, nothing happened.

Bloddeuwedd was almost upon them.

She accelerated, throwing telepathic images before her.

Sinew stretching, joints cracking, bone splintering…

Elena knew –

NOOOOO!

Elena's cup of rage ran over.

Suddenly she saw everything she needed to know in one great sweeping epiphany. But it was too late to get Stefan inside the door, so the first thing she shouted was "Wings of Protection!"

Bloddeuwedd, barely six feet away, slammed into a barrier that a nuclear missile could not have harmed. She slammed into it at the speed of a racing car and with the mass of a medium-sized airplane.

Horror exploded beak first against Elena's wings. They were clear green at the top, dotted with flashing emeralds, and shading into a dawn pink covered with crystals at the bottom. The wings enwrapped all six humans and two animals – and they did not move by one millimeter when Bloddeuwedd smashed into them.

Bloddeuwedd had made herself roadkill.

Shutting her eyes, and trying not to think of the maiden who had been made of flowers (and who had killed her husband! Elena told herself desperately) with dry lips, and wetness trickling down her cheeks, Elena turned back to the door. Put the ring in. Made sure it was flush.

And said, "Fell's Church, Virginia, USA, Earth. Near the boardinghouse, please."

It was well after midnight. Matt was sleeping on the bunker's cot, while Mrs. Flowers slept on the couch, when they were suddenly wakened by a thump.

"What on earth?" Mrs. Flowers got up and stared out the window, which should have been dark.

"Be careful, ma'am," Matt said automatically, but couldn't help adding, "What is it?" – as always, expecting the worst and making sure the revolver with the blessed bullets was ready.

"It's…light," Mrs. Flowers said helplessly. "I don't know what else to say about it. It's light."

Matt could see the light, throwing shadows on their bunker floor. There was no sound of thunder, and hadn't been since he woke up. Hastily he ran to join Mrs. Flowers at the window.

"Did you ever…?" exclaimed Mrs. Flowers, lifting her hands and dropping them again. "Whatever could it mean?"

"I don't know, but I remember everybody talking about ley lines. Lines of Power in the ground."

"Yes, but those run along the surface of the earth. They don't point upward, like – like a fountain!" Mrs. Flowers said.

"But I heard that wherever three ley lines come together – I think Damon said – they can form a Gate. A Gate to where they were going."

"Dear me," said Mrs. Flowers. "You mean you think one of those Gateway things is out there? Maybe it's them, coming back."

"It couldn't be." The time Matt had spent with this particular old woman had made him not only respect her, but love her. "But I don't think we should go outside, anyway."

"Dear Matt. You are such a comfort to me," Mrs. Flowers murmured.

Matt didn't really see how. It was all her stored food and water they were using. Even the fold-up cot was hers.

If he had been on his own he might have investigated this…extraordinary thing. Three spotlights shining out of the ground at an angle so that they met just about at the height of a human being. Bright lights. And getting brighter every minute.

Matt sucked in his breath. Three ley lines, huh? God, it was probably an invasion of monsters.

He didn't even dare to hope.

Elena didn't know if she had needed to say USA or Earth, or even if the door could take her to Fell's Church, or if Damon would have to give her the name of some gate that was close to it. But…surely…with all those ley lines…

The door opened, revealing a small room like an elevator.

Sage said quietly, "Can you four carry him if you have to fight, too?" And – after a second to unravel what this meant – three shrieks of protest, in three different feminine tones, came.

"No! Oh, please, no! Oh don't leave us!!" – Bonnie, begging.

"You're not coming home with us?" – Meredith, straight-from-the-shoulder.

"I order you to get in – and make it quick!" – Elena.

"Such a dominant woman," murmured Sage. "Ah, well, it seems the Great Pendulum has swung again. I am only a man. I obey."

"What? Does that mean you're coming?" Bonnie cried.

"It means I am coming, yes." Gently, Sage took Stefan's wasted body in his arms and stepped into the little cubicle inside the door. Unlike the first keys Elena had used today, this one seemed to work more like a voice-activated elevator…she hoped. After all, Shinichi and Misao had each only needed one key for themselves. Here, a number of people might want to go to the same place at once.

She hoped.

Sage back-kicked Stefan's old bedding away. Something rattled on the ground. "Oh – " Stefan reached helplessly for it. "It's my Elena diamond. I found it on the floor after…"

"Plenty more where that came from," Meredith said.

"It's important to him," Damon, who was already inside, said. Instead of crowding farther into the elevator, the little room that might disappear at any second, that might be gone for Fell's Church before he could turn back, he walked out into the lobby, looked closely at the floor, and knelt. Then, quickly, he reached down and then got up and hurried into the little room again.

"Do you want to hold it or shall I?"

"You hold it…for me. Take care of it."

Anyone who knew of Damon's track record, especially with regards to Elena or even an old diamond that had belonged to Elena, would have said Stefan had to be a madman. But Stefan wasn't mad.

He clasped his hand over his brother's that held the diamond.

"And I'll hold on to you," he said with a faint, wry smile.

"I don't know if anyone is interested," Meredith said, "but there is a single button on the inside of this contraption."

"Push it!" cried Sage and Bonnie, but Elena cried more loudly, "No – wait!"

She'd spotted something. Across the lobby, the Guardians had been unable to stop a single, apparently unarmed citizen from entering the room and crossing the floor at a high-paced graceful glide. He must have been over six feet tall, wearing an entirely white tunic and breeches, which matched his long white hair, alert foxlike ears, and the long flowing silky tail that waved behind him.

"Shut the door!" bellowed Sage.

"Oh, my!" breathed Bonnie.

"Can someone tell me what the hell is going on?" snarled Damon.

"Don't worry. It's only a fellow prisoner. A silent fellow. Hey, you got out, too!" Stefan was smiling and that was enough for Elena. And the intruder was holding out something to him that – well, it couldn't be what it looked like – but it was getting quite close now and it looked like a bouquet of flowers.

"That is a kitsune, is it not?" Meredith asked, as if the world had gone mad around her.

"A prisoner – " said Stefan.

"A THIEF!" shouted Sage.

"Hush!" said Elena. "He can probably hear even if he can't speak."

By then the kitsune was upon them. He met Stefan's eye, glanced at the others and held out the bouquet, which was heavily sealed in plastic wrap and some kind of long stickers with magical-looking inscriptions on them.

"This is for Stefan," he said.

Everyone, including Stefan, gasped.

"Now I must deal with some tiresome Guardians." He sighed. "And you must press the button to make the room go, Beauty," he said to Elena.

Elena, who had momentarily been fascinated by the whisking of a fluffy tail around silken breeches suddenly blushed scarlet. She was remembering certain things. Certain things that had seemed very different…in a lonely dungeon…in the dark of artificially formed night….

Oh, well. Best to put a brave face on it.

"Thank you," she said, and pushed the button. The doors began to close. "Thank you again!" she added, bowing slightly to the kitsune. "I'm Elena."

"Yoroshiku. I am – "

The door shut between them.

"Is it that you have gone crazy?" Sage cried. "Taking a bouquet from a fox!"

"You're the one who seems to know him, Monsieur Sage," Meredith said. "What's his name?"

"I do not know his name! I do know he stole three-fifths of the Seine Cloister Treasure from me! I know that he is expert, but expert at cheating at the cards! Ahh!"

The last was not a cry of rage but an exclamation of alarm, for the little room was moving sideways, plunging downward, almost stopping, before it resumed its former steady motion.

"Will it really take us to Fell's Church?" Bonnie asked timidly, and Damon put an arm around her.

"It'll take us somewhere," he promised. "And then we'll see. We're a pretty able set of survivalists."

"Which reminds me," Meredith said. "I think Stefan looks better." Elena, who had been helping to buffer him from the dimensional elevator's motion, glanced up at her quickly.

"Do you really? Or is it just the light? I think he should be feeding," she said anxiously.

Stefan flushed, and Elena pressed fingers to her lips to stop them trembling. Don't, darling, she said voicelessly. Every one of these people have been willing to give their life for you – or for me – for us. I'm healthy. I'm still bleeding. Please don't waste it.

Stefan murmured, "I'll stop the bleeding." But when she bent to him, as she had known he would, he drank.

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