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The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 42)

By now Matt and Mrs. Flowers couldn't ignore the blinding lights anymore. They had to go outside.

But just as Matt opened the door there was – well, Matt didn't know what it was. Something blasted straight out of the ground and into the sky, where it got smaller and smaller, became a star, and disappeared.

A meteor that had gone through the Earth? But wouldn't that mean tsunamis and earthquakes and shockwaves and forest fires and maybe even the Earth ripping apart? If one meteor that hit the surface could kill off all the dinosaurs…

The light that had been shining upward had faded slightly.

"Well, bless my soul," said Mrs. Flowers in a small, shaken voice. "Matt, dear, are you all right?"

"Yes, ma'am. But…" Matt's vocabulary couldn't stand the strain. "What the hell was it?"

And to his slight surprise, Mrs. Flowers said, "My sentiments exactly!"

"Wait – there's something moving. Get back!"

"Dear Matt, be careful with that gun…"

"It's people! Oh, my God! It's Elena." Matt abruptly sat down on the ground. He could only whisper now. " Elena. She's alive. She's alive!"

From what Matt could see, there were a group of people climbing and helping others climb out of a perfectly rectangular hole, perhaps five feet deep, in Mrs. Flowers's angelica patch.

They could hear voices. "All right," Elena was saying, as she bent down. "Now grab my hands."

But the way she was dressed! A scrap of scarlet that showed all sorts of scratches and cuts on her legs. On top – well, the remains of the gown covered about what a bikini would. And she was wearing the largest, most sparkly costume jewelry that Matt had ever seen.

More voices, going on through Matt's shock.

"Be careful, yes? I will lift him to you – "

"I can climb out my own." – surely that was Stefan!

"You see?" Elena rejoiced. "He says he can climb out his own!"

"Oui, but perhaps one small lift – "

"This is hardly the time for machismo, little brother." And that, Matt thought, fingering the revolver, was Damon. Blessed bullets…

"No, I want – to do it myself – okay – got it. There."

"There! You see! He's better every second!" Elena caroled.

"Where's the diamond? Damon?" Stefan sounded anxious.

"I have it safe. Relax."

"I want to hold it. Please."

"More than you want to hold me?" Elena asked. There was a blur and then Stefan was lying back in her arms, while she said, "Easy, easy."

Matt stared. Damon was right behind them, almost as if he belonged there. "I'll watch the diamond," he said flatly. "You watch your girl."

"Excuse me – I'm sorry, but…could somebody please lift me out?" And that was Bonnie! Bonnie, sounding plaintive but not afraid or unhappy. Bonnie giggling! "Have we got all the sacks of star balls?"

"We've got all the ones from that house we found." And that was Meredith. Thank God. They'd all made it out. But despite his thoughts, his eyes were drawn again to one figure – the one who seemed to be supervising things – the one with golden hair.

"We need the star balls because any one of them might be – " she was beginning, when Bonnie cried out "Oh, look! Look! It's Mrs. Flowers and Matt!"

"Now, Bonnie, they'd hardly be waiting for us," Meredith put in.

"Where? Bonnie, where?" Elena demanded.

"If it's Shinichi and Misao in disguise I'm going to – hey, Matt!"

"Will someone please tell me where?"

"Right there, Meredith!"

"Oh! Mrs. Flowers! Um…I hope we didn't wake you."

"I have never had a happier awakening," Mrs. Flowers said solemnly. "I can see what you have been through in the Dark Place.

Your – er – lack of sufficient clothing…"

A sudden silence. Meredith glanced at Bonnie. Bonnie glanced at Meredith.

"I know these clothes and gems may seem a little too much…"

Matt found his voice. "Those jewels? They're real?"

"Oh, they're nothing. And we're all dirty…."

"Forgive me. We stink – which is my fault – " Stefan began, only to have Elena cut in.

"Mrs. Flowers, Matt: Stefan's been a prisoner! All this time! Starved and tortured – oh, God!"

"Elena. Shhh. You got me back."

"We got you back. Now, I'll never let you go. Ever, ever."

"Easy, love. I really need a bath and – " Stefan stopped suddenly. "There're no iron bars! Nothing to shut off my Powers! I can…" He stepped away from Elena, who clung with one hand. There was a soft, silvery flash of light, like a full moon appearing and disappearing in their midst.

"Over here!" he said. "Anyone who doesn't want little beastly parasites, I can take care of you."

"I'm your girl," said Meredith. "I have a phobia about fleas, and Damon never even got me any flea powder. What a master!"

There was laughter at this, laughter Matt didn't understand. Meredith was wearing – well, it had to be costume jewelry – but still it looked like about a few million dollars' worth of sapphires.

Stefan took Meredith's hand. There was the same soft flash of light. And then Meredith stepped back saying, "Thanks."

Stefan's low response was, "Thank you, Meredith." Meredith's blue dress was at least in one piece, Matt observed.

Bonnie – whose dress had been slashed into starlight-colored ribbons – was raising a hand. "Me, too, please!"

Stefan took her hand, and it happened all over again. "Thank you, Stefan! Oooh! I feel so much better! I hated itching!"

"Thank you, Bonnie. I hated to think I was dying alone."

"Other vampires, take care of yourselves!" Elena said, as if she had a clipboard and were checking items off. "And, Stefan, please – " She held out her hands to him.

He knelt in front of her, kissed both her hands, then enshrouded them in the soft white light.

"But I'd still like a bath…" said Bonnie pleadingly, as the new vampire – the tall fit one – and Damon had each sparked a moonlight glow around themselves.

Mrs. Flowers spoke up. "There are four working bathtubs in that house: in Stefan's room, in my room, in the rooms on either side of Stefan's. Be my guest. I'll put some bath salts in each right now." And then she added, holding her arms out to the whole ragged, bleeding, dirty bunch of them: "My house is yours, my dears."

There was a chorus of passionate "thank yous."

"I'll arrange a rota. For feeding Stefan, I mean. If you girls are willing," Elena added quickly, looking at Bonnie and Meredith. "He doesn't need much, just a little every hour until morning."

Elena still seemed very shy of Matt. Matt was very shy of her. But he stepped forward, empty hands held up to show that he was harmless. "Is it a rule that it's only girls? Because I've got blood, too, and I'm healthy as a horse."

Stefan quickly looked at him. "No rule about only girls. But you don't have to – "

"I want to help you."

"Okay, then. Thank you, Matt."

The proper response seemed to be "Thank you, Stefan," but Matt couldn't think of anything until, "Thanks for taking care of Elena."

Stefan smiled. "Thank Damon for that. He and the others all helped me – and each other."

"We Also Walk Dogs – at least Sage does," Damon said slyly.

"Oh – that reminds me. I should use that de-parasiting trick on my two friends. Saber! Talon! Heel!" He added a whistle that Matt could never have imitated.

In any case, Matt was operating in a dream. A huge dog, almost as big as a pony, seemingly, and a falcon came out of the darkness.

"Now," the fit vampire said, and once again the soft light shone.

And then: "There. If you don't mind; I prefer to sleep out-of-doors with my friends. I am grateful for all your kindnesses, Madame, and my name is Sage. The hawk is Talon; the dog, Saber."

Elena said, "Dibs on Stefan's bath for Stefan and me, and Mrs. Flowers's bath for the girls. You boys can work things out on your own."

"I," Mrs. Flowers said gravely, "will be in the kitchen, making sandwiches." She turned to go.

That was when Shinichi arose from the earth above them.

Or rather when his face arose. It was clearly an illusion, but a terrifying and marvelous one. Shinichi actually seemed to be there, a giant, perhaps supporting the world on his shoulders. The black part of his hair blended in with the night, but the scarlet tips made a flaming halo around his face. Having come from a land that was dominated by a giant red sun, night and day, it was an odd sight.

Shinichi's eyes were red as well, like two small moons in the sky, and they focused on the group by Mrs. Flowers's house.

"Hello," he said. "What, you look so surprised? You shouldn't be. I really couldn't let you come back without popping up to say 'hello.' After all, it's been a long time – for some of you," the giant face said, grinning. "Also, of course, to share in the festivities – we've saved little Stefan, and, my, we even fought an oversized chicken to do it."

"I'd like to see you take Bloddeuwedd on, one on one, and get a secret key out of her nest, at the same time," Bonnie began indignantly, but stopped when Meredith squeezed her arm.

Sage, meanwhile was murmuring something about what his own "oversized chicken," Talon, would do if Shinichi were brave enough to show up in person.

Shinichi ignored all this. "Oh, yes, and the mental calisthenics you had to go through. Truly formidable. Well, never again will we mistake you for blunder-headed idiots who never really asked why my sister would give you any clues in the first place, much less clues that Outsiders could understand. I mean" – he leered – "why not just go and swallow the key in the first place, hmm?"

"You're bluffing," Meredith said flatly. "You underestimated us, plain and simple."

"Maybe," said Shinichi. "Or maybe it was something else entirely."

"You lost," said Damon. "I realize that may be an entirely new concept for you, but it's true. Elena has gained much more control over her Powers."

"But will they work here?" Shinichi smiled eerily. "Or will they suddenly disappear in the light of a pale yellow sun? Or in the depths of true darkness?"

"Don't let him bait you, Madame," Sage shouted. "Your Powers come from a place he cannot enter!"

"Oh, yes, and the renegade. The Rebel's rebel son. I wonder…what are you calling yourself this time? Cage? Rage? I wonder what these children will think when they learn who you really are?"

"It won't matter who he is," Bonnie cried. "We know that. We know that he's a vampire, but that he can be gentle and kind and he's saved us over and over again." She shut her eyes, but held her ground against the gale of Shinichi's laughter.

"So 'Madame,'" Shinichi mocked, "you think you have gained 'Sage.' But I wonder if you know what in chess we call a 'gambit' is? No? Well, I'm sure your intellectual friend will be glad to inform you."

There was a pause. Then Meredith said, with no expression at all, "A gambit is when a chess player sacrifices something – for instance, a pawn – deliberately – just to get something else. A position on the chessboard that they want, for instance."

"I knew you'd be able to tell them. What do you think of our first gambit?"

Another silence, then Meredith said: "I presume you mean you've given us back Stefan to achieve something better."

"Oh, if you only had golden hair – as your friend Elena has so generously displayed."

There were various exclamations on the theme of "Huh?" – most of them directed at Shinichi, but some at Elena.

Who promptly exploded. "You took Stefan's memories – ?"

"Now, now, nothing so drastic, my dear. But a thirty-meld-a-session beautician – now, she was most cooperative."

Elena turned her gaze up at the giant face with a look of utter contempt. "You…cad."

"Oh, I'm stricken to the heart." But the thing was, Shinichi's giant face did look stricken – angry and dangerous. "Between you, all such close friends: do you know how many secrets there are? Of course, Meredith is a mistress of secrecy, keeping her secrets from her friends all these years. You think you've already pumped her dry, but the best is yet to come. And then, of course, there is Damon's secret."

"Which if spoken of here and now will mean instant war," Damon said. "And you know, it's strange, but I got the feeling that you came here tonight to negotiate."

This time Shinichi's laughter really was a gale, and Damon had to leap behind Meredith to prevent her being knocked into the hole the elevator had made.

"Very gallant," Shinichi boomed again, shattering glass somewhere on Mrs. Flowers's house. "But I really must be going. Shall I leave a synopsis of the prizes you still have to search for before your little company can look each other in the eye?"

"I think we already have them. And you are no longer welcome around this home," Mrs. Flowers said coolly.

But Elena's mind was still working. Even standing here, knowing that Stefan needed her, she was searching for the reasons behind this: Shinichi's second gambit. Because she was sure that this was one.

"Where are the pillowcases?" she said in a sharp voice that frightened and bewildered half the group, and simply frightened the rest.

"I was holding one, but then I decided to hold on to Saber instead." – Sage.

"I had one, at the bottom of the hole, but I dropped it when somebody lifted me out." – Bonnie.

"I've still got one, although I don't understand what good – " Damon began.

"Damon!" Elena whirled to him. "Trust me! We've got yours and Sage's safe – what's happening to Bonnie's in the hole?"

The moment she had said "trust me" Damon had dumped his pillowcase on top of Sage's, and by the time she was finished, he had leaped into the hole, which was still so bright with leylight as to hurt any vampire's eyes.

But Damon made no complaint. He said, "I have it safe now – no, wait! A root! A damned root is curled around one of the star balls! Someone toss me a knife, quick!"

While everyone else was slapping their pockets for knives, Matt did something that Elena couldn't believe. First he glanced down into the six-foot-deep hole while pointing – a revolver, was it? Yes – she recognized it as the twin of Meredith's. Then without trying to let himself down easily, he simply jumped as Damon had, into the hole.

"DON'T YOU WANT TO KNOW – " roared Shinichi, but no one was paying any attention to him.

Matt's jump didn't end lightly as Damon's had. It ended with a gasp and a stifled curse. But Matt didn't waste time; still on his knees, he handed the gun up to Damon.

"Blessed bullets – shoot it!"

Damon moved very fast. He didn't even seem to aim. But he must have clicked the safety off and aimed immediately, for the root was now streaking for the soft wall of the hole, its end wrapped tightly around something round.

Elena heard two shattering revolver shots; three. Then Damon stooped and picked up a vine-wrapped ball, medium-sized and crystal clear where its true surface could be seen.

"PUT THAT DOWN!" Shinichi's rage was beyond all measure. The two burning red spots of his eyes were like flames – like moons of fire. He seemed to be trying to get them to comply by sheer volume. "I SAID, DON'T TOUCH THAT WITH YOUR FILTHY HUMAN HANDS!"

"Oh, my God!" gasped Bonnie.

Meredith said simply, "It's Misao's – it has to be. He'd gamble with his own; but not with hers. Damon, hand it up to me, along with the revolver. I bet it's not bulletproof." She knelt, reaching into the hole.

Damon, with a raised eyebrow, did as she said.

"Oh, God," Bonnie cried, from the edge of the hole. "Matt's sprained his ankle – at least."

"I TOLD YOU," roared Shinichi. "YOU'LL BE SORRY – "

"Here," Damon said to Bonnie, taking not the slightest notice of Shinichi. Without any more ado, he picked up Matt and floated up out of the hole. He deposited the fair-haired boy beside Bonnie, who looked at him with the wide brown eyes of utter confusion.

Matt, though, was a Virginian through and through. After swallowing only once, he got out a "Thank you, Damon."

"No problem, Matt," Damon said, and then "What?" as someone gasped.

"You remembered," Bonnie cried, "You remembered his – Meredith!" she broke off, looking at the tall girl. "The grass!"

Meredith, who had been examining the star ball with a strange expression, now tossed the revolver to Damon and tried with her free hand to tear away the grass that had twined around her feet and up her ankles already. But even as she did so, the grass seemed to leap upward and grab her hand, binding it to her feet. And now it was sprouting, growing, racing up her body toward the ball which she held high in the air.

At the same time, it was tightening around her chest, forcing air out of her lungs.

It all happened so fast that it was only when she gasped, "Somebody take th' ball," that the others leaped to her aid. Bonnie was the first to get there, tearing with her fingernails at the greenery that was squeezing Meredith's chest. But each blade was like steel, and she couldn't rip away even one of them. Neither could Matt or Elena. Meanwhile, Sage was trying to lift Meredith bodily – to pluck her from the earth – and having no more success than the rest.

Meredith's face, clearly visible in the light still shining from the hole, was going white.

Damon snatched the star ball from her fingers just before the tangled greenery running up her arm could reach it. He then began moving literally faster than the human eye could track, never stopping in any one place long enough for any plant to grasp him.

But still, the grass around Meredith was tightening. Now her face was turning blue. Her eyes were wide, her mouth open for a breath that would not come.

"Stop it!" Elena screamed at Shinichi. "We'll give you the star ball! Just let go of her!"

"LET GO OF HER?" Shinichi bellowed laughter. "MAYBE YOU'D BETTER LOOK TO YOUR OWN INTERESTS FIRST BEFORE ASKING ME A FAVOR."

Wildly, Elena looked around – and saw that grass had almost completely enveloped a kneeling Stefan, who had been too weak to move as quickly as the others had.

And he had never made a sound to call attention to himself.

"No!" Elena's desperate scream almost drowned out Shinichi's laughter. "Stefan! No!" Even knowing it was futile, she threw herself at him and tried to rip the grass away from his thin chest.

Stefan simply gave her the faintest of smiles and shook his head sadly.

That was when Damon came to a stop. He held the star ball up toward Shinichi's lowering visage. "Take it!" he shouted. "Take the ball, damn you, but let the two of them go!"

This time the gale of Shinichi's laughter went on and on. A spiral of grass grew from a point beside Damon and an instant later had formed a hideous, shaggy green fist, which almost reached the star ball.

But –

"Not yet, my dears," gasped Mrs. Flowers. She and Matt had come breathlessly from the boardinghouse storage room – Matt limping badly – and they both held what looked like Post-it notes in their hands.

The next thing Elena knew, Damon was moving at ferocious speed again, away from the fist, and Matt was slapping a bit of paper on the grass covering Stefan, while Mrs. Flowers did the same to the greenery on Meredith.

As Elena watched in disbelief, the grass seemed to melt, dying away into hay-colored blades that fell to the ground.

The next moment she was holding Stefan.

"Let's get inside, my dears," Mrs. Flowers said. "It's safe in the storage room – the able help the wounded, of course."

Meredith and Stefan were taking great gasping breaths.

But Shinichi had the last word.

"Don't you worry," he said, strangely calm as if he realized he'd lost – for now. "I'll get that sphere back soon enough. You don't know how to use that kind of Power anyway! And besides all that, I'm going to tell you what you've been hiding from your so-called friends. Just a few secrets, yes?"

"The hell with your secrets," shouted Bonnie.

"Language, language! How about this: One of you has kept a secret all their life, and is doing so even now. One of you is a murderer – and I am not speaking of a vampire, or a mercy killing, or anything like that. And then there is the question of the true identity of Sage – good luck on your research there! One of you has already had their memory erased – and I don't mean Damon or Stefan. And what about the secret, stolen kiss? And then there is the question of what happened the night of the motel, that it seems that nobody but Elena can recall. You might ask her sometime about her theories about Camelot. And then – "

That was when the sound as loud as Shinichi's giant-sized gales of laughter interrupted him. It tore through the face in the sky, leaving it drooping ridiculously. Then the face disappeared.

"What was that – "

"Who has the gun – ?"

"What kind of gun could do that to him?"

"One with blessed bullets," Damon said coolly, showing them the revolver, pointed down.

"You mean you did that?"

"Good for Damon!"

"Forget Shinichi!"

"He is a liar when it suits him, that I can tell you."

"I think," Mrs. Flowers said, "that we can retire to the boardinghouse now."

"Yeah, and let's go get our baths."

"Just one last thing." Shinichi's voice, giant-sized seemed to come from everywhere around them; from the sky, from the earth.

"You're really going to love what I have in mind next for you. If I were you, I'd start negotiating for that star ball right NOW." But his laughter was off and the muffled feminine sound behind him was almost like crying, as if Misao couldn't help herself.

"YOU'RE GOING TO LOVE IT!" Shinichi insisted in a roar.

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