The Return: Midnight (Chapter 16)

"Once upon a time,"began Bonnie, "there were a young girl and boy…"

She was immediately interrupted. "What were their names?""Were they slaves?""Where did they live?""Were they vampires?"

Bonnie almost forgot her misery and laughed. "Their names were…Jack and…Jil . They were kitsune, and they lived way up north in the kitsune sector around the Great Crossings…"And she proceeded, albeit with many excited interruptions, to tel the story she had gotten from the star bal .

"So,"Bonnie concluded nervously, as she opened her eyes and realized that she'd attracted quite a crowd with her story,

"that's the tale of the Seven Treasures, and – and I suppose the moral is – don't be too greedy, or you won't end up with anything."

There was a lot of laughter, the nervous giggling of the girls and the "Haw! Haw haw!"kind of laughter from the crowd behind them. Which Bonnie now noticed was entirely male.

One part of her mind started unconsciously to go into flirt mode. Another part immediately squashed it. These weren't boys looking for a dance; these were ogres and vampires and kitsune and even men with mustaches – and they wanted to buy her in her little black bubble dress, and as nice as the dress might be for some things, it wasn't like the long, jeweled gowns that Lady Ulma had made for them. Then they had been princesses, wearing a fortune's worth of jewels at their throats and wrists and hair – and besides, they had had fierce protection with them at al times.

But now, she was wearing something that felt a lot like a baby-dol nightgown and delicate little shoes with silvery bows. And she wasn't protected because this society said you had to have men to be protected, and, worst of al …she was a slave.

"I wonder,"said a golden-haired man, moving through the girls around her, al of whom hurried out of his way except Mouse and Eren, "I wonder if you would go upstairs with me and perhaps tel me a story – in private."

Bonnie tried to swal ow her gasp. Now she was the one hanging on to Mouse and Eren.

"Al such requests must go through me. No one is to take a girl out of the room unless I approve,"announced a woman in a ful -length dress, with a sympathetic, almost Madonna-like face. "That wil be treated as theft of my mistress's property.

And I'm sure we don't al want to be arrested as if we'd been caught carrying off the silverware,"she said and laughed lightly.

There was equal y light laughter among the guests as Well, and movement toward the woman – at a sort of mannerly run.

"You tel real y good stories,"Mouse said in her soft voice.

"It's more fun than using a star bal ."

"Mouse, here, is right,"Eren said, grinning. "You do tel good stories. I wonder if that place real y exists."

"Well, I got it out of a star bal ,"Bonnie said. "One that the girl – um, Jil , put her memories in, I think – but then how did it get out of that tower? How did she know what happened to Jack? And I read a story about a giant dragon and that felt real too. How do they do it?"

"Oh, they trick you,"Eren said, waving a dismissive hand.

"They have somebody go someplace cold for the scenery –

an ogre probably, because of the weather."

Bonnie nodded. She'd met mauve-skinned ogres before.

They only differed from demons in their level of stupidity. At this level, they tended to be stupid in society, and she'd heard Damon say with a curled lip that the ones that were out of society were hired muscle. Thugs.

"And the rest they just fake somehow – I don't know. Never real y thought about it."Eren looked up at Bonnie. "You're an odd one, aren't you, Bonny?"

"Am I?"Bonnie asked. She and the two other girls had revolved, without letting go of hands. This meant that there was some space behind Bonnie. She didn't like that. But, then, she didn't like anything about being a slave. She was starting to hyperventilate. She wanted Meredith. She wanted Elena. She wanted out of here.

"Um, you guys probably don't want to associate with me anymore,"she said uncomfortably.

"Huh?"said Eren.

"Why?"asked Mouse.

"Because I'm running through that door. I have to get out. I have to."

"Kid, calm down,"Eren said. "Just keep breathing."

"No, you don't understand."Bonnie put her head down, to shade out some of the world. "I can't belong to somebody.

I'm going crazy."

"Sh, Bonny, they're – "

"I can't stay here,"Bonnie burst out.

"Well, that's probably al to the good,"a terrible voice, right in front of her, said.

No! Oh, God. No, no, no, no, no!

"When we're in a new business we work hard,"the Madonna-like woman's voice said. "We look up at prospective customers. We don't misbehave or we are punished."And even though her voice was sweet as pecan pie, Bonnie somehow knew that the harsh voice in the night shouting at them to find a pal et and stay on it, had been this same woman.

And now there was a strong hand under her chin and Bonnie couldn't keep it from forcing her head up, or from covering her mouth when she screamed.

In front of her, with the delicate pointed ears of a fox, and the long sweeping black tail of a fox but otherwise looking human, looking like a regular guy wearing jeans and a sweater, was Shinichi. And in his golden eyes she could see, twisting and turning, a little scarlet flame that just matched the red on the tip of his tail and the hair that fel across his forehead.

Shinichi. He was here. Of course he could travel through the dimensions; he Stillhad a ful star bal that none of Elena's group had ever found as well as those magical keys Elena had told Bonnie about. Bonnie remembered the horrible night when trees, actual trees, had turned into something that could understand and obey him. About how four of them each grabbed one of her arms and legs and pul ed, as if they were planning to pul her apart. She could feel tears leaking out behind her shut eyelids.

And the Old Wood. He'd control ed every aspect of it, every creeper to trip you, every tree to fal in front of your car. Until Elena had blasted al but that one thicket of the Old Wood, it had been ful of terrifying insect-like creatures Stefan cal ed malach.

But now Bonnie's hands were behind her back and she heard something fasten with a very final-sounding click.

No…oh, please no…

But her hands were definitely fixed in place. And then someone – an ogre or a vampire – picked her up as the lovely woman gave Shinichi a smal key off a key ring ful of identical keys. Shinichi handed this to a big ogre whose fingers were so large that they eclipsed it. And then Bonnie, who was screaming, was quickly whisked up four flights of stairs and a heavy door thunked shut behind her. The ogre carrying her fol owed Shinichi, whose sleek scarlet-tipped tail swung jauntily from a hole in his jeans, back and forth, back and forth. Bonnie thought: That's satisfaction. He thinks he's won this already.

But unless Damon real y had forgotten her completely, he would hurt Shinichi for this. Maybe he would kil him. It was an oddly comforting thought. It was even ro –

No, it's not romantic, you nitwit! You have to find a way to get out of this mess! Death is not romantic, it's horrible!

They had reached the final doors at the end of the hal .

Shinichi turned right and walked al the way down a long corridor. There the ogre used the key to open a door.

The room had an adjustable overhead gaslight. It was dim but Shinichi said, "Can we have a little il umination, please?"in a false polite voice, and the other ogre hurried and turned the light up to interrogation-lamp-in-your-face level.

The room was a sort of bedroom-den combination, the kind you'd get at a decent hotel. It had a couch and some chairs on the upper level. There was a window, closed, on the left side of the room. There was also a window on the right side of the room, where al the other rooms should be in a line.

This window had no curtains or blinds that could be drawn and it reflected Bonnie's pale face back at her. She knew at once what it was, a two-way mirror, so that people in the room behind it could see into this room but not be seen. The couch and chairs were positioned to face it.

Beyond the sitting room, off to her left, was the bed. It wasn't a very fancy bed, just white covers that looked pink, because there was a real window on that side that was almost in a line with the sun, sitting as it always was, on the horizon. Right now, Bonnie hated it more than ever before because it turned every light-colored object in the room pink, rose, or outright red. The bow at her own bodice was deep pink now.

She was going to die saturated with the color of blood.

Something on some deeper level told her that her mind was thinking of such things as distractions, that even thinking about hating to die in such a juvenile color was running away from the bit in the middle, the dying bit. But the ogre holding her moved her around as if she weighed nothing, and Bonnie kept having little thoughts – were they premonitions? Oh, God, let them not be premonitions! – about going out of that red window in a sitting position, the glass no impediment to her body being thrown at a tremendous force. And how many stories up were they? High enough, anyway, that there was no hope of landing without…Well, dying.

Shinichi smiled, lounging by the red window, playing with the cord to the blinds.

"I don't even know what you want from me!"Bonnie found herself saying to Shinichi. "I've never been able to hurt you. It was you hurting other people – like me! – al the time."

"Well, there were your friends,"murmured Shinichi. "Although I seldom wreak my dread revenge against lovely young women with red-gold hair."He lounged beside the window and examined her, murmuring, "Hair of red-gold; heart true and bold. Perhaps a scold…"

Bonnie felt like screaming. Didn't he remember her? He certainly seemed to have remembered their group, since he'd mentioned revenge. "What do you want?"she gasped.

"You are a hindrance, I'm afraid. And I find you very suspicious – and delicious. Young women with red-gold hair are always so elusive."

Bonnie couldn't find anything to say. From everything she'd seen, Shinichi was a nutcase. But a very dangerous psychopathic nutcase. And al he enjoyed was destroying things.

In just one moment there could be a crash through the window – and then she'd be sitting on air. And then the fal would begin. What would that feel like? Or would she already be fal ing? She only hoped that at the bottom it was quick.

"You seem to have learned a lot about my people,"Shinichi said. "More than most."

"Please,"Bonnie said desperately. "If it's about the story – al I know about kitsune is that you're destroying my town. And – "She stopped short, realizing that she could never let him know what had happened in her out-of-body experience. So she could never mention the jars or he'd know that they knew how to catch him. "And you won't stop,"she finished lamely.

"And yet you found an ancient star bal with stories about our legendary treasures."

"About what? You mean from that kiddy star bal ? Look, if you'l just leave me alone I'l give it to you."She knew exactly where she'd left it, too, right beside her sorry excuse for a pil ow.

"Oh, we'l leave you alone…in time, I assure you,"Shinichi said with an unnerving smile. He had a smile like Damon's, which wasn't meant to say "Hel o; I won't hurt you."It was more like "Hul o! Here's my lunch!"

"I find it…curious,"Shinichi went on, Stillfiddling with the cord.

"Very curious that just in the middle of our little dispute, you arrive here in the Dark Dimension again, alone, apparently without fear, and manage to bargain for a star bal . An orb that just happens to detail the location of our most priceless treasures that were stolen from us…a long, long time ago."

You don't care about anybody but yourself, Bonnie thought.

You're suddenly acting al patriotic and stuff, but in Fel 's Church you didn't pretend to care about anything but hurting people.

"In your little town, as in other towns throughout history, I had orders to do what I did,"Shinichi said, and Bonnie's heart plunged right down to her shoes. He was telepathic. He knew what she was thinking. He'd heard her thinking about the jars.

Shinichi smirked. "Little towns like the one on Unmei no Shima have to be wiped off the face of the earth,"he said.

"Did you see the number of ley lines of Power under it?"Another smirk. "But of course you weren't really there, so you probably didn't."

"If you can tel what I'm thinking, you know that story about treasures was just a story,"Bonnie said. "It was in the star bal cal ed Five Hundred Stories for Young Ones. It's not real."

"How strange then that it coincides so exactly with what the Seven Kitsune Gates are supposed to have behind them."

"It was in the middle of a bunch of stories about the – the D��z-Aht-Bhi'iens. I mean the story right before it was about a kid buying candy,"Bonnie said. "So why don't you just go get the star bal instead of trying to scare me?"Her voice was beginning to tremble. "It's at the inn right across the street from the shop where I was – arrested. Just go and get it!"

"Of course we've tried that,"Shinichi said impatiently. "The landlady was quite cooperative after we gave her some…compensation. There is no such story in that star bal ."

"That's not possible!"Bonnie said. "Where did I get it, then?"

"That's what I'm asking you."

Stomach fluttering, Bonnie said, "How many star bal s did you look at in that brown room?"

Shinichi's eyes went blurry briefly. Bonnie tried to listen, but he was obviously speaking telepathical y to someone close, on a tight frequency.

Final y he said, "Twenty-eight star bal s, exactly."

Bonnie felt as if she'd been clubbed. She wasn't going crazy – she wasn't. She'd experienced that story. She knew every fissure in every rock, every shadow in the snow. The only answers were that the real star bal had been stolen, or – or maybe that they hadn't looked hard enough at the ones they had.

"The story is there,"she insisted. "Right before it is the story about little Marit going to a – "

"We probed the table of contents. There is the story about a child and" – he looked scornful – "a sweetshop. But not the other."

Bonnie just shook her head. "I swear I'm tel ing the truth."

"Why should I believe you?"

"Why does it matter? How could I make something like that up? And why would I tel a story I knew would get me in trouble? It doesn't make any sense."

Shinichi stared at her hard. Then he shrugged, his ears flat against his head. "What a pity you keep saying that."

Suddenly Bonnie's heart was pounding in her chest, in her tight throat. "Why?"

"Because,"Shinichi said cool y, pul ing the blinds completely open so that Bonnie was abruptly drenched in the color of fresh blood, "I'm afraid that now we have to kil you."

The ogre holding her strode toward the window. Bonnie screamed. In places like this, she knew screams went unheard.

She didn't know what else to do.