The Return: Midnight (Chapter 34)

"You've been fed and taken care of as best as we can manage,"Meredith said, looking at allthe taut, frightened young faces turned toward her in the basement. "And now there's just one thing I want to ask of you in return."She made an effort and steadied her voice. "I want to know if anybody knows of a mobile phone that connects to the Internet, or a computer that is Stillworking. Please, please – if you even think you know where one might be, tel me."

The tension was like a thick rubber cord, dragging Meredith toward each of the pale, strained faces, dragging them to her.

It was just as well that Meredith was essential y well –

balanced. About twelve hands went up immediately, and their lone five-year-old whispered, "My mommy has one. And my daddy."

There was a pause before Meredith could say, "Does anybody know this kid?"and an older girl spoke up before she could.

"She just means they had them before the Burning Man."

"Is the Burning Man cal ed Shinichi?"Meredith asked.

"'Course. Sometimes he would make the red parts of his hair burn up way over his head."

Meredith filed that little fact away under Things I do not want to see, honest, cross my heart, ever.

Then she shook herself free from the image.

"You guys and girls, please, please think. I only need one, one mobile phone with Internet access that Stillhas power right now. One laptop or computer that is Stillworking now, maybe because of a generator Stillmaking electricity. Just one family with a home generator Stillworking. Anybody?"

The hands were down now. A boy she thought she recognized as being one of the Loring siblings, maybe age ten or eleven, said, "The Burning Man told us that mobile phones and computers were bad. That was why my brother got in a fistfight with my dad. He threw al the mobiles at home in the toilet."

"Okay. Okay, thanks. But anybody who's seen a working mobile or computer? Or a home generator – "

"Why, yes, my dear, I've got one."The voice came from the top of the stairs. Mrs. Flowers was standing there, dressed in a fresh sweat suit. Strangely, she had her voluminous purse in her hand.

"You had – have a generator?"Meredith asked, her heart sinking. What a waste! And if disaster came al because she, Meredith, hadn't finished reading over her own research! The minutes were ticking away, and if everyone in Fel 's Church died, it would be her fault. Her fault. She didn't think she could live with that.

Meredith had tried, al her life, to reach the state of calm, concentration, and balance that was the other side of the coin from the fighting skil s her various disciplines had taught her. And she had become good at it, a good observer, a good daughter, even a good student for al that she was in Elena's fast-paced, high-flying clique. The four of them: Elena, Meredith, Caroline, and Bonnie had fit together like four pieces of a puzzle, and Meredith Stillsometimes missed the old days and their daring, dominating pseudo-sophisticated capers that never real y hurt anyone – except the sil y boys who had mil ed around them like ants at a picnic.

But now, looking at herself, she was puzzled. Who was she?

A Hispanic girl named for her mother's Welsh best friend in col ege. A hunter-slayer of vampires who had kitten canines, a vampire twin, and whose group of friends included Stefan, a vampire; Elena, an ex-vampire – and possibly another vampire, although she was extremely hesitant to cal Damon a "friend."

What did that alladd up to?

A girl trying to do her best to keep her balance and concentration, in a world that had gone insane. A girl Stillreeling from what she'd learned about her own family, and now tottering from the need to confirm a dreadful suspicion.

Stop thinking. Stop! You have to tel Mrs. Flowers that her boardinghouse has been destroyed.

"Mrs. Flowers – about the boardinghouse – I have to talk to you…"

"Why don't you use my BlackBerry first?"Mrs. Flowers came down the basement stairs careful y, watching her feet, and then the children parted before her like waves on the Red Sea.

"Your…?"Meredith stared, choked up. Mrs. Flowers had opened her enormous purse and was now proffering a rather thick al -black object to her.

"It Stillhas power,"the old lady explained as Meredith took the thing in two shaking hands, as if receiving a holy object. "I just turned it on and it was working. And now I'm on the Internet!" – proudly.

Meredith's world had been swal owed up by the smal , grayish, antiquated screen. She was so amazed and excited at seeing this that she almost forgot why she needed it. But her body knew. Her fingers clutched; her thumbs danced over the mini-keyboard. She went to her favorite search page and entered the word "Orime."She got pages of hits – most in Japanese. Then feeling a trembling in her knees, she typed in "Inari."

6,530,298 results.

She went to the very first hit and saw a web page with a definition. Key words seemed to rush out at her like vultures.

Inari is the Japanese Shinto deity of rice…and…foxes. At the entrance to an Inari shrine are…statues of two kitsune…one male and one female…each with a key or jewel carried in mouth or paw…These fox-spirits are the servants and messengers of Inari. They carry out Inari's orders….

There was also a picture of a pair of kitsune statues, in their fox forms. Each had a front paw resting on a star bal .

Three years ago, Meredith had fractured her leg when she was on a skiing trip with her cousins in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She had run straight into a smal tree. No martial arts skil s could save her at the last minute; she knew she was skiing off the groomed areas, where she could run into anything: powder, crud, or iced-over ruts. And, of course, trees. Lots of trees. She was an advanced skier, but she had been going too fast, looking in the wrong direction, and the next thing she knew, she was skiing into the tree instead of around it.

Now she had the same sensation of waking up after a head-on into wood. The shock, the dizziness and nausea that were, initial y, worse than the pain. Meredith could take pain.

But the pounding in her head, the sickening awareness that she had made a big mistake and that she was going to have to pay for it were unbearable. Plus there was a curious horror about the knowledge that her own legs wouldn't hold her up.

Even the same useless questions ran through her subconscious, like: How could I be so stupid? Is this possibly a dream? and, Please, God, can I hit the Undo button?

Meredith suddenly realized that she was being supported on either side by Mrs. Flowers and their sixteen-year-old, Ava Wakefield. The mobile was on the cement floor of the basement. She must have actual y started to black out.

Several of the younger kids were screaming Matt's name.

"No – I – I can stand up alone…"Al she wanted in the world was to go into the darkness and get away from this horror.

She wanted to let her legs go slack and her mind go blank, to flee…

But she couldn't run away. She had taken the stave; she had taken the Duty from her grandfather. Anything supernatural that was out to harm Fel 's Church on her watch was her problem. And the problem was that her watch never ended.

Matt came clattering down the stairs, carrying their seven-year-old, Hailey, who continual y shook with petit mal seizures.

"Meredith!"She could hear the incredulity in his voice. "What is it? What did you find, for God's sake?"

"Come…look."Meredith was remembering detail after detail that should have set off warning bel s in her mind. Matt was somehow already beside her, even as she remembered Bonnie's very first description of Isobel Saitou.

"The quiet type. Hard to get to know. Shy. And…nice."

And that first visit to the Saitou house. The horror that quiet, shy, nice Isobel Saitou had become: the Goddess of Piercing, blood and pus oozing from every hole. And when they had tried to carry dinner to her old, old grandmother, Meredith had noticed absently that Isobel's room was right under the dol -like old lady's. After seeing Isobel pierced and clearly unbalanced, Meredith had assumed that any evil influence must be trying to travel up, and had worried in the back of her mind about the poor, old, dol -sized grandmother.

But the evil could just as easily have traveled down. Maybe Jim Bryce hadn't given Isobel the malach madness after al .

Maybe she had given it to him, and he had given it to Caroline and to his sister.

And that children's game! The cruel, cruel song that Obaasan – that Inari-Obaasan had crooned. "Fox and turtle had a race…" And her words: "There's a kitsune involved in this somewhere." She'd been laughing at them, amusing herself! Come to that, it was from Inari-Obaasan that Meredith had first heard the word "kitsune."

And one more additional cruelty, that Meredith had only been able to excuse before by assuming Obaasan had very poor sight. That night, Meredith had had her back to the door and so had Bonnie – they had both been concentrating on "poor decrepit old Grandma."But Obaasan had been facing the door, and she was the only one who could have seen – must have seen – Isobel sneaking up behind Bonnie. And then, just as the cruel game song told Bonnie to look behind her…

Isobel had been crouching there, ready to lick Bonnie's forehead with a forked pink tongue…

"Why?"Meredith could hear her own voice saying. "Why was I so stupid? How could I not have seen from the beginning?"

Matt had retrieved the BlackBerry and read the web page.

Then he just stood, fixed, his blue eyes wide. "You were right,"he said, after a long moment.

"I want so much to be wrong…"

"Meredith – Shinichi and Misao are Inari's servants…If that old lady is Inari we've been running around like crazy after the wrong people, the hired muscle…"

"The damn note cards,"Meredith choked out. "The ones done by Obaasan. They're useless, flawed. Al those bul ets she blessed should have been no good – but maybe she did bless them – as a game. Isobel even came to me and changed al the characters the old lady had done for the jars to hold Shinichi and Misao. She said that Obaasan was almost blind. She left a tear on my car seat. I couldn't understand why she should be crying."

"I Stillcan't. She's the granddaughter – probably the third generation of a monster!"Matt exploded. "Why should she cry? And why do the Post-it Notes work?"

"Because they're done by Isobel's mother,"Mrs. Flowers said quietly. "Dear Matt, I truly doubt that the old woman is related to the Saitous at all. As a deity – or even a powerful magic-user named after a deity – and undoubtedly a kitsune herself, she surely just moved in with them and used them. Isobel's mother and Isobel had no choice but to carry on the charade for fear of what she'd do to them if they didn't."

"But Mrs. Flowers, when Tyrone and I pul ed that leg bone out of the thicket, didn't you say that the Saitou women made such excel ent amulets? And didn't you say that we could get the Saitou women to help translate the words on the clay jars when Alaric sent the pictures of them from that Japanese Island?"

As for my belief in the Saitou women, Well, I'l have to quibble a little here,"Mrs. Flowers said. "I couldn't know that this Obaasan was evil, and there are Stilltwo of them who are gentle and good, and who have helped us tremendously –

and at great risk to themselves."

Meredith could taste the bitterness of bile in her mouth.

"Isobel could have saved us. She could have said 'My fake grandmother is real y a demon.'"

"Oh, my dear Meredith, the young are so unforgiving. This Inari was probably instal ed in her house when she was a child. Al she knows at first is that the old woman is a tyrant, with a god's name. Then perhaps some demonstration of power – what happened to Orime's husband, I wonder, to make him go back to Japan – if indeed he went there? He may well be dead. And then Isobel is growing up: shy, quiet, introverted – frightened. This is not Japan; there are no other priestesses here to confide in. And you saw the consequences when Isobel reached out to someone outside of the family – to her boyfriend, Jim Bryce."

"And to us – Well, to you and Bonnie,"Matt said to Meredith.

"She sicced Caroline on you."

Scarcely knowing what they were doing, they were talking faster and faster.

"We have to go there right now,"said Meredith. "Shinichi and Misao may be the ones bringing on the Last Midnight, but it's Inari who gives the orders. And who knows? She may dole out the punishments as well. We don't know how big her star bal is."

"Or where,"said the old woman.

"Mrs. Flowers,"Matt said hastily, "you'd better stay here with the kids. Ava, here, is reliable, and where's Jacob Lagherty?"

"Here,"said a boy who looked older than fifteen. He was as tal as Matt was, but gangly.

"Okay. Ava, Jake, you're in charge under Mrs. Flowers. We'l leave Saber with you too."The dog was a big hit among the kids, on his best behavior, even when the younger ones chewed his tail. "You two just listen to Mrs. Flowers, and – "

"Matt, dear, I won't be here. But the animals wil surely help to protect them."

Matt stared at her. Meredith knew what he was thinking. Was Mrs. Flowers, so reliable up until now, going somewhere to hide alone? Was she abandoning them?

"And I'l need one of you to drive me to the Saitou house –

quickly! – but the other can stay and protect the children as well."

Meredith was both relieved and worried, and clearly Matt was too.

"Mrs. Flowers, this is going to be a battle. You could get hurt or be taken hostage so easily – "

"Dear Matt, this is my battle. My family has lived in Fel 's Church for generations, al the way back to the pioneering times. I believe this is the battle for which I was born.

Certainly the last of my old age."

Meredith stared. In the dim light of the basement, Mrs.

Flowers seemed suddenly different somehow. Her voice was changing. Even her smal body seemed to be changing, steadying, standing tal .

"But how wil you fight?"Matt asked, sounding dazed.

"With this. That nice young man, Sage, left it for me with a note apologizing for using Misao's star bal . I used to be quite good with these when I was young."From her capacious purse, Mrs. Flowers pul ed out something pale and long and thin as it unwound and Mrs. Flowers whirled it and snapped it with a loud crack at the empty half of the basement. It hit a Ping-Pong bal , curled around it, and brought it back to Mrs. Flowers's open hand.

A bul whip. Made of some silvery material. Undoubtedly magical. Even Matt looked scared of it.

"Why don't Ava and Jake teach the children to play Ping-Pong while we're gone – and we real y must go, my dears.

There's not a minute to waste. A terrible tragedy is coming, Ma ma says."

Meredith had been watching – feeling as dazed as Matt looked. But now she said, "I have a weapon too."She picked up the stave and said, "I'm fighting, Matt. Ava, the children are yours to care for."

"And mine,"Jacob said, and immediately proved his usefulness by adding, "Isn't that an axe hanging back there near the furnace?"

Matt ran and snatched it up. Meredith could see from his expression what he was thinking: Yes! One heavy axe, a tiny bit rusty, but Stillplenty sharp enough. Now if the kitsune sent plants or wood against them, he was armed.

Mrs. Flowers was already going up the basement stairs.

Meredith and Matt exchanged one quick glance and then they were running to catch up with her.

"You drive your mom's SUV. I'l sit in back. I'm Stilla little bit…Well, dizzy, I guess."Meredith didn't like to admit to a personal weakness, but better that than crashing the vehicle.

Matt nodded and was good enough not to comment on why she felt so dizzy. She Stillcouldn't believe her own stupidity.

Mrs. Flowers said only one thing. "Matt, dear, break traffic laws."