The Return: Nightfall (Chapter 26)

Ley lines. Stefan had spoken of them, and with the influence of the spirit world still on her, she had seen them without trying. Now, still lying on her side, channeling what remained of that Power to her eyes, she looked at the earth.

And that was what made her mind go gray in terror.

As far as she could see there were lines converging here from all directions. Thick lines that glowed with a cold phosphorescence, medium-sized lines that had the dull shine of bad mushrooms in a cellar, and tiny lines that looked like perfectly straight cracks of the outer surface layer of the world. They were like veins and arteries and nerves just under the skin of the clearing-beast.

No wonder it seemed alive. She was lying on a massive convergence of ley lines. And if the cemetery was worse than this – she couldn't imagine what it might look like.

If Damon had somehow found a way to tap into that Power…no wonder he seemed different, arrogant, undefeatable. Ever since he had released her to drink Matt's blood, she had kept shaking her head, trying to shake off the humiliation with it. But now finally she stopped as she tried to calculate a way to make use of this Power. There had to be a way to do it.

The grayness wouldn't clear from her vision. Finally Elena realized that it was not because she was faint, but because it was getting dark – twilight outside the clearing, true darkness coming into it.

She tried again to lift herself up, and this time she succeeded. Almost immediately a hand was extended to her and, automatically, she took it, letting it draw her to her feet.

She faced – whoever it was, Damon or whatever was using his features or his body. Despite the almost-darkness, he still wore those wraparound sunglasses. She could make nothing out of the rest of his face.

"Now," the thing in the sunglasses said. "You're going to come with me."

It was nearing full dark, and they were in the clearing that was a beast.

This place – it was unwholesome. She was afraid of the clearing as she had never been afraid of a person or creature. It resounded with malevolence, and she couldn't shut her ears to it.

She had to keep thinking, and keep thinking straight, she thought.

She was terribly frightened for Matt; frightened that Damon had taken too much blood or had played too hard with his toy; breaking it.

And she was afraid of this Damon thing. She was also worried about the influence this place might have had on the real Damon. The woods around them shouldn't have any effect on vampires, except to hurt them. Was the possible-Damon inside the possessor hurt? If he could understand anything of what was happening, could he distinguish that hurt from his hurt and anger at Stefan?

She didn't know. She did know that there had been a terrible look in his eyes when Stefan had told him to get out of the boardinghouse. And she did know that there were creatures in the forest, malach, that could influence a person's mind. She was afraid, deeply afraid, that the malach were using Damon now, blackening his darkest desires and twisting him into something horrible, something he had never been even at his worst.

But how could she be sure? How could she know whether or not there was something else behind the malach, something that controlledthem ? Her soul was telling her that this might be the case, that Damon might be completely unconscious of what his body was doing, but that might just be wishful thinking.

Certainly all she could sense around her were small, evil creatures. She could feel them encircling the clearing, strange insect-like beings like the one that had attacked Matt. They were in a furor of excitement, whipping their tentacles around to make a noise almost like a buzzing helicopter.

Were they influencing Damon now? Certainly, he had never before hurt any of the other humans she knew the way he had today. She had to get all three of them out of this place. It was diseased, contaminated. Once again she felt a wave of longing for Stefan, who might know what to do in this situation.

She turned, slowly, to look at Damon.

"May I call someone to come and help Matt? I'm afraid to leave him here; I'm afraidthey'll get him." Just as well to let him know that she knewthey were hiding in the liverwort and the rhododendron and mountain holly bushes all around.

Damon hesitated; he seemed to consider it. Then he shook his head.

"We wouldn't want to give them too many clues to where you are," he said cheerily. "It'll be an interesting experiment to see if the malach do get him – and how they do it."

"It wouldn't be an interesting experiment forme ." Elena's voice was flat. "Matt is my friend."

"Nevertheless, we'll leave him here for now. I don't trust you – even to giveme a message to Meredith or Bonnie – to send on my phone."

Elena didn't say anything. As a matter of fact, he was right not to trust her, as she and Meredith and Bonnie had worked out an elaborate code of harmless-sounding phrases as soon as they knew that Damon was after Elena. A lifetime ago for her – literally – but she could still remember them.

Silently, she simply followed Damon to the Ferrari.

She was responsible for Matt.

"You're not putting up much of an argument this time, and I wonder what you're plotting."

"I'm plotting that we might as well get on with it. If you'll tell me what ¡®it' is," she said, more bravely than she felt.

"Well, now what ¡®it' is, is up to you." Damon gave Matt a kick in the ribs in passing. He was now pacing in a circle around the clearing, which seemed smaller than ever, a circle which didn't include her. She took a few paces toward him – and slipped. She didn't know how it happened. Maybe the giant animal breathed. Maybe it was just the slick pine needles under her boots.

But one moment she was heading for Matt and the next her feet had gone out from under her and she was heading for the ground with nothing to grab onto.

And then, smoothly and unhurriedly, she was in Damon's arms. With centuries of Virginian etiquette behind her she automatically said, "Thank you."

"My pleasure."

Yes, she thought. That's all it means. It ishis pleasure, and that's all that matters.

That was when she noticed that they were headed for her Jaguar.

"Oh, no, we don't," she said.

"Oh, yes, we will – if I please," he said. "Unless you want to see your friend Matt suffer like that again. At some point his heartwill give out."

"Damon." She pushed her way out of his arms, standing on her own feet. "I don't understand. This isn't like you. Take what you want and go."

He just kept looking at her. "I was doing just that."

"You don't have to" – for the life of her, she couldn't keep a tremor out of her voice – "take me anywhere special to take my blood. And Matt won't know. He's out."

For a long moment there was silence in the clearing. Utter silence. The night birds and the crickets stopped making their music. Suddenly Elena felt as if she were on some kind of thrill ride that plummeted down, leaving her stomach and organs still at the top. Then Damon put it in words.

"I wantyou . Exclusively."

Elena braced herself, trying to keep a clear head despite the fog that seemed to be invading it.

"You know that that's not possible."

"I know that it was possible for Stefan. When you were with him, you didn't think about anything but him. You couldn't see, couldn't hear, couldn't feel anything but him."

Elena's gooseflesh now covered her whole body. Speaking carefully around the obstruction in her throat, she said, "Damon, did you do something to Stefan?"

"Now, why would I want to do something like that?"

Very low, Elena said, "You and I both know why."

"Do you mean," Damon started out speaking casually, but his voice grew more intense as he gripped her shoulders, "so that you would see nothing butme , hear nothing butme , think of nothing butme ?"

Still quietly, still controlling her terror, Elena said, "Take off the sunglasses, Damon."

Damon glanced upwards and around as if to reassure himself that no last ray of sunset could pierce the green-gray world that surrounded them. Then with one hand, he stripped off the sunglasses.

Elena found herself looking into eyes that were so black there seemed to be no difference between iris and pupil. She…turned a switch in her brain, did something so that all her senses were tuned onto Damon's face, his expression, the Power circulating through him.

His eyes were still as black as the depths of an unexplored cave. No red. But then, he'd had time, this time to get ready for her.

I believe what I saw before, Elena thought. With myown eyes.

"Damon, I'll do anything, anything you want. But you have to tell me.Did you do something to Stefan?"

"Stefan was still high onyour blood when he left you," he reminded her, and before she could speak to deny this – "and, to answer your question precisely, I don't know where he is. On that, you have my word. But in any case, it's true, what you were thinking earlier," he added, as Elena tried to step away, to get out of the grip he had on her upper arms. "I'mthe only one, Elena. The only one you haven't conquered. The only one you can't manipulate. Intriguing, isn't it?"

Suddenly, in spite of her fear, she was furious. "Then why hurt Matt? He's just a friend. What's he got to do with it?"

"Just a friend." And Damon began to laugh the way he had before, eerily.

"Well, I knowhe didn't have anything to do with Stefan leaving," Elena snapped.

Damon turned on her, but by then the clearing was so dim that she couldn't read his expression at all. "And who saidI did? But that doesn't mean I'm not going to make use of the opportunity." He picked Matt up easily and held up something that shone silver from his other hand.

Her keys. From her jeans pocket. Taken, no doubt, when she was lying unconscious on the ground.

She could tell nothing from his voice, either, except that it was bitter and grim – all usual if he were talking about Stefan. "With your blood in him, I couldn't have killed my brother if I had tried, the last time I saw him," he added.

"Didyou try?"

"As a matter of fact, no. You have my word on that as well."

"And you don't know where he is?"

"No." He hefted Matt.

"What do you think you're doing?

"Taking him with us. He's hostage for your good behavior."

"Oh, no," Elena said flatly, pacing. "This is between you and me. You've hurt Matt enough." She blinked and once again almost screamed to find Damon much too close, much too fast. "I'll do whatever you want.Whatever you want. But not here out in the open and not with Matt around."

Come on, Elena, she was thinking. Where's that vampy behavior when you want it? You used to be able to vamp any guy; now, just because he's a vampire, you can't do it?

"Take me somewhere," she said softly, intertwining her arm with his free one, "but in the Ferrari. I don't want to go in my car. Take me in the Ferrari."

Damon paced back to the trunk of the Ferrari, unlocked it, and looked inside. Then he looked at Matt. It was clear that the tall, well-built boy wasn't going to fit in to the trunk…at least, not with all his limbs attached.

"Don't you eventhink about it," Elena said. "Just put him in the Jaguar with the keys and he'll be safe enough – lock him in." Elena fervently prayed that what she was saying was true.

For a moment Damon said nothing, then he looked up with a smile so brilliant she could see it in the dusk. "All right," he said. He dumped Matt on the ground again. "But if you try to run while I move the cars, I runhim over."

Damon, Damon, will you never understand? Humans don'tdo that to their friends, Elena thought as he brought the Ferrari out so he could bring the Jaguar in, so he could dump Matt in it.

"All right," she said in a small voice. She was afraid to look at Damon. "Now – what do you want?"

Damon inclined from the waist in a very graceful bow, indicating the Ferrari. She wondered what would happen once she got in. If he were any normal attacker – if there wasn't Matt to think about – if she

didn't fear the forest even more than she feared him…

She hesitated and then got into Damon's car.

Inside, she pulled her camisole out of her jeans to conceal the fact that she wasn't wearing a seat belt. She doubted Damon ever wore a seat belt or locked his doors or anything like that. Precautions weren't his thing. And now she prayed that he had other matters on his mind.

"Seriously, Damon, where are we going?" she said as he got into the Ferrari.

"First, how about one for the road?" Damon suggested, his voice fake-jocular.

Elena had expected something like this. She sat passively as Damon took her chin in fingers that trembled slightly, and tilted it up. She shut her eyes as she felt the double-snakebite pinch of razor-sharp fangs piercing her skin. She kept her eyes shut as her attacker fastened his mouth on the bleeding flesh and began to drink deeply. Damon's idea of "one for the road" was just what she would have expected: enough to put both of them in danger. But it wasn't until she actually began to feel as if she would pass out any minute that she shoved at his shoulder.

He held on for a few more very painful seconds just to show who was Boss here. Then he let go of her, licking his lips avidly, his eyes actually gleaming at herthrough the Ray-Bans.

"Exquisite," he said. "Unbelievable. Why you're – "

Yeah, tell me I'm a bottle of single malt scotch, she thought. That's the way to my heart.

"Can we go now?" she asked pointedly. And then, as she suddenly remembered Damon's driving habits, she added deliberately, "Be careful; this road twists and turns a lot."

It had the effect she had hoped for. Damon hit the accelerator and they shot out of the clearing at high speed. Then they were taking the sharp turns of the Old Wood faster than Elena had ever driven through here; faster than anyone had dared go with her as a passenger before.

But still, they wereher roads. From childhood on she had played here. There was only one family who lived right on the perimeter of the Old Wood, but their driveway was on the right side of the road – her side – and she got herself ready for it. He would take the sudden curve to the left just before the second curve that was the Dunstans' driveway – and on the second curve she would jump.

There was no sidewalk edging Old Wood Road, of course, but at that point there was a heavy growth of rhododendron and other bushes. All she could do was pray. Pray that she didn't snap her neck on impact. Pray that she didn't break an arm or leg before she limped through the few yards of woods to the driveway. Pray that the Dunstans were home when she pounded on their door and pray that they listened when she told them not to let the vampire in behind her.

She saw the curve. She didn't know why the Damon-thing couldn't read her mind, but apparently he couldn't. He wasn't speaking and his only precaution against her trying to get out seemed to be speed.

She was going to get hurt, she knew that. But the worst part of any hurt was fear, and she wasn't afraid.

As he rounded the curve, she pulled the handle and pushed open the door as hard as she could with her hands while she kicked it as hard as she could with her feet. The door swung open, quickly being caught by centrifugal force, as were Elena's legs. As was Elena.

Her kick alone took her halfway out of the car. Damon grabbed for her and got only a handful of hair. For a moment she thought he would keep her in, even without keeping hold of her. She tumbled over and over in the air, floating, remaining about two feet off the ground, reaching out to grab fronds, branches of bushes, anything she could use to slow her velocity. And in this place where magic and physics met; she was able to do it, to slow while still floating on Damon's power, although it took her much farther from the Dunstans' house than she wanted.

Then she did hit the ground, bounced, and did her best to twist in the air, to take the impact on her buttock or the back of a shoulder, but something went wrong and her left heel hit first – God! – and tangled, swinging her around completely, slamming her knee into concrete – God, God! – flipping her in the air and bringing her down on her right arm so hard it seemed to be trying to drive it into her shoulder.

She had the wind knocked out of her by the first blow and was forced to hiss air in by the second and third.

Despite the flipping, flying universe, there was one sign she couldn't miss – an unusual spruce growing into the road that she had noticed ten feet behind her when she'd exploded out of the car. Tears were pouring uncontrollably down her cheeks as she pulled at tendrils of bush that had entangled her ankle – and a good thing, too. A few tears might have blurred her vision, made her afraid – as she had been with the last two explosions of pain – that she might pass out. But she was out on the road, her eyes were washed clear, she could see the spruce and the sunset both directly ahead, and she was thoroughly conscious. And that meant that if she headed for the sunset but at a forty-five-degree angle to her right, she couldn't miss the Dunstans'; driveway, house, barn, cornfield were all there to guide her after perhaps twenty-five steps in the woods.

She had barely stopped rolling when she was pulling at the bush that had thwarted her and getting to her feet just as she pulled the last entangling stems from her hair. The calculation about the Dunstans' house happened instantaneously in her head, even as she turned and saw the crushed swath she'd cut through the greenery and the blood on the road.

At first she looked at her skinned hands in bewilderment; they couldn't have left such a gory trail. And they hadn't. One knee had been skinned – flayed, really – right through her jeans – and one seriously messed up leg, less bloody but causing her sheets of pain like white lighting even while she was not trying to move it. Two arms with quite a lot of skin removed.

No time to find out how much or to figure out what she'd done to her shoulder. Ascreeeeeeech of brakes ahead. Lord, he's slow. No, I'm fast, hyped up by pain and terror. Use it!

She ordered her legs to sprint into the forest. Her right leg obeyed, but when she swiveled her left and it hit the ground fireworks went off behind her eyes. She was in a state of hyper-alertness; she saw the stick even as she was falling. She rolled over once or twice, which caused dull red flares of pain to go off in her head, and then she was able to grab it. It might have been specially designed for a crutch, around underarm height and blunt on one end but sharp on the other. She tucked it under her left arm and somehow willed herself up from her place in the mud: boosting off with her right leg and catching herself on the crutch so that she scarcely had to touch her left foot to the ground.

She'd got turned around in the fall and had to twist to right herself again – but there she saw it, the last remains of sunset and the road behind her. Head forty-five-degrees right from that glow, she thought. Thank God, it was her right arm that was messed up; this way she could support herself with her left

shoulder on the crutch. Still without a moment's hesitation, without giving Damon an extra millisecond to follow her, she plunged in her chosen direction into the forest.

Into the Old Wood.