The Return: Nightfall (Chapter 32)

"Who is it?" a voice was saying from the forest darkness. "Who's out there?"

Bonnie had seldom been as grateful to anyone as she was to Matt for holding on to her. She needed people contact. If she could only bury herself deep enough in other people, she would be safe somehow. She just barely managed not to scream as the dimming flashlight swung onto a surrealistic scene.


Yes, it really was Isobel, not at the Ridgemont hospital at all, but here in the Old Wood. She was standing at bay, almost naked except for blood and mud. Right here, against this background, she looked like both prey and a sort of forest goddess, a goddess of vengeance, and of hunted things, and of punishment for any being who stood in her way. She was winded, breathing hard, with bubbles of saliva coming out of her mouth, but she wasn't broken. You only had to see her eyes, shining red, to see that.

Behind her, stepping on branches and letting loose the occasional grunt or curse, were two other figures, one tall and thin but bulbous on top, and one shorter and stouter. They looked like gnomes trying to follow a wood nymph.

"Dr. Alpert!"Meredith seemed just barely able to sound like her ordinary controlled self.

At the same time, Bonnie saw that Isobel's piercings were much worse. She'd lost most of her studs and hoops and needles, but there was blood and, already, pus, coming out of the holes where they had been.

"Don't scare her," Jim's voice whispered out of the shadows. "We've been tracking her since we had to stop." Bonnie could feel Matt, who had drawn in air to shout, suddenly choke it off. She could also see why Jim looked so top-heavy. He was carrying Obaasan, Japanese-style, on his back, with her arms around his neck. Like a backpack, Bonnie thought.

"What happened to you?" Meredith whispered. "We thought you'd gone to the hospital."

"Somehow, a tree fell across the road while we were letting you off, and we couldn't get around it to get to the hospital, or anywhere else. Not only that, but it was a tree with a hornet's nest or something inside it. Isobel woke up likethat " – the doctor snapped her fingers – "and when she heard the hornets she scrambled out and ran from them. We ran after her. I don't mind saying I would have done the same if I'd been alone."

"Did anybody see these hornets?" Matt asked, after a moment.

"No, it had just turned dark. But we heard them all right. Weirdest thing I ever heard. Sounded like hornet a foot long," Jim said.

Meredith was now squeezing Bonnie's arm from the other side. Whether to keep her silent or to encourage her to speak, Bonnie had no idea. And what could she say? "Fallen trees here only stay fallen until the policemake the decision to look for them?" "Oh, and watch out for the hellish streams of bugs as long as your arm?" "And by the way, there's probably one inside Isobel right now?"That would really freak Jim out.

"If I knew the way back to the boardinghouse, I would drop these three off there," Mrs. Flowers was saying. "They're not part of this."

To Bonnie's surprise, Dr. Alpert did not take exception to the statement that she herself was "not part of it." Nor did she ask what Mrs. Flowers was doing with the two teenagers out in the Old Wood at this hour. What she said was even more astonishing: "We saw the lights as you started shouting. It's right back there."

Bonnie felt Matt's muscles tighten up against her. "Thank God," he said. And then, slowly, "But that's not possible. I left the Dunstans' about ten minutes before we met, and that's right on the other side of the Old Wood from the boardinghouse. It would take at least forty-five minutes to walk it."

"Well, possible or not, we saw the boardinghouse, Theophilia. All the lights were on, from top to bottom. It was impossible to mistake. Are you sure you're not underestimating time?" she added, to Matt.

Mrs. Flowers' name is Theophilia, Bonnie thought, and had to curb an urge not to giggle. The tension was getting to her.

But just as she was thinking it, Meredith gave her another nudge.

Sometimes she thought that she, and Elena, and Meredith had a sort of telepathy with each other. Maybe it wasn't true telepathy, but sometimes just a look, just a glance, could say more than pages and pages of argument. And sometimes – not always, but sometimes – Matt or Stefan would seem to be part of it. Not that it was like real telepathy, with voices as clear in your head as they would be in your ears, but sometimes the boys seemed to be…on the girls' channel.

Because Bonnie knew exactly what that nudge meant. It meant that Meredith had turned the lamp off in Stefan's room on the top of the house, and that Mrs. Flowers had turned the downstairs lights off as they left. So while Bonnie had a very vivid image of the boardinghouse with lights blazing, that image couldn't be reality, not now.

Someone is trying to mess with uswas what Meredith's nudge meant. And Matt was on the same wavelength, even if it was for a different reason. He leaned very slightly back at Meredith, with Bonnie in between.

"But maybe we should head back toward the Dunstans'," Bonnie said in her most babyish, heartrending voice. "They're just normal people. They could protect us."

"The boardinghouse is just over that rise," Dr. Alpert said firmly. "And I really would appreciate your advice on how to slow down Isobel's infections," she added to Mrs. Flowers.

Mrs. Flowers fluttered. There was no other word for it. "Oh, goodness, what a compliment. One thing would be to wash the dirt out of the wounds immediately."

This was so obvious and so unlike Mrs. Flowers that Matt squeezed Bonnie hard just as Meredith leaned in on her.Yeehaw! Bonnie thought. Do we have this telepathy thing going or not! So it's Dr. Alpert who's the dangerous one, the liar.

"That's it, then. We head for the boardinghouse," Meredith said calmly. "And Bonnie, don't worry. We'll take care of you."

"We sure will," Matt said, giving her one last hard squeeze. It meantI get it. I know who's not on our side. Aloud, he added, in a fake stern voice, "It's no good going to the Dunstans' anyway. I already told Mrs. Flowers and the girls about this, but they've got a daughter who's like Isobel."

"Piercing herself?" Dr. Alpert said, sounding startled and horrified at the thought.

"No. She's just acting pretty strangely. But it's not a good place." Squeeze.

I got it a long time ago, Bonnie thought in annoyance. I'm supposed to shut up now.

"Lead the way, please," murmured Mrs. Flowers, seeming more fluttery than ever. "Back to the boardinghouse."

And they let the doctor and Jim lead the way. Bonnie kept up a mumbling complaint in case anyone was listening. And she, and Matt, and Meredith all kept an eye on the doctor and Jim.

"Okay," Elena said to Damon, "I'm dolled up like somebody on the deck of an ocean liner, I'm keyed up like an overstrung guitar, and I'm fed up with all this delay. Soooo…what is the truth and the whole truth and nothing but the truth?" She shook her head. Time had skipped and stretched for her.

Damon said, "In a way, we're in a tiny snow globe I made for myself. It just means they won't see or hear us for a few minutes. Now is the time to get the real talking done."

"So we'd better talk fast." She smiled at him, encouragingly.

She was trying to help him. She knew he needed help. He wanted to tell her the truth, but it was so far against his nature that it was like asking onehell of a wild horse to let you ride it, master it.

"There are more problems," Damon got out huskily, and she knew he'd read her thoughts. "They – they tried to make it impossible for me to speak to you about this. They did it in grand old fairy tale style: by making up lots of conditions. I couldn't tell you inside a house, nor could I tell you outside. Well, a widow's walk isn't inside, but you can't say it's outside, either. I couldn't tell you by sunlight or by moonlight. Well, the sun's gone down, and it's another thirty minutes before the moon rises, and I say that that condition is met. And I couldn't tell you while you were clothed or naked." Elena automatically glanced down at herself in alarm, but nothing had changed as far as she could tell.

"And I figure that that condition is met, too, because even though he swore to me he was letting me out of one of his little snow globes, he didn't do it. We're in a house that's not a house – it's a thought in somebody's mind. You're wearing clothes that aren't real clothes – they're figments of imagination."

Elena opened her mouth again, but he put two fingers to her lips and said, "Wait. Just let me go on while I still can. I seriously thought that he might never stop with the conditions, which he had picked up out of fairy tale literature. He's obsessed with that, and with old English poetry. I don't know why, because he's from the other side of the world, from Japan. That's who Shinichi is. And he has a twin sister…Misao."

Damon stopped breathing hard after that, and Elena figured that there must have been some internal conditions against him telling her.

"He likes it if you translate his name asdeath-first , ornumber one in the matters of death . They're both like teenagers, really, with their codes and their games, and yet they're thousands of years old."

"Thousands?" Elena prodded gently as Damon coasted to a stop, looking exhausted but determined.

"I hate to think of howmany thousands of years the two of them have been doing mischief. Misao's the one who's been doing all the things to the girls in town. She possesses them with her malach and then she makes the malach make them do things. You remember your American history? The Salem witches? That was Misao, or someone like her. And it's happened hundreds of times before that. You might look up the Ursuline nuns when you're out of this. They were a quiet convent who became exhibitionists and worse – some went mad, and some who tried to help them became possessed."

"Exhibitionists? Like Tamra? But she's only a child – "

"Misao's only a child, in her head."

"And where does Caroline come in?"

"In any case like this, there's got to be an instigator – someone who's willing to bargain with the devil – or a demon, really – for their own ends. That's where Caroline comes in. But for an entire town, they must be giving her something really big."

"An entire town? They're going to take over Fell's Church…?"

Damon looked away. The truth was that they were going todestroy Fell's Church, but there was no point in saying that. His hands were loosely fastened around his knees as he sat on a rickety old wooden chair on the widow's walk.

"Before we can do anything to help anyone, we have to get out of here. Out of Shinichi's world. This is important. I can – block him for short periods of time from watching us – but then I get tired and need blood. I need more than you can regenerate, Elena." He looked up at her. "He's put Beauty in with the Beast here and he'll leave us to see which one will triumph."

"If you mean kill the other, he's in for a long wait on my end."

"That's what you think now. But this is a specially made trap. There'snothing in here except the Old Wood as it was when we started driving around it. It's also minus any other human habitations. Theonly house is this house, the only real living creatures are the two of us. You'll want me dead soon enough."

"Damon, I don't understand. What do theywant here? Even with what Stefan said about all the ley lines crossing under Fell's Church and making a beacon…"

"It wasyour beacon that drew them, Elena. They're curious, like kids, and I have a feeling that they may already have been in trouble wherever it is they really live. It's possible they were here watching the end of the battle, watching you be reborn."

"And so they want…to destroy us? To have fun? To take over the town and make us puppets?"

"All three, for a while. They could be having fun while someone else pleads their case in a high court in another dimension. And yes, fun, to them, means taking apart a town. Although I believe that Shinichi means to go back on his bargain with me for something he wants more than the town, so they may end up fighting each other."

"What bargain withyou , Damon?"

"For you. Stefan had you. I wanted you. He wants you."

Despite herself, Elena felt cold pooling in her midriff, felt the distant shaking that began there and worked its way outward. "And the original bargain was?"

He looked away from her. "This is the bad part."

"Damon, what have you done?"she cried, almost screaming it."What was the bargain?" Her whole body was shaking.

"I made a bargain with a demon and, yes, I knew what he was when I did it. It was the night after your friends were attacked by the trees – after Stefan banished me from his room. That and – well, I was angry, but he took my anger and boosted it. He was using me, controlling me; I see that now. That's when he started with the deals and conditions."

"Damon – " Elena began shakily, but he went on, speaking rapidly as if he had to get through this, to see it to its conclusion, before he lost his nerve. "The final deal was that he would help me get Stefan out of the way so I could have you, while he got Caroline and the rest of the town to share with his sister. Thus trumping Caroline's bargain for whatever she was getting from Misao."

Elena slapped him. She wasn't sure how she managed, wrapped up as she was, to get a hand free and to make the lightning-fast movement, but she did. And then she waited, watching a bead of blood hanging on his lip, for him to retaliate or for the strength to try to kill him.