The Return: Nightfall (Chapter 36)

Elena had been waiting in her tree.

It wasn't, as a matter of fact, all that different from her six months in the spirit world, where she had spent most of her time watching other people, and waiting, and watching them some more. Those months had taught her a patient alertness that would have astounded anyone who knew the old, wildfire Elena.

Of course, the old, wildfire Elena was still inside her, too, and occasionally it rebelled. As far as she could see, nothing was happening in the dark boardinghouse. Only the moon seemed to move, creeping slowly higher into the sky.

Damon said this Shinichi had a thing about 4:44 in the morning or evening, she thought. Maybe this Black Magic was working to a different schedule than any she'd heard of.

In any case, it was for Stefan. And as soon as she thought that she knew that she would wait here for days, if that's what it took. She could certainly wait until daybreak, when no self-respecting Black Magic-worker would ever thing of beginning a ceremony.

And, in the end, what she was waiting for came to rest right below her feet.

First came the figures, walking sedately out of the Old Wood and toward the gravel pathways of the boardinghouse. They weren't hard to identify, even at long range. One was Damon, who had aje ne sais quois about him that Elena couldn't miss at a quarter of a mile – and then again there was his aura, which was a very good facsimile of his old aura: that unreadable, un-breachable ball of black stone. Avery good imitation, in fact. Actually, it was almost exactly like the one…

It was then, Elena later realized, that she felt her very first qualm.

But right now she was so caught up in the moment that she brushed the uneasy thought away. The one with the deep gray aura with crimson flashes would be Shinichi, she guessed. And the one with the same aura as the possessed girls: a sort of muddy color slashed with orange must be the twin sister Misao.

Only those two, Shinichi and Misao, were holding hands, even occasionally nuzzling each other – as Elena could see as they came up close to the boardinghouse. They certainly weren't acting like any brother and sister that Elena had seen.

Moreover, Damon was carrying a mostly-naked girl over his shoulder, and Elena couldn't imagine who that might be.

Patience,she thought to herself.Patience. The major players are here at last, just as Damon promised they would be. And the minor players…

Well, first, following Damon and his group were three little girls. She recognized Tami Bryce instantly from her aura, but the other two were strangers. They hopped, skipped, andfrisked out of the Wood and to the boardinghouse, where Damon said something to them and they came around to sit in Mrs. Flowers' kitchen garden, almost directly below Elena. One look at the auras of the strange girls was enough to identify them as more of Misao's pets.

Then, up the driveway came a very familiar car – it belonged to Caroline's mother. Caroline stepped out of it and was helped into the boardinghouse by Damon, who had done something – Elena had missed what – with his burden.

Elena rejoiced as she saw lights coming on as Damon and his three guests traveled up the boardinghouse, lighting their way as they went. They came out on the very top, standing in a row on the widow's walk, looking down.

Damon snapped his fingers, and the backyard lights went on as if it were a cue for a show.

But Elena didn't see the actors – the victims of the ceremony that was about to begin, until just then. They were being herded around the far corner of the boardinghouse. She could see them all: Matt and Meredith and Bonnie, and Mrs. Flowers and, strangely, old Dr. Alpert. What Elena didn't understand was why they weren't fighting harder – Bonnie was certainly making enough noise for all of them, but they acted as if they were being pushed forward against their will.

That was when she saw the looming darkness behind them. Huge dark shadows, with no features that she could identify.

It was at that point that Elena realized, even over Bonnie's yelling, if she held herself still inside and focused hard enough, she could hear what everyone on the widow's walk was saying. And Misao's shrill voice cut through the rest.

"Oh lucky! We got all of them back," she squealed, and kissed her brother's cheek, despite his brief look of annoyance.

"Of course we did. I said so," he was beginning, when Misao squealed once more.

"But which of them do we start with?" She kissed her brother and he stroked her hair, relenting.

"You pick the first one," he said.

"You darling," Misao cooed shamelessly.

These two, Elena thought, are real charmers. Twins, huh?

"The little noisy one," Shinichi said firmly, pointing to Bonnie. "Urusei, brat! Shut up!" he added as Bonnie was pushed or carried forward by the shadows. Now Elena could see her more clearly.

And she could hear Bonnie's heartrending pleas to Damon not to do this to…the others. "I'm not begging for myself," she cried, as she was dragged into the light. "But Dr. Alpert is a good woman; she has nothing to do with this. Neither does Mrs. Flowers. And Meredith and Matt have already suffered enough.Please! "

There was a ragged chorus of sound as the others apparently tried to fight and were subdued. But Matt's voice rose above it all. "You touch her, Salvatore, and you'd better make damn sure you kill me, too!"

Elena's heart jerked as she heard Matt's voice sounding so strong and well. She'd found him at last, but she couldn't think of a way to save him.

"And then we have to decide what to do with them to start with," Misao said, clapping like a happy child at her birthday party.

"Take your pick." Shinichi caressed his sister's hair and whispered into her ear. She turned and kissed him on the mouth. Not hastily, either.

"What the – what's going on?" Caroline said. She had never been shy, that one, Elena thought. Now she had moved forward to cling to Shinichi's unoccupied hand.

For just an instant, Elena thought he would throw her off the widow's walk and watch her plunge to the ground. Then he turned, and he and Misao stared at each other.

Then he laughed.

"Sorry, sorry, it's so hard when you're the life of the party," he said. "Well, what do you think, Carolyn – Caroline?"

Caroline was staring at him. "Why's she holding you that way?"

"In theShi no Shi , sisters are precious," Shinichi said. "And…well, I haven't seen her in a long time. We're getting reacquainted." But the kiss he planted on Misao's palm was hardly brotherly. "Go on," he added quickly, to Caroline. "You choose the first act in the Moonspire Festival! What shall we do with her?"

Caroline began to imitate Misao, kissing Shinichi's cheek and ear. "I'm new here," she said flirtatiously. "I don't really know what you want me to pick."

"Silly Caroline. Naturally, how she di – " Shinichi was suddenly smothered by a great hug and kiss from his sister.

Caroline, who had obviously wanted the attention of choice put to her, even if she didn't understand the subject, said huffily, "Well, if you don't tell me, I can't choose. And anyway, where's Elena? I don't see her anywhere!" She seemed about to say more when Damon glided over and whispered in her ear. Then she smiled again, and they both looked at the pine trees surrounding the boardinghouse.

That was when Elena had her second qualm. But Misao was already speaking and that required Elena's full attention.

"Lucky! Then I'll pick." Misao leaned forward, peeking over the edge of the roof at the humans below, her dark eyes wide, summing up the possibilities in what looked like a barren clearing. She was so delicate, so graceful as she got up to pace and think; her skin was so fair, and her hair so glossy and dark that even Elena couldn't take her eyes off her.

Then Misao's face lit up and she spoke. "Spread her on the altar. You brought some of your half-breeds?"

The last was not so much a question as an excited exclamation.

"My experiments? Of course, darling. I told you so," Shinichi replied and added, staring into the forest, "Two of you – er, men – and Old Faithful!" And he snapped his fingers. There were several minutes of confusion during which the humans around Bonnie were struck, kicked, thrown to the ground, trampled on, and crushed as they fought with the shadows. And then the things that had shambled forward before, shambled farther forward with Bonnie held in between them, dangling limply from each by a slim arm.

The half-breeds were something like men and something like trees with all the leaves stripped off them. If they had beenmade , it looked as if they had been made specifically to be grotesque and asymmetrical. One had a crooked, knobby left arm that reached almost to its feet, and a right arm that was thick, lumpy, and only waist-high.

They were hideous. Their skin was similar to the chitin-like skin of the insects, but much bumpier, with knotholes and burls and all the outward aspects of bark on their branches. They had a shaggy, unfinished look in places.

They were terrifying. The way their limbs were twisted; the way they walked, shambling forward like apes, the way their bodies ended on top with treelike caricatures of human faces, surmounted by a tangle of thinner branches sticking out at odd angles – they were calculated to look like creatures of nightmare.

And they were naked. They had nothing in place of clothes to disguise the ghastly deformities of their bodies.

And then Elena really knew what terror meant, as the two shambling malach carried the limp Bonnie to a sort of roughly hewn stump of tree like an altar, laid her on it and began to pluck at the many layers of her clothing, clumsily, pulling at them with sticklike fingers that broke off with little crackling sounds even as cloth tore. They didn't seem to care that they broke their fingers off – as long as they accomplished their task.

And then they were using bits of torn cloth, even more clumsily, to tie Bonnie, spread-eagled, to four knobby posts snapped off their own bodies and hammered into the ground around the trunk with four powerful blows by the thick-armed one.

Meanwhile, from somewhere even farther away in the shadows, a third man-tree shuffled forward. And Elena saw that this one was, undeniably, unmistakably male.

For a moment Elena worried that Damon might lose it, go mad, turn around and attack both the were-foxes, revealing his true allegiance now. But his feelings about Bonnie had obviously changed since he had saved her at Caroline's. He appeared perfectly relaxed beside Shinichi and Misao, sitting back and smiling, even saying something that made them laugh.

Suddenly something inside Elena seemed to plummet. This wasn't a qualm. It was full-blown terror. Damon had never looked so natural, so in tune, sohappy with anyone as he did here with Shinichi and Misao. They couldn't possibly have changed him, she tried to convince herself. Theycouldn't have possessed him again so quickly, not without her, Elena, knowing it….

But when you showed him the truth, he was miserable, her heart whispered. Desperately miserable – miserably desperate. He might have reached for possession as a defiant alcoholic reaches for a bottle, wanting only forgetfulness. If she knew Damon, he had willingly invited the darkness back in.

He couldn't stand to stand in the light, she thought. And so now, he's able to laugh even at Bonnie's suffering.

And where did that leave her? With Damon defected to the other side, no longer ally, but enemy? Elena began to tremble with anger and hatred – yes, and fear, too, as she contemplated her position.

All alone to struggle against three of the strongest enemies she could imagine, and their army of deformed, conscienceless killers? Not to mention Caroline, the cheerleader of spite?

As if to corroborate her fears, as if to show her how slim her chances really were, the tree she was clinging to seemed suddenly to let go of her, and for a moment Elena thought she would fall, spinning and screaming, all the way to the ground. Her handholds and footholds seemed to disappear all at once, and she only saved herself by a frantic – and painful – scrambling through serrated pine needles up to the grooved, dark bark.

You are a human girl now, my dear,the strong, resinous smell seemed to be telling her.And you are up to your neck in the Powers of the undead and of sorcery. Why fight it? You've lost before you've begun. Give in now and it won't hurt so much.

If aperson had been telling her this, trying to hammer it in, the words might have sparked some kind of defiance from the flint of Elena's character. But instead this was just a feeling that came over her, an aura of doom, a knowledge of the hopelessness of her cause, and the inadequacy of her weapons, that seemed to settle over her as gently and as inescapably as a fog.

She leaned her throbbing head against the trunk of the tree. She had never felt so weak, so helpless – or so alone, not since she had been a newly wakened vampire. She wanted Stefan. But Stefan hadn't been able to beat these three, and because of that she might never see him again.

Something new was happening on the roof, she realized wearily. Damon was looking down at Bonnie on the altar, and his expression was petulant. Bonnie's white face was staring up at the evening sky in determination, as if refusing any longer to weep or beg again.

"But…are all thehors d'oeuvres so predictable?" Damon asked, seeming genuinely bored.

You bastard, you'd turn on your best friend for amusement, Elena thought. Well, just you wait. But she knew the truth was that without him, she couldn't even put together Plan A, much less fight against these kitsune, these were-foxes.

"You told me that in theShi no Shi , I would see acts of genuine originality," Damon was going on. "Maidens hypnotized to cut themselves…"

Elena ignored his words. She concentrated all her energy on the thudding pain in the center of her chest. She felt as if she were drawing blood from her tiniest capillaries, from the far reaches of her body, and collecting it here at her center.

The human mind is infinite, she thought. It is as strange and as infinite as the universe. And the human soul…

The three youngest of the possessed began dancing around the spread-eagled Bonnie, singing in falsely sweet little-girl voices:

"You are going todie in here,

When you die inhere , outthere

They throwdirt right on your face!"

How delightful, Elena thought. Then she tuned back in to the drama unfolding on the roof. What she saw startled her. Meredith was now up on the widow's walk, moving as if she were underwater – entranced. Elena had missed how she'd gotten there – was it by some sort of magic? Misao was facing Meredith, giggling. Damon was laughing, too, but in mocking disbelief.

"And you expect me to believe that if I givethis girl a pair of scissors…" he said, "she would actually cut her own – "

"Try and see for yourself," Shinichi interrupted, with one of his languid gestures. He was leaning against the cupola in the middle of the widow's walk, still trying to out-lounge Damon. "Didn't you see our prizewinner, Isobel?You carried her all the way here – didn't she ever try to speak?"

Damon held out a hand. "Scissors," he said, and a dainty pair of nail scissors rested in his palm. It seemed that, as long as Damon had Shinichi's magic key, the magic field around them would continue to obey him even in the real world. He laughed. "No, adult-size scissors, for gardening. The tongue's made of strong muscles, not paper."

What he held in his hand then were large pruning shears – definitely not toys for children. He hefted them, feeling their weight. And then, to Elena's utter shock, he looked straight up at her in her treetop refuge, not needing to search for her there at all – and winked.

Elena could only stare back in horror.

He knew, she thought. He knew where I was all the time.

That was what he had been whispering to Caroline about.

It hadn't worked – theWings of Redemption hadn't worked, Elena thought, and it felt as if she were falling and would fall forever. I should have realized it would be no good. No matter what's done to him, Damon will always be Damon. And now he's offering me a choice: see my two best friends tortured and killed, or step forward and stop this horror by agreeing to his terms.

What could she do?

He had arranged the chess pieces brilliantly, she thought. The pawns on two different levels, so that even if Elena could somehow climb down to try to save Bonnie, Meredith would be lost. Bonnie was tied to four strong posts and guarded by Tree-Men. Meredith was closer, up on the roof, but to get her off Elena would have toget to her and then through Misao, Shinichi, Caroline, and Damon himself.

And Elena had to choose. Whether to step forward now, or be pushed forward by the anguish of one of the two who were almost a part of her.

She seemed to catch a faint strain of telepathy as Damon stood beaming there, and it said,This is the best night of my life.

You could always just jump,came the fog-like hypnotic whisper of annihilation once again.End the dead-end road you're on. End your suffering. End all the pain…just like that.

"Now it's my turn," Caroline was saying, brushing past the twins to face Meredith herself. "It was supposed to be my choice in the first place. So it's my turn now."

Misao was laughing hysterically, but Meredith was already stepping forward, still in a trance.

"Oh, have it your own way," Damon said. But he didn't move, still staring curiously, as Caroline said to Meredith, "You've always had a tongue like an adder's. Why don't you make it forked for us – right here, right now? Before you cut it into pieces."

Meredith held out her hand without a word, like an automaton.

Still with her eyes on Damon, Elena breathed in slowly. Her chest seemed to be going into spasms as it had when the sucker plants had wound their way around her and cut off her breath. But not even sensations in her own body could stop her.

How could I choose? she thought. Bonnie and Meredith – I love both of them.

And there's nothing else to do, she realized numbly, the feeling draining from her hands and her lips. I'm not even sure if Damon can save both of them, even if I agree to…submit to him. These others – Shinichi, Misao, even Caroline – they want to see blood. And Shinichi not only controls trees, but just about everything in the Old Wood, including those monstrous Tree-Men. Maybe this time Damon has over-reached himself, taken on more than he could handle. He wanted me – but he went too far to get me. I can't see any way out.

And then she did see. Suddenly everything fell into place and was brilliantly clear.

Sheknew .

Elena stared down at Bonnie, almost in a state of shock. Bonnie was looking at her, too. But there was no expectation of rescue in that small, triangular face. Bonnie had already accepted her fate: agony and death.

No,Elena thought, not knowing whether Bonnie could hear her.

Believe,she thought to Bonnie.

Not blindly, never blindly. But believe in what your mind tells you is the truth, and what your heart tells you is the right path. I would never let you go – or Meredith either.

I believe,Elena thought, and her soul was rocked by the force of it. She felt a sudden surge within herself, and she knew that it was time to go. One word was ringing in her mind as she stood and let go of her handholds on the tree trunk. And that one word echoed in her mind as she dove headfirst from her sixty-foot perch in the tree.