The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 1)

"Dear Diary," Elena whispered, "how frustrating is this? I left you in the trunk of the Jaguar and it's two o'clock in the morning." She stabbed her finger on the leg of her nightgown as if she had a pen and was making a period. She whispered even more softly, leaning her forehead against the window, "And I'm afraid to go outside – in the dark – and get you. I'm afraid!" She made another stab and then, feeling tears slip down her cheeks, reluctantly turned her mobile on to record. It was a stupid waste of the battery, but she couldn't help it. She needed this.

"So here I am," she said softly, "sitting up in the backseat of the car. This has to be my diary entry for today. By the way, we made a rule for this road trip – I sleep in the Jag's backseat and it's the Great Outdoors for Matt and Damon. Right now it's so dark outside that I can't see Matt anywhere…. But I've been going crazy – crying and feeling lost – and so lonely for Stefan….

"We have to get rid of the Jaguar – it's too big, too red, too flashy, and too memorable when we're trying not to be remembered as we travel to the place where we can free Stefan. After the car is sold, the lapis lazuli and diamond pendant Stefan gave me the day before he disappeared will be the most precious thing I have left. The day before…Stefan got tricked into going away, thinking he could become an ordinary human being. And now…

"How can I stop thinking about what They might be doing to him, at this very second – whoever 'They' are? Probably the kitsune, the evil fox spirits at the prison called the Shi no Shi."

Elena paused to wipe her nose on her nightgown sleeve.

"How did I ever get myself into this situation?" She shook her head, hit the seatback with her clenched fist.

"Maybe if I could figure that out, I could come up with Plan A. I always have a Plan A. And my friends always have a Plan B and C to help me." Elena blinked hard, thinking of Bonnie and Meredith. "But now I'm frightened that I'll never see them again. And I'm scared for the entire town of Fell's Church."

For a moment she sat with her clenched fist on her knee. A small voice inside her was saying, "So stop whining, Elena, and think. Think. Start from the beginning."

The beginning? What was the beginning? Stefan?

No, she had lived in Fell's Church long before Stefan came.

Slowly, almost dreamily, she spoke into her mobile. "In the first place: who am I? I'm Elena Gilbert, age eighteen." Even more slowly, she said, "I…don't think it's vain to say that I'm beautiful. If I didn't know I was, I'd have to have never looked in a mirror or heard a compliment. It's not something I should be proud of – it's just something that was passed down from Mom and Dad.

"What do I look like? I have blond hair that falls in sort of waves past my shoulders and blue eyes that some people have said are like lapis lazuli: dark blue with splashes of gold." She gave a half-choked laugh. "Maybe that's why vampires like me."

Then her lips tightened and, staring into the utter blackness around her, she spoke seriously.

"A lot of boys have called me the most angelic girl in the world. And I played around with them. I just used them – for popularity, for amusement, for whatever. I'm being honest, all right? I considered them to be toys or trophies." She paused. "But there was something else. Something that I knew all my life was coming – but I didn't know what. I felt as if I were searching for something that I could never find with boys. None of my scheming or playing around with them ever touched my…deepest heart…until one very special boy came along." She stopped and swallowed and said it again. "One very special boy.

"His name was Stefan.

"And he turned out not to be what he looked like, a normal – but gorgeous – high school senior with rumpled dark hair and eyes as green as emeralds.

"Stefan Salvatore turned out to be a vampire.

"A real vampire."

Elena had to pause to take a few choked breaths before she could get the next words out.

"And so did his gorgeous older brother, Damon."

She bit her lips, and it seemed a long time later that she added, "Would I have loved Stefan if I'd known he was a vampire from the beginning? Yes! Yes! Yes! I'd have fallen in love with him no matter what! But it changed things – and it changed me." Elena's finger traced a pattern on her nightgown by touch alone. "You see, vampires show love by exchanging blood. The problem was…that I was sharing blood with Damon, too. Not really by choice, but because he was after me constantly, day and night."

She let out a sigh. "What Damon says is that he wants to make me a vampire and his Princess of the Night. What that translates into is: he wants me all to himself. But I wouldn't trust Damon on anything unless he gave his word. That's one quirk he has, he never breaks his word."

Elena could feel an odd smile curling her lips, but she was speaking calmly now, fluently, the mobile almost forgotten.

"A girl involved with two vampires…well, there's bound to be trouble, isn't there? So maybe I deserved what I got.

"I died.

"Not just 'died' like when your heart stops and they resuscitate you and you come back talking about almost going into the Light. I went into the Light.

"I died.

"And when I came back – what a surprise! I was a vampire.

"Damon was…kind to me, I suppose, when I first woke up as a vampire. Maybe that's the reason I still have…feelings for him. He didn't take advantage of me when he could have easily.

"But I only had time to do a few things in my vampire life. I had time to remember Stefan and love him more than ever – since I knew, then, how difficult everything was for him. I got to listen to my own memorial service. Ha! Everybody should get a chance to do that. I learned to always, always wear lapis lazuli so I wouldn't become a vampire Crispy Critter. I got to say good-bye to my little four-year-old sister, Margaret, and visit Bonnie and Meredith…."

Tears were still sliding almost unnoticed down Elena's face. But she spoke quietly.

"And then – I died again.

"I died the way a vampire dies, when they don't have lapis lazuli in the sunlight. I didn't crumble into dust; I was only seventeen. But the sun poisoned me anyway. Going was almost…peaceful. That was when I made Stefan promise to take care of Damon, always. And I think Damon swore to take care of Stefan, in his mind. And that was how I died, with Stefan holding me and Damon beside me as I simply drifted away, like going to sleep.

"After that, I had dreams I don't remember, and then suddenly, one day everyone was surprised because I was talking to them through Bonnie, who is very psychic, poor thing. I guess I had landed the job of being Fell's Church's guardian spirit. There was a danger to the town. They had to fight it and somehow, when they were sure that they had lost, I got dumped back to the world of the living to help. And – well, when the war was won I was left with these weird powers I don't understand. But there was Stefan, too! We were together again!"

Elena wrapped her arms around herself tightly and held on as if she were holding Stefan to her, imagining his warm arms around her. She shut her eyes until her breathing slowed.

"About my powers, let's see. There's telepathy, which I can do if the other person is telepathic – which all vampires are, but to different degrees unless they're actually sharing blood with you at the time. And then there are my Wings.

"It's true – I have Wings! And the Wings have powers you wouldn't believe – the only problem being that I don't have the faintest idea how to use them. There's one that I can feel sometimes, like right now, trying to get out of me, trying to shape my lips to name it, trying to move my body into the right stance. It's Wings of Protection and that sounds like something we could really use on this trip. But I can't even remember how I made the old Wings work – much less figure out how to use this new one. I say the words until I feel like an idiot – but nothing happens at all.

"So I'm a human again – as human as Bonnie. And, oh, God, if I could only see her and Meredith right now! But all the time I tell myself that I'm getting closer to Stefan every minute. That is, if you take into account Damon's running us up and down and everywhere to throw off anybody trying to track us down.

"Why would anyone want to track us down? Well, you see, when I came back from the afterlife there was a very big explosion of Power that everyone in the world who can see Power saw.

"Now, how do I explain Power? It's something that everybody has, but that humans – except genuine psychics like Bonnie – don't even recognize. Vampires definitely have Power, and they use it to Influence humans to like them, or to think that things are different from reality – oh, like the way Stefan Influenced the high school staff to think his records were all in order when he 'transferred' to Robert E. Lee High School. Or they use Power to blast other vampires or creatures of darkness – or humans.

"But I was talking about the burst of Power when I dropped down from the heavens. It was so big that it attracted two horrible creatures from the other side of the world. And then they decided to come see what had made the burst, and if there was any way they could use it for themselves.

"I'm not joking, either, about them being from the other side of the world. They were kitsune, evil fox spirits from Japan. They're something like our Western werewolves – but much more powerful. So powerful that they used malach, which are really plants but look like insects that can be no bigger than a pinhead or big enough to swallow your arm. And the malach attach themselves to your nerves and feather out along your entire nervous system and finally they take you over from inside."

Now Elena was shuddering, and her voice was hushed.

"That's what happened to Damon. A tiny one got into him and it took him over from inside so that he was only a puppet of Shinichi's. I forgot to say, the kitsune are called Shinichi and Misao. Misao is the girl. They both have black hair with red all around the tips, but Misao's is long. And they're supposed to be brother and sister – but they sure don't act like it.

"And once Damon was fully possessed, that's when Shinichi made Damon's body…do terrible things. He made him torture Matt and me, and even now I know that sometimes Matt still wants to kill Damon for it. But if he'd seen what I saw – a whole thin, wet, white second body that I had to pull out with my fingernails from Damon's spine – with Damon finally passing out from the pain – then Matt would understand better. I can't blame Damon for what Shinichi made him do. I can't. Damon was…you can't imagine how different. He was crushed. He cried. He was…

"Anyway, I don't expect to ever see him like that again. But if I ever get my Wings' powers back, Shinichi is in big trouble.

"I think that that was our mistake last time, you see. We finally were able to fight Shinichi and Misao – and we didn't kill them. We were too moral or too gentle or something.

"It was a bad mistake.

"Because Damon wasn't the only one who got possessed by Shinichi's malach. There were girls, young girls, fourteen and fifteen and younger. And some boys. Acting…crazy. Hurting themselves and their families. We didn't know how badly until after we'd already made a bargain with Shinichi.

"Maybe we were too immoral, making a bargain with the devil. But they had kidnapped Stefan – and Damon, who was already possessed by then, had helped them. Once Damon was unpossessed, all he wanted was for Shinichi and Misao to tell us where Stefan was, and then for them to leave Fell's Church forever.

"In exchange for that, Damon let Shinichi into his mind.

"If vampires are obsessed with Power, kitsune are obsessed with memories. And Shinichi wanted Damon's memories for the last few days – the time that Damon was possessed and torturing us…and the time when my Wings made Damon realize that he had done it. I don't think Damon himself wanted those memories, either of what he'd done or of how he'd changed when he had to face that he'd done it. So he let Shinichi take them, in exchange for Shinichi putting Stefan's location into his mind.

"The problem is that we were trusting Shinichi's word that he would leave then – when Shinichi's word meant nothing at all.

"Plus, ever since then he's been using the telepathic channel that he opened between his mind and Damon's to take more and more of Damon's memories without Damon even knowing.

"It happened just last night, when we were pulled over by a policeman who wanted to know what three teenagers in an expensive car were doing that late at night. Damon Influenced him to go away. But just a few hours later Damon had forgotten the policeman completely.

"It frightens Damon. And anything that frightens Damon – not that he would ever admit it – scares me to death.

"And, you might ask, what were three teenagers doing out in the middle of nowhere, in Union County, Tennessee, according to the last road sign I saw? We're heading toward some Gate to the Dark Dimension…where Shinichi and Misao left Stefan in the prison called the Shi no Shi. Shinichi only put the knowledge into Damon's mind, and I can't get Damon to say much about what kind of place it is. But Stefan is there and I'll get to him somehow, even if it kills me.

"Even if I have to learn how to kill.

"I'm not the sweet little girl from Virginia I used to be."

Elena stopped and blew out her breath. But then, cuddling herself, she went on.

"And why is Matt along with us? Well, because of Caroline Forbes, my friend since kindergarten. Last year…when Stefan came to Fell's Church, she and I both wanted him. But Stefan didn't want Caroline. And after that she turned into my worst enemy.

"Caroline was also the lucky winner of Shinichi's first visit to any girl in Fell's Church. But more to the point: she was Tyler Smallwood's girlfriend quite a while before she was his victim. I wonder how long they were together and where Tyler is now. All I know is that, in the end, Caroline hung on to Shinichi because she 'needed a husband.' That was how she put it herself. So I assume – well, what Damon assumes. That she's going to…have puppies. A werewolf litter, you know? Since Tyler is a werewolf.

"Damon says that having a werewolf baby turns you into a werewolf even faster than if you're bitten, and that at some point in the pregnancy you gain the power to be all wolf or all human, but before that point you're just a mixed-up mess.

"The sad thing is that Shinichi scarcely gave Caroline a second glance when she blurted it all out.

"But before that Caroline had been desperate enough to accuse Matt of – of assaulting her – on a date that went wrong. She had to have known something about what Shinichi was doing because she claimed her 'date' with Matt was at a time when one of the arm-swallowing mallach was attacking him, making marks on his arm that looked like a girl's fingernail scratches.

"That sent the police after Matt, all right. So basically I just made him come with us. Caroline's father is one of the most important people in Fell's Church –  and he's friends with the district attorney in Ridgemont and the leader of one of those men's clubs where they have secret handshakes and other stuff that makes you, you know, 'prominent in the community.'

"If I hadn't convinced Matt to run instead of facing Caroline's charges, the Forbeses would have lynched him. And I feel the anger like a fire inside me – not just anger and hurt for Matt, but anger and the feeling that Caroline has let all girls everywhere down. Because most girls aren't pathological liars, and wouldn't say something like that about a boy falsely. She's shamed all girls by doing what she did."

Elena paused, looking at her hands, and then added, "Sometimes when I get angry at Caroline, cups shake or pencils roll right off the table. Damon says all this is caused by my aura, my life force, and that ever since I came back from the afterlife it's been different. First of all, it makes anyone who drinks my blood incredibly strong.

"Stefan was strong enough that the fox demons could never have forced him into their trap if Damon hadn't tricked him in the beginning. They could only deal with him when he was weakened and surrounded by iron. Iron is bad news for any eldritch creature, plus vampires need to feed at least once a day or they get weak, and I'll bet – no, I'm sure that they used that against him.

"That's why I can't stand to think about what shape Stefan might be in right this minute. But I can't let myself get too afraid or angry or I'll lose control of my aura. Damon showed me how to keep my aura mostly inside, like a normal human girl. It's still pale gold and pretty, but not a beacon for creatures like vampires.

"Because there's one other thing my blood – maybe even just my aura – can do. It can…oh, well, I can say anything I want to here, right? Nowadays, my aura can make vampires want me…the way human guys do. Not just to bite, get it? But to kiss and all the rest. And so, naturally, they come after me if they sense it. It's as if the world is full of honeybees and I'm the only flower.

"So I have to practice keeping my aura hidden. If it's just barely showing, then I can get away with seeming like a normal human, not somebody who's died and come back. But it's hard to always remember to hide it – and it hurts a lot pulling it in suddenly if I've forgotten!

"And then I feel – this is absolutely private, all right? I'm putting a curse on you, Damon, if you replay this. But it's then that I feel like I want Stefan to bite me. It eases up the pressure, and that's good. Being bitten by a vampire only hurts if you fight it, or if the vampire wants it to hurt. Otherwise, it can just feel good – and then you touch the mind of the vampire who's done it, and…oh, I just miss Stefan so much!"

Elena was shaking now. As hard as she tried to quiet her imagination, she kept thinking about the things that Stefan's jailers might be doing to him. Grimly, she gripped her mobile again, letting tears fall on it.

"I can't let myself think of what they might do to him because then I really start to go crazy. I become this useless shaking insane person who just wants to scream and scream and never stop. I have to fight every second not to think about it. Because only a cool, calm Elena with a Plan A and B and C is going to help him. When I have him safe in my arms, I can let myself shake and cry – and scream, too."

Elena stopped, half laughing, her head bent against the passenger's seatback, her voice husky with overuse.

"I'm tired now. But I have a Plan A, at least. I need to get more information from Damon about the place we're going, the Dark Dimension, and anything he knows about the two clues Misao gave me about the key that will unlock Stefan's cell.

"I guess…I guess I haven't mentioned that at all. The key, the fox key, that we need to get Stefan out of his cell, is broken into two pieces that are hidden in two different places. And when Misao was taunting me about how little I knew about those places, she gave me flat-out clues about where they were. She never dreamed I'd actually go into the Dark Dimension; she was just showing off. But I still remember the clues, and they went like this: The first half is 'in the silver nightingale's instrument.' And the second half is 'buried in Bloddeuwedd's ballroom.'

"I need to see if Damon has any ideas about these. Because it sounds as if once we get to the Dark Dimension we're going to have to infiltrate some people's houses and other places. To search a ballroom, it's best to somehow get invited to the ball, right? That sounds like 'easier said than done,' but whatever it takes, I'll do. It's simple as that."

Elena lifted her head in determination and went still, then said in a whisper, "Would you believe it? I looked up just now and I can see the palest streaks of dawn in the sky: light green and creamy orange and the faintest aqua…. I've talked all through the darkness. It's so peaceful now. Just now the sun peeked up o –

"What the hell was that? Something just went BANG on the top of the Jag. Really, really loud."

Elena clicked off the recorder on her mobile. She was scared, but a noise like that – and now scrabbling sounds on the roof…

She had to get out of the car as fast as possible.