The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 11)

Arizona was as hot and barren a state as Elena had imagined. She and Damon drove directly to the Juniper Resort, and Elena was depressed, if not surprised, to see that Matt was not checked in.

"It can't have taken him longer than us to get here," she said, as soon as they'd been shown up to their rooms. "Unless – oh, God, Damon! Unless Shinichi caught him somehow."

Damon sat down on a bed and regarded Elena grimly. "I guess I hoped I wouldn't have to tell you this – that the jerk would at least have the courtesy to tell you himself. But I've been tracking his aura ever since he left us. It's been getting steadily farther away – in the direction of Fell's Church."

Sometimes, really bad news takes a while to sink in.

"You mean," Elena said, "that he's not going to show up here at all?"

"I mean that, as the crow flies, it wasn't all that far from where we got the cars to Fell's Church. He went in that direction. And he didn't come back."

"But why?" Elena demanded, as if logic could somehow conquer fact. "Why would he go off and leave me? Especially, why would he go to Fell's Church, where they're looking for him?"

"As for why he'd leave: I think he got the wrong idea about you and me – or maybe the right idea a little early" – Damon raised his eyebrows at Elena and she threw a pillow at him – "and decided to let us have some privacy. As for why Fell's Church…" Damon shrugged. "Look, you've known the guy longer than I have. But even I can tell he's the Galahad type. The parfait gentil knight, sans peur et sans reproche. If I had to say I'd say he went to meet Caroline's charges."

"Oh, no," Elena said, going to the door as a knock sounded. "Not after I told him and told him – "

"Oh, yes," Damon said, assuming a slight crouching position. "Even with your sage advice ringing in his ears – "

The door opened. It was Bonnie. Bonnie, with her petite frame, her curly strawberry hair, her wide, soulful brown eyes. Elena, in a state to disbelieve the evidence of her own eyes, and still not through with the argument with Damon, shut the door on her.

"Matt's going to get lynched," Elena almost screamed, vaguely annoyed that some knocking was going on somewhere.

Damon uncrouched. He passed Elena on the way to the door, said, "I think you'd better sit down," and then sat her down by putting her in a chair and holding her there until she stopped trying to get up again.

Then he opened the door.

This time it was Meredith knocking. Tall and willowy, with her hair falling in dark clouds around her shoulders, Meredith radiated the intention to go on knocking until the door stayed open. Something happened inside Elena, and she found that she could get her mind around more than one subject at once.

It was Meredith. And Bonnie. In Sedona, Arizona!

Elena leaped up from the chair where Damon had put her and flung her arms around Meredith, saying incoherently, "You came! You came! You knew I couldn't call you, so you came!"

Bonnie edged around the embrace and said to Damon in an undertone, "Is she back to kissing everyone she meets?"

"Unfortunately," Damon said, "no. But be prepared to be squeezed to death."

Elena turned on him. "I heard that! Oh, Bonnie! I just can't believe you two are really here. I wanted to talk to you so much!"

Meanwhile, she was hugging Bonnie, and Bonnie was hugging her, and Meredith was hugging both of them. Subtle velociraptor sisterhood signals were being passed from one to another at the same time – an arched eyebrow here, a slight nod there, a frown and shrug ending with a sigh. Damon didn't know it, but he had just been accused, tried, acquitted, and restored to duty – with the conclusion that extra surveillance was necessary in the future.

Elena snapped out of it first. "You must have met with Matt – he had to tell you about this place."

"He did, and then he sold the Prius and we sort of packed on the run and got plane tickets here and we've been waiting – we didn't want to miss you!" Bonnie said breathlessly.

"I don't suppose that would have been just about two days ago that you bought your tickets here," Damon asked the ceiling wearily as he lounged with an elbow on Elena's chair.

"Let me see – " Bonnie began, but Meredith said flatly, "Yes it was. What? It made something happen to you?"

"We were trying to keep things slightly ambiguous for the enemy," Damon said. "But as it turns out, it probably didn't matter."

No, Elena thought, because Shinichi can reach inside your brain whenever he wants and try to take away your memories and all you can do is try to fight him off.

"But it does mean that Elena and I should start off right away." Damon continued. "I have to do an errand first. Elena should pack. Take as little as you can, just the absolute essentials – but include food for two or three days."

"You said…starting now?" Bonnie breathed, and then she sat down abruptly on the floor.

"It makes sense, if we've already lost the element of surprise," Damon replied.

"I can't believe you two came to say good-bye to me while Matt watches over the town," Elena said. "That is so sweet!" She smiled radiantly before adding, in her own mind, And so dumb!

"Well – "

"Well, I still have an errand," Damon said, waving without turning around. "Let's say we'll leave here in half an hour."

"Stingy," Bonnie complained, when the door was safely shut behind him. "That might have only given us a few minutes to talk before we start."

"I can pack in less than five minutes," Elena said sadly, and then got tangled up in Bonnie's previous sentence. "'Before we start'?"

"I can't pack just essentials at all," Meredith was fretting quietly. "I couldn't store everything on my mobile, and I have no idea when I'll be able to recharge the batteries. I've got a suitcase of stuff on paper!"

Elena was looking back and forth at them nervously. "Um, I'm pretty sure I'm the one who's supposed to be packing," she said. "Because I'm the only one going…right?" Another look back and forth.

"As if we would let you set off into some other universe without us!" Bonnie said. "You need us!"

"Not another universe; only another dimension," Meredith said. "But the same principle applies."

"But – I can't let you come with me!"

"Of course you can't. I'm older than you," Meredith said. "You don't 'let' me do anything. But the truth is that we have a mission. We want to find Shinichi's or Misao's star ball if we can. If we could do that we think we could stop most of the stuff going on in Fell's Church immediately."

"Star ball?" Elena said blankly, while somewhere in the depths of her mind, an uneasy image stirred.

"I'll explain later."

Elena was shaking her head. "But – you left Matt to deal with whatever supernatural stuff is going on? When he's a fugitive and has to hide from the police?"

"Elena, even the police are scared of Fell's Church now – and frankly, if they put him in custody in Ridgemont it might be the safest place for him. But they're not going to do that. He's working with Mrs. Flowers and they're good together; they're a solid team." Meredith stopped to take a breath, and seemed to be considering how to say something.

Bonnie said it for her in a very small voice. "And I was no good, Elena. I'd started – well, I started to get hysterical and see and hear things that weren't there – or at least to imagine them and maybe even make them come true. I was scaring myself out of my mind, and I think I actually was putting people in danger. Matt's too practical to do that." She dabbed at her eyes. "I know the Dark Dimension is pretty bad, but at least I won't be able to put houses full of innocent people in danger."

Meredith nodded. "It was all…going bad with Bonnie there. Even if we hadn't wanted to come with you I would have had to get her out. I don't want to be overly dramatic, but I believe that the demons there were after her. And that since Stefan's gone, Damon may be the only one who can keep them away. Or maybe you can help her, Elena?"

Meredith…overly dramatic? But Elena could see the fine tremors running under Meredith's skin, and the light sheen of perspiration on Bonnie's forehead that was dampening her curls.

Meredith touched Elena's wrist. "We haven't just gone AWOL or anything. Fell's Church is a war zone now; it's true, but we didn't leave Matt without allies. Like Dr. Alpert – she's logical – she's the best country doctor there is – and she might even convince somebody that Shinichi and the malach are real. But besides all that, the parents have taken over. Parents and psychiatrists and newshounds. And they make it almost impossible to work openly anyway. Matt's not at any disadvantage."

"But – in just a week – "

"Take a look at this week's Sunday paper."

Elena took the Ridgemont Times from Meredith. It was the biggest paper in the area of Fell's Church. A banner headline read:


Under the headline were many lines of gray print, but what really caught the eye was a photo of a three-way fight between girls, all of whom seemed to be undergoing seizures or contortions impossible to the human body. The expressions of two of the girls were simply those of pain and terror, but it was the third girl who froze the blood in Elena's veins. Her body was humped so that her face was upside down, and she was looking directly at the camera with her lips skinned back from her teeth. Her eyes – there was just no other way to put it – were demonic. They weren't rolled back in her head or malformed or anything. They weren't glowing eerily red. It was all in the expression. Elena had never seen eyes that made her sick to her stomach before.

Bonnie said quietly, "Do you ever sort of slip and get that feeling like, 'Oh, whoops, there goes the whole universe'?"

"Constantly, since meeting Stefan," Meredith said. "No offense meant, Elena. But the point is that all this has happened in just a couple of days; from the minute the adults who knew that there was something really going on got together."

Meredith sighed and ran fingers with perfectly manicured nails through her hair before continuing. "Those girls are what Bonnie calls possessed in the modern sense. Or maybe they're possessed by Misao – female kitsune are supposed to do that. But if we could just find these things called star balls – or even one – we could force them to clean all this up."

Elena put the newspaper down so she wouldn't have to see those upside-down eyes staring into hers. "And while all this is happening, what is your boyfriend doing during the crisis?"

For the first time, Meredith looked genuinely relieved. "He may be on his way as we speak. I've written to him about everything that's happening, and he was actually the one who said to get Bonnie out." She flashed a glance of apology at Bonnie, who simply lifted her hands and face to the heavens. "And as soon as he's finished with his work on some island called Shinmei no Uma, he's coming to Fell's Church. This kind of thing is Alaric's specialty, and he doesn't get spooked easily. So even if we're gone for weeks, Matt will have a backup."

Elena threw her own hands up in a gesture similar to Bonnie's. "There's just one thing you'd better know before we start. I can't help Bonnie. If you're counting on me to do any of the things I did when we fought Shinichi and Misao last time – well, I can't. I've tried over and over, as hard as I could, to do all my wings attacks. But nothing has ever come of it."

Meredith said slowly, "Well, then, maybe Damon knows something – "

"Maybe he does, but, Meredith, don't push him right now. Not right this minute. What he knows for certain is that Shinichi can reach in and take his memories – and who knows, maybe even possess him again – "

"That lying kitsune!" Bonnie spat out, sounding almost proprietory. As if, Elena thought, Damon was her boyfriend. "Shinichi swore he wouldn't – "

"And he swore he'd leave Fell's Church alone, too. The only reason I have any faith at all in the clues that Misao gave me about the fox key, is that she was taunting me. She never thought we'd do a deal, and so she wasn't trying to lie or be too clever – I think."

"Well, that's why we're here with you, to get Stefan out," Bonnie said. "And if we're lucky, to find the star balls that will let us control Shinichi. Right?"

"Right!" Elena said fervently.

"Right," Meredith said solemnly.

Bonnie nodded. "Velociraptor sisterhood forever!"

They laid their right hands over one another's quickly, forming a three-spoked wheel. It reminded Elena of the days when there were four spokes.

"And what about Caroline?" she asked.

Bonnie and Meredith consulted each other with their eyes. Then Meredith shook her head. "You don't want to know. Really," she said.

"I can take it. Really," Elena said in almost a whisper. "Meredith, I've been dead, remember? Twice."

Meredith was still shaking her head. "If you can't look at that picture, you shouldn't hear about Caroline. We went to see her twice – "

"You went to see her twice," Bonnie interrupted. "The second time I fainted and you left me by the door."

"And I realized I could have lost you for good, and I've apologized – " Meredith broke off when Bonnie put a hand on her arm and gave her a little push.

"Anyway, it wasn't exactly a visit," Meredith said. "I went running into Caroline's room ahead of her mom and found her inside her nest – never mind what that is – eating something. When she saw me, she just giggled and went on eating."

"And?" Elena said, when the tension got to be too much for her. "What was it?"

"I think," Meredith said bleakly, "that it was worms and slugs. She would stretch them up and up and they'd squirm before she bit them. But that wasn't the worst. Look, you had to have been here to appreciate it, but she just smirked at me, and said in this thick voice, 'Have a bite?' and suddenly my mouth was filled with this wriggling mass – and it was going down my throat. So I was sick, right there on her carpet. Caroline just started laughing, and I ran down again and picked Bonnie up and ran out and we never went back. But…halfway down the path to the house, I realized Bonnie was suffocating. She had the – the worms and things – in her mouth and her nose. I know CPR; I managed to get most of them out before she woke up vomiting. But – "

"It was an experience I would really rather not have again." The very lack of expression in Bonnie's voice said more than any tone of horror could.

Meredith said, "I've heard that Caroline's parents have moved out of that house, and I can't say I blame them. Caroline's over eighteen. All I can add is that everybody's sort of praying that somehow the werewolf blood will win out in her, because that seems at least to be less horrible than the malach or the – the demonic. But if it doesn't win out…"

Elena rested her chin on her knees. "And Mrs. Flowers can deal with this?"

"Better than Bonnie can. Mrs. Flowers is glad to have Matt around; like I said, they're a solid team. And now that she has finally spoken to the human race of the twenty-first century, I think she likes it. And she's been practicing the craft constantly."

"The craft? Oh – "

"Yeah, that's what she calls witchcraft. I have no idea whether she's any good at it or not, because I don't have anything to compare her to – or with – "

"Her poultices work like magic!" Bonnie said firmly just as Elena said, "Her bath salts certainly work."

Meredith smiled faintly. "Too bad she isn't here instead of us."

Elena shook her head. Now that she had reconnected with Bonnie and Meredith she knew she could never go into the Darkness without them. They were more than her hands; they were so much more to her…and here they were, each prepared to risk their life for Stefan and for Fell's Church.

At that moment, the door to the room opened. Damon walked in, carrying a couple of brown paper bags in one hand.

"So everybody's said bye-bye nicely?" he asked. He seemed to have trouble looking at either of the two visitors, so he stared particularly hard at Elena.

"Well – not really. Not as such," Elena said. She wondered if Damon was capable of throwing Meredith out a fifth-story window. Best to break it easily to him, by degrees….

"Because we're going with you," Meredith said, and Bonnie said, "We forgot to pack, though."

Elena slid quickly so that she was between Damon and the others. But Damon just stared at the floor.

"It's a bad idea," he said very softly. "A very, very, very bad idea."

"Damon, don't Influence them! Please!" Elena waved both hands at him in a gesture of urgency, and Damon raised one of his hands in a gesture of negation – and somehow their hands brushed each other's – and tangled.

Electric shock. But a nice one, Elena thought – although she didn't really have time to think it. She and Damon were both trying desperately to get their hands back to themselves, but didn't seem to be able to. Little shockwaves were running from Elena's palm all through her body.

Finally, the disentanglement worked and then they both turned, in guilty unison, to look at Bonnie and Meredith, who were staring at them with enormous eyes. Suspicious eyes. Eyes that belonged in faces saying "Aha! What have we here?"

There was a long moment when no one moved or spoke.

Then Damon said seriously, "This isn't some kind of pleasure trip. We're going because there's no other choice."

"Not alone, you're not," Meredith said in a neutral tone. "If Elena goes, we all go."

"We know it's a bad place," Bonnie said, "but we are definitely going with you."

"Besides, we have our own agenda," Meredith added. "A way to cleanse Fell's Church of the harm Shinichi has done – and is still doing."

Damon shook his head. "You don't understand. You won't like it," he said tightly. He nodded at her mobile. "No electric power in there. Even owning one of those is a crime. And the punishment for just about any crime is torture and death." He took a step toward her.

Meredith refused to back away, her dark gaze fixed on his.

"Look, you don't even realize what you have to do just to get in," Damon said bleakly. "First, you need a vampire – and you're lucky to have one. Then you'll have to do all sorts of things you won't like – "

"If Elena can do it, we can do it," Meredith interrupted quietly.

"I don't want either of you to get hurt. I'm going in because it's for Stefan," Elena said hastily, speaking partly to her friends and partly to the innermost core of her being, which the shockwaves and pulses of electricity had reached at last. Such a strange, melting, throbbing sweetness for something that had started out as a shock. Such a fierce shock for simply touching another person's hand….

Elena manged to tear her eyes away from Damon's face and tune back into the argument that was going on.

"You're going in for Stefan, yes," Meredith was saying to her, "and we're going in with you."

"I'm telling you, you won't like it. You'll live to regret it – if you live, that is," Damon was saying flatly, his expression dark.

Bonnie simply gazed up at Damon with her brown eyes wide and pleading in her small heart-shaped face. Her hands were clasped together at the base of her throat. She looked like a picture on a Hallmark card, Elena thought. And those eyes were worth a thousand logical arguments.

Finally, Damon looked back at Elena. "You're probably taking them to their deaths, you know. You, I could probably protect. But you and Stefan, and your two little teenage girlfriends… I can't."

Hearing it put that way was a shock. Elena hadn't quite thought of it like that. But she could see the determined set of Meredith's jaw and the way Bonnie had gone up a little on her toes to try to look bigger.

"I think it's already been decided," she said quietly, aware that her voice shook.

There was a long moment as she stared into Damon's dark eyes, and then suddenly he flashed his 250-kilowatt smile at all of them, shut it off almost before it had begun, and said, "I see. Well, in that case, I have another errand. I may not be back for quite a while, so feel free to use the room – "

"Elena should come to our room," Meredith said. "I have a lot of material to show her. And if we can't take much with us, we'll have to go over it all tonight – "

"Then let's say we meet back here at dawn," Damon said. "We'll set off for the Demon Gate from here. And remember – don't bring money; it isn't any good there. And this is not a vacation – but you'll get that idea soon enough."

With a graceful, ironic gesture, he handed Elena her bag.

"The Demon Gate?" Bonnie said as they went to the elevator. Her voice shook.

"Hush," said Meredith. "It's only a name."

Elena wished she didn't know so well when Meredith was lying.