The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 16)

Damon clearly decided to throw himself on the mercy of the court, and looked piteous and a little unbalanced, which he could easily do whenever he wanted. "I really didn't try to Influence you," he repeated, but then hastily added, "Maybe I can just change the subject for a while – tell you more about the star balls."

"That," Elena said in her most frosty voice, "might be a rather good idea."

"Well, the balls make recordings directly from your neurons, you see? Your neurons in your brain. Everything you've ever experienced is there in your mind somewhere, and the ball just draws it out."

"So you can always remember it and watch it over and over like a movie, too?" Elena said, twiddling with her veil to shade her face from him, and thinking that she would give a star ball to Alaric and Meredith before their wedding.

"No," Damon said, rather grimly. "Not like that. For one thing, the memory is gone from you – these are kitsune toys we're talking about, remember? Once the star ball has taken it from your neurons, you don't remember a thing about the event. Second, the 'recording' on the star ball gradually fades – with use, with time, with some other factors nobody understands. But the ball gets cloudier, and the sensations weaker, until finally it's just an empty crystal sphere."

"But – that poor man was selling a day of his life. A wonderful day! I should think he would want to keep it."

"You saw him."

"Yes." Once again Elena saw the louse-ridden, haggard, gray-faced old man. She felt something like ice down her spine at the thought that he had once been the laughing, joyous, young John that she had experienced. "Oh, how sad," she said, and she wasn't talking about memory.

But, for once, Damon hadn't followed her thoughts. "Yes," he said. "There are a lot of the poor and the old here. They worked themselves free of slavery, or had a generous owner die…and then this is where they end up."

"But the star balls? Are they just made for poor people? The rich ones can just travel to Earth and see a real summer day for themselves, right?"

Damon laughed without much humor. "Oh, no, they can't. Most of them are bound here."

He said bound oddly. Elena ventured, "Too busy to go on vacation?"

"Too busy, too powerful to get through the wards protecting Earth from them, too worried about what their enemies will do while they're gone, too physically decrepit, too notorious, too dead."

"Dead?" The horror of the tunnel and the corpse-smelling fog seemed ready to envelope Elena.

Damon flashed one of his evil smiles. "Forgot that your boyfriend is de mortius? Not to mention your honorable master? Most people, when they die, go to another level than this – much higher or much lower. This is the place for the bad ones, but it's the upper level. Farther down – well, nobody wants to go there."

"Like Hell?" Elena breathed. "We're in Hell?"

"More like Limbo, at least where we are. Then there's the Other Side." He nodded toward the horizon where the lowering sun still sat. "The other city, which may have been where you went on your 'vacation' to the afterlife. Here they just call it 'The Other Side.' But I can tell you two rumors I heard from my informants. There, they call it the Celestial Court. And there, the sky is crystal blue and the sun is always rising."

"The Celestial Court…" Elena forgot that she was speaking aloud.

She knew instinctively that it was the

queens-and-knights-and-sorceresses kind of court, not a court of law. It would be like Camelot. Just saying the words brought up an aching nostalgia, and – not memories, but the tip-of-the-tongue feeling that memories were locked right behind a door. It was a door, however, that was securely locked, and all Elena could see through the keyhole were ranks of more women like the Guardians, tall, golden-haired, and blue-eyed, and one – child-sized among the grown women – who glanced up, and, piercingly, from a long way off, met Elena's gaze directly.

The litter was moving out of the bazaar into more slums, which Elena took in with darting quick glances on either side of her, hiding in her veil. They seemed like any earthly slums, barrios, or favella – only worse. Children, their hair turned red by the sun, crowded around Elena's litter, their hands held out in a gesture with universal meaning.

Elena felt a tearing at her insides that she had nothing of real value to give them. She wanted to build houses here, make sure these children had food and clean water, and education, and a future to look forward to. Since she had no idea how to give them any of these things, she watched them dash off with treasures such as her Juicy Fruit gum, her comb, her minibrush, her lip gloss, her water bottle, and her earrings.

Damon shook his head, but didn't stop her until she began fumbling with a lapis and diamond pendant Stefan had given her. She was crying as she tried to disengage the clasp when suddenly the last bit of the rope around her wrist came up short.

"No more," Damon said. "You don't understand anything. We haven't even entered the city proper yet. Why don't you have a look at the architecture instead of worrying about useless brats who're likely to die anyway?"

"That's cold," Elena said, but she couldn't think of any way to make him understand, and she was too angry with him to try.

Still, she stopped fumbling with the chain and looked beyond the slums as Damon had suggested. There she could see a breathtaking skyline, with buildings that seemed meant to last for eternity, made of stones that looked the way the Egyptian pyramids and Mayan ziggurats must have looked when they were new. Everything, though, was colored red and black by a sun now concealed by sullen crimson cloudbanks. That huge red sun – it gave the air a different look for different moods. At times it seemed almost romantic, glinting on a large river Elena and Damon passed, picking out a thousand tiny wavelets in the slow-moving water. At other times, it simply seemed alien and ominous, showing clearly on the horizon like a monstrous omen, tingeing the buildings, no matter how magnificent, the color of blood. When they turned away from it, as the litter bearers moved down into the city where the huge buildings were, Elena could see their own long and menacing black shadow thrown ahead of them.

"Well? What do you think?" Damon seemed to be trying to placate her.

"I still think it looks like Hell," Elena said slowly. "I'd hate to live here."

"Ah, but whoever said that we should live here, my Princess of Darkness? We'll go back home, where the night is velvet black and the moon shines down, making everything silver." Slowly, Damon traced one finger from her hand, up her arm to her shoulder. It sent an inner shiver through her.

She tried holding the veil up as a barrier against him, but it was too transparent. He still flashed that brilliant smile at her, dazzling through the diamond-dotted white – well, shell pink, of course, because of the light – that was on her side of the veil.

"Does this place have a moon?" she asked, trying to distract him. She was afraid – afraid of him – afraid of herself.

"Oh, yes: three or four of them, I think. But they're very small and of course the sun never goes down, so you can't see them as well. Not…romantic." He smiled at her, again, slowly this time, and Elena looked away.

And in looking, she saw something in front of her that captured her entire attention. In a side street a cart had overturned, spilling large rolls made out of fur and leather. There was a thin, hungry-looking old woman attached to the cart like a beast, who was lying on the ground, and a tall angry man standing over her, raining down blows with a whip on her unprotected body.

The woman's face was turned toward Elena. It was contorted in a grimace of anguish, as she tried ineffectually to roll into a ball, her hands over her stomach. She was naked from the waist up, but as the whip lashed into her flesh, her body from throat to waist was being covered by a coating of blood.

Elena felt herself swelling with Wing Powers, but somehow none would come. She willed with all her circulating life-force for something – anything – to break free from her shoulders, but it was no good. Maybe it had something to do with wearing the remains of slave bracelets. Maybe it was Damon, beside her, telling her in a forceful voice not to get involved.

To Elena, his words were no more than punctuation to the heartbeat pounding in her ears. She jerked the rope sharply out of his hands, and then scrambled out of the litter. In six or seven leaps she was beside the man with the whip.

He was a vampire, his fangs elongated at the sight of the blood before him, but never stopping his frenzied lashing. He was too strong for Elena to handle, but…

With one more step Elena was straddling the woman, both her arms flung out in the universal gesture of protection and defiance. Rope dangled from one wrist.

The slave owner was not impressed. He was already launching the next whiplash, and it struck Elena across the cheek and simultaneously opened a great gap in her thin summer top, slicing through her camisole and scoring the flesh underneath. As she gasped, the tail of the whip cut through her jeans as if denim were butter.

Tears formed involuntarily in Elena's eyes, but she ignored them. She had managed not to make a sound other than that initial gasp. And she still stood exactly where she had first landed in protection. Elena could feel the wind whip at her tattered blouse, while her untouched veil waved behind her, as if to protect the poor slave who had collapsed against the ruined cart.

Elena was still desperately trying to bring out any kind of Wings. She wanted to fight with real weapons, and she had them, but she couldn't force them to save either her or the poor slave behind her. Even without them Elena knew one thing. That bastard in front of her wasn't going to touch his slave again, not unless he cut Elena into pieces first.

Someone stopped to stare, and someone else came out of a shop, running. When the children who'd been trailing her litter surrounded her, wailing, a crowd of sorts gathered.

Apparently it was one thing to see a merchant beating his worn-out drab – the people around here must have seen that almost daily. But to see this beautiful new girl having her clothes slashed away, this girl with hair like golden silk under a veil of gold and white, and eyes that perhaps reminded some of them of a barely remembered blue sky – that was quite another thing. Moreover, the new girl was obviously a fresh barbarian slave who had clearly humiliated her master by tearing the lead ropes from his hands and was standing now with her sanctity veil made into a mockery.

Terrific street theater.

And even given all of that, the slave owner was preparing for another stroke, raising his arm high and preparing to put his back into it. A few people in the crowd gasped; others were muttering indignantly. Elena's new sense of hearing, turned up high, could catch their whispering. A girl like this wasn't meant for the slums at all; she must have been destined for the heart of the city. Her aura alone was enough to show that. In fact, with that golden hair and those vivid blue eyes, she might even be a Guardian from the Other Side. Who knew – ?

The lash that was raised never descended. Before it could, there was a flash of black lightning – pure Power – that sent half the crowd scattering. A vampire, young in appearance and dressed in the clothing of the upper world, Earth, had made his way to stand between the golden girl and the slave owner – or rather to loom over the now cringing slave owner. The few in the crowd not stirred by the girl immediately felt their hearts pulse at the sight of him. He was the girl's owner, surely, and now he would see to the situation.

At that instant, Bonnie and Meredith arrived on the scene. They were reclining on their litter, decorously draped in their veils, Meredith in starry midnight blue and Bonnie in soft pale green. They could have been an illustration for The Arabian Nights.

But the moment they saw Damon and Elena, they most indecorously jumped off the litter. By now the crowd was so thick that working their way to the front required using elbows and knees, but in only seconds they were at Elena's side, hands defiantly unbound or trailing rope that hung defiantly free, veils floating in the wind.

When they did arrive beside Elena, Meredith gasped. Bonnie's eyes opened wide and stayed that way. Elena understood what they were seeing. Blood was flowing freely from the cut across her cheekbone and her blouse kept opening in the wind to reveal her torn and bloody camisole. One leg of her jeans was rapidly turning red.

But, drawn up into the protection of her shadow, was a far more pitiful figure. And as Meredith raised Elena's diaphanous veil to help keep her blouse closed and once more enshroud her in decency, the woman herself raised her head, to look at the three girls with the eyes of a dumb and hunted animal.

Behind them, Damon said softly, "I shall quite enjoy this," as he lifted the heavy man into the air with one hand and then struck his throat like a cobra. There was a hideous scream, which went on and on.

No one tried to interfere, and no one tried to cheer the slave owner on to make a fight.

Elena, scanning the faces of the crowd, realized why. She and her friends had become used to Damon – or as used as you could become to his half-tamed air of ferocity. But these people were getting their first look at the young man dressed all in black, of medium height and slim build, who made up for his lack of bulging muscle with a supple and deadly grace. This was enhanced by the gift of somehow dominating all the space around him, so that he effortlessly became the focal point of any picture – the way a black panther might become the focal point if it were walking lazily down a crowded city street.

Even here, where menace and an aspect of outright evil were commonplace, this young man exuded a quality of danger that made people want to stay out of his line of sight, much less his way.

Meanwhile Elena and both Meredith and Bonnie were looking around for some sort of medical assistance, or even for something clean that would staunch wounds. After about a minute, they realized that it wasn't just going to appear, so Elena appealed to the crowd.

"Does anyone know a doctor? A healer?" she shouted. The audience merely watched her. They seemed loath to get involved with a girl who had obviously defied the black-clad demon now wringing the slave owner's neck.

"So you all think it's just fine," Elena shouted, hearing the loss of control, the disgust and fury in her own voice, "for a bastard like that to be whipping a starving pregnant woman?"

There were a few downcast eyes, a few scattered replies on the theme of "He was her master, wasn't he?" But one youngish man who had been leaning against a stopped wagon, straightened up. "Pregnant?" he repeated. "She doesn't look pregnant!"

"She is!"

"Well," the young man said slowly, "if that's true, he's only harming his own merchandise." He glanced nervously over to where Damon was now standing above the deceased slave owner, whose face was cast into a ghastly death grimace of agony.

This still left Elena with no help for a woman she was afraid was about to die. "Doesn't anyone know where I can find a doctor?" There were now mutterings in various tones from the crowd members.

"We might get further on if we could offer them some money," Meredith was saying. Elena immediately reached for her pendant, but Meredith was quicker, unfastening a fancy amethyst necklace from around her neck and holding it up. "This goes to whoever shows us a good doctor first."

There was a pause while everyone seemed to be assessing the reward and the risk. "Don't you have any star balls?" a wheezing voice asked, but a high, light voice cried, "That's good enough for me!"

A child – yes, a genuine street urchin – darted to the front of the crowd, grabbed Elena's hand and pointed, saying, "Dr. Meggar, right up the street. It's only a couple of blocks; we can walk it."

The child was wrapped in a tattered old dress, but that might only be to keep warm, because he or she was also wearing a pair of trousers. Elena couldn't even figure out whether it was a boy or a girl until the child gave her an unexpectedly sweet smile and whispered, "I'm Lakshmi."

"I'm Elena," Elena said.

"Better hurry, Elena," Lakshmi said. "Guardians will get here soon."

Meredith and Bonnie had gotten the dazed slave woman to her feet, but she seemed to be in too much pain to understand if they meant to help her or kill her.

Elena remembered how the woman had huddled in the shadow of Elena's own body. She put a hand on the woman's bloody arm and said quietly, "You're safe now. You're going to be fine. That man – your…your master – is dead and I promise that nobody will hurt you again. I swear it."

The woman stared at her in disbelief, as if what Elena was saying was impossible. As if living without being beaten constantly – even with all the blood Elena could see old scars, some of them like cords, on the woman's skin – was something too far from reality to imagine.

"I swear it," Elena said again, not smiling, but grimly. She understood that this was a burden she was taking on for life.

It's all right, she thought, and realized that for some time now she had been sending her thoughts to Damon. I know what I'm doing. I'm ready to be responsible for this.

Are you sure? Damon's voice came to her, as uncertain as she'd ever heard him. Because I'm sure as hell not going to take care of some old hag when you get tired of her. I'm not even sure I'm ready to deal with whatever it's going to cost me for killing that bastard with the whip.

Elena turned to look at him. He was serious. Well, then why did you kill him? she challenged.

Are you joking? Damon gave her a shock with the vehemence and venom of his thought. He hurt you. I should have killed him more slowly, he added, ignoring one of the litter bearers who was kneeling beside him, undoubtedly asking what to do next. Damon's eyes, however, were on Elena's face, on the blood still flowing from her cut. Il figlio de cafone, Damon thought, his lips drawing back from his teeth as he looked down on the corpse, so that even the litter bearer scurried away on hands and knees.

"Damon, don't let him leave! Bring them all over here right now – " Elena began, and then, as there was a sort of universal gasp around her, she continued nonverbally, Don't let the litter bearers leave. We need a litter to carry this poor woman to the doctor. And why is everyone staring at me?

Because you're a slave, and you've just done things no slave should do and now you're giving me, your master, orders. Damon's telepathic voice was grim.

It's not an order. It's a – look, any gentleman would help a lady in distress, right? Well, there are four of us over here and one is more distressed than you want to look at. No, three are. I think I'm going to need some stitches, and Bonnie is about to collapse. Elena was striking methodically at weak points, and knew that Damon knew she was doing it. But he ordered one of the sets of litter bearers to come and pick up the slave woman and the other to take his girls.

Elena stuck with the woman and ended up in a litter with the curtains all closed around it. The smell of blood was a copper taste in her mouth, making her want to cry. Even she didn't want to look closely at the slave woman's injuries, but blood was running onto the litter. She found herself taking off her blouse and camisole and putting back only the blouse so that she could use the camisole to hold to a great diagonal slash across the woman's chest. Every time the woman raised dark brown, frightened eyes to her, Elena tried to smile at her encouragingly. They were down deep somewhere in the trenches of communication, where a look and a touch meant more than words.

Don't die, Elena was thinking. Don't die, just as you have something to live for. Live for your freedom, and for your baby.

And maybe some of what she was thinking got through to the woman, because she relaxed against the litter cushions, holding on to Elena's hand.