The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 18)

Elena came back to the real world slowly, fighting it all the way. She sank her nails into the leather of Damon's jacket, found herself wondering briefly if removing it would help, and then her mood was shattered again by that sound – a sharp, imperative knock.

Damon raised his head and snarled.

We are a pair of wolves, aren't we? Elena thought. Fighting nail and tooth.

But, another part of her mind supplied, that isn't stopping the knocking. He warned those girls….

Those girls! Bonnie and Meredith! And he'd said not to interrupt unless the house was on fire!

But, the doctor – oh, God, something's happened to that poor, wretched woman! She's dying!

Damon was still snarling, a trace of blood on his lips. It was only a trace, because her second wound had really been healed just as thoroughly as the first, the one across her cheekbone. Elena had no idea how long it had been since she had pulled Damon to her to kiss this cut. But now, with her blood in his veins and his pleasure interrupted, he was like an untamed black panther in her arms.

She didn't know whether she could stop him or even slow him down without using raw Power on him.

"Damon!" she said aloud. "Out there – those are our friends. Remember? Bonnie and Meredith and the healer."

"Meredith," Damon said, and again his lips peeled back, exposing terrifyingly long canines. He still wasn't in reality. If he saw Meredith now, he wouldn't be frightened, Elena thought – and, oh yes, she knew how her logical, thoughtful friend made Damon uneasy. They saw the world through such different eyes. She irked him like a pebble in his shoe. But right now he might deal with that unease in a way that would leave Meredith a savaged corpse.

"Let me go see," she said, as the knock came again – couldn't they stop that? Didn't she have enough to deal with?

Damon's arms merely tightened around her. She felt a flash of heat, because she knew that, even as he restrained her, he was holding back so much of his strength. He didn't want to crush her, as he could if he used a tenth of the power in his hard muscles alone.

The wave of feeling that washed over her made her shut her eyes briefly, helplessly, but she knew she had to be the voice of sanity here.

"Damon! They could be warning us – or Ulma may have died."

Death got through to him. His eyes were slits, the bloodred light from the kitchen shutters throwing bars of scarlet and black across his face, making him look more handsome – and more demonic – than ever.

"You'll stay here." Damon said it flatly, with no idea of being a "master" or a "gentleman." He was a wild beast protecting his mate, the only creature in the world that wasn't competition or food.

There was no arguing with him, not in this state. Elena would stay here. Damon would go to do whatever needed to be done. And Elena would stay for as long as he thought necessary.

Elena truly didn't know whose thoughts these last were. She and Damon were still trying to untangle their emotions. She decided to watch him and only if he really got out of control…

You don't want to see me out of control.

Feeling him snap from raw animal instinct to icy, perfect mental dominance was even scarier than the animal alone. She didn't know whether Damon was the sanest person she had ever met or just the one best able to cover up his wildness. She held her torn blouse together and watched as he moved with effortless grace to the door and then, suddenly, violently, wrenched it almost off its hinges.

No one fell; no one had been listening in on their private conversation. But Meredith stood, restraining Bonnie with one hand, and with the other hand raised, ready to knock again.

"Yes?" Damon said in glacial tones. "I thought I told you – "

"You did, and there is," Meredith said, interrupting this Damon in an unusual attempt to commit suicide.

"There is what?" Damon snarled.

"There's a mob outside threatening to burn the whole building down. I don't know if they're upset about Drohzne, or about us taking Ulma, but they're enraged about something, and they've got torches. I didn't want to interrupt Elena's – treatment – but Dr. Meggar says they won't listen to him. He's a human."

"He used to be a slave," Bonnie added, wresting free of the chokehold that Meredith had on her. She looked up at Damon with streaming brown eyes, hands outstretched. "Only you can save us," she said, translating the message of her gaze aloud – which meant that things were really serious.

"All right, all right. I'll go take care of them. You take care of Elena."

"Of course, but – "

"No." Damon had either gone reckless with the blood – and the memories that were still keeping Elena from forming a coherent sentence – or he had somehow overcome all his fear of Meredith. He put a hand on each of her shoulders. He was only one and a half or two inches taller than she was, so he had no trouble holding her eyes. "You, personally, take care of Elena. Tragedies happen here every minute of the day: unforeseeable, horrible, deadly tragedies. I do not want one happening to Elena."

Meredith looked at him for a long moment, and for once didn't consult Elena with her eyes before answering a question involving her. She simply said, "I'll protect her," in a low voice that nevertheless carried. From her stance, from her tone, one could almost hear the unspoken addition, "with my life" – and it didn't even seem melodramatic.

Damon let go of her, strode out the door, and without a backward glance disappeared from Elena's sight. But his mental voice was crystalline in her mind: You'll be safe if there is any way to save you. I swear it.

If there was any way to save her. Wonderful. Elena tried to kickstart her brain.

Meredith and Bonnie were both staring at her. Elena took a deep breath, automatically sucked for a moment back into the old days, when a girl fresh from a hot date could expect a long and serious debriefing.

But all Bonnie said was, "Your face – it looks much better now!"

"Yes," Elena said, using the two ends of her blouse to tie a makeshift top around her. "My leg's the problem. We didn't – didn't finish it yet."

Bonnie opened her mouth, but closed it determinedly, which from Bonnie was a display of heroics similar to Meredith's promise to Damon. When she opened it again it was to say, "Take my scarf and tie it around your leg. We can fold it sideways and then tie a bow over the side that got hurt. That'll keep pressure on it."

Meredith said, "I think Dr. Meggar has finished with Ulma. Maybe he can see you."

In the other room, the doctor was once again washing his hands, using a large pump to get more water into the basin. There were deeply red-stained cloths in a pile and a smell that Elena was grateful the doctor had camouflaged with herbs. Also in a large, comfortable-looking chair there sat a woman whom Elena did not recognize.

Suffering and terror could change a person, Elena knew, but she could never have realized how much – nor how much relief and freedom from pain could change a face. She had brought with her a woman who huddled until she was almost child-size in Elena's mind, and whose thin, ravaged face, twisted with agony and unrelenting dread, had seemed almost a sort of abstract drawing of a goblin hag. Her skin had been sickly gray in color, her thin hair had scarcely seemed enough to cover her head, and yet it had hung down in strands like seaweed. Everything about her screamed out that she was a slave, from the iron bands around her wrists, to her nakedness and scarred, bloody body, to her bare and rusty feet. Elena could not even have told you the color of the woman's eyes, for they had seemed as gray as the rest of her.

Now Elena was confronted by a woman who was perhaps in her early-to mid-thirties. She had a lean, attractive, somehow aristocratic face, with a strong, patrician nose, dark, keen-looking eyes, and beautiful eyebrows like the wings of a flying bird. She was relaxing in the armchair, with her feet up on an ottoman, slowly brushing her hair, which was dark with occasional streaks of gray that lent an air of dignity to the simple deep blue housecoat she was wearing. Her face had wrinkles that lent it character, but overall one sensed a sort of yearning tenderness about her, perhaps because of the slight bulge in her abdomen, which she now gently laid a hand on. When she did this her face bloomed with color and her whole aspect glowed.

For an instant Elena thought this must be the doctor's wife or housekeeper and she had a temptation to ask whether Ulma, the poor wreck of a slave, had died.

Then she saw what one cuff of the deep blue housecoat could not quite conceal: a glimpse of an iron bracelet.

This lean dark aristocratic woman was Ulma. The doctor had worked a miracle.

A healer, he had called himself. It was obvious that, like Damon, he could heal wounds. No one who had been whipped as Ulma had could have come round to this state without some powerful magic. Trying to simply stitch up the bloody mess that Elena had brought in had obviously been impossible, and so Dr. Meggar had healed her.

Elena had never experienced a situation like this, so she fell back upon the good manners that had been bred into her as a Virginian.

"It's nice to meet you, ma'am. I'm Elena," she said, and held out her hand.

The brush fell onto the chair. The woman reached out with both hands to take Elena's into hers. Those keen dark eyes seemed to devour Elena's face.

"You're the one," she said, and then, swinging her slippered feet off the ottoman, she went down on her knees.

"Oh, no, ma'am! Please! I'm sure the doctor told you to rest. It's best to sit quietly now."

"But you are the one." For some reason, the woman seemed to need confirmation. And Elena was willing to do anything to pacify her.

"I'm the one," Elena said. "And now I think you should sit down again."

Obedience was immediate, and yet there was a sort of joyful light about everything Ulma did. Elena understood it after only a few hours of slavery. Obeying when one had a choice was entirely different from obeying because disobedience could mean death.

But even as Ulma sat, she held out her arms. "Look at me! Dear seraph, goddess, Guardian – whatever you are: look at me! After three years of living as a beast I have become human again – because of you! You came like an angel of lightning and stood between me and the lash." Ulma began to weep, but they seemed to be tears of joy. Her eyes searched Elena's face, lingering on the scarred cheekbone. "But you're no Guardian; they have magicks that protect them and they never interfere. For three years, they never interfered. I saw all my friends, my fellow slaves, fall to his whip and his rage." She shook her head, as if physically unable to say Drohzne's name.

"I'm so sorry – so sorry…." Elena was fumbling. She glanced back and saw that Bonnie and Meredith were similarly stricken.

"It doesn't matter. I heard your mate killed him on the street."

"I told her that," Lakshmi said proudly. She had entered the room without anyone noticing her.

"My mate?" Elena faltered. "Well, he's not my – I mean, he and I – we – "

"He's our master," Meredith said bluntly, from behind Elena.

Ulma was still looking at Elena with her heart in her eyes. "Every day, I will pray for your soul to ascend from here."

Elena was startled. "Souls can ascend from here?"

"Of course. Repentance and good deeds may accomplish it, and the prayers of others are always taken into consideration, I think."

You sure don't talk like a slave, Elena mused. She tried to think of a way to put it delicately, but she was confused and her leg hurt and her emotions were in turmoil. "You don't sound like – well, like what I'd expect from a slave," she said. "Or am I just being an idiot?"

She could see the tears form in Ulma's eyes.

"Oh, God! Please, forget I asked. Please – "

"No! There is no one I would rather tell. If you wish to hear how I came to this degraded state." Ulma waited, watching Elena – it was clear that Elena's least wish was to Ulma, a command.

Elena looked at Meredith and Bonnie. She couldn't hear any more noises of yelling outside on the street and the building certainly didn't seem to be on fire.

Fortunately, at that moment, Dr. Meggar wandered in again. "Everybody getting acquainted?" he asked, his eyebrows working in opposition now; one up, one down. He had the remnants of a bottle of Black Magic in his hand.

"Yes," Elena said, "but I was just wondering if we should be trying to evacuate or anything. Apparently there was a mob – "

"Elena's mate is going to give them something to think about," Lakshmi said with relish. "They've all gone to the Meeting Place to resolve the stuff about Drohzne's property. I bet he'll bash a few heads in and be back in no time," she added cheerfully, leaving no doubt as to he was. "Wish I was a boy so I could see it."

"You were braver than the boys; you were the one who led us here," Elena told her. Then she consulted Meredith and Bonnie with her eyes. It sounded as if the commotion had moved on elsewhere, and Damon was a master at getting himself out of commotions. He might also…need to fight, to rid himself of excess energy from Elena's blood. A commotion might actually be good for him, Elena thought.

She looked at Dr. Meggar. "Will my – will our master be all right, do you think?"

Dr. Meggar's eyebrows went up and down. "He'll probably have to pay Old Drohzne's relatives a blood price, but it shouldn't be too high. Then he can do what he likes with the old bastard's property," he said. "I'd say the safest place for you right now is here, away from the Meeting Place." He went on to enforce that opinion by pouring them all glasses – liqueur glasses, Elena noted – of Black Magic wine. "Good for the nerves," he said and took a sip.

Ulma smiled her beautiful, heartwarming smile at him, as he took the tray around. "Thank you – and thank you – and thank you," she said. "I won't bore you with my story – "

"No, tell us; tell us, please!" Now that there was no immediate danger to her friends or to Damon, Elena was eager to hear the tale. Everyone else was nodding.

Ulma flushed a little, but began sedately, "I was born in the reign of Kelemen II," she said. "I'm sure that means nothing to our visitors but much to those who knew him and his – indulgences. I studied under my mother, who became a very popular designer of fashions in fabrics. My father was a designer of jewelry almost as famous as she was. They had an estate on the outskirts of the city and could afford a house as fine as many of their wealthiest customers – though they were careful not to show the true extent of their wealth. I was the young Lady Ulma then, not Ulma the hag. My parents did their best to keep me out of sight, for my own safety. But…"

Ulma – Lady Ulma, Elena thought, stopped and took a deep sip of her wine. Her eyes had changed; she was seeing the past, and trying not to upset her listeners. But just as Elena was about to ask her to stop, at least until she felt better, she continued.

"But despite all their care…someone…saw me anyway and demanded my hand in marriage. Not Drohzne, he was just a furrier from the Outlands, and I never saw him until three years ago. This was a lord, a General, a demon with a terrible reputation – and my father refused his demand. They came on us in the night. I was fourteen when it happened. And that is how I became a slave."

Elena found that she was feeling emotional pain directly from Lady Ulma's mind. Oh, my God, I've done it again, she thought, hurriedly trying to tune down her psychic senses. "Please, you don't need to tell us this. Maybe another time…"

"I would like to tell you – you – so you will know what you have done. And I would prefer to say it only once. But if you do not wish to hear it – "

Politeness was warring with politeness here. "No, no, if you want – go ahead. I – I just want you to know how sorry I am." Elena glanced at the doctor, who was patiently waiting by the table for her with the brown bottle in his hands. "And if you don't mind, I'd like to get my leg…healed?" She was aware that she'd said the last word doubtfully, wondering how any one being could have the power to heal Ulma like this. She was not surprised when he shook his head. "Or stitched up, rather, while you talk, if you don't mind," she said.

It took several minutes to overcome Lady Ulma's shock and distress that she had left her savior waiting, but at last Elena was on the table and the doctor was encouraging her to drink from the bottle, which smelled like cherry cough syrup.

Oh, well, she might as well try the Dark Dimension version of anesthetic – especially since the stitching was bound to hurt, Elena thought. She took a sip from the bottle and felt the room reel around her. She waved away the offer of a second sip.

Dr. Meggar undid Bonnie's ruined scarf, and then began to cut off her blood-soaked jeans leg above the knee.

"Well – you are so good to listen," Lady Ulma said. "But I knew you were good already. I will spare us both the painful details of my slavery. Perhaps it's enough to say that I was passed from one master to another over the years, always a slave, always going down. At last, as a joke, someone said, 'Give her to Old Drohzne. He'll squeeze the last use out of her if anyone can.'"

"God!" Elena said, and hoped that everyone would attribute it to the story and not to the bite of the cleansing solution the doctor was swabbing over her swollen flesh. Damon was so much better at this, she thought. I didn't even realize how lucky I was before. Elena tried not to wince as the doctor began to use his needle, but her grip on Meredith's hand tightened until Elena was afraid she was breaking bones. She tried to ease the grip, but Meredith squeezed back hard. Her long, smooth hand was almost like a boy's, but softer. Elena was glad to be able to squeeze as hard as she liked.

"My strength has been giving out on me lately," Lady Ulma said softly. "I thought it was that" – here she used a particularly crude expression for her owner – "that was leading me to death. Then I realized the truth." All at once radiance changed her face, so much that Elena could see what she must have looked like when she was in her teens and so beautiful that a demon would demand her as a wife. "I knew that new life stirred within me – and I knew that Drohzne would kill it if he had the chance – "

She didn't seem to recognize the expressions of astonishment and horror on the three girl's faces. Elena, however, had the feeling that she was groping through a nightmare, on the edge of a black crevasse, and that she would have to keep groping in the dark, around treacherous, unseen fissures in the ice in the Dark Dimension until she reached Stefan and got him free of this place. This casual reference to abomination wasn't the first of her steps around a crevasse, but it was the first she had recognized and counted.

"You young women are very new here," Lady Ulma said, as the silence stretched and stretched. "I did not mean to say anything out of place…."

"We're slaves here," Meredith replied, picking up a length of rope. "I think the more we learn the better."

"Your master – I've never seen anyone so quick to fight Old Drohzne before. Many people clucked their tongues, but that was all most dared to do. But your master – "

"We call him Damon," Bonnie put in pointedly.

It went right over Lady Ulma's head. "Master Damon – do you think he might keep me? After he pays the blood price to – to Drohzne's relatives, he will get first pick of all Drohzne's property. I am one of the few slaves he has not killed." The hope in the woman's face was almost too painful for Elena to look at.

It was only then that she consciously realized how long it had been since she'd seen Damon. How long should Damon's business be taking? She looked at Meredith anxiously.

Meredith understood exactly what the look meant. She shook her head helplessly. Even if they had Lakshmi take them to the Meeting Place, what could they do?

Elena bit back a wince of pain and smiled at Lady Ulma.

"Why don't you tell us about when you were a girl?" she said.