The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 19)

Damon wouldn't have thought a sadistic old fool who whipped a woman to pieces for not being able to pull a cart meant for a horse would have any friends. And Old Drohzne, indeed, may not have had any. But that wasn't the issue.

Neither, strangely, was murder the issue. Murder was an everyday affair around the slums and the fact that Damon had initiated and won a fight was of no surprise to the inhabitants of these dangerous alleyways.

The issue lay in making off with a slave. Or perhaps it went deeper. The issue lay in how Damon treated his own slaves.

A crowd of men – all men, no women, Damon noticed – had indeed gathered in front of the doctor's building, and they did in fact have torches.

"Mad vampire! Mad vampire on the loose!"

"Drive him out here for justice to be done!"

"Burn the place down if they won't turn him out!"

"The elders say to bring him to them!"

This seemed to have the effect the crowd desired, clearing the streets of the more decent people and leaving only the bloody-minded sort who'd been hanging about at a loose end, and were only too glad of a fight. Most of them, of course, were vampires themselves. Most of them were fit vampires. But none of them, Damon thought, flashing a diamond-bright smile around the circle that was closing in on him, had the motivation of knowing that the lives of three young human girls depended on him – and that one of them was the jewel in the crown of humanity, Elena Gilbert.

If he, Damon, was torn to pieces in this fight, those three girls would lead lives of hell and degradation.

However, even this logic didn't seem to help him prevail as Damon was kicked, bitten, head-butted, punched, and stabbed with wooden daggers – the kind that slice vampire flesh. At first he thought he had a chance. Several of the youngest and fittest vampires fell prey to his cobra-quick strikes and his sudden strafes of Power. But the truth was that there were simply too many of them, Damon thought, as he snapped the neck of a demon whose two long tusks had already scored his arm almost through the muscle. And here came a huge vampire, clearly in training, with an aura that made Damon feel bile at the back of his throat. That one went down with a foot in the face, but he didn't stay down; he came up, clinging to Damon's leg and allowing several smaller vampires with wooden daggers to dart in and hamstring him. Damon felt black dismay as his legs went out from under him.

"Sunlight damn you," he grated through a mouthful of blood as another tusked, red-skinned demon punched him in the mouth. "Damn you all to the lowest hells…."

It was no good. Dully, still fighting, still using great swaths of Power to maim and kill as many as he could, Damon realized this. And then everything became dreamlike and dazed – not like his dream of Elena, whom he seemed to see constantly in his side-eye, weeping. But dreamlike in a feverish, nightmare sense. He could no longer use his muscles efficiently. His body was battered and even as he healed his legs, another vampire scored a great cut across his back. He was feeling more and more as if he were in a nightmare where he could not move except in slow motion. At the same time, something in his brain was whispering for him to rest. Just rest…and it would all be over.

Eventually, the greater numbers bore him down, and somebody appeared with a stake.

"Good riddance to new rubbish," the stake bringer said, his breath reeking of stale blood, his leering face grotesque, as he used leprous-looking fingers to open Damon's shirt so as not to make a hole in the fine black silk.

Damon spat on him and had his face stamped on hard in return.

He blacked out for a moment and then, slowly, came back to pain.

And noise. The gleeful crowd of vampires and demons, drunk on cruelty, were all doing a stomping, rhythmic, improvised dance around Damon, roaring with laughter as they thrust imaginary stakes, working themselves into a frenzy.

That was when Damon realized that he was actually going to die.

It was a shocking realization, even though he'd known how much more dangerous this world was than the one he'd recently left, and even in the human world he had only escaped death by a hairsbreadth more than once. But now he had no powerful friends, no weaknesses in the crowd to exploit. He felt as if seconds were suddenly stretching into minutes, each one of incalculable worth. What was important? Telling Elena…

"Blind him first! Get that stick blazing!"

"I'll take his ears! Someone help me hold his head!"

Telling Elena…something. Something…sorry…

He gave up. Another thought was trying to break into his consciousness.

"Don't forget to knock out his teeth! I promised my girlfriend a new necklace!"

I thought I was prepared for this, Damon thought slowly, each word coming separately. But…not so soon.

I thought I'd made my peace…but not with the one person who mattered…yes, who mattered the most.

He didn't give himself time to think about that subject further.

Stefan, he sent out on the most powerful but clandestine jettison of Power he could manage in his foggy state. Stefan, hear me! Elena's come for you – she'll save you! She has Powers that my death will let loose. And I am…I am…s –

At that moment there was a stumbling in the dance around him. Silence descended on the drunken revelers. A few of them hastily bowed their heads or looked away.

Damon went still, wondering what could possibly have stopped the frenzied crowd in the very midst of their revelry.

Someone was walking toward him. The newcomer had long bronze hair that hung in separate unruly tangles down to his waist. He was naked to the waist, too, exposing a body that the strongest demon might envy. A chest that looked as if it had been carved out of gleaming bronze stone. Exquisitely sculpted biceps. Abs – a perfect six pack. There was not a spare ounce of fat on his entire tall leonine frame. He wore unadorned black trousers with muscles rippling under them at every step.

All along one bare arm he had a vivid tattoo of a black dragon eating a heart.

Nor was he alone. He held no leash, but by his side was a handsome and uncannily intelligent-looking black dog that stood at alert attention every time he paused. It must have weighed close to two hundred pounds, but there was not an ounce of fat on it, either.

And on one shoulder he carried a large falcon.

It wasn't hooded as most hunting birds were on forays out of their mews. It also wasn't standing on anything padded. It gripped the bare shoulder of the bronze young man, digging its three front talons into the flesh and sending small streams of blood down his chest. He didn't seem to notice. There were similar, dried streams beside the fresh ones, undoubtedly from previous journeys. In the back, a single talon made a lonely red trail.

An absolute hush had fallen on the crowd and the last few demons between the tall man and the bloody, supine figure on the ground scrambled out of his way.

For a moment, the leonine man was still. He said nothing, did nothing, emitted no trace of Power. Then he nodded at the dog, which padded forward heavily and sniffed at Damon's bleeding arms and face. After that it sniffed at his mouth and Damon could see the hairs go up on its body.

"Good dog," said Damon dreamily as the moist, cool nose tickled his cheek.

Damon knew this particular animal and he knew also that it did not fit the popular stereotype of a "good dog." Rather, it was a hellhound who was used to taking vampires by the throat and shaking them until their arteries spouted blood six feet high into the air.

That kind of thing could keep you so occupied that having a stake slipped into your heart might seem an afterthought, Damon mused, holding perfectly still.

"Arr��tez-le!" said the bronze-haired youth.

The dog obediently backed off, never taking its shining black eyes off Damon's, who never took his own eyes off it until it was some feet away.

The bronze-haired youth glanced over the crowd briefly. Then he said with no particular vehemence, "Laissez-le seul." Clearly, to the vampires no translation was necessary, and they began to edge away immediately. The unlucky ones were those who didn't edge fast enough and were still around when the bronze young man took another leisurely look about him. Everywhere he looked, he met downcast eyes and cringing bodies, frozen in the act of edging but apparently turned to stone now in an attempt not to attract attention.

Damon found himself relaxing. His Power was returning, allowing him to make repairs. He realized that the dog was going from individual to individual and sniffing at each one with interest.

When Damon was able to lift his head again, he smiled faintly at the newcomer. "Sage. Think of the devil."

The bronze man's brief smile was grim. "You compliment me, mon cher. You see? I'm blushing."

"I ought to have known you might be here."

"There is infinite space to wander, mon petit tyran. Even if I must do it alone."

"Ah, the pity. Tiny violins are playing – " Suddenly Damon couldn't do it anymore. He just couldn't. Maybe it was because of being with Elena before. Maybe it was because this hideous world depressed him unutterably. But when he spoke again, his voice was entirely different. "I never knew I could feel so grateful. You've saved five lives, though you don't know it. Though how you stumbled on us…"

Sage crouched down, looked at him with concern. "What is it that has happened?" he said in a serious voice. "Is it that you hit your head? You know: news travels fast here. I heard you arrived with a harem – "

"That's true! He did!" Damon's ears caught a bare whisper of sound at the edge of the street where he'd been ambushed. "If we take the girls hostage – torture them – "

Sage's eyes met Damon's briefly. Clearly, he had heard the whisper as well. "Saber," he said to the dog. "Just the speaker." He jerked his head, once, in the direction of the whisper.

Instantly, the black dog jumped forward, and faster than it took for Damon to describe it in his own mind, had sunk his teeth into the throat of the whisperer, flipped him over once, causing a distinctive crack, and was bounding back, dragging the body between his legs.

The words: Je vous ai inform�� au sujet de ceci! blasted by on a surge of Power that made Damon wince. And Damon thought, yes, he did tell them before – but not what the consequences would be.

Laissez lui et ses amis dans la paix! Meanwhile, Damon was slowly getting up, only too glad to accept Sage's protection for himself and his friends.

"Well that certainly should have done it," he said. "Why not come back and have a friendly drink with me?"

Sage peered at him as if he'd gone mad. "You know the answer to that is no."

"Why not?"

"I told you: no."

"That's not a reason."

"The reason I will not come back for a friendly drink…mon ange…is that we are not friends."

"We pulled some pretty scams together."

"Il y a longtemps." Abruptly, Sage took one of Damon's hands. There was a deep and bloody scratch on it, which Damon hadn't got around to healing. Under Sage's gaze it closed, the flesh turned pink, and it healed.

Damon let Sage continue to hold the hand for a moment, and then, not ungently, retrieved it.

"Not such a very long time ago," he said.

"Away from you?" A sarcastic smile formed on Sage's lips. "We count time very differently, you and I, mon petit tyran."

Damon was full of befuddled cheer. "What's one drink?"

"Along with your harem?"

Damon tried to picture Meredith and Sage together. His mind balked. "But you've made yourself responsible for them anyway," he said flatly. "And the truth is that none of them are mine. I give my word on that." He felt a twinge when he thought about Elena, but his word was true.

"Responsible for them?" Sage seemed to be reasoning it out. "You

pledged to save them, then. But I only inherit your pledge if you die. But

if you die…" The tall man made a helpless gesture.

"You have to live, to save Stefan and Elena and the others." "I'd say no, but that would make you unhappy. So I'll say yes – " "And if you don't perform, I swear I'll come back to haunt you." Sage regarded him for a moment. "I don't think I've ever been

accused of being unable to perform before," he said. "But of course that

was before I became un vampire."

Yes, Damon thought, the meeting of the "harem" and Sage was

bound to be interesting. At least it would be if the girls discovered who

Sage really was.

But maybe no one would tell them.