The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 32)

Elena was radiantly happy. She had gone to sleep happy, only to wake up again happy, serene in the knowledge that soon – soon she would visit Stefan, and that after that – surely very soon – she would be able to take Stefan away.

Bonnie and Meredith weren't surprised when she wanted to see Damon about two things: one being who should go and two being what she was going to wear. What did surprise them were her choices.

"If it's all right," she said slowly at the beginning, tracing a finger round and round on the large table in one of the parlors as everyone gathered the next morning, "I would like for just a few people to go with me. Stefan's been badly treated," she went on, "and he hates to look bad in front of other people. I don't want to humiliate him."

There was sort of a group blush at this. Or maybe it was a group flush of resentment – and then a group blush of culpability. With the western windows slightly open, so that an early-morning red light fell over everything, it was hard to tell. Only one thing was certain: everyone wanted to go.

"So I hope," Elena said, turning to look Meredith and Bonnie in the eye, "that none of you are hurt if I don't choose you to come with me."

That tells both of them they're out, Elena thought as she saw understanding blossom in both faces. Most of her plans depended on how her two best friends reacted to this.

Meredith gallantly stepped up to bat first. "Elena, you've been through hell – literally – and almost died doing it – to get to Stefan. You take with you the people who will do the most good."

"We realize it isn't a popularity contest," Bonnie added, swallowing, because she was trying not to cry. She really wants to go, Elena thought, but she understands. "Stefan may feel more embarrassed in front of a girl than a boy," Bonnie said. And she didn't even add "even though we would never do anything to embarrass him," Elena thought, going around for a hug and feeling Bonnie's soft little birdlike body in her arms. Then she turned and felt Meredith's warm and slim hard arms, and as always felt some of her tension drain away.

"Thank you," she said, wiping tears from her eyes afterward. "And you're right, I think it would be harder to face girls than boys in the situation he's in. Also it will be harder to face friends he already knows and loves. So I would like to ask these people to go with me: Sage, Damon, and Dr. Meggar."

Lakshmi leaped up as interested as if she had been chosen. "Where's he in jail?" she asked, quite cheerfully.

Damon spoke up. "The Shi no Shi."

Lakshmi's eyes became round. She stared at Damon for a moment, and then she was bounding out the door, her shaken voice floating behind her: "I've got chores to do, master!"

Elena turned to look directly at Damon. "And what was that little reaction?" she asked in a voice that would have frozen lava at thirty meters.

"I don't know. Truly, I don't. Shinichi showed me kanji characters and said that they were pronounced 'Shi no Shi' and they meant 'the Death of Death' – as in lifting the curse of death from a vampire."

Sage coughed. "Oh, my trusting little one. Mon cher idiot. To not get a second opinion…"

"I did, actually. I asked a middle-aged Japanese lady at a library if the romaji – that's the Japanese words written out in our letters, meant the Death of Death. And she said yes."

"And you turned on your heel and walked out," Sage said.

"How do you know?" Damon was getting angry.

"Because, mon cher, those words mean many things. It all depends upon the Japanese characters first used – which you did not show her."

"I didn't have them! Shinichi wrote it in the air for me, in red smoke." Then in a kind of angry anguish: "What other things do they mean?"

"Well, they can mean what you said. They also could mean 'the new death.' Or 'the true death.' Or even – 'The Gods of Death.' And given the way Stefan has been treated…"

If stares had been stakes, Damon would have been a goner by now. Everyone was looking at him with hard, accusing eyes. He turned like a wolf at bay and bared his teeth at them in a 250-kilowatt smile. "In any case, I didn't imagine it was anything remarkably pleasant," he said. "I just thought it would help him to get rid of the curse of being a vampire."

"In any case," Elena repeated. Then she said, "Sage, if you would go and make sure that they'll let us in when we arrive, I would be enormously grateful."

"As good as done, Madame."

"And – let me see – I want everyone to wear something a little different to go visit him. If it's all right I'll go talk to Lady Ulma."

She could feel Bonnie's and Meredith's bewildered looks on her back as she left.

Lady Ulma was pale, but bright of eye when Elena was escorted into her room. Her sketchbook was open, a good sign.

It took only a few words and a heartfelt look before Lady Ulma said firmly, "We can have everything done in an hour or two. It's just a matter of calling the right people. I promise."

Elena squeezed her wrist very, very gently. "Thank you. Thank you – miracle worker!"

"And so I am to go as a penitent," Damon said. He was right outside Lady Ulma's door when Elena came out and Elena suspected him of some eavesdropping.

"No, that never even occurred to me," she said. "I just think that slave's clothing on you and the other guys will make Stefan less self-conscious. But why should you think I wanted to punish you?"

"Don't you?"

"You're here to help me save Stefan. You've gone through – " Elena had to stop and look in her sleeves for a clean handkerchief, until Damon offered her a black silk one.

"All right," he said, "we won't get into that. I'm sorry. I think of things to say and then I just say them, no matter how unlikely I think they are, considering the person I'm speaking to."

"And don't you ever hear another little voice? A voice that says that people can be good, and may not be trying to hurt you?" Elena asked wistfully, wondering how loaded with chains the child was now.

"I don't know. Maybe. Sometimes. But, as that voice is generally wrong in this wicked world, why should I pay it any attention?"

"I wish sometimes you would just try," Elena whispered. "I might be in a better position to argue with you, then."

I like this position just fine, Damon told her telepathically and Elena realized – how did this happen over and over? – that they had melted into an embrace. Worse, she was wearing her morning attire – a long silky gown and a peignoir of the same material, both in the palest of pearly blues, which turned violet in the rays of the ever-setting sun.

I – like it too, Elena admitted, and felt shockwaves go through Damon from his surface, through his body, and deep, deep into that unfathomable hole that one could see by looking into his eyes.

I'm just trying to be honest, she added, almost frightened by his reaction. I can't expect anyone else to be honest if I'm not.

Don't be honest, don't be honest. Hate me. Despise me, Damon begged her, at the same time caressing her arms and the two layers of silk that were all that stood between his hands and her skin.

"But why?"

Because I can't be trusted. I'm a wicked wolf, and you're a pure soul, a snow-white newborn lamb. You mustn't let me hurt you.

Why should you hurt me?

Because I might – no, I don't want to bite you – I only want to kiss you, just a little, like this. There was revelation in Damon's mind-voice. And he did kiss so sweetly, and he always knew when Elena's knees were going to give out and picked her up before she could fall on the floor.

Damon, Damon, she was thinking, feeling very sweet herself because she knew she was giving him pleasure, when she suddenly realized.

Oh! Damon, please let me go – I have to go have a fitting right now!

Deeply flushed, he slowly, reluctantly put her down, grabbed her before she could fall, and put her down again.

I think I shall have to go have a fit right now as well, he told her earnestly as he stumbled out of the room, missing the door the first time.

Not a fit – a fitting! Elena called after him, but she never knew if he had heard. She was pleased, though, that he had let her go, without really understanding anything except that she was saying no. That was quite a bit of improvement.

Then she hurried in to Lady Ulma's room, which was filled with all sorts of people, including two male models, who had just been garbed in trousers and long shirts.

"Sage's clothes," said Lady Ulma, nodding at the large one, "and Damon's." She nodded at the smaller man.

"Oh, they're perfect!"

Lady Ulma looked at her with just the slightest doubt in her eyes. "These are made of genuine sacking," she said. "The meanest, lowest cloth in the slave hierarchy. Are you sure they will wear them?"

"They're wearing them or they aren't going at all," Elena said flatly and winked.

Lady Ulma laughed. "Good plan."

"Yes – but what do you think of my other plan?" Elena asked, genuinely interested in Lady Ulma's opinion, even while she blushed.

"My dear benefactress," Lady Ulma said. "I used to watch my mother put together such outfits…after I had turned thirteen, of course – and she told me that they always made her happy, for she was bringing joy to two at once, and that the purpose was nothing but joy. I promise you, Lucen and I will be done in no time. Now, should you not be getting ready?"

"Oh, yes – oh, I do love you, Lady Ulma! It's so funny that the more people you love, the more you want to love!" And with that Elena went running back to her own rooms.

Her maids-in-waiting were all there and all ready. Elena took the quickest, briskest bath of her life – she was keyed up – and found herself on a couch in the middle of a smiling, keen-eyed bunch, each neatly doing her job without interfering with the others.

There was a depilatory, of course – in fact one for each leg, one for her armpits, and one for her eyebrows. While these women and the women with soft creams and unguents were at work, creating a unique fragrance for Elena, another one thoughtfully considered her face and body as a whole.

This woman touched up Elena's eyebrows to darken them, and gilded Elena's eyelids with metallic cosmetic paint before using something that added at least a quarter-inch to Elena's eyelashes. Then she extended Elena's eyes with exotic horizontal lines of kohl. Finally, she carefully made Elena's lips a rich glossy red that somehow gave the impression that they were continually puckered for a kiss. After this the woman sprinkled the faintest of iridescence all over Elena's body. Finally, a very large canary diamond that had been sent up from Lucen's jewelry bench was firmly cemented into her navel.

It was while the hairdressers were seeing to the last of the little curls on her forehead that the two boxes and a scarlet cape came from Lady Ulma's women. Elena thanked all her ladies-in-waiting and beauticians sincerely, paid them all a bonus that had them twittering, and then asked them to leave her alone. When they dithered, she asked them again, just as politely, but in louder tones. They went.

Elena's hands were trembling as she took out the outfit Lady Ulma had created. It was quite as decent as a bathing suit, but it looked like jewelry strategically placed on wisps of golden tulle. It all coordinated with the canary diamond: from the necklace to the armlets to the golden bracelets that denoted that, however expensively Elena was dressed, she was still a slave.

And that was it. She was going clad in tulle and jewelry, perfume and paint, to see her Stefan. Elena put the scarlet cloak on very, very carefully to avoid rumpling or smearing anything below, and slipped her feet into delicate golden sandals with very high heels.

She hurried downstairs and was exactly on time. Sage and Damon were wearing cloaks tightly closed – which meant that they were dressed in the sacking outfits underneath. Sage had had Lady Ulma's coach made ready. Elena settled her matching golden bracelets on her wrists, hating them because she had to wear them, pretty as they were against the white fur trim on her scarlet cloak. Damon held out a hand to help her into the coach.

"I get to ride inside? Does that mean I don't have to wear – " But looking at Sage, her hopes were crushed.

"Unless we want to curtain all the windows," he said, "you're legally traveling outside without slave bracelets."

Elena sighed and gave her hand to Damon. Standing against the sun, he was a dark silhouette. But then, as Elena blinked in the light, he stared in astonishment. Elena knew he'd seen her gilded eyelids. His eyes dropped to her pursed-to-be-kissed lips. Elena blushed.

"I forbid you to order me to show you what's under the cloak," she said hastily. Damon looked thwarted.

"Hair in tiny curls all over your forehead, cloak that covers everything from neck to toes, lipstick like…" He stared again. His mouth twitched as if he were being compelled to fit it to hers.

"And it's time to go!" Elena caroled, hastily getting into the carriage. She felt very happy, although she understood why freed slaves would never wear anything like a bracelet again.

She was still happy when they reached the Shi no Shi – that large building that seemed to combine a prison with a training facility for gladiators.

And she was still happy as the guards at the large Shi no Shi checkpoint let them into the building without showing any signs of ill feeling. But then, it was hard to say if the cloak had any effect on them. They were demons: sullen, mauve-skinned, bullock-steady.

She noticed something that was at first a shock and then a river of hope inside her. The front lobby of the building had a door in one side that was like the door in the side of the depot/slaveshop: always kept shut; strange symbols above; people walking up to it in different costumes and announcing a destination before turning the key and opening the door.

In other words: a dimensional door. Right here in Stefan's prison. God alone knew how many guards would be after them if they tried to use it, but it was something to keep in mind.

The guards on the lower floors of the Shi no Shi building, in what was most definitely a dungeon, had clear and obnoxious reactions to Elena and her party. They were some smaller species of demon – imps, maybe, Elena thought – and they gave the visitors a hard time over everything. Damon had to bribe them to be allowed in to the area where Stefan's cell was, to go in alone, without one guard per visitor, and to allow Elena, a slave, to go in to see a free vampire.

And even when Damon had given them a small fortune to get past these obstacles, they sniggered and made harsh guttural gurglings in their throats. Elena didn't trust them.

She was correct.

At a corridor where Elena knew from her out of body experiences they should have turned left, instead they went straight through. They passed another set of guards, who almost collapsed from sniggering.

Oh – God – are they taking us to see Stefan's dead body? Elena wondered suddenly. Then it was Sage who really helped her. He put out a large arm and bodily held her up, until she found her legs again.

They went on walking, deeper into what was a filthy and stinking stone-floored dungeon now. Then abruptly they turned right.

Elena's heart raced on before them. It was saying wrong, wrong, wrong, even before they got to the last cell in the line. The cell was completely different from Stefan's old cell. It was surrounded, not by bars, but by a sort of curlicued chicken wire that was lined with sharp spikes. No way to hand in a bottle of Black Magic. No way to get the bottle top in position to pour into a waiting mouth on the other side. No room, even, to get a finger or the mouth of a canteen through for the cellmate to suck. And the cell itself wasn't filthy, but it was bare of everything except a supine Stefan. No food, no water, no bed to hide anything in, no straw. Just Stefan.

Elena screamed and had no idea if she screamed words or just a formless sound of anguish. She threw herself into the cell – or tried to. Her hands grabbed onto curls of steel as sharp as razor that caused blood to well up instantly wherever they touched, and then Damon, who had the fastest reactions, was pulling her back.

And then he just pushed past her and stared. He stared open-mouthed at his younger brother – a gray-faced, skeletal, barely breathing young man, who looked like a child lost in his rumpled, stained, threadbare prison uniform. Damon raised a hand, as if he'd forgotten the barrier already – and Stefan flinched. Stefan seemed not to know or recognize any of them. He peered more closely at the drops of blood left on the razor-sharp fencing where Elena had grasped it, sniffed, and then, as if something had penetrated the fog of his bafflement, looked around dully. Stefan looked up at Damon, whose cloak had fallen, and then, like a baby's, Stefan's gaze wandered on.

Damon made a choking sound and turned and, knocking anyone in his way aside, ran the other way down the corner. If he was hoping that enough guards would follow him that his allies could get Stefan out, he was wrong. A few followed, like monkeys, calling out insults. The rest stayed put, behind Sage.

Meanwhile, Elena's mind was churning and churning out plans. Finally she turned to Sage. "Use all the money we have plus this," she said, and she reached under her cloak for her canary diamond necklace – over two dozen thumb-sized gems – "and call to me if we need more. Get me half an hour with him. Twenty minutes, then!" – as Sage began to shake his head. "Stall them, somehow; get me at least twenty minutes. I'll think of something if it kills me."

After a moment Sage looked her in the eyes and nodded. "I will."

Then Elena looked at Dr. Meggar pleadingly. Did he have something – did something exist – that would help?

Dr. Meggar's eyebrows went down, then their inner sides went up. It was a look of grief, of despair. But then he frowned and whispered, "There's something new – an injection that's said to help in dire cases. I could try it."

Elena did her best not to fall at his feet. "Please! Please try it! Please!"

"It won't help beyond a couple of days – "

"It won't need to! We'll get him out by then!"

"All right." Sage had by now herded all the guards away, saying, "I'm a dealer in gems and there's something you all should see."

Dr. Meggar opened his bag and took out of it a syringe. "Wooden needle," he said with a wan smile as he filled it with a clear red liquid from a vial. Elena had taken another syringe and she examined it eagerly as Dr. Meggar coaxed Stefan by imitation to put his arm up to the bars. At last Stefan did as Dr. Meggar wished – only to jump away with a cry of pain as a syringe was plunged into his arm and stinging liquid injected.

Elena looked at the doctor desperately. "How much did he get?"

"Only about half. It's all right – I filled it with twice the dose and pushed as hard as I could to get the" – some medical word Elena didn't recognize – "into him. I knew it would hurt him more, injecting that fast, but I accomplished what I wanted."

"Good," Elena said rapturously. "Now I want you to fill this syringe with my blood."

"Blood?" Dr. Meggar looked dismayed.

"Yes! The syringe is long enough to go through the bars. The blood will drip out the other side. He can drink it as it comes out. It might save him!" Elena said every word carefully, as if speaking to a child. She desperately wanted to convey her meaning.

"Oh, Elena." The doctor sat down, with a clink, and took a hidden bottle of Black Magic out of his tunic. "I'm so sorry. But it's hard enough for me to get blood out of a vial. My eyes, child – they're ruined."

"But glasses – spectacles – ?"

"They're no good to me anymore. It's a complicated condition. But you have to be very good to actually tap a vein in any case. Most doctors are pretty hopeless; I'm impossible. I'm sorry, child. But it's been twenty years since I was successful."

"Then I'll find Damon and have him open my aorta. I don't care if it kills me."

"But I do."

This new voice coming from the brilliantly lighted cell in front of them made both the doctor and Elena jerk their heads up.

"Stefan! Stefan! Stefan!" Uncaring of what the razor fence would do to her flesh, Elena leaned over to try to hold his hands.

"No," Stefan whispered, as if sharing a precious secret. "Put your fingers here and here – on top of mine. This fence is only specially treated steel – it numbs my Power but it can't break my skin."

Elena put her fingers there and there. And then she was touching Stefan. Really touching him. After so long.

Neither of them spoke. Elena heard Dr. Meggar get up and quietly creep away – to Sage, she supposed. But her mind was full of Stefan. She and he simply looked at each other, trembling, with tears quivering on their lashes, feeling very young.

And very close to death.

"You say I always make you say it first, so I'll confound you. I love you, Elena."

Teardrops fell from Elena's eyes.

"Just this morning I was thinking how many people there are to love. But really it's only because there's one in the first place," she whispered back to him. "One forever. I love you, Stefan! I love you!"

Elena drew back for a moment and wiped her eyes the way all clever girls know how to do without ruining their makeup: by putting her thumbs beneath her lower lashes and leaning backward, scooping tears and kohl into infinitesimal droplets in the air.

For the first time she could think.

"Stefan," she whispered, "I'm so sorry. I wasted time this morning getting dressed up – well, dressed down – to show you what's waiting for you when we get you out. But now…I feel…like…"

Now there were no tears in Stefan's eyes, either. "Show me," he whispered back eagerly.

Elena stood, and without theatrics, shrugged the cloak off. Shut her eyes, her hair in hundreds of kiss curls, little wispy spirals that were plastered around her face. Her gilded eyelids, waterproof, still gilded. Her only clothing the wisps of golden tulle with jewels attached to make it decent. Her entire body iridescent, perfection in the first bloom of youth that could never be matched or re-created.

There was a sound like a long sigh…and then silence, and Elena opened her eyes, terrified that Stefan might have died. But he was standing up, clutching at the iron gate as if he might wrench it off to get to her.

"I get all this?" he whispered. "All this for you. Everything for you," Elena said. At that moment there was a soft sound behind her and she whirled to see two eyes shining in the dimness of the cell opposite Stefan's.