The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 37)

Elena had been tied, like someone in a B-movie who will soon be released, standing upright against a pillar. Digging on the field was still going on in a dilatory way as the vampires who had put her up to this fetched an ash stick they had brought, and allowed Damon to inspect it. Damon himself was moving in slow motion. Trying to find points to kibitz about. Waiting for the rattling of coach wheels that would tell him the carriage was back. Acting brisk, but inside feeling as sluggish as half-cooled lead.

I've never been a sadist, he thought. I've always tried to give pleasure – except in fights. But it should be me in that prison cell. Can't Elena see that? It's my turn beneath the lash now.

He had changed into his "magician clothes," taking as long as he dared without looking as if he wanted to put this off. And now there were somewhere between six and eight hundred creatures, waiting to see Elena's blood spill, to watch Elena's back cut and miraculously heal again.

All right. I'm as ready as I'll ever be to do this.

He came into his body, into the now of what was happening.

Elena swallowed. "Share the pain" she'd said – without in the least knowing how to do it. But here she was, like a sacrifice tied to a pillar, staring at Bloddeuwedd's house and waiting for the blows to come.

Damon was giving the crowd an introductory speech, talking gibberish and doing it very well. Elena found a particular window of the house to stare at. And then she realized that Damon was no longer speaking.

A touch of the rod against her back. A telepathic whisper.

Are you ready?

Yes, she said immediately, knowing that she wasn't. And then hearing, against dead silence, a swish through the air.

Bonnie's mind floating into hers. Meredith's mind flowing like a stream. The blow was a mere cuff, although Elena felt blood spill.

She could feel Damon's bewilderment. What should have been a sword slash was a mere slap. Painful, but definitely bearable.

And once again. The triumvirate portioned out the pain before Damon's mind could receive it.

Keep the triangle moving. And a third.

Two more to go. Elena allowed her gaze to wander over the house. Up to the third floor where Bloddeuwedd had to be enraged at what had become of her party.

One more to go. The voice of a guest coming back to her. "That library. She has more orbs than most public libraries, and" – with his voice dropping for a moment –  "they say she has all sorts of spheres up there. Forbidden ones. You know."

Elena hadn't known and still could still hardly imagine what might be forbidden here.

In her library, Bloddeuwedd, a single, lonely figure, moved in the brilliantly lighted great sphere to find a new orb. Inside the house music would be playing, different music in each different room. Outside, Elena could hear nothing.

The last blow. The triumvirate managed to handle it, allotting agonizing pain amongst four people. At least, Elena thought, my dress was already as red as it could be.

And then it was over, and Bonnie and Meredith were quarrelling with some of the vampire ladies who wanted to help bathe the blood from Elena's back, showing it once again unblemished and perfect, glowing golden in the sunlight.

Better keep them away, Elena thought rather drowsily to Damon; some of them may be compulsive nail-biters or finger-lickers. We can't afford for anyone to taste my blood and feel the life-force in it; not when I've gone through so much to conceal my aura.

Although there was clapping and cheering everywhere, no one had thought to untie Elena's wrists. So she stood leaning against the pillar, gazing at the library.

And then the world froze.

All around her was music and motion. She was the still point in a turning universe. But she had to get moving, and fast. She yanked hard at her bonds, lacerating herself.

"Meredith! Untie me! Cut these ropes, quick!"

Meredith obeyed hastily.

When Elena turned, she knew what she would see. The face – Damon's face, bewildered, half-resentful, half-humble. It was good enough for her, right then.

Damon, we need to get to the –

But then they were engulfed by a riot. Well-wishers, fans, skeptics, vampires begging for "a tiny taste," gogglers who wanted to make sure that Elena's back was real and warm and unmarked. Elena felt too many hands on her body.

"Get away from her, damn you!" It was the primal savage roar of a beast defending its mate. People backed away from Elena, only to close in…very slowly and timidly…on Damon.

All right, Elena thought. I'll do it alone. I can do it alone. For Stefan, I can.

She shouldered her way through the crowd, accepting bunches of hastily dug-up flowers from admirers – and feeling more hands on her body. "Hey, she really isn't marked!" At last, Meredith and Bonnie helped her to get out – without them she would never have made it.

And then she was running, running into the house, not bothering to use the door that was near to Saber's barking place. She thought she knew what was there anyway.

On the second floor she spent a minute being bewildered before seeing a thin red line in nothingness. Her blood! See how many things it was good for? Right now it highlighted the first of the glass steps for her, the one she had stumbled into before.

And at that time, cradled in Damon's strong arms, she hadn't been able to imagine even crawling up these steps. Now she channeled all the Power she had into her eye nodes – and the stairs lit up. It was still terrifying. There were no handholds on either side, and she was woozy from excitement, fear, and loss of blood. But she forced herself up, and up, and up.

"Elena! I love you! Elena!"

She could hear the cry as if Stefan were beside her now.

Up, up, up…

Her legs ached.

Keep going. No excuses. If you can't walk, hobble. If you can't hobble, crawl.

She was crawling as she finally reached the top, the edge of the nest of the owl Bloddeuwedd.

At least it was still a pretty, if insipid-looking, maiden who greeted her. Elena realized at last what was wrong with Bloddeuwedd's looks. She had no animal vitality. She was, at heart, a vegetable.

"I am going to kill you, you know."

No, she was a vegetable with no heart.

Elena glanced around her. She could see outside from here, although in between was the dome that was made of shelves and shelves upon shelves of orbs, so everything was weirdly distorted.

There were no hanging creepers here, no flagrant displays of exotic, tropical blooms. But she was already in the center of the room, in Bloddeuwedd's owl nest. Bloddeuwedd was nowhere near it; she was on the contraption that let her reach her star balls.

The key could only be buried in that nest.

"I don't want to steal from you," Elena promised, breathing hard. Even as she spoke, she plunged two arms into the nest. "Those kitsune played a trick on both of us. They stole something of mine and put the key to it in your nest. I'm just taking back what they put in."

"Ha! You – human slave! Barbarian! You dared to violate my private library! People outside are digging up my beautiful ballroom, my precious flowers. You think you're going to get away again this time, but you're not! This time you're going to DIE!"

It was an entirely different voice than the flat, nasal, but still maidenlike tones that had greeted Elena before. This was a powerful voice, a heavy voice…

…a voice to go with the size of the nest.

Elena looked up. She couldn't make anything of what she saw. An enormous fur coat in a very exotic pattern? Some huge stuffed animal's back?

The creature in the library turned toward her. Or rather, its head swiveled toward her, while its back remained perfectly still. It rotated its head sideways and Elena knew that what she was seeing was a face. The head was even more hideous and more indescribable than she could have imagined. It had a sort of single eyebrow which dipped from the edge of one side of its forehead down toward the nose (or where the nose should have been) and then went up again. The feature was like a gigantic V-shaped brow and below it were two huge round yellow eyes that often blinked. There was no nose or mouth like a human's, but instead there was a large, cruel, hooked black beak. The rest of the face was covered in feathers, mostly white, turning mottled gray at the bottom, where the neck seemed to be. It was also gray and white in two hornlike projections that shot up from the top of the head – like a demon's horns, Elena thought wildly.

Then, with the head still staring at her, the body turned toward Elena.

It was the body of a sturdy woman, covered in white and grizzled feathers, Elena saw. Talons peeked out from under the lowest feathers.

"Hello," the creature said in a grating voice, its beak opening and closing to bite off the words. "I'm Bloddeuwedd, and I never let anyone touch my library. I am your death."

The words Can't we at least talk about it first? were on Elena's lips. She didn't want to be a hero. She certainly didn't want to take on Bloddeuwedd while searching for the key that must be here – somewhere.

Elena kept on trying to explain while frantically feeling inside the nest, when Bloddeuwedd extended wings that spanned the room and came at her.

And then, like a streak of lightning, something zipped between them, giving out a raucous cry.

It was Talon. Sage must have given the hawk orders when he left her.

The owl seemed to shrink a little – the better to attack, thought Elena.

"Please let me explain. I haven't found it yet, but there is something in your nest that doesn't belong to you. It's mine – and – and Stefan's. And the kitsune hid it the night you had to chase them off your estate. Do you remember that?"

Bloddeuwedd didn't answer for a moment. Then she showed that she had a simple, one-size-fits-all-situations philosophy.

"You set foot into my private quarters. You die," she said and this time when she swooped by Elena, Elena could hear the clack of her beak coming together.

Again something small and bright dove at Bloddeuwedd, aiming for her eyes. The great owl had to take her attention off Elena in order to deal with it.

Elena gave up. Sometimes you just needed help. "Talon!" she cried, unsure of how much human speech Talon understood. "Try to keep her occupied – just for a minute!"

As the two birds darted and wheeled and shrieked around her, Elena tried to search with her arms, while ducking when she needed to. But that great black beak was always too close. Once it sliced into her arm, but Elena was on an adrenaline high, and she hardly felt the pain. She kept searching without a pause.

Finally, she realized what she should have done from the beginning. She snatched up an orb from its transparent rack.

"Talon!" she called. "Here!"

The falcon dove down toward her and there was a snap. But afterward Elena still had all her fingers and the hoshi no tama was gone.

Now, now, Elena truly heard a shriek of rage from Bloddeuwedd. The giant owl went after the hawk, but it was like a human trying to slap a fly – an intelligent fly.

"Give that orb back! It's priceless! Priceless!"

"You'll get it back as soon as I find what I'm looking for." Elena, mad with terror and soaked in hormones, climbed all the way inside the nest and began searching the marble bottom with her fingers.

Twice Talon saved her by dropping orbs with a crash to the ground as the huge owl Bloddeuwedd was headed toward Elena. Each time, the noise of the crash caused the owl to forget about Elena and try to attack the hawk. Then Talon snatched another orb and swept at great speed right under the owl's nose.

Elena was beginning to have a nightmare feeling that everything she had known just a half hour before was wrong.

She had been leaning against the canopy pole, exhausted, staring up into the library and the maiden who inhabited it and the words had simply flowed into her mind.

Bloddeuwedd's orb room…

Bloddeuwedd's globe room…

Bloddeuwedd's…star ball room……Bloddeuwedd's ballroom.

Two ways to take the same words. Two very different kinds of rooms.

It was just as she was remembering this that her fingers touched metal.