The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 38)

"Talon! Uh – heel!" Elena shouted and began to race as fast as she could to get out of the room. This was strategy. Would the owl become even smaller so as to get through the door or would it destroy its sanctuary in order to stay on top of Elena?

It was a good strategy, but it didn't amount to much in the end. The owl shrank to dart through the door, and then resumed gigantic size to attack Elena as she ran down the stairs.

Yes, ran. With all of her Power channeled to her eyes, Elena leaped from step to step as Damon had before. Now there was no time for fear, no time for thinking. There was only time to turn over in her fingers a small, hard, crescent-shaped object.

Shinichi and Misao – they did make it into her nest.

There must be a ladder or something made of glass that even Damon couldn't see, in the flowerbed where Saber had stopped and barked. No – Damon would have seen it, so they must have brought their own ladder.

That's why their trail ended there. They climbed straight up into the library. And they ruined the flowers in the bed, which is why the new flowers weren't doing so well.

Elena knew from Aunt Judith, from her childhood, that transplanted flowers took awhile to revive and perk up again.

Leap…jump…leap…I am a spirit of fire. I cannot miss a step. I am a fire elemental. Leap…leap…leap.

And then Elena was looking at level ground, trying not to leap into it, but a prisoner to her body which was already leaping. She fell hard enough to numb one side, but she kept hold of the precious crescent clenched in a deathgrip in her hand.

A gigantic beak smashed into glass where she had been a moment before she slid. Talons raked her back.

Bloddeuwedd was still after her.

Sage and his group of sturdy young male and female vampires traveled at the pace of a running dog. Saber could lead them, but only as fast as he himself could go. Fortunately few people seemed to want to instigate a fight with a dog that weighed as much as they did – that weighed more than many of the beggars and children they encountered as they reached the bazaar.

The children crowded around the carriage, slowing them further. Sage took the time to exchange an expensive jewel for a purse full of small change and he scattered the coins behind the carriage as they went, allowing Saber free reign.

They passed dozens of stalls and crossing streets, but Saber was no ordinary bloodhound. He had enough Power to confound most vampires. With perhaps only one or two of the key molecules stuck to his nasal membrane he could hunt down his goal. Where another dog might be fooled by one of the hundreds of similar kitsune trails they were traveling through, Saber examined and rejected each of them as being not quite the right shape, size, or sculpture.

There came a time, though, when even Saber seemed defeated. He stood in the center of a six-way crossroads, regardless of traffic, limping slightly, and going in circles. He couldn't seem to choose a path.

And nor could I, my friend, Sage thought. We've come so far, but it's clear they went on farther. No way to go up or dig down…Sage hesitated, looking around the crimson-colored wheel of roads.

And then he saw something.

Directly across from him, but to his left was a perfumery. It must sell hundreds of fragrances, and billions of scent molecules were deliberately being released into the air.

Saber was blind. Not blind in his keen liquid dark eyes. But where it mattered he was numbed and blinded by the billions of scents that were being blown up his nose.

The vampires in the carriage were calling to go on or go back. They had no sense of real adventure, them. They just wanted a nice show. And undoubtedly many had slaves who were recording the whipping for them so they could enjoy it at leisure at home.

At that moment a flash of blue and gold decided Sage. A Guardian! Eh, bien…

"Heel, Saber!"

Saber's head and tail drooped as Sage randomly picked one of the directions and had him race alongside the running vampire to get out of the thoroughfare and onto another street.

But then, miraculously, the tail went up again. Sage estimated that there could not be even one molecule of the kitsune's scent left in Saber's nostrils now…

…but the memory of the scent…that was still there.

Saber was once again in hunting mode, with head down, tail straight, all his Power and intelligence concentrated on one goal and one goal only: to find another molecule that matched the three-dimensional memory of the one in his mind. Now that he was not blinded by the searing smell of all those different concentrated odors, he was able to think more clearly. And thinking alerted him to slip in between streets, causing a commotion behind him.

"What about the carriage?"

"Forget about the carriage! Don't lose sight of that guy with the dog!"

Sage, trying to keep up with Saber himself, knew when a chase was about to end. Tranquillit��! he thought to Saber. He also barely whispered the word. He had never been certain if his animal friends were telepathic or not, but he liked to believe that they were, while behaving as if they were not. Tranquillit��! he told himself.

And so, when the huge black dog with the shining dark eyes and the man ran up the steps to one particular ramshackle building, they did it silently. Then, as if he'd had a pleasant stroll in the country, Saber sat and looked at Sage in the face, laughing-panting. He opened and closed his mouth in a silent parody of a bark.

Sage waited for the young vampires to catch up with him before be opened the door. And, as he wanted the element of surprise, he didn't knock. Instead he smashed a fist with the Power of a sledgehammer through the door and groped for locks and chains and bolts. He could feel none. He did feel a knob.

Before opening the door, and going into who knew what peril, he said to those behind him, "Any loot we take is the property of Master Damon. I am his foreman and it was only through my dog's skills that we have made it so far."

There was agreement, ranging from grumbling to indifferent.

"By the same token," Sage said, "whatever danger is in there, I face first. Saber! NOW!"

They burst into the room, nearly taking the door off its hinges.

Elena cried out involuntarily. Bloddeuwedd had just done what Damon would not, and lined her back with bloody furrows from her talons.

But even as Elena managed to find the glass door to the outside, she could feel other minds surging to help sustain her, to lift and share some of the pain.

Bonnie and Meredith were picking their way through huge shards of glass to get to her. They were screaming at the owl. And Talon, heroically, was attacking from above.

Elena couldn't stand it any longer. She had to see. She had to know that this metallic-feeling thing that she'd picked out of Bloddeuwedd's nest wasn't some bit of filthy rubbish. She had to know now.

Rubbing the tiny scrap of metal against the ill-fated scarlet dress, she took a moment to glance downward, to see crimson sunlight sparkle against gold and diamonds and two folded-back little ears and two bright green alexandrite eyes.

The duplicate of the first fox key half, but facing the other way.

Elena's legs almost gave way underneath her.

She was holding the second half of the fox key.

Hurriedly, then, Elena brought up her free hand and plunged her fingers down into the carefully made little pocket behind the diamond insert. It concealed a tiny pouch, specially sewn there by Lady Ulma herself. In it was the first half of the fox key, replaced there as soon as Saber and Talon had finished with it. Now, as she shoved the second half-key into the pocket with the first, she was disconcerted to feel movement in the pouch. The two pieces of the fox key were – what, becoming one?

A black beak slammed into the wall beside her.

Without even thinking, Elena ducked and rolled to escape it. When her fingers flew back to make sure that the pouch was tied up and secure, she was astonished to feel a familiar shape resting inside.

Not a key?

Not a key!

The world was spinning wildly around Elena. Nothing mattered; not the object; not her own life. The kitsune twins had tricked them, had made fools of the idiot humans and the vampire who had dared to face up to them. There was no double fox key.

Still, hope refused to die. What was it Stefan used to say? Mai dire mai – never say never. Knowing what a chance she was taking, knowing she was a fool for taking it, Elena thrust her finger again into the pouch.

Something cool slipped onto one finger and stayed there.

She glanced down and for a moment was arrested by the sight. There, on her ring finger, gleamed a gold, diamond-encrusted ring. It represented two abstract foxes curled together, one facing each way. Each fox had two ears, two green alexandrite eyes, and a pointed nose.

And that was all. Of what use was a trinket like this to Stefan? It bore no resemblance to the double-winged keys shown in the pictures of kitsune shrines.

As treasure, it was surely worth a million times less than what they had already spent to get it.

And then Elena noticed something.

A light shone from the eyes of one of the foxes. If she hadn't been staring at it so closely, or if she hadn't been by now in the White Waltz Ballroom, where colors showed true, she might not have noticed it. But the light was shining straight ahead of her as she turned her hand sideways. Now it was shining from four eyes.

It was shining in exactly the direction of Stefan's prison cell.

Hope rose up like a phoenix in Elena's heart, and took her soaring on a mental journey out of this labyrinth of glass rooms. The music playing was the waltz from Faust. Away from the sun, deep into the heart of the city, that was where Stefan was. And that was where the pale green light from the fox's eyes was shining.

Riding high on hope, she turned the ring. The light winked out of both fox's eyes, but when she turned the ring so that the second fox was in line with Stefan's cell, it winked on.

Secret signals. How long could she have owned a ring like that and done nothing if she hadn't already known where Stefan's prison was?

Longer than Stefan had left to live, probably.

Now she only had to survive long enough to reach him.