Matt had given up on clues. As far as he could tell, something had caused Elena to bypass the Dunstan house and barn completely, hopping on and on until she got to a squashed and torn bed of thin creeping vines. They hung limp from Matt's fingers, but they reminded him, disquietingly, of the feeling of the bug's tentacles around his neck.
And from there on there was no sign of human movement. It was as if a UFO had beamed her up.
Now, from making forays to all sides until he had lost the patch of creepers, he was lost in the deep Wood. If he wanted to, he could fantasize that all sorts of noises were all around him. If he wanted to, he could imagine that the light of the flashlight was no longer as bright as it had been, that it had a sickly yellowish tinge....
All this time, while searching, he had kept as quiet as possible, realizing that he might be trying to sneak up on something that didn't want to be snuck up on. But now, somewhere inside him, something was swelling up and his ability to stop it was weakening by the second.
When it burst out of him, it startled him as much as it might have any possible listeners.
From the time when he'd been a child, Matt had been taught to say his nighttime prayers. He didn't know much else about church, but he did have a deep and sincere feeling that there was Someone or Something out there that looked after people. That somewhere and somehow it all made sense, and that there were reasons for everything.
That belief had been severely tested during the past year.
But Elena's return from the dead had swept away all his doubts. It had seemed to prove everything that he'd always wanted to believe in.
You wouldn't give her back to us for just a few days, and then take her away again? he wondered, and the wondering was really a form of praying. You wouldn't - would You?
Because the thought of a world without Elena, without hersparkle ; her strong will; her way of getting into crazy adventures - and then getting out of them, even more crazily - well, it was too much to lose. The world would be painted in drab grays and dark browns again without her. There would be no fire-engine reds, no flashes of parakeet green, no cerulean, no daffodil, no mercury silver - and no gold. No sprinkles of gold in endless blue lapis lazuli eyes.
"Elllleeeeeeenaaaa! Damn you, you answer me! It's Matt, Elena! Elleeeeee - "
He broke off quite suddenly and listened. For a moment his heart leaped and his whole body started. But then he made out the words he could hear.
"Eleeeeeenaaa? Maaaatt? Where are you?"
"Bonnie?Bonnie! I'm here! " He turned his flashlight straight up, slowly twisting it in a circle. "Can you see me?"
"Can you see us?"
Matt pivoted slowly. And - yes - there were the beams of one flashlight, two flashlights, three!
His heart leaped to seethree beams. "I'm coming toward you," he shouted, and suited the action to the word. Secrecy had been long ago left behind. He was running into things, yanking at tendrils that tried to grab his ankles, but bellowing all the while, "Stay where you are! I'm coming to you!"
And then the flashlight beams were right in front of him, blinding him, and somehow he had Bonnie in his arms, and Bonnie was crying. That at least lent the situation some normality. Bonnie was crying against his chest and he was looking at Meredith, who was smiling anxiously, and at...Mrs. Flowers? It had to be, she was wearing that gardening hat with the artificial flowers on it, as well as what looked like about seven or eight woolly sweaters.
"Mrs. Flowers?" he said, his mouth finally catching up with his brain. "But - where's Elena?"
There was a sudden droop in the three people watching him, as if they had been on tiptoes for news, and now they had slumped in disappointment.
"We haven't seen her," Meredith said quietly. "Youwere with her."
"Iwas with her, yeah. But then Damon came.He hurt her , Meredith" - Matt felt Bonnie's arms clench on him. "He had her rolling on the ground having seizures. I think he's going to kill her. And - he hurt me. I guess I blacked out. When I woke up she was gone."
"He took her away?" Bonnie asked fiercely.
"Yeah, but...I don't understand what happened next." Painfully, he explained about Elena seemingly jumping out of the car and the tracks that led nowhere.
Bonnie shivered in his arms.
"And then some other weird stuff happened," Matt said. Slowly, faltering sometimes, he did his best to explain about Kristin, and the similarities to Tami.
"That is...just plain weird," Bonnie said. "I thought I had an answer, but if Kristin hasn't had any contact with any of the other girls..."
"You were probably thinking something about the Salem witches, dear," said Mrs. Flowers. Matt still couldn't get used to Mrs. Flowerstalking to them. She went on, "But you don't really know with whom Kristin has been in the last few days. Or with whom Jim has been, for that matter. Children have quite a lot of freedom in this day and age, and he might be - what do they call it? - acarrier ."
"Besides, even if this is possession, it may be an entirely different kind of possession," Meredith said. "Kristin lives out in the Old Wood. The Old Wood is full of these insects - these malach. Who knows whether it happened when she simply stepped outside her door? Who knows what was waiting for her?"
Now Bonnie was shaking in Matt's arms. They'd turned out all the flashlights but one, to conserve energy, but it sure made for spooky surroundings.
"But what about the telepathy?" Matt said to Mrs. Flowers. "I mean, I don't believe for a minute thatreal witches were attacking those Salem girls. I think they were repressed girls who had mass hysteria when they all got together, and somehow everything got out of hand. But how could Kristin know to call me - to call me - the same name that Tamra did?"
"Maybe we've all got it all wrong," Bonnie said, her voice buried somewhere in Matt's solar plexus. "Maybe it's not like Salem at all, where the - the hysteria spread out horizontally, if you see what I mean. Maybe there's somebody on top here, who's spreading it wherever they want to."
There was a brief silence, and then Mrs. Flowers murmured, "¡®Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings...'"
"You mean you think that's right? But then who is it that's on top? Who's doing all of this?" Meredith demanded. "It can't be Damon because Damon saved Bonnie twice - and me once." Before anyone could muster words to ask aboutthat , she was going on. "Elena was pretty sure that something was possessingDamon . So who else is it?"
"Somebody we haven't met yet," Bonnie muttered ominously. "Somebody we aren't going to like."
With perfect timing there was the crackle of a branch behind them. As one person, as one body, they turned to look.
"What I really want," Damon said to Elena, "is to get you warm. And that either means cooking you something hot so you'll warm up from the inside or putting you in the tub so you'll warm up from the outside. And considering what happened last time - "
"I...don't feel I can eat anything...."
"Come on, it's an American tradition. Apple soup? Mom's homemade chicken pie?"
She chuckled in spite of herself, then winced. "It's apple pie and Mom's homemade chicken soup. But you didn't do badly, for a start."
"Well? I promise not to mix the apples and the chicken together."
"I could try some soup," Elena said slowly. "And, oh, Damon I'm so thirsty just for plain water. Please."
"I know, but you'll drink too much, get pains. I'll make soup."
"It comes in little cans with red paper on them. You pull the tab on top to make it come off...." Elena stopped as he turned to the door.
Damon knew she had serious doubts about the entire project, but he also knew that if he brought her anything passably drinkable she would drink it. Thirst did that to you.
He was unliving proof of the example.
As he went through the door there was a sudden horrendous noise, like a pair of kitchen choppers coming together. It nearly took off his - his rear from top to bottom, by the sound of it.
"Damon!"A voice crying weakly through the door. "Damon, are you all right? Damon! Answer me!"
Instead, he turned around, studied the door, which looked perfectly normal, and opened it. Anyone watching him open it would have wondered because he put a key in the unlocked door, said "Elena's room" and then unlocked and opened the door.
When he got inside, he ran.
Elena was lying in a hopeless tangle of sheets and blankets on the floor. She was trying to get up, but her face was blue-white with pain.
"What pushed you off the bed?" he said. He was going to kill Shinichislowly .
"Nothing. I heard a terrible sound just as the door shut. I tried to get to you, but - "
Damon stared at her."I tried to get to you, but - " This broken, hurting, exhausted creature had tried to rescuehim ? Tried so hard that she'd fallen off her bed?
"I'm sorry," she said, with tears in her eyes. "I can't get used to gravity. Are you hurt?"
"Not as much as you are," he said, purposely keeping his voice rough, his eyes averted. "I did something stupid, leaving the room, and the house...reminded me."
"What are you talking about?" said the woebegone Elena, dressed only in sheets.
"This key," Damon held it up for her to see. It was golden and could be worn as a ring, but two wings folded out and made a beautiful key.
"What's wrong with it?"
"The way I used it. This key has the power of the kitsune in it, and it will unlock anything and take you anywhere, but the way it works is that you put it into the lock, say where you want to go, and then turn the key. I forgot to do that in leaving your room."
Elena looked puzzled. "But what if a key doesn't have a lock in it? Most bedroom doors don't have locks."
"This key goes into any door. You might say it makes its own lock. It's a kitsune treasure - which I shook out of Shinichi when I was so angry about you being hurt. He'll be wanting it back soon." Damon's eyes narrowed and he smiled faintly. "I wonder which of us will end up keeping it. I noticed another one in the kitchen - a spare, of course."
"Damon, all this about magical keys is interesting, but if you could let me get off the floor..."
He was contrite at once. Then came the question of whether to put her on the bed or not.
"I'll take the bath," Elena said in a small voice. She unsnapped the top of her jeans and tried to scoot out of them.
"Wait a minute! You might faint and drown. Lie down and I promise to get you clean, if you're willing to try and eat." He had new reservations about the house.
"Now undress on the bed and pull the sheet over you. I do wicked massages," he added, turning away.
"Look, you don't have to not look. It's something I haven't understood since I...came back," Elena said. "Modesty taboos. I don't see why anyone should be ashamed of their body." (This came to him in a rather muffled voice.) "I mean for anyone who says God made us, God made us without clothes, even after Adam and Eve. If it's so important, why didn't he make us with diapers on?"
"Yes, actually, what you're saying reminds me of what I once said to the Dowager Queen of France," Damon said, determined to keep her undressing while he gazed at a crack in one of the wooden panels of the wall. "I said that if God were both omnipotent and omniscient, then He surely knew our destinies beforehand, and why were the righteous doomed to be born as sinfully naked as the damned?"
"And what did she say?"
"Not a word. But she giggled and tapped me three times on the back of my hand with her fan, which I was later told was an invitation for an assignation. Alas, I had other obligations. Are you on the bed still?"
"Yes, and I'm under a sheet," Elena said wearily. "If she wereDowager Queen, I expect you were glad," she added in a half-bewildered voice. "Aren't they the old mothers?"
"No, Anne of Austria, Queen of France, kept her remarkable beauty to the end. She was the only redhead that - "
Damon stopped, groping wildly for words as he faced the bed. Elena had done as he had asked. He just hadn't realized how much she would look like Aphrodite arising from the ocean. The ruffled white of the sheet came up to the warmer milk-white of her skin. She needed cleaning, certainly, but just knowing that under that thin sheet she was magnificently naked was enough to make him lose his breath.
She had rolled her clothes into a ball and thrown them into the farthest corner of the room. He didn't blame her.
He didn't think. He didn't give himself time. He simply held out his hands and said, "Lemon-thyme chicken consomm��¦, hot, in a Mikasa cup - and plum flower oil, very warm, in a vial."
Once the broth was duly consumed and Elena was lying on her back again, he began to gently massage her with the oil. Plum flower always made for a good start. It numbed the skin and the senses to pain, and it provided a basis for the other, more exotic, oils he planned to use on her.
In a way, it was much better than dumping her in a modern bath or Jacuzzi. He knew where her injuries were; he could heat the oils to the appropriate temperature for any of them. And instead of a barely mobile Jacuzzi head spouting water against a bruise, he could avoid anything too sensitive - in the painful sense.
He started with her hair, adding a very, very light coating of oil that would make the worst tangles easy to brush out. After the oiling, her hair shone like gold against her skin - honey on cream. Then he began with the muscles in her face: tiny strokes with his thumbs over her forehead to smooth it and relax it, forcing her to relax along with his movements. Slow, circular swirls at her temples, with only the lightest of pressure. He could see the thin blue veins traced here, and he knew that deep pressure could put her to sleep.
He then proceeded to upper arms, her forearms, her hands, taking her apart with ancient strokes and the correct ancient essences to go with them, until she was nothing but a loose, boneless thing under the sheet: sleek and soft and yielding. He flashed his incandescent smile for a moment while pulling a toe until it popped - and then the smile turned ironic. He could have what he wanted of her, now. Yes, she was in no mood to refuse anything. But he hadn't counted on what the damned sheet would do tohim . Everyone knew that a scrap of covering, no matter how simple, always drew attention to the taboo area as pure nakedness did not. And massaging Elena by inches this way only focused him on what lay beneath the snowy fabric.
After a while Elena said drowsily, "Aren't you going to tell the end of the story? About Anne of Austria, who was the only redhead to..."
"...to, ah, remain a natural redhead to the end of her life," Damon murmured. "Yes. It was said that Cardinal Richelieu was her lover."
"Isn't that the wicked Cardinal from theThe Three Musketeers ?"
"Yes, but perhaps not so wicked as he was portrayed there, and certainly an able politician. And, some say, the real father of Louis...now turn over."
"It's a strange name for a king."
"Louis Now Turn Over," Elena said, turning over and showing a flash of creamy thigh while Damon tried to eye various other parts of the room.
"Depends on the naming traditions of the individual's native country," Damon said wildly. All he could see were replays of that glimpse of thigh.
"I was asking you - "
"Are you warm now? All done," Damon said and, unwisely, patted the highest curve of terrain under the towel.
"Hey!" Elena reared up, and Damon - faced by an entire body of pale rose-gold and perfumed and sleek - and with muscles like steel under the silken skin - precipitately fled.
He came back after an appropriate interval with a calming offering of more soup. Elena, dignified under her sheet, which she had made into a toga, accepted. She didn't even try to swat him on the bottom when his back was turned.
"Whatis this place?" she wondered instead. "It can't be the Dunstans' - they're an old family, with an old house. They used to be farmers."
"Oh, let's just call it a little pied-����-terre of my own in the woods."
"Ha," Elena said. "I knew you weren't sleeping in trees."
Damon found himself trying not to smile. He'd never been with Elena when the situation hadn't been life-or-death. Now, if he said he'd found he loved her mind after having massaged her naked under a sheet - no...No one would ever believe him.
"Feeling better?" he asked.
"As warm as chicken-apple soup."
"I'm never going to hear the end of that, am I?"
He made her stay on the bed while he thought up nightgowns, all sizes and styles, and robes, too - and slippers, all in the instant of walking to what had been a bathroom, and was pleased to find that it was now a walk-in closet with everything anyone could want in terms of night attire. From silky lingerie to good old-fashioned sleeping gowns to night-caps, this wardrobe had it all. Damon emerged with a double armful and gave Elena her choice.
She picked a high-necked white nightgown made out of some modest fabric. Damon found himself stroking a regal sky-blue gown trimmed with what looked like genuine Valenciennes lace.
"Not my style," Elena said, quickly tucking it under some other robes.
Not your style aroundme , Damon thought, amused. And a wise little lass you are, too. You don't want to tempt me into doing anything you might be sorry for tomorrow.
"All right - and then you can get a good night's sleep - " He broke off, for she was suddenly looking at him with astonishment and distress.
"Matt! Damon, we were looking forMatt ! I just remembered. We were looking for him and I - I don't know. I got hurt. I remember falling and then I was here."
Because I carried you here, Damon thought. Because this house is just a thought in Shinichi's mind. Because the only permanent things inside it are we two.
Damon took in a deep breath of air.