Elena had been waiting in her tree.
It wasn't, as a matter of fact, all that different from her six months in the spirit world, where she had spent most of her time watching other people, and waiting, and watching them some more. Those months had taught her a patient alertness that would have astounded anyone who knew the old, wildfire Elena.
Of course, the old, wildfire Elena was still inside her, too, and occasionally it rebelled. As far as she could see, nothing was happening in the dark boardinghouse. Only the moon seemed to move, creeping slowly higher into the sky.
Damon said this Shinichi had a thing about 4:44 in the morning or evening, she thought. Maybe this Black Magic was working to a different schedule than any she'd heard of.
In any case, it was for Stefan. And as soon as she thought that she knew that she would wait here for days, if that's what it took. She could certainly wait until daybreak, when no self-respecting Black Magic-worker would ever thing of beginning a ceremony.
And, in the end, what she was waiting for came to rest right below her feet.
First came the figures, walking sedately out of the Old Wood and toward the gravel pathways of the boardinghouse. They weren't hard to identify, even at long range. One was Damon, who had aje ne sais quois about him that Elena couldn't miss at a quarter of a mile - and then again there was his aura, which was a very good facsimile of his old aura: that unreadable, un-breachable ball of black stone. Avery good imitation, in fact. Actually, it was almost exactly like the one...
It was then, Elena later realized, that she felt her very first qualm.
But right now she was so caught up in the moment that she brushed the uneasy thought away. The one with the deep gray aura with crimson flashes would be Shinichi, she guessed. And the one with the same aura as the possessed girls: a sort of muddy color slashed with orange must be the twin sister Misao.
Only those two, Shinichi and Misao, were holding hands, even occasionally nuzzling each other - as Elena could see as they came up close to the boardinghouse. They certainly weren't acting like any brother and sister that Elena had seen.
Moreover, Damon was carrying a mostly-naked girl over his shoulder, and Elena couldn't imagine who that might be.
Patience,she thought to herself.Patience. The major players are here at last, just as Damon promised they would be. And the minor players...
Well, first, following Damon and his group were three little girls. She recognized Tami Bryce instantly from her aura, but the other two were strangers. They hopped, skipped, andfrisked out of the Wood and to the boardinghouse, where Damon said something to them and they came around to sit in Mrs. Flowers' kitchen garden, almost directly below Elena. One look at the auras of the strange girls was enough to identify them as more of Misao's pets.
Then, up the driveway came a very familiar car - it belonged to Caroline's mother. Caroline stepped out of it and was helped into the boardinghouse by Damon, who had done something - Elena had missed what - with his burden.
Elena rejoiced as she saw lights coming on as Damon and his three guests traveled up the boardinghouse, lighting their way as they went. They came out on the very top, standing in a row on the widow's walk, looking down.
Damon snapped his fingers, and the backyard lights went on as if it were a cue for a show.
But Elena didn't see the actors - the victims of the ceremony that was about to begin, until just then. They were being herded around the far corner of the boardinghouse. She could see them all: Matt and Meredith and Bonnie, and Mrs. Flowers and, strangely, old Dr. Alpert. What Elena didn't understand was why they weren't fighting harder - Bonnie was certainly making enough noise for all of them, but they acted as if they were being pushed forward against their will.
That was when she saw the looming darkness behind them. Huge dark shadows, with no features that she could identify.
It was at that point that Elena realized, even over Bonnie's yelling, if she held herself still inside and focused hard enough, she could hear what everyone on the widow's walk was saying. And Misao's shrill voice cut through the rest.
"Oh lucky! We got all of them back," she squealed, and kissed her brother's cheek, despite his brief look of annoyance.
"Of course we did. I said so," he was beginning, when Misao squealed once more.
"But which of them do we start with?" She kissed her brother and he stroked her hair, relenting.
"You pick the first one," he said.
"You darling," Misao cooed shamelessly.
These two, Elena thought, are real charmers. Twins, huh?
"The little noisy one," Shinichi said firmly, pointing to Bonnie. "Urusei, brat! Shut up!" he added as Bonnie was pushed or carried forward by the shadows. Now Elena could see her more clearly.
And she could hear Bonnie's heartrending pleas to Damon not to do this to...the others. "I'm not begging for myself," she cried, as she was dragged into the light. "But Dr. Alpert is a good woman; she has nothing to do with this. Neither does Mrs. Flowers. And Meredith and Matt have already suffered enough.Please! "
There was a ragged chorus of sound as the others apparently tried to fight and were subdued. But Matt's voice rose above it all. "You touch her, Salvatore, and you'd better make damn sure you kill me, too!"
Elena's heart jerked as she heard Matt's voice sounding so strong and well. She'd found him at last, but she couldn't think of a way to save him.
"And then we have to decide what to do with them to start with," Misao said, clapping like a happy child at her birthday party.
"Take your pick." Shinichi caressed his sister's hair and whispered into her ear. She turned and kissed him on the mouth. Not hastily, either.
"What the - what's going on?" Caroline said. She had never been shy, that one, Elena thought. Now she had moved forward to cling to Shinichi's unoccupied hand.
For just an instant, Elena thought he would throw her off the widow's walk and watch her plunge to the ground. Then he turned, and he and Misao stared at each other.
Then he laughed.
"Sorry, sorry, it's so hard when you're the life of the party," he said. "Well, what do you think, Carolyn - Caroline?"
Caroline was staring at him. "Why's she holding you that way?"
"In theShi no Shi , sisters are precious," Shinichi said. "And...well, I haven't seen her in a long time. We're getting reacquainted." But the kiss he planted on Misao's palm was hardly brotherly. "Go on," he added quickly, to Caroline. "You choose the first act in the Moonspire Festival! What shall we do with her?"
Caroline began to imitate Misao, kissing Shinichi's cheek and ear. "I'm new here," she said flirtatiously. "I don't really know what you want me to pick."
"Silly Caroline. Naturally, how she di - " Shinichi was suddenly smothered by a great hug and kiss from his sister.
Caroline, who had obviously wanted the attention of choice put to her, even if she didn't understand the subject, said huffily, "Well, if you don't tell me, I can't choose. And anyway, where's Elena? I don't see her anywhere!" She seemed about to say more when Damon glided over and whispered in her ear. Then she smiled again, and they both looked at the pine trees surrounding the boardinghouse.
That was when Elena had her second qualm. But Misao was already speaking and that required Elena's full attention.
"Lucky! Then I'll pick." Misao leaned forward, peeking over the edge of the roof at the humans below, her dark eyes wide, summing up the possibilities in what looked like a barren clearing. She was so delicate, so graceful as she got up to pace and think; her skin was so fair, and her hair so glossy and dark that even Elena couldn't take her eyes off her.
Then Misao's face lit up and she spoke. "Spread her on the altar. You brought some of your half-breeds?"
The last was not so much a question as an excited exclamation.
"My experiments? Of course, darling. I told you so," Shinichi replied and added, staring into the forest, "Two of you - er, men - and Old Faithful!" And he snapped his fingers. There were several minutes of confusion during which the humans around Bonnie were struck, kicked, thrown to the ground, trampled on, and crushed as they fought with the shadows. And then the things that had shambled forward before, shambled farther forward with Bonnie held in between them, dangling limply from each by a slim arm.
The half-breeds were something like men and something like trees with all the leaves stripped off them. If they had beenmade , it looked as if they had been made specifically to be grotesque and asymmetrical. One had a crooked, knobby left arm that reached almost to its feet, and a right arm that was thick, lumpy, and only waist-high.
They were hideous. Their skin was similar to the chitin-like skin of the insects, but much bumpier, with knotholes and burls and all the outward aspects of bark on their branches. They had a shaggy, unfinished look in places.
They were terrifying. The way their limbs were twisted; the way they walked, shambling forward like apes, the way their bodies ended on top with treelike caricatures of human faces, surmounted by a tangle of thinner branches sticking out at odd angles - they were calculated to look like creatures of nightmare.
And they were naked. They had nothing in place of clothes to disguise the ghastly deformities of their bodies.
And then Elena really knew what terror meant, as the two shambling malach carried the limp Bonnie to a sort of roughly hewn stump of tree like an altar, laid her on it and began to pluck at the many layers of her clothing, clumsily, pulling at them with sticklike fingers that broke off with little crackling sounds even as cloth tore. They didn't seem to care that they broke their fingers off - as long as they accomplished their task.