I looked around at their faces, white with fatigue and apprehension. Worry etched in every line of his handsome face, Damon approached me.
“Welcome,” he said, holding open the door of the Salvatore mansion, “to the Rescuing My Idiot of a Little Brother Committee.”
Dark. It was dark all around.
That was the impression Stefan got when he awoke.
A rotting, sweetish smell. Sweat trickling down his face, soaking his body. A burning sensation in his arms and legs. A stabbing, blinding pain at the base of his neck. Something seeping along the contour of his back- thicker and more draining than sweat. Was it blood?
A gas lamp hissed into life on the wall right beside his head. He blinked, blinded.
The creature’s face was close to his- and as he looked into the dead white eyes, his stomach churned and fear constricted his throat.
The hiss was a part of the darkness, as the flame flickered and jumped on the grimy wall.
“Why do you need me?” I demanded, my voice shaking.
“Because you, sweetie, are the handiest researcher we have right now,” Damon raised his eyebrows to emphasise the point and threw down a sheaf of papers on the desk. “Here are the clues. Put them together. Research. And tell me what has my brother.”
My throat was dry. A simple walk in the woods at night. It had been a new moon, so werewolves could not have been involved. But Stefan was supposed to come back, and he just- didn’t. Disappeared. Missing. Missing for two days.
And they call me now? Excuse me while I debate the idiocy tag.
The California sun sang gleefully with the melody of the blue sky outside. The winds nudged the softly murmuring waves onto the golden sand. But the darkness inside the mansion was at odds with this glory. The sun stopped at the windows. In the darkest corner sat Elena, brown eyes unfocused, brown hair in tangles. She did not acknowledge my presence in any way. I remember Stefan telling me that this girl was once sparkling, youthful, joyful. She laughed and hoped and dreamed, and was very like any other eighteen year old. How alien the concept of that girl seems to me, seeing her now. Bonnie looked silently at me, her dark green eyes unreadable.
Why was she here?
“A locator spell,” Caroline said, as if she read my mind. “It narrowed us down to here-“
And she put a finger on a lonely stretch of coast, entrenched among high cliffs and eucalyptus forests. “We tracked trails in the woods for a long time in the forests between here and that area. I actually followed the trails to this old, broken shack in the mountains. And yesterday, Damon, Elena and I saw it. The… creature. Just for a second- it was hiding behind a tree and almost flew by.” She shook her head helplessly. “We have no idea what it was.”
‘They have better fashion sense,” Damon replied with a shrug. “The one that we saw- let’s just say she wasn’t there for a beauty contest.”
And his trademark Damon smirk lifted the corner of my lips too. He’s always so carefully blasé. But I see right through you, Damon. You want your brother back, and I will get him. Soon, I promised to myself.
I looked down at the notes and odd phrases caught my eye.
“Pale…” I read.
“Fangs. It had fangs.” Elena’s quiet voice pulled my attention and I looked up, distracted.
“Yeah, I know you said that, but that could’ve been a mistake, it was all so fast- but the legs, tell her about the legs!” Caroline said excitedly, thrusting another piece of paper in my hand.
“Ah, here we go again,” said Damon in a bored voice. Clearly they were continuing an argument that had started earlier. I distinctly heard Elena sigh and almost felt the look she and Damon exchanged with each other. Frowning, I spotted a sentence in Caroline’s messy handwriting that began, ‘One brass and one of a-‘
Here I came to a halt.
“Wait.” I almost choked. “One leg made of brass, and the other that of a- “
“Donkey. Oh yeah,” said Damon, pulling a very serious face. “So says Caroline,” he added with a flourish.
Caroline’s teeth audibly gnashed together and I gaped at her.
“Bit of a surprise, isn’t it?” he snorted. “Clearly, allowing Blondieto get the closest was a mistake.”
“I know what I saw, okay, Damon?!” Caroline snapped, grey eyes flashing. “I know it was there! It stepped towards that man, and there was a tear in the robe, and-“
“Wait- what man?” this was just getting better and better. Not.
“It attacked a man in the woods,” Caroline replied, speaking directly to me, “That was when we saw it. A hiker. The guy walked towards it- didn’t even seem to realize that she looked like a hag and smelt worse. It was weird, let me tell you. How could he not-“
“Maybe he did,” I replied quietly.
“What do you mean?”
Looking up, I caught Elena’s eye, narrowed in doubt and … there was something else, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
She had always disliked me, because she thought that Stefan and I had a thing for each other. That was not quite true; to say that Ihad a thing for him would be more accurate. I honestly think he treated me more like the baby sister he never had. But the fact that she was now a married- well, betrothed- vampire, and not to Stefan, seemed to make little difference.
“I mean, maybe he did see it. He just didn’t care.”
When they didn’t respond, I continued, “Like he was- well, compelled.”
There was a stunned silence.
“Wait.” Damon looked at me incredulously. “That was a vampire?”
“That,” I handed the notes over, “was the predecessor of vampires, also known as empoussai, the ones-”
“Whose spirits the Original witch Esther invoked to create vampires,” Bonnie said, a look of comprehension spreading across her face, a tiny flame from the candle in front of her dancing in her green eyes.
There was another shocked pause in which I could almost hear their minds screaming, WHAT THE F-?!
“Whoa, hold up a second. Bonnie, how did you know that?” Caroline demanded.
“I found it in a Bennet witch’s grimwore,” she replied evenly, meeting the angry girl’s eye.
“And you never thought to tell us?!”
“And as if hybrids weren’t enough, now we have these-“ Damon looked down at the paper I was silently holding out, “these creatures of the earth, walking amongst us? I mean, whatthe hell, and why me?!”
“Shouldn’t they be dead?” asked Elena, looking at Bonnie. “I mean, if their spirits were what Esther invoked-“
“She invoked those of the dead ones,” Bonnie shrugged. “I’m sorry; I don’t really know much about them. They are very ancient beings; I only know that they, too, drank blood. Apart from that, I don’t know anything.”
“You don’t,” I said.
Damon cocked his head and looked at me, blue eyes narrowed, a half-smile spreading across his lips.
“But….?” I straightened up, squaring my shoulders.
“But I do.”
I first met Stefan at Stanford. I was a researcher, a student of humanities (oh yes, I know the irony), writing a thesis on Mythology Transcending Boundaries. While passing through a friend’s house, I saw him- then a tall, brooding, quiet stranger with politeness utterly unrivalled in the 21st century, now a merry, sweet-tempered, caring friend with a lovely smile.
“Talk to him,” my friend told me, “He knows a lot about this stuff.”
And unsurprisingly enough, he did. How I know what I know about him is a story for another day. For now, his brother’s urgent summons were all that counted. Stefan needed help. He needed me.
I did not hesitate.
“Empoussssssssaaaaiii……” the creature whispered.
Stefan jerked away from its foul breath. His hands were bound in iron chains doused in vervain, and his wrists were on fire. He met its milky gaze, his own blue eyes burning with hatred and anger. An instinctive snarl erupted from his throat as the creature touched his cheek.
“Empoussai.” The creature whispered, straightening up, its black shroud hiding it hideous, gray, wrinkled visage, “We… are your parents. The ones from whom your dynasty drew power, and sucked our foremothers dry. Essssther….”
The creature cocked its head towards Stefan. “Esther, she had her punishment at the hands of our sisters… but we? We were the outcasssstsss of nature, we gave birth to an abomination of nature, and so nature punished us! Eternally doomed! Eternally tied to roam the Earth, starving and helpless! And all for no fault of ours!”
In its anger, the creature seemed to grow, its ugly shadow writhing on the candlelit walls. But suddenly it was still.
Stefan’s heart went cold. The creature’s head swiveled slowly towards him, and its features were aglow with a gross smile.
“Now, we finally know what makes us strong once more… A fresh flow of life, again…. finally.”
Its smile broadened and its revolting anticipation hung in the tense air.
“Very impressive,” Stefan snarled, his pale, sweat-streaked face twisted into a sneer of rage. “Very impressive, except for one thing. Don’t underestimate your children.”
As the creature whipped around with a snarl, Stefan leapt towards it, breaking free of the chains, his wrists paining him like a thousand devils. He crashed down on her and she twisted away, fangs sinking into his flesh, her venom oozing into his blood, but he thrust his hand forwards, and in one, easy step it was over- he pulled out and crushed her heart in his hands.
The sparkling azure Pacific Ocean slipped by below the steep cliffs. The black SUV sped along the narrow highway, snaking its way across the cordillera.
“The top of the hill,” said Damon, without taking his eyes off the road, “The eucalyptus forests at the very top. That’s where Bonnie’s spell led Caroline to.”
A wealth of pine trees zipped past as the distinctive smell of eucalyptus drifted in through the windows of the car. The sun shone brightly over the dark green tree tops. In the car, everyone was silent. Bonnie quietly sat at the back. She, Caroline and Elena were looking unseeingly out of the windows at the magnificent view of the glittering blue waters far below us. Damon really was the lone knight amongst us today. I smiled at the irony, and sighed. And then there was I, the only human, also the only one without supernatural protection.
“So you stay with Bonnie,” Damon had growled earlier, towering over me as we stood waiting for the others by the car. “You’re stubborn enough to go and I’m stubborn enough to make sure you live. So no compromise.” And before I could protest, he walked away.
I wasn’t exactly thankful, because I knew the witch didn’t like me. I wasn’t looking forward to being babysat by her. And still we sped on, as the golden sun shined down on us.
It was cold and dark in the eucalyptus forest.
The ‘house’ was barely upright; its roof was tumbling in, window panes cracked and opaque with thick coats of dust, walls covered in ivy. It stood silent in the middle of a tiny clearing, all by itself, a lone sentinel in the midst of a nightmare. Cicadas chirped and birds cooed. The leaves of the tress were still. There was no wind. This was where the creatures nested- the only cool, dry underground ‘cavern’ they were likely to find near the spot indicated by the locator spell. This was the house Caroline had found earlier.
We crept across the forest floor towards it, hardly daring to breathe. Twigs snapped and leaves rustled underfoot, and once I saw a gecko slither over the carpet of dry leaves and disappear.
We halted at a short distance from the house.
“Remember,” Damon murmured, “Bonnie does her thing, they get knocked out, Elena goes in from the back, and I go in from the side, and we grab Stefan. Meanwhile, you two,” he jabbed twin fingers at me and Caroline, “douse the leaves outside with the gasoline. The second we’re out, Bonnie, start the fire, and you stay within-“
“Sight of Bonnie, yes, Damon, I know,” I barked at him tersely. He gave me a long, piercing look from those sapphire eyes of his, and then he and Elena picked up the steel ‘stakes’ and walked away, just like that.
I stayed within easy sight of the witch, as Caroline and I drew a circle of the greasy liquid on the grass, all the way over to the other side of the ramshackle hut. Bonnie closed her eyes and clutched the necklace with the strange amber locket she always kept with her: a talisman. Something to draw power from. I crouched behind an enormous tree trunk, hands gripping my ‘stake’ tightly, as the seconds ticked by.
Bonnie held up three fingers.
There was an odd, muffled thunder, and then the house exploded.
Half an hour earlier
Stefan’s arms were falling apart.
The creature’s venom seeped through his blood, piercing his veins like shard of glass. His vision was blurring, and he could hardly walk another step.
He steadied himself against the wall. The room he had been bound in was underground. A sort of ante-room led up to the doors of his prison, which now lay ripped apart. A trap door fitted slantingly in the ceiling closed the exit and the rickety wooden staircase had half rotted away. Normally, this would never have been a problem, but now…
The gas lamp beside his head hissed and spat and he blinked tears out of his eyes. Weak, leaf-filtered sunlight leaked through cracks in the trapdoor.
Why was the sunlight so unsettling?
Drunkenly, he took a step forward.
And cried out in pain. The sun physically stabbed at him, and smoke curled up from his exposed skin. For one second, his eyes glazed over. And then he streaked across the room and crashed into the opposite wall. The house shook with the impact.
Panting, he looked at his fingers, panicking. His ring?! Where was his ring?! And yet the pale ribbons of sunlight stretched inexorably down from the trap door, the stairs.
The low hiss from beyond the door made Stefan twist to look up. The sunlight was blocked, replaced by a foul black shadow. There stood another of the creatures; one of the other three Stefan recalled seeing in the vague moments after his abduction, when he partially absorbed his surrounding through a haze of pain and vervain. The trapdoor creaked open.
The creature peered into the gloom, seeming not to see him, looking confusedly from one side to another. He held his breath. The stairway creaked. His long-dormant heart gave a painful leap.
The creature placed a withered foot at the top of the staircase.
Meanwhile in the forest
The never-ending maze of trees closed in on us- a living labyrinth. We left the car on the highway as we trekked through the jungle. The girl was talking to us about the creatures.
“This creature has woken up recently from its century-long sleep. They have cycles of life- two hundred years of waking, hunting and living, and a hundred years of dormancy. That is how they live so long, although unlike vampires, they do, eventually, die. So it is starved, with weak senses. The steel stake- it goes directly to the heart. Since in your household steel swords may be found resting casually on walls, whittling steel stakes at short notice was less complicated than usual.” Damon accepted the sardonic comment with a mock bow, and we wound on through the trees, climbing up the steep incline. I saw Caroline smile out of the corner of my eye.
The silence was very loud in the forest. Birds called and the leaves slithered and rustled, but we were silent, watchful. I stepped over a fallen tree trunk.
With my new senses, I could hear its feet pattering as a squirrel leapt over the ground and streaked up a tree. I could see through the foliage to the darker, colder forest beyond, and far, far away, I could hear the ocean.
My thoughts drifted. Here I was, hiking through a forest, trying to save Stefan from the clutches of monsters. The sense of déjà vu almost stifled me. It felt a hundred years ago, but it was less than twenty in which I had helped Stefan, back in the forests of Mystic Falls, from Pearl’s vampires. And there was Damon, the black knight, striding his way through a net of ferns, just as he had done on that day. He was afraid, deadly afraid, for his brother, but as usual his shield was perfect. How well I knew him. How well I know that this is exactly how he acts when he is terrified.
A sudden snapping sound arrested my attention. I halted.
A low slithering sound. A leaf rustled somewhere. I listened, straining my ears.
My eyes darted from one side to another. The forest in front of me was empty of unusual life, except for my companions. I was falling behind- they would soon be out of sight.
A cold, pricking sensation lifted the hairs on the back of my neck. I was being watched.
I scanned the forest anew, looking in all directions. I saw nothing. But it was there. I was sure of it.
I hesitated for a second longer, then continued on my way. But even as I walked, I heard what sounded like a low hiss. My eyes snapped across to the point from where it seemed to come, and saw only the dark green foliage.
But, beyond that, in the darkness… was that a black cloak?
The creature laboriously climbed down the stairs.
Stefan flattened himself against the wall, attempting to stay still. His limbs were numb. His head spun and his eyes glazed over, but he placed one shaking hand on the wall and dragged himself along until he stood directly below the stair case, the sunlight streaming in an inch or so away, trying to steady his trembling legs. His head was hammering hard enough to make up for his lost heart beat. The creature creeped down to the last step. There it stood, looking around, its back to Stefan.
He could hear leaves shaking in the wind right outside. The sound was so close, that he knew the forest had claimed land very close to the house as its own. Just one attempt, one dash through the forest would take him in its shelter, away from the sun and out of reach of the creatures. Just one try. The top rungs of the staircase appeared to be entirely intact.
Could he pull himself up?
Another gas lamp sputtered on the wall, further into the darkness on the other side of the stairs. The foul smell of burning propane pervaded his senses. With trembling hands, he caught hold of one wooden rung high above his head and heaved.
And then the world was the wrong way up and everything was in freefall- Stefan crashed down onto the floor; the wooden step had rotted away and was unable to bear his weight. He landed on the packed earthen floor in an explosion of pain, the sun scorching his arms, sharper than the sharpness of the venom, contradicting its iciness with fire; his wrist bone snapped and the creature spun around with a snarl. Head spinning, blinded by pain, sweat and the venom’s sting, Stefan leapt back into the darkness on the other side of the staircase. The nightmare lunged at him- his flailing hands caught hold of the gas lamp on the wall and he flung it at her- she shrieked and held up her hands in front of her eyes, but the glass of the lamp smashed and the flames engulfed her, devouring her withered body greedily, as she twisted and writhed and shrieked in pain- and abruptly the screams died out.
But now the flames had caught on to the staircase- the rotting wood burnt like kindle- the flames spread along the floor covered in dried leaves, come in through open trapdoor- and Stefan, trapped in a dark corner with the fire blazing in front of him, trapped by the sun, his shaking body and hazy brain about to give way into blessed unconsciousness, darkness and oblivion- but the fire- he retreated to the farthest corner, as the flames caught the other gas lamp- and the house exploded.
We were flung back into the tree, Bonnie and I. Wood and shrapnel pattered against tree trunks in front of us. Acrid black smoke and flames whose heat no tree trunk could stop billowed upwards towards the now grey and cloudy sky. Birds twittered. The world sloped in wrong ways and a roaring sound filled my ears. Something very much like blood leaked down the side of my face. I lay back against the tree trunk, eyes frozen wide with horror. My mind spun.
I though the scream was in my mind, but I could see a black blur streak into the flames- Damon. Scarlet blots clung to my vision, and no matter how many times I blinked, I couldn’t get rid of them.
Where was Bonnie?
Dazed, I groped around for my glasses, and my hand found something sharp. Blood spurted out and stained the earth-covered glass, now in pieces at my feet. Unsteadily, I gripped the tree trunk and stood up, looking around in panic, the green world around me filled with the violence of the flames. Small woodland animals scurried by, not paying any attention to me. And I saw Bonnie, running towards the house, her talisman gripped in her raised hand; the flames started to die down in a definite path. Another white streak of light followed the path and disappeared into the smouldering embers. The fire on the other side continued to rage as wildly as ever.
Tears seeped down through the soot, earth and blood coating my face and I couldn’t seem to hear or think anything.
I thought I imagined the faint rustle behind me.
I heard the house explode before I had completed my loop to its back.
For a second, my heart felt alive again- as though its uneven, tense thumping had suddenly, painfully, stopped. I whirled around and just stood on the fallen tree trunk, gaping, as the smoke and flames leapt up into the sky in front of me.
Then I was racing through the forest, my mind echoing with one word.
No, no, no…
The wind whipped away my tears and my dread fuelled my speed, as with a final burst, I skidded to a stop, a few feet from the burning house.
Bonnie was running towards me, hands outstretched, forcing a path through the fire, and Caroline disappeared through the leaping flames within the bowels of the house. I looked around wildly, panting, searching for a lone dark-clad knight somewhere nearby, but of course I couldn’t find him. I looked back at the fire, sure Damon had forced his way in somewhere- I looked back at the forest- the green blur dazzled me- and was about to jump into the fire, when all of a sudden-
Everything was quiet.
The fire still roared; the sound of my breath filled the air and my throat was dry. I couldn’t seem to focus, but in that split second, I was sure something had changed.
What was it?
And then there was a crashing sound from within the house. The burning timber on the farther side had finally given way, and it crumbled to dust, the all-devouring flames leaping towards me. Bonnie was straining, white, about to fall to her feet, a thick red stream flowing from her nose and coming faster every second, and all I could think was, my friends were tapped in that hell hole somewhere. Damon, Stefan and Caroline were all in there somewhere, unable to walk out, unable to breathe, about to die-
I raced to the house and threw the door open.
The flames punched into my face and the smoke rushed up to swallow me. The heat would kill me within seconds. Even outside, in the open, it was burning hot. I plunged in.
It was hell, right there. The heat and the smoke attacked me, and I was likely to choke to death before getting burnt, because, as I very quickly discovered, vampires do need to breathe. Not breathing won’t kill us, of course. But it will paralyse us for long enough for the fire to do its job. But maybe that would be a blessing. Maybe I would die right here, with my friends, rather than live any longer on the borrowed time I’ve lived on since Wickery Bridge.
My eyes were on fire, almost literally. My tears ran down my neck. I stepped into the fire.
And collided straight with a dark-clad knight, clawing his way out of the house, supporting a limp form by his shoulder, tears streaking down his soot-covered face. The smoke went into my head and I stumbled forward and caught hold of its other arm, and together, we pulled Damon’s brother into the relief of the cool green shade of the forest.
Tears still ran down my face and I had to stop for a minute to make my hands stop trembling. Damon threw Stefan’s prone form down on the grass.
“Be careful! He just-“
“Caroline’s still in there.”
She was kneeling next to Stefan, cradling his head in her lap. Her hair fell in a smooth brown cascade to her shoulders, and when she looked up, I saw the softness of her brown eyes. Time or danger had not made me immune to her beauty.
It took a minute for her horror to register.
I was already running back to the house, but it was now an inferno, with whirlpools of fire spitting out of it. I couldn’t even get closer than a foot. I reached out my hand and it blistered in the heat. My mind whirled as I frantically searched for any signs of a blonde head, tangled by dirt and blackened with soot, a white hand in the red-
That was when I noticed the small opening by the house- a trap door. The side door we went through had become a portal to hell, but this particular pool of blackness was not yet tainted by the fire. Skidding to a halt beside it, I realized that there had been a wooden staircase there. With that burnt up, there was nothing else to devour. The fire had moved away elsewhere.
Without a thought, I rushed in.
The small conscious part of my mind screamed questions at me.
What was I doing? Why was I going back in? My brother was safe, Elena was out there, and yet-
The half- choked hoarse shriek came from right behind me and a white hand blackened with soot clutched my shoulder. I spun around and there she was, hands covered in burns, crying. I caught hold of her and dragged her out, leaping out into the trap door, as the timber on this side finally burnt out and Bonnie, with a cry, fell in a heap to the forest floor. The whole structure crashed down into the pool of blackness. The glare of the fire made me stagger backwards.
We stood there and panted, Elena frozen white with shock, Caroline sobbing, Stefan and Bonnie both unconscious. For my part, my hand burned and my head was exploding with pain, but hey, I was alive. Or, you know. Whatever.
Caroline held out a barely recognizable object in her palm, black and twisted and almost melted- Stefan’s ring. The lapis lazuli was intact, thankfully, and I shoved it back onto his limp finger. Even as I did that, I felt the finger give way at an odd angle. The bone was broken, and it didn’t heal. The guy needed to get some blood into him. I huffed a sigh.
Man, this caring and loving stuff was getting on my nerves.
I looked around for a black head, with glasses and freckles and a permanent tan that had nothing to do with the sun and everything to do with her Indian heritage. She was, after all, the one who helped us rescue my brother.
I looked around a second time, moving in to take stock. It didn’t make a difference.
“Where the hell is Sophia?”
My eyes raked the surrounding forest. I turned to face Elena.
“Where is she? Since, you know, you saw Bonnie was busy, and you weren’t with us, I kind of automatically assumed you were with her, which obviously is not the case-“ I added, spotting Elena’s confused expression, “where”- I spread my arms out, “Is she?”
“She’s… not here?” Elena stood up, looking around with a perplexed eye, “I just…I thought- that’s not why I fell behind. I thought I saw- a black-“
My heart leapt. Fear bubbled in my throat and I clamped down on it, instead raising an eyebrow at her. “A what?”
“It’s them,” she whispered, her eyes meeting mine, and I knew she was right, “the empoussai. They must have her. The black cloak- that I saw… It was one of them.”
I was flying.
The trees blurred and sped past as the creature held me and streaked through the forest, its sister beside us, silent and terrible. Bright red spots bloomed across my vision. Time seemed to bend as we flew through the undergrowth and then the forest itself warped and lurched as we shuddered to a halt, miles away from the smouldering heap of the house.
“Why are we stopping?” demanded the other roughly, its voice a serpentine hiss. My head rolled and my stomach churned. My neck felt broken from the blow that had struck it before I was dragged away from the clearing- out of sight and reach of my friends.
“To feed.” The one holding me threw me down onto the ground. My head rolled sickeningly. I think my head struck a rock, or a rock struck my head. Hot liquid seeped down my cheek.
The creatures froze.
The voice struck more fear in my heart than anything had throughout this nightmare. For the first time, a real sob broke through and I clutched the rough grass and tried to scramble away.
“We should not wait here!” snarled the other creature. “Not feed! We must kill her, and turn back and hunt the others!”
“We are not strong enough!”
The creature whirled around, and now it was turned away from me, facing the angry other. My heart leapt into my throat; my legs shook and my head burned, but I began to crawl away. “We will be decimated, Vera!”
“They killed our sisters! They are weak and live on essence borrowed from us; we can destroy them right now!”
“Keep your voice down, you tempestuous little fool!”
The gloom of the forest echoed with their rage. Dry leaves scrunched under my hand as I trembled and swayed and clutched a tree trunk to stay upright. Their noise masked my movements and, hardly daring to breathe, I retreated slowly into a net of brambles, shallow breaths escaping from between my lips. I took another step backwards and turned, and there was something grey in the undergrowth, watching me. Her eyes were red and hungry and mine opened wide with surprise and-
My screams pierced the air as the black whirlwind enveloped me and they grabbed me by the hair and pulled me back, stronger than they should be. I was trapped and their filthy nails slashed open a gash in my neck. Blood flowed out and the one closest opened her mouth and I could see the black hole, with no teeth, and a forked black tongue, and she bent over me to drink, and uttered an odd gasp instead.
Her sister suddenly let go of me, and I fell to the ground, blood pouring from my neck. The other stood frozen, a scream dying in her throat. She looked down at her chest.
There, sticking out from her heart, was the tip of a steel sword.
Fifteen minutes earlier
“What did you do, little witch?” I snarled.
Bonnie sat on the forest floor, panting. My little brother was still comatose. Caroline was still looking on the verge of tears. And Elena had stood up, all warrior-princess-like, and run back to where Sophia had been, before.
“I didn’t do anything,” Bonnie snapped, the angry red my-palm-shaped patch on her cheek still glowing (I slapped her to make her wake up), “the fire distracted me. I was trying to keep you both and Stefan alive, and I wanted to do, oh, I don’t know, a THOROUGH JOB!”
Her shout took me off guard. She glared at me from the floor.
“They went that way,” Elena said, right behind me. I tore my eyes away from the witch.
“Great. Let’s go. I’ll lead.” I picked up the sword from where I’d thrown it down before the fireworks started.
I raised an incredulous eyebrow.
“I’ll go,” said Elena.
When she didn’t elaborate, I cocked my head towards her. “What?”
“Look around you,” she replied, her sword in her hand. “Stefan’s not moving. Bonnie’s exhausted. Caroline’s covered in burns. If someone were to attack them, they’re as good as dead. So you need to stay here and look after them. I’ll go.”
“No no no no no no,” I said, shaking an accusing finger, “You’ve got that all wrong. You’ll stay here to look after them, and I’ll go find her. Deal?”
But even as I looked into those brown eyes, I knew there was no hope. “You’re not the one who saw the creature today, Damon. You’re not even the one who experienced their speed and strength. I’ll go.”
“No, you see-“
“End of story.”
I stared back at her, astounded.
“And I’m gonna need that sword.”
She snatched it out of my hand and walked away, abruptly picking up speed and disappearing between a bank of trees.
My anger and heartbreak fuelled my speed as I raced through the maze of trees, every second taking me closer to her blood.
I could smell it now, fresh and strong, pumping somewhere very close at hand. And there was something else- a strange, sibilant hissing, like huge snakes or really angry llamas… the sounds wafting towards me from up ahead.
I paused, taking my bearings.
Straight ahead- east. It was coming from the east.
The undergrowth barely rustled as I silently passed through, coming to a halt behind a huge tree trunk.
The creatures were arguing.
Caroline had stumbled into the burnt bodies of two of them while inside the house, and from our previous forays we knew there were only four of them. So two remained for me now, distracted – therefore vulnerable. I lifted my arm to take aim with one of the swords and suddenly realized that a vital piece of the puzzle was missing.
Where was the girl?
In the moment I sighted them, I had stopped thinking about her. After all, she didn’t mean a great deal to me. She didn’t mean anything to me.
Where was her blood?
Suddenly, I caught the delicious scent to my left. I automatically jerked around, for one moment letting the overpowering thirst overtake me completely.
And my eyes met the girl’s, mine red and hungry, hers crazed with fear.
Within the space of a heart beat they were on her, tearing into her flesh and preparing to feed on her blood. In one swift movement, I swung my arm back and let the sword slice through the air.
There was a short pause, during which I think the creature gasped.
Then the hilt of the sword was buried into her back, and she dropped like a marionette cut from its strings.
I stared in dumb horror at the sword.
The other creature gave a shrieking cry, and oddly enough, it seemed to me as if grief was there in the piercing notes. She whirled around with a snarl, when the second sword cut through the air, and its hilt was buried in her chest. She stopped, choked, and then collapsed. Slowly, the creatures both crumbled to dust in front of our eyes.
It took a long time for me to turn away from the black heap.
When I did, Elena was standing in front of me, very matter-of-factly wiping the blade of the swords- when did she pull them out? – clean with a fern leaf. She caught them both by the hilt and then turned to me.
“Ready to go?”
By her voice, I knew nothing had changed between us. She still hated me and I was still the unwelcome intruder.
But she was here.
She looked back at me for a moment, and abruptly lifted me into her arms. I didn’t even have energy to be surprised. Cradled in her cold, uncomfortable embrace, I realized that my legs were broken.
Then we raced into the forest, back towards the clearing with the house. It was just like before. Speed, and trees, and my head straining. But this time, I knew I was safe.
This caring and loving stuff was really getting on my nerves.
I had stopped attempting to revive Stefan and instead, just tried to keep a watch out for any of the jeepers, when suddenly Elena emerged from the forest, carrying- actually carrying- Sophia. Although the moment she saw me, she dumped her onto the floor. But still.
What the heck was going on?
Anyway, we managed to get Caroline to carry her, albeit very gingerly, and Elena and I supported my brother. Bonnie followed a few paces behind, and if I had wanted, I could have pointed out to the warrior princess that we were worse than sitting ducks that way. But I was so drained, I didn’t even have energy left for sarcasm. Which actually says a lot about exactly how much my day had sucked.
It was a long walk, may I mention.
We made it back to the car and were on our way, emerging from the forest into the orange glow of a California twilight. The day was drawing to an end, and half our party was crashing in the backseats. I could practically hear the soft snores, if it weren’t for the waves and the smooth swoosh of the slipstream of the car. Only Elena was alert, looking out of the window, the orange lighting her face up. The car sped round a corner and we raced downhill.
I wanted to talk to her. But it was impossible, in this hilly terrain, and I was already half asleep as it was. All I wanted was to go home, dump Stefan onto his bed with a few bloodbags, drink a Bourbon and go to bed. That was all, really. I wasn’t even sure I was up for the talk I wanted to have. I was just too tired. Every day, it seemed something loomed up on us, threatening to take the people I care about away from me- now that I actually cared. I didn’t want Stefan to thank me. I didn’t want Sophia to be all understanding and sympathetic. I didn’t want Elena’s silent hand on my shoulder, letting me know that she was there for me… always.
I just wanted to be home.
He caught up to me just before I could sneak away to a spare bedroom and bolt myself in.
Stefan had been laid out on the couch, and Bonnie had finally managed to bring him round. He still seemed to be very woozy, so I stood and watched for a moment, and then tiptoed out. Sophia was curled up on the sofa. Damon had given her a dose of his blood.
“Try not to die within the next twenty-four hours or so and you’ll be fine,” he had said, winking at her, with that beautiful, capricious half-smile. She had laughed, and suddenly given way to a flood of tears, melting into the sofa. Caroline was with her now.
Her lips were still a little red from the blood bag snack, I thought.
Before I put a foot on the stairs Damon caught hold of my arm and steered me outside, under the crescent moon. My feet sank into the sand of the beach as I unwillingly dragged myself after him. The waves unrolled softly onto the beach, and stars sparkled in the black sky.
Were they the same ones I saw back home? In Mystic Falls?
Where is home for me now?
I don’t think I have a home anymore.
“What?” I said defensively.
“Why did you do it?” he demanded without preamble. “You hate her- you do,” he said warningly, watching me shake my head exasperatedly, “don’t deny it, Elena, you do. So why bother? Why not let her die? Stefan was fine. You could’ve left sooner without her.”
“It’s not like that,” I snarled through gritted teeth.
“Then what is it like?!”
“I saved her because Stefan would have wanted me to!”
The trees murmured as the breeze blew softly through them. A single star winked at me as I wrestled with my tears. I was so tired, so tired. I just wanted to be home.
“Do you remember Wickery Bridge?” I asked Damon, more in control now. I looked into those sapphire eyes which had always consumed me, always broken me down with their fire.
“Fifteen years ago, Damon, I made a choice. I chose to die rather than lose anyone else. I wanted Stefan to save Matt and not me, because I just could not have another person die for me. And he gave what I asked for. No matter how much you blamed him then- no matter how much you blame him now-“ Even as I spoke, the words caught in my throat. It had been so long since I had spoken about what I had become… so very long, that I had forgotten what relief speaking can bring. Damon looked unblinkingly at me, his face frozen into a furious mask- “It was my choice. And he gave it to me. And today, the situation was reversed. I could’ve walked away, but I didn’t, knowing what he would have wanted. At least he wasn’t dying.”
Damon looked back at me as the stars suddenly seemed to recede from the sky.
“I owe it to him,” I whispered. “After everything… I owe at least this much to him.”
The silence was the more terrible because I knew that with every word I spoke, I hurt him. I showed him how much I cared- how much I could never stop caring about. And that was worse than anything I could ever do to him.
But then he nodded, his face very calm. Only his tightly clenched fists gave any indication of emotion. “Of course,” He said, very formal. He held the door to the house open for me. “Shall we?”
My eyes filled with tears and they spilled over, finally, after a long, long time. He turned to walk in. I stumbled forward and caught hold of his hand.
“Don’t walk away, Damon,” I whispered, sounding like a lonely child. “Don’t… walk away.”
He held my hand, and suddenly the mask was gone, the pain in his eyes cutting me to my soul.
“Never,” he whispered in my ears, pulling me close. “Never again.”
“A walk through the woods at night. It would seem that the full moon is not the only time the woods are unsafe,” Stefan said quietly, the hint of a smile playing around his lips. We were sitting outside, on the beach. It was nearly midnight. The stars shone softly down on us. White-topped waves washed the shore.
“They’re supposed to be really rare, now that the vampires dominate,” I replied comfortingly. “You couldn’t have known.”
“Well, in addition to college, we now have one more experience in common.” I raised my eyebrows. “Getting chomped on by snake-women.”
Our laughter intermingled in the night, and I thought about how his eyes crinkle when he laughs, and how much that reminds me of my best friend, back home.
Of course, my best friend isn’t a vampire.
“Which brings me to say,” he said, looking closely at me, “How are you? I know the wounds have healed.”
“Only because Elena got there in time.”
Stefan’s face was silvered by the light of the crescent moon as he nodded slowly.
“Yes,” he said, “She saved you. Why,” and his smile came back, “I couldn’t tell you.”
“The mind changes, but the heart remains the same,” I smiled too, repeating the words he had told me, long ago.
“Yes,” he agreed, the corner of his eyes creasing as his beautiful smile broadened, “The heart. It is unchangeable, unreasonable, truthful. She always had an amazingly noble heart.”
“And Bonnie… “
She was strange. I knew why Elena did not like me, but Bonnie? She was an unknown entity. Always there, watchful and wise, refusing to be dictated by anyone’s terms but her own. I actually admired her for that. But I never understood her odd aversion to me.
“I think she doesn’t- take to you, because… she finds it odd for me to have such a close human connection, in a way other than… what I previously had. Not now. Not anymore. She doesn’t expect me to have them anymore and she wonders why I do. She thinks I may… hurt you. In an odd way, I think she’s actually trying to protect you.”
“Shouldn’t she be talking to you, then? I don’t blame her for what happened today, but – I can’t help thinking.”
“No, she won’t,” Stefan replied calmly. “That girl… she refrains from speaking out her feelings, ever since expressing them outright became restricting to her plans. She tends to function in her own way, on her own. She won’t tell either me or you to back off, but she will find a way to make it happen. And… I think, today, she wanted to show you what can happen if you insist on being my friend. And so here we are.”
Witches are complicated, he had told me once. But they are almost always right.
His words seemed to echo in the space between us.
“Have you heard from Katherine?” I asked, to change the subject.
Even in the darkness, I could tell his face clouded over.
“No,” he replied, his eyes suddenly expressionless.
“But you will,” I replied confidently, even though it broke my heart a little bit inside. I had never met her. But I knew enough to know I was right.
He looked at me skeptically.
“You will. Remember, it was always you, Stefan.”
A small sound echoed from the house. As both of us turned, a light switched off in the upper storey of the house. But not before I recognized the silhouette.
“Damon,” I said, contrite.
“Yes,” Stefan’s voice was heavy.
“But… he doesn’t love her anymore.” My confusion showed in my voice. Stefan shook his head.
“I don’t think… this is about Katherine,” he replied evenly. “Not at all, actually.”
“Elena doesn’t love meanymore,” he replied. And suddenly, I knew what he was talking about. I bit my lip.
“Poor guy,” I whispered. “Poor Damon. Poor Elena…”
A painful smile twisted his lip into almost a grimace.
The silence felt very heavy after that.
“You’ll be home again soon, you know,” I said, clearing my throat and changing the subject again. “And again, the residents of Mystic Falls will welcome you back with open arms.”
His smile broke out again, like a sudden sparkle of the ocean under an unclouded sun, like the flash of a flame on a dark night.
“Yes,” he nodded, half to himself, “home sounds very good to me right now.” And suddenly he looked at me. “You remind me so much of someone sometimes, you know?”
“Someone who gave her entire life, and then some, to being the best friend she possibly could be to me.” His smile had so much sadness in it- much more than I had ever seen. “So much I have lost, over the years. So much…
“But you know what the good part is?” he looked back at me. “Sometimes, in the maze of time, you do find your way back home again.”
The sea murmured as we smiled at each other, together under the night sky. It wasn’t home, but it was pretty darn close.