Origins (Chapter 26)

I cannot say how long I ran. The night was clear and cold, and my heart felt as though it were pounding in my neck, in my brain, in my feet. I occasionally pressed my hand to the wound on my neck, which was still bleeding. The area was warm to the touch, and I felt dizzy whenever I put my hand on it.

With each footstep, a new image appeared in my head: Katherine, bloodstained foam collecting at the corner of her mouth; Father, standing above her with a stake. Memories blurred, so I wasn't sure whether the red-eyed, shrieking monster who was on the floor was the same person who'd lunged at me with her teeth, who'd caressed me in the pond, who haunted my dreams and my waking hours. I shivered uncontrollably and lost my footing, tripping over a felled branch. I landed on the dirt, on my hands and knees, and retched repeatedly, until the iron-like taste in my mouth disappeared.

Katherine was about to die. Father hated me. I didn't know who I was, or what I should be doing. The entire world was turned upside down, and I felt dizzy and weak, sure that no matter what I did, I would cause destruction. This was all my fault. All of it. If I hadn't lied to Father and kept Katherine's secret … I forced myself to catch my breath, then stood up and began running again.

As I ran, the scent of the vervain in my pocket filled my nostrils. Its sweet, earthy fragrance wafted through my body, seeming to clear my head and imbue my limbs with a wakeful energy. I turned left on the dirt path, surprised at the course I was choosing, but for the first time in weeks, I felt certain about my actions.

I burst into the sheriff's office, where Sheriff Forbes sat with his feet up on the desk, asleep. In the one holding cell, the town drunk, Jeremiah Black, was snoring loudly, obviously sleeping off a bad night at the saloon. Noah, a young officer, was also nodding off on a wooden chair outside the cell.

"Vampires! There are vampires at Veritas!" I yelled, causing Sheriff Forbes and Jeremiah to simultaneously snap to attention.

"Let's go. Follow me," Sheriff Forbes said, grabbing a club and a musket. "Noah!" he yelled. "Get the wagon and follow behind with Stefan."

"Y sir," Noah said, jumping to his feet. He

es, pulled a club from a hook on the wall and passed it to me. Just then, I heard a piercing noise, and I realized that Sheriff Forbes was ringing the alarm outside the sheriff's office. The bell clanged over and over again.

"I can help. Please?" Jeremiah slurred, both hands on the bars. Noah shook his head and hurriedly ran through the building, his boots echoing against the wooden floor beams. I followed him, stopping to watch as he hastily hitched two horses to a long iron wagon.

"Come on!" Noah called impatiently, holding his whip.

I jumped up onto the seat next to Noah and watched as he cracked the whip, causing the horses to gallop at breakneck speed down the hill and into town. People were standing outside their houses in nightclothes and rubbing their eyes, some hitching horses to wagons and coaches.

"Attack at the Salvatore estate!" Noah called, over and over again, until his voice almost broke. I knew I should help. But I couldn't. Instead, I felt fear grip my heart as the wind whipped my face. I heard the clip-clopping of horses in the distance, and saw doors being flung open and more townspeople in their nightclothes hastily grabbing rifles, bayonets, and any other weapon they could find. As we galloped through town, I noticed the apothecary was closed tightly. Could Anna and Pearl be at home? If so, I needed to give them a warning.

No. The word came so strongly, it was as if my father had whispered it in my ear himself. I needed to make things right for me, for the Salvatore name. The only people I cared about were Father and Damon, and if anything happened to them … "Attack at the Salvatore estate!" I yelled, my voice breaking.

"Attack at the Salvatore estate!" Noah repeated, his words sounding like a chant. I looked up at the sky. The moon was a tiny sliver, and clouds obscured any hint of starlight. But suddenly, as we rode up the hill, I saw Veritas lit up like morning, with a mob of what looked like a hundred people brandishing torches and standing on the steps of the porch, yelling.

Pastor Collins stood on the porch swing, calling out prayers, as several people watched him, kneeling on the ground and praying. Next to him was Honoria Fells, yelling to anyone who would listen about demons and repentance. Old Man Robinson was brandishing his torch and threatening to burn down the entire estate.

"Stefan!" Honoria called as I jumped off the wagon before it stopped. "For your protection," she said, proffering a branch of vervain.

"Excuse me," I called hoarsely, as I pushed through the horde, using my elbows, and ran to the carriage house and up the stairs. I heard angry voices from the chambers.

"I will take her! We'll leave, and you won't see either of us again!" Damon's voice, as low and ominous as incoming thunder.

"Ungrateful!" Father roared, and I heard a sickening crack. I bounded up the stairs and saw Damon, slumped against the doorway, a trickle of blood oozing from his temple. The door had cracked from the impact of Damon's body.

"Damon!" I called, falling onto my knees next to my brother. Damon tried to struggle to his feet. I winced as I saw the blood flooding from his temple. When he turned toward me, his eyes blazed with anger.

Father stood, stake in hand. "Thank you for getting the sheriff, Stefan. Y did the right thing.

ou Unlike your brother." Father reached out toward him, and I gasped, sure he would hit him again. But instead he stretched out his hand. "Stand up, Damon."

Damon slapped away Father's hand. He stood on his own, wiping the blood from his head with the back of his hand.

"Damon. Listen to me," Father continued, ignoring the look of pure hatred on Damon's face. "Y were bewitched by the demon … by that

ou Katherine. But now she will disappear and you must side with what's right. I showed you mercy, but these people …" He gestured toward the window and the angry mob beyond it.

"Then let me be killed," Damon hissed, as he stormed out the door. He brushed past me, hitting me hard with his shoulder as he ran down the stairs.

From inside the room, an agonizing shriek emerged. "Sheriff?" Father called, swinging open the door to Katherine's chambers. I gasped. There was Katherine, a leather muzzle over her face, her white arms and legs bound together.

"She's ready," Sheriff said grimly. "We'll take her to the wagon and add her to the list. Gilbert's got the compass and is rounding up the vampires in town. By daybreak, we will have rid the town of this scourge."

Katherine stared at me, a desperate, pleading expression in her eyes. But what could I do? She was lost to me now.

I turned down the stairs and ran.