Origins (Chapter 28)

"We need to act now," Damon said when we reached the line of trees next to the field. The forest floor was slick with leaves, and there was no sound, not even of animals.

I'd spent the last minutes desperately racking my brain, trying to think of some way to save Katherine. But I couldn't. Our only hope was to enter the fray, say a prayer for Pearl and Anna, then focus on freeing Katherine. It would be incredibly dangerous. But there was no other way.

"Y es," I replied with an authority I did not feel. "Are you ready?" Without waiting for an answer, I deftly moved toward the forest border, guided by the faint sound of angry shouting. I could see the outline of the estate. Damon crept by my side. Suddenly I saw a large burst of flames erupt from the carriage house. I gasped, but Damon simply glared at me.

Just then, I heard the strident voice of Jonathan Gilbert. "Found another one!"

I crept closer to the edge of the forest, until I had a full view of Jonathan slamming Henry from the tavern against the back of the police wagon. Noah held one of his arms, while another guard I didn't recognize held the other one. Jonathan held out his compass, frowning.

"Stake him!" he said. The guard drew his bayonet back and thrust it into the center of Henry's chest. Blood spurted as Henry shrieked into the night air. Henry slumped to his knees, his eyes wide and staring down at the bayonet lodged in his body. I turned toward Damon, both of us realizing that we didn't have any time to waste. Damon bit his lip, and I knew we were in this together. Even though we often acted differently, when it counted we thought the same way. Maybe that–the shorthand communication we had as brothers–would be what would save us, and would save Katherine.

"Vampires!" I yelled from the depths of the forest.

"We found one! Help!" Damon called.

Instantly, Noah and the other guard released their grip on Henry and ran toward us, their bayonets raised.

"Over there!" Damon panted, pointing deep into the forest as the two guards stepped closer. "There was a man. We only saw a dark shadow, but he tried to attack my brother." As if to illustrate his point, Damon traced the sticky path of blood that had pooled onto my collarbone from my neck. I reached my own hand to that spot in surprise. I'd forgotten that Katherine had bitten me. It seemed like a lifetime ago.

The two guards looked at each other and nodded tersely. "Y boys shouldn't be out here

ou without weapons. We've got some in the wagon," without weapons. We've got some in the wagon," Noah called, before charging into the forest.

"Good," Damon said, almost under his breath. "Let's go. And if you let me down, I'll kill you," he said, breaking away toward the wagon. I followed him, moving wholly by adrenaline.

We reached the unguarded wagon. Low moans came from the inside. Damon kicked the back of the wagon open and leapt up to the platform. I followed, gagging when I entered. The scent of the wagon was acrid, a combination of blood and vervain and smoke. Bodies writhed in corners, but the wagon was pitch-black, making it impossible to tell whether the figures were vampires or humans or a combination of the two.

"Katherine!" Damon hissed, leaning down and roughly touching each of the bodies in his search for her.

"Stefan?" a weak voice called from the corner, and I forced myself to not lash out, to not spit in the direction of the voice, to not stare into those villainous eyes and tell her I hoped she got exactly what she deserved. "Damon?" the voice broke.

"Katherine. I'm here," Damon whispered, making his way toward the far end of the wagon. I continued to stand, as if glued to the spot. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I began seeing things that were more terrible than anything I'd ever seen in my worst dreams. On the floor of the wagon were almost a dozen bodies, some of people who I recognized from around town. Henry, a few regulars from the saloon, and even Dr. Janes. Some of the bodies had stakes in them, others had muzzles over their mouths, their hands and feet bound and their mouths seemingly frozen in wide O's of horror; some were simply curled up as if they were already dead.

The sight changed me, changed everything. I took off my hat and knelt down roughly, praying to God or whoever would listen to please save them. I remembered Anna's kitten-like cries, the dull fear in Pearl's eyes. Y they couldn't live here, but

es, why did Father have to condone this brutal treatment? No one deserved to die like this, not even monsters. Why couldn't it be enough to simply run them out of town?

Damon knelt down, and I rushed toward his side. Katherine was lying on her back, ropes binding her arms and legs. The ropes must have been covered with vervain, because there were terrible burns on the patches of skin that touched the twine. A leather mask covered her face, and her hair was matted with dried blood.

I stood back, not wanting to touch her or even look at her, as Damon set to work untying the muzzle. Once she was free, I couldn't help but notice her teeth, her fangs, her true nature, obvious in a way I'd never seen before. But Damon was gazing at her as if in a trance. He gently brushed the hair off her face and slowly leaned in to kiss her lips.

"Thank you," said Katherine simply. That was it. And watching them, the way Katherine's fingers stroked Damon's hair, the way Damon cried into her collarbone, I knew that this was true love. As they continued to gaze into each other's eyes, I pulled my knife out of my pocket and gently tried to cut the ropes that bound her. I worked slowly and carefully, knowing that any additional contact with the ropes would cause her even more pain.

"Hurry!" Damon whispered, sitting on his heels as he watched me work.

I freed one arm, then another. Katherine sighed shakily, shrugging her shoulders up and down as if to make sure they still worked.

"Help!" cried a pale, thin woman I didn't recognize. She was huddled in the very back of the wagon.

"We'll be back," I said, lying through my teeth. We wouldn't be back. Damon and Katherine had to escape, and I had to … well, I had to help them.

"Stefan?" Katherine said weakly as she struggled to her feet. Damon instantly rushed to her side and supported her fragile body.

Just then, I heard footfalls near the wagon.

"Escape!" one of the guards called. "We need backup. There's been a breach in the wagon!"

"Run!" I called, pushing Damon and Katherine in the opposite direction of the guard. "No escape! All clear!" I shouted into the darkness, hoping that people would believe me as I hopped off the wagon.

I saw the explosion of gunpowder before I heard the shot. A loud wail rent the night air, followed quickly by another booming shot. Heart in my throat, I ran around the wagon, already knowing what I'd see.

"Damon!" I cried. He lay on the ground, blood oozing from his gut. Yanking off my shirt, I put the linen on the wound to stanch the bleeding. I knew it was no use, but still I held the fabric to his chest. "Don't shut your eyes, brother. Stay with me."

"No … Katherine. Save her …," Damon rasped, his head flopping toward the damp ground. I glanced, wild-eyed, from the truck to the woods. The two guards were sprinting back, Jonathan Gilbert behind them.

I stood up, and instantly my body was met with the explosive, piercing, agonizing hit of a bullet. I felt my chest exploding, felt the cool night air whoosh past my body as I fell back, onto my brother. I opened my eyes and looked up at the moon, and then everything faded to black.