The Awakening (Chapter Five)
Something black had winged toward the woods as the humans reached the sanctuary of the bridge, but even Stefan's night senses could not make out what it was. He had watched while she and the other two started in the direction of town. Then he had turned back to the graveyard.
It was empty now, purged of whatever had been there. On the ground lay a thin strip of silk that to ordinary eyes would have been gray in the dark. But he saw its true color, and as he crushed it between his fingers, bringing it slowly up to touch his lips, he could smell the scent of her hair.
Memory engulfed him. It was bad enough when she was out of sight, when the cool glow of her mind only teased at the edges of his consciousness. But to be in the same room with her at the school, to feel her presence behind him, to smell the heady fragrance of her skin all around him, was almost more than he could bear.
He had heard every soft breath she took, felt her warmth radiating against his back, sensed each throb of her sweet pulse. And eventually, to his horror, he had found himself giving in to it. His tongue had brushed back and forth over his canine teeth, enjoying the pleasure-pain that was building there, encouraging it. He'd breathed her smell into his nostrils deliberately, and let the visions come to him, imagining it all. How soft her neck would be, and how his lips would meet it with equal softness at first, planting tiny kisses here, and here, until he reached the yielding hollow of her throat. How he would nuzzle there, in the place where her heart beat so strongly against the delicate skin. And how at last his lips would part, would draw back from aching teeth now sharp as little daggers, and-
No . He'd brought himself out of the trance with a jerk, his own pulse beating raggedly, his body shaking. The class had been dismissed, movement was all around him, and he could only hope no one had been observing him too closely.
When she had spoken to him, he had been unable to believe that he had to face her while his veins burned and his whole upper jaw ached. He'd been afraid for a moment that his control would break, that he would seize her shoulders and take her in front of all of them. He had no idea how he'd gotten away, only that some time later he was channeling his energy into hard exercise, dimly aware that he must not use the Powers. It didn't matter; even without them he was in every way superior to the mortal boys who competed with him on the football field.
His sight was sharper, his reflexes faster, his muscles stronger. Presently a hand had clapped him on the back and Matt's voice had rung in his ears:
"Congratulations! Welcome to the team!"
Looking into that honest, smiling face, Stefan had been overcome with shame. If you knew what I was, you wouldn't smile at me, he'd thought grimly. I've won this competition of yours by deception. And the girl you love-you do love her, don't you?-is in my thoughts right now.
And she had remained in his thoughts despite all his efforts to banish her that afternoon. He had wandered to the graveyard blindly, pulled from the woods by a force he did not understand. Once there he had watched her, fighting himself, fighting the need, until the surge of Power had sent her and her friends running. And then he'd come home-but only after feeding. After losing control of himself.
He couldn't remember exactly how it had happened, how he'd let it happen. That flare of Power had started it, awakening things inside him best left sleeping. The hunting need. The craving for the chase, for the smell of fear and the savage triumph of the kill. It had been years-centuries-since he'd felt the need with such force. His veins had begun burning like fire. And all his thoughts had turned red: he could think of nothing else but the hot coppery taste, the primal vibrancy, of blood.
With that excitement still raging through him, he'd taken a step or two after the girls. What might have happened if he hadn't scented the old man was better not thought about. But as he reached the end of the bridge, his nostrils had flared at the sharp, distinctive odor of human flesh.
Humanblood . The ultimate elixir, the forbidden wine. More intoxicating than any liquor, the steaming essence of life itself. And he was so tired of fighting the need.
There had been a movement on the bank under the bridge, as a pile of old rags stirred. And the next instant, Stefan had landed gracefully, catlike, beside it. His hand shot out and pulled the rags away, exposing a wizened, blinking face atop a scrawny neck. His lips drew back.
And then there was no sound but the feeding.
Now, as he stumbled up the main staircase of the boarding house, he tried not to think about it, and not to think about her-about the girl who tempted him with her warmth, her life. She had been the one he truly desired, but he must put a stop to that, he must kill any such thoughts before they were started from now on. For his sake, and for her own. He was her worst nightmare come true, and she didn't even know it.
"Who's there? Is that you, boy?" a cracked voice called sharply. One of the second-story doors
opened, and a gray head poked out.
"Yes,signora -Mrs. Flowers. I'm sorry if I disturbed you."
"Ah, it takes more than a creaky floorboard to disturb me. You locked the door behind you?"
"Yes,signora . You're… safe."
"That's right. We need to be safe here. You never know what might be out there in those woods, do you?" He looked quickly at the smiling little face surrounded by wisps of gray hair, the bright darting eyes. Was there a secret hidden in them?
"Good night,signora ."
"Good night, boy." She shut the door.
In his own room he fell onto the bed and lay staring up at the low, slanting ceiling.
Usually he rested uneasily at night; it was not his natural sleeping time. But tonight he was tired. It took so much energy to face the sunlight, and the heavy meal only contributed to his lethargy. Soon, although his eyes did not close, he no longer saw the whitewashed ceiling above him.
Random scraps of memory floated through his mind. Katherine, so lovely that evening by the fountain, moonlight silvering her pale golden hair. How proud he had been to sit with her, to be the one to share her secret…
"But can you never go out in sunlight?"
"Ican , yes, as long as I wear this." She held up a small white hand, and the moonlight shone on the lapis ring there. "But the sun tires me so much. I have never been very strong."
Stefan looked at her, at the delicacy of her features and the slightness of her body. She was almost as insubstantial as spun glass. No, she would never have been strong.
"I was often ill as a child," she said softly, her eyes on the play of water in the fountain. "The last time, the surgeon finally said I would die. I remember Papa crying, and I remember lying in my big bed, too weak to move. Even breathing was too much effort. I was so sad to leave the world and so cold, so very cold." She shivered, and then smiled.
"But what happened?"
"I woke in the middle of the night to see Gudren, my maid, standing over my bed. And then she stepped aside, and I saw the man she had brought. I was frightened. His name was Klaus, and I'd heard the people in the village say he was evil. I cried out to Gudren to save me, but she just stood there, watching. When he put his mouth to my neck, I thought he was going to kill me."
She paused. Stefan was staring at her in horror and pity, and she smiled comfortingly at him. "It was not so terrible after all. There was a little pain at first, but that quickly went away. And then the feeling was actually pleasant. When he gave me of his own blood to drink, I felt stronger than I had for months. And then we waited out the hours together until dawn. When the surgeon came, he couldn't believe I was able to sit up and speak. Papa said it was a miracle, and he cried again from happiness." Her face clouded. "I will have to leave my papa sometime soon. One day he will realize that since that illness I have not grown an hour older."
"And you never will?"
"No. That is the wonder of it, Stefan!" She gazed up at him with childlike joy. "I will be young forever, and I will never die! Can you imagine?"
He could not imagine her as anything other than what she was now: lovely, innocent, perfect. "But-you did not find it frightening at first?"
"At first, a little. But Gudren showed me what to do. It was she who told me to have this ring made, with a gem that would protect me from sunlight. While I lay in bed, she brought me rich warm possets to drink. Later, she brought small animals her son trapped."
Her laughter rang out. "Of course not. I can get all I need in a night from a dove. Gudren says that if I wish to be powerful I should take human blood, for the life essence of humans is strongest. And Klaus used to urge me, too; he wanted to exchange blood again. But I tell Gudren I do not want power. And as for Klaus…" She stopped and dropped her eyes, so that heavy lashes lay on her cheek. Her voice was very soft as she continued. "I do not think it is a thing to be done lightly. I will take human blood only when I have found my companion, the one who will be by my side for all eternity." She looked up at him gravely.
Stefan smiled at her, feeling light-headed and bursting with pride. He could scarcely contain the happiness he felt at that moment.
But that was before his brother Damon had returned from the University. Before Damon had come back and seen Katherine's jewel-blue eyes.
On his bed in the low-roofed room, Stefan moaned. Then the darkness drew him in deeper and new images began to flicker through his mind.
They were scattered glimpses of the past that did not form a connected sequence. He saw them like scenes briefly illuminated by flashes of lightning. His brother's face, twisted into a mask of inhuman anger. Katherine's blue eyes sparkling and dancing as she pirouetted in her new white gown. The glimmer of white behind a lemon tree. The feel of a sword in his hand; Giuseppe's voice shouting from far away. The lemon tree. He must not go behind the lemon tree. He saw Damon's face again, but this time his brother was laughing wildly. Laughing on and on, a sound like the grate of broken glass. And the lemon tree was closer now…
He was sitting bolt upright on his bed.
He ran shaking hands through his hair and steadied his breath. A terrible dream. It had been a long time since he had been tortured by dreams like that; long, indeed, since he'd dreamed at all. The last few seconds played over and over again in his mind, and he saw again the lemon tree and heard again his brother's laughter.
It echoed in his mind almost too clearly. Suddenly, without being aware of a conscious decision to move, Stefan found himself at the open window. The night air Was cool on his cheeks as he looked into the silvery dark.
"Damon?" He sent the thought out on a surge of Power, questing. Then he fell into absolute stillness, listening with all his senses.
He could feel nothing, no ripple of response. Nearby, a pair of night birds rose in flight. In the town, many minds were sleeping; in the woods, nocturnal animals went about their secret business.
He sighed and turned back into the room. Perhaps he'd been wrong about the laughter; perhaps he'd even been wrong about the menace in the graveyard. Fell's Church was still, and peaceful, and he should try to emulate it. He needed sleep.
September 5 (actually early September 6-about 1:00 a.m.) Dear Diary,
I should go back to bed soon. Just a few minutes ago I woke up thinking someone was shouting, but now the house is quiet. So many strange things have happened tonight that my nerves are shot, I guess.
At least I woke up knowing exactly what I'm going to do about Stefan. The whole thing just sort of sprang into my mind. Plan B, Phase One, begins tomorrow.
Frances's eyes were blazing, and her cheeks were flushed with color as she approached the three girls at the table.
"Oh, Elena, you've got to hear this!"
Elena smiled at her, polite but not too intimate. Frances ducked her brown head. "I mean… can I join you? I've just heard the wildest thing about Stefan Salvatore."
"Have a seat," said Elena graciously. "But," she added, buttering a roll, "we're not really interested in the news."
"You-?" Frances stared. She looked at Meredith, then at Bonnie. "You guys are joking, right?"
"Not at all." Meredith speared a green bean and eyed it thoughtfully. "We have other things on our minds today."
"Exactly," said Bonnie after a sudden start. "Stefan's old news, you know. Passe." She bent down and rubbed her ankle.
Frances looked at Elena appealingly. "But I thought you wanted to know all about him."
"Curiosity," Elena said. "After all, he is a visitor, and I wanted to welcome him to Fell's Church. But of course I have to be loyal to Jean-Claude."
"Jean-Claude," said Meredith, raising her eyebrows and sighing.
"Jean-Claude," echoed Bonnie gamely.
Delicately, with thumb and forefinger, Elena drew a photo out of her backpack. "Here he is standing in front of the cottage where we stayed. Right afterward he picked me a flower and said…"Well,"-she smiled mysteriously-"I shouldn't repeat it."
Frances was gazing at the photo. It showed a bronzed young man, shirtless, standing in front of a hibiscus bush and smiling shyly. "He's older, isn't he?" she said with respect.
"Twenty-one. Of course,"-Elena glanced over Tier shoulder-"my aunt would never approve, so we're keeping it from her until I graduate. We have to write to each other secretly."
"How romantic," Frances breathed. "I'll never tell a soul, I promise. But about Stefan…"
Elena gave her a superior smile. "If," she said, "I am going to eat Continental, I prefer French to Italian every time." She turned to Meredith. "Right?"
"Mm-hmm. Everytime." Meredith and Elena smiled knowingly at each other, then turned to Frances. "Don't you agree?"
"Oh, yes," said Frances hastily. "Me, too. Every time." She smiled knowingly herself and nodded several times as she got up and left.
When she was gone, Bonnie said piteously, "This is going to kill me. Elena, I am going to die if I don't hear the gossip."
"Oh, that? I can tell you," Elena replied calmly. "She was going to say there's a rumor going around that Stefan Salvatore is a narc."
"A what !" Bonnie stared, and then burst into laughter. "But that's ridiculous. What narc in the world would dress like that and wear dark glasses? I mean, he's done everything he can to draw attention to himself…" Her voice trailed off, and her brown eyes widened. "But then, that may bewhy he does it. Who would ever suspect anybody so obvious? And he does live alone, and he's awfully secretive… Elena! What if it's true?"
"It isn't," said Meredith.
"How do you know?"
"Because I'm the one who started it." At Bonnie's expression, she grinned and added: "Elena told me to."
"Ohhhh." Bonnie looked admiringly at Elena. "You're wicked. Can I tell people he's got a terminal disease?"
"No, you cannot. I don't want any Florence Nightingale types lining up to hold his hand. But you can tell people whatever you want about Jean-Claude."
Bonnie picked up the photograph. "Who was he really?"
"The gardener. He was crazy about those hibiscus bushes. He was also married, with two kids."
"Pity," said Bonnie seriously. "And you told Frances not to tell anyone about him…"
"Right." Elena checked her watch. "Which means that by, oh, say two o'clock, it ought to be all over the school."
After school, the girls went to Bonnie's house. They were greeted at the front door by a shrill yapping, and when Bonnie opened the door, a very old, very fat Pekingese tried to escape. His name was Yangtze, and he was so spoiled that no one except Bonnie's mother could stand him. He nipped at Elena's ankle as she went by.
The living room was dim and crowded, with lots of rather fussy furniture and heavy curtains at the windows. Bonnie's sister Mary was there, unpinning a cap from her wavy red hair. She was just two years older than Bonnie, and she worked at the Fell's Church clinic.
"Oh, Bonnie," she said, "I'm glad you're back. Hello, Elena, Meredith."
Elena and Meredith said "hello." "What's the matter? You look tired," said Bonnie.
Mary dropped her cap on the coffee table. Instead of answering, she asked a question in return. "Last night when you came home so upset, where did you say you girls had been?"
"Down in the-Just down by Wickery Bridge."
"That's what I thought." Mary took a deep breath. "Now, you listen to me, Bonnie McCullough. Don't youever go out there again, and especially not alone and at night. Do you understand?"
"But why not?" Bonnie asked, bewildered.
"Because last night somebody was attacked out there, that's why not. And do you know where they found him? Righton the bank under Wickery Bridge ."
Elena and Meredith stared at her in disbelief, and Bonnie clutched at Elena's arm. "Somebody was attacked under the bridge? But who was it? What happened?"
"I don't know. This morning one of the cemetery workers spotted him lying there. He was some homeless person, I guess, and he'd probably been sleeping under the bridge when he was attacked. But he was half dead when they brought him in, and he hasn't regained consciousness yet. He may die."
Elena swallowed. "What do you mean, attacked?" "I mean," said Mary distinctly, "that his throat was nearly ripped out. He lost an incredible amount of blood. They thought it might have been an animal at first, but now Dr. Lowen says it was a person. And the police think whoever did it may be hiding in the cemetery." Mary looked at each of them in turn, her mouth a straight line. "So if youwere there by the bridge-or in the cemetery, Elena Gilbert-then this person may have been there with you.Get it ?"
"You don't have to scare us anymore," said Bonnie faintly. "We get the point, Mary."
"All right. Good." Mary's shoulders slumped, and she rubbed at the back of her neck wearily. "I've got to lie down for a while. I didn't mean to be crabby." She walked out of the living room.
Alone, the three girls looked at one another.
"It could have been one of us," said Meredith quietly. "Especially you, Elena; you went there alone."
Elena's skin was prickling, that same painfully alert feeling she'd had in the old graveyard. She could feel the chill of the wind and see the rows of tall tombstones all around her. Sunshine and Robert E. Lee had never seemed so far away.
"Bonnie," she said slowly, "did you see somebody out there? Is that what you meant when you said someone was waiting for me?"
In the dim room, Bonnie looked at her blankly. "What are you talking about? I didn't say that."
"Yes, you did."
"No, I didn't. I never said that."
"Bonnie," said Meredith, "we both heard you. You stared out at the old gravestones, and then you told Elena-"
"I don't know what you're talking about, and I didn't sayanything ." Bonnie's face was pinched with anger, but there were tears in her eyes. "I don't want to talk about it anymore."
Elena and Meredith looked at one another helplessly. Outside, the sun went behind a cloud.