The Craving (Chapter 22)

Once we had put several blocks between us and the police precinct, we stopped in the shadows of a bare maple tree. "Well, thanks for the rescue – not that I couldn't have done it myself, eventually," Damon said. "And now, I think I'm ready for a drink. Adieu, mes amis," he saluted us, and spun on his heel, disappearing into the night.

"Good riddance," Lexi muttered.

"What now?" I asked.

"You heard the man. Let's go for a drink," she said, grinning, and put her arm in mine. I walked with Lexi, but it felt wrong, somehow, to be able to go on with my existence so casually knowing that the Sutherlands had been murdered, and it had been partly my doing. What would I tell Margaret? She deserved to know some version of the truth, despite the fact that there would be no justice here. Creatures like the one who killed her family did not suffer consequences for their actions. Human lives were much shorter than vampire lives, but that didn't make them less valuable. In fact, it made their lives more precious.

"So catch me up," she said, squeezing my arm and pulling me out of my dark thoughts. "What's been going on since you left our fair city?"

"I got married today," I said.

Her eyes widened.

"Now I really do need a drink," she declared. "Stefan Salvatore, you are going to be the death of me. I have heard of a lovely new place that gets its vodka straight from St. Petersburg and freezes it in a fancy little ice-bottle…."

She prattled on, leading me through what I had thought was my city, but New York with Lexi was an entirely different animal. Whereas I'd stuck to the shadows and back alleys, Lexi knew her way around glittering nightlife. Soon we came to what looked like an elegant private club. Thick red carpets covered every square inch of the floor, and gold, black, and red lacquer covered everything else, including a giant carving of a firebird that hung from the ceiling.

A ma?tre d' came up, and after one look at Lexi, ushered us over to the most extravagant booth. It had velvet and cloth-of-gold pillows with far too many tassels to be perfectly comfortable. The strains of a piano filtered from the next room over, and I understood why she'd chosen this bar – Lexi always asked Hugo, a member of her vampire family in New Orleans, to play piano for her.

"Married?" she said as soon as we were settled in and she had ordered us something.

The image of the Sutherlands' bloody bodies scorched my vision for a moment.

"How did you know where we were, really?" I asked, changing the subject. News didn't travel that fast unless it was about the war. It still should have taken her at least a week to get from Louisiana to New York, whether by train or vampiric speed.

"I set one of my friends after Damon. I worried about you," she admitted, a sheepish look on her face. "I know you can take care of yourself, but Damon is dangerous, Stefan, and I don't want anything to happen to you."

The waiter came over with our drinks. As promised, the bottle was encased in a block of bluish ice with flowers and herbs pressed inside, as fresh as the day they were frozen. I couldn't help touching a fingertip to a blossom that was near the surface, and feeling the ridge of rime that separated it from my skin. A human's heat would have melted the ice. A vampire's flesh was colder, kept in a similar state of perpetual frozen perfection.

The waiter poured us each a shot in goblets carved from solid green malachite.

I put my hand over hers. "Thank you, Lexi. For everything you've done. I can never repay you."

"No, you can't," she said cheerfully. "But you can start by telling me everything. As I said before: married?"

So I told her about my discovery of Bridget and being inducted into the Sutherland household, and Damon's insane plans. She giggled and gasped at every detail. I guess from an outsider's perspective, particularly a much older vampire, Damon's machinations might seem mild in comparison.

"Oh, oh my God," she said, unable to stop laughing. "A double wedding? You and Damon together? And no one ate the flower girl?" She waved the waiter over for another bottle of vodka. "Oh, how I wish I was there. Stefan! I didn't even get you anything…."

I smiled, wishing I could just sit there and continue to watch her laugh. But I had to finish the tale.

"Are you sure it wasn't Damon?" she asked quietly, when I told her of the Sutherlands' murders.

"There are a lot of things I can't predict about him," I admitted. "I had no idea he would actually follow me to the ends of the earth just to make my life miserable – even after he murdered Callie. But I'm positive he had nothing to do with the slaying – he was just as surprised as I was. And he has not been one to hide his evil acts. Besides, Margaret even believed him and apparently she has a sixth sense about these things," I said.

"New York City isn't exactly the ends of the earth," she said, but this time there was no humor in her voice. "But it's an odd coincidence that some other monster would set his sights on the very same family that you did."

"It wasn't a coincidence at all."

Lexi's face went ashen as I recounted what the lawyer had said. A look I had never seen before on her crossed her pretty face – dread.

"Describe him to me," she ordered.

"He was huge. Blond hair, blue eyes. He seemed older than time," I said, struggling to express the ancient menace I felt. "Evil. Just pure darkness radiating out of him."

"Did he… did he have an accent?" she asked hesitantly, as if she already knew the answer.

"Yes. I thought it was just part of whatever he was. But it could have been Polish or Russian. He said something about someone named Klaus?"

Lexi thumped the underside of the table with her fist and looked away.

"Who was it, Lexi?" I demanded. I needed to know. If he was going to be my executioner, if he was the one who had murdered the Sutherlands, at the very least I would get to know who my enemy was.

"He mentioned Klaus?" she asked, speaking more into her glass than to me. "Everyone knows about him. He was one of the first vampires."

A hush seemed to descend over the restaurant, and the gas lamps flickered. I clutched my glass of vodka.

"He is directly descended from Hell. Any piece of good, any sense of morality, anything at all that keeps you and me – and even Damon – from becoming a completely twisted, raving monster of pure evil – none of that is in him. There is nothing human about him. He has minions, other old ones who do his bidding. No one's ever seen Klaus – or at least lived to tell about it!"

I digested this horrifying information, wrapping my hands around my glass. "This… thing said we took Katherine."

Lexi paled. "If she was important to Klaus and he believes that you and your brother are responsible for what happened to her, you're in serious trouble."

"He mentioned a curse. Do you know what he's talking about?"

Lexi drummed her fingers against the table, her brow furrowing. "Curse? Many vampires consider being confined to wander at night a curse, but I don't know what Katherine had to do with that."

"Do you think he… did he turn her into a vampire?" I asked.

"That's irrelevant," Lexi said. "It's doesn't matter how or why he cares about her – just that he does. You have your own fate to worry about."

I ran my hands through my hair, frustrated. Once again Katherine had found a way to insert herself into my life and create havoc. While I felt guilty about what had happened to Katherine, I still blamed her for destroying my family, for turning my life into the mess it was now.

Katherine had been nothing but selfish. She'd toyed with me and Damon, when Damon fell in love with her and I… well, was falling in lust with her, not once did she think about the possible dangers for us. That we would die, that our brotherhood would be severed irreparably, that her sire might eventually catch up to her, hell-bent on revenge.

"I have to get rid of him," I said.

Lexi shook her head. "You're not 'getting rid' of anything that old and powerful, my young stripling. You're just a babe – and on top of that, your diet of rodents and birds hasn't exactly strengthened you. You and your brother working together couldn't defeat him. I couldn't take him on."

"Well, what do I do?" I demanded, my voice taking on a hard, determined edge. I had just been letting everything that had come along in my life control me – Damon and his stupid plans, getting married…. It was time I acted.

Lexi rubbed her temples. "The best you can hope for right now is to figure out what his plans are – and then avoid them. You will need to live long enough to figure out a way to vanquish this old one, before he has a chance to tell Klaus where you are."

I nodded, thinking. "We need to go back to the mansion."

Lexi opened her mouth, but I put up my hand. "I know – but maybe he left something behind."

Lexi squared her jaw. "I'll go with you. My senses are more finely tuned than yours."

"You don't need finely tuned senses to catch the scent of Hell," I told her, "but I appreciate the help."