The Craving (Chapter 25)

Anger was all I had left, and I let rage fuel me the way human blood had in my first weeks as a vampire. I couldn't believe Damon's indifference, couldn't understand who he'd become. But him not helping didn't change what I needed to do: save Lexi.

Across the street a gentleman upon a coal-black mare was talking amiably down to a shopkeeper. The moment the shopkeeper went in to get something I grabbed the horse's reins and, breaking my vow for the second time in twenty-four hours, I compelled the rider to dismount and enjoy a nice long walk back home.

Though normally I'd be faster than a horse, I was hungry and drained, so with gentle whispers and a crack of the reins I was off uptown, loudly galloping upon the New York City streets. She was a fine beast and responded to my every gentle nudge, the slightest clench of my knees. With the wind in my hair and the leather in my grip, I almost felt like my old self again.

But the sky was beginning to lighten, in that hushed crystal blue of early morning, and I had to urge every last bit of speed out of the horse. Lexi's life might depend on it.

As we mounted the long drive up to the Richards' and took the small path to the family chapel on the right, I knew I had made the right decision. I could smell the old one's presence, the miasma of old blood, death, and decay that followed around him like a shadow. My horse whinnied in terror.

I leaped off the horse before she had really stopped and gave her a gentle spank. "Go home," I ordered. She reared up, as if unwilling to give up her newfound freedom, then turned and galloped away.

I ran into the great hall where I was wed, pushing aside a lone servant who stood in my way.

Lexi was there, tied to the altar like an ancient sacrifice. The smell of vervain burned my nose – her ropes had clearly been soaked in it. The sun had risen, and its presence came in the form of a bloodred puddle from an east-facing stained glass window. As the light slowly moved toward her feet she squirmed and gasped, trying to pull her legs out of the way. A wisp of smoke rose up where the deadly sun had just begun to touch her toes, and the strange smell of burning flesh filled the room.

"Lexi!" I yelled.

"Stefan!" she sobbed in pain and relief.

I thought fast. It would take me far too long to figure out how to remove the vervain-soaked ropes, and there was nothing I could cover the windows with, no tapestries or easily pulled-up rugs or runners. Without thinking of my own safety, I ran over and grabbed her small white hand, slipping my ring over her finger.

"But, Stefan," Lexi protested.

"You need it if you're going to keep chasing after and saving me," I said, pulling all her ropes off. The vervain burned my fingers raw, but preserved her until she was free. Despite the pain in my fingers, I felt light and hopeful. I had done it. I'd saved Lexi. "Now let's get you – "

But at that moment, a vervain-soaked net fell on us both, searing every inch of my body.

"Run!" I shouted, pushing Lexi out of the way.

She rolled to the floor, then reached for the edge of a pew to help right herself. As she extended her arm, though, it passed through a shaft of sunlight. Her eyes widened in wonder, clearly shocked that no smoke appeared and her skin didn't burn. And then she disappeared, blurring with vampire speed away from the scene.

I put up my hands, trying to keep the netting off my face, but I twisted and cried out wherever the poisoned rope touched me.

The ancient vampire appeared, giant leather gloves on his hands and a big grin on his pale face.

"Hello." The corners of his mouth pulled back too far, revealing a set of strong white teeth wedged in decaying gums. "So predictable, coming to rescue a damsel in distress."

That foul odor of a slaughterhouse enveloped me like a hot wind in August: inescapable, absolute, and horrible. Despite the burning nets, I tried to turn away from it.

That only made him chuckle.

"Where is the one who is always near you and just out of your grasp, like a shadow? Where is your brother?"

I clenched my jaw. Knowing Damon, he was swilling his third whiskey, preparing to feast on a saloon girl or two.

Lucius studied my silent face, seeming to mistake it for bravado. "Well, it is no matter. I will get him eventually. Your brother is more like a real vampyr than you, no interest in anything outside his little world, no desire to do good. He may survive for a trifle longer."

"What do you plan to do with me?" I demanded. Though in truth, now that Lexi was safe, I didn't fear for my own safety. I wished only to have the chance to kill the monster, to stop him from exacting further revenge and preying on more humans.

But the vervain was drawing out my Power like a siphon, and I knew even scratching the old one would be a small victory.

The beast grabbed the net and threw me over his shoulder like I was nothing more than a bag of mice or feathers.

"My plans are not particularly spectacular," he said as he lumbered down the church's aisle. There were still rose petals on the floor, I noted, drying away into thin scraps of nothing. The flowers in vases were wilted, everything left to wither after the murder of the brides.

"But they will be enduring. Vampires can survive a very, very long time. Without food. Slowly starving over the centuries and still not dying." The net shifted as he shrugged. "Well, eventually, perhaps. I've never seen it happen, but I suppose we'll find out."

He took a sudden left into the private chapel, stopping in front of a set of double doors – the crypt, I suddenly realized with mounting dread. Although the doors were solid, carved marble, Lucius had no problem throwing them open, dumping me out of the net, and tossing me into a tiny stone room, barely larger than the dozen coffins interred there.

For one brief moment, I relished the feel of the cool air rushing over my burned skin.

But then he let out a low growl. "When your hunger for blood eats you from the inside and makes you go mad, do not worry – I will be there, listening. Watching. And laughing."

My last sight was of the ancient standing, outlined in a bright halo of the living world, waving. Then he threw the doors closed with a slam that echoed to the very heavens, and I was in utter darkness.

I raced to the doors and threw my weight against them. They didn't even rattle. Trying to quell my rising hysteria, I took in the dank, musty room, searching for an opening, a secret exit, an out, even though a voice at the back of my mind screamed, "It's a crypt, Stefan! Death is the only way out!"

I wove through the maze of coffins and sarcophagi. Even in my panic I noticed the ornate carvings and brass hinges. One of the marble tombs had the portrait of a young girl engraved in high relief. She had wide eyes and bow-shaped lips. I slumped over the carving, as though I could hug the girl resting beneath it.

At least Lexi was safe, I told myself. If nothing else, at least I could spend the centuries knowing that she was out there somewhere, living her life – protected by my ring. And maybe, just maybe, trying to find me.

"So long," I whispered to Lexi in the silence of the tomb.

As if on cue, the doors to the crypt opened one last time, and a petite blonde came hurtling through, landing with a thud at my feet.

"Lexi!" I cried as the doors slammed shut behind her, plunging us into darkness again.

"Hey there," she said weakly. "Fancy meeting you here."