The Fury (Chapter Eleven)

Elena watched Mr. Smallwood's rifle bounce across the grass. She enjoyed the expression on his face as he spun around, looking for what had grabbed it. And she felt the flare of Damon's approval from across the pool of light, fierce and hot like the pride of a wolf for its cub's first kill. But when she glimpsed Stefan lying on the ground, she forgot everything else. White fury took her breath away, and she started toward him.

"Everybody stop! Just stop everything, right where you are!"

The shout was borne toward them along with the sound of tires squealing. Alaric Saltzman's car nearly spun out as it turned into the staff parking lot and screeched to a halt, and Alaric leaped from the car almost before it stopped moving.

"What's going on here?" he demanded, striding toward the men.

At the shout, Elena had pulled back automatically into the shadows. Now, she looked at the men's faces as they turned toward him. Besides Mr. Smallwood, she recognized Mr. Forbes and Mr. Bennett, Vickie Bennett's father. The others must be the fathers of the other guys who'd been with Tyler in the Quonset hut, she thought.

It was one of the strangers who answered the question, in a drawl that couldn't quite hide the nervousness underneath. "Well now, we just got a little tired of waiting any longer. We decided to speed things up a bit."

The wolf growled, a low rumbling that rose to a chainsaw snarl. All the men flinched back, and Alaric's eyes showed white as he noticed the animal for the first time.

There was another sound, softer and continuous, coming from a figure huddled next to one of the cars. Caroline Forbes was whimpering over and over, "They said they just wanted to talk to him. They didn't tell me what they were going to do."

Alaric, with one eye on the wolf, gestured toward her. "And you were going to let her see this? A young girl? Do you realize the psychological damage that could do?"

"What about the psychological damage when her throat gets ripped out?" Mr. Forbes returned, and there were shouts of agreement. "That's what we're worried about."

"Then you'd better worry about getting the right man," Alaric said. "Caroline," he added, turning toward the girl, "I want you to think, Caroline. We didn't get to finish your sessions. I know when we left off you thought you recognized Stefan. But, are you absolutely positive it was him? Could it have been somebody else, somebody who resembled him?"

Caroline straightened, bracing herself against the car and raising a tear-stained face. She looked at Stefan, who was just sitting up, and then at Alaric. "I…"

"Think, Caroline. You have to be absolutely certain. Is there someone else it could have been, like-"

"Like that guy who calls himself Damon Smith," came Meredith's voice. She was standing beside Alaric's car, a slim shadow. "You remember him, Caroline? He came to Alaric's first party. He looks like Stefan in some ways."

"Like that guy who calls himself Damon Smith," came Meredith's voice. She was standing beside Alaric's car, a slim shadow. "You remember him, Caroline? He came to Alaric's first party. He looks like Stefan in some ways."

"Yes… it could have been, I suppose. Everything happened so fast… but it could have been."

"And you really can't be sure which it was?" Alaric said.

"No… not absolutely sure."

"There," said Alaric. "I told you she needed more sessions, that we couldn't be certain of anything yet. She's still very confused." He was walking, carefully, toward Stefan. Elena realized that the wolf had withdrawn back into the shadows. She could see it, but the men probably couldn't.

Its disappearance made them more aggressive. "What are you talking about? Who is this Smith? I've never seen him."

"But your daughter Vickie probably has, Mr. Bennett," Alaric said. "That may come out in my next session with her. We'll talk about it tomorrow; it can wait that long. Right now I think I'd better take Stefan to a hospital." There was discomforted shifting among some of the men.

"Oh, certainly, and while we're waiting anything could happen," began Mr. Smallwood. "Any time, anywhere-"

"So you're just going to take the law into your own hands, then?" Alaric said. His voice sharpened. "Whether you've got the right suspect or not. Where's your evidence this boy has supernatural powers? What's your proof? How much of a fight did he even put up?"

"There's a wolf around somewhere who put up plenty of fight," Mr. Smallwood said, red-faced. "Maybe they're in it together."

"I don't see any wolf. I saw a dog. Maybe one of the dogs that got out of quarantine. But what's that got to do with it? I'm telling you that in my professional opinion you've got the wrong man."

The men were wavering, but there was still some doubt in their faces. Meredith spoke up.

"I think you should know that there've been vampire attacks in this county before," she said. "A long time before Stefan came here. My grandfather was a victim. Maybe some of you have heard about that." She looked across at Caroline.

That was the end of it. Elena could see the men exchanging uneasy glances and backing toward their cars. Suddenly they all seemed eager to be somewhere else.

Mr. Smallwood was one who stayed behind to say, "You said we'd talk about this tomorrow, Saltzman. I want to hear what my son says the next time he's hypnotized."

Caroline's father collected her and got in his car fast, muttering something about this all being a mistake and nobody taking it too seriously.

"Are you all right? Did they hurt you?"

He moved away from Alaric's supporting arm. "Somebody hit me from behind while I was talking to Caroline. I'll be all right-now." He shot a glance at Alaric. "Thanks. Why?"

"He's on our side," said Bonnie, joining them. "I told you. Oh, Stefan, are you really okay? I thought I was going to faint there for a minute. They weren't serious. I mean, they couldn't really have been serious. …"

"Serious or not, I don't think we should stay here," said Meredith. "Does Stefan really need a hospital?"

"No," Stefan said, as Elena anxiously examined the cut on his head. "I just need rest. Somewhere to sit down."

"I've got my keys. Let's go to the history room," Alaric said.

Bonnie was looking around the shadows apprehensively. "The wolf, too?" she said, and then jumped as a shadow coalesced and became Damon.

"What wolf?" he said. Stefan turned slightly, wincing.

"Thank you, too," he said unemotionally. But Stefan's eyes lingered on his brother with something like puzzlement as they walked to the school building.

In the hallway, Elena pulled him aside. "Stefan, why didn't you notice them coming up behind you? Why were you so weak?"

Stefan shook his head evasively, and she added, "When did you feed last? Stefan, when? You always make some excuse when I'm around. What are you trying to do to yourself?"

"I'm all right," he said. "Really, Elena. I'll hunt later."

"Do you promise?"

"I promise."

It didn't occur to Elena at the moment that they hadn't agreed on what "later" meant. She allowed him to lead her on down the hall.

The history room looked different at night to Elena's eyes. There was a strange atmosphere about it, as if the lights were too bright. Just now all the students' desks were shoved out of the way, and five chairs were pulled up to Alaric's desk. Alaric, who'd just finished arranging the furniture, urged Stefan into his own padded chair.

"Okay, why don't the rest of you take a seat."

They just looked at him. After a moment Bonnie sank down into a chair, but Elena stood by Stefan, Damon continued to lounge halfway between the group and the door, and Meredith pushed some papers to the center of Alaric's desk and perched on the corner.

"Well," said Elena.

Everyone looked at everyone else. Elena picked up a piece of cotton from the first-aid kit she'd grabbed at the door and began dabbing Stefan's head with it.

"I think it's time for that explanation," she said.

"Right. Yes. Well, you all seemed to have guessed I'm not a history teacher…"

"In the first five minutes," Stefan said. His voice was quiet and dangerous, and with a jolt Elena realized it reminded her of Damon's. "So what are you?"

Alaric made an apologetic gesture and said almost diffidently, "A psychologist. Not the couch kind," he added hastily as the rest of them exchanged looks. "I'm a researcher, an experimental psychologist. From Duke University. You know, where the ESP experiments were started."

"The ones where they make you guess what's on the card without looking at it?" Bonnie asked.

"Yes, well, it's gone a bit beyond that now, of course. Not that I wouldn't love to test you with Rhine cards, especially when you're in one of those trances." Alaric's face lit with scientific inquiry. Then he cleared his throat and went on. "But-ah-as I was saying. It started a couple of years ago when I did a paper on parapsychology. I wasn't trying to prove supernatural powers existed, I just wanted to study what their psychological effect is on the people who have them. Bonnie, here, is a case in point." Alaric's voice took on a lecturer's tone. "What does it do to her, mentally, emotionally, to have to deal with these powers?"

"It's awful," Bonnie interrupted vehemently. "I don't want them anymore. I hate them."

"Well, there you see," Alaric said. "You'd have made a great case study. My problem was that I couldn't find anybody with real psychic powers to examine. There were plenty of fakers, all right-crystal healers, dowsers, channelers, you name it. But I couldn't find anything genuine until I got a tip from a friend in the police department.

"There was this woman down in South Carolina who claimed she'd been bitten by a vampire, and since then she was having psychic nightmares. By that time I was so used to fakes I expected her to turn out to be one, too. But she wasn't, at least not about being bitten. I never could prove she was really psychic."

"How could you be sure she'd been bitten?" Elena asked.

"There was medical evidence. Traces of saliva in her wounds that were similar to human saliva-but not quite the same. It contained an anticoagulatory agent similar to that found in the saliva of leeches…" Alaric caught himself and hurried on.

"Anyway, I was sure. And that was how it started. Once I was convinced something had really happened to the woman, I started to look up other cases like hers. There weren't a lot of them, but they were out there. People who'd encountered vampires.

"But you've never actually seen a vampire," Elena interrupted. "Until now, I mean. Is that right?"

"Well-no. Not in the flesh, as it were. But I've written monographs… and things." His voice trailed off.

Elena bit her lip. "What were you doing with the dogs?" she asked. "At the church, when you were waving your hands at them."

"Oh…" Alaric looked embarrassed. "I've picked up a few things here and there, you know. That was a spell an old mountain man showed me for fending off evil. I thought it might work."

"You've got a lot to learn," said Damon.

"Obviously," Alaric said stiffly. Then he grimaced. "Actually, I figured that out right after I got here. Your principal, Brian Newcastle, had heard of me. He knew about the studies I do. When Tanner was killed and Dr. Feinberg found no blood in the body and lacerations made by teeth in the neck… well, they gave me a call. I thought it could be a big break for me-a case with the vampire still in the area. The only problem was that once I got here I realized they expected me to take care of the vampire. They didn't know I'd dealt only with the victims before. And… well, maybe I was in over my head. But I did my best to justify their confidence-"

"You faked it," Elena accused. "That was what you were doing when I heard you talking to them at your house about finding our supposed lair and all that. You were just winging it."

"Well, not completely," Alaric said. "Theoretically, I am an expert." Then he did a double take. "What do you mean, when you heard me talking to them?"

"While you were out searching for a lair, she was sleeping in your attic," Damon informed him dryly. Alaric opened his mouth and then shut it again.

"What I'd like to know is how Meredith comes into all this," Stefan said. He wasn't smiling.

Meredith, who had been gazing thoughtfully at the jumble of papers on Alaric's desk during all this, looked up. She spoke evenly, without emotion.

"I recognized him, you see. I couldn't remember where I'd seen him at first, because it was almost three years ago. Then I realized it was at Granddad's hospital. What I told those men was the truth, Stefan. My grandfather was attacked by a vampire."

There was a little silence and then Meredith went on. "It happened a long time ago, before I was born. He wasn't badly hurt by it, but he never really got well. He became… well, sort of like Vickie, only more violent. It got so that they were afraid he'd harm himself, or somebody else. So they took him to a hospital, a place he'd be safe."

ago, before I was born. He wasn't badly hurt by it, but he never really got well. He became… well, sort of like Vickie, only more violent. It got so that they were afraid he'd harm himself, or somebody else. So they took him to a hospital, a place he'd be safe."

"I know. I could have… but I couldn't. The family's kept it a secret so long-or tried anyway. From what Caroline wrote in her diary, she'd obviously heard. The thing is, nobody ever believed Granddad's stories about the vampire. They just thought it was another of his delusions, and he had a lot of them. Even I didn't believe them… until Stefan came. And then-I don't know, my mind started to put little things together. But I didn't really believe what I was thinking until you came back, Elena."

"I'm surprised you didn't hate me," Elena said softly.

"How could I? I know you, and I know Stefan. I know you're not evil." Meredith didn't glance at Damon; he might as well not have been present for all the acknowledgment she gave him. "But when I remembered seeing Alaric talking to Granddad at the hospital I knew he wasn't, either. I just didn't know exactly how to get all of you together to prove it."

"I didn't recognize you, either," Alaric said. "The old man had a different name- he's your mother's father, right? And I may have seen you hanging around the waiting room sometime, but you were just a kid with skinny legs then. You've changed," he added appreciatively.

Bonnie coughed, a pointed sound.

Elena was trying to arrange things in her mind. "So what were those men doing out there with a stake if you didn't tell them to be?"

"I had to ask Caroline's parents for permission to hypnotize her, of course. And I reported what I found to them. But if you're thinking I had anything to do with what happened tonight, you're wrong. I didn't even know about it."

"I've told him about what we've been doing, how we've been looking for the Other Power," Meredith said. "And he wants to help."

"I said I might help," Alaric said cautiously.

"Wrong," said Stefan. "You're either with us or against us. I'm grateful for what you did out there, talking to those men, but the fact remains that you started a lot of this trouble in the first place. Now you have to decide: are you on our side-or theirs?"

Alaric looked around at each of them, at Meredith's steady gaze and Bonnie's raised eyebrows, at Elena kneeling on the floor and at Stefan's already-healing scalp. Then he turned to glance at Damon, who was leaning against the wall, dark and saturnine. "I'll help," he said at last. "Hell, it's the ultimate case study."

"All right, then," Elena said. "You're in. Now, what about Mr. Smallwood tomorrow? What if he wants you to hypnotize Tyler again?"

"Wait," said Stefan. "There shouldn't be a dance, not if there's any way to prevent it. You're on good terms with the principal; you can talk to the school board. Make them cancel it."

Alaric looked startled. "You think something's going to happen?"

"Yes," Stefan said. "Not just because of what's happened at the other public functions, but because something's building up. It's been building up all week; I can feel it."

"So can I," Elena said. She hadn't realized it until that moment, but the tension she felt, the sense of urgency, was not just from inside her. It was outside, all around. It thickened the air. "Something's going to happen, Alaric.

Alaric let out his breath in a soft whistle. "Well, I can try to convince them, but-I don't know. Your principal is dead set on keeping everything looking normal. And it isn't as if I can give any rational explanation for wanting to shut it down."

"Try hard," Elena said.

"I will. And meanwhile, maybe you should think about protecting yourself. If what Meredith says is right, then most of the attacks have been on you and people close to you. Your boyfriend got dropped in a well; your car got chased into the river; your memorial service was broken up. Meredith says even your little sister was threatened. If something's going to happen tomorrow, you might want to leave town."

It was Elena's turn to be startled. She had never thought of the attacks in that way, but it was true. She heard Stefan's indrawn breath and felt his fingers tighten on hers.

"He's right," Stefan said. "You should leave, Elena. I can stay here until-"

"No. I'm not going without you. And," Elena continued, slowly, thinking it out, "I'm not going anywhere until we find the Other Power and stop it." She looked up at him earnestly, speaking quickly now. "Oh, Stefan, don't you see, nobody else even has a chance against it. Mr. Smallwood and his friends don't have a clue. Alaric thinks you can fight it by waving your hands at it. None of them know what they're up against. We're the only ones who can help."

She could see the resistance in Stefan's eyes and feel it in the tenor of his muscles. But as she kept on looking straight at him, she saw his objections fall one by one. For the simple reason that it was the truth, and Stefan hated lying.

"All right," he said at last, painfully. "But as soon as this is all over, we're leaving. I'm not having you stay in a town where vigilantes run around with stakes."

"Yes." Elena returned the pressure of his fingers with hers. "Once this is all over, we'll go."

Stefan turned to Alaric. "And if there's no way to talk them out of having the dance tomorrow, I think we should keep an eye on it. If something does happen, we may be able to stop it before it gets out of hand."

Elena tilted a doubtful eye toward Bonnie. "Well… it would mean missing the dance itself-for those of us who could have gone, I mean."

Bonnie drew herself up. "Oh, who cares about missing a dance?" she said indignantly. "What on earth does a dance matter to anyone?"

"Right," said Stefan gravely. "Then it's settled." A spasm of pain seemed to overtake him and he winced, looking down. Elena was immediately concerned.

"You need to get home and rest," she said. "Alaric, can you drive us? It's not that far."

Stefan protested that he was perfectly able to walk, but in the end he gave in. At the boardinghouse, after Stefan and Damon had gotten out of the car, Elena leaned in Alaric's window for one last question. It had been gnawing at her mind ever since Alaric had told them his story.

"About those people who'd encountered vampires," she said. "Just what were the psychological effects? I mean, did they all go crazy or have nightmares? Were any of them okay?"

"It depends on the individual," Alaric said. "And with how many contacts they'd had, and what kind of contacts they were. But mostly just with the personality of the victim, with how well the individual mind can cope."

Elena nodded, and said nothing until the lights of Alaric's car had been swallowed by the snowy air. Then she turned to Stefan.