Elena heard the screams. They were shrill and sustained and unlike any other sounds in the Haunted House, and she knew at once that they were no joke.
Everything after that was a nightmare. Reaching the Druid Room at a run, she saw a tableau, but not the one prepared for visitors. Bonnie was screaming, Meredith holding her shoulders. Three young boys were trying to get out of the curtained exit, and two bouncers were looking in, blocking their way. Mr. Tanner was lying on the stone altar, sprawled out, and his face…
"He's dead," Bonnie was sobbing, the screams turning into words. "Oh, God, the blood's real, and he's dead. It ouched him, Elena, and he's dead, he's really dead…"
People were coining into the room. Someone else began screaming and it spread, and then everyone was trying to get out, pushing each other in panic, knocking into the partitions.
"Get the lights on!" Elena shouted, and heard the shout taken up by others. "Meredith, quick, get to a phone in the gym and call
an ambulance, call the police… Get those lights on !"
When the lights snapped on, Elena looked around, but she could see no adults, no one entitled to take charge of the situation. Part of her was ice-cold, her mind racing as it tried to think what to do next. Part of her was simply numb with horror. Mr. Tanner… She had never liked him, but somehow that only made it worse.
"Get all the kids out of here. Everybody but staff out," she said.
"No! Shut the doors! Don't letanybody out until the police get here," shouted a werewolf beside her, taking off his mask. Elena
turned in astonishment at the voice and saw that it was not Matt, it was Tyler Smallwood.
He'd been allowed back in school only this week, and his face was still discolored from the beating he had taken at Stefan's hands. But his voice had the ring of authority, and Elena saw the bouncers close the exit door. She heard another door close across the gym.
Of the dozen or so people crowded into the Stonehenge area, Elena recognized only one as a worker.
The rest were people she knew from school, but none she knew well. One of them, a boy dressed as a pirate, spoke to Tyler. "You mean… you think somebody in here did it?"
"Somebody in here did it, all right," said Tyler. There was a queer, excited sound to his voice, as if he were almost enjoying this.
He gestured to the pool of blood on the rock. "That's still liquid; it can't have happened too long ago. And look at the way his
throat's cut. The killer must have done it with that ." He pointed to the sacrificial knife.
"Then the killer might be here right now," whispered a girl in a kimono.
"And it's not hard to guess who it is," said Tyler. "Somebody who hated Tanner, who was always getting in arguments with him. Somebody who was arguing with him earlier tonight. I saw it."
So you were the werewolf in this room, thought Elena dazedly. But what were you doing here in the first place? You're not on staff.
"Somebody who has a history of violence," Tyler was continuing, his lips drawing back from his teeth. "Somebody who, for all we know, is a psychopath who came to Fell's Church just to kill." "Tyler, what are you talking about?" Elena's dazed feeling had burst like a bubble. Furious, she stepped toward the tall, husky boy. "You're crazy!" He gestured at her without looking at her. "So says his girlfriend—but maybe she's a little prejudiced."
"And may be you're a little prejudiced, Tyler," said a voice from behind the crowd, and Elena saw a second werewolf pushing his way into the room. Matt.
"Oh, yeah? Well, why don't you tell us what you know about Salvatore? Where does he come from?
Where's his family? Where did he get all that money?" Tyler turned to address the rest of the crowd. "Who knows anything about him?"
People were shaking their heads. Elena could see, in face after face, distrust blossoming. The distrust of anything unknown, anything different. And Stefan was different. He was the stranger in their midst, and just now they needed a scapegoat. The girl in the kimono began, "I heard a rumor—"
"That's all anybody's heard, rumors!" Tyler said. "No one really knows a thing about him. But there's one thing I do know. The attacks in Fell's Church started the first week of school—which was the week Stefan Salvatore came."
There was a swelling murmur at this, and Elena herself felt a shock of realization. Of course, it was all ridiculous, it was just a
coincidence. But what Tyler was saying was true. The attacks had started when Stefan arrived.
"I'll tell you something else," shouted Tyler, gesturing at them to be quiet. "Listen to me! I'll tell you something else!" He
waited until everyone was looking at him and then said slowly, impressively, "He was in the cemetery the night Vickie Bennett was attacked."
"Sure he was in the cemetery—rearranging your face," said Matt, but his voice lacked its usual strength.
Tyler grabbed the comment and ran with it.
"Yes, and he almost killed me. And tonight somebody did kill Tanner. I don't know what you think, but I think he did it. I think
he's the one!"
"But where is he?" shouted someone from the crowd.
Tyler looked around. "If he did it, he must still be here," he shouted. "Let's find him."
"Stefan hasn't done anything! Tyler—" cried Elena, but the noise from the crowd overrode her. Tyler's words were being taken up and repeated. Find him… find him . . .find him . Elena heard it pass from person to person. And the faces in the Stonehenge Room were filled with more than distrust now; Elena could see anger and a thirst for vengeance in them, too. The crowd had turned into something ugly, something beyond controlling.
"Where is he, Elena?" said Tyler, and she saw the blazing triumph in his eyes. He was enjoying this. "I don't know," she said fiercely, wanting to hit him. "He must still be here! Find him!" someone shouted, and then it seemed everyone was moving, pointing, pushing, at once. Partitions were being knocked down and shoved aside. Elena's heart was pounding. This was no longer a crowd; it was a mob. She was terrified of what they would do to Stefan if they
did find him. But if she tried to go warn him, she would lead Tyler right to him.
She looked around desperately. Bonnie was still staring into Mr. Tanner's dead face. No help there. She turned to scan the crowd
again, and her eyes met Matt's.
He was looking confused and angry, his blond hair ruffled up, cheeks flushed and sweaty. Elena put all her strength of will into
a look of pleading.
Please, Matt, she thought. You can't believe all this. You know it isn't true.
But his eyes showed that he didn't know. There was a tumult of bewilderment and agitation in them. Please, thought Elena, gazing into those blue eyes, willing him to understand. Oh, please, Matt, only you can save him. Even if
you don't believe, please try to trust… please…
She saw the change come over his face, the confusion lifting as grim determination appeared. He stared at her another moment, eyes boring into hers, and nodded once. Then he turned and slipped into the milling, hunting crowd. Matt knifed through the crowd cleanly until he got to the other side of the gym. There were some freshmen standing near the door to the boys' locker room; he brusquely ordered them to start moving fallen partitions, and when their attention was distracted he jerked the door open and ducked inside.
He looked around quickly, unwilling to shout. For that matter, he thought, Stefan must have heard all the racket going on in the
gym. He'd probably already cut out. But then Matt saw the black-clad figure on the white tile floor. "Stefan! What happened?" For a terrible instant, Matt thought he was looking down on a second dead body. But as he knelt by Stefan's side, he saw movement.
"Hey, you're okay, just sit up slowly… easy. Are you all right, Stefan?"
"Yes," said Stefan. He didn't look okay, Matt thought. His face was dead white and his pupils were dilated hugely. He looked disoriented and sick. "Thank you," he said.
"You may not thank me in a minute. Stefan, you've got to get out of here. Can't you hear them? They're after you." Stefan turned toward the gym, as if listening. But there was no comprehension on his face. "Who's after me? Why?" "Everybody. It doesn't matter. What matters is that you've got to get out before they come in here." As Stefan continued simply
to stare blankly, he added, "There's been another attack, this time on Tanner, Mr. Tanner. He's dead, Stefan, and they think you
did it ."Now, at last, he saw understanding come to Stefan's eyes. Understanding and horror and a kind of resigned defeat that was more frightening than anything Matt had seen tonight. He gripped Stefan's shoulder hard.
"I know you didn't," he said, and at that moment it was true. "They'll realize that, too, when they can think again. But meanwhile, you'd better get out."
"Get out… yes," said Stefan. The look of disorientation was gone, and there was a searing bitterness in the way he pronounced
the words. "I will… get out."
"Matt." The green eyes were dark and burning, and Matt found he could not look away from them. "Is Elena safe? Good. Then, take care of her. Please."
"Stefan, what are you talking about? You're innocent; this will all blow over…"
"Just take care of her, Matt."
Matt stepped back, still looking into those compelling green eyes. Then, slowly, he nodded.
"I will," he said quietly. And watched Stefan go.
Elena stood within the circle of adults and police, waiting for a chance to escape. She knew that Matt had warned Stefan in time—his face told her that—but he hadn't been able to get close enough to speak with her.
At last, with all attention turned toward the body, she detached herself from the group and edged toward Matt. "Stefan got out all right," he said, his eyes on the group of adults. "But he told me to take care of you, and I want you to stay
"To take care of me?" Alarm and suspicion flashed through Elena. Then, almost in a whisper, she said, "I see." She thought a moment and then spoke carefully. "Matt, I need to go wash my hands. Bonnie got blood on me. Wait here; I'll be back." He started to say something in protest, but she was already moving away. She held up her stained hands in explanation as she reached the door of the girls' locker room, and the teacher who was now standing there let her through. Once in the locker room,
however, she kept on going, right out the far door and into the darkened school. And from there, into the night. Zuccone! Stefan
thought, grabbing a bookcase and flinging it over, sending its contents flying. Fool! Blind, hateful fool. How could he have been so stupid?
Find a place with them here? Be accepted as one of them? He must have been mad to have thought it was possible. He picked up one of the great heavy trunks and threw it across the room, where it crashed against the far wall, splintering a window. Stupid, stupid .
Who was after him? Everybody. Matt had said it. "There's been another attack… They think you did it."
Well, for once it looked as if thebarbari , the petty living humans with their fear of anything unknown, were right. How else did
you explain what had happened? He had felt the weakness, the spinning, swirling confusion; and then darkness had taken him. When he'd awakened it was to hear Matt saying that another human had been pillaged, assaulted. Robbed this time not only of his blood, but of his life.
How did you explain that unless he, Stefan, were the killer?
A killer was what he was. Evil. A creature born in the dark, destined to live and hunt and hide there forever. Well, why not kill,
then? Why not fulfill his nature? Since he could not change it, he might as well revel in it. He would unleash his darkness upon
this town that hated him, that hunted him even now.
But first… he was thirsty. His veins burned like a network of dry, hot wires. He needed to feed… soon… now.
The boarding house was dark. Elena knocked at the door but received no answer. Thunder cracked overhead. There was still no rain.
After the third barrage of knocking, she tried the door, and it opened. Inside, the house was silent and pitch black. She made her
way to the staircase by feel and went up it.
The second landing was just as dark, and she stumbled, trying to find the bedroom with the stairway to the third floor. A faint
light showed at the top of the stairs, and she climbed toward it, feeling oppressed by the walls, which seemed to close in on her
from either side.
The light came from beneath the closed door. Elena tapped on it lightly and quickly. "Stefan," she whispered, and then she called more loudly, "Stefan, it's me."
No answer. She grasped the knob and pushed the door open, peering around the side. "Stefan—" She was speaking to an empty
room. And a room filled with chaos. It looked as if some great wind had torn through, leaving destruction in its path. The trunks
that had stood in corners so sedately were lying at grotesque angles, their lids gaping open, their contents strewn about the floor.
One window was shattered. All Stefan's possessions, all the things he had kept so carefully and seemed to prize, were scattered
Terror swept through Elena. The fury, the violence in this scene of devastation were painfully clear, and they made her feel almost giddy. Somebody who has a history of violence, Tyler had said. I don't care, she thought, anger surging up to push back the fear. I don't care about anything, Stefan; I still want to see you. But where are you?
The trapdoor in the ceiling was open, and cold air was blowing down. Oh, thought Elena, and she had a sudden chill of fear. That roof was so high…She'd never climbed the ladder to the widow's walk before, and her long skirt made it difficult. She
emerged through the trapdoor slowly, kneeling on the roof and then standing up. She saw a dark figure in the corner, and she moved toward it quickly.
"Stefan, I had to come—" she began, and broke off short, because a flash of lightning lit the sky just as the figure in the corner whirled around. And then it was as if every foreboding and fear and nightmare she'd ever had were coming true all at once. It was beyond screaming at; it was beyond anything.
Oh, God… no. Her mind refused to make sense of what her eyes were seeing. No. No. She wouldn't look at this, she wouldn't
believe it… But she could not help seeing. Even if she could have shut her eyes, every detail of the scene was etched upon her memory. As if the flash of lightning had seared it onto her brain forever.
Stefan. Stefan, so sleek and elegant in his ordinary clothes, in his black leather jacket with the collar turned up. Stefan, with his
dark hair like one of the roiling storm clouds behind him. Stefan had been caught in that flash of light, half turned toward her,
his body twisted into a bestial crouch, with a snarl of animal fury on his face.
And blood. That arrogant, sensitive, sensual mouth was smeared with blood. It showed ghastly red against the pallor of his skin,
against the sharp whiteness of his bared teeth. In his hands was the limp body of a mourning dove, white as those teeth, wings outspread. Another lay on the ground at his feet, like a crumpled and discarded handkerchief.
"Oh, God, no," Elena whispered. She went on whispering it, backing away, scarcely aware that she was doing either. Her mind simply could not cope with this horror; her thoughts were running wildly in panic, like mice trying to escape a cage. She wouldn't believe this, she wouldn't believe . Her body was filled with unbearable tension, her heart was bursting, her head reeling.
"Oh, God, no—"
"Elena!" More terrible than anything else was this, to see Stefan looking at her out of that animal face, to see the snarl changing
into a look of shock and desperation. "Elena, please. Please, don't…"
"Oh, God, no !" The screams were trying to rip their way out of her throat. She backed farther away, stumbling, as he took a step toward her. "No!"
"Elena, please—be careful—" That terrible thing, the thing with Stefan's face, was coming after her, green eyes burning. She flung herself backward as he took another step, his hand outstretched. That long, slender-fingered hand that had stroked her hair
"Don't touch me!" she cried. And then she did scream, as her motion brought her back against the iron railing of the widow's walk. It was iron that had been there for nearly a century and a half, and in places it was nearly rusted through. Elena's panicked
weight against it was too much, and she felt it give way. She heard the tearing sound of overstressed metal and wood mingling with her own shriek. And then there was nothing behind her, nothing to grab on to, and she was falling. In that instant, she saw the seething purple clouds, the dark bulk of the house beside her. It seemed that she had enough time to
see them clearly, and to feel an infinity of terror as she screamed and fell, and fell.
But the terrible, shattering impact never came. Suddenly there were arms around her, supporting her in the void. There was a dull thud and the arms tightened, weight giving against her, absorbing the crash.
Then all was still.
She held herself motionless within the circle of those arms, trying to get her bearings. Trying to believe yet another unbelievable thing. She had fallen from a three-story roof, and yet she was alive. She was standing in the garden behind the boarding house, in the utter silence between claps of thunder, with fallen leaves on the ground where her broken body should be.
Slowly, she brought her gaze upward to the face of the one who held her. Stefan.
There had been too much fear, too many blows tonight. She could react no longer. She could only stare up at him with a kind of wonder.
There was such sadness in his eyes. Those eyes that had burned like green ice were now dark and empty, hopeless. The same look that she'd seen that first night in his room, only now it was worse. For now there was self-hatred mixed with the sorrow, and bitter condemnation. She couldn't bear it.
"Stefan," she whispered, feeling that sadness enter her own soul. She could still see the tinge of red on his lips, but now it awakened a thrill of pity along with the instinctive horror. To be so alone, so alien and so alone…
"Oh, Stefan," she whispered.
There was no answer in those bleak, lost eyes. "Come," he said quietly, and led her back toward the house. Stefan felt a rush of shame as they reached the third story and the destruction that was his room. That Elena, of all people, should see this was insupportable. But then, perhaps it was also fitting that she should see what he truly was, what he could do.
She moved slowly, dazedly to the bed and sat. Then she looked up at him, her shadowed eyes meeting his. "Tell me," was all she said.
He laughed shortly, without humor, and saw her flinch. It made him hate himself more. "What do you need to know?" he said. He put a foot on the lid of an overturned trunk and faced her almost defiantly, indicating the room with a gesture. "Who did this?
"You're strong," she said, her eyes on a capsized trunk. Her gaze lifted upward, as if she were remembering what had happened on the roof. "And quick."
"Stronger than a human," he said, with deliberate emphasis on the last word. Why didn't she cringe from him now, why didn't she look at him with the loathing he had seen before? He didn't care what she thought any longer. "My reflexes are faster, and I'm more resilient. I have to be. I'm a hunter," he said harshly.
Something in her look made him remember how she had interrupted him. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then went quickly to pick up a glass of water that stood unharmed on the nightstand.
He could feel her eyes on him as he drank it and wiped his mouth again. Oh, he still cared what she thought, all right. "You can eat and drink… other things," she said.
"I don't need to," he said quietly, feeling weary and subdued. "I don't need anything else." He whipped around suddenly and felt
passionate intensity rise in him again. "You said I was quick—but that's just what I'm not. Have you ever heard the saying 'the
quick and the dead,' Elena? Quick means living; it means those who have life. I'm the other half."
He could see that she was trembling. But her voice was calm, and her eyes never left his. "Tell me," she said again. "Stefan, I
have a right to know."
He recognized those words. And they were as true as when she had first said them. "Yes, I suppose you do," he said, and his voice was tired and hard. He stared at the broken window for a few heartbeats and then looked back at her and spoke flatly. "I was born in the late fifteenth century. Do you believe that?"
She looked at the objects that lay where he'd scattered them from the bureau with one furious sweep of his arm. The florins, the
agate cup, his dagger. "Yes," she said softly. "Yes, I believe it."
"And you want to know more? How I came to be what I am?" When she nodded, he turned to the window again. How could he tell her? He, who had avoided questions for so long, who had become such an expert at hiding and deceiving. There was only one way, and that was to tell the absolute truth, concealing nothing. To lay it all before her, what he had never
offered to any other soul.
And he wanted to do it. Even though he knew it would make her turn away from him in the end, he needed to show Elena what he was.
And so, staring into the darkness outside the window, where flashes of blue brilliance occasionally lit the sky, he began. He spoke dispassionately, without emotion, carefully choosing his words. He told her of his father, that solid Renaissance man,
and of his world in Florence and at their country estate. He told her of his studies and his ambitions. Of his brother, who was so
different than he, and of the ill feeling between them.
"I don't know when Damon started hating me," he said. "It was always that way, as long as I can remember. Maybe it was because my mother never really recovered from my birth. She died a few years later. Damon loved her very much, and I always had the feeling that he blamed me." He paused and swallowed. "And then, later, there was a girl."
"The one I remind you of?" Elena said softly. He nodded. "The one," she said, more hesitantly, "who gave you the ring?" He glanced down at the silver ring on his finger, then met her eyes. Then, slowly, he drew out the ring he wore on the chain
beneath his shirt and looked at it.
"Yes. This was her ring," he said. "Without such a talisman, we die in sunlight as if in a fire."
"Then she was… like you?"
"She made me what I am." Haltingly, he told her about Katherine. About Katherine's beauty and sweetness, and about his love for her. And about Damon's.
"She was too gentle, filled with too much affection," he said at last, painfully. "She gave it to everyone, including my brother.
But finally, we told her she had to choose between us. And then… she came to me."
The memory of that night, of that sweet, terrible night came sweeping back. She had come to him. And he had been so happy, so full of awe and joy. He tried to tell Elena about that, to find the words. All that night he had been so happy, and even the next
morning, when he had awakened and she was gone, he had been throned on highest bliss…
It might almost have been a dream, but the two little wounds on his neck were real. He was surprised to find that they did not hurt and that they seemed to be partially healed already. They were hidden by the high neck of his shirt. Her blood burned in his veins now, he thought, and the very words made his heart race. She had given her strength to him; she had chosen him.
He even had a smile for Damon when they met at the designated place that evening. Damon had been absent from the house all day, but he showed up in the meticulously landscaped garden precisely on time, and stood lounging against a tree, adjusting his
cuff. Katherine was late.
"Perhaps she is tired," Stefan suggested, watching the melon-colored sky fade into deep midnight blue. He tried to keep the shy smugness from his voice. "Perhaps she needs more rest than usual."
Damon glanced at him sharply, his dark eyes piercing under the shock of black hair. "Perhaps," he said on a rising note, as if he
would have said more.
But then they heard a light step on the path, and Katherine appeared between the box hedges. She was wearing her white gown, and she was as beautiful as an angel.
She had a smile for both of them. Stefan returned the smile politely, speaking their secret only with his eyes. Then he waited.
"You asked me to make my choice," she said, looking first at him and then at his brother. "And now you have come at the hour I appointed, and I will tell you what I have chosen."
She held up her small hand, the one with the ring on it, and Stefan looked at the stone, realizing it was the same deep blue as the
evening sky. It was as if Katherine carried a piece of the night with her, always.
"You have both seen this ring," she said quietly. "And you know that without it I would die. It is not easy to have such talismans
made, but fortunately my woman Gudren is clever. And there are many silversmiths in Florence."
Stefan was listening without comprehension, but when she turned to him he smiled again, encouragingly. "And so," she said, gazing into his eyes. "I have had a present made for you." She took his hand and pressed something into it.
When he looked he saw that it was a ring in the same fashion as her own, but larger and heavier, and wrought in silver instead of gold.
"You do not need it yet to face the sun," she said softly, smiling. "But very soon you will."
Pride and rapture made him mute. He reached for her hand to kiss it, wanting to take her into his arms right then, even in front
of Damon. But Katherine was turning away.
"And for you," she said, and Stefan thought his ears must be betraying him, for surely the warmth, the fondness in Katherine's voice could not be for his brother, "for you, also. You will need ft very soon as well."
Stefan's eyes must be traitors, too. They were showing him what was impossible, what could not be.
Into Damon's hand Katherine was putting a ring just like his own.
The silence that followed was absolute, like the silence after the world's ending.
"Katherine—" Stefan could barely force out the words. "How can you give that to him ? After what we shared—"
"What you shared?" Damon's voice was like the crack of a whip, and he turned on Stefan angrily. "Last night she came to me. The choice is already made." And Damon jerked down his high collar to show two tiny wounds in his throat. Stefan stared at them, fighting down the bright sickness. They were identical to his own wounds.
He shook his head in utter bewilderment. "But, Katherine… it was not a dream. You came tome …"
"I came to both of you." Katherine's voice was tranquil, even pleased, and her eyes were serene. She smiled at Damon and then
at Stefan in turn. "It has weakened me, but I am so glad I did. Don't you see?" she continued as they stared at her, too stunned to
speak. "This is my choice! I love you both, and I will not give either of you up. Now we all three will be together, and be happy."
"Happy—" Stefan choked out.
"Yes, happy! The three of us will be companions, joyous companions, forever." Her voice rose with elation, and the light of a radiant child shone in her eyes. "We will be together always, never feeling sickness, never growing old, until the end of time!
That is my choice."
"Happy… with him ?" Damon's voice was shaking with fury, and Stefan saw that his normally self-contained brother was white with rage. "With this boy standing between us, this prating, mouthing paragon of virtue? I can barely stand the sight of him now.
I wish to God that I should never see him again, never hear his voice again!"
"And I wish the same of you , brother," snarled Stefan, his heart tearing in his breast. This was Damon's fault; Damon had poisoned Katherine's mind so that she no longer knew what she was doing. "And I have half a mind to make sure of it," he added savagely.
Damon did not mistake his meaning. "Then get your sword, if you can find it," he hissed back, his eyes black with menace. "Damon, Stefan, please! Please, no!" Katherine cried, putting herself between them, catching Stefan's arm. She looked from one to the other, her blue eyes wide with shock and bright with unshed tears.
"Think of what you are saying. You are brothers."
"By no fault of mine," Damon grated, making the words a curse.
"But can you not make peace? For me, Damon… Stefan? Please ."
Part of Stefan wanted to melt at Katherine's desperate look, at her tears. But wounded pride and jealousy were too strong, and he knew his face was as hard, as unyielding, as Damon's.
"No," he said. "We cannot. It must be one or the other, Katherine. I will never share you with him ." Katherine's hand fell away from his arm, and the tears fell from her eyes, great droplets that splashed onto the white gown. She
caught her breath in a wrenching sob. Then, still weeping, she picked up her skirts and ran.
"And then Damon took the ring she had given him and put it on," Stefan said, his voice hoarse with use and emotion. "And he said to me, 'I'll have her yet, brother .' And then he walked away." He turned, blinking as if he'd come into a bright light from
the dark, and looked at Elena.
She was sitting quite still on the bed, watching him with those eyes that were so much like Katherine's. Especially now, when they were filled with sorrow and dread. But Elena did not run. She spoke to him. "And… what happened then?"
Stefan's hands clenched violently, reflexively, and he jerked away from the window. Not that memory. He could not endure that memory himself, much less try to speak it. How could he do that? How could he take Elena down into that darkness and show her the terrible things lurking there?
"No," he said. "I can't. I can't ."
"You have to tell me," she said softly. "Stefan, it's the end of the story, isn't it? That's what's behind all your walls, that's what
you're afraid to let me see. But you must let me see it. Oh, Stefan, you can't stop now."
He could feel the horror reaching for him, the yawning pit he had seen so clearly, felt so clearly that day long ago. The day when it had all ended—when it had all begun.
He felt his hand taken, and when he looked he saw Elena's fingers closed about it, giving him warmth, giving him strength. Her eyes were on his. "Tell me."
"You want to know what happened next, what became of Katherine?" he whispered. She nodded, her eyes nearly blind but still steady. "I'll tell you, then. She died the next day. My brother Damon and I, we killed her."
Elena felt her flesh creep at the words.
"You don't mean that," she said shakily. She remembered what she had seen on the roof, the blood smeared on Stefan's lips, and
she forced herself not to recoil from him. "Stefan, I know you. You couldn't have done that…"
He ignored her protestations, just went on staring with eyes that burned like the green ice at the bottom of a glacier. He was looking through her, into some incomprehensible distance. "As I lay in bed that night, I hoped against hope that she would come. Already I was noticing some of the changes in myself. I could see better in the dark; it seemed I could hear better. I felt
stronger than ever before, full of some elemental energy. And I was hungry.
"It was a hunger I had never imagined. At dinner I found that ordinary food and drink did nothing to satisfy it. I couldn't understand that. And then I saw the white neck of one of the serving girls, and I knew why." He drew a long breath, his eyes dark and tortured. "That night, I resisted the need, though it took all my will. I was thinking of Katherine, and praying she would come to me. Praying!" He gave a short laugh. "If a creature like me can pray."
Elena's fingers were numb within his grasp, but she tried to tighten them, to send him reassurance. "Go on, Stefan." He had no trouble speaking now. He seemed almost to have forgotten her presence, as if he were telling this story to himself. "The next morning the need was stronger. It was as if my own veins were dry and cracked, desperate for moisture. I knew that I couldn't stand it for long.
"I went to Katherine's chambers. I meant to ask her, to plead with her—" His voice cracked. He paused and then went on. "But
Damon was there already, waiting outside her rooms. I could see that he hadn't
resisted the need. The glow of his skin, the spring in his step, told me that. He looked as smug as the cat who's had the cream.
"But he hadn't had Katherine. 'Knock all you like,' he said to me, 'but the female dragon inside won't let you past. I've tried
already. Shall we overpower her, you and I?'
"I wouldn't answer him. The look on his face, that sly, self-satisfied look, repelled me. I pounded on that door to wake…" He
faltered, and then gave another humorless laugh. "I was going to say, 'to wake the dead.' But the dead aren't so hard to wake after all, are they?" After a moment, he went on. "The maid, Gudren, opened the door. She had a face like a flat white plate, and
eyes like black glass. I asked her if I could see her mistress. I expected to be told that Katherine was asleep, but instead Gudren
just looked at me, then at Damon over my shoulder." 'I would not tell him ,' she said at last, 'but I will tell you. My lady Katerina is not within. She went out early this morning, to walk in the gardens. She said she had much need of thought.' "I was surprised. 'Early this morning?' I said.
" 'Yes,' she replied. She looked at both Damon and me without liking. 'My mistress was very unhappy last night,' she said meaningfully. 'All night long, she wept.'
"When she said that, a strange feeling came over me. It wasn't just shame and grief that Katherine should be so unhappy. It was
fear. I forgot my hunger and weakness. I even forgot my enmity for Damon. I was filled with haste and a great driving urgency. I turned to Damon and told him that we had to find Katherine, and to my surprise he just nodded.
"We began to search the gardens, calling Katherine's name. I remember just what everything looked like that day. The sun was shining on the high cypress trees and the pines in the garden. Damon and I hurried between them, moving more and more quickly, and calling. We kept calling her…"
Elena could feel the tremors in Stefan's body, communicated to her through his tightly gripping fingers. He was breathing rapidly but shallowly.
"We had almost reached the end of the gardens when I remembered a place that Katherine had loved. It was a little way out onto the grounds, a low wall beside a lemon tree. I started there, shouting for her.
But as I got closer, I stopped shouting. I felt… a fear—a terrible premonition. And I knew I mustn't—mustn't go—"
"Stefan!" said Elena. He was hurting her, his fingers biting into her own, crushing them. The tremors racing through his body were growing, becoming shudders. "Stefan, please!"
But he gave no sign that he heard her. "It was like—a nightmare—everything happening so slowly. I couldn't move—and yet I
had to. I had to keep walking. With each step, the fear grew stronger. I could smell it. A smell like burned fat. I mustn't go there—I don't want to see it—"
His voice had become high and urgent, his breath coming in gasps. His eyes were wide and dilated, like a terrified child's. Elena
gripped his viselike fingers with her other hand, enfolding them completely.
"Stefan, it's all right. You're not there. You're here with me."
"I don't want to see it—but I can't help it. There's something white. Something white under the tree.
Don't make me look at it!"
"Stefan, Stefan, look at me!"
He was beyond hearing. His words came in heaving spasms, as if he could not control them, could not get them out fast enough. "I can't go any closer—but I do. I see the tree, the wall. And that white. Behind the tree. White with gold underneath. And then I know, I know, and I'm moving toward it because it's her dress. Katherine's white dress. And I get around the tree and I see it on
the ground and it's true. It's Katherine's dress,"—his voice rose and broke in unimaginable horror—"but Katherine isn't in it."
Elena felt a chill, as if her body had been plunged into ice water. Her skin rose in goose-flesh, and she tried to speak to him but
couldn't. He was rattling on as if he could keep the terror away if he kept on talking. "Katherine isn't there, so maybe it's all a
joke, but her dress is on the ground and it's full of ashes. Like the ashes in the hearth, just like that, only these smell of burned
flesh. They stink. The smell is making me sick and faint. Beside the sleeve of the dress is a piece of parchment. And on a rock,
on a rock a little way away is a ring. A ring with a blue stone, Katherine's ring. Katherine's ring…" Suddenly, he called out in a
terrible voice, "Katherine, what have you done ?" Then he fell to his knees, releasing Elena's fingers at last, to bury his face in
Elena held him as he was gripped by wracking sobs. She held his shoulders, pulling him to her lap. "Katherine took the ring off," she whispered. It was not a question. "She exposed herself to the sun." His harsh sobs went on and on, as she held him to the full skirts of the blue gown, stroking his quivering shoulders. She murmured nonsense meant to soothe him, pushing away her own horror. And, presently, he quieted and lifted his head. He spoke thickly, but he seemed to have returned to the present, to have come back.
"The parchment was a note, for me and for Damon. It said she had been selfish, wanting to have both of us. It said—she
couldn't bear to be the cause of strife between us. She hoped that once she was gone we would no longer hate each other. She did it to bring us together."
"Oh, Stefan," whispered Elena. She felt burning tears fill her own eyes in sympathy. "Oh, Stefan, I'm so sorry. But don't you see,
after all this time, that what Katherine did was wrong? It was selfish, even, and it washer choice. In a way, it had nothing to do
with you, or with Damon."
Stefan shook his head as if to shake off the truth of the words. "She gave her life… for that. We killed her." He was sitting up
now. But his eyes were still dilated, great disks of black, and he had the look of a small bewildered boy. "Damon came up behind me. He took the note and read it. And then—I think he went mad. We were both mad. I had picked up
Katherine's ring, and he tried to take it. He shouldn't have. We struggled. We said terrible things to each other. We each blamed
the other for what had happened. I don't remember how we got back to the house, but suddenly I had my sword. We were fighting. I wanted to destroy that arrogant face forever, to kill him. I remember my father shouting from the house. We fought harder, to finish it before he reached us.
"And we were well matched. But Damon had always been stronger, and that day he seemed faster, too, as if he had changed more than I had. And so while my father was still shouting from the window I felt Damon's blade get past my guard. Then I felt it enter my heart."
Elena stared, aghast, but he went on without pause. "I felt the pain of the steel, I felt it stab through me, deep, deep inside. All
the way through, a hard thrust. And then the strength poured out of me and I fell. I lay there on the paved ground." He looked up at Elena and finished simply, "And that is how… I died."
Elena sat frozen, as if the ice she'd felt in her chest earlier tonight had flooded out and trapped her. "Damon came and stood over me and bent down. I could hear my father's cries from far away, and screams from the household, but all I could see was Damon's face. Those black eyes that were like a moonless night. I wanted to hurt him for what he had done to me. For everything he had done to me, and to Katherine." Stefan was quiet a moment, and then he said, almost dreamily, "And so I lifted my sword and I killed him. With the last of my strength, I stabbed my brother through the heart." The storm had moved on, and through the broken window Elena could hear soft night noises, the chirp of crickets, the wind sifting through trees. In Stefan's room, it was very still.
"I knew nothing more until I woke up in my tomb," said Stefan. He leaned back, away from her, and shut his eyes. His face was pinched and weary, but that awful childlike dreaminess was gone.
"Both Damon and I had had just enough of Katherine's blood to keep us from truly dying. Instead we changed. We woke together in our tomb, dressed in our best clothing, laid on slabs side by side. We were too weak to hurt each other anymore; the
blood had been just barely enough. And we were confused. I called to Damon, but he ran outside into the night.
"Fortunately, we had been buried with the rings Katherine had given us. And I found her ring in my pocket." As if unconsciously, Stefan reached up to stroke the golden circlet. "I suppose they thought she had given it to me. "I tried to go home. That was stupid. The servants screamed at the sight of me and ran to fetch a priest. I ran, too. Into the only
place where I was safe, into the dark.
"And that is where I've stayed ever since. It's where I belong, Elena. I killed Katherine with my pride and my jealousy, and I killed Damon with my hatred. But I did worse than kill my brother. I damned him.
"If he hadn't died then, with Katherine's blood so strong in his veins, he would have had a chance. In time the blood would have
grown weaker, and then passed away. He would have become a normal human again. By killing him then, I condemned him to live in the night. I took away his only chance of salvation."
Stefan laughed bitterly. "Do you know what the name Salvatore means in Italian, Elena? It means salvation, savior. I'm named that, and for St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. And I damned my brother to hell."
"No," said Elena. And then, in a stronger voice, she said, "No, Stefan. He damned himself. He killed you. But what happened to him after that?"
"For a while he joined one of the Free Companies, ruthless mercenaries whose business was to rob and plunder. He wandered across the country with them, fighting and drinking the blood of his victims.
"I was living beyond the city gates by then, half starved, preying on animals, an animal myself. For a long time, I heard nothing
about Damon. Then one day I heard his voice in my mind.
"He was stronger than I, because he was drinking human blood. And killing. Humans have the strongest life essence, and their blood gives power. And when they're killed, somehow the life essence they give is strongest of all. It's as if in those last moments of terror and struggle the soul is the most vibrant. Because Damon killed humans, he was able to draw on the Powers more than I was."
"What… powers?" said Elena. A thought was growing in her mind.
"Strength, as you said, and quickness. A sharpening of all the senses, especially at night. Those are the basics. We can also…
feel minds. We can sense their presence, and sometimes the nature of their thoughts. We can cast confusion about weaker minds, either to overwhelm them or to bend them to our will. There are others. With enough human blood we can change our shapes, become animals. And the more you kill, the stronger all the Powers become."
"Damon's voice in my mind was very strong. He said he was now the condottieri of his own ' company and he was coming back to Florence. He said that if I was there when he arrived he would kill me. I believed him, and I left. I've seen him once or twice
since then. The threat is always the same, and he's always more powerful. Damon's made the most of his nature, and he seems to glory in its darkest side."
"But it's my nature, too. The same darkness is inside me. I thought that I could conquer it, but I was wrong. That's why I came
here, to Fell's Church. I thought if I settled in some small town, far away from the old memories, I might escape the darkness.
And instead, tonight, I killed a man."
"No," said Elena forcefully. "I don't believe that, Stefan." His story had filled her with horror and pity… and fear, too. She
admitted that. But her disgust had vanished, and there was one thing she was sure about. Stefan wasn't a murderer. "What happened tonight, Stefan? Did you argue with Tanner?"
"I… don't remember," he said bleakly. "I used the Power to persuade him to do what you wanted. Then I left. But later I felt the dizziness and the weakness come over me. As it has before." He looked up at her directly. "The last time it happened was in the
cemetery, right by the church, the night Vickie Bennett was attacked."
"But you didn't do that. You couldn't have done that… Stefan?"
"I don't know," he said harshly. "What other explanation is there? And I did take blood from the old man under the bridge, that
night you girls ran away from the graveyard. I would have sworn I didn't take enough to harm him, but he almost died. And I was there when both Vickie and Tanner were attacked."
"But you don't remember attacking them," said Elena, relieved. The idea that had been growing in her mind was now almost a certainty.
"What difference does it make? Who else could have done it, if not me?"
"Damon," said Elena.
He flinched, and she saw his shoulders tighten again. "It's a nice thought. I hoped at first that there might be some explanation