The hunters phantom, p.14
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       The Hunters: Phantom, p.14

         Part #1 of The Vampire Diaries series by L. J. Smith
Chapter 14



  Where were they? Elena watched the water anxiously. If anything had happened to Meredith or Stefan, it was Elena's fault. She had convinced Stefan to let Meredith jump the fal s.

  His objections had been total y reasonable; she could see that now. Meredith had been marked for death. For God's sake, Celia had almost been kil ed simply getting off a train. What had Meredith been thinking, jumping off a cliff into water when she was in the same sort of peril? What had Elena been thinking of to let her? She should have been by Stefan's side, holding Meredith back. And Stefan. She knew he ought to be fine; the rational part of her brain kept reminding her that Stefan was a vampire. He didn't even need to breathe. He could stay underwater for days. He was incredibly strong. But not so long ago, she had thought Stefan was gone forever, stolen by the kitsune. Bad things could happen to him - vampire or not. If she lost him now through her own stupid fault, through her own stubbornness and insistence that everyone pretend that life could be the way it used to be - that they could have some simple fun without doom fol owing them - Elena would lie down and die.

  "Do you see anything?" Bonnie asked, a tremble in her voice. Her freckles stood out in dark dots against her pale face, and her normal y exuberant red curls were plastered flat and dark against her head.

  "No. Not from up here. " Elena shot her a grim look, and before she even consciously made the decision, she dived into the pool.

  Underwater, Elena's vision was clouded by the froth and sand thrown up by the fal s, and she treaded water for a moment as she tried to peer around. She saw a patch of darkness that looked like it might be human figures off near the middle of the pool and struck out toward it. Thank God, Elena thought fervently. When she got closer, the darkness resolved itself into Meredith and Stefan. They seemed to be struggling against something in the water, Stefan's face near Meredith's legs, Meredith's hands reaching desperately toward the surface. Her face was bluish from lack of oxygen, and her eyes were wide with panic.

  Just as Elena came close to them, Stefan jerked sharply and Meredith shot upward. As if in slow motion, Elena saw Meredith's arm swing toward her as Meredith rose. A sudden blow sent Elena shooting backward toward the rocks behind the fal s, the fal s pushing her deeper underwater as she passed under them.

  This is bad, she had just enough time to think, and then her head hit the rocks and everything went black. When Elena awoke, she found herself in her room at home, stil in her bathing suit. Sun shone through the window, but Elena was wet and shivering with cold. Water trickled from her hair and bathing suit, droplets winding down her arms and legs and puddling on the carpet.

  She was unsurprised to see that Damon was there, looking as sleek and dark and poised as ever. He'd been perusing her bookshelf, as comfortable as if he were in his own home, and he wheeled around to stare at her.

  "Damon," she said weakly, confused but, as always, so happy to see him.

  "Elena!" he said, appearing delighted for a moment, and then he frowned.

  "No," he said sharply. "Elena, wake up. "

  "Elena, wake up. " The voice was frightened and desperate, and Elena fought the darkness that seemed to be holding her down and opened her eyes.

  Damon? she almost said, but bit the word back. Because of course it was Stefan who was gazing worriedly into her eyes, and even sweet, understanding Stefan might object to her cal ing him by his dead brother's name twice in one day.

  "Stefan," she said, remembering. "Is Meredith al right?"

  Stefan wrapped her tightly in his arms. "She wil be. Oh, God, Elena," he said. "I thought I was going to lose you. I had to pul you to shore. I didn't know. . . " His voice trailed off, and he hugged her even closer to his chest. Elena did a quick self-inventory. She was sore. Her throat and lungs hurt, probably from breathing in water and coughing it out. There was sand al over her, coating her arms and bathing suit, and it was starting to itch. But she was alive.

  "Oh, Stefan," Elena said, and closed her eyes for a moment, resting her head against him. She was so cold and wet, and Stefan was so warm. She could hear his heart beating beneath her ear. Slower than a human's, but there, steady and reassuring.

  When she opened her eyes again, Matt was kneeling next to them. "Are you okay?" he asked her. When she nodded, he turned his gaze to Stefan. "I should have jumped in," he said guiltily. "I should have helped you save them. Everything seemed to happen so fast, and by the time I knew something was real y wrong, you were bringing them back out of the water. "

  She sat up and touched Matt's arm, feeling a warm flood of affection for him. He was so good, and he felt so responsible for al of them. "Everyone's fine, Matt," she said. "That's what matters. "

  A few feet away, Alaric was inspecting Meredith as Bonnie hovered over them. Celia stood a little farther away, her arms wrapped around herself as she watched Alaric and Meredith.

  When Alaric shifted away, Meredith caught Elena's eye. Her face was white with pain, but she managed to give her an apologetic smile.

  "I didn't mean to hit you," she said. "And Stefan, I should have listened to you, or just had more sense and stayed on shore. " She grimaced. "I think I might have sprained my ankle. Alaric's going to drive me to the hospital so they can tape it up. "

  "What I want to know," Bonnie said, "is whether this means it's al over. I mean, Celia's name appeared, and she was almost strangled in the train doors. And Meredith's name appeared, and she almost drowned. They both got saved - by Stefan, good job, Stefan - so does that mean they're safe now? We haven't seen any more names. "

  Elena's heart lightened with hope. But Matt was shaking his head.

  "It's not that easy," he said darkly. "It's never that easy. Just because Meredith and Celia could be saved one time, it doesn't mean whatever it is isn't stil after them. And even though her name wasn't cal ed, Elena was in danger, too. "

  Stefan's arms were stil around Elena, but they felt hard and unyielding. When she glanced up at his face, his jaw was set and his green eyes ful of pain.

  "I'm afraid it's not the end. Another name has appeared,"

  he told them. "Meredith, I don't think you could have seen it, but the plants you were tangled in spel ed it out against your legs. " Everyone gasped. Elena clutched his arm, her stomach dropping. She looked at Matt, at Bonnie, at Stefan himself. They'd never seemed more precious to her. Which one of the people who she loved was in danger?

  "Wel , don't keep us in suspense," Meredith said wryly. Her color was better, Elena noted, and her voice sounded crisp and competent again, although she winced as Alaric touched her ankle gently. "Whose name was it?"

  Stefan hesitated. His eyes darted to Elena and then quickly away. He licked his lips in a nervous gesture she'd never seen from him before. Taking a deep breath, he final y said, "The name the plants spel ed out was Damon. "

  Bonnie sat down with a thump, as though her legs had given way. "But Damon's dead," she said, her brown eyes wide.

  But for some reason the news didn't shock Elena to the core. Instead, a hard, bright feeling of hope flooded her. It would make sense. She had never believed someone like Damon could just be gone.

  "Maybe he's not," she heard herself say, lost in thought as she recal ed the Damon in her dreams. When she had passed out under the water, she had seen him again, and he had told her to wake up. Was that dreamlike behavior? It could have been her subconscious warning her, she supposed doubtful y, but his name had appeared underwater.

  Could he be alive? He had died - she had no doubt about that. But he was a vampire; he had died before, and lived again. The Guardians had tried, they said, and they had said there was no way to bring Damon back. Was it a pointless hope? Was the eager beating of her heart at the thought that Damon might be alive just Elena fooling herself?

  Elena snapped back to the present to find her friends staring at her. There was a moment of complete silence, as if even the birds had st
opped singing.

  "Elena," Stefan said gently. "We saw him die. "

  Elena gazed into Stefan's green eyes. Surely, if there was any reason to hope, he would feel it the same way she did. But his gaze was steady and sad. Stefan, she saw, had no doubt that Damon was dead. Her heart squeezed painful y.

  "Who's Damon?" Celia asked, but no one answered. Alaric was frowning. "If Damon's definitely dead," he said, "if you're sure about that, then whatever is causing these accidents might be playing on your grief, trying to hit you where it hurts. Perhaps there's an emotional danger here that it's trying to create as wel as a physical one. "

  "If spel ing out Damon's name is meant to upset us, then it's aiming at Stefan and Elena," Matt said. "I mean, it's no secret that Meredith and I didn't like him much. " He crossed his arms defensively. "I'm sorry, Stefan, but it's true. "

  "I respected Damon," said Meredith, "especial y after he worked so hard with us in the Dark Dimension, but it's true that his death didn't. . . affect me the way it did Elena and Stefan. I have to agree with Matt. "

  Elena glanced at Bonnie and noticed that her jaw was clenched and her eyes glistened with angry tears. As Elena watched, Bonnie's bright eyes dul ed and lost focus, gazing off into the distance. She stiffened and turned her face up toward the top of the cliff.

  "She's having a vision," Elena said, jumping to her feet. Bonnie spoke in a voice flatter and rougher than her own.

  "He wants you, Elena," she said. "He wants you. "

  Elena fol owed her gaze toward the cliff. For a wild moment, that hard, bright hope came bursting back into her chest again. She ful y expected to see Damon up there, smirking down at them. It would be just like him, if he'd somehow survived death, to show up suddenly, make a grand entrance, and then pass off the miracle with a shrug and a dry quip.

  And there was someone standing at the top of the cliff. Celia gave a little scream, and Matt swore loudly. It wasn't Damon, though. Elena could tel that right away. The silhouetted figure was broader than Damon's lithe form. But the sun was so bright she couldn't make out the person's features, and she lifted her hand to shade her eyes.

  Like a halo, blond curly hair gleamed in the sunlight. Elena frowned.

  "I think," she said, recognition dawning on her, "that's Caleb Smal wood. "

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