The hunters phantom, p.16
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       The Hunters: Phantom, p.16

         Part #1 of The Vampire Diaries series by L. J. Smith
Chapter 16


  He walked for a long, long time, though it seemed his surroundings never changed. The same dim light filtered through a constant cloud of ash. He plodded on through grime, through mud, through ankle-deep pools of dark water.

  Occasional y, he unclenched his fist and gazed again at the locks of hair. Each time, the magic liquid cleaned them a little more, changing a scrap of fibrous blackness to two locks of shining hair, red and gold.

  He walked on.

  Everything hurt, but he couldn't stop. If he stopped he would sink back below the ash and mud, back to the grave back to death.

  Something whispered around the edges of his mind. He didn't know quite what had happened to him, but words and phrases spun in his head.

  Words like abandoned, words like alone.

  He was very cold. He kept walking. After a while, he realized he was mumbling. "Left me al alone. They'd never have left him here. " He couldn't remember who this him was, but he felt a sick sort of satisfaction from the glow of resentment. He held on to it as he continued his march. After what felt like an unchanging eternity, something happened. Ahead of him he could see the gatehouse he had imagined: spired like a fairy-tale castle, black as night. He walked faster, his footsteps shuffling through the ash. And then the earth opened suddenly beneath his feet. In the space of a heartbeat, he was fal ing into nothingness. Something inside him howled, Not now, not now. He grabbed and clawed at the earth, his arms holding him afloat, his feet swinging into the emptiness below him.

  "No," he moaned. "No, they can't. . . Don't leave me here. Don't leave me again. " His fingers slipped, mud and ash sliding beneath his hands.

  "Damon?" an incredulous voice roared. A great muscular figure stood above him, silhouetted against the moons and planets in the sky, his chest bared, long, spiraling tangles of hair spil ing over his shoulders. This statue of a man reached down and grasped him by the arms, lifting him up. He yelped in pain. Something beneath the earth had latched onto his legs and was pul ing him back down.

  "Hold on!" The other man grunted, muscles rippling. He strained and heaved against whatever was clinging onto Damon - Damon, the man had cal ed him, and that felt right, somehow. The other man gave a great tug, and final y the force below released him, and he shot out of the earth, knocking his rescuer backward.

  Damon lay panting on the ground, spent.

  "You are supposed to be dead," the other man told him, climbing to his feet and holding out a hand to steady Damon. He pushed a long lock of hair away from his face and gazed at Damon with serious, troubled eyes. "The fact that you are not. . . wel , I am not as surprised as I should be. "

  Damon blinked at his savior, who was watching him attentively. He wet his lips and tried to speak, but his voice wouldn't come.

  "Everything has been disturbed here since your friends left," the man said. "Something essential has shifted in this universe. Things are not right. " He shook his head, his eyes troubled. "But tel me, mon cher, how does it come to be that you are here?"

  Final y Damon found his voice. It came out rough and quavering. "I. . . don't know. "

  The man immediately was al courtesy. "I think the situation cal s for some Black Magic, oui? And some blood, perhaps, and a chance to clean up. And then, Damon, we must talk. "

  He gestured toward the dark castle ahead of them. Damon hesitated for a moment, glancing at the emptiness and ash around them, then trudged after him toward the open doors.

  After Stefan swept out of the room so suddenly, everyone could only stare after him as the front door banged, signaling that he had left the house just as quickly. Bonnie hugged her arms around herself, shivering. A little voice in the back of her head told her that something was very, very wrong.

  Celia final y broke the silence. "Interesting," she said. "Is he always so. . . intense? Or is it a vampire thing?"

  Alaric chuckled dryly. "Believe it or not, he's always seemed very low-key and practical to me. I don't remember him being so volatile. " He ran a hand through his sandy hair and added thoughtful y, "Maybe it was the contrast with his brother that made him seem so reasonable. Damon was pretty unpredictable. "

  Meredith frowned thoughtful y. "No, you're right. This isn't the way Stefan usual y acts. Maybe he's emotional because Elena's threatened? But that doesn't make sense. . . she's been in danger before. Even when she died - he was heartbroken, but, if anything, it made him more responsible, not wilder. "

  "But when Elena was dead," Alaric reminded her, "the worst thing he could imagine had already happened. It's possible that what's making him so jumpy is that he doesn't know where the threat's coming from this time. "

  Bonnie took a sip of tea, zoning out as Meredith hmmmed thoughtful y, and Celia raised one skeptical eyebrow. "I stil don't understand what you mean when you say Elena died. Are you suggesting she actual y rose from the dead?"

  "Yes," said Meredith. "She was turned into a vampire, then she was exposed to sunlight and physical y died. They buried her and everything. Later - months later - she returned. She's human again, though. "

  "I find al that very hard to believe," said Celia flatly.

  "Honestly, Celia," said Alaric, throwing up his hands in exasperation. "With everything you've seen since we got here - your scarf nearly choking you, then spel ing out a name, Bonnie having a vision, Stefan practical y flying to save you - I don't know why you're drawing the line now and saying you don't believe a girl could come back from the dead. " He paused and took a breath. "I don't mean to sound harsh, but real y. "

  Meredith smirked. "Believe it or not, it's true. Elena came back from the dead. "

  Bonnie wrapped one long red curl around her finger. She watched as her finger turned white and red against the strand of hair. Elena. Of course they were talking about Elena. Everyone was always talking about Elena. Whether she was with them or not, everything they did or thought centered on Elena.

  Alaric turned to address the whole group. "Stefan seems convinced that 'he wants you' means Caleb, but I'm not sure that it does. From what I've seen of Bonnie's visions, and what you guys have told me, they're hardly ever about what's right in front of her. Caleb's appearance - if it even was Caleb - could have been a coincidence. Don't you think so, Meredith?"

  Oh, don't bother to ask me about the visions, Bonnie thought bitterly. I'm only the one who has them. Wasn't that the way it always was, though? She was the one everyone overlooked.

  "It could be a coincidence," Meredith said doubtful y. "But if it's not Caleb she was talking about, who is it? Who wants Elena?"

  Bonnie glanced under her eyelashes at Matt, but he was staring out the window, apparently completely detached from the conversation. She could tel that Matt stil loved Elena, even if no one else knew. It was too bad: Matt was awful y cute. He could date anyone, but it was taking him a long time to get over her.

  But then, no one ever seemed to get over Elena. Half the boys at Robert E. Lee High School had gone around gazing wistful y after her, as if she might suddenly turn around and fal into their arms. Certainly most of the boys Elena had dated had stayed a little bit in love with her, even after Elena had more or less forgotten their names. It isn't fair, Bonnie thought, twirling her hair more tightly around her finger. Everyone always wanted Elena, and Bonnie had never even had a boyfriend for more than a few weeks at a time. What was wrong with her? People always told her how cute she was, how adorable, how fun. . . and then they looked past her to Elena, and it was like they couldn't see Bonnie anymore.

  And while Damon, amazing, sexy Damon, had been fond of her, sometimes, when she wasn't trying to kid herself, she knew he hadn't real y seen her, either.

  I'm just the sidekick, that's my problem, Bonnie thought glumly. Elena was the star; Meredith was a hero; Bonnie was a sidekick.

  Celia cleared her throat. "I have to confess I'm intrigued by the appearance of the names," she said stiffly. "It does seem like they point to
some kind of threat. Whether or not Bonnie's purported vision comes to anything" - Bonnie shot her best nasty look at Celia, but Celia ignored it - "we should definitely investigate any background or context we can find for the unexplained appearance of the names. We should find out if there's a recorded history of this kind of thing happening before. The writing on the wal , if you wil . "

  She gave a thin-lipped smile at her own joke.

  "But what would we investigate?" Bonnie said, finding herself unwil ingly responding to Celia's teacherlike manner. "I wouldn't even know where to start looking for something like this. A book on curses, maybe? Or omens?

  Do you have anything like that in your library, Mrs. Flowers?"

  Mrs. Flowers shook her head. "I'm afraid not, dear. My library, as you know, is mostly herbals. I have a few more specialized books, but I can't recal anything that might be helpful with this problem. "

  When she mentioned "more specialized books,"

  Bonnie's cheeks got hot. She thought of the grimoire on communication with the dead, stil tucked under the floorboards in her bedroom, and hoped Mrs. Flowers hadn't noticed it was missing.

  After a few seconds, her cheeks had cooled enough that she dared to glance around, but only Meredith was looking at her, one elegant eyebrow raised. If Meredith thought something was up, she wouldn't rest until she got the whole story from Bonnie, so Bonnie gave her a bland smile and crossed her fingers behind her back for luck. Meredith raised her other eyebrow and looked at her with deep suspicion.

  "Actual y," Celia said, "I have a contact at the University of Virginia who studies folklore and mythology. She specializes in witchcraft, folk magic, curses, al that kind of thing. "

  "Do you think we could cal her?" said Alaric hopeful y. Celia frowned. "I think it would be better if I went up there for a few days. Her library isn't as wel organized as it could be - I suppose it's symptomatic of the kind of mind that studies stories rather than facts - and it might take a while to discover if there's anything useful there. I think it would be just as wel for me to get out of town for a while, anyway. After two brushes with death in two days" - she sent a pointed glance toward Meredith, who blushed - "I'm beginning to feel that Fel 's Church isn't the healthiest place for me. " She looked at Alaric. "You might find her library of interest, if you'd like to come with me. Dr. Beltram is one of the best-known experts in her field. "

  "Uh. . . " Alaric looked startled. "Thanks, but I'd better stay here and help Meredith. With her sprained ankle and everything. "

  "Mmm-hmmm. " Celia glanced at Meredith again. Meredith, who had been looking steadily more delighted every second since Celia had announced she was leaving, ignored her and smiled at Alaric. "Wel , I suppose I should give her a cal and get my things together. No time like the present. "

  Celia stood up, smoothed her sundress, and walked out the door, head high. As she passed, she brushed against the table near Mrs. Flowers's chair, sending her knitting to the floor.

  Bonnie let out a breath as Celia left the room. "Wel , real y!" she said indignantly.

  "Bonnie," said Matt warningly.

  "I know," said Bonnie angrily. "She could have at least said 'excuse me,' right? And what was that with asking Alaric to come with her to UVA? He just got here, practical y. He hasn't seen you for months. Of course he's not going to leave again with her right now. "

  "Bonnie," said Meredith, in a strangely choked voice.

  "What?" said Bonnie, catching the oddness in her tone and looking around. "Oh. Oh. Oh, no. "

  Mrs. Flowers's knitting had fal en from its table, and the skein of yarn had rol ed across the floor, unwinding as it went. Now, in the curls of soft pale pink, they could al clearly read one word written across the carpet: bonnie

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