The hunters phantom, p.29
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       The Hunters: Phantom, p.29

         Part #1 of The Vampire Diaries series by L. J. Smith
Chapter 29


  I will not die - not again, Elena thought furiously as she writhed in pain, the invisible vise clamping down even harder on her.

  Bonnie fel to the grass, even paler than before, clutching her stomach in a mirror image of Elena.

  It cannot take me!

  And then, just as suddenly as it had started, the deafening roar ceased and the crushing pain lifted. Elena col apsed to the ground, air whooshing back into her lungs. It's finished grinding bones to make its bread, Elena thought semihysterical y, and almost giggled. Bonnie gasped loudly, letting out a smal sob.

  "What was that?" Elena asked her.

  Bonnie shook her head. "It felt like something was getting pul ed out of us," she said, panting. "I felt it before, too, right before you showed up. "

  "That pul ing feeling. " Elena grimaced, her mind whirling.

  "I think it's the phantom. Damon says that it wants to drain our power. That must be how it does it. "

  Bonnie was staring at her, her mouth just a tiny bit open. Her pink tongue darted out and licked her lips. "Damon says?" she said. She frowned anxiously. "Damon's dead, Elena. "

  "No, he's alive. The star bal brought him back after we'd already left the Dark Moon. I found out after the phantom took you. "

  Bonnie made a little noise, a sort of eep! that reminded Elena of a bunny, of something soft and smal and surprised. Al the blood drained out of her face, leaving her usual y faint freckles vivid spots against the white of her cheeks. She pressed shaking hands to her mouth, staring at Elena with huge dark eyes.

  "Listen, Bonnie," Elena said fiercely. "Nobody else knows this yet. Nobody but you and me, Bonnie. Damon wanted to keep it a secret until he could figure out the right way to come back. So we need to keep quiet about it. "

  Bonnie nodded, stil gaping. The color was rushing back into her cheeks, and she looked like she was caught between joy and total confusion.

  Glancing over her shoulder, Elena noticed that there was something in the grass at the foot of a rosebush beyond Bonnie, something motionless and white. A chil went through her as she was reminded of Caleb's body at the foot of the monument in the graveyard.

  "What's that?" she asked sharply. Bonnie's expression tipped over into confusion. Elena brushed past her and walked toward it, squinting in the sunlight. When she got close enough, Elena saw with amazement that it was Matt, lying stil and silent beneath the rosebush. A sprinkle of black petals was scattered across his chest. As she came close to him, Matt's eyes twitched - she could see them moving rapidly back and forth under the lids, as if he was having an intense dream - and then flew open as he took in a long, rattling gulp of air. His pale blue eyes met hers.

  "Elena!" He gasped. He hitched himself up onto his elbows and looked past her. "Bonnie! Thank God! Are you okay? Where are we?"

  "The phantom caught us, brought us to the Nether World, and is using us to make itself more powerful," Elena said succinctly. "How do you feel?"

  "A little startled," Matt joked in a weak voice. He looked around, then licked his lips nervously. "Huh, so this is the Nether World? It's nicer than I'd pictured from your descriptions. Shouldn't the sky be red? And where are al the vampires and demons?" He looked at Elena and Bonnie sternly. "Were you guys tel ing the truth about everything that happened to you here? Because this place seems pretty nice for a Hel dimension, what with al the roses and everything. "

  Elena stared at him. It's possible too many weird things have happened to us.

  Then she noticed the hint of panic on Matt's face. He wasn't unnatural y blase about what was going on; he was just being brave, whistling to keep up their spirits in this newest danger.

  "Wel , we wanted to impress you," she joked back with a tremulous smile, then quickly got down to business. "What was going on when you were back home?" she asked him.

  "Um," Matt said, "Stefan and Meredith were questioning Caleb about how he summoned the phantom. "

  "Caleb's not responsible for the phantom," Elena said firmly. "It fol owed us home when we were here before. We have to get home right away so we can tel them they're dealing with one of the Original ones. It'l be much more difficult for us to get rid of than an ordinary one. "

  Matt looked at Bonnie questioningly. "How does she know this?"

  "Wel ," Bonnie said, with a hint of the glee she always got from gossip, "apparently Damon told her. He's alive and she saw him!"

  So much for keeping Damon's secret, Bonnie, Elena thought, rol ing her eyes. Stil , it didn't real y matter if Matt knew. He wasn't the one Damon was keeping the secret from, and he wasn't likely to be able to tel Stefan anytime soon.

  Elena tuned out Matt's exclamations of wonder and Bonnie's explanations as she scanned the area around them. Sunshine. Rosebushes. Rosebushes. Sunshine. Grass. Clear blue sky. Al the same, in every direction. Wherever she looked, velvety black perfect blooms nodded serenely in a clear midday sun. The bushes were al the same, down to the number and positions of the roses on each one and the distances between them. Even the stems of grass were uniform - al stopping at the same height. The sun hadn't moved since she'd arrived.

  It al seemed like it should be lovely and relaxing, but after a few minutes the sameness became unnerving.

  "There was a gate," she told Bonnie and Matt. "When we were looking into this field from the Gatehouse of the Seven Treasures. There was a way in from there, so there must be a way to get out to there. We just have to find it. "

  They had begun to clamber to their feet when, without warning, the sharp tugging pain struck again. Elena clutched her stomach. Bonnie lost her balance and fel back to a sitting position on the ground, her eyes clenched shut. Matt gave a choked-off exclamation and gasped. "What is that?"

  Elena waited for the pain to fade again before she answered him. Her knees were wobbling. She felt dizzy and sick. "Another reason we need to get out of here," she said.

  "The phantom's using us to increase its power. I think it needs us here to do that. And if we don't find the gate soon, we might be too weak to make it home. "

  She looked around again, the uniformity almost dizzying. Each rosebush was centered in a smal circular bed of richlooking dark loam. Between these circles, the grass of the field was velvety smooth, like the lawn of an English manor house or a real y good golf course.

  "Okay," Elena said, and took a deep, calming breath.

  "Let's spread out and look careful y. We'l stay about ten feet apart from one another and go from one end of this rose garden to the other, searching. Look around careful y

  - anything that's at al different from the rest of the field could be the clue we need to find the way out. "

  "We're going to search the whole field?" Bonnie asked, sounding dismayed. "It's huge. "

  "We'l just do one little bit at a time," Elena said encouragingly.

  They started in a spread-out line, gazing intently back and forth, up and down. At first there was only the silence of focused concentration as they searched. There was no sign of a gate. Step by step through the field, nothing changed. Endless rows of identical rosebushes stretched in al directions, spaced about three feet from one another, enough room between them for one person to easily pass. The eternal midday sun beat down uncomfortably on the tops of their heads, and Elena wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead. The scent of roses hung heavily in the warm air; at first Elena had found it pleasant, but now it was nauseating, like a too-sweet perfume. The perfect stalks of grass bent under her feet, then sprang up again, uncrushed, as if she had never passed.

  "I wish there were a breeze," Bonnie complained. "But I don't think the wind ever blows here. "

  "This field must come to an end sometime," Elena said desperately. "It can't just go on forever. " There was a sickening feeling in the pit of her stomach, though, that suggested to her that maybe it could go on forever. This wasn't her world, after al . The rules were different here.

"So where's Damon now?" Bonnie asked suddenly. She wasn't looking at Elena. She was keeping up the same steady pace, the same careful, systematic gaze. But there was a note of strain in her voice, and Elena broke her own search to glance at her quickly.

  Then one possible answer to Bonnie's question hit Elena and she stopped dead. "That's it!" she said. "Bonnie, Matt, I think Damon might be here. Or not here, not in the rose garden, but somewhere in the Nether World, in the Dark Dimension. " They looked at her blankly.

  "Damon was going to try to come here to look for the phantom," Elena explained. "He thought it fol owed us home from here when we came back to our own world, so this is probably where he'd start searching for its physical body. The last time I saw him, he told me that he thought he would be able to fight it better from here, where it came from. If he is here, maybe he can help us get back to Fel 's Church. "

  Damon, please be here somewhere. Please help us, she begged silently.

  Just then, something caught her eye. Ahead of them, between two rosebushes that looked just the same as any other two rosebushes in the garden, there was the slightest shift, the tiniest distortion. It looked like the heat shimmer that would sometimes appear over the highway on the hottest, most stil days of summer as the sun's rays bounced off the asphalt.

  No asphalt here to radiate back the sun's heat. But something had to be causing that shimmer.

  Unless she was imagining it. Were her eyes playing tricks on her, showing her a mirage among the rosebushes?

  "Do you see that?" she asked the others. "Over there, just a little to the right?"

  They stopped and peered careful y.

  "Maybe?" Bonnie said hesitantly.

  "I think so," Matt said. "Like hot air rising, right?"

  "Right," Elena said. She frowned, estimating the distance. Maybe fifteen feet. "We should take it at a run,"

  she said. "In case we have any trouble getting through. There might be some kind of barrier we have to break to get out. I don't think hesitating wil help us. "

  "Let's hold hands," Bonnie suggested nervously. "I don't want to lose you guys. "

  Elena didn't take her eyes off the shimmer in the air. If she lost it, she'd never find it again, not with the sameness of everything in here. Once they got turned around, they'd never be able to tel this spot from any other. They al three took one another's hands, staring at the smal distortion that they hoped was a gate. Bonnie was in the middle and she clutched Elena's left hand with her thin, warm fingers.

  "One, two, three, go," Bonnie said, and then they were running. They stumbled over the grass, wove between rosebushes. The space between the bushes was barely wide enough for three to run abreast, and a thorny branch caught in Elena's hair. She couldn't let go of Bonnie and she couldn't stop, so she just yanked her head forward despite the eye-wateringly painful tug on her hair and kept running, leaving a tangle of hair hanging from a bush behind her.

  Then they were at the shimmer between the bushes. Close up, it was even harder to see, and Elena would have doubted that they were at the right spot except for the change in the temperature. It might have looked like a heat shimmer from a distance, but it was as cold and bracing as a mountain lake, despite the warm sun right above them.

  "Don't stop!" Elena shouted. And they plunged into the coldness.

  In an instant, everything went black, as if someone had switched off the sun.

  Elena felt herself fal ing and clung desperately to Bonnie's hand.

  Damon! she cried silently. Help me!

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