The Hunters: Phantom Chapter 17

The Hunters: Phantom Chapter 17

Once he got outside, Stefan remembered that Elena had taken his car. Turning into the woods, he began to run, using his Power to speed his pace. The pounding of his feet seemed to thud, Guard her, Guard her.

He knew where Tyler Smal wood had lived. After Tyler had attacked Elena at a dance, it had made sense to keep an eye on him. Stefan burst from the woods at the edge of the Smal woods’ property.

They owned an ugly house, in Stefan’s opinion. An inaccurate portrayal of an old Southern manor estate, it was too big for the lawn it sat on and bulged with unnecessary columns and twisting rococo decorations. Just looking at it, Stefan had been able to tel that the Smal woods had more money than taste, and that the architects who’d designed it weren’t educated in true classical forms.

He rang the bel at the front door, then froze. What if Mr. or Mrs. Smal wood answered the bel ? He would have to Influence them to give him as much information as they could about Caleb, and then to forget Stefan had been there. He hoped he had the Power to do it: He hadn’t been eating enough, not even of animal blood.

But no one came. After a few seconds, Stefan sent questing tendrils of Power through the house. It was empty. He couldn’t go in, couldn’t search Caleb’s room like he wanted to. Without an invitation, he was stuck out here. He wandered around the house, peering through the windows, but finding nothing out of the ordinary other than entirely too many gilded frames and mirrors. Behind the house he found a smal white shed. Sending Power toward it, he felt something slightly… off. Just the slightest tinge of darkness, a feeling of frustration and il intent.

The shed was padlocked, but the lock was easy enough to snap. And as no one lived here, he didn’t need an invitation to enter.

The first thing he saw was Elena’s face. Newspaper clippings and photos were tacked al over the wal s: Elena, Bonnie, Meredith, himself. On the floor was a pentagram with more pictures and roses.

Stefan’s certainty that something was wrong solidified. Elena was in danger. Sending Power before him, searching desperately for any trace of her, he took off running again.

As she drove away from the florist’s, Elena turned the conversation with Stefan over and over in her mind. What was going on with him since they’d come back to Fel ‘s Church? It felt like there was part of him that he was holding back, hiding from her. She remembered the loneliness, the sinking, dizzy feeling of isolation that she had sensed when she kissed him. Was it Damon’s loss that was changing Stefan?

Damon. Just the thought of him was enough to cause an almost physical pain in her. Mercurial, difficult, beautiful Damon. Dangerous. Loving, in his own way. The thought of his name, written in water plants across Meredith’s legs, floated through her mind.

She didn’t know what it meant. But there was no hope. She needed to stop lying to herself about that. She had seen Damon die. Yet it seemed impossible that someone as complex and strong and seemingly undefeatable as Damon could be gone so quickly and so simply. But that was the way it happened, wasn’t it? She should know that death didn’t often come with a grand show, that it usual y came when you were least expecting it. She had known that before al this… al this stuff with vampires and werewolves and evil mysterious opponents. She had known al about the suddenness and simplicity of death for years, back when she was just normal Elena Gilbert, who didn’t believe in anything supernatural, not even horoscopes or fortune-tel ing, much less monsters.

She glanced at the passenger seat next to her, where there lay the bouquet of pink roses she had picked up to give to Margaret. And, next to them, a simple bunch of forget-me-nots. Like I’d ever forget, she thought. Elena remembered riding in the car toward home with her parents and baby Margaret on an ordinary Sunday afternoon. It had been a beautiful sunny fal day, the leaves of the trees by the roadside just beginning to be painted with red and gold.

They’d gone to lunch at a little inn out in the country. Margaret, who was teething, had been cranky at the restaurant, and they’d taken turns walking her up and down on the porch of the inn for a few minutes at a time while the others ate. But in the car she was quiet, half drowsing, her light golden lashes fluttering down to rest for longer and longer periods against her cheeks.

Elena’s father had been driving, she remembered, and the radio had been tuned to the local station so he could catch the news. Her mother had twisted to look at Elena in the backseat, her sapphire blue eyes so like Elena’s own. Her golden hair, touched with a little gray, was pul ed back in a French braid, elegant and practical. Smiling, she had said, “Do you know what I think would be nice?”

“What?” asked Elena, smiling back at her. Then she saw a strange glitter, high in the sky, and leaned forward without waiting for a reply. “Daddy, what’s that?” She’d pointed upward.

Elena never found out what her mother had thought would be nice. Her father never answered what that was. The last things Elena remembered were sounds: her father’s gasp and the screech of the car’s tires. Everything after that was blank, until Elena had woken up in the hospital, Aunt Judith by her bedside, and learned that her parents were dead. They had died before the paramedics had even pried them out of the car.

Before they restored Fel ‘s Church, the Guardians had told Elena that she should have died in that accident, and that her parents should have lived. The glitter had been their air car, and Elena had distracted her father at the worst possible moment, causing al the wrong people to die. She could feel the weight of it now, the guilt at surviving, her anger at the Guardians. She glanced at the dashboard clock. There was stil plenty of time before she had to be at Margaret’s recital. Turning off the highway, she pul ed into the cemetery’s parking lot.

Elena parked the car and walked briskly through the newer part of the cemetery, carrying the forget-me-nots. Birds were chirping gaily overhead. So much had happened in this cemetery in the last year. Bonnie had seen one of her first visions among these tombstones. Stefan had fol owed her here, watching her secretly when she thought he was just the gorgeous new guy at school. Damon had nearly drained an old tramp under the bridge. Katherine had chased Elena out of the cemetery with fog and ice and a far-reaching, far-seeing evil. And, of course, Elena had driven off a bridge to her death here by the cemetery, at the end of that first life, the one that seemed so long ago now.

Elena picked her way past an ornate marble memorial to Fel ‘s Church’s Civil War veterans and down to the shady glen where her parents were buried. The tiny wildflower bouquet she and Stefan had left two days before had withered, and Elena threw it away and put the forget-menots in its place. She picked a bit of moss off her father’s name.

The lightest crunch of gravel sounded from the path behind her, and Elena whirled around. There was no one there.

“I’m just jumpy,” she muttered to herself. Her voice sounded oddly loud in the quiet of the cemetery. “Nothing to worry about,” she said more firmly.

She settled in the grass by her parents’ graves and traced the letters on her mother’s headstone with one hand.

“Hi,” she said. “It’s been a while since I’ve actual y sat here and talked to you, I know. I’m sorry. An awful lot has happened…” She swal owed. “I’m sorry, too, because I found out that you weren’t supposed to die when you did. I asked the Guardians to… to bring you back, but they said you had moved on to a better place and they couldn’t reverse that. I wish… I’m glad you’re happy wherever you are, but I stil miss you.”

Elena sighed, lowered her hand from the gravestone, and trailed it through the grass by her knees. “Something’s after me again,” she continued unhappily. “After al of us, I guess, but Bonnie said I brought it here when she was in a trance. And later she said he wants me. I don’t know if it’s two different people – or whatever – after us, or just one. But it’s always me the bad things focus on.” She twisted a blade of grass between her fingers. “I wish things could be simpler for me, the way they are for other girls.

“Sometimes… I’m so glad to have Stefan, and glad I could help protect Fel ‘s Church, but… it’s hard. It’s real y hard.” A sob was building in her throat and she swal owed it back. “And… Stefan’s always been there for me, but I feel like I don’t know al of him anymore, especial y because I can’t read his thoughts. He’s so tense, and it’s like he needs to be in control al the time…”

Something shifted behind her, just the slightest hint of movement. She felt a warm, damp breeze like a breath on the back of her neck.

Elena whipped her head around. Caleb was crouching behind her, so close they were almost nose-to-nose. She screamed, but Caleb slapped his hand over her mouth, muffling her cry.