The Hunters: Phantom Chapter 20

The Hunters: Phantom Chapter 20

“Cookies,” Alaric said gravely. “Bonnie thinks she could manage to choke down a few cookies. Just to keep her strength up.”

“Cookies, got it,” said Meredith, rummaging in Mrs. Flowers’s kitchen cabinet to find a mixing bowl. She clunked a big china bowl that was probably older than she was onto the counter and checked the refrigerator. Eggs, milk, butter. Flour in the freezer. Vanil a and sugar in the cupboard.

“Look at you,” Alaric said admiringly as Meredith unwrapped a stick of butter. “You don’t even need a recipe. Is there anything you can’t do?”

“Lots of things,” Meredith replied, basking in the warmth of Alaric’s gaze.

“What can I do to help?” he asked cheerful y.

“You can get another mixing bowl and measure two cups of flour and a teaspoon of baking powder into it,” Meredith told him. “I’l beat the butter with the other ingredients in this bowl, and then we can put them together.”

“Got it.” Alaric found a bowl and measuring cups and started to measure out the items. Meredith watched his strong, tanned hands confidently leveling off the flour. Alaric had gorgeous hands, she thought. His shoulders were nice, too, and his face. Al of him, real y.

She realized she was ogling her boyfriend instead of stirring, and felt her cheeks color, even though no one was watching her. “Pass me the measuring cups when you’re done with them?”

He handed them to her. “I know something scary’s going on, and I want to protect Bonnie, too,” he said, smiling a little, “but I think she might be milking the situation a little. She loves that everyone’s pampering her.”

“Bonnie’s being very brave,” said Meredith primly, then flashed him a grin, “and, yes, she might be milking it.”

Matt came down the stairs and into the kitchen. “I think maybe Bonnie should have some tea when she gets out of her bubble bath,” he said. “Mrs. Flowers is busy putting protective spel s on the bedroom Bonnie chose, but she said she has a mix of chamomile and rosemary that would be good, and to put honey in it.”

Meredith focused on mixing the cookie ingredients together as Matt boiled water and careful y measured dried herbs and honey to make the tea to Mrs. Flowers’s exact specifications. When he final y finished fussing over it, Matt picked up the fragile teacup and saucer careful y.

“Wait, maybe I’d better take the whole pot up,” he said. As he searched for a tray to carry it on, he asked,

“Meredith, are you sure you and Bonnie got everything she might need from her house?”

“She was up there for nearly a half hour. She got everything she wanted,” said Meredith, “and if we missed anything, I’m sure Mrs. Flowers has some extras.”

“Good,” said Matt, his handsome face intent as he picked up the tea tray without spil ing anything. “I just want to make sure Bonnie’s okay.”

He left the kitchen, and Meredith listened to his footsteps heading back upstairs. Once he was out of earshot, she and Alaric both burst out laughing.

“Yes, she’s definitely milking it,” said Meredith, when she’d stopped giggling.

Alaric pul ed her toward him. His face was serious and intent now, and Meredith caught her breath. When they were this close, she could see the hidden flecks of gold in his hazel eyes, and they felt like a secret only Meredith knew.

“I love how you take care of your friend,” Alaric told her, his voice low. “What I love most is that you know she’s pushing it as far as she can, seeing what you’l do for her, and you laugh, but you’re stil going to give her whatever she needs.” He frowned a little. “No, that’s not right. I do love how you see the funny side of it, but what I love most is how wel you take care of everyone you can.” He pul ed her closer stil . “I guess mostly I love you, Meredith.”

Meredith kissed him. How could she have worried that Celia would come between them? It was like there had been a mist fil ing her eyes, making it so that she was unable to see the simple truth: Alaric was crazy about her. After a minute, she broke the kiss and turned back to the cookie dough. “Get a cookie sheet, would you?” she asked. Alaric stood stil for a moment. “Okay…” he said. Closing her eyes, Meredith summoned al her strength. She had to tel him. She had promised herself she would. He handed her a cookie sheet and she busied herself by scooping spoonfuls of dough onto it. “There’s something I need to tel you, Alaric,” she said.

Alaric froze next to her. “What is it?” he asked, his voice wary.

“It’s going to sound unbelievable.”

He gave a snort of laughter. “More unbelievable than everything else that’s happened since I met you?”

“Sort of,” Meredith said. “Or, at least, it’s specifical y about me this time. I’ve been…” It was hard to say. “I come from a family of vampire hunters. Al my life, I’ve been training to fight. I guess taking care of people is a family trait.” She smiled weakly.

Alaric stared at her.

“Say something,” Meredith prompted after a moment. He pushed his hair out of his eyes and looked wildly around. “I don’t know what to say. I’m surprised you never told me this. I thought” – he paused – “that we knew each other real y wel .”

“My family…” said Meredith miserably. “They made me swear that I would keep our secret. I never told anybody until a few days ago.”

Alaric closed his eyes for a minute and pressed his palms against them hard. When he opened them, he looked calmer. “I understand. I do.”

“Wait,” said Meredith. “There’s more.” The cookie sheet was ful , and she cast about for something else to occupy her hands and eyes while she talked. She settled on a dish towel and twisted it nervously. “Do you remember that Klaus attacked my grandfather?”

Alaric nodded.

“Wel , I found out a few days ago that he also attacked me, and stole my brother – the brother I’d never known I had

– and took him away and made him a vampire. And he left me – I was only three – some kind of half vampire. A living girl, but one who needed to eat blood sausage and sometimes had… sharp teeth like a kitten’s.”

“Oh, Meredith…” Alaric’s face was ful of compassion, and he moved toward her, hands out. Toward me, Meredith noted. Not away, not afraid.

“Wait,” she said again. “Elena asked the Guardians to change things to the way they would have been if Klaus never came here.” She put down the dish towel. “So it never happened.”

“What?” Alaric said, staring at her.

Meredith nodded, a helpless, confused smile spreading over her face. “My grandfather died in a retirement home in Florida two years ago. I have a brother – one I don’t remember, unfortunately – he got sent away to boarding school when we were twelve and joined the military as soon as he turned eighteen. Apparently he’s the problem child of the family.” She took a deep breath. “I’m not a vampire. Not even a half vampire. Not now.”

Alaric was stil staring at her. “Wow,” he said. “Wait a minute. Does that mean that Klaus is stil alive? Could he come here, come after your family now?”

“I thought of that,” Meredith said, glad to address the practicalities. “I don’t think so. Elena asked the Guardians to change Fel ‘s Church so it was as if Klaus never came here. She didn’t ask them to change Klaus and his experience. For him, I think, logical y, he did come here, long ago, and now he’s dead.” She smiled shakily. “I hope so, anyway.”

“So you’re safe,” Alaric said, “as safe as a vampire hunter might be. Is that al you needed to tel me?” When Meredith nodded, he reached for her and pul ed her back into his arms. Holding her tightly, he said. “I would have loved you with sharp teeth, too. But I’m so glad for you.”

Meredith closed her eyes. She had needed to tel him, to know how he would have reacted if the Guardians hadn’t changed everything. A great warming gladness spread al through her.

Alaric pressed his lips against her hair.

“Wait,” she said once more, and he released her, looking inquisitive.

“The cookies.” Meredith laughed and put them in the oven, setting the timer for ten minutes.

They kissed until the buzzer rang.

“Are you sure you’l be okay alone?” Matt asked anxiously, standing by Bonnie’s bed. “I’l be right downstairs if you need anything. Or maybe I should stay here. I could sleep on your floor. I know I snore, but I’d try not to, I swear.”

Bonnie gave him a brave little smile. “I’l be fine, Matt. Thank you so much.”

With one last worried glance, Matt patted her hand awkwardly, then left the room. Bonnie knew he would toss and turn on his own bed, thinking of ways to keep her safe. Probably he would end up sleeping on the floor outside her door, she thought, giving a delighted little wriggle.

“Sleep wel , my dear,” said Mrs. Flowers, taking his place by Bonnie’s bedside. “I have cast al the protective charms I know around you. I hope you like the tea. It’s my own special brew.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Flowers,” Bonnie said. “Good night.”

“You are enjoying this way too much,” said Meredith, who came in next carrying a plate of cookies. She was limping, but had insisted that she didn’t need a cane or crutch as long as her ankle was bandaged.

In fact… Bonnie took a closer look at Meredith. Her cheeks were flushed, and her usual y smooth hair was a little mussed. I think she’s very glad that Celia’s gone to UVA, Bonnie thought with a smirk.

“I’m just trying to keep my spirits up,” Bonnie said with a mischievous smile. “And you know what they say: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. My lemonade is having Matt trying to fulfil my every need. It’s too bad we don’t have more boys around here.”

“Don’t forget about Alaric,” said Meredith. “He helped make the cookies. And he’s downstairs researching everything he can that might be related to this.”

“Ah, everyone catering to me, that’s what I like,” Bonnie joked. “Did I tel you how much I enjoyed the dinner you made? Al my favorites… it was like my birthday. Or my last meal,” she added more soberly.

Meredith frowned. “Are you sure you don’t want me to stay in here? I know we’ve protected the house as wel as we can, but we don’t real y know what we’re fighting. And just because the last couple of attacks took place in daylight with the whole group around, it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the way they have to be. What if whatever this is can get past our defenses?”

“I wil be fine,” said Bonnie. Intel ectual y she knew she was in danger, but oddly, she didn’t feel scared. She was in a house with people she trusted, al of whom were focused wholeheartedly on her safety. Besides, she had a plan for the night – something she couldn’t do if Meredith slept in the room.

“Are you sure?” Meredith fretted.

“Yes,” Bonnie said emphatical y. “If something bad was going to happen to me tonight, I’d know in advance, right?

Because I’m psychic, and I get warnings about things.”

“Hmmm,” said Meredith, quirking one eyebrow. For a moment she looked like she was going to argue. Bonnie kept her gaze firm. Final y, Meredith put the tray of cookies on the table by the bed next to the teapot and cup Matt had brought up earlier, pul ed the curtains across the window, and looked anxiously around to see what else could be done.

“Okay, then,” she said. “I’l be right next door if you need me.”

“Thanks, Mer. Good night.” As soon as the knob clicked into place, Bonnie lay back in bed and bit into a cookie. Delicious.

A slow smile bloomed on her lips. She was the center of attention now, as if she were a Victorian heroine bravely suffering from some kind of wasting il ness. She had been encouraged to pick out her favorite of the boardinghouse’s many bedrooms and had chosen this one. It was a charming room with creamy rose-patterned wal paper and a maple sleigh bed.

Matt hadn’t left her side al night. Mrs. Flowers had fussed around her, fluffing pil ows and offering her herbal tonics, and Alaric had been conscientiously researching protection spel s in al the grimoires he could find. Even Celia, who had never been anything but snippy to her about her “visions,” promised before she left to let her know as soon as she found something helpful.

Bonnie turned on her side, inhaling the sweet scent of Mrs. Flowers’s tea. Here in this cozy room, it was impossible to feel like she needed protection, that she could be in danger this very second.

But was she? What was the time frame after one’s name was cal ed? After Celia’s name had appeared, she had been attacked within the hour. After Meredith’s had appeared, she hadn’t been attacked until the next day. Maybe things were getting more spaced out. Maybe Bonnie wasn’t going to be in danger until tomorrow or the next day. Or next week. And Damon’s name had appeared before Bonnie’s did.

Bonnie’s skin tingled at the thought of Damon’s name in lake weeds. Damon was dead. She had seen him die –

and in fact he’d died for her (although everyone else, in their compassion for Elena, seemed to have forgotten that). But the appearance of his name must mean something. And she was determined to figure out just what. She listened. She could hear the sounds of Meredith moving around in the room next door with a steady thumping that suggested she was practicing with her stave, and from down below came the faint voices of Matt, Alaric, and Mrs. Flowers talking in the study.

Bonnie could wait. She poured herself a cup of tea, crunched on another cookie, and wiggled her toes pleasurably under the soft pink sheets. She sort of liked being a supernatural invalid.

An hour later, she had finished her cup of tea and al the cookies, and the house was quieter. It was time. She climbed out of bed, her too-long polka-dotted pajama pants flapping around her ankles, and opened her overnight bag. While Meredith had waited downstairs at her house, she had pried up the loose board by her bed and taken out Traversing the Boundaries Between the Quick and the Dead, a book of matches, a silver knife, and the four candles she needed for the ritual. Now she took them out of her bag and rol ed back the rug by the bed so she could crouch on the floor.

Tonight, nothing was going to stop her. She was going to reach Damon. Maybe he could tel her what was going on. Or maybe he was in some sort of danger, in whatever plane dead vampires ended up on, and needed to be warned. In any case, she missed him. Bonnie hunched her shoulders and wrapped her arms around herself for a moment. Damon’s death had hurt her, not that anyone had noticed. Everyone’s attention, everyone’s sympathies, had been directed toward Elena. As usual.

Bonnie got back to work. Quickly, she lit the first candle and, dripping wax on the floor to anchor it upright, placed it to her north. “Fire in the North, protect me,” she whispered. She lit them in widdershins order: black to the north, white to the west, black to the south, white to the east. When the circle of protection was complete around her, she closed her eyes and sat quietly for a few moments, focusing herself, reaching to find the power at her center. When she opened her eyes, she took a deep breath, picked up the silver knife, and quickly, without giving herself time to wimp out, cut a gash across her left palm.

“Ouch,” she muttered, and turned her hand over, dripping blood on the floor in front of her. Then she dabbed the fingers of her right hand in the blood and smeared a bit on each candle.

Bonnie’s skin tingled painful y as magic rose around her. Her senses honed, and she could see tiny movements in the air, as if flashes of light were appearing and disappearing just out of sight.

“‘Through the darkness I cal to you,'” she intoned. She didn’t need to look at the book; she had memorized this part. “‘With my blood I cal to you; with fire and silver I cal to you. Hear me through the cold beyond the grave. Hear me through the shadows beyond the night. I summon you. I have need of you. Hear me and come!'”

The room went stil . It was the stil ness of expectation, as if some great creature were holding its breath. Bonnie felt like an entire audience stood around her, suspended in eagerness. The veil between the worlds was about to lift. She had no doubts.

“Damon Salvatore,” she said clearly. “Come to me.”

Nothing happened.

“Damon Salvatore,” Bonnie said again, less confidently,

“come to me.”

The tension, the feeling of magic in the room was beginning to dissipate, as if her invisible audience were quietly creeping away.

Yet Bonnie knew the spel had worked. She had a funny, blank, cutoff feeling, like when she was talking on the phone and her carrier suddenly dropped the cal . Her cal had gone through, she was sure of it, but there was no one on the other end. Only what did it mean? Was Damon’s soul just… gone?

Suddenly Bonnie heard something. A light breathing, just a smidge out of time with her own.

There was someone right behind her.

The hairs rose on the back of her neck. She hadn’t broken the circle of protection. Nothing should be able to cross into that circle, certainly no spirit, but whoever was behind her was inside the circle, so close to Bonnie that they were almost touching her.

Bonnie froze. Then slowly, careful y, she put down her hand and felt for the knife. “Damon?” she whispered uncertainly.

A tinkling laugh sounded behind her, fol owed by a low voice. “Damon doesn’t want to talk to you.” The voice was honey-sweet, but somehow also poisonous-sounding, insidious and oddly familiar.

“Why not?” Bonnie asked shakily.

“He doesn’t love you,” the voice said in a soft, persuasive tone. “He never even noticed you were there, unless there was something he wanted from you. Or perhaps if he wanted to make Elena jealous. You know that.”

Bonnie swal owed, too afraid to turn around, too afraid to see who the voice belonged to.

“Damon saw only Elena. Damon loved only Elena. Even now that he’s dead and lost to her, he won’t hear you cal ing,” the voice lilted. “Nobody loves you, Bonnie. Everyone loves Elena, and that’s how she likes it. Elena keeps everyone for herself.”

A burning sensation began behind Bonnie’s eyes, and a single hot tear ran down her cheek.

“No one wil ever love you,” the voice whispered. “Not when you’re standing next to Elena. Why do you think no one ever saw you as anything but Elena’s friend? Al the way through school, she was standing in the sunshine and you were hidden in her shadow. Elena made sure of that. She couldn’t bear to share the spotlight.”

The words rattled inside Bonnie’s mind, and suddenly something inside her shifted. The icy terror she’d felt just moments ago had thawed, making way for roiling anger. The voice was right. Why had she never seen it before?

Elena was Bonnie’s friend only because Bonnie was a foil for her own beauty, her own sparkle. She had been using her for years without caring how Bonnie felt at al .

“She cares only about herself,” Bonnie said, half sobbing.

“Why can’t anyone see that?” She shoved the book away from her and it knocked over the black candle to her north, breaking the circle. The wick smoked and guttered, and al four candles went out.

“Ahhhh,” said the voice in satisfaction, and tendrils of dark fog began to creep from the corners of the room. Just as quickly as her fear had left her, it snapped back. Bonnie spun around, holding the knife, ready to face the voice, but there was no one there – just dark, amorphous fog. Hysteria wel ing within her, she got to her feet and stumbled toward the door. But the fog moved quickly, and soon Bonnie was enveloped in it. Something fel with a clatter. She couldn’t see more than a few inches. Bonnie opened her mouth and tried to scream, but the fog flowed over her lips, and her scream turned into a muffled moan. She felt her grip on the knife loosen and it dropped to the floor with a dul clank. Her vision grew blurry. Bonnie tried to lift her foot but could barely move.

Then, blinded by the fog, she lost her balance and pitched forward into darkness.