The Hunters: Phantom Chapter 30
Stefan drove like a maniac al the way back to the boardinghouse. “I can’t believe I forgot to tel him that his name had been cal ed,” he said for what felt like the hundredth time. “I can’t believe we left him alone.”
“Slow down,” Meredith told him, trying to hold Matt’s sleeping body steady in the backseat as Stefan whipped around a corner, tires squealing. “You’re going way too fast.”
“We’re in a hurry,” Stefan growled, yanking on the wheel to make a hard right. Alaric turned around in the passenger seat and gave Meredith a panicky look as Stefan narrowly missed a garbage truck. She sighed. She knew he was trying to make up for his mistake, for not tel ing them immediately that Matt’s name had appeared in the herb shop, but kil ing them al in a race to get home wasn’t exactly the solution. Besides, although they probably would have done things differently if they’d known, it might not have changed the outcome for Matt. It wasn’t as if their precautions had saved either Bonnie or Elena.
“At least you’ve got vampire reflexes,” she said, more to reassure Alaric than out of any particular confidence in Stefan’s driving abilities.
She’d insisted on being the one sitting in the back with Matt, and now she turned her attention to him. She put a restraining hand on his chest so he wouldn’t go tumbling to the floor as the car jerked and swerved.
He was so stil . None of the twitching and eye movements that usual y went with sleep, just the steady shal ow rise and fal of his breathing. He wasn’t even snoring. And she knew from camping trips as far back as sixth grade that Matt snored like a buzz saw. Always. Meredith never cried. Not even when the worst happened. And she wasn’t going to start now, not when her friends needed her calm and focused to try to figure out how to save them. But if she had been the kind of girl who cried, instead of the kind of girl who strategized, she would have been sobbing. And even now, the breath caught in her throat a little painful y, until she schooled herself into impassive calm again.
She was the only one left. Of the four old friends who’d gone through school and summers and adolescence and al the horrors the supernatural world could throw at them, she was the only one the phantom hadn’t captured. Yet. Meredith clenched her teeth and held Matt steady. Stefan pul ed up and parked in front of the
boardinghouse, having somehow avoided causing any damage to other cars or pedestrians along the way. Alaric and Meredith started to inch Matt careful y out of the car, looping his arms around their necks and slowly shifting him forward into a half-standing position. But Stefan simply grabbed Matt away from them and threw him over his shoulder.
“Let’s go,” he said, and stalked off toward the boardinghouse, easily balancing Matt’s unconscious body with one hand, not looking back.
“He’s become kind of a strange guy,” Alaric commented, watching Stefan alertly. The sunshine caught the stubble on Alaric’s unshaven chin and it glinted with a touch of gold. He turned toward Meredith and gave her a rueful, disarming grin. “Once more into the breach…” he said. Meredith took his hand, warm and solid in her own.
“Come on,” she said.
Once they were in the boardinghouse, Stefan clomped straight upstairs to deposit Matt with the other bodies – the other sleepers, Meredith reminded herself fiercely. Meredith and Alaric, hand in hand, turned toward the kitchen. As she pushed the door open, Meredith heard Mrs. Flowers’s voice.
“Very useful indeed, my dear,” she was saying, a warm note of approval in her voice. “You’ve done very wel . I’m so grateful.”
Meredith gaped. At the kitchen table with Mrs. Flowers, cool and calm and pretty in a blue linen dress, sat Dr. Celia Conner, sipping tea.
“Hel o, Alaric. Hel o, Meredith,” said Celia. Her dark eyes bored cool y into Meredith’s. “You’l never believe what I’ve found.”
“What?” said Alaric eagerly, letting go of Meredith’s hand. Her heart sank.
Celia reached into a tote bag sitting by her chair and pul ed out a thick book bound in ragged brown leather. She smiled triumphantly and announced, “It’s a book on phantoms. Dr. Beltram ended up sending me to Dalcrest Col ege, which actual y has a very comprehensive col ection of texts on the paranormal.”
“I suggest we adjourn to the den,” Mrs. Flowers said,
“where we can be more comfortable, and examine its contents together.”
They moved to the den, but Stefan, when he joined them, did not seem any more comfortable.
“Different types of phantoms,” he said, taking the book from Celia and flipping rapidly through the pages. “The history of phantoms in our dimension. Where is the banishment ritual? Why doesn’t this thing have an index?”
Celia shrugged. “It’s very old and rare,” she said. “It was difficult to find, and it’s the only book on the subject we’re likely to be able to get our hands on, maybe the only one that exists, so we’l have to excuse things like that. These older texts, the authors wanted you to read straight through and real y learn about their subject, to understand what they wanted to tel you, not just to find the page you needed right away. You might try looking near the end, though.”
Alaric was watching Stefan whip through the pages with an expression of pain. “It’s a rare book, Stefan,” he said.
“Please be more careful with it. Would you like me to look?
I’m used to finding what I need in these kinds of books.”
Stefan snarled, literal y snarled at him, and Meredith felt the hairs along the back of her neck rise. “I’l do it myself, teacher. I’m in a hurry.”
He squinted down at the text. “Why does it have to be in such ornate print?” he complained. “Don’t tel me it’s because it’s old. I’m older than it is, and I can barely read it. Huh. ‘Phantoms who are feeding like vampires on one choice sensibility, whether it be guilt, or despair, or grudge; or lust for victuals, the demon rum, or fal en women. The stronger be the sensibility, the worse be the outcome of the phantom created.’ I think we could have figured that out ourselves.”
Mrs. Flowers was standing slightly removed from the rest of the group, eyes fixed on empty air, muttering seemingly to herself as she communed with her mother.
“I know,” she said. “I’l tel them.” Her eyes focused on the others as they stood around Stefan, peering over his shoulders. “Mama says that time is getting short,” she warned.
Stefan leaped to his feet and exploded. “I know it’s getting short,” he roared, getting right up into Mrs. Flowers’s surprised face. “Can’t your mother tel us something useful for once?”
Mrs. Flowers staggered away from him, reaching out to steady herself on the back of a chair. Her face was white, and suddenly she looked older and more frail than ever before.
Stefan’s eyes widened, their color darkening to a stormy sea green, and he held out his hands, his face horrified.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Mrs. Flowers, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you. I don’t know what came over me… I’m just so worried about Elena and the others.”
“I know, Stefan,” Mrs. Flowers said gravely. She had regained her balance and she looked stronger, calm and wise again. “We will get them back, you know. You must have faith. Mama does.”
Stefan sat down, turning back to the book, his lips pressed together into a straight line.
Her skin prickling with apprehension, Meredith gripped her stave more tightly as she watched him. When she had revealed to the others that the members of her family were hereditary vampire hunters and that it was now her turn to take on the duty, she had told Elena and Stefan that she would never turn on Stefan, that she understood that he wasn’t like other, evil vampires, that he was good: harmless and benign to humans.
She had made no such promises about Damon, and Elena and Stefan hadn’t asked her to. They al shared an unspoken understanding that Damon couldn’t real y be characterized as harmless, not even when he begrudgingly worked with them, and that Meredith would need to keep her options open when it came to him.
But Stefan… she had never thought this would happen, but now Meredith was worried that someday she might not be able to keep her promises about Stefan. She had never seen him acting the way he had been lately: irrational, angry, violent, unpredictable. She knew his behavior was probably caused by the phantom, but was Stefan becoming too dangerous? Could she kil him if she had to? He was her friend.
Meredith’s heart was racing. She realized that her knuckles had whitened against her fighting stave, and her hand ached. Yes, she realized, she would fight Stefan and try to kil him, if she had to. It was true that he was her friend, but her duty had to come first.
She took a deep breath and consciously relaxed her hands. Stay calm, she coached herself. Breathe. Stefan was keeping himself more or less under control. It wasn’t a decision she had to make. Not yet, anyway.
A few minutes later, Stefan stopped flipping pages. “Here,”
he said. “I think this is it.” He handed the book to Mrs. Flowers. She scanned the page quickly and nodded. “That feels like the right ritual,” she said seriously. “I ought to have everything we need to perform it right here in the house.”
Alaric reached for the book. He read the spel , too, frowning. “Does it have to be a blood spel ?” he asked Mrs. Flowers. “If it backfires, the phantom might be able to turn it against us.”
“I’m afraid it’s going to have to be a blood spel ,” Mrs. Flowers replied. “We’d need more time to experiment to change the spel , and time is the one thing we don’t have. If the phantom is able to use its captives the way we think it can, it’s only going to get more powerful.”
Alaric began to speak again but was interrupted.
“Wait,” said Celia, a slightly shril note in her usual y husky voice. “A blood spel ? What does that mean? I don’t want to get involved in anything” – she searched for a word – “unsavory.”
She reached for the book, but Stefan slammed his hand down on it. “Unsavory or not, this is what we’re doing,” he said quietly, but with a voice as hard as steel. “And you’re a part of it. It’s too late for you to back out now. I won’t let you.”
Celia gave a convulsive shudder and cringed back in her chair. “Don’t you dare threaten me,” she said, her voice quavering.
“Everybody calm down,” Meredith said sharply. “Celia, no one is going to make you do anything unless you agree to it. I’l protect you myself if need be.” Her eyes flew quickly to Alaric, who was glancing back and forth between them, looking worried. “But we need your help. Please. You may have saved us al by finding the spel , and we’re grateful, but Stefan’s right – you’re part of this, too. I don’t know if it’l work without you.” She hesitated a beat. “Or, if it does, it might leave you as the phantom’s only target,” she added cunningly.
Celia shivered again and wrapped her arms around herself. “I’m not a coward,” she said miserably. “I’m a scientist, and this… irrational mysticism worries me. But I’m in. I’l help any way I can.”
Meredith, for the first time, felt a flash of sympathy for her. She understood how hard it must be for Celia to continue to think of herself as a logical person while the boundaries of what she’d always accepted as reality col apsed around her.
“Thank you, Celia.” Meredith glanced around the room at the others. “We’ve got the ritual. We’ve got the ingredients. We just need to gather everything together and start casting the spel . Are we ready?”
Everyone sat up straighter, their faces taking on expressions of stern resolve. As scary as this was, it was good to final y have a purpose and a plan.
Stefan breathed deeply and visibly took hold of himself, his shoulders relaxing and his stance settling into something less predatory. “Okay, Meredith,” he said. His stormy green eyes met her cool gray ones, in perfect accord. “Let’s do this.”