Damon and I crouched in the cemeterys hemlock grove behind the mausoleums that housed the bones of Mystic Falls founders.Despite the early hour, already the townspeople stood stoop-shouldered around a gaping hole in the ground.Puffs of air curled into the cerulean blue sky with the crowds every exhalation, as if the entire congregation were smoking celebratory cigars rather than trying to calm their chattering teeth.
My heightened senses took in the scene before us.
The cloying smell of vervain–an herb that rendered vampires powerless–hung heavy in the air. The grass was laden with dew, each drop of water falling to the earth with a silvery ping, and far off in the distance church bells chimed. Even from this distance, I could see a tear lodged in the corner of Honoria Fellss eye.
Down at the pulpit, Mayor Lockwood shuffled from foot to foot, clearly eager to get the crowds attention. I could just make out the winged figure above him, the angel statue that marked my mothers final resting place. Two empty plots lay just beyond, where Damon and I should have been buried.
The mayors voice sliced through the cold air, his voice as loud to my sensitive ears as if he were standing right next to me. “We come together today to say farewell to one of Mystic Falls greatest sons, Giuseppe Salvatore, a man for whom town and family always came before self.”
Damon kicked the ground. “The family he killed. The love he destroyed, the lives he shattered,” he muttered.
“Shhh,” I whispered as I pressed my palm against his forearm.
“If I were to paint a portrait of this great mans life,” Lockwood continued over the sniffles and sighs of the crowd, “Giuseppe Salvatore would be flanked by his two fallen sons, Damon and Stefan, heroes of the battle of Willow Creek. May we learn from Giuseppe, emulate him, and be inspired to rid our town of evil, either seen or unseen.”
Damon let out a low, rattling scoff. “The portrait he paints,” he said, “should contain the muzzle flash of Fathers rifle.” He rubbed the place where Fathers bullet had ripped through his chest only a week earlier. There was no physical wound–our transformation healed all injuries–but the betrayal would be etched in our minds forever. “Shhh,” I said again as Jonathan Gilbert strode up to stand beside Mayor Lockwood, holding a large veiled frame. Jonathan looked to have aged ten years in seven short days: lines creased his tanned forehead, and streaks of white were visible in his brown hair. I wondered if his transformation had something to do with Pearl, the vampire he loved but had condemned to death after finding out what she really was.
I spotted Clementines parents in the crowd, arms clasped, not yet aware that their daughter was not among the somber-faced girls in the back of the crowd.
Theyd find out soon enough.
My thoughts were interrupted by an insistent clicking, like a watch counting or a fingernail tapping against a hard surface. I scanned the crowd, trying to trace the ticking to its point of origin. The sound was slow and steady and mechanical, steadier than a heartbeat, slower than a metronome. And it seemed to be coming directly from Jonathans hand. Clementines blood rushed to my head.
Back when Father first became suspicious of vampires, hed created a committee of men to rid the town of the demonic scourge. Id attended the meetings, which had taken place in Jonathan Gilberts attic. Hed had plans for a contraption to identify vampires, and Id witnessed him using it in action the week before. It was how hed discovered Pearls true nature.
I elbowed Damon. “We have to go,” I said, barely moving my jaw.
Just then Jonathan looked up, and his eyes locked directly onto mine.
He let out an unholy shriek and pointed to our mausoleum. “Demon!”
The crowd turned toward us as one, their stares cutting through the fog like bayonets. Then something rushed past me, and the wall behind me exploded. A cloud of powder billowed around us, and chips of marble slashed across my cheek. I bared my fangs and roared. The sound was loud, primal, terrifying. Half the crowd knocked over chairs in their haste to flee the cemetery, but the other half remained.
“Kill the demons!” Jonathan cried, brandishing a crossbow.
“I think they mean us, brother,” Damon said with a short, humorless laugh.
And so I grabbed Damon and ran.
With Damon behind me, I raced through the forest, jumping over felled branches and skipping over stones. I leaped over the waist-high iron gate of the cemetery, turning briefly to make sure Damon was still following. We zigzagged deep into the woods, the gunshots sounding like fireworks in my ear, the shrieks of the townspeople like breaking glass, their heavy breathing like low-rolling thunder. I could even hear the footfalls of the crowd pursuing me, each step sending vibrations through the ground. I silently cursed Damon for being so stubborn. If hed been willing to drink before today, hed be at full strength, and our newfound speed and agility would have already taken us far away from this mess.
As we cut through the thicket, squirrels and voles scattered from the underbrush, their blood quickening in the presence of predators. A whinny and a snort sounded from the far edge of the cemetery.
“Comeon.” I grabbed Damon by the waist and hoisted him to his feet again. “We have to keep moving.” I could hear the blood pumping, smell the iron, feel the ground shaking. I knew the mob was more afraid of me than I of them; but still, the sound of gunshots caused my mind to whirl, my body to lurch forward. Damon was weak and I could only carry him so far.
Another gunshot cracked, closer this time. Damon stiffened.
“Demons!” Jonathan Gilberts voice sliced through the woods. Another bullet whizzed past me, grazing my shoulder. Damon flopped forward in my arms.
“Damon!” The word echoed in my ears, sounding so much like the worddemonthat it startled me.
“Brother!” I shook him, then began awkwardly dragging him behind me again toward the sounds of the horses. But despite having just fed, my strength wouldnt last forever, and the footsteps were coming closer and closer.
Finally we reached the edge of the cemetery, where several horses were tied to the iron hitching posts. They pawed at the ground, pulling on the ropes that tethered them so hard that their necks bulged. One coal-black mare was none other than my old horse, Mezzanotte. I stared at her, mesmerized at how desperate she appeared to be to get away from me. Just a few days earlier, I was the only rider shed trusted.
Footfalls sounded again. I tore my gaze away, shaking my head at being so sentimental. I pulled Fathers old hunting knife from the top of my boot. It had been the one thing Id taken when Id walked through Veritas, our family estate, one last time. Hed always had it with him, although Id never seen him use it. Father had never been one to work with his hands. Still, in my minds eye, the knife conveyed the power and authority that everyone had associated with my father.
I put the blade to the rope that tied Mezzanotte, but it didnt make even the smallest cut. Looking down, I saw the knife for what it was: a dull blade that could barely cut through twine, polished to look important. It was well suited to Father, I thought in disgust, throwing the knife to the ground and yanking at the ropes with my bare hands. The footsteps came closer and I looked wildly behind me. I had wanted to free all the horses so Jonathan and his men couldnt ride them, but there simply wasnt time.
“Hey, girl,” I murmured, stroking Mezzanottes elegant neck. She pawed the ground nervously, her heart pounding. “Its me,” I whispered as I swung myself onto her back. She reared up, and out of surprise, I kicked her so hard in the flanks that I heard the snap of a rib breaking. Instantly, she yielded in submission, and I trotted her to Damon.
“Come on,” I yelled.
A flicker of doubt passed across Damons eyes, but then he reached over Mezzanottes broad back and hoisted himself up. Whether it was fear or instinct, his willingness to flee gave me hope that he was not resolved to die, after all.
“Kill them!” a voice yelled, and someone threw a burning torch toward us that arced and landed on the grass at Mezzanottes feet. Instantly, the grass began to burn, and Mezzanotte bolted in the opposite direction of the quarry. Hoofs thudded behind us–the men had leaped on the other horses and were now fast on our tail.
Another gunshot rang out behind us, followed by the twang of a bow. Mezzanotte reared up, letting out a high whinny. Damon slipped, grappling to hold on to the underside of Mezzanottes neck, while I tugged at the leather straps, trying to keep us upright. Only after a few steps backward did all four of Mezzanottes hooves get back on the dirt. As Damon righted himself, I saw a slim wooden arrow jutting out from the horses haunches. It was a clever tactic. At a distance, the mob had a far better chance of slowing down our horse than of striking one of us straight through the heart.
Hunched low over Mezzanotte, we galloped under branches and pressed on. She was a strong horse, but she favored her left side, where the arrow had gone in. A wet streak of my own blood was streaming down my temple and onto my shirt, and Damons grip on my waist was dangerously loose.
Still, I urged Mezzanotte forward. I was relying on instinct, on something beyond thinking and planning. It was as if I could smell freedom and possibility, and just had to trust that Id lead us to it. I pulled the reins and steered out of the woods and into the field behind Veritas Estate.
On any other rainy morning there would have been lights in the window of our old home, the lamps giving the bubbled glass an orange-yellow look of sunset. Our maid, Cordelia, would have been singing in the kitchen, and Fathers driver, Alfred, would be sitting sentry by the entrance. Father and I would be sitting in companionable silence in the breakfast room. Now the estate was a cold shell of its former self: the windows dark, the grounds completely silent. It had only been empty for a week, yet Veritas looked as though it had been abandoned for ages.
We leaped over the fence and landed unsteadily. I just barely managed to right us with a hard tug on the reins, the metal of the clacking against Mezzanottes teeth. Then we thundered around the side of the house, my skin clammy as we passed Cordelias plot of vervain, the tiny stalks ankle-high.
“Where are you taking us, brother?” Damon asked.
I heard three sets of splashing hooves as Jonathan Gilbert, Mayor Lockwood, and Sheriff Forbes cut along the pond at the back of our property. Mezzanotte wheezed, a peach froth lining her mouth, and I knew that outriding them wouldnt be a possibility.
Suddenly, the throaty wail of a train whistled through the morning, blocking out the hooves, the wind, and the metallic rasp of a gun reloading.
“Were getting on that train,” I said, kicking Mezzanotte in the flanks. Bearing down, she picked up speed and sailed over the stone wall that separated Veritas from the main road.
“Cmon, girl,” I whispered. Her eyes were wild and terrified, but she ran faster down the road and onto Main Street. The charred church came into sight, blackened bricks rising up like teeth from the ashen earth. The apothecary had also been burned to the ground. Crucifixes were affixed to every single doorframe in town; vervain sprigs were hung in garlands over most. I barely recognized the place Id lived all my seventeen years. Mystic Falls wasnt my home. Not anymore.
Behind us, Jonathan Gilbert and Mayor Lockwoods horses were approaching faster and faster. Ahead of us, I could hear the train drawing nearer, grinding against the rails. The froth at Mezzanottes mouth was turning pink with blood. My fangs were dry, and I licked my parched lips, wondering if this constant desire for blood came with being a new vampire, or if I would always feel this way.
“Ready to go, brother?” I asked, yanking Mezzanottes reins. She halted, giving me just enough time to jump off before she collapsed onto the ground, blood rushing from her mouth.
A shot rang out, and blood spurted from Mezzanottes flank. I yanked Damon by the wrists and hurled us onto the caboose just before the train roared out of the station, leaving Jonathan Gilbert and Mayor Lockwoods angry cries far behind.