Stefan,” a disembodied voice whispered.
I was in the labyrinth back at Veritas, the lush green hedges rising higher than my head, the sun beating down upon my shoulders.My collar was itchy and constrictive–for some reason I was in my Sunday best.
From around the bend Damon approached, his blue eyes wide and innocent.“Want to race, brother?” he challenged.
Of course I accepted.
Suddenly, we were sitting on the porch swing, with Katherine wedged between us, mischief in her dark eyes, as she plucked petals from a daisy.
Her leg was so close I felt it grazing mine. As her gaze shifted back and forth, I realized the game she was playing: The flower would determine which one of us she would choose. When she reached the final petal, her eyes locked onto mine, and I knew that I was the victor. She leaned in to kiss me, and I closed my eyes, anticipating the soft touch of her lips.
But instead I felt a stake plunge into my heart. My eyes fluttered open, and there stood my brother, laughing as he dug the wood yet deeper into me, the flower petals crushed beneath my prone form.
My head lolled to the side, and my eyes snagged on the girl who was bleeding to death next to me on the grass. Her hair was fire-red, and her skin was moon-pale beneath her freckles.
Callie!I tried to shout. But Damon snatched up my words in his fist before sinking a knife over and over into Callies back.
“Stefan!” a voice called again, louder this time. I recognized the lilting alto.Lexi.
“Nooo ” I moaned. I couldnt allow Damon to kill her, too. “Go away!”
“Stefan .” She came closer still, kneeling down beside me, holding a goblet to my lips.
“No,” I said again.
She shook my shoulders violently. My eyes popped open. The walls around me were painted with cracked red paint, and I saw a gilt-edged portrait on the opposite wall. I sat up, touching my face with my hands, then glancing down. I was still wearing my ring. I touched the stone. It felt very real.
“Lexi?” I asked thickly.
“Yes!” She smiled, clearly relieved. “Youre awake.”
I glanced down at my body. My arm still throbbed, and there was dried blood underneath my fingernails. “Am I alive?”
She nodded. “Just barely.” “Damon?”
“We didnt get him,” Lexi said darkly. “He ran off.”
“Callie?” I asked. I didnt want to hear, but I needed to know.
Lexi looked down at her fingernails for a long moment, then lifted her amber eyes to mine. “Im sorry, Stefan. We tried Even Buxton tried to save her “
“But she was too far gone,” I finished for her. My head throbbed. “Where is she now?”
Lexi pushed my matted hair off my temple. Her fingers were cool against my burning skin. “In the river. The whole citys looking for her ” Lexis voice trailed off, but I understood everything that she wasnt saying.
“Before you rest, you need to drink,” Lexi murmured, helping me sit up again. “Its your favorite, goats blood,” she said with a sad smile.
I put my lips to the goblet. The brackish liquid tasted nothing like sweet, full-bodied human blood, but it was warm. And it contained something human blood never would: a dull spark of redemption. The more of this I drank, the less human blood would run through me.
I wasnt na�ve, though. Guilt would always flow through my veins. Id killed too many in my short time as a vampire, destroyed too many lives. Whether or not I drank from her, Callies death was on my hands as well. I should have turned my back on her, told her I never wanted to see her. But Id been weak.
“Good boy,” Lexi murmured as I finished drinking from the cup.
I didnt feel good. I felt sick and scared and unsure of what to do. Damon was still out in the world, somewhere, and Callies blood was running through his veins. My stomach tightened.
“I dont know what to do,” I admitted, searching Lexis eyes for answers. But Lexi was silent.
“I dont know what to tell you,” she said finally. “But I do know youre a good man.”
I sighed, ready to point out that I wasnt a man at all, I was a monster. But Lexi stood up and gathered the mugs from the night table.
When I woke up, I could tell from the light streaming through the crack in the curtains that it was daylight. I swung my feet onto the hardwood floor and grabbed the neat pile of clothes from the shopping trip with Lexi. It seemed like a lifetime ago.
I put on a new shirt, slicked my hair back, and put the rest of the clothes in a makeshift carrying case formed from my tattered shirt from Mystic Falls–the only item I still had from my old life.
I glanced around the room, my eyes taking in the familiar layers of dust in the corners. I wondered how many vampires had passed through this house and whether Lexi would find another young vampire to take under her wing. I hoped, for his sake as well as hers, that hed have a better time in this city of sin than I had had.
Lexi was sitting in the living room. In her hands was the portrait of her brother. As soon as I stepped in, she glanced up.
“Stefan,” she said.
“Im sorry,” I cut in. And I was, for all of it. For coming to New Orleans. For disrupting her life. For bringing danger to the tiny spot of security the vampires had managed to carve out.
“Im not. It was a privilege to have you.” Her gaze turned serious. “Im sorry about Callie–and about your brother.”
“Hes not my brother anymore,” I said quickly.
Lexi set down the portrait on the coffee table. “Perhaps not anymore. But as you said yourself, he was for your whole human life. Can you remember that and forget the rest?”
I shrugged. I didnt want to remember Damon. Not now, not ever.
Lexi crossed the room and put her hand on my arm. “Stefan, missing humans and your human life hurts. But it does get easier.”
“When?” I asked, my voice cracking slightly.
She glanced back at the portrait on the table. “Im not sure. It happens gradually.” She paused, then laughed, the sound so innocent and lighthearted that I wanted to sit down and stay at the house forever. “Let me guess. You want it to happen now.”
I smiled. “You know me well.”
Lexi frowned. “You need to learn to slow down, Stefan. You have an eternity ahead of you.”
A silence fell between us, the wordeternityclanging in my ears.
With a jerk, I pulled Lexi into a hug, inhaled the comforting aroma of our friendship, then sped out of the house without a glance back.
Once outside, I chastised myself for my sentimentality. I had much to atone for, and feeling sorry for myself was self-indulgent. I paused at the spot on the street where Callie had died. There was no bloodstain, nothing to mark the fact that shed even existed. I knelt down, glancing over my shoulder before I kissed the pavement.
Then I stood up and began to run, faster and faster. It was dawn, and the city was just waking up. Messenger boys zipped by on delivery bikes, and Union soldiers marched through the streets, their rifles nestled in their arms like infants. Vendors were already setting up on the sidewalk, and the air smelled like sugar and smoke.
And, of course, like the tangy scent of blood and iron.
I quickly reached the train station, where the platform was already bustling. Men in morning coats sat on worn wooden benches in the waiting area, reading newspapers, while women nervously clutched their purses. The entire station had an air of festive transience. It was the perfect hunting ground. And before I could help it, my fangs protruded from my gums.
Bowing my face into my hands, I counted to ten, fighting the hunger that raced through me and waiting for my teeth to click back into their human form.
The whistle blew, and the train roared into the station, kicking up a cloud of dust and breaking me out of my reverie.
I followed the soldier on board, wondering if he and his lover would experience a happy ending. I took solace in knowing, at least, that should they not, it would not be because of me. I entered the coach compartment.
“Ticket, sir?” a conductor asked, holding out his hand.
I locked eyes with him, my stomach turning with disgust at having to rely on my Power.
Let me pass.”I showed it to you,” I said aloud. “You must have forgotten.”