October 4, 1864
As a human, I’d thought it was my mother’s death that had shaped the men Damon and I would become.I’d called myself a half-orphan in the initial days after she died, locking myself away in my room, feeling as though my life had ended at the young age of ten.Father believed grieving was weak and unmanly, so Damon had been the one to comfort me.
He’d go riding with me, let me join the older boys in their games, and beat up the Giffin brothers when they made fun of me for crying about Mother during a baseball game. Damon had always been the strong one, my protector.
But I was wrong. It is my own death that has shaped me.
Now the tables have turned. I am the strong one, and I have been trying to be Damon’s protector. But while I have always been grateful to Damon, he despises me and blames me for what he has become. I had forced him to feed from Alice, a bartender at the local tavern, which had completed his transformation. But does that make me a villain? I think not, especially as the act had saved his life.
Finally, I see Damon the way Father had seen him: too imperious, too willful, too quick to make up his mind, and too slow to change it.
And as I had also realized earlier this evening as I stood just outside the dim glare of the gas lamp, the body of the dead nurse at my feet: I am alone. A full orphan. Just as Katherine had presented herself when she came to Mystic Falls and stayed in our guesthouse.
So that’s how vampires do it, then. They exploit vulnerability, get humans to trust them, and then, when all the emotions are firmly in place, they attack.
So that is what I will do. I know not how or who my next victim will be, but I know, more than ever, that the only person I can look out for and protect is myself. Damon is on his own, and so am I.
I heard Damon steal through the city, moving at vampire speed down the streets and alleys. At one point, he paused, whispering Katherines name over and over again, like a mantra or a prayer. Then, nothing
Was he dead? Had he drowned himself? Or was he simply too far away for me to hear him?
Either way, the result was the same. I was alone–Id lost my only connection to the man Id once been: Stefan Salvatore, the dutiful son, the lover of poetry, the man who stood up for what was right.
I wondered if that meant that Stefan Salvatore, with no one to remember him, was really, truly dead, leaving me to be anyone.
I could move to a different city every year, see the whole world. I could assume as many identities as Id like. I could be a Union soldier. I could be an Italian businessman.
I could even be Damon.
The sun plunged past the horizon like a cannonball falling to earth, dipping the city into darkness. I turned from one gaslit street to the next, the soles of my boots rasping over the gravelly cobblestones. A loose newspaper blew toward me. I stomped on the broadsheet, examining an etched photo of a girl with long, dark hair and pale eyes.
She looked vaguely familiar. I wondered if she was a relative of one of the Mystic Falls girls. Or perhaps a nameless cousin whod attended barbecues at Veritas. But then I saw the headline:BRUTAL MURDER ABOARD THE ATLANTIC EXPRESS.
Lavinia. Of course.
Id already forgotten her. I reached down and crumpled the paper, hurling it as far as I could into the Mississippi. The surface of the water was muddy and turbulent, dappled with moonlight. I couldnt see my reflection–couldnt see anything but an abyss of blackness as deep and dark as my new future. Could I go for eternity, feeding, killing, forgetting, then repeating the cycle?
Yes. Every instinct and impulse I had screamedyes.
The triumph of closing in on my prey, touching my canines to the paper-thin skin that covered their necks, hearing their hearts slow to a dull thud and feeling a body go limp in my arms. Hunting and feeding made me feel alive, whole; they gave me a purpose in the world.
It was, after all, the natural order of things. Animals killed weaker animals. Humans killed animals. I killed humans. Every species had their foe. I shuddered to think what monster was powerful enough to hunt me.
The salty breeze wafting from the water was laced with the odor of unwashed bodies and rotting food–a far cry from the aroma across town, where scents of floral perfume and talcum powder hung heavy in the air of the wide streets. Here shadows hugged every corner, whispers rose and fell with the flowing of the river, and drunken hiccups pierced the air. It was dark, here. Dangerous.
I quite liked it.
I turned a corner, following my nose like a bloodhound on the trail of a doe. I flexed my arms, ready for a hunt–a gin-soaked drunk, a soldier, a lady out after dark. The victim didnt matter.
I turned again, and the iron-scent of blood came closer. The smell was sweet and smoky. I focused on it, on the anticipation of sinking my fangs into a neck, of wondering whose blood Id be drinking, whose life Id be stealing. I continued to walk, picking up my pace as I traced the scent to an anonymous back street lined with an apothecary, a general store, and a tailor. The street was a replica of our own Main Street back in Mystic Falls. But while wed only had one, New Orleans must have had dozens, if not hundreds, of these corridors of commerce.
The rusty smell of iron was stronger now. I followed twists and turns, my hunger building, burning, searing my very skin until finally, finally I came to a squat, peach-colored building. But when I saw the painted sign above the door, I stopped short. Sausages in their casings hung in the buildings grimy window; slabs of cured meat dangled from the ceiling like a grotesque childs mobile; carved ribs were nestled in ice beneath a counter, and in the far back, whole carcasses were strung up, draining blood into large vats.
This was a butcher shop?
I sighed in frustration but my hunger forced me to push the door open anyway. The iron chain snapped easily, as if it were no sturdier than thread. Once inside, I gazed at the bloodied carcasses, momentarily mesmerized by the blood falling into the vats, one drip at a time.
Over the sound of the raining blood, I heard the slightestping, no louder than the twitch of a mouses whiskers. Then came the light shuffle of toes passing over concrete.
I reared back, my eyes darting from corner to corner. Mice scuttled beneath the floorboards, and someones watch ticked in the building next door. All else was quiet. But the air around me suddenly felt thicker, and the ceiling lower somehow, and I became acutely aware that there was no back exit in this room of death.
“Who goes there?” I called into the darkness, whirling around, my fangs bared. And then came movement. Fangs, eyes, the thud of footsteps closed in around me from all corners.
A low, guttural growl echoed off the bloodstained walls of the shop, and I realized with a sickening jolt that I was surrounded by vampires who looked all too ready to pounce.
I crouched low, my fangs elongated. The heady scent of blood permeated every corner of the room, making my head spin. It was impossible to know where to attack first.
The vampires growled again, and I emitted a low snarl in response. The circle closed in tighter around me. There were three of them, and I was caught, like a fish in a net, a deer surrounded by wolves.
“What do you think youre doing?” one of the vampires asked. He looked to be in his mid-twenties and had a scar that ran the length of his face, from his left eye to the corner of his lip.
“Im one of you,” I said, standing at my full height, fangs on display.
“Oh, hes one of us!” an older vampire said in a sing-songy voice. He wore glasses and a tweed vest over a white-collared shirt. But for the fangs and red-rimmed eyes, he could have been an accountant or a friend of my fathers. I kept my face impassive. “I have no ill business with you, brothers.”
“We are not your brothers,” said another with tawny hair. He looked not a day over fifteen. His face was smooth, but his green eyes were hard.
The older one stepped forward, poking his bony finger against my chest as if it were a wooden stake. “So, brother, nice evening to dine or die. What do you think?”
The young vampire kneeled next to me, gazing into my eyes. “Looks like hell do both tonight. Lucky boy,” he said, ruffling my hair. I tried to kick him, but my foot simply flopped harmlessly against air.
“No, no, no.” While the scarred vampire watched wordlessly, the boy grabbed my arms and wrenched them so sharply and abruptly behind my back that I gasped. “Dont be disrespectful. Were your elders. And youve already done quite enough disrespecting already, if Miss Mollys house is any indication.” He drawled her name as if he were a benign, genteel Southern gentleman. Only the steel grip on my limbs betrayed that he wasnt anything of the sort.
“I didnt do anything,” I said, kicking again. If I were to die, then Id die in a fight.
“Are you sure?” he asked, looking down at me in disgust. I attempted to twist away, but still I couldnt budge.
The elder vampire chuckled. “Cant control his urges. Impulsive, this one. Lets give him a taste of his own medicine.” With a flourish, he released me from his grasp, pushing me forward with strength Id never before felt. I hit the plaster wall with a crash and fell on my shoulder, my head cracking against the wooden floorboards.
I cowered beneath my attackers, the realization sinking in that if I were to survive this encounter, it would not be by might. “I didnt mean to do anything. Im sorry,” I said, my voice breaking on the word.
“Do you mean it?” the young vampire asked, a glint in his eye. The sound of wood breaking assaulted my ears. I flinched. Would one vampire stake another? This was not a question I wanted answered the hard way.
“Yes. Yes! I didnt mean to come in here. I didnt know anyone was here. I only just arrived in New Orleans,” I said, scrambling for an excuse.
“Silence!” he commanded, advancing toward me, a jagged piece of wood in his hand. I pressed my spine into the damaged wall. So this is how it would end. With me dying on a makeshift stake, killed by my own kind.
Two hands crushed my arms, while another two pinned my ankles together so forcefully that it felt as though I were stuck under boulders. I closed my eyes. An image of Father lying prone on his study floor swam to the forefront of my mind, and I shook my head in agony, remembering his sweating, terrified face. Of course, Id been trying to save him, but he hadnt known that. If he was watching, as an angel or a demon or a mere specter condemned to haunt the world, hed be thrilled to see this scene unfold.
I squeezed my eyes tighter, trying to evoke some other memory to the fore of my mind, one that would take me to another place, another time. But all I could think of were my victims, of the moment when my fangs sliced into their skin, their plaintive wails descending into silence, the blood dripping down my fangs and onto my chin. Soon, all the blood Id taken would be released, seeping out of my own body and back into the Earth, as I was left to die, for real this time, forever, on this wooden floor.
“Enough!” A female voice sliced through the montage in my mind. Immediately, the vampires let go of my hands and feet. My eyes sprang open, and I saw a woman gliding through a narrow wooden door in the back. Her long blond hair descended in a single plait down her back, and she wore mens black pants and suspenders. She was tall, though slight as a child, and all the other vampires shrank away from her in fear.
“You,” she said, kneeling next to me. “Who are you?” Her amber eyes gazed into mine. They were clear and curious, but there was something about them–the darkness of the pupils, perhaps–that seemed ancient and knowing, which stood in sharp contrast to her rosy-cheeked, unlined face.
“Stefan Salvatore,” I answered her.
“Stefan Salvatore,” she repeated in a perfect Italian accent. Although teasing, her voice didnt seem unkind. She ran a finger gently along my jaw, then placed her palm against my chest and she pressed me against the wall, hard. The suddenness of the movement stunned me, but as I sat, pinned and helpless, she brought her other wrist to her mouth, using her fang to puncture the vein. She dragged her wrist along her teeth, creating a small stream of blood.
“Drink,” she commanded, bringing her wrist to my lips.
I did as I was told, managing to get a few drops of the liquid down my throat before she yanked her hand away. “Thats enough. That should fix your wounds at any rate.”
“He and his brother have been wreaking havoc all over town,” the large vampire said, his makeshift stake pointed at me like a rifle.
“Just me,” I said quickly. “My brother had no part in it.” Damon would never survive the wrath of these demons. Not in his weakened state.
The blond vampire wrinkled her nose as she leaned even closer toward me.
“Youre what, a week old?” she asked, leaning back on her heels.
“Almost two weeks,” I said defiantly, lifting my chin.
She nodded, a hint of a smile on her lips, and stood, surveying the shop. The plaster wall was partially caved in, and blood smeared the floor and speckled the walls, as though a child had stood in the center of the room and twirled around with a wet paintbrush. She tsked, and the three male vampires simultaneously took a step back. I shivered.
“Percy, come here, and bring that knife,” she said.
With a sigh, the youngest vampire produced a long carving knife from behind his back.
“He wasnt following the rules,” he said petulantly, reminding me of the Giffin boys back home. They were both bullies, always ready to kick a kid in the schoolyard and then turn around and tell a teacher they had nothing to do with it.
She took the knife and stared at it, running the pad of her index finger over the gleaming blade. Then she held it back out to Percy. He hesitated a moment, but finally stepped forward to take it. Just then the girls canines elongated and her eyes flushed bloodred. With a growl, she stabbed Percy right in the chest. He fell to his knees, doubled over in silent agony.
“You hunt this vampire for making a scene in town,” she seethed, stabbing the knife in farther, “and yet you attempt to destroy him in this public space, in this shop? Youre just as foolish as he is.”
The young vampire staggered to his feet. Blood streamed down the front of his shirt, as though hed spilled coffee on himself. He grimaced as he pulled the knife out with a sucking sound. “Im sorry,” he gasped.
“Thank you.” The woman held her wrist toward Percys mouth. Despite her youthful look and apparently violent temper, she also had a mothering quality that the other vampires seemed to accept, as if her stabbings were as normal to them as a light swat would be to a high-spirited child.
She turned toward me. “Im sorry for your troubles, Stefan. Now, can I help you be on your way?” she asked.
I looked around wildly. Id thought no further ahead than escaping this room. “I “
“. . . dont have anywhere to go,” she said with a sigh, finishing my thought. She glanced toward the other vampires, who were now huddled in the corner of the room, heads bent in conversation.
“Ill just be going,” I said, struggling to my feet. My leg was fine, but my arms shook, and my breath came erratically. With local vampires watching my every move, where would I go? How would I feed?
“Nonsense, youre coming with us,” she said, turning on her heel and walking out the door. She pointed to the young vampire and the one who wore glasses. “Percy and Hugo, stay and clean this place up.”
I had to practically run to keep up with her and the tall, scarred vampire whod watched my torture. “Youll need someone to show you around,” she explained, pausing only slightly. “This is Buxton,” she said, grabbing the elbow of the vampire with the long scar.
We walked down street after street until we neared a church with a tall spire.
“Were here,” she said, turning sharply to enter a wrought-iron gate. Her boots echoed against a slate path that led to the rear of a house. She opened the door, and a musty scent greeted me. Buxton immediately walked through the parlor and up a set of stairs, leaving me and the young female vampire alone in the darkness.
“Welcome home,” she said, spreading her hands wide. “There are plenty of spare rooms upstairs. Find one that suits you.”
“Thank you.” As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I took in my surroundings. Black velvet curtains fastened with golden rope blocked every window. Dust motes floated in the air, and gilt-framed paintings covered the walls. The furniture was threadbare, and I could just make out two sweeping staircases with what looked like oriental runners and, in the next room, a piano. Though at one point this must have been a grand house, now the soiled walls were cracked and peeling, and cobwebs draped over the gold-and-crystal chandelier above us.
“Always enter through the back. Never draw back the curtains. Dont ever bring anyone here. Do you understand, Stefan?” She looked at me pointedly.
“Yes,” I said, running a finger along the marble fireplace, cutting a path in the inch-thick dust.
“Then I think you will like it here,” she said.
I turned to face her, nodding in agreement. My panic had subsided, and my arms no longer trembled.
“Im Lexi,” she said, holding out her hand, allowing me to raise it to my lips and kiss it. “I have a feeling that you and I will be friends for a long time.”