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Origins (Chapter 29)

When I next opened my eyes, I knew I was dead. But this death wasn't the death of my nightmares, with black nothingness all around. Instead, I could smell the faraway scent of a fire, feel rough earth beneath my body, could feel my hands resting by my sides. I didn't feel pain. I didn't feel anything. The blackness enveloped me in a way that was almost comforting. Was this what hell was? If so, it was nothing like the horror and mayhem of last night. It was quiet, peaceful.

I tentatively moved my arm, surprised when my hand touched straw. I pushed myself up to a sitting position, surprised that I still had a body, surprised that nothing hurt. I looked around and realized that I wasn't suspended in nothingness. To my left were the rough-hewn slats of a wall of a dark shack. If I squinted, I could see sky between the cracks. I was somewhere, but where? My hand fluttered to my chest. I remembered the shot ringing out, the sound of my body thudding to the ground, the way I was prodded with boots and sticks. The way my heart had stopped beating and there had been a cheer that rose up before everything was quiet. I was dead. So then …

"Hello?" I called hoarsely.

"Stefan," a woman's voice said. I felt a hand behind my back. I realized I was wearing a simple, faded, blue cotton shirt and tan linen pants, clothes I didn't recognize as my own. And though they were old, they were clean. I struggled to stand, but the small, yet surprisingly strong, hand held me down by my shoulder. "Y ou've had a long night."

I blinked, and as my eyes adjusted to the light, I realized that the voice belonged to Emily.

"Y ou're alive," I said in wonderment.

She laughed, a low, lazy chuckle. "I should be saying that to you. How are you feeling?" she asked, bringing a tin cup of water to my lips.

I drank, allowing the cool liquid to trickle down my throat. I'd never tasted anything so pure, so good. I touched my neck where Katherine had bit me. It felt clean and smooth. I hastily yanked the shirt open, popping several buttons in the process. My chest was smooth, no hint of a bullet wound.

"Keep drinking," Emily clucked in a way a mother might do to her child.

"Damon?" I asked roughly.

"He's out there." Emily pointed her chin to the door. I followed her gaze outside, where I saw a shadowy figure sitting by the water's edge. "He's recovering, just as you are."

"But how …"

"Notice your ring." Emily tapped my hand. On my ring finger was a gleaming lapis-lazuli stone, inset in silver. "It's a remedy and a protection. inset in silver. "It's a remedy and a protection. Katherine had me make it for you the night she marked you."

"Marked me," I repeated dumbly, once again touching my neck, then allowing my fingers to drop to the smooth stone of the ring.

"Marked you to be like her. Y ou're almost a vampire, Stefan. Y ou're well into the transformation," Emily said, as if she were a doctor diagnosing a patient with a terminal illness.

I nodded as if I understood what Emily was saying, even though it might as well have been a completely different language. Transformation?

"Who found me?" I asked, starting with the question I cared least about.

"I did. After the shots were fired on you and your brother, everyone ran. The house burned down. People died. Not just vampires." Emily shook her head, her face deeply troubled. "They brought all the vampires to the church and burned them there. Including her," Emily said, her tone impossible to comprehend.

"Did she make me a vampire, then?" I asked, touching my neck.

"Y But in order to complete the transition,

es. you must feed. It's a choice you have to make. Katherine had the power of destruction and death, but even she had to allow her victims that choice."

"She killed Rosalyn." I knew it in the same way I'd known Damon loved Katherine. It was as if a cloud had lifted, only to reveal more blackness.

"She did," Emily said, her face inscrutable. "But that has nothing to do with what happens. If you choose, you can feed and complete the transition, or let yourself …"

"Die?"

Emily nodded.

I didn't want to feed. I didn't want Katherine's blood inside me. All I wanted was to go back several months, before I'd ever heard the name Katherine Pierce. My heart twisted in agony for all I'd lost. But there was someone who'd lost more.

As if she'd read my mind, Emily helped me to my feet. She was tiny, but strong. I stood up and shakily walked outside.

"Brother!" I called. Damon turned, his eyes shining. The water reflected the rising sun, and smoke billowed through the trees in the distance. But the clearing was eerily quiet and peaceful, harkening back to an earlier, simpler time.

Damon didn't answer. And before I even realized what I was doing, I walked to the edge of the water. Without bothering to take off my clothes, I dove in. I came up for air and breathed out, but my mind still felt dark and dirty.

Damon stared down at me from the water's edge. "The church burned. Katherine was inside," he said tonelessly.

"Y I didn't feel satisfaction or sadness. I just

es." felt deep, deep sorrow. For myself, for Damon, for felt deep, deep sorrow. For myself, for Damon, for Rosalyn, for everyone who'd gotten caught in this web of destruction. Father had been right. There were demons who walked the earth, and if you didn't fight them, then you became one.

"Do you know what we are?" Damon asked bitterly.

We locked eyes, and instantly I realized that I didn't want to live like Katherine. I didn't want to see the sunlight only with the aid of the ring on my finger. I didn't want to always gaze at a human's neck as if contemplating my next feeding. I didn't want to live forever.

I ducked down under the surface of the water and opened my eyes. The pond was dark and cool, just like the shack. If this was what death was, it wasn't bad. It was peaceful. Quiet. There was no passion, but also no danger.

I surfaced and pushed my hair off my face, my borrowed clothes hanging off my soaked limbs. Even though I knew what my fate was, I felt remarkably alive. "Then I'll die."

Damon nodded, his eyes dull and listless. "There's no life without Katherine."

I climbed out of the water and hugged my brother. His body felt warm, real. Damon briefly returned my embrace, then hugged his knees again, his gaze fixed on a spot far away from the water's edge.

"I want it done," Damon said, standing up and walking farther away toward the quarry. I watched his retreating back, remembering the time when I was eight or nine that my father and I had gone buck hunting. It was right after my mother had died, and while Damon had immersed himself in schoolboy antics like gambling and riding horses, I'd clung to my father. One day, to cheer me up, Father took me to the woods with our rifles.

We'd spent over an hour tracking a buck. Father and I headed deeper and deeper into the forest, watching the animal's every move. Finally, we were in a spot where we saw the buck bowing down, eating from a berry bush.

"Shoot," Father murmured, guiding my rifle over my shoulder. I trembled as I kept my eye on the deer and reached for the trigger. But at the moment I released the trigger, a baby deer scampered into the field. The buck sprinted away, and the bullet hit the fawn in the belly. Its wobbly legs crumpled beneath it, and it fell to the ground.

I'd run to try to help it, but Father had stopped me, holding on to my shoulder.

"Animals know when it's time to die. Let's at least allow it the peace to do it alone," Father said, forcibly marching me away. I'd wailed, but he was relentless. Now, watching Damon, I understood. Damon was the same way.

"Good-bye, brother," I whispered.

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