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The Fury (Chapter Fifteen)

Elena watched Damon with mute dread. She knew that disturbing smile too well. But even as her heart sank, her mind threw a mocking question at her. What difference did it make? She and Stefan were going to die anyway. It only made sense for Damon to save himself. And it was wrong to expect him to go against his nature.

She watched that beautiful, capricious smile with a feeling of sorrow for what Damon might have been.

Katherine smiled back at him, enchanted. "We'll be so happy together. Once they're dead, I'll let you go. I didn't mean to hurt you, not really. I just got angry." She put out a slender hand and stroked his cheek. "I'm sorry."

"Katherine," he said. He was still smiling.

"Yes." She leaned closer.

"Katherine…"

"Yes, Damon?"

"Go to hell."

Elena flinched from what happened next before it happened, feeling the violent upsurge of Power, of malevolent, unbridled Power. She screamed at the change in Katherine. That lovely face was twisting, mutating into something that was neither human nor animal. A red light blazed in Katherine's eyes as she fell on Damon, her fangs sinking into his throat.

Talons sprang from her fingertips, and she raked Damon's already-bleeding chest with it, tearing into his skin while the blood flowed. Elena kept screaming, realizing dimly that the pain in her arms was from fighting the ropes that held her. She heard Stefan shouting, too, but above everything she heard the deafening shriek of Katherine's mental voice.

Now you'll be sorry! Now I'm going to make you sorry! I'll kill you! I'll kill you! I'll kill you! I'll kill you!

The words themselves hurt, like daggers stabbing into Elena's mind. The sheer Power of it stupefied her, rocking her back against the iron pickets. But there was no way to get away from it. It seemed to echo from all around her, hammering in her skull.

Kill you! Kill you! Kill you!

Elena fainted.

Meredith, crouched beside Aunt Judith in the utility room, shifted her weight, straining to interpret the sounds outside the door. The dogs had gotten into the cellar; she wasn't sure how, but from the bloody muzzles of some of them, she

thought they had broken through the ground-level windows. Now they were outside the utility room, but Meredith couldn't tell what they were doing. It was too quiet out there.

"Hush," Robert whispered quickly. "It's all right, sweetheart. Everything's going to be all right."

Meredith met his frightened, determined eyes over Margaret's tow head. We almost had you pegged for the Other Power, she thought. But there was no time to regret it now.

"Where's Elena? Elena said she'd watch over me," Margaret said, her eyes large and solemn. "She said she'd take care of me." Aunt Judith put a hand to her mouth.

"She is taking care of you," Meredith whispered. "She just sent me to do it, that's all. It's the truth," she added fiercely, and saw Robert's look of reproach melt into perplexity.

Outside, the silence had given way to scratching and gnawing sounds. The dogs were at work on the door.

Robert cradled Margaret's head closer to his chest.

Bonnie didn't know how long they had been working. Hours, certainly. Forever, it seemed like. The dogs had gotten in through the kitchen and the old wooden side doors. So far, though, only about a dozen had gotten past the fires lit like barricades in front of these openings. And the men with guns had taken care of most of those.

But Mr. Smallwood and his friends were now holding empty rifles. And they were running out of things to burn.

Vickie had gotten hysterical a little while ago, screaming and holding her head as if something was hurting her. They'd been looking for ways to restrain her when she finally passed out.

Bonnie went up to Matt, who was looking out over the fire through the demolished side door. He wasn't looking for dogs, she knew, but for something else much farther away. Something you couldn't see from here.

"You had to go, Matt," she said. "There was nothing else you could do." He didn't answer or turn around.

"It's almost dawn," she said. "Maybe when that comes, the dogs will leave." But even as she said it, she knew it wasn't true.

Matt didn't answer. She touched his shoulder. "Stefan's with her. Stefan's there."

At last, Matt gave some response. He nodded. "Stefan's there," he said.

Brown and snarling, another shape charged out of the dark.

It was much later when Elena came gradually to consciousness. She knew because she could see, not just by the handful of candles Katherine had lit but also by the cold gray dimness that filtered down from the crypt's opening.

Damon? she thought. It was only after she had done it that she realized the word had not been spoken. Somehow, Katherine's shrieking had closed a circuit in her mind, or maybe it had awakened something sleeping. And Matt's blood had undoubtedly helped, giving her the strength to finally find her mental voice.

She turned her head the other way. Stefan?

His face was haggard with pain, but aware. Too aware. Elena almost wished that he were as insensible as Damon to what was happening to them.

Elena, he returned.

Where is she? Elena said, her eyes moving slowly around the room.

Stefan looked toward the opening of the crypt. She went up there a while ago.

Maybe to check on how the dogs are doing.

Elena had thought she'd reached the limit of fear and dread, but it wasn't true. She hadn't remembered the others then.

Elena, I'm sorry. Stefan's face was filled with what no words could express.

It's not your fault, Stefan. You didn't do this to her. She did it to herself. Or-it just happened to her, because of what she is. What we are. Running beneath Elena's thoughts was the memory of how she had attacked Stefan in the woods, and how she had felt when she was racing toward Mr. Smallwood, planning her revenge. It could have been me, she said.

No! You could never become like that.

Elena didn't answer. If she had the Power now, what would she do to Katherine?

What wouldn't she do to her? But she knew it would only upset Stefan more to talk about it.

I thought Damon was going to betray us, she said.

I did, too, said Stefan queerly. He was looking at his brother with an odd expression.

Do you still hate him?

Stefan's gaze darkened. No, he said quietly. No, I don't hate him anymore. Elena nodded. It was important, somehow. Then she started, her nerves hyper-alert, as something shadowed the entrance to the crypt. Stefan tensed, too. She's coming. Elena- I love you, Stefan, Elena said hopelessly, as the misty white shape hurtled down. Katherine took form in front of them.

Of course, thought Elena. How could I have been so stupid? Damon rode with us

in Alaric's car over the river. He crossed running water then, and probably lots of other times. He couldn't have been the Other Power.

It was strange how she could think even though she was so frightened. It was as if one part of her mind stood watching from a distance.

"I'm going to kill you now," Katherine said conversationally. "Then I'm going under the river to kill your friends. I don't think the dogs have done it yet. But I'll take care of it myself."

"Let Elena go," said Stefan. His voice was quenched but compelling all the same.

"I haven't decided how to do it," said Katherine, ignoring him. "I might roast you. There's almost enough light for that now. And I've got these." She reached down the front of her gown and brought her closed hand out. "One-two-three!" she said, dropping two silver rings and a gold one onto the ground. Their stones shone blue as Katherine's eyes, blue as the stone in the necklace at Katherine's throat.

Elena's hands twisted frantically and she felt the smooth bareness of her ring finger. It was true. She wouldn't have believed how naked she felt without that circlet of metal. It was necessary to her life, to her survival. Without it-

"Without these you'll die," Katherine said, scuffing the rings carelessly with the toe of one foot. "But I don't know if that's slow enough." She paced back almost to the far wall of the crypt, her silver dress shimmering in the dim light.

It was then that the idea came to Elena.

She could move her hands. Enough to feel one with the other, enough to know that they weren't numb anymore. The ropes were looser.

But Katherine was strong. Unbelievably strong. And faster than Elena, too. Even if Elena got free she would have time for only one quick act.

She rotated one wrist, feeling the ropes give.

"There are other ways," Katherine said. "I could cut you and watch you bleed. I like watching."

Gritting her teeth, Elena exerted pressure against the rope. Her hand was bent at an excruciating angle, but she continued to press. She felt the burn of the rope slipping aside.

"Or rats," Katherine was saying pensively. "Rats could be fun. I could tell them when to start and when to stop."

Working the other hand free was much easier. Elena tried to give no sign of what was going on behind her back. She would have liked to call to Stefan with her mind, but she didn't dare. Not if there was any chance Katherine might hear.

but she didn't dare. Not if there was any chance Katherine might hear.

There was a rectangle of gray light on the floor. Dawn light. It was coming in through the crypt's opening. Katherine had already been out in that light. But…

Katherine smiled suddenly, her blue eyes sparkling. "I know! I'll drink you almost up and make you watch while I kill her! I'll leave you just enough strength so you see her die before you do. Doesn't that sound like a good plan?" Blithely, she clapped her hands and pirouetted again, dancing away.

Just one more step, thought Elena. She saw Katherine approach the rectangle of light. Just one more step…

Katherine took the step. "That's it, then!" She started to turn around. "What a good-"

Now!

Yanking her cramped arms out of the last loops of rope, Elena rushed her. It was like the rush of a hunting cat. One desperate sprint to reach the prey. One chance. One hope.

She struck Katherine with her full weight. The impact knocked them both into the rectangle of light. She felt Katherine's head crack against the stone floor.

And felt the searing pain, as if her own body had been plunged into poison. It was a feeling like the burning dryness of hunger, only stronger. A thousand times stronger. It was unbearable.

"Elena!" Stefan screamed, with mind and voice.

Stefan, she thought. Beneath her Power surged as Katherine's stunned eyes focused. Her mouth twisted with rage, fangs bursting forth. They were so long they cut into the lower lip. That distorted mouth opened in a howl.

Elena's clumsy hand fumbled at Katherine's throat. Her fingers closed on the cool metal of Katherine's blue necklace. With all her strength, she wrenched and felt the chain give way. She tried to clasp it, but her fingers felt thick and uncoordinated and Katherine's clawing hand scrabbled at it wildly. It spun away into the shadows.

"Elena!" Stefan called again in that dreadful voice.

She felt as if her body were filled with light. As if she were transparent. Only, light was pain. Beneath her, Katherine's warped face was looking up directly into the winter sky. Instead of a howl, there was a shrieking that went up and up.

Elena tried to lift herself off, but she didn't have the strength. Katherine's face was rifting, cracking open. Lines of fire opened in it. The screaming reached a crescendo. Katherine's hair was aflame, her skin was blackening. Elena felt fire from both above and below.

She saw Stefan's arms, red where they had been exposed to the sun and bleeding where he had torn free of his ropes. She saw his face, saw the stricken horror and grief. Then her eyes blurred and she saw nothing.

Meredith and Robert, striking at the blood-soaked muzzles that thrust through the hole in the door, paused in confusion. The teeth had stopped snapping and tearing. One muzzle jerked and slid out of the way. Edging sideways to look at the other, Meredith saw that the dog's eyes were glazed and milky. They didn't move. She looked at Robert, who stood panting.

There was no more noise from the cellar. Everything was silent.

But they didn't dare to hope.

Vickie's demented shrieking stopped as if it had been cut with a knife. The dog, which had sunk its teeth into Matt's thigh, stiffened and gave a convulsive shudder; then, its jaws released him. Gasping for breath, Bonnie swung to look beyond the dying fire. There was just enough light to see bodies of other dogs lying where they had fallen outside.

She and Matt leaned on each other, looking around, bewildered.

It had finally stopped snowing.

Slowly, Elena opened her eyes.

Everything was very clear and calm.

She was glad the shrieking was over. That had been bad; it had hurt. Now, nothing hurt. She felt as if her body were filled with light again, but this time there was no pain. It was as if she were floating, very high and easy, on wafts of air. She almost felt she didn't have a body at all.

She smiled.

Turning her head didn't hurt, although it increased the loose, floating feeling. She saw, in the oblong of pale light on the floor, the smoldering remains of a silvery dress. Katherine's lie of five hundred years ago had become the truth.

That was that, then. Elena looked away. She didn't wish anyone harm now, and she didn't want to waste time on Katherine. There were so many more important things.

"Stefan," she said and sighed, and smiled. Oh, this was nice. This must be how a bird felt.

"I didn't mean for things to turn out this way," she said, softly rueful. His green eyes were wet. They filled again, but he returned her smile.

"I know," he said. "I know, Elena."

It seemed to her that it had been a long while since she'd really looked at him.

Since she'd taken time to appreciate how beautiful he was, with his dark hair and his eyes as green as oak leaves. But she saw it now, and she saw his soul shining through those eyes. It was worth it, she thought. I didn't want to die; I don't want to now. But I'd do it all over again if I had to.

"I love you," she whispered.

"I love you," he said, squeezing their joined hands.

The strange, languorous lightness cradled her gently. She could scarcely feel Stefan holding her.

She would have thought she'd be terrified. But she wasn't, not as long as Stefan was there.

"The people at the dance-they'll be all right now, won't they?" she said.

"They'll be all right now," Stefan whispered. "You saved them."

"I didn't get to say good-bye to Bonnie and Meredith. Or Aunt Judith. You have to tell them I love them."

"I'll tell them," Stefan said.

"You can tell them yourself," panted another voice, hoarse and unused sounding.

Damon had pulled himself across the floor behind Stefan. His face was ravaged, streaked with blood, but his dark eyes burned at her. "Use your will, Elena. Hold on. You have the strength-"

She smiled at him, waveringly. She knew the truth. What was happening was only finishing what had been started two weeks ago. She'd had thirteen days to get things straight, to make amends with Matt and say good-bye to Margaret. To tell Stefan she loved him. But now the grace period was up.

Still, there was no point in hurting Damon. She loved Damon, too. "I'll try," she promised.

"We'll take you home," he said.

"But not yet," she told him gently. "Let's wait just a little while." Something happened in the fathomless black eyes, and the burning spark went out. Then she saw that Damon knew, too.

"I'm not afraid," she said. "Well-only a little." A drowsiness had started, and she felt very comfortable, but as if she were falling asleep. Things were drifting away from her.

An ache rose in her chest. She was not much afraid, but she was sorry. There

were so many things she would miss, so many things she wished she had done.

"Oh," she said softly. "How funny."

underground room. Only this was a doorway into a different light.

"How beautiful," she murmured. "Stefan? I'm so tired."

"You can rest now," he whispered.

"You won't let go of me?"

"No."

"Then I won't be afraid."

Something was shining on Damon's face. She reached toward it, touched it, and lifted her fingers away in wonder.

"Don't be sad," she told him, feeling the cool wetness on her fingertips. But a pang of worry disturbed her. Who was there to understand Damon now? Who would be there to push him, to try to see what was really inside him? "You have to take care of each other," she said, realizing it. A little strength came back to her, like a candle flaring in the wind. "Stefan, will you promise? Promise to take care of each other?"

"I promise," he said. "Oh, Elena…"

Waves of sleepiness were overcoming her. "That's good," she said. "That's good, Stefan."

The doorway was closer, so close she could touch it now. She wondered if her parents were somewhere behind it.

"Time to go home," she whispered.

And then the darkness and the shadows faded and there was nothing but light. Stefan held her while her eyes closed. And then he just held her, the tears he'd been keeping back falling without restraint. It was a different pain than when he'd pulled her out of the river. There was no anger in this, and no hatred, but a love that seemed to go on and on forever.

It hurt even more.

He looked at the rectangle of sunlight, just a step or two away from him. Elena had gone into the light. She'd left him here alone.

Not for long, he thought.

His ring was on the floor. He didn't even glance at it as he rose, his eyes on the shaft of sunlight shining down.

A hand grabbed his arm and pulled him back.

Stefan looked into his brother's face.

Damon's eyes were dark as midnight, and he was holding Stefan's ring. As Stefan watched, unable to move, he forced the ring onto Stefan's finger and released him.

yours, too. Take it. Take it and go." He turned his face away.

Stefan gazed at the golden circlet in his palm for a long time.

Then his fingers closed over it and he looked back at Damon. His brother's eyes were shut, his breathing labored. He looked exhausted and in pain.

And Stefan had made a promise to Elena.

"Come on," he said quietly, putting the ring in his pocket. "Let's get you some place where you can rest."

He put an arm around his brother to help him up. And then, for a moment, he just held on.

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