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The Fury (Chapter Five)

Dr. Feinberg, Elena thought wildly, trying to twist around to look and simultaneously press herself into the shadows. But it wasn't the small, hawk-nosed visage of the doctor that met her eyes. It was a face with features as fine as those on a Roman coin or medallion, and haunted green eyes. Time caught for a moment, and then Elena was in his arms.

"Oh, Stefan. Stefan…"

She felt his body go still with shock. He was holding her mechanically, lightly, as if she were a stranger who'd mistaken him for someone else.

"Stefan," she said desperately, burrowing her face into his shoulder, trying to get some response. She couldn't bear it if he rejected her; if he hated her now she would die…

With a moan, she tried to get even closer to him, wanting to merge with him completely, to disappear inside him. Oh, please, she thought, oh, please, oh, please …

"Elena. Elena, it's all right; I've got you." He went on talking to her, repeating silly nonsense meant to soothe, stroking her hair. And she could feel the change as his arms tightened around her. He knew who he was holding now. For the first time since she'd awakened that day, she felt safe. Still, it was a long while before she could relax her grip on him even slightly. She wasn't crying; she was gasping in panic.

At last she felt the world start to settle into place around her. She didn't let go, though, not yet. She simply stood for endless minutes with her head on his shoulder, drinking in the comfort and security of his nearness.

Then she raised her head to look into his eyes.

When she'd thought of Stefan earlier that day, she'd thought of how he might help her. She'd meant to ask him, to beg him, to save her from this nightmare, to make her the way she had been before. But now, as she looked at him, she felt a strange despairing resignation flow through her.

"There's nothing to be done about it, is there?" she said very softly.

He didn't pretend to misunderstand. "No," he said, equally soft.

Elena felt as if she had taken some final step over an invisible line and that there was no returning. When she could speak again, she said, "I'm sorry for the way I acted toward you in the woods. I don't know why I did those things. I remember doing them, but I can't remember why."

"You're sorry?" His voice shook. "Elena, after all I've done to you, all that's happened to you because of me…" He couldn't finish, and they clung to each other.

"Very touching," said a voice from the stairway. "Do you want me to imitate a violin?"

"How did you get here?" said Stefan.

"The same way you did, I presume. Attracted by the blazing beacon of the fair Elena's distress." Damon was really angry; Elena could tell. Not just annoyed or discommoded but in a white heat of rage and hostility.

But he'd been decent to her when she'd been confused and irrational. He'd taken her to shelter; he'd kept her safe. And he hadn't kissed her while she'd been in that horrifyingly vulnerable state. He'd been… kind to her.

"Incidentally, there's something going on down there," Damon said.

"I know; it's Bonnie again," said Elena, releasing Stefan and moving back.

"That's not what I meant. This is outside."

Startled, Elena followed him down to the first bend in the stairs, where there was a window overlooking the parking lot. She felt Stefan behind her as she looked down at the scene below.

A crowd of people had come out of the church, but they were standing in a solid phalanx at the edge of the lot, not going any farther. Opposite them, in the parking lot itself, was an equally large assembly of dogs.

It looked like two armies facing each other. What was eerie, though, was that both groups were absolutely motionless. The people seemed to be paralyzed by uneasiness, and the dogs seemed to be waiting for something.

Elena saw the dogs first as different breeds. There were small dogs like sharp-faced corgis and brown-and-black silky terriers and a Lhasa apso with long golden hair. There were medium-sized dogs like springer spaniels and Airedales and one beautiful snow white Samoyed. And there were the big dogs: a barrel-chested rottweiler with a cropped tail, a panting gray wolfhound, and a giant schnauzer, pure black. Then Elena began to recognize individuals.

"That's Mr. Grunbaum's boxer and the Sullivans' German shepherd. But what's going on with them?"

The people, originally uneasy, now looked frightened. They stood shoulder to shoulder, no one wanting to break out of the front line and move any closer to the animals.

And yet the dogs weren't doing anything, just sitting or standing, some with their tongues lolling gently out. Strange, though, how still they were, Elena thought. Every tiny motion, such as the slightest twitch of tail or ears, seemed vastly exaggerated. And there were no wagging tails, no signs of friendliness. Just… waiting.

Robert was toward the back of the crowd. Elena was surprised at seeing him, but for a moment she couldn't think of why. Then she realized it was because he hadn't been in the church. As she watched, he drew farther apart from the group, disappearing under the overhang below Elena.

Someone had moved out of the front line at last. It was Douglas Carson, Elena realized, Sue Carson's married older brother. He'd stepped into the no-man's-land between the dogs and the people, one hand slightly extended.

A springer spaniel with long ears like brown satin turned her head. Her white stump of a tail quivered slightly, questioningly, and her brown-and-white muzzle lifted. But she didn't come to the young man.

Doug Carson took another step. "Chelsea… good girl. Come here, Chelsea. Come!" He snapped his fingers.

"What do you sense from those dogs down there?" Damon murmured.

Stefan shook his head without looking away from the window. "Nothing," he said shortly.

"Neither do I." Damon's eyes were narrowed, his head tilted back appraisingly, but his slightly bared teeth reminded Elena of the wolfhound. "But we should be able to, you know. They ought to have some emotions we can pick up on. Instead, every time I try to probe them it's like running into a blank white wall."

Elena wished she knew what they were talking about. "What do you mean 'probe them'?" she said. "They're animals."

"Appearances can be deceiving," Damon said ironically, and Elena thought about the rainbow lights in the feathers of the crow that had followed her since the first day of school. If she looked closely, she could see those same rainbow lights in Damon's silky hair. "But animals have emotions, in any case. If your Powers are strong enough, you can examine their minds."

And my Powers aren't, thought Elena. She was startled by the twinge of envy that went through her. Just a few minutes ago she'd been clinging to Stefan, frantic to get rid of any Powers she had, to change herself back. And now, she wished she were stronger. Damon always had an odd effect on her.

"I may not be able to probe Chelsea, but I don't think Doug should go any closer," she said aloud.

Stefan had been staring fixedly out the window, his eyebrows drawn together. Now he nodded fractionally, but with a sudden sense of urgency. "I don't either," he said.

"C'mon, Chelsea, be a good girl. Come here." Doug Carson had almost reached the first row of dogs. All eyes, human and canine, were fixed on him, and even such tiny movements as twitches had stopped. If Elena hadn't seen the sides of one or two dogs hollow and fill with their breathing, she might have thought the whole group was some giant museum display.

Doug had come to a halt. Chelsea was watching him from behind the corgi and the Samoyed. Doug clucked his tongue. He stretched out his hand, hesitated, and then stretched it out farther.

"Yes." She could see his gaze unfocus with concentration; then, he shook his head, exhaling like a person who's tried to lift some-thing too heavy. "It's no good; I'm burnt out. I can't do it from here."

Below, Chelsea's lips skinned back from her teeth. The red-gold Airedale rose to her feet in one beautifully smooth movement, as if pulled by strings. The hindquarters of the rottweiler bunched.

And then they sprang. Elena couldn't see which of the dogs was the first; they seemed to move together like a great wave. Half a dozen hit Doug Carson with enough force to knock him backward, and he disappeared under their massed bodies.

The air was full of hellish noise, from a metallic baying that set the church rafters ringing and gave Elena an instant headache, to a deep-throated continuous growl that she felt rather than heard. Dogs were tearing at clothing, snarling, lunging, while the crowd scattered and screamed.

Elena caught sight of Alaric Saltzman at the edge of the parking lot, the only one who wasn't running. He was standing stiffly, and she thought she could see his lips moving, and his hands.

Everywhere else was pandemonium. Someone had gotten a hose and was turning it into the thick of the pack, but it was having no effect. The dogs seemed to have gone mad. When Chelsea raised her brown-and-white muzzle from her master's body, it was tinged with red.

Elena's heart was pounding so that she could barely breathe. "They need help!" she said, just as Stefan broke away from the window and went down the stairs, taking them two and three at a time. Elena was halfway down the stairs herself when she realized two things: Damon wasn't following her, and she couldn't let herself be seen.

She couldn't. The hysteria it would cause, the questions, the fear and hatred once the questions were answered. Something that ran deeper than compassion or sympathy or the need to help wrenched her back, flattening her against the wall.

In the dim, cool interior of the church, she glimpsed a boiling pocket of activity. People were dashing back and forth, shouting. Dr. Feinberg, Mr. McCullough, Reverend Bethea. The still point of the circle was Bonnie lying on a pew with Meredith and Aunt Judith and Mrs. McCullough bent over her. "Something evil," she was moaning, and then Aunt Judith's head came up, turning in Elena's direction.

Elena scuttled up the stairs as quickly as she could, praying Aunt Judith hadn't seen her. Damon was at the window.

"I can't go down there. They think I'm dead!"

"Oh, you've remembered that. Good for you."

"He'll think you're an interesting specimen, all right."

"Then I can't go. But you can. Why don't you do something?"

Damon continued to look out the window, eyebrows hiking up. "Why?"

"Why?" Elena's alarm and overexcitement reached flash point and she almost slapped him. "Because they need help! Because you can help. Don't you care about anything besides yourself?"

Damon was wearing his most impenetrable mask, the expression of polite inquiry he'd worn when he invited himself to her house for dinner. But she knew that beneath it he was angry, angry at finding her and Stefan together. He was baiting her on purpose and with savage enjoyment.

And she couldn't help her reaction, her frustrated, impotent rage. She started for him, and he caught her wrists and held her off, his eyes boring into hers. She was startled to hear the sound that came from her lips then; it was a hiss that sounded more feline than human. She realized her fingers were hooked into claws.

What am I doing? Attacking him because he won't defend people against the dogs that are attacking them? What kind of sense does that make? Breathing hard, she relaxed her hands and wet her lips. She stepped back and he let her.

There was a long moment while they stared at each other.

"I'm going down," Elena said quietly and turned.

"No."

"They need help."

"All right, then, damn you." She'd never heard Damon's voice so low, or so furious. "I'll-" he broke off and Elena, turning back quickly, saw him slam a fist into the window-sill, rattling the glass. But his attention was outside and his voice perfectly composed again when he said dryly, "Help has arrived."

It was the fire department. Their hoses were much more powerful than the garden hose, and the jet streams of water drove the lunging dogs off with sheer force. Elena saw a sheriff with a gun and bit the inside of her cheek as he aimed and sighted. There was a crack, and the giant schnauzer went down. The sheriff aimed again.

It ended quickly after that. Several dogs were already running from the barrage of water, and with the second crack of the pistol more broke from the pack and headed for the edges of the parking lot. It was as if the purpose that had driven them had released them all at once. Elena felt a rush of relief as she saw Stefan standing unharmed in the middle of the rout, shoving a dazed-looking golden retriever away from Doug Carson's form. Chelsea took a skulking step toward her master and looked into his face, head and tail drooping.

"It's all over," Damon said. He sounded only mildly interested, but Elena glanced at him sharply. All right then, damn you, I'll what? she thought. What had he been about to say? He wasn't in any mood to tell her, but she was in a mood to push.

"It's all over," Damon said. He sounded only mildly interested, but Elena glanced at him sharply. All right then, damn you, I'll what? she thought. What had he been about to say? He wasn't in any mood to tell her, but she was in a mood to push.

He stiffened, then turned. "Well?"

For a second they stood looking at each other, and then there was a step on the stair. Stefan had returned.

"Stefan… you're hurt," she said, blinking, suddenly disoriented.

"I'm all right." He wiped blood off his cheek with a tattered sleeve.

"What about Doug?" Elena asked, swallowing.

"I don't know. He is hurt. A lot of people are. That was the strangest thing I've ever seen."

Elena moved away from Damon, up the stairs into the choir loft. She felt that she had to think, but her head was pounding. The strangest thing Stefan had ever seen… that was saying a lot. Something strange in Fell's Church.

She reached the wall behind the last row of seats and put a hand against it, sliding down to sit on the floor. Things seemed at once confused and frighteningly clear. Something strange in Fell's Church. The day of the founders' celebration she would have sworn she didn't care anything about Fell's Church or the people in it. But now she knew differently. Looking down on the memorial service, she had begun to think perhaps she did care.

And then, when the dogs had attacked outside, she'd known it. She felt somehow responsible for the town, in a way she had never felt before.

Her earlier sense of desolation and loneliness had been pushed aside for the moment. There was something more important than her own problems now. And she clung to that something, because the truth was that she really couldn't deal with her own situation, no, she really, really couldn't…

She heard the gasping half sob she gave then and looked up to see both Stefan and Damon in the choir loft, looking at her. She shook her head slightly, putting a hand to it, feeling as if she were coming out of a dream.

"Elena… ?"

It was Stefan who spoke, but Elena addressed herself to the other one.

"Damon," she said shakily, "if I ask you something, will you tell me the truth? I know you didn't chase me off Wickery Bridge. I could feel whatever it was, and it was different. But I want to ask you this: was it you who dumped Stefan in the old Francher well a month ago?"

"In a well?" Damon leaned back against the opposite wall, arms crossed over his chest. He looked politely incredulous.

"On Halloween night, the night Mr. Tanner was killed. After you showed yourself for the first time to Stefan in the woods. He told me he left you in the clearing and started to walk to his car but that someone attacked him before he reached it. When he woke up, he was trapped in the well, and he would have died there if Bonnie hadn't led us to him. I always assumed you were the one who attacked him. He always assumed you were the one. But were you?"

"As a matter of fact, no," he said.

Elena let out her breath.

"You can't believe that!" Stefan exploded. "You can't believe anything he says."

"Why should I lie?" Damon returned, clearly enjoying Stefan's loss of control. "I admit freely to killing Tanner. I drank his blood until he shriveled like a prune. And I wouldn't mind doing the same thing to you, brother. But a well? It's hardly my style."

"I believe you," Elena said. Her mind was rushing ahead. She turned to Stefan. "Don't you feel it? There's something else here in Fell's Church, something that may not even be human-may never have been human, I mean. Something that chased me, forced my car off the bridge. Something that made those dogs attack people. Some terrible force that's here, something evil…" Her voice trailed off, and she looked over toward the interior of the church where she had seen Bonnie lying. "Something evil…" she repeated softly. A cold wind seemed to blow inside her, and she huddled into herself, feeling vulnerable and alone.

"If you're looking for evil," Stefan said harshly, "you don't have to look far."

"Don't be any more stupid than you can help," said Damon. "I told you four days ago that someone else had killed Elena. And I said that I was going to find that someone and deal with him. And I am." He uncrossed his arms and straightened up. "You two can continue that private conversation you were having when I interrupted."

"Damon, wait." Elena hadn't been able to help the shudder that tore through her when he said killed. I can't have been killed; I'm still here, she thought wildly, feeling panic swell up in her again. But now she pushed the panic aside to speak to Damon.

"Whatever this thing is, it's strong," she said. "I felt it when it was after me, and it seemed to fill the whole sky. I don't think any of us would stand a chance against it alone."

"So?"

"So…" Elena hadn't had time to gather her thoughts this far. She was running purely on instinct, on intuition. And intuition told her not to let Damon go. "So… I think we three ought to stick together. I think we have a much better chance of finding it and dealing with it together than separately. And maybe we can stop it before it hurts or-or kills-anyone else."

Elena stared at him. Of course it wasn't her choice, if he meant romantically. She was wearing the ring Stefan had given her; she and Stefan belonged together.

But then she remembered something else, just a flash: looking up at Damon's face in the woods and feeling such-such excitement, such affinity with him. As if he understood the flame that burned inside her as nobody else ever could. As if together they could do anything they liked, conquer the world or destroy it; as if they were better than anyone else who had ever lived.

I was out of my mind, irrational, she told herself, but that little flash of memory wouldn't go away.

And then she remembered something else: how Damon had acted later that night, how he'd kept her safe, even been gentle with her.

Stefan was looking at her, and his expression had changed from belligerence to bitter anger and fear. Part of her wanted to reassure him completely, to throw her arms around him and tell him that she was his and always would be and that nothing else mattered. Not the town, not Damon, not anything.

But she wasn't doing it. Because another part of her was saying that the town did matter. And because still another part was just terribly, terribly confused. So confused…

She felt a trembling begin deep inside her, and then she found she couldn't make it stop. Emotional overload, she thought, and put her head in her hands.

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