The Hunters: Destiny Rising
Chapter 16

 L.J. Smith

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"Okay," Alaric said, panting a little. "According to these directions, the white ash tree should be on the bank of a stream, only about half a mile farther from here."
"Is it all still uphill?" Bonnie moaned, pushing sweaty red ringlets out of her eyes. They'd spent the previous night in a dingy motel and started out on their trek early that morning. By now, it felt like they'd been on this narrow mountain trail forever. It had been fun at first; it was a beautiful sunny day and a bright blue jay had flown from tree to tree before them for a while, which seemed like a good omen. But after several hours she was hot and thirsty and they still had to keep going.
"Come on, Bonnie," Meredith said. "Not far now." Meredith was striding cheerfully along at the front of the group, looking as cool and comfortable as if she was taking a little stroll down one of the paths on campus. Bonnie scowled at her back: sometimes Meredith being in such good shape was utterly infuriating.
Defiantly, Bonnie stopped for a minute and drank some water from her canteen as the others waited for her.
"So, once we find this magic white ash tree, what's the plan?" Zander asked, shifting restlessly from one foot to the other as he waited.
Shay wouldn't have had to stop to rest, Bonnie thought sourly. Then Zander nudged her companionably with his elbow as he took out his own canteen, and she felt a little better.
"Well, we can't chop down the tree," Alaric said seriously. "It's got a lot of spiritual significance and gives protection to this area as well as being the only weapon that might be effective against Klaus. But it's a pretty big tree, reportedly, so we should be able to take several branches without doing too much damage."
"I brought an axe," Meredith said enthusiastically as they started walking again. "We'll make as many stakes as we can, and distribute them to everyone." She glanced at Zander. "Everyone who's not going to be a wolf when we fight Klaus, anyway."
"Hard to hold a stake with paws," Zander agreed.
"We should gather leaves, too," Bonnie said. "I've been looking through spell books, and I think we could use the ash leaves to make potions and tinctures that might help us get some protection from Klaus. Like the effect vervain has on a regular vampire's Powers."
"Good thinking," Zander said, throwing an arm around her shoulders. Bonnie leaned against him, letting him take some of her weight. Her feet hurt.
"We're going to need all the help we can get," Meredith said, and she and Bonnie exchanged a glance. Of the four of them on this mountainside, they were the only ones who had fought Klaus the first time, and the only ones who knew how much trouble they were really in.
"I wish Damon were working with us," Bonnie said fretfully. "He'd give us much better odds in a fight." She had always felt a special bond with Damon, ever since the days when she'd had a crazy, embarrassing crush on him. When they had traveled through the Dark Dimension together, they had looked out for each other. And Damon had sacrificed himself for her, pushing her out of the way and taking the fatal blow from the tree on that Nether World moon. The locks of hair Bonnie and Elena had left with his body had helped to remind Damon who he was when he was resurrected. It ached that he had turned his back on her now.
Meredith frowned. "I've tried to talk to Elena about Damon, but she won't tell me what's going on with him. And Stefan just says Damon needs time and that he'll come around."
"Damon would do anything for Elena, wouldn't he? If she just asked him," Bonnie said, biting her lip. Damon had been obsessed with Elena for so long; it was weird and disturbing to have Elena in danger and Damon nowhere to be found.
Meredith just shook her head. "I don't know," she said. "I've never understood him."
"Almost there," Alaric said encouragingly. "It should be right up ahead." Bonnie could hear the rushing of a stream.
Zander stopped. "Do you smell that?" he said, sniffing the air. "Something's burning."
Just around the next bend in the path, a long finger of black smoke spread across the sky. Bonnie and Meredith exchanged alarmed glances and broke into a jog, Bonnie forgetting all about her aching feet. Alaric and Zander sped up, too, and as they rounded the corner, they were all running.
Alaric stopped first, his face devastated. "That's it," he said. "That's the white ash tree."
It was engulfed in roaring flames and already charred black. As they watched, a branch fell heavily to the ground, shooting up sparks as it landed, and crumbled into soot. Alaric stripped off his shirt, soaking it with his water bottle as he ran forward, toward the flames.
Bonnie rushed after him. She had the impression of two figures ducking away down the path and Zander and Meredith running after them, but she couldn't focus on that now: she had to try to save the tree. As she got nearer, the heat was incredible, almost like a wall forcing her away. Gritting her teeth, she stamped at the small flames springing up in the grass around the burning tree. Smoke stung her eyes and seeped into her mouth, so that she coughed and wheezed.
Her arm burned painfully and she brushed away the hot ash that had fallen on her. Closer to the trunk, Alaric beat at the flames with his wet shirt and then stumbled backward, choking, his face streaked black. They weren't having any effect on the fire at all.
Bonnie grabbed his arm and pulled him farther back, her heart dropping. "It's too late," she said.
When she turned around, she saw Zander and Meredith shepherding two people back up the path toward them. Zander had a firm grip on a beefy dark-haired guy as Meredith held her stave across the throat of a girl. She looked familiar, Bonnie thought dazedly. After a moment, the sense of familiarity sharpened into certainty, and then Bonnie was flooded with outrage.
The tall girl with the long auburn hair had once been as close to her as Meredith and Elena were: Caroline. They'd celebrated each other's birthdays, gotten dressed for high school dances together, spent the night at each other's houses.
But then Caroline had changed. She'd betrayed them all, and the last time Bonnie had seen her, Caroline had been pregnant with werewolf twins and infected by the kitsune demons, vicious and insane.
Bonnie started forward, a hot ball of anger in her stomach. How dare Caroline turn up now, after all that had happened, and still be working against them?
Then the beefy guy yanked away from Zander, who wrenched him back onto the path. Bonnie saw his face for the first time. She stopped, the hot anger turning to ice. She could remember those thick features twisting grotesquely into a snarling, feral snout. He'd been a killer. He'd leered at her, called her names, and wanted to eat her.
Tyler Smallwood. The werewolf who had killed Sue Carson and run away from Fell's Church, leaving Caroline pregnant. The werewolf who had helped Klaus.
"Stop! Meredith, stop," Caroline begged. Meredith could see one side of Caroline's face from where she held her, and tears were running down it, cutting clean tracks through the soot from the fire.
What was left of the trunk of the tree crashed to the ground, sending up more sparks and thick black smoke, and Meredith felt Caroline start at the sound. Slowly, Meredith released her grip on Caroline, pulling the stave away from her throat so she could look Caroline in the eye. Caroline took a deep, sobbing breath and turned to face Meredith fully. Her cat-shaped green eyes were wide with terror.
Meredith glared at her. "How could you help him, Caroline?" she asked fiercely. "Don't you remember how Klaus kidnapped you?"
Caroline shook her head. "You're crazy," she said, and Meredith was amazed that bedraggled, tearful Caroline could still sound so disdainful. "I'm not helping anyone."
"So you just decided to burn down a tree today?" Meredith asked, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
"I . . . guess," Caroline said, frowning. She crossed her arms defensively across her chest. "I think it was an accident."
There was something wrong here, Meredith realized. Caroline didn't look guilty or defiant. Freaked out, absolutely, but it seemed like she was being honest. Meredith sighed. It would be nice to get her hands on someone responsible for the destruction of their only weapon, but she was beginning to suspect Caroline wasn't that person.
Beside them, Zander growled, tussling with Tyler.
"Let him go, Zander," Meredith said. "I need you to tell me if Caroline's telling the truth."
Zander snarled again, kneeing Tyler in the chest and knocking him onto the ground. Meredith stared at him. She'd never seen the easygoing Zander like this: his white teeth bared in fury. He even looked bigger, and somehow more feral, his hair disordered as if it was trying to stand on end.
Zander had once told her, Meredith remembered, that those who had been turned into werewolves didn't smell right to him, not like Original werewolves.
From behind her, closer to the fire, Bonnie spoke, her voice rough from the smoke. "Zander," she said. "Zander, let him go."
Zander heard Bonnie as he hadn't seemed to hear Meredith, reluctantly releasing Tyler and standing up. He was tense, though, poised to attack again as Tyler slowly climbed to his feet, brushing dirt from himself. They watched each other carefully.
"All right," Zander said. He backed away from Tyler slowly, his lips still pulled back in a snarl, and looked at Caroline. Zander got close to her, close enough to sniff at her neck. "Tell me what you're doing here," he said.
Caroline pulled away indignantly, but Meredith took her arm and forced her back toward Zander. "Why are you here, Caroline?" she asked sternly.
The auburn-haired girl glared at them. "I don't have to explain myself to you," she said. "We're just camping. The fire was an accident."
"So Klaus didn't send you here?" Bonnie asked skeptically. "You've never been the camping type, Caroline."
"This doesn't have anything to do with Klaus," Caroline said steadily.
"What about you, Tyler?" Meredith asked. "Did your old master send you here?"
Tyler shook his head hurriedly. "I don't want anything to do with that guy," he said.
"Well, Zander?" Meredith asked quietly.
"They're telling the truth, as far as they know it," Zander said. "But there's something wrong. They smell . . . off."
"Klaus compelled them," Meredith said flatly. "They only know what Klaus told them was true. And Klaus must have told them to go camping here. We can't hold them responsible for burning down the tree. It's not their fault."
"That's ridiculous," Caroline said. "No one compelled us to do anything." But her voice sounded nervous and unsure, and Tyler wrapped his arm around her protectively.
"It's not a big deal," Tyler assured her. "Even if we'd meant to burn down that tree, it's just a tree. Why would Klaus even care?"
Meredith let her stave rest loosely against her leg. She wasn't going to fight anyone here. The Tyler she'd known back in the worst days in Fell's Church might have deserved killing, but judging by the way he was trying to shield Caroline, that wasn't who he was now. "It was a pretty important tree," she said quietly.
"I'm sorry," Caroline said. Caroline had never been good at apologies, Meredith remembered. "You've got no reason to believe me, to believe us, but I wouldn't have done anything to hurt you, not even kill a tree. If the memories I have of Fell's Church are real, we used to be friends. Real friends," she said, looking from Meredith to Bonnie, "and I ruined it all."
"Yeah, you did," Bonnie said bluntly. "But it's in the past now." Caroline gave her a crooked half smile, and, after a moment, Bonnie smiled back awkwardly.
"What do you remember? About Fell's Church?" Meredith asked them.
Tyler visibly swallowed and pulled Caroline closer to him. "The monsters and everything, that's the truth?" he asked, his voice shaking.
Bonnie nodded. Meredith knew she couldn't even bear to put all that history into words.
A drop of blood rolled down Tyler's forehead from a scrape Zander must have inflicted, and he wiped it away with the hand that wasn't holding on to Caroline. "One day I woke up, and I remembered normal life, but I also remembered this crazy story where I was a werewolf and did, uh . . ." His cheeks flushed. "Bad things."
"The bad things happened, but then everything changed," Meredith told him. "Most people don't remember, but everything you think you know is true." It would be too complicated to explain to them how Elena had saved Fell's Church by blackmailing the Guardians into changing the events of the last year. For almost everyone, their senior year had been completely normal: no vampires, no werewolves, no kitsune. But a handful of people, all with supernatural Powers or Influences of one kind or another, could remember both timelines.
"Do you remember Klaus?" Alaric asked. "Did you see him at all after you left Fell's Church? Maybe in your dreams?"
Meredith glanced at him approvingly. Klaus could dream-travel; they knew that. Maybe Tyler or Caroline would have some residual memory that could help them, even if they couldn't remember being Influenced.
But Tyler shook his head. "I haven't seen him since Fell's Church," he said.
"Not since you kidnapped Caroline to help bring Stefan to him, you mean?" Bonnie said tartly. "How did you two end up together again, anyway?"
Tyler was blushing miserably and Caroline took his hand, folding his meaty fingers in her long, elegant ones. "I was still expecting Tyler's babies. Both sets of memories were sure about that. So when we found each other we decided that the best thing we could do was try to raise our family." She shrugged. "All that stuff - Klaus and everything - it just seems like a dream now. We've been staying with my grandmother, and she's been helping to take care of the twins." And that - picking the version of events that was most convenient for her and sticking to it - was just like Caroline, Meredith realized. She'd never had any imagination.
"You know, Tyler," Bonnie said, "you should get in touch with your cousin Caleb. He was looking for you in Fell's Church, and he seemed really worried."
That was one way of putting it, Meredith supposed. Caleb had stalked them, put glamours on them, and cast spells to sow discord between Elena and the others, all because he suspected them of being behind Tyler's disappearance and his own dual memories.
Caroline put her hand on Tyler's shoulder, and Meredith noticed something. "You cut your nails off," she said. Caroline had always had long, perfectly polished nails, ever since they had stopped making mud pies and started talking about boys.
"Oh," Caroline said, glancing at her hands. "Yeah, I had to cut them short so they wouldn't scratch the twins. They like to suck on my fingers." She added hesitantly, "Do you want to see pictures?"
Bonnie nodded curiously, and Meredith joined her to look at Caroline's cell-phone pictures of two tiny babies. "Brianna and Luke," she told them. "See how blue their eyes are?"
That was when Meredith decided she might as well forgive Caroline and Tyler. If Caroline had changed enough that she cared more for her babies than her looks, and Tyler wasn't trying to throw his weight around, they were probably no threat. True, they had ruined everything by destroying the white ash, but they hadn't done it maliciously.
They exchanged a few more words, and then parted ways. Caroline and Tyler headed back down the trail, Caroline's long hair swinging against her tanned shoulders. It was strange, Meredith thought as she watched them. Caroline had been such a close friend, and then such a despised enemy, and now she felt nothing for her.
"That was the only lead I'd found in any of the references about defeating Klaus," Alaric said mournfully, looking at the heap of ash and scorched pieces of the blessed ash tree.
"Could we gather up the ashes and use them for something?" Bonnie asked hopefully. "Maybe make a salve and put it on a regular stake?"
Alaric shook his head. "It wouldn't work," he told her. "Everything I've read makes it clear that it's got to be undamaged wood."
"We'll find something else," Meredith said, gritting her teeth. "There has to be something he's susceptible to. But at least one good thing that came out of this."
"What?" Bonnie asked. "I hope you're not talking about Caroline, because a few pictures aren't going to erase everything that she's done. And those babies are clearly going to look more like Tyler than like her."
"Well," Meredith pointed out, "remember how we told you that when you were having your vision in our room, you said Klaus was calling an old friend to help him?" She waved a hand toward the retreating figures down the path. "If it was Tyler, he's not a threat after all. We're not facing a second enemy."
"Yeah," Bonnie said thoughtfully, and wrapped her arms around herself. "If the vision was talking about Tyler."