The Hunters: Destiny Rising
Chapter 19

 L.J. Smith

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Elena had been no stranger to battle in the past year. Her younger self would never have dreamed about weapons practice and defensive maneuvers. That Elena had focused on trips to France and beautiful dresses. But now, the fight against evil was what gave Elena a thrill, as much as she hated to admit it. Now, she walked united with her friends and allies, all looking to her for guidance.
Usually they were all united and looking to her for guidance, anyway. Since she and Stefan had defended Damon, Meredith had been distant. The Pack had been eyeing them so suspiciously that Elena could almost see the hair bristling on their heads as they shied away from her. Elena had turned the other day to find Shay staring at her menacingly. Even Bonnie had seemed to be avoiding her for the last few days. Only Andres, although she'd told him what had happened, remained unchanged in his attitude toward Elena. They'd worked together the previous day, trying to unlock more of Elena's Powers, but hadn't been successful yet.
The fact that her other friends were suddenly suspicious of her hurt. The night after they found Damon feeding, Elena had been with Stefan in his room. "We're doing the right thing, aren't we?" she had asked him, hot tears stinging the corners of her eyes. "Even though our friends are scared, we can't abandon Damon."
Stefan had dragged a heavy, comforting hand across her back. "Everything will be okay," he said, but Elena could hear the doubt and pain in his voice, mirroring her own.
Elena had to beg Meredith to follow her again as she tried to locate Klaus. But finding Klaus before he attacked was the best plan, Elena was sure, and this time they had all the fighters they could bring together. Klaus was so powerful; maybe the element of surprise would give them some advantage. Although a small comfort, they hoped that the daylight might also work in their favor.
The sunlight certainly seemed to be bothering Chloe, Elena thought. The curly-haired girl's dimples were nowhere in sight as she clung close to Matt's side, her head bowed. She looked strained and miserable, and Matt, although standing straight and alert as a soldier, seemed weary, his features sharper and paler than they'd been just a couple of weeks before.
Zander and his Pack of Original werewolves, on the other hand, were hyped up and practically bouncing off the walls. As Elena watched, Zander grabbed tall, shaggy Marcus in an armlock and forced him to his knees, both of them laughing and swearing as Marcus kicked at him. Even Shay, who usually seemed a little removed from the rest of the Pack, was getting in on the act, gleefully screeching from her perch on Jared's shoulders as he spun around and around, trying to dislodge her. Tonight would be a full moon, and the werewolves, sensing the change coming, were high on adrenaline.
Stefan was moving among their friends, calmly offering instructions and words of encouragement. The werewolves quieted to listen to him, their expressions alert. Bonnie and Alaric, looking through a book of spells Alaric had located, turned to show Stefan what they had found, obviously asking his advice. They might be angry at him for protecting Damon, Elena realized with a surge of pride, but when push came to shove, they all trusted Stefan.
Meredith remained silent as she prepared for the battle. She sharpened her knives and polished her stave with her face tight and closed off, refusing to look at Stefan or Elena. Impulsively, Elena started toward her hunter friend. She didn't know what she could say, but Meredith understood loyalty: she'd be able to forgive Elena even if she didn't agree with her. But before she made it more than a few steps, Elena felt a hand on her arm. She turned and there was Andres, smiling tentatively at her.
"You came," she said, simple pleasure bubbling up inside her.
"You called me," he answered. "We have to stick together against the evil things of this world, yes?"
"Absolutely," Stefan said as he joined them. Elena introduced Stefan and Andres, watching as Andres frowned and pulled back a little, clearly realizing for the first time that the Stefan she'd told him about was a vampire. But then he shook Stefan's hand enthusiastically, and Elena relaxed. She'd thought Andres would see through to the good person Stefan was, vampire or not, but she hadn't been entirely sure. The Guardians of the Celestial Court had not, after all, not really.
After greeting Andres, Stefan turned back to Elena. "I think we're all good to go," he told her. "Are you ready?"
"Okay," Elena said. Closing her eyes, she breathed deeply, feeling Andres feed her his Power, opening herself up to let it stream into her.
"Think of protection," Andres told her, his voice barely more than a whisper. "Think of defending those you love against Klaus." Elena concentrated, and as before, it was like blossoms unfolding within her, one by one.
She felt the familiar ominous gray and blue of Damon's aura off across campus, and pushed it away, concentrated harder. Klaus. Klaus. There was something else, greasy and dark, like a pall of foul smoke. Worse than Damon's aura, much worse.
Her eyes snapped open. "This way," she said.
Even to Meredith, who was easily the best human hiker in the group, it felt like they'd been trekking for hours. They were deep into the woods now, and the sun had passed overhead and was hanging above the horizon; they were going to lose the advantage daylight would have given them. But Elena still walked on, as straight and certain as if she was following a clearly laid-out road through the trees.
Meredith pulled the hair off her neck into a ponytail, trying to cool off, and continued after Elena, pushing away the memory of the last time she'd let Elena lead them, of Damon's vicious feeding. A good warrior focused on the battle ahead of her, not conflicts within her own army.
The ground was growing swampy, their steps leaving little puddles of water seeping through the mud behind them, when Elena suddenly halted and gestured the others to come closer to her.
"We're almost there," she said. "Just through that next stand of trees."
"Are you sure it's Klaus?" Meredith asked, and Elena shook her head.
"It's a big group of vampires, anyway," she said. "I can sense that. Who else could it be?"
Stefan nodded. "I feel them, too."
Now that everyone knew where they were going, Elena dropped back to walk with Alaric and Bonnie, who began muttering spells of protection and concealment, their hands extended. Andres, breathing deeply and seeming to draw Power into himself, joined them. It was time for the fighters to take the lead.
Stefan and Meredith moved side by side, Meredith balancing her stave. Stefan was poised on the balls of his feet. His mouth was slightly ajar, and Meredith could see that his sharp canine teeth had descended in anticipation of their attack. She felt a slight, unexpected pang: not long ago, Damon had fought beside her and he had been a worthy comrade, quick and brave and relentless. Stefan was all of that; but he didn't take the same pleasure in a fight that Damon did. If only Damon could be trusted.
Zander, Shay, and the four other Pack werewolves who could shift without the full moon at its peak had changed, and they flanked Stefan and Meredith. Moving quietly, they paced ahead with their tails held out straight behind them and their ears pricked forward, lips pulling back in silent snarls. Zander and Shay, leading the Pack on each side, moved in tandem, each one's step perfectly in time with the other's. The five remaining werewolves, who would not be able to change until the moon rose, walked behind them, as alert and focused as their lupine family. Matt and Chloe came next, halfway between the warriors and the others.
They shouldered their way through the last grove of trees, placing their feet carefully to avoid making noise. Bonnie and Alaric mouthed quiet spells, muffling their approach.
But when they came at last into the open, they found Klaus, dressed now in the shabby raincoat Meredith remembered with a stab of terror from their encounters in Fell's Church, his face alight with terrifying good humor, laughing. There was a huge group of vampires there, easily outnumbering their own forces, and every eye was already fixed upon them.
In that frozen moment, Meredith could see all the vampires in sharp definition. Her brain snagged on a face and stopped in confusion. Elena. But Elena was behind her, and Meredith had never seen Elena's face hold so much malice. Then she realized: the paler gold of the hair, the lighter blue of the eyes, the slightly mad glee in the pretty face. This wasn't Elena. It was Katherine, somehow reborn.
And then, just behind Katherine, Meredith saw another face she knew, and her heart froze. It couldn't be Cristian. Her brother was human now; the Guardians made sure of that. Didn't they?
But there was Cristian, his face familiar only from the pictures at home, and he smiled at her intimately across the clearing, his vampire canines visible. For a fraction of second, Meredith's hands loosened on her stave and she swayed on her feet. But then she tightened her grip again and took a fighting stance. She'd thought her family was safe, that Cristian had been returned to them. Everything was crumbling again at this very moment, but she still had a battle to fight.