The Hunters: Destiny Rising
Chapter 27

 L.J. Smith

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The late afternoon sky was deep blue and golden with sunlight, and Stefan was grateful for the shade of the trees. What kind of vampire provokes a confrontation in the daylight? he could imagine Damon asking wryly before answering the question himself: a very stupid one, Stefan.
The sun was making him slightly weary like it always did, his consciousness of its light a constant low, dull throbbing like a headache, despite the ring that protected him. Klaus was older than Stefan, and stronger. The sun wouldn't bother him as much.
But Stefan didn't want to face Klaus in the darkness. The hair on the back of his neck prickled uneasily at the very idea: after so long as a vampire, now Stefan himself was afraid of a monster in the dark.
He stopped when he reached the clearing in the woods where they'd fought Klaus's family. Blood was the best way to attract any vampire's attention. Stefan let his canines lengthen, then, wincing, bit sharply into his own wrist.
"Klaus!" he shouted, turning in a semicircle, his arm extended so that the blood spattered the ground around him. "Klaus!"
Stefan stopped and listened to the noises of the woods: the light crackle of an animal moving through the undergrowth, the creak of tree branches in the wind. A long way away, nearer to campus, he could hear a couple hiking through the woods, laughing. No sign of Klaus. Taking a deep breath, Stefan slumped back against a tree trunk, cradling his bleeding arm protectively to his chest. He thought of Elena's warmth, of her gentle kiss. He had to save her.
From behind him came a deep, amused voice: "Hello, Salvatore."
Stefan spun around, stumbling in alarm. How had he not heard the older vampire arrive?
Klaus's threadbare raincoat was dirty, but he wore it as if it were a royal robe. Every time he saw Klaus, Stefan was struck by how tall he was, how clear and sharp his eyes were. Klaus smiled and closed the distance between them again, standing too close. He smelled nauseatingly of blood and smoke and something subtly rotting.
"You called me, Salvatore?" Klaus asked him. He laid a hand on Stefan's shoulder companionably.
"I wanted to talk," Stefan said, keeping himself from flinching under Klaus's hand. "I have an offer for you."
"Let me guess." Klaus's smile widened. "You think we should settle our differences like gentlemen?" He sounded delighted. His fingers tightened on Stefan's shoulder like a vise, and Stefan's knees buckled. Klaus was so strong, even stronger than Stefan had remembered. "While I appreciate the blood you and your brother gave to bring me back, I hold all the cards in this game, Salvatore. I don't need to play by your rules."
"Not all the cards. You can't kill Elena," Stefan blurted, and Klaus cocked his head to one side, considering.
"Are you going to tell me how?" he asked. "Tired of your lady fair already? I did wonder why she's still human after all this time. You're leaving an out from eternal love, aren't you? Clever."
"I mean, she can't be killed," Stefan said doggedly. He lifted his head proudly, trying to project confidence. Klaus had to believe him. "Kill me instead. I'm the one you hate most."
Klaus laughed, his sharp canines showing. "Oh, not clever after all," he said. "Noble and dreary instead. So Elena's the one with the out, then. She'd rather grow old and die than live forever in your arms? Your great romance must not be as strong as you thought."
"I was the one you blamed for Katherine's death," Stefan went on steadily. "I tried to kill you back in Fell's Church. You can do anything you want with me: kill me, have me join your army of followers. I won't fight you. Just leave Elena alone. You won't be able to kill her, so just let her go."
Klaus chuckled again. Suddenly, he yanked Stefan closely against him and sniffed deeply, pressing his nose against the other vampire's throat. His own scent was overwhelming, the sweet, rotting stench turning Stefan's stomach. Just as quickly, Klaus shoved Stefan away again. "You stink of lies and fear," he said. "Elena can be killed, and I'll be the one to do it. You know it, and that's why you're afraid."
Stefan made himself look Klaus squarely in the eyes. "No. She's untouchable," he stated as firmly as he could. "Kill me instead."
Klaus struck him almost languidly with one hand and Stefan felt himself flying through the air. With a loud crack, he slammed into a tree and slid to the ground, gasping for breath.
"Oh, Salvatore," Klaus said chidingly, towering above Stefan. "I do hate you. But I don't want to kill you, not anymore."
From where he lay on the ground, Stefan managed to raise his head and grunt inquiringly. What, then?
"Better to kill Elena and let you live, I think," the older vampire said, his white teeth gleaming in the sunlight. "I'll kill her right in front of you, and make sure the image of her death haunts you forever, anywhere you go." His smile widened. "That'll be your fate."
Klaus turned deliberately and sauntered out of the clearing, purposely not using his vampiric speed. Just before passing out of Stefan's sight, he looked back and gave a little two-fingered salute. "I'll be seeing you soon," he said. "You and your lady love."
Stefan let his head flop back down onto the forest floor. His spine was still cracked from where Klaus had thrown him into the tree. He had failed. Klaus was convinced that there was some way to kill Elena, and he wasn't going to give up until he found it.
As soon as he could, Stefan would return to Elena and the others, give them their best chance of fighting Klaus. But a cold, dark misery was blossoming inside him and, just for the moment, Stefan let himself sink into that darkness.