The Hunters: Destiny Rising
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Stefan, Elena, and five werewolves watched alertly from a hill overlooking the Vitales' darkened safe house. They were waiting for any sign that would indicate Meredith and her team's part of the plan was working and that the Vitale vampires were being driven through their secret tunnels and into the house.
When consulted over the phone, Alaric had suggested that the Vitale vampires would perform the resurrection ritual at midnight on the night of the equinox, so Stefan and Meredith had decided to go on the offense before sunset, when the vampires would be more likely underground and inside, avoiding the daylight. Now late afternoon sunlight reflected off the windows of the safe house, shielding any movement inside from view.
One of Zander's Packmates, Chad, a chemistry major, had been instrumental in making the gas out of Meredith's stash of vervain and the bomblike time-release gadgets that would unleash it into the tunnels. Somewhere beneath their feet, Stefan thought, Meredith and her team - Matt, Zander, and three more werewolves - were placing container after container of the gas, closing off one escape route after another until the vampires would have nowhere to go but the house. Bonnie, protected by another member of Zander's Pack, was at the library, working her spells and charms to keep the vampires from coming up through the tunnel there. Stefan shifted restlessly, wishing he was with the others beneath ground. He could hear distant explosions underfoot, although only someone with a vampire's hearing could have. By his side, Chad stirred, and Stefan amended his thought: a vampire's hearing, or a werewolf's.
Chad, like Zander, was one of the werewolves who could change form without the moon's influence. He was a wolf now, padding around silently past Stefan and Elena, eyes on the house. He whuffed gently through his nose and sat down, his ears twitching back.
"Chad says the vervain gas should have filled the tunnels by now," one of the other werewolves - this one in human form - said, translating the wolf's language. "We ought to see something soon."
Elena moved closer to Stefan and they shared a glance. It was weird seeing the Pack at work: they'd changed from a bunch of scuffling, swearing, goofy boys into a serious, competent team. Each of the wolf-form werewolves was alert and active, their sleek, powerfully muscled bodies clearly attuned to every sound or scent coming toward them. And the human-form werewolves were swift to react to their wolf-brethren's every movement, acting as if there was a constant, silent communication among the Pack.
Maybe that was true. Stefan didn't know, but he thought that being a werewolf was probably a lot less lonely than being a vampire. If you had a Pack.
Chad rose to his feet, the hair along his back bristling, his ears pricked up.
"They're in," one of the human-form werewolves - Stefan thought his name was Daniel - said briefly, and Stefan nodded. He'd heard the trapdoor in the house's basement open, too, and the noise of Meredith, Matt, and the other half of the Pack climbing out of the tunnels. If the vervain bombs had worked, the vampires should have been herded into the house ahead of them.
"Let's go," Stefan said. Zander had ordered the Pack to defer to Stefan on this mission, and they fell in line behind him without argument, the humans shoulder-to-shoulder, the wolves ranging out beside them.
Elena nodded in reply to Stefan's questioning look: Stefan should hurry and leave her to follow. Meredith and the others were walking into a fight, and he should be with them. Stefan turned away from her with what felt like a physical wrench - she'd been in danger so often - but he knew he would hear her if she needed him.
Stefan channeled his Power and began to run. The werewolves kept up with him easily, men and wolves strangely alike with their long, loping strides. Their Power, so incomprehensibly different than his own, was strong and focused. The full blast of it, alive and wild and raw, wrapped around Stefan. It was exhilarating.
They stopped short in the clearing by the Vitale Society's safe house, isolated in the woods near campus. Something was wrong.
Chad cocked his head and gave a soft, low whine. The other wolves picked up on it as well, two anxiously pacing past the front of the house.
"They say the vampires aren't there," Daniel reported.
Stefan had already realized that. Listening hard, he could hear footsteps and muffled swearing as Meredith and her team walked through the small house. But nothing else. More than that, Stefan's Power should have been able to pick up on a group of vampires as large as the Vitale.
"Come on," Stefan said, heading for the front door. He was able to break the lock with a quick flick of his wrist, and entered easily - no human had lived here for a long time. The faint scent of vervain rising from the tunnel entrance in the basement clouded his head for a moment, but he shook it off.
"It's us," he called softly as their friends' feet hesitated upstairs, and one of the wolves curled a long lip as if he was laughing at him. They, of course, had no need to alert the others; their Packmates always knew exactly where they were.
The whole group trooped upstairs to meet the others, crowding the narrow hall of what had probably once been a hunting cabin. Zander, who had turned out to be a stunningly beautiful wolf, pure white with the same sky-blue eyes he had as a human, growled quietly, and his Pack moved closer to him while Stefan made his way to Meredith and Matt.
"The tunnels were empty when we went through," Meredith said grimly. "Either they had other exits we didn't know about, or they weren't there when we set off the gas."
"Do you think they're all out hunting?" Matt asked, his eyes wide and worried.
Stefan shook his head. "Even with their Vitale pledge pins protecting them from the sun, they wouldn't hunt during the day. The sunlight's too tiring for new vampires," he said flatly. "We're too late. They must have already left to begin the resurrection spell. Maybe they're doing it at moonrise instead of midnight." Frustrated, he turned and smashed his fist against the wall, leaving a long crack running through its plaster.
There was the sound of a brief startled movement somewhere on the other side of the now-cracked wall. All the wolves' heads went up at once, and Stefan stiffened with them.
"There's someone here," Daniel translated. "Zander says she's in the room at the end of the hall."
She. Not Ethan, then, but one of his followers.
Stefan led the way toward the door quietly, Zander padding at his side, Meredith just behind him with her stave ready. He was aware of Matt and the rest of the Pack, tense and alert, hanging back to give them room.
With a sudden brutal kick, Stefan burst through the door, raising his arms to fend off an attack.
At the end of the room farthest from the door, a curly-haired girl cowered, her arms up to protect her face, her eyes wide with fright. She looked so vulnerable that Stefan hesitated for a moment, even though he knew immediately what she was.
Meredith shot past him and held her stave to the girl's chest, right above her heart.
"No!" Matt shouted from the doorway, pushing his way through the crowd of werewolves. "Stop, you guys." He crossed the room and stopped in front of the girl. The girl lowered her arms, her face wondering.
"Matt?" she whispered.
"Oh, Chloe," Matt said mournfully. He raised a hand toward her but hesitated before making contact, his hand hanging in midair.
Matt's friend Chloe, Stefan remembered. Chloe, the first girl Matt had seemed to care about since he'd dated Elena, since before Stefan had met him.
Matt's hand dropped back to his side and Stefan wondered if Matt was remembering the vicious murderer his friend Beth had become, if he was already resigning himself to Chloe's fate.
"Where are the other vampires?" Meredith asked coldly, pressing the stave against the other girl's chest.
"They've gone to the woods," Chloe said in a small, terrified voice. "They're going to do the resurrection spell there."
Stefan shook his head. "Ethan can't do the resurrection spell without Damon's blood," he said, hearing the almost pleading tone in his own voice.
Chloe half shrugged, looking back and forth between him and the others. "I don't know," she said helplessly. "He said he had everything he needed."
Ethan had cut Damon during the fight. It was just possible that he had managed to collect some blood, or find enough after the battle, for what he needed. Stefan swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry.
"Why aren't you with them?" Meredith asked.
"I didn't want to go," the girl said, her voice shaking. Her gaze settled on Matt, and she frowned anxiously, as if it was important that Matt understand her. "I feel like . . . with part of me I feel like Ethan is the center of the universe, but with my mind, I know how terrible he is. I'm trying to fight it. I don't want to hurt anyone." Her eyes were full of tears, and Matt clenched his jaw, looking miserable and uncertain.
"You're trying to fight off the sire bond," Stefan said gently. "It's hard, but it can be done. And your compulsion toward Ethan will wear off before long. You can reject this life if you really want to."
"I want to," Chloe said desperately. "Please. Can you help me?"
Stefan began to speak, but Matt broke in. "Stop," he said again. "Stefan, Beth said the same thing - that she didn't want to hurt anyone, that she needed help. But she was lying."
Zander, swift and silent, padded forward. Approaching Chloe slowly, he sniffed at her hands. He rose up on his back legs, placing his front paws on Chloe's shoulders. She cringed, but he nosed her face unconcernedly and, for a long moment, stared directly into her eyes.
"Is she telling us the truth?" Meredith asked.
The huge white wolf dropped back to all fours and turned away, glancing at the human-formed members of his Pack.
"He says she's being honest," Daniel reported, "but that she's weak. Fighting her nature is almost too much for her."
Chloe sobbed, a rough, hopeless sound.
Meredith, still poised with her stave for the kill, raised a questioning eyebrow at Stefan, irresolute. Matt turned to him, too, his eyes shining with anxious hope. They were all looking to him, he realized, to make the decision.
"We'll help you," he said slowly, "but first you need to help us."
Matt let out a breath of relief and closed the distance between him and Chloe. She leaned against him gratefully but nodded at Stefan, tears running down her face. "If you want to stop Ethan," she said, "we'll have to hurry."