Last night, I had a terrifying dream.
Everything was as it had been just a few short hours before. I was back in the Vitale Society's underground chamber, and Ethan was holding me captive, his knife cold and steady at my throat. Stefan and Damon watched us, their faces wary, bodies tensed, waiting for the moment when one of them would be able to dash in and save me. But I knew they would be too late. I knew that, despite their supernatural speed, Ethan would cut my throat and I would die.
There was so much pain in Stefan's eyes. It broke my heart to know how much my death would hurt him. I hated the idea of dying without Stefan knowing that I had chosen him, only him - that all my indecision was behind us.
Ethan pulled me even closer, his arm as tight and unyielding as a band of steel across my chest. I felt the cold edge of the knife bite into my flesh.
Then without warning Ethan fell, and Meredith was standing there, her hair streaming behind her, her face as wild and determined as a vengeful goddess's, her stave still raised from the killing blow she'd put through his heart.
It should have been a moment of joy and relief. In real life, it was: the moment when I knew I was going to live, when I was about to find myself safe in Stefan's arms.
But in the dream, Meredith's face was blotted out by a flash of pure white light. I felt myself growing colder and colder, my body freezing, my emotions muffled into a chilly calm. My humanity was slipping away, and something hard and inflexible and . . . other . . . was taking its place.
In the heat of the battle, I had let myself forget what James had told me: that my parents had promised me to the Guardians, that I was fated to become one of them. And now they had come to claim me.
I woke up terrified.
Elena Gilbert paused and lifted the pen from the page of her journal, reluctant to write any more. Putting what she was most afraid of into words would make it feel more real.
She glanced around her dorm room, her new home. Bonnie and Meredith had come and gone while Elena slept. Bonnie's covers were flung back, and her laptop was gone from her desk. Meredith's side of the room, usually painstakingly organized, showed evidence of how exhausted Meredith must have been: the bloodstained clothes she had worn to fight Ethan and his vampire followers had been left on the floor. Her weapons were strewn across the bed, mostly shoved to one side, as if the young vampire hunter had curled up among them to sleep.
Elena sighed. Maybe Meredith would understand how Elena felt. She knew what it was like to have a destiny decided for you, to discover that your own hopes and dreams meant nothing in the end.
But Meredith had embraced her fate. There was nothing more important to her now, or that she loved more, than being a hunter of monsters and keeping the innocent safe.
Elena didn't think she could find the same kind of joy in her new destiny.
I don't want to be a Guardian, she wrote miserably. The Guardians killed my parents. I don't think I can ever get past that. If it wasn't for them, my selfless parents would still be alive and I wouldn't be constantly worrying about the lives of the people I love. The Guardians only believe in one thing: Order. Not Justice. Not Love.
I never want to be like that. I never want to be one of them.
But do I have a choice? James made it sound like becoming a Guardian was just something that would happen to me - something I wouldn't be able to avoid. Powers would suddenly manifest themselves, and I would change, ready for whatever horrible thing comes next.
Elena scrubbed at her face with the back of her hand. Even after her long sleep, her eyes felt gritty and strained.
I haven't told anyone yet, she wrote. Meredith and Damon knew I was upset after I saw James, but they don't know what he told me. So much happened last night that I never got a chance to tell them.
I need to talk to Stefan about this. I know that when I do, everything will start to feel . . . better.
But I'm scared to tell him.
After Stefan and I broke up, Damon made me see the choice I needed to make. One path led to the daylight with the possibility of being a normal girl with an almost-normal, almost-human life with Stefan. The second into the night, embracing Power, adventure, and all the exhilaration the darkness can hold, with Damon.
I chose the light, chose Stefan. But if I'm fated to become a Guardian, is the path of darkness and Power unavoidable? Will I become someone who can do the unthinkable - take the lives of people as loving and pure as my parents? What kind of normal girl could I be, as a Guardian?
Elena was jolted from her thoughts by the sound of a key in the door. She closed the velvet-covered journal and shoved it quickly under her mattress.
"Hi," she said as Meredith came into the room.
"Hi yourself," Meredith said, grinning at her. Her dark-haired friend couldn't have gotten more than a few hours of sleep - she'd been out hunting vampires with Stefan and Damon after Elena had gone to bed, and she'd left before Elena had woken up - but she looked refreshed and cheerful, her gray eyes bright and her olive-skinned cheeks slightly flushed.
Purposefully tucking her own anxiety away, Elena smiled at her.
"Been saving the world all day, superhero?" Elena asked, teasing her just a little.
Meredith raised one delicate eyebrow. "As a matter of fact," she said, "I just came from the reading room at the library. Don't you have any papers due?"
Elena felt her own eyes widen. With all that had been happening, she hadn't really been thinking about her classes. She'd enjoyed her college courses so far, and she'd been an honor roll student in high school, but lately different parts of her life had taken over. Did she have something due?
What does it matter, though? The thought was heavy and dispiriting. If I have to be a Guardian, college won't make any difference.
"Hey," Meredith said, clearly misinterpreting Elena's sudden expression of dismay. Meredith reached forward and touched her shoulder with cool, strong fingers. "Don't worry about it. You'll get on top of everything."
Elena swallowed and nodded. "Absolutely," she said, forcing a smile.
"I did a little world-saving last night with Damon and Stefan, though," Meredith said, almost shyly. "We killed four vampires in the woods at the edge of campus." She lifted her vampire-slayer's stave carefully from her bed and wrapped her hand around its smooth center. "It feels really good," she said. "Doing what I've trained for. What I was born for."
Elena winced a little at this: What was I born for? But there was something she needed to say to Meredith that she hadn't said last night. "You saved me, too," Elena said simply. "Thank you."
Meredith's eyes warmed. "Anytime," she said lightly. "We need you around - you know that." She flipped open the narrow black case for her stave and put it inside. "I'm going to meet Stefan and Matt back at the library and see if we can get the bodies out of the Vitales' secret room. Bonnie said her concealment spell wouldn't last very long, and now that it's dark we should dispose of them."
Elena felt a twinge of anxiety in her chest. "What if the other vampires have come back?" she asked. "Matt told us he thought there was more than one entrance."
Meredith shrugged. "That's why I'm taking the stave," she said. "There aren't many of Ethan's vampires left, and they're mostly pretty new. Stefan and I can handle them."
"Damon's not coming with you guys?" Elena asked, climbing off the bed.
"I thought you and Stefan were back together," Meredith said. She fixed Elena with a quizzical gaze.
"We are," Elena said, and felt her face getting hot. "At least I think so. I'm trying not to . . . do anything to mess that up now. Damon and I are friends. I hope. I just thought you said Damon was with you earlier, hunting vampires."
Meredith's shoulders relaxed. "Yeah, he was with us," she said ruefully. "He enjoyed the fighting, but he got quieter as the night went on. He seemed a little . . ." She hesitated. "I don't know, tired, maybe." Meredith shrugged and her voice lightened. "You know Damon. He's only going to be useful on his own terms."
Reaching for her jacket, Elena said, "I'm coming with you." She wanted to see Stefan, to see him without Damon. If she was going to try to take that day-lit path with Stefan - Guardian or not - then she needed to bring her secrets out into the light, and face Stefan with nothing to hide.
When Elena and Meredith got to the library, Stefan and Matt were already there, waiting in the nearly bare room with the words RESEARCH OFFICE stenciled on its door. Stefan met Elena's eyes with a small, serious smile, and she suddenly felt shy. She'd put him through a lot the last few weeks, and they'd been apart so much lately that it almost felt as if they were starting over.
Next to him, Matt looked terrible. Drawn and pale, his face was set grimly and he clutched a large flashlight in one hand. His eyes were bleak and haunted. While destroying the Vitale vampires had been a victory for the others, those vampires had been Matt's friends. He had admired Ethan, thinking he was human. Elena slipped up beside him and squeezed his arm, trying to silently reassure him. His arm tensed in hers, but he shifted slightly closer to her.
"Down we go, then," Meredith said briskly. She and Stefan rolled back the small rug in the center of the room to reveal the trapdoor beneath, which was still covered with scattered herbs from the locking and protection spells Bonnie had hastily cast the night before. They were able to lift the door easily, though. Apparently, the spell had worn off.
As the four of them trooped down the stairs, Elena looked around curiously. The night before, they'd been in such a panic to save Stefan that she hadn't really observed much of their surroundings. The first flight of stairs was quite plain, wooden and a little rickety, and led to a floor filled with rows and rows of bookcases.
"Library stacks," Meredith muttered. "Camouflage."
The second flight was similar, but when Elena stepped on the first stair, it didn't shake slightly under her feet the way the previous flight had. The banister was smoother beneath her hand, and when they reached the landing, a long empty hallway stretched into darkness in both directions. It was colder here, and as they hesitated for a moment on the landing, Elena shivered. Impulsively, she tucked her hand into Stefan's as they started down the third flight. He didn't look at her, his eyes focused on the stairs ahead of them, but after a moment his fingers tightened around hers reassuringly. Tension flowed out of Elena's body at his touch. Everything's going to be all right, she thought.
The third flight of stairs was solid and made of some heavy, polished dark wood that gleamed beneath the dim lights. The banister was twisted with carvings. Elena could see the head of a snake, the elongated body of a swiftly running fox, and other shapes that were harder to make out in passing.
When they reached the bottom of the last flight, they faced the elaborately carved double doors that led to the Vitales' meeting room. The design followed the same motifs as she'd glimpsed on the banister: running animals, twisted snakes, curving mystical symbols. In the center of each door lay a large stylized V.
The doors were chained shut, as they had left them. Stefan reached out with the hand that wasn't holding Elena's and easily pulled the chain apart, dropping it to the side of the doors with a heavy clunk. Meredith flung the doors wide open.
The thick, coppery smell of blood came out to meet them. The room stank of death.
Matt held his flashlight steady while Meredith searched for a light switch. Finally, the scene before them was illuminated: the altar from the front of the room lay on its side, the bowl of blood smashed a few feet away. Extinguished torches had left long lines of greasy black smoke smeared on the walls. Vampire bodies lay limply in pools of sticky, half-dried blood, their throats torn by Damon's or Stefan's fangs, or their torsos punctured by Meredith's stave. Elena glanced anxiously at Matt's pale face. He hadn't been down here for the fight; he hadn't seen the massacre. And he had known these people, known this room when it was decorated for a celebration.
Eyes scanning the room, Matt swallowed visibly. After a moment, he frowned and spoke, his voice thin. "Where's Ethan?" he asked.
Elena's eyes flew to the spot before the altar where Ethan, leader of the Vitale vampires, had held a knife to her throat. The place where Meredith had killed him with her stave. Meredith made a soft sound of denial.
The floor was dark with Ethan's blood, but his body was nowhere to be found.