Home > The Asylum (The Vampire Diaries: Stefan's Diaries #5)(15)

The Asylum (The Vampire Diaries: Stefan's Diaries #5)(15)
Author: L.J. Smith

I pulled her toward me, rocking her back and forth in my arms. “There is no way you could have fought the compulsion without vervain. It wasn’t your fault,” I said soothingly. She relaxed against my chest. I noticed a crease between her eyes that hadn’t been there a few days earlier. She looked exhausted, and I wanted to do everything in my power to make her pain and hurt and confusion go away. But I couldn’t.

“So many men are out there looking for girls just like you. You’re amazing,” I said, brushing the hair back from her eyes. I didn’t love her, at least not in the way that causes a human heart to flutter with anticipation. But what I felt for her was deep and sincere: It was as if we were soul mates in the strictest sense of the word, bound by duty to our kin and willing to do anything in the face of evil. She was a true friend. And I hoped she could tell how much I valued her.

“Thanks,” she said wryly, tilting her chin up to me. Her angular face was bathed in a swath of early morning light coming through a crack in the window. “How can I go wrong when I have the approval of vampires?”

I chuckled. It wasn’t funny, not really, but as I continued to laugh, a giggle rose from Cora’s lips.

“Shh!” I exclaimed, pressing my hand to her mouth.

“I can’t!” she said, still laughing. Tears sprang from her eyes and leaked down her cheeks, and I knew it wasn’t the joke making her cry. I held her tighter and let her tears wash over me. The world was a harsh place to live in, but here and now, at least we had each other.

14

I fell asleep listening to the ba-dum, ba-dum of Cora’s heartbeat. It was rhythmic and steady, a metronomic reminder that not all was lost. And somehow, the sound got me through the night.

I awoke to thin rays of light seeping through the grime-caked windows. I blanched as I blinked at my surroundings. The wooden floor was covered with dust, and I could see the paw prints and tail marks of rats. Cockroaches scurried along the baseboards.

“Wake up,” I whispered, nudging Cora’s shoulder. Her hands were clasped together as though in prayer.

Cora blinked up at me. The shadows under her eyes were so dark and pronounced it was as if she’d drawn them with kohl. Her smock had shifted as she slept, exposing her frail collarbone. I hated to wake her, bring her back into this horrible reality.

“Good morning,” I whispered. “How did you sleep?”

“Better than I imagined, considering the circumstances,” Cora said in a small voice, sitting up.

“I know,” I said. “But the good news is we’re here, and we’re safe. And everything’s always better in the morning.” I smiled despite myself. It was a phrase my mother had used when I was a child, worried about monsters hiding under my bed. Only now, the monsters weren’t hiding.

“What are we going to do?” she asked.

“We’ll think of something. It will be fine,” I said. That had been my go-to phrase for the past few days, and I was sure Cora was just as tired of hearing it as I was of saying it. Every plan I thought of was more fantastical and useless than the last. My mind felt overworked and unwieldy. But what could we do? Vervain wouldn’t hurt Samuel, and he had the entire London police force wrapped around his little finger.

My mind drifted to Katherine. Samuel had been right; she’d delighted in pitting Damon and me against each other. I wanted to get into Katherine’s brain and try to imagine what she would do in my circumstances. Maybe that was the answer. What better way to fight a maniacal vampire than to think like one myself?

Katherine, though, was hardly alone. And not just with her abundance of male suitors. She had her maidservant, Emily, by her side. Emily, who was also a witch. She’d perform spells for Katherine, giving her an advantage over humans and vampires both.

I needed something beyond the Power I had as a vampire. I needed to talk to James.

“What’s that?” Cora asked nervously, pulling me out of my reverie. Something was scuttling around behind a moldering hatbox in the corner and Cora was looking around the shop as though expecting to find one of the mannequins had come to life. Remarkably, the abandoned store was more frightening in the weak light of day than it had been in darkness.

“Let’s go. I have an idea,” I said.

She stood up and brushed off her dress. She looked exhausted and dirty, but resolute. Despite everything she had seen, she was choosing to move forward and keep fighting. And that inspired me. If Cora was strong enough to stare down impossible odds, I was going to make sure she survived to have a long and fulfilling life.

When we reached the Emporium, I rapped three times, listening for sounds on the other side of the door.

“Who’s there?” James called. I heard jars rattling about.

“It’s Stefan, Damon’s brother,” I replied. Sometimes, my relationship to Damon came in handy, I had to admit. Finally, James opened the door. His good eye was oozing even more than it had been the other day, and he looked right past me to Cora.

“What’s she doing here?” he asked suspiciously.

“She’s all right. She’s a friend,” I answered.

“A human? I swear, some vampires never learn,” he said roughly, but he hustled us inside the tiny shop. He locked eyes with me. “You need goat’s blood tea. On the house. I like to do my best customers favors, because I know it’ll come back to me in some way. And you certainly helped me get rid of my back inventory of vervain.” He gestured to a small table in the corner, waving us to sit down.

I shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other, unsure of how to tell him what had actually happened with the vervain. I decided to stall, hoping that the magic-infused products lining the shelves would inspire a new plan. “Tea would be terrific.”

James bustled around in the back of the shop as Cora and I sat at the rickety table.

“A special drink for the miss,” James said as he returned, offering Cora a steaming mug of broth. “It has rhinoceros horn flakes. Good for bravery,” he explained solemnly. Cora clutched the cup with two hands and took a tiny sip.

“It’s good,” Cora said. “It just tastes like the Irish tea back home.”

“Well, you’re not here for tea, so let’s talk,” James said, taking a seat behind the counter and draining his own mug. “Where’s your brother?”

I chose my words carefully. “He’s on a different path now,” I said. That much was true. Whether the road was leading to destruction, I was trying not to think. “But we need your help. The Jack the Ripper murders are being committed by a demented vampire. London is in danger.”

“London’s in danger?” James asked skeptically, crossing his arms over his chest. “London’s always in danger. For the past thousand years, people have been saying that, and yet the city is still standing. And why should I care about the current crisis? There’ll just be another one after it.”

I racked my brain. It was true. Why should he care? He was unconcerned with petty fights between vampires. If anything, he’d prefer a feud—more income for him.

“Because you’re a good man,” Cora said simply. “Just like Stefan. Please help us.”

James laughed. He slid off his stool and circled Cora.

“I’m a good man? No, sweetheart, I’m an awful man who’s seen and done some terrible things. But I like your innocence. You probably think there’s hope for the world yet.”

“There is hope,” Cora said, her voice strong and steady.

James nodded. “I think you have a touch of witch in you. It’s very slight, must’ve been an ancestor way back, but it’s somewhere in there.”

“Do you have anything else that hurts vampires?” I interjected. “The vervain didn’t work. Samuel … the vampire … has been dosing himself to build up immunity.”

“Smart bloke,” James said to himself. “Most of you vampires are too bloodthirsty, too focused on your next meal to see the bigger picture. But maybe some of you are beginning to think things through. Dosing with vervain, I hadn’t thought of that. And I certainly never imagined seeing a vampire like you with a human girl on his arm. And you haven’t even been feeding on her or compelling her. Remarkable,” James said, shaking his head.

“So can you help us?” Cora asked.

“Well, I’m afraid I’ve nothing here that would block a determined vampire,” he said, glancing up at a dusty bookshelf and running his finger along the titles.

“Oh,” I said, my heart falling. “Well, then, thank you very much for your—”

“Hang on!” James said indignantly. “Listen. That’s the trouble with you vampires. Always jumping to conclusions without hearing the whole story. That’s why I prefer witches myself. They think. Now, I said I didn’t have anything. But I didn’t say it didn’t exist.”

“What do you mean?” I asked slowly.

“Now, normally I wouldn’t consider him for you—he hates vampires with a passion and hasn’t been the same since one threw him off London Bridge—but since you’re desperate … he is good in a crisis…” James trailed off, thinking.

“Who is?” I asked urgently.

“Ephraim,” James whispered, as though it were an incantation.

“Who?” It was as if he’d mentioned God or Lucifer or another entity I should have been on a first-name basis with.

“Ephraim. He’s a dangerous, powerful witch. Or was in his time. But then he got too greedy. Demons from all over the world sought him out, and he’d perform his spells for whoever had the money, no matter whether the person was on the side of good or evil. Of course, he charged the witches a little less and the vampires a little more, but he’d do work for anyone. Lately, though … people say he’s changed. But his power hasn’t ebbed. If anything, he’s stronger than ever.”

“Ephraim,” Cora repeated. “Where is he?”

“Top of Big Ben,” James answered. “But you have to time it right. I suppose it’s why people call it the witching hour. When the clock strikes twelve, you can find him. He’ll be expecting you.”

“Midnight at Big Ben. We’ll be there,” I agreed quickly.

“Good. Because he doesn’t like waiting. Makes him nervous. Now, make sure no one sees or follows you. At the far end of the tower, there’s a tunnel. It’s unguarded at all times,” James said, nodding as he pulled a rumpled piece of paper from a drawer and handed it to Cora. “The instructions should be clear enough. Give this paper to him so he’ll know I sent you. Consider it your admission ticket.”

Cora shoved the paper into her coat pocket.

“I warn you, Ephraim will ask for payment. Not necessarily cash. But there’s always a price to pay.”

“I understand,” I said. “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me yet,” James warned. “I’ve been around a lot longer than you. Remember, even if you have an antidote, it doesn’t mean the poison won’t kill you.” He stared glumly into his tea. “There’s been a war between good and evil raging on for years. Sometimes good wins, sometimes evil wins. It’s a coin toss.” As if to prove his point, he pulled a hexagonal coin from his pocket— I instantly recognized it as the one that had bought me a meal of Bengal tiger blood. He threw the coin into the air and the three of us watched it fall to the table. It landed on a side that had a complicated geometric pattern. I pulled the coin toward me and flipped it over. The other side showed the same pattern.

“Which side is which?” I asked in confusion.

James smiled. “Sometimes no one knows,” he said.

Of course. I tried to contain my frustration, but it was hard. I hadn’t come here for riddles—I came for answers. But all I was leaving with were more questions. More questions, a double-faced coin, a scrap of paper, and a mysterious name.

“Come on,” Cora said, sliding her chair away from the table and placing a hand on my shoulder. “And thank you,” she said to James.

We exited the shop. In the street, I turned back to look at it. The window was frosted and filled with cobwebs, the door covered over with boards; anyone walking by would think the building was abandoned. But wasn’t that just another one of James’s lessons? It was one I understood: Nothing is what it seems. But in this case, we were clearly on the side of good. I only hoped Ephraim would be more sympathetic to our position than James was. Because right now, this vampire-loathing witch was our only hope.

15

Cora and I avoided the tunnel for the rest of the afternoon. Without Damon, it felt too silent and empty. Instead, we wandered the streets of London as Cora told me stories about its history: that a fire had ravaged the entire city hundreds of years ago, that ravens were kept in the Tower of London in a superstitious effort to ward against the city’s destruction, and that human bodies had been sacrificed to London Bridge so it would never collapse. I wasn’t sure whether the stories were true or pulled from her imagination, but I liked listening to her lilting Irish accent. They distracted us, and I knew we both needed distraction from the very real horrors we’d encountered in this city.

But finally, we’d reached our destination: Big Ben. We arrived just as the magnificent tower clock read eleven-thirty. The structure was imposing; all sharp angles and hard surfaces. Nearby was the river, and Parliament, while Westminster Abbey was a stone’s throw away. I knew now why Big Ben was an iconic symbol of London.

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