Home > The Asylum (The Vampire Diaries: Stefan's Diaries #5)(16)

The Asylum (The Vampire Diaries: Stefan's Diaries #5)(16)
Author: L.J. Smith

“And here concludes our tour,” Cora said, gazing up at it in reverence. “I’ve never been here before.”

Surrounding the building were soldiers wearing red uniforms and black hats. Even at this late hour, they were standing sharply at attention, their eyes trained on the silent street. A lone boat sailed down the river. It looked empty, and I remembered one of the stories Cora had told me as we were walking along the docks, about ghost ships in the time of pirates on the high seas. I shivered.

Cora pulled out the worn piece of paper James had given her and smoothed it against her knee before reading aloud:

“Although it may be called Big Ben

And ring’d around by guardsmen

Take note of the things that aren’t meant to be seen

Unlike an entrance fit for a Queen

Think like a mouse or rat or flea

And at Ephraim’s entrance you’ll be.”

“Where do you think it is?” Cora asked.

“Somewhere low to the ground, most likely,” I said. I loved poetry, but it had been a while since my last encounter with nursery rhymes. We circled the clock twice, scanning the ground for an entrance. I’d had no idea Big Ben would be so heavily guarded. I’d become used to London being deserted at night. But there seemed to be no way to bypass the guards.

“Things that aren’t meant to be seen…” Cora trailed off, lost in thought. “Do you think that would be the back of the clock? That’s something that’s always hidden, right?”

Just then, the clock struck twelve.

“We don’t have much time,” Cora said. As the guards marched in formation for the traditional changing of the guard, we headed to the back of the hulking stone edifice. The clock tower was connected to the sprawling structure of the Palace of Westminster, and up close I could make out numerous cracks in the limestone.

“Look!” Cora called in excitement. She clapped a hand over her mouth. “Sorry,” she said abashedly. “It’s just … there’s a hole there,” she said, pointing to a crack at the base of the tower.

“Cora, I’m a vampire, not an elf.” The entrance, if that was what it was, couldn’t have been more than a foot high. It was a triangular gap where one limestone block had become loose from its neighbor.

Cora gave me a quick smile before crouching down and sticking her hand inside the hole. “I’m going to try it,” she said. So subtly I assumed it was a trick of the light, the hole began to grow. Cora put her arm farther in, and the hole grew bigger still. She turned to me, eyebrow raised.

Ephraim must be powerful to have such an enchanted entrance to his lair.

“I’ll go first,” I decided. I slid inside and Cora followed. We found ourselves in a narrow tunnel facing a winding set of stairs that seemed to rise to the heavens. Silently, we began to ascend.

“Stefan,” Cora said, her voice wavering. “What if this is a mistake? What if Ephraim is beyond reason?”

“It’ll be all right. We’re almost there,” I said, even though I had no idea. I wondered if the stairs, too, were not what they seemed. For all I knew, they were rotating below our feet, keeping us suspended in darkness while we climbed endlessly. Anything was possible.

Just as I was considering the worst, the stairs ended abruptly. We faced an iron door. I pushed at it tentatively, not sure if we were going to set off a trap or burst into flames.

“Who goes there?” a voice boomed, seeming to come from all places at once.

“I come as a friend,” I said, suddenly calm. We were here now and there was no backing out, so what would be would be.

I glanced at our surroundings. The room was tiny and octagonal. At most, it could hold five people, and I had to duck to keep my head from grazing the sloping, cob-webbed stone ceiling. The voice had come from a man sitting on a lone concrete block in the center of the tiny room. Burning candles dotted the damp floor, and a single opening, no larger than a brick, was cut into one wall. Through it, all of London was laid out beneath us. Across from us was another archway, which must have held the clock itself. I could see the large brass elements moving ponderously around an enormous circle. I wondered why Ephraim had chosen to reside in Big Ben, and if anyone knew he lived here.

The man turned from the window. He looked to be in his fifties and wore a tattered robe. Unlike James, he wouldn’t stand out as grotesque on the streets, although there was something about his bearing that would unnerve strangers—a nervous tension resonating throughout his body, giving the sense that he was always on high alert, prepared to attack or flee at a moment’s notice.

He eased toward me, sniffing the air as though he were a dog meeting another dog on the road. With James’s warnings in mind, I stood still, allowing him to continue this unorthodox mode of introduction. Cora remained at my side, her hands clasped demurely at her waist.

“She’s a human?” the man asked. “Ephraim likes humans. Ephraim doesn’t like vampires.”

Cora stepped forward. “Yes,” she said with a slight nod, causing her hair to fall over her eyes. “I am a human, but Stefan is not a typical vampire.”

“Ephraim will be the judge of that.”

“Can we speak with Ephraim?”

I heard a cawing sound as a large black raven flapped its wings and flew from a corner onto the man’s shoulder. I remembered the story Cora had told me: If the ravens were ever to leave the Tower of London, then all of England would fall. I wondered if the same were true of Ephraim in Big Ben. Maybe he was embedded there, stuck forever in the lore and legend of England. I felt the hairs rise on the back of my neck.

The man regarded the raven thoughtfully, then turned back to us.

“I am Ephraim,” he proclaimed. “Why have you come?”

“Vampires,” I said simply.

“Vampires!” Ephraim spat. He gently stroked the raven’s wing with two of his swollen, misshapen fingers. While his face appeared middle-aged, his hands looked as withered and gnarled as the branches of an ancient oak. “Vampires remind Ephraim of leeches. And Ephraim knows leeches are good for spells, but not for company.”

While James had not underestimated Ephraim’s animosity toward vampires, I wondered if he had perhaps underestimated his madness.

“You don’t know him,” Cora said; her voice was clear as a clarion.

Ephraim chuckled. “We don’t know him!” he said to the raven in a singsong voice.

“Good morning!” the raven croaked, in such a perfect English accent that I blinked in surprise.

“He’s a good man,” Cora continued, unperturbed by the talking bird. She laid one of her thin hands on Ephraim’s wrist. “Just like James. And James was the one who sent us to you,” she explained, passing him the paper.

“What else did James have to say about Ephraim?”

Cora shook her head. “James said you’d had a tough time with vampires. But he said you could help us. And I believe you can. Please.”

I watched, impressed, as Cora used an entirely different sort of compulsion. She placed a hand on Ephraim’s shoulder and squeezed slightly. Ephraim smiled, clearly in a state of bliss at being fawned over by a beautiful woman.

“Well, Ephraim can help you. Of course. But Ephraim knows what people say about him. Did James tell you Ephraim is insane? Do you believe it, too?” Ephraim asked, suddenly indignant. “Because Ephraim isn’t. But the question is, why would Ephraim help you, vampire?”

He swung to face me, his gaze suddenly sharp and probing.

“Far too much blood, too much violence,” he continued. “All you care about is satisfying your thirst, and the more you drink, the more you want. A waste of time. Now, witches on the other hand … we’re a majestic race.”

“You are majestic,” I said. “And that’s why I need your help. I can’t take down this vampire alone.”

“You want to destroy another vampire? Ephraim needs to hear why.” Ephraim gestured in front of him, as if inviting me to take the floor. “If you tell a good story, Ephraim may help you. And if not…” Ephraim trailed off ominously.

I looked into his beady eyes. “I am Stefan Salvatore,” I said, the name tasting strange on my tongue. I hadn’t used my surname since I’d been in England. “And I’m a vampire. I turned twenty years ago because I was young, and stupid, and blindly in love. And I caused destruction. I turned my brother … and I killed my father.” I heard Cora gasp. I’d never told her how I killed my father. I thought she’d never understand. But now that I was telling my story, I felt compelled to confess all my sins. I had a sense that Ephraim would know if I tried to leave anything out. “I killed men, women, and children. But that’s in the past now. I have reformed. I have tried to atone for my early mistakes. I came to England and found work on a farm in Ivinghoe. It was honest, clean work, and for the first time in years I felt I had a purpose. I felt happy.” The word sounded odd even as I said it, but it was true. I had been content with my life in Ivinghoe. “Until I learned about Jack the Ripper and his brutal attacks on women in Whitechapel. I knew it was the work of another vampire, and I suspected it was my brother, so I decided to intervene. The last thing I needed was more blood on my hands.”

Ephraim nodded slightly. “This is all a very good, courageous story. I could see it making a nice morality tale to tell children on a dark winter’s night. But why are you here? And who is this girl?”

“This is Cora. I befriended her sister, Violet, two weeks ago. She had just lost her job and was desperate to find Cora, who was missing. I told Violet I would help her find her sister. I gave Violet shelter, and when things became dangerous, I tried to protect her…”

“And yet?” Ephraim urged.

“It didn’t work.” I shook my head, my voice catching. “Samuel, the vampire I’m after, the true culprit behind the Jack the Ripper murders, attacked her. I hadn’t seen it coming. She didn’t want to turn into a vampire herself—she chose death. But Samuel found us, killed an innocent boy, and forced her to drink his blood. She turned…”

“And now she is not only a vampire, but he has taken her under his wing,” Ephraim said. He seemed to know the whole story. I wondered if he did know it, and just wanted me to retell it so he could see whether or not I was truthful.

“Yes, he took her. I want to help repair the hurt I’ve caused and stop Samuel from murdering ever again. Cora just wants to save her sister.”

“She’s not who you remember anymore,” Ephraim said, turning his attention to Cora. “She’s a vampire. You’re better off without her.”

Cora shook her head. “I know what she is. But I still love her. She’s my sister. I’ll love her no matter what. We just need to get her away from Samuel. I know that if I could only talk to her, I could guide her back to be the kind of vampire Stefan is now.”

“And we need some sort of weapon against Samuel, too. He’s unaffected by vervain,” I explained.

“All right.” Ephraim nodded. “Well, the girl’s request is easy, but yours will be a bit more difficult. But…” he trailed off, squinting at me. His eyes were bright blue and I got the disconcerting feeling that he was looking into my thoughts. “Ephraim will think of something. Your intentions are honorable. Ephraim will help you find your sister and give you a weapon against Samuel. There is no need for money,” he said, holding up his hand. “Sometimes, when the money comes into play, the magic gets … complicated,” he said cryptically. “Ephraim only wants your blood.”

“My blood?” I asked, taken aback.

Ephraim laughed maniacally. “And vampires are supposed to be good at hearing. Yes, your blood. It’s the fee.”

“What will you do with it?” I asked hesitantly.

“You wouldn’t understand. Only Ephraim knows its purpose. But the offer is limited, so don’t squander Ephraim’s magnanimity.”

I glanced at Cora. I knew any reason a witch would want a vampire’s blood couldn’t be good. But we were already in too deep. She bit her lip nervously.

“Ephraim is starting to wonder if he shouldn’t take out the vampire in front of him as well.”

“I’ll give you my blood,” I said finally. I put my wrist to my fangs, ready to open my skin.

“Not yet,” Ephraim said. He reached into his tattered robe and pulled out a glittering, jewel-encrusted dagger. “When it’s time.” I nodded, letting my hand drop back to my side.

“First, Ephraim will cast a relocation spell. It’s quite simple, but it will do the trick. And no one will get hurt. When the clock strikes three, Violet will appear outside Samuel’s home, relocated from wherever she is at the time. She will be alone, but only for a few minutes. Ephraim can’t hold everyone off for long.”

“So she’ll be by herself. And then what?” Cora asked.

“And then you can speak to her. You can try to bring her with you. You can say good-bye. What you do is up to you. All I can do is facilitate a meeting.”

“That’s fine,” Cora said hastily.

“As for your quest against the Ripper vampire…” He paused and rooted through his voluminous pocket before pulling out a handful of thorns, brown and over an inch long.

I reached out to grab them but Ephraim slapped my hand away. “Foolish vampire!” he hissed. “These are very dangerous. This hawthorn is bewitched so that if a vampire touches it, he’ll lose strength along with blood. It will block the normal curative powers of human blood.”

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