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The Hunters: Phantom Chapter 18

Caleb’s hand was hot and heavy against her lips, and Elena scrabbled against it with her nails. He gripped her tightly with his other hand, holding her stil , his fingers digging into her shoulder.

Elena struggled fiercely, flailing her arms and landing a firm blow in Caleb’s stomach.

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She bit down hard on the hand he had over her mouth. Caleb jerked backward, quickly letting go of her and pul ing his bitten hand to his chest. As soon as her mouth was uncovered, Elena screamed.

Caleb stepped away from her, holding his hands up in surrender. “Elena!” he said. “Elena, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. I just didn’t want you to scream.”

Elena eyed him warily, breathing hard. “What are you doing here?” she asked. “Why were you sneaking up behind me if you didn’t want to scare me?”

Caleb shrugged and looked a little embarrassed. “I was worried about you,” he confessed, stuffing his hands in his pockets and hanging his head. “I was hiking up by Hot Springs earlier and I saw you and your friends. They were pul ing you out of the water, and it looked like you weren’t breathing.” He peeked up at her through his long golden lashes.

“You were so worried about me you decided to grab me and cover my mouth to keep me from screaming?” Elena asked. Caleb ducked his head further and scrubbed at the back of his neck in an embarrassed way.

“I wasn’t thinking.” Caleb nodded solemnly. “You looked so pale,” he said. “But you opened your eyes and sat up. I was going to come down and see if you were okay, but your friend saw me and started running up the path toward me like he was going to jump me, and I guess I just freaked out.” He grinned suddenly. “I’m not usual y such a wuss,” he said. “But he looked mad.”

Elena found herself feeling unexpectedly disarmed. Her shoulder stil ached where Caleb had grabbed her. But he seemed so sincere, and so apologetic.

“Anyway,” Caleb continued, gazing at her out of candid light blue eyes, “I was driving back to my aunt and uncle’s place, and I recognized your car in the cemetery parking lot. I just came in because I wanted to talk to you and make sure you were okay. And then, when I got close to you, you were sitting down and talking, and I guess I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to interrupt you, and I didn’t want to barge in on something personal, so I just waited.” He ducked his head sheepishly again. “And instead I ended up assaulting you and scaring you to death, which sure wasn’t the better way to go. I’m real y sorry, Elena.”

Elena’s heartbeat was returning to normal. Whatever Caleb’s intentions, he obviously wasn’t going to attack her again now. “It’s al right,” she said. “I hit my head on an underwater rock. I’m fine now, though. It must have looked pretty weird to see me just sitting here and muttering. Sometimes I come here to talk to my parents, that’s al . This is where they’re buried.”

“It’s not weird,” he said quietly. “I find myself talking to my parents sometimes, too. When something happens and I wish they were with me, I start tel ing them about it and it makes me feel like they’re there.” He swal owed hard. “It’s been a few years, but you never stop missing them, do you?”

The last bits of anger and fear drained out of Elena when she saw the sadness in Caleb’s face. “Oh, Caleb,” she said, reaching out to touch his arm.

She caught a sudden motion out of the corner of her eye and then, seemingly out of nowhere, Stefan appeared, running incredibly fast, straight toward them.

“Caleb,” he growled, grabbing him by the shirt and throwing him to the ground. Caleb let out a grunt of surprise and pain.

“Stefan, no!” shouted Elena.

Stefan spun to look at her. His eyes were hard and his fangs were ful y extended. “He’s not what he says he is, Elena,” he said in an eerily calm voice. “He’s dangerous.”

Caleb slowly pul ed himself to his feet, using a gravestone as a support. He was staring at Stefan’s fangs.

“What’s going on?” he asked. “What are you?”

Stefan turned toward him and, almost casual y, slapped him back down.

“Stefan, stop it!” Elena yel ed, unable to contain the note of hysteria in her voice. She reached out for his arm, but missed. “You’re going to hurt him!”

“He wants you, Elena,” Stefan growled. “Do you understand that? You can’t trust him.”

“Stefan,” Elena pleaded. “Listen to me. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. You know that. He’s a human.” She could feel hot tears gathering in her eyes and she blinked them away. Now was not the time to weep and wail. Now was the time to be cool and rational and to keep Stefan from losing control.

Caleb staggered to his feet, grimacing with pain, and this time charged clumsily at Stefan, his face flushed. He got one arm around Stefan’s neck and yanked him to the side, but then Stefan, with an easy strength, tossed Caleb to the ground once more.

Stefan loomed over him threateningly as he stared up at him from the grass. “You can’t fight me,” Stefan growled.

“I’m stronger than you. I can drive you out of this town, or kil you just as easily. And I wil do either if you make me think it’s necessary. I won’t hesitate.”

Elena grabbed Stefan’s arm. “Stop it! Stop it!” she shouted. She pul ed him toward her, trying to turn him so she could look into his eyes, so she could get through to him.

Breathe, she thought desperately. She had to calm things down here, and she tried to steady her voice, to sound logical. “Stefan, I don’t know what you think is going on with Caleb, but just stop for a minute and think.”

“Elena, look at me,” Stefan said. His eyes were dark with emotion. “I know, I’m absolutely sure, that Caleb is evil. He’s dangerous to us. We have to get rid of him before he gets a chance to destroy us. We can’t give him the opportunity to get the better of us by waiting for him to make his move.”

“Stefan…” Elena said. Her voice was shaking, and an oddly rational, detached part of her noted that this must be what it felt like when the person you loved most lost his mind.

She didn’t know what she was going to say next, but before she could even open her mouth, Caleb had risen again. There was a long scratch down the side of his face, and his blond hair was tangled and ful of dirt.

“Back off,” Caleb said grimly, coming toward Stefan. He was limping a little bit, and clutched a fist-size rock in his right hand. “You can’t just…” He raised the rock threateningly.

“Stop it, both of you,” Elena yel ed, trying for a fierce general’s voice that would command their attention. But Caleb just hoisted the rock and threw it straight at Stefan’s face.

Stefan dodged the rock, moving almost too quickly for Elena to see, grabbed Caleb by the waist, and, in one graceful motion, flung him into the air. For a moment, Caleb was suspended, seemingly as light and boneless as a scarecrow tossed from the back of a pickup truck, and then he hit the side of the marble Civil War monument with a sickening crunch. With a thud, he fel to the ground at the foot of the statue and was stil .

“Caleb!” Elena screamed in horror. She ran toward him, shoving her way between the bushes and clumps of grass that encircled the monument.

His eyes were closed and his face was pale. Elena could see the light blue veins in his eyelids. There was a spreading pool of blood on the ground beneath his head. A streak of dirt ran across his face, and that dirt and the long red scratch on his cheek suddenly seemed like some of the most heartbreaking things she had ever seen. He wasn’t moving. She couldn’t tel whether he was breathing. Elena dropped to her knees and felt for Caleb’s pulse, fumbling at his neck. As she found the steady thrum of a heartbeat beneath her fingers, she gasped in relief.

“Elena.” Stefan had fol owed her to Caleb’s side. He put his hand on her shoulder. “Please, Elena.”

Elena shook her head, refusing to look at him, and shrugged his hand away. She felt in her pocket for her phone. “My god, Stefan,” she said, her words clipped and tight, “you could have kil ed him. You have to get out of here. I can tel the police I found him like this, but if they see you, they’re going to know you two were fighting.” She swal owed hard as she realized the streak of dirt staining Caleb’s shirt was Stefan’s handprint.

“Elena,” Stefan pleaded. At the anguish in his tone, she final y turned toward him. “Elena, you don’t understand. I had to stop him. He was a threat to you.” Stefan’s leaf green eyes beseeched her, and Elena had to steel herself to keep from crying.

“You have to leave,” she said. “Go home. I’l talk to you later.” Don’t hurt anyone else, she thought, and bit her lip. Stefan stared at her for a long moment, then final y backed away. “I love you, Elena.” He turned and disappeared into the trees, through the older and wilder part of the cemetery.

Elena took a steadying breath, wiped her eyes, and dialed 911. “There’s been an accident,” she said, her voice panicky, when the operator picked up. “I’m in the Fel ‘s Church Cemetery off Route Twenty-three, over by the Civil War monument near the edge of the newer section. I’ve found someone… It looks like he was knocked unconscious somehow…”