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Metamorphosis title imageShe got what she wanted. My venom flows through her bloodstream, changing her, reshaping her from a human to a vampire. Soon, that transformation will be complete. And I'll be able to keep her forever.I am the most selfish creature that has ever walked this earth. Edward's point of view in "Breaking Dawn", beginning with Book Three. winner banner


18. Bloodlust

Rating 5/5   Word Count 12654   Review this Chapter

Like spilled ink bleeding across an empty canvas, the Volturi descend upon the snow-laden field.

Opening myself fully as a gateway for their thoughts, I cannot detect the slightest apprehension in regard to our assemblage...nor did I expect to. As the most powerful coven in the world, they are a literal force of nature against any opposition, and they know it. Supreme confidence and an unyielding sense of loyalty radiates from every mind in the guard, though Felix – I have already marked his hulking frame, swathed in a ash-gray cloak – is eager for the opportunity to create some destruction with his own hands rather than watching Jane and Alec ‘have all the fun'.

The procession unfolds then, forming angular lines like the wings of a raptor, with the black heart of their power nestled securely in the center. This dance, this passive display of authority, is one that they have performed for millennia. The nightmarish splendor of their movements is difficult to ignore; the rigid silence shrouding our side of the clearing is proof enough of that.

However, a mockingly secretive murmur pierces the stillness from somewhere behind my right shoulder, awakening everyone from their tense daze. "The redcoats are coming, the redcoats are coming." Garrett chuckles once, lowly, and sidles closer to Kate. If she were to lean backward on her heels, her spine would press into his chest.

Kate's pale blonde head turns reflexively as the nomad nears, but does not comment on his adjusted proximity. If anything, she seems almost...glad...of Garrett's protectiveness toward her, and the flickering upward curve of her lips that Tanya glimpses solidifies that theory.

At last, a vengeful whisper hisses on the edge of my mind, and then Vladimir mutters aloud to his brother, "They did come."

Stefan replies with a nod, "The wives. The entire guard." His crimson eyes narrow hungrily. "All of them together. It's well we didn't try Volterra," he adds as an afterthought.

A half second later, the forest gives way to yet another incursion of guests. It is clear from the diverse assortment of vampires, their faces displaying expressions of shock and some concern over the gathered throng opposing the Volturi as they follow in their wake, that these are Aro's equivalent of spectators. Like those who had flocked to the Roman Coliseum in centuries past to be entertained by gladiators and public executions, this mob of immortals would be all too willing to witness our demise. A fact which becomes blatantly obvious as their collective surprise fades into vindictive rage.

My free hand contracts into a tight fist at my side, and I bite the inside of my cheek to hold back a snarl. This newly arrived group may not be waving pitchforks and torches, but they are the outraged rabble in every sense of the term. A few spot Renesmee clutching Bella's shoulders, her tiny white face peering around her mother's dark hair, and bare their teeth in fury. My instincts scream for me to shield her from their cruel, unforgiving stares, but logic declares that she must be visible, for each second that she captures their attention, it becomes clearer that she is far more than an immortal child.

The two symbiotic and yet completely contrary hosts of vampires drift closer to the invisible boundary line between our forces, and one slender figure separates itself from both, hovering in the space dividing the cloaked Volturi from their horde of compatriots.

Silvery blonde tresses undulate in the slight breeze, floating across Irina's conflicted features, her irises a deep ocher from lack of nourishment, and Emmett stiffens beside me as her gaze sweeps the line.

When she spies her sisters – Tanya's face hard and Kate's lips peeled back into a sneer – the final member of the Denali coven starts visibly, her eyes growing impossibly wide in horror.

I ignore their cascading thoughts and focus intently on the trio of black-robed forms that make up the core of the Volturi's confederacy.

Marcus remains as he was in Volterra: flaccid and blank – lost in the gray mists of limbo, to be called upon whenever his brothers have use for him.

Caius studies our amassed witnesses with the slitted gaze of a predator. As his eyes pass over me, he switches his internal monologue to Etruscan, limiting his concentration to the present moment.

Aro, to my disconcerted surprise, does not attempt to hinder his thoughts from my gift. Instead, he wears the patient expression of one who is about to receive a longed-for reward – and in the millisecond it takes me to register the tone of his mind, I can read their entire strategy. Everything they have planned, even before Irina arrived in Volterra, is laid bare like an opened book.

The snarl rips through my clenched teeth, and Aro's cheek twitches in satisfaction. He wanted me to see their designs for my family – to see the futility of trying to resist – and undiluted hatred flares like a blistering inferno in my chest.

Edward? Carlisle thinks anxiously, glancing at me from the corner of his eye. The slim fingers coiled around mine spasm weakly as the feral sound dies in my throat, and that involuntary reminder of her presence grants me the necessary perspective to answer my father's unspoken question.

"Alistair was right," I mutter, angling my head towards Carlisle without taking my attention from the advancing line.

He peers sideways, quizzical, as Tanya whispers at a volume just above the whistling wind, "Alistair was right?"

Matching her tone, I reply quickly, "They – Caius and Aro – come to destroy and acquire. They have many layers of strategy already in place. If Irina's accusation had somehow proven to be false, they were committed to find another reason to take offense." My upper lip curls, hostility leaking into my words as I go on. "But they can see Renesmee now, so they are perfectly sanguine about their course. We could still attempt to defend against their other contrived charges, but first they have to stop, to hear the truth about Renesmee." I pause, averse to finishing but also knowing that I must, and breathe out, "Which they have no intention of doing."

The red-brown wolf beside Bella huffs – a peculiar noise that sounds vaguely like a non-verbal signal of some kind...and then I hear Jacob's voice ringing in my head. It's time.

With uniformed precision, the wolves leave the cover of the woods to our rear and enter the clearing. Barely two seconds go by before the Volturi notice their presence and Aro, his ruby-colored eyes widening a bit in amazement, flicks his head almost imperceptibly to the left.

The procession halts at once, a hundred yards from us, and I watch the stoic expressions on the guards' faces waver, struggling to remain passive, while our numbers increase.

Sixteen wolves join Jacob among our ranks, forming two lines of four on either side of the group. Those in front are older, more experienced – Sam takes point at the rightmost line – while the newcomers linger in back, each one radiating a mixture of anticipation and fear.

A stab of icy guilt momentarily quenches the fire building within me. Seven wolves are gangly, their paws shifting almost clumsily on the snow. They are not much more than children, thrust into this world of make-believe because of their heritage, and I gather from the pack psyche that the youngest Quileute is only twelve – a few months past puberty.

And he, along with all his brothers and the she-wolf, were prepared to die with us. Die for us.

Bella's grip on my hand tightens; I can feel the steely tendons lacing the muscles in her arm flex, her toes beginning to dig into the frozen ground. A vicious, guttural sound rises from her mouth, and the hunter in me fights to react in the same primal manner, to respond to the challenge my mate has issued to the threat against our family.

I hold onto the fraying threads of reason and squeeze her hand in warning, even as Zafrina and Senna echo her growl with equal intensity, their wild consciousnesses swirling like twin hurricanes, battering against the walls protecting my innermost thoughts.

Reassessing the situation in light of the wolves' arrival, Aro and Caius converse inwardly, the tips of Aro's fingers resting lightly on Caius' hand. For a fleeting moment, Aro departs from strategy and scans each face arrayed across from him with earnest expectation. Where is she? he slips up briefly, his brow crinkling as he searches for the black-haired psychic whose talent he covets – the prize he most wanted to attain with this course of action.

But she is nowhere to be found.

Disappointed, Aro's lips flatten, his hopes waning but not dashed. Caius glances at him sternly.

You knew, Alice, didn't you? I muse to myself. And I realize that I am content, comforted even, by the knowledge that my beloved sister had foreseen this and run. Perhaps the only way we could reach this brief stalemate is if she removed herself from the equation.

With a renewed sense of purpose, Aro examines Marcus' thoughts – the other vampire's white hand slack and limp as a dead fish in his own – analyzing the potency of the bonds shared within our group. At the same time, Caius starts to pick out their main targets while also pondering the unfamiliar additions among us and the mysterious partnership we seem to have with the wolves.

A flicker of hesitation crackles between the brothers, and air filters rapidly through my lungs as comprehension dawns. Why they had stopped, why they were delaying their advance... It is not only because of Alice's absence, but due to something entirely unexpected from the invincible Italian coven.

Uncertainty. Worry.


They are afraid to engage in a battle that they may not be able to win.

Those around me tense in unease, disquieted by my reaction, and Carlisle asks, "Edward?"

Spurred on by this newfound awareness, I breathe out in a swift, fervent voice, "They're not sure how to proceed. They're weighing options, choosing key targets – me, of course, you, Eleazar, Tanya. Marcus is reading the strength of our ties to each other, looking for weak points."

I pause infinitesimally, listening to an abrupt burst of annoyance from Caius as he catches sight of two familiar faces on the far left of our company. My lips twitch in dry amusement, and I mutter, "The Romanians' presence irritates them."

Aro's gaze sweeps the field, lingering on the pair of fierce, dark-skinned females poised near the front line and the furred mountains of muscle and sinew fogging the chilled morning with their heaving breaths. With one part of my brain completely focused on his thoughts, I continue to explain. "They're worried about the faces they don't recognize – Zafrina and Senna in particular – and the wolves, naturally. They've never been outnumbered before."

A torrent of half-finished exclamations fill my head after that remark; Bella's fingers still inside my palm. "That's what stopped them," I finish in a nearly inaudible undertone.

"Outnumbered?" Tanya stares in my direction with incredulous golden eyes. But what about...? She tilts her strawberry-blonde head fractionally toward the motley bunch loitering near the tree line on the opposite end of the clearing.

"They don't count their witnesses," I reply, my lips barely moving with the words. "They are nonentities, meaningless to the guard." Derision leaves a bitter sting in my voice as I mumble, "Aro just enjoys an audience."

Carlisle gazes across the snowy expanse at the three brothers for a full second, deep in thought, his dark blonde brows curved into an expression of sorrow and caution. I would like nothing more than to end this confrontation peacefully, he deliberates inwardly. For the sake of the companionship we once shared, surely they will grant me the opportunity to absolve my family of guilt. Then he wavers, Yet...Aro must know that I would rather follow an avenue of diplomacy instead of conflict. If I can appeal to the civility he strives to preserve...

The second passes in a soft gust of wind that carries tiny ice crystals into our faces, and my father turns his head to look at my hardened profile. "Should I speak?" he inquires, a calm veneer draped over his features. Behind him, Esme draws in a sharp breath, her mind electrified with a jolt of fear.

Hesitating, I regard the ancient trio and their entourage – the cloaked figures appearing to float above the white ground like creatures made of shadow – and examine the lines of thought connecting Aro and Caius. Their indecision is predominant over the tactical plans and faint traces of frustration; it seems as though they are waiting for our next move, which will help them to determine how to proceed.

I nod slowly, affirming Carlisle's choice to act as an emissary, and respond quietly, "This is the only chance you'll get."

He pulls himself upright, his head high and shoulders squared, and walks with measured steps into the no-man's land separating us from the Volturi. More than several pairs of hooded scarlet eyes narrow suspiciously as he moves forward alone, and the crowd of witnesses near the woods hold their collective breath, disbelieving Carlisle's audacity to approach.

Esme clasps her hands in front of her breast like she is in prayer, interlocking her fingers so tightly that the knuckles are bone-white with strain.

About a dozen feet from our defensive line, Carlisle halts and spreads his arms wide, palms facing upward – a benign gesture of greeting. "Aro, my old friend," he says in a serene, genuinely kind tone. "It's been centuries."

A dim suggestion of a contemptuous sneer twists Caius' upper lip while silvery tresses that mimic the wintry landscape dance around the icy, chiseled hollows of his cheekbones, but Aro lifts his black eyebrows in mild surprise, cocking his head ever so slightly as he considers Carlisle's opening statement.

‘Old friend'. Ah, Carlisle...in three hundred years, your quixotic view of the world has not changed. It is refreshing. The hint of amiable delight flavoring this thought is impossible to doubt, but it quickly fades into calculating speculation. Yet how have you managed to bring so many talented individuals into your fold? Hmm...

A flash of multicolored light interrupts his musing, followed by an image from his memory of Alice peering up at him in the Volterra stronghold, her topaz irises glowing with strong-willed tenacity. Perhaps the so-called familial bonds among your coven are more easily severed than I had first surmised if young Alice was able to walk away in your hour of need, he reflects.

My teeth grind against one another as I clench my jaw, the cords of muscle in my limbs stiffening, and I sense Bella lean a few centimeters closer to my back.

No matter, Aro continues on, recapturing my attention. Though you have lost one or two, you have gained quite a number of allies in their stead. It is curious, indeed, how Carlisle – who has never craved or asked for power – assembled such a...diverse...group to support his family.

Inquisitive burgundy eyes rove across our lines once again. Yes... Aro's flickering glances touch on Eleazar, Kate, Zafrina and Senna, Benjamin, and then finally on Bella. The same interest he had shown towards her in Volterra has increased a hundred-fold now that she is a vampire, and he is more driven than ever to discover if her gift has manifested. Most curious... his mind breathes earnestly, scrutinizing my Bella with avid fascination.

Reacting instinctively, my possessive streak flaring like a falling star plummeting from orbit, I shift my posture, blocking most of her body from his view.

His gaze connects with mine, the filmy orbs tinged with humor. Curiosity, he sends directly to me, his mental voice rueful. A state of being that plagues me quite often. He shakes his head very slightly, and his mind switches to his former ruminating of Carlisle's intent, his attention now fixed on the lone figure straddling the boundary between our opposing forces, still waiting for a response.

Justice must be dealt to those at fault, Aro reminds himself, but Carlisle is an honorable one, though a bit misguided. Maybe...a trial... Yes, a trial – a chance to acquit his coven's actions. We can offer an old friend that much.

His course decided, Aro begins to move forward from the center of the guard. A lithe woman with a halo of wavy black hair and timorous scarlet eyes shadows his every step, her palm pressed against his right shoulder blade. Renata's stare darts from side to side, her movements fluid and yet somehow erratic – like a fox kit accompanying its parent on a hunt for the first time.

The mute figures in gray suddenly erupt with low protests as their master departs from the safety of their formation. Jane scowls darkly, her thin lips parting over her teeth, while her twin's brow furrows in puzzlement, wondering why Aro is indulging us with a semblance of armistice.

Demetri merely watches the ancient's progress with vigilant, narrowed eyes, and Felix rumbles out a deep growl, his formidable bulk leaning agilely into a crouch. A few of his neighbors copy his stance as the sound builds across their lines, incensed and restless.

Without removing his steady gaze from Carlisle, Aro holds up one hand, palm forward. "Peace," he murmurs softly, but with an air of command.

Silence covers the field once again instantaneously.

Gliding five more paces into the dividing space between his forces and ours, Aro then drifts to a stop and tilts his head slightly, the same inquisitive gleam in his crimson irises as before. My father holds his pose, his expression open, and waits for the elder vampire to speak.

"Fair words, Carlisle," he says after a moment. Shrewd to no end, he maintains control of the conversation by adding as an almost bewildered observation, "They seem out of place, considering the army you've assembled to kill me, and to kill my dear ones."

I barely hold back a scoff when Aro uses an endearment to describe the pawns arrayed around him and his brothers. Some are more powerful and rarer than others, and a few would be nearly impossible to replace, but each and every one of them is – in a word – expendable.

Meanwhile, Carlisle shakes his head as he breathes out slowly and offers his right hand, even though there is still quite a distance separating the two of them. "You have but to touch my hand to know that was never my intent," he tells Aro in a deliberate, even tone.

Indeed. Aro's stare narrows – not in anger but with cleverness – having successfully steered their discussion back to the business at hand: our family's supposed crime. "But how can your intent possibly matter, dear Carlisle, in the face of what you have done?" he asks in lament. A sorrowful frown crinkles his mouth, yet his eyes remain keen as polished garnet.

My father leaves his hand extended, determined to somehow salvage this diplomatic travesty, and replies, "I have not committed the crime you are here to punish me for." None of us have...as I believe you well know, he comments to himself.

A faint ripple of surprise resonates through Carlisle and is echoed by nearly all present as Aro entreats, his sincerity genuine or else skillfully feigned, "Then step aside and let us punish those responsible. Truly, Carlisle, nothing would please me more than to preserve your life today."

"No one has broken the law, Aro," Carlisle answers, lifting his outstretched palm a little higher. "Let me explain," he urges quietly.

Enough of this foolishness. Caius stalks to his brother's side as Aro prepares to respond, his hissed words dripping with malice and disdain, "So many pointless rules, so many unnecessary laws you create for yourself, Carlisle." You mock the superiority of our race with your softhearted drivel, he sneers inwardly.

My fist contracts at my side, the nails digging into my skin, as I recall what their so-called ‘superior race' did to those unsuspecting tourists that had been herded like cattle into their tower last spring.

The white-haired vampire goes on, his voice contemptuous, "How is it possible that you defend the breaking of one that truly matters?"

"The law is not broken," Carlisle inserts, his tranquility a counterpoint to Caius' heated spite. "If you would listen –"

Caius cuts him off with a snarl. "We see the child, Carlisle." Abomination that it is – and guarded by the one that should never have left Volterra alive with his then-human mate. "Do not treat us as fools."

Striving to uphold the sliver of peace he has purported, my father contradicts as civilly as possible, "She is not an immortal. She is not a vampire. I can easily prove this with just a few moments –"

"If she is not one of the forbidden," Caius challenges harshly, "then why have you massed a battalion to protect her?"

"Witnesses, Caius," Carlisle says, resolute in sustaining an amenable perspective, "just as you have brought." He gestures with his open hand to the mismatched throng near the forest's edge. Several react violently – their expressions contorting into fierce grimaces, growls erupting from their throats – at being referred to by a pronounced heretic.

Carlisle ignores them, turning to sweep his arm across the gathered vampires supporting our family, his tone earnest as he states, "Any one of these friends can tell you the truth about the child. Or you could just look at her, Caius." He fixes the outraged ancient with intense, burning-gold eyes. "See the flush of human blood in her cheeks," he encourages.

Caius does not even bother to glance at Renesmee, his mind tinged with the red haze of fury. "Artifice!" he roars. Carlisle very slowly begins to lower his hand as the most volatile Volturi brother rages on. "Where is the informer?" Caius demands, his ebony cloak whirling around him like a thundercloud as he spins to face the guard. "Let her come forward!"

He scans the hardened, impassive features of the cloaked followers for a few seconds, and then spies Irina's silver-blonde head just beyond the shrouded figures of Sulpicia and Athenodora at the rear of their entourage. "You!" he shouts, pointing one long, white finger in her direction. "Come!"

Locked in a horrified trance, her thoughts repeating over and over: This is not how it was supposed to happen... Irina wrenches her wide-eyed gaze from her sisters and blinks vacantly at Caius.

When she fails to obey his summons immediately, Caius snaps his fingers, and a heavily muscled bodyguard for the wives marches over to the dazed vampire and roughly shoves her forward. Irina stumbles, her eyelids fluttering twice as her mind stutters, What...? The gray robes part before her, making a narrow passage through their condensed mass, and she treads forward, her stare returning to Tanya and Kate.

As she nears Caius, her steps slowing further as she takes in her family's severe expressions, the elder immortal comes within reach of her and lashes out with a vicious backhand. Insubordinate wench.

Irina's head jerks sideways with the blow, and her sisters hiss through their teeth in unison, angered by this flaunted humiliation of their sibling. Regardless of what she has done, no one deserves such treatment.

A half second passes, and Irina rotates her head back towards Caius, looking up at him passively though she avows in her mind, Will you strike me again, old one? Kill me, perhaps? Go ahead; nothing you do to me could be worse than what I have already done to myself. You will receive no more help from me. Her slender jaw clenches, and her dulled ocher irises spark like flickering candle flames.

Glaring down at her, Caius jabs a finger across the clearing at Renesmee, somehow conveying great abhorrence in the simple motion. Jacob's muzzle wrinkles as he growls at the ancient, and Renesmee tightens her grip on the red-brown fur clasped inside her tiny hand. "This is the child you saw?" Caius questions Irina waspishly. "The one that was obviously more than human?"

The lithe blonde peers sidelong at the little girl twined around Bella's back, and a flash of memory abruptly stifles her train of thought.

I don't know why I came.

I want to please my sisters – to repair the damage wrought between our families – but there is no apology strong enough to bring him back to me.

I know that he was flawed; he had broken his word, hunted humans. But I would have forgiven him. I would have helped him overcome the temptation. He could have done it. He was always a quick learner – ready to adapt, to change.

"He was a liar!" Kate had shouted. "And you would rather cling to the ghost of false love than make amends with your family!"

As if she knows anything about love.

I crept along the edge of the cliff face, fully aware that only a few dozen miles to the west is my destination – the place I am most dreading to visit.

Because of her. The one who lives while the one I loved is no more than ash scattered in the breeze, killed to save the human girl – human no longer – that my usually solitary cousin chose as his mate.

It's not fair.

I stared down at a triangular glade directly below my perch, half contemplating the sensation of leaping down, if it were possible for such a fall to end my existence.

That was when I saw them.

The dark-haired female I spotted first. She was standing motionless in a smaller clearing to the south of the first, and I knew, though we had never met, that this must be Edward's Bella.

Her wide eyes connected with mine; I watched the shock of recognition light up her expression, and she started to raise her hand – as if to wave, like we were old friends.

I felt my upper lip curl into a faint snarl, my stare narrowing, and she froze, taken aback.

Then I heard a childlike shout, followed by a piercing howl.

Instinctively, my head swiveled towards the larger clearing. The snarl became more pronounced on my face when I spied the huge wolf...and then I noticed the small figure at its side, clutching a full-grown buck with surprising strength for one so little.

I leaned closer, examining every detail.

The figure looked to be no more than a young girl dressed in a frilly cream-colored dress, her bronze curls striking a familiar chord in me.

While I watched, wondering who she could possibly be and what she was doing in the company of the wolf and Edward's mate, her tiny rosebud mouth opened – and she sank her teeth into the buck's throat.

Shocked agony ripped through me, shredding what remained of my rational mind.

It's not possible. Edward...Carlisle...they wouldn't – they couldn't –

The newborn lifted her hands in front of her, the gesture filled with remorse, but I would have none of it.

I showed my teeth and growled, not bothering to wait for her to form a response.

I ran blindly through the forest, my skull vibrating with the pained realization that I had been betrayed once again by the Cullens.

They had made themselves a creature that my mother had died trying to protect, and it would eventually destroy them all in the end. The law is absolute; there are no exceptions.

I could feel the rift between our families growing with each mile I crossed.

As I prepared to make the journey that would condemn those whom I had once loved, I sent one last prayer of forgiveness to my sisters. And I hoped with every fiber of my being that, one day, they would understand.

Irina tilts her head as her thoughts resume in the present, blinking at Renesmee in confusion, for it is obvious that she is markedly different from the child who had appeared in the forest on that fateful day. I don't understand, she ponders to herself.

Exasperated, Caius bursts out only seconds later, "Well?"

Her attention still fixed on my daughter, Irina says haltingly, "I...I'm not sure."

You try my patience, girl. Caius' right hand twitches, and he envisions slapping her again as he whispers in a threatening manner, "What do you mean?"

Irina's pale eyebrows lower, a thin line marring the center of her forehead as she studies Renesmee, uncertain of her course for the thousandth time since she fled to Italy all those weeks ago. "She's not the same," she concludes after a tense moment, "but I think it's the same child." She looks into Caius' enraged burgundy eyes, attempting to explain. "What I mean is, she's changed." Which is impossible – an immortal child is frozen in whatever state they were when the change occurred. It doesn't make any sense, she argues internally, her gaze shifting back to the little girl. "This child is bigger than the one I saw, but –"

A loud, fuming gasp erupts from Caius, his exposed teeth glistening in the wan morning light, and Irina falls silent, taking an involuntary step backward.

Dismayed by his brother's lack of control, Aro joins him swiftly, placing a heavy hand on the white-haired vampire's shoulder. "Be composed, brother," he says in a mild voice, but I detect the undercurrent of warning – as does Caius. His snarl begins to fade as Aro goes on placatingly, "We have time to sort this out. No need to be hasty."

His face puckered into a sour expression, Caius looks away from Irina, while Aro offers her a gentle, vaguely rueful smile. "Now, sweetling," he murmurs, holding out his hand. "Show me what you're trying to say." We will solve this puzzle once and for all.

She eyes him for a brief moment, bewildered and wary, and then carefully places her hand in Aro's papery-skinned one, meeting his misty ruby-colored eyes.

He rifles through her thoughts quickly, lingering on her memory of the unexpected meeting in the woods, and notes with a mixture of intrigue and – oddly enough, triumph – that Irina's observation was correct. The child she saw that day and the child holding onto Bella now has grown.

Fascinating... Aro thinks pensively, and then his mind seems to go dark, his thoughts almost completely obscured from my ability.

In a handful of seconds, it is over. Aro drops her hand and glances at Caius, smiling faintly, as though he is an elder sibling chastising the younger with fondness. "You see, Caius?" he chides. "It's a simple matter to get what we need."

I narrow my gaze at the strange inflection in his wispy voice. Like casting a double shadow, Aro's words appear to have two meanings, yet the full import of his intent remains veiled from me. Layers of strategy, my subconscious whispers, and I feel a prick of irritation. Until another section is peeled away in either of the brothers' minds, I cannot anticipate the next phase...which has been their goal from the beginning, I am sure.

Caius does not respond to his brother's statement in any way, so Aro peers fleetingly at the audience ranging across the borderline of the forest, pleased with their impatient curiosity. Pivoting on heel, he turns back to Carlisle, who has watched the entire scene unfold with cautious eyes, afraid to hope that we have gained our chance to illustrate Renesmee's unique nature. "And so we have a mystery on our hands, it seems," Aro announces, his tone whimsical. "It would appear the child has grown. Yet Irina's first memory was clearly that of an immortal child." A secretive light glitters in his deep red irises as he employs his preferred adjective once more. "Curious."

Relief pours through Carlisle's thoughts like a cool stream of water, and the taut line of his shoulders loosens just a bit. "That's exactly what I'm trying to explain," he tells Aro, stretching out his hand again in wordless invitation.

The ancient vampire studies my father in silence for several minutes, delaying his response. A more comprehensive account than what you can offer is required, dear Carlisle, Aro reflects inwardly. His polite stare flicks to my own, and a leaden weight settles in the pit of my stomach as I realize that the exchange with Irina was only pretense. I – the thoughts I have heard, everything that I have seen, and all the knowledge I have gathered from every mind on our side save one – am the true goal.

And there is no other option but for me to become an unwilling informant.

I have no choice.

Seeing the grim recognition in my icy features, Aro remarks with subtle courtesy to Carlisle, "I would rather have the explanation from someone more central to the story, my friend."

Carlisle's open palm wavers, his thoughts suddenly alarmed. Does he mean...?

"Am I wrong to assume that this breach was not of your making?" Aro continues mildly.

My father tries one last time to avert the potentially disastrous path we are now on. "There was no breach," he replies, his tone both pleading and hopeless.

The filmy scarlet eyes abruptly sharpen, piercing the wintry air, and Carlisle lets his hand fall to his side in defeat. "Be that as it may," Aro declares, a new, hard-edged quality to his thin voice, "I will have every facet of the truth. And the best way to get that is to have the evidence directly from your talented son." He dips his head towards me, his attention flitting between my face, Carlisle's, and the two most precious gifts I have ever received behind me. "As the child clings to his newborn mate," Aro observes, his stare probing, "I'm assuming Edward is involved."

An unspoken tumult of vehement exclamations ricochets inside my skull; Emmett lets out a spew of foul oaths, smothering the urge to voice them aloud by literally biting down on his own tongue. Amidst the mental clamor, I hear the leader of the Volturi hierarchy calling out his request for me to join him on their side of the clearing.

A quiet breath leaves my suddenly hollow chest, and I slip my hand from Bella's as I turn around, refusing to allow my eyes to focus on hers. My resolve is frail enough as it is; if I look into her deep, mesmerizing amber orbs, I will never find the strength to part from her side.

Lightly, I press a kiss on her forehead, my head swimming momentarily with the heady sweetness of freesia, and then repeat the action with our daughter. I sense Bella's wide eyes on my face, igniting my marble skin with a fire that burns from the inside out, but I deny myself the luxury of a last glimpse. Pulling away, I enter the undisturbed span of white with purposeful strides.

Carlisle watches my approach, grieved. Forgive me, son. We should have foreseen this.

I clap him on the shoulder as I pass, hoping to convey that there is nothing to forgive. In a way, we had foreseen this outcome – it is the only means of demonstrating just exactly what Renesmee is and how she came into being. What I should have been able to predict is that Aro, since he has experienced the ‘convenience' of my talent before, would seize any opportunity to uncover the secrets held within my mind.

As I walk from my father's side, a frightened whimper escapes from Esme, sending a stab of pain through my heart. Oh, please... she begs, her inner voice poignant with desperation. Please, God...save my family from this madness. Show mercy on us, please...

Raising my chin, I shut out all distractions and focus on the black-haired vampire poised in front of a sea of gray, waiting for my arrival with acquisitive, triumphant eyes.

Then a high, childlike murmur chimes inside my head, nearly shattering my concentration. How does it feel, Edward, to know that you are about to betray everyone you care for? That you serve the Volturi despite your haughty dismissal of how you are meant to live? A tiny, smug grin curves Jane's full lips while I cross the point of no return – the invisible boundary drawn down the center of the field.

What delicious memories you must have of your beloved Bella, she continues to taunt, the malevolence twisting her mind far more sinister than any I have encountered in a century. And each and every one will belong to the master. Once he has finished with you, we will destroy the child, along with your mate. They will burn on a pyre whose smoke will block out the sun itself.

Only a few yards from Aro, my waking nightmare of Bella and Renesmee consumed by the flames resurfaces in my thoughts, causing the bleached horizon to tilt at a bizarre angle, but I force my feet to keep moving in a straight line.

Does that make you wish for death? Jane inquires with a cruel caricature of innocence. I'm sure that my master will allow me to oblige you...but you will have to beg for it. Beg for death, Edward – just as your little Bella will beg as her body chars in the fire...

A roaring noise fills my eardrums, my ribcage vibrating with a low growl, and the monster singles out her smiling face, imagining the satisfaction of ripping her apart. Like Victoria, this sadistic creature would perish at my hands, ending the threat against the core of my existence.

My upper body starts to move in an opposing direction from the rest of me, bloodlust soaking into my every pore and drowning out any sense of reason...

The reddened haze of wrath is in that instant fragmented by a musical sound that I would recognize anywhere, but is totally out of place in the current situation.

Bella's laugh rings out across the field like a peal of bells, fading quickly, but the icy touch of clarity cools the rage smoldering within my brain.

I shove Jane's internal provocations aside and come to a stop less than half a dozen steps from Aro. My chin lifts, and I look down through half-closed eyes at the dark-haired ancient, jutting out my hand as though I have deigned to favor him with a chance to see the world as I do rather than having little choice in the matter.

Eccentric as ever, Aro's eyes glitter with delight over my show of arrogance. Proud and stubborn, are you not, young one? he comments dotingly. He lifts two fingers, signaling Renata to back away, and she hovers an arm's length at his back, pressing her lips together worriedly.

You should already be strewn among the dust under our feet, whelp. Caius scowls in my direction, determining that, once the fight begins, he will order the guard to dispose of me first.

Alec reads into my stance intently, preparing to unleash his power if I attempt to harm their master, and Jane's deceitfully angelic features are contorted into a vicious sneer as she wishes for Aro to give her leave to torture not only me, but everyone on the other side of the clearing.

Still wearing an amused, blithe smile, Aro closes the distance between he and I and takes my proffered hand. His eyelids lower immediately, his shoulders bending inward as he absorbs the new information from my mind. I unconsciously mirror his posture, reliving each memory with him while listening to his reactions.

Like skimming through the pages of a book, Aro flips past the few clouded human memories I have retained and those that he had experienced when I came to Italy in March, picking up when my family was reunited with Bella.

Abstractedly interested, he reviews our preparations for defeating the newborn army created by Victoria, the rivalry between Jacob and I that had once tainted everything, and the compromise that Bella had finally persuaded me to accept.

He pauses for a moment on the aftermath of the battle – when Jane and her small force had arrived – and notes that our ruse had worked; we had kept the wolves' treaty with our family a secret from them, until now. I should have known that they had assistance in dealing with so many newborns, Aro thinks as the images whirl by, and I resist the impulse to bristle in indignation.

When we come upon some of the most cherished memories I possess, Aro browses through my wedding and honeymoon with vague attentiveness, operating under a semblance of discretion, but his awareness piques as he reaches the understanding that Bella and I consummated our marriage while she was still human.

Truly, Edward, he breathes with perverse admiration, your self-control knows no bounds. That you were able to curb your instincts while in the throes of passion... But I digress. He continues scrutinizing my deepest thoughts, sensing my growing agitation, and reaches the final day on Isle Esme.

Ah! His astonishment ripples outward as he uses my eyes to watch Bella caress the tiny bump above her hips that would become our daughter in just a few short weeks. What is this?

In rapt silence, Aro lets the images unfold at a more deliberate pace, sharing in my anguish while Bella withered away, her swollen belly covered with purplish bruises from the thing that I had put inside her... And then, the change: Bella's strength returned when she began consuming blood – and I realized, after hearing our baby's thoughts, that what she was carrying within her was not a monster at all, but a gift.

Reliving the violence and horror of Renesmee's birth is difficult, but I force myself to concentrate solely on Aro's reaction to keep from dwelling on the waxy, blood-flecked face of my wife as I worked to save her from death by infecting her wasted body with my venom.

Incredible... the ancient marvels. A child sired by a vampire and birthed by a human – sharing the traits of both species. If I had not witnessed it through your mind, I would never have believed that such a being could exist.

Somewhere in the far edges of my consciousness, I dimly hear a sharp voice call for silence, but I dismiss it as irrelevant. At the same time, Aro studies Renesmee's accelerated growth rate, noting the same differences as my father and I did once the process started to slow.

Such a shame, he mourns an instant later, looking on as Alice discloses her vision of their arrival and then vanishes with Jasper. He combs my thoughts meticulously, searching for any hidden clues to her whereabouts, but all he discovers are my own speculations – which are ambiguous, at best.

Finally, his psyche lighting up with fascination, Aro inspects our preparations leading up to this moment. He makes note of the fact that the wolves' loyalty to us is rooted in their distinct compulsion of imprinting, yet is far more avid for information on the vampires that have increased our ranks.

The cords of muscle in my neck tighten as I clench my teeth, helpless to resist as Aro learns of the talented individuals arrayed amongst the lines of defense opposing his coven. Zafrina's illusions, Kate's electric touch, Benjamin's extraordinary control of the elements, and Bella's burgeoning shield are all exposed to his covetous gaze.

A subtle, yet massive shift takes place in the foundation of Aro's objectives, and his curiosity in regard to Renesmee – her unusual genetic structure, the rare significance of her ability – bursts forth like an explosion.

He lifts his bent head, eyes snapping open; the burgundy irises reflect his wonder and circumspect mannerisms as he stares at me across the small distance separating us. His thin fingers are still curled around my palm, and he has no immediate intention of letting go. It seems we were mistaken, he admits, the words tinged with contrition. No law has been broken. The rigid column of my spine uncoils just a bit in response. The child is clearly something that has never existed before, except in legend. Simply incredible...

I speak up to break off the path of another tangent from his convoluted mind, murmuring quietly, "You see?"

"Yes," Aro says, awed, a tiny smile playing along the edges of his mouth, "I see, indeed." Pleasure wells up inside his thoughts. "I doubt whether any two among gods or mortals have ever seen quite so clearly." A faint warning tingles across my nerve endings as I contemplate the possible motives behind this statement, but I squelch the sensation.

Meanwhile, a storm of disbelief rushes through the Volturi guard in light of their master's congenial tone. Jane, who seems to have crept closer while Aro and I were joined mentally, lets out a muffled growl in annoyance.

"You have given me much to ponder, young friend," the dark-haired ancient remarks, his smile widening into an expression he means to be reassuring. "Much more than I expected." This child – your child – is a creature of myth even among we who are considered fictitious by the mortal world! A marvelous mystery... Aro's enthusiasm is effusive as he goes on. ...and her singular talent is as unique as she! Will you not allow me a moment to greet such a miracle?

Wariness seeps into my already taut frame. In truth, we had counted on this chance – the chance for Renesmee to tell her story as only she can, offering indisputable proof that she is the creation of two worlds. The logical part of my brain consents to his request...but the part of me that awakened after my daughter's birth – the part that recognizes fatherhood as a blessing and a responsibility – wants to keep Renesmee far from Aro's earnest stare and brittle, translucent skin.

Attempting to counter my reluctance, Aro beseeches aloud, "May I meet her?" He suddenly grips my hand in both of his to add higher credence to his plea. "I never dreamed of the existence of such a thing in all my centuries. What an addition to our histories!" A delighted chuckle punctuates his exclamation.

"What is this about, Aro?" Caius barks, disapproval laced into each syllable. No more delays! We must dispense justice on these vermin!

With my ability as a conduit, Aro listens to his brother's venomous thoughts and sighs. So eager for aggression, he comments sadly. Glancing over at the white-haired vampire, he answers in a patient voice, "Something you've never dreamed of, my practical friend. Take a moment to ponder, for the justice we intended to deliver no longer applies."

A snake's hiss fizzles through Caius' bared teeth, his expression shocked and infuriated, and he leans a half step forward into a crouch.

"Peace, brother," Aro soothes, though his pupils contract with stern warning. We have much to ponder, dear Caius. A series of snapshots taken from my memory flash through his mind's eye, and my frustration mounts once I discern that yet another level of strategy is shifting even as we speak, but still I cannot read its outcome.

Aro pays no heed to my disturbed line of thinking, absorbed with an almost obsessive need to address Renesmee. Peering earnestly at me, he asks again, "Will you introduce me to your daughter?"

Daughter? Caius hisses in disbelief. What trickery is this?

Many among the guard and the horde gathered behind them mimic the white-haired ancient's surprised outburst, perturbed by the familial term Aro used in his question.

I bob my head once in hesitant compliance. Aro beams, immensely pleased, and raises his eyebrows, waiting for me to invite Bella and Renesmee over to this side of the clearing.

Striving to maintain a calm demeanor at the mere thought of having them so close to the Volturi, I pose internally, Perhaps the meeting should take place on neutral ground as a show of good faith. Do you agree?

His smile still in place, Aro replies generously, "I think a compromise on this one point is certainly acceptable, under the circumstance. We will meet in the middle." He releases my hand, and I immediately turn around to face my family and allies, my eyes seeking out the comforting shape of the angel who owns my soul, our little girl wrapped protectively in her slender arms.

Before I step forward, Aro loops an arm around my shoulders in casual camaraderie – though his bare wrist remains pressed against the nape of my neck. I barely smother a growl; already, he is addicted to the nearly complete omniscience that my talent provides.

Merely a precaution, my young friend, he remarks in a serene tone. Sorely tempted to lash out with sarcasm, I flatten my lips into a thin line and begin walking.

Once we are three paces ahead, the entire guard flows silently in our wake like an enormous shadow. Renata follows Aro's steps with only inches between them, her thin fingers twitching as she yearns to shield her master from potential danger.

He lifts up his free hand in an idle gesture, not bothering to glance at his coven as he commands, "Hold, my dear ones. Truly, they mean us no harm if we are peaceable," he assures them.

A cacophony of dissent fills the chilled air, the Volturi's dark robes undulating faintly as feet shift in unease, eager to trail after Aro, but now ordered not to do so.

So close that the hem of her ebony cloak brushes against my right ankle, Renata whimpers, her voice fearful and colored with a Sicilian accent, "Master." She is terrified of failing in her duty to protect Aro from harm; it is, in her mind, the sole purpose of her existence.

"Don't fret, my love," he murmurs tenderly, like a mother soothing a distraught child. "All is well."

This situation is volatile enough – I cannot risk forfeiting this chance because of one misstep by an overzealous member of their coven. "Perhaps you should bring a few members of your guard with us," I bargain in a mild, reasonable tone. "It will make them more comfortable."

An excellent suggestion, Aro responds while nodding in assent. Snapping his fingers twice, he calls, "Felix, Demetri."

The two vampires virtually materialize at his side – Demetri watchful and curious, Felix impatient and arrogant. Renata continues to linger at her master's back, careful not to touch him lest she disobey his instructions, but the frightened cast of her pale features diminishes some as the pair of gray-robed figures fall in step with us.

Our small party drifts to a stop in the center of the field, and Aro offers amiably, Let's keep our numbers even, shall we?

He intends for me to choose the two that will accompany Bella and Renesmee, but I will leave that decision to my wife – she has a knack for strategy. "Bella," I say in a slightly louder voice, watching the wind toss strands of her chocolate hair as her amber eyes bore into mine. "Bring Renesmee...and a few friends."

Her shoulders rise a little as she breathes in deeply. I can see her intense resistance to bringing Renesmee so close to Aro in every line of her slim form, but the unwavering trust in her gaze – a miracle nearly as precious as her love for me – compels her into action. With the stubborn tilt of her pointed chin that I have come to adore, she requests, "Jacob? Emmett?"

Emmett grins broadly, having been just seconds from waving his meaty hand in the air like an over-eager schoolboy, chanting ‘Pick me! Pick me!' He strokes Rosalie's golden locks with a palm fleetingly right before moving to Bella's side.

The russet-furred wolf beside her left elbow lowers his massive head in affirmation, unable to hold back a low sigh of relief. Jacob had been quite determined to ensure that he was chosen as an escort, his promise to keep Renesmee safe driving him to do whatever is necessary.

Flanked by my favorite brother and her best friend, Bella grips Renesmee tightly against her breast and marches forward, her gaze never wavering from mine.

Another rumble of complaint swells like thunder amongst the Volturi as Jacob trots alongside our half of the summit. The wolf is an unknown, and therefore unpredictable – not to mention the repelling stench that all of them exude, alerting any vampire in the vicinity that these creatures are not to be trifled with.

Untroubled, and intellectually fascinated by the Quileutes, Aro raises his hand once again, motioning for silence. Demetri leans around Aro's opposite side to glance at me, one black eyebrow quirked in mocking good humor. "Interesting company you keep," he remarks lightly. Felix smirks in response.

Refusing to let the tracker provoke an unwelcome reaction, I fix my eyes straight ahead – locked on the center of my universe as she draws nearer – but Jacob growls very quietly, his muzzle rippling with the sound. I don't care how tough you are, leech; I can rip you in half before you have a chance to scream.

The violence in Jacob's mind surprises me with its raw power, but I realize a fraction of a second later that such notions are his outlet for channeling his aggression. He knows that he must retain a calm, collected state of being in these next moments if we are to succeed.

Bella pauses a few yards from the Volturi and her escorts follow suit. Renesmee surveys the scene with wide, solemn brown eyes, one tiny fist clutching her mother's shirt.

Spontaneously, I slip out from Aro's grasp and dart across the short distance to Bella; Emmett moves deftly aside to make room for me.

Reaching for her hand, she meets me halfway, our fingers weaving together, and I chance a brief look at Aro. He is completely unperturbed by my breach in decorum – in fact, he seems to be aware of little else except Renesmee. The intense, almost fanatical scrutiny in his hazy eyes as he stares at my daughter is...troubling.

After a brief stretch of silence – though not for me, as my head is filled with Aro's enthrallment, Demetri's tactical analysis and Felix's measured glee – a cocky grin pulls up one corner of the latter's mouth and he greets in a low undertone, "Hello again, Bella." She still smells delicious...but in an entirely different way, he comments to himself, savoring the floral essence of her unique scent. Unlike their last meeting, Felix sees her not as a vessel containing sweet, hot blood, but as someone to be noticed.

Although, ‘notice' is a far cry from ‘respect' in his mind, which is glaringly obvious as his ruby gaze wanders appreciatively over Bella's body.

A poisonous bubble of rage seethes within my chest, seeking release, but Bella curbs my tongue by straightening up, her chin tilting further as she meets Felix's stare head-on. A faint, wry smile bows her full lips, and she replies, "Hey, Felix." Her fingers squeeze my hand in warning and reassurance. She has probably guessed what the thickly built vampire is likely thinking about her, and does not want to give him the satisfaction of my loss of temper nor her cowering as she did in Volterra.

Correctly interpreting the hint of defiance in Bella's expression, Felix chuckles, and tells her, "You look good." Delectable, actually. "Immortality suits you."

Her smile tips to one side, and she arches her thin eyebrows, appearing to be flattered. But the biting tang of sarcasm is heavy in her voice as she returns, "Thanks so much."

"You're welcome." He eyes her again while at the same time charting Jacob's every move, and says with a dim note of regret, "It's too bad..." ...you're going to die today, he finishes inwardly.

My lips twitch, begging to curl over my teeth in a snarl, but I keep the impulse at bay, my thumb tracing the shape of Bella's delicate wrist. Then, as though she is capable of reading minds, Bella's mouth sobers – yet her eyes burn fiercely – and she agrees, "Yes, too bad, isn't it?"

She is a feisty one, Felix remarks, tossing her a wink.

Oblivious to anything else happening around him, Aro continues to examine Renesmee, openly awed by every nuance of her appearance. She watches the ancient with a guarded expression, her knees clamping a bit tighter around Bella's waist.

Almost dreamily, Aro's head slants sideways, and he breathes, "I hear her strange heart. I smell her strange scent." Truly a marvel to behold.

He transfers his gaze, and his thoughts, to Bella, appraising her as one would a work of art being placed on the auction block. "In truth, young Bella," he murmurs, "immortality does become you most extraordinarily. It is as if you were designed for this life." A gentle, deceptively affectionate smile wrinkles the fragile-looking skin on his face as he wonders if the potential he saw in her last spring has escalated...and if she is worth the price of acquisition.

Meanwhile, as I war with the blazing ire barely contained inside my ribcage, Bella inclines her head once in response to Aro's adulation. With the motion, his attention is drawn to the glittering diamond nestled at the base of her throat, and his eyes light up. "You liked my gift?" he questions delightedly, but his thoughts are speculating on all the possible reasons she could have for wearing the necklace.

Bella's gaze flits downward briefly, and then she allows in a placid tone, "It's beautiful, and very, very generous of you. Thank you." She adds with a self-conscious shrug, "I probably should have sent a note."

Charmed, feathery strains of laughter burst from Aro. Such an uncommonly rational newborn – with a dry wit and gifted, besides. "It's just a little something I had lying around," he announces, waving a hand in blasé detachment. "I thought it might complement your new face," his smile broadens, "and so it does."

Just above the slight breeze, a quiet hiss fills the air. The master gave one of the crown jewels to that...that...filth? Jane's white, livid face shines like a beacon from beneath the cowl of her dark cloak, and her small hands curve into talons at her sides, a wash of fear spiraling through her. Suddenly, she begins to consider the possibility that Bella may become a rival for Aro's favor among the guard.

Hearing the muted noise of outrage, Bella shifts her weight to the left and peers over the ancient immortal's shoulder expressionlessly. Jane glares at her without apology, the feral sneer shaping her features displaying the monster that resides within the childlike façade, and the blackest hatred pollutes her mind as she swears, I will see this one in pieces before the day is out. Her thin body starts to lean forward – but Alec's hand fastens around her wrist, his crimson eyes radiating caution.

Long used to his prized catalyst's bouts of tantrum, Aro politely clears his throat, wishing to continue with the matter at hand, and Bella's eyes snap back to his. "May I greet your daughter, lovely Bella?" His question fairly oozes saccharine friendliness.

Like a soldier preparing to enter battle, Bella adopts an unreadable mask that completely veils her countenance and takes two careful steps forward, making no attempt to relinquish my hand from her abruptly tense grasp. So I move with her, and Aro meets us, beaming down at the bronze-haired phenomenon that turns a little further in Bella's arms to see the black-haired vampire.

"But she is exquisite," Aro marvels softly. "So like you and Edward." Raising his voice for the benefit of the spectators arrayed across the clearing, he speaks directly to the little girl, well aware that she is far more intelligent than her physical appearance suggests. "Hello, Renesmee."

Her startled face whips toward Bella's, seeking confirmation that she should reply. Her mother nods encouragingly. Squaring her tiny shoulders, Renesmee addresses the ancient with pronounced maturity. "Hello, Aro." Her chiming soprano voice rings throughout the eerie quiet, and nearly every vampire in both the guard and their audience reels in shock at the sound. To his credit, Aro remains smiling, but his burgundy eyes grow wide in bewildered captivation.

Loathe to display any interest but needing an explanation, Caius growls frustratedly, "What is it?"

Not removing his mesmerized stare from Renesmee, Aro declares in confidence, "Half mortal, half immortal. Conceived so, and carried by this newborn while she was still human."

Disbelieving, Caius jeers, "Impossible." That sort of crossbreed can never become reality. It is a myth.

Twin flames ignite in Aro's ruby-colored irises as his brother's mistrust sinks in, but amusement dominates his expression and he asks, still looking at my daughter, "Do you think they've fooled me, then, brother?"

Then Caius – unbending, relentless – flinches, his shoulders curving inward as though he is expecting a blow.

Aro goes on, his tone calm and mildly entertained, "Is the heartbeat you hear a trickery as well?"

Like a rebuked child, the white-haired ancient scowls and looks aside, well aware that even after millennia together, Aro could just as easily dismiss him from the Volturi court – a dismissal that ends with pain and fire.

"Calmly and carefully, brother." Though it would seem like he is conversing only with Caius, Aro is cleverly including all those listening in as he says with growing excitement, "I know well how you love your justice, but there is no justice in acting against this unique little one for her parentage. And there is so much to learn, so much to learn! I know you don't have my enthusiasm for collecting histories, but be tolerant with me, brother, as I add a chapter that stuns me with its improbability." He shakes his head a little in amazement. "We came expecting only justice and the sadness of false friends, but look what we have gained instead! A bright, new knowledge of ourselves, our possibilities."

Aglow in the aftermath of his own revelation, Aro offers his hand to Renesmee. Now...show me what you can do, little one.

She, of course, has other plans. Leaning towards him, Renesmee presses her fingertips to Aro's pale, hollowed cheek, and each vivid memory she holds flows into his mind. The process lasts only a few minutes; Aro has had centuries of practice in siphoning another's thoughts, and Renesmee's talent simplifies the method immensely.

In the end, he is more impressed with the little girl than ever, and a broad grin stretches across his face. "Brilliant," he sighs. The flickering image of Renesmee skipping down the hewn stone halls of the Volterra fortress dances through Aro's mind before it is quickly swallowed by darkness, and my jaw trembles with the friction of my teeth snapping together. This is what I had been afraid of: that Aro would come to see Renesmee as a rare commodity and therefore endeavor to secure a place for her within his coven.

Lowering her small arm, Renesmee settles back into Bella's embrace, her expression grave. "Please?" she asks somberly.

Privy to her deepest fears, Aro gazes at her tenderly and vows, "Of course I have no desire to harm your loved ones, precious Renesmee."

But in his head – that twisted, convoluted mass of ambitions and bloodlust and thirst for supremacy – his intentions are, in that instant, laid bare as bleached bones in the dead of night. He will not leave this place without that which he desires, and the list now includes my wife and daughter, Benjamin, Kate, Zafrina, and any other vampire possessing an ability among us.

There is no limit to what he is prepared to do in order to achieve his own ends.

A grinding noise reverberates in my ears, dimly joined by a sharp hiss from somewhere at the back of our defensive lines. Liar! Maggie shrieks internally. Siobhan lays a restraining hand on the younger vampire's rigid shoulder, her narrowed eyes focused on the small group in the center of the field.

"I wonder," Aro murmurs to himself, ignoring the furious reactions his statement prompted, and his faraway gaze drifts over to the red-brown wolf that had inched closer during Renesmee's introduction and is now poised beside Bella, his tail swinging back and forth in agitation, the hair beginning to rise on the back of his neck. These strange, exceptionally powerful mortals are a great asset; honor-bound to uphold their treaty with once sworn enemies and imbued by their ancestors with the strength to dispatch any vampire. But this one... he studies Jacob keenly. He is compelled by much more than duty to stand beside the Cullens. The memory that he obtained from me of Renesmee lying asleep in Jacob's arms flashes across his mind's eye. Such devotion for one so young. I wonder...

The vision that swims into view is at once appalling and maddening. Surrounded by the concave walls of the castle turret, Aro and his brothers sit on their thrones, the walls lined with a host of shadowed figures, though I spot Bella's face, and mine, and Renesmee's, among the masses.

And sitting at the base of the dais, thick leather collars circling their throats like the jackals that would guard the pharaohs of Egypt, are the wolves that I have come to trust with my life – with my family's lives.

In Aro's reverie, they are reduced to nothing more than animals, set to serve their masters.

My desire to uphold diplomacy during this exchange abruptly evaporates, along with my already fading tolerance. Harshly, I retort, my voice rough with fury, "It doesn't work that way."

Alerted by my hostile attitude, Bella and Renesmee turn to look at me, puzzled frowns on their lips, and Emmett subtly changes his position, his knees bending a little as his arms spread out from his sides.

What doesn't work? Jacob peers quizzically in my direction with one large black eye, and then realizes a beat later that Aro is clearly staring at him.

"Just an errant thought," Aro replies with easy flippancy, yet his attention shifts from an increasingly frustrated Jacob to the lines of wolves gathered on either side of our witnesses. But they are here to support you because of your daughter, are they not? he poses, studying the organized layout of their ranks. This Jacob belongs to your Renesmee so completely that he has no choice but to defend her, and the others follow his lead as Alpha.

He knows too much about them now – the vital knowledge stolen from my thoughts and Renesmee's – but I knew that this could happen, and had warned both Jacob and Sam beforehand. Of course, neither of them was very worried – the running standard among the pack, it seems.

A great asset indeed... Aro considers once again. The designs he is beginning to create in regard to the wolves and his perception of my family's relationship with them are so warped that I pull away a bit from his mind in disgust.

Shaking my head ferociously, I interject, "They don't belong to us, Aro. They don't follow our commands." Jacob's ears flatten against his skull while I speak, a growl slowly rising from his barrel chest. "They're here because they want to be," I finish in certainty.

The growl echoes with brutal clarity over the white landscape, and Jacob rakes his front claws across the packed snow. We don't belong to anyone. We fight because it's the right thing to do. ...And I fight for Nessie. His head moves infinitesimally towards her, and Aro notices at once.

"They seem quite attached to you, though," the ancient comments in a reflective tone. "And your young mate and your...family. Loyal," he whispers the term admiringly.

I glare hard at his wistful expression, contending, "They're committed to protecting human life, Aro. That makes them able to coexist with us, but hardly with you. Unless you're rethinking your lifestyle." I lift an eyebrow in cynical suspicion.

He chuckles softly, the noise genuine in its merriment. I do so enjoy our philosophical discussions, Edward. You are your father's son, he offers as praise, and reiterates aloud, "Just an errant thought. You well know how that is." Aro gazes at me fondly; I half expect him to shake a finger in affectionate scolding, as Esme is prone to do. "None of us can entirely control our subconscious desires." The dream of wolves acting as sentries for their stronghold flits through his mind again, and the fierce yearning laced into his thoughts leaves no doubt in my opinion that Aro will not give up as easily as he would have us believe.

A revolted grimace contorts my mouth, and I answer him bluntly, "I do know how that is. And I also know the difference between that kind of thought and the kind with a purpose behind it." Narrowing my eyes, I state in no uncertain terms, "It could never work, Aro."

Jacob's massive head rotates toward me, and a low whine fills the air as he demands, Just tell me what the hell is going on here! What's he thinking about us? Several of the other pack members echo his question, all of them on edge as they wait for my answer.

Fully aware that the spark I am about to ignite could set off an explosive chain of events, I mutter under my breath to Jacob, "He's intrigued with the idea of..." I snarl quietly "...guard dogs."

Icy silence bathes the clearing for a whole second as the pack's psyche goes blank with shock. Then, an enraged chorus of howls, roars, and snapping teeth ruptures across the field. Enough! Sam orders, barking loudly in emphasis, and the furious bellows of the wolves are quickly cut off, leaving a foreboding stillness in its wake.

Aro smiles, laughing as though thoroughly entertained, but a pang of displeasure flavors his mind, and he voices his thought for all to hear. "I suppose that answers that question. This lot has picked its side." Perhaps a few can be spared from the slaughter. He glances sidelong at the russet-colored wolf baring his fangs at him. It may aid our cause to show mercy to the livestock, and strike a bargain with them over the child.

Whether effected by Aro's referral to the pack as ‘livestock' or his plan to use Renesmee as leverage, the white-hot flame of anger that I have struggled to control since the Volturi arrived burns through its prison and incinerates what remains of my restraint. Hissing ruthlessly, I feel my body pull itself into a low crouch, leaning towards Aro as every instinct I possess urges me to attack.

A strong yet slender set of fingers wraps around my forearm, holding me in place, and just as the impulse to shake myself free surges forth, another considerably smaller hand clutches the sleeve of my shirt.

Renesmee's fear pummels my senses like a tidal wave, banking the fire just enough for reason to trickle back into my mind.

Other details begin to take shape in my awareness. Demetri and Felix are perched directly in front of me, crouching defensively, and Aro looks on with an empty expression. At my side, Emmett braces himself for a fight, his stance the same as the one he uses when stalking a bear. And Jacob is perfectly balanced on his huge paws, the hooked claws disappearing into the snow – ready to leap in front of Renesmee at a moment's notice.

This display of violence is pointless. Aro snaps his fingers briskly, and the two guards flanking him relax their tense postures, Felix far more unwilling than his counterpart.

Emmett glances at me from the corner of his eye. Your call, brother, he sends.

After the barest of deliberations, I straighten up in one fluid motion, and he emulates the movement. Jacob watches us revert to our former positions, and though he is strongly opposed to the idea, he follows our lead and arranges his vast frame into a less aggressive pose.

"So much to discuss. So much to decide," Aro announces unexpectedly, his tone businesslike and his line of thinking shrewdly intricate. Sketching a courteous bow, his filmy red irises dancing across each of our faces, he says, "If you and your furry protector will excuse me, my dear Cullens, I must confer with my brothers." Just as he concludes his sentence, Aro raises a pale hand and signals the guard to join him.

Seeing as he left us no other option but to retreat, I latch onto Bella's hand and Emmett's elbow, tugging them with me while I back away, my gaze sweeping the lines of gray for any threat.

Lingering at the end of our withdrawal, Jacob growls at the advancing force, his fur standing on end all along his shoulders and spine. He shows his teeth to Aro, swearing inside his head, and as the space separating him from us widens, Renesmee anxiously grabs onto the tufted tip of his tail.

We reach the relative safety of our side of the clearing as the flood of hooded figures encircles Aro. Now, only a distance of fifty yards – a simple gap for any vampire to cross – isolates us from the Volturi.

I release my hold on Emmett, but grip Bella's palm tightly, concentrating on the unfolding scene as Caius stomps furiously over to his brother. Aro views his approach with mild dispassion, which is strange, for Caius' outburst earlier had cracked the dark-haired ancient's benevolent façade.

I exhale sharply as a swift rush of insight drowns out all previous thought.

This is the next layer in their strategy.

Whatever elaborate orchestration the Volturi are setting the stage for, it is merely another device to help them accomplish their goals.

Caught in suspension between an unspeakable fate and the fragile web of hope for eternity, I cling to the heaven that came down and changed my black existence into paradise, the faith I have found in her promise comforting me as this endless of days stretches on.