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Metamorphosis

Summary:
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


Notes:


19. Contrivances

Rating 5/5   Word Count 13464   Review this Chapter

Thirsting for the cruel triumph of our slaughter with an animalistic ferocity, Caius faces off against Aro like a viper poised to strike, his nostrils flaring in rage.

"How can you abide this infamy?" he spits venomously, his thin white fingers curled into talons next to the folds of his night-black cloak. "Why do we stand here impotently in the face of such an outrageous crime, covered by such a ridiculous deception?"

Each word rings out with blatant accusation, and though Caius is too furious to notice, Aro's burgundy eyes narrow slightly in warning.

Nevertheless, the outwardly calm ancient tucks his hands into the sleeves of his robe and answers, "Because it's all true. Every word of it." He nods in the direction of our assembled lines, pointing out in an oddly docile tone, "See how many witnesses stand ready to give evidence that they have seen this miraculous child grow and mature in just the short time they've known her." He makes a sweeping gesture from one side of my family's supporters to the other. "That they have felt the warmth of the blood that pulses in her veins."

While Aro is speaking, Caius jerks a bit when his brother uses the term 'witnesses'. Blocking out all other voices – verbal and mental – I latch onto the white-haired vampire's mind, watching his expression intensely as a stony mask settles over his irate features, and then he glances at the throng gathered at the forest's edge. These children were easily convinced of a need for justice, but they could turn on us in an instant. Already the seeds of doubt have been sown among them.

He eyes the mismatched crowd, noting the bowed heads drawn together in whispered debates, the confusion mirrored on nearly every immortal face, and a trickle of apprehension weaves into his thoughts. A stronger validation is needed. Something that will restore a sense of dignity to this embarrassment and seal the Cullens' fate.

A brooding frown wrinkles his papery skin, a thousand half-formed notions racing through his mind at such a frenetic pace that my concentration begins to waver. From the corner of my eye, I risk a quick look at Bella.

The delicate planes of her heart-shaped face are set in an almost severe expression, and her amber irises glow with intense focus. But although she seems to be staring at Caius, her gaze is strangely distant – as if she is seeing something beyond what is happening right in front of us.

What are you thinking? I ask her silently, but my curiosity is abruptly stifled by Caius' declaration.

"The werewolves."

Flickering images of a full moon hovering behind a hazy wash of clouds – of matted fur coated with blood, gleaming wetly in the dim light – of ragged claws and teeth and faces that are not quite human yet not quite wolf – surface in his mind's eye.

I will not allow this pestilence to befoul the earth any longer, Caius seethes to himself, and I struggle mightily to hold back a grin. In his desperate effort to bring another charge against my family, he fails to see the utter illogicality of the claim.

Recognizing the other ancient's error, Aro grimaces in disappointment and mutters, "Ah, brother..."

"Will you defend that alliance, too, Aro?" Caius says loudly, ignoring his brother's plea. "The Children of the Moon have been our bitter enemies from the dawn of time. We have hunted them to near extinction in Europe and Asia." He stabs a hooked fingernail at my father without breaking away from Aro's gaze, sneering, "Yet Carlisle encourages a familiar relationship with this enormous infestation – no doubt in an attempt to overthrow us. The better to protect his warped lifestyle," he adds, his voice practically choking with malice.

You disgrace yourself, Caius, Aro moans inwardly, covering his fluttering eyelids with a hand.

I clear my throat, relishing the moment to wipe that superior expression from Caius' thin face, and he spins around to glare at me, promising my death with each thought.

"Caius, it's the middle of the day," I remark, motioning with an open palm towards the milky, cloud-covered sky. Then I wave that same hand at Jacob, whose black eyes look on with keen interest, and point out as tactfully as I am able to given the circumstances, "These are not Children of the Moon, clearly. They bear no relation to your enemies on the other side of the world."

Lips contorting around his bared teeth, Caius levels a deadly glare at Renesmee and snarls, "You breed mutants here." She, like your foul-smelling pets, taints the very air with each breath. And the stain of her existence, and theirs, will be scrubbed clean from this planet – as a disease is purged from the body.

Under the ancient's murderous stare, Renesmee locks her small arms around Bella's neck, but meets his ruby eyes with reckless bravery. At the same time, a growl churns inside my chest, clawing its way up my throat.

I clench my jaw to keep the sound at bay, knowing that Caius only wants to provoke me into making a rash mistake, and once I am certain that I can respond in a sensible manner, I allow my mouth to open. "They aren't even werewolves," I announce to Caius, having discerned as much from both his and Aro's memories of the centuries-long feud between the Volturi and the Children of the Moon. Then I offer coolly, "Aro can tell you all about it if you don't believe me."

Bella and Jacob share a puzzled glance. Reading the unspoken question in her wide eyes, the red-brown wolf rolls its massive shoulders – a passable imitation of a shrug – and thinks, You got me. All the tribe's stories called us werewolves, so I figured we were just different from the myths. Sort of like how you guys are not the same as traditional vampires.

His ears flick back and forth in quick bursts, unconsciously reacting to the ripple of bewilderment spreading through the pack in light of my statement.

Irritated, Caius whirls sideways to face Aro as the black-haired vampire slowly lifts his hand from his eyes and rebukes unhappily, "Dear Caius, I would have warned you not to press this point if you had told me your thoughts."

The two stare one another down in the infinitesimal pause that follows; Caius, predictably, is the first to waver. Aro goes on as though nothing had occurred, explaining with belied interest, "Though the creatures think of themselves as werewolves, they are not. The more accurate name for them would be shape-shifters. The choice of a wolf form was purely chance. It could have been a bear or a hawk or a panther when the first change was made."

He nods toward Jacob, whose snout quivers faintly with a suppressed growl despite his curiosity in the ancient's observation of his people. "These creatures truly have nothing to do with the Children of the Moon. They have merely inherited this skill from their fathers. It's genetic – they do not continue their species by infecting others the way true werewolves do." Aro raises his eyebrows a fraction at his brother, waiting for a response.

A storm cloud of resentment and frustration swiftly darkens Caius' sharp-edged features. He had not considered the idea that one of his own would successfully undermine this strategy, and the acrid sting of betrayal twists his rigid mouth for a moment. Then, he grounds out in a terse voice, "They know our secret."

Beside Emmett, Rosalie snorts under her breath. He doesn't know when to quit, she criticizes derisively.

Agreeing with my sister's scathing remark, I prepare to speak – but Aro answers before I can draw a breath. "They are creatures of our supernatural world, brother," he tells Caius in a wispy, even tone. "Perhaps even more dependant upon secrecy than we are; they can hardly expose us." He tilts his head ever so slightly, a ghostly smile touching his lips, but the translucent skin around his eyes tightens as he murmurs, "Carefully, Caius. Specious allegations get us nowhere."

Staring hard at the benign immortal, Caius realizes that Aro is wordlessly advising him to cease dancing around the issue and seek another avenue towards victory. The white-haired vampire inhales deeply through his nose, striving for calm, and gives his brother a slow nod.

They hold each other's eyes for several minutes in a type of silent communication that has been refined through the many centuries of the Volturi's existence, and I bite back a hiss of aggravation when I examine both their minds and discover that they have reverted to archaic Etruscan – the one world language in which my translating capabilities are decidedly lacking.

But the multi-layered thoughts of an immortal are not limited to fully formed sentences. Flashes of hazy images – an odd combination of my family's faces, our allies, bright yellow-orange flames and the guard's shadowy cloaks covering the whitened field – resonate from Caius and Aro, though it is clear from the hungering cruelty in the former's mind that he does not share his brother's desire to preserve their reputable standing as the guardians of our species' livelihood.

Suddenly, in a voice that splinters the wintry air like the dangerous cracking of ice on the river, Caius declaims, "I want to talk to the informant." His piercing crimson glare fixes on Irina, frozen in anguish just a few yards away.

She is completely unaware of anything outside her own tormented psyche. I was such a fool, she wails to herself, the mental cries louder than any other mind in the clearing. How could I have sentenced my family to death because of a single misunderstanding? I should have known that Tanya and Kate would stand beside the Cullens... Oh, my sisters, please forgive me, I beg you. I never meant for things to turn out this way. I thought that – I only wanted to –

"Irina." Caius utters her name like a curse, a brief smattering of Italian weaving through the indecipherable commentary inside his brain. Vieni qui adesso, tu inutile disgraziata.

Startled, the lithe blonde reflexively turns in his direction and then blanches, her deep ocher eyes widening with anxiety. Wearing a scornful expression, Caius snaps his fingers at her and Irina trips over to his side, jittery and frightened.

The ruthlessly callous ancient peers down at her with a heavy-lidded gaze, enjoying her obvious dread – while Aro looks on emotionlessly, his face as blank as Marcus', who remains lost in the eerie realm between dreams and reality.

After a tense, drawn out portion of a second, Caius speaks. "So you appear to have been quite mistaken in your allegations," he comments in a deceptively smooth tone, as though delivering a mild reprimand to a small child caught in an act of misbehavior.

Tanya leans forward, her breath catching as she worries, Does he mean to punish her?

Kate mirrors her posture, her gaze locked on their wayward sister.

"I'm sorry," Irina whispers huskily, but her attention flickers from Caius to her family and back again. "I should have made sure of what I was seeing. But I had no idea..." she trails off, waving a trembling hand towards Bella and Renesmee.

"Dear Caius," Aro surprisingly inserts, "could you expect her to have guessed in an instant something so strange and impossible?" He seems bewildered by the other vampire's line of reasoning...yet I know for a fact that he can be a very convincing actor. "Any of us would have made the same assumption," he remarks in quiet frankness.

Vexed by the interruption, Caius gestures for silence and counters in a sharp, bristly voice, "We all know you made a mistake. I meant to speak of your motivations."

My suspicion increases tenfold at this new manipulation of events. Shifting my stare to Irina, I wonder how Caius intends to further their schemes through her while she frowns uneasily, confused by his words. "My motivations?" she echoes after a moment.

"Yes," Caius replies, satisfaction laced into each syllable, "for coming to spy on them in the first place." The faint grin curving his thin lips is reminiscent of a cat cornering a mouse.

Irina flinches as he says 'spy', her pale eyebrows coming together to form a lattice of anguished lines on her forehead. I thought that my intentions were honorable when I left home...to make peace with what had happened, and repair the bonds between our families... A quiver races down her slight frame. But I have led us all down the road to hell instead, she determines bleakly, the misery flavoring her thoughts leading me to believe that perhaps she is truly sorry for what her actions have wrought.

While the triumphant glint in his deep red irises sharpens into something far more dangerous, Caius prompts Irina, "You were unhappy with the Cullens, were you not?"

Thinned traces of loss, betrayal, and fury entwine with Irina's self-recrimination, and she turns her head to look at Carlisle with dulled, grief-stricken eyes. "I was," she mumbles, quickly lowering her gaze once she detects the steadfast empathy in my father's expression.

"Because...?" Caius pushes her, his right hand disappearing into the sleeve of his robe, curling around some unknown object concealed there. His thoughts reveal nothing except a growing confidence in what he is seeking to accomplish with this interrogation.

Shrinking into herself, a curtain of silver-blonde hair hides Irina's face from view as she admits in the barest whisper, "Because the werewolves killed my friend. And the Cullens wouldn't stand aside and let me avenge him."

"The shape-shifters," Aro amends helpfully, oblivious to her pain.

My sense of incredulity is severely overtaxed to react in any way other than shifting my eyes to the black-haired ancient for a half second, wondering – as I had in Italy months ago – how a being that resembles a human, that strives to be portrayed as a representative of benevolence and wise leadership, can be so completely devoid of any shred of humanity.

Now is not the time to argue semantics, Caius grumbles, and quells his annoyance in order to encapsulate aloud, "So the Cullens sided with the shape-shifters against our own kind – against the friend of a friend, even." He raises his sharp chin arrogantly, his gaze sweeping across our lines as though daring one of us to object.

A low noise somewhere between a snort and a growl rumbles against the back of my throat. Caius is hoping to prosecute my family with any charge that he can find, and Irina's grudge against the wolves has provided him with the chance to manufacture an offense for the Volturi to cast judgment upon.

Irina stiffens, recognizing that the ancient is using her like a pawn on a chessboard – not powerful by any means compared to others, but effective nonetheless in furthering their strategy. Still, she answers truthfully, "That's how I saw it."

It is clear from the expectant look on his thin face that Caius is waiting for her to say more, but Irina presses her lips together stubbornly, lengthening the icy silence until he is forced to prompt, "If you'd like to make a formal complaint against the shape-shifters – and the Cullens for supporting their actions – now would be the time." The corners of his mouth drift upwards ever so slightly into a malicious smile.

All eyes shift to the willowy blonde, the sudden balance point for this precarious confrontation, and as if she feels the weight of each stare, Irina's shoulders quake while she sucks in a deep breath. Cheeks ashen, the bruise-like hollows around her eyes seem to enhance the flinty sharpness of her tawny irises, and she lifts her chin, the ramrod-straight posture of her slim body like that of a soldier heading into battle.

Meeting Caius' cruel stare unflinchingly, Irina pledges in her mind, Do what you will to me, old one, but I shall not give you what you want. I have one chance to correct my mistake, and I'm going to take it. "No," her defiant reply echoes across the field, "I have no complaint against the wolves, or the Cullens."

Disturbed, I notice that the tiny smile has not waned on Caius' face. His right hand vanishes from view once again, the muscles of his arm contracting slightly beneath the heavy fabric of his cloak, and he continues to watch Irina with bland attentiveness.

"You came here to destroy an immortal child," she goes on, her voice gaining strength and resolve. "No immortal child exists. This was my mistake, and I take full responsibility for it. But the Cullens are innocent, and you have no reason to still be here." Her gaze flits briefly to our side of the clearing, lingering for the most part on her anxious sisters as she murmurs sincerely, "I'm so sorry."

A flicker of movement catches my eye. Caius has withdrawn his hand from his robe, and his fingers are clenched tightly around a flash of coppery metal. In his head, there is an uncanny, disquieting silence, broken up by snatches of incomplete thought and fragmented images tinted with red-orange light.

Meanwhile, Irina turns to address the witnesses peering around the imposing gray mass of the guard, her tone earnest. "There was no crime. There's no valid reason for you to continue here."

As she appeals to the bewildered crowd, Caius lifts the object in his fist high into the air. Later, I would discern that the burnished metal is carved with dozens of archaic symbols, its edges inlaid with beaten shapes of gold and silver.

But at this moment, all I know is that a signal has been delivered, and we can do nothing but watch in horrified disbelief.

Irina is engulfed by a trio of hulking smoke-colored robes, her mind only beginning to register surprise before a searing white pain explodes within my perception and her mental voice is snuffed out like a candle.

She didn't even have time to scream.

Earsplitting screeches cleave through the wintry air for less than a second as the guards methodically rip another immortal apart, stacking the remains into a makeshift pyre, and then Caius glides forward, swift as a passing shadow.

With a high-pitched shriek, the center of the huddle erupts into a fireball, shooting a flurry of glowing sparks and yellow-white flames into the colorless overcast sky. The three hooded figures back away from the inferno and return to their places in the formation, completely unfazed by the destruction of a life.

Yet Caius remains beside the smoldering blaze, his thumb clicking a small knob on the side of the metallic object, and the roar of the fire lessens, a plume of sickly-sweet violet smoke rising above the field.

Gasps break out from the rabble hovering near the tree line behind the Volturi, but there is no sound whatsoever among us – no exclamations, no sudden breaths – not even a remotely coherent thought. Then, Renesmee shudders in Bella's arms and buries her face in the crook of her neck, the realization of what has transpired sinking fully into a mind that is so very innocent despite its inherent knowledge.

His expression illuminated by the fiery gleam of Irina's charred corpse, Caius' hollow cheekbones and sunken eyes make him appear almost skeletal, and he smiles over at us pitilessly. "Now she has taken full responsibility for her actions," he declares in cold triumph, his crimson eyes drifting toward Tanya and Kate, who are staring at the blaze with identical looks of shocked devastation.

Come, he taunts internally as their dual topaz glares lock onto him, the horror fading into uncontrollable, primal rage. Avenge your sister. If you can. You will all be joining her very soon.

If the scale tips against us – if we instigate this fight on the basis of revenge – we all die. Caius knows this, and now, so do I.

Several things happen at the same time, creating a jumbled, chaotic skirmish that my brain struggles to compartmentalize even as it occurs.

"Stop them!" I shout, while Tanya lets out a howl of raw fury and coils to spring, her thoughts bathed in the red haze of bloodlust.

I manage to clamp a hand around her forearm to keep her in place, and as she starts to twist from my grasp, snarling, Carlisle imprisons her in the circle of his arms. Holding her to him while she bucks wildly, spitting and growling like a wounded lioness, my father tries to reach the sentient mind smothered beneath the anguish. "It's too late to help her," he breathes desperately into her ear. "Don't give him what he wants!"

Simultaneously with Tanya's attempted retaliation, Kate emits a strangled wail and takes a step forward, her hands raised to electrocute the white-haired immortal until he is a smoking pile of ash – when Rosalie pulls her back, struggling to secure the other vampire in a headlock.

Reacting on instinct, a current ripples across Kate's skin and Rose falls to the ground with a startled whimper, her limbs quivering with spasms from the force of the shock.

Emmett lunges at Kate immediately, grabbing her shoulder and flinging her backwards before the electricity paralyzes him as well, and he stumbles to his knees, swearing.

A half second later, Kate staggers to her feet. Clumps of snow stick to her tangled cornsilk hair, her cheeks and neck, and the expression on her face distorts her lovely features into an inhuman mask of vengeance.

She rolls back onto her haunches –

In a blur of motion, Garrett leaps forward and tackles Kate, driving them both into the powdery snow. Aware that she will inevitably loose her ability on him, he tries to compensate by wrapping his strong arms around hers, pinning them to her sides, and grasps his own wrists in front of her torso.

Too far gone into the disorienting blackness of wrath, Kate unleashes a fierce jolt of power, snarling as she wriggles in his hold. Garrett's eyes roll back, his lean body convulsing with pain, but he does not let go.

Thrashing madly, Kate shocks him again, and her bare skin melts the snow into tiny droplets that glitter on her face and eyelashes like the tears of grief that she cannot shed. Determined yet barely conscious, the rangy nomad refuses to release his grip, but he is waging a losing battle.

"Zafrina!" I yell over my shoulder.

Her almond-shaped ruby eyes blink once in compliance, and a curtain of darkness instantly falls on the Denali sisters, momentarily stunning them into reason.

Kate, turned toward our side of the clearing, her cheek pressed into the frozen ground, weakens in her struggle for freedom. Her keening shrieks transform into low moans, and the dilated pupils of her gold eyes are unfocused, staring blankly in one direction. Ripples of electricity skitter up and down her slender frame – aftershocks from the blast she had set off just moments ago – yet somehow Garrett maintains his grasp.

Tanya ceases to fight Carlisle's restraining arms, though her thoughts are filled with deadly hatred, and she tosses back her strawberry-blonde mane, hissing through her teeth, "Give me my sight back."

Zafrina glances sidelong at me in wordless question, and I shake my head imperceptibly, not convinced that either Tanya or Kate would have the control to see the flames licking at their sister's remains and not react with violence.

Garrett and Kate are still tussling in the snow. His feeble attempts to lock their legs together continue to fail as she shocks him every time, blinded by the Amazon vampire's illusion but single-minded in her need for revenge.

Abruptly, Bella inhales a sharp breath. The sound is so quiet that I scarcely hear it, but every nuance of my being is obsessively attuned to her, and from the corner of my eye, I watch her gaze focus intently on the pair lying at our feet.

Then, the white-hot current racing through Garrett is cut off, and he quickly recovers, tightening his embrace around Kate. At the same time, her sight is restored, and she writhes with increased vigor, tendrils of her blonde hair beginning to stand on end from the static electricity generated by her gift.

Garrett rolls swiftly onto his side, wedging Kate's thrashing legs between his own, and whispers with surprising gentleness, "If I let you up, will you knock me down again, Katie?"

She snarls, throwing her head back in an effort to jar his skull, but he twists his neck sideways to avoid a collision. The threatening noise in her throat dies, and her breath hitches as she resumes struggling.

I look at the two of them for a moment while my brain is a whirlwind of astonishment, confusion, and suspicion. Working hard to keep the frown from my expression, I peer fleetingly at Bella once again, asking myself if she is using her shield to protect Garrett from Kate's ability – and also wondering how that is even possible, because the application of her gift is nowhere near that level of proficiency.

I have no doubt that she would reach her full potential with time and practice, but she told me herself just days ago that it takes every shred of concentration she has to extend her shield only a few feet around her – like a bubble – to include one or two other minds.

Could she truly have mastered her talent enough to protect one vampire from another when they are so close physically? What other explanation is there? And why would she not tell me what she can do?

While I try to rationalize this strange turn of events, Carlisle mutters with rapid urgency, "Listen to me, Tanya, Kate. Vengeance doesn't help her now. Irina wouldn't want you to waste your lives this way." That poor child... he mourns silently, even as he goes on. "Think about what you're doing. If you attack them, we all die," he says with grim certainty.

A stifled sob chokes out of Tanya, and she slumps against my father, her eyes falling closed in sorrow. Oh, Irina... Irina, môj sestra... She covers her mouth with a hand, shoulders quaking, and I withdraw from her thoughts out of respect for her grief, as Carlisle's hold becomes a consoling embrace.

Zafrina, seeing the genuine outpouring of emotion from Tanya, dispels the illusion cloaking her vision.

Kate's violent movements are finally finished, and she lays immobile for a second or so, her expression crumpling into one of deep sadness. Then she tucks her chin into her breastbone and starts to weep, her knotted, ice-coated locks covering her face, her hands fisted at her thighs.

"Shh... Shh, Katie." Garrett shifts her trembling form slightly in his arms, stroking the matted hair from her cheeks, and she pushes her nose into his chest, one fist freed to pound weakly against his shoulder as she cries, repeating to herself over and over that if he had let her go, she would have succeeded in killing her sister's murderer. "I'm so sorry, Katie. I'm so sorry," he murmurs in her ear. He lays his palm over her fist, stilling it above his heart, as he continues to whisper nonsensical words of comfort, dimly amazed by the connection he feels with her now.

A vulgar oath reverberates in my head, pulling my stare from Kate and Garrett to the incensed white-haired vampire glaring down at them with livid crimson eyes. Thwarted in his plan to goad our side into attacking first, Caius is practically snorting like an enraged bull, his hands working at his sides as he fumes inwardly.

In vivid contrast with his brother, Aro gapes at the pair tangled together in the snow incredulously. How is the nomad able to resist her power? he asks in amazement. He has no gift that I am aware of. Has he developed some type of immunity through constant exposure? Or... His eyes flick up to Bella, whose gaze darts from one end of the field to the other with restless caution, taking in the aggressive stances of the entire guard. No, he tells himself an instant later, her talent is not yet mature enough for that kind of control. There must be another contributing factor.

Mumbled conversations interrupt his deliberations, and he glances over a shoulder at the witnesses they had brought, noting with acute displeasure that the bewildered looks have morphed into frowns of misgiving. The same query – what Irina had done to warrant a death sentence – cycles again and again throughout the group, both aloud and mentally.

Aro's polite expression crinkles with a grimace for a split second before he regains his composure, but his thoughts continue to betray him. The rash execution of our informant has cast doubt on our judgment. We must salvage the situation if we are to proceed. And his mind immediately snaps closed – like a door slamming shut.

"The Italian's white hat has been stained by the young one's demise, it seems." Stefan cackles under his breath, having spotted the aggravated look on Aro's face.

Vladimir adds gleefully in the barest whisper, "Our world is beginning to see the Volturi for what they really are. And they will be thrown down from their lofty thrones – if not today, then soon."

Preparing to reclaim authority over this confrontation, Aro touches Caius on the shoulder with his fingertips, stating calmly, "Irina has been punished for bearing false witness against this child."

Both Tanya and Kate react to his announcement. Carlisle rubs Tanya's arm in a soothing gesture, and Garrett hushes Kate's low growl even as he looks over at Aro with a baleful glare. Once she is quiet, the nomad rises to his feet, bringing her with him easily, and together they fill the space beside Tanya in the front line, Garrett's arm coiled around Kate's waist in a manner that has little to do with restraint.

Aro ignores their outbursts and continues to speak to Caius. "Perhaps we should return to the matter at hand?" he suggests in a mild tone.

Caius jerks upright, the ire melting from his stony features until his entire face is wiped clean of emotion. He recognizes that Aro is dismissing any further acts of influence the other ancient may wish to exhibit because of his failure to procure their desired outcome through deceptive allegations and Irina's murder.

In essence, Caius has been stripped of his power to make a ruling single-handedly – which is the only power he has ever had.

Aro's hand slips from his brother's rigid shoulder as he glides forward, his expression thoughtful. Renata moves after him at once, as do Felix and Demetri, their keen eyes scanning our lines for the smallest hint of an assault.

"Just to be thorough," Aro remarks, almost as an afterthought, "I'd like to speak with a few of your witnesses. Procedure, you know." His thin fingers flutter through the air in a dismissive gesture.

Despite his superficial performance of goodwill, the flow of his thinking is the one thing he cannot hide from me, and I understand the connotation well enough to cause a furious hiss to sizzle through my clenched teeth. Like a master puppeteer, Aro has devised another means to tug on the strings linking my family to our gathered witnesses, scheming to use them against us or make them doubt that their choice to stand with us is the right one.

Caius glances swiftly at his brother, and the unreadable set of his sharp-edged features cracks, bowing his lips into a tiny, cruel smirk. This is far from over, he approves viciously.

My hands ball into hard fists, squeezing so tightly that the pressure travels up both arms, fanning out across my shoulders, and down my spine, turning my whole body into a vibrating wire ready to snap.

Carlisle throws a worried look at me, noting the dangerous glint in my narrowed eyes as I follow Aro's progress down the field, and his face hardens with steely resolve, the burning gold of his irises smoldering.

Pausing a short distance from the western end of our group, Aro turns toward the nearest cluster of witnesses, his gaze flickering to the nearby wolves stationed on the outskirts. Those closest flatten their ears, the fur on their thick shoulders bristling, and the sandy-colored wolf in the center of the line bares his fangs, the tendons of his forelegs flexing as he leans forward.

Seth, hold your position! Jacob warns automatically. But Seth has no intention of attacking – he merely wants a closer look at the ancient immortal, and judging from the disgusted snarl wrinkling his muzzle, he stands unimpressed.

Aro considers the wolves with mild fascination, like studying an exhibit at the zoo, and then he disregards the pack completely, aiming a too friendly smile at the pair of vampires situated directly across from him. "Ah, Amun, my southern neighbor!" he greets, his feathery voice radiating warmth. "It has been so long since you've visited me." He spreads his arms in a benevolent, all-encompassing gesture.

Amun's scarlet eyes widen a bit in apprehension. Clearly, he had not expected to be addressed by the Volturi leader on such a personal level. He arranges his expression into one of remote interest, replying flatly, "Time means little; I never notice its passing."

"So true," Aro sighs in agreement. "But maybe you had another reason to stay away?" The question is posed rhetorically, the tone amiable and light, but Aro's gaze pierces the chilled air like a blade.

Holding his tongue, the Arabic vampire does not so much as blink. Both he and Aro know full well that Amun kept his coven apart from all others for so long because of Benjamin.

Indeed, Aro drops the pretense with his next words while he lowers his arms. "It can be terribly time-consuming to organize newcomers into a coven," he remarks, still smiling faintly. "I know that well! I'm grateful I have others to deal with the tedium." His eyes shift towards the middle of our formation, touching briefly on Benjamin's dark glower, turned in his direction. "I'm glad your new additions have fit in so well," Aro says, looking back at Amun with a fond expression. "I would have loved to have been introduced. I'm sure you were meaning to come to see me soon." The threat is laced into his statement like a subtle poison, belied by the kindly exterior, and Kebi's hooded stare darts sideways to her mate.

Fear taints the edges of Amun's mind, yet he answers in a low voice devoid of emotion, "Of course."

Brightening, Aro declares in good spirits, "Oh well, we're all together now!" He peers around the clearing to demonstrate his point. "Isn't it lovely?"

Amun nods curtly. Conversing with him is as mystifying as ever, he complains to himself.

Then, like the flip of a switch, Aro's countenance moves from jovial to solemn. "But the reason for your presence here is not as pleasant, unfortunately. Carlisle called on you to witness?" he asks, steeping his brittle-looking fingers together under his chin.

"Yes." Amun studies the black-haired ancient's every movement with wary eyes.

Nodding slowly, Aro goes on. "And what did you witness for him?"

He recites in a cold monotone, "I've observed the child in question. It was evident almost immediately that she was not an immortal child –"

"Perhaps we should define our terminology," Aro cuts in, holding up a finger, "now that there seems to be new classifications. By immortal child, you mean of course a human child who had been bitten and thus transformed into a vampire." He looks expectantly at the tense caramel-skinned vampire.

Amun concurs at once. "Yes, that's what I meant."

Mildly interested, Aro paces a half step to the left; his guards compensate, orbiting around him as though held by a gravitational force. "What else did you observe about the child?" he inquires in a soft voice.

"The same things that you surely saw in Edward's mind," Amun responds in the same emotionless tone, but a ripple of confusion echoes through his thoughts. What does he want from me? Nevertheless, he lists off, "That the child is his biologically. That she grows. That she learns."

Waving a hand impatiently, Aro agrees, "Yes, yes. But specifically in your few weeks here, what did you see?"

I frown at him in suspicion, wondering – along with Amun and most everyone else listening to their discussion – what Aro is hoping to accomplish through this line of questioning.

His brow furrowed in puzzlement, Amun speaks the only observation that comes to mind based upon Aro's request for 'specifics'. "That she grows...quickly."

Indeed. A small, pleasant smile curves Aro's pale lips. "And do you believe that she should be allowed to live?" he asks in a light, singsong manner.

Bella hisses ferociously, and I move back to wrap my hand around her wrist as a precaution, feeling the waves of tension emanating from her body. Her wordless outcry is joined by a chorus of primal sounds – resonating from most of the vampires surrounding us, and some of the witnesses lingering behind the Volturi.

Immune as ever to the protests of those who do not share his views, Aro retains his polite stance and waits for Amun to reply.

The Arabic vampire glances nervously at the others, and then hedges in a nearly indistinct mumble, "I did not come to make judgments." He shifts his balance a handful of centimeters from one foot to the other.

Aro chuckles in an attempt to reassure him. "Just your opinion," he submits, still smiling.

Having been granted a leave to speak plainly, Amun lifts his chin in determination and states, "I see no danger in the child. She learns even more swiftly then she grows." He nods once to punctuate his words.

For a moment, Aro is silent, his head bobbing gently up and down as he weighs his next move inside his head. A more practical approach should be used... This snatch of thought filters through the dense mental clutter he is employing to block me, followed by, Amun is too sensible. I must speak to someone a bit more...passionate. Someone invested in the lives of their companions.

Humming under his breath, he turns toward the opposite end of our lines, staring absently at the snow-covered ground.

"Aro?"

He spins on heel, papery-skinned face alight with curiosity as he looks at Amun. "Yes, friend?"

I resist the impulse to snort derisively while hearing Amun's decision in his thoughts, and peer over Bella's dark head to watch Benjamin as his creator says to Aro, "I gave my witness. I have no more business here. My mate and I would like to take our leave now."

Exhaling quietly, Benjamin averts his gaze from Amun and glances at Tia, who is clinging to his side with worried ruby eyes. He gives her a faint grin, and brushes the curve of her cheekbone with his index finger. He already made his decision weeks ago – and I made mine, he reminds himself inwardly. I do owe him for bringing me into this life, but he does not control my will.

Meanwhile, Aro warmly grants to Amun, "Of course. I'm so glad we were able to chat for a bit. And I'm sure we'll see each other again soon," he adds like an eager child, yet his unyielding crimson stare is fraught with significance.

His lips flattening into a thin white line, Amun curses the implied threat even as he nods in acquiescence, and then brushes his fingertips against Kebi's forearm. In unison, the pair wheel around and bound into the forest to the south, the faint sound of their passage disappearing in less than a second.

Aro floats down the clearing to the eastern edge of our group, seeming oblivious to the increasing stress affecting his trio of protectors, and halts before the striking redheaded immortal that has to lower her chin to meet his eyes. "Hello, dear Siobhan," Aro murmurs with genuine respect. "You are as lovely as ever."

She inclines her head, both her expression and mind courteous yet guarded.

Arching his black eyebrows, he inquires in a wispy, placid tone, "And you? Would you answer my questions the same way Amun has?"

"I would." Siobhan's rich alto thrums across the clearing, a light breeze stirring wayward strands of her thick auburn hair. Then she inserts a bit more forcefully, "But I would perhaps add a little more."

Aro encourages her to continue by gesturing with an open palm. By all means, my dear – share your views with us. My stomach twists in unease at the calculating flavor of his mind.

"Renesmee understands the limitations," she announces with staunch certainty. "She's no danger to humans – she blends in better than we do." Siobhan straightens even more, until she is literally towering over the black-haired ancient, and stares down at him with imperious scarlet eyes. "She poses no threat of exposure," she concludes firmly.

Grave consideration chases the friendly expression from Aro's face. Alas, if only that were true, he muses, picturing my daughter's serious brown gaze in his mind's eye. But this child's creation has opened a Pandora's Box of future hardships for our kind. Without the foreknowledge of any possible dangers... Momentarily pulling away from his convoluted reflections, Aro poses to Siobhan in a grim voice, "Can you think of none?"

In a split second of inattention, a critical piece of his strategy is revealed, and an instinctive growl rips its way out of my throat, my chest vibrating with the menacing noise.

Caius' flat glare ignites with life, immediately detecting the course of his brother's verbal tactic, and at the same time Renata extends a hand towards Aro – a worried reaction to my growl.

Amidst the frustrated, apprehensive din of mental voices inside my head, one mind in particular swells to the forefront of my perception with an outraged exclamation. He means to hold this child responsible for a threat that she may or may not pose? Garrett unwinds his arm from around Kate and slides one foot forward, his narrowed glare fixed on Aro.

Concerned, Kate stretches out to him with a hand, her fingertips brushing against the crease of his elbow, but he ignores the unspoken warning.

I find that Garrett's astute reading into Aro's question dimly impresses me, especially given that Siobhan answers slowly, her smooth brow furrowed in uncertainty, "I don't think I follow you."

As he meets her suspicious gaze, Aro wafts backward several steps, discreetly separating himself a little further from the hostility building within our group. Renata, Demetri, and Felix form a tight triangle around the ancient, their stances tense and alert.

Palms facing outward in a conciliatory gesture, Aro murmurs in a soft, peaceful tone, "There is no broken law." He pauses a moment, examining the lines of vampires arrayed in front of him, and then continues. "No broken law. However, does it follow then that there is no danger? No," he responds to his own question, shaking his head with exaggerated slowness. "That is a separate issue."

He begins to pace – measured, pensive strides, his ebony cloak billowing gently in his wake – and Maggie moves her head back and forth in furious disbelief, her gift subtle enough to detect the faint prickles of deceit in Aro's quiet words.

"She is unique..." he comments almost to himself, yet he is acutely aware of the watching eyes and listening ears on both sides of the field, and he uses the strip of unblemished snow between us like a platform. "...Utterly, impossibly unique. Such a waste it would be, to destroy something so lovely." His stare flits to Renesmee as he breathes, "Especially when we could learn so much..." A low sigh pushes past his thin lips. "But there is danger," he remarks sadly, "danger that cannot simply be ignored." Still pacing, Aro adjusts his course a few centimeters, so that his next pass brings him closer to his guard.

The silence hanging over the clearing is ominous, oppressive. It pleases Aro to have such a rapt audience, and he goes on, his feathery voice introspective, "How ironic it is that as the humans advance, as their faith in science grows and controls their world, the more free we are from discovery. Yet, as we become ever more uninhibited by their disbelief in the supernatural, they become strong enough in their technologies that, if they wished, they could actually pose a threat to us, even destroy some of us."

Emmett snarls almost inaudibly, his shoulders straining from the effort of holding himself in check. What the hell is he talking about? What does this have to do with anything?

Jacob echoes his thoughts, though arguably in a more...colorful manner.

Appearing absentminded, Aro looks toward the clouded sky, his cleverly articulated monologue resuming. "For thousands and thousands of years, our secrecy has been more a matter of convenience, of ease, than of actual safety." He lowers his eyes to the field, seeming to gaze beyond the assembled vampires, the trees, and even the forest itself. "This last raw, angry century has given birth to weapons of such power that they endanger even immortals," he says solemnly. "Now our status as mere myth in truth protects us from these weak creatures we hunt." As a majority, in any case, he amends with half a glance at me.

He then raises his right hand, the palm turned down in an odd position – as if he is about to touch someone on the head. Directing his attention to Renesmee, he declares with torn reluctance, "This amazing child. If we could but know her potential – know with absolute certainty that she could always remain shrouded within the obscurity that protects us. But we know nothing of what she will become!" He rotates his wrist to motion towards Bella and I. "Her own parents are plagued by fears of her future. We cannot know what she will grow to be."

Here he allows a break in proceedings, his filmy crimson eyes roving across our lines, and then he pivots gracefully to look at the guard and the witnesses he had brought. Through their minds, I can easily see the remorse etched into his expression, and perhaps I might even believe it...if not for the dark tang of conquest seeping into his stifled thoughts.

Aloud, Aro murmurs in hesitation, his stare locked on the crowd huddled near the tree line, "Only the known is safe. Only the known is tolerable. The unknown is...a vulnerability."

Caius smiles a predator's leer, while all around me, my family and our allies react to Aro's inference.

In a desolate tone, my father replies, "You're reaching, Aro." And verifying all my worst fears.

The misleadingly benign ancient turns back to our portion of the field, wearing a gentle expression. "Peace, friend," he tells Carlisle soothingly. "Let us not be hasty. Let us look at this from every side." Aro folds his white hands in front of his torso and waits for a rebuttal.

Taking a decisive step forward, Garrett requests formally, "May I offer a side to be considered?"

Kate blinks at him in surprise, as do a good number of the surrounding witnesses. Both Carlisle and Tanya peer at me in wordless question, but I have no qualm with what Garrett is formulating in his mind to share. To be honest, I am becoming increasingly amazed by the nomad – and also more certain than ever that he has every intention of joining our family, provided we survive this confrontation.

Aro nods in consent. "Nomad."

Garrett jerks his chin upward, a resolute gleam in his ruby-colored eyes, and focuses on the motley throng at the farthest end of the clearing. Raising his voice only slightly, he announces with the inflection of one who believes so unwaveringly in each word, "I came here at Carlisle's request, as the others, to witness. That is certainly no longer necessary, with regard to the child. We all see what she is." A quick breath fills his lungs, and he goes on. "I stayed to witness something else."

His gaze latches onto a pair of familiar faces – a small black-haired woman and a man with tousled dark blonde locks – and he thrusts a forefinger in their direction. "You. Two of you I know – Makenna, Charles – and I can see that many of you others are also wanderers, roamers like myself. Answering to none." His low voice throbs with intensity as he commands, "Think carefully on what I tell you now."

Pointing at the Volturi, Garrett asserts heatedly, "These ancient ones did not come here for justice as they told you. We suspected as much, and now it has been proved. They came, misled, but with a valid excuse for their action."

His tone, still fueled by an inner fire, also hardens – like the molten rock that spills from an erupting volcano. "Witness now as they seek flimsy excuses to continue their true mission. Witness them struggle to find a justification for their true purpose – to destroy this family here." The accusing posture of his extended hand relaxes into an open palm, and he motions toward Carlisle and Tanya, the two pillars of our way of life. "The Volturi come to erase what they perceive as the competition."

He glances at Aro fleetingly, as though daring the other immortal to deny it. But the dark-haired ancient simply looks back at Garrett with mild politeness, ascertaining to himself that nothing the nomad says will influence the outcome of any impending battle.

After a brief second, Garrett shifts his eyes back to the mass of witnesses and continues, still impassioned, yet a fair amount of admiration is woven into his speech. "Perhaps, like me, you look at this clan's golden eyes and marvel. They are difficult to understand, it's true," he admits with a hint of irony. "But the ancient ones look and see something besides their strange choice. They see power." As do I.

A whirlwind collage of visions, all of them relating to my family, flicker through his mind. Countless examples of Carlisle's unfailing compassion, Esme's motherly devotion, Rose's fierce protectiveness, Emmett's steadfast loyalty, Bella's passionate conviction, Renesmee's abounding love, and my fervent dependence upon the woman who harbors my soul, mingles with instances of camaraderie and affection displayed between Tanya, Kate, Eleazar, and Carmen.

Looking over at the nomad with a vague sense of awe in regard to his insight, I listen to the astonishment in his tone, and detect the faint undercurrent of wistful speculation as he declares, "I have witnessed the bonds within this family – I say family and not coven. These strange golden-eyed ones deny their very natures. But in return have they found something worth even more, perhaps, than mere gratification of desire?"

Garrett slides a half step to the side, so as not to block anyone's view of my family. "I've made a little study of them in my time here," he remarks sincerely, as though he has uncovered a great truth that is for the benefit of all, "and it seems to me that intrinsic to this intense family binding – that which makes them possible at all – is the peaceful character of this life of sacrifice. There is no aggression here like we all saw in the large southern clans that grew and diminished so quickly in their wild feuds. There is no thought for domination."

Then he turns to scowl in Aro's direction, growling, "And Aro know this better than I do."

"Carlisle assured us all" – Garrett's voice softens infinitesimally as he mentions my father – "when he told us what was coming, that he did not call us here to fight. These witnesses," he indicates Siobhan and Liam with a gesture, "agreed to give evidence, to slow the Volturi advance with their presence so that Carlisle would get the chance to present his case."

He glances over his shoulder at Eleazar, stating, "But some of us wondered if Carlisle having truth on his side would be enough to stop the so-called justice."

Like placing weights on a scale to tip the balance in our favor, Garrett lays out a series of compelling questions. "Are the Volturi here to protect the safety of our secrecy, or to protect their own power? Did they come to destroy an illegal creation, or a way of life? Could they be satisfied when the danger turned out to be no more than a misunderstanding? Or would they push the issue without the excuse of justice?"

With the skill of a practiced orator, he stops for a beat, allowing his inquiries to soak into everyone's thoughts, feeding the witnesses' doubts in regard to the Volturi's motivations for lingering here.

"We have the answer to all these questions," Garrett responds, the stoked embers of his ire flaring brightly as he speaks. "We heard it in Aro's lying words – we have one with a gift of knowing such things for certain – and we see it now in Caius' eager smile. Their guard is just a mindless weapon, a tool in their masters' quest for domination. So now there are more questions, questions that you must answer."

He spreads his arms wide in offering as he asks boldly, "Who rules you, nomads? Do you answer to someone's will besides your own? Are you free to choose your path, or will the Volturi decide how you will live?"

Altering his stance, the offer presented by his open arms changes into a defensive posture, and he makes his plans clear with his next statement. "I came to witness. I stay to fight. The Volturi care nothing for the death of the child. They seek the death of our free will."

Spinning sideways, Garrett faces the three brothers, now gathered quite close together. The forefront members of the guard tense as a precaution, but he will not risk a direct attack. He is only demonstrating his own fearlessness of their power.

"So come, I say!" he calls with audacious courage. "Let's hear no more lying rationalizations. Be honest in your intents as we will be honest in ours. We will defend our freedom. You will or will not attack it. Choose now, and let these witnesses see the true issue debated here."

Caius eyes him as if he were an insect that had just stepped into his path. Aro studies the nomad politely, a hint of amusement dancing along the corners of his mouth.

Garrett suddenly whirls, locking stares with any of the Volturi's witnesses that will meet his eyes. "You might consider joining us," he tells them seriously. "If you think the Volturi will let you live to tell this tale, you are mistaken. We may all be destroyed," he says, shrugging, "but then again, maybe not. Perhaps we are on more equal footing than they know. Perhaps the Volturi have finally met their match." Eyes blazing like twin flames beneath a lowered brow, he vows, "I promise you this, though – if we fall, so do you."

Never relaxing his stance, Garrett moves back to Kate's side and drops into a crouch, preparing to fight. The slender blonde next to him stares at his profile in awe, her topaz irises shining with emotion.

Thoroughly entertained, Aro smiles in appreciation and compliments in his wispy voice, "A very pretty speech, my revolutionary friend."

Garrett's eyes tighten angrily, and the rumble of a growl accentuates his retort. "Revolutionary? Who am I revolting against, I might ask?" His lips curl upward, exposing his gritted teeth, and he contends, "Are you my king? Do you wish me to call you master, too, like your sycophantic guard?" Snow crunches beneath the soles of his boots as he shifts his weight, and a few of the ash-cloaked figures – Felix included – poise for an attack.

Holding up a hand in surrender, Aro murmurs in a lenient tone, "Peace, Garrett. I meant only to refer to your time of birth. Still a patriot, I see." He smiles kindly.

The nomad glares with barely suppressed outrage, his wiry frame tensed like a coiled spring. Patriotism is not limited to past centuries, Garrett snarls inwardly, when there is tyranny present even among immortals. Some things – his gaze flicks to the right, touching on Kate for a fraction of a second – are worth fighting for. Then he sidles an inch or so closer to her, determined to support her in any capacity during the skirmish that now seems inevitable.

Despite his overall amusement with Garrett's avid speech, Aro is, as ever, devoted to maintaining the Volturi's reputation as peacekeepers and the leadership of our world. Glancing at the cluster of witnesses that have moved further into the skeletal shadows of the forest, he attempts to salvage the situation by donning the elaborate façade his coven has created in order to disguise their real intentions.

"Let us ask our witnesses," he proposes generously. "Let us hear their thoughts before we make our decision." Aro turns and drifts forward, the guard parting with fluid accuracy before him, until he is in full view of the uneasy crowd. "Tell us, friends," he requests, holding out a hand, "what do you think of all this? I can assure you the child is not what we feared. Do we take the risk and let the child live? Do we put our world in jeopardy to preserve their family intact?"

Lifting his other hand, he offers both towards them as a sign of supplication, asking as though each word is painful to him, "Or does earnest Garrett have the right of it? Will you join them in a fight against our sudden quest for dominion?"

Caution paints each face as the witnesses reflect on Aro's statements. After a moment of stressed stillness, the black-haired female that Garrett had pointed out earlier peers sidelong at her companion with hooded, solemn eyes. The dark blonde male looks steadily back at her, and a sort of wordless communication passes between them.

Her chin-length inky tresses swirling around her head like a fan, the woman fixes her gaze on Aro, and she questions, "Are those our only choices? Agree with you, or fight against you?" Her voice, carrying just a trace of Irish brogue, is higher in pitch than Siobhan's, but not as bright as Maggie's. I commit its tone to memory and begin sifting through the mental cacophony inside my brain, latching onto her train of thought, which is bathed in trepidation and growing resolve.

Aro seems taken aback by her query, his papery-skinned features contorted in shock, and he lays a palm on his chest, replying, "Of course not, most charming Makenna. You may go in peace, of course, as Amun did, even if you disagree with the council's decision." We will always be able to find you again, should the need arise, he muses to himself.

She weighs this pronouncement in her mind for a second, and glances once more at her fair-haired mate. Garrett's words ring of truth – I could feel it, even before Charles said anything to me. But if we consign ourselves to the same fate as these... Charles nods very slightly, seeing the internal debate in her crimson eyes.

"We did not come here for a fight," Makenna declares immediately, and then pauses, exhaling a quiet breath. She fears speaking her mind to Aro, yet reasons that if his show of goodwill is legit, then she is obligated for the sake of her own independence to voice an opinion. "We came here to witness," Makenna says firmly. "And our witness is that this condemned family is innocent. Everything that Garrett claimed is the truth." She juts out her small chin, bravely meeting the ancient's clouded stare.

"Ah," Aro sighs, his shoulders drooping a little in sorrow. "I'm sorry you see us in that way." Sorry, indeed... And he makes a mental note to send Demetri after the pair once they return to Italy. "But such is the nature of our work," he adds as a justification for genocide.

A strained, nervous tenor issues from Charles' mouth. "It is not what I see, but what I feel." He glances fleetingly at Garrett, and remarks in a quick burst, "Garrett said they have ways of knowing lies. I, too, know when I am hearing the truth, and when I am not." He edges toward Makenna, waiting for Aro to respond, his eyes wide and frightened.

The ancient smiles at the two nomads gently, assuring, "Do not fear us, friend Charles. No doubt the patriot truly believes what he says." He chuckles, and Garrett hisses under his breath while Charles narrows his glare, the fear almost entirely banished from his expression.

Clasping her mate's hand, Makenna announces in a clear tone that rings out across the field, "That is our witness. We're leaving now." Godspeed you all, she whispers internally, looking at our small band on the opposite end of the clearing. She and Charles take slow steps backward in retreat, and when the snow-covered boughs of pine and tangled underbrush swallow them, they turn and bound away.

After their departure, another nomad detaches himself from the mob and disappears into the forest. An instant later, three others sprint into the trees, as well.

Ultimately, there are a little over thirty vampires left as the Volturi's witnesses. From the general consensus of their thoughts, most are bewildered by this whole affair, and some are compelled to remain – if only to see which side will claim the victory here.

None of them are planning to join the fight.

So we have suddenly gained the advantage of greater numbers.

Aro realizes this at nearly the same time, and threads his way through the guard to stand in front of them, arms raised like he is about to embrace each one. Jane's round face lights up with glee, and an electric current of anticipation begins to crackle among the hooded multitude as they wait for him to speak.

"We are outnumbered, dearest ones," Aro murmurs musically, his tone loving and soft. "We can expect no outside help. Should we leave this question undecided to save ourselves?" he asks, meeting every rapt, shadowed gaze.

"No, master," they chorus in a low whisper.

Renesmee shivers a little against Bella, and Jacob shakes his russet-colored fur, thinking queerly, It's like the freakin' Twilight Zone. Several in the pack mutter their agreement.

"Is the protection of our world worth perhaps the loss of some of our number?" Aro breathes in a tender, feathery voice.

In unison, the guard intones, "Yes. We are not afraid."

Aro beams at them like a proud father, and then turns to address the other two ancients. "Brothers," he says with quiet seriousness, "there is much to consider here."

Eager for retribution, Caius declaims, "Let us counsel." Jane shall make them all beg for mercy, he sneers. Starting with their vaunted patron saint. He peers at Carlisle ruthlessly from the corner of his eye.

"Let us counsel," Marcus repeats in an apathetic murmur, his mind a gray void broken up by flashes of memory and of the bonds he had sensed within our assembly.

Turning his back on us, Aro motions for his brothers to draw closer, and the three of them join hands, forming a tight black circle at the center of the Volturi guard.

Once Aro is distracted, another pair of vampires steals soundlessly into the woods. But the odds are still stacked against us. There must be a way to turn the tide of this battle – a battle that will commence even before the ancients have finished their consultation.

I wrack my brains for a strategy, any alternative that will increase our chances of survival, and realize with a painful stab of anguish that nothing more can be done. We have prepared as best we could, and now the time has come to face whatever end awaits us.

I look over at Bella, wanting to encourage her, and to ensure that she is the last thing I see before we depart this world – and blink in puzzlement as she carefully pries Renesmee's arms from around her neck and stares into the little girl's dark eyes with somber determination. "You remember what I told you?" she says just above a whisper.

Renesmee inhales a shuddering breath, her gaze swimming with tears...and the memory bursts through the wall she had constructed to hide it from me. Aghast, I feel my entire body ice over as the images fill my head with excruciating clarity.

Momma knelt in front of me in the tent. Her face was so sad – like something was hurting her – and she touched my cheeks with her cool hands. "I love you," she said, and it was a promise. "More than anything."

"I love you, too, Momma," I told her right away. Then I put my fingers to the locket around my neck – the locket that both Momma and Daddy helped me put a picture inside of, so we would always be together. "We'll always be together," I reminded her aloud.

Her mouth twisted in pain, and her eyes that were the same color as the sun before it sank over the horizon burned into mine. I wanted so badly to make her feel better, but before I could, she whispered very quietly, "In our hearts we'll always be together." Then she leaned forward, and I felt her lips brush my ear as she breathed, "But when the time comes today, you have to leave me."

No.

No, I can't leave Momma, or Daddy. We are a family. We love each other.

No. I won't do it.

I jerked back and pressed my hand to Momma's cheek, screaming no inside my head so loud that it stung my eyes, and it was hard to see her face; the edges were all smudged, like the watercolor painting Grandma Esme made for me.

Momma swallowed, and she asked, her voice rough, "Will you do it for me? Please?"

I dug my fingertips into her white skin, demanding, Why?

But a part of me – the part that was ancient and wise, strong and everlasting – already knew the answer. They didn't like to talk about it when I was around, but I could hear more than anyone realized.

Daddy and Momma wanted to keep me safe. If they send me away...that means I'm not safe with them anymore.

That means...Grandpa Carlisle, Grandma Esme, Uncle Em, Aunt Rose...Daddy, Momma...and all the friends I've made...

They're all going to die.

I couldn't see. I blinked, and blinked again, then rubbed my eyes with my fist. Momma smoothed my hair and touched her forehead to mine. "I can't tell you," she murmured gently. "But you'll understand soon. I promise."

She didn't know that I already understood. I wished I didn't.

But if I had to leave, what about my Jacob?

His warm, red-brown face appeared through the tears that I tried to wipe away, and I sent it to Momma, knowing that she would hear my question.

She nodded, and tugged my hand from her face. Then she whispered in my ear again. "Don't think of it. Don't tell Jacob until I tell you to run, okay?"

Momma didn't want Daddy to know that she was sending me away with Jacob. There must be a reason for that; Momma and Daddy told each other everything.

So I nodded and pushed what she told me deep, deep down inside, to keep her secret.

Renesmee casts aside the memory violently, and nods in response to her mother's words. "I love you," she whispers, her chiming voice thick with tears.

"I love you," Bella replies with tender fervor, her fingertips resting on the tiny golden locket clasped around our daughter's throat. "More than my own life." She lays a sweet kiss on Renesmee's forehead, as though it is a benediction, and a sparkle falls from beneath the little girl's closed eyelids.

What's going on? Jacob turns his massive head from side to side, studying my frozen, horror-struck expression, and then he notices Renesmee's tears.

An anxious whine leaves his mouth as he shifts his glittering black eyes to Bella, the obstinate, anguished look on her face setting him more on edge than ever. What's the matter? he thinks frustratedly, wishing he could ask out loud.

As if she could hear him, Bella steps so close to Jacob that her stomach brushes against the heavy fur on his neck, and she lifts herself up onto her tiptoes to reach his ear, which immediately swivels in her direction. "Wait until they're totally distracted," she tells him, scarcely louder than a breeze, "then run with her. Get as far from this place as you possibly can. When you've gone as far as you can on foot, she has what you need to get you in the air."

The mind that was once nearly impossible to ignore has gone completely blank in horrified despair. Jacob's large dark eyes have swollen exponentially, and his wide mouth hangs open in shock while Bella settles back on the ground and turns toward me.

Renesmee stretches out her small hands, her perfect face crumpling in grief, and I pull her into my arms, holding on as tightly as I dared. I love you, Daddy, she sends over and over, her wet cheek pressing into the hollow underneath my ear.

I bury my nose in her soft curls and breathe in the warm scent of cinnamon and jasmine, listening to the rapid thrum of her pulse, and feeling the scorching heat of her tiny body nestled against my chest. Our little miracle.

Raising my head, I gaze at Bella over the halo of our daughter's bronze ringlets. She stares back at me with all the love that could possibly be contained within the entire universe. "This is what you kept from me?" I murmur lowly, though my tone is more certain than questioning.

"From Aro," she corrects in a husky whisper.

I suspected as much. And there is only one person who would have had the foresight to prevent me from learning any knowledge that Aro would use against our family when he gleaned it from my mind. The same person that must have given Bella, the only one whose thoughts are a mystery to me, the clues to follow – clues that surely began with the book she threw into the fire the day we lost two of our siblings. "Alice?"

She nods, and reaches out to me with her eyes, the spark within her amber gaze begging me not to lose hope, even though this confirms that it is our destiny to perish.

I do not know what emotions shape my features, but I watch Bella melt with compassion, her full bottom lip trembling, and I realize that our shared sorrow is not because we are almost certainly fated to die, but because we are parents who are about to send their child away from the only life she has ever known and condemn her to the frantic existence of a fugitive.

Yet she will have love. Jacob will see to that.

He has torn free from the grip of dismay and is now seething like an inferno inside. Fangs bared, a rasping growl echoes uninterrupted from his throat, and his hackles are raised as his thoughts roil chaotically. NO! No, I won't leave! It's my job to protect – and this is my family! All of you are my family! Nessie can't lose her mom and dad – it'll kill her! There has to be a way for us to win; we have to stay together and fight!

Sniffling, Renesmee slowly releases her hold around my neck and looks up at me. Her eyes are swollen from crying, the lashes clogged with saltwater, and her face is flushed, her cheeks stained with wetness...yet in the depths of her steady gaze, I see the same indomitable, enduring spirit of her mother. I lean forward and press my lips to her brow and both cheeks, tasting her tears, and then lift her tiny form to Jacob's back.

She clutches two handfuls of his russet fur and scuttles upward, fitting herself into the valley between his shoulder blades, and bends downs to lay her head on the nape of his neck.

Once she settles into place, Jacob chokes out a whimper, though his low growl still vibrates within his chest, and the arguing in his mind tapers off. Agonized, he turns to Bella, his black eyes glittering with despair and acceptance, pain and devotion, and an undying love. Please... he begs both of us, don't do this.

She stretches out an arm in my direction, and without moving away from Jacob, I take her hand, interlocking our fingers. "You're the only one we could ever trust her with," Bella tells him softly, solidifying the final link in the chain that connects all four of our hearts, forging an unbreakable circle that neither time nor death can shatter. "If you didn't love her so much," she goes on, her wind chime voice descending into a throaty, emotional murmur, "I could never bear this. I know you can protect her, Jacob." She breathes in deeply to try and compose herself, but her fingertips quiver faintly against my knuckles.

A mournful whine ripples across his muzzle. Oh, Bells... Then he lowers his head and pushes it into her shoulder. I love you, his mind whispers, as gentle as sunlight and as constant as gravity.

Bella strokes the side of his face with her other palm, nuzzling her chin briefly into the red-brown fur on top of his head. "I know," she reassures him, breathless with emotion. "I love you, too, Jake. You'll always be my best man." Her eyelids flutter closed as she kisses the swatch of fur where his cheekbone should be.

A glistening puddle of liquid spills from one expressive black eye and darkens a path through his coat, a wordless sob filling his head and mine.

Leaning into Jacob's massive, burning-hot frame, I rest my temple against his hard shoulder. There is so much that I want to say to him – to show my gratitude, to offer him my acceptance of his love for Renesmee, and to reinforce the bonds of brotherhood that have only begun to take root within us.

But there is not enough time in all of eternity, let alone these last few seconds, for me to convey everything that I should. Instead, I bestow the simplest blessing and farewell that I pray will someday heal the rifts in his heart. "Goodbye, Jacob, my brother...my son."

His whole body shudders mightily in response, a strangled noise lodging itself between his clenched jaws, and Renesmee pats the tip of his shoulder with her small hand in an effort to console him.

After a moment, Jacob lifts his head from Bella's shoulder as she steps back, and I move from his side to join her at the center of our offensive line. All eyes are fixed on the black-shrouded trio surrounded by a sea of gray; however, I easily distinguish from the clamor of mental voices flooding my skull that the goodbyes Bella and I exchanged have not gone unnoticed.

On my left, Carlisle asks in an even whisper absent of fear or regret, "Is there no hope, then?"

Ever trusting, Bella answers in a determined murmur, "There is absolutely hope. I only know my own fate." She stares straight ahead, gloriously stubborn, the wind lashing strands of chocolate brown hair against her pale skin, and I squeeze her hand tightly. She mimics the pressure an instant later, wordlessly expressing, as I did, that any fate that awaits her is mine, as well. We are one and the same – forever.

O, God, Esme invokes as a prayer, her breathing erratic and hitching with mute sobs, please look after my children. Take me if You will, and spare them. I cannot bear to watch them die. She winds around Bella, brushing her cheek with her fingers, and then cradles my face in her palm, telling me with her shimmering tawny eyes all that she cannot put into words or thought.

Still walking, Esme's hand slips from my jaw, and she comes to a stop beside Carlisle, seizing his hand as though it is a lifeline. He glances over at her, the tender expression on his face one that he reserves just for her, and raises their entwined hands to his lips, kissing hers lingeringly.

As though their farewells are some sort of signal, a soft chorus of goodbyes and sentiments abruptly fills the wintry air.

Surprising her, Garrett whirls sideways and takes hold of Kate's face, bending down to touch his mouth to hers for a fraction of a second. "If we live through this," he declares intensely, "I'll follow you anywhere, woman."

He releases her just as swiftly, reassuming his defensive stance, and Kate sways in place for a moment, lips parted slightly in utter disbelief. Then she shakes herself out of her stupor and tosses her cornsilk tresses over a shoulder to appear nonchalant, though a muttered aside slips from her set mouth. "Now he tells me."

Garrett's cheek twitches a little in response.

Emmett and Rosalie crash into one another simultaneously for a brief, feverish embrace, and behind them, Tia lovingly caresses Benjamin's face, her wide eyes reflecting concern and terror. He gives her a boyish grin, charming her once again, and puts his hand over hers, keeping it against his cheek.

Others demonstrate their love all around us, and I withdraw my awareness as best I can to give them privacy – when an unexpected thought pattern knifes through the softer, emotional haze. The bonds between their allies will be easier to sever. I shall start there.

The cultured feminine voice is one I have heard only once before, inside an ancient stone turret in Italy.

Chelsea is perched on the far left of the Volturi formation, the dark gray hood of her cloak covering the shock of platinum blonde hair crowning her head, and I suck in a sharp breath, waiting for her gift to take affect.

Unbelievably, no one makes a move to run or join the Volturi, and a flicker of a frown wrinkles Chelsea's forehead. They're – they're not there. Her pale eyebrows come together in concentration, and puzzlement. I can't find the bindings linking them together. But...but that should be impossible. It is impossible. They must be there!

She intensifies her focus, zeroing in on Siobhan and Liam, but nothing happens. It is like she is hitting a solid, blank wall.

At the same time, Bella tenses at my side, her grip tightening around my palm, and she whispers ominously, "Get ready. It's starting."