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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:


20. Power

Rating 5/5   Word Count 12151   Review this Chapter

Only the anticipating breaths of both sides and the thundering pulses of the wolves' hearts break the unsettled, suspense-driven hush that descends upon the clearing.

In the aftermath of Bella's cryptic statement, all those around us tense for an assault, their keen eyes darting across the Volturi lines in an effort to pinpoint the immediate threat.

When there is none visibly manifesting, a storm of questions, demands, and remarks floods my head, pounding against the break wall dividing my own subconscious from the external thoughts I am forever bound to endure.

Yet I hear none of it.

My focus is centered solely on the panicked frustration throbbing within the mind of the Volturi's instrument of persuasion.

Chelsea persists in her attempt to locate the cords of allegiance linking my family to our witnesses, and the mental exertion of her efforts blares loudly as she pummels the solid yet intangible barrier that seems to enclose the whole southern end of the field.

What holds my interest more than the sheer impossibility of this kind of power is the fact that, through Chelsea's increasingly distressed cries, I am able to recognize the shape and feel of this unseen obstacle.

It is the same unnerving, impenetrable silence that had caught my attention on a tedious January afternoon in the Forks High School cafeteria, and it is something that I have learned to tolerate even as I yearn with every fiber of my being to glimpse what lies beyond.

And now the same opaque veil that hides the most captivating mind in the world is swathed over every member of our group.

Fascinated, I spend a few more seconds watching through Chelsea's perception as she tries again and again to discover the threads creating a web of camaraderie among us – only to be thwarted each time. Where are they? she shrieks in vain, her expression contorted into a grimace of concentration and dread beneath the cowl of her ash-gray hood.

The skin of my palm tingles with an inexplicable burst of energy, and I am instantly and acutely aware of the smaller hand grasped within mine. Bella knew what Chelsea was doing, almost before I did, and there is no denying that she has the ability to shield herself and another from any mental talents.

But...on such a scale...when she is only months old to this life... Is it even possible?

Suddenly, the equivalent of a physical shove jars my brain, accompanied by my brother's exasperated bellow ringing inside my skull. Edward, quit messing around and tell us what the hell is going on before somebody gets hurt!

Emmett growls under his breath, his thick chest vibrating with the noise, and he lifts a meaty hand to give me a real shove if I do not respond. Everyone's nerves are frayed nearly into nonexistence – his included – and any lack of control on our part will lead to disaster.

Though their eyes remain locked on the opposing lines of ash and charcoal, I can sense that each one is waiting to hear from me what is occurring, and what had prompted Bella to speak those portentous words.

Quietly as a breath, I whisper, "Chelsea is trying to break our bindings. But she can't find them." A hint of incredulous awe trickles into my voice. "She can't feel us here..." Desperate for an explanation, my curiosity surges forth, compelling me to ask while my head swivels towards Bella, "Are you doing that?"

Amber irises aglow with an inner fire, her full lips curve into the fearsome smile of an avenging seraph as she turns to me. "I am all over this," she vows in a fierce, staggeringly confident tone.

Before I can fully absorb her exquisite, terrifying countenance or the enormity of what she is implying, an image of my father as viewed from across the field crashes into my head, dominating all other thought.

We shall see how virtuous he is while screaming in pain. A tiny, evil grin appears on Jane's shadowed face as her gift arcs toward Carlisle like talons of black fire, seeking to wrap him in a burning cocoon of torture.

On instinct, I lunge in his direction, forgetting that there is no defense I can offer – and my fingertips brush the corner of his sleeve just as the illusory flames reach for him.

Grasping at his arm anxiously, I choke out, "Carlisle? Are you all right?" My eyes rake over his well-known features, waiting for the grimace of pain and convulsions to take hold...yet he remains standing, looking at me in complete bewilderment.

"Yes," he replies slowly. Jane blinks once, surprised that Carlisle seems to be unaffected, and then her crimson eyes narrow into slits, blazing with fury. "Why?"

I loosen my grip on his forearm and turn sideways, answering grimly while I focus on her small, cloaked form, "Jane."

At the same time, Jane regroups from her improbable failure and braces for a widespread attack, choosing random targets on all sides of our assembly. You will all suffer for this insolence, she swears, and her mind appears to implode – like a dying star – before sending out a shockwave of power intent on inflicting agony to her twelve chosen victims.

But the black fire of her ability suddenly slams into the same barrier that has rendered Chelsea impotent, and the energy crackles erratically as it claws in vain at the...shield...until it is cancelled out by another source.

Lost in an awestruck sense of unreality, I watch through Jane's ever more infuriated mind as the barrier flexes as though it is a living thing in the aftermath of her assault. There are no startled cries of pain; no one falls to the ground seizing in torment. Instead, every pair of cautious eyes darts around the clearing, waiting with bated breath to see a comrade succumb to the Volturi's most feared weapon.

This... What is –? Jane sucks in a gulp of cold air through her teeth, fully expecting a dozen of us to crumple onto the glistening snow, and when none of the others so much as twitches, the little demon begins to seethe – and grow uneasy. This is not happening!

While she continues to rage, I angle my body away from Carlisle and stare openly at the dark-haired angel only inches from my side, my chest swelling with countless emotions as my still heart seems to tremble, pounding out a phantom pulse.

The hope that Bella had planted within me the moment she landed in my arms in a cobblestone alley halfway around the world, and has so lovingly and diligently nurtured in the last few weeks, unfurls its wings and alights upon the soul I am now certain that I possess.

And the memory of a fragile, bruised girl lying in a hospital bed, her dark eyes shining with the unconquerable spirit she carries in spades, gains an entirely new meaning as her words echo through my mind.

"It just seems logical...a man and a woman have to be somewhat equal...as in, one of them can't always be swooping in and saving the other one. They have to save each other equally. I can't always be Lois Lane. I want to be Superman, too."

Bella has always seen herself as the weakest link, especially when she was human. She worried that I or Alice or any one of our family – even the wolves – would be hurt because she needed protection. I know that many times she felt unworthy to be surrounded by supernatural creatures that would step into harm's way for her when she was incapable of repaying the favor.

And though I cannot read her mind, I have glimpsed through her words, her expressions, and in her eyes that she has a deep need to defend me, Renesmee, and everyone she cares about from danger.

Her shield is the perfect example of this intrinsic desire.

The same shield that has been amplified to near omnipotent strength, combined with her selfless heart, has completed Bella's metamorphosis from a vulnerability to the lynchpin of our family's survival, just as surely as she is mine.

"Incredible," I marvel softly, drinking in the luminescent alabaster features of her profile as she stares across the field, radiating intensity, and her chin tilts up ever so slightly in wordless challenge.

In an explosive rush of clarity, the muted thoughts in the back of my brain surge forward, pulling my attention to the present moment. A few separate themselves from the mental jumble:

Are they attacking? Emmett leans further in a crouch, eyes locked on Felix's hulking frame.

She couldn't hurt me, Carlisle observes, studying Jane's disbelieving expression, and then his sharp gaze darts sideways. Is that Bella's doing?

Why aren't they waiting for their verdict? Furious, Tanya snarls out this question aloud. "Why aren't they waiting for the decision?"

I make a slashing motion with my hand, the icy air whistling across my skin, and answer tersely, "Normal procedure. They usually incapacitate those on trial so they can't escape." I had determined that much just before Aro and his brothers had begun their conjoined dialogue, and Eleazar nods once very slightly in agreement.

Only seconds have passed since Jane lashed out with her failed attack, and she continues to rant and rave mentally, shrieking that it is impossible for anyone to escape her grasp. While in the corner of my eye, I see Bella's pale cheek lift as she curls her lips into a flagrant, smug smile aimed directly at the tiny vampire.

Jane's tirade abruptly chokes off. Her, she spits with enough vitriol to rival the fires of hell. Ruby eyes narrowing to slits, she sends a blast of power towards Bella like a whip, her jaw clenched as she strains to penetrate the shield.

Bella simply grins more broadly, displaying her gleaming white teeth, as the yellow-orange of her irises sparks like the first embers of a building inferno.

Any semblance of humanity vanishes entirely from Jane in the aftermath of Bella's taunt. Her childlike features distort into an animalistic snarl, and a piercing screech erupts from her mouth, startling everyone – even her twin brother.

The constant stream of thought linking the ancients stutters for a fraction of a second, then resumes. Outwardly, the black-robed trio is as motionless as ever.

The cowl falls back from Jane's cropped brown hair as she coils to spring – our front line tenses automatically – but Alec seizes her arm, halting her advance. Calm yourself, sister.

She whirls to face him, the primal expression still twisting her youthful appearance, and his eyes widen meaningfully, issuing a silent warning.

At the rear of our group, a pair of low voices chuckle gleefully. "I told you this was our time," Vladimir murmurs to his brother, rubbing his thin hands together in anticipation.

Stefan sniggers in reply, "Just look at the witch's face."

Holding her twin's gaze, the fight seems to drain from Jane's small frame, and her shoulders slump, a sullen pout puckering her lips. Though inside, she continues to seethe like an awakening volcano, her lust for causing pain eating at her blackened mind like a cancer.

Alec releases his grip on her elbow and pats her shoulder comfortingly. I will take care of them, he promises her. Gently wrapping an arm around her, he pulls Jane to his side and lifts his face to us, his expression perfectly smooth.

The undercurrent of his thoughts changes subtly – building with a low thrum of energy that I have never before felt – but that is because I have never witnessed his gift firsthand.

The others begin to shift in apprehension, wondering what will happen next. Beside me, Bella's breath quickens, and she fidgets nervously at the same time that her fingers tighten around my hand. "Are you okay?" she gasps in a strangled, frightened voice.

I turn my head fractionally towards her, keeping Alec and the Volturi guard in my peripheral vision. "Yes," I whisper, stroking the inside of her palm with my thumb, but her hold does not slacken.

"Is Alec trying?" Her stare flits sideways for an instant. Those around us listen in unashamedly, the tenor of their minds stretched taut like bowstrings prepared to snap at a moment's notice.

Monitoring the swell of power in his mind, I nod in confirmation. The only description I can come up with for the way Alec's talent works is that, where his sister's is similar to black fire, his is comparable to a gathering storm. "His gift is slower than Jane's," I tell Bella under my breath. "It creeps. It will touch us in a few seconds."

Kate spots it first. Topaz eyes widening, she stares at the expanse of white dividing the field, and her nostrils flare. Here it comes, she thinks, inhaling sharply.

Just above the glittering surface of the snow, the air shimmers, resembling the surreal state of a mirage as it rises from the desert. The translucent mist approaches as though propelled by an intangible breeze, warping the cloaked figures behind it like looking through a glass of water.

Jacob lets out a strange, rough mewl, his tail sweeping wide once over the ground.Should I run? he asks himself. Bella told me to wait until they're distracted – but what if that stuff keeps me from getting Nessie away from here? Edward said it cuts off all your senses at once... Deciding on a compromise, he starts to edge away from the front line, positioning his massive red-brown body near the center of our formation.

I'll stop it. Benjamin raises his chin, focusing swiftly on a single aspect of his incredible ability, and the earth shivers faintly beneath our feet, heeding his call. A second later, a fierce gust of wind hurls clouds of powdery snow into the space separating us from the Volturi.

Several of the guards blink in surprise while Benjamin throws the wind at the mist, attempting to blow it aside, but to no avail. As with Jane's gift, the mist is just a visual representation of a psychological attack, and it can only be averted by another mental ability.

I start to turn around, to tell Benjamin not to waste the effort in fighting something that does not truly exist – when a deep roar knifes through the wintry morning and the ground quakes violently.

Startled, the ancients drift apart, and most of the guard in front actually take a step back as the earth splits open in the middle of the clearing with a loud crack. Rivulets of snow spill into the narrow crevice, and all present look on in avid fascination as the mist draws near to the opening.

Of course, as I had predicted, the shimmering haze floats above the fissure with ease.

Frustrated, Benjamin commands the ground to part further, trying to capture the mist by the inescapable force of gravity.

Aro gazes wide-eyed at the trembling, exposed rock, and his tongue touches his upper lip as though savoring a particularly decadent flavor. Command of the elements... he sighs inwardly. It's no wonder that Amun hid him from us for so long.

Caius, meanwhile, examines the jagged gap with hardened crimson eyes, his thoughts wild in expectancy, apprehension, and grudging awe. Impressive. But such talent will be of no use once Alec immobilizes them, he assures himself.

It won't stop! Benjamin growls low in his throat, continuing to summon blasts of cold wind to combat the mist, but it is not hindered in its path towards us.

Beside her twin, Jane smiles in vindictive pleasure. Your end has come, she says to me, her cheeks dimpling, and purses her lips in a mocking farewell kiss.

But then the mist remarkably...stops.

No, not stops.

It is repelled.

Tendrils of the hazy vapor undulate sinuously across an invisible wall, spreading out on either side and creeping upward as it attempts to reach our half of the clearing. The mist curls around the wolves flanking our gathered witnesses about two or three feet from their bodies, following a smooth curve, and Seth lowers his head to sniff at the ground, incredulous as to what is keeping it at bay.

At the same time, the shimmering air flows above us like water spilling over a boulder, and heads turn rapidly in every direction as the intangible dome-like shield encircling the group is finally brought into view.

I feel my expression lift into a wide grin, a rush of pride and admiration flooding my chest. Astonished, Carlisle lets out a gusty breath, gaping open-mouthed at the size of the barrier. Emmett cranes his neck to look upward where the mist is beginning to blend with the low-lying clouds, and Rose's quick gasp is echoed by Esme, Tanya, Kate, Eleazar, and several others.

"Well done, Bella!" Benjamin congratulates in a relieved undertone, and the wind ceases its frenetic howling, the stirred up snowfall glittering like diamonds as it flutters to the ground.

The sudden pandemonium inside my skull as each mind tries to absorb what is happening causes me to pause for a half second and re-center my awareness before reading the thoughts emanating from the other side of the field.

A black, hate-filled scowl paints Jane's petite features, while her brother's empty expression wavers, his ruby-colored irises shadowed with doubt. This...this has never happened before. I knew Jane was unable to harm the newborn but I thought that –Alec frowns just noticeably, thin lines appearing upon his brow, and for the first time, there is deep concern reflected in his mind.

On either side of the two siblings, a chorus of shocked gasps breaks the stoic, disciplined silence of the Volturi guard. Eyes flare open in disbelief, and a few exchange wary glances with their neighbors as the possibility of entering a battle where they do not have the advantage begins to whittle down their collective self-confidence.

Amidst the ancients, Marcus surveys the scene with dispassionate attention, and Caius bares his teeth in an oddly revolted expression, hissing under his breath as his eyes find Bella's slender figure across the recently formed ravine. How can one newly made have that much power? What is she?

Controlling his reaction with considerable effort, Aro's filmy stare widens very briefly while he absorbs the full extent of the shield, and then his amazement transforms into an insatiable hunger. What a truly marvelous gift – the most powerful shield I have ever encountered, he purrs, his pupils contracting as he devours my Bella with his eager gaze. Imagine the possibilities if she were with us...

His covetous thinking abruptly clouds with misgiving. But because of her ability, all of our most talented are rendered helpless. We cannot hope for victory while she lives...yet it would be a great misfortune to lose such a priceless treasure. Needless to say – he studies the fierce, vivid smile on Bella's heart-shaped face – the game has indeed changed.

Her whispered words then pull me from Aro's chaotic, quicksilver thoughts, and I bend over her protectively as she declares, "I'm going to have to concentrate. When it comes to hand to hand, it's going to be harder to keep the shield around the right people." She knows that, in light of her actions, the Volturi will have designated her as the primary target, for if she falls, we will have lost.

Understanding the meaning behind Bella's statement, I nod in acquiescence. I could no sooner leave her side than defy the twist of fate that brought us together. Besides, defending her life has become an integral facet of my entire existence. "I'll keep them off you," I swear to her in a fervent voice. I would storm the very gates of hell if it would keep her safe, and none of those cloaked, earthbound demons will get close enough to even breathe in her scent.

She looks up at me quickly, the obstinate gleam in her amber eyes searing into mine, and refutes, "No. You have to get to Demetri." Seeing the surprise and undisguised panic on my face, Bella gives my palm a tender squeeze, murmuring with certainty, "Zafrina will keep them away from me."

The dark-skinned Amazon glides forward to stand beside Bella's right shoulder. "No one will touch this young one," she promises in her throaty contralto while leveling a keen ruby-colored stare in my direction. I give you my solemn oath that your mate will be safe in my care, Zafrina adds mentally, and although I do not doubt her word or capabilities in the slightest, iron bands seem to wrap themselves around my ribcage, stifling the breath in my lungs. I may trust in the belief that Bella and I are forever bound as one, but it does not waylay my basest instinct to protect what I value most.

Two pairs of eyes – one beseeching, one resolute – examine my frozen features, and after a second's hesitation I incline my head, accepting the task of eliminating the Volturi's tracker while the center of my universe is left in another's hands.

Bella exhales very softly, the steely tendons of her hand loosening a bit in my grasp. "I'd go after Jane and Alec myself," she remarks in a serious tone, "but I can do more good here."

Hissing dangerously, Kate stakes her claim. "Jane's mine. She needs a taste of her own medicine." And I am just the one to give her what she deserves. The spread out fingers of her hands fizzle with electricity as she bends lithely into a stalking crouch.

Our revenge is at hand. Vladimir growls out from his place near the back, "And Alec owes me many lives, but I will settle for his." The Romanian's thoughts are bathed in dark loathing and the crimson hue of bloodlust. "He's mine."

"I just want Caius," Tanya announces in a flat voice. My sister's murder will not go unpunished.

Emmett sighs exaggeratedly. Well, hell – he gripes in a teasing manner – I guess I'd better pick before all the good ones are gone. "I'll take Felix, then. For starters." He grins the feral smile of a predator.

"I can handle the shield," Rose speaks out a beat later, her contemptuous topaz glare fixed on Renata's anxious face. "That way, Aro will be left wide open." Her eyes flick sideways to Carlisle, wondering what he intends to do during the battle, and stiffens as his expression – turned towards the opposite end of the field – registers grim recognition.

A feathery, reserved voice then pronounces suddenly, "Before we vote."

Angry mutters and low snarls follow Aro's words, and Bella jerks her head from side to side in heated denial, strands of her mahogany hair lashing against her cheeks and my arm, since she is still all but welded to my side.

The frail-looking skin on his face crinkles as he frowns sorrowfully at us, his unblinking gaze lingering on Bella and myself. Surely we are all civilized creatures here, he appeals to me, and can lay out some terms for negotiation. Aro opens his arms wide and murmurs in a peaceable tone, "Let me remind you, whatever the council's decision, there need be no violence here."

Harsh laughter spews from my mouth, distorted by a cynical snort. Mere minutes before, the ancient had been considering which of my family – those who have a worthy skill to offer his coven – to spare from the carnage, and now he claims that there is no need for violence.

The only reason Aro is frantically recalculating his strategy is because my Bella has asserted herself as the most powerful vampire in this clearing, and he wants her ability more than eliminating the perceived threat of our family's bid for supremacy in the immortal world. But he cannot hope for the guard to achieve absolute victory against us while she uses her shield to protect our side from their strongest members.

He is afraid to lose this fight.

Burgundy eyes shift to mine, the thin black brows above them pulled together in a grieved expression, and Aro laments, "It will be a regrettable waste to our kind to lose any of you. But you especially, young Edward, and your newborn mate. The Volturi would be glad to welcome many of you into our ranks." And any conditions you may have, my friend, will be granted, he inserts persuasively. Whatever you request shall be yours...and I offer the same promise to anyone who accepts my proposition.

His attention drifts from face to face as he names in his wispy voice, "Bella, Benjamin, Zafrina, Kate. There are many choices before you. Consider them." His stare focuses once again on my wife and, so quickly that I scarcely notice it, two fingers on his right hand brush together – a signal.

Terrified to disappoint Aro again, Chelsea swallows hard and then locks her jaw, attempting afresh to bind threads of false loyalty from the ancient to those he has singled out. But the tendrils of influence quiver feebly against Bella's shield, unable to find a hole to worm through. And because we are protected from any manipulations, each of those Aro has presented his proposal to respond with their free will intact.

I don't think so, Kate sneers, her balled fists crackling with static electricity.

Zafrina's thoughts rumble like the thunder that echoes daily in the skies above the rainforest she and her sisters call home. The refusal underlying this sensation is primal, rich in the elegant savagery that her ebony-skinned body exudes with each sinuous movement.

His expression hardened into a mask of grim animosity that seems out of place on such a normally cheerful face, Benjamin squares his shoulders and glares back at Aro without fear. I have only just gained my independence from Amun, he remarks inwardly. I will not consign my mate and I to the restricted servitude of the Volturi, no matter what temptation the old one may use to ensnare me.

And Bella merely gives the dark-haired ancient her angel's smile. The terrible beauty radiating from her countenance sends a white-hot jolt down my spine that spawns some unusual reactions within my body. My knees wobble unsteadily, my eyes widen in an urge to encompass all of her inside my gaze, and my mouth begins to water as a pool of desire heats the pit of my stomach.

I shake myself mentally, reinforcing the reminder that I have a responsibility to my family, and tear my eyes from Bella to focus on Aro once again.

Obviously distraught by our uncooperative response, Aro's thin, cloaked form lifts in a noiseless sigh. Then you leave me no choice, he thinks sorrowfully. "Let us vote, then." His feathery tone is quieter than before, and bathed in deep reluctance.

"The child is an unknown quantity," Caius speaks up without delay, his voice exultant as his pitiless crimson eyes sweep across our lines, imagining the pyres that will spring forth all around this field. His thirst for brutality outweighs his uncertainty over a more evenly matched fight. "There is no reason to allow such a risk to exist. It must be destroyed, along with all who protect it," he declares, a slow, triumphant smirk unfolding on his gaunt face.

I feel the reflexive tightening in the slender body next to mine, and a chorus of violent exclamations reverberates inside my head, followed by Tanya's surprisingly aloof visualization of her fingernails clawing at Caius' throat.

Aro gestures in invitation to Marcus, who raises his hazy, disturbingly vacant stare from the snow and breathes in a detached murmur, "I see no immediate danger. The child is safe enough for now." Through his gift, both he and I observe the thick, entangled web of emotion connecting every one of us to the other – an intricate tapestry more complex than any Marcus has encountered in his millenniums of existence. "We can always reevaluate later," he goes on indifferently. "Let us leave in peace." Then he lowers his eyes, fading back into the surreal mists that engulf his mind.

Despite his brother's contrary vote, Caius smiles even broader, positive that the Volturi have all but been assured of victory. The newborn shall have to be the first to fall, he tabulates to himself, before Jane and Alec can be of any use. And once she is gone, we will exterminate the Cullens, and then perhaps offer the opportunity of surrender to the survivors.

I will tear that one to pieces myself, Jane fumes simultaneously, her enraged glare fixated on Bella.

Ever the pragmatist, Demetri eyes the spherical screen encircling our side, the mist still undulating all across its invisible surface. Does the shield have physical capabilities, as well? he wonders. If so, this will not be a stalemate, but a shooting gallery. Their offense will pick us off one by one.

Just give me one chance at her, that's all I ask. Felix licks his lips in anticipation, lust and violence creating a blood-red haze over his lewd thoughts as he watches Bella adjust her stance infinitesimally. I bite down on my tongue to stifle the possessive roar churning like acid in the back of my throat.

Folding his arms over his chest, Aro tilts his head in contemplation, pondering aloud, "I must make the deciding vote, it seems." Which had been his intention from the start, I am sure. So much to consider, so much to gain...and much to lose, as well... But which is the greater sacrifice: principle or preeminence?

It is at that moment, while I am tediously enduring Aro's philosophical waxing, that the slightest mental nudge interrupts my thoughts – almost like a delicate breeze wafting the gauzy curtains that cover the windows of our cottage.

At first, I am puzzled, because it appears to be coming from a great distance. Then I receive another nudge...and this time, it is more forceful. And a flash of imagery accompanies it: a cloudy yellow-white half moon, suspended above a drenched jungle.

A strange sense of familiarity takes root in my subconscious, and in the fraction of a second that passes as I blink my eyelids, shocked, I hear a musical, chiming voice call out, Edward. Edward, it's really me.

A tremor ripples through me, stiffening my muscles. In my mind's eye, my memory constructs the face that I have studiously pushed aside for the last several weeks. High cheekbones, pointed chin, small nose, wide golden eyes, an impish grin, and a tousled halo of ink-colored hair – combined with a petite frame and enough vibrancy to illuminate even the blackest night – fills my vision and blots out the menacing sea of gray robes in front of me.

I would never leave my family, she sends with staggering sincerity. Not ever. I love you all too much. But I had to. And now, I'll show you why.

After five decades of silent communication between two atypical vampires, she is able to flood her consciousness – and mine – with an onslaught of images, each flickering past so swiftly that she repeats the sequence two more times in less than a second, ensuring that I have absorbed and understood each one.

I try to define the feelings coursing through me in that instant, and fail miserably. All I can fathom, as feral joy wells up within my chest and seizes control of my mouth, is that everything I had once considered lost has now been found. And victory belongs to us.

"Yes!"

My low, ferocious cry draws the attention of every single pair of eyes on both sides of the clearing. The guard mutters amongst themselves restlessly, troubled by my bizarre reaction, and my family voices a ceaseless stream of internal questions, prompting me to explain.

Through my father's bewildered gaze, I can see the expression on my face...and it is the same resplendent, fearsome smile that had graced my Bella's full lips just a moment ago, before she turned to peer up at me in anxious confusion.

"Aro?" I call to the ancient, incapable of suppressing the elation that throbs wildly within my tone.

He scrutinizes me with a wary gaze, holding back his reply for a whole second, while his mind gauges the change in my demeanor in wordless puzzlement. Eventually, he says with apparent hesitation, "Yes, Edward? You have something further...?"

Breathing in a quick gust of air, I dampen my grin and the explosive excitement racing through my entire being, and then answer him amiably, "Perhaps. First, if I could clarify one point?" I inquire, raising my eyebrows with a polite smile.

What are you trying to accomplish, my friend? Aro mimics my expression, though his deep red irises gleam shrewdly. "Certainly," he says in mild interest.

Caius starts a bit at his brother's response, indignant and furious. This trial is over! Why does he insist on indulging these miscreants?

Edward, what is it? What have you heard? Carlisle stares hard at my profile, awaiting some sign from me that will justify my actions. Emmett grumbles irritably to himself about my so-called god complex as the others continue to pelt me with questions, and Bella grinds her teeth together – though her attention rests on Aro, who has leveled an expectant look in my direction.

I choose my words carefully, determined not to reveal the slightest hint of what is speeding towards us even as we speak. "The danger you foresee from my daughter – this stems entirely from our inability to guess how she will develop? That is the crux of the matter?"

"Yes, friend Edward." Aro bobs his dark head once in assent. His growing confusion, however, is evident in his inner musings. This has already been established. Where does he intend to lead this discussion? "If we could be but positive...be sure that, as she grows, she will be able to stay concealed from the human world – not endanger the safety of our obscurity..." He trails off, lifting his shoulders in a faint, remorseful shrug.

Concentrating intensely on filtering the majority of my eagerness from my voice and masking the grin tugging at the corners of my mouth, I suggest to him, "So, if we could only know for sure, exactly what she will become...then there would be no need for a council at all?"

A slight frown wrinkles Aro's smooth brow. He is utterly mystified by my questions, and intrigued as to what I wish to accomplish through this conversation. "If there was some way to be absolutely sure," he reiterates quickly, the pitch of his wispy tenor rising with his bafflement. "Then, yes, there would be no question to debate."

Immediately, I press on. "And we would part in peace," a note of biting satire leaks into my words, "good friends once again?"

Aro fires back shrilly, "Of course, my young friend." Tell me what you are planning in that fascinating, clever mind of yours. What have you discovered – some loophole in our judgment, perhaps? "Nothing would please me more," he declares.

I can no longer hold back the triumphant smile threatening to dislodge the courteous expression on my face. A whirlwind of heightened curiosity and disquiet swirls inside the myriad thoughts filling my head as I chuckle jubilantly, the bright sound unsettling the Volturi even further. "Then I do have something more to offer," I tell Aro, my fingers flexing around the small palm that is the source of my strength, my joy.

A sudden glint of bare, snow-covered trees flickers across my vision. We're nearly there; less than a minute left. Keep him talking, Edward.

The ancient narrows his eyes at me, the wind stirring the velvet folds of his black cloak. "She is absolutely unique," Aro murmurs, as though I have forgotten my own daughter's extraordinary nature. "Her future can only be guessed at."

Slowly, I shake my head, disagreeing, "Not absolutely unique. Rare, certainly, but not one of a kind."

This revelation has the exact affect that I had anticipated. An uproar of mental voices swells in my mind – some displaying rejection, others electrified by shock, and several of the most familiar begin to share the same small seed of hope, unfurling like a tender green shoot in the once bleak landscape of our future.

Bella twitches very slightly beside me, surprise and determination vying for control on her heart-shaped face. The white skin of her throat tightens as she locks her jaw, her amber eyes paradoxically distant yet focused, and I would guess that she is struggling to maintain her shield in the midst of so much emotional turmoil – which does not go unnoticed by her most merciless opponent.

She is faltering. I can see it. Jane shrugs out of her twin's arm and minces forward a half step, her red stare cutting through the icy winter air as she hurls a psychic blast at the protective dome, the energy skittering along its edges with renewed ferocity.

With a massive effort, I exercise the restraint necessary to keep me from attacking the little vampire and tearing her head from her shoulders, and instead address her master in a civil tone, "Aro, would you ask Jane to stop attacking my wife? We are still discussing evidence."

Enthralled by my cryptic argument, the ancient lifts one bony hand. "Peace, dear ones," he breathes. "Let us hear him out." Then he nods for me to continue.

Jane withdraws her assault resentfully. In spite of her desire for revenge, she would never consciously disobey a direct order. Cursing in her bitter thoughts, she bares her teeth at Bella in a mute snarl. I cannot help but smirk as Bella grins triumphantly back at her, the stubborn tilt of her chin feeding the wellspring of hope in my chest.

Now, Edward. The chiming voice peals like church bells inside my head, urgent and impatient.

My smile widens, and I call out loudly, the euphoric words resonating throughout the frozen field, "Why don't you join us, Alice?"

Her name triggers a maelstrom of frenzied thought.

Dazed, Esme leans heavily on Carlisle's shoulder, her golden eyes huge with shock. "Alice," she says in a trembling whisper. Can it be...?

"Alice!" Rosalie mouths, turning to gape incredulously at Emmett. His astonishment swiftly transforms into a broad smile of joy, and he drops one lid in a jaunty wink.

Tanya and Kate exchange startled looks. "Alice!" they gasp in unison, while Eleazar seems utterly dumbfounded and Carmen covers her lips with her fingers, inhaling sharply.

A number of stunned voices create a staggered chorus of my sister's name, and the large black wolf on the right side of our group tilts his furry head, baffled, as Seth crows gleefully within the pack's mental link and Jacob points his muzzle towards the southwest, detecting a faint trace of hyacinth and vanilla on the wind, mingled with a few unfamiliar scents.

Then a breathy, licentious whisper weaves like a poison through the joyful exclamations. "Alice." She has returned, Aro celebrates, his mind a disconcerting mixture of greed, yearning, and curiosity.

Faint rustling sounds and an out of place rhythm reaches the clearing just seconds later. All ears attune themselves to the echoing noises, once again waiting in suspense for the arrival that will turn the course of this entire confrontation.

I swing my gaze to the southwest corner of the field right before Alice slips through the low branches of two snow-laden firs and soars into view with her usual grace. Her topaz eyes touch on mine for an instant, and though her expression is blank, her bright irises sparkle meaningfully at me.

Bella exhales loudly, her stare impossibly wide as she watches her best friend and sister enter the clearing, and then I hear the muffled click of her teeth snapping together, as though she is exerting herself with a difficult task.

In Alice's petite shadow, Jasper hovers protectively – in full battle mode – his eyes flicking in every direction and his mouth set in a fierce, hard line. Those in the guard that have not seen my brother before start in surprise and apprehension when they notice the feathery upraised scars covering his bare arms and neck, and a few of the more burly cloaked figures adjust their posture to meet him head-on.

Only a short distance behind them is a trio of unfamiliar faces. Both Zafrina and Senna expel a quiet breath in unison as an exotic-looking female, her skin the same polished onyx hue as theirs and with dark hair semi-tamed into dreadlocks, appears beside Alice. Coming to a stop, Kachiri peers over a shoulder at the two following in her wake.

After the Amazon, the olive-skinned female that arrives next seems especially diminutive. Her face is round, highlighting her large, deep red eyes, and the strong curves of her features strikes a chord in my memory. I watch her carefully as she lingers close to Kachiri, her long braid of glossy black hair trailing over one shoulder.

Alice catches me staring and sends a brief explanation. Her people reside in the jungles of South America...not too far from the Ticunas.

Finally, the last of their entourage bursts into the clearing – a young man whose flowing movements are not as swift nor as graceful than the others – but his cocoa-colored skin is vaguely lustrous, and his irises are neither scarlet or gold, but warm yellow-brown. His thick black tresses are arranged in rows of braids all over his head and gathered at the nape of his neck in a short tail that ends between his shoulder blades.

Satisfaction bursts like fireworks within me when the rhythm everyone had detected earlier is at last discovered, and the implications sends waves of shocked realization through the crowd, for it is a heartbeat, quickened by exertion and stress.

Once their small group is together again, Alice darts forward and leaps over the shimmering mist that has thinned but not dissipated and enters the domed shield generated by Bella.

Though she has seen its effects in her visions, Alice still spares a half second to comment, I always knew she was powerful. Maybe now she'll actually believe it.Then she halts fluidly at my side, and in that moment, it is like her unexplained absence never happened. My sister is here, with our family, where she belongs.

I quickly brush my fingertips along her forearm in wordless greeting. Bella reaches around me to place a light touch on Alice's back, and Esme and Carlisle extend their hands to clasp hers tightly for a fraction of a second, while at the same time Jasper, Kachiri, and the other newcomers enter the shield, as well.

So it can be crossed. Felix's overjoyed comprehension knifes through the pleasant haze of reunion, and his hopeful, predatory gaze centers solely on Bella.

Several of his compatriots also note the fact that Bella's shield can be breached physically and coil their massive bodies to spring. But it is Felix that continues to goad the slavering beast residing in the darkest parts of my brain. Envisioning my Bella in his clutches, he sneers, Then she doesn't stand a chance. She's mine.

Clenching my free hand into a hard fist, I feel my entire body stiffen in outrage, the need for violence surging through my veins like fire, and I struggle to rein in my explosive temper.

Alice peers at me from the corner of her eye, warning, Stay calm, Edward; we've been in this position before. Her memories of our time in Volterra weave in and out of her thoughts. Do not let them provoke you.

I forcibly will my anger to subside, taking in a slow breath, and then raise my chin to look steadily at Aro. He has not taken his eyes off Alice since she came into the clearing. "Alice has been searching for her own witnesses these last weeks," I tell him, certain that he is listening despite his fixation on my sister. "And she does not come back empty-handed. Alice," I glance sideways, my lips curving into a faint grin, "why don't you introduce the witnesses you've brought?"

Caius' vicious snarl is repeated in his mind. "The time for witnesses is past!" He turns on his brother, demanding, "Cast your vote, Aro!"

All in good time... Holding up a single finger, Aro gestures for quiet, and arches his eyebrows slightly at Alice in anticipation.

The future wavers like dark glass in Alice's thoughts, the reflections of coming events still too undefined to make out clearly, but she is confident as she steps forward, motioning with a hand to the newcomers. "This is Huilen and her nephew, Nahuel," she introduces, placing a subtle emphasis on the familial title.

A disturbed rumble of sound rises up from the Volturi witnesses, and Caius narrows his crimson eyes, more troubled than he will admit. Nephew...? How is it that our world has been skewed from its axis and we are completely ignorant of it? The powerlessness he is beginning to feel chafes at him like an open wound.

Intrigued, Aro shifts his gaze almost unwillingly from Alice to the little olive-toned female and commands, "Speak, Huilen. Give us the witness you were brought to bear."

Swallowing once, the petite woman glances at my sister worriedly, as though seeking permission. Alice gives her silent support with a nod, while Kachiri lays her dark palm on the woman's thin shoulder. Then the small vampire draws herself upright and announces, "I am Huilen." Her accent is more exotic than Kaure's, flavoring her soft mid-tone voice with a timeless, otherworldly timbre. I commit its melody to memory so as to distinguish her thoughts from the symphony singing endlessly inside my head, and settle in to hear her tale.

"A century and a half ago, I lived with my people, the Mapuche," Huilen begins in an even, obviously well practiced manner. "My sister was Pire. Our parents named her after the snow on the mountains because of her fair skin." A hazy impression of a young woman's face swims into view; what I can make out is quite stunning, by human standards, at least.

"And she was very beautiful – too beautiful." A dark undercurrent threads its way through Huilen's words. "She came to me one day in secret and told me of the angel that found her in the woods, that visited her by night. I warned her," Huilen sighs, shaking her head sadly. "As if the bruises on her skin were not warning enough."

Pale flesh marred by splotches of purple and blue fills her mind, and the barest shiver travels along my spine as I remember painfully the similar bruises that had decorated my precious bride's once perfect body after our wedding night. But I wrest myself from those memories and concentrate on Huilen's story. "I knew it was the Libishomen of our legends, but she would not listen. She was bewitched."

"She told me when she was sure her dark angel's child was growing inside her. I didn't try to discourage her from her plan to run away – I knew even our father and mother would agree that the child must be destroyed, Pire with it."

A distant sense of urgency fills her voice as she continues. "I went with her into the deepest parts of the forest. She searched for her demon angel but found nothing. I cared for her, hunted for her when her strength failed. She ate the animals raw, drinking their blood," Huilen reveals, and bloodied lips smeared with scraps of meat punctuates her statement. "I needed no more confirmation of what she carried in her womb. I hoped to save her life before I killed the monster."

She pauses for a beat, still grieving after a century and a half for the sister she lost, and the wispy image of a slender hand caressing a swollen, black-and-blue belly accompanies her next words. "But she loved the child inside her. She called him Nahuel, after the jungle cat, when he grew strong and broke her bones – and loved him still."

Sounds familiar, Jacob remarks very quietly. He and I both suffered along with Bella during her pregnancy, and he damps down his thoughts out of respect, knowing that those weeks were literally my own personal hell on earth.

Huilen then admits mournfully, "I could not save her. The child ripped his way free of her, and she died quickly, begging all the while that I would care for her Nahuel. Her dying wish – and I agreed." Graphic flashes of scarlet-stained dirt and ragged strips of tissue pierce her consciousness, swiftly followed by the mental picture of a tiny, wriggling infant being reached for by a pair of gore-splattered hands.

"He bit me, though, when I tried to lift him from her body," Huilen goes on, wincing a little in remembrance of the excruciating pain – and I blink in surprise. This Nahuel is venomous, though Renesmee is not? But how, and why?

Chiding myself that these are questions for a later time, I return my attention to the story.

"I crawled away into the jungle to die. I didn't get far – the pain was too much. But he found me." Wonder lightens her tone, along with a hint of pride, as she speaks of her nephew. "The newborn child struggled through the underbrush to my side and waited for me. When the pain ended, he was curled against my side, sleeping."

"I cared for him until he was able to hunt for himself," Huilen says softly, evoking visions of a rapidly changing young boy with warm brown skin and her sister's eyes. "We hunted the villages around our forest, staying to ourselves. We have never come so far from our home, but Nahuel wished to see the child here."

Finished with her narrative, Huilen lowers her head and inches backward until she is nearly out of sight behind Kachiri's towering form.

Aro's lips are pursed, the expression caught somewhere between thoughtfulness and embittered, as he mulls over this particular revelation. Filmy red eyes swinging abruptly to the young man lingering close beside Huilen yet displaying not the slightest hint of apprehension like his aunt, the ancient inquires, "Nahuel, you are one hundred and fifty years old?"

"Give or take a decade." Nahuel's accent is scarcely detectable; his voice is smooth and musical. "We don't keep track." Renesmee, astride the massive red-brown wolf, leans forward with keen interest when the other hybrid begins to speak. Jacob growls under his breath, wordlessly urging her to stay put.

"And you reached maturity at what age?" Aro watches the youth intently.

In an offhand tone, Nahuel replies, "About seven years after my birth, more or less, I was full grown."

Seven years... My father quickly calculates Renesmee's slow decline in growth rate inside his head, filling in the missing variable that Nahuel has provided us with, and then affirms in stunned relief, It adds up.

Speculating, Aro asks another question, looking for clear confirmation of what we all can see with our own eyes. "You have not changed since then?"

Nahuel lifts his shoulders in a casual shrug and answers, "Not that I've noticed."

An arm's length away, Jacob trembles convulsively in reaction to this news. He hasn't changed in over a hundred years. Sparks of joy flutter wildly in his thoughts, vivid with life and color, and the low thrum of his heartbeat accelerates as he marvels in disjointed sentences, Nessie's not going to die – she's gonna be okay – and she'll be perfect forever... She won't die, ever...

My family restrains their emotional responses as much as they are able, striving to focus only on the present circumstance, but Rose's fierce relief trickles through her stoic mindset like a life-giving spring carving its path into a barren desert.

At my side, Bella stays completely motionless, her amber eyes flitting between Aro and Nahuel as the pair resumes their question and answer session.

The incessant curiosity that the ancient vampire persists in satisfying compels him to ask, "And your diet?"

"Mostly blood, but some human food, too." Though Nahuel is conversing solely with Aro, his gold-chestnut eyes wander around the field, like he is mildly amazed by such a vast gathering of immortals. "I can survive on either," he adds in an indifferent tone.

Circumstances seem to have fallen out of our favor, Aro remarks with a touch of irony. However... His stare cuts to Huilen, whose small form is hardly visible behind Kachiri, and he points one thin finger in her direction. "You were able to create an immortal?" he demands, low and intense.

My jaw bunches in frustration; he is attempting to find another excuse for open aggression against my family.

But Nahuel disappoints Aro's reasoning. Speaking as though he cares not for what befalls us, he replies, "Yes, but none of the rest can."

A jarring burst of shocked mutters ripples outward from all three listening crowds. Among our group, only Alice, her small entourage, and myself remain passive as the others share wide-eyed glances or disbelieving words.

Bella stays frozen next to me, but her eyes blink quickly several times, like she is fighting the impulse to act surprised. Renesmee leans forward again on Jacob's back, her thoughts burning with a need to know more, and the russet-furred wolf carrying her actually treads a handful of cautious steps forward, his gaze locked on the male hybrid.

Meanwhile, Aro – whose eyebrows are raised so high that they have virtually disappeared into his hairline – manages to say in a careful voice that belies his astonishment, "The rest?"

"My sisters," Nahuel comments with another shrug. Deep within his mind, he is acutely pleased to have knowledge that startles even these elite immortals.

For a fraction of a second, Aro's composure melts. A bald, uncontrollable look crosses his papery-skinned face, his thoughts racing in a thousand contradicting directions, littered with vocabulary from half a dozen languages. Then, his features smooth out, and one notion takes precedence in his mind. I must know more."Perhaps you would tell us the rest of your story," Aro suggests, but there is an undeniable command in his tone, "for there seems to be more."

A frown breaks through Nahuel's nonchalant demeanor. What does it matter, whether or not I have siblings? he ponders to himself. I have proved to them that this child is not a threat – and neither are my sisters, or myself. The pattern of his thoughts shifts, becoming darker, and tinged with animosity. But...if they intend to confronthim about his ‘experiments'...

Making his decision, the young man explains, "My father came looking for me a few years after my mother's death." His upper lips curls very slightly, betraying the strength of his loathing towards his father. "He was pleased to find me." The reunion as Nahuel recalls it shows a tall, muscular man with cocoa skin and glittering ruby eyes, a vividly white smile parting his lips. "He had two daughters," Nahuel continues, "but no sons. He expected me to join him, as my sisters had." A pair of feminine faces – one as dark as his, the other caramel-colored – flash across his mind's eye.

"He was surprised I was not alone." Huilen's startled expression, distorting rapidly into a vicious snarl, then fills his head. "My sisters are not venomous, but whether that's due to gender or a random chance...who knows? I already had my family with Huilen, and I was not interested" – he growls out the word – "in making a change."

Inhaling a short breath, Nahuel reins in his anger and finishes his account. "I see him from time to time." Though with no effort on my part. "I have a new sister; she reached maturity about ten years back." He folds his arms over his chest, certain that he has fulfilled his duty as a witness.

A vampire perpetuating abominations like these half-breeds... Caius chokes back a furious roar, and spits through his teeth, "Your father's name?"

"Joham," Nahuel says immediately, his hatred apparent in his tone and narrowed gold-brown eyes. "He considers himself a scientist. He thinks he's creating a new super-race." Revulsion thickly coats the youth's description of the immortal who sired him.

Incensed by this breach in their vaunted rules of secrecy, Caius suddenly turns his head to glare at Bella. "Your daughter," he hisses, "is she venomous?"

"No," Bella answers curtly.

At the sound of her voice, Nahuel straightens with a sharp jerk, his gaze swinging sideways to focus on the slender woman clutching my hand. She... His thoughts stutter erratically. She is the girl's mother? And she...she lives...?

The broken spurts of incomplete phrases and half-formed images erupt like fireworks in his mind – too quick for me to concentrate fully on interpreting – for Caius' eyes tighten at Bella's reply, doubting her truthfulness.

Glancing at his brother for verification, Caius is irked by Aro's thoughtful expression, but has no choice other than to hold his tongue and feign patience as the dark-haired ancient contemplates the Volturi's next move.

First, Aro purses his lips and stares at my father, musing, As I had gathered before – Carlisle is totally unaware of the power he wields among this talented coven, and his innate righteousness prevents him from even seeing the possibility of his family seizing control from mine. Which he would never do, he contradicts himself a half second later, for he is far more honorable than any of us. The true Stregoni Benefici...

After praising Carlisle, Aro's hazy burgundy eyes meet mine. You see and hear all, young Edward, he acclaims proudly. Your gift has made you the touchstone of your family. And because I know that I cannot hide anything from your perception, I will confess that our original intentions for this...conference...have changed. Which is owed entirely to your lovely, extraordinary mate.

His gaze rests almost tenderly on Bella, as if he is a doting father watching his child come into her own and thrive in the world. From the beginning, I knew – as you did – that she was special; a rare jewel among the trite, earthy mortals congregating on the earth. Now, she has become the strongest shield I have ever encountered...and she is only a newborn. Why, when she is as old as you –

An irritated growl rumbles out of Caius, interrupting Aro's deliberations. "We take care of the aberration here," he insists, "and then follow it south." Order must be restored to our civilization, or all that we have worked to uphold for the last two and half millennia will crumble to ruins. Make your decision, Aro!

Ignoring his brother, the dark-haired ancient finishes his previous thought. When she is as old as you, there will be no limits to what her gift can achieve. His eyes rove over Bella's pale, delicate features briefly, like he is searching for something. Such a terrible misfortune is would be to have her life cut short...a great loss, indeed... Yet, impasse or no, there is danger in leaving this place with so much hostility and untapped power intact. Perhaps Caius is right, and the situation must be dealt with here and now.

He meets Bella's heated yellow-orange glare, measuring her confidence in her ability and the ferocious devotion she has to our family and me. On the other hand – his lips flatten infinitesimally – to cross this coven at present would most assuredly invite disaster, on both sides. Young Bella cannot survive if we wish to be victorious, and I foresee no feasible means to negotiate for her relinquishment to us – along with her mate and dear Alice. And since we have no guarantee of success on any front... The gleam in Aro's ruby-colored irises slowly dies, and his expression becomes resigned. I have only one logical choice.

In his soft, feathery murmur, he says to Caius, "Brother, there appears to be no danger. This is an unusual development, but I see no threat. These half-vampire children are much like us, it appears." A faint half smile quirks Aro's mouth, and finally he removes his unnerving gaze from my Bella, turning to peer at the scowling white-haired immortal beside him.

Caius stifles the desire to unleash a toxic stream of curses, demanding instead, "Is that your vote?"

"It is," Aro replies serenely.

Caius' frown deepens, but his psyche is undoubtedly relieved despite his push for a show of violence. A smirk finds its way to my lips, lifting one corner in dark amusement. The rare prowess Bella has demonstrated greatly unsettles the Volturi as a whole. They are not used to being on equal footing with their opponents.

A joyous squeal twinkles like stardust inside my head. It's decided! Alice crows, watching the flickering future materialize as a vision of dark cloaks dissolving into the shadows of the forest.

Still seeking an outlet for retribution, Caius snaps, "And this Joham?" By all rights a heretic more perverse than these human-loving fools. "This immortal so fond of experimentation?"

Aro hums quietly under his breath. "Perhaps we should speak with him," he concedes with a nod.

Immediately concerned for the kin that he does not hold in contempt, Nahuel interjects in a hard voice, "Stop Joham if you will. But leave my sisters be. They are innocent."

Wearing a solemn expression, Aro inclines his head towards the young man. Of course. Despite his...methods...Joham's hypothesis intrigues me. We have no cause to eliminate any of the hybrids; they are, in a way, the future of our race.Renesmee's tiny, serious face appears in his mind, but he dismisses the image at once as he rotates to address the guard. "Dear ones," he calls out with a smile. "We do not fight today."

Gray hooded heads bob in unison, and offensive stances uncoil - some more swiftly than others.

Felix is the last to straighten up, his disappointment plain on his broad features.

With a slight tilt of his chin, Alec dispels the senses-deadening mist tickling the boundary of the shield and then links an arm through Jane's. Her sour pout twists her full lips for the blink of an eye just before Aro glances in her direction, and then she adopts a vacant, obedient countenance.

As the dark-haired ancient turns back to us, the guard rearranges their formation with the same precise elegance as when they had arrived, preparing to depart. Jane replaces the charcoal cowl on her head, and instantly blends in to the whole, her murderous inclinations fading amongst the low drone of the other minds in the clearing.

Near the northern edge of the forest, the Volturi witnesses cautiously begin to break apart – drifting one at a time into the icy cover of the towering trees. Yet as their group thins, the few stragglers move even faster; the last two or three quite literally flee the clearing in separate directions, their hasty footfalls disappearing into the distance.

Offering his open-faced palms to us, Aro exudes a deep sense of apology, while at the same time Marcus, Caius, and the guard glide swiftly away, the trodden snow the only evidence of their passage.

Aside from Aro, Demetri, Renata, and Felix remain – the personal defense for their cunning master.

"I'm so glad this could be resolved without violence," Aro announces benignly, his crimson gaze encompassing us all before latching onto Carlisle's tense face. "My friend, Carlisle –" Aro smiles with considerable warmth "– how pleased I am to call you friend again! I hope there are no hard feelings. I know you understand the strict burden that our duty places on our shoulders," he says, his tone contrite.

Diplomatic until the end, my father grants stiffly, "Leave in peace, Aro." Then, he reminds the ancient, "Please remember that we still have our anonymity to protect here, and keep your guard from hunting in this region." An unyielding undercurrent of steel surfaces in his words as he concludes speaking, making it plain that any more unannounced 'visits' will not be tolerated.

Mildly surprised by Carlisle's hard-edged statement, Aro nevertheless agrees, "Of course, Carlisle." The camaraderie between us is forever altered by what transpired today – which I had anticipated – though not quite in this fashion.

He had expected to leave the Cullens either dismantled or impotent, and instead his greatest perceived rival has proven far stronger and better prepared than he had first thought.

Checkmate. Jasper barely smirks, his feral topaz eyes glaring at the seemingly remorseful ancient. He recognizes a defeat when he sees one.

Aro frowns in sadness, hoping to salvage some sort of mutual tolerance between our covens, and murmurs, "I am sorry to earn your disapproval, my dear friend." Should you decide to come against us... The semi-frightened thought seeps through his rigidly controlled discipline before it is quickly choked off. "Perhaps, in time, you will forgive me," he finishes, still holding out his hands in silent offering.

But if Aro had been counting on Carlisle's vast store of benevolence, he is gravely mistaken. My father's expression seems to ice over, even as his brilliant gold irises smolder with righteous anger. I will not stand for the Volturi's manipulative proceedings any more, he vows sincerely. I have no care for power, contrary to what Aro may believe, but neither will I allow my family and friends to be drawn into their web again. We will fight back against any further threats to our life here. In a cold, even voice, Carlisle returns, "Perhaps, in time, if you prove a friend to us again."

Bowing his head, Aro lowers his arms, abasing himself for a moment while the implied retaliation in Carlisle's response fixes itself within his mind. When he lifts his eyes, the ancient begins to drift backward, his trio of protectors orbiting watchfully around him. Until we meet again, my dear Cullens, he sends as one last farewell, his gaze flitting over to Bella once more, and then he finally turns and melts into the snow-sprinkled pine needles of the trees.

The Volturi's sycophantic consciousness shrinks from my perception as the miles lengthen behind them, and a wide grin splits my cheeks in the silence that blankets the field.

Half a minute passes, and then Bella leans into my side, asking in a tentative, hopeful whisper, "Is it really over?"

Everyone around us seems to hold their breath, wanting to believe in what had once seemed impossible.

The smile feels both foreign and wonderful on my face as I declare, "Yes. They've given up. Like all bullies, they're cowards underneath the swagger." Chuckling with more mirth than I have felt in weeks, I bend down to press a quick kiss atop Bella's dark head, happiness buoying my spirit so intensely that my granite body seems weightless and...alive.

Alice's silvery, tinkling laugh joins mine. "Seriously, people," she teases as she spins around to look at the motionless crowd. "They're not coming back. Everybody can relax now." She winks impishly before opening her arms, as though she is expecting someone to fill them.

The quiet lasts for another second. Rounded pairs of scarlet and gold eyes blink in amazement, the steady hum of thoughts building into a deafening crescendo inside my head, and the two disgruntled vampires at the back of the group look at one another in frustration.

"Of all the rotten luck," Stefan grumbles. Vladimir huffs in agreement, grinding his teeth.

Then the clearing explodes in celebration.

Voices ring out with joyous cheers. The wolves throw back their heads and howl to the brightening winter sky.

Siobhan appears frozen in bafflement while Maggie thumps the imposing-looking woman on the back, grinning with enough radiance to light up the darkest night.

With a half-choked sob, Carmen sinks into Eleazar's offered embrace, laying her cheek on his shoulder as she weeps tearlessly, a contradicting smile curving her lips.

Benjamin and Tia reach for each other simultaneously, while Rosalie launches herself at Emmett, connecting their mouths and bodies in a manner more appropriate for a private setting, but I really cannot begrudge their shared ardor.

At the same time, Esme crashes into Alice's waiting arms and cradles my sister tightly to her breast, her eyes closed as she mutters fervently in Alice's ear the exact same thing she told me when I returned from Italy. "You will never put me through that again."

Then, Esme pulls away – still keeping Alice locked under an arm – and reaches for Jasper.

Sensing the depth of her emotions, my brother goes willingly to her, holding Esme close with an affection that is rarely seen by any of our family save Alice.

After watching Esme reunite with their missing children, a contented smile on his face, Carlisle moves to greet Huilen and Nahuel – clasping their hands and thanking them for coming to our aid.

Kachiri has left the newcomers and rejoined her sisters. The three ebony-skinned Amazons interlock their hands and stand together in a tight circle, resting their foreheads against one another's in wordless relief.

As he lets out a loud whoop, Garrett sweeps Kate off her feet and, tucking her into his chest, whirls around in a dizzying spiral. She squeals and then laughs, enjoying a fleeting moment of abandon in spite of her grief over Irina's death.

When his lips descend upon hers, his enthusiasm is reciprocated tenfold, and it cements my earlier assumption of Garrett becoming a permanent member of the Denali clan.

With identical sullen expressions, the Romanians linger on the fringe of the celebration, ready to depart since their plans for revenge have not come to fruition. Stefan spits on the ground in disgust, and Vladimir shakes his head, pondering, I suppose for now the Italian scum's cowardice will suffice as a precursor to our vengeance. We have time, after all, to make certain that we will be on hand when the Volturi challenge this coven again. And they will, he adds in dark expectation.

Together, he and Stefan dart into the southern edge of the forest. No one seems to notice their absence.

I dimly register all of this activity as Bella rips her hand from mine and is at Jacob's side in a flash, clambering halfway up his huge frame to pull Renesmee from his back. Our daughter wraps her small arms around Bella's neck with as much strength as she can muster and burrows into her embrace.

I pull the two of them close as soon as Bella is settled on the snow-covered ground, my lungs filling deep with the scents of freesia, spicy-sweet warmth, and dog while I revel in the euphoria of cradling my whole universe in my arms.

Burying her face in Renesmee's bronze curls, Bella chants lovingly, "Nessie, Nessie, Nessie."

I hide my grin by kissing her hair, but Jacob barks out a rumbling laugh and pokes Bella with his nose. I always knew she'd come around, he thinks with smug delight, and chuffs out a breath to ruffle her windblown locks.

"Shut up," she mumbles, though her words are void of any negative emotion.

Her heart fluttering like a bird's wings, Renesmee suddenly twists in her mother's hold and raises her head to look at both Bella and I. "I get to stay with you?" she demands, fierce hope blazing like a newborn star in her deep chocolate brown eyes.

"Forever," Bella promises at once, that single word ringing with certainty, elation, and above all, love. Through our daughter's eyes, I watch Bella's heart-shaped face light up from within – her amber irises shimmering with streaks of pure gold, an incandescent smile parting her full lips – and as Renesmee grins back at her, I become convinced that the gates of heaven cannot be more beautiful than the unabashed joy of these two angels.

And I also realize that the heaven I had been so reluctant to believe existed for one like me has come down and transformed this world into a paradise that I thought would never be.

My heaven is, at last, here.

"Forever," I murmur in Bella's ear, adding my own voice to her pledge.

Her breath hitches, and then she raises her head to meet my eyes. The sheer joy in her expression causes me to lose my equilibrium, and my arms flex instinctively around her and Renesmee.

For one infinite moment, I see the span of eternity inside Bella's scorching, glowing gaze, and the unparalleled bliss of knowing that we have overcome the final obstacle, that there are no more swords poised above our heads, intent on dooming us – that we truly have until the end of time together – chases every shred of coherent thought from my mind.

All I am aware of is the heat and passion blazing like fire in her eyes, and then the flames consume us both as she lunges upward on her tiptoes and captures my mouth with hers, rejoicing with me in a way that transcends anything happening around us.

It is stars colliding, heaven's gates opening wide, the vivid sunrise of a new day, and the miracle of creation rising from the ashes of despair.

Most of all, it is the exultant intertwining of two souls, who have finally been granted permission to remain as one, and been blessed with a happiness so intense that there are no shadows left to decay in the deepest caverns of my being. Hope now has a permanent foothold in my heart.

I am reborn, with Bella.

Nothing can ever or will ever separate us. And death has no power over our daughter, either.

We will all be together.

Forever.