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Summary:
AKA The Greatest Story Ever Told, by the Greatest Historian of the World. Aro's lived, figuratively speaking, for three thousand years. Ever wonder what he's seen and done?


Notes:


8. Illusion Part 3

Rating 5/5   Word Count 5259   Review this Chapter

Aura Lee, Aura Lee
Maid with the golden hair
Sunshine came along with thee
And sparrows in the air

Lidia and I strolled through the brightly lit plaza of Volterra. A warm summer dusk cloaked us, shadowing us from the sun. Lidia’s hair darkened to the color of wine, my own turned dark as ink. Caravans had reached the city and Market had been extended to last the entire night. Immediately after sundown, as the torches were just blaring to life, Lidia and I had wrapped cloaks around us and ventured forth into the heady air.

I breathed in deeply. The atmosphere was almost festive, gossip, lighthearted bargaining and shrieks of laughter suffusing the air. The staccato notes of dozens of heartbeats provided a comforting background music.

It was to be Lidia and Marcus’ 219th anniversary and she wanted to get something special for him. To do so, she had enlisted my help to find something different for him.

We browsed through the stalls, with me turning every woman’s head as I strolled through and Lidia attracting the attention of every man just by the simple motion of her arm as she brushed a strand of hair away from her divine face. Meanwhile, women glared at Lidia while men glanced enviously at me. It was too amusing. One man, so involved in gaping at her with the look of a man dying of thirst and suddenly finding an oasis, walked right into a wall.

I chortled gleefully.

“What?” Lidia asked absently, glancing up from the rack of cloth she’d been examining.

“Just a very entertaining man,” I told her, grinning. Lidia laughed and the salesman helping her actually had tears of happiness in his eyes upon hearing her.

“I can imagine,” she said, her eyes twinkling merrily. Despite—or perhaps, in spite—of her heavenly beauty and flawless façade, she was perfectly aware of her effect on the opposite sex. Unlike Anna, however, she didn’t relish in her ability. Then again, Lidia was just so beautiful it was an almost terrifying quality. The same men who froze at the sight of her or collapsed weeping (as I’d seen many do) never drew near her, frightened by the same trait from which they couldn’t tear their eyes away.

Anna, nowhere near as beautiful as Lidia, was the one to attract the most men, the one who could win over anyone and rise to the heights of power but with a smile and a single spoken word. What she didn’t posses in outright beauty she more than made up for in terms of seduction.

I suppose it’s my lucky nature playing in again that I would be the one to win her love, something numerous others, human and vampire alike, have attempted and failed.

Speaking of Anna, our anniversary is coming up and I haven’t gotten her something.

She never speaks to Adelina but if she can convince Adelina to torture me again…

Agh….

Oh, that’s right. You’ve yet to know Adelina’s ability. Excuse me but I’ll let you squirm in anxiety a bit longer. It wouldn’t do to tell you prematurely. It’d ruin the effect.

Before you grow insulted or adamant, let’s continue the story, shall we? Five hundred years down, 2500 to go.

I told you it’d be long.

While we had managed to settle our differences (and by we I mean my coven and I), the situation outside had degenerated fully. We were not only battling two savage, unstable covens but also had a strong, intelligent coven to the south amassing its forces. Volterra and Lucca held near daily meetings. One day I would travel to Lucca and Amadeus would go to Volterra the next before the cycle repeated itself.

Amaranta, Amadeus, Lidia and I had traveled to Belverde to meet with the vampires there. Caius had wanted to go but Marcus convinced him that he was needed in their meeting with Leo and Sofia. It had been obvious what his true purpose was—to keep Caius far from Adelina—but Caius had accepted Marcus’ excuse.

“It’s so awful,” I’d told Lidia s we ran across the Tuscan countryside to meet with Amadeus and Amaranta.

“What is?” she’d questioned.

“Caius accepting Marcus’ excuse. He doesn’t argue anymore. He doesn’t fight Marcus, doesn’t insult me, doesn’t question your morality—”

“Aw,” Lidia had giggled adorably. “Aro really loves his Caius.”

I’d promptly tripped her and she hurled a rock at my head.

A short while later, Amadeus and Amaranta had joined us. The rest of the trip to Belverde had been silent, Lidia and I running together on one side, Amadeus and Amaranta on the other. While we may have been allies, we were very unwilling allies. I am amazed Lidia and I did not try to kill them or they us.

In Belverde, the coven had been waiting for us—three males. They had escorted us inside their home where they had quickly explained the situation.

“We were the first settled here,” Renatus, the leader, had said. “After a few years, Bagnaria came and attempted to take our lands from us. Murlo arrived, saw us battling and thought it’d be easy for them to take the territory.”

“How are the other covens?” Amaranta had questioned, watching Renatus closely. “Particular strengths? Weaknesses? Favored battle tactics, anything?”

“Bagnaria is the one to worry about,” Renatus had quickly answered. “The coven is five strong with a group of thirteen newborns they’ve trained to fight. From Murlo we have little to worry about.”

“Except for La Crocea,” Adriano, another member of the coven who’d been silent until then, muttered. The other member shuddered at his words.

“La Crocea?” I’d asked softly, as if merely wondering. Lidia also remained calm/passive but I could tell by the sudden tightening of her eyes that she was paying rapt attention as well.

“It’s a nickname,” Renatus retook control of the conversation. “She’s the leader of the newborns. We call her Crocea for her yellow hair and the yellow light that is said to appear around her.” His voice had been carefully neutral.

“Forgive me if I appear forward, but was she the one to kill the fourth member of your coven? Ursula, was her name?” I’d inquired gently.

“No,” Renatus had replied and his eyes and voice had turned hard and cold as steel. “We killed Ursula.”

Amadeus had frowned and Amaranta had squirmed uncomfortably. Lidia had only blinked while I had struggled to remain impassive.

“Why did you kill her?” I’d asked, masking the shock from my voice.

“We had to,” Renatus had replied simply, shrugging. “She was suffering. It was a mercy killing,” he’d said louder, trying to dispel the sudden wariness that had descended on the room. “We took her from her suffering. Adelina was the one to make her go insane.”

Needless to say, the meeting had promptly gone downhill from there. Amaranta had questioned as to Adelina’s power but they had answered that they didn’t know how it worked or even what it was exactly. The only ones who could give testimony as to Adelina’s power were either dead or insane.

My mind constantly jumped back to that meeting in the days following. That day with Lidia in the market was no different, particularly when she held up a bolt of cloth, a bright sunshine-yellow, for me to examine.

“I can use it to embellish that one,” she said, pointing at a forest-green cloth.

“Ah yes, the tried and true sunflower look. He’ll look adorable.”

“Aro!” Lidia frowned. “I asked you to come with me and help me, not laugh at me.”

“Forgive me, my dear,” I bowed. “He’ll make a very handsome sunflower.”

“You’re an idiot,” she declared.

“You’re annoying.”

“You’re arrogant.”

“You’re insufferable. What, can’t think of any more epithets?” I teased when she just glared at me. “I can think of a few more. Whining, aggressive, narcissistic, stubborn, intrepid—”

“Ha!” she interrupted, crowing. “Intrepid isn’t a bad trait.”

“In the case of a self-righteous, self-centered misandrist with violent tendencies and no ability to think before doing anything, it is.”

“You are—”

She wasn’t able to finish her sentence. Marcus was running toward us, barely keeping to a human pace. He stopped before us. Only two words exited his mouth.

“It’s begun.”

We ran back to the palazzo where Caius waited for us at the door.

Bagnaria had declared war on Belverde and Murlo. The two had been forced to ally momentarily but were also about to attack one another. Paganico had secretly made a small newborn army of its own whose numbers would be soon added to Bagnaria’s newborns. Lucca was readying its own army but it would take them too long to cut south and stop Paganico. We were needed to travel to the junction between Paganico’s, Murlo’s and our territory to keep Paganico from attacking Murlo and Belverde from behind, thus trapping them.

Dressed in shear black to blend into the cloaked night sky, we traveled southeast, absolutely silent. Marcus’ face was set, Caius unemotional. Lidia looked angry. She also kept one hand over a bag tied at her waist filled with thin, pale disks that moved by themselves. No, she did not use her ability to move them. They were made of vampire skin, pieces that Lidia had saved from burning. She’d cut them into circles and sharpened them. Each piece came from a different vampire, ten disks for ten males she’d destroyed during the Trojan War. By taking one piece from each, she was assured that the disks wouldn’t be able to join together to form part of a limb or another body part. A vampire can’t regenerate a burned body part but all unburnt pieces could come together again.

In war, the disks served as her greatest defense and weapon. She could make them pull together to form a shield other vampires could not break through or hurl them at an enemy, slicing them apart.

It may sound gruesome, but nothing except a vampire can kill another vampire.

Since Paganico had taken control a group of wild newborns, they traveled slowly, providing us with ample time to reach the hills marking the junction of our territories.

Caius dashed around the perimeter, mapping the topography. He looked like a suffering ghost and I voiced my opinion.

“He looks like a long-suffering phantom.”

“Aro…” Marcus trailed off, shaking his head.

“That’s it? ‘Aro’? You’re not going to defend him and insult me?” I blinked. Stepping up to him, I began poking him. “Your thoughts are Marcus’ but you’re not acting like Marcus. Who the hell are you?”

Marcus just rolled his eyes. “I give up with you. You’re impossible.”

“No!” I exclaimed, aghast. “Where’s the fun in that? The whole point of irritating you is to get a rise out of you.”

Marcus shrugged.

I proceeded to poke him again. When that got no response, I aimed to smack the back of his head.

One of Lidia’s disks slammed into my chest on its flat side, throwing me backward onto the ground. It wiggled on top of me before it rose gently into the air and floated back to the others, freed from the bag and turning in a slow circle around Lidia’s head. They looked like a macabre halo revolving around Lamia herself, the legendary vampire-witch. The effect was ruined when Lidia grinned cheerfully.

“Now, Aro,” she admonished hypocritically, “violence solves nothing.”

I opened my mouth to call her a hypocrite but, when I did, one of the disks rose threateningly into the air. Masking a shudder at the sudden floating disk of vampire flesh, I closed my mouth and it went back down. I opened my mouth again and it slowly went up; I closed my mouth and down it sank. Open slightly, up slightly. Close, down. Open, close. Open…close. Open, close. Op—

“Will you stop it?!” Lidia shrieked.

I kept my mouth shut tightly.

“What’s been happening?” Caius walked toward us, glancing quizzically at my sprawled form on the filthy ground.

“Mud is quite good for the complexion,” I quipped. “A little mud, a favor from the gods and a miracle and you may become half the man I am.”

“I have no desire to become a hermaphrodite, I assure you. Or a woman in the case of becoming the man you are. I thank you for the offer, though.”

Lidia snickered.

“All right, we’ve poked enough fun at poor Aro,” Marcus interrupted solemnly. He turned to me. “While you’re down, though, do pick up the shreds of dignity you dropped. A woman looks oddly naked without her dignity.”

I hurled a rock at his head but it merely paused a few centimeters before his face, turning in a slow circle, before being pelted back at me.

“All right,” Marcus hid his laugh behind a cough. “Now we’ve definitely done enough.” He stepped up to me, chuckling. I refrained from formulating my plan until he had already extended his hand so that when he saw the cord signifying our relationship change, it’d be too late. His eyes widened and he tried to jerk his hand back but I grabbed his wrist in a vice-like grip and pulled him down.

“It is said that the greater the man, the greater the fall. Apparently, the opposite is true, as well because that’s just pathetic,” I said, motioning to his ungracefully sprawled body.

Marcus tackled me and we grappled briefly.

“Will you two idiots stop?” Caius snapped.

“Let them!” Lidia grinned. “I want to see Marcus kill Aro.”

“And when the Paganico coven arrives, what then? Aro’s an idiot but an idiot that can fight.”

“Oy!” I exclaimed indignantly, pulling Marcus into a headlock.

“True,” Lidia replied to Caius. She turned to Marcus. “Marcus, will you please stop?” Marcus suddenly craned behind him to grab me and pull me over his head and off him. I hit the ground on my back.

“As you wish, love,” he said and, standing quickly, brushed the dust off him. “What do you think Caius?”

I clambered up after Marcus, grumbling to myself about iniquitous cheaters but waiting for Caius’ response.

“There are some hills directly between Murlo’s territory and Paganico’s. There are four passes and two can be easily blocked. The other two are small and we can hold them. The heights will prove another advantage for us. There are some unsteady ledges. Removing some key parts,” Caius nodded at Lidia, “will have the entire thing fall on anyone trying to climb up. We can use the rock fall as a diversion to then attack and easily kill the newborns.”

“Let’s move then,” Marcus acknowledged. We ran until we reached the hills Caius had mentioned. The location was further east that I’d imagined. There would be no space to let them push us or we would be in no man’s land. Strategically, however, it was perfect. The four passes were quickly found and Lidia simply had to remove three pieces of rock to create a small landslide that blocked the first two. We split up to safeguard the two remaining passes. Lidia took the northernmost pass and one that situated her almost above Marcus, Caius and me, blocking the southern one.

Then, we settled down to wait.

A heavy silence permeated the land. Tendrils of mist had risen and thickened. Not a single animal could be heard in the darkness. We waited in bated silence, unmoving and watchful.

We heard them before we saw them. A series of growls and snarls shattered the choking silence. We froze in place, straining to see through the gathering gloom. One newborn appeared, then two, then four and the three members of the Paganico coven. Doing a rapid count, I realized three newborns were missing and, of the ones present, two had ripped clothing as if from a fight.

Marcus rolled his eyes and held out his hand. His ability made him an incredible adversary in case of war. Marcus, using his power, could pick out the leader. By touching him, I learned who was necessary to kill to have the coven fall apart in disarray—without ever speaking once. Caius only needed to analyze the scene briefly to tell us when and where it would be most opportune to attack or divert. Lidia, with her incredible reach, could cause the greatest amount of chaos among the opposing ranks while keeping a safe distance away.

I barely grazed Marcus’ palm and a world of colors bloomed behind my eyes.

The newborns were a veritable rainbow of colors. Aggressive scarlet, black hatred, treacherous dull grey, loyal gold. The newborns were loyal to one member of the coven, Regina, the only female. Amongst the newborns themselves, there were three different vampires the others looked up to.

Four vampires to be killed to have the group splinter into panic. Much better odds that I’d expected.

Lidia poked her cloaked head over the ledge and Caius turned to Marcus. Marcus looked up and signed the description of the four leaders to her. She nodded and ducked back while Caius then turned to watch the newborns.

The wind, luckily for us, blew toward us, bringing us their scent and keeping ours far from them. We braced ourselves as they came closer. We watched as they tried to round the hills but were unable to overcome Lidia’s rock slides. Soon, they had no choice but to press up through the hills. Marcus and I waited with bated breath. We could now see and hear them clearly; they were but a few meters below us and coming ever closer into Lidia’s range.

Suddenly, the wind changed direction, carrying our scent reeling toward them. They reared, roaring and snarling. The newborns launched themselves at Marcus and me, the closest to them. But we were deeply ensconced within the limits of Lidia’s power; by trying to attack us, they set themselves up as targets.

A deafening blow to the rock above Lidia’s head tore massive chunks that fell before Marcus, Caius and me and rolled towards the newborns. Several were struck and sent reeling down; others tried to grab onto anything they could for purchase. At that point, Caius, Marcus and I stood and ran forward. I dove at one of the newborn leaders, a slender man with dull brown hair. Distracted as he was by the falling rock, it was much too easy to destroy him.

While I prepared to burn him, another newborn launched herself at me. Three pale disks slammed into her, one slicing across her neck, the other two carving into her chest in an ‘X’ pattern. She collapsed in pieces. The three disks flew back to Lidia who had jumped down to join us. She waved cheerfully at me as she glanced above her and the rock to her left cratered as if something had struck it and splintered. She seized the rubble mentally and flung them at another newborn, following the blow with two of her disks that quickly severed his torso in half. I could only laugh as she grinned at me before I tackled another newborn.

“Aro!” Marcus yelled. “Stop them!” I glanced where he pointed and saw the Paganico coven trying to escape.

“Lidia, some help!” I called to her as I ran towards them.

Lidia jumped off her ledge and, picking up several stones, flung them before the coven, barring their escape. They turned to face us and one dove at Lidia. She seized her cloak and pulled it off in a single graceful movement, revealing her unearthly beauty. He immediately fell to his knees, enraptured, and the halo of disks hovering around Lidia’s head flew at him. I had managed to sever the female’s head and neatly avoided the advances of the other; I crouched, ready to attack him when Marcus dove from the side, quartering him.

There were but three newborns left, gaping at us. A feral roar tore from Lidia’s throat and they jumped, fleeing in abject terror.

Lidia giggled adorably.

I turned to brag to Caius that I’d killed more than he had, did a double take.

“Where’s Caius?” I shot at Marcus. He and Lidia immediately looked around.

“What happened to him?” Lidia asked, eyes widening.

“We need to find him. When did you see him last?” Marcus questioned.

“After Lidia created the avalanche,” I responded.

“That’s also when I saw him,” Lidia nodded. “He couldn’t have been killed.”

“Look around and come back here,” Marcus ordered.

We scoured the ground but it was only littered with the twitching remains of the newborns. I gathered them anyway for burning. It wouldn’t do to have them pull together and heal to chase after us.

When I returned, I saw Marcus and Lidia had also gathered some pieces and were dropping them onto a growing pile. Lidia selected five pieces randomly and, using one of her disks, shaped and sharpened them into her favored weapons. Then, she opened her bag and the fifteen disks flew orderly inside.

“He’s not among these,” Marcus motioned to the quivering pile, “which means he’s still alive.”

“Where could he have gone?” Lidia asked desperately.

I voiced the name I could tell sprang to their minds without even needing to touch them. “Adelina.”

“Aro, you and Lidia need to track him down. I’ll join after I take care of this,” he said, casting a brief glance at the now violently twitching pile.

“Come,” I nodded at Lidia and we ran to where we had last seen Caius. Lidia, who I’d begun to believe had been part bloodhound while human, found his scent and raced after it. It took all the speed I could muster just to keep up with her. Lidia followed swiftly after the trail, as if it were a visible strand she was following. And we plunged ever more deeply into Murlo’s region. Signs of the war began to appear: long, jagged tears like open wounds across the earth, trees uprooted, their trunks smashed. And sinister black patches that still smelled of a perfume-like sweetness.

Lidia and I darted through a thicket and a scene of war revealed itself us. Crossing the boundary into Belverde’s territory, the three covens were tearing into one another. A loud crack of thunder sounded every time one slammed into the other and vicious snarls and roars suffused the air. Upon first glance, there was no Caius.

“I’ve lost the scent!” Lidia cried. She sounded close to tears. “There are too many others overlying.”

“Head around the perimeter, then, and see if you can find him!” I yelled to Lidia over the noise. “We’ll meet directly across from here.” She nodded once and we separated.

I dashed around the battle, trying to spot Caius’ distinctive white-blonde mane. As I was getting close to Lidia’s and my meeting point, a sudden flash of yellow caught my eye, disappearing into a wood. I turned on heel and chased after it. At the edge of the forest, I caught two scents and I immediately recognized one of them. I pushed through the tress until I found myself at the edge of a river. Lying on the banks, his eyes closed, Caius was a too still shadow. Adelina sat next to him, one hand closed around his neck while the other held his severed arm.

Immediately, I roared in fury, my chest rumbling with the force. Adelina jumped. She turned to face as I ran at her. Her eyes narrowed. A soft yellow aura lit around her.

And then the world turned on its head.

As quickly as the earth and the heavens had switched position, they returned to their correct place. But there were a few things wrong. All sounds of fighting had been extinguished as if they had been abruptly cut off. Caius and Adelina had disappeared. There were no stars in the night sky, even the moon was gone. In its place, two orbs now hung in opposite ends of the sky, like eyes. Both moons were painted a vivid red.

“Caius!” I called. Not even the wind answered. My head whipped back and forth, trying to find anyone at all.

Adelina appeared immediately before me.

I cried out in surprise, stepping hastily back. Adelina watched me carefully, her golden head tilted to the side.

“Where is he?” I snarled, quickly regaining my bearings.

“I believe the true question you should ask is where are you?” she answered softly. Her voice had a far-away quality, ephemeral almost. I was startled when I saw her eyes. The pupil was a bright blood-red, the iris surrounding it a deep obsidian.

“Where is he?” I repeated.

“Somewhere you cannot get at him.”

With a snarled oath, I threw myself at her—and passed through her.

I rolled to a stop and jerked back, gaping at her.

Adelina had not turned around. But something odd was happening to her. Her hair turned paler, corn-silk rather than gold. And she was growing smaller, her clothes metamorphosing into a child’s robes. She turned around and my heart seized.

It wasn’t Adelina. It was Milena. Milena with her mother’s pale hair and her father’s gray eyes. Milena, who should have grown up, had a family and died over four hundred years before. Milena, who I’d abandoned to keep safe. Milena, my beautiful daughter who I’d not seen in 487 years.

Milena, who was bleeding to death in front of me.

Her ocean gray eyes beseeched me, one small hand stretching to me. There was a dark hole in the middle of her chest from which a dark, glutinous liquid flowed, devouring the white of her linen robes.

A sudden motion in my hand jarred me. I looked down to see my left hand closed around dark object, one from which poured the same fluid staining Milena’s clothes. And object that was beating.

“Papa?” Milena’s soft voice broke through my stunned horror. She took a step forward and fell.

“Milena!” I cried. I ran to her, grabbing her before she struck ground. “Milena,Milenita, no, please, no,” I sobbed. She was a rag doll in my arms, pale and limp. Her eyes fluttered open.

“Papa?” One tiny hand reached up slowly to touch my face, judging me to be real.

“I’m here,Milenita, I’m here.” I cradled her to me. I still held her heart in my palm and I tried to fit it back into her thin chest. But the more I struggled, the smaller the hole seemed to become and the more blood gushed forth. Dimly, I registered surprise at my lack of distress in the presence of human blood, but the terror that had seized me drove everything from my mind.

“Damn it, Milena! You cannot die! You will not die! I am your father and I am ordering you! Don’t die!”

Even as I watched, Milena’s eyes slowly closed. Her head tilted back on her slender neck. Her small hand, light as a butterfly, fell away from my face.

“Milena.” I shook her. “Milena, wake up.” A cold horror seized me. Steel vines closed around my heart as Milena remained unnaturally still, inhumanly pale.

“You’re not even supposed to be alive now!” I screamed at Milena’s pale face.

“You killed her.”

My head snapped up at the sound of a voice I had not heard in four hundred years.

The woman’s pale blond hair was draped loosely about her shoulders. Her blue eyes condemned me.

“Chiara?” I gasped.

“You killed her,” Chiara repeated.

“No, Chiara, I didn’t kill her. I didn’t want to! I tried to save her; Chiara, you must believe me!”

“Like you didn’t kill Mother?”

Leandro, my son, my handsome son who had died from poison mere hours before I was turned, stepped toward me. He continued, “Like you didn’t forget about us?”

“I’ve never forgotten you. Never forgotten.”

“No?” Leandro’s voice was bitingly scathing. “Like you never forgot above your vow to avenge us. Like you didn’t forget about Piero when you met your wondrous coven.” He spat the last word like a disgusting curse.

All I could do was stare at my son. He was right. I’d forgotten my family, forgotten my past, my purpose. I looked down, unable to look upon Leandro. By avoiding Leandro, however, I looked upon Milena’s cool form, her eyes forever shut.

“Forgive me,” I whispered brokenly.

“I’m afraid we can’t.” Chiara’s hand rested on my shoulder. When she tilted her head, a long gash was made visible on her slender throat.

Leandro stepped closer. Milena suddenly lurched up, her tiny hands closing around my throat. I choked under the inhuman pressure Milena was producing. My hands shot up to try and remove her hold but Leandro jumped forward and seized my writs, his fingers digging into my skin.

The fire from lack of oxygen suffused my lungs. My vision began to blur as the corners of my eyes darkened.

“Please,” I gasped.

Chiara cupped my face in her palms. Her hands were brutally cold.

“You showed us no reprieve.” She smiled and her smile was malicious. “Why should we show you any?”

Her fingers caressed my face, then dug into my skin. My scream was cut short when she tore the skin of my face off, the bone crumbling beneath her hold.

My eyes snapped open. I was standing on the banks of the river. There was no sign of that twisted image of my family. Everything appeared normal. I craned my gaze up.

Two red moons crowned the night sky.

I started—and found myself unable to move.

Leandro and Milena planted bright red roses around me. The flower, however, grew much faster than it should. It stretched and wrapped around me like a vine. Chiara held a rose in her hands. When she smiled, two rows of sharp teeth glinted in the scarlet moonlight.

“You’re not real,” I spat at the aberration masquerading as my wife. “My family is dead. They died years ago. You’re not real! You can’t be real!”

“I cannot?” Chiara blinked. “Did you hear children? We’re not real.”

Leandro and Milena giggled.

Smiling, Chiara stepped toward me. “If I weren’t real, could I do this?” She took the rose in her hand and stabbed it directly into my heart. Something clenched around my chest and a sharp pain radiated from the quivering flower.

“I’m very real to you,” Chiara laughed. She reached out and touched another flower. Immediately, the thorns stabbed out, long and thick, impaling successively, following the curves of the plant around my body.

The pain was too intense for me to even cry out.

When I looked up, the three held long blades which radiated heat. Chiara stepped up to me first, plunging it deeply into my body. I choked on a strangled cry even as Leandro and Milena held their own high above them.

I fell forward. I lay on hands on knees on the soft, green grass. Behind me, I could hear the roar of battle churning.

“Aro!” I recognized the voice as Lidia’s but could not help from flinching when her small hands touched my shoulders. “Aro, what is wrong?”

I grabbed her hands. “Ow, Aro, you’re hurting me!”

I ignored her as I craned my head up. A waning moon was the only orb in the sky dotted with thousands of stars.

“It was an illusion,” I gasped. “It wasn’t real. It wasn’t real.”

“What are you talking about?” Lidia watched me carefully, her face worried.

“How long was I out?”

“You weren’t,” she blinked. “I saw you when you suddenly ran into the forest and followed. You suddenly roared and ran out. Halfway to Adelina and Caius you fell. I reached you immediately and you winced when I touched you. That’s all.” She suddenly turned from me, looking behind me. I turned around.

Caius was standing, one hand holding onto his severed arm at the elbow. It was slowly knitting back together. Adelina stood next to him, her body tilted towards him, one hand resting on his good arm.

Caius shook his head. “Rash as always, Aro.”

“What did she do to me?” I screamed.

“Plunged you into a world controlled by your deepest fears, your greatest horrors,” Adelina responded. Unlike inside the illusion, however, her voice did not retain that dreamy quality.

“You startled us,” Caius continued. “I had no time to tell her you weren’t a danger.”

“Caius!” Behind, Marcus ran toward us. He paused when he saw Adelina. “Who is she?”

Caius straightened. “Marcus, Lidia, Aro, this is Adelina. She is my mate.” He turned to me, the corners of his lips twitching. “I do hope you have the sign prepared, Aro. I win the bet.”