A/N: Whew! Been a crazy month for this project, I've been trying to get a lot done at once.
Long chapter this time. As always, hope you enjoy, and see you at the end!
Chapter 24: Complete
"I'll keep your bloodsucker girl safe while you're gone. She won't be alone."
I hadn't felt this way in a long time. Like I couldn't breathe—like even to think was pain. As though I'd break apart at the slightest touch.
A deep fog had settled over my mind, and I was barely aware of my surroundings as we moved like shadows through the forest. I ran mechanically in response to those around me, unable to see them.
Her name repeated itself in my mind, over and over, like a chant, a funeral march. The imagined image of her disconnected head falling to the grass playing in my thoughts, again and again.
She wasn't dead—I tried to tell myself that. And yet, it felt like she was. Like I'd killed her.
Blinding pain. White-hot. Ice-cold. Scalding brands against my insides, in my head, in my chest—
It wasn't the first time I'd done something horrible to Edythe. Back when Victor was ready to attack us, I'd guilted her into choosing me over her family. I'd let Sulpicia blackmail me into lying to her, making her think I didn't want to be with her anymore. Even when I'd escaped from Archie to go find Joss had been cruel in its own way. But this felt different. For all I had done, I'd never—never—
Bands of light from the rising sun in the east filtered through the trees at intervals, and I blinked and looked away from it, as though it were hurting my eyes. I'd never known sunlight to be so hideous as it was now. Every white gleam through the branches, every sparkle off morning dew, might as well have been a taunt. I'd thought I'd loved the sun, back when I lived in Phoenix—only when I'd met Edythe, did I realize it was she who had made it truly beautiful.
The right thing to do. Was that the reason I had betrayed her? It seemed flimsy now. I wasn't going to succeed anyway—Edythe had known it, even Sulpicia knew it. Edythe and I could be together now, figuring out what to do as a team. Edythe had always been so much better than I was, knew better than I did. Why didn't I trust that? She had come to help me, to save me from someone who'd done nothing since we'd met but torture the people I cared about—and all I'd done was spit in her face.
The stabbing, lancing pain in my head and chest blazed. I didn't deserve Edythe. I'd never deserved her.
I understood now, what Edythe had felt all the months we'd been together. I'd thought about the physical pain, the torture that my blood was to her. But now I realized—the guilt, the self-loathing, was far greater. The terror of not being forgiven, of losing her, overwhelming my mind, my senses—yet also wishing with a vicious intensity that she would do exactly what I feared most. That, should I actually somehow succeed, I would get what was coming to me, that I would be alone, and she happy without me. The only difference between Edythe and me was that her self-hatred was always unfounded. She hadn't done anything wrong. I'd decided. And it hadn't been to stand with her.
We all had our Volturi hoods up, so the sun didn't react to our skin. Just as well—I didn't think I could have taken it.
The guards around me slowed, and I blinked sluggishly, coming out of my haze enough to realize we were stopping. The terrain was rugged here—a giant rock formation stood nearby, casting its long shadow over the forest, sheets of shattered stone littering the base. Nearby a stream rushed down over broken rocks.
The faint sound of rustling cloaks and whispering feet at a distance reached my ears, and I found myself turning automatically. Below I saw another clearing, not unlike the one we had just left—only this one was split by a lake, the waters so still they reflected the landscape back like a mirror, including the blinding orb of the morning sun. On the lake's periphery, amidst towering trees, were darting forms, black figures all converging on where we stood.
In my fogged mind, for a moment I had the strangest thought that they were Salvatore and his forces, come for us early. I felt nothing—no shock, no fear. My ears were filled with the screech of tearing metal, the soft thud of a head falling to the grass.
Sulpicia and the other Volturi showed no sign of alarm at the approaching figures. Rather, they waited calmly in the shadow of the stone formation, until one figure moved ahead of the rest, flanked on either side by what seemed to be guards, coming to a stop just before where Sulpicia stood with Marcus.
Sulpicia immediately stepped forward, to clasp one of the figure's hands between her own. "My dear Dora," she said. "I cannot say how glad I am to see you. How I hate for the three of us to be apart."
The figure drew back her black hood, and a cascade of fair hair fell to her back. I knew her face, in a dim, distant sort of way—I'd seen it before long ago, both in a painting in Carine's study, and then again in a shadowy castle room. The third of the ancients that made up the core of the Volturi, those that ruled the vampire world. Athenodora.
"Picia," Athenodora acknowledged, though unlike Sulpicia there was not a hint of warmth in her voice. The corner of her lip tightened in something like disdain, as she added in a tone heavy with mock concern, "My tracker tells me you had a run-in with our old friends of the Romanian coven. I'm so glad to see you have all emerged unscathed. If only I had been closer—we might have come to your aid."
The other figures—Athenodora's forces—had come to stand behind her now. They moved with the same perfect silence and eerie synchronization of many of Sulpicia's forces, and took up positions in neat rows behind her.
"Of course," said Sulpicia, smiling. She added in a tone that was at once friendly and polite, though also with a hint of irony, "I know you would have come if you could have, Dora. But perhaps it was for the best. We had quite a close call—were we to have been destroyed, I could have at least been glad to know you were still alive and well, and able to carry on our great work."
Even through my mental fog, I couldn't help but notice the two had a strange way of talking—as though they were both speaking in code, and having a different conversation beneath the surface.
Apparently Athenodora was done with whatever conversational game they were playing, because she gave an irritated hiss, and there was no disguise in the biting sarcasm as she added, "What a thoughtful sister you are as always, Picia. The separation has been such a trial."
Sulpicia smiled in reply, with a strangely muted delight that on anyone else would have been almost impish. "Ah, how I've missed you, Dora. You always know just what to say to cheer me up when the day has been less than ideal."
For the first time since the clearing, Sulpicia turned to me. Her ancient, misty eyes were once again serious, careful. For a moment she seemed to be calculating—perhaps how best not to break me into a thousand pieces.
At last, she extended a beckoning hand.
Mechanically, I approached, my limbs moving stiffly, jerkily. I stopped before where the three ancients stood, all standing together in the long shadow of the towering cliff side, in between the broken pieces of stone.
"Beau," Sulpicia said gently. "I can give you a few more minutes to—to think, if you like. To perhaps find in yourself the frame of mind you will need. However, we are almost out of time. You, Tacita, and Renatus will have to set out very soon."
She added softly, "I can't say how sorry I am for what you have had to go through, to do. But I hope you will focus on the future now—when this is over, you and Edythe will be together. I have put you through much to get to this point, but it has all been for a purpose. You will see that it will have been worth it. Soon your suffering will be over, and you will at last find your happiness."
I stared back into her kind, serene features—so calm, so confident. And I knew she was lying to me.
She hadn't believed from the beginning I would be able to do it. And she didn't really believe it now. I was just one chess piece among many on the board, and in the likely event I failed, Sulpicia would move onto something else. Edythe had seen through to that stark truth, in a way none of the rest of us could.
For once I couldn't be angry with Sulpicia. I saw now that pretending to be omniscient was her way of inspiring confidence—if I believed someone had it all planned out, that I was following some preordained destiny that couldn't help but come to pass, then I wouldn't turn away. Might even believe I could do it, even being me.
But it was all pointless. It had all sounded so grand and noble in the moment, that I'd risk death for just one percent chance I'd save all those people. But the harsh truth was that I was going to fail. I couldn't kid myself that, if I died, Edythe would stick around after that. With my great sacrifice I'd good as sacrificed her too. For what? So I could pretend to myself I could try to be some kind of hero? I couldn't save anyone, but I could have at least stood by her. We could have been together for a little while longer, fought together.
As Sulpicia gazed back at me, something seemed to shift slightly in her distant, ancient eyes. As though she saw in my face my spiraling thoughts, sinking me deeper and deeper into a dark vortex from which I wasn't going to emerge. Deciding whether I was already a ruined tool, better now simply to cast aside.
At last she murmured, "I will give you a few more minutes. We will return for you when it is time."
She turned away from me then, and Tacita, Cato, and Renatus followed suit. Marcus, too, drifted away, back in the direction of his forces. Even on the verge of a possible battle—or a violent takeover by another coven—his bland, disinterested features remained fixed as they were.
Dully I watched them go for a moment, before at last I sank down on the nearest broken stone. I let my hooded head bend forward—as I let the horror and pain crash down on me like a downpour.
"It's all right, child," said a voice above me, to my left.
I knew who was speaking without looking, yet I felt my eyes rise automatically. Athenodora had apparently dismissed her guards, because they were gone, and she now stood alone. She was peering down at me sideways, her bitter expression almost thoughtful.
"If you don't succeed," she clarified. "Unfortunate for you, to have a gift Picia finds useful. Picia hopes you'll save her some trouble. So that her peaceful, static little world can go on as it has, none the wiser."
Athenodora waved a hand, almost carelessly. "A little change would hardly be such a calamity. It's been the same thing every day, every year, every century for the past thousand years. Consider—if you don't do as Picia wants, you'll have helped usher in a new age. Perhaps one more interesting than this one."
I stared back at her, from the shadow of my hood. I didn't feel any change in my dull face—but maybe she read incredulity there, because with a hint of a sigh, she slid gracefully down to sit upon one of the broken rocks nearest the cliff face, and continued, as though answering an unspoken question.
"Change is not such a vile thing. At least when the world is as wretched and miserable as this one. It would be the most wonderful thing I could imagine if you did fail—and even more wonderful if Picia, Marcus and I were finally turned to ash, and the Volturi no more."
Athenodora leaned back, as though lounging about on her throne back in Volterra. Even as she smiled an aura of unpleasantness, dissatisfaction, seemed to linger about her on the air.
At the back of my mind I wondered dimly why one of the most powerful vampires would deign to sit down and chat with someone like me, a no-name newborn. But then, if what she said was true, I had the power to give her something she seemed to want. I had the power to fail to save the Volturi, and the world.
"I gather Picia made you do something to that criminal mate of yours," Athenodora said conversationally. She gave a harsh laugh. "Up to her old tricks as usual."
I stared back at her, my face still slack, dull, but this time a dim memory flickered in my thoughts. Athenodora's part in Sulpicia's history of the Volturi.
As though reading my mind she gave a sour smile. "Oh yes, you know the story. How the great Sulpicia of the Volturi bravely betrayed her mate in order to do what was right by her brother, and bring the world to a new order ruled by peace and justice." She sneered. "So noble of her—except to those of us who didn't have a choice. To those of us who lost a mate, and never even had the chance to protest it."
Athenodora's gaze drifted to the east, toward the sun, now hovering just above the trees. And she looked as though she resented its bright rays almost as much as I did.
"Justice," she murmured bitterly. "Justice would be for Marcus and I to abandon her to her mad obsession with order. For there to be no fallback for her to get her way when she inevitably falls. Instead, we are her puppets. Doomed to serve in her great cause for all eternity, never given a choice, not even the freedom to despise her in the privacy of our own thoughts..."
I gazed back at her, from where my head was still bent under the deadening weight of what I had done. Distantly, I felt a minor detail I'd never considered click into place. Chariton's power—the same power Sulpicia had used on Jonathan and Alexa to keep them loyal to the Volturi—Sulpicia must have used it on her own brother and sister. They were as much her pawns as Jonathan and Alexa had been.
I'd always thought of the two as Sulpicia's core family, who Sulpicia would spare her manipulations, if no one else. But even they weren't safe.
The morass of misery was too thick for me to care much now, to give it much thought. But there was a question I'd had, and though I wasn't sure I wanted to know, the question rose in my throat anyway. "Who?" I asked mechanically, and though my voice was velvet as always, it felt like it should be hoarse with pain and disuse. "Who got Chariton's power?"
Athenodora considered me for a long moment. Then the corner of her lip twitched in contempt. "Isn't it obvious?"
She stood. She had apparently satisfied herself reveling in Sulpicia's coming failure, because she turned to leave, cloak swirling around her feet.
Something Sulpicia had said drifted back to me. She had given Chariton's power to someone on whom Chariton had used it—and resented it. Athenodora was right—it was obvious.
Before I had time to think about it, to decide if I really cared, I whispered, "Why?"
Athenodora paused briefly, though she didn't turn.
I continued, "Why don't you... free yourself?"
She didn't immediately answer. Whether because she wasn't sure she wanted to answer, or because the question irritated her, I wasn't sure.
At last she said, tone neutral, "We've never known if the gift can be used on the wielder. I've never tried."
She slipped gracefully away then, back in the direction of some of her forces. She passed briefly into the sunlight, before reaching the shadow of the nearest treeline.
In the past I would have wanted to know more. Why wouldn't she have tried if she hated it that much? What was she really thinking? How did she really feel about Sulpicia? But those were questions I would have wanted to ask Edythe, and I felt no tug of actual curiosity. Instead, I bowed my head, my hands hanging limply from where my arms rested against my knees. I didn't breathe as the horror pressed against the back of my neck.
Something rustled to my left, a faint breath of wind I never could have detected as a human. Thinking it might be Athenodora come back to gloat some more, I felt my eyes reluctantly open.
It was Tacita. The angles of her face as ever sharp as a hawk's, eyes hard.
I froze, every plane of my face, every part of me completely still. It couldn't be time already. Time for me to die—and kill Edythe in the process. To fail everyone I'd ever known.
Tacita stared back at me briefly. "Not yet," she said in the clipped, harsh voice I had almost grown used to. "You have a few minutes more."
Slowly I unfroze, slumping where I sat. I'd accepted what was going to happen—but still it hurt. What my failure would mean for everyone, and all the people I cared about.
Tacita eyed me with a critical expression. "You have given up," she said abruptly, coldly.
I didn't look at her. "I can't do this," I said quietly. "Everyone knows it."
"Then tell Lady Sulpicia you refuse to go."
I had thought I was beyond any shock. But, in spite of the molasses in my thoughts, my limbs, I felt my head snap up at this. Tacita seemed the last person to give this sort of advice—advice that contradicted what Sulpicia wanted. Was she, like Edythe, really going to tell me not to waste my life when I was going to fail? To think of myself first?
Tacita's harsh expression hadn't softened in the slightest. "If you know you are going to fail, then you would be better not to try. Renatus and I will be of more use to Lady Sulpicia elsewhere."
I was slightly ashamed to admit I'd almost forgotten that Tacita and Renatus would, with my failure, also be sacrificed. She was right, of course she didn't want to die for nothing. My failed attempt would be worse than nothing, robbing the Volturi of powerful assets.
"Go find your mate," she snapped at me, as though she were running off a stray dog. "You're useless to us."
My eyes had been staring somewhere at her collarbone, not quite meeting hers, but now they rose. She was still glaring down at me, with not a trace of compassion, but merely the cold logic of someone who saw me as no more than an obstacle, a failed plan that needed to be ruthlessly cut before it could do any more damage.
Tacita had always seemed purely an extension of Sulpicia's will, or so that was how she looked to me. But she was her own person too. A new question formed in my mind before I could really think about it.
"Why do you..." I began, slowly, uncertainly. "Why do you serve Sulpicia?"
When she didn't immediately answer, I heard myself push on, rasping, "You know, better than anyone, that she's not really..."
I knew many of the Volturi had been bound to Sulpicia by a power outside their control—yet that still left those like Tacita who were bound by nothing but actual loyalty. Even Athenodora, who hated what had been done to her and claimed it wasn't her choice—from what I could tell, in some strange way it had become her choice now. Not trying to get away, to break the hold, was a choice.
Sulpicia projected an image of being infallible, omniscient. But she wasn't. She wasn't even entirely consistent in following the ideals of the Volturi she talked about. What had Tacita and Cato and the others been thinking, when Sulpicia had rained down fire on Europe, in retribution for Mele's demise? Did they think it justified in some way, or did they feel it a violation of the established tenets of the Volturi's rule? What were they thinking now, as Sulpicia insisted on trying to use me, when that I wouldn't make it was practically a given?
These questions drifted through my mind like ghosts, insubstantial. There seemed in some way an inherent contradiction there, even if I couldn't quite explain it. Whether it was the ideals that united them, or blind loyalty to Sulpicia herself, no matter what she might do.
"Not really what?" Tacita said coldly, impatiently.
I hesitated, trying to think how to explain. At last I said quietly, "She's not... perfect."
Tacita scoffed and turned her back on me. "And what do you mean by perfect, newborn?"
Again, I considered. "She's not always right."
Tacita eyed me over her shoulder with loathing. But I saw something else there—thinking, considering. For one strange moment, I wondered if she would tell me her history too, as Sulpicia had, her human life, and the beginnings of her immortal one that had brought her into Sulpicia's service with such intense devotion.
Instead, she merely said, "Lady Sulpicia knows the world and its needs better than anyone else. It is not our duty to question her decisions."
Her eyes shifted away from me, staring out across the clearing, wandering over the many faces, as though searching for threats.
I stared at the back of her head for a long moment, my mind working slowly through the heavy darkness of grief and pain that had settled over it. Before my gaze drifted, until at last I found Sulpicia, standing across the clearing with some of her guards. She was not speaking to any of them, she merely stood motionless, her back to us as she gazed off into the trees.
I would never hold up Sulpicia's way of doing things as some ideal. Even if she had managed to stick to her own rules with perfect rigidity. She lied, manipulated, and had committed brutalities beyond what I could imagine. Yet I found my weary mind drifting, my thoughts winding back to another time, thousands of years past. And instead of seeing myself in Sulpicia's place, I found myself in Athenodora's instead. My mate destroyed by my own sister.
How would it have been, had Sulpicia decided not to act? To go along with Aro's vision, to serve him as quietly and faithfully as she had up to that point?
Athenodora's mate would still live. Yet the Volturi would surely have also been beyond corrupt. How many more innocent might have died like Aro's sister? Would there have even been any attempt at justice, a conception of right and wrong, or would it have been all about ambition, gaining more power? Athenodora, and perhaps Sulpicia too, might have been happier—but at what cost?
Her name still repeated itself in my mind, never ceasing, cutting through everything else. I'd wanted to become immortal so I could help her, be the partner she deserved. Instead I'd betrayed her, when all she wanted was to help me.
The horror seemed to close over my head, trying to suffocate me, drown me—and it was in that moment I heard it. A voice rose in my mind—one I had not heard since those wild days of riding bikes and cliffdiving. Beautiful, angelic.
It's okay, Beau, Edythe's voice murmured. You know you made the right decision. Don't hate yourself.
I stared at the broken rock at my feet, and knew if I were human, my vision would be blurring, tears threatening to fall. Instead, my vision remained all too clear, even as a squinted with the pain. "I didn't—" I choked. "You were right. I should have—have—"
I'm not perfect, Beau, her voice said softly. My love for you has never been perfect. I'm like Sulpicia—not always living up to my own ideals. But I would never ask you to be Tacita, to stand by me even when it's wrong. From the beginning, you've terrified me, Beau. You have never seen me clearly—and I always wonder what will happen when you at last see the truth. When you realize I'm not the ideal you think I am.
"I didn't—" I whispered. "I would never—"
I love you, Beau, and I will always love you. Even if I've now disappointed you beyond all hope of repair. I love you.
The voice faded—retreating back to whatever part of my psyche had summoned it.
My hand rose in front of me, as though beckoning her to come back. However, my eyes dropped briefly to stare at the back of it. To the now hard, smooth skin, the angles of each knuckle now so perfectly defined, without a blemish.
We were the same now, Edythe and I. I wasn't a weak, fragile human. I'd expected to finally feel like her match, her equal—instead I still wasn't good enough for her. Even if I hadn't betrayed her. We still weren't a match.
Memories of Edythe's face flashed through my mind, strangely sharp, defined, even through the dim lens of my old human thoughts. My own rough human voice, trying again and again, to help her understand what I saw when I looked at her, how amazing she was, how she wasn't seeing herself clearly. That she didn't need to hate herself, to see herself as a monster. She, staring at back me with pain and guilt, and fear. Fear most of all.
You've terrified me, Beau.
Was that what Edythe really wanted? Needed? For me to tell her, over and over, that she was perfect—to place her on a throne, from which she would surely always be afraid of falling. Edythe was amazing, had done so much I couldn't comprehend even now, but was it that which had kept us unequal—or was it me, holding her up as an ideal?
Sulpicia's voice whispered faintly at the back of my thoughts.
To see her clearly, as she is, without imposing on her an impossible perfection—
I stared hard at the ground.
Will that not make your love more complete?
Slowly I raised my eyes, to stare out at the shadow of the surrounding trees.
Edythe had come to save me, and I loved her for that. She couldn't bear to lose me, anymore than I could her—she was my happy ending, and she always would be. But that didn't mean she had to have been right or blameless. Beautiful and selfless as her love had always been, surely parts of it were allowed to be ugly too. She could be the villain. I didn't need to keep making her feel as though I'd only ever see her through a filtered blind, reinterpreting everything she said and did to conform to a fantasy. My love for her had never been conditional—but finally I understood how maybe I could help her see that. How I could finally stop torturing her.
My eyes shifted, rising up toward the distant horizon, where I knew Salvatore and his people might be some distance away, soon ready to attack.
A new, deep anger swelled inside me—not at Edythe, not at myself, or Sulpicia. Or even Salvatore and Riko Shimizu, who were ultimately responsible for all this.
Just anger that this horror existed in the world. Anger that such violence, whether for selfish personal glory or vengeance, existed, and kept going around in neverending cycles, always instigating future tragedies. Anger that such a situation could arise, that would force Edythe into feeling she had to make such a horrible decision.
As the anger rose inside me, fire in my throat so much stronger than the thirst for blood, I turned my eyes to the figures some distance away, scattered about. Tacita, still standing with her back to me close by, Athenodora over by her soldiers. And of course Sulpicia, standing with Renatus and Cato and her other loyal guards.
My thoughts ranged out even further—all the way back to the continent across the ocean, to Tanvir, Elena and the others in Denali, who, like the Cullens, were able to enjoy their immortal life without the taste of human blood. To my dad and my mom, and the new family my mom would soon have with my new brother or sister. To my human friends in Forks, getting ready to start their lives as they went away to college or got jobs or dated in readiness to someday get married. To my new vampire family, Carine and Earnest, Archie and Jessamine, Royal and Eleanor, who all also found ways to enjoy themselves and help the humans they met in spite of their temptations. The wolf pack, with Sam and all the others, who put their lives on the line to protect their tribe. And of course to Jules, my best friend in a dark time and my best friend still, who had stayed behind to protect the girl I loved in spite of her own broken heart.
And Edythe, my Edythe, who had so changed me. Who had shown me a world of magic, and even more, the magic of first love. Who was on so many levels so incredible, so kind, and yet dangerous too. Perfect and flawed all at once.
So many people I had met, who I wanted to see find happiness, and so many people I had never met, but I knew all had stories and people they cared about deeply, just like I did. Every single one of them, I wanted to protect. I wanted to protect their futures, if I could.
Tacita still had not moved from where she stood a few feet away, but now I noticed she had turned back again to eye me with distaste. She must have heard me talking to myself, and thought me clearly on the verge of losing it.
I stared back at her—and as the helpless anger swept through me again, not at anyone specific, but simply at the violence in the world, I felt it.
The membrane always around my body was suddenly more tangible than it had ever been, yet more malleable too. I hesitated for just a moment—and then I shoved, hard as a could.
The membrane exploded out from me in all directions. It shot past where Tacita stood, then twenty feet, thirty. It grew and grew, until it was a giant umbrella, covering the entire clearing, and everyone who stood within it.
I stared back at Tacita, not really seeing her glare. The membrane, which had always felt so delicate, like it might dissolve at the slightest touch, felt suddenly sturdy as tent canvas. I still had to concentrate to control it, but it didn't fight me as it had, as though constantly trying to close back in on me. Instead, it felt a like a muscle, a part of my body completely under my command.
Now I knew—the elastic snap-back of before had been entirely in my mind. An instinct for self-protection, self-preservation, as the shield clung to just shielding me. But as the misconceptions fell away, so too did the restraints.
Within the umbrella, I felt the light of each individual, and they seemed to attract the membrane to them—I closed my eyes and focused, drawing the membrane around each figure in turn, until it clung to their skin in a perfect shape, and no matter how they moved, the membrane followed. First Tacita. Then I concentrated on the nearest standing guard, then another, and another...
I opened my eyes—to find Sulpicia standing just a little ways away. Cato and Brenden on one side, Renatus on the other. He clung to her cloak, his eyes wide with terror.
I stared back at her mutely.
"I'm afraid we're out of time," she said.
Tacita turned her eyes to the south. She said without emotion, "They're coming."
Sulpicia reached forward, placing a hand on my wrist. "Are you ready?" she said softly. "You can do this, Beau. And when you have, you will find happiness."
She reached down with her free hand to stroke Renatus's hair in an affectionate way, then gently prodded his shoulder, pushing him forward. Like a child being sent off for the first day of kindergarten. At last he let go of her cloak, and took a tentative, obedient step forward. His darting, fearful eyes rose to my face for a moment—then he looked away. He gripped his hands together.
Tacita too, came to stand beside me, her harsh gaze critical, accusing.
"Are you ready?" she asked, repeating Sulpicia's question, though in a tone already half disbelieving.
I turned my eyes to the south, and even though they were far too far away to see any sign of them, I pictured in my mind's eye their approach. A band of wild outlaws, Salvatore grinning like a demon at their center, Jonathan and Alexa flanking him at either side.
"How long?" I asked evenly.
"Close," Sulpicia murmured. "Perhaps half an hour from contact at most. I didn't expect them to act so soon, but then, if they have their own trackers who sensed the Romanians, Salvatore may have seen it as an opportunity. To catch us when we're a bit—flustered." She smiled a little, though without any real humor.
I stared back at the trees for a long moment. Then my gaze shifted briefly to Tacita's—and I said softly, "Let them come."
Tacita's eyes narrowed, and she let out a hiss.
A shriek of laughter drew the eyes of several guards, and I let my eyes shift briefly sideways to see Athenodora approaching, looking delighted.
"What a pity," she crowed. "What a shame. He intends to let us all perish. And after all your work, Picia. How awful!"
Sulpicia showed no sign she'd heard, her eyes unmoving from my face. Her features calm, but resigned.
"And this is your decision?" she asked.
I gave one brief nod.
She turned sharply away from me. I knew what would happen next—the Volturi would retreat, far and fast as they could, leaving Greece to its fate. Sulpicia wouldn't lose her forces in any pointless shows of heroism. She would move onto the next plan, and the next.
Before she could take even one step, make one command, I called after her, "Sulpicia."
She didn't turn, but she didn't move, either, hesitating just a moment.
I didn't think I'd ever addressed the ancient by name before. I'd figured if I did, Tacita and the others would try to make me add a title of reverence or respect, as though I were one of them, and I'd had no intention of doing that. But I was far beyond caring what any of them said to me now, or offending any of them.
I turned my eyes once again to look at Tacita. I stared back at her, without shifting my gaze, without half looking away. And then I concentrated.
I felt the bubbles around each and every one of them standing here. I focused on the one around Tacita—and slowly, bit by bit, I drew it away. Until at last Tacita stood in the clearing alone, separated from the others.
She had opened her mouth to speak again, eyes cold and hostile—but then she stopped. Her head jerked to one side, as though reacting to a harsh sound. She scanned the clearing, sharp eyes flitting from one face to the next—Renatus, Cato, Brenden, Sulpicia. All who, for centuries, she had grown so accustomed to feeling as well as seeing. Her eyes widened, her normally rigid posture strangely slack.
Sulpicia turned her head back, and as she took in Tacita's expression, she turned back around. She reached out and took Tacita's hand. To see what she saw.
Sulpicia's eyes, filmed over with age, rose to meet mine.
"I'll protect you," I said. "So you protect everyone else."
She studied me for a long moment. To face the enemy directly was a huge risk. Rather than just losing Tacita and Renatus, the entire Volturi could be annihilated in one fell swoop. Relying on one gift—one gift of one person whose thoughts she couldn't see—it probably went against every rule of common sense she'd ever followed.
"Or I could take Renatus and Tacita, like we planned," I offered. "We could go on ahead. Only then you'd all be separated from Renatus for longer. And if you're not close enough—well, a lot of them will probably get away. You decide."
Sulpicia gazed at me. Calculating. If I was lying, I could turn on them, get them all wiped out. But then, if that was what I really wanted, I could have already done it. I could have handed victory to the Romanians, to Edythe. Sulpicia studied my eyes, still a vivid newborn crimson—perhaps seeing that the anger and uncertainty had turned to confidence. She was still touching Tacita, and she glanced around, seeing the same as Tacita saw—which was nothing. As though no one were there, cloaked from Tacita's other sense.
At last, Sulpicia gave a single, brief dip of the head, her expression grave, solemn. Then she turned to her guard.
"There has been a change of plans," she said, just loud enough for all the immortals standing there. "We wait for Salvatore. And he will face judgment for what he has done."
Without any further explanation, Tacita began issuing directions, and all the guard complied without so much as a question. Trusting implicitly Sulpicia's commands. Athenodora, as she moved with Sulpicia and Marcus, shot a look of loathing at me. But I was looking south again. Waiting, not with dread, not with anticipation—but with simply resolution. Confidence, but not too much. Holding firmly to my concentration, without wavering.
Sulpicia led the way to scaling the treacherous rockface behind us, where it jutted into the sky, rising above the clearing and the forest. Renatus and Brenden kept close to her, followed by Marcus, a resentful Athenodora, and me, with Tacita bringing up the rear. She kept glancing back behind her as though looking for enemies sneaking up behind us—I'd brought her back inside the membrane now, where she could sense everyone around us, but still she seemed unnerved by it. Reluctant to trust in purely that extra sense.
Atop the rock was a flat space, and Sulpicia took up a spot at the center, just on the edge of the sheer drop back to the ground below, where the entire guard now stood in perfect formation. Athenodora and Marcus went automatically to flank her on either side, as though they had done it a thousand times. Renatus, to my surprise, didn't shadow Sulpicia has he usually did, and instead went to stand dutifully beside Tacita—Tacita would still have to get through their forces untouched. Instead, Brenden went to stand directly behind the three. He glanced briefly at me, with a look I didn't understand—then he took a deep breath, closing his eyes as though to steady himself.
I took up near Brenden, also behind them, yet on the periphery. Another figure in a dark cloak, almost—but not quite—one of them.
There, atop the high rock, our features hooded against the glittering morning light, like judges waiting for criminals to be tried, we waited.
At last, Sulpicia murmured, "Salvatore will not try to strike right away. He will spend part of the time talking, perhaps gloating—as he waits for Alexa's power to work."
She didn't turn her eyes from the south, but she gestured with two fingers for me to come closer. As I did so, reluctantly coming to stand beside Brenden, she asked softly, "Beau, how long can you keep this up?"
As long as we'd been standing here, I hadn't drawn back any of the shields even once, nor did I feel any need to now. "As long as you need me to," I answered.
Athenodora seemed to have some need to rain on Sulpicia's parade because she pointed out, "He'll know the moment he arrives his gift isn't working. He may choose to immediately turn and flee, and many of them will escape, including he himself."
"Perhaps," Sulpicia admitted. "However, his advantage must seem to him overwhelming. He has been careful up to now, relatively speaking, but I do not take him for a skittish sort. For all three of us to be here—this will be a grand opportunity he would hate to miss."
I stared out, between the shoulders of the Volturi ancients, at the forest beyond the clearing—and that was when I saw them.
Dark, darting figures. Only unlike the Volturi, they were not in the formal cloaks of an ancient organization, but rather they were all in ordinary modern clothes, some in ragged jeans and T-shirts, some in open jackets. These weren't the ancient evil that was the Romanians—rather strangely they almost reminded me of college students, out protesting some campus injustice or other.
Only the savage expressions on their glorious faces dispelled that illusion, their skin alighting in brilliant fiery colors as they each passed from the shadows into the clearing sunlight. Bloodlust glinted in their crimson eyes, only this time not for blood, but simply for death. The death of their overseers.
They all came to a halt some distance from the Volturi, not in regimented lines, but in chaotic clusters. They grinned savagely, making faces across the divide at the impassive Volturi, though they did not advance any further, for the moment.
Although they didn't have the controlled, military-like discipline of the Volturi, their sheer numbers were staggering. Forty-five, I counted so far. Was Salvatore's gift so powerful that he was able to use it to control such a force, keep it bound together? Or was simply the thought of an entire city of blood, an entire world, enough to keep them all surging forward together, toward that one goal?
Whatever the case, the sight was enough to send a shiver of nerves down my spine, the first since Sulpicia had agreed to remain here, to trust in my gift. I closed my eyes and felt outward, double-checking to make sure my shields were all firmly in place.
As the vampires waited there, eyes glittering like beads of red blood, one last cluster finally entered the clearing.
This one seemed more organized than the others, several guards forming a loose ring about several figures at its heart. Two were unfamiliar—a man and a woman. The woman had short dark hair, and distinctly Asian features. Riko Shimizu, I guessed. A giant of a man stood beside her, easily as big as Royal, and even broader about the shoulders. However, his face didn't immediately look as savage as the others. Next to his partner, whose lips were curled back in a furious snarl, he appeared almost laid back. Good-natured, even, like a baseball coach in the little leagues, who was always a dad to all the kids.
However, as his deep bloodred eyes scanned the small sea of black cloaks standing before him, his brow furrowed slightly in something like concentration, then confusion. His gaze rose up to us, standing high above, and as his eyes fell on Sulpicia, they darkened.
Also in the protective circle stood three more figures. One was another woman I had never seen before, with soft brown hair, and a face that was somehow at once both gentle and fierce. In some way I couldn't quite define, she reminded me of Carine, or maybe Earnest. There was hostility, anger in her features and posture, but it was more protective than savage.
And behind her stood two more immortals I knew well, burned as their faces were into my human memories. Childlike angelic beauty at once so alluring and repelling. Edythe writhing in agony on a stone floor.
Jonathan and Alexa had ensured the Volturi's continued reign over the world for centuries, solidified their dominance. Now they were the ones who threatened it. Weapons who had once been Sulpicia's leveled against her.
I stared down at the two, standing behind the female who seemed to have become to them, in some way, like a mother. And I was surprised to find I almost felt sorry for them. They had just been kids when they were turned, suddenly thrust into a new world where they only had each other. Words Edythe had once spoken in a small waiting room in Volterra drifted back to me—how all Jonathan had wanted was Sulpicia's love and approval, but Mele had been there first. If Sulpicia had loved them as much—could their bonds have been real? Could all this have been avoided?
As though Sulpicia were thinking much the same, as her eyes gazed out at the two, a breath of a wistful sigh escaped her, and her ancient eyes were sad.
Salvatore's gaze was focused on Sulpicia, eyes hard and cold. But then his mouth suddenly spread once again into a wide, almost jovial smile. They had stopped next to a large, felled tree that lay across the small stream, and now he leaped atop it, standing above the heads of the others.
Spreading his hands wide, he swept a theatrical, almost mocking bow. "What a great honor it is to meet our noble rulers, and even the great Sulpicia herself. This will undoubtedly be a day to remember." The timbre of his voice was deep and resonant, powerful, reaching us even as high as we were.
Sulpicia smiled by way of response. "We are intrigued to at last meet you. What you have accomplished has been, admittedly, impressive. And yours is certainly a more welcome face than those which came calling not two hours ago. Millennium-old conflicts get so old—it is refreshing to see some new blood join the fray."
Salvatore laughed, a strangely rich, lilting sound that echoed over the heads of his followers and the Volturi guard below. "Hope that wasn't too much of an inconvenience for you. I wish I could take credit for it, but—well, you know what they say, it's better to be lucky than good."
Sulpicia's smile hadn't changed. "That is something we can agree on."
A furious snarl cut through the conversation, and all eyes shifted from Salvatore to the smaller woman standing beside him. Riko Shimizu.
"You," she hissed. "Murderer! Tyrant! You will die in agony. There's nowhere left for a single one of you to run."
Salvatore's friendly expression remained in place, but I thought I saw his eyes briefly roll toward the sky—as though he thought her being a tad melodramatic for his tastes.
Still, when he spoke in his pleasant voice, he said, "She's right, you know, Sulpicia. You're all dead and you know it. But then, that's why you're here, isn't it? Tired of all the millenniums of games? Better to die sooner than drag it out another half century. You're a pragmatist, I can appreciate that."
Sulpicia considered them for a long moment. "I am indeed a pragmatist," she said at last. "I do not draw this out for any theatrical effect, as you don't. Rather, I wish there to be time for it to settle in among your forces—the final acceptance that no one may defy our laws, and live."
I had been watching the field below, and I could see it—a thin, nearly invisible mist drifting across the ground to where stood the Volturi forces. It moved, unaffected by breezes and soft gusts of wind, like the inexorable creep of death—Alexa's gift. As the first tendrils reached out and brushed my protective membranes, it tasted like Novocaine, numbing. Yet it didn't penetrate.
A brief disconcerted look flickered across Salvatore's face, and then he smiled again, wider than before. "I take back what I said. You're not much of a pragmatist at all—just arrogant. I'm disappointed, I thought you'd have a little more class than to spend your last moments on a useless bluff. Maybe a little pain will teach you some humility..."
Without turning, he raised a hand, signaling with two fingers.
Jonathan, who had been watching Salvatore, now turned his gaze up to Sulpicia. He didn't smile as I'd seen him do in the past when wielding his power, rather he gritted his teeth with anger—as though even now, some part of him were still bound by Chariton's gift, and he had to fight it. Then his eyes narrowed, and he struck.
I felt it against Sulpicia's membrane—like a fiery lance of pain and agony, jabbing straight at her heart. The shield seemed to push inward, under the force of the attack, but it didn't yield. I stared down at Jonathan.
His furious glare turned to shock. His gaze suddenly flickered, sweeping over the rest of us standing here. His eyes fell on me behind them, my face beneath my dark hood—and I knew the instant he recognized me. The moment he understood. His eyes widened, as the shock turned to horror.
The numbing mist was spread through half the Volturi forces now, a few tendrils creeping up the side of the cliff. Yet the mist swirled harmlessly past each, not reaching past the protective bubbles. The membranes that were fully visible now.
Salvatore stared at the Volturi, unaffected by the mist, the transparent cocoons wrapped about each enemy. Then his eyes slowly rose to meet Sulpicia's.
The brown-haired woman with Jonathan and Alexa was backing up, pushing the two of them back, back toward the guards at the back of the protective ring. Then, suddenly with a hiss, she spun around. They both reacted to the warning immediately, and the two took off like bolts of lightning, back away from the ring, and back out into the forest. They already knew what it meant if their powers didn't work—perhaps better than anyone standing there. They knew what it meant to defy the Volturi.
Sulpicia stared after the place they had gone for just a moment—still with that sadness in her eyes.
"Tacita," she murmured.
Renatus had climbed onto Tacita's back, clinging to her neck like a child playing piggyback. His fearful face was for once grave—determined. Then they were gone.
A streak of darkness seemed to tear down the side of the cliff, then across the clearing, weaving in and out between fighters as though they weren't even there. Some had quicker reflexes than others—Salvatore shouted a command, spinning quickly. But any who reached out to strike were repelled back, turning in the opposite direction in confusion, as though caught in a hopeless maze.
Jonathan and Alexa were beyond the edge of the trees now, out of sight. The woman must have tried to slow Tacita down, because her piercing scream was the first to cut through the clearing. Then came the screech of tearing of metal, and a brief burst of firelight. A second passed, then two—and then came two more screams, further away. Overlapping together, harmonious, yet dissonant. More tearing metal—and then another small burst of light in the dark trees.
The clearing was silent for several seconds. Riko's enraged face had briefly gone slack—before she turned to look back at Sulpicia with an expression of pure hatred. Salvatore stared at the place where they had gone a second, before also turning to look back at Sulpicia. His expression was briefly blank, before at last he dipped his head slightly, in something like acknowledgment.
Sulpicia stared out at them with eyes as hard as granite. "Dante De Luca Salvatore," she said in a ringing voice. "For your crimes against the Volturi and intended violation of the laws, you and those who have stood with you are hereby sentenced to destruction. May your ashes forever serve as a warning to those who would follow your unworthy path."
These words seemed to be a trigger, a prearranged command—perhaps one these guards had heard a thousand times. As one they advanced, like a giant black beast descending on its prey.
Salvatore shouted—a single word that seemed to ripple across the entire field, of fury and defiance. "Fight!"
Even in such a hopeless battle, many reacted to the force of his voice. While some had begun to back away in fear, their eyes now hardened, and they surged forward, battle madness in their eyes.
Sulpicia closed her eyes, and she reached out with both hands, taking hold of Marcus's hand on one side, Athenodora's on the other. As the two of them stared out across the battlefield, I knew Sulpicia was seeing what they were seeing—through Marcus's eyes, the strength of relationships, who was most loyal to Salvatore, and whose ties were tenuous. And through Athenodora's, the power to break those bonds. Marcus was the eyes, and Athenodora was the sword, to cut through the strings that held the rebel force together.
Sulpicia murmured something to Athenodora, and Athenodora's eyes narrowed slightly as her gaze fell on Salvatore. Some of the rebel forces slowed, some looking to Salvatore, as though questioning everything, whether this failed rebellion was still worth dying over—
In that brief moment of hesitation, the Volturi forces struck.
I didn't look away from the violence this time. I watched as the Volturi mowed down the rebels with surgical precision, tearing one body to bits and burning it in the same motion, before moving onto the next. The severed bonds had disintegrated the enemy into chaos, and now the Volturi cut through them with brutal efficiency.
A blur of motion at the back of the broken enemy lines drew my eye—Riko Shimizu, weaving back through the rebels, running. Maybe whatever bond she'd had with Salvatore had been cut with the others, or maybe she would have always chosen the chance to seek vengeance another day. I considered saying something, but just as her small, dark figure disappeared amidst the trees, I saw Tacita briefly appear at the forest's edge, Renatus for the moment no longer on her back. Without hesitation, she tore after her—and I knew that Riko Shimizu would not be living to fight another battle.
In minutes, the fighting was all but over. It was almost anticlimactic—even the strongest of them who still fought were nothing to the well oiled machine that was the Volturi.
Among all the rebels, Salvatore lasted the longest. Even surrounded on all sides by dark cloaks, he wrenched the heads from two of his enemies, and struck one in the chest so hard the limp figure flew back across the clearing, chest caved in like a crumpled car frame. If he had been able to see clearly with his power, see their weaknesses, he might have even lasted longer—but he couldn't hold out, so outnumbered.
When they finally got hold of him, the entire field was already filled with burning corpses, the air heavy with smoke and the thick perfume of incense. But they did not immediately destroy him like the others—instead, they tore off his arms and legs, hurling them into one of the nearby bonfires, then hauled his limbless torso across the field. The two guards leaped up the side of the high cliff, feet finding impossible toeholds in the rock until they came to stand before us. They set Salvatore down roughly, as though he were a sack of refuse, though they didn't release their hold on his shoulders.
Salvatore's face was twisted with pain and fury as he glared up at Sulpicia. However, he still managed a vindictive half-smile. "There will come another one like me," he said, teeth gritted. "Someone else who hates you enough to try to destroy you. And they'll keep coming until you fall."
"There will always be problems to be sorted out," Sulpicia agreed mildly. Then she reached out with a hand, and gently touched his face.
She closed her eyes. Absorbing everything, as though watching an endless series of surveillance tapes. What other groups he might have had contact with, who else might have been supporting him. Any other dangerous rebel cells that would need to be eradicated. Every weakness he had ever seen. And, of course, the reason why he hated her so much.
At last she opened her eyes.
"Such a shame," she murmured. Then she signaled to the guards.
I couldn't stop myself flinching slightly at the violent shriek of metal, as the parts were set to blaze. I let my gaze drift back down to the clearing below instead, and I saw through the thick flames that, already, most of the many piles of bodies were nothing but ash.
Sulpicia raised her eyes to the black smoke rising up into the sky, thoughtful. "Some in the villages on the outskirts may come to investigate. But, forest fires are not uncommon this time of year. A true forest fire will serve well to destroy the evidence of what has transpired here. All in all, a much simpler cleanup than we have had to handle in the past, isn't that right, Dora?"
Athenodora wrinkled her nose. "If you have what you want from us now, sister, I think we'll be heading back home, if you don't mind. You know I detest gallivanting about. And I detest cleanup even more."
Sulpicia smiled slightly. "If you wish. Thank you for all you both have done. We may all return to Volterra now, and may we hope we will have at least another half century or so of peace before the next crisis."
Marcus, his ever bored expression unchanged, turned with Athenodora, and in a moment they had both disappeared over the edge of the cliff, returning to their guards.
Sulpicia stared off into the horizon, then sighed deeply. She slowly turned to me next, and smiled. "Well, Beau, it seems we are now indeed in your debt," she said. "I have not forgotten my promise. You will have several human years ahead of you, should you wish. You have much to look forward to."
I nodded once, stiffly. In truth, in the midst of everything else going on, I'd almost forgotten about Sulpicia's offer, to make it possible to still spend time in the human world with my human family. I knew I would be glad of it soon, but at the moment, my mind was focused on only one thing.
Sulpicia gazed back at me for a moment, then wordlessly reached into her cloak and produced a cell phone. She quickly dialed a number, and a moment later a clipped voice responded.
Sulpicia's orders were swift and efficient. They were free to begin reconstructing her now. I heard when the voice on the other end changed, from the smooth, unfamiliar voice of the guard to one I knew well. I heard her ask about me—and in answer, Sulpicia offered me the phone.
I knew it wouldn't be a long conversation. I was relieved, so relieved at how it had all played out—but mentally I felt too drained to be happy just yet. Too much anger, too much fear, too much violence. I still needed time to recover.
"Hey," I said.
"Hey," she answered back, in an oddly hesitant voice. "So," she said after a moment. "You're alive."
"Yeah," I mumbled. "Where... Where are you?"
She did her best to explain it to me, and I thought I knew—at the very least, I knew I could find my way back to the clearing from where we'd split, and I knew I could follow her scent if I had to.
"Okay," I said. "I... I guess I'll see you both soon then." I hesitated. "Oh, and Jules?"
"Yeah?" she said, voice still oddly cautious.
I clicked the end call button, and handed the phone back to Sulpicia.
"You should go find them," she said. "You have done all we needed—more, even. You have our eternal gratitude. I will send a guard to accompany you, and when you are all ready to go, have them call me, and I will have a personal jet ready to return you home. Thank you again, Beau."
I nodded vaguely. My mind was only half on what she was saying, my thoughts already far away, on a beach far to the west. As Sulpicia turned her serene, gentle features back to the destruction below, I stood there a moment longer, uncertain, before I slipped down from the rock.
Before I went, I glanced back once and, with careful concentration, finally released my power, drawing it back from around the many Volturi guards, and back in on myself. Then I turned, and took off quietly into the woods.
A/N: Long chapter again this time, but I think it needed to be. The heavily revised drafts from the first drafts of some of these later chapters turned out to be more recent than I'd hoped, but I did my best anyway.
This last month I've been working on getting some (hopefully) more definite plans set up as far as scheduling goes. My hope now is going to be to have everything up and posted sometime in August. (Which seems weirdly close to me.) Wish me luck!
Thanks so much as always for all your thoughts last chapter! I'll be working as always, and see you all in the next one.