“Chelsea is trying to break our bindings,” Edward whispered. “But she can’t find them. She can’t feel us here. . . .” His eyes cut to me. “Are you doing that?”
I smiled grimly at him. “I am all over this.”
Edward lurched away from me suddenly, his hand reaching out toward Carlisle. At the same time, I felt a much sharper jab against the shield where it wrapped protectively around Carlisle’s light. It wasn’t painful, but it wasn’t pleasant, either.
“Carlisle? Are you all right?” Edward gasped frantically.
“Jane,” Edward answered.
The moment that he said her name, a dozen pointed attacks hit in a second, stabbing all over the elastic shield, aimed at twelve different bright spots. I flexed, making sure the shield was undamaged. It didn’t seem like Jane had been able to pierce it. I glanced around quickly; everyone was fine.
“Incredible,” Edward said.
“Why aren’t they waiting for the decision?” Tanya hissed.
“Normal procedure,” Edward answered brusquely. “They usually incapacitate those on trial so they can’t escape.”
I looked across at Jane, who was staring at our group with furious disbelief. I was pretty sure that, besides me, she’d never seen anyone remain standing through her fiery assault.
It probably wasn’t very mature. But I figured it would take Aro about half a second to guess—if he hadn’t already—that my shield was more powerful than Edward had known; I already had a big target on my forehead and there was really no point in trying to keep the extent of what I could do a secret. So I grinned a huge, smug smile right at Jane.
Her eyes narrowed, and I felt another stab of pressure, this time directed at me.
I pulled my lips wider, showing my teeth.
Jane let out a high-pitched scream of a snarl. Everyone jumped, even the disciplined guard. Everyone but the ancients, who didn’t so much as look up from their conference. Her twin caught her arm as she crouched to spring.
The Romanians started chuckling with dark anticipation.
“I told you this was our time,” Vladimir said to Stefan.
“Just look at the witch’s face,” Stefan chortled.
Alec patted his sister’s shoulder soothingly, then tucked her under his arm. He turned his face to us, perfectly smooth, completely angelic.
I waited for some pressure, some sign of his attack, but I felt nothing. He continued to stare in our direction, his pretty face composed. Was he attacking? Was he getting through my shield? Was I the only one who could still see him? I clutched at Edward’s hand.
“Are you okay?” I choked out.
“Yes,” he whispered.
“Is Alec trying?”
Edward nodded. “His gift is slower than Jane’s. It creeps. It will touch us in a few seconds.”
I saw it then, when I had a clue of what to look for.
A strange clear haze was oozing across the snow, nearly invisible against the white. It reminded me of a mirage—a slight warping of the view, a hint of a shimmer. I pushed my shield out from Carlisle and the rest of the front line, afraid to have the slinking mist too close when it hit. What if it stole right through my intangible protection? Should we run?
A low rumbling murmured through the ground under our feet, and a gust of wind blew the snow into sudden flurries between our position and the Volturi’s. Benjamin had seen the creeping threat, too, and now he tried to blow the mist away from us. The snow made it easy to see where he threw the wind, but the mist didn’t react in any way. It was like air blowing harmlessly through a shadow; the shadow was immune.
The triangular formation of the ancients finally broke apart when, with a racking groan, a deep, narrow fissure opened in a long zigzag across the middle of the clearing. The earth rocked under my feet for a moment. The drifts of snow plummeted into the hole, but the mist skipped right across it, as untouched by gravity as it had been by wind.
Aro and Caius watched the opening earth with wide eyes. Marcus looked in the same direction without emotion.
They didn’t speak; they waited, too, as the mist approached us. The wind shrieked louder but didn’t change the course of the mist. Jane was smiling now.
And then the mist hit a wall.
I could taste it as soon as it touched my shield—it had a dense, sweet, cloying flavor. It made me remember dimly the numbness of Novocain on my tongue.
The mist curled upward, seeking a breach, a weakness. It found none. The fingers of searching haze twisted upward and around, trying to find a way in, and in the process illustrating the astonishing size of the protective screen.
There were gasps on both sides of Benjamin’s gorge.
“Well done, Bella!” Benjamin cheered in a low voice.
My smile returned.
I could see Alec’s narrowed eyes, doubt on his face for the first time as his mist swirled harmlessly around the edges of my shield.
And then I knew that I could do this. Obviously, I would be the number-one priority, the first one to die, but as long as I held, we were on more than equal footing with the Volturi. We still had Benjamin and Zafrina; they had no supernatural help at all. As long as I held.
“I’m going to have to concentrate,” I whispered to Edward. “When it comes to hand to hand, it’s going to be harder to keep the shield around the right people.”
“I’ll keep them off you.”
“No. You have to get to Demetri. Zafrina will keep them away from me.”
Zafrina nodded solemnly. “No one will touch this young one,” she promised Edward.
“I’d go after Jane and Alec myself, but I can do more good here.”
“Jane’s mine,” Kate hissed. “She needs a taste of her own medicine.”
“And Alec owes me many lives, but I will settle for his,” Vladimir growled from the other side. “He’s mine.”
“I just want Caius,” Tanya said evenly.
The others started divvying up opponents, too, but they were quickly interrupted.
Aro, staring calmly at Alec’s ineffective mist, finally spoke.
“Before we vote,” he began.
I shook my head angrily. I was tired of this charade. The bloodlust was igniting in me again, and I was sorry that I would help the others more by standing still. I wanted to fight.
“Let me remind you,” Aro continued, “whatever the council’s decision, there need be no violence here.”
Edward snarled out a dark laugh.
Aro stared at him sadly. “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. Bella, Benjamin, Zafrina, Kate. There are many choices before you. Consider them.”
Chelsea’s attempt to sway us fluttered impotently against my shield. Aro’s gaze swept across our hard eyes, looking for any indication of hesitation. From his expression, he found none.
I knew he was desperate to keep Edward and me, to imprison us the way he had hoped to enslave Alice. But this fight was too big. He would not win if I lived. I was fiercely glad to be so powerful that I left him no way not to kill me.
“Let us vote, then,” he said with apparent reluctance.
Caius spoke with eager haste. “The child is an unknown quantity. There is no reason to allow such a risk to exist. It must be destroyed, along with all who protect it.” He smiled in expectation.
I fought back a shriek of defiance to answer his cruel smirk.
Marcus lifted his uncaring eyes, seeming to look through us as he voted.
“I see no immediate danger. The child is safe enough for now. We can always reevaluate later. Let us leave in peace.” His voice was even fainter than his brothers’ feathery sighs.
None of the guard relaxed their ready positions at his disagreeing words. Caius’s anticipatory grin did not falter. It was as if Marcus hadn’t spoken at all.
“I must make the deciding vote, it seems,” Aro mused.
Suddenly, Edward stiffened at my side. “Yes!” he hissed.
I risked a glance at him. His face glowed with an expression of triumph that I didn’t understand—it was the expression an angel of destruction might wear while the world burned. Beautiful and terrifying.
There was a low reaction from the guard, an uneasy murmur.
“Aro?” Edward called, nearly shouted, undisguised victory in his voice.
Aro hesitated for a second, assessing this new mood warily before he answered. “Yes, Edward? You have something further… ?”
“Perhaps,” Edward said pleasantly, controlling his unexplained excitement. “First, if I could clarify one point?”
“Certainly,” Aro said, raising his eyebrows, nothing now but polite interest in his tone. My teeth ground together; Aro was never more dangerous than when he was gracious.
“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 agreed. “If we could but be 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 trailed off, shrugging.
“So, if we could only know for sure,” Edward suggested, “exactly what she will become… then there would be no need for a council at all?”
“If there was some way to be absolutely sure,” Aro agreed, his feathery voice slightly more shrill. He couldn’t see where Edward was leading him. Neither could I. “Then, yes, there would be no question to debate.”
“And we would part in peace, good friends once again?” Edward asked with a hint of irony.
Even more shrill. “Of course, my young friend. Nothing would please me more.”
Edward chuckled exultantly. “Then I do have something more to offer.”
Aro’s eyes narrowed. “She is absolutely unique. Her future can only be guessed at.”
“Not absolutely unique,” Edward disagreed. “Rare, certainly, but not one of a kind.”
I fought the shock, the sudden hope springing to life, as it threatened to distract me. The sickly-looking mist still swirled around the edges of my shield. And, as I struggled to focus, I felt again the sharp, stabbing pressure against my protective hold.
“Aro, would you ask Jane to stop attacking my wife?” Edward asked courteously. “We are still discussing evidence.”
Aro raised one hand. “Peace, dear ones. Let us hear him out.”
The pressure disappeared. Jane bared her teeth at me; I couldn’t help grinning back at her.
“Why don’t you join us, Alice?” Edward called loudly.
“Alice,” Esme whispered in shock.
Alice, Alice, Alice!
“Alice!” “Alice!” other voices murmured around me.
“Alice,” Aro breathed.
Relief and violent joy surged through me. It took all my will to keep the shield where it was. Alec’s mist still tested, seeking a weakness—Jane would see if I left any holes.
And then I heard them running through the forest, flying, closing the distance as quickly as they could with no slowing effort at silence.
Both sides were motionless in expectation. The Volturi witnesses scowled in fresh confusion.
Then Alice danced into the clearing from the southwest, and I felt like the bliss of seeing her face again might knock me off my feet. Jasper was only inches behind her, his sharp eyes fierce. Close after them ran three strangers; the first was a tall, muscular female with wild dark hair—obviously Kachiri. She had the same elongated limbs and features as the other Amazons, even more pronounced in her case.
The next was a small olive-toned female vampire with a long braid of black hair bobbing against her back. Her deep burgundy eyes flitted nervously around the confrontation before her.
And the last was a young man… not quite as fast nor quite as fluid in his run. His skin was an impossible rich, dark brown. His wary eyes flashed across the gathering, and they were the color of warm teak. His hair was black and braided, too, like the woman’s, though not as long. He was beautiful.
As he neared us, a new sound sent shock waves through the watching crowd—the sound of another heartbeat, accelerated with exertion.
Alice leaped lightly over the edges of the dissipating mist that lapped at my shield and came to a sinuous stop at Edward’s side. I reached out to touch her arm, and so did Edward, Esme, Carlisle. There wasn’t time for any other welcome. Jasper and the others followed her through the shield.
All the guard watched, speculation in their eyes, as the latecomers crossed the invisible border without difficulty. The brawny ones, Felix and the others like him, focused their suddenly hopeful eyes on me. They had not been sure of what my shield repelled, but it was clear now that it would not stop a physical attack. As soon as Aro gave the order, the blitz would ensue, me the only object. I wondered how many Zafrina would be able to blind, and how much that would slow them. Long enough for Kate and Vladimir to take Jane and Alec out of the equation? That was all I could ask for.
Edward, despite his absorption in the coup he was directing, stiffened furiously in response to their thoughts. He controlled himself and spoke to Aro again.
“Alice has been searching for her own witnesses these last weeks,” he said to the ancient. “And she does not come back empty-handed. Alice, why don’t you introduce the witnesses you’ve brought?”
Caius snarled. “The time for witnesses is past! Cast your vote, Aro!”
Aro raised one finger to silence his brother, his eyes glued to Alice’s face.
Alice stepped forward lightly and introduced the strangers. “This is Huilen and her nephew, Nahuel.”
Hearing her voice… it was like she’d never left.
Caius’s eyes tightened as Alice named the relationship between the newcomers. The Volturi witnesses hissed amongst themselves. The vampire world was changing, and everyone could feel it.
“Speak, Huilen,” Aro commanded. “Give us the witness you were brought to bear.”
The slight woman looked to Alice nervously. Alice nodded in encouragement, and Kachiri put her long hand on the little vampire’s shoulder.
“I am Huilen,” the woman announced in clear but strangely accented English. As she continued, it was apparent she had prepared herself to tell this story, that she had practiced. It flowed like a well-known nursery rhyme. “A century and a half ago, I lived with my people, the Mapuche. My sister was Pire. Our parents named her after the snow on the mountains because of her fair skin. And she was very beautiful—too beautiful. 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 shook her head mournfully. “As if the bruises on her skin were not warning enough. 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. 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. I needed no more confirmation of what she carried in her womb. I hoped to save her life before I killed the monster.
“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.
“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.
“He bit me, though, when I tried to lift him from her body. I crawled away into the jungle to die. I didn’t get far—the pain was too much. But he found me; 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. 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.”
Huilen bowed her head when she was finished and moved back so she was partially hidden behind Kachiri.
Aro’s lips were pursed. He stared at the dark-skinned youth.
“Nahuel, you are one hundred and fifty years old?” he questioned.
“Give or take a decade,” he answered in a clear, beautifully warm voice. His accent was barely noticeable. “We don’t keep track.”
“And you reached maturity at what age?”
“About seven years after my birth, more or less, I was full grown.”
“You have not changed since then?”
Nahuel shrugged. “Not that I’ve noticed.”
I felt a shudder tremble through Jacob’s body. I didn’t want to think about this yet. I would wait till the danger was past and I could concentrate.
“And your diet?” Aro pressed, seeming interested in spite of himself.
“Mostly blood, but some human food, too. I can survive on either.”
“You were able to create an immortal?” As Aro gestured to Huilen, his voice was abruptly intense. I refocused on my shield; perhaps he was seeking a new excuse.
“Yes, but none of the rest can.”
A shocked murmur ran through all three groups.
Aro’s eyebrows shot up. “The rest?”
“My sisters.” Nahuel shrugged again.
Aro stared wildly for a moment before composing his face.
“Perhaps you would tell us the rest of your story, for there seems to be more.”
“My father came looking for me a few years after my mother’s death.” His handsome face distorted slightly. “He was pleased to find me.” Nahuel’s tone suggested the feeling was not mutual. “He had two daughters, but no sons. He expected me to join him, as my sisters had.
“He was surprised I was not alone. 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 twisted the word—“in making a change. I see him from time to time. I have a new sister; she reached maturity about ten years back.”
“Your father’s name?” Caius asked through gritted teeth.
“Joham,” Nahuel answered. “He considers himself a scientist. He thinks he’s creating a new super-race.” He made no attempt to disguise the disgust in his tone.
Caius looked at me. “Your daughter, is she venomous?” he demanded harshly.
“No,” I responded. Nahuel’s head snapped up at Aro’s question, and his teak eyes turned to bore into my face.
Caius looked to Aro for confirmation, but Aro was absorbed in his own thoughts. He pursed his lips and stared at Carlisle, and then Edward, and at last his eyes rested on me.
Caius growled. “We take care of the aberration here, and then follow it south,” he urged Aro.
Aro stared into my eyes for a long, tense moment. I had no idea what he was searching for, or what he found, but after he had measured me for that moment, something in his face changed, a faint shift in the set of his mouth and eyes, and I knew that Aro had made his decision.
“Brother,” he said softly to Caius. “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.”
“Is that your vote?” Caius demanded.
Caius scowled. “And this Joham? This immortal so fond of experimentation?”
“Perhaps we should speak with him,” Aro agreed.
“Stop Joham if you will,” Nahuel said flatly. “But leave my sisters be. They are innocent.”
Aro nodded, his expression solemn. And then he turned back to his guard with a warm smile.
“Dear ones,” he called. “We do not fight today.”
The guard nodded in unison and straightened out of their ready positions. The mist dissipated swiftly, but I held my shield in place. Maybe this was another trick.
I analyzed their expressions as Aro turned back to us. His face was as benign as ever, but unlike before, I sensed a strange blankness behind the façade. As if his scheming was over. Caius was clearly incensed, but his rage was turned inward now; he was resigned. Marcus looked… bored; there really was no other word for it. The guard was impassive and disciplined again; there were no individuals among them, just the whole. They were in formation, ready to depart. The Volturi witnesses were still wary; one after another, they departed, scattering into the woods. As their numbers dwindled, the remaining sped up. Soon they were all gone.
Aro held his hands out to us, almost apologetic. Behind him, the larger part of the guard, along with Caius, Marcus, and the silent, mysterious wives, were already drifting quickly away, their formation precise once again. Only the three that seemed to be his personal guardians lingered with him.
“I’m so glad this could be resolved without violence,” he said sweetly. “My friend, Carlisle—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.”
“Leave in peace, Aro,” Carlisle said stiffly. “Please remember that we still have our anonymity to protect here, and keep your guard from hunting in this region.”
“Of course, Carlisle,” Aro assured him. “I am sorry to earn your disapproval, my dear friend. Perhaps, in time, you will forgive me.”
“Perhaps, in time, if you prove a friend to us again.”
Aro bowed his head, the picture of remorse, and drifted backward for a moment before he turned around. We watched in silence as the last four Volturi disappeared into the trees.
It was very quiet. I did not drop my shield.
“Is it really over?” I whispered to Edward.
His smile was huge. “Yes. They’ve given up. Like all bullies, they’re cowards underneath the swagger.” He chuckled.
Alice laughed with him. “Seriously, people. They’re not coming back. Everybody can relax now.”
There was another beat of silence.
“Of all the rotten luck,” Stefan muttered.
And then it hit.
Cheers erupted. Deafening howls filled the clearing. Maggie pounded Siobhan on the back. Rosalie and Emmett kissed again—longer and more ardently than before. Benjamin and Tia were locked in each other’s arms, as were Carmen and Eleazar. Esme held Alice and Jasper in a tight embrace. Carlisle was warmly thanking the South American newcomers who had saved us all. Kachiri stood very close to Zafrina and Senna, their fingertips interlocked. Garrett picked Kate up off the ground and swung her around in a circle.
Stefan spit on the snow. Vladimir ground his teeth together with a sour expression.
And I half-climbed the giant russet wolf to rip my daughter off his back and then crushed her to my chest. Edward’s arms were around us in the same second.
“Nessie, Nessie, Nessie,” I crooned.
Jacob laughed his big, barky laugh and poked the back of my head with his nose.
“Shut up,” I mumbled.
“I get to stay with you?” Nessie demanded.
“Forever,” I promised her.
We had forever. And Nessie was going to be fine and healthy and strong. Like the half-human Nahuel, in a hundred and fifty years she would still be young. And we would all be together.
Happiness expanded like an explosion inside me—so extreme, so violent that I wasn’t sure I’d survive it.
“Forever,” Edward echoed in my ear.
I couldn’t speak anymore. I lifted my head and kissed him with a passion that might possibly set the forest on fire.
I wouldn’t have noticed.