Twilight Fan Fiction / Twilight Fan Fiction ❯ I Know My Duty ❯ Right Hand ( Chapter 52 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]
Twilight and its three and two half sequels are the creation of Stephenie Meyer. This story is fanfiction based on characters, settings and concepts from Twilight, its first three sequels and the first half of Midnight Sun, all of which are the creation of Stephenie Meyer. No party other than the submitting author may alter this work in any way other than font size and other reasonable accommodations to formatting.

I have been working on this since June. I wanted to give you guys the scene you deserved, and I think it's pretty close. In the meantime, I had other projects that had deadlines, NaNo, one RL job that got me up before six and another that sometimes kept me up past five. I hope you like it.


"Aro stood with Alice at his right hand and me at his left," –Edward, Chapter Two


What was that? Demetri asked.

"Oh no," I muttered.

An explosion, a big one, big enough for humans to notice.

Which meant it was big enough for Rolfe's third army to notice.

"I think it's a signal," I answered.

So far, I'd been able to steer us clear of any obvious enemies. No one's thoughts were quiet tonight. I reached out, listening as hard as I could. There was a great mass of familiar voices, probably near the north entrance. If I tried, I would probably be able to pick out Aro and Bella. That was, if...

No, I told myself. I wouldn't think about her in harm. I'd get there and I'd help.

"Do you still have your earpiece?" I asked Demetri. I'd never had one. My console and my gift had been enough.

What do you think?

"Perhaps this is not the time for sarcasm," I said. "Perhaps not now."

I hauled us both to a denser stand of trees. It wouldn't be much concealment if someone looked closely, but at least our shadows wouldn't be silhouetted against the now-glowing horizon. I reached as far outside myself as I could. In the distance, I could hear Aro's thoughts slashing angrily against the Romanians; images of begging and burning and decapitation like signal flares against a night sky. Caius was furiously calculating something, and the guard...

Who the hell blows up their own keep?! They're mad!

I didn't sign on to be fragmented by eastern scum.

Heidi! Was that Heidi in front? And at the edges of the image that accompanied the thought...

"Bella," I breathed.

What is it? What did you hear? asked Demetri.

"Explosives in the doorway we used, and big ones," I answered. None of the Romanian guard had given any thought to them, which meant that either they were exquisitely trained in deceiving telepaths—entirely possible all things considered—or Vladimir and Stefan hadn't told their followers that their new home had a self-destruct mechanism. More importantly...

"We have to get back, Demetri. The crowd..."

Slowing you down. Leave me here.

"No and I'll thank you to stop asking."

Not asking.

I dropped him hard on his ass and rounded on him, crouching down and turning his eyes toward me with aa grip on his chin.

"Demetri, we do not have time. I'm not going to tell you not to be devastated. But you will come to terms with your losses and you will be glad you didn't die." I'd seen it too many times, in Carlisle's patients. They thought they couldn't live with it. Then they lived with it.

I didn't wait for an answer, grabbing him hard by his good arm and heaving him back over my shoulder. we might even be able to fix him. It might not even be as bad has he thought.

The mission.

"Was a success," I hissed. "We sent the intel; we caught the spy. Now we have to warn the masters that there might be a third army out here."

You're faster. Leave me and run. Come back for me later.

"No," I said.

Put me down. It was an order, with all his years and rank behind it.

"Someone would find you. Someone bad." And if he couldn't even push himself off my back without help, there was no way he could defend himself. I closed my eyes. Demetri was the terror of our world. Or he had been until tonight. No one respected weakness.

Bella needs help, doesn't she?

"Not fair," I growled.

He was right, though. My progress was slower than it should have been. It was a difference of minutes, but minutes were going to count tonight. People who measured their lives in centuries would could be dead in seconds.

My steps stopped short as one of the voices in my head pulled clear of the white noise.

What is it?.

I didn't answer, yelling at the top of my lungs. "Caroly! Caroly!"

"Over here!" she called back.

We'd gotten turned around, and we were nearer to the compound's rear entrance than I'd thought. I pulled Demetri toward a now-open passage that had been hidden in a pile of rocks. Alec was standing nearby, looking even smaller than usual next to my strapping girl. My eyes adjusted, and I noticed a stack of six limp but almost intact bodies on a pile of damp wood.

"Light that and go, Alec," I said without preamble. "The masters need you." The coven needs you.

"Our orders."

"This was an ambush," I told him. "For us and for our enemy."

Alec's simple mind cleared. Just because he followed Aro's orders without question didn't mean he had no tactics of his own.

"Caroly, can you take him?" I asked, but she was already reaching for Demetri's left shoulder. Taller and stronger than I was, she propped him up with ease, so that he almost looked like he was standing on his own.

They'll want me to track the stragglers, Demetri said, no matter what shape I'm in.

I tried to hide my emotion at the vicious snap in his thoughts. If he managed to keep this up, he might make it. But then it wasn't as if Aro would ever let him die. He'd have Chelsea strip him to his wires first.

I moved to follow Alec. "Catch up with us," I said to Caroly, eying the soundless blackness of the fort entrance. "If I'm right, then a few Romanians slipping away is the least of our problems." And they'd both be safer in the middle of a crowd than out here where trouble could come from any direction.

She blew a lock of straw hair out of her mouth the way she always did. I shouldn't have been assigned here. I belong in the fight.

I grimaced to let her see that I agreed. Then, almost before I knew I was moving, I reached up and jerked the hood of her cloak out of the way.


"How'd you get that?" I asked, pointing at a new bite mark on her neck.

"It's a battle," she said, but she knew what I meant and her face would be scarlet if she still had blood.

"The Romanians don't have anyone who could get past you," I snapped, suddenly furious. "You were careless."

Demetri twisted his neck to see the injury. His thoughts were dark. I could tell he agreed.

"I wasn't!" she said, with enough indignation to make be believe. "I only..." she trailed off. "You have work to do." She filled her mind with the current moment, the chemical scent of the woods, the feel of Demetri's weight, the look on my face. I hated it when she blocked me. "You need to go."

"This conversation isn't over," I said sternly, bracing my feet against the ground.

How the fuck dare she. How dare she? A rotten assignment didn't mean she could be cavalier with her life. Not when the world was falling apart. With the battle and Bella and Aro and a horde of God-knew-what about to come down on us like a hammer, I did not need this.

I took off. I dimly remembered passing Alec on the left, but the battle in front of me opened up like a bonfire. There were a few of those ongoing, actually.

"Bella!" I called before I could stop myself. I listened until I thought my ears would break, but nothing changed. I still couldn't hear her. Would I even know the sound of her mind if I could?

The clearing was not what I had expected. The air was thick with smoke and dust and disorder. The iron discipline, the perfect lines of our attack had broken. I could see a small, tight knot of ordered fighters around the masters and another pulled together by Felix, but the rest of the guard had yet to recover.

The only thing that had saved us was that the other side seemed even worse off. A Romanian whom I recognized from Demetri's scourging was stumbling around with half a leg gone. A woman was snarling and snapping over the prone body of what I guessed was Vladimir. He hadn't been behind cover when the blast went off.

They hadn't known, I realized with a river of dread. Not only hadn't the Romanians set the bombs off themselves, they hadn't even known about them. This was bad. This was worse.

Where was Bella? I was balancing on the balls of my feet. The minds of the guard were familiar to me; if one of them was looking at her now, then—

"Edward!" the barked command reined me in like a rope around my neck.

"Master," I said. I was dimly aware of ducking under limbs and breaking someone's neck as I passed. I felt a faint, river-like resistance before Renata let me through. Jane was smiling mildly at her side. I held up both hands and Aro took them, absorbing what I knew in an instant.

A third army... Aro let go of my hands slowly. This was not something he'd anticipated. He could improvise, but his strength had always been planning. A new power desiring to take over our world, a new power with calm newborns and patience and enough intellect to sneak a spy into Volterra.

As Aro motioned to Caius and Marcus, I looked toward the chasm in the rocks where Demetri and I had knocked out the guards just hours ago. She'd been right behind Heidi. She'd been close. I had thought that I would see her as soon as I got here, but—

He planted his hand on my shoulder, familiar as the weight of my clothes.

This enemy. Find them, he told me.

Yes. I needed to find Bella. I needed to fix Demetri.

The smoke around me ate away my thoughts. A severed finger. I wasn't close enough to tell if it was hers.

Focus, my Edward. Your coven needs your talents.

I looked carefully into Aro's eyes, piercing despite the film covering them. He would hate me for this.

I imagined he was Carlisle.

I repeated the words, Focus, my Edward. Your coven... in the voice that seen me through my change. I made it true. The warm and admirable love I'd felt for my first coven bled through my mind, blending with the respect for Volterra that had fought its way into me like an oak root breaking through rock. They'd beaten me and chained me down and now I loved them.

And from that calm place, individuals fell away, and I lost my fear.

My gift moved out from me like a meniscus breaking on a drop of surfactant, past my best speed, past my best distance.

Past the voices of my coven, the voices of my enemy, past Demetri, Caroly, and Alec coming closer. Marjane and her guards. The other splinter groups. And...

"Coming from the northeast," I breathed aloud. There had been no one else in these woods two hours earlier. Rolfe had done his work well and hidden it well. This army would have had to have been miles away to miss my attention on the way in, which was why the signal had to be something big. But now they were bearing toward us in two dark streams. The voices were strong but unruly, like slippery cables twisting in my hands. "Calm newborns. Plus a handler." Maybe more than one. I tried to separate the voices from each other like the fibers of a thread. "I can't tell how many."

We need to end this quickly, Master. They are coming.


"Now, sir."

"Brothers!" Aro said sharply. Caius was already nearby and even Marcus looked mildly interested. Aro nodded toward Caius in a code of theirs that I'd learned meant. Explanations later; action now. "Jane, fetch Chelsea." Then he turned his voice toward the clearing, fixating on the other piece of intelligence I'd brought him.

For two decades, I'd made a study of my master's thought process, not only because it was a solid survival technique, which it was, but also because he was one of the most interesting minds I'd ever come across. His insight was a wonder of our world, and at times I could even admit that it was a privilege to witness.

I hadn't known that he could still surprise me.

You want to fight with them?

Aro's answer was a mental smirk. Holy hell, he wanted us to fight this common threat alongside his enemies' best warriors, the ones we'd just been trying to kill. He wanted to show this upstart what happened when they tried to play the master of the vampire world. And he wanted Chelsea to tie as many talented Romanians as possible to us during the battle, when they were under the mental influence of having a common enemy. They wouldn't feel a thing. Anything but complete annihilation would have Aro leaving here with Stefan and Vladimir's most precious servants.

Bella would have said that this plan had more balls than a batting cage.

"Hold, Volturi!" Aro's voice, usually soft as a memory, cracked every square inch of sooty air. "Men and women of the Romanian coven!"

Aro's hand stayed on my neck as I fed him the responses of the crowd and—as Jane crossed the clearing and whispered a word—Chelsea's effect on them.

"We know that you did not attempt to destroy your own keep. We did not either! Both of us, the two greatest covens on Earth have been put to each other's throats by another party." The crowd could see me, and most figured out I was a messenger come with news.

"For the past year, our guards, the guards who keep our secret safe, have been attacked by newborn vampires, calm and well-trained, like our own. They spoke the Romanian tongue and died with your leaders' names on their lips."

The guard listened. The Romanians listened. Stefan alone smiled. A common enemy was a powerful motivator, but ordinarily even that wouldn't be enough to turn a battle in progress in one direction. But Aro was giving the best speech of his long life, and there was Chelsea, elegant Chelsea. And we didn't need all of them. Aro had chosen his words well: Reminders of Volturi strength; the enemy newborns had died. I saw Chelsea pour reassurance into her work like cold gasoline down a wire. It would ignite when she wished.

In the shadows, I could see Dobson, limping slightly under his bulk

I realized that Dobson wouldn't be visible from the fortress entrance, and I realized what he was thinking of doing. Master, I thought, the word like a pointed finger.

"Dobson, cease your efforts. For once, I am not seeking my enemy's death."

Really? I could hear Bella's accent in her trainee's thoughts. It made me wonder what was keeping Caroly.

"That would be a first," muttered Stefan. Vladimir gave a mental chuckle in response But their followers were silent. Singly and in groups, Chelsea was pulling on their allegiances like metal wires. At first, she'd only tried to reduce their cohesion, but now she had a specific task to complete.

"Many times, Stefan, you have cried that the claims against you have been fabricated. This once, my old adversary, it seems to have been true."

Dobson stood straighter and turned to look at Aro. My master wasn't used to seeing distrust in his servants' eyes. Dobson looked around, as if Aro had a meter that could be read, a yardstick to tell how seriously to take the order.

And the yardstick had a face: Where's Teacher Bella? he thought. Then, Oh no... I held in a gasp at the images that filled his mind. Bella pulling Heidi down and then—

Let me go find her, Master.

Aro's fingers on my neck were all the answer I needed: No. No, he wanted me where I was.

"Dobson, find our dear Bella. Make sure she is unharmed." Acknowledgement out loud was endorsement out loud. Illogically, I felt pride in my breast. The master had finally had to own how much the coven owed her.

"I do not know my new enemy's motives—" Aro eyed Stefan meaningfully. "—but I do know their location. In a moment, they will be hear, in formation and in number."

Aro's hand was still on my shoulder. The fact that I'd been the one to bring this news was not lost on anyone. Chelsea was invisible, working like a worm, burrowing fear into twenty minds at once, depositing the idea like eggs: common enemy. A victim with no predisposition to obey would resist. A victim who was completely self-aware, like myself, was immune.

Vladimir, all but paralyzed on his back, knew exactly what was happening and couldn't speak one word. Aro reveled in it. Lies! I could hear Vladimir screaming, Lies! But the explosion, the damage done to both covens, gave Aro's words a strong rock on which to settle.

"I would like to say that there are many options before us to consider, but in truth there is only one. We must fight together or surrender our lives along with our supremacy."

Chelsea was an artist: Not a minute later, a man staggered forward, the light of the flames gleaming off his skin. "I will fight with you." He only sounded a little hollow. It was probably one of his covenmates burning. Chelsea would have had to work him over pretty thoroughly.

Fight with them? Jerk almost took my arm off a minute ago.

Someone else is here? Why didn't we know someone else was here?

So long as they help me tear the Easterners apart, I don't care who they were.

It was Edward, then. He learned this on the mission. I could see Felix looking at me from across the clearing. Where's Demetri? Is he dead?

I tried to make eye contact and shake my head, but he'd already looked away. Sometimes it was hard to remember that Demetri had been Felix's partner longer than he'd been mine.

Our enemy, in various states of repair, was falling into line with us. Caius was thinking quickly, had spent all of Aro's speech developing a strategy on the fly.

"Edward!" he barked. Do they know they are expected?

"No, Master," I answered. The flying minds moving toward us were eager, images of confused and surprised prey dissolving and re-forming as the dead forest vanished around them.

Chelsea was looking around randomly. I could hear her trying to identify Romanian leaders from what she'd seen during the fight. Caroly. Caroly was what was wanted. I wanted to know where she was so hard I thought the air would crack.

Aro finally released me. It was only out of absentmindedness. He would want me again, I knew, as soon as his thoughts drifted back to me or as soon as his projections required the real-time information that I could provide.

I could hear the thoughts of the approaching army more clearly now, bright and slashing, blurring words with the sound of feet striking earth.

I sprang toward what was left of the gate, clearing the space between in two bounds and landing on both feet and one fist. The twisted, smoking metal hardly merited the same name. The ground I'd walked on was gone; earth and ash gave way beneath my feet. The steel that had made up the security door was a pile of charred scraps that reeked of burned vampire.

"Bella?" I called, though my voice gave halfway through.

A hand clapped me on the shoulder from behind and I nearly jumped out of my skin. I reached over my head, getting my attacker in a wristlock, then twisted, pulling him down as I turned to face him.

—and letting go immediately because, of course, it was her. Of course it was. I had my arms around her at top speed. Fate wasn't cruel enough, not today at least.

"When I heard the explosion—"

She pushed on my shoulders, motioning for me to let go and I saw why she hadn't simply answered me when I called out. There was a twisted piece of metal, probably originally part of the comm panel, sticking diagonally into her throat like a dart. I'd done too many interrogations not to know how closely it had come to leaving her helpless. It was a wonder she was standing upright.

"You didn't protect your neck," I murmured.

She shot me a glare and pointed at the shard.

The newborn voices were louder. I could hear words mixed in with the howls now, like leaves in a storm, like "kill" and "freedom" and "blood." Someone had made them promises. I could also hear Aro. Soon he would wonder where I was.

It should have been done later, with proper tools; I didn't even still have my interrogation needles. Cutting would do less damage than pulling. I didn't think Bella wanted to be an actual mute instead of just a mental one. But it gave the enemy too perfect a handhold. Instant throat shot.

Slowly, feeling my way, I applied a steady pressure to the edge of the shard, hoping that the tension I felt wasn't metal slicing at her larynx. She squeezed my free hand so tight I thought it would crack.

How was this not the worst field treatment I'd performed tonight? I didn't know why the universe hadn't thought that Demetri was enough.

She ended with a hand on her neck, rubbing carefully as her venom sealed the wound. She nodded as she reestablished eye contact. I wished I could read her face as well as she said she could read mine. I did not know what thoughts were behind it. In this light, it could have been anything from resignation to hatred to gratitude.

"Don't try to talk yet," I said, looking away. She cuffed me. "Hey," I protested absently.

Edward! Aro had realized that I'd wandered off.

Bella gave an upnod behind me. She'd catalogued my duty-calls look decades ago.

I squeezed her hand, "Be safe," I said.

She nodded, then spoke in a thin and gravelly voice:

"I love you."

I must have blinked or looked surprised.

"I just that to be first. When I say..." She rubbed her throat again face souring in frustration. "...heals, right?"

"We can hope so," I said. "And if there weren't a newborn battalion ninety seconds from smashing us like an overripe honey beetle, I'd stay and work through it." I probably shouldn't have been so light, but she was alive, and I was happy.

She shot me a look.

"Kill things," I said. "That will make you feel better."

"Yeah, probably," she rasped.


"I have to go."

You should have known better than to leave. What kept you? Aro thought sourly.

Making sure my wife was well, sir, I answered as soon as his hand met my shoulder. Toward that end... I projected a mental thought of Sulpicia's voice and location.

Aro seemed annoyed that I would presume to remind him. "Ichiro. Doreen," he called. He proceeded to instruct them to reinforce the wives' guard and relocate them further away from what we now knew to be the oncoming enemy.

A group of them are turning west, Master, I noted, trying to pull the Carlisle calm back into me. I had to be steady. I had to be clear. I could panic when this was all over.

Aro shot a look at Caius, who gave a savage, wolfish grin. I was glad I couldn't have nightmares. "Felix!" called Caius. "Heidi!" but there was no response to that one. "Warriors of the Romanian coven, let your most savage join me. Our enemies think they can surprise us."

I stared straight ahead as Caius left with seven fighters, feeding Aro information like the countdown to the crash of a tidal wave. Stefan was sneering up at the smoky sky. He knew what Caius was doing and he didn't like it.

I knew the tone of these thoughts: Calm newborns. Many of them. I focused, distinguishing one voice from the next, counting how many faces I could see through a dozen-plus pairs of eyes.

Twenty of them. More for Caius. Plus one handler.

The ground shook with approaching footfalls. The guard drew up into formation. I saw Dobson pull a tall Romanian into position next to him.

I knew this pattern. Jasper had told me about it once, when he'd been in a mood to suffer my curiosity.

And apart from that...

I looked at Aro. Do you see?


In their eyes, a face. The same face that had come to us blurred and distorted through Andrew's memory. The third army had a handler. That handler was our spy. So you know now. There is no doubt. Bella is innocent. Aro's acknowledgement was sparse. He wanted me to move on. I can't find his name. None of them are thinking of it.

Academic, thought Aro. He will be dead by dawn. He thought of sating his curiosity on the man's severed head. But only after the battle was won. My master was a very pragmatic man.

For a vampire, time was usually slow. Focus on a book or a project and a generation will pass before you look up again. Usually. Tonight, it was all too fast.

Stomping feet, and screams, and eyes that glowed like demon lamps, hands and heads and limbs raining down on the smoke-steamed clearing like a meteor shower.

Aro gave the word and I broke free to join the fighting. He didn't need me now that he could see through any pair of eyes within reach, and it gave him a plausible excuse to stay near Renata. I imagined I felt colder as I left her influence behind.

It was amazing how the presence of an enemy could change the geography of a space. I'd left Bella near the rock wall and crossed only a few dozen meters to Aro, and the distance had barely figured in my mind. Now it was measured in five white-skinned, knotted bodies with eyes like glowing coals and faces so warped that they looked like they'd never been human.

I should have stayed with Jane. I'd gone on more missions with Jane than with Bella. I knew her fighting style better. But it was too much to ask of myself tonight. I couldn't see her from here, but there were images of her, dark and intense in her gray cloak, in the minds of those around us.

The Romanians had chosen the site for their fortress for concealment rather than protection. The rock face offered some protection on one side, but it had been damaged. On the other, the woods were close enough that an enemy could sprint from the last trees to the doorway before their presence could register with a guard. There was more than one now, and they were more than sprinting.

They had been expecting the scattered and distracted survivors of a centuries-long grudge match, not all of us standing shoulder to shoulder.

We were famous for it, but fighting in large numbers wasn't a big part of our job. I'd been with the Volturi for almost twenty years and I'd never been in a battle on this scale before—and even this was tiny by human standards. For all Aro's preparations, we hadn't spent much time training for combat against calm newborns.

But the Romanians had. Two of the enemy grasped the hobbled Dobson by either arm, lashing hard to pull him apart. I crouched and sprang at the one at his right, but a bone-thin Romanian vampire—probably a local—was already at his throat. She struck once, then darted quickly out of the way to make a neck strike from his unprotected side. I remembered dimly that she'd done something similar to Demetri.

Bella didn't flinch at my hand on her elbow. She knew it was me. I could see her nod through the raised hood of her cloak. I kept my own down. Usually, the minuscule cost to visibility was nothing in the face of the way Volturi unity unnerved the enemy. Unfortunately, these enemies hadn't been vampires long enough to learn to fear us. And their maker had trained them specifically to kill vampires in cloaks.

I zoned in as completely as I could, listening for everything. I couldn't spare any specific thoughts for Bella beyond the way she was moving and reacting. I let her scent, her sweet, specific scent, reach me through my brainstem, letting the lower parts of my mind do what my upper mind could not.

Things became a blur. I'd kept these people from tearing Demetri apart not hours earlier, and now two of them were holding down a newborn for me while I tore skull from spine. Sometimes I heard Marcus or Felix shouting. Sometimes it was Bella at my elbow. Sometimes it was Felix. I would see an enemy collapse, shrieking and knew there was Jane.

My perspective seemed skewed. The fighting seemed thickest right where I was, right where Bella was. The enemy must have planned to neutralize the Masters and Stefan and Vladimir, but perhaps they were too well defended. I felt a surge of displeasure at Rolfe. He must have told his new friends which of the guard were gifted. And Bella. With the role she played among our own newborn troops, she might as well have had a gift.

I was getting better at hearing their voices, determining their locations. But I couldn't play this the way I wanted to. Demetri should be here with me, his voice like my own shadow in my head. Then I'd be finding them faster. Caroly should be at my right elbow, finding the weak links.


Would make more sense to go up the ridge and come from the side.

They weren't supposed to be working together. Why are they working together?

They'd been given orders but hadn't been told the reasoning behind them. That was fair. The face of Andrew's nomad was heavy in their minds.

Suddenly there was a man in front of me, dark hair trailing and thoughts blazing like new lava as he recognized my face. Xi'an. He remembered Xi'an, he remembered Stephen, and he remembered the sounds he'd made. I snarled like every bear and mountain cat I'd ever faced. Bella lay a hand on my arm, pounds of weight on her palm, and I knew her meaning. Her muscles bunched like steel wire as she leapt, and I swung her by the waist and shoulder, adding my leverage to her kick. The newborn's upper jaw shattered with a sickening crunch. I could imagine the zygomatic bone splintering inward as the eye socket broke. He went down. I had the presence of mind to kick his head away from the flames. Let Aro pick him clean.

Dimly, I realized that Alec should have arrived by now, that Caroly should have stashed Demetri somewhere and come to help us. Perhaps she'd run across Caius's band and been commandeered. Perhaps Demetri was with Alec, pointing out stragglers an deserters for him to neutralize. But no. Alec could not communicate with Demetri, not until I got some tools and some decent light and fixed his throat.

The minds of my enemy railed around me. I ceased trying to hear individual voices and felt for patterns, like a boat finding a path through tall waves. Then something bloomed, light and clear like the glow from a lighthouse.

Hours and minutes didn't mean much. The only unit of time was dawn, the shining deadline that would put a lie to our integrity. The Volturi could not fight by day, not in front of the closest thing we had to a political enemy, and we could not lose. The sky above us remained overcast, almost pink with the glow from the city, miles off.

"Jane," I breathed, seeing her head lift in response. "The ridge. East."

"I can't see them from here," she answered, as if we were tourists watching a parade.

Bella grabbed one of the newborns by a sleeve and pointed to Jane. I saw him nod, saw his lips form, "Yes, Teacher Bella," and Jane and her escort were off.

The thoughts I'd sensed, calmer than calm. Only watching.

The mind reader. The thoughts had a strange cast to them. I risked turning my eyes and looked on a pale, blond face. He was beautiful the way we were all beautiful, for all that there were more than a few bite scars on his face and arms. I didn't know him but I knew I should have known him. Why isn't he with the other two? I saw a dizzying flash of the side of Caroly's face, locked in a snarl as she faced off two attackers at once. He'd seen a shadow beside her—Alec—and assumed that it was me.

I put a hand on Bella's shoulder and let her follow my line of sight. She nodded, rasping out an order to two of her newborns. I ducked under Felix's arm and made for the ridge. I would catch the man who'd corrupted my friend and gotten Stephen and Andrew killed. I'd tear off his head and bring it to Master Aro as a prize. Then we would root out the last of his coven and burn them.

The path ahead of me was barely a crack in the rock; a skilled human might have been able to work his way across it with full climbing gear. I ran. The blond man yelled something in Romanian. I could see now that he'd made all his followers learn it as misdirection, to cast blame on our old enemies and so hide the existence of a new one. I heard footfalls behind me, hurrying up the path I'd just cleared. Less easily than if Caroly had been at my elbow, I reached back with my own thoughts until I could see my cloaked form through his eyes. At the last moment, I ducked, letting his hands clutch at empty air as he sailed over me. He scrabbled for purchase and caught the lower edge of the crack. I swept down and broke his fingers. The timbre of the shrieks below me told me that Felix had found his prize.

I kept running, trying to pick the minder's thoughts out of the din. A flash here, a flash there but no more. It was as if he'd been ready for me. I cursed. Rolfe had always been curious about my gift and its limits. He'd sold his services well.

The minder had moved backwards, into the skeletal shadows that the conifers cast against the cityglow. I was so focused on him that the first one actually managed to get his arms around me. Eyes like red coal smirked as I struggled. I had time to register the wordless smirk in my enemy's mind as he turned on his heel and ran off, silent as a cat.

But not unnoticed.

Why is he leaving?

Do we abort the mission?

They were supposed to be weaker than this.

Fuck him. I'll rule the world if our leader won't!

An involuntary snarl escaped me like a tiger clawing through the bars of its cage. He'd made the past six months hell, and now he was getting away!

With my one free hand, I undid the ties of my cloak and lurched forward, shedding it like a skin. My captor floundered just long enough for me to round on him, flipping the cloth over his face and diving for his right leg, bracing my hands below his calf, I threw his weight up, flipping him over my hip and toward the thirty-foot drop into the rest of the battle. A roar went up like the one the Romanians had given out when Demetri had fallen into their power.

Mentally, I searched the woods ahead. Nothing. There was nothing. I took a hesitant step in the blond man's direction—I thought. I ...I couldn't do this. I wasn't... I'd had Demetri for my tracker for so long that I couldn't function alone. It made me feel stripped of more than my cloak.

It was stretched on the ground like a shadow, gray with only the last bit of light in it, almost black. I threw it over my shoulder and ran back the way I'd come.

I found that the battle was already over.

The fires were lit and being fed with shining bodies under Marcus's direction. The man I'd thrown over the ridge was on his knees with Dobson and Bella holding his arms behind his back, Aro touching his face.

"Master?" I asked.

Aro didn't turn my way, but his thoughts were as grim as his face. He does not know his trainer's name, young Edward. More importantly, he does not know where he will have gone to ground. He did look at me then. But he does know that not all of their coven were here tonight. I would send you and Demetri to hunt them down if not for...

"He may yet be well, Master," I said earnestly. I hoped.

The enemy newborn spat on the ground, "Well or ill, just kill me already."

Aro's face darkened. "Bella. Dobson." And without further order, they tore him apart.

The next half-hour passed in bemused, punctuated action. Marjane checked in by radio and was told to stay where she was. The wives did not join us. One minute I was digging through rubble with Bella, pulling Heidi's arms and body out of the dust. She was displeased with her new scars, but more displeased that she'd missed the fighting. The next, I had my eyes jammed shut, scouring the surrounding acres for familiar voices. Our enemy. Caroly. Demetri. Anyone who might have seen them. I caught a glimpse of a straw-fair head in Master Caius's mind, but he was so preoccupied with his new fighters that it could have been anyone.

Stefan had suffered a blow to the throat. For some reason, his personal guards had failed to stop an enemy from laying hands on their master. Chelsea was serene as the Mona Lisa. So there was no one to interrupt as our master held court.

"My dear ones, my bravest and most trusted, warriors of the Romanian coven," he began. With his hand at my shoulder, I was able to show him the crowd's response. His placement of "brave and trusted" had allowed all of the guard and half the Romanians to think he was referring to them. "A third power has tried to rise against us today, tried and failed!"

His speech continued as Caius and his advance party filtered back in. I couldn't spare the time to search their thoughts for Caroly. I watched the Romanians, showing him which ones were swayed by his speech and which were not.

And Stefan, poor fool, knew exactly what he was doing and could not move an inch.

There was a restlessness in the crowd. Some of my brethren weren't happy about fighting alongside Romanians. Chelsea would work it out of them in time. For now, the discipline kept complaints from finding voice. Images began to emerge instead. I saw the events of the past hour through dozens of other eyes.

He showed up with a warning.

Could have stayed on the sidelines for strategy. Instead he was in the thick of it.

Felix just said he went back in to the fortress to get Demetri out. That can't be true...

Just threw that guy over the ridge. I think he landed on another one of theirs. That was fucking awesome.

At first, I didn't know what it meant.

I turned and looked back at Aro. I'd been his right hand tonight, just as he'd planned for me in the very beginning.

He knew the implications but I put words to them anyway, They expect you to grant a boon, master. That was how our world had worked for the past fifteen years, ever since Jane had earned her way back into the masters' good graces with her courage and cruelty.

Aro focused on the Romanians. Stefan and Vladimir had always been harsh and sparing with their attention. This was Aro's chance to show that he was a magnanimous leader, to finish Chelsea's work and steal his enemy's best followers. Aro didn't like it. He didn't like it, but he was no fool.

Something grand, Edward, he said, his thoughts like steel. I could feel him digging through my being like a carding comb through wool, as if he'd pull out every snarl that might make me disobedient. But not too grand. Do not forget yourself. Remember your duty.

Yes, sir.

I stepped away and took my place in the crowd. It wasn't until I slipped my hood back over my head that I realized I had no idea what to ask him for.

"My dear ones!" Aro said, raising his hands in the air. "Warriors of the Romanian coven. What could have been the end of both our covens has instead become a great, united victory..."

I stood stock still. We had to show our iron discipline in front of the Romanians, even if they'd just been fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with us. I couldn't see Bella from this angle, let alone go to her, but I knew the agitation that would be in the set of her jaw and fingers. She wanted to look around. She wanted to run off and search for Caroly and Demetri. I knew it as if we shared a heart. That was what I wanted too. But if I left in the middle of Aro's victory speech, he'd put me on the milk diet for...

An idea materialized in my mind like sunlight after a storm.

"But some among you showed greater courage, greater effectiveness," Aro was saying. "Come forward and be rewarded." The thoughts of our Romanian recruits piqued. "Edward."

I walked into the center of our makeshift court square and went down on one knee.

"My dear one, you have earned a boon. You know your duty and your actions this night. Name your reward."

This was it.

Aro saw the look on my face. What do you have for me now, my Edward? He couldn't wait to see what I'd figured out. I had a sense of how much I'd managed to delight him over the years, when I wasn't sulking—and I didn't even mind that he called it that. In a way, these past twenty years had been the most productive of my life. Instead of hiding, pretending to be human, I'd been saving lives and reaching my potential. In my way, I loved him for it. In return, I had a good twist for my master. He wasn't going to like it at first, but he'd have to admit it was perfect.

A smile crossed my lips as I breathed in. I would ask for the whole guard to abstain from human blood for one year. I was a well-known animal blood cultist; Aro would be seen as accommodating my peculiarity. If the entire coven switched to animal blood, there would be no shame associated with it. It might be copied by nomads trying to curry favor with Aro. Some of them might learn to like the mental and emotional clarity and take it up permanently—or at least not turn up their noses at the occasional deer or pig as a supplemental food source. Even if it didn't become a widespread practice, hundreds of lives would be saved over the next twelve months. If it did, it would change our whole world.

Carlisle's vision and Aro's prestige. I'd finally united my two fathers' missions.

Across the crowd, I finally felt Bella's eyes on me. She looked intense now, like she was concentrating on something, but as soon as she heard my request, she was going to be so proud, so happy. She'd always felt terrible about those two women she'd killed and now we would wash it all away. We—

Suddenly the glowing feeling fell away, as if I'd been doused in clean water. There was nothing between Aro and me, and the cold, cold realization struck my mind like an iron bell:

I was never going to get another chance like this.

I stared at my left hand, feeling every grain of dirt, every molecule of soot and venom.

"Forgive me, Masters," I said.

Marcus leaned forward slightly, waiting for me to say the rest. I looked around. Everyone in this crowd knew me, either personally or by reputation. There was no sense pretending.

"Forgive me, Masters," I repeated, more firmly.

Aro's smile softened and fell. His eyes flicked to his right, but there was no one there but Chelsea.

"Absolve me of my original crime," I told them, looking from Aro to Caius and back. "Allow me to leave the guard with my wife and your permission." I looked straight at Marcus, "With your blessing, Master. Forgive me."

"Edward," Aro said, as if shooing a silly child out of an adult seat. He stepped forward and put his hand on my face.

And I let him have it.

The guard was exhausted, physically and emotionally. They didn't have the resources to deal with something that deviated from what they knew. They needed their master to be all stability.

No fewer than six of Stefan's treasures, five of them gifted, were teetering on the edge.

So you get a reward but only if you ask for what he wants you to ask?

He doesn't know how to respond; this must be an act.

...I'd ask for... I don't know what I'd ask for. Do you have to serve for years or will any great feat do it?

I looked him in the eye.

You have to do it, Master, I said. You will gain many servants for the one you lose in me.

"Edward," Aro said, as if indulgently. "In my heart you were forgiven long ago. Can it really be your wish to leave us all?" The threat in his thoughts was unmistakable.

"It is, Masters," I said. "Though my years in your service were some of the best of my life." It was even true. I could see Marcus smiling sadly, knowingly. He knew exactly what had made my life here so rich, and it wasn't Aro.

"Then I grant your boon, my Edward," said Aro, "with the greatest of regrets." He turned, pausing, "Perhaps I will see you when I visit my friend Carlisle," he said.

There was a threat in it, but I wasn't sure what it was. I bowed low before rising to my feet. I took two steps backward and a smooth hand found mine, squeezing hard. I turned, and the crowed broke for us. Most of the faces of the guard were blank, but I'd swear I saw Felix smile.

Good luck, whelp.

I felt my lip twitch back.

As we neared the edge of the clearing, I paused. There was a Romanian beside me, and I could feel Chelsea's influence on him. He had the scars of many battles. I couldn't tell if he was gifted, but this was a valuable man. Fighting the urge to look back at Aro, I fingered the ties to my cloak. As gracefully as I could, I swept it from my shoulders.

"Would you hold this for me?" I asked.

The man reached forward, fingers touching the cloth. I could see Chelsea working his curiosity into awe, into loyalty.

I smiled anyway. "It suits you."

"Edward," Bella whispered. I nodded, and we disappeared into the dark.

We broke into a run as soon as we were out of sight. I had a dim memory of ...something. Of Aro trying to bring someone back, but only if they weren't far enough away. At the same time, I cast my thoughts out. Through the eyes of the guard, I could see no fewer than five Romanians kneeling in front of Marcus and Caius, pledging their oath to Volterra and its cause. But I couldn't see Caroly.

"Edward, where are they?" Bella demanded.

"I don't know," I said. "I—" my breath caught. A figure, limping but with a savage grin, carrying something heavy, had moved into the firelight. She turned her head from left to right.

Edward? her voice was faint at this distance. Bella? Her eyes fell on the bonfires. Oh no...

I swallowed hard. Caroly... They'd tell her and Demetri that we weren't dead. They'd tell her...

"Edward, where's our girl?" Bella asked.

I closed my eyes, "She's all right," I answered, a hand on her shoulder. "She's all right, Bella, but we have to go. We have to go or we'll never..."

My thoughts trailed away.

What had I done? I'd had a boon in my hands, a chance to do something great, save human lives, and I'd squandered it on something selfish. What was I going to do without my brothers and sisters, without my masters? Carlisle would understand.

Bella put her hands on my wrists. "Edward?"

"Bella, do you think..." I trailed off. "You've never known any other vampire life," I told her. "I know Volterra is hard for you, but maybe... Maybe we should go back."

"You want to go back? Edward, they made us kill people."

"For a good cause. Bella, you don't know how hard it is, how pointless it can be to spend eternity pretending to be human, being as boring as possible, being as mediocre as possible. At least in Volterra we got to make a difference."

"Edward, we can make a difference in the real world," she was talking fast now. "We can find a way, but we have to go home."

I exhaled. The image of my masters faded, replaced with all my unfinished business. I hadn't told anyone where to find Rolfe's head. Aro had drained my memories, but I wasn't sure he'd think to look. I still didn't know his whole story, the secrets behind the spy. That matter would be solved without me. I felt a pang. I'd spent enough time on the library teams to know how this worked: Perhaps two hundred years from now, some nomad would cross my path with news. It would be nowhere near complete and nowhere close to correct. And Caroly. And Demetri.

"Bella, maybe Volterra is our real home," I said. "Or it could be if we're there as free people instead of slaves. We should go back."

She got quiet. "This is really you talking?"

I frowned. "Who else would it—"

"I'm the reason Jane got sick."

I blinked.

"During our first year," she said, as if she'd practiced this, "when Jane was losing her mind, that was me. I made her get sick. I did it on purpose. I wanted to hurt the coven so we could get away."

I shook my head. "No," I said. "No, how could you do that? You could never do that." She was innocent. I'd proven it.

"Never mind how I did it. I'll explain when we've gone," and there was a flicker of something like hope in her voice, "but look at my face. You know I'm not lying. I tried to bring down Volterra."

She wasn't lying. I could tell.

Which meant I could never let Aro lay a hand on me again. He would kill her, and that would kill me.

I could still feel the thoughts of the guard behind us. I could still hear Caroly, calling out like a voice in a storm. They seemed so much further away, like she'd cut out the part of me that could touch them.


"I'll explain later, Edward. I'll explain everything later, but—"

"We have to go," and my words sounded cold even to my ears.

Bella nodded, her face unreadable.

She took my hand and I did not stop her. We started to run. The dead and dying trees seemed like claws, like the fangs of some great beast that had opened its jaws and finally let us out.




Bad things end. Sometimes you can fight your way out on your own. Sometimes you have to wait and wait. Sometimes it will cost you dear. But it will end.

The holidays can be tough, but they don't last forever. You can get through it. You can turn around and see how far you've come. You can value what you've learned even when you leave for a new stage.

drf24 (at) columbia (dot) edu