Breaking_Dawn (37. CONTRIVANCES)

Aro did not rejoin his anxious guard waiting on the north side of the clearing; instead, he waved them forward.

Edward started backing up immediately, pulling my arm and Emmett's. We hurried backward, keeping our eyes on the advancing threat. Jacob retreated slowest, the fur on his shoulders standing straight up as he bared his fangs at Aro. Renesmee grabbed the end of his tail as we retreated; she held it like a leash, forcing him to stay with us. We reached our family at the same time that the dark cloaks surrounded Aro again.

Now there were only fifty yards between them and us – a distance any of us could leap in just a fraction of a second.

Caius began arguing with Aro at once.

"How can you abide this infamy? Why do we stand here impotently in the face of such an outrageous crime, covered by such a ridiculous deception?" He held his arms rigidly at his sides, his hands curled into claws. I wondered why he did not just touch Aro to share his opinion. Were we seeing a division in their ranks already? Could we be that lucky?

"Because it's all true," Aro told him calmly. "Every word of it. See how many witnesses stand ready to give evidence that they have seen this miraculous child grow and mature in just the short time they've known her. That they have felt the warmth of the blood that pulses in her veins." Aro's gesture swept from Amun on one side across to Siobhan on the other.

Caius reacted oddly to Aro's soothing words, starting ever so slightly at the mention of witnesses. The anger drained from his features, replaced by a cold calculation. He glanced at the Volturi witnesses with an expression that looked vaguely… nervous.

I glanced at the angry mob, too, and saw immediately that the description no longer applied. The frenzy for action had turned to confusion. Whispered conversations seethed through the crowd as they tried to make sense of

what had happened.

Caius was frowning, deep in thought. His speculative expression stoked the flames of my smoldering anger at the same time that it worried me. What if the guard acted again on some invisible signal, as they had in their march? Anxiously, I inspected my shield; it felt just as impenetrable as before. I flexed it now into a low, wide dome that arced over our company.

I could feel the sharp plumes of light where my family and friends stood – each one an individual flavor that I thought I would be able to recognize with practice. I already knew Edward's – his was the very brightest of them all. The extra empty space around the shining spots bothered me; there was no physical barrier to the shield, and if any of the talented Volturi got under it, it would protect no one but me. I felt my forehead crease as I pulled the elastic armor very carefully closer. Carlisle was the farthest forward; I sucked the shield back inch by inch, trying to wrap it as exactly to his body as I could.

My shield seemed to want to cooperate. It hugged his shape; when Carlisle shifted to the side to stand nearer to Tanya, the elastic stretched with him, drawn to his spark.

Fascinated, I tugged in more threads of the fabric, pulling it around each glimmering shape that was a friend or ally. The shield clung to them willingly, moving as they moved.

Only a second had passed; Caius was still deliberating.

"The werewolves," he murmured at last.

With sudden panic, 1 realized that most of the werewolves were unprotected. I was about to reach out to them when I realize that, strangely, I could still feel their sparks. Curious, I drew the shield tighter in, until Amun and Kebi – the farthest edge of our group – were outside with the wolves. Once they were on the other side, their lights vanished. They no longer existed to that new sense. But the wolves were still bright flames – or rather, half of them were. Hmm… I edged outward again, and as soon as Sam was under cover, all the wolves were brilliant sparks again.

Their minds must have been more interconnected than I'd imagined. If the Alpha was inside my shield, the rest of their minds were every bit as protected as his.

"Ah, brother…," Aro answered Caius's statement with a pained look.

"Will you defend that alliance, too, Aro?" Caius demanded. "The Children of the Moon have been our bitter enemies from the dawn of time. We have hunted them to near extinction in Europe and Asia. Yet Carlisle encourages a familiar relationship with this enormous infestation – no doubt in an attempt to overthrow us. The better to protect his warped lifestyle."

Edward cleared his throat loudly and Caius glared at him. Aro placed one thin, delicate hand over his own face as if he was embarrassed for the other ancient.

"Caius, it's the middle of the day," Edward pointed out. He gestured to Jacob. "These are not Children of the Moon, clearly. They bear no relation to your enemies on the other side of the world."

"You breed mutants here," Caius spit back at him.

Edward's jaw clenched and unclenched, then he answered evenly, "They aren't even werewolves. Aro can tell you all about it if you don't believe me."

Not werewolves? I shot a mystified look at Jacob. He lifted his huge shoulders and let them drop – a shrug. He didn't know what Edward was talking about, either.

"Dear Caius, I would have warned you not to press this point if you had told me your thoughts," Aro murmured. "Though the creatures think of themselves as werewolves, they are not. The more accurate name for them would be shape-shifters. The choice of a wolf form was purely chance. It could have been a bear or a hawk or a panther when the first change was made. These creatures truly have nothing to do with the Children of the Moon. They have merely inherited this skill from their fathers. It's genetic – they do not continue their species by infecting others the way true werewolves do."

Caius glared at Aro with irritation and something more – an accusation of betrayal, maybe.

"They know our secret," he said flatly.

Edward looked about to answer this accusation, but Aro spoke faster. "They are creatures of our supernatural world, brother. Perhaps even more dependent upon secrecy than we are; they can hardly expose us. Carefully, Caius. Specious allegations get us nowhere."

Caius took a deep breath and nodded. They exchanged a long, significant glance.

I thought I understood the instruction behind Aro's careful wording. False charges weren't helping convince the watching witnesses on either side; Aro was cautioning Caius to move on to the next strategy. I wondered if the reason behind the apparent strain between the two ancients – Caius's unwillingness to share his thoughts with a touch – was that Caius didn't care about the show as much as Aro did. If the coming slaughter was so much more essential to Caius than an untarnished reputation.

"I want to talk to the informant," Caius announced abruptly, and turned his glare on Irina.

Irina wasn't paying attention to Caius and Aro's conversation; her face was twisted in agony, her eyes locked on her sisters, lined up to die. It was clear on her face that she knew now her accusation had been totally false.

"Irina," Caius barked, unhappy to have to address her.

She looked up, startled and instantly afraid.

Caius snapped his fingers.

Hesitantly, she moved from the fringes of the Volturi formation to stand in front of Caius again.

"So you appear to have been quite mistaken in your allegations," Caius began.

Tanya and Kate leaned forward anxiously.

"I'm sorry," Irina whispered. "I should have made sure of what I was seeing. But I had no idea___" She gestured

helplessly in our direction.

"Dear Caius, could you expect her to have guessed in an instant something so strange and impossible?" Aro asked. "Any of us would have made the same assumption."

Caius flicked his fingers at Aro to silence him.

"We all know you made a mistake," he said brusquely. "I meant to speak of your motivations."

Irina waited nervously for him to continue, and then repeated, "My motivations?"

"Yes, for coming to spy on them in the first place."

Irina flinched at the word spy.

"You were unhappy with the Cullens, were you not?"

She turned her miserable eyes to Carlisle's face. "I was," she admitted.

"Because… ?" Caius prompted.

"Because the werewolves killed my friend," she whispered. "And the Cullens wouldn't stand aside to let me avenge him."

"The shape-shifters," Aro corrected quietly.

"So the Cullens sided with the shape-shifters against our own kind – against the friend of a friend, even," Caius summarized.

I heard Edward make a disgusted sound under his breath. Caius was ticking down his list, looking for an accusation that would stick.

Irina's shoulders stiffened. "That's how I saw it."

Caius waited again and then prompted, "If you'd like to make a formal complaint against the shape-shifters – and the Cullens for supporting their actions – now would be the time." He smiled a tiny cruel smile, waiting for Irina to give him his next excuse.

Maybe Caius didn't understand real families – relationships based on love rather than just the love of power. Maybe he overestimated the potency of vengeance.

Irina's jaw jerked up, her shoulders squared.

"No, I have no complaint against the wolves, or the Cullens. You came here today to destroy an immortal child. No immortal child exists. This was my mistake, and I take full responsibility for it. But the Cullens are innocent, and you have no reason to still be here. I'm so sorry," she said to us, and then she turned her face toward the Volturi witnesses. "There was no crime. There's no valid reason for you to continue here."

Caius raised his hand as she spoke, and in it was a strange metal object, carved and ornate.

This was a signal. The response was so fast that we all stared in stunned disbelief while it happened. Before there was time to react, it was over.

Three of the Volturi soldiers leaped forward, and Irina was completely obscured by their gray cloaks. In the same instant, a horrible metallic screeching ripped through the clearing. Caius slithered into the center of the gray melee, and the shocking squealing sound exploded into a startling upward shower of sparks and tongues of flame. The soldiers leaped back from the sudden inferno, immediately retaking their places in the guard's perfectly straight line.

Caius stood alone beside the blazing remains of Irina, the metal object in his hand still throwing a thick jet of flame into the pyre.

With a small clicking sound, the fire shooting from Caius's hand disappeared. A gasp rippled through the mass of witnesses behind the Volturi.

We were too aghast to make any noise at all. It was one thing to know that death was coming with fierce, unstoppable speed; it was another thing to watch it happen.

Caius smiled coldly. "Now she has taken full responsibility for her actions."

His eyes flashed to our front line, touching swiftly on Tanya's and Kate's frozen forms.

In that second I understood that Caius had never underestimated the ties of a true family. This was the ploy. He had not wanted Irina's complaint; he had wanted her defiance. His excuse to destroy her, to ignite the violence that filled the air like a thick, combustible mist. He had thrown a match.

The strained peace of this summit already teetered more precariously than an elephant on a tightrope. Once the fight began, there would be no way to stop it. It would only escalate until one side was entirely extinct. Our side. Caius knew this.

So did Edward.

"Stop them!" Edward cried out, jumping to grab Tanya's arm as she lurched forward toward the smiling Caius with a maddened cry of pure rage. She couldn't shake Edward off before Carlisle had his arms locked around her waist.

"It's too late to help her," he reasoned urgently as she struggled. "Don't give him what he wants!"

Kate was harder to contain. Shrieking wordlessly like Tanya, she broke into the first stride of the attack that would end with everyone's death. Rosalie was closest to her, but before Rose could clinch her in a headlock, Kate shocked her so violently that Rose crumpled to the ground. Emmett caught Kate's arm and threw her down, then staggered back, his knees giving out. Kate rolled to her feet, and it looked like no one could stop her.

Garrett flung himself at her, knocking her to the ground again. He bound his arms around hers, locking his hands around his own wrists. I saw his body spasm as she shocked him. His eyes rolled back in his head, but his hold did not break.

"Zafrina," Edward shouted.

Kate's eyes went blank and her screams turned to moans. Tanya stopped struggling.

"Give me my sight back," Tanya hissed.

Desperately, but with all the delicacy I could manage, I pulled my shield even tighter against the sparks of my friends, peeling it back carefully from Kate while trying to keep it around Garrett, making it a thin skin between them.

And then Garrett was in command of himself again, holding Kate to the snow.

"If I let you up, will you knock me down again, Katie?" he whispered.

She snarled in response, still thrashing blindly.

"Listen to me, Tanya, Kate," Carlisle said in a low but intense whisper. "Vengeance doesn't help her now. Irina wouldn't want you to waste your lives this way. Think about what you're doing. If you attack them, we all die."

Tanya's shoulders hunched with grief, and she leaned into Carlisle for support. Kate was finally still. Carlisle and

Garrett continued to console the sisters with words too urgent to sound like comfort.

And my attention returned to the weight of the stares that pressed down on our moment of chaos. From the corners of my eyes, I could see that Edward and everyone else besides Carlisle and Garrett were on their guard again as well.

The heaviest glare came from Caius, staring with enraged disbelief at Kate and Garrett in the snow. Aro was watching the same two, incredulity the strongest emotion on his face. He knew what Kate could do. He had felt her potency through Edward's memories.

Did he understand what was happening now – did he see that my shield had grown in strength and subtlety far beyond what Edward knew me to be capable of? Or did he think Garrett had learned his own form of immunity?

The Volturi guard no longer stood at disciplined attention – they were crouched forward, waiting to spring the counterstrike the moment we attacked.

Behind them, forty-three witnesses watched with very different expressions than the ones they'd worn entering the clearing. Confusion had turned to suspicion. The lightning-fast destruction of Irina had shaken them all. What had been her crime?

Without the immediate attack that Caius had counted on to distract from his rash act, the Volturi witnesses were left questioning exactly what was going on here. Aro glanced back swiftly while I watched, his face betraying him with one flash of vexation. His need for an audience had backfired badly.

I heard Stefan and Vladimir murmur to each other in quiet glee at Aro's discomfort.

Aro was obviously concerned with keeping his white hat, as the Romanians had put it. But I didn't believe that the Volturi would leave us in peace just to save their reputation. After they finished with us, surely they would slaughter their witnesses for that purpose. I felt a strange, sudden pity for the mass of the strangers the Volturi had brought to watch us die. Demetri would hunt them until they were extinct, too.

For Jacob and Renesmee, for Alice and Jasper, for Alistair, and for these strangers who had not known what today would cost them, Demetri had to die.

Aro touched Caius's shoulder lightly. "Irina has been punished for bearing false witness against this child." So that was to be their excuse. He went on. "Perhaps we should return to the matter at hand?"

Caius straightened, and his expression hardened into unreadability. He stared forward, seeing nothing. His face reminded me, oddly, of a person who'd just learned he'd been demoted.

Aro drifted forward, Renata, Felix, and Demetri automatically moving with him.

"Just to be thorough," he said, "I'd like to speak with a few of your witnesses. Procedure, you know." He waved a hand dismissively.

Two things happened at once. Caius's eyes focused on Aro, and the tiny cruel smile came back. And Edward hissed, his hands balling up in fists so tight it looked like the bones in his knuckles would split through his diamond-hard skin.

I was desperate to ask him what was going on, but Aro was close enough to hear even the quietest breath. I

saw Carlisle glance anxiously at Edward's face, and then his own face hardened.

While Caius had blundered through useless accusations and injudicious attempts to trigger the fight, Aro must have been coming up with a more effective strategy.

Aro ghosted across the snow to the far western end of our line, stopping about ten yards from Amun and Kebi. The nearby wolves bristled angrily but held their positions.

"Ah, Amun, my southern neighbor!" Aro said warmly. "It has been so long since you've visited me."

Amun was motionless with anxiety, Kebi a statue at his side. "Time means little; I never notice its passing," Amun said through unmoving lips.

"So true," Aro agreed. "But maybe you had another reason to stay away?"

Amun said nothing.

"It can be terribly time-consuming to organize newcomers into a coven. I know that well! I'm grateful I have others to deal with the tedium. I'm glad your new additions have fit in so well. I would have loved to have been introduced. I'm sure you were meaning to come to see me soon."

"Of course," Amun said, his tone so emotionless that it was impossible to tell if there was any fear or sarcasm in his assent.

"Oh well, we're all together now! Isn't it lovely?"

Amun nodded, his face blank.

"But the reason for your presence here is not as pleasant, unfortunately. Carlisle called on you to witness?"


"And what did you witness for him?"

Amun spoke with the same cold lack of emotion. "I've observed the child in question. It was evident almost immediately that she was not an immortal child – "

"Perhaps we should define our terminology," Aro interrupted, "now that there seem to be new classifications. By immortal child, you mean of course a human child who had been bitten and thus transformed into a vampire."

"Yes, that's what I meant."

"What else did you observe about the child?"

"The same things that you surely saw in Edward's mind. That the child is his biologically. That she grows. That she learns."

"Yes, yes," Aro said, a hint of impatience in his otherwise amiable tone. "But specifically in your few weeks here, what did you see?"

Amun's brow furrowed. "That she grows… quickly."

Aro smiled. "And do you believe that she should be allowed to live?"

A hiss escaped my lips, and I was not alone. Half the vampires in our line echoed my protest. The sound was a low sizzle of fury hanging in the air. Across the meadow, a few of the Volturi witnesses made the same noise. Edward stepped back and wrapped a restraining hand around my wrist.

Aro did not turn to the noise, but Amun glanced around uneasily.

"I did not come to make judgments," he equivocated.

Aro laughed lightly. "Just your opinion."

Amun's chin lifted. "I see no danger in the child. She learns even more swiftly than she grows."

Aro nodded, considering. After a moment, he turned away.

"Aro?" Amun called.

Aro whirled back. "Yes, friend?"

"I gave my witness. I have no more business here. My mate and I would like to take our leave now."

Aro smiled warmly. "Of course. I'm so glad we were able to chat for a bit. And I'm sure we'll see each other again soon."

Amun's lips were a tight line as he inclined his head once, acknowledging the barely concealed threat. He touched Kebi's arm, and then the two of them ran quickly to the southern edge of the meadow and disappeared into the trees. I knew they wouldn't stop running for a very long time.

Aro was gliding back along the length of our line to the east, his guards hovering tensely. He stopped when he was in front of Siobhan's massive form.

"Hello, dear Siobhan. You are as lovely as ever."

Siobhan inclined her head, waiting.

"And you?" he asked. "Would you answer my questions the same way Amun has?"

"I would," Siobhan said. "But I would perhaps add a little more. Renesmee understands the limitations. She's no danger to humans – she blends in better than we do. She poses no threat of exposure."

"Can you think of none?" Aro asked soberly.

Edward growled, a low ripping sound deep in his throat.

Caius's cloudy crimson eyes brightened.

Renata reached out protectively toward her master.

And Garrett freed Kate to take a step forward, ignoring Kate's hand as she tried to caution him this time.

Siobhan answered slowly, "I don't think I follow you."

Aro drifted lightly back, casually, but toward the rest of his guard. Renata, Felix, and Demetri were closer than his shadow.

"There is no broken law," Aro said in a placating voice, but every one of us could hear that a qualification was coming. I fought back the rage that tried to claw its way up my throat and snarl out my defiance. I hurled the fury into my shield, thickening it, making sure everyone was protected.

"No broken law," Aro repeated. "However, does it follow then that there is no danger? No." He shook his head gently. "That is a separate issue."

The only response was the tightening of already stretched nerves, and Maggie, at the fringes of our band of fighters, shaking her head with slow anger.

Aro paced thoughtfully, looking as if he floated rather than touched the ground with his feet. I noticed every pass took him closer to the protection of his guard.

"She is unique… utterly, impossibly unique. Such a waste it would be, to destroy something so lovely. Especially when we could learn so much .. ." He sighed, as if unwilling to go on. "But there is danger, danger that cannot simply be ignored."

No one answered his assertion. It was dead silent as he continued in a monologue that sounded as if he spoke it for himself only.

"How ironic it is that as the humans advance, as their faith in science grows and controls their world, the more free we are from discovery. Yet, as we become ever more uninhibited by their disbelief in the supernatural, they become strong enough in their technologies that, if they wished, they could actually pose a threat to us, even destroy some of us.

"For thousands and thousands of years, our secrecy has been more a matter of convenience, of ease, than of actual safety. This last raw, angry century has given birth to weapons of such power that they endanger even immortals. Now our status as mere myth in truth protects us from these weak creatures we hunt.

"Thisamazingchild" – he lifted his hand palm down as if to rest it on Renesmee, though he was forty yards from her now, almost within the Volturi formation again – "if we could but know her potential – know with absolute certainty that she could always remain shrouded within the obscurity that protects us. But we know nothing of what she will become! Her own parents are plagued by fears of her future. We cannot know what she will grow to be." He paused, looking first at our witnesses, and then, meaningfully, at his own. His voice gave a good imitation of sounding torn by his words.

Still looking at his own witnesses, he spoke again. "Only the known is safe. Only the known is tolerable. The unknown is… a vulnerability."

Caius's smile widened viciously.

"You're reaching, Aro," Carlisle said in a bleak voice.

"Peace, friend." Aro smiled, his face as kind, his voice as gentle, as ever. "Let us not be hasty. Let us look at this from every side."

"May I offer a side to be considered?" Garrett petitioned in a level tone, taking another step forward.

"Nomad," Aro said, nodding in permission.

Garrett's chin lifted. His eyes focused on the huddled mass at the end of the meadow, and he spoke directly to the Volturi witnesses.

"I came here at Carlisle's request, as the others, to witness," he said. "That is certainly no longer necessary, with regard to the child. We all see what she is.

"I stayed to witness something else. You." He jabbed his finger toward the wary vampires. "Two of you I know – Makenna, Charles – and I can see that many of you others are also wanderers, roamers like myself. Answering to none. Think carefully on what I tell you now.

'These ancient ones did not come here for justice as they told you. We suspected as much, and now it has been proved. They came, misled, but with a valid excuse for their action. Witness now as they seek flimsy excuses to continue their true mission. Witness them struggle to find a justification for their true purpose – to destroy this family here." He gestured toward Carlisle and Tanya.

"The Volturi come to erase what they perceive as the competition. Perhaps, like me, you look at this clan's golden eyes and marvel. They are difficult to understand, it's true. But the ancient ones look and see something besides their strange choice. They see power.

"I have witnessed the bonds within this family – I say family and not coven. These strange golden-eyed ones deny their very natures. But in return have they found something worth even more, perhaps, than mere gratification of desire? I've made a little study of them in my time here, and it seems to me that intrinsic to this intense family binding – that which makes them possible at all – is the peaceful character of this life of sacrifice. There is no aggression here like we all saw in the large southern clans that grew and diminished so quickly in their wild feuds. There is no thought for domination. And Aro knows this better than I do."

I watched Aro's face as Garrett's words condemned him, waiting tensely for some response. But Aro's face was only politely amused, as if waiting for a tantrum-throwing child to realize that no one was paying attention to his histrionics.

"Carlisle assured us all, when he told us what was coming, that he did not call us here to fight. These witnesses" – Garrett pointed to Siobhan and Liam – "agreed to give evidence, to slow the Volturi advance with their presence so that Carlisle would get the chance to present his case.

"But some of us wondered" – his eyes flashed to Eleazars face – "if Carlisle having truth on his side would be enough to stop the so-called justice. Are the Volturi here to protect the safety of our secrecy, or to protect their own power? Did they come to destroy an illegal creation, or a way of life? Could they be satisfied when the danger turned out to be no more than a misunderstanding? Or would they push the issue without the excuse of justice?

"We have the answer to all these questions. We heard it in Aro's lying words – we have one with a gift of knowing such things for certain – and we see it now in Caius's eager smile. Their guard is just a mindless weapon, a tool in their masters' quest for domination.

"So now there are more questions, questions that you must answer. Who rules you, nomads? Do you answer to someone's will besides your own? Are you free to choose your path, or will the Volturi decide how you will live?

"I came to witness. I stay to fight. The Volturi care nothing for the death of the child. They seek the death of our free will."

He turned, then, to face the ancients. "So come, I say! Let's hear no more lying rationalizations. Be honest in your intents as we will be honest in ours. We will defend our freedom. You will or will not attack it. Choose now, and let these witnesses see the true issue debated here."

Once more he looked to the Volturi witnesses, his eyes probing each face. The power of his words was evident in their expressions. "You might consider joining us. If you think the Volturi will let you live to tell this tale, you are

mistaken. We may all be destroyed" – he shrugged – "but then again, maybe not. Perhaps we are on more equal footing than they know. Perhaps the Volturi have finally met their match. I promise you this, though – if we fall, so do you."

He ended his heated speech by stepping back to Kate's side and then sliding forward in a half-crouch, prepared for the onslaught.

Aro smiled. "Avery pretty speech, my revolutionary friend."

Garrett remained poised for attack. "Revolutionary?" he growled. "Who am I revolting against, might I ask? Are you my king? Do you wish me to call you master, too, like your sycophantic guard?"

"Peace, Garrett," Aro said tolerantly. "I meant only to refer to your time of birth. Still a patriot, I see."

Garrett glared back furiously.

"Let us ask our witnesses," Aro suggested. "Let us hear their thoughts before we make our decision. Tell us, friends" – and he turned his back casually on us, moving a few yards toward his mass of nervous observers hovering even closer now to the edge of the forest – "what do you think of all this? I can assure you the child is not what we feared. Do we take the risk and let the child live? Do we put our world in jeopardy to preserve their family intact? Or does earnest Garrett have the right of it? Will you join them in a fight against our sudden quest for dominion?"

The witnesses met his gaze with careful faces. One, a small black-haired woman, looked briefly at the dark blond male at her side.

"Are those our only choices?" she asked suddenly, gaze flashing back to Aro. "Agree with you, or fight against you?"

"Of course not, most charming Makenna," Aro said, appearing horrified that anyone could come to that conclusion. "You may go in peace, of course, as Amun did, even if you disagree with the council's decision."

Makenna looked at her mate's face again, and he nodded minutely.

"We did not come here for a fight." She paused, exhaled, then said, "We came here to witness. And our witness is that this condemned family is innocent. Everything that Garrett claimed is the truth."

"Ah," Aro said sadly. "I'm sorry you see us in that way. But such is the nature of our work."

"It is not what I see, but what I feel," Makenna's maize-haired mate spoke in a high, nervous voice. He glanced at Garrett. "Garrett said they have ways of knowing lies. I, too, know when I am hearing the truth, and when I am not." With frightened eyes he moved closer to his mate, waiting for Aro's reaction.

"Do not fear us, friend Charles. No doubt the patriot truly believes what he says," Aro chuckled lightly, and Charles's eyes narrowed.

"That is our witness," Makenna said. "We're leaving now."

She and Charles backed away slowly, not turning before they were lost from view in the trees. One other stranger began to retreat the same way, then three more darted after him. I evaluated the thirty-seven vampires that stayed. A few of them appeared just too confused to make the

decision. But the majority of them seemed only too aware of the direction this confrontation had taken. I guessed that they were giving up a head start in favor of knowing exactly who would be chasing after them.

I was sure Aro saw the same thing I did. He turned away, walking back to his guard with a measured pace. He stopped in front of them and addressed them in a clear voice.

"We are outnumbered, dearest ones," he said. "We can expect no outside help. Should we leave this question undecided to save ourselves?"

"No, master," they whispered in unison.

"Is the protection of our world worth perhaps the loss of some of our number?"

"Yes," they breathed. "We are not afraid."

Aro smiled and turned to his black-clad companions.

"Brothers," Aro said somberly, "there is much to consider here."

"Let us counsel," Caius said eagerly.

"Let us counsel," Marcus repeated in an uninterested tone.

Aro turned his back to us again, facing the other ancients. They joined hands to form a black-shrouded triangle.

As soon as Aro's attention was engaged in the silent counsel, two more of their witnesses disappeared silently into the forest. I hoped, for their sakes, that they were fast.

This was it. Carefully, I loosened Renesmee's arms from my neck.

"You remember what I told you?"

Tears welled in her eyes, but she nodded. "I love you," she whispered.

Edward was watching us now, his topaz eyes wide. Jacob stared at us from the corner of his big dark eye.

"I love you, too," I said, and then I touched her locket. "More than my own life." I kissed her forehead.

Jacob whined uneasily.

I stretched up on my toes and whispered into his ear. "Wait until they're totally distracted, then run with her. Get as far from this place as you possibly can. When you've gone as far as you can on foot, she has what you need to get you in the air."

Edward's and Jacob's faces were almost identical masks of horror, despite the fact that one of them was an animal.

Renesmee reached for Edward, and he took her in his arms. They hugged each other tightly.

"This is what you kept from me?" he whispered over her head.

"From Aro," I breathed.


I nodded.

His face twisted with understanding and pain. Had that been the expression on my face when I'd finally put together Alice's clues?

Jacob was growling quietly, a low rasp that was as even and unbroken as a purr. His hackles were stiff and his

teeth exposed.

Edward kissed Renesmee's forehead and both her cheeks, then he lifted her to Jacob's shoulder. She scrambled agilely onto his back, pulling herself into place with handfuls of his fur, and fit herself easily into the dip between his massive shoulder blades.

Jacob turned to me, his expressive eyes full of agony, the rumbling growl still grating through his chest.

"You're the only one we could ever trust her with," I murmured to him. "If you didn't love her so much, I could never bear this. I know you can protect her, Jacob."

He whined again, and dipped his head to butt it against my shoulder.

"I know," I whispered. "I love you, too, Jake. You'll always be my best man."

A tear the size of a baseball rolled into the russet fur beneath his eye.

Edward leaned his head against the same shoulder where he'd placed Renesmee. "Goodbye, Jacob, my brother… my son."

The others were not oblivious to the farewell scene. Their eyes were locked on the silent black triangle, but I could tell they were listening.

"Is there no hope, then?" Carlisle whispered. There was no fear in his voice. Just determination and acceptance.

"There is absolutely hope," I murmured back. It could be true, I told myself. "I only know my own fate."

Edward took my hand. He knew that he was included. When I said my fate, there was no question that I meant the two of us. We were just halves of the whole.

Esme's breath was ragged behind me. She moved past us, touching our faces as she passed, to stand beside Carlisle and hold his hand.

Suddenly, we were surrounded by murmured goodbyes and I love you's.

"If we live through this," Garrett whispered to Kate, "I'll follow you anywhere, woman."

"Now he tells me," she muttered.

Rosalie and Emmett kissed quickly but passionately.

Tia caressed Benjamin's face. He smiled back cheerfully, catching her hand and holding it against his cheek.

I didn't see all the expressions of love and pain. I was distracted by a sudden fluttering pressure against the outside of my shield. I couldn't tell where it came from, but it felt like it was directed at the edges of our group, Siobhan and Liam particularly. The pressure did no damage, and then it was gone.

There was no change in the silent, still forms of the counseling ancients. But perhaps there was some signal I'd missed.

"Get ready," I whispered to the others. "It's starting."