When the Volturi showed up, they weren't just checking to see if the Cullens were still alive and well. None of us saw this coming, not even Alice. It was as if they'd known the perfect time to come too. Esme, Emmett, Rosalie, and Jasper were out on a hunting trip, an hour away, even for them. Carlisle was at the hospital, having been called in to help tend to a family that been in a car accident. It had just been Edward, Alice, and I, enjoying a lazy evening, listening to music, and talking; a night that started out so ordinary, that I could have never known that it would change our lives forever.
Alice was on about choosing a vacation destination. "Greece doesn't have nearly the shopping that France has," she complained, sitting primly on the edge of the leather couch.
"Of course you're going to be concerned about the shopping. France is great, but I want something different. Athens has all the history. What about the temple ruins, the Delphi, the Parthenon?" Edward suggested.
"And Paris has Valentino, Chanel, Prada, and legally certified Haute Couture." Alice pouted.
I rolled my eyes. "But Alice, Athens has the Acropolis. You used to shop there, didn't you?" I teased.
"Are you implying I'm old?" Alice snapped playfully.
"No, never," I giggled. Edward started to chuckle, the bed shaking slightly underneath us.
"Need I remind you that I'm only 17? You're the one who's 19, ancient one." Alice said, with a feigned look of aggression on her face.
"Hey, hey! That's hitting below the belt," I said, sitting up and glaring at Alice.
Edward and Alice both burst out laughing. I shook my head and rolled my eyes as I lay back against his chest. He kissed the top of my head, and snuggled me closer to him.
"Alright, what if we compromise and go to Milan? Edward, you'll have all the history and architecture you want, I'll have all the fashion I want, and Bella—" she stopped abruptly.
We'd all heard it. Someone moving. Fast. Not just fast, our kind of fast. They were approaching from beyond the river. We all leapt up. It was too soon for anyone to be home.
"It's the Volturi," she said darkly.
Edward's head snapped to Alice and then to me.
I gasped and dashed to the window, watching for their approach. Edward was already on his phone to Carlisle. Alice came stood next to me, she was also on the phone, with Jasper. Both spoke quickly and furiously of the visitor who was now crossing the river. A single dark shape leapt over the river. The moon was blotted out by clouds, but with my own set of liquid gold eyes I could see clearly a male vampire with dark blond hair, a lean, muscular figure, and bright red eyes leaping, seemingly hanging midair as he met my gaze.
Edward snapped his phone shut and threw me a significant glance. "He's here to see you," he said, a pained expression coming across his face.
"But they already…" my voice trailed off.
"I know, come on," he said, and the three of us dashed down the stairs and through the back door. I threw myself into a defensive crouch, but almost immediately, Edward placed a hand on my shoulder.
"He's only here to see you, that's all I can read. As near as I can tell, he doesn't mean us any harm."
I straightened up, but my body remained tense.
"I don't like this," Alice said, staring out across the trees and field that met the riverbank. "I was watching for this."
"I know. Me either," Edward said, his jaw tight.
The stranger slowed his pace and walked out from the shadow of the trees. "I'm sorry to surprise you this evening Cullens," he said, smirking. His red eyes shined in the light coming from the house. He was on the short side, not much taller than me. He blond hair was almost white, which complimented his chiseled white features. He was dressed the traveling cloak of the Volturi, but he wore the hood back.
"I'm sure they would have told us you were coming if your masters had intended for us to know," Edward said stiffly.
"I'm quite sure," the stranger said, smiling wider. "It's all the same though. Already I've completed my mission. Do you continue to enjoy your new life, Mrs. Cullen?"
"I do. Thank you," I said quietly, watching him carefully as he approached.
"What mission were you sent on?" Edward asked, stepping forward.
"I was merely sent to see if the Cullens still kept residence here in this town. Clearly you do."
"You obviously know us, but we don't know you. Who are you?" Alice asked, her voice still ringing musically, but the joy of it completely subdued.
It did not go unnoticed by the stranger who raised his eyebrows. "Of course, you're not familiar with me. Certainly that was my masters' intention, but there's no harm in you knowing my name now that I've seen you. I am Sheppard, and I serve my masters as their messenger and scout."
"Their intention?" I asked.
"I'm not sure of their motive. All I know is that I was selected to bring their message. They sought out a stranger to you all."
"And that message?" Edward asked, his voice thick with distrust and aggression.
"I've already conveyed it—simply to inquire as to how Bella is enjoying her new life and to see if this coven continues to exist on the Calawah River in Forks, Washington. I'm certain they'll be pleased with my report. I trust all is well?" he inquired.
"All is fine," Edward said curtly.
"My master Aro thought perhaps Bella might have found the diet of a Cullen vampire to be difficult to master," he continued, walking closer, his eyes traveling down my body, and over to Edward.
"I continue to be challenged, but it is well worth it," I said, as Edward took a step forward in front of me.
He cocked his head forward and stared Sheppard down. "You've seen us. You have your message. Please take care to not hunt in this area while you're returning to your masters."
"Of course, of course," Sheppard said sweetly. "I meant no harm in my inquiries, only to fulfill my duties. Aro sends his warmest regards, and hopes you and your talented family will be making their way to Volterra soon to visit."
"We'll see about that, thank you," Alice said coldly.
Sheppard bowed slightly, "Farewell Cullens." He turned on his heel and sped away into the direction from whence he'd come.
We all stood rooted to the spot for a few moments. Waiting, listening. Finally Edward turned to me, pulling me into a hug. He was shaking. I looked past his arm at Alice, who was pressing her hands against her temples.
"Is it over?" I asked her. Edward tensed his arms around me, and I looked up at him. "What?"
"I never saw a decision to come here because they never made one," Alice said, sounding confused. "They're still weighing options. They keep changing their minds."
"Why would they need to weigh their options?" I asked.
"Because they didn't think you'd be able to keep up with the non-human blood," Edward said, releasing me from his arms, but holding onto my hand. "Let's get inside," he said quietly.
Alice followed us in, she sighed behind us as her eyes squinted to see something that wasn't there, the future, the decisions made and unmade, over and over again.
"When's everyone going to get here?" Edward asked.
"Ah, that is something I do know. Carlisle will be here in an hour and a half, he's just come out of surgery. The rest won't get back for another two hours."
"Is it really necessary that they come home at all?" I wondered. "I mean, he's gone now."
"Maybe it's selfish, but I'd feel better if the whole family was under one roof," Alice said, sinking into an armchair.
"Well, that, and we need to discuss this. Something isn't right about this," Edward added, sitting on the couch. I settled next to Edward.
Both Edward and Alice were in deep concentration. I was torn confused. A year ago, I had relieved that the fear that had existed in the back of my mind, ever since I first met the Volturi in the towering turret in the city of Volterra, had been extinguished when Edward and I had made the trip to prove I was now vampire. The promise had been fulfilled for year then. I'd been a vampire for nearly 2 years now. But a new fear was overcoming me, knowing it couldn't be as simple as a check of residency and my wellbeing. Aro, a collector, wanted nothing more than to improve upon his collection. He didn't strike me as the type to give up so easily. The pieces didn't fit.
We sat this way, Alice hunched over in the armchair, Edward with an arm around me, all of us unmoving for what must have been an hour. That's when Alice's head snapped back, her eyes staring off, unfocused.
Edward jumped up. Had I been human, I'd have been thrown to the floor, but I caught myself, and stared back and forth between the two of them. Edward's jaw dropped in horror, his eyes turning to me.
"What?" I asked.
Edward's chin wobbled at me for a moment, his speechlessness frightened me even more.
"WHAT?" I shouted.
"They're coming for us. Now. Here. For," he swallowed hard, and he threw a glance back over at Alice, who had fallen back against the chair, gasping. "For us." he finished.
"No. No!" I growled.
"They used a stranger so that I wouldn't know to watch for him," Alice said, sounding choked up, "someone who didn't know their motives so that Edward wouldn't be able to find out."
The sound of many feet moving towards us through the woods beyond came to my ears. The feet weren't racing, they were steady and deliberate. Thanks to Sheppard, they already knew we were outnumbered.
Was this it? It wasn't fair, to lose everything after my new life had started. I could hardly bear it.
"Bella, I want you to run," Edward said, "You're still the fastest, you can get away."
"No!" I gasped. "No, Edward, I'm staying here with you."
"Bella, this is a fight we cannot win," Edward said, his eyes filled with pain.
"I'm not leaving either of you, I'm fighting with you," I said, my voice filled with panic. "I won't run."
"These are Volturi guard who possess training far surpassing the sparring you and Emmett have been practicing," Alice said quietly.
I set my mouth in a firm line, crossing my arms in defiance.
"We're not guaranteed to lose," Alice said to Edward, who continued to stare at me, his beautiful face torn in anguish.
"I don't want her here."
"Well she's not going anywhere," Alice said pointedly.
"We'll draw them south west. If by some miracle we can hold them off long enough, it'll be where Emmett's Jeep will tear through, and we might end up with some help from the pack," Edward said.
With that we dashed through the front door, running as fast as we could. Our pursuers picked up the pace.
However futile it might have been, I still hoped against hope that help would come in some form. Emmett, Rosalie, Esme, and Jasper, Carlisle, even the pack. The pack who hadn't spoken to me in two years, the pack that loathed my family and me, maybe, just maybe because of their proximity to humans, the pack would fight with us against the Volturi.
But help never came. I was in front, and I stopped dead in my tracks, Edward and Alice slid past me and came to a stop. The smell of unfamiliar vampires hung all around us. We were surrounded.