Mad World, Chapter One: Self-titled

It's almost my turn. The room is completely silent, nothing stirring, not even a heartbeat. His voice is the only thing that can be heard, echoing off the walls and chilling the room. Names fall from his cold lips like a guillotine blade, killing even these, the undead. Had I not long ago abandoned the Gods and their ways, I would be praying to them, praying that I would make it through this.

It's ridiculous for me, of all people, to be afraid of this. I am probably the strongest vampire here, besides the ancients. Who here could they choose who could possibly present a threat to me, a demon whose name has haunted mortals and vampires alike for decades?

"Isabella Volturi."

All heads snap to look at me - a hundred bright red spotlights on my pale skin. I don't make eye contact with anyone. I simply stand and march to the front, head held high and shoulders square. No one looking at me would ever guess that I am nervous. To an observer, I probably just look frustrated.

That is exactly what I want.

An ancient stands before me, all dark eyes and porcelain skin. Aro, the one who holds the most interest in me, is the one who took me into this guard in the first place, hungry for the power granted to me by the change. His eyes are appraising as he flashes a false smile, knowing his stalling irritates me. I just want to know who my opponent will be; the masked enemy is always worse than the one who waits in the light.

"It has been far too long, my dear," Aro whispers, his silky voice laced with dark intentions, and his ebony eyes echoing the same.

It annoys me that he insists on delaying the information he knows I crave. Damn his forked tongue and serpentine smile.

I simply nod and his smile falters a bit as he clears his throat, glancing down at the paper in his hands. Everyone is aware that he already knows who I'm up against. I hold the breath I don't even need, the only indication of my nervousness. This is it, I tell myself.

The Challenge is a ritual held every decade amongst the ranks of the Volturi. The vampires chosen by the ancients have to fight: for both their rank and their lives. This is how vampires progress through the ranks of the Volturi guard – by killing chosen opponents. You could choose to let them live, but most did not. This is the only thing that matters to most of them: the chance to achieve glory. It gives them purpose in their immortality.

I am already a lieutenant, an incredibly high rank for someone as young as I. Only fifty years have passed since I was changed on the streets of Phoenix. That night did more than end my human life; it took away my soul and my humanity against my will. Fifty long years, and from the beginning, I have been stronger than the rest of my kind. My body has an innate defense mechanism, enabling me to do extraordinary things when threatened. Most vampires fear me, others hate me. None of it matters though, since I am always the victor.

It is time to either defend my position in the guard or fight for a better one. No one knows who the ancients have decided they should fight against, and so it is understandable that everyone in the room is radiating tension. Today could very well be the last day of their existence. But not mine. I am strong.

"We have decided," Aro drones out slowly. I feel my fists clench as venom wells up in my mouth. Just say it! But Aro will not be denied his grand announcement.

It must be something big for him to stall this way.

Finally, he continues in a grand voice, "that you will be challenging today for the position of...General of the guard."

General?

Despite my firm control, I feel my jaw go slack for a second. General? That is the highest ranking member of the guard, second only to the ancients themselves. It is unheard of for one to become General so young, especially one who has never been a Captain. I can hear whispers around the room, most shocked, but a few angry. Aro holds up his hand, and immediately all is silent.

"James, please step forward."

James is the current General. His crimson eyes are blazing with aggression. Other than that he looks amused as he makes his way slowly to the front, all eyes on him now. James has a reputation for killing anyone and everyone who has ever opposed him, as well as a few just because. I'm confident in my own ability, but I can't help but feel the hand of dread on my shoulder as he stands before me, looking down into my eyes with those murderous orbs. His face is a mask of scars; a testament to countless battles won that left their marks upon his flesh. Many have died in the attempt to kill him.

I may be younger, but still the strength of many surges through my limbs and I know I stand a chance in a fight with this vampire. I stare back with a blank expression, my own mask of war. He smirks, obviously thinking he has the fight won already. Little does he know.

Aro instructs us to shake hands, and after his near-crushing grip releases my hand, we step into the ring. For this is no ordinary room: It is a battle field. The others sit in a ring of seats, watching each pair of challengers step into the center to fight for rank and honor. It is the vampire way.

I have put on tight, weightless clothes that will enable me to bend, twist and move without resistance. Body armor is futile, as nothing can stop a vampire's teeth or fists from penetrating it, so I went for comfort. James seems to have done the same. He pulls off his cloak to reveal a skin-tight shirt that exposes his enormous biceps and forearms, as well as the strong planes of his chest. A worthy opponent indeed.

There is hardly any time between the announcement and the battle so that both challengers can rely only upon their own skill. Sometimes battles last days, which causes The Challenge to sometimes last for months at a time. This fight, however, will probably be quick.

At least, I hope so.

Caius steps into the ring, giving me a glare. He's never liked me, but that's probably because he's afraid of me. He should be too, I think smugly. One day…

My thoughts focus back on James who stands a mere ten yards from me, still wearing that arrogant smirk. I will knock that smile from his face soon enough, but for now I close my eyes and focus my power. The raw strength ripples through my body, causing me to shudder slightly. I can do this.

Caius' voice calls out through the otherwise silent room, making me open my eyes to look at James once more.

"Challengers," he addresses us.

I keep my eyes locked on my target.

"You are to fight for the rank of General. The winner gets the glory. Loser earns nothing but shame and possibly death."

James nods his head at me, but I don't break my mask of stone. To the death, so be it.

Caius steps aside and claps his hands twice. It begins.

James moves lightning-fast, a growl ripping from his chest as he lunges for me with palms outstretched. I snarl back, jumping lithely out of the way and narrowly avoiding his harder-than-diamond nails. He whirls at once and jumps again, this time making contact with my right arm which sends a flash of pain through my body. Hissing, I strike him deftly with the back of my hand, causing his head to snap back for a split second. He begins to growl again and strikes so fast that it takes all I have to avoid being pummeled.

We trade blows - ducking, weaving and circling in a blur of fists, teeth and snarls. It's an even match so far, but James is amazingly powerful. Without a doubt he is the strongest vampire I have faced thus far, and I push myself to be quicker and to hit harder.

The smile is indeed gone from his face and he frowns in concentration, trying to catch me off-guard with a swipe to the face. I jerk back and lash out with my mind at the same time. The force of my mind throws James back a yard or so, stunning him momentarily.

This is my gift, earned by the torture I endured during my change. It is a kind of mental force-field that blocks the gifts of other vampires, but it also serves as a physical force that can do a variety of attacks, chosen seemingly at random. Activated when threatened, I have almost no control over how my gift will attack an enemy, but it seems to do just fine without my guidance.

James is stunned by the attack, and I hurl my body at him, eliciting a scream of pain from my opponent as my teeth cut into his shoulder. I must release, however, and the two of us go back to circling. James looks furious, but suddenly he is darting around me with blinding speed. This is his gift: incredible speed. He is a blur as he darts all around me, and he seems to be everywhere at once. At this rate, I can hardly keep him from my throat as he moves too quickly for me to stop him. The fight has taken a sudden turn for the worse, and I know I have to do something quickly before it ends completely.

I call my mind's power forward again, and this time it feels different: almost like it's pulsing with a new force. I push the power out, and instantly James cries out in agony. I whip around to find him on the ground, writhing under an invisible force that crushes his chest. His hard bones make terrible cracking sounds as he struggles to get out from under my power.

This is new.

Thanks once again to my unpredictable power, the tide is turned in my favor. I quickly take advantage of James' predicament and pin him beneath me, bludgeoning him with my fists and tearing at his skin with my nails. My power has released him, but now I'm holding him down with my legs as he tries to push me off. I hold on with all my might and continue to bash his head with my hands, ignoring his blows that are raining on my back and legs.

James looks desperate, and I know I've nearly won. All that's left is to seal the victory with his death. He is not foolish, however, and he manages to ward off my attempts to reach his neck by snapping his teeth and flailing his limbs. It takes nearly all my strength to hold on, to keep him down. If I slip up for even a second, he will slither out of my grasp and my advantage will be lost. I search frantically for a way to finish him, and a daring thought enters my mind. It's incredibly risky, but I'm growing weary of holding James down.

With a quick jerk back, my right hand releases my hold on James. His left hand catches me across the face; scoring deep welts that make me grit my teeth in pain. Nevertheless, I surprise James by slamming my hand down on his chest, my fingers hooked like claws. The strength of the blow sends the sharp tips of my nails deep into James' flesh, right over where his dead heart is held silent. He screeches in anguish as I hook my claws tight under his skin and wrench, pulling his back off the ground and then slamming him back down. My risk pays off, for now James is securely in my grip and also temporarily immobilized by pain.

The crowd is silent as my teeth snap shut around my victim's throat. The former General dies like the prey he's hunted for so many years: throat ripped open and gurgling screams bubbling from his mouth. As his fangs clench and unclench uselessly, the guards waiting nearby rush out to light him ablaze. All that can be heard now is the shuffle of my clothes as I rise victorious and the crackling of the flames that consume my foe. I stand a champion before the masses, my opponent's taste on my teeth and his flesh under my nails. No one speaks. No one claps. They all stand as one, silent as death itself, and bow before me.

Bella, the Vampire General.

One month later.

"General, a moment please."

I turn from the door, my hand still on the handle, and stare unblinkingly at the vampire before me. Felix is certainly one of the more outspoken of the vampires who oppose me and probably the most annoying. Even now, he says my title as though it tastes foul in his mouth.

Stupid, jealous Captain. One of five and the only one who dares to continually contradict my authority. In Felix's eyes, I should never have been selected since I've never been a Captain.

Tough shit.

Still, I have to stay and listen to him. After all, he is a Captain, and this is a meeting for the higher-ranking vampires. It's required for me to hear him out, no matter how much I loathe him.

"Yes?" I ask with false patience, wishing I could just leave and go back to my home. My new one in the General's quarters. But Felix won't grant me my wish, and the look in his eyes clearly says that I won't enjoy what he has to say.

"It has come to my attention that a certain vampire has revealed himself to a human family somewhere in the U.S.," Felix says, smirking slightly for some reason. "He's been sentenced to death for breaking the laws. Tomorrow, if I'm not mistaken, is when we're scheduled to take him out."

So? I sigh, tired of dealing with this imbecile. The past month has been a rough one, and I am tired of people wasting my time.

"You know perfectly well that this is none of my concern, Felix." I tell him in exasperation, making it clear that I'm annoyed. He knows that such matters are dealt with by lesser ranks, and that investigating traitorous vampires is not something Generals are expected to take care of. "Now if you'll excuse me-" I turn towards the door.

"It's Emmett McCarty," Felix purrs, effectively stopping me in my tracks.

Suddenly, the evil glint in Felix's eyes makes sense, and my stomach clenches slightly. Shit.

Emmett is probably the only real friend I have in the world. He is the one who helped me when I was first changed; the one who took care of me when I was a rampant newborn. If there is anyone who can claim to know me, it is Emmett.

Strong, sweet, smiling Emmett.

And now I'm going to have to kill him.

Felix is still smirking and a low growl rumbles in my throat. He knows this hurts me and that's why he is here, rubbing it in my face. He's using my one weakness against me, just to be a prick. Emmett…

"Fuck you, Felix." I snarl, baring my teeth.

I want to rip this asshole to pieces. The glare in my eyes must be murderous because suddenly Jane, my second in command, is standing between Felix and me, her red eyes tinged with concern. Small as Jane is, she is also very, very powerful. Just a look from her and you're feeling pain like nothing you've ever experienced, except perhaps for the change into a vampire. Despite the fact that she was an obvious choice for General, she has supported my position from the start and has been much more responsive than the others.

"Easy," she murmurs soothingly, putting a hand on my shoulder. Felix continues smiling cruelly, taking advantage of Jane's distraction by pushing past me to head out the door. My hands clench, barely resisting the urge to lunge for his throat. I tell myself he's not worth it.

But Emmett is.

I push Jane's hand off of me and start to stalk out of the room. I have no idea what I'm going to do; Emmett has been sentenced to death, and there is nothing I can do about it. My one and only friend is going to die tomorrow, again - for we are all already dead.

"You're the General," Jane calls out after me.

Her voice pulls me back, and I turn and question her with my eyes over one shoulder. She stares back at me, her gaze steady and calm.

"You have the ability to change things, Bella." She calls me by my given name, something that usually makes me angry. Jane seems sincere, almost caring, so I let it go. Plus, her words are intriguing. Jane leaves before the meaning has sunk in completely, brushing quietly past me as I consider what she said.

'You can change things.'

I can, too. I have the power to save Emmett from this. I can assert my power, overstep the previous decision…But should I? It will anger the others, and surely Felix will raise hell about it. I shouldn't be seen playing favorites already.

Should I save Emmett?

No.

But I will.

Hours later, I'm on a plane to Forks, Washington. Actually, it's my private jet, so I can get there faster. I have told only Jane that I am leaving, and she is in charge back in Italy. She is a valuable asset, I have decided. Hopefully, I can win her loyalty and support for the years to come because with her I will have even more power. Power to rule. After all, I am the strongest.

I don't sleep on the trip, of course. I don't sleep, for I'm already living a nightmare.

The lack of fatigue gives me time to consider my options for handling this situation. I want to stay within the rules, if at all possible. It will look better if I handle things appropriately.

Besides killing Emmett, I have two options: one, I can transform the whole family into vampires; two, I can kill them all. But surely that would upset Emmett, as obviously he feels some connection to the humans. Why else would he have broken the one rule regularly enforced for our kind? Emmet is not stupid, nor does he have a death wish, so these humans must mean a great deal to him. Would he be willing to curse them all, to damn them?

Will he even have a choice? It was damnation or death. Not exactly the best choices, but that's how it has to be. At least Emmett will live.

My plane touches down after an uneventful flight, and I step out into a rainstorm. The rain feels warm on my icy skin, and I'm grateful that the sun isn't out. Getting around while avoiding direct sunlight is a pain, and I immediately know why Emmett decided to live here. It's prime vampire turf.

Donning a pair of sunglasses to hide my crimson eyes, I step into the car I've rented for the trip: A black, five-speed Mitsubishi Eclipse. It's much slower than most of my cars but decent enough. Plus it's fairly discrete, and I'd like to avoid attention as much as possible.

My source told me Emmett is in fact staying with the human family he revealed his secret to, and that they live deep within the forest a short distance from town. Again, a smart place for a vampire to hide, especially a vegetarian one like Emmett who only feeds off of animals. Despite his obvious error at telling the humans his secret, Emmett has made quite a few smart choices.

I'm nervous about seeing Emmett while bearing such bad news, but I tell myself that it's the only way to save him. Hopefully, he will understand. He must. I am here for him. After what he has done for me, I owe him this.

Traffic is light and soon I pull into the well-hidden driveway that leads to the house. It's a beautiful home, covered in large windows and gorgeous landscaping. I step out of the car, sensing Emmett's scent immediately. It is so familiar, and it puts my mind at ease. Then, as I walk slowly towards the door, I become aware of another scent that stops me dead in my tracks.

Fuck.

Never before has human blood appealed to me in such a way. I feel intoxicated by this smell: a sweet fruit-like musk dancing across my senses. It is all consuming and it pulls me forward, darkening my eyes and heightening my senses. I have to pull myself together quickly, or I'll be killing one of Emmett's humans, and that won't help matters.

Before I can fully get over the scent, a familiar voice is booming from the house, shaking the windows with its volume.

"Bella! Is that you?" Emmett hollers. Without waiting for a response, he leaps from a window and embraces me tightly. I fight back my instinct to push him off of me, and I hug him back gingerly.

"Emmett, it's good to see you." I say as calmly as I can. The scent, the delicious one, is on Emmett and it's driving my senses wild. But here he is, my savior and best friend. The one I'm here to rescue.

"I'll say! What a surprise!" Emmett lets me go and steps back to look at me, smiling broadly.

"Still as scary as ever I see," he jokes, obviously not at all afraid of me. If only he knew! He rambles on about random things like an excited kid, not letting me get a word in. He's the only one in the world who's ever excited to see me.

Eventually, though, he'll wish I hadn't come. That thought sobers me, pulling me away from the delirium of the mysterious scent.

"Emmett…" I interrupt his insistence that I meet someone he calls Rosalie. It's plain from the way his eyes go soft at her name that he is in love with her. So this is what caused him to break the law. He's in love with a human.

He finally calms down enough to notice my solemn expression, and his eyes become wary.

"Why are you here, Bella?" He asks slowly.

I take a deep breath, hating the fact that I must deliver him bad news when he is obviously so happy here, but I know if I don't do it others will come and do it for me. They will come not only for his human family but also for him.

"Emmett, you broke the rules." I say gently, looking deep into his honey eyes and seeing realization slowly set in. His mouth goes slack, and he pulls away from me. He looks afraid.

"What do you mean?" He asks, playing dumb. But Emmett is far from dumb, and I know it. He just can't believe I'm here for that. Hell, neither can I. I can hear someone heading for the front door, and I sigh sadly.

"You know what I mean. You've been sentenced to death, Emmett. You broke the most important rule."

The door opens and both of us look over to see a beautiful blonde girl peek her head out. She looks like a model, full lips and breasts, with sapphire eyes that shine like stars. Surely, she is the stuff that most males drool over. She could be a vampire, if not for her beating heart and colorful eyes. Emmett tenses and he holds up a hand to the girl.

"Rose, honey, go back inside." He says shakily, forcefully. Rose? Ah. So this is the one...

She stares first at Emmett, then at me as she wordlessly heads back inside, obviously very trusting of him. But I can hear her worried voice as she calls to someone inside.

Absently, I notice she isn't the one with the enticing scent. Dragging my focus back to Emmett, I find him staring at me as if I had just hit him. I sigh again, knowing I have little in the way of relief to offer him.

"Em…I'm not here to kill you. I am here saving your life. Hers too."

Emmett just stares blankly, seeming too shocked to deal with what I'm telling him.

I press on. "The laws are clear. You have to change them all, or they must die along with you."

Emmett flinches, but I know I have to be honest. It's the only way. "I came here to tell you, and to make sure…that you do it. I'm sorry, Emmett."

He nods, and then suddenly falls to his knees, shaking with emotion. My dead heart twists with pain as I kneel beside him, putting a hand on his shoulder. It hurts to see him so weak and filled with despair.

"Bella," he groans. "How can I do this? I can't. I can't k-kill them. Or damn them. W-what do I do?" Emmett stammers as he speaks, breathing hard though his lungs need no air.

"I'm so sorry," I murmur. I don't know what to tell him. His world has just been flipped upside down, but sorry is the best I can do. He shakes, his head slumped low.

"You have to, Em. Change them, or let me do it. It's the only way."

"No." He whimpers.

Suddenly he is on his feet, his body placed protectively between me and the house. His hands are raised in a fighting position, and my heart drops as he clenches his fists. I stand slowly, warily. I don't want to hurt him.

"Don't do this." I plead, though my voice is hard.

He's my best friend, but I will fight him if I have to. And I will win. I always do.

"I can't let you hurt them," He whines, not backing down.

His eyes would be tearing up if they could, but Emmett is dead. "Please, just go away, Bella." Oh how I wish I could. But I can't. With or without Emmett's assistance, these humans will die today. Die, and be reborn, if you could in fact call it that. They will wake up as creatures of the night, whether they like it or not. It's the law. And I am a monster. A monster who is seconds away from beating her best friend unconscious and tearing apart the family he loves.

Emmett stands firm, eyes like those of a mad man. I tense up, ready to fight him, but suddenly the door slams open and an angry voice rings out.

"What's going on?"

I look over Emmett's shoulder and see an angry human boy standing there. His hair is a perfection of messiness and his green eyes look like they could tear into my very soul.

It's lucky I don't have one then.

"Go back inside, Edward." Emmett growls, and suddenly the wind blows the boy's scent towards me. I freeze.

It's him.

The smell.

I must have it.

I must have him.