Huge thanks to Livie and Sharon!

Sorry for any mistakes you may encounter.


XXIII

THE BEAST

Sticky skin clung to soft sheets. A pattern of lights distorted my vision. Lamps and bed posts, the ceiling overhead. All a blur.

The cool air made the layer of sweat on my forehead seem like ice. Yet underneath, the rush of heat swarmed my veins as my heart pounded like a drum against my chest. I'd been shaken from a deep sleep, startled awake by a dream of falling, a sense of doom lingering.

I clutched my chest, catching my bearings before pushing up and breathing deeply. I caught Edward in my sight. He still sat at his desk, where he had been when I finally gave up the fight and crawled under the sheets last night.

"You were dreaming," he said. "Quite violently." He turned around, closing a beige folder on top of a smaller pile next to a larger one. He stood and advanced toward me. "Was it terrible?"

I cradled my forehead in my palm, wanting to shake the murkiness away as warmth began to bite my skin. I couldn't recall the exact details, even though it had just happened. It was a vague memory. Even if I could remember every insignificant detail, I wouldn't want to discuss it with him. "I don't remember."

His weight shifted the bed. I found myself nearly falling into him, but I corrected the imbalance, scooting more toward the pillows. His nearness put me on edge again. I startled when he moved, the adjustment so quick and uninvited. He shushed me and his brow furrowed as his thumb slid along the stitched gash on my forehead.

"It's still fine," I said. "It only hurts when you touch it." And with that, I jerked my head away.

He studied me for a moment, his eyes moving over mine, intense and piercing. Could he touch my soul with such a look? "When was the last time you ate?" he asked.

Not the response I expected. I tucked a lock of hair behind my ear, concentrating on the question. The food here wasn't worth remembering. Keeping track of the last time I ate wasn't my first concern, so I shrugged. "I don't know. I think it was yesterday afternoon. Right before Royce, maybe?" That sounded right. Felt right.

He hummed a less than enthusiastic reply. "I see."

"I haven't noticed it, to be honest. I'm not even sure I could eat right now." I felt too sick to eat.

"You need to keep your strength up, keep the blood flowing. I'll send for something, but eat quickly. The afternoon is rising, and I have a meeting."

I ate a quick meal of fruit and toast, complete with the powdery water. A small glass of orange juice accompanied it, a rare treat which I sipped and savored as long as I could. I considered the strawberries a delicacy, a fond memory of berry cobbler — Dad's favorite dessert — began to overthrow the events which transpired yesterday. Even though they weren't in season and not nearly sweet enough, they were still something to be cherished. I found them familiar and comforting, even with their sour taste.

Edward shifted around the room, lingering at his desk a while longer, still fussing over those folders and I wondered the content. When he finished, he pulled a black dress shirt over his gray t-shirt, then slipped his arms into a black jacket.

"What's with the funeral colors?" I asked, piercing into the very last strawberry.

He inspected the blazer briefly, but his attention wasn't curved for very long. He peered up at me again.

I wiped my sticky fingers on my gown, still sitting cross-legged between the pillows and sheets. My mouth was full, but I worked the words around the fruit. "It's just, you always wear black. Is there a purpose? It's so... cliche. Vampires and black clothes, wasn't that always the expectation in every movie and every story?"

He looked at his attire once more, then shrugged. "I like black."

We were in the hall, walking with purpose and I was right on his coattails. A low hum could be heard outside the great hall doors, and when we entered I understood the noise. Conversation carried through the thick air, but when we entered the throaty, baritone-like hum quieted to nothing.

A league of bloodsuckers lingered in front of the steps, where Edward took a seat in the middle throne, inviting me to sit next to his feet with a gesture of his hand.

The vampires bowed to him, and that was when I spotted Jasper, though he didn't look in my direction. His eyes were trained on Edward, just as they had been on Aro. A loyal dog even though it seemed he could hardly stand or trust him. How did Edward feel about that, or did he know? Jasper developed a decent way to keep his thoughts shielded. How often did he have to safeguard them?

"You're curious why I've called a meeting so soon after the death of our beloved master," Edward began.

I felt my lips tick at his choice of words. Beloved? I wondered what would happen if the coven knew the truth about Aro's real killer? Would they still look to Edward for leadership? Or would he, too, end up in the basement furnace?

"Spies were among us, gentlemen, make no mistake about that. They slaughtered our master, endangered our lives, and tried to feed us to the wolves. Now, we must anchor ourselves to our existence once more." When he paused I looked up at him, expecting him to continue. He stared into the crowd in front of us, gauging, waiting. For what, I didn't know, but he sat like that until I guess he thought he waited long enough.

"Jacob Black made it his mission to take more than he was given. As if a free bottle of premium blood every week wasn't enough, he bedded and drank from more than fifty women in the last three months, and before that who knows how many! And gentlemen, we know the consequence of bedding."

The coven looked around at each other, nodding and agreeing. They knew the consequence. They all knew except me. I didn't know the significance of vampires and human relations, though I imagined it wouldn't be good for my species. It seemed every human would die for the vampire's pleasure, but their disadvantage was still unseen to me.

"Jacob's sentence has been carried out. Both him and James lay in the bottom of the furnace. Even though the traitors are dead, their actions still pose imminent danger to us. It is in our best interest to hunt down the women."

The women Jake slept with? No! He couldn't do that! He couldn't bring more women into the house, not those women! I stood, compelled to fight, to do things I knew I shouldn't."You can't do that!" A plea poured from me as I stared at him, begging with my eyes. All those women?! "Edward, they didn't do anything wrong!"

"Sit down, Miss Swan," he said through gritted teeth. "You've forgotten your place."

"I know some of these women, Edward!" I took three steps toward the throne, looking down at him. "It's not their fault what happened between them and Jake!"

He leaned forward, curling his fingers inward as his elbow rested on the chair arm. His response was a whisper, but it was forceful and angry. "I won't tell you again."

I swallowed. Even though Edward said he wouldn't hurt me last night, that didn't mean he wouldn't hurt me today. Hundreds of eyes were on me, their vacant expressions turning into confusion. A knife had been stabbed into my gut and began to twist as I did what he told me. I felt the gnawing want of tears beginning to burn the back of my throat and sting my eyes. Those girls would be like me―trapped―unable to escape. I should've kept my mouth shut last night when Aro asked me about Jake! But, if I had then I would've been killed.

Jasper stepped forward. "My Lord, fifty women over a period of three months? It may be too late to bring them back alive. We don't know where they've gone, if they're even still in the city."

Would Jasper be able to talk him out of it?

"Jacob's flaw, our advantage, was he only bedded college students," Edward responded

"So, you wish us to capture fifty college women in one night?" Jasper asked, a challenge it seemed.

Edward said nothing. I tried to remain still, to not get up or protest anymore, but inside I was screaming.

"Without the use of Jacob's gift, it would be impossible without the humans catching on," someone shouted from the back of the crowd.

"We will be caught and then the world will know of us!" another added.

"The entire city will go into a state of panic," Jasper said, gesturing with his hands to Edward, almost a plea-like motion.

With every outburst of concern, Edward's expression deepened. I could almost feel the static charge of his anger tickling my skin, but the coven didn't see what I saw, nor were they concerned. Their voices rose, a gradual sound as though someone were twisting a volume knob. Jasper seemed to be the only quiet creature among the noise, aside from Edward. Even his face was calm and unaffected by the festering chaos of the horde behind him.

"You will do this for me!" Edward shouted above the roar, and second by second they quieted again. "You will do this for yourselves! And when you get back, our regulations will be changed. We must tighten our control."

A voice said. "Our methods have worked for nearly seventy years!"

Jasper shook his head. "Extraction is solid."

"It's not extraction I'm concerned with." Edward stood, and began to pace the platform, his hands resting behind his back. "Our current stock has been kept too long, their bodies are past their expiration date. Their blood is concentrated with sickness."

"We shall get more," Demetri said as he stepped forward. "We always have."

The coven agreed, but Edward shook his head. "It's not enough anymore. Word from the north is they've reaped the benefits of our mistakes. Our clients are going to other houses, complaining of our diseased blood! Our reputation has been shamed! If our blood is sickly, then who's to say they won't start feeding outside the walls?" He stopped, squared his shoulders and faced the vampires. "The solution is simple, though Aro never agreed. We can no longer bare teeth on skin."

There was a moment of hesitation, a break when no one seemed to exist in that room after he spoke those words. Then, if one hadn't been inside those walls, they would believe the ceiling was caving in. The riot didn't start as gradual noise, it was immediate and forceful. Their screams caused me to cover my ears, the low rumble penetrating deep into my skull, rattling my eardrums, the way a bass does inside a powerful stereo.

Their faces grew more and more furious, their brows pulling down and their teeth beginning to bare at the corners of their mouths as they spoke. How easily they could turn into a mob. How easy they would kill Edward, even with his power and station. I shook a little more. If they stood against Edward, if they killed him, what would become of me?

I caught eyes with Jasper, then. His red pupils widening, his lips puckering with anger like the rest of them, but he didn't verbally protest. I shifted to Edward, who in the corner of my eye stood stiff against the clamor, though his eyes were furious and pointed.

Before I could register his movements, the tile below the right throne began to crack. The grappled legs were ripped from their place. My heart and breathing accelerated and I stumbled down the steps, away from him and them. He threw the large throne into the coven causing them to part as it shattered on the floor. Two vampires, however, didn't clear and received the blunt end of Edward's anger. They were pushed back by the shattering wood and slid along the tile, almost meeting the entry doors.

His saw-like teeth bared against his lips, threatening and fierce. He didn't need to speak, and neither did they. Their commotion paused. My fingers were curled at my sternum, as if I could clutch my heart and keep it from pounding against my chest. Their voices quieted, their attention turning to the angry creature in front of them. Their master.

Edward's fingers found the buttons of his coat as he straightened his back. He pulled the opposing sides together, cinching them up. Finally, he tugged on the immaculate ends of his suit. "Find the humans," he said, pushing a claw-like hand through his messy hair which had come undone when the launched the now-broken chair. "Bring them to me alive."

"When do you wish us to go, sir?" Jasper asked.

"Dusk."

"And what of...?"

"Never mind the human reports! Track them! Purge the city, and do so without being seen! Let them believe what they must. Let them believe a human killer is on the prowl! They're young women, beautiful... they fit a profile! We must finish this tonight," Edward said. "We must correct Jacob's mistakes, use them to our advantage. This is how we'll revive the house."

The alabaster walls and columns of that room faded. Every form within disappeared, leaving me with nothing but the soft echo of his voice playing over and over again. It left me torn and barely able to breathe. The price for my confession against Jake Black was high. The remainder of my life had cost me fifty souls, and I wasn't sure I'd ever be able to forgive myself.


To some: I'm not the most reliable author, I know, but we will see the end of this story very soon. My family and my health are priorities one and two for me. Sadly, I think some people tend to forget that authors have other obligations to fulfill before updates. If you find this is a problem, then it's easily solved by waiting until I hit the 'complete' button. If you want to stop reading altogether, that's fine, too. Trust me, I understand. =)

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