Zenith

Chapter Twenty-two – Ashes to Ashes


I immediately stepped backward, the cold water of the stream sloshing at my bare feet.

The vampire didn't move.

"Who are you?" The composure in my voice was delicate, and if I hadn't had such extensive experience in confronting vampires who wanted to rip the flesh from my bones, I would have been a quivering mess. As it was, I gritted my teeth and forced away any manifestation of the chills relentlessly racking my body.

"It's you." Still unnervingly motionless, his lips hardly twitched over the syllables.

I glanced around at our surroundings, and his narrowed eyes followed my every shift of weight and rise of my chest. Calculating.

"I'm sorry. I don't know you." Could he be a friend of the Cullens? Edward had mentioned them having non-vegetarian friends. But the thought was not as reassuring as it might have once been. I thought of Laurent and shuddered.

I squeezed my eyes shut as I silently begged for all this to be a dream, for Felicity to appear with her soothing smile and dissident words that were always the prelude to my waking up.

But my wishing was in vein, and when I re-opened my eyes, it was to find that the vampire had closed the short distance between us and was now standing only an arm's length away. I gasped.

Red irises bore into me unblinkingly. "I've seen your picture." His voice was sweet, melodic, deceptive. "Victoria's told me all about you."

Victoria.

My stomach dropped to my feet. Not a friend of the Cullens then. And the possibility of this being a dream slipped like water through my fingers.

"W-what has she told you about me?"

Stall. I needed to stall. So, fighting my instincts to stand still and not move too suddenly I began taking blind step backwards into the water until I was knee-deep and then continued moving until I reached the other side.

He watched me go but didn't pursue. Because, of course, he didn't need to.

"It doesn't matter," he nearly spat, and I wondered if he was answering my question or pointing out the uselessness of my evasive maneuver. "She'll want you alive."

The déjà vu was astounding—I could almost smell the faintly sweet aroma of the damp meadow.

I licked my lips and put on my poker face. "You should leave before the Cullens get here. And…and there are wolves in the woods…" I was desperately grasping at anything I could get my mind around, because I refused to let the inevitable come to pass—the inevitable that resulted in me being dead and in Jacob and Charlie hurting.

The smile that quirked the vampire's lips was predatory, held all the smugness of a lion who'd stumbled across a loan lamb. "They won't be a problem. They're distracted, you see." Physically he hadn't moved, but I felt as if he were somehow closing in on me, toying with me in his approach. "To think I was sent for a shirt, and I'll return with the entire package." The excitement he felt was betrayed by the restlessness of his hands as they twitched at his sides. "Victoria will be pleased. I wonder how she'll reward me." His eyes roved over me hungrily, and there was nothing I could do to suppress the shudder that shook me head to toe.

Running was useless. It would only entice him. But standing there waiting to be eaten wasn't exactly preferable. Should I scream? Would someone hear me? What did he mean they were "distracted?" Was it Victoria? A fight?"

A cold hand cupped my cheek. In the space of a second, the vampire had once again maneuvered in front of me, this time close enough so that his sweet breath brushed my face. Nausea gripped me.

"She told me all about you. But she never said anything about how delicious you smell." Wide, crimson eyes gazed longingly along my neck, zeroing in on one of the bruised bite marks Jacob had left the night before.

I held myself perfectly still, not even daring to breathe.

"She would be upset if I killed you now." He was trying to convince himself. It was plain in the consoling timbre of his voice and the increased trembling of his fingers as he angled my head to one side. Stone lips grazed my jaw.

"Please," I wheezed. Pressure started building behind my eyes.

"It's strange. I fed only hours ago," he continued on to himself. "But the smell…"

The cool friction of his nose running along the column of my throat was a sickening mockery of the way Jacob had touched me only hours ago, and I wanted to go back. I wanted to go back there to that moment and recommit the sensation to memory. Last night I hadn't been trying to remember.

"It's like I can already taste it." The flat of his tongue found the vigorous pounding of my artery.

"Don't—" My voice died into a pained moan as teeth slipped past skin, and I could tell the moment my blood began to well; the copper scent instantly soaked the air.

My hands uselessly pushed at his chest as I writhed against his marble body which was clamped like a vice around me. One unshakable hand held my face immobile while the other secured my arm to my side. As I fought, his only response was to painfully tighten his hold.

I gritted my teeth against the pulsing agony stemming from where he was furiously sucking at my neck. Pinpricks of blackness began taking over my vision. My fingers went numb.

Then, without notice, the coldness against my body disappeared, and with it went the only thing keeping me standing. I wavered on my feet and crumpled.

Animalistic whining and gagging coughs rang painfully out against the comparative silence of the forest. And when I managed to gather enough composure to lift my head from the cool, moist ground it was to witness a disturbing scene.

Kneeling just a short distance from where I had collapsed was the vampire, face shoved to the ground as he convulsed, alarming, high-pitched screeches of distress pouring from his lips alongside escaping dribbles of my blood. One hand emphatically clawed at the forest floor, tilling the dirt and moss to powder as the other grasped at his neck. Over and over, he slammed himself into the ground with mounting force and violence until he was a mere blur of motion. The sound rang out like thunder.

And just as abruptly he froze mid lift amongst a cloud of dust.

He looked up, and gone was the face of the looming predator. Arrogance and desire had been replaced by panic and frenzy. He looked like a frightened boy. "Y-you…" he choked, and his face went slack.

I watched in morbid fascination as a fine jagged fissure appeared above his left temple. I watched as it grew and traveled down toward his eye. I watched as it multiplied until there were two, three, four…a dozen fissures that splintered over his flesh like fingers across a sheet of ice…or a stone statue.

And the cracks continued to spread. Down his neck, beneath the collar of his shirt, over his exposed forearms. When it reached his fingers, the digits fell like rocks to the dirt where they crumpled into ash like the mauled ground.

I watched as the rest of his body soundlessly followed suit, as piece by piece he degraded into…

A pile. He was a pile of…

Bile burned the back of my throat, and I refused to look any closer to discern just what exactly composed the grayish heap of matter sitting where—ten seconds ago—a vampire had been. And the throbbing of my neck was demanding my full attention.

Tentatively I raised a hand to the wound only to pull my fingers away covered in blood. I just barely managed to shove the hair from my face before leaning to the side and retching.

Shivering and sputtering I rolled away from my mess, gasping for air and some semblance of clarity. But my mind demanded that I not hesitate.

Get up. Get up. Get up.

I staggered to my feet, not stopping to question why my neck had yet to start burning, why I wasn't thrashing uselessly on the ground as venom coursed through my veins, hollowing and petrifying my insides. I focused solely on picking one foot up, moving it forward, and placing it back down. One. Two. And Three.

One…two…three.

One. Two. Three.

One, two, three.

Onetwothree. Onetwothree. Onetwothree. Onetwothree.

My vision came and went, but the mantra in my mind was a constant as my bare feet pounded in tandem across the ground, carrying me…somewhere. I was running for home—that's where I was trying to get—and I ignored the whispering voice of reason that told me I wasn't really going anywhere at all. I was just going.

My feet stopped.

Something icy and intangible washed over me, dousing the shock and any ability I had to tune out everything but the onetwothree beating against my head. It was impossible not to see him standing ten yards away. Pristine. Perfect. Safe.

And there was something inside me that recognized him before my eyes did.

"Edward," I murmured taking a step toward him, arms outstretched, eager for something more concrete than the panicked haze I was trapped in, the pile of ash I'd run from, and the mark scorched on my shoulder.

But I watched as relieved golden eyes turned wide with alarm, as a foot froze in mid-lift, as the rise in fall of his chest halted.

My snap back to reality was abrupt and painful.

Blood. My blood.

I clapped my hand to the wound and slowly retreated backward, very much aware that my shirt, hands, and hair were all stained crimson and that nothing I could do would mask the potent smell. On more than one occasion Edward had explained to me that it was easier to resist the lure of my scent if he didn't go long periods without being near me. Standing there, painted in blood, I wondered what a six-month absence had done to his control.

"Edward," I cautioned, clinging to fact that at least this was something I understood how to react to, "just stay there. I'll…I'll leave. Slowly."

I was shocked to see his face relax into a calm mask. Only his shoulders remained tense. "No. I'm fine."

"Edward, please…"

"No," he said again, still not breathing, "It's alright. Please, Bella, you're hurt. We need to get you to a hospital."

"I can't…" Tears appeared out of nowhere to slide down my face. "You can't take me to the hospital, Edward." He was out of air—I knew it—and he wouldn't risk another breath. "Because I'm not just hurt. I...there was a vampire and he…"

Edward was at my side in a blurred movement that was so sudden and so akin to my attacker's that I flinched away. But he was quick to secure a hand around my arm and hold me still as he scrutinized the bite on my neck.

"How does it feel?" he murmured, voice low and thick with agony. I hated that he was in pain because of me, because of his proximity to my scent.

Had it been this painful for him every time we were together?

"Bella?"

The cool brush of soothing fingers over my temple drew my eyes to his. The tortured concern I found there prompted me to finally respond. "It hurts. But it's not burning. Not like…before, when James..."

After only a moment of regarding me intently, Edward swept me up in his arms and started running. My bloody wound was pressed firmly against his chest, but I didn't have the energy to argue over what the contact must be costing him. Now that I no longer had to focus on moving and making sure my feet didn't stop, there was no incentive to ignore the insistent pull of darkness that had been tugging relentlessly at me since the vampire had crumbled to dust at my feet.

I let my eyes droop. The next breath I took brought me a lung-full of Edward's scent, the clean, intoxicating aroma that, at one point, had been more familiar and comforting to me than any scent in the world. Curling one hand in the collar of shirt, I let myself fall away.

It was helplessly ingrained in me; Edward would keep me safe.


"You have had quite the first day."

I blinked and immediately honed in on the woman sitting in a simple, white, wooden chair— identical to the one I was suddenly occupying.

Felicity.

"I'm dreaming."

She smiled her lovely smile at me, looking natural and stunning with her quaint green garden acting as a rustic backdrop. "Yes. Is dreaming not a wonderful thing?"

I frowned. "Then…what happened in the forest was real?" Was I still bleeding to death in Edward's arms?

"As I said,"—she paused to take a drink from a crude-looking metal cup held lightly between her hands—"you have had quite the first day. I did not encounter my first vampire until six months after I woke up." Now her smile hinted at a secret. "But you are not much like me, are you?"

As always it was impossible not to feel at peace in her presence, and I found myself relaxing back into my seat as everything else but the two of us became inexplicably inconsequential. I met her gaze frankly. "I don't know. Who are you?"

Felicity set her cup on a small table that matched the chairs. The movement was as fluid and organic as the warm sunlight shinning down on us. "I am your great, great, great grandmother."

I felt my eyebrows shoot up. Her confession was surprising but not alarming. The idea of being related to this strong, mysterious woman wrapped me in a blanket of comfort. It was like getting good news confirmed that I'd been suspecting for weeks.

"But that is not what's important," she continued with a graceful wave of her hand. "I am the past. You, my child, are the present and, hopefully, the future."

"The future?"

She nodded indulgently. "I am afraid I am getting ahead of myself. Some things are better left to be discovered in the waking world, where words and feeling are something beyond echoes and shadows." She turned her eyes toward a beautiful flowered vine wrapped lovingly around one of the table legs. As she gently fingered the petals, her voice became nostalgic. "Dreams are so easily dismissed, are we not?"

I said nothing.

She didn't lift her eyes from the deep purple buds. "Isabella, your life is about to get very difficult. There is nothing I can say to change that or to take the pain away, and for that I am deeply regretful. But, perhaps, I can help prepare you for what is to come."

Any serenity I'd felt was slipping away at her ominous sincerity. "You can see the future?" Maybe her gift was like Alice, and there was still time to change things.

"Not at all,"—she raised her head from the flower to look at me once again—"I do not see the future, only the past and the choices that were made. In that respect, at least, I am no different than any other living soul."

Her words struck a chord of familiarity. "What did you mean in the last dream? When you said I would lose my soul?" I swallowed thickly, recalling the reality I had only temporarily left behind. "I'm going to become a vampire, aren't I? You knew that that vampire would find me in the woods."

Felicity leaned back in her seat, eyeing me intently with mild pity. "I already told you I do not see the future."

"Then how—"

"Your soul is no longer your own," she cut in gently, her face sober. "He took it. With the touch of His hand." She dipped her head in indication of my shoulder.

I looked down. Jacob's ruined t-shirt was gone, replaced with a pale, strapless, cotton dress. The black hand stood out prominently against my skin. I gasped.

"Yes," Felicity murmured. "Even in your dreams His reach is inescapable." She pushed aside the collar of her own dress, revealing a matching mark, dark and bold and undeniable.

"What is it?" I asked quietly. My fingertips trembled as they traced the eerie pattern.

"The Devil's mark."

My eyes snapped up to meet hers.

There was a stubborn tilt to her chin, a resistant narrowing of her eyes—it was the same determination she had displayed while burning at the stake. "It is your toll for the boatman. The one thing that guarantees your place in Hell."

The nearby chirping of birds filled the silence that fell between us, cheerfully pecking at my nerves as I considered her words and the frightening sincerity that accompanied them.

Felicity leaned forward and regarded me earnestly as she took my hand in her own. "Isabella, you must understand that this is not something to be shared. You have secrets now, but they are not your own. It is not about trusting, it's about protecting."

I gently squeezed her hands in frustration. "But I don't know anything. You haven't explained anything."

"It is not my place." She gave a small smile that effectively soothed my ruffled feathers. "Dreams are only echoes and shadows. Isabella, you have to protect us. Understanding will come, but until then…"

"This is a secret," I finished quietly.

Her smile was more revealing than any single word she'd spoken. "Yes."


I anticipated the opening of my eyes. I was so acutely aware of when I was making the transition from the dream world to the waking world, that I noticed the dimming of my surroundings and the slow fade of the surreal green garden and striking brown eyes.

"It's about fucking time."

Standing over by the door, arms crossed as she leaned against the wall and nose scrunched in distaste, was Leah. And she looked annoyed.

I took in a breath of relief.

"Where are we?" I murmured, rubbing at my eyes as I took in our surrounding. I didn't recognize the room. The walls were painted a rich champagne color, trimmed in rose. Of the three doors that line the walls, one was cracked open and seemed to lead out to a hallway. The bed I was lying on was firm, and I was neatly tucked beneath a fluffy down blanket and sheets that matched the rose trim on the walls. A huge bureau and desk occupied the majority of the remaining space, only leaving room for an overstuffed chair set beside the single window.

Edward was sitting there, expression masked as he watched me with neutral eyes. "This is Alice and Jasper's room."

And it clicked. He'd brought me to the Cullen's house—and presumably to Carlisle—because of the…

I reached a hand up to my neck and felt a square of stiff cotton covering the wound. Sitting up, I looked at Edward in alarm. "How am I…?"

His expression darkened. "We aren't sure."

When he didn't elaborate, I turned to Leah. She just raised and dropped her shoulders in a careless shrug. "Is it really a surprise that you can't even die properly when a vampire gnaws your neck halfway off?"

I felt my eyebrows crinkle together. Edward's warning hiss barely even registered. "How many stitches?"

"Sixteen," Edward answered for her. "Carlisle took them out an hour ago."

"Out?" I echoed.

Edward nodded curtly.

"That's some weird healing shit, Swan." Leah shook her head, looking slightly amused but mostly disgusted. "And I'm gonna be pissed if you get the fringe benefits without turning into a giant dog."

My eyes widened at the prospect.

"You aren't currently running a temperature," Edward reassured me quietly. And even though I hadn't considered it a likely possibility, I relaxed minutely anyway.

"And you're sure I'm not going to…"—I bit my lip and picked nervously at the seam of the comforter in my lap when I couldn't meet his steady gaze—"…turn into a vampire?"

"Well you certainly don't reek like one," Leah mumbled, shifting her weight restlessly from one foot to the other.

"I does seem…unlikely at this point," Edward agreed hesitantly.

"But…" I pressed, and almost regretted it when his eyes relentlessly pierced me. The opaque gold searched my dull brown for answers, challenging me to reveal something. Intellectually I knew he couldn't read my mind, and that he'd always struggled to comprehend my thoughts in even the most human of ways. But the intensity of feeling he was forcing on me now had me wondering. Did he see what I wasn't saying?

Uncertain but unwilling to give in, I simply stared back. Even Leah's uncomfortable coughs couldn't dislodge the connection.

It wasn't until I began feeling lightheaded from the effort that he finally released me, looking morosely to the floor. "Breathe, Bella," he ordered quietly.

So I did. Gratefully.

By the door Leah rolled her eyes and pushed off the wall. "I'm gonna tell Jacob that you're awake."

"He's here?" I asked hopefully, impatient to see him.

"Nah, Sam made him go for a run ten minutes ago when he started barking and sprouting hair from his ears. But he'll throw a bitch fit if he finds I out I didn't tell him you were up. He was practically blubbering over your casket earlier."

I winced and couldn't contain my disappointment as I found myself desperately craving his presence. More than anything I wanted him to hold me, kiss my hair, and tell me it would be all right.

Leah sighed. "Look, it's not like Sam exactly gave him a choice. You'd been out for nine hours, and Sam and Embry forced him to take a break before he could start pissing on you. I can still smell the testosterone." She shot Edward a dirty look. He didn't notice.

"But you got to stay?" And I didn't care that it sounded like I was whining. I wanted Jake.

Leah gestured to Edward with her middle finger. "One-to-one. That was the agreement. Pixie Stick, Dr. 90210, and Mother Theresa left when the others did. I volunteered to stay behind with Debbie Downer." She smirked at Edward's down-turned face ferociously.

"So Embry's okay, then? He and Emmett didn't—"

"Embry is a fucktard. And so is that big guy he was measuring his dick against. Useless morons took forever to notice you were gone."

That…was not something I wanted to discuss. And I really needed for her to get Jacob. "Thanks, Leah."

"Just don't disappear to fucking Antarctica while I'm gone. I'm not wading through six feet of snow for your sorry ass." She waved her hand over her shoulder as she left the room.

And then I was alone with Edward, who was still staring vacantly at the plush white carpet.

Shifting to a more comfortable position against the headboard, I crossed my legs beneath me and tried not to think about how much this situation reminded me of my stay in the Phoenix hospital after my encounter with James. Yet again, I had found myself at the mercy of a blood-thirsty vampire, and, yet again, Edward had come to my rescue. The scale between us continued tip precariously in his favor. Unsurprisingly, I was found wanting.

"Thank you, Edward." I cleared my throat uneasily. "For finding me." He didn't look up, and I ran a frazzled hand through my hair. My fingers caught on clumps of dried blood. "I mean, if I hadn't run into you, I may have—"

"Died," he finished stonily.

The story of my life.

"You should be dead," he continued chillingly, and the arm of his chair groaned as his hand strangled it. "With the amount of blood you lost, you should be dead."

His body had begun to tremble, and it took every last bit of my self control to stay seated and not got to him and offer comfort. He doesn't want you.

"While I was carrying you here, I thought that you weren't going to make it, that you were going to die there against my shoulder." His shaking ceased, and he slumped forward, cradling his head in his hands. "I thought that you were going to die or that you'd…"

"Edward." The soft material of the blanket crinkled in my clench fists. "If I had died, it wouldn't have been your fault. None of this is your fault. This…whatever's happening to me…is beyond anything I've encountered before, and you…"—I shook my head emphatically—"You can't blame yourself if this ends badly. I feel awful that you and your family have gotten dragged into this, and I can't tell you how sorry I am that you've had to suffer because of me. But there's still time for you to leave. Guilt is no reason to—"

"Guilt!" Edward was on his feet in a flash, his voice as close to a yell as I'd ever heard. "Is that why you think I'm here?"

I met his rage unflinchingly. "You're a good person, Edward. I know you think it's your fault that Victoria is after me, and that you feel like you have to defend my because of that. But I'm trying to tell you that it's okay if you don't. Please, get out of here while you can."

His jaw clenched as his eyes narrowed menacingly. "Leave? You think I could leave, when you're here being hunted for sport by a sadistic vampire set out to destroy my very reason for existing."

You've done it before. But the bitter retort didn't make it off my tongue. "She doesn't know, Edward, that you don't…feel that way about me. And she won't be easily convinced otherwise. Maybe if she sees that you're willing to leave me here, she'll realize that she's wrong."

Edward blinked, starred at me listlessly for several seconds, and then ran a hand over his crazed bronze locks. "He was right," he chuckled bitterly. There was a darkness in his eyes I'd never seen before, something desperate.

"Who was right about what?" I asked warily.

He turned toward the window with a shake of his head. It was impossible to discern exactly what in the darkness he was staring out at. "He was right. You believed me completely. You really think I don't love you. After everything."

My heart beat angrily against the hole in my chest. My grip on the comforter turned almost painful. "What are you saying?" I whispered to his back.

Slowly—as if he was futilely fighting the movement with all his strength—he turned around and met my anxious eyes. His perfect lips tensed, thinned, and parted. "Bella, you always were and always will be the single most important thing in my life. You are the meaning of my existence and the one person who can elicit any true form of love from my soulless being."


AN: Because I have no soul. ;)

I know there are still plenty of questions that need to be answered. Really. I promise I haven't forgotten the mysterious details you're all agonizing over. But agonizing is part of the story experience, and I hope that you trust me to eventually shed light on these things. That being said, I love to hear your theories! Some of them have been pretty close to the mark.

Congrats to everyone who correctly guessed the mystery vamp! There was a good handful of you who did (I let you know if you were right in my review responses).

Also, updates should be coming fairly quickly from now on unless unplanned RL stuff crops up. So keep an eye out.