Happy New Year everyone! As promised, here is the prologue to "Hell's Bells", the third and final installment following "Out from Under" and "Here There Be Demons". As always, all reviews are welcome, and to those of you who have been following since the beginning, I can't thank you enough! You'll have to let me know what you think. All canon characters belong to Stephanie Meyer alone. They just let me take them out and play with them every once in a while!
The rest of this story can be found at .net/s/6621698/1/Hells_Bells.
"We're gathered here today because Dr. Cullen has presented me with an…interesting request. One I think everyone here deserves to hear before I make a decision one way or another."
The formality in my tone made me wince. It was just unusual enough to have everyone sitting up a little straighter…and Quil and Embry looking at me like I'd lost my mind. Executive decisions weren't really my thing. And they really weren't my thing when it came to the Cullens, since our treaty with them affected the entire pack.
Well hell. After the conversation I'd had that morning, I wasn't too certain about my sanity either. Guess I shouldn't be surprised when everyone else was starting to wonder too.
Sue Clearwater, who had taken Harry's place on the tribal council after his death (and had the potential to make my life a living hell, since she was dating my wife's father), stood up held out a hand to the man standing next to me. Carlisle Cullen, doctor, father, founder of the Olympic coven. One of the best men I had ever met.
And the whole reason I was standing there, shifting uncomfortably while 30+ pairs of eyes pinned me to the spot. Wet drops trickled down my back as Carlisle shook Sue's hand with his usual gracious charm and a warm smile that didn't quite reach his eyes.
Great. Fabulous. My first major act as pack alpha and I was sweating like a stuck hog. Yeah, that, and the stench of my fear, ought to go a long way toward instilling confidence in the pack that I wouldn't totally screw this up. Damn it, why couldn't Cullen have done this six months earlier? Then it would have been Sam's problem instead of mine.
'Because he couldn't do it when everyone else was here,' whispered the voice in my head. Stupid common sense. What he was suggesting was so stupid, it was no wonder he'd done it while the rest of his coven-his family- was in Italy playing guard dog for Bella, Billy and the baby. It was crazy. Insane. Completely bonkers. It was…
'What you've been dying to do since you first out the bloodsuckers were real.'
'Yeah, but not like this. Jesus.'
'I don't know, just…not like this.'
"Um, Jake? You gonna say something, or you just gonna stand there sweating like a pig all night?"
Laughter rang around the circle. I smiled weakly, but now that the moment was here I was as lost for words as I had been that morning. What on earth had possessed me to think I'd be any more ready now?
The mist from the ocean swirled around my ears, dancing in the shadows before being burned away by the heat of the fire. Waves crashed against the shore, and somewhere up in the hills a wolf tipped back its head and howled at the moon. My mind narrowed to those tiny details, unable to wrap itself around the enormity of what I was about to do.
A cool, reassuring hand landed on my shoulder.
"Perhaps it would be easiest if I explained myself," Carlisle suggested gently. I nodded mutely, stepping back to drop cross-legged at his feet. Hopefully the fact that I wasn't standing anymore would do something about the nausea clawing and ripping at my insides.
"The treaty between our families is an old one, and one that has sustained us for generations," Carlisle began, his voice smoothly ebbing and flowing with the tide. "Since the attack by the newborns, and through Bella's marriage to Jacob, we've been able to not only co-exist with your pack but to build a mutually beneficial relationship-a friendship-that has served us well. What I'm about to ask is going to strain the boundaries of that friendship, and for that I am truly sorry."
The crowd began to shift uncomfortably. Mentally, I screamed at Carlisle to get on with it, genuinely wishing (for what had to be the first time ever) that Edward was there so he could hear what I was trying to say and tell his father to get to the point. Unfortunately, Edward wasn't here. He was in Italy playing house with my wife while I was here playing pack politics and trying to make nice with the neighbors.
"Immortality is both a blessing and a curse." Carlisle continued. "This year marks the 375th anniversary of my change. In that time, the world has changed and, I feel, is no longer a world in which I belong. In the past a vampire seeking death could petition the Volturi, as Edward did. The end would be both quick and merciful. Because of the ill will the Volturi continue to bear us, however, this is no longer an option for my family and myself.
"That being the case, I have spoken with Jacob about renegotiating the terms of our treaty." He hesitated, searching for the right words. "As part of that renegotiation he would be willing to offer that death to me and mine at the hands of the pack should it be deemed necessary without fear of reprisal."
Silence hung in the air like a shroud while the crowd around the fire digested what he had said, and what he hadn't said. Carlisle was asking for a quick death from the only ones who were more than able to give it to him. And more than willing, as a general rule, to take down a vampire.
But this was Carlisle. Carlisle, who had invented the concept of the "vegetarian" vampire to begin with. Who had come to the house and sat up all night with Billy the first time he had pneumonia. Who had arranged for counseling for both Paul and Rachel after the twins were killed this past summer. Who had threatened to thrash Edward to within an inch of his life (his words, not mine) if anything happened to Bella while they were in Italy.
The thought of killing him, no matter how eager he was to die, left a bad taste in my mouth. And man, I never thought I'd be able to say that about a vampire.
"Are you sure this is what you want?"
Sam's voice was deep and certain, a gross contradiction to the mass of worms shredding my intestines to ribbons. This was why he'd been a good alpha. He'd always been able to make the hard decisions in the best interest of the pack, and with fewer vampires around there would be a lot fewer of us phasing. I could almost hear him thinking it. And with Carlisle and Esme gone, and Edward living overseas, there would be little reason for the remainder of the family to continue to live in Forks.
"I have given this a great deal of thought," the vampire replied, and I thought I saw his shoulders slump with relief. "It has been weighing on me for some time that our unnatural lifespan could lead to feelings of displacement."
"Is it your lifespan causing this feeling? Or your mate's death?"
Bless Sue for being able to ask what we'd all been thinking. For 374 years Carlisle had refused to ask the Volturi to end his-life? existence?- when it had been an option. He'd thanked Bella for preventing Edward from doing the same. He'd proven over and over again that he valued life in all of its forms, and it was impossible not to draw a connection between the quiet, withdrawn man who had replaced the warm, sociable physician we'd come to know and Esme's tragic death six months before.
"I would be lying if I said it wasn't a consideration," said Carlisle, pain flashing through his eyes. "These feelings plagued me for over a century before I found Esme. She made the passing of years bearable. Now that she's gone…"
His voice broke, and I looked down at my feet to give him a moment of privacy. When I looked up Sam was standing in front of him, hands on his shoulders, gentle concern in his face. Carlisle's head was bowed, eyes fixed on the sand firmly in front of his-a gesture of submission and defeat he would have never have made only a year earlier.
"I understand your feelings. It's hard to watch those around us age and die while we live on, and there are fewer choices for your kind than for mine. But," he said when Carlisle would have spoken, "while I am sorry for your loss I can't help but feel like I'm talking to your grief, not you. And with that in mind, I can't endorse this decision."
Carlisle straightened up, meeting Sam's eyes before dipping his head in that Old World style I saw men use in those stupid romance flicks Bella was so fond of. Seeing him like that, spine stiff, eyes straight ahead and completely devoid of emotion, it wasn't hard to see him as he had been all those centuries ago.
"I appreciate that," Sam said softly. "That said, I also appreciate that none of us were ever meant to live forever. I assume none of your children are willing?"
"I would not ask it of them."
"And we both know what will happen if you go to the Volturi."
Wry mirth was in the bleak smile that quirked Carlisle's lips.
"It is astonishing what our bodies can live through. The Volturi have turned the study into an art form."
"Understood. So I'm going to make you a deal. Wait another year, put a little more time between you and the death of your mate-Esme," he corrected when Carlisle's eyes flashed dangerously. "After waiting 375 years to die, surely another year won't make much difference one way or the other. If, after that year, you're still certain this is what you want to do I'll do it myself."
What? Damn it, this wasn't his decision to make, no matter how fervently I'd been wishing for this to be someone else's problem just a few short minutes before. I must have moved, because Sam stepped back, instinctively yielding dominance.
"My apologies Jacob. You're correct, I overstepped."
Damn it was good to be a wolf. Your wolf just sorta knew what your human brain had a tendency to forget. Well hell, if he was going to be big about it…
"It's all good. You're right." Standing up, I looked around the circle. "That's more than reasonable, I think. And after everything Carlisle's done for us it seems like we at least owe him this much. Does everyone else agree?"
There were a handful of smattered murmurings, a few disgruntled faces among the council, but the majority nodded their heads. With both Sam and I backing him up, I hadn't expected anything else. The members of the pack sat, quiet and solemn. I knew they were all desperately glad they weren't the ones who were going to have to tear his head off. They knew Carlisle, relied on him. Which reminded me…
"Not to sound like a selfish jerk, but you're a lot more than just a pretty face around here Dr. Cullen."
"Jazmine is more that capable of taking my place. She lacks my experience but has a quick and ready mind. I've already begun drawing up the paperwork to transfer the clinic into her hands."
"In that case, we agree. One year. But if, after that time, you still wish to die I'd like to be the one to do it." Carlisle chuckled, and I heard a light burst of almost hysterical laughter behind me. Flushing, I muttered, "That's not what I meant. I've already said I think you're making the wrong choice. But it's not my decision to make, and if this is what you really want it just seems like…well, almost like I owe it to you to…"
Before I could wedge my foot any further in my mouth Carlisle laid his hands on my arms.
"I would consider it a great honor, Jacob, that my death be at your hands. Or claws, as the case may be."
The breath whooshed out of my lungs, grateful he'd understood. This was huge, and it just seemed like if a leader, and a good man, was going to die it should be at the hands of a friend. And after everything he'd done for our pack having that death delivered by the pack alpha was an act of respect he more than deserved.
That I was that pack alpha instead of Sam was a circumstance I was unfortunately going to live to regret.
Lost in thought, and the solemnity of the occasion, none of us noticed the quiet figures slink through the shadows and disappear into the woods.
Meanwhile, in Italy…
"She's here, my lord."
The man sitting at the head of room stared indolently at his fingernails. Stupid peasants. He'd known the girl was here almost the moment her feet had touched Italian soil. He just hadn't decided what he wanted to do about it yet. It may have been years, but the sting of humiliation was still fresh. And Carlisle…The betrayal at the hands of one of his own cut deep.
It was a humiliation they would pay dearly for, one way or another, and now that stupid girl had played right into his hands.
"Is that all you have for me?" he asked, bored. The man's eyes widened. He had thought his news would be welcomed by the powerful Volturi, perhaps even enough that he and his family would be rewarded. He hadn't counted on indifference.
"Yes, my lord," he stammered, confidence dissipating in front of the hawk-eyed, predatory stares of the men in front of him.
The man standing at Aro's right hand watched him with flat, dispassionate eyes. He had the look of a man who could squash the peasant like a bug with very little remorse. Or let him go. The figure quivering on the floor, all too aware of the hooded bodies closing in on him, had a feeling that this man, with his dark hair and dark eyes and unnaturally pale skin, did not truly care whether he lived or died so long as he no longer held up the workings of his court.
Aro was another story altogether. He may have appeared bored, studying the rings on the fingers of the white hands protruding from the old fashioned velour of his black bolero jacket, but his eyes flashed with fury. This was a man who did not tolerate being wronged. The news that Bella Black, nee Swan, was in Italy, with her children in tow and without the protection of her husband and his pack, should have been welcomed.
The peasant had a feeling he had just made a grievous mistake.
Glancing over to the guard on his left, Aro flicked his fingers. A pair of muscled guards with skin as pale as Aro's own appeared out of nowhere from the back of the huge courtroom, flanking him, catching his arms and pinning them behind his back.
There's a moment of clarity when you're facing your own death, followed by a moment of confusion in which you believe that somehow, if you just fight hard enough, you'll be able to escape the inescapable realization that the monsters are actually going to eat you and there's nothing you can do about it. The man fought as he'd never fought before, thrashing against the cold steel of the hands holding him back.
It's then that his executioner looks at him, really looks at him, for the first time, and fear transforms from an amorphous thing to a live wire in his belly. The eyes that pin him are not dark, as he'd previously believed, but are in fact a blazing, unnatural red. Then he nods his head and the man on his right bent down, pulling his head back to expose the flesh of the neck for his hungry teeth. In that instant the peasant realized that every story he'd ever heard but dismissed about the Volturi and their unnatural origins were absolutely true. As teeth break through flesh waves of flame flow through his veins, a fire that burns while his life's blood pours out.
The last thing he sees before his eyes flutter shut for the last time are the heads bent low over their thrones, murmuring between themselves, the third seat conspicuously empty-a monument, and a reminder, of the only time the Volturi had ever been defeated by their enemies.
Had he known what they were saying in those last moments he would have realized that his nightmares had not even come close to the reality of the situation…and he would have been a lot more grateful to be allowed to die.
"What do you intend to do about the Swan girl?"
Marcus leaned forward, head bent so their words wouldn't be overheard. Bella would have made an excellent addition to their entourage, but there were others. There were always others, with skills much more suited to their purpose than being able to block a vampire's powers.
In truth, he had always found Aro's obsession with the Swan girl ill-conceived and poorly thought out. But an obsession it was, one that had only gained fuel following Caius's death at the hands of the alpha wolf six years before. A madness burned in Aro's eyes now, one that caused Marcus no small amount of concern. That madness had started to prey on his mind, as so often happened to members of their kind that had lived too long. If it wasn't stopped it would spread, forcing him to be put down like a rabid dog.
It would be such a waste.
"A plan is in the works, not only to take care of the luscious Mrs. Black but to bring down that whole rabble." At Marcus's look of surprise, he smiled. Marcus, always thinking so small. Why content themselves with Bella when they could take them all?
It was simply a matter of time, patience, and careful planning. They were the Volturi. Time was something they had plenty of, and as for the rest? It was only a matter of time before Bella and her mutt of a husband were crawling at his feet.