Disclaimer: I do not own Twilight. Like my other stories, this one is an AU, that means different things happen in this world. Just to give you an idea: Bella is 22 and has lived with her mother in Forks long before the Cullens arrive. The rest you can read for yourself. Thank you ahead of time for taking a moment at the end of reading to leave any thoughts you may have on the chapter.
"Excuse me," a shaky male voice said from behind me as I was restocking the sage.
There would be a lot of smudge sticks sold for Samhain, and by two o'clock we'd already cleaned out two bins. I sat the restock box down and pushed it under the skirting of the table before standing. A late-twenties man stood before me, heavy-set, with a sharp Vandyke beard decorating his chubby face. I caught his eyes snapping up from my body to meet mine as I smiled.
"May I help you?" I asked.
He swallowed and looked to the side at the display case where we had some more expensive items behind lock and key.
"I wanted to buy an athame."
Reaching out, I touched his arm. "Just one sec, hon. I need to get the keys."
Putting a little extra swing in my hips I sauntered over to the counter and retrieved the display keys before making my way back. The cherry red PVC bodysuit with accompanying black underbust cincher was only a Halloween costume, really. Sex sells, and there are more than enough perverts that walk the streets of Forks, just like every other town in creation, especially since our little corner of southwest Washington became an oddity of the supernatural world.
For some reason – nobody has yet to come to a decent idea as to why – sometime around turn of the millennium the inhabitants of Washington became aware of our world and didn't seem to be too put off about it. Frankly, I think it was when magic started really working for the layman users. We're all aware of the types: some depressed teen finds a magic book at a lame shop and tries out a love spell or something equally as silly. Except around this time it actually works.
One thing leads to another and the next thing you know the local shapeshifter community decides to out themselves saving some Boy Scout troop that had gotten lost in the national forest. Kids were saved so everyone looked the other way when their sons were riding on the backs of horse-sized wolves and being delivered safe and sound to their distraught parents. Of course once the vampires heard, they couldn't just be upstaged like that, so the Volturi came riding into town to take over.
Long story short? The local magic users, including yours truly, banded together and banished the human drinkers out of state. Washington is now the center of the supernatural world. Forks is its capital, the Volturi its police force, the Quileute its version of the Rescue Rangers, and Magic Trix its supplier of everything mystical.
A lot can happen in less than a decade.
"Which one do you want?"
He pointed out an overly ornate blade as I unlocked the case. "Are you sure? Give me your hand."
His palms were sweaty, but I could feel the tiniest bit of power in him. Closing my eyes I threw out my senses to the case and the various blades therein until I found what I was looking for.
"I think this one would be better for you." I pulled a smaller blade down and handed it to him. "It's less flashy, but you'll have a better connection with it. And on the plus side, it's less expensive."
I closed off the case and took his hand again. "You're just starting off in the craft aren't you?"
"Good. While you can connect with any athames or wands and so forth, it's best to be guided by someone with a little more experience at first."
Leading him around, I stocked him up with clay to make his panticle, applewood to make his wand, a nice chalice, a censer for his incense, a mortar and pestle, a bell, and several different candles. I did all of this while holding his hand and ensuring two things. The first was that everything would be attuned to him in the easiest way possible, and the second was that by the time we'd made it to the applewood, he was deeply in lust with me.
He'd come in wanting to spend sixty dollars on a fancy blade and I'd wound up selling him a hundred and fifty dollars worth of supplies. He'd need them. I didn't try to rip him off or anything, but I'd more than doubled the sale just by happily being me. Plus, he'd be satisfied with his alter supplies for years to come.
By the time I handed him his bag, he was profusely thanking me. I thought he was going to ask me out for a moment there, but he got a hold of his hormones at that last moment. I'd really hate to remind him that I already saw the wedding band on his left hand. That was usually a little embarrassing, and those customers tended take a while to come back for a return visit.
When the afternoon help came in, Renée and I had a late lunch and got back to work soon thereafter until it turned into a madhouse up to close. Magic shops are very popular on the recognized holidays and the sabbats. Halloween is big because we carry costumes and Samhain is big because it's the Wiccan New Year. Having them fall on the same night is akin to Black Friday in the retail magic industry. So you can imagine how tired I was when Renée locked the door and flicked off the switch on the open sign.
Forty-five minutes later, I slipped on a mostly spandex skirt in canary yellow with a matching cami that showed off just the tiniest bit of cleavage. The rest of the time I spent arranging my hair and making sure my makeup was perfect. Not that I wore a lot, but it was the evening so I was pretty much set on darker eyes and lips.
It may seem like I was going all out to impress a close friend, but I'd had an on again/off again crush on Mike for years, so I wanted to take advantage of it while I had the chance.
"Bella, your date is here," Renée called from the top of the stairs.
Renée was in on the game from the beginning. Since Mike was a friend of the family she had even gone so far as to okay him finding out about things that were less publically known about us if I was so inclined. She wanted me to be happy; it was one of the things I loved about her. As long as I was happy then it was justified.
Slipping on a pair of low heel strappy sandals, I grabbed my purse and made my way up. Once we got past Mike's disbelief at how I looked like a real girl instead of the tomboy I played in school, we'd made it to his car and were rolling down the street.
"You look great."
I smiled. "You said that back at the store."
"Yeah, but still. I just… I mean… everything."
The date was a date. We found our seats and midway through the movie I got bored and lifted the armrest between us, took Mike's hand and put it on my thigh as I snuggled up. This added a measure of fun to the evening. By the time the movie was over and we'd made it back to the car he was fully turned on which delighted me to no end.
Twenty minutes later we were sitting in the street, in front of Magic Trix, making out like a couple of sixteen year olds that managed to get ahold of dad's car for the evening. Mike's hands were all over me, kneading my butt, sliding alongside my breasts, and occasionally slipping under the hem of my skirt, but that's as far as he would go.
Once the windows were thoroughly fogged I broke away and breathed heatedly in his face. "Do you want to come inside?"
His shoulders stiffened. "Isn't your mom just down the hall from you?"
I nodded and leaned in to gently bite his lip. "Renée wants me to be happy. Having you in my bed would make me extremely happy."
That's when he froze up.
"Uh… we haven't really talked about that. I mean…"
I paused and pulled back further to take a look at him. "You're having second thoughts."
I sighed at him then wiggled off as I straightened my top. "I thought you were comfortable with me, Mike. When you figure out what it is you want then give me a call."
Before he had a chance to say anything else, I opened the door and stepped out, swinging my purse over my shoulder.
We'd known each other for about seven years, ever since Renée and I moved back to town and I befriended him on the first day of school. He never hid the fact that he was gay though I pretty much pegged him as bisexual and I've told him on more than a few occasions that I found him attractive. That's why I thought he finally worked through his sexuality issues and took a chance tonight. I didn't hold it against him. Some people were just repressed by society and their peers. The best you can do is let them know what they are missing and hope they figure it out on their own.
But I wasn't going to beg or talk him into a relationship. It had to be his decision and his idea to take the step that he was afraid of, otherwise there was no chance whatsoever that he'd accept the more fantastic portions of my life.
After watching Mike drive off, I inserted the key into the lock of the door and felt the telltale draft of wind on an otherwise still evening.
The next day, Renée was downstairs changing after being out for most of the morning which left me tending the cash register instead of working the floor. Angela and Jessica were due in another hour so I spent a lot of my time between customers trying to think of a way to snap Mike out of his desire to bat for the same team.
"Excuse me." A customer interrupted my musings. "Is this lemongrass fresh?"
I looked down at the jar of dried greens and then crooked an eyebrow at her. "It's dried lemongrass. If you want fresh lemongrass, then I would suggest your local supermarket or organic farmers market."
"Well, you can never tell if they use pesticides, can you?"
I smiled, trying to hold back my sarcasm. While there are a few things you could use that particular herb for, the main one was a little self-serving. "This will be more than good enough for your lust potion."
She made an affronted noise with her throat. "That's not…"
I held up a hand in an effort to forestall her made-up excuses. "Ma'am, I'm very familiar with the uses for every herb we sell, and unless you have a problem repelling tropical snakes, during autumn, in Forks, then you're pretty much stuck with the lust potion. Just make sure the recipient is aware what he or she is drinking and the Arbiter won't have any problems with you."
Her face was glowing red from embarrassment, but she dipped into her purse to pull out some cash before stopping. "Do you have any," she sighed in resignation. "… pomegranate."
I smiled and nodded. "It's in the green and lavender bottle on the third shelf."
When I rang her up, I cupped her hand and gave her a warm smile. Considering pomegranate was one of the main ingredients for a fertility potion, I finally figured out what she wanted to do with everything. "Goddess willing, you'll be home with your new child by Lammas."
She looked down and back up to me several times. "Thanks. Um… where did you get your costume?"
"Theo's House of Leather. It's on 3rd and Oak in Port Angelus. Tell him we sent you."
Her face reddened even more before she disappeared out the door.
"Bella," I glanced to the side and saw Renée entering the store from our apartments downstairs, motioning toward the candles section. "You have a visitor."
Following her line of sight, I saw one Jacob Black's wolves, in human form, browsing the isles with the occasional glance in our direction. It was Seth, one of a handful of people in the pack that were from the same American Indian tribe that Jake belonged to. However, unlike his family, Seth was rather short. He had the same black hair that is indicative of the tribe, but somewhere along the line I was guessing that there was some Caucasian blood mixed in. He just didn't have the right features for a full-blooded Indian.
"Just because he's a shifter doesn't mean he's here to see me."
Renée raised an eyebrow at me and my shoulders slumped.
"Fine, he's probably here to see me. I'll be right back."
Setting aside the sales manifest I was breaking apart, I exited the cashier's stand and pulled my hair behind my shoulders. Seth saw me coming and shuffled to the closest corner so we could have a modicum of privacy.
Ever since I met Jake almost five years ago, he had made it a point to bring a number of his wolves to Magic Trix. At the time, I had no idea that he was already planning to make advances toward me for the position of Alpha Female to his Alpha Male, me being a witch notwithstanding. Meeting each member of the pack was one of the mating rituals. I found that out when I was seventeen and was doing my final research paper for my coven on shifter packs.
Jacob was the one that suggested the thesis to me one evening when we were out with a number of them at the movies. I thought I was just being friendly with the local supernaturals. My job is a lot easier if I'm familiar with them. Jacob made himself and a number of his pack available for interviews. It was during one of those that I finally figured it out; I was being courted.
Of course, by that time it was too late to do anything about. Jacob had chosen me for a number of reasons, which I'll go into later, but two of the biggest ones were that I was a Swan witch and thus powerful, the other was because he loved the fact that I disliked vampires almost as much as he did. I guess it was the novelty of having a magic user and someone to whine about the bloodsuckers on lonely evenings.
When I closed in, Seth's face and shoulders relaxed. He really didn't like the city too much even though Forks wasn't very big. With the advent of magic centering itself on my fair city, the population little more than doubled over the last few years. Still, going from 4000 to 11,000 wasn't putting us in the metropolis category or anything. Anyway, there were just too many people for him to drop his guard. Shifters, by nature, are geared toward confrontation and would rather avoid involving regular humans in their business if at all possible. That doesn't mean they're cowards. They just like to avoid unnecessary fights with the locals. It looks bad in the press. Another thing about them is that they are very affectionate toward one another.
Like it or not, Jacob's pack knew he was courting me, so they acted accordingly. Even if I wasn't a wolf, they treated me as one, because they thought I would one day be his mate and thus one of them. Seth leaned in and kissed me lightly on the side of my mouth before brushing my cheek with his own. I felt a small amount of blood rush to my cheeks with embarrassment at the familiarity. He was slightly taller than me, but like almost every other wolf, acknowledged me as superior to him.
"How are you, Seth?"
He smiled wolfishly and nodded. "Good. Jake wanted me to come by and drop this off. We're all looking forward to this weekend. We'll, most of us anyway."
He handed me a small parcel wrapped in a hide of some sort. I undid the single piece of twine that held it closed and unwrapped the package.
"I heard you and Carolyn are becoming mates; congratulations."
His smile widened to a bright grin as he brushed away the hair covering his left ear. There he showed a paw tattoo on his neck just under his ear. It was the traditional sign that a male has been claimed. Once the mating takes place it's encircled with a gold coloring.
"Nice," I said as I was genuinely happy for him.
Once I had the package unwrapped, I found out that it was a leather bound journal and quite old. There weren't any markings and the spine looked like it was cracked in several places.
"Since you weren't brought up in a pack, Jake thought you might need this. It's sort of a courtship and mating guide so you'll… um, know your duties. It's so you'll be prepared. A few of the rituals get kind of complicated."
I tried to give him a polite but firm frown. "I haven't accepted his offer."
"Believe me," he said. "I know. Billy father was loud enough last night to let everyone in a half mile radius know."
I winced. "Ohh boy."
"He doesn't care, Bella. Jake has been putting him off for five years already. Another week won't make a difference."
That was a point of contention with his father. Traditionally, when the firstborn male takes a mate, they spend all their free time getting pregnant. Once that happens and the child is born, if it's a male then the Chief can step down and the Alpha Male takes over the tribe. His father was quite impatient to retire.
I had to push down a laugh, because this was serious business with the pack. They all took it as a foregone conclusion that I was going to say yes to Jacob. It was like there was no other way for the story to end. Granted, I really like him. He's smart, handsome, strong, exotic, and most of all dominant. He was everything I wanted in a partner, except for the shifter bit.
Jacob accepted me and all my idiosyncrasies, but that didn't mean I wanted to tether myself to him in quite that way. Truthfully, I could admit that I had my cake and I didn't want to eat it. I wanted more from life than to be the little lady that hung off his arm during bonfires. Not to mention I wasn't quite ready to start popping out kids at a moment's notice. A girl's got to have her pride if she's got nothing else, and stretch marks are not going to be in my future for another decade at least.
"Bella," Renée called.
I noticed that we were starting to get busy.
"I gotta get back to work."
Seth nodded and leaned in for another kiss and a brush of cheeks. "I'll see you Friday. Good luck."
"I thought you were interested in Mike."
I shrugged at Renée from across the table as we enjoyed our lunch. Considering we needed the energy for the day, each of us filled our plates with a mound of spaghetti.
"I'm beginning to think he's more trouble than it's worth. He's known me for how many years now and he still hasn't picked up on the fact that I'm a witch?"
Renée twirled several strands of pasta with her fork and threw me a look. "You know normals dismiss what isn't right in front of them. You could always show him your talent."
With a sigh I grabbed my last piece of garlic toast and stared at it. "I'm thinking about just giving up on relationships altogether. It didn't work out with you and Dad."
I received a glare for that comment. "Don't. Don't use us as a goal for your life. Charlie couldn't deal with you carrying on the family work and wouldn't hear of my supporting you. That doesn't mean he doesn't care for us. He just can't put it aside and deal with the matter without losing his temper."
"Just because the magic gene skips males in the family…"
Renée held up her hand. "Honey, I've heard it all before."
That was Charlie's real beef. He couldn't do any powerful magic. Sure he could whip up any of the minor potions or work children's magic just like everyone else could, but the high echelons were beyond him. It ate like a cancer at my parent's marriage and fathering a daughter seemed to be the last straw. At first he held his discontent at bay, but when I hit puberty and was able to surpass his meager skills it was too much. Soon thereafter Mom packed us up and we moved to Phoenix for a couple of years.
Before we were able to get into the meat of the discussion, Angela interrupted us with a knock at the door to my apartment. She stuck her head inside with a pained grimace in her face.
"Sorry to bother, but there's an emergency."
I was up to my feet in a second. "What happened?"
Angela closed the door behind her. "The Volturi are back. Well, not them actually. It's their representatives."
My mind boggled. There was no way any human drinking vampire could have passed the wards that were set up around the borders of the state.
"Impossible," snapped Renée.
"They want a meeting with the Shadow Arbiter and the human Police Chief to work out an equitable arrangement. That last part was a quote by the way," Angela said with tension in her voice.
My eyes popped wide and I felt like the spaghetti I just ate was going to make a return appearance, and not in a good way. There was one big problem with meeting the Shadow Arbiter, mainly because it was me.
I may have failed to mentioned it as of yet, but there is a council of witches that pretty much rules over us all somewhat like the Volturi does for the vampires. They meet in Seattle the week after Beltane each year to vote on who the Arbiter will be for the next decade; the Arbiter being judge, jury, and executioner for our race. She is always from a powerful family and her character is beyond reproach.
It wasn't like there were crimes taking place all the time. Witches were bound by the Rule of Three which even the most laymen of witches knew. It states that whatever energy a person puts out into the world, be it positive or negative, will be returned to that person times three. No witch was stupid enough to practice black magic for that reason alone. In practice, the Arbiter was simply around to fix magical mistakes, but if it came down to it they were the ones that would put idiots in their place.
Guess who did so well in her studies that she received a unanimous vote for the first time in almost two centuries?
Thankfully it wasn't a lifetime appointment or anything. Considering the potential of our lifespans, that would be a punishment. No, each Arbiter was only to serve for one decade only.
"Crap." I turned to give Renée a slightly panicked look and she eyed me with trepidation before moving into action.
"Angela, when is the meeting?"
"Forty-five minutes. One o'clock at their place on the west side. I've got the address upstairs."
Renée nodded. "Okay, back up to the store with you. Bella, grab your belt and a long coat. You don't have time to change right now."
Again, my eyes widened. "What? I can't go like this. I look ridiculous not to mention Dad would kill me if he saw what I was wearing."
She waved my protest away. "You look fine. Besides, it'll intimidate them."
"Pfft. Vampires don't get intimidated except by other vampires!"
That wasn't necessarily true. There were charms and potions that would enable me to match their near indestructability and speed which I had in my possession, but still.
"Bella, you accepted the position from the council. That means you need to get out there and do your job. You have to find out how they skirted the warding and figure out a way to undo it." Renée was actually being practical for once. "Now go get armed. I'll gather the fresh batch of defensive amulets and meet you back here in a few minutes."
The GPS on my motorcycle said that I was close to my destination, about five miles to the west of Forks on 110. I felt underneath my PVC for the two amulets I'd invoked that one, made sure no hostile vampire could harm me and two, allowed me to speed up my body and senses to match theirs if need be. They would last as long as they were touching my skin. That wasn't a problem between the skintight PVC and the surgical tape I had holding them down.
The one concession I did make was to switch my regular comfy work boots to something a little more durable, a pair of calf length Volatile combat boots. I originally bought them for when I had to go foraging through the forest. They provide excellent ankle support in case I had a relapse of clumsiness I'd had in my youth and they were durable enough to withstand the lifestyle. Running at vampire speed tended to shred most footwear after only thirty minutes. These had thick soles and only a two inch chunky heel. On the plus side, they looked good.
Charlie's cruiser was parked out in front of the vampire house, or I should probably say mansion to describe the monstrosity at the end of the freshly paved driveway where I rolled up and killed the motor. A really large vampire stood sentinel at the bottom of the steps closest to the front entrance and eyed me was a rather amused smile on his lips. He looked like rather like a large tree making me wonder if his strength matched other vamps or if it was increased sue to his size. If that was the case then I was screwed.
I kicked the stand and eased the bike down as I removed my helmet and checked the lay of the land.
There was a good fifty feet of clearance on all sides of the house that I could see. It was laid with fresh sod that was well on its way to dying due to the temperature hanging around the lower forties for the last two weeks. The smell of fresh wood, brick and mortar, and the sickly sweet tang of vampire permeated the air. Normally, I wouldn't smell something that strong, but with the temporary increase in my senses it was hard to dismiss everything that entered my nose.
After setting my helmet on the seat, I eyed the vampire and set my face in stone. If there as one thing vamps liked to do more than anything else, it was to show their superiority over other races. This meant making fun of the humans and witches if they could get away with it. By showing no emotion it took all the fun out of their teasing.
I didn't even bother to wait for him to ask before reaching inside my jacket pocket and showing my ID.
"Shadow Arbiter Swan."
No, it wasn't some cheesy way of making me sound cooler or anything. The Witches Council model their ways after the old covens of England. The designation Shadow was to inform whomever that I was the next in line for the position and nothing more. Come Yule the title and office of Arbiter will officially be mine.
The vampire eyed my ID and badge of office for about a split second before raising his eyebrow. "Another Swan?"
He chuckled and swept his hand to the stairs. "They're waiting for you. Someone will be at the door to show you the way."
Before I took another step, jerking to a stop before I actually started, I noticed something extremely odd about the guard-vamp; he had gold colored eyes.
The guard's eyebrows rose to my half formed question, but I thought better if asking their representative answer. "Nevermind."
Continuing on my way up the stairs I watched as the door opened to reveal a shorter vampire with gelled flyaway hair and narrow eyes, gold colored as well. His manor of dress gave the illusion that he was simply a modern teenager, however, a well-dressed one with pressed jeans and a dark buttondown. He gave me a perfunctory smile.
"Good afternoon, Arbiter Swan," he said. "I'm Edward. If you would walk this way, we can join your father and the rest of our coven."
It wasn't out of the ordinary for him to know my relationship with the Chief of Police; any cursory internet search would do. What I thought was odd was that a vampire would actually take the time to use a modern convenience like a computer. Most vampires were trapped into whatever century that they were turned. That wasn't literal, of course. What they didn't admit to was that they, as a species, rarely changed the habits they had when they were human. The focal point of their personality, were always amplified after the turn. Meaning if they were a spinster as a human then they usually horded money as a vampire. If they were a horses ass as a human… well, then they probably wouldn't live much longer because another vampire would have killed them soon after.
Edward led the way down the short hall and stopped before entering the room. "May I take your coat, Arbiter?"
I could already feel my face heat to start a massive blush, but I tried my best to push it back down and proceeded to unbutton the coat. Edward shifted to help me off with it. His manners betrayed his age. I judged him no older than a hundred to a hundred and fifty years, a mere child in the world of immortals. I wondered what his talent was. It was one of only a few explanations for his presence.
When my coat fell away Edward's eyes widened and then averted to the side immediately. Okay, apparently Renée knew what she was talking about when she said they'd be intimidated by the outfit. After he'd hung my coat in the hall closet, Edward's eyes never met mine again. That definitely relieved my blush. Charlie, on the other hand, he was more than happy to make a spectacle of himself and me with his shock.
"Isabella Marie Swan! What the hel…" he started as he nearly dropped his drink, but he caught his mouth at the last second and made a lame attempt to compose himself.
There were a number of vampires scattered around the large room that was set up much like any living area across America, with a couch, a love seat, and several armchairs. Not to mention there was a large flat screen in one corner and if my eyes weren't playing tricks on me an Xbox 360 underneath.
Vampires that played video games?
My eyes were drawn to the oldest looking vampire who appeared in his late twenties or early thirties in human ears. The main reason why was because he looked like he'd just stepped out of a posh country club in his perfectly cut white slacks, pressed shirt with an accompanying sweater vest. His blonde hair was perfectly coifed and an arm was thrown around a petite arm candy looking woman.
Edward snorted from behind me.
"Ah, Arbiter Swan," the older vamp said with a smile that almost seemed genuine if I didn't know any better. "Thank you for joining us. I apologize for the late notice, but I thought it best to announce our presence in Forks before you found out by word of mouth. I'm Carlisle and this is my wife, Esme."
He held out a hand to shake which was majorly odd in itself. Because of the litany of supernatural powers out there vampires simply didn't touch one another without express permission much less shake hands in greeting. However, I didn't want him to think I was scared of him in the slightest, so I grabbed his and squeezed more than a little firmly.
"I'd like to say that it's a pleasure Mister… I'm sorry, did you say Carlisle? Carlisle Cullen?"
His smile widened as his surprised eyes moved from our handshake and my recognition of his name. "Indeed."
"Carlisle Cullen the vegetarian?"
Then it all clicked together. How did they get past the ward around the state line? What was up with the gold colored eyes? I quickly glanced around to the others and confirmed they all possessed the same iris pigment. The leap of logic was simple after that.
"You're all feeding from animals."
He gave me a single nod and released my hand. "And it's true that witches have a way to mimic our preternatural abilities without being a victim of our venom."
Carlisle seemed pleased to confirm his theory as his wife held her hand out as well. There was no doubt that she genuinely welcomed me. In fact it was freighting how much she could look like she actually cared about meeting someone that she probably thought was lower on the food chain than her.
"It's a pleasure to welcome you into our home, Bella."
That stalled me for a second. "Uh…"
Her eyes moved to the side. "You've met our son, Edward. He's Carlisle's chief lieutenant."
Edward bowed slightly and still wasn't looking at me directly while Esme continued the introductions.
"To my left is our daughter, Rosalie, our information and computer specialist."
Her stone face told me only that she didn't want to be here and most likely thought I was less than a bug to be scraped off her shoe, if she deigned me important enough to squash that is. Beside that she had supermodel quality looks and the wavy blonde hair to go with it.
"Next to her is our security specialist, Jasper Whitlock."
My eyes picked up on several micro-thin scars along his jaw, neck, and hands. There was no doubt in my mind that he'd participated in a number of fights and from the looks of things probably came out on top in the end. His posture spoke of military bearing, though exactly what military and which wars was up for grabs. Most fighters didn't last very long no matter how good they were. Normally I'd guess he was no older than seventy for that reason alone, but judging from his hair style – which was shaggy and shoulder length – I'd have to put him pre-World War I.
Esme leaned over and frowned. "I'm sorry. We're missing…"
A soft thumping sounded from the stairs to the side followed by a musically high pitched voice.
"I'm coming! I'm coming."
A small girl or rather a small woman dashed down the stairs. She couldn't be even five feet tall if that, pixyish in features and deportment, with wispy dark hair and what had to be a permanent smile gracing her face. My guess was that she was the life of the party wherever she went and most likely the entertainment director for the Cullen house. Her modern and stylish dress definitely pegged her as one of the youngest vampires in the room.
"This is Alice Brandon, our interspecies liaison," Esme said. "She'll be your main contact for any issues or information from us."
Alice pause to shake Charlie's hand long enough to be polite and then next thing I knew, to my surprise, she hugged me.
"It's great to finally meet you, Bella."
I froze in place, unable to comprehend why my defensive amulet didn't repel her through the closest wall. The only thing that would make sense was that she truly was glad to meet me and didn't intend any harm whatsoever. I was again boggled and somewhat nauseated. Being hugged by a vampire wasn't on my list of things to do for the day. That didn't seem to put the girl off her game though.
She pulled back and took me by the upper arms letting her gaze drop down my body with a pleased smile following.
"Is this a new uniform for the Witch's Council? I have to say that I like it! Nothing says 'obey me or I'll break out the whips and chains' like latex.'"
Charlie coughed and I proceeded to turn beet red.
"It's Samhain weekend at Magic Trix. It's a costume," I lamely explained while trying my best to act affronted, because I actually was. "I didn't have time to change because… ugh, and it's not latex; it's PVC."
Her catlike gold eyes flicked up at me and then back to the suit. "PVC, Latex; same difference."
"No, actually it's not. Latex is a type of rubber. PVC is plastic. There's a big difference."
Alice lifted a finger and poked me on my left boob. "It doesn't feel like plastic."
I smacked her hand away and took a step back. "What the hell?"
"So it's not your uniform?" When I narrowed my eyes at her she pouted. "Aww. That's too bad."
She winked at me and then tried to take my hand in hers while I pulled away at the last second and frowned back at her.
"Why don't we get down to business," I insisted in a vain attempt to regain control over the situation.
Flirty pixie vampires that poke random people on the boob are definitely what I didn't need, no matter how cute they were.
I was the furthest away from all the furniture, so I was also the last to find a place which to my chagrin was next to Alice on the love seat. Why they couldn't have some sort of conference room in the gigantic house was beyond me. Charlie found the last armchair with a relieved look on his face. As I sat, I edged as far to the side as possible while I sat on the very front edge. With a minor glare at the pixie vampire I turned my attention to Carlisle.
"Okay, why are you here, and what do you want before you leave… today… before nightfall.
Carlisle raised his placating smile before answering. "The Volturi were quite put out when the Witch's Council banished them from the state without so much as a conference to divide territories amongst the three of our races."
I returned his preamble with a mild smirk. "Murders aren't welcome here. They should be happy that we haven't included the rest of the US."
He held up his palm in a vain attempt to calm me down.
"I assure you, Arbiter Swan that I am not here to make excuses for the way the majority of our race has chosen to feed. As you've no doubt noticed every one of my family has chosen another way, a more humane way. We are attempting to set an example for others."
Charlie set his glass of water on the table, purposefully missing the provided coaster. "Well you can do your little social experiment in some other state. This one is off limits to your kind."
It took my father long enough for his gruff character to show itself. I was actually thinking something was wrong with him because of his lack of mouthing off. Don't take that to mean I don't love the man. He's my father. He's simply too stuck in his ways.
"I only agreed to this meeting to avoid any unnecessary bloodshed," he said. "Forks isn't yours. Washington isn't yours."
"Agreed," Carlisle said without any displaying any sort of subterfuge. "Nor is it any of yours. It's a free state among forty-nine others. As such, as long as we obey the laws we should have just as much right to live here as any other."
While I was trying to figure out what their angle was, Carlisle finally revealed why he was there in the first place.
"One of the reasons I agreed to represent the Volturi was to have a chance at a normal life without being under their rule. They do have their place among the vampire world. Order must be kept, but I acknowledge that they could tone down their imperialistic tendencies."
I thought that was very reasonable. Obviously the leader of this coven was enlightened in ways that the human drinkers weren't. I was growing to like him more with each passing…
Okay, what the hell?
In less than a second I was on my feet and my bone knife was in my grip. "Alright, who's screwing with my head?"
Jasper, Edward, and Carlisle's eyes widened at what I held in my hand. It was a little known fact that the only substance known to pierce a vampire's granite hard skin was a magically sharpened bone of one of their own. The blade I held in my hand was once indeed the remnants of a vampire's hip. It wasn't impressive looking by any means, only about four and a half inches long with a jagged edge, but it would slice through their skin as easily as a regular blade would through mine. The three of them realized exactly what I held.
"Jasper!" Carlisle snapped.
The feeling of calm and acceptance immediately withdrew and in its place rage and distrust bloomed.
"Charlie," I said as I tried to keep my anger from making me do something stupid. "We're leaving."
Carlisle started to protest, but probably realized I was a second from knifing someone cold and sparkly. "Please, Miss Swan. I apologize for this…"
"No," I said as I emphasized my point with a single finger. "You need to be out of Forks by nightfall and Washington by morning or I'll torch this house and every one of you duplicitous abominations with it."
Charlie took the lead while I held up the rear. Not a single one of them moved as we retreated down the hall and through the door. The wall of muscle that was on guard outside stood well out of the way with a concerned look on his face. No doubt he had heard every word that went on inside. His body language showed heightened awareness, ready for anything I might do that would endanger his coven, but I kept my own quite clear.
Once we were to our vehicles, I quickly put on my helmet but didn't bother with the strap because that would take two hands. A few seconds later Charlie and I were speeding down 110 until we reached the city proper. There were too many witnesses for an attack. Regardless of how much the human citizens of Washington were willing to either accept or ignore the supernatural these days, even they had their limits to which they could be pushed.
"How did you know?" Charlie was angry, and I could easily see it was more at himself for not noticing the tampering before I did.
"I've been training for this for two years now."
His brows nearly came together with frustration. "Are you going to be able to back up what you told them?"
I guessed he was talking about me burning down their house with them in it. There was a fine line about using one's magic to kill sentient creatures. Since I wasn't the official Arbiter for another month and a half, I'd have to keep the three-fold rule in mind. Luckily, vampires were considered undead and were bundled under the same category as malevolent spirits, zombies, and their like. I could burn them with impunity, however I'd still run it by the current Arbiter just to be on the safe side.
"I don't foresee any problems, but I'll call Becky Newhouse just to make sure." Becky being the current Arbiter from Port Angelus, I figured my bets were official hedged.
He nodded his head once and gave me a moderately thoughtful grunt as well. "I'll be there to back you up."
Having local law enforcement at a magical event was frowned upon, but not necessarily a bad thing. They can't really defend themselves in the majority of supernatural cases, but my father knew the score. He also knew where to acquire amulets that would even the playing field somewhat. Considering Charlie was well aware of what an Arbiter can do during the course of her duties, I just nodded back.
"With the cloud cover it'll be dark by seven-thirty at the latest. Meet in front of Magic Trix before then?"
All I really wanted to do for the following five hours was to prepare myself. Thoughts of spell and containment components were running through my head as I rolled around the side of Magic Trix to park my bike. What I wasn't prepared for was the sight of a certain vertically challenged pixie vampire waiting for me with my coat in one hand and a pleasant smile decorating her face as she leaned on the railing that led to my basement apartment.
Bringing the bike to an immediate stop, I killed the engine and set my hand on the grip of the bone knife. When Alice saw where my thoughts were headed, both her hands came up in traditional sign of surrender.
"I'm not here to cause trouble," she said in a reassuring voice. "You forgot your coat and I'm returning it along with apologies from Carlisle and Jasper."
My eyes narrowed as I casually looked around, trying to sense if anything else undead was in the area. It's not an exact science; more of a witch's instinct to search for anything out of the ordinary. Considering I was very close to a place of concentrated magic – i.e.: the store – it wasn't very reliable. Feeling that the best thing to do was not respond, that's just what I did.
"Jasper's gift is empathy, receiving and projecting," Alice explained. "He's so used to keeping people calm in tense situations that he sometimes doesn't realize what he's doing."
After tonguing my cheek in thought, I stood off the bike and kept my place. "So, you're saying it was all a big misunderstanding?"
She shrugged. "Honestly, I don't know one way or another. However, I do know two things. Carlisle didn't sanction his interference, and sometimes we don't have complete control of our gifts until we are very old. Mistakes happen."
"Mistakes?" I said with a more than a little amount of doubt in my voice.
"We're not perfect, Bella."
I never thought they were. At one time all vampires were once human, and humans by nature are prone to make many errors in judgment. Vampires tend to make deadlier gaffs than the average person out there in the world. Since she was in such an information giving mood, I decided to go fishing for more.
"What other gifts does your coven have?"
Alice seemed to think that we were having a conciliatory heart to heart as she started approaching at a slow pace as she spoke.
"Carlisle, Esme, Emmett, and Rose don't have anything, but others think that Carlisle's has something that allows him to ignore human blood."
I nodded thoughtfully. "So the rumors of him never tasting humans are true?"
"Not entirely. He did make all of us but Jasper and me, and he only did that when they were all on their death beds and with their consent. So he's tasted human blood. He just never drank any of it."
My suspicious side was screaming at me to not believe her, but it was difficult when Alice seemed to be so thorough with her answers. Typically, people that are trying to hide things, only give enough of an answer to satisfy the question being asked.
"That leaves you and Edward."
Alice nodded as she reached the bike on the opposite side of me and laid my coat over the seat.
"Edward is a receiving telepath with virtually no control over his power. He hears everything in about a fifty yard radius. Anything further away up to about a hundred yards he can get bits and pieces of."
That scared me a little. I don't think anyone would like it if someone could know their deepest thoughts and desires. There was no telling what he read off of me while I was within range.
"It's surface thoughts only," Alice confirmed, "whatever you're thinking at the time. He can't go digging for information unless you're actively thinking about it. If I want to keep him out I usually think about shopping." She paused and smiled naughtily up at me. "Or other things that he finds distasteful."
"He was made just after the turn of the century so he's very… repressed sexually. I sometimes think he would have done well in the Victorian era when women were trapped in corsets and petticoats." When Alice mentioned corsets, her eyes dropped to my waist and the one I was wearing. "You may be just his kind of girl if it wasn't for the… PVC you said?"
The conversation just took an abrupt turn for the worse on my side. "It's just a costume."
"Uh-huh." That knowing smile was back for a repeat performance before she moved on to other matters. "Anyway, as for me, I have subjective foresight. I can see the future when decisions are made."
Training with Becky as an Arbiter, I learned about all types of mystical powers that supernatural creatures have above and beyond the textbook stuff I learned during my academic courses. In doing so she referred a number of times to the Volturi and one of their leaders, Aro. He had a habit of collecting vampires with gifts like some people collected stamps. They littered the Volturi Guard. It's what made them so powerful and undefeated since they stole the figurative crown from the Romanians centuries earlier. Most of the gifts I'd heard of were very limited: various tracking abilities, defensive shields, and the like.
The Cullens seemed to have some powerful people. It made me wonder why they weren't working directly under the three Volturi brothers instead of being right out of their reach. The human drinkers couldn't enter into my territory, so they were effectively out of Aro's grasp, free to do whatever they wished. The question that raises is why the Cullens are representing the Volturi when they could just as well hide themselves in one of the national forests without telling a sole.
Things started clicking in my head as to motivations and survival of the few vegetarian vampires in the world.
"You're looking for asylum without really appearing like you're asking for asylum."
Alice's grin looked like it was about to split her face. "I told Rose that you were smart. She thought that vampire politics was beyond a twenty-two year old witch that wasn't even in the game as of yet."
I didn't know whether or not to be insulted at the compliment with the backhanded compliment attached for the ride.
"Yes," she confirmed. "The Volturi, Aro in specific, wanted Jasper, Edward, and me in their guard. They have for almost a century. When the chance to live in Forks came along, Carlisle jumped at it."
"It's the perfect deal for you," I surmised. "You get to placate the Volturi by appearing to serve them, and at the same time you stay beyond their reach."
Alice nodded. "There are other side effects of doing it this way. If they ever want to enter the state, they'll have to stop killing humans. They're so set I their ways that they won't bother. I seriously doubt Aro has ever tasted any animal blood in his life."
Playing around with the new information, I kind of saw the Cullen's side of why they were here. I still wasn't comfortable with having any undead in Forks, good intentioned or not, but what kind of hypocrite would I be if they genuinely wanted to be better people and I kicked them out?
"So, can we try the conference again?" asked Alice.
"No." There was no way I was going to subject myself to another round of emotional manipulation and mind reading. "I'll deal with you personally. Until such time as your coven-brothers can keep control of their powers, I don't want them anywhere around me or this store."
Her ever present smile turned into a frown, dare I say a pout. Coming from her that was almost as bad as Jasper's gift in itself.
"Carlisle will be disappointed. Could he come down? Like I said before, he doesn't really have a gift except for a high tolerance for human blood."
My hand relaxed from the grip of the bone knife and I nodded. "Have him come down to the Arbiter's office over there." I pointed to the lone ground level door near the corner of the building. "I'm going to go get changed. Just hit the button beside the door when he gets here and I'll let you in."
Alice bounced in place and clapped her hands twice. "Awesome! He'll be so happy."
Before I grabbed a hold of my bike to push it up into its parking place, I pointed at her. "We're under Witch's Rule inside that room. Remind him that any treat, no matter how small will be dealt with in the harshest way."
She pulled out her cell phone with one hand and waved my warning aside with the other. "No problem. Carlisle's an old softy. He hates violence."
"What about you?"
With another wicked grin of hers she said, "Bella, I'm a lover, not a fighter."
That's what I was afraid of.