Only a few months have passed since the Cullen's encounter with the Volturi, and Renesmee is growing with each passing day. However, she longs to explore the world and find her own destiny. Meanwhile, forever is looking considerably shorter when the winter incident provokes a mysterious organization lurking in the shadows to step into the light... Rated M for character death. Ye be warned.
Disclaimer: Twilight and its peeps belong to Meyer. Only the OC's belong to me.
Author's Note: Another round of thanks for my betas, Aviva Tsuion and Sith Droideka, for their fine work. Because this month is NaNoWriMo, I'm most likely going to be swamped writing other things. Therefor, I probably won't be able to do any updating for the month. Sorry about that, and I hope you understand and can forgive me.
Chapter 17: A dragon rises from a small stream.
Bella sat in the grass, staring at the charred ruins of the cottage. She idly wondered whether or not to search for death. She was all but certain that Edward was dead, and her life devoid of meaning. What could she hold on to now? Her daughter might as well have been just as torn out of her life as her husband had.
There was... nothing.
She tensed up at the sound of fast-approaching feet. Who wanted to trouble with her now? Probably one of her family, worried for her. Or they were coming to confirm Edward's death...
"Bella, they're almost back!"
So, it was Alice.
"Who's 'they'?" Bella asked dully.
The approaching footsteps stopped a few yards behind Bella. "Edward and the others!" cried Alice.
Life returned to Bella. She could almost feel the specter of heartbeat within her chest. "Edward survived?"
"Yes, now get back over here!"
Before Alice even had time to turn back toward the house herself, Bella was on her feet and dashing for it.
He survived, he survived!
"Wait, there's someth-"
Edward made it, that's all that matters!
She leaped over the river and brought down a tree on landing, but she ignored that and ran on. Nothing mattered, nothing but reaching the house as quickly as possible. Yards flew by beneath her feet far too slowly, the house seeming to never draw any closer.
The white house came into view. On the opposite side, more recognizable than anything else in her world, Edward approached alongside the Denali family. A jolt went through Bella's mind, and she put on a last burst of speed. Edward barely had time to see her coming before she dived at him and tackled him into a hug.
"Edward, you're alive! I thought you'd never make it back!" she cried.
Edward began saying things to her, but she continued over him, babbling her relief that he had returned. Eventually, somebody took her firmly by the arms, pulled her up, and then held her back so she wouldn't tackle Edward again. She glanced over her shoulder, glaring at the person who dared to keep her from Edward. Emmett stood behind her, frowning.
Her excitement ebbing, she turned back toward Edward and the others. Tanya was missing. Did she not come with them? Maybe she thought their cause was hopeless... "What happened to Tanya?" she asked, already certain of the answer. Tanya had abandoned them. Being alone, she had the best chance to slip away. It was the only explanation.
Kate pushed past Bella and continued on to the house, Garret staying close to her side. Bella watched Kate walk inside, before turning back around toward Edward, Eleazar, and Carmen.
"She wouldn't come?" said Bella.
Kate must be disappointed. That's why she's so quiet.
"Tanya's dead," muttered Eleazar. With that, he and Carmen followed Kate inside.
Bella stared into Edward's eyes, not believing what she just heard.
Dead? She was gone?
"The people who kidnapped Renesmee attacked us on the way back. We managed to escape thanks to Seth and the wolves," he said, grimacing, "but they killed Tanya before we could escape."
Bella balled her fists, hissing. "Them again? Who are they? Why are they bothering us!?"
Shaking his head, Edward walked toward the house. "I have a theory," he said.
Bella followed behind, expecting him to explain, but he said nothing. Instead, he asked for the family to meet in the kitchen. With Jasper and Carlisle still gone, and Rosalie and Esme already aware of the party's return, it only took a few minutes to get everyone situated. To Bella's surprise, her father stumped into the kitchen last, and took a seat at the table.
"Dad, when did you get back?" she said.
"An hour or so ago," he said, shrugging. "I asked to see you, but nobody seemed to have an idea where you'd gone."
"Sorry. It's been a rough night," said Bella.
"I see you've returned," Charlie said, nodding to Edward. "Is there any news on my granddaughter?"
"No, but we learned something about the people who kidnapped her," said Edward.
"What did you learn?" asked Esme.
Eleazar walked up to Edward's side, his eyes grave. "They attacked us on the way back from Alaska. They had us at a clear disadvantage and would have killed all of us if Seth and the wolves hadn't arrived with reinforcements."
"They should have been there sooner," hissed Kate. "Tanya would still be alive..."
"You should be grateful they made it at all," Charlie said, rolling his eyes. Kate shot a nasty look but said nothing.
"So what happened?" said Charlie.
"One of them said 'It's against our mandate to endanger human life'," said Eleazar. "Edward and I discussed this on our way here. He said that the man who attacked him and Bella-"
Bella growled involuntarily. "The Man in Red..."
Edward nodded to Bella. "He said, quite vehemently, that we were getting our punishment for killing humans," said Edward. "Eleazar and I agree: these people might be like the wolves. They might believe themselves to be protectors of humanity."
"Why would they kill Tanya!?" Kate screamed as she rose to her feet. "Tanya's a vegetarian! She doesn't kill people!"
"That hasn't always been true, Kate," Carmen said gently, "you and your sisters have a certain history of... taking advantage of mortal men. Usually fatally."
"What!?" Charlie barked as he rounded on Kate.
Kate scoffed and looked away. "That was in the past."
Esme cleared her throat loudly, and shot Kate a glare. Kate glared back, but sank into her seat. "Alice is right, Edward. If this group is trying to protect humanity, then why are they attacking us? Do you still believe they're allies with the Volturi?"
"The Volturi might have hired them," said Eleazar. "They might have approached these people in the last few months and cut a deal of some sort. Perhaps the Volturi would be willing to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle for some additional help – maybe even make it law amongst our kind. Aro isn't above making deals, especially when he can simply renege on them later."
"So what do we do?" asked Emmett. "What if they attack Jasper?"
"They seem to be human," said Edward. "Seth said that they don't smell anything like us. Jasper won't be travelling on a US highway, he'll be wading through swampland. He should be fine."
Bella glanced at Alice, who was standing quietly in the corner. She understood Alice's feelings entirely. Now it was her partner who was in danger, her own other half...
Growling, Bella stared at her lap. These people, these misguided 'protectors'. She had to make them pay, had to show them how wrong they were. They shouldn't have crossed her family...
Huihana stood in the lobby of Sea-Tac airport, waiting patiently for her flight back to Los Angeles. She found the return orders rather abrupt, but Adella made her point clear; there was too much risk that the Cullens might track them down. She glanced at her disciple. Sergei was looking at the newspaper, but his eyes weren't moving. She shook her head slowly, sharing his disgust.
They came so close! They almost got to avenge the vampires' victims, but then the wolves intruded and ruined everything!
Huihana shut her eyes tight. "Just wait for us. They're not going to get away with it for much longer," she whispered.
Heavy footsteps approached from behind. Huihana glanced over her shoulder and saw Eyal coming, carrying the blue pair's luggage.
"Thank you for your trouble, Eyal," she said, smiling.
Eyal set the bags down, grinning back. "Al Lo Davar."
Huihana cocked an eyebrow at the captain. Eyal chuckled. "You're welcome," he said.
Huihana nodded, laughing. "Mom said that you're coming too, Captain," she said.
"Not right away, but yes," said Eyal. "Squad Four is going to replace us once they finish their business in Belgium. For the time being we're to keep our heads down and avoid attention."
"It was nice working with you a second time, Captain," said Huihana.
"My sentiments exactly," he said.
Huihana turned to call for Sergei, but Eyal touched her on the shoulder. Huihana glanced back at him, curious.
"I was impressed with you when the fighting began," he said.
Huihana laughed nervously and waved her hands in front of her. "Oh, no, I was in my element, so to speak, and we had the drop on the Cullens," she said quickly.
"I wasn't referring to your skills in battle – though that was a sight to behold as well - I meant that you kept your composure in battle," he said, his smile faltering. "To be honest, I wasn't sure whether to press the attack or retreat. Those wolves aren't anything I'm used to fighting; I had no precedent to go on to reach a decision."
Huihana stared at him with wide eyes. She had worried that she acted too quickly to call for a retreat, and ruined any hope that Eyal could find a way to salvage the situation. The possibility that he had actually been struck by indecision hadn't even registered with her.
"So... you're saying that I made the right choice?" asked Huihana.
"The most prudent one, rather," said Eyal.
Huihana nodded, smiling. So she had done well enough...
"Well, I'll see you again," Eyal said as he turned.
He walked out quietly. Just like that, he was gone. "Thank you, Captain," Huihana whispered as she gathered her belongings.
"You hurt Meryl again, Aiden!"
With a start, Aiden looked down into The Child's wide red eyes.
"You're a terrible big brother! You made her cry!"
Aiden shook his head, growling. "I'm doing what I have to do. We're not going to be able to have anything like an ordinary relationship."
"You're creating doubt in her heart for no good reason," muttered The Crone. "Haven't you realized it? The reason she cannot master your ability is because she's too busy worrying about you!"
"You need to find a different woman to thing about," said The Lady.
"There's no point concerning myself with that," said Aiden. "I'm human; she's not. She'll forget about me in time."
"No she won't, you horrible brother!" cried The Child. "She's going to remember you forever, and she'll definitely remember all the times you made her cry!"
"Leave me alone," muttered Aiden.
"You need to end your troubles with Meryl, Aiden. It's for your own good," said The Crone.
The Lady chuckled and rubbed Aiden's leg. "He won't. He enjoys torturing both her and himself too much to end this sadomasochistic charade of his." She looked up, grinning wide. "He really loves it. You savor Meryl's sweet tears, don't you?"
Aiden's eyes snapped wide open. "I DO NOT!" he screamed. He jumped to his feet, knocking The Lady and The Child to the ground.
The Child immediately burst into tears, and The Lady pulled her into her arms and began trying to shush her. The Crone watched the scene out of the corner of her eye, shaking her head slightly. "You're not making a very good argument for yourself," she muttered.
Shaking his head, Aiden turned away. "How can I with you ragging me?" he demanded.
"I think he needs to kill something to work the tension out," said The Lady. "Or bed somebody. That tends to work too." She added, nodding thoughtfully.
Aiden scoffed. "I don't need any sex right now..."
"Your loss," The Lady mumbled.
"I could use a fight with a vampire right now, though," Aiden added. "Letting those Cullens live galls me. I should have just burnt that stupid bitch and her husband to a cinder."
The Crone chuckled hoarsely. "We'll have our chance soon, Aiden. You should cool that temper of yours when we face them next."
The Child's sobbing stopped immediately. "Or you could just call on me," she said. "With my help-"
"Not happening," said Aiden.
"You'll need my help sooner or later," purred The Lady. "It's only a matter of time until you meet a foe you can't defeat."
Aiden sighed and bowed his head. "I only hope nobody I care about is nearby if that happens..."
"Don't worry!" cried The Child.
"I won't cause too much harm," said The Lady.
"I'll spare little Meryl, at least," said The Crone.
Aiden turned, and saw all three smiling at him.
Eun-mi woke early the following morning and quickly gathered her belongings. Once she was ready, she left to track her down her sage. Mafuane could be trusted to get herself ready if given enough time, but Eun-mi hated to risk deploying late.
She spent nearly an hour asking employees where to find rooms with a lot of plants in them. Most gave her strange looks, but pointed her toward the different employee lounges. Eun-mi eventually found Mafuane in one of the lower-floor ones. The Green Sage sat on the far side of the room, next to an arrangement of potted plants. She was sitting back peacefully, almost as if she were asleep. With a groan, Eun-mi walked quickly toward her sage's side.
"Mafuane, are you ready to go?" she said, her arms crossed.
Mafuane opened her eyes, and smiled up at Eun-mi. "Of course I am, Eun-mi. Everything that I'll need is already in Brazil."
Eun-mi closed her eyes tight, sighing. "Mafuane, you know you'll need more than plants when we get there. Have you got a change of clothes packed? Money, some medical supplies?"
"Eun-mi, you have to calm yourself," said Mafuane. "Our contact has already prepared the supplies we'll need. I spoke with him last night and made a few requests."
Eun-mi let her arms dropped, feeling a little embarrassed. "Sorry," she mumbled. "When you said your things were already there, I thought you just meant the plants..."
Mafuane stood up, still smiling at Eun-mi. "Plants are there, too. In an emergency, I can search for food or remedies in nature. So long as plants are blooming, you don't have to worry with me at your side."
"Right, sorry," Eun-mi said, deliberately avoiding Mafuane's eyes. She had treated her sage insolently, but Mafuane simply smiled back. Her sage was so at ease, and yet more prepared than Eun-mi was. She clenched her teeth and balled her fists. She still had so much left to learn..
"But, thank you for coming to find me," continued Mafuane. She glanced out of a nearby window and chuckled. "I wanted to center myself before our flight, but I'm embarrassed to admit that I lost track of time."
"When did you come here?" asked Eun-mi.
"The sun hadn't quite risen yet," said Mafuane.
It might have been her imagination, but Eun-mi had a feeling that her sage's grin had taken on a sheepish edge.
"We need to head to the airport before much longer, so you should get your things," said Eun-mi.
Mafuane nodded and began walking out of the employee lounge. "Thank you for keeping an eye on me, Eun-mi. Your concern means more than you know."
Eun-mi watched her master depart, a smile tugging at her mouth. Somehow, her mentor always knew when to raise her spirits.
The ground squelched, and Jasper's foot sank a few inches into the soggy grass. The water and mud was just one more sign of wear on the shoes his wife had so painstakingly chosen for him, but Jasper wasn't overly concerned about that. Most of his clothes would be soiled by the day's end anyways.
He stood on the northern reaches of Pantanal, and observed the wetland passively. Reaching the wetland had been the easy (though long) part, but the true challenge lay before him. The Amazonians were hidden somewhere in that nearly 150,000 kilometer wide quagmire, and he had to find them quickly.
Jasper sighed long, and shifted his feet. "Better get to it, I guess," he muttered.
His will set, Jasper took a giant leap into the swamp.
Renesmee idly examined the ceiling of her 'room'. It was one of those paneled setups that indicated all the wires and metal bits involved in the lighting were just one lifted panel away. Naturally, that was the first escape route she tried, but no matter what she did, the panels refused to budge. Her captors had clearly reinforced the ceiling somehow.
Frustrated at the memory of her failure, she looked away, and her eyes wandered to the air duct. She had gone for that next. She tried with all her might to wrench it free from the wall, but it remained in place. They had clearly anticipated that cliché.
With a growl, she rolled over onto her belly, and glared at her pillows. Not everyone in Meryl's group was a half-breed, or rather, a dhampir, but somehow that had gotten the better of Renesmee's family. How had they done that? Unless she figured out what the 'third generation' could do, there was no way she could escape.
The door began to jiggle. She turned to glare at it instead, expecting Meryl's return. She wasn't sure what to make of the older half-breed. On the one hand, Meryl had lied to her, but she also kept her company. She asked questions, but she didn't pry too badly. Renesmee had feared an exhaustive interrogation, but nothing of the sort had yet come.
But her doubts proved unnecessary for the moment; it wasn't Meryl. Instead, a woman in a black suit and with black spiked hair entered. Renesmee stared, feeling that the woman was somehow familiar. There was something she couldn't place...
"How're you feeling, Renesmee?" the woman asked.
The pieces clicked into place; she recognized that voice. "Just fine, Fate."
Unlike Meryl, who had laughed nervously, 'Fate' smirked back. "I see you remember me, I'm so flattered!"
The woman sat down backwards on one of the chairs and leaned over the back rails. "My real name's Lelu. I don't suppose I have to explain why we didn't give you our names?"
"You were lying to me all along," said Renesmee.
"I don't recall ever saying 'We're definitely not vampire hunters, nor are we planning to kidnap you!' Where do you get these silly accusations?"
Renesmee shot a dirty look at Lelu and rolled over. "Leave me alone."
"Sorry," said Lelu. "I'll lay off. It's true that Meryl and I were being dishonest, but we did enjoy going to the convention with you."
"Shame we can't do that again."
"Actually, there's a condition under which we'd release you."
Renesmee laughed without humor. "Sure, and what's that?"
"Join us, of course!"
In an instant, Renesmee bounded off of her bed and slapped Lelu as hard as she could muster. Being a half-breed, 'as hard as she could muster' saw Lelu thrown off of her chair and onto the ground.
"Ouch," Lelu said flatly as she picked herself up.
"FUCK OFF. I want nothing to do with you!"
"Where'd you learn language like that, little lady?" Lelu said, smirking.
Renesmee sat back down on her bed, but she continued breathing heavily. "What makes you think I'd want to work with you!?"
"You're probably too young to understand the idea of fighting and dying for a cause, aren't you?" asked Lelu, all traces of humor gone from her face.
Doubt flickered into her mind for just a moment. Of course she hadn't, she wasn't even a year old. How could anybody expect that of her? "I saw my family prepare to do that last year," she muttered.
Lelu sat straight, her arms crossed. "Mind if I ask why you don't like the sight of human blood? Our records indicate you didn't mind it at first."
People screaming, fangs dripping with blood! Is that how we look to them? We're the monsters? No, I don't want that...I'm not a monster, I'm not a monster!
Renesmee shut her eyes tight.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked that," said Lelu.
Renesmee fell onto her bed and buried her face into the pillow. "Please... just leave me alone... I don't want to join you..."
"I'm sorry," Lelu said softly. Her hand fell gently upon Renesmee's shoulder. "I'll make it up to you once you're feeling better. Right now I'll go get you a great breakfast, just wait up!"
Lelu's footsteps leading away segued into the opening and closing of the heavy door. That had proven just as indestructible as the roof and vent. Renesmee rolled over and turned on her television, determined to drive the images from her mind.
If only she'd never seen that movie...
In the cafeteria, Lelu busied herself loading a plate of breakfast for Renesmee. For lack of knowledge of what the little girl liked to eat, Lelu simply got a mixture of whatever looked good. Satisfied, Lelu turned to leave – just as Guan Heng stepped into her path. She leaped back, but her grip on the plate slipped, and so did her footing. Quick as a flash, Heng steadied Lelu with one hand and grabbed the plate with the other.
"Mind you watch your footing, Lelu," he said, not unkindly, "and your surroundings, for that matter."
Lelu chuckled nervously and nodded. "Ni hao, Lao Heng! Thanks for the save," she said.
"Where are you off to?" Heng asked as he searched for a tray.
"Bringing food up to the brat," said Lelu.
"Meryl told me they might deploy you guys soon," said Lelu.
"Yes, Adella plans to send the Red and Yellow sides to Belgium," Heng said without taking his eyes away from the food displays. "Aaron and I are effective trackers, while Aaron and Meryl are adaptable."
Lelu set the tray of food aside, and leaned closed to Heng. "So you're fighting the Volturi? How do you feel about that?" she asked.
"I don't," said Heng, "I've faced off with the Volturi Guard on two occasions and lived."
"You're not scared of them?" Lelu asked, her eyes widening.
Heng finally faced her. He stared straight into her eyes, unblinking. Lelu froze in place, stunned by his unerring gaze.
"The Volturi Guard are just another group of vampires. They may be more skilled than your average vampire, but they're far from invincible."
"I think I see what you're getting at," said Lelu. "It's just their reputation that makes them scary. Something like a small creature's giant shadow?"
Grinning, Heng said, "Yes. Once you've faced them in battle, you'll see them for what they really are."
Lelu smirked back, and planted her hands on her hips. "Just another group of vampires."
Nodding, Heng turned back to the food. "So why did Meryl tell you about Adella's orders?" he asked.
"She asked me to keep an eye on the dhampir girl while she was gone," said Lelu.
Heng laughed again, and glanced at Lelu out of the corner of his eye. "So you'll have your sage and the little girl for company. I do not envy you."
"Arshaka isn't that bad, actually," said Lelu.
"If you say so," Heng said as he turned his attention back onto his food.
Lelu fell silent, uncertain what to say next. Did she really know that? Arshaka was affable when he wanted to be, and he also joined in with her shows of irreverence, but in truth Lelu had no idea where his true thoughts lay. Nobody really seemed to... She wanted to trust her sage, but she understood that Adella doubted him the most of any of the sages.
Lelu frowned at her feet. Having to spy on and distrust her sage made her feel like she was defying the very conduct of the sage-disciple system. It was almost as if she was the traitor.
Sighing, she shook her head, and forced a smile. She didn't need to burden Heng with her troubles.
Lelu laughed and playfully slapped Heng on the back. "Well, how about you, Lao Heng? How's Aaron holding up?"
"He's bold and always eager for action, but he told me that's a side-effect of being a wolf-shifter," said Heng. "Besides, it's normal for the young to be brash. Perhaps I should be grateful that he's spirited."
"Do you think he'll ever be ready to succeed you?" asked Lelu.
"In time," said Heng. "He's strong and decisive. He just needs a few years to hone his skills and settle down."
Taking the hint, Lelu nodded and walked away. "I understand. Enjoy your breakfast, Lao Heng! I'm going to take this food up to our prisoner!"
Lelu picked the tray back up and made for the door.
"Be well, Lelu," said Heng. "Adella would be sad to lose you."
Lelu froze, and turned around slowly. "R-really? Mom said that?"
"No, but I can tell. She relies on you, Lelu," Heng said as he went to a table to eat.
The tray shook in Lelu's hands as she turned back around. Adella liked her that much? Adella needed her? Lelu had only hoped to be useful, she didn't dare dream that Adella would come to like her on a personal level. A wide grin played at her features. She was sure she must have looked ridiculous like that, but it didn't bother her in the slightest.
With a newfound spring in her step, Lelu continued on to Renesmee's room. It would be a damper on her good mood if she had to put up with the brat complaining about a cold meal.
Eun-mi bolted awake, drenched in a cold sweat. She was shaking and breathing heavily for a few seconds, and struggled to calm herself. After a short while, she realized she was still on an airplane. She sat back in her chair, and clapped a hand to her forehead. That nightmare again... blood, death, the smell of carnage, that ghastly white skin...
Uh muh nee...
She felt a hand on her shoulder, and looked to her side. Mafuane was staring at her, a concerned look in her eyes. Eun-mi shook her head and groaned.
"I'm fine," she said shakily. "Just had a bad dream."
"About your mother?"
Eun-mi shut her eyes tight, determined to hold back her tears. "Yeah..."
"Don't keep it bottled up, Eun-mi," said Mafuane.
"This isn't the place," Eun-mi said firmly, more to herself than her sage. The middle of a plane wasn't exactly a good place to burst into tears. She rubbed her eyes dry, and saw that the sun was rising. "Are we almost there?"
"Yes, we ought to arrive in Campo Grande in an hour," said Mafuane, "Vidal Basurto should be waiting for us at the airport."
"I hope he's got a plan to get us to Pantanal," Eun-mi said quietly. "Jasper might already be there by now."
Mafuane simply nodded. Exasperated, Eun-mi turned toward her sage, whom she saw looking out the window. Mafuane was humming a quiet but airy tune to herself.
Pantanal, in addition to being the Amazonian's chosen hiding place, was one of the largest and most ecologically diverse marshlands in the world. It was located mostly in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso du Sol, though it stretched into Bolivia and Paraguay. After a brief search, Eun-mi had decided that Campo Grande, the capital of Mato Grosso du Sol, was the best place to start. Sabal quickly located and got in touch with a sleeper in the area, who had agreed to meet with the Green pair.
So it was that Eun-mi and Mafuane came to be standing before Vidal about an hour later. Vidal Basurto was a clean-cut and dark-skinned young man, wearing casual but sturdy-looking clothing. He stood silent as he sized up the two women, his arms loose at his side and his expression hard to read.
"Are you our guide?" Mafuane asked after a few seconds.
"Yes, it's a pleasure," said Vidal. Then, to Eun-mi's surprise, Vidal leaned in close to Mafuane, kissed both her cheeks, and hugged her.
Mafuane's expression betrayed no surprise, though smiled at Vidal. "The Portuguese seem to be a friendly people," she said.
Vidal repeated his greeting with Eun-mi, and then turned toward the entrance to the airport lobby. The sage and disciple followed, bringing their light luggage with them. After only a few minutes they were out in the parking area, beneath the bright sun.
"I've prepared a 4WD to get us to Pantanal," said Vidal. "Do you two happen to know anything about the area?"
"No," said Eun-mi.
"Rule number one: Don't drink or eat anything without letting me look at it first, unless you want to get some sort of grisly disease," he said without breaking stride. "Pantanal isn't as bad as some other areas, but it's still riddled with germs."
"Sabal said that you could prepare food and water for us," said Mafuane.
"Fire with fire," Vidal said, grinning over his shoulder at the pair. "I can use bacteria under my control to consume harmful bacteria." Vidal turned back around, chuckling.
Eun-mi jogged a few steps forward, and grinned at Vidal. "Why do I get the feeling that's a useful skill in this part of the world?"
Eun-mi heard Vidal mutter under his breath. "Not all of South America is disease-ridden," he eventually said.
Mafuane glanced at Eun-mi. "Don't antagonize our guide, Eun-mi," she said calmly. She looked back toward Vidal and asked, "How are we going to get into Pantanal?"
"Like I said, I have a 4WD prepared for us," Vidal said. He gestured toward a brown jeep ahead of them. "We're going to be following Estrada Parque to get in, but from there we're going to have to get off the roads and search the wetlands," said Vidal.
"Leave that to me," said Mafuane. "Nature herself will show us the way."
Vidal reached the jeep first and turned back around to the girls. He leaned against the jeep, his arms spread casually on it, but the look on his face was serious. "In case you two have any misconceptions, Pantanal isn't some dirty, sweaty swamp. It's a beautiful tourist spot, so we're going to have to play it smart to keep ordinary people out of harm's way."
"I don't think that the Amazonians will live too close to where the tourists usually gather," said Eun-mi. "Vampires can probably cross the swamp easily enough."
"Easier than us," said Vidal.
Mafuane smiled and patted Vidal on the shoulder. "That is why Eun-mi and I were selected for this operation."
Vidal nodded, grinning. "I have to admit, I'm eager to see what a real member of the Third Generation can do," he said.
Eun-mi crossed her arms, frowning. "You're just as much a member of the Third Generation as Mafuane and I," she said.
Vidal shrugged, and unlocked the jeep. "Yeah, but the guys upstairs leave me here for a reason. I have a neat trick or two, but the Twelve Sides are on a whole different level," he said good-naturedly.
Eun-mi got in the back seat, and began watching Vidal closely.
Mafuane got into the passenger seat, and stared concernedly at him. "Vidal, you're just as valuable to the Third Generation as the Twelve Sides are. Eun-mi and I are in your hands until we reach Pantanal. You understand that, don't you?"
Vidal started the engine, and waved Mafuane off. "Oh, don't worry about me. I'm fine with where I am in the organization. Even an ordinary guy like me can help out," he said as he drove onto the road.
"You do realize we're going on a vampire hunt, right?" Eun-mi finally asked. "You seem a little overeager, Vidal."
The glow in Vidal's expression noticeably dimmed. "Right, sorry," he muttered sheepishly. "I was just... well, you know," he said, grinning again. "I never thought I'd meet one of the Twelve Sides in this neck of the world!"
Eun-mi rolled her eyes and sank back in her chair. Mafuane, on the other hand, watched Vidal. "Do you realize the Twelve Sides operate more frequently outside of Europe and North America?" she asked.
Through the rear-view mirror, Eun-mi could see Vidal's face fall. "Really?" he asked. "I always figured that you guys focused on the northern part of the world..."
"No, we operate where the Volturi do not," said Eun-mi, "and they seem to ignore South America, Africa, Asia and Australia. You were actually more likely to see one of us in this country than anywhere in North America."
"Oh," mumbled Vidal.
"Don't mind Eun-mi," said Mafuane. "She can be overly serious in her duties."
Vidal smirked. "I'll keep that in mind."
Eun-mi sighed loudly, and closed her eyes tight. "I'm feeling a bit jet lagged and ganged up on right now, so wake me when we get to Pantanal, would you?"
"Sure thing, Boss!" said Vidal.
Eun-mi scoffed, and settled down. She could use an hour or two of sleep...
In contrast to her sleep on the plane, the nap she took was peaceful, and her dreams were pleasant ones. Lessons under her mother, her first gut... It was as if her subconscious was trying to apologize to her. Vidal shook her awake all too soon. Nonetheless, she stepped out of the jeep vigorously, refreshed from her nap.
Pantanal spread out before her. Most everywhere around her was a flat expanse of water, ringed by a green horizon. The jeep stood beneath the shade of a tree on a dirt outcropping that bordered the deep water. Vidal knelt near the water's edge, and scowled at it.
"How're we supposed to cross this?" He asked. He turned around, an aghast look on his face. "Don't tell me we're swimming!"
"There's no need," said Mafuane. She took a few careful steps into the water, and knelt down. She placed her hand beneath the surface, and remained in place for a brief while. Eventually, she stood up and nodded. "The water is thick with plantlife," she said softly. "Nature herself will form us a path."
The water in front of them churned for a few seconds, until plants suddenly rose to the surface. They came together, forming a foliage bridge across the water. Mafuane set out without hesitation, and the plants supported her weight. Eun-mi followed directly behind her. After a while, Eun-mi noticed the lack of footsteps following her. She turned, and, to her amusement, saw Vidal eyeing the plant bridge warily.
"You can trust Mafuane's handiwork," she called out, "she's the Green Sage for a reason, you know!"
Vidal grimaced and set a foot gingerly upon the plants. They didn't sink even the slightest bit. Vidal came up behind them, slowly at first, then at almost a sprint, until he finally reached Eun-mi's side. To her surprise, he grabbed her firmly by the shoulder and held on for dear life.
She laughed softly. "Afraid of getting a little wet?"
"You've got no idea what's under there," said Vidal. "Vampires are all well and good, but there're some strange animals in this part of the world."
Eun-mi simply rolled her eyes. For a moment she contemplated shaking Vidal off, but eventually decided to let him hang on to her if it put him at ease. He was her subordinate, which made it her duty to look out for him. "Just don't drag me under if you fall," she said, not unkindly.
"How're we supposed to find the vampires in this wet world?" asked Vidal.
"Nature herself will find them for us," said Mafuane. Eun-mi noted bitterness in her tone. "Vampires are abominations. Humans are strong, but they have their weaknesses. Nature holds no sway over vampires; she loathes their very existence. The plants will lead us to them."
"That's awfully convenient," Vidal said brightly.
"Don't get too eager," muttered Eun-mi. "You'll find out some time today that nature can be pretty damn slow when she wants to be."
Vidal simply frowned back. Their going was actually relatively quick for a time. Mafuane had to stop and decide which way to go once or twice, but these had been relatively short-lived periods. To Vidal's evident relief, their path had them on dry land more often than it had them crossing plant bridges. Eun-mi's only complaint was the heat; Brazil's April was a whole different story than California's.
Eventually, the moment Eun-mi feared arrived. Mafuane announced her need to commune once again with nature, and knelt down beneath the shadow of a tree. A single hour passed, then two, during which Eun-mi and Vidal idled beneath the tree while the sun passed overhead. Eun-mi, used to such long periods, settled in for a long wait quickly, but she could see Vidal fidgeting with boredom not far away.
"You might as well get comfortable and eat some lunch while you can," she said.
Vidal groaned and threw his arm up. "How often are these long breaks going to be coming up?"
"Actually, you should be happy," said Eun-mi. "Her taking a long time to decide usually means we're getting closer."
Eyes wide, Vidal sat up. "Are you serious? I was expecting this trip to take a few days!"
"No, the Amazonians aren't vegetarians, which means they'll need a relatively steady supply of humans to feed on," said Eun-mi. She paused a moment to ease her building anger. "I had a feeling that they would feed on the tourists..." She glared at the ground. "But not for long."
"So we chose the right way to get into Pantanal, huh?" asked Vidal.
"That's about right."
"Good. All the better to put those bitches down quickly," spat Vidal.
Surprised at the outburst, Eun-mi looked up. Vidal was sitting against the tree, his expression unusually fierce. He seemingly noticed her, and turned his head to meet her gaze. "Is something up?" he asked.
"I wasn't sure you could be serious, honestly," said Eun-mi. "Did vampires take someone precious to you?"
"No," said Vidal, "but my father told me stories about what vampires could be like."
"A member of the Third Generation?" Eun-mi asked, mildly surprised.
"He was nobody important," said Vidal, "but he said he'd seen action once against vampires." Vidal shuddered, and turned away. "He said he saw comrades torn limb from limb..."
Eun-mi nodded solemnly. Casualties were unavoidable, especially for the ordinary members of the organization. A squad of lesser hunters often had to resort to guerilla tactics, and it didn't always work. The older Basurto's companions had been some of the unluckier ones.
"Where is your father now?" asked Eun-mi.
Vidal turned back toward her, smiling. "Oh, he's still alive. He was pretty pleased to find out I got picked to escort two members of the Twelve Sides."
Eun-mi had expected to hear that Vidal's father was no long of the world. Eun-mi glared back as anger built up within her. Didn't Vidal's father care that his son could be killed? "Why would he be fine with letting you go on a dangerous assignment like this?"
"I'm with two members of the Twelve Sides," Vidal said, a wide grin on his face. "This is probably one of the safest assignments I could hope for!"
"We're human too!" cried Eun-mi. "Sages and disciples die like anybody else!"
"So you're saying I should panic and fear for my life?" Vidal asked, smirking.
"Oh gods, you can be annoying!" Eun-mi growled.
Vidal narrowed his eyes. "'Gods'? What religion do you follow?"
Eun-mi rolled her eyes and stared into the water. "I don't. I used to be a Mudang."
"Korean Shaman, usually a woman," Eun-mi said without turning away from the water. A sort of cold regret settled within her. "The profession ran in my family for a few generations... then it ended with me."
"Why, did you suck at it and decide to run away to join the Order?" asked Vidal.
Eun-mi turned slowly to glare at Vidal. His eyes were wide with interest. There was no sign that he meant any harm, but she felt such revulsion toward him that she couldn't hold her back anger. "No, moron, vampires murdered my mother!"
Vidal shrank back and looked away sheepishly. "Sorry. I had no idea. You asked me if my dad was dead for a reason, huh?"
"Yes," spat Eun-mi. She turned to glare into the water once again.
"But you know, Eun-mi, I'm sure your mom would be proud as hell for what you're doing now," said Vidal. "You're out risking your life to make sure nobody ends up like her! I'll bet she couldn't be happier."
Eun-mi sighed and dipped her head. "I think she'd rather I just stay safe," she muttered, though her anger with Vidal was wavering. He at least had enough tact to try to cheer her up, and she had to admit that it worked to some level.
"So," said Vidal, "what's it like, working with Mafu-"
"-I've found them," Mafuane suddenly said.
"Sweet, finally!" cried Vidal.
Her heart suddenly racing, Eun-mi leaped to her feet. "Where are they?"
"They're coming close, though they aren't coming this way directly," said Mafuane. She pointed toward the north-east, and added, "they must be coming to feed..."
"Not this time, bitches," muttered Vidal.
Eun-mi's heart lurched; they had come just in time to save a few lives. "How far?" she asked eagerly.
"We're probably an hour or two away," said Mafuane.
"Then let's get moving," said Eun-mi.
"All right, action time!" cried Vidal.
They set off again. Eun-mi's heart raced with conviction and purpose, a feeling that she was certain her companion shared. Their target was closer and clearer than they had been all day, and human lives were riding on their shoulders. The sun began to set as they ran, and the air began to cool. Far ahead, Eun-mi could see a small grove, and a part of her was certain that that was where the race would end.
As they drew near the trees, Mafuane suddenly halted. Eun-mi and Vidal slowed to a stop, and turned back toward her. Mafuane locked eyes with Eun-mi, and nodded. "Keep hidden until I've torn Zafrina apart."
"Hey wait, what do they even look like?" asked Vidal.
"Meryl and Aiden said that Senna is the shortest and Kachiri the wildest," said Eun-mi, "which means Zafrina would be the remaining one."
Mafuane knelt down, and began looking closely at the grass. Nothing happened for a while, and Eun-mi allowed her eyes to wander. She saw Vidal, and with a surge of pity, realized that he was noticeably paler than he had been a few hours ago. She took him firmly by the arm, and smiled reassuringly at him.
"Don't worry. You're with two members of the Twelve Sides; there's no safer assignment," she said.
Vidal chuckled weakly, and put on an obviously forced smile.
Behind them, the ground began to noisily rip upward. Vidal cried out and jumped nearly a foot in the air, but Eun-mi gave his arm a squeeze to calm him down. The pair turned and saw Mafuane lying on the ground, her entire body entwined by roots. The ground beneath her split open to reveal the soil beneath, and the roots dragged her down into it. The ground closed back up above her, molding itself back into the exact shape it had once held.
"W-what the heck was that?" asked Vidal.
"Sorry, should have warned you," Eun-mi said with a laugh. "That's Mafuane's ultimate technique, which she calls "replanting". Like you saw, plant roots carry her underground."
It was like the sound they heard when the earth split open, but magnified several fold. All about them, tree branches creaked and groaned, and the ground quaked as the trees ripped their stumps from the earth. Vidal stared, wide-eyed, as the trees stood and began to walk. As one, the flora column moved north east.
Undisturbed, Eun-mi climbed atop one of the trees, and hid within its foliage. She turned, nodded at Vidal, and cried, "Wait here for us! Don't do anything dangerous!"
Left alone, Vidal felt a shiver run up his spine. Despite himself, he grinned, his heart racing. "Those monsters don't stand a chance!" he cried, laughing.