Chapter 1:

The wake-up call

January 4th, 2011

Snow fell in erratic spirals, sticking to Beth's red hair and eyelashes; she fought the impulse to stick out her tongue to catch some flakes. The fire in her throat was as petulant as a whining toddler, reminding Beth of her purpose for being outside.

"Alright, alright," she grumbled, huffing a cloud of condensation like a dragon. Her boots crunched scrumptiously underfoot; the snow had been falling for three days now, and it glittered eerily in the dark all around her.

Beth winced, as a new tongue of fire licked her throat. She was tracking a herd of deer far away from the cottage she shared with Anna, her sister. She did not like to leave Anna alone for too long, in case she got too lonely in her self-inflicted exile.

The scent of the herd snatched Beth's attention. Ready or not, here I come!

The icy wind blasted past her; compared to her skin, it was almost warm. However, she didn't enjoy the disturbed snow falling on her head from one of the trees. Shivering in shock and disgust, Beth swallowed her curse and vowed to have a hot shower when she returned home.

But first, a little supper. Beth counted one stag, and three does, twenty metres away. Flipping up her hood to hide her conspicuous hair, she selected her victim: the smallest doe had a slight limp in her back leg.

Beth sighed as she reached for the mental switch in her mind. After that, she was not upbeat, overly sarcastic Beth Rhodes anymore, but like any other vampire during a hunt. She tensed, crouching down low –

The herd didn't even have a chance to hear her coming as Beth sprang and sank teeth and painted nails into the doe's short pelt. Hot blood flooded Beth's waiting mouth, and she gulped it down, humming with relief till the doe flopped in her arms.

Beth released the doe, carefully brushing the eyelids down with her fingers. She didn't like to see those brown eyes staring up at nothing, and it felt like the right thing to do.

"How sentimental. You truly are the most unusual vampire I have ever met."

Beth sighed. "I consider that a compliment." She threw back her hood to glare at him. "So, thanks."

Of course, Demetri would choose this moment to show himself; he had been tracking them ever since they left Volterra. Beth almost preferred it when he acted as the permanent shadow near their cottage, dutifully keeping watch for Aro, though she always kept her curtains firmly shut these days, just in case Demetri might be looking.

The storm cast up billows of white, forcing Beth to squint in the darkness. Demetri, on the other hand, appeared untroubled; dressed in a thick leather jacket and hiking boots, he strolled through the tangle of trees as easily as mist.

"Elizabeth." He bowed his head, mockingly. "I hope this isn't a bad time?"

Beth rolled her eyes. "No, you don't." There was that sudden sinking feeling in her gut like she was descending too fast in a lift. It's barely been two months.

"Anna is at the house?" Demetri mused, despite the impatient snap of his black eyes.

Beth snorted, wiping a fleck of scarlet off the corner of her mouth. "You tell me, hun. You're the bloodhound."

A muscle twitched in Demetri's cheek. "My Master grows impatient over your long absence."

"More like very horny," Beth scoffed, shrugging. "But I don't make the decisions about it, do I?"

"Then, please, may I speak with the one who does?"

"Alright." Whipping out her phone, Beth muttered, "Anna is going to be quite happy to see you."

She sent her sister a quick text. Brace yourself. The bloodhound cometh.B x

Beth stomped off. "Come on, then."

Following behind her, Demetri grinned. "I can tell that you are delighted to see me, Elizabeth."

"Fuck off," Beth growled, and Demetri laughed.

"And as eloquent as ever, I see."

Beth's phone buzzed, and in spite of her rapidly declining mood, she smiled at Anna's reply. Try to behave.

Beth's lip curled. No promises. We'll be home soon x

Stuffing her phone back in her pocket, she found Demetri looked expectantly at her. "I suppose Aro asked you to pass on a message of some sort, huh? Like the faithful pet, you are."

"It is time for Anna to return to her rightful place –"

"Oh, don't play that song again!" Beth snapped. "You made your point the last time Anna and I had the misfortune to be in your delightful company. And Anna spectacularly shot you down, if you recall."

Demetri stared at her, and for one glorious moment, Beth thought she had silenced him completely. Her lip quirked in victory.

It didn't last.

"Are you this impertinent with your sister?"

Beth stopped and snorted. "Don't be stupid, bloodhound. I enjoy Anna's company."

She had never been so glad to get home. Music drifted in from inside, and Abraham, Beth's beloved Punto, was parked cosily in the garage, throwing a blue shadow across the slushy drive. Beth waited for Demetri to make a rude comment, and so she was glad when he did not.

"Anna has not left the house in some time," he murmured instead.

Beth sighed. "No. Not even to hunt." It slipped out without her permission, and she longed to take it back. Demetri frowned.

"Well, haven't you tried to change her mind?"

"Of course, I have!" Beth said indignantly. "But there's only so much persuading I can do. I'm not about to drag Anna out by her hair."

"So, you let her starve?"

It took Beth a long moment to swallow her anger. "No. Why do you always assume the worst of me, Demetri?!"

"Because it is all I've ever seen of you," he replied, calmly. It caused Beth's temper to flare.

"Maybe if you quit bringing it out of me, you might see another side." Beth set her jaw defiantly. "If you must know, I have been borrowing from blood banks."

Demetri raised an eyebrow. "Stealing?"

"Well, what do you suggest I do? I will not let my sister starve, even if she choices to punish herself "– Beth's voice caught in her throat, and she looked fiercely away.

"Then it is a good thing I am here, isn't it?" Demetri said gently, and Beth managed a stiff nod, producing a purple key to unlock the door.

Vanilla-scented warmth flooded out to greet them, and they hurried inside to stop more from escaping. "Honey, I'm home!" Beth sang, much to Demetri's bewilderment. She stamped snow onto the damp welcome mat to the music's beat, which stopped abruptly.

Anna appeared in the lounge doorway – or rather, she drifted in, as light and lost as tumbleweed. "Why, Demetri," she said. "This is a pleasant surprise."

Anna's voice was as soft and gentle as Demetri remembered, but there was an unexpected ring of authority that left him wondering whether he had imagined it or not.

Here was a very different Anna to the one Demetri had seen leaving Volterra. She wore a sweatshirt that was just a little too baggy for her shape. The spark of life had vanished from those large eyes, and her once vibrant dark curls were lank and hurriedly scraped up into a ponytail at the side of Anna's head.

She looked as happy as Aro did, broken, on his throne back home.

Anna stepped aside to let Demetri inside the lounge. "Come in. Make yourself comfortable."

"Thank you, Lady Anna."

Was she dreaming? Was Demetri here? It didn't feel real, although very little had much substance of late.

Anna had been foolish enough to believe depriving herself of Aro would help clear her head. For two months now, Anna drifted through each aimless day, as detached as a balloon with nothing to tether her. It was very unnerving.

Demetri was Anna's window into Aro's wellbeing. She saw how dark the tracker's eyes were and moved towards the kitchen. "Would you like a drink, Demetri?"

"Yes. Thank you," Demetri replied from the sofa.

Beth came to perch herself on the arm, ignoring him completely. She smelt sweet, spiky, like apples and cinnamon; as pleasant as it was, Demetri felt trapped. Luckily Anna came over, laden with two mugs of blood.

"Here, Demetri." Her eyes were concerned as venom trickled greedily into Demetri's mouth. "You look thirsty."

"Yes. Thank you. I have only just returned from home." Taking a long, lingering slurp, Demetri sighed.

Anna took her time, swallowing her drink before she spoke again. "You have news from Aro?"

Demetri nodded gravely.

"H-how is he?"

In her corner, Beth softened. Until now, Anna refused to speak of Aro at all. Beth had tried to, of course, but Anna appeared to think it better if she kept all her misery and fear bottled up, like a noxious gas until she fell apart with it.

As frustrating as it was, Beth didn't blame Anna. Aro was asking too much of her, except Anna didn't like to worry Beth to confide in her; consequently, Beth always worried.

Demetri set his mug aside, looking Anna dead in the eye. "Master Aro is distracted because of you, Anna. Please, understand that this is something the Volturi cannot allow. We have enemies all over the world, waiting for the slightest chance to attack. A leader without his mate is the greatest weakness." Demetri paused for emphasis. "My Master needs you for the sake of our coven."

"Pressure, much?" It was the first thing Beth had said in a long while.

Anna moved to the edge of the coffee table, clutching her mug to her chest. Her fingers were trembling.

"You are in pain," Demetri said sympathetically. "I know. My Master has been acting the same way."

Anna's eyes squeezed shut around the rim of her mug.

"Why torture yourself? Why torture him?"

Beth hissed. "You think Anna is enjoying this?"

"No, I –"

Anna carefully put her mug down. "You both know why I left him. I did not wish to let him down because I was unprepared. He – Aro, does not need a Queen who is afraid."

"And, are you still?" Demetri prompted. "Are you still afraid?"

Anna hesitated. "I do not know anymore."

Beth sighed. "You would be an idiot not to be scared, Anna," she said bluntly, with the right amount of kindness to lessen the blow.

Anna laughed a little, though there was no smile on Beth's face.

"This is your wake-up call, Anna. Since we left Volterra, you've not been yourself. It isn't…healthy." Beth took a breath, dreading Demetri's reaction. "Demetri's right. I think it's time we went back."

Demetri stared at her. Anna voiced his astonishment. "Really?"

"Yes," Beth said, hating it. Volterra did not agree with her. "You need Aro, just like they need you. And, as I said, I will be with you every step of the way."

Demetri raised an eyebrow. He had been under the impression he would need to negotiate around Beth more than Anna.

"Is that settled, then? Will you come? Both of you?" Desperate hope bloomed in Demetri's chest like a delicate flame, so quickly stamped out.

Beth nodded grimly.

"Yes, Demetri," A new light flickered in Anna's eyes. "In a month, we will return to Volterra."

"Hallelujah." Beth threw up her arms as her stomach sank.

Demetri's shoulders sagged with visible relief. "I shall tell Master Aro the good news." He bounced to his feet. Thanking Anna once again, he let her show him out.

Beth gave him a half-hearted wave. "Have a safe trip!" Even she was unsure of whether she was sarcastic or not. So, I guess we have to pack again.

Turning on the TV, Beth couldn't concentrate; Anna and Demetri spoke in low voices out in the hall. The tracker couldn't seem to stop thanking her for seeing sense, while Anna was just as modest as ever. Beth wondered if that would change when she became Queen.

No way. She'll be happy. That's what's most important.

"Will you give this to him?" Anna asked, somewhat nervously, and Beth heard a rustle of paper.

"Ah," she whispered. Since leaving Volterra, Anna had been sketching nonstop, hiding them away in numerous places around the house. Anna rarely showed her artistic talent off to anyone, so Beth found herself pressing her lips together to stop herself sighing over such a sentiment.

"I will, my Lady," Demetri said. "Goodnight."

"Goodnight, Demetri. Take care," Anna murmured, and he disappeared into the snow.

To be continued...