Part 2: Third Life

I came to slowly. The first thing I was aware of was pain—not the pain of insatiable flames, as the night of my change, or the raging fire of the sadistic kid as he looked at me, but still pain all the same. There was a slow prickling burn on my neck, and around the joints of my arms and legs, too. I thought about sitting up, but my limbs jerked unsteadily, as though attached to puppet strings and being manipulated by a particularly bad puppeteer.

"Ah," said a soft, gentle voice. "You're awake."

For one wild moment, I thought it was my mother—my actual, human mother. But that couldn't be. I hadn't seen my mother since I was almost too young to remember her, not since she ran away from my dad.

I opened my eyes, and for a moment everything was blurry and out of focus. I blinked, and abruptly everything sharpened.

I was laying on what felt like a stone plinth, and there was a woman sitting beside me. I saw immediately that she was one of us—a vampire. Only she was unlike any I had ever seen. Her skin had a strange, almost delicate texture about it, and her eyes were glassed over with a kind of pale mist. She was smiling kindly, and I felt her hand stroke my forehead.

"Hello, Brenden," she said. "How are you feeling?"

I didn't know what to say. I didn't know where I was or what was going on. I tried to remember the last thing that happened.

The cloaks—the Volturi—had been taking me away to see their creator, or at least their leader. I thought, judging from the burning all over, Tacita had torn me to bits. Had someone rescued me on the way? Gotten me away from Tacita and the kid Jonathan, and brought me here? Had the mind-reader stepped in and done something after all?

"Edythe," said the woman softly.

I blinked.

"That's the mind-reader's name," she explained. "Edythe. And I'm afraid not."

I studied the woman sitting beside me, and for the first time I noticed something—I noticed the dark cloak around her shoulders that looked so much like Jonathan's and Tacita's.

I went very still.

"You don't need to be afraid," she said. "My name is Sulpicia. And I have already performed your evaluation. You pass."

I tried to process that. This was the creator—or at least the leader—of the Volturi coven. The person everyone was afraid of.

I was tense where I laid. I couldn't let my guard down even for a second. No matter how nice she acted, it meant nothing. Not in our world.

I wondered if she and the others were still under the impression that the glass-bubble thing was my power. Did 'you pass' mean she found the power useful enough she wanted to keep me? Was the fact they thought that power was mine the only thing keeping me alive?

"The power is yours," Sulpicia said, stroking back the hair from my forehead.

It took me a second to realize I hadn't said anything aloud. Once again, I froze completely where I was. I didn't even breathe, as only a single explanation occurred to me.

"Yes," she said, in response to the thought. "Like your red-haired friend in the clearing—Edythe Cullen—I, too, am a mind-reader. Only I see much deeper than she ever could. She sees only current thoughts. I can see deep into your mind, all your memories, everyone you ever knew, ever hated or loved. I am able to know you better than anyone ever has. Better than you know yourself."

I didn't answer. I couldn't.

"The power you displayed in the clearing—the barrier shield—is indeed yours. Trust me, Edythe Cullen has no such power. As to your first question—about what I meant when I say you pass—that has nothing to do with the usefulness of your power, and everything to do with who you are. What do you value most? I saw into your past, and saw you were capable of love and loyalty—or as much as could be expected of you, given the hand you were dealt."

I stared up at her, at her kind, understanding face, and I suddenly had the overwhelming urge to spit in it. I'd already been a tool of Reilynn's, and my creator. I wasn't going to be her tool, too.

I knew she could see every thought going through my head, so I didn't bother to say the words aloud. Instead, I only thought them, as hard and defiant as I could.

I'd be dead now if it wasn't for that gift or whatever, I thought at her. So don't pretend like you care what kind of person I am. Carine—she's the one who spared me when she didn't know a dime about me. You and your people would have killed me. I'm not going to play your game, so why don't you just kill me and get it over with?

I don't know what I expected. Maybe for her to get mad, and start in on the threats, like Reilynn would have done. Or else really lay on the sugar, with reassurances about misunderstandings or how her people were sometimes overzealous, and she would have stopped them if she'd been there.

However, she didn't. Her expression never changed as she gazed down at me, eyes still kind and understanding.

"You're right," she said simply. "I am not Carine. I always admired her—she was a friend of mine. A peculiar one to be sure, but she could not help but earn all our respect, purely through her dedication, her steadfastness. I am not compassionate as she is, or merciful. For me, efficiency must come before compassion. Justice before mercy.

"However, unlike Carine, my decisions carry more weight. I cannot afford to be merciful simply for the sake of being merciful—the Volturi is not simply a coven, we are the ones who maintain order in this world. After all, if vampires did not fear our retribution, they would not follow our laws, would not keep themselves secret from humans, and disaster would befall us all.

"I am not Carine—indeed, you were spared because of the potential of your power, I will not deny that such is the case. As the effective ruler of this world, it is my obligation to preserve the power I possess and seek greater power, so that I might protect the world from the chaos it constantly courts."

I was surprised. Her face was so gentle and kind, I had expected her to keep up the kind, caring facade—or at least dangle some kind of carrot in front of my nose as Reilynn had done, to push me to do as she wanted. But everything she said sounded perfectly candid. Honest.

My eyes narrowed, and this time I spoke my question aloud. "You waited," I said. "You could have stopped Victor and Reilynn—they were breaking the rules, weren't they? But you held back and let them attack the yellow-eyes."

She smiled slightly. "Yes," she said.

Again, her bluntness took me off guard. I could only stare up at her.

"Why?" I asked at last, softly. "If you want people to follow your rules, why do you..."

Sulpicia's face was still gentle. "Why did I intentionally delay enforcing them? If I speak of justice and loyalty, why did I act so underhandedly? Why did I permit the likes of your creator—foul mongrel that he was—to attack the coven of my dear old friend?"

I didn't know what to say. My eyes were riveted to her face.

Her smile was almost sad now. "Simple. As much as I care for my friend, respect her, there are things that must come before personal attachments. You probably don't realize it, but this world is even at this very moment on the edge of teetering out of control, as it has been again and again over the three thousand years I've existed. Every time it happens, I must use all tools available to me to stop it, to keep peace and order. This time, the threat we face is particularly grievous. There is something I need from Carine's coven. Unfortunately... there is someone in her coven standing in the way."

A slight sigh escaped Sulpicia's parted lips. "The mind-reader, Edythe Cullen, is brave, loyal, compassionate—I am sure she felt compassion for you in the short moments you saw her. However, on one point she is utterly irrational, and I'm afraid it's forced me into rather extreme measures to gather all I need."

I was silent for awhile, trying to think. Trying to understand. At last I said, "What do you want from me?"

"I am always looking for those willing to help in our mission," she said. "Right now you are suspicious, wary. That is understandable. However, deep down you want something to live for. Something bigger than yourself. You know the pain of losing someone you love, an I think you would want to take the opportunity to help create and maintain a peaceful world where such happens less often. You would have a vested interest in preventing war."

I didn't answer. Only kept my eyes on her face.

She continued, "The problem isn't that you are not interested in my cause—you have lost your joy, your purpose, and already you are intrigued by my words. The problem is you don't trust me—you don't trust that what I say is really my true objective. As I said, that is understandable."

"There's still someone I have left," I argued. "Delia may be gone, but I have a friend out there. What if I said I don't want any part of this, and I want to go with her?"

She smiled. "Ah, you mean Freya. I would be interested to meet her."

Something sharp and cold seemed to drop in my hard stomach, and my head swirled with sudden sickness. What had I done? Would she go after Freya next?

Sulpicia must have heard my thoughts, my sudden fear, but she didn't comment. Instead, she seemed to consider the question seriously.

"Your power may prove very useful to me," she said at last. "But, if I could not win you over... well, you would be of no use to us. As for your temperament, you've proved yourself a careful, judicious hunter, even surrounded by those who were less so. So... yes. If you wished to go find your friend, I wouldn't stop you." She smiled slightly. "But I don't think that's what you want."

I didn't reply. It didn't seem fair, talking to someone who knew everything I was thinking. All the information was flowing one direction. She held all the cards.

Maybe that was how I knew, deep down, she was going to get her way in the end. Everything she said was right. With Delia dead, I'd lost my reason for living. Oh, I'd try to survive—I was good at surviving. But I'd lost the one thing that had brought light to my world of darkness. I liked Freya well enough, but the thought of traveling out there without Delia... what would be the point? The whole reason for traveling would be to explore the wider world, see new things, and it was Delia who had lit up the world for me, made me want to. Sulpicia was right—all this talk of becoming a guard, a protector that helped maintain order—there was some part of me that was drawn to it.

I'd always been weak, powerless, and had to keep my head down to stay out of trouble. And this Sulpicia seemed very powerful—working for her would empower me in a way I had never felt before. And no matter how unlikely it was, there was a chance she wasn't like my creator, all lies and self-serving purposes. A chance she was telling the truth.

I knew she was probably using them all, all the others in the cloaks—she could see into their minds and say exactly what they needed to hear to win them over. But I knew I was going to get sucked in anyway. What choice did I have?

"You always have a choice," Sulpicia said softly, and for some reason, an ironic smile tugged at the corner of her lips. "But yes, there are good choices—choices you will have been happy to have made later—and poor choices, choices you will regret."

I stared up at her. "And what do you think?" I asked. "What's the choice I won't regret? What's in my best interest?"

Sulpicia laughed softly. A kind, gentle sound, and against my will, I could feel myself relaxing. I'd lost my mother long ago. My father was never a real father. I'd forgotten what it felt like, the idea of someone else watching out for me, making the decisions. Already I was succumbing—the lure of what she offered was too tempting. It was too nice to pass up, even if I could pretty well figure it was all no more than pretty words.

"I think, unfortunately, those two things are not always necessarily the same thing," she answered, and her eyes were both sad and understanding.

I knew what she meant. She was right.

She was the leader of the vampires. So then, I guessed that made those who worked for her a bit like the military—soldiers, sent into battle when it was required.

I didn't want to fight. I hated fighting. All I'd wanted was a peaceful life wandering the world with Delia. But, maybe I had been called to something else, something where I could make a difference. I might die out there—but at least it wouldn't be pointless. At least this brief life would have meant something.

Sulpicia closed her eyes, and the hand stroking my forehead was suddenly still. She knew my decision the moment I did. When she looked at me again, she was no longer smiling. Instead, her face was grave, solemn—and even sadder than before.

"Thank you, Brenden," she said softly. "You understand the risk, the sacrifice—I will do my utmost to ensure that it is not in vain."

I closed my eyes.

A/N: And, that's the end of this little story. Again, it's not a majorly critical one, but I did write it for the sake of getting the details right for the chapter in Eclipse, and I thought it would be a fun one to put up in the interval before the final epilogue of Midnight Sun.

Thanks so much for reading! If you have a moment, let me know what you thought, and hope to see you for the end of Midnight Sun, and/or the beginning of Breaking Dawn. See you then!

Posted 4/28/19