Dragon families! Terrifying, fire-breathing, happy dragon families! Annoying siblings included!

Most dragon Sieges were small, less than fifty individuals. Hiding gigantic, fire-breathing monstrosities like us from humans was predictably difficult. Besides, too many dragons in one place were hard to feed.

The dragon clans settled in deep mountain ranges, shooting for the absolute middle of nowhere, trying to keep out of the way of civilization. Of course, the way the world was expanding, it was getting harder. There were few places left to hide where we could soar freely over the mountain peaks.

The Alps were probably not the best choice of settling location for the biggest Siege of them all—the Great Siege, the equivalent of a draconic royal city. There were nearly two hundred of us here. As I rose over the Matriarch's mountain resting place, a brisk wind sweeping up beneath my wide wing membranes, I looked down upon the valley where we lived. From here, it seemed very quaint. The warm, glowing cabins nestled like gingerbread houses in the snow, tucked below the treeline and shining from within with the flame of life. Dragons usually tried to live in their human forms most of the time, for the sake of safety. And, also, human forms were easier to house and feed. A house built for a dragon in her true form would have had to be several times the size of a football field with hallways and bedrooms for a giant. Completely uneconomical.

Dragons in their true forms soared over the peaks, spiraling around each other in the valleys, rising on the few currents of warm air that remained. The darkening sky was full of their distant cries and shrieks. Clouds perched upon the mountain peaks, slowly tumbling down the slopes like vast, grey avalanches. The sun had nearly disappeared. Fog was beginning to build around the houses to the north, hiding them and the trees that surrounded them under a dense mist. The sunlight that did reach the valleys glistened upon dragon scales as other members of my Siege congregated to play. Among my people, nighttime was not always a time of rest. Dragon eyes could see perfectly well in the dark, after all, so we often used the night as a time to hunt and play. Sleeping was a job for our human forms, which were lousy in the dark.

As I drifted over the valleys of home, gazing down upon the beautiful world I lived in, my heart was light and I felt giddy. I had recovered from my terrifying visit to the Dragon Mother, and now I was elated. Crispin was mine. She'd told me so. And, most vitally, he was safe. All of his family was safe. My Siege wouldn't touch them now, not if the world should collapse around their horned heads. The Matriarch's word was law. Sooner or later, my great-aunt, the Matriarch's current mouthpiece, would issue the command to us all, and the Great Siege would obey.

Hmm … the Matriarch had commanded me to bring them here. She wanted to see the Cullens. I had no idea how she'd see them, exactly. The idea of putting poor, tiny Crispin face-to-face with the dragon-mother was uncomfortable. She was like a goddess, and she was scary.

Still, I knew I would soon be back with my favorite vampire. That made me almost giddy with delight. I flexed out my wings, caught a small spiral of rising, warm air, and soared high up. Then I tucked my wings in and fell. Fire-nectar burst from my mouth, streaming around and behind me like the flaming tail of a comet. I let loose a long, joyful roar, spinning through the air, plunging at whistling speeds. Then I caught myself, flaring my wings and spreading all my frills and fins at the last possible moment. I slowly ascended again, beating my wings firmly, still howling with excitement. I was going back!

A familiar greeting shriek reached my ears. There was my sister. Her sapphire-blue, serpentine body rose swiftly. Her scales were mirror-smooth, like mine, but the light reflecting off her body was lacking in a few important electromagnetic wavelengths. She wasn't yet an adult. She rose to my height, soaring alongside and slightly below me. I tilted my angled head down at her, blinking. She roared, happily, the pitch black inside of her mouth flashing against the blue of her sapphire face. All dragons had ink-black skin lining their mouths. It was the glow that rose up the throat from the fireheart that was unique to each individual. In my sister, it was a bold amber color. You're home! she screamed.

I tossed my head, performed a happy barrel roll in the air, and shrieked back, if it isn't the fabulous Arina'ardezure!

Oh, come on! Don't call me that!

I bared all my teeth in a draconic smirk at her indignance. She hated to be called by her full name.

Fine! Hi, Arina.

Where's your bag? Of course she'd noticed my missing dragon satchel. She was probably putting two and two together at the moment, realizing that I was missing a certain jar of purple ash. I sure had a lot of explaining to do. I was going to rock her world. Maybe it would be best if I told my whole family at once. It would be easier than having to do it twice.

Long story. I made some important discoveries. The Matriarch has assigned me a new mission. We have to talk. Where's Mom and Dad?

Arina was surprised. The frills all around her head and neck bristled up. Her long, forked tongue stuck out for a moment, waving in the swift wind of her flight. Then she roared, at home. Mom's making dinner. You went to the Matriarch?

I did.

Arina squalled. Alone? Face-to-face? You're nuts!

I had to. It was really important. You'll understand. I want Mom and Dad to hear it, too.

What's going on?

I'll tell you when we get to Mom and Dad.

Arina wasn't happy about that. She made an indignant shriek that went from a piercing squeal to a slightly deeper sort of yell. I emitted the open scream of draconic laughter. Oh, come on! You can wait a little longer!

It would not be much longer, either. Our house was tucked into the mountain where the forest was thick, beside a steep, slick slope. The slope's peak of bare stone served as our landing pad. Good thing, too, because our house was surrounded by a gentle garden of vegetables, flowers, and high-altitude moss. Beyond that, surrounding the house, was the fragrant pine forest. A dragon's messy, heavy landing would have destroyed it all without the landing pad. The key was to avoid blasting in the windows when touching down.

I landed first, announcing my presence before I hit the stone with a keening, squealing kind of call. I lit upon the craggy tip of the little peak beside our house, flexing out the claws on my wrists so I could cling to the cold, rough surface. The stone cracked under me, small bits breaking beneath the sturdier claws on my feet. The small trembling of the earth caused a few pebbles to fall down the slope of the mountain, bouncing toward the valley floor. Arina landed on the peak in front of me, rotating in the air with several swift pumps of her wings before dropping to the stone. It crunched a little under the impact. She wasn't as large or heavy as I was. I playfully headbutted her, our horns hitting each other with a heavy sound like two slabs of concrete colliding. Hello, little sister, I teased.

Oh, stoppit! Her slim jaws opened, exposing shining, white teeth against her black gums, before a small jet of her fire-nectar hit me in the face.

Hey, no fire-spitting by the house! I reminded her, scoldingly.

You started it.

I tossed my head, flinging the fire-nectar away from our burnable home, throwing it onto the landing pad. It hit the bare stone, which started to melt under the terrible heat of my sister's amber flame. My forked tongue slid in and out a couple times, tasting the air. The heavy odor of the garden was wonderfully familiar. Somebody had put some clothes in the dryer, too. There was also a smoky scent. My stomach gurgled. Something was roasting over a fire.

Dad was first to emerge from the house. He was grinning, dressed in his fluffy pajamas, carrying a pair of heavy robes. Those were for us. I greeted him joyfully. Oh, I had missed my parents. He winced a little at the deafening power of my noisy squall, even though he was still all the way up the trail by the house. Then he laughed and trotted down the steep switchback slopes of the pebbly pathway. I greeted him again when he reached us, this time touching my snout to his head. "There you are," said Dad, grinning up at me. "We were starting to get a little worried. Seems the Matriarch gave you a difficult first assignment."

An understatement. He had no idea.

He laid the robes out on the decorative boulders at the head of the trail, politely turning his back. Arina and I took our mortal forms, and I scrambled into my robe, shivering. It was cold up here. I was glad it wasn't snowing or raining, which would have been worse. I thought all at once of my rainy arrival in Kellogg's forest. How very long ago it seemed, now.

I tied my fluffy robe in place and then happily buried my face into my dad's back, throwing my arms around him. I freaking loved my dad. He laughed, turning to wrap me in a hug. "There you are, Sera," he said, grinning broadly. I beamed, too.

"Hi, Dad."

Arina had no patience. She marched right up to us and said, "Sera went to the Matriarch. She said she got a special mission."

"Arina!" I groaned, and Dad looked flabbergasted.

"You went to the Matriarch?" he breathed, looking afraid. "Why?" It was not usual for anyone but the mouthpiece to go face-to-face with the Matriarch. I shook my head.

"It's a long story. I think Mom needs to hear it, too. Let's go inside."

"She won't tell me, either," said Arina.

"I want everybody to hear it, Arina, not just you."

"Well I want to know!"

"You can be patient, can't you?"

"No, I can't."

I rolled my eyes. We might be powerful, fire-breathing war-machines, but we were still people. And that meant bickering between siblings. Ordinary, human bickering. It was a lingering trait that linked us back to our prehistoric human ancestors.

Dad followed me into our house, looking concerned the whole way. I went in through the back door and hurried to the kitchen. The smell of roasting meat was delicious. Mom was lounging on the couch in the family room adjacent to the kitchen, bundled in her pajamas and reading a book. She stood at once when she saw me and I let myself be folded into her arms. Oh, yay. I loved my mom.

"There you are, Sera," she sighed. "We were starting to wonder what was holding you. Difficult mission?"

I took a deep breath, relishing her familiar, comforting smell. "Well … yeah. Not the way you're thinking, but yeah."

"Hmm …" she pulled back and held me at arm's length by my shoulder with her warm, brown hand. Her electric blue eyes looked very serious, indeed. "Where's your jar?"

"I left it."

She looked alarmed. I winced at the expression and nodded. "It's a long story. We should sit down. It's important."

"The Matriarch gave her a new mission," said Arina, unhelpfully. Dad and I both scowled at her.

"I'm getting there, Arina, I'm getting there!" I insisted. "Let me tell it."

"Oh, Sera, are you okay? What happened?" Mom asked. She looked sorry for me, worried that I'd failed, knowing how ashamed I must feel because I hadn't succeeded. She was in for quite the ride. I arranged myself into the plush reclining rocking chair in the corner of the family room by the fire, relishing the feel of the fluffy carpet between my toes. The rustic wooden shelf over the fireplace, the black metal grate, the log-cabin walls, the spicy odor from the dried herbs … I was home. I steeled myself. I could do this. Everything was going to be okay, now.

Dad took his seat on the couch by Mom, and Arina plopped into the second couch that also faced the fire. She crossed her arms. Dad held Mom's hand. They all stared at me.

How to begin?

I started with my arrival. I described my frustrations while trying to find the vampires I'd been sent to kill, my inability to locate clues, my days of searching, all of it culminating in the library. My parents shot looks at each other. They were seasoned vampire-killers, and they knew of my training. They knew I hadn't missed a thing. I said that there were no clues of vampires, and they knew I had been right.

I hesitated when I reached the part about the library. It was hard to describe exactly what had happened when I'd come face-to-face with the vampire with the golden eyes. I struggled to describe in careful detail my thoughts at that pivotal moment.

"It was … I didn't want to be too hasty," I said, slowly, trying to find the right words. "There were humans there, witnesses … it was such an unusual way to encounter a vampire. I mean, in the library, of all places! He was on the computer, and I couldn't think why."

Dad made a small noise of bafflement. "A vampire on the computer! Nonsense."

"Exactly," I said, nodding. "That's what I thought. I should have tried to start talking to him. That's what the protocol is. Coax him away from the witnesses, and then finish the job. But I … I was too curious."

"Oh, Sera!" Mom said, wincing. I'd made a slip-up! I smiled slightly, even though my heart was nearly beating itself out of my chest with nerves.

"I read the webpage over his shoulder. I know, a waste of time … but I had to know. And that was when he turned around." I rubbed the side of my face. "That's what brought me up short. He had … golden eyes."

My parents glanced at each other again. I let the statement hang for a moment. Arina broke the silence. "But vampires don't have … you mean like in the story?"

I smiled slightly. She was seeing as I had seen. "Exactly," I said, shrugging my shoulders slightly. "That's what I thought, and I didn't find out how it all worked until later. Turns out they—" but I hesitated there. I took a deep breath. "Well, I just knew one thing. If his eyes were golden, that meant he was feeding on something that wasn't human blood."

I let that statement hang, too. My sister murmured, "no waaay!"

Dad slowly knit his brows, scowling all over his normally warm brown face. He had put together what I had been thinking in that moment, and he didn't like it. "So that's why you don't have any vampire ash. You let him live." He sounded disgusted.

"Dad," I said, quietly, as my gut stung at his words. I had expected this from the older dragons, but it still hurt how much my father disapproved of the pivotal choice I had made in that moment. "I couldn't kill him. He wasn't a murderer."

"That doesn't matter," Dad said, his electric-blue eyes widening in his anger. "A vampire is a vampire. Their kind is a curse on the world."

"Honey," Mom murmured, putting a hand on Dad's arm. He gave her a look.

"Are you siding with her?" he asked in astonishment. Mom glowered at him.

"I trust that she made the choice that seemed right at the time. We don't understand this, and I don't think the story ends here."

"It doesn't," I sighed. I rubbed my face. "I was going to come home after that. I didn't know what to think. I just knew it didn't feel right to kill him. I wanted to talk to somebody about it. But then …" I hesitated. Oh, my mother was not going to like this. "I, ah … I got hit by a truck while I was in my human form."

"You what?" Mom breathed in shock. I grinned a little at my flabbergasted parents. Of all the things in the world that could have happened to me, getting hit by a truck had to have been the least likely.

"I'm okay, though," I said, a bit pointlessly. It was obvious that I was just fine, seeing as I'd flown all the way back to the Alps and was completely uninjured. "I had a concussion, though. I woke up in the hospital."

"Sera," Dad said in horror. "Why didn't your fireheart—"

"Heal me? I'm still not sure. I lost it for a little while, actually," I said, warily. I rubbed the center of my chest, feeling a tingle of relief just to have my beating fireheart pulsing alongside my heart of flesh. "I was healing at a mortal pace. That's why I was gone for so long."

"You could have died," Mom breathed in horror. I smiled a little.

"But I didn't. My fireheart saved me from the impact. And … well, you won't believe who healed me while I was in the hospital."

But before I could finish my thought, the hefty boom of an impact shook the house. We all looked at the side exit. Somebody had just touched down in their dragon form right outside our house. When Mom said, "Who was that?" I knew it wasn't an expected guest.

There was a pause. Nobody really wanted to leave in the middle of the conversation, but it wasn't usual for unexpected visitors to show up like this. It was likely important. "I'll go see," said Dad, finally, getting to his feet. He had barely opened the door when he sucked in a gasp and backed away, dipping a bow. "Aunt Fio!"

I jumped to my feet at once, as did my mother and sister. It was my great-aunt Fiovil'ayrun, the mouthpiece of the Matriarch. My heart lunged into my throat. She was my mentor, responsible for teaching me how to lead the Great Siege in preparation for the day that I would serve in her place. She stepped into the kitchen in her robe, pausing to cuff my father on his shoulder. "Good to see you too, Irgo."

"We weren't expecting you," said Dad, smiling a little in spite of himself. Although my Great-Aunt Fio was of a much higher rank than him, she still treated him like close family. "I'm sorry, we would have had dinner on the table and—"

"Oh, good! I don't have time for that, anyway." Great-Aunt Fio turned her intense blue gaze on me, her white teeth shining in a broad grin. "I have orders to carry out from the Matriarch. Has Sera told you about her new mission?"

"No, we were getting to that," said Dad, glancing at me. "Tell me this isn't about her gold-eyed vampire."

"Oh, so she did tell you!" My Great-Aunt waltzed into the sitting room and popped herself down, pausing to ruffle my poor younger sister's hair. Ariana scowled and clamped her hands down on top of her head. "Well, it is about them, yes."

"Them?" Dad repeated. "Who's them? Are you telling me …" He looked at me, now.

"I was just getting there," I said. "There are a few, yes. The doctor was one of them."

"The doctor?!"

My Auntie laughed and clapped her hands together. "Isn't it marvelous!

"Marvelous!" my Dad repeated. "I don't understand. What about vampires is marvelous?" He approached us to stand beside Mom in front of the couch. "I—I refuse to—"

"Oh, Irgo," the mouthpiece simply laughed at him. "My stubborn nephew! I'm afraid you're going to have to bend a little. You see, it's the Order of the Matriarch. We are bound."

My parents shot stunned looks at each other. I sighed faintly in relief. The command of the Matriarch—the Law that not even the most stubborn elder would dare to disobey. Great-Aunt Fio smiled amiably, settling back on the couch. She patted the empty spot next to her. "Come here, nephew. Why don't we listen to what your daughter has to say? I hear it's quite the tale. The Matriarch wouldn't tell me all of it."

I took a deep breath and slowly lowered myself back into my seat. I felt stronger. With the mouthpiece here, my Dad would have less room to argue, and he would have to spend more time listening. "The doctor was one of the golden-eyed vampires," I said again, rubbing my arms, my thoughts flitting to Crispin and to Dr. Carlisle. "I'm … not sure …"

"Tell us what he was like," Great-Aunt Fio said, eagerly, putting her elbows on her robed knees and grinning. I smiled, too. She looked like she could have done with a bowl of popcorn right about now.

"I never imagined a vampire could be so gentle," I said. "He was so fatherly. I didn't trust him at first, of course, but I didn't really have a choice. I couldn't even sit up on my own. In the end, I couldn't help but feel safe with him. He was perfectly genuine."

"Vampires will tell any lie to get their way," Dad broke in, but I could sense the uneasiness in his words, how he wavered.

"I know they will," I said. "But it wasn't, this time. I just knew it wasn't." I gave a small shake of my head. "Anyway, they had plenty of chances to eat me. I was helpless. Couldn't walk on my own. It wouldn't have been hard to sneak me away or make my death look like an accident. I was mortal. My fireheat was just … gone."

Mom pulled a pained face. We all knew how important a dragon's fireheart was, and just imagining the loss of it hurt. I took a deep breath, reigning in my focus. "And then there was the younger vampire from the library. He was … I mean …" I hesitated. I knew how much my Dad wouldn't like this, but I couldn't think of a good way to explain it all. The way I felt for Crispin, and how he felt for me, and how it had all happened. How could I possibly explain in simple words how I'd fallen in love with what should have been our enemy? There was no easy way. I looked to my great-aunt.

She smiled, nodding encouragingly. "I'll take it from here." She lightly elbowed my Dad as she got to her feet. "You sure have a long way to go, Irgo, hmm? Good thing the Matriarch is on top of this stuff." She grinned around at my family. My parents looked back with great trepidation.

"You see," Fio started, beaming, "the Matriarch might have set your daughter up a little. She could have warned Sera about the golden-eyed vampires, but she chose not to. And because of that, your daughter learned the truth about what resides in a vampire's heart. The Matriarch has been waiting a very long time for this day. You all know the story, of course, of how the vampires came to be and of how there would be golden-eyed ones with the strength of twelve …" Fio glanced at me. I swallowed with a little difficulty and nodded.

"I didn't remember the story all the way," I said, slowly, "but I did remember about the gold eyes and how they were anointed by the Mother Sun."

"That's right, Sera! I'm glad you remembered." Aunt Fio grinned. The little smile looked devilishly sneaky. "You realize, of course, that the story isn't just a made-up tale. The Matriarch told it to her children, and it has been passed down through the generations until now, when it has finally reached us. It's no fairy tale. It's prophecy."

This, I had realized by now. My mom pursed her lips tightly and nodded, taking a deep breath. My sister looked awed, and my dad looked rather lost. He was still trying to be angry, but it was hard to be that way when we were discussing prophecies issued forth by the Matriarch.

Great-Aunt Fio continued. "Now, thanks to Sera, we are about to witness the dawn of a new era. The curse of vampirism is aging. And it's aging well, by the looks of it!"

My parents glanced at each other. Arina said, "Aging well?"

The mouthpiece only laughed. "Sera has won the heart of a vampire!" she exclaimed, grinning broadly. "It would seem that a new breed has emerged. They have chosen to abandon their savage ways, to do battle with the bloodlust that they have been cursed with! They live to preserve life and help the humans they once saw as prey." My great-aunt beamed at my parents. "With the strength of twelve of their kind, they fight the curse and have become pure, blessed by the Mother Sun! By the command of the Matriarch, the golden-eyed ones are not prey to us any longer. They are to be our allies. And your daughter—why …" Fio laughed. "She has been bound to the youngest of the golden-eyed ones. From this day forward, they are One."

It was a second before the full impact settled in. When it did, my dad made a small sound like he'd been strangled. Mom put a hand in his arm and looked to me, stunned. I could imagine how she felt. She didn't even know quite what to think.

I couldn't blame them. The Matriarch had put this all together without any input or agreement from them, at all. I knew my parents would have liked to at least meet the guy before we were sworn to each other. I took a deep breath and shrugged, helplessly. "It's not my fault! She set me up!"

"A vampire?" Dad whispered. "That's … no, I did not agree to this!"

I looked helplessly at my great-aunt. I still didn't quite know what to say. I had known my parents would be upset, and I hadn't managed to come up with a way to reassure them. Great-Aunt Fio sighed, with a bit of a smile still lingering on her lips. She put a hand on my dad's shoulder. "This was beyond our control, Irgo," she told him. "What's happening to this coven is out of our hands. They are changing what it means to be a vampire. Fundamentally. You'll understand soon."

My father gave his aunt a look that crawled with disgust. "Not my daughter," he said. "I refuse to let … I cannot accept—"

But his voice died in his throat at Fio's gentle, smiling, slightly pitying look. He gulped painfully. Fio sighed, looking at my mom now. "I know it doesn't make any sense right now," she said. "But it will. Our Mother promised that much. If I've learned anything, it's that she always knows what she's talking about." Fio wrapped both of my parents into a comforting hug.

I looked at my knees. I knew how terribly overwhelming this had to be for my parents. I wished I knew a way to make it easier for them. I glanced up at my younger sister. Arina just had a look of utter confusion on her face. She stared at me. "You … the Matriarch swore you to a … one of them?"

I took a deep breath. "He's no average vamp," I told her. "Not even remotely. I mean, he's … he's so wonderfully … It's just that … I don't know. You might have to meet him for it to make sense."

"You talk about this vamp like he's a person."

"Yes," I pressed, eagerly. "You've nailed it! Being a vampire isn't what makes him him. Vampirism is just a disability that he has to live with. It doesn't define him."

Arina wrinkled her brow, unsure. "Live?" she echoed at me. I rubbed my face, exasperated. I felt sweaty from my stress. Vampires didn't think of vampires as living. Only as undead. I struggled with the words to help her understand. How could I do it without having Crispin here? He was too complex for my family to get. They didn't know how to picture a vampire as a person. They understood vampires as bloodthirsty machines, not as creatures with minds.

"Yes, I meant what I said. They want to change the world for the humans around them, not eat the humans. So they live. More than other vampires do, anyway."

"I can't wait to meet them," said Great-Aunt Fio, happily. "The Matriarch has waited for many generations, of course, and she told me I would live to see the New Dawn rise. Maybe we should work on getting you back there so you can collect them. She's getting impatient."

My parents gave me alarmed looks. "You're leaving?" Mom asked. "But you just came back!"

"That was my new mission," I said, rubbing the center of my chest over my burning fireheart. "I'm supposed to retrieve them so the Matriarch can see them for herself." My fireheart was pulsing, pulling me gently back to Kellogg. The Dragon-Mother's command was leading it.

My father sat still for a moment, frowning. Then he rose to his feet. "I'm coming with you."

This statement gave me some alarm. My dad, coming with me to see the Cullen family? So soon? I imagined what would happen when I finally reached Kellogg again. I'd want to throw myself straight into Crispin's arms, and if my dad were there …

It was not a pretty picture. He wouldn't have reacted well to seeing me fling myself into any stranger's arms, let alone a vampire's. I took a deep breath, shooting a look at my Great-Aunt. Oh, boy.

"Dad, I … I know you want to come, and I know you want to make sure I'm safe, but …" I really didn't want to offend him, but I couldn't find a nice way to say what I needed to. My Great-Aunt laughed a little.

"She has a point."

"What are you—" my dad started, angrily, but he was cut off as Aunt Fio clapped him on his shoulder.

"Irgo, your daughter is in love with one of those golden-eyed vampires. Maybe you should wait to meet the lucky young man until she brings him here. You need time to prepare." My dad gave her an alarmed look. She only smiled knowingly at him. "The first time they hug each other in your presence, you might explode, whether the Matriarch's command stands or not. Maybe we should let them have the reuniting incident to themselves."

My dad looked understandably furious. I stood up and went to him, wishing I had a good way to make him feel better. I put my arms around him. "Dad, please. I know this doesn't make an ounce of sense right now, but I swear it will. I promise."

My dad was solid as a boulder for a moment. Then he sighed and gave in, putting his arms around me in return. "Why did you have to run away and get married?" he asked me, frustrated. I laughed a little. It certainly had ended up being that way, hadn't it?

"Well, I wasn't planning on being bound to a vampire," I said. "That was the Matriarch's plan. I didn't have a choice in it. Maybe you'll have to take it out on her."

Dad shuddered at the very idea. Take out one's frustrations on THE Matriarch? That was utterly ludicrous, and the thought of doing so was frightening, even in joking. "No, I think I'll … I'll hold off on doing anything until I know what's going on."

"You won't be disappointed," I told him, firmly. "Promise. Crispin is a special one, on every level."

My great-aunt nodded, looking pleased. "I do still think it would be best if you stayed, Irgo," she said. "The new coven would be a little safer if you did. Let her bring them to you."

Dad sighed through his nose, still scowling. "You're not going alone. Somebody has to go with you." He glanced at Great-Aunt Fio, who shook her head.

"Not me. I have to issue the Law to the rest of the Siege. Can't have them killing the vampires as soon as Sera brings them home, can we?"

"I'll go!" my sister suddenly chirped. Arina was on her feet at once, beaming. "I want to see the vampires!"

Dad gave her a withering look and opened his mouth to refuse her, but my mom put a hand on his muscled brown arm. "Hey, what if I went?" she asked, gently. My heart leaped at such an idea. My mother was a little less likely to explode the first time I hugged Crispin, for one thing, and she was already more willing to accept this new animal-diet coven, for another. Dad gave her a worried look. She lightly cuffed him. "Oh, come now! What vampire could hurt me?"

Dad smiled just a little. My mother was an expert vampire-killer. According to him, she'd killed more of the scarlet-eyed ones than he had. She wouldn't be caught off-guard by any suspicious vampires, that was for certain. "But I want you to stay here with me," he said. My parents never liked to be apart from each other. It made me feel warm inside to see them interact this way. They were very cute. Mom pecked him on the lips.

"All the more reason to make sure she doesn't dawdle too long, then!"

"Well … normally I'd like this idea," Fio said, "But it might not be a good one today." She put an arm around my shoulders and gave me a playful little shake. "The Matriarch sent your daughter to the United States with limited knowledge about what she would see because she wanted to be sure that Sera would fall in love. If any parents go along now, it might alter the future too much. "

My dad glowered again. Fio only smiled. "The future is of my personal concern," she said, pointedly, "as the Matriarch's spokesperson."

In an effort to help, I said to my parents, "I swear I'll be good. Cross my heart and pinkie swear!"

My little sister laughed raucously. "Haha! When's the last time you heard Sera pinky swear?" Arina asked my parents. She hopped to her feet. "Well, I'm going to go pack!" she proclaimed.

Dad gave her a sharp look. "I didn't give you permission to go!"

"What? Great-Aunt Fio didn't say I have to stay." She glanced nervously at the mouthpiece, probably realizing that maybe Aunt Fio would tell her to stay.

"You still have to pack for school!" Dad insisted. "And when was the last time you did your chores?"

"Mooooom!" Arina said, pleading to my mother with wide blue puppy-eyes. My Mom smiled slightly.

"It is almost time for you to go among the humans again," she said, carefully, looking at my dad. "I know she's not packed yet, but there's still time before the semester begins at the human school … she won't be gone long. And, well … if your Great-Aunt Fio thinks it okay …" Mom raised an eyebrow slightly at Fio, who grinned that savage little grin of hers again.

"I think this idea is an excellent one!"

Arina squeaked a little in excitement. The mouthpiece's approval was practically a command for her to come with me. I wrinkled my brow. "But, the future," I reminded Fio. "What about—"

"Oh, don't you worry about that," my Great-Aunt laughed. "I have a feeling she's meant to be part of this. Or, should we say …" Fio winked. "I've been told she will be."

I shot Arina an amazed look. The Matriarch had spoken of her to Aunt Fio. Arina looked rightfully surprised, stunned. "Oh," she said.

Great-Aunt Fio laughed again, going to hug my parents once more. "Don't you two worry a bit," she said, brightly. "The golden-eyed vampires won't hurt your kids, anyway. And what is there to be afraid of? Sera's almost an adult, now."

Well, not yet. I still hadn't killed a vampire, my coming-of-age rite.

We'd have to figure out something around that, wouldn't we? It wouldn't do to go killing vampires at this point. Especially not my vampires.

Fio beamed at my sister. "Go grab a few things," she advised, "and you should go get a fresh change of clothes, Sera. Hurry along! Your vampires are waiting." My Great-Aunt gave my dad a final squeeze. "Irgo, I promise this will all make sense. You should be proud! You're witnessing the dawn of a new era, when vampires will be our allies instead of our enemies. Humans will be safe from them, soon. Everything is going to be different."

Dad closed his eyes and swallowed, rubbing the center of his chest over his fireheart, which was surely burning with all the emotion he was feeling at the moment. "I still wish … wish I could've given my permission first," he mumbled angrily. The mouthpiece laughed.

"Oh, you'll see, you rascal nephew! Her vampire mate is much nicer than you can dream of. I'm almost jealous, actually." Great-Aunt Fio winked at me playfully. She straightened up. "I'm off! Hurry along, Sera, the Matriarch won't wait forever."

I took a deep breath and nodded, dipping a small bow to my mentor, the mouthpiece. My heart was racing, my fireheart pulsing alongside it with eager fervor. I had a mission to carry out. There was no time to lose.