"Do not speak to ME of dragonfire! I know its wrath and ruin."

Thranduil, The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug

"My armor is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!"

Smaug, The Hobbit

"The bells were ringing in the dale

And men looked up with faces pale;

The dragon's ire more fierce than fire

Laid low their towers and houses frail."

Song of the Lonely Mountain, The Hobbit

Crispin lost track of the time that passed as they cowered under Arina's wings. The fire raged on and on. Sometimes, Sera would come thundering over their heads, and scarlet and gold fire would cascade down over Arina. The sapphire-blue younger sister didn't seem bothered by the intense heat. She was a dragon, too, and she was impervious to the fierce temperatures.

Crispin sat leaning back with his head against Arina's leg. He felt sick. The image of Tavora's face flashed repeatedly across his mind's eye, and he kept feeling her, like icy phantom claws on his undead flesh. It made him feel like he wanted to rip himself open and turn inside out. Alice sat beside him, and she felt his shivers and shudders. She kept trying to comfort him without words. Nobody spoke. Nobody wanted to speak, not even Emmett.

Carlisle lay silently where Esme held him. He wasn't taking breaths. Crispin didn't know what to think of his state. Vampires didn't really die, after all. Their bodies usually had to be destroyed in order to kill them. But Tavora's power was still something of a mystery to Crispin. He wasn't sure if her empty-husk slaves were still properly undead, like a normal vampire.

And, the longer Crispin sat there with his writhing thoughts, leaping from one thing to another and back again, the more he was alarmed at Tavora's latest appearance. Alice had known that she was gathering a substantial collection of slaves. But Tavora had been dressed in the Volturi uniform. Crispin was certain that she hadn't been gathering all those slaves randomly. The Volturi would have stopped her if she'd been doing it without their permission. The only answer had to be that she'd been working on their side the whole time. How they'd hidden their plans from Alice was alarming to Crispin. They'd apparently figured out some way to work around her gift of sight.

Was Tavora here on the Volturi's orders? Surely so. Had the army been designed to end the Cullens? It wasn't as though the Volturi had tried to prevent armies from attacking the Olympic Coven before, and it would be easy to make it look like a freak accident beyond their influence. What had they promised Tavora? Crispin's flesh crawled again as he imagined it. Had they promised him to her? He shuddered again, rubbing his arms, resting his head on his knees.

All the while, Sera carried on her work of death and destruction. The earth shook with her mighty roars. The fire raged and frothed and spat, glowing viciously behind Arina's sapphire wings. Crispin stared at the veins, silhouetted by the light, that spiderwebbed through the canvas-like membranes. The younger sister had remained hunched over them for hours, tenting them with her own body to shield them from the rage of the blaze. Her breathing was a steady, heavy rhythm that kept tempo alongside the huge thuds of her beating heart.

Eventually, the atmosphere slowly changed. It came on so gradually that it was almost imperceptible. The family of vampires waited like statues, clustered and curled beneath the dragon who shielded them, and the light of the flaming tempest slowly shrank away. Crispin became aware of another change, too. The air was different, but he couldn't put his finger on how.

Then, finally, after at least two hours of silence and stillness, Arina moved. She lifted her head, letting a burst of the smoky air in, and folded her wings. As she took away the shield, there was revealed a desolate waste.

Crispin stared from where he sat against the dragon's sturdy leg. There was a creeping horror that crawled through his stony vampire guts. The forest, the fields where the elk had run, meadows and flowers and sunlight … all gone. The earth was black and grey. The skyscraper toothpick skeletons of trees were all that remained, pointing at the sky like steeples, tribute to the death that had ravaged them and all the world around them. The only patch of green that remained was what had been hidden beneath the dragon's shielding wings. Even that wasn't much to boast of—the grass was wilted and wouldn't live much longer. The heat had mostly killed it.

Slowly, the Cullens started getting up. The world was silence. The only sounds were the tiny crackles of miniscule flames, which lay scattered here and there. They were the last surviving candles that remained after the armageddon. Crispin looked up into the silent sky. Ash was falling slowly and steadily from a thick grey blanket of smoke. It came down like suffocating snow, falling into his black hair and sticking to his eyelashes.

The entire glacial canyon was a stretch of stillness and death. Nothing had survived.

Crispin looked over when Edward approached. His older brother stood silently beside him for a moment. Then he pointed down into the base of the valley. "I remember that."

There was a truck. Or, at least, there was what remained of it. It had been abandoned there long ago, stuck in the mud, rusted out and useless. Now it was mostly gone. It had melted. Crispin could see the strange, metallic gleaming of pools of metal and glass that had trickled like water down the slope, collecting in crevices before cooling and solidifying.

Jacob spoke. He sounded terrible, and it was no surprise. His living lungs hadn't taken well to the thick smoke. "How—how far does it go?"

Crispin shook his head. The whole canyon was gone, of course. For all he knew, the entire mountain had been destroyed. There was a tiny gleam of green on the horizon—the point where the destruction ended and the living forest started up again. But it was very, very far away, only visible to powerful vampire eyes.

A low, rumbling roar, like soft and distant thunder, rolled out over the empty mountain. Everyone whirled to look up the slope. Sera suddenly appeared, sweeping down from behind the thick blanket of smoke that blocked out the sky. She came swiftly toward them, and Crispin couldn't help but tense. His body tried to take him back to Arina, as though to hide under the safety of her wings again. He'd seen it, now, and he understood exactly what it was that Sera had been trying to tell him all this time. She was destruction and death incarnate. His deepest instincts told him to stay well away.

Sera landed near them. Ash whirled in a violent cloud around her as her wings kicked it up, and Crispin saw her lava-glow eyes shining from within the depths of it like the gaze of a demon before it settled. He swallowed with difficulty, and approached her with some caution. She whined faintly, and Crispin's ears tingled as she rekindled the telepathic bond between them.

I'm sorry, Crispin.

Crispin stood before the black dragon. He didn't have words. She sighed, a huge rush of hot wind. Her long, serpentine tail undulated gently through the soft blanket of ash that covered everything. Crispin finally stepped up to her and rested his forehead on the arm of her wing. She lowered her huge head, resting her snout gently against him in as good of a hug as a dragon was capable of.

Crispin took a deep, steadying breath. Tavora?

I don't see a way that she could have survived the fire, Sera told him. She's gone.

Crispin let the breath out in a rush. His knees felt suddenly weak, and he thought he might just collapse. She was gone. She was gone.

Arina came to her sister, moving sleekly and smoothly, pressing low to the ground as she drew near. Sera hissed faintly, shifting to nudge Arina with her snout. The smaller sister emitted a small, weary whimpering noise. She settled down on her belly on the ashy ground and sighed, her head drooping.

Sera looked toward the rest of the family. Her lava eyes watched them for a moment. Crispin … what happened to Carlisle? I didn't really see. I was in the sky … too angry to focus on the details.

Crispin clenched his teeth. A dark pain was throbbing deep in his chest, and the thought of his adoptive father put a lump in his throat. Tavora touched him.

Touched him! the dragon lamented. All it took was a touch.

He saved my life, Crispin thought, feeling sick to his stomach and empty. He stopped her just before she got me. He sacrificed himself.

Sera rasped softly. She shifted, and Crispin moved out of the way so she could walk. She approached the family, sleek and massive and serpentine, her back faintly gleaming under the failing light. Esme was still kneeling where she had been this entire time, holding Carlisle, refusing to move. She stared up at the lava-eyed dragon. Her golden gaze was empty and lost. That was how the whole family felt, really.

Without Carlisle, they were all lost.

Sera lowered her head to examine the patriarch's body. She breathed a long, low breath over him, as though hoping it would stir him, but of course he didn't move. She whined. No! Not him. This can't be how it ends.

Crispin stared at the end of Sera's long, undulating tail, watching the twin tail fins large and broad as a frigate's sails flexing open and closed like fans. His eyes burned and his vision was blurred. What were they supposed to do now? There was nothing. Crispin couldn't even think to see a future without Carlisle. Nothing made sense without him. The world was all upside-down without him!

Edward came to them. He wiped his eyes angrily on the back of his badly singed sleeve. "I refuse to accept this."

Crispin gave him a sorrowful look. But Edward's ochre eyes burned with fury. "I refuse," he repeated, bluntly. "Think about it. You always said Tavora's powers worked best on those with weak minds. She couldn't take you when you were in Victoria's army because you had a strong mind, right?"

"Edward, she was a lot stronger today than she was all those years ago," said Crispin. His voice was hollow, and he couldn't seem to put any emotion at all into it. "If she had touched me today, she would have succeeded in taking me. I think she probably got training from the Volturi."

"No!" Edward snapped, furiously. "I refuse! Carlisle was the strongest of us all. He never took a human blood meal. Not ever, not in more than three hundred years. He had the clearest, sharpest mind of any of us. I refuse to believe that she could have taken him."

Crispin looked at Sera's tail again. He hated what Edward was doing. It kindled a tiny flicker of hope in his soul, and it sickened him. Carlisle was gone. Tavora had destroyed him. His limp, unresponsive body was proof enough of it. "Can you explain why he's an empty shell, then?" Crispin demanded of Edward. "Because it sure looks to me like she was successful. He's gone."

"Actually," said a small voice, and everyone looked over. Crispin was surprised to find that it was Renesmee talking. She swallowed once. "I think maybe Dad has a point."

Crispin glared at her. She gave him a slightly wary look. "I was in the trees when the battle happened," she said. "Jacob hid me. The army didn't even come after me. Tavora didn't know I was there. I watched the whole thing. Remember when Esme attacked her? How the army kind of … hesitated? And then they ran. If she'd taken Grandpa, he would have run, too. Wouldn't he have?"

Crispin opened his mouth. Then he closed it. Hang on …

"Yeah," said Emmett, softly, a look dawning over his face. "Yeah, she's right! He didn't obey Tavora's commands."

Crispin looked back at Carlisle's still, silent body. He hadn't obeyed. When the remains of the army had run, Tavora had used them as an attempt at distraction, scattering them out over the forest to draw the attention of any attackers, especially the dragons. Carlisle should have been part of that. But he hadn't been. Why hadn't he obeyed the master? The only way he wouldn't have was if Tavora had never managed to become his master.

Edward spoke again, his voice sharp, words falling like blows. "Besides," he spat out, "When she touched him, his thoughts stopped. I could hear her echoing through the other husks, but not Carlisle. She … didn't get into his head all the way."

Sera snorted, sharply. They speak wisdom, she said, darkly. The doctor never obeyed, and it sounds like your thought-reader brother has a point. Carlisle had the strongest mind of any of us. What if Tavora was only partially successful?

Crispin took a deep breath. "We don't actually know how Tavora's powers work," he said, his voice cracking slightly. "I don't know if her slaves are still … in their bodies … or not. I just speculated that she pulls out their souls."

"If vampires have souls," Edward muttered. Alice, who stood slightly behind him, slapped him sharply on the back of the head.

"Don't you say that! Carlisle always believed we do."

What if he's not completely out of his body? Sera asked, urgently. What if he's still clinging on? That could be why Tavora couldn't command him. If he's still in there, she wouldn't have control.

Crispin swallowed painfully, shaking his head. Sera growled, deeply. This isn't over, Crispin! It's not! I, too, refuse to accept this. The Matriarch prophesied that Carlisle would oversee the New Dawn. His work isn't done. The black dragon hissed, shaking her head and flaring up all her frills. We have to take him to the Alps. Only the Matriarch can help him now, if he's within reach at all.

"I … I …" Crispin swallowed again, gesturing helplessly with his hands. He didn't know what to think. His fear was holding him back. Tavora … her strength … her slaves … there was no way … but was there … ?

Sera emitted a sound like a raspy scoff. She lifted her head high, and Crispin heard little sounds of pain from the rest of the family. He glanced over in time to see Alice rubbing the spot between her eyes, and realized that Sera had secured telepathic connections with all of them at once.

I suggest we visit the Matriarch, she said, speaking to all of them. She prophesied that Carlisle would be the father of the future of vampires. The New Dawn must come. The Matriarch doesn't lie. If there is any hope for Carlisle left, only our Mother will be able to save him.

Crispin clamped his hands over his ears. He shook his head, gritting his teeth. It was too much. He couldn't bear it. If he got his hopes up now, the end would crush him. He couldn't bear it.

Jasper stepped up beside him. The old solider put a heavily scarred hand on Crispin's shoulder. "Crispin," he said, softly. "We have to try."

Crispin looked down at his adoptive father where he lay unresponsive in the ash. He stared for a long time at the body of his mentor, the man who'd saved him from a life of monstrosity. A low rumble of thunder rolled down the mountainside, and rain began to fall. The drops hissed as they landed in the embers that still glowed feebly under charred logs and stones.

Jasper was right. What did they have to lose besides hope?

Sera rumbled, deeply, sounding almost identical to the roll of thunder that had just passed overhead. Let's go, she said. I'll carry Carlisle and a few others. You'll have to hold onto him while we fly. Those who can't fit on my back will have to go with Arina.

The soot-smeared sapphire sister mewled, worriedly. Sera lightly butted heads with Arina, which sounded like two boulders thunking into each other. Then the black she-dragon settled onto her belly, resting her head on the ash.

Climb on.

Crispin hadn't planned on flying with Sera quite so soon. He clung to her back, feeling helplessly like a beetle on the roof of a car as they raced through the air. It was so fast, it was almost taking his breath away, something he was very unused to. Sera was trying to hurry, and it showed. The wind screamed viciously over them, ripping at their singed clothes and hair, trying to prize them off the dragon's back. Sera's scales were slick and smooth as ice, and Crispin clung on with all his vampire strength, holding onto the spiny frills on the back of her neck from where he was seated in the crook of her powerful shoulders.

If he'd been able to feel discomfort as a vampire, he probably would have fallen off a long time ago.

Esme and Edward were working together to hold onto Carlisle's body. There had been room for Bella, her daughter, and Jacob, too. Arina bore Jasper, Alice, Emmett, and Rosalie on her back. They all clung on tightly, and the vampires made it a point to help Jacob and Renesmee, both of whom were living and therefore suffered from fatigue from holding on so tightly for so long. Crispin peered down at the ocean as they raced over it.

Although the dragons flew faster than even a vampire could run, the journey was still hours. They had to cross the ocean, after all. But Sera had warned Crispin that they were getting close. He could see the fuzzy edge of the land far in the distance, but rapidly approaching. If he hadn't been so concerned about Carlisle, he might have been more nervous about encountering the rest of Sera's kind—hundreds of dragons capable of burning hundreds of valleys as Sera had done.

But Carlisle came first. The gentle patriarch had been more than just Crispin's anchor and guide. He had been that for all of them. They needed him.

The cliffs came to meet them, and then the mountains. The earth was deep and cool green, and then it was stone and grey, with patches of forest scattered between the mountains. The peaks became taller, the stones craggier as they approached the heart of the Alps. Crispin's sharp vampire eyes watched the ground, occasionally catching sight of wandering wildlife. Then he started to notice spectacular claw marks. Some were smaller than Sera's. And some … Crispin's stomach rolled itself into a dumpling as they passed by a massive set of furrows that had been carved into the side of a mountain. What size the dragon making those marks must have been …

They heard the dragons before they saw them. There was a steady cacophony of screaming and howling, and then a huge, bone-rattling roar slammed into them. Crispin threw himself against Sera and pressed his face into her neck as the sound struck them like slamming into a brick wall. There were cries from several of the family members. Their voices were tiny compared to the might of the dragon's.

The creature who had produced that sound came whooshing up before them, rising so suddenly from behind the mountains that Sera pulled up short, her wings pounding, her numerous frills and fins all flaring. The dragon was at least twice her size. Crispin had struggled to imagine something bigger than his scaly girlfriend, but he didn't have to imagine anymore. The dragon was pearly white. She was all wings and tail fins, like Sera, but glowing like a white star instead of being black like a void. The white dragon's thin, supple body undulated snakelike as she raced over them. The slipstream nearly ripped Crispin and the others off Sera's back.

Sera roared up at the newcomer, and spat a stream of her dragon napalm. Most of it fell to the earth, red-hot and hissing. The white dragon screamed irritably back. Crispin stared in terror. He couldn't move. Surely the stranger had noticed them.

Sera's mind reached out to his. Don't be afraid. This is my great-aunt Fio. She is the Matriarch's mouthpiece. She knew you would come.

She nearly knocked us off, Crispin thought, glancing at the distant valley, far below. Sera's napalm-spit was still burning like a twinkling coal down there.

She didn't mean to. Sometimes we forget that humans are small compared to us.

Uh huh, thought Crispin, weakly.

The white dragon turned gracefully in the air and went racing in the direction they had been moving. Her throaty roar rolled over the mountains again. Sera began to follow, and Crispin watched the older dragon shrinking over the craggy peaks, growing smaller as she flew ahead of them. A smattering of little dragons suddenly flurried into the sky before her, squeaking and squealing, cartwheeling like a flock of startled pigeons.

Then they were all floored a second time. From behind the mountains rose a dragon so huge, Sera's great-aunt became the one who looked young. Sera was only as long as the green dragon's head and neck, a hatchling compared to the creature that came up like some forest spirit the size of a small mountain. The huge wingbeats cast up a wind so fierce that the little dragons all got tossed about like leaves, and Sera growled in irritation as the changing airflow caused them some very uncomfortable turbulence. She turned her head, one lava-glow eye checking to be sure that everyone was still aboard, including Carlisle's limp body.

That is Shehr'ragan, she told Crispin. One of our elders. I never see her in the sky anymore. Aunt Fio just announced your arrival, and she wants to see.

Announced our arrival?! Crispin panicked. They'll kill us all!

Not when you're under the Matriarch's protection, Sera said. The mouthpiece will guard us as we fly to the chamber.

The vast elder-dragon flew ahead of them a couple peaks away, and then landed like a meteor. Crispin watched as half the peak crumbled away under the elder's weight. She folded her vast, canvas wings, coiling around the mountain like a huge, moss-covered snake. She watched them fly by with eyes like gold, emitting a low rumble. Her incalculably long tail wound around the peak, knocking loose boulders and cleaving down the few scraggly trees that had managed to grow above the treeline. Crispin pressed himself flat to Sera's back as they passed, unable to keep from staring at the huge elder in fear. A bunch of young dragons spiraled around her, still looking like a flock of pigeons, and landed on her back, head, and shoulders, squealing and squawking.

The valleys and canyons rang with the strange music of the dragons. Their voices were a constant presence. They clung to the mountainsides and peaks like a vast, dangerous colony of chimney swifts, all sizes and colors, and all screaming, wailing, howling, and thundering. As Sera and her sister passed by, some left their perches to see the vampires who had been announced. Sera's great-aunt Fio flew all around them, above and under and to the sides, warning off curious young ones and keeping watch. One older dragon tried to get too close, and Crispin felt Sera tense a split second before Fio slammed into him, kicking him away and spitting a pale blue fire. Nobody was allowed to cross the invisible barrier that separated the family from Sera's volatile Siege.

Do you see it? Sera asked. Crispin lifted himself up slightly to see over the bristling horns crowning her head. A long mountain stretch lay before them, and the entrance to what looked to be a large cavern stood black against snow.

A cave? Crispin wondered.

The entrance to the Matriarch's abode, said Sera, reverently. Only twice in the last ten years has she left it.

Crispin squinted as they swept in for a landing on the mountain ledge that stood before the cave entrance. The yawning mouth was large, to be sure, but he'd expected it to be bigger. Alice's description had made him think the matriarch was as big as that moss-green elder of Sera's, and Shehr'ragan could have fit through the opening if she'd squeezed a bit.

Sera heard his thoughts and snorted. No. The matriarch can't leave the cavern in her true form. The entrance isn't half big enough. She takes her human form and walks out.

Crispin felt himself wilt slightly. Oh. He watched the cavern mouth again, seeing it grow bigger and blacker as they swept in. And she couldn't leave it?

That was … that was a substantial dragon, indeed.

Sera landed first, followed by her sapphire sister. She tried to touch down gently, beating her vast wings hard to hover above the stone before putting her rear talons on it, but her front half still slammed down with the force of a car crash. She settled onto her belly as her sister came in, stretching one wing to the ground. Crispin helped Esme and Edward slide Carlisle's body to the stone, and Bella, Jacob, and Remesme followed them, sliding down Sera's dark wing membranes to the solid earth. Crispin watched the rest of his family dismounting from Arina, pell-mell and glad to be out of the sky. Sera's Great-Aunt Fio patrolled the heavens over the heads. She was so white, she made the snow look grey.

Jacob and Nessie huddled tiredly together, looking cramped and exhausted. Crispin felt sorry for them. Being living, they didn't have the same stamina that the undead vampires did, and they had suffered through fatigue during the hours-long flight. Being non-human, they would recover quickly enough. But it still had to be painful.

Sera rested her head on the stone beside them, her huge, lava eye gazing upon Carlisle. The Matriarch will know what to do, she said. I know she will.

Crispin rested his forehead on hers, sighing. Her intense body heat had warmed his undead flesh to match her temperature, and he no longer felt as much discomfort to touch her as he had before. I hope you're right.

Sera closed her eyes. I … I need to gather my strength for a minute before I speak with her. The Matriarch's presence is incredibly overwhelming. I'm afraid to put you beneath her gaze.

Crispin's stomach did a painful flipping motion. He stared at the black dragon, trying to decide what to feel. The sun dazzled on her beautiful scales. He looked up at the white dragon who circled them, keeping watch. Then he looked at Sera's sister, glittering and sapphire blue.

"We have to try for Carlisle," said Crispin, quietly. "Now that we're here, there's no turning back. She wanted to see us, anyway. Didn't she?"

I wanted to prepare you a little, first. Sera opened her lava-glow eyes again. Crispin could see his reflection in the beautiful red-and-gold orbs, the slitted pupils like voids.

"I guess we don't have time."

I know. Sera turned her head to observe the shapeshifter and the vampire-hybrid. She blew a hot breath over them, and her long, forked black tongue flickered out. I'm not sure we should take everybody in, she said, worriedly. It will be overwhelming for all of you, and I don't want to put you all through it if I don't have to.

Crispin swallowed once, and then repeated his girlfriend's words to the others. They all gave him scandalized looks.

"We're coming," said Rosalie, defiantly. "We're all in this together. You can't ask us to leave Carlisle."

Crispin grimaced. "Sera says it … it might be overwhelming."

Sera emitted a huge snort. Might be? Come now, Crispin.

Arina whined, fretfully. She approached her older sister, and Sera rested her head gently on top of her sister's. She made a long, gentle crooning sound. Arina nestled down and sighed, resting her head on the ground. Sera swung her huge head around and her nose brushed Crispin's hair. Arina can't come, she said. She doesn't have the authority. Those who wish to enter the chamber and see the Matriarch face-to-face will have to come with me.

Crispin shook his head. "Let's … just go."

Sera exhaled a heavy breath over him. Then she nudged Carlisle's body lightly. Carry him.

Esme was kneeling at her mate's head, where she had been this whole time. Edward and Emmett together helped her to pick him up. Jasper looked like he wanted to help, but under no circumstances would he usurp Esme's position at Carlisle's head. Sera carefully positioned herself so that she stood over them. I'll … try to cover you a little. You might feel safer if you have somewhere to hide.

Somewhere to hide? Crispin wanted to ask, but then he just swallowed, and walked with his family toward the yawning cave mouth.

The darkness swallowed them up. It took a second for Crispin's vampire eyes to adjust after being outside in the brilliant mountain sun, and he felt Alice take his hand. He glanced at her, and was amazed to see her grim little look, her face resolute. She squeezed his hand firmly, nodding. Crispin got the feeling she was gearing herself up.

They stood on a huge ledge that reached out into the empty space. The cavern was of such enormity that Crispin struggled to fully absorb it. He stared around at the distant walls, baffled. It looked empty. Sera moved slowly. She gradually shrank into the stone beneath them, and Crispin realized all at once that she was shivering. He hadn't realized that dragons could shiver.

The silence was deeply penetrating. It seemed to reach into him and around him and through him. The only sounds were their footsteps as they walked out into the empty void cavern, standing like ants on the little ledge. Then there was a rush of air, and a huge rumble. Crispin froze, statue-still. His stomach twisted in knots. If he'd had a living heart, it would probably have been beating itself against his ribs, as Sera's was doing next to him.

For a second, he'd thought the rush of wind had been from the Matriarch rising to meet them. But then he realized … that had been her breathing.

The mountain shuddered. Crispin staggered, caught off guard. It was like an earthquake. The family clustered under Sera's canvas wings as she flattened herself to the ledge. Crispin recognized the submissive posture. His girlfriend's eyes were so wide, he could see the whites around her irises.

Something huge rose from the depths. For a split second, Crispin thought for sure a piece of the mountain was being shoved up, like a volcano pushing aside the earth. Then he realized it was a dragon's folded wing, coming up wrist-first, black as the void and glistening, and larger than any skyscraper. The wrist-claws flexed out, gripping the side of the cavern. Boulders like Volkswagens were broken from the mountain, falling with mighty crashes to the distant, invisible earth. The floor jerked and rocked. Crispin struggled to keep his feet, and he feared the tremors would knock the ledge straight off the side of the cavern, and they'd all plummet to their deaths. Sera's chin was scraping the ground, and she scooted herself back, a tiny whimper rising from her throat.

Crispin had never seen her scared before. The sight of her fear made it all six times worse. He shrank beneath her wing, watching in horror as the Matriarch's other wing came up to grip the other side of the cavern. The distance between the opposing walls had to be at least three football fields. The force of the collision of her claws with the wall shook him to his knees.

Finally, her head came up over the ledge. Crispin's breathing stuttered in his hollow chest, and the tiny wheeze that left him was all that remained of his bravery. Sera was trying to shield them with her wings, but she was cowering so dramatically she threatened to accidentally crush them. Now Crispin could see what she had meant when she'd told him she wanted to cover them. His instincts screamed at him to run for his life.

The Matriarch's angular head rose over them like a looming mountain. She practically was the mountain. Crispin gaped in terror, his brain simply floundering. He couldn't comprehend. She was a rising volcano, a thunderstorm, a living force of raw, untamed, power. Her huge eyes shone as twin suns, white and blazing, the slit pupils like ravines. The Matriarch tilted her huge head, which bristled with a crown of horns. Crispin couldn't even see below her massive shoulders.

Slowly, the ancient dragon lowered her head to greet them. She exhaled. That single breath nearly threw them off the ledge. Alice cried out. Small and light compared the rest of them, she was nearly tossed out into the open cavern. The only thing that stopped her was Sera's body, but even Sera was pushed back as the wind caught in her wing membranes. Her claws scratched on the ledge floor.

Crispin suddenly felt the familiar stab of pain between his eyes. He clapped a hand to the spot, sucking in a gasp. The Matriarch had formed a telepathic connection with him.

You brought them to me, the dragon said. She was speaking to Sera, but they all heard it in their minds. Her voice in Crispin's head was deep and sonorous. It shook his whole soul. I only wish it did not have to be in such dire circumstances.

Her head lowered so that her huge eye was level with them. It blazed like a sun. Crispin was on his hands and knees, gasping. The overwhelming power was too much. Sera gulped. Crispin saw the tip of her tongue poke out, painfully.

Grandmother, she said, speaking telepathically. Please … help.

The Matriarch sighed. Thankfully, her nose was below the ledge, so the rush of wind didn't threaten to blast them all off again. Yes … I know. She focused on Crispin. He felt her gaze punching into him and shuddered, gasping as though winded. It was hard to breathe. It felt like the mountain was resting on his back. His entire body was only as tall as one of the scales on the Matriarch's face. He was a speck of dust before her, an insignificant little mote.

Your enemy is strong, she said, and the full force of her mental voice crashed down upon him like a tsunami wave. He was already on his knees, and now his forehead hit the stone as he gritted his teeth. He could smell Jacob next to him. The shapeshifter was sweating bowling balls. The Matriarch's voice spoke again, directly to Crispin. Your theory is correct, you know. The body without the soul is not necessarily dead. It is a fate worse than death. The slaver separates the soul from the body. Without it, the body has no will. It is then free for her to control.

Crispin swallowed so hard that he squeaked. Sera whimpered. His stress worried her, but it wasn't as though she could do anything about it. He tried to raise his head to look at the Matriarch, but to make eye contact was too overwhelming. He couldn't think under that pressure. He left his forehead resting on the stone, kneeling there, his arms hugging his stomach as he tried not to dry heave.

He … Carlisle … is he gone?

Crispin couldn't even use his voice. It was beyond his capacity under the Matriarch's terrible power.

The ancient dragon rumbled, gently. The sounds shook boulders from the walls, and Crispin gasped in pain, clutching his head. The huge volume pulsed in his skull, making him feel like it would split.

He is not gone.

Esme made a small sound behind him that sounded like a sob. Crispin felt a rush of energy course through him from head to toe. He wasn't gone. There was still a chance for Carlisle.

I don't know how to help him, thought Crispin, weakly. Sera said you were the answer.

She is correct. The Matriarch moved. She raised her head to resting level, towering in majesty and terrible power over the earth. Her huge breaths swept Crispin's hair all over the place, whipping his clothes. I knew this was coming. Although it is often difficult to let hard things happen, I know that it must be so for my children to grow in strength and wisdom. Your enemy might have hurt Dr. Carlisle Cullen, but she could never beat him. His mind and soul are beyond her reach.

The Matriarch rumbled again, trying to do it softly even as the earth shook beneath the power of her voice. Bring him here. Let me see him.

Crispin made several attempts to get up. His body felt like jelly, and he was still weighed down by the power of the ancient one's presence. It was a foreign and nightmarish feeling. As a vampire, he wasn't accustomed to being physically weak. His body was normally machine-like, slowed by nothing. Now his muscles shook, and he was practically crippled. Sera tried to help by nudging him with her snout. He looked back at the others, as though to ask for help, but they were all in similar states of collapse. Even Emmett, tough as brambles, was on his hands and knees. The sheer size, majesty, and power of the Matriarch, a being almost as old as the very human race, had floored them all.

It was Esme who found the strength to rise. She lifted her husband up in her arms, bearing the weight without struggle like the vampire that she was. She approached the edge of the ledge, moving slowly, her body bowing beneath the weight of the dragon's white-sun gaze. Crispin watched, feeling sick, afraid for her. She was so tiny before the ancient one. Tiny and fragile as an aphid. The Matriarch's head bent to see them closely, and Esme went down on her knees again, cradling her husband's head. Her face turned upward to see the Matriarch eye-to-eye. Crispin couldn't imagine how she could bear the intense, fiery power of the elder's direct attention.

The Matriarch drew in a deep breath and held it, bending her neck and almost touching with her nose the two vampires who were clustered before her. Esme began to tremble. She looked like she was on the verge of simply breaking to pieces. The Matriarch's mental voice spoke to them all again. He is fighting a battle to stay in this world. His soul maintains its link to his body by a thread. It is fortunate that this is so. I have pulled a spirit back from beyond the veil before … and I do not believe I would have the strength to do it again.

She emitted another gigantic rumble that shook them all to the bone. It was clearly meant to be a gentle purr. A distant cacophony echoed from outside the cavern: a landslide, probably.

Because he is still with us, I can restore him. Truly, he is a marvel of the universe. I know of very few who would have the strength to hold on when the soul yearns to be free. There was stillness for a second. Then, Crispin's felt it. A thrumming, humming, crackling energy that slowly rose around them, and his hair stood on end.

The Matriarch closed her eyes.

Then it happened. There was a tiny snap, and it all went loose. The cavern was illuminated with a pale light. It was like the universe had turned its whole vast attention to focus on the one tiny spot where Carlisle lay with Esme cradling him. The sun that streamed in through the entrance went dark. The temperature plunged, and a mighty wind suddenly coursed through the mountains. Sera scooped them all into her wings, shielding them with her scaly body. The light and wind and energy coursed around them like a whirling storm. Crispin was gasping in shock, and he opened his eyes just long enough to see the pebbles on the ground slowly rising into the air, quivering.

Then there came a mighty sound like a clap of thunder. A shockwave nearly flung them off the ledge and into the abyss below. The boom rolled across the mountains, growling and shaking the earth. The levitating pebbles clattered to the ground. Sera had caught them in her wings, and her claws had carved channels into the rock as she'd struggled to hold onto it. Crispin blinked hard, trying to see, looking at the place where his adoptive parents had been. Boulders were dropping randomly from the ceiling, shaken loose by the shockwave. And curled before the matriarch were two tiny forms: Esme and Carlisle.

It was only after the silence had fallen that it happened. Carlisle took his first breath, and they all heard it. Crispin almost bit his tongue, and a tiny noise left him as a lump knotted itself into his throat. Edward cried out. "Dad!"

Carlisle grunted a little, sitting up. He rubbed the back of his head, disoriented, and he grunted again, this time in surprise, when Esme lunged upon him. He blinked rapidly, and then smiled, returning the hug. "I made it?"

Esme just made a tiny little whimper. It was a sound of pure relief of joy. Edward staggered to his feet and ran to Carlisle, stumbling over debris that had fallen from the ceiling, and he collapsed to his knees beside his adoptive father, throwing his arms around Carlisle's neck. Carlisle patted his back, looking around at the rest of the shell-shocked family.

The Matriarch shifted. She might have done something as small as flicking the tip of her tail, but it ground against the wall of the cavern and drew the doctor's attention. Carlisle looked around, and then his eyes slowly rose to see the Matriarch's head. He pulled in a shuddering gasp. The Matriarch merely tilted her head. Carlisle got to his knees and bowed himself flat to the stone. There was quiet for a moment. The ancient one was speaking to the doctor alone. Esme was cowering beside him, faintly weeping. Her relief and exhaustion was obviously beyond words.

Finally, after several minutes of a shocked stillness, the elder's voice spoke in all their minds again. Long have I waited for you, she mused. Since the day that I first knew you would come, I have waited. But the New Dawn has not ended, yet, children. I give you your next assignment.

The dragon raised her head high, towering over them, a mountain within a mountain. Crispin's breath caught in his hollow chest, overwhelmed again at the majesty and power.

The age of the ruby-eyed ones is coming to a close. An era of peace is dawning. Where once my vampire descendants wrecked havoc upon the human race, they shall soon become servants to the higher cause, keepers of order and harbingers of prosperity. Her long, shiny black tongue slid in and out, tasting the air. There shall be a final Chaos. There shall be fire and destruction. You must gather the others, your golden-eyed kin to the west and any others who will turn aside from their pride and lust. The abominations who still follow the creed of my late son will burn. You shall stand leaders of the new generation, guardians of a bright and promising future.

As the Matriarch spoke, Crispin felt the tingle of energy again, that ancient shamanistic magic. It burned in his soul. For a second, he felt like his dead stone heart might spring to life again. He tensed, breathing in deeply, and suddenly it was like the whole of existence had become clear. He knew what they needed to do. He felt a change in the others. They, too, were affected by the command.

Sera stirred. She was like a hamster beside the Matriarch, tiny and squeaky. She lifted her head, looking her ancient grandmother in the eye. My parents … will they … ?

They will learn to accept the New Dawn, the Matriarch said. She huffed heavily, causing a violent wind to sweep around them, nearly lifting poor Alice off her feet again. It had been a small laugh. Oh, they will learn. I don't think it will be so difficult, either. Go to them, my hatchling. Show them what you have learned.

Sera swallowed painfully again, which made the forked tip of her tongue poke out of her mouth slightly. Yes, Grandmother.

The Matriarch sighed, and she shifted, releasing her grip on the wall with one claw and descending a little back toward her resting place. Farewell, children. This is the last time that I will see most of you. But I will be seeing Crispin again. She breathed a single short huff of laughter. With my mouthpiece Sera at his side.

With that, she released the other wall and descended entirely beyond their sight, far below, back into the distant depths from which she had come. The motion of her huge body through the air sent a sweeping wind over them. Carlisle and Esme held tight to each other. With a great thundering and booming, the Matriarch settled down to rest far away on the floor of the cavern. The whole mountain shook violently as though there was an earthquake, and then everything went still. The echoes of the rumbles from her descent rolled back over them a few times before silence fell.

Sera moved first. She managed to pull herself out of the submissive cowering posture that she'd been stuck in during the entire meeting. She blew a hot breath over Crispin, and then called to Carlisle and Esme. Her voice seemed small compared to the terrible night of the Matriarch's. Come on, we need to go, she said in their minds. It's not appropriate to linger.

The two vampires came to them from the end of the ledge where Esme had laid Carlisle for the Matriarch to see. Both were visibly trembling. As Crispin got to his feet, he could feel himself shaking, too. The feeling was incredibly foreign to him, and it was not pleasant. Vampires never trembled. Not usually, anyway.

Sera led them out. She gently nudged Jacob, who had mostly collapsed on the stone, pushing him to his feet with the end of her smooth black snout. Crispin leaned on his dragon girlfriend for support, taking deep, steadying breaths. Alice came to him, taking his hand, and he smiled at his sister. Suddenly, he had that lump in his throat again.

It had worked. Carlisle was with them again, safe and sound.

They stepped back out into the sunlight. Crispin was surprised to find it quiet in the valleys. The dragons who had occupied the area when they'd arrived had apparently decided to get well out of there. Whether they'd heard the Matriarch moving within her cavern, or they'd witnessed the unearthly effects of Carlisle's revival on the surrounding environment, they'd clearly decided to put some distance between them and the mountain where their maker dwelt.

The white dragon who had guarded them called from overhead. Sera's Great-Aunt Fio was clinging to the mountainside like a huge bat, Arina beside her. Sera wailed back. Arina lunged from the mountainside and slammed down beside them at the entrance to the cavern. She squealed, worriedly, and Sera rested her chin on Arina's head again, making sounds like steel cables snapping. It seemed to be a friendly gesture.

The Cullens all stood around for a moment, absorbing their own existences. Then, "Let's never do that again," Emmett suggested. His voice sounded tiny after they'd been listening to the Matriarch in all her glory and power. Crispin barked a short laugh.

"Let's," he agreed. "That was overwhelming."

Told you, sighed Sera. She tucked her limbs beneath her thin, scaly body, settling down on her stomach. I'm just gonna sit here for a minute. I need to recuperate.

Crispin looked at his adoptive parents. Carlisle had sat down, and was staring around at the mountains surrounding them with a blank, exhausted look on his face. Crispin felt bad for him. He'd spent the last several hours battling for his life. He had to be tired. Not physically, perhaps, but mentally.

Carlisle noticed him looking and broke into a smile. "Hi, Crispin."

Crispin went to his adoptive father and fell to his knees, burying his face in Carlile's shoulder. Carlisle hugged him back, chuckling. "I'm sorry, boy. I couldn't let her have you, could I?"

"Mmph," said Crispin, muffled. He squeezed Carlisle tightly, tears leaking down his cheeks. "Don't scare the heck out of us like that again. I don't think we could take it."

The rest of the vampire family, accompanied by the werewolf and the hybrid, all bundled around their adoptive parents and grandparents and just rested there in a big family hug.

Carlisle was back. Everything was going to be okay.