Bitten by the Tree of Knowledge
"Bella!" a feminine voice urgently hissed. From across the quiet library, she whispered, "Where are you?"
"Over here," Bella answered, motioning with a free arm and lifting herself off the floor just enough to be seen over the line of cherry reading tables in the center of the room. "I'm over here, Angela."
Bella watched as her friend and roommate quickly crossed the checkerboard tile floor, her tattered tennis shoes squeaking with every step. When Angela reached the edge of the closest table, she carelessly threw her stack of books down and knelt to the floor beside her. "Jesus, Bells, what are you doing down here?"
With a sheepish smile, Bella tilted up the cover of the battered book she held in her lap.
On the Nightmare 
"Bella? How old is that book?" Angela asked, clearly assessing the faded camel leather binding and yellowing pages.
Bella frowned, lips pursing slightly in defense. Creasing her brow, she quickly flipped to the inside pages, searching for the copyright. "Oh, not that old," she said, sniffing with exaggeration. "Only nineteen thirty-one. And, I'll have you know, it has some very interesting commentary on medieval superstition."
Angela sighed, knowing better than to argue that everything in that book would be available online somewhere. She whispered, changing the subject, "Do you have any idea what time it is? You know they close Butler at eleven. Must you insist on getting kicked out every night?"
Bella's eyes fell to her wrist. With a groan, she apologized, "Sorry, Ang. I said I'd be at the cafe at nine, didn't I? I can't believe it's already ten forty-five. I, well, you know me. I was piecing through a few bibliographies, and I wanted to check a few texts myself." She grimaced and huffed. "Though the one I really want is in Rare Books and Manuscripts. But God, they lock up before five! Can you believe that?"
"Well, then, come on home now. You can come back here tomorrow. Before five," Angela said, rolling her eyes but grinning. As she pulled Bella to her feet, she teased, "I'm certain that the undead will remain undead while you sleep a few hours."
With a muffled giggle, Bella relented and allowed her friend to drag her to the closest elevator. Ignoring the metallic creaks and sighs of the old pulleys as the elevator descended its five stories, Bella glanced over to Angela and asked, "Where's Ben anyway? Weren't you spending the night with him tonight?"
Angela's smile faltered for just a second, but still long enough for Bella to see the tinge of disappointment. Quickly recovering, Angela answered lightly, "Maybe tomorrow night. He said he had to spend some time with some old guy named Faraday, else he would look more like a student than the TA in his EE201 course."
"God, that's a load. Did he make less than an A his entire undergrad career? And he remembers everything!" Bella laughed.
"I know!" Angela moaned in agreement, dramatically lifting the back of her hand to her forehead in mock distress. "He just can't stand not having the answers to, like, everything!"
Bella clutched the book she'd picked up to her chest and grinned, seeing Angela's quick turn and appraisal over the top of her thin-framed lenses. "Don't start, Angela. Just don't go there. I know I'm just as bad. And so are you. So let's just laugh at your boyfriend."
With a quick shake of her head, Angela answered, her voice on the verge of laughter, "Okay fine. I won't say a word. Nope, not one word. But seriously, Bella, if I were in your shoes, I don't know how I could sleep at night, what with all the time you spend reading those horror stories."
Teasingly, Bella scoffed and answered formally, "Not horror stories, Ang. Let me remind you, I am an anthropologist. Or at least I will be if I can ever finish this damned dissertation. I study people, not literature. I read the stories to understand the people."
Angela snorted, "Yeah, yeah. I'd still be creeped out."
"Oh, like cutting open cadavers and harvesting organs to pick apart and study is less creepy?" Bella chuckled, raising her brows in query.
"You know what I mean!"
Thirty minutes later, Bella found herself walking into the relatively roomy ten-by-ten space of her bedroom. She still couldn't quite believe the luck they'd stumbled upon when they'd moved this last time. By New York standards, their apartment was huge and was in a decent neighborhood. Yet they paid the price of something half the size and a quarter of the neighborhood. She'd never met her lessor – an agent had handled the sub lease on the elderly Mrs. Alicia Barton's behalf – but she couldn't help but feel the nagging suspicion that once again, she was experiencing the unseen effects of her life left long ago.
In fact, she was almost certain of it. As she glanced around the room, taking in the subtle, elegant detailing of the crown, the light beige matte finish of the walls, the openness of the entire layout, the quality and timeless décor screamed Esme Cullen. It reminded her far too much of the Cullen home in Forks, a once happy and comfortable place that she hadn't visited in more than seven years. Of course, the seven year absence hadn't been by her choice.
While Bella would never admit the truth to anyone but herself, they – the Cullens – were the reason she was here. They were the reason for nearly every choice she'd made since they'd left, since her best friend had leapt through the window of her childhood bedroom and told her in the still of the night that their presence was too dangerous for her and that they would no longer be a part of her life.
For seven years, they'd been true to their word. Other than dubious good fortune in housing arrangements, scholarships, and unexpected grants, Bella had neither seen nor heard of them. And that wasn't for lack of her trying.
Because since they'd left, Bella had been hell-bent on finding them, despite their wishes to the contrary. Or, at least, on understanding them, understanding their history and their legacy. It was the only way she felt like the best two years of her life had been real, like all the fantastical things she'd experienced were fact and not fiction. Searching for them in human memory and history was the only link she had to that flickering bright spot of her adolescence.
While most thought she was off her rocker for studying vampires, of all things, it helped her remember and it made her feel nearer to what had been the closest thing to a family she'd ever had.
Two days had passed since the feast of St. Marcus. The square had been cleared, all remnants of festivity removed. In the open air, it was almost quiet, the humans having long since retired to their beds. Unlike the waking hours, he felt some measure of relief from the constant bombardment of screaming thoughts. He supposed that while he could neither sleep nor dream, this was the closest he could come to it.
In their minds, he saw their dreams, flitting images of people and places, some pleasant, some not. A child was dreaming of a favorite toy. A young woman lovingly dreamt of the growing infant in her womb. And in an old, crumbling flat, riddled with mice and insects, an old, bedridden man imagined that he could walk again. Edward could hear the joy and feel the breath of wind across his face as he walked along side a wide stream, a memory of long-lost days.
Slowly, at a human pace, Edward strolled the city perimeter, taking reprieve from the oppressive depths and darkness of the ancient stone walls. Out here, the thoughts of his brothers and sisters – fellow guards – were quiet, too, just whispers if he didn't bother to listen. While they were all envious of his talents, most had not the capacity to understand the consequences of that which they coveted. Most could not comprehend the exhaustion and misery that came with hearing too much for too long.
The night air was slightly cooler than usual for the time of year, and he could feel light dew settling into the thick cotton of his shirt and even on his cold flesh. The damp air smelled of wet leaves and evergreen, marred by the scents of modern human existence. Pungent automobile exhaust, despite the lack of traffic at the late hour, hovered in a speckled cloud mere feet above the road bed, the black particulate and dust just discernable to his eyes.
Far above, it was almost clear, a deep, dark, blue-black sky with wide, fat beams of white moonlight shining down, illuminating the forest beyond the city walls. To human eyes, the world would appear almost gray, as if everything had been washed and color had been filtered out. But with his acute vision, he could still see as if it were day. Vibrant greens and rich mahoganies decorated the tree line, and hidden amongst the branches, he could see small and timid birds perched near their nests, awaiting his departure. Unlike humans, the wildlife were not fooled by their pretty wares and flashing smiles. The creatures of the forest knew him for the predator he was. Not that they had any reason to fear him.
As he rounded the city walls a second time, behind him, at a respectful and cautious distance, he heard another of his kind. Soft-spoken, both audibly and in his thoughts, Demetri was another of Aro's acquisitions. Gifted in a way not dissimilar to Edward, he was a tracker of the highest order. Minds, human and vampire, were like fingerprints to his, entirely individual and distinguishable from each other. Demetri could see them, could see the fine grain boundaries and curvature that marked individuals' thoughts. While he could not hear as Edward did, once he'd seen the print, he could locate his target again no matter the distance or time away. Once Demetri latched on, there was no shaking him.
"Edward," he called, his voice velvety smooth and musical. While few could detect it, Edward could hear the hint of an ancient lilt, one not heard by the human world in millennia. In a time few remembered, he had been called Demetrios, a human soldier and, even then, a skilled tracker in the Grecian army. Like many of the gifted guard, he had been turned by Aro himself the night before the battle at Corinth.
"Demetri," Edward answered quietly, knowing his voice would carry and be heard.
In no apparent hurry, the vampire approached, gliding silently across the pebbled path, seemingly at perfect peace with himself and his surroundings. He appeared to be no more than another man taking in the late night fresh air.
Pleasant evening, isn't it? he greeted, crimson eyes flickering across the moonlit landscape. A ghost of a smile stretched across his face. It must be easier for you out here. Away from all that nonsense, Demetri continued, waving vaguely toward the city.
Edward smiled blandly and answered, "You could say that."
Edward's gaze trailed to the left. In the distance, he watched the subtle movements of a watchman atop the rampart lighting a cigarette. His eyes followed the path of unfurling smoke, watching as it drifted upward in a wending, translucent gray-white path. For a moment, they stood in silence. Were it not for the light breeze ruffling dark hair and darker clothing, they would appear motionless, as two marble statues.
"Aro wishes to speak with you," Demetri finally stated, voicing what Edward had already heard. There was no inflection or intonation, just a simple statement. The only image that accompanied his words was that of his master smiling and issuing the command.
"Thank you," Edward replied cordially, nodding in acknowledgment. "I don't suppose he mentioned the purpose?"
"No. My apologies, brother. He did not confide in me. He only asked that I fetch you."
Edward suppressed a sigh of both irritation and resignation. "Of course, Demetri. I understand."
As he turned, prepared to immediately answer his summons – knowing that to wait would be in poor judgment – Demetri chuckled and warned, You might consider steering clear of the East Wing. Jane's on a tear.
"When is she not?" Edward replied, sharing a brief moment of amusement, envisioning the pale-haired girl belligerent and ranting.
Never. Regardless, I warned you. She even went after Alec this afternoon. When he blinded her in response, she almost lost it.
Through Demetri's eyes and memory, he saw the dark-haired boy splayed out across the limestone floor, his angular face taut and his arms flailing wildly under sheer, mind-induced agony. A sadist in the extreme, Jane took nothing but delight in her gift. With but a glance, she could incapacitate the most violent and skilled attacker with excruciating pain, a pain akin to a thousand hot knives piercing and digging into flesh. A human would die under her stare.
Like Alec, by Edward's estimation, Jane had been turned too early and she had too much power. But his masters knew no bounds, adjusting their 'rules' as they saw fit in order to take what they wanted. Aro had coveted her and her witch-twin brother, and thus, it was so. She and Alec, like he, wore the blackest of cloaks.
Minutes later, Edward found himself walking down the dim tunnel to the solar, the same room he'd entered days before. By the thick oaken door, a woman, a human, stood behind a wide, ornate rosewood desk.
"Edward. Buona sera," Gianna welcomed politely. "Aro vi aspetta."
He'd never understood the humans that knowingly entered into their service. Despite hearing their thoughts, he could not comprehend how they could come to such a dangerous and surely life-ending decision. They – these humans – all romanticized the notion of immortality, of life without end. They turned a blind eye to the carnage, to the blatant violence and murder that occurred just on the other side of the stone wall. These servants viewed them – the vampires – as gods, and they hoped that by indenturing themselves, perhaps one day, they would be changed and granted place in the ranks of the guard.
Never had that actually occurred.
"Grazie," Edward answered, pushing through the doors, ignoring her mindless internal chatter. Like so many, she saw only his beauty. And stupidly, she held no fear of him.
Lit by chandelier, the room appeared warm, inviting almost. Gilded sconces glittered in the low light, and heavy, dark wooden chairs with intricate detailing and high backs decorated the far walls. Were it not for the images emblazoned in his mind, it would appear as nothing more than the opulent throne room of a long-dead medieval ruler. Though now scrubbed clean, he could still smell the faintest traces of human blood, the remaining evidence of the wanton bloodletting and gorging of their feast.
"Edward!" Aro called out, rising from his seat atop the dais in the center of the room. With lithe and enthusiastic motion, he descended the steps, immediately targeting Edward. Reaching for his hand, Aro continued, "I'm so glad you were able to join us this evening. I have something very important I need to discuss with you."
Master, he thought, as the flesh of their palms connected. In forced deference, his eyes averted to the floor. He despised his subservience, his enslavement. He despised lowering his eyes.
Edward inhaled deeply through his nose, fighting the rolling shudder that threatened to climb up his spine as his own thoughts were bounced back to him from Aro's mind. Like Edward, Aro could hear. Their gifts were almost matching, like two sides to a coin. Where Edward could hear without touch and over distance, Aro required physical contact. But in exchange, Aro heard far more, hearing, at once, any and all thoughts for which he searched.
You are weary, my son.
Yes, Master. I apologize for my thoughts.
You seek a reprieve? Aro thought with a lifted brow.
Edward glanced up, taking in Aro's almost amused expression. His crimson eyes were milky and glowing, and his skin was chalky and thin in his age. Against his pale complexion, his long hair was almost as black as his garments. Dark as night and adorned with the signs of his rule, his robe trailed the floor.
Behind him, remaining on their lavish thrones, sat his other masters, Marcus and Caius, one looking on with indifference and the other wearing a sneer of impatience.
"Aro, get on with it," Caius spat, his shock of snow-white hair shaking with his vehemence. "Stop wasting time."
"A moment, dear Caius," Aro purred, smiling. "I'm having a chat with our Edward."
I have a task for you. Two tasks actually.
Edward's eyes closed as his mind was flooded with images. A vampire with corn-silk hair appeared, dressed in the livery of centuries past, standing in the very spot in which he stood. The vampire's voice was a high tenor, musical in its Old English cadence. Immediately, Edward recognized him, having heard Aro's thoughts before.
Carlisle Cullen. We are old friends, and I haven't seen him in so many years. The last I'd heard, he was in North America. And he's amassed quite a coven of his own, so I hear. Edward, I'd like you to visit him on our behalf – to pay him and his my regards. But, too, I'm very interested to see who has joined his coven. I want you... to inquire for me. And, of course, check in on a few of the others while you are visiting the continent.
It was a strange request, especially being asked of Edward. While the Volturi often sent out guard members to assess other covens and ensure compliance with the law, it was rare that he be involved. Aro saw him as too valuable to send away for such work. There was more to this command; that much was clear.
Of course, Master, Edward replied, dipping his chin.
That's not all, my son. There is another… person… I'd like you to locate for us.
Person, Master? Edward queried.
Aro smiled, his lips peeling back over his razor-sharp teeth. A girl. A human.
"A human?" Edward asked aloud, confused.
From the dais, Caius interrupted, "Yes, a human girl. We need you to find her for us."
Edward ducked his head lower as Aro continued, glaring daggers at the white-haired vampire. "This girl knows more than she should, I fear. I want to know why and how she came upon her knowledge."
Spitting with venomous derision, Caius interjected, "She knows far too much, Aro. Never mind the hows and whys. She is a danger to us all, and she must be eliminated."
 Jones, Ernest. "On the Nightmare," 1931.