Epilogue: Risen from the Ashes

Eternity was a funeral pyre

Licking flames, hotter than any fire Bella had ever experienced, swept through her limbs in a raging inferno, charring her from the inside out until she was certain that there was nothing but a blackened husk remaining. In ways that her human mind could have never comprehended, the agony was excruciating. Speeding through her veins and scarring every single nerve ending, it was all-consuming, devouring, and it obliterated virtually all notion of sanity or reason. Yet for not one second was she granted the mercy of unconsciousness.

Instead, wide awake with ever heightening senses, Bella did nothing but feel. Staring into an unseeing, black abyss, she felt her blood boil and her skin blister. Her heart squeezed inside her chest, rebelling against the hot liquid that seemed to thicken with each beat, and hoarse from hours of screaming, her mouth and throat were now nothing more than smoldering ash.

"Edward," her mind chanted, clinging to the one image that seemed to lessen the pain, all else having burned away long ago. When she summoned, his face, though blurred and ephemeral, flitted through her awareness like a savior-angel, reminding her that he was waiting – that forever was on the other side of Hell.

For the thousandth time, Edward flinched when he heard her whisper his name against his chest. Each time Bella's lips moved – her voice now pleading and softer with each passing minute and repetition – it was like a bullwhip cracking across his back, splitting his granite flesh and pouring salt upon the gashes. With every tremble of her fragile body, quaking beneath the fiery onslaught, he cursed himself anew for allowing her to suffer this fate, for filling her with pain and his poison.

"Shh," Edward soothed, holding her tighter against his side, kissing her forehead over and over, as his lips shaped the prayers and rites of his mother's long-dead priest. Gently, he slid his icy palms down her cooling cheeks, hoping in vain to assuage the wicked fire within that he remembered all too well. "Soon, Isabella. Not much longer."

Uncaring of the winter-white world outside their small cabin, for three unending days, he'd laid here with her, swaddled with his human mate in blood-stained sheets and counting her heartbeats. Like a mourning widower, as her life slowly faded away, Edward memorized each thump, committing to his perfect vampire recall each echoing open and close of the ventricular valves.

By the final hours of the third day, the small, raised crescent above her breast had sealed, shimmering ever so slightly in the pale moonlight streaming in from the window. Almost matching his, Bella's body temperature had dropped, and when he touched her bare skin, he felt the smoothness of fused pores and crystalline vampire flesh. With each lengthening pause of her heart, Edward inhaled, sucking in the perfume that once drove him to the brink of violence. Only now, he noted, it had shifted. Still flawless and entirely Bella in its essence, her scent was far more vampire than human.

"Soon," Edward whispered, reminding himself this time. Feeling her body shudder again, his empty chest clenched and his eyes stung with nonexistent tears, dreading the end even as he simultaneously rejoiced the beginning. "Forgive me, Bella."

Bella felt it when her heart began to die. Still burning at the stake, lost in blackness and pure, unbridled pain, deep in her awareness, she heard what she could only describe as peals of thunder. They sounded so loud in her ears, resounding rumbles that rattled her bones. Each time the thunder rolled, the fire rose to new heights and her chest stretched, swelling until she swore that her ribcage had fractured. Yet some part of her leapt in anticipation, gritting against the pain, because somehow she knew that the end was near.

For the last remaining hours, the beats grew more and more feeble, softer, barely distinguished by even vampire ears, and dragging as though time were slowing. When the pause between them turned into minutes, Bella's spine arched and her fingers wound around the sheets. It was as though her body refused to accept defeat. Silently pleading, Edward kissed her quivering lips and placed his palm over her chest, absorbing the shock of those final pulses.

When Edward closed his eyes, an image of his creator passed behind his closed lids – the final, parting scene in Volterra. Endless sadness and violent rage warred on Marcus's ancient face. Yet as he surveyed the destruction of the Keep and the traitorous progeny kneeling at his feet, there had been something else in those opaque eyes.

Regret, maybe. For what, even with his gift for minds, Edward didn't know. Maybe it was for not listening to his mate's pleas to depart, or maybe it was for Aro's very creation. It could have been remorse for centuries of silent acceptance and apathetic consent. Or perhaps, it was for none of that, or maybe for it all.

Edward didn't know what would become of their kind – whether the Romanians would attempt another coup, or if Marcus would again choose to assume his rightful place. With Demetri and Eleazar and a heeled Alec, there was enough strength in the Guard to buttress his rule. But it would be different now, of that Edward was certain.

Alice had told him that much. Before she had raced away from the ancient city, heading off into the vast unknown to mourn her Jasper, he'd seen the tumult of what lay in store. Only a handful of images remained constant in her eyes, and those centered solely on Bella, the Cullens, and himself. She had yet to decide her own fate – if she would choose to follow her mate into oblivion or linger here without him.

Regardless of their shifting world and all the changes and uncertainty, however, all Edward could think or feel was profound gratitude. For in spite of nearly impossible odds, they were now free – her saved and him pardoned – to live as long as the earth spun on its axis. And as long as she existed and breathed and loved, for Edward, that was all that mattered. She was home and hope and life and love. She was everything.

Inside their small cabin buried deep in the arctic, with a final resounding thump, Bella's heart beat its last, and the transforming fire extinguished, leaving behind a subtle burn in the back of her throat. Fluttering against the blinding light, her newborn eyes opened to immortal life, seeing everything all at once.

But most of all, it was his face she saw. She saw Edward as he was truly meant to be seen, no longer dark and brooding, weighed down by a century of remorse and loneliness, but radiant and smiling and jubilant.

Outside, as if in announcement or proclamation, the sun broke through the tree line and roared across the empty sky, its light consuming the remnants of the darkest night.




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