The Count of Tuscany

Chapter 9

Dark.

Silent.

Empty.

Nothing.

Nothing

Forever nothing. The nothing had lasted for a very long time.

Pressure.

Discomfort.

No, not discomfort, pain.

Sheer agony.

Vices tightening on all those broken bones?

Thoughts and images exploded around him ... above him? The castle, the city, rooms, night skies, traffic, faces.

Where was he?

He was in utter darkness.

There was no air.

He couldn't move.

At all.

The pressure crushed him from every direction. Some of it was even and - smooth somehow. Mostly it was tight and bruising, if he could be bruised.

He wasn't dead. Wait. Was he? Would final death be this painful? Or was this reserved just for vampires?

He focused on whatever it was that was crushing him, trying to determine what it was.

I'm in chains.

He should have been able to break chains - even ones that seemed to cover him from neck to foot - with a flick of his elbow, but he was immobile, lying almost straight, enveloped.

Something held his eyes closed. Something covered his face, filled his mouth, his nostrils, his ears and felt like a cap against his scalp. He couldn't breathe. Whatever filled his mouth and throat felt gritty against his tongue and tasted sour and sharp. It pressed on the back of his throat, threatening to trigger his gag reflex, but he couldn't move enough even for that. The stuff was sharp in his nasal passages.

They've encased me in concrete.

Abruptly he recalled the excavation in the courtyard and a niggle of fear bubbled up inside of him.

The prolonged assault had cost him dearly in both venom and energy. Broken him, weakened him, and rendered him helpless. There was no chance of him breaking his chains and digging his way out and now he could heal only very slowly.

He could hear, although sounds were muffled. There were rumblings and murmurings; the tread of feet and groaning of the ground around him as it settled. Thoughts bombarded him. It seemed most of the Volterran vampires had dropped their mental shields and this frightened him more than anything else. He'd expected them to kill him, but they hadn't. If Aro felt secure enough to leave him alive and able to hear everyone's thoughts, how long was he planning on keeping him buried?

A hundred years?

A thousand?

How long before the chains rusted and the concrete crumbled? Would they let him out? Was this done to frighten him? He had to admit that it was working.

Carlisle and Jasper had both tried to starve themselves and Edward had heard their memories: the overwhelming thirst, the weakness, the waning of their mental faculties. Carlisle had sat at the bottom of the sea, but at least he'd seen an occasional fish; Jasper had been able to breathe and see the sky. And they'd had the choice to stop.

Edward panicked, his torn muscles convulsing. Since the concrete had no give, the contractions reflected inward, muscles cramping around his broken bones. There was enough air in his lungs for one small, muffled groan. He tried to wriggle, to move something, just - anything. They'd known only too well what they were doing. His spine was twisted just a fraction, enough that it ached. The chains around his knees were pressing against his shattered kneecaps in just the right spot; enough that they couldn't quickly mend and reattach to the cartilage.

He and Carlisle had both studied the human form and become familiar with every joint and ligament to understand how to heal. It seemed the Volterran vampires were also experts but applied their knowledge in causing maximum discomfort.

He went inside Alec’s mind as he walked across the courtyard to the tower with Aro who was congratulating him on a job well done. It turned out that Alec had used his “gift” on Edward for five hours to rob him of his senses until he was safely imprisoned. He heard the sound and vibration of their footsteps, the swish of a cloak - and the faint crunch of gravel underfoot. Then Aro's thoughts came through.

I know you can hear me, but it will not last. An eternity without her, am I not right? That was your greatest fear? Consider it granted. I have conveyed your farewells to your coven. He chuckled aloud.

Terror swamped Edward. He wanted to scream, he wanted to weep, he wanted someone to rescue him. He hadn’t felt so weak in a hundred years. The lime-burn in his nasal passages tormented him, the concrete in his throat permanently gagging him. It was made worse by his rapidly-increasing thirst as his energy drained. He couldn't stand it! He'd been here for only a short time and he would lie here forever, trapped, suffocated, aching to the center of his being and totally heartsick. His bones were knitting together so slowly, he could almost feel each cell attach itself to the next.

Carlisle, Alice - please!

Was there a way out of this? As he struggled all he could achieve were repeats of the spasms and cramps he'd had before trying to move. Still, feeling every last shard of shattered bone was better than lying there thinking about how he could have been in Forks. His family could have protected Bella - and Seth.

Seth!

He searched through the minds around him and felt some relief. Seth was alive and back in his cell, asleep. After their ordeal he’d probably been exhausted. Seth had been in a lot of pain from his injuries, but he wasn't too badly hurt. The Volturi was surprised and amused by his recovery. Santiago had stunned him and he'd had many gashes and bruises, but no major bones broken. Of course, in a normal human the damage would have been terminal, but Seth was anything but normal for a kid of his age.

He’d also pulled from Alec that before summoning Seth and Edward to the dining room, Aro had given the order that Seth be kept alive for testing. The wolf would be a useful instrument of both entertainment and execution. Aro’s thoughts taunted Edward. He considered, after a trial period of course, holding Seth hostage for the use of Sam's services against other covens, perhaps the Cullens themselves, musing that it would be an interesting test of Carlisle's restraint.

Yes, Edward, I know you're listening, but don’t waste your energy. Your power will fade as your thirst grows, and I shall be sure to make no decision about your coven until long past that time. It is far more difficult not to know, don't you think? At least, your predecessors thought so. Then the smooth wall came down over Aro's thoughts again.

If he'd had enough breath to scream, he would have. He lay, despairing, as the world went on around him.

From time to time he heard church bells ringing half-hour and hour, the intervals between them seeming far too long. Traffic rumble increased, then died away again; the chatter of passing humans came and went. Through them he saw the external castle walls, the streetlights, the warm lights in the trattoria nearby. He listened to the talk from the vampires around the castle, moving from one mind to another. Many of the vampires didn't know that something had happened; most didn't care. News of the wolf spread, but after a few hours Edward's name had ceased to be in anyone's thoughts. Aro kept his mind silent.

He tested the range of his hearing and once again plunged into panic. Just ten miles, far short of the area he usually covered.

Seth woke hungry as usual and wept alone and frightened in his cell. A woman came in with his breakfast and he asked her what happened to Edward, but she ignored him. He was confused as to why they’d either ordered Edward to leave the castle or killed him, since he recalled how the Volturi had wanted Edward to join them. As he ate, he called out mentally, "Edward? Can you hear me? Please don't leave me!"

Seth waited for a visit that never came, starting at every small noise. He was angry and distressed over the deaths of the teenagers and his inability to help them, but surprised he didn't feel more disturbed about the damage he'd inflicted on the various vampires; however, at this point he figured it must be an innate part of him. Edward's attempts to defend him from the others left him feeling humbled and sad. In his turn, Edward felt touched when Seth thought of what he'd say to his family and Sam if they ever said anything bad about the Cullens again. Eventually he went back to sleep.

Time passed. Thirst grew.

Edward heard the patter of rain on the courtyard flagstones and felt rain on the faces of humans scurrying for cover.

He saw the ebb and flow of visitors to the castle, human and vampire. Over and over he became the humans outside the walls, bustling about their lives, oblivious to the nest of vipers a few feet away.

He let his mind wander down memory paths he used to travel before meeting Bella. He thought through the years of his existence since Carlisle turned him, then through every book he'd read, every movie he ever saw, the good and the bad. Then over and over he played every second of his time with Bella, pretending he was still there with her. Their first trip to his meadow, he'd watched every step she took. That afternoon had been a series of best points in his life, topping each other over and over. When he'd walked beside her for those few hours he'd been content. It had been more than he'd ever dreamed he could do. When she hadn’t fled as his skin betrayed his nature under the bright sun, he'd thought he couldn't have been happier; as she’d run her fingers along his arm ... and let him kiss her, however briefly... his wonder had grown.

"An eternity without her."

He heard the earth flex as the sun came out and dried the ground. He felt its warmth, winter-weak, on the faces of humans walking by.

Seth slept much of those first few days, despite his fears, and later grew bored. To Edward's surprise, Jane continued to supervise his meals and loitered in his cell, welcoming the diversion from her normal routine. She was intrigued by this strange wolf-boy. He was clearly not a true werewolf, and although in her mind he was inferior to vampires, he was an interesting object. She also felt a grudging respect that her gift didn't touch him.

His thirst grew until it seared his throat. Tentatively, fearfully, every day Edward tested the limit of his telepathy. The circumference of his range was rushing inward, faster and closer each day. He could barely hear outside the city now. Over and over the fear crashed into his mind. When he could no longer survive by seeing and hearing others’ thoughts, how would he stay sane? For how long? And do you want to?

He heard the particles of grit skitter across the ground, blown by the wind as it pushed against the humans, bustling them along the narrow streets and alleyways.

Once again he relived each moment of his time with Bella, from that first glimpse in the cafeteria right through to the feel of her forehead under his lips during their last goodbye in the forest. He loitered over each second, forcing himself to keep it all in real-time. He remembered watching movies with her, one of which he’d quoted, murmuring into her hair, "Death cannot stop true love; all it can do is delay it a while." She'd wriggled in his arms, claiming his breath tickled her ear. Later she'd laughed and said, "I should get a T-shirt that says 'Edward Cullen is only mostly dead.' " He'd thrown her in the air, then caught her and swung her around just before she hit the floor, pretending to attack her and bite her neck in retaliation. He’d said, “There's a big difference between ‘mostly dead,’ and ‘all dead.’ "

Every time he reached the scene in the forest, he returned to the beginning and went through it all again.

Bells pealed louder and in greater numbers. He'd been anticipating this all day. They were calling the faithful to Mass on Christmas Eve.

Edward attended several of the church services that night, the world's lonliest ghost flitting from mind to mind. Solitary and still, he felt like the seventeen-year-old he once was, bereft of his loved ones. His prayers were fervent: for Bella's welfare and happiness, for his family's safety, for Seth, for Sam, the Quileutes, and finally for himself. He begged for a release from his torment, one way or another, and internally sobbed.

Time passed. New Year’s came. Time passed.

The world had now shrunk to a few hundred yards from the castle. The burning in his throat swamped his mind most of the time. Even as he looked through others' eyes, the world seemed aflame.

At least he could still read Seth’s mind. He was fully healed but bored beyond measure. Jane brought him books and a television, and Edward read the books and watched TV through Seth's eyes.

The night grew quiet, with few humans awake. Had there been more he would never have heard the shocked mental exclamation outside the city. In Italian a man thought, Mother of God, I see one! Startled and curious, he listened for the source of the thought. Wider and wider he forced his mental net until he heard more, this time followed by a vocal outburst. There! The creature's on the castle tower!

He had it pinpointed now. On a hillside, beyond the city walls, he found two men, one of them hurriedly and angrily shushing the other. "Nico! Silenzio!”

Nico whispered apologies to a man he called “Professor” who was looking through binoculars at Aro on the top of a tower as he gazed down upon the sleeping city. Then he looked through another device - a thermal imaging scope. Edward’s mind reeled; Aro's figure glowed ice-blue against the warmer yellows and oranges of the city.

Nico continued to stare for long seconds before looking down at a camera, adjusting it, cleaning the lens, and then quickly updating software on the computer to which it was attached. He was afraid he'd been heard and hurried to finish his task and get away to safety. In horrid fascination, Edward saw brief glimpses of lectures and briefings; meetings in which uniform-clad men and women, all grim-faced, talked at length with robed men with signet rings some knelt to kiss. Cold ... blurringly fast ... exceptional hearing and eyesight ...

Edward lost them as they drove away. Frustrated and angry, he reached out as far as he could, but caught only a mental murmuring and the word Monseigneur.

So the military was studying vampires. Aided by the Church.

He searched his memories of the past few weeks but there had been no hint in any human mind about this, and even though most vampire minds had been closed to him, he was certain they were ignorant of it as well. The usually careful Aro standing out in the open was evidence of that.

For a while he was distracted from his own predicament. It wasn't hard to guess why this was happening now. Aro and Caius had been well-known to humans millennia ago, and the Church leaders had long memories. Until recently remote observation and identification wasn't possible, but with modern technology it had been only a matter of time. And here was the irony: had Aro left him free, he could have told him.

The world had changed in an instant. With their technology, humans could detect the atmospheric composition of planets light years away; if they were using similar instruments on any vampires they came across, what had they learned already? If the Italian military was studying Volterra, had they shared the find with other nations? Were others looking, too?

He struggled uselessly as despair swamped him. Whatever the humans decided to do, he knew that military minds focused on offensive/defensive capabilities and how to destroy. Sooner or later, they'd want to test both. He, Jasper, and Emmett had often discussed what kind of mess a potassium-coated armor-piercing bullet would make of a vampire. This was always assuming said vampire didn't hear the bullet coming and flick it back at the human who fired it. One evening, Emmett had insisted on testing at least part of it, having Jasper shoot him with an uncoated round. It took the whole night to find all the bits and pieces of his shoulder, making them late for school the next day. Emmett had complained so loudly that Mrs. Cope heard. She said he looked pale and tried to send him home sick. Considering vampires were quite pale to begin with, and a human noticed it, that was saying something. Esme was so angry she'd nearly torn his arm off again.

For almost all of history humans had been the weak ones, the prey, either unaware of the immortals in their midst or helpless to stand up to them, but now ... they had science. He might be the only vampire in the world who knew they'd been discovered, and he couldn't tell anyone.

More than anything he wanted to warn his family, to help them make plans to keep them safe. If the news broke to the public, what would Bella think? Would she try to find him? That’s when it hit him. If it was discovered the Cullens were vampires, the military would quickly deduce she knew and take her in for questioning. Lying imprisoned and unable to protect her, it was difficult to imagine that they weren't already knocking on Charlie's door, arresting her and taking her away. He tortured himself with visions of them mining the depths of her knowledge and possibly injecting her with drugs to make sure she told all she knew.

For days he wallowed uselessly in his anguish, more angry with himself than he'd ever been. Although he'd never wanted to join the Volturi guard, he'd been convinced his gift would be invaluable to Aro. That he'd be seen as a dangerous liability never crossed his mind. Now he mentally screamed at himself for his hubris.

To make him feel worse, Aro sent for Seth again. He wanted sport and had a transgressor to deal with. Jane went to fetch him.

As Seth followed her on shaky legs to the dining room, he was wishing Edward was with him. He'd frequently asked what had happened to Edward and was appalled when they'd told him to forget him. He'd wept for days, filled with guilt and mentally apologizing. "Edward would have been safe if not for me," he'd thought. Edward longed to explain just how far off the mark he was. It was he who could never make enough amends to Seth for getting him into this mess in the first place.

Jane explained that Aro wanted him to dispose of a vampire. If Edward could have found any amusement in the situation, he'd have laughed at Seth's attitude. He felt that as long as it wasn't anyone he knew, which basically meant those who refrained from drinking humans, he was almost upbeat about it. Even Edward thought it strange it didn't bother him, but like Seth he also assumed it was genetic conditioning. When Aro gave a hand signal, Seth was to phase and attack.

In the dining room Edward looked through multiple pairs of eyes. The intended victim, Tomas, had hunted too openly and frequently in Glasgow sparking off press speculation and wild theories about the murders. Not only that, but Tomas had allowed police and witnesses to get glimpses of him, often waiting until the last possible moment with his victims before he escaped. Twice he'd been described to the police as having "disappeared" before the horrified witnesses' eyes.

Aro grandly censured him before the assembled court, savoring each moment as he described Tomas's crimes against the vampire world. Tomas was only sixty years old, but he knew the rules and was terrified, looking for a way out. Aro gave him a choice: immediate annihilation or besting the human boy in a fight.

Tomas grinned. He couldn’t believe his good fortune. “I will fight the boy,” he said.

Seth phased and stood shaking his fur as Tomas stared, trying to make sense of what he’d just seen. Then he backed up, still unable to take his eyes off the wolf. As Seth crouched ready to spring, there was a burst of mental noise. It's Seth! He's here! Seth, can you hear us? It's Paul. Jared, go get Sam. Seth's phased! He's here!

Good Lord, a group mind, Edward thought, fascinated. Through Seth's own thoughts he could feel how these new voices held similar resonances

Distracted, Seth paused. Paul? Where are you? He looked around the room as if he thought Paul was there. His hesitation gave Tomas time enough to attack. He almost got his arms round Seth's ribs before the wolf reacted. He was nimble, performing a wriggling, twisting leap that freed him with just the loss of a few clumps of fur. Tomas eyed him, trying to work out how best to take him on but wasn't allowed time enough. Seth's next leap flattened him and although he kicked up until they both rolled, Seth tore out the socket of his right shoulder and then aimed for his knees. After that, he simply tore off chunk after chunk as he and Paul exchanged information.

Edward listened intently. The wolves hadn't given up on Seth after Sam witnessed their fight in December. There were now five of them and they'd done shifts to keep at least one in wolf form 24/7, hoping Seth was alive and would phase again. They knew he was somewhere that had many vampires, but didn't know where it was.

I'm in Italy in a town called Volterra. It's Vamp HQ. Memories of the plane ride flicked quickly through Seth's mind.

And Edward? We saw...

He tried to help me! I don't know where he is. I think they've ... Seth whined as he tore into Tomas's abdomen.

We know. We've been trying to contact Dr. Cullen but we don’t have any idea where he or the rest of the Cullens are. Did Edward tell you anything about their whereabouts?

Edward swore to himself. It hadn't occurred to him to mention Denali or the family's home in Chicago. A lot of things didn't occur to you, you idiot.

Tomas was beyond movement now. Paul fell silent as Seth stepped back and looked up at Aro, who clapped. "Well done, mutant. That was most entertaining." Alec stepped down from the dais as Jane waved Seth back. Within seconds, the remains of Tomas were aflame and Seth sneezed as the sweet smoke filled his muzzle. Recognizing the scent, he wondered sadly whether it had been Edward's burning he'd smelled earlier.

"Take the mutant back to his cell." Aro gave his instruction to Jane as he and his entourage swept out of the chamber.

Time passed; weeks, Edward supposed. He could see little now. There was only the flames; the burning. It centered in his throat but he could feel it throughout his body. When he caught others' thoughts, they often made no sense to him; lucidity came only occasionally. He thought he'd heard Seth phase again to provide more sport for the Volturi, and that Sam had traveled to Italy. He hadn’t been able to get close enough to the city to make any attempt to plan a rescue because there were too many vampires and they would have detected him. Edward wasn't sure whether he'd heard this or imagined it.

Sometimes he thought he was going through the change from human to vampire again and that Carlisle would be waiting for him when it ended. Or was it Bella being changed? Had he bitten her? Had Jasper? Had her mental silence ended and he was living the change with her?

His telepathy was almost gone. It was like watching the guttering stub of a candle. He embraced the dying flame with all his will, trying to hold onto it for just - one - more - moment.

Now his universe was a black flame in his head. All he had was a wail of misery to keep him company. Endlessly he went through his ritual of recalling every moment with Bella. He felt the rumblings of the traffic, the shifting of the ground, the minute seismic movements caused by nearby construction work, distant earthquakes, the lunar cycles, the faraway tides. Again he went through his memories of ... of ... her … she was ... human. What's a human?

He recalled his family, but couldn't remember their names.

There was a face. With brown eyes.

Time dragged on and on.

And a scent of flowers.

Centuries? Millennia? Eons?

She would be long gone by now.

He felt sand blowing through his soul.

His mind fell.

Down.

Down.

Down into the gibbering darkness.

0O0O0O0O0O0O0


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