It always started out the same way.
Dark—like the day was slowly dying. The sky was obscured by closely hovering clouds that were the color of granite. Each time she saw them, she thought of rough-spun shrouds entwined around the dead.
Despite the weakening light, she knew she had to enter the cathedral-like forest.
Every night, she’d find herself in the center of the meadow … his meadow. But there was nothing left of him there. No bright sunlight. No tall, green grasses or sweetly scented wildflowers bowing to each other in preparation of the dance they would perform in the whisper of warm breezes.
It was as barren and colorless as the sky. No soft lilacs, sweet pinks, or pale yellows. The once beautiful, fairytale-like meadow was cold and numb. It wasn’t dying. It was already dead.
The weeping branches of the dull green firs would sway as if they were beckoning to her, drawing her in, inviting her to search within their catacomb-like depths.
She already knew what she would find there, but she was strangely compelled to search again. After the first reluctant step, she would take another, and another, until she passed between the great, coarse-barked trees that acted as guardians before the familiar gloom.
As every other night, she was running, running, running; her feet sinking into the damp, loamy soil. It sucked and pulled at her shoes as if it was trying to stop her from making her way through the forest, but she knew she had to keep running. She didn’t know what she was searching for, but she had to find it.
Although she ran as fast as her feet could carry her, she could never reach her destination, but that never stopped her.
She had to keep trying.
When she’d least expect it, though it happened every time, gnarled roots from the looming trees would appear in her path and grab at her toes, sending her sprawling into the spongy moss and dripping ferns. Fearing she would be pulled down into the dank, suffocating depths beneath the ominous trees, she would fight her way to her feet and run on.
Barren limbs like skeletal fingers reached out to pluck at her long, tangled hair and snatch at her clothing. She’d fling her arms out frantically to brush them away, only to continue stumbling along the unmarked path.
Every night she ran through the night-darkened trees, and every night she’d catch a glimpse of something that was less dark—less black—than her surroundings.
Although she knew she’d find nothing and more nothing, she would trip and blunder into the slimy, moss-covered pines, struggling to reach that weak light.
No matter how far or how fast she would try to run, she never seemed to get closer to that dingy glow, and she would realize, again, there was nothing there. Empty, blank nothingness. Even the air she sucked into her aching lungs held nothing more than the moisture of the mist seeping up from the ground or the incessant drip of the constant rain.
No scents, no sounds. Nothing.
A twisted, knotty root rose up, snared her foot, and threw her to the ground, and she screamed because there was nothing and no one.
No one to hear her screams. No one to enfold her in a strong embrace, wipe the bitter tears from her eyes, and lift her from the bleak and miserable nothingness.
Every night she had awakened when she couldn’t reach the slightly less dismal shade of gloom. Except, there was something different about the glimmer through the shadowy columns. The grey had fallen away as if the fog had dissipated.
She struggled wearily to her feet, wiping muddy hands on jeans that clung wetly to her chilled skin, and weakly brushed ropy strands of hair from her face. She took an unsteady step forward.
From deep within the hazy glow, two points of light glinted harshly. Their brilliance was like the flash of finely cut gems. The sight took her breath away.
As she drew closer, she thought she could distinguish color in the monochrome landscape. That topaz hue was familiar, and her heartbeat quickened in her chest.
At last, after months of suffering through the same dream—the same desolate, empty despair—she recognized the crystalline glitter she had mourned, and her feet raced ahead.
When the polished stones morphed into the almond shape of eyes, she gasped with a flicker of hope and pushed her exhausted body to run faster. Hard branches whipped into her face and she shoved them away, not wanting to lose sight of those eyes she had yearned for.
The trunks of trees blocked her view, but she scrambled between and around them until she saw the jeweled stones and cried out in relief.
In her rush, she tripped again, slamming into the craggy bark of yet another tree. When she found the gleaming lights, hellish crimson bled into the topaz, obliterating it and causing the hardened nuggets to pulse with menace.
A new scream tore through her throat, and her heart constricted with icy fear. She spun to flee the malevolence of the sight and tried to run back the way she had come. She thought she would be okay if she could just make it out of the treacherous forest and back to the meadow.
Suddenly, the oppressive silence was filled with a roaring howl that seemed to rise and fall with each step she took. It grew closer, and she tried to run faster, but she felt frosty breath on her neck and knew she wouldn’t be able to cheat death again.
Her toe caught on something hard and she flew into the air. The opaque darkness closed in, and she couldn’t even see the ghostly shapes of the firs towering above her.
Her uncontrolled flight seemed to go on and on, and then she realized she was falling, and falling farther, until she slammed into wetness so hard it forced the air from her lungs. She gasped at the impact, but was unable to draw another breath. The panic she had felt previously was nothing compared to the hysteria that filled and overtook her mind.
She began the frenetic battle to raise her body out of the muffling blackness that was so thick and oppressive she couldn’t even cry out. The last fragments of her broken heart shattered when she understood, too late, she wanted to live.
Deathly cold enveloped her body as she was thrown onto jagged boulders. Before the agony of it made its way to her dazed mind, she was snatched away and tossed to the side, her abused body crumpling against another hardened, bitingly cold surface.
She still couldn’t breathe, her eyes were still blinded. Every muscle, joint, and bone in her body shrieked at the assault despite the fact she couldn’t give voice to the pain through her own clogged throat.
A hand with a grip like steel wrenched her up and she felt as if she were flying through the air again. She was being beaten across her back and shoulders and then she was dropped, the back of her head bounced against another unyielding surface. Pain shot jaggedly through her, and her eyes and mouth flew open.
Air! She could breathe! Cold air rushed past her raw throat into her burning lungs as she desperately gulped, trying to force in more.
Beneath the sound of the roaring she heard her name as ice cold fingers shackled her wrists. Terror raced through her like hot acid, and somehow she managed to shriek in despair. Would she never wake up? Would the nightmare never end?
Her mind whirled in confusion. She’d been sure she was at the end of her life, but was she dead? She’d been suffocated, beaten, and thrown to the ground as if she already were. Was death being trapped in that nightmare forever? Forever with the blood-red eyes and icy hands?
“Bella! Bella, please!”
Though her eyes were open, she still couldn’t see. Through the churning, leaden mist of her sight, there were bursts of mottled red and black.
Two points of light swam into view through the dark haze, and she screamed again. She had hoped she had somehow escaped the malevolent scarlet eyes, but they were right in front of her, staring into her face.
A deep, male voice was shouting her name. Her eyes blinked rapidly in her profound confusion. Everything had been colder than midwinter, but large, blazing hot hands had hold of her arms and were shaking her.
She blinked again and the points of light weren’t the murky red of blood, and they weren’t the sharp glint of topaz. They were liquid amber and grew warmer and deeper with every breath she took.
As her vision began to clear even more, she saw cottony, darkening clouds edged with the pale orange of sunset. Directly in front of her, she could discern the outline of a face. Dark brows frowned above the tawny golden eyes, and above them was a shock of shining, wet, black hair. Beyond the shadowed face, she saw twinkling stars between the breaks in the clouds.
Had Jacob somehow found her?
“J-Jacob?” Bella asked, whimpering and grimacing as she tried to reach for the face before her.
“No. He pulled you from the water, but that red-headed leech was right behind you.”
One of the gentle, warm hands disappeared from her shoulder, grasped her own freezing hand, and placed it against his cheek. Even in the fading light, the contrast between her pale fingers and his darker skin was striking.
The rumbling voice continued. “Jake threw you above the water line and went after the blood sucker. I beat the water out of you. You puked up a couple lungfuls of seawater and then you screamed.” He slid his hand under her back, lifting her from the dampness she had been lying on.
Her mind was still reeling with ragged remnants of the nightmare. “Am I alive? Am I awake?”
The man’s full lips quirked into a lopsided smile, and he said, “You’re awake, and you’re barely alive. You jumped off the cliff and almost drowned. I don’t know how long you were under, but Jake got to you pretty fast.”
Bella’s brows drew together. She didn’t remember being on the cliff. She had been dreaming. She had been stuck in the forest—in that same nightmare she’d been having for months. “Jake? Red-headed leech?”
The man with the coppery-brown skin removed the hand that was covering hers on his face, caught her under her knees, and lifted her effortlessly from the ground. He cradled her against his chest and stared into her watering, bleary eyes. “Jake is fine. I think you told him before that her name was Victoria, but their names don’t matter when we turn them to ash.”
Victoria? Thoughts of the beautiful, red-haired vampire, who was intent on avenging the death of her love, streaked through Bella’s mind. Fear closed around her thundering heart and another rasping scream ripped through her abused throat.
The man squeezed her tightly to his bare chest and spoke rapidly into her ear. “Sam and Jake got her. She’s gone. Bella, she’s gone. She can’t hurt you. She’s gone.”
Bella wailed uncontrollably into the crook of his neck, until he eased her away so he could look into her face.
“Bella! Look at me! She’s gone. Sam and Jake tore her apart, took her down the beach, and lit her up. She’s nothing but ash.” His satiny lips brushed over her forehead, and his voice came out in a whisper. “You’re safe. Thank the Spirits, you’re safe.”
“Safe?” she croaked. She scrubbed her hands over her burning, gritty eyes. When was the last time she had felt safe? When was the last time she had felt anything but empty nothingness? But she had been home.
She thought she had been home.
It suddenly occurred to her to ask where she was. “Where are we?”
“First Beach. You jumped off the cliff over there. What the hell were you thinking?”
Bella choked on her words. “I … I was d-dreaming. Running. I was alone in the woods.” She tried to blink back the flood of burning tears.
The man just shook his head in bewilderment and peered closely into her reddened eyes. “You’re freezing.” He tenderly adjusted his hold so that she was curled more tightly into his chest, and started walking away from the crashing waves. “Do you remember jumping off the cliff?”
“N-no.” She rubbed at her eyes again, attempting to clear them. She tried to remember where she had been. “I was home, but … I … I was running through the woods. It was dark. I tripped over a rock.” She slowly shook her head, and tried to clear away the tattered wisps of the nightmare. She peered up at him, her fright-filled eyes studying his face. “I was home. I don’t remember coming here.”
Concerned, the man rested his cheek against her forehead for a moment and drew back to look at her again. “So, I guess you don’t remember where your truck is.”
“My … my truck? No.” She whimpered and dropped her head to rest against his smooth skin. She had no memory of driving to La Push. She had been home alone because Charlie was working late. She had dreaded going to bed, and had struggled against falling asleep, but she must have, ending up in that same nightmare. Alone in the dark forest, with no one to help her. Just running and searching. She had no idea how she had ended up on the Reservation.
Although she was still bewildered and confused, the heat of his skin and the strong, steady beat of his heart combined to soothe her frayed nerves and ease her own frantic pulse.
“Don’t worry. It’s okay. It’ll be all right.”
His reassuring voice vibrated through every part of her that was in contact with him, and she couldn’t help feeling reassured by its low rumble.
“Your truck must be here somewhere. We’ll find it later.”
The man’s long stride had them away from the pounding waves and on the haphazardly patched street. It was dusk, but there was still enough light for her to see them moving quickly along the road and passing by the dense brush along the sides. She lowered her head, but peered up at him, taking in his strong jaw, smoothly angular cheeks, and his deep brown eyes. She had thought they were a warm golden brown. She dropped her aching head and settled into his all-encompassing heat.
He rubbed his jaw over her still-wet hair and sighed. “Right now, I have to get you warmed up. It’ll be completely dark soon and the wind will start to pick up. I’ve got some sweat pants and hoodies back at my house. They’ll be huge on you, but at least they’re clean and dry.”
Startled, Bella pulled her aching head from under his chin. “Your house?”
Chuckling, the man smiled again, and his eyes turned down to her baffled ones. “Yes. My house.”
A slim ribbon of fear began threading its way through Bella’s beaten and abused body. “But I don’t even know who you are. I think you should take me home. I need to go home.”
Sighing heavily, his worried eyes perused her anxious face. “You don’t remember me? Do you remember slapping me?”
“I slapped you? I don’t even know you!” she exclaimed weakly. She tried to push away from him, but her worn and battered body wouldn’t obey any of her commands, and she went limp in his embrace. Despite her fear, she couldn’t help but burrow back into his calming presence and radiating warmth. She’d never felt anything as warm as him before, and he smelled so good. When she took another quavering breath, his rich, earthy scent seemed to permeate her mind, and it helped to clear away the disorienting fog. Despite herself, the last bit of her fright drained away, and she relaxed into his arms. She was so tired.
After another rattling breath, she asked, “Who … who are you?”
Suddenly, the memories came flooding back, and she could remember being with Jacob and seeing Paul cliff-diving with the other boys they had thought were in Sam’s gang. Jacob had been afraid of them and hadn’t wanted anything to do with them. That had been right before Jacob had phased into a giant wolf for the first time—when he had refused to see her because he thought he might hurt her.
The memory of confronting Sam about his gang came rushing back to her, forcing her breath from her in a wheezing gasp. As she looked out into the night-darkened forest beyond the road, she could almost hear the crack of the slap as her hand had come in contact with Paul’s face. Not ten feet away from her, he had exploded into a great, silver-furred wolf with deep, amber eyes.
“Yes. I remember.” She coughed again, her back and ribs seizing in pain at the abrupt motion. “I remember it all.” She shuddered as she also remembered the harsh glitter of Edward’s topaz eyes, pale skin, and the glacial hands that went with them.
In the bushes at the side of the road, she caught a glimpse of flashing yellow eyes and screamed. They were back! He was back! Had he followed her through the woods and to the edge of the cliff? Since she hadn’t died in the ocean, had he come to finish her off?
Was she was still trapped in the nightmare after all? Being in Paul’s arms felt so real. She had been lulled by his strong embrace and the heat of his body, but Edward was still out there! Waiting for her! She fought to break free of Paul’s hold. She had to run; had lead Edward away from him. She had to make sure Paul was safe! If she ran to get away before the yellow eyes turned to blood red again, she knew Paul would be safe.
Somehow, through her ragged screams and desperate attempts to get away, Paul’s voice broke through her terror.
“Bella! What is it? Why are you trying to get away? What’s the matter?”
“The eyes! I saw Edward’s yellow eyes! He’s back!” Her fists beat weakly against his muscled chest. “If I run, he’ll follow me. I have to lead him away from you!”
Paul held the panicking girl even more tightly as he spoke directly into her ear. “It’s not Cullen. Those blood suckers are gone. It was Jared in the woods. He’s one of the pack. It’s too dark for you to see him, but I can. It’s just Jared.” Paul sat down in the middle of the road, cradling Bella on his legs, and holding her face between both of his large hands. “Bella, look at me!” he shouted. “You don’t have to worry about me. The leech knows better than to come here. I’d tear him apart and burn him. He’d be ashes just like the red-head. That nightmare is over!”
Bella’s eyes finally opened, and with a tiny glimmer of hope, she looked into Paul’s nearly black eyes. “It’s over?”
“Yes,” Paul said, his earnest voice rough with emotion. “It’s over. He’ll never come near you again. I swear.” He brushed her hair away from her face and then clutched her to him as tightly as he dared, burying his face in her neck. “I let you get away from me even though I knew I could help you, but you’re here with me now. You’ll never be alone again. I promise I’ll never let you go.”