[A/N] This story was beta'd by the marvelous Juliet and is one hundred percent complete. Let me know what you think! :)
saints & sinners
(Our Story Begins)
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Mist shrouds the trees towering above the hilltop. I clutch the parcel to my chest and stare up at the impressive gateway. Some would say I walk on holy ground. Some people spend their lives saving up to visit the place I live next to.
The time is six-forty-three in the morning. The sun is just beginning to lighten the sky. My breath comes out in short, visible puffs of air. I take a deep breath to calm my nerves and walk inside the gate that reads "New Grace Cemetery" in gilt letters. The guard spots me and tips his hat, not making any move to stop me.
New Grace is closed on Sundays. But I am allowed to do this. I need to do this.
I walk past the headstones and the statues until the path goes downhill and I find myself at the entrance of the underground tomb. I put my hand on the plaque and read, even though I already know all of the words by heart.
"Graves of the Daybreakers," I murmur, holding my package to my chest with my free hand. "For those who fought for light in a time of darkness." A list of names follows the words, along with the caution for no flash photography or food.
When I am done reading, I look up and enter the tomb. Fog clings to my legs as I walk past names. Ash Redfern. Mary-Lynnette Carter. Blaise Harman. Thea Harman. Raksha Keller. Phillip North. Rashel Jordan.
I stop in front of one tomb: yours. The slit window at the end of the tunnel, as well as the memorial candles that burn twenty-four-seven, gives me plenty of light to read in. I smile at your name and sit down in front of your tomb.
"I finished," I say, unable to speak louder than a whisper. Respect for the dead, I suppose. It's always been in me. "And you're in it. It's time to tell the story."
The only response is the flickering of the candle flames. Unperturbed, I open the book and run my fingertip down the spine of the book. "Saints and Sinners: an Account of the War and the Collapse of Circle Daybreak," I say out loud.
And I begin to read.
Our story begins on August 1, 2001, in a small town in the middle of Virginia. This town, once known as Harmony, is the birthplace of one of our many heroes.
2001 is a busy year. That's when the War begins.
But on August 1, the War is far from the minds of Harmony's inhabitants.
Because one of our heroes is being born, of course.
The only sound in the silence was the tick-tock of the clock. Galen Drache's eyes followed it like it held the balance of the world—which it didn't, but it was better than focusing on what was going on behind the door in front of them.
John Quinn sat next to him, his eyes on his soulmate Rashel, who was pacing the hallway like a caged animal. Rosamund Ross was sitting on the floor across from them, right next to the door, her sketchbook open and her pencil ready. She drew Galen and Quinn, her pencil scraping against the paper.
The quaint stillness was broken when the person behind the door gathered a breath and screamed again. Everyone visibly winced at the noise, most notably Rashel and Galen.
The scream only lasted a few short seconds. "I'm sure she'll be fine," said Rosamund the moment it was over. Galen's face was taut and pale. "Besides, Vivienne said she'd be all right."
"Only if Aradia did her Maiden magic on her," growled Rashel from down the hall. "I'm tired of waiting for her. If she doesn't show up within the next five minutes, I'm hunting her down."
As if on cue, the elevator doors down the hall pinged, and a lithe shape stepped out into the hall. Aradia Crowley wasted no time reaching the small group of four. "Where were you?" asked Quinn.
Aradia didn't answer. The door to the delivery room opened, and Vivienne Morrigan stepped out. Blood caked her wrists, and her white coat was stained. Her scarlet hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and she seemed perfectly okay with staring at the marble floor instead of the gathered group.
Galen leapt to his feet. "How is she?" he asked, the words barely a whisper.
"She's lost a lot of blood. The good thing is, Keller is out cold, so she won't be able to feel anything. They're doing an emergency Cesarean section now, because, well . . . your baby is twisted up in the umbilical cord. It might choke."
"What?" said Aradia sharply. She pushed past Vivienne and went inside, and the witch quickly followed. All eyes turned to Galen when the door slammed shut.
"Oh, God," he whispered, and slowly sank back down into the seat. "This is all my fault."
Rosamund slammed her sketchbook on the ground. "You can't believe that," she said, her tone acerbic.
Rashel leant against the polished white walls and crossed her arms, glaring at the shapeshifter prince. "No one knew that Keller would pull an oblique when she was stretching, Galen. No one knew that the baby would be born prematurely."
"It's been eight months," argued Rosamund. "Not that premature."
"It was still my idea to get her outside so she could run." He looked miserable. "And now I might lose them both."
No one replied to that. Galen and Rashel went back to watching the clock. Rosamund flipped open her sketchbook and resumed working on one of her in-depth portraits of Keller. The hospital was filled with the tick-tocks of the clock once more.
It was the stillness that did it.
Someone inside the room gasped. Everyone in the hallway heard it. Rosamund stiffened, Galen looked up, Rashel and Quinn stared at the door.
In the following silence, there was a series of small, choking coughs. Then the hospital was filled with the unmistakable wails of an infant.
Before Rosamund could react, Galen was inside the room, Quinn and Rashel right behind him. Rosamund was left sitting on the floor, her sketchbook and pencil in hand, still absorbing what had just happened.
She tossed the pencil and the sketchbook onto the floor and scrambled to her feet, almost tripping in her haste to get inside the room.
The delivery room was big and filled with all sorts of beeping equipment. Aradia was holding a baby wrapped in a pink blanket, singing softly to her. The other witches were crowded around Keller. The baby was silent, staring up at Aradia with wide green-gold eyes. Galen was at her side in an instant. Aradia held the child out and said, "Your daughter, Prince."
Galen took the baby like she was an ancient treasure that would break at the slightest force. Rosamund, Rashel and Quinn gathered around her.
"She's so pretty," cooed Rosamund. The baby stuck her fingers in her mouth, tears forming in her eyes. A small pink cap was on her head.
"Looks just like her mom," said Galen, beaming.
Aradia smiled. "What are you going to name her?"
Before Galen could answer, one of the witches announced, "Got it!" She stepped away from Keller and grinned. "We've sped up the healing process. The anesthetic should wear off any minute now."
They moved away to the chair, and Vivienne gestured to an empty chair at Keller's bedside. "Prince, sit there."
Galen sat. Rashel sat on one edge of Keller's bed, Rosamund sat on the other. Aradia inched her way across the wall until she bumped into Galen's chair; then she slid to the ground and crossed her legs, a serene smile on her face. Quinn leaned against the wall on the other side of the bed.
In a few agonizingly long minutes, Keller began to wake up. Her eyes fluttered open, then immediately closed. She turned her head to rest it on her shoulder, and her hands fisted the bedsheet.
Then she whispered, "Ow."
Everyone relaxed. "How're you feeling?" whispered Rashel. Keller's eyes fluttered into slits.
"Like hell. What happened?"
"You had to have a c-section," explained Vivienne. She and the other witches were watching in a corner of the room. "You'd lost too much blood, and your baby was endangered."
This woke Keller up. Her eyes widened and she sat up, looking around. "Endangered? How?"
Galen grabbed her hand, getting her attention. "She's all right," he teased. Keller had been convinced she was going to have a boy. "She's tough, just like her mom."
Keller slowly looked down at the baby, who was gaping at her. A single, blue-tinted hand poked through the folds of the soft pink blanket. "She," she repeated, slowly taking her from Galen. She held the baby to her breast and stared down at it, her gray eyes wide. "She's beautiful."
Rosamund saw an opportunity and ran out of the room. When she came back, she was holding her sketchbook. She sat back down on the bed and began to draw Keller and her baby.
"What are you going to name her?" asked Rashel, scooting closer to get a better look. Keller handed her to Rashel, who cradled the baby to her chest.
"I think . . . we agreed on Ariel, after Galen's mother. Right?" When Galen nodded, she continued on. "Ariel Lynnette Drache."
Ariel Lynnette Drache gurgled and stuck her wrinkled red fingers in her mouth. Rashel held her closer and smiled. Then the hairs on her neck stood up, and she looked up to see Quinn watching her. His expression was so intense she had to look away.
What? she thought, handing Ariel back to Keller.
Nothing. You'd just make a great mother, is all. He gave her a half-smile that shed rainbows. Rashel shook her head slightly, unable to stop her frown.
No. I'm a fighter. We're in the middle of a war. They'd grow up in a terrible world, John. I don't want that.
They did. He nodded to Keller, who was whispering to Galen. And Keller's one of the toughest people I know, as strong as you are.
And if the dragons came? If they used us against each other? What then, Quinn?
He didn't answer. That's what I thought. Rashel looked away and met Aradia's vacant gaze. Her brown eyes rolled to the ceiling a moment later, but Rashel still felt like the Maiden had been staring at her.
"I hope I'm not interrupting anything," Aradia said. The whole room's attention was on her in a moment. The witch used the wall to get to her feet and began to address the room. "But, as the witches know, more members of the Inner Circle—Belfana and Ursula—were killed last night. Now it's just me, Rhys, and Mother Cybele. It's not safe for me anymore. I'm leaving."
"Where will you go?" asked Rashel.
Aradia shook her head. "I can't tell you. If Maya gets a hold of any of you, she'll know. I can't risk that. I'm leaving tonight."
Rosamund dropped her sketchbook on the bed and sprung up, giving the witch a bearhug. "I'll miss you," she said. Aradia put her hand on the girl's shoulder and squeezed. Roz looked up at her and said, "Will we be able to contact you?"
Aradia smiled. "I sometimes forget you're still just a teenager," she said. Rosamund pulled away and shrugged. She didn't miss that the witch hadn't answered.
"I sometimes forget that, too," she admitted. Tears pricked her eyes. Aradia had been a mother figure to her when her own mother had been killed. She wanted to give her another hug, but she held herself back. Instead, she forced a smile and said, "Goodbye."
"Stay safe," said Galen, his eyes warm. "The shapeshifters are in your debt."
Aradia dipped her head in acknowledgement, putting her hand on one of the white-brick walls. She backed up to the door and placed her hand on the doorknob. "Thank you, Galen." She braved a smile. "I consider you all my friends. I'll miss you all."
She opened the door and slipped out.
Aradia leaves that night. With one exception, she will not be seen again for fifteen years. Many witches follow Aradia's example and leave Harmony, Virginia. Soon there are only seven inhabitants: Ariel, Keller, Galen, Rosamund, Rashel, Quinn, and Vivienne.
It is mid-winter, 2001, when Harmony suffers its fourth consecutive attack. The War is in full swing then, and the fighting is fiercest in December.
A lone candle flickered in the darkness as Rosamund watched the outside world light up with orange fire. She clenched her fists, wishing desperately that she was something other than human.
She wanted to be a badass vampire, like Quinn. Or a witch that could summon fire, like Vivienne. Or, better yet, a giant, lethal cat that could crush you with one bite, like Keller and Galen.
But no. She was stuck as a regular human, and thus, on babysitting duty.
For her part, Ariel was sound asleep. Either the fight that was going on outside didn't bother her, or she was such a heavy sleeper she couldn't hear it.
The basement shook once more, and she could hear a loud bass laugh outside. Keller's answering scream made the window panes rattle. Ariel made a noise and kicked something in her sleep, making Rosamund smile.
The pencil scratched across the page in the silence as Rosamund put the finishing touches on the baby's portrait. Ariel, she wrote in the corner, Dec. '01. By Roz.
She ripped the page out of the sketchbook and grabbed her scrapbook, gently placing the baby's portrait in the same page that held a picture of Keller and Galen, pre-baby. She looked at Ariel and whispered, "One day, I'll give this to you."
She shut the photo album and sat in silence, listening to the thunder—or was that the dragon?—and the rain.
Time passed. Ariel's eyelids fluttered and she coughed in her sleep, her face turning red and screwing up. Rosamund scooted closer to and started rocking the baby's cradle.
It was an hour before she realized that it was too quiet. Her window hadn't turned orange in—quite a while. The only sound was her breathing.
Where was Keller? Vivienne? Galen? Rashel? Quinn?
She turned around and ran up the stairs, her heartbeat pounding in her ears. "Hello?" she whispered, throwing the door open. Someone grabbed her arm and pulled her into the laundry room. Roz screamed and immediately started fighting.
"Shut up," Vivienne hissed in her ear. Roz stopped thrashing and grew still. "We drove it back. It retreated. Keller and Galen are covering our tracks now."
She let go of Roz and stepped back. Roz turned around and found that Vivienne was soaked—in rain, sweat, and blood. She was too scared to ask if it was hers or not. "Where are Rashel and Quinn?" she whispered.
Almost as if on cue, the door opened, and Quinn stepped through, holding a half-conscious Rashel in his arms. He shut the door with his foot and brushed past them, heading into the living room. Vivienne ignored Roz and followed him. Curiosity drove Roz to trail after Quinn into the living room, staying out of sight and downwind.
Rashel was spread out on the couch. "I'm fine," she murmured, her voice drowsy.
"Like hell you are," snarled Quinn. There was a ripping sound—her shirt, maybe? "What the hell were you thinking, charging the dragon like that? You're lucky it didn't incinerate you!"
"Keller—God—Keller was distracting it. I had—open shot—"
"No. Rashel, look at me. Keep your eyes open." Quinn's voice was panicked, desperate almost. More ripping sounds. "Vivienne's getting something for your ribs. Damn it—look at me!"
Vivienne brushed past her carrying a handful of complicated surgical-looking items, and Roz felt her knees give out. She leaned against the wall and closed her eyes. I was so stupid, she thought, recalling her childhood. She'd been such a warrior, then. Always ready to pick a fight.
Well, Roz, you got your war. How do you like it now?
Rashel gasped and started screaming. It sounded like Vivienne was performing open surgery on her or something. In any case, it hurt Roz's ears—made her want to run away, run far away and hide for a very, very long time.
Feeling bile rise in her throat, Roz pushed herself to her feet and sprinted toward the basement—toward the peace she'd been feeling with Ariel—leaving Rashel and the pain and the War all behind her.
How do you like it now?
Rosamund heard the footsteps before she saw the person and wiped her face quickly, pretending to focus on her sketchbook. But she couldn't be inspired to draw anything, not even the ceiling.
Someone knelt beside her. "It's okay for you to cry," said Keller.
Roz started. "I wasn't—"
"I can smell your tears. I know. Did you see Rashel?"
Roz nodded, swallowing the lump in her throat.
"Fifteen," sighed Keller. "You're so young. I'm sorry you had to see that."
Roz blinked rapidly and stared at the still-sleeping Ariel. "Rashel—is she—"
"No. Vivienne got the poison out. But she almost did." Keller frowned. "It was too close. It's too dangerous for you here. You're not a fighter."
"Rashel's trained me," began Roz, but Keller shook her head, cutting her off.
"Training isn't enough. You don't have the experience my sister does. And I know you're going to Eric's place soon. I want you to take care of Ariel . . . if it's not too much trouble."
Roz started. "A baby? But . . . I don't know how. I'm not ready."
Keller smiled, but it didn't reach her eyes. "We have a week. I'll teach you the basics. But Ariel will be safer at Eric's place than here in Harmony. Every time we fight Maya's forces, we endanger you both. Will you do it?"
Roz looked at Ariel and thought. "I don't know if Eric will allow it," she said finally.
"Eric loves kids," replied Keller. She sounded confused, as if the notion that Eric might not want Ariel in his house had just occurred to her. "Doesn't he?"
Roz glanced at the still-open scrapbook, which contained the portrait of Ariel and Keller and Galen's picture. Maybe she could draw sketches of Ariel growing up and send it to them. And then, when the war was over . . .
How do you like it now?
"All right," she said. "Let's do it."
Rosamund Ross leaves for her brother Eric's place a week later, equipped with the barest knowledge of bottle-feeding, diaper-changing, bathing, and other information one must have when they have to take care of an infant.
Now, Eric lives in what they called a "zone." It is basically what we call the suburbs today: better than the ghettos, but every aspect is controlled by the Night People.
Bellevue, Nebraska, is a small town of three thousand people, both Night People and humans. Eric has wild prairie grass as his backyard. Bellevue has two schools, two train stations, two sprawling living quarters, and one luxurious section of the zone reserved just for the Night People. It's often a stop for trains going to more important places, like Eris or Denver or Los Angeles.
"Papers," said the werewolf, walking down the aisle. Rosamund fished out her passport and smiled when he came to her. "Papers?"
She offered him her fake passport. She was currently roving as Bunny Marten. She had no idea who she was, or if she was still alive, but she did know that one of the Daybreakers had had a friend named Bunny Marten.
The werewolf glanced over at her papers and nodded at Ariel. "Who's your kid?"
Rosamund forced her smile to widen. She'd practiced this over the train ride. The train had stopped, and now they were checking the papers of everyone who were going to enter Bellevue. She was just a few feet away from Eric. "She's mine."
He glanced at her forged papers again. "There's nothing about her in here."
"My passport is about me, isn't it?" she asked. The werewolf shuffled through until he reached Ariel's fake birth certificate. She had the real one in her sketchbook. Finally, after an agonizingly long moment, he handed them back to her and moved on to the next passenger.
Yes! She was free!
Rosamund stood up quickly and gathered her things, picking up Ariel's carrier and practically running out of the train's carriage. The train station was mainly deserted, but there was a lone figure sitting on one of the old benches.
She approached the figure quietly, not daring to call out his name. Eric Ross looked up at the sound of her footsteps and met her gaze. His face lit up in a smile that couldn't quite reach his eyes. "Hey, sis," he said, standing up. He looked at the baby carrier and raised a blond eyebrow. "You been busy in Harmony or something?"
Rosamund didn't laugh. "I'll explain when we're alone," she said, glancing around. "I'm Bunny Marten here."
Eric's face cleared. "Right. Okay." He took the baby carrier from her and glanced inside. Ariel cooed up at him, her green-gold eyes wide. She tossed her head and stuck her hand in her mouth, her other hand grabbing a blue sleeper-clad foot. Eric's expression softened, and he smiled at Roz. "The car's across the street. Let's go."
When they were alone in their house, Ariel started crying. Rosamund picked her up and grabbed one of her bottles. As she was feeding her, she said, "Eric, this is Ariel. She's Keller and Galen's daughter."
Eric sat down and stared at the baby, curious. "Really, huh? I can see the resemblance . . . kind of."
Rosamund looked up and gave him an apologetic smile. "I hope I'm not overstepping my boundaries with this. I thought you wouldn't mind."
Eric shook his head. "Nah, it's fine. She's cute."
Rosamund smiled. "Thanks. I knew you'd understand."
Eric smiled and looked down at something in his hand. Rosamund saw a glint of gold as she turned to put Ariel back in her carrier, but she didn't comment on it.
December 24, 2002. Rosamund is sixteen, Eric twenty-two, and both are about to get the Christmas present of their lives.
The 'wolves came for them on Christmas Eve. (Not that anyone celebrated that holiday anymore.)
It was nighttime, two o'clock in the afternoon, and the lights seemed to glow in the darkness. The peace of the snow-covered zone was disrupted by the screeching squeal of tires.
Rosamund was feeding Ariel when someone knocked on the door. She started at the unexpected noise and almost knocked over the applesauce she'd been feeding the toddler. "Oh, shit," she hissed. Ariel giggled.
"Shit," she repeated. Roz jumped to her feet and pointed at Ariel, glaring.
Ariel gurgled and smashed applesauce between her palms, completely ignoring her. Eric was suddenly at her side with a washrag in hand. "I've got her," he said, bending down to clean the child up. "You take care of whoever's at the door."
The person knocked again. Roz quickly went to the front door and opened it a crack. Two werewolves, their belladonna tattoos writhing on their left wrists, were standing on the porch, leering.
"Took you long enough," one said.
"I was in the bathroom," she replied, stepping out into the cold. "What do you want?"
The other grinned and held out his jacket lapel, withdrawing two envelopes from them. They both had a scarlet seal containing a Mardi Gras mask and a belladonna. Roz felt her heart jump into her throat at the sight.
Maya's official seal. This was bad. This was really bad.
She took the envelopes slowly, not missing how her hands were shaking. The werewolves noticed her fear, too. The one who hadn't given her the letters chuckled and crossed his arms. "Don't worry, darlin'. You're going to the Salt Lake ghetto." He winked. "I'll be there, too. We can have some fun."
Roz was starting to freeze. "I'll pass," she said, stepping back. "Goodbye."
She slammed the door in their faces and went back to the kitchen, shocked. Ariel was gnawing on a wooden spoon on the countertop, and Eric was watching her with an amused smile. When he saw his sister's face, though, his smile faded and he straightened. "What's wrong?"
She handed him the letter, too frightened to open it herself. He opened it for her and read the following:
Dear Miss Bunny Marten:
As of a decision made November 24, 2002, you are hereby to be relocated to the Salt Lake City ghetto. You are only allowed to pack two suitcases and one carry-on with your things.
A group of Night People will come on January 15, 2003 to ensure that your move will be as smooth and as safe as possible. Failure to obey this relocation order will result in severe consequences.
Thank you for your future cooperation.
He'd sat back down by the time he finished. Ariel giggled from the countertop and tried to choke herself with the wooden spoon. Roz took it away from her and picked her up, carrying her to the living room and putting her in her playpen. Ariel immediately started smashing a plushie lion against the carpet, and Roz returned to the kitchen.
Eric was reading his relocation letter. "Well?" she asked, sliding into the seat next to him.
"I'm going to Washington," he said, his face blank.
Roz watched the snow fall, lit up by the lamp outside. All ghettos were bad, but Washington—and the other former major cities of the world—were the worst. And Eric had barely made it on his own without her, here in the zone—what would happen if he got to Washington?
And Ariel. Damn. She couldn't bring her into a place like that. What was going to happen to her?
Eric voiced her thoughts exactly. "What's going to happen to Ariel? Are you going to give her to someone?"
Rosamund shook her head. "I don't know. There's no one alive that would be able to take her on, except—"
She was alive, Roz knew it. She was alive and she was somewhere safe.
And she'd never said that they wouldn't be able to contact her. Roz abruptly stood up, sending the chair squeaking across the tiled floor. "Aradia!" she gasped.
Eric frowned. "The Maiden? Isn't she dead?"
"No. She's not. I think." Roz smiled and began to laugh, a bit hysterically. "She's safe. Somewhere. She could've told us where she went, but she didn't and now I'm getting sent to the goddamn ghettos." She laughed again and shook her head. "Whatever. She can take Ariel."
"How can we ask her to take on Ariel?"
"I don't know." Wait. Her scrapbook. She'd seen Aradia going through it the day before Keller gave birth to Ariel, right? Maybe she'd left a secret message for her.
Roz all but ran to her bedroom. She pulled her scrapbook and her sketchbook out from underneath her bed, dusting it off and flipping through the pages. She hadn't drawn since she was sixteen.
Eric came back hours later, to find her leaning against the bed, doing nothing. "Ariel's asleep," he said. "Any luck?"
Roz was staring at the last page of the scrapbook in silence. She slowly shook her head. She'd searched every page of both books so carefully, and there was nothing. She really wouldn't be able to contact Aradia. Ariel would probably die in the ghettos. "It's hopeless," she said, her voice flat. "I'll have to take Ariel with me."
"Right," said Eric. "I'm going to go take a nap now."
Roz turned on him, ready to rage that he wasn't taking any of their futures seriously—when she saw his expression. His eyes were bright, the kind of look he only got when he was talking about Thea, but his jaw was also set with determination.
Realization set in slowly. "Do you dream about her, Eric?"
He lost the 'starry-eyed soulmate' look. "What?"
Rosamund sat back on her haunches, pity welling up inside her. A dusty ring and a broken heart, those were his memories of Thea. "Eric, you know I love you. But you have to get over her. She's gone, Eric. Dreams can't change that," she whispered.
Eric's expression hardened. "Gee, Roz. Thanks for reminding me. I was afraid I'd forgotten." His hand, which had been leaning against the doorframe as he propped himself against one arm, clenched into a fist, and he pushed off, leaving for his room.
Rosamund almost got up and followed after him. But she didn't. Instead, she looked at her clue-less books, feeling helpless.
Finally, she told the silence, "Life blows."
It was Christmas morning.
Rosamund was helping Ariel tear open gifts. They didn't really get much from Eric's zoology teaching position, and she worked at the local McDonald's, so they couldn't really afford luxurious gifts.
But they managed. If Ariel liked her cheap stuffed animals from Goodwill, that was enough for Roz.
At nine o'clock, Eric padded in, still half-asleep. He held a piece of paper in his hand and gave it to Roz when he plopped down beside her. "Merry Christmas," he said, slumping against her shoulder.
Roz gave him a wary glance and unfolded the paper. A number was on it. "What's this, Eric?"
"Aradia's number," he replied.
Roz froze. "What? How do you know?"
"Thea gave it to me." He lifted his head slightly to glare at her. "But it might not be real, so you might want to try it first."
Roz flushed. "I will."
He shrugged and lay back down on the carpet, allowing Ariel to crawl over him. God, what was it with men and sleeping until noon whenever they could? Rosamund smiled and patted his stomach before getting up to dial the number.
The person on the other end picked up after three rings. "Hello, Rosamund," said Aradia Crowley. A very alive Aradia Crowley.
Rosamund dropped the phone.
Eric had been telling the truth!
She scrambled to pick it up and demanded, "You're alive?"
"And you're safe?"
"For now. Why are you calling me?"
Roz bit her lip and started winding the cord around her finger. God, this was awkward. She'd thought this was a fake number or something! How had Eric gotten it? "Well. I didn't know you had a phone."
"I found out I was getting sent to the Salt Lake ghetto yesterday," she admitted.
"Ouch. Merry Christmas?"
"That's what I thought! Yeah. But they're serious. I leave in a few weeks. But I have a problem. I have Ariel with me. If we have shapeshifters escorting us, they'll know who she is. They'll probably kill her."
Aradia caught on immediately. "I'll take care of her. I'm in a remote location. Where are you?"
"Zone Bellevue. In Nebraska. You might want to put a glamour on yourself, if you can. Your face is plastered all over the country. Maya's still looking for you."
"I know." Aradia's tone turned icy. "I'll be there in a few days. I'll call you again when I'm here."
And she hung up. Roz's feet felt like jelly. She plopped into a chair and sighed, prompting Eric to come in, holding Ariel. The toddler stopped laughing at her expression. "Uh-oh," she said, sticking a finger in her mouth. Eric's expression was solemn.
"What'd she say?"
Roz stood up and launched herself into his arms, not caring that he was carrying Ariel in one arm. He staggered back under her weight and wrapped his free arm around her to balance himself. Ariel shrieked and laughed at his expression. "I'm sorry," Rosamund said into his shirt. She pulled back and shook her head. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have yelled at you yesterday. It was out of line."
Eric pressed his lips together. "Did Aradia say yes?" he asked.
With a sinking feeling in her chest, Roz nodded. He forced a smile. "Great. When?"
"In a few days."
Eric didn't get a chance to say anything else, because Ariel slapped his shoulder and said, "I wanna pway, Eric. Monster!"
"You want to play Monster?"
Ariel giggled and nodded, her dark curls flying around her face, her green-gold eyes bright. Eric went into the living room with her, and Rosamund sat back down.
I did something great, she thought, looking at her hands, so why do I feel so terrible?
Two days later, she got a phone call at five o'clock at night. Eric went to answer, and she wrapped another blanket around a sleeping Ariel. God bless her sleeping patterns, she thought, putting a little cap on her head to keep it warm. It was snowing outside, and the temperature was practically subzero.
She made a mental list of everything. Diapers? Check. Bottles? Check. Favorite toys? Check.
"She says she's in the Greyson Prairie," called Eric from the kitchen, just a minute later. Roz bit her lip and glanced at the night outside.
"I'm forgetting something," she muttered. Not food, not diapers, not extra clothes . . . what was it? Damn it, why couldn't she remember?
Eric materialized in the living room. "We need to go," he said. "Werewolves will start patrolling in thirty minutes."
"I know," snapped Rosamund. I'm just being paranoid, she told herself, picking up the sleeping toddler. Eric slung Ariel's supply bag over his shoulder and opened the garage door for them.
They reached the prairie in five minutes. Eric handed her the bag, and she darted out of the car. "Aradia?" she hissed when she could no longer see Eric's headlights. Stalks of tall grass brushed against her elbows, leaving wet snow in their tracks. Ariel shivered and yawned. Roz clutched her tighter to her chest.
If you cry, she thought to her, we're all dead.
After her fourth Aradia, someone finally said, "Roz? That's you?"
"Yes," she breathed, seeing her breath mist in the cold. Her fingers were starting to go numb. "I'm here."
A small flame blossomed in the dark, revealing a girl with shoulder-length brown hair, hundreds of freckles, and bright green eyes. At first, Roz wasn't really sure that it really was Aradia. But then the girl's green eyes rolled around lazily, and her doubts ended there. "Where are you?" she asked, reaching out in front of her, grasping stalks of grass. Roz stepped forward and grabbed her hand.
"Here. Here's Ariel." Aradia took the baby and hugged her to her chest. "I have a bag, too."
Two minutes later, they were ready. "You sure you've got it?" asked Roz, taking a step back. Aradia nodded and adjusted her grip on the toddler.
"Yes." She stiffened, glanced far off into the distance. "The 'wolves are starting their patrol at the library. If you don't want to get caught, go now!"
"It was good to see you again," whispered Roz. She wasn't sure Aradia had heard it, but there wasn't time. The library was too close to the Greyson Prairie. She turned around and sprinted back to the car.
Back at the prairie, the glamour faded and Aradia softly smiled after her charge. "And you, my friend."
She glanced up at the moon. "Hecate, protect us tonight," she murmured, and turned to leave for her hideout.
Roz slammed the door and leaned against the seat, breathless. Eric turned the car around and peeled out of the parking lot. "How'd it go?" he asked her.
"Fine," she breathed, taking a deep breath to steady her heartbeat. She half-expected howling to start up. "I gave Aradia every—oh. Oh, shit."
Everything, she'd almost said.
Everything except the scrapbook.