saints & sinners
chapter iii

Aradia stepped forward and pushed Ariel behind her. "Ariel," she said, not looking away from the shapeshifters, "I want you to run to the cave and issue lockdown. Don't come out until I get there. When I say go, run."

Ariel dropped the backpack and crouched, getting ready to break into a sprint. The men mirrored her actions. Aradia brought her hands together and closed her eyes, concentrating. A split second later, she spread them apart—and her hands wielded a bright, blazing green fire.

She pulled her hands back and launched the fire at the shapeshifters. It hurtled toward them, and the men barely managed to jump out of the way before it slammed into a tree and vanished. Ariel leapt up and dashed for the safety of the forest, not bothering to look behind her. Aradia launched another wave at the one closest to Ariel, then backed up to face them both.

"Who wants to die first?"

Ariel's lungs were aching by the time she reached the mountain's base. She slowed to a halt and rested her hands on her knees, catching her breath. Stupid asthma, she thought, closing her eyes and trying not to breathe too much of the mountain dust in.

When she knew that she wouldn't get an asthma attack, she straightened—and froze. A new smell was coming in, something that overrode the staleness of Aradia's lilac blossoms and her own scent. It was a mix of pine needles and sandalwood, which meant that there was someone watching her who was not Aradia.

Ariel looked out into the forest. Her gaze locked onto a pair of dark gray eyes, which suddenly shifted to become dark blue. Only one species' eyes changed colors—

Vampire! Move, girl!

She turned and started climbing up the mountain's outcrop. Got to get to the cave. Once it's in lockdown, no one will be able to get in.

She pulled herself up and rolled over onto the next path, getting to her knees and checking the forest to see if the vampire was still there. When she didn't see any eyes, she looked up—and gasped.

The vampire was standing in front of her, his arms crossed, his eyes a dark green. He leaned against the rocks and smirked at her. "Are we going to do this the easy way, or the hard way?"

Ariel turned. There was a small rock jutting up the pathway, almost like a ramp. If she timed it right and had a running start, she could jump to the ledge above it and get to the cave. She looked back at the vampire and smiled, then spun on her heel and took off.

She timed it perfectly. Her feet hit the rock and she launched herself up into the air, landing on the pathway above them. Pain rocked up her ankles at the hard landing and she steadied herself against a boulder. Then she jogged away, up the path toward the cave.

She was having trouble breathing now. She could see the familiar dead tree that overhung above the cave entrance. Suddenly, something slammed into her, and she went flying. She landed on the rocky path and caught herself with her hands. Stinging pain blossomed in her hands, and she face-planted in the dust.

The vampire rolled her onto her back and smirked at her. "You're just a little cheetah, aren't you? But it's hopeless."

Ariel was gagging on the dust. She couldn't breathe, much less reply to him. He looked up at the sky, her wrists pinned between his gloved hands. His hair was dark black, and his eyes were always shifting colors. It scared her. He looks . . . evil, she thought. A monster. Like a true vampire.

He didn't seem to pick up on her thoughts. He continued in a soft, melodious voice, "I'm a vampire, and you're a human. I'm stronger than you. I'm faster than you. I'm smarter than you." His green eyes lowered to focus on her face, and his upper lip curled in disgust. "What are you doing with the likes of Aradia Crowley?"

Aradia inhaled sharply through her nose and coughed, wheezing, struggling to relieve the ache in her lungs. He leaned forward, their noses almost touching. "Answer me," he whispered, staring into her eyes. The green morphed into a bright, innocent shade of blue. "Please."

Ariel was mesmerized. She would have answered him if she had been able to breathe. But then the ground shook and green fire lit up the sky somewhere far away, and the vampire looked up to see what the noise was. The spell was broken. Ariel launched herself forward and buried her teeth into his hands. Leather and skin tore, and blood filled her mouth.

It couldn't have hurt, but he reared back, setting her free. She got to her feet and jumped off of the outcrop, landing on the lower pathway. A jolt traveled up her legs and her landing stirred up more dust. Ariel coughed and frantically cleared her throat, desperately inhaling through her nose and spitting out the vampire's blood.

She glanced up at the outcrop and jumped off the edge, falling the final six feet to the ground. She landed on her feet and rolled, wincing at the throbbing pain running through her ankles. Then she got to her feet and started running.

The dust soon cleared and she was able to breathe again. But she had barely slowed down when the vampire materialized in front of her, his eyes a dark shade of gray. He looked furious. Ariel skidded to a halt and crouched down, narrowing her eyes. Her gaze darted to his hand—it was completely healed, with dried blood the only reminder that the wound had existed—and went back up to his face.

"You're an idiot," he seethed, stalking toward her. Ariel danced around him, refusing to let her fear show. She bared her teeth and crouched lower, ready to run away when she saw an opening. Aradia had trained her to run fast, after all. "You made the mistake of pissing me off," he continued. Before she could blink, he was in front of her.

He grabbed her arm and shoved her to the side. Ariel went sprawling and crashed into a tree shoulder-first. Wood splintered and embedded itself into her shoulder. Ariel couldn't help the little squeak of pain that came out of her mouth. He crouched in front of her, his jaw clenched. He grabbed her chin and tilted it up. "You're spunky," he muttered. "It's going to get you killed."

Ariel pushed herself up and grabbed a splinter. She raised her fist and plunged the sliver of wood deep into his shoulder blade. The vampire yowled and reeled back, and Ariel got to her feet. Blood was quickly staining his shirt burgundy, and she hesitated. What if he died because of her?

The vampire looked up at her, and his gray eyes became so dark they were black. "I'm going to snap your neck when I get this thing out of me," he snarled, pulling his lips back to reveal full-length canines.

Any pity she had for him disappeared. Ariel whirled around and ran back to the mountains—to safety. He didn't follow her, but she wasn't going to take any chances.

Halfway up the mountain, she encountered a problem. Her asthma attack was kicking in. She slowed down when she was sure that the vampire wouldn't be following her anytime soon and paused, resting her hands on her knees in an attempt to catch her breath.

Her pep talk wasn't working. Her lungs were starting to ache, and any desperate gasps she sucked in did nothing to relieve the pressure in her chest. Get to the cave, thought Ariel, starting to trudge up the path. Find your inhaler.

Except her breaths were starting to become wheezes. Ariel held a hand up to her mouth and coughed violently, leaning against the rocks for support. Her legs felt wobbly, and she sank to the ground.

A falcon's cry stole her attention. Ariel looked up to see a golden bird heading straight toward her. Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, the bird morphed into a man with curly golden hair, and he landed smoothly on the outcrop. He crossed his arms and stared down at Ariel, smiling slightly. "Didn't think you could escape, did you?" he asked. He had a thin, narrow face, and his eyes made Ariel shiver.

This isn't an adventure anymore.

Before she could attempt to respond, the shapeshifter lifted her up and threw her over his shoulder, turning around and walking down the mountain. By the time they got to the edge of the forest, her lungs were burning.

He threw her down next to Aradia, whose arms were shackled behind her back. The vampire was pacing in front of her, his shirt and shoulder bloody. Ariel only had time to squeeze Aradia's arm before her eyes rolled up into the back of her head and she collapsed onto the ground.

The vampire noticed it immediately. "What's wrong with her?"

Aradia didn't move, but her brow was furrowed. "I think she's suffering an asthma attack. She can't breathe."

He knelt next to Ariel, briefly checked her pulse, and glared at Aradia. "If this is some trick—"

Aradia narrowed her eyes. "Look at her! Do you think this is a trick?"

Ariel's face and hands were clammy, and her lips were turning blue. He took one look at her and took the witch's handcuffs off. Aradia was at her niece's side in an instant.

"Hecate-Witch Queen, I call upon your power as descendant of your daughter Hellewise," she murmured, cupping her hand over Ariel's mouth. "Restore her life-breath to her, and let her breathe again."

It was a few agonizing minutes before Ariel began to obviously breathe again. When her heartbeat once more sounded steady, he rebound Aradia and nodded to the shapeshifter. "Gavin, take her to the truck outside the mountains," he said.

Gavin pulled a small, crooked piece of iron from his pocket and hit Aradia over the head with it. The witch's eyes rolled into the back of her head and she pitched forward. Gavin put the iron back in his pocket and lifted the Maiden bridal-style, pausing to nod to Ariel. "What about her?"

"I'll take care of her," sneered the vampire. His shoulder still ached from where she had driven the wooden splinter through his collar. That one was too feisty to live at Eris, he decided. She was a sac full of blood, he was thirsty, and she wasn't necessary.

He crouched down and took off his gloves, eying the pulsing vein in her neck. No need to get them bloody for this.

Before he could lean down and drink his fill, the girl woke up. Up close, he could see the flecks of gold in her eyes. "What . . ." she breathed, obviously disoriented. Then realization hit her, and she shot up. But she was pressed up against the rocks, with nowhere to go without the chance of him catching her. He gave her a lopsided smile. Ariel's green-gold eyes flickered around. "Where's Aradia?"

"That's none of your concern," he said. "It's not like you're going to be seeing her anytime soon."

Her gaze turned wary. "You're going to kill me, aren't you?"

He smiled. "It hurts if you resist."

She wasn't expecting it. One moment, he was in front of her, glaring, and the next, his face was buried in her neck and he was drinking her blood. A slow flush crept up Ariel's face, and she closed her eyes, waiting for the pain

The pain never came. Instead, there seemed to be a heartbeat of silence, and then yellow light exploded behind her eyes. A shiver crawled up her spine, leaving tingles in its wake. It was unfamiliar, but not altogether unpleasant. Oh, God, she thought, it's some kind of vampire mind trick. They make their victims feel like they're enjoying it

The vampire's blunt words changed her mind when he said, What the hell?

White and amber joined the yellow and danced in Ariel's vision. Was this his . . . mind? It was interesting, to say the least. The explorer part of her was itching to take a romp inside, but the sensible one kept reminding her that a leech was drinking her blood. No, not a leech—his name was—Timothy?

Timothy pulled away, and Ariel sat up, disoriented. She could feel the blood trickling down her neck and into her shirt. The whole ordeal couldn't have lasted longer than a few minutes, but it felt like hours. Tingles were running down her whole body, and she felt like every nerve of hers was on fire.

Timothy was staring at her, his eyes the bluest of blues. They stared at each other for a long while, and the only sounds were their breathing. Ariel reached up and felt at her neck, wincing. Then she looked at him. "Aren't you going to finish me off?"

Timothy recoiled. "What?" he breathed. He didn't seem very focused at all. What was going on?

Ariel tensed, preparing to get up and run. "You said . . . you said you would kill me."

Timothy looked away and clenched his jaw. Then he pinched his nose and shook his head. "No, I won't kill you."

Ariel started shivering. "Then what are you going to do?" she asked. He needed to give her an opening so she could get out of there and find Aradia—

Timothy smiled, disrupting her thoughts. Because his smile wasn't an easygoing, slightly lopsided smile anymore. It was a desperate smile, forced, with a touch of insanity. It scared her.

"I'm taking you to Eris," he said. Something hit the side of her head and the world disappeared.

June 19, 2016. Timothy is ten minutes away from Eris. But Maya has bigger concerns on her hands: some of her guards, who have previously been operating in Canada, have just arrived with four people, one of whom is supposed to be dead.

It was night-time on the mountainside. Two slaves stood next to the double oak doors, awaiting orders. The candles scattered throughout the room cast eerie shadows on the wall. Sparks flew from the flickering hearth and sputtered out on the stone floors. It was a very foreboding scene.

But that wasn't what concerned Maya. What concerned her was the table sitting in the middle of her throne room, and the red-haired vampire lying on it.

Three people were kneeling in front of the table, their hands shackled to their ankles. She recognized all three of them—they had been prisoners of hers, once, back in 2006. James Rasmussen. A vermin girl named—Maddie? Molly?

And Delos Redfern. The Wild Power she had executed in 2006.

Maya walked around the table again, looking down at the corpse on the table. Poppy North no longer looked like the elfin sixteen-year-old of 2006. Now, she was middle-aged, her skin tanned and cracked, with weathered wrinkles starting to appear on her face. Her hair wasn't as vibrant as it used to be. She was probably in her thirties when she was killed.

The prisoners in front of her were silent. Maya left Poppy North's side to stand in front of Delos Redfern, the vampire prince.

"Delos. We executed you," she murmured.

Delos's yellow eyes were defiant. "That was a glamour, nothing more, and we both know it."

"I know," she cooed, crouching down in front of him. There was a brace on his left wrist—her binding spell from ten years ago had not worn off. Good. "But who do you think took your place, hmm?"

Delos blanched. Maya's smirk widened, and she continued, "Maybe I'll tell you later. Right now, what I want to know is how you escaped. Who helped you? Was it a healing witch? Possibly . . . Gillian Lennox?"

Delos's golden eyes wavered for a split second, but it was all the confirmation she needed. "Well." Maya smiled and stood up. Quinn chuckled from his corner of the throne room. He knew what would happen to Gillian Lennox's soulmate now. His laugh drew the attention of everyone in the room.

Quinn stood next to one of the candles next to Maya's stone, half of his face covered in darkness. Maya returned to the table, closed Poppy North's wide green eyes, and asked, "How did she die?"

"She attacked the werewolves out of nowhere. One of them grabbed a tree branch and hit her with it. It knocked her out, and they finished her off after that."

Maya lifted her eyes to stare at James Rasmussen. His jaw was clenched, and his eyes were like steel shards, but none of his anger was directed at her. His glare was saved solely for Quinn.

"How can you live with yourself?" he asked. The words were hardly more than a hiss, but in the silence of the throne room, it sounded like a gunshot. Maya stiffened, then relaxed, a smile blossoming across her face.

No matter. Her Cup was strong enough. She would let James talk—for now.

Quinn, who had previously been staring at Poppy with a blank expression, focused on James. His black eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"

James's lips curled back, showing his fangs. If he hadn't been bound in magic-imbued wood, Maya knew he would have attacked Quinn then and there. "Serving Maya," he spat. "Are you out of your mind? What would Rash—"

Maya flicked her wrist. James's eyes rolled into the back of his head and he slumped forward. Maddie the vermin girl barely stifled a gasp as she stared at him with wide eyes.

Maya turned her attention on to her, and she walked around the table to stand in front of the girl. She bent down, grabbed her face with her hands, and turned her head from side to side. Then she laughed, smiling at the vampire prince. He still had his brace on. Good. "You know, Delos," she said, her smile widening, "I really don't get what you see in her."

She turned Maddie's face towards Quinn. "Does she look beautiful to you?"

Quinn smirked. "She's not my type."

He didn't seem affected by James's outburst. Maya relaxed, reassured, and turned back to the vampire prince. Delos was bristling, his jaw clenched, his golden eyes spitting fire. She was unfazed. "Don't tell me you've grown attached to the thing," Maya sneered. She let go of Maddie's face and straightened, turning and walking toward Poppy North. "She's only vermin."

Then, Maddie spoke. Her voice was soft, but firm, and she took everyone by surprise. "My name is Maggie Neely," she said. "I'm not vermin. I'm a human being, just like Quinn was, just like you were. Why do you hate us so much?"

Maya stopped halfway to Poppy's table. A slow smile spread across her face, and she turned around, walking back to Maggie. "Maggie, is it, dear? Well. Since you seem to be Delos's new plaything, I'll make sure we keep special care of you."

Maggie's eyes narrowed. Maya smiled.

That was all it took. Maggie's eyes closed and her chin fell to rest on her chest, as if she had fallen asleep. A roar ripped itself from Delos—a sound so horrible, so menacing, it actually startled Maya.

But in a split second, she composed herself and crouched in front of him. "Shh, shh," she said, placing a finger on her lips. Delos was twisting his hands behind him, as if he thought he could really break out of his handcuffs, and his fangs were bared and at their full length.

He didn't scare her, though. Maya smirked and shook her head. "Be a good prince, Delos. No harm will come to Maggie." His snarls quieted, but he still looked murderous. Maya stopped smiling and narrowed her eyes.

"I intend to execute you, like I should have done ten years ago. Then my rule will be forever." She stood up and shook out her hair. "If you try to escape—if you fight me—if you put one toe out of line, I will kill her."

She flicked her wrist before the prince could respond. Delos, too, was knocked unconscious by the psychic punch. The only sound in the throne room was the hissing of the candles, the crackling of the fireplace, and the heartbeats of the slaves.

Maya turned around and passed Poppy's corpse, sitting down on her throne. "These soulmates are giving me a headache," she said, smoothing out the wrinkles in her white dress. Quinn was silent.

After a moment, she looked up and met the eyes of the Lady Herald—the formal title for the slave in charge. Maya had never bothered to remember her name. "Herald," she said. The Lady Herald—a tall young woman with long, straight brown hair, equally dark eyes and olive-colored skin—stepped forward and curtseyed.

"My Queen?"

"Get some strong slaves and take Maggie Neely to my study. I'll take care of her then. Also," she gestured to Poppy's corpse, "make sure someone takes care of that. It's spoiling my appetite."

The Lady Herald curtseyed again, gestured for her fellow slave to follow her, and left the room. When the doors had slammed shut, Quinn finally spoke. "What are you going to do about Gillian Lennox?"

Maya shook her head. "I'll handle her," she muttered. "It's very likely she used something to forget about the whole thing."

A few minutes later, the Lady Herald re-appeared, this time with four shapeshifters, two of which were werewolves. One picked up Poppy North's corpse and looked at Maya. "What should we do with her?" he asked.

Maya waved a hand. "I don't care. Put her in the furnace, throw her off the mountain, feed her to the lions—just get rid of her."

The werewolf nodded and walked out. Two others picked up the table and carried it out of the room. The fourth one unshackled Maggie Neely, picked her up, and left the room. Quinn moved James and Delos to sit against the wall so that they wouldn't get in the way of the shapeshifters.

The Lady Herald shut the oak doors after them and turned around, curtseying again. She held the curtsey until Maya nodded, giving her permission to speak. "What is it?"

"My lord Timothy has come back, my Queen," she said, not looking up from the floor. "He and my lord Gavin. My lord Timothy says that he has arrived with what you sought."

Timothy had Aradia. Maya felt a small smile spread across her face, and she stood up. "Send him in, then."

The Lady Herald curtseyed and opened the door. Immediately, four people strode in. Two of them were bound. Maya walked to the center of the throne room and smiled, holding out her hands. Timothy stepped forward and knelt, kissing her hands. "My Queen," he said, avoiding her gaze, "I have returned."

Maya looked at the prisoners then. Yes, that was Aradia—she would recognize that face anywhere. The witch stood tall, her chin lifted defiantly, but Maya could smell the fear on her. Her hands, as well as her companion's, were tied in front of her, shackled by iron chains.

She turned her attention on the other one and furrowed her brow, taken aback. "What happened to Crevan?" she asked. Gavin, who was standing next to the second person, clenched his jaw.

"Aradia killed him, Majesty," he said. Maya raised an eyebrow and appraised the Maiden once more.

"Really? How disappointing. But that doesn't explain why we have a second person here." She looked at the girl standing next to Aradia. Her curly hair was black and wild, utterly untamed. Dust and dirt covered her, and she could smell dried blood on the girl. "Who are you, child?"

The girl's eyes flickered green-gold in the candlelight. She swallowed hard before whispering hoarsely, "Ariel. My name is Ariel."

"Tell me, Ariel. Can you cook? Clean?"

Another swallow. "No."

Maya almost smiled. "Then what do you do, dear?"

"I . . . I know herbs," she offered, obviously unsure of what to say. "I explore."

Maya pursed her lips. She already had a slave woman who was an expert in herbs, and slaves had no business exploring. She wouldn't have any free time to do that, anyway. Plus, she didn't look like the docile type—obedient, compliant, easy to control. She looked like a fighter.

Maya didn't like fighters.

It was then she noticed that Ariel was wheezing slightly, as if she had run all the way from the train station to the palace room. "What's wrong with you?"

She saw Aradia's jaw clench out of the corner of her eye. Ariel licked her lips and glanced at the floor, digging her nails into her palms. "I, uh, have asthma because I was born early. Sometimes I have difficulty breathing."

"Oh, wonderful. You're disabled, too." She waved a hand and rolled her eyes. "She has nothing of value. Kill her."

Timothy jumped in front of Ariel and shook his head. "My Queen," he said. Maya lifted an eyebrow, bemused, but let him continue. "She does have something of value."

"Oh?" she said, waiting for him to elaborate. Ariel was glaring at him—a sight she thought humorous, considering he was trying to save her life.

Timothy gave a small smirk. "She has blood, doesn't she?"

Maya burst out laughing. "Why, Timothy!" she teased. "If you wanted her, why didn't you say so? Of course you can have her. I'm sure she can be put to good use here, despite her . . . shortcomings." She nodded to the Lady Herald, who immediately came forward. "Take her to the slave quarters. Make sure you tell her what is expected of her."

The Lady Herald curtseyed and went to Ariel's side. After Gavin unlocked her chains, the Lady Herald took the girl's arm and led her out of the room. Maya then turned her attention back onto Timothy and Gavin. She pointed to James and Delos and said, "Take them to the twenty-first block in the jails. Make sure you tell Tora so she can assign a guard."

Timothy and Gavin left, leaving only the second slave girl, Maya, Quinn and Aradia in the throne room. Maya clasped her hands behind her back and regarded Aradia with bright blue eyes. "What do you think we should do with her?" she asked him. "Execute her immediately, or wait a while?"

Quinn stepped in front of Aradia and smiled. "I think we should wait a while," he admitted. "Execution might be too hasty. What if this is a glamour?"

Aradia's lips were trembling, and her fear was rolling off of her in waves. Maya could see his point and nodded. "All right. We'll wait, in case any glamours fade. The most powerful ones can last up to two weeks."

She put her hand on Aradia's arm, ready to find a guard to take her away. Suddenly, in a surprising burst of strength—considering she was bearing iron chains—she wrestled herself out of Maya's grasp and lunged for Quinn, her hands outstretched.

"—and in the name of Hecate-Witch Queen, I free you from the Lethe!" she shouted. Her palms hit his forehead, and blinding white light filled Quinn's vision. He stumbled back, clutching his forehead in pain.

When the light cleared, he found he was kneeling on the ground. Maya was kneeling in front of him, her eyes a bright green, a few tendrils of hair escaping the bun piled on top of her head to frame her face. Aradia was gone, and so was the second slave girl.

"Quinn," said Maya, placing a hand on his shoulder. "Are you all right?"

Quinn frowned at her. "What did she do? What was that?"

She shook her head and tucked her hair behind her ears. Her eyes were still a vibrant green. Those eyes—he shook his head, clearing his thoughts.

"A spell, probably. She probably meant to harm you. Do you feel all right?"

Quinn shook his head, composing himself. "Nothing happened."

Maya relaxed and stood. "Good. I can't have my best officer being incapacitated by some renegade witch's spells. You are dismissed for the night."

Quinn kissed her hands and stood. "Goodnight, my Queen," he said, exiting the room. Maya watched him leave. When he was gone, she went to the crackling fireplace and took out the flower she'd used to hold her hair together. Her hair came undone and fell in dark waves.

Maya looked at the flower in her hand. It was a calla lily—pure white, with a delicate yellow stigma in the middle of it. Its petals felt like velvet. She slowly crushed it in her fist, clenching her jaw.

"John Quinn is mine," she hissed. She threw the flower into the fire and watched it blacken and dissolve into ashes. "And nothing that Maiden does will change that."