We had taken turns watching the prisoner. She was still surrounded at all times, it was just that at least one person watched her while everyone else went about setting up camp, making a fire, etc. The sun was starting to set. The woods became a little hazy.
Zoe and Callie patrolled the edges of the camp. Gunnor leaned up against a tree on the other side of camp. His eyes were closed, but I didn’t think he was asleep. I liked to imagine he was speaking with Jin and making sure everything was alright with the others. Lily would be devastated if anything happened to her sister. And my mom was there. She had suffered enough already. She didn’t need any more troubles.
Alex sat with Mason, Elsie and the others around the campfire. There was a pot of stew cooking. Molly sat by Arthur’s feet. Her tail wagged with contentment as Arthur petted her. She sniffed a little with her nose tilted in the air. She licked her lips and stared at the pot. Alex absently rubbed the cloth over his arm where he had been bitten. His eyes were unfocused. He was always quiet, but this quiet felt different. I wondered if Gunnor’s blood in his system was wearing off. He wasn’t as bad as he was before he drank Gunnor’s blood so I didn’t think he was going to turn into a werewolf zombie right then, but it could happen soon. If it were me, I’d rather be a vampire than a zombie. At least vampires didn’t lose their souls. Did they? The weres seemed to think Alex could save his soul if he became a vampire/werewolf hybrid, but they also acted as if that might not have been better than turning into a zombie. But why? Just because he would be exiled from the pack or were their other reasons I didn’t know about?
Those around the fire held multiple conversations at once. Richard and Monica smiled sweetly at each other as they spoke and I wondered if there was more going on there than my friend had told me about.
“We were nice to you,” a quiet female voice said near me.
I turned my head to look at the venefici. I glanced around at everyone else, but no one else seemed to notice she spoke or maybe they just didn’t care.
“I remember you,” she said. “You seemed like such a nice person. I still believe you are a nice person. We just wanted to help you and your family. Your mom, right? You just needed to bring her to us and she would have been safe from the zombies.”
Maybe she was right. There wasn’t any proof that the venefici were up to anything bad.
“Was it the vampire that told you to be suspicious of us?” her musical voice asked. “You know you can’t trust vampires and werewolves, right? They have a history of violently killing humans.”
That was true. Why did I trust a vampire? I had seen him almost in a frenzied, violent state. Except Hunter had told me too and I trusted him. And then I recognized the familiar warm, welcoming charm she was spreading over me. I brushed it off like I had with all my practices with Gunnor.
“At least they just kill people outright instead of deceiving them and stealing their souls,” I said.
She frowned at me. Her jaw tightened. “They’re going to kill me,” she said. “You must know that.” Her expression softened. “I don’t want to die. You are nice. You can help me.”
I felt her charm again but it was more subtle than last time. I was now aware of what she was doing and I easily brushed it off. “And how many people did you kill?” I asked her. She scowled and turned away from me.
The three werewolves suddenly stood and looked out into the woods. “He’s here,” Elsie said quietly. In the next moment, a blurred figure rushed from the woods towards Gunnor. Gunnor merely smiled. The figure stilled with his hand wrapped around Gunnor’s neck and had him pressed up against the trunk of a tree.
“Don’t kill him,” Mason cried out. “Hear what he has to say first.”
Gunnor scoffed as if the man squeezing his neck had no chance of killing him. Liam turned to the rest of us, but didn’t let up his grip on the vampire. His eyes glowed a pale yellow. His teeth were wolf-like. “Don’t tell me what to do,” he growled low and guttural.
All of the weres immediately dropped their eyes to the ground. I couldn’t look at him. It was too intense. He was a being greater than I was and I had to obey even if his words weren’t directed at me. I looked at everyone else but him. My fellow humans and the part dragons were the same. Poor Molly was cowering flat on the ground at Arthur’s feet. He hugged her desperately but I got the impression it was more to comfort himself than Molly. The only ones seemingly not affected were Lily, Tanner and Gunnor.
“Please let me go,” the venefici whispered to me. It was no longer filled with charm and cunning. Now she was just desperate. No one else seemed to hear her, but Liam’s head turned sharply to her. He slowly let go of Gunnor as his eyes never left her.
“Do you think you can use your alpha presence and get her to speak?” Gunnor asked Liam. “She won’t tell any of us whether or not the venefici are behind the zombies.”
There was another streak. This one headed straight at me. A little squeak escaped my throat as the blur passed me. Liam now had the venefici up in the air as his hand wrapped around her neck. She tried to move her hands, but they were still tied behind her back. She kicked out at him with her bound feet.
“Stop,” he demanded. She went rigid. Even though his command wasn’t directed at me, I stopped moving. I didn’t dare move or even breathe loudly afraid his attention would be directed at me.
“Are the venefici behind the zombies?” he asked.
“Yes,” the venefici choked out.
Liam set her back on her feet. His hand loosened around her neck, but he didn’t remove it. She didn’t move. “Why?” he demanded.
“The other beings thought so little of us, thought we were weak and divided. And we were. But banded together we are stronger than all of you. We should rule the world. You hide in the shadows away from humans pretending to be one of them even though they are lesser than all of us. They should serve us. They shouldn’t rule. They should be kissing our feet. And so should you.”
His hand tightened. Her face that had been smug moments before was now contorted in fear. She tried to gasp for air, but nothing would go through.
“The venefici made it so werewolves can now be turned into zombies?” he asked. He loosened his hand. She breathed in desperately.
“Yes,” she squeaked. “Our magic has grown enough that any being that is partially human will now serve us. And soon all beings will serve us. You’ll all have to bow . . .” Her words were choked off as he squeezed.
“How do we reverse it?” he asked.
She choked as he squeezed tighter. Tears trickled from the corners of her eyes. He loosened his grip. “You can’t,” she wheezed. “Not even the venefici can reverse it once someone has been bitten.”
“Then how do we stop the effect in the first place? There must be a way,” he said.
“Where are you keeping the souls?” Lily asked as she moved to stand directly behind Liam. Tanner tried to grasp her arm to stop her, but she wrenched it free. “How do we free them? That’s the source of your power right?”
Liam didn’t seem to mind that Lily was now directly behind him asking questions.
“Freeing the source of our magic or destroying it will stop the magic that makes new zombies,” the venefici said, “and it will greatly inhibit our magic. Please let me go,” she said. “They know I’m talking to you. They are going to kill me. Please don’t make me say anymore.” More tears fell to her cheeks.
“Stolen souls are the source of your magic?” Liam asked.
The venefici nodded as best as she could with his hand wrapped around her throat.
“Are the souls in all one location and that is where all the venefici draw their magic from?”
She nodded again.
“Where is it?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Please. The death magic is almost here. Let me go. Don’t make me say.”
He lifted her into the air by her throat again. “Where is it?” he demanded with more power.
Green light rushed from the tree canopy into the camp.
“Liam,” Alex warned him.
Liam dropped the venefici and stepped back just as the green light surrounded the venefici, seeped into her skin and disappeared. She screamed a sound so painful it caused all my hairs to stand up on end. Green light burst from her in all directions as she exploded. Blood and body parts sprayed across the camp.
“Well,” Gunnor said calmly while I fought back the bile that was trying to rise from my stomach, “at least we now know they are behind the zombies.”