“We should find a good place to set up camp for the night,” Dr. Higgins said.
“Right here could work,” Grace said. “There isn’t much of a clearing, but if we all bundled together close it should be alright.”
“Let’s go a little further,” Gunnor said. “If there is nowhere more suitable, we will come back here.”
“How are the others doing?” Hunter asked.
There was a long pause before Gunnor said, “They are still safe.” I assumed the pause was because he was communicating with Jin.
“Is Jin doing alright?” Tanner asked. “Is he healing?”
“He had to drink to speed the healing process along. And he isn’t completely healed, but he is much better than he had been. He suspects Alvina is staying at the mansion and sending out some of her brood to look for him.”
“Who did he drink from?” I asked.
Gunnor looked at Darren. “His mother,” he said.
“Oh,” Darren said. His eyes drifted to his feet.
“She’s fine though,” Gunnor added.
“I know,” Darren said without looking up. “We’ve all had you drink from us at some point now.”
We walked more in silence until Richard asked Gunnor, “How long will it take for Alex to turn into a vampire/werewolf?”
“I don’t know,” Gunnor said.
“How long does it usually take to turn someone into a vampire?” Monica asked.
“It depends on the magic of the maker and since I’ve never turned someone and Alex’s case is unusual, I really don’t know. It could be faster than usual or longer than usual.”
“How long did it take when Jin turned you?” Monica asked.
“Just shy of two weeks,” he said.
“Wait,” Alex said. He held up his hand stopping Gunnor from taking another step. They were in the lead so when they stopped, we all stopped.
“What is it?” Gunnor asked him. “Do you smell something?”
“Yes,” Alex said. “Humans. Lots of them.”
“Does anyone smell familiar?” I asked thinking of how Grant and his father joined those creepy men.
“There’s too many of them for me to distinguish,” Alex said.
“What if it’s Grant and those men?” Monica asked. She hugged herself as her brows knotted together in worry.
Richard put an arm around her shoulders and pulled her into his side. She smiled up at him, but the worried crease didn’t disappear.
“What if it’s just a group of humans looking for a safe place to go?” Grace asked. “Jin doesn’t have enough people right now to drink from every day. Maybe they’d be willing to join us if we explain to them what we all are and that we can teach them magic and offer them protection.”
“Or it’s that large group of men that we know are already around,” Richard reiterated.
“If it is those men,” I said, “can we take them all out if they try anything. We do have a vampire and a werewolf with us now. And Hunter and Grace who can strike them with lightning.”
“How many of them are there?” Gunnor asked.
I looked at Hunter and Darren. “We only saw the group of them once and we were far away and they were in the woods surrounded by trees.”
“I think there were at least fifty of them,” Hunter said. “Maybe more.”
“Alex and I could try to take them out,” Gunnor said, “but they have guns and even with as fast as we are, we couldn’t take them all off before they started shooting at you. But I do like the possibility of it being a different group of humans that might join us and allow Jin and I to have more to drink. And,” his eyes settled on Alex. “Alex is going to need to drink every day when he changes or there is a possibility he might lose control and go into a blood frenzy.”
Monica sighed heavily probably guessing what was coming next the same as I did.
“We should check it out,” Gunnor said, “but we’ll maintain our distance and stay hidden. If it turns out to be a group we think will be beneficial to us, we’ll approach. Lead us on, Alex.”
Alex led the way. Instead of going straight, we veered to the left. We walked about twenty minutes before he started to slow. He indicated for us to be quieter. We left our bikes so we wouldn’t be making as much noise in the foliage.
He stopped and whispered back to us, “Something doesn’t smell right.”
“Why?” Hunter asked before he sniffed at the air.
Grace sniffed too. “I only smell humans,” she whispered. I sniffed, but didn’t smell anything other than the pines around us. It seemed like the dragons didn’t have as good a sense of smell as the werewolf, but better than the rest of us.
“I don’t know,” Alex whispered. “I smell a lot of humans, but there is something else. I’m not sure what it is. I haven’t smelled it before.”
“Let’s keep going,” Gunnor whispered.
Soon we weren’t just walking, but crouching and walking even slower. I still didn’t smell anything other than the pine trees, but Gunnor seemed to be picking up what the others were now. He didn’t say anything, but his eyes got a little redder and his canines elongated. We stopped and gathered together crouched behind some foliage. Alex pointed.
I only saw one man first, then another and I realized they were on patrol on the outer edges of a camp as other men moved further among the trees setting up fires and spreading out sleeping bags.
I saw him just as Monica said, “Grant.”
“And his dad,” Hunter said as if he had just spit up poison. I hadn’t seen Grant’s dad until Hunter pointed him out.
“Why is he limping?” Darren asked. We all paused as we watched Grant’s dad hobble with a collection of sticks and dumped them on the ground. He sat beside them and started to arrange the sticks to make a fire.
“They have prisoners,” Richard said.
“Where?” Hunter asked.
Richard pointed. There were seven women tied to trees with rope. They all had tears on their faces. And there were five children tied up together in front of them. Sprawled out in front of them were four men. The men weren’t moving and all of them had blood over their clothes. They looked dead.
“We have to save them,” Richard said. He started to creep forward, but Gunnor reached across Alex to hold Richard in place.
“No,” Gunnor said. “You won’t make it.”
“They are just humans,” Richard said.
“No. They’re not,” Gunnor said.
All of us looked back down at the camp searching each man we saw moving freely for any indication of what Gunnor meant.
“They smell human,” Grace said.
“Most of them are,” Gunnor said. “But the leader and his two henchmen are not.”
I followed his gaze to further into the trees. I almost didn’t see who he was referring to, but then the man shifted. It was the same man who had been ordering the men when Darren, Hunter and I first saw them in the woods. It felt like a year ago, but in reality it wasn’t very long ago.
Alex sniffed the air. “I think they are what I was smelling, but I don’t know what they are. I’ve never smelled anything like them.”
“Tricksters,” Gunnor said. “Most cultures have some sort of stories of tricksters. These particular tricksters are native to this land. They have different names depending on which Native American tribe you ask, but they are all tricksters.”
“Tricksters are different from venefici?” Monica asked.
“Yes,” Gunnor said. “They have magic and they have the ability to shift into different animal forms, but they are their own being separate from shape shifters and separate from venefici. They are dangerous and powerful. They will distract me and Alex while the rest of their men kill you. We can’t risk it.”
“We can’t just leave those women and children to them,” Monica said.
“We can’t save them,” Gunnor said.
“You and I can take out the men on the outer perimeter without any of them noticing and slowly make our way in,” Alex offered.
“It won’t work. The tricksters will know,” Gunnor insisted.
“The tricksters probably won’t have told the humans what they are or that magic exists right?” Hunter asked.
“I don’t think they would have told them anything,” Gunnor said.
“Then you can go down alone and charm some of the humans on the outer edges of the camp and tell them to protect the women and children,” Hunter said.
Gunnor thought about it before he said, “I could, but I don’t think the tricksters will allow them to disobey them. If the tricksters give a direct order and the humans refuse, they’ll just kill them. And if the humans act too out of character, the tricksters might suspect something.”
“Do it anyway, please,” Monica pleaded. “If we can’t go down and save them, we need to at least try that.”
Gunnor sighed. “That solution isn’t a permanent one. At best, it’ll only work for a few days.”
“We can go back and get the others for help,” Richard suggested.
“That still won’t give us an advantage,” Gunnor said, “We’ll still be outnumbered.” It went silent as we all stared down at the camp. “Maybe,” Gunnor finally said, “and this probably won’t work, I need to speak with Jin in person first. But maybe having confirmed the venefici are behind all of this, Alvina will finally believe us and join us. And if that is the case, maybe she and the rest of her brood will join us and we can all take out that group of humans and tricksters. Or more preferably, charm those humans down there into being our sustenance. But all of that is a huge if. I don’t know if it’s possible. So for now, I’ll go down and charm the humans on the outer edges of the camp as you suggested. I’ll have them protect the women and children. But in the meantime,” he turned his attention directly to Alex, “take the rest of them and go northeast instead of directly north. I will meet back up with you soon.”
Alex nodded. Gunnor left us in a blur. Alex waved a hand indicating for us to go back the way we came. When we got back to our bikes, he led us northeast. The sun was setting by the time Gunnor got back to us. It hadn’t taken him long. None of us were comfortable making our camp this close to theirs so we continued. We walked long after it was dark. The sky was cloudy and the night was cold. It was dark so those of us that couldn’t see well in the dark, relied on those who could to guide us.
Finally, we stopped for the night. Gunnor immediately led Alex away from the rest of us and into the woods to continue whatever it was he did to turn Alex into a vampire/werewolf.
“Did we do the right thing by just leaving those women and children there?” Monica asked as we started a fire.
“I don’t know,” I said. “But I think if we had tried to save them, we would have died.”
She nodded, but her head turned back in the direction we had come from. I had a heavy pit in my stomach not knowing what fate we had left those women and children to, but we wouldn’t do them or ourselves any good if we were dead.