Chapter 34 .

Lily

My heart dropped and tripled its beating as the mansion came into view.  Forms moved around it, blurs that would still for a moment into a human form and then blur again as they moved. The sun was beginning to set, but it was still bright enough outside to easily see everything.

“Barrier up, Darren,” Jin said from his position in front of us.  

Hunter and I both stepped closer to Darren.  I couldn’t tell when his barrier went up, but it must have gone up because Jin seemed satisfied.

“Be ready to put your lightning around the barrier if needed,” Jin said.

Hunter nodded, but Jin wasn’t looking at him.  His eyes never left the mansion.  

“Alright,” Jin said.  “Let’s go.”  He started to make his way to the mansion at a slow pace.  We followed closely.

Several of the blurs rushed towards us.  We were surrounded in a moment.  Jin stopped moving as a male vampire came into focus in front of him.  A female vampire stopped by my side.  Her hungry smile sent terrified shivers down my arms.  Her blood red eyes stared at me as if she could devour me just by looking at me.  I stepped closer to Darren and bumped into his arm.  His gloved hand wrapped around mine.  I saw him reach out to Hunter who stood on the other side of him and grab his wrist.  Hunter stepped closer to Darren.  Another vampire stood to the side of Hunter and a fourth one stood behind us.  The vampires all wore normal modern clothes, but on them the clothes looked wrong and made the vampires even more frightening.  Maybe the fact that they wore short sleeves in the snow had something to do with it.

Elongated sharpened fingernails reached out for us on all sides, but stopped in midair.  The smile on the vampire next to me widened.  Her canines grew longer as I watched.  The vampires moved constantly in some way.  Small movements, small swaying that wasn’t human.

“Have you brought presents to make up for your insolence?” the male vampire in front of Jin asked him.  The vampire’s eyes darted to the three of us behind Jin.

“No,” Jin said.  He seemed at ease even though Darren, Hunter and myself were basically all cowering together behind him.  

The vampire by Hunter’s side reached out for him.  There was a slight shimmer in the air when his fingers met the barrier.  Then his fingers were pushing through the barrier.  Lightning immediately zigged from Hunter’s hand and snaked around the exterior of the barrier.  The vampire pulled his hand back in a blur hissing in pain and in the next moment all the vampires except for Jin were hissing at us.  Their eyes glowed red, their faces contorted in terrifying anger, their canines barred and the three around the barrier got closer without actually touching the barrier.  The presence around them darkened and I found myself shaking as I pressed myself against Darren’s trembling arm.  I fumbled with my ax but managed to bring it out between me and the vampire next to me.  I was careful to keep it close to me so it wouldn’t pass through the barrier.  I knew logically that I wouldn’t be able to wield it fast enough against the vampire, but it made me feel slightly better.  My shaking stopped to a low tremble.

“If you’ve come to usurp the mistress, you’re going to need a lot more than these creatures,” the vampire in front of Jin said.

“I haven’t come to usurp anyone,” Jin said camly.  He completely ignored what was going on behind him, but I didn’t think that meant he didn’t care about us.  I got the impression it was because he was trying to look like he had complete control of the situation.  He had told us beforehand what to do and we were doing it.  “I need to speak with her.”

“She said if she sees you again she will kill you.  Do you still want to see her?” the vampire in front of Jin asked.

“I have new information she needs to know,” Jin said.

The vampires slowly backed off moving in that unnatural way.  I hadn’t realized how different Jin and Gunnor were until that moment.  Thinking back to the first moment we met Jin and Gunnor, they had moved with this same creepiness, but as soon as we had gone inside their mansion that had changed.  It was then that I knew they had purposely changed the way they moved to make us feel comfortable.  I doubted the vampires around us now would give us the same courtesies.

Jin and the vampire in front of him stared at him for several slow moments while the vampires around the rest of us continued to taunt us with their hungry, angry expressions.

“Stay here,” the vampire finally said.  “I’ll tell Alvina you are here.”  He smiled a smile that sent chills down my spine.  “Don’t be surprised when she orders us to kill you and to take in your creatures as our new meals.”

There was a blur all around us as the four vampires left and went back to the mansion.  Darren, Hunter and I let out audible sighs of relief at the same time.  Hunter let the lightning drop.  I trusted that Darren kept the barrier up even though I couldn’t see it.

“Are you guys alright?” Jin asked us without turning to us or even moving.

I couldn’t find my voice to answer him, but Hunter said, “Yes.”

“Remember to run if you have to,” he said.  “Even if that means leaving me behind.  Keep the barrier up and the lightning around it, stick together and run until you find Gunnor.”

“It won’t come to that, right?” Darren asked in a shaky voice.

“I don’t know,” Jin said.

The blurs rushed out of the mansion and surrounded us again.  “She’ll see you,” the same vampire who had spoken before said.  “But you must go to her.”

There was a slight pause that felt like forever before Jin said, “Fine.”

The vampire turned and started walking slowly back to the mansion.  Jin followed him.  The other vampires pressed around us, but were careful not to touch Darren’s barrier again.  We had no choice but to follow Jin. 

The inside of the mansion felt a lot different than it had when we stayed here.  It might have been because of all the vampires that moved inside.  They moved in jerky movements, slow and then a blur and then a stop.  It might have been because some of the vampires floated in the air and others crawled along the walls and ceilings like a spider, but the house itself seemed darker.  Almost like the walls were pulsing and pressing in on us, like the ceiling could fall on us at any moment, like the furniture might suddenly grow teeth and take a bite.  

We were led up the stairs.  And up another flight of stairs.  And a third flight of stairs.  I hadn’t fully explored the mansion while we were here before, but I really didn’t think it had this many stairs as we kept going up.  

The top floor was a large room with only one large chair set in the middle.  Pillows were scattered around the room along the floor.  There were at least a dozen vampires in this room.  Most of them were strewn along the floor resting on the pillows.  Some stood along the walls or even clung to the walls like lizards.  Red curtains covered the windows.  As the sunlight streamed through them it cascaded a weird red light all throughout the room.  Like the room was dancing in blood.

I stepped closer to Darren.  He was still in between me and Hunter.  He hooked a shaking arm through mine.  I still held my ax out between me and the vampires even though I knew it wouldn’t do any good against them.  Well, the ax itself could if it had the right wielder, but I was way too slow to be able to behead a vampire with it.  It made me feel better to hold it though.  It was like a life preserver keeping me afloat.  Some of the vampires began to gather around us with that same terrifying hunger in their eyes.  I had fought zombies and venefici and I had never been this terrified.  I began to doubt we would get out of this.

And even though vampires surrounded us and were scattered throughout the room, the most terrifying of them all sat in the only chair.  She had long, black hair that flowed freely over her shoulders.  It was almost imperceptible, but her hair moved like it had been exposed to too much static electricity.  Her red eyes glowed and shined like rubies lit up by an inner light.  Her skin was deathly pale.  A dark shadow surrounded her red eyes.  Her too red lips were closed in a thin line.  She alone was not dressed in modern clothes.  They weren’t historical clothes either.  At least not any that I knew of.  She wore a black lace dress that cut off above the knees.  The skirt of the dress had several flowing lawyers and like her hair, they seemed to move.  The dress had long sleeves that were pure lace and draped long over her hands.  She wore black leggings that left nothing exposed.  Her boots were black and came up to almost her knees.

She blinked at Jin with no expression on her face.  She shifted.  Her movements were slow.  Almost too slow as she crossed one leg over the other, put one arm along the arm of the chair, bent that arm at the elbow so her cheek rested in her hand.  A finger tapped very slowly against her cheek as she blinked again at Jin.

For the first time ever, Jin looked nervous.  He bowed slightly to the woman on the chair.  “Mistress,” he said.

Alvina didn’t reply.

“The venefici are behind the zombies,” Jin said.  

The vampires moved slowly around us.  It was obvious they were circling their prey.  Darren, Hunter and I drew even closer to each other.  Hunter’s hand crackled with lightning, but he didn’t release it yet.  The only thought I had was if this didn’t go according to plan, we were in more trouble than we had ever been in.  Despite the plan that Jin came up for us to run, now surrounded by these vampires, I wasn’t sure that was even possible.

Alvina blinked and tapped her cheek with a fingernail that I noted was now longer than it had been moments before.

“Their power has grown,” Jin said, “so now they can turn weres and other partly human beings into zombies.”

I blinked and the chair was empty.  A little squeak left the back of my throat as Jin was no longer in front of us.  The vampires around us stopped moving, but there was a blur in front of the chair and Jin and Alvina rematerialized.  Jin faced us with a horrified expression on his face as Alvina had wrapped herself around him from behind him.  Her legs wrapped around his legs keeping him from moving.  Her arms pinned his to his body.  The only thing he could do was stand there. 

“Run,” he called out to us right as Alvina bit into his neck.

Chapter 33 .

Tanner

I did not like leaving my sister again.  Especially knowing she was going to face hostile vampires.  But the decision was ultimately hers and if we could get the vampires on our side, that was a lot better than having them follow us to hurt us.  Grace walked at the back of the group with Victory.  Victory kept smiling as she looked up at her sister clearly happy to have her here.  Mackenzie walked next to me with her gloved hand slid into mine.  I pushed one of the bikes along.  It wasn’t easy in the snow and a big part of me wished we had just left it behind.  Bikes were good when there wasn’t snow, but they became a hindrance when there was snow.

Alex and Gunnor were in the lead of our little group.  Alex in particularly would straighten and sniff the air at regular intervals, but they were both alert at all times.  It was my first time traveling with the small children and I thought they would forget and become noisy, but they stayed close to Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Anderson.  They were quiet as they walked along with us.  Their eyes darted to and fro as alert as the rest of us.  

We all wore good winter clothes so we didn’t get wet trudging in the snow.  That didn’t mean we didn’t get cold.  It was cold, but it wasn’t freezing.  I wasn’t looking forward to being out here when night came on though.  I felt bad for Molly since her fur did get wet walking in the snow.  She wasn’t shivering and didn’t seem too bothered as she bounced along in the snow beside Arthur so I assumed she was okay too.  Maria walked next to Richard and Monica but it was clear as Richard and Monica walked close to each other that they were quickly becoming something more than friends.  Dr. Patel and Dr. Higgins walked along the middle of the rest of us.  Gunnor had wanted the children and Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Anderson directly behind him and Alex so they could easily protect them if we ran into anything.

We traveled a few hours before Alex said, “They didn’t travel far from the last time we saw them.”

“They wouldn’t have been able to in the snow storm,” Gunnor said.

“I can smell frostbite on some of them,” Alex said.

I hoped we weren’t out here long enough for frostbite.  I was already imagining us back in that cave or Jin’s and Gunnor’s mansion.  I would be alright waiting out the winter before going after the venefici, but I didn’t think the others would and I knew Lily wouldn’t.  And in truth, as much as I wanted to stay in as much comfort as possible during the winter, I also didn’t want to allow the venefici to grow even more powerful while we waited.  

I also didn’t think we could take them on all by ourselves.  Even if we got Alvina and her vampires to help and Erik and his werewolves, this was happening all over the world.  Even if we took care of the local venefici, that wasn’t going to fix the world.  What we needed was some way to communicate with other groups like ours around the world to coordinate our attacks.  But that was impossible.  We had to at least do what we could. I hoped other groups around the world were doing the same.  We couldn’t be the only ones who figured out the venefici were the threat.

“Let’s go a little further,” Gunnor said, “so that we’ve put them between us and Alvina’s brood.”

Alex nodded.  We all followed him as he continued on.

“You probably can’t tell,” Monica said, “but do you have any idea if the women and children they captured are alright?”

“I don’t know,” Alex said.  

“I think they would have concentrated all their efforts on getting warm and sheltering from the storm,” Gunnor said.  “I think – I hope – that the women and children are safe.”

“We all know magic,” Maria said, “couldn’t we go in and scare them away by brandishing our magic and then we could rescue the women and children.”

“If they were all human,” Gunnor said, “but they aren’t and the tricksters aren’t going to fall for that.”

“But you and Alex could take care of the tricksters,” Maria said.

“It isn’t that easy,” Gunnor said.  “You don’t know what we are up against.  For now, we’ll wait on Jin.  If he can get Alvina to help us, together we can easily take out that group.”

“But if Alvina helps us take out that group,” Dr. Patel said, “I’m assuming they’ll want to use that group as sustenance, right?  Will they treat them as you and Jin have treated us?”

“I doubt it,” Gunnor said.

“Then how will they treat them?” Monica asked.

“Like food,” Gunnor said.  “They’ll keep them alive, but they won’t be treated with affection or fairness.”

“That’s fine with me after how Grant and his dad treated us and after they teamed up with a group of men that would treat women and children that way,” Maria said.

“If that’s what Alvina’s brood will do,” Mrs. Smith said, “we should try to keep the women and children with us.  You said you needed more people in the rotation to drink from anyway.  Especially now with Alex.”

“That is what I would prefer,” Gunnor said.

“Is there no way to stop them from treating them like that?” Dr. Patel asked.

Several heads turned to him as if he was crazy.  “I just mean,” he went on, “isn’t it setting a dangerous president to let them treat them that way?  What’s from stopping them from treating us that way too.  Or what if we run into a good group of people who want to join us.  We wouldn’t want the other vampires to treat them that way either.”

It was silent except for our feet walking along in the snow.  “That’s a good point,” Maria finally said.

“Vampires usually start out by being kinder to the humans they get their blood from,” Gunnor said, “but as they get older, they forget what it was like to be human.  They began to see humans not as another being with thoughts, feelings and goals, but just as a means for sustenance.”

“But you and Jin aren’t like that,” Maria said.  “I didn’t get the impression you were both young vampires.”

“We’re not,” Gunnor said.  “We’ll stop here.”  We had come to a spot by a rocky outcropping so the snow wasn’t as deep here and we would be somewhat shielded from the wind.  We began to set up camp when Gunnor said, “Jin and I were like that before we met all of you too.  Having beings with you that weren’t entirely human and humans that negated magic made a huge difference in actually making us listen to you.  At first, we were just biding our time, but now we genuinely care for all of you and want to protect you.  You have resparked the part of us that was once human.  I can’t say Alvina and her brood will ever feel the same.  Don’t ever let your guard down around any of them if they decide to join us and don’t let them ever charm you.”

Chapter 32 .

Lily

I woke up sandwiched between Maria and Mackenzie.  I carefully removed Mackenzie’s arm from around me and scooted out from between them before I stood up.  Most everyone was still asleep.  Gunnor and Jin sat side by side with their backs against the rock wall at the back of the cave.  They didn’t say anything, but they both watched me as I got up and stretched my back.  Alex slept at the end of our row of sleeping bags next to Hunter.  Gunnor had still been taking him away from the rest of us at night to do whatever it was vampires did to make other vampires.  His physical appearance hadn’t changed, but there was something different about him.  The countenance around him was more similar to that of Jin’s and Gunnor’s than Mason’s and Elsie’s.  His eyes hadn’t turned red, but sometimes when Jin or Gunnor drank from one of us, Alex’s nostrils would flare and he would swallow hungrily and look away.  He was still eating with the rest of us, but he ate less than he used to.

Tanner and Grace sat together near the front of the cave.  They sat just on the edge of the snow drifts.  A soft, dull light streamed through the opening of the cave as the sun began to rise.  I walked quietly towards them, but stopped when I got close.  It didn’t occur to me until then that they might be having a moment and I shouldn’t disturb it.  Tanner must have heard me or sensed my presence because he looked back at me.  He smiled and patted the spot next to him.  I continued those few steps and then sat next to him.  He wrapped an arm around my shoulders.  I was bundled in my coat because it was cold and we had been sleeping with our coats on underneath the sleeping bags.  His arm around my shoulders gave me additional warmth.  I was grateful we were in that cave because if we had still been outside the past few days during that snow storm, that would have been awful.

“It stopped snowing,” I said the obvious.  I had actually been relieved that it had been snowing.  I hadn’t admitted it to anyone yet, but I didn’t want to go face vampires that had tried to kill Jin and the rest of our group including my sister.

“Yeah,” Tanner said.

I heard people begin to stir behind us, but I didn’t look.

We didn’t vocalize what it meant now that it stopped snowing, but we knew.  We would have to separate again.  I hated being away from my siblings, Maria and the others, but now knowing the venefici used the souls of those turned into zombies for their magic, I couldn’t fully be at ease until I knew my mom’s soul and the others that were stolen were okay.  That was probably going to be a long wait.  I didn’t know how long or how far I would have to travel to insure that.  It might take all my life.  I really hadn’t thought this through completely.

Mackenzie sat next to me and hooked her arm through mine.  She yawned loudly and placed her head on my shoulder.  There was more movement behind us.  I heard the crackle of a fire blaze back to life.  Packs were rifled through.  I heard the metal scraping of the pan and some cans being opened.  Molly ran in front of us happily and licked each of our faces.  Arthur stood near Mackenzie uncertainly.  Mackenzie patted the spot next to her so he sat and stared outside with the rest of us.  Victory quickly sat on the other side

We slowly went through our morning routine.  When it was time to eat, we all sat around the fire with the exception of Gunnor and Jin who stood around our circle and watched us.  When the pot was passed to Alex, he took it, looked at and then passed it on without eating.  We all stopped to stare at him.  “I’m not hungry,” he said.

“Not hungry in general or hungry for something else?” Maria asked.  “Like blood.”

Alex didn’t answer but his eyes darted to Gunnor.  Gunnor smiled widely but didn’t say anything.  Jin said, “We’re going to have to find more people soon.”

After breakfast, I noticed Hunter slip quietly out of the cave.  I followed him.  It wasn’t safe for anyone to be alone outside anymore.  He walked south from the cave and went several feet before he stopped by a tree.  He didn’t do anything other than stare ahead.  The snow shifted around my feet as I joined him.  The snow reached my shins.  At least it wasn’t deeper than that and wasn’t too difficult to walk in.

His eyes turned to me before staring out ahead again.  I didn’t say anything as I followed his gaze.  I didn’t hear any indication of zombies or vampires.  Although, I wasn’t sure if we’d even hear vampires.  I doubted it, but I thought Hunter would at least be able to sense them or smell them.  I heard someone coming up behind us and then Darren was standing on my other side.  He sighed as he looked out to where we were looking.

“I’m kinda scared to meet the vampires,” he admitted.

“Me too,” I said.

“Me too,” Hunter said in a whisper.

I reached out and took both of their gloved hands in mine.  I sighed heavily.  Darren did too.

“We’ll have to rely on each other more than ever,” Hunter said.

“Yes,” I said.  “I trust both of you.”

They both looked at me then.  Darren smiled.  “I trust both of you too.”

“I don’t really know how much help I can be,” I said.  “Darren is going to protect us with his barrier and Hunter with his lightning and I’m just supposed to stand there.  I don’t know what use my immunity to magic does here.”

“Your determination is great, Lily,” Hunter said.  “If anyone besides Jin can convince them to help us, it would be you.”

I wasn’t sure about that, but I said, “They probably don’t care that humans are being turned into zombies except now they’ll have less food.  Except, now werewolves and other beings that are part human can turn into zombies too and if the venefici can do that much, and they want to rule everyone, it’s probably only a matter of time before they figure out how to make vampires into zombies too.”

“See,” Darren said, “You’re already convincing.”

It grew silent between us again.  I still held their hands because they gave me strength and in that moment, I needed it.  I needed their friendship.  The sting of thinking of Hunter as just a friend didn’t hurt as much as it used to.  Progress.  I hoped both Hunter and Darren were having progress in that area too.

“My mom would be rolling in her grave if she knew I was about to voluntarily walk into a vampire brood,” Hunter said.  Then he winced and pinched his eyes close.  “Except, she doesn’t even have a grave to roll over in.”

Tears suddenly burned my eyes as I thought about how we had to leave our parents dead like that in that house.  We couldn’t bury them or give them a proper headstone or a memorial.

“Lily,” Tanner called from behind us.  I quickly blinked my tears away and dropped Hunter’s and Darren’s hands.  I turned.  Tanner stood at the mouth of the cave looking at us.  He waved us back in.  The three of us slowly made our way back to the cave.  Everyone else was packing so we moved to roll up our sleeping bags and pack as well.

“Gunnor and his group will leave first,” Jin announced.  “I think it’s best to give them a head start so if Alvina immediately sends out a search party for him when we arrive, they’ll be safer.”

I nodded.  That made sense to me.  And I was happy to delay walking into the vampire’s den that Jin and Gunnor seemed afraid of.  The morning passed all too soon and I found myself hugging my sister and brother again saying goodbye.  And I didn’t want to say goodbye to Maria and Arthur so soon either.  Or any of them for that matter.  It was going to be strange not to have Molly’s constant presence as she walked with us, warned us of danger and gave us sloppy kisses.

They took all the bikes with them and most of the packs.  We stood at the mouth of the cave and watched them until we couldn’t see or hear them anymore.  Then we went back inside and sat around the fire.  The cave was empty with only the four of us left.

The day wore on and soon it was late afternoon.  It was only then that Jin started to stir as if getting ready to leave.

“Maybe we should stay one more night in the cave to give them even more time,” Darren said.

Jin looked at him.  “Is that really why you want to wait or is it because you are afraid to meet Alvina?”

“I am afraid to meet Alvina,” Darren said.  “Aren’t vampires stronger at night or something?”

“Some are,” Jin said.  “But Alvina and her brood are the same whether it is day or night.”

“Oh,” Darren said.

“Just do what I told you about the barrier and lightning and you will be fine,” Jin said.  “If by chance, something goes wrong.  You three need to run.  Run while staying close to each other and keep the barrier and lightning going.  I’ll try to hold them off for as long as I can.  If they get by me, run to a large group of zombies or that large group of humans in the woods.  They might distract the vampires long enough for you to get away.  Understand?”

The three of us nodded.  “Then let’s go,” Jin said.  The three of us stood and followed him out.

Chapter 31 .

Mackenzie

I sat at the back of the cave with Juan and Marcos.  Sunlight streamed in through the mouth of the cave.  Jin sat at the front of the cave.  His eyes were closed.  He had told us moments before that some of Alvina’s vampires were getting close enough that they might be able to smell us humans.  It was not the first time he did this spell that put a barrier over the cave so the searching vampires wouldn’t be able to smell us and find us.  He was physically recovered from the attack, but every time he did this barrier spell, it exhausted him and he had to drink from someone to regain his energy.  

Marcos started to speak, but both Juan and I hushed him.  He frowned at us, but quieted.  Victory silently paced the cave.  The three adults and Maria sat together near our packs.  They all tried to hide it, but they were all getting tired too.  Jin said he was drinking too much from them, but there wasn’t another option at the moment.  He needed his energy to be able to protect the rest of us.

I didn’t like this new world.  I wanted to go back to before Halloween when we still had classes and could hang out with friends, go to the movies, be safe in our homes.  A time when my parents were still alive.

At least I hadn’t seen my parents killed in front of me like Juan and Marcos had with their mother and older sister.  I missed my sister.  And my brother.  And Arthur.  Jin said they were on their way back.  I hoped they would get here soon and we could all figure out a plan together.  And get away from Alvina’s vampires.  As if zombies weren’t bad enough.

Victory paused in her walking to look at me.  I tried to smile at her, but wasn’t sure I succeeded.  She walked over to us and sat down next to me.

Jin sighed and opened his eyes as he dropped the barrier.  His shoulders sagged and he yawned.  It was weird to see a vampire yawn.  

Maria stood up from her spot near the adults and walked over to Jin.  “Here,” she said and held out her wrists.  The adults didn’t even bother to try and stop her anymore.  It was Maria’s turn in the rotation, but it was still too soon for it to be healthy for Jin to drink from her again.

Jin looked at her wrist before looking up into her face.  “It’s too soon,” he said and gently pushed her wrist away.  She crouched in front of him.  

“You need energy if they come back,” she said and stuck her wrist out to him again.

Everyone watched them closely.  Jin sighed and took her wrist in between his fingers.  His canines elongated as he lowered them to her wrist.  Red blood began to ooze out as he bit into her flesh.  He quickly covered it with his mouth.  When he was finished, he licked the wounds and they quickly healed.  Maria went back to her spot by Mrs. Smith.  She put her head on Mrs. Smith’s shoulder.  Darren’s mom smiled kindly at her and wrapped an arm around Maria’s shoulders.

“We can talk now right?” Marcos asked.

“Right,” Mrs. Anderson said.

Marcos jumped to his feet.  “Tag your it,” he said as he touched Juan on the arm before running away in a fit of giggles.

“Stay inside the cave,” Dr. Patel called after him as he ran straight to the opening.  He veered off at the last minute and ran to the left wall of the cave.

Juan hopped to his feet, took several running steps after his little brother, but paused to look at me and Victory.  “Are you two playing,” he asked.

She and I looked at each other.  I could see in her eyes that she wanted too and I wanted to as well.  We both stood slowly before Victory said, “Yes.”  And then we took off in opposite directions.  

Marcos’s little giggles filled the cave as we ran and took turns being ‘it’.  Marcos wasn’t as fast as us so we gave him some leeway and pretended it was harder to catch him than it actually was.  Juan was slower than us too, but he was good at getting one of us trapped to tag us.

We played for a long time before Mrs. Anderson called us over for dinner which consisted of cereal with no milk.  Jin sat with us in silence.  The sky was darkening outside as night came on, but it wasn’t just the night.  Gray clouds filled the sky and there was a chill to the air.  We were shielded from most of the chill while we were inside the cave.  Which was good since Jin wouldn’t let us light a fire afraid it would let the vampires know where we were.  Which was why we were eating cereal instead of something like stew.

We had just finished eating the cereal when Victory’s head swiveled to the mouth of the cave.  Then she was on her feet and running towards the mouth of the cave as fast as she could.  Jin stood and watched her, but didn’t try to stop her.

“Wait,” Dr. Patel called after her.

“It’s alright,” Jin said.

I only had one thought.  That was how Vicky reacted when she was first reunited with her sister.  I got up and ran to the mouth of the cave too.  Victory was now outside the cave and running to a group of familiar people.  Tears sprang to my eyes when I saw my sister and brother.  I ran to them as fast as I could.  Victory reached her siblings first and the three of them were wrapped up in a hug.  

My sister reached me first and wrapped me in her strong arms.  And then Tanner was there hugging both of us.  I was vaguely aware through my tears that Mrs. Smith rushed out to meet Darren and Mrs. Anderson followed right on her heels to hug Richard.  Maria was hugging Monica and the boys were hugging Arthur.  Molly ran all around us barking happily.  Dr. Patel and Dr. Higgins shook hands.  Jin and Gunnor stood side by side watching the rest of us reunite.  At some point, Arthur left the boys to join my family hug.  We welcomed him.  The boys were now hugging Richard’s legs.  He picked them both up and hugged them.

“Let’s go inside,” Jin suggested.  “We’re too exposed out here.”

“Alvina is still searching for you?” Gunnor asked.

Jin nodded and led the way into the cave.  We all followed.  I wouldn’t let go of my sister’s hand.  She held mine tightly.  Tanner followed us holding hands with Grace, but he was always close to me.

“I’ve had to put a barrier over the cave a few times to hide us when the other vampires have gotten close.  How’d it go on your end?  Were you able to discover anything?” Jin asked.

His eyes landed on another young man trailing slowly behind all of us.  I recognized him as one of the people who had given us backpacks so long ago.  I didn’t remember if anyone had said his name.

“Alex,” Mrs. Anderson said to the young man.

“Hello, Mrs. Anderson,” he politely greeted.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“He’s one of the werewolves that helped us,” Richard said.

I took a step closer to my sister.  He didn’t look scary, but werewolves were scary, right?

“Another reason for Alvina to hate us,” Jin said, but he didn’t seem disturbed by this.

“For working with werewolves?” Maria asked.

“No,” Gunnor said.  “For making a vampire/werewolf hybrid.”

No one said anything as we stared at Alex.  Of course, those that had been with my sister didn’t seem to think this was a big deal.

“He was bit by a zombie,” Monica finally said.  “It’s the only way to stop him from turning into a werewolf zombie.”

Jin had told us that was a thing now.  That beings like Victory or werewolves that were part human could now turn into zombies if they were bitten.

“Is it the venefici behind all of this then?” Dr. Patel asked.

We all sat as they relayed their story.  Marcos tried to pay attention but he soon got bored.  He stood up and started to play tag with Juan.  Arthur and Molly joined them.  My sister’s group told us that the venefici were the ones that started the zombies. They stopped the electronics and they were stealing human souls to advance their magic.  They wanted to dominate everyone including vampires.

“Alvina might listen to us now with this new information,” Jin said.

“She might listen to you,” Gunnor amended.  “She wouldn’t listen to me.”

Jin nodded.  “She might listen to me and agree to help us stop the venefici.  Do you think the werewolves will help us?”

“I don’t know,” Gunnor said, “Erik was pretty upset with me that I let Alex get bit and even more upset that I am making him a vampire/werewolf hybrid.  They exiled him from the pack.”

“None of those things were your fault,” Alex said.  “My complacency is what got me bit and it was my choice to become a vampire/werewolf hybrid instead of a werewolf zombie.  I didn’t want my soul stolen by the venefici to be used in their magic.”

“Then,” Jin said, “first I’ll go to Alvina.  I can escape again if she doesn’t agree to it.  I think she will though.”

“I think she’ll be more amicable if you had first hand accounts,” Gunnor said.  His eyes drifted to where Lily, Darren and Hunter sat.

“No,” I immediately said.  “My sister can’t go out again.”

“We’re all going to have to go out at some point,” Lily said like it was no big deal.  “We can’t stay in here forever.”

“That doesn’t mean you need to go with them and put yourself in danger,” I pleaded.  I couldn’t stop the tears that came to my eyes.  I quickly wiped them away and tried to pretend they were never there.

“Maybe we should all go,” Tanner offered as if that was better for me, but it wasn’t.  I was terrified when the vampires had chased us down those tunnels.  If it hadn’t been for Victory’s magic, we would have all been vampire food.  And I didn’t think those vampires were going to be as nice to us as Gunnor and Jin if they caught us.

“No,” Gunnor said.  “The fewer the better.  If we all go in, you’ll just be sustenance for them.  And they’ll kill me and Alex without waiting for an explanation.  If it’s just Jin and a handful of others Alvina will at least listen first.  Darren is extremely good with his barrier spell.  He was able to use two separate barriers over Lily and Tanner and move it along with them.  Lily needs to go because of her determination and I think it will be good to show Alvina we have humans on our side that are immune to magic.  And I think it would be good to show her we have dragon magic on our side.  If Lily and Hunter stay inside Darren’s barrier and Hunter uses his lightning magic to surround the outside of the barrier, the vampires won’t be able to hurt them.”

Jin nodded.  “If I can show her these three and she is agreeable to listen, she might be more open to the rest of you and a vampire/werewolf hybrid to fight the venefici.”  He looked directly at Gunnor and said, “If I go and leave you here with everyone else, you can’t hide them from other vampires like I can.”

“I know,” Gunnor said.  “I don’t think we should stay here.  We ran into a large group of humans that were being commanded by tricksters.”  Jin raised an eyebrow at this, but didn’t interrupt as Gunnor continued.  “The rest of us could move closer to that group so any vampires looking for us will mistake them for us.  They’ll attack the larger group first.”

“I don’t want to go back out there,” I hadn’t realized it was me that spoke until everyone was staring at me.

Victory put an arm around my shoulder.  Tanner said, “I’ll be with you, Kenzie.”

“I know,” I said.  I looked at Lily, “but she won’t.  What if something happens to her?”  I hated that I was crying again.

Lily moved to me and wrapped me in a tight hug.  “I’m going to be okay, Kenzie,” she said.  “But if I can help, I have to go.  I can’t stand the thought of mom’s soul being trapped and the venefici using it for their magic. What happens to her then?  Does she just become nothing?  I can’t let that happen.  You understand right?”  She pulled back to look me in the eyes.  And I did understand, but that didn’t mean I liked it.  I nodded.

“Then,” Jin said.  “We’ll move out in the morning.”

“It’s snowing,” Marcos said and pointed to the mouth of the cave.

“Okay,” Jin said, “maybe not the morning if it is still snowing.  We’ll leave when it is clear.”

Chapter 30 .

Lily

“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.

Chapter 29 .

Tanner

I woke with my arm draped over Grace.  Our foreheads were almost touching.  The morning sunlight streamed through tree branches and gently lit her face.  We had ended up moving camp the previous night.  After the venefici blew up, Alex almost turning into a werewolf zombie and then killing zombies in our camp, we had thought it best just to move on in case all of that attracted even more zombies.  

I lifted my head slightly to see if anyone else was up.  Richard and Darren were supposed to be on watch.  Darren patrolled one end of camp and Richard patrolled the other side.  Dr. Higgins sat at the campfire.  He was heating up water and had some ramen noodle packs ready.  Gunnor sat on the ground with his back against a tree trunk.  His eyes had that same far off look they had the previous night.

I settled back down and looked at Grace.  She blinked at me with a slight smile on her face.  She reached out and caressed the stubble along my jaw.  I leaned in and kissed her.  I was aware of everyone else around us even if they were still sleeping so I kept the kiss chaste.

“Ew,” Arthur muttered as he sat up and gave us a look.  Molly bounced happily around him.

“One day you won’t think it’s ew,” Grace said to him.

Arthur gave her a skeptical look at that.  He got up and went to the fire.  That seemed to be the signal for everyone to start moving.

“I think it’s ew,” Hunter said as he sat up on the other side of Grace.  

“Only because I’m your sister,” Grace said as she also sat up.

“Yeah,” he said as if that should be obvious.

“I don’t think it’s gross,” Lily said as she sat up on the other side of me.  “It’s kinda sweet.”

I patted her leg to show my thanks.  Monica got up and started opening the ramen noodle packages with Dr. Higgins.  Alex remained where he was sprawled out on his sleeping bag, but his eyes watched the clouded sky.

“Jin met back up with your families,” Gunnor said.  “They are all safe.  He is injured.  It’s going to take him a day or two to recuperate.  I think they are safe for now.  Alvina has only lived in luxury even when she was human.  She turned Jin and never expected him to live with less than she has.  She can’t imagine him hiding out in a cave in the middle of the wilderness.  I know where the cave is.  We can meet them there.  But we’ll have to be careful to avoid Alvina and her brood.”

“She didn’t turn you too?” Richard asked.  All of us gathered around the fire as Monica and Dr. Higgins added the noodles to the boiling water.

“No,” Gunnor said.  “Jin did.”

“Is that why you left the brood with Jin?” Hunter asked.  “I was told that vampires have some hold over those they turn.”

“That is true to an extent,” he said.  His eyes flashed to Alex.  “But that hold doesn’t last forever.  Alvina’s hold on Jin faded long ago and so did Jin’s over me.”

“So you could make Alex do things he doesn’t necessarily want to do when you turn him?” Darren asked.

“I won’t,” Gunnor said.

“But you could,” Richard said.

“I could,” Gunnor agreed.

“Is that much different than when he was in his werewolf pack?” Monica asked.

“Even when Erik commands us he usually leaves an option free to say no,” Alex said.  “Most alphas of werewolf packs treat their packs like family they have to lead and protect.  A few do abuse their power and pack magic, but when other alphas find out, they usually either help the beta oust him or they oust him themselves.”

“How many vampires have you turned?” Darren asked Gunnor.

“None,” Gunnor said.  

Alex’s eyebrows turned up very slightly before going back to normal.  His eyes went from Gunnor to the boiling noodles.

The noodles only took a few minutes to cook.  Monica and Dr. Higgins added the ramen seasoning.  The pot was passed around as we all ate.  Hunter’s eyes drifted to me and Grace more than once.  He hadn’t acted before like our relationship bothered him, but we had been keeping the physical affection pretty tame.  Maybe something changed with him after I kissed Grace this morning.  I didn’t want to be on his bad side.  I wanted both Hunter and Victory to like me.  As far as I was concerned, we were pretty much family now.

We packed up camp and started on our way back to our families.  We were a few hours out when Hunter finally approached me.  “May I speak to you?” he asked me.

“About what?” Grace asked beside me.

“Just talk,” Hunter said.

“You’re not seriously going to do the overbearing brother talk where you threaten him not to hurt me or else, are you?” Grace asked.

“No,” Hunter said, “but I’m the oldest in this family now besides you and I should ask him what his intentions are.”

Grace scoffed.

“It’s alright,” I said to her.  “I don’t mind talking to him.”

“My brother doesn’t have any ill intentions,” Lily said to Hunter.

“I don’t think he does,” Hunter said, “but it’s my duty as a brother to ask.”

“No it’s not,” Grace said.  “It’s all my decision.”

“Fine,” Lily said, ignoring Grace.  “Then I’ll talk to your sister to find out what her intentions are with my brother.”

“Fine,” Hunter said.

“Fine,” Lily said.

Hunter looked at me expectantly.  I reached out and gave Grace’s hand a little squeeze before I followed Hunter away from the others.  We could still see them, but they wouldn’t be able to hear us.  Lily led Grace in the opposite direction.

“Are you serious about my sister?” Hunter asked.

“Yes,” I said.  “I like her a lot.”

“Like her or love her?” he asked.

I hesitated only because it was harder to admit to someone else than I thought.  Especially because admitting it out loud made it more real and I didn’t want to tempt the universe to take away something I loved.

“I love her,” I said.

He looked at the ground as we took the next several steps in silence.  “Are you going to marry her?”

“I want to be with her for a long time,” I said.  “Right now I want to be with her for the rest of my life.  But we are still young.  I didn’t want to think about marriage and starting a family until we were both out of college.  I guess we’re both out of college now.  This new world is a strange one, Hunter.  I still don’t know how things are supposed to work and how we’re supposed to survive.  I do want to marry her someday but it’s not like we can just go to a church or city hall to get married now.  Who could even marry us?  Would it even matter who married us?  It’s not like there is a government now to tell us we aren’t legally married if we just said we were married.  I don’t know how any of that is supposed to work anymore.”

He looked at me for a moment before he turned his gaze ahead.  “You’re thinking about the details too much,” he said.  “The details don’t really matter.  Only if the feelings are genuine.”

“My feelings for your sister are genuine,” I said.  “They have been for a long time.  Before we even started dating.”

He nodded and looked back at the others.  I followed his gaze to where he was staring at Darren.

“I guess I knew that,” he said.  “It just felt like I needed to say something.  Like I am trying to retain some normalcy in this world that has been turned upside down.  And our parents aren’t around anymore to approve of you.”  His voice choked and moisture filled his eyes.  He quickly blinked them away and gave me a pained smile.  I thought of my own parents then and how they hadn’t known Grace and I were together when they died.  They would never know their grandchildren.  If Grace and I ever did have children, we’d have to raise them without the advice and knowledge of our parents.  Our children wouldn’t have grandparents.  I decided to change the subject.

“What’s going on with you, Darren and my sister?”

He sighed heavily and looked up at the treetops.  He shrugged.  “Trying to get over unrequited loves and maintain our friendships.”

I patted him on the shoulder.  Grace and Lily rejoined the others.  I pointed them out to Hunter and asked, “Did you have anything else you wanted to ask?”

“No,” Hunter said.  “I know you love my sister.  I know you watch out for her.  I didn’t really doubt it.  Like I said, I just wanted some semblance of normalcy.”

“I understand that,” I said.

We rejoined the others.  I found my place next to Grace and took her hand in mine.  I leaned in close and whispered, “Was my sister’s questioning brutal?” But I knew it wouldn’t have been.  I knew my sister.

Grace scoffed.  She replied quietly so only I would hear, “She thanked me for taking care of you.  She didn’t ask me any questions.  What about my brother?”

I looked back at Hunter who was now walking with Lily and Darren.  Richard and Monica walked in front of them.  The two of them walked very close to each other.  Monica laughed at something Richard said.  He smiled as he looked at her fondly.  She gently bumped his arm with her shoulder.

I turned back to Grace.  “He asked me some questions but also said he didn’t doubt my feelings for you.  He just wanted to pretend like the world was how it used to be for a little while.”

She squeezed my hand.  We let our conversation drop.  Grace watched the back of Arthur as he and Molly walked beside Dr. Higgins.  Gunnor and Alex were in the front.

“Arthur,” Grace said.

Arthur turned around to look at us.  Grace waved her hand for him to fall back beside us.  He did so.  Molly was close to his heels.

“I wanted to tell you,” she said, “that you impressed me with your bow and arrow skills.”

Arthur’s face lit up as he smiled.  “Really?”

“Yes, really,” Grace said.  “You are more accurate than anyone else that just started to learn.  I think if we still lived in the world as it used to be, you could have competed professionally.”

Arthur’s smile widened and his shoulders lifted proudly.  “Can I tell people you said that?” he asked.

“Of course,” Grace said.

He immediately ran back to Dr. Higgins to tell him.

“I love you,” I said to Grace quietly.

She smiled as her eyes met mine.  “I love you too,” she said.

Chapter 28 .

Lily

“Shouldn’t we help them?” Mason asked Liam.  Liam and the werecats were heading out of the camp.  Mason and Elsie were following slowly.

“No,” Liam said.  “Our deal was only to help them with the RU in? cafe and see what happens from there.  Alex got bitten and exiled from the pack.  Erik isn’t going to risk that happening to the rest of you.”

“But,” Elsie said.  Liam continued to walk out of the camp.

Gunnor stood frozen.  His red eyes were glazed over.  He hadn’t said another word since he declared that Alvina had found the house, but what did that mean?  Was my sister and the others alright?  Did they have to run or did Jin find some way to appease Alvina?

I couldn’t stop the anxiety that bubbled up inside me.  I needed to know what was happening with Mackenzie.  Tanner took a few steps towards Gunnor, but Grace grabbed his wrist and held him back.  Maybe she thought Gunnor was communicating with Jin and didn’t want to disturb him.

“You’re not part of their pack,” Monica said.  My eyes flickered to her.  She was addressing the werecats.

“Our family is with them,” Zoe simply said and then stepped beyond the trees to join Liam.  Callie was right on her heels.

Elsie and Mason stopped right at the edge of camp.  The conflict was clear in their eyes.  “Go,” Alex said to them, but it was quiet and pained.

“We’ll try to convince Erik to let us help you,” Mason said.  “We’ll try to come back.”

“We’ll find you,” Elsie added.

“I’m not pack anymore,” Alex said.  “Don’t worry about me, about us.  Just go.”

Mason’s eyes drifted to Hunter.  “Sorry, lizard boy,” he said.  “We can’t go against this order.”

Hunter nodded.  My attention went back to Gunnor.  He still hadn’t moved or said anything.  I brushed past Tanner and Grace.  Grace tried to reach out for me, but she wasn’t quick enough.

I grabbed Gunnor’s jacket and tried to shake him.  He didn’t move.  “What’s happening?  What about my sister?  Is she safe?”

He didn’t answer, didn’t even blink.

“Gunnor,” I practically shouted and tried to shake him again.

“Lily,” Hunter grabbed my arms and pulled me away from him.

“My sister,” I said to him.  “Your sister.”  A tear spilled from my eye onto my cheek.  “What if something is happening to them?  What if they are dying?”

He wrapped his arms around me and pulled me in close.  “I don’t know what’s happening to them,” he said, “but if Victory was dead, Grace and I would know it.  And Victory isn’t going to let Mackenzie die.”

“What about my mom?” Darren asked.  Hunter turned his gaze to Darren while he still held me.  I brushed the tear from my cheek and stepped away from Hunter.

“Victory would try to save Mackenzie first and the children second.  Maria would come after that.  I don’t know about your mom or Richard’s mom or Dr. Patel, but for now, let’s trust they are safe.  They’ve been learning magic too and Victory’s power is stronger than mine and Grace’s combined.”

“He sent your families down the tunnel,” Gunnor said.  His voice was distant.  His eyes still had that far away look to them.

“What does that mean?” Richard asked.  “Are they safe?”

Gunnor didn’t answer.

Alex sat on the ground with his head between his knees.  Almost as if he were going to throw up.  I might have focused more on him if I hadn’t been so concerned with my sister and what was happening back at the house.

Richard took my place in front of Gunnor and tried to shake his shoulders.  “What is happening?  What tunnel?”

Gunnor didn’t respond.

Tanner tore his arm away from Grace and joined Richard.  “Tell us what is happening,” he demanded.

“Jin is fighting,” Gunnor said without looking at any of us.  

“Fighting who?” Dr. Higgins asked.

Gunnor was silent once again.

“Tell us,” Richard yelled out.

“Fighting our brood.  He’s hurt.  He’s trying to buy the others time to get away.  They’re going to kill him if he doesn’t escape.  Don’t speak to me again.”

“Gunnor, what about the others?  How long do they need to escape?  Keep talking to us” Tanner’s voice rose with each word, but Gunnor wasn’t saying anymore.

“Let’s just leave him and go back to save them,” Richard said.

He started walking, but Hunter quickly grabbed his arm holding him in place.  “We don’t stand a chance against a brood of vampires,” he said.

“We can’t just do nothing,” Tanner said.

Grace took his hand in hers.  “Even if we ran, we’d never make it in time.  Victory is still alive.”

“And what happens if you feel her die,” Tanner said.

Grace’s expression turned to pure horror.  Tanner’s face immediately fell.  He took Grace in his arms and held her close.  “I’m sorry,” he said.  “Vicky isn’t going to die.  Kenzie isn’t going to die.  We have to believe that.  I’m sorry I suggested otherwise.”

Molly began to yip and bark.  She ran around Alex in wide circles.

“Alex?” Arthur asked.  He tried to put his hand on Alex’s shoulder, but Alex shied away and Molly ran between them keeping Arthur away.

“I can hear them,” Alex said quietly.

“Hear who?” Darren asked.  “The other werewolves?  Mason and Elsie?”

“No,” Alex said.  He looked up.  His skin was palid.  Sweat brimmed the edges of his temples.  Underneath his eyes was hollow and dark.  There was an almost hysterical gleam to his eyes.  “Zombies.”

Grace and Hunter immediately grabbed their bows and notched an arrow.  My hands tightened around my ax handle.  Tanner grabbed his bat.

Dr. Higgins crouched next to Alex.  “Don’t worry,” he said.  “We’ll take care of any that get close.”  He started to stand while taking out his knife, but Alex grabbed his arm.

“That wasn’t what I meant,” he said in a low voice.  It was almost a growl.  “I can hear them calling out to me to join them.  I can hear them tell me to rip your throat out, to bite at your soft stomach, to eat any part of you I can get to.”

There was an almost imperceptible green glow to the pupils of his eyes.  “Don’t let me change,” he pleaded.

“Gunnor,” Tanner called out as he rushed to Alex’s side.  “Alex needs more of your blood now.

Alex groaned.  He fell to his back and began to convulse.

“Gunnor,” several people shouted at once including me.  I rushed to Alex’s side to help hold him down as Hunter reached him and said, “Don’t let him shift.”

Those of us with weapons in hand dropped them by our sides as we tried to hold down the convulsing Alex.  It wasn’t really working.  I put all of my weight on the leg I was holding down.  The others did the same where they were.  I knew that Alex was strong enough to fling all of us off he had wanted to.  And maybe he would if he turned into a zombie, but I figured fighting a human shaped zombie was better than fighting him in his werewolf form.

“Gunnor!” several of us called out again, but Gunnor remained still and silent.

Alex groaned.  Zombie groans rose around us.  Alex’s expression changed into pain and sorrow and a small whimper escaped him.  He wasn’t a zombie yet, but it wouldn’t be long until he was.

“Arthur,” Grace called out to the boy.  She was the only of us who wasn’t holding Alex down.  Arthur was trying to help us hold him down while Molly continued to bark and yelp while running in circles all around us.  Arthur’s head shot Grace’s way.  “Get your bow and arrows and help me,” she said.

Arthur sprang away from us and ran to his pack.  He quickly picked up his bow and notched an arrow.  He pointed it to the trees like Grace was doing.

A zombie groaned and crashed through the nearby underbrush running straight for us.  Grace let loose her arrow.  It embedded into the zombie’s forehead.  The zombie fell dead right before it reached us.  Another zombie sprang from the trees as Grace was readying another arrow.  Arthur shot this one.  It went through the zombie’s cheek.  The zombie stumbled forward and then fell dead.  He notched another arrow as a third zombie streaked into our camp.  Grace shot this one.

Alex’s convulsions grew stronger.  Each of us were thrown off at one point and had to come back.  A low growl escaped Alex’s lips.  His teeth elongated and sharpened.  His eyes changed to the pale blue of his werewolf’s.

“He’s changing,” Hunter said.  He let go of Alex to take out his hunting knife.

“Wait,” Darren said.  “Wait until he’s really a zombie.”

“Gunnor,” I yelled out again.  I heard more arrows and more bodies fall, but I had to keep all my concentration on Alex as his convulsions had now grown so violent it was like a strong earthquake.

Then Tanner was pulled back and Gunnor replaced him.  He placed his bleeding wrist up to Alex’s lips.  Alex swallowed.  His trembling immediately stopped, but his eyes were still the pale blue.  He tore his arms from Darren and Richard who were still trying to hold him down.  He grabbed Gunnor’s arm and pulled it even closer to him.  Molly’s barking stopped.  She stopped running around us and slowly approached Alex as he continued to drink from Gunnor’s wrist.  Alex dropped Gunnor’s wrist and sighed.  Molly licked his cheek.  Alex reached up and scratched her behind the ears.  Gunnor stood back up and looked around at the rest of us.

“He almost turned,” Richard confronted Gunnor.

“He didn’t,” Gunnor said calmly.

Richard pushed him, but Gunnor didn’t move.  “He was exiled from his pack because you said you would take care of him, but you ignored him as he was turning.”

“I wasn’t ignoring him,” Gunnor said calmly.  “I was making sure Jin got away.  He did, but just barely.”

“What about our families?” Darren asked.

“He hasn’t rejoined them yet,” Gunnor said, “but he thinks they got away and since neither Grace nor Hunter have felt Victory die, I’d say they are safe for now.  But,” his eyes fell to Alex who had slowly sat up, “we do need to start the process of turning you into a vampire.  Now.”  He extended a hand to Alex.  Alex took it and Gunnor helped him to his feet. 

He started to lead him away from the camp.  “Where are you going?” Dr. Higgins asked.

“I’ve revealed some vampire secrets,” he said, “but this one is going to remain a secret.  Don’t worry, we won’t be long.  Why don’t you drag those dead zombie bodies away from the camp.”

None of us moved as we watched them leave.  Then the rest of us moved together to get rid of the zombie bodies.

Interlude 8 .

The In

The underling stood calmly while the Mistress and her companions screamed into the cold air of the stone room.  Green magic swirled around them kicking up a wind that knocked over bookshelves, tables and chairs.  Making a mess that he and the other underlings would have to clean up later.

When their screaming ended, the Mistress turned calmly to the underling and said, “So two of the cafe’s in India have been destroyed.  That isn’t a big deal.  We can recover from this.”

The underling cleared his throat.  The Mistress’s eyes narrowed.  “What else?” she asked in a tone that indicated if she didn’t like what she heard, he might die.  But he couldn’t lie.  The consequences of that would be worse than death.

“More cafes have been destroyed.”

“Where?” she asked.

“Three in the U.S., two in Canada, one in Mexico . . .”  she held up her hand to stop him from speaking.

“How many in total around the world were destroyed?”

“Twenty four.”

The Mistress tapped her fingers on the leg of an upended table.

“But none of them were destroyed by humans alone,” the underling said.  “In each case they were either destroyed by supernatural beings or supernatural beings working with humans.” 

“Maybe it’s time to move onto the next phase,” one of the companions said.

“It’s too soon,” another companion said.  “We haven’t gathered enough souls for that kind of magic.”

The Mistress sighed.  “We can’t move to the next phase until we have collected more souls.  We will gather into fewer larger cafes instead of many smaller cafes.  We will protect ourselves by gathering in great numbers.  Signs will go up to direct humans to these larger cafes.  Inform the others,” she said to the underling.

He quickly left the room before she decided to kill him.

Chapter 27 .

Mackenzie

“Good,” Victory said to Juan.  “Now pull back on the string.”  The three of us stood at an open window on the second floor while Marcos tugged on my shirt behind us trying to get a look.  I let him slip in front of me so he could see the zombie in the yard down below.  The zombie wasn’t charging or attacking.  It didn’t know we were inside the house yet.

Juan pulled back on the bow string.  The arrow was notched and ready.  Victory guided his arms, helped him aim and told him when to release.  The arrow whizzed past the zombie head and landed harmlessly in the ground beyond the zombie.  The zombie groaned and spun towards the sound.  When he realized there wasn’t anything there, he quieted again.

“I wanna try,” Marcos said and tried to pull on the bow.  I grabbed his wrist before he could.

“We’ll let you try,” Victory calmly said to the small child, “but after Juan.”

Marcos’s lips puffed out in a little pout and he crossed his arms over his chest.  “He always gets to go first,” he muttered.

“Try again, Juan,” Victory encouraged.

Juan took a deep breath, notched another arrow and drew the string back.  He took careful aim and fired.  The arrow flew into the zombie’s shoulder.  The zombie staggered backwards a step.  He spun all around again searching for any humans.  He was too stupid to look up.

“My turn,” Marcos piped in and tried to grab the bow again.

“Marcos,” Victory said.  “It’s dangerous to grab the bow out of someone’s hand.  You have to wait until they are ready to hand it over.  Understand.”

“Yes,” Marcos said.

“Alright,” Victory said.  “You can have one turn.”  Juan handed the bow to Marcos and stepped aside as Victory helped his little brother notch an arrow and pull back the string.  Marcos wasn’t strong enough so when he let loose the arrow it just dropped to the ground below the window.  “Good try,” Victory said.  “Now let Juan have another turn.”

Marcos happily handed the bow back to Juan and came back to my side.  “Did you see me?” he asked me.  “I did it.”

“I saw,” I said.  “Good job.”

This time when Juan let the arrow loose, it embedded into the zombie’s cheek.  It didn’t go as deep as when Victory or anyone else did it, but the zombie still fell backwards and didn’t move.

“Great,” Victory said.  Juan was beaming as he handed the bow back to Victory.  “Now Mackenzie and I will go retrieve the arrows.”

The smile on my face immediately faded away.  I didn’t want to go out there.  I hated going out there.  Especially now that the zombies went after Victory as well as the rest of us.  Victory acted like it wasn’t a big deal and I was worried that was going to get her killed some day.

“Let’s go,” Victory said.  She held the bow in one hand.  Her other hand grabbed my wrist and pulled me after her.  Juan grabbed the quiver of arrows and followed us.  Marcos trailed after him.  Maria and Dr. Patel sat in the upstairs sitting room.  As we passed, Maria called out, “Did he get him?”

“Yes,” Juan said proudly.  “I got him.”

“What are you guys doing?” Marcos asked them.

“Practicing magic,” Maria said.  “Wanna join us.”

“Yes,” Marcos said, “but I’ve got to help them retrieve the arrows.”

Victory cringed, but she hid it as she turned back to the three year old.  “It’s okay, Marcos.  We’ve got it this time.  You can go practice with Maria and Dr. Patel.”

“Okay,” Marcos said.  He bounced into the room where a smiling Maria and Dr. Patel waited for him.

The rest of us went downstairs.  When we passed the living room, Mrs. Smith sat on a chair reading a book.  Mrs. Anderson and Jin sat on the couch.  Jin had Mrs. Anderson’s wrist up to his lips.  He was drinking from her.  She seemed to be enjoying it.  His eyes darted to us as we passed.  He licked the holes on her wrist.  Victory ushered the rest of us on. 

“Where are you going?” Jin asked us from the living room archway as we reached the front door.

“To retrieve the arrows,” Juan said.  “I killed a zombie.”

“Be careful,” Jin said.  “The last one you shot wasn’t quite dead yet.”

“I have my knife on me,” Victory said.  She pulled out her knife for emphasis.

“Me too,” Juan said and pulled out his knife.  I had a knife too, but I didn’t say anything.  The vampire still frightened me a little bit.

“Very well,” Jin said.

The air was cold when we went outside.  The sun was starting to set.  We walked slowly and carefully to the zombie.  I looked among the trees and as far as I could.  I strained my ears to listen, but there wasn’t any other sign that zombies were about.

The zombie didn’t move as we approached and didn’t make a sound.  Victory had her knife ready just in case.  Juan and I stayed behind Victory.  “It’s dead,” she announced.  She pulled the arrow out of it’s cheek.  She wiped it off on the zombie’s tattered clothes.  “Go retrieve the other arrows,” she said as she pulled out the other arrow.

I went for the one that Juan had first fired.  Juan ran closer to the side of the house to retrieve the arrow that Marcos had fired.  The three of us went back inside without further incident.

Jin had routinely been checking the perimeter to make sure we were free of zombies and if any ventured in after he had checked, the rest of us took them out by firing arrows at them through the windows.  It was great target practice.  There hadn’t been any zombies in great numbers.  Jin had insisted that even though we were now living there, we had to leave our bags packed and ready to go by the bikes in the kitchen.  He insisted it was just in case, but I didn’t know what that ‘in case’ might entail.  Jin had also been teaching us all magic.  He had said we were now all good at warding off charms.  Even Marcos.  He had started to teach us offensive spells like fire.  I still struggled with that one.  Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Anderson had to follow Marcos around all day when Jin first taught us because Marcos had caught on pretty quickly how to create fire.  He had gone all around the house trying to set things on fire.  He had stopped after Dr. Patel had calmly explained to him that if he burned down the house we wouldn’t have a place to live.

“Are you hungry?” Mrs. Smith asked as we came back in.  “I was just going to start dinner.”

“We’ll help,” Victory offered.

“Go wash your hands first,” Mrs. Smith said.

The three of us piled into the bathroom and washed our hands at the sink.  The water was lukewarm but at least it worked.  We helped with dinner.  When it was time to eat, we all gathered around the dinner table.  Even Jin even though he didn’t eat with us.  It was at times like these that I missed my family and the others the most.  

We had finished and were just cleaning up when Jin suddenly went rigid.

“Shit,” he said.

“Language,” little Marcos scolded.

“Hurry,” Jin said.  “Grab your weapons.”  He grabbed all of our bags in one quick movement and rushed to the living room.  We always kept our weapons either on us or close to us so our bows and arrows were all in the kitchen.  We grabbed them and ran after Jin.  He threw back the rug revealing a secret door in the wooden floor.  He opened it and threw our bags down into the dark tunnel it revealed.

“Quick,” he said,  “Go down.”  Mrs. Smith was already heading down and pulling Marcos with her.  Mrs. Anderson and Juan followed.

“What’s going on?” Victory asked.

“Alvina is near,” he said.  “Take every left you come across.  Trust me.  You won’t go in circles.  Run.  Go as fast as you can.  You’ll come to a cave.  Stay there.  If I don’t live through this, Gunnor will find you there.  If I do live through this and can escape, I’ll find you.”  Maria went into the tunnel.

“But,” Dr. Patel started.  

“No time for questions or arguing.  Go.”  

Dr. Patel hurried down into the tunnel.  I started to follow him, but paused when Jin grabbed Victory’s shoulders.  “If they get past me, if they get in the tunnel,” he said, “don’t hesitate.  Use all of your power and electrocute them.  Use it all even if you think it’s going to kill you.  Fill up the tunnel behind you with it.  Don’t let them get close or it will be too late.  Mackenzie, make sure no one in your group gets behind Victory.  She has to be the last person in the group.”

I nodded.  He pushed Victory towards the tunnel.  “Run,” he said.

I quickly went inside and retrieved my bag.  The others were already running through the tunnel.  Mrs. Smith was carrying Marcos and Mrs. Anderson held Juan’s hand.  Maria trailed after them.  Dr. Patel had gone a little ahead, but was waiting for us.

“Go,” I said as I started to run after them.  Dr. Patel turned and ran.  I could hear Victory’s footsteps behind me.  The door closed leaving us in a dim darkness.  Maria conjured a glowing ball of light as she ran in the middle of us.

The tunnel branched off in different directions several times, but we always took the left.  It wasn’t long before we heard taunting laughter in the tunnel behind us.  The hairs on my arms and back stood on end.  It was laughing, but it was the most terrifying thing I had ever heard.  Female and male laughter, but with an inhuman quality to it.  Tears sprang to my eyes as the terror threatened to make my limbs stop moving.  “Keep running,” Maria’s voice said.  I didn’t know who she was talking to, but I pumped my legs even harder even as my bottom lip trembled.

The laughter sounded closer.  Victory stopped running.  I stopped with her like we were one unit.  Or more like, I didn’t know how to function without her.

Victory turned to face the tunnel behind us.  Her hands flashed out in front of her.  Lightning crackled back down the tunnel lighting demonic red glowing eyes, elongated canines and fingernails that had become talons.  There was a vampire woman directly in front of Victory.  I didn’t know they had gotten so close.  The laughter had sounded further back.  There was a vampire man further back in the tunnel and even more vampires behind them.  

The lightning crackled and attached to them like hungry leeches.  The vampires screamed.  It pounded and echoed in my ears.  My hands flew up to cover my ears.  That dulled the screams, but only barely.  And then a more human scream joined them as Victory screamed.  Her hair had been black with white streaks, but as she screamed, the black strands turned white and crackled.  I stepped back as her entire body became a conduit for the electricity spewing out of her arms, through her hands and out her fingertips.  The tiny white scales I sometimes saw around her eyes had spread and now covered her entire face.  Her mouth began to protrude slightly into the shape of an Asian dragon.  I assumed Korean since her family were Korean-Americans.  I couldn’t see her eyes, but they had to have been the storm gray with all the dragon magic she was emitting.

The vampire screams stopped.  Fried vampire bodies turned into ash and still Victory screamed and let out her lightning.  There were more screams from the tunnels we had already gone through and beyond.  Victory dropped to her knees, but the lightning continued to spill out of her until the screams down the other tunnels had stopped completely.  Until Victory collapsed.  Her eyes were closed as I rushed to her side.  Dr. Patel and Maria were right behind me.  The white scales were beginning to retreat and her face reverted back to its normal shape, but her white hair remained.

“I’ll carry her,” Dr. Patel said.  I grabbed her pack and bow and arrows.  Maria helped Dr. Patel sling her over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry and we continued to run after the others down the tunnel.  We didn’t hear any more creepy laughter.  

We collapsed when we got to the cave.  Victory still didn’t wake, but her breathing seemed normal.

“I’m cold,” Marcos said.  Mrs. Smith pulled out a sleeping bag and Marcos crawled inside.  The rest of us cuddled together and did the same.  I held Victory close to me.  After what seemed like an eternity, Victory finally opened her eyes.

“You’re awake,” I said.

She smiled at me.  “We got away,” she said.

“Thanks to you,” Dr. Patel said.

“You really were amazing, Vicky,” Maria said.  

There was movement at the mouth of the cave.  We all stood except for Juan and Marcos who slept.  Victory found her bow and arrows, but before she could notch an arrow Jin said, “It’s me.”

Maria conjured another glowing orb in her hand.

“You got away,” Mrs. Smith said.  The relief was evident in her voice.

“Yes,” Jin said.  He stepped into the light.  “But not without some cost,” he said.

His face and neck were bloody.  It looked like he had been both clawed and bitten.  Blood pooled all around his stomach and there were great gashes in his clothes.  His right hand was missing the ring finger and pinky finger.  He tried to retain the cool calm he always had, but he collapsed to his knees.  His eyes rolled into the back of his head as he passed out and dropped to the cold ground.

Chapter 26 .

Darren

There wasn’t one of us that didn’t have blood and gore over us.  My stomach rolled and lurched as I looked around at my companions.  Gunnor and the weres were unfazed, but the others all looked horrified as they looked at themselves and the rest of us.

Monica desperately tried to rub it off her coat, but she only spread it around more.  “I can’t get it off,” she said with a frantic edge to her voice.

“It’s alright,” Richard said.  He gently took her hand when her movements to get the blood off became even more urgent.  “Maybe there’s a stream nearby that we can wash off in.”

“There’s not,” Liam said.

Liam shifted into new, clean clothes.  The other weres followed his lead.

“What are we supposed to do?” Monica asked.  “We can’t just use magic to clean our clothes or change them like you can.”

“And it got on Molly too,” Arthur said.

“Why are you freaking out so much?” Mason asked.  “You’ve gotten zombie blood on you before.”

“A few splatters of zombie blood is a lot different than a girl that just exploded all over on us,” Monica said.

“There are working showers back at my house,” Gunnor said.

“It will take days to get back there,” Lily pointed out.

“I guess we can use our water to wash it off,” Richard said.  He started to pull out his canteen.

“No,” Grace said.  “That’s our drinking water.  Hunter and I will make it rain.”

“Good idea,” Lily said.  “Monica, you have soap we can use.”

“Right,” Monica said.  She slung her backpack off her shoulder and dug out a bar of soap.

Grace and Hunter stepped next to each other.  The color of their eyes changed to the color of storm clouds.  The sky was clear, but clouds started to form above us.  They were light and fluffy at first, but began to change to darker grey and hung lower in the sky.  The rest of us congregated around them.  The clouds broke and rain began to fall.  It wasn’t light gentle drops, but fast heavy drops.  It didn’t take long for all of us to be soaked.  The soap was passed around as we each took a turn scrubbing the blood off us.  We helped each other get blood out of each other’s hair and the back of our clothes that we couldn’t see.

When we were through, the clouds faded away and the sky was clear again.  “Thank you,” Monica said to Grace and Hunter.  The Sangs nodded to the acknowledgement.  

I looked at Lily.  She ran her hands through the tangles of her wet hair.  “Wait,” I said, “I thought magic doesn’t work on Lily and Tanner.”

“The lightning we used on the venefici wouldn’t have worked on them,” Hunter said, “but this magic was only used to form the storm clouds we wanted and then dispersed them.  The rain was real.  Like when Victory and I created the hail when we were running from all those zombies.  It was magic to create the type of weather we wanted, but then the hail was real.  Like the venefici couldn’t have hurt Lily with their magic, but they could have used their magic to hurl real inanimate objects at them and those objects would have hurt them.”

“I see,” I said.  I kinda understood, but I assumed the more I learned about magic and the different types of magic, the  more I would understand it.

“Alex,” Liam said, “you need to make a decision and you need to make it soon.  You cannot drink the vampire’s blood again until you decide and I can smell the zombie slowly taking over.  So, you can remain part of the pack until you die – I promise I will make a quick end of it once you turn into a zombie – or you can take this vampire up on his offer and become a hybrid and be cut off from the pack and your family and friends.  I will give you some time to think about it.”  Liam crossed to the other side of the camp.  He sat with his back against the trunk of a tree and closed his eyes.

“Come on, Alex,” Elsie said.  She gently tugged on Alex’s wrist.  “Let’s talk about this in private.”  Mason went with them as they went into the treeline.

“Well, the stew is ruined,” Dr. Higgins said.

“Molly will eat it,” Arthur said.

Dr. Higgins smiled at him.  “Then we’ll let her eat all of it and we’ll figure something out for the rest of us.  Maybe jerky or I do have a box of cereal we could just eat it dry.”

Arthur frowned.  “But it’s one of those healthy cereals with fruit in it.”

Dr. Higgins laughed and patted him on the head.  “It will give you energy.”

The fire had gone out with the rain.  Rain had made the stew more like a soup than stew.  Dr. Higgins pulled the pot over the dead fire and placed it on the ground in front of Molly.  She eagerly began to lap it up.  Her tail wagged happily.

“We need to start a new fire,” Monica said.

“Let’s go look for firewood,” Richard said.  She nodded and the two of them went off together to look for firewood. 

“You shouldn’t go alone,” Zoe called out.  She and Callie trailed after them.  Gunnor went to the opposite side of the camp from Liam.  He also sat with his back against the trunk of a tree, but he kept his eyes open and watchful on Liam.

Grace and Tanner went to Dr. Higgins and Arthur.  Hunter was with them.  My eyes followed Lily as she went to the side of camp that no one was at.  She sat on a rock and stared out into the trees.  I went and sat next to her on the wet dirt.  Dirt on the clothes was okay.  Blood wasn’t.

“Are you okay,” I asked her quietly.  We were far enough away from everyone else that they wouldn’t hear us if we spoke quietly.

“Yeah,” she said.  “Are you?”

“Yeah,” I said, but I wasn’t sure if I was.  Killing zombies was one thing, watching someone that looked human explode was something completely different.  “She tried to charm me,” I said.

“But you didn’t fall for it this time,” she said.

“I almost did,” I said.  “I didn’t recognize what she was doing at first.”

She put a comforting hand on my shoulder.  “But you did recognize it and pushed the charm away.  It was a good experience to help you recognize when someone is trying to charm you with magic.”

Her green eyes meant it and so I had no choice but to believe it as I stared into them.  I became distinctly aware of her hand on my shoulder.  Her wet gloves were on the ground in front of her.

“Thank you,” I said. 

She smiled and patted my shoulder before removing her hand.

“Can I kiss you?” I asked.  Her eyes widened and her lips turned down.  It was then that I realized how that sounded.  “Not like that,” I said.  “Just a peck on the cheek to show I’m grateful.  Nevermind,” I said and looked into my lap.  “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

She sighed.  “If I let you even if it were just as friends, it would hurt Hunter, so unless you’re going to give him a kiss on the cheek too, then I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

I looked over my shoulder to where Hunter was staring at us.  His eyes were back to their normal brown.  I turned back to Lily.  “He might get the wrong impression,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said in a tone that made me realize she was in that same position.

“Yeah,” I said and resolved myself to not bring up the subject again.

“I’ve been wishing I brought my makeup with me,” she said.  “Maybe if we looked like zombies we could walk among them without them attacking us.”

I looked out into the trees for any sign of movement as I thought about that.

“Then again,” she said, “I wouldn’t want to risk anyone’s life by trying that possibility.  If we ever spoke or sneezed they would know.  And maybe they’d know anyway.  Maybe it isn’t just sight and sound that makes them recognize us.  Maybe it’s our smell.  Or magic.  They are made from magic so maybe they recognize us through magic – or lack of it in mine and Tanner’s case – and if that’s the case, I don’t think there is any way we can disguise ourselves.”

“Maybe if we knew some really powerful human witches,” I said.

“Maybe,” she said.

“I wonder how that all works,” I said.  “Gunnor and Jin can teach us some magic, but wouldn’t it be better if we had actual witches or wiccans or shamans or any other humans that knew what they were doing to teach us?”

“Probably,” she said.  

There was shuffling in the camp behind us.  The weres and Richard and Monica had returned.  We stood up and went to join them.  Gunnor and Liam had gone to the middle of the camp, but it wasn’t Liam that Alex went to.  “If you turn me into a vampire/werewolf hybrid,” Alex asked Gunnor, “would you abandon me?”

“No,” Gunnor said.  “You can stay with me and Jin for as long as you want.  You wouldn’t be a prisoner or compelled to stay with us.  You’d be free to leave if you ever wished to.”

Alex nodded.  He turned to face Liam.  “I won’t allow myself to turn into a zombie and lose my soul,” he said.

Tears slowly trickled from Elsie’s eyes.  Mason swallowed hard and looked at the ground, but neither of them protested.

“Then say your final farewell to the pack,” Liam said.

Alex’s face twisted into sorrow for one brief moment before he nodded.  He knelt on the ground and closed his eyes.  The other werewolves did the same.  Several long minutes passed.  Mason and Elsie let out a mournful howl.  Liam’s eyes opened.  His eyes were the pale yellow of his wolf’s.  He stood and approached Alex.  His fingers came to either side of Alex’s head.  Alex’s eyes opened and were the pale blue of his wolf’s.

“Alexander Todd Winsome,” Liam said with the same command in his voice that had made the venefici speak, “as beta of the Lunar Eclipse Wolf pack I command that you are exiled.  Your bond is broken.  You are no longer pack.”

A shudder went throughout Alex’s entire body.  He collapsed onto his back when Liam stepped away from him.  His pale blue eyes stared blankly at the night sky.  Liam turned to Gunnor and said, “Do what you need to with him, whether that is kill him or turn him into an abomination is your choice now.”  He turned to the other weres and said, “Let’s go.”

“But they were sent to help us,” Dr. Higgins said.

“And they did,” Liam said with finality.  “Now they will return to the pack.”  Mason and Elsie immediately stood and retrieved their backpacks.  Zoe and Callie already had theirs over their shoulders.

“At least give Mason and Elsie a chance to stay goodbye,” Lily said.  

“They just did with the rest of the pack,” Liam said.

Alex stood with us as we watched the other weres retreating.

Gunnor went rigid.  His eyes glowed red similar to when he was killing people, but his face reflected pure terror.  In a blur he left the camp and into the trees.  A moment later he was back.  The weres stopped in their tracks to stare at him.

“What is it?” Hunter asked.

“Alvina found the house,” Gunnor said.