Chapter 11 .

Lily

Instead of staying on the road like we originally planned, we stayed hidden in the trees.  After the first day of travel, it was clear that the zombies were no longer deterred by Gunnor’s presence.  They didn’t attack him, but they would ignore him to try to get to the rest of us. He had taken it upon himself to tear off any zombie’s head that spotted us.  He moved so quickly, he usually reached them before they could even groan. It was best to cut off their groans as soon as possible as the groans called more zombies into the area.  So far we had managed to avoid any more large groups of zombies.  

We also didn’t want to run into people who may or may not be human.  At least, not until we met up with the werewolves. It wasn’t because we couldn’t handle them.  With a vampire and two part-dragons in our group, I was sure we could handle any group of normal humans.  But there were more than just normal humans in the world. Gunnor told us about a few of them each night when we stopped.  Doppelgangers were real and went under several different names in several different cultures. And they were a lot more dangerous than they sounded.  They could do more than just look like someone else. Humans with magic were real and though there were some who valued magic of nature and magic of balance, there were others that studied dark magic and blood magic.  There were other weres than just werewolves. All the weres were predators, but there were werefelines like werelions and werejaguars. There were also werebears and werewolverines. Banshees were real. Many beings spanned many cultures under different names like skinwalkers were similar to werewolves.  Then there was the wendigo and an array of other native american mythological creatures. We weren’t too close to any native american reservations, but that didn’t mean their mythological creatures that I now learned were not mythological were not around. Those were the only ones Gunnor, Grace and Hunter had told us of so far.  There was so much more to learn.

Gunnor kept in contact with Jin so we knew our families were still safe.  Gunnor relayed to Jin that the zombies would no longer keep away just because of their vampire presence.  All of the zombies at the house had followed us that first day, but Jin made regular sweeps around the area of the house and killed any zombies he could find before they could become a problem.

While we traveled, Gunnor taught the others magic.  There was a part of me that was jealous I couldn’t do what they were doing.  Gunnor taught them mostly defensive magic. First was how to ward off charms.  Darren already knew, but Monica, Richard, Arthur and Mike all learned quickly. The second was how to put up a barrier to keep out magic.  That took longer for them to learn, but they all succeeded. Their barriers wouldn’t keep out non magical items like knives and bullets so they still had to be careful.

Grace and Hunter mostly stayed near me and Tanner while Gunnor taught the others.  They had their own magic. Just because Tanner and I were immune to magic didn’t mean magic couldn’t affect us.  If a venefici threw a chair at us using their magic, the impact of the chair hitting us would still hurt.

Gunnor told us that even though he was a vampire, he still needed to sleep.  Vampires usually were nocturnal, but since most of us couldn’t see well at night, we traveled during the day.  He only needed a few hours of sleep so he took a few hours at night with the rest of us to sleep. We all took turns keeping watch.  We would take some time before night to practice with the bow and arrow. Arthur was surprisingly good at it for having only just begun to learn.  Tanner was terrible at it. It was strange seeing him bad at anything. He was usually so good at sports.

Stars glittered above us through the empty boughs of dead trees and the green pines.  Most of the snow had melted away over the past few days. We sat around a small fire waiting for the stew to warm up in the pan.  Arthur absently stroked Molly’s head while she sat content beside him.

“We’ll reach the werewolves territory tomorrow,” Grace said.  “Hunter and I won’t be allowed on their land.”

“We’ll work it out,” Tanner said.  “Maybe some of us can go in and some of us can wait.  Whoever goes in just needs to get permission for you two to go in too.  I’m sure they’ll agree once they find out why we are there.”

“I hope so,” she said.

“When do you need to eat again or I guess it would be drink?” Darren asked Gunnor.  Gunnor stood at the edge of camp looking off into the trees. “Technically not for awhile,” he said, “but if I want to be at my best, I should probably drink once a week.”

I did not miss the way Hunter suddenly swallowed and looked down at his feet.  He didn’t like how easily Darren volunteered.

“I guess,” Monica said slowly, “that we should take turns letting him drink from us.  With the exception of you guys,” she said to me, Tanner, Grace and Hunter. Tanner and Grace sat side by side holding hands.  Hunter sat on the other side of Grace. “And Arthur is too young,” she said.

“Am not,” Arthur frowned at her.

“While some vampires would jump at the opportunity of drinking from a child, I am not one of them,” Gunnor said.  “She is correct. You are too young.”

Arthur pouted, but did not argue further.  Molly put her head in his lap and looked up at him lovingly with her big brown eyes.

“I’m fine with him just drinking from me,” Darren said.  I couldn’t help but wonder if he was completely free from Gunnor’s charm.

“No,” Gunnor said.  “Monica is correct. It will be easier on all of you if I drink from more than just one of you.  You will deteriorate, Darren, if I drink from just you every week. A rotation of eight people would be ideal, but since there are only four of you that I can drink from, that should be sufficient.”

“What about us?” Grace asked.

Gunnor turned to look at her.  “What about you?”

“You can drink from me and Hunter can’t you?”

Gunnor paused for a moment as he stared into her eyes.  His expression never changed. Finally he said, “I can, but I didn’t think you wanted to.  The experience will be different for you than for the others. I can’t charm you the same way.”

Hunter nodded.  “But it will be healthier for the rest of them if we are added into the rotation.”

“Yes,” Gunnor agreed.

“I’ll add myself to the rotation too,” Tanner said.  

Grace tugged harshly on his hand.  “It will hurt you,” she whispered.

“It will hurt for a moment, I imagine, like getting stuck with a needle and having blood drawn, right?”  All of our eyes went to Gunnor. He nodded. “Then I should do it to keep the others as healthy as possible,” Tanner said.

“Then I’ll do it too,” I said.  “Then you’ll have the ideal number of eight and we will all stay healthy.”

“Yes,” Gunnor said.  “If you four volunteer as well, even though it will be painful for you at first, then that will be ideal.”

“Then it’s settled,” Grace said as Mike opened his mouth.  He quickly shut it. I wasn’t sure if he was going to argue with us or not, but that was the impression I got.

Molly’s body went rigid.  She stood and stared off into the trees.  Her hackles rose and she gave a low growl.  The rest of us were instantly on our feet. Gunnor moved closer to us.

“Something’s coming,” he said.

“A zombie?” Mike asked as he readied his bow and arrow.  I quickly took out my ax while Tanner readied his bat.

“I’m not sure,” Gunnor said.  “It feels different.”

“It almost smells like . . .” But whatever Hunter was about to say was cut off as a zombie stumbled in through the trees.  It was missing an eye and part of his eyebrow where it looked like he had been bitten. He stopped and stared at us before a growl escaped him.  Not a groan or a moan, but a deep, guttural growl. And then he moved so fast I only saw a blur charging Monica.

Mike and Darren shot their arrows, but the arrows were too slow.  Molly barked and jumped in front of Arthur. Right before the blur could reach Monica, a second blur cut off his path.  Gunnor stood in front of Monica. He held the zombie by the neck. The zombie growled again, twisted and broke free from Gunnor’s grasp.  I had never seen a zombie able to do that before either. It ran to the other end of camp and turned to face Gunnor again.

“What’s happening?” Monica asked as the zombie began to vibrate violently.

“Quick,” Grace called out, “everyone get between me and Hunter now.”  I hadn’t noticed that Hunter and Grace had moved apart from each other making a wide space between them.  I wasn’t about to question them. I grabbed Arthur’s hand and pulled him between Grace and Hunter. Molly followed us along with everyone else with the exception of Gunnor.  He faced the vibrating zombie. The zombie fell to all fours and another growl escaped him as the muscles and bones in his body started to contort.

“What’s happening?” Darren asked.

Lightning crackled in front of Hunter and Grace.  The sparks branched out and encircled us in a constant pulse.

“Werewolf zombie,” Gunnor said.

“That’s not possible, is it?” Richard asked.  But even as he asked, fur sprouted from the zombie.  His face elongated into a snout. Large claws extended from paws.  He was still missing that same eye, but now it seemed even more menacing as the wolflike creature growled at Gunnor. 

Gunnor tensed ready to spring at the werewolf.  It’s fur was dark gray. It’s one eye was yellow.  It was larger than any wolf I had seen. Its teeth and claws seemed longer, its muscles more powerful.  It was more menacing in appearance than a normal wolf and that wasn’t just because it was a zombie. It moved with such speed that it was just a streak.  Gunnor streaked to intercept, but another werewolf leaped out from the trees and cut Gunnor off. This one was tan color with green eyes. The eyes were intelligent, knowing.  This one was not a zombie, but it was still stopping Gunnor from attacking the zombie werewolf. The zombie werewolf paused at the new arrival.

“We take care of our own,” a female, guttural voice came from the werewolf.

A third werewolf leaped out from the trees and landed on the back of the zombie werewolf.  The zombie werewolf tried to rear back on its hind feet, but the third zombie – also tan with green eyes – bit into the back of the neck of the zombie werewolf and shook violently.  There was a loud crack and the zombie werewolf collapsed dead. The werewolf stepped off him. He vibrated and muscles contorted, but it seemed an easier and less painful process than when the zombie werewolf had done it.  Soon a young man stood before us fully clothed. The werewolf in front of Gunnor vibrated and changed back into a young woman. A young man and young woman I recognized.

“Hey, lizard boy,” Mason said.  “Miss me?”

Chapter 10

Lily

The zombies moaned, teeth bared, fingers clawed out towards us.  They never got too close though. Not as long as Gunnor was with us.  He led the way through the woods while the rest of us pushed bikes through the few inches of snow.

“You really should have obtained sleds instead of bikes for the snow,” Gunnor chastised us.

“Bikes will come in handy when we ride on a snowless road,” Hunter said.

“But we’re just starting winter,” Gunnor pointed out.  “There might not be snowless roads for several months.”

“Sleds are hard to maneuver through the trees and someone would have to pull them.  Bikes are difficult, but still more practical.”

Gunnor sighed.  “We should go to the store, get sleds and I can pull all of you.  I understand that you all are too weak, but I’m not.”

“We’d still have to maneuver through the trees,” Hunter said.

“We could just travel on the roads,” Gunnor said.  “I understand you wanting to stay hidden from zombies before, but they won’t get close with me here.  They shouldn’t have gotten close to you either,” he said to Hunter and Grace. “Your dragon blood should keep them at bay.  They seem only interested in humans.”

“We are mostly human,” Grace said.

“The zombies come after us too,” Hunter said, “unless, we show our dragon eyes.  That is the only time they haven’t come for me. And even then, when there were a lot of them and they were already chasing our group, our dragon eyes didn’t really stop them from chasing our group.  If it had just been me and Victory though, I’m sure that would have stopped them.”

“When your eyes turn gray, they don’t attack you?” I asked because that was the first time I heard about that.

“Yeah,” he said.  “I wasn’t sure at first, but when we first went to Monica’s party to save our friends, the sliding glass door to the backyard was open.”

“I remember,” I said.

“I went ahead of the rest of you to close it.  A zombie passed by right at that moment and looked at me.  I changed my eyes to the dragon eyes and it passed on by as if it didn’t see me.”

“Even if the zombies won’t get close to us because of Gunnor,” I said, “that still leaves those men in the forest.  Wait, were they human or were they some type of strange being too?” I hadn’t known other beings had existed when I first saw them and it hadn’t occurred to me to wonder about them since.  “Can you tell who is human and not?” I asked Hunter.

Zombie moans came from all around us as we got closer to the road.  They heard us talking and that drew them to us, but they wouldn’t get too close.  A wide circle of groaning zombies surrounded us. It caused the hairs on my arms and back of my neck to stand on end.  I gripped the handle of my ax in my gloved hand. I noticed my brother held onto tightly to his baseball bat. More zombies joined the crowd of zombies attracted by the other zombies’ groans.

“It depends on what they are,” Hunter said.  “The vampires have an aura about them that lets other supernatural creatures know of their presence without seeing them.  It surrounded their mansion. That was why I tried to warn everyone not to go there.”

“It’s an aura that usually attracts humans, by the way,” Gunnor said, “unless we expressly don’t want to attract humans.  We can use that aura to repulse humans if we so desire.”

“Werewolves have a certain smell to them,” Grace said.  “It’s easy to know it’s them if you know what to look for…or smell for.”

“But seeing them from a distance without the smell, you wouldn’t know if they were human or not,” Hunter added.  “The people in the RU in? cafes were a mix of humans and venefici. The humans were lured there like Darren was.”

Darren frowned at this and shuffled his feet.  Richard put a comforting hand on his shoulder. Monica noted Richard’s movement and smiled slightly.  Dr. Higgins’ eyes scanned the circle of zombies.

“I could tell right away who the venefici were mainly because their magic was so concentrated in those places.  They are usually indiscernible from humans because they are usually solitary.”

“And they usually use their magic to blend in with humans,” Grace said.  “In the past they have appeared just as humans with magic. Humans can use magic and have used it in the capacity of wiccans, shamans and a wide variety of other names whether they were aware they were using it or not.  Venefici’s magic usually mimics human’s magic enough that people just think they are normal wiccans, shamans, etc. But they aren’t.”

“So you wouldn’t be able to tell if those men in the woods are venefici or not?” Monica asked as we continued forward and the groaning zombies followed or stayed ahead.  They would not come any closer to the vampire.

“I think with that many in one concentrated place, I would be able to tell if they were mostly venefici,” Hunter said, “but I wouldn’t be able to tell if just one or two were venefici.”

“If we find what is causing the zombies and stop it somehow,” Monica asked, “whether it’s the venefici or some other supernatural creature or some government experiment gone wrong…,”

“That last one isn’t likely,” Grace muttered.

“…will the zombies turn back into humans?” Monica continued.

Grace and Hunter exchanged a knowing glance, but it was Gunnor that answered.  “No,” he said. “The zombies aren’t humans who are just sick or simply turned into zombies.  They died and then their empty husks turned into zombies. There are no souls inside them. They are walking corpses.  Nothing to save.”

She nodded sadly.  “I see,” she said without looking at anyone.  Richard placed a hand on her shoulder much as he just had with Darren.

A flash of green light crossed the sky.  We all stopped to stare as the green light faded.  Chills ran down my spine and my stomach flipped. That was never good.  I readied my ax and looked at the zombies half expecting them to attack with the green light.  They didn’t. They maintained their distance.

“What do you suppose that did?” Dr. Higgins asked with a voice that dripped with dread.

“Nothing good,” Grace whispered as if she were afraid to bring attention to us.

A dog barked in the distance.  A dog that sounded like Molly. But that was impossible because Molly was back at the mansion and we were far enough away now that we wouldn’t be able to hear her.  We all froze except for Gunnor. He turned around and looked in the direction we had just come from as if he could see past the crowds of zombies.

“Help!” Arthur’s voice echoed across snow covered woods.  “Hunter! Lily!”

Gunnor sped past us in a blur.  Zombies flew into the air and an opening appeared.

Richard led the charge through the zombies.  Monica fired her gun at the zombies. Richard pushed zombies back into other zombies rather than try to kill them with his knife.  Dr. Higgins stabbed the zombies that tried to walk over the fallen zombies to get at Richard. Darren ran after Dr. Higgins. He helped stab more zombies while at the same time moving through the path that Gunnor made and Richard expanded.  

Now that Gunnor was no longer in view, the circle of zombies quickly closed in around us, snarling, groaning, hands tugging on our coats until I swung my ax into their skulls and Tanner knocked them back with his bat.

“Ran faster!” Grace called out behind us as she and Hunter took up the rear.

As soon as Tanner and I passed the zombies, we turned to make sure Hunter and Grace made it too.  Their eyes were gray like storm clouds, so according to Hunter’s past experiences, the zombies shouldn’t be going after them, but us instead.  But this was not the case. Many zombie fingers clung onto Grace’s and Hunter’s thick coats. They saw the gray inhuman eyes and completely ignored what that was supposed to imply.  Hunter’s knife buried deep into a zombie’s eye just as Grace buried her newly acquired knife into a zombie’s temple. They were in too close of proximity to the zombies to pull out their bows and arrows.  

Tanner and I wordlessly ran back to help them even as more zombies ran past them to intercept us.

“Run!” Grace yelled to Tanner.  “We’ll use lightning.”

Tanner grabbed my arm and pulled me back.  We ran towards our retreating friends while we kept looking back over our shoulders to Grace and Hunter.  Lightning streaked down from a cloudless sky directly upon Grace and Hunter. Tanner completely stopped moving and turned back to Grace with a pale face and trembling hands.  The lightning sparked over Grace and Hunter, but neither acted like it bothered them in any way. The zombies that had been around them were scorched and blackened and unmoving.  Grace and Hunter ran and caught up to us.

“Keep moving,” Hunter said as his gloved hand grabbed mine and pulled me forward.  Grace did the same with Tanner. Zombie moans came from behind us. Multiple footsteps chased us in the snow.  We had left our bikes and packs again, but we could come back to them once we had Gunnor with us again.

Through the woods, as the sunlight streaked between the boughs of the trees and sparkled across the snow, I saw my friends running and beyond them I saw Arthur on his back in the snow.  Molly had a zombie child by the leg and was dragging her away from Arthur. A male zombie was on top of Arthur. It’s mouth was open to bite him inching forward for Arthur’s cheek. Arthur’s knife was in the zombie’s mouth, slicing the lips open, the cheeks.  Coagulated blood oozed out and dripped in globs onto Arthur’s cheek.

Dozens of zombies were trying to get at Arthur, but the male zombie’s body was big enough and Arthur’s small enough underneath him, that the others couldn’t get to Arthur.

When she had dragged the girl zombie far enough away from Arthur, Molly let her go and ran back to Arthur.  She bit into the ankle of another zombie that was almost to Arthur and started to drag him away using all of her muscle and will to do so.

That was when I realized there were several dead zombies around Arthur.  Severed heads, bashed in skulls and then I saw the streak that was Gunnor and another zombie head rolled with the others.

Monica fired into one of the zombies around Arthur.  Her aim was true and it fell dead. Hunter let go of my hand and notched an arrow to his bow.  Grace did the same. Arrows were loosed and embedded into zombie heads. Molly went and grabbed another zombie to drag away from Arthur, but now the first two were moving back in.  Arthur’s knife slid further into the zombie as it continued to try to bite Arthur. It’s lower jaw was now dislocated and almost completely severed, but it still tried to bite.

Gunnor’s blur continued to rip zombie heads from their bodies.  I took out my gun and fired into the zombies that were approaching behind us.  Tanner did the same. We were surrounded by zombies once again and this time they weren’t stopping even though Gunnor was with us and Hunter’s and Grace’s eyes were still gray.

Arthur’s knife went all the way through and cut the spine.  The zombie dropped dead on top of him. It was only then that the ten year old broke down and started to cry.  He left the dead zombie on top of him for protection. 

Gunnor finished dispatching the zombies around Arthur and his blur moved onto the zombies behind us.  I continued to fire because I assumed he wouldn’t let me hit him. Monica turned her gun to the zombies behind us as well and Hunter and Grace used their bows and arrows.  Dr. Higgins took out his bow and arrow and used it now as well. He wasn’t as good as Grace and Hunter, but he was good enough.

Molly ran to Arthur and kissed the tears on his cheeks.  She pulled away momentarily when she got a little bit of the zombie blood.  She shook her head as if she had just tasted something truly disgusting before she went back to Arthur and nudged the clean spot on his cheek.  Richard was there a moment later and pulled the dead zombie off Arthur. He grabbed Arthur’s arms and pulled him into a hug. He said something to him, but I couldn’t hear what it was over the gunfire.

Soon the zombie numbers dwindled greatly and we stopped firing.  Gunnor ripped the head off of the last zombie as he finally stilled enough for me to actually see him as anything other than a blur.

Hunter, Grace and Dr. Higgins moved through the zombies to retrieve what arrows they could.  We couldn’t really do the same with our bullets. I worried we had spent too many.

“What are you doing here?” Monica asked Arthur gently.  His head was buried in Richard’s shoulder as Richard hugged him.  Molly placed her canine head on Arthur’s shoulder to comfort him.

Arthur pulled away from Richard and wiped the remaining tears away from his cheek as well as the zombie blood.  “I knew you wouldn’t let me come with you,” he said, “but I really thought you needed me and Molly. So we followed you.  But then you had a ring of zombies around you and we couldn’t really catch up. And then more zombies started following you and there was another green flash in the sky and then some of the trailing zombies noticed me.”

“Should we take him back?” Dr. Higgins asked.

“No,” Arthur pleaded.  “Please. You need us. I’ve been practicing with the bow and arrow.”  He stood up and took his bow and notched an arrow. He aimed it at the zombie head furthest away and fired.  It buried itself into the temple.

“Hitting a stationary object is a lot different than moving zombies,” Grace said gently.

“If you take me back, I’ll just try to follow you again,” Arthur said.

“Arthur,” Richard said gently, “you were almost killed just now.”

“That was because I was on my own and not with you guys.  We’re stronger as a group.”

“Let him come,” Gunnor said.  He moved next to Arthur and put a hand on his shoulder.  “He can stay close to me. And I can teach him a little bit of magic like I do with Darren.  Actually, Richard, Monica and Mike should be part of it too.”

“Who is Mike?” Monica asked.

Dr. Higgins raised his hand.  “But I don’t know how you know.  I didn’t tell you.”

“Maybe I can read minds,” he said with a mysterious look Hunter’s way.  Then he smiled wide and said, “Naw, I just overheard you and Rey talking to each other in private,” he said to Dr. Higgins.

“Who is Rey?” Arthur asked.

“Dr. Patel,” Dr. Higgins answered.  “I guess everyone might as well call me Mike then,” he said.  “Titles don’t really mean anything out here.”

“I’ll relay to Jin that Arthur is with us so the others don’t worry,” Gunnor said.

“Why didn’t you get that zombie off me first?” Arthur asked him.  His bottom lip trembled slightly, but then he sniffed and there were no signs that he was going to cry or that he was shaken up about it.

“Because, as weird as it sounds, his body was covering you so that other zombies couldn’t get to you,” Gunnor said.  “I had to kill the others first so they wouldn’t get to you if his body was removed. Besides, you had that one handled,” he said confidently.

Arthur’s shoulders straightened a little at the words.

“So,” I said, “did that green flash of light mean the zombies attack everything now?  Even Gunnor? Because the zombies attacked Grace and Hunter even though their eyes were the gray dragon eyes.”

“The zombies didn’t attack me,” Gunnor said.  “But they didn’t give me space when I got close like they normally do either.  I don’t think you can count on my presence alone to stop them.”

“So maybe it made them attack beings even if they have just a little bit of human in them,” Hunter said, “and that is why they attacked me and Grace.”

“If that’s the case,” Gunnor said, “then the werewolves are going to have a rude awakening because they are part human.”

“I tried to warn them the zombies would affect them whether they realized it or not,” Hunter said.  “I just didn’t expect it to be like this.”

Interlude 6 .

The In

The Mistress and her companions stood around the scrying bowl.  The green fog of their magic whirled within it. The underling stood nearby.  His hands were clasped together in front of him. He looked at his feet, but periodically he would glance up at the circle of venefici.  He quickly looked down again before they could catch him looking and punish him.

The magic in the bowl cleared.  Humans, witches, wiccans surrounded one of the RU in? cafes.  They used magic to try to shut down the barrier and the charm over the building.  The humans’ magic wavered over the venefici magic, weaved with it, broke strands of the venefici magic here and there, but overall it had little effect.  

The doors opened.  Beautiful venefici untouched by the human’s magic streamed out in front of the building.  They were at ease as the humans directed the magic at them instead of the building. The venefici smiled as one.  Green magic flowed from the building, around them, through them and then out again and directed at the magic wielding humans.  The humans tried to stand together, tried to redirect their magic to protect themselves, but it was too late. The first human fell dead.  Then the second.

The humans broke ranks and ran, scattered.  With their magic up, the zombies ignored them as they ran past and let them go.

The beautiful venefici walked back into the building not bothering to clean up the human bodies.

“I think,” one of the Mistress’s companions said, “it is time for the third stage.”

“It is too soon,” another companion said.  “We have not accrued enough human souls for the spell to be powerful enough.”

“I don’t think we have a choice,” another companion said.

“A vote then,” one of them said.  “That is the way we decided to do this.”

“A vote,” the Mistress said.  “Those in favor of implementing the third stage now.”

Ayes called out all around her clearly in the majority.

“Aye,” she added her voice to theirs.  She turned to the underling. “Implement the third stage.”

“Right away, Mistress,” the underling said.  He skittered away from her and out the room.  

The Mistress and her companions moved to the windows.  They watched the sky as a third green flash lit up the sky.

Chapter 9 .

Lily

“So,” I said, “I’m going, Tanner, Grace and Hunter are going.  Dr. Higgins is going. Darren and Gunnor are going and Richard and Monica want to go.  Maria, that would make you the only one our age staying here. Are you okay with that?”

We all sat in the living room.  Once Monica had made it clear that she wanted to go, Richard quickly volunteered to go as well.  Arthur said he wanted to go, but we told him he had to stay. He had insisted he was old enough to go since he was ten, but that was too young to go back out in the zombie infested world when he didn’t have to.

“I’ll miss you,” Maria said, “but yes, I’m okay with it.  I’m supposed to stay here.” She put an arm around Victory’s and Mackenzie’s shoulders.  She sat between them on the couch. “These two will keep me company.”

“Yes,” Mackenzie.  “Don’t worry about her.  We’ll be her friends.”

Neither Gunnor nor Jin were in the room, but I had come to learn that didn’t mean they weren’t listening.

“Are you sure you want to go?” Richard asked Monica and not for the first time.  It wasn’t because he was trying to get out of going, it was because he was genuinely concerned for her.  I hoped they became a couple. They were cute together and I already knew Monica had a crush on him.

“I’m going,” Monica said.  “I’m better than all of you with a gun except for maybe Lily.”

“I prefer my ax anyway,” I said.  “I won’t use my gun unless I have to.”

“Your coat got torn at the shoulder though,” Mackenzie said.  “What if a zombie bites you there again? You won’t have the same protection you had before.”

“We can trade coats,” Maria said.  “We’re the same size. My coat should fit you.”

“But then you’ll be without the protection in that area,” Monica said.

“I’m not going back out there though,” Maria said.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be safe,” I pointed out.  “Anything could happen. What if Gunnor’s and Jin’s brood come looking for them and you’re forced to go back out there to get away from them?”

Maria thought about it for a moment and then said, “Well, Jin and Gunnor obviously have clothes.  Maybe they have a coat I could wear or at the very least, maybe I could repair the hole.”

“She’ll be fine,” Mrs. Smith said.  “We’ll all be fine. You don’t need to worry about us.”

“Excellent,” Jin said as he walked into the room with Gunnor.  “Then it’s all decided. You’ll leave first thing in the morning.  Get prepared and say your goodbyes tonight. We’ll give you some privacy.”  He left the room. Gunnor smirked at Hunter who frowned in returned. Then Gunnor turned and left.

The room was silent.  Even little Marcos stopped running around the room and stared at us.

“At least we’ll get to sleep under a warm roof one last time before we go back out there,” Tanner said to Grace.  She smiled at him and entwined her fingers with his.

“I hope Camila and the others are alright,” she said quietly.

“I’m sure they are,” Tanner said, but it sounded like he was trying to convince himself too.

“You can sleep with us tonight,” Victory said to Grace.  She left the couch to sit on the arm of the loveseat next to Grace.

Grace smiled at her and took her hand with her free hand.  “Okay,” she said.

“Who is going to sleep in our room with us while you’re gone?” Juan asked Hunter.

“I will,” Dr. Patel said.  “I can sleep on the floor between your beds.”

“I’ll stay in there tonight too,” Dr. Higgins said.

“Then where will Hunter sleep?” Juan asked.

“With those two,” Dr. Patel pointed to Richard and Darren.  “Tanner can stay with them too.”

Hunter and Darren exchanged a glance.  Hunter quickly looked at his feet. Darren looked at me.  His cheeks turned a slight pink as he blushed. He quickly looked at his hands.  I looked at Hunter again. I wanted him to look at me, but he didn’t. What a mess the three of us were.

“I guess we should pack and make sure we have everything we need.”  

It didn’t take long for those of us who were going to assess what we were going to take and what we were going to leave behind.  We didn’t need to pack anything as we hadn’t unpacked anything. It was mostly just rearranging packs for those of us staying versus those of us who were going.

All of us stayed up later than we should have talking in the living room.  Marcos fell asleep curled up in Richard’s lap. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to those we were leaving behind and neither was anyone else.  Gunnor and Jin said they could stay in contact with each other and that helped ease my mind greatly, but I still didn’t want to leave my sister out of my sight.  She was safer here than back out there.

When we finally all moved to go to our rooms, Maria pulled me aside.

“Be careful out there, Lily,” she said.

“I will.”

Tears welled up in her brown eyes.  “And thank you for coming for me. Thank you for saving me.”  A tear spilled onto her cheek.

Stinging tears welled up in my own eyes.

“Thanks for trying to save my mom,” she choked out.  Tears streamed down both our cheeks now. I pulled her into a hug.  “I’m sorry about your parents,” she whispered.

I buried a sob into her shoulder and she held me closer.  “I’m sorry I couldn’t save your mom,” I said, “or my parents or Anna.”

She sobbed when I mentioned our other best friend’s name. 

“They should all be here with us,” I said.

“Ideally, we should all be back home,” she paused to catch her breath, but when she spoke again her voice sounded stronger.  “We should be going to school during the day, preparing for college, safe in our beds knowing our parents are home and watching over us, but that isn’t available to us anymore.  We have a new reality we need to get used to.”

I nodded and pulled away from the hug.  We wiped away each other’s tears.

“If you can save others out there, do it.  Send them our way and we’ll welcome them here.  Just make sure they aren’t people like those men we encountered in the woods or Grant and his dad.”

“Okay,” I said.

“You’ll do great,” she said.  “And don’t worry about Mackenzie.  I’ll look after her as if she were my own little sister.”  That eased the knot in my chest. “And I’m learning magic so I can fireball anyone that tries anything.  And I’ll keep practicing with the bow and arrow and gun. I won’t get complacent.”

“Thank you, Maria.  I know I can trust you.”  We gave each other another quick hug and then we retreated into our respective rooms.  Grace, Victory and Mackenzie were already in bed. The bed was large, but there were four of us.  I wouldn’t have much room tonight, but that didn’t matter as long as I got to spend it with my sister.

I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of my sister sobbing.  I held her close and stroked her hair.

“I miss mom and dad,” she whispered.

“Me too,” I said.  My heart tore into little pieces as I remembered them.  I cried along with her. It didn’t take me long to realize that both Victory and Grace were awake and crying too.

Grace’s eyes met mine in the darkness and she said, “Get it all out now.  We can’t cry on the road.”

I nodded and held my sister closer.  At some point, my sister’s cries stopped and deep breathing replaced it.  She had cried herself to sleep. At least I still had her. I wasn’t sure when I fell back asleep, but I woke with sunlight streaming in through the windows.  I was the only one in the room. There was a knock on the door. I turned to look at the door just as it opened. Arthur stuck his head. Molly was close behind him.

“Breakfast is ready,” he said.  

“Thank you.  I’m coming.”

I expected him to leave, but when I stood up, he was still there.  “Is there something else?”

“I really want to go with you guys.  I’ve been practicing with the bow and arrow and I’m good at it.”  It had only been a few days. I didn’t know how good he could be. “And Molly will be a good warning system.”

That was true, but we weren’t about to separate Molly from Arthur and Arthur wasn’t coming.

“No,” I said.  “You and Molly need to stay here with the others.”

He frowned, sighed heavily and walked away.

When I got to the kitchen, everyone else was there.  A pan of soup was on the table. I didn’t see the vampires.  Halfway through eating, they showed up.

“I need to remind you,” Jin said, “that in order for Gunnor and I to communicate with each other, we will need to drink each other’s blood, but before that, we will need human blood.”  Mrs. Smith didn’t look at anyone as she put the pan down for Molly to lap up the rest of the soup.

“I’m ready,” Maria said.

“Me too,” Darren said.  Hunter wouldn’t look at him.  I had a difficult time looking away from Hunter.

“When you are ready, come into the living room,” Jin said.  “The rest of you don’t have to be there if you don’t want to, but any of you are welcome to join us.”

I followed Maria and Darren into the living room.  I needed to be there just in case something went wrong.  I took my ax with me, but left it at my side. Hunter, Tanner and Grace followed me in.  No one else came in.

“You’ve gotten good at fighting off my charms,” Gunnor said to Darren, “but in order for this not to hurt you, don’t fight it this time.”

Darren nodded.

“The wrist,” Hunter blurted.  All of us looked at him. I wasn’t sure what he meant.  Jin raised one black brow.

“Not the neck,” Hunter clarified.  “The wrist.”

“I don’t mind if he bites my neck,” Maria said.

“Me neither,” Darren said.

Hunter swallowed and I could see the pain he hid behind his eyes.  I didn’t think the others could see it.

“The wrist, please,” I said.

“Okay,” Maria said.  Darren nodded.

Jin and Gunnor focused on Maria and Darren.  Maria’s and Darren’s expressions softened almost at the same time, relaxed.  I recognized the haze in Darren’s eyes. It was similar to the haze in his eyes when he saw the RU in? signs.  Jin and Gunnor were closer to them, but I hadn’t actually seen them step closer. I glanced at Hunter. His brows were slightly furrowed.  His hands clenched his pants. If it had been Hunter instead of Darren, I probably would have reacted the same way.

When I turned my attention back to Maria and Darren, Jin and Gunnor reached out slowly, delicately and took the arms of Maria and Darren.  Wrists were brought up to lips. The elongated canines of Jin and Gunnor bit into the soft flesh. I flinched, but Maria and Darren didn’t.  Their eyes closed. Small smiles touched their lips.

I glanced at Hunter.  He looked at his feet.  Richard, Monica and Dr. Patel had entered the room at some point, but I wasn’t sure when.  None of the others had entered.

When I looked back, Jin and Gunnor withdrew their mouths.  Red tongues darted out and licked the holes in Maria’s and Darren’s wrists.  The skin knitted back together. Jin and Gunnor stepped back. Maria and Darren blinked.  Their eyes focused. Maria’s arm dropped back by her side. Darren rubbed his wrist, but not because it hurt.  He seemed fascinated by what just transpired.  

Gunnor and Jin faced each other.  Each extended a wrist. They each took the extended wrist and bit into it.  I wondered if it hurt them since they couldn’t – or at least didn’t – charm each other.  I didn’t think they could charm each other, but that was something I had just assumed. I hadn’t actually asked.  When they were finished they stepped away from each other.

“Well,” Gunnor said to me and Hunter, “shall we go?”

We said our goodbyes to those remaining behind.  Maria and Mackenzie got an extra long hug from me.  Tanner hugged Mackenzie even longer. Hunter, Grace and Victory hugged each other in a group hug.  Darren and Richard hugged their mothers. Richard had just been reunited with his mom. It couldn’t be easy for him to leave her again.  Marcos hugged Richard and told him not to go until Mrs. Smith took him in her arms.

“We’ll be back,” Richard promised him.

“We’ll be back,” I reiterated to Mackenzie because there was no way I would leave her behind permanently.  She nodded.

“Then let’s be off,” Gunnor said.

We took our bikes and our packs and followed him back into the cold, zombie infested world.  And I now knew there were worse things out there than zombies.

Chapter 8 .

Darren

The vampires had left us to give us more time to think about who would be going back out into the zombie infested world.  But I knew what I was going to do. It frightened me when I looked back on it, how willing I was to stay at the RU in? place.  At the time, I thought it would be best to bring everyone there, but I hadn’t been willing to leave to go collect them. I would have stayed there by myself if no one else had been willing to come.  I would have left my mom and Richard and everyone else who needed me. If I was going to go back out there with the specific intent to going back to the RU in? place, I needed to be able to protect myself from that effect.  I needed Gunnor to teach me.

I wandered the main floor looking for him, but I didn’t see him.  

“I did it!” Maria exclaimed as I passed the living room.  She sat on the couch next to Jin. Marcus and Juan had been running around the couches, but paused to look at Maria.  There was a small, warbled ball of light in her hand.

“Very good,” Jin said with a smile.

Maria was now already doing magic and I had yet to even try.  Gunnor was not on the main floor. I looked up the stairs. I probably shouldn’t go up them, but they hadn’t told us we couldn’t.  Gunnor was most likely up there.  

I started to walk up quietly and slowly.  I winced when the stairs creaked. I paused mid step and looked up to the top of the stairs.  I waited for any kind of sound or any kind of warning that I shouldn’t be doing this, but there was only silence.  I continued onto the next step.

“What are you doing?”

Hunter’s voice caused me to jump, my heart raced and tingles spread through my limbs.  I turned slightly to see Hunter behind me at the bottom of the stairs.

“You startled me,” I said.

“What are you doing?” he asked again.

“Looking for Gunnor.”

Hunter frowned at this.

“He’s supposed to teach me how to ward off charms,” I said.

Hunter didn’t reply.  I waited, but at his continued silence, I continued up the stairs.

“You don’t have to,” he said much closer to me.  I hadn’t heard him move, but he had and was now directly behind me.  “I can teach you.”

“Really?” Gunnor said from the top of the stairs.  I wasn’t sure when he got there. “Your magic is the result of your dragon ancestry.  It isn’t the same as human magic.”

“It’s the same concept,” Hunter said.

“Not really,” Gunnor said with a smile that showed off his elongated canines.

“You’re not human either,” I said mainly because I didn’t want Hunter to feel bad.

“I was once,” he said.  He took a step back as I reached the top of the stairs.

“There are other people who can teach you,” Hunter said as he came up beside me.

“Who?” I asked because no one in our group knew magic except for him and his sisters and Gunnor already said their magic was different.

Hunter hesitated.  “He just wants to use you for sustenance.”

“I won’t deny that,” Gunnor said easily.  “But I do also want to help you. Despite the evil reputation vampires have, I’m not the bad guy.”

“You are not going to use him for food,” Hunter said.  “I can teach him magic. I’m sure we can work through it.”

“Why ‘work through it’ and make mistakes along the way when I can easily teach him?”

As the conversation grew more intense, I didn’t know how to interject myself.  I didn’t want them to fight. It was a simple solution really because I wanted Gunnor to teach me.  That was probably best for everyone. I wanted Hunter to be my friend, but nothing more than that. He already had a crush on me.  Working together one on one would only enhance that and neither of us needed that. He needed to be getting over me.  

“You have to charm him to feed off him or else it will hurt,” Hunter said.  “I won’t risk the charm being permanent.”

“You have already charmed him and it had no lasting effects.  He is fine.”

“You and I are different.”

“The charm won’t be permanent.  There won’t be lasting effects. I’ll teach him how to ward off charms first.  Then it will be his choice to let me charm him if he allows me to drink from him.”

“No,” Hunter said.  He moved to stand between me and Gunnor.

“He does not belong to you,” Gunnor said.  His tone was now dangerous.

Hunter’s shoulders deflated.  He turned slightly to look at me.  “No, he doesn’t,” he said quieter.

“So it’s his decision,” Gunnor said.  Then he leaned in closer to Hunter and whispered, “Even if you love him, he won’t love you back.”  Gunnor stood straight.

Hunter stood in front of me in silence.  I wasn’t sure if Gunnor meant for me to hear it or not.  It was whispered so quietly that I could barely hear it. I pretended I hadn’t.

“I need to learn how to ward off charms anyway,” I said.  I placed a hand on Hunter’s arm and gently pushed him to the side.  He complied and moved out of the way, but he didn’t leave me alone with Gunnor.

“Let’s go into the sitting room so we’re not standing out in the hall,” Gunnor said.  He led us to an open door to the right. It was a smaller room than the sitting room downstairs and it didn’t have as many sofas and chairs.  It was elegant, more so than the one downstairs. Sunlight streamed in through the windows. Unlike the tales, vampires obviously weren’t bothered by sunlight.  Or if they were, I hadn’t seen any signs of it.

We didn’t sit.  Gunnor stood in front of me in the middle of the room.  Hunter stood slightly behind me and to the side, but close.

My focus was completely on Gunnor as he moved in closer.  He smiled. His eyes bore into mine. It was safe in that space.  Safe and warm like nothing could ever hurt me. The room lost its focus so that I only saw Gunnor.  He seemed to light up almost as if he stood under the full moon’s silver light. His red eyes were inviting and comforting.  There was nothing to be afraid of.

Gunnor’s hand reached out and touched my cheek.  His hand was cold, but it wasn’t a cold that repelled.  It was refreshingly cool like ice cold lemonade on a hot day.

“Do you know you are being charmed, Darren?” Hunter asked me.  “Can you feel it?”

Gunnor’s fingers traced my eyebrow.  My brows relaxed underneath his touch.  I could just let him take care of everything.  I didn’t have anything to worry about. I could not look away from his eyes as he stared into mine.  

Hunter’s words didn’t register at first.  When they did, I could feel it. It was warm and safe just like how I felt in the RU in? cafe.  Like I wanted to stay there forever and let Gunnor take care of everything.

“Yes,” I said.

“Push away his charm,” Hunter said.

But I didn’t want to.  Why would I want to go back to the cold, the uncertainty, to a world where my family and friends could easily die.  Except in this state, I also couldn’t protect them. The RU in? cafe taught me that.

I didn’t want to but I did it.  The safety and warmth slid off me like a snake shedding its skin.  Gunnor’s hand dropped back to his side as his smile grew wider.

“See?  It’s different than when Hunter charmed you isn’t it?” Gunnor asked.

It was, but I wasn’t sure if that was just because Hunter was commanding me to come out of my already charmed state.  But if he had a crush on me, if he loved me, and hadn’t ever tried to charm me into liking him back, then he either had good self control or he didn’t have that ability in the first place.  I wasn’t sure if I had the ability to charm Lily that I wouldn’t use it to make her love me. I hoped I wouldn’t. I was 99% sure I wouldn’t, but it would be a temptation. When Hunter had used it as a command to break the charm of the RU in? cafe, it hadn’t felt warm and safe and all inviting like it had with them or Gunnor just now.  It had seemed like a friend was talking to me and making me realize I was making a terrible mistake.

Hunter sat heavily on one of the sofas.  “You should keep practicing,” he said. “So you aren’t ever in danger of being charmed by the venefici again.”

“And maybe I can learn some offensive spells,” I said.  “Like a fire ball or something.”

“I’m not sure a fire ball would be the best solution,” Gunnor said.  “There is a chance of it spreading to targets you don’t want it spread to.”

“Vampires and werewolves don’t like fire,” Hunter said.

“Why?  Can it kill you?”

“It takes more of it than it would to kill a human, but yes, if we continue to burn, it will eventually kills us.  There are more effective spells. I will think on what is best. You should really concentrate on defensive spells though.  Offensive spells from a novice aren’t going to do a lot to the venefici. You might have better luck using a barrier spell to protect yourself and then stabbing them to death.”

I nodded.  “Whatever you think is best.”

Hunter frowned at this, but did not protest.  Gunnor and I continued to practice and it got easier and easier to brush off the charm.  Hunter watched us silently as we practiced.

Chapter 7 .

Tanner

We were all in the kitchen eating stew – warmed by the fire in Jin’s hand which was just weird – when Gunnor returned.

“They are safely away,” he announced to us.

I had to trust him.  He might have taken them out and killed them, but I had no way of knowing.  He could have killed my family and didn’t so I assumed he didn’t kill my friends.

“Have you decided if you are going to stay?” Jin asked us.  He sat at the head of the large table as he watched us. Gunnor stood nearby behind him.

“We haven’t really discussed it with everyone,” Lily said.

“Well,” Jin said, “we did have a plan before you showed up.  You are welcome to stay, that doesn’t change, but our plan will need to be modified if you do decide to stay.  We will tell you our original plan and maybe that will affect your decision.” He turned to glance at Gunnor who nodded at him.

“We left our brood because they weren’t taking the zombie threat seriously.  After all, zombies can’t hurt us. They can’t fathom the possibility that all humans might turn into zombies someday and then we will be out of sustenance.  Gunnor and I discussed a few possibilities when we left. One of them was to travel north in hopes that the zombies would freeze and the humans would be safe from them.  But the temperatures have dropped here. It has snowed and hasn’t slowed the zombies. It is unlikely going north would change anything. We also discussed just rescuing a group of humans and keeping them safe to feed off them and their future children.”

Goosebumps formed on my arms and I looked at my family and then to Grace.  I didn’t want our children to be food for vampires even if they did offer safety.

“Your group is not the ideal group for that,” Jin went on, “what with their being part dragon and humans who magic has no effect on them.  Although,” his eyes drifted to Maria and Darren, “two of you would be ideal. Especially since we can train you to use magic to defend yourselves.  But,” his eyes settled on the group as a whole, “that doesn’t solve the long term dilemma of the zombies. Maybe there isn’t a solution. One of the things we are most unhappy about is the fact that the venefici are luring the remaining humans for their own purposes.  And they grow more powerful. Venefici have always been solitary beings and now they have banded together to set up these RU in? places. We don’t know how far it goes, if it is just this region, this country or if it is worldwide. If the venefici have banded worldwide, we are all in trouble.  But we don’t have answers and we need answers.”

“You’re going after the venefici?” Hunter asked.  “Just the two of you? Even as vampires, you are not going to be able to take a group of venefici.”

“Which is why we thought we would ask the werewolves for help,” Gunnor said.

Grace, Hunter and Victory laughed.  The rest of us just looked from them to the vampires and back again.  There was so much of the world I was clueless about. I didn’t even have any scope to determine how clueless I was.  At least Grace seemed to know some of the answers. I was glad she was my girlfriend.

“Werewolves helping vampires?” Victory asked and laughed again.

“So,” Darren interjected, “how much of the stories about vampires and werewolves are true?  Are you mortal enemies? Do you need silver to kill a werewolf? Can we kill vampires with a wooden stake?  Do you hate crosses and garlic?”

“I wouldn’t rely too much on what you know from movies and books,” Gunnor said.  “Most of it is wrong. It is hard for humans to kill supernatural beings unless they use some type of magic.  Or,” he looked to me and Lily, “if magic can’t affect you at all. If, for example, Lily was going to chop off a venefici’s head with her ax and they tried to use magic to stop her, she could just brush off their magic, walk up to them and chop off their heads.”

“That wouldn’t work with a vampire or werewolf though,” Hunter said.  “Venefici rely heavily on their magic. Other than that, their reflexes, speed and strength are comparable to a human’s.  Werewolves and vampires are much faster and stronger than humans. You couldn’t just walk up to Gunnor and chop off his head.”

Gunnor smirked.  “No. She couldn’t.”

“You have to have a weakness though,” Darren said.

There was a pause as we all waited for the vampires or Grace’s family to respond.  

Jin leaned forward and stared at us intensely with his red eyes.  “Since I think some trust is in order on our part as well as on yours, I will tell you.  The best time to kill a vampire is when they are feeding. We tend to get lost in the moment and are unaware of our surroundings.  That would be the best time to walk up to us and chop off our heads.”

“So chopping off your head will kill you?” Darren asked.  There was no hint that he ever intended to use this information.  He was just excited to find out information about supernatural creatures that none of us thought were real.  With the exception of Grace’s family of course.

“Chopping off almost anyone’s head will kill them.  There are some beings that are an exception.”

“So chopping off the head of a werewolf will kill them too,” Darren said.

Jin nodded in confirmation.

“Werewolves and vampires aren’t exactly known for getting along,” Grace said.  “Why are you going to them for help?”

“They are the closest creatures that actually stand a chance against the venefici.”

“They aren’t exactly known for helping others,” Hunter said.  “They threatened to kill me when we wandered into their territory and told me if I ever returned, they would kill me.  They don’t think of the zombies as a threat.”

“They don’t need to feed from humans like you do,” Victory said.  “Why did you think they would help you?”

“The problem is most supernatural beings don’t see the zombies as a threat,” Gunnor said, “but the venefici gathering and stealing the souls of humans to strengthen their magic should be a threat to everyone.”

“Is that what they are doing?” Lily asked aghast.  

Jin shrugged.  “We don’t know for sure until we go check it out for ourselves, but traditionally, venefici have strengthened their individual magic in this way.  So to be clear, our plan before you showed up was to go to the werewolves for help and take down the nearest RU in? venefici setup. We hoped to learn more information, if it is just regional – and we have seen a few of them so we know it isn’t just one – or countrywide or even worldwide.  We need to stop them from getting too powerful.”

“And maybe they will know who or what is behind the zombies and how to stop it,” Gunnor added.  “I think they created the zombies though.”

“How would your plans change if we stayed here?” Mrs. Smith asked.

“If you decided to stay here,” Jin said, “we would hope the dragons and the magicless humans would help us.  One of us could stay here with the rest of you to protect you.”

“Why would you want us exactly?” I asked pointing to myself and Lily.

“Having someone along that the venefici can’t hurt or charm with magic would have a lot of benefits,” Gunnor said.

“I couldn’t go with you,” Hunter said.  “The werewolves said they would kill me if I returned.”

“Then you can wait outside their territory while we go in and ask for help,” Jin said.  “I’m assuming that threat wasn’t extended to our human friends here.”

“No,” Lily said, “they didn’t threaten to kill us.  Just Hunter.”

“And what if your brood comes here to kill you while we are gone?” Hunter asked.  “We can’t just leave behind the rest of our group to be food for your brood. You can protect them from zombies and other humans, but not your entire brood.”

“We have a secret way out if our brood comes looking for us,” Jin said.  “We will keep them safe. If you agree, Gunnor will go and I will stay. You can leave as many people here as you want and take as many people as you want.”

“I wish there was a way where the two groups could communicate with each other,” Mrs. Smith said.

“There is,” Jin said.  Gunnor and Jin exchanged another glance.  “If Gunnor and I exchange blood, we can hear each other’s thoughts.”

“It has been a very long time since either of us had sustenance,” Gunnor said, “we would need to drink human blood first.”

The room went very quiet.

“Of course,” Jin said, “you can just go on your way and forget about all of this.  Go back out in the winter amid the zombies, venefici, and whatever else is out there that wants to kill you.”

“Will you allow us some privacy to discuss it?” Hunter demanded more than asked.

“Of course,” Jin said.  He stood up and left with Gunnor.  I didn’t know how far they went, but no one said anything for awhile.  Even the three boys sat quietly at the table. Mrs. Smith put the pan with the remaining stew on the floor and Molly lapped it up eagerly.

“So should we leave?” Hunter asked.

“And go where?” Mrs. Smith asked.  “At least here the zombies stay away.  And how are Arthur, Juan and Marcos going to survive the winter out there with zombies trying to eat them?”

“Don’t want zombies to eat me,” Marcos said sadly.

Hunter sighed and put his forehead on the table.  Victory patted his back and Grace stroked his hair.  I looked at Lily and Mackenzie.

“I don’t want to go back out there,” Mackenzie said quietly.

“But if we stay here,” Victory said, “they will want to drink from us.”

“I’m okay with that,” Maria said and raised her hand.

“Me too,” Darren said.

Hunter sighed audibly again.  His forehead was still on the table.

“Maybe we can wait until spring and leave then,” Mrs. Anderson said.

“If it was my plan,” Grace said, “I wouldn’t wait until spring to take out the venefici.  The longer they wait, the more powerful the venefici get.”

“Stopping the venefici can’t be solely up to Jin and Gunnor,” Richard said.  “Other people must have thought about it too.”

“Most humans don’t know about the venefici,” Victory said.

“And their brood isn’t taking this seriously and from the sounds of it, neither is the Lunar Eclipse wolfpack,” Grace said.  “The venefici haven’t been much of a threat so not a lot of people will take the threat seriously now.”

“What about military, the police, government?” Richard asked.  The zombie apocalypse couldn’t have wiped them all out.”

“There isn’t a close military base,” Hunter said as he finally lifted his head.

“And when the green light first flashed in the sky,” Lily said, “and the zombies began, it seemed completely random who turned into a zombie.  And a lot of people turned into zombies all at once. The police, government and military would have all been affected by that.”

“But eventually they would have gotten organized,” Richard said.

“Some governments might know about venefici,” Hunter said, “but most of the smaller governments probably don’t.  Even if there is a police or military presence who know about the venefici and supernatural beings, they will be focused on the zombies, protecting people and dealing with groups like those men in the woods who wanted the women of our group.  And the venefici will get stronger.”

“Okay,” Richard said, “but Gunnor and Jin can’t be the only ones who see the venefici as a threat and want to stop them.  What if the venefici aren’t even behind this?”

“They might not be,” Hunter said, “but they are getting more powerful by charming and gleaming magic off the humans that are lured into the RU in? places.  There might be others trying to stop them too, but we don’t know that.”

“So you do want to help them,” Richard said.

“No,” Hunter said.  “But I do think the venefici need to be stopped.  I don’t want any of you to be food for the vampires, but I also don’t really have a right to stop you if you have an understanding and are okay with it.  I also agree that some of us,” he looked at the three year old boy, “shouldn’t go out there again.”

“So we’re going to tell them that we’ll help them?” Grace asked.

Silence filled the room.  I wasn’t sure if everyone was waiting for Hunter specifically to give his approval or if we were just waiting in general for someone to speak.

“I’ll go with them,” Hunter finally said.

“Me too,” Lily quickly agreed.

“But I don’t want to go back out there,” Mackenzie said and grabbed Lily’s arm.

“You won’t be,” Lily and I said at the same time.  

Mackenzie looked at us.  “So you’ll stay here with me?” she asked.

Lily and I exchanged a glance and I knew she was determined to go and I wasn’t going to let her go out there without me.  I didn’t want my family separated again, but this time, she would be protected in a safe house and we would have a way to communicate with her group so we would know if anything happened.

“I think,” Lily said, “that since both Tanner and I are immune to magic, we both need to go.  Victory will stay here with you.”

“But,” Victory started.  She stopped when she saw both the looks Grace and Hunter gave her.  “Neither of you are going to stay?”

Hunter and Grace looked at each other.  “I think we will both go,” Grace said. Part of me was relieved because I didn’t want to be separated from her either, but another part worried for her safety.  She was probably the least one I needed to be worried about though with her abilities with the bow and her being part dragon and being able to control the weather.  “But one of us with powers should stay here,” she said to Victory. “It might seem like we are making you stay because you are the youngest, but you are actually the strongest of us and if something does happen – like the vampire brood comes – you are the better bet in fighting them and protecting these children.”

“And you don’t want to leave Mackenzie do you?” Hunter asked.

“No,” Victory said.  “Fine. I’ll stay.”

“Then, I guess we need to decide who is going and who is staying,” Maria said.  “If Jin goes, then I want to go. If he stays, then I’ll stay. He’s teaching me magic.”

“I want to learn magic too,” Darren said, “but I also want to go.”

“I’m staying,” Mrs. Smith said and patted the top of Marcos’s head.

“Me too,” Mrs. Anderson said.

“I’m not sure what I want to do,” Dr. Patel said.

“Me neither,” Dr. Higgins said.

“Let’s tell them our decision,” Hunter said, “and then the rest of you can take the time you need to decide what you want to do.”

“Excellent,” Jin said from the doorframe startling all of us.  “Then I will stay here with the children and teach Maria magic and Gunnor can take the rest of you to talk with the werewolves.  He can teach you magic too, Darren.”

I wasn’t sure how I felt about all of this, but at least there was a plan and at least it would feel like we were helping in some way.

Author’s Note

If you are not following my twitter, please do (@Nova_girl93).  That is where I will keep everyone updated with what is happening.  If I take a break for a week or if I miss a week due to sickness or a migraine, I will inform you via twitter.

Please be caught up to Ruins AGA chapter 6 before reading further.

Now that Camila, Connor and Todd have gone their own way, we won’t know in the ruinsaga what happens to them.  But I will be posting short stories of their adventures exclusive on my patreon.  I will try to post at least one short story a month starting in February.

Chapter 6 .

Tanner

My parents were dead.  When I went off to college, I never thought that would be the last time I saw them.  I had spoken to my mom earlier on Halloween day and I had spoken with my dad just a few days prior to that.  And now I would never hear them or see them again.

I sat between my sisters on the bed.  The three of us had been crying together for a long time.  I wasn’t even sure how long. We couldn’t even go back to give our parents a proper burial.

Lily sighed heavily and wiped the tears away from her cheeks.  She and Mackenzie had been sobbing not that long ago. Honestly, I had been too.  It was tiring to cry. It was tiring to be in so much pain. Our sobbing had finally stopped to a slow trail of tears that continued to trickle from our eyes to our cheeks.

“You did a good job getting everyone here,” I said to Lily.

“You too,” she said.

I gave her a look.

“What?” she asked.  “You’re only a year older than me, don’t act like it was easier for you than for me.”

“Okay,” I said.  I wiped the remaining tears away from my cheeks.  “Are we ready to go back out and see everyone?”

“You’re really dating Grace?” Mackenzie asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“That’s good,” Mackenzie said.  “I like her.”

“I’m glad you approve,” I said.  Her words and thoughts of Grace warmed a small spot in my grieving heart.  I still couldn’t believe the world had come to this and had taken my parents from me.

“Yeah,” Lily said, “Let’s go out and see how everyone else is doing.”

The hallway was empty when we went out.  There was talking and giggling coming from the living room.  We made our way there. Almost everyone was there. Richard, Monica and Darren chased the three boys around the room.  The boys laughed as they ran. Molly jumped and ran between them excited and playful. Hunter stood by the wall watching them.  Grace sat next to Victory. Mrs. Anderson sat next to Mrs. Smith. Jin sat next to Maria and spoke quietly to each her. I hadn’t directly asked Lily, but I was assuming their other best friend – Anna – didn’t make it or she would have been with them.  Unless, she had gone somewhere with her family. I didn’t think that was the case though. The rest of my group were absent.

“Were are the others?” I asked as I went and sat next to Grace.  Her eyes were bloodshot and swollen as mine probably were. I entwined my fingers with hers as I took her hand.

“I’m not sure,” she said and squeezed my hand.

I wanted to discuss what we planned to do next.  Connor and Camila wanted to go after their families.  I wanted to help them, but I also didn’t want to take my sisters out among the zombies again and I wasn’t about to leave them behind.  And I wasn’t sure what Grace wanted to do. Did we stay here and wait out the winter or travel with Connor and Camila or venture out and find our own place to hold out the winter?  I’d prefer not to discuss it in the presence of vampires, but this was their place and chances were they’d be able to hear everything we discussed anyway regardless if they were in the room or not.  Gunnor smirked at me from across the room as if he could read my mind. I didn’t like it.

The rest of my group came into the doorframe.  I wasn’t the only one who noticed. All eyes turned to them.  Even the boys stopped playing to watch them.

“Are you hungry?” Mrs. Anderson asked.  She and Mrs. Smith stood up.

“No,” Camila said and waved them to sit back down.

“We’ve been discussing what we are going to do,” Connor said.

“The three of us are going to head out,” Camila said and indicated herself, Connor and Todd.

“The three of you? Why?” asked Mrs. Anderson.

“Well, they need to find their families and I want to help them since I can’t get to my family,” Todd said.

“Why can’t you get to your family?” Arthur asked.  Molly sat by his feet and panted as she looked up at him.

“My family is in Taiwan,” he said.

“We were talking,” Camila said, “and our towns are close to each other so we are going to go together.”

I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of them being out of my sight, but I couldn’t keep them here if that was their decision.  I stood up. “Thanks for helping me come all this way to find my family even though you didn’t have to,” I said.

“Do you want us to go with you?” Grace asked.

I didn’t say anything because I would take my family and follow her anywhere, but I didn’t think that was wise.

“No,” Connor said.  “You just found your families and you need to concentrate on keeping them safe.  Thanks for the offer though.”

“You’re not going to go with them?” I asked Dr. Higgins and Dr. Patel.

“We discussed it,” Dr. Patel said, “but you have children with you and we thought the more people you have to protect them the better, so we decided to stay.”

That was true.  It wasn’t just my family.  Lily and Hunter had brought in these children and protected them all this way.  Their families were dead now too. They wouldn’t have anyone without us.

“When are you leaving?” Grace asked.  She stepped forward and took Camila’s hands in hers.

“Right now,” Camila said.  “While it’s still daylight.”

That I was not expecting.

“But,” Grace started, but Camila cut her off.

“We can’t do anything more to help you now.  And we are anxious to find out about our families.”

“The zombies are still out there,” Hunter said.  “They aren’t getting closer, but if they see you leave, they might follow and then try to attack when they are away from the vampires.”

“I can lead them out,” Gunnor offered.  “Then it shouldn’t be a problem.”

“We should give them as many supplies as they can carry then,” Mrs. Anderson said.  She and Mrs. Smith got up and went into the kitchen. Lily and Monica followed them.

“I thought I’d have more time to prepare myself,” Grace said.  She pulled Camila into a hug. “We’ve only known each other a few months, but you’ve been a great friend to me.  I’m going to miss you.”

“I’m going to miss you too,” Camila said.  

A thick silence filled the room.  The two of them had their heads buried in the other one’s shoulder and I knew they were crying.

“Be safe,” Grace whispered as she stroked Camila’s hair.

“I will.  You stay safe too and keep your family safe.”

“I will,” Grace said.

Connor and I looked awkwardly at each other.  We had been roommates and I would consider him a friend, but we obviously weren’t as close as Camila and Grace.  And Todd had been more of an acquaintance borderline friend before the zombies happened, but we had been through a lot together since then.  I was worried about all of them. And the worst part was that I wouldn’t know if they were safe or not. There wasn’t a way to communicate with them.  They would just leave and disappear and that would be it.

Finally I pulled them both Connor and Todd into a hug and said, “Stay safe and keep each other safe.”

“We will,” they said at the same time.

We pulled away from the hug while Grace and Camila still embraced each other.  Finally, they pulled away.

We had left our bikes and packs outside up against the house.  I followed them out. Grace, Dr. Patel and Dr. Higgins came out too.  Mackenzie, Hunter and Victory followed us out. The rest stayed inside.

They took three bikes and we divided up the supplies.  We gave them all that we thought they would need. While we were doing that, Mrs. Anderson, Mrs. Smith, Lily, Monica and Gunnor came out with more supplies, food and ropes.  They had a supply of guns they gave out to the three of them. They still had the bows and arrows and knives for closer combat.

“Be careful,” Lily told them.  “There is a large group of men out there.”

“Oh, right,” Monica said.  “They are really creepy. I think they just want to take the women of groups they come across and kill the men.  We killed one of them, but Lily said she Hunter and Darren found more of them in the woods.”

“I guess you should avoid humans and zombies,” I said.

“And now we know other supernatural creatures like vampires exist,” Camila said.

“Best just to avoid everyone and stick to yourselves,” Mrs. Smith said.

The three of them nodded their heads.

“Come,” Gunnor said when they were all packed.  “I will lead you out and tell you how to recognize certain beings you should stay away from.  And under no circumstance should you go to one of those RU in? cafes. Understand?” 

“Yes,” they said.

Camila took Grace’s hand one last time.

“Go find your families,” Grace said.

I placed an arm around Grace’s shoulders as we waved goodbye to them.

“I hope they will be okay,” Grace said quietly.

“They have to be,” I said because that was what I needed to believe.  With no way to know if something was wrong with them or not, I decided to believe they were always going to be alright.

Chapter 5 .

Darren

I walked out of the room I had been sharing with Richard.  Even though the door was closed, I could hear the quiet murmurings as Lily talked with her brother and sister in her room.  I couldn’t make out what they were saying. Interspersed with the talking was crying. I felt bad for all of them. I didn’t really think Lily or Mackenzie had dealt with the loss of their parents until Tanner showed up.  And he just found out that his parents were dead so he wasn’t doing well either. Something similar was happening in the room that Hunter and his sisters had gone in.

I knocked on the room door my mom and Richard’s mom had gone in earlier.  My mom opened the door. Her eyes were bloodshot. She quickly wiped away a tear that was on her cheek.  “What is it, Darren?” she asked gently.

“I’m looking for Richard.  Have you seen him? Is he in there?”

“No,” my mom said.  “It’s just me and Nancy.”

“Okay,” I said.  My mom shut the door quietly as I moved away.

Little screams and giggles came from the living room.  When I reached it, Marcos, Juan and Arthur ran around the room playing tag.  Molly ran after them happily joining in on their fun. Monica sat on a chair watching them.  She had a sad smile on her face. I wondered if she thought about her own parents or Grant and his dad.

Maria sat on the couch next to Jin.  Her hand was open with her palm face up.  She stared intensely at the empty space in her palm.

“You must feel the energy,” Jin said, “and call it to you.  Form it in your hand. Picturing it in your mind.”  

I felt eyes on me.  I turned to the corner of the room where Gunnor’s red eyes met mine.  The corner of his right lip turned up in a weird smile that showed his elongated canine.  I knew he wanted to bite me. Like Jin did with Maria. They said Maria and I were more susceptible to magic and I had a feeling that it had more to do with that than anything else.  Maybe our blood tasted better. Maybe it would make them more powerful. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t curious what it would feel like to have him bite me. I was certain he wouldn’t kill me.

I turned my gaze away from him and scanned the rest of the room.  Richard wasn’t here. I was worried about him. He saw his dad as a zombie the previous night.  He had seen him dead. At least I hadn’t had to see my stepdad in that state.

I wasn’t sure where the rest of Tanner’s and Grace’s group were.  The vampires had given them rooms to share too – even though we didn’t know if they were staying – so they were probably there.

I left the room without saying a word and went to the kitchen.  It was empty. There was a lot of the house we hadn’t been in yet and the vampires – that was so weird to say – the vampires hadn’t offered to give us a tour of the rest of the house.  Mansion. Whatever it was, it was huge. I doubted Richard would go to the parts of the house we hadn’t gone yet.

I opened the front door.  Or maybe it was the back door.  It was the door we first came in and the door that Tanner and Grace and their group had come to that morning.  There were many footsteps in the snow in front of the door. One set led off to the right and around the house.  I followed them.

A couple of inches of snow had accumulated.  It wasn’t snowing anymore, but gray clouds covered the sky.  A chill was in the air. I pulled my coat tighter around me.

There was a bench by the side of the house.  Richard sat on it hunched over. He didn’t seemed bothered that he sat in the snow covered bench.  He sniffed loudly and looked up at me. He wiped tears away from his cheeks and sniffed again. I went and sat next to him.  I patted his back as he hunched over so his elbows were on his thighs and his head buried in his palms.

I had liked Richard’s dad.  He was always kind to me. He would take us to the movies or bowling.  Me, Richard and the rest of our friends that died or turned into zombies on Halloween night.  There had been five us that always hung out together. We played role playing games together taking turns to who was the game master.  Some of the other parents teased us for that or encouraged us to get into sports, but Richard’s dad and my stepdad had always been supportive.  Even though my stepdad didn’t know anything about it, he asked me questions and tried to learn.

“I wish Jack had been my real dad,” I said quietly.  A painful abyss formed in my stomach. A tear spilled onto my cheek.  Painful tingles trailed along my cheek where the tear met the bitter cold.

Richard nodded.  “Jack was a good guy,” he said.  His voice was thick. He sniffed again.

“I’m sorry about your dad,” I said.

A sob escaped him.  He nodded his head against the palm of his hands, but didn’t look at me.  I wrapped an arm around his shoulders. His shoulders shook as his sobs grew louder.  We stayed that way for several minutes in the cold. Eventually, his crying slowed. He wiped away the tears on his face and groaned as he sat up.

“Thanks, Darren.”

I nodded.

“What about your real dad?” he asked.  “Do you think he’s still alive?”

I shrugged.  “I don’t even care.”  I thought I meant it, but when I said it, it sounded like a lie.  “It doesn’t matter,” I said. “He lives on the other side of the country.  There is no way for me to confirm if he is alive or dead. I’m going to assume he is dead.  It would be too unfair for good men like your father and my stepfather to be dead when the man who cheated on my mom, was emotionally abusive and ignored my existence is still alive.”  I wondered briefly, and not for the first time, if something happened to change my dad. Maybe if I ever met him again, he would say he was sorry and care about me. I doubted it, but sometimes I wondered.  I wondered about that less when Jack was around.  

“We’ve all lost people,” Richard said, “Hunter, Lily and their families, Maria, Monica, even the children.  I’ve heard them cry in their sleep. Marcos and Juan. Even Arthur although he does it less than Marcos and Juan.  They shouldn’t have to live like this. None of us should.”

“There isn’t anything we can do to stop it,” I said.  “We just have to come to terms that this is the new reality and make a life where we can be as safe as we can.”

“Do you think that is here?” Richard asked.  “Hunter’s family wants to leave right away. But the zombies won’t get close.  Look.” He pointed. Off in the distance, zombies lined the treelines. They saw us.  They reached out for us with their claws. Their teeth were bared in snarls. But they wouldn’t come any closer.  “It’s nice not to have to run.”

“What about food, though?” I asked.

“They don’t bother the vampires,” Richard said.  “The vampires could go out on supply runs for us.”

“But why would they?”

“Because we would let them drink from us,” Richard said.  “It’s what they want anyway.”

“I would be okay with that if it kept our families safe,” I said.

“I wouldn’t,” Hunter said.

Richard and I both jumped.  Hunter stood by the corner of the house watching us.

“How long have you been there?” I asked.

Richard sighed and moved so he stood near the bench.  “When Richard asked if you thought your real dad was still alive,” he said.  His eyes were bloodshot and puffy like Richard’s. He must have been crying too.

“We’re safe here,” I said and pointed at the zombies that wouldn’t come any closer.  

Hunter looked at the treeline and the zombies that shifted in and out.  “I’m not sure about that.”

“The zombies won’t get close to the vampires,” Richard said.  “Now we know you are part dragon and have some powers, but the zombies still would chase you and us with you.”

“At least my siblings and I don’t want to hurt you or drink your blood.”

“Maybe if you told us you were part dragon from the beginning,” Richard said, “we would have been safer.  Darren wouldn’t have gone to the RU in? place. And you wouldn’t have had to charm him.” Richard was now on his feet and facing Hunter.  His voice grew slightly louder as he confronted Richard, but he wasn’t yelling at him.

“Would you have believed me if I said I was part dragon and had special powers and the RU in? cafes are being run by magical beings that want to control you and probably take your souls?”

“You didn’t even give us the chance to try to understand,” Richard said.  “And that information could have helped with our safety and our planning.”

I stood up between them when Richard took an almost threatening step towards Hunter.

“We followed you blindly,” Richard said.  “We trusted you and you lied to us and kept information from us that could have kept us safer.  The werewolves in the woods might have helped us if you weren’t around. They wanted to kill you and your sister.  They weren’t happy you were in their territory.”

“They wouldn’t have taken you in,” Hunter said.

“I just said they might have helped us,” Richard said, “not take us in.  If you had told us the venefici could enspell us and make us do what they want, Darren wouldn’t have been in their thrall in the first place.  You wouldn’t have had to charm him out of it. Don’t think I’m okay with that.”

“Hey,” I said and put a hand on Richard’s chest as he tried to push his way even closer to Hunter.

Hunter’s eyes dropped to the ground.  “I am sorry about that. You’re right.  I should have at least warned all of you, taught you how to protect yourselves from being charmed.  I didn’t think it was going to come to that, though. I didn’t think any of you would go that place.  I grew up all my life being told I had to keep it a secret, that humans wouldn’t understand and would hate me for it. And once it was revealed, other beings would want to kill me or control me for my power.  We have powers, but we are mostly human. There are a lot of beings out there we wouldn’t stand a chance against. And I didn’t know how any of you would react to me and my sister being part dragon.”

“Hunter,” I said gently, “I understand.  I really don’t mind any of it, but you not telling us meant that you didn’t trust us.  That honestly kinda hurts. We might have found it unbelievable before the zombies, but after the zombies, and after technology stopped working, we would have believed you and would have welcomed your added help.”

Hunter’s eyes closed and he sighed deeply.  “I’m sorry. You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“So what are we going to do now?” Richard asked in a calmer tone.  “At least for the winter, this place seems safe. In the spring, if you still want, we can move on and establish our own place.  We can plant our own crops. But we can’t do that in the winter.”

Hunter looked back at the house.  “It might seem safe because the zombies aren’t approaching, but it’s not.”

“I don’t mind the vampires drinking from me occasionally if it means shelter and help for the rest of us,” I said, “and I don’t think Maria minds either.”

Hurt was in Hunter’s eyes and I wasn’t sure why.  He looked into the sky. When he looked back, there was no trace of the pain I had just seen.  “It’s not just that. They left their brood without permission. Some brood leaders let that go.  Most don’t. Even if Jin and Gunnor want to help us and protect us, they won’t be able to if their brood comes after us and I’d rather none of us be slaves or food for a brood of vampires.”

I didn’t even know that was a possibility.  There was so much of the world I had no clue about.  “You’ve got a lot to teach us what is really hidden in this world,” I said.

He nodded.  “I will. I won’t keep secrets anymore.  And all of you should learn how to ward off charms.  Especially you and Maria,” he said to me. “Lily and Tanner are the only exceptions.  Charms won’t work on them.”

“Okay,” I said.  “The sooner we do that the better.”

Chapter 4 .

Lily

I ran to Tanner as Hunter and Victory engulfed Grace in a hug.  Tears spilled from my eyes and onto my cheeks. I didn’t even care how cold that made my cheeks as I jumped into my brother’s arms.  I sobbed into his shoulder. Everything I had been holding in came spilling out. Our parent’s death, Grant and his dad, all the people we tried to save who died along the way, the neighbors I saw as zombies, friends now turned zombie trying to eat me, no cars, no electricity, having to see my ax kill zombies that were once people, Darren getting wrapped up in that RU in? place, learning about dragons and vampires and venefici and knowing there were other creatures in the world we didn’t know about.

His strong arms held me close to him and I knew for at least that moment, I didn’t have to be strong.  He would be strong for me.

“Tanner!” Mackenzie’s voice cried out from behind me and then Tanner was holding both of us.

Tanner’s shoulders shuddered and only then did I realize he was crying too.  I held onto him tighter. Mackenzie was audibly crying beside me as she hugged both me and Tanner.

“Mom?” Richard said.  “Mom!” He rushed passed us.  I looked over Tanner’s shoulder through bleary eyes.  Richard crushed Mrs. Anderson in a tight hug. She clung onto him.

I pulled away from Tanner.  He quickly wiped the tears off his cheeks.  I wiped my own cheeks. Molly barked excitedly between us.

“Molly, come back here,” Arthur called to her.  She bounced back to his side, but immediately ran back out and circled Richard and his mom.

“Where’s mom and dad?” Tanner asked me.

I froze.  Fresh tears welled in my eyes, but I blinked them away.  “They didn’t make it,” I said quietly.

“Are you sure?” he asked.  “Maybe they are hiding out somewhere.  We could go back and check.”

I shook my head.  “I’m sure. I saw them myself.”

Tanner turned his face to the sky as tears sprang to his eyes.

“What about our mom and dad?” Grace asked Hunter.

Hunter swallowed.  “They didn’t make it either.”

“Not even mom?”

Hunter shook his head.

“But . . .,” Grace’s voice trailed off.

“Hunter thinks she let herself die when she saw dad turn,” Victory said quietly.

Grace pulled both Hunter and Victory back into the hug.

“Rich,” Mrs. Anderson said, “your dad . . .”

“I know,” Richard interrupted her.  “I know.”

“Nancy,” Bev said.  She walked passed us calmly to stand by Richard and Mrs. Anderson.

“Bev,” Nancy said.  She pulled away from Richard and hugged Bev.  “Does that mean Darren is here too?” she asked.

“Hi, Mrs. Anderson,” Darren said from the doorframe.

“More visitors,” Gunnor said from behind me.  It startled me. I had no idea he was there.

“Come inside,” Jin said.  “You don’t have to stand out in the cold.”

“I’m all for that,” a young man said behind Mrs. Anderson.  I had been vaguely aware there were others, but I had been so caught up in my brother that I hadn’t paid them any attention.

“No,” Grace said.  “We’re leaving. Get your stuff,” she said to Hunter and Victory.  They both nodded and moved to comply.

“Wait,” Maria said, “Jin is teaching me magic.  We can’t leave yet.”

“I wanted to learn magic too,” Darren said.

“Magic?” Mrs. Anderson asked.  “Are you not human?”

“We are,” Maria said. 

“How do you know there are beings other than human?” Richard asked his mom.

“I’m cold,” Marcos said from further in the house.  

“Come inside,” Jin said.  “We promise we won’t hurt any of you and you are free to leave whenever you wish.”

“Your promise doesn’t mean much,” Grace said.

“Now, now,” Jin said, “your bigotry is showing.”

“It’s not bigotry,” Grace said.

“I think it’s okay,” Hunter said.  “Just come in for now.” He stepped inside and pulled Grace with him.

“How could you even come inside in the first place?” Grace asked, but she followed Hunter and Victory inside.  I followed them. I looked over my shoulder to make sure my brother was following. Mackenzie held Tanner’s hand as they came inside.  Everyone piled into the same living room we had been led to the previous night.

“Now, tell me why you came inside this house in the first place,” Grace demanded of Hunter when everyone was settled and had found seats.

“I think you should tell us how you even knew we were here first,” Hunter said, “and why Mrs. Anderson seems to know there are other beings in this world than humans.”

“It seems your group knows that too,” Grace said.  “How did they find out?”

“Last night when we were running away from the zombies,” Hunter said, “we ended up here.  It was not my intention to lead them here. I didn’t even know this place existed.”

Tanner sat squished between me and Mackenzie.  Mackenzie held his hand as if afraid if she let go, he would disappear.  I took his other hand in mine. He squeezed it.

“Gunnor and Jin were the ones who told them we were part dragon,” Victory said.

“And then we learned there were vampires, werewolves, witches, venefici and magic,” Mackenzie said.

“Vampires? Werewolves?” the other young man with my brother’s group said.  “What are venefici?”

“Witches,” Gunnor said.

“They’re not witches,” Hunter reiterated.  “They aren’t human. They are the beings that run the RU in? places.”

“Have you had run in with those places?” Grace asked.

“Yes,” Victory said.  “He charmed Darren when he got charmed by the RU in? place.”

“It was the only thing I could do to save him,” Hunter said defensively.

“Everyone keeps acting like it’s a big deal,” Darren said, “but it’s not.  I’m fine with it. He saved me and it didn’t hurt me.”

Hunter smiled gently at him.  Grace noticed. Her eyes flicked from Hunter to Darren and back again.  I assumed she realized that Hunter had a crush on him then.

“We had to leave a few people at one of those RU in? places,” Grace said.  “I still think it was the wrong decision, but they insisted on staying.”

“You could have charmed them like Hunter did with Darren,” Victory said.

Grace shook her head.  “I’m not sure they could survive out here anyway.  I didn’t like it, but leaving them there was their best chance at survival.”

“I wonder if your girlfriend charmed you and that’s how you got a girlfriend,” one of the young men teased Tanner.

Tanner frowned at him.

“You have a girlfriend?” Mackenzie asked him.  “Who is it?”

Tanner’s and Grace’s eyes met and it was obvious.  I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. I wanted to be with Hunter, but I knew that wasn’t an option.  I was a little jealous of my brother.

“You’re together?” Hunter asked.  “Since when?”

“Shortly after the start of the school year,” Grace said.

“Did you charm him?” Victory asked aghast.

“I would never,” Grace said.

“She couldn’t even if she wanted to,” Hunter said.  “Tanner is like Lily. Magic doesn’t touch them.”

“Magic doesn’t touch us?” Tanner asked.

“It’s why our dad just died instead of turning into a zombie,” I said.  I realized I hadn’t told him that before and it was the first time he was learning that about our dad.

“So if we’re bit, we won’t turn?”

“Right,” I said.

“What about me?” Mackenzie asked.  “No one has said anything about me.”

We waited, but neither the Sangs nor the vampires answered right away.  Finally, Victory said, “You are more like your mom than your dad.”

“So that means I’m susceptible to magic?” Mackenzie asked.

Victory nodded.

“Does that mean I can do magic?  Like your light ball thing?” she asked Jin.

“Maybe,” he said.  “You do not have the same affinity for it as Maria and Darren, but it’s possible you might be able to learn a few things.”

“Maybe now would be a good time for introductions,” one of the middle aged men in Tanner’s group said.

After everyone went around the room introducing themselves – even Marcos stopped running around long enough to say his name – the room filled with silence.

“So what do we do now?” Connor asked.  “Camila and I still want to go find our families.  Do we split up?”

“Why don’t you all stay here a day or two?” Jin offered.  “Rest up, come up with a plan of action and then you are free to leave if you want.  This is a safe place. Zombies won’t come here. Gunnor and I can easily go into the towns safely to make runs for food.  You could stay here and make this your home.”

“And what do you get out of it?” Grace asked.  “Our blood? I don’t think so.”

“It would only be fair,” Gunnor said, “if we let you stay safely in our home and provided you with food that you reciprocate.”

“I’m okay giving my blood.”

“Maria!” I scolded.

“What?  They said it wouldn’t hurt.  And I’m curious.”

Jin smiled widely at that and chills ran down my back.

“Nothing needs to be decided immediately,” Jin said.  “Stay here where it’s safe for a few days and think it over.”