I didn’t know what he did to me, but when I woke up again, it was as if a massive mountain got placed onto my body, pressing the air out of my lungs. My mouth was dry, and my tongue felt like a foreign object. I felt heat on my back, but a cold, hard surface under me.
I opened my eyes, but the bright light was sending shots of pain through my skull, and I quickly shut them again.
A light wind rustled through my hair, and birds were chirping somewhere in the distance. I certainly wasn’t inside the production hall anymore, but where was I?
After a few deep breaths, I peeled my eyes open again. This time it wasn’t as painful or blinding, and I tried to look around without moving the rest of my body too much. My limbs felt like they weighed tons, and every single movement hurt.
I spotted George slightly further away from me. He laid on his back, eyes closed, but his chest slowly raised up and down. Relief rushed through me, knowing he wasn’t dead. Yet.
“Are you awake already?” Vincent asked, his shoes coming into view and stopping right in front of me.
With great effort, I lifted my head and grinned. “What? Are you surprised your little trick didn’t work for as long as you hoped to? Did I impress you?”
A frown spread over his face as he pinched his nose. “You are so annoying.”
I attempted to sit up again, only to realize that I was losing a worrying amount of blood from cuts running up the inside of my arms. “What did you do to me?!”
He shrugged. “Killing you slowly. What else does it look like?”
I struggled to get on my feet, the world spinning as I straightened my back. We were on top of the ruins, the exact spot Gunnar and I had been standing before. How much I wished he was here now.
“And what do you plan to achieve by killing me slowly? I thought you didn’t have time,” I said, reaching out to my wolf and hoping she could fight against our wounds long enough before we bled out. She was still compromised by that weird stunt Vincent pulled on us, but she was determined to push us through this.
He let out a long, exaggerated sigh. “Regretfully, it’s said that it’s easier to take over a power place if the last pack member dies slowly. Your pain and blood weaken the protection of the ruins, as it will try to protect you eventually. And when that happens, we have better access to the core to take it over.”
That didn’t add up with what the ancient mages told me. They did say the ruins would offer me power, but never too much that it would harm them. Unless I take too much and cause a tragedy to happen. I wanted to believe the ancient mages more than him, but what if he was right? What if my suffering would cause the ruins to fall into a critical state?
Another dizzy spell almost knocked me off my feet, and I lowered myself to the floor. Luckily, the wounds on my arms had closed up a little, but it was still bleeding too much for me to survive for that much longer. I leaned my back on one of the stone walls and patted the cold surface.
“Whatever you do, do not protect me and risk becoming vulnerable. My pack sacrificed too much to let that happen,” I thought, hoping it would reach the ruins somehow. I felt odd trying to communicate with a pile of stones, but to my surprise, I felt a surge of energy rush through me. Small lights floated around me, similar to those I had seen during Beltane. They danced over the cuts on my arm, healing the wounds and only leaving faint pink lines behind.
I snapped my head towards Vincent, hoping he wouldn’t have realized what had happened. My entire body relaxed when I saw him still staring into the distance, oblivious to magical floating lights healed me.
“And how will you explain that to the authorities after you killed me? You should be well aware that I’m part of the human community. Someone will surely realize that I’m gone.”
He shrugged again, not even turning around to look at me. “Well, with your family background, I believe it would be easy to say that it was a suicide.”
A laugh escaped me. I didn’t know what I had expected, but this was so uncreative, I was actually surprised. “Such an original plan. What about the human, then? How are you going to explain his state?”
He clicked his tongue. “You’re very concerned about things that happen after your death. Does it matter to you? You won’t be there to witness it.”
I remained silent and slowly crawled towards George. I checked his pulse, feeling it weakly beating under my fingers. George needed to be rescued, and that fast. I doubted he had had anything to drink or to eat since yesterday, and he might had internal injuries.
If only I could contact Gunnar, asking where he was or telling him where he had to go, but my phone was still in the house. With Svea. My wolf whined, thinking of her hiding in the cabinet, waiting for someone to get her. I hope those men didn’t actually set the house on fire for good measure or found her there.
I looked back at George, an idea popping up in my head. Maybe he had his phone on him. I fumbled with his jacket and searched all the pockets, but I couldn’t find anything.
Vincent turned around and sighed when he saw me next to George. With three big steps, he reached us and kicked me in the gut without hesitation, making me cower on the floor, gasping for air.
He picked George up by the collar of his shirt and eyed him. “I wonder what makes you so interested in this human? He looks so ordinary to me. So weak.”
I glared at him, tasting blood in my mouth. “You wouldn’t understand, anyway.”
He raised a brow and dropped George to the floor again without batting an eye. “Maybe, but let me tell you something, sweetheart.” Vincent grabbed my hair and pulled me up to face him. “If you try something funny, I will throw that human down this hill and my pack will eat him. So think wisely about your next moves.”
I blinked the tears away, trying to keep my mouth shut, despite the stinging pain in my scalp.
“Do you understand me?”
I nodded as best as I could, feeling my head burning even more with the movement.
“Good,” he said, letting go of me. I crashed to the ground, and I yelped from the pain. Panting, I looked at Vincent, who had turned around again, his hands clenched into fists.
“Why are you doing this? What is your goal?”
He turned to me, a sneer on his face. “Your pack took what belonged to us all those years ago. You aren’t meant to be the protector of the ruins, you aren’t worthy of its power! We, the Vindictoria pack, are the true protectors. We are meant to harbor the power of the ruins and use it for what it’s meant for!”
“And please enlighten me. What is the power meant to do?”
He spread out his arms. “Look at all this land we have to share with those human scumbags. We have to hide in our small communities, afraid that humans might harm us. Ancient wolves, magical beings, have to stay a secret, following the rules of the humans. We could achieve so much more if the ancient wolves would just be stronger than this. If we could live freely!”
I shook my head. “We aren’t supposed to be out in the open.”
His arms fell to his sides as he stared at me with wide eyes. “And who decided that? Why can’t humans live in secret instead?”
I stared at him, unable to come up with an answer. I didn’t know who decided it, but that is how it’s always been. Why should we change it? Aren’t we living comfortably?
“You always followed those rules blindly, not even questioning why we have to live this way. The Vindictoria pack doesn’t want to live in secret anymore, and the ruins will help to create a better life for all ancient wolves.”
“We are meant to bring balance,” I muttered, my grandparents’ words floating through my mind. “The ancient wolves are supposed to protect nature and the Earth.”
He laughed bitterly. “Oh, please. Humans destroy nature left and right. With them gone, there is no need to protect it anymore, because nothing is there to harm it.”
“You’re crazy if you think killing the human population will create a perfect world for you. Humans have a right to live on this planet just as much as we do. But our responsibility is bigger!”
“Look at you, trying to argue with me. We have no responsibilities towards anyone, and as soon as I hold the power of the ruins in my hands, you will see what perfect world I can create. Oh, wait, you won’t, because you will be dead by then!”
From the corner of my eye, I saw George stirring. His head turned towards me and his eyes widened.
“Mia! Are you okay?”
Vincent turned around to him, and I took my chance to get up and kick him in the back. He stumbled forward but didn’t fall. He straightened his back. “How can one little girl be so damn annoying?”
I backed away from him, and we circled each other. George still tried to get up to his feet, but he kept falling on the stone surface, wincing.
With each breath I took, I felt this calming energy rushing through my body again. It made me feel strong, but I also kept thinking about the prophecy. What if I was pulling too much energy from the ruins without even realizing it?
“Did anyone ever tell you that your reasoning for doing this is extremely simple-minded? Didn’t we have enough examples of tyrants like you in human history to prove that people like you will never win? Shouldn’t we be a better example as ancient wolves? I thought we were the superior race, so why are you acting like such a low-life?”
He smirked. “I like the spark in you. Too bad you didn’t decide to join us. I would have loved to prove you wrong.”
I didn’t get a chance to answer him when a commotion started around us. People shouted and wolves howled. I felt a lightness in my chest when I realized it was Gunnar and his pack.
“They already reached us?” Vincent muttered, staring down at the fighting wolves. Without wasting any time, I leaped forward and kicked him in the stomach, but before my foot could reach him, he caught my leg and lifted me off the floor with one swoop.
I shrieked as he turned and dangled me over the edge of the ruins. I stared into the abyss, the ground so far away I could barely see it. My stomach dropped, and sweat broke out all over my body.
“You stupid little girl. It would be so easy to let you fall to your death. Too bad it can’t end so quickly.”
He stepped back and threw me on the floor like a sack of potatoes. A painful scream left my throat when I landed against a rock, piercing into my spine. He marched over to me, grabbing my throat. A piercing pain rushed through me again, but I didn’t faint. Vincent furrowed his brows and let go of me, staring at his hands blankly. I crawled away from him, but he stopped me by grabbing my leg and pulling me back to him.
He pulled out a knife, and without a word, drew it over the just healed wounds. Warm blood ran over my skin, making me whimper.
“Mia!” Gunnar roared from the other side, and I looked up to see him punching himself through a group of men who didn’t stand a chance.
Close behind him was Jelto, and I almost wanted to cry in relief. “Gunnar! Jelto! I’m so glad to see you.”
Jelto met my gaze, pain crossing over his features. I must look quite roughed up, and by now, a large part of the stone’s surface was covered in my blood. He rushed forward, and I expected him to pick me up, to help me, but he turned his back to me, blocking Gunnar’s way.
Gunnar frowned. “What are you doing?”
“I have to. It’s not that I want to, but I have to,” Jelto said. His voice was steady, and his posture confident. I stared at his back, confused by what he meant. But whatever it was, he was serious about it.