The Short Second Life (Chapters 12)

"Tonight you get a taste of what our world wil be like when our competition is out of the picture. Fol ow me!"

Riley bounded away; Raoul and his team were right on his heels. Kristie's group started shoving and clawing right through the middle of them to get to the front.

"Don't make me change my mind!" Riley bel owed from the trees ahead. "You can al go thirsty. I don't care!"

Kristie barked an order and her group sul enly fel behind Raoul's. Fred and I waited until the last of them was out of sight. Then Fred did one of those little ladies first sweeps with his arm. It didn't feel like he was afraid to have me at his back, just that he was being polite. I started running after the army. The others were already long gone, but it was nothing to fol ow their smel . Fred and I ran in companionable silence. I wondered what he was thinking. Maybe he was only thirsty. I was burning, so he probably was, too.

We caught up to the others after about five minutes, but kept our distance. The army was moving in amazing quiet. They were focused, and more… disciplined. I kind of wished that Riley had started the training sooner. It was easier to be around this group.

We crossed over an empty two-lane freeway, another strip of forest, and then we were on a beach. The water was smooth, and we'd gone almost due north, so this must have been the strait. We hadn't passed near any residences, and I was sure that was on purpose. Thirsty and on edge, it wouldn't take too much to dissolve this smal measure of organization into a screaming free-for-al .

We'd never hunted al together before, and I was pretty sure that it was not a good idea now. I remembered Kevin and the Spider-Man kid fighting over the woman in the car that first night I'd talked to Diego. Riley had better have a whole lot of bodies for us or people were going to start tearing each other up to get the most blood.

Riley paused at the water's edge.

"Don't hold back," he told us. "I want you wel fed and strong – at your peak. Now… let's go have some fun."

He dove smoothly into the surf. The others were growling excitedly as they submerged, too. Fred and I fol owed more closely than before because we couldn't fol ow their scent under water. But I could feel that Fred was hesitant – ready to bolt if this was something other than an al -you-can-eat smorgasbord. It seemed like he didn't trust Riley any more than I did. We didn't swim long, and then we saw the others kicking upward. Fred and I surfaced last, and Riley started talking as soon as our heads were out of the water, like he'd been waiting for us. He must have been more aware of Fred than the others were.

"There she is," he said, waving toward a large ferry chugging south, probably making the last commuter run of the night down from Canada. "Give me a minute. When the power goes out, she's al yours."

There was an excited murmur. Someone giggled. Riley was off like a shot, and seconds later we saw him fly up the side of the big boat. He headed straight for the control tower on top of the ship. Silencing the radio was my bet. He could say al he wanted about these enemies being our reason for caution, but I was sure there was more to it than that. Humans weren't supposed to know about vampires. At least, not for very long. Just long enough for us to kil them.

Riley kicked a big plate-glass window out of his way and disappeared into the tower. Five seconds later, the lights went out.

I realized Raoul was already gone. He must have submerged so we wouldn't hear him swimming after Riley. Everyone else took off, and the water churned as if an enormous school of barracuda were attacking.

Fred and I swam at a relatively leisurely pace behind them. In a funny way, it was like we were some old married couple. We never talked, but we stil did things at exactly the same time. We got to the boat about three seconds later, and already the air was ful of shrieks and the warm scent of blood. The smel made me realize exactly how thirsty I was, but that was the last thing I realized. My brain shut down completely. There was nothing but fiery pain in my throat and the delicious blood – blood everywhere – promising to put that fire out. When it was over and there wasn't a heart left beating on the whole ship, I wasn't sure how many people I'd personal y kil ed. More than triple the number I'd ever had on a hunting trip before, easy. I felt hot and flushed. I'd drunk long past the point at which my thirst was total y slaked, just for the taste of the blood. Most of the blood on the ferry was clean and luscious – these passengers had not been dregs. Though I hadn't held back, I was probably at the low end of the kil count. Raoul was so surrounded by mangled bodies that they actual y made a little hil . He sat on top of his pile of the dead and laughed loudly to himself.

He wasn't the only one laughing. The dark boat was ful of sounds of delight. I heard Kristie say, "That was amazing – three cheers for Riley!" Some of her crowd put up a raucous chorus of hurrahs like a bunch of happy drunks.

Jen and Kevin swung onto the view deck, dripping wet. "Got

'em al, boss," Jen cal ed to Riley. So some people must have tried to swim for it. I hadn't noticed.

I looked around for Fred. It took me a while to find him. I final y realized that I couldn't look directly at the back corner by the vending machines, and I headed that way. At first I felt like the rocking ferry was making me seasick, but then I got close enough that the feeling faded and I could see Fred standing by the window. He smiled at me quickly, and then looked over my head. I fol owed his gaze and saw that he was watching Riley. I got the feeling that he'd been doing this for some time.

"Okay, kids," Riley said. "You've had a taste of the sweet life, but now we've got work to do!"

They al roared enthusiastical y.

"I've got three last things to tel you – and one of those things involves a little dessert – so let's sink this scow and get home!"

With laughter mixed in with the snarls, the army went to work dismantling the boat. Fred and I bailed out the window and watched the demo from a short distance. It didn't take long for the ferry to crumple in the middle with a loud groan of metal. The midsection went down first, with both the bow and the stern twisting up to point to the sky. They sank one at a time, the stern beating the bow by a few seconds. The school of barracuda headed toward us. Fred and I started swimming for shore. We ran home with the others – though keeping our distance. A couple of times Fred looked at me like he had something he wanted to say, but each time he seemed to change his mind. Back at the house, Riley let the celebratory mood wind down. Even after a few hours had passed, he stil had his hands ful trying to get everyone serious again. For once it wasn't a fight he was trying to defuse, just high spirits. If Riley's promises were false, as I thought, he was going to have an issue when the ambush was over. Now that al these vampires had real y feasted, they weren't going to go back to any measure of restraint very easily. For tonight, though, Riley was a hero. Final y – a while after I would have guessed that the sun was up outside – everyone was quiet and paying attention. From their faces, it seemed they were ready to hear just about anything he had to say.

Riley stood halfway up the stairs, his face serious.

"Three things," he began. "First, we want to be sure we get the right coven. If we accidental y run across another clan and slaughter them, we'l tip our hand. We want our enemies overconfident and unprepared. There are two things that mark this coven, and they're pretty hard to miss. One, they look different – they have yel ow eyes."

There was a murmur of confusion.

"Yel ow?" Raoul repeated in a disgusted tone.

"There's a lot of the vampire world out there that you haven't encountered yet. I told you these vampires were old. Their eyes are weaker than ours – yel owed with age. Another advantage to our side." He nodded to himself as if to say, one down. "But other old vampires exist, so there is another way that we'l know them for sure… and this is where the dessert I mentioned comes into play." Riley smiled slyly and waited a beat. "This is going to be hard to process," he warned. "I don't understand it, but I've seen it for myself. These old vampires have gone so soft that they actual y keep – as a member of their coven – a pet human."

His revelation was met by blank silence. Total disbelief.

"I know – hard to swal ow. But it's true. We'l know it's definitely them because a human girl wil be with them."

"Like… how?" Kristie asked. "You mean they carry meals around with them or something?"

"No, it's always the same girl, just the one, and they don't plan to kil her. I don't know how they manage it, or why. Maybe they just like to be different. Maybe they want to show off their self-control. Maybe they think it makes them look stronger. It makes no sense to me. But I've seen her. More than that, I've smel ed her."

Slow and dramatic, Riley reached into his jacket and pul ed out a smal ziplock bag with red fabric wadded up inside.

"I've done some recon in the past few weeks, checking the yel ow-eyes out as soon as they got near the area." He paused to throw us a paternal look. "I watch out for my kids. Anyway, when I could tel that they were moving on us, I grabbed this" – he brandished the bag – "to help us track them. I want you al to get a lock on this scent."

He handed the bag to Raoul, who opened the plastic zipper and inhaled deeply. He glanced up at Riley with a startled look.

"I know," Riley said. "Amazing, right?"

Raoul handed the bag to Kevin, his eyes narrowing in thought.

One by one, each vampire sniffed the bag, and everyone reacted with wide eyes but little else. I was curious enough that I sidled away from Fred until I could feel a hint of the nausea and knew I was outside his circle. I crept forward until I was next to the Spider-Man kid, who seemed to be at the tail end of the line. He sniffed inside the bag when it was his turn and then seemed about to hand it back to the kid who had given it to him, but I held my hand out and hissed quietly. He did a double take – almost like he'd never see me before – and handed me the bag.

It looked like the red fabric was a shirt. I stuck my nose in the opening, keeping my eyes on the vampires near me, just in case, and inhaled.

Ah. I understood the expressions now and felt a similar one on my face. Because the human who had worn this shirt had seriously sweet blood. When Riley said dessert, he was dead right. On the other hand, I was less thirsty than I'd ever been. So while my eyes widened in appreciation, I didn't feel enough pain in my throat to make me grimace. It would be awesome to taste this blood, but in that exact moment, it didn't hurt me that I couldn't.

I wondered how long it would take for me to get thirsty again. Usual y, a few hours after feeding, the pain would start to come back, and then it would just get worse and worse until – after a couple of days – it was impossible to ignore it even for a second. Would the excessive amount of blood I'd just drunk delay that? I guessed I'd see pretty soon.

I glanced around to make sure no one was waiting for the bag, because I thought Fred would probably be curious, too. Riley caught my eye, smiled the tiniest bit, and jerked his chin slightly toward the corner where Fred was. Which made me want to do the exact opposite of what I'd just been planning, but whatever. I didn't want Riley to be suspicious of me. I walked back to Fred, ignoring the nausea until it faded and I was right next to him. I handed him the bag. He seemed pleased I'd thought to include him; he smiled and then sniffed the shirt. After a second he nodded thoughtful y to himself. He gave me the bag back with a significant look. The next time we were alone, I thought he would say aloud whatever it was he had seemed to want to share before.

I tossed the bag toward Spider-Man, who reacted like it had fal en out of the sky but stil caught it before it hit the ground. Everyone was buzzing about the scent. Riley clapped his hands together twice.

"Okay, so there's the dessert I was talking about. The girl wil be with the yel ow-eyes. And whoever gets to her first gets dessert. Simple as that."

Appreciative growls, competitive growls.

Simple, yes, but… wrong. Weren't we supposed to be destroying the yel ow-eyed coven? Unity was supposed to be the key, not a first-come, first-served prize that only one vampire could win. The only guaranteed outcome from this plan was one dead human. I could think of half a dozen more productive ways to motivate this army. The one who kil s the most yel ow-eyes wins the girl. The one who shows the best team cooperation gets the girl. The one who sticks to the plan best. The one who fol ows orders best. MVP, etc. The focus should be on the danger, which was definitely not the human.

I looked around at the others and decided that none of them were fol owing the same train of thought. Raoul and Kristie were glaring at each other. I heard Sara and Jen arguing in whispers about the possibility of sharing the prize.

Wel, maybe Fred got it. He was frowning, too.

"And the last thing," Riley said. For the first time there was some reluctance in his voice. "This wil probably be even harder to accept, so I'l show you. I won't ask you to do anything I won't do. Remember that – I'm with you guys every step of the way."

The vampires got real stil again. I noticed that Raoul had the ziplock back and was gripping it possessively.

"There are so many things you have yet to learn about being a vampire," Riley said. "Some of them make more sense than others. This is one of those things that won't sound right at first, but I've experienced it myself, and I'l show you." He deliberated for a long second. "Four times a year, the sun shines at a certain indirect angle. During that one day, four times a year, it is safe… for us to be outside in the daylight."

Every tiny movement stopped. There was no breathing. Riley was talking to a bunch of statues.

"One of those special days is beginning now. The sun that is rising outside today won't hurt any of us. And we are going to use this rare exception to surprise our enemies."

My thoughts spun around and turned upside down. So Riley knew it was safe for us to go out in the sun. Or he didn't, and our creator had told him this "four days a year" story. Or… this was true and Diego and I had lucked into one of those days. Except that Diego had been out in the shade before. And Riley was making this into some kind of solstice-y seasonal thing, while Diego and I had been safe in the daylight just four days ago. I could understand that Riley and our creator would want to control us with the fear of the sun. It made sense. But why tel the truth – in a very limited way – now?

I would bet it had to do with those scary dark-cloaks. She probably wanted to get a jump on her deadline. The cloaked ones had not promised to let her live when we kil ed al the yel ow-eyes. I guessed she would be off like a shot the second she'd accomplished her objective here. Kil the yel ow-eyes and then take an extended vacation in Australia or somewhere else on the other side of the world. And I'd bet she wasn't going to send us engraved invitations. I would have to get to Diego quick so we could bail, too. In the opposite direction from Riley and our creator. And I ought to tip Fred off. I decided I would as soon as we had a moment alone.

There was so much manipulation going on in this one little speech, and I wasn't sure I was catching it al . I wished Diego were here so we could analyze it together.

If Riley was just making up this four-days story on the spot, I guess I could understand why. It's not like he could have just said, Hey, so I've lied to you for your whole lives, but now I'm telling the truth. He wanted us to fol ow him into battle today; he couldn't undermine whatever trust he'd earned.

"It's right for you to be terrified at the thought," Riley told the statues. "The reason you are al stil alive is that you paid attention when I told you to be careful. You got home on time, you didn't make mistakes. You let that fear make you smart and cautious. I don't expect you to put that intel igent fear aside easily. I don't expect you to run out that door on my word. But…"

He looked around the room once. "I do expect you to follow me out."

His eyes slid away from the audience for just the teensiest fraction of a second, touching very briefly on something over my head.

"Watch me," he told us. "Listen to me. Trust me. When you see that I'm okay, believe your eyes. The sun on this one day does have some interesting effects on our skin. You'l see. It won't hurt you in any way. I wouldn't do anything to put you guys in unnecessary danger. You know that."

He started up the stairs.

"Riley, can't we just wait – ," Kristie began.

"Just pay attention," Riley cut her off, stil moving up at a measured pace. "This gives us a big advantage. The yel oweyes know al about this day, but they don't know that we know."

As he was talking, he opened the door and walked out of the basement into the kitchen. There was no light in the wel -shaded kitchen, but everyone stil shied away from the open doorway. Everyone but me. His voice continued, moving toward the front door. "It takes most young vampires a while to embrace this exception – for good reason. Those who aren't cautious about the daylight don't last long."

I felt Fred's eyes on me. I glanced over at him. He was staring at me urgently, as if he wanted to take off but had nowhere to go.

"It's okay," I whispered almost silently. "The sun's not going to hurt us."

You trust him? he mouthed back at me.

No way.