The Short Second Life (Chapters 13)

Fred raised an eyebrow and relaxed just slightly. I glanced behind us. What had Riley been looking at?

Nothing had changed – just some family pictures of dead people, a smal mirror, and a cuckoo clock. Hmm. Was he checking the time? Maybe our creator had given him a deadline, too.

"'Kay, guys, I'm going out," Riley said. "You don't have to be afraid today, I promise."

The light burst into the basement through the open door, magnified – as only I knew – by Riley's skin. I could see the bright reflections dance on the wal .

Hissing and snarling, my coven backed into the corner opposite from Fred's. Kristie was in the very back. It looked like she was trying to use her gang as a kind of shield.

"Relax, everybody," Riley cal ed down to us. "I am absolutely fine. No pain, no burn. Come and see. C'mon!"

No one moved closer to the door. Fred was crouched against the wal beside me, eyeing the light with panic. I waved my hand a tiny bit to get his attention. He looked up at me and measured my total calm for a second. Slowly he straightened up next to me. I smiled encouragingly.

Everyone else was waiting for the burn to start. I wondered if I had looked that sil y to Diego.

"You know," Riley mused from above, "I'm curious to see who is the bravest one of you. I have a good idea who the first person through that door is going to be, but I've been wrong before."

I rol ed my eyes. Subtle, Riley.

But of course it worked. Raoul started inching his way toward the stairs almost immediately. For once, Kristie was in no hurry to compete with him for Riley's approval. Raoul snapped his fingers at Kevin, and both he and the Spider-Man kid reluctantly moved to flank him.

"You can hear me. You know I'm not fried. Don't be a bunch of babies! You're vampires. Act like it."

Stil, Raoul and his buddies couldn't get farther than the foot of the stairs. None of the others moved. After a few minutes, Riley came back. In the indirect light from the front door, he shimmered just a tiny bit in the doorway.

"Look at me – I'm fine. Seriously! I'm embarrassed for you. C'mere, Raoul!"

In the end, Riley had to grab Kevin – Raoul ducked out of the way as soon as he could see what Riley was thinking – and drag him upstairs by force. I saw the moment when they made it into the sun, when the light brightened from their reflections.

"Tel them, Kevin," Riley ordered.

"I'm okay, Raoul!" Kevin cal ed down. "Whoa. I'm al … shiny. This is crazy!" He laughed.

"Wel done, Kevin," Riley said loudly.

That did it for Raoul. He gritted his teeth and marched up the stairs. He didn't move fast, but soon he was up there sparkling and laughing with Kevin.

Even from then on, the process took longer than I would have predicted. It was stil a one-by-one thing. Riley got impatient. It was more threats than encouragement now. Fred shot me a look that said, You knew this?

Yes, I mouthed.

He nodded and started up the stairs. There were stil about ten people, mostly Kristie's group, huddled against the wal . I went with Fred. Better to come out right in the middle. Let Riley read into that what he would.

We could see the shining, disco-bal vampires in the front yard, staring at their hands and each other's faces with rapt expressions. Fred moved into the light without slowing, which I thought was pretty brave, al things considered. Kristie was a better example of how wel Riley had indoctrinated us. She clung to what she knew regardless of the evidence in front of her.

Fred and I stood a little space from the others. He examined himself careful y, then looked me over, then stared at the others. It struck me that Fred, though real y quiet, was very observant and almost scientific in the way he examined evidence. He'd been evaluating Riley's words and actions al along. How much had he figured out?

Riley had to force Kristie up the stairs, and her gang came with her. Final y we al were out in the sun, most people enjoying how very pretty they were. Riley rounded everyone up for one more quick practice session – mostly, I thought, to get them to focus again. It took them a minute, but everyone started to realize that this was it, and they got quieter and more fierce. I could see that the idea of a real fight – of being not only al owed but encouraged to rip and burn – was almost as exciting as hunting. It appealed to people like Raoul and Jen and Sara. Riley focused on a strategy he'd been trying to dril into them for the last few days – once we'd pinpointed the yel oweyes' scent, we were going to divide in two and flank them. Raoul would charge them head-on while Kristie attacked from the side. The plan suited both their styles, though I wasn't sure if they were going to be able to fol ow this strategy in the heat of the hunt.

When Riley cal ed everyone together after an hour of practice, Fred immediately started walking backward toward the north; Riley had the others facing south. I stayed close, though I had no idea what he was doing. Fred stopped when we were a good hundred yards away, in the shade of the spruce trees on the fringe of the forest. No one watched us move away. Fred was eyeing Riley, as if waiting to see if he would notice our retreat.

Riley began speaking. "We leave now. You're strong and you're ready. And you're thirsty for it, aren't you? You can feel the burn. You're ready for dessert."

He was right. Al that blood hadn't slowed the return of the thirst at al . In fact, I wasn't sure, but I thought it might be coming back faster and harder than usual. Maybe overfeeding was counterproductive in some ways.

"The yel ow-eyes are coming in slowly from the south, feeding along the way, trying to get stronger," Riley said. "She's been monitoring them, so I know where to find them. She's going to meet us there, with Diego" – he cast a significant glance toward where I'd just been standing, and then a quick frown that disappeared just as quickly – "and we wil hit them like a tsunami. We wil overwhelm them easily. And then we wil celebrate." He smiled. "Someone's going to get a jump on the celebration. Raoul – give me that." Riley held out his hand imperiously. Raoul reluctantly tossed him the bag with the shirt. It seemed like Raoul was trying to lay claim to the girl by hogging her scent.

"Take another whiff, everybody. Let's get focused!"

Focused on the girl? Or the fight?

Riley himself walked the shirt around this time, almost like he wanted to make sure everyone was thirsty. And I could see from the reactions that, like me, the burn was back for them al . The scent of the shirt made them scowl and snarl. It wasn't necessary to give us the scent again; we forgot nothing. So this was probably just a test. Just thinking about the girl's scent had venom pooling in my mouth.

"Are you with me?" Riley bel owed.

Everyone screamed his or her assent.

"Let's take them down, kids!"

It was like the barracuda again, only on land this time. Fred didn't move, so I stayed with him, though I knew I was wasting time I needed. If I were going to get to Diego and pul him away before the fighting could start, I would need to be near the front of the attack. I looked after them anxiously. I was stil younger than most of them – faster.

"Riley won't be able to think of me for about twenty minutes or so," Fred told me, his voice casual and familiar, like we'd had a mil ion conversations in the past. "I've been gauging the time. Even a good distance away, he'l feel sick if he tries to remember me."

"Real y? That's cool."

Fred smiled. "I've been practicing, keeping track of the effects. I can make myself total y invisible now. No one can look at me if I don't want them to."

"I've noticed," I said, then paused and guessed, "You're not going?"

Fred shook his head. "Of course not. It's obvious we're not being told what we need to know. I'm not going to be Riley's pawn."

So Fred had figured it out on his own.

"I was going to take off sooner, but then I wanted to talk to you before I left, and there hasn't been a chance til now."

"I wanted to talk to you, too," I said. "I thought you should know that Riley's been lying about the sun. This four-day thing is a total crock. I think Shel y and Steve and the others figured it out, too. And there's a lot more politics going on with this fight than he's told us. More than one set of enemies." I said it fast, feeling with terrible urgency the movement of the sun, the time passing. I had to get to Diego.

"I'm not surprised," Fred said calmly. "And I'm out. I'm going to explore on my own, see the world. Or I was going on my own, but then I thought maybe you might want to come, too. You'd be pretty safe with me. No one wil be able to fol ow us."

I hesitated for a second. The idea of safety was hard to resist in that exact moment.

"I've got to get Diego," I said, shaking my head. He nodded thoughtful y. "I get it. You know, if you're wil ing to vouch for him, you can bring him along. Seems like sometimes numbers come in handy."

"Yes," I agreed fervently, remembering how vulnerable I'd felt in the tree alone with Diego as the four cloaks had advanced. He raised an eyebrow at my tone.

"Riley is lying about at least one more important thing," I explained. "Be careful. We aren't supposed to let humans know about us. There are some kind of freaky vampires who stop covens when they get too obvious. I've seen them, and you don't want them to find you. Just keep out of sight in the day, and hunt smart." I looked south anxiously. "I have to hurry!"

He was processing my revelations solemnly. "Okay. Catch up to me if you want. I'd like to hear more. I'l wait for you in Vancouver for one day. I know the city. I'l leave you a trail in…"

He thought for a second and then chuckled once. "Riley Park. You can fol ow it to me. But after twenty-four hours I'm taking off."

"I'l get Diego and catch up to you."

"Good luck, Bree."

"Thanks, Fred! Good luck to you, too. I'l see you!" I was already running.

"I hope so," I heard him say behind me.

I sprinted after the scent of the others, flying along the ground faster than I'd ever run before. I was lucky that they must have paused for something – for Riley to yel at them, I was guessing – because I caught them sooner than I should have. Or maybe Riley had remembered Fred and stopped to look for us. They were running at a steady pace when I reached them, semidisciplined like last night. I tried to slide into the group without drawing attention, but I saw Riley's head flip around once to scan those trailing behind. His eyes zeroed in on me, and then he started running faster. Did he assume Fred was with me?

Riley would never see Fred again.

It wasn't five minutes later when everything changed. Raoul caught the scent. With a wild growl he was off. Riley had us so worked up that it took only the tiniest spark to set off an explosion. The others near Raoul had the scent, too, and then everyone went crazy. Riley's harping on this human had overshadowed the rest of his instructions. We were hunters, not an army. There was no team. It was a race for blood. Even though I knew there were a lot of lies in the story, I couldn't total y resist the scent. Running at the back of the pack, I had to cross it. Fresh. Strong. The human had been here recently, and she smel ed so sweet. I was strong with al the blood we'd drunk last night, but it didn't matter. I was thirsty. It burned.

I ran after the others, trying to keep my head clear. It was al I could do to hold back a little, to stay behind the others. The closest person to me was Riley. He was… holding back, too?

He shouted orders, mostly the same thing repeated.

"Kristie, go around! Move around! Split off! Kristie, Jen! Break off! " His whole plan of the two-pronged ambush was selfdestructing as we watched. Riley sped up to the main group and grabbed Sara's shoulder. She snapped at him as he hurled her to the left. "Go around!" he shouted. He caught the blond kid whose name I'd never figured out and shoved him into Sara, who clearly wasn't happy with that. Kristie came out of the hunting focus long enough to realize she was supposed to be moving strategical y. She gave one fierce gaze after Raoul and then started screeching at her team.

"This way! Faster! We'l beat them around and get to her first! C'mon!"

"I'm spear point with Raoul!" Riley shouted at her, turning away.

I hesitated, stil running forward. I didn't want to be part of any "spear point," but Kristie's team was already turning on each other. Sara had the blond kid in a headlock. The sound of his head tearing off made my decision for me. I sprinted after Riley, wondering if Sara would pause to burn the boy who liked to play Spider-Man.

I caught up enough to see Riley ahead and fol owed at a distance until he got to Raoul's team. The scent made it hard to keep my mind on the things that mattered.

"Raoul!" Riley yel ed.

Raoul grunted, not turning. He was total y absorbed by the sweet scent.

"I've got to help Kristie! I'l meet you there! Keep your focus!"

I jerked to a stop, frozen with uncertainty.

Raoul kept on, not showing any response to Riley's words. Riley slowed to a jog, then a walk. I should have moved, but he probably would have heard me try to hide. He turned, a smile on his face, and saw me.

"Bree. I thought you were with Kristie."

I didn't respond.