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The Short Second Life (Chapters 10)

Before I could process this, Riley roared out an animalistic shriek of rage. He was staring down at the ashy remains on the floor, his eyes bulging in fury. Everyone stood silent, immobile. We'd al seen Riley lose his temper, but this was something different.

Riley spun and raked his fingers through a blaring speaker, then ripped it from the wal and hurled it across the room. Jen and Kristie dodged out of the way as it exploded into the far wal, sending up a cloud of pulverized drywal dust. Riley smashed the sound system with his foot, and the thudding bass went silent. Then he leaped to where Raoul stood, and grabbed him by the throat.

"I wasn't even here!" Raoul yel ed, looking afraid – I'd never seen that before.

Riley growled hideously and threw Raoul as he'd thrown the speaker. Jen and Kristie jumped out of the way again. Raoul's body crashed right through the wal, leaving an enormous hole. Riley caught Kevin by the shoulder and – with a familiar screech – ripped off his right hand. Kevin cried out in pain and tried to twist out of Riley's grip. Riley kicked him in the side. Another harsh shriek and Riley had the rest of Kevin's arm. He tore the arm in half at the elbow and threw the pieces hard into Kevin's anguished face – smack, smack, smack, like a hammer striking stone.

"What is wrong with you?" Riley screamed at us. "Why are you al so stupid?" He made a grab for the blond Spider-Man kid, but that kid leaped out of his way. His jump left him too close to Fred, and he stumbled back toward Riley again, gagging.

"Do any of you have a brain?"

Riley smacked a kid named Dean into the entertainment center, shattering it, then caught another girl – Sara – and tore her left ear and a handful of hair from her head. She snarled in anguish.

It became suddenly obvious that Riley was doing a very dangerous thing. There were a lot of us in here. Already Raoul was back, with Kristie and Jen – usual y his enemies – flanking him defensively. A few others banded together in clusters around the room.

I wasn't sure if Riley was aware of the threat or if his rant came to an end natural y. He took a deep breath. He tossed Sara her ear and the hair. She recoiled away from him, licking the torn edge of her ear, coating it with venom so that it would reattach. There was no remedy for the hair, though; Sara was going to have a bald spot.

"Listen to me!" Riley said, quiet but fierce. "Al our lives depend on you listening to what I'm saying now and thinking!

We are al going to die. Every one of us, you and me, too, if you can't act like you have brains for just a few short days!"

This was nothing like his usual lectures and pleadings for control. He definitely had everyone's attention.

"It's time for you to grow up and take responsibility for yourselves. Do you think you get to live like this for free? That al the blood in Seattle doesn't have a price?"

The little clusters of vampires no longer seemed threatening. Everyone was wide-eyed, some exchanging mystified glances. I saw Fred's head turn toward me in my peripheral vision, but I didn't meet his gaze. My attention was focused on two things: Riley, just in case he started to attack again, and the door. The door that was stil closed.

"Are you listening now? Real y listening?" Riley paused, but no one nodded. The room was very stil . "Let me explain to you the precarious situation we are al in. I'l try to keep it simple for the slowest ones. Raoul, Kristie, come here."

He motioned to the leaders of the two largest gangs, al ied for this brief moment against him. Neither of them moved toward him. They braced themselves, Kristie baring her teeth. I expected Riley to soften, to apologize. To placate them and then persuade them to do what he wanted. But this was a different Riley.

"Fine," he snapped. "We're going to need leaders if we're going to survive, but apparently neither of you is up to the task. I thought you had aptitude. I was wrong. Kevin, Jen, please join me as the heads of this team."

Kevin looked up in surprise. He had just finished putting his arm back together. Though his expression was wary, it was also unmistakably flattered. He slowly got to his feet. Jen looked at Kristie as if waiting for permission. Raoul ground his teeth together.

The door at the top of the stairs did not open.

"Are you not able, either?" Riley asked, irritated. Kevin took a step toward Riley, but then Raoul rushed him, leaping across the long room in two low bounds. He shoved Kevin against the wal without a word and then stood by Riley's right shoulder.

Riley permitted himself a tiny smile. The manipulation wasn't subtle, but it was effective.

"Kristie or Jen, who wil lead us?" Riley asked with a hint of amusement in his voice.

Jen was stil waiting for a sign from Kristie as to what she should do. Kristie glowered at Jen for an instant, then flipped her sandy hair out of her face and darted to stand on Riley's other side.

"That took too long to decide," Riley said seriously. "We don't have the luxury of time. We don't get to fool around anymore. I've let you al do pretty much whatever you feel like, but that ends tonight."

He looked around the room, meeting everyone's eyes, making sure we were listening. I held his gaze for only a second when it was my turn, and then my eyes flipped back to the door. I corrected instantly, but his glare had moved on. I wondered if he'd noticed my slip. Or had he seen me at al, here beside Fred?

"We have an enemy," Riley announced. He let that sink in for a moment. I could tel the idea was shocking to several of the vampires in the basement. The enemy was Raoul – or if you were with Raoul, the enemy was Kristie. The enemy was here, because the whole world was here. The thought that there were other forces out there strong enough to affect us was new for most. Would have been new to me, too, yesterday.

"A few of you might be smart enough to have realized that if we exist, so do other vampires. Other vampires who are older, smarter… more talented. Other vampires who want our blood!"

Raoul hissed, and then several of his fol owers echoed him in support.

"That's right," Riley said, seeming intent on egging them on.

"Seattle was once theirs, but they moved on a long time ago. Now they know about us, and they are jealous of the easy blood they used to have here. They know it belongs to us now, but they want to take it back. They are coming after what they want. One by one, they'l hunt us down! We'l burn while they feast!"

"Never," Kristie growled. Some of hers and some of Raoul's growled, too.

"We don't have a lot of choices," Riley told us. "If we wait for them to show up here, they wil have the advantage. This is their turf, after al . And they don't want to face us head-on, because we outnumber them and we are stronger than they are. They want to catch us separated; they want to take advantage of our biggest weakness. Are any of you smart enough to know what that is?" He pointed at the ashes at his feet – now smeared into the carpet and unrecognizable as a former vampire – and waited.

No one moved.

Riley made a disgusted sound. "Unity!" he shouted. "We don't have it! What kind of a threat can we pose when we won't stop kil ing each other?" He kicked the dust, sending up a smal black cloud. "Can you imagine them laughing at us? They think taking the city from us wil be easy. That we're weak with stupidity! That we'l just hand them our blood."

Half the vampires in the room snarled in protest now.

"Can you work together, or do we al die?"

"We can take them, boss," Raoul growled.

Riley scowled at him. "Not if you can't control yourself! Not if you can't cooperate with every single person in this room. Anyone you take out" – his toe nudged the ashes again – "might be the one who could have kept you alive. Every one of your coven that you kil is like handing our enemies a gift. Here, you're saying, take me down! "

Kristie and Raoul exchanged a glance as if they were seeing each other for the first time. Others did the same. The word coven was not unfamiliar, but none of us had applied it to our group before. We were a coven.

"Let me tel you about our enemies," Riley said, and al eyes locked on his face. "They are a much older coven than we are. They've been around for hundreds of years, and they've survived that long for a reason. They are crafty and they are skil ed and they are coming to retake Seattle with confidence – because they've heard the only ones they'l have to fight for it are a bunch of disorganized children who wil do half their work for them!"

More growls, but some were less angry than they were wary. A few of the quieter vampires, the ones Riley would have cal ed tamer, looked skittish.

Riley noticed that, too. "This is how they see us, but that's because they can't see us together. Together, we can crush them. If they could see al of us, side by side, fighting together, they would be terrified. And that's how they're going to see us. Because we're not going to wait for them to show up here and start picking us off. We're going to ambush them. In four days."

Four days? I guessed our creator didn't want to cut it too close to the deadline. I looked at the closed door again. Where was Diego?

Others reacted to the deadline with surprise, some with fear.

"It's the last thing they'l expect," Riley assured us. "Al of us – together – waiting for them. And I've saved the best part for last. There are only seven of them."

There was an instant of incredulous silence.

Then Raoul said, "What?"

Kristie stared at Riley with the same disbelieving expression, and I heard muttered whispers around the room.

"Seven?"

"Are you kidding me?"

"Hey," Riley snapped. "I wasn't joking when I said this coven is dangerous. They are wise and… devious. Underhanded. We wil have power on our side; they wil have deception. If we play it their way, they will win. But if we take it to them on our terms…" Riley didn't finish, he just smiled.

"Let's go now," Raoul urged. "Let's get 'em out of the picture fast." Kevin growled enthusiastical y.

"Slow down, moron. Rushing into things blind isn't going to help us win," Riley chided him.

"Tel us everything we need to know about them," Kristie encouraged, shooting Raoul a superior look.

Riley hesitated, as if deciding how to word something. "Al right, where to begin? I guess the first thing you need to know is… that you don't know everything there is to know about vampires yet. I didn't want to overwhelm you in the beginning."

Another pause while everyone looked confused. "You have a little bit of experience with what we cal ��talents.' We have Fred."

Everyone looked at Fred – or rather they tried to. I could tel from Riley's expression that Fred did not like being singled out. It looked like Fred had real y turned up the volume on his

"talent," as Riley cal ed it. Riley cringed and looked away quickly. I stil didn't feel anything.

"Yes, wel, there are some vampires who have gifts beyond the usual super strength and super senses. You've seen one aspect in… our coven." He was careful not to say Fred's name again. "Gifts are rare – one in fifty, maybe – but every one is different. There's a huge range of gifts out there, and some of them are more powerful than others."

I could hear a lot of murmurs now as people wondered if they might be talented. Raoul was preening like he'd already decided he was gifted. As far as I could tel, the only one around here that was in any way special was standing next to me.

"Pay attention!" Riley commanded. "I'm not tel ing you this for entertainment."

"This enemy coven," Kristie interjected. "They're talented. Right?"

Riley gave her an approving nod. "Exactly. I'm glad someone here can connect the dots."

Raoul's upper lip twitched back over his teeth.

"This coven is dangerously talented," Riley went on, his voice dropping to a hushed whisper. "They have a mind reader."

He examined our faces, looking to see if we got the importance of this revelation. He didn't seem satisfied with his assessment.

"Think, guys! He'l know everything in your head. If you attack, he'l know what move you're going to make before you know it. You go left, he'l be waiting."

There was a nervous stil ness as everyone imagined this.

"This is why we've been so careful – me, and the one who created you."

Kristie flinched away from Riley when he mentioned her. Raoul looked angrier. Nerves strained universal y.

"You don't know her name, and you don't know what she looks like. This protects us al . If they'd stumbled across one of you alone, they wouldn't realize that you were connected to her, and they might have let you be. If they knew you were part of her coven, there would be no delay in your execution."

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