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The Short Second Life (Chapters 11)

That didn't make sense to me. Didn't the secrecy protect her more than it protected any of us? Riley hurried on before we had too long to examine his statement.

"Of course, it doesn't matter now that they've decided to move on Seattle. We wil surprise them on their way in, and we wil annihilate them." He whistled a single low note through his teeth. "Done. And then not only is the city al ours, other covens wil know not to mess with us. We won't have to be so careful to cover our tracks anymore. As much blood as you want, for everyone. Hunting every night. We'l move right into the city, and we will rule it."

The growls and snarls were like applause. Everyone was with him. Except for me. I didn't move, didn't make a sound. Neither did Fred, but who knows why that was?

I was not with Riley because his promises sounded like lies. Or else my whole line of logic had been wrong. Riley said it was only these enemies that kept us from hunting without caution or restraint. But that didn't go along with the fact that al other vampires must have been discreet, or humans would have known about them long ago.

I couldn't concentrate to work it out, because the door at the top of the stairs had not moved. Diego…

"We have to do this together, though. Today I'm going to lead you through some techniques. Fighting techniques. There's more to this than just scuffling around on the floor like toddlers. When it gets dark, we'l go outside and practice. I want you to practice hard, but keep your focus. I am not losing another member of this coven! We al need each other – every one of us. I wil not tolerate any more stupidity. If you think you don't have to listen to me, you are wrong." He paused for a short second, the muscles in his face shifting into a new arrangement. "And you wil learn how wrong you are when I take you to her" – I shuddered and felt the tremor through the room as everyone else did, too – "and hold you while she tears off your legs and then slowly, slowly burns off your fingers, ears, lips, tongue, and every other superfluous appendage one by one."

We'd al lost a limb, at least, and we'd al burned when we became vampires, so we could easily imagine how that would feel, but it wasn't the threat itself that was so terrifying. The truly scary thing was Riley's face as he said it. His face was not twisted in rage, the way it usual y was when he was angry; it was calm and cold, smooth and beautiful, his mouth curled at the edges into a smal smile. I suddenly had the impression that this was a new Riley. Something had changed him, hardened him, but I couldn't imagine what could have happened in one night to create that cruel, perfect smile.

I looked away, shivering a little, and saw as Raoul's smile shifted to echo Riley's. I could almost see the gears turning in Raoul's head. He wouldn't kil his victims so quickly in the future.

"Now, let's get some teams figured out so that we can work in groups," Riley said, his face normal again. "Kristie, Raoul, get your kids together and then divvy up the rest evenly. No fighting!

Show me you can do this rational y. Prove yourselves."

He walked away from those two, ignoring the fact that they fel almost immediately into bickering, and made an arc around the outside edge of the room. He touched a few vampires on the shoulder as he passed, nudging them toward one of the new leaders or the other. I didn't realize at first that he was heading in my direction, because he took such a wide way around.

"Bree," he said, squinting toward where I stood. It looked like this took some effort.

I felt like a block of ice. He must have smel ed my trail. I was dead.

"Bree?" he said, softer now. His voice reminded me of the first time he'd talked to me. When he was nice to me. And then even lower, "I promised Diego I'd give you a message. He said to tel you it was a ninja thing. Does that make any sense to you?"

He stil couldn't look at me, but he was edging closer.

"Diego?" I murmured. I couldn't help myself.

Riley smiled a tiny bit. "Can we talk?" He jerked his head toward the door. "I double-checked al the windows. The first floor is total y dark and safe."

I knew I wouldn't be as safe once I walked away from Fred, but I had to hear what Diego had wanted to tel me. What had happened? I should have stayed with him to meet Riley. I fol owed Riley through the room, keeping my head down. He gave Raoul a few instructions, nodded to Kristie, and then went up the stairs. From the corners of my eyes I saw a few people curiously watch the direction he was going. Riley passed through the door first, and the kitchen of the home was, as he'd promised, total y black. He motioned for me to keep fol owing and led me through a dark hal past a few open bedroom doors, then through another door with a dead bolt. We ended up in the garage.

"You're brave," he commented in a very low voice. "Or real y trusting. I thought it would be more work to get you upstairs with the sun up."

Whoops. I should have been more skittish. Too late now. I shrugged.

"So you and Diego are pretty tight, right?" he asked, just breathing the words. Probably, if everyone were silent in the basement, they would stil be able to hear him, but it was pretty noisy down there right now.

I shrugged again. "He saved my life," I whispered. Riley lifted his chin, almost but not quite a nod, and appraised. Did he believe me? Did he think I stil feared the day?

"He's the best," Riley said. "The smartest kid I've got."

I nodded once.

"We had a little meeting about the situation. We agreed that we need some surveil ance. Going in blind is too dangerous. He's the only one I trust to scout ahead." He exhaled, almost angrily. "Wish I had two of him! Raoul's got too short a fuse and Kristie is too self-absorbed to get the big picture, but they're the best I've got, and I'l have to make do. Diego said you were smart, too."

I waited, not sure how much of our story Riley knew.

"I need your help with Fred. Wow, that kid is strong! I couldn't even look at him tonight."

I nodded cautiously again.

"Imagine if our enemies can't even look at us. It wil be so easy!"

I didn't think Fred would like that idea, but maybe I was wrong. He didn't seem like he cared anything for this coven of ours. Would he want to save us? I didn't respond to Riley.

"You spend a lot of time with him."

I shrugged. "Nobody bothers me there. It's not easy."

Riley pursed his lips and nodded. "Smart, like Diego said."

"Where is Diego?"

I shouldn't have asked. The words just ripped out of their own accord. I waited anxiously, trying to look indifferent and most likely failing.

"We don't have time to waste. I sent him south the second I found out what was coming. If our enemies decide to attack early, we need the advance warning. Diego wil meet up with us when we move against them."

I tried to imagine where Diego was now. I wished I were there with him. Maybe I could talk him out of doing Riley's bidding and putting himself in the line of fire in the process. But maybe not. It seemed like Diego was thick with Riley, just like I'd worried.

"Diego wanted me to tel you something."

My eyes snapped to his face. Too fast, too eager. Blew it again.

"Sounded like nonsense to me. He said, ��Tel Bree I've got the handshake figured out. I'l show her in four days, when we meet up.' I have no idea what that means. Do you?"

I tried to force a poker face. "Maybe. He did say something about needing a secret handshake. For his underwater cave. Some kind of password. He was just kidding around, though. I'm not sure what he means now."

Riley chuckled. "Poor Diego."

"What?"

"I think that kid likes you a lot more than you like him."

"Oh." I looked away, confused. Was Diego giving me this message as a way to let me know I could trust Riley? But he hadn't told Riley I knew about the sun. Stil, he must have trusted Riley to tel him so much, to show Riley that he cared about me. I thought it would be wiser to keep my mouth shut, though. Too much had changed.

"Don't write him off yet, Bree. He's the best, like I said. Give him a chance."

Riley was giving me romantic advice? This could not get weirder. I bobbed my head once and muttered, "Sure."

"See if you can talk to Fred. Make sure he's on board."

I shrugged. "I'l do what I can."

Riley smiled. "Great. I'l pul you aside before we leave, and you can tel me how it went. I'l keep it casual, not like tonight. I don't want him to feel like I'm spying on him."

"Okay."

Riley motioned for me to fol ow and then headed back to the basement.

The training lasted al day, but I wasn't part of it. After Riley went back to his team leaders, I took my spot beside Fred. The others had been divided up into four groups of four, with Raoul and Kristie directing them. No one had picked Fred for a side, or maybe he'd ignored them, or maybe they couldn't even see that he was there. I could stil see him. He stood out – the only one not participating, a big blond elephant in the room. I had no desire to insinuate myself into either Raoul's team or Kristie's, so I just watched. No one seemed to notice that I was sitting out with Fred. Though we must have been somewhat invisible, thanks to talented Fred, I felt horribly obvious. I wished I were invisible to myself – that I could see the il usion so that I could trust it. But no one noticed us, and after a while I could almost relax.

I watched the practicing closely. I wanted to know everything, just in case. I wasn't planning on fighting; I was planning on finding Diego and making a break for it. But what if Diego wanted to fight? Or what if we had to fight to get away from the rest? Better to pay attention.

Only once did anyone ask about Diego. It was Kevin, but I had a sense that Raoul had put him up to it.

"So, did Diego end up getting fried after al ?" Kevin asked in a forced joking tone.

"Diego's with her," Riley said, and no one had to ask who he meant. "Surveil ance."

A few people shuddered. No one said anything more about Diego.

Was he real y with her? I cringed at the thought. Maybe Riley was just saying that to keep people from questioning him. He probably didn't want Raoul getting jealous and feeling second best when Riley needed him at his most arrogant today. I couldn't be sure, and I wasn't going to ask. I kept quiet, as usual, and watched the training.

In the end, watching was boring, thirsty work. Riley didn't give his army a break for three days and two nights straight. During the daytime it was harder to stay out of the mix – we al were crammed so tightly into the basement. It made things easier in one way for Riley – he could usual y catch a fight before it got ugly. Outside at night, they had more room to real y work around each other, but Riley was kept busy darting back and forth to catch limbs and get them back to their owners quickly. He kept his temper wel, and he'd been smart enough to find al the lighters this time. I would have bet that this would spin out of control, that we'd lose at least a couple of coven members with Raoul and Kristie skirmishing head to head for days on end. But Riley had better control of them than I had thought possible.

Stil, it was mostly repetition. I noticed Riley saying the same things over and over and over again. Work together, watch your back, don't go at her head-on; work together, watch your back, don't go at him head-on; work together, watch your back, don't go at her head-on. It was kind of ridiculous, real y, and made the group seem exceptional y stupid. But I was sure I would have been just as stupid if I'd been in the thick of the fight with them rather than watching calmly from the sidelines with Fred. It reminded me in a way of how Riley had dril ed into us our fear of the sun. Constant repetition.

Stil, it was so dul that after about ten hours that first day, Fred produced a deck of cards and started playing solitaire. That was more interesting than watching the same mistakes over and over again, so I mostly watched him.

After about another twelve hours – we were inside again – I nudged Fred to point out a red five that he could move over. He nodded and made the change. After that hand, he dealt out the cards to both of us, and we played rummy. We never spoke, but Fred smiled a few times. No one ever looked our way or asked us to join in.

There were no hunting breaks, and as time went on, this got harder and harder to ignore. Fights broke out more regularly and with less provocation. Riley's commands got more shril, and he tore off two arms himself. I tried to forget the burning thirst as much as possible – after al, Riley must have been getting thirsty, too, so this couldn't last forever – but mostly thirst was the only thing on my mind. Fred was looking pretty strained. Early into the third night – one more day to go, and when I thought about the ticking clock it tied my empty stomach into knots – Riley cal ed al the mock fights to a halt.

"Round it up, kids," he told us, and everyone moved into a loose half-circle facing him. The original gangs al stood close together, so the practicing hadn't changed any of those al iances. Fred put the cards in his back pocket and stood up. I stood close to his side, counting on his repulsive aura to hide me.

"You've done wel ," Riley told us. "Tonight, you get a reward. Drink up, because tomorrow you're going to want your strength.

"

Snarls of relief from almost everyone.

"I say want and not need for a reason," Riley went on. "I think you guys have got this. You've stayed smart and worked hard. Our enemies aren't going to know what's hit them!"

Kristie and Raoul growled, and both of their companies fol owed suit immediately. I was surprised to see it, but they did look like an army in that moment. Not that they were marching in formation or anything, but there was just something uniform about the response. Like they al were part of one big organism. As always, Fred and I were the glaring exceptions, but I thought only Riley was even the slightest bit aware of us – every now and then his eyes would scan across where we were standing, almost like he was checking to make sure he stil felt Fred's talent. And Riley didn't seem to mind that we weren't joining up. For now, anyway.

"Um, you mean tomorrow night, right, boss?" Raoul clarified.

"Right," Riley said with a strange little smile. It didn't seem like anyone else noticed anything off in his reply – except for Fred. He looked down at me with one eyebrow raised. I shrugged.

"You ready for your reward?" Riley asked.

His little army roared in response.

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