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The Short Second Life (Chapters 8)

"I think we should fol ow Riley. Find out what he's doing."

I stared. "But he'l know we tracked him. He'l catch our scents."

"I know. This is how I figure it. I fol ow his scent. You keep clear by a few hundred yards and fol ow my sound. Then Riley only knows I fol owed him, and I can tel him it's because I had something important to share. That's when I do the big reveal with the disco bal effect. And I'l see what he says." His eyes narrowed as he examined me. "But you… you just play it close to the chest for now, okay? I'l tel you if he's cool about it."

"What if he comes back early from wherever he's going?

Don't you want it to be close to dawn so you can glitter?"

"Yes… that's definitely a possible problem. And it might affect the way the conversation goes. But I think we should risk it. He seemed like he was in a hurry tonight, didn't he? Like maybe he needs al night for whatever he's doing?"

"Maybe. Or maybe he was just in a big hurry to see her. You know, we might not want to surprise him if she's nearby." We both winced.

"True. Stil …" He frowned. "Doesn't it feel like whatever's coming is getting close? Like we might not have forever to figure this out?"

I nodded unhappily. "Yeah, it does."

"So let's take our chances. Riley trusts me, and I have a good reason for wanting to talk to him."

I thought about this strategy. Though I'd only known him for a day, real y, I was stil aware that this level of paranoia was out of character for Diego.

"This elaborate plan of yours…," I said.

"What about it?" he asked.

"It sounds kind of like a solo plan. Not so much a club adventure. At least, not when it comes to the dangerous part."

He made a face that told me I'd caught him.

"This is my idea. I'm the one who…" He hesitated, having trouble with the next word. "… trusts Riley. I'm the only one who's going to risk getting on his bad side if I'm wrong."

Chicken as I was, this didn't fly with me. "Clubs don't work that way."

He nodded, his expression unclear. "Okay, we'l think about it as we go."

I didn't think he real y meant it.

"Stay in the trees, track me from above, 'kay?" he said.

"Okay."

He headed back toward the log cabin, moving fast. I fol owed through the branches, most of them so close-packed that I only rarely had to real y leap from one tree to another. I kept my movements as smal as possible, hoping that the bending of the boughs under my weight would just look like wind. It was a breezy night, which would help. It was cold for summer, not that the temperature bothered me.

Diego caught Riley's scent outside the house without trouble and then loped after it quickly while I trailed several yards back and about a hundred yards north, higher on the slope than he was. When the trees were real y thick, he'd rustle a trunk now and again so I wouldn't lose him.

We kept on, with him running and me impersonating a flying squirrel, for only fifteen minutes or so before I saw Diego slow down. We must have been getting close. I moved higher in the branches, looking for a tree with a good view. I scaled one that towered over its neighbors, and scanned the scene. Less than half a mile away was a large gap in the trees, an open field that covered several acres. Near the center of the space, closer to the trees on its east side, was what looked like an oversized gingerbread house. Painted bright pink, green, and white, it was elaborate to the point of ridiculousness, with fancy trim and finials on every conceivable edge. It was the kind of thing I would have laughed at in a more relaxed situation. Riley was nowhere in sight, but Diego had come to a complete stop below, so I assumed this was the end point of our pursuit. Maybe this was the replacement house Riley was preparing for when the big log cabin crumbled. Except that it was smal er than any of the other houses we'd stayed in, and it didn't look like it had a basement. And it was even farther away from Seattle than the last one.

Diego looked up at me, and I signaled for him to join me. He nodded and retraced his trail a little ways. Then he made an enormous leap – I wondered if I could have jumped that high, even as young and strong as I was – and caught a branch about halfway up the closest tree. Unless someone was being extraordinarily vigilant, no one ever would have noticed that Diego'd made a side trip off his path. Even stil, he jumped around in the treetops, making sure his trail did not lead directly to mine.

When he final y decided it was safe to join me, he took my hand right away. Silently, I nodded toward the gingerbread house. One corner of his mouth twitched.

Simultaneously we started edging toward the east side of the house, keeping high up in the trees. We got as close as we dared – leaving a few trees as cover between the house and ourselves – and then sat silently, listening.

The breeze turned helpful y gentle, and we could hear something. Strange little brushing, ticking sounds. At first I didn't recognize what I was hearing, but then Diego twitched another little smile, puckered his lips, and silently kissed the air in my direction.

Kissing didn't sound the same with vampires as it did with humans. No soft, fleshy, liquid-fil ed cel s to squish against each other. Just stone lips, no give. I had heard one kiss between vampires before – Diego's touch to my lips last night – but I never would have made the connection. It was so far from what I'd expected to find here.

This knowledge spun everything around in my head. I had assumed Riley was going to see her, whether to receive instructions or bring her new recruits, I didn't know. But I had never imagined stumbling across some kind of… love nest. How could Riley kiss her? I shuddered and glanced at Diego. He looked faintly horrified, too, but he shrugged. I thought back to that last night of humanity, flinching as I remembered the vivid burning. I tried to recal the moments just before that, through al the fuzziness…. First there was the creeping fear that had built as Riley pul ed up to the dark house, the feeling of safety I'd had in the bright burger joint dissolving entirely. I was holding back, edging away, and then he'd grabbed my arm with a steel grip and yanked me out of the car like I was a dol, weightless. Terror and disbelief as he'd leaped the ten yards to the door. Terror and then pain leaving no room for disbelief as he broke my arm dragging me through the door into the black house. And then the voice.

As I focused on the memory, I could hear it again. High and singsong, like a little girl's, but grouchy. A child throwing a tantrum.

I remembered what she'd said. "Why did you even bring this one? It's too smal ." Something close to that, I thought. The words might not be exactly right, but that was the meaning. I was sure Riley had sounded eager to please when he answered, afraid of disappointing. "But she's another body. Another distraction, at least."

I think I'd whimpered then, and he'd shaken me painful y, but he hadn't spoken to me again. It was like I was a dog, not a person.

"This whole night has been a waste," the child's voice had complained. "I've kil ed them al . Ugh!"

I remembered that the house had shuddered then, as if a car had col ided with the frame. I realized now that she'd probably just kicked something in frustration.

"Fine. I guess even a little one is better than nothing, if this is the best you can do. And I'm so ful now I should be able to stop."

Riley's hard fingers had disappeared then and left me alone with the voice. I'd been too panicked at that point to make a sound. I'd just closed my eyes, though I was already total y blind in the darkness. I didn't scream until something cut into my neck, burning like a blade coated in acid.

I cringed back from the memory, trying to push the next part from my mind. Instead I concentrated on that short conversation. She hadn't sounded like she was talking to her lover or even her friend. More like she was talking to an employee. One she didn't like much and might fire soon.

But the strange vampire kissing sounds continued. Someone sighed in contentment.

I frowned at Diego. This exchange didn't tel us much. How long did we need to stay?

He just held his head on the side, listening careful y. And after a few more minutes of patience, the low, romantic sounds were suddenly interrupted.

"How many?"

The voice was muted by distance, but stil distinct. And recognizable. High, almost a tril . Like a spoiled young girl.

"Twenty-two," Riley answered, sounding proud. Diego and I exchanged a sharp glance. There were twenty-two of us, at last count, anyway. They must be talking about us.

"I thought I'd lost two more to the sun, but one of my older kids is… obedient," Riley continued. There was almost an affectionate sound to his voice when he spoke of Diego as one of his kids. "He has an underground place – he hid himself with the younger one."

"Are you sure?"

There was a long pause, this time with no sounds of romance. Even from this distance, I thought I could feel some tension.

"Yeah. He's a good kid, I'm sure."

Another strained pause. I didn't understand her question. What did she mean, are you sure? Did she think he'd heard the story from someone else rather than seeing Diego for himself?

"Twenty-two is good," she mused, and the tension seemed to dissolve. "How is their behavior developing? Some of them are almost a year old. Do they stil fol ow the normal patterns?"

"Yes," Riley said. "Everything you told me to do worked flawlessly. They don't think – they just do what they've always done. I can always distract them with thirst. It keeps them under control."

I frowned at Diego. Riley didn't want us to think. Why?

"You've done so wel ," our creator cooed, and there was another kiss. "Twenty-two!"

"Is it time?" Riley asked eagerly.

Her answer came back fast, like a slap. "No! I haven't decided when."

"I don't understand."

"You don't need to. It's enough for you to know that our enemies have great powers. We cannot be too careful." Her voice softened, turned sugary again. "But al twenty-two stil alive. Even with what they are capable of… what good wil it be against twenty-two?" She let out a tinkling little laugh. Diego and I had not looked away from each other throughout al this, and I could see in his eyes now that his thoughts were the same as mine. Yes, we'd been created for a purpose, as we'd guessed. We had an enemy. Or, our creator had an enemy. Did the distinction matter?

"Decisions, decisions," she muttered. "Not yet. Maybe one more handful, just to be sure."

"Adding more might actual y decrease our numbers," Riley cautioned hesitantly, as if being careful not to upset her. "It's always unstable when a new group is introduced."

"True," she agreed, and I imagined Riley sighing in relief that she was not upset.

Abruptly Diego looked away from me, staring out across the meadow. I hadn't heard any movement from the house, but maybe she had come out. My head whipped around at the same time the rest of me turned to a statue, and I saw what had startled Diego.

Four figures were crossing the open field to the house. They had entered the clearing from the west, the point farthest from where we hid. They al wore long, dark cloaks with deep hoods, so at first I thought they were people. Weird people, but just humans al the same, because none of the vampires I knew had matching Goth clothes. And none moved in a way that was so smooth and control ed and… elegant. But then I realized that none of the humans I'd ever seen could move that way, either, and what's more, they couldn't do it so quietly. The dark-cloaks skimmed across the long grass in absolute silence. So either these were vampires, or they were something else supernatural. Ghosts, maybe. But if they were vampires, they were vampires I didn't know, and that meant they might very wel be these enemies she was talking about. If so, we should get the hel out of Dodge right now, because we didn't have twenty other vampires on our side at the moment.

I almost took off then, but I was too afraid to draw the attention of the cloaked figures.

So I watched them move smoothly forward, noticing other things about them. How they stayed in a perfect diamond formation that never was the slightest bit out of line no matter how the terrain changed under their feet. How the one at the point of the diamond was much smal er than the others, and its cloak was darker, too. How they didn't seem to be tracking their way in – not trying to fol ow the path of any scent. They simply knew their way. Maybe they were invited.

They moved directly toward the house, and I felt like it might be safe to breathe again when they started silently up the steps toward the front door. They weren't coming straight for Diego and me, at least. When they were out of sight, we could disappear into the sound of the next breeze through the trees, and they would never know we'd been here.

I looked at Diego and twitched my head slightly toward the way we'd come. He narrowed his eyes and held up one finger. Oh great, he wanted to stay. I rol ed my eyes at him, though I was so afraid, I was surprised I was capable of sarcasm. We both looked back to the house. The cloaked things had let themselves in silently, but I realized that neither she nor Riley had spoken since we'd caught sight of the visitors. They must have heard something or known in some other way that they were in danger.

"Don't bother," a very clear, monotone voice commanded lazily. It was not as high-pitched as our creator's, but it stil sounded girlish to me. "I think you know who we are, so you must know that there is no point in trying to surprise us. Or hide from us. Or fight us. Or run."

A deep, masculine chuckle that did not belong to Riley echoed menacingly through the house.

"Relax," instructed the first inflectionless voice – the cloaked girl. Her voice had that distinctive ring that made me certain she was a vampire, not a ghost or any other kind of nightmare.

"We're not here to destroy you. Yet."

There was a moment of silence, and then some barely audible movements. A shifting of positions.

"If you are not here to kil us, then… what?" our creator asked, strained and shril .

"We seek to know your intentions here. Specifical y, if they involve… a certain local clan," the cloaked girl explained. "We wonder if they have anything to do with the mayhem you've created here. Illegally created."

Diego and I frowned simultaneously. None of this made sense, but the last part was the weirdest. What could be il egal for vampires? What cop, what judge, what prison could have power over us?

"Yes," our creator hissed. "My plans are all about them. But we can't move yet. It's tricky." A petulant note crept into her voice at the end.

true

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