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Midnight Rising (Chapter One)

The woman looked completely out of place in her pristine white blouse and tailored ivory pants. Long, coffee-dark hair cascaded over her shoulders in thick waves, not a single strand disturbed by the moist haze that hung in the air of the forest. She was wearing tall elegant heels, which hadn't seemed to keep her from climbing up a wooded path that had the other hikers around her huffing in the humid July heat.

At the crest of the steep incline, she waited in the shade of a bulky, moss-covered rock formation, unblinking as half a dozen tourists passed her by, some of them snapping pictures of the overlook beyond. They didn't notice her. But then, most people couldn't see the dead.

Dylan Alexander didn't want to see her either.

She hadn't encountered a dead woman since she was twelve years old. That she would see one now, twenty years later and in the middle of the Czech Republic, was more than a little startling. She tried to ignore the apparition, but as Dylan and her three traveling companions made their way up the path, the woman's dark eyes found her and rooted on her.

You see me.

Dylan pretended not to hear the static-filled whisper that came from the ghost's unmoving lips. She didn't want to acknowledge the connection. She'd gone so long without one of these weird encounters that she'd all but forgotten what it was like.

Dylan had never understood her strange ability to see the dead. She'd never been able to trust it or control it. She could stand in the middle of a cemetery and see nothing, then suddenly find herself up close and personal with one of the departed, as she was here in the mountains about an hour outside Prague.

The ghosts were always female. Generally youthful-looking and vibrant, like the one who stared at her now with an unmistakable desperation in her exotic, deep brown gaze.

You must hear me.

The statement was tinged with a rich, Hispanic accent, the tone pleading.

"Hey, Dylan. Come here and let me get a picture of you next to this rock."

The sound of a true, earthly voice jolted Dylan's attention away from the beautiful dead woman standing in the nearby arch of weathered sandstone. Janet, a friend of Dylan's mother, Sharon, dug into her backpack and pulled out a camera. The summer tour to Europe was Sharon's idea; it would have been her last great adventure, but the cancer came back in March and the final round of chemotherapy several weeks ago had left her too weak to travel. More recently, Sharon had been in and out of the hospital with pneumonia, and at her insistence Dylan had taken the trip in her place.

"Gotcha," Janet said, clicking off a shot of Dylan and the towering pillars of rock in the wooded valley below. "Your mom sure would love this place, honey. Isn't it breathtaking?"

Dylan nodded. "We'll e-mail her the pictures tonight when we get back to the hotel."

She led her group away from the rock, eager to leave the whispering, otherworldly presence behind. They walked down a sloping ridge, into a stand of thin-trunked pines growing in tight formation. Russet leaves and conifer needles from seasons past crushed on the damp path underfoot. It had rained that morning, topped off with a sweltering heat that kept many of the area's tourists away.

The forest was quiet, peaceful…except for the awareness of ghostly eyes following Dylan's every step deeper into the woods.

"I'm so glad your boss let you have the time off to come with us," added one of the women from behind her on the path. "I know how hard you work at the paper, making up all those stories – "

"She doesn't make them up, Marie," Janet chided gently. "There's got to be some truth in Dylan's articles or they couldn't print them. Isn't that right, honey?"

Dylan scoffed. "Well, considering that our front page usually runs at least one alien abduction or demonic possession account, we don't tend to let facts get in the way of a good story. We publish entertainment pieces, not hard-hitting journalism."

"Your mom says you're going to be a famous reporter one day," Marie said. "A budding Woodward or Bernstein, that's what she says."

"That's right," Janet put in. "You know, she showed me an article you wrote during your first newspaper job fresh out of college – you were covering some nasty murder case upstate. You remember, don't you, honey?"

"Yeah," Dylan said, navigating them toward another massive cluster of soaring sandstone towers that rose out of the trees. "I remember. But that was a long time ago."

"Well, no matter what you do, I know that your mom is very proud of you," Marie said. "You've brought a lot of joy into her life."

Dylan nodded, struggling to find her voice. "Thanks."

Both Janet and Marie worked with her mother at the runaway center in Brooklyn. Nancy, the other member of their travel group, had been Sharon's best friend since high school. All three of the women had become like extended family to Dylan in the past few months. Three extra pairs of comforting arms, which she was really going to need if she ever lost her mom.

In her heart, Dylan knew it was more a matter of when than if.

For so long, it had been just the two of them. Her father had been absent since Dylan was a kid, not that he'd been much of a father when he was present. Her two older brothers were gone too, one of them dead in a car accident, the other having cut all family ties when he joined the service years ago. Dylan and her mom had been left to pick up the pieces, and so they had, each there to lift the other one up when she was down, or to celebrate even the smallest triumphs.

Dylan couldn't bear to think of how empty her life would be without her mom.

Nancy came up and gave Dylan a warm, if sad, smile. "It means the world to Sharon that you would experience the trip for her. You're living it for her, you know?"

"I know. I wouldn't have missed it for anything."

Dylan hadn't told her travel companions – or her mother – that taking off for two weeks on such short notice was probably going to cost her her job. Part of her didn't really care. She hated working for the cut-rate tabloid anyway. She'd attempted to sell her boss on the idea that she was sure to return from Europe with some decent material – maybe a Bohemian Bigfoot story, or a Dracula sighting out of Romania.

But selling bullshit to a guy who peddled it for a living was no easy task. Her boss had been pretty clear about his expectations: if Dylan left on this trip, she'd better come back with something big, or she didn't need to come back at all.

"Whooee, it's hot up here," Janet said, sweeping her baseball cap off her short silver curls and running her palm over her brow. "Am I the only wimp in this crowd, or would anyone else like to rest for a little bit?"

"I could use a break," Nancy agreed.

She shrugged off her backpack and set it down on the ground beneath a tall pine tree. Marie joined them, moving off the path and taking a long pull from her water bottle.

Dylan wasn't the least bit tired. She wanted to keep moving. The most impressive climbs and rock formations were still ahead of them. They had only scheduled one day for this part of the trip, and Dylan wanted to cover as much ground as she could.

And then there was the matter of the beautiful dead woman who now stood ahead of them on the path. She stared at Dylan, her energy fading in and out of visible form.

See me.

Dylan glanced away. Janet, Marie, and Nancy were seated on the ground, nibbling on protein bars and trail mix.

"Want some?" Janet asked, holding out a plastic zipper bag of dried fruit, nuts, and seeds.

Dylan shook her head. "I'm too antsy to rest or eat right now. If you don't mind, I think I'm going to take a quick look around on my own while you all hang out here. I'll come right back."

"Sure, honey. Your legs are younger than ours after all. Just be careful."

"I will. Be back soon."

Dylan avoided the spot where the dead woman's image flickered up ahead. Instead, she cut off the established trail and onto the densely wooded hillside. She walked for a few minutes, simply enjoying the tranquility of the place. There was an ancient, wildly mysterious quality to the jutting peaks of sandstone and basalt. Dylan paused to take pictures, hoping she could capture some of the beauty for her mother to enjoy.

Hear me.

At first Dylan didn't see the woman, only heard the broken-static sound of her spectral voice. But then, a flash of white caught her eye. She was farther up the incline, standing on a ridge of stone halfway up one of the steep crags.

Follow me.

"Bad idea," Dylan murmured, eyeing the tricky slope. The grade was fierce, the path uncertain at best. And even though the view from up there was probably spectacular, she really had no desire to join her ghostly new friend on the Other Side.

Please…help him.

Help him?

"Help who?" she asked, knowing the spirit couldn't hear her.

They never could. Communication with her kind was always a one-way street. They simply appeared when they wished, and said what they wished – if they spoke at all. Then, when it became too hard for them to hold their visible form, they just faded away.

Help him.

The woman in white started going transparent up on the mountainside. Dylan shielded her eyes from the hazy light pouring down through the trees, trying to keep her in sight. With a bit of apprehension, she began the trudge upward, using the tight growth of pines and beech to help her over the roughest of the terrain.

By the time she clambered up onto the ridge where the apparition had been standing, the woman was gone. Dylan carefully walked the ledge of rock, and found that it was wider than it appeared from below. The sandstone was weathered dark from the elements, dark enough that a deep vertical slit in the rock had been invisible to her until now.

It was from within that narrow wedge of lightless space that Dylan heard the detached, ghostly whisper once again.

Save him.

She looked around her and saw only wilderness and rock. There was no one up here. Now, not even a trace of the ethereal figure who lured her this far up the mountain alone.

Dylan turned her head to look into the gloom of the rock's crevice. She put her hand into the space and felt cool, damp air skate over her skin.

Inside that deep black cleft, it was still and quiet.

As quiet as a tomb.

If Dylan was the type to believe in creepy folklore monsters, she might have imagined one could live in a hidden spot like this. But she didn't believe in monsters, never had. Aside from seeing the occasional dead person, who'd never caused her any harm, Dylan was about as practical – even cynical – as could be.

It was the reporter in her that made her curious to know what she might truly find inside the rock. Assuming you could trust the word of a dead woman, who did she think needed help? Was someone injured in there? Could someone have gotten lost way up here on this steep crag?

Dylan grabbed a small flashlight from an outer pocket of her backpack. She shined it into the opening, noticing just then that there were vague chisel marks around and within the crevice, as if someone had worked to widen it. Although not any time recently, based on the weathered edges of the tool's marks.

"Hello?" she called into the darkness. "Is anyone in here?"

Nothing but silence answered.

Dylan pulled off her backpack and carried it in one hand, her other hand wrapped around the slim barrel of her flashlight. Walking forward she could barely fit through the crevice; anyone larger than her would have been forced to go in sideways.

The tight squeeze only lasted a short distance before the space angled around and began to open up. Suddenly she was inside the thick rock of the mountain, her light beam bouncing off smooth, rounded walls. It was a cave – an empty one, except for some bats rustling out of a disturbed sleep overhead.

And from the look of it, the space was mostly manmade. The ceiling rose at least twenty feet over Dylan's head. Interesting symbols were painted on each wall of the small cavern. They looked like some odd sort of hieroglyphics: a cross between bold tribal markings and interlocking, gracefully geometric patterns.

Dylan walked closer to one of the walls, mesmerized by the beauty of the strange artwork. She panned the small beam of her flashlight to the right, breathless to find the elaborate decoration continuing all around her. She took a step toward the center of the cave. The toe of her hiking boot knocked into something on the earthen floor. Whatever it was clattered hollowly as it rolled away. Dylan swept her light over the ground and gasped.

Oh, shit.

It was a skull. White bone glowed against the darkness, the human head staring up at her with sightless, vacant sockets.

If this was the him the dead woman wanted Dylan to help out, it looked like she got there about a hundred years too late.

Dylan moved the light farther into the gloom, unsure what she was searching for, but too fascinated to leave just yet. The beam skidded over another set of bones – Jesus, more aged human remains scattered on the floor of the cave.

Goose bumps prickled on Dylan's arms from a draft that seemed to rise out of nowhere.

And that's when she saw it.

A large rectangular block of stone sat on the other side of the darkness. More markings like the ones covering the walls were painted onto the carved bulk of the object.

Dylan didn't have to move closer to realize that she was looking at a crypt. A thick slab had been placed over the top of the tomb. It was moved aside, skewed slightly off the stone crypt as if pushed away by incredibly strong hands.

Was someone – or something – laid to rest in there?

Dylan had to know.

She crept forward, flashlight gripped in suddenly perspiring fingers. A few paces away now, Dylan angled the beam into the opening of the tomb.

It was empty.

And for reasons she couldn't explain, that thought chilled her even more than if she'd found some hideous corpse turning to dust inside.

Over her head, the cave's nocturnal residents were getting restless. The bats stirred, then bolted past her in a hurried rush of motion. Dylan ducked to let them pass, figuring she'd better get the hell out of there too.

As she pivoted to find the crevice exit, she heard another rustle of movement. This one was bigger than bats, a low snarl of sound followed by a disturbance of loose rock somewhere in the cave.

Oh, God. Maybe she wasn't alone in here after all.

The hairs at the back of her neck tingled and before she could remind herself that she didn't believe in monsters, her heart started beating in overdrive.

She fumbled around for the way out of the cave, her pulse jackhammering in her ears. By the time she found daylight, she was gasping for air. Her legs felt rubbery as she scrambled back down the ridge, then raced to rejoin her friends in the safety of the bright midday sun below.

He'd been dreaming of Eva again.

It wasn't enough that the female had betrayed him in life – now, in her death, she invaded his mind while he slept. Still beautiful, still treacherous, she spoke to him of regret and how she wanted to make things right.

All lies.

Eva's visiting ghost was only a part of Rio's long slide into madness.

His dead mate wept in his dreams, begging him to forgive her for the deception she'd orchestrated a year ago. She was sorry. She still loved him, and always would.

She wasn't real. Just a taunting reminder of a past he would be glad to leave behind.

Trusting the female had cost him much. His face had been ruined in the warehouse explosion. His body was broken in places, still recovering from injuries that would have killed a mortal man.

And his mind…?

Rio's sanity had been fracturing apart, bit by bit, worsening in the time he'd been holed up alone on this Bohemian mountainside.

He could bring it all to a halt. As one of the Breed – a hybrid race of humans bearing vampiric, alien genes – he could drag himself into the sunlight and let the UV rays devour him. He'd considered doing just that, but there remained the task of closing the cave and destroying the damning evidence it contained.

He didn't know how long he'd been there. The days and nights, weeks and months, had at some point merged into an endless suspension of time. He wasn't sure how it had happened. He'd arrived there with his brethren of the Order. The warriors had been on a mission to locate and destroy an old evil secreted away in the rocks centuries ago.

But they were too late.

The crypt was empty; the evil had already been freed.

It was Rio who volunteered to stay behind and seal the cave while the others returned home to Boston. He couldn't go back with them. He didn't know where he belonged. He'd intended to find his own way – maybe go back to Spain, his homeland.

That's what he'd told the warriors who'd long been like brothers to him. But he hadn't carried out any of his plans. He had delayed, tormented by indecision and the weight of the sin he'd been contemplating.

In his heart, he'd known he had no intention of leaving this tomb. But he had put off the inevitable with weak excuses, waiting for the right time, the right conditions, for him to do what he had to do. But those excuses were just that. They only served to make the hours stretch into days, the days into weeks.

Now, easily months later, he lurked in the darkness of the cave like the bats that inhabited the dank space with him. He no longer hunted, no longer had the desire to feed. He merely existed, conscious of his steady descent into a hell of his own making.

For Rio, that descent had finally proven too much.

Beside him on a hollowed-out ledge of rock ten feet up from the floor of the cave rested a detonator and a small cache of C-4. It was enough boom to seal up the hidden crypt forever. Rio intended to set it off that night…from the inside.

Tonight, he would finish it.

When his lethargic senses had roused him from a heavy sleep to warn him of an intruder, he'd thought it to be just another tormenting phantom. He caught the scent of a human – a young female, judging by the musky warmth that clung to her skin. His eyes peeled open in the dark, nostrils flaring to pull more of her fragrance into his lungs.

She was no trick of his madness.

She was flesh and blood, the first human to venture anywhere near the obscure mouth of the cave in all the time he'd been there. The woman shined a bright light around the cave, temporarily blinding him, even from his concealed position above her head. He heard her footsteps scuffing on the sandstone floor of the cavern. Heard her sudden gasp as she knocked into some of the skeletal litter left behind by the original occupant of the place.

Rio shifted himself on the ledge, testing his limbs in preparation of a leap to the floor below. The stirring of the air disturbed the bats clinging to the ceiling. They flew out, but the woman remained. Her light traveled more of the cave, then came to rest on the tomb that lay open.

Rio felt her curiosity chill toward fear as she neared the crypt. Even her human instincts picked up on the evil that had once slept in that block of stone.

But she shouldn't be there.

Rio couldn't let her see any more than she already had. He heard himself snarl as he moved on the rocky jut overhead. The woman heard it too. She tensed with alarm. The beam of her flashlight ricocheted crazily off the walls as she made a panicked search for the cave's exit.

Before Rio could command his limbs to move, she was already slipping away.

She was gone.

She'd seen too much, but soon it wouldn't matter.

Once night fell, there would be no further trace of the crypt, the cave, or of Rio himself.

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