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Midnight Rising (Chapter Three)

It was early morning in the mountain region, too early for most of the tourist groups and day hikers to be out and about. Still, Dylan avoided the main entrance and ventured into the woods on her own. A light rain began soon after she entered the forest, the soft summer shower falling from gunmetal gray clouds overhead. Dylan's trail shoes padded wetly on the damp pine needles beneath her feet as she picked up the pace and located the mountain path she'd been on the day before with her companions.

There was no sign of the dark-haired lady in white today, but Dylan didn't need the apparition's help in finding her way to the cave. Guided there by memory and a rising thrum in her veins, she climbed the steep, tricky incline to the ledge of sandstone outside the hidden cave.

In the overcast haze, the narrow crevice opening seemed even darker today, the sandstone giving off an earthy, ancient scent. Dylan swung her backpack down off her arm and grabbed her small flashlight from one of the pack's zippered pockets. She twisted the thin metal barrel and sent a beam of light ahead of her into the dark passageway of the cave.

Go in, get a few pictures of the crypt and the funky wall art, then get the hell out.

Not that she was afraid. Why should she be? This was just an old burial site of some sort – and a long-abandoned one at that. Absolutely nothing to fear.

And wasn't that just what those clueless horror movie actresses would say right before they ate it in gory detail on-screen?

Dylan mentally scoffed at herself. This was real life after all. The odds of a chainsaw-wielding lunatic or a flesh-eating zombie lurking in the dark of this cave were about the same as her coming face-to-face with the bloodsucking monster Goran's grandfather claimed to have seen. In other words, less than nil.

With the rain pattering gently behind her, Dylan stepped between the narrow walls of rock and carefully navigated her way into the cave, the beam of her flashlight leading the way. Several feet in, the passageway opened up onto more darkness. Dylan swung the light around the perimeter of the cave, as awestruck as she had been yesterday, by the elaborate wall markings and the rectangular slab of stone at the center of the space.

She didn't see the man lying in a careless sprawl on the ground until she was nearly on top of him.

"Jesus!"

She sucked in a startled breath and leaped back, the beam of her flashlight ricocheting crazily in the second it took for her to get over the shock. She angled the light back down to where he lay…and found nothing.

But he'd been right there. In her mind she could still see his head of shaggy dark brown hair, and his dusty, tattered black clothing. A vagrant, no doubt. It probably wasn't that unusual for some of the region's homeless poor to squat in this area.

"Hello?" she said, swinging the beam across the entire floor of the cave. A couple of ancient skulls and scattered bones lay about in morbid disarray, but that was it. No sign of anything living – not within the past hundred years or so, by Dylan's guess.

Where had he gone? She slid a glance at the large, open crypt a few feet away.

"Look, I know you're in here. It's okay. I didn't mean to frighten you," she added, even though it seemed absurd that she should be reassuring him. The guy had to be more than six feet tall, and even from the brief glimpse she'd gotten of him, she noted that his long arms and legs were thick with muscle. But his broken crumple on the floor of the cave had emanated pain and despair. "Are you hurt? Do you need some help? What's your name?"

No reply. Not a sound of any kind.

"Dobry den?" she called, trying to reach out to him with her pitifully limited knowledge of Czech. "Mluvite anglicky?"

No such luck.

"Sprechen zie Deutsch?"

Nothing.

"Sorry, but that's about all I've got unless you want me to break out some of my rusty junior high Spanish and really embarrass myself." She pivoted with her flashlight, angling it upward as she scanned the high walls of the cavern. "Somehow I don't think ?Como esta usted? is going to get us any further here. Do you?"

As she slowly turned, the light glanced off a jutting ledge high above her head. Some ten feet up was a sheer, arcing rise of sandstone. No way anyone could get up there.

Or was there…?

No sooner had she thought it than the thin stream of light shooting up to the ledge began to flicker. It dimmed steadily, then went utterly dark.

"Shit," Dylan whispered low under her breath. She banged the barrel on her palm a couple of times before somewhat frantically attempting to turn the damn thing on again. Despite fresh batteries installed before she left the States, the light was dead. "Shit, shit, shit."

Engulfed in total blackness, Dylan felt the first twinge of unease.

When she heard the scrape of rock overhead, every nerve in her body went tense. There was a long beat of silence, followed by the sudden crunch of booted feet hitting solid earth as whoever – or whatever – had been hiding in the shadows above now dropped to the floor of the cave beside her.

She smelled like juniper and honey and warm summer rain. But beneath all that was a sudden, citrusy spike of adrenaline now that he was near her. Rio circled the woman in the dark of the cave, seeing her perfectly while she stumbled in the abrupt lack of light. Her feet carried her backward…only to connect with a wall of stone at her spine.

"Damn it."

She swallowed audibly, pivoting to try another tack, then swore again as her useless flashlight slipped out of her fingers and clinked on the hard floor of the cave. Rio had burned precious energy in mentally extinguishing the device. Manipulating objects by thought was a simple Breed talent, but in his current weakened state, Rio didn't know how long he could hold it.

"Um, you're probably not in the mood for company," the woman said, her eyes wide in the darkness as they darted left and right, trying to locate him. "So, I'm just going to leave now, okay? Just gonna…walk right out of here." A nervous moan caught in her throat. "God, please, where is the frigging way out of this place?"

She took a step to the right, edging along the cavern wall. Away from the exit, although Rio saw no point in telling her that just yet. He kept moving, trailing her deeper into the cave, trying to decide what to do with his repeat intruder. When he'd first awakened, startled to find he was still alive and not alone, he'd reacted on instinct – a vulnerable beast fleeing to the safety of the shadows.

But then she'd started talking to him.

Coaxing him out, even though she could not have known how dangerous a proposition that really was. He was furious and half-mad in the head, a deadly enough combination on its own, but being near the female now reminded him that even though he was broken, he was still very much male.

To his marrow, he was still Breed.

Rio breathed in more of the female's scent, finding it hard to resist touching her pale, rain-dampened skin. Hunger flooded him – hunger he hadn't known for some long time. His fangs surged from his gums, the sharp points jabbing the soft flesh of his tongue. He was careful to keep his eyelids low over his eyes, knowing the topaz-colored irises would soon be awash in the glow of fiery amber, his pupils thinning to vertical slits as the thirst for blood rose in him.

That she was young and beautiful only deepened his desire to taste her. He wanted to touch her…

He flexed his hands, then fisted them at his sides.

Manos del diablo.

He could hurt her with those hands. The strength given him by his vampire genes was immense, but it was Rio's other skill – the terrible talent he'd been born with – that could do the most damage here. With a centered thought and a simple touch, he could draw away human life in an instant. Once he'd come to understand his power, Rio had managed it with judicious, rigid control. Now anger ruled his deadly gift, and the blackouts he suffered since the warehouse explosion had made it impossible for him to trust himself not to do harm.

It was part of the reason he'd left the Order, and part of his eventual decision to stop hunting for blood. The Breed seldom, if ever, killed their human Hosts while feeding; that was all that separated them from the worst of vampire kind, the Rogues. It was the blood-addicted Rogues who knew no better, who had so little control.

As Rio stared with feral, thirsting eyes at the woman who'd wandered into his hellish domain, fear of losing control with her was the thing that kept him at heel.

That, and the simple fact that she'd been kind to him.

Unafraid, if only because she couldn't see the beast he really was.

She gave up on following the wall and moved toward the center of the small cave. Rio stood right behind her now, so close the curling ends of her flame-red hair brushed his ragged shirt. That springy strand of silk tempted him sorely, but Rio kept his hands at his sides. He closed his eyes, wishing he had stayed on the ledge above. Then she might still be talking to him, not stiff and panting with rising anxiety.

"You shouldn't be here," he said finally, his voice a rough growl in the darkness.

She sucked in a quick breath, spinning around as soon as her ear had triangulated his location. She backed away, retreating from him again. Rio should have been glad for that.

"You do speak English," she said after a long moment. "But your accent…you're not American?"

He saw no reason to say otherwise. "You are, evidently."

"What is this place? What are you doing up here?"

"You need to leave now," he told her. The words sounded thick to him, hard to push out of his mouth for the obstruction of his extruded fangs. "You're not safe here."

Silence hung between them as she weighed the warning. "Let me see you."

Rio scowled at the pretty, peach-freckled face that searched the gloom for him. She reached out as if to find him with her hands now. He recoiled from her sweeping arm, but only barely.

"Do you know what they say in town?" she asked, a note of challenge in her voice now. "They say there's a demon living up here in the mountains."

"Maybe there is."

"I don't believe in demons."

"Maybe you should." Rio stared at her through the overgrown thicket of his hair, hoping the long hanks would conceal the glow of his eyes. "You have to go. Now."

She slowly lifted the backpack she was carrying and held it in front of her like armor. "Do you know anything about this crypt? That's what it is, right – some kind of old crypt and sacrificial chamber? What about the symbols on the walls in here…what are they, some kind of ancient language?"

Rio went very still, very silent. If he thought he could let her simply walk away, she'd just proved him wrong. Bad enough she saw the cave once, now she was back and making assumptions about it that were far too close to the truth. He could not permit her to leave – not with her memory of the place, or of him, intact.

"Give me your hand," he said as gently as he could. "I'll show you the way out of here."

She didn't budge, not that he expected her to obey. "How long have you been living on this mountain? Why do you hide up here? Why won't you let me see you?"

She asked questions one after the other, with an inquisitiveness that bordered on interrogation.

He heard a zipper rasp on her pack.

Ah, hell. If she pulled out another flashlight, he wouldn't have the mental strength to douse it – not when he'd need all his concentration just to scrub her memory.

"Come," he said, a bit more impatiently now. "I'm not going to hurt you."

He would try his damnedest not to, but already the task of staying upright was draining him. He needed to conserve all he could in order to blow the cave and not black out again before he could finish it. Right now, he had to deal with the more immediate problem in front of him.

Rio started toward her when she remained unmoving. He reached out for her, meaning to grab her backpack and haul her out, but before his fingers could close around it she withdrew something from one of the bag's pockets and brought it up in front of her.

"Okay, I'll go. I just…there's something I need to do first."

Rio scowled in the darkness. "What are you – "

There was a faint click, then a stunning blast of light.

Rio roared, wheeling back on instinct. More explosions of light fired off in rapid succession.

Logic told him it was a digital camera flash blinding him, but in a startling instant, he was hurtled back in time…back inside that Boston warehouse, standing beneath an airborne bomb as it detonated.

He heard the sudden boom of the explosion, felt it vibrate into his bones and knock the breath from his lungs. He felt the shower of heat in his face, the suffocating thickness of clouding ash as it engulfed him like a wave.

He felt the bite of hot shrapnel as it ripped through his body.

It was agony, and he was right there, living it – feeling it – all over again.

"Nooo!" he bellowed, his voice no longer human but transformed to something else, as he was, by the fury that ran through him like acid.

His legs gave way beneath him and he sank to the floor, his vision blinded by reverberating light and ruthless memories.

He heard footsteps scuffing past him in a rush, and through the phantom stench of smoke and metal and ruined flesh, he smelled the faint, fleeting traces of juniper, honey, and rain.

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