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Midnight Rising (Chapter Two)

Hidden Crypt Unlocks Secrets of an Ancient Civilization!

Dylan scowled and held down the backspace key on her notebook computer. She needed a different title for the piece she was working on – something sexier, less National Geographic . She pecked out a second attempt, trying for something that would shout just as loudly from the newsstands as the latest Hollywood starlet in rehab story plastered on the front pages any given week.

Ancient Human Sacrifices Discovered in Dracula's Backyard!

Yeah, that was better. The Dracula bit was a stretch since the Czech Republic was several hundred miles away from bloodthirsty Vlad Tepes's place in Romania, but it was a start. Dylan stretched her legs out on her hotel room bed, balanced her computer in her lap, and began typing the first draft of her story.

Two paragraphs into it, she stalled out. Pressed the backspace key until the page was blank again.

The words simply weren't coming. She couldn't focus. The ghostly visitation she'd had on the mountain had put her on edge, but it was the phone call to her mother that really had Dylan distracted. Sharon had tried to sound cheerful and strong, telling her all about a river cruise fund-raiser the shelter was putting on in a few nights and how she looked forward to attending.

After losing another girl to the street life recently – a young runaway named Toni, whom Sharon had really thought was going to make it – she had ideas for a new program she wanted to pitch to the runaway shelter's founder, Mr. Fasso. Sharon was hoping for a private audience with him, a man she had admitted on more than one occasion that she was a little infatuated with, to no one's surprise, especially not her daughter's.

Where her mother was always ready – even eager – to fall in love, Dylan's romantic life was a complete contrast. She'd had a handful of relationships, but nothing meaningful, and nothing she'd ever allowed to last. A cynical part of her doubted the entire concept of forever, despite her mother's attempts to convince her that she would find it, someday, when she least expected it.

Sharon was a free spirit with a big, open heart that had been stomped on far too often by unworthy men, and, now, by the unfairness of fate. Still, she kept smiling, kept soldiering on. She had been giggling as she confided in Dylan that she bought a new dress for the shelter's cruise, which she chose for its flattering cut and the color that was so similar to Mr. Fasso's eyes. But even while Dylan joked with her mom not to flirt too outrageously with the reportedly handsome and evidently unmarried philanthropist, her heart was breaking.

Sharon was trying to act her normal upbeat self, but Dylan knew her too well. There was an out-of-breath quality to her voice that couldn't be explained away by the long distance phone service in the little Bohemian town of Jicin, where Dylan and her travel companions were spending the night. She'd only spoken with her mother for about twenty minutes, but when they hung up, Sharon had sounded thoroughly exhausted.

Dylan exhaled a shaky sigh as she closed her computer and set it beside her on the narrow bed. Maybe she should have gone for beer and brats in the pub with Janet, Marie, and Nancy, instead of staying behind to work. She hadn't felt much like socializing – still didn't, in fact – but the longer she sat by herself in the tiny bunk room, the more aware she became of just how alone she truly was. The quiet made it hard to think about anything but the final, dreaded silence that was going to fill her life once her mother…

Oh, God.

Dylan wasn't even prepared to let the word form in her mind.

She swung her legs down off the bed and stood up. The first-floor window looking out over the street was open to let in some air, but Dylan felt stifled, suffocating. She lifted the glass wide and took a deep breath, watching as tourists and locals strolled past.

And damn if the ethereal woman in white wasn't out there too.

She stood in the middle of the road, unfazed by the rush of cars and pedestrians all around her. Her image was translucent in the dark, her form far less delineated than it had been earlier that day, and dimming by the second. But her eyes were fixed on Dylan. The ghost didn't speak this time, just stared with a bleak resignation that made Dylan's chest ache.

"Go away," she told the apparition under her breath. "I don't know what you want from me, and I really can't deal with you right now."

Some part of her scoffed at that, because with her job on the line like it was, maybe she shouldn't be so eager to turn away visitors from the Other Side. Nothing would please her boss, Coleman Hogg, more than having a reporter on staff who could honest-to-God see dead people. Hell, the opportunistic bastard probably would insist on bankrolling a brand-new side business with her as the main attraction.

Yeah, right. So not happening.

She'd let one man exploit her for the peculiar, if unreliable, gift she'd been born with – and look how that had turned out. Dylan hadn't seen her father since she was twelve years old. Bobby Alexander's last words to his daughter as he drove out of town and out of her life for good had been a nasty string of profanity and open disgust.

It had been one of the most painful days of Dylan's life, but it had taught her a good hard lesson: there were precious few people you could trust, so if you wanted to survive, you'd better always look out for Number One.

It was a philosophy that had served her well enough, the only exception being when it came to her mom. Sharon Alexander was Dylan's rock, her sole confidante, and the only person she could ever truly count on. She knew all of Dylan's secrets, all of her hopes and dreams. She knew all of her troubles and fears too…except one. Dylan was still trying to be brave for Sharon, too scared to let on to her about how petrified she was that the cancer had come back. She didn't want to admit that fear just yet, or give it strength by speaking it out loud.

"Shit," Dylan whispered irritably as her eyes began to sting with a warning of oncoming tears.

She willed them into submission with the same steely control she'd been practicing most of her life. Dylan Alexander did not cry. She hadn't since she was that brokenhearted, betrayed little girl watching her father speed off into the night.

No, getting sloppy with self-pity and hurt never did her a lick of good. Anger was a much more useful coping method. And where anger failed, there were few things that couldn't be fixed with a healthy dose of denial.

Dylan turned away from the window and shoved her bare feet into her well-worn pair of trail shoes. Not trusting to leave her computer unattended in the room, she slipped the slim silver laptop into her messenger bag, grabbed her pocketbook, and headed out to find Janet and the others. Maybe a little company and chitchat wouldn't be so bad after all.

By dusk, most of the humans traipsing through the woods and along the mountain paths had gone. Now that it was fully dark outside the cave, there wasn't a soul around to hear the explosion Rio was rigging to go off from within the lightless space of rock.

He had just enough C-4 on hand to permanently seal the cave's entrance, but not so much that he would bring the whole damn mountain down. Nikolai had thought to make sure of that before the Order had left Rio there to secure the site. Thank God for that, because Rio sure as hell didn't trust his cracked brain to remember the particulars.

He cursed sharply as he fumbled one of the tiny wires on the detonator. His vision was already starting to swim, irritating him even more. Sweat broke out on his brow, dampening the overlong hanks of hair that hung down into his eyes. With a snarl, he swept his hand over his face and up his scalp, staring fiercely at the lumps of pale explosive material in front of him.

Did he stuff the blasting caps into the cakes yet?

He couldn't remember…

"Focus, idiot," he berated himself, impatient over the idea of something that should come so easily to him – and had, before he'd gotten his bell rung in that warehouse back in Boston – should now take him literally hours to even get started.

Add to that his body's sluggishness from deprivation of vital blood and he was a real piece of work. A goddamn waste of space, that's what he was.

With a surge of self-hatred fueling him, Rio stuck his finger into one of the small puttylike blocks of C-4 and tore it open.

Good. The charge was in there, just like it should be.

It didn't matter he couldn't remember placing it there, or that based on the mangled appearance of another of the cakes, he'd probably gone through this very exercise at least once before. He gathered up the supply of C-4 and carried them into the narrow mouth of the cave. He packed them into carved niches in the sandstone, just like Niko had told him to do. Then he went back into the cavern to retrieve the detonator.

Damn it!

The wires on the thing were all fucked up.

He had fucked them up. How? And when?

"Son of a bitch!" he roared, glaring down at the device, blind with a swift, sudden rage.

He felt dizzy with anger, his head spinning so badly it buckled his knees. He went down on the hard ground like his body was made of lead. He heard the detonator skid into the dust somewhere, but he didn't reach for it. His arms were too heavy and his head was weightless, his consciousness floating, detached from reality, like his mind wanted to separate from the wreck of the body that caged it and fly away to escape.

A thick nausea pressed him down, and he knew if he didn't work fast to get a hold of himself he was going to pass out.

It had been foolish to stop hunting all those weeks ago. He was Breed. He needed human blood for strength, for life. Blood would help him to stave off the pain and madness. But he could no longer trust himself to hunt without killing. He'd come too close, too many times, since he'd arrived here on this towering forest crag.

Too often on those few times he ventured out in hunger he'd nearly been seen by the humans living in the surrounding towns and villages. And since the explosion he'd survived in Boston a year ago, his was a face not soon forgotten.

Maldecido.

The word hissed at him from somewhere distant. Not the night outside, but from deep out of his past, in the language of his mother's country.

Manos del diablo.

Comedor de la sangre.

Monstruo.

Even through the fog of his tormented mind, he recognized the epithets. Names he heard from his earliest childhood. Words that haunted him, even now.

The cursed one.

Devil's hands.

Blood-eater.

Monster.

And so he was, more now than ever. Ironic that his life would begin in hiding, skulking like an animal among the night-dark woodlands and hills…only to end much the same way.

"Madre de Dios," he whispered as he made a feeble, but failed grab for the detonator. "Please…let me end it."

Dylan had barely set down her empty pilsner glass before another full one came to rest in front of her. It was the third round for the table since she'd arrived in the tavern and met up with her travel companions – this latest serving delivered with an extra-wide grin from the young man tending the bar.

"With my compliments, ladies," he announced in thickly accented English, one of the few locals in the rural village who spoke anything more than Czech or German.

"Oh, my goodness! Thank you, Goran," Janet exclaimed, giggling as she surrendered her empty for a fresh glass of frothy amber beer. "What a dear you are, telling us all about your lovely town and now bringing us free drinks. You really don't have to do this."

"My pleasure," he murmured.

His friendly brown eyes lingered the longest on Dylan, which she might have taken as a bigger compliment if her companions weren't all qualified for AARP membership. Dylan herself probably had five to ten years on the boyishly handsome barkeep, but that didn't stop her from working his obvious attraction to her best advantage.

Not that she was interested in drinks or dating. It was Goran's talk of the surrounding mountains and their various lore that held Dylan captivated. The young Czech had grown up in the area, and had spent a good amount of time exploring the very range where Dylan had been climbing that morning.

"It's so beautiful here," Nancy told him. "The tourist brochure didn't lie; this truly is a paradise."

"And such a vast, unusual terrain," Marie added. "I think we'd need a whole month to see everything out there. Too bad we have to return to Prague tomorrow."

"Yes, that is too bad," Goran said, directing the comment at Dylan.

"What about caves?" She'd been trying to gather details for her story without being too conspicuous, knowing that the locals probably wouldn't appreciate the fact that she'd ventured off the established trails to climb the mountains on her own. "I saw a few caves marked on our map, but I imagine there's a lot more out there. Even some that haven't been uncovered yet, stuff that's not open to the public?"

The young man nodded. "Oh, yes. There are maybe hundreds of caves and several abysses too. Most of them are still being documented."

"Dylan saw an old stone coffin in one of the caves today," Janet blurted innocently as she sipped her beer.

Goran chuckled, his expression dubious. "You saw a what?"

"I'm not sure what I saw." Dylan gave a nonchalant shrug, not wanting to tip her hand if she had truly discovered something significant. "It was pitch-black inside, and I think the heat was playing tricks on my mind."

"What cave were you in?" the young man asked. "I know it, maybe."

"Oh, I don't remember where I was exactly. It doesn't really matter."

"She said she felt a presence," Janet piped in again. "Isn't that how you described it, honey? Like a…a dark presence coming awake while you were in the cave. I believe that's what you said."

"It was nothing, I'm sure." Dylan shot a pained scowl across the table at the well-meaning, but aggravatingly chatty older woman. For all the good it did. Janet gave her a sweet little matchmaker's wink as Goran leaned down next to Dylan at the table.

"You know, there used to be talk of evil in those mountains," he said, his voice lowered to a confidential, if amused, tone. "Many old legends warn of demons living in the woods."

"Is that right?" she asked drolly.

"Oh, yes. Terrible beasts that looked like humans, but were not human at all. The villagers were convinced they were living among monsters."

Dylan scoffed lightly as she lifted her glass. "I don't believe in monsters."

"Neither do I, of course," Goran said. "But my grandfather does. So did his grandfather before him and all the rest of my family who farmed in this area, going back hundreds of years. My grandfather owned the property at the edge of the woods. He said he saw one of these creatures just a couple of months ago. It attacked one of his field workers."

"Is that so." Dylan glanced at the barkeep, waiting for a punch line that didn't come.

"According to my grandfather, it was just after dusk. He and Matej were bringing some equipment into the barn for the night when Grandfather heard an odd sound coming from the field. He went to look, and saw Matej on the ground. Another man was bent over him, holding Matej's neck to his mouth – bleeding him from the throat."

"Good Lord!" Janet gasped. "Did the poor man survive?"

"Yes, he did. Grandfather said by the time he ran back inside the barn to get something to use as a weapon against the creature, Matej was lying there alone. There were no marks on him except a bit of blood on his shirt, and he had no memory of the attack at all. The man who attacked Matej – or the demon, if my grandfather's account can be believed – has never been seen again."

Janet clucked her tongue. "And good riddance! Why, it's like something straight out of a horror movie, isn't it?"

Nancy and Marie looked equally aghast, all three women evidently buying Goran's tall tale – hook, line, and sinker. Dylan remained skeptical to say the least. But in the back of her mind she wondered if her story about an empty mountain crypt littered with old human remains might be even juicier with a firsthand account of some kind of demon vampire attack. Never mind the fact that the alleged victim couldn't corroborate with either memory or physical evidence; her boss at the paper wouldn't hesitate to go to print on the word of a superstitious, likely vision-impaired, backwoods old man alone. Hell, they'd gone to print on far less than that before.

"Do you think I could talk to your grandfather about what he saw?"

"Dylan is a journalist," the ever-helpful Janet, to no one's surprise, felt compelled to explain. "She lives in New York City. Have you ever been to New York City, Goran?"

"I have never been there, but I should like very much to see it one day," he replied, glancing at Dylan again. "You are a journalist, really?"

"No, not really. Maybe someday. Right now, the stuff I write is…I guess you could call them human interest stories." She smiled up at the bartender. "So, do you think your grandpa would be willing to speak with me?"

"He is dead, I'm sorry to say. He had a stroke in his sleep last month and never woke up."

"Oh." Dylan's heart clenched with true remorse, her hunger for a story taking an immediate backseat. "I'm very sorry for your loss, Goran."

He gave a tight nod. "He was a lucky man. If only we all live to be ninety-two, like my grandfather, eh?"

"Yeah," Dylan said, feeling the gazes of her mom's friends fixed on her in sympathy. "If only."

"I have new customers," he announced as a small group of people came into the tavern. "I must go now. When I come back, Dylan, maybe you will tell me about New York City."

As he left, and before Janet could enthuse over what a great idea it would be for Dylan to invite the adorable young Goran to the States, marry him, and have his babies, Dylan faked a brilliant, big yawn.

"Wow, guess I had too much fresh air today – I'm really beat. I think I'm going to turn in early. I have a bit of work to do yet tonight, and some e-mails I need to take a look at before I hit the hay."

"You sure, honey?"

Dylan gave Janet a weak bob of her head. "Yeah. Long day." She got up and grabbed her messenger bag from the back of her wooden pub chair. Pulling out enough Czech koruny to cover her portion of the bar tab and a nice tip for their host, Dylan set the money down on the table. "I'll see you back at the room."

As she made the short walk from the tavern to the hotel down the street, Dylan's fingers were itching to hit her keyboard. She closed herself inside the room, fired up her computer, and tried to keep up as the story spilled out of her. Dylan smiled as the piece took shape. It was no longer simply a report of an old cavern tomb and some dusty skeletons, but a blood-curdling account of a living, breathing evil that may well be still at large in the wilderness terrain above an otherwise tranquil European town.

She had the words.

All she needed now were some pictures of the demon's mountain lair.

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