Midnight Rising (Chapter Four)

Dylan's heart was still racing later that morning, after she and her companions had boarded the train that would take them from Jicin to Prague. It seemed ridiculous to let herself get so rattled by the vagrant she'd run into in the cave, even if he probably was a little bit psycho to be living up there like some kind of wild man. He hadn't harmed her after all.

Based on his bizarre meltdown when she tried to get some pictures of the cave before he could physically toss her out of there, she had probably scared him even more than he had her.

Dylan sat back in her compartment seat on the train, her computer open on her lap. Thumbnail images from her digital camera queued up on-screen as they downloaded to her computer from the thin black cable that connected the two devices. Most were from the past couple of days' travel, but it was the final handful Dylan was most interested in now.

She double-clicked on one of the dark images from the cave, the first of the sequence. The photo expanded, filling the small screen of her laptop. Dylan considered the face that was all but concealed by a growth of overlong, unkempt hair. The dull, espresso-brown waves hung limply over razor-sharp cheekbones and fierce eyes that reflected back at the lens in the strangest shade of amber she'd ever seen. The jaw looked as rigid as iron, the full lips peeled back in a vicious snarl that wasn't quite hidden behind the large hand that had come up to block the shot.

Jesus, it wouldn't take much Photoshopping back at the office in New York to make the guy look positively demonic. He was more than halfway there already.

"How did your pictures come out, honey?" Janet's curly silver head leaned over from beside Dylan on the cushioned bench seat. "Good Lord! What is that ?"

Dylan shrugged, unable to take her eyes off the photo. "Just some whack-job squatter I ran into up at the cave this morning. He doesn't know it yet, but he's going to be the star of my next story for the paper. What do you think? Just look at that face and tell me if you don't see a blood-drinking savage who lurks in the mountains, waiting for his next hapless victim."

Janet shuddered and went back to her crossword puzzle. "You're gonna give yourself nightmares dreaming up stories like that."

Dylan laughed as she clicked over to the next image on the screen. "Not me. Never had a nightmare. In fact, I don't dream at all. Blank slate, each and every night."

"Well, consider yourself lucky," the older woman said. "I've always had the most vivid dreams. When I was a young girl, I used to dream recurrently about a white poodle with painted toenails who liked to sing and dance at the end of my bed. I would beg him to stop and let me sleep, but he just always kept singing. Can you imagine? He sang old show tunes mostly, those were his favorite. I've always enjoyed show tunes, myself as well…"

Dylan heard Janet's voice beside her, but as she scrolled through the rest of the cave photographs on her computer, she was only half-listening at best. In her frantic pan of the place, she'd gotten one decent shot of the stone crypt and a couple of the elaborate wall art. The designs were even more impressive now that she had a chance to really study them.

Interlocking arcs and graceful, swirling lines ran the entire length of the cavern wall, rendered in a dark russet-brown ink. It looked semi-tribal yet oddly futuristic – unlike anything she'd ever seen before. Still more symbols and intertwining lines decorated the side of the crypt…one in particular that made the fine hairs at the back of Dylan's neck tingle.

She zoomed in on the strange design.

What the hell?

The teardrop-and-crescent-moon symbol was unmistakable, nestled within a series of curving lines and geometric patterns. Dylan stared at it in astonishment, and not a little confusion. This one mark was not unfamiliar to her at all. She'd seen it before, countless times. Not in a photograph, but on her own body.

How on earth could that be?

Dylan brought her hand up to the nape of her neck, bewildered by what she was seeing. Her fingers ran over the smooth skin at the top of her spine, where she knew she bore a tiny crimson birthmark…exactly like the one she was looking at on the screen.

With a steady, cold gaze fixed on the mouth of the cave, Rio jabbed the button on the C-4 detonator. There was a quiet beep as the remote device engaged, barely a half-second pause before the plastic explosives packed into the rock went off. The blast was loud and deep, a tremor that rumbled like thunder in the surrounding night-dark forest. Thick yellow dust and pulverized sandstone shot out of the passageway, tapering off as the walls of the cave's entry closed in, sealing the chamber and its secrets tight within.

Rio watched from the ground below, knowing that he should have been inside – would have been, if not for his own weakness and the intrusion by the female earlier that day.

It had taken a great deal of his strength to climb down from the mountain as dusk fell. Determination had carried him most of the way; self-directed rage had kept him focused and clearheaded as he took up his position below the cave and triggered the detonator.

As the smoke and debris dissipated on the breeze, Rio cocked his head. His acute hearing picked up movement in the woods. Not animal, but human – the brisk, two-legged stride of a hiker straggling alone past dark.

Rio's fangs stretched at the thought of easy prey. His vision sharpened on instinct, his pupils narrowing as he pivoted his head to pan the area.

There – coming down a ridge just south of him. A lean human male with a camper's pack slung onto his back tromped through the thicket, his short blond hair glowing like a beacon against the darkness. Rio watched the hiker casually skid and jog down a leafy incline to the trimmed path below. In another few minutes, he would be walking right past the very spot where Rio stood.

He was too depleted to hunt, but everything Breed in him was on full alert, ready and waiting for the chance to spring.

To feed, as he so desperately needed to do.

The human strode nearer, unaware of the predator watching him from the cover of the trees. He didn't see the strike coming, not until Rio launched himself out of hiding in one great leap. The human screamed then – a sound of sheer terror. He flailed and struggled, all for nothing.

Rio worked quickly, throwing the young man to the ground and pinning him prone under the bulk of his large backpack. He bit down on the bared column of the human's neck, and filled his mouth with the sudden, hot spill of fresh blood. The nourishment was immediate, sending renewed strength into muscle and bone and mind.

Rio drank what he needed from his Host and no more. A sweep of his tongue sealed the wound; a sweep of his hand over the human's sweat-soaked brow erased all memory of the attack.

"Go," he told him.

The man got up, and soon the flaxen head and bulky pack disappeared into the night.

Rio glanced up at the crescent moon overhead, feeling the hard pound of his pulse as his body absorbed the gift of the human's blood.

He needed this strength, because his night's hunting had only just begun.

Rio tipped his head back and dragged the night air through his teeth and fangs, deep into his lungs. His Breed senses sharpened, searching for the scent of his true quarry. She had been on this path hours ago, tearing out of the woods in fear. As well she should fear him. The flame-haired beauty had no idea of the secret she'd stumbled upon in that cave. Nor of the beast she'd roused in the process.

Rio's mouth curved into a smile as he sifted through the olfactory stew of the woodland air, finally registering the scent he sought. He breathed in the trace, lingering fragrance of her. Her trail was hours-old and fading fast in the humid night wind, but Rio would know her anywhere.

He would find her.

No matter how far she'd run.