Midnight Rising (Chapter Seven)

Dylan sat quietly on the bed and watched as the dark stranger confiscated her computer and camera, then rifled through the rest of her belongings. She had little choice but to stay out of his way. Her slightest movement drew his attention every time, and after the mind-boggling, warp-speed maneuver he'd pulled when he blocked her from reaching the hotel room door, she hadn't found the nerve to attempt another escape.

She had no idea what to think of him.

He was dangerous, no question. Probably deadly when he wanted to be, although she didn't think murder was foremost on his mind at the moment. If he wanted to harm her, he'd had plenty of opportunity already. Like when she'd been trapped underneath him on the floor, very attuned to the fact that she'd had more than two hundred pounds of hard, muscular male on top of her and little to no hope of throwing him off. He could have wrapped those big hands around her throat and strangled her, right there on her hotel room floor.

But he hadn't.

He hadn't acted on the other impulse that had so obviously occurred to him either. Dylan hadn't missed the way he'd looked at her, his eyes fixed intensely on her mouth. The very male response of his body as he'd straddled her had been swift, unmistakable, yet he hadn't laid a finger on her. In fact, he'd seemed about as alarmed by his arousal as she'd been. So, he apparently wasn't a cold-blooded psychopath or a rapist, regardless of the fact he'd stalked her all the way from Jicin to Prague.

So, what did that make him?

He moved too fast, was far too precise and agile, to be some kind of crazed survivalist or a garden variety vagrant. No, he wasn't either of those things. He might be filthy and ragged, one side of his face scarred from some horrific event she could only speculate on, but underneath all the grime he was something…else.

This man, whoever he truly was, was huge and strong, and dangerously alert. His keen eyes and ears missed nothing. His senses seemed to be tuned to a higher frequency than was humanly possible. Even if he was half insane, he carried himself like he was well aware of his own power and knew just how to use it.

"Are you military or something?" she asked, guessing aloud. "You talk like you could be. Act like it too. What are you, some kind of special forces? Ex-military, maybe. What were you doing on that mountain near Jicin?"

He shot her a glare as he stuffed her computer and camera back into her messenger bag, but he didn't answer.

"You know, you might as well fill me in on some of what's going on. I'm a journalist" – well, admittedly, that was a bit of a stretch – "but I am a reasonable person. If those pictures are sensitive or classified or a matter of national security, just say so. Why are you so concerned about people seeing what was in that cave?"

"You ask too many questions."

She shrugged. "Sorry. Hazard of the job, I guess."

"That's not the only hazard of your job," he said, slanting her a look of dark warning. "The less you know about this, the better."

"You mean, about the 'hibernation chamber'?" He stiffened visibly, but Dylan kept going. "That's what you called it, right? That's what you told your friend Gideon. Some kind of shit is about to hit the fan because I took pictures of this hibernation chamber thingy and the, uh, 'glyphs' as you called them."

"Jesus Christ," he hissed. "You shouldn't have been listening to any of that."

"It was kind of hard not to. When you're being held against your will and pretty damn certain you're going to be killed, you tend to pay attention."

"You're not going to be killed."

His cold, matter-of-fact tone wasn't exactly reassuring. "Sounded to me like you thought about it, though. Unless 'scrubbing' someone means something different to you than it does to everyone else who's ever seen a mafia movie."

He scoffed, giving a curt shake of his head.

"What was in that cave?"

"Forget it."

Not likely. Not when he seemed so protective of the information. As in, do-or-die protective. "What do all those weird symbols on the walls mean? Is it some kind of ancient language? Some kind of code? Just what are you so desperate to hide?"

He came at her so fast, she didn't even see him move. She blinked and suddenly he was bearing down on her, the broad bulk of his body towering over her, making her shrink back on the bed.

"Listen to me and hear me well, Dylan Alexander," he said tightly. The sound of her name rolling off his lips was jarring in its intimacy. "This is not a game. It's not a puzzle for you to piece together. And it sure as hell isn't a story that I'm going to permit you to tell. So do us both a favor and stop asking questions about something that doesn't concern you."

His eyes were livid, the topaz color of them flashing with anger. It was that hot, penetrating gaze that scared her the most – even more than the threat of his coiled strength or the terrible scars that stretched across the left side of his face and made him look so frightening.

But he was wrong when he said that the cave and whatever secrets it might contain did not concern her. She was personally invested in the story, and not just because it was beginning to feel like the kind of story that would not only save her so-called career, but quite possibly make it.

Dylan's interest in the cave and its strange wall art had gotten very personal from the moment she noticed the teardrop-and-crescent-moon symbol that identically matched the birthmark she had on the back of her neck.

She considered that bizarre coincidence as the hotel phone began to ring. Her uninvited guest picked it up and carried on a short, confidential exchange. He hung up, slung her messenger bag over his shoulder then went over to grab the backpack containing the rest of her belongings. He took her pocketbook off the nightstand and tossed it to her.

"That's our ride," he said as she caught the small handbag. "Time to go."

"What do you mean, our ride?"

"We're leaving, right now."

A wave of dread roared up on her, but she tried to maintain a brave front. "Forget it. You really are crazy if you think I'm going anywhere with you."

"You don't have a choice."

He came toward her, and Dylan knew that she stood little chance of overpowering him or outrunning him. Not when she had to navigate three floors of the hotel in order to get away from him. But she could sure as hell scream for help – and would, the very second he dragged her into the hotel lobby.

Except he didn't bring her into the very public lobby so she could make her escape.

He didn't even open the door that led out into the hallway outside her room.

With that same speed and strength she couldn't help but be amazed by, he grabbed her at the wrist and pulled her to the window that overlooked a side street several dizzying yards below. He threw open the glass and climbed out onto the fire escape, still holding fast to her arm as he started to haul her outside with him.

"What the hell are you doing?" Dylan dug in her heels, her eyes wide with fear. "Are you insane? You're going to break both our necks if you – "

He didn't give her a chance to finish the thought, let alone speak it.

Before Dylan realized what was happening, she was lifted out the window and over the solid bulk of his shoulder. She heard his boots clanking on the rattling iron of the fire escape. Then she felt her whole world shift as he incredibly – impossibly – vaulted over the railing with her.

They hit the dark pavement three stories below.

It wasn't the bone-breaking crash she anticipated, but a soft, almost graceful connection between his feet and the ground. She was still trying to process how that could be when suddenly she was pushed into the back of an open delivery truck that idled near the place they'd touched down.

Dylan tumbled in with her abductor right behind her. Disoriented and thoroughly confused, she was too stunned to form a single word as he brought the heavy trailer door down with a hard thump and enclosed them in darkness.

The truck's engine roared to life, and with a sharp squeal of tires, the vehicle took off with its cargo.

Back in Boston, it was nearly five A.M . and the last of the Order's warriors were heading in from their night patrols. Lucan, Tegan, and Dante – the mated ones, like Gideon, with females awaiting their return to the compound – had been in for about an hour already. Sterling Chase, the ex – Darkhaven Enforcement Agent who'd joined up with the Order last year and had proven to be a formidable – enthusiastically lethal – addition to the group, was present and accounted for too.

Now, as the three remaining members of the Order filed in, Gideon wasn't surprised to find Nikolai bringing up the rear. Although he was the youngest of the warriors, Niko was also the most relentless fighter Gideon had ever seen. An adrenaline junkie and vicious combatant, the Russian-born vampire never called it a night until dawn was creeping over the horizon, forcing him off the streets.

And when it came to high-octane weaponry, Niko was an absolute demon.

Tonight, as the black-clad warrior with the golden-blond hair and glacial blue eyes sauntered in behind the two newest members of the cadre, Kade and Brock, Gideon noted that he was armed with some of his latest creations. A nasty-looking 9mm semiauto with a clip full of titanium hollowpoint rounds rode at Niko's hip, and a laser-sighted sniper rifle tricked out with the same custom ammo was slung from a strap over his shoulder.

Even from behind the glass enclosure of the compound's tech lab, Gideon could smell fresh death on the warrior. Not human, as the Breed in general tried to maintain as peaceful a cohabitation as possible with their Homo sapiens cousins. They fed from humans in order to survive, but it was rare that a vampire killed his Host. It was a matter of simple logic after all. No sense wiping out your sole food source, or, for that matter, exposing yourself as a mortal threat to that food source and encouraging them to wipe you out instead.

But there was a small, splintered percentage of the vampire nation that didn't give a damn for solid logic. Rogues – vampires who'd become addicted to blood and gone feral, living only to feed that addiction – were the ones who found themselves in the crosshairs of the Order's lethal brand of justice.

The Order had been combating the problematic minority within the Breed since the Middle Ages, a task that had given the warriors a reputation as merciless killers among the vampire nation at large. Not that Gideon or any of his brethren were looking for accolades or public adoration. They had a grim job to do, and they did it very well.

Gideon met the three returning warriors in the corridor outside the lab, wrinkling his nose at the Rogue stench that Nikolai carried in with him.

"I take it the hunting was decent tonight."

Niko grinned. "It ended on a good note at any rate. Tracked and smoked a suckhead out of the city after he attacked a woman walking her dog in Beacon Hill."

"My man here tracked the Rogue thirty-five miles – on foot," Brock added, giving a roll of his dark brown eyes. "Had the Rover gassed up and waiting on the corner. We could have run the son of a bitch to the ground in three minutes flat, but Jackie Joyner decides to hoof it instead."

Niko chuckled. "Hey, might as well make it interesting. Besides, it was a slow night up until then."

"Been a slow month," Kade replied, his tone not complaining so much as stating fact.

Things around the city had become considerably quieter since last February, when the Order had finally killed the vampire responsible for a rash of violence in and around Boston. Marek was no more, and following his death the warriors had been hunting down and eliminating all those who'd served him. As far as that went, Marek's human Minions were no problem – the blood-depleted mind slaves could not survive without their Master; wherever they were, they simply stopped breathing at the same time he did, and dropped dead of what would appear to be abrupt, yet perfectly natural, causes.

Marek's personal retinue of Rogues, on the other hand, were not as accommodating as their human counterparts. The blood-addicted vampires who'd been recruited, and sometimes forced, under Marek's command as his bodyguards and lieutenants were now left to their own misrule. Without Marek around to keep them in line and provide the victims required to slake their Bloodlust, the Rogue vampires had dispersed into the surrounding human populations to hunt like the insatiable predators they were.

Since the winter, the Order had smoked ten of the suckheads between Boston and Marek's last known headquarters in the Berkshires region two hours to the west. Eleven Rogues, counting the one Niko took out tonight.

And although what Kade had said about the current state of quiet was true, Gideon had lived long enough to know that a calm like the one they knew now wasn't meant to last. It was often just the lull preceding a hellish storm.

Given what the Order had uncovered on that Bohemian mountain last February, there was little question that a storm of epic proportions was on the rise. An ancient evil had been sleeping in the crypt on that mountain – a vampire unlike any in existence today. Now that powerful, alien creature was loose somewhere, and the Order's newest, most critical mission was to find it and destroy it before its terror was unleashed on the world.

That job was going to prove a lot harder if the secret realm of the Breed – and the escalating trouble within it – were suddenly exposed to humankind by way of a curious reporter who'd somehow wandered into the middle of all this.

"Got an interesting call from Prague tonight," Gideon said. "Rio's back on grid."

Nikolai's tawny brows crashed together. "He's not in Spain? When did he get back to Prague?"

"Doesn't sound like he ever left. He ran into some trouble there, in the form of an American reporter. She knows about the cave. She's been inside the Ancient's hibernation chamber. Took a bunch of pictures too, evidently."

"What the fuck? When did all this go down?"

"I don't have all the details yet. Rio's working on getting the situation secured. He and the woman are on their way to Reichen's place in Berlin as we speak. He's going to report in once he arrives so we can determine how to best contain this potential disaster."

"Shit." Brock exhaled, running a hand over his dark brow. "Rio's actually still breathing, eh? Gotta say, I'm surprised. Since he's been AWOL for so long, I kind of expected he wasn't coming back, you know what I'm saying? Edgy guy like that, seemed to me like a prime candidate to off himself."

"Maybe he should have," Kade put in, chuckling. "I mean, hell, we've got Chase and Niko to contend with already. Does the Order really need another raving lunatic in the ranks?"

Nikolai sprang on the other warrior like a viper. There was no warning, no hint that Niko was going to grab Kade's throat in his hand and slam the big male up against the wall of the corridor. He was seething with defensive anger as he held Kade in a near death grip.

"Jesus Christ!" Kade hissed, clearly as shocked as anyone else by the unexpected reaction. "It was just a joke, man!"

Nikolai snarled. "Do you see me laughing? Do I look like I'm fucking laughing?"

Kade's sharp silver eyes narrowed but he didn't say anything else to provoke him.

"I could give a damn what you say about me," Niko growled, "but if you know what's good for you, lay the hell off Rio."

Gideon might have guessed this wasn't about Kade unintentionally insulting Nikolai. It was about Niko's friendship with Rio. The two warriors had been as close as true brothers in the time before the warehouse explosion that left Rio scarred and broken. Afterward, it was Niko who made sure Rio fed, Niko who dragged Rio's ass out of the infirmary to train in the compound's weapons facility as soon as the wounded warrior was able to stand up.

It had been Nikolai who argued the most vehemently every time Rio announced that he was too far gone to be useful and he was pulling out of the Order. In the nearly five months that Rio had been currently off grid, not a week passed that Niko didn't ask if there had been any word from him.

"Niko, damn, buddy," Brock said. "Ease up."

The huge black warrior moved in, looking like he was about to peel him off Kade, but Gideon held him back with a look. Although Nikolai relaxed his grip, his anger was still a palpable force filling the hallway.

"You don't know dick about Rio," he told Kade. "That warrior has more honor than the both of us combined. So this is the last time I want to hear you talking shit about him. Understand?"

Kade nodded tightly. "Yeah. Like I said, it was just a damn joke. I didn't mean any offense."

Nikolai stared at him for a long moment, then stalked away in silence.