Refugee (Chapter 12)

It took almost two painstaking hours but eventually Aria was able to dismantle all of the traps. She was exhausted and on edge by the time they finally made their way into another large cavern that was entirely bat free; a fact that Ashby commented happily upon. The torchlight played over the dark recesses as Aria made her way around, gathering other torches from their sconces in the wall.

"This tunnel will lead back into the main exit." She took hold of Braith's hand, running it over the wall until she found the switch. "This will open the gate when pressed."

Xavier and Ashby pressed closer, they murmured between each other as Ashby held the torch high to inspect the area she had just shown Braith. Aria left the three of them to marvel over the intricacies within the caves.

Her throat was dry and her clothes stuck to her as she made her way to the supply room at the end of another tunnel. There was another gate here but the key for it hung beside the door. There was no need to keep humans from taking what they might require. Grasping the key she lifted the light, frowning as she realized that the gate was unlocked. They never left the supply rooms open just in case an animal managed to get this far.

She grasped hold of the iron bars and pulled the gate open as she lifted the torch high. A set of wild and crazed pale blue eyes blazed out at her. A startled gasp escaped as she took a swift step back. It was a man, of that much she was certain, but she wasn't sure exactly what kind of a man it was anymore. His skin was abnormally pale; he seemed unaccustomed to light as he blinked rapidly against the flame of the torch.

Revulsion filled her as his lips skimmed back to reveal a mouth riddled by missing gaps and rotten teeth. The torch slipped from her suddenly numbed fingers as the man leapt from the bags of stored grain. He seemed more animal than human as he rushed at her. Stunned, it took Aria a moment to realize that she was in jeopardy, that this person, this thing had every intention of attacking her.

A startled cry escaped her, she grasped hold of the gate and heaved it with every ounce of strength she had. It was too late though. The man slammed into the gate, ripping it from her grasp as he shoved it back open. Aria swung her fist up, connecting forcefully with his jaw, snapping his head to the side as he launched at her. Hands skimmed down her body, grasping and pulling as he tried to secure his hold on her.

She realized her mistake too late. So attuned to having to defend her throat, her blood, her life, Aria had not been prepared for a different sort of hunger. It wasn't until the frenzied man ripped her shirt open that she realized she was in a situation unlike any she'd ever been in before.

Taken aback by the ferocity of the attack, and his intentions, Aria was momentarily unable to defend herself. Then his hands were on her, over her, pushing and pulling at the skin exposed by her torn shirt. Reason returned as adrenaline doused her terror. She shoved at the man, turning her face away from the putrid smell of his breath. A scream built in her chest, surged up her throat, and erupted in a squeak that was cut off as the man succeeded in pressing his mouth to hers.

Bile surged up her throat; she almost vomited as his thick tongue shoved against her compressed lips. With a fresh surge of strength, she lifted her knee and drove it into his balls. The man squealed, his grip on her momentarily relaxed enough that she was able to throw herself to the side, nearly succeeding in ripping free of his grasp. It was the sharp right hook she delivered to his cheek that finally knocked his hold upon her loose. She staggered back, trying to keep her balance as she spun around and started to run.

She was almost to the end of the tunnel when his arms encircled her waist. The air rushed out of her as they fell to the ground in a tumbled heap that knocked the wind from her and skinned her knees and elbows. He was clawing his way up her back when the air rushed back into her lungs. Flipping beneath him, she swung at him again, shattering his nose.

He squealed, falling back as blood spurted forth. Aria crab crawled backward, trying to regain her feet as the man leveled her with a glare that was not only lustful but also murderous. A roar of fury suddenly reverberated throughout the massive cavern.

The man's head snapped up, his eyes widened. Aria hadn't been sure there was much reason left to him, but apparently his survival instinct was still intact as he reeled backward. She was well aware of just how terrifying Braith could be, just how deadly and inhuman, and all of that was being honed in on the man before her. The man leapt up, a wild cry escaping him as he raced down the tunnel.

Aria scooted away, clinging to her shredded shirt as she tried uselessly to cover herself up. Braith raced past her, barely a blur as the loud clang of metal echoed through the cave. The man had succeeded in retreating into the storage room and slamming the door shut. "Are you ok?" Ashby demanded as he fell beside her.

She wasn't frightened of Ashby, but when he reached for her, she shied away from him. "I wouldn't," Xavier cautioned.

Ashby looked torn and horrified as his eyes skimmed over her. "Fine," she managed to breathe as she clung to her shirt. "I'm fine, really."

Aria's attention was distracted from Ashby as a loud wrenching sound filled the cave. Xavier stepped forward as Braith ripped the gate from the walls of the cave. The gate was solid steel, without bars to prevent rodents from entering the storage room. The only hole in it had been a slit near the top to allow some air to flow through the room. Aria didn't know how Braith had managed to wrench the heavy door free. The door flew down the tunnel, causing Xavier to dart out of the way as it bounced swiftly off the rock walls, nearly taking him out in the process.

Xavier's mouth dropped, his gaze darted wildly to the door now lying at the opening of the tunnel. Aria knew it weighed a good five hundred pounds and it had taken seven men to get it in place. Xavier stared at Aria for a moment before turning to Ashby.

"I told you he could take the king," Ashby murmured so faintly that Aria wasn't even certain she'd heard him right.

Xavier's gaze came slowly back to her as she tried to lurch to her feet. Inhuman squeals echoed from the storage room as Braith disappeared inside. "Wait no!" she cried, falling back against the tunnel wall as a wave of dizziness rocked her.

Ashby grasped her shoulders to steady her but she shrugged him off as silence suddenly enshrouded the tunnel. Horror pooled in Aria, her hand fell against the wall helping to keep her up as Braith emerged from the storage room. She knew the sudden silence had not been because he was injured, but relief still filled her.

The man was dead. She didn't have to ask, she knew Braith would not leave him alive. She thought she should be more upset, she wasn't. What had been in that room had no longer been a man, there had been no saving him.

Braith was before her suddenly. She did not shrink from him, did not shy away from his frantic, yet tender touch. "Are you ok?" he demanded, his voice hoarse and raw.

"Yes."

His hands moved steadily lower, stopping at the tattered remains of her shirt. "Get out of here!" he snarled at Ashby and Xavier.

They stood for a brief moment before slipping out of the tunnel. His hands trembled as he tugged the pieces from her hand and pulled them slowly apart. He was stiff before her, barely moving as he gazed upon her. While in the palace she had been forced to wear some of the silliest and most uncomfortable undergarments she had ever seen in her life. Once free of the palace she had resumed her habit of wearing an undershirt, sometimes a slip.

The slip she wore now had also been torn, but unlike the ruined shirt it was still intact enough to cover her breasts. It was nearly see through, even in the dim light of the tunnel, and especially to the acute vision of a vampire but she wasn't embarrassed. Her breath froze, her heart hammered as he remained still as stone before her.

"You're bleeding."

The words were grated through his teeth. And then, before she knew what was happening, he lowered his head to the scratch marks on her chest. His warm mouth made her heart lurch and his tongue against her skin caused her entire body to simmer with pleasure. Her fingers curled into his hair, holding him close as he licked the cuts on her chest.

He pulled slowly away, embracing her as he kissed her neck, her ear, and finally her lips. The brush of his lips against hers made her forget the hideous assault of the pitiful man. The touch of his lips made everything that was so arduous and wrong in their lives, worth it.

"They'll heal faster now," he whispered against her mouth.

"What will?" she inquired, still dazed and adrift in the feelings he aroused in her.

His fingers were subtle, a mere butterfly caress against her raw flesh. "Your wounds."

Aria shuddered at the reminder. Braith could make her forget almost anything but now that she wasn't overwhelmed by his touch, the events of the past five minutes crashed back over her. His fingers wrapped around the back of her head as he pulled her to him. "Are you sure that you're ok?" he asked worriedly. She nodded, unable to form words as her fingers dug into his back.

"I'm fine Braith, I swear; a little shaken, but fine."

He rocked her soothingly, his cheek resting against her head as he swayed her back and forth. "Braith." A low growl of displeasure escaped Braith as Ashby appeared at the end of the tunnel. Ashby was undeterred by it though. "They're here Braith."

A regretful sound escaped him. "Ok."

"I brought a shirt." Ashby didn't come into the tunnel though; instead he threw it to Braith before turning away.

Braith grasped hold of her ruined shirt, his fingers quivered as he slid it from her shoulders. He tossed it aside and helped her shrug on the new one. Braith slid the buttons into place; his hands hesitated upon the last one as he lifted his head to hers.

"You're beautiful."

It wasn't true, but he made her feel every inch as beautiful as he thought she was. She managed a wan smile as her fingers encircled his. "I love you."

It was his time to smile now, it lit his face like a beacon and made her heart melt. It was magnificent, his smile, breathtaking even. "I love you too."

And even though the troops had invaded the cave, he gave her one last, lingering kiss.

***

"Did you ever, in a million years think that we would be sitting in one of our cave systems surrounded by vampires?"

Aria cocked her head as she turned to look at her brother. The firelight played over his features, harder and more masculine than hers, but similar all the same. "No," she admitted with a low laugh.

"Do you think they'll eat us?"

"It's a possibility," she joked.

William chuckled, but she sensed the tension beneath the laughter. He still wasn't entirely certain about this situation, or the vampires and humans surrounding them. "We've come a long way sis."

"We have," she agreed. William's hand was suddenly holding hers. She looked at him in surprise. They were closer than most siblings, always had been, but it had been years since they had held hands. It appeared he was as troubled as she was. She squeezed his hand with both of hers and relaxed against his shoulder.

They stood at the edge of the circle that had been formed around the fire within the center of the cave. It was still summer above, but down here it was cool and damp.

She watched as Braith stood with his head bowed while he conferred with the other faction leaders. The firelight played off of his hair, highlighting his handsome features and broad shoulders. He was nodding as Gideon spoke in quick, hushed whispers that were accentuated by the constant flutter of his hands. Braith's arms folded over his chest, he leaned briefly back on his heels and though she couldn't see it, she felt it when his eyes landed on her.

Her hand constricted around William's. "I'm afraid." It was the first time she had said the words out loud, the first time she had admitted it, even to herself.

"I know. So am I."

Tears bloomed in her eyes as she turned to her twin. She'd never expected such an admission from him. "Not of dying," she whispered.

"No shit," he retorted.

She couldn't help but laugh as their hands began to swing back and forth like they had as children. "You're not either."

"Never have been."

"Then what is it we're so afraid of?" She was asking because she didn't know. She knew she was scared of losing Braith, of losing this war, of losing any member of her family, but those were worries she'd always had, or that she'd learned to deal with since meeting Braith. This was something different, it was in the pit of her stomach, it was buried in the back of her mind at all times, festering like an infected lesion.

William was thoughtful before he answered. "The unknown…"

The hesitation in his words made it clear he wasn't entirely certain about his answer, but the minute she heard it Aria knew he was right. They had struggled with death and loss; starvation and thirst; dirt and homelessness their entire lives, but they had always had some sense of knowing. They'd had their father, Daniel, the other rebels, the caves, the woods, and the knowledge that vampires were the enemy to be fought and destroyed. Now they were on their own, surrounded by what had once been the enemy, in a cave system Aria had grown to hate, and filled with nothing but uncertainty.

"Yes," she agreed. "The unknown."

"It's not the same now."

"And it never will be again."

"Do you want it to be?" he asked.

"Sometimes."

"And other times?"

"I wouldn't change a thing," she admitted. "Not one thing."

"Because of him?"

"Yes, but also because of the hope that the unknown brings us now, because of the promise of something better for everyone. No matter how much we knew before, the outcome was always the same. If we were lucky we would grow older, if we weren't then we died young."

"Or became blood slaves."

"Yes." She did not shy away from it anymore. "You're not still angry at him because of that, are you?"

William hesitated for a moment before he shook his head. "No. If it hadn't happened then we wouldn't be here."

"Afraid?"

His smile was small and fleeting. "Afraid, and full of hope," he responded with a twinkle in his bright blue eyes.

Aria's gaze locked on Braith as she recalled their encounter in the hallway of that dilapidated house. She had one more thing to fear, what would become of them? Of her?

She knew Braith planned to leave when this was over, knew that the vampires would not accept her if she stayed. But he couldn't leave. They had voted him in for a reason, and even if he didn't see it, or refused to see it, it was obvious to everyone else that he was a born leader. He'd done some things he was not proud of, he'd hurt innocents, and he'd been a monster for a brief time, but at heart he was good, and he would do right by as many people and vampires as he could.

He may not intend to be the leader, but he already was, even if he didn't see that, she did and so did everyone else in this room.

Their hands stopped swinging as Braith beckoned them forward. William squeezed her hand before releasing her. "How long do you think it will be before you can find your father?" Braith inquired.

"Aria can usually track him within a few days," William answered.

"I don't know how far into the forest he has gone though and if there are a bunch of us…"

"There will not be," Braith inserted briskly.

She was beginning to realize that there was more to his clipped tones than trying to appear distanced from her. Something had aggravated him. "That will make things easier. Even if he's gone into regions that we've never explored, I can find him in a week."

"Are you certain of this?" he asked.

"Two, tops."

"Which is it?" Barnaby inquired sharply.

Aria's gaze darted nervously to him. "I think she's already answered that question," Ashby told him. "The longest it will take her is two weeks."

"So that means it could be almost a month before you return. And if there is a large group of them, even longer," Calista replied coldly.

"We were raised in these woods, we know them well. A group of us is far easier to move than you think. It will not be a month," Aria said firmly.

"Even if it is a month Calista, you will survive. It's not the most ideal situation but we knew it wasn't going to be easy," Braith informed her.

Calista shifted, her dark eyes narrowed for a brief moment before she gave a quick nod. "We can make do and the human knows the caves." Aria's head snapped around, a small gasp escaped her. There were only two humans here who knew this cave, and she didn't want either one of them staying here. Braith shifted slightly and she suddenly understood the tension in him, the terseness of his words. William didn't know how to track their father as well as she did, he wasn't a big fan of the trees, and he wouldn't be as quick as she would. William glanced anxiously at her; she seized hold of his hand again. "He'll come in handy for getting us out of here if it becomes necessary."

Aria was finding it difficult to breathe. She could feel Braith's gaze boring into her, pleading with her to understand, to do this, to not fight over being separated from her brother, again. She tried to be strong but she was terrified of leaving William with a bunch of vampires.

Everything in her body screamed against it. The other humans were used to the vampires surrounding them, she and William were not. The rigidity in her brother made it clear that he wasn't too pleased by the idea either, though she didn't know if it was because he was staying, or because she was going.

She swallowed the heavy lump in her throat. "Who will be going with me?" she inquired with far more strength than she felt.

"Ashby, Gideon, and I." Braith's voice was still cold but some of the strain had eased from it.

"I plan to go also," Xavier informed him.

Braith showed no surprise at his statement, but Aria felt a flicker of it deep in her belly. "Fine," Braith grated. "William will be staying behind with the others to help keep order, and to help find food if it becomes necessary. If they're forced to abandon these caves will you be able to find each other again?"

"Yes," Aria answered.

"Then we leave at nightfall."

Aria knew he didn't mean to be harsh, but that knowledge did little to ease the knot of sorrow in her chest. She craved his comfort more than anything but she reluctantly accepted that he couldn't give it to her right now, maybe not ever.

"Are you ok with this?" she asked William when the others turned away from them, shutting them out again.

"I'd be more ok if I was going with you, but it doesn't seem we have a choice."

"No, it doesn't."