The mountain range was high. High enough that Andre—the Ghost—could reach the lonely, craggy places others avoided. The higher up he went, the more fog swirled, enclosing him in a soft, wet, gray veil. He was the ‘Ghost’ and he could easily disappear into the cool gray world he knew so well. He never used a last name if he could help it because the only name that mattered to him was not his own and unless he found a lifemate, he would not chance ever dishonoring it.
Situated a couple of more miles up, almost at the very top of the mountain, was the monastery, the one that had been there for centuries. Built on the precipices, the monastery was shrouded in mystery and the ever-swirling clouds. It was a sacred, protected place and few knew of its existence, although word had gotten out over the years that such a place existed. Only the bravest ever attempted to go there. Had he been inclined, he could have sought sanctuary there to recover from his latest battle.
The monastery, known as the Retreat in the Veil of Mists, held a virtual army of ancient Carpathian hunters—men who had not yet sought the dawn—but like Andre, could no longer trust themselves around others. They stayed strictly to themselves, avoiding all humans, all battles, and lived their lives simply until they were able to let go of life and seek the dawn.
For men who had lived centuries with honor, it wasn’t easy to let go of life. Even without emotion and color, some felt it was cowardly and without sustaining a mortal wound in combat, they couldn’t just lie outdoors and allow the sun to take them. If felt—wrong—too many warriors. Andre would have been welcomed among them, yet he had been too long away from others. He had thought to go there, but in the end realized he couldn’t even accept the sanctuary and the camaraderie he might find there.
Andre didn’t bother to staunch the flow of blood coming from various wounds. He knew he should. It was a trail leading straight to him. Still, it was also an invitation, pure and simple. Anyone who came near him was going to die. He would awaken—that was if he awakened at all—starved for blood, his body crawling with the craving, with the need, and that was the most he’d feel or ever could feel.
One didn’t take blood from the ancients, not unless the need was dire and certainly not without permission. Andre wasn’t the type of Carpathian who ever asked for asylum or permission not even from his own kind. He would find what he needed as he always had done on his own. His way.
Some things were a matter of honor. Andre had lived more centuries than he cared to count. He’d held out against the darkness with honor and served his people hunting the vampire over several continents. He’d battled the undead so many times he honestly couldn’t keep count of the numbers any longer, nor did he care to. There seemed so many more of them and so few hunters. They were losing the war.
He had searched centuries for his lifemate—the one woman who could restore his ability to feel real emotion. The one woman who could give him back color and life. He hadn’t found her. He had long ago given up the idea that she could possibly be in this time realm. Had she been somewhere on this Earth, he would have found her by this time.
The relentless whispers of temptation to kill and feel something, if only for a moment, no longer tempted him. For centuries he had carried that burden, but now, it too was gone, and that was bad, because at least he’d felt something. Now there was only a dark gray void and endless weariness.
He wouldn’t go to the monastery to rest because among other reasons, he no longer trusted himself to be around anyone, humans or Carpathians. Once he realized how far gone he was, he knew, in order to preserve his honor, he would have to allow the sun to take him. That had been his intention until Costin Popescu had attacked him. Popescu, the name Costin had assumed was a joke. Son of a priest. Costin was anything but that.
Andre turned to survey the waning night. Light streaked through the gray and already he could feel the first prickles of warning on his skin. That didn’t matter to him either. It only served to alert him to the rising sun. He didn’t need the caution, he’d been too many centuries alive not to know the exact moment of sunrise and sunset anywhere he happened to be.
Had the master vampire, Popescu attacked him man to man, vampire to Carpathian, as he would have in the old days, Andre would have been more than happy to go to his death with honor as long as he took the vampire with him. Battling a master vampire was very dangerous. They had immense power. Coupled with experience in battle, it made for a very fair fight.
The world had changed too much for Andre’s liking. He no longer belonged and he was well aware of that fact. He’d never been a man to be around others. He preferred the high places or the wild places, anywhere he didn’t run into masses of people. Or even a few. He wasn’t civilized. He wasn’t tame. He had his own code and he lived by it.
Even vampires had changed. There was no longer honor in that battle. In the old days, vampires hunted and killed alone. Now, master vampires had begun recruiting lesser vampires and they ran in packs. Costin Popescu had four following him, doing his bidding. Two were probably eager enough to follow his blood trail. The rich ancient Carpathian blood would draw them straight to him. The other two had been around a while and Popescu had taught them a thing or two about battling an ancient hunter. Fortunately he had managed to kill one of the more experienced followers, leaving Popescu with just three pawns in his little army.
Now, Andre couldn’t go quietly to the dawn and rest as he should have been able to because he was honor bound to rid the world of Costin Popescu and his band of blood-thirsty underlings.
Andre found the narrow entrance to the cave he intended to use to rest and heal. He’d used this particular cave before. It wasn’t easily accessible. One had to stumble upon the entrance to actually see it and very few ever came up the jagged cliffs to this height. He had used this cave for a resting place since he was a boy.
He still remembered the glittering gems, crystals of every color sparkling across walls in the various chambers. Sometimes a gleam of light burst through the narrow chimney and lit the interior walls with veins of precious minerals. He used to come back to the cave in the hopes of seeing that beautiful sight, the one that he thought he’d burned into his memory, the one he’d been so certain would never fade. He lost his emotions far earlier than the normal two hundred years and the loss of his ability to see in colors followed quickly. The cave, like everything else was gray.
He had made the underground chambers a home in his youth, long after he’d lost all family members. Everything that meant something to him from his earlier days was stored in an underground ‘vault’ he’d fashioned out of rock, deep beneath the chamber where he often rested. A few centuries earlier, when he realized he would be the last of his family line, he had sealed the vault and only returned to the caves when necessary.
He sighed as he stepped inside the cool, narrow opening. He had to set safeguards. Popescu’s minions wouldn’t be able to be out in the sun, but it would be suicide not to ensure no one found him while he slept. He didn’t have that luxury until he rid the world of the vampires preying on civilians. He lifted his hands and began the complicated, but very necessary ritual of putting safeguards around his resting place.
He’d lost a tremendous amount of blood and unexpected weakness hit him as he began to open the earth. Perhaps he had waited too long. His injuries were severe and maybe, just maybe, fate would take a hand and he would not rise again.
Teagan Joanes sat on her sleeping bag in her small travel tent with her heart pounding. She’d made a huge mistake. Huge. She was an experienced traveler and when she went hiking in other countries she always checked out the guide carefully. She knew better than to go off alone without a buddy in any foreign country. She had never, not one single time, considered it would be unsafe to travel into the mountains with a man she had known for over three years.
They were friends. Good friends. In the United States, at the college, she had tutored him, studied with him, ate lunch and dinner with him while they studied. He was from another country and very good looking with a deep accent, so therefore, popular with the women on campus. He dated a lot. All the time. Rarely the same girl more than twice. Their relationship had been strictly friendship. He never made a move on her, not once. She’d always felt comfortable with him. What happened?
Teagan tried desperately to think what she could have done or said to make Armend Jashari think for even a minute that she suddenly wanted more from their friendship. They’d continued their relationship online, messaging back and forth every few days, just to keep in touch, but there hadn’t been a hint of anything sexual. When she needed to visit the Carpathian Mountains it had been natural—she thought—to tell Armend she was coming.
He volunteered immediately to be her guide into the high country and of course she’d accepted. She was comfortable with him. Correction. She had been comfortable with him. Now, the bad vibes had become really scary.
She slept dressed in her jeans and a tee, just to be safe. Now, she pulled on her boots quickly, hearing him prowling around her tent. He was working himself up, she could see that with his pacing. She hastily rolled her sleeping back and fixed it to her pack, all the while wishing she could exit her tent without being seen.
She trusted her instincts and right now they were screaming at her to run for her life. Without preamble, her tent door was ripped back and Armend launched himself into her space.
Teagan narrowed her eyes at the man who crawled into her tent. Her guide. Her friend, so she thought. He wasn’t acting in the least bit like a guide or a friend, more like a spoiled rich kid who was entitled to take anything he wanted, including her.
“What do you think you’re doing?” She demanded in her most haughty, how-dare-you-you’re-going-to-die-if-you-come-one-step-closer-to-me voice. Most of the time, the voice didn’t work. She wasn’t tall and threatening in the least, but she could back the voice up whenever necessary and right now, she was afraid it was going to be very necessary.
“You want this. You’ve wanted me from the first day you ever saw me three years ago,” Armend Jashari snarled at her. “Don’t pretend. You’ve been panting after me all that time and then you decided to come over here and ask me to guide you into the mountains.”
“You offered, Armend,” she felt compelled to point out. “It was your idea.”
“You wanted me to guide you.”
“You were my friend and I thought…” She trailed off. She had never considered this would happen, but she should have.
“I know what you want. Stop playing hard to get.”
“We went to college together, Armend,” she said, keeping her voice low. She didn’t want to agitate him or set him off. Sometimes logic worked. The tent was small and there wasn’t a lot of room to maneuver. “We had classes together. We ate lunch and sat outside and talked. I thought you were my friend.”
He rolled his eyes. “Women and men aren’t friends. Did you think I wouldn’t notice the looks you gave me?” His accent was thick and it thickened more with passion.
Armend Jashari had been sent to school in the United States. His parents were very wealthy in a land where few people had much. Clearly Armend had grown up believing he could do anything he wanted, including keep coming at a woman when she clearly said no.
“I apologize for any misunderstanding that happened between us. I honestly did think we were friends. I have a very good reason for coming here, which I explained to you, and I thought you understood. It seemed a natural thing to do, contact a friend who was familiar with the mountains I needed to explore. I didn’t mean to lead you on, or give you the idea that I was interested in being anything more than your friend,” Teagan said.
She had never flirted with him. Not once. Armend hadn’t given her any indication that he wanted more than friendship during the entire time he was at school with her. She was young to be in the master program for her degree in geology. Armend was a good five years older than she was and on top of that, she looked extremely young. Like a boy. Armend had treated her more like a younger sister. He spent a great deal of time with her, but he dated a lot of women—women who looked like her sisters—not that looked like her.
She had three sisters. All were tall, with womanly curves and the faces of models. She had come along ten years after all of them. All three were athletic, beautiful, intelligent and now married with children. She was…Teagan. She could see Armend being attracted to her sisters, but she wasn’t five foot ten and she didn’t have full breasts and curved hips. She didn’t attract men like her sisters did. And she definitely didn’t lead men on.
“You aren’t really here looking for a certain type of crystal or stone,” Armend objected. He inched forward.
Teagan picked up her one cooking pot. She used it to cook everything in when she was hiking—which was often. The pot was black from spending so much time in flames. “Don’t you dare come any closer.”
“You’re a tease. A bitch,” Armend snarled. His face turned ugly and he clenched his fingers into tight fists. “I came all the way up here for a pity fuck. That’s what you are to me. My boys laughed when I showed them your letter. They’re camping a couple of miles from here and waiting their turn.”
She kept her expression blank. He had friends camped close by? She was in the Carpathian Mountains alone with him. She’d trusted him to guide her up the mountain in order to find the exact crystal or stone she needed. It was imperative she find it. She was on a quest—a mission—and she needed the crystal. She’d know when she found it. Her body was a tuning fork for such things. The moment she stumbled on the trail she’d track it to it’s location, but she had to feel a hint of it first. She’d come prepared to spend a month in the mountains, knowing sometimes it was very difficult to run across the faint sign that would allow her to find what she needed.
“I guess I should thank you for thinking of me, but really, Armend, a pity fuck is out. I don’t want you to touch me, let alone get that personal. So pity or not, that’s out of the question and off the table. Get out of my tent.”
“You’re just a stupid little virgin, aren’t you? A cock-tease.”
She raised an eyebrow, gritting her teeth. She had a temper and he was pushing very close to it. He was definitely going to attack her and she might as well prod him into it so she was ready for him. “There isn’t anything stupid about me, Armend, I’m far more intelligent than you’ll ever be. I had to tutor you, remember? You never would have gotten through any of your classes without me.”
He flung himself on her, knocking the cooking pot out of her hand. She was small. Five foot two to her sisters’ five foot ten and eleven and that was when she wore shoes. She was extremely slight. She didn’t exactly have lush breasts or anything else that men found enticing. What in the hell was Armend thinking?
His body slammed into hers, carrying her over backward. Her head hit the frame of her backpack and her back hit the ground—hard. He landed on top of her, forcing the air out of her lungs. She punched him as hard as she could from the awkward angle she had, driving her fist into his left eye.
He swore and punched her back. Three times. In the face. She actually saw stars and the edges around her vision blackened. She refused to pass out. He tore at her clothes, ripping her favorite camping shirt. She only brought a few changes of clothing because when she hiked, it was all about the weight of the pack she carried and he’d just reduced that meager amount by one.
There was no bucking him off, no getting out from under him by rolling, so she used her very strong stomach muscles and sat up, into him, slamming her head under his chin and driving up with the top of her head. It hurt like hell, but she didn’t care. It got him off of her. He rolled into the side of the tent, nearly bringing it down.
She scrambled on all fours to get out of the tent. He kicked her hard in the back of her thigh. Her leg went numb but the force sent her flying out of the opening. She landed on her stomach and rolled away from the tent as fast as she could, trying not to sob with the pain. He wasn’t fooling around. He definitely meant business and he didn’t care whether he hurt her or not.
She’d taken lessons in defending herself—a lot of them. She climbed, both bouldering and sport climbing as well. She hiked all the time, all over the world. She was in good shape and strong for being so small. She was not going to let someone like Armend Jashari beat and rape her, not without hurting him.
Her hand found the rock she was looking for. It was a good size and solid. As she pushed herself up, struggling to fight off the waves of nausea the punches to her face had caused, Armend hit her from behind, slamming her back to the ground. His hands found her hair and he yanked her head back savagely, turning her as he did so, still straddling her. He punched her hard in the ribs and then leaned down and bit her lip. Hard. The pain was excruciating. She tasted blood.
When he lifted his head, he had blood around his mouth. Her blood. He laughed. “I’m going to have fun with you, Teagan. And then my boys are going to have fun. You’ll do whatever we tell you to do and you’ll beg us to fuck you if you want to get off this mountain alive. You’re not the first stupid bitch we’ve taken up here. A few are still wandering around trying to find their way off the mountain. Oh. Wait. They fell off a cliff. We didn’t bother to bring their bitch bodies out, just left them for the scavengers.”
Now she could put down a poor judge of character beside all the other ‘cons’ on her list about herself. As his head came down toward hers again, she slammed the rock against his temple, using his downward momentum and her strength. He grunted. His eyes rolled. He slumped over the top of her, a dead weight. Crushing her.
Teagan wasn’t certain she could find the strength to move his body, but the thought of his friends being close by—and she was certain he was telling the truth about them—had her shoving him hard with every bit of strength she possessed. She managed to shift him enough to crawl out from under him.
Shock took over, adrenaline leaving her shaking and close to tears. Neither was a good thing when she needed to get out of there fast. She couldn’t help herself, she had to reach over and feel for his pulse, just to assure herself she hadn’t killed him. Touching him was abhorrent, but she did it. Unfortunately he was still alive. She scowled at him, staggered to her feet and hastily caught up her pack. She left her tent and started up the mountain rather than going down it as he would expect.
She had no idea how good he was at tracking someone, but she wasn’t going to make it easy for him. She needed a plan and she’d figure out what to do while she climbed. Her face ached and she knew it was swelling. Her ribs hurt. She wanted to go back and smash him again with the rock. At least there was some satisfaction in hitting him hard.
First, she had to calm her breathing so her ribs wouldn’t hurt so darned bad. She wanted to climb into the high country so she could make a wide enough circle that she could head back down the mountain and not run into Armend and his friends if they really decided to come after her. Remembering the look on Armend’s face and the way his eyes turned hot and eager at the thought of him and his friends having so much power over her, she was certain they would come after her.
Teagan pushed herself hard, using the trees and brush to hide her as she moved steadily up the mountain. She kept herself in good shape and usually, she could hike for hours uphill when needed, but she was at a higher elevation and the back of her thigh throbbed and protested with every step she took. Her face hurt so bad she wanted to cry and one eye was swelling along with her cheek. Her lip seemed the worst, which was silly. She poured water on a handkerchief and held it her lower lip while she walked.
Eventually she came to a narrow deer path winding uphill through a much thinner grove of trees. Thin wisps of fog drifted through the trees—a few fingers only, but the air had cooled already considerably. She was grateful for the respite. Up high, the sun and thinner air wreaked havoc and she had very fair skin and her ribs hurt like hell with every jarring step.
She cursed Armend Jashari with every step she took. She’d gone a few more miles and was wondering if she dared to take a break. She needed one. She’d drank water and stopped a few times to find a place she could do her ‘girl’ thing, and she hid any sign of that carefully, afraid it would help Armend find her trail much easier.
She spotted a depression in the low brush and thought it might be a good place to rest, even if it was only for a few minutes. Her leg needed it. She took several steps toward it and stopped dead in her tracks, her heart suddenly accelerating. There it was. Just like that. When she almost let everyone convince her she was crazy, she felt a strange fluttering along her veins, like a vibration.
Immediately she halted, allowing herself water while she absorbed the feeling. She needed to be able to tune her entire body to the vibration, until it was a song in her veins, rushing with her blood through her system. Her gift. The one she could never explain to anyone and not make it sound insane.
Elation swept through her. She hadn’t thought she’d find the trail so quickly, but somewhere ahead of her, the wonderful stone or crystal or gem she needed so desperately was waiting for her. She had to make a decision right now. If she followed the trail of the stone she sought, she would be risking Armend and his friends finding her. If she didn’t, she could lose this stone forever and that meant losing her most beloved grandmother.
Trixie Joanes had taken her and her three sisters into Trixie’s home when Teagan was born. Her mother died in childbirth and not once had her grandmother ever blamed her for the death of her daughter. If anything, she had loved her all the more. She owed everything to her grandmother and loved her beyond anyone else in the world. Lately, her grandmother’s mind had begun slipping.
Her sisters were terrified she was slipping into a world of delusion and they kept taking her to psychiatrists. No one seemed able to help. Teagan had decided she had to do something herself and that meant using her special gifts few wanted to know about. Talking about them put her in the same ‘insane’ category as Trixie. Still, she knew what she could do with anything of the earth, minerals, gems, crystals, any type of rock. She knew the power each stone held and she was able to tune it to her, unlock that power and use it. Finding the right stone to help clear Trixie’s mind was essential. Teagan was willing to risk everything for her grandmother.
She changed direction immediately and doubled her pace, determined to put as much distance between Armend and her while she followed the trail of rock or crystal her body had tuned itself to. Armend had never believed her that her body could actually find the trail of types of rock and crystal.
She’d told him, of course, one time during an all nighter at the University. He’d wasted a few days of study time partying as usual and she’d agreed to help him study for an exam. She’d been a little tired and sometimes that made her talk too much. He’d laughed at her, just like everyone did, so she didn’t bring it up again. Until now.
She felt like an idiot confiding in him, relaying her fears about her beloved grandmother, explaining why her quest was so important. She could understand him thinking she was crazy, but seriously, he was the crazy one. He was a serial killer. A serial rapist. How was she going to explain that one to her grandmother and sisters?
She winced remembering his cold statement. ‘Pity fuck’. That was harsh. Mostly men ignored her. Well, okay. Not ignore. She had mostly male friends. But they always saw her as a friend. A little sister. Which was fine by her because she wasn’t attracted to anyone. Not male or female. She had no idea why, but she wasn’t.
Her sisters endlessly set her up, calling her and asking her over for dinner. Inevitably when she arrived, there would be a man—or a woman—one of her sisters had also just happened to invite and of course she had to sit through dinner next to them and be hit on all evening.
But now, up in the mountains, all alone, without anyone around, she just had to get the attention of a man and he turned out to be a serial killer. What was up with that? She sighed. She realized her legs were about to give out. The pain in her side now radiated up into her chest so her lungs burned for air. She had to rest, but fear drove her to keep going. She needed to find a place out of the way, somewhere she could lay down for a while.
Looking around, hoping to find a more hidden area to rest in, just in case she did fall asleep. She was exhausted and the pain seemed to be worsening, although intellectually, she knew it hadn’t, she just wasn’t occupying her mind and keeping it at bay as well as she had been while she followed the trail. She had to pay attention to her body, to the strength of the song she heard in her veins. If she went too far in the wrong direction, the vibrations dulled. It took total concentration which was a good thing to block out the pain, but she’d been traveling for a good part of the day and she had to stop.
Movement caught her eye. The trees were mostly gone up this high. Only a few straggly ones hung grimly on to life. While she’d been hiking, the mist had grown thicker and she hadn’t really noticed. Around her, the world seemed gray, alien even. The wind blew, so that the fog swirled in pinwheels, but it didn’t seem to go anywhere. Still, even with the sounds muffled, she had definitely spotted movement a few yards to her left.
She bit at her lip and nearly cursed aloud. Instead, as she crouched low to keep from being spotted, she heaped curses silently on Armend’s head, wishing she was a witch and could consign him to a living hell. Maybe have fire ants crawling up his legs and biting the heck out of him everywhere, especially his manly parts. That might be nice.
It took a few minutes to realize it was no human being moving around in the brush, but an animal. No. More than one animal. Wolves? She knew there were all kinds of wildlife making homes on the mountain range. This was nearly the last refuge for larger predators.
She shrugged carefully out of her backpack, wanting to groan as the weight came off her back. Instead, she kept her eyes on the wide field of dense brush. She spotted movement in at least five different spots. Alarm grew. She hadn’t cleaned up and the scent of blood probably clung to her. She brushed her hand across her face and it came back smeared with blood.
Her lip actually hurt more than her head, which was silly since her face was swollen up like a balloon but the pain in her lip made her sick. It didn’t help that she had a habit of biting at her lower lip either. The scrape of her teeth when she forgot, was agony over the wound. She hadn’t looked at it, not even once, afraid maybe she needed stitches. Or worse, the asinine idiot had rabies or something. Sheesh. She should have hit Armend harder.
Another strange thing was she felt inexplicable sorrow. Not just that, but despair. Hopelessness. An agony of loneliness. She knew it wasn’t her own, but something carried in the mist. A song. A song of great sorrow, not just from one individual, but from many. The notes blended into the symphony of the mountain.
One of the animals moved out of the brush into the open. She stared at it, heart pounding. Mouth dry. She kept trying to make it into a wolf. Right size maybe. She could even think the shape was sort of right. But no way was that creature a wolf. It looked more like a sheep. Or a goat. Were there wild goats or wild sheep in the Carpathian Mountains?
The fog was very heavy and she hadn’t even noticed it had become that dense. The air felt damp, but she was grateful for the cover. There wasn’t as much foliage up this high and she didn’t want Armend, or any of his friends to spot her moving up the very faint animal trail she followed. The animal moved again, a slow steady few steps and her body sagged with relief. Clearly the Carpathian Mountains were home to wild sheep.
She sank down onto a small, flat rock and let herself look around. Her tuning fork, as she called it, was leading her up higher into the mountains than she’d ever intended to go. Teagan drank more water. It was important to stay hydrated.
She glanced at her watch. She’d been hiking up the trail for several hours. She was hungry and tired and out of sorts. Worse, she was now totally enshrouded in the fog and wrapped in a blanket of intense emotions, none of them good. The notes playing through the song of the mountain were painful to listen to. She was a healer and she naturally wanted to do something to ease that pain. If it was pressing on her shoulders and crushing her chest, she couldn’t imagine what it was doing to those who felt such despair.
She’d only taken a couple of small breaks because she was really afraid now that she’d decided to hunt for the gemstone or crystal that could aid in clearing her grandmother’s mind. Of course, if Trixie knew she was hiking alone in the wilds of the Carpathian Mountains, with a pack of rabid men on her heels, she’d get out the mythical wooden spoon she’d always threatened Teagan with.
She needed a place to rest. Her leg, where Armend had kicked her, cramped and throbbed alternately and she began to limp. She drank more water and searched above her for a place that might be hidden. There didn’t seem to be any real cover other than the fog, but it was so thick, she couldn’t really see anything above the elevation where she was.
With a sigh, she capped the bottle and stood. She couldn’t stay there. She needed shelter of some kind and that meant looking for it. While she did, she might as well follow the trail the strange vibrations in her body was leading her to. Both paths seemed connected. Both led up the mountain, instead of down toward civilization.
She shrugged into her pack and started up the trail, putting one step in front of the other, trying to feel her way. The blood sang in her veins. She was definitely close to her goal. She veered to her right. The song grew louder. She heard it in her ears, a pounding drum of satisfaction calling to her. Another few yards and the song burst through her body. She was that close—so close she actually could push aside those sad, weeping notes that counterpointed the song in her body.
Teagan stopped and examined the wall of rock directly in front of her. Her stone was somewhere inside the rising tower of rock. She slipped her palm over the small boulder. The fog was even thicker up here and she literally felt her way around the mountain. Her hand abruptly slipped off and she realized instantly she had found an opening.
She stared into the darkness for a long moment. She was small enough to fit inside if she took her pack off and carried it. Her heart pounded. Wild animals could live in the cave. Still, if nothing else lived in it, she could rest. The chances of Armend finding the cave were slim and she desperately needed to go to sleep. More, she needed to try to calm the swelling in her face and take a look at her stinging lip.
“Courage, Teagan,” she whispered to herself. “You’ve come this far for Grandma Trixie, are you going to fail because you’re scared?”
She often asked herself that question. Was she going to fail because she was scared? She might be afraid of a lot of things, but she never once had allowed fear to stop her from doing anything she wanted to do. In fact, often times, that fear spurred her on, because she was so determined not to allow it to rule her.
She started to slip into the narrow opening and something stopped her. Something completely invisible. She put her hand out and felt the barrier. A shield. It seemed to be constructed of notes, like the music inside her body. She’d never encountered such a thing before, but her mind was all about puzzles and patterns. She loved to boulder because that was a world of puzzles and patterns. She could see a problem in front of her and her mind feasted on it, needing to solve it.
Never in her life had she encountered such a thing. She didn’t know if nature had spun that tight netting, or if something else had done it, but she knew she had to solve it. The compulsion was on her and there was no going back from it.
She sank down in front of the opening and lifted her hands into the air, closing her eyes and tuning herself to the invisible threads of what she saw as a harp in her mind. The strings of the harp were all knotted, forming a tight net. She simply had to unravel them and set them straight again.
It was a complicated pattern, and she found herself completely absorbed, forgetting Armend and, the sorrowful notes in the fog, and everything else, even the pain in her body while she worked to sort out the strings of the harp. Everything had to be reversed and she had to do it by sound alone. There was no visible shield, just a song she felt in her body.
It took her two hours, she knew because she’d looked at her watch. She was shivering with cold, her clothes damp from the thick fog by the time she’d straightened out all the strings and knew she could walk through the entrance. Feeling triumphant, she got to her feet and, pushing her pack ahead of her, slipped inside. The moment she did, the despairing notes faded away, left behind in the thick mist.
Darkness swallowed her instantly and with it, came the thud of her heart. Loud. Scary loud. She jerked out her flashlight and carefully examined the way ahead of her. The tunnel was narrow, but still, she could walk upright through it. She scrutinized the ground carefully for tracks of animals. She couldn’t see that the dirt had been disturbed. She was fairly certain that if wolves occupied the cave, there would be evidence, like a pack surrounding and eating her.
She pushed forward. Her heart continued to pound, no matter how hard she tried to breathe away fear. She moved down the narrow hallway, realizing she wasn’t only going deeper into the cave, but downward as well. The angle wasn’t terribly steep, but still, she became aware of the heavy rock over her head. The cave had high ceilings and the further she went into it, the higher the ceiling became. She stopped every few feet to shine her flashlight in all directions. She wanted to see the walls surrounding her and the ceiling above her.
Still, there was no sign of wolves or any other animal and she was becoming excited that she might have found the perfect base camp to hunt for her stones without Armend or his friends finding her.
The narrow hallway abruptly widened and she had a choice to go left or right. She listened to the song in her veins and chose right. The tunnel was short and opened almost immediately into a wide chamber. It was beautiful. The walls sparkled when she shone the light over it. Something drew her toward the very back and she followed that need.
Teagan placed her backpack against the furthest wall beside another opening that, when she shone the light there, appeared to be an entrance into another chamber, just a bit smaller. She stepped inside to look around.
The dirt had been moved recently. She could see that and when she flashed the light over the freshly disturbed earth, she spotted drops of dark red blood. Lots of it. And it was definitely recent. Her heart stopped pounding. Stopped beating. She was so certain her heart stopped that she put her hand over her chest and opened her mouth to drag in air. Blood. Right there in the cave with her. What now?