The woman looked completely out of place in her pristine white blouse and tailored ivory pants. Long, coffee-dark hair cascaded over her shoulders in thick waves, not a single strand disturbed by the moist haze that hung in the air of the forest. She was wearing tall elegant heels, which hadn't seemed to keep her from climbing up a wooded path that had the other hikers around her huffing in the humid July heat.
At the crest of the steep incline, she waited in the shade of a bulky, moss-covered rock formation, unblinking as half a dozen tourists passed her by, some of them snapping pictures of the overlook beyond. They didn't notice her. But then, most people couldn't see the dead.
Dylan Alexander didn't want to see her either.
She hadn't encountered a dead woman since she was twelve years old. That she would see one now, twenty years later and in the middle of the Czech Republic, was more than a little startling. She tried to ignore the apparition, but as Dylan and her three traveling companions made their way up the path, the woman's dark eyes found her and rooted on her.
You see me.
Dylan pretended not to hear the static-filled whisper that came from the ghost's unmoving lips. She didn't want to acknowledge the connection. She'd gone so long without one of these weird encounters that she'd all but forgotten what it was like.
Dylan had never understood her strange ability to see the dead. She'd never been able to trust it or control it. She could stand in the middle of a cemetery and see nothing, then suddenly find herself up close and personal with one of the departed, as she was here in the mountains about an hour outside Prague.
The ghosts were always female. Generally youthful-looking and vibrant, like the one who stared at her now with an unmistakable desperation in her exotic, deep brown gaze.
You must hear me.
The statement was tinged with a rich, Hispanic accent, the tone pleading.
"Hey, Dylan. Come here and let me get a picture of you next to this rock."
The sound of a true, earthly voice jolted Dylan's attention away from the beautiful dead woman standing in the nearby arch of weathered sandstone. Janet, a friend of Dylan's mother, Sharon, dug into her backpack and pulled out a camera. The summer tour to Europe was Sharon's idea; it would have been her last great adventure, but the cancer came back in March and the final round of chemotherapy several weeks ago had left her too weak to travel. More recently, Sharon had been in and out of the hospital with pneumonia, and at her insistence Dylan had taken the trip in her place.
"Gotcha," Janet said, clicking off a shot of Dylan and the towering pillars of rock in the wooded valley below. "Your mom sure would love this place, honey. Isn't it breathtaking?"
Dylan nodded. "We'll e-mail her the pictures tonight when we get back to the hotel."
She led her group away from the rock, eager to leave the whispering, otherworldly presence behind. They walked down a sloping ridge, into a stand of thin-trunked pines growing in tight formation. Russet leaves and conifer needles from seasons past crushed on the damp path underfoot. It had rained that morning, topped off with a sweltering heat that kept many of the area's tourists away.
The forest was quiet, peaceful . . . except for the awareness of ghostly eyes following Dylan's every step deeper into the woods.
"I'm so glad your boss let you have the time off to come with us," added one of the women from behind her on the path. "I know how hard you work at the paper, making up all those stories—"
"She doesn't make them up, Marie," Janet chided gently. "There's got to be some truth in Dylan's articles or they couldn't print them. Isn't that right, honey?"
Dylan scoffed. "Well, considering that our front page usually runs at least one alien abduction or demonic possession account, we don't tend to let facts get in the way of a good story. We publish entertainment pieces, not hard-hitting journalism."
"Your mom says you're going to be a famous reporter one day," Marie said. "A budding Woodward or Bernstein, that's what she says."
"That's right," Janet put in. "You know, she showed me an article you wrote during your first newspaper job fresh out of college—you were covering some nasty murder case upstate. You remember, don't you, honey?"
"Yeah," Dylan said, navigating them toward another massive cluster of soaring sandstone towers that rose out of the trees. "I remember. But that was a long time ago."
"Well, no matter what you do, I know that your mom is very proud of you," Marie said. "You've brought a lot of joy into her life."
Dylan nodded, struggling to find her voice. "Thanks."
Both Janet and Marie worked with her mother at the runaway center in Brooklyn. Nancy, the other member of their travel group, had been Sharon's best friend since high school. All three of the women had become like extended family to Dylan in the past few months. Three extra pairs of comforting arms, which she was really going to need if she ever lost her mom.
In her heart, Dylan knew it was more a matter of when than if.
For so long, it had been just the two of them. Her father had been absent since Dylan was a kid, not that he'd been much of a father when he was present. Her two older brothers were gone too, one of them dead in a car accident, the other having cut all family ties when he joined the service years ago. Dylan and her mom had been left to pick up the pieces, and so they had, each there to lift the other one up when she was down, or to celebrate even the smallest triumphs.
Dylan couldn't bear to think of how empty her life would be without her mom.
Nancy came up and gave Dylan a warm, if sad, smile. "It means the world to Sharon that you would experience the trip for her. You're living it for her, you know?"
"I know. I wouldn't have missed it for anything."
Dylan hadn't told her travel companions—or her mother—that taking off for two weeks on such short notice was probably going to cost her her job. Part of her didn't really care. She hated working for the cut-rate tabloid anyway. She'd attempted to sell her boss on the idea that she was sure to return from Europe with some decent material—maybe a Bohemian Bigfoot story, or a Dracula sighting out of Romania.
But selling bullshit to a guy who peddled it for a living was no easy task. Her boss had been pretty clear about his expectations: if Dylan left on this trip, she'd better come back with something big, or she didn't need to come back at all.
"Whooee, it's hot up here," Janet said, sweeping her baseball cap off her short silver curls and running her palm over her brow. "Am I the only wimp in this crowd, or would anyone else like to rest for a little bit?"
"I could use a break," Nancy agreed.
She shrugged off her backpack and set it down on the ground beneath a tall pine tree. Marie joined them, moving off the path and taking a long pull from her water bottle.
Dylan wasn't the least bit tired. She wanted to keep moving. The most impressive climbs and rock formations were still ahead of them. They had only scheduled one day for this part of the trip, and Dylan wanted to cover as much ground as she could.
And then there was the matter of the beautiful dead woman who now stood ahead of them on the path. She stared at Dylan, her energy fading in and out of visible form.
Dylan glanced away. Janet, Marie, and Nancy were seated on the ground, nibbling on protein bars and trail mix.
"Want some?" Janet asked, holding out a plastic zipper bag of dried fruit, nuts, and seeds.
Dylan shook her head. "I'm too antsy to rest or eat right now. If you don't mind, I think I'm going to take a quick look around on my own while you all hang out here. I'll come right back."
"Sure, honey. Your legs are younger than ours after all. Just be careful."
"I will. Be back soon."
Dylan avoided the spot where the dead woman's image flickered up ahead. Instead, she cut off the established trail and onto the densely wooded hillside. She walked for a few minutes, simply enjoying the tranquillity of the place. There was an ancient, wildly mysterious quality to the jutting peaks of sandstone and basalt. Dylan paused to take pictures, hoping she could capture some of the beauty for her mother to enjoy.
At first Dylan didn't see the woman, only heard the broken-static sound of her spectral voice. But then, a flash of white caught her eye. She was farther up the incline, standing on a ridge of stone halfway up one of the steep crags.
"Bad idea," Dylan murmured, eyeing the tricky slope. The grade was fierce, the path uncertain at best. And even though the view from up there was probably spectacular, she really had no desire to join her ghostly new friend on the Other Side.
Please . . . help him.
"Help who?" she asked, knowing the spirit couldn't hear her.
They never could. Communication with her kind was always a one-way street. They simply appeared when they wished, and said what they wished—if they spoke at all. Then, when it became too hard for them to hold their visible form, they just faded away.
The woman in white started going transparent up on the mountainside. Dylan shielded her eyes from the hazy light pouring down through the trees, trying to keep her in sight. With a bit of apprehension, she began the trudge upward, using the tight growth of pines and beech to help her over the roughest of the terrain.
By the time she clambered up onto the ridge where the apparition had been standing, the woman was gone. Dylan carefully walked the ledge of rock, and found that it was wider than it appeared from below. The sandstone was weathered dark from the elements, dark enough that a deep vertical slit in the rock had been invisible to her until now.
It was from within that narrow wedge of lightless space that Dylan heard the detached, ghostly whisper once again.
She looked around her and saw only wilderness and rock. There was no one up here. Now, not even a trace of the ethereal figure who lured her this far up the mountain alone.
Dylan turned her head to look into the gloom of the rock's crevice. She put her hand into the space and felt cool, damp air skate over her skin.
Inside that deep black cleft, it was still and quiet.
As quiet as a tomb.
If Dylan was the type to believe in creepy folklore monsters, she might have imagined one could live in a hidden spot like this. But she didn't believe in monsters, never had. Aside from seeing the occasional dead person, who'd never caused her any harm, Dylan was about as practical—even cynical—as could be.
It was the reporter in her that made her curious to know what she might truly find inside the rock. Assuming you could trust the word of a dead woman, who did she think needed help? Was someone injured in there? Could someone have gotten lost way up here on this steep crag?
Dylan grabbed a small flashlight from an outer pocket of her backpack. She shined it into the opening, noticing just then that there were vague chisel marks around and within the crevice, as if someone had worked to widen it. Although not any time recently, based on the weathered edges of the tool's marks.
"Hello?" she called into the darkness. "Is anyone in here?"
Nothing but silence answered.
Dylan pulled off her backpack and carried it in one hand, her other hand wrapped around the slim barrel of her flashlight. Walking forward she could barely fit through the crevice; anyone larger than her would have been forced to go in sideways.
The tight squeeze only lasted a short distance before the space angled around and began to open up. Suddenly she was inside the thick rock of the mountain, her light beam bouncing off smooth, rounded walls. It was a cave—an empty one, except for some bats rustling out of a disturbed sleep overhead.
And from the look of it, the space was mostly man-made. The ceiling rose at least twenty feet over Dylan's head. Interesting symbols were painted on each wall of the small cavern. They looked like some odd sort of hieroglyphics: a cross between bold tribal markings and interlocking, gracefully geometric patterns.
Dylan walked closer to one of the walls, mesmerized by the beauty of the strange artwork. She panned the small beam of her flashlight to the right, breathless to find the elaborate decoration continuing all around her. She took a step toward the center of the cave. The toe of her hiking boot knocked into something on the earthen floor. Whatever it was clattered hollowly as it rolled away. Dylan swept her light over the ground and gasped.
It was a skull. White bone glowed against the darkness, the human head staring up at her with sightless, vacant sockets.
If this was the him the dead woman wanted Dylan to help out, it looked like she got there about a hundred years too late.
Dylan moved the light farther into the gloom, unsure what she was searching for, but too fascinated to leave just yet. The beam skidded over another set of bones—Jesus, more aged human remains scattered on the floor of the cave.
Goose bumps prickled on Dylan's arms from a draft that seemed to rise out of nowhere.
And that's when she saw it.
A large rectangular block of stone sat on the other side of the darkness. More markings like the ones covering the walls were painted onto the carved bulk of the object.
Dylan didn't have to move closer to realize that she was looking at a crypt. A thick slab had been placed over the top of the tomb. It was moved aside, skewed slightly off the stone crypt as if pushed away by incredibly strong hands.
Was someone—or something—laid to rest in there?
Dylan had to know.
She crept forward, flashlight gripped in suddenly perspiring fingers. A few paces away now, Dylan angled the beam into the opening of the tomb.
It was empty.
Excerpted from Midnight Rising by Lara Adrian. Copyright © 2008 by Lara Adrian. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.