Refugee (Chapter 11)

"You know, for an immortal vampire you're a bit of a wimp," Aria informed Ashby.

He flashed his dashing smile as he grinned. "I never said I wasn't."

As quietly as possible, so as not to wake the sleeping creature's, she closed three of the five gates. "They'll go out tonight." She pointed to the fourth gate. "That's the way out, when they leave to feed we'll lock it down and they won't be able to get back in."

"We're not staying here, are we?" Ashby inquired worriedly.

Aria shook her head. "No, we are not savages; we don't like the smell of guano any more than you do."

Braith squeezed her shoulder soothingly. "No one is saying that," he assured her.

Aria took a deep breath, trying to keep her control. It wasn't only their scrutiny and blatant revulsion that had her so wound up, but also the confining walls surrounding her. "I know," she said. "We always leave one of the larger caverns blocked off so the bats can't get inside. This way."

Her nose wrinkled in disgust at the pungent aroma of the bat droppings as she picked her way over it, moving steadily toward the fourth gate. It had already been closed off. "I'll go," Braith was moving toward her but she held up her hand and shook her head.

"No Braith, I have to go through this time. Its booby trapped and I know where the triggers are." A low grumble of displeasure escaped him as he moved to intercept her. She'd already prepared herself for this argument. "I helped Daniel design a good portion of them, believe me it is far safer for me in there than you."

"Aria…"

"Stop being so stubborn," she interrupted. "Besides, at this point in time, your life is far more valuable than mine."

She realized immediately that had been the completely wrong thing to say. He seized hold of her, lifting her as he thrust his face into hers. The gentle man from outside was gone, before her was the vampire prince that was used to being obeyed and expected it from everyone, except for maybe her. "Don't you ever say that again!" he snapped so loudly that Ashby's gaze darted nervously to the top of the cave. "Your life is every bit as important as mine, if not more so…"

"Braith," she whispered. "You must lower your voice."

"Do you think I care about a bunch of flying rodents?"

"If they leave their perch they'll leave this cave. They'll attract attention Braith, you must calm down." She touched his arm lightly, looking to soothe him. "I know these caves Braith, I'll be fine."

His jaw clenched, his head bowed as he pressed his forehead against hers. "Your life is just as important. Without you, I'm nothing."

Her gaze darted nervously toward Xavier; Braith had just revealed too much, she knew it. A surge of protectiveness shot through her, her hands squeezed around Braith's arms as she stared fiercely at the dark vampire, daring him to say something, to do anything that would hurt Braith. She would be nearly useless against the powerful older vamp, but she would do everything she could to keep Braith safe.

"It's ok," he whispered against her ear. "It's too late anyway."

Aria shuddered, it was too late, their secret had been revealed to Xavier, and if they continued on it wouldn't be long before it was obvious to everyone. Terror coiled through her belly, it spread out to her limbs, leaving a trail of cold across her skin and within her muscles.

She pressed closer to him as her hands grasped at his flesh. She needed the physical contact like a drowning man needed air. A low sigh of relief escaped as her fingers encircled the thick steel of his arms. Beneath the wiry hair of his forearms his skin was smooth to the touch. It eased the tension within her.

She forced herself to release him as she took a small step away. "I can do this, I know the traps well. I'll be fine."

His eyes closed, she sensed his inner struggle, she braced herself for more of a battle but then his shoulders slumped and she knew she'd won. "I'm going to be right by your side."

She went to turn away but he pulled her back to him. He tenderly clasped hold of her face, cradling it with an ease that belied the power that radiated from him. He could crush her in an instant, yet he held her with the gentleness of someone who had just been handed the most fragile flower in the world. His lips were a light caress against hers, so faint that she barely felt the brush of them.

"Just as important, and don't you ever forget that, don't you ever say something like that again."

She swallowed heavily and managed a small nod. "I won't," she promised.

He continued to hold her, seemingly torn and unwilling to let her go. Finally he stepped back and released her. She felt a sense of loss that she couldn't shake. She didn't look at Xavier as she turned slowly away from Braith and moved toward the closed fourth gate.

"How do you get it open?" Ashby's voice was hushed. She turned toward him, startled by the paleness of his skin that she didn't think was entirely due to the bats. His lips were pinched; his eyes shadowed and haunted as his gaze darted nervously away from hers.

"I have my secrets, and talents," she answered with a small wave of her fingers, hoping to coax his cocky smile back. He remained uncharacteristically solemn.

"That's for sure."

She frowned at Xavier as she studied him. She thought he had spoken those words, but she couldn't be certain. She took the torch from Braith as she ran her fingers over the wall. She found the tiny switch set back into the wall and pressed against it.

The thick metal door popped open with a hiss of stale air. It smelled even danker and mustier in there, but it didn't stop her as she pressed her hand against the solid iron door and pushed it the rest of the way open. "Ingenious," Ashby muttered.

Aria gulped as she stepped into the dark tunnel. It was ten steps to the first trap, a set of four stones set into the floor that when stepped on would fire a rapid release of stakes from the cave walls. "Should we shut this?" Xavier inquired.

"Yes. William knows how to open it and we all know Ashby won't appreciate it if a bat gets in."

"You got that right."

"There are four stones here." She pointed them out. "Don't step on them."

"What happens if we do?" Xavier inquired.

"Nothing good. I'll be right back." She had to set the traps off, she knew that. William was well aware of their location, but there was no way that all of those troops weren't going to hit at least one of them. "Stay here."

She could feel the apprehension radiating from Braith. "These traps are old…"

"Not that old, and Daniel is a genius, believe me they're still safe to maneuver through."

She could tell that he didn't want her to go but he fisted his hands at his sides, locked his jaw and managed to give her a brief nod to continue. Aria placed the torch into a socket in the wall; she would not need it on the other side. She moved through the tunnel, avoiding the stones with ease. Reaching the safety of the solid rock, she knelt as her fingers sought out the small switch carved into the bottom of the cave and set about six inches back from the bottom.

"Move back," she told them.

Braith hesitated for a moment before pushing Xavier and Ashby back. When she was certain they were well out of the way she flipped the switch. Stakes exploded from the wall in a puff of dust and air that made it impossible to see the three of them on the other side. Ashby and Xavier cursed loudly.

"Aria!" Braith shouted.

"I'm fine," she assured him. He was slowly coming back into view as the dust began to settle. Though most of the stakes littered the ground, some had embedded themselves into the crevices of the rock wall. Ashby was gawking as he searched the scattered stakes; even Xavier's normally calm exterior seemed ruffled. "It's safe now."

Though Xavier and Ashby hesitated, Braith strode rapidly forward. His displeasure was evident, his tension high as his arm wrapped around her waist. "How many more of these traps are there?" Xavier inquired as he and Ashby picked their way carefully through the stakes.

"Ten."

"Crap," Ashby muttered.

"I can dismantle them all, don't worry."

Xavier's dark eyes were intense as he studied her. "You helped the man that designed these?"

"I had a hand in some of it, but for the most part he created them."

"Is this Daniel someone in your family?"

Aria wasn't surprised by Xavier's acute insight but she still didn't like it. "Yes, my brother."

He nodded for a brief moment; his eyes darted over the cave walls. "That little talent will come in handy."

"It will," Braith agreed. "How far until the next one?"

"Thirty feet."

"Lead the way."

Aria sighed in relief as he remained resigned to let her do what was necessary.