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The Living Night: Box Set

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The Living Night: Box Set




  by Jack Conner

  Copyright 2014

  All rights reserved

  Cover image used with permission


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  by Jack Conner

  Copyright 2014

  All rights reserved

  Cover image used with permission

  Chapter 1

  When the sun went down over the Sahara, Ruegger stuck his head above the sand and scanned the horizon for assassins.

  Clear. For the moment.

  He stood, dusted himself off and lit a cigarette, feeling the cooling desert wind against his neck. It was so peaceful here. So hot during the day, but when the sun disappeared the land cooled rapidly. As a vampire, Ruegger was only able to enjoy the last of the day’s heat before the cold of night took over, and he relished it.

  Sand stirred. He turned to see Danielle emerging from the ground and brushed at some of the sand around her lips.

  “We survived another day,” she said, and they kissed.

  “Now to start running again.”

  She shook an arm, and sand spilled out of her sleeve. “At least it’s better than tunneling through dirt.”

  Too true, he thought. Tunneling didn't afford much sleep, whereas some rest could be had sitting on a camel—not much, but some. He could see the exhaustion in her beautiful face, and the fear. Though also a vampire, Danielle was much younger and therefore more vulnerable than he was, even if he would never dream of telling her that. Young or not, she was a badass, and proud.

  "The hunt ends tonight,” he promised. “One way or another."

  “It better.”

  As they checked their weapons for sand clogs, Danielle swore.

  “What is it?” he asked.

  She pointed. A sandstorm boiled up from the south, blotting out the stars. Before it moved a string of dark figures—the death-squad, ready to continue the pursuit across land.

  “Damn,” Danielle said. “I was hoping we’d lost them.”

  “Me, too. Let’s hurry.”

  They picked their way over to the camels, which they’d led along by psychic means during the day while the two vampires tunneled. Ruegger helped her mount with a gentlemanly flourish (she only rolled her eyes a little), then climbed astride his own camel.

  “Ra,” he said, and the animal set out. Danielle rode at his side, looking half ready to slide out of her saddle.

  “Want some more blood?” he said.

  “You don’t have any left to spare, babe.”

  He bit back a curse. “I’m sorry I got you into this.’

  “Hell with that. I’m the one that wanted to come.”

  But I’m the one that let you. When she’d learned of his habit of going on a vision quest every decade or so in the Sahara and asked him why he hadn't gone on one since they'd been together, he hadn't known what to say. Under the premise of their anniversary, she’d demanded to go with him on one. Now here they were.

  “You couldn’t have known the abunka would show up,” Danielle said. “Besides, if there’s a hit out on us, they would go after us anywhere. Hell, coming all the way out here to get us probably slowed them down.”

  “Maybe,” he said. “But why are they after us in the first place?” It had been a strange hunt, with the abunka (a race of immortal distinct from vampires) and their abilities to tunnel through sand at speed. It had certainly kept Ruegger and Danielle busy.

  “We’ve made plenty of enemies,” she reminded him.

  “They must be renegade.” Traditional abunka lived only in the ground, but these went below solely during day. Neither race, abunka nor vampire, could survive the sun.

  “They’re pretty handy underground, though,” Danielle said. “Anyway, tonight we reach the pillar.”

  “And Triboli, if he’s there. Are you strong enough to face him?’

  “Like a bull.”

  Frowning, Ruegger watched Danielle. Sand plastered her face and tangled her hair. Her lips were dry and cracked and parted slightly as if she didn't have the strength to keep them closed, and he was sure he looked just as bad. They required human blood on a regular basis, sometimes feeding more than once a night when they were in a city (only small sips, never a kill ... unless the person deserved it), but it had been too long now and, in heading toward one of the twenty or so sacred pillars scattered throughout the desert, they hoped to find a source of blood. And cigarettes.

  "That the last one?" he said.

  She nodded, the dark-stemmed clove crackling between her lips. She corkscrewed atop her bumpy perch to catch a glimpse of their pursuers less than a mile behind and slapped the flank of her camel to make it go faster.

  He glanced up at the moon, half full and waltzing across the clear sky, a hot wind having blown up from the equator. He focused on the wasteland before them, trying to sort through the billowings of the sandstorm …

  "Bingo!" called Danielle. "I see it."

  A sudden clearing of the storm had revealed the pillar, about a hundred yards ahead.

  "Is that what I think it is?" she said.

  He examined the structure more closely. Three camels were tied to a post outside it. Probably one rider, he thought—one animal to ride and two reserves. Ruegger and Danielle kept reserves, as well.

  "Looks that way," he said.

  "Think …” She swallowed. “Think it’s Triboli?”

  He heard the fear in her voice. If Triboli had reached the pillar ahead of them—if he’d fed …

  "We'll be all right," he told her with more conviction than he felt.

  They drew near the pillar and dragged themselves off their exhausted mounts.

  "I hope this place has got some cigarettes," she said, and Ruegger admired her aplomb.

  "Don't count on it.”

  He wondered at the reliability of the suka, the tribe of humans that worshipped immortals, then looked back one last time at the hunters. It would be some time before the death-squad arrived.

  Ruegger stepped forward, moving past the generator half buried by sand, and stopped before the pillar. About five feet in diameter and fifteen high, with exotic sculptural embellishments at the top (just below the satellite dish) reflecting its African roots, the moon glinted on strange bas-reliefs and sand raged like a screen in front of it.

  A small hole opened at waist level, just big enough to put one's hand in, but deep. Mortals who wished to be admitted were supposed to prick their fingers on some unseen spikes at the back of the recess; if the hole decided to admit them, a panel would fall back and reveal a narrow stone staircase leading below the sand, but if for some reason (maybe if it sensed some duplicity) the hole took a disliking to the supplicant’s blood, a rusty blade would descend and slice off the part of their forearm in its grasp, leaving them to bleed to death in the desert.

  Having lived for hundreds of years and having learned to use some of the powers immortality had given him, Ruegger used his mind to push the panel in; it opened slowly, sand scattering about, moonlight illuminating a few slivers of time-worn steps, bowed in the center, that disappeared around the twist of a bend

  “You sure you’re ready?” Ruegger asked.

  Danielle hesitated, but only an instant. “Let’s do it.”

  Ruegger crossed into the pillar and edged down the staircase, Danielle just behind. Both drew their pistols.

  At the bottom, they emerged into the sanctuary. Torches flared along the walls in different-colored gouts of flame—blue, red, green—casting dream-like hues across the chamber, which was low and wide, the floor and walls of stone, most of the cabinets of wood, probably built in more modern times. Blankets arranged loosely on the floor, as if to give the room a warmer appearance, and a great four-poster bed loomed at the far end. A computer with a modem hunched on a desk in a corner, and Ruegger thought how bizarre it was that this symbol of modern technology had invaded even this most ancient and sacred of places. There were several pantries, some oil paintings on the walls along with decorative curtains and crossed swords, and a basin had been carved into the floor, half-full of water. Rafters that looked semi-petrified arched over the room.

  The vampire Triboli occupied the center of the chamber, naked and covered in blood. He stared at the vampires expectantly.

  “Good evening,” he said, his English inflected with a South African lilt.

  Ruegger stared at the object that hung from the rafters—no, he saw. Objects.

  Two humans, a man and woman, both naked, had been bound in razor wire and suspended in a cocoon made from the wire. Though both were clearly dead, blood, not quite coagulated yet, continued to drip down on Triboli. A vampire could not drink corpse-blood, but he seemed to be enjoying the tactile sensation.

  “Bastard,” hissed Danielle, and started forward.

  Ruegger pulled her back.

  Triboli smiled. “I’m honored, really. To merit the attention of two such notorious shades. The Marshals, is it? Ruegger and Danielle?”

  “You better believe it, motherfucker,” Danielle said. Anger burned in her eyes, and Ruegger feared that she might try to leap at Triboli without him to back her up. Ruegger could feel the power coming off the other immortal and knew it would take both of them to kill him—if they were even enough together.

  Ruegger indicated the bodies. “Why? Did they offend you somehow?”

  Triboli wiped a bit of blood off his chest and sucked on his fingers. “They’re sacrifices,” he said. “What else was I to do?”

  Ruegger knew that the suka often selected, either by lottery or with the aid of volunteers, people to go into the sanctuaries and sate the hunger of their gods. Most immortal races fed off humans one way or another—vampires with blood, werewolves flesh, morbines brain fluid and so on. It was an awful custom and unique to the peoples of the Sahara, who alone among humanity knew of the immortal community—the Community.

  “Accepting their sacrifice is one thing, terrible though it is,” Ruegger said, watching the way the razor wire dug into the mortals’ flesh. “Sadism is something else.”

  Triboli lifted his lips. Blood coated his fangs. “That’s right,” he said. “I’ve heard you two only feed off of those you feel deserve it—murderers, rapists and so on.”

  “And wicked shades,” Danielle added.

  Triboli spread his arms. “Take me if you think you can.”

  “Well?” she said to Ruegger.

  He shoved his pistols away and drew out his curved dagger. She did the same.

  “Are you up to it?” Ruegger asked her.

  “Hell yeah,” Danielle said.

  “Then I find this vampire guilty of the murder and torture of innocents.”

  “I concur.”

  “Then let’s do it.”

  Without another word, they moved in.

  * * *

  Jarvick frowned as he chased Ruegger and Danielle across the desert. The hunt had lasted eleven days and nights and he was beginning to feel a weariness in his bones, as well as a twinge of something he hadn't felt in a long time. Fear. He turned to Sasha, second-in-command of the death-squad, and said, "There it is."

  Sasha squinted into the wasteland until he saw the pillar, then yelled to the men, "Faster!"

  Jarvick studied the pillar with detachment. Erected by the ancients long ago, it marked the presence of one of the several dozen sanctuaries scattered throughout the desert. Often called "resting places" by those who used them, they'd been built to ensure the safety of any immortal crossing these bleak regions. The suka kept the sanctuaries stocked with foodstuffs, booze, fresh sheets and the occasional human sacrifice.

  Jarvick hungered.

  The hunt had gone on too long, and the immortals of his squad needed blood and flesh. Without it, they would die. It was this threat of imminent death, at least in part, that sobered Jarvick. Mainly, though, his small-but-growing feeling of apprehension stemmed from the threat of Ruegger and Danielle themselves. Ruegger especially had a savage history, and he was very strong—much stronger than a two-hundred-year-old shade had any right to be, thanks to his friendship with the werewolf Lord Kharker. Danielle was reportedly quite fierce, as well, but she was young and posed a much lesser threat. Hunting those two—who, together, were known sometimes as the Marshals, sometimes as the odd flock—had been a sleepless endeavor, and if the vampires lived up to only a fraction of their reputation, violence would be the inevitable outcome.

  As the abunka drew closer to the pillar, two black-clad figures with livid black eyes emerged from the sanctuary, a corpse in their arms. Ruegger and Danielle flung the blood-drained carcass of a tall, dark-skinned immortal to the ground, then withdrew into the pillar.

  "Impossible!" hissed Sasha. "They couldn't have killed him in the sanctuary!"

  "Is that where your thoughts are, Sasha?"

  Sasha’s gaze moved to the corpse. “Triboli,” he said. “They killed Triboli.”

  The vampire was ancient and well-known in the area.

  “That means they’ll be strong,” Jarvick said. “And we’re not.”

  They traded grim looks.

  “What now?” said Sasha.

  “There may be another way,” Jarvick said. “I’ll go in alone.”

  “They could kill you, too. To them, you’re no better than Triboli was. Why don't we all go in together?"

  "We'd only make them nervous. Then they’d be in no mood to bargain."

  "Fear is persuasive."

  "Prudence is required, Sasha. Right now they're stronger than any one of us and perhaps all of us together. They've had blood—immortal blood—when we haven't had even a sacrifice in weeks."

  "They're trapped."

  Jarvick gave him a hard look. Sasha backed down, turning to his men and twirling a finger. Together, they started riding in a circle around the pillar, shouting obscenities and firing the occasional gun.

  Jarvick entered the pillar. He paused at the bottom of the staircase, staring out from the passageway he occupied into the room, trying to locate the vampires. Ruegger and Danielle were nowhere to be seen.

  Reluctantly, Jarvick stepped from the bottom step into the room. Instantly he was seized—the vampires had been waiting to either side of the stairwell opening—and flung to the ground.

  Ruegger shoved a foot on his chest and aimed a .45 at his face, while Danielle held a sawed-off, pistol-gripped shotgun in her hands. None of the guns could kill Jarvick, but they could prove painful and maybe incapacitating. The best way to kill an immortal, any immortal, was dismemberment, sometimes burning. Crosses, garlic and holy symbols were only for the movies. Sunlight worked, too, but only for certain species.

  Jarvick studied Ruegger and Danielle. Both had black hair, dark eyes, and smooth, pale skin, an appearance which made them surreally picturesque as far as vampire lore was concerned.

  “You know who we are,” Ruegger said. “Please, introduce yourself.”

  "I'm Jarvick, leader of the abunka who've been following you. Can I have a cigarette?"

  Danielle threw him a pack, along with a lighter. Awkwardly, he lit it, feeling the weight of Ruegger's foot
on his chest. He could feel the vampire's strength and knew that, although he was only half Jarvick's age, Ruegger was the stronger.

  "Are you working independently or is there a general hit out on us?” Danielle said. Her lithe attractiveness piqued Jarvick’s interest.

  “General,” he said.

  "Whose black list are we on?" asked Ruegger. He was tall, though not as tall as Jarvick—probably a couple inches over six feet, something like that. Lean and sinewy, with capable hands, he moved with the sharp grace of someone who had lived through many battles.

  "It's not my policy to ask," said Jarvick. “I’m always hired by anonymous employers. Some of my boys figure it has something to do with the Scouring, but I don’t think so.”

  “The Scouring?”

  “You’ve been out here too long. It’s been going on, what, the last few weeks, I guess. High-profile shades all around the world are biting it. No one knows who’s taking them out or why. Anyway, I don’t think that’s who hired us—whoever’s behind it, I mean. You don’t fit the pattern.” He waved the subject away. “I didn't come here to kill you."

  "I suppose not. Otherwise you wouldn’t be down here alone.”

  “It occurred to me and my associates that you might pay more to be rid of us than our employer had paid to be rid of you. If you see what I mean.”

  “You won’t stay in business long with that attitude,” Danielle said.

  “Yes. Well. Being rich is better than being dead, and we hadn’t counted on you feeding first … and on an immortal.” Such would make them immeasurably stronger, at least for however long Triboli’s blood burned in their veins.

  “At the last pillar, we heard from the suka about Triboli coming through,” Danielle said. Darkly, she added, “We saw what he left behind. The blood … We’d been on our anniversary vacation, but after that …”

  “How about this?” Ruegger said. “We will pay you—”

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