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By Lisa Kessler, Danielle Poiesz, Theresa Cole
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Lisa Kessler
All rights reserved.
Lukas rested his forehead in his hands in utter frustration. The sun would rise soon, and he still hadn't deciphered the Mayan glyph.
Something had changed over the past week in the heart of the Yucatan. He felt watched, hunted by some unseen force. Malice permeated the humid heat of the jungle, and the animals could feel it too, sharing his wariness.
Whatever haunted the jungle creatures seemed tied to the ancient carvings of the Mayan priests. He wasn't sure if his expedition, his own unearthing of such dark secrets, had caused the shift, but he needed to find answers. He'd searched too long to leave without solving the mystery, without discovering what made him a Night Walker. In fact, he'd hoped he would never leave the jungle again.
With every tremor that shook the jungle floor, the sinister presence grew stronger. He'd watched the creatures of the rainforest tremble in fear, their instincts warning them of the danger, of the evil lurking all around them.
Lukas let out a heavy sigh and turned his concentration back to his research. He needed to focus on the puzzle before him. The secrets he'd been searching for were nearly his. How many times had he yearned for that moment, for the chance to finally understand what he had become and defeat it?
Ever since he fled the California coast nearly three hundred years before, he'd been tortured by his immortality, unable to accept his new existence. He was a Night Walker, and it was not his choice. His body had been infected, and he became a killer. Only the shift into his spirit animal offered him solace and escape from the new reality of his immortality.
His thirst for blood had consumed him in the early years. He'd killed often, too often, and it wasn't long before the madness set in. Lukas lost count of the attempts he made to either cure or kill himself. He'd tried every spell, every remedy he could find, and still he lived in darkness. Even the morning sun failed to ruin his immortal body. He'd been burned, but his body's instinct to survive took over, and the next evening he'd found himself buried deep within the earth.
Over the years he'd met and studied vampires, who survived on blood, and other rare species capable of shape-shifting. Although he shared many similarities with these other immortal creatures, he wasn't any of them. None of the vampires he'd found could shape-shift into owls like he could, and the few shape-shifters he'd met didn't drink blood. He'd even impaled himself on a wooden stake through his heart, just to be safe.
It hurt like hell, but it didn't end his existence.
Night Walkers seemed to be a forgotten anomaly.
Other than his maker, he'd never met or even heard of another Night Walker.
Out of frustration, Lukas channeled all of his bitterness and guilt into finding a reason to rise each night. Research gave him a purpose, and he devoted years of endless nights to searching out the origins of the race he had unwillingly joined.
Now he found himself precariously close to another major breakthrough.
"Any luck with the glyph, Lukas?"
He turned when he heard Gretchen's voice. "Not much."
"Are you hungry?" His assistant held up a plastic pouch. "I have some jerky here."
"No," he replied, almost too quickly. Human food would never sate him again. "No, thank you, I'm fine."
He forced a smile, but he was far from fine. Gretchen's rich mortal blood tempted him. His thirst smoldered inside of him. He teased the tip of his fang with his tongue, loathing the hunger.
She shrugged and munched on the jerky while jotting down some notes in her journal. Without electricity, her laptop became an expensive paperweight. He tried not to notice the way she gnawed at her lower lip, fluttering her pen back and forth in her fingers while she pondered her next line.
He noticed far too much about her these days.
"I'm going out for some air." Lukas rose from his chair, pushing his hair back from his forehead, and walked toward the door. "I'll be back soon."
She glanced up, holding him in her green-eyed gaze. "Wait a sec." Bending to pull an envelope from her bag, she straightened and raised a questioning brow. "It looks like I got a raise I didn't ask for."
"You're one of the most sought after Mayan linguists in the States. I couldn't ask you to extend your contract without being sure you were rewarded for your work." Technically it wasn't a lie, but he would be paying this contract, not the university she worked for. He didn't need the money, anyway. And he had one very long lifetime to earn it back if he ever did.
She placed the envelope on the table. "I don't know how you managed it. Funding is tight at the university right now. I'm surprised they let me stay on this project, let alone gave me more money."
"I promised them results." Lukas cleared his throat and turned toward the door. "Get some rest."
"Whatever you promised, thank you." She stood up. "Don't forget your lantern."
She held out the light, but all he saw was her pulse beckoning him with its tempting rhythm under her luscious skin. His eyes burned, threatening to glow red with hunger, and inside his mouth his tongue slid over the tip of his fang again, willing it to retract.
"Lukas?" Gretchen raised her hand to touch his face. "Are you sure you're all right? You look pale."
He caught her wrist before her warm fingers could caress his cool skin and kept his expression purposefully cold and distant. "I said I was fine. I'll be back."
Lukas took the lantern although he had no need for it anymore — immortality gave him night vision that he both hated and appreciated — and disappeared into the darkness of the jungle.
* * *
Gretchen watched him go with an inward sigh. She'd worked alongside many brilliant colleagues, scientists and researchers, but she'd never met a man like Lukas Smith.
Although she'd doubted that was his real last name. After spending time with him these past few months, she'd noticed a hint of an accent creep into his voice when he got frustrated, and once she'd swear she overheard him mumbling to himself in Russian.
Smith didn't sound like a Russian name.
Not that it really mattered. She'd done her homework before accepting this project. Lukas had a reputation for being reclusive, but genius. His discoveries over the years changed the way the archeological community viewed the Maya, and after working with him, she could vouch for his drive for knowledge. He worked tirelessly all night, every night, deciphering the ancient Mayan glyphs with a tenacity that bordered on fanatical.
Ever since the Mayan calendar had been deciphered, more glyphs were translated every year. It wasn't an exact science, but Gretchen loved digging into the pictures and symbols, blending them with the already confirmed characters until she found a new translation.
They'd been on this site for nearly ten months in the Yucatan, and while she had traveled back to the United States twice during that time, Lukas never left the jungle.
She sat down in his chair and stared at the rubbing of the ancient stone tile. Glancing over at his jumbled notes, she stared at the glyph again with a more critical eye.
What did Lukas hope to find? And why did he only seem to work on it at night?
When she'd first arrived, she chalked his work schedule up to being eccentric — exploring the jungle during the day, decoding the glyphs at night. But as she got to know him, she found him reserved, driven, and committed — not what she'd classify as eccentric. Outright questioning her boss about his work hours seemed like a bad career move, though, so she focused on her research and eventually stopped noticing how little he slept.
Even though they'd been working closely together for a few months now, he still remained a mystery. Maybe that explained part of her attraction to him. She was a sucker for piecing together a puzzle. It's what led her to a career in archeology in the first place, and more than likely, that was what kept her here with Lukas. The fact that his looks were every bit as tempting as his brilliant mind didn't hurt, either.
Her six-month contract with his research team had expired four months ago, but she'd renewed it without a second thought. And Lukas apparently negotiated a pay increase for her. She hadn't even thought about it. She'd had no intention of leaving him or the site.
They found something here — something no other archeologists had seen. Just ten miles from the ruins of Chichen Itza, deep in the heart of the Yucatan rainforest, they found an altar. Unlike the elaborately carved and painted Mayan sacrificial monuments, this one appeared simple and plain. She labeled it an altar because, for now, they had no other word to classify it.
When they first stumbled upon it, she mistook it for some sort of well or aqueduct. Mayan "cenotes" were common in the area, exposing the underground rivers that flow beneath the rainforest, but once she and Lukas started deciphering the Mayan writings it became apparent that the deep, seemingly unending hole by the altar had been built for a far darker purpose.
It was never intended to be used for obtaining water.
The Mayan priests sacrificed a woman here, the glyphs explained, but her identity and the purpose of her death was unclear. From all they had deciphered, the Mayans believed she was a Goddess. Goddess of what still remained a mystery.
The carvings also described the hole in the ground as a passage to the center of the earth. The woman's heart had been torn from her chest while she was still alive — the typical ritual for the Mayan ceremonies — but this one differed from the other ceremonial sacrifices. According to the glyphs, after removing her heart, for some reason the priests burned it and dropped the rest of her body down into the core of the earth.
Burning the heart and separating it from the body detoured from tradition. The Mayans believed in reincarnation. In fact, they had a God solely for that purpose. Their culture considered it an honor to be sacrificed, and the people carried the belief they would be born again to have another chance at life. They drained the heart of blood and disposed of it with the body.
She couldn't figure out why they would have destroyed the heart of this woman. Why vary from the tradition? Were they trying to stop her from being reincarnated?
Gretchen's brow furrowed as she stared at the tiles again. There was another strange piece to this puzzle. These glyphs named the Mayan priests, calling them Night Walkers. No other ruins had given the priests such a title, and yet this small, simple altar was very specific about the priests being a different race from the rest of the Mayan population.
According to her translations, the Mayan people believed the Night Walkers were blood-drinkers, immortals who lived only after the sun set.
Discovering the beliefs and religions of ancient civilizations made working in the dirt and heat worthwhile. Seeing it through their eyes offered her a glimpse into their world where magic and superstitions ruled over science. She'd never come across the Night Walker reference in any of her research before, but the Mayans were known for combining magic with science, and that seemed to be the information Lukas kept investigating.
Gretchen wanted to publish their findings but he refused. He didn't want to share anything with the rest of the world until they had a clearer picture of what they'd actually discovered. He wanted more answers first.
Her university had sent multiple requests for the status of her research project, too. She could have leaked the information they found to the university, who partially funded the expedition, but so far, she hadn't. The thought had crossed her mind, but in the end, she couldn't bring herself to betray Lukas's trust.
Ten months ago, she would have. Ten months ago, her career meant everything to her. But now that she knew the man behind the research, she admired him. Okay, maybe more than admired. She could acknowledge her attraction to him, how tempting he was, but she still managed to keep their relationship professional.
During the months they'd spent together in the rainforest, Lukas had many chances to make a romantic advance, but he'd never so much as touched her. He'd commented on her red hair in the moonlight once, but sadly, that was the closest he had ever come to breaching their professional relationship.
It was for the best, of course. The last thing she needed was an even stronger emotional tie to get in the way of her research.
But being trapped in the jungle with a handsome, intelligent man made it impossible for her to ignore the sight of his chiseled torso when he changed his shirt, or the way he tangled his fingers in the back of his unruly hair when he was deep in thought. She was still human. She'd had more than one late-night dream about his fingers tangling in her hair, his passion directed at her instead of his notes.
Gretchen forced the thoughts from her mind, turning back to her work. Work was something she could control.
Lukas most certainly was not.
She sipped her tea, carefully turning the rubbing of the tile glyph on the worktable. The stone bore the image of a wolf. It was odd, really. In all of her research into the ancient Mayan culture, she'd never seen a depiction of a wolf.
Eagles, jaguars, and snakes, yes. But never a wolf.
Gretchen frowned and squinted her eyes, as if the figure might morph into a more common design. But it remained a lone wolf, its head tipped back in an eternal howl at the moon carved above it on the tile.
Lost in thought, she tapped her pen against her spiral notebook, its light rhythm a stark contrast to the noise of the jungle animals outside. Their calls surrounded her in a nighttime symphony of sound. Many nocturnal creatures roamed the darkness outside their tent; it was difficult for her to discern one animal's call from another.
The noises had bothered her at first, waking her from fitful bouts of slumber. Ambien had been her savior, but even that didn't promise her a full night of sleep. Especially lately, as the animals seemed to have become agitated. She'd been exhausted during her first month in the Yucatan, more dead than alive, and twice Lukas had carried her back to camp because she'd been too exhausted to walk from the altar in the heat. But now the night sounds comforted her, embraced her in the arms of the rainforest, taking Gretchen in as another part of its life. She yawned, stretching her arms up over her head. She'd been struggling with this translation long enough.
The wolf could wait for one more night.
Leaving the lantern on for Lukas whenever he returned, she moved over to her cot and pulled the clip free from her hair, sending it cascading down her back. She started to unbutton her shirt when the ground trembled violently under her feet.
Gretchen turned and caught the lantern before it tumbled off the edge of the worktable. The earthquake rumbled again, getting stronger. The large canvas tent rattled, and the support posts squeaked in protest. Diving under the table, she covered her head and waited for the ground to stop shaking. She wasn't sure if the loud rumbling and cracking noises were the huge trees creaking overhead or thunder, but she had her answer soon enough. The sky opened up, deafening her ears with the sound of rain pouring onto the roof of the tent.
And Lukas was outside somewhere.
When the tremors finally ceased and the earth settled, Gretchen scooted out from under the table, bringing the lantern with her. She could hear the tiny rivers of rainwater already gurgling outside. Strong and sudden storms often visited the jungle here. Without warning the forest could go from hot and humid to a torrential downpour, flooding the land below. Grabbing a flare gun and a hooded poncho, she opened the tent and peered out into the darkness.
"Lukas!" She held her breath, waiting for a reply. "Lukas! Can you hear me?"
She listened, but the steady fall of rain and silence were the only answers she received. In fact, it was too silent outside. The hair on her arms prickled. Definitely too quiet.
What happened to all of the animals?
Aiming the flare gun out into the darkness, she fought to control the trembling in her hands. A branch snapped, and Gretchen spun around.
"Lukas?" She gnawed at her lower lip, praying he would answer. "Who's there?"
Excerpted from Night Demon by Lisa Kessler, Danielle Poiesz, Theresa Cole. Copyright © 2013 Lisa Kessler. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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