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Part 8

Paranormal Apprehension Agency

By the time Archer finished skinning and prepping the meat, I was starving. Like the sort of starving where you walk in a daze down the supermarket aisle, and when you emerge, you have a shopping trolley filled with chips, crackers, chocolate, and a kilo of ham. Then you eat it all. Then an hour later you have major regrets because now you can’t button your pants and your stomach really hurts.

Or so I’ve heard.

“Can you carve faster?” I bitched, all the while knowing I was being a dick, but first rule of Liv Club … never let me get hungry.

Hangry never ended well for those in my vicinity.

“I can carve fast,” Rufus said conversationally. “I could strip your entire fucking body in about a minute, maybe two, if I want to savour the moment.”

Jumping to my feet, the rage that often swirled inside of me, the rage that had my therapist constantly trying to get me to “journal about my feeling” soared to new burning heights.

“Fucking. Try. It,” I bit out, my words low and throaty. “I need something to distract me, and killing you is top of my list.”

“Killing you is top of mine too,” he said, but he didn’t pounce at me like I’d expected. In fact, he just dropped down onto the icy ground, and yawned in that weird way cats did, where you weren’t sure their jaws wouldn’t dislocate.

For a normal, sane person, his lack of fight might have calmed them down, but it only enraged me further. He was showing me that he didn’t fear me at all.

Not even a tiny bit.

I’d been underestimated a lot in my life, even my mother like to say ‘you’re five and a half feet of curves and attitude. It’s a dangerous world out there, Livra. Why do you have to throw yourself deliberately at all the dangers in it?’ She’d tried to talk my first boss at the PAA out of hiring me, and almost succeeded. He’d underestimated me too.

No one understood the drive inside of me. Toward danger and adventure … action and fighting. I loved it. I thrived on it. Whatever the fighting version of a succubus was, that had to be me, because I got off on it the same way Chesca got off on fucking.

And now Rufus had pissed me off. Striding forward, I knew he was watching me as I circled the fire to reach him. The only problem being I had to step over Archer to do that, and that made me cautious. The prickly fae prince was one of the only beings I’d ever been wary of, my instincts warning me to be careful. For once.

Or maybe it was my dead mother warning me. I mean, if she was dead of course. I quite liked being dramatic about it all, even if I’d lose my mind if anything actually happened to her. My chest ached at the thought that I’d left her, and I hoped Chesca figured out why she wasn’t answering my calls.

In the meantime. I was going to teach this yawning motherfucker that he shouldn’t mess with Livra Altissimo. Archer shifted and the fire flared into a huge inferno as he lifted a large slab of meat across the flame. It was suspended on one of those spit roast devices, something he’d managed to whittle and fit together with fallen tree branches and his own power—powers that I still had no real clue about.

“Sit down, Livra,” he said softly, taking advantage of my distraction. In my defence, the meat already smelled amazing and it had only just started cooking.

“He needs to be taught a lesson,” I replied, not taking my eyes off the jackolight.

Archer sounded different this time … resigned. Tired, even. “Ruphael has been taught more lessons than I hope you ever have to experience. He needs to learn no more.”

Something twisted in my chest, because there was genuine emotion in his words. Sadness, loss, longing, fear, pain, they intertwined and slammed those sentences into my soul, branding them there.

“Ruphael?” I replied. He’s pronounced it similarly to Raphael, but with rew at the start.

“It’s my full name,” the cat said, sounding slightly less irritating than usual. “Friends can use it. Useless two legged bitches are not allowed.”

“Names hold power in this world,” Archer said, straightening and drawing all of my attention. He started to rotate the meat, one side already crispy and brown. “I’ve offered you his as a token to stand between you. I know you don’t understand why Rufus is … the way he is, but your family stole something from him, and he’s dealing the best he can.”

The cat made a low growling sound, it rumbled from deep in that furry orange chest. “Enough, Austin. Please. She doesn’t need to know anything else.”

It was the please that did me in. Hearing something so polite from the little asshole destroyed my resolve to fuck him up, and I returned to my previous spot, sinking down, and huddling close to the fire. “I’ll give you a pass tonight,” I muttered, because I still needed the last word.

Rufus snorted, but he let me have it, and I counted that as a victory.

Archer got up at one point and disappeared into the darkness, leaving me alone with the mysterious “friend” of his. Like I’d want to call him Ruphael anyway. What a stupid name. Sounded like something a wannabe archangel demon would choose.

When Archer returned he held a bunch of small, golden looking bulbs in his hand. Closest thing I’d ever seen look like that was a sweet potato, but these were definitely not that. Without preamble he threw them into one section of the fire and brushed some of the coals over them.

Stifling a groan, I held my complaining stomach, silently telling it everything would be okay and we wouldn’t starve much longer. It wasn’t just hunger, it was the cold and my hangover. The headache was gone, but exhaustion pushed at me.

“What a day,” I muttered, wishing that I was at home right now with a dozen demon spawn chasing me around and stealing my shit. I’d even write in my journal and attend my next counselling session. Something I was going to miss now and since I couldn’t phone and cancel, I’d no doubt be in a fuckload of trouble the next time I visited the doc.

A warm weight settled into my side and I jumped, both annoyed and frustrated that I’d allowed myself to get distracted again and missed Archer moving. Dude was stealthy, but it was life and death out here, and I couldn’t grow complacent. I couldn’t trust him, or anything in this world.

I had myself to rely on and that was all.

“Here,” he said, handing me a bark plate. He’d lined it with leaves and nestled in the centre was a few slabs of crispy meat, and some fried golden bulbs.

“Uh, thanks,” I said, not sure what to do with a nice Archer.

He remained where he was, for a few moments, his heat seeping into the side he touched, filling me with a bunch of feelings—a lot of those very sexual in nature. I didn’t need to trust someone to fuck them, clearly, judging on my past mistakes.

But something told me if I took that step with Archer I’d lose more than my knickers.

I’d lose everything.

Thankfully he pissed off before I told him to, and I got to enjoy the food. I might have had some reservations about eating a fae animal I’d never seen before, but as I inhaled the gamey, spiced meat, I wasn’t sure I’d ever eaten anything that tasted better. And the golden bulbs—Archer called them papria—were delicious. A smooth mellow flavour with hints of spices that I associated with Indian food. Turmeric and cumin would be the two I’d guess at, or whatever the fae’s closest equivalent was.

I cleaned my bark plate in about five minutes, and I wasn’t the only one. Rufus ate himself through half a side of jackolight, but Archer … he didn’t eat anything. He just watched me, the flickering fire between us, and I tried not to let those tingles low in my gut go even lower.

No. I sternly told my vagina. Sometimes she needed a heavy hand.

A groan died on my lips. The thought of a heavy hand…

I cut it off again, surging to my feet.

“Gotta take a piss,” I said, as unladylike as I could. That would have to reduce the sexual tension, right?

Archer’s lips twitched and I could have sworn that he wanted to smile at me. My vagina wanted him to smile at me, and I again reminded her that the first time we’d met, and that was only a few days ago, he’d tried to kill me. Or not tried, but wanted to, and that was an important piece of information to hold onto.

“Don’t follow me,” I snapped, clutching my anger tightly around me as protection. Archer was playing a game with me, that much was clear, and I would not succumb. I had to remember that I was a means to an end for him. A way to track the stone down. A way to best his enemy—the DNA donor.

Nothing more.

As I strode away from the small area we’d been in, the cold hit me so hard that it sank into my bones. I wondered if it was always freezing here, in the inbetween areas. I wondered about the seasonal changed here in the Otherworld. I wondered about the fae that lived and loved in this land. Were there battles all the time between the dark and light or did they most coexist in mutual hatred?

I wanted to know so much.

But I didn’t want to fall in love with this land because I couldn’t handle losing it. I’d suffered losses in my life that almost broke me. The first was my soul-sister, when we were ten, and the second was my grandfather, from a rogue demon. He had a large part to do with my decision to join the PAA. If I could stop even one more family going through what we did, then I would feel I didn’t waste my life.

So I couldn’t love this land. Because loving anything meant that one day it could be stolen from you. Brutally. Painfully.

Fuck that.

When I was far enough away, I quickly peed and tried my best not to get it all over my leg. I’d never been good at this squat and pee business. Give me a toilet any day, and I’d get it in the bowl just fine. But out in the world like this, I was a three year old learning to pee for the first time.

Somehow I managed to mostly get it where I was aiming and then the next task was to shake off the excess because there was apparently no toilet paper tree out here in the wilderness. And knowing my luck, if I chose a leaf to use, it’d be the fae version of poison ivy, and I’d have my hands down my pants all day tomorrow scratching that itch…

Something slithered across the ground behind me and I forgot all about leaves and scratching, leaping in the air, grabbing my jeans and yanking them up at the same time. I didn’t know what was sliding around there, but I was afraid of snakes—Australia was clearly the best country for me to be born in with that phobia—and all I could think about was a fae version with two heads and a mouth filled with fangs. Because the fae did nothing half assed.

When I burst into the clearing, the fire wrapping its warm embrace around me, Archer was on his feet. He caught me easily, my feet leaving the ground as he hauled me closer. “What, Livra? What did you see?”

I shook my head, teeth chattering from the cold and adrenaline. “Nothing.” I breathed in and out a few times to calm myself. “Something just slithered on the ground behind me, and I’m not a fan of snakes. They’re more demon than any demon I’ve ever met.”

Through my babbling, Archer relaxed, and I was once again standing on my own. “We don’t have snakes here in Otherworld,” he said, eyes looking darker in the firelight

“What we have is much worse,” Rufus said with a snort. “And you’re so fucking naïve. I can’t wait to eat you once you’re dead.”

His eyes roved over me. “Or even still alive.”

The funny thing was, the second part he said was not in his normal crazy-fuck way … it was more. Almost sexual. And he was a cat, so that really grossed me out.

Only

“Is Rufus a real cat?” I asked, eyeing the fluff ball with some trepidation. Not knowing the full story of him was starting to feel like a bad idea.

A very bad idea.

“That’s for me to know and you to find out, bitch,” he said, almost politely. He was screwing with me, making me question everything, and I decided not to play his game.

“Whatever. I really don’t care,” I said blithely. “I’m more of a dog person anyway. Cats are kinda shit.”

I was cold, tired, and hungover. That was the best I had.

Rufus chuckled, not at all offended by my words. He already knew I thought he was an ugly fluffy fuck. I suppose my sudden love of dogs wasn’t going to be the final straw that broke the asshole’s back.

“We need to get some sleep,” Archer said, breaking the tension, sounding a tiny bit frustrated. I got where he was coming from. … even I was growing tired of this bickering, and I generally enjoyed fights.

“How about a truce,” I suggested, including Archer in that as well. “We have a dangerous journey through this world to get to your territory. I don’t want to be fighting and looking over my shoulder all the time within our group.” I dropped my eyes to Rufus. “Can we call the feud between us quits, just until we make it there. I promise not to kick you or call you fluffy, and you can just try and be a little less of an asshole and absolutely no eating,”—of any kind— “will be happening. Okay?”

I thought he was going to refuse, but with a snarling huff, he finally sighed. “Yes. I agree. And my word is good. Until we make it to the territory of Austin Archer, I will not attack you in any way. You can sleep easily. In fact, I’ll go one step further and promise to protect you to the best of my ability.”

I returned his nod. “I also agree to protect you to the best of my ability—” his snort cut me off, but it was definitely less derisive than usual.

“Great. Let’s get some sleep then,” I said, turning to Archer.

I blinked at the odd expression he wore, but before I could comment, he shook his head and was back to blank slate. I’d never met anyone so unreadable, and maybe it’s that in most situations I could see—if I tried—through glamour and magic and runes. But with Archer. I only saw what he wanted me to see. Somehow that made the mystery of him that much sweeter. I wanted to know everything.

The fire was dying down a little now and I wondered if we were just going to end up curled on the hard ground, or if there was some sort of magical fae bed hidden in the forest. Please have a bed. Please have a bed.

“I want you over here,” Archer said, holding out a hand to me. “Where I can keep an eye on you. Rufus will keep watch, he needs the least amount of sleep.”

I waited for the cat to say something smartass, but he just moved to a higher perch. “I’ll keep you safe. Nothing can sneak up on me.”

He was trying to be nice, and I needed to meet him halfway. “Thank you,” I said stiffly. “I appreciate that because if I don’t get some sleep, I’ll be useless to you both tomorrow.”

I’d given him the perfect opening there to rip through me with mean words. Something about how I was already fucking useless. But he didn’t say anything, just stared and nodded. The lack of snarky comment must have hurt him.

With reluctance I crossed to Archer, folding my arms over my chilled body, as both a defence and warming mechanism. It was as cold as Archer’s heart out here, and I wasn’t sure I’d actually survive the night, even with fae genetics.

“Come here,” he said shortly, and I pulled one hand free and placed it into his, so he could guide me where he wanted me. I was out of my element here and I needed to defer to his knowledge, at least for now.

“We’re covered on three sides here,” he told me, leaning in closer to murmur the low words. “And Rufus has the fourth. You can sleep.”

He’s cleared a small area, and I lowered myself to the compact dirt, shivering still, but resigning myself to this fate. No one said the road to darkness was going to be easy, and if Archer and Rufus could do it, so the heck could I. I would not be the one to bitch out. Not today.

Curling on my side, I rested my head on my arm, and snuggled as deep as I could into the thick jacket. The fire was at my front, about three feet from me, and it kept most of the cold at bay. My eyes closed before I could stop them, and I sighed at the joy of finally being able to let my frazzled brain rest.

Drinking last night had been a really bad idea.

***

A few hours later, the cold woke me. Somehow the temperatures had dropped even further, and I was completely numb down one side of my body. The shivers started to really rock through me and my core temperature was probably at dangerously low levels.

The fire was almost gone, just some red coals burning strongly. In the darkness I couldn’t make our Archer or Rufus and for a split second I thought they’d abandoned me. Leaving me here to die from hypothermia or was it hyperthermia … fuck, who cared. The one where you died from the cold, as I was about to do.

A heavy hand landed on me and I choked back a scream, already swinging around to fight. Apparently adrenaline was a great way to heat frozen limbs.

“Stop,” Archer commanded, and I lowered my hand while still managing to elbow him for scaring the fuck out of me. “You’re cold?” he said, not sounding surprised.

“Y-yes,” I chattered out between rattling teeth.

I heard him curse. “Fucking sunshine fae. You’re never going to survive in my world.”

Rolling over so I was facing him, I could just make out the hard gorgeous lines of his face in the very low light. Slamming my hands to his chest, I attempted to push him away. He didn’t move at all. “I’m not weak,” I snarled. “Whatever you throw at me, I will take it and … win.”

I got almost all the words out clearly, even though my teeth were knocking together hard at this point. Archer arched an eyebrow, looking far too formidable for someone sleeping on the hard ground. Like in a split second he’d be up and fighting without any issue. I wasn’t sure I could even move at this point, my limbs were so frozen. It was even too late for me to etch out a rune for warmth. I’d let myself get too cold.

“You won’t die from the cold,” Archer told me, not moving any closer, “but you will suffer and you will slow me down at first light. Let me share my warmth with you.”

“No,” I said stubbornly. Fuck knows why, I wanted nothing more than to crawl into his body heat and steal it all for myself. Siphon it off him the same way Chesca siphoned lust off humans. But I hated the thought of being weak and needing Archer.

I couldn’t let him see that.

He didn’t really give me the option when he reached out and lifted me into his arms, a fiery heat slamming into me as he unzipped his jacket and draped it over me as well. “Fuck,” I groaned, searching desperately for some self-worth. I needed to move. But I really didn’t want to move.

The eternal debate went on for a while, until Archer made an angry sound in the back of his throat. “Go to sleep,” he demanded, voice rumbling in my ear.

God, he smelled so fucking good. He should smell like evil death, not like forest and mint and life. He was a scary assassin fae prince of the darkness.

I really needed to remember that.

“Livra,” he said warningly, and I closed my eyes again, body stiff against him—I couldn’t let myself relax. I wasn’t cold now, but I was freaking out for other reasons.

“Is it always this cold in the Otherworld?” I asked, needing a distraction.

“The inbetween is a land without seasons,” Archer said finally. “It exists solely as a barrier between the light and dark, and only those who have shunned both sides reside in its icy hold.”

I tried to picture the world he was painting, a world that should have been my own.

“The Valley of the Sunbeams is always warm. Eternally sunny. Filled with flowers and rainbows and life.” His tone suggested that this was akin to the fiery pits of hell. “The Kingdom of Light is similar, but they have seasons that change every six months.”

“Your calendar is similar to ours,” I noted.

It felt like he nodded beside me, but I couldn’t see in the darkness. “Yes, we have a similar calendar, but because time moves differently here, it’s not exactly the same.”

I’d no doubt learn more about that later. Or not. It really didn’t matter in the great scheme of what I was here to do. “So the Kingdom of Light is warm and sunny all the time. What is the seasonal change?”

“Summer to fall would be the closest explanation,” Archer said. “My kingdom changes every six months too, but we have a little more variation. Six months of light with a very spring like feel, and then six months of darkness, and it varies from autumn to winter, depending where you are. A few places get very cold.”

“The dark fae mountains,” I guessed.

“Yes,” he confirmed.

“And we’re heading there tomorrow?” I pushed.

“Yes,” he said again.

“Are they worse than the inbetween?”

A dark chuckle escaped from Archer. “They’re the living embodiment of your worst nightmare.”

Slivers of fear crashed into my chest, and it tightened under the onslaught. My nightmares were not something I ever want to visit or share, and I really hoped Archer meant that figuratively. Because if it was literal, we were all in a lot of trouble.