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Part 9

Paranormal Apprehension Agency

“Are we there yet?” I complained. I was reasonably fit, everyone in the PAA had to be—we spent most of our days literally running after whatever demons couldn’t keep their shit under control. But we’d been walking for hours. Days. Fuck, maybe weeks.

Okay, not weeks, but it felt like weeks. This forest was never ending, the cold did not abate, and despite our truce, Rufus was still … Rufus.

“We will have to camp again tonight, it’s not safe to travel through the forest in the dark,” Archer said, sounding as fresh as he had when we set out at first light. First fucking light. The only time I liked to see that light was when I’d been up all night chasing a demon or drinking with Chesca. It was decidedly less pleasant on the other side. If Archer kept getting me up with the sun, I was going to draw a dick on his face. Using a permanent rune. So it would be stuck there for a week. I had a rune to do it, I’d tweaked one of the standard ones to include that extra feature, so he better not push me.

A tree slapped me in the face and I glared at the broad shoulders in front of me. Had he read my mind? Bastard.

“What other dangers could we face?” I pushed. We’d been ambushed by three jackolights, five raging creatures that looked a lot like giant lizards and were apparently called cochetta, and two slithering things that were like jacked up millipedes, with no eyes, dozens of legs, and a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth. Rufus gleefully informed me that the fae slug was probably what had slithered under my ass last night, and even though they were blind, they could smell and hear extremely well. I asked what would have happened if I got bit and the awkward silence after that pretty much said it all.

Archer was still minimising his use of power, but luckily, the moment those creatures realised who they were facing off against, they bailed in an instant. Archer had a rep.

“I can handle anything in this forest,” Archer said shortly, no doubt wondering if I was questioning his badassness. “But you’re proving to be less than useful, so far at least.”

Rufus snorted but didn’t comment.

“You’re probably right.” I was too tired to argue. Besides, if I made him think I was useless, he’d continue to do all heavy lifting when it came to protecting us. It was a win win. For me.

After another awkward silence and hour of walking, Archer finally found the perfect place to stop for the night. There was no hunting or fire, he said we were close to some tribes he didn’t want to see, and also, this close to the dark fae mountains, it was not good to attract attention.

“Eat this,” he said, handing me a bunch of dried meat from our last night’s catch.

“Yes sir,” I muttered, taking the meat because I actually was really hungry. I also realised in that moment that I hadn’t seen Archer eat since we got here. Had I ever seen him eat actually?

What did this fae eat? I decided to pay closer attention to that, because I knew asking him outright would get no answer.

Archer shook his head at my snark but didn’t comment. I think he knew my current mood was somewhere between “fuck you” and “I’ll rip your damned balls off and make you eat them.”

Not that he was scared of me or anything, but he also wasn’t stupid, and I could admire than in a man. A lack of stupid. It was harder to find than you’d think.

“Bad idea to let her get hungry,” Rufus said, watching me with this huge cat eyes. Creepy cat eyes. “Her energy lowers and she’s not good at dealing with it.”

Scowling, I flipped him off. “Don’t act like you know me, cat.” He wasn’t wrong, and we were trying this truce thing, but it made me uncomfortable when he picked up on shit about me. Like he saw way more than he should.

Rufus laughed, and it was the weirdest thing ever. I wasn’t sure I’d seen him laugh like that, and with cat vocal cord … shudder.

“Your smart mouth is probably the thing I like most about you,” he admitted. “I mean, I hate everything about you including your mouth, but I hate it a tiny bit less.”

“You make me very uncomfortable,” I told him, and I could have sworn that his eyes dimmed for a second, before he growled at me and turned his back.

I caught the words as he marched into the forest. “Good. Keep your fucking distance.”

Okay, then.

I turned to see what Archer was doing, biting off another piece of surprisingly delicious jerky as I did. I blinked at the empty space he’d been occupying a few seconds ago. I knew that because I was always partially aware of Austin Archer and where he was at all times. But the bastard had just vanished into thin air.

Jumping to my feet, I scanned the area, taking note of places he could have disappeared into, or could have been taken from. It was hard to believe anything could get the drop on Archer, but I also didn’t know this world. I had no idea of the predators. Maybe Archer wasn’t the baddest thing around.

Jerky in one hand, the sharpest rock I could find in the other, I crept out of the small clearing and into the forest near where Archer had been. The cold wrapped insidious tendrils around me, reminding me of my frailty in this frozen environment, but I didn’t stop. I was dead if I didn’t find my guide anyway … I didn’t even know how to get to his territory, and the DNA donor’s territory was obviously a no go for wanting-to-murder-me reasons.

For the first time it truly struck me—the position I had put myself in. How much I was trusting and relying on Archer. Fuck. I should never have been that stupid, because I didn’t even know him. No doubt he had more than his own agenda at play here, but I’d made the decision and I had to follow through on it.

That meant finding his stupid ass and saving it if he was in trouble.

Bushes rustled to my right and I stilled, breathing as lightly as I could, keeping my heartrate slow. Some demons could sense your energy, especially if you were excited or scared, and I had a feeling that fae might be similar.

There was another rustle and then silence. Swallowing down nerves, I tightened my grip on the stone, took another bite of jerky for good luck, and then launched myself into the bushes.

I was never one to wait around for the ambush. Plus, I always had rune magic up my sleeve if brute force didn’t work. Before I landed though, a orange blur flashed out of another bush, one to the opposite side the noise had come from, slamming into my gut and knocking me down.

“Rufus,” I growled, shoving his surprisingly heavy body off. Had he grown in size? I could have sworn it was a tiger that slammed into me, but he looked normal size again now. “What the hell?” I swore again.

A similar growl rocked out of his throat, but he wasn’t even facing my way when he did it. He was facing those bushes. “Back up, Liv,” he said, and I wondered if that was the first time he’d used my name. “Even I might be outmatched against this many of them.”

Fuck. Swallowing hard, I didn’t move, planting my feet instead.

“Move your fucking ass, moron,” Rufus pushed, but I still didn’t move.

“I don’t leave my team behind,” I said softly. “What are we facing?”

Rufus’s growl was more like a roar now. “We’re not a team. You’re not part of my team. Just get the fuck away before you are killed and Archer loses his one chance to track the stone.”

Ouch. Say what you really feel, you orange fuck.

I still didn’t move though, because it didn’t matter what was in those bushes, if Rufus went down facing them, they’d find me next. “What are we up against?” I asked him again. “And where the fuck is Archer?”

“He went to speak with Ranger. He likes to check in on his territory, you know, seeing as he is the fucking prince of it.”

Alright, no need to get all snarky. I was guessing his way of checking in required something that hadn’t been in the clearing, but there was no time to stress about that because we were under attack.

Darkness filled the trees as multiple creatures, about four feet in height, leapt into the air and flapped their large leathery wings. “What the actual fuck?” I shrieked, ducking down as one zipped over my head.

“Don’t let their talons touch you,” Rufus warned, bounding forward to swipe vicious looking claws across two in front of us. “Harpies can paralyse their victims for—”

The rest of his words were cut off as he disappeared into a mass of screeching … had he said harpies?

We didn’t have anything like this creature on Earth, and I paid closer attention as another two swooped at me. A quick rune to blast them back took care of that, and I noted that they were quite humanoid actually. Their heads were bird like, but their bodies were that of a woman, with breasts and voluptuous hips. They had leathery covering and furs across their bodies, and the mix of human and bird face, dark and leathery also, was terrifying. Like they were wearing a mask, only it was their face.

“Really bad time to make a long distance call, Archer,” I snarled.

I could hear Rufus’s roar behind me, but I couldn’t turn to look. My rune had them more cautious, but they weren’t leaving. They were just planning a better strategy. Four circled me, and I was already tracing across the air, sending a shield up. I got it just in time, as the four smashed into me, and I shuddered at the strain on my body and power. To maintain a long term shield, you used your own power, and with the rough travel today, I was lower than usual.

But I only had to hold out long enough for Archer to return. He could tell me how to get rid of these bird woman, and how to do it the easiest way. I didn’t want to waste energy on any runes that wouldn’t hurt them. I didn’t know one thing about them or their weaknesses.

I needed to know.

I’d been so busy paying attention to the four harpies smashing into my shields, and keeping the energy up, that I didn’t look under my feet. I hadn’t shielded under there. Mostly because it was fucking hard, iced over dirt.

Apparently that wasn’t an issue for this fae slugs. Sharp teeth bit into my ankle, and I screamed, before smashing it with a slicing rune, that managed to cut right through its head, leaving teeth attached to me.

Blood poured out in gushes and I knew this was bad. They hadn’t told me how bad it was, but I’d known that it was in my best interest not to get bitten. Whoops.

Whatever happened, it was fast. Pain shot up from the bite into my knee, dropping me down. As I fell so did my shield, and I hit the ground hard. Hands wrapped around me, or claws more accurately, because I felt the cuts in my skin as they hauled me up like I weighed nothing.

Archer burst into the clearing just as the harpies got me above his head, and dark energy whipped out, wrapping around me as he fought their hold.

Consciousness was slipping from me; whatever was in the bite of the slug, it might have been as bad as what was in the talons of the harpies. Talons I could see on their leathery wings.

“Livra,” Archer bellowed.

Reaching out, he captured one of the harpies that hadn’t made it into the air—there had to be fifty of those bitches around us now—and held it by the throat. “Return her to me, or I will slaughter all of you. Livra belongs to me, and you’ve broken our treaty.”

Even in my half-conscious, rising slowly through the air state, I could see the fear those words brought to its face. I could feel the fear in the harpies around us. I’d have loved to take advantage of their distraction, but I found that even my arms were paralysed now, and I couldn’t rune trace to get myself free.

“She’s more important than the treaty,” one of the ones holding me hissed, her words barely recognisable. “And you’ll never find us.”

The look on Archer’s face told me that there was no chance in the worlds he wouldn’t find them, and when he did, there would be hell to pay.