So, hell was pretty much what I’d expected.
Troy sat across from me in a small cave we’d taken shelter in, still avoiding looking at me, turning the spit with something cooking on it over the fire.
I had decided against asking what it was they were roasting, because I doubted any answer to that would make me happy.
If it were some strange hellbeast, I’d be grossed out, and if it were a cute, fluffy critter, I’d be sad.
Some questions were better left unasked, such as “Do I look fat in these?” or “Do you think my sister is hot?” and “What animal did this come from?”
Hunter came into the cave looking far too happy, as though he’d been waiting anxiously for just this moment. Hell, he was almost skipping.
Kase, on his heels, appeared significantly less pleased with the turn of events.
“I love the smell of brimstone in the morning.” Hunter set down an oddly shaped cup in front of me.
I took a closer look at the dish, the white of it standing out against the dimness of the everything else. “Where’d you get this?”
“Don’t worry about it. Drink. You mortals get parched fast out here.”
His answer didn’t ease me at all, so I lifted the cup closer to the fire. The white took a moment to place, and once I did, I couldn’t unsee it. “Is this bone?”
Hunter groaned and sat cross-legged on the other side of the fire. “I told you not to worry about it.”
“You can’t seriously expect me to drink out of a bone cup.”
“I have skulls, if they’re more your style.”
I was ready to yell at him for the stupid joke until I realized he probably wasn’t kidding. Somehow, the idea that Hunter had a collection of fine china made from bones in hell seemed right on par for him.
Especially the way he had no shame over it.
“Drink,” Kase said, nodding toward it. “I doubt you want to die of dehydration while in hell.”
“At least it’d be a short trip if I did,” I muttered before closing my eyes—it’d be easier if I didn’t have to actually see the cup—and drank the water in big gulps. I figured if I finished it off quickly, I’d have to touch the thing for less time overall.
Which was a stupid reaction since I’d touched dead bodies plenty of times.
But I’d never use them as flatware. There were some lines a person didn’t cross.
The water was warm, stale and tinged with an odd taste that made me want to gag a bit as I downed it.
Still, once I finished it, I handed back the empty cup. “Why would Lucifer drop us here? I thought he wanted to see me?”
Hunter shrugged. “He might figure a good test would be worth it. Anyone who can’t survive a few days journey in hell isn’t someone important enough for him to meet in person. Or maybe he intended for us to get dropped in his Court, but something went wrong. Magic doesn’t work quite right on you.”
“Things aren’t supposed to just go wrong for Lucifer.”
“Then you don’t know Lucifer. Remember the whole fall from heaven thing? He’s had things going wrong right from the start.”
And, again, that made me feel no better. I liked the idea that at least Lucifer had his business figured out. The thought that he was as powerless and fumbling as the rest of us gave me a moment of thinking, If he can’t get shit right, what chance do I have?
I sighed and crossed my legs, leaning forward. Great. We were stuck in hell, had no idea why I was where I there and now even the guy who ran it all didn’t seem to have a good grip on specifics.
The only person happy about our circumstances was Hunter, who grinned as though he couldn’t have planned things any better.
Then again, it was his home.
Grant was still outside, setting wards so we could get a good night’s sleep, or at least the best one could expect in a cave in hell.
Not that there seemed to be any night. It reminded me of the pocket realm I’d met the fae in, except it didn’t get lighter or darker. It remained a constant depressing level of dim, which ranked around the super overcast and rainy level.
When Troy finished cooking the food, he tore free a piece and held it out for me. Instead of thinking too much about it—I was really hungry—I popped it into my mouth, surprised to find it rather good.
As long as I don’t consider what it might have been before being spit roasted or how many legs it might have had.
“Do you think he’ll try to kill me?” I asked.
“I doubt it,” Hunter said. “If he wanted to kill you, he could have done it without this much work. Lucifer doesn’t do anything without a reason. He calls it efficient—I call it lazy.”
“Maybe he just wants to be able to watch me die in person,” I muttered around another bite of food.
“We won’t let him hurt you,” Kase said.
I gave him a withering glare in return. I didn’t get over betrayal so easily. We might have been in an entirely different realm, but I wasn’t ready to forgive him for lying to me, for hiring Grant to figure out what I was, for manipulating me. Maybe his words would have reassured me if I didn’t already doubt his loyalty so much.
He looked as though he wanted to discuss the matter, but a glance around the cave reminded him we had an audience. Kase’s ego would never want to air dirty laundry with others in earshot.
The perfect Kase didn’t want to not look so perfect.
“You know, you all don’t have to be here.” I forced the words out even though I really didn’t want to say them. Still, it was only fair to give them an out.
“What?” Grant asked as he came into the cave.
“Well, you can make portals to and from hell, right? You might have gotten sucked in here on accident, but you don’t have to stay.”
“Actually, we do,” he said.
“Don’t give me that. There’s no reason for you all to risk your lives just because I evidently have an appointment with the devil.”
Hunter shook his head, a smirk across his lips. “No, shadow-girl, what he means is that when Lucifer yanked us here, it placed a tracer on us. All of us. None of us can portal back until Lucifer removes it. The magic just won’t work for a portal. I could cross the boundary, but I couldn’t take anyone with me.”
I blew out a breath, ashamed to admit just how relieved I was by that. Sure, I had to give them an out, but the thought of them leaving, of trying to make my way across hell by myself hadn’t been one I relished. They were stuck with me for now, and it was far more reassuring than I wanted to admit.
“How long until we reach Lucifer’s Court?” I asked, trying to change topics.
Hunter plucked a piece of meat from the creature and ate it with noisy bites. “Three days? Maybe five if we need a lot of stops. We ended up right at the boundary line, so it’s a long walk. If it were just me, I’d make it in a day, but you all couldn’t keep up.”
Troy snorted. “Maybe not them, but I’m quicker than you think.”
Hunter offered Troy a wide grin. “Yeah, but you’d keep up—maybe—if you were in your wolf form. Sadly, you’ve got some performance issues about that one, and on two legs you’re as slow as the mortal.”
Troy narrowed his eyes but didn’t respond.
Fine by me. Honestly, I’d love for them all to shut up.
It was bad enough they bothered me at my house, when they stopped by constantly and threw my life into chaos, but out here, I didn’t even have the privacy of a bathroom or the occasional moments of peace.
It was twenty-four-seven testosterone zone.
So I ate another piece of food before a yawn told me I needed rest.
The cave floor was hard and there wasn’t anything to use as a pillow around. I groaned and twisted, my shoulder sore from where it dug into the ground.
Troy had taken a spot far away, as though he wanted to avoid me as best he could—just like he’d done since I’d saved him.
The ungrateful bastard. Next time maybe I’d let that freaky shadow take him over.
After checking the wards, Grant had leaned himself against the doorway of the cave, his legs stretched out and his eyes closed. He’d picked there, at the threshold, like a guardian.
Funny, since Grant, with his twenty-year-old appearance, massive number of tattoos and rebel hair style, appeared the least dangerous.
Hunter had chosen to rest outside, like some dog in the yard. He’d taken a large hunk of the meat and claimed to like sleeping under the stars.
Not that there were any stars…
“Come here.” Kase’s voice was soft in the darkness, and close enough I jumped.
How he could move so quickly, I didn’t understand. He’d managed to shift around so he crouched just above where I lay.
I pressed my palm against the cave floor and pushed myself up. With the fire gone, I struggled to see Kase, so I glared in his direction best I could. “Sorry, but that doesn’t work.”
“What doesn’t work? You need sleep, and you won’t get any tossing and turning like that.”
“You think this is my first time dealing with men? Let me guess, I’ll sleep so much better all curled up beside you. And I’ll sleep better without any pants. In fact, a few orgasms will put me right out.” I made sure my voice sounded as insulting as I meant it to be.
Which was stupid, because no matter how much I disliked him at the moment, a few orgasms would help me sleep.
Just not from him. Not that he’d proven himself capable of delivering them anyway. His only attempt had been pathetic.
He sighed before sitting on the ground, his back to the wall. He removed his jacket and balled it up in his lap. “I’m not offering orgasms, Ava, and since my body doesn’t run warm, there isn’t a reason to curl up beside me, naked or not. However, I am, at the very least, useful as furniture.”
I wanted to argue that I was sleeping just fine, but the ache in my shoulder called me a liar. Still, the thought of touching him made me wonder how stupid one person could be.
His entire reaction to me was bad enough—I wasn’t sure I’d ever live down him spitting out my blood as if it were tainted—but the idea that he’d been lying to me was what really stuck.
He’d hired Grant to spy on me, to go behind my back and figure out what I was. He’d even said the entire thing had been for the coven, not him. How on earth could I just forget that?
Still, his lap was as good as anyone else’s, and I was tired. I slid up, wincing when it aggravated my shoulder.
He set a strong hand on my back, helping me to adjust, until I was on my side, my head pillowed on his lap, his jacket creating more cushion and a useful barrier between me and any erecting that might happen.
Not that that seemed a problem with him.
When he ran his fingers through my hair, I swatted him away. “Knock that off.”
He let out a soft sound, all annoyance. “I’m trying to help.”
“I didn’t ask for help, did I?”
“You haven’t ever asked, and yet here I’ve been, doing it anyway. I am in hell, literally, for you.”
I sighed, having nothing to say back to that. When I closed my eyes, he dragged his fingers through my hair again, and this time I let him. Just because I was mad at him didn’t mean I had to forgo the nice sensation, did it?
It wasn’t like he was getting anything out of it. Might as well enjoy it while it lasted. I doubted many nice things happened in hell.
“I didn’t mean to hurt you,” he said, voice low as if we could have a private conversation in such a small space, surrounded by others. “I hired Grant before I knew much about you.”
“But even after you got to know me, you didn’t feel the need to mention it? To call him off?”
“I knew you wouldn’t be happy about me invading your privacy like that, and as I spent more time with you, I found out you hold grudges. It seemed a pointless argument to risk, since if you never found out, you would have never been angry.”
I shifted and accidently elbowed him in the crotch.
He let out a rush of air—it seemed not everywhere on a vampire was impervious to harm—before groaning. “I have learned my lesson, Ava. I do not intend to lie to you again.”
“And so I’m supposed to be okay with it? What was this all? What was it when you tried to feed from me? Just more research for the coven? At least that explains why you couldn’t keep it up.”
“No. It wasn’t ever for the coven.”
“That was what you told Grant.”
“Because I prefer not to expose potential weaknesses.”
“So I’m a weakness now?” I went to rise, because his lap was not worth me getting any more hurt than I already was.
He set a hand on my shoulder and pressed me back down, reminding me just how strong he was. “Stop it, Ava. Stop fighting with me long enough to listen. I have thought about you since I first saw you in that shop, and that obsession hasn’t ended. When I asked around and found out what little I could, it still wasn’t enough. So, yes, when given the chance, I hired Grant to discover more about you—not for the coven and not for Colter, but for myself. You can be angry with me for as long as you’d like for that invasion of privacy, for the lies, but do not mistake it for something it wasn’t. I hired you for the job with Olin because you could do it, I wanted to feed from you because I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I want you because I have since I first saw you. Besides, you shouldn’t be so angry with me when Grant found nothing useful out.”
“Maybe that’s why he got kicked out of the guild, because he’s a terrible mage.”
A snort from the doorway said Grant was listening, but I pretended it was a random sound so I didn’t have to think about our audience.
Kase went back to the gentle stroking of his fingers through my hair, and, despite my better judgment, it relaxed me. His voice, smooth and unfailingly calm, was even worse. “He ran every test he could, did everything he knew and he could not identify what you were. No matter how much I researched, who I threatened, I discovered nothing. You are an enigma, Ava.”
“And that’s why you’re still around? Because I’m a very interesting puzzle, and you’re old and bored? Or because I could be potentially useful to you?”
“No. I don’t think I care what you are anymore. Originally, it was a mystery, but I’ve discovered you are trouble no matter what you might be.”
“That doesn’t explain why you’re here now.”
“You’re smart enough to figure that one out. I’m not sure there are many reasons a man goes to hell for a woman.”
I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. Kase and I, we never talked. We didn’t admit anything. Where Troy liked to come out and say what he felt, and Hunter didn’t feel deeply enough for the need to have a conversation, Kase and I liked to exchange things in non-speak.
He didn’t say he cared, and I didn’t say I liked that he was there.
Even still…I couldn’t quite accept his words. I recalled Colter, remembered the coven house, and knew I had no idea where his loyalties really lay.
He might be a great piece of furniture, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t kill me if he needed to…
* * * *
I wiped my mouth after coughing and gagging some more.
As it turned out, werewolf and vampire physiology weren’t as affected by the smoke and ash as mine. Kase and Troy had no problem trekking along, mile after mile, while breathing in that junk.
Hunter lived here, so it didn’t bother him.
Grant coughed on occasion, but his immortality made him sturdier, which left me as the one who kept throwing up because the ash coated my esophagus and made me gag.
I wiped sweat from my forehead, already sick of hell.
Hunter passed a waterskin to me, the outside made of a leathery material that looked suspiciously like scales. I’d opened my mouth to ask Hunter what it was made of the first time he’d had it, but he’d told me it was better I didn’t know.
That seemed the general theme of hell. What was moving in the distance? What were those things flying above us? What was the shrieking?
Better not to know.
I took the water from Hunter and drank in large gulps, ignoring how warm it was.
Everything was warm. The breeze, the water, even in the shade, the rocks were hot to the touch.
Still, it was better than nothing, and the constant ash meant even warm water was helpful in clearing it away. Plus, he hadn’t tried to give me anything made of bone to drink from again, so I’d take the weird scale bag as a win.
“How can you figure out where you’re going here?” I handed back the waterskin.
Troy was far to the front, and Grant and Kase had taken up the rear. Hunter moved between the group, as if herding us all in the direction he wanted us to go.
“I feel it.” He pointed behind us. “That’s the way to the barrier, to the points between this world and the living world, and in the other direction, at the center, is Lucifer’s Court.”
“I thought you weren’t controlled by him.”
“I’m not. It isn’t his power that draws me, but the fact that it’s the center of hell, the draw point of the power in this place. It’s where hell connects to the other realms of the afterworld. Lucifer built his palace there because it was the center. It isn’t the center because he’s there, no matter what he’d like to think.”
A screaming echoed in the distance, died off to a whimper, then to nothing. I twisted to peer in that direction, even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to see it, and I probably didn’t want to.
Spindly trees rose around us in each direction, looking like dead things in the middle of winter, but they grew so densely they still obstructed the view.
“Relax,” Hunter said.
“How am I supposed to relax when things sound like they’re being eaten?”
“Well, they probably are being eaten.” He grinned when I offered him a shocked look. “However, the point is that they’re getting eaten because I’m not there to protect them. This is my home, Ava, and believe it or not, there isn’t much here I’m worried about. At least, not anything outside of the Court.”
“Forgive me, but you don’t look nearly as imposing as those things I’ve seen before, as whatever is eating that poor creature. You’re just a man and some smoke. I mean, a good-looking one, but I don’t think monsters are going to be like ‘he is sure handsome. Guess we won’t kill them.’”
“I still look like this because you won’t like me as much in my other form. Plus, no usable penis like that, and I’d really love to use mine on you, so I choose to keep looking like this.”
The casual way he said such things silenced me and made me think about how much I agreed.
Not about not liking him in another form, but about how I wouldn’t mind a repeat of our time together in the tent.
Or in my bed.
Really, so long as we were both naked, I wasn’t picky about the locale.
Another howl came through and woke me up.
We were in hell. That was not the best time for quickies.
He lifted his head and inhaled, slowly, tension filling him.
When Hunter looked nervous was about the time to panic…
I inched closer to him, unable to help it. I would much prefer to be nearer to him for reasons that had nothing to do with orgasms right then.
Well, other than I’d like to live long enough to have more of them.
“Fuck,” he muttered softly.
Something in the distance came into view, but just barely. It wasn’t a shadow, not like the thing that plagued me, that we chased, but more like mist. It reminded me of my dreams, of the things I saw in them.
It sped over the landscape as if it weren’t fully there, the hazy appearance of a spirit.
Hunter pressed closer to me, though he didn’t wrap an arm around me, as though he wanted both hands free to face whatever approached us.
The thing slowed when it neared us, and this time I could make out a shape. It was a dark figure, though not wholly corporeal or solid, covered in dark, floating cloth, including a hood that obscured its face. It had sleeves so long, hands couldn’t be seen. Nothing but the mist-like robes were visible, floating despite there being no breeze.
It paused before us, and I could feel it looking at me. The sensation crawled over me like ice, something frozen and sinister.
A growl left Hunter, but the thing took no notice of him. It came closer, shifted as if to see me better. After another moment, it rushed away with the same speed it had arrived with, and Hunter let out a heavy breath.
Kase came over, Grant behind him. “Please tell me that wasn’t what I think it was.”
“Wish I could.”
“They never show up,” Grant said. “What the hell is going on?”
I elbowed between them men. “For those of us who don’t have a field guide to hell on hand, what was that?”
Hunter pushed his hair from his face. “A reaper.”
“The thing that severs the connection between body and soul?”
Hunter nodded. “Yep. Reapers are one of the few things that nobody fucks with. Even Lucifer leaves them alone. Because they aren’t alive or dead, they don’t belong to the living or the dead realm. They don’t belong to anyone.”
“They’re from purgatory.” I might not have seen one before, but I did understand what they were. They were, in a way, cousins of mine, something connected to the thing that seemed to make me different.
Kase was the one to answer, nodding. “Reapers don’t take notice of the living or the dead. They’re more like scavengers than anything else, beings that do their job and ignore everything else.”
“It was looking at me.”
“I mean, it stopped, but—” Hunter started to say.
“No. I felt it staring at me.”
Grant cursed under his breath. “You do not want a reaper taking an interest in you. They’re essentially invincible because they aren’t alive—never were—and they don’t have actual bodies to harm. If they want to snatch a soul from a body, they can do so with a touch and no one can do a thing about it.”
I thought about the way it had seemed to look past my skin, into my spirit, into the part of my that wasn’t corporeal, and I shuddered. Just when I thought there wasn’t anything worse, that we had reached the end of bad shit that could ruin my day, it seemed like the universe wanted to throw another one into the mix.
Sure, soul-snatching mist creatures from purgatory.
What the hell was next?