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"What if people are living here?" Harper asked as they got out of the car.

Scotch, Neat gave her a look that was full of contempt. "Do you expect otherwise?"

Harper flushed, feeling both indignant and chastised. Somehow, in all her ideas of how this evening might play out, she'd never imagined the homeowners. "We'll have to wait for them to go out…"

"No, there's nothing amiss about a home robbery gone wrong," he told her. "It will be quick and will raise no unusual suspicions with the investigators."

She glared at him, shocked and disgusted by the type of man she was dealing with. Not a man, a demon, she reminded herself. "We aren't killing them. I'll — let me speak with them first."

"Stay here and wait for you to bring me the nexus?" he laughed. "I'm no fool, Miss Hawthorne. We do this together; that was the deal."

Harper might have argued the issue, but she couldn't risk him deciding to go forward without her. Now that he knew the nexus was here, cloaked or not, his need for her was far less. She was becoming disposable. "Fine, but give me a chance to speak."

He nodded curtly.

She hurried up to the front door, took a deep, calming breath, and knocked. A woman answered, her smile nothing more than polite. "I'm sorry, but I can't afford any of whatever you're selling."

"We're not here to sell anything," Harper said. "Actually, and I know how odd this is going to sound, but my aunt used to live here a long time ago. We were very close, and she recently passed away."

The woman blinked, then her smile became much more genuine. "I'm sorry to hear that."

"It was an easy passing," Harper said. "She'd been sick for quite some time. The thing is, she always talked about a box of photographs she'd inherited from her mother that she'd lost upon moving. She was convinced she might have left it by mistake. That box, it's all we have left."

"Well, I'm not sure it's here," the woman said, then brightened. "But there were quite a few things left in the garage when we moved in. Mostly trash, but some old cartons too. My husband was supposed to take them to the curb, but that was another promise broke. I went through some. There were old books, but not all. You're welcome to peak in what's left out there."

"Thank you," Harper said.

"There's a side door to the garage; I'll unlock it," she said, then shut the door.

Scotch, Neat eyed Harper cooly. "So easily you lie, it is admirable."

"Only you would think so," Harper muttered. They went to the garage side door together and waited. The woman unlocked it, then let them know she'd be inside if they needed her.

As Harper stepped into the garage, she heard a low, unfamiliar voice behind her. "Go in, Finder. Quietly."

She spun around, but rough hands shot out and gripped her shoulders, and a woman faced her forward. The same voice, coming from further back, said, "Inside, now. Fight or scream, and the lady who lives here will come out."

Harper walked forward. When she was a dozen feet in, she released her. She turned to see Scotch, Neat standing between two men — no, between two demons oozing greenish-brown slime — who gave him no room to move away. The Sight also outed the woman who'd walked her in as a vampire.

Behind them all was a tall, muscled man. He was bald, with no facial hair, not even end-of-day stubble. She sensed nothing supernatural from him but knew he wanted it that way.

"So you're Jahres?" she asked, trying to sound amused.

He looked at her, and the room suddenly felt much colder. She saw nothing in his expression; no mirth, anger, excitement, nothing.

He looked back at Scotch, Neat. "You were told to bring her to me."

"I—"

Jahres spoke through him, his tone as flat as his face. "She used you to find this place, that's all. She hoped I would kill you for your betrayal. Thin our ranks before the cavalry arrive."

"Nobody's coming," Harper said too quickly.

"Was the warehouse the first time you'd ever broadcasted?" Jahres asked her. "I applaud your ambition. Without years of training, that talent is challenging. Still, your people found you once before. Why not again? A simple plan that could have powerful results."

Jahres paused. "Would you like to know your mistake?"

Harper said nothing.

"I heard you," he told her. Though his expression and tone never changed, she thought he might be laughing at her. "You're good at visualization, so you know. If you'd gotten through to your people, they would have perfect clarity of this home and how to get here."

"They're almost here," Harper said.

He shook his head. "A weak lie for pathetic hope. You never heard back, and why would you? I heard you, I said, then I consumed your messages. They never went beyond me."

"That's not true," Harper said. "You want me to believe that, but you're the liar. Because you're afraid."

"Afraid? Kill the Finder."

Harper lurched forward, horrified, but she couldn't have done anything. The demon on the right of Scotch, Neat grabbed him. The other snapped his neck with no more effort than if he'd broken a twig. The man who'd burned down her apartment then partnered with her died instantly, his body slumping.

"You wanted him to die," Jahres reminded her. "You told him to betray me, knowing what would happen. His blood is on your hands."

"Good," Harper said. She swallowed and forced herself to look right at him. This helped keep her calm. "He deserved to die, and so do you. You're running out of time before they get here."

"I have time to flee, though?" He glanced back at the door. "If I hurried, could I still get away?"

"Yes," Harper said. "If you left now and went fast. We won't follow this time."

"Such work to set a trap," he mused. "You leave without a word to them — so they won't stop you, I presume? Or you worried that we'd sense the lie. Either way, you leave, but you send out a call. Come here, come to me. You'll find Jahres here."

He looked away, and she could feel his contempt. "Harper, when you set a trap, you don't give your prey a chance to run. Should they be almost here, you'd keep me talking, not send me away. Why else the risk? Enough of this. The nexus, now."

"I don't know—"

"Lee, go inside. Bring the woman."

The vampire went to the door, found it locked, and shimmered into her full form.

"No!" Harper felt the wind leave her chest and knew he'd called her bluff. "No, leave her out of this."

The vampire turned the handle, easily breaking the lock.

"I'll get it," Harper said. "Okay? I'll get it, just leave her."

Jahres held up a hand. "Wait then, Lee."

Harper turned to the far wall of the garage where junk was piled up. The left side was boxes, some empty and collapsed, others open wide. The nexus was there.

"Now, please."

She'd lost, Harper realized. She thought her plan so smart, but he'd seen right through it. He'd been right about everything; her reasoning, her broadcasting, and the radio silence she'd gotten back. Afterlife hadn't heard her; they weren't coming.

She went to the boxes, breathing in deeply. She could almost see the cousins again, sitting in their attic. Reba wanted to throw the nexus out, but Sasha kept it safe. Kneeling, she reached out and drew an old, tattered box toward her.

Jahres was right behind her. The others too. But they ceased to matter when she broke the tape and opened the flaps. Color washed over her, soft and pulsing. The orb was filled with it, just like the vision, but this was so much more. It was all she could hear, all she could taste.

Generations of gypsies, centuries of power.

She lifted it from the box.

"Good. Give it to me," Jahres said. When she looked at him, his empty tone and blank expression were nothing. He was flimsy, nothing but a tiny man. A charlatan. Greedy, that's all.

"No."

He blinked, shocked and angry at the refusal. "Lee, get her. See how Harper feels after you bite her."

His threats meant nothing. Harper held her left hand toward the woman, and she became ash. The other demons who'd come along both lunged for the door while Jahres screamed at them to stop her, to kill her.

They died next. While the ooze from their puddled remains spread, Harper looked to Jahres.

"You were sick," she said, all-knowing now. "You thought you would die, and you took powers to keep you alive. They did, but you always needed more. One more to extend your existence, then another, then another. Tell me, why are you scared of death?"

He said nothing, but she could hear him trying to think of how to get away.

"I will help you escape," Harper said, reaching out.

When she touched him, he screamed. He screamed with a thousand moments of pain; all brought forth at once.

"You had thirteen months at the start," she said, not bothered by the screams. "This is the pain you would have felt along the way."

He screamed again, then begged her to end it. He was nothing to be frightened by. She wished Afterlife could see him now, brought so low.

Then her wish was granted. There was a flash, and then they were there, all of them. Chloe leaned on Sarah, leg still splinted. It was hurting her, but it wouldn't anymore. When Harper smiled at the fairy, the bone knitted instantly.

"Harper," Chloe said, her voice strange sounding.

"Whatever we wish, we can have," Harper told her. "Anything in the world."

"No, that's not true," Conner said, and she heard his fear.

"You don't have to be afraid of me," she said to him.

"I'm afraid for you," he told her. "You can't keep the power, Harper."

She stepped back, the orb still in her right hand. "Of course I can. It's mine."

"It will destroy you," Sarah said, pleadingly. "It's too much. It's a… void."

Harper laughed and heard a dozen voices laughing with her. "This is my power, my birthright. It is meant for me."

"No, it's not."

Her eyes snapped to Alec. "It is!"

He moved past the others, pausing by Jahres to snap his neck and end the screaming, before coming up to Harper. She moved back, but he moved with her.

"You aren't a Perseca. You're a Hawthorne," he told her. "You were born of Ileana's blood, but you were never her family. The woman who gave you up is not your mother, and she left you nothing."

"No!"

"You know it's true," Alec said.

She saw the hospital then. The doctor and nurses. Reba in bed, gripping her cousin's hand. The baby came a moment later. Wrinkled, red, crying. The doctor checked her, the nurses cleaned her, and then she was taken away.

Reba never cast her eyes upon her.

"No," Harper whispered. She looked down at the nexus, the power held within. She saw Reba tossing it. She hadn't wanted the power, no more than she'd wanted Harper.

"You're a Hawthorne," Alec repeated.

She threw the orb. The colors turned to gray as it shattered, and for a moment, she felt hollow and empty. Then new images came — memories.

She saw a young Filipino couple arguing in a kitchen. Then they both laughed, and now they were in a church. The woman held flowers, her eyes sparkled. Harper knew them; she'd seen this picture in black and white. Her great-grandmother.

Now she saw a different woman standing in line to board a plane. She was no more than seventeen, but she'd packed her life into a suitcase and waved at the couple from the church, both older, knowing it would be years and years before they could immigrate too.

Her father's side now. Snapshots from so many lives. A woman dying in childbirth, two sisters fighting over a doll. And then her parents, standing in a nursery, holding hands. They looked so scared. Then a nurse came and held out the baby. Their baby. Harper saw their tears and felt their love.

She opened her eyes. The garage waited for her. So did Afterlife and the demons she'd killed. She couldn't look at the dead nor the team.

"I have a family," she said, her voice small.

Chloe came over and helped her up from the ground. Then she hugged her tight. "You do, of course, you do."

"Yup," Conner said. "Had to get your poor planning from somewhere, and this was a hell of a night. Chloe was all about how you were going to get killed, you know."

Letting Harper go, Chloe darted over to smack Conner. "Did not! Besides, it turned out fine."

"Only because Harper brought us here," Sarah said, giving her a reproachful look. "You should have let us in on your plan. In the future, remember that we work together."

Harper looked at her, confused. "The future? But I got rid of it. The nexus. The power. It's gone."

"No, it's not," Alec said. "Look, Harper, I tried to see you as Ileana. That was wrong; you're not. You have a different family, the ones who raised you. All of them, that's who you are. But you have Ileana's eyes and hair, and you have her Sight."

"But I smashed the nexus," Harper told him.

"And got rid of all the power in it," Alec said, shrugging. "You can't kill demons with a single look, no, nor bring us all to you as though time and space meant nothing. But what you had before, that's yours."

She looked at him and saw a vampire. Then Conner, an incubus. Chloe, a fairy. Sarah transformed when she looked her way, becoming a panther.

"I'm not in danger now," Harper pointed out. "With the nexus destroyed, no demons will come for it. You have no reason for me to hang around."

"No, that's true," Conner said, grinning.

Chloe elbowed him hard. "You don't have a reason either, Harper. But maybe you'd like to. We're not so bad."

"But we are a team," Sarah reiterated.

She looked over at Alec. He met her eyes and kept silent.

"We have to get this cleaned and make sure the woman inside is okay," Harper told them. She smiled. "We'll do that as a team too."

Chloe hugged her again, Conner made good-natured complaints about cleaning, and Sarah offered to teach her kickboxing. She wondered if this was the right decision. It would be dangerous, and nothing would ever be normal again.

Later, as she sat in the bat cave with the others, laughing at Conner and arguing about potential demons, Harper knew, right or wrong, she could have made no other choice. Afterlife — these people, all part of it — was where she belonged.

It was home.

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A note from Kaitlyn Meyers

I hope you enjoyed this first installment of Afterlife! If you would, please take a minute to leave a review and rate what you thought of the story.

Next up, Book 2: Blood of the Demon

- Kaitlyn


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About the author

Kaitlyn Meyers

Bio: Kaitlyn Meyers lives in the western United States near Lake Tahoe, CA. You can find her on the shores of the lake anytime of the year.

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