"Tell me what you've learned," Alec said, looking at Conner. They were back in the bat cave with everyone but Sarah.

"He's in the unders," Conner said.

"The kid? Or Trentreen?" Chloe asked.

Conner folded his hands on the table, his knuckles white. "Both. Trentreen has a nice setup there. Word is, he hardly leaves. Gets his meals delivered hot by lower demons wanting favor, the coward."

"The unders?" Harper asked.

"Where did you hear this?" Alec demanded at the same time.

It was Chloe who answered. "I wouldn't call the unders a hangout or a lair, but… they're more like a bunch of connected lairs where demons… hang out? Pretty accurate, Alec?"

Alec was still looking at Conner. "Where?"

The other man scowled. "You want to hear me say it? The San Francisco, all right?"

"We had a deal," Alec said, his voice flat.

Harper leaned toward Chloe. "What's the big deal?"

"I had no choice," Conner snapped, losing his temper. "We both know it's the best place for information dumps, and someone had to get more."

Chloe leaned forward, speaking before Alec could rebut. "It happened, okay? Conner got some info there. That's good. Brittney got some too. Brittney?"

Brittney sat up straighter. "Well, I don't know anything about the San Francisco, or these unders. But Emma had plenty else to say. Her son, James, is an advanced kid. He's six and just bumped to second grade. Smart, sweet, lots of friends."

"Is this relevant?" Alec asked.

"I'm not the one to decide that," Brittney said. Her tone was smooth, cordial even, but Harper could hear bite beneath. She shifted her attention back to the collective. "He was walking home from school, and—"

"Alone?" Conner asked.

"The bus drops him three streets down from his house,' Brittney said. "And his mom waits outside to make sure he shows up. Never had trouble until they took him. Emma said he was across the cul-de-sac when they appeared."

"By appear, you mean…?" Harper asked.

"They weren't there, then they were," Brittney shrugged. "They told James to come quietly, or they'd shoot his mother. Emma ran to them but stopped when they drew their guns."

"God," Chloe shuddered. "Right there in daylight."

Brittney nodded. "I know. She's pretty broken up about it. She said she tried to follow, but they went around a corner, then vanished. No cars, nothing. When she turned around, she saw them in the distance, but they disappeared around another corner. Same story. It happened a few times until she lost them."

"Zurochs," Alec and Conner said together.

"Zur-what?" Brittney asked.

"Lower demons," Conner said. "Not much actual power; that's why they had the guns. But they can change the way an area looks. Not for long, and not very well. Hence the old corner trick."

Chloe shook her head. "Zurochs are fey. They hate it, but they are. Good at illusions and cheap parlor tricks, not much else. They got kicked out of the forest forever ago, so they sell services like this."

"If they took the boy to the unders…" Alec looked at Conner.

"Deeper in, harder to find, I know," Conner said.

"Where are they?" Harper asked. "A bunch of connected lairs? That'd take a lot of room, wouldn't it?"

Chloe nodded. "They have the room. See, when wealthy people first started flooding Vegas, some bigger banks and casinos got paranoid with all the cash they held. Added evacuation rooms that went down instead of out. They used some tunnels for cash transport for a while, but most were just abandoned. The demons claimed them. Some are still standalone; the others are connected now. Makes a nice network for them, but…"

"It's a maze?" Brittney suggested.

"A multi-level one," she confirmed.

Harper glanced at Conner and Alec. "Perfect playground for zurochs."

"We have to go get him," Conner said.

Alec didn't hesitate. "Not now. We wait until dark."

Harper started to ask a question, but he continued over her.

"Harper, you watch too many movies. It's not the daylight that saps me of my power; it's the daytime."

"Oh," Harper said.

"It's still too much time, though," Conner said. "If we wait, we risk them taking him further in."

"Necessary risk. Besides, we need Sarah," Alec said. "She can follow the scent trail, and in form, I don't think the zuroch illusions work on her. Chloe?"

Chloe thought about it. "Probably not. Different visual perceptions."

Conner didn't look happy. "Fine. Someone call her. We leave the moment the sun is down. Deal?"

"Fine," Alec said. He stood. "Go get the mother, bring her back here."

"I thought we didn't want her seen near me, or Afterlife," Conner shot at him.

Alec gave him a look full of contempt. "You think they didn't recognize you? Conner Kingsley, the famed incubus of Afterlife. When I told you to steer clear of the San Francisco, that wasn't just to keep you from slipping."

Conner opened his mouth, then snapped it closed again.

"Go," Alec said.

He hurried out, not bothering with goodbyes.

"So what?" Brittney asked. "The San Francisco is… a demon hotspot?"

Alec looked annoyed at the question. "It's more than that. It's an exclusive demon hotspot. Conner was a cardholder there, but he turned on them. Twice. Do you think they'd let him walk out alive? There's a reason, and it has to do with that woman and her child."

"You don't think she's in danger tonight," Harper realized. "You just wanted Conner to bring her here so you could figure it out."

"We need information," Alec said. "I need sleep. Do your shopping and call Sarah. Get coffee too. You'll need it."

"Sometimes you're an ass," Harper told him as he went upstairs. She looked at the others. "He is. Are we really going shopping? It feels insensitive."

Chloe took her by the arm and led her toward the back door. "You get used to it. I mean, if we stayed home and wrung our hands every time we were waiting to take action, our hands would get awfully sore. You want to drive, Brittney?"

Harper groaned.

Brittney shot her a look full of false indignation. "Hey, I haven't been pulled over in—"

"Last Tuesday," Harper said.

Chloe laughed. "Fine, here, Harper."

She tossed the keys at her. Harper caught them and slid behind the wheel of Chloe's jeep. She started by taking them to a drive-through coffee shop.

"The CUP wasn't that much farther," Brittney said. "Their flavors are better, and they're all organic. Just saying."

Harper waved a hand at her, then placed an order for three extra-strong cold brews. She got an espresso shot in hers. Once the cashier handed back her card through the window and she passed out drinks, she pointed out, "I wanted fast. No drive-through there."

"Uh-huh," Brittney said, smirking. "I know the truth. You want the cute window guy."

"Oh, he's so cute," Harper said. "I'm definitely into barely legal guys with acne and braces."

"Hmm, you're right. I bet you enjoy them a bit older," Brittney teased, her eyes gleaming. "Maybe a few years. Decades. What's a century or two between friends?"

Harper took a big drink of her coffee to get out of responding. She pulled up to a red light and glanced back at Chloe. "Everything okay?"

Chloe nodded. She was staring at her phone, her fingers flying across as she messaged someone back. The light turned green, and Harper focused on the road again. She thought about Alec. They hadn't kissed, but it had been close. Did he regret it not happening?

It took almost half an hour to reach the strip mall that Harper liked best. She'd just pulled in and parked when Chloe's phone made a sound like shattering glass. She and Brittney both whipped around, but Chloe held it up. "Ring tone, sorry."

"That's a terrifying noise," Brittney chided.

"That's the point," Chloe said. "This way, it's impossible to ignore. Oh, it's Sarah. She's finished and resting at home. She wanted us to come pick her up. I guess shopping will have to wait, after all, Harper."

Harper glanced at the mall doors. "Five minutes. I need clothes to work out in."

"We can shop fast when we need to," Brittney promised.

"Let's go then," Chloe agreed.

They went inside, double-checked the map, then headed down the left side toward the sportswear store.

It took forever to get there, not because of the distance, but because they kept seeing something on display that just couldn't be ignored.

The first time Harper chose something and took it up to pay, Chloe swooped in and did the honors with a black, glossed card.

"I can pay for my things," Harper told her after they'd left.

"You did," Chloe said. "Here, I got this for you."

Harper took the black card that Chloe had used, turning it over. Her name was there in gold letters on the other side. "What's this?"

"Company card," Chloe said. "Don't start on about not taking it, either. You've earned this."

Harper considered for a moment, then took out her purse and tucked it inside. It would be good for emergencies, she told herself. An emergency happened three stores down when she found a black dress with lace sleeves.

By the time they got to the sportswear store, each of them already held several bags. It only took a few minutes to find some workout clothes. Harper added shoes, a couple of sports bras, and some athletic socks, then got in line.

Brittney and Chloe waited outside. She waved at them, but they were absorbed in conversation. A wave of irritation hit her, and she looked forward. A woman caught her eye.

At first glance, she was only a short, plump woman with graying hair and pretty eyes. But there was something else. A warm green aura surrounded her. It made Harper think of springtime bushes and overgrown grass fields. She was beautiful. Gracious. Impossible to look away from.

"Excuse me," Harper said, stepping up to her.

"Yes?" the woman smiled at her, looking curious.

For a moment, she wasn't sure what to say. Then she burst out, "This is going to sound odd, I'm sorry, but I just… I haven't met many…"

"Fairies?" the woman asked, laughing. "How did you know?"

"I have the Sight. But I'm just now learning." Harper could see her well now. Her wings were different than others she'd seen. They were rounder, more translucent, and the same color as her aura.

The woman reached out and patted her hand. "You're in for quite the journey, dear. Have you never seen a dryad before?"

Harper shook her head. "Well, not that I know of. You're one of the fey?"

"Fey, fairies, dryads…" she laughed. "I'm Bretta. In reality, I'm nothing more than a woods' nymph, dear. I make my home nearby in the Forest."

Harper glanced at her wings again. "Nearby? We barely keep palm trees alive."

Bretta laughed and patted her hand again. "You have much to learn and far to go. There are worlds within worlds if you know where to look." She leaned in. "You're next to pay, dear."

Harper glanced at the counter, then back to Bretta. "What does that mean?"

"It means the salesclerk is done with her customer and waiting," Bretta said. "I have no other answers to give you. Go on."

Harper was reluctant to move, but people were waiting on her. "Okay, well… thank you."

Bretta studied her. "I offered nothing but words. If you truly need help — when you do — find a tree. Any that lives and breathes. Press your hand to its heart and whisper my name. You will remember it?"

"Bretta," Harper said. She hesitated, then moved to the counter. She hurried through paying, but when the salesclerk handed her the receipt, the woods nymph was already gone.

"Worlds within worlds," she whispered as she joined Brittney and Chloe. She said nothing about her encounter, but she looked around for trees as they left to pick up Sarah.


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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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