Alec took out a penlight and shined it downward. It wasn't much, but the light it did give was enough to find the next step, then another.
Harper counted seven before they were on level ground.
"We should have brought flashlights," she said. Her voice seemed louder than usual in the dark.
"Just a sec," Alec said. He stuck his light between his teeth so he could dig through his pockets. The bobbing light danced across the opposite wall until he brought out his lighter.
"Right here," Chloe said from somewhere up and to the left. Her voice startled Harper, who thought she was still right in front of her.
Alec joined her, but Harper couldn't tell what they were doing. Moments later, dimmed light flooded the tunnel.
It came from a lantern fixed into the wall. It was older, with worn-down surfaces, but the oil it burned seemed fresh enough. As Harper watched, a trail of light crept down the tunnel, and then another lantern lit up further down.
Chloe came back to her spot in their line and smiled at Harper's expression. "It's an old system, but it works. The workers who built these places wanted a way to survive power fails. The demons kept adding on to it."
"How far down do they go?" Harper asked. Sarah was sniffing the ground, her ears perked. The trail of light was still moving, triggering more of the lanterns.
Chloe shrugged. "No idea. I've only come once, down a newer path. I was tracking a demon who hid down here, though, so I did some reading first."
Sarah padded forward, prompting them to follow. Every now or then, she stopped to sniff at the wall or floor, or when a break in the lantern network forced Alec to find another to light. Whenever this occurred, Conner grew more impatient, grinding his teeth or stopping a sigh.
Chloe chattered nonstop as they went further and deeper in. She talked about the history more, listed random trivia facts, and even shared the latest gossip she'd overheard.
They hit an unexpected wall of rubble about fifteen lanterns later, after passing a couple of intersecting halls. Sarah transformed and said, "The scent is powerful this way. Whoever left the trail came up here, then backtracked. There were stairs a few turns back; we should take them."
Chloe shook her head. "Can't we just move the rubble? Alec, Conner, you're both strong."
"No reason to," Sarah said. "You can tell it's been here for a while. Nobody else has gone through. What do you think happened, Alec?"
He shrugged. "Hard to tell. In places like this, it's not uncommon. I worked a mining job back in the thirties, and we saw it plenty. It was a tough job. Cave-ins are always on your mind."
"Cool," Conner said, unimpressed. "Let's go."
Sarah joined him as a wolf, and the two of them took the lead. Alec tossed his lighter to Conner when they reached the stairs, who went down to find a lantern.
When Chloe hesitated on the top step, Harper paused. "You okay?"
"Fine," Chloe said, her voice terse. Then she made a face. "I don't like mazes, that's all. Especially ones where you can't see the sky."
"Oh." Harper lingered with her, thinking about the way Chloe had chattered nonstop. "That makes me wonder though, remember that demon you told me about? The one you said would hide his smell with flowers?"
Chloe gave her a curious look. "Yeah? Dromin, sure. What about him?"
Harper started down as she asked, "You think he ever came down here? He wouldn't be able to hide as well, huh?"
"Not a chance," Chloe said, walking with her. "He never went far from the fields; that was his thing. He would have gagged on his own stench without the marigolds and tulips…"
As they started through the lower level, some tunnels grew more narrow, and Harper sometimes saw loose rubble and holes in the floor. Her legs were beginning to ache, and she found herself only halfway listening to Chloe's stories.
After taking them down another set of stairs, Sarah transformed. "The trails are fresher here, and there's more. I need to get your scent, Conner."
"I haven't even met him," Conner pointed out.
"People with shared blood stand out to me," she said. "If he shares your demonic side, too, I'll have a lot to work with. Just hold on a moment, it won't take me long…"
She shifted back and leaned close to him, inhaling through her nose deeply. Conner's usual grin appeared for a moment, and he dropped her a wink. In response, she gave a playful snap at him, then sniffed again.
"So when we find where they're keeping him, we need to know our positions," Chloe said. "We have to assume they'll have guards or that he'll be close to Trentreen himself."
"I hope he is," Conner said. "I'd love to get my hands around his throat."
"Your choking fantasy aside, we should establish our roles," Chloe said. "I know you want point, but—"
"Damn right," Conner said.
"But sending Alec in first might be better," Chloe continued. "Even if he's ready for someone to come in, if he's engaged already and you show up, it might throw him off."
Conner scowled. "Fine. Sarah, you done? I'm not a scratch-and-sniff."
Sarah snapped at him again, then backed away, toward the archway of another tunnel.
"Stop," Alec said, voice low.
Harper glanced at him. "What?"
He held up a hand for silence as he stared down the entrance Sarah had moved toward. Her hackles were up, and as he took a step in that direction, his eyes grew dark, and his teeth turned to fangs.
Harper tried looking down that way too but saw nothing but the deep shadows. But maybe she heard something. Light at first, no more than a pittering sound. Or was it pattering? The hairs on the back of her neck seemed to stand up as it got louder. Closer.
"Harper," Chloe hissed.
She looked over and saw that Conner was in his incubus form. Chloe had drawn her gun next to him, though she held it against her leg, for now, pointed to the ground. When she nodded down at it, Harper took the hint.
She took her gun out, feeling both silly and nervous as she tried to copy how Chloe was standing. "Should we—"
Sarah's snarl was all the warning they had, and then there were creatures diving in the open area.
"Backs together!" Alec commanded. "These are wulfsers, don't let them bite you!"
The others fell together naturally, and Harper was quick to join them. She lifted her gun toward one beast coming her way.
It was the size of a border collie but purple-scaled and slobbering. There was a low rumbling coming from it that she took for a growl.
"We need another lantern!" Conner shouted. "They freeze-up in the light!"
Harper heard Chloe moving but couldn't take her eyes from the one stalking toward her. Others were pressing in too, but Alec and Conner were holding them off.
Heart racing, she pulled the trigger.
Nothing happened. She fired again, then again, backing up, her back pressing into the others as nothing happened. "Damn!"
Then Sarah was in front of her, snarling back at wulfser. They attacked at the same time in a fit of teeth and claw. On the other side, Conner had just grabbed one that dove at him and threw it across the room, where it hit a wall and fell. More were there to take its place.
Chloe called out, and Harper whipped around to see that a group of them was pushing her into another wall.
She broke from the others, unsure what her plan was until she skidded to a halt behind them. "Hey! Idiots, over here!"
The creatures turned at her call, and she said, "Get the light, Chloe, quick."
Chloe sprinted toward the tunnel as Harper shouted again, keeping their attention on her. Behind her, Sarah yelped, and Conner called for Alec to move in and leave no gap.
The wulfsers focused on Harper were spreading out, and she knew what they were doing. Predatory pack animals liked to give their evening-meal no chance to get away and would form a ring around them — she doubted the wulfsers would act any differently.
"Who has the lighter?" Chloe yelled into the room.
"Catch!" Alec shouted to her.
Harper's breath caught as she saw the glint from the lighter flash above her. But Chloe caught it easily, checked that it worked, then went toward the nearest lantern. The click it made when she flicked it made Harper think about the safety on her gun. She thumbed it and aimed the wulfser nearing her.
"Harper, don't!" Conner called out, but she was already committed. The area brightened just a second before she squeezed the trigger.
The wulfser fell the instant the light hit, and the bullet went clean over it. The report of the gun was loud, the sound echoing off the rounded walls. The slug hit the stone opening, ricocheted, went flying to the left, hitting the metal tunnel, bouncing in a new direction. Conner's cry of shock ended its trajectory.
Harper saw him slam a hand against his shoulder. As he shimmered from incubus to man, green ooze turned to red blood, and a cold panic filled her. Everything seemed to freeze.
Only when Chloe moved past her, stepping around another prone wulfser, did Harper realize that the beasts actually had. This broke through her shock, and she stuck her gun into her bag and rushed toward Conner. "Oh god, Conner, are you okay? I'm so sorry; I didn't—"
Sarah moved at the same time, transforming as she did. "How bad?"
Conner's head jerked toward the entrance the wulfsers had come through, the one now illuminated by the lantern just inside. "Sarah, wolf form."
"I need to see your shoulder," she said, voice firm.
"No, wolf form, now."
Harper had reached him. "Conner—"
"Chloe!" Alec's sharp voice made Harper turn, but she couldn't find him.
Confused, she looked over to Chloe, but she wasn't in the same spot either. From the corner of her eye, she saw Alec was now on her left. "Hey, what's wrong?"
He answered, but Harper couldn't quite hear him. It sounded like he was speaking through a thick wall. He wasn't to her left, either.
She whipped back to Conner, alarmed, and now he was standing all the way over by the tunnel entrance, but she'd never seen him move. Sarah was growling but kept shifting spots.
They were all talking now, all of Afterlife, trying to find each other, but the shifting scene was too disorienting. Sarah transformed, and her voice was the only clear one. "It's the zurochs. If you can find the tunnel, get there, get down it. There's something else — move! Now! Everyone, move!"
Harper ran toward the tunnel, but it was a wall when she reached it, and when she looked left, she saw Conner moving around a corner she was sure hadn't been there.
Sarah was saying more, but her voice grew fainter with each step Harper took.
Then she felt a hand clasp hard on her arm and yank her forward. She cried out, surprised, and fought the hold. It didn't help that when she tried to turn or step back or look at what had her, her vision adjusted to something new.
Despite her efforts to get loose, she was forced to stumble along or risk being dragged. She fumbled for her gun.
"Harper, stop." Conner's voice was next to her. "I'm trying to get us out of here, damn it, stop fighting me."
"Conner? Thank god!"
The next five minutes felt like an eternity as they hurried along, trying to out-distance the zurochs while the unders kept changing around them. Then there was a door, and on the other side, Conner slammed it shut.