The world stopped moving.
Harper and Conner looked at each other, and she wondered if he felt as relieved as she did. Then she saw how pale he was. "Conner? You okay?"
"Glad we're not running in circles anymore," he said. He flashed her the amused grin that he usually had but then staggered on his feet, clutching his shoulder again.
"Let me see," Harper said, stepping closer. She swallowed back bile as she peeled away the blood-soaked shirt to see the bullet wound. The hole was rounder than she'd expected, and the torn flesh beneath was bright with blood, both fresh and congealed. "Conner, this—"
"The bleeding slowed," Conner told her, stepping sideways from her reach. "I'll be fine, Harper. Half a day demonic, and it'll be healed. Nothing but a scar."
"Then change now," she told him.
Conner shook his head. "Takes energy to heal, and I'd rather save mine. Here, help me with the pressure?"
"How?" Harper asked.
With his other arm, he tore his shirt open, then ripped a section off. "I'll hold this; use the rest to tie around my shoulder."
Little as she wanted to, Harper picked up the ruined shirt. It was tacky to the touch, but the blood was cooling. "No point in soaking it," she said, trying to ignore the coppery smell.
"I've got others," Conner said, pulling off the lighter tone better than she had. He had to crouch while she turned the shirt into a makeshift bandage but didn't complain.
Only after he'd stood did Harper process the surrounding room and the fact they were alone. "Conner, where are the others?"
"Couldn't find them," he said. "Zurochs aren't so bad when there's one or two, but get a half-dozen or more, and you get a half-dozen or more changing rooms too. I was lucky, catching you when I did."
"We've got to find them," Harper said.
"Yeah, right," Conner said. "Got any idea where we are?"
Harper looked around. It wasn't a tunnel they were in, but an enclosed room with two other doors. A chamber, she thought, though it had no furnishings.
"Is that a lamp?" she asked, staring at the ceiling. It was the same metal as the tunnel, but with a couple of fixtures for the yellow light bulbs that were letting them see.
"This must be one of the newer areas," Conner mused. "Probably battery operated. Not all demons want to bother filling oil lamps. But it was either on already or motion-activated… which means they use this area."
She nodded, thinking of the others again. "You mean, there will be demons. More, I mean, than the ones I drew."
"Harper, the rest of the team can take care of themselves," Conner said. "Those zurochs would have found us eventually — so let's move before it happens again."
"I could live with never seeing one again," Harper said. "Right or left?"
They went through the left door. There were more of the light fixtures, and it seemed more of a corridor than a tunnel, even enclosed.
The changes in the unders grew more prominent with each room they went through or path they turned on. Instead of staying the same century-old tunnel system they'd started in, it had developed. Modernized.
When they reached more stairs, Harper was reluctant to go down. "This leads even further in."
Conner shrugged. "It might. But you have to remember, there are different exits all over Vegas, and not all connected. Some still don't, but others were developed, so they would. Going deeper might lead us out."
"It reminds me of a city. One still being finished," Harper said. "It's fascinating."
He gave her a sharp look as they started down. The stairs widened into a landing after a few dozen steps.
"Left or right?" Harper asked again, glancing at both ends where more stairs began, each leading in the opposite direction.
They went left. When they reached the door and went through, Harper's shock stopped her.
"But how can—"
"It's fake," Conner told her. He knocked a hand against what seemed like a glass window offering a view of a sunlit garden. It sounded just like the metal walls.
Harper reached out herself, but even when she felt the cold metal, it was hard to believe the view wasn't real. In a low voice, she asked, "Is there a zuroch here?"
Conner laughed. "No, this isn't demonic, Harper. This is technology. Takes money, not power, to make that view."
"Why bother?" Harper asked. She saw they made the floor look like a brick road and that the lighting was warm, not harsh. "Lure people in?"
Conner shook his head. "Humans aren't stumbling around down here, not unless they've been brought. Nah. You've got a demon who enjoys the scenery, that's all."
She started down the path, but Conner grabbed her arm. "What?"
He shook his head. "Let's cut back, go the other way. We won't find Trentreen there. He's not a pretty flower sort of man."
"I thought we were trying to get out," Harper said. "Conner, we don't know where the others are, and you're — well, look at you."
Conner shrugged. "Right, well, we won't find an exit either. You think someone's shelling out that amount of cash and labor if there's a simple way to get to it?"
Harper knew there was some truth to that, even if she didn't believe he wanted an exit. She started back. "The other stairs then."
If the false windows were an example of beauty in the unders, the other stairs led to the opposite. There had still been work done to modernize the paths and rooms, but Harper thought it made the place creepier.
Sure, the lights were powered, but red bulbs kept the cramped tunnels shadowed in crimson. They ran into dead ends twice and only found the small crevices that served as turns when backtracking. It was cold too, almost frigid, which must have been intentional.
With spider webs and cracked walls, too, Harper was more than amused. The haunted-house-vibe had killed the creepiness factor. But there were too many half-eaten rats still mewling in corners to smile for long.
"I liked the other side better," Harper said after they'd passed through into a larger room. The red lighting was gone, but it was dim and dank.
"You see that?" Conner asked, nodding across the room.
She looked, at first seeing nothing. Stepping closer, though, she saw some crates stacked against the wall. There was a door next to it, and she thought he was speaking of it; it was narrow, steel, and barred shut.
"Conner, don't," Harper said as he moved toward it.
"It's just another door," he said.
Harper gave him a flat look. "Uh-huh. You're hoping it's got Trentreen hiding inside, just like every other room. It won't."
"You don't know that," he shot at her.
"I know we've been walking for a long time and we haven't seen a demon since losing the zurochs. For the home-base, it's pretty quiet. We're missing something here."
He stared at her. "Hell."
Harper half-smiled. "Yeah, see? We need to go."
For a moment, he looked ready to agree. Then he crossed the room, stopping by the crates. When she joined him, he said, "I can't leave that easily."
"I know you're worried about James," Harper said. "But—"
"I failed him," Conner interrupted, expression terse. He tried the door, but it didn't budge. He gave it a hard yank, which did nothing but cause his knees to buckle from the pain in his shoulder.
Harper pushed him to the crates. "There's still time. We'll find him, Conner. Just sit for a minute, okay?"
Conner didn't sit, but he did lean against one. "Yeah, sure we will. But I still — he doesn't even know who I am. What kind of father never bothers with their own kid?"
"The kind who didn't know they had one," Harper said. "You can't beat yourself over Emma's choices."
His laugh was hollow. "You think she had one?"
"I know what I said, Harper. But good god, you don't know what it's like to be in love with me." He flashed a grin, but it looked more fevered than charming. "I'm fun. Affectionate. A real catch."
Harper saw his cheeks were pale again. When she looked at his shoulder, she saw there was blood seeping through. "Conner, you've got to change into your incubus form."
But his adrenaline had faded, and it didn't seem like he heard her.
"Emma was sweet. She was. Made us dinner every night. Spent weeks picking the perfect birthday gift. Always happy with my ideas for dates. Packed us picnics."
"I'm sure she was," Harper said, eyes still fixed on his wound. "You had your reasons for leaving, I'm sure. Please, Conner, you've got to change, you're bleeding again, and I don't know what to do."
He blinked at her, and then his chin dipped for a moment before his face lifted again so he could look at her. "I had three reasons. Tall, blonde, really nice in a red bikini. She was a fitness instructor, flirted with me. Loved my car."
"Emma was sweet, and I was having a great time, but the — the fitness instructor — the blonde — I wanted her then, and going home to Emma was suddenly boring. And now I can't even remember red bikini's name."
Harper sat next to him. "It was a long time ago. You aren't that man now."
"No, I'm not," he agreed. "But sometimes… I want to be."
"But you're here," Harper said. "You're risking your life for a kid you didn't even know existed. Quit dragging yourself through the mud, change, and open that door."
He gave her a curious look, nodded, and got up. As he did, he shimmered. The bigger muscles he had as a demon caused the bandage to stretch beyond breaking and fall apart.
Harper saw his wound was still there, but it didn't look as deadly now. The blood was green and thick, and it was clotting quickly. To her relief, Conner seemed much more alert already.
"Better?" she asked.
"Well, I don't feel like there're bumblebees in my head. That's a start." Conner smiled at her, then got moving.
The door was no problem for him. Harper knew he was strong, but his raw power was still shocking to see, especially after the near delirium only a few moments before.
On the other side was an entryway to a large chamber that too was shadowed to see much of.
"Come on," Conner said.
Harper followed him inside. There were a couple more crates just inside, and at the opening to the main chamber, there were five metal barrels. Conner didn't pay them any mind, but she saw one lid was askew on her way past. She peeked in, curious, then stumbled back, gagging and horrified.
"Harper?" Conner paused, looking back at her. When she shook her head, he came back. "What is it?"
Her stomach heaved. "The barrels. They're… oh god. I can't."
He moved toward them, and Harper had to look away, knowing what he'd find. She could still see the rotting flesh herself. Chopped up, tossed together like a human salad. The hand, the one with a silver band still on the ring finger, was mottled and bruised. Part of a torso had bugs.
She didn't know how long she stood there, but at some point, Conner joined her. He took her by both arms, his grip careful in his demonic form. "You okay?"
"Those were people."
"Food," he said.
She looked up at him. "Conner, I can't. I just—"
"I know," he said. "Let's go. I'll bring Alec back down later, but I should never have led you this way."
Harper started back out, but both of them stopped at the same time. There was something back in the shadowed room. It sounded like an injured animal. Conner looked at her, and she could tell what he wanted. Little as she shared the desire to go in, she nodded.
"Gun out," he told her, voice low now, despite the noise they'd already made.
She took it from her purse, glanced at the safety, then held it against her leg the same way Chloe had. They walked together, the dimmed light transforming every shadow into snarling, hungry beasts. In the southeast corner, they found the source of the noise. A handful of children were sitting on the floor, all of them too dirty and scrawny to be freshly here. None were chains or ropes, but there were scratches on them.
When they got closer, one of them saw Conner and cried louder. Others joined in, and some shoved back against the wall, arms around their knees.
"Conner, you're scaring them," Harper shot at him. "Change back."
"I can't," he said. "I'm too weak already."
"Then just move back a little."
He did, but not far.
She turned to the children. A quick look-over confirmed James was not among them, but that wasn't very consoling. She crouched a little. "Hi there."
"I'm not here to hurt you," Harper said. "I'm here to help, okay? I need to—"
"Are you a policewoman?" a little girl asked.
Harper thought about Afterlife. What had she called them that first day? Supernatural crime-fighters? "Kind of."
"Okay. Good. Our parents are gone. We don't know where."
Harper glanced back at Conner, wondering if he was thinking about the barrels too. Back to the children, she said, "Someone will look for them. For now, I need to—"
One child drew in a sharp breath, and the others were staring past her, looking more scared than ever. She whipped around and saw that something had come through an unnoticed door.
"I love when dinner is polite enough to arrive on time," the demon said. It was tall, lean, red. There was a trace of humor in its tone, though their eyes spoke of cold calculations.
"Walk away," Conner snarled at it. "One warning is all I give, so you better take it."
The thing laughed. "Kind of you, but why let you come all this way and then hide while you waltz out?"
"You were why we didn't get attacked," Harper realized.
"Such scuttling little fools, traipsing around the bedroom without ever questioning why the monster wasn't under the bed."
Harper raised her gun.
It leered at her. "Oh fun, I love when the food fights back! Come, shoot! Let's have it!"
Harper's eyes flicked to Conner, lingered on his shoulder wound, then darted back toward the children. "I will. Get out, or I will."
It took a step toward her, and she flicked the safety off. When it took another, she moved her finger to the trigger but didn't fire. The walls were metal here, easy for a bullet to ricochet from. If it called her bluff, she'd have to risk it, but she knew it wouldn't — it was evil, not stupid.
And just like that, the demon was sprinting at her, laughing as it came, teeth a ragged set of yellow, sharpened daggers. It might have reached her if not for Conner. The incubus leaped at it, and they both slammed past her into the wall.
She watched, horrified at the ferocity they both turned on each other. It wasn't like the boxing Sarah had shown her. This was animalistic. Fists, claws, teeth. The red thing tore a chunk of flesh from Conner's forearm, making him scream his rage and pain as he doubled his efforts.
Even in demonic form, his shoulder was once again bleeding, and now the bite was too, and his nose. The red thing was worse, though. It was no real match, and soon Conner had the thing on its knees.
He wrapped his hands around its neck, throttling the life from it. The ending was slow-going, and the red demon struggled still, getting out a high-pitched scream of fury every few seconds. Harper realized Conner was letting him breathe just enough to get a gasp in now and then. He was drawing out the end.
He grew more vibrant from it, tattoos more intense with rhythmic pulsing. Conner was feeding, she realized.
"Conner! End it!"
Conner glanced at her, then the kids, then did so, snapping the demon's neck. "What? We've got to move fast, especially with kids. Got to have energy if something comes at us."
"But — all right, okay. But how do we get out?" Harper put her gun away, wondering how she would talk the children into following Conner out. The bloodiest pied piper she'd ever seen.
"He'll have an exit somewhere near," Conner said. The rest she didn't have to worry about. He went to the kids, and they were all up and ready to go within a minute.
He'd charmed them. Harper wasn't sure how to feel about it, but now wasn't the time to argue the morality of using demonic powers on kids. She swallowed any misgivings and looked for an exit. Conner was right. The door it came through went to another chamber that led to stairs, then a long tunnel, then turned left into more stairs, then it was a straight shot out.
A half-hour later, they found the exit of the unders. Conner went out first, checking the place they'd come up and charming the maintenance worker into leaving.
They left the unders into an old, now unused boiler room of a casino. Conner found the door that would take them out but put a hand on it, holding it closed when she reached for it.
"I have to change first," Conner told her. "When I do, the kids might lose the power that's keeping them from running out, screaming their heads off."
"So what then?" Harper asked.
"I'll send them with you now. Take them to the restaurant or buffet or whatever they have, then disappear, quick as you can. Don't get spotted with them by anybody who might repeat it later. We'll meet back at Afterlife."
Harper frowned. "But you're hurt. I mean, not like this — well, like this too — but it's worse when you're not shifted. I don't like it."
"Harper?" he asked, meeting and holding her eyes.
His smile was quick but sincere. "You've got to do it, anyway."