The tunnels that led to the room were well kept, but not at all modern. It was different inside: she saw chandeliers, a beautiful tiled floor with plush rugs, expensive decor. There were fruit bowls and costly wines.
It was built for a man who liked pleasure. A demon waited on a giant chair, unsurprised to see them. He smiled and gave a mocking little clap.
“Oh, you found me, how grand,” he said, then looked at Conner. “I felt the oath break. Our peace is over.”
“That won’t matter,” Conner said, striding to the front of the group, his incubus tattoos pulsing. “We killed your men, Trentreen; it’s over.”
“You think so?” Trentreen asked, laughing.
Conner moved fast, but he was thrown off his feet before he reached him. As he leaped up, he laughed too. “That’s your plan? How many times can you throw me back? You’ll run out of energy. Then what?”
“I don’t like getting my hands dirty,” Trentreen said. “Never did. But you know what? I don’t need to blast you. Did you forget what you came for?”
He turned and waved a hand, all impatient like.
When she looked over, Harper forgot about her arm. “Alec?”
“You shouldn’t have come,” Alec said, stepping forward. There was a casual contempt in his features, underlined with effortless grace and burning disregard.
Her heart beat faster, and her face flushed. Despite everything, she thought him beautiful.
Chloe didn’t seem to agree. “You drank blood.”
“You know, I’m really tired of your judgment,” Alec told her. A grin tugged at his lips. “You have your addictions, and I have mine.”
“It’s not you,” Sarah said.
“How would you know?” Alec shot at her. “A few years, and you think you know me? You’re all here to take me home, but I don’t want to go. I tried it your way, all right?”
“It was worth it,” Chloe said.
“It sucked,” he said, then shrugged. There was a certain bitter honesty in his voice. “Playing house with you was better than this? God, you’re talking about — about mud puddles comparing to the ocean.”
Chloe’s expression turned bitter. “An ocean of blood. You know that, right? You can see it, right?”
“Yeah, I can,” Alec agreed. “So what? Chloe, you have this — this morality complex, and I’ve let you shove it down my throat for too long. Do you know what power feels like? No, you don’t. Stop pretending we’re the same and go home.”
“Home?” Trentreen looked at him. “They’re not going home, Alec. They came here. They broke our deal.”
“So?” Alec gave him the same contemptuous look that he gave the others. “You got what you wanted. Me.”
“You think you’re all important?” Trentreen rolled his eyes. “You’re just a pretty face to show the others there’s reason to join us. You’re Afterlife. A name… a brand.”
Alec strolled over to one of the velvet-lined tables and poured himself some wine. “I’ve been worse in my time. But no matter - they came to rescue me. I don’t need them. They can go.”
“No,” Trentreen said. He clapped his hands, and demons stepped out of the shadows.
Sarah transformed into her panther form, and the others readied themselves to fight, but Harper knew they stood no chance. There was thirty of them, maybe more.
Chloe and Conner tried to fight, even while Sarah transformed back and cried out for them to stop. Harper could do nothing, not with her broken arm. They didn’t fight but let inferni hold them.
By the time they were subdued, Chloe’s nose was broken, her face covered in blood, and her clothes torn. Conner was just as bad off, if not worse looking. He had no shirt to cover the already forming bruises across his chest. They both were breathing hard, arms pinned behind them, staggering a little on their feet.
Trentreen looked at him, then drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. “Well now. I’ve waited too long. Alec, just kill him already.”
Alec snapped his face toward Trentreen. “What?”
“Part of our deal was that you wouldn’t send me after Afterlife,” Alec said. “You’re breaking a sworn oath to me, telling me to kill him.”
“Then don’t,” Trentreen said. “There you go, you’re free, Alec. You know what? If you want, I’ll let them leave right now. You just have to go with them.”
Alec’s eyes narrowed. “I joined you.”
“Alec, come on,” Chloe said. “Don’t make me stake you.”
“Shut up,” the inferni holding her said, shaking her like a doll. Harper imagined the sound of rattling teeth and felt sick again.
“We can walk away,” Sarah said.
“Why are you hesitating?” Harper asked. “Alec, we need to go.”
Conner was smiling. “You can’t, can you?”
Alec stepped toward him.
“Alec,” Harper said. “Don’t.”
The others were saying the same, despite the demons holding them. He couldn’t seem to hear their pleas.
“Go ahead,” Trentreen called, sounding amused. “Your choice, Alec. You can free him, or you can stay with me. Everything you ever wanted. Power, wealth, adventure. Blood.”
“Damn it!” Alec snarled, then shimmered into his vampire form. “I’m sorry, Conner.”
“Don’t be,” Conner said. “You bought me time, Alec. Three years of — I’d have been dead without you, or worse, like him. Just make it fast.”
Alec’s hands turned to fists; then he moved so fast it looked like a blur. Harper screamed out, but it was lost in the noise of the rest of Afterlife’s cry.
Alec turned to Trentreen as the demon who held Conner fell, dead. His neck had been snapped. “You know, you made a deal. Everything you have, all of it, just for one thing. Letting go of your need for revenge. You broke that deal.”
Conner rushed at him. Trentreen jumped up, but when he lifted his hands, nothing happened. He stumbled back, but his speed was slowed. One eye, the fake one, fell out. The other rolled toward his minions. “Help!”
They had no time. Conner reached him first. “Nothing personal,” he said, his strength more than enough to rip the other demon apart. When Trentreen screamed, Harper looked away.
The other demons were moving toward Conner, she saw. The one holding her let go to join them.
Harper ran forward, not knowing what she was going to say until she did. “Wait! Please, listen, just for a moment. You can go home too.”
Someone hissed at her, and others were voicing active disagreement. There were violent threats, and it was loud. She was louder. “You’re new, I know. Join the club. The longer you stay here, in this world, the harder it will get to leave.”
“Like you’d know,” one called at her.
“See, that’s where you’re wrong,” Harper said. “I only found out that I was a gypsy like… three weeks ago? Yeah, that’s crazy.”
She heard disbelief.
“I’m serious,” she told them. “You don’t believe me? Look, I have no powers yet. No skill. Think about it! I just stood there and let you take me. Take my friends. I am new to this world, same as all of you.”
Some of them stopped talking to listen — more than before.
“See, he brought you in because you were new. Because you don’t know. Let’s see — some of you were turned recently, right? Some of you were tricked into accepting powers. Others, well, you were born like this, but you either didn’t know, or you didn’t care. Not until he made you care. Like me.”
Harper looked over at Conner and Alec. “Not them, though.”
“Harper, don’t,” Alec said.
“Don’t?” Harper laughed. “You drove a woman mad enough to—”
“She was a demon, and this isn’t about her,” Alec said.
Harper shook her head. “It is, and you can’t even see that.” She turned back to the listening demons. “He can’t see you. He’s been here too long. Conner too. And you don’t want to be like them.”
Conner took a step, and when Alec grabbed his arm, he shook it off and joined her. He put a hand on her shoulder when she looked at him. “She’s right.”
Harper nodded. “Tell them, Conner. Tell them it’s not too late.”
Conner looked at Alec, and that’s when Harper saw the difference between them. Because Conner looked sad, genuinely apologetic for what he was about to do, and that was more than the other man had ever managed.
“He would have killed me,” Conner said. “And a year from now, two years maybe… he would have regretted it. He would have hoped for death but kept going. Kept going until someone drove a stake in his heart.”
“And he would have thanked them for it,” Harper said.
Chloe and Sarah both joined them as the demons let them go.
“You don’t want to be like that,” Conner said. “And you don’t want to be like me either. Because I was waiting for him to do it, waiting for him to kill me, and I would have welcomed it as much as he did.”
“Eager to kill… and to be killed,” Chloe said. “That’s not what you want.”
“There’s a better way,” Sarah told them. “A human way.”
Harper gave Alec a look. When their eyes met, he turned his face away. But when he spoke, he said what the demons needed to hear. “Let’s go home.”