In the middle of the chaos, the constant hum of conversation, the noise of chairs and feet, Jan could hear the clock. "Shut up," she told it. "Shut up."
Lisbet, at the other side of the desk, looked at her with sympathy and thenclearly deciding against saying anythingwent back to work.
Jan should do the same. But this morning, her thoughts wouldn't settle.
It had been ten weeks, five days, and seven hours since she had made her desperate bargain with the preternatural s of the Court Under the Hill, forced them to hold off on their raids, to stop whatever plans they had to invade the natural world. Ten weeks, five days, and a few hours less since she, boyfriend and kelpie in tow, had come back through the portal, battered and exhausted.
The supernatural defense had gatheredregatheredhere in this off-the-track property to begin their race against time. And in the main room, a grandfather clock that had probably been installed when the farmhouse had first been built back in the eighteenth century ticked off those moments, as if any of them might forget.
Jan looked around the room, crowded with half a dozen battered metal desks similar to her own, and was painfully aware that she was the only human there, the only one who probably didn't have some sort of supernatural time-of-day awareness hard-coded into her wetware. She didn't need it; she could feel the hours passing like her own heartbeat. Every morning, she watched the sun rise into the sky, so different from the ever-present gloom of the preternatural realm, and felt time slipping away from them.
Being the only human didn't make her special, though. None of them could forget. Everyone here lived and breathed with the knowledge that every moment pushed against them, straining the atmosphere, making even the most patient of the themand few of them were patient to begin withsnap at each other over the smallest of things.
Ten weeks, five days, and seven hours had gone by. They had four days and, what, seventeen hours left before the truce ended, and the preternaturalsthe elves of lore, lovely and deadlywere free once again to open portals between the worlds. And once that happened
Jan's skin prickled unpleasantly. She knew too well what would happen.
"Jan?" A voice broke into her thoughts. "You want some more coffee?"
"Oh, Roj, thank you, yes, please," she said, holding up her mug for a refill. The slender, blue-skinned supernatural filled it, then moved on to the next desk, where mugs were already raised, proof that no matter the species, caffeine was the productivity drug of popular choice.
Jan looked around the room again, rather than go back to staring at notes and graphs that weren't telling her anything new. Twelve weeks ago, Jan had thought that fairies, elves, werewolves were all myths, stories, legends. Then elves had stolen her boyfriendlured him away via an internet hookup siteand she had been caught up in a chase that had partnered her with a sweet-tempered if homicidal kelpie, and sent her through a transdimensional portal into the heart of the preternatural world, where she had challenged the preternatural court to win back her love and managed to bring everyone back safe, if not sound.
No. Jan shook her head. Not sound. And not safe, either.
Before, she had learned, there had been certain times, certain places the preters could come through to this realm and vice versa. You either knew and waited, or you stumbled on them, and that was it. Now, somehow, the preters were using humans to open and maintain portals between the worlds. The preters didn't need to wait anymore for a seasonal event or random alignment.
Theythe rightful residents of this world, humans and supernatural alikewere racing a clock to prevent an invasion. And the tick-tick-tick wouldn't stopuntil the clock ran out.
Jan couldn't stand it anymore. She got up from her desk, pushing her chair back and making a harsh scraping noise against the wooden floor. Lisbet looked up again with a frown, and Jan smiled an apology at the jotunndotter, who just shook her head and went back to scowling at a printed report, marking notes with a red pen. Jan left the room, leaving her coffee there to cool.
The farmhouse was a sprawling structure, added onto over generations. Each room had been given over to another facet of their operations, nothing left to idle loitering. But one of the renovations had given the main house a porch that ran along the entire length of the back side, where residents went to steal a cigarette or a moment of silence, away from the ever-present hum of activity inside. Jan found herself there, inevitably, unconsciously, breathing in the cool morning air, searching for the calm she needed to keep working.
And then, equally inevitably, she looked across the yard to the source of her unease and disquiet. Along with the other outbuildings that came with the farm, there was a small shack that had been repurposed as an apartment. It looked harmless enough. The door was open, and she could see movement within. If she wanted to, she could walk across the grass, go up the two shallow steps, and go inside.
She wanted to. She wouldn't.
Tyler was there.
Tyler. The reason she had gone Under the Hill. The reason she was caught up in all of this. Her boyfriendthe man who had been her boyfriendhad been brought into that shack when they'd returned, and had refused to come out ever since. The damageboth physical and psychologicalthat had been done to him by the preters
they were still trying to unravel it. His memories were coming back, but they seemed
empty, like something he'd read and remembered, not lived. Even when he smiled at her, something was missing.
She had been warned about this, warned that there would be changes, but she hadn't believed. Hadn't understood. All the reading she'd done since then, crammed into half an hour every night before she fell over from exhaustion, had only gone partially toward explaining it. This was more than PTSD, more than Stockholm syndrome.
What the fairie world took, they kept.
Jan wanted her lover, her leman, back. She had fought magic to reclaim him, damn it, gone into the heart of the preter court and won him back by sheer human stubbornness, but that had only done half the job. The man he had been
She felt the now-usual tightness in her chest rise, and breathed out through her mouth, then in again through her mouth, letting the tension slide away just a little. The last thing she needed was a stress-triggered asthma attack.
Tyler was safe. That was what mattered. Safe for now, anyway.
None of them would be safe for much longer if they couldn't stop what was coming.
There was a faint noise behind her, the squeak of a door and the soft sound of footsteps. AJ, she identified, not even questioning that she could identify the lupin's steps now.
"Hey," he said, less in greeting than warning, so she wouldn't spook. They were all a little on edge, yeah. Even AJ. Maybe especially AJ.
Jan didn't turn, didn't acknowledge the noise until the lupinthe leader of this ragtag and motley resistancereached around her with a small plate that looked as if it had been stolen from a back-roads diner, the white surface chipped a little at the rim. But it was holding a thick slice of toast covered with cheese, and her stomach rumbled in reaction, reminding her that she hadn't eaten anything all morning, and four cups of coffee wasn't enough to keep a human going.
Ironic, that supernaturals remembered that, when she couldn't.
"You okay?" AJ asked.
Her mouth twitched in a grin, even as she picked up the toast and bit into it. She was living in a farmhouse in western Connecticut, surrounded by supernatural creatures out of a fairy tale, while her boyfriend was being deprogrammed, and the rest of them tried to find a way to stave off an invasion from another
world? Universe? Reality? An invasion of bloody-minded elves, according to her friend Glory, whowhen Jan had finally admitted what was going on and asked for helphad taken the news with terrifying aplomb.
"Oh, good," Glory had said, her voice scratchy over transatlantic phone lines. "Because when you disappeared for a week without a word, I thought you might've had a nervous breakdown or something. Elves are much better."
The memory of that conversation was almost enough to make Jan smile now. "Yeah, I'm fine," she said to AJ.
The lupin snorted at that, clearly not believing her. She turned to face him, wiping toast crumbs off her mouth with the back of her hand. The heavy monobrow and elongated nose that was almost a muzzle she barely noticed now; instead Jan saw the worry in those dark brown eyes and the way his mouth was trying not to snarl. Their fearless leader was upset.
The snarl turned into an annoyed twist. "The Toledo lead didn't pan out. Team just reported in. There's an enclave of supers who've been behaving badly, but no queen." She was almost afraid to ask what the lupin considered "behaving badly" for supernaturals. Her research suggested that could be anything from pranking humans to eating them.
She was pretty sure AJ would put a stop to any eating. Pretty sure. But not sure enough to ask. There were reasons why humans and supernaturals didn't cross paths on a regular basis. But they had no choice now, not with a preternatural queen somewhere on the loose and her court hell-bent on reclaiming herand claiming this world as their own. Better they find the queen first. Find her and use her to force the preters back through the portals, once and for all.
"So it's back to the drawing board for Operation Queen Search?" she asked, turning her back on the shed and whatever was going on there to face the problem she could maybe do something about.
"There are a few other teams still out, checking into leads," he said. "But"
"But we're running out of time," she finished for him. The cold pricking feeling on her arms increased, a feeling not even a sweater would stop. She knew; she'd tried.
Ten weeks, ten days. The numbers ran through her head like code, her brain trying to solve it the way she would have solved a problem in her previous life, when the worst problem she'd faced was a website going live with an error somewhere in it, and a client screaming at her boss, who would then scream at her.
There were only four and a half days left before the truce she had brokered ran out, before the preternatural court resumed their attempts to steal this world for their own. Not much time left for them to find a way to stop it.
"We're fucked, aren't we?"
AJ laughed, the low chuckle still as disturbing a sound as the first time she'd heard it. "We've been fucked since day one," he said.
"You know, boss, as a morale builder, you are beyond crap." But she didn't have anything better to add. They'd been working both sides of the problem, AJ's team searching for the queen, her team trying to find a way to break down the new magic, stop the portals from opening. They weren't making much progress on either. And every day, her skin felt colder, her lungs a little tighter, and she couldn't blame it on her asthma or the increasingly colder weather.
The lupin looked as if he needed a mug of coffee, too, but it was toxic for him. His dark brown eyes were rimmed with a faint pink from lack of sleep, and it made him look slightly rabid.
"The preters have kept their word, have stayed on their side," he said. "Definite downtick on reported disappearances." She knew that; she'd been watching the same reports he had. "But the minute the truce is over, yeah, they'll be back. And they know we're onto them, so they're not going to bother being subtle."
Considering that the most recent preternatural idea of subtlehooking up with gullible humans via internet dating sites and then using glamour to steal them away, an updating of the old legendsthat was a terrifying thought.
"Should we be expecting violence? I mean.. warlike violence?" Jan still had nightmares about the assault on her apartment, the memory of too-fluid limbs, gray-green fingers reaching for her, feathers and blood splattered on the walls, her friend Toba dying, to save her.
"It's not the way they've done things traditionally," AJ said, "and preters are all about tradition."
Tradition being the dark of the moon creating natural connections between the two realms, wooing humans by song and dance, or whatever the fairy tales claimed, not sexy chat-room profiles and hauling their prey through portals forced into existence by some unknown magic.
"But from the reports," AJ went on, "and your leman's memories, such as they are, I think we can't rule it out. Whatever new magic they're using to create these new portals, it's changing them."
"And not for the better," Jan said with feeling.
"They were never all that great to begin with," the lupin said, monobrow raised slightly. "We just knew what to expect from them."
"I've become a big fan of predictability," Jan said, even as her cell phone, stashed in her jeans pocket, vibrated and let out a small chime. Crap signal, but her alarms still worked. "My group should be getting ready to log in for the morning meeting. You want me to mention this or not?" She might have beennominallyleading that side of their operation, but AJ made the decisions. He was their pack leader, literally as well as figuratively.
"No," he said, then added, "no point to it, is there?"
She'd learned how to recognize the twitch of his face that meant a real, if ironic, smile, and grimaced in return. He was right. Since nothing had changed, there was no point wasting time talking about it. "If we actually come up with anything, I'll let you know."
Jan paused in the hallway before going inside, doing a quick personal inventory. Shirt, not coffee-stained. Hair, reasonably combed. Face, presumably clean, or at least AJ hadn't mentioned anything, and he would have.
"Oh, god, I hate this," she muttered.
Jan had lasted exactly one year in a traditional job before finding one that allowed her to telecommute. Most of her day had been spent working in front of monitors, interacting with people via text or the occasional vid conference. Jan hadn't been required to attend meetings in person, much less expected to lead those meetings. Fortunately, Opsher teamwas easy enough to manage, once she had all her geeks pointed in the same direction.
She took a deep breath and said her mantra, the same one she had been saying for weeks now: You are Jan Coughlin, who was chosen out of how many others to save the world; you have survived gnome attacks and the preter court, being attacked by creatures you can't identify, and this briefing is by comparison a piece of cake. Damn it.