Chapter 16

Once they were in the truck and out of Little Creek, Seth started to talk. From the first warning of danger to the flight from the Farm, the tattered, bloodied survivors of the battle heading each to different, predetermined points.

“And then the witches found us. Which is one for the history books, mate. Witches finding us.” He was hyper, twitching with energy he didn’t seem to know how to use.

“I should have been there.”

“Yeah.” Seth didn’t cut Martin any slack. “You should have. But your job was to keep this one safe, and you did that. So don’t try feeling around for the guilt or regret. You’re not good at it, and anyway, AJ would have sent you two out the moment things got iffy, same as he did the other human.”

“What other human?” Jan put a hand on the dashboard, bracing herself as she turned to look at Seth. “What other human?” she asked again, her voice rising. She and Tyler had been the only humans at the Farm. The only other humans who knew about it, as far as she knew, had been members of her team. Her friends.

“The Huntsman sent her, so don’t yell at me.”

“Who?” But she knew, a hollow, heavy feeling in her stomach. “Glory. Why the fuck was Glory there? Is she all right?” Her friend was tough and fierce and smart, but she was supposed to be safe in London, not in the middle of all this.

“Why is the Huntsman involved?” Martin asked.

“I don’t know, and how the hell should I know?” Seth answered them both, guiding the truck onto the highway and putting on speed until he was going a few miles over the limit, letting other cars pass him on the left. “The Huntsman and witches and it’s cats and dogs living together, man, we’re living history. Anyway, when the attack hit, AJ sent the human and the dryads into the basement. Elsa said she got them out when the defenses fell, but I don’t know anything more than that. I’m sorry.”

Jan stared out the window at the road passing by and instinctively reached for her inhaler, safe in her pocket. She didn’t need it, and it wouldn’t help relieve worry, but at this point it was almost a talisman. So long as she didn’t lose it, everything would be okay. Eventually. “The preters are here.”

“Yeah. And the turncoats their dogs, like that’s any surprise. Nobody else, though, not that we saw.”

“That’s good. Right?” When neither of them answered her, she went on, “So, what’s a Huntsman?”

“Old friend of AJ’s,” Martin said. “Human, or he was, long time ago. Got tangled up in a dryad’s roots and stayed. If he’s rousting other humans… Huh.”

“Yah, like I said. Interesting times.” Seth was starting to come down off his jittering high, slumping a little in the seat.

“And we’re going to where AJ is?”

“Plans were, if everything went to hell, we split up, scatter, and do what damage we could until either we got an all clear or it all went south for good. AJ sent me to get you, bring you to where he was. Don’t know more than that.”

“So, where—” Jan started to ask, when Martin put a hand over hers. His skin was cooler than usual and slightly clammy, and the black nails were ragged at the edges. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “Get some sleep. Whatever we’re going into, if AJ needs us, we’re going to need to be alert.”

There was no way she was going to be able to sleep, torn between worry about what they were driving into and worry for Tyler, left behind to face whatever was coming for Nalith. But there wasn’t any point in arguing, either. Jan let her head fall back against the seat back, stretched her legs out in front of her as best she could, and closed her eyes, hoping that would satisfy the kelpie.

He squeezed her hand once and tucked his thumb under her palm, the gesture as comforting as a hug.

“Once more, dear friends, once more,” she murmured and was rewarded by Seth’s soft laugh.

* * *

The street outside was silent, any humans who might have been out having trusted their instincts and taken another route that evening. A few cars were parked along the curb, but their engines were cold. Overhead, the dark moon hung in place like an evil eye, unblinking.

There was blood in the air. They could smell it, standing outside the building where the preter lords had told them to come. Nearly fifty of them, all that was left of the hundreds when this started, all that could make their way to this place at this time. And if some of them kept looking over their shoulder, convinced that Herself would be there, ready to flay them alive for abandoning her, none broke ranks.

They were supposed to join the preter lords as they came through the Grand Portal, form shock troops to their preternatural grand purpose, do all the things minion armies did. Supposed to serve and die, if needed, so their betters could live and rule.

“Screw that shit,” one of them said and stepped up onto the stone steps, the others close behind.

Inside the church, the noise of battle came from elsewhere, curses and the clank and crack of weapons. Their attention was drawn not to the wide staircase leading downstairs, however, but to the faint glow rising through the floor. A misty blue arc, barely three feet high and a dozen feet wide, filling the nave.

A collective sigh escaped them, relief, fear, and anticipation.

“Is it enough?”

“It has to be.”

The Grand Portal itself was out of reach; to go downstairs would be to be drawn into the fighting, where both sides had no reason to care for them. This was their chance, while all other attention was distracted.

“Make sure your body stays inside the band,” the one who had spoken before said. “Anything that goes outside might not come with.”

A running start, steps matched to prevent anyone from tripping over an unwary limb, and they ducked and slid under the glowing arc, into the portal.

Gnomes were no strangers to change: their bodies shifted and contorted naturally, elongating or contracting to fit the space. But going through a portal pulled and shoved them in ways outside their own control, turning them sideways and upside down into screaming winds and bitter cold before dropping them abruptly onto cold, hard stone.

They rolled and got to their feet, hands shaping into claws, eyes alert to danger even before they focused enough to see the tall—armed—forms circling them.

Preters. Armed, alert preters.

“Well, well,” a voice said from the crowd, dry and eager. “Maybe it won’t be so boring staying here, after all.”

“Oh, fuck,” one of the gnomes muttered.

The plan had depended on the elves being distracted by the portal, by whatever it was they wanted to do to the other realm. But gnomes were used to things going wrong.

“Will you yield, live, and serve?” another of those dry voices asked. The preters had already drawn weapons, edged blades glinting in the pale lights of the cavern, so the question wasn’t so much a query as a suggestion.

They had answered that question before and lied. There was no room now for prevarication or treachery.

“Die here, or die there,” the lead gnome said, speaking for them all. “It doesn’t matter.”