When Jan left the building, the bright blue sky and crisp autumn wind felt like a betrayal. It should be darker, rain clouds scudding across the sky, thunder booming through the sky, people scurrying for cover, not strolling along like they didnâ€™t have a single trauma in their lives.
She stood on the street, and thought about going to his office, demanding someone tell her something.Â The thought of the fuss that would make, probably get her escorted off-campus, certainly make it harder for Tyler to get his job back, if â€“ when â€“ he came backâ€¦Â She thought briefly about going into one of the bars that lined downtown, catering to students and professionals, and tying a few on, but booze had never been her thing.
No.Â The only thing to do was go back home.
The bus came, eventually, and she got on, paying her fare and finding a seat toward the back, where fewer people sat, automatically. The last thing she wanted right now was some wannabe Romeo in her space. Or any human being, actually. She wasnâ€™t sure she could be civil to anyone, just then
Sitting down, she shoved the fare card into the side pocket of her pack, and her fingers touched the keys sheâ€™d put there, the cool smooth texture of the Hello Kitty keychain.Â Sheâ€™d left the keys, but the keychain was hers, damn it.
Tyler hadnâ€™t just run off with some cyberslut, heâ€™d left his job, too. That still didnâ€™t make any sense to her. It wasnâ€™t like he had piles of cash hanging around, that he could quit like that. Or did he?Â What did she really know about him, anyway?
Jan pulled her hand out of the pack, and pressed her hand against her stomach, instead, trying to calm the knot there. There was a feeling like she wanted to throw up, even though she knew there wasnâ€™t anything in her stomach to chuck. Nerves and anger. She had never been very good with either.Â Conflict wasnâ€™t her thing.
â€œLet it go.Â Heâ€™s not your problem,â€ she told herself, her voice an unexpected, oddly unfamiliar noise, hard and mean. â€œTyler Wash is no longer ever again your problem.â€
â€œProblem is, youâ€™re his only chance.â€
â€œWhat?â€Â She twisted in her seat, knocking the pack to the ground. The person who had spoken sat down next to her, way too far into her personal space, then reached down and picked up the pack, handing it to her. She took it, numbly, barely even noting what she was doing.
â€œHe has been taken. And you are his only chance to return.â€
Those words, like the security guyâ€™s, didnâ€™t make sense at first. Unlike earlier, they didnâ€™t resolve into anything that did make sense.
The man â€“his dark blue hoodie up, but not quite enough to hide some kind of deformity around his nose, shaggy dark hair obscuring his eyesâ€“ made a strangled, frustrated sort of noise. â€œListen to me. You must listen, and hear. Your leman needs your help.â€
â€œMyâ€¦what?â€Â She just sat there and stared at the speaker, her earlier anger washed away by the certainty that she should not be talking to this man, and an equal certainty that, if she tried to move, her feet wouldnâ€™t support her.
He growled once, as though annoyed with her denseness. â€œYour lover. He has been taken.â€
The words were in English, and they still made no sense. She shook her head, and leaned away, as though that would be enough to make this crazy person go away.Â Sheâ€™d been told, ever since she moved into the city, that crazies would come right up to you, but sheâ€™d never had it happen to her before.Â It wasnâ€™t like this was New York, or Chicagoâ€¦.Of all the days, though, it seemed inevitable that it would happen today.
The next growl was definitely one of exasperation, and he raised his head to look directly at her, swiping some of the hair away from his face. His nose was too thick, almost more a muzzle than a nose, and his eyes — they were dark, but they looked almost red under the bus lights. Was he wearing contacts?Â A mask?Â It wasnâ€™t anywhere near Halloween yet, but -.
â€œWoman, you must listen,â€ he insisted, and she started to get pissed off.
â€œI donâ€™t have to do anything, buddy.Â Back off.â€Â She should have started carrying mace, or a whistle, or something.Â Not that sheâ€™d ever have the nerve to use it â€“ she was more likely to apologize to a mugger than fight back.Â But still, this guy was giving her all the bad creeps.
â€œI told you that was the wrong approach,â€ another voice said, even as someone sat down heavily in the seat on the other side of her.
Jan swiveled around, feeling her body shrink in on itself, frozen sensation of fear intensified. She might not have been city-raised, but she knew better than to let two strangers bracket her like that, so close.
The second stranger put his hand on her arm, gently. â€œItâ€™s okay.â€
What?Â She almost laughed.Â None of this was okay, not at all. Jan stared at the hand, not sure why she hadnâ€™t knocked it off, gotten up and found somewhere else to sit. It was a normal hand, skin smooth and scattered with fine brown hairs, the nails painted black but well-groomed, and when she looked up his face was just as ordinary, wide-set brown eyes in a long, sort of blocky face. Easier to look at him than the other man, with his odd face and disconcerting eyes, even if it was a mask, and why was he wearing a mask?
Her heart was racing, but her brain felt like sludge, unable to understand what it was seeing, unable to react the way she knew she should, to make them leave her alone.
â€œPlease,â€ the second stranger said, his voice smooth and soothing. â€œWe want to help Tyler, too.â€
They knew Tylerâ€™s name. They knew Tyler. Somehow. She clutched at that thought. Had they followed her from his apartment?Â They thought something had happened to him, too. Had that bitchâ€¦
â€œWho are you?â€
She had almost asked what are you, but resisted at the last instant; if she looked sheâ€™d stare, if she stared sheâ€™d have to acknowledge that it wasnâ€™t a mask, probably, and it wasnâ€™t polite to stare at people with disabilities, anyway.
â€œFriends. If youâ€™ll have us.â€
Something about the smooth guyâ€™s words was too smooth. Janâ€™s instincts jangled again, the anger and panic mixing with her natural caution, almost overwhelming her desire to not make a fuss.Â She slid her arm out from under his hold, thankful he didnâ€™t resist. â€œIâ€™m choosy about my friends,â€ she said.
â€œHuh. Sheâ€™s smarter than she looks,â€ the first one said.
She turned to glare at him, and he grinned at her, that nose, yes it looked like a muzzle and the jaw hung open showing sharp teeth and a red tongue visible. Not a mask. She shuddered and looked away â€“ then looked back and stared at him, politeness be damned, this once.
They locked gazes as her heart went thump-THUMP thump-THUMP a dozen times, and the bus swerved around corners, hitting one of the inevitable potholes and making everyone bounce in their plastic seats, but she refused to let herself look away from that awful red gaze until he blinked, and looked away first.
â€œSatisfied?â€ Â The guy with the black nails wasnâ€™t talking to her, but his companion.
Hoodie-guy shook his head.Â â€œNo. But itâ€™s not like weâ€™ve got any choice, is there?â€
The squabble, a clear continuation of some longer debate, didnâ€™t make Jan feel better â€“ especially since the suggestion had been made that she somehow might not have been acceptable. Bad enough sheâ€™d just been cheated on by the love of her life, now this crap?
She could make a bolt for it â€“ they didnâ€™t seem to be violent, but you couldnâ€™t always tell right?Â Only they were both bigger than she was, and looked like they were in shape; two against one, there was no way she could get away if they tried to hold her. Jan looked toward the front of the bus, to see if anyone was sitting nearby who might be willing to help her get away if things got ugly. The old man with the shopping bag on his lap looked at her uncomprehendingly, and the two girls sitting further down were too busy giggling with each other. The others were too far away; they didnâ€™t notice anything was wrong.
The black-nailed man put his hand on her sleeve again, and she shivered a little under his intent gaze. Having a guy look at you like that, like he wanted to carry you away somewhereâ€¦Â Her skin prickled in warning. Black Nails might look more normal than his companion, but he gave off seriously weird vibes, too.
No. She was not going to fall for any creepy stalker maybe-rapists, maybe-cannibal tricks or mind-games. â€œLook, I donâ€™t know what the hell game youâ€™re playing, or what this has to do with Tyler, who by the way is a bastard and you can tell him that next time you see his skanky ass, but-â€œ
Black Nails interrupted her. â€œIs there somewhere we can go, somewhere, private, to talk?â€
â€œAre you kidding me?Â Iâ€™m not going off anywhere private with you two,â€ she said, her voice rising enough that people might have taken notice, if they werenâ€™t all carefully not paying attention.
â€œOh for the love of Peteâ€¦ â€œÂ Hoodie-guy slapped his hands down on his knees, the noise making her jump slightly. â€œListen, we donâ€™t have time for this. Thereâ€™s no way we werenâ€™t noticed, following you, and-â€œ
The bus went over a particularly bad pothole, and jolted them out of their seats. Something scraped along the bottom of the bus, making both guys flinch.Â Jan tried to use the distraction to get up, get away, but Black Nails grabbed her again, hauling her back, Â pulling her toward the back exit.
â€œWe have to go now,â€ he said.
â€œWhat?â€Â She tried to free herself, but his grip was painfully strong. Should she scream?Â Would the bus driver help her?Â There were reports of drivers who didnâ€™t do anything, even when someone screamed, but those had to be urban legends, right?Â Stuff that only happened in big cities, not here, not-
â€œOff the bus, now!â€Â Black Nails sounded worried, suddenly, and that scared her all over again, although she couldnâ€™t have said why.Â The bogeyman of my enemy is still a bogeyman?
The one with the messed-up face had already pulled the yellow cord that called for a stop, and the bus driver was jockeying through traffic to pull to the side at the end of the next block, even as she was being yanked toward the exit.
â€œWhat are you- no!â€Â She finally pulled away, drawing breath to scream, when Hoodie-guy glanced at the back of the bus, and swore. Jan couldnâ€™t help herself, she looked too. The bus jolted again, there was another shrieking noise underneath, like the bus had run over something sharp, and metal.Â Then the metal floor buckled once, twisting weirdly, like it was melting. The old man stared at it, then looked away, and Jan wondered if she were hallucinatingâ€¦except the guys hauling her out kept looking back, worried, too, hands flat against the door, waiting for the bus to stop so they could get out.
â€œWhat is-â€œ she started to ask, about to pull herself loose from their grip and tell the bus driver something was wrong, when the floor buckled one last time, and something shoved its way through, a long arm with small fingers, skin the grey-white of old bread streaked with mold, stretching as though to grab at whatever rested above.
Right where she would have been sitting.
Suddenly, getting off the bus seemed like a damn good idea.
The hand sank down below the metal again, the fingers creeping around the opening, as though searching for something.Â Or someone.
â€œOff,â€ Black Nails said, and with a shove from behind, they were out, even before the bus had come to a stop, and the three of them were standing on the street. â€œKeep moving,â€ he said, and pulled her forward, away from the curb. â€œDonâ€™t look back.â€
Jan felt her chest clench, and grabbed her inhaler out of her pack, even as they walked too quickly for her comfort. â€œWhatâ€¦what was that?â€
The other one, the one with the snout, answered. â€œA turncoat.â€
â€œA what?â€Â Her fingers curled around her inhaler and she took a hit from it, feeling her chest ease slightly.
â€œA â€“â€œÂ He growled, and this time it was a definite growl, the skin on her arms pricking again with goose bumps. â€œThereâ€™s no time, now. Theyâ€™ll figure out weâ€™re gone in a minute: we have to get you somewhere safe.â€
â€œButâ€¦the others on the busâ€¦â€Â Jan waved her free hand vaguely back at the street.Â â€œWe canâ€™t just-â€
â€œOnce youâ€™re gone, itâ€™ll leave too.Â The damage will be blamed on metal fatigue, or something.Â Worry about yourself, not them!â€
â€œWhere did we leave the truck?â€ Black Nails asked.
â€œDown there, back in town, a couple-five blocks.â€Â They switched direction, walking too fast, almost dragging Jan between them. She looked over her shoulder and saw that the bus was out of sight; had whatever that was broken through, were they on the bus right now?Â Or were they right, had it left, was it after them?
â€œWhat the hell is a turncoat?Â And who the hell are you?Â And where is Tyler?â€Â Janâ€™s usual tolerance had taken a hard blow today, and she wasnâ€™t the most patient of people even on a good day. But thisâ€¦ this was beyond enough. She coughed, and then, despite the inhaler, started to wheeze.
â€œI need to sit down,â€ she told them.
She must have looked as bad as she felt, because they swung around and plunked her onto a bench in the Green, away from the inevitable gaggle of teenagers hanging around the fountain.Â She bent over, and tried to calm down, waiting for it to pass.
â€œYou okay?â€ Black Nails asked.
â€œStupid question,â€ Hoodie-guy snapped.
â€œNo, Iâ€™ll be okay.â€Â She was able to speak, and her chest was starting to ease, now that sheâ€™d stopped moving.
Black Nails sat down next to her while Hoodie-guy prowled back and forth, clearly looking forâ€¦something.Â His gaze flickered everywhere, the nervous energy pouring off him, just like it did Tyler when he was wound up by an idea.
His nerves got on her nerves, which were already ragged, and she wished that she had something heavy to throw at him, to make him stop pacing like that.
Black Nails tried to take her hand again, but she pulled away, and glared at him, horrified to feel hot tears prickling in her eyes. She rubbed the heel of her hands against her jeans, hard, trying to drive the tears away.
â€œI swear, tell me now or Iâ€™m gone.â€Â She didnâ€™t care about Tyler. She didnâ€™t. But that thing on the busâ€¦. â€œWhat the hell was that, on the bus?â€ she asked again.
â€œTurncoats. Theyâ€™reâ€¦â€Â Black Nails hesitated. â€œTheyâ€™re rooting for the ones who took your leman, they want to prevent you from rescuing him. They will do anything to ensure that â€“ and the easiest way to do that is for you to…â€
â€œDie.â€Â The growl was back. Hoodie-guy stood in front of them, his hands fisted on his hips, and scowled. Not at her, Jan noted, but the other man. â€œIf youâ€™re too delicate to tell her, I will. Theyâ€™ll catch her and tear her apart and eat her for good measure. Theyâ€™ve always liked human meat.â€
Jan latched onto one word out of all that. â€œHuman?Â What do you meanâ€¦â€
â€œOf all the moon-washed idiociesâ€¦ we donâ€™t have time for this.â€Â The one called AJ reached up and pushed his hoodie back. â€œHuman. You. Not us.â€
Not a monobrow. Not a misshaped nose. This close and clear there was no denying that it was a real muzzle, short but obvious, with the jaw hinged oddly, coarse dark hair overrunning what would have been a hairline to trace down to the end of his nose. Round dark eyes set too far back stared at her, waiting for her reaction. Not red, but she thought they would glow in firelight, a bright, dancing red.Â Like a wolfâ€™s.
She stared, and then turned to the other man, studying him more carefully. He looked human. Face normal, if a little long to be attractive, and his hair was a neck-length tousle of black that a supermodel might have longed for. The right number of fingers and limbs, his skin tone normal for someone who was maybe Indian or South American, she thought, even as a part of her brain shrieked run, you idiot, run!
â€œNo,â€ he said, his voice still silky-smooth and soothing, his hands taking hers between them, holding her still. â€œIâ€™m not human either.â€
She jerked her hands away, and tried to stand up, but they had her effectively trapped. She should have listened to her gut, back on the bus, she should run, she should screamâ€¦but she didnâ€™t.
Her heart raced, but her mind was oddly clear.Â Or maybe sheâ€™d gone into hysteria already, and this was what being crazy felt like.
Sheâ€™d stared down muzzle-boy â€“ AJ â€“ once already. That memory gave her just enough courage to ask again, â€œAnd that thing under the busâ€¦ it wasnâ€™t not human either.â€Â She had known that already. Mostly. Guessed it, at least, even if she hadnâ€™t let herself acknowledge the insanity of it.
â€œGnome,â€ he said. â€œNasty little bastards, all teeth and greed.â€
â€œGnomes.â€Â All right, then. â€œAnd Tyler?Â Heâ€™s been taken, you said. Byâ€¦â€
â€œNot by us, or ours,â€ AJ said. He watched her carefully, not the staring contest of before, but cautious, judging. â€œOur enemies. Yours now, too.â€
â€œThis is a joke, right?Â Tyler set this whole thing up. Thatâ€™s some kind of costume â€“ a good one, you got me, but the jokeâ€™s over.â€Â She looked between them, shaking her head. â€œIs this being filmed?Â Cause itâ€™s not funny any more and thereâ€™s no way I hell Iâ€™m going to sign any kind of release form for you to use the footage. And Tyâ€™s still a shit for pulling this.â€
AJ growled again. â€œFor pityâ€™s sake, Martin, you show her.â€
â€œMe?â€Â Black Nails sounded â€¦worried?
AJ had pulled his hoodie back up, and looked up at the sky, like that was supposed to mean something. â€œI canâ€™t, you idiot.â€
â€œAnd you want me to-â€ He â€“ Martin, Jan reminded herself – waved his hands, the black-painted fingernails catching light and sparkling slightly.
â€œWeâ€™re running out of time. And so is her Tyler. Come on, you swishtailed wuss. I know damn well you can control yourself when you want to.â€
Martin sighed, and heaved himself off the bench and â€“ there wasnâ€™t any warning, just a drawn-out groan and the sound of things crackling, the sound youâ€™d hear when you stretched after sitting for too long, bones protesting and muscles stretching and the urge to close her eyes as though water was pressing against them, swimming underwater, and when she opened them again, Martin was gone.
And a solidly-muscled pony, russet-coated with a black mane cropped short, was regarding her with deep brown eyes that were disturbingly familiar.
Jan had been the normal horse-mad kid, but that stage had worn off years ago.Â Still, she couldnâ€™t help but reach up to touch that nose, then slide her hand along the side of its neck.Â The pony lowered its head and turned slightly, as though inviting her to continue.Â Without meaning to, she found herself standing by its side, contemplating how difficult it would be to tangle her fingers in that stiff brush of a mane and haul herself onto its back.
AJ let out a harsh, rude growl. â€œMartin, stop that. I swear, we should have left you behind, if thatâ€™s how youâ€™re going to behave.â€
The pony shook its head and whickered, and Jan stepped back, the spell broken.
She stared at it, and then at AJ, who was suddenly, bizarrely, the lesser of two weirdnesses. â€œThatâ€™sâ€¦ oh my god.â€
â€œNo, just Martin.â€Â AJ still sounded disgusted. â€œDonâ€™t get on his back. He really canâ€™t help himself then, and we need you intact.â€
â€œWeâ€™re â€“ oh, so help me, swish-tail, if you relieve yourself here, Iâ€™m going to pretend I donâ€™t know you. Go do your business elsewhere if you canâ€™t wait.â€
The pony â€“ Martin â€“ gave an offended snort, and the crunchy-snapping noise made her close her eyes, and when she was able to open them again, he looked human again.
Jan thought she might pass out.