Skip to main content

Excerpt

Excerpt

Halflings

Chapter One

Fangs sank into Nikki Youngblood's leg, setting her skin on fire. A scream gurgled in her throat, but she willed herself past trees smeared by her jarred vision. Her jacket snagged on a branch. No, no, no ... She jerked free, casting a glimpse backward at the gnarled faces behind her. The lead beast stumbled over paws caked with mud. She seized the moment to widen the distance.

Run. Her lungs burned. Just keep running.

Her feet, now numb, thumped against the dense carpet of the forest floor. Once a place of security, a quiet sanctuary of solitude and escape, her woods had morphed into a house of terror complete with four grotesque dog-wolves tracking her every step.

Despite her years of martial arts, of seeing herself as tough and in control, Nikki was completely helpless. But that didn't mean she had to die. Karate had taught her to stay calm in all manner of attack. Though I don't think this is what you had in mind, Sensei.

One minute she's perched against a rock, drawing. The next, she's running from ... from ...

She started to glance back, but stopped herself. Concentrate on escape. Don't concentrate on your enemy.

Besides, she didn't even know what those dog-things were. But one thing was certain: they were out for blood and Nikki was an easy mark for the vicious beasts.

Exhaustion squeezed each muscle, depriving them of strength. Likewise, it pushed at her consciousness, promising failure. When she thought her lungs might literally burst, a momentary, blinding flash of light sparked above her, as if the universe were snapping a picture of her dilemma. Within seconds of the spark of light, a sound descended. Church bells? The reverberation of a thousand muted bells soothed her nerves and curled around her like a warm blanket after a nightmare. The unearthly noise filled her ears, a beautiful hum closing her in. But the tempo rose higher and higher it until it caused the backs of her eyes to throb.

The dog-wolves began to moan. She glanced back—the four monsters had crumbled to the ground, their taut, muscled legs folding beneath them. One raked his head in the dirt and grass, his massive paw clawing brutally at his ear. The sound. Convulsing and groaning, their desperate plea to escape the melodic cry of the bells filled the air around her. Nikki took in short puffs, knees nearly buckling beneath her where she'd slid to a stop. The first flicker of relief tried to manifest, but Nikki knew she wasn't out of trouble yet. Her mind reeled, searching for a feasible escape. But her eyes watered, causing her to press a flat palm to her temple where it throbbed from the wind song.

Wind song; that's all she could think to call it. And right now—whether causing a killer migraine or not—anything able to stop the ugly wolves ranked at the top of Nikki's new favorite things list. The pain intensified, but she still kept her attention riveted on the wolves. Were they wolves? She still wasn't sure. Each one was dark as a black hole, with hollow eyes she couldn't seem to look into directly. When she forced herself to lock eyes with one of the beasts, a cold river of pure fear streaked down her spine as if the wolf seized her very soul, choking out life and leaving a tormenting void.

The creatures' legs had folded and twisted into awkward positions, claws scraping at the ground, then at their ears.Wait, that's not mud on the dogs. It's ... dried blood. Her eyes blurred, causing her sense of survival to kick in. Head still throbbing like a bass guitar at a concert and with one hand at the side of her face, she ran. Through the tree line she caught a glimpse of silver. Yes! The gate to the football field. She'd make it to the other side and this nightmare would be over.

Was it just a nightmare? Some indigestion-induced dream? She could have fallen asleep in the woods while she drew the picture of ...

What had she been drawing? She couldn't remember.

But this was no dream. She was awake. Awake and aware of the spongy grass collapsing beneath her feet, aware of the scent of moist pine hanging on the forest walls. Aware of the searing sensation in her calf where the thing had sunk its teeth.

Eyes fixed on the fence, she tried to take a breath but managed only tiny gasps. Get to the gate. Just get to the gate.As if the deserted football field on the other side could somehow offer safety. Four dog-wolf-things had chased her through a quarter of a mile of woods; why would five feet of chain link stop them? She pushed on, leaping over rotting tree roots protruding from the earth like the twisted fingers of a witch. She imagined her legs getting tangled in the mass of vines, imagined the weathered roots reaching for her as she bounded past. Determination swept into her soul. With sickening certainty, Nikki knew she was racing for her life.

And more. Things, big things, world changing things factored into her circumstance. She didn't know how she knew it. But she did. And for the first time in her seventeen years of life, Nikki felt a destiny awaiting her. Fear and dread careening in her soul, and deadly hounds at her back, Nikki felt alive.

* * *

"Raven, the song is hurting her too," Mace said, anxiety creeping into his words as he peered over the rock ledge.

Raven scowled through his too-long bangs. "The Angel Song doesn't hurt humans. It only affects the evil within."

"Then you should be writhing on the ground with the hounds," Mace mumbled.

Raven chuckled and sank his hands into the pockets of his jeans.

Mace shifted his weight and slid his hands down his thighs. "It's time to intervene." If Raven thought he was going to torture this girl for fun, he was dead wrong. What made him think he was in charge, anyway? Just because he'd been on more journeys, and was the oldest of the three Lost Boys? So what. Experience didn't make a capable leader. The best leaders were those who put the welfare of their soldiers before their own. Anyone who knew Raven knew he only looked out for himself.

Beside him, Mace felt Vine's apprehension rise. For a quick moment, he closed off the noisy world and quieted his own soul, tuning into Vine's heart rate. Mace's gaze narrowed slightly as he listened to the kid's breathing pattern. Inhale. Exhale. All in check. Just first-time jitters.

Assured Vine was okay and ready for the fight, Mace's gaze returned to the pretty teenage girl trying to escape a nightmare sent directly from the pit. Her name echoed in his head: Nikki Youngblood. He'd known her name instantly. They all had. One of the perks of being a Halfling. Her shoulders were narrow, arms thin, but looked tone beneath her snug windbreaker. A small, straight nose rested above full lips that remained parted as she panted with each pounding step. Large eyes stayed focused on the field before her. Maybe pretty was an understatement. There was something ... captivating about her. It wasn't her face. It wasn't the long train of golden-brown hair that trailed behind her as she ran. It was her absolute tenacity to outrun her pursuers, her determination to survive. He'd watched grown men crumble at the sight of a single hell hound; she was chased by four. And crumbling didn't seem to be in her list of options. She'd kicked free from the hound when it bit into her calf muscle, then with a limp bolted for the gate of the football field, and he could sense as well as smell her resolve. But a mere human girl against four hell hounds? Zero chance for survival there.

"Haven't you seen enough?" Mace spat.

Raven gave a noncommittal shrug and finger-combed his hair away from his eyes. "What's your rush?"

Mace glanced fifty feet below—first at the girl, then the hounds. "She's terrified."

"Yeah," Vine agreed. "She looks really scared."

Raven smiled, white teeth shining in the disappearing light. "So?"

"You're a jerk." Mace spread his arms and prepared to descend. One of the benefits of being a Halfling: a fifty-foot drop was nothing. He snapped his wings open to swoop down, but before he could drop off the ledge something hit him square across the chest. Air whooshed from his lungs as he landed with a thud.

"She'll see you," Raven snapped. As he stared down at the girl, a surprising—almost tender—look crossed his face, only to be whisked away by his normal demeanor of cold detachment. But Mace had seen it, and the flash of compassion shocked him.

"You're not in charge, Raven." Mace said, rising from the rocky terrain. Once on his feet he dusted his rear end, partly to remove the dirt, partly to keep his hands busy so they wouldn't ball into fists and pound Raven into the ground.

"Be patient." Raven's voice lowered to a purr.

Mace's jaw clenched. He hated this part of an assignment. Yes, okay, sometimes it was important to let things play out a little, to not sail in and rescue too quickly. But the human side of Mace despised it. The angelic side of him ... well, the more journeys he completed, the less human he felt. Just as well. It was a world out of reach, and he needed to remember that.

He knew Raven would only allow intervention at the last possible moment. Mace felt the short hairs on the back of his neck rise along with the anger crawling up his spine. "Why would we have been sent if we weren't going to be utilized?"

Raven's eyes flashed fascination. "Maybe just for entertainment?"

Vine's mouth dropped open, his white-blond hair falling forward. "Entertainment?" He shot a quick, questioning look to Mace. "Does that happen? I mean, are we sent to just watch stuff like this?" Trepidation clouded those naive blue-gray eyes.

Mace sometimes marveled at the fact Vine was only two earth years younger than him; his innocence glowed like morning dew, quickly visible and quickly trampled into the mud.

Raven's mouth twisted. "Our kind does it all the time." No dew softened Raven's stark features and face cut into strong angles. His eyes, once bright blue, had darkened to midnight in recent years, which didn't bode well. "You know, earth girls are hot when they're running for their lives."

That was it. Mace dove for Raven, sick of his antics and, well, sick of him in general. Raven sidestepped and in an instant the two were nose-to-nose, fists drawn.

Mace cast a glance to Vine. For the first time, the kid looked like a warrior. Ready to step in if the two older boys came to blows. Go, Vine.

Mace exhaled a long breath and lowered his hands. Adrenaline surged into his muscles and pulled every ligament into a tight cord.

Cool confidence oozed from Raven as he tilted his chin into the sun, as if daring Mace to strike.

"I won't fight you, Raven," Mace said. Vine needs some sort of role model. Which he'll never have if I keep getting sucked in by Raven's games. He forced his attention away from the Halfling and focused on the pitiful scene unfolding beneath them. A fist fight wouldn't help the girl either.

Long hair floated behind her. Strands matted across her delicate face where her skin glistened with a silky sheen of sweat. She smelled like fear. The scent curled into the wind and rose on pleading wings, calling to him.

When she reached the fence, her golden eyes flashed relief. Mace watched a moment longer. "Raven, there's nothing to learn. Look at her." He gestured toward Nikki Youngblood and the hell hounds no longer chasing her. The four beasts whimpered, trying to escape the Angel Song drifting around them. Nikki trembled at the gate to the football field, hands shaking when she spotted the padlock secured with a thick chain.

"She's here for a reason, Mace. We have to find out what it is." With a twinkle in his eye, Raven clapped his hands and the Angel Song died. "Time to party."

Sometimes the worst part of being a Halfling was standing aside and letting events happen as they're supposed to. Maybe that was the worst part of being any created being. Mace's eyes drifted shut. Without the Angel Song to torture them, the hounds would once again be on the hunt. And Nikki Youngblood would be as good as dead.

* * *

"Come on," Nikki pleaded, willing her hands to stop quaking. Her fingers bled where she'd slammed them into the fence. She jerked back and forth on the entrance, a vain attempt to break the lock, and hopelessness born of despair slipped down her body like deadwood slipping into the sea after a storm. She was trapped. Blood began to work its way through her veins but brought with it a new form of torture. Splinters rather than blood seemed to course through her while her head pounded rhythmically.

Then the wind song disappeared.

The dogs stopped groaning. The forest dropped to a dead, graveyard quiet. No little bunnies or squirrels rambling through the fallen leaves. Just stillness. Just the promise of death.

A rustle behind her evoked a fresh wave of nausea. Desperate hands tightened on the crisscrosses of chain link. If she had the energy, she'd climb. But fear and torment had stolen the last shreds of her strength, leaving nothing but a bundle of exhausted nerves.

She dropped her head to her hands and closed her eyes. A twig snapped, forcing her head up. She tried to swallow, but her mouth and throat were cotton.

As a breeze skirted through the trees, cooling the sweat on her face, Nikki cast a reluctant glance over her shoulder.

The lead dog-wolf moved toward her methodically, a long bead of saliva dripping from his mouth. She watched as each paw landed on the ground. Nikki frowned. He seemed almost ... fearful as well. Was he scared of her? She turned, chin jutting forward. "What?" she spat, addressing the hound. "You afraid I might pop the cork on a bottle of screaming bell song again?"

Head dropping between his wide shoulder blades, he stared at her with those empty eyes. She hated that posture, that stalking, ready-to-lunge stance. Wolves at the zoo did the same thing and it freaked her out even though they were on one side of the enclosure and she on the other. She didn't even like to see her dog Bo stand like that. It was too predatory, too anxious to kill.

"Oh man," she mumbled. What did I just do? Her valor dissolved at her feet as the breeze moved again, this time pushing a rotten scent toward her. Nikki nearly gagged on the putrid odor. Rancid meat has nothing on these wolves.Years ago, some boys at her school had put a dead pig inside a car and locked it in a garage of an empty house. Weeks of scorching heat not only ruined the car, the house had to be demolished as well. When the vehicle was opened, the stench fetid animal threaded through several blocks of her neighborhood. At the time, she thought she'd never again smell anything so foul. She was wrong.

The beast growled deep in his throat and the sound invaded every cell of her being. Black lips curled back to expose yellowed fangs. Round eyes grabbed and swallowed light into the empty, soulless pits that were its sockets.

She pressed her back into the chain links. Tears rushed to her eyes as the other hounds appeared from the woods, leaving no way to escape.

The hunt was over. This is where she'd die.

Wiggling on his back haunches, the wolf leapt.

She cupped her hands over her head for protection, watching through the crook of her arm as the animal attacked. Scarred paws stretched toward her, razor-sharp claws seeming to grow larger and larger as they filled her vision. Why wouldn't the song return? Frantic, Nikki cried, "God, help me!"

A whoosh of cool air blasted her body and an explosion of light soared past. An instant later something solid slammed against her, shoving her to the ground. Her head thundered on impact. As she fought to take in air, white sparked above. She could hear voices, and the wolf's growl, but remained unable to focus her eyes or attention.

White again. With it, the dog creature screeched. A sickening voice entered her ears, whispering, hissing like a hundred snakes. It referred to something as sons of God.

Was the wolf talking? She couldn't see. White —white everywhere. Her mind whirred as an electrical current ran the length of her being: head to foot, foot to head, zipping through her, electrifying and depriving her muscles of movement.

Consciousness slipped away. As her eyes closed for the final time, a velvet voice soothed, "You're safe now, daughter of man."

Chapter Two

And why did you bring her here?” Will asked. Their caregiver donned the fatherly posture he’d cultivated from watching family sitcoms. Mace, Raven, and Vine gathered near Nikki and awaited the tongue-lashing they’d expected since arriving back at Pine Boulevard and their new two-story, Victorian-style home for the moment.

“She’s injured,” Mace said. It’s partially true, at least. He glanced down at Nikki — passed out on the couch — and his heart flopped. Since encountering this girl, he’d been trying to figure her out.

It was a useless attempt. He didn’t get her. One second she’s shaking the gate with the full force of her body, hair whip- ping in an S pattern, the next she’s crying, and the next, she’s screaming at the hell hound in what he’d describe as a taunt.

Maybe hysteria did strange things to the brain — he could understand that. But when the hound leapt at her, she kept her eyes wide open and peered through the bend in her arm. She’d actually intended to watch the attack.

“Did you see what we did?” Vine asked for the thousandth time. “That’s what I’m talking about! Those hell hounds were nothing. When do I get to face a wraith?”

Will groaned.

Mace cast a furtive smile to Vine. Newbie. He still remem- bered his first assignment, his first shot at hero work. If only that excitement lasted forever.

Uncle Will — or so they called him — pursed his lips. Mace had to bite his cheek to keep his mouth straight. Though Will was over six foot five and built like a Mack truck, the deep dimples and puff of curly brown hair — as well as his animated, bright blue eyes — weakened the intimidation factor. “Can we keep her?” Vine asked, voice lilting like a child’s.

“She’s not a pet, Bloom. She’s an assignment,” Will said. “And facing off with wraiths should be neither a desire nor a source of excitement.”

“I’m not the bloom. I’m the Vine!” He tried to frown, but a quick smile betrayed him.

Mace knew Vine loved the nickname he’d gotten from developing his power at an unprecedented young age. Nicknames were what families had for one another. Real families. Though Will tried his best, Mace often wondered what it would have been like to be raised by his real parents, instead of separated from them at birth as was the custom for beings like him — for his protection, of course.

His younger “brother’s” eager voice knocked him out of his thoughts. “I’ve got a question,” Vine said. “Why would the Throne have sent us to protect some teenager? I mean, aren’t our assignments . . . you know, about important people?”

Will nodded toward the girl, who still lay unconscious. “Do you not consider her important?”

Vine rolled his blue-gray eyes. “Everyone’s important. But, I mean, she’s just a kid.”

Will smiled. “Like the three of you?”

“Yeah.” A frown furrowed Vine’s smooth brow. “Didn’t Raven have an assignment once where he protected some polit- ical dude?”

Raven gave a curt nod. “He was a world leader, and thanks to me he’s still alive today.”

Vine pointed at him. “Yeah, that’s what I mean. I expected to be assigned to, like, D.C. or New York or something.”

Mace took a step toward Vine, blocking Raven from his field of vision. He was still ticked at the brooding creep for baiting him in the woods. No, Mace was angry at himself for letting Raven bait him. Mistakes like that could cost lives. “Vine, we don’t always know why we’re protecting a person. This isn’t the Secret Service. We’re not CIA or FBI. And our instructions don’t come from the limited knowledge of an earthly man.” He nodded toward Nikki. “It may not be about who she is right now. It’s possible that ...” He shook his head and shrugged. “Maybe she’s going to be the scientist who discovers a cure for cancer.”

“Or solves world hunger,” Will added.

Raven scoffed. “Or maybe she’s going to do something really important, like figure out how to get the DVD player to stop flashing twelve o’clock.” “Whatever it is, the enemy isn’t wasting any time.” Will lifted the girl’s arm, his giant palm swallowing her dainty hand. “You say she was being chased by hell hounds?”

The sight of her dodging the predators was forever carved into his mind while the gratitude in her glassy eyes when he scooped her into his arms was imprinted in his heart. His pulse accelerated. “There were four.”

Will’s eyes narrowed in concentration. “Doesn’t make sense.” He examined the cuts and scratches on her fingers. “Hounds coming after a human. You’re sure?” A crystal-clear gaze questioned them, drifting from one boy to the next. Mace crossed his arms over his chest. “Uh, yeah. We got an up-close, personal look at them. Rotting flesh with a sole purpose. To kill Nikki Youngblood.”

“Someone wants her dead,” Raven said, bending his fingers so they resembled a gun. He pointed it at the girl’s head and pulled the trigger by clicking his thumb.

Mace shot him a dirty look. “What?” Raven’s voice oozed innocence. “How’d the hounds get here?” Vine interrupted. “The same way we got here, moron,” Raven said. “You know, the midplane? The safe zone between heaven and earth where all of us misfits roam? Someone hasn’t been paying attention in class.”

Vine’s lips pressed together, embarrassment splashed all over his face.

Mace’s heart ached for Vine. The first journey was always the toughest. Lost Boys, Halflings: no matter what you called yourself, you were still an outcast in both the heavenly and earthly realms. Who thought up that brilliant idea? An emis- sary of heaven to an earth you can never have.

Not that journeys were not important. Mace himself had been sent on several. He’d saved lives and had hopefully pushed himself away from eternity’s cliff edge named Scary Beyond

All Stinkin’ Reason. Quiet and peaceful eternity sounded so much better. “This is a surprising card for the enemy to play. What does he know about this girl that we don’t?” Will stepped away from where Nikki rested. Hands on hips again, he searched the street beyond the bay window. “Four hounds pursuing one young girl?” he repeated. Sunlight streamed in and illuminated the side of his face. He pitched a glance toward the boys, gaze lock- ing with Mace’s.

A fatherly smile formed and almost hid the apprehension. Almost. Worry clung to Uncle Will’s expression. Mace knew he agonized about his boys, even though he wasn’t supposed to be equipped with sticky emotions like worry, happiness, or sorrow. Hiding your emotions . . . what a human thing to do.

The girl stirred. All eyes went to her. Will’s clear, penetrating look shot through Mace like a lightning bolt. “She’s the only clue we have to why we’ve been sent. I’m glad you found her when you did. Those hounds would have shredded her.” Will shuddered, then resumed his authoritative posture. “Since we just arrived from the midplane, I don’t want any of you outside again for a couple days. You all need time to adjust to this realm. That means beginning Monday morning, you’ll be keeping a close watch on her. Should be easy enough; I’ve enrolled you at Waterside High School.”

Moans emanated from Raven and Mace. “Not high school,” Raven groaned.

“Really?” Vine swiped at a dirt smudge on his T-shirt and chewed on a Twizzler he’d snagged from the foyer table. “That’ll be cool.”

“But right now, you’d better get her home.” Will returned from the window and leaned over the couch. He placed his hands on Nikki’s.

"The longer she stays in our presence, the more she’ll be able to tolerate our atmosphere, and we don’t want her waking up to four unnatural creatures hovering over her.”

“No,” Mace agreed. “That’s actually how she passed out in the first place.”

Vine questioned him with a look. “But those four were stinking hell hounds,” Mace said. Vine raised a finger. “Actually, she didn’t pass out until you picked her up. Remember? She looked right in your eyes and — ”

Raven coughed, stifling a laugh.

Will’s face turned to fury. “She saw you in the forest?” His stormy, silver eyes shot icy daggers at Mace. That’s one emotion Will really shouldn’t be equipped with.

Out of the corner of his eye, Mace watched as the muscles in Vine’s face collapsed, leaving a gaping mouth.

“We didn’t mean for her to see us. We were waiting for her to close her eyes or turn away from the attack.” Mace’s heart pounded. If he’d blown this assignment already, he’d never for- give himself. He chucked a frustrated hand toward Nikki. “She just kept watching, Will.”

“What?” “She kept watching. The attack.” Will’s eyes dropped to Nikki and held for a long time. Mace thought he heard him mumble something about a mark of fearlessness. Finally, Will spoke. “The world balances on a pinhead, and its fate rests in the hands of teenagers.” The cloud of uncertainty surrounding Nikki unnerved him, Mace could tell. Will was a true warrior, and right now the fighter within was being stirred.

“Time is short,” Will said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see an untapped weapon hidden in her mortal bones. Though she looks like a mere teenage girl, I think her heart beats with the strength of a warrior’s spirit. Queen Esther comes to mind.”

“Huh?” Vine said, his head tilted and his face twisted into a quizzical expression. Actually, Will’s little monologue had sort of lost Mace too. As an eternal being, Will often sensed things the boys couldn’t, but was prone to voicing it in grand terms.

Raven had been around the longest; maybe he understood what Will was mumbling about. But he stared straight ahead, hands locked across his chest as if bored with the whole conversation. On cue, he yawned.

Will knelt beside the girl. Squeezing her hands gently, liquid gold oozed from his palms and covered hers. The pure aroma of Gilead’s Balm — heaven’s Neosporin — filled the room. They each savored it. Nothing was sweeter — except the breath of life.

“Whoa,” Vine said, eyes darting to Mace. “We’re, um, see- ing in both realms right now?”

Mace smiled at his young counterpart. “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

Nikki awoke in her own bed. She sat straight up and shook off the sleep. Fragments of memory bounced in her head. Running . . . the fence . . . the wolves. Voices.

And deep, blue-green eyes. Cerulean blue. The color of the glistening Mediterranean Sea capturing the sun’s reflection. Even as she remembered the horror, her heart calmed, imagining those pools of safety. And a face. There was a face attached to those eyes. Angular. Strong.

Rich words had rolled off his tongue: “You’re safe now, daughter of man.” Then all had faded, except those round, cerulean eyes. No other shade on her artist’s palette captivated her like cerulean. And no other eyes captivated her at all.

But it had just been a dream, right? She lifted her arm from under the covers and ran a hand through her hair. As she did, she noticed her arm was still in the vintage T-shirt she’d worn yesterday. She wiggled her legs. Yep, jeans. Panic crept in and she suddenly wanted to get out of the clothes she had on.

She jumped from the bed, and the room spun around her. “Whoa,” she muttered as fingers scrambled for the bedpost, holding on with white-knuckled determination until the walls slowly sharpened into focus.

In the dream, she hit the fence. She remembered the slicing pain when the chain links cut into her flesh. Lifting her hands, she examined them, front and back.

Nothing. Not a scratch on her fingers, not a cut on her hands. And no jacket. Nikki’s mind raced. She had her jacket on in the dream and it snagged and tore on a branch. Her gaze darted from the small bistro table sitting in one corner to her laptop in the other corner, but no sign of her light coat. The room whirled again. Nikki sank to the bed and her hair fell across her face. A few calming breaths later, she shoved the loose strands back as the nausea passed.

“It had to be a dream,” she whispered.

No, the hounds were real.

And those beautiful eyes, they had to be real. She rolled her pant leg and searched for the mark the monster dog left. Twisting, she squeezed her calf. No wound. No pain. As she unrolled the material, however, a spot of blood appeared on the denim. She unsnapped and unzipped her jeans and dragged them from her body, turning them inside out. Skin exposed, goose bumps spread along her thighs.

The spot on her jeans was larger on the inside than on the outside, making it clear the dried blood had come from her. Using one hand to tug her hair over her shoulder and out of the way, she propped her foot on the bed and examined her calf again.

Nada. She poked at the spot where the bite mark should have been. Not even sore. She lifted the jeans for closer inspection. Just above the dried blood, a tiny hole. Frantically, she brought the material to her face and searched. A black hair was partially buried in the blood. Clasping the thing between her finger and thumbnail, she tugged it from its cocoon, finding it half an inch in length and ... wiry. She placed it on her nightstand and repeatedly wiped her hand against the bed, removing the dead sensation the hair created.

Standing on shaky legs, she peeked from her bedroom window. A cloudless Missouri sky hovered above the world, her world, and the home she’d known since birth. She took in the room that had grown with her, first filled with baby dolls and teddy bears, then Barbie and the preferred G.I. Joes; now replaced with karate trophies and artwork. All of her favorites splashed across her walls, with Starry Night’s swirls shimmer- ing down on her. And somewhere in the deepest corner of her closet her much-loved teddy rested in a box. Yes, this was her world. Safe. Normal. Without wolf-dogs.

In the kitchen, her mother was probably baking as she did every Saturday morning, while her dad puttered around in the garage playing with ancient swords and daggers. As antique weapons dealers, her parents’ passion for history had always fascinated Nikki, and likely spawned her interest in art. They’d taught her beauty was often hidden in ordinary items, but with the right amount of care, patience, and a dose of determination, what most see as junk could become a treasure.

She drew a breath and started to turn from the window, but something flashed in the fringe of woods alongside her house. Cold chills ran up and down her spine as she squinted into the darkened edge of trees. Off to the right, movement. She tried to swallow against the desert growing in her throat, but gulped down only hot, sticky air. Her hand trembled, squeezing the curtain with such force she felt each pulse of blood pumping through her closed fingers. Something was lurking in the shadows. And it was waiting for her.

“So, can you give me a reason why you’re so distracted today?” Krissy asked, batting thick lashes at her while sinking into the coffee shop seat.

Nikki pulled the latte to her lips and took a long, lingering drink. Explain? I wouldn’t know where to begin.

Krissy used the end of her green straw to toy with the chocolate-striped whipped cream on the top of her iced drink. “Look, I know you hate shopping. But you promised to at least have a good attitude.”

Nikki sighed deeply. What kind of a friend am I? “I’m sorry Krissy. It’s not the shopping. I’m excited about it, really.”

“As is evidenced by your wide eyes and bobbing head. You know I live for these chances to see you in real clothes. Not your customary boyfriend-fit jeans and vintage T-shirts. I mean, they’re cute every once in a while, but would it kill you to wear a skirt?” Krissy slurped some of her drink, but stopped and wiped her mouth when two guys passed by their table. A toothy smile and a flirtatious head toss, and the guys were sit- ting across the coffee shop with eyes glued.

Nikki cast a glance behind her to the boys. “You’re unbelievable.”

“It’s just a game. I happen to be a good player.” Krissy beamed and motioned with her free hand, careful the boys wouldn’t see. “Look, look, look! They’re totally coming over here.”

Nikki panicked and grabbed Krissy’s arm in a death grip. “No.”

“Let’s invite them to sit down.”

“Krissy, please.” She squeezed tighter. “Look, if you’ll get rid of them, I’ll tell you what’s going on.”

Blue eyes narrowed, the telltale signal she was unable to resist the intrigue. “You’ll tell me why you’re so jacked up today?”

Nikki felt the boys bearing down on her. “Yes, I promise. I’ll tell you everything.” Her cheeks felt like they were burning. Krissy sighed and shifted into catch and release mode.

“Fine.” When the two teen boys stopped at the table, Nikki tried to offer a tentative smile, but figured it looked more like constipation.

They greeted, and Nikki mumbled a greeting in return. Then Krissy kicked into full gear. “So, I noticed you guys go by and I was thinking, you two look just like a couple of my little brother’s friends. His name is Jeff and he goes to Waterside Middle School.”

The boy’s faces crumbled.

Oh, dear Lord, just kill them now and save them from this embarrassment.

But Krissy soldiered on. “I don’t know all his friends, but I remember meeting some of them at Chunky Monkey Ice Cream Shop when we had his birthday party.”

Nikki sank deeper into the chair sure the boys’ egos weren’t likely to recover in this millennium.

Within moments—though it felt like several lifetimes— they disappeared.

“Krissy! That was mean,” Nikki scolded and threw a glance over her shoulder. But the petite blonde gave her a dead stare. “You’ve got info. And I don’t want to be distracted by some cute guy hanging around while I hear it.”

Nikki could relate. All morning her thoughts had strayed to the ocean blue eyes and the velvet voice that had soothed and protected her in the dream. Yes, she’d determined it had to be a dream. Otherwise, she had to admit the very distinct possibil- ity she was going nuts.

Krissy listened intently as Nikki filled her in. “And that’s it. I woke up in my clothes in my own bed.”

“Wow.”

Nikki dropped her hands flat on the table and blinked at her friend. “Wow? That’s it?” Krissy had an opinion on absolutely everything.

She waved a hand in the air. “Give me a minute, I’m thinking.” Her lips puckered slightly and her straw plunged repeatedly into the depths of her iced mocha. “You’re being chased. That means something in dreams, but I can’t remember what. Then a fence.” She snapped her fingers. “What could a fence mean? And there were wolves? That means something too, but . . .”

Nikki’s head dropped to the table. “Let me guess. You can’t remember what.” Krissy nodded, ignoring the monotone remark. “What else stands out?”

Cerulean eyes. So filled with color and life, it was as if pure pigment had created them and trapped a beam of sunlight just beneath their depths. Nikki squeezed her eyes shut. “The guy.”

“Oh. Ohhh.” Krissy nodded. “Now we’re getting somewhere. It’s simple. You want someone to rescue you. You want — no, wait, you need a knight in shining armor to come and save you from the dragon.”

What? That was the stupidest thing she’d ever heard. And yet . . . She rejected the thought. I don’t need some guy. From her karate to her artwork, from her choice of clothing to her choice of transportation, she had it all together. She was a girl who knew exactly what she wanted. Except she didn’t.

In fact, she felt like the most conflicted person on the planet. She couldn’t even decide on a career path. Business for becom- ing a karate instructor and own her own dojo someday, or art school? They both fit like a shrunken sweater: a past favorite, and the other certainly not a choice one could live with forever. It was as if a huge part of Nikki had gone missing long ago and she didn’t know how to find it . . . or if she’d ever had it to begin with. Could her best friend actually be right? “What? What’s the dragon?”

Krissy threw her hands into the air. “Who knows? It could be anything. Science class, the MCAT, green Jell-O.”

Nikki drew her brows together in a deep frown.

“The dragon is whatever terrifies you. It’s whatever you’re scared of.”

Myself, Nikki thought. I’m scared of myself. What I can’t do. What I can do.

Why I don’t know who I am. A rock sat on her chest, making it hard to breathe. She forced a laugh, but there was no humor in it. “I’m pretty sure it’s green Jell-O.”

Krissy pointed at her. “You need a man. That’s all.”

One split second later, two new victims entered the coffee shop. Nikki groaned and grabbed her backpack-style purse. “Let’s go. I don’t want you fixing me up. Besides, there are clothes waiting for us!”

Krissy squealed and clapped her hands together. “Yay! Shopping.”

Nikki hung her new clothes in her closet, her eyes stopping at the black cocktail-style dress Krissy talked her into buying. She ran a hand over the soft, shimmery material. She chewed her lip. It really was a beautiful garment. And she did have the art gallery showing in a few days. She should have a grown-up dress, or as Krissy called it, a little black dress destined to be a girl’s best friend. Admittedly, it had been gorgeous when she tried it on, but now, hanging in her closet, it looked ridiculous amongst the jeans, T-shirts, riding boots, and flip-flops.

Shopping was always exhausting on a deep level and her constant apprehension about rabid wolves finding her in the dressing room and chasing her through the mall in her under- wear didn’t help. All day it was like eyes were on me. It was nearly evening now, and she had to get out, clear her mind. She shoved the black dress to the back of her closet and slammed the door, flying down the stairs in a desperate attempt to outrun such adult clothing. Sprawled in the family room, she caught a glimpse of yellow fur beneath the coffee table. It whimpered. She dropped to her haunches at the table’s edge and cooed, “Who’s a good dog?”

A massive head plopped onto her thighs. Innocent brown eyes blinked their adoration.

She scratched his head between his ears, and the yellow lab stretched, arching his back, long gawky legs straightening like boards.

Already feeling better, Nikki strolled into the kitchen and snagged a piece of fruit.

“Getting hungry? I’m going to start dinner soon,” Mom said over her shoulder.

“Nah, I’m good. I’m leaving for a while.” “Where are you going?” “Just for a ride.” Her mom frowned. “Alone?”

Nikki cast her eyes heavenward. “Yes, alone, but I’ll be fine. You’d think I’d just gotten the bike a week ago.”

“I just like it better when someone goes with you.”

Must we go through this every time? “Well, I’ve put in an application to join the Swamp Rider’s Biker Club, but I haven’t heard from them yet.”

Her mom swatted at her with a dish towel. “That’s not funny. Oh, before I forget, we have to be gone Monday night — your father has an auction in St. Louis. We’ll be finishing late, so he’s planning on spending the night and driving home Tuesday morning.” Her mother’s dark brows scrunched inward. “Actually, we could cancel the room and drive home Monday so you’re not alone.”

Nikki groaned. “Mom, I’ll be fine. I’m seventeen. I think I can survive one night without you here.”

“All grown up,” her mother said, and closed the distance to pull Nikki into a tight mom hug. “Speaking of grown-up events, did you find a dress for the gallery?”

Nikki groaned again and sank onto her mom’s shoulder. “Did I say the wrong thing?” “No, Mom. Everything’s fine.” But her mom pulled her closer, nearly squeezing the breath from her lungs. “That’s right, Nikki. Everything is fine.” When she drew away, something glistened in her mom’s gaze. Something unsettling. Nikki smiled and refused the voice that told her life as she knew it was about to end.

She flew down the highway with wind rushing past, enjoying the whine of the Kawasaki Ninja 600’s engine. Her mood lifted with each rev. The nightmare of last evening jettisoned away as she gripped the clutch and relished the feel of her bike beneath her. Or certain-death crotch-rocket, as her mom called it. She still remembered the fights when she’d asked her parents for the motorcycle for her sixteenth birthday—and how her dad had worked around her mom’s no-sixteen-year-old-of-mine ultimatum by presenting the bike a year later. Eight inches of hair flapped below the helmet she’d promised her mother she’d always wear. So far, she’d honored that vow, but warm Saturday after- noons encouraged long drives. She’d often end up in Arkansas where there was no helmet law. The temptation was great.

She stopped for gas and filled the tank. Six bucks. Beside her, a thirty-something-year-old guy filled an SUV. Nikki stifled a grin as he poured in numerous gallons of gas. Yes, life was good and it was beginning to feel normal again.

The guy shoved the gas pump back into the holder and caught her gaze. It stopped his momentum and he stared straight at her without moving.

Nikki swallowed and gave a nod toward him, but before she could turn away his eyes changed. A shadow closed over his fea- tures, then seemed to disappear. The guy blinked a few times and mumbled some angry words, then wiped his hand across an already dirty flannel shirt. But he never took his eyes off her.

She flashed a quick smile and dropped her gaze. When he slammed the hatch to his gas tank, Nikki jumped.

Seeming pleased with her reaction, he watched as she replaced her gas lid. “I said I’m talking to you,” he growled.

She hung up the pump. “Excuse me?” Looking down at her gas cap, she noticed her hands were trembling. Her teeth clenched. What’s happening? I never walk around this afraid. Plus, I could take this guy if I had to. The answer wasn’t long in coming. Last night’s brush with . . . well, with whatever it was, left her more than a bit uncomfortable. And grungy flannel shirt guy with the SUV wasn’t helping.

“Stupid teenager,” he grumbled.

Nikki donned her helmet, snagged her receipt, then threw a leg over her bike. “I didn’t do anything,” she said in the safety of her full-coverage helmet.

“What?” His face reddened, and he took a step closer. “What did you say?” Twisting her wrist, she sped out of the parking lot. “Okay, that was weird,” she muttered. The guy had seemed fine when she first pulled up.

Trees and hills disappeared past as she zipped down Farm Road 211. But her nerves were raw so she slowed down. The speedometer read fifty, and she held steady there until she saw the grill of a vehicle inching closer in her small, round rearview mirror.

From a half-mile away she could plainly see the acceleration as the SUV moved closer, faster. She blinked repeatedly, fighting panic — it was the same vehicle from the gas station. Glancing alongside the road, she searched for a place to pull off and hide or turn around, but no decent option presented itself. Hands sweaty, she accelerated again.

The dark SUV closed the distance. She could outrun him — sport bikes were known for their speed. But they were also known for hitting loose gravel and tumbling end over end. Every time she tried to accelerate beyond a safe speed, the rear end shimmied, losing traction. Road rash? No, thank you. Nikki held firm at sixty, and didn’t dare push it even though every synapse in her body begged her to let loose. The two vehicles sped down the empty stretch of road, the SUV now mere feet away.

In her mirror she made out his face, still red but now smil- ing as if enjoying the chase. Nikki willed her mind to concentrate on riding, instead of imagining what Nikki roadkill would look like. More than once she swerved into the empty oncoming lane to keep his front bumper from making contact with her back tire. If the two touched, it would catapult her from the bike like a ragdoll.

Her secret weapon was she knew this road by heart, could probably drive it with her eyes shut. Up ahead, a tight turn waited. Nikki formed a plan.

Excerpted from HALFLINGS Copyright © 2012 by Heather Burch. Reprinted with permission by Zondervan. All rights reserved.

Halflings
by by Heather Burch