Serafina stalked through the underbrush of the moonlit forest, slinking low to the ground, her eyes fixed on her prey. Just a few feet in front of her, a large wood rat gnawed on a beetle he’d dug up. Her heart beat strong and steady in her chest, marking her slow and quiet creep toward the rat. Her muscles buzzed, ready to pounce. But she did not rush. Swiveling her shoulders back and forth to fine-tune the angle of her attack, she waited for just the right moment. When the rat bent down to pick up another beetle, she leapt.

The rat caught a glimpse of her out of the corner of his eye just as she sprang. It was beyond her ken why so many animals of the forest froze in terror when she pounced. If death by tooth and claw came leaping at her out of the darkness, she’d fight. Or she’d run. She’d do something. Little woodland creatures like rats and rabbits and chipmunks weren’t known for their boldness of heart, but what was freezing in sheer terror going to do?

As she dropped onto the rat, she snatched him up quicker than a whiskerblink and clutched him in her hand. And now that it was well past too late, he started squirming, biting, and scratching, his furry little body becoming a wriggling snake, his tiny heart racing at a terrific pace. There it is, she thought, feeling the thumpty-thumpty of his heartbeat in her bare hand. There’s the fight. It quickened her pulse and stirred her senses. Suddenly, she could detect everything in the forest around her—the sound of a tree frog moving on a branch thirty feet behind her, the reedy buzz of a lonely timberdoodle in the distance, and the glimpse of a bat swishing through the starlit sky above the broken canopy of the trees.

It was all for practice, of course, the prowling and the pouncing, the stalking of prey and the snatching hold. She didn’t kill the wild things she hunted, didn’t need to, but they didn’t know that, darn it! She was terror! She was death! So why at the last moment of her attack did they freeze? Why didn’t they flee?

Serafina sat down on the forest floor with her back against an old, gnarled, lichen-covered oak tree and held the rat in her clenched fist on her lap.

Then she slowly opened her hand.

The rat darted away as fast as he could, but she snatched him up and brought him back to her lap again.

She held the rat tight for several seconds and then opened her hand once more.

This time, the rat did not run. He sat on her hand, trembling and panting, too confused and exhausted to move.

She lifted the terrified rodent a little closer on her open hand, tilted her head, and studied him. The wood rat didn’t look like the nasty gray sewer varmints she was used to catching in the basement of Biltmore Estate. This particular rat had a scarred tear in his left ear. He’d encountered some trouble before. And with his dark little eyes and the tremulous whiskers of his long, pointy nose, he seemed more like a cute, chubby brown mouse than the proper vermin on which she had earned her title. She could almost imagine a little hat on his head and a buttoned vest. She felt a pang of guilt that she’d caught him, but she also knew that if he tried to run again, her hand would snatch him up before she even thought about it. It wasn’t a decision. It was a reflex.

As the little rat tried to catch his breath, his eyes darted to and fro for a way out. But he didn’t dare. He knew that as soon as he tried to run, she’d grab him again, that it was the nature of her kind to play with him, to paw him, to claw him, until he was finally dead.

But she looked at the rat and then set him on the forest floor. “Sorry, little fellow—just practicing my skills.”

The rat gazed up at her in confusion.

“Go ahead,” she said gently.

The rat glanced toward the thistle thicket.

“There ain’t no trick in it,” she said.

The rat didn’t seem to believe her.

“You go on home, now,” she told him. “Just move slowly away at first, not too fast—that’s the way of it. And keep your eyes and ears open next time, even if you got a beetle to chew on, you hear? There are far meaner things in these woods than me.”

Astonished, the torn-eared wood rat rubbed his little hands over his face repeatedly and bobbed his head, almost as if he was bowing. She snorted a little laugh through her nose, which finally startled the rat into action. He quickly got his wits about him and scampered into the thicket.

“Have a good evenin’, now,” she said. She reckoned he’d bolster his memory of his courage the farther he got away from her and have a good story to tell his wife and little ones by the time he got home for supper. She smiled as she imagined him telling a great and twisty tale with his family gathered around, how he was in the forest just minding his own business, gnawing on a beetle, when a vicious predator pounced upon him and he had to fight for his every breath. She wondered if she’d be a beast of ferocious power in the story. Or just a girl.

Serafina and the Twisted Staff (Serafina Series #2)