After being inexplicably targeted by an evil intent on harming her at any cost, seventeen-year-old Nikki finds herself under the watchful guardianship of three mysterious young men who call themselves halflings. Sworn to defend her, misfits Mace, Raven, and Vine battle to keep Nikki safe while hiding their deepest secret—and the wings that come with.
A growing attraction between Nikki and two of her protectors presents a whole other danger. While she risks a broken heart, Mace and Raven could lose everything, including their souls. As the mysteries behind the boys’ powers, as well as her role in their earthly mission, unfold, Nikki is faced with choices that will affect the future of an entire race of heavenly beings, as well as the precarious equilibrium of the earthly world.
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By Heather Burch
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2012 Heather Burch
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Chapter OneFangs 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."
Excerpted from Halflings by Heather Burch Copyright © 2012 by Heather Burch. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
'Heather Burch's writing feels effortless. Her conflicted characters are both human and divine, caught in an ageless battle set against a modern backdrop. And she leaves us sooo thirsty for more!'
NY Times bestselling author of Fireproof and Two Seconds Late Eric Wilson, Author
'From a fiery heroine to her otherworldly bodyguards, from conflicting desires to the terror of hell houndsHalflings is a nonstop thrill ride through teeth-clenching dangers and the complexities of the human (and half-human) heart. Heather Burch is a top-notch storyteller, pure and simple.'
Author of The 13th Tribe, Comes a Horseman, and the Dreamhouse Kings series Robert Liparulo, Author
Every now and then an author comes along that makes me leap up and shout, 'Yes! We have a winner!' Heather Burch's debut novel, Halflings, is well-written, creative, and most of all flat out captivating story telling. Highly recommended.'
James L. Rubart
Best selling author James L. Rubart, Author