“Really, Phandoro? Must you fly everywhere?” Rya’s teal gaze followed the polka-dotted gnome flitting among the branches above her.
Phandoro cast a wide grin down. Her pointy teeth reflected the sunlight filtering through the leaves. “The real question is: why aren’t you flying, Rya?”
Rya rolled her eyes. “Because I prefer more sensible modes of transportation.”
A pea-green hellion shot by the two of them, buzzing the tops of Rya’s horns. “Gnomes aren’t supposed to be sensible, Rya!” Jex flipped in the air, then raced up the nearest tree, darting through its limbs.
Rya shook her head at her two partners in crime. “Gnomes can be however we want, Jex. There are no hard and fast rules, you know.”
Phandoro drifted down, landing with a gentle plop next to Rya. Beneath her, not one leaf bent nor did one speck of dust move. Gnomes didn’t exist in this realm, not in a corporeal sense. “You really should lighten up, Rya. How often do we get to be free like this? ‘Practically never’ is the answer, in case you were wondering.”
“Actually never,” Rya corrected her. “There’s someone out there who needs our help, Phandoro. You know that. It’s our job to find her.”
Jex zoomed up, coming from behind them. Like a hummingbird, she hovered over Rya and Phandoro. Her green skin sparkled in the patches of sunlight reaching the forest floor. “No, it’s our job to wait for the portal to find us. While we wait, we can do whatever we like. Which for me and Phan is flllll-ying!” Jex rocketed toward the treetops.
After a shrug at Rya, Phandoro sprang upward. In a series of tight spirals, she flew through the crisscrossing branches.
Rya sighed. She loved her two friends—and her partners for eternity—but they had jobs to do.
And their last job hadn’t been a rousing success. Their assignment had gone and gotten herself killed two days ago. Jex and Phan both insisted that it wasn’t their fault. They’d kept her alive for years longer than she would have lasted on her own, long enough to have a baby and continue the bloodline.
But Rya hated failure. Almost as much as she hated vampires.
Rya kicked at a stone.
It didn’t budge. You know, because she didn’t exist out here. When the humans killed off magic, it banished the gnomes and all the other magical creatures to this in-between space of dreams.
Phan and Jex didn’t mind much. They no longer worried about hiding their presence from humans. And they didn’t worry about predators either. No hawk, snake, or housecat could see them, which meant they couldn’t eat them. When summoned, the gnomes could go back home, where they existed and humans didn’t.
But that only happened once every few decades. In the meantime, Rya missed the crackle of leaves beneath her feet, the sun heating her skin, the silk of a wildflower’s petals. All that was gone, had been gone for centuries except for those brief visits back home.
It could be worse, though. At least she could still smell and hear and see. The only senses lost were touch and taste.
A speck of black appeared on the nearest tree trunk, interrupting Rya’s musings. Anyone else would have thought it a common mite.
But Rya knew what it was. “Phandoro, Jex, it’s time!”
The speck swallowed drop after drop of sunlight. With each gulp, it swelled. Like a black hole, it absorbed more and more light, dimming the entire forest.
Phandoro and Jex swooped down. They landed with an ungentle clatter that only a gnome would hear.
Her fuchsia eyes blazing bright, Phandoro breathed, “Our next assignment.”
Beside her, Jex could only nod. She shook with excitement.
Rya extended her hands to her two best friends. “Let’s go.”
Phandoro and Jex each grasped a hand. In a line with their wings folded in and their ears pinned back, the gnomes leapt into the portal.
They slammed into a metal bar. Spines that could have impaled any one of them stuck up in a neat column ahead of and in back of them.
They’d landed in an antique hair comb. It wasn’t the strangest place they’d ever ended up—that honor went to an aquarium housing fish twice their size and with teeth to match. Never had Rya been so glad that nothing but gnomes and other magical creatures could see, hear, or smell them.
Rya squirmed to straddle the base of the comb like she rode one of the fire-breathing dragons from back home. Her fingers clutched the tine in front of her. A few prongs up, Phandoro did the same.
In the corner of Rya’s eye, Jex wormed her way between the comb’s teeth, heading straight for its jewel-adorned handle.
“Oooooh.” With one arm wrapped around a spine, Jex reached for the closest jewel, a deep emerald green and the size of her head. The hook of her talon scraped across its faceted surface. “Pretty.”
Phandoro twisted in her seat. Her eyes widened at the sight of the jewels, then took on a greedy gleam. She rose to follow Jex.
Rya lurched forward and shoved Phandoro back down. Her hand pressing into Phandoro’s shoulder, Rya growled, “No, Phan. You know how easy it is to get separated on one of these. We’ll have plenty of time to explore later.”
Phandoro settled back down.
Clutching the tine behind her, Rya stood and whipped around to face Jex. “Jex. Sit down. Now,” she commanded in her most authoritative voice. They might all be the same age—as all gnomes were—but that didn’t mean Rya wouldn’t order them around. She was the only responsible one around here. “You know it never takes long to find our assignment after the portal.”
“Ugh, fiiiiine.” Jex pouted but sat down between two spines a bit behind Rya.
A hand more than twice Rya’s length swept down from above.
Rya crashed into the metal bar. She hurried to straddle the comb, gripping the base with her thighs and the tine with both hands. “Get ready, everyone. Here we go!”
The giant hand grabbed the comb by its handle. It flung all three of them upside down.
Rya—and Phandoro and Jex—held on for dear life. At least gravity didn’t affect them as much as it did corporeal beings.
Even so, stress filled Rya’s stomach. The human swung the comb left and right, up and down. Nausea bubbled up from her gut.
“That’s not her,” Phan hissed, her sharp gaze glued to the face of the human.
Rya dared a glance up. Her dark brows dropped. Indeed, the girl who had picked them up didn’t shimmer, which meant that she was not their target.
Behind Rya, Jex shifted back and forth.
Rya swallowed the acid climbing up her throat. “Just wait. She’ll be here.”
“And here, Lila dear, this is for you.” The girl transferred the comb to another pair of giant hands.
These ones glittered like diamond dust coated them.
Rya shot a triumphant grin at the others. “See, I told you.”
“Oh, Val, you shouldn’t. It’s way too much.” Their target’s voice boomed in Rya’s ears.
It was the most welcome sound in the world.
“Nonsense, Lila. It’s a beautiful gift for my beautiful best friend.”
Their target—Lila, apparently—lowered a finger toward the tines of the comb.
Climbing to a standing position with one arm hooked around a metal prong, Rya eyed her friends. “Ready?”
A nodding Phandoro mirrored Rya’s positioning, as did Jex. They each bared a row of pointy teeth in a wide smile. Milky venom glistened over the tip of every tooth like liquefied opals.
Lila’s finger dropped the rest of the way. It started to skim over the comb’s prongs.
Rya counted it down, “Three…two…one…”
The gnomes sank their teeth into Lila.
“Ouch!” Lila’s finger dashed to her mouth. She sucked on it.
“You okay, Lila dear?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. The comb shocked me is all.”
The three gnomes grinned at each other. Their assignment—and their fun—had begun.
Lila twisted and turned. A pair of silver eyes followed her wherever she went. Coral lips whispered words she couldn’t hear. Snakes grew from crooked fingers and circled around and around her ribs. They trapped her. They strangled her.
They became a black mist that blew away in a breeze.
Lila opened her eyes. She stood on a path of woodchips. Trees surrounded her, their leafy limbs stretching toward the night’s stars. Beneath them, a tangle of thorny shrubs guarded the trail. They barred Lila from straying to the left or to the right.
Around her, not a cricket chirped. Nor did an owl hoot or a coyote howl in the distance. Not even the fallen leaves rustled. The crushing silence beat against her eardrums. They throbbed beneath it.
Something tugged on a curl.
Lila whipped around.
“This waaaaay,” a voice sang in the dark. Unnatural moonlight streamed down Lila’s path.
She chewed on her lower lip. The toe of one sneaker rubbed against the other.
Something grabbed Lila’s pant leg and jerked.
Lila stumbled forward, down that lit trail.
Guess I don’t have a choice. Her heart thumping away, Lila strode down the path. Her steps—usually heavy or clumsy if not both—were light and nimble over the woodchips, leaving the eerie silence unbroken.
The trail led to a decrepit cabin. Like a spotlight, the full moon hung over it. White paint peeled away from wooden siding cracked and splintered in more places than Lila could count. Shingles from the roof lay amid weeds that crawled up and over the bowed porch. The glass of three windows had broken, two in a spiderweb pattern, the last in a zigzag with the upper half missing.
Smoke puffed out of its lopsided chimney.
The front door spilled open. Its creak echoed through the mute forest.
Lila stopped where she was. Something wasn’t right.
Tiny fists crashed into the small of Lila’s back.
She lurched forward. After regaining her balance, Lila shot a scowl over her shoulder, at whoever had pushed her.
Nothing but an empty path met her.
Lila sucked her lower lip in and out between her teeth. This had all the makings of a horror movie. Middle of the night: check. Creepy abandoned-but-not-abandoned house: check. Stupid teenage girl going in all alone: check. All she needed was the psycho serial killer waiting for her behind that open door.
And here she was, about to walk through it like an idiot.
Something rammed into her rear end.
“Ow!” Lila rubbed her right butt cheek where twin pins had pricked her. “I’m going, okay?” Lila rolled her eyes at herself. Who was she talking to?
Her bottom still smarting, Lila dragged her feet down that path, then up and onto the failing porch. It shuddered beneath her steps.
She slipped through the open door.
In the middle of the living room lay Valerie Elizabeth Baker—also known as Lila’s best friend. Val stared at the ceiling, her dark gaze unblinking, dim, dead. Her limbs bent at awkward angles no one living could bare.
A figure entered the room opposite Lila. Fresh blood covered his pointy chin and dripped down his neck. The ends of his greasy hair stuck together in clumps. Eyes like black holes sucked in every speck of light and life and hope. They targeted Lila.
His face split into a sinister smile, his teeth stained red with blood. “Hello there, li’l dear. Come to visit your friend?” He pointed at Val’s broken body.
Terror seized Lila. She tried to swallow it away, but her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. “No, um…” Lila’s voice trembled. Tears filled her eyes.
The creature—for no human could kill like this—cocked its head. “Then why are you here?”
A rough hand grabbed Lila’s elbow and yanked her backward. She tripped over something and started to fall.
He caught her. Setting her upright, Gabe met Lila’s shocked stare for a heartbeat. Then he shifted back toward the beast, positioning his muscled body in front of hers. His icy gaze pinned on the creature that had killed Val, Gabe ordered in a low tone, “Stay behind me, Lila. No matter what happens.”
Lila’s heart thundered in her chest. Her best friend was dead at the hands of a monster and here was her crush, risking himself because of her. “Gabe, you shouldn’t be here. It’s dangerous.”
“This is exactly where I should be.” Keeping one eye on the beast, Gabe tucked an escaped curl behind Lila’s ear. His fingers were gentle, at odds with the ferocity radiating off him. “You’re the one who shouldn’t be here.”
Lila’s brows furrowed. What was he talking about?
Gabe turned back to the creature. It tilted its head at him like a curious, bloodthirsty puppy. A smile unfolded over lips painted scarlet with Val’s blood.
With one arm pressing against Lila’s body, Gabe backed them both up, out the door, over the dilapidated porch, and into the front lawn—if something that was more dying weeds than green grass could be called a lawn. The beast drifted after them, taking its sweet time.
His hands hovering around the scabbards dangling from his hips, Gabe murmured, “Lila, promise me you’ll run if things go bad.”
“If things go bad? What do you mean?”
“I have to kill it, you know that.”
“No, I…” Lila licked her chapped lips. “You have to kill it? Gabe, we should get out of here. Both of us should get out of here.”
“Lila, that’s not an option for me. You know this.” Impatience, irritation, maybe even anger streamed out of Gabe.
“I don’t understand. What—”
Gabe’s head snapped around. The beast barrelled toward them on all fours.
Spreading his arms wide, Gabe dropped into a crouch. Moonlight glittered off the wicked blade he held in one hand. Lila hadn’t seen him draw it from its scabbard, but there it was.
The beast leapt.
Gabe sprang to meet it. In the air, they collided. Gabe drove his hand into its jaw, keeping the creature’s razor-sharp fangs at bay. In his opposite hand, the sword slashed at the demon.
Their tangled form crashed into the ground. The impact split them back into two. Pebbles and dirt spewed out around them as they hurtled to their feet.
With little more than a body’s length separating them, Gabe and the beast glared at each other. Gabe twisted the short sword back and forth. The fingers of his empty hand twitched.
The creature’s obsidian eyes flicked to Lila, standing behind the pair maybe twenty feet away.
“No,” Gabe growled. “You’re not getting her.”
A maniacal grin pasted itself over the beast’s ragged face. “We’ll see about that.” It surged toward Gabe again.
Gabe dipped down once more. At the last moment, he lunged to the side, so quick that he seemed to appear in his new position. His sword darted into the space where he’d been a breath before.
The demon wasn’t there. No, the creature had mirrored Gabe, as fast as he was, maybe faster. Its shoulder plunged into Gabe’s stomach, driving them both into the ground. Fallen twigs snapped beneath them, each one like a crack of thunder.
The monster pinned Gabe’s brawny arms to his sides. Its canines swollen to half the length of Lila’s pinky, it lunged for Gabe’s throat.
Gabe’s knee blasted into the creature’s groin. In one fluid movement, he flipped them over and slammed his forearm into the beast’s chest. His right arm grinding it into the dirt and dying weeds, Gabe’s left hand flew to his back. It tugged out a wooden stake that gleamed in the light of the stars.
Fingertips bored into Lila’s shoulder.
Lila winced. That’s gonna leave a bruise.
The foreign fingers spun Lila around. Malevolent silver eyes swallowed her world. “What are you doing here, Lila Lee?”
“I dunno, I—”
The woman shook her head, her raven waves swinging over her shoulders. “Never mind, it doesn’t matter. One thing is certain: you don’t belong here.” Like twin hammers, the woman’s hands smashed into Lila’s skull.
Lila crumpled to the ground.
“Lila? Lila, are you okay?”
Why does Gabe sound so worried? Like cotton stuffing, a dense fog filled Lila’s mind. Her thoughts moved slower than a snail on a Sunday stroll.
Callused fingertips grazed Lila’s forehead and temples. They caressed her neck and collarbone, then her arms. Skipping her chest, they continued down her torso to her legs. Everywhere they went, electric tingles chased them. Lila shuddered.
The fingers stopped where they were and hovered over her body. Heat radiated from them. “Lila?”
Lila opened her eyes.
Gabe knelt over her, his too-handsome face scrunched with concern. After an instant, relief flowed through it. He smoothed her hair off her forehead, his fingers light against her skin. Sparks followed them. “How do you feel?”
“Okay, I guess.” With a grimace, Lila shifted to her side and dug out the stone that had been lodged against her back. She tossed it away, sending it swishing through the dying weeds. Away from the rock’s path, crickets sang a pulsing hymn. Owls hooted, calling to each other. Leaves rustled in every breeze. The music of the night had returned to the forest. “I mean, I’ve been better.”
“Yeah, I bet. Here, let’s get you up and moving.” Gabe wiggled his arm beneath her shoulders. Its muscles like cords of steel, Lila grasped his opposite forearm. Together, they hauled her to her feet.
The moment she stood without wobbling, Gabe withdrew his arm from her shoulders.
But Lila wasn’t ready to let him go. Her fingers trailing down his bare forearm, she peeked up at him. Her heart pulsed, a fist-sized lump in her throat.
Gabe stood still and rigid, like a stray dog tolerating his first human contact.
Faster than she could breathe, Gabe crushed the distance between them. His hands pressed against her cheeks, bringing her face to his. His thumbs skimmed over her cheekbones. Soft lips met hers.
Shivers raced through Lila’s body. Heat lingered behind them, melting her bones. She wrapped her arms around Gabe’s waist and pulled him even closer.
Mip. Mip. Mip-mip. Mip. Miiiiiiiip. Lila’s alarm shattered the dream.
After shutting it off, Lila slammed her head back into her pillow. Her fists rubbed at her bleary eyes. Over and over again, the dream played in her mind. Gabe’s hands trailing along her body. His lips against hers.
Sighing, Lila rolled over to check her phone. Sure enough, it was a text from Val.
A half-awake Lila climbed down the ladder from her lofted bed. She stumbled past her roommate’s area—a pristine desk and dresser beneath a neat bed, all of which matched Lila’s except for the spick-and-span part. Her hand on the knob of her closet door, Lila caught her reflection in the mirror.
Her brows furrowed. Beneath her tank top’s spaghetti strap, four bruises dotted her left shoulder. Four bruises that she didn’t remember having last night.
With a gulp, Lila placed her opposite hand over them. They fit, like the bruises were from fingers gripping her shoulder. Must’ve done it in my sleep.
A tiny voice whispered in Lila’s head, But how?
Chasing it away, Lila opened her closet door.
Something flashed a dazzling shade of white from across the room.
Lila froze, her breath caught in her chest. The…thing from her dream last night had had fangs that bright.
Her jaw clenched, Lila poked her head around the closet door. On her desk, the antique comb that Val had bought her shone in the dim light. The jewels adorning its handle winked at her.
Lila’s fingers raked through her hair, catching on the tangles. Great, now I’m imagining things. It was just a dream, Lila. That comb did not wink at you. Monsters like that don’t exist. Val’s alive and well. And Gabe’s never going to kiss you. It was just a dream.
Lila left the room, more than ready to wash the night’s memories away. Behind her, the comb seemed to watch her every move.
But that was nonsense.