The Shattered Dark (Shadow Reader #2)


by Sandy Williams

ONE

I HAVE FIFTEEN minutes to grab what I need from an apartment I lived in seven years. Sadly, that’s more than enough time. My walls are bare except for a single abstract painting, and the sofa and coffee table are secondhand, just like a college student’s furniture should be. This place was always supposed to be temporary. I used to think that would be because I’d graduate and move on to a real job, a nicer apartment, and, well, a nicer life. But war will ruin anyone’s plans.

Instead of turning on the lights, I open the blinds as a courtesy to my guards, two fae named Trev and Nalst. They’re here as a precaution even though it’s extremely unlikely that the remnants of the king’s fae will choose this moment to come here. We took the Silver Palace two weeks ago. They’ve had plenty of time to ransack my place, but everything is where I left it. Most likely, they have no clue where I live. Back when I worked for the king, my identity was one of the most tightly guarded secrets in the Realm, and the few people who knew my name are now either dead or, like me, they’re working with the rebel fae.

“Hurry,” Trev orders. A bolt of blue lightning strikes down his neck, disappearing beneath his jaedric armor. A fae’s chaos lusters grow more active, more frenzied when they’re near human tech, but that’s not why Trev is anxious. The rebellion needs every sword available to keep its enemies from retaking the palace. He and Nalst need to return to the Realm ASAP.

They wait in the living room while I head to my bedroom. I grab a suitcase from my closet, throw in my favorite pair of jeans and a few shirts, then I reach up to the shelf above the clothing rod and grab a leather-bound sketchbook. Half its pages are filled with my messy shadow-readings. The chicken scratches look more like a lunatic’s drawings than maps, but if I show them to a fae and name the location out loud, he or she will be able to travel to the place I’ve drawn. That skill and my Sight are the reasons I was pulled into the Realm’s wars. Few humans can see the fae; fewer still can read their shadows.

This is the sketchbook I always used when shadow-reading for the king’s fae, but I didn’t have it with me when the rebels abducted me from my campus a little over a month ago. I shouldn’t have needed it because I was supposed to have the day off.

I toss it into my suitcase, glad to have the sketchbook back. I like the broken-in look of the leather, and the long strap allows me to wear it across my body like a messenger bag, so it’s easier to hang on to than a normal notebook. With the way the war in the Realm is going these days, I need that little convenience. I can run faster when my hands are free.

Leaving the suitcase open, I walk to my desk to take my wallet out of the middle drawer. There’s actually money inside. Sixteen dollars to be precise. That’s probably more than what I have in my bank account. Back when the king was alive, he gave me a small monthly allowance for tracking down criminals. Many of those fae were truly horrible, but some of them? Some of them, I recently learned, were not.

I make sure my driver’s license and Social Security card are inside the wallet. They’re the real reason I’m here. Every year I worked for the king, my human life slipped further and further away. I lost my friends, my family, and my best chance at a college degree, all because I put my work for the fae before myself. I can’t do that anymore. I’m starting over, and this time, I’m determined to find a balance between my human life and my life working for the fae. The license and Social Security card will help me do that. A start-up news aggregation Web site offered me a job in Las Vegas, and I need to give the identification to the owner, Brad Jenkins, to finish the employment process.

A part of me can’t believe I’m setting down roots in Vegas—the city is too flashy for my tastes—but that’s where I’m sharing a hotel suite with another Sighted human, who actually likes the city. I guess I’m lucky, though. Jenkins is probably the only editor alive who’s going to take a chance on a college flunkout.

I slide the wallet into my back pocket, then grab a photo album off a shelf. I don’t open it. I hardly ever do. It contains pictures from a different life, a life back before I became entangled in the Realm’s wars. I haven’t seen or talked to my parents since I was seventeen. I didn’t plan for that to happen. I planned to go back home after I graduated from college. I needed the degree to prove I wasn’t wild or irresponsible or any of the dozens of other things they accused me of being, but maybe I can accomplish the same thing with a job. If things go well, I might finally find the courage to give them a call.

I want to give them a call. I miss them and the safe, comfortable life they provided.

After I tuck the album into the suitcase, I add my laptop and power cord. Trev and Nalst will be extremely annoyed if they see the tech, but the laptop’s battery is completely dead. It shouldn’t affect their magic much, certainly not enough to prevent them from fissuring me back to Vegas.

The suitcase zips up with plenty of room to spare. I survey my room again, feeling like I should have more memories to take with me, when my gaze rests on the small, wooden box sitting open on my desk. I hardly ever wear jewelry, so the box doesn’t contain much. There’s just a thin gold necklace, a beaded stretch bracelet, a few other trinkets and…

My breath catches. There, neatly curled at the bottom of the box, is a name-cord. It’s a string of onyx and audrin, a smoky, quartzlike stone found only in the Realm. Fae used to wear name-cords braided into their hair, but only the most prominent families keep the tradition now. This one belonged to Kyol. He gave it to me with a kiss and an embrace the day the king made him his sword-master. Back then, neither one of us could have predicted he’d one day kill that king.

I should leave it behind. I miss what Kyol and I had together, but I chose to leave him. I chose to take a chance on somebody who risked everything to be with me. Honestly, though, I miss Aren, too.

Something flutters through my stomach. It’s hard to tell if the feeling is worry or want. It’s been almost a week since I last saw Aren. He was alive then, but it only takes a moment to die, and he and Kyol and all of the fae supporting the rebellion haven’t had a moment’s rest since taking the Silver Palace. Somebody’s organizing what’s left of the king’s fae—the remnants, we’ve been calling them—and if we don’t find out who it is soon, they’re going to overtake us.

I pick up the name-cord. I’ve never seen Kyol wear it, but it’s a family heirloom. The least I can do is give it back to him.

I slip it into my pocket, then grab my suitcase and roll it into the living room.

“I’m ready,” I tell the fae.

Trev is fidgeting with a piece of jaedric that’s peeling up from his armor. The bark is pulled off jaedra trees in long strips, then applied in layers to a molding. The former Court fae’s armor is always a dark, even brown, well oiled and with a thirteen-branched abira tree etched into the cuirasses, front and back. In comparison, the rebels’ are discolored, unadorned, and overall, pretty shoddy-looking. They’re functional, though, which is most important.

Trev lets go of the jaedric snag and nods. A chaos luster strikes at an angle across his nose, and a muscle in his cheek twitches, making the sharp angles of his face stand out even more. Fae don’t feel the lightning unless they’re touching a human, but I’m sure he saw the blue flash. His hand tightens just perceptibly on the hilt of his sheathed sword, and his eyes narrow enough to give him shallow wrinkles at the outer corners. Trev looks like he’s in his midtwenties, but the Realm ages people slower than Earth does, so it’s difficult to guess exactly how old fae are. Those tiny wrinkles on an otherwise smooth face are a giveaway to me, though, and I’d bet he’s at least fifty.