Sandy Williams

Excerpt from The Shattered Dark

Chapter One

The Shattered Dark

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 one of 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. 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 in 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. 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 hinging 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.

He heads for the door. I follow but stop when I see the stack of mail on my kitchen table. The top letter is from my college. I can’t resist the temptation to open it even though I’m sure I don’t want to read what it says. I make it to the line, “We regret to inform you,” before I stop and frown.

The frown isn’t because I’ve flunked out of school. The rebels found me when I was taking my very last final exam, and back then, I thought they were the bad guys. I ran out of my English Lit class—a class I had already failed twice—because I couldn’t let them kill or capture me, so I’m not at all surprised I’ve been expelled. I’m surprised because I don’t know how this letter—how any of these letters—got here. No one has a key to my mailbox and apartment except Paige, my only human friend. She puts up with my frequent absences and weird behavior. When I worked for the king, I often didn’t show up when we agreed to meet somewhere, and more than once, I left in the middle of a conversation. I had to make up all sorts of crazy excuses for my actions, but Paige always shrugged her shoulders or gave me a look that contained just a hint of doubt . . . and then, she let it go.

This time, though, I think I’ve flaked out too much even for her. I’ve been calling Paige every other day for over a week to apologize for disappearing at her sister’s wedding, but she hasn’t answered the phone. If she’s that pissed, I can’t see her coming over here to check on my place.

But she must have. I spread out the mail, searching for a note or letter from her. There’s nothing, and I’m about to go to my phone and call her yet again when I see the purse resting on a halfway-pulled-out chair. When I pick it up, a tingle runs up my arm.

“McKenzie?” Trev calls.

Goose bumps sprout over my skin. This is Paige’s purse and . . .

And oh, crap!

“I broke a ward.” I drop the purse as if I’ve been burned. That tingling sensation was more than regular goose bumps; it was a magical trip wire that will signal the fae who created it.

I spin away from the kitchen table and sprint for the front door. I don’t have to explain anything more to Trev and Nalst. They know as well as I do that a remnant must have created that ward.

“Go,” Trev orders. Nalst nods, and a strip of vertical white light rips through the air beside him. He steps into it, disappears.

With effort, I wrench my gaze away from the shadows the fissure leaves behind. Only shadow-readers like me can see the rippling afterimages, but this time I don’t need to draw out their twists and turns to know where Nalst has gone. Even though the remnants shouldn’t know where I live, we made a contingency plan. He’ll bring back help from the Realm.

But we’re not going to stand around here waiting for it.

Trev draws his sword as I yank open the door. I rush out first, turn right, and run across the cement breezeway to the staircase.

My apartment’s on the third floor. Ignoring my racing heartbeat, I focus on the steps as I fly down them two at a time. Trev stays with me, keeping pace despite the fact that he can move twice as fast or simply fissure to the parking lot below. I make it all the way down without any remnants appearing. Maybe they’re becoming disorganized, and no one’s prepared to fissure here. Maybe the fae who created the ward is dead. Maybe they—

Slashes of light rip through the air to my left. I curse, round the corner of the building . . .

And plow into a man. Even though he’s a good foot taller than me and extremely overweight, I have enough momentum to make him stagger into one of the cars parked outside my building. He’s human. The three beings appearing around us are not.

“McKenzie,” the man says. I almost don’t hear him because the two nearest fae lunge at Trev. He deflects the first remnant’s sword with his own, then fissures out of the way of the second’s attack.

Another fae, a woman, watches me and the human, who I finally recognize as the apartment manager when I notice his clipboard. He’s the only thing keeping her from killing or capturing me. I don’t know how long that will last, though. The king’s fae used to go out of their way to remain undetected by normal humans, but less than a month ago, they launched an attack in the middle of a neighborhood near Vancouver without any regard for human lives or property. She might decide I’m worth the collateral damage.

Collateral damage. Is that what Paige has become?

“Your rent’s late again,” the manager says, oblivious to the woman stepping around him with her sword raised. Without the Sight, he can’t see the fae unless they choose to be seen.

“Where’s Paige?”

My demand makes the fae hesitate. She looks at the manager when he follows my line of sight. While he’s distracted, searching the parking lot for something he can’t hear or see, I grab his clipboard, turn, and throw it at the head of the shorter fae attacking Trev.

My aim is perfect, and Trev is good enough with a sword to take advantage of the distraction, finding the weak area on the side of the remnant’s cuirass and plunging his blade between his ribs. The remnant cries out, then disappears into a fissure. Whether he survives that injury or not, I don’t know.

“You’re copping an attitude?” The manager grabs my arm. “I’ve already let you slide three times this year.”

“Sorry,” I say, watching the fae behind him. When it’s clear she’s moving toward us, I use the manager’s grip on my arm to try to pull him away. “We need to go.”

“You need to pay your rent.”

The fae lifts her sword.

“Move!” I yell, this time throwing my shoulder into him in an attempt to shove him out of the way.

“I’m calling the cops–”

The fae slams the hilt of her sword into the side of his head. He drops, pulling me down with him. His hand goes limp when he lands, though. I’m off-balance, but I’m free.

I scramble back as the fae approaches. A quick glance over my shoulder shows that Trev is still occupied with the taller remnant. I’m unarmed. If they wanted me dead, I’d be thoroughly screwed. The fact that I’m still alive means I might have a chance—and I think I might be able to buy some time. She knocked out the manager—I hate that he was caught up in this—so there’s a good possibility she doesn’t want to draw the attention of normal humans.

Before she reaches me, I slam my heel into the nearest car. Its alarm blares a second later. It’s loud—loud enough to startle me even though I’m expecting it—and it stops the fae in her tracks. She shuffles back, staring at the car as if it’s about to attack.

I throw myself over the hood, scramble off the other side, then sprint deeper into the parking lot before she realizes the alarm isn’t a huge amount of tech—it’s not going to screw with her magic. I’m near the apartment building on the opposite side of the lot when my skin tingles.

A fissure opens to my left. Trev. He steps to my side just as two more bright slashes of light rip through the atmosphere, one in front of us, one behind. The remaining male remnant stalks forward, bloody sword raised. I glance behind us and see the woman, who’s trying to gauge if she can get to me without Trev interfering.

I look at Trev, see blood gushing from the gap between the lower part of his cuirass and the jaedric armor protecting his right thigh. Shit.

“Get out of here,” I tell him. He’ll bleed to death if he doesn’t get the help of a fae healer soon.

He shakes his head and takes an unsteady step forward, putting himself between me and the approaching remnant. For one brief moment, I consider letting them take me. Trev could fissure out, and it would be the quickest and easiest way to get to Paige. But then, I have no way of knowing if she’s alive.

My throat tightens, but I force my worry for my friend down as I face the woman. When she raises her sword, I say, “There’s tech trained on this parking lot. It’s recording everything. Drag me out of here, and the whole world will see.” My words might be true. I’m sure a few security cameras are trained on the parking lot, but I have no clue where they are or how many.

“They’ll see only you,” she says.

Yeah, me being hauled across the parking lot kicking and screaming. People would most likely write me off as crazy rather then guess that fae exist, but she doesn’t need to know that, so I start to point out how suspicious that would look when half a dozen fissures erupt around us.

Rebels. Nalst has fissured back, with more fae wearing shoddy jaedric armor. The woman recognizes whose side they’re on the same instant I do. She opens her own fissure and disappears before Nalst, the nearest rebel, can attack. The remnant fighting Trev isn’t as lucky. He opens a fissure, but isn’t able to leap through it before Trev kills him.

“The shadows,” Trev says, his voice strained. “Read them.”

Since the dead fae disappeared into the ether—into the fae afterlife—and not into a fissure, those misty white soul-shadows tell me nothing, but the shadows from the woman’s fissure are weaving themselves into a pattern. I focus on them, my fingers itching to draw a row of . . . houses? Storefronts? Without actually sketching the shadows, I can’t be sure what they are or where she went. They don’t really become concrete unless I draw them out. All I know is she’s gone to the Realm. Possibly some place in the north.

“I need a . . .” My sketchbook. It’s in the suitcase left behind in my living room, but even if it was safe to go back for it, the shadows wouldn’t remain in my memory long enough to map them.

“There’s no time,” Nalst says, stepping to my side. “The remnants will return with reinforcements.” To Trev, he says in Fae, “Go.

Trev nods, then fissures out as the rebels Nalst brought with him take up positions around me. I don’t recognize anyone else, but that’s not surprising. A month ago, I was the rebels’ prisoner. They didn’t exactly make a lot of introductions.

“The nearest gate’s ten minutes from here,” I tell Nalst. A gate is the only way I can enter a fissure with a fae and survive. They’re places in the atmosphere, always over water, where fae can enter the In-Between while escorting a human, or anything else they can’t wear or hold themselves. The magic of how to make more is lost, so we’ve always had to work with the ones that already exist.

It would take me twenty minutes to get there if I walked, but I head to the north side of my apartment complex at a run. If a fae doesn’t have an anchor-stone imprinted with a location, or if they haven’t been to a place before, they can only fissure within their line of sight. My apartment is still within view. I need to get the hell out of this parking lot before a new wave of remnants arrives.

I’m just a few strides away from the walkway between the buildings when I sense the fissures. A second later, just as I’m darting into the narrow space, I hear them opening. I have no clue if they’ve seen me, but I’m certain they’ve seen the rebels, so I force my legs to move faster, stretch farther.

I reach the back of the building, sharp shrrips and flashes of light erupting behind me.

“Get to the gate!” Nalst orders. A tall, thick hedge lines the back of the property, so I have to cut to the right. The hedge is to my left as I run. The rebels hold their position at the junction of the back alley and the gap between the buildings—that’s where the remnants have to be to get a glimpse of me. If they make it there, they’ll be able to reappear at my side.

I’m at a full sprint, passing another gap between buildings, when a strip of white light splits the atmosphere directly in front of me. Not only does it cut off my escape route, it’s so close, I nearly run into it. I lose my balance evading it, but I’m not able to avoid the fae stepping into this world.

My fist rises instinctively, aiming for the fae’s face, until I recognize Aren. Even though my heart thuds at the sight of his silver eyes and wild, disheveled hair, I’m tempted to keep swinging. His fissure could have killed me.

He grabs my fist in the air, then uses his body to maneuver me out of the back alley and into the narrow space between the buildings.

“You’re missing something, nalkin-shom,” he says before I can yell at him for opening his fissure so close to me.

Missing something? “My suitcase? That’s hardly import—”

He ushers me farther down the walkway. “I gave you a weapon.”

I scowl at him over my shoulder. The sun is directly overhead, so even though we’re hiding between two tall apartment buildings, his light brown hair is streaked with gold. It doesn’t quite touch his shoulders, which are protected by jaedric armor, but it’s long enough that, if we had more time, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from touching the slightly curled ends.

“You gave me a sword, Aren. Where am I supposed to hide that?” He can run around this world all he wants with his sword waving about, but I can’t. Not even the strongest fae illusionist can make a human invisible.

“Then you should have asked for a dagger,” he says, coming to a stop just before we reach the front edge of the apartment building.

“My apartment was supposed to be safe.”

“Shh.” He puts a finger to my lips as he presses me against the side of the brick building and, of course, that’s when the edarratae, the chaos lusters, decide to react. The blue lightning leaps from his fingertip to my lips. I suck in a breath. It’s an involuntary reaction to the hot, addictive sensation traveling down my neck. It sinks into my core, making my stomach tighten, and even though I try to hide how much the sensation affects me, Aren sees it.

The tiniest smile pulls at one side of his mouth. A month ago, that smile would have infuriated me. Now? Now, I recognize the spark in his silver eyes. He doesn’t just want me because I’m an asset that can help the rebels keep the Silver Palace; he wants me because he’s fallen in love with me.

He’s fallen in love with me in less than two months. It’s insane considering we were enemies for the majority of that time.

He takes hold of my hand, keeping me in place while he cautiously peers around the edge of the building.

“The closest gate is back in the other direction,” I whisper.

“The remnants know that, too,” he says. Then, he loops his arm around my waist and inches me forward. “See anything?”

Only a human with the Sight can see fae who are hidden by illusion, so I scan the parking lot, searching for anyone Aren can’t see. A car is slowly driving around, probably looking for a specific apartment—the numbers on the sides of the buildings are tiny—but that’s to our advantage since the remnants apparently don’t want to cause a scene. As long as Aren remains invisible to normal humans, the driver shouldn’t take notice of anything unusual.

“It’s clear,” I say. I check over my shoulder to make sure no remnants are in sight. I can hear them fighting somewhere in the back alley, but the rebels must be doing their job, keeping the former king’s fae engaged long enough for me to escape.

Aren unhooks a sheathed dagger from his belt. Then, meeting my gaze, he hands it to me, and says, “Don’t go anywhere unarmed again.”

No one should be allowed to have eyes like his. You can get lost in them. The silver-gray irises are flecked with light, and they’re darker on the outer edges. A fae’s eyes darken and lighten with emotion, and right now, Aren’s are as determined as steel. He expects me to use the dagger if I’m threatened.

I wrap my hand around the weapon’s hilt. I’ve killed before. It wasn’t deliberate—I wanted to ward off the fae attacking me, not slash open his stomach—and I hope I never have to again.

Aren draws his sword, then we step off the narrow walkway. The car cruising the parking lot circles around again. We walk past one row of parked vehicles and are almost to the next when my skin tingles. Fissures, four of them, cut through the air to our left. Aren curses and disappears into his own slash of light just as an arrow whistles through the air. It vanishes when it hits his fissure, and before I have time to duck or run or come up with another plan, Aren reappears on my other side.

He lunges behind me. The sound of swords clashing rings in my ears. A cry tells me Aren’s killed or injured a remnant, but I remain facing the pair in front of me. They press forward.

I draw my dagger out of its sheath. It looks tiny compared to the fae’s swords, but it’s all I have.

The fae on the left disappears. I spin around, knowing he’ll reappear behind me, and slash out with my dagger. The remnant is just far enough away to avoid my attack. He grabs my arm before I can bring my weapon around for a second swing.

I gasp when he digs his fingers in between the tendons on my wrist, trying to force me to drop the dagger. I hold on to it, try to pivot its point toward him, but he’s ten times stronger than I am, and his grip hurts.

He brings his sword up, issues a threat in Fae.

In my peripheral vision, I see Aren charge forward. The remnant notices him, too, but not soon enough. Aren rams into us, sending both me and the remnant stumbling across the parking lot.

Across the parking lot and into the path of the approaching car.

I swear to God the driver speeds up. It hits hard, sending me and the fae onto the hood. Pain shoots through my thigh, then through my ribs and right arm, as the sky spins.

It’s still spinning when the driver slams on the brakes. I’m suddenly sprawled on the asphalt in front of the car. I try to push myself up to my hands and knees, but before I reach my feet, Aren’s there, yanking me up. He jerks open the vehicle’s door and shoves me into the passenger seat. I tumble awkwardly inside, look up in time to see a remnant fissure in behind Aren just after he slams my door shut.

“Watch out!” I shout, but the remnant’s sword is already swinging.

 

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