Houston college student trying to finish her degree, McKenzie has been working for the fae king for years, tracking vicious rebels who would claim the Realm. For just as long, she's been in love with Kyol, the king's sword-master--and relationships between humans and fae are forbidden.
Any hope for a normal life is shattered when she's captured by Aren, the fierce and uncompromising rebel leader. He teaches her the forbidden fae language and tells her dark truths about the Court, all to persuade her to turn against the king.
Time is running out, and as the fight starts to claim human lives, McKenzie has to decide once and for all whom to trust--and where she ultimately stands in the face of a cataclysmic civil war.
THE SHADOW READER
My skin tingles a moment before a slash of white light flashes at the front of the lecture hall. I grit my teeth and keep my eyes locked on my scantron, refusing to acknowledge the fae entering my world through that fissure. I don’t give a damn if it’s the king himself, I will pass this test tonight.
I darken in C on my answer sheet and then read the next question.
It’s Kyol. Of course the Court would send him.
“McKenzie,” he says. “We must go.” No one else can hear or see him even though he towers over my professor, who stands less than two feet to his left. All the other students remain bowed over their desks, completely focused on their final exams. I grip my pencil and bubble in another circle.
The fae climbs the steps to my fifth-row seat. Still not meeting his eyes, I shake my head. I told him—I told all of them—not to call on me this week, but none of the fae understand why I need this degree, not when the Court takes care of all my needs. I tried to explain I’m human. I have human dreams and need a human life, and it shouldn’t take anyone eight years to earn a Bachelor of Arts in English. They hadn’t listened. At least, Kyol hadn’t.
Not now! I want to scream, but even the softest whisper will disturb the quiet in the lecture hall. I stare down at my exam, letting my long hair brush the top of my desk. It forms a brown curtain, cutting off my view of Kyol as I reread question ten. The Court’s war can wait until I finish.
Kyol lays a hand on my shoulder, and a pleasant warmth expands beneath the thin strap of my purple cami. If we were alone, I’d lean into his touch, soak in his heat, his scent—soak in him—but not here, not now in the middle of a test I have to pass. I shift, trying to get away. When his hand remains, I slam my fist down on my desk.
My classmates turn their heads to stare and Dr. Embry frowns. Fantastic.
“Number ten,” I say with a nervous laugh. “It’s a doozy.” It isn’t. It’s on the works of C. S. Lewis. Easy. I bubble in A.
Kyol pulls on my shoulder and I squirm again. There’s no way in hell I’m flunking this course a third time. I need it to graduate, and I don’t care if Kyol drops his invisibility in front of all my classmates, my ass isn’t budging until I finish my test and triple check my answers.
“We’ve no time to waste,” Kyol says. “The rebels have found you.”
I suck in a frigid breath, hold it as I close my eyes for one brief, fragile moment, then I exhale, stuff my pencil into my backpack, and stand.
“I’m sorry,” I say to my surprised professor. “I have to go.”
By the time I turn to hurry up the steps, Kyol’s already waiting by the exit. I brace for the surge of emotion I know is coming and finally meet his silver eyes. Most people don’t see past his hard, unyielding scowl, but I do. I’ve seen his eyes soften and sparkle in the moonlight. I’ve seen a smile crack those lips, heard a laugh ring from that broad chest. And yet, even in those few, untroubled moments, there’s always a certain gravitas to him, like he could stand in the middle of a battle and part the enemy’s line with one cool glare.
He reaches for the door. I lock down my feelings and cut him off, not wanting my classmates to see it swing open seemingly on its own. He glances down at me, and a bolt of blue lightning skitters from his jaw to his temple before disappearing into his dark hair. Another bolt zigzags across the hand he rests on his sword’s hilt. They’re chaos lusters, visual reminders that the fae don’t belong in this world, and they’re beautiful, mesmerizing. With his quiet, strong confidence, he’s mesmerizing.
“Where should I go?” I ask after the door thumps shut.
“The River Bend.” He seizes my arm and pulls me after him. God, he’s really worried. Just how close are the rebels? I scan up and down the hallway, but there’s only one other person in sight, a student asleep against the wall, newspaper pillowed under his head. I wish I could be oblivious like him, but I can’t. If the rebels don’t kill me on sight, they’ll use me to hunt down the Court’s officers one by one, just like I’ve hunted them down over the years.
My skin tingles again. I tense, then relax when three fae wearing the Court’s jaedric armor join us, stepping through fissures to take up position around me. Escape would be easy if I could travel through one of those strips of narrow light, but I’m only human. I can’t use a fissure unless it’s opened at a gate and a fae escorts me through: not if I want to survive the trip.
Kyol speaks to his soldiers in their language. They nod, acknowledging his orders, and we set off down the hall. I shove my worry aside and hurry to keep up with their quick strides, telling myself everything will be okay, Kyol will take care of me. He always takes care of me.
Outside, a faint orange and pink haze smears the lowest portion of the sky. The growing darkness triggers the campus lights. They clank on, illuminating the faces of the students sitting on cement benches or walking alone or in groups of two or three. Even after dusk, this part of campus is always crowded because of the library. The River Bend Gate is about a mile northeast of it, past the construction for a new engineering building.
I hitch my backpack upon my shoulders. It’s not heavy. I left most of my books at home and brought only the essentials: my English Lit notes, sketchbook, cell phone, and the small, drawstring pouch that contains a handful of imprinted anchor-stones. I’ll need the latter to pass through the gate unless Kyol gives me a new stone to use.
I jog to keep up. When students start to stare, I try to free my hand from Kyol’s. It’s not completely unusual to see someone run across campus, but my gait is awkward because he’s pulling me, and I’m sure they’re wondering what the hell I’m doing with my arm.
“Kyol,” I whisper.
His gaze darts to the humans who don’t see me holding his hand; they see me clutching wildly at the air. His jaw clenches before he lets me go. “I’m sorry, kaesha.”
I catch my breath. Kaesha. It’s a term of endearment he calls me only when we’re alone. I don’t think he knows he said it—there’s no hitch in his stride as he leads me across the courtyard—but if his soldiers overhear, if they report back to the king…
An unnatural wind cuts through the previously still air, rustling through the trees and skittering a soda can across the cement. The hair at the nape of my neck stands on end and goosebumps prickle across my skin. The rebels are here. They’re watching. They’re hiding. They’re—
Arrows whistle through the air. Light erupts around me as the Court fae vanish into their fissures. The arrows disappear when they touch the light, too, swallowed up by the In-Between. Only one hits its target: the shoulder of a fae who reacted an instant too late. With a grunt of pain, he escapes through his fissure. He’s the only one who doesn’t return. The others reappear with reinforcements as the rebels release another barrage.
“Go!” Kyol shoves me forward, but I spin to run back to the English building. No way am I running across the open courtyard.
More arrows fire through the air. I don’t see if any hit the fae—I’m struggling to get past Kyol—but I hear the sound of more fissures opening. Each time the bright lights slash through the atmosphere, it sounds like someone’s ripping a thick cloth in two. Add to that noise the fact that my heartbeat is thudding in my ears, and I almost don’t hear Kyol’s words.
“You must make it to thegate, McKenzie. You must!”
Instinct screams for me to get inside the building, but I trust Kyol with my life, so I stop fighting and glance over my shoulder. Arrows still fly through the air. A few seconds after they leave the rebels’ bows, they’ll become visible to normal humans so if a fae misses his target or doesn’t hit a fissure, people will see the bolts embed in trees or the ground or skidding across the cement. None of the students are reacting, though. The rebels are being careful.
I take a small step forward. Some of the Court fae have fissured to the rooftops to fight; others remain on the ground, darting in and out of their fissures in smooth, defensive dances. They’re drawing the rebels’ attacks, but it’s a long way to the gate. They’ll tire before I get there. Some of them might die. Kyol might die.
“I’ll be fine,” he says, reading the concern in my expression. He cups my cheek in his hand. “As long as you’re safe, I’ll be fine.”
I bite my lip and nod. Of course he’ll be okay. He’s the king’s sword-master. He can take care of himself. Besides, the fae will need me if any of the rebels are illusionists. Only a human with the Sight can see through that magic.
Ignoring the stares students throw my way, I take a deep breath, grit my teeth, and run. Kyol and I have worked together for ten years—we’re tuned in to how the other moves, how we think and react—so when a rebel charges straight toward us and Kyol doesn’t turn his way, I know he can’t see him.
“Ten o’clock. Now!” I say.
Kyol swings as ordered, forcing the rebel to parry. Touch breaks a fae’s illusion, so as soon as their weapons clash, Kyol can see him. His blade cuts into the rebel’s arm three moves later, but it’s not a killing blow. The illusionist fissures away.
Kyol returns to my side. I flinch when an arrow almost hits him, flinch again when another one whizzes past my face, disappearing into another Court fae’s fissure. I want to duck and dodge the rebels’ attack, but that will slow us down and draw even more attention from the humans. I’ve already lied my way through one psychiatric evaluation; I don’t think I can lie my way through another.
We sprint past the library. Ahead, a metal fence blocks off the construction site to the new engineering building. I veer left to go around it, but a wall of fissures forms in my path. Six fae appear. All rebels.
I tell Kyol their number. None of them must be hidden by illusion because he doesn’t hesitate. His blade carves through the air as he charges the rebels, but he can’t occupy all six at once. Two of them break away from the others and move toward me.
I turn and run. To hell with going around the fence. I leap up and grab its top. My tennis shoes struggle for a foothold in the metal links and the wire cuts into my palms. I manage to pull myself over the top, but I land hard on my right hip. Ignoring the sharp burst of pain, I scurry back to my feet and sprint forward again. When a fissure opens in front of me, I almost run into it, but Kyol steps out, stopping me. Saving me.
He extinguishes the fissure and then shoves me behind him. Metal clanks against metal as he takes on my pursuers. I dash under the exterior scaffolding and through the doorless entrance to the engineering building. The construction company’s already erected the interior walls on the first floor. I run through what will be the common area, almost make it to the other side, but five fissures open in a semicircle in front of me.
Five rebel fae appear. I’m no military genius, but this is clearly an ambush. I’ve been herded here, lured like a sheep to the wolf’s den.
Even if the fae in the center of the group hadn’t spoken, my attention would be riveted to him. He’s tall, taller than Kyol, but not as thickly muscled, and his silver eyes, while intense, have a lighter, livelier hue to them. He’s wearing a poorly made, dark jaedriccuirass over a once-white tunic, loose gray pants, and scuffed black boots. His golden-blond hair looks like it’s been chopped off with a knife or, perhaps, the sword in his hand. Despite his haphazard appearance, he’s confident, he’s alert, and he’s completely focused on me, his prey.