The Shadow Reader
A Houston college student, McKenzie Lewis can track fae by reading the shadows they leave behind. For years she has been working for the fae King, tracking rebels who would claim the Realm. Her job isn't her only secret. She's in love with Kyol, the King's sword-master-but human and fae relationships are forbidden. When McKenzie is captured by Aren, the fierce rebel leader, she learns that not everything is as she thought. And McKenzie must decide who to trust and where she stands in the face of a cataclysmic civil war.
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 up on 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 goose bumps 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 the gate, 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 jaidric cuirass 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.
“McKenzie Lewis.” A bolt of blue lightning flashes down his neck. He cocks his head slightly. A moment later, his sword-point dips and something changes in his posture.
“Are you hurt?” he asks.
I follow his gaze down to a dark stain on my purple cami. I press a hand against my stomach. It’s warm, wet.
“Are you hurt?” the rebel asks again.
No. I’m not. I don’t know where the blood came from. No one’s touched me. No one but Kyol . . .
Kyol. Oh, God. He’s hurt.
I spin toward the exit, trying to get back to him, but two rebels move to block my path, their swords held ready to strike.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” the fae’s leader says. “I’d like to talk to you.”
He takes a step toward me. I take a step back.
“Look.” He sheaths his sword, then holds his hands out, palms up like he’s harmless.
Screw him. I won’t let them take me. I sprint for my only remaining escape route, the metal staircase in the building’s northeast corner.
My backpack bounces as I run up the steps. I reach the second floor before I hear the rebels coming after me. I pause to consider my options, realize I have none.
“Shit!” I have nowhere to go but up, and once I’m up, I’ll have nowhere to go at all. I sprint to the next floor because I don’t know what else to do. I can’t turn around. I can’t stop. They’re right behind me.
“Shit, shit, shit!”
My legs are burning by the time I reach the fourth level. I can’t make it up the next flight of stairs so I run across this floor instead, watching my feet as I step over stacks of two-by-fours and through the wooden frames of the building’s future walls. The sun’s set. It’s dark, but I’m able to make out the outline of a piece of machinery in what will eventually be a hallway. I duck down behind it, praying I’m out of sight in time.
Soft footsteps walk across the cement.
My hair clings to my face and neck. I swipe it out of my eyes and search for some way out of this. There’s an opening at the end of the hallway for what I assume will be a floor-to-ceiling window. An orange plastic safety fence runs across the gap, and seven or eight feet away from the edge of the building is the white, moonlit arm of a tower crane.
Seven or eight feet. Can I jump that?
“You’re making this more difficult than it needs to be.”
I flinch at the voice. He’s close. He knows I’m here.
I grit my teeth and refuse to panic. I don’t think the rebels will kill me immediately. They’ll try to use me. They’ll try to turn me against the Court, make me read the shadows. They probably won’t hurt me until they’re certain I won’t cooperate. I should have a few seconds to make my move.
I wipe sweat from my face and focus on the crane outside the building. Seven or eight feet. I have to jump that.
I don’t give myself time to second-guess my decision. I sprint the distance to the plastic fence, scramble over it—
—and jump, but the rebel grabs my backpack.
I slip. I scream.
My fingers tangle in the plastic fence.
I hit the side of the building and keep screaming.
My throat’s raw by the time I realize I’m not dead. I’m hanging between the third and fourth floors, holding on to the plastic fence like my life depends on it because . . . well, it does.
A chuckle draws my attention upward. The damn fae peers over the edge, looking all jolly and relaxed.
“I can’t believe you held on,” he says.
The moonlight highlights the planes of his face and even though I’m dangling three and a half stories above the ground, I’m suddenly more pissed than afraid. I don’t recognize him, but my gut tells me who he is: Aren, son of Jorreb, the false-blood who’s determined to overthrow the king. And he’s laughing at me.
The plastic fence stretches. My fingers cramp, but I’m determined to hang on forever if it keeps me away from the killer above.
Something snaps loose from the wall and I drop another foot.
“Whoa, easy there. Easy,” Aren says.
“Back off!” I mean to yell the words, but they come out as a hoarse croak. I know I should be begging for his help, but a part of me believes Kyol will rescue me. I choose to ignore the part that believes he’s dead.
“Sure,” Aren says in an infuriatingly devil-may-care voice. “No problem, but how about you give me your hand first? There’s no need for you to fall.”
“I won’t help you!”
“I’m not asking for your help. Just give me your h—”
The plastic rips free from the wall. I scream again and tense, bracing for impact.
“McKenzie. Hey, look up here, McKenzie. I’ve got you.”
Heart thudding, I look up. He does have me. Sort of. He’s dangling over the edge of the building, his left hand wrapped in the fence, his right hand grasping the opening’s frame.
“Stop kicking,” he says. I stop, not realizing I was moving at all.
“Good. Now, you’re going to have to grab my legs. I think the fence will rip if I try to pull you up. Can you do that?”
I nod. I don’t care who he is anymore. I don’t want to die. I want to live. I want to be normal, graduate college, get a real job, and spend time with some real-life friends. Hell, I want to have sex at least once before I croak.
The thought of death pulls my gaze toward the concrete.
“No, don’t look down, McKenzie. Look up here. Look at me.”
I do as he says. His eyes are bright but soft, like silver sand with tiny shards of diamonds, and his expression is serious but not strained. The last part impresses me. I might be thin, but I’m not dainty, and he’s supporting both of our weights.
“Pull yourself up.” There’s a bit more urgency in his voice now. He must feel the plastic stretching, too.
I muster the strength to reach up and grab his legs. As soon as I wrap my arms around him, he releases the fence. With a grunt, he pulls himself up and over the edge. I scrape along the side of the building until he grabs my arm, dragging me to safety.
I lay facedown on the cement floor. My arms feel like spaghetti and I’m shaking, but I can’t be weak right now. The rebels will demand a high price for saving my life, and I have no intention of sticking around to pay it.
I lurch to my feet, but my knees buckle.
“Are you okay?” Aren asks.
I ignore him and rise again. This time, I manage to keep my balance. It doesn’t matter, though. Three rebels block the staircase. One of them speaks in Fae.
“The police are coming,” Aren translates behind me. No doubt my screams have brought them. I consider screaming again, but Aren grabs my arm.
Lightning flashes from his skin to mine. I can’t shake loose. He wrestles me to a corner and, when he presses his lean body against mine, my brain stops functioning. The lightning between our skin increases, becoming almost volatile, and my body flushes with heat.
“The police can’t help you,” Aren says. I’m sure that smirk on his face is due to my obvious discomfort. He feels the electricity between us the same as I do, but he’s not bothered by it.
“Let go!” I demand, trying to free my arms.
Flashlight beams precede the cops up the stairs.
“Be quiet. Be still,” Aren whispers.
I twist. I almost slip free, but one strong arm locks around my waist. He covers my mouth with his other hand.
Stupid move on his part. I bite down hard.
He doesn’t grimace, but his smirk vanishes.
“Sorry about this,” he whispers in my ear.
Pain explodes above my temple. I totter, but don’t black out. My knees aren’t working, though. Aren’s holding me up. I’m able to focus on his face well enough to see surprise in his eyes. Then the surprise disappears. His lips thin as he raises the weapon again. It’s a dagger. He swings its hilt down a second time.
This month, debut author Sandy Williams’ first novel hits the shelves. The Shadow Reader is an urban fantasy about on a young woman who can see the fae. To tell you more about it, we asked the author to share a bit about her inspirations and favorite influences.
A 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. Her job isn’t her only secret. For just as long, she’s been in love with Kyol, the king’s sword-masterand relationships between humans and fae are forbidden.
But 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 no choice but 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 is your first published novel. Can you share a bit about how this book came to be?
The book started with one idea: a girl hanging over the edge of a platform being forced to accept the help of her gloating enemy. I had that scene written down in my notes file for a couple of years. I pulled it out after typing THE END on a different urban fantasy book. I knew that girl had a special ability. All the years it sat gathering dust in my file, I thought that ability was to track spaceships. Yep, that’s right. I thought it was going to be a scene in a science fiction book. But I fell in love with urban fantasy and wanted to write a story about a fairly normal girl getting sucked into a war. Once I discovered that the war was between the fae, who have the ability to fissure (teleport) from place to place, I realized that tracking them was that girl’s special ability. After that, the book pretty much wrote itself.
McKenzie Lewis, the heroine of your book, is a young woman living in Houston and studying for her English degree. You currently live in Texas and work part-time as a librarian. Did some of the inspiration for McKenzie’s interests and personality come from your own life? Are there ways in which you are totally different from her?
I wish I was more like McKenzie! Other than us both living in Texas, the only similarity I can claim between us is her voice. It came naturally because the things she thinks and says during the story are the things I would think and say if I was as brave and determined as she is. But that’s why we’re totally different. I’m sure I’d be a coward if I were thrown into the fae’s war!
On the other hand, it was important to me to make McKenzie an extremely normal human. She doesn’t have any big-time supernatural abilities and isn’t a modern day She-Ra. She’s very realistic about what she’s capable of doing, and it’s her determination and devotion to certain causes and people that drives her to take risks. If she didn’t have the ability to see and track the fae, she’d completely blend in with human society.
The fae in this novel are a bit different from what readers have seen in urban fantasy before, like in Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series and Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye novels. How did you decide what the fae in your novel were going to be like? Did you draw any of their characteristics from classic fairy tales or legends?
One of the things I love about the fae in urban fantasies is how different they are from novel to novel. Many authors draw upon classic fairy tales and legends when they develop their fae societies, but mine are influenced mostly by traditional fantasy. They have their own world, their own culture, and their own magic system.
Like other books on the urban fantasy shelf, The Shadow Reader deals with a character in our own world who learns about or is a part of a supernatural society among us. But McKenzie also travels to the Fae Realm—a more traditional fantasy-style world with palaces and swordfights. Why did you decide to meld these two genres in this way?
Because swords are sexy!
Aside from that, I’m a huge fan of genre blending. I read a good amount of traditional fantasy and have always admired the authors who’ve built such complex and thorough worlds. My writing style doesn’t suit that genre, though, and I’d rather read other authors’ big fat fantasies than try to write my own.
But when I realized McKenzie’s story was going to take place in our world and in the fae’s, I was more than happy to bring in some of the tropes of traditional fantasy into my urban fantasy book. Developing the world, the magics, and the history that led up to the current war was fun, and I’m looking forward to expanding on that world building more in the sequel.
Which authors are your influences in these fantasy genres, or in any genre that you like to read?
From traditional fantasy, the authors that influence me the most are Patrick Rothfuss, Brandon Sanderson, and Brent Weeks.
I learned character development from Rothfuss. He’s a brilliant story teller, and his character, Kvothe, is one of the most thoroughly developed heroes I’ve ever read.
From Brandon Sanderson, I learned about world building. Each of his books has a unique magic system set in a unique world. I’m amazed at how deftly he crafts each society (and I might be a little jealous of his skill, too!).
And as for Brent Weeks? He taught me all about character torture. In the middle of the second book of his Night Angel Trilogy, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to murder Mr. Weeks or bow down and worship him.
It’s difficult to name just a few influencers from urban fantasy. I love so many authors! Patricia Briggs is one of my favorites, and I have a soft spot for Kim Harrison since she is the author who first sucked me into the genre. Other favorites include Richelle Mead and Ann Aguirre.
The secondary characters in The Shadow Reader are given complicated motivations and back-stories of their own. Which of the secondary characters are your favorites?
Ooh, that’s a tough question. I like to give all my secondary characters a pretty thorough back-story, even if that back-story doesn’t completely make it to the page, so there are things I like about all of the supporting characters in The Shadow Reader. Which are my favorites? If I can count Kelia and Naito as a pair, I’d say they just barely edge out Lorn as my favorite. I love watching them interact and seeing how much they care about each other.
Can you tell us a bit about what’s next for McKenzie, or what you’re working on now?
It’s so hard to talk about the next book without spoiling the first one! What I can say is that, even though a certain somebody is defeated at the end of the first book, the war is far from over, and it’s affecting McKenzie’s real-world life more than ever. Her human friend, Paige, who we met briefly in book one, is abducted by the fae. Getting her back isn’t going to be easy, especially when dealing with a new and cunning enemy!
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