Shadow Guardian by Jennie Lynn Roberts

Prologue

Thirteen years ago – Wales

Kay lay on her back,struggling desperately for air, but only managing tiny, panicked gasps. Bloody stupid tree. Bloody stupid Shadows.

She finally managed to drag in a shuddering breath while pain shot up her back and mortification flooded through her body. Who knocked the wind out of their lungs after the age of five?

More importantly, who fell out of a tree when they were fifteen years old? Who else had to completely relearn the entire world from scratch like they were a baby? Only a person who had no idea what they were doing. Who had already been humiliated and rejected in every possible way. That was who.

She flung her arms over her face, covering her eyes, and tried to push the memories away. Tried, but failed.

Music thudded a heavy beat in the packed room. Too many people. She recognized some from her class, while others were much too old for this sweet sixteen glow-in-the-dark house party. Hot, heavy air thick with sweet teen perfume and too much aftershave.

Her neon bunny ears which had seemed so amusing earlier felt childish now. They pinched her head brutally, pulling her hair and adding a throbbing headache behind her eyes to the nausea seething in her belly and the clammy moisture coating her palms. She should have stayed at home. She should have known better, especially after an entire day of the world feeling out of sync. Colors too bright. Smells too intense.

The party was a strangely surreal hell of dark light and glowing neon. Arm bands, glow sticks, and intensely bright teeth teemed in the dim room, the people behind them merely shadowy, amorphous shapes bumping into each other as they swayed and gyrated to the music.

The more she watched, the more disconnected they became. Disembodied lights and music fractured like a jagged migraine, all bound together by swirling black and gray as if the darkness was alive and moving. Strange currents seemed to move between the shadows, making the dancers’ aura of teenage lust, want, and angst almost palpable.

And then, as she watched, the shadows came alive, moving independently of the dancers. She thrust her sweating hands away from her body, blinking against the churning darkness, but the movement stirred the shadows and she felt them move against her skin.

Felt. The shadows. Move.

Kay froze, and the room seemed to freeze with her. She paused for a long moment on the cusp of something monumental and terrifying. Then, slowly, almost by instinct, she lifted her hands and curled her fingers.

The shadows rushed toward her in a maelstrom of churning black and gray and subtle streaks of midnight blue. They wrapped themselves around her hands and through her body, pouring through every part of her in a blinding tsunami of awareness.

She was connected to every person—every living thing—and every emotion, however dark or pure. Her skin burned as her body convulsed, and she clung onto the shadows, the only tangible element in that heaving room. They felt real, as if she could hold them and shape them into anything.

She tried to grip the shadows harder, and they fragmented, suddenly dissipating like a cloud of scattered ash. They flowed out of her and away, taking their lifeline and leaving her in a swirling, churning ocean of pounding pain as the darkness that had been threatening enclosed her, and she collapsed, crumpling to the floor.

Kay pushed the palms of her hands into her eyes, blocking out the memory. Blocking out the horrified wish that someone, anyone, might have told her what to expect. Warned her of what was coming. Prepared her in some way.

She pushed herself up to sit and shook away the thought. It was too late. No one had told her. Now she simply had to do the best she could to never find herself in that situation again.

Bloody stupid so-called school friends. Bloody stupid Mum and Dad. She was done with being humiliated. Done with feeling miserable. And she wasn’t about to be beaten by a damn tree.

Kay stood up and dusted off her jeans. Elizabeth had asked her to wait outside for twenty minutes, and she was going to use that time well. She pulled her ponytail tighter and then spread her hands to gather the Shadows once more. She was going to climb that tree. And she was going to do it with a Shadow.

Leaves crackled further down the path toward the college, and she let go of the Shadows as she whirled to face the noise. Only students and their families could come into the college grounds and surrounding woodland, but that didn’t mean she wanted to risk being caught failing.

Two boys stepped into view and stopped when they reached her. Both tall and blond, lanky, a little older than her. She’d met them when she first arrived and found herself sharing some of their classes. They were both much more experienced Shadow Weavers. James had been in Wales for a year already, while Zach had always lived in the local village, and they’d both grown up in families that had prioritized the Order.

James glanced at the tree, and then back at Kay. His blue eyes flicked over her dusty jeans and messy ponytail, and then landed on her face, which was no doubt streaked with dirt from where she’d been wiping her eyes. His grin was cocky but not unfriendly as he tipped his head toward the tree. “Still practicing?”

She sighed. “Yep.”

He dipped his chin. “You’ll get it.”

James sounded so certain, so utterly convinced that she could do it, that she almost asked him how he could possibly know. Almost. But she kept the question to herself. She liked these two boys—both as determined as she was to join the Guardians, both willing to train with her and to include her at their table for lunch. And even more importantly, neither of them had ever suggested that she didn’t belong. She was not going to hand them a reason to do so now.

James must have read something of the question in her face because he answered as if she’d spoken. “I know a fighter when I see one.”

She shoved her hands in her pockets, trying to seem casual. Trying not to show how much his belief meant to her.

Zach—just as blond, just as tall and athletic, but far more serious, the entire world constantly weighing down his rangy shouldersgave her a small smile. “It’s why we like you.”

“Really?” The word slipped out before she could think of something less needy to say. Or, even better, keep her mouth shut.

“Sure.” Zach’s smile grew. “You fit right in.”

She watched him carefully, looking for the joke. For the moment she gave herself away, and they laughed at her. But it never came; all she saw was sincerity. And for the first time in the weeks since she’d collapsed at that stupid party, something settled inside her.

Maybe there was somewhere she could fit. Not just in this small hidden community on the southernmost border of the Brecon Beacons, or with the grandmother who, even though they hadn’t known each other, had come to fetch her when her world felt like it was falling apart. Maybe she could finally fit with people her own age. With these two boys who already felt more like friends than any of the kids in her class at her expensive London school ever had.

“Here, let me show you.” James held up his hands so she could watch, his breath slowing as he seemed to sink deeper inside himself. He looked older as his grin faded and his face settled into a look of calm concentration, while Shadows—grays and blacks shot through with streaks of sky blue—gathered smoothly into his hands.

He curled his fingers and gave a slight twist, fluidly coiling the Shadows into sleek ropes. A flick of his wrist sent them unspooling into the sprawling oak tree to wind tightly around a heavy branch. Then he gripped them in his fists and hauled himself up, Shadow tendrils spreading down his legs to support his weight as he swung gently, suspended from the tree.

“Show off.” Zach snorted.

Kay laughed. She agreed with Zach, but it was still impressive. “How did you do that so smoothly?” she asked, remembering how her messy tangle of Shadows had fragmented as soon as she tried to lift herself off the ground.

“The key—” James started.

“Ignore him,” Zach interrupted. “He’s going to say something ridiculous about how brilliant he is.”

James chuckled, but he didn’t disagree.

Zach held out his hand, his frown deepening slightly as he concentrated, and pulled in a swirl of Shadows to form a perfect sphere of charcoal and ocean blue in his palm. “The key is to clear your mind.” He waved his other hand over the top, setting the sphere into a spin. “You have to be able to feel the Shadows. If your mind is full of angry thoughts, conversations you wish you’d had, that thing you’re going to say the very next time you see a certain person… or whatever, then your Shadows will be just as churned up as your thoughts. You have to use your thoughts to manipulate the Shadows, not let them swirl around out of control.”

James gave her a knowing look. “What were you thinking about when you tried to make your rope?”

She narrowed her eyes. She didn’t want to tell him, but she wasn’t going to lie either. Silence was better.

James stepped down from the tree, letting the Shadows fade behind him, and raised an eyebrow, waiting. Long moments ticked by while they watched each other. Apparently, he wasn’t going to let it go.

“I came into my Shadows at a party,” she admitted eventually. “It didn’t go well. I… ah… passed out.”

Passed out. Puked all over herself. Woke up with the flash of phone cameras blinding her in the roiling darkness. Became known as the barf-girl overnight at her school, and all over Myspace. But that wasn’t the worst of it.

She took a deep breath and then let it out slowly. Might as well tell them the rest. “My parents never told me anything about the Shadows or the Dru-vid so I had no idea what was happening. When I told them about the party, they accused me of taking pills, or at the very least drinking something spiked, and took me for drug counseling.”

“Damn.” James shook his head, his eyes soft with understanding.

“I was sitting in the counselor’s office with my parents when Elizabeth, my gran, came and got me. She’d Seen it and….” Kay let her voice trail off. How could she possibly explain? Discovering that her parents had lied to her for her entire life. That they had been certain that if they denied it enough—if they could convince her that she was wrong about everything she’d experienced—that it would all go away. They had rejected who she was down to her very essence. And that betrayal burned.

She shrugged, trying to act as if it hadn’t torn her world apart. “Anyway, Elizabeth turned up, explained to the counselor that we would be leaving, and pulled me out.”

Kay’s grandmother had flung open the door, startling the counselor into silence. Elizabeth had seemed impossibly glamorous with her hair twisted into a tight bun and wearing a cherry-colored coat, red lipstick, and black high heels—larger than life and utterly outraged.

Elizabeth had glared at the counselor and then at Kay’s parents, her lip slowly curling up on one side in a derisive sneer. Kay’s father had taken one look at his mother and hunched into his expensive suit, not meeting anyone’s eyes, while Kay’s mother had wiped her hands down her designer dress and then shook her head, just once, as if denying what she was seeing.

Elizabeth had explained to the counselor that there had been a mistake and that Kay would be leaving with her. She had rested her hands on her hips, still glaring, and icily requested permission for Kay to move to Wales with her. And then, with pale faces and pinched lips, neither of them meeting Kay’s eyes, her parents had agreed that she should leave with Elizabeth. That it would be better for everyone.

Her parents had let her go, just like that.

They had been so determined to make her into something that she was not that they had been completely overwhelmed when it turned out that she couldn’t be changed. And then they had sent her away with the grandmother she had never met before. They had wanted her to go.

Kay bit her lip, glad that her hands were in her pockets where James and Zach couldn’t see them tremble. She was not going to cry. Not one tear. She wasn’t sad; she was determined not to be. No, she was angry. Filled with righteous bloody rage that burned away the tears. No one was going to treat her like that, or treat anyone else like that either, not if she could help it.

“Yeah.” James tucked his hands into his own pockets, mirroring her. “I get it.”

“You do?” Kay couldn’t help the surprise in her voice.

James looked at Zach, and for a long moment, she thought he wouldn’t reply. But then he shrugged. “Sure. My parents' divorce was so bad that they tore down everything and everyone around them. Eventually, they went to opposite sides of the world, thank God, but neither of them wanted me. They went to court, not to fight for custody, but to fight against it.”

“They fought against…?” She couldn’t find the words to finish the sentence.

James shrugged, but she could see how much it hurt him. “They wanted their own lives. Didn’t need a child tagging along. Especially not one that neither of them had planned to have or wanted when he arrived. I was a bargaining chip, nothing more. My uncle came to fetch me, a bit like your gran, I guess.”

She met his eyes. “I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be. At least our parents are alive for us to hate.” James tipped his chin toward Zach.

“Cancer took my mum. My sister’s heart stopped during a seizure.” Zach gave her the saddest smile in the world. “Dad’s around here… somewhere.”

Damn. Well, if that didn’t put things in perspective. She reached out and patted his shoulder tentatively. “Sorry, Zach.”

His shrug matched James’s. “We really do get it, you know.”

They stood in silence for a moment, bound together by their losses and their grief until James snorted. “Right. Enough of that. Let’s do something else—anything else.”

“Like what?” Kay asked.

“What have you been working on since you got to the college?” Zach asked.

Kay wrinkled her nose. “Other than the physical training we do together, I’ve mostly been doing assessments. I feel like I’ve spent days in the weirdest aptitude test on earth.”

James laughed. “Did they make you plant a sunflower seed?”

“They did.” Kay let out a rueful snort. “I swear the six-year-old next to me planted his and I could honestly see the leaves starting to unfurl before lunch.” She would have been mortified if she hadn’t been so relieved when the professor in charge had smiled and promised her mixed martial arts the next day.

“My worst was the duck egg,” Zach admitted.

“The one where you’re supposed to predict when it will hatch?” Kay asked.

“I genuinely thought I heard the duck trying to crack the shell. And I couldn’t just leave it to struggle….”

“What did you do?” James asked, lips twitching into a grin. “I haven’t heard this story.”

“I… uh… helped it,” Zach replied guiltily.

“What does that even mean?”

“I cracked it on the desk and let it out.”

“But what about the duck?” Kay asked as James laughed helplessly.

“It was fine. Thank God.” Zach shook his head, eyes twinkling. “In my defense, I was only five.”

Well. That was sobering. Kay swallowed her laughter, deeply conscious of how much older she was to be doing the same entrance tests. “Why do we have to even do these tests? Can’t they just look at your Shadows or something?” That was one thing she did know. Her Shadows were marbled with the deep blue of a natural Guardian, Elizabeth the red of a Seer, if she’d been a Healer, it would have been shades of green.

“They’re looking at more than just what you’re born with. They want to see what you enjoy, what you believe in. That’s what my dad says anyway,” Zach explained.

Good. Kay believed in standing up for what was right, that’s what she would enjoy. “So, when do I start actually learning to use my Shadows?”

James grinned. “Right now. We’ll help you.”

Zach nodded. “If you want to make a Shadow rope that can hold you up, you’re going to have to channel your feelings into the Shadows instead of letting them swirl around distracting you. Put something of yourself into the Shadow to keep it together.”

Okay. That made sense.

Kay pulled her hands out of her pockets, widened her stance, and settled her heels into the ground, letting her palms fall open as she controlled her breathing. She let go of the swarm of angry thoughts that had been battling through her mind but kept her determination to do better. To protect herself. To earn her place in this strange new world that was becoming her home.

Slowly relaxing her fingers, she sent out her awareness, letting it travel into the dark places behind the light—the shade behind the tree and under the ferns and brambles—until she felt the answering pull of the Shadows. That subtle prickle along her skin as they responded to her, twining through her fingers and around her hand.

The shady path seemed to ripple as the colors around her grew deeper, more saturated. The scent of rich earth and yesterday’s rain filled her senses. James and Zach’s Shadows, marbled in their unique shades of sky and ocean blue, swirled around them.

Shadows slid easily from the dappled shade around her, gathering in her palms in smooth coils, silky and soft as cloud but growing stronger in her hands. This time it was going to work. This time—

“Kayleigh! Cariad, where are you?” Elizabeth’s voice called faintly from the direction of the college and the Shadows scattered into smoky wisps, fading into nothing.

“Bloody damn.” Kay scowled at the disappearing Shadows.

James and Zach chuckled, and she turned her glare on them, which only made them laugh more.

“Kayleigh!” Elizabeth’s voice was even louder.

She shoved her hands back into her pockets. “Here! I’m coming!”

James tipped his head toward Zach. “Come on, they’ll want all of us, I’m sure.”

Zach made a ball of Shadow and the three of them threw it back and forth between them as they crossed the rugby field and made their way up the short flight of stairs onto the wide terrace at the back of the main hall.

Elizabeth was standing with two men. One of them was stooped and gray-haired, his face lined and eyes tired, but otherwise immediately identifiable as related to Zach. The other, standing a few feet away in a space of his own, had the sleek look of the city—and Kay should know. She’d grown up in the glass and chrome of luxury apartments, surrounded by men and women in designer suits and thousand-pound watches—but this man had a darker edge than those people. He radiated power and impatience.

He said something quietly and Elizabeth bristled, taking a small step further back. Kay had only known her for a few short weeks, but she knew that slight curl of her lip already. This man was not someone her grandmother wanted to spend time with.

Kay stepped up beside Elizabeth, instinctively wanting to be close to her. Whether to protect her or to be protected, it was hard to tell.

The man turned his gaze on her, his eyes the palest green she’d ever seen, and held out his hand. “Gordon Dennehy. And you must be Kayleigh Stewart.”

She glanced at Elizabeth, who gave her a tiny nod, and she took his hand and shook it briefly, unreasonably relieved to be able to let go. God. Poor James, that this was who he’d ended up with.

A surge of relief and gratitude tumbled through her that Elizabeth had claimed her, and she leaned a little closer to her grandmother.

Gordon narrowed his eyes. “So, you’re the new potential Guardian.”

“Yes.” She was determined to be a Guardian. She wanted to fight. She wanted to be strong enough that she would never again have to feel as small and helpless as she had lying on that floor surrounded by her laughing classmates. She wanted to fight back against people like her parents, who refused to accept her as she was and had tried to force her into a box she hadn’t chosen. And she wanted to defend other people who felt small and helpless too.

Gordon didn’t say anything more, and the silence stretched uncomfortably until the man beside Zach turned to Kay. “Hi, I’m Owen, Zach’s dad.”

She introduced herself and shook his hand far more easily than she had Gordon’s.

“I have good news, Cariad,” Elizabeth said as she looked around their small circle, then gestured to James and Zach. “The college has assigned you three to study together. It’s why the boys were also asked to stay after school. You’re going to be a triad… if that’s what you want.”

She’d only been there for a few weeks and even she knew that a triad was a real honor. “Really?”

Elizabeth smiled gently. “Yes. Something about being the three strongest Guardians in your generation, and ah—”

“And a natural propensity toward getting into fights,” Owen interjected. His face seemed permanently drawn into a deep frown, but the look he gave his son was warm with approval and pride as everyone chuckled.

Gordon merely grunted as he crossed his arms over his chest, hardly even glancing at James.

“You’ll be training together starting tomorrow, if you all choose to accept your places,” Elizabeth explained, “so expect to spend a lot of time together from here on out.”

“A triad is almost like a family,” Owen said quietly. “You’ll look out for each other, protect each other, and get to know each other better than most brothers and sisters.”

Zach and James both nodded firmly as Elizabeth turned to look at Kay. “Is this what you want, Cariad? It’ll be extra work, but I know you can do it—the choice is yours.”

God. She was given a choice. She could be who she wanted to be. And she knew, without hesitation, that Elizabeth would support her, whatever she decided. But really, there was no choice. To suddenly have brothers, a family, and a place in the Order was beyond anything she had dreamed of, or even imagined possible. She didn’t have to think about it. “Yes. Thank you.”

She grinned at the two boys, and they grinned back. They were going to be a triad.