Crown of Shadows by K. M. Shea

Chapter One





Leila





I was on my way out the door from my parents’ house on a humid spring day, eager to launch my long-cherished plan to become a Responsible Adult, when I glanced over at the horse pasture and saw it. A monster.

It was a skeletal creature that was only vaguely horse-like. Even from this far away I could see the bulges and indents of its bones. Its ribs and spine uncomfortably stuck out, and its neck was too thin and made its head look huge and blocky.

A fae creature if I ever saw one—which meant it was deadly at best and murderous at worst.

And it was standing about three feet away from Bagel, my pet donkey.

I dropped my manilla folder—which contained three copies of my resume that I planned to drop off at a small marketing company in downtown Magiford—and raced to the fence. I almost face planted when the dewy grass combined with my flats, which I had busted out for this hopeful occasion, made me slip.

“It’s fine. It’s fine—it’s fine!” I smacked into the wooden horse fence. Shock was starting to numb my brain, so when I vaulted over the fence I vaguely noticed the white paint was starting to peel.

Once inside I slowed to a fast, tense walk—running up to the thing would probably triple my chances of getting trampled—and called out to Bagel in a raspy-but-hopefully-not-too-scared-sounding voice. “Bagel!”

Bagel peeled his lips back and smiled at me, completely unconcerned with the creature standing behind him that was totally capable of killing him.

I slowed down even more when I was almost within reaching distance of Bagel.

“Come on, Bagel. Let’s go back to the barn and get some treats!” I said.

Bagel swished his bony tail, flicked his enormous ears, and didn’t move.

The killer horse didn’t seem worried about my floundering arrival.

It flicked its wispy tail—and its mane was just as thin and limp, though its black-ish coat looked crusty and dull. Pupil-less eyes that were a curdled yellow added to the animal’s ghastly appearance, especially as it stared me down with a vicious intelligence that seemed natural to most fae creatures.

Bagel took a step closer to it.

“Oh, yes, I see you have a friend. But let’s not annoy her and go back to the stables,” I said with fake brightness.

The fae horse snorted at me, showing the red of its nostrils and pulling its skin taut. I could see the lines of its skull.

Bagel—the idiot donkey—hee-hawed happily at me, then grabbed another mouthful of grass.

I wiped my sweaty hands on my black slacks—even if I was just dropping my resume off, I figured it would be most professional to dress for success. That’s what all the articles I’d read on successful job interviews said, anyway. “It’s fine. This is fine. I can totally get you safely out of here before your friend kills us both.”

Bagel didn’t look up from grazing, the gluttonous pig.

“I’m glad one of us is calm about this,” I sourly said.

The fae horse took a step closer to Bagel, and my stomach flopped in my gut.

How am I going to do this? That thing looks capable of murder!

I studiously looked off to the side—trying to make myself appear unintimidating while still keeping the creature within eyesight in case it tried to harm Bagel. The donkey was the biggest pain on my parents’ hobby farm, but I loved the fuzzy pain all the same.

That was how I saw the spiders.

They were gathering under the shade of the tree line that the pasture backed up into. They were a writhing mass of black, and each one was at least the size of a dinner plate with a bloated body covered in a sort of hard shell and hairy legs that had more joints than they should have. Their eyes—all eight of them—glowed an unnatural neon green, and ooze that was the same green color covered their front fangs, which were as big and thick as my thumbs.

I’m enough of an animal person that I’d venture to call some spider species cute. These spiders, however, were bloodthirsty fae creatures through and through.

What the heck? Are the fae slacking and letting their monsters slink from the fae realm into the human world?

I narrowed my eyes as I watched the spiders start to crawl away from the shade and move toward the pasture. At their size, they wouldn’t have a problem taking out my mom’s chickens, or even one of our cats.

“Nope! Nope. Not happening.” I glanced at Bagel’s unlikely companion—it was just as creepy but mercifully still even though Bagel was now sniffing its thin tail. “Yep, the spiders are the bigger threat. It’s time to prioritize!” I sprinted across the pasture and hopped the fence in record time. When I clattered into the barn the horses standing in the paddock neighed their morning greeting, but I ignored them and grabbed the big shovel I used to clean stalls and the can of wasp spray Dad kept by the garden supplies.

I stopped just long enough to kick off my useless flats and put on the spare set of paddock boots I always left in the barn, and then I was back out in the pasture before Bagel finished inspecting his friend’s tail.

I tucked my slacks into my paddock boots, trying to give my legs more cover, and popped the lid off the wasp spray.

Should I use my magic?

As a half fae I had it, and I’d learned how to use it as a kid. But while I was decent with magic, I was not fast. And if one of those spiders got past me, I didn’t know if I’d find it before it started terrorizing the barnyard.