Read a sample from CONSPIRACY OF RAVENS by Lila Bowen
Following the thrilling and critically acclaimed Wake of Vultures comes the next spellbinding novel in the Shadow series – from one of the most original and daring new voices in fantasy.
Nettie Lonesome was falling fast, and she didn’t need two eyes to see that the ground looked right glad to meet her. Maybe she’d been wrong. Maybe Dan was right and she wasn’t a skinwalker at all. Maybe she was about to do the Cannibal Owl’s work on her own and paint the valley of bones a new shade of red. What had Winifred’s song said? Find the golden string in your gullet and yank it? The only thing in her belly right now was a scream, high and terrified. She closed her eyes and accepted that she’d made her last mistake.
And damn if it didn’t hurt, when it happened.
Not the splattering on rocks part.
The changing into . . . whatever it was.
Like being turned inside out in fry butter, wet and hot.
And then she was skimming inches above the hard brown dirt, wings spread wide and a sense of joy and freedom she’d never known singing in her heart. A sense of rightness. And then she wasn’t Nettie anymore. Not Nettie or Nat or Rhett. What she was had no name and belonged to the sky. If she didn’t think about it too much, her body did what it was supposed to, naturally, and she twitched her wings to send herself up into the clouds. After a few near falls, she gave it up altogether, being human. Too much work by half, all that caring about things.
Riding the thermals through the mountains and out over the plains, she forgot about the Cannibal Owl, about the Rangers, about the Shadow, about her friends. Even about Samuel Hennessy. She focused on one thing and one thing only: finding something nice and dead to eat.
* * *
Days passed. Nights, too. She was a solitary creature mastering a new world, and she was mercifully free of foolish human encumbrances. She learned the taste of the air as the sun rose, flipping from a small red disk to a burning white one. She gathered dust and smoke and grit in the corner of her one sharp eye. She was attacked, or maybe the other bird-thing was trying to mate with her, but it didn’t matter. She killed him. And ate him. She tasted delicacies ranging from beeves to buffalo to rabbits to a tender baby goat kid she plucked from the ground and dropped to splatter open on the rocks, wiping her beak delicately afterward to clean it—and to sharpen it for the next gift of nature’s bounty. She understood, finally, that a little time and rot only made things sweeter.
Through it all, day after day, she knew she was alone. The other creatures she encountered in flight and hunkered down in trees blinked at her distrustfully and scattered, aware that she was different somehow. When she landed, wings outspread in a puff of dust, the vultures and coyotes edged away to give her room. Laughing, she spread her wings wider to block any newcomers and got down to business. The scrape of beak on bone reminded her, strangely, of a spoon fetching up against metal in an empty bowl of beans, but she put that thought from her mind. It hurt too much, brought back downright uncomfortable feelings. Better to hop along and pump back into the sky, where such petty things as feelings and memories were forgotten.
One day, something caught her eye. A familiar shape drew a long shadow deep in the desert where upright things, besides cacti, did not belong. She circled lazily lower. Might it die soon? As lovely as aged meat might be, being the first to rip into a belly also offered its advantages.
And yet . . .
She knew this thing. Knew what it was. Had mixed feelings on the matter.
When it cried out and toppled over in the sand, she was drawn to it, whether for good or ill. Landing lightly, she hopped sideways toward it, wings outstretched menacingly and beak open and hissing. The thing turned its head to stare at her, sand stuck to red scruff on its face.
“I suppose you’re thinkin’ it’s me time to die, then,” it muttered.
She ruffled her feathers. Maybe yes, maybe no.
“I got a trick, though, see?”
She cocked her head. This close to him, it, her prey, she felt a bit sickly, her belly writhing as if she might vomit up the bits of sun-blackened beef she’d swallowed down earlier that morning. With another hiss, she lolloped backward a few steps, waiting for her proper hunger to return.
“You like tricks, you ugly son of a whore?”
That made her squawk, and he laughed and heaved up onto his hands and knees, shucking his drab brown-and-rust-red skin into a puddle on the ground. He did some other things she didn’t understand, but the end result was that the talkative creature was now stark nekkid and tender as the morning, pale white with red-burned edges and hair like fire.
She raised her wings to rush him, and he . . .
On hands and knees, he rippled and bellowed and became just about the least appetizing thing she could think of: an ass.
She blinked and remembered—everything. It all came rushing back in a series of terrifying images that flashed inside her tiny brain. What he was—she was that, too. She had things to do. People who needed her. People she cared about. She just had to remember . . . something about a golden string . . .
It was like swallowing backward, and everything rippled and hurt, and then the hot sand burned her skin as she lay there on her knees, coughing and human.
The donkey had galloped away a bit and stood, watching her warily. He was small and dusty and almost obscene in his ugliness. His lips pulled back over long yellow teeth, and he brayed a laugh.
“I’ll teach you to laugh,” Nettie muttered.
She stood, stepped into his pants, shoved her feet into his boots, yanked his hat down over her grown-out hair, grabbed his beat‑up leather saddlebags, pulled on his shirt, and, without buttoning it, ran for the hills.
* * *
Unfortunately, the hills were farther away than Nettie would’ve liked, and the stranger’s boots were too big. Sand spilled into the cracked leather with every step, rubbing her feet raw. However long she’d spent as—whatever she was—she’d lost her human stamina. Days, definitely. Weeks or months? There was no way to know until she got back to the Rangers and asked. And she had no idea where the Rangers were. Or where she was. All she knew was that the hills in the distance were wavering with heat, and there was no telltale smudge of green on the horizon to promise the water she so desperately needed. She’d once cursed herself for running out into the night like a fool, but this was a goddamn desert, and running off in the full heat of the sun was about as stupid as a creature could get.
She slowed down, panting, and looked over her shoulder. That damn donkey was following her at a jaunty trot like he knew something she didn’t. After a few hours had passed, she understood why: Donkeys could keep on going forever in just such a hellscape, but humans most definitely could not. Her mouth was parched beyond all fool reason, and her feet were slick with blood and sweat and blister juice inside the boots. The clothes weren’t much better, crusted with the donkey feller’s sweat and probably piss, if the smell was any indication. The hills were no closer, and Nettie was pretty goddamn near to becoming exactly the sort of morsel she would’ve relished just yesterday. She looked up and watched the vultures circle. Was she one of them? Or something else? She’d felt . . . bigger. But she fed as they fed and shunned their company, so maybe, like always, she was just plain different. It didn’t matter what she’d been. Right now, she was on her way to becoming lunch.
There was no way she could reach safety, shade, or water before this stupidly fragile human body wore out. She knew that, and the donkey knew that, too. Maybe a bullet couldn’t kill her, but lying on the ground like a strip of jerky, barely breathing, didn’t much appeal. Every now and then, she’d stumble, and he’d let out one of those braying laughs. Annoying as he was, she figured he’d get on good with Coyote Dan. It was a grand accomplishment to make someone feel dumb as hell when you couldn’t even speak their language. She needed these clothes, though, if she was going to wander back into Ranger camp, or into any human settlement. Everything she valued in life currently hinged on folks taking her for a man, and she’d rather die and get danced on by a rude donkey than see Jiddy’s face once he found out the tracker who’d bested him was a skinwalker and a girl to boot.
So what she needed was to turn back into a bird—and somehow keep the clothes. If she could just get to someplace safe, somewhere the donkey couldn’t get to, she’d maybe have a hope of taking back her former life. Putting on a fierce burst of speed, she ran as far as she could and stripped off the clothes. The shirt was most important, as it was long enough to cover everything she needed to keep hidden. She tied it around her bare ankle as the donkey galloped toward her, bucking as he came. Then she took off running again, focused on that golden thread inside, and leaped into the air.
But instead of elegantly morphing into a bird and flying away, she tumbled to the ground in a heap of feathers and claws. Something clung to her leg, holding her back. Stupid scrap of nothing. Righting herself, she hopped around, wings spread wide, shaking her foot until the damn thing came off. She didn’t have time to take off before the donkey had spun around to kick her with sharp black hooves, and she hissed and hopped back. The animal she faced off against was not good for fighting and no good for eating until it was dead. Even then, the taste was not appealing. So why was she here? What she needed to do was escape. And yet every time she looked at the pile of brownish-red trash on the ground, something tugged at her. She needed that . . . thing. Not for eating. For another reason.
Clothes. That was it.
She needed clothes.
When the donkey turned around to snap at her with clacking teeth, she flew at his face, claws out, forcing him to dance back. Clutching the shirt in her claws, she awkwardly launched herself into the air and flapped toward the buttes.
Far below, something rippled, making her gullet twist. A figure chased her, shaking a fist.
“I’ll find you, buzzard,” it called. “That’s my favorite bleedin’ shirt!”
* * *
From the air, the mountains were close, and that was good. There was a hollowed-out cow on the way there, and that was better. As she hit the scrub that cozied up to the rocks, it rained for a bit, and she huddled on an old dead tree, blinking at the lightning as rain pearled up on her feathers. She didn’t know why she clutched it still, but there was a wad of something under her talons, and she wasn’t going to let go of it. All the while, in her wake, trotted an ugly little donkey. He never seemed to tire, although he did occasionally kick up his heels at a fly. He made her downright irritable, and she kept a sharp eye out for wolves or a rattler or any other predator that might do her the favor of ending him. Nature, unfortunately, was not so kind.
The donkey drooped under her tree, just as miserable in the punishing rain as she was. He had something slung around his neck—some human thing like the scrap she carried with her. Everything was wretched, and he wouldn’t go away, even when she lifted her tail and dropped a runny plop on his sodden back. His ear barely twitched; that was all.
She forgot about him by morning, but she kept the scrap clutched tight.
That afternoon, she was playing tug‑o‑war with a snake, and damned if some upstart donkey didn’t show up and try to drive her away. From her own snake! The donkey was vaguely familiar, like a tick she’d already picked off and spat out. They tussled for a moment in a tornado of hooves and claws and drizzle, and she flapped up into the tree, and the donkey was suddenly upright and shouting on two legs.
“Just give me back the blasted shirt, woman, and I’ll leave you be!”
She ruffled her feathers and looked away.
“Oh, you don’t like hearing speech, hey? You runnin’ away from something? Or don’t like being called a thief?” He punctuated this last bit with a thrown rock, which pinged painfully off her wing. She hopped a few branches higher up and sighed in disgust.
“Listen here, then. You’re a thief, and you’re costin’ me valuable time on this wild goose chase. People are dying while we play fetch. I don’t even know if I’m on the right track to the Rangers anymore. Why on heaven and earth were you sent to torment me? Buggerin’ harpy!”
Her head snapped toward him, her eye bright. Three words in that last garbled bit had struck home more firmly than the rock. She considered her options: Fly away forever, or . . .
She flapped to the ground, talons still curled around the shirt, and changed.
“Not a harpy,” she muttered, tasting old blood on her tongue. Her fingers unclenched from around the sodden fabric. She rolled over to sitting and shrugged it on. “Not really a woman. And what about the Rangers?”
“Oh, you want to talk now? Fine then.” He turned his back on her as he pulled pants out of a bag and stepped into them, and Nettie went cold to her toes—well, colder, considering she was soaked to the damn bone. The man, and he was more of a boy, to be honest . . . well, for a pasty white feller with fire-red hair, his back bore a striking resemblance to Nettie’s own. Painfully thin and painted with twisted old scars. She pulled her knees to her chest under the shirt and leaned back against a rock.
“Who beat you?” she asked, voice low.
“That’s how you start a conversation? Stealin’ my favorite shirt, dragging me out here, shittin’ on my back, and then asking the most personal question a body can ask?” He turned to face her, holding up his oversized pants with one hand. “I might as well be askin’ you who took your eye.”
She blinked slowly. “You ask a lot of questions yourself.”
“Oh, well, now, that would be because I’ve been schooled in the conversational graces, Your Majesty.” He cut a clumsy bow. “And the answer is the only answer there is for such a question: The person who beat me was somebody who had no damn right.” He stared at her, shivering. “But considering as how I’ve seen the scars on your back, too, I’m forced to ask me own personal question: How’d you escape the camp?”
He cocked his head at her like she was dumb as a damn post, and Nettie’s temper flared up, reminding her of why she didn’t much prefer being human.
“The railroad camp. Were you dropped on yer head? What other camp is there?”
She grunted and shook her head. “No railroads around here. All that’s back east.”
He pulled his boots out of his bag and winced as he shoved wet, sandy feet into the crusted leather. “So you are dumb, then. The railroads are coming, missy, and they’re coming fast. I escaped one quite recently, in fact, run by an evil son of a whore who goes by the fancified name of Bernard Trevisan, and I tell you now that he’s single-handedly driving that engine clear to Calafia.”
“Stranger, the desert has clearly gone to your head. You can’t talk straight, and you’re imagining railroads in a land that would swaller them up and spit out spikes. So you go on your way and I’ll go on mine, and we’ll call it a draw.”
“Like hell we will. Now give me back my shirt!” He spun around to face her, holding up a large, well-used knife. Panic brushed up against her like a hissing cat, but then she remembered that wounds were more annoyance than doom, now. His stance suggested he knew how to use the scarred blade, but the trembling of his mouth suggested he wouldn’t.
Nettie stood, spread her bare feet, and put her hands on her hips, wishing like hell she still had her pants and gun belt. There was nothing in the area that even vaguely resembled a weapon, and without wings, even the lowest branches of the half-dead tree were out of reach. She put her hands up, as she figured it might make the feller feel like he was doing good.
“I’m keeping this shirt, and you won’t stick that knife in me,” she said calmly as rain sluiced down her face. “So let’s just forget it all and go our separate ways.”
“You know where we are?” he asked.
She shook her head. “No idea.”
“But you can turn into whatever the hell you are and fly around. You can see for miles!”
“Mister, you know as good as I do that we can’t remember shit when we’re critters.”
The knife dropped, just a little. “But that’s nowhere near true.”
He sounded surprised.
And she felt cheated. “You mean . . . you can? You can remember?”
“I can always remember. It’s just like lookin’ out through a different window.”
Hearing him say it, all casual, like she was the dumb one . . . well, it made her wish for his knife and the aim two good eyes would’ve given her to throw it at him. “Bullshit.”
Now he shook his head, red hair swinging across his eyes. “You’re not playin’? You really can’t remember? Then why’d you keep that shirt with you, all this time?”
She shrugged and crossed her arms. “I guess I’m angry enough in both forms not to let go.”
“And how is it you’re missing an eye?”
“Silver bullet.” She chewed her lip. “And how come you got such deep scars?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Silver points on a cat‑o’-nine tails. When Mr. Trevisan wants to scare somebody, he knows his business.” The knife’s tip dropped as he considered her. “We could do well, traveling together. Maybe when we get where we’re goin’, you’ll be giving me shirt back. Me mother made it, back in Ireland. Sentimental value, see.”
Nettie shook her head. “I do better alone.”
“Where are you going then?”
“I’ve been wandering.”
“With an a or an o?”
“With no goddamn thing. Aimless.”
“Running to something or running away?”
“Hellfire, donkey-boy. I got a talkative friend named Dan you’d like just fine. You could just talk each other’s furry damn ears off. I been wandering, with my wings and my feet, and the only thing I found so far is you, and that’s turning out to be one hell of a disappointment.”
He cocked his head. “You’ve got friends, then? Where?”
She surveyed the land, hunting for anything vaguely familiar, but it was all just the same brown dirt and gnarled trees and scrubby mountains perpetually arguing with the sky, which was currently stone-gray and drizzling. “I got no rightly idea.”
“Well then.” The man dropped his knife and held out his hand—a sand-dusted, callus-hard, sunburned hand lightly furred on the back in orange. “The name’s Earl O’Bannon. Once out of Galway, most recent out of the Trevisan Railroad labor camp. I could use some friends, meself, and I could do a lot worse than you.”
Her eye narrowed. “You trying to butter me up?”
He chuckled but didn’t let his hand fall. “Oh, for certain. You’ve so many charms, lass.”
That got her hackles up. She stepped forward, hands in fists. “Don’t call me a girl.”
“But aren’t you one, then? You’ve got all the requisite parts—”
Instead of shaking his hand, she punched the Irishman in the face. He wasn’t ready for it and stumbled back, landing hard on his rump and staring up at her in surprise that quickly gave way to anger. His face went red to the roots of his hair. Nettie was pleased that she’d finally managed to punch someone without hurting herself, and she gazed at her own rain-slick knuckles in admiration. She’d missed punching people, and her foul mood lightened considerably.
“Now, as a rule, I don’t hit women, but you seem to be saying—”
“The name’s Rhett Hennessy, and I’m a Durango Ranger, so if you want to get in a fight, you’d best prepare to die.”
Apparently, he’d missed the bit about dying, as he popped upright and surged toward her with a franticness that spoke of desperation. “You’re a Ranger? You know where the Rangers are? Then you can help me! Oh, thank the gods that be you stole my bleedin’ shirt, la—” He cleared his throat. “Laddie,”he finished carefully.
Nettie gave him a nod so he’d know he’d done right. And then she realized that in her pride, she’d managed to give him all the more reason to continue annoying the hell out of her. She shook her head and spit on the ground at his feet, although it was a sad little glob, for lack of water.
“Don’t know where the Rangers are. Don’t know when I last saw ’em. Don’t know how to find ’em.”
“Oh, yes, well, aside from your ability to turn into a greatbleedin’ bird and view the world from up high, I’m sure you’re utterly without resources.”
“Hellfire, you don’t give up, do you? You cluck like a hen that wants a wrung neck.”
“I come by my stubbornness honest. Now, these here are the Aspero mountains, are they no? I was headed west, on the hunt for the Las Moras Outpost of the Durango Rangers.”
She shook her head. “I ain’t been here before, but I been there, and this ain’t it.”
“Would that be the Pecana River, do you think?” He pointed to a smudge of green on the dreary horizon.
“What part of I don’t know sounded like keep on asking?”
He scratched the orange stubble on his chin. “Anyone ever told you you’re a people person?”
She growled and began to walk off to a spray of shrubs where she could transform back into a bird with some privacy. If she had to listen to him, she’d rather not have to understand what he said.
With a squeak, he stumbled along behind her. “Look, lad. I’m sorry. I’ve the gift of gab and I’ve been alone for too long and if I don’t find your friends, the Rangers, over a hundred souls including me own brother will continue to suffer. They’re being tortured. Having fingers and toes lopped off willy-nilly by Trevisan and fixed by Grandpa Z and sent right back out to cut the lines and lay the rails.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
When she didn’t stop walking, he put a hand on her shoulder and yanked hard, dancing back to avoid the haymaker that they both knew would follow such a trespass. As she advanced on him, hands in fists, he yanked off a boot and hopped around on one leg as he held up a much-abused foot missing two toes.
That got Nettie’s attention and made her step closer despite her dislike of the strange feller. He was a monster, a skinwalker, and that meant the stubs of his toes should’ve been open wounds, like Winifred’s ankle and the child’s foot they’d found in the desert, left behind by the Cannibal Owl. In Nettie’s experience, the peculiar healing power of monsters meant that flesh wounds grew over while open bones refused to heal. But this feller—and he was a monster, to be sure—his toes were neatly sealed over, covered with stretched, whole skin.
Nettie grunted her interest. “How’d you do that?”
Exasperated, he stuck his foot back in his boot. “Told you. Trevisan needs monster bones, so he takes toes and fingers, wherever they can be spared. Grandpa Z uses his mysterious Chine medicine to fix ’em so we can still work.”
He put his hands on his hips and looked at her like she was a damn fool. “You think he told us? Handed out a hymnal on Chine magic? They knock you out so you can’t see. You wake up, and it’s all healed. Grandpa Z and his girl won’t tell nobody, as then Trevisan might start lopping off bits of them, too, far as I can figure it. Those as has secrets in the camp hold ’em close.”
Nettie worried at her lip, considering how to get what she needed with minimal annoyance. “Maybe we can help each other. You want to get to the Rangers, right?” Earl nodded, the eagerness and hope in his eyes making him seem barely a boy grown. “Well, I want two things: I want you to teach me how to remember what I see when I’m . . .” She wasn’t sure of the right word. What was she, really? “Flying. And if my friend’s still missing her foot, take us to this camp and get me to the old feller who knows how to heal lost limbs.”
Earl pulled at his bedraggled mustache. “I can’t promise you either thing. I don’t know how to do something that comes natural, and there’s no oath on this earth that could compel me back to that hellforsaken camp.”
“Promise me you’ll try to teach me, then. And tell me how to find the camp.”
“I’ll do that anyway. Whole reason I need the Rangers is to convince ’em to go destroy Trevisan. He’s a demon. Or something. Never seen a creature like him, in his fine dandy coat and shiny shoes, but he does the devil’s work for sure.”
Nettie stared hard into his eyes and held out her hand. When he quickly reached to grasp it, she tightened her larger hand around his. “Mark my words, donkey-boy. You cross me, and I’ll slit your throat and eat your guts before I ever find your heart. I don’t trust easy, and I’m not a kind person.”
“Never would’ve guessed,” he muttered, but his hand only squeezed tighter. “When you’re alone in the desert, you’ll be needing strength more than kindness, don’t you think?”
“Welcome to Durango, Earl O’Bannon.” She dropped his hand and rubbed her palm off on the red fabric. “I’m keeping your damn shirt.”
She started walking toward the river, and he picked up his knife and bag and followed at a respectful distance. The drizzle had stopped, and the very land sizzled under the sun thus revealed by broken clouds.
The desert was a great and silent place, but everyone within fifty miles must’ve heard Earl’s growled whisper, “Like hell you will, lad. Like hell you will.”