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Read a sample from MALICE OF CROWS by Lila Bowen

The gripping third instalment of Lila Bowen's widely acclaimed Shadow series, starring a hero who has been hailed as "one of the iconic characters of this generation"

Chapter 1

Rhett Walker woke up feeling like he’d been chained hand and foot to fate. It didn’t help that he was in one of the empty train cars of Bernard Trevisan’s railroad. It did help that Cora was curled up beside him like a kitten, warm and sweet. But such encumbrances were manacles of their own, weren’t they? All his plans had flown away. Meimei was still missing, and Trevisan was on the loose in the little girl’s body, hotfooting it back to whatever sort of sordid den such monsters inhabited. And Trevisan had gold. And time.

All Rhett had was a handful of friends twisted up in his destiny, a circumstance none of them had asked for. They had come with him, this time. And they’d all lost something along the way. Would they follow him where he went next? The tug on his belly told him where he was headed, and at least one of his compatriots wasn’t going to like it one bit.

Careful and soft, he slipped his bare arm out from under Cora, who muttered something and rolled away, deep asleep still. With so many empty cars, they had taken this one for themselves, and the foreman’s bed was just wide enough to hold both of their skinny bodies, whittled away by months working to build this very railroad. He pulled on his clothes in the crisp bite of fall morning and shook his boots for scorpions. Rhett didn’t dare pick a fight with the small mirror hanging on the wall. He knew he had a haunted look about him, gaunt and angry and wearing his scars like armor, but he didn’t have to meet his own damn eye to know it.

The door opened far more smoothly than the ones that had held him captive every night in the worker cars attached farther along on this same train, and he stepped down onto prairie dirt packed firm by a night of hard rain. The earth had already begun to drink down the wet like a dying babe on the tit, and by noon, all would again be dust. That was life in Durango, and folks without backbone to match that hardness didn’t last long.

The once bustling railroad camp was silent as a cemetery, the morning sun just starting to tickle the far, flat horizon to the east. But that wasn’t the direction the Shadow was tugging Rhett. He walked around to the engine car and stood where he could see in every direction. Yesterday, he’d told his posse that they would be headed west. But what he hadn’t told them was that Trevisan, now in Meimei’s body, was headed south.

Such news was bound to be a shock for Cora, but he’d tried to tell her from the start—he wasn’t a man who followed a woman’s whims. He followed the Shadow, that unwelcome twinge in his belly that told him where the world demanded to be set right, where monsters roamed and evil dwelled and only he could end it. Just now, that angry ache in his belly said that they had to head back to the Las Moras division of the Durango Rangers, and quick.

Rhett didn’t like it. Why would the Shadow turn so swiftly away from Trevisan? What could possibly be worse than a necromancer killing people and stealing bodies across the country as he laid railroad tracks toward the sea? There was something heavy and dark about Rhett’s destiny just now, some vicious portent that made his hackles rise. The Shadow didn’t let go, nor did it usually change its mind before Rhett had destroyed a dangerous target, which suggested the Captain was in trouble.

All the more reason to get headed west as fast as the horses would carry them.

On the other hand, maybe it made plenty of good sense. Maybe it wasn’t a problem, but a solution. Now that he and Sam had evidence of Trevisan’s evil, maybe the Captain would rally his men, and the Durango Rangers would gallop after the necromancer with the full force of bullets and the law on their side. Cora would surely understand that; she’d proven to be a reasonable woman thus far. But maybe reasonable didn’t count for much when it was your family on the line. Far as Cora was concerned, Trevisan was holding her baby sister hostage. Rhett had never had a sibling, but the folks waiting by a cookfire just ahead were the closest things he had to family, and when he saw they already had breakfast set up, he liked them even more.

Well, most of them.

“Took you long enough,” Earl said with his usual prickliness.

“Well, after I free an entire camp from servitude, I grant myself the rare treat of a long morning lie‑in.” Rhett scratched his bedraggled hair. “I never did sign up to be hollered at before noon. And where the hell’d you come from, anyway?”

Earl’s nose wrinkled. “Didn’t realize how eerie it was in this part of the prairie at night, all by my lonesome. Kept hearing howls. The horse shared my concerns, and here we are.”

“I reckon we’re stuck with you, then. What’s for breakfast?”

“There were no supplies,” Dan said, holding up a skewered bit of meat with a shrug, “but most things still die easily enough.”

“Unlike Trevisan,” Earl added.

At that, Rhett bristled. “I don’t believe I’m currently taking criticism from folks who weren’t man enough to take on the fight personally. You want to have words with me, you want to gripe about my actions, then you do something besides skulk around with a bottle in your hand.”

Earl jumped up, hands in fists and face red. Rhett was already up, and his anger with Earl had become a simmering thing, a wolf pestered by a gnat. Just to mess with him, Rhett reached past the furious Irishman to snag the piece of meat on Dan’s stick.

“Thanks mightily, Dan. I do appreciate a feller who can pull his weight.”

Dan snorted. “You’re too thin, Rhett. We need you whole for what’s to come.”

“And what’s that?”

Dan gave his old coyote grin. “I don’t know for sure, but I assume some sort of violent revenge.”

“No one thinks you’re going to stay here and shack up with your new toy,” Winifred added. She’d been silent thus far, sitting demurely by the fire in her dress and leggings, her misaligned ankle crossed over her good one. When Rhett looked to her, he found accusation writ plainly on her face. And was that . . . jealousy?

Surely not. The girl was standoffish as a cat.

Usually.

“I think you mean my doctor,” Rhett snapped back.

“I am no one’s toy.”

They all looked up to find Cora watching from the open door of the train. Rhett felt a flush creep up his neck and willed it back down.

Cora’s face was impassive, a smooth wall. Rhett had seen her look like that at the rude men who came to her and Grandpa Z for doctoring in the train camp, and he reckoned it meant she was feeling insulted. He hadn’t known her long, and he hadn’t known her well, but she seemed to know her way around patching up a feller’s carcass. He could only assume she also knew how to make a feller into a carcass. A chill stole over the camp, and no one spoke for a good long while.

“Good rabbit,” Rhett observed to Dan when he couldn’t handle the silence a moment longer.

But Dan was watching his sister as if she might suddenly do something very dangerous. Recalling Dan’s warning about Rhett’s own entanglement with the coyote girl, he edged to the left so that he stood between Winifred and Cora, just in case Winifred took it upon herself to scratch Cora’s eyes out. His attention flashed to Sam Hennessy, who hadn’t spoken yet and was sitting wide-eyed and horrified and gut-punched across the fire, looking like a man caught in the middle of a storm. Rhett’s heart shuddered like it’d been mule-kicked.

Sam knew now.

Knew from before that Rhett had been with Winifred. Knew now that Rhett had been with Cora. Only thing Sam didn’t know about Rhett’s private-type activities was that Sam himself had been a part of them when under a god’s spell in the grove at Buckhead.

Knowing what he did know . . . well, it looked like it had destroyed the boy.

“Goddammit, this is a waste of time!” Rhett shouted, desperate to see Sam’s face do something other than look shattered. “Only thing that matters is getting on with life. Don’t go stirring the damn pot when the pot is the only thing that keeps us together.”

“Camp is a small place,” Winifred said, her mouth all tiny and proper as she stood and limped away. “We can’t hop out of the damn pot.” It was right peculiar, seeing her with two feet again instead of one foot and a stump, but Rhett was surprised to see the girl’s old grace had not returned with her foot.

“Not quite right,” Cora murmured, coming up behind Rhett as if she could read his mind. She put her hand on his arm. “Nothing heals perfectly.”

“That’s what’s got her riled, most likely,” Rhett responded, stepping slightly away from her touch. “She always expects perfection. Wants everybody to be just so. Life ain’t like that.”

Another snort from Dan, who was starting to sound like a horse with its face in the pepper. “It’s not perfection she wants. It’s goodness. Rightness.”

“Then she can keep waiting.” Rhett sat on the log Winifred had abandoned, the bark still warm from her body.

“Let us not wait,” Cora said, sitting too close to Rhett on the log. Dan held out the meat, and she nodded her thanks and nibbled it. “Meimei can’t be far. When do we break camp and pursue her? You said she’d gone west.”

Rhett’s discomfort grew. Everyone who was left stared at him. Earl, Dan, Sam, Cora.

They all knew: It was his call.

If this was what the Captain had to deal with every day, no wonder he was a man of so few words. Hard as it was to live a life in which his thoughts didn’t count, like his life before the vampire had cornered him at Pap and Mam’s, it was a new sensation to be the lynchpin of an entire group of folks, all of whom wanted something different from him.

One thing Rhett couldn’t abide, though, was a liar.

So he wasn’t going to lie, even if lying would’ve been a hell of a lot easier.

“That’s not quite what I said.” He took another piece of meat, chewed and swallowed. It stuck in his craw, and he nearly choked before he got it down. “I said we needed to go west. That’s what the Shadow’s telling me. But it’s also telling me that Trevisan went south.”

“You mean Meimei went south.”

He shook his head. “I don’t know where Meimei went. I just know where the thing I need to kill is.”

“But my sister can be saved. She’s still in there, somewhere. Perhaps he controls her now, but she’s still inside. I know it.” He had never heard Cora sound so fierce and so frightened, nor so wrong.

“That’s not mine to say,” he answered carefully. “What’s mine to do is to go west and speak to the Captain of the Las Moras Rangers. So that’s my plan.”

“I’m with you,” Dan said quietly. “There could be trouble.”

Sam nodded along earnestly. His red cheeks were the only sign he’d been upset just moments before. “Me, too, Rhett. You know that.”

Rhett suspected Winifred would go wherever Dan went, especially if it meant she could needle Rhett some more. That left Earl and Cora, and Rhett couldn’t have said what they might choose.

“Might as well,” Earl finally offered. “I don’t like you much, but you seem to keep your skin. Maybe I’ll find a town along the way. Someplace not terribly unkind to Irishmen. Buckhead had a fine feel about it.”

“I bet it did,” Rhett muttered to himself, remembering Earl and Winifred drunkenly joined under the god’s spell.

And with that, he remembered that Winifred was now traveling for two. Pregnant, Cora had said. No wonder she was fussy. No wonder she’d left the campfire. The girl was most likely upchucking her dissatisfaction and her breakfast behind a bush. Rhett suddenly felt like he was rounding up a herd of colts that gleefully defied his control.

“I will go south,” Cora said coldly. “If I have to go as a dragon, I will go. Meimei is all I have left.”

That got Rhett’s dander up. He turned to her slow. “Is she now?” he asked, deadly and soft.

Cora went even colder, as if her scales were just under the surface. “So it would seem.”

His rage bubbled up, useless. He’d once punched Winifred, back when he still thought of himself as a girl, and he didn’t regret it a bit. Now that he was a man, however, such things felt forbidden. He wouldn’t lay a hand on Cora out of anger. But he’d have to convince her that her plan was damned foolish, because knowing what he did about the unforgiving land of Durango and the murderous nature of Trevisan, he could only fear that Cora would die if left to her own devices.

“Cora, darlin’, do you want to see Meimei alive again?”

“Obviously.”

“Then don’t go after her alone. I faced off with Trevisan and barely escaped. He tried to use his magic to pry his way inside me. He held me down and pulled out one of my teeth. You’ve seen him overcome an entire camp of powerful men, including dragons. Including you. What makes you think you can beat him now just because you care more?”

Cora shot to her feet and screamed, “Because I do care more. Because I’m the only one who cares at all!”

Rhett deflated a little, hoping she could read the sorry in his eye. “Caring don’t save lives. Smart planning does. And I’m willing to bet that Trevisan expects us to follow him. That he’ll be ready for us.”

With his usual calm, Dan broke in. “You have a fantasy in your head, don’t you, Cora? That you’ll find your sister’s small body sleeping on the prairie, alone, and you’ll look into her eyes and fix her?” He looked down. “I felt that way, once. I was unable to help my sister when she was lost and broken. Only you were able to do that. And I trusted you to do that.”

Cora exhaled a thin line of smoke. “And I failed. Is that what you are saying?”

He shook his head. “No. Quite the opposite. You saved her. You performed a miracle. All miracles are imperfect. You did the impossible. And I’m saying that Rhett can do that for you, too, but you have to trust him. You don’t have to like him. But you must understand that his destiny is wiser than any of us. Especially when we’re heartsick. Especially when we’re scared.”

Cora turned slowly in a circle. “Which way is west?”

Without having to think about it, Rhett pointed.

“Which way is Meimei? Which way is south?”

Rhett turned and pointed.

“After you go west, will you go south? Does your destiny tell you?”

His belly churning, Rhett nodded and shrugged at the same time. “I reckon. For now. I mean, it feels that way. Things can change. Destiny’s not a biddable thing.”

“Neither am I.”

Now it was Rhett’s turn to snort, his other friends forgotten. “Didn’t say you were. Nobody’s talking about what you’re going to do. We’re talking about what I’m going to do. So you can follow me or go kill yourself at Trevisan’s feet like a fool. Damn, woman! I thought you were sensible.”

“No one is sensible when the thing they love is at stake.”

This from Winifred, who’d reappeared, albeit far from Cora’s place in the circle.

From one person to the next, Rhett slowly spun, feeling very much like he was sizing up a gunfight. Except when he was in that sort of fight, he felt well nigh invincible, as if he couldn’t be touched. Now, for the first time, he felt himself stall and stutter. Now he felt like perhaps he had something to lose, and it sure as hell wasn’t as easily fixed as his body.

Sam and Dan were on his side. Cora was flat-out against him. Winifred and Earl . . . well, on the best of days, he didn’t know what passed for their thoughts.

He finally said, “It’s just a direction. The ultimate goal is the same.”

“It’s more than a direction,” Cora said, quiet as a viper.

“When the Shadow calls, I have to answer.”

“When it’s convenient,” Winifred hissed.

“This is what I got to do,” he finally shouted, all raging with desperation.

“You say that with suspicious frequency, especially when it means you don’t have to explain yourself,” Earl said, then spit in the dirt for emphasis.

Rhett wouldn’t let his head duck down, wouldn’t let his shoulders cave in like they had, long ago, when Pap was yelling his worst. There were no lies in what he’d said, no shame in what he was doing. The long and short of it was that folks wanted him to do their business first, and he knew damn well what his own business was. And his business was just more goddamn important.

“Right. So I’ll go saddle up, then. If you’re with me, you’re with me. If you’re not . . .”

It came out all ragged with a little break, almost a sniffle, damn his female vocal chords.

He didn’t finish the sentence.

About the Author

Lila Bowen is a pseudonym for Delilah S. Dawson, who writes fantasy, horror, young adult, comics and romance. She recently won the Steampunk Book of the Year and May Seal of Excellence from RT Book Reviews. Delilah loves fancy books, trail rides, adventures and cupcakes, and lives in the North Georgia mountains with her husband, children, a Tennessee Walking Horse named Polly and a floppy mutt named Merle.