The gripping final 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’
Sam Hennessy was dying on the sand, and Rhett Walker wanted to die, too. Watching the blood burble up out of Sam’s belly hurt more than a knife in his own chest ever could. Even worse, Dan put his hand on Rhett’s shoulder and squeezed like they were already at a funeral.
“I’m sorry, Rhett,” he said, real sorrowful, and that was all it took.
Leaping to his feet, Rhett asked, “How long can he last?”
Inés tilted her head toward Cora, who hovered nearby, her arm around Meimei and her eyes full of tears. “Not long,” Cora said, and Inés nodded in agreement.
Cora put a hand to her belly in sympathy. “Yes, but he’ll be in pain.”
“You keep him alive. You hear me? You keep him alive.”
Rhett knelt to kiss Sam’s bloody lips, gentle as a goddamn butterfly. “Hold on, Sam. I’m gonna save you.”
“You can’t,” Sam protested, a bare whisper.
“Don’t tell me what I can’t do. You just keep breathing.”
Rhett was already running for Ragdoll by the time Dan found his preacher voice.
“Shadow, what are you doing?”
Without stopping, without answering, Rhett slung himself into the saddle and kicked his little appaloosa mare harder than he ever had before. They tore across the prairie, Rhett laid low on her bristly neck and the rangy mare running like hell itself had lit her tail. Rhett didn’t have to look back over his shoulder to know what was happening behind him. Inés would be holding Sam’s hand, saying comforting, nun-type things. Healer or no, Cora would’ve lost interest in the dying human boy to focus on her returned sister. And Dan would be watching Rhett’s trail of dust rise into the hard blue sky, frowning, hands on his naked hips.
Because what Rhett was gonna do? He already knew Dan would hate it.
It had taken two hours, maybe, for Rhett and Inés to accompany the wagon from San Anton’s finest hotel to the homestead of the rich fools who’d accidentally adopted a murderous alchemist in the guise of a child. But now, unencumbered by idiots, Rhett and Ragdoll skidded into town in what felt like forever but was most likely just an hour. It wasn’t hard to find what he needed, but he had to wait longer than he would’ve liked, and the price in promised gold was higher than he would’ve preferred. At that point, Rhett would’ve given any damn thing to save Sam, even his first taste of real wealth or the promise of other earthly comforts.
It was dusk, and Ragdoll was asleep standing up, the sweat dried in whorls on her spotted back, but she ran like the devil when Rhett was back in the saddle and kicking her again, even considering the new burden she carried. That’s why he’d chosen this mare, so long ago. Like him, she wasn’t big or pretty, but she had a heart as wide and wild as Durango, and if anybody could get him back to Sam in time, it was Ragdoll. If they managed to save Sam, he promised he’d shower his pony with carrots and oats and sugar cubes for the rest of her life.
Every hoofbeat pounded in time with Rhett’s heart, the orange dust of the prairie strolling by with what felt like infinite slowness, purple shadows creeping along as the evening sky went dark and exhaled sprinkles of starlight. Normally, Rhett loved few things in life as much as a good gallop, but now all he felt was panic and terror and something he thought he’d left behind: the sensation of being powerless. What did it matter that he was the Shadow and nigh invincible if he lost Sam? What was the point of life if a feller lost the thing he wanted most right when he finally got it all settled?
At least he knew which way he was headed, even if it was too dark for him to see. The Shadow’s tug pulled him, desperately ripping him across the prairie. Funny, that—the Shadow had never much cared about a human before. Well, except for when the Captain was dying. Dan had once—well, several times—told Rhett that the Shadow was supposed to be a sort of savior for monsters, but Rhett figured there was more at play than Dan had always assumed.
At least it was easy, this time, to do as the Shadow commanded.
Soon he saw the black wood skeleton of Herbert and Josephina’s ranch house rising up against the indigo sky. Even closer, and he saw the cluster of his friends, waiting for him, watching him gallop and skid to a stop. He could almost feel Dan’s disapproval, but Dan could shove his goddamn disapproval down his smug gullet. At least, judging by the way they were all there, circled up, Sam had to still be alive.
“How’s he doing?” Rhett asked, sliding out of the saddle to land on numb feet.
Dan stepped forward, white teeth shining by starlight. “He’s still alive, but barely. What is that?”
“I think you mean who is that, and her name is Emily. Right?”
He turned to the girl still sitting on Ragdoll’s rump, her frothy skirts flecked with horse hair and sweat. He figured a gentleman would help her down, but he wasn’t much of a gentleman and was just fine with that. She nodded once, regal and wary, and slid down off the horse like any farm girl in Durango would’ve.
“And Emily is a vampire,” Dan continued.
“Well, I reckon you’re a goddamn genius, Dan. Now get out of the way and let her fix Sam.”
But Dan stepped in front of Sam, legs spread and teeth bared, naked and unafraid. The feller had come here as a coyote and was therefore without clothes, but he wasn’t going to let that stop him from being vexful. “She won’t fix him, Rhett. She can’t. No one can. She’ll kill him and turn him into an undead monster that can live only by feeding on human blood.”
“Rhett, would Sam want this?” Inés sat on the ground, Sam’s head in her lap. Even through her nun’s veil, Rhett could feel the disgust and judgment rolling off her, the black habit subtly writhing in a way that suggested her gorgon head-snakes were unhappy.
“I know he doesn’t want to die,” he shot back.
The night went so still that Rhett could hear a tortoise, somewhere nearby, toiling over the rocky soil with a dry, determined rasp.
Inés pressed on. “He said he wouldn’t want to stay alive thanks to necromancy. Is this not similar, but with the added requirement that he would have to kill in order to live?”
“You don’t speak for him, goddammit, Inés! You don’t even know him!”
Emily stepped forward, hands up in a peaceful-type gesture. For all that she looked like a plump farmer’s daughter, her hair the color of hay and her eyes the color of manure, there was a grace and power to the vampire whore that Rhett found fascinating in about the same way he found scorpions fascinating—he’d watch from afar but didn’t much want to get within stinging distance when they were riled. Or hungry.
“We don’t have to kill,” she said, lightly lisping around her fangs. “It only takes a sip or two a night to keep us going. And cow blood’ll do in a pinch, if he’s not a picky sort.”
“And what do you get out of this . . . arrangement?” Dan asked.
Emily shrugged soft, white shoulders. “I don’t drink deep too often. Part of changing him over means I get to drink him about dry. And I could use the gold.”
Dan’s eyes shot to Rhett, who shrugged.
“I told her she could have my share of the herd money.”
Rubbing his eyes, Dan shook his head. “I don’t care about the money, Rhett. I care about watching you turn a fellow Ranger into the kind of monster he’s dedicated his life to fighting. I care about you disregarding Sam’s dying wish. Most of all, I care about the fact that even after all this time, your selfishness is going to prove the ruination of the best of us.”
“Maybe it’ll be the savior of the best of us, Dan. Did you ever think of that?”
“He won’t thank you.”
“He won’t thank me if he dies, either, as dead fellers can’t talk. I’m willing to make that choice, Dan.”
“Of course you are! You always are! That’s the problem!”
Rhett walked past Dan, banging his shoulder when Dan wouldn’t budge. Looking down at Sam in the darkness, he could barely see the feller breathing. Sam’s fine blue eyes were closed, his sweet lips speckled with dried blood. There was a waxy look to Sam’s skin and a powerful stink about him, but Rhett didn’t care.
“Do it, Emily,” he said, low and deadly.
The girl moved to walk around Dan, but he intercepted her, blocking her path. That was the thing about Dan—he could be standing in the middle of the desert stark naked and still look like a preacher when he threatened a vampire. Emily stopped, but not like she was scared.
“What if he changes?” Dan asked, but soft this time. “What if he’s a different person? Think about it, Rhett. Sam is a man of sunlight, of kindness and good cheer. How will he feel, waking up a creature of the night? He’ll never see another sunrise again. Did you consider that?”
His hands were in fists, his teeth clenched, and Rhett couldn’t take it any longer. He turned and shoved Dan as hard as he could, a year’s worth of rage launching the man into the dust on his ass.
“Do it, Emily. Now. And as for what I’ve considered Dan, I suggest you stop trying to know my mind. I’m beyond your teaching, beyond your preaching. This is what I am, pigheadedness and all. I’m the goddamn Shadow and I’m a Ranger Captain and I already made this decision before I ever kissed Sam’s dying body on the lips and galloped away. So it’s on me, and you can go on with your stiff spine and judging eyes, knowing you might be right, but that don’t mean I’m wrong.”
Dan rose, slow but wary, more animal than man for all that he hadn’t gone over coyote.
“You’re damn right it’s on you,” he said, each word deadly heavy. “And I hope you tell Sam I fought you every step of the way. I hope you’re happy with your grand folly.”
Moving like a wraith in the starlight, Emily kneeled by Sam’s side. “He’s so close,” she said, softly. Inés, still supporting Sam’s head, said nothing, but her veil inclined just the tiniest bit in agreement.
Rhett’s fingernails dug moons in his palms. “Do it, girl.”
“This is wrong,” the nun said softly, her fingers feathering Sam’s hair as if he were a sleeping child.
“Wrong is a silly thing,” Emily murmured as she pulled down Sam’s collar and settled into position, tender as a lover. “I remember what the preacher used to say on Sunday morning, all that business about sin. I thought I was a bad girl because my pa told me so, and then the preacher told me so, and then the old man they married me off to at fourteen told me so, too.” She looked back at Dan, fangs sparking with moonlight. “I’m a person. I ain’t bad. I’m just different from you. I reckon you know what it feels like to be different. This boy might feel different when he wakes up from it, but in his heart, he’ll still be mostly the same.”
She winked at Rhett and bit into Sam’s neck with a soft crunch that made Rhett wince. Concern and jealousy reared up in his heart, and he kneeled on Sam’s other side and took his cold, limp hand.
“You know that if you mess this up, I’ll kill you, right?” he asked, voice rasping.
Emily moaned and gulped softly as she drank, but she didn’t respond with words. She just lifted the middle finger of one hand and kept on.
“I can’t watch this,” Dan said. He walked away, but not far, and paced in an annoying sort of fashion.
As for Cora, she stepped closer, arm still around Meimei, who cowered against her sister’s side. “Fascinating.” Cora leaned in, cocking her head in that doctor way she had. “I’ve never seen this process before.”
Rhett stroked Sam’s waxen cheek. “It ain’t pretty.”
Inés had gone so still and quiet that Rhett had forgotten she was there at all. “That word: mostly,” she mused. “Did you even notice it, in your haste? The girl said Sam would be mostly the same.”
“I’m mostly the same as I used to be,” Rhett shot back. “Folks change. They got a right to change. I reckon nearly dying changes a man.”
“You lost an eye. He’ll lose his humanity.”
“Better than his life.”
“What about his soul, Rhett?”
Before he could say something cruel or clever, Emily pulled away with a soft pop, her eyes all pupil and her lips red and kiss-swollen. Her milk-white skin had a rosy flush, and she swayed in place a little like she heard music on the night breeze.
Sam’s hand was beyond cold now, and Rhett barked, “Well, girl? Get on with the next bit!”
Emily nodded as if suddenly remembering where she was and what she was doing. Holding her wrist up to her mouth, she bit it open and held the wound to Sam’s lips. After a few long moments of nothing happening, Rhett was getting ready to snap the girl’s goddamn neck and stab her in the heart. His first kill flashed in his head, the monster in Pap’s barn that had started his life as a cowpoke, as a man, as a Ranger, as the Shadow. The twig had sunk into that wicked vampire’s heart like a knife in butter, and Rhett reckoned it would be about the same with Emily, especially considering she was currently dumb as a blood-fat tick.
“Is it working?” he asked, heart in his throat, his rage collapsing into terror as Sam continued to refuse the girl’s blood.
“I . . . I don’t know,” Emily murmured. Fear flashed in her eyes as she squeezed her arm, a squirt of fresh blood painting Sam’s still chin. “I never done this before.”
“What do you mean, you’ve never done this before?” Rhett roared, hand on his knife.
Dan walked to them and stood over Sam like the graven angel on a tombstone.
“Maybe it’s for the best,” he said, soft as anything.
Rhett had never wanted to throttle Dan so badly, to shove those words back down his faithless throat. “It’s gonna work, Dan. He’s gonna be fine. It has to work.”
Dan sighed in that way that he had, the one that suggested Rhett was a naughty child who would never, ever learn. A child who would burn his hand at the stove, again and again, until he was just a big ol’ mess of scar tissue and regret.
A hand landed on Rhett’s shoulder, and he ignored the instinct to sink his teeth into Dan’s fingers as the man said, “Even the Shadow can’t change destiny, Rhett.”
Rhett’s head fell forward.
The only thing he hated more than admitting Dan was right was admitting Dan was right about this.
Sam wasn’t waking up.