A spooky and adventurous welcome to the Blog Tour for Legends of Lost Causes, and then specifically the newest book: The Key of Skeleton Peak! This series is written by Brad McLelland and Louis Sylvester.
What do I have for you in today’s Blog Tour? The prologue to the book, a giveaway (US only), and book (plus links to the other two books)/author information!
Miguel on the Mountain Route
For eighty-five days, Miguel Herrera rode on Chantico’s weary back.
He knew the count well; using his special bone-handled knife, he’d been scoring the days into his saddle since embarking from eastern Kansas. His riding companion let him keep the big knife, provided he be a “good boy.”
Miguel wore his hat pulled low and his blue bandana high to keep the swirling frost off his cheeks. He traveled in silence, following the small man through the shallow foothills of western Kansas Territory and into the Rocky Mountains. Bitter winds colder than the worst Missouri winter blew down the canyon passes. Miguel felt as if his fingers would turn to icicles despite his thick gloves.
“These storms will keep curious eyes out of the canyons where we’re headed,” his companion said. With the heavy snow flurries threatening to bury them, the Mountain Route they were climbing portended avalanches and impassable ice walls.
When he was a little kid, Miguel’s mother had told him frightful bedtime stories about Shifters and fantasmas, but she had never told him tales about unnatural weather. Miguel knew well the cruelty of a hard winter, but this was something different, something fiendish and calculating. Perhaps he was seeing what his old Spanish Bible had called los últimos días, or the last days. Pray when you see fearful things, his mother had once said. Make the Sign of the Cross, Miguel, and your faith will spare you.
But Miguel felt no such salvation.
Peering up at the white peaks rising high on each side, Miguel marveled at the size of the Rockies. Having once roamed across the southern rise of the Appalachians in Alabama with his amigo Frank Bishop, he’d thought he knew mountains, but these peaks towered with such majesty that they seemed to scrape the sky itself.
As the horses lumbered up the snow-choked path, Miguel’s callous chaperone pointed. “Let’s stop for the night in that clearing.”
Reining Chantico to a halt, Miguel dismounted.
The small man hopped off his own pony, a knock-kneed gelding he had rustled from a lonely farmer in December. “Fetch us some supper. We still have a few days before we reach the Peak, and our beans and bacon are mostly gone.”
Miguel moved off into the woods to search for small game. He scanned the drift for prints, watching for signs of a passing rabbit. He kept his long blade in hand. In Missouri, Bishop had said it was a magical blade that would someday kill “the Eye.”
Not long after, the one-eyed Bad Whiskey Nelson, El Ojo, had killed Bishop in an Arkansas prison. Miguel thought he’d discovered the knife’s intended target, but when he thrust it into El Ojo’s chest at Bone Ridge Cemetery, the blade did nothing. Only the silver charms and the Reverend Rose’s devil birds were able to stop the fiend once and for all.
But now Miguel had new plans for the knife. Once he found his opportunity, he would rid the world of his vicious traveling partner.
After fetching a jackrabbit for grub, Miguel fed and watered the two ponies. He muttered kind words to his palomino, asking forgiveness for riding her so hard.
“Enough messing around with those nags. Fetch my saddlebag.” After brushing away snow to clear a spot, the small man leaned against a fallen cottonwood tree. He peeled off his ragged hat, revealing a mangy tonsure of gray hair. “Then build up a fire. My feet are cold.”
The stolen gelding carried a few saddlebags, but Miguel knew his captor desired a special bundle tucked inside a small leather pouch. Miguel unhooked the bag and carried it over. “Here,” he muttered, setting the bag in the fellow’s hands.
The man pulled the bag close. “Here . . . what?”
Miguel clenched his teeth. “Here, sir.”
“That’s better. Now, since you and I have become old pals, go ahead and speak my name.” The man’s satisfied grin melted into a malignant frown. “I insist.”
Miguel had no desire to speak his captor’s name. He preferred to think of his infernal companion as el diablito, small in stature but possessed by evil. He had first met the desperado in Arkansas, locked inside a cárcel called Barrenpoint, the accursed prison where El Ojo had killed Frank Bishop. Even then the small man had forced terrible orders upon Miguel. Yet he knew better than to resist a direct command. “Coward,” Miguel said. “Your name’s Coward.”
“Good boy, Cutter. Now get that fire built.” Coward turned his attention to the bag on his lap, shooing Miguel away with a dismissive wave.
Snow-frosted firs crowded the surrounding hills, and powdery drifts blanketed the ground. Miguel stomped through brittle, knee-high brush, hunting for wood dry enough to serve as tinder. He emptied the firewood into a pile, placed a few stones in a circle inside the clearing, and set about laying their campfire.
As he worked, Miguel scratched at the charred mark on his forehead—the devilish product of Coward’s ambush in November, not long after the Lost Causes had returned from Bonfire Crossing. Miguel had wandered into the woods to be alone and failed to notice Coward lurking in the brush. When the man suddenly emerged, Miguel drew his blade. He landed one lucky jab before the desperado knocked him out with his mystical cough, a strange but potent power the man possessed.
Miguel awoke to discover that his flesh had been branded with the Devil’s mark, a gruesome scar maiming his forehead. The wound hadn’t taken but a few days to heal, but now he couldn’t help scratching at the foul thing.
While he stoked the welcome fire, Miguel noticed Coward removing the tied canvas bundle from inside his saddlebag. The man loosed a twine knot on the bundle and opened the wrap, revealing a small silver box. Strange etchings lined every inch of the metal—inscriptions Miguel had seen before on a pair of amulet shards worn by his two friends. One of those shards, the one Keech Blackwood had carried, jutted from the pocket of Coward’s frock coat even now. But Coward cared little for the shard; what he desired lay inside the chest.
Resting the silver box on his knees, Coward ran his fingers across the grooves, then lifted the box lid.
From where he stood on the opposite side of the campfire, Miguel felt a whisper of sour air caress his face. Twilight shadows shifted around them, despite the glow of the fire.
The small black rock resting inside the chest seemed to hum, not as a sound that could be heard with the ears, but as a vibration that pinched the nerves. Eldritch fumes drifted up from the box’s corners. Thin tendrils of raven smoke waved in the breeze but never seemed to dissipate. The stone was no larger than a fist, its surface jagged like that of a rock found in a field. Yet the darkness painting it appeared to move, as though thousands of tiny, swarming spiders covered it.
Coward breathed in, sniffing the object in the box. He wielded another curious sort of magic, this diablito: His bizarrely powerful nostrils could track a scent from miles away or sniff out the deepest secrets of a person’s mind. Yet every night when Coward snorted in the fumes of the ancient relic, he couldn’t seem to inhale enough to satisfy his craving.
Miguel backed away from the Char Stone. The artifact was cursed. And somehow alive. He felt it calling to him. Not in a voice he heard, but with a whittling gnaw deep in his gut. At night, his dreams were haunted by images of writhing things creeping under his skin. More than once, he’d woken from a fretful sleep, a scream dying on his lips. If Miguel had his druthers, he would destroy the Stone and forget it even existed.
But Coward obsessed over it. He saw the Stone as a talisman he could wield. “It’s beautiful,” he said. “Pure power. The Prime in material form.” He hovered his hand a few inches above its black surface, as if tempted to graze the Stone with the tip of his finger, but he resisted—as he did every night.
The silver box snapped shut.
Miguel said nothing. Long ago he’d learned that when Coward spoke about the Char Stone, he was not seeking conversation. He was basking in the promise of powers to come.
Hunkering down in his thick fur and blanket, Miguel pulled his hat over his brow. Though the Devil’s mark forbade any hope of escape, he often retreated to secret hollows in his mind where the power of the dark brand couldn’t touch him. Where he could envision his best friend, John Wesley, who reminded him so much of Bishop. John was Edgar Doyle’s son, a clumsy kid but a fierce fighter. Miguel had lost him to the Chamelia, the creature that had stalked the boy at the command of Big Ben Loving. John Wesley had been scratched, infected, turned into a monster. The last time Miguel saw his friend, John had dashed off into the Kansas woods to join the Chamelia and adapt to life as a Shifter. Miguel’s final words to the boy had been, Remember, no matter where you go, you’re one of us. You’re a Lost Cause.
Miguel reached into his coat and touched the brim of John Wesley’s wrinkled and warped sombrero, a bullet-torn hat made of yellow straw. He had carried the hat since the Chamelia’s first attack at Mercy Mission, and though John was gone, Miguel couldn’t bring himself to throw it away. Sometimes when Coward slept, Miguel would stroke the hat’s ragged brim. No sooner would his fingers graze the straw than he would hear John’s whisper in his head, undeniably sharp and clear: Don’t fret, Cutter; I’m exactly where I need to be. Someday, I’ll find ya again. Keep your eyes and ears open.
Miguel always felt better, gripping the hat and hearing John Wesley’s voice. But he doubted he would ever see John again, or any of the other Lost Causes. Coward owned his soul now. They were tethered by the Devil’s mark that Cutter despised but couldn’t escape.
“Soon we’ll reach Ignatio,” Coward said, his voice yanking Miguel from his buried thoughts. “We’ll find the Key and take the Fang back from Red Jeffreys. Once we have the relics, you and I will take them on a final journey.”
“To the Palace of the Thunders,” Miguel said.
“Yes. And once there, we’ll free the Master.”
A shiver coursed down Miguel’s spine. “What’ll happen when we reach him, Coward?”
The small man smiled. “The Reverend will emerge in his full glory, and this world will tremble at the sight.”