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The Kinfolk cover

Read the first chapter from from the final installment of The Five Stones Trilogy, The Kinfolk, by G.A. Morgan.

The Hunt

Chapter One 

Knox leapt easily over a smoking pile of fallen tree trunks and bracken, sprinting full tilt around a blackened grove. The scream of a tehuantl behind him made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. An Exorian raiding party was gaining on him. He ran faster, the ground under his feet a blur. The inside of his poncho was damp with sweat. The basket of dried fish he had spent the last few days catching and preparing thumped against his back. His new machete was drawn, and he was running for his life.

Dankar had been pressing without mercy into Melor. The once-great forest was now completely overrun, and the Exorians were burning everything they could find. The only unconquered expanse was at the heart of the Wold, beyond the springtime glen and the swamps of the deathfield. If Knox could make it there without getting caught or killed, his strength would double and he would shake the Exorians.

He’d also have backup. Most of the remaining Melorians—those who had not fled or been driven out of Melor—were holed up in the Keep, doing their best to fend off the enemy. Thus far, they’d succeeded. No Exorian had passed alive through the deathfield; their own black deeds kept their minds paralyzed and their bodies wandering in the swamp—easy prey for a Melorian with a bow, or the hounds of Melor—two giant, brawny beasts named Axl and Tar. The tehuantl did not even try to go into the deathfield. They knew better.

Nonetheless, the siege was taking its toll. Food was so scarce that each day the strongest Melorians in the Keep were forced to venture farther and farther from its safety to find anything to eat; even snakes were precious meat now. And Knox needed to find food. His mother and Teddy were in Melor, led there, as he and Evelyn had been, by the strange creature Chantarelle, who lived beneath the surface of the earth and traversed a vast system of tunnels between worlds. T

he thought of his mother and Teddy and what it might mean for them to be here made all the air in his lungs evaporate. He did not dare let his mind wander to his father, all alone now beyond the fog, except for Frankie and Mrs. Dellemere. And who knew if Frankie was even still alive? And what about the others: Evelyn and Chase and Captain Nate. Knox was sure that Chase was well-protected in Varuna. The Exorians were not bold enough yet to cross that far north, but he was worried about Evelyn. Melor was no longer a real buffer. It was only a matter of time before the enemy swept into Metria. He consoled himself with the thought that a river lay between the Exorians and their objective: the great Hestredes. The Exorians had a love-hate thing about water, so it might take them a while to figure out how to cross it.

The tehuantl screamed again—too close for comfort. Knox scanned the forest in front of him and saw a large cavity gouged into a charred tree trunk. He threw himself into it. Once he was inside, he climbed a few feet off the ground by jamming his knees to his chin and crabcrawling up with his feet and hands against the inside of the trunk. He was completely hidden and could take a minute to catch his breath and weigh his options.

Hiding in the tree was as good a tactic as any. With the brush cover and much of the tree canopy gone, it was harder to move in the forest undetected, even under his hood. If he could stay still and not call attention to himself, the Exorians might run right past him.

The only problem was that when Knox stayed still, he couldn’t stop worrying. He shoved the fur collar of his poncho into his mouth and chewed on it, an old habit. If he was going to get out of this jam, he needed to focus. His time in Melor had taught him that thoughts weaken as easily as wounds, and he had to stay strong. He had to feed his family. It was the most basic custom in Melor: A hunter must provide for their own, or starve trying. Seaborne and Calla helped Knox by sharing what they hunted, but they had their own worries. Mara was dying. The passing of Calla’s father, Tinator, had loosened her daylights, and her vessel was not strong enough to survive the siege. Rothermel tended to her, but even his powers could not reverse what now seemed to be inevitable.

Knox grimaced at the thought of Tinator’s death, and now, Mara’s. They felt as much like family to him as Seaborne and Calla—all of the Melorians did. They had taken him in and treated him like one of their own, and now they were doing the same for his mother and Teddy. They had taught them all how to survive.

A shout from somewhere outside made his heart rocket inside his chest. He fingered the hilt of one of his throwing knives. He was happy that he’d had the foresight to sharpen the blades on a rock at the beach, and was confident of his aim if he could just crawl to the top of this trunk and gain the higher ground. He wondered how many Exorians were out there. He was fairly sure there was only one tehuantl. He  would not kill it if he could help it. He would not kill any of them if he could help it. Only if they tried to kill him. This was another lesson the Melorians had taught him: Blood is paid with blood; better to avoid the debt whenever possible.

He calmed himself by breathing in and counting to four, holding it for four counts, and breathing out for the same count. It was a method Seaborne had shown him on the journey back to Melor, after the battle with the Exorians at the Voss. Once his pulse returned to normal, he closed his eyes and listened intently, trying to get a bead on his enemy’s location. The forest outside was deathly quiet—unnervingly so. Dankar had destroyed Melor on so many levels—even sound. It was only when Knox entered the heart of the Wold and traveled through the springtime glen that he once again heard the natural chittering, peeping, and rustling of the forest—the sound of life.

But a distance lay between him and the Wold yet, he reminded himself. He and the hounds of Melor had traveled far in search of food: to the shore, all the way to Seaborne’s cabin, where he and his brothers and Evelyn and Frankie had spent their first night on Ayda so long ago. Knox hadn’t been sure at first if he would be able to find the cabin, but as he retraced the steps they all had taken so many moonrises ago, it was as if his muscles knew the way. After three days, he had found himself on the little footbridge that crossed the stream, staring at the blackened foundation, crumbling chimney, and charred hull of the waterwheel where Seaborne’s cabin once stood. Exorians had burned everything in the clearing but the footbridge—more proof that their fear of water was strong.

He had squatted there, surveying the damage and resting for a moment, remembering the cabin as he had first seen it, and how confident he’d been that day: how carelessly he’d thrown the stone from the beach—like a solid ostrich egg—over the cliff, and how stern Seaborne’s reaction had been. His eyes had traced the patch of ground where he and Tinator had had their duel.

“I’m sorry,” he remembered saying to the blackened trees and gray sky. “I was an idiot.”

Then, he had heard Chase’s voice in his head reply, Yup, you got that right.

If he tried, he could almost conjure up Chase’s voice now, but he didn’t want to.

Being at the clearing by the cabin had made him miss his brother so much that he couldn’t stay there. Instead, he had turned back toward the path through the forest, taking it with long strides, until he heard the gentle thunder of waves crashing on the beach. At the cliff ’s edge he had stopped again, thinking back to the moment their boat had come ashore on the beach below. How were any of them to know what they would set into motion that day at Summerledge? It had all started out so innocently—he had just wanted to wring some fun out of a bad day. How could he have known about the fog of forgetting, about the five stones, about Dankar?

Memories jabbed at him with their sharp edges, bringing a stabbing pain in his ribs. Since when did thinking about things hurt so much? Because he had a lot to think about. His father left alone beyond the fog. The Fifth Stone and Captain Nate. Keeping his mother and Teddy safe. He wondered what Ratha might be doing to Chase, and how long she would make him stay in Varuna. Forever? The pain in his ribs amplified.

After explaining Ayda itself, Chase’s absence was the second-hardest thing Knox had had to explain to his mother. When he and Seaborne and Calla returned to the Keep from the battle at the Voss, he and Seaborne had made a beeline for the place where Knox remembered emerging from Chantarelle’s tunnels. Chase had seen his mother and Teddy in one of his visions, in the tunnels, headed for Melor. It only made sense to begin the search where Knox was sure there was an opening. But when they got there, they found no one.

They had then spread out in different directions, using the rock ledge that ran parallel aboveground to the river that Knox knew ran beneath the forest. But after searching through the night and following day, they had not found them. Darkness fell again, bringing with it doubt. Maybe Chase’s vision was wrong? Or—worse—Grace and Teddy were lost in the maze of Chantarelle’s tunnels. Maybe they had emerged in the Broomwash, or Exor? Seaborne had said nothing, but Knox had known at the time that he was thinking the same thing.

And that’s when they had heard it. A little hoot. A pause, and then another. It came low and soft through the darkness. They waited. And then they heard another. Seaborne took a chance and hooted back. It was immediately followed with a response. Teddy’s signal! It had to be. They followed it all the way to the source: a deep-rutted V in a granite ledge. And there the two of them were, dirty and starving, and armed only with Bob the turtle and a penlight that had run out of juice. Chase’s vision had been true.

“I knew you’d come,” Teddy said, climbing up out of the rut to leap on Seaborne.

“Knew I’d come?” Seaborne’s face was hidden in darkness but smiling by the sound of his voice. “How did you know such a thing, you rascal? If you only knew what we’ve been through to get here, you’d know we’re both lucky to be anywhere and not roasted.”

“Knox?” His mom’s tight voice had come from right behind Teddy’s in the dark.

“Hi, Mom,” he’d said.

She cried a little, and then she asked about Chase.

How long ago all that seemed! But it didn’t matter anymore. He was not the same person. None of them were. The past was like Seaborne’s cabin—already gone. It did not serve a Melorian to linger there.

. . .

He had camped by the sea unmolested for six moonrises, catching fish. It was on his return that the trouble had begun. He and the hounds had followed one of Chantarelle’s tunnels to the Vossbeck, then surfaced, and run smack into the Exorian raiding party. He was faster than the Exorians, and had thought he could slip by them, but the tehuantl had caught his scent and then—well, the race was on. The hounds had run off, trying to divert the cats, but the tehuantl were getting too used to Melorian tactics. And now, here he was, stuffed inside a burnt-out tree trunk like a terrified squirrel.

Knox lowered his hood, straining his ears to hear any movement or breathing. Nothing. Maybe he had lost them? He went over the terrain with his mind’s eye. It wasn’t too far to the northern bridge, which he would have to use now that the sky crossings were toast. If he ran full sprint he figured it wouldn’t take him long to get there. He was as agile as a deer now, swift and strong, and could leap a hurdle of five feet as if it were one. The fish in his basket would go far in the Keep, and his mother and Teddy were on the lookout for him. He couldn’t stay in the tree forever. He needed to get back.

He let go of the tension in his feet, and let himself slip down the smooth bark of the inner tree, landing without a sound on the forest floor. It helped that he had traded in his old Converse sneakers for the soft moccasins of a Melorian. He could feel the terrain much better with the moccasins, almost like running barefoot. He poked his nose out of the cavity, then exploded into a sprint. He only made it a few yards before the telltale roar of a tehuantl overhead made it clear that he had not tricked the Exorians with his hiding place. He glanced up through the haze that always lingered in the burnt forest—a mist of ash and smoke—and saw a tehuantl perched on yet another pile of charred stumps.

As burnt and black as the trees were, the tehuantl was an altogether different kind of black: shining and sleek, with impassive yellow eyes. Eyes that locked on to Knox’s. Knox had looked into those eyes before, back at the Broomwash, as one of the animals was dying. The experience had affected him deeply. Even now, Knox was more impressed by the majestic jaguar than scared. He remembered how soft the fur was between its eyes when he’d stroked it. He remembered how frightened it had been. Maybe that cat was this one’s brother or sister. Long ago, the tehuantl, like the Exorian people, had been the most noble and brave of creatures on Ayda. Only after Dankar had abused their daylights did the cats turn on humans.

“Good kitty,” he said, as if the animal might understand. T

he tehuantl roared again, but did not move from its perch. It was acting more like a sentinel than a killer, but you never could tell what a tehuantl was thinking. Better to be safe than sorry. Knox glanced over his shoulder without breaking his sprint. He tried not to think about how far one of them could leap.

Just run, he told himself. Run fast.

He heard a shout, an answering call, and then a flaming spear whizzed by his head, landing on the grass ahead of him and fizzling out. The Exorians were now on the chase. Normally he would stop to pick up the spear, but there was no time. He had to get to the bridge. It occurred to him to try to lead his pursuers into a tehuantl trap, but he was not far from the Wold, and from there the glen was very close. He could lose them there. No matter how hard the Exorians had been trying to raze the glen, it defied them, growing thicker and lusher despite every attack.

Knox ran full tilt until he hit the wooden planks of the bridge. A volley of cold spears landed behind him, their metal points sinking into the wood. The Exorians did not dare to burn this bridge; they needed it to cross the river more than the Melorians. Knox resisted the impulse to use the open air of the bridge to look back and scan the raiding party.

Now that he knew Louis was his lost uncle Edward, it was hard not to stop and see if he was there among the Exorians. He wanted so much to bring Louis to his mother. To show her that her brother was not dead, and had been living on Ayda all these years since he’d gotten lost at sea. But Knox knew it was a bad idea, even if he could find him. Louis had been transformed into something almost unrecognizable in a ceremony at the arena. His own sister would not know him now: an Exorian covered in a warrior’s hide, drunk with a raging thirst to do Dankar’s bidding. The only thing that made Louis stand out from the other Exorian warriors was his blue eyes and his human-looking right hand. And the fact that he could swim.

Knox raced over the bridge and sped into the forest, which still held an aura of its old self. Fern groves grew between the trees and the scent of pine could be made out beneath the ever-present smell of smoke. Out of the corner of his eye Knox caught a flash of green and yellow bracken that delineated where the glen began, and made a beeline for it. He was almost there. The Exorians could feel it, too.

Another flaming spear whizzed past his head, then another, both landing unsatisfied on the ground ahead of him. This time, Knox took the time to swoop by and pick them up.

Two more for me, two less for them.

His bounty of dried fish slapped against his back, and the machete thwacked against the side of his leg, but he was so close now. He should be tired after how much he had run, but his daylights were only gaining in strength as he approached the glen. With a single leap, he jumped a ten-foot ravine that acted like a dirt moat to protect the glen.

A few more running strides took him across the meadow where he somersaulted, headfirst, through a wall of flowering yellow shrubs and into the full protection of the glen. He peered back through the bushes to see the Exorians massed at the ravine, shaking their raised spears in anger. In the time it took them to climb down and back up again, Knox would be long gone. He shuddered as he took in the full sight of the warriors—reptilian-looking, with thick, cracked skin the color of dried mud and blood. He quickly examined their hands, looking for one that looked even remotely human.

Knox shuddered again, remembering the terrible transformation of his uncle at the arena. Of all the horrors that Dankar had visited on Ayda, ruining the people of Exor was the worst, his uncle among them. Dankar had turned an entire generation of Exorians into slaves—and the unlucky ones who became warriors, into monsters. The thought of his uncle jabbed at him again. He knew Louis was out there, somewhere, and that he should tell his mother. But how? How do you tell someone that their brother has been turned into a monster?

He slowed his pace, breathing the good, green scent of the glen deep into his lungs. It was as refreshing to him as a full night’s sleep. Ahead lay the moss-covered trees and swamp of the deathfield, and beyond that, the Keep, his mother, and his little brother. Seaborne and Calla. Rothermel. Knox felt the weight of the full basket on his back. Tonight, they would all eat well; and for the briefest of moments, Knox was truly happy.