Excerpt: Moon Hunt by Kathleen O’Neal and Michael Gear

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Moon Hunt is the third epic tale in the Morning Star series by New York Times bestselling authors W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal Gear. Against the intricate majesty that was America’s greatest pre-Columbian city, the Gears have once again woven the latest archaeological data into a painstakingly accurate reconstruction of Cahokia and provide a rare look into the mystical underpinnings of Native American culture.

What happens when your god goes missing?

The lord god of Cahokia has been spirited away to the Underworld and the empire teeters on the brink of disaster as clans fight for control.

Night Shadow Star, the god’s human sister, and Fire Cat, her warrior bodyguard, are the only two people who can bring him back. They descend into the Sacred Cave where monsters dwell, willing to sacrifice themselves to save their kingdom.

What they find makes them question if that sacrifice is worth it.

Moon Hunt will be available on November 21st. Please enjoy this excerpt.

The Harrowing

I run my fingers through damp and sandy soil and listen to the sounds of the night. The canoes are pulled up on the beach, and I can hear waves slapping against the sterns. An endless blanket of stars gives the night sky a frosted look. The whitish band running across the heavens marks the Road of the Dead—the path taken by so many of my ancestors after their souls traveled to the western edge of the world and made the leap through the Seeing Hand and into the Sky World.

I wonder if I will ever follow in their footsteps, or if I even want to.

I reach up and rub my thin face, feeling the high cheekbones, the triangle of my nose, and point of my chin. I force myself to smile, and know that it makes my broad mouth into a rictus mindful of a death mask. Some call me a beautiful young woman. Who are they trying to fool?

For the moment, all that matters is my deep, burning anger. Call it an inferno between my souls. A hot, roaring, devouring kind of fire.

I stare out at the river, which is nothing more than an inky darkness in the night. I hear a fish splash, the croaking of a thousand frogs, and the whir of the night insects. Even through the pungent tang of the greasy puccoon-root mosquito repellent that I’ve slathered over my skin, I smell the musky scent of river, of willows, and cottonwoods along the bank.

I think of the Powers inherent to water—of the Tie Snakes who live in the river’s depths, and Snapping Turtle, and the Underwater Panther. I think of the stories told by Albaamaha elders late at night. Of men who swam down into the depths and darkness and became Tie Snakes themselves.

Since the night I drank the nectar, I, too, have become a being of darkness. Ultimately, the nectar will be my weapon of revenge.

War Leader Strong Mussel barks a laugh—the sound of it as disturbing to me as the cracking of a wooden beam. I really hate that man. Him, and all the warriors that my father sent to “escort” me to my new home. To the husband I am promised to marry.

My father? He is White Water Moccasin of the Chief Clan, high minko, or supreme ruler, of the Sky Hand people. My mother is Evening Oak of the Raccoon Clan, who serves the people as high matron.

It is to be my “honor.” Those are my mother and father’s words. The verdict and order of my lineage and clan. Their ultimate betrayal after I came so close to escaping.

I still don’t know how it went wrong. Just an accident of circumstance? Or Power inserting itself into my life?

Power can be such a capricious force, working for its own purposes. Changing lives. Playing with someone like me as if I were nothing but a toy dangled from a string. I’d made it. Escaped. Run away with young Straight Corn. We were free, taken in among the forest Albaamaha.

For those few months, we lived the rapture of our love, sharing laughter, smiles, hopes, and exploring our bodies.…

But I lose the thread of my thoughts. I need to concentrate on where I am and why. It’s been twenty days now since leaving Split Sky City. I have been paddled up the Black Warrior River, carried across the portage and through the T’so lands, and down to the Tenasee River. From there my seemingly inexhaustible guards raced downriver to the Mother Water. After resting for a day at its confluence with the Father Water—and visiting with the passing Traders—we’re heading up the great river.

This night we are camped below what are called the chains, a rocky constriction in the Father Water’s channel. Immediately east and behind our small camp, a gray, moss-covered, sandstone bluff rises. Its base is choked with brush, its top forested with oak, maple, ash, and hickory trees.

Our camp is positioned on the sloping bank of the river—a narrow, sandy strip of low-terraced beaches left by the falling water lines. War Leader Strong Mussel has ordered my bed to be placed between the fire and the canoes, where it is illuminated by the crackling bonfire. The rest of the warriors surround me in a half circle, barring any chance of escape into the willows just up from the beach.

As if I could get away in the first place. Strong Mussel has tied a rawhide leash to my right ankle. He cleverly poured water onto the complicated knots, which caused them to shrink so tightly I’d need a couple of hands of time and the use of a pointed hardwood stick or a sliver of bone to work them loose. No fool, he checks my tether every night and again the next morning.

I could cut the strap with a sharp stone or a flake of bone, but they search the ground carefully before each camp. I never have less than three sets of eyes on me at any given time.

My people are the Sky Hand Moskogee. Masters of the raid and war. We are adept at taking and transporting desperate prisoners over long distances. Once upon a time, I took pride in that, having watched our victorious warriors returning from distant raids, parading their prisoners before them. Now I stare longingly at the darkness, wishing I was just beyond the fire’s gleam. Out there, where I could vanish into the night and fade into nothingness.

My party of warriors might be called an “escort,” and I might be the first daughter of White Water Moccasin, of the Chief Clan’s ruling lineage. My uncle, who is mother’s brother, or mosi, might be the tishu minko, or second chief of the Sky Hand people. I might indeed be the second-most important woman in my people’s world, but after what I have done, Father, Uncle, and Mother consider me a disgrace. A scandal to be dispensed with, eliminated, and forgotten. All of which means I am as desperate a prisoner as these veteran and blooded warriors have ever transported.

I listen to an owl hooting up on the cliff, and the warriors tense, gazes shifting to the night. Owls are considered bad luck among my people. Especially when they are encountered by war parties. This, however, is a peaceful expedition. A fact signified by the White Arrow that Strong Mussel carries before him.

White is the color of peace and tranquility, of wisdom and restraint and harmony. None of which exists within my storming souls. I am red inside, the color of chaos, blood, conflict, and creation.

I am here because I fell in love with Straight Corn. They knew, of course. There were never any secrets in the high minko’s palace. But they thought it a child’s infatuation, as though I was enamored of a kind of sophisticated pet. The sort of girlish intrigue that would wane when I became a woman.

I’d passed my fifteenth summer when the cramps and bleeding started. Dutifully, they locked me away in the Women’s House for the obligatory lectures on how to behave like a proper woman. I was told in detail how a woman’s monthly discharge had to be restricted to the Women’s House. That it would pollute a man’s Power, sicken his souls, and contaminate his possessions. A boring and endless repetition of the things I’d grown up hearing. As if I hadn’t had it pounded into me since I was a baby.

Then they’d given me my first woman’s skirt with its carefully tied virgin’s knot, fixed my hair, and paraded me out into public for my woman’s feast. For two days my womanhood was celebrated: They dangled me before every high-ranking male in the territory as a potential wife. I was given the most lavish of gifts.

And then, the final night, as guests were leaving, and Uncle and Mother where slapping themselves on the back in celebration over the triumph, I sneaked out into the darkness, took Straight Corn by the hand, and we ran away together to start our new lives.

As I sit here by the river—surrounded by guards—and nurse the rage in my heart, I wonder where he is. Is he staring up at the same night sky? Is he, too, hearing a distant owl? Is he longing for me as much as I long for him?

I know they didn’t catch him. I saw Fox Willow slip away before she was spotted. She would have warned the others, given them ample opportunity to ghost away into the forest before Uncle’s warriors could be sent to comb the area.

Knowing how important Straight Corn is to the Albaamaha resistance, they’d do everything in their ability to keep him free. For that, at least, I can be thankful.

I may be promised in marriage to the Morning Star, but I am far from consigned to my fate. While I was in the forest, living with the Albaamaha and sharing Straight Corn’s bed, I learned the ancient ways. Became an initiate into the ancient secrets of darkness and the dangerous arts.

For now I must bide my time. Strong Mussel understands intuitively. He knows I’m far from being defeated. Somewhere, some way, I will see my chance to get away. Can he and his warriors maintain their vigilance forever?

But eventually I will no longer be his concern. Once I become the Morning Star’s wife, everything is going to change. The rage is going to burn free, and I will find my way back to Straight Corn. Assuming I can be clever enough and use the ancient arts to their fullest effect.

This one thing I swear on the blood of my ancestors: Straight Corn, I will find my way back to you no matter what the cost! And no one will stand in my way.

Willing the Power to rise within me, I close my eyes, find that place of strength deep in my core. I extend my arms to either side, stretching, feeling the slight breeze on my skin.

As I touch the Power, I send my call into the night. I feel them stirring, the strengthening of wings. Around me, the night stirs.

Yes, come to me! Bring the ancient Power.

I feel the first of them as they alight on my hands, forearms, and shoulders. Their wings caress my cheeks.

Why haven’t I done this before?

A scream jerks me back to the now, and my eyes blink open.

More screams.

At first I can’t make sense of the sight. The warriors are on their feet, arms flailing at a swarm of humming moths.

Is this my chance?

I get to my feet, take a step. Only to feel the leash pull tight.

Batting at the swarm of moths around us, Cloud Tassel—eyes wide with panic—nevertheless keeps hold of my tether.

The moths vanish into the night. But I smile. It will only be a matter of time.

 

Copyright © 2017 Kathleen O’Neal and W. Michael Gear

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