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He stopped at the edge of a winding stream, a tangerine moonglow on its rippling surface, and debated crossing it to continue deeper into the rain forest or following it to the sea.

Then he heard them.

Dogs.

They weren’t far behind.

He needed to keep moving. If his pursuers caught him, he was worse than dead.

Aldo’s bare feet splashed in the stream as he chose to follow the water. A jagged stone tore his foot open. Ignoring the spike of pain, he continued along the far bank, veering in and out of the water to throw off the dogs.

His moves were driven purely by instinct. Aldo was just seventeen, but tonight he’d die like a man if he was caught.

The thought fueled him: lose them or die. There was no third option.

He picked up his pace when he heard the snap of twigs behind him. Only a heartbeat away. Urging himself forward, caution abandoned, he fought to put enough distance between himself and his trackers to buy a slim chance at survival.

A native of Guadalcanal, Aldo never came to this part of the island—nobody did—so he had no special knowledge of the area, no sly tricks that would gain him an advantage. All he had was panic-fueled energy and the desperation of a cornered rat.

He heard them closing in on him.

How had he gotten sucked into this nightmare? It seemed impossible, yet he was racing for his life in the dark of night. A thicket of bamboo rose out of the darkness on his right and for a moment he considered trying to hide, his exhaustion arguing for it with every ragged gasp.

Aldo’s side hurt, a sharp lance of pain below his rib cage, but he didn’t allow himself to think about it. He had to keep going.

But where? Assuming he evaded his pursuers, where could he go that he would be safe? It was a small island. He could just return home, hoping that it was all a bad dream. But they would come for him before he could tell anyone and he’d just disappear.

Like the others.

Thunder roared overhead. The heavens let loose a deluge of warm rain, and Aldo smiled even as his gaze roved over the brush. The rain might throw the dogs off his trail.

A bolt of lightning streaked across the sky and for a second his surroundings lit up in the bright flash. He spotted a faint game track in the heavy foliage to his left and made a snap decision. The ground was spongy and slick from the cloudburst as he climbed the bank and followed the route parallel to the waterline. Now Aldo could clearly hear the dogs on his trail, all pretense of stealth discarded as they sensed his proximity.

Any hope he’d lost them evaporated as claws scrabbled on the ground behind him, followed by clomping boots. Aldo willed himself to move even faster, now running blind, the skin of his feet shredded and bleeding.

And then he tumbled and slipped onto his back and down a slope on a blanket of wet leaves, gravity pulling him inexorably to the bottom of the gulch the trail skirted. He thudded to a stop, stunned, his momentum halted by a tree trunk. When he reached up and felt his skull, his fingers came away slick with blood. Gulping for air like a drowning man, he tried to orient himself as he fought the dizziness.

Aldo forced himself up. His ribs and left arm radiated pain and immediately he knew he’d broken bones. Thankfully, not the ones he needed to run, but the agony was enough to hobble him in the harsh environment. He looked around in the near-total darkness, his vision blurry from the fall, and spotted a promising opening between the vines. He moved into the gap and found himself on another track.

His pulse thudded in his ears as he drove himself to the limits of his endurance. His cracked ribs sent searing spasms through his chest with each breath. The sound of his trackers faded as he pushed himself to the brink, and for the first time since he’d bolted for freedom he dared hope he might make it.

Aldo’s foot snagged under a vine and he went down. He uttered an involuntary cry as he hit the ground and his ankle gave way with a sickening snap. Tears of rage welled in his eyes, and then the world faded as he passed out.

When he regained consciousness a few minutes later, Aldo found himself staring into a snarling canine’s muzzle. His heart sank even before the hated voice of his pursuer drifted to him through a fog—the last words he’d ever hear, he was sure.

“Don’t you know you can never escape on an island?”

A boot slammed into his temple before he could get his mouth to cooperate with his brain, to protest or plead or curse or beg for mercy. A starburst exploded in his head; the agony was excruciating. He tried to muster a defense, but his arms and legs were leaden.

Aldo’s last thought was that this was some kind of mistake, a misunderstanding, and then the boot landed again, harder. His neck snapped with a crack, and Aldo’s final living sensation was the tingle of the warm rain splattering on his face, and then he silently slipped into another world.

CHAPTER 1

Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, 1170 A.D.

Dawn’s glow shimmered off the flat ocean as a column of islanders marched along a jungle trail, their voices hushed as they neared the coast and their destination, the new city said to have been built on the very surface of the sea.

At the head of the group was the chief holy man, decked out in a colorful robe in defiance of the ever-present heat. His skin was the color of jerky, and a sheen of sweat coated his face. One of the few to have already made the pilgrimage to the just completed palace near the western tip of Guadalcanal, he was now leading his flock to the site. He gazed back at the procession with satisfaction—he’d collected the most important men in the kingdom for the journey, many of whom were newly arrived from the surrounding islands, for the ceremony and festivities that were to last the remainder of the week.

Slivers of light filtered through the overhead canopy of tropical trees as the group moved along the faint game trail, surrounded on all sides by dense jungle. The islands were untamed, and the majority of the Guadalcanal tribes lived within a hundred yards of the shore, avoiding the inland areas that abounded with predators both real and imagined. Legends of giants, ferocious creatures more than twice the size of a man, that traversed the island through a series of underground caves and satisfied their thirst for human blood by attacking the unwary or the careless. Besides, there was no reason to brave the unknown in the interior of the island when a generous bounty from the sea could be had for the asking.

The shaman halted at the top of a rise. The miracle beyond now jutted from the bay—buildings rising from the waves where before had only been water. He pointed at the impossible spectacle with his staff, ornately carved with reliefs of deities, and murmured the king’s name in a tone reserved for prayer to the gods. Indeed, the king seemed like he’d descended from heaven, so unlike ordinary men that he had become a legend in his own lifetime.

This—King Loc’s greatest achievement—made all his others pale in comparison. Loc’s vision of a series of man-made islets had been realized using local rock in the relatively shallow half-moon-shaped harbor. After the celebration, the buildings would be used as the royal residence.

The island’s holy men considered the compound sacred, evidence of Loc’s divine superiority. His builders had spent a decade creating it, with thousands of men quarrying and transporting the rock to the shore. Nothing like it had ever been seen, and the king had assured his counselors that its completion signaled the beginning of a new era.

Nobody doubted his word—Loc was a ruler who had transformed his island from a humble trading collective to a wealthy kingdom, an empire with untold riches legendary among his people. By organizing a primitive mining effort focused on locating gemstones and gold, he’d made the island’s fortunes. What had been just another stop on a lackluster trade route had become a hub of wealth whispered about on distant shores.

     

 

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