Chapter One

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The Annabelle was becalmed. No breeze pushed the heavy craft and its weathered sail hung limp in the cruel heat. Caught in the doldrums where there could be no wind for days, eight slaves in a tiny skiff towed the weighty hulk across the glass surface. No birds circled. No clouds obscured the bright red sun. The calm water was a vast expanse of barren desolation. Yet these voyagers were not lost. Every feigor aboard, that is to say, every living person knew they were close to their destination. Any moment now they expected the lookout on the masthead would spot the rocky shores of The Forbidden Island.

The Isle of Ligne was small and hard to find. It lay hidden in a salty void that offered no help to sailors, not even wind. The briny sea was a salt pan but not entirely vacant. There was something else here. An invisible presence lurked in the emptiness and grew in the minds of certain crew members. One captive rower on the starboard side felt it and he savored its soothing tingle as remedy for his suffering.

Lonastasius Treanole was the youngest, skinniest prisoner on board. He was a bucktoothed beanpole from the Woodwold. A stripling, just seventeen years old, most of his olive skin was covered in oily black hair. He had a big nose, weak eyes and gaping front teeth. He was slow, shy and the natural curiosity he'd once held for the world had been reduced to one dreadful question; will I survive this day?

On that morning Lon's shoulder was green with fungus that'd congealed over his slave tunic. His festering wound marked the abuse he'd suffered two days earlier and the agony went straight down his spine. Yet he rowed as hard as the others. The youth baked under his long black hair and he was half-crazed with thirst, but more, the heat masked another sensation happening deeper in his head. Something pleasant infected his thoughts and numbed his pain.

The young foreigner had no idea what it was he felt. He'd never been near the Port of Ligne before and so he'd never experienced the ethereal power that projects-up from the canyon in the center of the Forbidden Isle. Few people have ever experienced this sensation, and even fewer knew what it meant. But Lon did know the isle was the gateway to an underground prison called Oub. Those deep caves were a place of eternal banishment, a subterranean lockup. It was the wildlife preserve where a thousand years earlier their ancestors had exiled a race of intelligent rock-tunneling creatures they called the Tokgorin.

That's why the place was forbidden. It was off-limits to everyone save those with Warden's Keys and there were only twelve of those, one for each tribe. The fabled setting was the ultimate land of mystery and a backdrop for ancient myth. More recently, Ligne was the port of origin for a popular adventure series printed on coarse paper broadsheets. These sagas were written by many different authors, in many different languages, but all were known collectively as deepcomber stories. That's what everyone called the professionals who held the sacred keys and their stories were the highly collectible. These legendary warriors were just myths now, but their achievements were still known across the globe. Each broadsheet was a limited-edition print that chronicled one company's adventure beyond the Great Door, one descent into Oub.

Lonastasius didn't connect the sensation he felt in his body with the position of the ship or its proximity to this ancient prison. He believed a deity named Amon, the Creator's favourite son had left the Woodwold to help him. Why not? He'd sure prayed enough, and he'd been kind and helpful to others; he'd kept Amon's Code. The Forest God had never failed to protect his village back home.

Nobody watched the lad or knew how he suffered. The seven other convicts were wrapped in their own miserable rituals. No other sound save the splash of the oars, the creak of both vessels and the exhorter's rhythmic grunts distracted him from the ball of comfort in his body. 

Come back soon and we'll show them. Those were the last words Lon's mother said the night he'd run away. He remembered her now more often these days. His real father too; every little thing he knew about him was precious. A fearless lumberjack, he'd died young. He was flawlessly good and had disappeared in the woods and his body was never found. The village magistrate was corrupt and his wicked pen had forced his mom to join the Treanole clan, and that was when his life turned tragic.

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