Jason and his friends are fugitives. Half the humanoid races in the galaxy will do anything to capture him. The other half will do anything to kill him.
Everyone believes that when he places the Hand of Osiris in the Hiarchalia, the mysterious Hathor, the ancestor of all humanoid races, will return.
But what if everyone is wrong?
With only the cryptic words of a disembodied Ardemesius to guide them, Jason and his friends must stay one step ahead of their pursuers as he searches for the answer to this question: What will really happen when the Talics are all joined again, for the first time in over 800,000 years?
The answer could determine the future of human civilization—or even if there is to be a future.
The Treasure of Hathor is complete and published! Check out the first four chapters below!
THE TREASURE OF HATHOR
Children of Hathor – Book III
Jason Hunter glanced over his shoulder at the darkening jungle. It wouldn’t be long before the gulangal emerged from their burrows to begin the night’s hunt. He and his friends would be easy prey once those predators picked up their scent.
Ularu uttered a curse and slammed his hand against the face of the cliff. “I don’t understand! The door always opened when I pressed my hand here!”
Jason couldn’t see any sign of a door in the smooth rock, even though Ularu insisted it was there. Supposedly, a long flight of stairs behind it led up to Ardemesius’ cliffside home.
“Maybe Ardemesius was opening it for you,” Kevin Hayashi said.
“What now?” Jason asked. “Is there somewhere we can go to be safe until morning?”
The Ilphran guide scowled. “Nowhere.” He looked up. “We have to climb.”
“You gotta be kidding me,” Kevin said. “It’s straight up!”
“Climb or get eaten.” Ularu shifted his rifle onto his back, tested a foothold, and started pulling himself up the cliff.
Amelia Reis shifted her camera around so it lay against her back. She looked at Jason, shrugged, and started up after the Ilphran.
Kevin followed her with his eyes and sighed. “Jason, why do I let you talk me into these things?”
“This was the only thing that made sense, Kev. How else are we going to find out about the Assessment?” He watched Amelia move nimbly up the sheer cliff. At times she seemed impatient with Ularu’s halting efforts to find hand and toe holds. “Has she done this before?”
“I think she went rock climbing a few times when she lived in China.”
Jason shook his head. Amelia was constantly surprising him.
A piercing cry in the distance made both boys turn and stare into the jungle. The nearest trees were only a few feet away, so close to the cliff that their branches brushed the gray rock. The setting sun had turned everything beyond into a forbidding gloom.
“Come on, you guys!” Amelia called down. “What are you waiting for?”
“Go ahead, Kevin,” Jason said. He didn’t know if the Hand of Osiris would protect him from the gulangal, but it was more than Kevin had going for him. Of course, that wasn’t saying much.
Joining his Amulon Talic to the Kutharian and the Quetzcatán Talics to make the Hand had supposedly produced one of the most powerful objects in the universe. Too bad it didn’t work. It was a struggle to get the stupid thing to do anything he wanted, and it wouldn’t do anything at all unless Amelia and Kevin were both touching him.
A chorus of distant screams brought him back to the moment. He understood the timbre of those sounds. The gulangal had caught the humans’ scent. Jason dropped his Ilphran backpack and started climbing. The cliff wasn’t exactly vertical, which helped, but the rock was slippery from rain and cold to the touch. It didn’t take long for his fingers to start hurting.
By now, Ularu was at least a hundred feet up, with Amelia close behind. Kevin had only managed to climb about twenty feet, and it was clear he was struggling. Suddenly, Ularu cried out. Jason craned his neck to look up. A faint shimmering had appeared in the air above Ularu’s head. Hovering above the force field was one of Ardemesius’ softball-sized robots.
Another set of high-pitched cries came from the jungle, much closer this time. Abandoning caution, Jason scrambled upward. His foot slipped and he banged his knee, but he managed to recover. In moments, he was right under Kevin, who had paused to rest.
“You have to go faster, Kev.”
“I’m going as fast as I can!” He was out of breath, and the side of his face was pressed against the cliff, causing his glasses to go crooked. “I’m not strong enough for this!”
Suddenly, there was a crash in the underbrush below. A group of gulangal burst from the jungle and several of them flung themselves up the cliff toward Jason. Instinctively, he pulled his legs up, but with Kevin’s feet right over his head, he had nowhere to go.
Two gulangal scrambled to within one body length of him, but they seemed to have trouble getting purchase with their long, curved claws. For one blood-freezing moment, Jason locked eyes with one of the pre-sentient beasts. He saw more than intelligence and hunger there. He saw hatred. Pure, unfiltered loathing. In that one brief second he realized the gulangal didn’t just want to kill humans for food, they wanted to kill humans because they hated them. Then the ape-like monsters slid back, their claws scraping and scratching against the rock like fingernails on a blackboard. When they hit the ground, they let out another chorus of eardrum-piercing screams.
Jason cringed. It felt like the cries were peeling the skin right off his body.
“Holy smokes,” Kevin said, his voice trembling.
“Kevin, you have to move!”
Kevin started climbing again, but he was still way too slow. Jason looked under one arm. The gulangal were pacing back and forth below. One of them reached over to the cliff, testing the rock with its claws. It looked just like a person evaluating the situation, looking for the best way to proceed. After a moment, it placed a foot on a protruding rock, reached for a handhold, and began slowly and methodically climbing.
“Oh, boy,” Jason said under his breath.
Ularu called down from above. “I can’t get a good shot with you two in my way!”
“Go sideways, Kevin,” Jason said.
“To the right! Move to the right!” At the same time, Jason began searching for handholds to his left. Maybe they could open up a window between them to give Ularu a clean shot.
There was a loud “CRACK!” and a blue bolt of energy shot by so close Jason could feel the heat. Sparks erupted below him, and the gulang fell screeching from the cliff. Jason looked up. Ularu had twisted himself around so he could fire his rifle with one hand while the other held on to the cliff. It was an awkward position. Jason felt lucky Ularu hadn’t hit him.
“You need to get up here!” Ularu shouted. “I can’t shoot accurately like this!”
“No kidding,” Jason muttered. Ignoring his aching fingers, he resumed climbing, matching his rate to Kevin’s. It was frustrating to move so slowly, but he wasn’t about to leave Kevin down here alone. The gulangal seemed hesitant to try again, though. They just stood with their gaze locked on the humans clinging to the cliff.
After a few tense moments, both Jason and Kevin reached the same level as Ularu and Amelia, Jason to their left and Kevin to their right. The force field shimmered directly above them, held in place by the hovering orb.
“Hey!” Kevin called. “There’s a ledge over here!” He pulled himself onto a shelf of rock. It was only a little over a foot wide, but it allowed him to stand without clinging to the cliff. The other three began moving in that direction. By the time Jason stepped onto it, his aching fingers were bleeding from a dozen small cuts and scrapes. He wiped them on his pants.
Ularu was watching the gulangal, but Amelia and Kevin were studying the force field. Except for a faint, sparkling luminescence, it was nearly transparent. The orb was no more than twenty feet above them.
“Don’t you recognize us?” Amelia shouted. “We were here before!”
The orb made no response.
“You need to let us in!” Jason shouted up. “It’s an emergency!”
The field didn’t waver.
“I’m the Holder of the Amulon Talic! Here, look!” He pulled the Hand of Osiris from under his shirt and held it up. “You know what this is, don’t you? You need to let us in!”
“All right, fine,” Jason said, his anger rising. “We’ll do it the hard way.” He hoisted himself within reach of the force field and pressed the glowing Hand against it. Concentric circles of yellow light spread out from the point of contact, growing brighter by the moment. Then there was a “POP!” and the field disappeared.
“There! Now we can—”
The words were hardly out of his mouth before another orb shot down and the field appeared again, this time a little lower. Ularu had to incline his head to keep the field from electrifying his hair. He scowled at Jason.
“That’s really stupid!” Jason yelled up. “Don’t you see you have to let us up? We can’t stay here all night!” He glared at the silent orbs for a moment, then turned and slumped against the wall. His clothes were still wet from the surprise cloudburst that had slowed them down, and the bare rock was cold through his shirt. He looked down at the gulangal, which were now just shifting shadows in the twilight gloom.
“They won’t leave,” Ularu said quietly. “They’ll wait for us to fall, one by one.”
“Great,” Jason said. He leaned back and closed his eyes. A drop of water hit his nose, making him look up. It was starting to rain again, lightly at the moment, but the heavy sky promised plenty more.
“Maybe we should try opening a door again,” Kevin said, jerking his head toward the veranda far above.
“Being closer doesn’t help,” Jason replied. “We still need something that all three of us remember well enough to focus on. If we couldn’t do it back in the village, it won’t be any different here.”
“Well, I just thought…”
“Besides, even if we could, those stupid orbs would probably just throw us off the mountain.”
“I would have thought they’d recognize us,” Amelia said. “They have to be at least as smart as Bob.” She was referring to the orb Ardemesius had given Jason.
“Ardemesius probably left them with instructions not to let anyone in.”
“Well, I bet if we had Bob, they’d let us in,” Kevin said.
A light went on in Amelia’s eyes. “Kevin’s right. Let’s go get him.”
Bob was sitting on the bureau in his room back home, out of power. On top of that, the last time Jason looked, his house was overrun with Council guards. He shook his head. “You know we can’t do that. The Council is just waiting to grab us if we show up.”
“It’s not like we have a ton of choices,” Kevin said. He shifted a foot and dislodged a bit of stone that clattered down the cliff. As if in response, the milling gulangal let loose a piercing wail that cut through the darkness like a razor.
“Holy crap,” Kevin said.
Ularu aimed his rifle downward, then seemed to think better of it. He glared at Jason.
Jason avoided the look. He couldn’t blame the Ilphran for being mad at him. Coming here was his idea. It had seemed like a good one at the time. Since they were hiding on Ilphra anyway, it made sense to return to Ardemesius’ dwelling. The old scholar had helped Jason in his quest to rescue his parents. What better way to learn more about the Hathor, the Hand of Osiris, and the so-called Assessment than by searching through all the information Ardemesius had almost certainly collected over the centuries? Jason had assured Ularu they’d get into the old man’s home, find what they wanted, and return to Ularu’s village in a couple of days.
He hadn’t counted on the storm slowing them down, the obstinate orbs, or the pack of hungry gulangal waiting for them to fall. How long could they stay awake? How long before their legs gave out and they tumbled to their deaths? He felt a sting on his neck and slapped at a biting insect. Even Ilphra had mosquitoes, apparently.
“Jason, what else can we do?” Amelia asked.
He sighed. She was right. This was a dead end – literally – if they couldn’t find a way out. “Well…maybe if we’re quick and get in and out before anyone knows we’re there.” It would be tough. He’d have to ignore the fact that his parents were captives in the house. He wouldn’t be able to see them, or even say hi. He glared at the orbs above him. “Stupid things.”
Kevin looked at Ularu, then at Jason, who was standing on the other side of the Ilphran. “The only thing is, how are we going to…”
“I’ll come over there.” Then, to Ularu, “I have to get by you.”
The Ilphran frowned. “Why?”
“It’s hard to explain.” Ularu had seen the three of them pop out of a door once, but he’d never seen them open one and disappear into it. It was probably going to give him a shock. But first, Jason had to squeeze by the big man on a ledge that was only a little wider than his feet. “It’s probably our only chance to get out of this, though.”
Ularu grunted and held his rifle to his left side. Jason carefully turned to face the cliff and sidled over. Ularu grabbed Jason’s arm and held him as Jason put first one foot between Ularu’s, and then the other. His heels hung over the edge. For a moment, his face was right up against the Ilphran’s chest, at which point he became uncomfortably aware that Ilphrans—or at least this particular one—did not use deodorant. Then he was on the other side, next to Amelia. Keeping his body pressed against the rock, he turned until he once again faced outward.
“Okay, give me your hands.” He reached across Amelia with his left hand and Kevin took it. Then he grabbed Amelia’s right hand with his. The rain started to fall harder. He closed his eyes and visualized Bob in his mind’s eye. After a moment, he felt the subtle, almost imperceptible shift that occurred every time his talisman opened a door through space-time. The Hand began to glow softly, and the air in front of them shimmered.
Ularu sucked in his breath.
Jason knew even before an image appeared that it wasn’t what he wanted. The Hand was fighting him, pulling itself toward the council chamber on Ré.
No! he thought, fighting back. Not yet! He concentrated harder, imagining his orb sitting on top of his bureau. An image appeared, wavering in and out of focus like a distant mirage. Then Jason felt the universe move the way he wanted and the image cleared. Bob sat tucked between a lamp and a conch shell, right where Jason had left him.
“Okay, let’s go.”
Kevin held back. “Wait a minute! You want us to step right off this ledge, into the air?”
“We’re not stepping into air, we’re stepping into my room. We’ve done this a hundred times, Kev.”
“I know, but…” He peered over the edge at the ground far below. “Not like this.”
“There’s nowhere else to open the door.” The image of Jason’s room wiggled briefly. “Come on. I can’t keep it open for long.” He looked at Ularu. “We’ll be back in a minute.” Then, under his breath, “I hope.”
The Ilphran just stared, his brow furrowed, as though unable to believe what he was seeing. Jason and his friends stepped off the ledge and into his bedroom back home, on Earth.
His room looked just as it had when he left for school a few weeks ago, before the three of them were abducted by Joormilians. Books were piled on an overstuffed bookshelf, and his surfboard leaned against the wall in one corner. Surf posters covered the walls. T-shirts and dirty socks lay scattered on the floor, and his bed was unmade. He knew his mom would have taken care of all that, if she had been allowed to. The council guards must have come right after Jason reclaimed his Talic on Ré.
Seeing his room gave him a pang of homesickness so intense it took his breath away. He wished more than anything that he could just stay, that the Hand of Osiris would simply disappear, and that everything could go back to the way it was before his parents were abducted. Before he discovered the spaceship in the woods. Before he claimed the Amulon Talic. He wished none of it had ever happened.
Voices from downstairs interrupted his thoughts. He let go of Kevin’s and Amelia’s hands and went to his bureau. His wet sneakers squished. The floor under his feet creaked. The voices stopped. He grabbed Bob and turned back to the others, but before he could take a step, a paralyzing force field surrounded him.
He couldn’t move. He couldn’t even speak. Water from his rain-soaked hair trickled down his face and dripped into his eyes. It stung him and blurred his vision, but he couldn’t blink it out.
The door to his room slammed open and three red-uniformed guards poured in. Two of them aimed their weapons at Kevin and Amelia, who backed away, eyes wide. The third guard picked up a small black box from the floor next to Jason’s closet. A beam of light shone from the box to the force field. It was the field generator, and Jason hadn’t even noticed it sitting there. The trap had been waiting for him!
A moment later, a tall, thin man in a green robe entered the room. His skin was pale and his hair was white, though his face appeared young. A semi-circular golden object hung around his neck. It was another Talic.
“At last,” the man said in Ulltanian. His face wore a smugly satisfied smile. “I knew it was only a matter of time before—” His eyes fell to the object hanging from Jason’s neck and his expression turned to one of shock, followed by a brief flicker of fear. “The Hand of Osiris!”
“Is my son up there?” It was his mom’s voice, calling from downstairs. “Let me see him!” There was a scuffle. “Let go of me! Let me see my son!”
The Ulltanian councilor looked at the doorway, distracted by the commotion. He appeared to be confused and frightened. After a moment, he regained his composure and turned back to Jason. “Well, this was unexpected. How did you—?”
“Jason!” It was his mom again.
“Let her go!” It was his dad’s voice. Another scuffle.
The Ulltanian turned to one of the guards holding Kevin and Amelia at gunpoint. “Get down there and keep them quiet!” After the guard left, he spoke to Jason again. “We will soon find out how you managed it.”
In the next instant, he opened a door to a place Jason didn’t recognize. He did, however, recognize the person on the other end. It was Keelo Torr, the lead councilor. The one who had made Jason into a criminal and a fugitive. There was murder in her eyes.
“Well done,” she said. Then her eyes widened. “He has the Hand! How—?” Her eyes narrowed again. “Bring him immediately.”
“And the others?” The Ulltanian asked, gesturing toward Kevin and Amelia.
“He must have needed them to acquire the Hand. He won’t be able to control it without them. Kill them.”
The words were like a body blow to Jason’s gut. He felt the blood drain from his face. He wanted to scream. He strained against the force holding him, but nothing happened. He was completely immobilized. If only he could control the Talics! If only he could move!
The Ulltanian councilor spoke to the guard with the gun. “Do it after I’ve left with the boy. Make it quick.”
The guard nodded once. Jason couldn’t see Kevin’s face, but Amelia was looking at Jason with an expression of deep sadness. Through sheer force of will, he fought against the field.
Tears of frustration welled up in his eyes. Then Bob, still tucked into the crook of Jason’s left arm, began to vibrate ever so slightly. A thin beam of white light lanced out from the orb, pierced the force field, and struck the generator box. The box exploded, throwing the guard against the wall. In an instant, the field was gone.
Every muscle in Jason’s body felt like jelly, but he lurched toward his friends.
“Stop him!” Keelo Torr shouted. “Don’t let him—”
She was too late. Kevin and Amelia knew exactly what to do. They ran toward Jason and placed their hands on his shoulders, and his connection to the Talics came back. He thrust his open hand toward the Ulltanian councilor and the man flew through the door he had opened, directly into Torr. The two of them tumbled together, and the door closed.
The remaining guard fired at Jason, but the bolt reflected back and slammed the man into the wall, where he collapsed in a heap. Rapid footsteps came up the stairs and the third guard appeared in the doorway. Jason thrust out his palm again and the guard flew backward over the railing, crashing into the dining room below.
“Jason!” his mom cried.
“Mom, Dad, I’m okay, but I have to go!”
“Jason! Wait!” It was his dad.
“I can’t!” He turned to his friends. “We have to get out of here, before they come back! Both of you, hold my arm, and picture Ularu!” With Kevin grasping his wrist and Amelia holding tightly to his upper arm, he opened a door back to Ilphra and they stepped through.
Jason slammed into the side of the cliff and groped with his free hand for something to hold on to. Kevin slipped and one foot came off the ledge. Amelia reached out, grabbed his shirt, and yanked him back.
“Thanks,” Kevin said, his voice trembling.
Ularu, startled by their sudden reappearance, had leveled his rifle, but he lowered it when he saw who it was.
Jason remained pressed against the cold stone for several moments, one hand cradling Bob and the other holding on to the cliff. It was raining hard. Water ran down the cliff wall, splashed his face, and drenched his already wet clothes. He hardly noticed. He couldn’t get Torr’s image out of his mind or forget the cold expression on her face. Her words echoed in his head. “Kill them.”
It was worse than he thought. Way worse. Shalan had said the others would shoot. He didn’t want to believe her at the time. Now he knew she was right. How will we ever get out of this? How will I protect my friends? How will I protect Amelia? Tears welled up in his eyes, and he was thankful for the rain that hid them.
“Did you hear what she said?” Kevin went on. “They were going to kill us, Amelia! Me and you!”
“I heard her, Kevin.” She touched Jason’s arm. “Jason, are you all right?”
He took a deep breath and nodded. “Still a little shaky, I guess. That force field was nasty.” He let go of the rock and wiped the mix of rain and tears from his face. “Are you guys okay?”
Amelia smiled. Even soaking wet, with her hair plastered to her head, her smile made his heart jump. “It would be nice to get out of the rain,” she replied.
“Right,” he said, nodding again. He looked up at the hovering orbs. “I hope this works.” He took Bob in both hands and lifted him toward the force field. For a moment, nothing happened. Then the field dropped. One of the orbs swooped down, snatched Bob from Jason’s grip with a levitating beam, and shot upward to disappear over the edge of the veranda. The field snapped back into place.
“What’s up with that?” Kevin exclaimed.
Jason stared, perplexed. That was not what he had expected.
“Maybe they just need to recharge him, so he can talk to them,” Amelia said. “Don’t worry. They’ll let us in.” She tucked her camera under her shirt and sat down on the ledge, her legs dangling over the side. “I hope it’s soon, though, because I’m getting cold.” She crossed her arms over her chest.
Two warbling cries, like a pair of cats in a horrific fight, came up from the base of the cliff. The gulangal were still there, waiting.
“And then there’s that,” Kevin said sardonically.
“How do you do that?” Ularu said.
“Huh?” Jason had almost forgotten their Ilphran guide. He was surprised by the man’s tone and the look of anger on his face. “Do what? What do you mean?”
Ularu gestured toward the spot where the door had been. “That. Disappear. Where did you go?”
“We went home. Earth.”
Ularu’s anger seemed to increase. “Why did you not travel to Ardemesius’ home the same way? Why are we standing here like this?” Then a thought seemed to occur to him and his anger turned to bewilderment. “Why did you return?”
“We couldn’t very well leave you like this, could we?”
Ularu looked momentarily stunned. Then his expression softened. But Jason realized he wasn’t being fair. The truth was, Ularu had been the last thing on his mind. “We had to come back,” he said. “They almost captured us, and they were going to…” He let the words trail off. It was bad enough thinking about it. He didn’t want to say it.
Ularu pointed at the Hand of Osiris. “All this trouble, it’s because of that, isn’t it?” When Jason nodded, Ularu said, “Why don’t you just get rid of it?”
Jason uttered a short, humorless laugh. “If only it was that simple.” He looked up at the force field again. What were they doing with Bob? What if he was so drained they couldn’t recharge him? What then? The four travelers were soaked to the bone, and all of them were shivering, even Ularu. Kevin looked particularly miserable. Jason was certain that if the orbs didn’t let them in, none of them would survive the night.
No matter what I do, everything goes from bad to worse, he thought. He wasn’t surprised Keelo Torr knew he needed Kevin and Amelia in order to control the Hand. It was no secret that Amelia was part Thothian and Kevin was part Quetzcat. But why was that a reason to kill them?
He felt like a net was closing in. How much longer could they stay hidden? How much longer could he protect his friends?
“Jason,” Amelia said.
He had been staring down, unseeing, into the dark jungle. He looked up. Four orbs were hovering in front of him, one of them no more than a foot from his face. Raindrops splattered and jigged across its metallic surface.
“Bob? Bob! Boy, am I glad to see you! We need to—”
He didn’t even have to finish the sentence. The orbs swept in and lifted the four people. The gulangal, seeing their prey suddenly whisked to safety, screamed in protest. The orbs carried everyone up and deposited them on the veranda, then they scooted off to hover nearby.
It was different than Jason remembered. There was still a waist-high wall running along the edge, but the stone table that had been in the middle of the veranda was gone. There had also been a doorway leading to a guest room, where the four of them and Shalan had slept the last time he was here. That, too, was gone. A blank wall stared back at him. How were they going to get in?
As if in response to these thoughts, a door appeared in the wall, like a hologram dissolving. Bob drifted through it, and Jason and the others followed. Just inside the doorway they passed through an invisible field. It was like walking through a thin sheet of water, but on the other side everyone was shocked to find that their clothes and hair were now completely dry.
They looked at each other in amazement. “Wow,” Jason and Kevin said simultaneously. There was no time to ponder it, though. Bob kept moving, so the people followed him down a dimly lit corridor carved out of solid rock. They came around a curve, passed through another transparent force field, and emerged into a warm, lush garden.
Short, densely packed trees, their branches heavy with fruit, formed a virtual barrier in front of them. Broad-leafed shrubs filled the spaces between the trees, making it impossible to see more than a few feet. A dizzying mix of sweet perfumes assailed Jason’s nose, the scents of a thousand aromatic flowers. From somewhere came the sound of running water.
This time it was Amelia who said, “Wow.”
Ularu looked nervous. His eyes darted around, and his fingers fidgeted on the handle of his rifle.
“What’s wrong?” Jason asked.
The question seemed to startle him. “Nothing.” When Jason didn’t look convinced, he shook his head irritably.
Bob headed down a narrow path that was the only access through the thick foliage. Moments later, they came to a small stream. It originated on a wall to their left, flowing out of a hole in the gray rock and down to the floor, where it gurgled in a shallow channel through the man-made jungle. Ferns and plants in a multitude of colors, with leaves in every imaginable shape, lined both sides of the stream. Aquatic creatures skittered about in the water. Bob led them across a stone bridge, through more garden, and finally into a clearing.
It was bright here, like daylight, but when Jason looked up to identify the source, he got another surprise. Puffy clouds drifted lazily across a blue sky. But they were inside a mountain! Then he remembered the ceiling of the council chamber on Ré, with its own illusion of clouds and stars and vast space.
A table and four chairs materialized in the clearing. They didn’t rise up out of the floor or get carried in by the orbs. The air shimmered and suddenly they were just there. Yet when Jason touched the table, it was solid. Moments later, the orbs covered it with food and drink.
No one asked where it all came from. In fact, no one seemed to feel like talking. The long hike from the village, the drenching storm, the climb up the cliff, and their narrow escape from Keelo Torr had left Jason drained, and he guessed it was the same for everyone else. Ularu still looked troubled, but Jason was too hungry and tired to care about what might be bothering the taciturn Ilphran.
After the meal, the orbs carried in sleeping mats and blankets, probably the same ones the four of them had used previously. If only he had known then what he and his friends were in for! He might never have demanded to go after the Amulon Talic.
But then, if he hadn’t, what would have happened to his parents? Did he ever really have a choice? He remembered the conversation he, Amelia, and Kevin had about destiny. Was this a choice now, deciding to find out about the Assessment instead of immediately joining the Hand to the Hiarchalia? The decision had infuriated Shalan and De Orlanean, their only alien friends, and had turned the three of them into fugitives. Or was this predicament also predestined, completely out of his control? He hated that idea, but at the same time he couldn’t think of any decision that he would have made differently, given the circumstances.
It was too confusing, and he was too exhausted to ponder it further. The sky and clouds overhead turned red with an illusory sunset, then the ceiling darkened and stars appeared. With few words, the four people headed toward the mats. Jason fell asleep to the gentle sound of the bubbling brook, wondering what he might learn here in Ardemesius’ secret home, and where that knowledge might lead him.
Images swirled around Jason, a kaleidoscope of holograms both still and moving. Ancient civilizations and strange aliens came and went. Massive pyramids and dusty artifacts appeared and disappeared. Bits of writing in a thousand different languages flashed before him and just as quickly vanished. It was too much.
The images evaporated. Jason, Kevin, and Amelia were once again surrounded by the lush foliage in Ardemesius’ home.
“Holy smokes,” Kevin said. “How are we supposed to make sense of that?”
The same question was on Jason’s mind. He had asked Bob to show them what Ardemesius knew about the Assessment, and he got this, the accumulated knowledge of someone who had lived over 9,000 years. How was he supposed to find what he needed in that mess?
“Try again,” Amelia said, “but have him slow it way down.”
Jason had barely formulated the words in his head when the first images appeared. If anything, Bob could read his mind even better than before he ran out of power. Could it have something to do with all those months he spent sitting on Jason’s bureau? Jason had thought the orb was functionally dead, but that idea was proved wrong yesterday. Could it be that all that time in the room, with what little power he had left, Bob was establishing a closer and closer link to Jason’s mind? Now that he thought about it, he’d been having some pretty strange dreams these last few months…
Amelia brought him back to the present. “Wait! Let me see that one again.”
The hologram of a flat stone with faded writing reappeared. Jason stared at it, but all he saw was a bunch of marks he couldn’t decipher. “Can you read it?” he asked.
“I thought I saw something. Hmmm…the language looks like Vishnun, but it’s a really old form, I think.”
“How come our translators don’t do that for us?” Kevin asked, referring to the small devices Ardemesius had given each of them. “How come Amelia can read this old stuff and we can’t?”
Jason brushed off his friend’s question with a shrug. “What does it say?” he asked again.
“I think it has something to do with the Assessment.” She stepped closer. “Let’s see. ‘On the…day…’” she shook her head, “something I can’t translate, but then ‘Amulon…all joined…’” She stopped talking aloud, but her lips kept moving. After a moment, she stepped back and took a deep breath.
“Well?” Jason said.
“I think it says ‘On that glorious day, when the Amulon…leads, and the Talics are all joined as one, the galaxy shall be as it was, and the Hathor shall reign supreme.’ Or something like that.”
Jason frowned. “So, what does that mean? That the Hathor will come back, like everyone says?”
Amelia shrugged. “I guess.”
“That’s just telling us what everyone is saying anyway. There’s gotta be something else here.” He was about to tell Bob to continue when Ularu’s voice stopped him.
“You should not be doing this.”
Jason had forgotten about their Ilphran guide. The man had been standing apart, looking increasingly uncomfortable. His eyes flickered nervously at the hologram.
“Why?” Jason asked, suddenly worried. “What’s wrong?”
Jason relaxed. He understood now why Ularu was upset. The Ilphrans had revered Ardemesius. The old man, with his mysterious powers and nearly limitless knowledge, must have seemed almost like a god to them. From Ularu’s perspective, Jason was defiling a sacred temple.
“We have to do this, Ularu. He told us to.”
“Before he died, he told you to do this?” There was a hint of suspicion in the man’s voice.
Jason hesitated. Ardemesius had been physically dead, yes, but some small part of him had lived on. Enough to give Jason the warning that brought them here. So this wasn’t actually a lie, was it? “Yes. Before he died.”
Suspicion still glimmered in the man’s eyes. He glanced at the Hand of Osiris hanging from Jason’s neck, that powerful, mysterious, almost magical device. Was something darker going on in the Ilphran’s mind? That was all Jason needed! He had enemies enough already!
“I’m telling you the truth, Ularu!” he said. “There’s something going on, something that I know will affect Ilphra, as well as everywhere else. We have to find out what it is, before it’s too late.”
Ularu stared at the three of them for a long moment, then he grunted and strode toward the veranda.
Jason took a deep breath and traded looks with Kevin and Amelia before turning back to the paused hologram. “Bob, keep going.”
More artifacts came and went. More pyramids appeared, including three that looked like the ones in Egypt, except they were surrounded by lush jungle instead of desert.
“Man,” Kevin muttered, “these guys sure liked their pyramids.”
The parade of holograms continued. A wizened old Atlotian rambled on about the Assessment, when the Hathor would return in glory. A faded document from Sirar said the same thing. Symbols carved into the stone blocks of an ancient pyramid on Kull, as translated by Ardemesius, spoke of the Hand of Osiris, led by the Amulon Talic, restoring the Hathor as rulers of the galaxy. A stone fragment with carved symbols, this one Zkktzarian, spoke of the sequence of joining.
“Should the Amulon be not last,” Amelia translated, “but should come before the Kutharian and Quetzcatán, and in so doing form the hallowed Hand, lo, then shall the Assessment be nigh.” She raised and lowered one shoulder. “That’s all it says.”
“Sheesh! They’re all saying the same thing,” Kevin said. He took his glasses off, held them up to the fake sunny sky, and squinted at the lenses.
“This is getting us nowhere!” Jason fumed. “Why don’t any of them say what the Assessment is? I mean, what exactly is supposed to happen? How will the Hathor come back?”
“Maybe no one really knows,” Amelia said. “I mean, the Hathor lived a long time ago.”
“Obviously, Ardemesius didn’t know,” Kevin said with a hint of disdain. He fogged his glasses with his breath and wiped them on his T-shirt.
Jason frowned. “He learned something once he became part of the custodian on Grogon, something that changed his mind. But what? And why wouldn’t he tell me?”
“Maybe he couldn’t,” Amelia said.
“Yeah…” Then he looked at her. “Wait a minute. What did you say?”
“About Ardemesius not being able to—?”
“No. About when the Hathor lived.” He turned to Bob, who was hovering nearby. “Bob, how old is this carving, in Earth years?” The orb projected a small hologram in front of Jason. “32,653 years,” he read aloud. “Maybe that’s the problem. Bob, show us the oldest thing Ardemesius had.”
A hologram of a silver fragment appeared. The edges were scorched and melted, as though the object had been blasted to bits and only this small part remained. There were faint symbols inscribed on its surface. Amelia moved in to take a closer look.
“Well? Can you read it?” Jason asked.
She wrinkled her brow. “I’m not sure. It would be easier if I could have it in my hands.”
“The artifact is here.”
Jason froze. The thought had sprung into his head and come immediately out of his mouth, almost as if someone else were speaking through him. His eyes darted around, expecting to see Ardemesius’ ghostly shape again. Had the old man’s wraith followed them here from Grogon? No. This was different. It wasn’t a voice in his head. It was just something he suddenly knew. But how?
“Jason? Are you all right?” Amelia asked.
“Huh? Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Why did you say that?”
“Um, I’m not sure.”
Kevin’s eyes narrowed. “You’re not hearing voices again, are you?”
“No, nothing like that. Look, just forget about it, okay? Let’s keep going.”
“Well, if the thing’s here,” Amelia said, “I’d like to see it.”
Bob sped away, returning seconds later with the metal fragment. Amelia took it and turned it over gently in her hands. The undamaged parts shimmered in the light, giving off a sheen when turned just the right way. Ardemesius’ notes, suspended below the holographic image, said it had been recovered on Nallia. He thought it might be Hathorian, though the technology was more primitive.
“Bob, how old is this?” Jason said.
This time the projected number was 810,658 years.
Kevin whistled softly. “Wow.”
“Wasn’t that around the time of the big war between the Hathor and the Neogenitors?” Amelia asked.
“That’s right,” Jason replied. “Can you read it?”
“Maybe.” She flipped the artifact around, studying it from every direction. “Hmmm. The writing looks a little like Réian, but a super old form. Sort of like what I saw on Grogon.” She moved her fingers lightly along the symbols.
Jason looked around for Ularu, but the Ilphran was nowhere to be seen. He was probably waiting out on the veranda until the three of them were finished. He felt bad making the man nervous, but they really had no choice. If they couldn’t find something here, he didn’t know where else to look.
“Oh! Okay,” Amelia said, brightening. “I think I’ve got it.” The boys leaned closer. Amelia’s finger followed the symbols as she spoke, “‘…Guardians as a sacred trust…to generation…’” She paused. Her finger went back and forth over the same spot. “‘Der..der.’ I think maybe that’s the last part of ‘Holder’ because then it says ‘can come to claim them. Only…will know the locations of the…know where we have hidden…holds the secrets of our race…’” She shook her head. “That’s it. It looks like it was cut in half.”
Jason straightened and let out a sigh. He had hoped for much more.
“Well, that doesn’t tell us much,” Kevin said, voicing the obvious.
“No,” Jason replied. “No, it doesn’t.” He stuck his hands in his pockets and moved away.
Amelia kept studying the artifact. “Actually, I think this might be talking about that treasure you said Ardemesius mentioned.”
“So what?” Kevin said. “It doesn’t say where it is, so what good is that?”
Jason was only half listening. His eyes wandered around the room. If he wasn’t so preoccupied, he might be much more interested in the amazing variety of plants Ardemesius had collected. There were some trees and bushes with tiny leaves and others with giant, broad leaves. Round, straight, and corkscrew shaped leaves. Green, red, yellow, and purple leaves. Flowers of every color and shape; long tubes, giant fans, elegant tendrils. Tall, short, thick, thin, elegant, and stumpy trunks. And that didn’t even begin to catalog the many shapes, colors, and sizes of the plants in this room. Ardemesius must have brought them from a hundred different worlds. Maybe a thousand.
Then there were the smells—the sweet scents of flowers and ripe fruit; hints of vanilla, pepper, cinnamon, honeysuckle, and a dozen other odors he couldn’t identify.
But at the moment, all Jason wanted was some piece of information that, if it didn’t tell him the true meaning of the Assessment, at least would give him a clue as to where to go next. So far, though, there was nothing. If only Ardemesius had given him more! Or maybe that wasn’t Ardemesius at all. Maybe it was just his imagination that made him hear the old man’s voice in his head. Maybe it was a trick of the guardian that was trying to kill them.
No. The voice had been too familiar, too insistent. Beware the Assessment. Seek the Treasure. But how was he supposed to do that? He scratched his head, suddenly aware that the room was silent except for the gentle gurgling of the stream and the sounds a few of the plants made—a tinkle of tiny bells, the hum of quivering strings, and faint “pops,” like water droplets hitting a hollow tube.
He realized his friends were watching him and was about to speak when something came crashing through the foliage. Had a gulang made it up the cliff? But it was Ularu who burst into the clearing.
“Hendrall was right!” he shouted. “You have brought others!”
Jason’s heart caught in his throat. “Others? What others? What do you mean?”
“Come look!” And with that, Ularu ran back the way he had come.
Jason and the others followed him onto the veranda. There was no sign of yesterday’s storm. The sky was cloudless and crisply blue. The jungle far below was an unbroken carpet of green, stretching to the horizon.
“There!” Ularu said, pointing.
In the distance, hovering over a spot that Jason assumed was Ularu’s village, were four saucer-shaped craft. They looked tiny from here, mere specks in the sky, but the threat they posed was huge.
“Hendrall will be furious!” Ularu said, with an accusatory look.
At the moment, Jason could not have cared less how the xenophobic Ilphran leader felt. He wasn’t done here. He hadn’t even had a chance to ask about the Treasure. Now their hiding place had been discovered, and they had to leave. But to where? They had nowhere to go! Nowhere in the galaxy was safe.
The ships began to grow larger as they moved toward the cliff-side dwelling. In moments, Jason and his friends would be captured—or worse. They had to get out. He looked around frantically. Where was Bob? He ran back through the corridor and into the garden, pushing branches and leaves out of his way. He realized the others were right behind him when one of the branches snapped back and hit Kevin.
“Ow! Be careful!”
“What are we doing, Jason?” Amelia asked.
“We’re leaving, but not without Bob!” Just as they reached the stream, Bob floated into view. Jason stopped so abruptly that the other two almost ran into him.
“Where are we going?” Kevin asked.
Jason paused. “I don’t know.” Then he had a thought. “Amelia, wasn’t there something about guardians in that last carving?”
She nodded. The object was still in her hand. “‘And secrets that the guardians knew,’ it said.”
“All right. Well, at least that’s something to go on.” He took a deep breath. “Maybe Takkadian Pheno knows something.” He reached out his hands, but Kevin pulled away.
“What?” he exclaimed. “Are you kidding me? He almost ate us last time!”
“He won’t now. He said he was my servant, remember? Besides, we’ll have Bob this time.”
“I’m out of ideas, Kev! I don’t know where else to go!” He looked around. “Bob, stick close. I’m going to need you.”
Amelia took Jason’s hand. It didn’t matter how many times she did that, he still felt a thrill in the middle of his chest each time. But he couldn’t think about that now.
There was a rustle of foliage and Ularu pushed back into the room, holding his rifle. It was the first time Jason had seen fear on the man’s face. “They’re outside. There’s a force field, but I don’t think it will keep them out for long.”
“That’s it, guys,” Jason said, turning back to his friends. “We gotta get out of here, and Pheno’s all I got.”
Kevin exhaled loudly. “Great,” he muttered.
“It’ll be fine, Kev,” Amelia said.
“You keep saying that to me! Why do you keep saying that?”
“Kevin, come on!” Jason said.
Kevin rolled his eyes in resignation. “All right, fine. But if he eats me, I am going to be seriously upset.” He took Jason’s other hand.
Almost instantly, a door began to form. There was no resistance from the Hand this time. The giant cavern on Amunis came into focus. Pheno was lying on the ground by the shallow pool, its spidery legs tucked beneath its massive body. Kevin’s grip on Jason’s hand tightened.
Jason took a last look at Ularu. The man suddenly looked conflicted. Was he sorry they were leaving? Jason didn’t have time to ponder it.
“Thanks,” he said.
The Ilphran just nodded.
“Goodbye, Ularu,” Amelia said.
The sound of weapons fire came from outside, sending vibrations through the solid rock floor. The plants around them shuddered. Jason glanced around, sad to leave what had been, at least for a short time, a peaceful oasis. Another weapons discharge vibrated the room. He sent a silent command to Bob for the other orbs to save themselves and drop the force field.
“Okay, let’s go,” he said, and the three of them stepped through the door, with Bob leading the way.