Basalt and more basalt. No crystals, no indication of any writing.

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Mwahu frowned hard at her, then continued to lead them on.

Jack whistled. “This place is massive. You described it, but to see this construction firsthand…It must’ve taken thousands and thousands of people to build this single building, even aided by a pair of the magical brothers.”

Too awed to speak herself, Karen nodded.

They left the huge hall and entered another low passage. The press of stone overhead seemed to weigh down upon Karen’s head. She wasn’t prone to claustrophobia, but there was a certain heaviness about the place that couldn’t be ignored. The passage turned sharply and sunlight flared ahead.

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Mwahu led them into a rear courtyard. Karen stepped back into the brilliance of the sunlight—and the heat. Miyuki shook open her umbrella again.

Around the space, the once-tall walls lay toppled. Lengths of cracked basalt logs were tumbled amid boulders and smaller rocks. Still, the solemnity of the yard was not diminished. Though no longer inside the keep, Karen still felt the weight of centuries there.

Adding to this effect was the courtyard’s central altar: a massive hewn block of prismatic basalt. At four meters in length and a meter high, she guessed that it weighed several tons. They were all drawn to it as it glowed and sparked in the last rays of the afternoon sun. None of them could keep their hands from touching its surface.

Mwahu dropped to his knees.

Karen noted that the spot where he knelt was worn into the rock. How many generations of his people had made the pilgrimage here? she wondered, moving beside him. “Is this the gravestone of your ancient teacher?” she asked.

He nodded, head bowed.

Jack circled the great block. “I don’t seen any writing. No clues.”

Mwahu stood and indicated that Karen should give respect and kneel. She nodded, not wanting to offend, dropped her pack and knelt. Mwahu pointed toward the stone.

She stared, not sure if she was supposed to bow, recite a prayer, or perform some other act of respect. As she looked at where Mwahu pointed, however, she had her answer. “Holy shit.”

“What is it?” Jack said. Miyuki stepped to her other side.

“Come see.” Karen stood and returned to the stone. She brushed the block’s surface with the palm of her hand. It was no optical illusion. “I’m not surprised you missed it. You can only see it if you’re kneeling.”

“See what?”

She tugged Jack down by an arm so he could look across the stone’s surface. She traced a finger. “There.”

Jack’s jaw dropped. “A star!”

“Carved so thinly, or simply worn faint by time, that the only way to see it is from an extreme angle.”

He straightened. “But what does it mean?”

Miyuki took a peek, too, then answered from under her umbrella, “It’s like back at the pyramid. We need the crystal.”

Karen nodded and tugged open her pack.

Jack still looked confused. “What are you talking about?”

Karen hadn’t told him about how she’d used the crystal star, and now she tugged out a black cloth bag and shook it out. Behind her, Mwahu gasped with awe. She crossed to the stone as the others gathered around her, carefully placing the artifact atop the thin carving. It was an exact match. She held her breath, not knowing what to expect. Nothing happened.

Disappointed, Karen stepped back. “The crystal star must act as a key, but how?”

Miyuki, leaning over the stone, said, “Remember back at the pyramid—darkness was the final key.”

Karen slowly nodded. It had taken perfect darkness for the crystal star to function as the key to release them from the heart of the Chatan pyramid.

“So what do we do?” Jack asked. “Wait until nightfall?”

Miyuki looked sick at this suggestion.

“I don’t know….” Karen studied the stone. Something didn’t sit right with her. Then it struck her. She recalled the symmetry and balance of the Chatan pyramids. The yin and the yang. “Of course!”

“What?” Jack moved to her side.

“It’s not darkness we need!” She waved Miyuki away from the stone. Her friend’s umbrella had been casting a shadow over the crystal. As Miyuki stepped back, raw sunlight bathed the crystal. The star burst with radiant brilliance. “It’s light!”

A loud crack sounded from the stone. The others moved back a few steps but Karen stood her ground.

A hidden seam appeared around the solid block. It outlined a four-inch-thick lid resting squarely atop the stone block.

Karen stepped forward.

“Be careful,” Jack warned.

She touched the block’s lid and pushed. The slab of basalt shifted, moving as easily as if it were Styrofoam. “It hardly weighs a thing!”

Jack moved beside her, his gaze fixed on the crystal star. He shadowed his hand over it. “Try pushing now.”

She did. The lid wouldn’t budge.

Jack removed his hand, exposing the crystal to sunlight again, and using a single finger, he moved the slab of stone to the side. “The star has somehow extended its weight-altering properties to the basalt.”

Karen was stunned. “Amazing. This must be how the magical ancients ‘floated’ the stones in the past.”

“It looks downright magical enough to me, that’s for damn sure.”

Miyuki, beside them, pointed into the block’s interior.

Karen leaned over as Jack pushed the stone lid back farther.

Inside the altar there was a carved alcove, lined by a shiny metal. Karen touched it. “Platinum.”

Jack nodded. “Like your story. The platinum coffins the Japanese divers discovered underwater during World War Two.”

Karen nodded. “But this coffin isn’t empty.”

Resting inside were the bones of a human skeleton.

Mwahu spoke at Karen’s shoulder, a whisper. “Horon-ko.”

Karen studied the remains. Clinging to the bones were a few scraps of dusty cloth, but what had captured her eye was a book, bound in platinum, clutched in the bony grip of the coffin’s occupant.

Carefully, she reached inside.

“No!” Mwahu cried.

Karen could not resist. She gripped the book and lifted it.

Disturbed, the bones of the fingers fell away to dust. Then, like toppling dominoes, the degradation of the bones spread. The rib cage collapsed, the femurs and pelvis disintegrated, the skull caved in. Soon the form was no longer recognizable.

“Ashes to ashes,” Jack mumbled.

Karen held the platinum book in her fingers, stunned by her thoughtless act of desecration.

Mwahu began to weep behind her. “Doomed,” he moaned.

As if hearing him, the first bullet struck the basalt altar, stinging Karen’s face with a spray of rocky shards.

6:45 P.M., USS Gibraltar, Philippine Sea

Admiral Mark Houston climbed the five levels to the bridge of the USS Gibraltar. They were under full steam from Guam, where two days ago they had offloaded the civilian NTSB team along with the crated wreckage of Air Force One. In Guam, the Gibraltar had also reacquired its normal complement of aircraft—forty-two helicopters, both Sea Knights and Cobras, and five Harrier II fighter/bombers—along with its usual complement of LCAC amphibious landing craft. All to land the ship’s Marine detachment safely on Okinawa and bolster the island’s defense.

Reports coming from the region were growing worse by the hour. Apparently, the Chinese naval and air forces were merciless in their determination not to surrender Taiwan.

Passing through a cipher-locked hatch, Houston shook his head. It’s folly. Let the Chinese have the damn island. He had read the intelligence reports on the agreement signed between the leaders in Taipei and Beijing. It was not all that different from China’s assumption of control in Hong Kong and Macau. It would be business as usual. As they did in Hong Kong, the Chinese had no intention of weakening Taiwan’s economic base.

Still, he could understand the administration’s position. President Bishop had been murdered. Whether the upper levels in Beijing knew of the plot or not, the crime could not go unanswered.

Upon hearing of the escalating conflict, Houston had offered his services to remain on board and proceed to the beleaguered front. Calmer heads were needed out there. He was to oversee the situation and report his recommendations to the Joint Chiefs.

He climbed the last ladder, his knees protesting, and entered the bridge of the Gibraltar. The navigational equipment, map table, and communication station were all manned and busy.

“Admiral on the bridge!” an ensign called out.

All eyes turned in his direction. He waved them back to their duties. A groggy-eyed Captain Brenning pushed from his day cabin into the main bridge. He looked like he’d had less than an hour’s sleep in the past three days. “Sir, how can I help you?”

“I apologize for disturbing you. Just coming topside to stretch my legs. How are things faring?”

“Fine, sir. We’re thirty-six hours out and ready.”

“Very good.”

The C.O. nodded aft. “Sir, the Marine commander is over in debark control. I can let him know you’re here.”

“No need.” Houston stared out the green-tinted windows of the bridge. Rain sluiced across the glass. All day long a thin rain had been falling and a misty haze obscured the horizon. Having been holed up in his cabin since morning, conferring with Washington, he had primarily come up here to see the sun. He had thought a climb up to the bridge would do him some good, cheer him up. But instead he felt a heaviness grow in his chest. How many would die these next few days?

At the communication station, a lieutenant pulled headphones from his ears and turned to his captain. “Sir, I have an encrypted call from the Pentagon. They’re asking for Admiral Houston.”

Captain Brenning nodded to his day cabin. “Admiral, if you’d like, you could take the call in my cabin.”

Houston shook his head. “That’s no longer my place, Captain. I’ll take it out here.” He crossed and picked up a handset. “Admiral Houston here.”

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