Michaelson yanked her behind him. Even Tru'gula stepped in front of her, blocking the way to her.
She watched as the hunters tangled with other, puglike mimi'swee, but the few hunters were quickly overwhelmed by the score of attackers. And to make matters worse, a single jab by an attacker's spear or dagger sent the mildly injured into convulsions.
Soon only she, Michaelson, and Tru'gula were still standing. At least ten of the short, muscular attackers surrounded them.
"Silaris!" Tru'gula said, and spat in their direction.
The offenders made no move toward them, seeming nervous about attacking one of the elders.
A noise behind them drew everyone's attention to the wormhole. As she watched, Sin'jari slipped out of the tunnel, followed by two ugly mimi'swee. Ashley recognized them as the two who were with Sin'jari before. She also recognized the resemblance between them and the attackers blocking the exit. They were Sin'jari's men, his clan.
Sin'jari smiled, showing all his teeth. He didn't have to say a word. He just fingered a dagger and stepped toward Ashley.
Groaning, Ashley realized she'd led them all into a trap.
Ben willed Harry's sled to faster speeds, the rock walls a blur around him. Going downhill with the throttle fully open had increased the speed to fifty miles an hour. On turns, he banked to the ceiling.
He squinted forward, needing to pay close attention, ready to brake as soon as he saw the exit. To fly out of the wormhole at this speed was certain death. He shifted the rifle from under his hip where it chafed.
C'mon, the exit shouldn't be too far ahead, he thought. Maybe if he concentrated, used his heri'huti powers, he'd get an inkling of how far he had to go.
He relaxed his eyes and willed his heart to slow. Even before he'd achieved the proper state, someone reached him. Someone was calling to him. An image coalesced in front of him, superimposed over the sight ahead like some wispy ghost. A scarred face. Tru'gula.
The figure blinked a few times, then spoke. "Hurry!"
"I know. I got that message already," Ben said.
"Then see with my eyes."
For just a few seconds, the tunnel vanished and he was in umbo's chamber. He saw. Gasping, his heart clenched, and the link shattered.
Ben prayed for more speed, rage fueling him forward.
Michaelson tried to block Sin'jari's approach toward Ashley, but a quick flip of the elder's wrist had five of the silaris dragging him back.
Ashley glanced over to Tru'gula. He struggled futilely in the clutches of two of the silaris. No aid there either.
Sin'jari stepped toward her. "He no help. He weak."
Ashley was flabbergasted at his words. "You speak English."
He nodded. "I learn my enemy. Best way-" He scrunched his brows together, pondering his next words.
"To know them," she offered.
He smiled at her as if she were a small child. "No. To kill them."
Raising the dagger to her chin, he leered at her. "Poison. That right word?" He motioned toward the dead hunters.
He pricked his own finger. Then waved as if it were nothing. "I lead silaris. Poison not kill us. We strong. We lead."
"What about Bo'rada? I thought he was your leader."
"Bo'rada?" He made a foul sound with his mouth. "No smart. I lead Bo'rada."
Ashley realized that this coup had been in the works long before her team appeared. Their arrival had almost screwed up Sin'jari's plan, but he'd turned it to his own ends.
"Now I lead. I say kill all you. And any others come here."
Ashley shook her head. "You won't win this. Tru'gula's hunters won't allow it."
A sly look came to his eyes. He pointed to Tru'gula. "Bad. He help you others kill Mo'amba." He then tapped his chest with the dagger. "I find out." He slashed the dagger through the air. "I stop."
So Tru'gula was going to be pinned as an accessory to the crime, a coconspirator. Dead men tell no tales. She glanced at him, but his eyes were half closed.
Sin'jari noticed it too. He poked the wounded hunter with a finger, getting his attention. They spoke back and forth for a few minutes. Angry words. Finally, Sin'jari turned his back on him and faced Ashley again. He pointed a thumb toward Tru'gula. "No smart. He call help. But nobody there. Mo'amba dead." He sneered at her. "Now you."
He raised the poisoned dagger and stepped toward her. She tried to back away but was blocked by the silaris behind her.
Just as Sin'jari grabbed Ashley's throat with a bony hand, a noise erupted from the wormhole. Sin'jari twisted his neck around to look.
Ashley jumped as the transport sled blasted out of the wormhole and flew across the chamber, colliding into several of the silaris, knocking them off their feet.
The distraction was enough to allow Ben to crawl from the wormhole. He was standing before anyone was even aware he had appeared. He raised the rifle to his shoulder and pointed it at Sin'jari. "Mate, I suggest you let the lady go."
Sin'jari hissed at him and plunged the dagger toward her chest.
Ashley saw the left side of Sin'jari's head fly away. His body stood there for half a second, dagger still poised, then crumpled to the floor.
A couple silaris rushed toward Ben. He swung his rifle, and in two shots, two bodies lay on the floor. "Any others?"
Suddenly, from behind the group of silaris, as if by magic, a troop of hunters appeared, bristling with long spears.
"Meet a few of my friends," Ben said with a smile. "I placed a quick call before arriving. This bloody heri'huti means of communication could put the phone company out of business."
The silaris, without their leader, put up little fight and were roughly herded away.
Ashley rushed over to Ben and wrapped him in her arms. "You're okay. I didn't know… didn't know what Sin'jari had done up there." She squeezed him and, muffled against his chest, said the words she had held so long in her chest. "I love you."
"Ay? What was that?" he said, pulling back to look her square in the face.
"I… I love you."
He slipped back into her embrace. "Oh, that. I knew you did. I was just wondering when you'd figure it out."
"Shut up." She reached up and kissed him.
Ben then moved his lips to her ear. "You know, there's someone up top who's waiting for a big hug and kiss too."
She pulled back from him, her hands clenched on his shoulders. "Do you mean-"
He nodded. "Jason's fine. Just a bit shook up like the rest of us."
Tears blurred her vision as Ben smiled down at her. He then pulled her into a tight embrace. In his arms, she felt the strength of family she'd never experienced before.
Still in his arms, Ashley watched Bo'rada stalk into the chamber, confusion evident on his features. Crossing to the scarred figure, he spoke heatedly to Tru'gula, who answered with repeated gestures. Bo'rada's eyes grew wide.
"I leave you for a second," Ben whispered, "and see how much trouble you get into."
Once Tru'gula finished, the leader stared with disgust at Sin'jari's body, then turned to Ashley and Ben. He bent his head solemnly in their direction. As apology or thanks, she wasn't sure.
Ben broke free of her embrace. "I forgot." He crossed to Sin'jari's body and fingered open the pouch on the dead man's belt. He reached inside and pulled out the diamond statue.
"Ohna!" Ben held the figure up for all to see, then crossed over and placed the female statue on the pedestal next to the male figure. "They make a nice couple, don't you think?"
JASON SAT ON A SOILED CHAIR IN THE DEMOLISHED RECEPTION room of Blakely's office. He had his cracked Nintendo Game Boy in his lap and was trying to tape it together. Harry and his companion creatures were outside somewhere, patrolling, keeping an eye on things. Ever since the explosion of the elevator, Harry wanted the area watched closely.
Jason knew he was supposed to stay with Sandy back in Blakely's office, but she was giving him the creeps. All she did was stare off into space, fiddling with her hair. She didn't even say a word when he got up.
He thought about how Ben had saved him, and hoped desperately that he would return soon with his mom.
Then a soft scritch-scritching noise from outside froze him in the chair. It was probably Harry or one of the others. Wasn't it? The noise came again. It sounded like a bunch of boards was being shifted around.
He quietly stood up and took a step toward the hallway, toward safety. When he heard the noise once more, his curiosity got the better of him. He took a step toward the decimated entrance to the building.
He'd just take a peek. It might be important, or nothing at all.
Holding his breath to avoid any detection of his position, he snuck around an overturned desk to get a clear view out the building.
He stared, waiting for the sound to repeat so he could tell where it was coming from, afraid even to blink in case he should miss something. Nothing was out there besides the crater from the explosion and piles of debris strewn around the edge by the blast. Nothing moved.
He started to straighten from where he crouched. Probably just-
Then he heard and saw it at the same time. A muzzle, protruding from under a pile of tumbled lumber and bricks, about twenty yards away. It was easy to miss, camouflaged well with the black rock and scorched debris. If it hadn't moved, he'd have overlooked it.
It moved again, shifting the debris until a black eye swung clear. It seemed to be staring straight at him. Jason knew it was the beast who'd been sniffing him when he was tied up. The one Ben called Tiny Tim. Jason froze, afraid to draw its attention further.
He watched as it dropped its head back to the floor, obviously still dazed, groggy, recovering from the explosion. Jason needed to warn someone that it had survived.
Then a new sound intruded.
A voice. A familiar voice. Female. Crying.