Now please enjoy this sneak peek of The Gaia Wars…
The ground climbed steadily and Warren slowed but didn’t stop. He knew how to pace himself, and ran lightly over the soft earth, weaving between the pines.
A plan formed in Warren’s mind. He would make for Pipestone Canyon, roughly two miles distant. He and his uncle had hiked, skied and snowshoed there dozens of times, and he knew it well. Perhaps he could hide among the canyon’s crags, cliffs and massive boulders. Perhaps.
Warren topped a low ridge, entered a clearing, and heard the sudden rush of brawling Nine Mile Creek, two hundred yards ahead. Born in the snowy Cascades, the sparkling stream clattered across the meadow. It was roughly fifteen feet wide here, but shallow, gravel-bottomed and easy to cross.
Now that he was out of the trees, Warren heard other sounds, too: the unmistakable baying of dogs, surprisingly close, and the low, steady whine of ATVs. The Finleys were after him, all right, and they were getting closer.
For the first time, Warren felt truly afraid. He remembered the rage on Mr. Finley’s face. Who could guess what the big brute might do? Or maybe Finley Sr. would simply turn a blind eye as Finley Jr. pulverized him. Junior was a good thirty pounds heavier than Warren, after all.
Wild thoughts flooded Warren’s mind. Maybe the Finleys would tie him up and drag him behind their ATVs, or let their dogs tear him to pieces. He couldn’t guess, and he didn’t want to find out.
Warren had an idea. Instead of running straight across the creek, he would run in it for a while. His shoes and socks would get soaked, but perhaps the ploy would confuse the dogs—at least temporarily. It was a trick he’d read about in numerous adventure stories. Maybe it would help.
He leapt into the clear, frigid water. It was only about a foot deep here, where it crossed the flat, open meadow, but shockingly cold. He sprinted upstream.
Though June meant summer in other parts of the country, it was still early spring here in the higher elevations of the Clement Valley. It had snowed heavily all winter, and the meadows only recently had become snow-free. It had just rained, too, so everything had a fresh, new quality and the air was crisp and clean. Wildflowers carpeted the creek banks.
Warren splashed on—the gravel stream bottom giving a bit under each sloshing footfall. He saw now that the snowmelt and recent rain had caused the clay soil of the stream’s banks to fracture. Here and there great slabs of creek edge had fallen into the water. In some spots, sections of bank teetered, like new islands breaking apart from the mainland after a catastrophic quake. Ahead, the creek jogged sharply to the right.
Warren scanned the meadow. In another hundred feet or so, he’d climb out of the water and run uphill, toward Pipestone Canyon. He sprinted, following the sharp bend in the stream.
That’s when he saw the skeleton.
It was a human skeleton, no doubt about that, lying face up on the soft earth. Warren could see at once what had happened: the skeleton had been buried in the reddish-brown clay of the bank, but a section of creek edge had fractured and fallen away, freeing the skeleton from its tomb. It lay there in broad daylight, as neatly and cleanly as if it had just rolled out of a crypt. Warren stepped forward cautiously and gazed at the remains in silent wonder.
He would have forgotten about the Finleys, his prank and everything else—only now that he’d stopped moving he heard the dogs and whining ATVs once more. Even over the joyful clatter of the creek, the sounds were unmistakable. The Finleys were coming through the forest, within a minute or two of the meadow.
Warren stared at the skeleton. He’d been to enough museums and read enough books to know that it was very old. The bones were light brown and smooth, like aged ivory. It occurred to Warren they might even be fossilized.
The skull, arm and leg bones were large, and the hips narrow, so he guessed he was looking at the remains of a man. The lower jawbone was missing, as were the bones of the right foot. Otherwise, the skeleton appeared intact. Warren leaned closer to the skull, but the empty eye sockets gazing skyward gave him a queer feeling.
He took one last look and …
There was something protruding from the dirt, near the skeleton’s right hip. Warren peered closely.
The “something,” whatever it was, was encrusted with soft clay. It blended with the surrounding soil, and was nearly invisible.
Warren gently traced the object with his fingers, pried some of the clay away, and understood. It was a pouch: leather, bound at the top with a fragment of cord.
Warren teased more soil from the object, marveling that the leather was still supple and intact. Even the design on the face of the pouch—a fine red spiral—had somehow been preserved inside the clay tomb of the creek bank.
Carefully, painstakingly, Warren lifted the pouch free from the soil, loosened the cord, and spilled the contents out.
The first artifact to tumble onto the creek bank—into the sunlight—was a stone spear point. It was about five inches long, brownish-yellow and lovingly crafted. It was still razor sharp, by the look of it.
The spear point made Warren gasp. But the object that thudded onto the bank after it stopped his heart.
It was a heavy, flat medallion of gleaming, hammered gold, inset with sparkling blue gems.
Dazzlingly beautiful, the medallion (medallion was the first word that came to Warren’s mind) could easily have been the centerpiece of a great king’s crown, or of a royal necklace. The object had seven equal sides.
A heptagon, Warren thought. It was a term he’d learned in last semester’s math.
Warren’s hand shook as he traced the perimeter of the heptagon with one finger. The object was about four inches across, and twice as thick as the old silver dollars in his uncle’s coin collection.
In the center of the heptagon was set a perfect circle of highly polished obsidian. The dazzling blue gems—there were seven of them, as well—were embedded in the gold and placed evenly about the obsidian circle. Warren turned the medallion over and saw that the back consisted of gleaming, hammered gold only.
He lifted the object slowly, reverently. It fit neatly in the palm of his hand and was so bright that it flashed in the warm morning light. It was beautiful. It was mesmerizing. It was …
Warren heard sudden, frenzied barking from the forest below and jumped to his feet. How had they scaled the hill so fast? How long had he been kneeling beside the skeleton? With a leap up the bank, he was off once more, bounding across the meadow and toward the sheltering forest beyond.
Warren had run perhaps fifteen feet when he realized he’d left the spear point with the skeleton. No time to retrieve it now. By the sound of it, the Finleys’ dogs would burst into the clearing at any moment. He had to make it to the trees—had to disappear into the forest—if he was to have any hope of escaping.