Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Adventure  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Paranormal

The Princess of Skye, An Archer Adventure, Book III, Second Edition

p={color:#000;}.

THE PRINCESS OF SKYE

An Archer Adventure

Book III

Second Edition

Katharine Giles

Copyright © 2017 by Katharine Giles.

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical without the express written permission of the author. The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials.

The author has no control over, and does not assume any responsibility for, author or third-party websites or their content.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events or locales is entirely coincidental.

Cover design by Copyright © Katharine Giles

Cover image: Copyright © Shutterstock #329604569

Visit the author website: www.thearcheradventures.com

Distributed by Shakespir

Ebook formatting by www.ebooklaunch.com

First Edition published by: Telemachus Press LLC

ISBN: 978-1-940745-35-0) eBook

ISBN: 978-1-939927-79-8 (Paperback)

Second Edition Published by Soul Attitude Press

ISBN: 978-1-946338-03-7 (eBook)

Version 2017.05.20

For my son John,

a man of many talents.

 

Table of Contents

Glossary and Phonic Pronunciation Guide

Chapter One: Intragalactic Visitor

Chapter Two: Kingdom of Skye

Chapter Three: The Maps

Chapter Four: Land of Fire

Chapter Five: Land of Giants

Chapter Six: Frozen Planet

Chapter Seven: A Most Unusual Invitation

Chapter Eight: Jungle Planet

Chapter Nine: Garden Planet

Chapter Ten: Ichos, The Tyrant King

Chapter Eleven: Water & Skye

Preview of Book IV: The Lost Kingdom,

An Archer Adventure, Second Edition

More Books by this Author

About the Author

 

Glossary and Phonic Pronunciation Guide

Aradia(Uh-ray-dee-uh): Daughter of Damani

Akro (Ack-row): Ice Planet in Skye’s Galaxy

Amethina (Am-eth-ee-nuh):Princess of Skye

Archer (Arch-her): 14-Year Old Adventurer

Argo (Are-go): Messenger from Skye

Skye (Sk-eye): Center of Skye’s Galaxy

Baccio (Botch-ee-oh): Crystal Master of Lemandia

Balycon (B-owl-ee-kahn): Archer’s Undersea Home

Damani (Duh-mahn-ee): Crystal Master of Skye

Equinos (Eck-ee-nohs): Keeper of The Crystal Trident

Fandette (Fan-debt): Giant Yellow Spider

Ferro (Fair-oh): Fire Planet in Skye’s Galaxy

Ichos (Eye-kohs): Ruler of Water

Lemandia (Lem-and-ee-uh): Ancient City by the Sea

Lackwanna (Lack-wahn-uh): Jungle Planet in Skye’s Galaxy

Marcoli (Mar-coal-ee): Crystal Master of Water

Merado (Mer-ah-doh): Lad of Skye

Mican (My-can): Garden Planet in Skye’s Galaxy

Pacion (Pass-ee-own): Keeper of the Balycon’s Crystal Ball

Pazia (Pah-zee-uh): Maiden of Skye

Pheeno (Fee-noh): Lad of Skye

Tundrox (Tun-drocks): Lord of Mican

Velda (Vel-duh): Planet of Giants in Skye’s Galaxy

Water (Watt-er): Planet in Skye’s Galaxy

Zirco (Zer-koh): Ruler of Skye

[]Chapter One

Intragalactic Visitor

Archer kicked at the fish nibbling his toes. The nibbles began again. He pulled his foot beneath the kelp blanket and rolled on his side. Sandwiched between two silky brown leaves, he reveled in their softness against his skin. A fish nibbled his nose. He gave it a swat. A tail brushed his cheek. Archer gave up trying to sleep and opened his eyes to sunlight streaming through an open window. A school of fish swam past his head, flashed their sides to the sun and sparkled like stars.

This isn’t the Pearl Grotto! Where am I?

And then he remembered! He’d traveled into the past, returned the Crystal of All Time to Balycon and moved into a house in the white stone city!

I’m really here!

Archer snuggled in the kelp and relived his adventures over the past few days. After he put the Crystal of all Time on the pedestal beneath the plaza, he and Pacion watched the air breathers leave their homes in the coral gardens and return to their ancestral home. The city sprang to life in a celebration that had lasted the rest of the day. When the sun dropped to the horizon and shadows crept across the sea floor, Myra, the mermaid, pulled him away from the crowd.

Archer had waved goodbye to Pacion and followed Myra to a white stone house at the edge of the city. Blue foliage formed a low border against the walls and two gardens, one of pearl fish and the other of pona leaves, occupied either side of the front door. A red coral tree added a splash of color against one corner of the house and a giant clam, filled to the brim with pearls from the Pearl Grotto, sat in his yard.

When Archer asked Myra why she’d brought him to the house, he’d been surprised and delighted when she told him how had planned this surprise to give him a home of his own. What a homecoming! He couldn’t wait to add a personal touch here and there and materialized his favorite plants and coral trees throughout the house. Archer sat up, scanned the room and shook his head at the mess.

Why did I put this stuff in here? I have to get rid of everything and find another way to decorate my house.

A school of red fish darted through the window and swarmed his bed. Archer poked a foot out from under the kelp and let them nibble his toes. Before he could rise and get rid of the foliage, Pacion’s voice rang in his ear.

Now that you’re awake, meet me in the communication chamber beneath the city. I have important news.

Wonder what Pacion wants this early?

Archer closed his eyes and, in the blackness beneath his lids, pictured Pacion beside the Crystal of All Time. The instant Pacion’s image appeared, he pictured himself beside him and opened his eyes. Instead of arriving next to Pacion, he found himself suspended in swirls of moving color halfway between the ceiling and the mirrored floor. The swirling colors made his eyes cross and dizziness threatened. He blinked and tried to bring his eyes into focus an instant before a school of fish flashed their sides to the sun and reflections from their scales exploded like fireworks around him.

Archer shook his head, peered between his fingers at the changes Pacion made to the communication chamber while he slept. After Myra had pulled him away from the crystal ball and took him to his new home, Pacion placed thousands of crystal points on the walls. The morning sun reflected off the prisms, filled the room with floating rainbows and transformed the space into a copy of the Rainbow Cave!

Good morning, Archer. I should have waited until I reached the crystal ball to call you. I’m glad you came promptly. What do you think of my additions to the communication chamber?

You made a lot of changes, Archer told him. This place looks like the Rainbow Cave except for the floor.

I worked through the night to create that illusion. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see the results of my work until the morning sun arrived.

What’s going on anyway? Archer asked. Why did you call me this early? Is it time to tell you my decision?

That’s not why I called you, Pacion replied. You can tell me what you’ve decided later. Something’s happened that affects you.

You don’t look worried so it can’t be bad news, Archer responded with a tilt of his head. So what’s important enough to get me out of bed?

A visitor arrived in Balycon this morning.

Why do I need to know that?

He came to see you.

Archer scanned the room before he replied. I don’t see anyone.

He’s with the council and will join us shortly.

Archer’s eyes expressed bewilderment at Pacion’s words. I don’t know anyone who would come here to see me.

It’s not someone you know. It’s someone who knows you. Or maybe I should say, it’s someone who knows about you.

Where did this guy come from? What does he want?

I don’t know the answers to your questions, Pacion told him. He said he’d join me soon and asked me to call you.

Why are you smiling? Archer asked. What’s really going on?

Before Pacion could reply, a man appeared in the water across the room from them. Shoulder-length dark hair framed his angular features and heightened the pallor of his skin. The light, airy fabric of his blue robe floated around him and shimmered like liquid metal in the sun. He wore a fist-sized blue gemstone on a waist-length twisted gold chain and Archer stared in awe when the gem’s reflected light shot darts of blue fire around him.

Stunned at the visitor’s appearance, Archer looked at Pacion and said, I don’t know anyone who dresses like that.

The man looked at Archer, smiled and asked, You find my clothing unusual?

Most people wear swim suits when they travel to an underwater location, Archer told him.

I left in a hurry, the man replied. I’ll fix it.

In the blink of an eye, his robe disappeared and he changed into a two-piece blue trunks and tank top made from the same shimmering metallic fabric.

Wow! Archer exclaimed. I’ll remember that neat trick when I need clothes! Who are you? Where are you from?

Your blonde hair and violet eyes tell me you must be Archer, the man replied. My name is Argo and my home is Skye. I’ve traveled through time and space to meet you.

Surprised the man knew his name, Archer asked, How do you know me? I’ve never heard of a place called Skye. Where is it?

Argo nodded at the Crystal of All Time. I believe Pacion has shown you how the crystal ball allows you to view distant locations,

How can that have anything to do with why you’ve come to see me?

If you’ll stop interrupting, I’ll explain, Argo told him. As you’ve never heard of the Kingdom of Skye, you’ve never heard of a planet called Water. The Crystal Masters of Skye and Water have watched you since your arrival in this underwater kingdom. This crystal ball is called the Crystal of All Time and is one of many created by the crystal makers of Skye.

Archer reached out and touched the sparkling globe. The crystal balls are amazing, he said. Pacion’s teaching me how to use them when I need help with something.

Argo ignored the interruption and continued. Then you must know the crystal balls in Water and Skye allow King Ichos, the Ruler of Water, and King Zirco, the Ruler of Skye, to watch events on the Earth Star.

Why are you telling me this? Archer asked. What does that have to do with why you’ve come to see me?

You’re living in a city that once stood on an island above the sea, Argo told him.

You’re talking about the ancient city of Lemandia, Archer responded.

Argo nodded at Archer before he addressed Pacion. I believe you lived in Lemandia before the earthquake and tidal wave sent it to the sea floor. Do you remember your life in those ancient times?

My memories have dimmed through the centuries, Pacion replied. The fabric and style of your clothing remind me of my former home. I remember a monument built to honor a hero from a distant land and that statue wore the shining cloth. Please tell us who you are and why you’ve come.

Argo met Archer’s eyes. I’ve come to tell you about the creation of Lemandia. The story will explain my visit.

His curiosity aroused, Archer replied, I’d like to hear that story. I’ve often wondered who built the city.

In the long ago past, before the shaking earth split Lemandia apart and sent it beneath the waves, half the city belonged to King Zirco, the Ruler of Skye.

I met Baccio, the crystal master of Lemandia, Archer interrupted. He told me he could have saved the city. Are you going to tell me why its ruler let it die?

I’ll tell you enough to explain why King Zirco sent me here to ask for your help, Argo told him.

Why would a king need my help? Doesn’t he know I’m just a kid?

If you’ll stop interrupting, I’ll explain why I’ve come, Argo suggested.

Sorry.

In the long ago past, King Ichos and King Zirco desired a land settlement on the Earth Star. This posed a problem for King Ichos because there were no air breathers on Water. King Zirco had a different problem. His people couldn’t survive in earth’s atmosphere.

Then how could they build a city here? Archer asked.

Please let me finish, Argo scolded.

I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt.

While they looked for a way to bring their vision to life, King Zirco tried to bring the earthlings under his rule. He abandoned that idea when he learned they didn’t have the skills to build a city. Their lack of skills didn’t bother King Ichos and he determined to learn more about them. He sent Ichonauts to capture the earthlings when they harvested food in the sea and bring them to Water.

Why did he do that?

To conduct experiments and find a way to bring them under his rule.

What kind of experiments?

Argo reached up and touched the flesh-colored collar around his neck. Experiments that let him create the collar that allows air breathers to live beneath the sea.

So that’s where my collar came from!

Archer touched the collar Myra had placed around his neck the day he arrived in Balycon. Then what happened?

King Zirco knew if King Ichos found a way to rule the land dwellers, they might be able to work together to build a settlement. After King Ichos perfected the collar, King Zirco offered to send builders to Water to teach the earthlings how to build a city.

Did the people King Ichos captured get to come home? Archer asked.

Most of them perished because they couldn’t survive on Water, Argo replied. Enough survived to allow King Ichos to perfect the collar that transformed them into sea creatures that could live on land. The collar bound the earthlings to King Ichos and gave him his land dwellers. It didn’t take long to discover the collar let King Zirco’s people live in earth’s atmosphere.

That must have made King Zirco happy.

It created tensions in their relationship, Argo explained. King Ichos didn’t want to give King Zirco the collar he’d worked so hard to develop. He already had settlements beneath earth’s seas and wanted to rule the land.

Did they have a war?

No. But King Zirco wanted an earth settlement badly enough to make a deal with King Ichos. He offered him a communication crystal for each of his earth kingdoms in return for the collar’s secret. King Ichos knew the value of the gift and accepted the offer.

Is that when they built the city?

It took a long time before they agreed on how they could work together. In the end, King Ichos provided the collars and King Zirco sent builders and teachers. King Zirco’s people traveled to the new settlement wearing the collar that allowed them to live on the Earth Star. But King Zirco wouldn’t rule the city. King Ichos insisted the city be built on an island because the powers in the collar bound everyone to the sea, including King Zirco’s people.

Pacion told me the Lemandians built the city thousands of years ago, Archer remarked. These earthlings you keep talking about must have been cavemen. No wonder King Ichos needed help. They couldn’t build a city.

The builders from Skye taught the people many skills, Argo explained. But King Ichos wouldn’t let King Zirco tell his people that the collar allowed them to live underwater.

Why did King Ichos go to the trouble of developing the collar if he didn’t want them to know its powers? Archer asked.

Because he wanted to rule the land, Argo told him. He didn’t want the people to be water people.

I don’t understand, Archer remarked, a puzzled expression in his eyes. How could he rule the land with cavemen?

The communication crystals King Zirco provided allowed it, Argo explained. The crystal balls created a link between Skye, Water and Earth that let King Ichos communicate with his subjects and King Zirco couldn’t do anything about it.

Then what happened?

Centuries passed. King Ichos lost interest in Lemandia and severed ties with its ruler. The city forgot its beginning and went its own way. Over many generations, the descendants of Skye’s children no longer needed the collar to survive in earth’s atmosphere and those without it no longer answered to King Ichos.

So he let King Zirco have the city.

Not intentionally, Argo told him. As soon as King Ichos learned King Zirco’s people could live on the Earth Star without the collar, he told King Zirco he wanted the city. But King Zirco wouldn’t give it to him and they searched for a solution to the conflict.

What did they do?

They decided the winner of a contest would determine who would own and rule Lemandia.

That sounds fair. Who won?

No one, Argo remarked. Before they could act, an earthquake and tidal wave sent Lemandia to the sea floor. King Ichos sent Ichonauts and mermaids from Water to help the survivors adjust to their new home. The underwater city belongs to King Ichos and King Zirco has no claim to the city he helped create. Many of King Zirco’s people survived the destruction and live in the kingdom called Balycon. The skills of Skye let the people rebuild their home beneath the sea, but until you removed the danger created by the missing crystal ball, they couldn’t live here.

Argo’s story answered most of Archer’s questions. More than anything, he understood how little he knew about Balycon. Maybe one day he’d discover why he loved it so much.

How did you know I removed the danger when I just returned the Crystal of All Time to the communication chamber yesterday? Archer asked.

The crystal master of Skye was watching when you found the crystal ball and returned it to its rightful place.

What does this have to do with why you’ve come to see me?

The crystal masters of Water and Skye have watched your accomplishments and are aware of your skills, Argo replied. Few could have overcome the obstacles you encountered when you found and returned the crystal trident. Fewer still could have returned the missing crystal ball to its rightful place. There’s no one in the galaxy with your skills.

That can’t be true, Archer replied. I bet King Zirco could have sent someone to make the city safe. You just told us that the crystal balls came from Skye. He could have had his crystal makers make another crystal ball to replace the Crystal of All Time. Why didn’t he do that?

Because of his feud with King Ichos, he didn’t want his people to live under King Ichos’ rule, Argo explained.

He could have taken the air breathers to Skye after the earthquake destroyed the city, Archer suggested.

That’s true, Argo told him. But in the centuries since he built Lemandia, he used King Ichos’ collar to establish other kingdoms on the Earth Star.

More confused than ever, Archer asked, What do I have to do with something that happened centuries ago?

King Zirco believes you might be able to help him with something far more urgent and important than a missing crystal ball, Argo told him.

That’s crazy, Archer told him.

He doesn’t know if you can help, Argo conceded. But if you can complete the task he has in mind, your efforts will renew the friendship between Water and Skye. There are many who hope you’ll agree to help because the results of your actions can change many lives.

What does he want me to do?

King Ichos is holding the Princess of Skye prisoner, Argo told him. King Zirco wants you to rescue his daughter.

He wants me to do what! Archer exclaimed, incredulous at the thought of rescuing a Princess.

You’re the only one with the abilities to pursue this task, Argo explained. If you can bring King Zirco’s daughter home, Water and Skye will renew their friendship. King Zirco knows this underwater city is important to you. If you agree to help, he’ll send teachers and builders to help everyone here.

As much as I’d like for that to happen, I’m pretty sure I don’t have the skills to do what he asks, Archer replied. Even if I could rescue his daughter, why would King Zirco want to be friends with King Ichos?

I’ve never known you to refuse a challenge, Pacion told him before Argo could reply.

You just reminded me of something, Archer replied. You told me I have to decide today whether I want to stay in Balycon or go home. Now someone named King Zirco wants my help and I don’t know what to do. If I agree to help, I might not get back in time to give you my answer.

I can’t help you with that, Pacion told him. You have to make the decision with your heart and trust you’ve chosen the right path.

Archer looked at Argo. What you ask sounds impossible. Why did you really come to see me?

I’ve explained the reason for my visit, Argo told him.

There’s got to be more, Archer insisted. No matter what this King Zirco guy knows about me, he can’t believe a 14-year old kid can rescue a Princess.

The underwater city belongs to King Ichos and you’ve pleased him greatly by bringing the city to life, Argo told him. That’s one reason King Zirco believes you can succeed. You’re a favored subject of King Ichos. You can go to him and bargain for the Princess.

You’re asking me to renew a friendship that doesn’t exist, Archer reminded him. There must be another reason for your visit.

You’ll find the answer to that question after you arrive in Skye, Argo told him. Will you come with me?

Archer shook his head and considered Pacion’s advice. He had to make this decision with his heart. Should he go with Argo or should he go home? The more he thought about it, the more he knew he didn’t want to go home. Although he missed Nick and Nate, he didn’t want to live on the Mojave Desert with relatives he didn’t know very well. He’d long ago accepted the fact that he’d never see his Mom and Dad again and going home would renew his pain. Besides, Argo had challenged him with an adventure and he loved adventures more than anything.

Archer looked at Argo and asked, What will happen if I fail?

There’s no punishment for failure, Argo responded.

Archer looked at Pacion and told him, Your smile tells me you know what I’ve decided. Sometimes you know me better than I know myself.

At Pacion’s nod of encouragement, Archer told Argo, I’ll go with you, but you have to promise one thing.

What would you ask of King Zirco?

I’ll try to rescue his daughter but no matter what happens, I have to come back to Balycon.

King Zirco can’t make you stay in Skye, Argo told him with a nod of his head. The powers in your crystal triad charm allow you to live anywhere you wish.

Archer flashed Pacion a smile, turned to Argo and said, Then let’s go,

The instant Archer spoke, he realized the enormity of his decision. He’d just committed his future to life in an alien world. He’d never be able to go home or see his friends. Sad and relieved at the same time, he looked at Argo with a question in his eyes.

What is your question? Argo asked.

How did you get here and how will we leave?

It’s known that you can travel through the crystal ball, Argo replied. Although our journey will take us through time and space, we’ll easily travel to an image I call from its depths.

With that explanation, Argo waved Archer to his side and stared into the Crystal of All Time. A white mist swirled through the globe and Archer leaned close, eager to see the place Argo called Skye.

[]Chapter Two

The Kingdom of Skye

A city of white met Archer’s eyes and he stared in awe. White fluffy clouds formed the buildings, trees and shrubs while Skye’s people appeared to float on air while they strolled through the mist at their feet. The metallic sheen of their floor length robes reflected bright colors against the white landscape and surrounded them with the illusion of a watercolor world. Gemstone charms hung to their waists on long gold chains and reflected light from the faceted gems surrounded them with flashes of light that reminded Archer of swamp fireflies.

Where is this place? Archer asked.

When Argo didn’t reply, Archer forgot his question and gaped in wonder when the crystal’s image followed a path through an arched door and stopped in front of a white-haired man who gazed into the depths of Skye’s crystal ball. His white robe sparkled beneath a layer of iridescent dust and his white gemstone charm radiated sparks of multicolored light at the end of its twisted gold chain. Argo brought the image close and Archer jerked back in shocked surprise when the old man’s ice blue eyes met his own.

Who is that? Archer asked. It feels like he’s staring at me!

Argo smiled and replied, He is looking at you. That’s Damani, the Crystal Master of Skye. I imagine he’s watching our meeting to find out whether I’ve convinced you to come with me. After we arrive in Skye, I’ll introduce you.

Argo pressed Archer’s hands tight against the crystal ball. Eager to explore the cloud city, Archer closed his eyes and watched colored ribbons of light whirl beneath his eyelids. As soon as images of white cloud buildings replaced the swirling ribbons, Archer’s bare feet hit something soft. He opened his eyes and discovered Argo at his side and the white-haired man he’d seen in Balycon’s crystal ball stood in front of him.

“Welcome to Skye,” Damani greeted.

Although the clipped musical sound of Skye’s language sounded odd to Archer’s ears, the collar around his neck let him understand Damani’s words. He reached for his throat, touched the collar and trusted it to let him respond in Skye’s language.

“Argo told me your name is Damani,” he replied. “Is that what I’m supposed to call you?”

“That will be appropriate,” Damani replied before he addressed Argo. “Thank you for convincing Archer to come with you. King Zirco is pleased that you accomplished your mission.”

“I’ll leave you now,” Argo told Archer and disappeared.

“I’ve prepared refreshments and I’ll answer your questions while we eat,” Damani announced.

Damani walked out of the building and, with Archer at his side, joined Skye’s people on a misty path. They passed a cloud-shaped building and Archer reached out to touch it. He shook his head in wonder when his fingers penetrated the mist. When he followed Damani into the building, he stooped and brushed his hand against the mist at his feet. His fingers danced through air and his bewilderment grew.

“We’re walking on air,” he said. “How is that possible?”

Damani ignored Archer’s question and pointed at a small table that held two gold goblets and a tray of sliced blue fruit. “While we enjoy the gift of our gardens, I’ll answer your questions and tell you why King Zirco invited you to Skye.”

Damani waved Archer toward a chair sculpted from a cloud.

“You want me to sit on a puff of air?” Archer asked.

“You’ve left the world you knew as a child and now live in the realm of the immortals,” Damani responded when he sat in an identical chair. “You must know by now that things aren’t always what they seem.”

Archer stared in wide-eyed disbelief when Damani leaned back and the chair molded around his body.

“I’ve got to try that!”

Archer sat down but when the chair reached up and grabbed him, he fought to control his panic. But when the chair snuggled against his back and placed rests beneath his arms, he took a deep breath and met Damani’s amused eyes.

“It’s swallowing me,” Archer remarked through gritted teeth.

“Relax and let it adjust to your body,” Damani suggested.

“I’m okay,” Archer responded and released his breath. “It stopped moving.”

Damani nodded at the fruit and drink, “The refreshments may be more to your liking.”

“I am thirsty,” Archer responded.

He reached for a goblet, took a sip and swirled the liquid across his tongue. His eyes widened in surprise when he looked at Damani. “This tastes like strawberries and cream! What is it? Where do you get it?”

“It’s nectar from one of our outer settlements,” Damani replied. “If you like the beverage, I’m sure you’ll like the fruit.”

“I’ve never seen blue fruit before,” Archer replied when he picked up a piece and took a bite. Mmm. It tastes like watermelon with a spicy tang. I like watermelon.”

While the flavor of the fruit lingered on his tongue and mingled with the nectar’s essence, an image of strawberries drenched in cream and slices of blue watermelon flashed through Archer’s mind.

He met Damani’s eyes to ask, “Why do the fruit and nectar create an unexpected flavor when eaten together?” but forgot his question when he saw Damani staring at him. “Why are you looking at me like I have two heads?”

“Your blonde hair and violet eyes remind me of someone,” Damani told him.

“That’s what Pacion told me the first time I met him,” Archer remarked. He reached for another piece of fruit. “I can’t believe Argo came all the way to Balycon to invite me here. How can anyone believe I can rescue a Princess?”

“You may not be able to rescue the king’s daughter,” Damani told him. “While I could easily assure a successful completion of your task, my assistance must be limited. A crystal master is bound by the wishes of the one he serves.”

“You sound like Baccio,” Archer remarked. “He told me the same thing.”

“How do you know Baccio?” Damani asked, his eyes expressing surprise at Archer’s comment.

“Pacion told me about him,” Archer replied. “Soon after that, I found the crystal triad charm in a hidden vault beneath Balycon’s plaza. Baccio taught me how to use it to travel through time and it took me to Lemandia before the city sank beneath the sea.”

“You have unusual skills for an earthling,” Damani told him. “I’m familiar with some of your accomplishments, but Marcoli didn’t tell me you’ve traveled through time. That’s the rarest skill of all.”

“Who’s Marcoli?” Archer asked.

“Water’s crystal master,” Damani told him. “He’s watched you since your arrival in the underwater city on the Earth Star. Baccio was my brother and I’d like to know more about the time you spent with him.”

“Pacion gave me one of Baccio’s charms that let me talk to him with the thought language,” Archer replied. “That’s how I knew how to find his crystal triad charm. I didn’t know it would let me travel through time until I looked at it one day and Baccio’s image popped into my mind. The next thing I knew I was sitting on a hill overlooking Lemandia and he was standing beside me. Baccio helped me use the crystal triad charm to return the Crystal of All Time to Balycon.”

“You’ve just told me why King Ichos agreed to let you attempt to rescue the Princess.”

“Doesn’t King Zirco have an army to rescue people?” Archer asked with a shake of his head. “Why does he think I can do it?”

“Your youth gives you an advantage,” Damani responded with a smile. “Sometimes the young see unusual ways to solve problems. There’s much you need to learn and you’ll learn most of it during your journeys to rescue the Princess. I can promise one thing. This challenge is a lonely one and you’ll draw on strengths you didn’t know you possess.”

Damani took a bite of fruit, chewed and swallowed before he continued. “Argo told you how Lemandia came to be built, but he didn’t tell you everything.”

“Are you going to tell me the rest of the story?”

“There’s no time for that now,” Damani replied. “But I’ll tell you something you must remember.”

“What’s that?”

“The only way to get to Water is to travel through the crystal ball of Skye. The only way to return to Skye is through the crystal ball of Water. These are the only doors between the kingdoms.”

“You must be telling me that I have to use one of those crystal balls to return to Balycon,” Archer replied.

“Good,” Damani said with a nod and a smile. “You understand.”

“When will I meet King Ichos?”

“You just discovered your first challenge,” Damani replied. “When we walked into this room, we left Skye’s crystal ball behind. The rules of the challenge won’t let me show you how to find your way back to it.”

“How can I get to Water and meet King Ichos if I can’t find the crystal ball?”

“King Ichos considers you an outsider even though you’re a favored subject,” Damani replied. “He demanded King Zirco test your skills before he’ll see you.”

“How does he expect me to find Skye’s crystal ball when I don’t know where I am?” asked Archer.

“You don’t need to concern yourself with that,” Damani told him with a shake of his head. “You have other obstacles to overcome before you need the answer to that question.”

“What do you mean?”

“King Ichos prepared a test for you to complete and has allowed me to give you maps for your journeys.”

“Why do I need maps?”

“The test requires you to travel to different locations in Skye’s galaxy and solve a puzzle at each one.”

“Are you going to tell me what I’m supposed to do?”

“You have to find a guidepost at each location and solve the puzzle that goes with it,” Damani told him. “King Ichos doesn’t want to release King Zirco’s daughter but has accepted the possibility you might have the skills to complete his test. Your successful completion of the test is more important than you know.”

A sadness had appeared in Damani’s eyes that made Archer wonder if he’d make the right decision when he agreed to come with Argo, He decided it didn’t matter. He’d come too far to back out.

“What’s this test about?” he asked.

“I’m allowed to tell you that you’ll find many obstacles as you make your way through the maps,” Damani explained. “Each time you find danger, choose a solution wisely. How you find your way to safety is important, but no matter what happens, never forget your most important task. You have come to rescue the Princess of Skye.”

“That didn’t tell me much,” Archer replied. “Are you allowed to tell me the name of King Zirco’s daughter?”

“Her name is Amethina.”

“Are you sure I can do this?”

“Don’t doubt your abilities,” Damani replied with a smile of encouragement. “I’ve watched you overcome obstacles in the past.”

“That was different,” he said. “Baccio and Pacion helped me.”

“Help you shall have,” Damani told him and reached into the mist. “King Zirco prepared a gift that will assist you through the maps.”

Damani lowered his hand and Archer’s eyes widened at the sight of the shimmering white fabric draped across his palm. Hundreds of multicolored stars splashed across the metallic fabric and shone like molten glass on white porcelain.

Archer reached out and took the clothing, “This is awesome! The fabric is soft like silk and the stars sparkle like gems.”

“This clothing embraces all of Skye’s colors and King Zirco designed it especially for you,” Damani explained. “You may wear it over your swimwear.”

Archer started to rise and the chair came up beneath him and gave him a nudge. After he was on his feet, he turned to watch it sink into its original position.

“That’s the oddest chair ever,” he remarked while he shook the clothing loose.

“Wow! A pair of trousers with a matching top! I didn’t expect this. I thought everyone in Skye wore long robes.”

“This attire is more appropriate for your coming journeys,” Damani told him.

Archer slipped on the trousers that hung loose like pajamas and brushed the top of his feet. The tunic dropped from his shoulders to his thigh and its flowing sleeves stopped short of his fingertips. His fingers closed around a fold and caressed the silken fabric. He dropped his right arm and raised the left. He brought his arm back to his side and marveled at the stars that sparkled across the shimmering cloth.

“Wow!” he repeated when he raised both arms and the sleeves formed wings. “It’s like wearing air.”

He reached for the crystal triad charm but before he could pull it from beneath the tunic, Damani shook his head, rose from his chair and reached into the mist.

“There’s more,” Damani told him. “The costume is not complete without the charm.”

Damani lowered his hand and a milky gemstone dangled at the end of a twisted gold chain. Damani placed the chain over Archer’s head and stepped back. Archer reached down, held the stone by its edges and brought the dull white gem to eye level. He tipped it sideways and disappointment shone in his eyes.

“It doesn’t have any life,” he sighed. “Why doesn’t it sparkle like Skye’s other gems?”

Embarrassed that he’d forgotten his mother taught him to appreciate every gift, Archer looked into Damani’s smile.

“King Zirco waits,” Damani said and took Archer’s arm. “Close your eyes and I’ll take you to meet him.”

Archer let the ugly white gem fall to the end of its chain, closed his eyes and felt his clothes move around his body. The sensation of tumbling end over end nearly made him open his eyes but he feared he’d be lost in a void and kept them shut. At one point of the journey, he spun so fast, he nearly passed out.

“We’ve arrived at the throne room,” Damani told him. “You may look up.”

Archer opened his eyes and blinked. By the time he brought his eyes into focus, his dizziness had vanished and he stared at a man on a cloud throne. His white hair hung to his shoulders and his long white beard flowed across his chest. Purple gems studded his crown and a layer of iridescent dust sparkled on his metallic purple robe. A faceted purple gem, surrounded by flashing white stones, hung from a twisted gold chain around his neck and flashed purple sparks against his clothing.

Archer met King Zirco’s eyes and his mouth gaped open in shocked surprise at the sight of a pair of violet eyes looking back at him.

“Ah,” said King Zirco with a nod of his head. “It’s my pleasure to meet the talented young man from the Earth Star. Thank you for accepting my invitation. Your task is difficult, but I believe you have the skills to save my daughter and bring peace between Water and Skye.”

King Zirco paused, arched an eyebrow and tilted his head. “Do you have any questions?”

“I have a lot of questions,” Archer replied. “But Damani told me I have to find my own way.”

Before King Zirco could comment, Archer spoke again. “I do have a question. Damani told me I have to do a test. When do I start?”

“I’ll give you a tour of my gardens before you leave Skye,” King Zirco replied. “I regret the obstacles King Ichos placed in your path, but much is at stake and I had to agree to his demands.”

“Are you going to tell me what I have to do?” Archer asked.

“I can’t reveal the nature of the test, but King Ichos agreed to some of my terms,” King Zirco told him. “The most important thing for you to remember concerns the multicolored stars I placed in your clothing. I chose those colors with great care and, properly used, they’ll strengthen your skills.”

Archer glanced at the sparkling stars on his tunic and trousers and asked, “What do the stars in my clothes have to do with anything?”

“You’ll have the answer to that question before you leave Skye,” King Zirco told him.

“I’m a 14-year old kid,” Archer persisted. “How can you believe I can save your daughter?”

“Your skills are known,” King Zirco replied. “Before you leave Skye, you’ll have the tools you need to complete the test and free my daughter.”

Before Archer could reply, King Zirco turned to Damani. “You may go,” he told him. “Archer will stay with me until you come for him.”

Damani’s nod acknowledged the dismissal and he disappeared. As soon as they were alone, King Zirco rose from his throne.

“Come with me,” he said and waved Archer to follow. “It’s time you learned how to use some of the powers I placed in your clothing because you can’t complete the test without this knowledge.”

“The clothes are amazing,” Archer told him and raised an arm to let the fabric fall free.

“They’re more than you know,” King Zirco replied and approached the exit. He stopped at the door, turned and met Archer’s eyes. “Remember this, Archer. You’ll reach the kingdom of Water when you wear clothes of solid white and the fire in the stone draws a rainbow in the sky.”

Archer brought the milky stone to eye level. “There isn’t any fire in this stone. It’s a dull white rock.”

King Zirco smiled and told him, “Ah. I see you’re disappointed. Be patient. That dull white rock is as special as your clothing.”

Archer shook his head and remarked, “I don’t see anything special about it.”

“You will,” King Zirco assured him. “You will.”

“What do you mean?” Archer asked.

“Each time you solve a puzzle, the colored stars that represent that challenge will leave your clothing,” King Zirco explained. “The white stone will capture them and make them yours. At your journey’s end, your gemstone charm will contain more fire than all the gems in my kingdom.”

Archer stared at the ugly stone. He wanted to believe it could be the prettiest gemstone in Skye but doubted that would happen. He let it fall to the end of the chain and followed King Zirco into a garden filled with cloud-shaped bushes and trees. Just like his dull white stone, there was nothing special about the garden. If it weren’t for Skye’s people in their brightly colored robes and flashing gemstone charms, Skye’s landscape was not only the most unusual place he’d ever seen but also the most boring.

Archer looked up at King Zirco and asked, “Damani told me that King Ichos won’t let anyone help me. How will I know what to do?”

“You’ll have maps of your journeys before you leave Skye and you’ll find guideposts along the way,” King Zirco replied. “But you must be cautious because the maps can’t show you the dangers you might encounter.”

King Zirco stopped and faced Archer before he spoke again. “After you complete King Ichos’ test and rescue my daughter, your gemstone charm will contain the powers it captured from your clothing. The charm is a gift that you can take home with you.”

“Are you going to describe these powers you keep talking about?”

“I’ve prepared entertainment that will teach you some of the ways you can use the multicolored stars,” King Zirco told him before he turned to continue down the path.

Archer shook his head at King Zirco’s words. What a weird test! Neither Damani nor King Zirco would tell him where he was going, how to get there or what he was supposed to do after he arrived. And why were the multicolored stars so important?

They approached a garden where marshmallow shrubs bordered the path and cloud-shaped trees rose through the misty haze. While they walked down the path, rows of multicolored flowers unfolded beside them. The colors bounced off the clouds and transformed the landscape into a panorama of living color. Startled at the sudden appearance of the flowers Archer stopped and stared.

“I didn’t expect to see anything like that,” he remarked.

King Zirco pointed at a nearby shrub and a profusion of flowers bloomed and turned the bush blue. He pointed at the ground and red carnations popped through the mist. He pointed at a space between two shrubs and yellow daffodils and blue irises burst into bloom.

“What are you doing?” Archer asked. “Where are the flowers coming from?”

“This is your first lesson,” King Zirco told him. “Watch.”

“Watch what?” Archer asked. “All I see are flowers.”

“You see more than flowers,” King Zirco replied.

Archer’s eyes widened as, one by one, a child’s smiling face appeared in the center of each blossom. And one by one, a laughing child discarded the flower image and skipped away. A group of children in blue robes skipped down the path and Archer watched with delight when they jumped off the path and became tulips. After each flower reached full bloom, it changed into a child in a metallic robe of Skye. Archer smiled and shook his head at the children’s light-hearted play until they skipped down the path and disappeared in the mist.

“That was awesome!” he exclaimed.

“That’s how our children play,” King Zirco told him. “Damani prepared the children for this demonstration by showing them pictures of flowers on the Earth Star. The color of their clothing let them assume those images.”

Confused by King Zirco’s words, Archer asked, “What are you telling me? What does the color of their clothing have to do with the flowers?”

“The stars in your clothing are special,” King Zirco replied. “Their colors let you become anything you desire as long as its color remains in the fabric.”

“Is that why the stars are different colors?” Archer asked, amazed at King Zirco’s description of an unbelievable skill.

“I’m pleased you understand the gift,” King Zirco told him with a smile. “Would you like to practice the skill in my garden?”

After a brief hesitation, Archer told him, “That sounds like fun. How do I use the stars?”

“It’s an easy skill,” King Zirco replied. “It’s another way to use your imaging ability. Close your eyes and visualize the object you want to become. If the color is in your clothes, you’ll become that image.”

“I’m good at imaging,” Archer remarked. “I can do that.”

Archer closed his eyes and visions of the children and the flowers flashed through his mind. Unlike the children, the multicolored stars in his clothing allowed him to be anything he chose. He looked up and met King Zirco’s eyes. With a smile and a nod, he closed his eyes. His childhood memories took him to a favorite park and a weeping willow tree beside its swing set. His clothing moved around him and enclosed him in its folds.

“A most unusual tree you’re showing me,” King Zirco remarked. “I’ll have my builders add a few to my garden. Rejoin me and meet the children.”

Archer let the image fade, his clothes fell around him and he smiled at the children standing beside the king. How could he thank them for showing him such a wonderful skill? Maybe he could teach them a new and exciting way to use the powers in their clothing. He smiled and pointed at a child in a shimmering blue robe.

“Can you do this?” he asked.

Before the child could reply, Archer closed his eyes and pictured a blue butterfly resting on a nearby bush. A moment passed before he heard the children squeal in delight. He poked his head out of his tunic and saw a small blue butterfly on the bush beside him.

Archer smiled at King Zirco and, with a hand signal, invited all of the children into the game. Each time a child joined him, he selected a different colored star and became a different colored butterfly. The shouts and laughter attracted more children until every bush held shining butterflies every color of the rainbow.

King Zirco’s laughter rang throughout the garden and Archer dropped the butterfly image when he discovered several adults had arrived and watched the children flit from bush to bush. Archer joined King Zirco on the path and marveled at his new skill. He didn’t have to ask the children if they enjoyed their new game. They were having a great time!

“You’ve given the children wings!” King Zirco exclaimed and smiled his approval. “They won’t soon forget my visitor from the Earth Star. Come with me. I have something to show you.”

King Zirco led Archer out of the garden and into an open-air theater where white cloud columns supported a cloud roof above tiers of seats around a circular stage. The buildings reminded Archer of Balycon’s temples and Argo’s story about how Skye’s builders built Lemandia.

“I’ll provide refreshments while we relax,” King Zirco remarked and led Archer to two chairs in front of the stage.

King Zirco sat down and his hand signal invited Archer to sit beside him. Archer sat and managed to relax when the chair reached up and grabbed him. King Zirco waved his hand and a low table appeared. He waved his hand again and trays of fruit and goblets of nectar appeared on the table.

“Enjoy the food and drink of Skye while I show you something else the multicolored stars in your clothing will allow,” King Zirco told him.

Archer reached for a piece of fruit but before he could take a bite, a motion overhead made him look up. A large bird appeared from behind the clouds and Archer’s mouth gaped open at the sight. What a magnificent creature! With golden wings that glowed like silk, it soared like a hawk and circled lower and lower. It landed on the stage, its wings fell against its body and Archer held his breath in surprise and wonder when the bird became a man of Skye in a shimmering gold robe with a matching gemstone charm on a twisted gold chain.

“Wow!” Archer exclaimed.

More birds appeared from behind the trees and circled overhead. Some with green feathers and others with blue flashed their brilliant hues against the clouds. They landed behind the man in gold and dropped their wings. Young men of Skye in green and blue metallic robes smiled at King Zirco and Archer. The next time Archer looked up, several yellow birds soared near and landed near their companions. After their shimmering wings fell to their sides, the women of Skye met Archer’s startled eyes.

Archer looked at King Zirco and asked, “Are you telling me I can fly?”

“Why are you surprised after you just gave the children of Skye the gift of flight?” King Zirco replied with a knowing smile. “The answer to your question is yes. As long as you remain in this galaxy, your clothing will let you fly. You need this skill on your coming journeys.”

“No wonder the children loved the butterflies!” Archer remarked. “It didn’t occur to me I was flying. I just wanted to teach them a game.”

“I’m glad you understand that you did, indeed, give them a special gift,” King Zirco told him.

“Is there more that I should know?” Archer asked.

“There’s much more you should know,” King Zirco replied. “The clothing and charm are filled with many powers but there isn’t time to teach you all they allow. Remember these words and you’ll find new skills when you need them. “Use your dream world as your guide and know that anything is possible.”

Before Archer could reply, King Zirco rose from his chair and told him, “I’ll leave you now so you may rest. Damani will come for you soon.”

King Zirco vanished and when Archer turned to look at the men and women of Skye, he found them gone as well. He glanced at the clothes Damani gave him and shook his head. According to King Zirco, the multicolored stars prepared him for anything he might find on the mysterious journeys through the maps. Why did the King Ichos’ test require such unbelievable skills? The possible answers to that question were too scary to think about.

Archer looked beyond the massive columns at a garden of cloud-like trees and shrubs and hoped Pacion had watched his journey with Argo and seen the men and women of Skye soaring through the clouds. He leaned back in the chair and let it wrap around him. Shining butterflies and golden birds filled his dreams and he joined them on flights through exotic gardens and magical kingdoms while he fought fire-breathing dragons with weapons created with his mind. After he saved the Princess from a tyrant king, he brought her to her father and thanked King Zirco for the gift that let him be anything he wanted to be.

[]Chapter Three

The Maps

Damani’s touch on Archer’s shoulder brought him awake and he opened his eyes at Damani’s words, “It’s time to begin your journey.”

Archer sat up and stretched.“I didn’t know I was tired.”

“It’s not unusual for visitors to need a nap soon after they arrive in Skye,” Damani replied.

Archer pushed against the chair and tried to get up. It didn’t release him and he looked at Damani with alarm in his eyes.

“Relax and the chair will help you,” Damani suggested.

A hesitant Archer leaned back. The chair unfolded and pushed him to his feet. Archer stared in bewilderment at the seemingly innocent cloud and said, “That’s a scary chair.”

Damani smiled and asked. “Did you rest well?”

“I’m ready to tackle that test you keep talking about.”

“Good,” Damani replied and took his arm. “We’re going to the map room. Close your eyes.”

“Why are you taking me to a map room?”

“King Ichos won’t let me tell you what you’re supposed to do on your journeys,” Damani replied. “But he agreed to let me provide maps of your destinations.”

“I’ll do my best to bring the king’s daughter home,” Archer promised and closed his eyes. His clothes rustled around him and then everything became still.

“We’ve arrived,” Damani announced. “You may open your eyes.”

Archer opened his eyes and stared in disbelief. When Damani told him they were going to the map room, he wasn’t kidding! Wall-to-wall tables held stacks of maps, all of them rolled and many with frayed edges. Parchments, every color of the rainbow, covered the floor, walls and ceiling. More rolled maps stood on end against every wall and in every corner.

“I’ve never seen so many maps in one place in my life!”

He leaned down to study a map hanging on the wall and shook his head at pictures of animal tracks on mountain trails and water flowing through a valley that crashed against the rocks on its way to the other side of the mountain.

“How can you put a real river on a parchment map?” he asked. Before Damani could reply, he had another question, “Where are the towns?”

“You won’t find towns on most maps in Skye’s galaxy because few of the planets are inhabited,” Damani replied. “As for the river. There is no water on the map. It’s a carefully crafted illusion that adds life to the drawing.”

Archer shook his head in wonder and exclaimed, “You’re telling me that I’m looking at an animated map!”

That’s when he remembered his tour of King Zirco’s garden and everything he’d learned there. He didn’t just travel to Skye, he’d arrived at a galaxy with skills beyond his knowledge. Archer touched the collar around his neck and understood how little he knew about the world of the immortals. He had to accept the fact that the collar not only enhanced his skills, it had powers he knew nothing about.

“Can I get back to Balycon from here?” he asked with a hint of fear in his eyes.

“You’re not trapped in Skye if that’s your question,” Damani replied. “Your crystal triad charm lets you go anywhere you desire.”

“I didn’t believe Argo when he told me he traveled through time and space to find me.”

“Have you ever wondered what you might discover if you decided to travel beyond the Earth Star?” Damani asked.

Understanding lit Archer’s eyes. “I think you’re telling me that it doesn’t matter where I am. As long as I can see a destination in my mind, the crystal triad charm will take me there. Does that mean I can travel through space without a space ship?”

“It isn’t that simple,” Damani cautioned.

“What do you mean?”

“You have to see your destination in your mind before the crystal triad charm can take you there,” Damani explained. “You can travel to a place you’ve already been or you can travel to a destination you can see in the crystal ball. You can’t look at a star in the sky and expect the charm to take you on that journey. I strongly suggest you don’t try it.”

“Oh,” was Archer’s barely audible reply when he grabbed the crystal triad charm and raised it to eye level. He studied it a moment before he met Damani’s eyes and asked, “Then why did you tell me that I have to travel through your crystal ball to get back to Balycon?”

Damani smiled and replied, “You’re very clever to see through my deception. You’ve forced me to tell you that you can use the crystal triad charm to return to Skye from any point in your journey and you can use it to get home.”

“Why couldn’t you tell me that?”

“Because King Ichos requires you to complete the test with limited information,” Damani replied. “I’m not allowed to tell you more. It’s time you studied the maps you need for your journeys and I’ll tell you how to use them.”

Damani led Archer across the room, stopped and pointed at a map that covered an entire wall. Exquisitely drawn on embossed pink paper, it illustrated an underwater kingdom filled with exotic gardens filled with fish, turtles, corals and shells. Dragons, all shapes, colors and sizes, swam through the map and frolicked around the border.

“What’s the name of that place?”

“It’s a map of Water, the kingdom ruled by King Ichos, where every creature lives beneath the sea. It’s the original home of the Ichonauts and mermaids who live on the Earth Star.”

“I’ve never seen a pink map before,” Archer told him. “Why is an underwater world drawn on pink paper?”

“The map illustrates the true light in the kingdom,” Damani replied. “You’ll see what I’m talking about after you get there.”

“Did you just tell me that I have to travel to another planet?” Archer asked.

“The challenge you’ve accepted will take you to several planets,” Damani replied and led Archer to a long table. “That’s why I brought you to the map room.”

While Archer absorbed that information, Damani reached down and picked up a rolled parchment tinted reddish-orange. He unrolled it on the table and pointed at the arid landscape between its borders. Near the map’s center and surrounded by black boulders, a volcano belched smoke into an amber sky. Hundreds of shrubs, covered with exotic red flowers, grew across the land and provided a splash of color in the forbidding landscape. Red and orange flames raced around the border and met bouquets of red flowers in each corner.

At the sight of the bleak and barren landscape, Archer shook his head and told Damani, “What’s the name of that place. There’s nothing there except a volcano.”

“This is Ferro, your first destination,” Damani told him.

“What am I supposed to do on a desert with a volcano? Am I supposed to find a town?”

“There are no towns on Ferro.”

“Why do I need to go there?”

“The clothing King Zirco gave you contains the answer to that question,” Damani explained.

“I don’t understand what my clothes have to do with anything,” Archer replied.

“King Zirco placed the multicolored stars on your clothing to enhance your skills,” Damani replied. “You can’t complete King Ichos’ test unless you discover how to use them. The maps are important because the borders contain the first clue to the puzzle you need to solve. The red and orange flames on this map’s border represent the burning lava in Ferro’s volcano. I can’t tell you more. I may have already said too much.”

“You haven’t told me anything,” Archer replied with a shake of his head.

“I’m allowed to give you a gift you may take with you that can offer help when you’re faced with a difficult task,” Damani replied and reached into the cloud above his head.

“What’s that?” Archer asked when Damani pulled a shining white cloth from the mist.

“It’s a headband,” Damani told him.

“Why do I need a headband?”

“It lets you take the maps with you,” Damani explained.

“How can a headband be a map?”Archer asked, his confusion growing. “Does it have special powers like my clothes?”

Damani smiled. “It will after I add the maps to it.”

“How can you do that?”

“Watch,” Damani told him and placed the headband near his right hand. He traced a reddish-orange circle on the cloth with his index finger and glanced at Archer.

“That’s a neat trick, but it doesn’t look like a map to me,” Archer remarked.

“There’s a map of Ferro within the circle,” Damani told him.

“What am I supposed to do on Ferro?”

“I can’t answer that question,” Damani responded.

“How am I supposed to find out?”

“That’s your challenge,” Damani told him.

“Can you tell me anything?” Archer asked in frustration.

“I can tell you that your gemstone charm will tell you when you correctly solve a puzzle,” Damani explained.

Archer raised the dull white stone to eye level. “King Zirco told me the charm is special. It doesn’t look special and I don’t understand how it can tell me anything.”

“King Zirco told you something else,” Damani reminded him. “He told you that the ugly white stone will be the most beautiful gemstone in Skye after you successfully complete the test and rescue his daughter.”

Archer bit his lip and didn’t speak.

“I know this must be confusing,” Damani explained. “Maybe you’ll understand after I tell you the multicolored stars on your clothing represent your journeys through King Ichos’ test. After you solve the puzzle on each planet, the stars assigned to that planet will leave your clothing and the gemstone charm will capture them in its depths. After the white stone contains the colored stars for that journey, that map will disappear from the headband.”

Archer’s eyes lit up and he smiled when he replied. “Now I understand what King Zirco meant when he told me this ugly white stone would be the most beautiful gemstone in Skye! How am I supposed to use the maps?”

“To request information from a map, close your eyes, visualize the appropriate color on the headband and ask a question.”

“That’s not much help, but it’s more than I had before” Archer remarked. “How am I supposed to know what to do after I arrive at my destination?”

“The first clue to every puzzle appears on the map’s borders. After you arrive at your destination, you need to find a guidepost that will give you your second clue.”

“Everything you’ve told me sounds impossible,” said Archer. “Can you tell me anything else?”

Damani smiled at Archer’s question and said, “After a color disappears from your clothing, you can’t use that color again until your gemstone charm captures all the colored stars in your clothing.”

“You keep telling me I have to use the colored stars,” Archer responded. “How am I supposed to use them?”

“Like you did in the garden,” Damani suggested. “Remember the children’s limitations and how you taught them a new game that expanded their skills.”

“You’re telling me I can use them to change shape and become something else.”

“There are other ways to use them,” Damani replied. “If you need something and the color is in your clothing, you can bring it to you.”

Damani reached for a yellow map, unrolled it and placed it over the map of Ferro.

“Carefully study each map after I unroll them,” Damani told him. “You need to be familiar with your destinations before you leave Skye.”

Archer leaned down and studied the pictures on the aged yellow map. Jagged mountain peaks zigzagged across a barren land split in two by a river that meandered into the mountains and disappeared. Tan and yellow ribbons wound around a border of strolling dinosaurs.

“Another desert with a river,” Archer remarked. “What’s that place called?”

Damani transferred a yellow circle to the headband before he turned and told him, “This is Velda where you must cross the moving land.”

Archer studied the flat, parched landscape and remarked, “The maps aren’t difficult to remember. There’s nothing there.”

Damani unrolled a blue map illustrated with a frozen glacier surrounded by snow-capped peaks. A flurry of ice crystals danced around the border.

“That’s different,” Archer remarked. “It looks cold. What’s the name of this place?”

“This is Akro, a frozen world in our galaxy.”

“I hope I don’t have to climb those mountains,” Archer told him. “I’ve never done that before.”

“Your challenge is inside one of the mountains,” Damani told him when he placed a blue circle on the headband. “After you locate the correct mountain, beware the perils you find inside and be alert for danger at all times.”

“You just gave me a clue,” Archer remarked. “Are you going to tell me which mountain to explore? What about wild animals?”

“Nothing lives on Akro,” Damani replied. “Finding the right mountain and solving the puzzle is your challenge. I can’t tell you more.”

Archer looked at Damani and shook his head. Why did King Ichos want him to go to these remote places? This test sounded more and more like his childhood treasure hunts with Nick and Nate. They always hoped to find something but never knew what they were looking for.

Damani unrolled a green map over the map of Akro and Archer stared at a plain green parchment with a white border decorated with jungle vines.

“That’s not a map,” he told Damani. “It’s a piece of green paper with vines running around the edge.”

“It’s the planet Lackwanna,” Damani replied and traced a green circle on the headband. “This test requires a special skill. You must find a way where no way exists. Study the map carefully and look for a hidden message.”

“I know you’re trying to help but this won’t work,” Archer told him. “I don’t understand any of the maps and this isn’t even a map.”

“That’s why King Zirco gave you the clothing,” Damani reminded him. “Without it, you can’t complete the test.”

“I doubt I can complete it anyway,” Archer replied. “None of the maps tell me what I’m supposed to do and this one is just a plain green piece of paper.”

Damani stepped back and studied the map of Lackwanna. “I see what you mean. Maybe I can fix it.”

Damani closed his eyes and slowly moved his hands across the map. Wavy black lines slithered across the parchment and after Damani opened his eyes and raised his hands, Archer leaned close.

“It’s an aerial picture of a jungle! Look! There’s some old ruins peeking out from beneath the trees.”

Damani smiled. “I agree. That’s much better.”

“At least it’s a map,” Archer remarked.

“You’re right,” Damani told him. “I’ve helped without giving you forbidden information.”

Damani picked up a brown scroll with yellowed edges and opened it to reveal a picture of a dead, leafless tree in the center of the parchment. The tree’s roots created the decoration across the bottom border and pushed the knurled trunk and knobby branches toward the sky. The upper branches created the border at the top of the parchment. Scattered across the map, gardens filled with exotic flowers provided the only color to an otherwise boring illustration.

Archer asked, “What’s the place with the scary-looking tree called?”

Damani turned away from the maps and met Archer’s eyes. “This is Mican, the home of the tundrox. By the time you reach this planet, you’ll understand the purpose of the test. I’m allowed to tell you that your challenge on Mican is to find Amethina’s gemstone charm.”

“I thought you couldn’t give me any information.”

Damani flashed Archer a smile. “I’ve told you more than you know without revealing forbidden information.”

“What am I supposed to do with Amethina’s gemstone charm?”

“Bring it to Skye and give it to King Zirco,” Damani told him. “The charm will tell him you’ve successfully completed King Ichos’ test and he’ll send you to Water to negotiate Amethina’s release and peace between Water and Skye.”

Damani transferred a brown circle to the headband, picked it up from the table and tied it around Archer’s head.

“Why can’t I just go to Mican and find the gemstone charm? Why do I have to go to all these other places?

“You have to solve a puzzle on each planet to develop the skills that will let you overcome the tundrox,” Damani replied.

Archer reached up and touched the headband. “At least you told me something. Tell me again how to use the maps?”

“Each time you desire information, close your eyes and see the map’s color in your mind,” Damani replied. “The map will answer your question with an image. If you select the wrong color, you’ll receive no answer. The maps have a unique power so you must be careful how you use them.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Each time you consult a map, be prepared to find yourself at the appropriate location in your journey.”

“You’re saying the maps have the power to move me?”

Damani smiled. “That power can make your task easier or more difficult. I’m suggesting you consult the maps as a last resort.”

“Okay,” Archer remarked. “Now you’re telling me that you’re allowed to give me maps that I shouldn’t use. Can you tell me anything else?”

“I’m telling you the reason you must memorize the maps before you leave Skye,” Damani replied. “Your most important task is to rescue Princess Amethina. King Ichos included obstacles in the test meant to discourage you and make you give up. If you return to Skye before you complete any puzzle, you’ll fail the test.”

“Do you believe I can do this?”

“I’ve watched a few of your journeys in Skye’s crystal ball,” Damani replied. “I’ve seen the results of your accomplishments and am familiar with your skills. I’m confident you have the ability to avoid the traps King Ichos placed in your path.”

“You keep telling me that King Ichos likes me and then you tell me he’s doing everything he can to stop me,” Archer remarked. “Does King Ichos want me to succeed? Will he let me rescue King Zirco’s daughter?”

“King Ichos rules your home beneath the sea and you’re a favored subject,” Damani reminded him. “Although this test puts you in danger, you have no reason to fear him.”

“Which map do I follow first?”

“Consult the maps in the order I placed them on your headband,” Damani replied. “You have to complete each puzzle before you can continue to the next one. Your last journey will take you to Mican.”

“King Zirco told me the multicolored stars in my clothes will let me be anything I want to be,” Archer remarked. “Do they have other powers?”

“Your clothing has many powers,” said Damani. “You’re an earth creature and earth’s laws differ from those of Skye. Your natural abilities enhance the powers of the multicolored stars. There isn’t time to tell you all you need to know about King Zirco’s gift. It’s best if I tell you that your clothing will let you to be anything you choose and let you do anything you need to do.”

“Did you just tell me I can walk through walls?”

“If that is something you wish, the clothing allows it but it’s something you already do.”

“What do you mean?”

“You walk through walls when you use your imaging skills to travel to other locations.”

“Oh. Does that mean I can become invisible?”

“While you’re in this galaxy, that’s possible,” said Damani. “Does that answer all of your questions?”

“What will happen if I give up and return to Balycon?” Archer asked.

“You know the answer to that question,” Damani told him, “Water and Skye will remain enemies and Princess Amethina might never come home. You’re her only hope and the only hope for peace between King Zirco and King Ichos.”

Archer considered Damani’s words. He didn’t like this test. He didn’t like it at all. He wished he’d never come with Argo but he couldn’t quit now. He looked at his watch, pushed a button next to the dial and read April 21. If he didn’t go back today and tell Pacion he wanted to go home, he could never go home again. A lump rose in Archer’s throat when he realized he didn’t want to go back to California, but he didn’t want to be here either. He glanced at Damani and then his watch. Doubts assailed him until he remembered his dad telling him when he accepted a job he had to finish it. If he wanted his dad to be proud of him he had to do this.

Archer squared his shoulders and asked,“Can you do something for me before I leave?”

“What is your wish?” Damani asked.

“I’d like to see the maps again.”

“I can grant that request,” Damani told him and spread the maps side-by-side the length of the table.

Archer moved close, studied the pictures of the desolate landscapes and noted the name of each planet. How could aerial views of jungles, deserts and glaciers help? While the maps didn’t tell him what he was supposed to find or do, they suggested they’d been created to test his survival skills or guarantee his failure.

Archer met Damani’s eyes and opened his mouth. Before he could voice a question, Damani raised his hand and told him, “I’ve told you everything I can. King Ichos won’t allow more preparation.”

Damani’s words deepened the mystery. Why couldn’t Damani tell him more? Archer looked at the maps and shook his head before he met Damani’s eyes.

“I have one more question.”

“What’s that?”

“Am I supposed to return to Skye or continue to the next map after I complete a puzzle?”

“Because you cleverly made me tell you that your crystal triad charm will let you go anywhere you wish, you may return to Skye and rest between journeys,” Damani responded. “However, if you return to Skye before you complete a puzzle, you’ll fail the test.”

With a hopeful tone in his voice, Archer asked,“Can you tell me anything else?”

“I can tell you that King Ichos and King Zirco will watch your progress,” Damani replied. “Although you may find this difficult to believe, they want you to succeed. It’s important you not give up when you encounter an obstacle.”

Archer shook his head. What was he supposed to do on these mysterious journeys? He had to believe he’d find the clues that would answer that question. Archer met Damani’s eyes and the sadness he found in their depths made everything worse.

“I’m ready to find out what this test is about,” he said with a sigh. “I’ll see you when I get back.”

Archer closed his eyes and visualized the reddish-orange circle on his headband. When the map of Ferro appeared in the blackness beneath his lids, he searched the barren landscape and hoped to find a hint of his task before he arrived.

[]Chapter Four

Land of Fire

Archer landed on his feet with a jolt. His eyes snapped open and he stood next to a black boulder, one of thousands scattered across the landscape. Nothing moved or disturbed the silence that echoed around him. Hot air rose in waves from the parched land and disappeared into the cloudless amber sky. Straggly clumps of shrubs with exotic red flowers nestled in their copper leaves daubed a wave of color across the land. Silhouetted against the distant sky, Ferro’s volcano belched a plume of smoke and smoldering ash while a blanket of orange dust collided with the horizon behind him.

Like a castaway on a desert island, he was isolated and totally alone. He’d come to Ferro to find a guidepost and solve a puzzle. Damani told him the maps would drop him where he needed to be at any point in his journey. Why did the map leave him way out here when Damani told him that the red and orange ribbons on the map’s border represented the bubbling lava inside the volcano? That’s when Archer remembered the red flowers in the map’s corners and scanned a landscape filled with red flowers.

Unable to decide how to proceed, Archer studied the volcano and thought about Damani’s map room. Was his guidepost inside the volcano? With the powers King Zirco put in his clothing, he could easily fly to the volcano but he couldn’t ignore an important fact. The map dropped him out here for a reason and he couldn’t leave until he knew why. He’d just arrived and the difficulty of his task overwhelmed him. Although Pacion couldn’t help him, the fact that he probably watched in Balycon’s crystal ball eased Archer’s loneliness.

Archer turned in a circle and wondered if the boulders, shrubs and flowers could be his guideposts? He decided to ignore the boulders. They were too large to pick up and look under them. That left the shrubs and flowers Why would the map drop him here to pick flowers? He approached the nearest shrub with notched leaves that shone like burnished copper. The exotic flowers nestled in its branches didn’t belong here which suggested they could be a guidepost. If he’d come to Ferro to pick a flower, did it matter which one he picked? What good was a guidepost if he didn’t understand it? Archer grabbed the crystal triad charm and clutched it tightly in his fist. No matter what happened, no matter what he found, he took comfort in the fact that the charm could take him to Balycon if he couldn’t advance and decided to quit.

He shook his head in frustration and muttered, “I can’t give up before I begin. I have to ask the map. Maybe it can help.”

He closed his eyes and pictured the reddish-orange circle on his headband. The map appeared in the blackness beneath his lids and confirmed his arrival on Ferro. He scanned the map’s desolate landscape and focused his attention on the volcano. He found nothing that suggested he’d found a guidepost and opened his eyes. He’d halfway expected the map to drop him at the volcano but he stood where he’d landed…in the middle of the desert with layers of hot air curling around him.

Archer wiggled his bare toes in the dust and muttered aloud. “The flowers don’t belong here but there’s no reason to pick one until I know what to do with it.”

Archer scanned the land, blinked and looked again at a distant boulder that stood like a sentinel in the dust and dwarfed everything around it.

“How did I miss that?”

Archer walked toward it and muttered, “If a rock’s my guidepost, I don’t know how it can help.”

A voice in Archer’s ear made him jump.

There’s one way to find out, said Pacion.

Surprised and astounded that Pacion reached him, Archer asked, Why didn’t you tell me you can talk to me in another galaxy!

When Pacion didn’t reply, Archer knew he’d gone. But what did Pacion mean? How could he find out if he’d found his guidepost? Did Pacion expect him to look under it? He hadn’t thought about looking for clues beneath the boulders because there were too many and they were too large to pick up. But this one was different and he’d check it out. He knelt in the dust, reached out with his hand and touched the smooth stone. Surprise and wonder reflected in his eyes when the boulder throbbed beneath his fingers. Archer rose to his feet and scratched his head.

“Maybe there’s something buried here.”

He knelt beside the boulder, scooped away the soil and found an old lava flow beneath the orange dust.

“There’s nothing here.”

Archer rose to his feet and stared at the boulder. A vision of Arcos, his Ichonaut friend, popped into his head.

Why did I see the an image of my friend Arcos?

He taught you a special skill, Pacion reminded him.

He taught me how to use images to talk to the animals, Archer replied. Are you suggesting I can use the image language to talk to a rock? That’s dumb! No one can talk to a rock!

I don’t know if you can talk to a rock. I’m suggesting it might be a way to approach the problem.

I’ve never heard of anything so stupid.

Stupid or not, Archer couldn’t think of anything else to do so he knelt beside the boulder, placed his hands on its cool surface and closed his eyes.

Should I use the thought language or the image language? he wondered. This is ridiculous! Neither will work so it doesn’t matter.

Archer opened his eyes, looked at the rock, thought about Pacion and spoke aloud, “I bet he wants me to use the image language since rocks can’t talk. But I’m not sure I know how to ask a question with an image or even what to ask.”

He leaned down, placed both hands on the boulder, pressed his cheek against it and asked his question in the silent language of the sea.

My name is Archer. Can you help me?

The boulder vibrated beneath his hands and emitted a humming sound. Archer opened his eyes, raised his head and stared at it. The humming and vibration stopped.

“I didn’t expect that! Maybe I can talk to a rock!”

The instant he lowered his head, pressed his cheek against the boulder and closed his eyes, the rock vibrated and hummed.

“I don’t believe this,” Archer muttered and raised his head. “This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.”

Arcos had told him sounds could often lead to images so Archer pressed his cheek against the boulder and focused on the humming. An orange light exploded in the blackness beneath his lids and a red flower moved forward. The image changed and revealed a cave at the base of the volcano. The image disappeared and the vibrations stopped. Archer opened his eyes and his mouth gaped open. He knelt in the dust, but his hands rested in midair. The boulder had vanished.

“It’s gone!”

He rose to his feet, dusted himself off, and stared at the volcano, confident in the knowledge that he’d found the guidepost and the second clue to the puzzle. Now he had to find the cave and flower. He started toward the volcano but after a few steps, something made him stop and turn in a circle. His eyes widened. Every boulder on Ferro had disappeared and only the copper-colored shrubs remained.

“I’m in trouble if that boulder wasn’t my guidepost,” he muttered when he continued walking toward the volcano. “I could get there faster if I flew but I’d better walk in case one of these shrubs looks like another guidepost. If I can talk to a rock, I bet I can talk to a shrub.”

Step by step, he plodded across the dusty landscape, his thoughts occupied with the cave and the flower. Why did the boulder show him a cave? Did something or someone wait inside the volcano? And what did the flower mean? When the heavy air disturbed his thoughts, he stopped to look behind him. The burnished amber sky that met him on his arrival now glowed muddy orange and had filled with black clouds. He glanced toward the volcano and discovered it had vanished behind a rising storm.

“That’s not possible!” he yelled. “Storms are coming at me from two directions!”

A blast of hot air hit him in the face and the shrubs bent before the wind. He turned around and saw a wall of orange dust billow up from the ground and race toward him.

“I’ve got to find shelter!”

But there wasn’t any shelter. There wasn’t even a boulder to hide behind.

“I’ll make a shelter!”

With the wind whipping around him, Archer took a deep breath, closed his eyes and materialized a ditch at his feet. After it appeared in the blackness beneath his lids, he opened his eyes and jumped in.

“It’s too shallow! I’ll give it a roof and make it work.”

He sat down, closed his eyes and placed a force field dome overhead. After it clicked into place, Archer opened his eyes and, confident he’d created adequate protection from the storm, relaxed against the side of the ditch. Sheets of blue lightening flashed across the orange landscape while the screaming wind uprooted the copper-colored shrubs and hurled their remains across the land.

Torrents of rain gushed from the sky and transformed the dust into an orange sea. The rain stopped as abruptly as it had begun. Archer looked across the landscape and panicked at the sight of the orange mud racing toward him.

“I’ve got to get out of here!”

He grabbed the crystal triad charm and held it in front of him. Before the crystals could merge and take him to safety, the mud flowed over the dome and plunged him in darkness. Now he’d done it. He couldn’t use the crystal triad charm without light. Worse, if he couldn’t use the charm, he couldn’t get out of the ditch. If he couldn’t get out of the ditch, he couldn’t finish the test. Defeated, he put his head in his hands. He wanted to give up and go home but without light he couldn’t even do that.

I can’t see you but I hear your thoughts, Pacion told him. I’ve never known you to give up when faced with a difficult challenge.

I’ve messed up everything, Archer told him and choked back a sob.

It might not be that bad, Pacion suggested. Did you forget that King Zirco prepared you for any danger?

It’s pitch black in here, Archer moaned. I’m buried under three feet of mud. How can it get worse than this?

There’s always a solution, Pacion replied. If you think about it, you’ll find an answer.

There isn’t an answer to this problem! Archer retorted and dropped his head in his hands.

When Pacion didn’t reply, Archer looked up and considered Pacion’s suggestion. Why did he want to give up before he tried to find a solution? Maybe he wasn’t trapped. He reached for his fire stone and dropped his hand. That couldn’t help. He thought about the colored stars in his clothes and shook his head. Until he learned what they could do and how to use them, they couldn’t help either.

He could close his eyes and remove the force field dome with an image but he’d be buried alive when the mud dropped on him. He could use an image to leave the ditch but could drown in the mud. He had to find a safe way to escape or he’d never reach the volcano.

Wait a minute. Maybe I don’t have to remove the force field. Maybe all I need to do is make it larger. I can visualize the dome growing and rising above the mud. I don’t need to see out to do that! Pacion’s right. I give up too easily. The wind’s stopped howling which means the storm’s gone. It’s time to see if my idea will work.

Archer closed his eyes and visualized the force field dome pushing toward the sky. Beneath his closed lids, he sensed more than saw slivers of light peeking through the mud. He raised the dome higher, opened his eyes and smiled. Most of the mud slid off the shield, piled around the edge of his ditch and let him see Ferro’s amber sky.

“It worked! It really worked!”

Archer closed his eyes, removed the shield and the gooey mud slid into the ditch, cascaded around his feet and buried him to his knees.

“That was stupid!” he muttered and struggled to get free.

Sticky orange goo dripped from his hair and clothes before he managed to climb out of the ditch. With orange mud covering him from head to toe, he reached up to wipe the gunk from his face and hair and smeared the icky stuff all over himself.

“That didn’t work! I’ll try something else.”

He closed his eyes and pictured his clothes the way they looked when Damani gave them to him. He opened his eyes and smiled. His vision removed the mud and the colored stars sparkled like new. He glanced at the volcano and frowned.

“Now what?” he muttered. “Either that volcano is moving toward me or something is pushing me toward it.”

It didn’t matter. The faster he found the cave and the flower, the better. Because the boulder had shown him a cave, that suggested he’d come to Ferro to explore the volcano’s interior. The thought of walking into an active volcano didn’t make Archer happy and he grabbed the crystal triad charm and clasped it tight. The knowledge the charm had the power to take him to safety eased his fear.

“I can’t worry about the volcano until I get there and hope I find another guidepost that tells me what to do after I locate the cave.”

He hadn’t gone ten steps when he dropped to his knees.

Why am I so tired?

He rose to his feet, took another step and stopped.

I have to rest. No. I can’t stop. I have to find the flower and the cave.

Archer plodded on until a disturbing thought made him look up and scan the desert behind him.

“The storm blew the plants away. Did it destroy everything? Will I find the flower? What will I do if I can’t find the flower? Worse yet, what will I do if I find it and can’t figure out what to do with it?”

Archer looked at the volcano and blinked. It was closer than before and he hadn’t gone ten steps. He took two more steps and stopped.

Now what’s happening?

He looked at the dust between his toes and a shadow fell across his path. He looked up and his mouth gaped open. He’d reached base of the volcano.

How did I get here?

He glanced behind him at the dusty orange landscape devoid of boulders and shrubs that stretched as far as he could see in every direction. Every muscle ached like he’d walked for days and he dropped to his knees and put his head in his hands. He raised his head to look at the volcano but before he could rise, his weariness dropped away.

How can I be totally exhausted one minute and energized the next?

Archer stood, flicked the orange mud from his clothes and looked for a path. To his surprise and delight he found one that disappeared through an opening in the rocks. He followed it until he reached a dead end, doubled back and returned to his starting point. That’s when it occurred to him to ask the map for help.

“Why do I keep forgetting the map?” he muttered aloud.

Archer closed his eyes and visualized the reddish-orange circle. An image moved forward in the blackness beneath his lids and his eyes snapped open.

“Now I know why Damani gave me the maps!”

Archer turned, ran back down the path, turned right at the dead end and found a second path partially hidden behind a boulder. The map had shown him it led to two stone pillars but, before he reached the pillars, his weariness returned. His arms and legs felt like lead and it was all he could do to put one foot in front of the other.

Is someone holding me back?

He pushed forward and fought his fatigue until the weariness fell away. He reached the pillars and dashed between them. He hadn’t gone far when he stopped to stare at a copper-colored shrub with a single red flower in its branches at the base of the volcano.

“I found it!” he shouted and broke into a run. “I found it!”

Archer reached the cave, stopped and stared at the flower.

“Am I supposed to pick it? Maybe the flower means I’ve found the right cave.”

He shook his head, walked to the cavern entrance, leaned down and peered inside. A cloud of acrid mist rose up from the cavern floor and burned his nose. He covered his face with his sleeve and stepped inside.

“I need to check the map.”

Before he closed his eyes, he glanced down and blinked. He stood outside the cave in front of the copper-colored shrub with its single red flower.

“Someone is going to a lot of trouble to make sure I notice that flower.”

He knelt down, touched the flower and stroked its velvet petals. He didn’t know what else to do so he grabbed the stem and snapped it free. The flower wriggled in his hand and startled him so badly he tossed it in the air and backed away. It landed in the dust at his feet and his eyes widened when it stopped moving and turned into a faceted red gemstone the size of his fist!

“Wow!” he exclaimed in wonder. “It isn’t a flower!”

Archer bent down, picked up the gem and raised it to eye level. He turned it to catch the light and red and blue sparks flashed in its depths. He glanced at the cavern entrance and the sulfur veil now glowed orange and lit up the cave.

“The cave isn’t dark anymore. That must mean I’m supposed to take the gemstone into the volcano and I don’t want to do that!”

Archer took a tentative step into the cave filled with an acrid mist and flickering shadows. The volcano’s heartbeat echoed off the rock and pulsed through his body. The gemstone obviously belonged in the volcano but Archer didn’t know why. His curiosity at what he might find in the volcano and the fact his ugly white stone hadn’t signaled the completion of the test spurred him on. Trusting the magic King Zirco placed in his clothes to keep him safe, Archer walked unafraid into the volcano’s fury.

He crossed the cave and entered the tunnel on the other side. He hadn’t gone three steps when he sensed something had changed. Before he close his eyes and consult the map, a blast of heat rolled down the tunnel and hit him in the face. With the red gem in one hand and his crystal triad charm in the other, Archer listened to the mountain. The popping sound he’d noticed when he first entered the cave was louder and the tunnel walls were fiery red. Although he walked toward the heart of an active volcano, he felt no fear and wondered at his calm. The haze thinned a moment before he stepped around a bend and found a boulder blocking the path to a pool of bubbling lava.

“I can’t go any farther,” he muttered aloud. “Am I supposed to throw the gemstone in the lava?”

Unable to think of anything else to do and convinced he’d found the reason for the trip into the mountain, Archer raised the gem above his head. Before he could release it, a sheet of lava splashed against the boulder and he jumped back. The hot liquid flowed back into the pool and Archer dropped to his knees.

“I don’t know what to do. Maybe the boulder can help me.”

He put the gemstone on the floor, placed his hands and his cheek against the boulder, closed his eyes and asked, “Do you have a message for me?

An image of a red flower appeared in the blackness beneath his lids. While he pondered the image, the red flower turned into a tower of flames surrounding a young woman. She reached for him with fiery arms and the sadness in her eyes reminded Archer of Damani.

Archer opened his eyes, picked up the gem and looked at it. Everyone in King Zirco’s kingdom wore gemstone charms. Did this one belong to the girl in his vision? Had he come to Ferro to return it to her? If so, how could he find her. He didn’t recall passing any tunnels that branched away from the one he’d followed to get here but then he hadn’t looked for any. He sat down, leaned against the tunnel wall and stared at the gem.

“If I’m right, the boulder told me to find the girl.”

The bubbling lava vibrated against the cavern walls and pulsed through his body. Before Archer could think of what to do next, his weariness returned and he fell asleep. He dreamed he stood in the orange dust beneath Ferro’s amber sky and watched a flaming goddess rise into the sky from the depths of the volcano. She beckoned him with fiery hands and Archer ran toward her to give her the gemstone. Before he reached her, its weight pulled him down and he sank to his knees in the dust.

A thunderous roar jolted Archer awake. While he struggled to remember where he was, a wall of flame raced down the tunnel toward him. He jumped to his feet and reached for the crystal triad charm. Before he could bring it to eye level, the flame backed him against the tunnel wall and Archer closed his eyes, grateful for the powers in his clothing that protected him from harm.

Trapped in a tunnel with a tower of fire blocking his escape, he didn’t know what to do. Should he return to Skye or look for the girl? Before Archer found an answer to that question, the flame backed away and a cool breeze brushed his cheek. Archer opened his eyes. The pillar of fire whirled in front of him and Archer stared in shocked surprise when the fire died and the girl in his vision reached for him.

“It’s the girl the boulder told me about! She’s come for the gemstone!”

Archer cupped the gemstone in both hands and approached the girl. Her fiery hands darted out and frightened him so badly that he threw the gemstone in the air and jumped back. A sheet of flame scooped it up before it hit the floor. While Archer stared in awe, the fire engulfed the girl and began to whirl. Faster and faster it went until the flames moved down her body and died away. Archer blinked and when he looked up, a girl in a red metallic gown with a matching gemstone charm stood in front of him.

The light in the tunnel dimmed. Red and orange stars peeled away from his tunic and trousers, flew around him and filled the tunnel with fireworks until the ugly white stone captured every spark.

“Wow!” Archer exclaimed and reached for his gemstone charm.

“You can look at that later,” the girl told him. “Who are you and how did you get here?”

Archer looked up and found the girl staring at him with puzzlement in her eyes. He didn’t know what to say until he saw the collar around her neck.

“Are you from Water?”

“I’m a prisoner of King Ichos,” she told him. “My home is Skye.”

“I don’t understand,” Archer replied. “If you’re a prisoner, what are you doing here?”

“I lived on Water until King Ichos ended his friendship with King Zirco,” she explained. “When I tried to go home, he cast me into the mountain.”

“My name is Archer,” he told her. “Damani sent me. What’s your name?”

“You may call me Aradia.”

“Would you like to go home?”

“Yes,” she told him. “But you can’t take me. King Ichos won’t let you release me from my prison.”

“Maybe he won’t know,” Archer replied and reached out. “Take my hand.”

Aradia placed her hand in his and her eyes widened when he brought the crystal triad charm to eye level.

“I know that charm,” she told him. “It belongs to a crystal master, but you’re not a crystal master. Who are you? And why do you wear those odd clothes?”

Instead of answering Aradia’s questions, Archer focused on the golden “Y” that held the three miniature crystal balls and thought about Damani. As soon as the crystals merged and the single crystal disappeared, he heard Aradia’s cry of surprise and opened his eyes to find Damani embracing her.

“Thank you for bringing my daughter home,” Damani told him. “She’s been gone a long time.”

Aradia gave Archer a long, hard look before she turned to her father and asked, “Who is he?”

“I’ll answer your question later,” Damani told her. “Go now. Your mother waits.”

Aradia turned to leave but stopped at the door and gave Archer a questioning glance before she disappeared.

“You’ve pleased me more than you know by bringing Aradia home,” Damani told him. “However, you may have angered King Ichos by stealing his prisoner.”

“I couldn’t leave her,” Archer replied. “Besides, he left the clues that told me how to find her. How can he be mad?”

“I fear the worst,” Damani responded. “I don’t know what King Ichos will do when he learns you’ve taken Aradia from her prison.”

“What was I supposed to do?” he asked. “Besides, if he watched in Water’s crystal ball, he knows I brought her home. He could have stopped me.”

“You must be right,” Damani told him with a thoughtful expression in his eyes. “I see the stone around your neck captured the red and orange stars from your clothing. That means you solved the first puzzle.”

Archer reached for the stone and tipped it sideways. Red and orange puddles of light formed geometric fire in its depths. Each time he moved the gem, sparks of fire flashed through the stone and brought the milky pool to life.

“Wow!” he exclaimed and shook his head in wonder “That’s what you and King Zirco meant when you told me it would capture the colors in my clothes. It’s not ugly anymore.”

Archer let the stone fall against his chest when Damani spoke, “You’ve done well. You used great skill to find the clues that led you to Aradia.”

“I had help,” Archer admitted. “Did I break the rules?”

“I heard your mentor encourage you,” Damani replied. “His assistance is allowed because he has no knowledge of the test.”

“Why did I get tired on the way to the volcano?”

“King Ichos placed a spell on Ferro to stop you from reaching the cave and the red flower.”

“That means he didn’t want me to finish the test,” Archer remarked.

“Not necessarily,” Damani responded. “Every obstacle is meant to test your skills. That spell challenged your commitment and endurance.”

“Did he send the storm?”

“Yes,” Damani told him.

“Did the map take me closer to the volcano?”

“No,” Damani replied. “A spell brought the volcano to you.”

“How did I move away from the lava in my sleep?”

“Another spell,” Damani replied.

Archer thought about Damani’s words. If the rest of the puzzles were as unusual as this one, he had reason to be concerned about their outcome. This world had different laws than earth and he didn’t know the rules. After what had happened on Ferro, he realized he couldn’t rely on the crystal triad charm to protect him.

“Is there somewhere I can rest? I’m really tired.”

“There’s nothing in the rules about when or where you may rest,” Damani told him. “There’s a sleeping chamber nearby.”

Damani took Archer to an alcove behind the map room, pointed at a bed of clouds and gave him a nod before he disappeared. After his experience with the chair Archer expected the bed to reach up and grab him. It didn’t disappoint and he remembered to relax. When the bed stopped moving, his thoughts turned to Aradia. Never in his wildest dreams did he expect to find a prisoner in the volcano. Was she the only reason for the trip to Ferro? Damani made it clear he wouldn’t answer any questions so he might not learn the answer to that until he met King Ichos.

Archer shook his head in frustration and made himself a promise. “I won’t worry about what Damani can’t tell me and I won’t let anything stop me from getting through the maps. I’ll do everything I can to finish these stupid puzzles, one map at a time.”

[]Chapter Five

Land of Giants

Aradia gave Archer a gentle shake and whispered, “Wake up. Father’s waiting for you.”

Archer rolled over and looked into her smile. Before he could speak, she walked to the door and turned to wait for him. Awake and alert, he got up, followed her through the door and into a garden that hadn’t been there earlier. Fluffy white shrubs with iridescent red flowers in their branches bordered a path that meandered between the trees. Red metallic butterflies flitted hither and thither, splashed streaks of red across the white landscape and reminded Archer of a white Christmas tree decorated like a candy cane he’d once seen in a department store window.

“Where did the garden come from?”

With a shy smile, Aradia replied, “It’s a gift from Father.”

“This is some garden!”

“I’m glad you like it,” Aradia replied. “Father told me you brought butterflies to Skye. After I told him how much I liked them he made these for me.”

“I’ve never seen a red butterfly before,” he told her. “I thought the children were playing the butterfly game.”

“We can enjoy the garden another time. Father has a surprise for us.”

Side-by-side, they strolled a path bordered with white shrubs ablaze with red flowers like those on Ferro. Archer glanced at Aradia and shook his head in confusion. Why would Damani put this particular flower in her garden and give her a constant reminder of her prison? Before he could ask Aradia about the flowers, he glanced at the mist at his feet.

“This is weird.”

“What’s weird?” Aradia asked.

“There’s nothing beneath my feet. How can I walk on air?”

“This is Skye,” she told him, as if that explained everything.

“That didn’t tell me anything,” he responded with a shake of his head.

A short way down the path they came to a cloud statue between the path and a billowy tree and a garden of red metallic flowers popped through the mist at its base. One by one the petals opened to reveal a laughing child. While Archer and Aradia stopped to watch, the children jumped to their feet, held hands and skipped around the statue. Beyond the statue, multicolored butterflies flitted from bush to bush and gales of laughter filled the garden when more flowers rose above the mist. The laughing children shed their flower images, raced to toward Archer and touched his clothing before they ran away.

“What was that all about?” Archer asked. “Where did the statue come from? Is that a gift from Damani too?”

“The children came to thank you for teaching them to fly,” Aradia explained. “Father not only gave them permission, he provided the red robes so they could also celebrate my homecoming. The statue has always been here but it didn’t have a garden until now.”

“The statue looks like you,” Archer told her.

Aradia didn’t reply and pointed at the other side of the garden where Damani sat beneath a tree, his white robe shimmering like velvet in Skye’s muted light. Beyond Damani, a flat white surface caught Archer’s eye because he didn’t know what it was. It looked like a sheet of ice but he couldn’t imagine ice on Skye. By the time he and Aradia reached Damani, he’d solved the mystery and grinned from ear to ear.

Damani looked up and said, “I see you’re pleased with the lake. After I told Aradia about your home beneath the sea, she asked me to put a lake in her garden.”

“Why is the water white?” Archer asked.

Before Damani could reply, Archer told him, “That’s okay. The water’s white because it’s reflecting the clouds.”

Archer turned to say something to Aradia and found her standing at the shore, her robe crumpled in the mist at her feet. The metallic fabric of her one-piece swimsuit shone like molten glass and she stood so still she might have stepped out of a painting. Aradia must have felt his eyes for she turned and flashed him a smile before she launched into a dive. Her head popped out of the water several yards from shore and a wave of her hand invited him to join her.

Archer didn’t need a second invitation. He dropped his tunic and trousers into the mist and tucked the white gem and crystal triad charm beneath his tank top. His dive took him through a wall of flowers on willowy stems that erupted from the bottom of the lake. The water swirled around him, the flowers exploded and enclosed him in a blanket of white petals on their way to the surface. Archer reached out to grab one and found it as elusive as a snowflake.

He headed for the bottom to explore his surroundings when a white blob caught his eye. He blinked and looked again when the blob captured a fish and swallowed it down. A motion to his right made him turn in time to see Aradia emerge from a curtain of white foliage turned pink by the reflection off her swimsuit.

Before Archer could join her, a school of red fish darted out from behind some reeds and circled Aradia before they spiraled to the surface. Archer’s mouth gaped open when hundreds of multicolored fish joined Aradia and tinted the white foliage every color of the rainbow. They followed the red fish to the surface and disappeared.

Aradia joined Archer and asked, Did you enjoy my surprise?

That was amazing, he told her. How did you teach fish to do that?

Aradia laughed at his question and replied, Those weren’t fish. I told Father I wanted to thank you for bringing me home and he showed me your home beneath the sea on the Earth Star. I invited the children to join me in the lake and taught them the game of Fish that I learned on Water. They loved the butterfly game so much they wanted to share their new game with you.

They also showed me a way to use the colored stars in my clothes, he replied. I’m glad you invited me to swim in your lake. I’d like to spend more time with you, but I have to finish King Ichos’ test.

I know, she told him. It’s time to get back.

Matching stroke for stroke, they headed for shore where they found Damani waiting beneath the tree. After they left the water, Aradia stared at Archer’s clothes crumpled in the mist and tilted her head in puzzlement.

“What’s wrong?” Archer asked. “Why are you staring at my clothes?”

“Father won’t tell me why you wear that odd clothing,” she replied.

Before Archer could answer, Damani gave Aradia a warning shake of his head. Archer glanced at Damani in puzzlement. Why didn’t Damani want Aradia to know King Zirco gave him the clothes? Damani met Archer’s eyes and his hand signal invited Archer to his side.

“Your smile tells me you enjoyed your swim. It’s good to begin a day with a light heart.”

“You found my weakness,” Archer replied. “I love the water more than anything.”

“You must thank Aradia,” Damani remarked. “After she saw the lake, she wanted to invite you for a swim. I understand she had a surprise for you.”

“The children gave me an awesome gift,” Archer replied.

He raised his head to thank Aradia but she’d disappeared. “I didn’t know the colored stars in my clothes would let me become a fish.”

When Damani didn’t reply, Archer met his eyes and found the sadness he’d seen before. “It’s time to go, isn’t it? It’s time to solve the puzzle on Velda’s yellow map.”

At Damani’s nod, Archer slipped on his tunic and trousers, smiled and said, “You don’t have to tell me how to get there.”

Archer closed his eyes and pictured the yellow circle on his headband. When the map appeared in the blackness beneath his lids, his clothing twisted around him and he tumbled through space.

He wondered what would happen if he opened his eyes before he arrived at Velda but feared he might be lost in a void and resisted the temptation. The instant his feet hit the ground his eyes snapped open and he turned in a slow circle. He stood on a barren hilltop overlooking a cracked, dried plain dotted with treeless mounds. Yellow cliffs surrounded the protected valley and created a jagged silhouette against Velda’s cream-colored sky. The only sign of life in the bleak, forbidding land was a winding river that traced a yellow ribbon across the valley floor.

“There’s nothing here,” Archer mumbled. “Velda looks just like its map. This place is more barren and desolate than Ferro. Damani told me the dry, hot desert of the moving land must be crossed and I don’t know what he meant unless there’s lots of earthquakes here. It’s dry and hot desert but it isn’t moving.

Damani’s riddle told him his destination lay across the valley. Did that mean he’d find his guidepost in the mountains? He could easily become a bird and fly to the mountains but because they surrounded the valley, he didn’t know which way to fly. While Archer pondered this question, he stared at the mountains.

“It could take a lifetime to find a guidepost in the mountains!” he muttered.

The enormity of the challenge overwhelmed him. He’d felt this same frustration on Ferro but could not have found his guidepost if he’d yielded to temptation and flown to the volcano. The yellow map 0dropped him at this location for a reason and he had to begin his search for the promised guidepost from here.

A motion in the sky caught Archer’s eye and he looked up. A massive creature soared toward him and descended in narrowing circles. Amazed at the sight of what looked to be a prehistoric monster, Archer watched in rapt fascination. The creature circled lower and cast a giant shadow across the land. That’s when Archer remembered the dinosaurs strolling around the border on Velda’s map.

“Oh! Oh! If it’s looking for something to eat, that means I’m dinner!”

Archer sat down, closed his eyes and covered his body with a force field bubble. After it clicked into place, he opened his eyes and heaved a sigh of relief when the monstrous creature veered away. His relief was short lived for something blocked the sun and a shadow fell over him. Archer glanced over his shoulder and his eyes widened. A second creature, larger than the first, flew toward him.

A greenish-yellow translucent membrane covered its massive wings and the light shone through the monster’s skin and revealed a shadowy silhouette of its bones. A backward facing crest atop its head reminded him of a sailboat’s rudder and the creature’s long, toothless beak gaped open, ready to snap him up. Archer stared in horror when he remembered studying about the age of dinosaurs and he’d written a report about this very one!

“It’s a flying lizard called a pteranodon and they have 20-foot wingspans!”

Archer closed his eyes and braced for the shock when the monster’s beak hit the force field bubble. When nothing happened, he opened his eyes and stared at the creature in shocked surprise. The pteranodon stopped its forward motion, hovered above him and picked up the force field bubble in its beak. Before Archer could raise his crystal triad charm and escape, the pteranodon’s powerful wings grabbed the air and carried Archer into the sky.

“Why didn’t Damani tell me about these monsters? I can’t find a guidepost from up here!”

Trapped inside the bubble, Archer dropped to his knees, reached for the crystal triad charm and stopped his hand in midair. He couldn’t use the charm to return to Skye. He had to use King Zirco’s gift and find a way out of this mess.

Archer was on his knees staring at the valley far below when he realized something had changed and he couldn’t figure out what. The mountains hadn’t moved and the river still blazed a trail between the treeless mounds. So what was different? He caught a motion out of the corner of his eye and turned to see a treeless mound rise to its feet. Archer blinked and looked again. When the monstrous animal raised its head and looked at the sky, Archer glanced at the treeless mound he’d landed on and his heart jumped to his throat. He’d landed on the back of a sleeping dinosaur!

“The map! There were dinosaurs all over Velda’s map and I ignored them! That’s what Damani meant by ‘moving earth! He wasn’t talking about earthquakes! He was talking about vibrations beneath those monsters’ feet!”

The pteranodon approached the yellow cliffs and entered an updraft that carried it high above the peaks. From his vantage point in the sky, Archer observed a secluded valley on the other side of the mountains and a cultivated orchard.

“People live over there!”

The pteranodon not only saved him from the dinosaurs, it showed him a world beyond this valley. He’d seen no towns on Velda’s map but the orchard reminded him that people didn’t always live in towns or cities.

“I have to get to the orchard but can’t do that until I get away from the pteranodon. How can I use the colored stars in my clothes to do that?”

Before he could figure that out, the pteranodon spiraled toward a nest on the face of one of the jagged peaks. By the time Archer realized he could use his crystal triad charm to transport himself to the orchard, the pteranodon had folded its wings next to its body and dropped like a rock through the sky. Archer’s eyes widened in horror when the monster approached its nest, spread its wings to stop its downward fall and dropped him into the nest.

“I should have escaped when I had the chance!” Archer yelled.

While Archer fell through the sky, the pteranodon pulled its wings next to its body and missed him by inches when it whizzed past on its way to the valley floor. A second later, the force field bubble hit the nest. The impact knocked the air from Archer’s lungs and he tumbled end over end in his invisible cage. The bubble bounced against the cliff and Archer gasped for air. He rolled on his stomach but before he could rise to his feet, the chick hit the bubble with its beak. Archer flew headfirst into the transparent shield and the blow nearly knocked him unconscious. Dazed and disoriented, he closed his eyes and lay still. The chick’s second attack pitched Archer onto his stomach when it pushed the bubble to the edge of the nest. Archer opened his eyes and stared at the valley floor hundreds of feet below.

“If I’m going to escape, I have to do it before the chick sends me flying!”

Archer couldn’t remove the force field bubble while in the nest so he grabbed his crystal triad charm to let it take him to the orchard. Before the crystals could merge, the chick hit the force field bubble with its beak and flipped him out of the nest.

Archer breathed deep and tried not to panic. If he didn’t do everything right, he wouldn’t get to the orchard. He had to escape the force field bubble and then use the crystal triad charm before he reached the valley floor. It took only a second to drop the shield but, dazed by the blow to his head, he couldn’t visualize his destination.

“A bird! I don’t have a choice. I’ve got to become a bird!”

He closed his eyes and his clothes rustled around him. He opened his eyes and grabbed an updraft with outstretched wings that sent him soaring toward the clouds. While he rose above the craggy peaks, the chick’s angry squawks reminded him that he shared the sky with its mother. The powers in the colored stars let him fly, but they couldn’t protect him from the pteranodon as long as he remained a bird.

That’s when he remembered he hadn’t found his guidepost. He had to land and figure out what to do next. He spotted a boulder on a narrow ledge a moment before a shadow blocked the sun. Archer glanced up. The pteranodon was directly overhead. It wheeled in the air, pulled its wings next to its body and dove. Archer’s wings grabbed the air but he didn’t have the strength or speed to reach the ledge before the flying lizard captured him in its beak. With the squawking chick urging it on, the pteranodon closed the distance and, with beak agape, approached for the kill.

“No-o-o-!”

An updraft pitched Archer to the right an instant before the pteranodon screamed by. He looked down and found the boulder he’d seen from the air directly beneath him. Archer folded his wings next to his body and dove. His timing was perfect when he spread his wings, slowed his speed and grabbed the ledge with his talons. He closed his eyes, pictured himself free of the bird’s body and glanced back in time to see the pteranodon fly out from behind a rock overhang. Archer spun, looked for a place to hide and found a partially hidden cave behind the boulder. He dove headfirst into the void and the pteranodon wheeled away.

Archer lay on the cavern floor and listened to his heart beat against the stone. A second screech brought him to his feet when the pteranodon’s shadow blocked the cavern entry. Afraid it would plunge its long beak into the cave Archer hugged the cavern wall, closed his eyes and covered his body with force field armor. Acting braver than he felt, he crawled to the opening and peered out. He didn’t see the pteranodon but the chick’s cries echoed across the valley and he feared it was close by.

Archer stepped out of the cave and ducked back when the pteranodon’s shadow blocked the sun. Unless the cave intersected with tunnels that traveled through the mountain, he was trapped. A ray of sunlight illuminated a black hole on the far wall and he walked across the cave and peered into the darkness. Unable to see anything, Archer put his right hand on the cavern wall and inched forward. His foot dropped into a hole and he backed away. He lay on his stomach, explored the hole with his hands and found a narrow ledge about six inches down. He rose to his feet and, with one hand against the cavern wall, eased a foot into the void. His foot hit the ledge and he brought his other foot down.

“I found a stairway but don’t know if I should search for my guidepost on this side of the mountain or try to find a way to the orchard.”

The pteranodon’s beak hit the cavern wall beside his head with a crash and Archer dodged to the left and landed upright on the next step. The pteranodon’s beak hit the wall on the other side of his head. Archer jumped again. The next time the monster’s beak hit the wall, he stood below the level of the cavern floor.

Archer shook his head and muttered aloud, “That creature reminded me I’m trapped on this mountain unless I follow the stairs to wherever they go.”

Safe from the pteranodon, Archer moved silently down ancient steps, worn smooth with constant use. Step by step, he left the filtered light behind and glowing minerals in the wall helped him find his way. He’d walked a long time and wondered how much farther he had to go when a faint sound reached his ears. A cool breeze brushed his cheek and shadows danced on the wall ahead. The passage curved and a shaft of light hit the last step. He descended the remaining steps and approached fingers of light that shone through a bush at the tunnel entrance. He pushed a branch aside and scanned his surroundings.

“I’ve found the orchard! Now all I have to do is find the people!” Archer’s eyes widened and he slapped himself on the cheek. “The map! I forgot to check the map! Maybe the map would have saved me from the pteranodon and brought me here! And why did I take the stairs through the mountain when I knew what my destination looked like and an image would have brought me here? Why do I keep forgetting things?”

Archer closed his eyes and pictured the yellow map in the blackness beneath his lids. When he didn’t find anything he hadn’t seen before, he opened his eyes and found himself standing at the foot of the stairs.

“At least it didn’t send me to the other side of the mountain! That tells me my guidepost must be somewhere around here.”

Archer stepped out of the tunnel, looked to his right and found a bubbling stream meandering through a meadow. Songbirds trilled a welcome above the roar of a distant waterfall and he stepped onto a well-worn path that followed a stream past the orchard he’d seen from the air. He stopped beneath a branch heavy with purple fruit and pulled one from the tree. He took a bite and smiled for it tasted like strawberries and cream. He didn’t know where he was, who he might find or what he was looking for but hoped he didn’t find any dangerous animals on this side of the mountains.

A scream echoed through the orchard and startled him so badly, he dropped the fruit and jumped behind the nearest tree. Two little men in green metallic jump suits bolted out from behind a bush and came running down the path, terrified of something that chased them. A silver thread arced through the air, streaked toward the little men and they screamed in unison when it wrapped around their legs and threw them to the ground.

Archer dashed out from behind the tree and grabbed the sticky cord to free them.

“No. No,” the little men cried. “Behind you. Behind you. Save us. Save us.”

Archer spun. A massive yellow spider straddled the path and looked at him with tilted head. Archer froze and stared at his image reflected in its shining black eyes. He closed his eyes and placed a force field shield on the path between him and the spider a moment before the spider attacked. It collided with the shield and backed away. Not to be denied its meal, the spider jerked the sticky cord and the little men flew down the path and hit the force field barrier with a thud.

While the little men struggled to get untangled, the spider clawed at the shield with drool dribbling down its chin. Archer leaned down, grabbed one of the little men by the arm, pulled him to his feet and broke the cord that held him.

“Are you all right?” Archer asked.

Eyes wide with fear, the little man stared at him.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” Archer told him.

The other little man freed himself from the cord and ran to his companion.

“He’s a giant man,” said the first little man in a high-pitched voice. “I’ve heard about giant men, but I’ve never seen one. He says he won’t hurt us but he must have sent the fandette to catch us so he can eat us.”

“How did he get here?” asked the other.

“I know he’s a giant man,” said the first. “The giant men live on the other side of the mountain.”

Archer reached down and removed the remaining sticky cord from around their legs and pointed at the spider. “I didn’t come to eat you. I came to save you.”

“Who are you?” asked the first little man.

“How did you get here?” asked the second.

“How did you stop the fandette?” asked the first.

“My name is Archer,” he told them. “And my weapons can stop anything.”

“Where did you come from?” asked the first little man.

“How did you find our orchard?” asked the second.

“I had to hide from the monsters on the other side of the mountain that wanted to eat me and a stairway through the mountain brought me here.”

The little men exchanged glances.

“I told you he came from the land of giant men,” said the first.

“That’s where the fearsome monsters live,” said the second.

“He stopped the fandette,” said the first.

“And got us free,” said the second who turned and ran down the path.

“You come with us,” said the first and waved Archer to follow.

“Catch us if you can,” said the second.

Surprised at their speed, Archer hurried after them. When they turned off the path and headed toward the tunnel that brought him to the orchard, he wondered where they were going. Before they reached the bush in front of the hidden stairway, the little men darted beneath a tree, ducked out of sight and Archer followed them onto a shadowed trail. A few more steps brought him to the base of the cliff where the little men waited for him.

Just before he reached them, the little men turned and ran. They stayed on the trail until it ended at a cave. One of them waved him forward and followed his companion into the mountain. Archer left the path, ducked his head and entered a tunnel that ended at a shallow cave. The little men waited on the other side and when he approached, they entered a second tunnel. Archer walked across the cave but the tunnel was so small he had to bend double and crawl on his hands and knees to follow them. Although he couldn’t see the little men, he could hear their chatter ahead of him. The tunnel kept getting smaller until Archer dropped to his stomach and followed it to a cave large enough for him to stand.

A small fire burned in a hollow in the wall that let the smoke spiral through a natural flue in the ceiling. Polished rocks set in a half circle around the fire provided seating in front of the warmth. Hollow gourds filled with water stood in a shadowed corner and carved wooden dishes and scooped out bowls were stacked beside the fire. Although the cave allowed Archer to stand, he sat on a rock in front of the fire and watched the little men point at him while they told the story about the giant man and how he saved them from the fandette in their squeaky voices.

Who are they talking to? Archer wondered.

He didn’t wonder long for tiny heads began to poke around the rocks throughout the cave. One-by-one the little people, wearing jump suits made from the metallic fabric of Skye, came out of hiding. A child, about a foot tall in a blue jump suit crept out of the shadows and approached him. A hush fell over the cave when Archer closed his eyes and held out his hand. He opened his eyes and a blue butterfly rested on his palm.

The child reached out. Before he could grab it, the butterfly flew from Archer’s hand and circled the child’s head. A squeal of delight echoed through the cave when the child tried to catch it. Before the tiny fingers could crush it, Archer blew it beyond the child’s reach. A woman in a shimmering red jumpsuit dashed to the child’s side. Archer smiled at her, closed his eyes and materialized a red rose. He opened his eyes and offered the flower. With a timid smile, she reached out and accepted his gift.

A sparkle in a corner of the cave made Archer turn in time to see a shower of yellow sparks burst from a crack in the cavern wall. He rose to his feet and walked toward it while the little people moved aside to let him pass. He reached into the crack and his fingers closed around a heavy chain. He pulled it from the shadows and stared at a sparkling yellow gemstone mounted in a gold frame. A ray of light hit the gem and sparks of green and yellow fire flashed around him.

With the charm dangling from his hand, he turned and asked, “This is a gemstone charm of Skye,” he told them. “Where did you get it?”

“We found it,” squeaked a little man in an orange jump suit.

“Where did you find it?” Archer asked.

“In the orchard beneath the trees,” squeaked a little man in blue.

“It belongs to the fandette,” squeaked a little man in red.

“You must return it to the fandette,” Archer told them.

“We’re afraid,” said the little man in orange.

“I’m not afraid.” Archer announced and told them, “I’ll take it to the fandette.”

He headed for the tunnel and when he emerged from the cave and into the light, he glanced back. Two little men in orange jump suits had followed him. The next time he looked back, the little men had disappeared. He reached the place where he’d placed the force field barrier and found the fandette gone. Why didn’t he think to ask where to find it? Unsure of what to do, he turned in a circle and scanned the orchard.

A large cobweb sparkled between two trees deep inside the orchard and Archer walked toward it. Unsure of what he might find, he cautiously approached and found the fandette asleep in the center of its web. His force field body armor couldn’t protect him from the sticky rope, but he had to find out if the gemstone charm belonged to the fandette. Afraid to get too close, he stood in the shadows with the chain dangling across his palm and pondered the problem. If the charm belonged to the fandette, he’d found another prisoner. It concerned him that he didn’t find a guidepost and hoped the little men had helped him solve the puzzle. A rustling in the bushes made him glance back. The little men had followed him after all.

Archer smiled and muttered beneath his breath, “I’ll give them something to talk about when they get home.”

He closed his eyes, placed a force field barrier in front of him and let the gemstone charm drop to the end of the chain. While it spun beneath his hand, it caught the sun’s rays and sent sparks of yellow and green fire beneath the trees. The fandette launched into the air, landed in front of the force field barrier. With fangs extended, it lowered its head and collided with the force field barrier inches from Archer’s face.

Archer looked into the fandette’s eyes, held out the gemstone charm and said, “My name is Archer. If this is yours, I’ve come to return it to you.”

The fandette cocked its head and waved two front feet.

“Talk to me with the image language,” Archer said and closed his eyes to listen.

The high-pitched vibrations of the fandette’s voice brought a white glow to the blackness beneath Archer’s lids. When an image of a young man in a yellow metallic robe of Skye appeared in the light, Archer opened his eyes and held the chain above his head.

“This charm will free you from your prison,” he told the fandette. “Stay where you are and I’ll bring it to you.”

Archer removed the force field shield and the spider’s massive head dropped toward him. Archer moved forward to meet it, reached up and placed the chain around the fandette’s neck. In seconds, a young man stood in front of him in a yellow robe that shimmered in the sun. Yellow and tan stars peeled away from Archer’s tunic and trousers, spun around his body and shattered overhead. He watched in awe while the milky stone captured every spark.

Archer met the young man’s eyes and asked, “What’s your name?”

“Pheeno,” the young man replied. “Who are you? How did you free me?”

“My name is Archer. I’ve come to take you home.”

“You can’t do that!” Pheeno exclaimed. “King Ichos won’t allow it!”

“We shall see what King Ichos will allow,” Archer told him and reached out. “Take my hand.”

Pheeno reached out and his eyes widened when Archer raised the crystal triad charm to eye level. Their fingers met. Archer focused on the miniature crystal balls and his thoughts were on Damani when the crystals merged and the single crystal vanished.

As soon as they arrived in Skye, Pheeno whirled and gave Archer a wide-eyed stare. “Who are you?” he asked.

“Your parents are waiting, Pheeno,” Damani told him. “I’ll explain everything later.”

Pheeno shook his head and shot Archer a puzzled glance before he disappeared.

With a question in his eyes. Archer looked at Damani.

“What’s wrong?” Damani asked.

“I don’t know how I found Pheeno,” Archer replied.

“What do you mean?

“I didn’t find a guidepost.”

“You found it,” Damani responded.

“I don’t understand.”

“This test contained a cleverly concealed guidepost meant to confuse you,” Damani remarked with a smile.

“What are you talking about?”

“There were two flying lizards,” Damani explained. “The second one was your guidepost. It gave you your clue when it flew above the mountains and let you see the orchard on the other side. The stairway in the tunnel didn’t exist until you decided to use it.”

“Oh,” was Archer’s barely audible reply. “Are you telling me I’m creating the solutions to the puzzles with my actions?”

“You contribute to their ease or difficulty by the way you choose to handle the obstacles in your path,” Damani replied.

“No wonder you can’t answer my questions!” Archer responded. “You don’t know what I’m going to do!”

“Now you know why King Zirco gave you the special clothing and gemstone charm,” Damani replied.

[]Chapter Six

Frozen Planet

“Why is King Ichos punishing Skye’s people?” Archer asked. “Is it because of me? Is that why he wants me to do this test?”

“You don’t understand,” Damani replied. “King Ichos prepared the guideposts that lead you to his prisoners but I can’t explain why he’s letting you bring them home.”

“There’s no reason for me to find them if I can’t bring them home,” Archer remarked. “Why does he want me to do this? He could free his prisoners without making me find them.”

“He didn’t tell us,” Damani replied. “When he stated his conditions for peace between Water and Skye, he told King Zirco that you were the only one he’d allow to complete the test and negotiate Amethina’s freedom.”

“Why did he ask King Zirco to invite me,” he said. “Why didn’t he send for me?”

“You can ask him that question when you see him,” Damani replied.

“I don’t like him,” Archer replied, his lips trembling. “I think he’s mean.”

“You don’t have to like him,” Damani responded.

“I bet there’s a prisoner on every planet,” Archer continued with a quiver in his voice. “I don’t like King Ichos and I don’t like his test. What will happen if I can’t find all the prisoners? Will they ever come home?”

“I don’t know,” Damani responded with a sigh. “I hope that doesn’t happen.”

When Archer looked up and met Damani’s eyes he finally understood the reason for the sadness he found there.

“I need to think,” he said. “Will you take me to the lake?”

“Do you want Aradia to join you?”

“Not this time. I want to be alone.”

Damani walked to the door and waited for Archer to reach his side before he led him to Skye’s lake.

“Call if you need me,” Damani told him and turned to leave.

Archer removed his outer clothing and dropped them in the mist. He lifted the gem King Zirco gave him over his head and stared at the milky stone, now alive with the red, orange, tan and yellow fire it captured from his clothing on Ferro and Velda. He glanced at the remaining stars in his clothes and shook his head in wonder when he saw the completed gemstone in his imagination.

He placed the charm in the folds of his tunic and tucked his crystal triad charm beneath his tank top before he launched into a shallow dive. While his body absorbed the energy from the water, he silently thanked Damani for his gift to Aradia. The exotic shrubs and flowers on the lake bottom invited Archer to explore and he swam toward a mass of white reeds covered with red flowers. When he approached the flowers, they looked strangely familiar and he backed away in confusion and fear. Why did Damani put the red flowers from Ferro here and why did they frighten him?

Archer closed his eyes and Pacion’s smiling face appeared in the blackness beneath his lids. The water swirled around him, enfolded him in its warmth and reminded him that nothing could harm him.

Do you feel better? Pacion asked.

Lots better, Archer responded. Thanks for reminding me there’s nothing in Skye’s lake to worry about.

Pacion didn’t reply and Archer knew he’d gone. He opened his eyes, looked at the flowers and shook his head. He had more important things to worry about than why a bunch of flowers frightened him. While he explored the lake, he thought about the danger he’d found on Ferro and Velda. His narrow escape from the pteranodon made him wonder why King Ichos chose him for his test. How could he be a favored subject of Water’s ruler when everything he’d learned since his arrival in Skye told him otherwise?

The more he thought about it, the more it upset him! He didn’t care what he found on the next planet! He’d honor the memory of his Dad and complete King Ichos test or die trying. If he survived the challenges he found, he’d face his most difficult test when he journeyed to Water to meet the tyrant king that insisted he be invited here. He’d keep his promise to King Zirco and negotiate Princess Amethina’s release and bring peace between Water and Skye.

While his thoughts chased him across the lake, Archer wanted to be anywhere but here. He yearned to go home but home no longer meant the house in California. He had given up his past and changed his life forever when he agreed to come to Skye with Argo. He missed Pacion. And he missed Boja, Manto and the Ichonauts.

Archer swam through a forest of white reeds and reached out to touch them. Unlike the airy structures above the water, the plant had substance and felt like sponge rubber. Why did the underwater foliage have substance in a world of clouds and air? Although Archer thought it odd, he didn’t consider it important enough to remember to ask.

Unable to forget the coming challenge or wonder what he might find on the next map, Archer immersed himself in the beauty of Aradia’s garden lake. His completion of the test took on an unexpected urgency now that he’d found two prisoners locked in cruel prisons. Would there be a prisoner in every map? He thought about his promise to King Zirco and remembered Princess Amethina wasn’t King Ichos’ only hostage. Finding prisoners on Ferro and Velda convinced him he had to complete every test, no matter how difficult.

Did he have the skills to save King Zirco’s daughter? Was Damani right when he told him the obstacles he encountered would force him to develop the skills he needed to free her? He wished more than anything that he could relax and enjoy his trip to Skye but his reason for being here made that impossible.

As much as I love this lake, I’d better get back and tackle the next map, he muttered beneath his breath.

When Archer’s head popped out of the water, the first thing he saw was a tree covered with blue flowers that hadn’t been there before. Was it a different tree or did the flowers bloom while he enjoyed his swim? Archer stepped from the water, donned his clothes and slipped the gemstone charm over his head.

He glanced at the tree and shook his head. “No wonder I can’t find my way around Skye. Everything keeps moving or turning into something else.”

Damani rose from the bench beneath the tree when Archer approached and asked, “Did you enjoy your swim?”

“Not as much as I wanted,” Archer replied and glanced at the flowers overhead. “I can’t stop thinking about King Ichos and his prisoners.”

Before Damani could reply, a child’s smiling face peeked out from the flower and Archer smiled back. After the petals opened to reveal the children of Skye, they smiled at Archer and turned into blue butterflies. Some perched in the tree while others dropped to the ground and flitted from bush to bush. They ended their fun and games by swooping together, landing on the path in front of Archer and dropping their butterfly image.

One of the children told him, “We came to thank you for our new game.”

“I’m glad you like the butterflies,” Archer told them. “You surprised me by adding flowers to the game and putting the flowers in a tree!”

“It’s their favorite game,” Damani told him. “Although you taught them to fly through the shrubbery, they quickly took the game to the trees. King Zirco gave them blue robes so they could wish you a safe journey in the land of ice and snow.”

“No wonder I didn’t recognize the tree,” Archer replied and waved goodbye to the children when they turned and ran down the path.

“Do you have any questions before you go to Akro?” Damani asked.

“I have one,” Archer told him.

“What do you wish to know?”

“Are you allowed to tell me when King Ichos took Princess Amethina prisoner?”

Damani’s startled expression and long, searching look told Archer that he didn’t expect the question. “I’m allowed to answer that question,” he said. “King Ichos took Princess Amethina after you returned the Crystal of All Time to its pedestal beneath the city and the air breathers returned to their ancestral home.”

Archer nodded. He’d known the answer before Damani spoke. It was the only thing that made sense. But why did King Ichos care that he wanted to live in the white stone city? Did Water’s ruler cast a spell that made him want to live there? Would a spell make him want to find and return the missing crystal ball to the hidden room beneath the city? As odd as that might seem, Archer thought it possible.

When Pacion and the council told him he couldn’t live in the white stone city, he’d been more determined than ever to move out of the Pearl Grotto. But after Baccio told him about the missing crystal ball, what unseen force compelled him to want to find it? He felt someone had guided his steps then and someone guided his steps now. Would his journeys through King Ichos’ test lead him to that individual?

“I’ve been listening to your thoughts,” Damani told him. “If it’s any comfort, I’m allowed to tell you that you’ll find the answers to those questions after you free Princess Amethina.”

“I have to go,” Archer announced with more confidence than he felt. “I’m not happy with the test but I’ll keep my promise to King Zirco.”

Archer closed his eyes, pictured the blue circle on his headband and his tunic rustled around him. The instant it unwound, his feet hit the ground, a blast of cold air hit him in the face and he opened his eyes. He’d landed in a valley surrounded by ice-capped peaks covered with crystalline surfaces that shone like blue glass against Akro’s cloudless sky. Somewhere among the mountains, only one would take him forward on his quest and he had to find it before he could do anything else. Archer placed his hand on his forehead and closed his eyes to consult the map. When it appeared in the blackness beneath his lids, he carefully studied each mountain. One of them looked so different and out of place that he smiled when he recognized the massive sculpture of a sea shell sitting among the peaks.

“I found my clue! That’s not a mountain! It’s a sculpture of a Chinese hat shell!”

His Mom and Dad always looked for shells like this every evening on their walks down the beach. They called them Chinese hats because they looked like a pointed Mandarin hat. They always brought a supply back to the house and his Mom spent hours painting them with Oriental designs to sell at her beach shack.

Archer opened his eyes and discovered the map dropped him at the edge of a field of jagged ice that stopped his approach to the sea shell sculpture that shone like silk in Akro’s muted light. Because he couldn’t walk across the ice crystals in his bare feet, he decided to fly and closed his eyes. His clothes rustled around him and when he opened his eyes, he spread his powerful eagle wings and pulled himself into the sky.

He’d planned to soar through the mountains and revel in his new freedom when an updraft pushed him over the top of the sculpture where he found a sheet of ice in front of a cave.

That’s probably the entrance to the mountain but how can I land on the ice and stop before I run into something?

While Archer circled the cave, he pondered the problem. He had to land if he hoped to solve the puzzle and decided to approach the ice as slowly as possible and hope he could stop.

Why didn’t I ask Damani for a flying lesson after I brought Pheeno home? Here goes. I hope this works!

He expected to skid across the ice the minute he touched down. Archer reached out with his wings but acted too late and careened toward the sculpture! He flapped his powerful wings but instead of soaring into the clouds, he hovered above the ice which let him touch down. His wings fell to his sides and he shed the bird’s image.

Startled and surprised at the success of the maneuver, Archer exclaimed, “I didn’t know I could do that!”

He closed his eyes to consult the map and hoped it would take him to his next location. When nothing happened, he opened his eyes.

I think the map just told me I’m where I’m supposed to be.

Before he could approach the sculpture, Damani’s voice boomed in his ear.

Beware the peril at its core!

Thanks, Damani, Archer told him. I’m glad you’re watching.

Archer closed his eyes and instead of asking a question, he pictured the entrance to the mountain. An image of the cavern entrance appeared in the blackness beneath his lids and instant before a blast of cold air hit him in the back and sent him skidding across the ice. He opened his eyes and discovered he stood outside the cavern entrance.

“I not only needed flying lessons, I should have asked more questions about how the maps work,” he muttered aloud.

Archer scratched his head and thought about his experience with the maps. “If I’d used the maps correctly, I didn’t have to walk across the desert to reach the volcano or let the pteranodon carry me to the mountains. I could have consulted the map, pictured my destination and and let the maps drop me there. Sometimes I make things more difficult than they need to be.”

Eager to explore the shell’s interior, he stepped inside the cave and stared in astonishment at the soft glow created by Akro’s light shining through the translucent walls. Slivered ice crackled beneath his feet and ice diamonds sparkled around his toes. A domed ceiling flowed into gently curving walls of a nearby tunnel. Ice crystals covered the walls of the cave and split the light into colored ribbons. A ray of sunlight shone through a crack in the ceiling, reflected off an ice crystal near his shoulder and the resulting flash nearly blinded him.

This is amazing, he murmured beneath his breath. I’m walking on ice in my bare feet and can’t feel the cold. Unless the planets in Skye’s galaxy are elaborate illusions, my clothes protect me from extreme temperatures.

Archer followed the curving tunnel until it forked to the right. He stopped, closed his eyes and asked the map which path to take. The map showed him the right fork stopped at a dead end and he continued straight. Damani’s cryptic message about a peril at the mountain’s core suggested he didn’t have anything to worry about until he reached that point in his journey.

The ice crackled around him, and brought memories of a campfire crackling in the night during a camping trip with his Mom and Dad. A lump rose in his throat and he fought back tears. Now wasn’t the time to think about the past. He had to complete this test and rescue King Zirco’s daughter.

He found a wall of ice blocking the way around the next curve. More puzzled than afraid, Archer thought he missed a turn and closed his eyes to consult the map. The map told him he was on the right path and the tunnel was clear. How odd. Why didn’t it confirm the dead end? He opened his eyes and a loud crack made him glance back. A second wall had appeared and blocked the tunnel behind him. A scraping sound echoed through the tunnel, the floor vibrated and the walls began to move.

“It’s a trap!” Archer yelled and spun in a circle.

Archer closed his eyes and placed his force field body armor. After it clicked into place, he opened his eyes and watched the walls inch forward. Ice scraped against ice. When Archer slapped his hands over his ears to muffle the sound, he realized his body armor couldn’t protect him from being crushed.

Could the multicolored stars on his clothes help him clear the path? Archer faced the wall ahead, closed his eyes and pictured a roaring fire at the foot of the ice. He opened his eyes and looked at the wall of ice in disbelief.

“Where’s my fire?”

Your gemstone charm holds those colors, Damani told him. For the time being, they’re lost to you. You have to think of something else.

Ice grated against ice and the walls inched closer. The noise assaulted his ears and Archer closed his eyes to control his panic. A blinding light flashed beneath his lids and his eyes snapped open.

“What was that?”

I sent you a clue, Pacion told him.

Pacion! I don’t understand!

What color was the light?

White, Archer told him. The light was white. Are you telling me to use the white in my clothing?

When Pacion didn’t reply, Archer smiled and said. Thanks Pacion. Now I know what to do.

Archer closed his eyes, removed his body armor and covered his hands with a layer of salt. He materialized another layer of salt against the ice walls and a tremor rippled beneath his feet. He opened his eyes and discovered the walls had stopped moving. He reached out and touched the nearest wall with a salt-encrusted glove. It blasted into fragments and shot into the tunnel ahead. With the forward path clear, Archer glanced back and found the wall behind had collapsed into a pile of ice crystals.

No longer fascinated with the sculpture’s beauty, Archer closed his eyes and removed the salt from his hands. While he appreciated Damani’s warning about the ‘peril at the mountain’s core’, he’d already found more than one peril on Akro and realized he couldn’t relax until he completed the test.

A decorative arch created with blue mermaids swimming through the ice marked the end of the tunnel and the entrance to a small cave. Archer stopped and peered inside. A fantasy garden of snowflake ferns towered over a forest of ice mushrooms. Hovering overhead like a crystal chandelier, hundreds of ice daggers hung from the ceiling and sparkled in the light that bounced off the cavern walls.

“I didn’t expect to find anything like this!” Archer exclaimed aloud. “The large ice crystals act like mirrors and reflect everything in the cave. It’s a never-ending garden!”

Archer stepped inside and found six tunnels exiting the cave, three to his right and three to his left. Had he reached the center of the sculpture? He closed his eyes to consult the map.

When it appeared in the blackness beneath his lids, he asked, “Which tunnel do I need to take to find the center of this mountain?”

The map showed him the three tunnels on his right and one on his left. Archer opened his eyes, looked at the tunnels and frowned. Before he could figure out how four tunnels could take him where he needed to go, a section of ice daggers broke away from the ceiling, slid down the wall and blocked a tunnel.

“The ceiling is falling!”

Archer dove for the nearest tunnel, skidded across the ice, careened into a fern and sent an ice mushroom flying when he rammed into with his head. Stunned by the blow, Archer rose to his knees and tried to focus his eyes. Daggers crashed to the floor and spun around him.

Before he could rise to his feet and escape down one of the tunnels, the ice daggers blocked two more tunnels. Archer glanced at ice swaying overhead, rose to his feet and dove toward the last open tunnel. He skidded to a stop against the tunnel wall an instant before the ceiling collapsed behind him. Archer lay on his stomach and looked down the tunnel. He’d escaped the booby-trapped garden and entered one of the four tunnels the map had shown him. Would it take him to Ichos’ prisoner? Maybe the map could answer that question.

He closed his eyes, pictured the blue circle on his headband and asked, “Show me the way to the prisoner.”

An image of four straight lines appeared in the blackness beneath his lids. Archer smiled and opened his eyes.

“King Ichos put a maze in the seashell mountain,” he mumbled. “That means I haven’t found the peril Damani told me to watch out for.”

Archer rose to his feet and began to walk. He hadn’t gone far when he came to a fork and looked down both tunnels. The tunnel to the right ended at a shaft of light that suggested a cave and he walked toward it. At the cavern entrance, he stopped and inspected the small space.

Sunlight filtered through a hole in the ceiling and transformed the ice-covered walls into sheets of mirrors that focused on a block of ice that sparkled with blue fire.

“Something’s frozen in the ice,” Archer muttered aloud.

Archer stepped inside the cave, walked to the block of ice and found a blue gemstone charm on a long gold chain frozen in its depths.

“Now that I’ve remembered salt melts ice, this should be easy.”

Archer closed his eyes and visualized a layer of salt across the frozen block. He opened his eyes and watched a puddle of water run across the cavern floor. As soon as the water washed away the salt, Archer replaced it until he’d freed the gemstone charm and pulled it free. With the charm swinging free, darts of blue fire danced against the mirrors and Archer retraced his steps to the fork in the tunnel. While he made his way down the tunnel, the faceted gem reflected the light and bounced triangular darts of blue fire off the ice.

A sound around the next curve brought Archer to a stop and he cocked his head to listen.

That sounds like water.”

Afraid of another trap, he made his way to the curve and peered around the corner. A veil of mist rose to a domed ceiling above a large blue lake and water droplets falling through the mist sent ripples across its smooth surface. A frozen goddess stood on a floating island in the middle of the lake and stared at him with sightless eyes. Her posture and floor-length robe reminded Archer of the statue in Aradia’s garden but the gemstone charm he held in his fist told him this wasn’t a statue.

“I’ve found the prisoner!”

Archer placed the chain around his neck and prepared to dive.

Damani’s voice boomed in his ear.

Beware the peril at its core!

Archer jumped back and lowered his arms. Did a monster live in the lake? The hair on the back of his neck prickled and he backed away from the water’s edge to calm his racing heart.

Thanks, Damani. I forgot. I have another way to reach the island.

Archer closed his eyes and pictured himself as a bird. After the image materialized in the blackness beneath his lids, he opened his eyes and as a white pelican, he launched into the air. With the gemstone charm in his beak and the chain swinging free, Archer flew across the lake and landed on the crusted ice near the statue. His clothing fell around him and he approached King Ichos’ prisoner.

“My name is Archer,” he whispered and held out the charm. “I’m here to break King Ichos’ spell.”

The instant he placed the chain around the statue’s neck and the gemstone charm dropped to the end of its chain, the blue stars peeled away from his clothes and shattered above his head. While the milky stone captured the sparks, the ice embracing the statue shattered. A maiden of Skye with long black hair and deep blue eyes stood before him. Her blue metallic gown shimmered in the muted light and her gemstone charm flashed with blue fire.

“I’ve come to take you home,” Archer told her and reached for her hand. “What’s your name?”

“My name is Pazia,” she replied. “But you can’t take me home.”

“Let’s find out what I can do,” Archer replied with a knowing smile.

The instant their fingers touched, he reached for the crystal triad charm and raised it to eye level. His thoughts were on Damani when the crystals merged and the single crystal disappeared.

[]Chapter Seven

A Most Unusual Invitation

When Archer and Pazia arrived in Skye, they joined Damani and Aradia in the new garden. Aradia flashed Archer a smile, stepped forward and took Pazia’s hand. When they walked away, Pazia turned and gave Archer the same puzzled look he’d received from Aradia and Pheeno.

Archer met Damani’s eyes and remarked,“I know you’re not supposed to answer any questions, but I’d sure like to know why King Ichos wants me to do this test and see what he’s done to Skye’s people?”

After a brief hesitation, Damani replied, “I know this is difficult for you. Events beyond your control may determine the outcome of your journeys. Only your actions and thoughts throughout the test can change that outcome. King Ichos allowed me to tell you that he selected you because he needs to know how well you use the energy on the planets that you visit.”

“Is that all you can tell me?” Archer asked, more confused than before. “Why would he want to know that? What does that have to do with him holding Princess Amethina prisoner or punishing Skye’s people? And that reminds me of something else. Why does everyone give me an odd look after I bring them home?”

With a thoughtful expression in his eyes, Damani replied, “If it helps, I can tell you that King Ichos can stop you from releasing his prisoners. He must have a reason for letting them go.”

“That doesn’t help.”

“Take heart in your success,” Damani suggested. “King Zirco is happy you’ve freed Skye’s children and is confident you’ll free Princess Amethina as well. By the time you complete this challenge, King Ichos will see the depth of your wisdom and compassion and know you better than you know yourself.”

At Damani’s words, Archer shook his head. Nothing he’d found made sense. The journeys through the maps had to be more than a test. He found it difficult to believe the only reason King Zirco invited him to Skye was to rescue his daughter. If King Ichos intended to release his prisoners, he could easily include her.

“I’m tired,” Archer remarked with a sigh.

“Follow me,” Damani told him.

At the door to the sleeping alcove, Damani stopped and waved him inside. Archer paused to ask Damani a question, realized it would go unanswered and entered the room. He found fruit and nectar on a bedside table that hadn’t been there before, glanced back to thank Damani and discovered he was alone.

Archer sat on the edge of the cloud-shaped bed and picked up the goblet. While he sipped the nectar and ate the fruit, he thought about Skye’s people and their unusual home. He found it odd that he felt at home here and wondered what he might say if King Zirco invited him to stay. He finished his light snack, lay back and let the bed wrap around him.

[ * * * * ]

Archer must have slept for he awoke to a troubling dream and lay with his eyes closed to study its last images beneath his lids. He sat on a carpet of leaves and leaned against a tree in a jungle. The image changed and he found himself in the crumbled ruins of a lost civilization in front of a building covered with vines. When he closed his eyes and pictured the building free of the foliage, he discovered he’d found an ancient temple. A cloud blocked the sun, cast a shadow over the temple and the image shattered. Before Archer could open his eyes, a large tree covered with white blossoms appeared beneath his lids.

[ * * * * ]

Why did I dream about ruins in a jungle and a vine-covered temple? Wait a minute. Now I remember. That must be the jungle and ruins on Lackwanna’s map.

He reached up, touched the headband, closed his eyes and said, “Show me the ruins in my dream.”

The blackness beneath his lids turned green. Archer opened his eyes and shook his head. “That didn’t tell me anything.”

Before he could ask the map another question, Aradia walked through the door and the reflection off her red metallic gown turned the walls pink.

“I’m glad you’re awake,” she greeted with a cheerful smile. “I came to invite you for a swim in the lake.”

“I’d like that,” he replied and stood up. “Before we go will you explain something?”

“What’s that?” she asked.

“Why does everyone I brought home wear the collar that lets them live beneath the sea?”

“Because we lived on Water,” she replied. “Didn’t anyone tell you there’s no land there?”

“I don’t understand,” Archer remarked. “Why did you live on Water?”

“When King Zirco and King Ichos worked together to create their earth settlements, teachers from Skye traveled to Water to teach the Ichonauts and mermaids how to help the air breathers survive in the new cities. After they fought over their settlements, King Ichos didn’t want us there.”

“But why did he put you in prisons?” Archer persisted. “Why didn’t he send you home?”

“I don’t know the answer to your question,” she told him.

“He’s mean,” Archer replied. “He didn’t need to do those horrible things.”

“Father told me that’s why King Zirco invited you here,” Aradia told him and turned to lead him from the room. “He wants you to change King Ichos’ heart.”

“I’m not sure I can do that,” Archer remarked. “By the way, I’m glad you invited me for a swim but how did Damani put a lake in the clouds?”

“Father told me you might ask about the lake,” Aradia replied with a smile. “He didn’t put a lake in Skye. It’s an illusion.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Archer told her and shook his head in disbelief. “It isn’t possible to swim in an illusion.”

“I don’t know what’s possible on the Earth Star,” Aradia replied. “The planets in Skye’s galaxy differ in many ways. What’s possible on one might not be possible on another.”

“Are there other lakes in Skye?”

“No,” Aradia told him. “Just one.”

“You told me it’s a welcome home gift from your father. Is that the only reason it’s here?”

“Everyone who wears Water’s collar is bound to King Ichos,” Aradia explained. “Father created the lake to keep me from wanting to leave Skye. Pheeno and Pazia were really excited when they saw the lake.”

“I live in the underwater kingdom of Balycon,” Archer told her when he touched the band he wore around his neck. “Why can’t we take off this collar?”

“That’s one of its secrets,” Aradia explained. “It took King Ichos a long time to create it and make it possible for air breathers to live underwater. Only those loyal to him are allowed to give the collar to air breathers and they’re the only ones who can remove it. Because of its powers, few air breathers want to give it up.”

“I’ve learned it does more than let me live underwater and I’m not sure I want to give it up either,” Archer replied. “There’s something else I don’t understand. Why does a swim in the lake give me so much energy?”

“The lake captures Skye’s energy and you absorb it when you swim,” Aradia told him.

“But where does it come from?”

“It comes from the clouds. I can’t explain it better than that.”

“I guess you answered most of my questions,” he told her. “We’d probably better go.”

Aradia turned to leave and Archer walked with her to the lake where they found Pheeno and Pazia waiting. Their bright metallic robes lay in the mist at their feet.

“Hello, Archer,” Pazia greeted with a wave and a smile. “I’m glad to see you again. Aradia took me away so fast I didn’t remember to thank you for bringing me home.”

“I want to thank you too,” Pheeno piped up. “I wish I knew how you got us away from King Ichos.”

“I’m not sure myself,” Archer told him. “I mostly trusted Damani when he told me to believe anything is possible. I’m glad you joined us for a swim. I hoped I’d see you again.”

Archer slipped his tunic over his head and placed it in the mist. He stepped out of his trousers and dropped them beside it. At the water’s edge he glanced at the green and brown stars, the only colors that remained on his trunks and tank top. He raised his gemstone charm to eye level and tilted it sideways. Red, orange, yellow, tan and blue fire sparkled in its depths.

“Wow!” he exclaimed. “This is amazing.”

He placed the gem on top of his clothes and turned to find Pazia and Pheeno staring at his crystal triad charm.

“Why are you staring at my charm?” he asked and tucked it beneath his tank top.

Before they had a chance to reply, Aradia raised her hand in a signal that invited Pheeno and Pazia to join her in the water and everyone launched into a dive, Pheeno and Pazia hit the water at the same time and darted ahead of Aradia. They raced through the underwater garden, first one and then the other taking the lead until they stopped to wait for Archer to catch up.

Is it time to show Archer our surprise? Aradia asked with a mischievous grin.

Yes, Pazia replied and flashed Archer a smile.

Right away, Pheeno remarked. He grabbed Pazia’s hand and pulled her into the foliage.

What’s going on? Archer asked when Pheeno and Pazia disappeared.

You’ll find out in a few minutes, Aradia teased and raced after them. Catch me if you can.

Archer bolted forward and barely managed to keep Aradia in sight while she wove in and out of the white foliage. Where did she learn to swim like that? The plants thinned and Archer caught up with Aradia when she stopped to wait for him.

Where’s everyone going in such a hurry? he asked. And what’s Pheeno and Pazia doing at the bottom of the lake?

Not much farther, Aradia told him. You’ve got to swim faster than that if you want to keep up.

How did you learn to swim so fast? he asked. I thought I could keep up with anyone except an Ichonaut.

It’s easy when your teacher is a mermaid, she replied and flashed him a smile.

Archer was approaching the bottom of the lake when he saw Pheeno and Pazia approach a white stone cube, swim behind it and disappear. The stone block looked so out of place in Aradia’s garden lake that Archer shook his head in bewilderment. Why did Damani put that here? He approached the cube, reached out to touch it and discovered it wasn’t stone.

It feels like sponge rubber just like the plants.

He turned to ask Aradia why it was here and discovered he was alone. Where did everyone go? He spun in the water, shook his head in confusion and headed for the surface.

Don’t leave, Aradia called.

Where are you? I can’t see you.

Inside, Pheeno replied.

Inside what?

Go around the other side, Pazia explained.

Archer smiled when he realized that Pazia and Pheeno told him the odd white cube was hollow. But why did they want him to go inside? He swam around the cube and found a circular opening barely large enough to wiggle through. The instant he swam into the narrow tunnel, the walls grabbed him and began to move.

What’s happening to me?

Relax and enjoy the ride, Aradia told him. You’ll find us when the tunnel spits you out.

You have to be joking!

How could he relax? He was absolutely terrified in the close quarters and feared he might pass out! Where was the tunnel taking him? And what did Aradia mean when she said it would spit him out? Before he could ask, the tunnel stopped moving. He blinked and brought his eyes into focus. A surge of water came up behind him, pushed him out of the tunnel and dropped him above a white stone city where Aradia, Pazia and Pheeno waited.

Archer scanned the city and his eyes stopped at the plaza surrounded by four identical temples. He looked at Aradia and asked, How did you do that? How did you bring me to Balycon?

This isn’t Balycon, she replied.

Archer spun in the water and discovered he’d arrived at an empty city.

Alarm shone in his eyes, when he looked at Aradia. Where is everyone? What have you done with the air breathers, Ichonauts and mermaids?

We didn’t do anything with them, Aradia told him. You haven’t left Skye.

Pazia appeared at Archer’s side and asked. Do you like it?

It was Pazia’s idea but everyone helped, Pheeno told him.

What are you talking about? Of course this is Balycon. I just want to know what you did with everyone.

Archer gave Aradia a wide-eyed stare when he remembered the moving tunnel and told her, That weird white cube isn’t large enough to hold a city! Is this an illusion?

It isn’t an illusion, Aradia replied. Father helped us create a miniature city inside the cube. That’s why there’s no one here.

Are you telling me that tunnel just shrunk me?

You’ll grow back to normal size when you leave, Pheeno told him.

This is bizarre, Archer replied with a shake of his head.

I have another surprise, Aradia told him and turned herself into a red feather snake.

Boja! Archer exclaimed.

I wondered what you called your friend, Aradia told him after she discarded Boja’s image.

How did you know about Balycon and Boja? Archer asked while he tried to understand what was happening.

We wanted to know more about you after you brought us home, Aradia explained. Father told us you lived in the earth sea and showed us your home in the crystal ball.

Then he must have told you why I’m here, Archer replied.

Damani didn’t tell us everything, Pheeno replied. We don’t know why you wear the crystal triad charm when you’re not a crystal master. And he wouldn’t tell us why you wear those odd clothes or how you brought us home.

It doesn’t matter, Pazia announced with a shake of her head. Archer doesn’t have to tell us anything. We’re just glad he found us.

With mischief twinkling in her eyes, Aradia asked, Shall we tell him about the rest of the surprise?

Yes, Pazia replied.

Yes, echoed Pheeno.

Now what are you talking about? Archer asked, not sure he wanted any more surprises.

Father told me that you don’t want to live in Skye but we want you to stay, Aradia replied.

Is that why you created another Balycon? Archer asked.

You might say that, Pazia told him.

I don’t understand, Archer replied.

You don’t have to go back to the Earth Star, Pheeno explained and indicated the white stone city with a wave of his hand. You can live here.

This empty city isn’t my home, Archer told him with a shake of his head. I left my friends once and don’t want to do it again.

We can ask Damani bring your friends to Skye, Pazia chimed in. We really want you to stay.

I appreciate your invitation but I can’t think about it now, Archer told her. I have more maps to explore and more prisoners to bring home. I really like your surprise but I have to go.

Maybe you’ll change your mind later, Aradia suggested. Father’s waiting for you. We’re going to stay in the lake for a while.

How do I get out of here? Archer asked when he couldn’t find the entry tunnel.

The fountain is the exit, Pheeno told him and pointed at the kidney-shaped fountain in the center of the plaza.

Am I supposed to open it with a secret word? Archer asked before he smiled at them.

You catch on quick, Aradia replied. Father showed us the room beneath the city and how you traveled through the fountain to get there. That’s when we decided it to make it the exit.

I don’t know how you did all this, Archer told them and dove toward the fountain. I’ll remember the city in the hollow cube when I can’t figure out how to do something. It’ll remind me to try the impossible.

He reached the fountain and silently mouthed the word “Koba.” To his amazement and delight, the fountain slid aside and revealed a stairway descending to a room below. He waved goodbye to Aradia, Pazia and Pheeno before he swam into the opening. The tunnel grabbed him and he managed to relax until the tunnel tossed him into the lake. His thoughts were on the miniature city when he surfaced and found Damani waiting.

“Did you enjoy your swim?” Damani asked when Archer joined him.

“Did you know about the surprise Aradia, Pazia and Pheeno planned?” Archer asked after he donned his clothes and gemstone charm.

“They told me their plans and I watched in my clear crystal charm when they showed it to you,” Damani replied.

“That was some gift,” Archer remarked and flashed Damani a smile that quickly turned to a frown. “No one ever gave me a city before and I didn’t know I could make myself small.”

“There’s a lot you don’t know,” Damani told him with a mysterious smile. “Aradia and her friends want you to stay and live here. They asked me to show them your home on the Earth Star so they could prepare a gift they knew you’d love.”

“They went to a lot of trouble for nothing,” Archer told him with a troubled expression in his eyes. “I like their gift but I don’t want to leave my friends.”

“Is that why you look troubled?” Damani asked.

“It isn’t that,” Archer replied. “I woke to a strange dream. Can you explain it to me?”

“I can try,” Damani replied. “What was your dream?”

“I dreamed about ruins in a jungle,” Archer replied. “There was a temple covered with vines and I knew it was important.”

“It sounds like a clue to the next map,” Damani suggested.

“That’s what I thought,” Archer replied. “Did the dream tell me to find the ruins?”

“I’ve told you all I can,” said Damani.

“That’s not much help.”

“You’re doing fine without my help.”

“I’d better go,” Archer told him with a wave of his hand. “I’ll see you soon.”

Before Damani could respond, Archer closed his eyes and pictured the green circle on his headband. His clothing rustled around him and he tumbled through space on the way to a planet called Lackwanna. When his clothes stopped moving and his bare feet hit a warm, soft surface, he opened his eyes and looked around.

[]Chapter Eight

Jungle Planet

He’d landed on several layers of decaying leaves in a clearing surrounded by foliage so dense that it would be appropriate to call his landing spot a cage. Archer glanced up at an overhead canopy so thick the sunlight struggled to reach the jungle floor. Damani’s map prepared him for a jungle but he didn’t expect this.

You must find a way where no way exists, Damani reminded him.

I didn’t forget, Archer replied and shook his head in frustration.

He turned in a circle. The ruins could be 20 feet away and he wouldn’t see them through the undergrowth. He’s have to find a tree that rose above the jungle canopy and search from the tree top. If that didn’t let him find the ruins, he’d become a bird and search from the air.

Archer approached the largest tree he could find, grabbed a loose vine and swung up from the ground. He braced his feet against the tree and, hand over hand, pulled himself onto the lowest branch. He rose to his feet, leaned against the tree trunk and looked up at patches of blue sky that peeked through the overhead branches.

Archer shook his head and began to climb. The knobby bark gave him handholds that let him travel from limb to limb. The higher he climbed, the closer the branches grew together until he was able to walk on a stairway to the sky. Although he couldn’t see them through the foliage, several monkeys announced his progress with their constant chatter.

When Archer reached the upper branches too small to hold his weight, he stopped and scanned the jungle. An ocean of green stretched in every direction as far as he could see and concealed the jungle floor. He considered becoming a bird and look for the ruins from the air but rejected the idea. If he couldn’t see the ground from the tree top, he doubted he could see it from the air.

That’s when Archer remembered the maps always dropped him at his starting point. He had to find his guidepost before he could do anything else.

“Why do I keep forgetting the map? Maybe it can help.”

Archer closed his eyes, pictured the green circle in his headband and visualized the ruins in his dream. “Can you help me find my guidepost?” he whispered.

An image of a tree with white blossoms moved forward in the blackness beneath his lids. The image disappeared and he opened his eyes. Why did the map show him the tree he’d seen in his dream? Was it his guidepost? If so, how could he find a single tree in this endless jungle? Overwhelmed at the thought of that daunting task, Archer reached for the crystal triad charm and raised it to eye level before he let it fall against his chest.

He couldn’t give up and return to Skye. He had to find the ruins and finish the test. He didn’t need to see that crumbling temple to know it was out there somewhere. Before Archer could decide what to do, the tree branch groaned beneath his feet.

“Sometimes I’m so dumb!” he yelled and slapped himself alongside the head. “If I can talk to a rock, I’m sure I can talk to a tree!”

He closed his eyes and pressed his ear against the nearest branch. “My name is Archer. Can you help me find the temple ruins?”

He held his breath when an image of the tree covered with white blossoms appeared in the blackness beneath his lids. His eyes snapped open and he stared at the branch in confusion.

“I don’t want to see that tree! I want to know how to find it!”

Archer was about to reach for the crystal triad charm when he remembered the red flowers on Ferro. Maybe he asked the map the wrong question. He closed his eyes and asked the map to show him his guidepost.

He opened his eyes and shouted, “That’s it! That’s it! Why didn’t I think of it sooner? The flowering tree is my guidepost and the map just told me how to find it!”

Excitement replaced Archer’s despair when he scanned the jungle. Several miles away a tree with white blossoms towered above everything around it.

“It stands out like a beacon!” he hollered. “Why didn’t I just look for it? Why do I keep make things difficult?”

Archer closed his eyes, pictured the green stars in his clothing and a green parrot grabbed the sky with iridescent wings. As he left the monkey chatter behind and soared over the jungle, he searched for the ruins on the way to the flowering tree. He had to give up when he couldn’t see the ground through the jungle canopy. Although the tree appeared to be several miles from the treetop, he reached it within minutes, grabbed a leafless branch and released the sky.

After his wings dropped to his side and he shed the parrot’s image, Archer tried, without success, to see the ground. He shook his head, closed his eyes and pictured the green circle on his headband. An image of the crumbling ruins immediately appeared in the blackness beneath his lids but before he could study the image, it wriggled and squirmed across the map until the jungle swallowed them up. Archer opened his eyes and fought the frustration rising in his throat.

“This is hopeless,” he muttered aloud. “Damani gave me an impossible map that contains impossible clues. How can \I find a way where no way exists?”

Archer looked into the distance, found nothing new and heaved a sigh. The ruins could be anywhere and might as well be dust. They could even be under this tree and he wouldn’t see them. Archer grabbed the nearest branch and slapped himself along side the head.

“Maybe the ruins are under the tree! Maybe that’s why I had to find this particular tree!”

His excitement grew and he closed his eyes. If the ruins were beneath him, maybe he didn’t need to climb down. Maybe the map could take him to the jungle floor. He closed his eyes and pictured the ruins he’d seen in his dream. After they appeared in the blackness beneath his lids, he opened his eyes and discovered he still stood in the treetop. Archer sighed. Somewhere in this vast jungle another prisoner waited but he wouldn’t find them from a treetop. That’s when he remembered the spell King Ichos put on him before he reached the volcano and found the cave. If he put spells on Ferro, maybe he put spells on Lackwanna too.

After a last glance across the jungle, Archer headed for the ground. He easily moved from limb to limb on the way to the jungle floor and soon reached the lowest limb. When he was about 15 feet above the ground, he found a stack of dry leaves directly beneath him. Archer jumped, hit the leaves, rolled onto his side and jumped to his feet.

He’d forgotten to ask Damani about wild animals before he realized all jungles had wild animals so he closed his eyes and placed his body armor. He scanned his surroundings and discovered he’d landed in a clearing identical to the one he’d just left. Archer walked the perimeter of the clearing, found no sign of a path and returned to the tree.

“What am I supposed to do now?”

Archer sat down, leaned against the tree and considered his options. The monkey chatter gave him an idea so he closed his eyes to listen to their conversation. Images of fruit and baby monkeys appeared in the blackness beneath his lids.

“Images of fruit and baby monkeys can’t help me. I bet they know the way to the ruins but I don’t know how to ask them for help. I’ll send an image of the ruins and see what happens.”

Archer closed his eyes and projected an image of the vine-covered temple he’d seen in his dream. He gasped aloud when someone or something replaced his image with a tree covered with white flowers. While he pondered the meaning of the image, it changed again and he stared at an image of the vine-covered temple.

Convinced he’d reached the monkeys, he scanned the overhead branches but couldn’t find them. He searched the undergrowth around the clearing. No monkeys there. He closed his eyes and projected an image of the tree with white blossoms and his image was replaced an image of the temple ruins.

Who’s talking to me?

Archer closed his eyes and projected an image of the ruins he’d seen on the green map before he left Skye. A vine-covered temple replaced that image.

Does my mysterious friend know how to find the ruins?

A sharp crack made Archer look up in time to dodge a limb falling through the leaves. It crashed with a thud a few feet away and a massive green object followed it out of the tree. Archer dove to the center of the clearing, skidded across the dry leaves and into the edge of the undergrowth an instant before the object landed behind him. Archer sat up and stared at a pile of writhing green flesh. He scooted against a tree and his eyes widened at the sight of the massive head rising out of the moving flesh.

It stared at him with unblinking yellow eyes and Archer exclaimed, “I hate snakes! And that one was in the tree with me!”

He took a deep breath, pressed his body against the tree and reached for the crystal triad charm. Before he could bring it to eye level, the snake slithered toward him and stopped its massive head inches from his face. Archer’s pulse quickened and he fought his panic when the snake’s forked tongue flicked the air. Terrified and afraid to move, Archer met the snake’s unblinking amber eyes. When an image of a vine-covered temple flashed through his mind, he realized he’d found his mysterious friend.

Archer shook a finger at the snake and scolded, “You did that! You sent the images of the temple and the tree!”

Archer closed his eyes and sent the snake an image of the crumbling ruins. Almost immediately, the snake replaced it with an image of the vine-covered temple.

“Until I met Boja I didn’t know snakes were so smart,” Archer remarked. “I hope you know how to find that temple because I need a guide.”

The snake uncoiled its massive body and slithered into the undergrowth. Archer rose to his feet and tried to follow but the foliage blocked his way and the snake disappeared.

“Hey! Wait for me!”

Archer closed his eyes, cleared a path with an image and the jungle gave way to his vision. When he looked up, he found the snake waiting for him. The snake turned and continued its journey through the undergrowth and Archer ran to catch up. The dense undergrowth forced him to close his eyes time after time to clear a path and the flowering tree soon disappeared behind him. The humid air formed beads of water on his body armor while he walked through pockets of insects so thick they turned the air black.

He kept his eyes on the snake’s tail and cleared a trail as soon as he figured out which way it wanted to go. The snake led him to a row of rocks carved with crude geometric designs and Archer stopped to stare. Why did the rocks look familiar? Did he see them in his dream and forget about them? When he glanced up from the rocks, he found the snake looking at him before it turned to continue its journey through the jungle. Archer followed the snake to a well-worn path bordered by flat rocks that he recognized from his dream.

“I’ve found the ruins!”

The snake sensed his excitement and increased its speed. Archer wanted to inspect the stones but feared he’d lose his guide and ran to catch up. He glanced at the stones at his feet, hit his head on a low branch and the impact threw him to his knees. The snake stopped to look back. Archer closed his eyes and sent an image of the temple. The snake replied with an image of a crumbling building covered with vines.

Archer opened his eyes a moment before the snake disappeared into the undergrowth. He closed his eyes, cleared the path and when he looked up, the snake waited in front of a wall of tangled vines. When the snake raised its head and nudged the vines with its nose, Archer followed its gaze and saw the yellow stone behind the foliage.

“It’s the temple!” Archer shouted. “You brought me to the temple!”

He pushed his way forward, placed his hand on the ancient wall and remembered his dream. He needed to find the temple door but before he did that he had to thank the snake for bringing him here. Archer pointed at the ground, closed his eyes and materialized a pool of water at his feet.

“Thanks for your help,” he said. “I can find my way from here.”

Archer closed his eyes and pictured the green circle in his headband and the map confirmed what he already knew. He’d reached his destination and he’d find the temple entrance a few paces to his right. He opened his eyes, watched the snake lower its head to drink and shook his head.

“First things first. I need to clear the vines before I do anything else.”

After he removed the tangled vines from the temple walls, Archer followed the stone path around the crumbling ruin. Eager to explore the temple’s interior, he found the open door and peered inside. A tangle of vines on the floor pulled garlands of pink and purple flowers toward the windows near the ceiling. Deep shadows hung in pockets throughout the room and broken blocks lay scattered across the floor. A spark of light flashed off a cobweb in a distant corner and reminded him of the fandette. Would he find another fandette here?

For the first time since his arrival, Archer feared what he might find. Had he come to the temple to find a prisoner or a gemstone charm? If past experience meant anything, that question didn’t matter because he had to find both. He threw back his shoulders, stepped across the threshold and into a vacuum of silence.

Several towering columns stood like sentinels throughout the gloom. As soon as Archer’s eyes adjusted to low light, he scanned the room and spotted an odd-shaped column. He brought a hand to his face and peered through his fingers at a large statue of a bird with outstretched wings. He walked toward it, stopped at its base and stared at a bird man standing on a five-foot pedestal.

“I’ve found King Ichos’ prisoner!”

A sound behind him made him whirl!

“What’s that? Who’s there?”

A small animal darted out of its hiding place and disappeared into the darkness. Archer breathed deep, raised his head and glanced to his left. Barely visible across the room stood a second large bird with outstretched wings.

“Are there two prisoners here?”

That’s when he noticed the light shining through one of the windows and lighting up the crumbling altar at the back of the room. With his footprints following him across the room, Archer turned away from the statue to walk toward it. Centuries of dust covered the ancient stone altar and Archer traced a winding trail across it with his finger.

He glanced at his footprints that led to the open door before he raised his eyes and inspected the temple wall. With primitive tools, ancient artists carved hundreds of birds into the gray stone. Directly behind the altar and in the center of the collage, they’d included a life-sized parrot perched on a branch.

Archer walked behind the altar to study the parrot and spoke aloud, “The parrot is three dimensional. The people that lived here must have worshiped birds.”

His exploring fingers touched the parrot’s beak and it moved beneath his hand. He stepped back and watched the beak disappear into the wall.

“The bird’s beak is a lever! I wonder what it does.”

Stone grated against stone and echoed through the gloom. Visions of ancient rituals flashed through Archer’s mind and he yelled, “It’s a trap!”

Archer whirled and headed for the open door at a full run. “I’ve got to get out of here!”

With the grating sound assaulting his ears, Archer ran past the first statue. A cobweb wrapped around his face and brought him to a stop.

“No!” he shouted and tried to jump back.

The cobweb tightened and nearly threw him to the floor.

“The spider’s got me!”

He grabbed the nearest column and threw his arms and legs around it. Before he could close his eyes to transport himself out of the temple, the grating sound stopped. He glanced toward the altar and his eyes widened. The shaft of light hit the wall beneath the parrot’s beak and revealed a hole that hadn’t been there before.

“It isn’t a trap! The lever opened a hidden vault! As soon as I get out of this cobweb, I’ll see if there’s anything in it.”

Archer closed his eyes. An image free him from the spider web and transported him to the altar. The instant his feet hit the floor, he opened his eyes and discovered sparks of green fire inside the vault.

“I found the charm!”

He reached in, grabbed the gold chain and pulled out a green gemstone of Skye. While he explored the vault with his other hand, he let the gemstone drop to the end of its chain and hang free. But he found the vault empty and he despaired.

“I can’t free two prisoners with one charm and I can’t leave without both of them.”

He glanced at the statues across the room and they gave him an idea.

“Maybe I don’t need to look for two charms. Maybe I can use this charm to free one prisoner and let them tell me where to find the other charm”

Archer ran to the nearest statue but the statue was too tall for him to put the chain around its neck.

“I can fix this.”

He closed his eyes and materialized a stone block in front of the statue. He opened his eyes and smiled. He stepped on the block, draped the chain around the statue’s neck and backed away. Nothing happened.

“Maybe it belongs to the other prisoner.”

He removed the charm, hurried across the room and placed the chain around the neck of the second statue. Again, nothing happened.

Damani had told him that King Ichos could stop him from releasing his prisoners and Archer didn’t know what to do. He looked at the green stars in his clothes which told him he hadn’t solved the puzzle. Would he fail the test if he didn’t release the prisoners?

He didn’t know what else to do so he reached up and removed the charm from the statue. Before he could raise the crystal triad charm to eye level and return to Skye, a sound at the temple door made him turn. Coiled in the doorway, the snake’s amber eyes glowed in the sun. A sound behind him made him turn in time to see a massive spider slide down a sticky rope from the ceiling.

“Time to get out of here!” he shouted and raced through the open door.

He turned to seal the door behind him but before he closed his eyes and placed the force field barrier, he discovered the snake had disappeared. He couldn’t lock it in the temple with the spider and nearly panicked until he found it coiled in the undergrowth a few feet away. He turned, closed his eyes and placed a force field barrier on the temple door a second before the spider hit the invisible barrier with a thud. Archer’s eyes snapped open, he jumped back and tripped on a loose stone. He landed on his stomach a few feet from the snake.

Archer raised the gemstone charm out of the dust. and told him, “I needed your help to find this charm but I can’t find its owner.”

The snake uncoiled and pressed its nose against the sparkling gem.

“Wait a minute!” Archer exclaimed. “Are you King Ichos’ prisoner? Is that why you brought me here? Is that the reason the charm didn’t work on the statues?”

Archer met the snake’s eyes and placed chain over its head. In an instant, the snake became a young man dressed in a metallic green robe of Skye. The green stars peeled away from Archer’s clothing, flew through the air and shattered. While they floated toward the ground, his white gemstone charm sucked them in.

“Who are you?” asked the young man

“My name is Archer and I’ve come to take you home. Please tell me your name.”

“I’m Merado.”

“Take my hand, Merado,” Archer told him. “Damani is waiting for us.”

“You can’t take me home,” Merado replied. “King Ichos won’t let you.”

“Let’s find out what King Ichos will allow,” Archer replied and grasped Merado’s hand.

Merado’s eyes widened when Archer grabbed his crystal triad charm. He gave Merado a reassuring smile before he raised the crystal triad charm to eye level and focused on the miniature crystal balls. A man and woman in green robes waited with Damani when they arrived in Skye.

“I told your parents you were coming home so they could meet you,” Damani greeted.

Merado gave Archer a searching glance before he ran into his parents’ welcoming arms.

“Thank you for bringing our son home,” Merado’s father told Archer. “We’ve waited a long time.”

Archer didn’t have a chance to reply before the man turned and walked toward the door with his family. Before they left the room, Merado turned, shot Archer a puzzled look and shook his head.

[]Chapter Nine

Garden Planet

“Why is everyone surprised I can bring them home?” Archer asked.

“King Ichos never releases prisoners,” Damani replied. “I don’t understand why he’s allowing it now.”

Archer lifted his crystal triad charm to eye level. “That doesn’t explain why everyone is surprised to see this charm,”

“You’ll find the answer to that question after you complete the test,” Damani replied with a twinkle in his eye.

Before Archer could comment on that cryptic remark, Damani reached into an overhead cloud.

“What are you doing?” Archer asked

“Aradia asked me to give you a gift,” Damani told him and lowered his hand. “She wanted you to have swimwear that matches your clothes.”

Archer reached out, took the two-piece swim suit and held it up. It looked exactly like the one Skoro gave him except for the brown stars that sparkled on the white metallic fabric.

“There’s one test left,” Archer observed with a shake of his head. “I really like Aradia’s gift but why did she give me a present?”

“When I told her your next journey will test your skills more than the others, she thought a gift might lighten your heart.”

“What are you talking about?” Archer asked when the sadness returned to Damani’s eyes. “What makes this test more difficult?”

“I can’t answer that question but it’s important you arrive at Mican without worries,” Damani replied. “You need an abundance of energy to finish the coming test so I asked your friends to meet you at the lake.”

“Can I change here?”

“I’ll provide a privacy screen,” Damani said and waved his hand to cover Archer with a cloud.

“Wow!” Archer remarked when he disappeared beneath the mist. “You made me invisible! I’ll remember this trick!”

“Don’t keep your friends waiting.”

“I’ll hurry.”

Archer slipped the tunic over his head and let the trousers drop to his feet. His old trunks and tank top followed them into the mist and he donned Aradia’s gift. The soft, weightless fabric clung like a second skin and he looked twice to make sure he wore clothing. Before he could tell Damani he’d changed, the privacy screen vanished.

“Aradia chose well,” Damani told him with a nod. “You may take it home with you.”

“Am I supposed to leave my old stuff here?” Archer asked. “Skoro gave it to me when I arrived in Balycon. It might upset him if I leave it.”

“You may take it if you wish,” Damani replied.

“I’ll leave it,” Archer responded and gave it one last look before he scooped up his tunic and trousers and threw them over his arm. “Argo showed me it’s easy to replace so I’ll conjure up another just like it after I get home and Skoro won’t know the difference.”

He followed Damani from the room and down a misty path. At the lake they found four shining robes folded in the mist. While Damani walked to the bench beneath his favorite tree, Archer folded his tunic and trousers, put them beside the others and tucked his charms beneath his tank top. His dive took him through a curtain of white petals and he stopped above a clump of reeds, rolled on his back and watched the petals swirl overhead.

I made an underwater snowstorm, he mused.

Pheeno darted out of the foliage and swam toward him. A flash of color caught Archer’s eye and he turned to see Aradia, Pazia and Merado emerge from behind the nearby shrubbery. The colors in their clothing reflected off the white plants and created a rainbow in the water. Children of Skye appeared from out of nowhere, began a game of tag in and out of the reeds and their hand signals invited Archer to join them.

After Archer joined in, he remembered how he nearly refused King Zirco’s invitation to Skye. What would have happened to Aradia, Pazia, Merado and Pheeno if he’d stayed in Balycon? Would they have been lost forever? He’d never made friends this easily and reveled in the sense of belonging. Did he want to return to Balycon after they’d gone to the trouble to create a home for him here? He’d give it more thought after he finished King Ichos’ test and rescued Princess Amethina.

After the children left, Merado challenged Archer to a race and he waved his acceptance. Aradia, Pazia and Pheeno watched while they sped toward a statue at the bottom of the lake. On the way to the statue, Archer brushed against a flowering shrub that released thousands of petals and blocked the statue from view. While they swam through the wall of white, they lost sight of each other time after time and traded the lead several times. The race ended when Archer broke out of the swirling petals and found the statue in front of him. He touched it a second before Merado appeared at his side.

Merado flashed Archer a smile. That’s a sneaky way to win a race. You stirred up those petals on purpose. Where did you learn to swim that fast?

I picked up a few tricks watching Aradia, Archer replied with a grin. Besides, I got lucky. You swim faster and would have won but you couldn’t see where you were going and lost sight of the statue.

After Aradia, Pazia and Pheeno joined them Archer asked, Do you want to learn a different kind of race?

That might be fun, Merado piped up.

I want to learn, Pazia told him.

I’m in, Aradia replied.

How can there be a different way to race? Pheeno asked.

By racing in teams, Archer told him. It’s called relay racing. All of you swim faster than me, so you compete against each other and I’ll referee.

Pazia pointed at Pheeno. I want to race with Pheeno,

That makes Aradia and Merado a team, Archer announced. So it’s blue and yellow against red and green.

Aradia swam to Merado’s side and asked, What are we supposed to do?

I’ll set a course, give you instructions and start the race, Archer told her.

Using the statue as a starting point, Archer created a large circle on the lake bottom with boulders and flowering shrubs. He explained the rules and placed Pheeno and Merado midpoint on the course. Aradia and Merado won the first relay, Pazia and Pheeno won the second.

Let’s not break the tie, suggested Aradia.

Everyone agreed and the game ended with everyone a winner. Archer glanced at Pazia and found her staring at him.

Do you want to ask me something? he asked.

We’ve been talking about your charms, Pazia replied. We don’t understand why you wear a crystal triad charm when you’re not a crystal master.

A crystal master gave it to me, Archer told her.

I’ve never heard of a crystal master giving away one of his charms, Pazia replied more confused than before.

He didn’t need it anymore, Archer told her.

I asked Father about your gemstone charm because we’ve never seen one like it, Aradia remarked. He told me it’s a fire stone and it’s the only one in Skye.

It’s a gift from King Zirco, Archer explained. He told me I couldn’t complete King Ichos’ test without it. It was really ugly until it captured the colored stars from my clothing.

That doesn’t explain your odd clothes, Pazia remarked.

King Zirco gave them to me, Archer replied. They let me change shape but I don’t know what else they do.

Our clothing lets us change shape, Pheeno told him. But we don’t have all those colors.

King Zirco told me I need the powers in the colored stars to complete King Ichos’ test and he gave me the fire stone because it tells me when I solve a puzzle, Archer explained.

How does it do that? asked Merado.

Each time I solve a puzzle, the colored stars leave my clothes and the charm captures them while they fly through the air.

I’ve never heard of a gemstone charm that did that, was Pazia’s startled response.

Archer answered our questions, Merado announced. Let’s play another game.

What kind of game? Aradia asked.

Why don’t we see who can become the oddest sea creature by using the color of our clothing.

That sounds like fun, Archer replied and immediately became a swimming monkey.

What is that? Pazia asked, bewildered by his image. I’ve never seen a sea creature that looks like that.

I’m a monkey, Archer told her.

A monkey isn’t a sea creature, Merado reminded him with a shake of his head.

Archer shed the monkey image and replied, I stretched the rules, I didn’t know what to do with the only color in my clothing. I’ll think of something else.

Aradia, Pazia, Merado and Pheeno immediately transformed Skye’s lake into a playground for red dragons, blue eels and yellow fish. The brown stars challenged Archer’s creativity but by adding the white from his clothing he got everyone’s attention when he turned himself into a brown and white striped octopus. Merado’s image of a green pearl fish with a shimmering green pearl made everyone stop to stare at him.

That’s the weirdest pearl fish I’ve ever seen, Archer told him.

I didn’t want to be another fish, was Merado’s reply when he dropped the image. Does that mean I won?

I agree, Pazia piped up. A green pearl fish is an odd sea creature.

Pheeno smiled at Archer and told him, Your striped octopus was pretty odd but I’m going to vote for Merado.

Me too, Aradia added.

I enjoyed the games and wish I could stay longer, Archer told them and headed toward the surface. The brown stars in my clothes keep reminding me I have another test to finish.

I’ll race you to shore, Pheeno announced and darted ahead.

Their heads broke the surface at the same time and the race was on. Aradia won the race and Archer was the last one to leave the water. The children of Skye donned their clothing and when they looked up, Archer had donned his tunic and trousers.

Archer waved and told them, “I have to go. I’ll see you when I get back.”

“Be safe,” Aradia told him.

“Good luck,” said Pheeno.

“Hurry back,” Pazia added.

“Don’t give up when you don’t know what to do,” Merado suggested.

“You showed me how important that is,” Archer replied and flashed him a smile. “I’ll remember.”

Before Archer could say another word, they waved and disappeared. An instant later, Damani stood at his side.

“The crease is gone from your brow,” Damani told him.

“Only one color remains,” Archer replied. “After I get back from Mican, I’ll meet you at the crystal ball.”

Damani’s startled expression was the last thing Archer saw before he closed his eyes and pictured the brown circle on his headband. The first thing Archer noticed on his arrival at Mican were the bird calls. With their welcoming song echoing in his ears, his feet hit the ground and he opened his eyes. He’d landed on a cobblestone path bordered by flowering shrubs and the ugly dead tree stood atop a distant hill beneath marshmallow clouds in a turquoise sky.

“I didn’t expect flower gardens!” Archer exclaimed. “This place would look great if someone chopped down that tree.”

Although surprised by the gardens, Archer’s previous journeys taught him that things weren’t always what they seemed. He scanned the landscape and looked for a creature Damani called a tundrox. What in the world was a tundrox?

He’d come to Mican to look for a charm in a land with few hiding places unless, of course, he’d come to dig up the flowers. He had to find his guidepost, but before he could begin his search, the hair on the back of his neck began to rise and his heart began to pound. He sensed he wasn’t alone, closed his eyes, placed his force field armor and turned in a circle to search for the threat.

When he found nothing but flower gardens, he spoke his first words on the planet Mican. “My name is Archer. Who’s here?”

Shocked and surprised at the sound coming out of his mouth, he trilled, “I’m chirping like a bird!”

“Beware the Lord of Mican. Archer. Archer. Archer. Archer,” a bird trilled back.

Danger charged the air but Archer didn’t see anything that looked dangerous. What threatened him and why couldn’t he see it? How did the bird know his name and why did it keep repeating it? Stranger still, he couldn’t find any birds. He closed his eyes to picture the brown circle on the map but nothing appeared in the darkness beneath his lids. He opened his eyes and shook his head when he realized he forgot to ask a question. Why did he keep forgetting the simplest things? He closed his eyes and tried again.

“Show me the tundrox?”

A light moved forward in the blackness beneath his lids and an image of a tunnel beneath the gardens appeared in the light. The image followed tunnel into a cave where tunnels exited every wall.

“That’s an underground wheel,” he muttered aloud. “But where is it and how can a cave be a tundrox?”

The map reacted to his question and sent the image across the cave and into a tunnel that forked to the right. It cut beneath knurled roots that looked like giant worms crawling cross the cavern floor. The image stopped at a cave where steaks of sunlight shone through holes in a domed ceiling. Why did the map show him an underground wheel and a cave beneath the tree? Did the tundrox live underground? Did it hide the gemstone charm in one of the tunnels?

“The cave and tunnels might be my guidepost,” Archer remarked after he opened his eyes. “I’d like to know what the tundrox looks like but it probably doesn’t matter. I’ve come to Mican to find a gemstone charm and after seeing those tunnels, I may have discovered why Damani told me this won’t be easy. Could the map tell him where to find the charm? It couldn’t hurt to ask.”

Archer closed his eyes, pictured the brown circle on the headband and asked, “Where can I find the gemstone charm of Skye?”

A light rose through the darkness beneath his lids and showed him the image of the underground maze. It continued through the maze and stopped at the central cave where the tunnels converged and emptied into a large cave. Danger lurked in the shadows and Archer’s heart began to pound when he remembered the map could drop him at his destination. He opened his eyes and breathed a sigh of relief. He still stood on the garden path.

“The map keeps showing me a cave beneath the tree,” he trilled. “How am I supposed to get into that cave? And I don’t know what’s frightening me. That tundrox guy must be important and dangerous.”

Before Archer could decide what to do next, a bird trilled his name, “Archer. Archer. Archer. Archer.”

Why did the bird repeat his name? Could the bird help him find the gemstone charm? Archer scanned his surroundings and looked for anything that could give him information about the tundrox. Was the tundrox a bird? That thought brought a new fear when he remembered the pteranodon on Velda. He turned in a slow circle, scanned the sky and breathed a sigh of relief. No pteranodons here.

He had to stop imagining things, calm his nerves, find the gemstone charm and return to Skye. Maybe he could ask the birds for help. Archer closed his eyes and, using the only color that remained in his clothing, became a bird. The powerful wings of a hawk pulled Archer into the sky and he soared above the gardens. He was searching for Mican’s birds until an unusual pattern on the ground distracted him.

The scary tree stood at the center of a large wheel formed by the cobblestone paths. Curious about his discovery, Archer closed his eyes and asked the map why Mican had two wheels, one above and one below the ground. When the map confirmed the tree stood in the center of both wheels, Archer soared toward the lifeless tree to land in its branches. Something frightened him and he wheeled in the air. He returned, flew over the tree and the rhythmic thump, thump, thump of a beating heart pulsed against his body.

“The tree isn’t dead!” he chirped.

A breeze pushed him toward the cobblestone path at the edge of the garden and Archer spread his wings to land. The instant his feet hit the ground, his wings dropped to his sides and his clothing dropped around him.

“I’m drawn to the tree and afraid to land in its branches?” he trilled. “Maybe the map can tell me why.”

Archer closed his eyes and chirped, “Show me the tundrox.”

An image of the knurled tree appeared in the blackness beneath his lids and startled him so that he almost opened his eyes to make sure he was alone. But when the tree turned into a man with knobby arms, Archer’s eyes snapped open.

“The tree’s the tundrox!” he trilled.

No wonder he didn’t want to land in the branches! Before Archer could decide what to do, he caught a motion out of the corner of his eye and looked up. The tree raised its branches toward the sky and knurled hands with grasping claws appeared at the end of them. A gaping mouth appeared on the tree trunk beneath a pair of black holes the tundrox used for eyes.

“It’s a monster!” Archer screeched.

The tundrox pulled its roots away from the earth and stumbled toward him with a lumbering, shuffling gait that tore up the cobblestone path. The swinging ends of its twisted roots chopped the tops off the flowers and tossed them into the sky.

“I’ve got to get out of here!” Archer trilled and closed his eyes.

The brown hawk took to the air and its powerful wings carried Archer beyond the monster’s reach. The tundrox stomped the ground with its massive roots, pounded the sky with its gnarled limbs, and assaulted him with screams while it glared at him with jet black eyes.

“I can’t look for the gemstone charm while I’m in the air and I can’t land with the tundrox chasing me.” Archer chirped and wheeled away. While Archer soared through the marshmallow clouds, the tundrox called his name.

“Archer. Archer. Archer.”

“You were the bird,” Archer screeched back.

“And you are my dinner,” trilled the tree.

“Not if I can help it,” Archer screeched. “Catch me if you can,” he taunted and flew over the spot where the tundrox pulled its roots from the ground.

“It’s the cave the map showed me!” he chirped.

The tundrox roared behind him and Archer wheeled in the air. The tree shuffled toward him with open mouth while its branches slashed the sky. It tried to run but kept tripping on its tangled roots.

“I’ve got to make the tundrox chase me away from here so I can come back to search for the gemstone charm.”

Archer flew toward a cobblestone path surrounding a small knoll covered with yellow flowers, spread his wings and circled in a slow descent. After his talons grabbed the cobblestone path and his clothing fell around him, he raised his eyes to watch the tundrox.

“What’s going on?” he screeched and reached for the crystal triad charm.

The tundrox had grown to twice its size and sprouted two massive feet. No longer forced to walk with a shuffling gait, the tundrox raced toward him, dangerously close and getting closer, while it destroyed everything in its path.

Archer dropped the charm, closed his eyes and the hawk rose above the path to escape the charging beast. He had no weapons and his clothing couldn’t help. Worse, if he hoped to find the gemstone charm, he couldn’t land and he couldn’t stay a bird. While he circled above the angry tundrox, he remembered the first skill the Ichonauts taught him on the way to Coriana.

“I know what to do!” he chirped. “I don’t need King Zirco’s gift to take care of this guy. My imaging skills can handle Mican’s monster.”

Archer flew toward the gaping hole in the ground and glanced back to make sure the tundrox followed. He reached the opening, began his descent and landed near the open pit. His wings fell to his side and the tundrox charged. Before the grasping arms and gnarly fingers could grab him, Archer closed his eyes and placed the tundrox in a force field cage. A loud screech echoed through the garden when the tundrox collided with the invisible barrier. Archer opened his eyes and watched he tundrox slash at its prison to no avail.

“That’ll take care of you,” Archer screeched and shook his fist at the angry tree. “Now you can’t stop me from searching for the gemstone charm. The sooner I find it, the sooner I can get out of here.”

He resumed the shape of the hawk, spread his wings and, from high above the gaping hole, looked for a flash of light. When he didn’t find the gemstone charm from the air, he spread his wings in a glide. He didn’t know how long it would take to explore the cave and its many tunnels but it didn’t matter. He couldn’t leave Mican until he found what he came for. He descended in a sweeping circle while the screams of the tundrox reminded him of his task.

“Scream all you want,” Archer chirped when he landed beside the hole and let his wings drop against his body. “It won’t do you any good.”

He grabbed a broken root, gouged a few depressions in the soil with his toes and lowered himself into the pit. Screeches from the tundrox followed his descent to the cavern floor and made him glad he’d remembered to place his body armor. He reached the end of the root, grabbed a trailing vine and the smell of the damp, musty ground assaulted his nostrils when he dropped past the freshly dug soil.

Halfway to the cavern floor, he found a rock stairway and released the vine. He took the stairs to the bottom of the pit and stopped to scan the cave. Broken roots, torn loose when the tundrox came after him, were scattered everywhere. Their gnarly ends crept around the cavern walls and nearly blocked the tunnels. Did wild animals live here? Or a baby tundrox? The thought of a baby made Archer shudder. Partially gnawed and rotting bones on the cavern floor emitted a strong odor that mingled with the smell of the musty soil.

“This is awful!” Archer chirped and pressed his thumb and forefinger to his nose.

He reached the center of the pit, turned in a circle and counted the tunnels leading away from the cave before it occurred to him that it didn’t matter how many tunnels he found. It would take hours to explore every inch of the cave but could take days to explore the tunnels.

“I might be here a while,” he said aloud.

A flash of light on the cavern floor caught his attention.

“I wonder what that is.” Before he realized something had changed, Archer walked toward the crumpled mass of fabric and picked it up. He stopped him in his tracks and shouted, “I don’t sound like a bird anymore!”

He didn’t know why his voice changed but decided it was probably a good thing. He approached the shining fabric, reached down and picked up a brown robe made from the metallic fabric of Skye. If it belonged to King Zirco’s daughter, he’d arrived too late. He closed his eyes and in the blackness beneath his lids, saw the tundrox attacking one of Skye’s people.

He opened his eyes and gulped. “I have to believe I’ll find the gemstone charm that lets me save Princess Amethina.”

He turned in a circle, scanned the cave and stopped when he saw something odd.

“What is that?”

Almost hidden behind the tangled roots, a narrow ledge circled the cave. He’d found the yellow gem in a gloomy cave and the green charm in a temple vault. If the tundrox hid the charm in this pit, maybe he should look for a flash of light. He turned in a circle and his eyes widened when darts of purple fire burst from atop the ledge on the far side of the pit.

“I found it!” he yelled. “I found it!”

Archer raced across the pit, stopped beneath a hole above his head and raised up on tiptoe. He reached in and pulled the gemstone charm from its hiding place. The brown stars peeled away from his clothing and shattered around him.

“I’ve got it! I’ve solved the puzzle! I can return to Skye!”

While the milky stone captured the bits and pieces of sparkling light, Archer reached for the crystal triad charm. Before he brought it to eye level, a piercing scream shook the ground beneath his feet.

“Oops,” he said. “I forgot the tundrox.”

He glanced at his white tunic and trousers. “I can’t be a hawk anymore,” he muttered with a shake of his head. “White will have to do.”

Archer closed his eyes and, with the charm dangling from his beak, a dove spread its wings and lifted off the floor of the pit. Archer soared into the sky with the tundrox’ screams following him into the clouds.

“This is your home,” Archer told him. “I found the gemstone charm and you can go free.”

He closed his eyes, removed the force field cage and opened his eyes to watch the tundrox stride toward the open pit. Before Archer could land and use the crystal triad charm to return to Skye, a cloud surrounded him and blocked everything from view. His wings fell against his body and his clothes rustled around him. He blinked in confusion when the cloud parted. He’d arrived in Skye and joined Damani beside Skye’s crystal ball.

“Why did you bring me here?” he asked. “I wasn’t afraid of that scary-looking tree.”

“You’ve completed the test,” Damani told him. “I’m no longer bound by my promise of silence.”

“I guess you want this,” Archer remarked and extended the purple gemstone charm.”

“Not yet,” Damani said with a twinkle in his eye. “That charm is about to introduce you to your heritage.”

“What does my heritage have to do with anything?”

“Before I explain, I have a question,” Damani remarked. “You told me you’d meet me in the communication chamber. How did you know where to find it?”

“That’s easy,” said Archer. “Every time I came back with a prisoner, their family waited to greet them. You had to be watching in the crystal ball to make those preparations. I didn’t need to know how to find the crystal ball. All I had to do was picture you standing beside it and the crystal triad charm would bring me to you.”

“You’re a very talented young man,” Damani replied with a nod of his head. “I’m sure King Ichos didn’t expect you to make his test look this easy.

Archer looked at the purple gemstone charm and said, “This is all I found on Mican. I thought I was supposed to find King Zirco’s daughter.”

“You forgot what I told you,” Damani explained. “I told you to find the charm, bring it to Skye and then meet King Ichos to negotiate for Amethina’s freedom. It’s time you learned what you accomplished.”

[]Chapter Ten

Ichos, The Tyrant King

When Archer and Damani arrived for Archer’s meeting with King Zirco, they found a woman standing beside King Zirco’s throne. The layer of iridescent dust on her metallic purple robe sparkled in the muted light and a matching purple headband enhanced the pallor of her skin. Archer met her eyes and gasped for she stared at him with so much love that he wilted beneath her gaze. This could only be Princess Amethina and that loving look told him she was happy to be home!

Damani jarred Archer back to the present when he said, “I believe you have something that belongs to the Princess.”

Archer glanced at the purple gemstone charm clutched in his left hand and then the shining fabric of his tunic and trousers. After his journeys through King Ichos’ test, the multicolored stars no longer flashed on his clothing and the ugly white stone sparkled with more color and fire than all the gemstones in Skye.

“Aren’t you going to give me my charm?” asked Amethina in a soft melodic voice.

Before Archer could reply, she left her father’s side and walked toward him. Her robe flowed around her body like liquid metal while she appeared to float above the mist. When she stopped in front of him, the nearby clouds captured the color from her clothing and glowed lavender.

Uncomfortable beneath her loving gaze and radiant smile, Archer met her eyes and asked, “Do you want me to put it on?”

“I’d like that,” she said and bent down.

Archer slipped the chain over her head and backed away.

Amethina raised her head and told him, “Welcome home, my son.”

Archer stared at Princess Amethina in stunned disbelief. Surely, he heard wrong! How was he supposed to react to that greeting? Amethina’s smile never faltered and her violet eyes never left his face. Archer didn’t realize he was holding his breath until King Zirco spoke.

“It’s understandable that Archer is shocked by Amethina’s words,” King Zirco remarked when Amethina reached for Archer’s hand. “Tell him about his parents, Damani. It’s time he learned about his heritage.”

While Amethina’s eyes embraced Archer with love, Archer stared at Damani in confusion.

“What’s going on?” he asked. “This can’t be my mother.”

“We’ve told you about the agreement that allowed Water and Skye to build Lemandia on the Earth Star,” Damani told him. “A royal marriage between Amethina and King Ichos made that agreement possible.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Archer replied. “If she’s his wife, she can’t be his prisoner.”

“There’s more,” Damani said and silenced him by raising his hand. “After Lemandia sank beneath the sea, Water and Skye drew apart. King Ichos wouldn’t let Amethina visit Skye because he feared she wouldn’t return. This caused her great sorrow and she vowed to find a way to renew the friendship between her husband and her father.

She considered many plans and rejected them all. In desperation, she sought Marcoli’s help. Marcoli studied the problem but found no solution. He asked me for advice and with the help of the crystal balls in Water and Skye, we pursued the results of several actions.”

Archer glanced at Amethina and found her looking at him. Torn with disbelief and renewed pain at the loss of his parents, he didn’t know what to think. Could this beautiful woman really be his mother? His blonde hair and violet eyes had often made him wonder if he’d been adopted but he didn’t want Damani to tell him that. This had to be a dream and he wanted to wake up!

“So what does all that have to do with me?” Archer asked.

“I’m getting to that,” Damani replied. “When Marcoli told Amethina she needed the help of someone who would be welcome in both kingdoms she despaired. Such a person didn’t exist. Her sadness touched Marcoli’s heart and he vowed to ease her sorrow. After he and I pursued more quests through the crystal balls of Water and Skye, we discovered a way to renew the broken friendship and release Amethina from her bondage.

After Marcoli told Amethina he’d found someone who could help her, she asked to meet that person. He told her the person didn’t exist because the only person who could help her was her unborn son. But King Ichos wouldn’t allow her to have a child and she despaired.

Marcoli told her that he and I had found a way for King Ichos to father a child but he couldn’t know about his heir until the boy became an adult. Amethina feared the plan because she didn’t know what Ichos would do after he learned about the child. Marcoli reminded her that if she wanted to do something that would change the relationship between her father and her husband, a royal child would accomplish that and give her a chance for freedom. She couldn’t deny the truth in his words and agreed to the plan. Marcoli found a way to keep her pregnancy secret until shortly before your birth. He covered her absence from Water while she traveled to the Earth Star to give birth to Ichos’ son and leave you with loving parents.”

“How did she get back to Water?” Archer asked.

“She swam into the sea and Marcoli brought her home.”

“That’s why I don’t have dark eyes and brown hair like my parents,” Archer cried and fought back his tears. “That’s why they didn’t tell me about my mother. They thought she drowned.”

“Marcoli and I chose your earth parents because they lived near the sea, but you can’t deny your heritage,” Damani told him. “Your blonde hair and violet eyes confirm that you’re the first-born son of King Ichos and Amethina. You’re the Prince of Water and heir to Skye.”

Damani had just explained the reason for the painful memories of his childhood. His parents had loved him deeply, but his blonde hair and violet eyes made him different. The kids at school teased and bullied him and the teachers gave him easy assignments which made him even more unpopular with his peers. He never asked if he was adopted but always feared it might be possible. Amethina must have felt his pain for she tightened her grip on his hand.

“Marcoli and I watched over you through your childhood,” Damani told him. “You found your way to the city beneath the sea with our guidance. King Ichos knows you’re his son and he knows King Zirco will insist on a relationship with his grandson. You’re a living bond between Water and Skye.”

Archer opened his mouth but before he could speak, Damani held up his hand.

“There’s more. King Zirco sent three crystal balls to Lemandia. Only one of them is a link between Earth, Water and Skye. The other two balance the earth’s energy. There’s no crystal triad in your underwater home. The only triad that exists is the triad of Earth, Water and Skye. The crystal triad charm contains the powers of all three and lets you pass through the portals to these destinations.”

Although Archer found it difficult to believe he had a mother and father on a planet in another galaxy, he felt a profound sense of relief when Damani explained his obsession with finding and returning the missing crystal ball. Damani and Marcoli must have found a way to make him accept that challenge because that crystal ball completed the portal Damani described. Damani had also explained why the prisoners were puzzled that he could bring them home. Only a crystal master had the knowledge and skills to use the powers in the crystal triad charm.

“Now you must go to Water,” Damani told him.

“Why do I have to go to Water when he’s released the Princess?”

“To meet your father and negotiate peace between Water and Skye,” Damani reminded him.

“Oh.”

“You’re a living bridge that connects three worlds,” King Zirco told him. “You’ve released my daughter from bondage and it’s time you met your father.”

Archer tensed at King Zirco’s words. He dreaded the coming journey and wished with all his heart that he didn’t have to meet the tyrant king.

Amethina tightened her grip on his hand and told him, “The journey to Water holds no peril. You’ve earned your father’s love and respect. He’s looking forward to meeting you. Go now.”

Archer met her eyes. How could he deny this beautiful woman was his mother? And how could he doubt Damani’s story of his birth? He opened his mouth, but before he could speak, Amethina released his hand and rejoined her father. She reached the throne, turned and gave him a radiant smile. Archer looked at King Zirco and shook his head when he realized this kind, gentle man was his grandfather!

Archer met Damani’s eyes and told him, “I’d like to see the Kingdom of Water before I go. Can you show it to me?”

“Close your eyes and I’ll take you to the communication chamber,” Damani responded.

Archer closed his eyes and his clothing rustled around him. He felt Damani’s hand on his shoulder and looked up to find they’d arrived at the room that held Skye’s faceted crystal ball. He stood at Damani’s side while a swirling mist boiled up from its depths, cleared and revealed an underwater kingdom where everything glowed pink.

Archer gaped at the Ichonauts and mermaids with shimmering pink tails that swam through Water’s pink sea. Coral bridges curved over sandy trails in a world filled with strange and wonderful creatures. Captivated by dragons of every color, size and description, Archer stared at them in wonder and ignored everything else. He’d never seen so many dragons in his life!

“Why are there so many dragons?” he asked.

“Your father collects them,” Damani told him. “Some are dangerous but most are quite tame.”

“I’ve never heard of anyone collecting dragons,” Archer responded. “That sounds like a dangerous hobby.”

“If you decide to tour your father’s home, someone should be with you until you learn which dragons to avoid,” Damani cautioned.

Archer shook his head while Damani directed the crystal’s image down a path of lavender shells that meandered toward a giant clam filled to the brim with tiny glass shrimp. The transparent creatures spilled onto the lavender path and created the illusion of flowing water beneath the sea.

“That looks like a water fountain!” Archer remarked.

“You’ll find many unusual fountains on Water,” Damani replied. “Your mother loves the glass shrimp and she’s made homes for them throughout the palace.”

“My father collects dragons and my mother collects shrimp,” was Archer’s response to that news. “It will take a while for me to get used to this.”

The crystal’s image continued to explore the massive kingdom of carved coral and exotic gardens. It approached a coral dome and Archer stared in amazement at the pink foliage that fanned down its sides like a cascading waterfall.

“Is that where King Ichos lives?” Archer asked.

“Yes,” Damani replied, letting the image fade. “I’ve told him that you’ll arrive soon and he’s waiting for you in his private chambers. You need to remove your tunic and trousers and leave them here.”

Archer nodded, reached up and removed the white gemstone charm from around his neck. The instant he brought it over his head, colored ribbons burst from the stone and whirled around him. A rainbow arced over his head and he remembered how startled he’d been when King Zirco told him, “You’ll reach the Kingdom of Water when you wear clothing of solid white and the fire in the stone draws a rainbow in the sky.”

“Wow!” was all he could say when the colored ribbons flowed around him. The rainbow shattered, colored sparks flew at him from all directions and his clothing pulled them from the air. After the rainbow disappeared, multicolored stars flashed and winked on his shining white clothes. He raised the gemstone charm to eye level and stared at the puddles of geometric fire that flashed in its depths.

“It’s an opal!” he exclaimed.

“We call it a fire stone,” Damani corrected. “You can’t take the tunic and trousers to the Earth Star, but the fire stone is yours to keep. It’s part of your birthright and allows you to carry the freedoms of Skye wherever you go.”

Damani paused and Archer stared in awe at the gem he once called ugly.

“It’s time to go,” Damani told him and pulled his attention away from his gemstone charm.

Archer looked up and gave Damani a nod before he removed his tunic and trousers and dropped them in the mist. At the sight of his swim trunks and tank top, his mouth gaped open. The sparks from the rainbow pierced his clothing and covered his swim wear with sparkling stars.

“You no longer need the headband,” Damani reminded him. “I’ll keep it for you.”

Archer removed the headband and discovered the colored circles had disappeared and been replaced with multicolored stars. He handed it to Damani and watched him place it in a cloud before he faced the crystal ball. Archer let the fire stone fall to the end of its chain and stared into the crystal ball with dread. He couldn’t delay his meeting with Water’s tyrant king any longer. He stood by Damani’s side while a pink mist filled the crystal ball.

The image cleared and Damani directed it into the coral dome and through the palace hallways. It traveled beneath a carved arch and entered a small chamber where King Ichos sat on a throne that glowed pink in Water’s sea. Tendrils of lavender flowers cascaded down the wall behind him while a lobster scuttled across the black pebbled floor. Fish darted through the room and flashed like fireflies when rays of light reflected off their tiny scales.

A crown of pink pearls held King Ichos’ shoulder-length hair next to his head and he’d focused his pale blue eyes on something in front of him. His hair glowed pink in Water’s light which told Archer he had white hair like King Zirco. Iridescent threads of pink, white and lavender swirled across the pink metallic fabric of his trunks and tank top and created a pattern like that in an abalone shell.

“Your father is ready to meet you,” Damani told him. “You may go now.”

Archer looked at Damani with a tentative smile.

“There’s nothing to fear,” Damani reminded him.

“I hope so,” Archer replied and took a deep breath.

He closed his eyes and pictured the image in the crystal ball in the blackness beneath his lids and desired to meet the ruler of Water. The water swirled around him, Archer opened his eyes and found himself hovering in front of King Ichos. He forced a smile when he remembered the children of Skye he’d released from cruel prisons.

So you’re Archer, King Ichos greeted. You look like your mother with your blonde hair and violet eyes.

When Archer didn’t respond, King Ichos waited until he found a reply.

I don’t know what to say.

Before you arrived in Skye, Amethina told me your identity, King Ichos replied. I’ve known about you since your arrival in my earth settlement because Marcoli often entertained me with your adventures. I watched you overcome many obstacles during your short stay in my underwater city and your accomplishments inspired the test you just completed. You’re a lucky young man. You survived my test because you have powerful friends.

Why did you send me to those horrible places?

I was angry at your mother and didn’t know how to react when she told me I had a grown son, King Ichos replied. I decided to let your actions determine your fate and designed a test that would encourage you to give up and return to Skye.

Damani told me you could stop me from releasing the prisoners, Archer remarked. Why didn’t you?

I’ll let Marcoli explain, King Ichos replied.

When Marcoli appeared at Archer’s side. Archer backed away and stared at the man who had sent his mother to the Earth Star. Marcoli’s crystal girdle shot pink sparks through the water and his white hair and beard glowed pink above the crystal triad charm that hung to his waist on a twisted gold chain. Archer looked into Marcoli’s kind blue eyes and instantly thought about Pacion.

You passed many challenges on your journey to your parents’ home, Marcoli told him. You passed the first challenge when you found and returned the crystal trident that belonged in the kingdom beneath the sea.

Are you telling me that was planned? Archer asked.

Marcoli ignored his question and continued.

You passed your second test when you returned the Crystal of All Time to its pedestal beneath the city. King Ichos suggested I tell you that your skills are highly developed. You’re the only child of Water and Skye born on the Earth Star and carry the skills of three planets within your being. Damani explained how your mother planned your birth and why she left you with your earth parents. But he didn’t tell you that her action placed her in great danger. After King Ichos learned what she’d done, he nearly banished her to a cruel prison. We begged him to get to know you and he agreed to create the test you just completed.

We knew your father wouldn’t accept a son who didn’t inherit Water’s skills, but your mother and I had watched you grow up. We had faith in your abilities and believed you could complete his test. We knew he’d be proud of his earthling son after he got to know you. Only a true Prince of Water could finish the test your father designed.

He might have hoped for your skills, but he didn’t expect your compassion. His anger exploded when you rescued the prisoner in the volcano. But he’d promised to watch you through all of the journeys and allowed you to release the children of Skye.

When you became a bird and flew over the lake inside the mountain, he saw you in a different light. He’d placed acid in the lake to stop you. King Ichos was certain you couldn’t find the prisoner in the jungle and watched with pleasure when you almost gave up. He didn’t know you’d learned the image language that let you communicate with rocks, trees and animals. You pleased him greatly when you spoke with the spider and the serpent. But you gained his greatest admiration and respect when you faced the tundrox. You conquered the loathsome beast with courage and wisdom and released it so it wouldn’t perish.

Each time you completed a test, you made him realize that anger and violence require no special skill. You drew your strength from compassion and his obstacles melted in your path. King Ichos is proud to accept you as his son and heir. He’s released your mother from bondage and renewed his friendship with Skye.

I wasn’t trying to please you, but I wasn’t trying to make you mad either, Archer remarked when he looked up at King Ichos.

I know, King Ichos replied. But you have skills I didn’t expect. Your mother gave me a child with rare abilities. Your actions have shown me that continuing my friendship with King Zirco will benefit both of us.

King Ichos nodded at Marcoli. Tell Archer the other reason I wanted to meet him.

Your father wants you to perform a task for him, Marcoli told him.

Is it another test?

No more tests, Marcoli replied with a smile. Do you remember the crystal trident you returned to Lemandia?

I know the trident, Archer told him. But I didn’t return it to Lemandia. That’s the name of the city above the sea. I returned it to Balycon, the white stone city on the sea floor.

Balycon, King Ichos repeated and signaled Marcoli to continue. Balycon. That’s a fitting name for a kingdom.

There are several communicator tridents on the Earth Star, Marcoli explained. Two of the land cities King Ichos and King Zirco created sank beneath the sea at the same time and King Ichos sent a communicator trident to each of them.

I’ve never heard anyone in Balycon call the crystal trident a communicator trident, Archer remarked. What does it do?

The communicator tridents transmit the mental language and visual images between kingdoms, Marcoli explained.

You’re describing a portable crystal ball! Archer remarked, more than a little intrigued with Marcoli’s description. That’s neat. What do the communicator tridents have to do with me?

One was lost when the survivors of Ekonia disappeared, Marcoli told him. King Ichos sent a messenger with instructions to teach them how to use it. Unfortunately, he arrived too soon and perished before he could reveal the trident’s powers. When you return to the Earth Star, you’ll find an Ichonaut waiting for you. He’ll stay in the earth settlement as the keeper of the crystal trident and teach you how to use it.

Are you telling me I can use the crystal trident to talk to you? Archer asked.

It has that capability, Marcoli replied.

Why doesn’t Pacion use it?

Because Balycon has a crystal ball he doesn’t need the trident for that purpose, Marcoli explained. Your father wants you to learn to use it because most of his earth kingdoms don’t have a crystal ball. After you learn how it works it’ll allow you to communicate with all of his earth settlements.

I knew it was important but didn’t realize it was that special, Archer remarked. I really want to learn to use it. Is there anything else you want me to do?

Provide the keeper of the trident with every comfort and learn to use it as quickly as possible, Marcoli replied.

There’s one more thing, Marcoli told him. I don’t know where you got that crystal triad charm but it once belonged to Baccio, the crystal master who lived in Lemandia.

I know, Archer replied. I met him when the charm accidentally took me to the city above the sea.

Then you know he died when the tidal wave took Lemandia beneath the waves, Marcoli responded. Baccio was Damani’s brother. Damani told me that Baccio knew about you long before I did.

Baccio found me in the Crystal of All Time while he searched the future of Lemandia, Archer remarked. What’s that got to do with anything?

Before his death, he told me and Damani to make sure his personal belongings were given to a young man named Archer.

Are you talking about the stuff in the vault beneath the city?

Yes, King Ichos intervened. Those items carry special powers that will help you learn your skills. I want you to continue to live on the Earth Star. As heir to Water and Skye, your skills will let you travel to the kingdoms King Zirco and I built there. You need to know that Water is your home, as Skye is your home.

King Ichos paused and gave Archer a thoughtful look before he spoke again. Your mother wants to see you before you return home, he said. Go with Marcoli. I’ve asked him to give you a tour of Water in the crystal ball before you meet with her.

Archer looked at King Ichos’ smiling face and met his eyes. To his amazement and delight he looked into the eyes of a wise and compassionate man. The tyrant king had vanished! He returned his father’s smile and turned to Marcoli.

Close your eyes, Marcoli instructed and placed his hand on Archer’s arm.

[]Chapter Eleven

Water & Skye

At Marcoli’s command, Archer opened his eyes. They’d arrived at Water’s communication chamber where the crystal ball sat on a coral pedestal beneath a latticed skylight. Thousands of fish scales covered the walls and the light that reflected off the crystal ball’s polished facets, bounced off the scales to send rainbows swirling through the room.

This reminds me of the Rainbow Cave, Archer remarked.

I’ve seen your Rainbow Cave and I agree, Marcoli responded. Join me at the crystal ball and I’ll give you a tour of your father’s home.

Archer swam to Marcoli’s side and watched the mist swirl up from the depths of the crystal ball. Images rose through the thinning mist and revealed a kingdom bathed in pink light. Marcoli focused on the cleverly concealed caves beneath coral forests covered with tiny pink flowers that reminded Archer of his earth mother’s rose-covered trellis and told him that was where the mermaids and Ichonauts lived.

He changed the image to show Archer several Ichonauts with bulging woven bags that they delivered to a group of mermaids and dumped the contents on the sea floor.

What is that stuff? Archer asked. It looks like a bunch of wet noodles.

It’s young coral for the mermaids to weave into frames for new homes, Marcoli told him.

That can’t be strong enough for a building.

After the mermaids weave it into the desired shape, the Ichonauts anchor it around large boulders and replant it, Marcoli explained. It hardens as it grows and after it’s fully grown, it’s moved to its permanent location where the mermaids cover it with plants and coral. Within a few days, it looks like the other coral caves.

Startled at Marcoli’s description of the building technique, Archer replied, I didn’t know you could do that with coral.

Your father put this coral in each of his settlements on the Earth Star to be used for this purpose.

I’ve seen the plant but thought it was a weird grass, Archer responded and glanced at his woven coral bracelet. I’ve often wondered how this was made.

Mermaids are skilled weavers and use the coral for many purposes like containers for gathering and storing food, Marcoli explained. I’ve noticed they no longer use it to make their homes on the Earth Star. After you return home, you might remind them it’s a useful building material.

I’ll do that, Archer replied. I bet the Ichonauts and mermaids that live in the caves on the cliff face would prefer to live in the shallow water near their friends.

Marcoli let the crystal’s image explore the sea floor where several carpins swam through Water’s lush foliage and Ichonauts and mermaids worked in the many gardens.

I didn’t expect to see carpins, Archer remarked. How can they stay underwater when they’re air breathers?

We didn’t have carpins until your father developed the collar that let the air breathers live beneath the sea, Marcoli replied. If you look closely, you’ll see they wear your father’s invention.

Archer met Marcoli’s eyes and asked, Where did carpins come from? If they didn’t come from Water, how did they get to the Earth Star?

I don’t know the carpin’s origin, Marcoli told him. Your father sent expeditions to many planets in the galaxy that found the carpins on one of their trips.

Fascinated with the images flowing through Marcoli’s crystal ball, Archer believed Marcoli when he told him the dragons had come from every planet in the galaxy. Marcoli continued to show him a panorama of sea life that included skinny fish, fat fish, lumpy fish and fish with frilled scales. A blue dragon appeared in the image and Archer stared in rapt fascination until a purple fish with tiger stripes and a bubble-shaped nose blocked it from view.

Archer pointed at the fish and remarked, That’s an odd-looking fish. I’ve never seen one of those before.

Your father placed many of Water’s creatures in his earth settlements but that fish is too dangerous for your planet, Marcoli replied. I’m sure you’re finding many sea creatures familiar to you.

There’s lots of things we have in Balycon but I’ve never seen the blue dragon you just showed me.

The blue dragons are one of your father’s favorite, Marcoli told him. Their color makes them unusual and they’re easy to tame.

The Ichonauts told me about them when they took me to Coriana but I didn’t see one.

When you find a blue dragon, they’re safe to approach. Many Ichonauts and mermaids take the baby dragons into their homes.

Why do they do that?

When frightened, they make a high-pitched sound that scares away predators.

I have a feather snake named Boja that protects me, Archer replied. I don’t need a dragon.

When Archer looked beyond the dragons, he discovered Water’s food gardens separated by geometric designs in a palette of colors created from several species of sea life. Black sea urchins bordered most of the patterns and Archer’s favorite was a starfish design that included blue and red starfish living on a carpet of green cowrie shells.

Marcoli showed him gardens of red, blue and gold flowers that grew in the few open spaces and the long-stemmed lavender flowers that danced in the current above a forest of pink coral trees. Gardens of black coral, shining with a luster impossible to describe, protected hundreds of seashells that nestled in nooks and crannies like candy pieces waiting to be found.

Why does everything have a pink cast? Archer asked.

A pink plant on the surface filters the sunlight and sends its essence to the sea floor, Marcoli explained.

While Marcoli described the images flowing through the crystal ball, Archer sent a silent thanks to King Ichos for letting him see his amazing home. After his travels to the barren lands on Damani’s maps, he’d imagined the tyrant king he’d come to hate lived in a dark and terrifying world.

While he watched the never-ending variety of life in Water’s pink sea Archer wondered what it might be like to live here. If his father had allowed his mother to have a child, this would have been his birthplace. That thought reminded him of the love that shone in Amethina’s eyes when he first met her. He’d long ago accepted the fact that his blonde hair and violet eyes made him different. But he didn’t know how different until now.

Marcoli let the image fade. Your mother waits for you in the Palace Garden. She knows you must have questions about your birthright and wants to answer them. An Ichonaut will take you to her.

I’m glad King Ichos let me see his home, Archer replied. Will you thank him for me?

You’ve already done that but don’t call your father King Ichos, Marcoli admonished. He told me to tell you that you may call him Ichos or Father, whichever you prefer.

I’ll call him Father for now, Archer responded and swam to the door where a pink-tailed Ichonaut waited.

How far is the Palace Garden? he asked and swam as fast as he could to keep up with his escort.

Not far, the Ichonaut told him and led him toward a latticed-coral arch

The Ichonaut darted through the arch and headed across the room while Archer stopped and stared in disbelief at his surroundings. Classic stone furniture filled the open space and reminded him of furniture found in mansions near the sea. Tables, decorated with elaborate carvings, sat beneath shell vases filled with living flowers. Twisted coral grew around marble columns and hosted families of blue, pink and yellow sea stars. Five black coral trees grew in white stone urns placed at the base of the five columns that supported the room’s domed ceiling.

I didn’t expect anything like this, Archer remarked. It reminds me of the buildings in Balycon.

The instant Archer spoke he realized this part of the palace may have been built by Skye’s builders who had come to Water before his father and grandfather built their first earth settlement. The Ichonaut waved Archer forward and when Archer reached his side, the Ichonaut darted ahead. They swam through a second arch that took them into a room where lavender shells formed a carpet around a life-size statue of a young man.

While the Ichonaut led him across the room Archer kept glancing at the statue until he stopped to exclaim, That’s me! What’s a statue of me doing here?

Instead of answering his question, the Ichonaut flashed him a smile and beckoned him to follow. Archer shook his head and swam to catch up. When they reached the other side of the room, the Ichonaut pointed into the garden beyond the open door.

Your mother’s waiting for you, the Ichonaut announced before he spun in the water and swam away.

Archer swam through the arch and entered a garden flooded with light. Amethina sat on a purple cushion covered with the metallic fabric of Skye set inside a giant clam. She wore a shining purple swimsuit and a tiara of purple gems held her blonde hair away from her face. Her gemstone charm flashed in Water’s light when she raised a hand and invited Archer to join her.

Archer still found it difficult to believe this beautiful woman was his mother. He didn’t doubt the story of his birth, but he loved the parents who raised him. When he entered the room, Amethina’s love for him radiated through the garden and wrapped him in its warmth.

Hello, my son, she greeted and pointed at a giant clam on the other side of the marble table. Sit there and I’ll order refreshments.

Your home is amazing, Archer remarked when he sat down. Marcoli gave me a tour in the crystal ball.

You’ve seen only a small portion, Amethina told him. Because your father loves gardens, he created one of the most beautiful planets in the galaxy. He brought many exotic plants and sea creatures from distant planets to decorate his kingdom.

He sure likes dragons, Archer remarked.

His father gave him a dragon that he named Carpidor when he was a little boy. He’s loved dragons ever since. Maybe one day you’ll see his childhood friend.

Amethina raised a silver bell and a gentle shake sent its music echoing through the water. A pink-tailed mermaid entered the room with two clam shell dishes filled with morsels of food. Several yellow fish followed and stayed close to her pink tail.

With a question in his eyes, Archer looked at his mother.

What is it, Archer? she asked.

I hear music. Where’s it coming from?

Amethina pointed at the fish following the mermaid. You hear the lute fish. Many of Water’s creatures have beautiful voices.

Singing fish! he exclaimed. I’ve never heard of such a thing!

While the mermaid placed the clam shells on the table, the lute fish filled the garden with their simple melody. Archer shook his head when he saw the blue sea feathers at the base of the open windows dance in time to the music. The mermaid signaled the fish to stay and turned to leave. She glanced at Archer, smiled and darted out the door. Amethina picked up one of the shells and motioned Archer to take the other.

Why did you want to see me? Archer asked.

Amethina popped a small morsel in her mouth and told him, After you completed the journeys through your father’s test, Damani told you about your heritage. This must be a difficult time for you because your world will never be the same. I wanted to answer your questions before you returned to your earth home.

Aradia and the others I rescued invited me to live in Skye, Archer told her. I thought about it a lot but I don’t want to leave my friends in Balycon.

You’re also invited to live on Water but your crystal triad charm lets you live anywhere you wish, Amethina replied.

While Archer thought about her words, he picked up the other clam shell filled with pearl fish and pona leaves. Completely at home in his mother’s garden, he wrapped a pearl fish in a pona leaf and popped it into his mouth.

The lute fish filled the garden with song and Archer listened to his mother’s story about her visit to the Earth Star while he shared his meal with them. He finished his meal and was about to ask a question when a small black creature swam out from behind his mother’s chair, fluttered across the lavender shells like a butterfly with a broken wing and disappeared behind a coral tree.

What was that? he asked.

A fanjan, Amethina told him. I was petting it before you arrived. They’re very shy and it hid behind me when you entered the room. Your father put them on the Earth Star. I’m surprised you didn’t recognize it.

I’ve seen them before but I’ve never seen a black one, Archer told her. We call them Spanish Dancers and I like the red ones best. He put his empty dish on the table and met her eyes. I was hungry and that was good.

I’m glad you enjoyed it.

I don’t know how you got out of your prison, he remarked. But I’m glad I completed the test. Can you tell me why I have such advanced skills?

There’s nothing unusual about your skills when you remember the laws in Skye’s galaxy are different than those on the Earth Star, she told him.

Everyone keeps telling me that, Archer replied. But that doesn’t explain how I can travel to a destination by picturing it in my mind or do things that only Baccio could do.

There’s a simple answer to your questions, Amethina told him with a smile. When the wave carried you to the sea floor and brought you to Balycon, it carried you through a portal into a parallel world that exists in another dimension.

Pacion told me that but I don’t know what it means, Archer responded.

You’re no longer in the world you knew as a child. I believe you know that Pacion lived in the land city before it sank beneath the waves.

That must have happened thousands of years ago. I didn’t believe it until Pacion explained that he’s an immortal.

That knowledge answers your question about your skills, she replied. The wave brought you to the world of the immortals. Everyone you’ve met since your arrival has lived for a very long time.

Does that mean I’m immortal too? Archer asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.

As long as you stay in this dimension that will be true, Amethina remarked.

Oh, Archer replied and fought back tears. That explains everything.

Why are you upset?

You just told me that I can’t go home ever again.

Change is difficult, Amethina replied. This is your home. I had to bring you back to Skye before you became an adult. Adjustments are easier when you’re young.

You told me I don’t have to live here and now you’re saying that Skye’s my home, he responded with a lump in his throat.

You’re a child of earth, Amethina told him. While I want you near me, I can’t ask you to live here. You’ve already made many adjustments since your arrival in the city beneath the sea.

But everything’s changed, Archer replied.

More than you know and you’ll find more changes in your future, Amethina told him. The journey to Skye and Water taught you about your heritage and your successful completion of your father’s test changed both kingdoms. Because of you, your grandfather and my husband have renewed their friendship. The skills you developed to complete the test have prepared you for the puzzles to come. As you make your way through this world, your grandfather’s gift will help you overcome the obstacles in your path.

What are you trying to tell me?

Your father and grandfather have work for you.

What kind of work?

Their earth settlements need your help.

Archer nodded at her words. Marcoli had told him the same thing when he explained the trident communicators. After everything he’d experienced on his journeys through Skye’s galaxy, he was glad that he’d come with Argo. He’d rather be in the world of the immortals than mourning the death of his earth parents. Archer frowned and met his mother’s eyes.

You have a question? she asked.

I think I understand why you left me with my earth parents but I’d like to know more about my birth.

I’ve waited a long time to tell you that story, she replied. I dreamed of a wonderful future when I married your father but a long and bitter feud between him and your grandfather destroyed my world. Before they fought over Lemandia, I often visited family and friends in Skye. After the earth city sank beneath the waves, my husband’s anger at Father kept me from my family.

It wasn’t a happy time and I wanted to make things better. Although Marcoli helped me prepare a plan, Damani discovered how a child born on the Earth Star might renew the friendship between Water and Skye. I had a personal reason to rejoice. I wanted a child but Ichos wouldn’t allow it because he knew Father would claim his grandchild. The possibility of having a child and ending my imprisonment gave me more happiness than you can know.

As her story unfolded, Archer had a better understanding of the responsibilities he’d inherited at birth. What would have happened to her if he’d failed his father’s test?

How could Damani and Marcoli know what would happen? he asked.

The crystal ball told them what to do when they asked it for advice, Amethina explained.

Did they know I’d complete Father’s test?

The crystal ball couldn’t tell them that, she replied. Each time you faced a challenge, you made a decision that told you how to handle it. They didn’t have that information when they consulted their crystal balls.

I don’t understand.

A crystal ball can only relate what would happen if you finished the test. We based our hopes on that outcome. Damani gave that information to your grandfather and that’s how he selected your clothing and charm.

Archer’s hand went to the chain attached to the gemstone charm around his neck. Damani told me this opal holds the same powers as the multicolored stars Grandfather put in my clothes.

We call that gem a fire stone, Amethina corrected with a smile. Your clothing and fire stone contain the colors and skills of Skye. They embrace your heritage and are yours to keep.

Archer thought about her words and remembered the invitation that brought him to Skye. When Argo told him he didn’t know if he could help, it suggested the test had an unknown outcome.

If Ichos wouldn’t let you visit friends and family on Skye how could you travel to earth? he asked.

Marcoli found a way, she told him. When your birth time neared, he told your father I was gravely ill because I missed my family. With the imagery skills of Skye, I placed my likeness in the sick bed so I could leave without being missed. Your father often came to visit and never knew I’d gone.

You could have visited Skye the same way.

Maybe once or twice, she told him. Illness is rare in our world. Your father believed I was ill because I was unhappy.

Did you choose the people who raised me?

That was more difficult, she explained. Marcoli searched many earth settlements through the crystal ball. After he found a suitable settlement near the sea, he visited each home until he found a young couple who had recently lost a child.

The expression on Archer’s face told her that he didn’t understand how she accomplished such a difficult task.

It wasn’t as difficult as you might imagine, she said. Your earth father loved the sea and spent a great deal of his time on the water. Early one morning, Marcoli put me in the sea near his sailboat and he rescued me. After I told him I had no family, he took me to his home where he and his wife cared for me until your birth. As soon as I could, I returned to the sea and Marcoli brought me home.

You make it sound simple, Archer remarked and fought back his tears. Now I know why Mom and Dad didn’t tell me about you but why did they have to die?

Your earth parents didn’t die, Amethina replied. After Marcoli made the plane land on the water, he sent an Ichonaut to save them to make sure they got home safely. After they returned home and found you missing, they were overcome with grief. Marcoli found a way to tell them you were with your mother.

But they thought you drowned! Archer said and a tear rolled down his cheek. That means they think I drowned too.

It’s best this way, Amethina replied.

I miss them, Archer told her. Will I ever see them again?

Future events will answer that question, she explained. You may visit them like you and Pacion visited Lemandia but you’ve waited too long to return to the world of your childhood.

Oh, Archer remarked and stifled a sob.

I know it’s difficult for you to understand all that’s happened, Amethina told him. When you completed your father’s test, you accomplished the impossible. He’s released all of Skye’s people from their prisons and renewed his friendship with Father. They’re already planning a new earth settlement.

What kind of settlement? Archer asked with a sniffle.

A settlement unlike anything they’ve done before. They plan a city above and below the sea that will bring the inhabitants of Skye and Water together as never before. The dual city will let them rule their own people.

I want to visit that city, Archer replied and managed a smile. He looked at her with a thoughtful expression in his eyes.

What is it, Archer?

I’d like to know more about Father.

He’s a wise man, she replied. But he made a grave error when he allowed others to cloud his judgment. You’ve made him see that knowledge used wisely is the only true power. You’ll have an opportunity to know him better on future visits. Before you leave, I prepared a surprise for you.

A motion in the corner of his eye made Archer turn to see Aradia swim into the room.

What are you doing here? he asked.

Before Aradia could answer, his mother told him, Your father and I prepared a gift. We’re giving you a teacher and a guardian.

I don’t understand.

Aradia agreed to live on the Earth Star and provide the lessons that will teach you the depth of your skills, Amethina explained. She’s an apprentice crystal master which means Damani and Marcoli will help her.

That’s neat! Archer exclaimed. The skills of Water and Skye will benefit everyone in Balycon.

I’ve always watched over you, Amethina told him. The one you call Pacion knows about your heritage and accepted new duties. Damani, Marcoli and Pacion will follow you when you pursue tasks for your father and grandfather. The crystal triad charm contains powers you must learn as soon as you can. Aradia will help you master your skills so you can better understand your heritage. You’ve barely begun to learn everything you can do.

Archer met her eyes. I don’t know what to say.

There’s another reason I wanted to see you before you returned to your home in the earth sea, she said with a smile. Your new friends have come to say goodbye.

That reminds me of something, Archer remarked. Why do Aradia and the others wear Water’s collar?

They’re the teachers your grandfather sent to Water when he and King Ichos worked together, Amethina responded.

Oh, Archer replied. Aradia told me that and I forgot.

Amethina signaled an Ichonaut at the doorway that sent him darting away. She rose from her cushion, headed toward the exit and signaled Archer to follow. He and Aradia followed her through the arch and into a large room. An ugly brown tree stood in the center of the room. Its leafless branches sheltered a blue fountain where tiny glass shrimp spilled over its sides like a miniature waterfall. Red and white roses joined rows of multicolored tulips growing beside a pebbled path that circled the tree.

I know those flowers, Archer remarked. Most of them grew in my earth mother’s garden. I didn’t expect to see them here.

Marcoli and I watched you through the years, Amethina told him. These are the flowers of your youth. I carefully selected them for my personal garden because I don’t want you to forget the parents that loved you through your childhood.

Before Archer could reply, flowers popped open all over the garden. He laughed with delight when they shed the flower image and became the children of Skye. Pazia, Pheeno and Merado shed their fountain, shrubbery and flower images and waved at him before they joined the children on the garden path. When Aradia dropped the red rose image and only the tree remained, Archer glanced at his mother.

The tree is special, she told him with a nod and a smile.

Archer looked back in time to see the tree become a young man of Skye in shining brown clothing. While Archer stared in amazement, the young man approached and Archer exclaimed, You were the scary-looking tree on Mican!

I asked permission to meet you, the young man told him. Your kindness allowed me to return to Skye.

Archer’s eyes widened when he realized the cruel twist his father had added to the last puzzle! King Ichos expected him to destroy the Lord of Mican! If he’d done that, he would have failed the test. The young man smiled, turned and joined the others.

Father didn’t want me to finish the test did he? Archer asked when he realized what he’d done.

Each puzzle was more difficult than the one before it, Amethina told him. You constantly challenged the powers in your clothing and drew on your compassion to remove the obstacles in your path. You’re a true Prince of Water and your father and I are proud of you. It’s time I said goodbye and let you return to your earth home.

Before Archer could reply, she disappeared. He turned to the people of Skye and found everyone gone except Aradia.

You’re supposed to take me to the Earth Star, she told him. Father told me you can do that.

Archer smiled and replied, I can do that.

He reached for her hand and brought the crystal triad charm to eye level.

The End

If you enjoyed this book, please write a review, at your favorite online retailer. Thank you.

For more information about
The Archer Adventures visit the author’s website at www.thearcheradventures.com

 

Preview of

THE LOST KINGDOM

An Archer Adventure

Book IV

Second Edition

 

Katharine Giles

Chapter One

Ancient Mystery

While the carpin carried Archer through Water’s remarkable pink sea, he marveled at his unusual mount. With the head of a horse and tail of a dolphin, the carpin reminded him of the horses at the riding stable where his earth father taught him to ride. Archer had looked forward to this tour of his birth parents’ home ever since Aradia accompanied him to Balycon to teach him his alien skills. He’d often asked about her stay on Water because he loved to listen to her descriptions of its fascinating creatures and exotic gardens.

The carpins’ skin glistened white on the Earth Star but the layer of pink flowers on Water’s surface gave everything in his father’s kingdom a pink cast. If he’d bothered to think about it, Archer would have laughed at the idea of a pink horse. The carpins weren’t the largest animals in his father’s home nor were they the most unusual. The abundance of odd and colorful creatures on Water would be at home in an aquarium filled with rare sea life.

While fish the size of whales with black tusks jutting from their upper jaws circled a coral garden in the distance, one couldn’t ignore the never-ending variety of dragons, most of which resembled miniature dinosaurs. Black dragons with green and yellow splotches across their bodies casually strolled across the sea floor while raising and lowering transparent dorsal fins like waving flags. Skinny dragons slid through the water like eels with their tiny webbed feet clasped tight against their bodies. When he’d asked Marcoli why Water had so many dragons, Marcoli told him that his father had collected them for many years.

I’m sure that’s true, said Aradia.

What are you talking about? asked Archer.

Your father’s dragon collection, she replied. While I lived on Water, I learned your father collected every different kind of dragon he could find.

There are lots of odd creatures here, but it’s easy to see Father likes dragons best. Do you know why they’re his favorite?

I wondered the same thing until your mother told me that his father gave him a dragon egg when he was a boy. After it hatched, he loved his unusual pet so much that he never wanted to be without a dragon.

Will I get to see his pet dragon?

I’m afraid not, Aradia told him.

Why not?

Carpidor grew too large for Water and your father moved him to another planet. Maybe one day you’ll get to see him. I’ve never seen Carpidor but I’ve heard stories about him and would like to see him too. He’s supposed to be the largest dragon in the galaxy.

Marcoli told me that you’d tell me how to recognize the dangerous dragons so I can watch out for them.

It isn’t difficult, she replied. Most of your father’s dragons are small and harmless. Watch out for the big ones with horns and scaled armor. They ‘ll attack without provocation.

That makes sense, Archer told her. An armored dragon probably gets in lots of fights. That reminds me of something else. I noticed that Father doesn’t wear the collar that lets air breathers live underwater. How can he live here?

I wondered when you’d think to ask that question, Aradia replied. I asked your mother how to answer it and she told me to tell you the truth even though it might be difficult for you to accept.

I don’t understand.

King Ichos isn’t an air breather.

What are you talking about? Of course he’s an air breather. If he’s not an air breather, what is he? Archer asked, not sure he wanted to know the answer to his question.

This is difficult to explain, Aradia replied.

I don’t understand.

Your father’s a shape shifter.

What! Isn’t that a creature that can become another creature?

Before you get upset, you need to know there are different kinds of shape shifters.

I’m not upset. What is he when he isn’t an air breather?

When he leaves the palace to tour his kingdom, he likes to become an Ichonaut but that doesn’t mean he’s an Ichonaut either. A shape shifter is a shape shifter and your father can be anything he wants.

Does that mean I’m a shape shifter?

No, Archer. You’re an air breather and you’ll always be an air breather.

But my gemstone charm lets me change shape, he persisted.

You have the power to change shape by using the colors in the fire stone but you can’t change shape if you don’t have the charm with you, she explained. That’s not the most important power in your fire stone but it’s one of the reasons you need to keep it near you.

Archer leaned down and pressed his head against the carpin’s mane to think about Aradia’s answer to his question. He didn’t know what to think or how to react to the knowledge that his father, King Ichos the ruler of Water, is a shape shifter. What did that mean? Of all the creatures on Water his father had to be the most unusual, a creature who could assume the appearance and identity of another creature.

Trusting Aradia to keep them safe from armored dragons, Archer closed his eyes to recall his recent meeting with his mother. He wished he’d asked her why his father didn’t wear a collar.

  • * * * * *

A glow filled the blackness beneath his lids and parted to reveal an image of his mother sitting on a purple cushion inside an open clam shell. Her blonde hair floated around her head in the gentle current and the metallic fabric of her purple swimsuit shone like mercury in Water’s light. A fist-sized purple gem hung to her waist on a twisted gold chain and flashed purple and red fire around her. Her violet eyes welcomed him with love and Archer shook his head in wonder. Before he’d met her and his grandfather, he’d believed he was the only person in the world with blonde hair and violet eyes.

Hello, he said and swam to join her.

Hello, my son, Amethina greeted. I wanted to see you before you go home. Do you have any questions about your birthright?

I’d like to know more about Father and Grandfather.

Your father has always ruled Water and your grandfather has always ruled Skye, she replied. When your grandfather arranged the match between your father and me, our marriage created a union between the stars. Although you’re a child of Water and Skye, your roots are Earth.

I hope that means you and Father want me to live in Balycon because I don’t want to leave my friends.

While I prefer you live near me, your father and grandfather have many earth kingdoms and need someone on the Earth Star to take care of problems that occur from time to time. Every journey will provide challenges that will develop your skills, many of which you know nothing about. Aradia will stay at your side to teach you everything you need to know about your heritage.

Did you send her to protect me?

I chose her to be your teacher because your travels will take you into danger. Her skills will keep you safe until you learn to depend on your own. It’s important you remember that she’s a child of Skye and has no knowledge of the Earth Star or your earthling skills. You must be vigilant for there may be times when she can’t help you.

* * * * * *

While the carpin carried him through the sea, Archer thought about his mother’s words. What did she mean when she said Aradia couldn’t always help him? Surely her father, the crystal master of Skye, could help her solve any problem and find the answer to any question. That reminded him of something else. Why did Aradia limit their conversations to answering his questions? Although he didn’t know much about Aradia, he was glad to have her around. He caught a motion out of the corner of his eye and glanced to his right. Aradia’s blue eyes sparkled and he realized she had listened to his thoughts.

I’ll race you to that coral tree, she challenged and pointed into the distance at a red coral tree towering above everything on the sea floor.

Before Archer could reply, Aradia threw her arms around her carpin’s neck and leaned forward. The carpin responded to her body language with a downward thrust of its tail and lunged. Caught in the surging current, Aradia’s long black hair and red gemstone charm went flying behind her. A beam of light hit the faceted gem and sparks of red fire flashed through the sea.

Archer’s carpin bolted after Aradia’s mount and, unprepared for his carpin’s lunge, he nearly toppled over its back when a wall of water hit him in the face. He leaned forward, grabbed a handful of mane and jammed his knees into the carpin’s sides while he struggled to hang on.

The carpins raced side by side at breakneck speed and the water flowing across their bodies threatened to topple both riders. To keep from being thrown, Archer closed his eyes and tightened his grip on the carpin’s neck, unaware his action transmitted a command for more speed. The carpin’s muscles convulsed beneath him and its next lunge almost tore him loose. Before he could ask Aradia to slow their flight, an image of a killer wave crashing down on him appeared in the blackness beneath his lids.

Archer’s eyes snapped open and he froze in terror at the sight of an armored dragon perched on a nearby boulder and poised to attack. Its blue-gray scales glistened like burnished metal and a double row of teeth flashed behind the dragon’s forked tongue that flicked through the water. But when Archer saw the four horns that erupted from its head, he panicked!

The dragon opened its mouth, curled back its upper lip and exposed its teeth before it sprang. The carpin threw down its tail, vaulted upward and to the right. Archer pressed his face against the carpin’s neck, held his breath and ducked when the dragon flew through the water and missed him by inches. Archer glanced back and watched it slam into a coral tree and send the tree crashing to the sea floor. While the dragon struggled to free itself from the coral branches, Archer hugged his carpin’s neck and listened to his pounding heart.

Aradia brought her carpin alongside and asked, Are you okay?

I don’t know what scared me most, the vision of the killer wave or the dragon, he told her. That was close. Why didn’t you tell me about the dragon?

I made sure it couldn’t harm you, she told him.

What do you mean? It planned to have me for dinner! My carpin dodged just in time!

The dragon missed you because it slid off the force field shield I placed in front of you, she told him.

Oh, was Archer’s startled response. I was too scared to think of that. But that doesn’t explain why you sent the image of the killer wave. Were you afraid I’d win the race or did you just want to scare me?

I didn’t mean to frighten you, Aradia told him. Your mother asked me to tell you how she brought you home. I was thinking about how you came to Balycon and forgot to block my thoughts.

Before Archer could think of an appropriate reply, Aradia pointed ahead. We’ve reached the tree, she announced. Let’s call the race a tie.

That’s amazing! Archer remarked when they approached what had to be the largest coral tree he’d ever seen. That tree must be 50 feet high!

It’s the largest coral on Water, Aradia told him. I wanted you to see it before I show you my favorite garden. I have something important to tell you.

When his carpin carried him beneath the majestic tree, Archer looked up and stared in wonder. He’d seen the black clumps in the tree’s branches from a distance but couldn’t identify the jellyfish until now. With their arms draped over the red coral they reminded him of swamp moss. Brightly colored fish darted through the branches, turned their sides to the sun and flashed every color of the rainbow. Their sparkling lights brought poignant memories of his childhood at Christmas time.

Beyond the tree, Aradia’s carpin approached a garden filled with sea lace and beyond that a coral arch. She dismounted and swam through the arch and into a what looked like a cave in a pink coral outcrop. Archer dismounted and followed her into a tunnel with a woven coral ceiling and immediately recognized the unusual building material Marcoli had shown him on his first visit to Water.

I wondered if anyone told you about the soft coral, Aradia remarked in response to his thoughts.

Marcoli showed it to me and let me watch the mermaids weave it into a frame for a home, but I didn’t know they made gardens with it.

They make everything with it, Aradia replied. We’re almost there.

Several feet beneath the sea floor, they stopped at an entrance to a cave.

Aradia stopped, glanced at Archer and asked, What do you think?

Archer stuck his head in the opening and scanned the garden. Pink stone sculptures, in the shape of giant clams, formed seating around the cavern walls. A mushroom-shaped fountain, surrounded with black pebbles, rose toward the a round skylight. Water’s pink light shone through shafts in the ceiling, hit the top of the fountain, and created a stunning illusion of light shining up instead of down. The tiny fish that swam above the fountain reflected the light and and sparkled like fireflies.

Isn’t this beautiful? Aradia asked.

I didn’t expect to find a light fountain in a cave, he responded.

Water has hundreds of gardens but this is my favorite, Aradia told him. Before your father imprisoned me in the volcano, I came here often.

Aradia’s words reminded Archer of the bitter war between Water and Skye and the horrible prisons his father created for Skye’s people. He’d rescued Aradia from the core of a bubbling volcano on his journey through a series of puzzles prepared by his father. It must have been a terrible time for his kind and gentle mother. No wonder she secretly planned his birth and left him with parents in another galaxy to keep him safe from Water’s tyrant king.

I was excited when your mother asked me to be your teacher on the Earth Star, Aradia told him. It gave me a way to thank you for rescuing me and bringing me home. I like living in your world and King Ichos told me that if I prove myself worthy, I can become Balycon’s crystal master.

Archer started to reply, but her hand signal kept him silent.

There are plans for your future, but not until you learn the depth of your skills. You learned some of them when you completed your father’s test and freed the children of Skye. You’ll learn more on the journeys to come.

You promised to tell me how my sailboat happened to sink over Balycon, Archer reminded her. Was that an accident?

Your mother knew the only way she could keep you safe from your father was to put you so far away that he couldn’t find you, Aradia replied. Before she would do that, she had to know she could bring you home. Marcoli used the crystal ball to tour the planets in the parallel world until he found a loving home for you.

That makes sense, Archer remarked and stared at the sparkling lights above the fountain.

Marcoli used Water’s crystal ball to discover the future of a child born so far from home and your mother chose your earth parents based on what he found.

Archer looked away from the fish and met her eyes. You’re not going to tell me that mother and Marcoli planned my parents’ disappearance are you?

As painful as that might be, you had to leave them before you could return to your true home, Aradia explained. After your earth parents disappeared, Marcoli reached you with the thought language and helped you plan your voyage across the sea. An Ichonaut escort traveled beneath your boat and brought it to Balycon.

Where did the killer wave come from? Was that real?

It was real, Aradia told him. But not in the way you might think. Marcoli created it.

You answered most of my questions. I’ve always felt that someone directed my life.

Before Aradia could reply, the clear crystal charm she wore around her neck began to glow and she told him, It must be time to meet with your father.

She tucked her red gemstone charm inside her swimsuit and raised the flat crystal charm to eye level. A pink mist boiled up in the charm and cleared to reveal Marcoli’s image.

I need you and Archer to join me in the communication chamber at once, Marcoli announced.

We’ll be right there, Aradia replied and glanced at Archer.

She let the charm drop to the end of its chain, reached out and clasped Archer’s hand. They closed their eyes to visualize their destination, the water swirled around them and when everything was still, Archer looked up to discover they’d arrived at Marcoli’s side.

Marcoli’s twinkling blue eyes smiled a welcome and his long hair and beard glowed pink in Water’s light. A clear crystal charm like Aradia’s lay against his chest above a girdle of flat crystal scales. Reflected light from Water’s 4-foot crystal ball arced through the room, hit the fish scales on the walls and rainbows swirled through the water.

Why did you ask us to come here? Archer asked. I thought we were supposed to meet Father.

There’s something he wanted me to show you before you see him, Marcoli replied and pointed at the crystal ball where a pulsing violet light radiated through the mist.

Archer looked at Marcoli and told him, I don’t know what that is. What are we looking at?

It’s a signal from a trident communicator, Marcoli explained. As soon as I reported it to your father, he asked me to show it to you.

Why did Father ask you to show us a blinking purple light?

The signal comes from a purple gemstone trident that your father lost centuries ago, Marcoli replied and pointed into the depths of the crystal ball. Look. It fades.

What’s special about it? Archer asked.

Marcoli met Archer’s eyes and told him, You know the story about the trident communicator in Balycon.

At Archer’s nod, Marcoli continued. Your father sent a trident to each of his kingdoms in the earth sea. The flashing light identifies this one as the trident he sent to Ekonia after an earthquake and tidal wave sent the city to the sea floor.

Why is its signal important? Archer asked.

To answer that, I have to tell you about a city your father and grandfather built together in the long ago past. You’re familiar with Lemandia, the first city they created. After it sank beneath the waves the survivors rebuilt it and it became the settlement you call Balycon. Before the shaking earth destroyed Lemandia, your grandfather and father built a second city they named Ekonia. When they argued about who would control the two cities, their dispute made your grandfather search Skye’s crystal ball for a solution to the conflict that could let him control both cities. He discovered a way to do that but acted without complete information.

What did he forget? Archer asked.

He neglected to ask what would happen if his partnership with your father ended when he ordered his crystal maker to balance the earth’s energy by placing three crystal balls in both cities, Marcoli told him.

I don’t understand.

His crystal maker could have easily created one crystal ball for that purpose but your grandfather insisted he design three crystal balls that had to be kept together to perform the same task.

I don’t understand how three crystal balls gave him control of the cities, Archer replied.

Your father destroyed Lemandia and Ekonia after your grandfather told him the crystal balls assured his ownership of the cities. It made your father so angry that he had a loyal priest remove one crystal ball from each city. Their loss unleashed the energy that created the earthquakes and tidal waves that destroyed them.

That explains why Arctran took Lemandia’s crystal ball! Archer exclaimed. It also explains why Baccio didn’t try to save Lemandia.

No one could save the cities after your father ordered the crystal balls removed, Marcoli told him.

Then what happened? Archer asked.

Most of the people wore Water’s collar and most survived. After the tragedy, your father sent tridents to the survivors of both cities to bring them under his rule. He ordered his messengers to teach the survivors how to use the tridents but the Ichonaut he sent to Ekonia couldn’t complete his assignment. Before he perished, he gave the purple gemstone trident to a temple priestess. After the survivors fled Ekonia, I followed them in the crystal ball but lost them during the night.

Why did they leave? Archer asked.

They feared the danger that took the life of your father’s messenger, Marcoli explained.

I don’t understand how you could lose them if you followed them in the crystal ball, Archer remarked.

That’s the mystery your father wants you to solve, Marcoli told him. They stopped to rest at the end of the day and I stayed with them until darkness covered the sea. The next morning, I couldn’t find them. I’ve searched for centuries and have never found them. The sea swallowed them up.

I’m familiar with Balycon’s crystal trident but I don’t know much about it, Archer commented. Who made the tridents and how do they work?

Your grandfather ordered his crystal makers to create them as a wedding gift for your mother and father, Marcoli replied. Every trident is identical except for the color of its gemstone staff. Elaborate scroll work covers the golden forks and each craftsman etched his signature into the design. Faceted gemstones form each trident’s staff and bands of gold separate the gems. Properly aligned against a light surface, the tridents can transmit images and the thought language much like a crystal ball. If you find the purple gemstone trident, you’ll have an opportunity to learn how it works.

You make the tridents sound special, Archer told him.

They are special, Marcoli replied. Your grandfather’s gift embraced the union of Ichos and Amethina and created a partnership between Water and Skye. King Zirco instructed his craftsmen to design the tridents to communicate with your father’s underwater kingdoms as well as his land kingdoms. They brought Water and Skye together as never before.

You haven’t explained why Father wanted us to see this flashing purple light, Archer reminded him.

The signal tells us that the trident your father sent to Ekonia exists somewhere in the earth sea, Marcoli replied. Maybe the survivors are with it. That’s why he invited you to Water. He wants you and Aradia to go to the Ekonia’s ruins and search for the lost trident. When you find it, he believes you’ll find the survivors or discover what happened to them.

When does he want us to leave?

The earth day is almost over and it isn’t safe to arrive during the night, Marcoli replied and faced the crystal ball. Before you see your father I’ll show you the city of Ekonia before it fell beneath the sea.

A pink mist boiled up beneath the facets and Archer leaned close, eager to see the city Marcoli described. The mist thinned and disappeared to reveal a mountainous coastline covered with meadows that dropped to a sandy beach. A forest of evergreens fanned up the hillside and their silhouettes created a jagged line against the sky.

I don’t see any buildings, Archer commented.

You will in a minute, Marcoli told him. I’m showing you why your father and grandfather chose this location.

Marcoli directed the image away from shore and across the water where it stopped at an island covered with pink stone buildings around a protected bay. The buildings framed the tide lapping the shore and cast a pink reflection on the water. Elevated docks extended fingers into the sea and a flotilla of sailboats lay sheltered in the protected moorage.

Marcoli broadened the image. A spit of land joined the island to the mainland and Ekonia’s people strolled atop the waves on a tiled path between pink stone planters filled with flowers. He directed the crystal ball to scan the water where multicolored sails dotted the sea.

I didn’t expect pink buildings, Archer remarked.

Marcoli ignored his comment and brought the image back to the tiled streets and Ekonia’s people with their black hair, blue eyes and bronzed skin. The men wore short white robes with a strip of brightly colored cloth tossed over one shoulder and most wore the collar that would let them live beneath the sea. Their clothing reminded Archer of the togas worn by men in ancient Rome.

The women wore white sleeveless gowns that brushed the tops of their jeweled sandals. The twisted fabric rope that twined around their waist and across their bodice enhanced the drape of the soft fabric. Gold jewelry glittered on their fingers, wrists and necks and tropical flowers adorned their long hair. Mothers carried babies in slings draped over their backs while older children walked at their side or played in the street.

Aradia pointed at their clothing. They dress in garments like those of Skye but the fabric doesn’t shine.

Marcoli directed the image into the cloudless sky and three pink stone pyramids, shaped like the flat-topped pyramids of Mexico, came into view. Atop each pyramid, a crystal ball rested on a pink stone pedestal, reflected the morning sun and sent ribbons of rainbow-colored light across the city.

Wow! Archer exclaimed.

Those are the crystal balls your grandfather sent to Ekonia, Marcoli told him. I wanted you to see where he put them.

I didn’t expect that, Archer remarked. Ekonia and Lemandia look alike except for the pyramids. When they built Lemandia, grandfather put the crystal balls in the temples.

Marcoli let the image fade and told them. That’s enough for now. He turned away from the crystal ball and met Archer’s eyes.

While you visit your father, Aradia will stay with me.

Archer nodded an acknowledgment to Marcoli’s dismissal, smiled at Aradia, and turned to leave the room. He found a pink-tailed Ichonaut at the exit who waved him to follow. On the way to the meeting with his father, images of the pink stone city flowed through Archer’s mind and fueled his excitement at the coming journey. Although Marcoli hinted at danger in the ruins, he didn’t worry about it. Aradia would keep them safe.

For more information about
the Archer Adventures, visit the author’s website at www.thearcheradventures.com

 

More books by this author:

Book I: The Crystal Trident, An Archer Adventure, Second Edition

Book II: A Perilous Quest, An Archer Adventure, Second Edition

Book III: The Princess of Skye, An Archer Adventure, Second Edition

Book IV: The Lost Kingdom, An Archer Adventure, Second Edition

Book V: The Desert Sun, An Archer Adventurer

Book VI: Fire Sled, An Archer Adventure

Book VII: The Black Pagoda, An Archer Adventure

 

About the Author

Her many adventures gave Katharine an advantage before she wrote The Archer Adventure Series. Born in Wyoming, her family moved to the West Coast before she was old enough to remember days on the ranch where her grandfather worked as foreman and her cowboy father tamed wild horses and serenaded Eastern dudes around evening campfires.

Katharine’s parents loved traveling America’s highways and would always explore a side roads when an interesting sign coaxed them off the Interstate. This is how she discovered getting lost could be an adventure. She learned to fly a single-engine airplane and toured the Western states with her pilot husband to attend Airport Fly-Ins that hosted everything from Barbecues to Pancake Breakfasts.

She’s been salmon fishing over the Columbia River Bar in Oregon, deep sea fishing at San Pedro, California, and Mazatlan, Mexico. She’s traveled East to West across Mexico on the famous Copper Canyon train, visited the dolphins in Topolobampo Bay and toured Santa Catalina Island (the Channel Islands West of Los Angeles) by boat, seaplane and twin-engine plane that landed at the airport in the sky.

She added to her adventures with scuba lessons and is a PADI Certified Diver. A passion for cooking prompted her to write three cookbooks and compete in a Pace Picante Sauce cooking contest where she won $1,000 First Place prize with a creative soup recipe. After obtaining a Diamond Certificate from The Gemological Institute of America and completing their Colored Stone Course, she learned to silver smith so she could design and create custom jewelry for family and friends. Katharine counts rock hunting, roller skating, bowling, sailing, dancing, and competition shooting among her many interests.

A few memorable adventures as a solo long-haul driver in her big truck include picking up a load of Christmas trees on a mountain top, dropping a load of tires in a cow pasture (where the cattle surrounded her truck to meet what they thought was their load of hay), and frantically searching for a police escort when she got her big truck lost in the middle of New York City. She topped that adventure by driving her 18-wheeler, with its 53-foot trailer, to the end of a dead-end road.

Katharine’s many travels by air, land and sea took her down America’s Interstates from Victoria, B.C., to Key West, Florida, and from Montreal, Canada, to Mazatlan, Mexico. She’s visited every state except Alaska and that adventure is on her bucket list. While she continues her passion for writing, she enjoys painting and daily walks with her dog, Jasper.

 


The Princess of Skye, An Archer Adventure, Book III, Second Edition

When King Zirco, the Ruler of Skye asks Archer to rescue his daughter, Amethina, from Ichos, the tyrant King of Water, Archer barely gives it a second thought and accepts the challenge. But after he learns he's expected to travel to several planets in Skye's galaxy without being told the reason, he realizes this won't be your every day kind of adventure. Archer quickly learns he's about to embark on the adventure of his life when he learns he must solve a puzzle on each planet. His only warning, "If you fail one puzzle, you fail them all" and no instructions to assist him, he must find the puzzle and solve it before he's allowed to continue his quest. After he solves the first two puzzles, he understands the urgency of his task. King Zirco's daughter is in mortal danger! The puzzles become more difficult when he progresses from planet to planet until he meets an impossible challenge. He can't go forward and he can't give up! While he struggles with the realization that failure isn't an option, Archer despairs. What will happen to him.... and the king's daughter... if he fails?

  • ISBN: 9781370335770
  • Author: Katharine Giles
  • Published: 2017-07-18 17:35:15
  • Words: 52452
The Princess of Skye, An Archer Adventure, Book III, Second Edition The Princess of Skye, An Archer Adventure, Book III, Second Edition