3:28 P.M.

KARA FELTsick, nauseous-but not from withdrawal. In fact, since her arrival here in these caves, she felt less jagged, the shakes slowly subsiding, as if something had been done to her head. But what she now suffered was a thousandfold worse than the lack of amphetamines. She felt crushed, heartsick, worn thin, devastated. All this talk of secret cities, mysterious powers, ancient lineages meant nothing to her. Her eyes stared at the remains of her father, his mouth frozen in a rictus of agony.

Words of the hodja had locked up her brain.

He had sought Ubar, like his daughter.

Kara recalled the day of her father’s death, the hunt on her sixteenth birthday. She had always wondered why they had traveled all the way out to that section of the desert. There was good hunting much closer to Muscat, why fly out to Thumrait Air Base, travel overland in Rovers, then start their pursuit on sand cycles. Had he used her birthday as an excuse to hunt those lands?

Anger built in her chest, shining out of her like the flames behind the chunk of glass. But it had no focus. She was angry at these women who had held this secret for so long, at her father for throwing his life away on a deadly quest, at herself for following in his footsteps…even at Safia for never making her stop, even when the search was destroying Kara from the inside. The fire of her fury burned away the dregs of her sickness.

Kara sat back and turned to the old hodja. She interrupted her history lesson with Safia, her words bitter. “Why was my father searching for Ubar?”

“Kara…” Safia said in a consoling tone. “I think that can wait.”

“No.” Anger put command in her voice. “I want to know now.”

The hodja remained unimpressed, bowing before Kara’s fury like a reed in the wind. “You are right to ask. That is why you are both here.”

Kara frowned from lips to brow.

The woman glanced between Kara and Safia. “What the desert takes, it also gives back.”

“What does that mean?” Kara snapped back.

The hodja sighed. “The desert took your father.” She waved toward the gruesome stone. “But it gave you a sister.” She nodded to Safia.

“Safia has always been my dearest friend.” Despite her anger, Kara’s voice flared with emotion. The truth and depth of her words, spoken aloud, struck her bruised heart with more impact than she would have imagined. She tried to shake them away, but she was too raw.

“She is more than your friend. She is your sister in both spirit…and flesh.” The hodja raised her staff and pointed it at the body entombed in glass. “There lies your father… and Safia’s.

The hodja faced the two stunned women.

“You are sisters.”

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