His new book just debuted at No 1 on The New York Times' best-sellers list and he's on a whirlwind tour of Asia, Australia and the United States to promote it. It's an extraordinary achievement for a self-published children's author. He should be shouting from the rooftops, so why is Michael Stadther hiding in his Four Seasons hotel suite? It could have something to do with the US$1 million red diamond ring in his possession in Hong Kong. The US$200,000 worth of other rings in the room probably don't help either. For those not familiar with the author's previous work, Stadther is not going through a mid-life crisis and taking on a blinged-up hip-hop persona. His fans will have already worked it out - these rings, and 95 others worth a total of US$2 million, are the latest treasures Stadther will give away to those who uncover the clues embroidered throughout his new book. Published at the end of September, Secrets of the Alchemist Dar is a children's fantasy of the fairy and elf variety. It tells the story of Zac, the woodcarver, his half-human, half-elf wife Ana, their half-dog, half-moth pets and their many kootenstoopit and pickensrooter fairy friends who inhabit the Great Forest. It also tells of dark fairies, led by evil alchemist Dar, who use an ancient book of spells to try and steal the good fairies' rings of eternal life, and of the swarm of Samaritan bugs, a slug and a bird who try to stop them. If it sounds like a straightforward fairytale, it is. The real plot twists are hidden in Stadther's lush illustrations, clever poems and puzzles. Within them lie the clues that will lead readers to their glittering prizes. This is the second time Stadther has sent readers searching beyond the pages of a book. A Treasure's Trove (2004), the prequel to Secrets of the Alchemist Dar, had people scouring the US for a dozen gold tokens that could be exchanged for jewels worth a total US$1 million, including a blue tanzanite beetle and an ant with 4.5 carats of pave diamonds for legs. This time the stakes have doubled and the rings are available, Stadther says, to English readers throughout the world, not just in the US. It's being called the world's largest treasure hunt and, according to its creator, it's one of the costliest too. 'This is probably the most expensive book ever written,' Stadther says with a laugh. 'I'm about US$5.5 million in the hole.' For Stadther, it's probably not a big hole. His treasure hunts have been financed by a pair of banking software companies he and his wife founded. The latter of these start-ups had offices in New York, London and Mexico by the time it was sold in 1996 for an undisclosed figure. Since then, he has dabbled in real estate development, been active in children's charities and - most importantly - had time to plan, write and illustrate the books he has had in the back of his mind for 20 years. 'When I was about 25, I read a book by a guy named Kit Williams - Masquerade - and I thought it was the coolest book I'd ever read in my life,' Stadther says of his inspiration, a book that sent its readers hunting for an 18-carat gold hare in Britain. 'I thought, 'I've got a maths degree and I can draw passably well; I'll figure this out by dinnertime.' I didn't.' Creating a treasure hunt of his own was a natural step for the rags-to-riches author who, by his own description, was born 'dirt poor' in Mobile, Alabama. He and his mother moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where one of his teachers noticed his acumen for mathematics. While still in high school, he wrote an original research paper that he presented to Nasa. It attracted the attention of one of the space agency's physicists, who would later finance Stadther's education at Tulane University in New Orleans. He studied maths and fine arts, but graduated after three years with a degree only in maths. It was 1973 and the computer age was just booting up. He met his wife when they were working as programmers in New York and the couple used their wits to create their fortune at a relatively young age. Rather than retire in his mid-40s, Stadther set his sights on new horizons. He embarked on his treasure-hunt quest. 'The challenge for me was how to hide something, right in front of someone, that's simple yet still hidden,' he says. 'Can I write a story? Can I illustrate it? Can I get some treasure? Can I figure out how to hide clues? Can I fool a couple of million people? Can I fool anybody?' He could - for a while at least. To keep hunters out of harm's way, Stadther announced the gold tokens weren't hidden on private land or buried underground. (After the publication of Masquerade, readers in Britain created problems when they dug holes in public property.) He insisted all laws be obeyed and 'trovers', as they've come to be known, not disturb anything or anyone. Trovers living in the US had an equal chance of finding one of the dozen tokens, he told them, with at least one token within a day's drive of any reader. 'I put them all in the knotholes of trees,' he says. 'That's where they were found. There was an 18-line poem hidden in the book ... [which] says the 'secret is not half, but it is not whole', and it turns out the secret was 'knothole'.' After four months' troving, 35-year-old Jake Polterak thought he could find a token in Ricketts Glen State Park, in Pennsylvania, but could get no further than that. 'His four-year-old daughter was looking at an illustration [in the book],' Stadther says, 'and she said, 'Dad, that looks like a dragonfly [inside an illuminated letter B].'' Based on the poem hidden in the book, his daughter knew the dragonfly would point the way to the ring crafted in its image. 'Her dad kept saying, 'How can he tell me where to go? That's just a vine [around the illuminated B].' And she said, 'What if it's not a vine, what if it's a road map?' Polterak drove four hours to Ricketts Glen, got a map at the entrance to the park and discovered the vine matched the shape of the park perfectly, with the dragonfly pointing to a small roadside campsite. He drove to it and saw something familiar: a tree identical to one in the book. 'That's how he knew to walk over to that tree and put his hand in that knothole,' Stadther says beaming. 'And he pulled out the dragonfly token.' Polterak was the first to find one. Not all aspects of the hunt went so smoothly. Stadther's inbox overflowed with e-mails from frustrated trovers wanting a hint, or to confirm their suspicions, or simply a token they felt they deserved. 'I never answered anybody's e-mails, right or wrong, because I kept getting all these whack jobs saying, 'I know where it is but somebody moved it and I really think I should have it,'' he says. 'Some very psychotic kinds of experiences: 'I went to get it and it was in a hole but it fell deeper and I came back to get it the next day but a rabbit had taken it.'' Within months - despite the rabbits - all 12 tokens had been found. They're on display in the US, but Stadther says they'll soon be delivered to their owners. Readers also figured out that Treasure's Trove contained clues to the whereabouts of a 13th and 14th token not mentioned in the text, which have also been found. Unfortunately, the finders' luck didn't translate into good fortune for Stadther's philanthropic goals. 'We promised to donate any profits [from the book] to charity and we promised to donate anything that wasn't found,' he says. 'Everything was found, and I didn't make any money. So, that didn't work out so well.' But he hopes the conservation theme of his books will have at least an amount of pro bono effect, even if it's given a light treatment. 'I think there's too much browbeating of kids today,' the author says. ''Billy's a litterbug. Don't be a litterbug, Billy.' I handle things very delicately. In the book, the bad guy is an alchemist. He spills poisons and chemicals, but that's about all I say about it. They live in a place called the Great Forest - the forest is a symbol for the Earth - so there's a little [preaching].' Readers are likely to be more interested in diamonds than the story's moral gems, though. And no wonder, given the value of the grand prize. Mounted on an 18-carat gold band designed by jeweller Aaron Basha, is a .59 carat, VVS1, radiant-cut natural red diamond, one of the rarest gems on Earth. 'Pink diamonds and red diamonds are about that far apart in the value scale,' Stadther says, spreading his hands wide. '[The red diamond] is tiny, but it's still one of the world's biggest red diamonds. There are only 15 or 16 other comparable [gems] in the world. That's the rarefied air we're in. You could probably fill 10 bushel baskets full of cut pink diamonds. But red diamonds - if I could fill my hand with red diamonds, it'd be a quarter of a billion dollars [worth].' To promote Alchemist Dar, Stadther recently held a treasure hunt on Amazon.com. 'The solution was entered over the internet,' he says. 'So, in fact, nothing was [physically] hidden and you didn't have to go anywhere.' But he's not divulging anything about Alchemist Dar, where its clues lead or if you'll have to get out of your chair to follow them. And at the time of writing, all the rings remained unclaimed. 'I don't say what's hidden, where it's hidden, how it's hidden, if it's hidden, if you have to go see somebody, if it's on the internet. I just don't say. It's all part of figuring out the clues,' Stadther says. 'The thing I do say is that everyone has a chance - exactly the same chance.' Will he offer readers of Post Magazine some gumshoe grist? Stadther is staying tight-lipped on where to look in the book, but does suggest where we might point our cursors. 'It took about an hour and a half after I released the title of the book for people on the internet to rearrange the letters and come up with 'Secrets of Michael Stadther',' he says.