INSIDE THE FIRE TEMPLE
Leiss rounded the base of Golden Egg Cottage at pace.
“Are the doors secure?” he asked as he closed in on the priests. “And where’s the boss?”
Sammy raced after him with Mehrak lagging behind, hugging his chest.
The priests didn’t get the chance to answer before chattering erupted outside, followed by the pounding of a thousand limbs against the temple doors.
Panic spread among the priests.
“Is there anything else we can barricade the doors with?” Leiss asked, as the bolts rattled in their hinges.
A short, spherical woman, with lifeless grey hair scraped back into a tight bun, forced her way to the front of the gathered priests. She had huge, lumpy boobs that she supported by linking her arms together underneath, like she’d been out gathering pumpkins.
She didn’t look happy.
“What have you brought upon our temple?” She had the sort of yapping voice a Yorkshire terrier might have if dogs could talk.
“I thought Harz spoke to you,” Mehrak said. “We were told …”
“Harz did speak to me,” the woman said. “About looking after a girl and some travellers. I don’t recall the mention of a crabman army. That’s the sort of thing I tend to remember!”
A young female priest called down from a galleried landing above the doors. She was at one of the first-floor windows, dancing about in a panic. “There are thousands of them,” she said. “They’re
climbing over each other to get to the windows. They’re going to get in!”
The round woman held up a hand to quiet the girl. “Calm down, Niloufar. Their shells are too wide. They won’t fit through the frames. Keep back anyway; they can still reach you with their sword arms.” She turned to Mehrak. “I hope your lives are worth it,” she said, then raised her squeaky voice and addressed everyone. “Listen up! I don’t think the crabmen can get in, but we should evacuate the atrium, just in case. Move everyone to their quarters. Ranok, Bodeff: take the gastrosaur to the stables and give him water and rest.”
“Will he be safe?” Mehrak asked.
“The stables are bolted from the inside,” the woman said. “He’ll be as safe as we are. Now, come with me.” She walked towards the opposite end of the atrium, which was the best part of a football pitch away.
“You’ll be okay now, boy,” Mehrak said to Louis. “I’ll check on you in a bit, alright? Once you’ve had some water and rest.”
Louis raised his head off the floor. Then he lay it down again. He looked dreadful.
“Thank you, Louis,” Sammy called back to him. “You really saved us.”
Louis perked up a little. He signed back the gastrosaur equivalent of the thumbs up.
An old priest approached the boss woman. “Lila-Maryam,” he stammered. He scratched nervously at the stringy white beard under his chin. “Should we barricade the doors?”
“The front gates are as secure as they’re going to get,” Lila-Maryam said. “Those bolts have held armies at bay in the past and they’ll do their job today. I still want all doors to the inner sanctum barricaded, though, as a precaution.”
The man dipped his head and hurried off.
“Lila-Maryam,” Mehrak said as he walked quickly to keep up with her. “I’m Mehrak Omid. I presume you’re the leader?”
“I’m the custodian,” she said, without looking at him. “There are no leaders within the Hirbod.”
Hirbod? Sammy had heard that word somewhere.
“Yes, yes, custodian,” Mehrak said. “Total equality. All races, genders, and all that. You know what I mean.”
“I know what you mean. What are you getting at?”
“Well,” Mehrak said. “I wondered if you agreed with what the magi are doing?”
Lila-Maryam raised an eyebrow but kept walking.
“What I mean is, are they forcing you to comply with all this, or are you doing it because you believe you’re helping Perseopia?”
Lila-Maryam shook her head. “You’re fishing, aren’t you?” A fleeting sad smile. “You don’t even know why you’re here.”
“We know why we’re here,” Leiss said. “Don’t we?” He looked at Mehrak, but Mehrak looked away distractedly.
Sammy jogged after them, trying to figure out what they were talking about. She was also trying to concentrate on the elusive memory she couldn’t pin down. Who had used the word Hirbod? And in what context? She could almost hear them saying it.
Lila-Maryam said nothing more as she led the way out of the atrium and into another vast and beautifully decorated hall. Gold and marble columns stood proud, holding up a vaulted ceiling above a red-and-white-chequered marble floor below.
The ceiling was covered in various intricately painted frescos, each depicting people interacting with either angels or demons. One had a priest and an angel giving to the poor. Another had demons whispering in the ears of barbarians as they ransacked and pillaged. Around the edges, the pictures became more sinister still, showing brutal battle scenes with angels and magi fighting demons and other dark creatures. There was no subtlety in any of the paintings. Each one clearly representing good versus evil, or light versus dark.
In the middle of the hall, curved pews were arranged in concentric circles around a brass oil dish with a flame dancing over
it. It smelled of exotic spices, lemon and pine. The scent was subtle, but filled the hall and had a fantastic relaxing quality. It almost took Sammy’s mind off the fact that thousands of crabmen were beating down the doors, while an invincible, all-powerful monster was making its way towards her.
“Is Sammy going to be safe in here?” Leiss asked.
“She’ll be fine. You’ll all be fine. The temple’s built like a fortress. The walls are uncommonly thick and the windows are reinforced with steel bars.”
“The Fifth Azaran was always one of my favourite temples,” Mehrak said. “I found it fascinating that it was fortified to such an extent and I used to wonder what secrets were hidden here.”
What was with all these secrets? Sammy thought. Hami had kept secrets from her, so had Esther and now so was Lila-Maryam. They all knew something she didn’t, and she didn’t like it.
They were led through a door at the back of the hall and into a small, windowless office, lit by candles. It had a tiny desk, some chairs and several uninspiring paintings of barren landscapes on the walls. Lila-Maryam told them to make themselves comfortable, then left the room pulling the door shut behind her.
The something was still nagging at the back of Sammy’s mind as she took a seat alongside Mehrak and Leiss.
Mehrak leant in towards her. “At least Hami picked a good place to keep us safe while he takes on Ramaask. This place is virtually impenetrable,” he said. “I wonder what’s so special about this place anyway? And why are all those slaves excavating rock in the Cataclysm?”
“Unless there’s something else here too,” Sammy said as she stared into space.
“What are you thinking?”
“That this is it,” she said under her breath.
Sammy leapt to her feet. “This is it. The Temple of Paths!”
Mehrak’s mouth opened, but he didn’t say anything. Leiss only frowned.
“Remember the map in the library?” Sammy said. “This is the temple on the island. Except it wasn’t an island we were looking at, it was this mountain; and it wasn’t in a river, it was in the Cataclysm, a river of lava. That’s what the secret is!”
Mehrak’s eyes sparkled. “That would explain the fortifications,” he said. “But we don’t know for certain. There are millions of temples in Perseopia, and even if this is the right one, the Hirbod would never tell us where the treasure is. They might not even know about it.”
“Are all priests called Hirbod? Or just the ones here?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t heard of any others referred to as Hirbod other than these guys.”
“Then this must be the right place! Esther’s sister told me the last time she heard from Esther, she was staying with the Hirbod. She must’ve come here because she knew this is where the Temple of Paths is.”
Mehrak jumped up off his seat. “That’s why Hami brought you here! Because Ramaask wouldn’t want you, the girl he thinks is the chosen child, escaping Perseopia. Ramaask wants you for himself. It makes sense.” Mehrak’s eyes moved from side to side, he was thinking, not seeing. “That’s why the old Grand Master took the other yellow-haired girl here. He was taking her to the Temple of Paths to go home. That’s what brought Ramaask here the first time and that’s what Hami is trying to replicate now. He knew that if the threat of you escaping Perseopia was high enough, then Ramaask would come to stop you himself.”
“So Hami knows about the Temple of Paths,” Sammy said. “The old magus knew, so Hami must do too, with their brain network and stuff. He’s lied to me again.”
“I’m sorry,” Mehrak said. “Maybe he’ll let you go home once the battle’s over.”
“But why didn’t he tell me?”
“Because he doesn’t have your best interests at heart. I admit, I also wanted you to stay in Perseopia, too. But that’s because you’re good company and …”
“Okay, we get it,” Leiss said. “You care. Hami doesn’t. More importantly, Ramaask will be here soon. And, if what you’re saying is true, then we need to get looking for this hidden temple. Now.”
“But where do we start?” Mehrak said. “The Hirbod won’t let us –”
The door handle clicked, silencing Mehrak. Lila-Maryam opened the door and entered the room. She walked around the desk and sat down, motioning for Sammy and Mehrak to take their seats.
Sammy noticed a smile play across Mehrak’s lips as she sat down. Did he have a plan?
Lila-Maryam leant forward across the table, palms down, and opened her mouth to talk.
Mehrak cut her off. “Lila-Maryam,” he said. “Now that we’re alone, away from the ears of the other priests, I’m going to be honest with you.”
Lila-Maryam raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.
Mehrak went on: “There was a woman that came here around thirty years ago. Her name was Esther.”
Lila-Maryam shifted her weight on the chair. “There have been many people who have visited our temple over the years,” she said. “I don’t recall anyone by that name, but I would’ve been only thirteen at the time.”
“We’ve been given orders from the Regent Mother to locate a book Esther took from the palace library.” Mehrak leant back to let this settle in.
“Book?” Lila-Maryam said. She meshed her fingers together in her lap. Her eyes darted from Mehrak to Sammy to Leiss and then back to Mehrak again.
“We’ve tracked her here,” Mehrak said. “If you haven’t heard of Esther then we’ll have to speak with the other priests.” Mehrak pushed his chair backward as if he was about to get up.
“Wait,” Lila-Maryam said. She hoisted herself from the chair, went to the door and closed it. Then she walked back round the table and sat down. “Esther arrived here, like you said, about thirty years ago. My father was the custodian at the time. He took her in and she became one of us. But she was only here for – I don’t know – twenty days or so before …” She paused. “Before she left. I assume that whatever she brought with her left when she did.”
“You said you were only thirteen at the time. She must have left quite an impression in those twenty days if you can still remember her now.”
“What are you implying?” Lila-Maryam said, mustering all her indignity.
Mehrak leaned in. “Esther arrived here thirty years ago. She joined the Hirbod and settled into your routine. But one night she entered a secret part of the temple.” Lila Maryam’s eyes widened and she shook her head. “A part of the temple she wasn’t meant to enter or even know about. That is why you still remember her, because what she did was a big deal. She entered the secret part of the temple and she never came out again. Which means her possessions got left behind.”
“That doesn’t mean we kept them. And besides, that was thirty years ago. Who knows where her things are now?”
“You know where the book is.”
Lila-Maryam said nothing.
“Esther’s belongings would have been destroyed so there would be no evidence of her visit. Except the book. The book held secrets about your temple. It was hidden so no one would ever read it again.”
Lila-Maryam’s face glistened with perspiration. “If this book held all these secrets you speak of, why would we have kept it? I’m
sure it would have been destroyed along with Esther’s other belongings.”
“The book was written by a devout Zoroastrian and the architect of this temple. You would sooner destroy a sacred text of the Avesta. The book is called The Arda Memoirs and you know where it is.” Mehrak narrowed his eyes. “And I bet you’ve read it too.”
“You can’t have it,” Lila-Maryam said. “The book belongs with us. People cannot know what information it holds.”
“That book belongs to the palace,” Leiss said, getting up from his chair.
Mehrak held up his hand to silence him. “I’m willing to make a deal,” he said.
Lila-Maryam said nothing.
“If you let us read it, you can keep it.”
“But it belongs to the palace!” Leiss said.
“You never came here to return the book, did you?” Lila-Maryam said. “You want it for yourselves.”
“We only want to read it. You can keep it here and we’ll tell the Regent Mother that Esther took it with her. No one else will ever know about it.”
Lila-Maryam massaged her temples. “I don’t have much choice, do I?”