Lila-Maryam returned with a ragged, leather-bound book. She placed it in front of Mehrak, walked around the desk, sat down, and folded her arms.
Sammy watched Mehrak rub his sweaty palms on his waistcoat. She could tell he was thinking the same thing she was. That everything had come down to this book. Did it have the answers they needed? If he didn’t read it, they couldn’t be disappointed. Right now, they had hope. And that was all they had.
“Get on with it,” Leiss said. He shifted restlessly on his chair.
Sammy put a hand on Mehrak’s and smiled her most reassuring smile. He smiled back, clearly nervous. Then he slid the book off the table and cradled it in his hands. He took one last breath and set off.
He flicked through the pages, scanning each one as he went, turning them over, closing off the chapters one at a time. Half the book had gone and still nothing. He kept going, delving deeper, searching out the important section that would reveal the secrets of the temple.
Sammy edged closer. Leiss too. Not many pages left now, forty or fifty perhaps and Mehrak hadn’t slowed, hadn’t double checked a page or reread anything. Then he was at the end.
Mehrak remained motionless.
“Well?” Leiss said.
Mehrak flicked back through the pages until he was at a section around a quarter of the way in. He read quietly for a time then turned to Sammy, his expression apologetic.
They didn’t have the answer.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“It must say something,” Leiss said. He took the book off Mehrak.
Mehrak pointed a passage out to him. “This is all there is.”
Leiss read aloud, “For those who seek the Mother World, look out the world of lush greens, fresh air and grass.” He stopped. “That’s it? That’s all it says in the whole book? There has to be more.”
Mehrak shrugged, so Leiss began reading the book to himself, mumbling the words under his breath as he went. “What is grass, anyway?” he said at last.
“It doesn’t matter,” Sammy said. She stared at the floor.
Leiss got up. “Look at you two,” he said. “You’ve both given up already. We’ve got the same information Esther had. We’ll figure out what to do when we get to the temple.”
“Hold on!” Lila-Maryam said. “You never said anything about going to the … to –”
“To the Temple of Paths?” Mehrak finished for her.
Lila-Maryam flushed red. “You can’t!”
“We have the backing of the magi,” Mehrak said. “They want Sammy to go to the temple. That’s what this is all about. Harz was supposed to explain this to you. Why do you think all those crabmen are here?”
“We can’t allow you access to the temple. It’s our most sacred place, built by our founder. I …” Her eyes darted left and right. “And, and the temple is sealed.”
“Sealed?” Mehrak asked.
“After Esther broke in we had the entrance to the temple bricked up. You won’t get in.”
“We’ll need some tools then,” Leiss said. “A stone mason’s hammer, pickaxe. You got anything like that?”
Lila-Maryam’s objection erupted from her throat as a squawked gargle. She didn’t get any further.
In the hall outside, a door crashed and there were screams. Men and women called out for help, their pleas echoing around the high ceiling, then they were drowned out by the sound of furniture smashing.
Lila-Maryam stared at Mehrak, her eyes wild and her lips trembling.
Then came a grinding noise. The sound of stone dragged across stone.
“What in Ahura’s great creation?” Lila-Maryam rushed to the door, cracked it open, then stepped out.
The hall was black. Mehrak held Sammy’s hand as they followed Lila-Maryam out. The lights had been extinguished, including the flame in the centre dish. All that remained was an orange glow coming from a couple of pews that had caught fire. Others were in disarray and many were smashed.
A wave of heat engulfed everyone, forcing them to shield their eyes.
“No.” Sammy’s heart was pounding. The sick, tired dread was seeping into her bones. She wanted to lie down, close her eyes and give up. She wanted everything to be over.
“It’s that creature again,” she said.
“What?” Lila-Maryam asked. “What creature?”
Then they saw the bodies. Three of them, on the floor. Badly burned and smouldering, limbs twisted into unnatural positions, eyes wide, mouths frozen in silent screams. Lila-Maryam rushed towards them.
The double doors at the end of the hall burst open. Three male and two female priests ran in.
“Lila-Maryam,” called one of the men as he ran to her.
Lila-Maryam came to a stop by the bodies.
The five new arrivals staggered to a halt. One of the women shrieked and covered her face. No one else spoke.
Without looking up, Lila-Maryam whispered, “What happened?”
“Something got in,” said one of the men. He gulped.
“What something? How?”
“We don’t know. The doors to the grand hall are still secure.” The man turned to the woman that was crying. “Memi saw it, though.” He placed a hand on her arm. “Tell Lila-Maryam.”
Memi didn’t react. She continued to stare at the bodies as tears ran down her cheeks and into the corners of her mouth.
“I didn’t see much,” she said at last. “Most of the lights had gone out. I only saw a silhouette. Just a tall, thin shape, really.”
Sammy covered her eyes and held her breath. Too much oxygen was rushing to her head, her chest screaming for air.
“It’s him,” she said. “It’s the creature that chased me in the mushroom forest. The one that burnt everything it touched. It’s been following me this whole time. It killed Borzin. Now it’s here.”
Lila-Maryam turned on Mehrak and Leiss. “You brought this creature here?”
Mehrak shook his head. “No.”
“But you brought death to my brothers and sisters, unleashed an army of crabmen.” Lily-Maryam turned away, trembling. “You three,” she pointed at three of the priests. “I want the temple searched. No less than groups of four. Spread the word. And you two!” she snarled at Mehrak and Leiss. “You’re not going anywhere. I want you both in the office. Memi? Can you look after this young lady?”
“Lila-Maryam,” Leiss said. “I’m sorry that –”
“Sorry won’t bring back our brothers and sisters!”
“The thing that killed them killed my partner!” Leiss barked back. “It’s left his boy fatherless. Imprisoning us serves no purpose.”
“If you won’t go of your own free will …”
“Then what?” Leiss said, moving into Lila-Maryam’s personal space. “These scrawny little priests going to make me, are they?”
She stepped back, staring up at Leiss, her face burning with fury.
Leiss’s chest deflated. “Look, I’m sorry. We had no way of knowing …”
“Lila-Maryam!” called one of the priests. He’d been on his way back to the atrium, but had stopped halfway there. He gestured towards something behind a pile of smouldering pews. “There’s a hole.”
Leiss was the first to move. He raced towards it, side-stepping debris and leaping over pews still on fire.
One of the red marble tiles had been lifted out and placed to one side, leaving a square black hole in the floor.
“The entrance to the temple,” Mehrak said when he and Sammy caught up. “The creature knows about it. It thinks we’re already down there.”
Sammy stared into the darkness below.
“Unless it’s gone ahead to lie in wait.” Leiss drew his sword. “If it’s gone after us, it’ll know we aren’t down there soon enough.”
“It won’t,” Lila-Maryam said. “The temple is in the heart of the mountain. It’ll be a long time before it realises you aren’t down there and comes back.”
“What temple?” asked one of the priests.
Lila-Maryam closed her eyes. “I’ll explain later.”
“So we have time?” Leiss asked. “The temple isn’t just below the floor?”
“It’s a long way off. And, yes, we have plenty of time to fill the hole before the creature comes back.”
“We’re going down,” Leiss said. “Right now. It won’t come back up. It will get to the temple first, realise we aren’t there and settle in to wait.”
Saliva pooled in Sammy’s mouth. She retched. And again, and again until her stomach squeezed its contents up her throat and onto the floor. Acid burned her nasal cavity and rancid chunks
filled her mouth. Mehrak took her by the arm and rubbed her back, but her stomach hadn’t stopped cramping and she was sick again.
When she’d emptied her stomach, she took a gulp of air and spat out the filthy remnants of breakfast.
“It’s okay,” Mehrak said. “We’ll stay here. We’ll barricade him in.”
“We can’t,” Leiss said. “The Lurker’s coming. Remember?”
Sammy stared up at him. “Hami might stop him,” she said.
“You clearly weren’t listening to the same story I was,” Leiss said. “Hami doesn’t stand a chance. He’s going to get himself killed. Our only hope is to get to the temple and get you home. When the other creature realises it’s ahead of us, it will bed down and wait for us to come to him. It knows we’d sooner face him than the Lurker. And if the temple is as far away as Lila-Maryam says, then the creature probably doesn’t know that we’re behind him yet. If we’re quick we might even get the drop on him.”
“Maybe Ramaask wants Sammy alive,” Mehrak said.
“Like that crabman was going to take Sammy alive on Golden Egg balcony?”
Mehrak had no response to that.
“Exactly,” Leiss said. “We’re going down.” He turned to Lila-Maryam. “Slide the tile back over the hole once we’ve gone. Then get your boys here to weigh it down with whatever you can find. After that, get ten of them to guard the entrance. At least ten. Make sure nothing gets out.”
Lila-Maryam scowled at Leiss as he spoke but said nothing. Leiss picked up a long section of mushroom timber from a broken pew and lit the end from one of the still-burning pews. Then he sheathed his sword and approached the hole.
“Wait,” Lila-Maryam said. She exhaled and seemed to deflate. “You’re not going to make it to the temple without proper lamps. Memi, could you fetch me three oil lamps from the wall, please?”
Leiss dropped into the hole.
“Leiss!” called Mehrak. “We need to come with you.”
“Leiss?” Mehrak tried again, quieter this time.
“I’m right here,” Leiss called up. “I was just looking around. It’s not that deep.”
Memi returned with three oil lamps and Mehrak helped light them from splints of burning pew. He passed them through the hole and then Leiss helped him down, although not gently enough to stop him complaining about his ribs.
It was Sammy’s turn next. She peered into the hole. With the three oil lamps below ground, it was brighter under the floor than the hall above.
Leiss held his hands up out of the hole. “Just lower yourself down.”
“Hold on,” Lila-Maryam said. She reached into the opening of her cassock and removed a golden locket, pulling it out over the top of her head.
“Take this,” she said, handing it to Sammy. “It will guide you through the maze.”
“There’s a maze down here?” Mehrak called up.
Lila-Maryam held Sammy’s shoulders and stared into her eyes. “You can still get to the temple before the creature. It doesn’t know where it’s going. With this locket, you will.”
The locket was oval and had a burning sun on the front. On the back, written in Avestan, was an inscription that read A wish can be as good as a map.
Lila-Maryam stepped back. “I hope you are the one the legends spoke of. May Ahura be with you.” Then she broke eye contact and turned away. “That locket is the only possession I’m allowed. It was given to me by my father. Please don’t lose it.”
Leiss helped Sammy down into the hole. The cavity below the hall was a small one. It had a low ceiling, stone walls, and smelled of mould. Carved into the stone at one end was a primitive arch, leading to a staircase, which spiralled down and away into the rock.
Sammy placed the locket over her head and opened it. Inside was a small multi-faceted crystal set into the casing where a photo would normally sit. She held the locket up to her lamp. The crystal sparkled in the light, but did nothing else.
“Let’s get going,” Leiss said. He walked ahead through the arch.
Mehrak offered Sammy an optimistic smile. “Not far now,” he said.