Sammy handed Mehrak her lamp and walked ahead, using her locket as a torch.
“How did you know we could push through those bricks?” she asked.
“I figured it out when I saw my sweat dripping into the stone dust.”
“Yeah. But it made me realise that the Hirbod aren’t builders; they’re priests. What would they cement the blocks together with all the way down here in the mountain? I figured that all they’d done was block up the entrance and fill in the gaps with stone dust mixed with water to conceal it. Besides, they wouldn’t want to completely block the temple. It’s a sacred place.”
They walked quickly, checking back over their shoulders occasionally, in case the monster was still trying to get at them. Sammy was sure it hadn’t given up, but the temperature remained constant and there was no sound coming from back up the tunnel, which meant they were probably safe for the moment.
The tunnel took them to a long cave. At the far end was a circular opening with an ornate but tarnished silver frame around its circumference. Guarding it were two stone figures on short pedestals.
Mehrak set off across the cavern. “That looks like the entrance to a temple to me,” he said.
The two statues looked to be angels, standing straight with their wings neatly folded behind their backs, and each carrying a spear.
Sammy turned the light of her locket towards the one nearest her. Starting at the feet, she followed the line of its legs up its body.
She recoiled as she reached the head. Its face was distorted with a hideous anger, like a wild animal, with its mouth open, fangs bared and lips curled back in a snarl.
“What are they?” she asked.
“The angels that took Arda Viraf to the Next World?”
“They don’t look like any angels I’ve ever seen.”
“Maybe they’re gargoyles to scare away evil spirits.”
“I don’t like them.”
Mehrak walked on to the temple entrance. Sammy stayed back and watched from the other side of the evil angels.
The silver frame around the tunnel had a range of geometric shapes indented into its surface and tessellated together. Spanning the base of the opening was a golden disc, sunk into the ground, flush with the floor. It had been intricately detailed like the doorframe, but with organic shapes made up of interwoven vines, tentacles and snakes.
“That thing on the floor,” Mehrak said. “It looks like a seal of some sort.”
“There’s something over here too,” Sammy said. She’d angled her locket off to the right of the entrance revealing a series of scenes carved into the cavern wall. They ran horizontally like a comic strip, starting near the temple entrance and fading away into the dark to her right. Each carving had been painted in a simplistic style, using earthy ochres, oranges, browns and charcoal blacks. They reminded Sammy of the prehistoric cave paintings she’d seen in books.
“That looks like you,” Mehrak said, pointing at the image closest to the temple entrance. The scene depicted a small, yellow-haired person walking over a bridge to a golden-domed temple on the other side. “You’re crossing the bridge over the Cataclysm.”
Sammy followed the pictures along the wall, chasing away the darkness with her locket. Mehrak remained at the first, chewing his
lip. The second image was a patterned circle with a big crack down the centre. Sammy skipped past it to the third.
“What about this one?” she said. It was the same as the first but with no one on the bridge. Instead, at the bottom of the image was a man drawn in charcoal with three arms and orange flames around him.
“That must be Ramaask,” Mehrak said. “Is that what’s supposed to happen to him?”
Sammy was already at the fourth picture. “I hope this isn’t supposed to happen.” It depicted the same yellow-haired child from the first picture, but this time it was falling. There was no scenery or background to give the image context, but the child held a circle between its thumb and index finger.
“Does that mean I’m supposed to end up in the Cataclysm with Ramaask?”
“Can’t be,” Mehrak said. “We’ve already made it to the temple. That’s probably the first chosen child.”
Sammy wasn’t convinced.
“I want to know what this is on the second picture,” Mehrak said. “I think it might explain the other pictures.” He went to take another look. Sammy didn’t bother. She stared at the picture of the falling yellow-haired child. She wondered if it had something to do with the book she’d seen in the library. She still hadn’t told Mehrak about it and wasn’t sure if she should.
“The patterns on this circle are the same as on the golden disc on the floor,” Mehrak said.
Sammy didn’t reply. She’d moved on to the fifth carving, which turned out to be the last. And the worst. It also made her wish she’d never spotted any of them.
“Are you feeling okay?” Mehrak asked. He held his lamp up to her face. “You don’t look so good.” He followed her vacant stare.
The last carving had been smashed. In the middle of it, a crater had removed much of what must’ve originally been there, but still
remaining, around the edges, were painted faces in a state of either screaming or crying.
“We shouldn’t be here,” Sammy said.
“We should,” Mehrak said. “We’re taking you home.”
“Yeah, but is this the right place? It doesn’t feel right. Those evil angels, these pictures. Something feels wrong. This might not be the real Temple of Paths.”
“Lila-Maryam said it was.”
“She didn’t, though. She never actually said ‘Temple of Paths’. She knows there’s a temple down here, but she might not know which one it is. I guessed this was the place. But I guess a lot; at school, in exams. And I’m normally wrong.”
“It all fits,” Mehrak said. “Ramaask coming here for you. The monster. He said you were ‘so close to the Mother World’, didn’t he? You’re right this time.”
Sammy said nothing.
Mehrak took her hand and led her towards the entrance. “Come on. We’ll go in together.”
As they stepped between the angels, the earth moved.
Hami felt the tremor and Ramaask’s axes stopped falling. He’d frozen mid-swing, and if his face had been capable of emotion, Hami would have sworn it exhibited fear in that moment.
“Impossible!” he roared.
Seizing the window of opportunity, Hami let forth as much power as he could extract from his staff. The lightning hit Ramaask in the chest, launching him backwards with a pained gargle. He landed on both feet and dropped to one knee. Hami let another blast go. But the second was casually backhanded away as if it were a mosquito.
Ramaask was on his feet again, charging towards him. Hami leapt upward, into a forward flip, and over the top. But Ramaask didn’t stop. He kept going, powering through the protective barrier
that had cocooned them and into the crabmen, who scattered as he crashed through.
He was heading towards the Cataclysm.
With the barrier breached, it collapsed inwards, and Hami found himself fighting crabmen again. He fought desperately in Ramaask’s direction, but he’d already disappeared from view.
Sammy stopped. “What was that?”
“Subterranean tremor?” Mehrak replied.
“I think it was an earthquake.”
“Aren’t they the same thing? Besides, the rock probably amplified the tremor.” Mehrak took a deep breath and let it out again. “I’m sure it’s nothing.” His grip on Sammy’s hand tightened and they took another step forward, resulting in a larger subterranean tremor.
Hami broke through the last of the crabmen. He could see Ramaask ahead, but he’d gained a massive lead and was almost at the Cataclysm.
Crabmen chased Hami from the battle. They were faster and forced him to fight as he ran. As they caught up, he batted them away with backward swings of his staff or shot them with over-the-shoulder lightning blasts.
An explosion boomed deep underground, knocking Hami from his feet. Plumes of flame leapt up over the edge of the Cataclysm as screams echoed from its depths.
The crabmen that had been chasing him turned and fled. Those ahead of him, who’d been at the doors of the temple, were streaming back across the bridge.
Ramaask reached the bridge himself and began crossing through the retreating crabmen, shoving the ones that got in his way into the chasm.
Hami got back on his feet and ran after him. There was still a huge distance to cover to get to the Cataclysm, but he had to keep going. He had to stop Ramaask before he got to Sammy.
Sammy stared down at the golden disc in the doorway.
“The closer I get, the worse the earthquake is getting,” she said.
Mehrak stood beside her, still holding her hand. “We’ve got to do this,” he said. “Right?”
“Wait!” Sammy was tired of needing her hand held. She could do this herself. It was only three steps over the disc, maybe four. What was the worst that could happen? She rolled her shoulders back, let go of Mehrak’s hand and took three large strides across the golden disc and into the entrance of the temple. She let out the breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding.
“Easy,” she said. She could feel a smile on her lips. One more milestone ticked off. No problemo. She turned to Mehrak, but his expression killed her mood. His face was slack, the whites of his eyes visible all the way around his irises as he stared at the floor.
He pointed at the golden disc. It was changing colour, losing its lustre. The gold was transitioning through shades of metallic yellow to grey and then losing its shine completely and becoming dull like the stone around it.
With a crunch, it snapped in half.
The rumbling began again, increasing in intensity, building up.
“Here it comes,” yelled Mehrak.
And the explosion hit.
A vast wall of flames burst up past the ridge of the Cataclysm.
Hami hit the floor, covering his eyes as thousands of screams cried out, and were silenced.
The bridge spanning the chasm between the plain and the Fire Temple had gone. Rubble soared skywards, turning over in the air, Ramaask and the crabmen with it.
Ramaask roared as he slowed and fell back towards the Cataclysm, disappearing into the flames.
Flaming pterodactyls soared from the fire, screeching and trailing smoke, before their wings stopped and they dropped from the sky.
Hami ran to where the bridge had been. Part of it remained, jutting out from the land like a huge diving board.
A black arm shot up at the far edge of the rocky protrusion, scrabbling for purchase. It was followed by a second and then a third arm.
Ramaask hauled his head and chest above the ridge. Steam billowed from his body. His cloak had been incinerated and his armour had melted to his body, still glowing orange and red in places. He pulled his helmet off with his thin rear arm and threw it aside, exposing a bald, smouldering head.
“You’ve made a grave mistake,” he said with a wheeze.
“It is you who made the mistake,” Hami said, lowering his staff to point it directly at him, “when you attacked my partner.”
Ramaask managed a strained chuckle. He pulled the rest of himself up and onto the end of the bridge. He remained on all fours, his broad chest rising and falling. “You can’t kill me,” he said.
“I can’t,” Hami replied. “But the Cataclysm can.” And he lowered the staff to point at the ground between them.
“No!” Ramaask yelled.
Lightning slammed into the rock, disintegrating the last of the bridge and sending Ramaask careening backwards.
“You need me!” he screamed as he fell.
Hami watched him fall and catch fire. He continued watching well after he’d disappeared.
When he could no longer stare into the light, he turned from the Cataclysm to see the last of the crabmen fleeing into the forest.
Ramaask had finally gone.