Chapter Seventeen

The Ariumdom

Darijin was definitely on edge as he led Lora through the corridors of the labyrinth that was the Ariumdom. He clearly knew where he was going despite the various twists and turns that he had taken her through. Even though the structure was colossal, the entrances and exits to the outside world were nothing more than small doors set into the stonework and it would be very easy to get into the Ariumdom and struggle to get out again. But she was with a man who had lived here for most of, if not all, his life and was confident of where he was going,

His eyes and head were darting around as they walked, judging everyone around them as they moved. Lora moved with less suspicion, knowing that she could easily take care of anything that might rear its head against them as they walked. She also seriously doubted that anyone would dare attempt to murder Darijin whilst he wandered the corridors with people nearby.

However Darijin became more edgy as they walked. To reassure him she placed a hand on his shoulder and leaned towards him.

"If anyone that you don't like the look of comes near, just tell me and I'll protect you," she promised.

He glanced at her apologetically. "This is where most of the Bahamutite's linger," he murmured, speaking in a low voice so nobody could hear. "I haven't been down here for a while I like not having sharp instruments sticking in me."

She smiled and nodded as he led them away from the main corridor and down a dimly-lit hallway. At the end of the hallway was a wooden door that had a newly-painted appearance about it as it shone in the torchlight. Two grim-faced men stood either side of the door and Lora noted that these men were clean-shaven – a very un-Cathurian trait.

"I see the Bahamutite's are taking the whole breaking away from Aura thing seriously," she whispered as they approached.

Darijin nodded. "Obviously they feel that Bahamut would be offended if they worshipped him in a similar way to Aura."

She pursed her lips. "He probably wouldn't notice the difference," she replied. "To be honest, I don't think that he could tell the difference between a male and a female, let alone whether people have beards or not."

"That's not exactly reassuring, Lora," he grumbled as they stopped in front of the two men guarding the door. They were not obviously armed but Lora did not doubt that these men possibly had blood on their hands from the murders that had been taking place, judging by the look of them. They stared at Lora and Darijin – mostly at Lora – but did not speak.

"I want to see Dela Maston," Lora told them before Darijin could offer introductions.

Their sneers of disdain were almost identical, as were the leers they offered as they looked her up and down. "Her eminence is busy at the moment," the one to Lora's right told her arrogantly. "One does not just 'see' Bahamut's emissary to the West."

Lora couldn't hold her laugh in at the way the man was talking. "Bahamut's emissary? Her eminence? Oh sweet goodness it's no wonder things have gone so sourly here." She stepped towards them both, looking deceptively demure. "What I have to say is very important," she said, making sure that she was in front of Darijin just in case the men decided to get handy with any weapons they might have on them. "She and I need to talk about her attitude: I don't like it."

"Oh really?" the one to her left asked with a wicked smile. "You don't like it, do you? Does the way her eminence act offend your precious sensibilities? Are you wounded by her appearance? When she speaks, are you wronged? I'm sure that she feels shame for the way that she has insulted you and will do everything in her power to change her ways."

The one to the right barked a laugh. "Yeah and while she's at it she'll just stop being Bahamut's right hand," he said without humour. "She's been chosen by the Dragon God, but because a little girl doesn't like her she'll stop what she's doing and go home."

Darijin placed a hand on the small of her back and leaned forward. "I wouldn't go offending these people, Lora," he said in whispered tones. "They're likely to make you regret it."

She turned her head to look at him. "I can handle myself," she assured him. "They won't make me regret anything."

Both of the men shifted their postures having heard what she said about them. "She can look after herself, can she?" the one to the right asked with raised eyebrows. He motioned to Darijin with his chin. "That coward there has the right idea, little girl. Hiding back there so we can't see the piss stains on his britches. I'll give you this one chance to turn around and walk away right now before we give you cause to regret something."

"Unless," the one on the left put in, "you fancy coming here and waiting with us until it's time for us to go back to our rooms?" he suggested with a disgusting smile on his face. "You definitely won't regret that."

Lora resisted the urge to turn her nose up at him as he spoke. "That does it," she grumbled under her breath. Then she smiled beautifully, turning the full charm of her looks at them and she walked towards them, trying to get her hips to move the way she had seen Xebell do on occasion when she was targeting a likely bed-partner.

She reached for the one on the right first, stroking his cheek with her right hand and then she moved to the one on the left – he had offended her the most. She wrapped her arm around his neck and placed herself close to him so that their bodies were touching. He grinned and placed a hand around her waist, reaching down for her buttocks. Then she leaned in and placed her lips to his ear.

"I can think of nothing more repulsive than going anywhere with either of you two," she growled.

Then she drove her knee into his midriff, doubling him over before grabbing him by the scruff of his shirt and the waist of his trousers and tossing him past Darijin to the floor. The second man made a startled noise and reached for a dagger in his pocket, but she got to him first and grabbed that hand going for the weapon, twisting it around and then flipping him over her body onto his back on the floor. She mused for a moment over which hand he preferred to use and settled for the right one; the one she was holding. Then she twisted and pulled and with a sickening noise the arm dislocated from the shoulder, making the man scream in pain.

The first man she had attacked was back up on his feet and he yelled something, charging at Lora but just before he could get to her she easily sidestepped and used his momentum against him, driving him against the wall beside the door front-first before she turned him around and placed her forearm at his throat, grabbing him with her other hand by the collar of his shirt. She looked directly at him and offered him that lovely smile.

"No," she said to him pleasantly. "I'm not exactly regretting anything just yet." She considered him, glaring at him as he struggled fruitlessly against her grip, his hands trying to wrench her forearm from his throat unsuccessfully. "The only thing stopping me from inflicting some serious pain is because I want you to do something for me," she told him, maintaining her nice, conversational tone. "Now tell me, please: what is Dela Maston doing behind that door that does not require disturbing?"

He continued to struggle against her, but it was a fruitless endeavour. "She's meeting with Corogan," he gasped out as she pushed her forearm harder against his windpipe.

She looked over her shoulder to Darijin. "Who?"

"Corogan Olaur," he replied, frowning. "He's one of the most vocal members of the people who want to destroy the Ariumdom."

"Oh really?" Lora asked, dragging out the second word as she turned back to the man she had pinned against the wall. "Well doesn't that sound cosy? You're going to do that thing for me now, sweetheart. I want you to go through that door and tell Dela and Corogan that someone important wants to see them."

He continued to struggle against her arm but it was immovable. "You're not important enough to interrupt her eminence," he said, gasping as he spoke against the force on his throat. "I will not interrupt her for someone such as you."

"Oh, pish," she said, pouting at him. "Let me tell you something. This lady is definitely no eminence. Now as for me…"

She trailed away and closer her eyes, drawing on some magic. When she opened them, he saw that her eyes had turned to a gold colour with black vertical slits for pupils – the eyes of a Dragon. "I am far more important than anyone you will ever meet," she stated in a voice that she tried to make sound as guttural and animalistic as possible. The man did not know what Bahamut or a Dragon sounded like and so it did not take much of an effort to transform her voice into something horrible-sounding. Then she closed her eyes and returned everything to normal before she released him and stepped back.

"Am I clear?" she asked, smiling once again.

He stared at her for a moment. Then he gibbered something incomprehensible and banged hard on the door, not waiting for an answer as he opened it and dashed inside.

Lora sighed and smoothed herself down, turning to Darijin who had taken a couple of steps back worriedly.

"Don't worry," she reassured him with a wave of her hand. "I'm not about to manifest into the real Bahamut and start laying waste to everything in sight. It was just a bit of trickery to get us inside."

"Why not just let him go and enter ourselves?" he asked, taking a tentative step forwards.

"Because-" Lora made an annoyed face as the man ran from the room, sprinting past his colleague who was curled up on the floor, clutching his shoulder in agony. "How rude," she said, putting her hands on her hips, watching him run. "Because," she continued, "he's going to go back to his friends and tell them that you and I attacked him and his friend here and what I sound and look like. People are now going to think that you're under my protection and won't be too keen to stick a knife into you any time soon."

He raised his eyebrows, apparently not convinced as Lora looked critically at the open door. "Well," she said, "I guess it would rude to turn down such an invitation. Shall we?"

And before he could respond, she walked in.

She had suspected that she would walk into a scene such as this. The room being guarded was a lavish bedroom and Dela Maston was in bed with Corogan Olaur. The two of them, in a state of undress, were sat up on different sides, using the duvet to cover up the essentials.

Lora sized up the woman in the bed as she approached, Darijin lingering several steps behind. Dela was in her early forties, with short black hair and features that were slightly younger than her age. She wasn't a small woman, possessing curves in the right places to attract men but not so big as to appear unattractive. She possessed a look of outrage on her face as Lora reached the foot of her bed and grabbed hold of the chemise hanging on the bedpost, tossing it at her.

"Well, your eminence," Lora said with an amused look on her face, her lips forming an arch smile. "It appears that Bahamut's right hand lady is extremely accommodating to those poor wayward souls who require some inner peace."

"Very droll," Dela replied in a silky voice, ripping the chemise from where it had landed on the pillow. "But what I get up to in my bedroom is no concern to anyone now that the strict rules that once governed this most holy of structures are gone." She gave Lora a scornful look as she started to try to dress whilst keeping herself covered with the duvet. "I assume that you are one of the Aura lovers."

Lora supressed a snort at that comment. "What gives you that impression?"

"A Bahamutite or one of Corogan's people would have much more respect for those that are above them, little girl," With the chemise on, Dela reached to the floor and picked up a pair of white undergarments.

"I'm getting extremely fed up of these 'little girl' comments that you Bahamutite's seem to like tossing at me," Lora revealed in a frustrated tone. "I'm certainly not a little girl."

"Good for you," Dela said sarcastically as she stood, her essentials now covered up. Still in the bed, Corogan was looking for traces of his clothes, but they had been tossed too far away from the bed for him to reach, so he settled for looking uncomfortable. "Perhaps when you start respecting your superiors you'll be entitled to a better title." She stormed past Lora, ignored Darijin's appraising look at her body and collected a dressing gown from a chair beside a dressing table, shoving it on quickly. "Now what the hell do you think you're doing, frightening guards and interrupting my meeting like this?"

Lora chose not to make a remark about the term 'meeting'. "I'm here to give you some advice, Dela," she said tartly, offering Corogan a sideways glance that was designed to make him squirm.

"Some advice, you say?" Dela raised her eyebrows, an amused look on her face. "This will be worth hearing, I am sure. You go through all the effort of getting into my bedroom just to offer me advice?"

Lora nodded, pursing her lips. "It is definitely worth the effort. You need to stop this Bahamutite crap immediately."

To her credit Dela did not laugh out loud at what Lora had said, although she definitely looked as though she was going to let loose a snigger at any moment. After taking a couple of seconds to compose herself, she took a step towards her. "Stop this? Stop the progression of the very religion that soon all of the West itself will be following? You really are a little girl, aren't you?" She reached out and took a lock of Lora's hair and twirled it around her finger for a moment before flicking it back. Darijin made a strangled noise, obviously worried that Lora would strike back, but she allowed Dela that one little victory for the moment as she circled around and back to the bed. "Now that we are safe from the Parishium hoards it is time to put everything into perspective," she said, sitting on the bed and reaching underneath for a moment, her hand returning with a large bottle of what looked like red wine. "Aura was a great big fraud upon whom a great deal on this continent depended upon. And now that he is gone there is a great big gap in philosophy and religion that needs filling." She undid the cork on the bottle. "It just so happens that Bahamut is in desperate need of worshippers right now, girl. He went through all the effort of single handedly defeating that liar Aura and that evil Parishium monster of a God and how are we repaying him? By getting on with our lives and failing to acknowledge how great he truly is. This is the God who killed two Gods in one night. And so he came to me and bade me to become his representative as a human and a mortal so that I may spread the word of his greatness to all mankind." She stared a hole right through Lora as she took a great swig from the bottle.

Lora had not taken her eyes from her. Her own eyes were steely and unconvinced. "So Bahamut chose you, did he?" she asked through clenched teeth.

"You should listen, little girl. I just said that he did," Dela said insultingly. "So now you understand why I could not possibly take your sage advice and stop this. I am his emissary – his right hand in this realm."

Darijin had his head in his right hand and was shaking it with worry. "Oh goodness," he murmured sadly. "Aura's lies have truly infected us all."

"Shouldn't you be dead by now, Darijin?" Dela asked spitefully, waving the bottle in his direction. "You're a fool and a coward; hiding behind children like this."

"You're not Bahamut's emissary and I am going to give you one more chance to be more civil about this," Lora ordered, straightening to her full height and continuing to stare angrily at Dela, who was completely oblivious to the danger she was in.

Dela laughed scornfully and leaned back towards Corogan, who also joined her with a small laugh of his own. "Oh really?" she said. "Please don't think I am as easy to intimidate as those buffoons you scared out there. My will is much stronger; as strong as my Gods', you might say."

Lora moved as a blur and suddenly she was leaning over both Dela and Corogan, her eyes back to that amber colour with black slits. The wine bottle slipped from Dela's grip and started to soak the duvet.

"I think you should both see what it would entail to be Bahamut's human emissary," she said in that same evil, monstrous voice she had used on the man outside the door. "And just what he would do to either of you if you continued to claim to worship him in this manner."

She conjured images into their minds, keeping them locked in position so that they could not flee those sights. They saw Dragons keeping them chained to posts in sweltering pits and feeding them raw animal meat as food, forcing them to eat it. As emissaries they were used to communicate the needs of the Dragons to other people; usually surrendering their land and food sources so that Dragons may eat and play and mate. Worshipping Bahamut involved rites stood before a Lora that had huge black wings sprouted from her back as she hovered above them and every time they misspoke a word they were whipped with great flays made of dragon hide that not only inflicted pain but poisoned their bodies. They had to round up and send several hundred humans a month to be sacrificed in the name of Bahamut, where they saw Lora take on the form of a great Dragon and eat those hundred people in one sitting.

The images lasted less than two minutes. When Lora released them from that spell she moved away and stood beside Darijin as the two people on the bed gasped, sweating and panting as though they had just finished their lovemaking again. When they had composed themselves they stared fearfully back at her, Corogan looking like he was about to pull the blankets right over his head and try to hide from her gaze.

"What are you?" Dela demanded, trying to sound strong but only managing to appear even more terrified.

Lora smiled at her. "I am Bahamut, Dela Maston. I am the God that you claim chose you as his right hand. And you are just as much a liar as that God you used to worship."

Dela Maston immediately prostrated herself as much as the bed would allow her, falling to her knees, her face flat on the duvet and her arms out in front of her, ignoring the wine soaking her gown. "Oh great God of the Dragons," she said in a loud voice. "I knew that you would choose me when you saw how devoted I was to your cause. You have surely come to exalt me above all humans."

"Oh get up," Lora ordered, waving her hand flippantly. "I'm here to do no such thing. Did you not realise that what I showed you and your lover was what would happen if Bahamut ever wanted to extend his reign to the human lands? Now get up and listen to me."

Hesitantly Dela moved off the bed and stood: her legs apparently wobbly with a combination of fear and awe. Still covered up with the duvet, Corogan was staring at Lora as though she had sprouted a second head.

"That's better. Now then, it's time for the two of you to do things for the benefit of the people here and not yourselves for the first time in a while." Lora placed a hand on her chin, musing her next words. "Right. First of all Dela, you're certainly not my emissary and you never will be. So you're going to announce that you were either mistaken or lying – I don't care which one – and that Bahamut does not want to be worshipped by anyone here?"

Dela's face fell. "Don't you?" she asked, her lower lip shaking.

Lora looked her up and down with a hint of scorn in her eyes. "Definitely not and certainly not by the likes of you, Dela Maston. So calm things down with your Bahamutites and stop this worship idea. It's an awful one, anyway. And you," she pointed at Corogan, who looked like he was about to pass out with terror. "are going to stop this whole petty murder agenda that you all seem so fond of. That's a worse idea than calling yourself a Bahamutite. I want the two of you singing so loudly from the rafters that they can hear your hymns back in Elaria. Then you're going to insist to your followers that Selajan Aurdan takes the throne under no obligations. He will be the king of Cathuria and he will do as he sees fit with absolutely no objections."

They both stared at her, slack-jawed and afraid. "And what of us?" Dela asked. "We will have gifted the throne to this man. Surely we will have some kind of reward for our actions?"

Lora shrugged. "That's up to this man," she told them, placing a hand on Darijin's shoulder. "Because you're also going to insist that he becomes Selajan's religious advisor. His ideas for the Ariumdom – the ones you callously ignored and wanted him murdered for – are the best way for the Cathurians to move forwards. What you're planning in this seedy little room will ultimately lead to the destruction of the Cathurians. You've got Orium on one border and Yrellan on another – do you really want those two sniffing around, waiting to pick up the pieces once the war is over?"

Darijin was looking shell-shocked at Lora's suggestion that he became a religious advisor. Dela, however, was eyeing him up speculatively; plotting whether sleeping with him would give her any form of advantage.

Lora glared at Dela and Corogan suspiciously, her eyes reading their intentions. "You might not be my emissary, Dela Maston, but Darijin is my friend and has my trust. If he needs to, he can contact me in any situation and I will be here in less time than it takes for you to form a thought. So think on that if you ever decide to have him murdered. And if there should be any attempt on his life I will make what you saw in those visions look like picking flowers. Are we understanding each other?"

They had no choice but to agree. Corogan nodded fearfully and Dela bowed low with a murmured "yes your grace." Lora smiled round at them and nodded casually.

"Excellent. We will leave you to it, then. I'll be hanging around for a while longer so I expect to have Bahamutite's wondering about your change of heart by the time I leave, Dela." Lora did not wait for a reply, she turned and headed to the door. "Come on, Darijin. We've got other matters to attend to."

Shaking, he followed her from the room as Dela and Corogan watched them leave, wide-eyed and awestruck.

Lora shut the door behind them and Darijin finally managed to compose himself. "Religious advisor?" he exploded. "Me? What on earth possessed you to come up with that awful idea?!"

She walked past him with a mischievous smile. "Who else would you trust to run this place, Darijin? Someone like Dela or Corogan? I think that Selajan is going to need all the support he can get and with you at his side I believe that the Ariumdom can only flourish."

He grumbled for a few moments until she cut him off by walking away. "I need to see this Edijan Smirl now, Darijin. I don't have time to debate politics here in Cathuria. I'm creating peace as I go but I need your help in doing this. I've stopped people wanting to assassinate you now, so do me a favour and take up this job as Selajan's religious advisor. I think that once you've given it a chance, you might like it."

He politely didn't object any further, which she was grateful for as she hung back and allowed him to overtake her and lead the way. She knew that he would grow into the role and come to like it – he was tailor-made for such a position and she did not know or trust anyone else as suitable. Plus she had also single-handedly stopped Dela Maston and Corogan Olaur plotting any more mischief in the Ariumdom for the moment. She smiled to herself at that thought and mentally patted herself on the back.

Darijin led her down some more corridors and through a main hallway and Lora started to recognise some of the scenery now. It was hard to pinpoint some places that she might have been before, as the paintings and murals that had once adorned the walls of the Ariumdom were either removed or desecrated. But once they left the hallway and down a less adorned section of the building she was instantly reminded of the last time she had come down here. Here there had been no murals or paintings anyway and the walls had been unkempt and untended. Men in white coats still walked the corridors in this part of the Ariumdom, though they had been plentiful when Lora had last been down this way. One other thing that was now missing was the sound of groans and screaming that had filled the air: now there was more of an eerie silence that had descended.

They rounded a corner and came to that great, rusted iron door. Darijin reached into his cloak and fiddled for a moment with the key ring he kept within. As he fiddled with one of the keys and put it in the lock Lora looked the door up and down, remembering that last time she had been on the other side of that door there had been Parishium, who had pretended to be possessed or insane, let loose and were butchering any Speakers that they could get their hands on. Vorlat had gone ballistic and attacked everyone within reach, backed up by Xebell and Hesamer. And remembering Hesamer reminded her of why she was here – his death. She had not been on speaking terms with the man she had thought for most of her life had been her father when he died, but she had still loved him fiercely. Now here she was, a monster created in the wake of his death, trying to find some way of either controlling or exorcising the God inside of her.

She did not get emotional at the thought – she couldn't afford to at the moment. Darijin opened the door with a great creak and she went inside first, trying to block out any thoughts of Hesamer and her previous life. He followed her in and closed the door behind them with a great crash, locking it awkwardly as she looked around.

It had not changed too much. There were just cells lining each wall of a straight, narrow passageway. Lora stepped ahead and looked into the first cell. She knew the man inside this cell – Xebell had looked at him when they had first come here and he had spoken to her. He was still chained to the far wall and had no pupils in his eyes, though now he was completely hairless as opposed to having some scraggly strands on his head. He had more scars and rashes on his filthy skin, but the clothes he wore were not as tattered as when she had last seen him. He was chewing on a bone, squatting beside a blanket and pillow in the corner. She stood before the bars, staring at him helplessly. She had the powers of a God but could not help this poor soul for fear of waking Bahamut up.

He sensed that someone was looking at him and turned to her, licking at the bone with a forked tongue. When Xebell had been looking at him he had gone ballistic and tried to break free of the chain holding him to get to her. However when he saw her, he offered her a weak smile and pointed the bone at her.

"You're looking at the wrong cell," he said in that same dead, rasping voice that she remembered from years ago. Then he frowned and sniffed disgustingly. "I wasn't expecting a visit from a God today. Or else I might have had my yearly bath." And then he laughed; a low chuckle at first and then breaking into a great roaring cackle that made other prisoners down the hallway shout or bang the doors.

Darijin stepped forwards, reaching into his pocket a bringing forth a relic that had made the possessed man cower away once before but Lora placed a hand on his arm to stop him. She reached for the cell bars with both hands and pressed herself against them. He had stopped laughing and was staring back at her with a sneer on his face.

"One day I will have the power to cure you," she said in a low, helpless voice. "One day you will be saved."

He blinked quickly three times at her words and for a moment she thought he was going to shed a tear. But then the sneer returned. "You are foolish, tool of Bahamut. Are you going to fight every Demon that possesses every man?"

"If I have to," she replied tenderly. "One day you will-"

"-don't make your empty promises," he cut her off scornfully, turning away and back to his bone. "First Angul Manitreya, then Aura and now Bahamut makes assurances that he can never keep. Aura was the closest to the truth, but now he's gone and so it falls to you." He turned back and looked her up and down quickly before turning away again. "One day, Bahamut, you will realise the greater threat comes not from what is inside of you, but what is inside the planet. And when that day comes it will be too late. All will fall before Nadhera."

"Nadhera?" Lora asked with a frown. "What is Nadhera?"

But the man was ignoring her now, chewing forcefully on his bone.

"Please," she begged. "What is this Nadhera?

He stopped his chewing and chortled at her. "So weak, Bahamut. So fearful." He looked at her and bared his rotting, black teeth. "Ask yourself, as Aura did, where we Demons come from. And then you will uncover the truth."

"What truth?"

He flung the bone at her, but it hit the bars of the cell and bounced back as he took some crouched steps towards her, not taking his eyes from her. "The truth that you will all be dead, soon," he said coldly. "And with Aura now gone, you are helpless. Now leave me be, I shall speak no more to you."

He turned away, ignoring his bone as he slunk back to the far corner, wrapping his feet up in his blanket and clutching at the pillow as though it were a stuffed toy. Lora stared at him, not sure what approach to take now. Then she let go of the cell bars and lowered her head helplessly.

Darijin looked at her in confusion. "The man is possessed by a Demon," he tried to assure her. "What he says is the words of a madman."

"Or maybe he has a point to make," Lora said in a voice just above a whisper. "What he said almost rings true to me, for some reason. It's like Bahamut listened in and acknowledged what was said. I don't think he was lying. I think everything he said was true – I just don't know what the hell it means." She shrugged, confused. "I think that I'm going to find out what it means, though. And very soon, too. But for now I have other matters to attend to." She forced a smile and nodded at Darijin. "Edijan, then, oh religious advisor."

He gave her a glare that she beat away with a lovely smile and then led her down the rows of cells. Various men gave her catcalls and whistles and inappropriate suggestions as she walked past their chambers but she politely ignored them, keeping her face straight and looking ahead of them, until Darijin stopped outside one cell and turned to look inside. She joined him and looked through the bars.

The man inside was a slim, scholar-looking man. Unlike the possessed man she had just conversed with, he was clean and well-dressed, with a neatly-trimmed beard. And unlike the possessed man he also had a proper bed in the corner of his cell as opposed to a mere blanket and pillow. He was sat on the bed, legs outstretched, reading a small book with the use of some thick-looking lenses.

"Edijan," Darijin said to him in a low voice so that others inside their cells would have difficulty hearing. "You have a visitor."

The man glanced up at Darijin and then looked back at his book with a rude snort. "I don't want to speak to anyone," he said in a reedy voice. "My family have continued to forsake me. Whoever you have with you is not as important as them. Kindly badger off and leave me be."

"Badger off?" Lora asked with an amused smile. "Edijan, I like you already."

He glanced up again from his book and did a double-take when he saw Lora. "Is it you who wants to see me?" he asked in a stammering voice, obviously awed by her beauty.

"I just want to ask you about what you found in Orium," she said to him. "Darijin told me about why you are here, but I want to know how you got it and what it said."

Edijan licked his finger hurriedly and turned the page on his book before putting a kick in the top of the page to mark his place and then swivelling on the bed so that he was sitting up. "If you release me from this cell, lady, I will tell you what I know," he bartered, staring at her.

"Done."

"Wait, done?" Darijin exclaimed with raised eyebrows. "Lora, this isn't someone you can just let loose into the world – the man used to be a Speaker."

"And he isn't liable to turn into one again," she argued calmly.

"But he knows things, girl. He's seen other people's private lives and maybe even state secrets. He could be a danger to someone."

"You're too careful about things like that, Darijin," Lora told him, waving his argument away. "So what if he saw Mrs Crabtree sleeping with the neighbour or Andro Seajad stealing from his boss?"

"I did see those things," Edijan chipped in with a frown.

Lora beamed at him. "I know you did." She looked back at Darijin. "But that sort of knowledge isn't going to make him a threat to anyone. He doesn't even know who I am. So once we've finished here you're going to arrange for Edijan to be released and sent from the Ariumdom with enough supplies to get him to a place of safety."

"He won't stay here?" Darijin asked.

"How can he? People know he was a Speaker and what he did before that. He needs a new start and I think he deserves one. Depending on whether he tells me the truth or not."

"Lady, for freedom from this cursed cell I would tell you anything you needed to know," Edijan murmured thankfully. "Please, where do I start?"

"That parchment that you brought with you from those ruins," Lora told him. "What did it say? I need to know as much as you can remember before they destroyed it."

Edijan's face broke into a pleased grin. "Oh no, lady," he said with a shake of his head. "I assure you that they did not destroy it."

"They didn't?" Darijin asked in shock.

"No they didn't. They confiscated it and told everyone that it was heresy and they had destroyed it. But when they took me before the hierarchs before my supposed trial, as they were about to lead me away after the questioning, I saw it on their bookcase in the candlelight, pushed in between two books."

"Were you not mistaken, perhaps?" Lora suggested with an arch smile. "I know from experience that it is very dark in the chamber of the hierarchs."

"Not dark enough, lady," Edijan replied earnestly. "I carried that parchment from Orium to the Ariumdom – I know what it looked like and that was definitely it. They were a bunch of hypocrites, telling me that it was sacrilege and blasphemy and that anything defacing the great name of Aura should be immediately destroyed and yet they keep it nice and safe in their cosy little room."

"Well now," Lora said to Darijin, "that is a turn-up for the books, isn't it? I think that this suggests that maybe your precious hierarchs were well aware of Aura's treachery."

"You have no proper proof of this," he replied defensively.

She shrugged and turned back to the cell. "One more question then, Edijan. These ruins in Orium – please tell us where they are and how you found them."

He nodded thoughtfully, considering what to say next. "It was a fluke that I came across them," he admitted. "I had left the Ariumdom and just headed straight West, into Orium, through Orium and then onto the coastal cliffs. To the southwest of Orium are ruins of various towns and hamlets that just did not ever get inhabited again for whatever reason and there are two or three on the coast. I was just traipsing through the ruins of one, trying to work out how long it had been since people had lived there and why they had left like they did. I spent three days there and it was on the third day, when a storm came in and I was searching for adequate shelter that I slipped and fell down what I had thought to be a well. But when I lit my lantern I discovered that I was in a cellar of some sort and there were a lot of those parchments in a bookcase. Most of them were damaged and wet and illegible, but I managed to salvage and interpret seven of them. What they revealed would have been extremely damaging to Aura and his followers and so I picked the one that I felt would pique the most attention and, filled with religious outrage, I marched from Orium to the Ariumdom. There I waited for an opportune moment and then denounced Aura."

"And the rest is history," Lora finished for him, motioning around his cell with her arm, her features cheerful. "Did you not tell anyone of the ruins?"

"I mentioned them," Edijan admitted. "But when it was apparent that I was not believed I refused to give exact directions because they would have destroyed them anyway. I would not allow that to happen."

"Perhaps the matter might have been handled in a more mature manner," Darijin said accusingly, clearly bridled by the way Edijan was talking.

The prisoner shrugged in an uncaring manner. "The only place that it would have caused a proper scandal was the Ariumdom," he said, turning back to his book. "Would the Elarians or Yrellans have cared so much that Aura was not the true God of the West? Probably not. Now then," he opened his book and put his feet up on the bed. "When you are ready to release me, you know where I am. Please do not disturb me for any more conversation unless it is to discuss when I am leaving."

Lora turned to go with a raised eyebrow. "That's twice in this damned dungeon that prisoners have said they won't talk to me anymore." She flicked her hair back over her shoulders. "A girl could get a complex if it happens again."

"Where to now?" Darijin asked, reaching for his key ring again and overtaking her.

She considered for a moment. "I've got a hunch," she replied carefully. "Take me to where the visage of Aura used to stand. I think this beam of light is pointing to something and I need you to confirm it for me."

-:-:-

Lora insisted that they detoured for some food to eat on the go and by the time they had queued and collected some food nearly an hour and a half had passed by the time they trekked through various chambers and passageways until Darijin finally took out his key ring once more.

"The army barricaded the room when they found the visage gone," he explained. "They felt that seeing that Aura had truly left us would cause too much pain for the more devoted followers and so they allowed access only to people investigating why it had gone."

"Did they find a reason?" Lora quizzed as they came to a hastily-erected enormous wooden door.

"No," Darijin confessed looking for the correct key. "A couple of them had magical powers and tried to bring the visage back, but nothing happened. They claimed that once they entered the chamber their magic just stopped working and they felt incredibly sick."

She nodded understandingly as he started to fiddle with the lock. "I think my hunch is getting closer to the mark, now."

The lock clicked and Darijin opened the door with a great heave. Lora stepped past him and into the dimly-lit hall. She imagined at point there were hundreds of men and women kneeling before the filmy image of Aura with great roaring lanterns illuminating the cavern. Now there was just a thin ray of white light that went from the floor to the ceiling. She approached it curiously.

"I was wondering," she asked. "What happens if anyone touches it?"

Darijin frowned at her, watching her cautiously. "Nothing," he replied. "Some people put their hands through it, but nothing happens. The light remains."

"Yes," she said thoughtfully. "It would." She turned back to him and then looked at the ceiling. "Think hard now, Darijin and take your time over this one. What is above us?"

"Nothing," he replied quickly. "It's just ceiling space," he added when he saw her accusing look. Then understanding dawned on him and he held his hand up. "No, wait…" he trailed off and turned to look at the door. Lora waited patiently as she muttered directions to himself, looking in various directions and then finally to the light. His eyes were wide. "It goes to the room of the hierarchs," he said in a low, awed voice.

"Are you sure?"

He nodded firmly. "Yes, definitely. I hadn't thought of it before, but it definitely goes there."

She smiled at him and then looked back to the light. "Has anyone been to the hierarchs room since they died?"

"Not since their bodies were removed and buried," he informed her. "The room has been sealed off until the Cathurians knew whether we were going to have more hierarchs or not."

"Good. Guess where we're going next?"

"To their room?"

She walked past him to the door. "It's the last thing I will ask of you, Darijin," she assured him. "You can be free of me after this."

"Wait, Lora," he touched her elbow at the door and she stopped, turning back to look at him. "What are we going to see in this room? Please tell me because I have a terrible feeling that I'm not going to like it."

She looked into his eyes, so honest and afraid. She sighed. "I think that up there, Darijin, is where your visage of Aura went."

"Oh," he let out a rush of air from his mouth. "That's not as bad as I thought."

"It might be," she murmured in reply. "And I think it will be."

-:-:-

They had to trek for another half an hour through bare, yellow corridors and chambers until they reached an area that Lora was familiar with. Here the Ariumdom was deserted and the hall led to a dead end, but Lora knew that Darijin would push the wall at the end and it would swing around, allowing access to a secret passage. She politely stood back and allowed him to do so and they entered, the door swinging shut behind them.

When she had been here last they had needed to carry torches to light their way but now lanterns and candles hung from the walls the rocky ceiling as they walked, trying not stumble on rubble. After several moments they came to a large set of stone stairs and Darijin turned to her.

"I know," Lora said with a grin. "The stairs are slippery, right?"

He nodded, a serious look on his face as he motioned for her to go first, which she did. When they had come before, Flur had nearly toppled backwards from one of the steps and Hesamer had reacted quickly to catch her and save her from injury. Lora knew that she would never slip on these stairs, but Darijin was allowing her go first so that he could catch her if she slipped, which was a very gentlemanly move on his part and so she allowed him his manners. Once they were atop the stairs Darijin led the way once more for ten more minutes until the passageway narrowed and they were stood before a lone wooden door.

Lora had expected Darijin to reach for his key ring to unlock the door, but he put a hand on the handle and pushed it down with ease. She raised an eyebrow and he glanced at her, noticing her look.

"Nobody would dare vandalise or thieve from the home of the hierarchs," he explained.

"You obviously don't know what mankind is capable of, Darijin," she replied brusquely, moving beside him as he opened the door slightly. "Now stay behind me and get ready to run if the fighting starts,"

"Wait. Fighting?" Darijin repeated, his eyes boggling. "But why-"

She cut him off with a raised hand, peering through the crack of the door. And then she opened it and stepped into the room lit by a lone lantern on the middle of a round table.

She knew exactly what she was looking for and spied the man stood by the bookcase to the right of the table before Darijin did as he entered behind her, holding the door open. The man had short, black hair and wore a long, grey robe. He had his back to them as he apparently scanned the bookcase, ignoring their entry for the moment.

Lora stood there, her hands clenching and unclenching and Darijin gasped when he saw the man stood there.

"Who goes in the sacred home of the hierarchs?" he demanded in a horrified tone of voice. "Stand away from those hallowed books and empty your pockets."

The man froze at his words and then slowly turned to face them. His eyes pierced both of them, as black as the night sky. And then he locked eyes with Lora and scowled, his handsome features suddenly morphing into something grotesque.

"So you have found me then, Bahamut."

Lora nodded, feeling something shift inside her as Bahamut, even in his sleep, strained to listen. "Yes, Aura," she growled fiercely. "I certainly have found you."