The Seventh Sage
Dobo grunted and cursed as he scaled the final barrier. “All your riddles… your puzzles… have not stopped me!” he panted. Looking up, he could see the keep once more.
At last! He threw himself up and over the edge of the precipice, onto a narrow path leading upward. He drew his sword, but sat himself in the shelter provided by two boulders. The gods provide, he thought: he could catch his breath and watch both ways along the path without being seen himself. Before him, the Snagtooth Mountains pierced the sky, disappearing into mist, uncounted miles away.
Dobo drank his last two swallows of wine, then clambered to his feet. Sword in hand, he marched up the rocky path. “Four years I have spent on this quest,” he muttered. “Four years. And soon I will fulfill the oath I have sworn —”
Standing before him in the path was a man much like Dobo himself, perhaps a little older. He was armed with a sword, but it was sheathed and he stood with arms folded. Behind him, an open portal.
“Stand aside or die!” Dobo shouted, raising his sword. “I am Dobo of the Northern Reach, and I will not be denied my destiny!”
“You seek the Great Treasure of the Ancients?” the man asked. “Of course you do. I am not here to oppose you, but to lead and guide you. I was once called Marsten of Gran Isle, and I will answer to that name. I remember the Northern Reach well, a land of honest and sturdy people. Come with me.” He turned and walked through the portal.
His innards shouted Trick! Trap! but Dobo was driven by his oath. He scowled and followed, watching everything. No boiling oil fell upon him as he approached the portal. No arrows hissed from hidden openings inside. No pits opened beneath his feet. Still the passageway continued, Marsten leading at an unhurried pace.
The narrow hall ended in a great room, well lit by means Dobo could not see. Armoires stood along the walls, seven in all; two stood open and empty. Hallways led left, right, and straight on. His — guide? host? walked to one of the open armoires and removed his sword belt and mail shirt. “That one is yours,” said Marsten, nodding to the other open armoire.
“I will remain armed, thank you.”
Marsten shrugged. “It is your choice.” He walked to the center of the room, where awaited two divans, facing each other across a low table. A bottle and platter graced the table. “Meat and drink? I suspect you have not had much of either this day. Or are you impatient to claim that which you have striven so long to find?”
Dobo nearly drooled at the sight of meat, but held firm. “We seven swore an oath that only death would stop us from beholding the Great Treasure! Snares and treachery have claimed the others, and only I remain. I may not leave this keep alive, but I will behold the end of our quest — then will I eat. And whatever trap you have set for me? I will face it.”
“There are no traps here.” Marsten pointed to the door opposite. “Through there. Then return and dine.”
Dobo growled, but crossed the room. Again, no traps or snares impeded him. No lightning flashed as he touched the door. He pushed and entered —
A vast library, with more books than Dobo thought existed. As in the great room, the lighting was hidden, and seemed to come from everywhere.
“This… this is the Great Treasure?” he asked the room. Then he considered: books were rare and valuable things, and books of the Ancients would be much more so. He could only carry away what would fit in his pack, but that would be enough to purchase a life of comfort. The Seven Sages and their guard could object, but would not stop him —
He turned at a sound. A group of men and women, including Marsten, stood watching him from just inside the door.
“Then you must be the Seven Sages,” he said, and they nodded as one. “But I count only six. Where is the seventh?” He looked around quickly lest their comrade lie in ambush.
“He lays dying,” said one of the Sages.
“He stands before us,” said another.
Dobo sighed. “Is there no end to riddles? Give me a worthy opponent to fight!”
“Did not dragons or demons stand in your way?” asked Marsten. “And what of men?”
“Not a one! As for men, only brigands and highwaymen sought our blood! Yet every step forward was bought by riddles and puzzles, riddles and puzzles — fatal to those who could not answer them! This was no quest for a man of arms, but a sage!”
“And here you stand. If it takes a sage to find the Great Treasure of the Ancients…”
“I? A sage?” Dobo gave a hearty laugh and sheathed his sword. “A fine jest, my friend! But do I look like a sage to you?”
“Look beyond our title,” said a woman. “Do we look like sages?”
Dobo shrugged. “I see four men and two women, sturdy and foursquare, some older than others. None of you would look out of place in a cohort. So how did you become the Sages?”
“By solving riddles and puzzles, finding our way to the Great Treasure. All began with companions, but all arrived alone.”
“Our lives here are long,” said Marsten, “but not eternal. Always, as one of our number dies, another comes.”
“And how do you eat?”
“We lack for nothing here. We live lives of comfort, studying the books that are the Treasure, and keeping our fighting skills sharp that we may defend this place if needed.”
Dobo remembered the armoires. “This is not what I expected.”
“Nor did we. So we welcome you, as those before welcomed us, as the Seventh Sage.”