Mivato, the Sacred City on the Hill. It had stood inviolate for nearly a century. Now it seemed to Markato that the Sacred City’s time had come. None had entered Mivato for weeks, though plenty had tried to leave. Of the ones that made it past the walls, few returned. The besieging forces of the Heretic made sure of that. Every few days the Duke and the High Priest assured the populace, the sheep that they were, that the siege would not last long, that it would soon be over. That their God was true and just and on their side. Markato was not so easily fooled. He saw the soldiers, ranks upon ranks, sitting in their tents outside the city walls. He remembered the rocks flung from catapults to impact on those sacred sandstone walls or land in the streets. The streets were not the bustling thoroughfares they had been a month ago. Guards patrolled unceasingly and the few people that did walk the streets walked in groups and hurried along on their business, not stopping to see the great architecture and gardens of their city. Markato tried to stick to the alleyways as much as he could, to avoid the prying eyes of the Duke’s guard.
He pulled the ripped-out page from his pack again. The ink seemed a little worn from the rough treatment but no matter, the prophecy was nearing fulfillment. A brave man of many summers, named after the Sacred City on the Hill, strong of arm and mind, a mind unclouded by delusions and lies. Markato fit all of these criteria, the signs that would indicate the identity of the Awaited One, to take up the Seeking Blade and save the Sacred City in a time of great peril. The Duke hadn’t believed him and the High Priest had been too busy to see him, even when he had announced himself as the Awaited One. When the guard at the door to the High Priest’s chambers looked at him like one might look at drunk man in the street, that was when he decided had must continue on his own. The Duke and the High Priest could not, would not help him. They were ‘clouded by delusions and lies’.
Markato raised his hood and strode onto the street. A few groups of frightened civilians and guards were scattered about on their own business. He turned right and headed down towards the lower areas of town. The Old Garden was close to the inner wall, for its location was part of why Mivato had been built here in the first place almost a millenia ago. At his brisk pace it did not take him long to reach the fence encircling the Garden. Markato knew the Duke had posted guards at all the landmarks of the city. Why the fool was using precious soldiers to guard cultural sites rather than the walls, Markato could not understand. But as soon as he had one of the entrances in view, a clarion of bells sounded across the city. A call to arms. The guards he could see glanced at each other then left in a hurry. The last he saw of them were their cloaks disappearing around the corner towards the walls. The Heretic must be launching an assault. He would need hurry. He leapt from his hiding spot and quickly scanned the area around the gates. No guards in sight so he went inside. Markato scanned the grounds of the Garden. It too seemed empty. Markato did not want to discount the possibility that a few guards had been given orders to stay behind no matter what happened. Sticking to shadows as much as he could, he arrived at the Ziggurat. Like the Garden, it had been here for longer than the city had. In all of recorded history, only two people had ever seen what waited past the Guardian. Zenithra the Saviour, who last drew the Seeking Blade, and the Prophet, his name expunged by the religion the High Priest and the Duke served. The Prophet had not physically entered the Ziggurat but had seen it in a vision, that in the future the Sacred City would be in great peril from an army with great power. Markato knew that to be the army of the Heretic that besieged the city even now. The one mentioned in his prophecy, the Awaited One, was to take up the Seeking Blade and weather the peril to save Mivato.
Looking about the Garden one last time, Markato approached the Ziggurat. It was imposing, constructed with marble from some unknown location. The facade was built as if to channel the gaze towards the door that led inside, and the Guardian that guarded it. A giant marble statue of a powerful lion’s body with the head of a helmed woman, the Guardian denied entry to any who was unworthy and killed those who would try to gain entry by force. Markato stood in front of it with no fear. He was the Awaited One. He would accept its trials and prove it.
The book had been unclear as to the exact nature of the trials, so Markato stood for a minute before anything moved. The Guardian’s stone face animated, great green jade-eyes grinding in their sockets to look at him. “Are you the Awaited One?” It asked with unmoving lips.
“Yes. My name is Markato, named after the Sacred City of Mivato!” He answered, holding up the page he had taken from the Prophet’s book. The Guardian did not spare it even a glance.
“Then you will answer questions three. Answer correctly and be granted entry to the Ziggurat, fail and be turned away. Attempt force and you will be destroyed.” At the last word, the Guardian’s massive stone paws unfolded, black obsidian claws glinting in the sun.
Markato held back the quivering in his voice. “Ask these questions. I will not fail.”
A moment passed. He stood as still as he could, wondering how one would stare down an unblinking golem. “The first question,” the voice boomed, “What has 4 legs at dawn, 2 legs under the midday sun and 3 legs when twilight comes?”
The answer came immediately to Markato’s mind but surely it could not be that obvious. Even a complete simpleton could answer that nursery riddle.
His pondering was interrupted by the gravel-like voice of the Guardian. “Speak!”
“Man! We walk on all 4 when we are born, walk upright as adults and use a cane to assist us in our twilight years.” The Guardian was from another era entirely, after all. What was common knowledge now had been a wise man’s life goal once.
“… Correct. What is the shape of Gaia, the World we all reside on?”
Did the Guardian consider mankind for fools? What are these questions that even a toddler would breeze past?
“Speak!” Again the Guardian would broker no waiting.
“A sphere, not flat as some folk delude themselves to be the truth of Gaia.”
“Correct.” The Guardian’s reply was nearly drowned out by the grinding of stone as the door began to open, showing the darkness inside the Ziggurat. Markato took a step forward without thinking then stopped. Something was missing.
“… What of the third question? You said questions three, not questions two.”
It seemed to him that the golem’s jade-eyes rolled up in their sockets for but a moment. “The third question then. What letters make up the name of the Sacred City of Mivato?”
Again Markato thought that some trickery must be afoot. Any buffoon off the street could have passed this trial.
The Guardian returned to the pose it had when Markato had approached. “Correct.” it answered and the clear gem at its throat flared with a bright light then dimmed and cracked, a jagged line running across it. Markato swore he could hear a faint voice on the wind, saying “finally…” before fading away completely. Before him, the door into the Ziggurat was open and the Guardian defeated. Markato took a deep breath and crossed the threshold. The air inside was dusty and still. He felt he had to take deeper breaths for the same effect as he had to outside. The entranceway was covered in darkness but he quickly arrived in the center. The center of the Ziggurat was lit by a column of light shining down from the ceiling through a pane of glass-like material. Light could pass through but down through the centuries the clear material had remained unbroken. A small pond surrounded a pedestal in the middle, the shadows of fish and lilypads crossing the still waters. Markato’s heart skipped a beat as he saw what was on top of the pedestal. A sword still in its scabbard. The scabbard was wide to allow for the curved edge of the Seeking Blade. Dark-brown leather adorned with gold filigree and coloured gems of some kind. The pommel of the sword was alabaster-white. Markato reverently stepped forward and lifted the sword off the pedestal and held it carefully.
Slowly he chided himself on his care. The Seeking Blade was a weapon of great power, it wouldn’t break from some rough care. With a firm grip he took the scabbard in one hand, the dark leather creaking in his hand, and the handle in his other. With a deep breath he pulled.
Markato stood for a long moment simply staring at the handle now in his hand, the brown edge of rust along where the lip of the scabbard had met the blade the only thing he could think of. What had felt like creaking before was now a cracking as the dry leather of the scabbard came apart in his hand. Gingerly he upturned the dry scabbard and listened with horror as a few rusty pieces of the blade dropped out and landed on the marble floor. Experimentally he squeezed the handle of the blade, the breath catching in his throat as the ancient wood snapped almost immediately. He stood frozen in place as he looked at the utterly broken weapon. The mostly-intact scabbard in his hand might suffice was a ways to encourage the populace to follow him. It looked important enough. Caught up in his new plan he turned away from the pedestal and sheathed what remained of the weapon. As the crossguard slapped onto the scabbard the dried leather cracked one final time and split down the sides, the metal locket tearing off and clinging onto the stone floor at the threshold of the Ziggurat.
Markato threw the broken and frayed weapon away with a shout of rage as shouts started echoing through the streets that the siege of the Heretic had ended.