The Rising – Part One
By: Jeff R. Young

Dusk was gradually swallowing daylight when the horsemen approached the outer gate of the Sanctum. Without a gesture from the riders, the massive iron portcullis began a slow but steady rise. The four sauntered through into the enormous inner-city. Two armored guards stationed inside the gate gave the riders a knowing tilt of their helmed heads in recognition as they passed.

Off in the distance to the right, they saw many small building and stalls built of wood through the growing haze of darkness. The market, as it was affectionately called, was a place within the safety of the Sanctum to buy, sell or trade goods, but it was clear the shop-keepers had closed for the night. To the far left stood more substantial buildings, some built of stone, some wood, and more than a few made of both. These were the many homes, Inns, and taverns which saw their busy hours come with sundown.

Surrounded by formidable thick stone walls and boasting one of the most massive military forces in the realm, the Sanctum was a haven for the citizens, travelers, merchants, and sell-swords alike. Outside the walls was no less populated as farmers and cattle herders took up residence, working the land to earn their living. The heart of the landscape, however, did not rest in the outer areas of the vast stronghold, but in the principal structure which dominated both land and sky.

The eastern portion of the construction hosted their destination, known as the Citadel. It was immense, standing fourteen stories high and a quarter kilometer long and housed libraries, living quarters and training rooms for the many monks, priests, and servants that resided within its walls. Built of brick around many windows, the outside of the building looked ordinary and almost dull. Below the pitched roof and connected to the gutters lay the only decorations.

Winged gargoyles carved from stone seemed to stand in a silent vigil every thirty meters, their open mouths pouring forth rushing water when the rains came. A popular rumor among the people suggested the dwarven carved creatures served as more than just decoration, claiming magic had been weaved into their stone bodies to serve as protectors of the Sanctuary, coming to life in defense of the city when necessary.

The real beauty of the Sanctum lay connected to the west. Built around a pentagon-shaped inner-quad, five glorious cathedrals extended out of each point, creating the Temple of the Five. The individual churches were all unique in design, fashioned to honor their respective gods or goddesses. There was the goddess of knowledge, Eone; the goddess of nature, Nyarae; the god of war, Erus; Ubus, the lord of the dead and the god of justice, Jotesis.

The four friends, exhausted from a long two-week ride, nudged their horses toward the Citadel, seeking the outer stables. An abundance of torchlight illuminated the way as darkness finally settled in, giving the area a primitive aura despite its many decorative fountains and small grass-covered sitting areas scattered among the cobble-stoned paths. Once there, they dismounted, taking their time to stretch and loosen weary joints.

Mace glanced around and down the length of the stable. He ran a muscular hand across his short jet-black hair and over the stubble around his face. He had worn his usual attire: a black robe with red trim with a unique exotic sword, a Katana, tied off his left hip. On his right hip, he hung a circular and well-crafted, hand-sized talisman depicting a skeletal arm, palm open with what looked like rays of light emanating from the fingertips. It was the symbol of his deity, Ubus, the Lord of the Dead. Mace was a battle priest, both clergy and warrior, who had rightfully earned respect and admiration from his peers.

Next to him stood a short and plump dwarf, Gwent Clubthumper. With his head barely reaching Mace’s chest, Gwent was of average height for his race, and his girth earned him the status of being slightly overweight, yet his size was misleading. The dwarf was mighty, quick on his feet and a vicious fighter in combat. Especially when he sported his round shield and war hammer. Under his bald head, bushy eyebrows, dark brown eyes, and a large broke looking nose, Gwent wore a long black beard, reaching to his chest. Tied into two long braids, it was a symbol of both his heritage and age, which he wore with genuine pride.

Gwent bent backward, stretching before he gave a small, irritated grunt.

“You seem annoyed, my dwarven friend.” Zythos stated calmly.

Zythos seemed a perfect example of his elven race. He was slim and toned with lightly tanned skin and was considered strikingly handsome even among his own people. His long white hair hung loosely down past his shoulders, accentuating light purple eyes and the slightly angular features of his face. His ears, elongated and pointed at the tips stuck somewhat through his mane, providing proof of his elven legacy. Behind those beautiful features, however, lived a skilled warrior who fought with two exceptionally crafted swords, currently sheathed on his back.

“Me back is stiff, and I feel bow-legged,” The dwarf grunted. “I hate the long rides. And, our wagon o’ things ain’t here yet!”

“I’d say maybe the guards stole off with your armor, but who’d they find round enough to fit in it?” Draven joked from beside him, drawing a daggered eyed look.

Draven, a charismatic blond haired, blue eyed man, was a ranger who mixed an eternal devotion to both Nyarae, the goddess of nature, and his three closest friends, Mace, Gwent and Zythos. Though he was a decent swordsman, who fought with both short and long sword, his primary weapon was the longbow, with which he was deadly accurate. He was also a highly skilled scout and tracker whose knowledge of the land was exceptional, as was his seemingly mystical connection to the animals of the wilds.

Mace looked out the door of the barn before turning his attention toward Gwent. “You worry too much,” he stated as he began digging into the saddlebags of his chestnut colored horse. He pulled out a cloth wrapped item. “What we should be concerned with is getting this artifact to Master Lucian.”

“Hey, where is the boy…” Draven started, only to pause when a young boy of maybe twelve, wearing the simple garb of a peasant, hurried through the back door. “Oh, never mind.”

The lad rushed through the stable and skidded to a stop next to Mace before grinning sheepishly. “Sorry, Master Mace, father is in one of his moods again. I didn’t hear you come in over the scolding I was getting.”

Mace offered the boy a small, kindly smile at his words.

“Wha’ ya you do this time, lad?” Gwent asked.

The boy blushed. “I threw a mud pie at Jessa Tobie. It stuck in her hair, but she tried to bite my leg, I swear!”

“Again with the mud?” Draven laughed. “You know: do it once…ok, twice…eh, that’s pushing it, but three times,” he paused dramatically and slapped the boy on the arm, “might as well just kiss the girl!”

“What! No! Yuk! She’s a girl,” the boy cried out in horror.

“That’s the point, Willam,” Draven pressed. He suddenly stood straight and serious as he ran a hand through his blond hair. “Is she a cute one?”

Willam balked, his young eyes slowly dropping to the floor, both embarrassed and shy. “Kinda,” he said quietly.

Draven offered a grin that flashed through his icy blue eyes. “Well, there you go. That’s all that matters.”

“I think we can all agree that you’re the last person who should be coaching young Willam here on the ways of women and love Draven,” Zythos chimed in, drawing a belly laugh from Gwent.

“Hey, I’m a great matchmaker,” Draven protested. He began offloading items from his pinto and winked at Willam. “Just ask the elf.”

Zythos remained quiet, not rising to the bait.

Gwent however, chimed in, “Ain’t seen ya done none for me, Ranger. Why can’t ye find me a dwarven lass who could handle ol’ Gwent?”

“It would be easier if I could tell you apart,” Draven stated, drawing a confused look from Willam.

“He’s got a point, Gwent,” Zythos chuckled. A frustrated “bah” came from the dwarf in response.

“The beards,” Draven said to Willam while rubbing at his chin with his fingers. “I can’t tell the women from the men.”

“Dwarf women have beards?” Willam’s eyes widened in wonder.

“Aye,” Gwent answered, shooting Draven an evil eye. He grinned at the stable boy and said, “Right proper ones to boot. Ya’ see, lad, a young female dwarf…”

“Alright…the boys got work to do,” Mace interrupted. He pulled a small handful of silver coins from a pocket of his robe and handed it to Willam. “Bed the horses down, as usual. It’s been a long road for them. And when our wagon arrives, there will be more if you help see to our things.”

Willam began tending to the horses in his typical manner, starting with Mace’s as the four friends walked out of the barn and headed toward the Citadel. Each of them was confident that the lad would have their belongings neatly placed in their quarters.

Draven walked alongside Mace as Zythos and Gwent lagged behind. With a nod of his chin, the ranger motioned to the wrapped item in the priest's hand. “Lucian will be happy we found that,” he exclaimed, though needlessly. “Just hope he knows it wasn’t easy.”

Mace shrugged. “When has our job ever been easy?” He paused, then added, “If it were easy, he wouldn’t need us.”

“True enough,” Draven agreed. “But just once I’d like a mission to be simple. Instead of hunting evil artifacts, we could hunt down a giant Mist Viper, or a pack of lost puppies. Hells, I’d even take rescuing an angry dwarf from an army of orcs over searching for all these blasted dark relics!” Behind them, Gwent chuckled.

Tired, Mace smiled and motioned toward the Citadel. “You three go get some rest. I’ll see to getting this to Master Lucian.”

***

The halls of the Citadel were relatively empty as Mace wandered through. Being early evening, many of the Temple monks were off studying in one of the numerous libraries, while the off-duty servants and guards were either at the taverns or relaxing in their room for the evening. He enjoyed walking the barren halls, feeling a sense of peace in the solitude. The priest had never been fond of the busy corridors during the daytime hours. They made him feel cramped and claustrophobic.

He continued east through the winding passages until he entered the enormous great hall. The ground floor of the vast rectangular space served as a garden and meditation chamber and was the central hub of the Citadel. Decorative fountains surrounded by stone benches, potted trees, and plants created an atrium projecting a feeling of serenity.

The outer walls went up all fourteen stories, with balcony style walkways circling each floor, and ended at the base of the angular ceiling. Many staircases ascended at various points to make travel to the top level possible, though there was no rhyme nor reason to their placement.

Mace found the closest flight of stairs and made his way up absently. He had traveled this path many times before and was so familiar with this route; he could have walked it with his eyes closed. After making his way to the third floor, he headed for a hallway that continued east, toward the quarters of Master Lucian. He was relieved to find the hall empty, but not silent.

The corridor was long, and many priests resided inside the various housing units. Most had left their doors open, and the sounds of idle chatter or chants of prayer echoed down the hall. Mace slowed his pace as he neared Lucian's door. He knocked three times and waited.

Moments later, the latch clicked, and the door slowly creaked open to reveal an elderly man with short white hair. The gentleman looked small and frail, but Mace knew that to be deceiving. Lucian was a high priest of Ubus, the Lord of the Dead, and was as dedicated to his god as any. He served as a mentor for many of the monks and fledgling priests of the Temple. Though Mace had passed his trials and became a battle priest, affording him the many freedoms of his position, he considered Lucian his master and still worked under him exclusively.

“Oh good, Mace, you’ve returned safely,” Lucian commented with a warm smile.

The elder man pulled the door open and allowed Mace entry before closing it behind him. The room they stood in served as both Lucian's main chamber and library. Every counter, including the dining table and the various shelves and bookcases, lay covered in tomes and parchments. To those who didn’t know better, the room looked in full disarray. Mace knew from experience his master knew precisely where everything was. Lucian liked to call it an organized mess. Mace didn’t disagree.

Pulling the cloth wrapped artifact from his pocket, Mace followed Lucian across the room to the dining table. Careful not to knock down a stack of haphazardly piled books, Mace set the item down.

“We found it. But be careful, the protection spells on the wrap are growing weaker,” Mace warned. Lucian moved next to him, and Mace stood back so the older man could unwrap the item.

“So here it is,” Lucian whispered when the item was exposed, his tone serious with just a hint of curiosity. “The cursed gem of Loom Natas.”

The exquisitely cut emerald jewel glowed faintly in the candlelight of the room. Lucian’s right hand hovered over the stone as if he wanted to touch it, yet he dared not. Both priests knew the hazards of touching cursed items, and this one was no different. The stone, as beautiful as it was, had been created as a vessel to trap and house a minor demon of chaos by the young wizard, Loom Natas. Loom was an unskilled summoner who failed to adequately contain the beast, giving it the ability to influence whoever possessed the item via a telepathic connection.

As a creature of chaos, the demon hungered for power but was unsatisfied with the fledgling wizard. It flooded Loom’s mind with paranoid thoughts and delusions, ultimately driving the young sorcerer insane. In his insanity, the mage attempted a dark spell well beyond his capabilities, which ended in his demise.

The older priest withdrew his hand. “And Cassius?” he asked, emotionless.

“Escaped,” Mace said with regret. “Most likely gone to sleep again.”

“Only to rise once more to feast on the fear he craves so dearly,” Lucian finished distantly.

Mace nodded in agreement. “He was wounded severely in the fight so it will take some time for him to recover. But…” he sighed, “at least we got the artifact.”

Acquiring the gem from Cassius, Mace’s longtime nemesis was an astounding victory, but knowing he still lived stung Mace’s pride profoundly, and with his escape, Mace was unable to learn how and where he obtained the gem, which fed his frustration.

“You’ll see that one again, if the gods will it,” Lucian promised before he turned his attention back to the recovered item.

“The cloth’s wards will wear off soon,” Mace restated. He watched his master wrap the gem back up. “It would be good to destroy it quickly.” Lucian shook his head, causing Mace to frown. “I’m confused; you don’t wish it destroyed?”

“No,” Lucian stated bluntly. “The artifact needs to be carefully and adequately studied so we can determine if it even can be destroyed, and what consequences we might face if we do. If it cannot be or is too dangerous to destroy, it will be warded and safely secured back in the vault.”

Mace nodded before letting loose a yawn he could no longer contain, drawing a gritty chuckle from Lucian.

“Hm, you look exhausted, I can only imagine what you four have been through getting this back. You should know,” The older priest lay a gentle hand on Mace’s shoulder and gave it a friendly squeeze, “I’m eternally grateful for the assistance of you and your friends. You four have recovered so much of what we have lost, and the Temple is in your debt.”

“Ubus is whom I pray and fight for, master; my dedication rests with him,” Mace said, his defiance showing. “His will is my command.”

Your command? Last I knew three companions rode with you, my young friend,” Lucian pointed out as he walked Mace toward the door. “Each of them carrying their god or goddess deep in their hearts, as well.”

They stopped short of the exit, and this time Lucian placed hands on both of Mace’s shoulders.

“This is your strength, Mace, the four of you. Alone each of you is gifted, but together you’re something more—a daggers point.” He paused a moment, his features serious. “You four are a weapon of the gods. Believe in all of them, as they believe in you!”

Tired and thoughtful, Mace nodded once to his master. “You’re right, Master, I meant no offense,” he countered. “I’m tired and road weary is all.”

Lucian patted him on the back. “Go son, eat, rest, study, train. Better yet, go find merriment with Draven and the others. Most of all, relax.”

Mace bowed slightly before stepping out the door. “We’ll be ready when you need us,” he said evenly, then began heading down the hall.

The young priest heard the door shut behind him and knew, deep in his mind, that Master Lucian would indeed need them again. He just prayed it would be later, rather than sooner.

-

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