Thomas stood with wide eyes. Had he actually seen the old man again? Why was the man smiling? Where had he been all this time? Too many questions with too little answers.
Thomas examined all the other sages in the room. None had a look of concern, beside the task at hand. And why should they?
He approached Phillip. “Did you see the man by the door?”
“The old man who drove the wagon and came into the monastery with me.” Phillip had a look of confusion on his face. “What?” Thomas said.
“You came in alone,” Phillip said.
“Just now? I know. But before—“
“No, when you entered the monastery. No one came with you.”
Now Thomas held a look of confusion. Something wasn’t right here. The old man had spoken after they’d entered into the monastery. He’d been with them the entire time. And yet, Thomas struggled to remember seeing him down in the hatch with everyone and on the walk through the underground maze. And yet, something within Thomas told him he needed to follow this man.
But before he’d convince everyone to follow him, he first needed to see for himself. Walking out of the room into the hallway, Thomas walked around the corner where he’d seen the man disappear. He looked ahead to the next turn. Sure enough, the man waited there and disappeared after giving him another smile.
Thomas hurried back into the room. “You need to follow me,” he said loud enough for all the sages to hear. Everyone looked up at him with confused looks on their faces. When Phillip questioned him, he responded, “I just saw him again.”
Phillip raised his eyebrows in disbelief. “The old man?”
When Thomas nodded, Phillip hurried to a table in the far corner of the room. He picked up a scroll and began reading. After a few moments of silence, Phillip rolled up the scroll and pointed to Thomas. “We need to follow him and do exactly as he says.”
Thomas felt a strange mix of emotions run through his body as all eyes turned toward him. But regardless of how he felt, he knew that now everyone would do anything he told them. Nobody ever defied anything the Elder Sage said. They couldn’t. They leaned on him for everything they knew, and if he was wrong, that meant everything they’d lived up to that point was also wrong.
Thomas led everyone out of the room and around the corner where the old man disappeared. When they reached the corner where the old man stood only moments earlier, Thomas spotted a small parchment lying the cobblestone floor. “Bring the torch closer,” he said.
When the note was brightened, Thomas read the note aloud. “Whenever you truly seek, you will find. The hidden kingdom is within your reach, and yet few will find it and it will never be within their reach. Seek, Thomas. Above all else, seek. Follow the way.” Thomas took a moment to process the words. But to no avail. He turned to the Elder Sage. “What do you think it means?”
Phillip gave him a long look that made him feel compassionate. Although the Elder Sage didn’t speak a word, Thomas understood what was happening. He now understood why Phillip had been so eager to give the instructions to follow him and do as he said.
A tear rolled down Thomas’ cheek as he gave Phillip a warm smile. “You’ve been searching too.” Phillip nodded, a tear forming in his eye as well. “For all these years?” He nodded again. Only this time, the tear actually slid down his cheek.
“I’ve seen it all in my days,” Phillip said. “I’ve read all the scrolls. I’ve become wise.”
“But you haven’t found it,” Thomas finished for him. It felt strange to see an old man weep. They were meant to be the warriors. Fierce and tough. Yet here stood a man who’d tried to find something the Ancients themselves had talked about. A land of peace where nobody had need of anything. A land and a people of love instead of revenge and greed. He’d dedicated his life to finding it by translating everything the Ancients had left behind. But to no avail.
Something within Thomas spoke to him. He immediately recognized the words. They were words he’d read only moments before. “Whenever you truly seek, you will find. The hidden kingdom is within your reach, and yet few will find it and it will never be within their reach. Seek, Thomas. Above all else, seek. Follow the way.”
Thomas sprang into action. The others followed. They worked their way through the hallways until they reached a large iron door. Elder Sage Phillip turned the gears, which slowly opened the door.
As Thomas stepped out of a cave onto a hill, his heart seemed to stop for a moment. He gasped. The hill overlooked the valley in which the city of Fortitude lay. Many thousand warriors now stood in perfect formation before the city gates, rank by rank entering the city. The Royal Guard fought back with all the strength they had left, but it appeared their numbers were falling quickly. Catapults of burning boulders dipped in oil soared through the air over the city walls, setting many of the buildings on fire.
Thomas heard the screams from where he stood, and he knew immediately what was happening. How would he get to his family? Were they okay? His vision began to darken, but Phillip helped him to his feet. “We will all make it through this. We’ve prepared for a time like this.” Thomas wasn’t sure he believed that. Knowing there was nothing he could do, he just sat down and wept for hours as he watched the armies destroy Fortitude, the city once claiming to be impenetrable.
When he’d finally gathered himself to the point where he could focus again, Phillip approached him. “The messenger told me that about half of the women and children were able to evacuate safely to the caves with the some of the Royal Guard.” When Thomas didn’t look up, Phillip gently nudged him. “Thomas, he also brought this.” He held out his hand with a small note. “He said it came from an old man climbing down the hill and it was to be given to you.”
Thomas took the note and read it aloud. “You now have a choice, Thomas. Your family or the Ways of the Ancients, which leads to the hidden kingdom. Before you can fully have one, you need to fully have both. Be wise, Thomas. Choose wisely.”
Thomas looked up, tears in his eyes. Phillip gave him a warm look. “Come find me when you’ve made your choice.” And with that, all the sages left him, and the sun set below the horizon.