13. The Grandmaster
They followed the knight across the main hall. Lace knew what he was, but she hardly dared think it.
A royal guard. They are the only ones who wear that armor. Paragon’s own protectors.
The royal guard led them up the stairs in the back. Once they reached the second floor, he took a sharp left, leading them out onto the catwalk above the main hall. There, another knight waited by the door, watching them all from under a deep frown.
A man sat overlooking the hall in an ornate wheelchair made from dark, polished mahogany. To call him old would be the understatement of a century. His face was so wrinkled that you could hardly see his eyes, marred with rosacea and spider web veins. His fingers were akin to gnarled tree roots, arrhythmically tapping the armrests of his wheelchair. Only a few strands of wispy, white hair stuck to his liver-spotted pate.
“Hello, children,” the man said without turning around. “Do you know why you’re here?”
No one answered. Haden swayed on his heels.
“Oh, of course you don’t. I forget myself sometimes.” He glanced back, foggy eyes taking in the room. “Rory, Anu, back off a little. I think you scare the children enough as it is.”
The royal guards exchanged a glance. They hesitated only for a moment before taking up positions at the far end of the room.
His white robes were clean, with gold trim in dizzyingly intricate patterns.
“You’re the Grandmaster,” Lace said with a gasp. “You have to be. I can’t think of anyone else deserving of this kind of guard.”
“I’m glad I’m not entirely forgotten,” he said. “Please, call me Sage.”
Tommyn immediately bowed, pulling Haden down with him. “I-I’m sorry, Grandmaster, we didn’t—”
“Bla bla bla,” Sage said. “Stand up straight, both of you. You look like buffoons.”
The Grandmaster of the Heroes’ Guild, here, right in front of us. Second only to the Queen. What could we possibly have done to deserve this kind of honor?
“You four have caught my attention,” Sage said. “Come closer, children, so I can see you better.”
Lace took a few unsure steps towards the Grandmaster with the others. Kiren was at the front of the pack, a deep scowl on his face.
“Why’ve you been watching us?” he asked, stopping less than a step from the old man, far closer than propriety would dictate.
The guards put hands on swords, drawing a few centimeters of steel.
Sage held up a hand, and the guards froze like statues.
“Your futures will hold great and terrible things,” he said. “I figured a warning was in order.”
“And how would you possibly know anything about our futures?” Kiren asked. “You don’t seem like you know how to wipe your own ass.”
“No, Rory does that for me,” Sage said with a bright smile. He pointed to the light-skinned guard, who cleared his throat and stared straight ahead.“Regardless, I know a great many things. My Power is that of future sight. My eyes see nothing, but my mind, oh, that sees clear enough. Strings of fate interwoven like a great cloth. And you, children, make a pretty brocade.”
“Speak clearly,” Kiren said. Despite his openly hostile tone, his face had gone pale.
“Let us start with the big one,” Sage said. He frowned at Kiren. “Rudeness begets no favors.”
Haden put the back of his hand to his mouth, face going red as his cheeks ballooned. He swallowed. Tommyn guided him forward to the old man’s side, and Kiren stepped aside reluctantly.
“Your hand, please,” Sage said, holding out a shaky arm from the folds of his great robe. “My visions are not perfect, you see. They offer only glimpses, clear as your reflection in a pond. Bridging the distance to my target is a considerable help.”
Gingerly, as if to avoid hurting him, Haden took Sage’s hand. The old man closed his eyes, placing his other hand atop Haden’s. He hummed to himself, slow and atonal, but full of mirth.
“I see two paths,” he said without opening his eyes. “In the first, you become a great man, both in strength and honor. You will have the respect of those around you, and surpass the expectations of your family. A victory against the darkness will be won by your hand.”
“And the other?” Haden asked, suddenly stiff, no trace of that drunken sway.
“In the other, you forsake the world for true love,” Sage said. “And the world will forsake you, in turn. That love will sap your strength and rust your blade in its scabbard. You will die old and content, a simple man.”
Sage opened his eyes. “That is all.”
“Thank you, Grandmaster,” Haden said, though he looked anything but happy.
“You. The green one. Step forward.”
Tommyn took Haden’s place, and Sage repeated the same process. This time, he opened his eyes almost immediately.
“Your future is hazy, I’m afraid,” he said. “Your fate will be decided by another. Depending on their choice, you will die young or live to see the end of all that you love.”
Tommyn swallowed hard. “I-I-I see, Grandmaster. Th-thank you.”
I’m not sure I want to know my future anymore, Lace thought. I wonder if it would be impolite to decline.
“Grumpy boy, your turn,” Sage said.
“Great,” Kiren muttered.
He went over and held out his hand slowly as if he was putting it in the mouth of a rabid dog. Sage took it in both of his and pulled it closer.
“A dark path lies ahead for you,” Sage said. “You will never know true happiness. You will gain what you most desire, only to lose everything else.”
He frowned, humming softly to himself.
“You will fall further from the light as you crawl towards it. You will become a monster. In the end, Kiren Odirk, you will–”
Kiren yanked his hand back. “Get away from me, old man! Keep that name out of your mouth!”
He stormed towards the exit. Lace grabbed his arm to stop him. He shoved her aside and left the room, his footsteps receding down the stairs.
“A shame,” Sage said with a chuckle. “Though, I suppose you can never make a lapdog out of a donkey.” He snapped his fingers at Lace. “You. Step forward. Let me see what the Creator has in store for you.”
Lace hesitated. “I’m not sure…”
“Oh, come now. Indulge an old man. It’s so rare that I get to leave the temple. Don’t make me order you.”
“Yes, Grandmaster,” Lace said, more meekly than she had intended. she approached the old man, unable to take her eyes off his aged hands, folded primly in his lap.
Her heart beat hard as she reached out her hand.
Sage took it.
His eyes went wide, then narrowed, foggy pupils moving wildly.
“No…” he moaned. “Not the darkness. Not him. No, no, no…”
He shook in his wheelchair, nails digging into the back of her hand. She tried to pull away. He wouldn’t let go.
The guards rushed forward.
“Step aside, sirrah,” said one of them, pulling her roughly by her shoulder.
Sage’s grip came loose and he flew back into his chair. He convulsed as the other knight held him firmly.
“No, no, no, no…” Sage squealed. “I can feel it. Too bright. Too hot. You mustn’t… not strong enough… a fate worse than death.”
His eyes focused on Lace. He reached out for her, but the knight held him back.
“You must abandon your dream!” he said, true desperation in his voice. “You mustn’t become a Hero. The Unmaker will take you as his bride.” His eyes flickered shut and his head tilted to the side. His body went slack, and a dark, wet splotch grew on his robes.
“Leave, all of you!” barked the dark-skinned guard, still gripping her shoulder. He shoved her aside.
They all obeyed, rushing out of the room. They descended the stairs, and only stopped when they were back in the main hall.
You must abandon your dream.
Lace bit her lip.
I can’t do that.