Thomas jolted awake. For how long had he been asleep? He looked around, trying to figure out what had happened. The sun just peaked over the horizon. The smouldering city immediately brought everything back. The old man. The armies waging war against their kingdom. The possibility of his family being gone forever. His choice from the old man’s letter. The reality of it all caused a tear to roll down his face.

“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,” the old man’s letter read.

Who was this old man anyways? How could the others not see him? But surely someone must’ve seen him, because otherwise he wouldn’t be holding this letter. And yet, it felt to Thomas that this man was someone who must deeply care for him, while watching his every move. But how?

This made Thomas feel a little uneasy. Nevertheless, he had a choice to make. He wished he would know the outcome of both sides, but he knew that it had been hidden for a reason. But if he chose to follow the path of the Ancients, how would that help in the situation he was in right now? It would only be a matter of time before the enemy armies would spot him and either take him captive or kill him. And he didn’t want either of them to happen.

But he couldn’t just leave his family alone to die. Maybe they were already dead though. But if they weren’t dead, he needed to get back so that he could continue to care for them and help them flee to safety. His thoughts pushed him harder and harder. The more he thought about this, the more he began to realize that this choice would come from a place of upmost sacrifice, regardless of what he chose.

Maybe that was why Elder Sage Phillip had told him to make up his mind before he came back into the caves. He’d wanted to make sure Thomas would be ready to fully pursue whatever choice he made and not look back. And this seemed to be an impossible task.

Thomas thought about what his wife would say. He could hear her words. “Thomas, make sure you live your life with purpose. I want you to know who you truly are and that I love you regardless of the choice you make. Seek the wisdom, Thomas.” She’d always been one to support him in everything. She’d rather have him seek wisdom and not have him around than always have him be around and have him be a fool.

Thomas stood up and wiped the tear stains from his face. He looked toward the city. “I’m so sorry, Isabella.” He turned and walked into the cave.

Elder Sage Phillip greeted him at the mouth of the cave. “I see you’ve made your choice.” Thomas nodded. “Good, we’ll get going right away. We have got a lot of ground to cover.” Phillip exited the cave to where Thomas had been only moments before.

“Where are you going?” Thomas asked.

“I want to show you something.” Phillip turned to the rest of the sages. “Get the scrolls ready. We’ll be leaving within the hour.” They obeyed immediately. Then he turned back to Thomas. “Follow me.”

Thomas followed him out of the cave to where they overlooked what used to be the proud city of Fortitude. “Never before has anyone managed to enter our city gates without permission.” Phillip had a solemn look on his face. Thomas was sure he saw a tear growing in the man’s right eye. “We’ve always been the kingdom above all kingdoms in the entire world. Everyone has always looked up to us, whether it’s because of power, of support, of shelter, or of anything else they might need.” Phillip turned to face Thomas. “I always knew this day would come. I wasn’t sure if it would come in my lifetime. But I want to ask you something, Thomas. Why do you think they even attempted to attack us?”

Thomas thought for a moment, not sure what to think of his question. “Because they wanted to destroy our capital?”

“What do you think drove them to want to attack us in the first place? What do you think they gain out of levelling our kingdom’s capital city?” Phillip said.

“I don’t know.”

“But you must know, Thomas. Otherwise you’ll never understand what the Ancients taught. You must know this.”

Phillip turned back to Thomas and looked at him curiously as if he waited for an answer. Thomas wasn’t sure what to think. If the other kingdoms levelled their kingdom, they would obviously receive a much greater power.

“Yes, and what do you think they can do with that power? Or where do they get that power from?” Phillip said. Thomas scrambled his mind. How could the man read his thoughts? Phillip smiled at him. “Because I know many more things than you could possibly imagine, my friend. When you’ve studied everything I’ve studied and you’ve lived as many years as I’ve lived, you begin to understand how a mind works. I’ve seen enough in my days to know. But what I know cannot be what you know. You must experience for yourself before you can know. And before you can truly know, you need to unlearn everything you’ve ever learned so that the unlearned can be learned.”

Thomas’ mind spun. What did the Elder Sage just say? Something didn’t seem right with his statement. He needed to unlearn things so that the unlearned could be learned? Wouldn’t this just end up in a cycle of learning and unlearning things?

“When you truly understand this process, you’ll begin to understand what it means to obey the High King,” Phillip said. He pointed back to the city. “But what do you think the army was coming for?”

Thomas thought for another moment. “The Iron Throne.” Excitement flowed through his body when he saw the Elder Sage nod.

“And why would they need the Iron Throne?”

“So that they’d have control of the people, because the people of Fortitude only submit to the king that sits on the Iron Throne.”

Phillip smiled. “Now you’ve got it.” He turned and Thomas followed him back into the cave. But as Thomas grabbed the remainder of his things, Phillip went into the other room to gather the scrolls he was writing.

They’d only been in the cave for a minute before a messenger charged in, huffing and puffing. “Sage Phillip?” Several of the sages slowed him down.

“Whoa calm down. What do you need?”

“Please, I need to speak to Sage Phillip. That’s what they told me when I left the other caves.”

Many of them exchanged glances, including Thomas. “Can you explain to me…”

“No, I need to speak to Sage Phillip.”

Phillip entered the room. “What’s all the racket going on out here?”

“Sage Phillip,” the messenger boy said. “The armies have…” The boy’s voice cut out as he whimpered. “They… they’ve entered the caves.”

Phillip embraced the boy until he stopped whimpering. “How many are left?” Phillip said.

“Only a few hundred. Most of the Royal Guard is dead. They’ve captured the Iron Throne and demand that we join the Rebels, unless we chose to die,” the boy said. “Many of the people are already bowing to the false High King.”

A sudden fear crept through Thomas’ body. If his family had survived, they might’ve been among those who died in the cave. Thomas grabbed his things. “We need to go, now.”