Chapter 8:

The Cave

Grand Epic Elemental


Leiyu and Prince Thallios’ horses walked slowly in a single file along a narrow rocky trail leading up the mountain, occasionally kicking small pebbles off the side, where they tumbled down the slope. The wind whistled and birds flew overhead. The faint sound of whispering could be heard. Leiyu put his hand on the hilt of his sword while still holding the reins with his other hand. Prince Thallios looked concerned.

“There is an eerie energy in this place,” said Leiyu.

“Maybe we are getting close…”

They continued up the trail. They were halfway up the mountain when they reached a dead end. Before them was a rock wall that had a relief of abstract patterns and vague figures. At the center of these carvings was a small entrance. Leiyu and Prince Thallios looked at each other.

“Could this be it?” Prince Thallios asked.

They dismounted their horses and tied the reins to a lone barren tree near the rock wall. Leiyu ducked his head as he went through the small entrance and Prince Thallios followed.

It was mostly dark inside the cave, but there was a thin column of light at the back. At the bottom of the light column was the faint outline of an upright sword. Prince Thallios stepped forward and approached the sword. Leiyu was a few steps behind him. The sword was rusty and covered in a thick layer of dust. The jewels embedded in its hilt looked dull. Prince Thallios reached out and touched the hilt lightly.

Suddenly, the cave shook. Debris fell from above.

“Your Highness!”

Leiyu ran forward to shield Prince Thallios but was repelled by an invisible force. His back hit the floor. As he got up, his eyes widened.

Dark waves spiraled from the floor and surrounded Prince Thallios. He saw the prince’s terrified face before he was completely swallowed up by the shadowy cocoon.

“YOUR HIGHNESS!!!”

Leiyu unsheathed his sword and struck at the cocoon. It was as hard as a rock and his sword hilt vibrated from the impact.

“PRINCE THALLIOS!”

***

It was pitch black. The only sound Prince Thallios could hear was his own panicked breathing.

“Leiyu?” he called out. No answer.

He walked forward and heard the slosh of water.

Where am I? he thought. Is this another part of the cave? Where did this water come from?

“Goddess of Fire!” a menacing voice boomed, causing Prince Thallios to nearly fall backward. “What are you doing here?”

Goddess?

“You are in an unfamiliar form, but I can tell it is you.”

“You…must be mistaken,” Prince Thallios replied nervously. “I am not the Goddess of Fire.”

“Tell me, who are you then?”

“I am…Prince Thallios, son of King Xenon.”

“And your mother?”

“My mother? Queen Selenia…but she passed away years ago.”

“She was the avatar of the Goddess of Fire.”

What? This was the first time Prince Thallios had heard such a thing.

“And now you are the avatar.”

“...”

“So, what brings you here? Why do you seek the Sword of Ages?”

“My kingdom…has fallen to enemies and my father has perished. I must avenge him and take back the kingdom.”

The voice began to laugh maniacally, sending shivers down Prince Thallios’ spine.

“Why are you laughing?” he demanded angrily.

“You think you are worthy of the sword?”

“How…can I prove my worth?”

Two spotlights suddenly appeared. The one next to him revealed the Sword of Ages. It was no longer old and rusty. The blade was sharp and the jewels on the hilt sparkled. The other spotlight was a short distance away and revealed a shadowy figure dressed in a dark hooded robe. The figure wore a simple mask.

“Your first test! See if you can defeat him!”

Defeat? Prince Thallios had never fought a total stranger before. He had only practiced with the palace sword instructors and had that recent spar with Leiyu. His heart began to pound. But if I need to avenge my kingdom…

He pulled the Sword of Ages from the ground. Despite its size, it felt unusually light. Holding the sword before him, his breathing was erratic as he tried to keep the hilt steady.

The shrouded figure lunged forward with a sword of his own and swung. Prince Thallios blocked the strike and the two blades emitted sparks as they clashed. The shrouded figure then pushed him and he rolled backward onto the watery floor.

The voice laughed again.

Prince Thallios used his sword to prop himself back up. Water dripped from his hair and clothes. The shrouded figure lunged forward once more. Prince Thallios gripped the hilt of his sword and ran forward.

His eyes began to glow like fiery embers and his sword also illuminated. Flames danced on the blade and he struck at his opponent. The shrouded figure lifted his sword to block the strike, but the impact knocked him over. As he got back up, he paused.

Prince Thallios stood upright holding his sword at his side. He was surrounded by an aura and strands of his hair fluttered upwards as if blown by wind. His amber eyes had transformed into golden yellow and he appeared to be in a trance.

They fought more but Prince Thallios’ initial panic was now gone. He had an expression of complete detachment as their blades clashed back and forth. The shrouded figure saw an opening and lunged again, but the prince suddenly jumped up.

As the shrouded figure looked up, he saw Prince Thallios descend with his sword pointing straight down. The blade pierced his heart. It happened so fast that he did not even have time to make a sound. He slumped to the ground.

Prince Thallios stood upright and pulled the sword out of his opponent’s chest. His expression was completely blank.

The shrouded figure’s mask cracked in half and fell apart. Prince Thallios’ golden yellow eyes returned to their normal amber color. He leaned forward to get a closer look at his defeated opponent.

He suddenly stopped and his blood ran cold. His eyes widened in horror.

“LEIYU!!!”

Prince Thallios dropped his sword and fell to his knees. His vision began to blur and he was shaking.

“NOOO!!!” he screamed. Tears began to stream down his face. He cradled the lifeless Leiyu in his arms, sobbing uncontrollably.

The voice began to laugh.

Prince Thallios went from sorrow to rage.

“WHY?!” he screamed into the darkness.

“It was your first test,” the voice replied.

“You tricked me!”

“This is the destructive power of the Sword of Ages. It blinds you to everyone, friend or foe. Once it is in your hands, everyone is an enemy.”

Prince Thallios had no words to say. His tears continued to fall.

“You say that you want to avenge your kingdom. Many before you came with the same goal. They believed they were noble and righteous. And in the end, they all ended up the same. The power of the sword corrupted them, and they became tyrants.”

“I will never become that!”

The voice laughed again. “You think you are any different? What makes your kingdom worth avenging?”

“What? How dare you-”

“Your father, King Xenon,” the voice said, cutting him off, “was originally from a kingdom that was small and weak. He married your mother, the Fire Priestess, and she used her powers so that his armies could take over all their neighbors. Eventually, they took over the entire Western Region.”

Prince Thallios froze. He knew that his father had ruled over the entire Western Region, but did not know the story behind it.

“Then they invaded the Southern Region, whose people worship the Goddess of Earth - the Goddess of Life and Death. That went against the harmonic balance of the Four Regions. To defend her lands, the Earth Priestess put a curse on the Fire Priestess so that her powers would be stopped.”

That’s why mother became ill and died?

“So when the armies of the Southern Region invaded your kingdom, they were merely avenging their own kingdoms. As you say you want to do now.”

Prince Thallios felt his body become weak. His breathing and heartbeat became erratic. “How…do you know all this?”

“I was there!”

“What?”

Another spotlight appeared a short distance away, illuminating two figures. His eyes widened.

Mother? Father?

He saw his parents standing there, but they looked much younger, closer to his age.

“King Xenon had wielded me himself when he went out to conquer his neighboring kingdoms with Queen Selenia by his side.”

King Xenon held up the Sword of Ages and Queen Selenia kissed the blade to imbue it with her fire magic.

“With my powers and her magic, they were unstoppable.”

The darkness was swept away and Prince Thallios found himself surrounded by fire.

“Such destruction they wrought! So many lives lost!”

The blood from Leiyu’s body began to seep into the water, dyeing it red. Corpses floated to the water’s surface. Prince Thallios trembled and held Leiyu even tighter.

The corpses suddenly started to crawl towards him.

“Why did you kill us?” they uttered in hoarse voices. “Why?”

“I didn’t!” Prince Thallios cried.

The undead beings surrounded him and started to clutch at his cloak.

“Why did you make us suffer?”

“I didn’t!”

They dragged him into the crimson water, which had suddenly become a deep pool. Prince Thallios screamed.

“I have seen much bloodshed over the centuries and grow weary of this never-ending cycle,” said the voice.

Prince Thallios flailed his arms and kicked wildly as he was dragged further down into the water.

“Choose carefully the path you wish to take.”

He could no longer hold his breath and began to lose consciousness. Why? Why does it have to end like this?

As his body began to lose all feeling, he could make out the faint sound of another voice. A familiar voice.

“Your Highness!”

After that, everything went dark.

***

“Your Highness!” Leiyu screamed. The actual Leiyu.

He hacked away at the shadowy cocoon with his sword to no avail. Feeling distraught, pounded against the barrier with his fists.

“Prince Thallios!”

The cocoon shattered like glass and Leiyu fell forward. At the center of the tiny shards was Prince Thallios, lying unconscious.

“Your Highness!” Leiyu sheathed his sword, ran over, and placed his hand under the prince’s nose. He could feel a very faint exhalation. Prince Thallios’ eyes opened slightly.

“Your Highness!” Leiyu felt relieved. “Are you all right?”

“Leiyu…?”

Prince Thallios sat up slowly and reached for Leiyu. “You’re alive…” Tears brimmed in his eyes. He collapsed against Leiyu.

“Your Highness! Are you hurt?”

Prince Thallios put his arms around Leiyu and tears rolled down his face. “You’re alive…I thought I’d killed you…”

“What? Your Highness, what happened in there?”

Prince Thallios sobbed, too distraught to speak. Leiyu embraced him and tried to calm him down. After a while, Prince Thallios’ breathing slowed. He wiped away the remnants of his tears and looked up at Leiyu. Suddenly, he panicked.

“Leiyu, we must leave! This place is cursed!”

“What about the sword?”

“Leave it! It does not want to be taken!”

Leiyu was confused.

Prince Thallios stood up and grabbed Leiyu’s hand. “Please, we must leave now!”

He led Leiyu back to the cave’s small entrance and they went out. They untied their horses from the tree, mounted them, and then rode away down the mountain trail.

***

Prince Thallios refused to speak as they rode away. Leiyu was concerned.

What happened in there? he wondered.

After the mountain was far behind them, they stopped at a clearing in the forest that overlooked a valley.

“Shall we rest here, Your Highness?”

Prince Thallios nodded silently. After dismounting from their horses, they sat down on some large rocks.

“Your Highness, can you tell me what happened?”

Prince Thallios looked up at him. He then began to recount the visions he saw in the cave.

***

“You plunged a sword through my heart?!” Leiyu asked, shocked.

Prince Thallios looked downwards, feeling ashamed. “I’m so sorry…”

Leiyu softened his voice, “It’s all right, Your Highness, it wasn’t the real me. I’m still here.”

“It felt so real…”

Leiyu suddenly remembered something.

“Your Highness, I didn’t tell you earlier, but…when we were sparring at the palace, your eyes glowed yellow right before you delivered that blow that knocked me backward into the wall.”

Prince Thallios looked up at him in shock. He then stood up and walked to the edge of the clearing.

“Your Highness?” Leiyu walked after him.

The prince stared silently at the horizon.

“Your Highness-”

“Do not call me that anymore…”

Leiyu paused, confused.

“Do not call me ‘Your Highness’ or ‘Prince’ anymore!”

“...”

Prince Thallios turned to face him. “Do not refer to me as a prince anymore. I have no kingdom…it’s gone…” His voice began to break down. “It’s never coming back…”

Leiyu stood there, not knowing what else to say.

“How…should I address you then?” he finally asked.

“Just…Thallios…is fine…”

Leiyu knelt before him.

“Thallios…”

Thallios looked at him.

“I will still keep my promise…to protect you for the rest of my life…”

Thallios’ eyes widened and then filled with tears again. He wiped them away. Then he approached Leiyu and leaned forward, placing his hands on Leiyu’s shoulders.

“Leiyu…please stand…you don’t have to kneel to me anymore…”

Leiyu stood up. They faced each other silently. The wind circulated the leaves in the air around them.

“Where shall we go now?” asked Thallios.

After thinking for a moment, Leiyu spoke.

“Let’s go to the North to visit my old friend…”