Book 1: Ch. 10-12

Part II

Exodus

July 10th-July 20th, 2019 AE

“A man’s friendships are one of the best measures of his worth.”

-Charles Darwin

“Long is the way and hard, that out of that Hell leads up to the light.”

-John Milton

“It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell.”

-Buddha

Chapter 10

The Wasteland

July 10th, 2019 AE, 8:31 AM

Jaden woke up at 8-o-clock the next morning for his journey to the third Divine Temple. His phone’s alarm clock pierced through his eardrums with its incessant ringing. He woke up groggy, still exhausted from all the planning they all did the night before. Thankfully, he’s always been an early bird, so he immediately got ready to leave with his comrades. He changed out of the pajamas that he borrowed and into his outside clothes. He hopped across his room, trying to get his pants on, and it was just as hard getting his boots on. At that point, he heard a knock on the door.

“Come in!” he responded.

The door opened, and he saw Astra entering the room. She was dressed in her royal, white battle armor and armed with her golden rapier.

“Good morning, Jaden. We’re almost ready to go,” she said. “Do you have everything you need?”

“Yeah, I just need to get my stuff.”

As Jaden was putting on his black shirt, Astra saw all the scars on his back that he got in battle. Astra instinctively looked away from his torso, but couldn’t resist taking a quick glance at it. Each of his wounds told a different story. They were written with swords, knives, claws, One of them was even made with a speeding bullet. They were the marks that this war has left on him.

Jaden then took the Astral Sword, leaning against the wall and resting inside a black scabbard, and wrapped it around the strap carrying his own blade, the Dark Night Sword. These were the best weapons that he had in his entire arsenal, and he chose to carry both of them, keeping them close at hand.

“Do you think you’re prepared for this?” she asked him.

“Your father wouldn’t have chosen me if I wasn’t, right?” he asked.

“Yeah, but we’re walking into something greater than all of us.”

“Well, there aren’t many people greater than me.” As Jaden spoke, he put on his gloves and his hookshots around his wrists.

“And what if we run into something that even you can’t face.”

After a few seconds of thinking about this possibility, Jaden finally responded. “We’ll just have to see what happens.”

Even though he was trying to be humble, it was true. The only people Jaden could think of that matched his power were Kaiser, Revan, and possibly Astra. He only prayed that he didn’t have to face the wrath of the gods themselves.

Jaden put on his long, leather coat, took his sword in its sheath, and carried it over his shoulder with its strap. He looked in the mirror with his electric blue eyes and saw a warrior completely draped in black. On the buckle of his strap was the eight-pointed First Star. It was the symbol of the deity, Arkaeon, and the Ark Knights that served him.

“Hey Jaden, I always wondered…Why do you always wear black?” she asked him.

“Ark Knights fight in dark times. That’s when I shine brightest.”

The inspiration for this persona came from his years back home. He used to look up in the night sky and wonder his purpose was in life. Why God put him on this world in the first place. The only thing he found was darkness and the stars shining among them. The only light in a world filled with chaos and uncertainty. People used to say that each one was someone’s soul watching down on them all. He wanted to soar through the sky and reach those lights, hoping that one of them would have the answers he sought. As he reached out to those stars, Jaden saw the light, and it gave him hope. He was reborn.

* * *

After eating a hearty breakfast, the Champions gathered in the courtyard at around nine o’clock. They were all dressed in their combat gear. Even Darek was dressed in his green and black fatigues, carrying a brown poncho and a massive greatsword over his shoulder. At the top of the front steps was the King himself, who wanted to give them some encouraging words before they depart.

“I’d like to thank you all for taking part in this momentous journey. You are all some of the best warriors that Astrelm has to offer. Though the path ahead is filled with danger, I still have faith that you will all succeed. I wish you all the best of luck. May the gods guide you in your travels.”

They all turned around and began their journey out of the Sanctuary. But Ramon called out to Jaden, stopping him just as he was leaving.

“Hold on a second, Jaden! I’d like to speak to you for a moment.” 

“You guys go ahead! I’ll catch up!”

As they all moved forward without him, the King slowly descended the stairs, and he and Jaden met eye to eye.

“I know that you and Astra have been close these past two years, and from what I’ve heard, I know you’ll always do the right thing. I can’t stop her from wanting to do the same, so I can’t always be there for her. I want you to promise me that you’ll protect her. Please bring my daughter back safe.” 

Jaden felt the weight of this heavy burden press down on his lungs. Even though he was tasked with a quest that would determine the kingdom’s fate, defending just one person was just as hard. Nevertheless, he nodded to the King’s request.

* * *

And with that, they were off. The sun rose up from behind the mountains, lighting the valley before them with its radiant glow. The Champions followed the dirt path that circled around the cliffs of the citadel. Astra led the way with Jaden next to her, while Revan walked behind them to make sure he can see his sister. Jesse and Kaylah were close to each other while Darek was in the way back. In the distance, the dreaded volcano stood tall over the mountains separating the world from the Wasteland.

The Champions spent hours trekking across the fields of the Kavalah Province. They scaled large, grassy hills, and at the top, they could see the vast expanse of Astrelm. The wilderness was filled with marvelous sights that almost took his breath away. Jaden felt like he was on top of the world. 

The mountains surrounding the valley were topped with layers of white snow. Long rivers flowed through the land and into the ocean. The best part of it was that there wasn’t anyone else for miles. There weren’t that many demons lurking in this part of the kingdom, so they barely had to worry about encountering them. Instead, wild and majestic creatures roamed across the sea of greenery. They all left the war front further behind them as they traveled deep into the peaceful countryside.

About four hours into their trip, the Champions came across the decaying remains of a town ravaged by the Empire. While this valley was now free of the Empire, it still left its mark on the earth some time ago. This thriving center of human life was now reduced to a monument of their existence that returned to nature. Once standing tall in front of the town’s church, a statue of the goddess Astraea was toppled and left as a ghost still watching over the ruins. The corpses of Centurion Giants protruded from the ground like scarecrows, with eyes followed the Champions as they walked through the village.

While he’s always been fascinated with ancient ruins, Jaden now had a sense of melancholy towards them. It was so sad to see how war has caused so much destruction throughout the ages. But seeing how much of it was left behind within the last two years, he worried that civilization was about to join the ruins in extinction. Sometimes, he felt that his world was cursed to destroy itself again and again, and that it was humanity’s job to clean up the mess that it made.

* * *

Tired from carrying all of their bags and weapons, the Champions decided to stop for lunch there. They sat atop a large hill next to the ruins overlooking the valley. Jaden stood by the cliff’s edge and looked out at the volcano spewing smoke and ash into the sky. That was their destination, and quite possibly their doom.

“Hey Jaden, lunch is ready!” Jesse announced.

Jaden turned around to see Jesse and Kaylah sitting around a campfire with a full pan cooking over it.

“What do we got?” he asked Jesse.

“We got apples, bread, and what looks like chicken.”

Using one of the forks to pick out a piece of “chicken,” Jaden took a little bite out of it before spitting it onto the grass.

“It doesn’t taste like it,” he said, cringing with disgust.

The rations given to the assault team were not the best meals on the planet. They were artificially made to give people the nutrients they needed, though lacking the taste of the real thing. The fact that they were wrapped in sealed plastic didn’t make it any more appetizing.

“Hey Jaden, come over here!” Astra requested.

He walked over to where Astra was sitting. She was digging into her picnic basket and took out two sandwiches wrapped in paper.

“I made lunch for the two of us.” 

He quickly unwrapped what appeared to be a combination of spiced meat, lettuce, and tomato resting together in a long, fresh roll. Its mouth-watering aroma awakened his appetite. He was so hungry after hours of walking that he just dug right into it. With one large bite, Jaden devoured about a fourth of it in only a few seconds. He practically inhaled as he tried to swallow it all at once.

  “Wow, this tastes great,” he exclaimed. “You made this yourself?”

“What, a princess can’t cook on her own?”

“No, it’s just, this is the best sandwich I’ve ever had.” Jaden wasn’t being polite. It was really the best one he’s had in his entire life. It was even better than the sandwich he ate when he first arrived in Newtown two years ago. He hated to admit it, but his aunt’s homemade sandwiches didn’t beat this one.

“Thanks. I also added my own special seasoning.” After she mentioned it, Jaden did detect the taste of a savory mayonnaise sauce drizzled into the sandwich.

“Really? I didn’t know you had the time to practice cooking.” As a leading member of the Knights of Astrelm, I didn’t think she had that much free time on her hands.

“Well, we all got to do something besides fight all the time.” She then took a bite into her own sandwich, which she also enjoyed very much.

Jaden fully agreed with what Astra said. He liked to spend his spare time sketching and listening to music. However, he mostly tinkered with new gadgets for use in battle when alone in his apartment. While it wasn’t the best way to worry less about the war, it was better than actually fighting.

Unbeknownst to the both of them, Kaylah stared at them from across the campfire. Her eyes resonated with a solemn yearning for the attention Jaden was giving to Astra. Ever since their parents died when they were ten, she spent most of her time looking after Jesse. Even though she was his sister, she acted more like a mother towards him and others. Despite this, Kaylah never got the loving attention she wanted from everyone except her brother. She believed she couldn’t afford to be with anyone else, and had managed to convince herself she didn’t need it, at least up until now.

“Look over there!” Astra’s attention quickly turned to a lone flower sitting next to them. She cautiously approached the blue and white plant sticking out of the grass.

“What is it?” Jaden asked.

“It’s a Starlight Lily. We’ve done all we could to preserve them, but they’ve been all but wiped out in the war. All we can do is hope that they can repopulate the kingdom when it’s over.”

To Jaden, it was a great shame that such a lovely flower was on the verge of extinction. Every day, it seemed like the world was getting a little bit worse. But looking at the star-shaped flower somehow gave him a sense of wonder that he hadn’t felt for so long. If such a delicate thing could survive all this destruction, there was hope for it yet.

Meanwhile, Darek walked over to Revan as he was quietly scanning the horizon on the other side of the campsite.

“Hey, Revan. I get that we can’t just drive across the mountains, but why couldn’t we take an airship to the Wasteland? Even for me, ten days of walking is too much to handle.”

“I don’t like it either, but it’s our only choice. We have to stay below the Empire’s radar. If they saw where we were going, they’d know that we found the next crystal. I don’t want to have anyone suffer another battle with them again.”

Their conversation was cut short as they both noticed a small aircraft in the distance.

“What’s that?” Darek asked.

“I don’t know, but it’s coming fast,” Revan answered.

Jaden also noticed this airborne anomaly, which buzzed through the sky like a swarm of bees. This sound slowly unnerved him as the aircraft flew closer to them. When they could finally discern the shark-shaped object flying towards them, they all panicked as they immediately recognized it.

“Guys, Imperials are coming!” Darek announced, pointing the airship was in the sky.

“Everyone, hide!” Revan ordered.

They all frantically scattered across the campsite, trying to put all their belongings away. They stuffed their food, their weapons, and their tools into their bags. Jesse even poured water into the campfire, getting rid of the most obvious signal. They all then hid underneath the rocks and the surrounding bushes them to keep out of sight.

While they were more than strong enough to defeat just one dropship’s worth of soldiers together, the Champions didn’t want to alert the Empire of their quest to the Wasteland. They couldn’t risk disclosing their secret route to the temple. And if they discovered the children of the Royal Family and an Ark Knight traveling together, they’d have an entire army of Centurions chasing them down.

Jaden and Astra ducked under a large rock perched atop a small mound. Holding her tight, he covered her with half of his coat, blending her in with the shadows around them. Revan kneeled under another jagged rock, leaning against it for as much cover as possible. Jesse hid with Kaylah beneath the bushes, holding his sister with his right hand and wielding his holstered pistol with his left hand. At the same time, Darek was lying on his back under a cluster of shrubs. They all looked up at the sky, holding their breaths as the imperial ship slowly flew above them. The mechanical hum of its engine rumbled through the air like a beast’s growling stomach. Time seemed to have slowed down while his heart was beating with the speed of a locomotive.

After what felt like a minute of hiding, the ship casually flew past them. Revan slowly crawled out from under his rock and looked out at the vessel shrinking in the distance. “We’re clear!” he announced.

Jaden and Astra exhaled with relief as everyone came out of their hiding places. He finally noticed his arm across her body. She looked at him with a restrained surprise. He turned to her and realized what he was doing. He rapidly retracted his arm, and they awkwardly crawled out from under the rock.

“Sorry about that,” he said to her.

“No, no, it’s fine. Thank you,” Astra responded with a warming smile.

Revan continued staring at the dropship as it flew across the valley and above the mountains. “It’s heading towards the Wasteland,” he said. “The Empire must be searching for the temple there.”

“How many do you think are there?” Darek asked.

“Five, maybe six,” Revan answered. “That’s about a hundred Imperial troops. We need to keep moving. Stay below the cliffs.”

* * *

After narrowly avoiding the eyes of the Empire, the Champions changed otheir travel route to keep out of sight for the next several days. They traveled through the maw of Mount Sarum, passing through the hot springs bubbling in its stomach. Under the jagged cliffs of the fissure trail, they hid from both the Empire and the demons. Following the path sloping up the cliffside, they eventually had to climb up the rocks themselves. Jaden had no problem scaling these cliffs, as he was strong enough to do it with his bare hands. He even managed to climb ahead of everyone else, who relied on their hookshots to ascend the amber mountainside.

When they all finally reached the mountaintop, the Champions gazed out into the desolate hellscape that was the Wasteland. The mere sight of the valley pierced their hearts with dread. Dark storm clouds filled the sky and swirled around the volcano summit. Giant dragons circled Mount Sarum as they searched for unsuspecting prey. Burnt, dead trees sprouted out of the gray earth like hands on a buried corpse. From this, Jaden felt a torrent of evil energy wash over him with a crashing pulse.

“Oh God, this place is terrible!” Kaylah exclaimed.

“This is only the beginning,” Revan added. “If the Empire gets its hands on the First Star, the entire kingdom could become part of this.”

Jaden began to imagine the kind of horrific land this kingdom would become if the Empire’s achieved victory. However, seeing how low the kingdom has sunk in the past two years, this hellish nightmare didn’t feel far from the reality they were already in.

Chapter 11

Edge of the World

July 17th, 2019 AE, 3:46 PM

For hours, the Champions traveled around the outer edge of the primordial Wasteland. Jaden could sense hordes of demons crawling within the caves and cliffs of this forbidden realm. The bones of their victims were scattered across the cliffs, with some as big as a whale. None of them wanted to find out what kind of monstrosities consumed such a creature.

They continued traversing the cliffs until they were behind the face of Mount Sarum. The trail from there was relatively safe, but still very treacherous. Few demons crawled upon the cliffs, but they were careful to stay out of sight. The path bordered on the edge of a large, misty chasm that was seemingly bottomless. This was the Ancient Abyss, the crevice formed by Zadon when he began his invasion of Aeos. It was also the final battlefield in the Divine War centuries ago. There were still swords and various other rusty weapons sticking out from the dead earth, now tomb markers for the fallen warriors. Beyond this abyss was the frozen tundra of Novarelm. The Champions had reached the end of Astrelm, but it seemed like they were at the edge of the world.

They eventually came across a large, rickety bridge that stretched across a gap in the trail. Judging from the worn-out wood, they could tell that this bridge was old and ready to collapse. They all walked slowly and carefully, tightly gripping the rope on both sides of the bridge. Jaden tried not to look down into the abyss, but he was drawn in by the large and powerful demons lurking below. His senses made out the shapes of enormous, eel-like creatures slithering down there. Nevertheless, he could still see the darkness shifting around like the waters in an infernal ocean.

Suddenly, Jaden heard the sound of one of the wooden boards breaking. He turned around to see Astra had stepped through one of them and had nearly fallen through. However, Jesse had grabbed onto her upper arm, preventing her from falling completely. They all fearfully held their breaths when they saw what nearly happened. They then exhaled both relieved and annoyed by the dangerous peril that was narrowly avoided.

“Oh God,” he softly exclaimed. Jaden knew he needed a vacation after this job was done.

Jesse pulled Astra back up, and she regained her footing.

“Thank you, Jesse,” she said.

“No problem,” he responded, still tense from the sudden shock that they all shared. “God, after this job is over, I think I need to go away for a while.”

“Hey, can I ask you something?” she asked him.

“Sure, I could break the ice right about now,” he responded jokingly.

“How did you ever become part of all this? This war. I mean, you don’t seem like the kind of person to fight in it.”

“Well, no one does at first, but things change. For me, it happened when I met Jaden. We were together in Newtown when the Empire attacked. I was so terrified when everything came crumbling down that I just wanted to run away. But Jaden, he ran headfirst to danger because he knew there were people in trouble that needed his help. He didn’t care about saving his own life when others were about to lose theirs. That was the kind of person that I wanted to be.”

Even though they spoke softly, Jaden’s enhanced senses allowed him to hear them from afar. At first, he smiled when he heard how Jesse wanted to be like him, but it quickly faded as he realized what that actually meant. To be him was to live alone, desperately trying to hide a great secret to avoid the constant threat of being feared and hunted by those around him. Sometimes, Jaden wished that he was someone else, someone who was normal. For Jesse’s sake, he hoped that he would be someone with a better life than him.

Both Astra and Jesse noticed how silent and distant he was, and it wasn’t until Jesse spoke again that he really got his attention.

“Look, I know he acts like a tough loner all the time but…take care of him, alright? He needs it. Even if he is an Ark Knight, he’s not that strong.”

“What was that?!” Jaden asked.

“Nothing!” he said nervously.

Astra merely chuckled and agreed to Jesse’s request. “Okay, Jesse. I will.”

* * *

The Champions eventually reached the other end of the bridge, safe and sound, and pressed forward. As they came around the corner, they saw a large, metal door built into the mountain. Said door was engraved with the mark of the Nova Empire: a six-pointed star centered within a hexagon, a symbol of their self-proclaimed manifest destiny. They all knew that they had finally reached their destination.

“There it is!” Revan stated. “The Mines of Mesadah!”

Surrounding the entrance were carts filled with old mining tools: pickaxes, hammers, shovels; there was even an enormous laser drill standing next to it. This place was evidently the site of a massive mining operation. Whil magic crystals were discovered here, something far more extraordinary was unearthed as well. It was here that the Empire first discovered the advanced technology created in ancient times. It was even theorized that the Wasteland was once the site of the great city, Mesadah, before Zadon came and destroyed it. It supposedly became the site of the Divine Temple of Iblis after the war, but the city was soon abandoned after a volcanic eruption. Demons eventually made the buried city their home, making it too dangerous to venture through.

Today, the city became a huge archeological find made by the Empire, ultimately leading to their rise to power. They found ancient technology that they refined and adapted as their own: weapons, mechs, even airships. It’s ironic how they began a war with the same technology their ancestors used to nearly destroy themselves. But humanity has a funny way of repeating its past mistakes.

“How are we supposed to get in?” Kaylah asked.

Revan observed the control panel sitting by the door. The device was old and rusty, but he saw that it was electronically connected to the entrance. He checked the cable and saw it was ripped open, and that wires inside were torn apart.

“Looks like the demons got into these wires. We won’t be able to open it electronically.”

“Don’t worry, I know how to fix it!” Jaden announced.

Ge focused his energy into his Dark Night Sword, causing it to surge with blue light. He drove his blade through the metal gate, slowly slicing a large hole for them to go through. A large slab of iron slammed onto the dirt, and daylight poured into the cave for the first time in a decade. With the doorway open, Revan walked over and observed his handiwork.

“You know I was going to that myself,” Revan said bluntly.

“Oh, sorry. Didn’t mean to steal your thunder,” Jaden responded.

With that wisecracking aside, they both stared into the black veil that filled the tunnel in front of them.

“The temple should be at the far end of the mines,” he stated. “Is everyone ready?”

“Hey, we came all this way, didn’t we? We might as well give it a shot.” Astra remarked. “Remember, whatever’s in there, don’t face it alone. We’re in this together.”

On that note, everyone prepared their weapons and slowly entered the mine shaft, going deeper into the darkness with each step. Unbeknownst to them, a silent alarm was triggered as they passed through the doorway.

A warm draft blew across their faces as they walked in. It was like volcano itself was breathing through the vent, having just acknowledged their presence. Jaden could sense hordes of powerful monsters dwelling in the caverns. They had already walked into deadly territory, but they were deep in the Wasteland now.

Chapter 12

The Beast Cometh

The Champions continued down the mine shaft until darkness surrounded them completely. Revan focused his gauntlet’s energy into the palm of his hand, illuminating the tunnel with its white glow.

They all followed Revan down the mine track that stretched deep into the cavern. Their eyes dotted around the cave as they ventured deeper into the shadows. Rats scurried across the path beneath their feet as they desperately fled from the light. The mauled corpses of Imperial soldiers were piled up in front of them. Many of which were clutching swords and machine guns in their cold, dead hands. Beyond these human remains was a large doorway held up by wooden beams. This doorway led to a large grotto standing above a massive, dark pit forged from lava streams long ago.

The cliffs were connected by long, wooden bridges stretching across the rocky chasm. The entire chamber was like a forest of stone trees branching out over a black abyss. Only a thin set of metal and wooden bars forged the path over a fathomless void.

Balancing themselves across the bridge laid before them, the Champions watched each step they took to avoid a fatal plunge. Even so, they tried to stay as quiet as possible to avoid alerting any demons of their presence. They eventually reached the other end of the cavern, where an ancient staircase leading to the city.

While everyone else started climbing the stairs, Jaden noticed that the normally calm and confident Darek trembling next to him.

“You okay?” Jaden asked him,

“Not really,” he answered softly. “This place brings up a lot of bad memories.”

“What do you mean?”

“When I was a kid, I was sent to work in a hole like this by the Empire. This was after they invaded my village. After they captured us, they sent all the children away to do slave labor. We were forced to mine for crystals nonstop for the entire day. Although I’m wasn’t sure it was daylight, since we could never see the sun. When we were done, they would make them sleep in these small, cramped cages. I couldn’t even stand up straight. I couldn’t take it anymore. I was willing to do anything to get out of there. So when they were enlisting men for the Imperial Army, and they picked me, I was thrilled. But after my first mission in Astrelm, I just couldn’t fight for them. And so, by some miracle, I fled the army and went into hiding, but not in one piece.” 

He then looked down on his bionic arm: a constant reminder of what the Empire took from him.

“I never wanted to see the Empire again, but I couldn’t just sit by and let them ruin people’s lives. I knew I had to help put a stop to them. Although, I never thought I’d end up in a place this again.”

Darek’s heartbreaking story left Jaden dead silent. He always thought he had a hard life, but sometimes, he forgot how much worse some people’s lives were. Even though he’s had his fair share of suffering, Jaden still grew up in a comfortable home with a loving family. Compared to Darek, he was one of the lucky ones.

But even after living a life of slavery and misfortune, Darek still gave whatever he could to support his fellow man. Jaden couldn’t help but admire him for it.

* * *

They both caught up with the others after climbing the stone staircase. The six of them walked through a grand archway leading into an even more massive cavern. And lo, they beheld an entire city literally buried in time.

“This is it,” Revan said in marvel and awe, “The ancient city of Mesadah.”

The streets were lined with stone towers that pierced into the ceiling. All of the buildings continued until they reached the central tower. The city’s layout was much like that of Arkrelm, most likely because they were born from the Old World. He could’ve spent days exploring and admiring these wondrous ruins if it wasn’t for his mission, as well as the monsters waiting to hunt them down.

“Jaden, can you sense where the crystal is?” Astra asked.

“There’s too much dark energy in here. I can’t isolate the Star’s location.”

This magical interference came from the demons dwelling within the mines. Their collective energy filled these caves like a black cloud that he could barely see through. He knew they were now wandering inside a slaughterhouse.

“So, what should we do?” Jesse asked.

“Well, the temples are usually in the center of the city. Let’s start there.” Jaden pointed towards the city’s ancient palace, just down the main road. As they walked down the street of this subterranean civilization, they took in all the marvelous structures that had survived for centuries. They were all dwarfed by enormous stone knights guarding the central tower. He couldn’t believe this city could still stand after suffering so many disasters. This place was a burning flame that refused to be extinguished.

They entered the main hall of the palace, which was topped with a massive dome. On the inside, this rotunda was decorated with a mural of the stars in the night sky. At the center of it was a tower that stretched seemingly to the heavens. The room had three other doorways going in three different directions.

“Which way do we go?” Darek asked.

“Let’s try in there?” Jaden said, pointing towards the doorway in the middle.

The Champions walked into the hall to find what looked like a regular chapel, but what they discovered was far from holy. Dozens of ancient weapons were stockpiled in this large room, alongside dozens of Imperial corpses. This must’ve been where they huddled up when the demons attacked. Tall stone pillars held the ceiling up high above them with various weapons lying up against them. As they all took in their terrifying surroundings, A lone radio transmitter sat on an altar at the far end of the hall, riddled with dust but still operational. Revan went over to the device and turned it on, analyzing its data.

“This is a dead end, let’s turn back,” Jaden said.

“Hold on, there’s still some recordings left on this transmitter.”

He played back the most recent recording, turning the volume knob low enough for them to hear without making too much noise. The audio was muffled by static, but it was clear enough for them to understand. They listened to a man’s frantic voice playback on the speaker.

“This is the Imperial facility in Mesadah! We are under attack! Repeat, we are under attack! Demons have invaded the mines, and we can’t escape! They’ve trapped us all in the city, and there’s too many of them! Please send reinforcements immediately! We can’t hold them off much longer. Half of the soldiers are dead and—oh God! Oh dear God, no! It’s… it’s a…AHHHH!!!” The officer’s horrified scream was overshadowed by the thunderous roar of some kind of beast. Suddenly, the transmission was then cut and replaced with the restrained shriek of the radio’s static. Revan turned the machine off, his eyes stretched wide with fear as he wondered what kind of monster took part in that massacre.

“Guys, I don’t like this,” Kaylah exclaimed.

“Me neither! Let’s fall back!” Jesse suggested. “I don’t wanna run into whatever killed these guys.”

As the rest of them spoke, Jaden magically scanned the mines for the demons behind this, but he failed to narrow down their location. He could feel that dark cloud of evil building up over him, blinding his senses. The fiendish chill of their energies was strong enough to make the hairs on his neck stand up. But as he felt the darkness continue to hover above him, he realized the truth was literally right over his head.

“Uh, guys,” he uttered, staring upward.

They all looked up to see Gorloks pouring in from the ceiling like spiders. These grotesque, jade humanoids carried swords, shields, and spears, while some were armed with just their claws. The beasts came crashing down, hissing at them with shrieks while baring their sharp fangs. Their feral eyes were filled with an obsidian flare yearning for living flesh.

The Champions all went on the defensive as they prepared for battle. Darek took out his mighty blade and paired it with his shield. Jesse took out both his guns and aimed them in the same direction. Kaylah pointed her spear at the doorway with both hands. Revan took out the handles for both his sword and shield and activated them, causing them to rapidly extend into full-scale weapons.

And with that, the slaughter began. 

Each of them sliced and stabbed at every bloodthirsty beast that came their way. Meanwhile, Jesse firing at any monster he could see, instantly killing each of them with a single shot to the head. He quickly drained his guns of bullets, but he managed to reload them just as fast. Darek swung his sword so hard that he knocked the demon’s head right off its body. Meanwhile, Revan thrust his blade clean through a Gorlok’s throat. He saw a couple more demons behind that one, so energized his gauntlet and released a blast of energy on each of them. 

They had all wiped out the majority of their enemies in a matter of seconds. Unfortunately, more Gorloks quickly poured in from above, promptly replacing them. Jaden sensed a more fearsome creature leading them all, who was rapidly dropping towards the altar.

“Oh, God…Guys, look out!” He shouted.

But it was too late. A giant Sarclops came crashing down, blowing most of the team away before releasing a mighty roar. This black, one-eyed beast towered over them, wielding a large, metal club and an armor of horns. Jesse fired a bullet at the beast’s chest, but it barely managed to break through its thick skin. It then marched towards them and tried to smash them with its enormous club. They all scattered to different corners of the room. However, there were still more Gorloks trying to kill them.

The Sarclops swung its mace down on Revan, but he managed to block it with his shield and bash it away. The giant forced its hand down onto Revan, who held the beast back with his enhanced strength. However, the monster’s strength was slowly overwhelming his own.

At the same time, Jaden was cornered by three Gorloks who attacked him all at once. He focused all his strength into the Astral Sword and pushed them back. As he slashed the demons with his holy blade, it sent a wave of energy that blew them away.

“Jaden, help him!” Astra yelled.

“Hold on!” he responded. “Whoa,” he said with surprise. He had no idea the Astral Sword had this kind of power all on its own.

Jesse kept shooting at the dark giant from its side. However, one Gorlok came charging at him from his side, Kaylah’s spear suddenly burst out of demon’s chest. Jesse saw his sister behind the monster after it fell to the ground.

“Hey, I had that one!” he said to her.

“I know you did,” she responded with a smile. 

“Raaahhhh!”

Both siblings continued fighting when they heard the Sarclops stomped towards them. As Jesse shot at the great beast, Kaylah threw her spear right into its chest. It managed to pierce the giant’s hide, but it still stood firm, letting out a roar of both rage and anguish.

Jaden fired his hookshots into the back of the beast’s shoulders and pulled it back. However, the Sarclops pulled back with brute strength that nearly swept him off his feet. In response, he sent focused his energy into the hookshot’s cables, paralyzing the beast with electricity that coursed through them and into the demon’s body.

Darek drove his sword into the hulking demon’s leg, causing it to fall on one knee. In response, the giant swung its arm at Darek, sending him flying into a wall. The impact nearly took the wind out of him; he could barely stand up again.

“Darek!” Jaden shouted, becoming too distracted to shock the giant.

No longer paralyzed, the giant demon took this opportunity to grab his cables and used them to hurl Jaden into another wall. His back made first contact with the stone surface, sending a wave of pain gushing through his spine.

“Jaden!” Astra shouted. 

She rushed over Jaden as he struggled to get back up. Unfortunately, the towering giant stepped in the Princess’s path, standing between her and the Ark Knight. The demon growled at her with fierce anger. Enraged herself, she charged at the giant and stabbed it from behind while letting out a harsh battle cry.

“Gyaahhh!” 

Astra’s sharp rapier forced an intense sting into the demon’s body. In retaliation, the beast swung its enormous mace at Astra, but she swiftly dodged it. The creature kept trying to smash the Princess, but she gracefully evaded its attacks with enhanced speed. It was almost as if her anger was driving her ahead of the demon. However, she was eventually forced into a corner of the room with the giant right in front of her.

Kaylah saw the Princess in peril, so she took out her small twin daggers and drove them into the demon’s muscular arm, causing it to flinch and drop its club. The Sarclops roared in pain as it flailed its arms at her like a wild ape, breaking through the stone pillars with the force of a wrecking ball. Both ladies evaded the beast’s berserk attacks, but they were losing ground fast.

None of their attacks were wearing the beast down. Its body was too powerful, and his rage only made it more deadly. Just then, Jaden got an idea. He knew the giant had one fatal weakness.

“Revan! Draw it towards you!”

“What are you planning?!” he asked.

“Just do it, trust me!”

With little time to think it over, Revan heeded his word. He sliced the beast’s thick chest with his sword, directing its anger towards himself. The Prince then parried its massive fist with his royal shield, catching it off guard.

  Having gained the opening he needed, Jaden began focusing his energy into forging an arrow of blue light. He leaped high into the air as he prepared himself for the final shot. With his shining arrow fully charged, Jaden fired it right through the demon’s dark eye. The blast burned right through its thick head, and the Sarclops came crashing down to the floor, stone dead.

“Is everyone okay?” Jaden asked.

“Yeah, we’re good!” Jesse answered.

“Good! Oh God, that was intense.”

“There’s no time for that! Let’s go now!” Revan shouted.

Another wave of Gorloks started climbing down from the ceiling, and the Champions all ran out of the chapel as they gave chase. Hundreds more of them crawled out from all corners of the caves, including from the rotunda above them. The demons pouring into the hall until an entire army was all around them. They were completely surrounded.

“There’s too many of them. Let’s teleport out of here!” Revan said frantically.

“I can’t! I’m not getting a signal!” Jesse stated, with his Ring raised high.

This was just like back in Arkrelm. There were too many demons surrounding them, and their dark energy was clouding their signal. Their primal, wicked cries echoed throughout the hall, blending into one demonic wailing. These were the hordes from his nightmares brought to life.

They were going to have to fight their way out of this hole. Jaden didn’t want to have it come to this, but hr had no other choice. He had to go all out.

“Stand back, guys! I’ll take care of this!”

“Jaden, are you crazy?! There’s too many of them!” Revan stated.

“Don’t worry about me! You’re about to see what I can really do!”

Jaden got into a battle stance and prepared to power up. Everyone watched the Ark Knight as he began to focus all of his energy into his greatest technique. He let out a fierce battle cry, and suddenly, a flash of white light emerged from behind him. The demons were frightened by the light and scattered away from them.

“Well, that was easy,” Darek said. “How’d you do that, J?”

“That wasn’t me,” he responded, confused by that light was and where it came from.

“Then, what was that?” Jesse asked.

They all turned around to see a team of Centurions marching into the hall. One of them was carrying a flare gun, which they had fired to scare the demons away. The soldiers surrounded them and pointed their machine guns at them. There were about forty to fifty of them, who each shined blood-red optic lasers on the Champions. They were all caught in the web of the imperial forces.

The circle of soldiers blocking the exit opened up, and their leader walked into the perimeter. Jaden and Astra recognized him as the scarred, vulture-faced general of the Imperial Army. It was Halldor, who was wearing his pendant around his neck.

“My, my, what a pleasant surprise!” he said smugly.

“Oh crap,” Jaden said, irritated.

“I suppose I should thank you once again. We probably would’ve never considered searching this place. Nevertheless, I believe you have something that belongs to us!”

“We don’t have the crystals, Halldor! But we’re still not gonna let you have them!”

“That’s a shame. I was ordered to present you to the Emperor alive, but that doesn’t mean you have to be in perfect condition.” Halldor took out his knife and stared at him with fierce rage and a thirst for blood. “In all my years as a general, I’ve only failed the Emperor twice, both because of you. I won’t return to him empty-handed.” 

“Wait, do you hear that?” Astra asked. “Listen.”

Jaden noticed the ground shaking beneath them, as well as the dirt seeping down from above. Everyone there, including the Imperials, stopped and listened to these small tremors.

“What is it now?” Jesse asked. 

“Sounds like the volcano’s erupting,” Darek responded.

They felt another tremor shake the chamber every two seconds. They heard them getting louder and stronger with each moment. Even Jaden trembled as he knew what was coming.

“That’s not the volcano,” he said. 

Everyone heard a booming roar coming from the other side of the hall. The same one that the Champions heard on the radio. They all turned around to see nothing but complete darkness. But Jaden sensed an enormous amount of dark energy coming from behind. It was so strong that the hairs on the back of his neck shot up like sparks. This evil aura surged through the entire hall like a wildfire, and it was getting closer. 

They all could now feel an evil presence had just entered the room. Everyone held their breaths as they heard heavy breathing fill the hollow. High above the floor, a pair of searing red eyes stared at them from afar.

“What the hell is that?!” Darek asked.

“A Malakor.”

The Imperials pointed their guns at the large black shape standing before them. Their red dots danced around the beast like flies as they quivered in fear. Astra instinctively stepped closer to Jaden. He couldn’t tell if she did it out of fear or concern for him. He was too terrified to focus on anything but the shadow in front of them. Suddenly, a massive inferno flared up and lit up the entire room with its raging red light. At the center of this blaze was the demon in all its horror.

Bulging muscles wrapped around the gigantic beast, whose kin was black with veins of burning fire. This humanoid creature was topped with the head of a wild bull, crowned with jagged black and a long, red mane.  Its long, hooved legs throbbed with pure, savage strength. And in its right hand, the monster grasped a colossal sword that could shatter a small building. This was the image of a true devil.

They were all frozen in fear, shivering in the cold-hearted face of this infernal behemoth. In all his years of fighting, Jaden has never encountered a demon like this. He’s read many frightening stories about this monstrous breed in ancient legends. As a chief devil in Zadon’s Army of Darkness, they would lead hordes of demons against their enemies before incinerating them with their fiery breaths.

The black beast flared its nostrils and roared at them, revealing its sharp fangs and blazing maw. The pillar of flames enveloping it intensified, and the whole room trembled in fear. Red embers poured from the gate of the demon’s breath and past its black, serpentine tongue. They were all staring at the face of Hell itself.

Jaden finally got himself out of his petrified state and let out a blood-curdling cry.

“RUUUNNNN!”

The Champions turned around and ran for their lives, and the great beast chased them in a wild frenzy. 

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