Book 1: Ch. 4-6

Chapter 4

The Great War

After the invasion of Newtown, it wasn’t long before the entire kingdom entered a mass panic. A wave of anxiety instantly washed over everyone, as they feared where and when another attack would occur. Entire towns were shut down, and all major roads were closed. People started barricading themselves in their homes and arming themselves. All the paranoia eventually led to rumors of Imperial spies within the kingdom. This led to the closest neighbors in the friendliest towns turning against each other. Riots thus quickly broke out, and fellow citizens viciously tore their own neighborhoods apart. The Empire didn’t need to attack a village when it could destroy itself for them. 

And then, about a week later, things became much worse. 

Throughout Astrelm, more and more demons began appearing after the attack. These ravenous beasts would usually pop up at night and roam the wilderness to eat anything that moves. They mainly dwelled in caverns and ancient ruins like the Divine Temples throughout the land. But ever since Newtown, they began appearing in broad daylight, and their large numbers would double at night. They even formed small nests across the land to hide and grow in, which made leaving towns unarmed much too dangerous, especially after dark. Over the past two years, these infernal creatures killed thousands of innocent people, and they were all only a drop in the ocean.

At the same time, more Imperial soldiers began claiming towns and cities around the country. The war between Novarelm and Astrelm has lasted for almost a century, but it never escalated this badly until now. Back then, the Nova Empire only claimed independent territories around the world for control of their resources, and Astrelm usually helped fight them off. Now they have the power to attack their kingdom head-on, and at this point, they were winning. While they had a shortage of vital resources, the Empire was now so technologically advanced that its military surpassed their own. Though we’ve clashed with the Empire throughout the war, both armies still had to contend with the demons. Novarelm usually has more of them appearing in their land on a more frequent basis, causing their land to become lifeless and practically uninhabitable. But somehow, the Empire found a way to control the demons, making their army much more powerful.

If that wasn’t bad enough, other small terrorist groups had formed after the Newtown incident. Apparently, they believed they couldn’t stop Kaiser’s “Era of Chaos,” so they decided to join in instead. These gangs were relatively small, but deadly nevertheless, and they worshipped Kaiser as their Dark Lord. One group, in particular, worked under Kaiser personally. These fanatics were known as the Death Riders, and they were undoubtedly the most dangerous and sadistic warriors on the planet. Not only were they skilled in combat, but they were also imbued with Kaiser’s black magic. With it, they rivaled the Ark Knights in terms of strength, but it made them more demon than human. They’ve ravaged entire towns and claimed countless lives all for the sake of destruction. Even so, it seemed the world’s greatest casualty of this hellish war was its own humanity. 

Throughout human history, it was always during dark times like these that turned good people. Jaden thought he may have been a victim of this war as well. Hundreds of fierce battles had sharpened and tempered him into the seasoned warrior he was now, all at the cost of his innocence. To some degree, he came to understand how these fanatics felt, but he didn’t think he could fully grasp it.

To combat all these threats, the government deployed the Knights of Astrelm, a guild of elite soldiers who specialized in fighting with Divine Weapons. These artifacts of the Old World were forged from crystals infused with light energy, the demons’ greatest weakness. At first, they fought the Empire during the day and the demons at night. But eventually, they started fighting the demons day and night. The knights were led by Astra, the Princess of Astrelm, and Revan, the Prince. Them and their father, King Ramon, managed to escape the Citadel during Kaiser’s attack, and now lead the kingdom from a hidden sanctuary somewhere in the country. While the Princess was second-in-command, she stood out the most among the two. Due to her kind nature and outstanding skill, speed, and courage on the battlefield, she was hailed a hero by the citizens of Astrelm.

The people were so inspired by the knights’ courage, many of them began forming their own guilds to fight the dark forces. Eventually, an entire organization of warriors known as the Rangers was formed. They led assaults on both imperial bases and demon nests set up all around the kingdom. Their search for the latter would usually take them to ancient shrines, where they all joined together to purge them of these dark beasts. Jaden was among those traveling the land and fighting the enemy, but he usually fought alone to keep others out of trouble. Even with all his powers, he believed was the best way to protect them. If anyone knew what he was or what he could do, they could be in serious trouble, just like before.

Unlike the Ark Knights, humanity didn’t have the benefits of using magic naturally, making it difficult for them to fight in the war. Instead, they relied on crystals as a source of magic, using it to power their cities or make potions that slowly heal people’s wounds. They were also fused with machinery to create Stargate Rings, watch-like devices that could teleport anyone across the country instantly. But after the Empire attacked the capital, the Astrelian government shut down the entire Stargate network to prevent them from invading other cities. Ever since then, only warriors given special Rings that could teleport to places already registered in them. Though these devices scanned their user’s faces before granting them access, they were still limited as a safety precaution. This protocol practically limited travel across the kingdom to the courageous few, since it’s all become a vicious battleground.

Despite the struggles of war, exploring the realm became quite a fun adventure for Jaden. Throughout the war, Rangers have found numerous treasures hidden inside the ruins dotting the countryside. Many were either sold for money and supplies, or simply kept as keepsakes or tools on the battlefield. Even Jaden held onto some treasures, but he mostly collected weapons to expand his arsenal. He had his eyes set on finding the Divine Weapons, just like many other explorers all over the land. These relics were extremely useful in battling both the Imperial Army and the demons. Some could even give the wielder powers similar to an Ark Knight’s. While only a handful have been found, there were still many others that have yet to be discovered. But there was one artifact above all the rest that the whole world was looking for.

Though the Empire’s main focus was taking over the kingdom, their armies were also tasked with finding the greatest treasure of all: The First Star. They intended to use its infinite power to shape the world in their own twisted image. For years, they scoured the planet in search of the Divine Temples housing its hidden fragments. Naturally, the Royal Family soon joined the race after the war began by offering a million Cal to anyone who can retrieve any one of the Stars. About a week ago, the Empire discovered the temple which housed the Star of Talus, the God of Earth. The Royal Family then ordered the Rangers to help acquire the Star kept inside. They hoped not only to prevent them from claiming the First Star, they planned to summon the Aeons sleeping within the crystals to finally defeat the Empire.

Chapter 5

Princess of Light

July 6th, 2019 AE, 5:04 PM

The city of Argos was a chaotic place. It was filled with thousands of people, most of who are trying to escape the war. However, many of these refugees were criminals, so it was wise to watch your back and carry a weapon with you every time you go out at night. Argos was far from being the best place to live in, but it was the only place most people could live in.

Argos was surrounded by an enormous stone wall that overshadowed the one built around Newtown. The city itself was a gigantic maze that was easy to get lost in. One wrong turn could drag you into a world of trouble. Many shops and merchants sold rations and supplies for those fighting in the war. Among the mix were black market dealers who sold contraband weapons stolen from the Empire. There were also a multitude of inns where travelers came to rest or make their homes. The streets were littered with the scraps and waste from thousands of citizens. This created the terrible stench of trash, piss, and shit that permeated the city air, leaving a bitter taste in your mouth. Simply put, this metropolis was the trash heap of scum, outcasts, and lives lost.

Why did Jaden choose to live here? One reason is that the rent for his apartment was very cheap, or cheap enough for him to afford it. More importantly, he chose to help protect its citizens from the dangerous amount of crime plaguing the city. When he wasn’t traveling the kingdom, he would spend his nights patrolling the streets. In only a year, Jaden brought in hundreds of crooks, ranging from thieves and smugglers to mobsters and murderers. The funny thing is that he’s actually come to enjoy it, despite how dangerous it all was. The mysteries hiding in every alleyway and every building excited him. This also came with the satisfaction of stopping crime and keeping people safe. It felt very much like exploring ruins in the wild and fighting off the demons. All in all, the city was an enormous urban jungle that he couldn’t help but feel attracted to.

After navigating through the west side of the city and crowds of people, Jaden finally arrived at the Red Rose Inn: a local tavern with a very misleading name. He walked inside to see the place was packed with customers and the pungent smell of smoke and alcohol. Heavy music blared from the jukebox in the background, lighting up the room with an electric mix of the guitar and piano. Although, he could barely hear it over the sound of the customers’ babbling. Warriors from all over the kingdom filled the tables as they filled themselves with their drinks. Almost everyone there was armed with scars, lethal weapons, and dangerously short tempers. Unless you wanted to end up with some broken bones, the best thing to do here was to not get on anyone’s ugly side.

He walked up to the bar to see his dear friend, Darek, waving at him from behind the counter with his mechanical, left arm. He was a large, muscular man in his mid-twenties with brown, greasy hair with a matching badger chin and a black apron over his brown skin.

“Hey, J!” he greeted. “I see you’re still alive!”

“What, were you hoping I wasn’t?” Jaden joked. 

“It’s good to see you, man.”

“You too, Darek. So how’s my bike doing?

“It’s not fixed yet, but I’m almost finished. What else can I do you for?”

“Well, I uh…I also got the Star.”

“You did?!” Wide-eyed and surprised, he looked both ways around the bar before he leaned in closer. “Meet me in the back in a few minutes.”

Having nodded his head, Darek walked out of the bar and into the back room, leaving his assistant in charge. Jaden then ordered a glass of ice water to quench the extreme thirst that was oppressing him. After downing his crisp, cold beverage, Jaden made his way towards the back. That is until he accidentally bumped into one of the barflies, spilling his drink on his shirt.

“Hey, watch it, bub!” he said in a drunken daze. 

Jaden hesitated to respond, as he recoiled from his foul beer breath. The sight of his scarred face threw him off as well.

“What are you looking at?” he asked begrudgingly, his mutilated grimace hovering over Jaden.

“Nothing! Nothing!” he answered in a nervous panic.

“Well, you better watch yourself!”

“Look, I’m sorry. I don’t want any trouble!”

“Well, you’ve got trouble now!”

The drunkard shoved Jaden into a nearby table, knocking him and nearly a dozen glasses onto the floor. He then swung his own glass against the counter and rushed at him with its edge. Jaden reached for his sword and braced himself for an ugly fight. Suddenly, Darek grabbed him by the wrist and disarmed him with a tight squeeze. The drunk tried to punch him with his other hand, but he countered with one from his robotic arm. This sent him flying across the room and into another table covered with drinks. He fell to the floor and just laid there, writhing in pain atop a puddle of beer and broken glass. 

“What?” Darek asked, his gaze hard as stone.

Everyone just returned to their own business without any concern for the unfortunate man. He then walked over and helped Jaden back up. 

“Thanks, man, but I could’ve handled that.”

“I know, I just wanted to show everyone here who’s boss,” he said with a smirk.

* * *

Jaden followed Darek into the back room: a garage filled to the brim with a variety of weapons, many of them stolen by the Empire. They walked past suits of high-tech armored suits and an armored buggy at the far end of the room. There were even some Divine Weapons hanging on the walls and on sale for a hefty price. All of this was Darek’s side-business: selling weapons and resources to the Rangers as a top member of the organization. Though he wasn’t a fighter, he regularly hosted meetings for the guild, which was actually how he first met Jaden. Ever since then, Darek had become one of his most trusted allies in the Great War. He was his supplier, his mechanic, his intel, and his friend. 

Jaden’s trusty motorcycle sat in the center of the garage, next to a cart of auto-repair tools. The engine was damaged during a raid on an imperial outpost about two weeks ago, and there were still fresh scratches on its glossy, black coat. Even with these severe damages, Darek was still the right man to fix it. He was the one who sold it to him, so he knew the machine inside and out. It was also contraband stolen from the Empire, so he was the only one Jaden could trust it with.

They walked over to the table in the middle of the room, where Jaden took out the crystal from his coat pocket and showed it to Darek.

“Holy shit, man!” he exclaimed, “I can’t believe you found one! So…what are you gonna do with it now?”

“Well, I was hoping you could send it to the Royal Family so I could get my reward. It’s not much use to me.”

“Hi, Jaden,” he heard someone say from behind.

Jaden recognized the voice instantly. He turned around to see the woman standing in front of him. Her long, golden hair and oval-shaped face shined like the sun, her blue eyes were like stars in the night sky, and her rose-colored lips formed a warm, pink smile. She was dressed in a white uniform of the Knights of Astrelm, and a golden rapier was resting in a white, leather sheath strapped to her hip. It was Astra, the Princess of Astrelm.

“Oh…hi Astra,” he said anxiously. “What are you doing here?”

Jaden was surprised to see her in a seedy city like Argos. Even though the Knights of Astrelm worked together with the Rangers, Darek’s bar was still dangerous for someone of her status. This was most likely why she had two male knights, dressed in the standard guild uniform, standing behind her like statues. But Darek was still surprised that she just walked into his garage.  After Astra greeted him with a friendly wave, she turned to Jaden and spoke.

“We’re just about raid the Divine Temple, and I was looking for you.”

“You keep track of all the fighters. You knew where I was. Plus, you have my phone number, so you could’ve just called me.” 

“Hey, I found you, didn’t I?” she responded. “So what were you two talking about?”

“Oh, I was just showing Darek this.” Jaden held out the crystal to her, and she was immediately stunned.

“Whoa, you actually found a Crystal Star?” she asked in disbelief.

“Yeah, I was just gonna have Darek deliver it to you, but now that you’re here…” He gladly gave Astra the crystal, and she was mesmerized by its emerald glare. It was like a green eye opened from within the stone and gazed at her through its kaleidoscopic lens. For a split second, she could even see the figure of an armored knight standing proudly in front of her.

“So, about my reward…”

“Huh,” she said, having been knocked out of her trance.

“My reward! The reward for getting the crystal.”

“Oh yeah! We’ll have someone send you the money by the end of the day,” she said.

“Thanks. So, you said you were about to raid the next temple?”

“Yes, I’ll tell you more about it. But, Jaden, I’d still like to repay you for all you’ve done. Would you like to discuss our plans over a drink?”

“Huh?!” said Darek and Jaden. The latter’s heart skipped a beat, as he was sure that the Princess of Astrelm had just asked him out on a date.

“Uh, yeah. Sure!” he responded nervously.

“Great!” she said joyfully. 

Astra then took his hand and escorted him back into the bar. As Jaden was being dragged out, he was mentally preparing himself for his date. While he never blinked in the face of savage demons or Imperial soldiers, socializing with people scared the hell out of him. Especially with women.

* * *

They sat down in a private table near the backside of the bar, where Astra’s bodyguards staunchly watched everyone else inside. They were all staring at them from across the room, muttering about Princess of Astrelm sitting down with some nobody. Jaden and Astra felt very awkward with all these eyes locked on them. Even Darek was staring at them from behind the bar, himself feeling uncomfortable with this situation.

“Boy, I usually don’t have this many people staring at me,” Jaden said awkwardly.

“After a while, you get used to it,” she responded.

The waiter brought each of them a cup of tea, which they gratefully enjoyed after a stressful day out in the field. While it wasn’t the most popular drink here, it was much better than the watered-down swill they usually served.

As they sipped their hot beverages, their nerves loosened up with a soothing release. It was one of those rare moments of relief from the anxieties of war. They both hummed with delight as they had forgotten about the world for one blissful moment.

“Mmmm.” 

“Oh God, I feel so much better now!” he exclaimed.

“Me too! I so needed a break from the front lines.”

“You know, it’s weird. Sometimes I forget what life was like before all this fighting.”

“Yeah, I mean…I know it’s only been two years, but it feels like we’ve stuck in this war forever.”

Jaden had become so used to fighting this war, he almost didn’t want it to stop. He was even afraid of what his life would be like without it. Ark Knights were supposed to fight for peace, but if there wasn’t any war, then what was his purpose?

“So, what’s up with those guards?” he asked her. “You never had them with you before.”

“I know. My brother wants me to have personal guards whenever I’m out now. I admit, it has gotten more dangerous out in the field, but this is more than I can handle!”

“So then why don’t you tell him that?”

“Believe me, I’ve tried that many times. I keep telling him that I can take care of himself, but he won’t listen. Even my father agrees with him, so he hasn’t been any help either. Being part of a guild like this is tough, especially when your brother’s the leader.”

She stopped talking and looked down into her drink, staring back at her with her own solemn reflection. Her eyes silently cried for help as she looked back up at Jaden. This was the look of someone alone in an invisible prison, desperate to escape, something they both shared. He knew he had to say something to make her feel better, but what? As a knight who spends most of his time in solitude, Jaden didn’t know what to say.

They sat in silence for a few seconds. Astra looked into Jaden’s eyes, and he swore she could tell that he was choked up too. She suddenly altered her face to make a smile, seemingly to break the tension.

“It’s alright,” she said somewhat gleefully. “It’s not that big a deal.” She continued to gracefully drink her tea before changing the subject. “But you have to tell me how you found that crystal? It’s been lost for centuries!” 

“Oh, well, the Empire actually found the crystal. I just intercepted one of their transmissions, and I was able to beat them to it.”

Jaden had woven that lie together before arriving at the bar. He didn’t like being dishonest with people, but it was necessary to preserve his secret.

“Wow, and you managed to get it all by yourself?”

“Yeah, I can’t believe it either.” 

“I’m surprised. Normally, an entire horde of demons would be guarding that kind of treasure.”

“They actually weren’t that bad.” For me, that is.

“Really?” asked said with a doubtful look in her eyes, “Because lately the demons have gotten much stronger and even our best fighters have had trouble fighting them, even as a team. So how exactly were you able to defeat them?”

It was then that Jaden started to get worried, as he had no idea how to answer. Up until that point, only a few people were aware that he was an Ark Knight. If she knew that he singlehandedly defeated a horde of demons, including a Zepherok, she would suspect something. Though it seemed she already has.

Maybe I should just tell her, Jaden thought. I mean, it can’t be that bad if she knew, right?

He was about to open his mouth, but Astra cut him off before he could speak.

“You know what? Forget I asked! I shouldn’t have put you on the spot like that.” She smiled as she sipped her drink once more. Relieved, and with no complaints, Jaden just kept drinking his tea.

“I take it you’re ready for tomorrow’s raid, then?” she asked him.

“I don’t know. I’d feel a lot better if I knew what the plan was.”

“Honestly, I’m not entirely sure about this mission, either. We’ve only known about the temple for about a week, so we don’t have a lot of information about it.”

“Well, can’t we use the crystal we have to take it back from the Empire?” he suggested.

“Sadly, no. Only the Princess of Astrelm has the power to summon the spirits inside the crystals. But for some reason, I haven’t been able to use any of it. It would be best if I left it back at the Royal Sanctuary where it’s safe.”

They both knew this was a major setback in their road to victory. Being a member of the Royal Family, Astra was gifted with the Goddess Astraea’s ancestral magic. With her divine powers, she could commune with the gods and defeat the demon army. This only made the pressure even more unbearable. For centuries, women descended from the Goddess have acted as the kingdom’s spiritual leaders, including her mother. Like the Ark Knights, they were destined to protect the world from darkness. But now, Astra struggled to live up to her legacy.

“I guess you’re right,” he agreed. “But do you think we’ll be able to win tomorrow without it?”

“I don’t know, but we’ll have to try.”

“I guess. But I’m honestly not sure if I’m strong enough.” That wasn’t a lie. Even with his powers alone, Jaden didn’t think I’d be able to face an entire Centurion army.

“Then how about we partner up?” she proposed. “Since I’m supposed to keep an eye on all our fighters, I want to see how strong you really are. Besides, I want to make sure you don’t get yourself killed doing something stupid.”

“Wait, what?!” Jaden was stunned and confused by her sudden request. “What about your personal guards?”

“I don’t need them. Besides, I’ll have you fighting with me. You don’t have a problem with that, do you?”

“No, of course not! It’s just, are you sure you can handle it?”

Insulted by his response, Astra shot him a glare as sharp as a knife. He then jerked back against his leather seat, afraid of what she would say next. 

“I already told you; I’m quite capable of holding my own. But I don’t want to do this alone. I know you don’t like working with others, but I could really use you on my side. So what’s it going to be?”

Jaden didn’t know how to follow up that argument, so he took a sip of his tea to stall for time. He knew that fighting this war on his own did make him lonely, and the chance to team up with the most beautiful woman in Astrelm was tempting. But the more he thought about it, the more it all seemed too good to be true.

Out of all the fighters in Astrelm, why did she choose him? To just about everyone in the kingdom, he was a nobody. Was she trying to prove her strength, or did she just want to protect me? He couldn’t figure her out.

Nevertheless, Jaden had the Princess of Astrelm in front of him, waiting for an answer. With no other response in mind, he finally caved.

“Okay, fine.”

“Great,” she exclaimed, smiling brightly once again.

* * *

Later that night, with their plans discussed and their drinks finished, Jaden walked with Astra to the Stargate. The city was enveloped in the golden glow of its own lights. The Celestial Clock crowning the gate marked their arrival at around 6:30. The altar itself was already being refurbished by a few repairmen after his grand entrance earlier. There were new security guards positioned there, so they barely noticed him as he spoke with the Princess. 

“Well, it was great seeing you again,” said Astra. “Thanks again for all you’ve done.”

“No problem. It’s what I do.”

“Hopefully, tomorrow, we’ll turn the tide around against the Empire.”

Suddenly, the thought of them actually achieving victory had him stunned. Jaden found himself staring off at the stars above, as if he was literally drifting off into space. The cooling night breeze blew through his hair, soothing his spirit with its gentle breeze.

“If we do win, if this war ends, what do you think will happen afterwards? Do you think everything will go back to the way it was?”

“I don’t know,” she responded solemnly. “The whole world has changed so much in the past two years. I’m not sure if it’ll ever be the same again.”

“I guess we’ll have to just keep fighting and see what happens,” Jaden said.

“Yeah, you’re right. Well, I’ll see you at the base camp tomorrow at nine.”

As she walked into the altar of the Stargate, she turned around and called out to him. “Oh, and Jaden!”

“Yeah?”

“Be careful tomorrow,” she requested earnestly. Jaden looked into her eyes and saw a great deal of concern. After a moment of silence, he responded.

“Okay, I will.” 

Astra smiled as she and her guards vanished into the light. Jaden smiled as well until they disappeared. He then thought about how dangerous this mission would be. Tomorrow, they would be going against an entire imperial base full of soldiers. Even with his powers, he was unsure if they would make it out alive, and if he did have to use them, what would happen then? 

This question stuck with him for the rest of the night. He lied awake till about one o’clock in the crevice between his bed and the wall, looking out at the city through the window. He was yearning for his childhood days back home before this war, before he was an Ark Knight.

Living happily and untainted by the horrors of war was what he wanted to return to the most. He didn’t have to fight for anything, and he just lived for the moment. It was a peaceful time that he cherished more now that it’s passed and replaced with pointless fighting. Occasionally, he regretted ever leaving that house in the countryside that he called home.

Chapter 6

Shadows of the Past

For as long as he could remember, Jaden lived in that rustic house in Kamina Village. This small, quiet town was near the eastern coast of the kingdom, overlooking the Azurean Ocean. Lush green fields and fresh sea air spread across the hills every day. The town was also a sanctuary from the demons that roamed the wilderness at night. The ring of mountains surrounding the village prevented the beasts from crossing into it. For all the townspeople, life there was paradise.

Jaden lived in Kamina for many years with his Aunt Lara and Uncle Michael, who were both his heroes growing up. Lara ran a local orphanage, acting as a guardian for multiple children. Her dedication to the children inspired Jaden a great deal, and he became like a big brother to them as well. Michael was a farmer, a blacksmith, and a veteran soldier in the Knights of Astrelm. He grew up on his stories of fighting against the Empire with his father. For years, they helped drive away their armies from smaller countries, and were considered legends of their time.

Hearing his exciting tales, Jaden dreamt of becoming a knight like him, but they both didn’t share the same dream. They always said that it was too dangerous to be a knight and that they needed his help at home. They wouldn’t even let him touch any of his uncle’s swords hung up on the walls. 

Despite the conflict, Jaden’s childhood was a relatively happy one. He did exceptionally well in school and always got good grades, making him one of the top students in his class. Jaden was beloved by almost everyone in his village, so he had many friends in his school. He couldn’t have been happier.

Unfortunately, his life changed for the worst when he was fourteen. He began having the same nightmare almost every night. It was pitch-black, and the only he could see were demons surrounding him. They didn’t do anything except growl and shriek at him. He was so terrified, it felt like he was sinking into that void of nothingness. When he reached the apex of fear, Jaden would run away from the demons with them chasing him across the abyss. But no matter how fast he ran or how far he went, they were always behind him. It was like he wasn’t going anywhere at all, like he was running inside a wheel. The demons would then merge into one giant shadow and appear right in front of him. This dark beast towered over him with its two long horns and three golden eyes. But this creature had no face, just a black, empty shape rippling through the darkness like a scorching flame. 

And then, when he was too exhausted to run anymore, a blue light would shine above the dark beast. From where he stood, this blinding aura crowned the demon’s head in a cosmic halo. Within that fluttering light, a resounding male voice spoke to him.

“Jaden! Wake up! The time has come! Your destiny will decide the fate of life itself! The time has come for you to awaken!”

In the end, that demonic, black mass would howl a great bellow, its gigantic maw eclipsing the light with a bottomless, red pit. And with its infinite vortex of teeth, the dark beast swallowed him whole, dragging Jaden down in the heart of darkness. 

* * *

At that point, Jaden would wake up screaming in a cold sweat. Everything about that dream felt all too real, he could hardly tell if he was actually awake. He could still see those golden eyes staring at him in the dark every time he blinked. He also found himself so exhausted, his body had forgotten how to breathe. It felt like he had just run for miles on end, and he thought maybe he did. Even when he had gotten out of bed to grab a drink of water, Jaden could feel his legs ache.

The first few times this happened, his aunt and uncle said that it was just a dream the morning afterwards. But after a few more nights of this occurring, they started to get concerned. Jaden was having trouble falling asleep, and he was always tired in the morning. It was a living hell, and it only got worse.

Jaden was sitting in his history class one afternoon, and he was dozing off after another sleepless night. The only thing he could focus on was the classroom clock, as he anxiously waited for school to end. His teacher noticed this and had to spook him awake by shouting his name. The room immediately livened up as everyone chuckled at him, which was enough to keep his mind working. If that wasn’t humiliating enough, his day quickly escalated into maddening heights.

Just as Jaden had woken up and began listening to his teacher’s lecture, he began to see everyone in the room shrouded in these strange lights. All of his classmates just stared at his frightened face, but he couldn’t even see theirs. They didn’t look human at all, but like human shells, clear as glass and filled with a rainbow of colors. He was so terribly frightened, his teacher’s voice faded when she asked if he was okay. He could only hear the clock ticking, which seemed to slow down with each second.

Jaden finally got up to go splash some water in his face. But as he was walking across the room, his head started swirling up a storm. Everything in front of him was being swept away, like it was erasing completely. His mind was so racked with anxiety, he couldn’t even stand anymore. And then, his whole world came crashing down as it all went to black.

He woke up about ten minutes later in a bed in the school nurse’s office. She had shined a small light into his eyes to see if he had suffered a seizure. Sitting beside him were Michael and Lara, for they had rushed over the second they heard what happened. As they stared down with concern, those auroral lights flashed in front of him. The nurse’s diagnosis still came up negative, but they were all very concerned. 

They had him pulled out of school for the rest of the day, and Jaden spent the rest of that afternoon shut inside his room. For hours, he lied in the corner of his bed, quietly trying to make sense of what he just went through. He was so rocked with terror, he didn’t even say anything the whole car ride home. His aunt and uncle didn’t speak either, but they wanted to let their nephew recover in peace and just let him be. They eventually chose to come into his room and have a serious talk with him.

“Jaden?” Lara said softly. “Jaden? We need to talk about what happened.”

No response. He just laid there, silently staring at the wall away from them. He couldn’t bear to look at them, for all he could see were those Lights.

  “Please, Jaden. We need you to talk to us. Please…”

She put her tender hand on her nephew’s shoulder, and he struggled to stay quiet. All he wanted to do then was to kick them both out and hide in his room forever. But sitting in that crevice next to his bed, stuck between his aunt and the wall, Jaden knew there was no way out. All the fear and anxiety that had been building up inside him finally burst forth in a stream of tears.

“Why is this happening to me? Is there something wrong with me?”

Jaden remembered how shocked they were at his tearful plight. Both Michael and Lara denied there was anything wrong with him, but that didn’t help at all. He begged to them for answers, to explain what was tormenting him, to help him end this nightmare And so, sitting him down in their living room, they had finally decided to tell him the truth about his heritage. 

* * *

Growing up with Michael and Lara, they always told Jaden that his father fought as a member of the Knights of Astrelm. But that night, they both revealed that he was actually one of the fabled Ark Knights of legend. Jaden had read about these knights in school, but like everyone else, he always believed that they were a myth. Hearing his aunt and uncle say that they were not only real, but that he was born to one, rattled him completely. 

They told him that years ago, when he was an infant, his mother appeared at their house one night, cradling him in her arms and near death. Her body was covered with thick dirt and bloody wounds, like she had just escaped a war zone. Despite their efforts to treat her injuries, they were so severe that they could only listen to her final words. She explained to them that all the other Ark Knights were killed and that their home was destroyed. His father had sent his wife and child to them as he stayed behind to fight whoever attacked them. But with her dying breath, his mother handed him over to them, requesting that they take care of him. Ever since then, the two of them raised Jaden as their own. 

They later had his mother buried in the village cemetery, where she remained to this day. To keep his father’s secret, they claimed that his mother died after fleeing from a home invasion. Due to her thin records, there wasn’t much of an investigation despite their vague story. But it was all the same in the end.

Michael then gave Jaden a book that he claimed his mother gave to them along with him. The hard, blue cover had the symbol of the Aeons, and eight-pointed star, forged in gold. Ancient letters that Jaden had never seen before were engraved beneath it, and yet he was somehow able to understand them perfectly. He discovered the book was titled Legends of the Stars, a guide to the mystic realm. 

Michael and Lara thought what he had been experiencing may have had something to do with his physiology, and so they hoped he would find some answers within these texts. While this scripture was owned by almost everyone in Astrelm, this version was written in an arcane language no one else could decipher. They were most likely written by the Ark Knights for their eyes only. 

The book also had a necklace with a rune crystal clasped in between its pages. His uncle said he had a technician analyze it, but they couldn’t figure out what it was supposed to do. He still believed that it would somehow help his nephew in the future, so he held on to it from that day forward.

Even with the truth revealed to him, Jaden felt even more lost than he was before. His aunt and uncle made him promise to keep his powers a secret from everyone else, saying it would be hard for them to understand them and get scared. Though he gave them his word, Jaden soon found out that he was the frightened one. As he started feeling nervous around his peers, Jaden began seeing the Lights again. This made him even more terrified, which only trigged those flashes more frequently. His anxiety continuously sparked the Lights inside his brain, trapping him in an endless cycle that completely consumed his life. He kept growing more isolated from his friends until he felt he didn’t belong with them anymore.

For days, Jaden spent most of his time in his room or outside in the fields. Even though some of his closest friends were concerned about him, he still chose to avoid them. He didn’t know how to approach them while pretending to be someone he wasn’t. But even he didn’t know who he really was. He just felt so empty inside.

One night, Jaden sat by the cliffs overlooking the sea on the edge of town. He looked out at the ocean stretched before him and into the sky and stars above. He watched the sunset with the moon shining below it. He wondered if he wasn’t going to be a knight, then what was he supposed to do with his powers? What was his purpose on this planet anyway, and what was his destiny? Was he going to leave his home and make a difference for the rest of the world, or would he hide in his village forever?

Questions without any answers, his mind shouted into a void that responded with only an echo. And with that, darkness pressed down on him as the sunlight faded in the distance.

* * *

When Jaden returned later that night, he found Michael sitting near the fire pit in front of their house. The face of the night sky stared at them both with the moon as its oculus.

“Jaden, sit down with me for a minute,” he requested. 

He sat next to his uncle on the log bench that he had carved himself. Though he only stared into the flame burning in the pit in front of him. As he spoke, Jaden’s eyes were fixated on the dancing blaze flailing around as the wood within slowly turned black.

“I know you must be very confused about these powers you have. All these changes you’re going through, you may think that you’re facing them alone, but just know that me and your Aunt Lara will always be there for you. We’ve always loved you like a son, and that hasn’t changed.”

“I know. It’s just…Why did I have to be born this way?! You say I need to keep my powers hidden, but why should I?! Everyone at school thinks I’m a freak now, and I actually believe them! I just want to shout to the world what I really am, but I can’t! I just don’t know who I’m supposed to be!”

“Well, that’s for you to decide. Your father may have been an Ark Knight, but that doesn’t define who you are. I don’t fully understand this power that you have, but I know it’s a gift. You’re free to choose what you’ll do bearing that gift, but you need to understand the responsibility that comes with it. This world needs people like you. You have to face it.”

“I don’t know if I can do that. I’m not as strong as you.”

My uncle paused for a moment, for he had never seen him this miserable before. In all the years he raised him, Michael always saw him as more of a son than a nephew, so he did all he could to protect him from the world. But he couldn’t bear to see him like this, for he was already losing his cheerful little boy. After coming up with a solution, Michael reluctantly spoke again.

“Listen, I know I’ve said “no” to this, but how about I teach you how to be a swordsman?”

Jaden finally turned his head over to uncle, his eyes wide with surprise. “Really, you would do that?” he asked him.

“I didn’t want to teach you because I was afraid of the life you’d live. But if this is what you really want, then I want you to follow your own path.”

Overcome with happiness, Jaden smiled and locked his arms around him. As Michael reciprocated his hug, his tight grip filled Jaden with the comfort only a father could give. In this tender moment, his training to become a knight finally began. 

* * *

From that moment on, Jaden and his uncle practiced sword fighting together. The sound of their wooden swords hitting each other echoed through the neighborhood almost every day. Michael was extremely skilled with a blade after years of experience, yet Jaden had discovered that he was a natural at it. It felt like his body was guiding him in battle, running solely on the pure instinct of an Ark Knight. He had managed to match Michael, both a veteran soldier and an elite knight, in skill when he was still just a kid. Some of the children from the orphanage would come and watch then practice, and they would always cheer Jaden on. Training with his uncle was always the best part of his day.

When he wasn’t training with him, Jaden spent time in his room looking through the book his father left him. He spent hours learning more about the concept of energy from the ancient texts to try and control his powers. This opened his eyes to something truly incredible. 

According to legend, the Universe itself was an all-powerful force completely filled with energy, and the First Star was the heart of it all.  Everyone came from the same thing, and everyone carried a part of it with them. The gods themselves were no different. Born to protect the Universe, they were the white blood cells that fought disease and kept the body going. Like humanity, they were all united by this one power, making them one God. They were all the same.

Ark Knights were able to control this energy, which gave them their powers. This was considered magic by most, but his kind believed that it was no different from science. Though humanity had gained control of this power through technology, this did not make magic impossible. His people were just ahead of the curve.

With this evolutionary advantage, Ark Knights also had access to a “sixth sense,” allowing them to detect the energies of humans, animals, and even demons. He realized that this was the cause of his nightmares, as well as those Lights. Perhaps it was just a part of his people’s phase of cosmic adolescence. Though he couldn’t figure out that voice in his sleep. Was that his own mind warning him about these changes, or was it from something else?

Nevertheless, Jaden began learning how to harness his energy, which required lots of rigorous training. The book’s additional texts were meant to teach Ark Knights how to use their powers, so he made thorough use of them. The first thing he had to do was meditate and focus on his energy. This took several days of time and practice, and at times, it was extremely frustrating. Though he was a prodigy with a sword, mastering magic was an entirely different matter. 

Honing his senses was like forging a blade that would always shatter. Jaden was worried that he was never going to control his powers, and that they were going to torment him for the rest of his life. But no matter how hopeless it seemed, he still believed in himself and kept practicing. Eventually, his sixth sense became a voice in the back of his head that would either stay or float away at his command.

As he gained control over his energy, Jaden had opened the door to a wide range of extraordinary abilities. He learned to cast a variety of magic spells, ranging from energy blasts, accelerated healing, and storing items in his own little pocket space. Learning all these skills required hours of meditating, but he was overjoyed when he finally cast his first spell: a simple energy ball. He had formed this gold, electric orb between the palms of his hands. He remembered it feeling like a little heartbeat. He thought this was what life felt like. 

Jaden remember feeling so exhilarated that it accidentally blew up in his room, sending him flying into the wall. Thankfully, no one got hurt, and his house wasn’t destroyed. Another thing he learned that day was to practice magic outside. 

And so, Jaden began practicing magic in private on a wide-open field outside his village. It was there that his power, enhancing his strength, speed, and agility. He trained hard every day to strengthen himself physically, mentally, and spiritually, and as each day passed, he grew closer to becoming a true Ark Knight.

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