Book 1: Ch. 7-9

Chapter 7

Knights of Astrelm

July 7th, 2019 AE, 9:06 PM

The sun was beating down from above, watching over Death Valley like a burning eye. This barren wasteland was where the Empire had set up the barricade surrounding the Earth Temple, and where they continued mining for Star of Talus. The structure itself was part of the Forgotten City, the original capital of Astrelm. Tall walls of steel now surrounded the unearthed ruins. Centurion guards brandishing machine guns surveilled the valley from their watchtowers. They also patrolled the grounds inside their Centurion Giants, twenty-foot tall mechanical cyclops with optic blasters on their foreheads. At the center of it all was the entrance to the Divine Temple.

Jaden arrived through the portal at the base camp in the cliffs about a mile away from the ruins. A war room was set up in a nearby cavern, where most of the fighters waited in the shade for their commander to arrive. The rest were outside looking out at the valley, and Astra was among them, speaking to one of her lieutenants.

“There you are!” Astra pointed happily. “I was worried you wouldn’t come!”

“I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” Jaden responded. “So, what’s our plan right now?”

“We’re still waiting for everyone else to show up,” she answered. “It won’t be long now.”

As Jaden heard the whooshing sound of the Stargate energizing, he noticed two more fighters arrive on the scene. He turned to see his old friends, Jesse and Kaylah, now fully-fledged members of the assault team.

“Hey Jaden, long time no see!” Jesse greeted.

Indeed, he hadn’t heard that voice in months. Though Jaden still ran into Jesse and Kaylah every now and then, he felt like he hadn’t seen them in forever.

“Hey Jess, I didn’t think you’d be here,” Jaden said.

“Are you kidding me?! You’d think I’d sit by and let you have all the fun…”

Jesse trailed off when he finally noticed him standing with the Princess of Astrelm herself. His mouth had opened so wide, he could catch flies in it.

“Holy shit,” he exclaimed.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Astra, this is my friend, Jesse, and his sister Kaylah.”

“Nice to meet you,” Kaylah said, holding out her hand.

After a moment’s hesitation, Astra got rid of the awkward tension and shook their hands with a dignified response. “The pleasure’s all mine.”

To Jaden, standing with Astra in front of them felt so surreal, like they were looking in a mirror. He couldn’t help but think of how far they both came since they first met.

After he separated from them in Newtown, they became among the first who joined the fight against the Empire. He knew he taught Jesse how to use a sword, but he never thought he would become a master swordsman in only two years. He was now carrying a long, sharp katana over a red leather jacket. He also had dual pistols nestled in holsters lined with loaded cylinders from his waist. With all that and his orange bandana wrapped around his neck, he looked like one of those desert gunslingers from old movies.

Meanwhile, Kaylah was dressed in a turquoise jacket with a white vest underneath. A silver amulet holding a blue diamond hung from her neck, while a silver spear was strapped around her shoulder. Her whole appearance invoked the image of a mermaid inside his head. Alongside her brother, she became a skilled fighter and a proficient healer throughout the war. She used her potions to heal the wounds of her brother and the rest of the assault team. Kaylah was also a renowned spear master, making her force to be reckoned with on the battlefield.

Having acknowledged the two of them together, Kaylah finally broke their uncomfortable silence.

“So wait, does this mean you two are…”

“Dating? NO! No!”

“What?! NO! No, no, no, no!” Astra said simultaneously

“I was just going to ask if you were partners, but okay.”

In his head, he was jamming his foot in his ass for having just stuck it in his mouth. Why the hell did I just say that?! Why was that first thing that entered my brain?!

“Oh, yeah…I mean yes! Yes, we are partners today.”

Real smooth.

Astra’s face flushed bright red, filled with embarrassment until she heard someone teleporting behind them.

Out from the light of the portal, a tall, muscular man with long white hair emerged onto the scene. He was dressed in a thick, gray armor embedded with magic crystals, and the crest of the Royal Family branded on its chest plate. Underneath that, a white and black uniform flowed down from his waist to his iron boots. But even with his armored exterior, his steely gaze already showed that he was a fully-forged knight. This man was Astra’s older brother and the leader of the Knights of Astrelm.

The Crown Prince approached them with four armored knights, similar to ones Astra had with her the night before, and surrounded her.

“I don’t recall you being a part of today’s mission, Astra!” he stated.

“I already told you, Revan! I’m not letting you take me out of this!”

“Hey, hey, what’s going on here?” Jaden asked.

“I was just speaking to the vice-commander,” he responded, “and I don’t approve of her being on the front lines without proper protection.”

“For the last time, I don’t need your guards to protect me! I can take of myself!” Astra’s composed response implied she was still holding in plenty of rage.

“I’m sorry, but if you won’t follow orders, then I’ll be taking you back to base!”

He grabbed Astra’s wrist and started pulling her towards the Stargate. She turned her head towards Jaden, and her eyes secretly cried for help like they did the night before. He was hesitant to intervene and raise trouble, but looking at Astra in that moment, he couldn’t ignore her. He instinctively grabbed Revan’s armored wrist, stopping him in his tracks.

“I’m sorry, your highness, but the princess is under my protection!”

“Stand down!” he ordered. “This is none of your concern!”

“Actually it is, because I’m her partner today!”

Astra was stunned by his persistence, since just yesterday, he was reluctant to join her. 

“I’m sorry, who are you again?” he asked in confusion.

“Jaden Kalidan. I’m the one who brought you the Star.”

“Oh, Astra told me about you. Well…I really appreciate what you’ve done for us, but the front lines are too dangerous for Astra to go out unprotected. I’m afraid I just can’t take any chances. Not even with you.”

“It’s dangerous enough out there as it is! Besides, I’ll do a better job go protecting her than you ever did.”

Hearing that, his fake smile quickly faded, and his entire demeanor changed. Revan scowled at Jaden with his sharp, emerald eyes, throwing him back with his disdainful expression. It was like he had taken a mask off his face and instantly switched to another one.

“Don’t tell me how to do my job,” he said broodingly. “I know what’s best for my sister.”

“I don’t think you do. Astra’s one of the best fighters in the entire kingdom, and she clearly wants to fight for it.”

“You’ve got some nerve lecturing me on what’s right. Considering you’re a lone fighter who only concern seems to be making money off of war while the rest of us are dying for our country.”

“I guess you never learned to not judge a book by its cover.”

“Believe me, I have. It’s just that my kingdom has a bad history with men dressed in black.”

That line struck a nerve that Jaen struggled to repress, so he just silently scolded at him. The amount of contempt they both had was enough to spark a storm between them. This seemed to be one of those moments when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. Though Jaden wasn’t sure which one he was in this situation. Revan’s guards were closing in on him, and with his enchanted armor powering him, even Jaden thought this wouldn’t be a fair fight.

“Okay,” Jesse said nervously, “it looks like we’re in the middle of something private, so…”

Having had enough of this annoying quarrel, Astra finally stepped in between them and asserted herself. Staring up at her brother, she looked him straight in the eye and made her stand.

“That’s enough, Revan!” she shouted.

“Astra, as commander of the Knights of Astrelm, I order you come with me!”

“Well, as the Princess of Astrelm, I order you to stand down!”

Both siblings just stared at each other angrily, for they had reached a terrible stalemate. Jaden could sense a tremendous fire burning in her dazzling blue eyes, a spark that was running down the fuse to a momentous explosion.

Revan noticed that his men had gathered outside and were all staring at him. Just like his sister, the people of Astrelm looked to him as their hero. They depended on him to lead them in their fight against the Empire. He spent years trying to preserve that image for everyone’s sake, forging a mask for their eyes to see. But at times like this, he led his true face slip through the cracks.

“Okay, Astra. You win.” Revan turned away from her and directed his menacing gaze towards Jaden. “But just know…that if something terrible happens to my sister, her blood will be on your hands. And I won’t hesitate to make you pay the price for it.”

“Ooooooo,” Jaden said unfazed. “Spoken like a true leader.”

Revan walked away in a huff, his four knights following him. The crowd around them dispersed as well, leaving the five of them alone with each other. Jaden and Astra sighed with relief after nearly escaping what could’ve become a rocky confrontation.

“Boy, that was intense!” Jesse exclaimed.

“Ughh! I can’t believe my brother!” Astra vented. “He can be such a jerk sometimes!”

“Man, how do you put up with him?” Jaden asked.

“It’s never easy, but trust me. He means well. It’s just that…ever since our mother died, Revan’s been very protective of me. He wasn’t always like this, though.” 

Astra trailed off as she became consumed by her memories. She recalled the time before her untimely demise, when their family was still whole. She longed for those perfect days, filled with warm holidays and beach vacations. But with their mother gone, those days were lost with her. Like their father, they both tried to fill the pit she left behind with their royal duties. In a way, they were burying their memories of her within themselves. Though neither of them could ever forget her, especially not Astra. 

She finally shook herself back to the present and continued the conversation.

“Anyway, I’m sorry you got caught up in that.”

“It’s alright, I’ve dealt with people like him before. He may talk a big game, but even with that magic armor of his, he’s not all that tough.” 

Although, in reality, Revan was still incredibly powerful. His magic armor was a Divine Weapon passed down by the Royal Family for generations. Typically, the King of Astrelm would be the one wearing that sacred garb. But with advanced age and his troubles with the war, Revan’s father choose to give the armor to him.

Jaden noticed all the other fighters started crowding the inside of the cavern. “Hey, it looks like the rally’s about to begin,” he noted.

* * *

Theywalked into the cave where about a hundred soldiers, all from many different guilds, surrounded the table in the middle of the war room. A map of the valley was laid out on the surface, depicting the Forgotten City, the Divine Temple, the Imperial barricade surrounding it. Astra and Revan stood over the map with all eyes fixed on them. A beam of sunlight shined through the roof of the cave, illuminating both siblings as the rally began. 

“Thank you all for coming on such short notice!” Revan announced, instantly capturing everyone’s attention. “Today, we will attack the imperial base in the Forgotten City and seize the Divine Temple! The assault team will be split into two groups. First, Astra and a select few will take out the snipers surrounding the city. They’ll then open the gate into the city, after which my team will engage in a frontal assault on the base, distracting the troops guarding it while Astra’s team will infiltrate the temple and take the treasure. As soon as they do, we’ll all use our Stargate Rings to teleport out of the valley to safety.” 

As Revan spoke, Astra stood next to him, silently frowning. She was usually so strong and confident during  their raids, but that was when she led the assault team. Now with her older brother leading them that day, and with such an important battle ahead of them, she was distant and uncertain, like she was buried deep within herself.

“It is crucial that we claim the temple and the crystal inside,” Revan continued. “I know that you have doubts about our upcoming battle. The Empire has gotten stronger, and despite our best efforts, we have lost many good soldiers. We must continue fighting…for them, and for those whom they gave their lives to protect. While we are still standing, while we are still alive to fight against our enemies, there is still a chance of victory. And while we still have a chance, we still have hope. There is still hope for our people! There is still hope for our survival, and there is still hope for our kingdom! May the gods guide us to victory. For the glory of Astrelm!” 

Everyone thrust their fists towards the heavens, proudly chanting out in the call for revolution. Jaden then remembered why Revan was so beloved by the people of Astrelm. He stood as a beacon of hope that this war would someday end, and that they could all put  their faith in him. If only he could do the same with Jaden.

Chapter 8

The Awakening

Revan and his squad hid in a pass about a quarter-mile away from the city. One soldier kept watch of the enemy fortress on top of a cliff with high-tech binoculars, vigilantly looking for the signal to strike. Jesse and Kaylah were standing tall with the rest of Revan’s soldiers. Despite this, they were all swimming in a sea of fear and doubt. 

Meanwhile, Jaden was running to one of the guard towers surrounding the wall. Reaching the base of the tower undetected, he took out his hookshot and aimed it at the top. Launching himself up to its perch, Jaden swiftly knocked out the guard from behind. At the same time, Astra and three more fighters used their hookshots to zip up the four other watchtowers. With the scope in his goggles, he zoomed in on each of them and saw they had all taken out the guards. 

They shot themselves to the top of the wall and took down the patrolling officers undetected. Jaden and Astra swiftly ran across it until they reached the security station near the gate. He then used a pulse bomb to blow down the door, alarming the two soldiers inside. Fortunately, they couldn’t see through the thick, blue haze in front of them. But before they could blindly fire their machine guns, Jaden and Astra sliced the barrels with their swords before knocking them out. Examining the control panel, Astra found and activated the switch to open the front gate.

Back outside, the rest of the assault team saw the large metal door slowly slide open. Revan then unsheathed his sword and pointed it towards the ruins, ready for battle.

“Charge!”

All the other soldiers let out their battle cries and rushed towards the base. The imperials were on high alert as the alarm roared throughout the fortress. The guards rallied at the front gate and fired their guns at the assault team. They all raised their shields and continued their charge against the enemy. With the assault team surviving the blitz, both armies clashed with each other in a massive wave of hand-to-hand combat. The Imperials fought with swords, spears, axes, guns, and even lightning rods. While they were slightly outnumbered, the assault team was made up of the best fighters in Astrelm. 

Jesse quickly cut a handful of Centurions down with his katana. Backing up her brother, Kaylah hurled her spear through one of them like a javelin. Running to retrieve her weapon, she continued slicing down Imperial swordsmen with the edge of her spear. As more Centurions came firing at them with assault rifles, Jesse took out his pistols and shot them down. Swiftly switching out cylinders, Jesse unloaded another pack of bullets on his enemies. While each sibling was fearsome enough by themselves, their combined strength had unleashed a whirlwind of havoc on the battlefield.

Then suddenly, four Centurion Giants marched out of the gates and attacked the assault team. Half of them slammed their fists down on the fighters below. The other half fired lasers from their eyes, bombing the field with a barrage of pure energy. Soldiers were sent hurtling through the air by the explosions, and the assault team was losing ground fast.

In response, Revan charged at one of the mechs and sliced its foot with his sword. Falling to its knee, it retaliated by swinging its arm at him. With his armor’s enhanced speed, he dodged its attacks with ease. The walker got back up to fire the laser from its lethal eye. With his gauntlet, Revan instantly forged a crystal shield to block its searing blast. Still firing its beam, the mech marched up and struck down on him with its massive, metallic fist. Luckily dodging it, Revan channeled his armor’s energy into his sword and sliced its hand off. He then unleashed a storm of attacks with his blade, finishing it off by piercing the energy core in its chest. The towering automaton was finally obliterated in the cusp of a fiery explosion. 

* * *

Meanwhile, Jaden and Astra made their way inside the exhumed temple. At the far end of the hall, multiple Centurions surrounded an enormous laser cannon trying to burn through the door to the vault. Aware of their presence, the Imperials fired their machine guns at them. The duo swiftly dodged the bullets on both sides of the hall as they rushed towards their enemies. They then sliced their gun barrels before striking their heads, knocking them out. Each of them dropped from either a blow to the head or a sword through the torso. Two more guards charged them with mechanical blades, but Jaden and Astra quickly blocked them with their own. 

“Astra, switch!” Jaden shouted, dodging the soldier’s attack before she countered for him. 

After taking down the other swordsman, Jaden witnessed Astra’s astonishing speed against her opponent. He knew that due to her royal bloodline, she was much stronger than most fighters, but this was extraordinary. She might have gotten stronger from training, both physical and spiritual, or maybe there was something else driving her. She let out a flurry of attacks with her saber that forced her opponent to the ground. 

For a second, Jaden was so amazed by her strength, he had forgotten about the drill. He ran up to the platform behind the machine, approached the control panel, and pulled down the lever controlling the strength of the laser. The red beam slowly faded as the machine ceased firing at the door. And with that, they were in the clear.

“That’s some door!” Jaden announced going up to it. “There’s not a scratch on it!”

“The vault is made out of Leviathan steel,” Astra said. “This stuff hasn’t been seen for centuries. It’s supposed to be indestructible.”

To his surprise, Astra reached into her pocket and took out a crystal pendant just like mine.

“Where did you get that?”

“This is an Ark Keystone. It’s been in my family for centuries. There are only two of these in the entire world. Let’s just hope it works here.”

She inserted it into the keyhole, causing the door to light up blue before slowly sliding open. Clouds of dust flooded through the doorway, and an orange light illuminated the inside of the vault. They then saw the temple’s treasure sitting on its pedestal at the far end of the chamber. Jaden could sense an enormous amount of energy emanating from the crystal, much more power than the Star of Valon. 

“There it is! The Star of Talus! That wasn’t hard, now was it?” Astra asked, approaching the stone. 

“Hold on! Something’s not right! This was all too easy!” Jaden said suspiciously. Taking a moment to take in his surroundings, he sensed that more hostiles were approaching them from behind. “Whoever’s back there, show yourself!”

The two of them turned around to see a squad of twenty Centurions, all armored in black, appear from the shadows. They entered the vault, blocked the entrance, and had them surrounded at gunpoint.

The soldiers at the door formed a path from which their leader emerged, and Jaden was shocked when he saw him. He was a middle-aged man with a large scar across his nose and the eyes of a vulture. He was dressed in gold Imperial armor that marked him as a commander. Jaden met this man before. He was the one who led the attack on that night two years ago. It was him.

“Thank you for your opening the door, your highness!” the man said.

“General Halldor. I should’ve known you were behind this mess!” Astra said.

“Delightful as always. You have no idea how hard it was getting that door open. It’s a shame you won’t be alive to witness the Empire’s victory. Surrender yourself and the crystal now, and I’ll make sure your death is nice and quick!”

“I’m sorry! The crystal’s not for sale today! Thank you!” Jaden shouted.

“Princess! Does this insolent brat speak for you?!”

“No, he does not. I speak for myself and my people!” She then drew her rapier as she prepared to make a stand. “You have no right to this Star or this kingdom!”

“There’s no point in resisting, your highness! You’ve already lost!”

“Why?” she asked suspiciously. “What are you talking about?”

“Let’s just say… I’ve invited more guests to our little party.” 

* * *

Back outside, just as they were about to overpower the Imperials, the assault team heard the squealing sound of demons coming from the sky. They looked up to see a swarm of Garloks, large, bat-like creatures coated with stone skin and grotesque fangs. Controlling this pack of demons were six men soaring in the air with them. They were each cloaked in black and armed with lethal weapons and the magic of Kaiser himself.

“Death Riders!” Revan announced.

The demons started wiping out the assault team below, tearing them apart with their claws or simply devouring them. Though the Death Riders claimed more lives by incinerating the fighters with their magic, they took their time by cutting each of their victims to pieces. They wanted to fully savor each kill they made. The battlefield was quickly being consumed by a monstrous wave of fire and bloodshed.

Seeing his men getting slaughtered by those reapers, Revan tried to make his way to the Riders. He was immediately boxed in by a group of Garloks eager to tear into his flesh. Nevertheless, he took on all of them by himself, slicing through their rock-hard skin with his royal sword. 

Jesse and Kaylah also had to deal with these demons. Jesse’s bullets couldn’t pierce their thick hides, so they instead relied on their spear and sword. But even then, they could hardly hold back these ravenous beasts.

* * *

“Can’t you hear it, Princess?! Reinforcements are already out there, squandering the rest of your army!” said Halldor. “If you don’t want them to keep suffering, I suggest you give up!”

Jaden and Astra heard all the screams of the beasts and their allies dying their hands. He could sense the wave of darkness wiping out all his comrades outside the temple. His fists hardened into solid steel with each waning moment.  He refused to stand there and let this madness go on any longer.

“Stay back, Astra. I’ll handle this.” he said, angrily.

“Jaden!” Astra said.

“Wait a minute! “Jaden?!”” the general exclaimed, his memories rushing back to him. “Oh my God, no! It can’t be! I remember you! You’re the Ark Knight from Kamina Village!”

It was at that moment, after two years keeping his real powers hidden, Jaden’s secret was out in the open. Halldor remembered him from that night. The image of Jaden scowling at him in front of a wall of flames was burned into his brain. The general knew what he was, so there was no use hiding it anymore. 

“Jaden, what’s going on?” Astra asked.

“Astra, get behind me,” he said before turning to the Imperials. “If anyone wants out of this, I suggest you run now!”

Halldor merely scoffed at his demand, and his soldiers still had their guns pointed at them. “Open fire!” he ordered.

Powering himself up, Jaden grabbed Astra and bolted past the mob before they could shoot him, leaving pulse bombs scattered across the floor. The soldiers were left confused for a moment before they were sent flying in a wave of blue explosions. In the back of the vault, he shielded Astra from the blasts before letting her go.

“Stay here!” he said to her.

“Jaden, wait!” Astra shouted. 

He already rushed back to the other side of the room. With the speed of a lightning bolt, Jaden leaped towards the wall just above the Centurions, about half of whom were still incapacitated. Hanging from the wall with his sword, he got the attention of two of them below. 

“There he is!” one of them announced. 

They both shot up at Jaden, but he swiftly dodged their bullets as he dashed across the wall. Stopping on a support beam, He used his hookshot to pull one of them off the floor and leave them dangling from the ceiling. Jaden launched himself towards the other gunmen and pummeled their face into the floor. Two more Centurions had gotten back up and started firing at him, but the Ark Knight had summoned his shield just in time. Firing his hookshot at one of them, Jaden yanked them across the room before striking them with his shield. He then conjured a dagger and threw it at the other man’s gun, knocking it out of their hand. Another Centurion charged him with a sword of his own, but Jaden quickly swept his legs, sending him flying before impaling him to the ground.

Halldor simply watched from the sidelines as the Ark Knight brutally took down each of his men. He slowly backed away from the vault, horrified by the strength and skill. Astra was both shocked and amazed by his power as well. She wanted to join in and help him, but she couldn’t help but feel out of her league. She knew he had already won.

After switching out his shield, Jaden used his energy to blast another active shooter straight into the wall. A couple more soldiers ganged up on him with crystal, blue swords powered with magic. After energizing his own blade, Jaden swiftly deflected each of their attacks with such amazing skill and focus, he managed to defend against two more from behind. It was one sword against four, and Jaden was winning. 

  He kicked one of the troops to the ground before beating away at the other three. Jaden kept taking down all four Centurions one by one, even though they each managed to get back up again. This only made him strike them even harder. Focusing more power into his sword, Jaden imbued it with enough force to drive them all back. With a single blow, he sliced through two soldiers’ armor, killing them instantly. The last Centurion pushed Jaden into one of the stone columns in an attempt to corner him. Though he tried to drive his searing edge into Jaden’s neck, he quickly overpowered him with a burst of energy from his sword. He then finished him off by grabbing his armor and thrusting him into the pillar, causing it to crumble on impact. And so, Jaden was the last man standing, breathing heavily in a room full of beaten soldiers. 

Before he had the chance to relax, Jaden heard more of Halldor’s men marching into the vault. However, without having to see them, he sensed that these were no ordinary soldiers. He could feel large amounts of evil energy coming from them, like a repulsive, dark cloud hovering over them. He couldn’t tell if the men in front of him were even human, as they wore twisted masks like their Dark Lord, Kaiser. But their leader only had the mark of the Destroyer branded over his face. Jaden immediately recognized this Death Rider as his old adversary, Lok.

“Well, look who it is!” he said menacingly. 

“Ugh, you gotta be kidding me,” Jaden mumbled.

“You ran away before we could finish our duel. I never got the chance to carve my name in you.”

“Trust me, Lok, you weren’t much of a match.”

In a fit of rage, Lok fired a sphere of dark magic at Jaden’s head, which he quickly ducked under. This red blast exploded on the other side of the room, nearly catching Astra in its destructive wrath. 

“Astra,” Jaden uttered. 

He was about to dash over to protect her, but one of the Riders attacked him with his sword. Though he managed to parry his attack, Jaden failed to strike back. Lok’s speed was on par with his own, so it was an even fight. Unfortunately, two of the other Death Riders ganged up on him. Though Jaden succeeded in deflecting each of their blades, he was losing ground fast. With their enhanced speed and frightening magic, he was practically facing three Ark Knights at the same time.

“Jaden!” Astra screamed. She tried to run over to help, but she was stopped by a couple of armed Riders.

The Ark Knight was restrained by one of the Riders while a couple others punched him repeatedly. They brought him to his knees, spitting out blood with each of his arms held back. Lok came up and started beating Jaden up himself until he nearly blacked out. He then took out his black saber as he prepared for the finishing blow.

“Wait!” Halldor ordered just in the nick of time. “Let me do it!”

Lok was reluctant to give away his chance to kill, but still relented for his superior. Halldor scowled at the Ark Knight with murderous intent as he approached him. Noticing the Keystone hanging from his neck, he ripped it away and took it for himself.

“No!” Jaden shouted, desperately trying to break free. 

Halldor then cocked his pistol and aimed it point-blank at Jaden’s forehead. He stared up the dark, metal barrel, knowing that Death would fly down and claim his soul in a flash of light.

“So much for an Ark Knight,” he said.

Astra then looked at the crystal still on the pedestal next to her. She didn’t think it would work, but she knew she had to try. Jaden saw that she was about to go for the crystal, and Halldor noticed his gaze and looked up.

“Don’t even think about it!” he ordered.

She defiantly took the crystal from its pedestal. The Star reacted by emitting a brighter yellow light that enveloped the entire room. Bolts of electricity began to surge around Astra as the light grew stronger. Jaden could sense an enormous amount of primal power being released from the crystal. He was coming.

* * *

“Retreat, now!” Halldor ordered.

The general and his men frantically fled the temple, which began to crumble as the light filled it entirely. The whole valley began to violently shake, and all of those fighting outside instantly froze. Everyone was engrossed by the tremors, and the expanding light captured their gaze. The Death Riders instead shot through the air at full speed as they fled the city. Even the Garloks flew away from the temple, dreading the mighty power that they felt inside. And from the roof of the temple, an orange pillar of energy burst forth. Within it, a giant carrying mountains on his back and surging with primal wrath cast its shadow on the valley. The behemoth let out a shattering roar that caused the earth itself to tremble in fear. Talus had finally returned.

“Everyone, pull back, now!” Revan yelled to his comrades. The entire assault team fled from the fortress and the deity towering above them. They all teleported away as they fled into the canyon, leaving Revan one of the few who stayed behind.

“Astra?! Can you hear me?! Are you alright?!” he screamed into his commlink.

Without a response, Revan started running to the ruins of the temple, knowing that his sister was still inside. 

Jesse and Kaylah remained on the field as they helped injured soldiers escape. As they did, they overheard Revan screaming for his sister.

“Jaden’s in there with her! We have to help him!” Jesse said.

“Jesse, no! You can’t!” Kaylah pleaded.

“Our friend is in there! I’m not gonna leave him behind!” On that note, Jesse began sprinting towards the temple. 

“Jesse, wait!” Kaylah shouted, chasing after his brother.

Meanwhile, Halldor fled to his airship as most of his army remained on the ground.

“Open fire!” he shouted.

The Centurions fired their guns, the Giants unleashed their lasers, and the airships launched their rockets. But their combined assault failed to slow down the colossal deity even a little. The Aeon stood tall and strong against these shots like they were mere flies. In retaliation, Talus clenched his mighty fist, focusing all of his divine energy into it, and struck the ground beneath him. 

This released a shockwave that engulfed and vaporized them completely. The earth violently shook from the force of the impact, like a thunderstorm raging from within the planet itself. The shockwave itself kicked up a sandstorm that raged around the crater, sucking in many of the fleeing airships. Centurions were thrown out of their crafts, screaming as they were dragged into its shining core like a black hole. Halldor simply watched in horror as the storm consumed his entire army. Talus stood at its center of it all, declaring his victory with a mighty roar before vanishing in a haze of orange light. And with that, the storm had stopped.

* * *

Revan had taken cover beneath the rocks as Talus had unleashed his might onto the earth. He looked around to see that the whole base was ravaged by his blast. The air around him was still filled with enough sand to cloud his eyes. He was coughing up so much dirt, his mouth was itself a dry desert. Even after surviving Newtown and the Great War that followed, he had never witnessed anything like this. The memory of Astra shot through his mind, and he began searching for his sister again. He rushed over to the demolished temple, now filled with rubble and the sunlight.

“Astra?!” Revan shouted. “Astra?! Where are you?!”

“Revan! Over here, help!” she shouted.

He ran over to see Jaden knocked out and pinned underneath a large chunk of the ceiling. Astra was trying to lift the pile of rubble off him, but Revan hesitated to help her. After the argument they had earlier, Revan was still wary of whether or not this warrior was worth trusting. But while he continued to stand by and do nothing, Jesse and Kaylah, who also found cover during the storm, ran up behind him.

“What’s going on?!” Jesse asked.

“Jaden’s trapped under here!” she responded.

“Oh, my God!” Kaylah exclaimed.

“Hold on, we’ll be right there!” 

The siblings immediately slid down to where they were and began trying to lift the rubble. While they managed to get it to budge a bit, even with their combined strength, there was too much wreckage for them to raise.

“Damn it!” Darek said. “It’s too heavy!”

“Revan, please! Help us!” Astra pleaded tearfully.

He looked into his sister’s face, and thought of their mother came to mind. He remembered that night, ten years ago, when he cried for help when she was at Death’s door, and no one came. No matter how much he didn’t trust him, Revan couldn’t ignore someone else in need.

Revan finally joined them all and grabbed ahold of the fallen ceiling. His armor gave him the strength they all needed to raise the debris off of Jaden. Astra pulled him out from underneath to safety, and the rest dropped it all with a mighty crash. 

“What happened?” Jesse asked.

“They were ambushed. Jaden tried fighting them all off, and he got hurt.” Kaylah took out a potion from her belt pouch and poured it into Jaden’s mouth. His wounds slowly began to heal, but he was still in a lot of pain.

Just then, Astra noticed the Death Riders flying at full speed back towards the ruins.

“We need to get Jaden and the crystal out of here!”

“Let’s get him to the Sanctuary!” Revan added. “You two are coming with us too!”

Astra then took out her Stargate Ring, and everyone else held onto her shoulders. “Teleport, Sanctuary!” she chanted. All four of them then vanished into the crystal’s azure light.

The Riders landed in front of the ruins of the temple. Even before they searched the debris, they sensed that their targets were gone.

“Inform Emperor Alderic!” Lok said to his men. “Tell him that Star is now with the Royal Family, and that the Ark Knight is with them.”

Chapter 9

The Astral Sword

July 9th, 2019 AE, 10:34 AM

“Jaden…” I heard someone say. “Jaden?” It was a woman’s voice.

He woke up to a blurry haze and a splitting headache. The light nearly obstructed his sight, and Jaden could barely move his head. In fact, his entire body was as stiff as a log. But as his vision soon became clear, He saw Astra sitting next to the bed, dressed in an open, white sweater over a red top. Wearing this instead of her usual battle uniform, she now looked like a regular young woman.

“Finally, you’re awake,” Astra said.

“Astra. Where am I?” Jaden asked groggily.

“You’re in the Royal Sanctuary. You’ve also been asleep for about two days.”

Jaden looked down to see that he was on a grand, opulent bed, lying underneath a heavy, red blanket with white sheets. He was lying there shirtless with bandages all across his torso. 

“What happened?” he asked.

“You were hurt in battle, so we brought you here to be treated. Don’t worry, you’re safe here.”

He tried lifting himself from his pillow, only to recoil in aching pain.

“Lie down, you’re still hurt!” she said with her hand on his shoulder.

Jaden heard the sound of the door opening, and he was more than surprised to see who ran inside. It was Jesse.

“Jaden! You’re okay!” he said jubilantly. He then leaned and hugged his friend tight, causing him to grunt in pain. “Oh, sorry!”

“It’s okay” Jaden said, with both of us shrugging off the pain with a laugh.

“We were so worried about you!” he stated.

“Honestly, we weren’t sure you’d recover, but thanks to Kaylah, your wounds have fully healed.”

Kaylah had walked into the room and stood by his bed, dressed in blue shirt and matching jacket. Her smile lit up his face like the sun that glistened in her red hair.

“It’s good to have you back, Jaden.” Kaylah said.

“Good to be back,” he responded with a smile of his own.

* * *

After he put on his clothes, which had been cleaned and patched while he was asleep, Jaden and Astra walked out onto the balcony and saw the full splendor of the Kavalah Province. The entire citadel was built into the cliffs and rocks looming over the northeast of Astrelm. The falls nearby beat against the rocks, flowing into the lake as the lifeblood of the entire valley. Beyond the lake and its tall, rocky cliffs, rolling green hills stretched across the horizon. Fields of flowers and trees blanketed the plains and wetlands below. The sun hung high above the valley amongst the clear, blue skies. A cool, summer breeze filled his nostrils, fully waking his senses with a jolt.

All four of them walked across the stone walkways connected the towers of the Sanctuary. They eventually encountered Revan outside, who was talking to Jaden’s old friend, Darek.

“Jaden!” he cried out happily.

“Hey, Darek! What are you doing here?” Jaden asked.

“I was invited to discuss our new plans, but it’s good to see you up and at ‘em!” 

He walked over and roughly patted Jaden on the back. He grunted in pain, still aching from his injuries, but he quickly brushed the pain aside by laughing.

“It’s good to see you’re back on your feet,” Revan added.

“I’m surprised to hear you say that,” Jaden exclaimed.

“I’m surprised you’re even alive. Any ordinary man would’ve been crushed under all the rubble. But then again, my sister says you’re no ordinary man.”

Suddenly, memories of his battle with Halldor’s men came rushing back to him. His secret was out, and they all knew who he really was.

“We’ve heard stories about you: a swordsman who blew through the battlefield like a bolt of lightning, wielding powers that no man…We thought they were all just stories, but we’ve seen crazier things in this war. Tell me, are they true?”

“Yes, all of them.”

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell us about this,” Jesse exclaimed. “I thought we were friends.”

“I’m sorry, guys. But I did it all to protect you.”

“Did you really?” Revan asked. “Because you didn’t seem to be protecting that many people out on the front lines. Either you’re not as strong as you say, or you just don’t care!”

“Hey, he helped us get two of those crystals! You should be thanking him!” yelled Astra.

“Yes, and thanks to him, the Empire now has a key to the other two!”

“I never meant for that to happen!” Jaden insisted.

“Well, that doesn’t help now, does it?!”

“That’s enough, Revan!” someone shouted.

Jaden looked over to see a middle-aged man in a suit as white as his beard. A regal, gray cape was flowing from his shoulders down to the waist of his dark pants. On his right hand, he wore a shiny, silver ring crowned with a royal blue stone forged in days of yore, marking him as the leader of Astrelm.

“King Ramon!” Jaden said while respectfully getting on one knee. “It’s an honor.”

“Oh, there’s no need for that!” he responded.

He held out his hand and helped Jaden back up, which shifted into a friendly handshake. Obviously, he’s never been in this kind of situation before, so he wasn’t familiar with the necessary formalities.

“Wow, that’s quite a grip you have there!” he stated. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine. I’m just really hungry right now.”

“Willful, just like your father,” he said with a chuckle.

“You knew my father?”

“How could I not recognize the face of my old friend in you? I knew that you were his son the minute I saw you.” 

“Could you tell me more about him?”

“Of course, but first, come with me. There’s breakfast waiting for you.”

Jaden followed Ramon to his office inside the Sanctuary, leaving his friends behind back outside. The room had a large, wooden desk surrounded by shelves lined with books. Right in the middle of it was a large table filled with platters of fresh food. Spread out before them were scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, and a wide assortment of fruit. The smell alone was enough to send his appetite into overdrive. It was the best-looking meal he’d seen in a long time.

“Please sit!” he insisted. “It’s all for you.”

“Thank you.” I happily took a seat and filled a plate with enough food to choke a horse.

As Jaden began stuffing himself, Ramon took a framed picture of himself and his father from his mahogany desk. With much darker, thicker hair, the king looked so much younger than he did now. But he was amazed at how his father looked exactly like him, only with a few more years on him. In the bottom right corner, the date 9/5/94 was printed on the picture.

“Johan and I were the best of friends. He was one of the strongest Ark Knights I’ve ever seen. He helped us fight against the Empire back in the day, but he took on entire armies all by himself.”

Jaden’s attention drifted towards the man next to his father, who had his arm around his shoulders. He has a wide smile strung across his face, which was crowned by long, blonde hair.

“Who’s that next to my father?”

“That…is our old friend, Kaiser, way back when he and your father were partners. They fought alongside us against the Empire when they started invading outside territories.”

“Wait, Kaiser is an Ark Knight?” Jaden asked in disbelief. At first, ge thought that he was mistaken. He didn’t think that this noble, happy man smiling next to his father was the monster that attacked Newtown two years ago.

“Yes, at least he was. I couldn’t believe it either. I’ve known both of them for fifteen years, and he was a good man. Strong, noble, fiercely intelligent. He was the perfect soldier. But when he invaded the capital, when he walked up to me and showed me his face, I couldn’t deny that this was the face of my old friend. He looked at me with this blank, pale, emotionless expression, and these soulless yellow eyes. There was no trace of humanity left in him. Just this lifeless, empty shell that was pure evil.”

At first, he thought Ramon had got it all wrong. Looking at the man in the photo, Jaden had a hard time believing he was Kaiser. He couldn’t imagine the one behind that skeletal mask being human. Some people have even claimed that there was nothing at all, that he was just a hollow shell worn by a spirit with no face.

“So…what happened to him?”

“Who knows? Kaiser was a soldier fighting a war just like the rest of us. And when you’re out there, in the middle of all that chaos and confusion, you risk losing sight of right and wrong…because there’s a dark side inside us all. Demons within ourselves that we’re always fighting to keep at bay. And I do know that as powerful as Kaiser was, he was still human. At some point, he embraced those demons, betrayed his fellow Ark Knights, and wiped all of them all out. Every one of them, including your father.”

“So, he really is dead,” Jaden uttered with reluctant acceptance.

The king took a deep breath, venting his sorrows for a few seconds before responding. “I’m very sorry.”

Jaden hung his head down in silent despair. They didn’t say anything else for the remainder of their meal together. Though he just focused on clearing his plate, he had completely lost his appetite. Hearing his story created a vast pit in his stomach that no amount of food could fill.

* * *

After that meal, Jaden spent the rest of the morning looking out towards the coast, thinking about him. Across the sea, beyond the horizon painted blue, the Dark Lord watched as the Empire ravaged the world. His armies were riding in on a black cloud that enveloped everything in a shadow of death. Every day, he could sense that shadow was getting bigger. And then I thought—

How could he do this? What happened to him?

As Jaden continued to gaze out into the distance, Astra had approached him and spoke. “Jaden, we need to talk.” She walked over to his side, but he still stared out and away from her.

“What you did at the temple, how did you do all that?” she asked.

“It’s complicated, but I used my energy to…”

“That’s not what I mean…Ever since my mother died, I’ve had to train alone to control my powers. For ten years, I studied and practiced every spell there is, but no matter how hard I tried, I could never use them. How are you able to use your powers just like that?”

“Well, it wasn’t easy for me either. Believe me. It took a lot of training and a lot of focus. It’s something I’ve had to do every day, and I still haven’t mastered them.”

“Why didn’t you tell me who you really are?” she asked him.

“It was better you didn’t. You would’ve been safer that way.”

“Halldor said that you were from Kamina Village. I took a look at our old records, and they said that village was attacked by the Empire two years ago. What exactly happened there?” Astra asked.

Jaden just stood there in silence, desperately trying to avoid the conversation. But seeing no way out of it, he finally spoke.

“Jaden, I’ve known you for two years now, and we’ve always looked out for each other. But I always knew you were hiding something from me, and I know you’re still keeping a secret from me now! But I’ve always held my tongue and trusted you because I knew you were a good person! Please, you can trust me.”

He considered all his other options, realizing he had none. And so, Jaden took a deep breath and slowly prepared himself to dig up his past for Astra. 

“The Empire was trying to eliminate all of the surviving Ark Knights still in hiding,” he said. “About two years ago, they learned that I was living in Kamina Village with my aunt and uncle. They sent a squad of soldiers to capture me, and our old friend Halldor led the mission. My uncle tried to keep me hidden, but they threatened to kill him and everyone in our village. Naturally, I couldn’t help myself. I tried fighting them all off, but there were just too many of them. My uncle saved me when he joined in the fight. We managed to drive them away from the village, but it was too late. My uncle fought with everything he could, but in the end, they killed him. My uncle died because the Empire wanted me. Even with all the power that I had, I couldn’t even save him.”

The Ark Knight began to tear up as he struggled to hold back his sadness and frustration. The black cloud had blotted out the light from his village two years ago, and it followed him to this day. He could still feel a harsh chill from standing in its shadow.

“I’m so sorry, Jaden.” Astra said, shedding a tear.

“Don’t be. My uncle warned me that this would happen. That people would come after me if they knew what I was…what they feared. Maybe that’s why the Ark Knights hid themselves from the rest of the world. In fact, I shouldn’t be even here. You have your crystals, so I should be heading out.”

“Jaden, wait!” Astra grabbed onto his wrist as he about to leave the balcony. “Please stay just for a little longer. My father wants everyone to help plan our next move, and we could really use you here.”

Jaden finally acknowledged that Astra was softly holding onto his wrist with both hands. When she too noticed what she was doing, she quickly pulled her hands away.

“Fine, I’ll stay.”

* * *

Unbeknownst to them, Revan and his father was looking down on them from afar. They watched Jaden and Astra from the perch of a hallway above them, yet they couldn’t hear their conversation.

“How is he?” Revan asked.

“He seems to have recovered, but his wounds run deep.”

“Yet he still stands. I hate to admit it, but he is one of the toughest fighters I’ve ever seen. Even so, we can’t trust him.”

“Son, the Empire grows stronger with each day. They’re breeding demons, growing their armies, gaining power! Our soldiers cannot last much longer! But this young man, he may be the only chance we have! Our doctors measured his energy levels, and it’s greater than his father’s ever was. Who knows of the hidden potential that he has!”

“That’s exactly what I’m afraid of. No one knows what he can or will do. We saw what Kaiser did to us two years ago. All the innocent lives he’s claimed. Hell, that was just the beginning. Imagine what this kid could do with that kind of power. If there’s even the slightest chance that he could turn against us, we have to consider him an absolute threat!”

“But he’s not our enemy!”

“Not now, but it’s only a matter of time. Father, we’ve seen what this war has done to good people! How many of them are left?! How many of them will there be when it ends?”

Revan turned his head and left his father, who looked at his son with disappointment. The armored prince marched down the hall in a huff, flat out refusing to trust Jaden. No matter what, Revan couldn’t risk anyone hurting his family. He couldn’t let it happen again. Never again.

* * *

Later, the king gathered Jaden, Astra, Darek, and Revan inside the meeting hall to discuss his plans. Above them hung a golden chandelier that brightened the room with a halo of diamonds. They were joined at a large, ring-shaped table with the six members of the King’s Royal Council. Aged with knowledge and experience, these elected officials were chosen by the people of Astrelm, making them some of his most trusted advisors.

“My loyal subjects, fellow council members. Our kingdom is facing annihilation. The Empire has fought to take the power of the gods for themselves, and our forces have suffered greatly at their hands. However, we now have the power of the gods on our side.” Ramon stated. “Astra, present the crystals.”

Astra took them out of her waist pouch and placed them on the pedestal at the center of the room. Everyone else stared at them in awe of their holy presence. Each stone gave off a mystical ring that captured them all in their heavenly gaze.

“We must not allow these crystals to fall into the Empire’s hands. They are more than just vessels of the gods. They are the keys to the First Star and its limitless power. If the Empire claims it for themselves, the entire planet will bend to their will. Not only that, but I believe that their quest may herald the return of an even greater threat. With the rise of Kaiser, his Death Riders, and the demons, I fear the return of Zadon himself.”

They all trembled at the thought of the Destroyer returning to unleash Hell upon the world. Jaden never thought he would even live to see the day. Numerous prophecies have been made of his return: when he and the other Aeons would battle once again for the fate of the planet. Even considering the astronomical odds of the correct stars in the infinite Universe aligning for this one moment, you can truly be born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“We now have a chance of victory!” Revan declared. “When Astra summoned Talus, he laid waste to the Imperial Army. We must storm the capital and take it back while we can!”

“I wouldn’t count on that, Revan.” Astra argued. “I have tried speaking with the spirits inside the crystals, but they still won’t respond. I’m not sure how I was able to summon Talus back at the temple, but we can’t rely on getting a second chance with them.”

“Great, so we’re just gonna have to get the other crystals before the Empire does,” one councilman said. “Where do we find the other four?”

“Three, actually,” Ramon corrected. “Since Astra is a descendant of the Goddess Astraea, she possesses her crystal within herself. That leaves three remaining. Luckily, the Destroyer is still sealed away in Darkrelm, so we just need to find the Stars of Iblis and Azura. However, the Empire now has one of the keys to these crystals, so time is of the essence.”

“So which one should we start with?” Darek asked.

“Well, the Empire has already found the Temple of Azura, but they need both keys in order to claim her crystal, so they’ll be looking for Temple of Iblis.”

“Do we know where it is?” another councilman inquired.

“According to our intelligence, the temple is not far from here,” Astra said. “Fortunately, the Empire hasn’t located it yet, but they’re searching all around for it.”

“Then what are we waiting for? Let’s go get it!” Darek shouted.

“That’s actually the problem,” Ramon said. “The temple is buried within Mount Saurum, deep in the heart of the forbidden Wasteland. In order to claim the crystal, one must travel to the volcano and reach the temple before the Empire does.”

All of them just sat in silence, processing the perilous journey that had to be made. After a few seconds, Revan spoke up.

“Setting foot in the Wasteland is suicide. It’s littered with the deadliest demons on the planet. It’s a burning minefield filled with poisonous air, and the mountain is a ticking time bomb that could blow at any moment. We’d all be dead before we even set foot in the temple.”

“I’m well aware of the dangers, but I know of a safer route,” Ramon said. “There’s an abandoned imperial mining facility inside the cliffs surrounding the volcano. Years ago, miners discovered a cavern deep inside the mountain, and it matches the location of the Divine Temple. However, the facility was soon shut down after demons attacked, and it’s now all but forgotten by the Empire. It’s risky, but it’s our best option.” 

“Father, our army is still battling in the West, and Darek says the 

Rangers are still recovering from our last battle!” Revan countered. “What makes you think this plan can succeed?”

“Because we have him.” Revan and Jaden were both shocked to see that the King was referring to the latter.

“What?!”

“Yeah, what?” Jaden added.

“You singlehandedly got one crystal for us, and you helped my daughter claim another. I know you help us retrieve them all!”

“You can’t be serious, Ramon!” one councilman exclaimed.

“I agree, your highness!” another added. “Do you really want to put the fate of our kingdom in the hands of some kid we don’t know!”

“Yes, I do! Haven’t you done the same with the other brave souls fighting for you?! Like them, he believes in this kingdom, and you should believe in him!”

The other councilmen couldn’t come back after that. They all knew of the sacrifices that were made. All the innocent and promising lives spilled out into the soil, all for their homeland to keep on thriving.

“Thank you for those kind words, your highness. Though I was happy to help you and Astra here, this great hero that you’re asking for…I don’t think that’s me.”

“Jaden!” he said, turning to me. “You are the strongest fighter that we’ve seen in ages. But no matter what, your father would’ve always fought for what’s right. I know this is a lot for me to ask of you, but we’re all running out of options. The world needs people like you.”

Jaden recalled his uncle saying those words to him when he was younger. He remembered how lost and confused he was, and how his uncle gave him the strength to move forward. For him, Jaden swore that he would be brave and strong, so he could be the good man he always knew he could be. And so, Jaden rose from his chair and announced his decision.

“I’ll do it!”

Ramon sighed with relief and gave a smile of approval.

“I’ll go…and I’ll bring back the crystal!”

Although Jaden was glad to serve his kingdom in its hour of need, he instantly regretted shouting out like that. Everyone just stood there, silently staring at him like they were expecting a grand, heroic speech. But that was it.

“Then I’m coming with you!” Astra stated, walking over to his side.

“Astra, you can’t be serious!” Revan asked.

“For once, I’m with him! Astra, you sure about this?”Jaden asked her.

“Of course, I am.” She then turned her gaze to everyone else in the room. “He saved my life, and he’s willing to fight for all of yours! Will any of you do the same for him?!” The way she spoke, so adamant and confident, she sounded like the proud leader she was at their rallies. She really was the pillar that held them all up. 

“I will!” To their surprise, Jesse and Kaylah had popped out from the edge of the room, having eavesdropped on them. They both marched over to his side before the baffled council. “Wherever Jaden goes, I go!” he continued. 

“You will need me as well. Both of you,” Kaylah said, looking at Jesse and Jaden. Both of them simply chuckled in response.

“Well, it looks there’s no keeping you three apart,” Ramon exclaimed. 

“I’m in too!” Darek said proudly. “I may not be a fighter, but you guys will need all the manpower you can get.”

“I still think this is a bad idea,” Revan stated, crossing his arms.

“I knew you’d say that,” Ramon stated. “But I know of a way to change your mind.”

* * *

The King lead his subjects outside the Sanctuary and to a small, stone temple sitting atop a grassy cliff on the left side. Once a place of worship for the people living in the Sanctuary, it now only to serve as a monument to a forgotten era. They entered the withered temple, which was lined with streaks of moss, leaves, and vines, and entered a place seemingly unaffected by the ravages of time. 

Ramon escorted them down a long, chrome hall leading to a large, white door. The polished stone floor was lined with black and white tiles alternating with each other. The symbol of the Aeons was embedded in the floor, marking it as one of their temples. Beams of light shined through the temple’s stained-glass windows, illuminating the otherwise dark room. Massive stone columns built into the walls held up the roof as it ran across the arched ceiling, interconnecting with each other. The door at the end of the hall was framed with engaged columns. They formed an arch on the wall with the crest of the Royal Family engraved in its peak. The door itself looked like the vault doors in the Divine Temples, sharing the same eight-pointed rune carved into it.

“For years, the Empire has been looking for this sanctuary to hunt my family down,” said Ramon. “But that’s not the only reason. Astra, the key, please.”

Astra handed him the Keystone, who proceeded to insert it into the lock of the door. As with the doors of the Divine Temples, this one lit up neon blue as it unlocked. The door slowly opened to a large chamber, somehow filled with grass. There were even a couple of trees rising out from the floor. At the center of the room was a blue, crystal sword standing out of a small stone atop a large pedestal. The hilt of the sword was shaped like an eight-pointed star with a blue crystal embedded in its center. Jaden could sense a strange energy resonating from the blade like a heartbeat. It actually felt like the sword was alive.

“Is that what I think it is?” Kaylah asked.

“Yes, it is,” Ramon declared. “That is the Astral Sword, the legendary blade forged by the gods themselves. It’s the ultimate weapon against the demons. No evil can ever touch this blade. Only one who is pure of heart and strong in will can wield it. I believe that person is you, Jaden.” 

“I can’t believe it,” the Ark Knight stated. “I’ve heard stories about this sword, but I always thought it was just a legend.” 

Jaden remembered reading about how this sword in his father’s book. As the strongest of the Divine Weapons, it is said to have wiped out hundreds of hordes of demons in one swing.he never imagined that he would ever get the chance to see it, let alone wield it.

“Father, are you sure about this?” Revan asked. “You’re really entrusting the sword with him?!”

“Yes, I am!” he insisted. “Unless you can think of something else who can wield it?”

Revan just stood in silence, futilely thinking of a counter-argument. Revan couldn’t think of anyone else who was fit to wield the sword. He tried to take the sword from the stone himself many times during the past two years, but to no avail.

“Well, Jaden, will you try to claim the sword?” Ramon asked, turning his head to the Ark Knight.

“If it’ll get Revan to shut up, I’ll give it a shot,” Jaden said jokingly. He began to walk up to the sword when Ramon spoke up and stopped him.

“I must warn you! The sword pays a heavy price to those who try to claim it. It will test your power, your strength of will. If you aren’t strong enough to pull the sword out from its stone, it will drain you of your energy until it sucks the life out of you.”

His confidence was immediately shattered from Ramon’s grave warning. He was so frightened that his heart shrank inside his chest and retreated into his stomach. Jaden just stood there, staring at the sword in the center of the room, imagining the horrible death it could inflict on him.

Am I really gonna go through with this? he wondered. Is this worth dying for?

After a few seconds of silent thinking, he proceeded to slowly approach the sword in the stone, utterly wary of the risk that he was taking. As he got closer to it, Jaden heard a faint noise, almost like a ringing. He wasn’t sure, but it seemed like the sword was trying to speak to him. He hesitated to touch the handle, fearing its deadly power, but he finally grabbed hold of the blade. It was then that Jaden sunk into the shadows of his past. 

Jaden’s whole life flashed before his eyes, but it also began to fade just as fast. He saw fragments of his past flutter through his mind’s eye, like on a reel of film. He saw his house in Kamina Village, along with his aunt and his uncle. That pleasant sight quickly faded as He saw his village go up in flames with imperial soldiers laying waste to it. Behind that blaze, he saw the dark beast of his dreams, who stared back at him with its three wicked eyes. The third eye crowning its head filled the sky, eclipsing the moon and casting its shadow on the world. 

He felt his strength being sapped out of his body like a battery. All of his memories were flooding in at once. Past and present collided with each other, and his sight of reality fell into a cyclone of chaos. Was any of this real?

Jaden heard his aunt screaming at the sound of a sword piercing flesh. Halldor had forced his sword through his uncle’s chest as an inferno raged around his home. He then held his uncle’s hand as he bled out into the dirt, as if to keep his life from leaving his body. 

“Jaden…” he said to him. 

Tears ran down Jaden’s face as he cried out to him, his spirit slipping away from him into the abyss.

“Uncle!”

Jaden immediately let go of the sword and instinctively backed away from it. He was short of breath, and his body felt weak. It was as if he just ran a mile in only a few seconds. His hands were shaking like an earthquake, and his heart was pounding up the tremors. Even after fighting in the war for two years, Jaden never felt so terrified in his life.

“Don’t let your fear win,” Ramon said. He then uttered the same words that Jaden’s uncle said to him all those years ago. “You have to face it!” 

Jaden took a deep breath, grabbed the sword’s handle with both hands, and began pulling. He focused all his strength into his arms as he tried to draw the blade from its stone. But he instantly felt his energy being sucked through his arms and out of his body. He pushed through the pain and continued pulling at the sword, not relenting for even a moment. The blade didn’t budge at all. It was at that point that he was almost out of strength, and he began to lose consciousness.

“We have to stop this!” Astra demanded. “He’s gonna get himself killed!”

“Hold on!” Ramon had his left arm out in front of Astra, stopping her from rushing over to him. “He’s just getting started.”

Jaden looked up at the light seeping through the window above him, and everything turned blurry. More images of that fateful night began flashing through his head. He was screaming in anguish as Halldor’s men held him back. He couldn’t let that happen again. His friends needed his help. He had to fight to protect them and everyone else in Astrelm. He needed that sword.

The sword released a large, blue aura that surged like a raging fire. Waves of cosmic energy blew through the entire chamber, catching everyone else off guard. They were nearly blown away as they shielded themselves from the blinding light. Jaden remained locked in his bout with the Divine Weapon, even as it sucked the life out of him. Even so, he felt his strength grow as quick as it fled his body. Something inside continued to drive him forward, fueling him with new energy that coursed through his veins, just like that night.

Jaden remembered what it felt like he had that the night his uncle died—like a heartbeat. Enraged and heartbroken, his power exploded forth, and he awakened his true strength. In a violent rampage, he dominated all the soldiers that were in his sight. Halldor was fleeing into his airship in a panic as his men were lying defeated in the grass. Jaden just stood there and watched him fly away, a curtain of flames billowing behind him. The look in his eyes was that of man who saw a beast from Hell. 

He continued pulling at the sword, but with double the power he had before. Suddenly, it was slightly drawn out of its stone. Jaden kept fighting against the will of the blade, and it budged even more. As he felt the sword was almost out of its pedestal, he let out a battle cry that echoed throughout the chamber. Gathering all the strength he had left into one final pull, Jaden released the Astral Sword from its resting place.

Jaden suddenly felt all his strength returning to him, as if the sword had given back all the energy that it took from him. He held the sword up to the sky and saw how it shined in the sunlight, letting out a heavenly, blue glow. As the Ark Knight saw his reflection in the blade, he realized it was his now.

He turned around and looked at everyone staring at him with wide-eyed amazement. Jesse’s jaw hung from his head in disbelief. Darek was so stunned that he was practically paralyzed. His breath slowly creaked out of his mouth, which had stuck open. Revan merely clenched his fist with anger and jealously that both burned in his eyes. In contrast, his father smiled with hopeful pride at the young knight in front of him.

“Oh my God,” Kaylah uttered in astonishment.

“He did it. The son of a bitch actually did it,” Darek said to himself.

Jaden walked over to his friends to show them his new sword. Jesse and Kaylah admired the sword’s mystic radiance. He turned his head towards Revan, who was standing silently outside the circle of people.

“So, Revan, will you fight with me?” he asked.

“That sword doesn’t change what you are…” Revan said disgruntled, “but it is a valuable asset. We’ll need it.” He then stepped forward and joined their group.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

“Alright, we’re a team!” Jesse cried out.

“Then it’s settled!” Ramon announced. “I pronounce you all Champions of Astrelm!”

They all stood proudly as a newly christened team. Jaden felt the same way all the other fighters did at the end of a rally, something wholly unfamiliar to him up until then. They weren’t just one team fighting for the same cause. They all shared the same struggle and endured the same pain, and they embraced it all together. Now that they all knew who he was and what he could do, he finally felt a sense of true belonging. For the first time in his life, he was one with the world.

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