July 21st, 2019 AE, 10:01 AM
The Ark Knight woke up in a blinding haze of white light. His whole body felt so light, yet he could barely move anything below the neck. The faint smell of the ocean was in the air. It smelled like home.
Jaden was lying in a bed, his torso bare and bandaged. He turned his head to see Astra sitting by his side, her eyes glittering with tears, and all his memories came rushing back to me. Strangely, all he could think about how much Astra has been there for him. For the past week, Jaden repeatedly faced the risk of falling into the abyss itself. But when he woke up, he always found Astra waiting for him. She was always there.
“I’m sorry… I’m so sorry, I couldn’t protect you.”
Her voice cracked as she struggled to hold back her sorrow. Looking into tearful eyes, Jaden found his own wretched self-loathing reflected back at him. Unable to bear this sight anymore, Jaden managed to force a single word out of his weary body.
“This is all my fault…I don’t even deserve to be with you.”
Jaden desperately lifted himself up from his pillow and grabbed Astra’s hand. Her face flushed with surprise, but she didn’t shy away from it. Holding Astra’s tearful gaze, Jaden cleared his dried throat and spoke.
“I don’t care what happens. No matter what, my life is yours, and I’ll fight for you until the very end.”
Astra held Jaden’s hand tighter, softly stroking her thumb across his callused palm. The aching pain weighing his body down faded away as he continued to hold her tight.
“Thank you…and I promise that I’ll protect you too.”
The Princess shined a smile at the Ark Knight, who couldn’t help but smile back. Her beaming expression warmed Jaden’s soul so much, he could feel his strength return to him.
“Thank you, Astra.”
For the longest time, Jaden thought he was alone against the entire world. Even with his powers alone, there was never a day when he didn’t think he would die. But feeling the warmth of Astra’s hand, the world felt so much smaller. Like nothing else existed beyond this room. He felt safe with her.
* * *
After Jaden regained his strength, Astra slowly guided him out of the bedroom, where he saw the other Champions waiting for them. Jesse was the first one who rushed over to him, but Kaylah was the only one that gave him a tender hug.
“Jaden! I’m so glad your okay!” he chirped.
“I should say the same to you guys,” Jaden responded.
“You know, for a tough guy, you sure get knocked out a lot,” Darek added as he walked over.
“I always like a good nap.” On that line, the two of them cracked up laughing until Jaden noticed Revan was the only one that stood behind.
“Thanks for saving us,” he said to him.
“I should be thanking you,” Revan responded. “You saved my sister.”
“Actually, she saved me. So…where are we, anyway?”
“We’re in a safe haven in Kamina Village. The Knights of Astrelm found us as we fled the city, and they brought us all here.”
Though Jaden was glad they were out of harm’s way, he had stopped listening after hearing Revan say the name of his hometown.
“Wait, we’re in Kamina?!”
“That’s right! There’s actually someone else who wants to see you.”
Jaden looked over to see a woman in her early fifties standing by the doorway. Her short, blonde hair was messed up after a hard day’s work. Her tired, blue eyes were on the verge of tears as she stared at him. He instantly recognized her as the woman who raised him like a mother for his entire life.
He was so overwhelmed with joy to see her kind face again that he just stood there staring at her. His aunt did the same, as she wanted to take a good look at her nephew and how much he’s grown. Jaden finally found the nerve to rush over to her, and she met him halfway with a loving hug. After two years of traveling the world, he finally made it back home.
Large smiles formed across their faces, which were now running with joyous tears. As they held each other tight, Lara whispered into his nephew’s ear, “I love you.”
“Did you get the money I sent you?” Jaden asked.
He was referring. Even with all the time and effort he put into fighting in the war, Jaden still sent half of his earnings to his dear aunt Lara.
“You didn’t have to give me anything,” she responded.
Hearing this made Lara hug him even harder, as she knew he was still the caring, thoughtful nephew that she raised him to be.
Astra and others smiled as they watched Jaden embraced his aunt. With all the powers that he possessed, they forgot that he was still just a kid. Even Revan shared in a smile, well aware of how fortunate it really was to have a mother.
After Halldor attacked the village two years ago, the Royal Army established a base there to defend it against another attack. Eventually, the Rangers set up camp there as well, and their combined efforts made the town a sanctuary.
Lara spent most of her days supporting the soldiers protecting the village and the refugees that fled from the Empire. Like Argos, the town became a camp for people who lost their homes in the war. The amount of work Lara did for the village was overwhelming, but she never stopped helping for even a second, and she had her nephew’s undying respect.
“My father is outside waiting for us,” Astra said.
They all walked outside to a grey and cloudy village, where they saw a crowd of people gathered on the lawn. Across the grass, Jaden saw King Ramon speaking to one of the head Rangers. To his surprise, they all stopped and looked at me like he was a ghost. Their eyes followed the Ark Knight as he slowly traversed the crowd. He was afraid that one, if not all of them, would attack him. After what happened to the village two years ago, he worried that at least one of them still had an ax to grind. Even after facing all of the horrors throughout his life, he was never more frightened than he was at that moment.
“They all saw your fight with Kaiser,” Ramon stated. “They think you’re some kind of superhero.”
“I’m not a hero,” Jaden replied.
“Don’t sell yourself short, Jaden. You saved all of these people.”
“He’s right!” someone voiced.
Jaden turned to see that it came from one of his oldest friends within the crowd, and his name flew out of Jaden’s mouth in disbelief.
Jaden walked over to get a closer look at him. The Ark Knight barely recognized his old pal, now wearing warrior’s fatigues and a dog tag around his neck. He realized that Rex had joined the war front after he had left home.
“All those years I spent messing around, you were always looking out for all of us.”
“Well, someone had to,” Jaden said awkwardly.
Jaden felt weird talking to Rex like this, as he had lost touch with him after his powers first awoken. Even after fighting in the war together, they never ran into each other. For years, Jaden wasn’t even sure they were even friends anymore, but standing there, both of them veterans of war, they now felt closer than ever.
“Welcome home, J.”
After the cloud of disbelief vanished from his mind, Jaden gave everyone a smile that they all dearly missed. For years, the Ark Knight longed for the catharsis of opening up to his village. Though most of the town was always kind to him, he still thought they wouldn’t fully accept him. But after years of crippling doubt, he finally knew that this world was his home.
* * *
Ramon later escorted the Champions to the Ranger’s medical barrack nearby. The room was long and lined with beds, which were filled with injured warriors. Many of them were wrapped up in bandages, moaning in pain as doctors tried to treat their wounds.
“What happened to them?” Jaden asked, dismayed.
“They all fought against Kaiser’s army,” Ramon responded. “What happened in Ventasia is happening everywhere. Not just in Astrelm, but the Empire too. Demons are coming out of the shadows and destroying everything.
“While you were out, they found the Royal Sanctuary and drove everyone out,” Darek mentioned.
“Most of our soldiers are still out there, struggling to hold them off,” added Astra.
“It’s like the end of the world out there,” Jesse added.
As these voices crowded Jaden’s ears, he could barely believe the gravity of their situation. He’s spent years facing demons and Imperial soldiers, but based on what he heard, this was unlike anything he had encountered before.
“Are the Stars safe?” Jaden asked, concerned.
“Yes, they’re right here.” Ramon walked to a table on the far end of the barrack, where he opened a metal briefcase carrying the four Crystal Stars they’ve collected. “Luckily, I was able to flee the with Sanctuary with them safe and sound.”
“I’ve been using Azura’s power to heal the wounded, but I can only do so many at a time,” stated Astra.
“So what’s the plan, then?” he asked.
“We’re not sure,” Revan answered. “We still don’t have enough soldiers here that can fight, and the rest are busy fighting off the demons. Meanwhile, Kaiser’s nowhere to be seen. After we fled Ventasia, he just fell off the map.”
“He must be waiting for us to come to him,” Jaden presumed furiously. He couldn’t stand the thought of Kaiser sitting idly by, watching the world fall apart.
“Which means it’s probably a trap,” Ramon interjected. “We can’t risk losing to Kaiser at a time like this.”
“But we have the crystals on our side, and with Astra’s power…”
“We’re well aware of how strong she is now,” Revan pointed out, “but that still may not be enough, even with the crystals. Right now, Kaiser has the largest army on the planet, and if we use the Stars in battle, we may only succeed in bringing them straight to him.”
As much as Jaden hated to admit it, Revan was right. Even if Astra does have the Aeons join the fight, they may not be around long enough for us to win. But Jaden couldn’t just sit around and let Kaiser kill innocent people.
“Well, we have to do something! People are dying!” Jaden argued.
“What are you gonna do, then?” Revan asked him.
“I’m gonna fight Kaiser!”
“I know, but what will you do, specifically?”
“I’ll figure it out as I go along. That usually works out for me.”
“You know you almost died, like three times this week.” Darek reminded bluntly.
“I’ve been through worse.” Even though Jaden was trying to brush off Revan’s argument, that wasn’t too far from the truth, at least in his opinion.
“Listen to my brother, Jaden!” Astra pleaded. “If you go charging into battle with Kaiser again, you may not come back alive!”
“I know that, and honestly, I don’t think I can beat him. But I can’t let him hurt you or anyone else!”
“You don’t have to do this alone! Please, let us help you!”
As Jaden’s friends waited for his answer, he wondered whether or not he had a choice. He knew that he couldn’t face Kaiser alone, but the chances of winning with everyone’s help still seemed close to zero. But even if he did go alone, Astra and the others would still try to fight alongside him. Either way, he knew they were all knocking on Death’s door, so he figured they might as well do it together.
“Okay, Astra. I will.”
“Great, so you have any ideas on how to defeat him? He has to have a weakness.”
“Well, when I struck him with the Astral Sword, the wound of his face didn’t heal. He couldn’t regenerate the way he did before. The way I see it, if Kaiser has the power of the demon, then he must have the weaknesses of one.”
“Perhaps,” said Astra, “but this isn’t some regular demon. This is the Destroyer himself! If Kaiser has that power under his control, then he’s a god in his own right!”
“Right, but what if we defeat Zadon and separate the two? That way, he would lose the source of his power!”
“That could work,” said Revan, “but like I said, we don’t have enough soldiers to fight his army, let alone the Destroyer! And even if we did, we still don’t have enough firepower to get past them. I’m sorry, but right now, the odds aren’t in our favor.”
Their conversation was interrupted by a Ranger who burst through the door shouting, “Your Highnesses, you’re gonna wanna come out and see this!”
* * *
The King and his Champions rushed back outside, where the last person they wanted to see was waiting for them. Emperor Alderic had arrived with a group of armed Centurions. The surrounding crowd scowled at the disgraced tyrant, who was faced with dozens of rifles aimed at him.
“Alderic?! What the hell are you doing here?!” Revan asked angrily.
“Relax, I come in peace!” he assured as he put his hands over his head.
“Okay, but bringing guys with guns isn’t helping you prove your point!” Jaden quipped.
Alderic signaled his men to lower their weapons, though they kept an eye on everyone around them. All these people were all wracked with a hunger for revenge that nearly drove them to tear him apart.
“What do you want, Alderic?” Ramon asked.
“I’ve come here to offer an alliance,” he answered.
Everyone was shocked and almost appalled by the Emperor’s proposal. While it seemed like the Universe had answered their prayers, to Jaden, it felt more like it was playing a practical joke on them.
“An alliance?” Ramon asked. “Last time you asked for that, your men killed my wife.”
“Look, I know you’re all angry at me, but—”
“Angry?!” Revan blurted out. “That’s putting it lightly! Right now, I could strangle you to death, and I wouldn’t even blink!”
“Revan! Let him speak!” the King shouted before turning back to Alderic. “I’m sorry! What can you tell us?”
Alderic thus continued his speech. “After Kaiser left Ventasia, we got word that he took over our compound in Newtown. He flew down to the city, unleashing an army of demons that killed everyone there. Now the entire city is his own fortress, and with each passing moment, his army is expanding his territory.”
“Only the Destroyer can control all those demons,” Astra stated. “If what you say is true, then how is Kaiser able to wield that power all by himself?”
“Years ago, our scientists were developing a way to find the Star of Zadon. Using technology recovered from Mesadah, they created a device capable of generating a gateway to Darkrelm. The Ark Knights such a device to imprison the world’s most dangerous criminals. It shouldn’t come as a surprise when we learned that Kaiser was trapped there as well.”
This actually did surprise Jaden. Even with all their advanced technology, he never knew his people had access to that kind of power. He could only imagine how threatening people like Kaiser were that the Ark Knights resorted to banishing them to that world.
“The machine didn’t last long, but in the end, we still succeeded in opening a portal, and that’s when he appeared. I don’t know how, but he found a way to carry the spirit of the Destroyer inside his body. With that power, he was able to sway the demons plaguing our land. His energy helped enhance our technology decades beyond what we thought was possible.”
“You’ve got some nerve coming to us for help!” Ramon said. “After what you’ve done to my people!”
“Kaiser is attacking my people, too!” he asserted, walking closer to us as he spoke. “It’s only been a few days, and he’s already destroyed half my Empire. The army he’s stolen has us completely outnumbered, and with so many of us already dead, we’re barely holding them off.”
“Well, I guess that’s you’re own fault for trusting him!” Revan asserted spitefully. “Why shouldn’t we just lock you up right now?!”
“Surely, the Ark Knight agrees with me. Isn’t your kind supposed to help protect humanity?!” he asked Jaden.
“Yes, and we were doing it just fine, no thanks to you. Why the hell did you team up with Kaiser, anyway?! Was winning this war so important to you, that it was worth making a deal with the Devil?! Tell me why!”
“Why?” A mask of anger suddenly formed around Alderic’s face as he gave his answer. “For centuries, your kingdom prospered thanks to the blessing of your so-called righteous gods. But what about my land? My people? We were all left to suffer and die in the bitter cold while the demons crept out to feed on us all! And what did you do about it?! Nothing! We fought to survive, to take what we so desperately needed. All of us, including my son.”
Jaden’s eyes widened as he detected what looked like sadness in both of Alderic’s eyes. Even though his left eye was dead, Jaden could actually see a sliver of humanity right then and there.
“He did what he had to to serve his nation, and he paid the price for it.”
It was then that Jaden actually began to sympathize with the Emperor. The Ark Knight hated what the Empire did to him and his loved ones, and he didn’t think he could ever forgive Alderic for it. Nonetheless, Jaden couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. Even King Ramon lowered his head in shame and remorse, feeling he could have done more to prevent this chaos.
“When Kaiser came to me, he gave me an offer. The First Star for my son’s life. For all our lives.”
Jaden hesitated to respond, as his story made him think about his uncle. If he had the chance to claim the First Star and bring him back to life, he would almost certainly take it. But he wouldn’t just do it for his uncle, but for everyone else that died in the war, including the Ark Knight He would bring them all back, even his parents.
“I’m sorry,” Jaden uttered softly, with Alderic merely shrugged off his sympathy.
“No, really, I am. But what you did to us all…”
“I did what I had to do to save my people!” he asserted. “What would you have done?!”
“You really want to save our kingdom?”
“No, you’re going to save it! My army has to fight the demons in our land, but I’ll give you whatever supplies you need to succeed.”
King Ramon and his Champions stood there, quietly pondering this tempting offer.
“Oh, come on, this is the Empire we’re talking about!” Revan spouted. “Why should we trust them?”
“Do you really have any other choice?!” Alderic refuted. “This isn’t a battle between nations anymore. Now it’s fight against Death itself. Kaiser’s coming for us all, and he won’t stop until there’s no one left. So what’s it gonna be?”
“Alderic’s right,” Astra stated, surprisingly. “We need all the help we can get.”
The thought of teaming up with Alderic threatened to make Revan vomit. If they did team up and stop Kaiser, what would stop the Empire from fighting them again? But he also knew that if humanity was to survive, it had to stand united against this common threat.
“Then it’s settled.” Both rulers shook each other’s hand, and an uneasy alliance was forged. “How soon can your men arrive with supplies?”
“They’re already on their way, so less than half a day,” Alderic responded. “However, I do have something for your Champions right here.”
Alderic’s Centurions marched over to them, carrying long, metal trunks. The soldiers unlocked them to reveal the weapons they confiscated from the Champions when they were arrested. They even contained Darek’s metal arm and Revan’s Divine Armor.
“You’ll all need to be at your best,” he said.
Everyone else reclaimed their weapons: Astra’s rapier, Kaylah’s spear, Jesse’s katana, and both Darek and Revan’s swords. The latter then donned his divine armor, augmenting his body with magic as it locked onto his body. He thus became the mighty Prince of Astrelm once again.
“Now this is more like it,” voiced Revan.
At the same time, Darek linked his armored prosthetic onto his shoulder, and a jolt of energy shot throughout his body, enhancing his strength once again.
“Oh yeah,” he said with satisfaction. “There’s no place like home!”
He had gotten so used to wearing that arm that he felt empty without it. For years, his sole desire was to stop the Empire he once served, and that arm was the only thing that made him feel useful. That arm gave Darek purpose, and vice versa. Even though he wanted to escape his life of combat, first and foremost, he knew that he was a soldier and that it was his duty to help end this war.
* * *
Later that day, a fleet of Imperial airships flew into Kamina Village carrying supplies for their new allies. Centurions delivered hundreds of crates containing a stockpile of weapons ranging from swords to machine guns. They also came with armor and potions to ensure the Astreans’ survival.
One of the Imperials even rolled Jaden’s motorbike out right in front of him. Though he had just gained the ability to fly, the Ark Knight was still pleased to have his trusty steed back.On top of that, they were given the airships they came in to make a swift trip towards Newtown.
Ramon had also contacted all the fighters still scoured throughout Astrelm, asking them to join the fight against Kaiser. They almost immediately teleported to the village through the Stargate assembled there, and the entire village became as crowded as Argos. The soldiers set up tents in the fields, rented out rooms in the local inns, and some of them took refuge in the villagers’ homes. The amount of soldiers that were in Kamina before totaled around three thousand. Combined with the Knights of Astrelm, the Rangers, solo fighters, and the Royal Army, their numbers skyrocketed to over ten thousand.
* * *
Later that night, the Champions sat around a campfire in the center of the village, where they all shared a warm stew cooked by Jaden’s aunt. Beef, noodles, carrots, celery, noodles, onions, and potatoes were all together in a hearty mix of warm deliciousness. The smell of this dish was enough to make an entire party stop with hunger.
“This is the best meal I’ve had in years!” Jesse announced.
“I’m so glad I lived long enough to have this!” Kaylah exclaimed.
“Me too. Speaking of which, what are you guys gonna do when the battle’s over?” Jaden asked them.
“Shouldn’t we worry about winning it first?” Revan inquired. “And don’t forget, the Empire’s still our enemy!”
“I know, but it’s something to hope for.”
“I just really wanna get away from all this!” Jesse said out loud, gesturing to the army. “Two years of fighting is more than enough for me.”
` “What about you, Darek? What will you do?” Jaden asked.
“Actually…I have no idea,” Darek said, astounded. “I never thought I’d live this long, and I still can’t believe it! We’re going against the Destroyer and his army. It all seems insane, but even if I die out there, I wouldn’t mind. I’d still go out in a blaze of glory.”
Listening to Darek’s speech, Astra’s warm smile quickly faded along with her appetite. She then put her dinner to the side and addressed the other Champions.
“I’m gonna go down to the beach.”
As Revan saw his sister leave their circle, he felt the need to speak his mind. He struggled to muster up the rights words, but he just let his heart take control.
“Listen, Jaden…if we don’t make it out alive…I just want you to know that… I’m sorry…for everything.”
None of the other Champions could believe what they were hearing. Revan was apologizing.
“I never should’ve treated you…the way I did. It’s just that… ever since my mother died…I couldn’t lose anyone else. Not again. I swore to keep Astra safe…but all I did was hurt her. I never should’ve tried to keep her away from you.”
Revan’s hand shielded his eyes from everyone as he looked down at the fire, trying to hide his shame. The thick shell that he put around himself had finally been broken, and he saw the mighty Prince for what he really was: a scared young man who just wanted to protect his family.
Jaden put his hand on Revan’s shoulder, causing the latter to meet his gaze.
“Don’t worry about it,” Jaden assured. “It’s all in the past. I’m just glad you’re on my side now.”
After a moment’s hesitation, the regretful Prince nearly forged a genuine smile for the Ark Knight.
None of the Champions knew what to say next. They all just stared at each other and smiled, leaving it up to Jaden to break the tension.
“I should go check on Astra.” Jaden got up from his seat and began walking towards the coast. Kaylah watched him leave them as the mountain of fire burned high into the sky.