Chapter 21: Heart of Darkness

Chapter 21

Heart of Darkness

July 22nd, 2019 AE, 9:21 AM

At nine o’clock the next morning, the entire village woke up with an air of intense foreboding. Hardly anyone could sleep the night before, as each minute brought them all dangerously close to Judgment Day. While the weather was utterly cloudy, it was still the hottest day of the entire year. It was like the earth was heating up beneath us, practically on the verge of exploding.

The soldiers gathered around the town square, anxiously waiting for Revan to make his speech. All their fears and worries were vented into a sea of murmurs that seemed to echo throughout the village. However, when Jaden and Astra arrived on the scene, they all cut their conservations and turned towards them.

“What?” Jaden asked.

Everyone immediately turned their heads away and continued their conversations.

“There you are, you two lovebirds!”

A sudden shock ran through Jaden as someone greeted him with a slap on the back. He turned around to see it was Jesse, dressed in his usual red jacket and orange bandana. With him, Kaylah was dressed in her greenish-blue coat while Darek wore his armored fatigues. They were all armed with their trusty weapons, but none of them could hurt Jaden and Astra more than what their friends would say next.

“Oh, hey guys. What’s up?” Jaden asked awkwardly.

“Don’t play dumb. We know you and Astra made out last night!”

They were both so stunned by this revelation, it felt like a flaming arrow had pierced through both their hearts.

“Wait, what?! How?!”

“Revan went over to check on you guys last night, and he saw you.” 

“What? How long was he there?”

“Long enough,” Darek answered smugly.

“Oh my God.” Jaden hung his head down as he and Astra looked away in embarrassment.

“Hey, don’t feel bad. We’re happy for you two. Seriously!” Kaylah assured.

She looked Jaden straight in the eye, and her kind eyes and soft smile immediately put him at ease. But he was unaware of how she was painfully holding her cheeks up like a pair of fishing hooks. In truth, Kaylah was happy for them, but her smile was still forced: a fake grin she hoped would replace the pain she felt inside. Though she did have feelings for Jaden, she valued their friendship more.

“Thanks, Kaylah,” Astra said happily.

Jaden and Astra smiled as they knew their friends stood by their budding romance. But when they all turned away, Kaylah’s smile slowly faded as she mourned what could have been.

“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but…when did all this start?” asked Jesse.

“Well…” Jaden pondered aloud. “I guess we made it official yesterday.”

“Not that!” he corrected. “I mean, when did you first have feelings for each other?”

Though Jaden spent some time finding the answer, Astra stepped in and answered for him.

“Well, I guess for me, it started about six months ago. I was on my daily patrols, so I had to keep track of all our fighters. And so, as I walking through town, I found Jaden sitting about at the local festival. At first, I didn’t like seeing him like that. I thought that while everyone else was on duty, protecting the people, he was lounging on the job.”

As she spoke, Jaden remembered the look on her face when she saw him that day. It was the same look his Aunt Lara gave him when he forgot to do his chores. 

“He insisted he was still on patrol, but I tagged along with him to make sure of it. And I was shocked by what happened next. We spent the whole afternoon touring the festival, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I didn’t have that much fun since I was a little girl, and it just what I needed.”

Astra’s smile vanished as she remembered what her life was like before.

“When this war started, my life became a living nightmare. I was always stressed. I couldn’t sleep. Each day, it felt like my entire world was slipping away. All I did was fight and train to harness my powers. I didn’t care if I lived or died, as long as I was able to serve my kingdom.”

Jaden was shocked to hear this from her. Even after knowing her for two years, he never got the impression that she had suffered so much inside. He had focused so much on his own troubles, he didn’t think she could feel the same. Like him, she had always put on a brave and happy face to hide her true self.

“But that all changed on that day. On the front lines, Jaden was always so calm and easygoing, and I couldn’t understand why. Even though he was fighting for our lives, he never wasted a chance to enjoy his own life. And seeing him on that day, I remembered what I was fighting for in the first place.”

Astra shot a smile back at Jaden, her eyes shimmering with such hopeful resolve.

“I wanted to go back to the days when we all felt happy and safe, when we didn’t have to fear for our lives, and we could just enjoy them. Since then, I slept much easier knowing there was something better waiting for me, that there a light on the other end of the tunnel. He gave me hope that I would live to see it, and I wanted him to be there with me. He was the reason I kept fighting.”

The Ark Knight was stunned by this revelation, and his friends shared his astonishment.

“Wow, Astra. I never knew you felt that way,” said Jaden.

“Well, it’s just like what Kaylah said. You help people by simply being there for them.”

Kaylah smiled knowing her words were able to help both of them. Though she wished she could’ve been the one for Jaden, she was glad she could help make him and Astra happy again.

“She’s right, Jaden,” Kaylah asserted. “And Astra…” She then put her hands on the Princess’s shoulders and gave her a look that already said that she stood with her. “I hope your dream does come true, and I’ll fight to make sure it does!”

Astra was shocked by this friendly gesture. She had never known a woman as strong and loyal as Kaylah. Even her masters at the Royal Academy never displayed the kind of bond they now shared. Thus, without saying a word, the Princess showed her gratitude with a simple nod and smile. 

“Hey, guys. Look,” Jesse called out.

Everyone saw that Revan had just emerged from the barracks with four of his most elite knights. His steely expression emitted an aura of confidence that overshadowed them all. As the Ark Knight beheld this regal figure, he knew this was indeed the proud prince who had inspired the entire kingdom.

Revan walked up over to the Champions, leaving his other soldiers behind. As the armored Prince approached him, Jaden feared what he had to say regarding

“Okay, everyone. Are you all ready for this?” Revan asked.

The other Champions simply nodded in response. They were all surprised by Revan’s somewhat informal tone. They all knew that he used to speak to them with a stone-faced brooding one would expect from a royal commander. But now, he wasn’t treating them like regular soldiers, but as his teammates and his friends.

“Jaden,” Revan continued. “We’ll need you and all of your strength today. Can I trust you?”

After taking in the fact the two of them were truly on good terms, Jaden responded with a single word, “Yeah.”

The Ark Knight reached his hand out to the Prince, who immediately returned the favor. They grasped each other’s hands with a rock-solid grip that cemented their shared faith. As they did so, they turned to see King Ramon walk up next to them, dressed in his black suit and regal white cape. The middle-aged monarch was also joined by his own team of elite guards.

“I’m glad to see the two of you finally playing nicely,” Ramon cracked. “Now, Revan. I believe you have a few words for everyone.”

“Thank you, father. But I think Astra should do the honors.”

“Me?” she asked in disbelief. 

“Of course. You’re their leader.” 

Even though Astra has made speeches to the assault team before missions, Revan always claimed that honor when he was leading them. Thus, Astra was stunned with the realization of what he was giving to her. Having achieved the recognition she so longed for, Astra smiled and hugged her older brother. Ramon quickly joined them, glad to see them finally act like the loving children they used to be.

With Astra ending their loving embrace, she took center stage to address her people. She quickly composed herself before speaking with such grace and passion that Jaden had never seen in her before.

“Thank you all for being here in this dark hour. I’m sure you all know of the threat that lies ahead. This will no doubt be the worst battle that our planet will ever face. I know that many of you have questioned joining forces with each other. For years, our countries have clashed with each other, whether it was for survival, glory, or just pure hatred. But now, I ask you to put those feelings aside so we can unite against our common enemy. Today, we fight for not just the fate of our own kingdoms but that of the entire world! We fight so we may all live to see the days of peace that we’ve all longed to see again! And we fight to prove to our Adversary that we are not inferior to him, that we will not submit to his will, and that we are all worthy of living in this world! So now I ask you, will you make this stand with us?!”

With that speech, the entire crowd roared with an intensity that amazed both Astra and Jaden. Their blaring cheers combined into an unstoppable force that has driven humanity against the face of destruction for centuries. This was the true power of the human spirit.

* * *

As the Astrean Army geared up for their flight to Newtown, everyone said their final goodbyes. Ramon chose to stay with the villagers and monitor the battle from a safe distance. The King embraced his two children one last time, lamenting having to see them lead his army into the ultimate battle.

Not far from them, Jaden bade a tearful farewell to his Aunt Lara. After just reuniting with each other after two long years, he was about to leave her again, most likely for the last time. And so, Lara made sure to get a good look at her proud nephew, standing tall with his black coat and dual swords wrapped around him.

“Look at you. My brave knight, all grown up!” she said, adjusting his collar to make it even on both sides. “Promise me you’ll come home safe.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll make it back home,” Jaden said. 

Whenever Jaden said something like that, he was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. He didn’t care if he would die or not. But now, when he was about to walk into almost certain death, he had no intention of dying. This time, he had a reason to stay alive. “I’ll make you proud.”

“You already have.” Lara began to hold back tears welling up to the surface. “I’ve always been proud of you, and your uncle has too.” Lara then reached in and held him tight, like she was trying to keep him from leaving. Jaden clung to her just as hard, and for that one brief moment, he felt like the kid that grew up in Kamina again. The one who cut his lip falling off his bike at age seven. The one who spent every snow day sledding down the hill behind Old Man Russo’s dairy farm. The one who used to climb to the top of the big apple tree outside his house and stare out at the mountains, beyond which Kaiser now dwelled, wishing to scale them as well.

Jaden finally joined his friends, who had waited for him outside their airship at the edge of the village. Lara watched him leave with them, and he looked back at her one last time, the same way he did when he left two years ago. After that, the Ark Knight and his friends entered their ship, ready to make the climb.

* * *

As Jaden and his allies flew towards the capital, he contemplated the irony in all this madness. Even after two years of fighting countless battles in this chaotic war, he was now following the same path as before. He thought it strange how people always seem to go in circles throughout their lives. Even though they’ve tried to avoid their past mistakes, they still end up repeating them. Maybe it was part of their nature.

* * *

After about three houses of flying over the countryside, the army arrived on the outskirts of Newtown. The once glorious city was now reduced to ruins. The once lush, green fields surrounding it was reduced to a lifeless wasteland, completely covered in ash. The light that once shined high above the metropolis was blotted out by dark clouds that roared the horns of Armageddon.

“I’m sensing a lot of demons inside the city. There’s too many to count!”

“What else do you see?” Revan asked.

The Ark Knight could sense a mountain of darkness towering up from the city, and at its core was an eye shining bright red like a solar eclipse, threatening to consume everything in its path. The eye saw through the darkness and looked back at Jaden. He was looking into the eye of the Beast, the soul of the Destroyer, the heart of darkness: the Dark Lord, Kaiser.

As he gazed further into the great eye, Jaden could see him at the center of the city, at the top of the Citadel, sitting on the throne of Astrelm. He couldn’t tell if Kaiser knew he was out there, but he could tell he was expecting him.

Jaden pulled himself out of his ethereal vision, rapidly gasping for air. His entire body shivered with fear, having just felt the grasp of the eldritch darkness.

“What did you see? Is Kaiser there?” Kaylah asked.

“Yeah, he’s there,” Jaden answered with grave certainty.

“All right, let’s move!” Revan commanded.

Jaden hesitated to follow their lead, being intimidated by the mass of darkness hanging over the city. In all his years of fighting as an Ark Knight, Jaden had never encountered anything like this. He felt like a kid running from the monsters in his dreams. But Jaden knew that his nightmare was waiting right before his eyes. This was one of the few times in his life that he was completely terrified.

“Don’t worry. It’s going to be fine. Remember, I’ll take care of you,” Astra said softly.

As Astra tenderly held Jaden’s hand, he could feel his knight’s courage quickly return to him.

“I’ll care of you too,” he said with a smile.

The Princess and the Ark Knight followed the others as they made their way towards the land of the Destroyer.

* * *

As most of the army traveled above ground, the Champions led a portion of it into the shadows of the Cosmel Tunnel. The once busy passageway was now littered with cars abandoned by the citizens that fled the city. Water that had leaked from a busted main stretched across the asphalt, carrying a putrid smell throughout the tunnel. They were all on edge as they cautiously traveled down this river of the damned deep into the underworld.

“Why couldn’t we stay outside with the others?” Jesse complained.

“We have the best cover down here,” Revan argued.

“I know, but you couldn’t think of a route that didn’t smell like shit?”

“Hey, if you don’t like it, you can just turn around and walk back out.”

“Will you guys keep your voice down,” Kaylah whispered. “We have to stay hidden.” 

“There are probably demons waiting for us right now,” Jaden added.

The team resumed their silence as they continued their trek through the tunnel.

“Wait!” Astra ordered. “Do you hear that?” 

Everyone stopped and listened to an inhuman crackling echo behind them. They then heard the monstrous cry resembling that of a predatory insect closing in on its prey. They could all see the shadows twist and turn like the stream of water below them. That frightening laughter continued to grow louder until they could practically feel it crawling up their spines.

“What the hell is that?” Jesse asked.

Jaden fired an orb of light down the tunnel, revealing a horde of Taloks crawling on the walls. These demonic reptiles folded their mouths open, flashing rows of jagged, yellow teeth. Their obsidian eyes lit up bright red as they prepared to devour their prey.

“Oh my God!” Jesse shouted in horror.

The wave of demons released their sharp wail before charging through the tunnel at ferocious speed. Nearly all the soldiers unloaded their rifles on the horde, while the rest of them used any other weapons or magic at their disposal. But even with all that firepower, none of the army’s attacks seemed to slow them at all.

“Fall back! Fall back!” Revan shouted.

They sprinted through the tunnel while trying to fire back at the monsters chasing them. With a bank of cars blocking the dark road in front of them, the Astreans could barely cover enough ground. This did not impede the demons’ pursuit, as they swiftly hopped across the vehicles.

“AAAHHHH!” Jesse cried out in terror. “OH GOD! OH MY GOD!”

One of the Taloks had tackled him to the floor. The gunslinger struggled to push the creature back as it tried to bite his face off. Suddenly, Kaylah impaled the demon’s head with her spear, soaking Jesse’s face in its ebony blood.

“Come on, let’s go!” she shouted, picking her brother up before they continued sprinting.

Jaden hurled a pulse bomb into the crowd of demons, landing underneath one of the cars below them. He and his allies hurried to the end of the tunnel as the bomb came closer to detonating. The bomb then ignited an explosion that flooded the tunnel with a wave of fire. The flames quickly swallowed the demons and sent the army flying across the pavement. 

The Champions and their forces found themselves outside the tunnel, now filled with flaming cars and the demons’ burning corpses. Jaden briefly laid in the street as he tried to catch my breath.

“Jaden!” Astra shouted, rushing over to help him back up. “Are you okay?” 

“Yeah, but next time, we’re taking the train.” Jaden joked impulsively. “You guys good?”

“We’re fine!” Revan shouted.

The Prince then spoke into his commlink to hear from the other squads. “All units, what’s your position?”

“We’re just outside the Central Ring, your Highness. We await your orders,” answered a Royal Captain. 

“Stand by for now.” Revan ended the transmission and addressed his own squad. “Let’s keep moving!”

Thus, everyone followed his lead as they ventured deeper into the ruined capital. Jaden and Astra stayed close to each other, both of them knowing that brutal ambush was merely a glimpse into Kaiser’s demonic realm.

* * *

The Champions and their squad soon found themselves in Crucis Circle, located on the south side of the Central Ring. From there, they could see the Citadel overlooking the city in all its glory. At the center of the roundabout was a large statue of an angel humbly kneeling in front of an adorned sword. However, they looked up to see a man standing atop the head of the statue. Before he turned around to face them, the Champions already recognized him as the Dark Lord himself.

“Welcome home!” he greeted mockingly.

“Kaiser!” Jaden spouted angrily.

“Do you like what I’ve done with your beloved city? It’s now the center of my new kingdom!”

“It won’t be yours for long!” Astra declared. “Your reign ends tonight!”

“On the contrary, my dear Princess… it’s only just begun!”

Kaiser snapped his fingers, and a colossal shadow soared from the Citadel. The living darkness swirled around the castle and took the form of a horned beast with three golden eyes and a mane of black flames. The spirit of Zadon had appeared once more. The demonic spirit let out a roar that caused the entire city to shake. From the Destroyer’s dark shape, a shower of black meteors came raining down to the city.

The impact leveled dozens of buildings throughout Newtown while also creating a field of dark craters in the streets. Flaming towers emerged across the city, and the roads became consumed in a sea of red light. Kaiser had once again turned the entire capital into his own cathedral of chaos.

From the craters scattered throughout the city, countless demons emerged in a wild stampede. The Destroyer had used his energy to gather them all and summon them at once. Jaden could sense thousands of monsters filling the streets as they homed in on them.

“I have another surprise for you,” Kaiser added.

Behind him, the shadow of Zadon disappeared, and a column of red light took its place around the Citadel. He had created a barrier of dark magic like the one he destroyed two years prior.

“What the hell is that?” Revan exclaimed.

“Do you like it? It’s smaller than the old one, but it’s fueled by my power. I’ll await you all inside. That is unless you can get in!”

In a fit of rage, Revan blasted Kaiser from below. But to everyone’s surprise, the Dark Lord vanished in a puff of black smoke. He had forged a clone like he did in Ventasia to taunt them all.

“Damn it! That wasn’t him!” Revan exclaimed, practically fuming as he shouted into his earpiece. “All units advance! Tear down that wall!”

“Roger that!” Rex responded. “Alright, let’s move in!”

On his command, Rex and his platoon marched into the Central Ring, just as all the other allied soldiers did. Since the rubble that once blocked the gates had been cleared by the Empire, the Astrean army poured into the city with ease. 

Likewise, every airship waiting outside the Outer Wall took to the skies once more. They all soared across the Capital Fields at full speed, ready to unleash fiery death on the like iron-clad valkyries.

Back inside the city, Jaden could sense the throngs of demons quickly approaching him and his allies. Their combined energies were so massive, it made the hairs on the back of his neck flare up. Though most of the city was on fire, the air around him chilled him to the bone.

“Guys, we got company!” he announced.

“Must be the welcoming party,” said Darek.

The Champions had their weapons on hand as they prepared for the worst. Everyone else was shaking in their boots as they heard savage screams echo across the city.

“Stand your ground!” Revan commanded.

The soldiers all anxiously waited with their assault rifles pointed outward. Jesse instinctively cocked his pistols, his fingers itching to pull the triggers. The moment they saw the horde of Taloks and Gorloks in front of them, Revan shouted, “Fire!”

They unleashed anything they could throw at the demons. Jaden, Astra, and Revan blasted them from afar while Jesse and the other soldiers shot them with their rifles. A hail of bullets and blasts raced across the streets, taking down hundreds of demons with each second. But no matter how many of them they shot down, more just climbed over their mangled corpses.

“Damn it, there’s too many of them!” Jesse shouted.

“Air units, we need more fire!” Revan ordered.

“Roger, your Highness. We’re sending it now.” 

The airships flew in and sent their missiles into the wave of demons, obliterating them all in a fiery blitz. The cavalry then set their sights on the Citadel, launching rockets and firing rotary guns at the Destroyer’s barrier. Meanwhile, some of the men below even used mortars and bazookas to break through the red wall. The sky was instantly ravaged by a tower of smoke and fire, but the Citadel remained unscathed.

“Nothing’s working! That shield is too strong!” Ramon said through his communicator. 

“There’s has to be something that can break through!” Revan argued.

“What if we call the Aeons?” Jaden proposed before turning to Astra. “Could they pierce it?”

“They might,” she responded. “But it’ll take some time to summon them all.”

“How much time?” Revan asked.

The Champions saw another wave of demons filling the streets, with their wild tempest looming closer with each passing second. With little time to come up with an answer, Astra simply said, “As long as it takes.” 

“Then let’s make the most out of it,” Darek said.

With that objective in mind, Revan walked in front, drew his sword out towards the heavens, and shouted, “For the glory of Aeos!”

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