The Hollow Men
July 18th, 2019 AE, 6:24 PM
Jaden spent the past day recovering in Darek’s garage, with his pendant back hanging from his neck. Darek had closed his bar for the day so the Champions could relax and prepare for their next mission. Kaylah stayed with Jaden to tend to his wounds, and Jesse helped Darek organize his supplies. This gave him time to make the last few repairs to Jaden’s motorcycle. Astra and Revan delivered the Star of Iblis to their father after they left the mines, and the King was ecstatic when he saw it. The Ark Knight was speaking to him through a video chat on his phone as Kaylah rubbed cooling medicine on his left arm.
“Terrific job in obtaining the crystal!” King Ramon said.
“Thanks, your Highness,” Jaden responded. “Has Astra had any luck using it?”
“I’m afraid not. She’s tried everything she can think of, but nothing’s worked. I wish there was more I could do for her.”
“Yeah, I do to.” Jaden had a sense of what Astra was going through. Even though he was the one in control of their powers, he knew how frustrating it was to not be able protect those he cared about.
“So what’s our next move, then?” Jaden asked.
“Well, we know the last temple is in Ventasia, but the city’s is under the Empire’s control, so we don’t know how we’ll reach it yet. Revan and Astra are interrogating those soldiers they brought in. They’ll let you know if they learn anything. Meanwhile, all of you deserve a break after all you’ve done. You all get some rest now.”
“Thank you. We will.”
Ramon’s head vanished as he ended the call, leaving Jaden alone with Kaylah
“Do you really think you’re up for another mission?” she asked him. “Your body’s still suffering from some internal strain.”
“Don’t worry about me. I can handle it.” he assured.
“Are you sure? Because we’re planning on walking straight into imperial territory, and after what happened yesterday, do we really know what we’re up against?”
The Ark Knight just sat there in silence, thinking about the kind of the threat they would have to face next. Even with the Astral Force, was he strong enough to keep fighting?
Kaylah finished applying her medicine, and the large cut branded on his arm had completely vanished.
“Look, I know that deep down, you want to keep us safe, but I still don’t want to see you get hurt. My brother’s been the same way, ever since he was little. Growing up, we didn’t have any parents, so we only had each other. He always tried to take care of him, but I was really the one taking care of him. I hate having to see anyone get hurt. I just don’t want you to push yourself too far.”
It was at that point that she put her hand on Jaden’s thigh. He was so caught up in the conversation, he barely had time to think about it. He was just glad that Jesse couldn’t see what his sister was doing. Either way, Kaylah didn’t care. For most of her life, she had pushed aside pursuing romance and focused on herself and her brother. But after pouring out her loving heart for so long, now more than ever, she craved something in return.
“Just remember, if you ever hurt, if you ever need my help, I’ll always be there for you.”
As they sat there smiling at each other, Jaden felt that warm connection Kaylah had wanted for for so long. He didn’t feel this way with anyone except with Astra, but it still felt different somehow.
“Hey, I’m feeling a lot better now, in case you’re wondering!” Darek announced sarcastically.
“Shouldn’t you be fixing my bike!” Jaden asked jokingly.
“Hey, I’m almost done!”
Astra suddenly burst into the room, nearly out of breath and visibly worried.
“Guys, we got trouble!” she announced.
“Astra, what’s going on?” Jaden asked.
“They found us! I don’t know how but they found us!”
“The Empire!” Revan had just walked in anxiously. “Those soldiers we captured helped us access their hidden radio network, and we listened in on their transmissions…”
“They know where you are! They’re coming here right now!”
“Oh God!” Jesse exclaimed.
It was at that moment that everyone scattered around the room, gathering everything they needed to keep and hide from the Empire. Jaden put his jacket on and grabbed his two swords. Meanwhile, everyone else picked up their weapons and the rest of their gear. The Champions then gathered around each other and Revan took out his Stargate Crystal and held it up high.
“Teleport! Sanctuary!” he chanted.
After a few seconds of waiting in silence, nothing happened.
“What’s going on?! Why aren’t we teleporting?!” Kaylah asked frantically.
“They must be jamming our signal!”
“Ugh! These things never work when you need them!” Jaden exclaimed.
“Dammit, this is all your fault!” Revan shouted at him.
“How the hell is this my fault?!”
“You led the Empire straight to us!”
“What makes you think I did this?!”
“Everything was going just fine until you came around! We never should have trusted you!”
“Hey! You never would’ve never gotten this far if it wasn’t for me! I did the job that you couldn’t do!”
Astra got in between them and angrily yelled into their faces. “Will you two shut up and help us before the Empire gets here?!”
And speak of the Devil, the door behind them burst open and they were cornered by six Imperial soldiers armed with guns. While Centurions typical wore white armor with black suits underneath, these soldiers were completely covered in metal plating, all while wearing helmets with glowing blue eyes. But what stood out the most to Jaden was their energy. The Ark Knight couldn’t sense it at all. While they looked human, it didn’t seem like they were even alive, like they had no hearts.
“Put your hands up!” one Imperial commanded. “You are all under arrest by order of Emperor Alderic!”
“While I’m flattered he wants to see me so badly, I’m gonna have to say ‘no’ to that,” Jaden quipped.
“What are you doing?” Astra whispered.
“Stalling,” he answered.
“Is that really your master plan?” Revan asked disgruntled.
“You got any better ideas, your Highness? I am ears!” Jaden countered.
“SILENCE!” the Imperial spouted. “Surrender yourself now, or we will have to take you by force!”
“Sorry, but I’d rather have neither!”
Jaden quickly used his hookshot to yank one of their rifles away before blasting them down. The other Imperials opened fire on the Champions, but Jaden and Revan used their shields to protect them all. Revan blasted two of them while Jesse shot the other two back.
Darek let out a war cry as he charged towards them with his mighty sword. But a small EMP from one of the gunmen sent him falling to the floor, completely paralyzed. In his place, Revan ferociously ran in with his sword, but the soldier surprisingly dodged his attack. The Prince even failed to fire a blast at them, instead toppling a rack of weapons across the room. The soldier retaliated by grabbing his arm and bashing his face into the floor.
Astra jumped to take on her brother’s opponent, while the rest of the Champions each took on an Imperial soldier. Darek still struggled to move his limbs as the static surged through his body. Even his bionic arm had gone limp after short-circuiting from the attack.
He was completely vulnerable as an Imperial was about to shoot him. However, Jaden rushed over and sent the soldier flying into the wall with a single punch.
“You okay?” he asked Darek, who simply nodded in response.
Suddenly, the Imperial rose back and pulled Jaden away from him. The Ark Knight instinctively drew his swords as they came at him with one their own.
Just next to him, Astra was still fighting against her opponent. Though she and Jaden held their own against them, the Princess was struggling to push the Imperial back. Her adversary caught her off guard with such startling speed, she was nearly dealt a grievous blow. But to her surprise, a beam of energy past her and blasted her assailant into the wall.
“Stay out of this! I can’t have you getting captured!” Revan said angrily.
“You’re welcome!” she said irritated.
As Revan took on two of the soldiers, Astra turned towards Jaden, who was now barely holding up against his foe. The force put into their attacks was so overwhelming, the Imperial drove Jaden up against a wall, ready to stab him with a knife. Fortunately, Astra rushed over just in time and punched them in the face before throwing them to the ground.
Meanwhile, Jesse and Kaylah were battling two Imperial swordsmen on the other side of the room. Though his sister tripped one of them with her spear, Jesse was punched to the floor by his opponent.
“Jesse!” Kaylah shouted, seeing her brother clutching his bruised stomach.
The second soldier quickly disarmed Kaylah with incredible strength. The Imperial then swept her legs and forced her to the ground. They then cocked their pistol and aimed it at her frightened head. Before they could pull the trigger, Darek came up and slashed their arm off before slamming them across the floor. As he helped Kaylah back up, he looked down at the arm and saw that there was no blood pouring out. To his shock, he saw that it was filled with metal bones and wire veins.
The one-armed soldier suddenly sprung back to life and lunged at Darek. But before it could grab him, Jesse impaled its head with his katana, causing it to bleed out a wave of sparks.
“What the hell?” Jesse uttered.
“Get down!” Darek shouted, grabbing Jesse and Kaylah by the collar.
The trio hit the floor as two fallen soldiers shot at them. Jesse fired back at them, but none of his shots pierced their armor. They continued to take heavy fire, but Darek blocked the bullets using the wooden table next to them.
Revan saw the three of them in danger, but he was held against the wall by two Imperials. Their combined strength was too much for even the Prince and his magic armor to withstand. As one of the soldiers held his torso, the other tried to drive a knife into his skull. Revan used his one free hand to hold back the blade, but it edged closer and closer to his skin. In the spur of the moment, he drove his foot into the Imperial’s bionic leg. He then blasted them away before driving his sword into the soldier behind him. Though the one in front of him tried shoot him, Jaden came in an drove his sword into their torso.
Jaden then destroyed the two others shooters each with a single blast. While he saved the other Champions, the Imperial that Astra punched got back up to shoot Jaden. In an instant, Kaylah hurled her spear across the room, nailing their cybernetic head to the wall. The soldier let out strings of sparks before the light of their blue eyes finally faded. With the last of their enemies defeated, the Champions took a moment to process the madness that just unfolded.
“What the hell were those things?” Jesse asked. “I’ve never seen anything like them!”
“They’re Promethean soldiers,” Revan answered. “The Empire’s been developing these things for years, but I didn’t think they’d finish so soon. They’re androids designed to be the perfect soldiers, and they certainly live up to their purpose.”
“But why couldn’t I sense them?” Jaden asked. “I should’ve felt before they came in here!”
“Wait!” Astra added. “If these things are machines, then they can’t be sensed, right?”
“Are you kidding me?!” Darek asked aloud. “So they’re undetectable?”
Until then, Jaden believed he had the Empire figured out after fighting them for so longer. He knew they always had at least one trick up their sleeve, yet he had seen them so many times before, he thought he could predict them all. Unfortunately, Jaden had forgotten exactly who they were. In just over a decade, the Empire had transformed into the greatest superpower on the planet. They had access to powers that were either lost in time or twisted dreams made real. They seemed to be molding new weapons out from the abyss itself, and Jaden didn’t wish to see more.
But just like that, the Champions were startled by a sudden commotion outside the building. They all heard the sound of Imperial trucks come to a screeching halt.
“Not entirely,” Jaden answered.
* * *
Citizens fled into their homes as the enemy marched through the streets. An army of Prometheans came pouring out of armored trucks in front of the tavern, surrounding the building on all sides. Above these soldiers, a fleet of Imperial airships shined their spotlights down on the building. Leading them all was a massive, whale-shaped carrier, which hovered above the city, blotting out the moon.
Back in the garage, the Champions listened to the Empire marching outside. They were struck with fear as almost certain death was about to barge in and take them all.
“Oh shit! What are we gonna do?!” Jesse asked fearfully.
“Everyone get in the Knight Raider!” Revan ordered, pointing to the armored vehicle sitting next to him. Everyone ran up to it and started loading up their weapons.
“Wait! There’s not enough room for all of us!” Kaylah noted.
Jaden’s mind was racing faster than a bullet train, as they struggled to figure out how they can all escape. The Raider had room for four people, but it couldn’t fit all six of them. Just when he thought the plan was a bust, Jaden promptly found a solution.
“Darek! Is my bike good enough to drive?” he asked.
“Uh, yeah, but the engine’s still kinda lagging.”
“I’ll take it!” Jaden scrounged through the toolbox next to his bike as his plan continued to form. He gathered some tools for himself before I finally found the key. “Trust me, I have an idea!”
* * *
The Prometheans broke down the front door and poured into the bar, now drenched with darkness. They shined their flashlights into the room as they slowly swept the place. The hardwood floor creaked with each step, yet the androids remained fearless and focused on finding their targets.
They eventually entered the garage, which was also completely dark. Their lights shimmered off the racks of numerous blades as they searched through the workshop. Unbeknownst to them, a faint ticking whispered through the air. Just as they had reached the far end of the room, with a final tick, a piercing alarm went off that spooked them all. They fired their guns at its source: a simple kitchen timer taken from Darek’s toolbox.
With the Prometheans distracted, Jaden fired an energy blast that blew the garage door open. The explosion forced the Imperials to the ground, and the ones outside we nearly swept off their feet. They could hardly see through the thick veil of smoke that filled the air.
Suddenly, a pair of engines roared as a single headlight opened its gaze. With Astra holding on tight, Jaden raced his bike outside amidst the confusion, avoiding the bullets fired at them. Right behind them, Revan drove the Raider with the remaining Champions inside.
Jaden rode out onto the street behind the building, passing two Imperial trucks blocking the way. The Raider behind him rammed the trucks out of the way and stayed on their tail. One of the few Centurions waiting outside frantically spoke into his transceiver, linking himself to his other comrades.
“The fugitives have escaped! They just drove past us!”
“Roger, we’re in pursuit!”
* * *
The Ark Knight sped down the street on his metal steed with the wind blowing against him. Swerving past the cars going up and down the street, he felt like he was swept up in a raging river. The others Champions stayed close to Jaden and Astra as they kept our convoy going.
They all saw that six Prometheans riding six armored hover bikes were in hot pursuit. Jesse and Kaylah loaded their rifles while Darek had his handgun ready. However, the riders were more focused on capturing Jaden and Astra. They started firing grenades that engulfed the street in front of them.Weaving left and right, Jaden managed to dodge the explosions, but the enemy was converging on them both.
Jesse blew one of bombers off our backs with his revolver, but they were only a backseat passenger. Kaylah fired her sniper rifle at another soldier, sending them flying into the pavement. Darek joined in and shot at the Imperials on both sides of the Raider. While the three of them took out most of the bombers, there was still a pack of riders who turned their attention to them.
The Prometheans started shooting at the Raider, forcing Jesse and Kaylah to duck for cover. In response, Astra took out a pistol and shot at one of the pursuers behind her. Jaden also blasted a Promethean off their bike and into the air. They continued firing at the four remaining Imperials, effectively getting them off their friends’ backs.
Even with the riders gone, an Imperial airship continued to follow them as they raced down the street. As it did, the pilot sent their location to his many friends.
“All units, converge on the Eastern highway!”
In less than a minute, the Champions more Imperial trucks driving down the road in front of them.
“Guys, follow me!” Jaden shouted.
He made a quick turn into the nearest exit, which took them to the adjacent highway, leaving their pursuers in the dust. Just when the Champions had gotten far ahead of their enemies, an Imperial airship caught up and flew in front of them. It had shined a spotlight down on Jaden before firing a hail of bullets through its turret. Luckily, the Ark Knight sped past them before they could hit him.
However, two Imperial trucks drove up onto the highway. They each had a Promethean firing machine guns from the roof and at the Champions. In response, Jaden hurled a pulse grenade towards the truck behind him, which blew up in a blast of blue and red flames.
As he looked in his rearview mirror, he saw that only one truck was on his tail. But to his surprise, a Promethean armed with a bazooka popped out from the roof.
“Holy shit!” he exclaimed, unable to tell who he was going to use it on. But he couldn’t anything about it with the airship chasing him across the road with its bullets.
“Darek, take the wheel!” Revan shouted, immediately giving his seat to him.
He then got in the back of their vehicle and blasted the truck with his gauntlets. The impact caused them to fire their missile into the airship, shooting it down in a destructive blaze. The ship crashed and rolled past them, colliding with the same truck that destroyed it.
Speeding past the rising blaze, seven Promethean riders appeared behind them, armed in black and carrying energized swords. Revan prepared to blast each of them out of their seats. But one of the soldiers pointed his blade at him, firing a EMP from the gun augmented into his blade.
“Gaaahhhh!” The impact blew Revan back into the passenger’s seat, unable to get up. The shell had burrowed deep into his chest plate, fracturing the energy core empowering his body.
“Revan!” Astra shouted.
But before she and Jaden could help, a couple of swordsmen rode up and attacked them both. They each tried to fend them off with their respective blades, but the Prometheans overwhelmed them on both sides.
Two more Imperials climbed on board the Raider, attempting to take everyone out by surprise. Jesse and Kaylah each fought a Promethean with their spear and katana. Unfortunately for them, these mechanized soldiers were quick to evade their attacks. Even with the small space they had to move around in, they easily fought with frightening elegance.
Behind them, the three more androids latched onto the Raider with hookshots. Darek was too busy trying to shoot them down to help his friends behind him. One of the Prometheans drove a buzzsaw blade into the vehicle, sending golden sparks into his face.
At the same time, Kaylah’s opponent forced her onto her back and prepared to shoot her dead. However, Revan recovered enough strength to blast the robot’s clean off its body. The Prince followed that up by blowing Jesse’s opponent into the street. Jesse then cut the bike cables loose from the Raider, letting them float off as they drove away.
Though the Imperial came close to sawing through the door, Revan blasted it off its hinges, forcing the weapon out of his hand. Seizing the opportunity, Darek slammed the Promethean off its bike with his own enormous blade.
While the other Champions had defeated their foes, Jaden and Astra were still fighting the remaining Imperials. Astra struggled to hold back her enemy’s blade, which came ever closer to her.
“Astra!” Jaden shouted, fearfully looking over his shoulder. But he could barely focus as he tried to steer his bike and drive back the other swordsman. Seeing him in peril, Astra managed to fired her gun at the other soldier, causing him to lose their grip on Jaden. The Ark Knight then used his hookshot to latch onto Astra’s opponent and forced him off his bike.
Having finally received an opening, Jaden hit the brakes and slid behind his opponent. Catching him off guard, the Ark Knight fired a wave of light from his Dark Night Sword. The slash cut through the Imperial’s hover bike, causing it to fall off in a fiery crash. He then swerved out of the way as the vehicle tumbled down the street behind them.
“All right,” Jaden exclaimed. “It looks like we’re in the clear!”
But the Ark Knight saw someone standing in the middle of the road, right in front of him. With little time to react, he quickly steered to the right and just missed the pedestrian. As he did, his eyes widened with horror when he saw who it was. Seeing his armored, black clothes, his long, dark cape, and black, skeletal mask, Jaden felt that time itself was slowing down. He knew it was him. It was Kaiser.
As he slid past the Dark Lord, Jaden lost control of his motorcycle, and he had to drive the Astral Sword into the pavement in order to stop. His blade sent sparks flying from the street as his bike came to a screeching halt. The other Champions weren’t so lucky, as Kaiser simply kicked the Raider into the side of the road like a toy ball. He then turned around and stared at Jaden and Astra, who were both petrified by the sight of him. The Dark Lord just stood there as his cape flared up like a dragon’s wings.
“Stay here,” Jaden said to Astra.
He got off his bike and took both of his swords out, bracing himself for the absolute worst. Even though Kaiser was about ten yards away, he was too afraid to get any closer. He could feel a cloud of dark energy emanating from him that gave off a freezing chill. It was like his own shadow was looming over Jaden completely.
“The Ark Knight I’ve heard so much about,” he said menacingly. “At last we meet.”
“I only wish it was someplace nicer,” Jaden replied.
Their icy confrontation was interrupted by the screeching sound of Imperial sirens. A fleet of trucks came racing down both ends of the street, surrounding Kaiser and the Champions. A swarm of airships circled above Jaden, shining their spotlights on him. An entire Promethean army poured from their vehicles, all pointing their machine guns straight at him.
“Is this all you got?!” he asked.
“Aren’t you forgetting someone?” Kaiser asked.
Seemingly at his command, the Death Riders flew down to the Raider in a stream of red light. Each of these dark knights grabbed the four Champions at the sharp end of their blades. Even Revan was quickly overpowered them, as he was too paralyzed to put up a fight.
“No!” Jaden screamed.
Just as he was about to rush over and save them, Lok appeared far behind Jaden and grabbed Astra. He had the Princess in one hand and his saber held out in the other. She and the Death Rider seemingly vanished into thin air as the latter sped over to his master.
Jaden could feel his anger building up inside him along with his energy. He was ready to go all out on all of them.
“If you want to see your friends live, surrender now!” Kaiser ordered.
“You should do what he says!” Lok added. “I don’t think my boys can hold back their swords much longer!”
Lok held Astra tight with his blade at her neck. He was like snake wrapped around her, ready to sink his teeth into her. The look in her eyes cried for help just like they did before, but this time, they were trapped in the Empire’s hand.
Jaden was thinking of a hundred different ways to attack and save his friends. He knew he wasn’t quick enough to reach them before the Death Riders gut them like an Azurean trout. Even if he was fast enough, Kaiser was still standing in his way. Not to mention the army surrounding him, and they would open fire on the Champions the minute they see him react. It was no use. They had him.
With no other options, Jaden cast his swords away before walking towards them with his hands raised up. But instead of handcuffing him, the Prometheans pinned him to the ground and started beating him relentlessly.
“Jaden!” Astra shouted. She and the others Champions watched in horror as the Imperials ganged up on the poor boy.
As they pounded his body out into the pavement, Jaden felt himself suffocate more with each punch. Desperately clinging to consciousness, he stared up at the Dark Lord as he slowly approached him. He sadistically watched Jaden struggle beneath him until he slammed his foot into his head.
With that final blow, Jaden blacked out completely, and his whole world was swallowed by the darkness. His mind sunk into a deep slumber as he was dragged deep into the valley of nightmares.