A Balance of Terror
July 19th, 2019 AE, 9:36 AM
Jaden found himself waking up cuffed to a metal chair in the middle of a dark room. The only source of light was a small lamp beating down on him from above. For a second, he thought he was about to be cut open and experimented on due to his power. But he then noticed Kaiser was right in front of him, sitting silently in the dark like the Boogeyman. There was no one in the room but him and Jaden.
“Did you sleep well?” Kaiser asked mockingly. His foreboding voice filtered through his mask like a cloud of static.
“Where am I?” Jaden asked in a daze. “Where are my friends?”
“You’ll be happy to hear that they’re safe…for now.”
Jaden tried to break himself out of his bonds, but he couldn’t. His body was so weak and drained of strength, it felt like he was trapped beneath a mountain.
“I’m impressed you were able to elude us for all these years. I made sure to wipe out every last Ark Knight on this planet. Why is it that out of all of them, only you survived?”
“Believe me, I keep asking myself the same thing.”
Unbeknownst to Jaden, behind the mask of cold, black steel, the Dark Lord was surprised by the Ark Knight’s response.
“I expected you to be more like your father,” Kaiser admitted. “But now, I see that you and I aren’t so different.”
“At least I’m not a monster hiding behind a mask.”
The Dark Lord took off his mask to reveal the hollow shape underneath. Long, white hair flowed down from his head like snow, veiling a pale, ghoulish visage. His yellow eyes, which shined like a solar eclipse, pierced through Jaden’s soul with their icy stare. He was looking at the ghost of a man long forgotten. The shadow of a knight that fell in the fires of war and lost in the ashes of time.
“I’m not the only one who’s hiding. Like your father, we both chose to serve the gods and protect humanity in secret. We both fought their wars, and we both suffered dearly. The only difference is that I escaped that fate. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you fight, those people out there, they’ll continue to destroy each other. Why bother?”
“Because it’s the right thing to do.”
“Wake up! Those morals that you follow, they were only made so humanity could survive, and they change to how people see fit. Civilization is solely built on survival, and it’s nearly destroyed itself time and time again, and for what? The truth is that there is no justice. There’s only survival of the fittest, and the two of us, we’re the strongest.”
Kaiser softly grabbed Jaden by the neck, and the mere touch of his leather glove gave him seismic chills.
“I could destroy you right now, but I’m offering you the chance to be free. Join me, and together we can rule this world. We can usher in a new one…or we could destroy it. We could continue fighting each other, lead our armies into battle and cause the deaths of countless innocent lives until we’re all dead. Is that what you want?!”
Jaden just sat there in silence, unable to come up with a response. He was left wondering whether or not Kaiser was right. Was there any point in fighting in this war?
“Hhmpf,” Kaiser shrugged. “No matter what your answer is, you will tell me where the Stars are hidden?”
“You think you can break me and get me to talk?” Jaden asked. “Trust me, I can take it.”
“Oh, I believe you. But I still want to see you try.”
Kaiser held his hand over Jaden’s face, and a cloud of black energy filled his gaze. He then started gasping for air, as it felt like he was drowning in darkness. He could feel it filling up his lungs as it immediately took his breath away. Slowly but surely, Kaiser was sapping the strength right out of his body. As Jaden struggled to endure the pain, he let out a blood-curdling shout that echoed through the chamber.
* * *
After what felt like an eternity, Jaden was thrown into a cramped, octagonal room bathed in an eerie red light. There was no way to see the outside, but the walls were lined with small cameras watching his every move. As Jaden fought to stay conscious, he saw that Astra and the other Champions were sitting there with him. He also noticed that Darek’s metal arm and Revan’s armor were gone.
“Jaden!” she said before rushing over to him.
“Astra?! Where are we?” he asked in a daze. “What happened to you guys?!”
“We’re in the Imperial Capital, just beneath the royal palace,” Darek answered. “While you were out, they took all our gear and put us in this cell. We’ve been stuck here for hours.”
“Not for long! I got this!” Jaden declared.
Jaden backed away a few steps, focused all of his strength into his leg, and released a hard kick onto the door. Although, he merely succeeding in kicking himself onto the floor. Not the most graceful moment in his life.
“What the hell was that?!” Darek asked, dumbfounded.
“I don’t know,” Jaden answered. The Ark Knight tried firing a blast at the door, but nothing happened. He couldn’t even conjure up any of his weapons. It was like an invisible wall got in between him and my energy. “My powers are gone!”
“This room must be suppressing them somehow,” Revan suggested. “Up there!”
The Champions looked up to see a large, black device resembling a chandelier emanating the red light around them. Jaden felt like they were all test subjects being observed under a bleeding lamp.
“That must be a magical energy disruptor,” Jaden said. “It feels like it’s being powered by Kaiser’s energy.”
“Great, so we’re stuck here! Locked in another cage!” Darek exclaimed, pounding on the wall in a violent rage. His claustrophobia had kicked in long before Jaden joined them, but it finally reached its breaking point.
“I can’t believe the Empire caught us! How did they even know where we were?” the Ark Knight asked.
“Didn’t you already know?” Revan scolded. “Halldor put a tracking device on your key, so you brought them right to us, just like I knew you would!”
“Revan, stop it!” Astra demanded.
“No… he’s right,” Jaden said, surprising everyone. “This is my fault! I let us fall into the Empire’s trap, and now look where we are!”
As Jaden slowly drifted deep into his own shame, Astra put her hand on his shoulder and spoke.
“Jaden, it’s not your fault! You shouldn’t blame yourself!”
“But it is! It always is! I never should’ve joined you guys in the first place!” Shoving her hand aside, Jaden moved to the other side of the room, separating himself from his friends.
“This is about your uncle, isn’t it?” she asked, kneeling down in front of him. “Jaden, you didn’t kill your uncle. You’re not responsible for what happened to him.”
“That’s not entirely true. I didn’t tell you the whole story.” He was struggling to find the will to keep talking. He nearly choked from holding the words down in his throat. It was like he was trapped in his bed with his aunt and uncle all over again. And with Astra and the others waiting for him to speak, he knew there was no way out.
“Before my uncle died…we were training together outside like we always did, only this time I was losing.”
Jaden remembered that session all too well. In most of his sessions, he was so strong and skilled, he had to hold back so his uncle could actually spar with him. But for some reason, his body was failing him that day. Jaden felt so weak and exhausted that he couldn’t keep up with his uncle. It felt like something was backed up inside him.
“I was so frustrated with myself, and I was worried that for the first time, I might lose. That’s when I lost it. With all of my energy built up inside me, I let it all out on him.”
The power Jaden released swept Michael off of his feet and into the house. It was so massive that their whole backyard was covered in a wave of blue light. All the energy that had accumulated within Jaden’s body was released all at once. He had summoned the Astral Force for the first time. However, he was too shocked to even notice, as he feared for his uncle’s life.
“Luckily, my uncle didn’t get hurt, but the entire village saw the blast.”
Everyone in the neighborhood turned their heads towards their house as an explosion of magic shot into the sky. As he helped his uncle back up, Jaden saw that dozens of bystanders gathered around his home, all staring at him. He and his family were so worried, they spent the rest of the afternoon hiding in their house. Unfortunately, a few neighbors came over with questions, which Michael and Lara somehow dealt with.
As they did that, Jaden was hiding in his room, fearing what would happen next. He was worried that everyone in his village would figure out who and what he really was. He expected all of them to start calling him a freak or a monster the next day. He just laid there in that gap between his bed and the wall, quietly waiting for that day to come.
“It wasn’t long before the Empire noticed it either,” Jaden continued. “Later that day, Halldor and his men showed up on our doorstep looking for me, and my uncle paid the price for what I did. My aunt didn’t blame me for what happened to him, but I know I was responsible for his death.”
All of the guilt and shame Jaden lived with for the past two years rose up at all once. The morning after his uncle’s murder, the rest of the village was caught up in a sea of gloom and confusion. No one knew what would happen next, but everyone knew that nothing was ever going to be the same. In a way, Jaden had experienced the attack of Newtown twice.
About a week later was his uncle’s funeral, and everyone from the village came. All of Jaden’s classmates, including those who made fun of him, came and gave their condolences. They said things like, “I know how you feel,” and “It’ll get better eventually.” In reality, no one could truly understand how he felt.
Jaden had just graduated from high school, and his aunt and uncle were planning for him to stay and help out on the farm. Even though they couldn’t afford a college education, Jaden still wanted to leave his village and see the world. He longed to find out who he wanted to be, but after that fateful day, he just felt lost.
While Jaden did drive the Empire away, he knew that they would keep hunting him down. He couldn’t dare to drag anyone else into that again, especially not his aunt. The decision he ultimately made broke both of their hearts.
“After that, I knew I had to leave my village…for everyone’s sake. If it wasn’t for me and my powers, my uncle would still be alive right now. No matter what I do, someone will always get hurt. All my life, I’ve let everybody down, and that still hasn’t changed. I shouldn’t even be near you all. We’d all be better off if I was alone. In fact, that’s what I probably deserve.”
Looking away, Jaden desperately tried to hold back the stream of tears welling up inside him. Everyone else in the cell just stared at the Ark Knight, wide-eyed with shock. Even Revan was astonished, not by how tragic his story was, but by how much he shared his suffering.
For a few painful moments, none of them knew how to respond to Jaden. A part of him actually feared how they would react. But to his surprise, Astra held him close, and he became buried in her warm embrace. She then held his face softly, looking into his eyes with a solemn resolve.
“I’m not leaving you behind,” she said, softly but firmly. “No matter what happens, I’ll always be by your side. We all will, right?”
“Of course,” Jesse added. “We’re here for you, Jaden. Always.”
Astra continued to hold Jaden in her arms, and he just sat there completely stunned. Even after being trapped in that prison cell, it was only until that moment that his world finally shrank.
The Ark Knight could hardly believe how they all showed him such kindness and understanding. He didn’t know anyone besides his aunt and uncle who were so forgiving. And yet, after bringing death to his family, he felt could never forgive himself.
Suddenly, the cell door opened with a group of Centurions on the other side, all aiming their guns at the Champions.
“Get up! You’re expected in the main hall!” one of them ordered.
* * *
As the Champions were escorted down the cold, metal hallways, they caught glimpses of the Empire’s latest projects. They saw scientists developing new weapons, armor, mechs; they were even experimenting on demons, siphoning the energy from their bodies as they floated in green tanks.
They even saw them working on one of their Promethean androids, which was left with one arm. Darek had encountered this one back in Argos, and he looked at this hollow, robotic shell as he walked by. The mechanical man noticed Darek’s gaze, and it stared back at him with its soulless blue eyes.
The Champions eventually entered the palace throne room. The ceiling above them was decorated with the Tree of Life, a hexagonal diagram depicting the symbols of the gods at each vertex. At the far end of the room stood a large, imposing chair with white light pouring in from the window behind it. The person sitting on it was none other than Emperor Alderic.
Dressed in his royal white vestments, the Emperor leered at Jaden with his one good eye, while the other seemed to peer into his soul like a microscope. The sight of him made Jaden think of a rotting tree infecting everything with decay through his root-like fingers. The Ark Knight immediately knew they were walking into their trial. The Champions just silently stared at each other for a few seconds until the Emperor spoke up.
“So…after all those years of hunting you down, I finally have you! The last Ark Knight. I must admit, I thought you’d be a lot older.”
“That’s funny. I thought you’d be a lot taller,” Jaden said in a deadpan manner.
Though he didn’t care for his rude remark, the Emperor simply scoffed at the brat in front of him. “Impudent, just like your father.”
“So you knew my father, too?”
“How could I forget? After all, he was the one that took my eye! I was hoping to kill him myself, but instead, the son will pay for his father’s sins.” Alderic flenched his fist, and his ring shined with its blood-red stone.
“Look, if you want me, that’s fine! But my friends have nothing to do with this, so let them go!”
“You’re in no position to make demands! Besides, this is about more than just vengeance. You’re all enemies of the Nova Empire, and now is the time for you all to face judgment!”
“So what now? You’re just gonna kill us?”
“Oh, no, no, no, no! Not yet. I have something else planned especially for you! You’re going to help me claim the First Star!”
“And why would I do that?” Jaden asked, confused. “You already have both of the keys.”
“It’s not that simple,” he stated. “In order to claim the power of the goddess, Azura, one must offer her a sacrifice. They must achieve victory in battle so they may prove they’re worthy of her divine grace.”
“Okay, and just who would I be fighting?”
Seemingly on cue, Jaden heard footsteps coming from the other side of the room. He and his friends turned to see Kaiser and his Death Riders from the corner. The Dark Lord was no longer wearing his demonic mask, but his eagle-eyed gaze cut through Jaden’s heart like a pike. The other Champions were stunned to see Kaiser’s real face, although they never imagined him ever having one. Only an empty, black shape with red eyes ever came to mind.
“You will fight Lord Kaiser, and you will die by his hands. That is your sentence.”
Jaden’s eyes widened as he realized the actual horror of his situation, as did the rest of his team. Astra could no longer stand by and silently watch the Empire endanger one of her subjects.
“Emperor Alderic, please! There has to be another way we can settle this!”
“No.” Jaden put his hand on Astra’s shoulder, interrupting her as she pled for mercy. He knew it was a bad idea in the back of his head, but he didn’t care. He turned back towards the Emperor, locked eyes with him, and said, “I accept your trial!”
The Emperor grinned maliciously at his response, while Jaden’s friends were left in fearful shock.
“On one condition!” he added. “You must promise that no harm will come to any of my friends.”
“Fine. They’ll at least have the honor of watching you suffer!” Alderic grinned maliciously, contorting his wrinkled face into a jagged glare. Even his dead eye appeared to be laughing at him.
Jaden looked back at the Dark Lord: the man who singlehandedly decimated an entire city, the fallen Ark Knight that wiped out his own people, and the order he once served. With that thought hovering over him, Jaden wondered what he had just gotten himself into.
* * *
The Champions waited inside one of the palace’s chambers, where the Ark Knight slowly prepared himself for the fight of his life. The room was lavish and large, but it was filled with a grey, bleak atmosphere. To Jaden, it felt like they were trapped in the world’s fanciest dungeon.
“What the hell were you thinking?!” Astra shouted angrily.
“I’m sorry, but I didn’t have a choice!” Jaden responded. “If I backed down, they would’ve killed you all!”
“That’s why I was trying to make a new deal!”
Both of them sighed with frustration as they slowly accepted the fate that Jaden had chosen.
“Well, I can’t turn back now! I’m gonna have to fight him!”
“Jaden, Kaiser’s the strongest warrior on the planet! And he won’t stop until you’re dead!”
“Then I’ll at least get the chance to see how he lives up to the title.”
“I don’t think you understand just how powerful he is,” Revan said to him.
“Do you?” Darek asked. “Honestly, I don’t think any of us has ever seen Kaiser’s true power. I mean, who knows what this guy is capable of?”
“Yeah,” Jesse added. “Don’t get me wrong, Jaden, we’ve all seen how amazing your power is. But going up against Kaiser’s, it seems an uphill battle, right?”
“Well, can any of you at least tell me anything about how he fights?” Jaden asked them.
“Not much,” Astra answered. “I’ve only ever heard stories about his powers, but I thought that’s all they were. Only a few soldiers have ever fought against him and lived to tell the tale. They go on and on about the things he can do, claiming that he’s some demon that steals people’s souls. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what he is.”
Jaden was so shocked to hear these horrifying stories, he could feel his heart sink down from his chest.
“Well, they might actually be true,” he clarified. “When Kaiser tortured me, he used some sort of black magic on me. I’m not sure what it was, but it felt like what the Astral Sword did to me when I first took it. I could feel myself being dragged into this black pit as everything just.… slipped away. It was like he was sucking the life out of me, stealing my energy until there was nothing left.”
Nothing but darkness.
“So that means you can’t hold back on him at all,” said Revan.
“Thanks for the heads up, Astra,” said Jaden.
“My pleasure,” she responded. “Although I wish I could do more. In fact, I should be the one fighting against Kaiser. If only I can use the power inside me, we could’ve avoided all this. Without them, I’m no real help to anyone.”
“Don’t say that!” shouted Kaylah, rising up from her seat. She approached the Princess, grabbed her by the arms, and locked eyes with her. “Astra, you’re an inspiration to everyone in Astrelm. Every day, I’ve seen you risk your life to protect us all. But you don’t just save people; you made us all want to fight alongside you. You’ve helped us all more than you could even imagine.”
Everyone was surprised by Kaylah’s sudden outburst. Even Jesse had never heard his sister talk with such passion.
“Thank you, Kaylah,” responded Astra. “But as long as this power stays hidden, all that fighting will never stop.”
“I’m sure it’ll come to you soon,” said Kaylah. “You just gotta have faith in yourself.”
“I’ll try, but do you think you have anything else you that can help me?”
“Well, whenever I’m worried on the front lines, I think about my brother. Even when I’m with everyone else, he’s always the one person who I keep fighting for. So just think, out of everyone in the world, who do you want to protect the most?”
For a moment, the Princess was rooting through all the names she could think of. Even though she has known countless people all over Astrelm, she was only close to a select few, including her family. After years of struggling to protect an entire nation of people, Astra realized she had hardly any friends amongst them. But as Astra was trying to find her answer, her dazzling eyes glanced at Jaden.
Her answer was interrupted when a team of Promethean soldiers barged into the room. The Imperials surrounded the Champions with their guns as their leader, Lok, approached them.
“It’s time!” he announced.
Jaden looked back at Astra one last time before leaving her. She merely stayed behind, like she was frozen in fear, unable to do anything but watch. One of the androids jabbed her with its rifle, taking her out of her trance.
“It’s time! Move it,” Lok ordered.
Astra brushed the gun aside and began moving along as the soldiers followed. Even in her darkest moments, she never let herself get pushed around while still maintaining her regal composure. Even when they were walking down death row.