The Death Riders
July 20th, 2019 AE, 2:27 PM
Jaden carried Astra high above Ventasia, which had been swept up in a wave of fire and destruction. They both watched as Kaiser’s mechanical army marched all over the city, obliterating everything in sight. Jaden could sense hundreds of lives being extinguished each second. But all he could focus on were the screams rising up from the ashes. Astra shielded her eyes in his jacket, unable to bear the chaos down below. Jaden himself could barely watch what was unfolding. He was reliving Newtown all over again.
Every fiber in his being wanted him to fly down there and do something, anything to try to stop the massacre. Jaden couldn’t just let those beasts kill all those poor people, and he could sense that Astra felt the same way. But he was all too aware of how weak he was after his battle with Kaiser. Even after being healed by the Star of Azura, he knew losing the stone was too great a risk. So the Ark Knight just looked away from it all, instead focusing on the skies in front of him.
* * *
After flying through the air for almost ten minutes, Jaden and Astra crash-landed in a wetland several miles away from Ventasia. Combined with a lack of experience, the Ark Knight flew too fast to make a proper landing. But before they hit the ground, Jaden rolled over so he would break their fall. As the Ark Knight shredded across the ground, he kicked up a trail of mud and rain that sprayed them both.
“Are you okay?” Jaden asked.
“I’m fine,” Astra answered.
The Ark Knight struggled to stand up, as the rapid flight took a lot out of him. His body was so wrenched it felt like he went right through a wringer. Wiping the dirt off of his face, Jaden looked around to see that there was no sign of civilization anywhere. They were alone in the wilderness, surrounded only by trees and rain, but not for long.
Jaden sensed the Death Riders flying towards us at an incredible speed, and he knew he didn’t have any strength left for another flight.
“We have to go,” he said. “Kaiser’s men will be here any moment!”
However, Jaden turned around to see Astra hanging her head, not moving at all. He knelt down in front of her to see her face covered with dirt, rain, and tears. This was a princess fallen from grace.
“How did I let this happen?” she asked. “That was…the Destroyer.”
Without sensing that creature’s immense power, Astra already knew what it was: a demon the likes that no human has seen for over two millennia. Kaiser had summoned the spirit of Zadon himself, and it turned the Imperial Army against them all.
“It’s all my fault! I let everyone down!”
Jaden realized she sounded like him when they were trapped in that cell together, like she had given up. In the back of his head, he knew there was no time to lose. He didn’t know what to say, but he had to do something. She was there for him then, so he had to be there for her.
“Astra, you have nothing to be ashamed of. You did everything you could.”
“No, I didn’t! I could’ve stopped this. I couldn’t prevented all of this if I could only use my power! But now it’s too late. Zadon’s returned, and I failed. After everything I’ve done, I couldn’t do anything!”
For ten years, Astra lived with the pressure of being her mother’s successor. But right then and there, all the anger, fear, and sadness was coming out all at once.
Astra broke down crying in Jaden’s arms, and he couldn’t help but stay and hold her. Though every thought in his brain was telling him that they had to run away, his heart wouldn’t let him leave her like this.
As the Ark Knight cradled the weeping Princess, he knew they had to get out of there. He needed to get her spirits back up. Thus, Jaden held her head with both hands, looked her straight in the eye, and said what needed to be said.
“Astra, nothing’s set in stone. We’re both still alive, and we haven’t lost yet. I don’t know if your powers will ever emerge, but promise me you won’t stop fighting! Promise me you won’t give up!”
Though Astra’s heart was still wracked with sorrow, she nodded her head and whispered, “Okay.”
Jaden smiled for her, and they both felt some of their strength return to them. For a moment, the Ark Knight thought they would actually make it out of this storm alive. But suddenly, Jaden felt a disturbance in the air around them, and his smile quickly vanished. The Ark Knight sensed a dark, angry presence spiraling through the sky right above them. The Death Riders flew down from the sky in a stream of red light with their leader, Lok, front and center.
“Can’t you guys give us a break?” Jaden wisecracked.
“Not this time,” Lok responded. “You have no idea how much I longed for this! I already made the mistake of letting you live once. I swear I won’t let it happen again!”
Astra took Jaden’s Dark Night Sword and attempted to strike Lok. But with his dark powers, he merely forced her away like she was a mere bug in his gaze. He blasted her straight into a tree, the sheer impact of it knocking her out cold.
“ASTRA!” Jaden shouted. He grasped her face as he tried to wake her up. No response. “Oh, no, no, no, no, no, God no! Wake up! Astra! Please wake up!”
Jaden worried that the blow to her head might have killed her, but he refused to believe it. She was too strong to let a simple tree be the death of her, let alone a scumbag like Lok. But as each agonizing second passed, Jaden’s fear that he had lost her quickly grew.
Jaden was yanked out of his panic by the sound of Lok’s screaming. As the Death Rider flaunted his dark magic behind him, Jaden’s fear quickly morphed into blind rage.
The Ark Knight turned around to see that Lok had powered up to his limit. His entire body was tainted with a black and red aura gifted to him by Kaiser himself. Even his saber was infused with crimson black energy. Though the other Death Riders prepared their weapons too, Lok motioned them to stop.
Just by looking into his eyes, Jaden knew he wasn’t playing around this time. He looked like Halldor when he ambushed us in Mesadah. His eyes weren’t those of some cold-blooded killer. He was now a bloodthirsty demon dead-set on tearing the Ark Knight apart. Unfortunately for him, Jaden was angry too.
With both hands, Jaden drew the Astral Sword and ignited it with burning, bright light.
“Do you really think you can beat me?” the Death Rider.
Brimming with distilled anger, the Ark Knight said, “You really wanted to fight me? WELL, HERE I AM!”
With that exchange of words, their swords collided in a shining spark of fury. The sound of their blades striking each other rang through the forest like crashing bells. Jaden quickly lashed out at Lok, furiously hoping to rip him apart. However, the Ark Knight wasn’t able to catch up to the Death Rider. In his current state, Jaden could barely even stand up straight.
“Is that all you got?” Lok said mockingly. “Surely, someone like you would’ve been a match for me. But then again, no one can rival gods like us.”
“You’re a bunch of clowns…serving a monster!”
Angered and insulted, Lok punched Jaden hard into the ground. Though Jaden’s face was bruised, Lok’s ego had suffered a much harsher blow.
“I only serve the strongest, and that’s what we are!”
Jaden furiously swung his blade at Lok, but all he sliced through were the trees and rain. The Death Rider was stepping away from Jaden’s attacks like they were nothing, and with each opening, Lok swiftly cut into his opponent’s flesh. Lok’s men watched in cold-blood as their leader tortured Jaden on the battlefield.
“If only I killed you when I had the chance! Show someone a little mercy, and the next thing you know, they think they’re superior!”
Lok capped off that line with a searing punch to the gut. He gleefully watched the Ark Knight roll around in the mud, fighting to get back up.
“With all the power I had, I never thought someone like you would be a match for me. But no matter how many times we take you down, you just keep crawling back for more!”
The Death Rider kicked Jaden in the stomach before he could stand up again. The Ark Knight started coughing up blood, struggling to breathe with each relentless strike.
“I won’t let you make a fool out of me again! You think you can beat death?!”
The Ark Knight rose up to swing his sword at him one last time. But Lok brutally drove his blade into Jaden’s chest, and his breath immediately poured out of it.
Astra gasped with horror as his bloody saber burst through Jaden’s back. Drops of red dripped down with the rain, the sight of which made Lok’s heart race. He bared his jagged teeth like a shark who just caught the scent of its prey. Overwhelmed with sadistic delight, the Death Rider leaned in and whispered into Jaden’s ear.
“You sure as hell can’t beat me!”
He twisted his blade inside Jaden’s torso, causing the pain to coarse through his entire body. Lok viciously grinned as he cried out in agony. The sheer pleasure he found in watching the Ark Knight suffer was the testament of a true killer.
After Lok finally pulled his sword out, Jaden collapsed to the ground with blood pouring onto the grass. He could feel Death’s cold hand about to enact swift judgment on his soul. He was about to share the same fate as his uncle, and yet he wasn’t afraid of his punishment.
With barely enough strength to stand up, Jaden held the Astral Sword tight and stood his ground.
“Oh, you really wanna die, don’t you?!”
For once, Jaden might’ve agreed with Lok. You spend your whole life preparing for death, sooner or later, you start to welcome it. As Lok’s soulless eyes gazed at him, Jaden knew he was staring back into the abyss itself. Only this time, he wasn’t going to shy away from it.
“Astra…go! I’ll hold them off!”
“No, Jaden! Don’t worry about me! I’ll be fine! Save yourself! Run!”
Despite her pleas, Jaden refused to back down. He didn’t care if I was going to die. He wasn’t going to leave her behind.
“Okay, then!” Lok exclaimed.
He pointed his finger at Jaden like it was a gun, and a bullet of red light formed around it. The Ark Knight’s vision began to blur, and the crimson eye of death filled his line of sight. This was the light at the end of the tunnel. He was going to be shot dead. There was no escaping it.
“Let’s get this over with!”
Just as he about to fire, Astra stepped in front and stood in the way of the blast.
Then, in an explosion of pure emotion, a flash of golden light filled the meadow, blowing the Death Riders away. Astra suddenly felt newfound strength surging within her. She was now a golden spirit radiating with divine energy. This was the power of the Goddess Astraea.
“It can’t be,” Lok uttered. He shielded his eyes as they struggled to witness the presence of pure light.
Astra herself was amazed as she looked down at her hands, fully absorbed in the golden power they exuded. “Did I just do that?”
Suddenly, Astra saw Lok speeding towards her like a wild animal. With very little thought, she parried his attack, forcing him back with a dazzling boom.
Realizing the depth of her new power, Astra stood poised and ready to strike back. Thus, for the first time ever, Lok’s eyes had widened with fear.
“Get her!” he ordered.
Two Death Riders ran in with their weapons to shred her down. She parried the first one’s assault, and with a thrust of her hand, she vaporized him into a cloud of golden stardust. She then evaded the other assailant’s blade before sending him to oblivion with her magic. Astra’s divine energy had purged the darkness within them, obliterating her enemies.
A couple more Death Riders flew in with their blades at once. To their surprise, she caught both of their weapons in her hands, stopping them instantly. Tossing them aside, Astra incinerated the two of them in a wave of holy fire.
One more Rider charged in with his spear, which disintegrated on contact with her energized body. She grasped the radical’s head and poured her energy into him. His eyes burned with a blind rage as he madly stared into the face of the crown princess. But then, he just screamed when she obliterated him in a blast of light.
Astra turned to Lok and glared at him with those pearls in her eyes. The Death Rider anxiously backed away from her, having seen her wipe out all of his men. There was no one else standing in between the two of them.
She flew towards him with the speed of a shooting star. He desperately tried to defend against her attacks, but she was too quick. She drove him back as her sword bounced back and forth, slashing through his body in a stream of golden light. The Ark Knight was in awe of her glorious display of strength. Even though his senses were perfectly honed, his eyes could barely keep up with her. Jaden was bearing witness to a goddess dancing across the battlefield.
In mere seconds, she had driven Lok into a corner. With a wave of her hand, she blasted him straight into a tree, causing him to drop his demonic sword. Before he could recover, Astra grabbed him by the throat and pointed her blade towards his chest.
“You wouldn’t dare,” he uttered.
“Try me,” she responded.
She stifled him by tightening her grasp on his neck. She actually got some satisfaction, knowing she finally got the upper hand on him. Even so, Astra struggled to finish him off, as she couldn’t will herself to do so.
Thoughts about all of the thousands of murders he’s committed over the years raced through her mind. She knew that if this monster continued to live, he would continue to terrorize her and her friends until they were all dead. She knew that if she could destroy all of his lackeys in an instant, she could certainly do the same to him. Every part of her body was screaming, Kill him!
Although, as she grew closer to ending his life, Lok merely smiled as the Princess had him by the throat. Even with death staring him right in the face, he seemed to welcome it like it was a sick game.
“Go ahead…” he uttered. “Do it!”
She then realized that killing him was just what he wanted, for her to become the killer, just like him. Despite her better judgment, she lowered her weapon and loosened her grip on him.
“Big mistake!” he shouted.
Seizing this opportunity, Lok blasted her with enough dark magic to send her flying into the mud. The Dark Night Sword flew out of her hand, landing right in front of Jaden. He then picked up his saber and sped towards her like a phantom.
With the last of his strength, Jaden launched himself towards Lok with the Astral Sword in hand. Before he could force his blade into Astra, Jaden swiped it away with his own before driving it right through his chest. Lok’s blood stained the blade’s blue edge behind him. Desperately gasping for air, he was rendered speechless by his shattering defeat.
But with his dying breath, Lok whispered into Jaden’s ear one last threat with a wicked grin—
“I’ll see you in Hell.”
And with those damning words, he vanished in a cloud of demonic, black smoke. The Death Rider died laughing.
Just as the wind blew past him, the last of Jaden’s strength fled his body. With no energy left, he immediately blacked out and collapsed into Astra’s arms.
“Jaden!” she cried out, cradling his mangled torso. “No, no, no, no, no, no, please, Jaden! Wake up! Wake up! Jaden! Please, don’t leave me!”
But it was no use. Jaden’s eyes had fallen shut, and his head hung from his neck. The Ark Knight was no more.
Astra broke out in tears as she held his lifeless body. Just when Astra had finally awakened her hidden powers, she let another person die. But it wasn’t just anyone, but one of the only real friends she ever had. And now, she was alone once again.
But suddenly, Astra heard a faint humming coming from Jaden’s coat pocket. She reached inside and saw the Star of Azura flashing with divine radiance. The Princess could hear the spirit within speaking to her in a faint whisper. It seemed that the goddess inside had seen Astra in her hour of need.
“Almighty Azura. If you are listening to me, please…save my friend.”
The crystal responded to her will, and a thick, blue haze emerged from it. Astra was awestruck by this ethereal display. She saw what looked like a woman clothed in the rain itself floating within the mist. The Ark Knight was then enveloped by this dazzling aura, which rained particles of light down on him. It was like the spirit was breathing the cosmos themselves into his body. The wound in his chest miraculously closed, with the rain washing away the rest of his blood. And with that, the light faded as the spirit returned to the stone. Azura had answered her plea.
“Jaden?” she whispered.
“Princess!” A man’s voice cut through the dense forest.
She looked up to see two Knights of Astrelm, who had noticed the flash of light shining through the trees. They drove up in a small military truck across the wet earth. The headlights flashed in Astra’s face, her rain-soaked skin glistening in front of them. The two knights immediately ran up and kneeled before her.
“Your highness, are you alright?!” one of them asked.
“I’m fine, but we need to get Jaden to safety! Gather everyone you can to the nearest safe haven! We have to go now! Our lives depend on it!”
Astra continued to look down on Jaden’s face as he continued to swim in the ethereal darkness.