The sun was setting on the plains. Aisha watched as the glowing ball of light, muted by wisps of clouds, set the sky on fire. A herd of giraffes, black against the vivid sunset, created a moving set of twiggy silhouettes.
*It's just like something in a movie,* she though with an odd tinge of sadness, *or maybe something out of National Geographic. I never imagined it would become my life.*
She scuffed her sandaled feet in the dust, stirring up clouds that danced like plumes of fire in the orange light and hot African winds. No one here had ever seen a movie, worn sneakers, chewed bubble gum, or done any of the thousands of little things Aisha had once taken for granted. She had found a little part of the world that seemed out of touch with time.
*Of course it isn't, though,* she thought. *If it was, I wouldn't be here, would I? Or... maybe I would.* She didn't try to pursue that though very far; just thinking too hard about time-space portals and alternate universes made her head spin. To a Gridmaster like Zordon or a genius like Billy, they might make perfect sense, but to an ordinary girl like Aisha, they were too much to grasp.
*I'm not even a Power Ranger anymore,* she thought, rubbing at the place on her wrist where her communicator used to be. *No, it's even more than that. I never was a Power Ranger in this timestream. It was always Tanya. She's the one who became the Yellow Ranger, and I'm just plain, ordinary...*
"Healer Aisha!" piped a childish voice. "Healer Aisha, look what I found!"
*All right, maybe I'm not completely ordinary.*
Aisha turned to see a young boy, about ten years old, running as fast as he could in her direction. His speed was hampered somewhat by a bundle of pale fur that he carried gently.
"What have you got there, Tendai?" asked Aisha.
"Baby cheetah," Tendai explained breathlessly. "I found the mother dead of the plague. The other cubs were dead, too, but this one's still alive. Can you fix it?"
Aisha carefully took the tiny animal and examined it. It cheeped and tried to struggle, but it was too weak to do more than twitch its paws a little. Through its dry and dull fur, all its ribs could be plainly seen. It's nose and eyes were caked with mucus, and its breathing was labored. Just seeing and holding the poor creature made Aisha's stomach tighten - not with disgust, but with horror that anything so small and helpless should have to suffer so much.
"This is bad," said Aisha. "The late stages of the plague have already set in. There isn't a lot of time."
"Is he going to die?" asked Tendai, wide-eyed.
"She," said Aisha absently. "And it might not be too late. If she's hung in this long, she might still have a chance. I'll take her back to the village. Tendai, you run back as fast as you can and ask Ashala to start heating some water for me, and then to get the medicines ready."
Tendai nodded and shot toward the village as if he was a cheetah himself. Aisha followed at a slower pace, trying to spare her patient some discomfort. The cheetah, disturbed by the movement, began to squirm again.
"Shh. It's okay, little girl," Aisha said soothingly. "You're with friends. We're going to make you feel better now. Don't you worry."
Surprisingly, the kitten became still. It managed to open its bleary eyes and stare up at her, as if it knew what she was saying.
Aisha arrived at the small, simple house that served as home to her great-aunt Ashala, the village wisewoman and Aisha's teacher. She was rewarded by the sound of bubbling, boiling water and the pungent smell of healing herbs. Her message had arrived, it seemed, and Ahsala was making preparations to deal with their small guest.
"Well, Aisha, what have you brought us?" asked a voice from the back of the hut.
"A kitten," Aisha replied. "Tendai found it. Can we save it? It's pretty far gone."
Ashala came out and gravely inspected the small cub. It squeaked and tried to bite her hands.
"This little one's a fighter," she said in approval. "I think she will survive, but we must move quickly. Clean her up, and I will ready the medicines she needs."
Aisha nodded as she took back the cheetah cub and went to get a clean cloth. Sitting down next to the fire, she dipped the corner of the rag into the warm water. As soon as it was cool enough not to scald her patient, she began cleaning the discharge from the cheetah's eyes and nose. The small hut was warm and steamy from the boiling water, and soon the cub began to breathe more easily. Within a few moments, Ashala returned carrying a small bowl and a spoon.
"Here," she said. "I mixed the medicine with milk and honey, so she'll eat it. The nourishment will do her good."
"You don't want to feed her?" Aisha asked.
"Now, child, you know enough about feeding animals to not need my help to do it," said the old woman sternly. She smiled a little. "Besides, she trusts you. Now that you've got her feeling better, she'd probably bite my hand off if I tried to touch her."
As if in reply, the cub cheeped and pawed the air, showing off tiny kitten claws. Aisha laughed a little.
"You're right, she is a fighter," she said. Studying the little bundle of fur, she added, "You know, that's not a bad name for you. All right, Fighter, open wide."
She pressed the sides of the cub's jaw to make her open her mouth, and then spooned a few drops of the medicated mixture into it. The kitten caught on almost at once and lapped the concoction up hungrily. Aisha smiled as she continued feeding her small charge, one drop at a time. She would have to take things slowly with an animal so close to starvation - overfeeding her at this point would kill her just as surely as hunger. After administering a finely judged amount, she set the bowl and the spoon aside. She wrapped the kitten in a soft cloth and began stroking her, and was rewarded by the tiniest of purrs. Soon, Fighter had drifted off into a deep, peaceful sleep. Aisha gave a sigh of relief. Already, the little cub was looking stronger. The natives had bestowed the title of Healer on Aisha because nearly every animal that came into her care survived, but she had been worried when she'd seen the state this poor cub was in. Like a mother with a newborn child, she began to rock the tiny kitten and sing to her, the first song that came to her mind:
"Well sung," remarked a voice.
Aisha just barely restrained herself from jumping, which would have disturbed her charge. Instead, her head snapped around toward the door to see who had spoken. Standing in the doorway, as casually as if he was in his own home, was a man Aisha had never seen before. He was tall and strong-looking, though not heavily built, and he had the darkest skin Aisha had ever seen, even here in Africa. He was dressed in a robe of orange and saffron, elaborately decorated. In his right hand, he carried a tall staff of dark, polished wood with a few small trinkets and leather bags tied to the top. His eyes were a shade of yellow-green that was startling against his ebony skin. As exotic as he looked, he spoke with no discernable accent.
"Who are you?" Aisha asked, narrowing her eyes suspiciously.
The stranger grinned, his teeth a perfect pure white against the darkness of his face. "Speak of the devil, the devil appears. Call me Joseph. Is your great-aunt around?"
"She was here a minute ago," answered Aisha automatically, glancing around the hut. It seemed Ashala had left while she was feeding Fighter. "Hey, wait! How did you know Ashala is my aunt?"
The man, Joseph, laughed pleasantly. "My dear, I said nothing about Ashala. I only asked if your great-aunt was around. But if Ashala is your aunt, then you must be Aisha, yes?"
"Yes," Aisha agreed in puzzlement. "How did you know?"
"Ashala and I have been friends for years," Joseph answered. "I have passed this way many times before, and I met you once, though you don't remember it."
"Oh," said Aisha. "Well, I don't know where Ashala is, but I could go look for her, if you want..."
"You needn't trouble yourself. It would disturb your little friend," answered Joseph. "If you want to know the truth, as I'm sure you do, my purpose in coming here was to inquire as to where I might find you... and here you are!"
"Why would you be looking for me?" Aisha asked.
Joseph gave her another grin. "Well, for one thing, you have a way with animals. There are hidden depths to you, child, that you are just beginning to discover... but it is getting late. You must be hungry, and I know I am. I'm also looking forward to seeing your parents again."
"You know my parents?" asked Aisha, beginning to feel a bit unnerved by this man who seemed to know so much about her.
"Of course I do!" Joseph replied. "And they know me." Catching the look of irritation on Aisha's face, he laughed again and said, "I'm sorry, dear heart! Do pardon my idiosyncracies. It's just that I get a... what is your word for it? A kick out of being mysterious, and it's been so long since I've had the chance. It is an annoying habit, but you'll be entitled to do it yourself someday."
"Oh, really?" asked Aisha. "I can hardly wait."
Joseph laughed again. "No need for sarcasm! I'll explain everything as soon as I get your parents' permission. Is that acceptable?"
"I guess so," said Aisha uncertainly, at the same time wondering just what it was that he needed her parents' permission to tell her.
"Excellent," said Joseph. "Would you mind showing me the way? It's been too long since my path led this way, and my old memory wasn't what it was years ago. Bring your little friend with you."
As if she knew she was being discussed, Fighter abruptly opened her eyes, sat up, and gave Joseph a hard stare. She bared her teeth and gave a squeak of disapproval.
"Shame on you," said Joseph sternly. "Aisha's going to turn you out on your tail if you don't learn some manners.
Fighter turned her innocent blue eyes to Aisha and cheeped questioningly.
"Don't listen to him," said Aisha, feeling only marginally silly for talking to an animal. After all, Joseph had started it. "You're staying right here with me."
"You're going to spoil her rotten," reprimanded Joseph, trying to hide the sparkle in his eyes. "So, are we going home or aren't we? You're going to be late for dinner if you don't hurry."
Aisha glanced at the sky that was visible through the doorway and grimaced. She hadn't been thinking about the passage of time, and it was dismaying to see how late it had become.
"I hate to admit it, but you're right," she said. Reluctantly picking up the equally unwilling Fighter, Aisha led Joseph through the small African village to the home of her family.
Billy had been in bad moods before, but this one was definitely his all-time low.
"Stupid, stupid, stupid!" he scolded himself, pounding his fist into his pillow. "William Cranston, how could you have been so dumb? This is the stupidest thing you've ever done!"
His fit of self-reproach was interrupted by the sound of a light tapping on the door of his apartment.
"Billy, are you all right?" asked a voice - a female voice, but not Cestria's, which was what he'd been dreading. He didn't want to listen to any more of her calm, sensible, irrefutable explanations. No, the person at the door was Delphine. Billy liked and respected Delphine, and ordinarily would not have minded her company, but he didn't really feel like talking to anyone right now.
"Go away," he muttered indistinctly through his pillow.
"I'm sorry, Billy. I know this is bad timing," answered Delphine gently, "but this is important."
"I don't want to deal with it right now."
"I really think you need to hear this," Delphine persisted. "We have just received a transmission from Zordon regarding you."
"Zordon?" repeated Billy, interested despite his attempt not to be. "What's up?"
Delphine's voice sounded faintly amused and slightly relieved. "If you really want to know, I suggest you open the door."
"It's unlocked," Billy replied. He sat up and began trying to clean his tear-streaked face as best he could. Delphine noticed and shook her head.
"Do you think you need to hide that you've been crying?" she asked. "I'm your friend, Billy - all of us are. You don't have to be ashamed of yourself. We all understand what you're going through. All of us."
"I should have listened to you," said Billy. "You tried to warn me this would happen. If I had listened-"
"You would have gotten your heart broken a little sooner, that's all," Delphine replied. "As things stand, the timing is convenient. Zordon just relayed a message that you are wanted on Earth. It might do you some good to get away from everything here for a while."
"Needed? What for?" asked Billy. "I'm not a Ranger anymore. All I'm good for is fixing what's broken."
Delphine smiled ironically. "That, I believe, is why you are wanted. The root of your problem seems also to be the solution: the Great Mender is looking for you."
Aisha was mildly surprised to find that her parents seemed to recognize Joseph the minute he walked through the door, and was even more surprised to see him greeted by hugs and hearty handshakes. They invited him into their home like a long-lost brother and gave him a seat at the table as if they had been expecting him. It was only after several minute's worth of inquiries as to everyone's health and other such polite niceties that anyone noticed Aisha.
"What have you got there, Aisha?" her mother asked.
"A cheetah cub. I have to take care of it," she explained.
"Couldn't you have left it with Ashala?" asked her father.
"It's all right," Joseph assured him. "I told her to bring it along. It will be good practice for her, I think."
"Oh, well, that's all right, then," said her mother. Why did Joseph's word make it alright to bring sick baby cheetahs to dinner? "Well, put down your patient somewhere and wash your hands for dinner."
"I'll look after her," Joseph volunteered.
Puzzled, unwilling, but uncertain as to what else could be done, Aisha moved to hand Fighter over to Joseph. The kitten squeaked and squirmed in protest, trying to cling to Aisha's shirt. When Joseph attempted to unhook her claws, Fighter turned and hissed at him.
"Listen here, you young hussy," Joseph told her. "I'm more than a match for you, and you know it. You should at least behave yourself while you're a guest in someone else's home. Didn't your mother teach you any manners?"
Figher replied in a series of chirps and squeaks. They sounded unhappy.
"Ah, well, I'm sorry, then," Joseph replied. He turned to Aisha. "I will count on you to give this little creature proper instruction on how to behave. She doesn't seem inclined to listen to me."
"You can talk to animals?" asked Aisha, amazed.
"Of course! So can you, as a matter of fact," Joseph replied. "But we will get to that later. Right now, we should eat our dinner before it gets cold."
Aisha shook her head, completely baffled by the evening's turn of events.
"Listen, Fighter," she said resignedly, "I need to wash my hands, so you sit with Joseph and be good until I get back, okay? I'll come back for you as soon as I'm done."
Fighter made a tiny purring sound and blinked reassuringly, and Aisha got the distinct feeling that Fighter was trying to talk back to her. When she handed the little cheetah to Joseph, she made no resistance at all. Bemusedly, Aisha went to clean herself up for dinner.
If Aisha had been expecting abnormalities in her evening meal, she was mistaken. Save for the presence of Joseph, who could have been any common villager by his speech and demeanor, and for Fighter, who wanted to put her nose and paws in everything, dinner was quite ordinary. Her mother and father talked with Joseph about bygone days when Aisha had only been a tiny baby, or not even born, and she had little interest in it. The only reason she paid any attention at all to the talk was that she was hoping to glean some information as to who this strange man was and what he wanted with her. About all she could manage was that Joseph was an old friend of Ashala's, and that her parents seemed to hold him in very high regard. He had evidently been seen last around the same time Aisha had been born, and she wondered just how old he was. He didn't look more than thirty, but they talked as if he had been an old friend even then. It was a puzzlement, one that didn't get explained until after the supper dishes had been cleared away, and the reminiscences were winding down.
"So," said Aisha's father, "is this a social call, or do you have business here?" There was a faint tinge of unease, even fear, in the question.
"Business, I'm afraid," Joseph answered. "I've been watching your daughter for a while, now, and I'd say her time has definitely come. I will do nothing without your consent, of course, but I think she is more than ready."
Aisha tensed a little and clutched Fighter closer to her chest, making the kitten squeak and dig her claws painfully into Aisha's arm. Ready for what?
"If that is what you think, we will abide by your decision," Aisha's mother answered slowly. "I must admit, I had been expecting you for some time, now. After all she has done lately..."
"She is ready," Joseph repeated. "Consider yourselves fortunate. She's a special girl."
Aisha couldn't stand it any longer, and she spoke up.
"What are you talking about?" she demanded. "What's going on? How come I'm the only one here who doesn't know what you all are planning?"
Joseph surprised her by laughing. "Gracious, dear heart, don't be so upset! If we've been keeping secrets, they have been for your benefit. You see, there has been a destiny laid on you, from the moment you were born. However, your parents and I have deemed it wise that you should know nothing of this destiny - these things tend to work out better if you know nothing about them beforehand. Now, though, the time has come for all things to be made known to you. Would you like me to tell you about how you were born here, since your memory harkens back to other times and places?"
"How did you know about that?" asked Aisha, irked. She had hoped that at least that much bout her past would remain a secret to this strange man.
"I've been watching you. I admit, I even had a hand in the placement of the Zeo Crystal shard, to make sure you would be in the right place at the right time," Joseph replied. Seeing the puzzled looks on her parents' faces, he added, "Don't all of you look so shocked! If you could keep your secrets from her, don't you think she had some secrets of her own?"
"I'm tired of you knowing so much," Aisha muttered. Fighter cheeped her agreement.
"Well, I will let you know some things, then," said Joseph. "Do you know what your name means?"
"I... don't know," Aisha answered. "I never really thought about it. It was just my name, that's all."
"It means 'life'," Joseph explained. "You began with another name, but it was changed when you were still very young. When you were just learning to crawl, you were outside playing behind your home. There was a bird there, injured by some other wild creature, lying on the ground and unable to fly. Your mother saw you just as you reached out and touched it. The second you did, the bird flew away, completely healed. Aisha, have you thought about why it is that all of the animals that have come into your care have lived? Even the sickest leave you cured."
"I don't know. I thought I was just lucky," said Aisha uneasily. "Are you trying to say I have some kind of freaky magic powers or something?"
Joseph smiled. "No. I am saying you have magic powers."
"I don't believe a word of it," said Aisha. "If I had magic powers, wouldn't I know? Wouldn't Zordon have known?"
"He does know, and he did know, but he was under the same constraints as your parents were," Joseph replied, looking smug. "He is a high power within the realms he inhabits, but he does have to listen to a few authorities..."
"And you're one of them?" Aisha hazarded.
"Not exactly," said Joseph, "but I am closer to them than others are, and he respects my judgment."
"So... why are you here?" asked Aisha. "If you're such a high power and all, why are you looking for me? Just because I can heal?"
"Precisely," Joseph answered. "It has been a long time since there has been a Healer of your caliber on Earth. You may not know it, but you are very powerful. That power needs to be harnessed. That is just why you had to give up your claim to the Ranger powers - you could do great good as a Ranger, but you will do greater good as a Healer."
Aisha reeled, dizzied for a moment as she seemed to catch a glimpse of... something. It was a vision of both power and danger, something being torn and something being mended. Then it was gone, leaving her a little breathless. Joseph gave her a slight smile, as if he knew what had been going through her mind. She looked back at him coolly. She didn't understand him, didn't quite trust him, and wasn't sure she liked him, but... to be someone again....
"Just where do you fit into all of this?" she asked.
"I am going to be training you in how to use these arts, if you accept my offer," Joseph replied. "I trained your great-aunt, bless her heart, many years back, but her talent runs not nearly as deep as yours. It has been my task for millions of years to seek out talented people such as yourself and train them. That is how I was given my title. You see, I am what they call the Great Mender."
"The Great Mender?" Billy repeated, shocked. "He's looking for me?"
"It appears to be so," answered Delphine, nodding. "Zordon would know if anyone would. I am inclined to believe things are as he says."
"Well, he's going to have to go on looking. I'm not going," said Billy stubbornly.
"That might not be a wise decision," Delphine replied.
"I don't care," Billy answered. His mood, which had been lifting slightly at the thought of returning to Earth and maybe seeing his friends again, now fell straight back into unhappiness. He wasn't just heartbroken now, he was angry. "It's his doing that all this happened. If it hadn't been for him, everything would have been all right."
"Then give him a chance to undo what he's done," said Delphine. "The Mender is not heartless, Billy! He's a creature of good! Now, listen to this: there's only one reason the Mender ever looks for anyone, and that is when he desires to take them under his tutelage. If you were to study his ways and earn his recognition, you will me named one of his priests! Don't you see?"
"Me... a priest of the Mender?" Billy repeated wonderingly. His expression went from blank surprise to awe, and then gradually shifted to the first real smile he'd shown since his argument with Cestria. "Yeah, that's it! That's perfect!"
Delphine, normally given to seriousness, had to smile back. "I thought you'd appreciate that. Keep in mind, it isn't going to be easy. Most of his students have to study for years before they complete their mastery..."
"I'll study. I'm used to studying," Billy replied. He was excited now, pacing the floor, unable to contain his elation. "I'll do whatever it takes - you can count on that!"
Delphine's smile was faintly wistful; it was easy to forget how young he was in the face of all his knowledge and maturity. A human being just into his second decade... did he know, or even care, that Aquitians lived for centuries? Well, perhaps things would work out. He was so dedicated. Certainly, if there was any way to make things work, he would find it, the same way he would repair a broken machine.
"Where is he now? When can I leave?" Billy asked, cutting into her thoughts.
"I was told he is in the part of your world known as Africa," answered Delphine, "in a small village in the country of Kenya. I was given the coordinates, so I will be able to send you within a few feet of him. You will find him easily enough, I think. He tends to be rather... noticeable."
"Great! I'll get my things packed," said Billy, moving to do so.
"You need not do that," Delphine answered. "The mender looks after his own. It has always been so. All you need to bring is yourself."
"Oh," said Billy. He paused, looking around his room, letting the idea sink in. He suddenly realized that the idea of running off without even so much as a toothbrush and putting himself into the care of a man who was treated as something almost divine, leaving behind everything he'd ever known, scared him. As a matter of fact, it scared him a lot. And Delphine had as good as said that he'd be gone for years. Who knew what might happen in his absence? Would he see his friends at all? He suddenly felt deflated, and he all but collapsed back onto the edge of the bed. This was going to be harder than he'd thought.
"Second thoughts?" asked Delphine gently.
"Yeah," Billy admitted. "But I'm going to do it anyway."
"You are brave. I always knew that about you," said Delphine. "Come. If you waste much more time, the Mender may leave without you. You wouldn't want to miss your chance."
"No," Billy agreed. "I'll be okay. Just let me get one thing..."
He went to his dresser, where rested several small objects, including a few pictures in frames. He took the smallest one and put it in his pocket. It had Cestria's picture on it.
"All right," he said. "I'm ready."
Aisha gave Joseph a long, hard stare. He looked back at her, patiently waiting for her to make up her mind. Fighter, aware that something important was going on, looked from Joseph to Aisha with a wondering blue-eyed stare.
"Okay," said Aisha, making an attempt to act as if this was all very sensible and commonplace. She managed to succeed, mostly because there aren't too many things in the universe that could keep an experienced Power Ranger off-balance for long. "All right, let me get this straight. You're some kind of magical entity whose job it is to go around training people in how to use healing magic. Am I right so far?"
"What you've said is true, yes, but there's a bit more to it than that," Joseph replied. "That will do for a beginning, though, until you are ready to learn more... if you are willing to take my offer. What will it be, Aisha? Yes or no? You know you are perfectly free to stay here in the village, if that is what you truly desire."
"If its all the same to you," Aisha began slowly. There was a hush in the room as everyone waited for her to collect herself and go on. After a few seconds, she took a deep breath and let the rest of the sentence tumble out in a rush. "Mom, Dad, if you really don't mind, I think I'd like to go with Joseph."
There were relived smiles and sighs, and Joseph positively glowed.
"A good choice, young one. You lack not for bravery," he said. "We will be leaving, then, just as soon as your fellow student arrives."
"Fellow student?" Aisha repeated. It hadn't even crossed her mind that she would be studying along with others. Well, it would be nice to have some company while she worked, but... "Only one other student?"
"Why, yes," Joseph repeated. "Menders have become rather scarce as of late. Not too many people with real talent have turned up lately. I was lucky to find you two. Then again, I have been a bit remiss in my duties. Things haven't been as hectic as they were in the old days..."
He was prevented from saying more by an abrupt whoosh coming from outside, accompanied by a flash of bluish light that slipped through the door and windows. Joseph turned toward it with a smile.
"Here he comes now," he said. "Shall we go meet him?"
Too bemused to argue, Aisha moved to get up and meet the newcomer. She and Joseph stepped out into the gentle warmth of an African night. The moon was no more than a thin curve, like a silver paring, but hundreds of clear blue-white stars cast lights of their own to augment its faint glow. The village could be seen as a jumble of soft blue highlights against softer shadows. Something was moving through the night's silvery chiaroscuro... someone. Aisha stared at him, puzzled. Even though he couldn't yet be seen clearly, there was something about his gait and posture that struck her as familiar, and she stared at him, squinting through the darkness. Then he was suddenly standing in the light, and she gasped in pleased surprise as she recognized him.
"Billy!" she exclaimed. "Billy, is that you?"
"Aisha?" he asked uncertainly. "I didn't know you were here!"
"This is my home," said Aisha. "What's your reason?"
"I came here looking for someone called the Great Mender," Billy explained. "I was told he would be around here... What's that you're holding?"
"A baby cheetah," said Aisha calmly, as if it were an everyday thing. Fighter cheeped in agreement.
"Ah, yes. You two know each other," said Joseph in faint embarrassment. "It had completely slipped my mind. Well, this will make things much simpler. You'll be able to get much more accomplished if you already know how to work well together."
"Billy's a Healer?" asked Aisha, completely bewildered.
"No," Joseph answered. "Not in the sense you mean, anyway. But come! We can discuss these questions in the comforts of home, rather than out here with the mosquitoes." He made a face and slapped at one of the bugs.
"You said it," Aisha agreed, suddenly aware that at least one of the hummers was inspecting her as well. "Do I need to take anything with me?"
"Well, you might want to take your cheetah," said Joseph. "Everything else you need will be supplied."
"Then let's get going!" Aisha replied, grinning. Any fears and doubts she'd had before had evaporated the minute she'd seen Billy. Somehow, knowing she would have her old friend with her on this journey made all the difference - with one of her Ranger friends at her side, she felt she could do anything. Magic, mystery, new adventures... she could pretend like she was back in the old days again. At one point in her life, she would have seen her role of village healer as a kind of near-celebrityhood. Now she had come to know so much more, and she couldn't resist the craving to test the limits of the impossible once again...
"I'm with you," Billy agreed. Delphine had been right; it would do him good to go far, far away, to someplace where there would be no sad memories waiting for him. There was, too, the promise of what he could earn if he succeeded...
Joseph only smiled and shook his head. Interesting dreams motivated the young. He would watch and see whose dreams were achieved and whose crumbled. They would learn so much more from this journey, he surmised, than just how to heal and mend.
"Let us be off," he said, and the three of them were swept up in a wave of warm orange light.
By the standards that Aisha had become used to in her African village, Joseph's home was incredible. Even Billy had to be impressed - the place was enormous, a vast complex of rooms, corridors, courtyards, towers, libraries, laboratories and storerooms. They got only a very brief glimpse of all its sprawling majesty, however, before Joseph herded them off to a wing that seemed to be dedicated to small, comfortable dormitories, and pointed them to the two adjoining suites at the end of the hall. The rooms were connected to each other by a kind of neutral space, so that the students could easily study and socialize, but the doors to either of the adjoining rooms could be locked for privacy. He told them to look over their rooms and get settled in, and they would meet again in the morning.
Aisha took the invitation gladly and began exploring at least this corner of her new home. The first room she entered appeared to be a kind of den or study, appropriate for a student. There was a desk of a comfortable size for her, and an investigation of its drawers proved it to be well stocked with different kinds of paper, measuring instruments, scissors, and pens and pencils of varying colors. There were enough supplies to keep an artist or writer happily busy for many hours. Fighter stared at it all, wide eyed, and batted at one of the pencils with a curious paw. A lamp sat on one corner, and when she turned it on, it cast warm, golden light that would be easy to read and write by. The chair was straight backed but not uncomfortable, just the thing for long periods of study.
Nearby stood a pair of bookshelves, and she went to inspect them. The upper shelves of the first appeared to be filled with thick reference books, and opening them revealed lots of diagrams and colored pictures. Most of them seemed to be concerned with living things, ranging from birds to humans to fish to plants. She wondered at some of them for a while, but eventually put them carefully back in their places; she was fairly certain she would be going over their contents in detail sometime in the future. They could wait until then. The bottom shelf was filled entirely with blank journals and empty binders, presumably for taking notes. Exploring the second shelf, however, gave her a surprise. The books she found there were works of fiction, mystery, sci-fi, fantasy, classic literature, even a few romances thrown in for good measure. She was pleased to note that her most of her favorite works from home were there - Joseph had obviously done his homework.
Against another wall stood a shelf full of strange implements, which she supposed were healing tools, and several bottles and jars of stuff she couldn't identify, beyond a suspicion that they were medicines. Most of one wall was dedicated to a window that looked out upon one of the courtyards, but the night was overcast, and it was too dark to make out much of what it contained. Except for the furnishings and the objects they contained, everything was colored in shades of gold and orange, much like Joseph's robes. Aisha approved; they gave the room a warm and inviting feel. She crossed to the next door to see what the room beyond might hold.
What she found brought a smile of pure delight to her face. Occupying the focal point in the room was a bed, neatly made and covered with clean, smooth sheets and a soft orange blanket, headed with a fluffy pillow in matching orange with yellow trim. Impulsively, she ran and jumped on it bouncing and laughing - who could blame her, after sleeping on a rough pallet on the floor for months? Fighter, understanding none of that, chirped her disapproval at the rough treatment, and Aisha had to stroke her into calmness again. Resting comfortably on the soft mattress, she took the opportunity to look around her room again. There was a fireplace here, ready in case of cold, wet weather. It would give the room a kind of warm coziness that electric heaters were incapable of. A tall grandfather clock ticked softly against one wall, occupying a space near a comfortable-looking armchair. There was also a small dresser with a mirror on top of it, another window looking outside, and a closed wardrobe. Curiosity overcame her, and she got up to investigate it. It was full of clothes, the kind of things she would have gladly worn to school while she was still in Angel Grove, and all of them looked more comfortable than what she had on. There was even a pair of sneakers tucked in the bottom, resting alongside sandals and boots. All save the footwear was colored orange and gold.
*This is going to feel like I'm a Power Ranger again,* she thought wryly.
There appeared to be one more room beyond this one, and she made her way toward it hopefully. She was not disappointed, either. This room held the greatest wonders of all. It was incredible the things that living in the African near-wilderness had given her an appreciation for, and she now was thrilled beyond telling by the sight of appliances with running water. Not only did the water run, but - she made a quick test - it was even hot! Further investigation proved that everything she needed was here, right down to a toothbrush, and she wondered somewhat hopefully if a woman had assisted in stocking her bathroom. Well, no matter, really. What mattered now was that she now had everything she needed for taking her first hot shower in months, with a change into clean, comfortable clothes waiting for her at the end of it, and she wasn't about to pass up an opportunity like that. Leaving Fighter catnapping comfortably on her bed, she gathered up a change of clothes and went to enjoy this newly-discovered luxury. The next half-hour was spent very happily, and when she was finished and dressed, she felt cleaner and more alert than she had in what seemed like ages. It didn't occur to her to put it in words, but she felt a lot happier, too.
It was only after she had showered and dressed that it occurred to her to check on Billy. After all, it had been a while since she had seen him, and it would be nice to have a chance to find out what he'd been doing, and maybe talk about old times for a while. A brief check of the clock showed her that it was still not quite what she would consider bedtime, and she knew from experience that her friend would sometimes stay up well past midnight working on one of his technical projects. She crossed into the shared room and knocked lightly on his door.
"Come in," Billy replied.
Aisha took the invitation and stepped inside and looked around. She had been expecting that his rooms would more-or-less resemble his, with perhaps fewer feminine touches, so entering for the first time was something of a surprise. Though his furnishings were much the same, the coloring was in such striking contrast that it took her a moment to realize the similarities. Where her rooms were toned in desert sunset colors, his room had the feel of jungles and oceans. The colors here were cool blues and greens, and the wooden furniture that had been polished and stained in glossy mahogany for her was painted white and grey for him. She also noticed that his desk was made more like a drafting table than a writing desk, and that the objects on his shelves were more technical than medicinal. Billy himself wasn't in that room, though. He was in his bedroom, sitting in his armchair and reading a sci-fi novel. She noted that he, too, had changed clothing. When she had seen him before, he had been dressed mostly in black, but he had now taken a green T-shirt and a pair of deep indigo blue jeans that matched his decor.
"Hey," Aisha greeted amiably. "You've got a nice room. Somebody hung pictures of flowers and butterflies all over mine - not quite my taste, but I won't complain. It's better than where I was by a long shot."
"Yeah, I think I like this all right," said Billy. "Blue always was my color, after all."
"And yellow was mine," Aisha replied. "This guy Joseph knows a lot more about us than I would have guessed. He even knew what brand of sneakers I liked... or someone did."
"I'm glad to see you again," Billy replied. "I've really missed all of you guys."
"It's good to see you, too," said Aisha. "Hey, wait a minute. How come you missed us? When did you leave?"
"A few months back. I had an accident, and I had to be sent to another planet... to be healed." He muttered the last part distastefully.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Aisha answered. She wondered what had happened to him that was putting that tint of pain in his voice. He had always been serious, but there was a melancholy about him now that was new to her.
"It's okay," said Billy. "I'm getting over it, and I'm glad to be here. I have a feeling good things are going to happen here... I'd ask you to sit down, but there's only one chair in here. Sorry."
"That's okay, I'll manage," Aisha answered.
She went to lean against the wall next to his dresser, but she wasn't paying attention, and her elbow knocked against a small box of odds and ends. It tumbled to the floor, and the lid flipped open, spilling its contents across the rug.
"Oh, shoot," Aisha muttered.
"I'll get that!" cried Billy, putting his book aside and hurrying to clean up the mess.
"Hey, I spilled it, so I'll clean it," Aisha contradicted. Billy ignored her, hurriedly gathering up small objects. Aisha paid him the same non-courtesy, carefully picking things up and dropping them back into the box. Among the pins and buttons and thumbtacks, she noticed something that looked out of place, and before Billy could stop her, she had reached out and grabbed it. It was a ring made of gold, set with a perfect pink pearl surrounded by tiny diamonds.
"What's this?" she asked. "This is beautiful."
"Yeah. Most impressive nothing I've ever seen. Really, where did it come from?"
"It's nothing," Billy said again, and this time there was a note of ice in his voice. Aisha sensed her welcome for tonight had been worn out.
"Ho-hum," she yawned. "Man, I hadn't realized how tired I was. All this excitement's worn me out. I think I'll go back to my room and get some z's. Good night, Billy."
"Good night, Aisha. See you in the morning."
Aisha retreated to her room to find Fighter stretched out lazily in the middle of her bed, and she smiled. It was hard to be depressed with a kitten around. She flopped down next to her and curled around the little bundle of fur, who chirped sleepily in greeting.
"At least you trust me," Aisha said. "What are we going to do about Billy, huh? He's got something he doesn't want to tell me."
"Purr...." said Fighter. She was nearly asleep.
Aisha yawned, for real this time. She was more tired than she thought she had been. She closed her eyes, enjoying the warmth of the room, the softness of the bed, the gentle purring of her kitten. The lamplight was gentle on her eyes... and then it was gone, but Aisha was too sleepy to care. Then she felt someone's hands moving the coverings on the bed, pulling a blanket over her. She just barely got the impression of a soft female voice speaking softly too her, and before she could decide if it was a dream or not, she was asleep.
She awoke the next morning to a soft rumbling and the touch of something warm, wet, and rough being rubbed across her cheek. Warm sunlight was streaming through her window, making her gold-toned room seem to glow. She opened her eyes and giggled.
"Cut it out, Fighter! That tickles!" he protested, laughing.
The kitten gave her face a final lick for good measure and bounced back to the floor again, beginning to wash herself. Aisha was pleased; cats didn't groom themselves when they were feeling bad, so Fighter's ablutions could be taken as a sign that she was feeling better. Her ribs still showed through her fur, and her nose was still running slightly, but her eyes were bright now, and she seemed full of energy.
*Maybe I do have healing powers after all,* thought Aisha, still blurry-minded from sleep. Then again, it could just be the quality of the medicine and a good night's rest that was making her seem so much better. Young things, she had learned somewhere, had natural resistance to things that would damage them much more when they were older. Still, it was encouraging to see the little cat up and about.
It was then that Aisha realized that she was tucked in under a blanket - a yellow one that hadn't been there before. She was still lying on the orange one, as she had fallen asleep before she'd even had time to think about getting under the covers. Where had the yellow blanket come from, and who had put it there? She tried to recall how it had happened, but all she could remember was the sound of that soft voice speaking to her in words to quiet to understand. Looking around the room with a scrutinizing gaze, she noticed other changes as well. In her eagerness for a hot shower the night before, she had dropped her clothes haphazardly on the floor and left the sock drawer open. It was closed now, and her garments had been spirited off somewhere. A few items that were obviously meant for fighter had been tucked into a corner - food and water dishes and a litterbox. Also, the pictures of birds and butterflies she'd been complaining about the night before had been removed, and in their place were several beautiful pictures of African wildlife. Aisha got up to inspect a particularly lovely image of a cheetah, which was hanging prominently over the fireplace.
"They're learning," Aisha said, smiling.
Just then, the grandfather clock struck nine soft chimes, and her stomach responded by growling, reminding her that it was late and that she had not yet had breakfast. She inspected her clothing and decided that, aside from having a bit of Fighter's fur on it, it looked good enough to eat breakfast in.
"Hungry, Fighter?" she inquired.
"Purr," Fighter replied. She had her nose in one of the food dishes and was busily lapping up its contents.
"You be a good girl, then. I'm going to go find some people food," Aisha replied. So saying, she walked out the door and headed off in the direction she seemed to remember the kitchen was in.
Either her sense of direction was better than she had expected, or there was some sympathetic magic about the compound that guided her footsteps in the right direction, because she soon found the door to a small room with something like an indoor picnic table set up, and there were cooking smells coming from somewhere beyond it. Billy was already sitting there, patiently awaiting his morning meal.
"Morning, Billy," Aisha said, taking a seat across from him. "Sleep well?"
"Pretty well, yeah," he replied. He didn't sound quite as gloomy this morning as he had the night before. "Where's your cheetah?"
"In my room. She's enjoying her own breakfast," Aisha replied. "Hey, you want to know something funny? Someone came in my room last night and rearranged my stuff!"
"Don't look at me!" said Billy, holding up his hands in protest. "It was probably Vivian. She came by last night to say hello."
"Vivian?" Aisha asked.
Before Billy could reply, the door to the kitchen opened, and a woman appeared. She was as dark-skinned and dark-haired as Joseph, but her eyes were bright with laugher, and her face glowed with a smile. She was wearing a simple dress of aqua blue, and a rope of turquoise beads hung around her neck. In her hands, she carried a tray with buttered toast and jelly on it. Her expression lightened a few more degrees as she noticed the new arrival.
"Why, Aisha! I didn't hear you come in!" she said. Her voice was musical, like running water. "Did you sleep well last night? I did my best to make sure you were comfortable, but I didn't want to wake you."
"I slept fine, thanks," Aisha replied. "Are you the one who came into my room last night, then?"
"Yes, I am. I apologize for the intrusion," she said, "but I enjoy having someone to look after. By the way, I don't believe we've been properly introduced. I am Vivian, Joseph's wife." She set the tray down on the table so that she could shake Aisha's hand.
"You're a bit late for breakfast," she continued. "Joseph and I have already eaten, but he will be back later to talk to you. In the meantime, I can fix you something quick. How do you two like your eggs?"
"Scrambled," they said in unison.
Vivian laughed. "I'll get right on it. By the way, I think your cheetah's looking for you."
"Huh?" Aisha turned around to see the small animal peeping curiously around the doorframe. Upon sighting Aisha, she gave a questioning chirrup.
"Hey, little girl! How did you find me?" Aisha asked curiously.
"She probably followed your scent," said Billy. "She is a hunter, after all - or she will be, when she grows up."
"I wonder why Joseph wanted me to bring her along?" said Aisha, collecting her kitten and carrying her to the table. She offered the cat a bit of buttered toast, which she consented to sample. "What am I going to do with her when she's grown up? She may be little and cute now, but when she's an adult..."
"You mean you haven't looked outside yet?" asked Billy. Aisha shook her head in puzzlement, and Billy grinned, looking cheerful for the first time since she had been reunited with him.
"Why don't you look out the window?" he suggested.
Somewhat puzzled, Aisha got up and walked to the nearest window, squinting in the bright morning sunshine. As her eyes adjusted, she became aware of the shapes of bushes and tall trees, glittering fountains and streams, and the bright splashes of color made by gardens of flowers. Then she became aware of other colored shapes... and they were moving!
"Animals!" she exclaimed in amazement.
"Joseph's menagerie," Billy replied, coming to stand next to her. "Vivian told me about them last night. This whole place is like a wild animal preserve. They're all Joseph's friends, and he can talk to them like they're people.
"It's incredible!" said Aisha. She had never seen tigers and zebras living in harmony with each other, or peacocks riding the backs of giraffes.
"Cheep!" Fighter agreed.
"There's a dragon out there, too," Billy said, still grinning. "I haven't seen him yet, but Vivian swears to me he's out there."
"Really? I'm going to ask to see that," Aisha replied. "I think, between you and the animals, I'm not going to get homesick. I've friends from Angel Grove and Africa here."
"So, what's it like in Africa?" asked Billy.
Aisha spent the rest of breakfast telling her friend about her African adventures, ranging from encounters with lions to figuring out how to medicate an elephant. The meal was enjoyable, and all problems seemed to be far away. Fighter sat by, nibbled scraps of scrambled eggs, and purred like an engine.
As they were finishing up their meal, Vivian arrived to take their dishes away.
"Joseph is back," she said. "He's waiting for you both in the study down the hall."
They both nodded and made sounds of agreement. Collecting Fighter, they headed down the hall, in search of their new tutor and some answers.
They found Joseph waiting, still dressed in gold and orange, and it occurred to Aisha for the first time to wonder what the symbolism of the colors was. The room itself was in pale brown and equally neutral colors, designating it at public property. Joseph beckoned Billy and Aisha to be seated across from him in a pair of matching armchairs. When Aisha sat down, Fighter leaped from her lap to go lie sphinxlike on the floor, eyes riveted on Joseph as if she intended to learn magic from him, too.
"Well, good morning to you," said Joseph. "How are you both this morning? Have you settled in comfortably?"
"Yes, thanks," said Aisha. "The accommodations are much better than the ones I had in Africa."
"I have nothing to complain about. You've got better equipment here than I had in my lab at home," Billy added.
"Excellent. I am glad you are both comfortable," Joseph replied. "I intend to let you have at least part of today for relaxation, and save serious schooling until tomorrow. You will be expected to do some chores, though. At one time, there were dozens of apprentices here, and I could afford to keep servants to run this place. Now it's just going to be you two. If you want your rooms clean, you clean them. If you want fires in your fireplaces, you'll have to move some wood. In other words, you're both expected to be of some help around here. Understood?"
"Yes, sir," they said in unison.
"Good," said Joseph. "At the moment, I don't have any particular plans for you two, but I know I didn't get a chance to answer all your questions last night. If there's anything you'd like to know, now is the time to ask."
"Were all of your students human?" Aisha wondered.
"A good question," Joseph replied, "and the answer is no. I am in the business of training Menders, and Menders can be found among all races. Actually, everyone has the talent to some extent, but in some, it is developed to extraordinary levels. No, actually, very few of my students have come from Earth up until now. Mostly, my work has been done on other worlds."
"He's very respected on Aquitar," Billy muttered.
Joseph shot him a hard look. "That respect saved your life, young human, so be grateful for it. I didn't have to make that waterfall for them, you know."
Billy blushed brightly and seemed to retreat into his chair.
"Waterfall?" Aisha repeated. "You made a waterfall? What kind of person are you, anyway?"
"A being of power," said Joseph. "A minor one, to be sure. At the beginning of life, I was given the knowledge of High Healing, and I was charged with the task of passing on that knowledge, and training those who bear the gifts of the Menders. I do not think I am immortal, but I am very hard to hurt, and I suspect I shall live for quite some time to come. Does that answer your question?"
"I think so," Aisha replied.
"What am I doing here, anyway?" asked Billy. "I thought your students were supposed to be healers. I don't know anything about healing people."
"Not all Menders are Healers, but all Healers are Menders," Joseph replied. "You are a Mender."
"I don't get it," Billy said.
"All right, I'll explain it this way. All those who repair what is damaged are Menders. There are three kinds of Menders, known as the Blood Healers, the Bone Healers, and the Heart Healers. The Blood Healers are like Aisha: they heal that which is diseased. The Bone Healers are like you: they heal what is torn and mend what is broken. Though you've never known it, you have the power to mend broken bodies as well as broken machinery. The last group, the Heart Healers, are the rarest of all, and probably the most powerful. They heal the wounds of the soul and mind, and conduct inner peace."
"If I were to guess," said Aisha slowly, "I'd say you were one of the Blood Healers."
"Right!" Joseph agreed, smiling. "And Vivian?"
"A Bone Healer, right?" she hazarded.
"Correct again! Billy, can you tell me how she knew that?"
"Hmm?" Billy appeared to be distracted. "Oh, um... Well, you and Aisha have the same signature colors, and Vivian has the same colors as me. Is that right?"
"Very good," Joseph replied. "You both catch on quickly. You'll be good students. Now, since you two have so kindly agreed to help with the chores, I think it might be best if the Lady Aisha would help my good wife with the cleaning whilst Master William and I attend to some of the firewood that wants stacking. We can meet again at lunchtime. Agreed?"
"Fine with me," Aisha said. "It's been so long since I've cleaned a room, it might almost be fun."
"I guess I'm up to the job," said Billy, "but I might regret it in the morning."
Joseph laughed. "Well, there are at least two certified Healers under my roof, so I doubt you'll be in discomfort for long. Come! There's work to be done."
The friends said goodbye and parted company, each heading to his or her own assigned tasks. Fighter watched both of them as they left, and then suddenly got up and bounded away, following Billy. She trailed after him a short way, padding along on silent cat feet, too quietly for him to notice. He didn't look back, but if he had, he might have seen a strange sight. It may have been no more than a trick of the light, but it seemed the little cub's eyes were glowing with a faint illumination...
The rest of the day flew by, as the two ex-Rangers settled into their new roles. They spent most of the morning attending to their assigned chores, but, as promised, Joseph allowed them the rest of the day to explore his home and enjoy themselves. Aisha took the opportunity to investigate the wildlife that thrived in the courtyards, and was duly impressed by the variety she found there. Not only did he have an incredible selection of Earthly animals, but he had several other creatures that presumably came from other worlds - the dragon was ordinary compared to some of them, and she spent a happy afternoon getting to know them all. Billy, for his part, was still behaving somewhat morosely, and escaped to his room as soon as his chores were done. Fighter had been following him around most of the afternoon, and when he finally chased her off and closed his door, she ran to Aisha cheeping mournfully, causing her to have to spend several minutes comforting her.
The next day, however, the work started in earnest. Both young apprentices were awakened early the next morning, despite some aches and pains from unaccustomed labors from the day before, and after a hurried breakfast, classes were attended to. Mornings were devoted mainly to hands-on learning, practicing their tasks under the watchful eyes of Joseph and Vivian (and Fighter, who was always following one student or the other). After lunch, they would be given their allotment of chores, and there was time for rest and recreation whenever those were done. Then came their evening meal, and they were then sent to their rooms to work or study, whichever was deemed most necessary, for a few hours. For the first week or two, the schedule seemed almost unbearably strenuous, and they were too tired to do much socializing in what little free time they found, and they usually closed their textbooks with little on their minds other than a hot shower and some well-deserved sleep. However, by the third week, they had sufficiently adapted to the rigors of training that they no longer went to bed exhausted each night, and practice had given them the efficiency to finish their chores with time to spare, and they actually found the energy to use their recreation time for recreation, rather than simply a few moments to stop and catch their breath. However, it wasn't until Aisha found herself singing as she mopped the hallway - doing her best to avoid mopping up her ever-present kitten - that she realized that she was actually enjoying herself there.
The one thing that bothered her was that Billy was still not quite behaving like himself. He had never been a highly social creature, but she found the way he seemed to avoid company to be a little out of character. To her sharpening Healer's senses, it hinted at something being amiss, but it took some time before she actually had an opportunity to discover what.
Though the days there tended to be warm, the nights often dropped to temperatures that grew uncomfortably chilly. Used to the haphazard woodpiles used to start fires in her village, Aisha found lighting a laid fire of well-dried wood and proper kindling nearly effortless. Apparently, Billy had no such experience, and even from her own room, Aisha could hear her fellow student having a few well-chosen words with his fireplace. She debated with herself over issues of his rights to privacy versus giving needed help, and charitable inquisitiveness won out. It wouldn't hurt to pay a friendly visit. She went to knock on his door.
"Having trouble?" she asked in her most innocent tones.
"I can't get this stupid wood to light," Billy replied. "If I didn't know better, I'd say it resented me for cutting it."
"Mind if I try? I'm good at lighting fires."
"Be my guest," answered Billy. There was a rattling sound - Billy had locked his door. Why? Didn't he trust her? However, the door was opened in a moment, and a rather grumpy- looking Billy ushered his friend inside.
Aisha looked over the fireplace with a practiced eye and accepted a book of matches. After a few minutes and an addition of kindling, she had a cheerful blaze warming up on the hearth. Billy looked mildly impressed.
"Don't worry, you'll learn," Aisha assured him. "Next time, try adding more paper."
"Thanks," Billy replied.
He looked around, ill at ease, unable to think of anything more to say and not sure if there was any polite way of asking his friend to leave. Aisha watched him with a worried gaze. Unobserved, Fighter tiptoed into the room and leaped into the chair to watch. Aisha shook her head and sighed.
"I wish you'd let me know what was wrong with you," she said. "Come on, Billy! We were Rangers together for how long? We shared one of the biggest secrets there's maybe ever been! Why won't you tell me what's wrong? Maybe I can help."
"It's none of your business," snapped Billy.
"Well, excuse me!" Aisha replied.
"Rrrowr!" said Fighter in the same tone.
Billy looked from one pair of offended eyes to the other and looked as if he was considering being angry, but then he seemed to deflate abruptly. He sighed.
"Sorry," he said. "I've just had something on my mind for a while, and it hasn't been easy to deal with. I've just haven't been able to talk about it... with anyone. That's why I had to leave. It's what made me come here. I had to get away, and I thought this might be my only chance..." He trailed off unhappily.
Fighter jumped down from the chair and rubbed against his legs, purring supportively, and he picked her up to hold her. She gazed up at him with a kitten's wondering eyes and licked his cheek. Billy smiled slightly.
"Hey, little Fighter," he said. "It's hard to feel too bad with a kitten around, you know?"
"Purr..." said Fighter.
"Well, I guess it's about time I got all this off my chest, anyway," said Billy. "I didn't realize it was so obvious something was wrong."
"I'm a Healer, remember?" answered Aisha gently. "I'm supposed to know when people are hurting."
"Okay, okay, I'll tell you," Billy said. He sat down in his chair, letting Fighter curl up on his lap, and Aisha settled herself on the floor. "I don't really know where to begin, though."
"Does the ring have something to do with it?" Aisha hazarded.
"What was her name?"
Billy gave Aisha a stricken look. Then he sighed again and leaned back into his chair in an attitude of surrender.
"You're too smart," he muttered. "Okay, remember the accident I mentioned? It had to do with that regenerator I built. It had a sort of side effect I hadn't counted on. Instead of just staying my proper age, I started growing older at a highly accelerated rate, and no one could figure out how to stop it - at least, no one on Earth. We called the Rangers of Aquitar for help. I had already spent some time on their world, helping them settle a war. While I was there, I met a Healer named Cestria. One of her duties was to act as the Guardian of the Eternal Falls, a waterfall with the ability to reverse the aging process. When I was dying, she came to save me, and brought me back to Aquatar for long-term treatment. I decided to stay there, because I wanted to be with her. When I found out the truth, it was too late..."
*... "Billy, where are you going?"
That was Aurico's voice, drifting up from behind Billy as he hurried away. Billy had only nodded a distracted greeting to him as they had passed each other - he was in too much of a hurry for conversation, and he didn't need any distractions making him lose his nerve. On the other hand, Aurico sounded worried about something, and Billy didn't want this night to be interrupted. Maybe it would be a good idea to find out what was wrong.
"I'm just going to, um, talk to Cestria for a while," he said, turning to face his friend.
"Talk?" Aurico repeated skeptically, giving his friend a pointed look.
Billy suddenly realized he was rather obviously carrying a small jewelry box, and he blushed. "Well, I, um..."
"Billy, I don't think this is a good idea," said Aurico uncomfortably.
"It's okay," Billy assured him. "I know what I'm doing."
"I don't think you do," Aurico replied.
Billy looked at his friend with faint annoyance. "Look, I know it's not every day something like this happens, but I know my heart, and I hope I know hers. This is something I have to do."
"But Billy, there's something you need to know..." Aurico protested.
"Later," Billy said. "There's nothing to worry about, you'll see."
"Billy, wait!" said Aurico, but it was already too late. Billy was hurrying around a corner and out of sight. Aurico sighed and went to look for the rest of Billy's friends. He might need them by the time this was over, because it wasn't going to be pretty.
Billy found Cestria in her room, poring over a book. She looked up, startled, as he entered, and then smiled as she saw who it was.
"Oh, hello, Billy. Come in," she said in her gentle, musical voice.
A bit nervously, Billy entered the room, letting the door swing silently shut behind him. He fidgeted a little with the box he was holding while trying to keep its presence unnoticed. Cestria watched him with faint curiosity, and also a vague sense of unease. Her human friend was radiating tension, and she was worried that something had gone wrong, or, worse yet, was about to go wrong.
Since Billy seemed too wrapped up in his own internal struggles to begin the conversation, Cestria asked, "Did you have something you wanted to tell me?"
"Well, actually, I sort of wanted to ask a question," Billy replied. "You're very special to me, Cestria. You have been since the day I met you. I decided to stay here because of that, because I wanted to stay with you. Everything that's happened since I got here has only made me more sure of what I want."
"And that is?" she asked gently.
"If it's all right with you... I want you to marry me."
Cestria smiled, but it was not the right kind of smile. She sighed and shook her head, and Billy felt his heart drop into his boots.
"I'm sorry," she said.
"Sorry?" he repeated, unable to believe what he was hearing.
"Yes. You must believe that. You are a wonderful person, Billy, and you are going to make someone very happy someday, but that someone can never be me," she answered. "It is forbidden."
"Forbidden? Forbidden by whom?"
"By the ancient laws and customs," she answered. "They go back thousands of years, almost to the beginning of time, and I have sworn to abide by them."
"Why do you have to follow them? They're wrong," said Billy. "You ought to be able to marry who you want."
Cestria shook her head. "No. The laws would not have lasted this long if they were flawed. You know that, even if you don't want to believe it. Billy, you know what I am, don't you? You know what I do here."
"You're a Healer," Billy answered promptly.
"That is true, but I am more than that," said Cestria. "I thought you knew. I am one of the higher orders of this planet, what you on Earth might call a priestess. I am here to provide help to everyone in need - my heart can't be given to only one when I am sworn to look after all of them. I can't commit to one when I belong to all. If I did marry, it would have to be to another priest who could share my work. It would have to be a partnership of equals, or else it would never work. Can you understand?"
"I understand," answered Billy flatly. He got up and walked out of the room, out into the hall and on his way back to his own quarters. He didn't quite make it before the tears started...*
"...and that's why I'm here," Billy finished.
"I get it," said Aisha. "If you finish this training, you'll be a priest like she is?"
"Precisely," said Billy. "I just have to make this work. It's my only chance."
Fighter, who had been resting quietly throughout his speech, sat up and put a paw on his shoulder, then gently touched his face with the other paw, all the while watching him with her wide, innocent kitten eyes and purring loudly. Billy managed to smile at her, and he put out a hand to stroke the fur on her head and rub her ears.
"Yeah, I know you love me, little girl," he said to her. "Sorry I've been avoiding you - both of you. I guess I knew you'd figure out something was wrong, sooner or later, and I just didn't know if I could stand talking about it. You can't imagine what it felt like, being rejected like that. It's not like they didn't try to tell me, but I just ignored them. I didn't want to see the truth, and then I felt so stupid..."
"You're never stupid, Billy," said Aisha. "We all make mistakes, especially when emotions are involved. But it's going to be okay now, really. You can trust me. I think you can trust Joseph and Vivian... if they don't already know, and they seem to know a lot. Anyway, I know you can get through all this and pass your training with flying colors, just like you always have."
"You might be right," Billy replied. "You want to see something impressive? Hand me that pencil over there."
Curious, Aisha did as she was told. Billy gripped the pencil tightly in both hands, and, with a sudden wrench, snapped it in two.
"What did you do that for?" she asked.
Billy smiled. "Just watch."
Carefully setting the broken ends of the pencil together and closing his eyes, he pressed his fingers over the break. For a moment, nothing happened, but then, slowly, pale blue light seemed to extend from his fingertips and wrap itself around the splintered ends, fusing them back together, smoothing over the break and sealing up the chipped paint. Billy opened his eyes and sat back with a sigh, looking faintly relieved and rather pleased with himself.
"You fixed it! That's amazing!" said Aisha. She had been studying healing, but everything she mended already had the ability to mend itself. Knowing how much just speeding up that process took out of her, she was actually more impressed by seeing him perform that related feat than if she knew nothing of the process at all.
"It took a lot of practice," said Billy, smiling. "It took weeks to shake the idea that I don't necessarily need tools to fix things... they are useful sometimes, though."
"I'll bet," Aisha replied. "So, just how are all your classes going? You never get a chance to tell me about them?"
The communication barrier had finally gone down. The two students spent hours chatting about their classes, comparing notes on their courses of study, offering pointers, and exchanging stories about the things they had discovered in the incredible place they called home. The scene had gone from one of tension to relief, peace... and healing. The air held sounds of happy talk and laughter, backed up by the crackle of a fire, the serene tick of a clock, and the peaceful purring of a spotted kitten.
A few months later, Aisha woke, as usual, with something large, warm, and furry pressed to her side. It vibrated softly in a deep purr. As it felt her stirring, it raised up its sleepy head to lick Aisha's cheek, and she laughed.
"Hey, easy, girl! That was cute when you were a baby, but really, I can wash my own face!"
*Kiss,* Fighter insisted innocently. *Good morning, Mistress.*
"Yeah, good morning to you, too," said Aisha with a yawn. "Why do you always have to sleep in my bed? Cats are supposed to sleep on the floor, you know."
*Cat? Not cat. Floor is hard. Bed is soft, warm,* Fighter replied. *Breakfast now?*
As a part of her healer training, which currently consisted mainly of veterinary and botanical work, as there were no sick humans available, Aisha had been learning to understand the speech of animals. She could communicate with most of the creatures in Joseph's menagerie, but it seemed that Fighter, by her constant exposure to humans, was a bit more fluent in human-speak than the others. The thoughts Fighter was trying to express to her human companion usually arrived as words and simple sentences, but they were accompanied by much more complex images and feelings. For example, Fighter's term for Aisha, "mistress," was also tinged with other flavors that could just as easily be translated as "friend," "helper," or "mother." Having no memories of her true birth mother, Fighter seemed to have it rooted in her mind that she was a human, and assertions of, "Not cat," were common.
"Sure, sure, as soon as I get dressed," Aisha replied. "Why don't you go wake Billy up? He was up late last night, and he'll sleep through breakfast if we don't wake him."
*Door,* fighter complained, but she got down off the bed and headed for the common room, then onward into Billy's study. The students had found it more practical to give each other access to the study rooms most of the time, making it easier for one or the other to provide assistance as it was needed. Fighter paused at the door that led to Billy's bedroom (closed and locked, of course), stood up on her hind legs with her front paws braced against the wall, and roared.
"Ahh!" Billy yelped. "What in the...?"
Aisha giggled. "Just Fighter saying good morning. Oh, and she wants her breakfast now."
"All right, already! I'll get up, I'll get up!"
Humming cheerfully, Aisha went back to the task of choosing her outfit for the day while Fighter watched her with a wide-eyed, wondering stare. She had never quite understood the concept of clothing, and only seemed to understand that her human friend would sometimes take off her fur and replace it with other fur, which made no sense to Fighter. In her opinion, the fur that had been worn by a human for a while smelled much better than the clean, soapy-scented stuff Aisha exchanged it for. Still, she trusted her friend, and assumed that someday it would be made clear to her.
Aisha was aware that her "pet" was watching her, and she returned the courtesy. Watching Fighter grow up was practically the only measure she had of how much time had gone by since she had left Africa and began her new work. The cute little furball she had brought with her was nearly full-grown now, a long, lean, tawny predator. She was a beautiful creature with long, strong legs, a taut, muscular body, and a ringed tail that ended in a black and white Q-tip tuft. Her face was marked by the double dark stripes running from her eyes and down the sides of her nose like tear tracks, and her baby blue eyes had shaded to the indefinable color of dark amber, a kind of yellow-brown that looked almost purple in the right lights. Despite her maturity, she had never begun to show any tendency toward wildness, even though she was given the run of the grounds. She seemed to prefer the company of humans, and attended the lessons of her companions so closely that it seemed she wanted to study along with them.
Just as Aisha was putting the finishing touches on her ensemble of the day, hooking the clasp of a necklace of polished stones around her neck, she saw a reflection in her mirror of Billy standing in the doorway. He was groomed and dressed, but there was still something a bit haggard in his appearance, as if he had not rested well. Aisha felt a small stab of concern. Since the night he had told her of his failed proposal, he had been more open and social, less inclined to brooding and more to talking and even making jokes. With the two of them in almost constant contact, there was no way they could not talk to each other sometimes, and Billy had gradually opened up more to her. Sometimes they would just randomly say whatever was on their minds, even if it didn't make a lot of sense, until after a while it did make sense. Aisha felt a closer bond to him than she'd had even when they were Rangers togther. Yes, they had been good friends, but they had still had their separate interests and goals that kept them apart a lot of the time. Now they were both striving for the same goals, and they worked as partners in a way they never had before. Now Aisha was sensing that something was amiss with her friend, and she wondered how serious it might be.
"Rough night?" she inquired.
"Yeah, I was up late," Billy answered. "Joseph gave me a new project, and I was knocking myself out trying to finish."
"You do look pretty tired. Maybe you should take a nap later," said Aisha.
Billy nodded in wordless agreement, grateful that his friend had accepted his explanation. While it was true that he had been given a new assignment last night that had kept him up far past his usual bedtime, that still wasn't the complete truth. Actually, he hadn't slept well for the past few nights. Days were all right - he could keep busy enough with his studies and chores and socializing that he didn't have to consider personal problems too deeply. At night, however, when everything was quiet and he was all alone in the dark, his brain would start tormenting him with all kinds of strange ideas. In earlier days, he'd been able to put them out of his mind, but a few nights ago, he'd had a jarring thought that had been plaguing every free hour since then: he was having trouble remembering what Cestria looked like.
Last night, after he had been lying awake and listening to his clock striking two, he had finally gotten up, turned on the light, and taken out the little photograph he had brought with him. For a long time, he had simply stood staring at it, thinking hard, wondering just when it was that he had begun to forget the contours of her face, the sound of her voice, the shade of lipstick she wore. After a while, he decided on an answer - not one he particularly liked. It had happened at the same time he had stopped missing her. There had been a time where he had let his world revolve around her, but that time was not now. Now his life revolved around the daily rigors and enjoyments of being a Mender's Apprentice.
*Why am I doing this?* he asked himself. *I've lost the reason that brought me here, so what else is there? Just some kind of destiny that says I have to do this? What will I do when I'm done. If I go back to Aquitar, everything will be different. I don't think I could pick up where I left off. Would she expect me to marry her if I came back? Do I even want to? I think I feel closer to Aisha now than I ever did to her...*
The answers were hard to come by, and just the thoughts were uncomfortable. Getting them calmed enough so that they would let him sleep was no easy task, and he wasn't feeling his best when he was jolted awake by the cries of a hungry cheetah.
"What kind of project were you working on, anyway?" Aisha asked. "I thought it was Vivian who was training you, not Joseph."
"Yeah, that's usually how it works," Billy replied, "but last night, Joseph showed up at my door with this weird little machine and told me to fix it. Then he left. No instructions, no explanations, just an order."
"Weird," said Aisha. "Well, did you fix it?"
"I don't really know," Billy admitted. "I have no clue what it is or what it does or how it works. I wouldn't know if it was working, much less if it wasn't."
"Can I see?" asked Aisha curiously.
Billy shrugged. "I don't see why not."
Aisha followed Billy into his workroom and was directed to his desk, where rested an odd little device. On initial inspection, it resembled some kind of miniature television, not much larger than a square box of tissues, small enough to be carried comfortably. Its outside was covered in some kind of dark grey-blue metal, smooth and featureless except for a few discreet screws holding it together at the seams and a small pair of antennae on its top. the front had a smooth black screen surrounded by a selection of buttons and knobs.
"It looks like a TV," said Aisha. "Does it get good reception?"
"It gets something," Billy replied. "Here, just watch."
He flipped a switch, and the box gave a high-pitched whine. The black screen developed a green grid pattern, and a few red blotches appeared on it. At first, they were small and appeared to be spread out randomly, but as Billy twisted a knob, the picture moved, and Aisha began to see a design in it. As the screen scrolled upwards, the blotches became larger and more frequent, until there was more red space on the screen than black and green. It was as if someone had dropped a balloon full of red paint on the grid and let it splatter everywhere.
"What in the world?" Aisha wondered.
"I'm not sure," Billy replied. "I do know one thing - whatever the red spots are, they're multiplying... slowly. I spent some time charting them. There are definitely more of them, spread further out, and the central blip is growing larger."
"I'm not sure I like the look of it," said Aisha, watching another red speck come into being. "Maybe we should ask Joseph and Vivian about it?"
"I intend to," Billy replied.
"Rrrowr!" said Fighter insistently.
"Breakfast," Aisha translated. "Come on. We'll think better on full stomachs, anyway."
They made their way downstairs to the kitchen, followed by Fighter. She seemed nervous to Aisha, talking to herself about growls and smells, but since the thoughts weren't directed at Aisha herself, she couldn't make out enough to understand it. Upon reaching the kitchen, they found their breakfast already on the table - or in a dish on the floor, in Fighter's case. They also found Vivian, looking nearly as anxious as the cheetah. Her usually sunny countenance looked somewhat drawn.
"Morning, Viv," said Billy, scooting onto the bench. "Something wrong?"
"I'm worried about Joseph," she said. "Have either of you two seen him?"
"Not since last night," Billy answered. "Why? Is he missing?"
Vivian nodded. "He went out late last night and hasn't yet come back. He said something about having an important job to do, but he should have come back by now..."
"Where did he go? Do you have any idea?" asked Aisha.
"None," Vivian replied. "All I know is that he said something about tremors..."
*Growls,* Fighter commented, even as she devoured her meal. *Bad. Him gone, don't like.*
"Fighter senses something wrong, too," said Aisha, translating for her friends' benefit. "I think she knows Joseph is missing."
"Hey, Vivian," Billy put in, "before Joseph left last night, he came and gave me this weird machine, and I haven't been able to make heads or tails of it. Do you think it could have something to do with his mission?"
"What kind of machine?" asked Vivian, looking at him sharply.
"I don't know. I think it's some kind of scanning device," Billy replied.
"Could you go and get it, please? It might be important," said Vivian.
Billy nodded, dropped his fork, and made a dash for the door. He returned moments later with the box, which he handed to Vivian.
"I recognize this," she said. "It is a kind of seismic indicator... rather like the machines you use to monitor earthquakes. It tracks instabilities in the earth."
"Would these instabilities be represented by red blotches?" asked Aisha hesitantly.
"Then I think we're in trouble," said Billy. He snapped on the machine, and it instantly lit with bloodstain marks.
"Oh, dear," said Vivian. "I've never seen anything like it!"
"Are we going to get an earthquake?" asked Aisha. She was used to them, having lived in California most of her life, but that didn't mean she didn't have a healthy respect for what they could do.
"It could be worse than that," said Vivian. "There's a fault line opening up close to here..." - she pointed at the largest blotch - "...that could rip this part of our planet apart! And it's only a few miles away from here... the whole complex could be destroyed!"
"That must be where Joseph went," said Billy. "He's trying to use his Mending powers to repair the fault!"
"That's crazy! He'll be killed!" Aisha protested.
"It sounds like something he would do. Sometimes he forgets how limited his powers really are," said Vivian anxiously. "I hope nothing has happened to him..."
"We'll go looking for him," Billy decided. "You said the fault is only a few miles away. We can get there and bring him back quickly enough."
"You can't do it. It's too dangerous," Vivian protested.
"But we have to!" said Aisha. "I'm with Billy on this one. Joseph might need us."
"RRROWR!" added Fighter forcefully.
Vivian looked a bit startled. Then she sighed.
"I keep forgetting you two know how to handle danger. Your hearts are truly brave," she said. "Do what you have to do, and may the Power Protect you."
"Thanks," Billy replied. "I just hope we aren't already too late."
Aisha looked over her shoulder at the creamy walls that marked the far boundaries of Joseph's training complex, realizing for the first time that she had never actually seen them from the outside before. Everything she had needed had always been within those walls - food, clothing, companionship, security, a sense of belonging. Now she was leaving it, and it struck her for the first time that she had never actually seen the country beyond those walls. She truly had no idea of what she was going to find. Would things be as peaceful as they were in Joseph's gardens, or would she find herself faced with wild terrain and wilder animals? She shook her head; this was not the time or place to worry about such things. As if sensing her distress, Fighter rubbed against Aisha's leg comfortingly, and she absently reached down to rub the cheetah's ears.
"Are you ready for this?" asked Billy.
"I think I am. Are you?"
"I sure hope so. We have to be ready."
They set out. The land they traveled through was wild, but not as bad as either of them had feared. It seemed that Joseph had designed his gardens by adapting what was already in place, taming the wilderness for his own needs rather than destroying it and building over it. Of course he did; he was a Mender, and destruction was beyond him. Here, there were tangled trees and vines growing everywhere, and prickly shrubs where there were neither of those, and Fighter, build for running on the African plains, protested. Still, there were signs that someone had gone before them, breaking a faint trail. That was all they needed to go on. Between Aisha's spirit-link with a fellow Healer, Fighter's sharp nose, and Billy's tracking device, there was no way they could miss his trail. Armed with the contents of two backpacks containing various tools and Healing supplies, they felt confident that they could handle any emergencies that came their way.
On the other hand, the trip wasn't all that comfortable, either. The weather was usually warm by day, and the semi-jungle they walked through was steamy and humid, a contrast to the carefully controlled coolness of the gardens at home. There were insects, too, that buzzed around their heads, ranging from tiny gnats that got in their eyes to large beetle-like bugs and biting flies. Aisha, who had put up her hair due to the heat, felt the pricking legs of a large insect alighting on her neck. She yelped and swatted at it just as it bit her, and brushing it away got a small trace of blood on her fingers. She grimaced.
"This isn't exactly what I'd call a pleasure hike," she said.
"I agree," said Billy, trying to disentangle one foot from the sticky grasp of tangled vines on the ground. "We can handle it, though. We've been through a lot worse."
"You said it," Aisha agreed. "Last week's exams, for example. Here, let me help you with that."
Aisha knelt down to where the offending plants were growing, a mess of thickly tangled vines and intermeshing leaves that made a thick net of greenery. The Healer focused her powers on them, gently encouraging them to pull away, and the vines slowly untangled themselves and crept away. Billy watched with faint amazement.
"How'd you do that?" he asked.
Aisha shrugged. "Who knows? Sometimes even I don't understand what I'm doing."
"Well, thanks anyway," Billy replied.
"No problem. I'm always glad to help."
Billy nodded; he knew from experience how true that was. No matter how busy Aisha was with her own work, she was always willing to interrupt her studies to assist him with his latest project, or even if he just felt the need to talk to someone. And hadn't she been the one to almost singlehandedly pull him out of his melancholy introspectiveness following the rejection? She almost never looked worried or depressed. In her orange and gold clothing, she often reminded him of a living sunbeam as she danced her way through the daily routine, enlivening everything with laughter and song.
*Things would be so different without her here,* he thought. *If it had been me alone, I just would have wandered through all my training and then gone back to Aquatar and Cestria, and I'd have considered myself lucky. Now I'm starting to think there has to be more than that. I don't want this life to change. If I had the choice, I'd let things stay like this forever...*
Meanwhile, Aisha was picking her way through the underbrush, doing her best not to tear or crush anything of importance, watching Billy as he trekked ahead of her, breaking the path. It was heartwarming to see him taking charge like this. She had been seriously worried about him when they had first started their training. He'd always been a little on the shy side, but that kind of brooding wasn't healthy, and she was glad to see his character re-emerging.
*I think he'll be back to his old self again very soon,* she reflected. *Then I guess he'll be heading back to his girlfriend on Aquitar. Funny that he doesn't talk about her much... but I guess that's just because he misses her. It's too bad, too. I'll never find another guy like him back in Africa. Either they're all scared of me because they think I have magic powers - well, okay, I do - or they just think women are subordinate things meant for having kids. That's not my life at all. Billy's not a weak person, but he's sensitive, too. That's a good trait in a guy. I wonder if I'll ever find anyone else like him, maybe another Mender I could share my life's work with...*
Their ruminations were suddenly broken by a warning yowl from Fighter. In the next instant, the earth shook violently, pitching them both to the ground, and Fighter gave a wild shriek of fear. There was a colossal roar as the ground suddenly split open, and in the wild trembling that accompanied the movement, Aisha found herself unable to get up and move fast enough to avoid slipping into the crack.
"Help me!" she screamed, unable to even hear her own voice over the chaos. There was no way anyone else could have heard her. She was convinced then that her end had come, as she tried desperately to halt her sliding...
Hands appeared to grip her own, and she thought she could make out Billy's voice shouting at her. They held tightly to each other's hands, and in a few seconds, the earthquake was over, and Billy helped her climb up to safety. They both collapsed at the edge of the chasm, panting from fear and exertion, and Fighter came over to nuzzle them both and make certain they were all right. Everything around them was deadly silent, to quiet that they could hear each other breathing.
"You saved my life," Aisha managed, looking down at the gaping hole she had almost been lost within.
"I couldn't do any less," Billy replied. He looked like he was about to say more, when he suddenly turned around and began staring off into the jungle. "Hey, listen, did you hear something?"
Aisha listened, and Fighter pricked her ears up, staring off into the distance. The sound was coming from the same direction they had been heading. It sounded like someone shouting.
"Hello! Is someone out there? Can you hear me?"
"That's Joseph!" Aisha exclaimed. "He must be in trouble!"
"We're on our way!" Billy shouted back to the voice. "Just hang on!"
A few more minutes of trampling through the forest brought them to the edge of another chasm. This one was far wider, reaching deep into the earth and spanning a distance of fifty feet or more at its widest point. Peering into the darkness, a figure could be seen, resting precariously on a ledge.
"Joseph?" Aisha called. "Is that you? Are you all right?"
"Aisha, Billy, what are you doing here?" Joseph's voice called back. "No, never mind, I know why you're here. It was my fault for setting it up in the first place. You should get out of here while you still can. This place is too dangerous for you."
"We're not leaving without you," Billy replied. He opened his backpack and fished out a coil of rope. Tying it to the trunk of a convenient tree, he tossed the free end down to the trapped Healer.
"Climb," he ordered. "We'll help from this end."
Joseph gave a not and took hold of the rope. Bracing his feet against the side of the cliff, he began making his way slowly up the wall of broken rock, while Billy and Aisha pulled on the rope from their place at the top. Finally, he was safely back on solid ground... solid, that is, until the next earthquake came.
"We need to get out of this place, and fast," Joseph said without preamble.
"Just what is going on here?" Billy asked. "What's causing everything to break like this? I didn't know this place was on a fault line!"
"It wasn't, before," answered Joseph. "Something has gone wrong here, and it's making the earth turn unstable. This part of the planet is breaking up. I thought it was only a small flaw, something I could fix, but it's been growing so fast that everything I could do wasn't enough. I had intended to repair the fault just enough to take things out of the danger zone and let you finish it as a test - that's why I gave you the scanner, Billy - but I'm afraid I underestimated the seriousness of the problem and overestimated my own strength. I'm completely spent; there's nothing more that can be done here. We'll have to move out to safer locations."
"I'm not giving up," said Aisha firmly.
"Me neither," Billy replied. "Remember, I'm a real Mender. Maybe the problem here takes a more physical solution than what you could provide."
Joseph shook his head. "That might be so, but I'm afraid it's too late to try. This place could fall to pieces any minute. You could both be killed!"
"We're not afraid of risks, Joseph," said Billy.
"That's right. We've put our lives on the line to save our home planet. We can save this one, too," Aisha replied. "Who's to say this problem will ever stop if someone doesn't fix it? We have to try. The world might depend on us stopping it before it's too late!"
"I had considered that possibility," Joseph admitted. "Well, if you're that determined to go, all I can do is wish you both luck... and give you some instructions. If you really want to try fixing this problem, you're going to have to get to the root of it."
"You mean, you want us to go down into that?" asked Aisha, pointing down into the gap. "I just barely missed falling into one of those things! I'm not looking forward to going in on purpose."
"It's the only way, I'm afraid," said Joseph. "So, are you really going to do it?"
"We have to," Aisha replied. Billy nodded, and Fighter gave an encouraging mew.
"Well, may the Power Protect you both," Joseph replied. "I'll be waiting here... perhaps I'll be able to assist you in some way once some of my strength returns."
Saying goodbye, the two apprentices began scaling down the walls with the help of the rope. Fighter insisted on coming along, and Billy wound up having to sling her over his shoulders, thanking his lucky stars that she was still not full-grown, and Aisha heard the cheetah's mental complaints all the way down the side of the cliff. At last, they touched the bottom and took a look around. It was dark, nearly pitch black, with only a faint bit of light reaching them from above. All around them was jagged rock, leaving them standing on an uncomfortably rough strip of rock that was just barely wide enough to walk on. Aisha looked back and forth, trying to find some indication of what to do next.
"Is this it?" she asked.
Billy shook his head, eyes closed, sensing. There were images floating in his mind, giving him the same sort of feeling he got when he was just about to puzzle out the problem with a malfunctioning machine. He had always had some logical bit of thought behind whatever he was doing to explain to him why it was that anything that found its way into his hands would always be repaired sooner or later. Vivian had been trying to wean him of that habit, but this was the first time he had been forced to rely on magic alone to solve a problem, and it was taking all his concentration to hone in on whatever he was sensing and understand what it meant.
"We still haven't gone far enough down," he said at last, speaking slowly and carefully. "There's some kind of opening, I think... over there." He pointed to the trail up ahead.
"Lead the way," Aisha replied.
They worked their way slowly along the jagged path. Rather than moving straight ahead, the way they were forced to travel zigzagged randomly, sometimes taking sharp turns and bending around corners that were almost too tight to squeeze through. Not only that, but the ground they walked on was covered with jagged rocks that hurt their feet when they stepped on them, and any bit of stone that looked firmly attached might actually be resting on some unseen pivot, waiting for the unwary to step on it and stumble or twist an ankle. Going was slow, difficult, and painful. Clothing was torn on the rough edges of rocks, and both hands and paws alike were cut and scraped. The air was hot and filled with dust, making even breathing difficult. The humans were soon drenched with sweat, clothing sticking uncomfortably to their skin, and all of them were panting.
"Are we almost there?" asked Aisha, regarding her palms, slashed by attempts to stop herself from stumbling by trying to cath herself against the walls.
"We should be - I mean, I'm almost sure we are," Billy replied. "Can't you feel it?"
Aisha took her attention away from her injuries, and lo and behold, she did feel it. It felt like... like a cancer growing somewhere, a kind of deep, twisting ache. It was as if the earth itself had somehow developed a disease...
*Hurts,* Fighter said to her in an explanatory tone.
"What hurts?" Aisha asked.
*Earth. Hurts,* said Fighter. *Need help.*
"Well, that's why we're here, girl," Aisha answered. "We're here to help."
*Fighter help,* said the cheetah.
Aisha smiled at the cat's innocent willingness. "Sorry, but this is human business. I'm not sure there's much you can do."
*Help,* she insisted.
"What are you two chatting about back there?" Billy asked.
"Fighter says she wants to help," said Aisha. "She says that the earth is hurting, and I think she's right."
"Fighter's a smart cat," Billy agreed.
*Not cat,* Fighter complained.
"Hey, look!" exclaimed Aisha. "Is it just me, or is there a light up ahead?"
Billy glanced up. About twenty feet ahead, the gap widened to make an opening about ten feet square. In the middle of the opening was a deep hole that glowed with something like firelight and gave off a rush of heat that made the sultry air around the travelers feel cool by comparison.
"Lava tube," Billy said, giving the hole a cursory inspection. "Covered up for centuries, probably, before everything started shaking."
"You can't get any closer to the center of the earth than that, can you?" Aisha said. "I guess this is the spot."
"I guess it is," answered Billy.
Cautiously, they moved as close as they dared to the pit, until they could feel the oven-hot vapors rising up to them, and the knelt down with their hands extended, following some inexplicable and equally unquestionable instinct. Fighter stood nearby, wide eyed with curiosity. Aisha let her head bow, looking deep into herself, trying to draw forth the power she would need for this ultimate task, and Billy did the same. There was pain here, and brokenness, too, but there was something else, some other baffling ache that was alien to them, and they weren't sure that even their combined powers would be enough to alleviate it. Well, they would do what they could. With a flash of light that their closed eyes couldn't see, they threw all the power they could muster into the pit.
There was a threatening rumble, as if the earth itself resented their intrusion, and both Menders reeled with sudden shock. The earth wasn't just in pain, it was angry! Whatever pain it felt had pushed it toward some kind of cosmic insanity, and it was shaking with its rage at the two frail humans who dared try to stop it from spending its anger. The lava in the pit hissed and bubbled higher, reaching out to get them and burn them to ashes, and their own shock and terror and exhaustion held them in place. They could only sit and wait to be destroyed, too spent to even attempt to get away.
Suddenly, they felt something brush up against them, and their minds were suddenly filled with whirling images and colors, shades of crimson and violet, and they remembered that red and purple were the symbolic hues of the rarest and most elite of the Menders, the Heart Healers... Aisha opened her eyes and was met by the gaze of Fighter, the cat who had survived when all of her family had died, who had looked after Billy in his darkest hours, and whose mere touch seemed to ease all unhappiness. Her dark eyes were shimmering with amethyst light.
*Help,* she explained.
From the cheetah's paws, streams of lilac lights flowed into the pit of fire. Slowly but surely, the lava began to turn back, as the earth's anger was cooled. At last, all the fires were gone, and there was nothing left but cool darkness.
"Incredible," Billy whispered. "Fighter's a Healer?"
"I guess so," said Aisha, grinning. "Joseph did say that anyone could be born with Healing powers. I guess that includes cheetahs, too."
*Not cat,* Fighter said. *Healer, like Master and Mistress.*
"Prodigious," Billy replied. "But I guess it doesn't make much difference. What really matters is, we won!"
"That's right! We did it!" Aisha cheered. "Man, we just saved the world!"
The little canyon echoed with laughter and whoops of joy, sounds of happiness that were suddenly silenced as the two Menders fell into each other's arms and kissed each other. It was hard to know who was more surprised, but they got over the shock almost instantly and just concentrated on enjoying the kiss. Fighter purred loudly.
"I guess we'd better get back to Joseph and let him know we're okay," said Aisha when they finally broke apart. They were both smiling, eyes alight with joy, and neither felt the least bit uncomfortable. In this moment, anyway, there could only be room for joy.
"I guess you're right," Billy agreed. "He's going to want to know what's become of his Apprentices."
"Not Apprentices," replied Aisha, giving a more than fair imitation of Fighter.
"What do you mean?" Billy asked, startled.
"I mean," answered Aisha, grinning, "we're bound to have passed to Journeymen just for this!"
"Oh, I see what you mean!" laughed Billy. "I suppose you mean Journeyman and Journeywoman."
"I suppose you're right," Aisha agreed. "It sounds good to me, anyway."
They got up and began heading back the way they came, toward the rope. Billy was quiet for a while, thinking hard. Finally, he said, "Hey, Aisha, remember that ring I have?"
"Yeah, what about it?"
"You liked it, didn't you?"
"Would you like to keep it?"
Aisha laughed, but it was a happy laugh, as if she'd been wondering why he hadn't asked sooner. "Yes. Yes, I think I'd like that very much."
"You would? Really?"
They smiled at each other, and then leaned forward to touch each other
close once more in an expression of love and affection. The world was set to
rights because they
were together, and as the kiss deepened, they were completely oblivious to
the purrs of the
spotted cat that rubbed against their legs.