*Things like this happen,* he told himself, trying to be philosophical about the whole thing. *Where are the others now? Jason, Zack, Trini, Kimberly, Aisha... they were as much a part of the team as I was. When was the last time we heard from any of them? They're living their lives, and we're living ours, and even if we miss them, we can't get back together and make everything like it was. Things have changed. Even the best of friends can drift apart.* He paused and considered. *The big difference is that I'm drifting away from my friends even though I'm still here.*
For a moment, he was struck by a wild urge to follow after the Rangers. After all, there was no real reason why he shouldn't be able to come. The Rangers were just going to meet Lord Trey of Triforia as he landed on Earth, not going off to a full-fledged battle. Nothing was going to happen that he wouldn't be able to deal with just because he no longer had powers of his own, and nothing was going to happen in the Power Chamber that Zordon and Alpha would really need his help with, though he was sure they would insist otherwise if he asked them. They had always taken care of things like this well enough before he had started working with them full time, and they could still take care of them now. There was nothing really preventing him from going along if he wanted to...
*...except that I don't really even belong with them anymore. They won't feel comfortable having me along, because they've all started to feel like the only place I belong is here! It's not fair!*
The flash of anger evaporated almost as soon as the thought was completed, and he sighed. He had volunteered for this position; he had no real right to complain. It just got a bit frustrating at times... and a bit lonely.
"Are you all right, Billy?" asked a worried voice.
Billy dredged up a smile. "I'm fine, Alpha. Just thinking about something."
"Are you sure? You haven't been acting like yourself lately," the little droid persisted. "Is something bothering you?"
"I'll be okay. Thanks for caring, though," Billy replied. He actually meant it, too. It was hard to be depressed and talk to Alpha at the same time. There was just something about the robot that was good for eliciting smiles. He had always liked Alpha, thinking of him almost like a younger brother, and these days it seemed like the droid's companionship was the only thing keeping him sane at times.
"As long as you're sure," said Alpha.
Billy nodded and turned back to the computers, wanting to feel as if he was being of at least a little bit of use. King Mondo had set up an energy shield around the Power Chamber, and it would have to be broken before anyone would be able to get back inside, which would probably be necessary in the very near future if Trey was in as bad shape as he had appeared to be. He let his other difficulties drop out of his mind, concentrating only on the problem at hand. It was the best escape he knew, to lose emotions in a task of logic complex enough that there could be no thinking of anything else...
By the time the shield was broken, he was in a better mood. After all, this was what he did best, and no matter how badly he was feeling, there would still be some pleasure in doing it and succeeding. It seemed he would be well rewarded for his work, too, because it seemed that the Lord of Triforia was presently unable to use his powers, and he was looking for a worthy recipient to keep them until he could be healed. Trey was teleported to the Power Chamber at once. Billy, ever calm and logical, did his best to hide the excitement that was welling up inside of him.
*I'm going to be a Power Ranger again!* rejoiced a voice in his mind. Maybe only for a little while, but he would still be part of the team again. He would give anything for that, even if it was just for a day. *All I want is one more chance.*
The Golden Power Staff was placed in his hands. Billy raised it high, and lights flashed around him. For a moment, he could feel something happening, something wonderful and glorious, a warm rush of power that he had almost forgotten. Then, just at the change was about to be completed, something went wrong.
The feeling was like having something angrily ripped away from him, only intensified incredibly, as if every force in the universe had suddenly screamed, "Don't you dare touch that!" And then he was falling and crashing, and his heart cried out in pain. He was looking up from darkness, and there were lights looming over him. They were angry at him, and he found himself getting angry right back at them.
"What did I do wrong?" he demanded. "Why are you doing this to me?"
"You have attempted to take the Golden Powers," said a voice sternly.
"Trey is giving them to me! What's wrong with that?"
"You cannot take them. They are not meant for you."
"Why not?" Billy demanded. "I've been a Power Ranger for years. Am I not good enough? What's wrong with me that makes me unworthy?"
"You are destined for darkness," answered the voice. "You will no longer be a part of the team to which you once belonged. This is your fate, and you will accept it."
"What do you mean, destined for darkness?" asked Billy, a little frightened now. "I serve the Power. I always have. There's no way I could be-"
"Silence! Your fate is what it is, and it cannot be changed. When the time comes, things will go as you have been told."
"We'll see about that," Billy muttered defiantly.
"Destiny must come to pass," the voice insisted. "Go back to your own world now, and tell no one of this meeting."
With no more warning than that, Billy was spinning and falling again, and then he was back in the Power Chamber, holding a magical staff that would never do him any good. The three Treys stood and stared at him curiously.
"What happened?" asked one.
Billy shrugged. "It didn't work."
"I don't know," answered Billy, "but I'm going to find out. Excuse me, please; I need to think about this alone."
Before anyone could try to stop him, he turned and stalked away, heading for one of the smaller side rooms of the Power Chamber. He couldn't face anyone for a while, not after what had just happened. The condemning words of that voice he had heard were still ringing in his mind. Destined for darkness... what could it mean?
Time passed, and life went on, but Billy never completely forgot the conversation that had taken place in that dark otherworld. For the first couple of weeks after hearing the ominous prophecy, he had watched and waited for something catastrophic to happen to him, waiting for his enemies to swoop down and attack him and take him away to their side. He was determined to be ready when it happened, prepared to thwart whatever curse had been placed upon him... but nothing happened. Things just went along the way they always had. The only people the forces of evil seemed to have any interest in were the Power Rangers, and he was mostly just left to himself. For a while, he began to wonder if nothing was ever going to happen. That comforted him for a while. That was before it occurred to him that maybe nothing needed to happen.
Maybe it already had happened.
He didn't know exactly when that insidious little thought crept into his mind, but once it got there, it wouldn't let him go. He began to wonder if maybe, just maybe, there was a reason why he had suddenly begun to separate from his closest friends. Had something happened to him that he didn't even know about? Could they sense, somehow, that there was something wrong with him? Then he started to think that maybe it wasn't even something that had to happen. Destiny wasn't something that just appeared out of nowhere; it was laid on you from the day you were born, or maybe even before that. If that was true, than he might have already been tainted from the start. All he would need, then, is the right tug to draw out his dark side, and then...
*You're getting paranoid,* he told himself sternly as he lay awake in bed one night. *You've always been logical before, so don't lose it now. There's no point in torturing yourself with a bunch of things that are only possibilities, maybe not even that. It won't do you any good. What happens will happen, so there's no point in worrying about it.*
He went on in that vein for quite a while before he finally managed to calm himself. After all, it had been quite a while since the prophecy, if that was what it really was, and nothing bad had happened yet. It was probably just a trick of his imagination, some figment caused by his own self-doubts. The vision was blurry in his mind now, after all this time. As far as he knew, he could have dreamed it all, and who was afraid of bad dreams? How much could a dream do, really?
That night, he found out.
Far out in the more distant parts of the universe, there was a dusty desert world. It was dry most of the time, and there was hardly any vegetation. It was one of the most inhospitable places in all the galaxies that surrounded it. There were few people who were crazy enough to go there, even if it wasn't prohibited for them to try. For those brave or skilled or desperate enough to survive there, though, Onyx was home and shelter.
The most popular - and the only - hangout on Onyx was a tavern conveniently located in the center of the small town. Ruffians, refugees, bounty hunters, drifters, assassins, mercenaries, and criminals of every description came to gather here. Under the roof of the seedy old building, shady deals were made over tankards of the house specials while monsters cheated each other at card games. It was not a place one wanted to go alone, not unless you were either very good at dodging trouble or very skilled at self-defense, so the threesome who passed through the saloon's swinging doors attracted little attention.
The first of the group was a young humanoid man with pale orange skin and flaming red hair. He paused a moment, surveying the scene through one surprisingly blue eye. The other eye was covered by a tattered black eyepatch, and the scar that extended from beneath it hinted at why it was needed. He was dressed plainly in dusty brown clothes that helped him to blend with the general populace, but his brilliant hair was hard to miss.
His companion had taken no such precautions. Blue was his color, and he was determined to wear it. His clothes were fine enough to attract some attention, being liberally trimmed with silver, but the sword at his belt was a silent warning to any thief that it would not be wise to tangle with him. His skin was pale, nearly white, but his eyes were black as coals. Locks of brilliant blue hair fell to his shoulders.
The third member of the group was almost hard to see at first, as distracting as the other two were. Gender was impossible to tell, for the person wore a hooded black cloak that completely concealed face and form. Still, there was an air of watchfulness about the cloaked figure, as if the eyes hidden by the hood were surveying everything, missing no detail.
"Where's Cav? Where's Jet?" asked the redhead a bit worriedly. "I don't see them. Are they here?"
"Cav's over there," the other young man answered boredly. "See? He's in the far corner. Looks like he's had a few. Jet's probably stalked off in embarrassment. You know how Cav is when he's sloshed."
"After the way today's been, I might not mind joining him," said the hooded figure. The voice was feminine, soft and pleasant, with just a hint of a southern drawl, but there was an undercurrent of strength to it.
"Suit yourself, Vendetta," answered the redhead. "I want to talk to Cav and see what's eating him."
"Sure thing, dear," answered the one called Vendetta. "This won't take but a moment. Hold this, Prism."
So saying, she shed her concealing robe and handed it to the blue haired man, revealing a tight-fitting black dress that clung to a curvaceous figure. Her skin was very white, but her hair was jet black, falling past her waist. Her ears came to graceful points, like that of a storybook elf, and there was a green mark like a four-pointed star in the center of her forehead. Eyes like emeralds peered out from beneath her long eyelashes, and her red lips were set in a winning smile. Several of the tavern's patrons turned to stare at her. Ignoring them all, she sauntered across the room and up to the bar, where she leaned languidly against the counter top and gazed deeply into the eyes of the nearest creature seated there.
"Hey, big boy," she said coyly. "How's about buying a drink for little ol' me, hmm?"
The monster, completely flustered, beckoned for the bartender and handed over a handful of coins, never taking his gaze off of Vendetta. She took the drink that was produced and smiled brilliantly.
"Aw, thanks. You're a sweetie," she said to her benefactor. She kissed the tips of her fingers and brushed them against the creature's lips before sauntering away again, leaving him dumbstruck.
"Bet none of you fellas can do that," she said to her companions as she returned to them.
"What a ridiculous display," said Prism, making a face of mild displeasure. "You have no shame, Vendetta."
"Hey, it worked, didn't it?" Vendetta replied with a shrug, taking a sip of her free drink. "What's the good of being ravishingly beautiful if I can't put it to good use?"
She took a seat at the table where the males were already sitting and talking. The redhead was having an argument with the fourth member of their group, with whom they had recently been reunited. This new person's looks were as striking as the others when compared to a human, but his coloring seemed a bit drab next to his friends. His hair was blue like Prism's, but much lighter and with a slight metallic cast to it, and his skin had a faint silvery tone. He was dressed in simple, unadorned clothing of pale grey. A knife hung at his belt, but it appeared to be mainly for show; it didn't look as if it got nearly as much use as the guitar-like stringed instrument that was propped against the table beside him. His eyes were the color of an approaching storm but slightly unfocused, and a number of empty glasses (plus one half-empty one that he was still working on) could attest to the reason. He seemed to be very upset about something, but in his inebriated state, he was having trouble getting his point across.
"For the last time, Cav," said the redhead in frustration, "what is your problem?"
"I'm tellin' ya, Sear," Cav answered. "I'm tellin' ya, but ya won't listen. Told ya three times," he insisted, holding up five fingers. "Gone."
"What's gone?" demanded Sear in frustration.
"Him. He's gone," said Cav unsteadily. "Gone. You can wait for him, but he ain't gonna come. Gone... I want another drink." He made a face at the half-empty glass. "It's almost gone, too."
"Give me that!" said Prism, snatching the glass away. "You've messed yourself up enough. Who are you talking about? Jet?"
Cav managed to give his friend an annoyed look, even through his haze.
"Don't know how to listen," he accused. "Keep tellin' ya, he's gone. Gone, gone, gone, gone..."
"Cavalier, if you don't cut that out and tell us who you're talking about..." Sear threatened, raising a fist angrily. Vendetta gestured for him to stop.
"I'll do it," she said. She looked to her drunken companion. "Cav, sweetie? Look at me a second."
Cavalier turned and gave her a glazed look. Vendetta slapped him.
"Ow!" he said. "Whatcha do that f-for?"
"To get you to stop talking nonsense. Now, listen. We know someone is gone. You said that already. Now, tell us exactly who's gone, where they went, and why they're not coming, or I'll bash your precious lute over your head, okay?"
"You wouldn't. Not really," said Cav in faint amazement.
"I would, so start talking."
Cav sighed. "Jet. He's gone. They got him."
"WHAT?" There was a general outcry.
"S'true. We were fighting them, and they got him. I had to watch it happen," said Cavalier miserably. "They tried to steal the thing. Morph. Morpher. I got it from them, though. All that was left of him. Couldn't let them have it. Here." He reached into a pocket and took out a small, watchlike contraption, a silver disk inlaid with gold designs attached to a black wrist strap. He shoved it across the table to Sear, who picked it up with a stunned expression.
"I don't believe it," he said softly. "Does this mean Jet is... dead?"
Cavalier nodded dejectedly. Vendetta gasped, wide eyed with shock. Sear and Prism closed their eyes and hung their heads.
"This can't be happening," said Prism. "Why Jet? He was our leader. We need him. How are we supposed to take over a planet when we're missing our most important member?"
"For crying out loud!" muttered Sear, his pain already turning into anger. "Jet was our friend! They think just because we don't think like they do means we can't care about each other! They're probably celebrating right now, just having a blast now because they murdered my best friend."
"Not murder," said Cav, showing a flash of his usual character even through his alcoholic haze. "Destroy. We're things, Sear."
"Yes. All who fight in the name of good are people, all who fight for darkness are things," Prism agreed bitterly. "And they get to decide who's evil and who isn't."
"We'll get them all for it," said Vendetta, her voice full of cold fury. "One day, somehow, we will make them hurt for this. If they want us to be evil, then evil is what they'll get."
"Right," Sear agreed. He turned his lost companion's morpher over in his hands. "But before we do that, we've got to find a new leader."
It was a long way to Earth. Billy sat in his little room beneath the Aquitian waves and peered out the window. His was supposed to be a good view, a window looking down on an ocean-floor basin full of coral and waving seaweed, dotted by the occasional bright anemone or flitting fish. To Billy, though, the whole thing looked cold and dark. He was used to wide open skies and bright sunshine, and living on the ocean floor didn't do much for his mood.
He had been living on Aquatar for a few weeks now, recovering from the effects of his magical regenerator that had caused him to age far faster than the natural rate. He was safe now, the effects having been neutralized by a dose of magical Aquitian water, but as of yet, he had not gone back home.
Part of the reason, of course, was that he had friends here. He liked the Aquitian Rangers, and they treated him with great respect. Though he might not be an empowered Ranger, he still worked closely with all of them, just as he had when they were on Earth. And Cestria was here, too, the beautiful Aquitian girl who had helped save his life and with whom he had become close friends with on his first visit to Aquatar. He didn't feel so lonely here with all of them, which was important to him, but that wasn't the full reason.
*I'm hiding,* he admitted to himself. *Running away. I don't know why, though. It isn't like the problem was with the planet I was on. It's in me, and it isn't going to change just because I go somewhere else for a while.*
It was the dreams that were doing him in. He'd had one of them at least once a week since the night they had started. They were never exactly alike, varying with the events of his day and the mood he was in, but the theme was always the same. The fear that he had been dodging since he had been told he was fated to join the dark side would catch up to him in his nightmares, and the part of him he feared most would go on the warpath. It happened in different ways, but it was always the same result: he would end up hurting his friends, maybe even killing them, and then turning on the rest of the world or himself, finally waking up in a cold sweat, heart pounding. He had trained himself to ignore them, to forget them instantly and go on with his life, but the knowledge that they would pounce on him without warning as he closed his eyes was a disturbing one.
*So you ran away from your friends because you're scared you'll hurt them, and then what do you do? You make new friends and move in with them. Some genius.*
Just then, a spatter of static emerged from a small intercom device sitting next to his bed. Like the communicators he had built on Earth when he had first become a Power Ranger, this device linked Billy with the Aquitian Rangers so that they could alert him in case of an emergency. Now Aurico's voice came in through the small speaker.
"Billy! We are receiving a transmission from another galaxy. It seems rather urgent, so if you aren't doing anything..."
"I'm on my way," Billy replied. Going by the way Aurico was talking, it was unlikely that he would be able to do much that was really useful at the moment, but he might be needed later. He grabbed up his tool kit and hurried in the direction of the Aquitian Rangers' headquarters.
Unlike the Rangers of Earth, the Aquitian Rangers had no bans against having their identities known, so their headquarters, though off-limits to most people, was in fairly plain view. The practical upshot of this was that Billy could get there fairly quickly on foot, which was a good thing, since he wasn't currently equipped for independent teleportation. He seldom bothered with his communicator these days, and the time it would take him to dig it out from the pile of junk it was mixed with was about the same as what it would take for him to run, so he did. As he sped down the tunnels, a few acquaintances nodded to him politely; nearly everyone knew by now about their heroes' human helper. By the time Billy reached his destination, he found his friends all gathered around a holographic generator, wearing serious expressions. However, since their expressions were normally serious anyway, the situation probably wasn't that dire yet.
"Hey, everyone," he said. "Sorry I'm late. What's up?"
"We just received a distress signal from the world of Quandar, in the Torgah galaxy," Delphine informed him. "It seems they desire our assistance. Perhaps it would be best if we replayed the message for you."
"If you don't mind," answered Billy, nodding.
In response, Cestro did something with a few knobs and buttons on the hologram machine. Suddenly, an image sprang up, forming a flickering, translucent image of a distinguished looking man with a neatly clipped beard and a military-style uniform standing importantly before them.
"Greetings, Rangers of Aquatar," he said. "I am General Dyrhan of Quandar. I come to you with an urgent message. My planet is under attack by forces of unbelievable power, and we are nearing the ends of our strength in defending ourselves. Many have been contacted in hopes that they will lend us their aid, but so far, none have agreed. You may be our last hope. Will you help us? If you wish to speak with me in person, feel free to visit me in the capital city of Quandar. I await your answer. End of message." The hologram blinked abruptly out of being.
"What do you make of that?" asked Tideus.
"It sounds really weird," Billy said. "What could possibly be wrong on Quandar that no one else in the universe wants to deal with?"
"There can be no knowing that until we go and ask," said Aurico.
"But it could be a trap of some kind," Delphine pointed out. "Quandar is not a world noted for its hospitality. They are known as fierce military fighters, and they are often unfriendly to outsiders. I would be hesitant to trust them."
"But what if they really are in trouble?" Corcus asked. "We cannot leave innocent people in danger because of possibly groundless suspicions."
"They've got one of the best trained armies in that part of the universe," Cestro said thoughtfully. "If they are incapable of handling the danger, it must be a true emergency... but if this is a trap, they could be formidable enemies."
"We can't make an informed decision at this point," said Tideus. "What we really need to do is make some inquiries and get more information. A few of us can go and check out the situation, and the rest can take action later according to the circumstances."
Delphine nodded. "A wise plan. I move we follow it."
The other Rangers expressed agreement.
"Good," she said. "Aurico, Cestro, Corcus, you shall remain here. I will go with Billy and Tideus to speak with the general."
"You want me to come?" Billy replied. "Why?"
"I want a balancing of skills on both planets," Delphine explained. "Aurico and I are the warriors, you and Cestro the scientists, Tideus and Corcus our voices of reason and wisdom. We shall fare better if both teams are divided equally."
"I see," Billy answered. What no one was saying was that if it came to a rescue, it would be better if the empowered fighter was free to move, rather than someone like himself whose fighting skills were limited to natural strength alone. Then again, he also knew that Cestro tended to dehydrate more quickly than some of the others when leaving Aquitar, whereas he would be impervious to such problems and might actually benefit from the change, so it averaged out pretty well. He was impressed with Delphine for making the choice so skillfully and quickly.
"I will monitor you all from here," said Cestro. "We'll teleport to you as soon as the situation becomes clear."
"Very good," Delphine replied. "Are you ready, Billy? Tideus?"
"Of course," Tideus agreed.
"Ready as I'll ever be," added Billy.
"Then it we should waste no more time," Delphine said. "We will leave at once. Send word that we are on our way."
"Of course," said Aurico, "Good luck, and may the Power protect you."
The Aquitians made gestures of farewell. Then Delphine, Tideus, and Billy disappeared in streaks of color: white, yellow, and one in an incongruous deep black...
Quandar was impressive. Walking down the broad, clean, streets of the city, looking up at the shiny white and silver blocks of buildings, Billy found himself wondering if it was impressive in a good way or in a bad one. After a while, he decided it was impressive in its dullness. Everything was clean, everything was orderly, everything conformed.
*Well, it's a military establishment,* he reminded himself, *and we're right in the heart of it. Things are probably standardized here. Things can't look like this everywhere!*
"Not very welcoming, is it?" asked Tideus, glancing at a pair of armed and uniformed men marching down the other side of the street.
"What can you expect from a planet who is in constant threat of attack with no one to help them?" asked Delphine.
Tideus shrugged. "Not parades and flowers. Still, you would think they would at least-"
"There you are!" exclaimed a voice. Everyone turned to see a young man in a green uniform running up to him, smiling with relief. "You have no idea how good it is to see you! We had begun to lose hope that anyone would agree to help us. All the other Ranger teams we contacted were either too busy with their own problems, or, well... I'll let the general explain it to you."
"We would be happy to speak to him," said Delphine, her normally serious expression thawing a bit. The young soldier's relief was so evident and unfeigned that it wiped any suspicions of treachery from everyone's minds.
"I've been sent to greet you and show you the way," said the soldier. "I really can't tell you how grateful we are to have you. The situation's gotten quite impossible. They used to be bad, but lately..."
"They, who?" asked Billy.
"Our enemies," the soldier replied. "The general wanted to be the one to tell you the details. He knows what's going on better than I do, anyway."
There didn't seem to be any answer for that, so Delphine wisely said nothing. The soldier set a brisk pace, marching resolutely down the streets, but he chatted amiably as he walked. Billy was reminded a bit of a tour guide as he obediently looked at the sights that were pointed out to him. Once he had trained his eye, accustomed to the rounded shapes Aquitian architecture, to appreciate Quandar's angular style, he actually found a lot of the structures to be fairly attractive. He wouldn't want to stay there forever, but now that he was used to it, it seemed like a nice place. After a while, he became so involved with admiring the scenery that he nearly tripped on a flight of steps. He caught himself just short of crashing into Delphine, which would have made a bad first impression on the man who was coming to meet them.
The travelers from Aquatar were standing at the base of a grand set of stairs that swept up to an important-looking building that marked the end of the street. Sweeping down these steps with all the dignity of a king was General Dyrhan. In real life, he seemed far more formidable than he had as a six-inch translucent hologram. He seemed to radiate with calm power, a tall, broad shouldered man with short black hair and a stern face. His uniform was also black, decorated with gold buttons and a number of badges and medals and other marks of rank. He met his visitors at the bottom of the steps and gravely shook hands with Delphine.
"You are the leader of the Aquitian Rangers, I presume?" he asked.
"Yes. I am Delphine, and my companions are Tideus and Billy," she answered, gesturing to her friends. "We have come in answer to your message."
"You have come to help us, then?" asked General Dyrhan. "We are deeply indebted to you for coming."
"We have not decided to help yet," Delphine replied. "We have only come for more information on the problem. Once we understand the situation more clearly, we will make our decision."
"I see," said the general. "Well, in that case, perhaps it would be best if you were to step into my office so I can explain it for you in private. I admit, our situation is somewhat unusual. I am very glad you have chosen to come here so that I can explain it for you in detail. Those who have only heard part of the story have formed mistaken ideas of what is really happening here, and it has made recruiting help difficult."
"We will listen to what you say," Tideus replied. "It is, after all, why we came."
"Right this way," said General Dyrhan.
So saying, he led the way up the stairs and into the building. Billy took a look around at the neutral colors, chessboard floor, potted plants, and innocuous art before tuning it all out. It looked just like any of hundreds of official buildings he had seen on Earth. Evidently, bureaucracy was the same all over the universe.
After wandering through some hallways and past a few offices, where secretaries seemed to be working busily on paperwork and filing, they came to a large door with a brass nameplate discreetly marking it at the office of the general. He graciously opened the door and allowed his visitors to pass through. They were seated in a few of the utilitarian but comfortable chairs that were arranged around the general's desk while he himself took his place in his own leather armchair.
"I think the right place to begin would be at the colonization of this planet," he began. "Long ago, this world was inhabited by monsters, mutated creatures who often possessed powerful magic. Fortunately, their technology never became advanced enough that they could leave their planet, so they spent most of their time battling each other in bloody race wars. However, when it was discovered by space travelers, ancestors of all those living here now, the monsters were brought under control. They could not defeat the superior numbers and advanced technology they were faced with, and so they agreed to leave the colonizers in peace in exchange for being left to themselves. A bargain was made, and the planet was divided into four quarters - one for humans and one for each clan of monsters, and laws were upon that would prevent people of one race from disturbing the others. We lived in peace for many years, and all four civilizations flourished in their own ways."
Billy considered the idea. He had never heard of such a thing. Monsters and humans living together peacefully on the same planet... what a concept!
"However, the monsters could not forget their old feuds forever, and eventually, they began to bicker again. This time, however, they were far more powerful than before, and their wars damaged not only each other, but the people who were taking no part in it. Attempts at peacekeeping came to nothing. Finally, they took a step too far and deliberately murdered a human soldier who was doing guard duty at a station near one of the borders. At that point, total war broke out. When it was over, most of the monsters had been slain, and the rest driven away. At least, we thought they were."
"You have found survivors?" asked Delphine, her face creasing in puzzlement.
"Not survivors. Invaders," General Durhan replied. "They have decided that they want their world back, and they will stop at nothing to get it. They have attacked our world multiple times in unsuccessful attempts to destroy our city. As of yet, there have been serious injuries, but no deaths, but we do not know how much longer this will last - they have become much more vengeful and destructive since the death of their leader."
"That does sound serious," said Billy, "but why hasn't anyone agreed to help you? Even a huge army can't do but so much good if their leader is gone."
"That's just it," answered the general. "They aren't an army. There are only four of them now, but they are very cunning and very powerful. You see, the problem is that these monsters aren't just any monsters. These monsters... are Power Rangers."
"Blast it!" muttered Prism, beating his fist into his palm. He glared angrily at the computer he was seated in front of. "Blast, blast, blast it! Those dirty dogs have finally called in some real fighters!"
"No problem. We'll just toast 'em," said Sear. He blew across the tip of his index finger, and a flame suddenly lit on the end of it.
"Be serious," said Prism sternly. "I'm not talking about more grunt troops. They've got real Rangers now, with powers equal to ours and more experience under their belts. This is trouble."
"Incredible," said Cavalier. He was sitting on the other side of the room, strumming idly on his lute. Having had a few days to recover from the death of his friend and the way he had handled the situation, he was in top form again, and was now generally making an annoyance of himself by making sarcastic remarks about everything that crossed his path. Since that was the way he normally behaved, no one paid much attention. "They do everything they can to keep us aliens off their planet, and when they figure out they can't do it, what do they do? They call more aliens! And they called us the inferior races."
"You got that straight," said Vendetta.
"The logic of our enemy is not in question at the moment," said Prism. "What we should be talking about is what they have decided to do, whether it is logical or not. How do we deal with it?"
"Aw, I don't know," said Cav, pausing his song and making a face of frustration. "Strategy was Jet's job. We just aren't up to dealing with complicated plans without him."
"You're the brain here, Prisim," Sear said. "You think of something."
"I'm not a planner. My talents, considerable as they are, are still limited to my fields of expertise," Prism answered.
"That's my brother," said Cavalier. "Brilliant mathematician, unmatched computer programmer, and dull as an old butter knife in the face of reality."
"Someday I'm going to disown you," answered Prism mildly.
"Oh, men!" said Vendetta, rolling her eyes. "If you all would quit insulting each other and think, maybe you could come up with something. As of this minute, what are we up against? If we made a concentrated attack right this second, what would we be facing? Five Rangers? Six?"
"Three people teleported from Aquatar," answered Prism, looking back at his computer. "Two of them are fully empowered. It's harder to tell about the third; the readouts are very unclear."
"So, we've got three Rangers at the most, possibly two," Sear replied. "Maybe we can fight them off. We might be able to scare them away, even if we can't destroy them."
"Or maybe we could just sting them into getting together a few friends and having them come back to avenge them," added Cav.
"You are a wellspring of inspiration," said Vendetta sarcastically.
"Hey, somebody's got to tell it like it is," Cav replied.
"Enough is enough," Prism said, interrupting before an argument could break out. "We'll go to Quandar, hit them with all we have, and trust it will be enough. It will have to be, because I don't know how much more we can do without Jet."
"I hate to admit it, but you're right," said Sear with a sigh. "Okay, then, let's give this a try. I sure hope we're doing the right thing."
The others nodded. Then, in four streaks of colored light, they teleported out of their hideout, speeding through the darkness of space full of grim determination.
For a moment, there was silence in the room as the Aquitian visitors digested the news.
"Well, that does put an interesting face on the matter, does it not?" said Tideus at last.
General Durhan nodded. "No one wants to be seen as the ones who destroyed a team of Rangers, even if we can convince them that there are monsters behind the masks - which isn't always easy. If something isn't done soon, our world will be destroyed. We cannot hold out against them forever. Please, will you help us?"
"We will consider it," said Delphine. "The other members of our team are still on our homeworld. I would like to discuss this matter with them before any final decisions are made. If we are all in agreement, we will stay as long as we can. You must be aware, however, that it is difficult for us to survive long away from our own planet."
"I assure you, even if you can only stay for a short time, we will be eternally indebted for any help you can-"
The end of the sentence was lost in the sound of an explosion. The building shook, and everyone clung to the arms of their chairs as the floor trembled.
"Sounds like we're going to have to make a decision right now," said Billy. "Fight or flight?"
"Fight," Delphine replied. Tideus nodded. They both got to their feet and struck their morphing poses.
"Aquatar Ranger power, now!"
In the next second, both Rangers were fully attired in their bright armor. They hurried for the door, but paused in the hallway as they realized that Billy was following them.
"Billy, what are you doing?" asked Delphine, half angry, half concerned.
"I'm coming," he answered simply.
"You cannot come," said Tideus seriously. "It is far too dangerous. If you try to take part in this battle, you're bound to be hurt."
"That makes no difference," Billy replied. "There's only two of you and four of them. If the three of us fight as a team, it's less likely that any of us will be hurt than if you try to take on all of them."
*Besides,* he thought, before he could stop himself, *if something happens to me, at least I won't have to worry about nightmares anymore.*
His dreams the night before had been particularly harrowing. He was sure they were growing worse over time, as if they were increasing in intensity to prevent him from growing accustomed to it. He had seen himself entirely in black armor, fighting a desperate battle in the streets of some unknown city. It was a strange, otherworldly place, with pale grey streets, unadorned buildings of the same, and an overcast sky of milky grey-white. He had been the only dark thing anywhere, and people were fleeing from him as he pursued them, mowing them down with his sword. He remembered the cries and screams of his victims. The last thing he remembered seeing before he awoke was a woman with a tear-stained face, begging him for mercy. He had been jolted awake then, and though the image was blurred now, the way it had made him feel was burned into his memory. It wasn't the terror of the woman that scared him as much as the blind hatred he had watched her with. The dream didn't have to go on from there to tell him what he would have done.
*If this goes on much longer, I'm going to go crazy!* he thought. He shivered. *When that happens, maybe I really will go on a rampage. I can't take much more of this...*
"If you're determined to come, I can't stop you," said Delphine. "But be careful, and promise me you'll get out of the fight as soon as the other Rangers arrive. You're too valuable to lose."
"Sure, no problem," Billy agreed. He was going to say more, but at that moment, another blast rocked the building, and a voice was faintly audible from outside.
"Rangers of Aquatar! We know you're in there! Come out and fight!"
"I think we're wanted," said Tideus.
"I think you're right," Delphine agreed. "We should waste no more time. If you're coming, then come!"
They dashed out of the building, pausing at the top of the stairs to survey the situation. Standing in the street, weapons raised, were a crew of heavily armored beings in different colors: red, blue, green, and silver. They glared upwards through black visors, visibly tensing at the sight of the Rangers.
"So, only two of you?" asked the warrior in red. "We can handle this! Get ready to rumble, Rangers! FireBeam's going to take you down!"
"Save some for me!" added the warrior in blue. "I'm IceRay, and I'm ready to chill you both!"
"I'm EarthBolt," added the one in Green. "Prepare to feel my wrath!"
"WindFlash is my name," the warrior in silver finished. "My power will blow you away, just as it has to all who have come before you!"
"Don't count on it," Delphine replied. "Evil impostors will never defeat true Power Rangers."
"We're no impostors," FireBeam replied. "We wield the Power just as you do, and that gives us the strength to destroy you if we have to. Surrender now, before we turn you to dust."
"Never!" Delphine replied. "Aquatar Rangers, full power!"
The two Aquitian Rangers posed impressively for an instant, and then seemed to shoot down the steps in a blur, almost invisible against the pale stone. Feeling terribly conspicuous in his dark clothing and vulnerable without armor, Billy nevertheless followed determinedly after them.
"Would you look at that?" asked WindFlash of no one in particular. "It looks like their little friend wants to help. How droll."
"No problem," answered EarthBolt. "I could take him on with one hand behind my back."
"Do it, then," IceRay snapped. "We'll take the other two."
EarthBolt nodded. As Billy was rushing to join his friends, he was intercepted by the warrior in green, who kicked him roughly out of the way. He cried out in pain as he spun through the air for a dizzy moment, hitting the asphalt with a bone-jarring thump. He tried to scramble to his feet as the Green Ranger neared him.
"You're not going to stop me that easily," he said. "I might not be a Ranger anymore, but I still know a few tricks."
"Oh, really?" asked EarthBolt skeptically. "You'd better hurry up and use them, then. I have no mercy left for you people."
"Fine. Watch this," he said.
He suddenly sprang at the warrior like a leaping animal, and they both fell in a tangle. Billy was the first to regain his footing, having known what was going to happen, and he took off running, trying to lead his attacker away.
"Come and get me, if you dare!" he shouted back.
EarthBolt looked from him to her companions, who were in a heated but seemingly even battle with the White and Yellow Aquitian Rangers, and then back at Billy, evidently thinking hard. Then, the strange Green Ranger shot after him, the ringing of metal boots echoing in the streets.
Billy led a high-speed chase, not really caring where he was going, just as long as he could distract this enemy from attacking his friends. The streets became narrower as he moved further from the main roads, and the buildings seemed to dwindle from grand towers to plain whitish boxes. He noticed distractedly that clouds were moving in across the sky and wondered why it was that he felt like it was important. He didn't get time to think about it, though before he noticed a soldier coming from the other direction. As Billy shot by him, he snatched the sword that hung at the soldier's waist.
"Hey! Give that back!" the soldier shouted.
"Get away from here! EarthBolt's coming!" was all Billy said in reply. It was enough. The soldier nodded and dashed around a corner and out of sight. Billy paused, brandishing his new weapon, trying to get a feel for it before his enemy arrived. It wasn't really his choice of weapon, but one had to make the best of what was offered, and he knew he didn't stand a chance against EarthBolt unarmed.
In the next instant, the Green Ranger came into view, an emerald fury. Billy stood his ground, trying to look confident. He must have succeeded in some measure, because he armored warrior paused to size him up.
"So, you really think you can take me on all by yourself?" asked EarthBolt.
"I aim to try."
"I'll destroy you, you know. You don't really have a chance."
"Maybe I don't. Maybe I do. Only one way to find out."
EarthBolt looked incredulous. "You're insane, you know that, don't you?"
"You're wrong. I know what I'd do if I was insane, and it's not pretty."
"Well, then, you're at least a bit foolish. But if you really want to fight, who am I to stop you?"
With that, Earth Bolt lunged at Billy, but he had expected such a move and dodged it. At the same time, he swung his purloined weapon, scoring a nice hit across his enemy's side. The Green Ranger staggered backwards, gasping in pain and shock, but quickly recovered enough to aim a few angry punches in his direction. He managed to dodge the first few, but he hadn't done any real hand-to-hand combat in quite a while, and he took the last blow squarely in the shoulder. The force of the blow was enough to throw him against a nearby wall, momentarily stunned. However, the sight of his adversary drawing closer was enough to shock him back into action again. He dove out of the way as the Green Ranger attempted to bash his head in, raking his blade across the warrior's back. EarthBolt fell, dazed, and Billy came and pressed the tip of his sword against the fallen enemy's neck. Sensing death had just moved in very close, the Green Ranger became very still.
"Surrender," Billy said.
"Never." The voice was hard and strong, ringing clearly in the empty streets. Billy was shocked. For the first time, he consciously realized that EarthBolt was female!
"If you don't surrender, I'll have no choice but to destroy you," he told her.
"Kill me then," she answered. "Go ahead. Kill me. Show the universe that you have no mercy. Destroy me without even understanding what I'm fighting for. At least I'll be with Jet again..."
Billy paused, listening as the Green Ranger broke down in tears. Thoughts were running wild in his brain. The buildings were pale white, nearly invisible against the overcast, milky-grey sky, and a woman sobbed helplessly at his feet, awaiting the moment when he would put her life to an end. The dream again! What did it mean? Destined for darkness... If he gave in here, would he be sealing his own fate? Looking down at his captive, an image flashed through his mind, thinking of the monsters he had slain when he was the Blue Ranger. How had he looked then? What was it like to be a monster and stare into the cold, expressionless visor of someone as they prepared to kill you? He shivered a little at the thought. Was what he had been doing really right? Was the important thing to destroy evil or have mercy? What was he supposed to be doing? What was right? What was wrong? Did it really even matter anymore? He was so confused...
"Get up," he said, taking his sword away.
"What?" The Green Ranger turned to stare at him suspiciously.
"I'm not going to kill you," Billy replied. "I don't know what's the matter with me today, but I can't destroy you."
"Weakling," said EarthBolt scornfully.
"Maybe so," Billy replied, "but no one has to know if you don't tell."
"Maybe I won't," the Green Ranger answered thoughtfully. "It has been interesting battling you. Perhaps we'll meet again."
"Don't count on it," said Billy.
"We'll see," answered EarthBolt thoughtfully. Then she was gone in a blink of green light.
For a moment, Billy stood there in the middle of the road, reflecting on what had just happened. Then he glared down at the stolen sword and pitched it as far away as he could. He turned and ran back to where he had left his friends.
On the main street of the city, he found all five Rangers of Aquatar congratulating each other on a job well done. Billy went and joined them.
"How did it go?" asked Cestro. "We were beginning to worry about you."
"I survived. I'm a bit bruised, but I think I did okay," Billy replied, sounding more positive than he felt. "I'm kinda tired now, though. Can we go home?"
"Of course, Billy. You've worked hard this afternoon," Delphine replied. "We all have. We will return to Aquatar to replenish our energies, but we will return as soon as we are needed."
The others agreed. In six flashes of light, they streaked away from the world of Quandar. No one but Billy had any inkling that this would prove to be a far more significant battle than it seemed.
Billy dreamed again that night, and was slightly annoyed by it. Normally, he only had one such dream in a week, and here he was having his second one in a row. It didn't seem quite fair to him, even in his sleep. The emotion distanced him somewhat as he watched the visions reel by - after all, they were almost exactly the same as the ones he'd had the night before, except that now he was accompanied by the dark Rangers he'd been fighting against earlier that day. Now they were there with him, helping him accomplish his dream-goals. Altogether, it didn't seem so disturbing to him anymore. Then, suddenly, the warrior in silver turned to him and said, "Wake up!"
"What?" said Billy, briefly confused. Without meaning to, he said it aloud in real life, and then he really was awake, lying safely in his room on Aquatar. He sighed and shifted positions, trying to settle back to sleep again. Dreams were such strange things...
"Come on, wake up! I can't stand here all night!" said the Silver Ranger's voice again.
Billy sat up with a jolt and looked around. He was not alone. Standing next to his bed was a pale-skinned young man with deep grey eyes and pale blue hair. Though it was dark in the room, he was as clearly visible as if he was standing in full sunlight, thanks to an aura of pearly light that surrounded him. Billy noted with a strange calmness that both his skin and clothing were a pale silver-grey.
*This is it,* he thought with a strange sense of relief. *It's finally happening. They've come to get me.* If it had happened sometime earlier, he would have resisted, but now he was too tired, too worn from worrying and restless nights to put up a struggle. Destiny had come, and he would face it calmly.
"You're WindFlash," he said with certainty. "One of those Rangers trying to take over Quandar."
"Clever, aren't you?" answered the visitor, with more than a hint of sarcasm. "I'll never cease to be amazed at people who never cease to be amazed by the obvious."
"Well, most Rangers I know don't expect people to know their identities," said Billy.
The stranger shrugged. "Whatever. Anyway, you'd better get up and get moving. We both need to get out of here before anyone notices me. You wouldn't want me to have to hurt anyone while I'm trying to kidnap you, right?"
Billy shrugged and nodded. Kidnaping. Of course. Why not? This late at night, everything seemed to make perfect, dreamlike sense, so he only did as he was told, getting out of his bed and pulling on some clean clothes. The stranger only watched him with faint curiosity.
"It's interesting, you know," he offered after a while. "You really are Touched. I didn't believe it when I heard it. I thought Prism was just blowing hot air."
"Touched?" asked Billy, puzzled.
"By the Power," the stranger explained. "You aren't fully empowered anymore, but you used to have it, and part of it is still in you. Residual energy and stuff like that."
"Now who's stating the obvious?" Billy shot back, pulling on his shoes.
The stranger laughed. "You'll be all right, human. We're gonna get along just fine."
"I'm ready," said Billy. Out of habit, he reached for his toolkit, but his abductor stopped him.
"You don't need that. Electric gizmos are Prism's department. We have other plans for you."
"Oh," Billy replied. What else was there to say? It was confusing, really. When was the last time he had been needed for something other than his technical skills? What else was he really good for?
"Say goodbye to Aquatar," said the kidnapper. "We're out of here."
Billy silently took one last look around his room. It looked cold and barren. Then it vanished from his sight as he was teleported away.
He rematerialized in a desert. Looking around as far as he could, all that he could see was hard-packed ground, with only a few jutting stones to break the monotony. Looking up, he saw the brightest star-spangled sky he had ever seen, bathing the landscape in mystical blue light.
"Welcome home," the kidnapper said, dragging Billy quickly across the desert. "Come on, step lively. The others are waiting."
"EarthBolt," said Billy automatically. "And IceRay and FireBeam."
The kidnapper paused long enough to give him a hard stare.
"We have names, you know," he said. "But no one ever thinks of that, do they? No, of course not. Nobody likes to think about their enemies having anything about them that would arouse sympathy. But we're not going to be enemies, so you might as well know, my name is Cavalier. Call me Cav."
"I'm William Cranston," Billy answered. "Call me Billy."
Cav nodded. "That'll do. Hurry it up, now. We're almost there. The others want to meet you."
Billy thought he could see their destination now. Either that, or there was some other reason why Cavalier was heading so determinedly for a fairly ordinary looking large rock. It was roundish and fairly flat, though not so much of either that it would look like something out of the ordinary, jutting about four inches above the surface of the desert and about the circumference of a manhole cover. When they reached it, Cav kicked it impatiently, and it swivelled around to reveal a deep black hole with a ladder leading down into the darkness.
"After you," said Cav with mock courtesy.
"Right," Billy agreed. "You wouldn't want me trying to run away, after all. Even if it would be pretty stupid of me, seeing as how I have no idea where I am."
"You're taking my job from me, Billy," said Cav in faint amusement. "Sarcasm is my department."
Billy shrugged and began climbing down the hole. He knew he ought to be taking the whole situation more seriously, but somehow, he couldn't really work up the energy. All he felt capable of now was relief that the worrying was over. The dark side had come to claim him as one of their own, and he was ready to go along quietly if it meant that he'd never have to have another of those nightmares again. Maybe he'd be worried about it tomorrow, but now...
At the bottom of the ladder, there seemed to be a large, square, metal room that was evidently his captor's main headquarters. Billy looked around with interest; there was nothing in the universe that could dull his desire to learn, and it wasn't every day he was invited inside the secret hideout of a band of evil Rangers. What he saw didn't impress him much. There seemed to be a computer of some sort resting on a desk at the far side of the room and a jumbled mess of parts and tools resting nearby, but it looked more like something Billy would have built in his lab than one of the high-tech machines he'd worked with in the Power Chamber. The only other furnishings in the room were several chairs and a rickety table. A few balls of light hovered here and there, casting a cool glow over everything.
"Here we are! Home, sweet home!" announced Cav, sliding down the ladder and dropping next to Billy. "I know it's not much, but when the universe hates you, you have more important things to do than worry about frills."
"Oh," Billy replied. He continued looking around, wondering what it was about this place that penetrated his own personal malaise and inspired a sense of... pity? It was almost the same as what he'd felt when he'd released EarthBolt.
*Maybe I really am destined to help these people,* he thought. *I don't really know why, but I think I want to...*
"What happens now?" he said aloud. "Where's everyone else?"
"Sleeping," Cav replied. "I was the only one crazy enough to stay up half the night to come out and kidnap you. You can meet them all in the morning. And as for what happens now, I'd say sleeping would be a good thing for you, too. Good night, Billy. See you in the morning."
A cool hand was suddenly pressed over Billy's eyes, blocking out his vision. Deep weariness overcame him, and he felt consciousness slipping away. He gave it up without a fight, dropping away into deep sleep. He dreamed of nothing at all.
Morning found him lying in a plain but surprisingly comfortable bed, wrapped up in black blankets. He opened his eyes slowly and looked around, disoriented but not really frightened. That was the difference a good night's sleep made. The room he was currently resting in looked barely large enough to turn around in, but it seemed to be equipped with all the basic necessities. There appeared to be a clock of some sort ticking away on his dresser, but even the system of numbering was so completely foreign to hm that he couldn't decide if it was early morning or the middle of the afternoon. After a while, he gave up trying to figure it out and got out of bed. He looked himself over and decided that his clothes, though somewhat wrinkled from being slept in, were still clean enough to be worn. Once he had given his new accommodations a brief inspection and found nothing of interest, he tested the door. It was unlocked, which surprised him a little, but he shrugged and walked out of the room.
His room seemed to be at the far end of a hallway. There were four other doors on the hall as well, two on either side. Curious, he tried one and found it locked. Pressing his ear to the door, he made out the sound of soft music being played on a stringed instrument, and he thought he recognized Cav's voice singing. He moved on to the next door. Someone was snoring behind that one, so he didn't bother trying to inspect it further. The last two doors were open, so he peeked inside. Judging by the oddments that were strewn around the room, he guessed it was a female's habitation, not somewhere he'd want to be caught snooping. The other room was filled with random bits of wire and mechanical paraphernalia, and the surface of every piece of furniture (including the bed) was strewn with tools, books, and scraps of paper.
"And I thought my lab was a mess," Billy said aloud.
"What was that?" said a voice. Billy thought he recognized IceRay, but he wasn't sure.
"Sounds like our guest is awake." That was definitely EarthBolt.
"Well, then, we should probably go claim him before he gets into trouble," answered the first voice.
Billy followed the voices and found himself back in the room he had entered earlier. Two people, a strange man with blue hair and a young woman with elfin ears and a green star on her forehead, were sitting at the table, evidently enjoying a leisurely breakfast. Billy stared at them in puzzlement.
"Monsters eat pancakes?" he wondered.
"Sure! What did you expect?" asked the woman. "Newt eyes and lizard gizzards?"
"Humans can be so prejudiced," answered the man in blue. "If it weren't for his potential..."
"We still would have had to choose somebody," the woman pointed out. "Why not him?"
"I suppose you're right," said the man in blue. He turned to Billy. "As long as you're up, would you mind going and telling the others that breakfast is ready? I know Cav is awake, playing his lyre again, but you'll probably have to kick the door a few times to wake Sear up."
"Syrup?" offered the woman, handing the jar to him.
"Don't mind if I do." He accepted the bottle of syrup and began pouring it on his pancakes.
Billy suddenly began to laugh. He knew it was probably a bad idea, and that his hosts would likely find it insulting, but the whole situation was so absurd that he couldn't help it. His captors stared at him in puzzlement.
"And just what, may I ask, is so funny?" asked the man coldly.
"I'm sorry," Billy said, getting himself under control. "This is all just so... weird."
"You'll get used to us, sweetie," the woman assured him. "Now, do be a dear and run and get the others. Cav will be irked if his breakfast is cold, and nobody wants to put Cav out of temper."
"If he gets mad, its his own fault," said Billy, starting obediently towards the hallway. "If he wants his breakfast hot, he should come out of the room and get it."
"Don't tell him that," the man replied seriously.
"Why not?" asked Billy, pausing to look back at him.
"Rule number one," the woman said. "Never, ever, make Cav angry. Ever."
Billy looked from one face to the other. They were dead serious.
"I'll keep it in mind," he said, and he went to retrieve the others.
It really did take a lot of kicking and shouting to rouse Sear from his bed, and there was a lot of grumbling coming from behind the door before the redheaded man finally emerged, yawning and scowling. Fortunately, all it took was a light knock on the door and a few polite words to call Cav to breakfast, and Billy wondered why it was that he had heard nothing about Sear's grumpiness but had been cautioned against the temper of the apparently easygoing Cavalier. Sear looked like the kind who could rip phone books in half and bend iron bars. Cav, on the other hand, was rather on the thin and gawky side, looking far more suited to quietly strumming his lyre than to battle. Hopefully, Billy would get some explanations later on.
They all sat down to breakfast and quietly applied themselves to their food without much conversation, and Billy deemed it wise to follow their example and wait until they were ready to talk, rather than asking questions. Oddly enough, it was only while they were eating that Billy actually began to wonder just why it was that he'd been captured. He no longer had any powers, and it was fairly obvious that they already had a capable scientist on their side. What did they want him for? A hostage, maybe? Why were they being so nice to him, then? They were treating him more like a member of their team than a captive...
"He wants to know why he's here," said the woman. Billy jumped.
"Don't look so surprised," said Cav. "She's a minor sort of sorceress. She's good at figuring out what people are thinking. Besides, it's only logical."
"True," said Billy. "So, are you going to tell me? I would kind of like to at least know all your names."
"Fine. Let's get some official introductions, and then we'll explain this whole catastrophe," said the man in blue. "I'm Prism, technical expert."
"I'm Sear," said the redhead.
"Call me Vendetta," the woman added.
"I think you remember my name," Cav said. "Everyone, this is Billy."
Billy glanced thoughtfully from Cav to Prism. Now that they were sitting next to each other, he was seeing resemblances between them - blue hair, pale skin, dark eyes, serious expressions.
"You two wouldn't happen to be related, would you?" he hazarded.
"As much as I hate to admit it, yes," said Prism. "We're half-brothers."
"Half-twins, in a way," Cav added. "Born on the same day, but of different mothers."
"I see," Billy replied.
"Well, now that we've got all that straight," Vendetta cut in, "and since we haven't scared our new friend away, I think it's time we gave him an explanation of what's going on and why we're all here."
"I'm getting to it," said Prism. He turned to Billy. "What did the general tell you about us?"
"A little," Billy admitted, unsure what to say. "He did say you were trying to take over Quandar."
"He's got that right, anyway," said Vendetta fiercely.
"He told us that there were three tribes of monsters who used to live on Quandar and warred with each other until the humans came and pacified them," Billy went on. "And everyone stayed that way for a while, until war finally broke out again, and the humans had to drive you all off of the planet." He looked at all the cold eyes that were watching him. "I suppose you have a different story."
"Only somewhat," said Cav. "The one thing he didn't tell you is who started the wars again. Do you think we would go for hundreds of years in peace and harmony, only to suddenly start killing each other again for no reason?"
"I suppose he made us out as barbarians," said Vendetta, spitting out the final word as if it tasted bitter.
"That would be ironic," said Cav. "After all, the whole reason we were thrown off the planet is because we got too civilized. Have you ever heard of such a thing?"
"I don't get it," Billy admitted.
"Let me explain, if I can," Sear offered. "There are three races of people who are native the Quandar: the Firespinners, the Iceworkers, and the Darkweavers. The Firespinners were warriors with powers over fire." He snapped his fingers in illustration, striking sparks. "Iceworkers eventually became masters of science. The Darkweavers developed inborn powers of sorcery. And the humans..."
"...sat on their fat buns and did nothing," Cav finished.
"And that's just it," said Vendetta. "We scare them. They are afraid of us all because we could do so much more than they could, and so they decided they had to get rid of us."
"So there wasn't really any war?" asked Billy.
"Oh, sure, we had a war, all right," Sear replied. "We nearly wiped each other out in that battle - which was just what they wanted. Then we found out who had really started the war and struck out in revenge. As soon as we did that, they turned on us and drove us out of our rightful home, as if we were the invaders!"
"Jet had the right idea," said Vendetta coldly. "He knew what he was doing. He was the one who gave us the power to strike back."
"Who's Jet?" asked Billy.
"Our leader," Sear replied. "Also a sorcerer in training. Very powerful. He showed us how to tap into our inner strength and create weapons to use against our enemies. When we combined our powers, with his magic as the catalyst, we were able to create the Disk Ranger powers."
"And then we went to war," said Cav. "No matter what it takes, we're going to get back what we've lost, even if we have to destroy every last one of the dirty bastards." He beat his fist on the table, striking white sparks that scorched the wood, and his friends jumped a little in alarm.
"I see," said Billy. "Where's Jet now? Why isn't he here?"
"They killed him," said Vendetta softly. "Last week. We didn't even get a chance to say goodbye."
"Oh," Billy answered. "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't know..."
"We're going to make them hurt for that one!" said Sear vehemently. "Someone going to pay for it big time!"
"Yes, yes, of course," said Prism, before the discussion could get too ugly. "Unfortunately, Jet's death has left a slight gap in our team. You see, that's where you come in, Billy. We are now lacking a leader, and when a certain ex-Power Ranger saw fit to spare Vendetta's life, we got to thinking."
"So, you want me join your team?" asked Billy.
"We want you to lead it," Sear replied.
Billy turned the morpher over in his hands, thinking hard. To be a Ranger again, part of a team... it had been so long since he'd had that chance, and he wanted it more than almost anything, but still... He shook his head, confused. These were monsters, and they were asking him to lead them off to possibly kill other humans like himself and his friends, and he didn't even know for sure whether it was for a good cause or not. He battled with his conscience, struggling to find the right choice. Good or bad? What was it, anyway? In his heart, though, he knew he had already made up his mind.
"Well? Are you going to do it or not?" asked Cav impatiently. "Out with it already. We don't have all day."
Billy strapped on the morpher. "I'll do it."
"Excellent!" said Prism with a hint of a smile. "Welcome aboard. You are now officially the Black NightStrike Ranger."
To the credit of Aquitian Rangers, they did figure out that Billy was missing... eventually. Cavalier had done his work quite well. There were no signs of a struggle; only the rumpled sheets of a bed that had clearly been slept in, and signs of a search for clean clothes. Since there were no signs that the door had been tampered with, and there was naturally no way anyone could have come in through the window, it seemed only as if Billy had decided to rise early and set off somewhere alone. It wasn't a common occurrence, but it seemed so simple and innocent that it was some time before it occurred to anyone that something out of the ordinary could have occurred.
Hurrying down the hallway, Cestro rounded a corner and nearly collided with Cestria.
"Oh, Cestro! I'm sorry. My mind was in other places, and I wasn't looking where I was going," she apologized. "Have you seen Billy?"
"I was just going to ask you the same thing," Cestro replied. "I was hoping to ask his opinion on a new device I've been working on, but I haven't seen him all day."
"Neither have I. It's very strange," Cestria replied. "Do you think something could be wrong?"
"It is too early to become upset," said Cestro, seeing the frightened light in his friend's eyes. "We will make inquiries with the others and see what they know."
"And if they haven't seen him either?" Cestria asked, still worried.
"Then we will find him," answered Cestro confidently. "He can't have gone far."
"I suppose you're right," said Cestria. "I just have to wonder... he told me he was meeting me for lunch today, and it isn't like him to go back on promises."
"In that case," he said, "perhaps we should become upset. Come; we need to find Delphine and the others."
Minutes later, the entire Ranger team had gathered with Cestria in their headquarters and discussing this disturbing revelation.
"I don't know where he could be," said Aurico. "I haven't seen him since he went to his room last night."
"Nor have I," Delphine replied. "Tideus, Corcus, have either of you...?"
"Not since yesterday," Corcus replied. "We were planning on sparring together today, but I thought he just got involved with one of his projects and lost track of time."
"Something is definitely wrong," said Delphine. "Billy would never disappear like this without some explanation."
"I'll scan for him," Cestro volunteered, heading for a computer. His fingers moved rapidly over the controls as he talked. "He couldn't have gone far on his own. He's bound to be in the city somewhere, unless... Oh, dear. This is odd."
"What's wrong?" asked Cestria, looking concerned.
"He's not on the planet," Cestro replied.
"Then where is he?" she asked.
"I don't know, but we'll find out in a minute. I'm widening the search radius."
The computer hummed as it scanned the universe for Billy's life-force patterns. After a few interminable seconds, it blipped a response.
"It found him!" Cestro announced. Then he stared at the readout and exclaimed in surprise, "He's on Onyx!"
"He had to have been kidnaped!" said Aurico decisively. "He would never go there on his own. No one would."
"There's more bad news," Cestro replied. "He seems to be in the company of four other life forms. Their molecular patterns exactly match the Rangers we fought on Quandar."
"That does it," said Delphine. "We are going to teach them all a lesson they'll never forget. No one is going to steal our friends and get away with it!"
"But we can't go to Onyx!" Corcus protested. "It's a desert world! There's almost no water there! Between that and the evil energies there, we wouldn't survive more than a few hours, even if we didn't have to fight."
"Then we will go to Quandar," Delphine replied, not to be deterred. "They will go there sooner or later, and when they do..."
The other Rangers nodded in agreement. Cestria only stood there, still and silent, deep in thought.
Billy was getting something few Power Rangers ever got: a grand tour of Onyx. He had to admit, he felt a bit nervous there - he had been told enough horror stories about the place to make him wary - but he felt reasonably safe traveling with Sear and Prism. To help him blend into the rest of the populace, he had been instructed to put on some of Jet's old clothing. It actually fit quite well, but he felt a bit odd about wearing the garments of a dead man. The other Rangers had told him philosophically that Jet probably didn't care, and at any rate, didn't need them anymore. Since the chances were good that he'd wind up dead himself if he didn't have some sort of camouflage, he acquiesced. Now he was following his guides through the streets of the strange alien town, taking in the sights. Except for the monsters everywhere, he was amazed at how ordinary it all seemed.
*Well, what did you expect?* he asked himself. *Obviously, they aren't as different from ordinary people as you thought. Just look at these guys!*
Despite their oddities, the foursome he was traveling with reminded him a lot of the way he and his friends used to behave back on Earth, in the good old days when he'd been an active Ranger. True, there was a sharper edge to their wisecracks sometimes, but the fact that they were good friends wasn't hard to miss. They just had that feel of solidarity about them, almost as if there were actual physical bonds holding them together.
"Is anyone thirsty?" asked Sear after a while. "I know I am."
"Hungry, too," Cav added, nodding. "The tavern's just up ahead. Why don't we drop in for a snack?"
"Fabulous," said Vendetta, "if you're treating."
Prism sighed. "I'll pay this time. I know none of you have any money."
"I could steal some, if you want," offered Cav.
"I'd rather you didn't," said Sear. "Remember the last time you tried it? That punk nearly bashed your brains in, and it was a week before we could launch any full-scale attacks because you couldn't get out of bed."
"I could have. I just chose not to," Cavalier replied.
"Vendetta can get money," Sear offered. "She's done it before. What's the good of having a mind reader if she can't win a few card games?"
"I think they're getting wise to that act," said Prism. "Besides, mind reading is fine, but it's only so much good against creatures who cheat."
"Can we argue about this inside?" asked Billy. "It's hot out here."
Surprisingly, no one objected. They quieted immediately and quickly led the way to the tavern. Billy was surprised. Had they accepted him as their leader so fast? They must have been very desperate, he thought.
The tavern was crowded and noisy, but the Rangers didn't seem to notice or care. They just filed into the room and grabbed seats at an empty table, and no one even looked up at them. Vendetta was cloaked and hooded again, which helped. Prism shoved a handful of multicolored crystals into Sear's hands and instructed him to purchase food and drink. He returned moments later carrying a basket of what looked like almonds, only green, and a tray of drinks.
"I expect tips," he said.
"Don't play with small animals; they bite," Cav replied instantly. Vendetta hit him.
Cautiously, Billy sampled one of the almond-things and decided it tasted all right. Then he took a sip of the drink he'd been given and choked on it, coughing and spluttering as the stuff burned his throat.
"Sear, you idiot!" said Cav, shoving his friend roughly. "You knew he can't drink that stuff! He's not like us!"
"Oh, sorry," answered Sear, sounding genuinely apologetic.
"Oh, let me deal with this," Prism said in exasperation. He stalked up to the bar and returned with a glass of something that looked and smelled a lot like purple Kool-Aid and set it in front of Billy, whisking the glass of offending stuff away.
"Here. This should be more to your tastes," he said. "Sear really shouldn't have tried giving you that. It won't hurt you, really, but it certainly wouldn't have done you much good."
"Thanks," Billy replied. He sipped the purple stuff gratefully. It was cool and sweet, and it did a good job of rinsing out the taste of the other drink. "So, what are our plans from here?"
"You figure it out. You're the leader," said Cav. "You give orders, we follow."
"Why are you all trusting me so much?" he asked. "You don't even know me! As far as you know, I could just be spying on you to help the Aquitian Rangers."
"You can't really do that," said Vendetta. "I read minds, remember. I don't know everything going on in that skull of yours, but I know a lie when I hear one. When you said you'd lead us, you meant it."
"I guess I did," Billy admitted.
More quietly, Vendetta added, "You are also afraid."
"Well, of course he's afraid," Prism replied. "Who wouldn't be afraid, especially when he knows what happened to his predecessor."
"That's not what he's afraid of," Vendetta replied. "I don't know what it is, but it isn't dying that frightens him so."
"She's right," Billy replied. "What I'm really afraid of... well, I've never told anyone. I don't know if I really should tell anyone, especially you."
"We're your teammates now," said Sear. "Tell us whatever you want."
"Okay," Billy replied, taking a deep breath. "A long time ago, I had a vision, and in it, someone told me that I was destined for darkness. Up until then, I'd always considered myself one of the good guys - a hero, even. After that point, though, I kept having these dreams about going wild and destroying everything I loved. I guess I started to believe they were really going to happen. I agreed to do this because I'm tired of fighting destiny... but I'm a little afraid of being evil."
"You know what?" said Cav. "So was I when I first started. You'll get used to it."
Billy was surprised. "You think?"
"Sure I do. I know better than anyone," Cavalier replied. "Being a bad guy isn't so bad, really."
He was going to say more, but at that moment, a disturbance erupted at the other end of the bar. Two monsters who had been playing cards seemed to be having a disagreement, and it was rapidly escalating into a real battle.
"How dare you accuse me of cheating?" demanded one of the card-players, a helmeted warrior in a suit of blue, red, and gold. He managed to glare angrily at his opponent through his black visor.
"Everyone here cheats! Why should you be any different?" answered the other player, a vaguely insect-like thing with sharp claws and glowing eyes.
"I am a man of honor, unlike a certain bounty hunter I could mention," the first player retorted.
"Who needs honor? I'm worried about winning!" answered the second.
"Very well, then! Let's see you win this!"
The two monsters drew their swords and charged at each other in a rage, sending the card table crashing to the floor and spilling the game pieces in all directions. A few other monsters joined in the fun, and a free-for-all began to form.
"Of course," said Cav, ducking a flying bottle, "being evil does have its risks."
"I move we adjourn this meeting," Prism said. "All in favor?"
There was unanimous agreement. The group beat a hasty retreat, though Cav did pause long enough to surreptitiously fill his pockets with the leftover almond-things. They hurried to the relative safety of the street.
"Are things always this hectic around here?" asked Billy.
"No, today was actually a quiet day," Prism replied. "Those two don't like each other, and sometimes they clash. It's kind of a regular thing."
"Crazy," said Billy, shaking his head. "Absolutely crazy."
"You'll get used to it," Cav repeated. "We did, and we've only been here a few months."
"Fellas," said Vendetta suddenly, "is it just me, or is there a dead body in the road?"
"Huh?" Four heads turned in unison to stare down the street. There did indeed seem to be a body lying forlornly at the edge of town, and everyone seemed to be giving it some space as they wandered about. Billy stared at it, wondering what exactly it was about the shape that struck him as familiar. Suddenly, it hit him in a blinding flash of realization.
"Cestria!" he shouted, and shot down the street toward her. Looking at each other in puzzlement, his friends hurried after him.
Some hours previous to that, Cestria had been quite alive and safe on Aquatar, watching her empowered friends teleporting to Quandar. She was thinking very hard. Billy was a good friend, though she had only known him a short time, and she hated thinking of what might be happening to him while he was trapped on Onyx. No matter what Delphine and the others might think, there was no guarantee that the evil Rangers would leave Billy alive much longer. She knew as well as anyone that an Aquitian couldn't survive very long on a desert world like Onyx, but how long could it really take to go there, rescue Billy, and get out? Not more than an hour or two, surely. Aquitians were generally cautious people, not given to taking chances. The Power Rangers had learned how to take risks when it became necessary, but they still preferred to take the safest route when they could. At times, it could get annoying.
*I wonder if I could do it?* she wondered. *All it would take would be a quick teleport to the right place and teleport out again. I know how to use the computers well enough to do that. I'm not afraid of the risks.* She paused and considered. *Of course, getting back again could be a problem. I can't take the computer with me, and without morphing powers...*
"It's too bad none of us ever invented something like the communicators Billy invented," she said aloud.
Of course, Billy still had his lying around somewhere...
After about a half-hour's worth of rummaging around Billy's electrical supplies, she finally found the blue and silver watchlike device, buried under a heap of circuit boards, and carefully clipped it around her own wrist. She studied the tiny buttons and dials that surrounded its rim with faint confusion.
"Billy will know how to use them when I find him," she said with certainty.
She started back to the Ranger's headquarters, reflecting on what she was planning to do. It was risky. It was ill-planned. It was crazy. To her, it seemed like the only logical thing to do. She found the computer where Billy's last known coordinates were saved, and she loaded them into the teleportation controls.
"I hope this works. Hold on, Billy," she said. Then she pressed a button and was gone.
The place where she reappeared was unpleasantly hot and dry, and her head spun for a moment as her system protested the unwelcome change in climate. She took a few breaths and closed her eyes, struggling to overcome her dizziness. The feeling passed after a moment, so she opened her eyes and looked around. All she could see for miles around was sand and rock. She was actually standing on top of one, she realized, a fairly round, flat one about two feet across. The sun glared down on her, almost as if it were angry at her for something.
"This can't be right," she said to herself. "There's no one here at all. Did I make a mistake?"
She looked around again. Though she couldn't be sure, she thought she could make out a faint trail leading across the dry, hard-packed ground, like the barest traces of footprints not yet erased by the desert winds. Perhaps this was the right place, after all. Perhaps Billy's captors had been leading him somewhere when he had been located.
"I suppose I'll have to go look for him," said Cestria, stepping down from the stone. "I won't find him here, anyway. Not unless he's hiding under a rock or something."
With that, she set out walking, and the sun lashed at her in frustration. She moved on, never realizing that what she had been looking for had been directly beneath her feet.
That explained why, half an hour later, Billy and his newfound teammates were crouching around her sill form, all wearing expressions of worry and confusion.
"Someone you know?" asked Prism.
"A friend," Billy agreed. "I can't imagine what she's doing here. She should have known better..."
"Is she really dead?" Sear asked. He raised her head a little before letting it drop back to the ground.
Billy made a pulse check. "Just barely. We could still have a chance to save her."
"Who said we wanted to save her?" asked Cav.
"I did. And I'm the leader," Billy replied. He shot them all an icy look, daring them to disagree. No one did.
"I might be able to help a little," said Vendetta. "Magic can be used as a substitute life force... for a while, anyway. If she is dying, I can maybe hold it off for an hour or two. Long enough to find out what's wrong with her and maybe help."
"I know what's wrong," Billy said. "The first thing to do is get her out of the heat. Help me carry her, somebody."
"Let me," said Sear. He scooped her up and slung her over his shoulder. "She doesn't weigh a thing. No problems."
"Fine. Let's get moving," Billy replied.
The others, still baffled but cooperative, followed him out into the desert.
The coming of the next hour found Cestria still unconscious, but with a computer, two scientists, and a sorceress monitoring her vital signs. They weren't good, but they weren't getting worse yet, either.
"What's the matter with her?" asked Sear.
"Guess she's been out in the sun too long," Cav offered. He was sitting at the table where they had all eaten breakfast, his feet resting on its top while he strummed idly on his lute.
"It's more than that," Billy said. "She's an Aquitian, and Aquitians have to draw energy from water to survive, preferably the water from her own home planet. I can't believe she was crazy enough to come here! She knew this would happen!"
"So, if we give her some of that funny purple water of yours, she'll get well?" asked Cav, still strumming. "I can do that. Won't take but a minute. But then we've got to get her out of here. She's kind of cluttering up the place."
Billy glared at him. "Don't talk about my friends like that. Besides, it's not that easy. It will take a little time for her to heal again. She's in pretty bad shape."
"Whatever you say," Cav replied. "Do you want me to do it or not?" He sounded a bit irritated, and Billy remembered what he'd been told about getting on Cavalier's bad side.
"If you don't mind. I can do it myself if it bothers you," he said.
"Don't worry. I was ready for a break, anyway," said Cav. He shimmered briefly, then vanished.
"Well, I guess that's that," said Vendetta.
"If I'm not needed, I think I'm going to my room," said Sear. "Let me know if she wakes up so we can send her back home and get back to work. We wouldn't do this for just anyone, you know," he added, shooting a look at Billy.
"I know, and thanks," Billy replied. "It's just that Cestria's my friend. She's saved my life at least once before. I owe her this much."
The others nodded silently.
"Yeah, we know how that is," said Sear. "Hey, listen, you look tired. Prism and Vendetta have this taken care of. Why don't you go relax for a while?"
Billy considered. "I don't really know..."
"Trust us! We're the experts," said Vendetta. "Hanging around worrying won't accomplish anything, so just leave it to us."
"Maybe you're right," Billy admitted with a sigh. "I'll be in my room. At least if I worry there, I won't be in your way." So saying, he drifted down the hall.
*This isn't what I'd thought it would be,* Billy wondered, looking down at the morpher on his wrist. It was nice to have the Power back with him, but still... *None of this makes sense. I don't understand what I'm doing anymore. These people... they say they're evil. They want to take over a planet and tear the inhabitants to little pieces, so I guess they probably are.* Now he had agreed to help them. After all, it was his destiny, wasn't it? It would have been easy if Cestria hadn't appeared to remind him of what he'd left. Seeing her putting herself in danger to try to help him - for why else would she be on this hostile alien world? - just unsettled his mind again. One part of him wanted to get this all over with and hang the consequences, but his heart was still insisting he was a warrior for good and should never have agreed to do this. It made him feel weak to think he had given up fighting. He stretched out on his bed and stared at the ceiling, arguing with himself for the umpteenth time. He sighed. He was tired even of fighting with himself.
A knock on the door. Billy sat up and saw Sear standing thoughtfully outside.
"Could you stand some company?" he asked. His voice was casual, but his eye told another story.
"Sure. Come in," Billy replied, "if you can find the room."
"Considering we built this place ourselves, it's not so bad," answered Sear, taking a seat at the foot of the bed. "Jet never needed a whole lot of space, anyway. He was always outside somewhere, practicing, or in the main room." He sighed.
"You miss him, don't you?" asked Billy quietly.
"We all do," said Sear. "Vendetta especially. They were... probably a lot closer friends than they admitted in public. I could tell. Vendetta flirted with every guy that crossed her path, except Jet."
"How long have you all known each other?" asked Billy. "Was it only when you formed the team, or...?"
"All our lives," Sear said. "Prism and Cav are brothers, of course, but we all grew up together, all believing the same thing. It's no surprise we were able to create the Disk Ranger powers together." He sighed. "It scared the daylights out of people."
"What do you mean?" asked Billy.
"Well, aren't people going to be scared of evil Rangers?" Sear replied. "Our people saw us almost the same way the Quandarians do. We're radical extremists who have gone overboard. We know it's wrong, but its something we've got to do..."
Billy nodded silently, thinking. It had never occurred to him that they wouldn't want to do this, either. He'd always been told that monsters were evil... well, just because they were.
"It's not fair," Sear said suddenly. "It wasn't our fault! We were set up!"
"Huh?" said Billy, jolted out of his thoughts.
"It wasn't our fault!" Sear repeated. "We didn't want to start a war. We were set up. We never got any choice but to fight back, and when we did, they drove us away. All we wanted was to live in peace, and they wouldn't let us."
Billy nodded thoughtfully. Things were starting to make sense to him.
"I guess I've depressed you enough," said Sear. "I don't know why I told you that. I guess 'cause you're new here. The others have all heard it. We've talked it out a million times, but it still hurts."
"It's okay. I'm willing to listen," Billy replied.
"Nah, I'll change the subject. You looked bad enough when I came in." He paused and considered. "You look better now, though. How come?"
"Just finding out more about you guys helped," Billy answered.
"Oh. Well, is there anything you really want to know? I mean, if you're going to be our leader, you should know about us, right?"
"Well, there is one thing I've been wondering about," answered Billy. "Earlier today, someone told me something about how I should never make Cav angry. What was that all about? He doesn't look that dangerous to me."
"He is and he isn't," Sear answered evasively. "He doesn't like violence. All he really ever wanted to be was a musician - that's why he carries around that stupid lyre all the time. The trouble is, he's a half -breed: half Iceworker, half Darkweaver. If genetics were simple, he would have inherited technical and magical instincts, but maybe one would be dominant, or maybe he'd just sort of be mediocre at both. Instead, he's got a genetic glitch. He's terrible at anything technical, but he's an incredibly powerful mage. The only problem is that he is pretty much incapable of controlling his magic, especially when he loses control of himself." Very softly, he added, "Cav accidentally killed some guy back at our village one time. It was completely not his fault. There was no way he could have prevented it, really, but when you've got a living time bomb hanging around, it makes people very edgy."
"So you're saying that if I got Cav mad enough, he could destroy me?" asked Billy in sudden horror.
"Theoretically," Sear replied.
"But you still stay with him."
Sear shrugged and got up to leave. "That's what you do for people you care about." And then he was gone, leaving Billy deep in thought.
It was early in the evening when Prism and Vendetta's efforts finally paid off. Once Cav had supplied the water, it was not long before Cestria's system stabilized, so that Vendetta no longer had to keep constant watch over her. Within moments of her awakening, Cestria felt well enough to walk around. Though she was entirely ill at ease with her strange saviors, Billy rescued her and brought her up to the desert's surface so that they could talk in private. The stars shone down on them both, turning the landscape to a surreal silver.
"I can't believe it," she said ruefully. "This was where I teleported the first time! I was on the exact spot, and I didn't know it."
"It was good of you to come for me," said Billy. His tone was strangely neutral; he was not expressing any joy or gratitude, but simply stating fact.
"I had to. I was worried about what they'd do to you," she replied. "The others didn't want to come. They said it was too dangerous... and I guess it was. How did you convince them to save me?"
"I didn't have to convince them, Cestria. They're not so bad," Billy replied.
"Not so bad? But they kidnaped you! They're trying to destroy Quandar! How can they not be bad?" Cestria replied. Without waiting for answers, she dropped her voice to a whisper and went on. "But it's all right now. I brought your communicator, so we can both escape. Then we can convince the others to come back here, and we can finish this quickly."
"No? What do you mean?" asked Cestria in puzzlement. "Don't you think the Rangers can do it?"
"Maybe they can, but I hope they won't," Billy replied. "And I wasn't kidnaped, Cestria. I came here of my own free will, and I'm not going back. You are, though."
"I'm not going back without you," she stated flatly.
"You have to. Someone's got to tell the Rangers to stay out of this fight," Billy replied. "There's going to be a battle on Quandar tomorrow, and I don't want them to be mixed up in it."
"How do you know there's going to be a battle?" asked Cestria, a little fearfully.
"I know," Billy replied, "because I'm going to lead it. I don't want to fight the Rangers, but that's what I may have to do if they insist on coming."
"Oh, Billy, what have they done to you?" Cestria gasped.
"Nothing," Billy replied. "I came here because I thought I had no other choice. I'm staying here because I believe it's the only right choice."
"But these are your enemies!"
'No. They're my friends, and I'm part of their team. It took me a while to see it, but they're not as evil as they say they are. They're dark, yes, but not evil... and I've known for a long time that I was destined for darkness."
"No more arguments," Billy said sternly. "I'm staying and you're going and that's final."
Cestria looked into her friend's eyes. They were the same eyes she'd been seeing for months, every day since he had come to stay on Aquatar, but there was something new in them now. There was strength there, now, and determination and power and confidence. He looked more alive than she had ever seen him. She suddenly felt herself to be in the presence of someone or something very great. She backed down.
"I agree," she said. "I don't understand it, but I wish you good luck. Goodbye, Billy. I hope we meet again soon under better circumstances."
"So do I," he replied. "Goodbye, Cestria."
So saying, he reached out and took her hand. Then he pressed the buttons on the communicator that sent her shooting back to Aquatar in a flash of purple light.
"Enough of that," he said. "I just hope she can get the Aquitians to listen to her. There wasn't really time to make her understand it all. I think she trusted me, though. I hope so."
Opening the sliding stone door, he slid down the ladder and landed in the main room. The others, sitting idly around the table and playing cards, glanced up at him curiously.
"Okay, guys, put all that away. I've just made up my mind that it's time to get to work!" he announced. He was almost grinning.
"All right!" cheered Cav, throwing his cards into the air. "It's about time!"
"See? I knew things would get better when she was gone," said Vendetta to no one in particular.
"I'll get the maps," said Prism.
"I'll get the weapons," Sear added.
There was a scramble as the team leaped into action. Billy really couldn't resist smiling then. Soon, the map was spread on the table, and the team was gathered around it, looking anxiously at Billy as he began outlining the plans. Heads nodded in agreement as they listened. The whole time, a strange feeling of both happiness and excitement was building inside of Billy as he thought to himself, *It's time. It's finally time!*
It didn't take long for chaos to erupt on Quandar as the Disk Rangers made their appearance. Billy, newly outfitted in his black armor as the NightStrike Ranger, was having the best time he'd had in years. For once, he was worried about nothing, least of all himself.
"You all remember what to do?" he asked his companions.
"How could we forget? We've been over it sixty bazillion times already!" answered Cav, but Billy could tell he was joking.
"Okay, then. Let's do it," said Billy.
"Right," said the rest of the team, nodding.
They split up, hurrying in five different directions. Everywhere they went, panic ensued... except along the paths where a single warrior in dark armor was picking his way through shadows and trying to be inconspicuous. Billy had given himself the most dangerous part of the mission, in a way. True, it was the others who were actually going to have angry soldiers (and possibly, he had to admit, Aquitian Rangers) shooting at them, but they still had a lot of room to maneuver. A minor mistake wouldn't hurt them much, but if Billy could not do what he had to do and do it right, the whole plan could collapse and they would likely all be killed. It was imperative that no one see him until it was time to reveal himself. Something in his alter-ego's powers must have been aiding him, because he slipped unnoticed through the well-lit city.
Unnoticed, that is, until his friends from Aquatar came looking for him.
Billy was a bit annoyed that it was Aurico who managed to find him. Delphine might have been the leader, but Aurico was the team's prize warrior, and he didn't forget it during battles. He could be hot-headed, for an Aquitian, and now he was appearing in a flashy fireball and shouting dire threats.
"Come out and show yourself! I know you're here somewhere," he challenged. "Stop hiding and fight like a real warrior!"
*He doesn't know it's me,* Billy realized.
"Shut up, Aurico!" he called in irritation. "You're going to ruin the whole thing!"
"Of course I'm going to - Billy?" The Red Aquitian Ranger glanced all around in confusion. "What in the universe are you doing?"
"There's no time to explain! I'm already late because of you!" Billy shot back. He leaped from his hiding place, running past his friend at top speed.
"Hold it!" Aurico shouted. When Billy didn't hold, Aurico actually leaped and tackled him, sending them both spinning to the pavement.
"Let go of me! You don't know what you're doing!" cried Billy, struggling to escape his friend's grip. His desperation gave him the strength to do it, and he began getting to his feet.
"What's the matter with you?" asked Aurico. "Have you gone insane?"
"No," Billy replied. "Just trust me on this one. I know what I'm doing here, but if you hold me up any longer, everything will fall apart, and maybe some innocent people will be killed. One already has, and I won't let it happen to anyone else, especially my friends."
"Friends? What friends?" Aurico asked in amazement. "Is it really true what Cestria said, that you've joined these people?"
Billy shook his head; there was no way he could make Aurico understand the whole situation. It had taken long enough for him to do it himself.
"I promise, it will all make sense later, but don't make me stay any longer!" Billy replied. "Find the others if you can and tell them not to attack the other Disk Rangers." He turned and began running again.
"Where are you going?" Aurico called.
"The courthouse. Meet me there," said Billy, and then he was lost in the shadows.
*That was too close,* he thought as he ran. *I sure hope the others are doing better than I am.*
In another part of the city, Vendetta was struggling valiantly to keep abreast of the mob that was pursuing her.
*This plan of Billy's had better work,* she thought, *or I'm going to end up like Jet.*
The thought of her fallen friend's name made tears sting in her eyes, and she blinked them rapidly away before they could obstruct her vision. These people would not hesitate to kill her any more than they had offered mercy to Jet. Not like Billy. He knew better. Now she was going to make them both proud. The plan was very simple, really. She had taken her laser and fired a few shots at a nearby building, scaring out a few red-uniformed soldiers, and a few taunts convinced them to give chase. A few more shots and insults had her crowd growing large enough to draw new followers by itself, as other soldiers heard the sounds of chaos and followed it. A few of the soldiers had laser guns and other unpleasant things, and Vendetta was keeping busy just dodging the things that were being shot and lobbed at her. She dove, tumbled, leaped to her feet, and dodged around a corner. It was only a temporary respite, though. They just had to keep following her until they got to the courthouse, where Billy had promised that he'd be. Then... then, oh, it would be beautiful. She smiled behind her helmet. This was going to be interesting.
Suddenly, there was a flash ahead of her, and Corcus appeared, his sword held at ready. He leveled a stern glare at her.
"Prepare to fight," he said quietly.
"Not today!" she replied. She shoved roughly past him and continued dashing along at top speed.
"Huh?" said Corcus in confusion. "Where are you going?"
"Better run, sweetie, before you get squished!" Vendetta giggled.
"What?" asked Corcus. Thoroughly bewildered, he looked around and saw a rampaging crowd, agitated past the point of distinguishing what they were shooting at. Weighing his options quickly, Corcus decided that running away was probably a good idea. He sprinted along after Vendetta as fast as his feet could carry him.
Nearing the main roads, the sounds of angry shouting increased. All four of the Disk Rangers converged in the street and ran together as a single group. The Aquitian Rangers also met each other, but they didn't get much time for a happy reunion. The mob was still behind them, and the only real choice they had was to keep moving. Always a little too near for comfort, the people continued charging.
"Would you look at that?" asked Cav casually, putting on an extra burst of speed. "We've got a pretty considerable group of witnesses, wouldn't you say?"
"Oh, yes," Prism answered dryly. "I just hope there will be a show waiting for them when we get to the courthouse."
"They will, they will," Sear assured him, panting a little. "What could go wrong?"
About fifteen minutes previous to that, Billy was mounting the steps of the courthouse, taking them two at a time in his hurry to make up the time he had lost. He crashed through the doors, causing several secretaries to shriek and hide behind their desks in a flurry of papers. Billy passed by, uninterested, shouldering guards aside as if they weren't even there. He had a goal in mind, and nothing would deter him from it now. Nothing.
General Dryhan looked up from his paperwork at the sound of the commotion, but he could not get up in time to stop the NightStriker Ranger from bursting into his office, a gleaming black sword held at ready. The general paled somewhat in sudden shock.
"Hello, general. Nice to see you again," said Billy in his darkest tones. He was enjoying every minute of it.
"You!" exclaimed the general in shock. "No! It's impossible! I was there; I killed you myself!"
*I'm not surprised,* Billy thought. *Looks like my hunch was right.*
"We Power Rangers don't kill very easily," he replied. "Much less easily than generals, I might add. Take that as a warning and surrender now, before things get ugly."
"You're no Power Ranger!" General Dryhan insisted. "You're a monster in human guise, you and all your kind! You could never wield the Power!"
"Darkness is a very strange thing," said Billy casually. "It's not always easy to see at first glance. For example, you don't look like the kind that would start a war out of prejudice and greed."
The general stared at him in shock for a moment, and then his features twisted into a savage snarl.
"So, you figured it out, hmm? I was wondering how long it would be before you saw the light," he said. "Well, that's no problem. No one else will ever find out about my little exploit. I killed you once, and I can do it again."
In a silver flash, a blade was pulled from a scabbard at his belt, and he lunged at Billy. The Black Ranger almost wasn't fast enough in dodging - the blade scraped his armor, drawing sparks, but he was not hurt. He crashed into the desk, putting a considerable dent in it, but not so considerable as when the general drove the point of his saber into the wood where Billy's head had been just a split second before. Billy's stomach clenched a little at the shock of realizing what had almost happened, but he didn't let it stop him. While the general was still trying to free his sword, Billy tackled him, and they both tumbled and fell out the door. Springing to their feet, they launched a furious sword fight. Billy was the better warrior, with the enhanced strength and skill that came from morphing, but the general had helpers. Billy did what he could to throw them out of the way without injuring them; he didn't want to hurt innocent bystanders. From outside, a distant roar began sounding, and the Black Ranger realized that his plan was working, and that now the main street was being filled with people - angry people. He had to get this battle outside now. With a powerful kick in the midriff, Billy send General Dyrhan staggering out the doors and onto the porchlike area at the top of the steps, where he stumbled and fell. Dazed, he rolled over to look with bewilderment at the angry crowd that was approaching. A brief flash of paranoia ran through his brain; they had discovered his secret! They were coming to get him! Billy loomed over him, petrifying in black armor, casually holding his sword a few inches above the general's heart. As he stood there, the Disk Rangers came running up to him, followed closely by the Aquitian Rangers.
"Billy, what are you-?" Delphine began.
"Somebody quiet those people," he interrupted. "I want everyone to hear this."
"QUIET!" Sear roared. The people were quiet.
"Don't move. Don't say anything," said Billy to the crowd. "I know you all believe we're the villains here. Maybe we are, in a way. Maybe wrong has been done here. But I think it's time you all heard the truth. Do you have something to tell them, general?"
"You're not getting anything out of me, monster!" cried the general in panic. "I won't admit anything! You're forcing this out of me. I should have killed you all a long time ago!"
"Watch who you're calling a monster," Billy replied. "Prism, my helmet."
Prism quickly undid the straps, revealing Billy's face. There was a gasp from the crowds.
"You," the general snarled. "Traitor! I can't believe a human would join sides with those freaks! They're animals! How can you turn against your own kind?"
"Animals?" muttered one of the soldiers near the front lines. He was wearing a uniform of deep green and looked fairly important. "What is all this? I thought this war was over land."
"It all belongs to us," said the general. "I started the war in the interest of the human race. We shouldn't have to share this world or any other with these savages."
"Interesting," said the man in green. There were mutters in the crowd as people began whispering to each other.
"Come on, out with it," said Billy. "Everybody wants to hear the whole story. It's too late to stop now."
"Oh, all right! You win," said the General. "I started the war, all right? I restarted the clan wars, I had the border guard killed, I did it all! I had to do it. It was the only way to be rid of them once and for all."
"This man is a maniac!" said Corcus in quiet horror.
"Indeed so," said the soldier in green, ascending the stairs. "By the way, I am Sergeant Inhur, and I would like to know a little bit more about this war. It sounds to me as if you've done a good deal of damage. There is no cause that justifies killing your own men, I was always told."
"Have this man arrested and taken away," ordered Delphine, pointing at the general. "We will have inquiries started into this at once."
"Agreed," said Sergeant Inhur. "As the general's second in command, will anyone mind if I take over?"
There were voices of non-objection. Nodding, the Sergeant signaled to a few lower- ranking troops, and they came and dragged the general away as he screamed threats and insults. Sergeant Inhur turned back to the Rangers.
"This puts a very different face on your attacks," he said to the Disk Rangers. "You will be asked to participate in his trial, but I think it is safe to say that your actions will be forgiven. I can't promise anything yet, but I will try to see to it that someday you and your people will return to your rightful home."
"All right!" cheered Cav. The others Rangers laughed, Disk and Aquitian alike. Billy smiled peacefully. His mission was over now, and everything really would be all right.
One Month Later
"I can't believe it's finally over," said Sear to no one in particular.
"Me neither," answered Vendetta. "After all this fighting, peace feels like some kind of dream."
"A good dream, though," Billy replied.
The other Disk Rangers nodded in agreement. They were all sitting in the shade of a tree outside the city limits, just relaxing and watching the clouds roll through the pale blue sky. The trials had lasted for weeks, but the issue was finally decided. General Dyrhan and his closest followers were imprisoned, and the Sergeant had officially taken over as leader of the planet. Under his just rule, arrangements were being made for the native Quandarians to return home. Meanwhile, the Aquitian Rangers and the Disk Rangers had been kept busy sweeping the city for holdouts and protesters. It would take a long time for the populace of Quandar to see their new neighbors without the prejudices that Dyrhan had planted in their minds, but there was finally hope for real peace.
"What are we going to do now?" asked Cav. "I mean, we've completed our mission. What's next?"
"Well, we are Power Rangers," Billy replied. "Our job is to protect the universe from evil wherever it is. I say as long as we still have the Power on our side..."
"We go and find some evil to fight!" Sear finished. "I like that idea! I'm tired of being a bad guy."
"You were never evil," Billy assured him. "Only dark. There's a difference. Believe me, I've thought about it for a long time, and I know. But, after a while, the light always comes through."
His teammates smiled, and Billy smiled back at them. He was happy to
have found new
friends, and it was good to have a mission again. He sighed with
contentment, leaning back
against the tree trunk and watching the clouds wander out of sight, feeling
the darkness in his soul
lifting at last...