It was a quiet mid-afternoon, with nothing of note really going on. With Deviot gone, the StingWingers dispatched to their hive, and Kegler far too discreet to bother the couple when they preferred to be left alone, they were taking the opportunity to drop a few formalities and relax. In public, of course, they would always be queen and servant, her giving orders and him following them with no show of emotion, but the story was a bit different in private. Alone, they were almost equals - almost. Villamax didn't ever forget that Trakeena was the one in power, and he deemed it wise to treat her with the respect she was due. Actually, he had a little noble blood in his veins himself, enough that he pass himself off for royalty if he had to, but he preferred to ignore it. It didn't amount to much, anyway, not when you were dealing with a bona fide, certified Queen. Still, she seemed to like him enough that she would treat him nicely - as long as no one was looking.
At the moment, for example, he was occupying what was technically her throne, and she was not objecting to this mainly because she was sitting in his lap, her head resting on his shoulder as he held her close and whispered praises into her ear. She sighed contentedly. This wasn't the kind of thing she would have given up her domain for, of course, but that was not to say that it was anything other than very pleasant to be there close to him and hear You are beautiful, you are exquisite, perfect in every way. I love you, I love you, I love you.... It was mostly the same thing over and over, but that didn't matter. Sooner or later, the doors to the room would have to be unlocked, and she would have to go back to battle, and there would be anger and hate and trouble to deal with, and that was all right. It was part of being a queen. For now, though, she would enjoy having a few moments where her universe could be limited to a warm embrace and a gentle voice.
Unfortunately, it didn't take long for her moment to be up, as she was roused out of a half-doze by the sound of someone beating on the door.
"Oh, blast," she muttered, reluctantly opening her eyes. "What is it now?"
"Your majesty! Trakeena? Villamax, are you in there? There's something going on I think you should know about."
"What rotten timing," said Villamax. He wasn't liking the interruption any better than she was. "I suppose this means the vacation's over with."
Seconds later, the doors were opened to admit Kegler, who waddled in, looking flustered, as usual. The queen was alone on her throne, wand of power in hand, cool and serene. Villamax stood at a careful distance off to one side, giving no indication that he had been doing anything but standing respectfully at attention the whole time.
"What is it, Kegler?" asked Trakeen curtly. "Be quick about it; you're interrupting an important strategical discussion."
Kegler nodded and murmured an apology. He might appear foolish on the surface, but he was no idiot, and he knew the day those two locked themselves into a room alone and did nothing but discuss battle tactics would be the day he became a world class gymnast, but he wasn't going to say that aloud. What he said was, "Your majesty, the warphole to the Lost Galaxy has reopened; against all odds, Terra Venture has returned!"
"Are you sure about this?" asked Villamax.
"Quite sure," Kegler agreed, nodding vigorously. "And that's not all! There is another craft following the Terra Venture. Initial scans show it's fully armed and carries an army of soldiers. I'd say they're after the same thing we are."
"Well, they can't have it!" Trakeena said decisively. "If anyone destroys Terra Venture in this galaxy, it's going to be me! Get to the control room on the double. We're blowing this interloper right out of the sky!"
"As you command, my queen," answered Villamax, hurrying to obey her wishes. He gave a mental sigh; the vacation was definitely over. Oh, well, no big deal. After all, there were other forms of entertainment...
The meddlesome ship had gone up with a most gratifying explosion. Well, of course it had! Trakeena was the most powerful person in the universe, and no sneaky Lost Galaxy intruders were going to get in her way. Villamax had been put in a cheerful frame of mind by his victory-by- association, and he was actually humming to himself as he made his way back to his quarters. Now that the Power Rangers had returned, Trakeena would have to go back to plotting how to destroy them, and his nearby presence would be more of a distraction than a help. Once she had made up her mind about what to do, he would be called back to her side to do her bidding once again. In the meantime, he would go back to his room and wait. That was his plan, anyway, but he only made it halfway there before he was intercepted.
"Villamax, I need to have a word with you," said Kegler sternly.
"Hm?" Villamax shot an irritated look at his friend. "Oh, it's you, Kegler. Go away. You're spoiling my good mood."
Kegler was not to be deterred. He stood in the middle of the hall, effectively blocking anyone from passing unless they were rude enough to shove him out of the way. Villamax wouldn't do that... not until he got angry, anyway.
"You didn't go back to your rooms last night," he said.
"So what if I didn't? And what were you doing staying up all night waiting for me?" asked Villamax. "I'm a grown man, Kegler. I can stay out all night if I feel like it."
"You've never done it before," the little man persisted.
"Kegler, you're not my father, and I'm not on a curfew," Villamax replied. "If you absolutely must know, there was something Trakeena wanted me to do for her. I was obeying her wishes, which, as you must know, is a different thing from getting into trouble."
"I see. And it took all night long?"
"You ask too many questions. Go away before I get annoyed with you."
"Admit it," said Kegler. "You were with her, weren't you?"
"And if I was?" Villamax replied. "Honestly, Kegler, I do believe you were never young."
"Humph! I'm surprised at you, Villamax! I can't believe someone who professes to be so honorable would take advantage of a-"
"No one is taking advantage of anyone," said Villamax sternly. "And for your information, it was her idea first."
Kegler was not one to let facts get in the way of his moral outrage. "I knew it, I just knew you would get yourself into trouble if you came here! I tried to stop you, but you wouldn't listen to me. You never should have gotten involved with her, and that's a fact. You should have just left well enough alone, and-"
"That's quite enough of that," Villamax interrupted. "No one is getting into trouble, all right? Really, why must you worry so much?"
"Because I Saw it, that's why," said Kegler triumphantly. "I Saw that something bad is going to come of this. This time I'm really sure of it!"
"Nonsense," Villamax scoffed. "You haven't Seen anything since you were younger than I am, long since you left the courts."
"This is different!" Kegler insisted. "I really did See! It was last night, while I was waiting for you, and I had a real Vision, and that's why I'm so worried about you! Mark my words, Villamax, something awful is going to happen, and its going to happen soon."
"If you saw any visions last night, it was because you were hallucinating from lack of sleep," Villamax replied. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I want to be left alone."
With that, he pushed past his friend and marched down the hall. Kegler watched him go with a feeling of dread. He didn't care what Villamax said this time. What he had felt last night was too strong to be mistaken, and no one was going to talk him out of it. The Sight had returned to him, just for a moment, and the Vision he'd Seen was one of impending doom. It didn't look like the foreknowledge was going to do him any good, though, because Villamax wasn't listening, and whatever was coming was too powerful for him to stop all by himself...
Once upon a time, when Villamax had been but a boy and Trakeena hadn't even been thought of, Kegler had been a fairly low ranking magician in the court of a king who ruled over a small galaxy in a distant part of the universe, the people of which were mainly concerned with keeping to themselves and keeping all outsiders outside where they belonged. The only reason Kegler qualified as a magician at all was because he had a sound working knowledge of the principle (though he tended to have difficulties when it came to putting it all into practice) and the possession of a few small spells that worked right eighty-five percent of the time, and didn't do any damage the other fifteen. He also had an inherent ability to See... sometimes. That spell, just like all his others, would only work every so often. Unlike the others, he couldn't control it, and when it did choose to go into effect, it would always work perfectly. Every so often, he would have a Vision of relevance, and he would report it to whoever the best person to deal with it was, and so various minor disasters were averted. Still, that would never have earned him a place in the court of a king, even an such an unimportant one as King Glosgath, if he hadn't happened to be distantly related to him somewhere on Glosgath's mother's side. The Queen Mother had been very firm with her son about how her great-uncle was to be treated, and King Glosgath didn't dare argue, and so Kegler stayed in court... for a while, anyway.
Meanwhile, in one of the most looked-down upon solar systems in the galaxy, there lived the Baron Sinistro. He was about as unimportant as a nobleman could get, and the only reason the qualifying "about" could be thrown in there was because he had a wife and three sons who all ranked lower than he did. The youngest son was the most low-ranking of all, naturally, and even the servants only gave him enough respect to keep the baron himself from hearing about it. At the time, there wasn't much to be said for young Villamax, except that he was less inclined to cause trouble than his more upwardly mobile brothers. Perhaps that was why he had always clung so tightly to the notion of honor. It was something that he could do to better himself, to give himself some feeling of self-worth. Even if he no more than the unwanted child of a conceited rich man, he could still prove to the universe that he was valuable in and of himself if he always acted with honor and dignity. For a while, he behaved that way because it was the only worthwhile thing he could think of to do, but eventually he began to build a belief that it was also right in a way his older siblings' squabbles and rivalry over land and power was not. Since it was the only right thing he'd ever known, it became something more than just an act to him. It was his religion and his way of life.
It must have done him some good, too. By the time he grew up, he was not only an accomplished warrior and a more than fair scholar, he had also achieved a certain air of nobility that even his father couldn't match, and people were noticing. After a while, even the baron himself began to become aware that his youngest offspring was growing up into someone of distinction, which surprised him a little. He had expected his boy to behave in the same way other wealthy idlers did, which was usually to waste his time spending the family fortune on pleasures and bullying the commoners, a path the second son had already decided suited him quite well. Even the oldest son was showing tendencies that way, though he was keeping them within limits lest he jeopardize his claim to his father's holding. There was no possibility of leaving his title to the youngest son, however much he deserved it - all the laws and customs were against it. Still, the baron wanted to do well for his son, so he did the only thing he could think of to do: he sent him to the king's court to become a knight of the crown.
So that was where Villamax ended up. He lived in the castle for a few months, long enough to discover that being a knight of the crown wasn't an especially interesting job. The differences between his new life an his old were minimal. He continued practicing the sword and studying, but he had less time to do either than he once had. His accommodations were better, but he got less respect. His jobs now seemed to include fighting when the king said fight, standing at attention when anyone more important than himself was anywhere nearby, nodding and agreeing with everything his superiors told him, and generally being polite and useful. It wasn't a dream come true, but it wasn't torture, either, and he did fairly well at it, so there were no complaints on either side. He might have remained in the court like that for years without changing his circumstances if he hadn't run into Kegler.
Kegler's talents had never been great, but now he was getting old and rusty, and even his most reliable spells weren't working the way they should anymore. As for the Sight, it seemed to have left him completely. He hadn't had a Vision in years, and so now he was just generally taking up space. The only reason he was still hanging around was that the king's mother was still fond of him, so the king didn't have much choice but to keep him. Half a year after Villamax arrived in the court, however, the Queen Mother died, and Kegler was fired before she was even cold in her grave.
That same afternoon, Villamax had found the old man sitting dejectedly in a corner in one of the most dark and disused hallways in the castle, trying to hide from everyone. He was also crying. What else was there to do? He was out of the only job he'd ever had, and he didn't have a clue how to do anything else, and now he was likely to starve to death in some back alley, because he'd just lost his home and source of income. The only reason he was still in the palace was that no one knew he'd been fired yet; if they had, he'd have been thrown out the door in a heartbeat. He didn't know that no one knew, however, and when he saw Villamax passing by, carrying a sword (he'd been practicing in the courtyard since five-thirty that morning), the hapless magician was sure it was the end of the line for him.
"Please, have mercy on me!" he begged, throwing himself at Villamax's feet.
"What for?" Villamax replied, with more curiosity than scorn. No one ever told him anything when it happened. All news he got of castle affairs came to him third- and fourth-hand from gossiping senior soldiers.
"You don't know?" asked Kegler.
"Of course I don't. I've been a soldier here for six months, and that means I rank slightly higher than the kitchen-sweepers," Villamax answered. "Tell me what the problem is, and then I'll decide if you really deserve mercy or not." Seeing that his new acquaintance still seemed scared half to death, he added. "Rest assured, if you truly are deserving, I'll do all in my power to help. I am not an unmerciful man."
"Oh, thank you, thank you," said the little man in relief. "They're going to throw me out of the castle. The king just fired me, and if someone doesn't help me, I'm going to have to beg in the streets!"
"I see. Aren't you one of the king's magicians? I think I've seen you around somewhere."
"I was until this morning," Kegler replied. "Not a very good magician, I'll admit, but I tried. I served King Glosgath since the day he took the throne, and the old king before him, and now they're throwing me out!"
"But whatever for?"
"Because the Queen Mother died this morning. She's the only one who ever really liked me, and now that she's gone, I'm washed up. I have nothing left! They took everything I have of any value and turned me out."
"You have nothing left? Nothing at all?"
"My clothes. A few worthless odds and ends. That's all."
"That's disgraceful," said Villamax. He thought hard. He truly did not approve of disposing of someone who had served the king so long and so loyally. It wasn't really his fault that he'd lost his talent; he'd done his best. It was entirely unfair, the warrior reflected, to send an old man off to die just because he had proven to be an unsatisfactory magician, and Villamax was nothing if not fair.
"Will you help me? Please? I'll do anything you ask, if only you'll keep them from throwing me out," Kegler begged.
"Fine, then. I'll make you a deal," said Villamax. "I'll let you act as my valet. Go where I tell you to go and do as I order, and I'll make sure you have a place to live and enough to eat. Agreed?"
"Absolutely!" Kegler replied. "Thank you so much! I'm eternally grateful."
"Be sure I don't regret it," Villamax replied. "Follow me, and I'll show you where you're going to live."
Keeping up a constant stream of thanks, Kegler got up and followed Villamax down the hall. The warrior listened to the babbling quietly, hoping that he was not making a mistake.
In the short run, anyway, it turned out to be a good idea. In the weeks that followed, Villamax began to get the feeling that he had acquired something closer to the order of a talking dog than a servant. Out of his gratitude, Kegler proved himself to be completely loyal, if not much else. There wasn't a great deal he was useful for, except for performing simple tasks like fetching and carrying. (And I could teach a dog to do that, Villamax sometimes thought.) However, he had also been around the courts longer than Villamax had even been alive, and he knew who was who and how they behaved and just about everything about everyone of any importance - handy things to know if you were a knight of the court who was hoping for any kind of upward mobility. As an advisor, he turned out to be more than capable a commendable job, and Villamax came to rely on him for dispensing good advice and keeping him abreast of everything that was going on around him. Soldiers may not ever find out about the latest news until it was already days old, but servants had a way of knowing everything minutes after it happened. Needless to say, this had a positive effect on Villamax's reputation.
Another benefit of having Kegler around was simply the prestige that came with the possession of a personal servant. The king had been bright enough to realize that not everyone would approve of his choice to fire his longtime servant, no matter how worthless he might have been, and so he had taken special precautions to keep the move a secret. Since no one knew about what the king had done, or about the deal Villamax had made with Kegler, everyone has simply assumed that Kegler was working for Villamax because the king had ordered him to do so. That kind of thing happened occasionally: if someone found favor in the eyes of the king, the king would reward him with money or servants or other things of value, and when a soldier who hadn't even been in the court a full year was thus honored, people naturally assumed that he had to be someone deserving of a lot of respect. The king didn't know about any of that. What he did notice was that people seemed to hold this Villamax person in high regard, and he set about trying to discover why. What he found out was that, by some ridiculous mistake, a first-class warrior with the mind of a scholar and an innate nobility to match any of the nobles in the upper court was laboring away as a bottom-rank fighter, and when you found someone like that, there was only one thing you could do: you promoted him.
That was why, only a year after his arrival in his new home, Villamax's whole lifestyle suddenly turned upside-down. For the first time in his entire life, people were actually treating him like royalty. He was royalty, actually. The king had looked over his holdings and found a suitable set of planets that needed competent rulership, so he drew up some deeds and titles and fancy official documents, had them all signed and sealed and tied up with red ribbons, and handed the whole thing over to Villamax and called him a count. That was a surprising development, since the most he could have expected from life in the normal course of events was to become a general or admiral of some sort. Perhaps, if both of his brothers managed to get themselves killed somehow, he could have become a baron, but a count should have been beyond him, and he wasn't sure what he thought of the idea. For one thing, he didn't think he had done anything to deserve it, which bothered his sense of fair play. For another thing, he wasn't sure what his father would think to find out that he was suddenly outranked by his youngest son. Still, he was not about to turn down a reward if the king wanted to give it to him, so he packed up his few belongings and went where he was sent.
Being royalty, he discovered, was not at all like being a soldier. His much-used sword hung in a closet somewhere, and his books gathered dust. Now, instead of having a couple of rooms tucked off in some odd corner of the king's castle, he had a whole palace of his own, as well as a small platoon of his own soldiers and a fleet of servants who actually bowed and obeyed when he gave them orders. His time was filled with settling disputes and issuing laws. When he wasn't doing that, there were usually parties and things he was supposed to be attending, where he was admired by young women of rank who were well aware that there was no countess living with the count. He was annoyed by them, believing that they were only interested in him because of his newly-acquired wealth and status. (This wasn't precisely true; he had simply never really considered himself to be good looking. He had never really considered himself to be anything, really, other than an honorable man who knew a few things about swordfighting.) Actually, he realized, he hated every aspect of his new life, and would have given all he possessed to go back to the way things had been before. Still, he knew there were people depending on him. He had responsibilities, and it would be dishonorable of him to ignore them, so he gritted his teeth and put up with it all... for a while, anyway.
One evening, Kegler was sitting alone in his room and sulking. He hadn't been completely happy since leaving the castle of the king, no more than his master had. Over the last few months, he had come to like Villamax. He was the only real friend the poor magician had ever really had, and things had been awfully lonely for him since the young warrior had experienced his change in status. Now there were lots of clever people always around offering Villamax expert advice on how to do this or that. Kegler was jealous of them. After all, what was he but a poor excuse for a mage? They were all knowledgeable, respected people who had to know more than he did. The truth was, he told himself glumly, he was of no more use, and the only reason he was still here was because Villamax felt sorry for him, and because he was just too honorable and too polite to go back on a promise. He was effectively jolted out of his malaise as a dagger flew over his head and embedded itself in the wall. Kegler nearly fell out of his chair in surprise.
"Do you know what that was?" asked a coldly angry voice. Kegler turned to see Villamax himself standing in the doorway.
"Um... a knife?" Kegler hazarded. He was a bit unnerved. Who wouldn't be, when someone was throwing blades at you?
"That," said Villamax, "represents an attempt on my life."
"What do you mean?" asked Kegler.
"Someone tried to kill me tonight as I was coming here," Villamax answered, striding across the room to wrench the dagger from the wall. "He didn't do a very good job of it, obviously, but you can understand my being a bit upset."
"Oh, yes, I quite understand," Kegler agreed.
Villamax tossed the dagger casually in one hand, thoughtlessly flipping and catching it with practiced ease.
"No, you don't," he said, "but that's because I haven't told you all of it yet. You see, my assassin was someone I knew. It was one of the senior soldiers from back at the castle, actually. I had never really considered him a friend, but I never realized he would try anything like this."
"Oh, dear," said Kegler. "I suppose there's one in every group."
"That's where you're wrong," Villamax replied. "He had friends with him. I went hunting for them myself - you will forgive me for not trusting my guards at the moment. I found a total of five assassins lurking around my home tonight. I knew every one of them."
"Why would they do such a thing?" asked Kegler, horrified.
"Because they envy me, I think," Villmax replied. He put down the dagger and sank into the chair opposite Kegler with a sigh. "And because I got all of this so fast, without even trying for it. They think they want what I've got. Maybe they really do. If I had the choice, I would happily give up all of this and let them have it. Instead, they think they have to kill me to leave the space open for one of them to move in. They might just do it, too. If they keep trying, sooner or later, I'm going to let down my guard, and then they'll have me. Then someone else will take over, and it will happen to them, and then to another. It's a vicious circle, and I don't really know how to stop it." He pressed his face into his hands in a hopeless gesture.
"You can't, I'm afraid," Kegler replied. "That's the way things have been for centuries - everyone preying on everyone else."
"Don't I know it," said Villamax. "And not just with things like this. Ever since I came here, I've seen nothing but bickering and backbiting and mudslinging and rumor-spreading. I thought nobility was about honor and chivalry, and instead I find its nothing but greed and lies. There's just got to be something better than this! Aargh!" He cried out with frustration and threw the dagger at the wall again. It flew obediently back into the hole it had so recently vacated. Kegler watched, impressed.
"You know, you're right," he said. "You do deserve better than this. You ought to leave this place and find something worthwhile to do."
"Do you think so?" asked Villamax.
"Of course I do," Kegler replied firmly. "If they want all this, let them have it."
"But what about the people?" asked Villamax.
"Someone else will look after them. There's always someone else in line for the job. You said so yourself," Kegler pointed out. "Face it, Villamax. You weren't cut out for this. You're a warrior, not a ruler." He tugged the dagger out of the wall again and pushed it across the table to his friend. "Do yourself a favor and go back to what you know."
Villmax was quiet a moment. He picked up the knife and thoughtfully turned it over in his hands, seeing his reflection in the shiny blade, his own eyes staring back at him. He hadn't bothered looking at his reflection in a long time, but now he gave the image close scrutiny. He was surprised at how tired his eyes looked, and how sad.
*Kegler's right,* he realized. *I'm miserable here. There's no point in putting myself through this.*
"Fine," he said aloud. "I've made up my mind. I'm leaving. Tonight. I can't stand all of this much longer, anyway. Pack your things quickly. It won't take me long to get ready."
"What?" asked Kegler, momentarily stunned. "Who said I was coming with you?"
"I did," Villamax replied.
"Really? You mean it?"
Villamax managed a reassuring smile. Though he never would have dreamed of saying so, he had actually come to be quite fond of the old man, thinking of him as a sort of elderly uncle. (His real uncle had been an austere man of cold emotions whom Villamax had never cared for.) It had never crossed his mind that he should go anywhere without his trusted advisor and friend.
"I made you a promise, didn't I? I wouldn't dream of leaving you here to fend for yourself. Besides, someone has to keep me out of trouble, and you're the only one who knows how," Villamax replied. "As a matter of fact, I make it my final edict as count to order you to come with me. So there."
Kegler smiled back. "Thank you, Villamax. You have no idea what that means to me."
Villamax waved his hand dismissively. "Run along now and get ready. I'll catch up in a moment."
Kegler bowed slightly and hurried off. As he was leaving, Villamax took a piece of paper from a nearby desk and wrote out a gracefully worded letter of resignation, taking a certain amount of enjoyment from the fact that it was worded so enigmatically that no one would ever be able to decipher where he had gone and what had made him decide to leave. When he was done, he pinned it to the wall with the dagger, just for drama. Then he went to get ready to leave.
Kegler found him again just as he was emerging from his rooms. He had replaced his fine clothes with his old soldier's uniform, complete with its red and black visored helmet, and he had his old sword strapped to his belt again. He had a small bag with him, not something that would hold a lot, and nothing else.
"I'm ready," he said.
"Me, too," Kegler agreed. He took one last look around. "I'm not going to miss this place much. How about you?"
"Not one bit," Villamax replied. "Let's get moving."
And they went. For a few years - even he didn't keep track of how many - Villamax crisscrossed the universe with his loyal servant in tow. He made money where he could, sometimes hiring himself out as a mercenary soldier, sometimes by teaching young hopefuls the arts of war, sometimes by challenging other fighters and taking whatever they had bet him after he had won. They had their share of adventures, sometimes barely getting through them alive, but they always came out all right in the end. Villamax had never been happier, at least not until he had lost his heart to a beautiful princess, who had led him back to her home. Now that he knew her, he knew his life would never be the same. However, what he didn't know was that the change was going to be far more dramatic than he ever expected...
Villamax was thinking very little of his past as he patrolled the halls of the Scorpion Stinger - not his distant past, anyway. Truth be told, he was more interested in mentally reliving the events of the previous night. He was hoping that the Power Rangers would be weakened enough by their ordeals in the Lost Galaxy that they wouldn't be able to put up much of a fight this time. If they could be defeated quickly, perhaps it would be enough to satisfy Trakeena's battle-lust for a while, and there would be time again for pursuing other interests. All such thoughts, however, were driven immediately from his mind as he heard a voice in the hall, one that was quite familiar, but not at all welcome, one whose accent and metallic reverberation could not be mistaken.
"...and I thought he was supposed to be so tough, too. That Captain Mutiny was no use at all. I suppose I'm going to have to destroy Trakeena myself, after all."
Villamax stayed very still and very quiet, but his blood was boiling. That traitor! Bad enough that he had decided to desert her after pretending to be loyal for so long, but plotting to kill her! Villamax's vision was slowly beginning to go red with fury, and it was all he could do to stop himself from charging from his hiding place and ripping the wretch's throat out. He took a few deep breaths, slowly getting himself under control again. Then he turned on his heel and marched off quickly to speak with Trakeena.
If it were possible to see inside Trakeena's heart, what would have been visible was fire. The fire had been there since the day she was born, and it had been growing hotter and fiercer ever since. When Villamax had found her, the flames were flickering and uncertain, but he had given her the fuel to strengthen it, and her father's murder had been enough to fan them into a raging inferno. They were fires of anger and vengeance, a burning desire to destroy whatever came in her path, and each victory only fanned them hire and made her crave more. She liked the fire's heat. It made her feel powerful, nearly invincible, and she did what she could to keep them burning. As Villamax stood before her, reporting the return of Deviot and his plans to destroy her, she only smiled, and the fires roared.
When Deviot himself arrived, spewing lies so blatant it set Villamax's teeth on edge, the honorable warrior was more than ready to obey his queen's command to destroy the traitor. It took a lot to make him truly furious, but once it happened, he was nearly unstoppable. There was no way he was letting the double-crosser plot against his beloved queen and live, and he fought with all his strength, while Trakeena looked on with a fierce smile. She was looking forward to seeing her betrayer get his due. What she was not looking forward to was a sneak attack, but that was what she got. Deviot launched himself at her from behind, and suddenly, they were both caught within the bindings of the cocoon.
The minute Deviot fell in, he realized something that would have saved the universe a lot of trouble if only he'd known sooner: the cocoon was not meant for him. He was too alien for it, and it was attempting to twist him into something he was never meant to be, and if he couldn't escape somehow, it was going to kill him. It was too late to break free; the cocoon had him within its power. He couldn't stand it, but Trakeena was born for it. There was only one way he would ever survive this in any sense, and that would be to cast his soul into her body and hope the process wouldn't destroy them both.
Trakeena didn't know any of this was going on. She only knew that the powers of this strange sack were reaching into her, opening her up and trying to shape her into something new, and it was terrifying. Then, suddenly, she felt a strange, deadly power moving into her, giving her new strength, and she accepted it. Then her world seemed to explode, and then she was lying outside on the floor.
Villamax was at her side in an instant, kneeling next to her and asking if she was all right. For a moment, she was still, and he felt a sensation of worry. Suddenly, her head snapped around, and he found himself staring into a pair of eyes that held an expression of ferocity unlike anything he'd ever seen before, and he backed off a little in fear. Although he had no way of knowing, what he was seeing was a glimpse of fires that were burning out of all control. He didn't understand it, but for some reason, it left him shaken to the core.
After she had left the room, Villamax sought out his old friend.
"Kegler," he said, "what exactly did you see in this Vision of yours?" he asked.
"I... I saw Deviot. He came back and attacked the queen. He tore out her heart and replaced it with his own," Kegler replied haltingly. "Why? Has something happened?"
Villamax only sighed. "My friend, I think we have some trouble coming up."
From some distant part of the ship came the sound of laughter, wild and unbalanced. It wasn't the sound of anything sane.
"I think you're right," Kegler agreed.
Trakeena was having a wonderful time. She had never felt so alive, so powerful, so completely in control of everything. Everything felt perfectly clear in her mind now. She could make no mistakes and she could not lose. As she paced the floor, mentally putting the finishing touches on her new plans, she laughed again. The Power Rangers had insulted her by daring to come back to this universe - all of Terra Venture had defied her by returning, and she was not going to stand for it! How dare they challenge Trakeena the Invincible, Queen of the Universe? She would show them! It wasn't enough that the Red Ranger be destroyed, now. Destroying all the Power Rangers wouldn't even be enough to appease her. The entire Terra Venture, every last living thing aboard it, was going to have to die, and she was going to watch them go down in anguish as she shot their hopes and dreams down. She had the power to do it, too. It didn't matter what she lost while she was doing it. If she lost every soldier and used up every bit of her power, even if she had to die herself, they were going to be destroyed. Watching her soldiers march by, each a living weapon, made her almost tremble with excitement, imagining what it would be like as they destroyed everything they came in contact with. It was going to be almost unbearably glorious.
Villmax, on the other hand, was deeply disturbed. Just from speaking to Trakeena for a few minutes, he had become convinced that there was something seriously wrong with her, and he simply did not know what he could do about it. He had watched the outfitting of the StingWingers with bombs with horrified disbelief. True, it probably would have the desired result, but there had to be some other option than this! He had tried to reason with her, make her see what madness this was, and she had brushed him off, and that was truly upsetting. Before, she had always listened to him when he had advised her, even if she didn't always agree. Now she had just given him a curt remark and a scathing look from those strange eyes of hers. He had never seen eyes like that before, and they gave him chills. Finally, he had given up and slunk back to his rooms in discouragement.
After a time, there came a tapping on his door.
"Villamax? Are you all right?"
"Not really," Villamax replied wearily. "Come in, Kegler."
The portly little man waddled through the door and found his friend slumped in a chair, his face pressed hopelessly into his hands.
"How bad is it?" Kegler asked.
"Terrible," said Villamax. "She's gone off the deep end, Kegler. She's completely lost her mind, and I don't know what to do."
"What happened to her? She was fine this morning," said Kegler.
"That was before Deviot threw her into that accursed cocoon," Villamax replied. "They both went in. Only she came out, but she's... changed, somehow."
"So that's what it is. I thought it was something like that," Kegler said. "She's taken his life force as her own. They've literally become one being."
"Just like you said," Villamax answered dazedly. "You really did have a Vison. It's still her body, her mind, but it's his heart she has now... Oh, blast it, this is all my fault!"
"It's none of your doing," said Kegler consolingly. "How could you know?"
"I should have listened to you. I should have been more alert," Villamax insisted. "It was my job to protect her. She ordered me to destroy Deviot, and I couldn't do it. I had every opportunity, but I completely botched it."
"Well, what are you going to do now?"
"I don't know. What can I do? She's not the woman I know anymore. She's someone else... something else. My life belongs to Trakeena, but where is she? Is she dead? Is there any way I can get her back? Give me some answers, Kegler. You know more about this than I do. How can I save her?"
Kegler shook his head sadly. "I'm sorry, Villamax. I can't help you with this. Even at my best, this would have been out of my league. There's nothing I can do. I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I just can't..."
"It's not your fault," said Villamax. "I didn't mean to pressure you. It's just that... I'm so frustrated. I'm frightened, too. Terrible things are going on, and it's all out of my control. I'm just a swordsman. I don't know anything about the High Magics!"
"That's not so bad. I do know about them, and I still can't help you," Kegler replied.
Villamax sighed. "Pathetic, that's what we are. Completely useless."
Kegler couldn't object. What was there to say? Silence fell for a little while as they both pursued their own gloomy thoughts. At last, Villamax got to his feet.
"I'm going to the Terra Venture," he said. "Perhaps there will be something I can do there to put a stop to this madness."
"You're going to help the enemy?" asked Kegler, aghast. "You're the last one I would have expected to turncoat like that."
"It's dishonorable to kill soldiers for no reason," answered Villamax, "even those brainless StingWingers. I'm not about to let it happen. If Trakeena ever comes out of this, she'll thank me for it."
The words were spoken bravely, but deep inside, there was a tremor of regret. Too much was happening too fast, and he felt completely lost. Still, he couldn't just stand by and do nothing. He vanished from the ship in a blink of orange light.
The situation on Terra Venture was worse than he'd imagined. The StingWingers were everywhere, pouring through the streets and covering the face of every building, and the air resounded with the thrumming of wings and the echoes of explosions as the warriors brought about their own dooms. They were a horde of locusts, and they were bringing about the end of a world. Villamax watched them all silently. His capacity to be horrified had given out a good while ago, but he still felt a kind of tired sadness. This was wrong, but the destruction was too great for him to make any kind of effect upon it. Despairing thoughts wandered through his mind: he could take no more of this, he had to get away, had to pack up everything and leave once again. Like it or not, he had lost Trakeena, and the only thing left for him to do was pack it all up and cut his losses.
A scream brought him out of his melancholy thoughts and back to full awareness, and he glanced around to discern its cause. What he saw was a lone child standing petrified in a corner. If you liked children, you had to like this one, a little girl with flaxen hair and wide blue eyes. Before the chaos had started, she had been playing in the park, picking flowers, and she still clutched a single blossom in one tiny hand, as if it was a ward against evil. Villamax had never had very much to do with children one way or another, and couldn't remember much about his own childhood except that it hadn't been especially enjoyable, but he harbored a certain amount of curiosity about them. They were such innocent creatures, so trusting and unworldly, so pure in their emotions, not at all like the deceptive adults he had known. He could have easily become fond of them, if he had ever had the chance.
However, he didn't really have a chance to think about any of that before he realized the cause of her screams. The StingWingers had chosen a nearby building as their next target, and the child was in danger of being crushed... unless someone was inclined to jump in and save her.
*I'm probably going to regret this later,* Villamax thought.
Acting more from impulse and emotion than rational thought, the warrior threw himself at the child, shielding her from the explosion. He felt falling debris beating at him, but his armor assured that he would come through with nothing worse than bruises. The little girl clutched at him, crying out with fright. And then, seconds later, it was all over, and they were both looking at the wreckage with equally dazed expressions. Then the child turned her expressive gaze to her rescuer.
"Will you help me find my mommy?" she asked him.
Villamax was momentarily at a loss for words. What was he supposed to say? He was no hero; it was not his responsibility to look after this lost infant... but how in the universe could he refuse this tiny creature who had him trapped with that infinitely trusting gaze? While he was still trying to form some kind of coherent answer, the girl's mother appeared, calling her name. The little girl beamed at him as if he was personally responsible for her appearance.
"Thanks, mister," she said. "I just knew you'd help me!"
Then, impulsively, she offered him the flower she was holding. He took it reverently, holding it gently, as if it were something immeasurably precious and incredibly fragile. As he watched the girl being led away, waving goodbye to him, a bitter thought wandered through his mind.
*So, this is who I've been fighting to destroy.*
He shook his head. Enough was enough. He couldn't leave now, not after this. One way or another, he would have to end this fiasco, or he would regret it to the end of his days. He returned to the Scorpion Stinger with the flower pressed to his heart.
Trakeena experiencing the high point of her life. Watching the terrified inhabitants of Terra Ventrue fleeing for their lives was a sight that was marvelous to behold. She laughed, imagining what they must be thinking of their precious Power Rangers now. This was working even better than she'd planned! Not only would the Rangers be destroyed, but they would be thoroughly humiliated first, forced to bear the pain of knowing that nothing they could have done was enough to save their colony and that all their work and suffering was in vain. But they would have to be destroyed in the end, and all their people along with them. Trakeena would not be satisfied with anything less. Still grinning ferally, she turned to Villamax and ordered him to open fire on the space shuttles as they charted a desperate course across the dark sky.
Villamax hesitated, torn between loyalties. He had sworn to always serve Trakeena, but... was this even really her? Though she had never stated it openly, he had felt sure that she had loved him, but this new creature cared only for destruction. This was something even beyond evil, and he could not grasp it. And there was someone else who loved him - he knew that, too. A little girl was on one of those ships who loved him with the simple, uncomplicated and unrestrained love of a child. It wasn't something that required analyzing and puzzling over to comprehend; it was something that you could hold in your hand. Reflexively, his hand moved to obey his queen's orders, but the sight of the flower gave him reason to pause.
Trakeena saw the hesitation, momentarily distracted from her euphoria by puzzlement. Her servant was not obeying her, and the action was so unexpected that she had to stop and shift her thinking to decipher why this should be. She was further confused to see that this hardened warrior was carrying, of all things, a flower. Now, why would he do something like that? You didn't carry something like that around...
*Not unless it means something to you,* she realized. Suddenly, as she listened to her prize warrior blurt excuses to her, it all came blindingly clear. She had been betrayed! There was someone else now, one of those wretched humans, who had taken her place, and he was refusing to obey her because whoever had given him that ridiculous plant meant more to him than she did. Well, she would not take it! Villamax belonged to her, her, and no one else! Anger flared up inside of her, misting her vision with red. When he actually had the impudence to try to physically prevent her from firing the lasers herself, she snapped.
The blow came unexpectedly to Villamax. Even with all that had happened, it hadn't crossed his mind that his beloved might actually decide to turn on him, but now she attacked with such ferocity that he was actually pitched into the air and sent crashing through a wall. The next attack was expected, but no less painful for that. Though he did his best to defend himself, there could be no denying that, in this strange new state of hers, Trakeena was stronger and quicker than her teacher. More than that, he was afraid of hurting her. She was the only one he had ever truly loved, and he was not giving up on her now.
*If I destroy her, she'll never be saved. I'll lose her forever,* he thought, *but if someone doesn't stop her, she'll destroy everyone else - not just the Rangers, now, but innocent people who don't deserve it. I can't stop her from doing it, but I can stall her for a while, anyway. Perhaps it will be enough. It is all I can do.*
All he could do still wasn't very much. He fended off the attacks as best he could and took the ones he couldn't dodge. He refused to draw his sword. One of them was already mad with rage, and he would not allow himself to fall into the same trap. At last, though, his strength began to give out, and a brutal slash from Trakeena's sword sent him slumping to the floor. The flower drifted downwards more gently, landing a few feet away from his face. As he laboriously pulled himself up on one elbow, struggling to retrieve it, Trakeena's boot came down and crushed it with a smug laugh. Villamax collapsed in despair.
*Who am I trying to fool? I can't stop any of this. It's all beyond me, now. One more hit like that and I'm finished.*
"You taught me too well," Trakeena sneered. There was no pity in her for her fallen teacher.
Villamax heard, but the words didn't have the bite that they might have had under different circumstances. The flower had been crushed, but that had only released its sweet scent to ride on the air, and just breathing its perfume seemed to revive Villamax a bit. He managed to look up at her one more time, meeting her wild eyes with a cool stare.
"You have learned nothing," he replied, and vanished in a cloud of orange light. There was nothing more he could do for anyone here, but perhaps he could be of use elsewhere...
Trakeena watched him vanish triumphantly. She was unsure if he was truly dead, or if he had just run away in cowardice. If the former, good riddance! If the latter, no problem. She would hunt him down eventually. He would be destroyed, like everyone who crossed her would be destroyed, and that was simply that. In the meantime, however, there was the little problem of Terra Venture to be solved. Well, all in good time. She was the Queen of the Universe, and no one would ever cross her again and live to tell about it, no one.
When Leo entered the wreckage of Terra Venture, he expected that there would be only one other person there besides himself. After extracting himself from the remains of his Jet Jammer and inspecting what was left of the Scorpion Stinger, he had found and followed a set of slimy footprints that he had deduced belonged to Trakeena. He was willing enough to meet her again; after what she had done to the colony and the MegaShip, he figured she deserved to learn a lesson, and he would be glad enough to give her the same treatment he had given her father.
He had not, however, expected to encounter Villamax. Dashing around a heap of rubble, however, Leo was very surprised to nearly trip over the warrior. He caught himself just in time, backing off and giving the unexpected distraction a brief examination, and was puzzled to realize that the monster seemed to be doing nothing more than inspecting a bed of flowers. Most of them had been crushed or broken in the crash, but one or two still remained whole, and Villamax was looking them over as if they were invaluable treasures, or miracles. Leo paused a moment as he tried to assess how best to deal with the situation.
"What are you doing here?" he asked at last.
Villamax glanced up at him, realizing for the first time that he was being watched.
"Oh, it's you," he said. "Are you going to try to destroy me, too? Go right ahead. Be my guest. You'll have an easy enough time of it, I shouldn't wonder."
"Huh?" asked Leo, caught off-guard. For the first time, he realized that the warrior had a fair sized gash in his side, and that his armor was looking somewhat scorched and battered.
"What happened to you?" he asked, not quite able to stop himself from sounding slightly sympathetic.
"Trakeena," Villamax answered tiredly. "She's gone insane, I think. She has forgotten everything but the need to destroy. When I tried to stop this mindless brutality, she turned on me."
"You tried to stop all this?" asked Leo. "But I thought you were one of the bad guys!"
Villamax just shrugged. "I also have a heart. It gets the better of me sometimes. If it didn't..." he hesitated, his voice constricted. "If it didn't, I have begun to think I might even destroy Trakeena myself. She has pushed herself even beyond the fury that brought this on and metamorphosed into a state more deadly and powerful than I have yet seen. She will destroy all that comes into her path, and I do not think there is any other way to stop her..."
He trailed off, and Leo listened with mixed emotions, feelings of both fear and awe. It was hard to tell with that mask in the way, but the Red Ranger could have almost sworn his enemy was crying. However, a moment later, Villamax was in control of himself again.
"I cannot destroy her, though. There are... bonds between us that do not permit such an action. I will leave that to you, Ranger. However, do me one favor... try to make it quick and painless, if you can. Even though you may think she deserves it, do not make her suffer."
"I think I can do that," said Leo, still puzzled, "but why?"
"Because," Villamax answered, almost too softly to be heard, "I still love her."
Leo nodded. "You have my word then."
"Good. Will you destroy me, too?"
"No. You don't deserve it."
"But that's what I want. All I ever cared about is gone. I will probably die soon, anyway."
"I won't do it," Leo replied. "You're worth saving. If you go to where the others are, they'll probably help you. Come around to our side."
"I'll think about it," Villamax replied. "There is a little girl there who thinks kindly of me..."
"Get moving," said Leo. "Go somewhere, if not there. You probably won't want to watch this."
"True. You will find her near the main control room, I believe. Good luck... Leo." And with those parting words, Villamax got slowly to his feet and walked away. The Red Ranger watched him for a moment until he was out of sight before continuing on his own mission. He was determined that he would see the end of Trakeena. She deserved what she would get, if only for breaking a good man's heart...
Villamax chose to stay on Terra Venture until the end. It wasn't that bad of a ride, really. He had actually expected worse. The ship, or what was left of it, had struck the New World with an impressive explosion, but it looked a lot more devastating than it had really been. After all, the Power Rangers had survived it, and he was nearly as tough as they were, in his way. He hauled himself out of the rubble of a collapsed building - none were left standing now, only a mountain range of slag and twisted metal and wires shooting sparks, and the air was reddish from the light of fires and full of acrid smoke. He didn't seen much of that, not at first. His vision was obscured by a set of radiating cracks in his visor, caused by some odd bit of flying masonry. He ripped the helmet off and threw it at the ground, letting it bounce and clatter down the hill of fallen cement until it cracked to pieces. He stood there for a moment, just staring at everything, still too dazed to think or feel anything. After a long pause, a thought finally made it through his mind: *I'm still alive.* Then came emotion, anger: *Blast it all, I can't even die properly!*
When that much came clear in his mind, he sat down where he stood and let the hot tears of frustration roll down his face. Everything was wrong, utterly and abysmally wrong, and they would never be right again, not ever. Trakeena was dead. He had thought he was far enough from the battleground that he would not know when it was happening, but he had guessed wrong. He had heard that final, quaking explosion, and he had known exactly what it meant. There was a deep pain of loss within him now, mixed with guilt that he had not been able to prevent this outcome. And then a new thought came to him - Kegler was probably also dead. If Trakeena hadn't killed him, he had likely perished in the wreck of the Scorpion Stinger. That left Villamax left completely alone in the universe, as the only two people he'd ever really cared about, his only true friends and family, were reduced to dust. What was the point of living any longer? What was the point?
*The only real point left now is the tip of a sword,* he thought with grim humor. *I still have my weapon. I could end my existence quickly. It would be so simple...*
Just as he was reaching for his blade to carry out his intentions, he heard a quiet sound. Curious, he listened, and the sound came again to reach his ears, and he recognized it as a moan of pain. Was it possible that someone had actually remained on Terra Venture, unable to escape on board the shuttles, and was now trapped amid all this devastation? It occurred to him that if that were truly the case, it would be cruel and dishonorable of him to leave whoever it was there to suffer and die, but he had trouble working up the energy to care. It all seemed so futile. After all, he had tried today to do the honorable thing, and what had it gotten him? Nothing. It wasn't until the sound came a third time that he realized that the voice was oddly familiar. Suddenly he was on his feet, running as if he hadn't been injured at all. Digging through the rubble, peering through smoky air, he finally located the source of the cries. There was a woman half-buried in the wreckage of a building.
Working swiftly as he could with hands that trembled so that he could barely grip anything, he managed to unearth her. She was burned and battered, with long auburn hair in disarray and a tattered black dress, and a gash marked a path across her cheek. She bore little resemblance to Trakeena as Villamax had best known her, and less still to the briefly assumed insect form, but there was still no doubt in his mind that it was her. He thought briefly of the flower, and how its evident destruction had brought forth unexpected sweetness. Though she was changed, this was still Trakeena... and she was alive.
"Trakeena," he whispered. "Darling, it's me! Are you all right? Say something."
Trakeena stirred a little, wincing with newly-discovered pain, and slowly opened her eyes to look up at him.
"Vill...amax?" she managed weakly. "You're alive! But... I killed you, didn't I? Oh, I'm so sorry, I didn't know what I was doing..."
Shock, pain, and confusion were too much for her, and she broke into hysterics. Villamax had half-expected that, so he only held her close and whispered soothingly to her until the reaction played herself out. Finally, she relaxed enough to speak sensibly again.
"I want to get out of here," she said. "This place feels full of ghosts."
"Can you walk?"
She shook her head slightly. "I have no strength. I'm completely spent."
"I can carry you, once I've rested a bit. It's been a hard day."
"How did you survive? I was almost sure..."
"Did you think you could really destroy your teacher that easily?" he asked, laughing a little. "You still have quite a bit to learn."
She smiled a little at that, and he smiled back. He felt much better now than he had a few moments ago. Things would never be the same, but they wouldn't be as bad as he thought they would be. At least he wasn't completely alone... and he was even less so once he became aware of another distant voice, one that was making its way closer.
"Hello? Trakeena? Somebody? Anybody? Oh, please don't leave me all alone like this, I just can't stand it..."
"Kegler! Over here!" he called out.
Within seconds, the portly little man came running through the smoke and rubble to greet his old friend. Though his clothes were torn and his glasses cracked, he seemed to have come through the holocaust better than the other two. Upon spying his friend, presumed dead, he hurried forward to throw his short arms around him, making Villamax laugh.
"I'm happy to see you, too, Kegler," he said. "It is good that we are all together again. I'd take this as a good omen."
"Omen?" Kegler repeated. He raised his eyes, looking off at something only he could see. He smiled. "Yes, I'd say this is a very good omen."
"Then let's get going. I'm ready to leave this place," Villamax replied.
He climbed carefully to his feet, doing his best to carry Trakeena gently, so that she would feel not the least bit of discomfort. She rested limply in his arms, too drained even to move. The fires had burned out, using up all of her resources; her stamina was completely gone. All she could feel now in the place where those restless embers used to be was a hollow coldness, and it saddened her. Gradually, though, she became aware that Villamax was whispering to her, and she drew herself out of her gloomy thoughts to listen to his words: It will be all right, I will look after you, because I still love you no matter what. I love you, Trakeena. I love you. She smiled a little as she felt a new kind of warmth come into her heart, and she sighed contentedly as she rested her head against his shoulder. Her universe was a warm embrace and a gentle voice, and when you were queen of a universe like that, what else mattered?
After a time, they came to the crest of a hill, and Villamax stopped a moment to catch his breath and look at the view.
"Would you look at that?" he said in quiet awe.
Trakeena opened her eyes and looked. Spread out below them was the wreckage of Terra Venture, and great grey mass filled with fires that cast dark smoke up to the pristine sky. All around it were lush jungles full of living things, but the spacecraft was an ugly wound in the perfect landscape.
"When we first met," said Villamax, "you spoke of a wish to conquer and destroy. Is this enough?"
She shook her head. "More than enough. All I want now... is a safe place to rest."
"I couldn't agree more," Villamax replied. He turned away from the dismal sight, looking instead toward the unspoiled landscape of Mirinoi, bright with sunlight and flashing rivers and joyful promise, and, in the distance, fireworks from a distant celebration. "Come. I think the people here might be able to find room for three more refugees.
So they set off into the forest to see what opportunities a
peace might have to offer.