The young man lifted his hands from the stained ivory uniform, the crimson flowing over onto his palms. As the redness accumulated on his shirt, he looked to his teammates with ultimate fear in his eyes, and folded into the ground.
"Keep moving!" Another demanded, dismissing the fallen comrade. He verbally pulled the other three who accompanied him through the cavern's many tunnels. "We're almost there," he panted, running along the rocky ground.
A sudden hiss alerted him, sending him into a barrel roll. His motion had signaled one girl to attempt a similar evasion tactic, but the two behind him screamed briefly as a collection of razor-tipped spears shot from the stone walls and through their bodies.
"Don't stop!" He commanded, leading the only other surviving member of his troop to a less- confined portion of the cave. About twenty feet before him stood an unguarded altar, a large brilliant orb of white atop it.
His companion released a small 'urk', summoning his attention. Turning about, he saw a minotaur holding the young woman high above the ground, her feet flailing about as she struggled to free it's powerful hands from around her throat.
"A choice," The Minotaur snorted. "Take the orb in exchange for her life, or the two of you can leave together."
Frantically, the young man weighed the options in his mind. Finally, he decided that the life of his friend would pale in comparison to the carnage the Minotaur could reign with the orb's power. And so, he sprinted to the altar, his hand brushing against the crystal as the light exploded from within, freezing time for a moment.
The light washed away, taking the scenario with it. David Nash stood alone in the Simudeck, until the door leading to the control room slid open.
Jason Scott, an instructor at the Ranger Academy and minor legend, stepped from the portal wearing a grim expression. "Congratulations," he said. "You failed."
"But---" David attempted to voice an opinion. "--If the Minotaur had gotten the orb..."
"It was a lose-lose situation." The instructor revealed. "There was no way to pass. There was only what you felt was right. You could have saved Maggie and returned home, but the Minotaur would have the orb's power. You chose to take the orb in order to defeat the Minotaur, but it had already cost you the life of your friends and teammates."
"I want to take it again, sir." David requested. "I want to take the test again."
"That was a real-life simulation, David. In the field, you'd only get one shot to do whatever you would do. If you feel you made the wrong choice, that's something you'll have to deal with. Believe me when I say this incident will come back to help you later on. And *haunt* you." Scott nodded to the young man. "You're friends are waiting for you outside."
"Thank you, sir." David said uneasily, catching his breath as he left the Simudeck and encountered non-computer simulations of his teammates.
"How'd it go?" The waify curly-haired brunette asked. "Well?"
"Four-out-of-four." He sighed. "Sorry, Maggie. The Minotaur got you." "Don't worry about it," the long maned blonde attempted to eliminate the bad memories. "We've all failed the leadership test. I think it's actually a requirement. I say we take what little time we have before Kwan's philosophy class, and hit the commissary."
"I'd rather hit the sack," a raven-headed young woman commented. "Is it me, or has Mister Park all been riding us extra-hard over the past few weeks?" Her friends offered mixed replies. "And by the way Greg, thanks for teaching me to fall on my neck."
"You were supposed to tuck your head, Becca," the tanned skinny boy with matted hair replied. "Always tuck your head, especially when you're about to be dropped on it." A low rumbling made it's way free of the young man's stomach, leading him to a decision. "I'm with Liz. I need some serious food."
"You expect to find that here?" The blonde asked. "I *was* talking about our commissary you know. Remember the meatloaf barbecue you planned on building? Or the mashed-potato igloo?"
"They were frozen enough," Greg cracked. "But I've heard the cook discovered fire, so we might actually get some hot food. Plus I eat like a shrew, so if I don't get some food one of you is going to be missing during roll call, tomorrow."
The team laughed at the empty threat, and thought it best to follow their stomachs on the path to the commissary.
"I want to recommend that they take the final early." Jason told Andros. "I believe they're ready for it." He locked his eyes onto the disapproving Red Astro Ranger. "Cestro says they've been doing quite well in his science class, and Kim says they're excelling in their strategy lessons to new levels.
"I haven't seen a group that's adapted to each other like they have. We split them up from their own little bands after week ten, and tossed them together. Two weeks later, they were passing every battle simulation program we had to offer.
"I want them to take the Phaedos Assignment."
Andros choked on his coffee, and set the cup upon his desk. "Jason, the Phaedos Assignment isn't like the Desert of Despair. They don't have to cross a wasteland and talk to Ninjor to get their powers. They have to forge through a lethal jungle and overcome a lot of dangerous obstacles in order for them to reach their goal."
"They can do it." Jason said, still standing before Andros with his hands clasped in front of himself. "I have total faith in those kids. Zordon took a chance with myself and my friends, I think we owe it to those five."
"We could be sending them to their deaths."
"We could be looking at the greatest Ranger team, ever." Jason countered the Headmaster's statement. "They work so well that I don't want to offer a sixth man to the team. These five have an unbelievable chemistry that none of the other sets have been able to match."
"I'll consider it." Andros submitted. "I want them all to undergo a psychological exam before I make my final decision, especially Nash. The leader of every team should be ---"
"He's not the leader." Jason interrupted. "They'll all go to Phaedos without any color recognition. They'll be issued the basic enhancements they need to survive, but they won't actually receive their colors until they reach the Great Power. Then, the leader will be decided."
Andros raised an eyebrow. "You've already spoken with Dulcea about this, haven't you?" He asked, mentioning the planet's master warrior and sole caretaker.
"Yes. And in addition, I've already put them through their psych evaluations. They've passed with flying colors. Which again, wasn't the case when they were in separate groups."
"Fine, fine." Andros agreed. "They can have the assignment, but only if the other instructor's all agree to it. Let me know how the situation turns out." He bade the instructor farewell, and welcomed the entrance of his long-time friend. "Hey, Zhane."
The blonde man seemed distressed, fumbling a datapad in his hands. "Andros," he began, sliding the pad across the table. "I think you should take a look at this."
"A report from the Senturions?" Andros confirmed, scanning the pad with his eyes. "About a Devarian attack on a Norian homestead." He dropped the pad on his desk, and rested his head in his hands. "Weelo's family is dead." He bluntly translated the formal letter. "Wonderful."
Andros stood from behind his desk, and straightened his red uniform. "Zhane, take care of everything until I get back," he ordered. "I have to find a way to break the news to our friend." He brushed against the approaching Korone as he exited the office. "Talk to Zhane," he said, jerking a thumb to the man leaning against the desk.
"What's up, Korone?" Zhane asked casually.
The young woman in a purple Academy uniform answered, "Did you guys forget about something I like to call 'regulated press releases'? We've got a news crew waiting for you, downstairs."
"Now I know why this job gets to Andros so much." Zhane sighed. "Okay, let's go."
The class continued to practice their routine as Andros stepped onto the stage. Adam Park was pleased that the students had learned enough to keep simple changes in their environment from disrupting their training.
"Adam," Andros addressed the combat instructor, "I know this is a bad time for him--"
"Him, who?" Adam asked. "Don't tell me, Weelo?" Andros nodded. "The Devarians got his family didn't they?" Another nod. "I thought this might happen. I was hoping it wouldn't, but I thought it might."
Andros waited for something else. "You're not going to tell him?"
"Not right now." Adam decided. "I'll speak with him after class. If I call him out now, it'll raise suspicion as to what exactly I'm telling him. The last thing I want is to have any rumors floating around the school. Unless you want to tell him." Adam offered.
Andros quickly declined. "No, thank you. I know what it's like on the other side of the situation. Plus you've got the best relationship with him besides TJ and Cassie, and I thought it'd be easier coming from an instructor."
"Okay." Adam agreed. "But I bet he still doesn't take the news that well."
*"That's a relief."*
Adam blinked. "I think you're translation collar must be malfunctioning," he said, pointing to the mechanical band around the Norian's blue neck. "Did you understand what I just told you?"
Weelo nodded his head, quickly closing and opening his translucent eyelids. *"Yes, sir."* He said, his gurgling native language accompanied by a mechanical computer voice. *"But you must understand, that I have been worried about my family for so long, that I would much rather know they are dead than not knowing anything at all."*
"Interesting excuse." Adam placed a hand on Weelo's shoulder. "And as much as I'd hate to bring you down emotionally, I don't think it's really the proper reaction. You don't even seemed phased that they're gone and not coming back."
*"On my world,"* the Norian explained, *"We do not mourn the lost. We do not cry over their passing, rather we get through such troubles by remembering the good times that were shared. All life ends, and the death of one should not overly affect another outside of a simple grieving process."*
"Okay," Adam pulled the word, not sure of what to say next. "Well if you're okay with the situation, I guess there's nothing else I could do or say. But if you're having problems, come see me immediately."
*"Yes sir."* The Norian said before padding off the training floor and towards his quarters.
Adam shook his head. He wasn't sure what to make of the Norian species. Where they superior for their simple acceptation of death? Or where they inferior for not allowing themselves to feel pain over a loss? With those thoughts in his head, he left for his own home, outside of the Chamber.
Zhane stepped onto the low stage of the PressRoom, and behind the podium. As he felt the numerous pairs of eyes set upon him, he remembered why he feared public speaking. But not to be done in by some cameras and scandal-seekers, along with a few legitimate reports, he cleared his throat and opened the floor to questions.
"Mister Zhane," one woman called. "What exactly does the Academy have in store for the future of the students?"
"Well," Zhane didn't bother to formally recognize the woman by reading her nametag; he was having enough trouble speaking as it was. "Seeing as we are the only Ranger team on Earth at the moment, our first team will be designated as a domestic force. Any other team that comes after will be assigned to a nearby world that has lost or has never had it's own Rangers."
"And what exactly goes on behind those doors?" A slippery-looking tabloid journalist asked. "What do you have to say to the accusations that the Rangers are building their own personal army?"
"I'd say you're an instigator, Mister Mannard." Zhane answered. "I know the credibility of your sources, and the news reported within the paper that you literally publish out of your garage. If you even attempt to create a story with incorrect facts or accusations, we will take legal action against you.
"We are providing a planetary security." Zhane continued, now forgetting about his fear. "We may reside in one nation, but this is where we have always been. Our approval comes directly from the United Nations, who receive constant reports as to the occurrences behind *those doors*.
"Furthermore, our *army* as it was so called, is true to it's original form and nothing more than a defense force. Attacking is not our solution. You have seen first hand that Rangers defend their world from hostile forces, nothing more, nothing less." He caught his breath. "Now, are there any other questions?"
Jason stepped through the commissary to the targeted team. For a moment, the five didn't seem to even notice him, but after seeing the serious mask he wore; they stopped their meal and looked up from their seats.
"Mister Scott, is there a problem, sir?" David asked.
"Pack." He ordered. "The five of you." He was privately amused at their surprised reactions.
"You're cutting us?" Liz asked. "I thought we were doing so well."
"You are." Jason smiled, releasing some emotion. "You're to leave for Phaedos tomorrow. I've spoken with your instructors and Headmaster Andros, and we've agreed to push up your final one week. If you pass, you'll immediately become full-fledged Rangers." His eyes bounced from student to student. "That is, if you agree."
The students nodded absently.
"Good. Take the rest of the day off to get all of your affairs in order. Contact your families to tell them of the situation, and report to me first thing in the morning." He semi-saluted the charges. "Have a good day."
"I don't believe it!" Becca grinned. "Full-fledged Rangers?"
"A day off?" Greg choked on the words. "Oh man, that sounds good right about now."
"Wait a minute," Liz begged. "What's Phaedos?"
Maggie groaned. "Looks like if we want to graduate we'll be spending our day off in the library."
"Found it," Becca announced. Her friends looked up from their books and datapads to give her their full attention. "Phaedos," she read from the computer terminal before her, "Is the only planet that is also it's own solar system."
"So, it's like the Australia of the universe," David mused. "Interesting. Go on."
Becca continued to read from the monitor. "While it's constant tropical climate might be deceiving, numerous scientists have claimed an unknown chemical that circulates through the air of the Neola Jungle is responsible for it's dangers." The girl looked up to see her friends' worried looks and raise them her own. "When intruders enter the valley, it is said that the physical properties of otherwise harmless objects or creatures will transmutate into sentient guardians of the Great Power."
"In other words," Greg translated, "We're screwed."
"Only if we fail." Liz reminded, collecting the books they no longer needed and replacing them on the large shelves of the library. "But we obviously have a good shot at this. Mister Scott and the others must have a tremendous amount of confidence in us to let us search for the Great Power, let alone a week earlier than planned."
"Becca, what've you got over there about the Great Power?"
At Maggie's request, the raven-haired girl began to type furiously. "Aha!" She called. "The Great Power--" her smiled twisted into a sour expression. "--Variable."
"What does that mean?" Maggie asked.
"It means it's different for everyone who claims it. We won't find out what it means to us until we actually cross through the Jungle and reach the Power itself." Liz returned to the table and sank into a chair. "Just a hunch, but I'd wager the guardians are even less predictable, huh?"
"So we're going to be blind through this whole thing? There's no precedence or anything?"
Becca shook her head at brunette. "The only thing I have on the actual process is that there will be three tests. I don't know how far apart, how many guardians -- variable, variable, variable." Leaning back in her seat, the girl locked her hands together behind her head. "It's probably going to be a very difficult test."
"Test?" Liz asked. "We could die on this trip!" She turned her eyes to the raven-haired girl at the computer. "Couldn't we? Not that I'm hoping for it or anything, but I assume this is one of those things were we either come back in one piece or don't come back at all. Right?"
Becca shrugged with the smallest of movements.
"Well, this afternoon was an absolute waste," Greg assessed.
The two Galaxy Gliders hovered above the crystal water as the pilots of matching colors talked amongst themselves while staring at the surface below the ocean covered planet.
"Why are we back here?" Blue Ranger asked. It was five months ago that he and his friend were stranded on the hydro planet Inus and almost eliminated by enforcers of the Devarian House by befriending an innocent Norian. "There's nothing here, except for a Land Whale that could come through at any minute and trash *these* Gliders." He made reference to the cause of their impromptu residence of the power on their previous journey.
"The energy signature," Pink Ranger said, kneeling on her vehicle while scanning the water with a small computer. "Remember, the one that made me think the Phantom Ranger was on this planet? We were so busy looking for the Power Ruby and trying to stay dry that we didn't really find out what was giving off the signature."
"Hold it," he requested. "I think I found it."
Blue Ranger dove into the water, and began to pick away at the surface. His gloved fingers removed the surprisingly dry and brittle pieces of rock, until he had uncovered an obviously man-made crater. Set inside was a small pouch of leather, which was quickly claimed by anxious hands.
He returned to the surface, holding the bag high. "Ta-Dah!" He presented the pouch. "This *has* to be it." He listened to the intense beeping of the computer as it was held to the pouch. "Yeah, that's it alright." Blue Ranger smiled beneath his helmet. "Now maybe we can get out of here before anything can happen to us."
Andros unrolled the blueprint handed to him, not sure of which way it was supposed to go. This was probably due to the fact that the blueprint was indeed nothing but the scribblings of a questionable man.
Still examining the grease-stained paper, the Red Ranger finally broke down and asked, "What is it?"
Droz raised his pierced eyebrow. "What is it," he repeated shaking his head, his thin blonde ponytail whipping across his otherwise shaved head. "It's a design for a Zord, Andros. The boys and I have been workin' on it for months."
Andros had wondered what was occupying most of the mechanics' time. Looking up from the paper even though he still had no clue as to the design, he saw the huge Zord as a work-in-progress. Nothing but steel frames and an incomplete cockpit existed in his eyes.
But that was what got Droz his job. While Justin, the fourteen year-old Chief Engineer spent most of his time creating smaller devices, upgrading the arsenal and overseeing new product concepts, Droz the loveable mechanic would always have some odd invention that only he could create successfully.
"It's a bit different than what you're used to." Droz said. "There won't be a Megazord, or any sort of gestalt system. "Once we've finished this one, we'll scan it into the system and replicate five more. With the Astro Megaship an integral part of the Chamber's structure," Droz pointed upward to the craft docked atop the building, "We thought you might want something a bit smaller and faster for the everyday work."
"When will they be ready?" Andros asked, now seriously interested in the project.
"The boys give me an estimate of two weeks for the prototype." Droz tipped his head slightly to the collection of mechanics swarming on the vehicle. The 'boys' he often referred to were simply mechanics of less social-status than Droz himself, who loved machines. "Give us a month to get all six bug-free and painted."
"Where do you come up with these ideas?" Andros relieved the question that had been nagging him for weeks from the back of his mind. He knew the answer would not be a comfortable one.
"Usually when I eat too many nachos before bed." The mechanic quickly but seriously replied.
"You amaze me at times, Droz."
"In what way? Cuz everytime my Mom said that it wasn't necessarily good."
The evening passed quickly for the young team of Ranger hopefuls, but it felt as if the following morning would last forever. The five young men and woman lined themselves before their instructor, dressed in their ivory uniforms, carrying no baggage.
But then again, what would they take? Mister Scott's 'pack' comment was obviously intent on gaining a reaction than providing advice. The team's adventure on Phaedos would take no longer than a day at most, without any breaks. There would be no need for supplies that would only way them down.
Mister Scott took in the allegedly prepared team, and spoke.
"You are about to leave on your first mission ever. This is your baptism, boys and girls. If you succeed, which I know you will, you will have achieved the highest honor available to anyone in the Universe. You will be part of the most select group in history. You will be Rangers. And while you must face the planet's challenges alone, I will be accompanying you on this mission."
David raised his hand. "Sir, with all due appreciation, what about your classes?"
Jason smiled at the young man's consideration of his fellow students. "I have already arranged for a suitable substitute until I return. And as much as I hate leaving other students during their exam week, I thought it only appropriate that I go with you since I arranged all of this."
Mister Scott turned at the familiar voice calling his name. He then smiled at the approaching six- foot tall young man, dressed in an identical uniform of a black jacket and pants with a bold red shirt. with his long hair tightly tied back into a thick tail.
"This is Tommy Oliver," Jason introduced to the students. "The most experienced Ranger of Earth. He'll be teaching your classmates, but by the time we return you should be on a first name basis with him." Jason opened his hand towards the line of youngsters. "Tommy, these are the students I was telling you about."
"So these are the legends in the making you're always referring to, 'eh?" The tall man asked. "It's a pleasure to meet you all," he said with a lopsided grin. "And listen to this man, he knows what he's talking about." Tommy straightened his jacket. "Well, I believe I have a class to teach. I'll see you when you get back, bro."
Jason shook his friend's hand, and returned to debriefing his charges. "Well, I believe we have some time booked in the teleportation room, don't we? If you're all ready, we'll be leaving."
The students followed Mister Scott through the halls; no one willing to ask the others who exactly was humming a funeral march.
Jason gave the students some time to take in the brisk sea air, before leading them along the rocky shorelines. He himself had to admit that Phaedos was quite a site to behold. It was always a warm climate, which made it a very pleasant place to live aside from the numerous evils that lurked deeper within the land.
His followers assumed he knew the terrain enough to successfully navigate the island. Jason would not tell them his method was simply following the mysterious trail of red that somehow constantly existed before him.
At first the trail existed as a streak through the clear blue sky, but transferred over into a long bed of flowers as the team rose over a steep hill. For Jason, the trail was too much of a coincidence to ignore. His only explanation was a possible latent connection to the Morphin Grid guiding him to their first destination: Dulcea.
Once the group had stepped foot upon the ruins of what they could only describe as a Roman version of Stone Hendge with a center pit of fire, a good majority of the day had passed. Sunset would be in a matter of a few hours, which did not sit well with those who would have to travel the island's jungle at night.
With the exception of Jason, who was expecting someone to enter at any moment, everyone jumped. Students and instructor both turned to the woman wearing a flattering green armor that left little to the imagination, with a cloak partially draped over her.
"I'm sorry." Jason stepped forward. "The path to longer than I anticipated. I assume we can still proceed with the first step." With permission granted, Jason turned to his students. "This is Dulcea, master warrior of this planet. She has been kind enough to aid you in your quest."
As the conversation was handed over to the green-eyed woman, she stepped over to the fire and reached into a pouch sewn into her cloak. "Stand before the fire." She commanded, now holding a glittering powder in her cupped hands. "Within each of us, is an animal spirit waiting to be released. On this occasion, the ceremony will differ."
"How do you mean?" Liz asked.
"All who have sought the Great Power have already held some sort of talisman in the past. The talisman would connect one to a specific color that would specify one of several animal spirits in that part of the spectrum. As Rangers-to-be, with no connections to any power, you may receive an animal spirit that is outside its normal color, or perhaps a spirit I have never come across before.
"Search within yourselves for that animal spirit," Dulcea instructed. "Feel it stirring within you. Find it, embrace it, and release it." She blew the powder into the fire, causing an explosion powerful enough to throw the students onto the ground. "It is done." She announced to the rising charges. Dulcea stepped around the pit to meet each student. "You have all welcomed your spirit animals."
The students looked down at themselves, surprised at the sudden change of attire. Gone were the ivory uniforms of the Ranger Academy, replaced with loose-fitting pants and tunics of the same color. Upon closer inspection, all noticed the masks and hoods wrapped around their faces, removing them promptly.
"Greg," Dulcea approached the tanned boy who was not quite sure how his name was known. "You are the Tiger, powerful and temperamental." She stepped down the line to the waify brunette. "Maggie, secretive and sensitive, you are the Snapping Turtle." The blonde girl barely looked up from the emblem embedded in the center of her tunic before Dulcea came to her. "Liz, practical and joking, you are the Squirrel. Becca," she addressed the final female of the team, "You are the wolf, cunning and swift." Dulcea could see David eyeing his emblem with pride, examining his spirit animal. "And you David, are the Ape, mighty and smart." She lightly tapped his forehead.
"These spirit animals will help you on your journey if you are truly meant to hold the Great Power. Neither Jason nor I can assist you on this quest, for it is yours and yours alone, but we will anxiously await your return.
"Go now, my Ninjetti. Enter the Neola Jungle and conquer the beasts that haunt your dreams. For only when you understand yourselves will you understand everything that is around you."
The team turned to the barely visible path leading into the darkening jungle, and collectively swallowed the lumps in their throats. One by one, each stepped off onto the firm soil, not feeling the slightest pebble through their thin split-toed shoes.
Something clicked within each of them as they left the ruins. A fear ran through their veins. They were about to embark on the most dangerous journey of their lives, and they were now beginning to understand the importance of success.
"What was that?!" Becca shrieked, eyeing her immediate surroundings. With all the shadows that danced in the moonlight, it was difficult to see if there was actually anything moving behind the trees. "I didn't like the sound of that."
"It was the Hot Dog I had for lunch," Greg revealed, burping again.
"Oh." Becca shrinked into herself at the comment. "Sorry, I really don't like it out here. Wolves live in forests," she rationalized, "Not jungles. Of course, I'd be totally out of my element in a forest, too."
"You think a jungle is bad," Liz snorted. "Talk to Weelo and ask him where he was for two weeks. It makes the Academy look like paradise."
"Quiet." Maggie ordered, holding her hand before the group. "There's something up ahead." She lead a moment of silence, swearing to herself that she was *not* hearing her own heart pounding in her chest. "Well?" She asked to the exploring David Nash. "What is it?"
The sandy-haired young man shook his head. "Nothing," he reported. "I could've sworn there was something there---" The ground came alive beneath him, sending him onto his back. As he crawled to his feet, David saw the trail that could only be left by a large soil-dwelling creature.
The rumbling ceased for a moment, but the Ninjetti felt their hearts racing a mile a minute.
"What was that?" Liz asked. "Some kind of big Earth Worm?"
On cue, a large creature that seemed to be a distant relative of the mentioned species emerged from the ground. It's featureless but lightly armored head tore open in three directions, revealing several menacing sets of razor sharp teeth.
"That's no Earth Worm." Maggie obviously stated.
"Remember what Dulcea told us!" David cried over the horrid shrieks of the worm. "If we're meant to do this, our spirit animals will help!" He held his hand high into the air. "Ninjetti," he roared, "The Ape!" With an intimidating growl that seemed to flow from within him, David felt the hood and mask wrap around his face once more.
"The Wolf!" Becca called, her small transformation accompanied by an eerie howl.
"The Tiger!" Greg followed, a slashing roar leaving his lungs with the words.
"The Snapping Turtle!" Maggie summoned over a powerful snap.
"The Squirrel!" Liz finished, a laughing chirp melding into her words.
"Okay guys," David's eyes set on the awaiting enemy. "Let's do this."
"Question." Liz remarked, dodging as the worm lunged itself into the ground in an attempt to swallow the team whole. "How do we do that?" She felt herself thrown a few feet back as the worm arose from under her. "That does it! Forget any battle tactics, I say we just club the ugly thing to death!" She held up two truncheon sticks to emphasize her point.
With the team still avoiding the fierce creature, David's eyes went wide. "Where did you get those?" He asked, rolling out of the worm's path as it made a hungry snap towards him. Coming out of the maneuver, he spun around to strike his foe, and answered his own question once he had drawn blood.
He looked down at the object in his hand, a powerful sword caught in his clenched fist. David knew he did not carry the weapon with him on this journey, nor did he simply find it laying in the turned- up soil of the jungle. The weapon was a part of him, just as the truncheon sticks were to Liz.
The only answer was instinct. The team would not defeat this beast by using what they had learned in the civilized Academy, rather they would have to rely on the wild hearts of their spirit animals to survive.
"Whoa!" Becca sliced into the worm as she narrowly avoided it's rushing attack. The golden fang- like daggers that curved over her hands and pointed downward caught the skin of the creature, tearing into its apparently sensitive tissue. "Wolf Fangs," she mused at the weapons in her hands once she had a second to breath. "Cool."
"Over here!" Greg called. He assumed a fighting stance, more than ready with the pair of gold knuckles around each fist. The weapon would have been totally useless had it not been for the three golden blades that jutted from each item. "The Tiger's got a little somethin' for ya."
While Greg kept the worm at bay with furious slashing that only seemed to aggravate the beast, Liz had found another use for her weapon. Upon butting the ends of her sticks together, she accidentally discovered the endless spool of strong golden thread within.
She wound her arm, and threw one stick high into the air, catching it around the strong branch of a tall tree. A quick tug recalled the thread, pulling her up along with the other truncheon stick.
Now high in the trees, she found yet another use for her weapon's unique properties. Winding her arm yet again, this time she threw one stick towards the ground. Or more accurately, towards the worm. With both hands on the other stick, she felt the golden thread wrap around the 'neck' of the worm a few times.
She held on tight, not wanting to be pulled down from the trees while she had the creature temporarily immobilized. Fortunately, whenever the worm began to thrash about, Maggie was there with her bullwhip, stinging the beast for each move it made.
"Liz!" Greg gave up on his futile attack. "I have an idea! Release some of the line!" He grabbed the truncheon stick at the perfect time as it freed itself from the beast's throat. The golden thread was now only wrapped once around the creature. Greg's search for leverage left him defying gravity, with his feet against the side of the creature as he gave the stick a powerful tug towards him.
"Hey!" Liz wasn't prepared, and nearly lost her end of the weapon. "What do you think you're doing?" She called from the trees. "Are you trying to kill me?"
"Not you, this thing!" Greg corrected. "Pull!"
As Liz followed the order, Greg smiled at the thread cutting into the worm. Once the thread had gone enough her way, Greg pulled it towards himself again. When the motions were synchronized, the effect was much like that of a two-man saw cutting through a very violent log. It was only a matter of time before the last pull needed to be made, separating the worm's head from its body.
Once the battle had ended, and everyone began to relax for a moment of two, Greg looked down at himself. In the moonlight, he could see his once ivory uniform covered in the creature's wine red blood. It didn't matter much to him, if he was corrected in assuming the stains would not be there the next time he called upon his powers.
Maggie looked up when she heard a splashing in the bushes, slightly smiling. It was obvious that Liz had not had that many experiences dealing with death, let alone violent ones that she had assisted in.
The waify girl figured the blonde's reaction was only fitting. She had seen gas station restrooms that weren't as nauseating as the giant decapitated worm, which was now beginning to produce a stench that would no doubt attract the Jungle's scavengers.
"C'mon." Becca said. "We don't have forever, y'know."
"They have passed the first test," Dulcea reported, she and Jason surveying the jungle from the safety of the ruins. Even in the darkness of night the scenery was quite visible. "Quite a difficult one if I say so, myself. You were wise to bring these children here, Jason. They may actually be the ones."
"What ones?" Jason asked curiously.
"The Immortals. Rangers so powerful that in time will become one with the power. They would become guardians of time and space itself, true protectors of the universe. Even Zordon, Ninjor and myself have not held that position."
"So these kids might literally be 'the best'?" Jason whistled. "I had no idea that they might be *that* good. I mean I had the confidence in them to bring them here for their final training, but I never imagined they'd become Immortals."
"That has yet to be proven." Dulcea reminded. "And they have yet to pass the last two tests."
"They can do it." Jason returned his eyes to the jungle. "I know they can."
"I can't do this." Liz whined. "I swear, if we end up chopping off the head of another giant worm, I'm gonna heave." Maggie's questioning look made the blonde blush. "Okay, so I'll heave again. Not that there's anything left to eject."
"Just breathe deep. We have a little bit more to go before we hit the next test, and we can't have anyone doubting themselves. Besides, you did just fine. It's the reality getting to you, that's all."
"Hold up, guys." David stopped his precession. "There's a cave ahead of us."
"Oh boy." Becca groaned. "Nothing good ever came out of a cave."
"Any way around it?" Greg prayed.
"No." David said.
"Didn't think so." The tan boy sighed. "Oh well, might as well go on through and get this one over with." Greg was stopped by David's hand. "What's the problem?"
"Five openings." The Ape Ninjetti replied. "We each have to take a separate way. This is going to be an individual test. We've already covered teamwork." David found himself before the center opening. "This isn't going to be easy," he said, stepping into the cave's mouth.
"No worms," Liz begged as she stepped into her tunnel. "No worms, no worms..."
The white light overwhelmed Maggie. When it faded the stone interior of the tunnel had transformed itself into the pristine white halls of a hospital. But not just any hospital, it was Crystal Glenn General, a hospital that held many bad memories for the young girl.
Dozens of employees and visitors passed by her, not one noticing her odd dress. When she looked down at herself, Maggie saw herself dressed in a simple pair of ivory jeans and a matching tee shirt. With the exception of color, it was her attire that last time she had seen the inside of the building.
She carefully stepped down the hall, frightened of what was to come.
The middle-aged man with dark brown hair stepped into the hall. It was evident that he hadn't slept in days, and his looks proved that he was not happy to see his niece.
"You killed her," he whispered.
Maggie shook her head. "No. No I didn't! It was a car accident!"
"You were responsible. She couldn't concentrate." Uncle John began to count off the scenarios that Maggie had buried in the back of her mind years ago. "Maybe it was because you weren't good enough to be her daughter. You never got good grades--"
"--How could I get good grades," Maggie asked, "when I'd have to miss three days of school to come here everytime Dad pushed me down the stairs?"
"You'd come home at three in the morning, reeking of beer---"
"I came home late so Dad would be out cold, and couldn't come up with some insane excuse to throw me into the wall, or to slam my head into the counter! And I drank so even if he was awake, I'd be to the point where I couldn't even feel the pain anymore!"
"--Or maybe it was just this morning. Remember your mother had forgotten the papers to close an important deal? So she goes upstairs to her bedroom to get her briefcase, and what does she find? What she saw was her daughter and your boyfriend, who had skipped school to declare their adulthood on her own bed.
"Do you even remember her face, Maggie? Do you remember the pain in her eyes? Do you remember the sound of her racing down the stairs, or the door slamming shut as she stepped into her car and started the engine? Can you hear the tires squealing as she pulled out of the driveway? How about the crunch of her bones when she ran into the side of an eighteen wheeler?"
Maggie's tears showed that she had indeed kept the memories of that morning. Memories that would haunt her until the day she died.
"You could have done something!" Maggie retorted. "You never cared about Mom or me! If you had, you wouldn't have let a violent alcoholic run her life, or ruin mine! How many times did I come to you for help, only to hear you say 'it will be okay' right before you slam the door in my face?"
"I am not to blame for the person you are, Maggie. How long will it be until you betray your friends? How long until you don't try your best?"
"How long until you're never there for them when they need you the most?"
"How long until Becca finds you and David in each other's arms?"
Maggie's words resonated through the halls, finally silencing her uncle.
"Maybe I didn't do my best," Maggie agreed. "And maybe I did run away when everything got too tough, and maybe I did make a mistake with that guy, but that was a long time ago! I'm not that person anymore.
"I'm one of five top students at the Academy! I've been offered a title that many will never have a chance to compete for! I am two steps away from becoming the complete opposite of what I was two years ago, and I'm not going to let you turn me into that scared fifteen year old girl again!"
In another brilliant flash, the hospital melted away into the original stone tunnel. With a sigh of relief, Maggie rushed for the tunnel's exit, only to have a powerful hand reach around her throat.
David exited the tunnel without confrontation, but abundant confusion. There was to be a test, or so he thought. It didn't feel right just exiting the cave and stepping into a large clearing. Upon further inspection, a shiver ran up his spine. David noted the large altar before him, which bore the symbol of all the team's spirit animals on one large emblem. Then, he was snapped to attention by a small but familiar 'urk'.
"You." David hissed, spying a Minotaur that held Maggie high above its head. "Of course," he spat. "It would have to be you."
"David--" Maggie gasped.
"A choice!" The Minotaur roared. "End your quest, and you and the girl shall go free. Another step towards the altar, and she dies!" Maggie began to turn a shade of blue as the Minotaur closed its fingers together. "Decide! And keep in mind this is *no* illusion."
*It was a lose-lose situation.* Mister Scott's words flooded David's mind. *There was no way to pass.*
"There's no way to pass," David quietly repeated.
"What?" The Minotaur asked.
"If I end the quest, I not only let down my friends and myself, but it gives you the opportunity to hold the Great Power. If I go for the altar I'll lose one of my best friends and have to deal with the guilt for the rest of my life. Either way I lose something. So I just won't choose."
The Minotaur faded away, Maggie slipping through the disappearing fist.
"You okay?" David asked the girl, helping her to her feet. "Anything broken?"
Maggie shook her head. "I'm fine," she breathed. "Throat's a little sore, but it'll heal."
"Aw," Greg complained, emerging from the tunnel. "I'm not even the first one out?" It wasn't very long before the final two Ninjetti joined him. "Oh well, at least I wasn't last."
A golden light from the altar called their attention, summoning them all before the altar. The five stepped forward, and after a golden blast of light, they found themselves changed forever.
David looked to his friends, all dressed in the same style of outfit. Black bodysuits covered them, and their respective animal was set into a coin on their chest. Each had a pair of knee-high boots, and gloves that ran the length of their forearms, as well as black helmets with a trim and visor of their given color.
Becca removed her helmet, shaking her long black hair loose. She examined herself and the blue highlights on her uniform. Holstered a cloth belt of the same color were two small batons that would extend into the Wolf Fang daggers when needed.
Liz didn't seem to approve of her spirit animal, the squirrel, but the face she made indicated that she hated the color yellow as well.
Maggie seemed to be content with green, a color that she had seen whenever she looked at her own eyes in the mirror.
Greg made a slight face when he saw the purple in his uniform, but when his mind ran through the possible colors that he could have been granted; he found the color acceptable.
David smiled in his own mind. There was only one color he could have now. Through the entire ordeal he feared he wouldn't be their leader, the role he was already unofficial recognized as. He had passed his test, so surely he had earned himself the color ---
"No one's red." David commented, oddly enough not using the words "I'm not" in the sentence. "How can someone not be red?" He looked at his solid black costume. "Who’s the leader?"
"Maybe we should asked Dulcea," Liz suggested.
"None of you are the leader."
"How can none of us be the leader?" Greg asked.
"It is a shared position among each of you," Dulcea admitted. "No one outranks the other. You all respect each other enough to receive orders as well as give them. Each of you have your various areas of expertise that will allow you to act as a leader on certain occasions, but there is no overall leader of the team."
Once the team finally understood what Dulcea was telling them, David stepped over to his teacher.
"I want to thank you for everything you've done for us," the new Black Ranger said, extending his hand. "We never would have become Rangers if it wasn't for you, Mister Scott."
"Jason." The instructor corrected, accepting David's gesture. "And you would have become Rangers. Dulcea and I just made it happen a little bit sooner."
"I can't believe we're actually Rangers." Liz grinned.
"And as Rangers," Dulcea said, "You will overcome many obstacles. Although I am sad to say that because of your unique situation, the Great Power was unable to grant you Zords. While you acted as a team, you're spirit animals would be unable to combine themselves."
"Oh that's no problem." Jason looked to the team. "When we get back to the Academy in a few days I'll have Droz begin work on a set for you guys."
"A few days?" Maggie repeated. "Why won't we be going home now?"
"Because," Jason explained, "You're Rangers now. You're going to do what all Rangers do when they earn their powers. Celebrate." A round of eager cheers erupted, sending a grin across Jason's lips. "Dulcea, you've been a great help during all of this. Thank you."
"It is only my duty." The woman said modestly. "Have a safe journey. And take care of these students. You have no idea how special they are."
"Oh I don't know," Jason said, sending his focus to the newest team of Rangers. "I think I might."