The sun beat down on the small arena that the Black Falcon had reserved for Chelsea's training. The temperature was easily eighty degrees, and Chelsea reveled in it, letting the heat sink into her bones. After so many afternoons spent in the desert, accompanying Tommy and David on various adventures, it would take more than the dry heat of Briallta to get to her. Dressed in a simple white T-shirt and a pair of white shorts, she waited patiently as the Falcon walked out across the hard, barren earth.
"Ecliptor was right about you," he said admiringly. The last few days had been spent in testing her knowledge of a number of things, from hand-to-hand combat to the various arts of stealth. Throughout it all, the Falcon's expression had remained carefully neutral, but Chelsea had enough experience reading body language to know he had been pleasantly surprised.
"So do I pass muster?" she asked. "Will you take me on as an apprentice?"
The Falcon shook his head. "Kid, it'd be an honor, and that's not the sort of thing I say lightly. First things first, though. If you're gonna be my apprentice, call me Duke. 'The Black Falcon' is just a- professional alias."
Chelsea nodded. "Got it. So what's first on the agenda?"
"Your first lesson is all lecture, so pull up a patch of ground and get comfortable," he informed her, sinking gracefully to a cross-legged position. She followed, regarding him expectantly.
"I'm gonna tell you all about the Deshaadra. What you can expect as my apprentice, from other members, from the Council, and from the galaxy at large. How much did Ecliptor tell you about us?"
She shrugged. "Not a whole lot. Just that the Deshaadra are the only organization in the galaxy to have the respect of both the Alliance and the Council."
Duke nodded. "I don't do jobs for the Alliance, and the Council wouldn't touch me with a ten-foot pole, but there are a lot of Deshaadra who work one side or the other. Since you're looking at being Queen of Triforia, you probably won't be taking on many jobs, so you shouldn't run afoul of anybody who works the Alliance. That's the beauty of being my apprentice. Since you don't belong to a garal, you can pick and choose who you wanna work for- and with.
"That's gonna give you an interesting status among the Deshaadra. You're wild, which means the only authority you have to answer to is the Elders- and me, of course, but only for the next couple weeks. Unless there's something huge going down, the Elders will basically ignore you, so you're pretty much covered. Only thing to remember when you meet another Deshaadra is not to kill them unless they try to kill you first."
Chelsea threw him a half-smile. "Sounds simple enough."
"It's a pretty uncomplicated life," Duke agreed. "Not easy, but uncomplicated. Now, the Council's gonna be a little leery around you, since you're kind of an anomaly. You're the first Earth person to enter our ranks, and you're the only apprentice to serve outside a garal."
"What about you?" she asked curiously.
Duke looked away. "My garal- it doesn't exist anymore," he replied softly. "Somebody refused to do a job for Dark Specter, and- well, you can figure out the rest. That's why I don't do jobs for the Alliance, no matter what the pay."
"I'm sorry," Chelsea sympathized. Duke shrugged.
"You couldn't know. Anyway, it was a long time ago." Briskly, he stood, helping her to her feet as well.
"You already know most of what I'd normally teach you, so I'm just going to concentrate on the advanced stuff. Some of the more interesting tools of our trade, some galactic cultural stuff that you'll need to know, and this." Reaching down to his belt, he pulled a silver cylinder from it's hook. Pressing a button, a blue beam shot from it, extending for about a foot and a half.
"A light saber?" Chelsea asked, raising one eyebrow.
"Laser sword," Duke corrected. "Traditional weapon for the Deshaadra. I'll be teaching you how to fight with one, and eventually how to make your own."
Chelsea shook her head. "Great. I'm gonna be a Jedi."
Rubbing his eyes, Tommy fought to stifle a yawn. "I didn't know holographic maps could give you a headache," he remarked to the empty war room.
"If you stare at them for hours on end, they can," replied a voice from the door. Whirling, Tommy turned to see Lexian regarding him in amusement.
"Give a guy a heart attack," the leader of the Rangers replied lightly, his breathing returning to normal.
Chuckling, Lexian stepped into the room. "I apologize, Tommy. How long have you been in here, anyway?"
Tommy shrugged, not quite able to hide his weariness. "I dunno. An hour or two?"
"Wrong," Lexian corrected dryly. "At least three, because that is how long it has been since dinner. A meal which you did not attend."
"Oh," Tommy replied sheepishly. "I guess I got caught up in studying these maps of Tae Shalrith."
"We assumed as much. Your Black Ranger asked me to bring this tray and insist you eat; she seemed to think you'd be more likely to comply with my instructions."
Tommy took the tray from the Edenite king with a wry smile. "Lillian knows me very well," he allowed. Picking up a leg of what looked like chicken, he began to nibble on it. "You weren't kidding," he continued between swallows. "That place is like a fortress."
"It is a fortress," Lexian replied. "Kramon the Usurper built it when the peasant rebellions began to spark into a full-fledged war."
"You mentioned that earlier, and something about the first Masked Rider? What's the story behind that?"
Lexian let out a long breath, staring into the distance. "It was a very long time ago, even by Edenite standards," he began. "A noble by the name of Kramon had usurped the throne of Edenoi, murdering the entire royal family- or so he thought. Unknown to him, one escaped, a small boy by the name of Erex. Erex was only five hundred years old, the equivalent of five years in your development, and escaped the carnage by crawling out of a sewer pipe that led to the moat. No adult could have fit through it, and Kramon's soldiers ignored it during their rampage.
"At any rate, Erex escaped, and was found and raised by a peasant couple, while Kramon solidified his reign over the people of Edenoi. Due to the trauma he had sustained, Erex remembered nothing of his royal birth, and his adopted parents never knew. Despite this, Erex grew to be strong and noble, a true prince in spirit if not in station. The injustice of Kramon's reign angered him, and when soldiers attempted to assault the woman he loved, that anger grew to rebellion."
Tommy chuckled. "I've heard stories similar to this one. Looks like Earth and Edenoi have some history in common."
Lexian acknowledged that with a nod. "After his fight with Kramon's soldiers, Erex and Laita fled from the village. Their path eventually led them to a cave in the hills. However, this was no ordinary cave. It contained within it the Heart of Edenoi. The Heart is a giant crystal, similar in composition to the smaller ones implanted in our foreheads, to allow mental communication. That night, as Erex slept, the Heart called to him. It told him of his heritage, and charged him to lead the people of Edenoi to freedom. To aid him in this quest, it gave him a power, drawn from the ancestors of the Edenite race."
"Insects," Tommy realized. "The Masked Rider powers."
"Indeed. When Erex awoke in the cave, he found himself clothed in armor. Awakening Laita, he told her of what the Heart had shown him, and the two of them left to begin to foment the rebellion.
"The people of Edenoi quickly fell in behind Erex, for deception is impossible in the mind-to-mind link that the crystals create. With a son of the royal house to lead them, the rebels gained strength and confidence, and Kramon soon found himself losing control of his kingdom. This was the time he ordered Tae Shalrith built.
"Eventually, the rebels grew too strong, and Kramon was forced to retreat into Tae Shalrith, just as Dregon's forces have done now. For almost a year, the rebels laid siege to the fortress. Many men died on both sides, but no progress was made. Finally Erex realized that he would have to go himself.
"He slipped away under cover of darkness, knowing that Laita would insist on coming with him if he did not. He entered the castle by a secret passage, and made his way to the throne room. There, he challenged Kramon, and the final battle of the war began.
"Both men were skilled combatants, and the battle raged for a long time, leading them up stairs and through hallways, until they were on the parapets. The three moons were full, and the soldiers, rebel and usurper alike, stopped and watched the two as they fought, silhouetted in the moonlight. Finally, Kramon knocked the saber from Erex's hand. Just before the Usurper would have slain him, though, an arrow sped through the air and buried itself in Kramon's back. Laita, never one to obey orders, had followed her love into the fortress.
"With the Usurper dead, Erex was elevated to the throne. He married Laita- over the screams of his advisors- and their children began the line of kings and Masked Riders that has continued to this day."
"So you and Dex are directly descended from Erex, the first Masked Rider," Tommy mused.
"Yes," Lexian affirmed. "And another interesting point. The various Masked Riders throughout the centuries have worn varying armors, connected only by an insect theme. But Dex- Dex wears the same armor once worn by Erex himself."
"And now Edenoi finds itself throwing off another oppressor, and the battle has come back to the same place," Tommy remarked. "Let's hope that history will repeat itself again."
Being a Chameleon, Carlos was discovering, had certain interesting effects. Since Ninjetti powers were buried in the life force, practitioners of the art had certain abilities that Morphin Rangers did not. For instance, they could call upon certain attributes of their Grid Spirit. Today, Dulcea was teaching him to blend into his surroundings.
"Close your eyes and concentrate," she informed him. "Become one with the rocks around you. Feel what it is like to be a stone. Think of the wind, and the water, and the heat of the sun."
Carlos did as he was instructed. For a long moment, nothing happened. Then, slowly, he began to feel different, as if a strange energy was flowing through him. Opening his eyes, he found that he could barely see his own hand. He wouldn't have known where it was at all, but he was glowing with a purple light. Dulcea's mouth quirked.
"Close," she allowed. "You'll lose the glow with practice."
Meanwhile, Ashley was exploring an interesting aspect of the powers of the Unicorn. As in the old myths, the Unicorn had the power to cure poisoning and purify tainted water. Dulcea had given her a number of vials of polluted water to practice with, and slowly she was beginning to get the hang of it.
Adam, Tanya, and Christina were working their way through a meditation kata. The power of the Ninjetti was such that a Ranger's mind and body had to be in harmony, or the powers would be ineffective. So all of the Rangers practiced meditating at least once a day.
Last, Billy had found himself fascinated by Dulcea's whistling sticks, two nightstick-like weapons which snapped together to form a bo staff. She had agreed to tutor him in their use, and found him to be quite proficient with them, for a beginner. In some ways, they brought back memories of his Power Lance, the weapon he had used as the original Blue Ranger, so long ago.
Taking her attention briefly from Carlos, Dulcea looked around the training grounds at the six Rangers she was preparing to become Ninjetti. It had been so long since anyone quested for the Great Power... She fervently hoped that she was not sending Zordon's charges to die. But they really had little choice. Not if they were going to save Zordon, and by extension their Earth. With a little sigh, she turned back to Carlos, who had managed to change the glow to a cerulean blue. It was no use worrying now. Things would work out as they must.
Jamie took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. For Zarador's first meeting with his court of advisors, the Rangers had been instructed to morph and remove their helmets. That, Zarador had informed them, was the Ranger equivalent of military dress. Jason, of course, had no helmet, but that was a minor point. Chris had been quite impressed with his first glimpse of his Ranger uniform. Since the removal of the helmet placed the powers in standby mode, Chris didn't have to worry about them failing on him. It seemed a little strange to Jamie that the first time he morphed would be for a ceremonial occasion, rather than a battle.
Unlike the rest of the team, she was not dressed in her Ranger outfit. Zarador had thought it a good idea to play up her Zarakin heritage, and so she wore the dress uniform of a Zarakin warrior, a heavily embroidered tunic belted with a wide sash and a pair of loose trousers. The outfit was royal purple, with silver needlework and a silver sash. A silver lightning bolt sewn over her heart completed the ensemble. Silver, Zarador had explained, was the color and metal sacred to the Goddess, and by extension the Power. "We're going to rub their noses in the fact that you're an avatar of the Power," he had informed her. "The Sword of Lightning, most powerful of the Elemental Blades, accepted you as its wielder. Not only that, but the Shard in the handle didn't reject you. They'd rather ignore that- it doesn't fit into their worldview. I want them to be constantly confronted with the fact that you are Zarakin, a Ranger, and a Swordbearer to boot. It might sway one or two to my side."
Jamie had drawn a number of looks as she had strode through the camp on her way to the meeting. Purple was not a color worn by many Zarakin, signifying as it did the royalty. But she knew that most of the stares were because even fewer women wore the garb of a warrior.
Once inside the meeting tent, the Rangers had been shown to a spot where a number of low, boxlike seats had been set out for them. Jamie noticed that hers had been set at Zarador's right, a position that was sure to get her noticed. She raised an eyebrow at him as she took a seat, and he responded with a grin.
The nobles and their entourages were filing in now, and Jamie listened intently as Zarador explained their identities in low tones.
An older man, with iron-gray hair and blue eyes was identified as Trath, the lord of a province known as Belara. "He's a little more than half my age and acts twice it," Zarador told her quietly. "He's extremely old-fashioned, believes Rangers are worthy of the highest respect. Unfortunately, he also thinks women should take care of the children and devote themselves to 'non-taxing' pursuits. It'll be interesting to see which way this goes."
Not long after Trath entered, a young man came in, dressed in the garb of a member of the nomadic zralta riders. He threw Zarador a grin as he sat down. "Jalen Del Rayar," chuckled the king. "Reminds me of myself at that age. He speaks for the riders, who are too nomadic to have a real system of government beyond clan loyalties. His sister rides scout for their clan, much to the scandal of half the grasslands. He'll almost certainly be on our side."
More nobles followed, and Jamie carefully filed the names away for future reference. Altogether, there were seven members of the court: six nobles from various provinces and Jalen of the riders. Chardin was an old friend of Zarador's; the two men were of the same age and a similar outlook. Jamie took one look at the white-haired, silver-eyed man and had liked him immediately.
Sneris of Gant, on the other hand, she immediately pegged as trouble. Young, with rusty hair and brown eyes, he would have been rather attractive if he didn't resemble someone who had just bitten into a lemon. Every time his gaze fell on Jamie, the puckered expression grew deeper. She had to fight very hard to keep from crossing her eyes at him.
When Walchis, lord of Granstil, arrived, Jamie heard Zarador groan under his breath. "He can't stay awake long enough to hear half a meeting, and half the time he can't remember what he had for breakfast!" the king told her. "He's half-deaf and half-blind, but he refuses to step down. His son, Rachis, is a good sort, though, and he makes most of the decisions."
A young, handsome man with gray eyes and a shock of blond hair was identified as Larad, from the province of Trelan. Zarador described him as intelligent and flexible, but not prone to making rash decisions. He was one of the court members they most especially needed to convince.
Melchor of Narol was last, and he immediately sent chills down Jamie's spine. The man had black hair and black eyes, and unpleasantly sallow skin. But it was the sly smile on his face that made Jamie wary of him. "Now THERE is a thoroughly nasty gentleman," Zarador whispered. "You know there's a problem with a noble when half the planet is hoping he'll be assassinated, and the other half is actively plotting it."
"Which half are you in?" Jamie asked quietly, throwing him a smile.
"I go back and forth," Zarador admitted. "As king, I can't be assassinating my nobles, but there are times that I am SO tempted..."
Seeing that all the nobles were finally present, Zarador rose to his feet. "I'm sure you're all wondering why in the world I've brought guests to this gathering," Zarador began. Zarakin weren't much for formalities. "And I'm sure you can see by their dress that they're Rangers. The problem is this: Zordon of Eltare has been arrested." That drew gasps from most of the members of the court. Jamie noticed, however, that Melchor did not seem surprised at all. Her eyes narrowed, and she began watching the Narolian closer as Zarador continued.
"These Rangers need our help and our support. They intend to testify at the trial of Zordon, as do I. And I also intend for the planet Danata to back them." Taking a deep breath, Zarador asked a question he already knew the answer to. "Any objections?"
Chaos ensued in the tent as five men stood and began talking at once. Melchor, Jamie noticed, remained seated, watching the scene with satisfaction. Walchis, of course, just watched uncomprehendingly. Finally, Trath managed to silence his compatriots and turned back towards Zarador.
"My lord, certainly we would lend all required assistance to the Rangers, but- what aid is needed? We certainly know little enough of this matter. What could we do that would aid their cause?"
Zarador smiled. "I'm glad you asked, Trath," he chuckled. He turned, gesturing for Jamie to stand. She did so, and he looked back at his nobles. "This is Jamie Zedden, Purple Ranger of Earth. She is also my half-sister. I intend to claim her as part of the royal family, with all the privileges and prestige that entails. Also, she is a Swordbearer, wielder of the fabled Sword of Lightning, and should therefore be considered a part of the King's Guard."
Once again chaos broke loose. Over all the noise, Jalen caught Jamie's eye and threw her a wink. She relaxed a bit, reassured that at least SOMEBODY was on her side.
"My lord!" Trath's scandalized exclamation flew above the rest. "This is highly irregular! An Earth child, a Swordbearer? Surely there must be some mistake!"
"No mistake," Melchor sneered. "Surely, Trath, you've heard the stories about Zedd's half-human whelp, who somehow managed to acquire a powerful Blade? Perhaps the rumors about Zordon's decline are true, if his standards have fallen so low."
Jamie's eyes flared at Melchor's insinuations, but before she could react, Zarador's voice cracked like a whip. "Guard your tongue, Melchor, or you may find yourself the recipient of a challenge. Lady Jamie is NOT a gentle and forgiving person."
"_That_ is an understatement," Jason grumbled. His remark broke some of the tension, and Jamie cooled off visibly.
"I have earned my position on the Rangers," Jamie said quietly. "And anyone who wishes to state otherwise should examine the threats that I have faced. How would you fare, my lord, if confronted with the demon Nyghtmayr?" Melchor simply glared at her.
"Last I heard," Jalen began easily, "no one who was unworthy could wield an Elemental Blade. Ralthor built that into them as a fail-safe, right?"
"Zedd held the Sword of Fire," Sneris pointed out.
Larad shook his head. "Prince Zedd, yes. Lord Zedd, no. Remember, the instant he changed to the side of evil, the blade went dormant. At least, that's what all the legends say."
"You're quite right, Larad," replied Chardin. "And it's quite obvious that the lady is quite capable of using the abilities of the Sword to their utmost. The Sword has accepted her, which more than proves her worth."
Jamie scanned the room. Trath looked halfway convinced, and Jalen, Chardin, and Larad were almost certainly swayed to her side. Sneris was still obviously skeptical, Walchis was oblivious, and Melchor was a lost cause. She sighed.
"There is only one way to decide her worth," Trath declared. "The Competition, on the Day of Five Winds. If these Rangers prove themselves in the sight of the Goddess, then we shall give them whatever support they require. Agreed?"
One by one, the other men nodded, even Melchor, although he didn't look happy about it. Zarador sighed.
"Very well then. In four days time, on the Day of Five Winds, this question shall be settled."
"How're you doing?" Cassie asked quietly. Kimberly shrugged.
"Can't be worse than the Isle of Illusion," she replied. "That was not a lot of fun."
The Pink Astro Ranger looked puzzled. "Isle of Illusion? I don't think I've heard about that."
"Right. I forgot, your team doesn't work as closely with Zordon as the previous ones have. The Isle of Illusion was a place that Rita sent the six of us, the original six. It showed you the things you were most afraid of, feeding off of fear and lack of confidence, making you slowly fade from existence. If it hadn't been for a little guy named Quagmire, we would have been toast."
"What was it for you?" Cassie asked curiously. "I'm sorry, that was really nosy."
Kim smiled. "No, it's okay. I saw Bulk and Skull as angels. See, back then, they acted like a couple of bullies, always pushing us around. I figured if Rita could make them act like that, she could do anything." She laughed slightly. "I was pretty shallow back then," she admitted. "But Quagmire reminded me of the time I had to take on a monster known as the Terror Toad all by myself, and I got my confidence back."
"You're kidding," Skull broke in. "You mean, an illusion of me as an angel was enough to break you?"
"I told you I was shallow," Kim shot back. "Could have been worse, though. Tommy thought we were all putties."
"That would be painful," allowed Skull. Suddenly the ragged file stopped. "Oh, now what?" the White Warrior asked in exasperation.
"Fork in the road," Andros' voice filtered back.
"Salad or dinner?" Skull winced as Kim elbowed him in the ribs. Soon the six Rangers were all gathered in the area where two tunnels diverged.
Kat frowned. "Do you suppose this is another test?"
"More than likely," Trini replied. "Check for inscriptions or something."
The six spread out, and began examining the cave walls for markings. "Hey, I found something!" Cassie called. "Who's Thomas the Rymer?"
Andros frowned. "What?" The other five quickly moved to stand behind Cassie, who faced an inscription on the cave wall.
"Take the road of Thomas the Rymer," Kat read aloud. "I have no idea what that means."
"The Third Road!" Skull yelped, causing everyone to turn to him in surprise.
"What?" Kim asked, speaking for all of them.
"It's an old poem, or maybe a legend," her boyfriend explained. "I can't remember anything about it, except that it's about Thomas the Rymer, a song-maker who was taken to Fairyland by the queen of the Fairies. At one point, it talks about three roads. One leads to heaven, one to hell, and the THIRD road leads to Fairyland. That's the one Thomas takes."
"But there's only two roads here," Trini pointed out.
Kat bit her lip. "Maybe not," she replied, crossing to the expanse of wall between the two tunnel entrances. Running her fingers over the rock, she felt a small, hairline crack running vertically up the stone. "Bingo!" she cried. "Come on, help me push!"
With six Rangers placing their weight against it, the stone door quickly swung inward, revealing a third passage between the other two. "All right!" Cassie yelled.
"Good job, Skull," added Andros. Then the six of them moved carefully off down the third passage.
"Okay, guys, that's a wrap," Julia Holochwost instructed, lowering her microphone. As the rest of the news crew began to load the equipment back into their van, she grinned to herself. Bunny Bodelle still wasn't speaking to her after the trip incident, but that wasn't a problem. She had little respect and less liking for the Charterville newswoman, and considering the condition the Platinum Purple Beetleborg had been in, she had probably done the world a service.
"Ms. Holochwost?" a voice said politely. Julia turned to see the Blue VR Trooper standing behind her, much to the amazement of the crew. As a Cross World reporter, Julia had met the VR Troopers before, but this was the first time one of them had sought her out.
"Yes?" she asked, raising an eyebrow. "How can I help you?"
"Could we speak privately?" the Trooper asked. "What I have to say is somewhat sensitive."
She nodded. "Sure." Turning to the newscrew, she handed the microphone she was holding to one of the men. "Hold down the fort until I get back, okay, Johnny?"
The sandy-haired man gave her a thumbs-up. "Right, Julie." She rolled her eyes at him, then turned back to Blue Trooper.
"Come on, let's head over there. It's currently reporter-free; no one wants to risk the wrath of Detective Park."
Blue Trooper chuckled. Having seen Franklin's father in action, he could more than understand that. The two of them ducked into the shelter of the building, and he turned to her. "First off, you have the undying thanks of all of us for tripping Bunny Bodelle. The Platinum Purple Beetleborg was in NO shape to answer questions."
Julia shivered, remembering the shock in the girl's posture, visible even through the armor. "Will she be all right?"
"She'll be fine, thank you." That was one of the reasons Blue Trooper had sought out Julia Holochwost to talk to. She was one of the few television reporters in his experience that cared more about people than about the story.
"What happened out there today? Off the record," she hastily amended.
"Off the record? Shadowborg managed to take control of the mind of the Chromium Gold Beetleborg," Blue Trooper explained. "He and Platinum Purple are very close friends."
Julia closed her eyes. "The betrayal must have been awful," she murmured. Then she opened her eyes and cocked an eyebrow at Blue Trooper. "What happened on the record?"
"On the record, Shadowborg has captured the Chromium Gold Beetleborg and released a look-alike monster in his place. We'd appreciate it if you'd let that get out."
Julia pretended to look affronted. "You want me, a member of the press, to lie? I work for Channel 6, not Hard Copy."
"Well, just say that's what you were told. Enough damage has been done to his reputation already."
Julia nodded. "All right, you have a point. You all be careful, now. Earth needs you."
"We will. You be careful too." Then in a flash of light and circuitry, Blue Trooper disappeared.
"One thing I don't understand," Carlos began, looking up from the fire. "If we've got these Ninjetti powers, what's going to happen to our Ranger powers?"
Dulcea sighed. The seven of them were relaxing in the ruins after yet another strenuous day of training, talking about everything and nothing. "Well, the only one whose principal powers will be affected is Billy," she replied. "The five of you draw from sources other than the Grid, and so there will be no interaction between the energies."
"It's like with my Morphin Warrior and Zeo powers," Adam explained. "I can call on either, but I generally don't call on my Morphin Warrior powers, since they're not as strong and are useless against the Machines."
"Exactly," Dulcea agreed. "Like Morphin Warriors, each of you will have a Ninjetti costume, drawn from your subconscious expectations. You can morph into either your original costume or your Ninjetti form, depending on the needs of the situation."
"Is Ninjetti vulnerable to cold iron, the way Morphin powers are?" Christina inquired.
"No, it is not. You see, Ninjetti will be routed through you, and you are not repelled or harmed by iron. The power, routed through your human energies, will be insulated from the effects of iron, so you would be able to fight Mondo's forces, should the need arise."
"Dulcea?" interjected Billy. "You said my powers would be affected by the switch. How so?"
"Your powers are already those of the Morphin Grid, Billy, so there will be some interaction between them. First of all, your Morphin Warrior abilities will be boosted to full Ranger status, since the Great Power will be altering the connection in your spirit. In effect, you will be drawing twice from the Grid, instead of once. You will have both your Morphin Warrior transformation and a Ninjetti costume. This is because the Morphin Warrior patterns have already been established, and the Great Power will create new ones for itself. However, the power inside you will be tapable from either form, and so you will be full strength no matter what incarnation you take."
"These Ninjetti costumes- what will they look like?" Ashley asked curiously.
Dulcea shrugged. "I am afraid I do not know that, Ashley. They will, of course, be in your Morphin color, rather than the color of your principal power. Other than that, there are really no indications. The six of you are not a full, self-contained team, so the costumes will have no conforming element. It will depend entirely on the images you hold within yourself."
Tanya, looking over at Billy, saw him staring deeply into the fire. "This is changing you, isn't it?" she asked quietly. Billy sighed.
"I don't know if it's really changing me, Tanya. The Morphin Power is a part of me, and according to Zordon, it always has been. Maybe it's just bringing out the parts of me that were hidden deeply."
"Maybe," she allowed. "For instance, I knew since the day I met you that you were practically a born leader. I remember how when I first came to the Power Chamber, you were obviously the one in charge. But with Tommy around, you always seemed to just fade into the background."
"He needed the position," Billy told her. "It was his proof that his soul belonged to him and not to Rita. I used to resent the way he was always the one in the spotlight, but I've learned better now."
"And you're also emerging as a leader again," she replied. "Look around you, Billy. The five of us are following YOU in this. Whoever you're becoming, I think he's a very worthwhile person."
He threw her a quick smile. "Thanks, Tanya. Your confidence means a lot to me."
Arms crossed, Dragon Borg was the soul of immovability as he stared down Roland and Jo. Since the Astral Borg had no eyelids, it was inevitable that he would win any staring contest.
"This is my best friend!" Roland protested. "If you think you are leaving me behind-"
"I'm absolutely right," Dragon Borg cut in. "You will both listen to me. We have to take a SMALL group to get in, get Fortunes, and get out. I am not risking Shadowborg or Nukus being able to bait either of you into a fight. Besides, we are already down one Beetleborg. I will NOT lose two more. I've lost enough as it is." The grief in his voice was raw enough to make the two Beetleborgs wince. Nodding resignedly, they backed away.
"Dex, I would like you to come with me, please. And you as well, JB. Finally, I think Tasha, to round out the team. Any objections?" Hearing none, the Astral Borg moved over to Art Fortunes to go over the layout of the crypt one more time. Lita, watching, grinned slightly. Dragon Borg was obviously choosing the more stable heroes for his strike force. She had yet to see anything ruffle the Masked Rider's calm, and JB Reese was certainly less likely to explode than his leader. But it was the selection of the Yellow Turbo Ranger that truly amused her. Despite her smaller size, Tasha had quickly earned the reputation of being an enforcer.
Noticing Roland leaning against a console, the psychiatrist crossed the room to him. "You know he's got a point, don't you?" she said quietly. The Beetleborg nodded.
"I know, and I accept it. That doesn't mean I have to like it."
"He's not exactly impartial himself," Lita observed. "What is it between him and Drew? I remember how Drew was frantic while we were repairing him."
Roland sighed. "I think," he began slowly, "Dragon Borg is kind of- a substitute for his dad. Mr. McCormick died seven years ago, when Drew was seven and Jo was four. Drew's been the man of the house for a long time, and when we became Beetleborgs, he had to be the responsible one. Dragon Borg kind of- gave him someone to look up to. I guess it's kind of the same thing for Dragon Borg. He kind of sees Drew as a son, or at least a student."
Lita nodded thoughtfully, her eyes fixed on Dragon Borg's green and silver form as he finished up his talk with Art Fortunes.
"All right, is everybody ready?" Dragon Borg asked his team. All four nodded. "Remember, get in, get Les, and get out. Don't stop to indulge your grudges- there'll be plenty of time for that," he promised grimly. "Let's go."
"Dune Star Turbo Power!"
"Trooper Transform!" Light flared, and the four heroes were gone.
"See him?" Black Trooper whispered. Dragon Borg nodded.
"The gentleman over by the wall, in the prison uniform. I don't see Nukus or Shadowborg anywhere around. The lady in the mantis-themed armor is Horribelle, and the blue thing is Vilor."
"All right," Yellow Ranger declared quietly. "Let's get in there and get him."
"Cheer up, Cartoonist," Horribelle sneered. "Soon, one of YOUR creations will destroy the Beetleborgs, and then we'll have the whole world! Why so glum?"
"You have no idea what you're meddling with," the artist warned. "Even _I_ don't truly understand what Shadowborg is. I never meant for him to come to life. He's too unpredictable, too uncontrollable. He's dangerous."
"Not as dangerous as we are," Dragon Borg declared, stepping out into the center of the room. While Yellow Turbo and Black Trooper aimed their lasers at the startled Crustaceans, Masked Rider and Dragon Borg ran across the room, hauling Les Fortunes to his feet.
"Come along, Mr. Fortunes," Masked Rider commanded. "We're leaving."
"Great," Les sneered. "If it's not ONE type of bug, it's another."
Yellow Turbo shot the cartoonist a look over her shoulder, brandishing her Auto Blaster. "One more comment out of you, and we'll take our chances stopping Shadowborg on our own. Get it?"
Les gulped. "Got it."
Still keeping their lasers trained on the Crustaceans, Yellow Turbo and Black Trooper backed up until they were standing close to the other three. "I'd love to stay and chat, but I'm afraid we have other business," Dragon Borg explained, throwing Horribelle a mock salute. Then they vanished in a hail of light.
"Nukus is NOT going to like this," Vilor remarked. "You let the cartoonist get away!"
Horribelle glared at him. "Oh, shut up."
"Let me out of here!" Les growled, hammering at the inside of the containment field. "I was better off with the Crustaceans."
"Not really," Fred informed him. "See, we won't kill you when you've outlived your usefulness."
"And what usefulness is that? I don't think you need me to draw you monsters."
Art shook his head. "No, Lester, we need you to help stop one. You redesigned the Shadowborg. We need you to tell us what it can do."
"What?" Les laughed. "Really, Arthur, I'm crazy, not stupid."
Roland stepped forward, eyes cold and hard. "Maybe we didn't explain things to you. You _will_ help us, or Jo and I will borg and break every bone in your body."
Jo cracked her knuckles. "I want my brother back, Les."
The cartoonist swallowed, seeing that the little girl was deadly serious. "What do you want to know?"
"For starters, how did Shadowborg get control of Drew?" Ryan asked. "We were under the impression that the Crustaceans' magical ability was limited to animating drawings and changing form."
"It is, but Shadowborg isn't exactly a Crustacean. I redesigned the original, from what I'd seen on the news, adding a number of interesting things. The best one, in my opinion, was something I'd seen the Power Rangers fighting. It was some sort of- living shadow, and it seemed to have the ability to manipulate minds and emotions."
None of the other heroes present understood why the Turbo Rangers and Ghostbusters paled at that revelation. "When was this?" Justin asked carefully.
Les shrugged. "About a year ago, I think."
"You IDIOT!" Franklin yelled, startling everybody. "Do you have ANY idea what you did?"
"No!" Les shot back. "That's why I never drew it up for Nukus. Heck, _I_ didn't know what it was capable of. I didn't WANT that thing to get out. I even tried to talk Nukus out of it, once he found the drawing."
"Excuse me," Katie interrupted, "but could somebody explain what this means?"
Kaitlin nodded. "Yeah, we're in the dark here."
Winston sighed. "Stop me if I make a mistake, okay? It seems that about a year ago, the Power Rangers faced a creature known as Nyghtmayr, the living essence of evil thoughts and emotions, and his five minions, the Minor Demons. Well, there were actually six, but only five showed up at that time."
"There were eight, total," Rosa interrupted. "We met up with two more, but we'll explain that later."
"Right." Quickly, Winston related the story of the battle with Nyghtmayr and the Ghostbuster's encounter with Angyr. Then Tasha and Justin quickly told how the Turbos and Tanya had faced the demons Jealysy and Malyce in the realm of Morphyus.
"According to Tommy," Fred finished, "all of the demons, but especially Nyghtmayr, they could manipulate emotions, all the dark feelings in your heart, far more powerfully than what happens under ordinary spells."
"So- what do we do?" Roland asked. "How did you guys beat the ones you faced?"
"Well, we blasted Angyr with pure Morphin Grid energy, but he hadn't put anyone under a spell," Ray volunteered. "We were just trying to destroy him."
"The spells of Morphyus Demons are vulnerable to one thing," Franklin explained. "Emotions of a pure heart. Love, friendship, devotion, that sort of thing. If we can get through to Drew on that level, we can get him back."
"Well, we can't do that on the battlefield," JB remarked. "He'd cut whoever was talking to him to ribbons! Not to mention that we'd have to watch out for Shadowborg as we did so."
"No, we'll have to bring him back here," Dragon Borg agreed. "But how? He's an excellent combatant, and Shadowborg will be right beside him."
Dex cocked his head. "We have to make him sloppy," the Edenite teen mused. "That's our only chance. If we get him to make a mistake, we can bring him in. But how?"
Roland chuckled. "That's easy. Just get him to lose his temper. Drew gets sloppy when he gets angry. He forgets everything except going for the jugular."
"Think you could bait him that well?" Peter asked. Roland shook his head.
"Not a chance. That's the other problem. Drew's self-control is legendary. It's hard to get him angry, but when he does, watch out."
Jo grinned. "I know who we can get to do it," she chuckled. Everyone turned to look at her.
"Who?" Egon asked, pushing his glasses back up on his nose.
Trey slowly swam to consciousness, his head pounding like a kettle drum. "What happened?" he asked, groggily, forcing his eyes open.
"Welcome back to the land of the living," replied the silver-haired man standing at his bedside. "You're currently in the sickbay of Ecliptor's scoutship. My name is Sholtor, and I'm a healer. What's the last thing you remember?"
"The Varox were attacking the scout," Trey grunted, attempting to sit up. Sholtor quickly moved to stop him.
"I wouldn't. You were caught in an explosion. You're recovering from a concussion, not to mention internal injuries and a number of second- and third-degree burns. You're lucky you're a Ranger, or you probably wouldn't have made it."
Trey remained lying down, although not happy about it. "Chelsea! Is she all right? You said there was an explosion."
"Your fiancee is fine," Sholtor assured him. "Although half the population of Port Algol is in a state of depression that she's taken. She's quite a catch. Dating a Ranger, not afraid of Ecliptor, and now she's in an apprenticeship for the Deshaadra."
That caught Trey's attention. "What? A Deshaadra? But that training takes years."
Sholtor shrugged. "Not for her. I tell you, you're a very lucky man. If she wasn't so devoted to you, I'd ask her out myself."
Too tired and injured to throttle the healer, Trey settled for a nice ringing glare. Sholtor chuckled. "Now, you have to stay in that bed for about six days. I'll call your ladyfriend and tell her that you're awake." With that, Sholtor left the room, and left Trey's thoughts spinning around his head. Chelsea was going to be a member of the well-known warrior organization? He began to laugh. The Council was just going to LOVE that.
"Is it me, or is it getting spookier in here?" Cassie asked nervously. The strange luminescence which had lit the caves since the Rangers began their trek was now decreasing slowly. The six teens were walking closer together now, and Cassie linked her arm with Andros. The Red Astro Ranger was suddenly very grateful for the low light. It hid the blush on his face.
Kat frowned. "Hey, I don't remember mist coming up in here," she remarked. The others turned towards her in curiosity.
"Mist?" Trini asked. "I don't see any mist."
Suddenly Kat's eyes widened. "No!" she cried, throwing her hands up. "Get away from me! I'm not evil anymore. I'm not YOU anymore!"
Like a thunderbolt, the answer hit Kimberly, who groaned. "Heads up, guys. We're facing our worst fears again," she called. Trini made a face.
"This is getting old," the Yellow Warrior replied. Suddenly, she too seemed to be staring at nothing. "NO! God- too high!" She backed herself against a rock, seemingly trying to merge with it.
"She's afraid of heights?" Cassie asked. Kim nodded.
"Yeah, but I thought she'd gotten over it. Trini! Trini, can you hear me? It's just an illusion!" Trini, however, was deaf to anything but the fear in her veins.
A low groan alerted them to Andros' collapse. The Kerovan Ranger was kneeling on the ground, crying. "Not again," he whispered. "Stars, not another team of Rangers. Come on, Cassie, speak to me! Oh, please!"
"Kim?" Skull called. Kimberly turned to her boyfriend, only to see that his eyes were as distant as everyone else's. "Kim, don't go. Please, don't leave me."
"Oh, Skull," Kim sighed, knowing he couldn't hear her. "I would never leave you." Suddenly, her eyes unfocused as well. "The Green Ranger? No, stay away from me! Tommy, don't!" Kimberly's arms thrashed as if fighting off an invisible enemy. "We trusted you!" she cried, tears streaming down her cheeks. "How could you do this to us? Come on, Skull, please wake up! Don't you dare die on me!"
Cassie watched helplessly as her friends were consumed by their own personal nightmares. No matter how desperately she tried to get through to them, they could hear nothing but the illusions of fear.
"You're pathetic, Cassie," a new voice said. Cassie whirled to see her parents standing behind her, watching her with cold eyes. "We never loved you, Cassie," her mother continued. "Who could? You've never been good enough for us. You're not pretty enough, not smart enough, not good enough."
"No one loves you, Cassie," Andros continued, stepping out of the shadows. "I wouldn't even have made you a Ranger, but you were lucky enough to be around when I needed a new Pink Ranger. You're nothing but a pathetic little wannabe. No one loves you, Cassie. Especially not me."
Cassie bit her lip against the sudden pain inside her. Suddenly, almost as if it were a dream, she heard Andros' voice. _As your friend, I am NOT going to stand by and let you ruin your life._ And again. _You'll always have the four of us as friends._
Her head snapped up, and her eyes began to blaze. "You're wrong," she confidently told the illusions before her. "The Rangers DO love me. They risked everything to save me when Ciaran had me under his control. They've watched my back in every fight we've ever had with Dark Specter. Maybe my parents really don't love me, or maybe they just don't know how to show it. But whichever it is, that's THEIR problem. I'm pretty enough and smart enough for ME, and that's what counts."
The thunderstruck illusions faded away before her eyes, reality taking their place. Cassie found herself leaning against Andros, his arms wrapped around her waist for support. It was tempting just to stay there, but she forced herself to pull upright and smiled at him.
"You all right, Cassie?" Kimberly asked. "First time's the longest, but we were a little worried when we all came out of it and you were still in."
Cassie shrugged. "I'm fine, really," she replied. "Let's get moving again, okay?"
The other Rangers nodded, and the group headed off, soon reaching the exit of the cave. As they stood, taking in the fresh, open air, Andros leaned over and whispered in Cassie's ear. "For what it's worth, _I_ think you're beautiful," he told her. For a second, she couldn't figure out what he meant, then she realized that he must have heard her talking to the illusions.
"Thanks, Andros," she replied. "That means a lot." _More than you'll ever know._
It was a nice, quiet day at Zoom Comics. Heather, Nano's assistant and the object of Drew's affections, was dusting shelves when she heard the bell which signaled the door opening. "Sorry, we're temporarily closed," she said, turning. Then she saw who had entered. "Oh, hi Drew."
Drew smiled, letting the door shut behind him. "Hi, Heather. Where is everybody?"
"Well, Nano and Abbie are out running errands, and you'd know better than I would where Roland and Jo are," she replied.
His smile broadened. "Not really. So, you're holding down the fort all by yourself?"
Alarm bells began to go off in Heather's mind. Her instincts were telling her not to admit that she was alone in the shop, but she quashed them. This was DREW, for Pete's sake. There was absolutely no reason for her to fear him. So why did his smile make her blood run cold?
"Yeah, I'm all by myself, at least for the next few minutes," she answered, shaking herself back to reality. "Nano ought to be back soon, though."
Drew shrugged, moving closer. "That's not a problem. I'll work fast."
Heather frowned. "Drew, are you feeling okay? You are seriously creeping me out."
"I've never been better," he replied, still advancing on her. Heather realized that she would soon be cornered if she didn't do something. Quickly, she tried to dodge past him, but he whirled with more speed than she had ever seen him show. Grabbing her wrist, he slammed her into the nearest wall, with just enough force to stun her.
_He's so strong!_ she thought hazily. There was more power in his grip than any fourteen year-old ought to possess. Grabbing her chin, he tilted her head so that she was looking into his eyes.
"You're not going anywhere, Heather," he said soothingly. His voice was cold, and Heather thought she saw something black flickering in the depths of his blue eyes. Suddenly a wave of cold weariness hit her, so much so that she could barely keep on her feet. If it wasn't for Drew holding her up, she would have fallen. "That's it," he chuckled. "Why don't you take a nice long nap?"
"What's going on here?" a new voice cut in. Drew and Heather both looked up to see Josh Baldwin standing on the steps, watching them with narrowed eyes. A horrible grin split Drew's face as he let Heather sink slowly to the floor.
"Josh Baldwin," he drawled. "Just the man I wanted to see."
In answer, Josh brought his fists up in a guard position, watching warily as Drew approached. As Heather's vision went dark, she had time for one final thought. _Has everybody in the world gone insane?_
"I've been waiting for this for a long time," Drew chuckled. Josh swallowed hard. When both of them were human, he had both the height and weight advantage on Drew. However, now that Drew was allied with the side of evil, he doubted that the other would play fair.
Sure enough, Drew suddenly stabbed his hand out before him. "Databonder! Input card! Beetleblast!" In a flash of light, Drew became the Chromium Gold Beetleborg. "There. These odds are a little more to my liking," Chromium Gold laughed.
"Think again, Drew," Josh snapped. "Remember, you can't hit what you can't see!" So saying, Josh dusted his hands together, activating his civilian powers and promptly vanishing.
"Very clever, Josh," Chromium Gold acknowledged. "Metallix Lancer!" He slowly scanned the room in front of him. "The problem is- you're wrong!" With those words, he whirled, bringing his lancer down on what appeared to be empty air. A cry rang out, and Josh Baldwin flickered back into visibility, holding his bleeding shoulder and biting back further noise. "That's just the beginning," Chromium Gold promised. "When I'm through with you, they'll have to pick you up with a sponge."
A blinding flash of light burst into being between Chromium Gold and his target. "They'll do no such thing," Dragon Borg shot back. "Not unless you get through me, and I don't think you can do that. This old borg taught you everything you know."
"I've learned a few new tricks since then," Chromium Gold responded. "But I'm not going to fight you today. I'm here for other things."
"Don't- even think about it," Josh snarled, stancing in front of the unconscious Heather. Despite his injured shoulder, he looked more than ready to take Chromium Gold on.
"I think you'd better leave, before there's more unpleasantness," Dragon Borg agreed.
Chromium Gold nodded. "I will. But you'll both be seeing me again. Count on it!" In a flash of shadow, he disappeared.
Josh winced. "Yeah, I'll see you in my nightmares." Kneeling beside Heather, he looked up at Dragon Borg worriedly. "Is she going to be all right?"
Dragon Borg quickly checked the unconscious girl over, then nodded. "She'll be fine, Josh. In fact, she probably won't remember any of this when she wakes up. You, however, are in need of medical attention."
"No kidding," Josh nodded, cradling his injured shoulder. "Damn it, I just got out of the hospital yesterday," he added irritably.
"I believe I have a better alternative," the Astral Borg chuckled. "Power Chamber, two to teleport in."
Josh barely had time for "Wha-" before he dissolved into a column of white light.
"Ouch!" Josh winced again as Egon ran a strange beam over his shoulder. Jo grinned.
"Don't be such a big baby, Josh," she told him. "You complain worse than Peter."
The psychologist sniffed. "I resent that," he replied loftily.
"It burns," Josh protested.
Justin, standing beside the med table, nodded. "That's the sensation of healing, only more intense because it's sped up. Trust me, I know what it feels like. Don't worry, you're almost done."
"There," Egon announced, stepping back. "Good as new, although there will be a small scar."
Josh flexed the arm carefully. "Wow. That's some pretty impressive stuff." Hopping off the med table, he pulled his shirt back over his head. His gaze roamed around the Power Chamber with all it's assorted heroes. "Not that I'm not grateful, but why bring me back here instead of taking me to the hospital? I mean, isn't that the normal procedure?"
"It is," Lita agreed, "but we're going to need your help for something else, Josh."
Roland nodded. "We need you to help us get Drew back."
"Me?" Josh raised an eyebrow. "How am I supposed to help get him back?"
"The plan is to get him sloppy, to goad him into making a mistake," Ryan explained. "Jo and Roland say you're better at pushing his buttons than anybody."
Josh winced. "That's an understatement," he admitted. "We've got a lot of- sore spots between us, which is probably why he tried to kill me today. But he's a freaking BEETLEBORG! He could crush my spine with one hand! What am I supposed to do?"
"I've been working on that," Art grinned. "Josh, how would you like to be a Beetleborg again? For good this time?"
Josh's jaw hit his shoelaces. "You mean it? You can make me new powers that won't dissipate when Shadowborg is defeated?"
"I mean it. How do you like the idea of 'Electric Bronze?'"
Jo nodded vigorously. "Totally cool, Art."
"Yeah," Roland agreed. "We'd love to have him back on the team."
Josh nodded. "Then I'm in. It's good to be back with you guys."
From his containment field, Les made a nauseated sound. "Please, spare me the brotherhood and goodwill," he sneered. Peter cocked an eyebrow at him.
"You stay out of this," he instructed.
"Do you have any ideas yet, Mr. Fortunes?" Kaitlin asked.
Art shook his head. "Nothing beyond the name, really," he replied. Josh began chewing his lip.
"Then can I make a few suggestions?" Josh asked. "I think I've found way number 1 to irritate Drew."
Art pulled out his sketchpad and sat down. "Shoot."
"Make it look like Chromium Gold," Josh instructed. "A new and improved Chromium Gold. I want everything about this suit to say 'I'm your replacement.' That was the sorest point in our relationship," he explained to the others. "I waltzed into town and was better at everything than he was, and he felt like he was being tossed on the scrap heap."
Art began drawing, and soon a Beetleborg took shape on his paper. It was obviously based on Chromium Gold, but the armor was more streamlined, and seemed a little thicker. Colored pencils gave the Beetleborg a bronze and black color scheme, and soon it seemed ready to leap right off the paper.
"Good," praised Josh. "Now, for a weapon, can you give me a sword?"
"A Metallix Saber?" Art asked. "Sure, but why?"
"Leaders of hero teams ALWAYS have swords," Josh explained. "I remember Drew pointing that out at one point. Red Morphin Warrior's got a broadsword. The original Red Ranger, the White Ranger, Zeo Ranger V, Red Turbo, and the new Red Astro Ranger, they all had swords."
Dex nodded. "My principal weapon is the Electro-Saber, and Ryan, don't you have a sword as well?"
"VR Laser Saber," Ryan agreed. "Man, I never thought about it, but you're right."
"And Blue Stinger had a sword, even though it was mounted on his wrist," Josh continued. "But Chromium Gold has the Lancer. If I have a sword, it'll say as clearly as anything else that I'm the new leader of the team."
JB looked concerned. "You're gonna be ticking him off pretty badly. Are you up for this?"
Josh sighed. "I have to be. If I'm not, Drew stays with Shadowborg- forever."
The Temple of Winds was located almost directly in the center of the Sea of Grass, thousands of miles from even the most rude outpost of civilization. That meant that the night sky was untouched by light pollution, and the stars shone unbelievably bright. On the edge of the Royal area of the camp, Jamie sat, staring up at the stars, lost in thought. Suddenly a footstep behind her made her turn.
"At ease," Zarador chuckled, coming to sit beside her. "A beautiful night, is it not?"
Jamie nodded. "Stars are always beautiful, even when the patterns are so different," she replied. "What do you call these constellations?"
"Well, up there is one called the King of the Storm," he pointed. "Next to it is Kyar Re Lartha, the Goddess' tears. Like constellations on your Earth, they're based on pictures from folklore and legends. This particular one started as a myth to explain the Thunder Wind, the powerful winds that come up on the Sea of Grass with little to no warning. The Zarakin word for them is 'kyshaa.'"
Jamie sighed. "It's so strange. I feel so at home here, but then it seems so alien. There's so much I want to know about this place, but I'm not sure I even belong here."
Zarador took her hand. "You are Zarakin, Jamie, and nothing can ever change that, for good or for ill. You will always find the laughter amongst the tears, and always enjoy a good party or a good fight. But you're also a human, with all the traditions and beliefs that brings. You have the incredible toughness of spirit that I have never seen in anyone, even a Zarakin warrior. Your people keep going, no matter what odds are against them. You can be quiet and rational if need be, or all action. Never think, however, that you don't belong here. You are a part of this world and of your own Earth. And while other considerations may always make Earth home for you, you shall always be welcome on Danata."
She smiled. "Thanks, Zarador. I needed to hear that."
One of the delightful aspects of working the Homicide department in Angel Grove was what the officers referred to as "swing shift." Because of the low murder rate, Homicide cops also worked monster-related crimes. And that often led to them working beats that normally weren't their responsibility. In the years he had worked in Angel Grove, Trevor Park had investigated twelve thefts and eight disappearances, in addition to his regular homicide caseload. Missing Persons immediately reported all disappearances of teens from fifteen to eighteen directly to the Monster Squad.
"Hey, Park! Got another missing kid for you to check out," Lt. Montoya called, dropping a folder on his desk. Trevor sighed.
"Joy. As if I don't have enough trouble with the Shadowborg rampaging around downtown." Rising to his feet, he stretched.
Montoya chuckled. "You should have entered an easier department," she teased. "Like Missing Persons."
Trevor just growled half-heartedly at the pretty lieutenant, flipping the folder open. Upon reading the name, he nearly choked. Cassie Chan? He knew darn well where she was, and her parents ought to as well. Unless- she hadn't told them. Now that he thought about it, he remembered Franklin telling him that Cassie and her parents didn't get along. Mulling that over, he headed out of the precinct for his car.
Trevor carefully steered his dark green Buick into the Chans' driveway and pulled to a stop. He grinned, noticing how out of place the car looked. This was a neighborhood full of Caddys and Beemers. The lawn was perfectly manicured, and the bushes were neatly trimmed. No doubt about it; this house was not a place where a lot of living went on.
Trevor knocked on the door, which opened almost immediately to reveal a well-groomed Asian man in his late thirties. He was dressed in a white button-down shirt that looked as if it had been just ironed. Despite his suit jacket and tie, Trevor suddenly felt rumpled. Quickly, he pulled his wallet out of his pocket and flashed his badge. "Detective Trevor Park, AGPD. Are you Kenneth Chan?"
Mr. Chan nodded. "Yes, I am. Please, Detective, come in." Turning, he led Trevor into the house. As he followed Ken through the immaculate halls, Trevor couldn't help but notice that the man didn't seem very frantic for someone whose daughter had disappeared eight days ago.
The two men wound up in a palatial living room, done all in shades of white and gray. Taking the seat Ken Chan offered him, Trevor noticed that the furniture was spotless. Even the good sofa at his house had a grape juice stain on one cushion, and there was a burned spot on the back where a Piranhatron had tried to use Franklin for target practice. Trevor shivered slightly. For a living room, the place seemed as dead as the surface of the moon.
"Marianne, this is Detective Park from the police department," Ken explained, as a tall, elegant woman entered the room. She looked a little more frazzled than Ken, but still not the way Trevor would have expected. There were no dark circles under her eyes, and the expression on her face was one of barest concern.
"Now, you say your daughter, Cassie, disappeared eight days ago?" Trevor asked, trying to keep his voice level. Inside, he was fighting to keep down his bewilderment. Didn't these people _care?_
Marianne Chan nodded. "Yes, we think so. At least, that was the first night she wasn't home for dinner."
"So why did you wait eight days to call it in? The waiting period to be considered a missing person is twenty-four hours."
"It's not unusual for Cassie to spend a few days with one friend or another," Ken shrugged. "She's rarely gone for a whole week, though."
"And did you call any of these friends? Check up on her whereabouts?"
"Cassie is a very responsible girl, Detective Park," Marianne told him. "We don't invade her privacy by tracking her movements."
Trevor had to bite his tongue to keep from roaring. No wonder Cassie hadn't told her parents where she was going. They probably wouldn't have listened anyway. "What might have made Cassie leave home?" he asked carefully. The Chans looked at each other in puzzlement.
"I can't think of a thing," Ken replied honestly. "We've certainly never mistreated her. I haven't seen any signs of unhappiness in the girl."
Trevor just shook his head. These two might love their daughter, but they were utter failures as parents. At least HE had been able to see his relationship with Adam and Franklin headed into the toilet, even if he hadn't known why. The Chans would be "progressive parents" until the bitter end. Quickly, he rose to his feet.
"Well, I'll ask around, see if anyone has seen her. I wouldn't worry- most cases like this come back on their own." With a few more words of empty reassurance, Trevor made his way hastily towards the door. He was afraid that if he stayed in that house another minute, he would suffocate. As he hopped into his car, he wondered how Cassie had stood it as long as she had.
It hadn't taken Chelsea long to get the hang of the laser sword, despite the differences between it and a traditional blade. Number one, a laser sword had no weight in the blade. Instead, a slight heaviness in the top part of the handle told the wielder where the sword was. Two, the blade was cylindrical, tapering at the tip. Made of coherent light, it was vastly different than anything Chelsea had yet encountered.
Laser swords did indeed resemble light sabers from the "Star Wars" movies, but there were a few differences. The biggest difference was in the color of the blade. Star Wars light sabers came in either green or red, depending on whether the Jedi was good or evil. Laser swords, Duke explained, had a number of different colors, and those colors were often used to identify the wielder. Chelsea had chosen purple for hers, while Duke's was bright blue.
Duke had walked her through the process of constructing a laser sword step by step. Every Deshaadra warrior had to know how his or her laser sword worked, in case it ever needed repairs. Chelsea had never been the most mechanically inclined person, but under Duke's expert instruction, the whole process seemed quite simple. Once her sword was completed, they added laser sword training to her regimen.
"You've trained with a sword before," Duke remarked, calling a halt to their latest match. Chelsea nodded, slightly breathless.
"Yeah, Tommy, my brother, taught me. Now there's a guy with a thing for swords," she chuckled.
Duke grinned. "You've got a tendency towards two-handed strikes."
"I guess I'm used to the katana. Those things can be held one or two-handed," she shrugged.
"Nothing wrong with two hands, as long as you remember that laser swords are not very heavy. Your opponent can move the blade around a lot faster than a traditional sword. Let's go again."
Despite the fact that he was not yet allowed out of bed, Trey had raised such a ruckus that Sholtor had finally rigged him a hoverbed. The device allowed him to get around, while still keeping him in a semi-prone position. Today, he was soaking up the sun on the edge of the training grounds, watching as Chelsea and Duke began to spar once again. It was amazing, he thought to himself, how quickly her skills had improved. Her skill at picking up new techniques astounded all of them, even him. For the first time, he thought Chelsea might now be his equal in a fight.
"She'd go far in the Alliance," Ecliptor mused, sinking onto a bench near Trey's hoverbed. Trey shook his head.
"You'd never get her, though. Too much honor to come of her own accord, and too many allies for anyone to recruit her against her will."
Ecliptor laughed. "And too stubborn for spells," he added. "One trait the Oliver twins do NOT share."
"Point," Trey acknowledged. "Although Tommy's pretty stubborn in other areas."
Ecliptor nodded. For a long moment, the two of them just sat there, marveling at their circumstances. On any other planet, in any other situation, they would have been at each other's throats. Today, however, they were content with a somewhat strained truce. Trey chuckled to himself, thinking about how civil Ecliptor had been to him recently. There was just something about Chelsea that brought out the best in people.
Kimberly Hart was pacing back and forth, practically chewing her nails as Kat, Trini, and Cassie tried to calm her down. "Do you think I'm doing the right thing?" the Pink Warrior asked Kat. The blonde smiled.
"Do you love him?" she asked, placing a soothing hand on Kim's shoulder. Kimberly nodded.
"More than words can say. I never even felt like this with Tommy."
Cassie grinned. "Then you have nothing to worry about, Kim. Besides, I think you're going to make a beautiful bride."
After their emergence from the Caves of Alshar, Skull had surprised all of them by suddenly dropping to one knee and asking Kimberly to marry him. With the real possibility of death in their future, he had wanted to ask now, before he lost his chance. After a moment of stunned silence, Kimberly had thrown her arms around his neck and agreed jubilantly.
Upon hearing of this, the King and Queen of Eltare had insisted on arranging a full Eltaren wedding ceremony for the two. Kat, Cassie, and Trini were to serve as Kimberly's honor guard, while Skull had to make do with just Andros. Then the royal seamstresses had descended on Kim, already making plans for a gown that would be the talk of the city for days. With a great amount of effort, Kimberly had managed to keep the dress fairly simple. Skull, meanwhile, had escaped the whole thing by opting, on Andros' advice, to go to the wedding in Morphin Warrior garb.
The dress was beautiful, a shimmering white with pink accents, and was simple enough that Kimberly could get into it with only a little help. Then Kat pinned her hair up on the top of her head, put on a little make-up, and it was time.
Standing at the eastern door of the chapel, Skull was shifting from foot to foot. Beside him, Andros watched in amusement, dressed in his Ranger uniform, but minus his helmet. "You're worse than my brother," the Kerovan Ranger chuckled. "My father practically had to tie him up and drag him to the ceremony when he got married."
"I'm not planning to bolt," Skull replied. "Where is she? Do you suppose she's not coming?"
Andros shook his head. "Kimberly loves you, Skull. Besides, she's a woman of her word. If she says she'll marry you, she'll do it."
"But what if she's changed her mind?" Skull wanted to know.
"Then she'll tell you herself. She wouldn't leave you at the altar." Suddenly music began to play, and all conversation stopped as Kimberly entered the chapel from the west, the other three girls behind her, all dressed in Eltaren-style gowns. When the four of them reached the altar, Andros had to nudge Skull to start him moving. After an interminable wait, Skull and Kimberly were standing in front of the altar, looking into each other's eyes.
"I can see you want this to be a short ceremony," the priest chuckled. "So why don't we skip all the formalities and go straight to the vows."
"Right," Skull said absently, and continued staring into Kimberly's eyes. The priest's smile grew wider, and he cleared his throat, startling the groom.
"Oh, yeah, right," Skull grinned sheepishly. "Kimberly Hart, I love you more than life itself. I would give anything I have to you, but I don't have very much. So instead, I offer my heart and soul. All that I have, all that I am, it's all yours, forever."
"Skull, I love you more than life itself," Kimberly replied. Neither of them were sticking too closely to the traditional words of the ceremony, but it didn't really matter. "I will never leave you, not this side of life. I will be with you through thick and thin, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. Whatever I am is yours, for ever and ever."
"Then by the Power and the great Stars above, I pronounce you married," the priest finished. "Now, as you say on Earth, 'you may kiss the bride.'"
Skull had already beat him to it, however, sweeping Kimberly into his arms and giving her a deep, passionate kiss. After a few minutes, Andros tapped him on the shoulder.
"You two can finish this in your room, okay?" Breaking apart, Skull and Kimberly both blushed.
Upon catching sight of the massive walls of Tae Shalrith, Tommy whistled. The ancient fortress was a huge, solid edifice, towering above the plains like the axis of the world. Although the stone walls radiated age, they were still more than intact, promising the rebels a long siege.
"Do you really think this plan is going to work?" Zack asked anxiously, eyeing the guards on Tae Shalrith's parapets.
Tommy sighed. "I hope so, Zack, or a lot of people are going to die taking this place." That was the fear gnawing at Tommy's guts. With a team of five, or even ten people, you could watch everybody's back at all times. Ranger battles weren't like battles in a war; they were closer to the missions of a commando team. As leader of the Zeo Rangers, Tommy always knew where all of his teammates were at any point in a fight. But with an army...
He looked over the lines of Lexian's forces apprehensively, biting his lip. Some rebels were hauling catapults into position, the ancient weapons no less deadly for being low-tech. Others were readying laser rifles and other such weapons, in case the fighting moved to being hand-to-hand. Still others were readying the infirmary for the inevitable results of battle. Tommy winced at the reminder of what the day would bring.
Suddenly a gentle hand fell on his shoulder. Turning, he saw Lillian looking at him sympathetically. "Don't," she said quietly. "They're not your responsibility. They chose this fight, just like Zack and I chose to fight by your side." She smiled slightly. "I know you feel guilty about not being able to save everyone, but you have to remember, you're only human. Like Rocky would say- 'Who sees with equal eye as God of all/ a hero perish or a sparrow fall.' You're human, Tommy, not God. You can't save every sparrow."
He nodded, sliding an arm around her shoulders. Then he chuckled suddenly. "Look out there."
In the middle of the activity of the Rebel army, Parker O'Neil flitted from one group to another, pitching in with the catapults, helping raise earthworks- and taking pictures of all of it. Lillian laughed. "That's my brother for you. Sometimes Mom swears he was born with a Nikon in his hand."
"Gonna be one heck of a story," Zack grinned. Tommy shot him an amused look.
"If we live to tell it."
One of the nicest things about Briallta, Chelsea mused, was the sheer variety of information in its public library. The shelves were crammed with texts of all sorts, from books and scrolls to crystalline contraptions designed for races Chelsea couldn't even begin to imagine. The memoirs of well-known Council members nestled side-by-side with histories written by the Alliance of Evil. It was a history buff's paradise.
Luckily for her, the library kept Eltaren-language translations of everything in their computer system. No one gave her a second glance as she sat down at a computer terminal and immersed herself in the history section.
Almost half an hour later, she realized something odd. Out of curiosity, she had done a search for the keyword "Earth," and had turned up a number of matches. However, all six were UAE texts. Not one thing originated from the Council. Frowning, she called up the first document- and found herself reading the original Alliance scouting report on Earth, conducted not long after Rita Repulsa first attacked. Some of the scout's comments were very interesting, especially his appraisal of the Power Rangers. He referred to them as "A team of young humans, seemingly inferior in every way to the legendary teams of the galaxy. Despite this, I wouldn't want to cross them, even if I had the Darkness itself on my side." She chuckled. Apparently, no one in the Alliance had taken him seriously.
Why, she wondered, did Earth present such a tempting target? Considering Rita and Zedd's many humiliations, why didn't the villains just give up and find someplace easier? Reading on, she discovered the answer, and was immediately enthralled.
She had always known that the ley lines of Earth were what attracted trouble to certain places on the globe. Angel Grove was situated on what was probably the biggest or second-biggest nexus on the planet. There was, according to the report, one under a small town in Indiana that might be larger. However, the scout informed his readers, this was only a symptom of the condition which truly made the Earth so valuable. It was a probability center for at least the local multiverse.
Lines of probability, magic, and power flowed throughout creation. In certain places, they swirled together, crossing universe boundaries, and making strange things happen. The Earth was the largest probability vortex anyone in the galaxy had ever found. It was like the center of a spiderweb whose threads stretched into the farthest reaches of space, time, and even other dimensions. No wonder Vile had been able to turn back time without affecting any other world. The center of the web was insulated from such things, and the change caused only moderate damage.
Chelsea dropped her head into her hands. God, no wonder Earth was interdicted. The power this represented was incredible! It had to scare the Council spitless. And now, thanks to Darkonda's political sleight of hand, they were playing directly into the grasp of the Alliance, who would welcome the chance to have control over such a powerful source.
Quickly printing out the text, Chelsea shut off her terminal, grabbed the printout, and strode out the door. She had to talk to Trey about this.
Yawning, Josh Baldwin plodded into the main room of the Power Chamber. The Ghostbusters looked up from their coffee at his entrance, and Winston Zeddemore waved.
"Sleep well?" the older man asked. Josh stretched.
"Yeah, actually. Those emergency bedrooms are pretty comfortable. I don't even have my own bathroom at home. Thanks for covering with me for my folks. They'll worry a lot less now that they think I'm on that camping trip." Catching sight of Peter, who was still buried in his coffee cup, he grinned. "What's with him?" Josh asked Egon.
"Peter refuses to wake up before noon unless absolutely necessary." The physicist's tone was flat and matter-of-fact, but amusement sparkled in his blue eyes.
"Maybe we should just hook him up to an IV," Ray suggested, grinning. Somehow, Peter raised the coherence to stick his tongue out at his friend.
Just then, Justin Stewart bounced into the room, far more awake than Tasha, who followed behind him, grumbling. "Morning everybody!" Justin greeted them cheerfully. Tasha made a face.
"There is nothing worse in this world than an egghead who's a morning person," she stated, crossing to where the Ghostbusters sat. "Gimme some of that, will ya?"
"It'll stunt your growth," Winston warned her, amused.
Tasha gave him a look. "That's a myth," she growled. "I've been drinking coffee for three years. Now gimme the pot." Winston did as he was ordered, and Tasha quickly materialized a mug for herself.
The smell of coffee quickly drew the rest of the team from their beds- or wherever Dragon Borg spent the night. None of the other Turbos or Beetleborgs drank coffee, but Ryan and Lita quickly snagged themselves mugs, as did Art Fortunes. Les, who had spent the night in his containment field, was not offered any.
"So, Art, finish up those Beetleborg powers?" Flabber asked from the tube. The artist nodded, taking a long sip of his coffee.
"I think so. I've designed you a Sector Cycle and some Mega Spectra powers, Josh. Since we got Roboborg, Nukus hasn't done much with Worm Tanks and Jet Fighters, so I didn't bother with a BV. I figured I can make one later if you really need it."
Josh nodded. "Thanks, Art."
"I also have a surprise," Art continued. "New weapons for the Turbo Rangers. I thought about new armor, but I didn't want to take the risk of it reacting badly with your current powers."
Franklin nodded. "That's probably a good idea. Nasty things can happen when you mix magics."
"Anyway, I basically kept the design of your Power Weapons, and boosted the strength. Now that I've gotten the Shadowborg specs from my brother," Les took that opportunity to blow a raspberry, "I can more accurately design weapons to do some damage. Fred, your sword should be able to stand up to the Shadow Claw now, and the rest of you should be able to pierce his armor with your weapons."
"Thanks, Art," replied Fred. "We'll need the boost."
Turning to the Troopers, Art shrugged. "Your powers are so far away from anything I understand, I didn't want to take the chance on making things worse."
JB nodded. "Probably a good idea. Even I don't understand how half of our stuff works, and we don't exactly have time to call Ryan's dad back from Norway."
"However," Professor Hart broke in, "I have been able to boost the strength of your current weapons, using the information that we have received. You should be able to stand up to Shadowborg now."
"Excellent," Katie grinned.
"Got anything for us, Art?" Roland asked, stepping forward. The artist nodded.
"Yes. I upgraded your Metallix gear, and I also integrated the gestalt weapons system from the Turbo weapons. A weapon can only hold a certain amount of charge, but by combining your gear, you can deliver a punch that's four times as powerful. The only problem is that the whole point of a gestalt system is its ability to combine."
Jo made a face. "In other words, it won't work without Drew," she translated. Art nodded.
"Sorry about that."
Josh shrugged. "We'd be split up anyway, since I'll be taking on Drew. We'll just have to save the test drive for when we get him back."
Suddenly an alarm on one of the consoles began to blare. Lita, sitting closest to it, made a face. "Looks like you'll get your chance soon, Josh. Drew and Shadowborg are in Spring Hills, and I don't think they're happy."
"Spring Hills!" Rosa cried. "That's one of the most populated residential districts in town! It's full of kids!"
"My house is smack in the middle of it," Fred replied, his eyes dark with worry.
Dex glanced up at the plasma tube. "You'd better get cracking on those powers right away, Flabber. We're out of time."
The phasm nodded. "Right. April showers bring May flowers, bring our Josh some Beetleborg Powers!"
A bronze flash rose from Art's drawings, coalescing into a ball that zoomed to Josh's hand. The light faded, showing him holding a Databonder. "All right!" Josh yelled.
But Flabber wasn't done yet. "Do not worry, have no fear, bring out new Metallix gear! Like the old, but still brand new, bring Turbo weapons, strong and true!" Eight more flashes, in the colors of the Turbo Rangers and Beetleborgs, rose up from the paper, disappearing into the air.
"Where'd they go?" Tasha asked, looking around.
"They'll come when you call 'em!" Flabber explained. "Now get going, before somebody gets hurt!"
"He's right," Ryan agreed. "Trooper Transform!"
"Ecto Phase Activate!"
"Shift into Turbo!"
"Beetleblast!" Once again, light flashed, and seven adults and a dog were left in the Power Chamber to watch- and worry.
"Come on, this way!" George Kelman had to shout to be heard over the noise of exploding cars and fleeing people. The appearance of Shadowborg and Chromium Gold had caused a block-wide panic as people tried frantically to get away from the destruction. At the sight of the chaos, instincts honed by years as a firefighter kicked in, and George had begun trying to direct people to safety.
"Glad Fred's not here," he muttered to himself. "This is NOT a good situation."
"It's just gone from bad to worse," a cold voice said behind him. Turning, George found himself face to face with the Shadowborg. For one ridiculous moment, he wished he had taken Fred's suggestion of a martial arts class. But what could any human, even a martial artist, do against something like this?
"What's the matter, human? Aren't you going to run like your friends?" Shadowborg asked, sounding amused.
"Not much point," George replied. "You could catch me in a minute, or shoot me down without a thought. I'd prefer not to die shot in the back."
Shadowborg chuckled. "Admirable. Don't worry, I'll make this short." Shadowborg raised his Shadow Laser, pointing it at George's head. The firefighter stiffened, but refused to close his eyes.
Suddenly a bolt of red light struck Shadowborg's hand, knocking the gun away. Both Shadowborg and George Kelman turned to see Red Turbo, Autoblaster aimed at Shadowborg and smoking slightly. "Back off, rustbucket," he snapped. "You'd better get out of here, mister. Now!" George wasted no time, but did as he was told, running off down the street.
The peaceful neighborhoods of Spring Hills were in shambles. Cars had been reduced to nothing but smoldering wrecks, and some of the houses were scorched from laser fire. This area was not too far from the business district, still in shambles from Shadowborg's other attacks, and Masked Rider couldn't help but imagine the devastation was slowly spreading outward from the heart of the city. Quickly he shrugged it off, returning to the matter at hand.
"This is the last time you endanger the people of our city," Red Turbo snarled. "You're going down, Shadowborg!"
"A most inspiring speech, Turbo Ranger," Shadowborg chuckled. "What makes you think that today's battle will be any different?"
"Cause we've stacked the odds in our favor," Electric Bronze said, stepping forward. Chromium Gold stiffened as he recognized the voice.
"Josh?" he cried in disbelief. Electric Bronze waved.
"Hey, buddy," he replied sarcastically. "Electric Bronze Beetleborg, at your service. The team needed a third Beetleborg, so here I am. Guess we don't need you anymore."
"We'll just see about that," Chromium Gold promised. "Metallix Lancer!"
"Metallix Saber!" The double-edged sword materialized in Electric Bronze's hand, causing Chromium Gold to stop short. Electric Bronze chuckled. "You wanna prove who's the best? Come on, Drew, you and me. One on one."
"Josh, are you crazy?" Platinum Purple asked. Electric Bronze shook his head.
"You and Roland stay here, help the others with Shadowborg," he ordered. Then, injecting false confidence into his voice, "I can take him with one hand behind my back."
That did it. Chromium Gold lunged at Electric Bronze, who parried his maneuver and then, to everyone's surprise, began running down the block. Chromium Gold immediately gave chase, yelling at the top of his lungs. "Come back here! I'm going to rip you apart!" Electric Bronze just laughed and kept running.
Shadowborg, recognizing the plan to divide the two, started to follow, but found himself surrounded by heroes. "Going somewhere?" Black Trooper asked.
Dragon Borg answered him. "I think not." The thirteen then closed in.
Once in the ruined business district, Electric Bronze decided that they were far enough from Shadowborg, and immediately turned his attention to Chromium Gold, ducking just in time to avoid a Lancer blow that would have taken off his head. Blocking with his Saber, Electric Bronze concentrated for a time on just keeping his skin intact. Then, slowly, he began to make his moves more flashy, the deflections of Chromium Gold's attacks more humiliating. Inside, he felt a little sick about using his friend's insecurities against him, but if it was the only way to save Drew, then so be it.
Chromium Gold was obviously getting frustrated now. His cuts and thrusts were losing their finesse, and gaining in pure power. Electric Bronze winced as the impact from one blocked strike traveled all the way up his arm. Time for Phase Two.
"I always knew you were weak," Electric Bronze sneered, trying not to sound as winded as he felt. "Shadowborg snaps his fingers, and you fall under his control. I don't know how you managed to stay leader of the Beetleborgs for so long."
"Shut up," Chromium Gold snarled, managing to land a kick in Electric Bronze's chest. It felt as if he'd been kicked by a mule, but Electric Bronze pretended to shrug off the blow.
"Is that the best you can do?" he asked mockingly, blocking a few more thrusts. "Jo and Roland deserve better than you for a leader. Maybe it's for the best that you've gone running off to Shadowborg. They don't have to waste any more time on a pathetic excuse for a hero."
Chromium Gold's strikes were completely savage now, and Electric Bronze knew he didn't have much time. If he couldn't get the other to completely lose his temper, he would soon be overwhelmed. Drawing a deep breath, he pulled out his trump card.
"You know, it's too bad you won't be headed back to Charterville. A lot of people are really going to miss you. But don't worry about it. I'll be in the perfect position to convey my condolences to Heather."
THAT did it. The last of Chromium Gold's fragile control snapped, and he hurled himself at his opponent. Surging through Electric Bronze's guard, he locked his fingers around the other Beetleborg's throat and began to squeeze with all his strength. Electric Bronze felt the world going black around him, and threw everything he had into one last strike. With one powerful shove of his legs, he slammed Chromium Gold into a nearby wall, knocking him completely unconscious.
His assailant's grip had been broken, but not quite in time. Stress, fear, and lack of oxygen caught up with him, and Electric Bronze sank into the darkness, falling beside his friend and enemy. For a long moment, all was still.
In the darkness beside one of the buildings, shadows thickened, deepened, making a pool. From that blackness rose the Shadowborg, surveying the scene. "I suppose this was to be expected," he mused. "However, without Baldwin, they can never repeat it." Drawing his Shadow Laser, he aimed it at the fallen Beetleborg. "Goodbye- Electric Bronze," he sneered.
Suddenly a chunk of masonry came flying out of the shadows, striking Shadowborg and knocking him into a wall. The startled creature pulled itself upright to see a solidly built young man standing between him and the two fallen Beetleborgs. "If you want them, you'll have to go through me," the newcomer declared. "But I don't intend for any of us to stay around here for long." Placing his feet so that he was in contact with both Beetleborgs, he rolled up his sleeve and pressed a button on the communicator he wore there. The three of them dissolved into white light and reformed in the Power Chamber, to the astonishment of the adults therein. When the reality of the situation set in, Lita grinned.
"Bulk, I could kiss you!" she cried, and did, planting a smooch on his cheek as the Ghostbusters set about taking care of Chromium Gold and Electric Bronze. Farkus Bulkmier, known to his friends as "Bulk," just grinned.
The Edenite sky was patched with clouds, turning the light of the three moons into a web of silver filigree. Around the fortress of Tae Shalrith, the Edenite Rebellion was encamped, content for the time being to enforce a state of siege, to keep Dregon's forces from obtaining vitally needed supplies. In the wee small hours of the morning, most of both sides were locked in slumber, only skeleton crews to keep the defenses going.
"Ready?" Red Ranger whispered. Black Ranger studied him critically.
"You are going to stick out like a sore thumb," she informed him. "Flaming red is NOT a stealth color."
He chuckled. "You'd be surprised, Lil. Power Ranger uniforms are- different. They gather only as much light as you want them to." To Black Ranger's surprise, Red Ranger's uniform suddenly faded to a deep maroon. Only her enhanced night vision allowed her to pick up the hue; to anyone else, in that darkness, his spandex would seem as black as hers.
"You guys scared?" Zack asked, flipping his ax in one hand.
"Petrified," replied Black Ranger. "Let's do it."
"You wouldn't be trying to ditch us, would you?" a voice asked behind them. The three Rangers turned to see Parker and Daystar, both dressed all in black. Parker's katana hung at his back, and Daystar had a laser rifle slung over her shoulders.
"This is going to be dangerous," Red Ranger protested weakly. "You guys don't have any powers."
"Like that's ever stopped us before?" Parker wanted to know.
"Besides, Tommy, you'll need someone to watch your back," continued Daystar. "This is our chance, and probably our ONLY chance, to win this battle with a minimum of bloodshed on both sides. If we can get in and drop the fortress' defenses, this thing will be over before you can blink."
Red Ranger sighed. Despite his reservations, he knew he'd feel better with the two of them watching his back.
"All right, let's do it."
"Lexian was right," Black Ranger murmured. "No guards on this at all."
"Well, he did grow up here," Daystar reminded them. "This fortress has been the home of the Royal Family since the days of Erex. Hell, Lexian probably knows this place better than anyone currently on Edenoi."
The five of them had emerged from a secret tunnel into a hall lined with tapestries. Parker examined the wall hangings intently, noting their excellent condition. "Well, at least Dregon seems to have a taste for the finer things in life," he muttered. "This place should still be set up like a home, instead of a garrison."
Red Ranger nodded. "All right. We're going to have to split up here. Parker, how are you with computers?"
Black Ranger chuckled. "He can make a keyboard sit up and do the rumba." The reporter nodded.
"I can find my way around most operating systems, and I can darn well throw a monkey wrench into the others."
"Good. You and Daystar go disable the force shield, then call Lexian and tell him we're ready for the assault."
"What are you three going to do?" Daystar asked.
"We're going to take out the computer defense systems," Red Ranger replied. "Otherwise, it'll go on automatically when the shield fails, and Lexian's rebels will be running a gauntlet."
"Good luck," Parker said seriously. He and Red Ranger clasped hands for a moment, then the two groups went their separate ways.
"It's hot," Carlos complained. Ashley swatted him good-naturedly.
"It's a jungle, Sherlock. What did you expect?"
Tanya looked around in awe. "These trees have got to be centuries old," she breathed. Christina nodded.
"I can feel the age," she shivered. "And we're being watched."
"By what?" Tanya wanted to know.
Christina shrugged. "Little things. Birds, small animals. But it feels creepy, just the same."
The Rangers had set out that morning on their journey to the Monolith and their quest for the Great Power. Billy led the way, his feet remembering the path from a journey made in another lifetime. Adam walked beside him, eyes constantly on watch for dangers.
"You're getting jumpy again," the Asian boy remarked. "What's up?"
"We're approaching the half-way point," Billy replied tersely. "There's always an attack about half-way."
"What type of attack?"
Billy shrugged. "Dulcea says it's different for every group. In the other universe, the six of us were attacked by a rampaging dinosaur skeleton, but I doubt that'll be the case here."
"I'll tell the others to keep their eyes peeled," Adam promised.
In a few more minutes, the six Rangers came to a clearing, with a cave sunk into a rocky promontory, and a flat, treeless area in front of the opening. Suddenly Carlos stopped. "Do you hear that?" he whispered.
Ashley shook her head. "I don't hear anything."
"That's just the point," Adam realized, his eyes narrowed. "No birds, no insects, no nothing. There's something here."
In unison, the teens turned towards the cave opening, as a low, breathy hiss became audible. Then, slowly, a huge snake slithered into the light. It had a head the size of any one of the Rangers, and a body thick as a tree-trunk. Sizing up the Rangers with cold red eyes, it seemingly licked its lips. Billy swallowed.
"Snakes," he muttered. "Why did it have to be snakes?" Suddenly the creature lunged at Adam, who barely escaped as it tried to encircle him in its coils.
"It figures," he groaned. "Snakes love to eat frogs!"
The snake struck again, and this time Adam was not fast enough to escape. Once it had him in its grasp, the creature began to apply pressure, squeezing slowly, inorexably.
"Hiyahh!" Tanya wound up, launching a kick into the snake's side. The reptile ignored her, however, concentrating solely on Adam, who was beginning to turn blue. "We can't make a dent in this thing!" she cried.
"We have to keep on trying!" Christina answered her, beating at the snake's head with a tree branch. Carlos quickly joined her, but their attacks had little effect.
Meanwhile, Ashley was frantically scanning the area for anything she could use against the snake. Suddenly she saw something glimmering inside the cave. "Billy!" she cried, rushing over to it. "Is this diamond?"
Joining her, the teen genius examined the crystal stalagmite carefully. "Some sort of clear crystal," he agreed. Touching the point, he let out a muffled cry. "Sharp, too," he added, sucking on his finger.
"Can we get it loose?" Ashley asked. Billy grabbed the sides of the spire carefully.
"It's not part of the floor- that's a weaker granite-type rock," he replied. "Help me- we've got to- shift it." Ashley joined him, and the two of them began to pull at the rock.
"Somebody- get me out of here!" Adam yelled. "I think I- heard my ribs creak!"
"Got it!" Billy cried, as the stalagmite cracked into his hands. Holding it by the base, he ran and leaped onto the back of the snake. "Lights- out!" Billy puffed, bringing the spire down, piercing the snake's skin at the back of the neck. The diamond tip cut through the scales, and the snake fell dead, releasing Adam.
Taking a few deep breaths, the Frog Ninjetti looked up at his best friend. "Thanks, Billy," he drawled. "Next time, why don't you see if you can't cut it a little closer?"
Billy laughed, and hauled Adam to his feet, careful not to jar his friend's bruised ribs. "Come on," he said to the group. "One down, one to go."
"So when can we expect a second attack?" Carlos asked, as the six of them trooped through the jungle.
Billy sighed. "When we reach the monolith, which won't be long now," he replied. "The first time, it was four stone gargoyles, but I doubt it'll be the same for us."
"Anything goes, huh?" Ashley asked. Billy nodded.
Christina suddenly pointed ahead. "There! I think I see a break in the trees!"
The six teens sped up, and quickly found themselves in a clearing, standing before a carved wall of solid rock. "End of the line," Tanya remarked. Cautiously, Billy moved forward to lay his hand on one of the gargoyle statues, not really surprised when it did not react. He turned to go back to the group- and froze. The other five quickly turned to see what he was staring at, and most of them stepped back in shock.
Behind them stood six people, dressed in Ninjetti uniforms, just as they were. In fact, the newcomers WERE them- with one major difference. There was no color to them anywhere. The six new Ninjetti looked as if they had stepped directly out of a black-and-white movie, and their eyes were a hideous blank white.
"End of the line," Shadow-Tanya echoed. Her voice was Tanya's, yet there was a distinctly different tone to it. It was cold and menacing, turning Tanya's innocent comment into a threat.
"Madre de Dios," Carlos whispered, crossing himself hurriedly. Shadow-Carlos grinned, exposing sharp, pointed teeth.
"Can't help you now," he singsonged, stepping closer. "Time to die."
"I don't think so," Billy shot back. "Ninjetti! The Wolf!"
"The Lion!" In an eyeblink, the twelve combatants were in battle mode, their hoods and sashes covering their faces. Then the battle began in earnest.
Each Ranger was quickly attacked by his or her shadow double. Billy and his duplicate began trading powerful kicks and blows, while Christina found herself circling her opponent, both waiting for the perfect time to attack. Meanwhile, Adam and Shadow-Adam were perfectly matched, copying each other's moves with pinpoint precision.
Carlos, never the greatest fighter of the group, was almost immediately at a disadvantage thanks to his double's more ruthless behavior. Suddenly Ashley sailed through the air, striking Shadow-Carlos with a flying kick. Landing between the creature and its prey, she was surprised that the shadow did not attack her. Instead, it simply attempted to circle her and get to Carlos.
"Guys!" she cried. "They fight best against the person they copy!"
Billy nodded, processing that information. "Switch off!" he ordered. With a flying kick, he plowed into Shadow-Adam, giving Adam a chance to rip Tanya's double away from her. Tanya took the opportunity to tackle Shadow-Christina, and Christina threw herself at the double of Billy. Meanwhile, Carlos and Ashley had already switched partners, and so just continued their battle.
Now that the Shadows were up against someone other than their originals, the fight became more one-sided. Adam sent Shadow-Tanya plowing into a rock wall, and watched in astonishment as she dissipated into nothing. Christina, meanwhile, led Shadow-Billy on a chase, through the trees and across the branches, suddenly reversing course and striking him with a flying kick. Shadow-Billy plummeted to the ground and evaporated into mist.
Years of friendship and extensive knowledge of each other allowed Carlos and Ashley to defeat their opponents easily, just as Tanya dissolved Shadow-Christina with a truly powerful hurricane kick. That left only Billy and Shadow-Adam.
The two of them were all over the clearing, in the trees, up the rock wall, flying through the air, and swinging through vines. Feeling himself tiring, Billy knew he had to end the fight now. As Shadow-Adam charged again, Billy grabbed the copy by the front of his Ninjetti uniform and rolled. He had just enough time to see the shadow's expression change to one of pure horror before he launched him into the air with a powerful kick. The shadow flew across the clearing, splashing down in one of the pools beneath the trees. A horrible bubbling began, and all six Rangers turned away as the shadow dissolved in the acid pool. For a long moment, all was silent. Then the rock wall rolled up, and the monolith emerged from within.
The six Rangers felt new energy filling them, as their Ninjetti uniforms were transmuted to their new suits. Each was different, as was to be expected.
Adam watched in awe as the white and gold trim on his uniform darkened to black, and the Frog coin hid itself in a pocket on the front of the shirt. "Cool," he whispered. "Now THIS is a Ninja outfit."
Tanya's clothing slowly transformed until she found herself wearing a solid black spandex bodysuit, with no decoration but a Lion coin on the chest and a gun belt around her waist. Pulling off the helmet that appeared on her head, she found that it bore the symbol of the Lion. "I'm still a Ranger," she grinned. "Guess it's all I know."
Christina found herself in a white bodysuit under a belted tunic of the same color. Billy cocked an eyebrow. "Paladin?"
She shrugged. "Too much D&D as a kid," she grinned.
Meanwhile, Ashley was staring at her new uniform in a cross between delight and disbelief. "A sailor fuku?" she asked. Indeed, she was in a short-legged white leotard with a short blue skirt, a blue bow on the chest, and a blue sailor collar. Reaching up to her forehead, she found a tiara set with a blue jewel. Blue knee-high boots covered her feet, blue-trimmed white gloves covered her hands, and a coin with the symbol of the Unicorn was the brooch in her bow. Carlos whistled, and she glared at him.
He himself was wearing a white body suit with purple gloves, boots, a purple half-helmet, and a purple shoulder yoke. He shrugged. "So I used to watch "Voltron" as a kid," he explained.
Last was Billy, who found himself in an armored version of his original Blue Ranger uniform. The others looked at him in astonishment as he removed his helmet and shrugged. "This is what I think of when I think of the Great Power," he explained. "It's what the Rangers wore in that other dimension."
"Let's get back to the ruins," Adam suggested. "I think we need to rest and talk to Dulcea before we move on." The others agreed, and the six of them trooped off through the jungle once again.
"See it?" Black Ranger breathed. Zack nodded.
"And I also see the five dudes standing guard," the Black Warrior replied. "What's the plan, Tommy?"
Red Ranger sighed. "Hit 'em fast and hard," he replied. "That's all the plan we have. That room's too well lit to sneak into."
The computer bank for the automated defense systems sat in the center of the room, sunk a full level below the doors to the room. A catwalk ran around the edges of the room, and one ladder led down to the floor below. On that catwalk, as Zack had said, five bruisers were standing guard, looking very unhappy and quite ready to take it out on unlucky intruders. Black Ranger drew her Zeo Pistol, throwing a glance at Red Ranger as she did so. "We have to have the element of surprise," she told him. He nodded, although she could tell he wasn't keen on the idea of an ambush.
"Set it on 'stun,'" he ordered her. "Remember, they're living beings, not monsters."
"That's debatable," she replied under her breath, but did as he ordered. "Ready?"
"Go!" A hail of Zeo Blaster fire shot from the door, cutting down two of the guards immediately. Two of the remaining three opened fire, while a third headed down the ladder, heading for the alarm button. "Shit!" Red Ranger cried. "Lillian, stop him, and get that computer down!"
"On it!" Black Ranger shot back. Ignoring the ladder, she simply leaped over the catwalk railing to the floor below, her Ranger abilities allowing her to absorb the fall without injury.
Meanwhile, Red Ranger was laying down a blanket of cover fire, allowing Zack to dash from the door and tackle one of the guards, knocking the laser from his hand. The second turned to aid his comrade, making his first mistake. Red Ranger plowed into him from the side, sending the two of them rolling over and over again.
The last guard had just reached the alarm button when Black Ranger caught up to him. "Oh no you don't!" she growled, grabbing onto him and hauling him backwards. The two of them struggled for long minutes, slamming each other into walls and consoles with little regard for anything around them. Finally, Black Ranger managed to get her opponent into a neck lock, but the guard, sensing he was losing, managed to get a hand free and slap the alarm button. Instantly a klaxon began to blare, causing Zack and Red Ranger to look up from the two they had just knocked unconscious.
"Shit!" exclaimed Black Ranger. Quickly, she knocked her opponent's head against the wall, sending him into unconsciousness. Dropping him, she ran over to the main terminal for the keyboard and started typing furiously.
"Lillian!" Red Ranger called, leaning over the catwalk rail. "We have about thirty seconds before this place fills up with Dregon's goons!"
"Tell me something I don't know!" she shouted back. "I have half a minute to pull off a miracle, so I'd appreciate it if you'd stop bugging me and watch my back!"
Zack gulped, and moved back to back with Red Ranger as Dregon's minions swarmed into the room. "It was nice knowing you, Tommy," he remarked. Red Ranger nodded.
"Same here, Zack." Then the wave of warriors was upon them.
Time quickly lost all meaning for Zack. He had no idea how long he had kicked, punched, chopped, and generally caused havoc for the goons attempting to get down the ladder. Behind him, Red Ranger seemed to be everywhere at once, calling his Power Sword and causing all sorts of troubles. He was dimly aware of Black Ranger's triumphant shout as she deactivated the computer, followed by the sounds of wrecked machinery combusting as she unloaded her Zeo Pistol into the banks. Then, with a war cry worthy of the Valkyries themselves, she leaped up to the catwalk and joined her two friends. Now they were fighting to get out of the room with their lives intact.
_We won't be able to keep this up forever,_ Red Ranger thought to himself. He had long ago passed adrenaline, and was now fighting only from sheer stubbornness. His limbs felt like lead, and if he had been unmorphed, sweat would have been pouring from his body. Suddenly a kick caught him in the small of the back, and he sprawled headlong on the floor. Looking up, he found himself staring into the business end of a blaster, and knew his fight was over. Curiously enough, he was too exhausted to feel anything but mild regret.
A bright flash of light, and the blaster before him suddenly disintegrated. A flying body knocked the Plague Patroller holding it away. For what seemed like an eternity, Red Ranger could only stare in dull surprise. Then a hand came down, and helped him slowly to his feet.
"King Lexian?" he asked in surprise. For indeed, his rescuer was the king of Edenoi, still holding a smoking energy pistol. The aged man smiled slightly.
"I may no longer be Masked Rider, but I am an excellent shot," he explained. Looking around himself, Red Ranger saw that the room was alive with Edenite Rebels, easily cleaning up the last of Dregon's troops. "Tae Shalrith is under our control," Lexian explained, "thanks to the five of you. Edenoi is finally free."
"Good," Red Ranger nodded. Then his exhaustion caught up with him, and he collapsed at Lexian's feet.
"I've got a bad feeling about this," Chris grumbled. TJ shot him a look.
"Thank you, Captain Solo," the Blue Astro Ranger replied. The Rangers were warming up under the morning sun, preparing for the match they were soon to participate in. The Zarakin warriors had already set up a make-shift arena for the competition, and spectators had already begun to gather.
Finishing her sword routine, Jamie stopped and looked up at the sky, which was a clear and cloudless blue, the sun barely a handswidth above the horizon. "Gonna be a scorcher," she remarked to Jason, who stood beside her. He nodded.
"Yeah. You up for this?" he asked, concerned. She threw him a smile.
"I have to be, don't I? How about you guys?"
He shrugged. "We're doing five on five. At least we'll have people to watch our backs. It shouldn't be too different from a putty fight."
She nodded. "You think Chris is up for this?" The Silver Astro Ranger was definitely the least experienced of the group, despite the intensive coaching in hand-to-hand that he'd been receiving.
"As long as he sticks close to TJ, he should be fine," Jason replied. "Those two are practically an inseparable team."
"They remind me of you and Tommy," she chuckled. Their conversation was interrupted by Chala, who came to tell them it was time for the competition. The two followed her into the arena, joined by their other companions. The six Rangers and four Swordbearers took up positions to the right and left of Zarador, who stood at one end of the oval arena.
"People of Danata, today we are gathered to witness a trial by combat," Zarador began. "These six Rangers have requested our help in a battle not of weapons, but of wits and words. Before we will lend them our support, however, they must prove themselves on the field of combat. Let the first match begin!"
Five of the Rangers filed out into the arena, leaving Jamie to stand by Zarador's side and watch anxiously. Next, five warriors from the various provinces appeared, arranging themselves opposite the Rangers. The two sides bowed their heads in respect, and the battle began.
Jason quickly found himself singled out by a bruiser almost twice his size. It was a change for Jason to be the weaker of the pair, and at first he found himself at a disadvantage. Then some of the tricks Chris had shown his teachers kicked in, and Jason began an elaborate dance, avoiding each of his opponent's strikes and always landing a punch as he did so. The blow was never hard enough to hurt, just enough to frustrate.
Meanwhile, Rocky and Katarina were working together like a well-oiled machine. Katarina found herself opposite a lithe, agile young man, while Rocky was paired with a gentleman who was average in every respect- except fighting ability. However, the pair didn't confine themselves to traditional techniques, and switched opponents often, Katarina attacking with powerful kicks, and Rocky throwing in a few punches for good measure.
Chris and TJ were working off a strategy they had dubbed "Bait and Switch." Chris would get one of the two warriors they were paired against to attack him, then lead him right into one of his ally's attacks. Then TJ would hit them both with a powerful strike.
As the battle raged on, Jamie could hear the tide of public opinion shifting to favor the Rangers. The cheers for the five Earthlings became louder and louder, as first one, then another Zarakin warrior tapped out. Finally, only Jason's adversary was left.
Jason's hit and run strategy was finally having its desired effect. As his opponent grew angrier and angrier, he grew tenser and tenser, until his muscles were cutting off most of his oxygen, and a lot of his movement. Jason had watched the other's attacks grow shorter and sharper, and knew the warrior was on the brink of collapse. Suddenly he launched a hurricane kick, catching his opponent in the side. The large man crashed to the ground like a falling tree, and lay there panting, waving a hand to show that he'd given up.
For a moment, all was still. Then Jason walked over to his fallen opponent and offered him a hand up. The man accepted, but it took both Jason and Rocky to help him to his feet. "Good fight," the Zarakin grinned. "My name is Ral. Next time- can I be on your side?"
Jason laughed. "Deal," he replied. The ten warriors left the arena to the cheering of the crowd.
"I never thought I'd say this, but Bulk, thank God you showed up when you did," Fred sighed. The thirteen heroes had returned to the Power Chamber after Shadowborg had managed to teleport away from them, and had been filled in on the events of Drew and Josh's battle. Both Beetleborgs had been force-backblasted by Flabber, and Drew was secured to a table under heavy sedation. Josh had regained consciousness a few minutes ago, and was stable, although shaky. His hands kept going to his throat, and Peter got the impression that Josh's near-strangulation had been a lot closer to the real thing than he let on.
Bulk shrugged. "I was in the neighborhood- helping get people to the shelters and all, and I ran across the scene. I don't know a lot, but even I can tell when something's bad news. So, you gonna introduce me?"
Rosa chuckled. "Guys, this is Farkas Bulkmier, "Bulk" to most people. He knows all of our identities, and he's been a big help to us in the past."
Quickly, the heroes went around the room, introducing themselves, although Josh and Art had to handle things for Jo and Roland, who were far too busy keeping vigil over their sleeping friend. Then they filled Bulk in on the events of the battle so far. The former bully paled considerably upon hearing what Shadowborg had been based on.
"Nyghtmayr? Now there's a name I never wanted to hear again," he muttered. "Do you think you can break the spell on your friend?"
"We're going to have to try," Josh sighed. "But I think I'd better stay out of this. Thanks to Shadowborg's control, the only emotion I evoke in him is anger."
"How soon can we bring him back?" Kaitlin asked, looking at Lita. The psychiatrist checked her watch.
"That dose of seconal I gave him should be wearing off soon," she replied. "Brace yourself, Mrs. McCormick- this won't be pleasant."
Joyce smiled wryly, watching as Peter and Winston tipped the table so that Drew was standing upright. "It hasn't been so far; why should it stop now?"
Drew's eyelids began to flutter, and the non-Beetleborg related occupants of the room quickly moved to the edges, giving the others room to deal with Drew. A pair of glares from Peter and Winston warned Les to keep his mouth shut as Drew slowly came to awareness.
"Wha- where am I?" he asked groggily, sounding a great deal like the old Drew. Then his vision cleared and his eyes blazed. He tried to pull away from the table, but the straps held fast. His mouth twisted, and he spat out a word that made his mother cover Jo's ears. "You can't hold me like this forever," he promised dangerously. "Let me go, and I won't rip your head off."
Roland took a deep breath. "I'm not going to let you go, Drew," he replied, his calm surprising even himself. "I know Shadowborg's filled you up with pain and anger, until you can't even think straight, and all you want to do is lash out. But I'm your friend, Drew. I'm not going to let you hurt yourself, no matter what it costs me."
Drew laughed, but it was a cold, bitter sound. "My friend? Some friend you are! Where were you when I was fighting Shadowborg alone? Or all those times Nukus nearly had my head on a pike? You're nothing but a liability on the battlefield, and off it, you jump ship the minute someone cooler comes along!"
"That's not true!" Jo broke in. "Drew, we love you! You're my big brother! With Mom having to work so much, you practically raised me!"
"You think I want that?" Drew snarled. "Spending all my time with an annoying little sister trailing after me? All I've EVER done was look after you! And what do you care? You left me behind!"
Joyce stepped forward. "You say we don't care, Drew? Let me remind you of a few things. How about your tenth birthday party, when Roland, Jo, and I spent HOURS planning a surprise for you? Or the time Roland and Jo risked everything to stop the Firecat before you grew fur permanently? The shots they've taken for you?"
"Remember all the good times we've spent together?" Roland continued. "Hanging out at Zoom, eating Nano's cooking, just hanging out at Hillhurst?"
"Racing our Sector Cycles down the road, for a 'test drive?'" Jo added. "Or Art, drawing us new powers, KNOWING it would make him a target for Nukus?"
"Drew," Dragon Borg began, his voice gentle. "I know how easy it is to just let go, and to let your pain take over. But you must remember, there are people who love you very much, who are waiting and hoping for you to come back."
"Go to hell," Drew growled. "You don't care about me! None of you care."
"What's wrong?" Roland asked in frustration. "Why can't we get through to him?"
"Because it's not us he hates," Art replied, an expression of understanding dawning on his face. "He hates himself. He refuses to believe that we could love him because he can't believe that he's worth it."
Up until that moment, Josh had stayed back out of the way, not wanting Drew's dislike of him to jeopardize the recovery effort. Now, however, he moved to the table and quickly began undoing the straps that held Drew in place.
"Josh, are you nuts?" Roland cried. "He'll kill you!"
"Trust me," Josh replied, undoing the last restraint. "I know what I'm- urk!" The instant he was free, Drew lunged at Josh, wrapping his hands around the other's throat. The force of Drew's attack knocked them both against a console. Art and Dragon Borg started forward to pull Drew off Josh, but a quick headshake from Josh stopped them.
"I'm going to kill you," Drew snarled. "Slowly and painfully, and I'm going to enjoy it."
"No, you won't," Josh replied. Drew's grip on his throat was not yet tight enough to impair speech, and his voice was calm and rational. "You can't. Shadowborg can do a lot of things, but he can't change who you are. All he did was open a floodgate in you and let all the bad feelings come out. You're not a murderer, Drew, and I'm going to prove it."
"What do you mean?"
"I won't fight back. You want to kill me, go on and do it. Snap my neck, beat my face in, squeeze 'til I turn blue. I won't lift a hand to stop you. But you can't do it, because that's the one thing Shadowborg cannot make you do."
Dark eyes locked with blue, as Drew stared at Josh in fascination. Seeing this, Josh continued. "You blame yourself, don't you? You always do. Well, let me tell you something- it's not your fault. Shadowborg is a Minor Demon, a creature DESIGNED to bring out the worst in everybody. The only way you could fight it would be to be perfect, and nobody's perfect. God, Drew! You walked into Shadowborg's grasp, KNOWING you could and probably would die! You gave up your own chance of escape for Jo and your mother! You're not a failure, Drew, you're the biggest damn hero I ever knew."
Drew shook his head. "Shut up," he yelled, his voice wavering. "I'm not going to listen to you lie anymore!"
"Then why don't you just end this here and now?" Josh asked. "Go on, Drew, it'll be easy. Finish me off, go back to Shadowborg. You'll finally have revenge for everything I've done to you, all the times I was an insensitive idiot. You'll be king of the mountain- heck, you'll even have a clear path for Heather." Drew just stared at him, and Josh's voice softened. "You can't do it, can you? You're too stubborn to give Shadowborg your soul. You've got too much courage to bend to him forever. It's why we love you, all of us."
"All of us," Dragon Borg repeated quietly, gently pulling Drew away.
"All of us," echoed Joyce. She folded Drew in her arms, and Roland and Jo quickly did the same. Art and Dragon Borg each laid a hand on one of his shoulders.
For a long moment, nothing happened. Then Drew began to sob, throwing his arms around his mother furiously. Joyce, Roland, and Jo quickly joined him.
"I'm sorry," Drew whispered. "So sorry, so sorry."
"There is nothing to be sorry for," Dragon Borg replied. "To conquer the darkness in your heart is not an easy thing. I am very proud of you, lad."
Drew looked up in astonishment, then threw his arms around Dragon Borg's neck. "You're alive," he choked. "I thought- I couldn't stand it if you'd left me too."
"Never in a thousand years," Dragon Borg replied, holding Drew tight. Joyce smiled wistfully at the image.
Josh, watching from the sidelines, was startled to feel a tug on his sleeve. Looking down, he saw Jo standing next to him. "That had to be the bravest thing I've ever seen," she told him quietly.
He shrugged. "I knew he wouldn't do it."
"Then why are your knees shaking?" she asked with a grin. Josh looked down to see that she was indeed correct, and threw her a sheepish grin. Suddenly, to his intense surprise, she threw her arms around him and hugged him tight. After a moment, he hugged back.
"It's going to be all right, Jo," he whispered. "I promise."
She pulled away. "I hope you're right," she sighed.
"I'm supposed to fight HIM?" Jamie asked, astounded. She had just been informed that her challenger in the trial by combat was Melchor of Narol, and he'd chosen swords as his weapon. "I do not like this at all. He doesn't seem to be the type to soil his hands with this type of work."
"He's not," Zarador replied grimly. "And the only weapon available to him is a perfectly normal sword blade. He doesn't HAVE a magic one, Elemental or Gem. None of them would accept him. But he is an excellent fighter."
Jamie bit her lip. "He's up to something," she decided. "Is it possible to cheat in one of these matches?"
"Certainly," Zarador replied. "But any infraction of the rules would be immediately visible. For instance, you can't morph, or use the Lightning powers of your blade. Really, none of the methods of cheating are all that subtle."
She sighed. "Watch my back, and be ready to raise a stink if he crosses the line," she instructed. Then she headed out into the arena and faced Melchor.
He was smirking again, and Jamie knew he was up to no good. Pretending that she didn't notice, she raised her sword to her forehead and saluted, as he did the same. Then, at a referee's signal, the two attacked.
Melchor _was_ good, Jamie realized. He lacked neither in strength nor agility, and wasn't a slouch in the brains department. Ducking one of his swipes, she rolled away, launching a kick at his knees as she did so. He dodged, however, renewing his attack as she jumped upright again.
A sudden hooking strike knocked Jamie's sword from her hands, and only a lightning-fast backflip saved her from having her throat torn out by the backswing. Grabbing her sword again, she regarded her opponent with narrowed eyes. This was not supposed to be a fight to the death, as evidenced by the crowd's boos over Melchor's attacks. She had an awful feeling that one of them wouldn't be walking out of that ring that day.
Blocking a powerful swipe, Jamie launched into a lightning flurry of counter-blows, causing Melchor to take several steps back. Suddenly she hooked his feet out from under him, causing him to land on his rear end. Presenting her sword at the tip of his throat, she raised an eyebrow.
"Do you yield?" she asked. The question was really a formality. He had lost, and she wasn't going to kill him if he said no. The fight was over, both in her eyes and those of the judges.
"Never," he hissed, his hand going to a medallion at his neck. A sudden schlooping noise behind her made Jamie throw herself to one side without looking back. Suddenly a huge fist made of rock crashed to the ground where she had been standing. Turning, Jamie saw a vaguely humanoid creature, made entirely of mud and stone. Beside it, two more were pulling themselves out of the ground. As Melchor laughed insanely, Jamie found herself surrounded by a veritable army of the things. She grinned.
"Rock and roll time, boys." Tightening her grip on her sword, she threw herself into the battle.
"JAMIE!" Jason yelled, leaping into the arena. The other Rangers, Zarador, and the four holders of the Elemental Blades were right behind him. They plowed into a battle that quickly appeared to be hopeless. Not even the elemental powers of the Blades seemed to have any affect on the mud creatures. Suddenly Jamie got an idea.
"Time to stop these things at their source," she mused. Using a falling mud creature as a springboard, she launched herself over the ranks to land in front of a fleeing Melchor. The tip of her sword presented at his throat made him stop quite abruptly. "I want to know why you tried to kill me," she growled. "And I want to know now."
Cowed by the expression on her face, Melchor began to babble. "I was hired to stop anyone coming to help Zordon. I- you seemed the most important of your Rangers- I thought it would stop your team."
"Who hired you?" she asked. Melchor opened his mouth to reply, but never managed it. The medallion still around his neck began to glow red, and the words choked in his throat. Then the glow grew stronger, and the Narolian noble slowly faded out of existence. With the medallion and its master gone, the mud creatures collapsed back into the dirt they came from.
"Are you all right?" Jason asked, running up to Jamie. She nodded, leaning on him slightly.
"Yeah. But- I could use a long nap." With that, she promptly collapsed into his arms.
Kat was staring out one of the windows of the palace suite assigned to her. So lost was she in the vista of Elarus' skyline that she didn't notice as the door swung open behind her.
"Hi, Kat," Kim said cheerily, entering the room. Kat turned slowly, smiling as she saw her friend.
"Hi, Kim," she replied. "What's up? I thought you and Skull would still be enjoying your honeymoon."
Kim blushed pink. "We are," she replied with dignity. "We're spending as much time with our friends as we do with each other." Then she grinned wickedly. "Of course, in the evenings, I get him ALL to myself."
The two Pink Rangers shared a giggle, and Kat indicated one of the comfortable stuffed chairs located in the room. "Have a seat, Kim. Was there anything you wanted, or did you just want to gossip?"
"Gossip is good, but- Kat, are you feeling okay? You've been kind of- distant since the wedding, and you seemed distracted before that. Is anything the matter?"
Kat sighed. "I don't know. I guess I was just thinking about David."
"You miss him?"
"A lot," Kat nodded. "I can't help wondering if I'll see him again- if any of us will see each other again. I mean, if Trey's suspicions about this trial are right, our losing might well result in a "convenient" disappearance. And we don't even have any guarantee that everyone will make it to the trial. I'm just-wondering."
"Anything unsaid?" Kim asked gently. Kat shook her head.
"No, nothing, really. But- I've known for a while that he was the one for me, Kim. The one I want to spend the rest of my life with. We've talked about it, and neither of us wants to get married before we finish college, but we've made all these plans. I'm scared I won't get back to fulfill them."
Kim covered her friend's hand with her own. "I'm scared, too, Kat. There are so many things Skull and I still want to do, and there's a real chance that we won't be able to do them. But you just have to look back and see that you've had some good things in the past."
"I'm just- afraid of leaving him alone," Kat confessed.
"David's strong, Kat. If he lost you, he could go on. I'm not saying he doesn't love you, or that it wouldn't hurt him to lose you. But he could live with the loss, and he would never hold a grudge against you for putting Ranger business above your life together. He's been a Ranger- he knows how it comes before all else."
Kat sighed. "Thanks, Kim," she smiled, getting to her feet. Kim followed suit, wrapping her friend in a brief hug.
"Any time. Now let's go out in the courtyard. Cassie and Trini are whipping the boys' butts."
"Kid, you've done in one week what half the galaxy can't do in six years," Duke chuckled. "You blew through the training, mastered building a laser sword, and have me gasping for breath. It's with the utmost pleasure that I promote you to the rank of full warrior in the cadre of the Deshaadra." He bowed, and handed her her laser sword. She bowed back, accepting it gravely.
The promotion ritual, with Duke's usual lack of ceremony, was being carried out in front of Ecliptor's scout, on the landing pad. Ecliptor watched with his usual impassive expression, but Chelsea thought the crystalline being's posture looked just the slightest bit smug. Trey, by contrast, was beaming with pride and making no attempt to hide it.
"There's two more things I wanna give you. First off, your dress uniform." He grinned, handing her a folded length of black cloth. "Traditional garb for the Deshaadra. It'll make a real impression on the Council. We had it made to your measure."
"And just how did you get my measurements?" she asked in mock disapproval, casting a glance at Trey. The Triforian Prince pretended to hide behind Ecliptor, who simply rolled his eyes.
"The second thing," Duke continued, deciding not to get involved, "is this." Extending his hand, he passed her a pendant, an exquisitely carved onyx falcon on a silver chain. "It's an apprenticeship mark. It proves that I'm the one who put you through your training. Even though the Council won't hire me, it ought to impress the hell out of them."
She took it gently, clasping it around her neck. "Thank you," she smiled. "For everything." Then, quickly, she threw her arms around him and gave him a quick hug. The battle-hardened warrior blushed, then quickly threw glares at Ecliptor and Trey, who were snickering slightly.
"Thank you," he replied quietly. "You're the closest thing to family I've had in a long time."
"If you ever need me, you know where to find me," she told him seriously. He nodded.
"And if you ever need me,- I'll find you. Now get going. You'll have to hurry if you want that rustbucket to make it to Triforia in time to prepare for the trial."
She nodded, kissing him on the cheek and joining Trey and Ecliptor as they headed back into the scout ship. This had been a week she was never going to forget.
Ever since his return to the defense force, Drew had been unusually quiet, saying little and occasionally casting glances at his sister and best friend. Lita Kino sighed. She'd seen far too many shadows like the ones in Drew's haunted blue eyes. Looking over at Peter, who stood beside her, she knew that he'd seen it too. "Flip you for it?" she said quietly. Peter grinned.
"I wouldn't dream of depriving you of this professional opportunity, Dr. Kino," he chuckled. "Seriously, you've got more experience in this area than I do. Go get him."
Shaking her head, Lita crossed to where Drew was standing. The blonde boy was simply staring at nothing, letting the aimless conversations filling the Power Chamber wash over him. "Drew?" Lita asked softly, laying a hand on his shoulder. His eyes slowly swam into focus.
"Huh? Oh, hi, Dr. Kino. What's up?" he asked, his voice listless. Lita fixed him with a stern green gaze.
"First of all, didn't I tell you to call me Lita?"
He shrugged, and managed a weak smile. "I'm not used to calling adults by their first names. It took me a while to even get Art down. Was there something you wanted?"
"Yes. I think we need to talk, Drew. You can't shrug off what happened to you- none of you can." She sighed, reflective for a second. "Peter and I are going to be very busy," she remarked to herself, seeing the Ghostbuster had taken Jo aside and was talking to her earnestly. Then she looked back to Drew. "Let's go outside, okay? It's getting a bit claustrophobic in here." He nodded, and the two of them headed for the main entrance tunnel.
"Sure is gorgeous out here," Drew remarked. Closing his eyes, he soaked up the late afternoon sun. "I didn't get nearly enough sunlight this week," he continued. "Spent most of my time down in that crypt."
"What were you doing, when you weren't fighting the others?" asked Lita carefully.
Drew shifted, seeking a more comfortable position on the rocks he was leaning against. "Practicing, mostly, but- I also spent a lot of time talking to Shadowborg." He shivered. "I don't think anything scares me more, now that I'm back in my right mind, than how friendly he seemed. He was always being sympathetic about how everyone in my life left me behind, but I didn't need any of them now."
"Hmm. Sounds to me like Shadowborg was trying to take Dragon Borg's place as your surrogate father," Lita mused.
"It was working. It all made sense to me at the time. Of course, I wasn't thinking straight. I was hurt and angry, and he made sure I stayed that way- with him the only out." Drew's eyes opened, and Lita suddenly found herself fixed by an intense cobalt gaze. "I told him everything, Lita," he said quietly. "All about the Rangers, the Troopers, Masked Rider- everything I knew."
The psychiatrist nodded. "That would explain why he knew Ryan's identity, earlier." Then she cocked her head and looked at him sharply. "You feel like you failed, don't you?"
"I did fail," replied Drew, not meeting her eyes. "He just snapped his fingers, and I fell under his control."
"Nukus has never used mind control on any of you, has he? And the Magnavores never did it either."
Drew shook his head. "No, not really. Vexor fed Jo a Jekyll-and-Hyde potion once, but it made her more of a brat than truly evil. Why?"
"Because I can tell that you don't really understand it. The Troopers, Masked Rider, the Rangers- they've all been under spells or fought friends under evil control at some point in their careers. This sort of thing- it's far too powerful for you to just shrug off, especially Shadowborg. Les BASED him on a creature that is literally evil personified. The Rangers have had several run-ins with creatures of that kind, and they couldn't fight the spell either." She had seen how the other heroes in the defense force respected the Power Rangers, and she could see her argument was getting through to Drew.
"Drew, do you remember the Evil Green Ranger?" Lita asked suddenly. Drew blinked.
"I don't think anyone in the 'Freak Zone' doesn't," he replied. "Guy practically tore the Rangers apart."
Lita nodded. "Did you see in the papers how he was under Rita Repulsa's control?" At Drew's nod, she continued. "Well, not only did the Rangers trust him enough to let him join the team, when his powers failed, they made him the White Ranger, and the new leader of the team." Her voice softened. "I'm not saying dealing with this is going to be easy, Drew. I'm saying that your friends trust you, and love you, and will stand by you without a hint of hesitation. The hard part is going to be trusting yourself. Will you let me help you with that?"
For a long moment, Drew simply looked at her, then he smiled. "You bet, Lita. Thanks."
"There's still members of Dregon's forces hiding in the hills," Donaeus reported, "but nothing the King's Guard can't handle. The rebuilding efforts have begun all over Edenoi. The war is finally over, King Lexian. Edenoi is free."
Lexian nodded. "But we must never forget those who sacrificed themselves for this end," he replied. "Once the basic needs of the people are met, we should erect a memorial to them. Donaeus, can you take care of that?"
The young man bowed. "Of course, your Majesty," he grinned.
"I had thought Dex would be here to see this day," Lexian mused. "It seems strange to know that he is fighting for your Earth while you have helped to liberate our home."
Tommy shrugged. "Edenoi's war is over, but I have a feeling that the war between Dex and Count Dregon will continue for a while yet."
Nodding, Lexian surveyed the cavern base with a sigh. "There is so much to be done still. We must rebuild Edenoi from the ruins, and lead it back to prosperity."
"Yes, your Majesty," Donaeus returned, "but your advisors and court are more than capable of such things for a while. Now you must turn your attention to Zordon, for if he falls, all the galaxy will follow."
Lexian laughed. "Very true, Donaeus. I see why Dex relies upon your counsel so much. In the future, I will do the same." Then a smile crossed his face. "And speaking of counsel, Rangers, you said that your Turbo Rangers were left with minimal support staff?"
Lillian nodded. "Yeah. With Justin, Egon, and Ray, they ought to be all right with the computers, though."
"Perhaps I can offer some assistance." Turning, he led the group to a cave that opened off the main cavern. Inside was a huge barrage of computer equipment, things the Rangers had never seen, even in the Power Chamber. Suddenly Tommy recognized one of the items.
"Hey, isn't that the torso to an Alpha unit?" he pointed. He knew that King Lexian had designed and built the Alpha series of robots, but he hadn't expected to see one in stages of assembly.
"It's the prototype for the series, actually," Lexian replied. "Now, if I know Council procedures, they've sent a shut-down command to Alpha 5, since he is an accessory to Zordon's crime. Unfortunately, Alpha robots are not considered sentient under galactic law. If Zordon is found guilty, it is unlikely that Alpha 5 will ever be reactivated."
"Can you do anything about it?" Parker asked anxiously. He knew the Rangers regarded the robot as a sort of little brother, and even he liked the little guy. The image of him being inert forever was not a comforting one.
"Certainly," Lexian replied absently, searching through his workbench. "I created and programmed the Alpha series, although I was as surprised as anyone when they became self-aware. Still, I do have access to their core programming- including a certain back-door I slipped in there. With the proper codes- and a subspace transmitter- I can have Alpha 5 running again quite quickly. Ah!" Pulling out a black box, he began fiddling with some dials and keys. Finally, it beeped, and he stepped back in satisfaction.
"There, I've sent the reactivation code. It may take a while- subspace transmissions are not instantaneous, and reactivation itself takes time- but Alpha 5 should be on-line again soon."
Zack smiled in relief. "I guess everything's ready- let's hit the shuttle and head for Erlion."
"Now leaving Eltare's orbit," Cassie remarked, checking the bridge readouts absently. "Good thing this ship can hold a lot of people, considering that we have four other Rangers, eight Morphin Masters, the royal family of Eltare, and their entourage on board."
"And we're still the only two people who know how the bridge works," Andros chuckled. "The others are wonderful people, but I wouldn't trust them at the controls of this ship."
Cassie shrugged. "More work for us, but not a whole lot. And I don't mind being alone on the bridge with you."
Hearing that, Andros quickly began to scrutinize one of the readouts. It wouldn't do for Cassie to see him blushing. "Where is everybody, anyway?"
"Last I saw, Kat and Trini were in the gym, pumping iron," Cassie replied, coming over to check one of the monitors. The two of them were now standing side by side. "I don't think you have to ask where Skull and Kim are."
Andros smiled at her. "Those two are very lucky to have found each other," he mused. "Love like that only comes along once in a lifetime."
"Are you thinking about Deanara?" Cassie asked quietly. Andros startled.
"Actually- no," he replied, somewhat surprised. "I loved her, but- not like that, I don't think."
Cassie cocked her head, smiling mischievously. "So what ARE you thinking about?" she prodded.
This time Andros could not control his blush. _You,_ he thought to himself. Aloud, he simply responded "I'm thinking I ought to check the engine room, make sure the engines are in good condition." Then he ducked out the door, leaving a puzzled Cassie behind.
Standing in the ruins of the Ninjetti Temple, the six Rangers faced their tutor Dulcea one last time. Billy bowed to her. "Dulcea, thank you so much for everything you've done for us," he began. "I don't think any of us will ever forget you or your time here."
Dulcea smiled. "And I thank you, Rangers, for breaking my loneliness and for restoring my faith that there are those worthy to claim the Great Power. And most of all, thank you for your tireless devotion to Zordon. It is good to know that there are others who will stand by my friend when I cannot."
"You can," Carlos replied, "and you do. By helping us gain these powers, you stand beside him as surely as if you were going to the trial."
"Thank you, Carlos. Your words mean a great deal to me. Rangers, you are now Ninjetti, pure of heart and soul. Never let the darkness control you, or you may find your powers will fail, leaving you vulnerable. But if you are strong and continue to fight for the light, I have faith that you will overcome all the obstacles placed in your path." She smiled again. "Be strong, Rangers. I know that Zordon's choice of you will be born out."
The Rangers bowed to her once more, then dissolved into their various teleport streams and streaked up into the sky, headed for the Delta Megaship which orbited above.
“Find anything?” Jamie asked as Zarador walked into the main lounge of the Mega Winger. The king of the Zarakin shook his head.
“Nothing. No records, no nothing. Whoever hired Melchor to throw a wrench in this mission, he covered his tracks pretty well.”
“So who took over the province from him?” Rocky wanted to know.
“His son, Deceter, is a pretty good sort. The people will follow him, and he doesn’t seem to know anything about Melchor’s dealings.”
Just then, the door to the bridge hissed open, and Chris came out. “I put her on autopilot, so we should be okay for a while,” the Silver Astro Ranger informed them. Sinking down on a chair, he regarded his friends interestedly. “So what’d I miss?”
“Not much,” TJ replied. “You know, whoever this is must be pretty well connected,” he mused. “I mean- to bribe and/or browbeat a Zarakin noble, to know someone would be headed to Danata in the first place, and to set this type of thing up in the first place.”
Zarador nodded, rubbing his forehead. “I hate government intrigue,” he complained. “I always have. I think it’s pretty obvious that the brains behind all of this is most likely a Council member. Unfortunately, I can name about ten off the top of my head who might be capable of it.”
“Can we count on any allies?” Jason asked.
“I think so,” Zarador responded. “Lexian, certainly, although as a friend of Zordon’s, I’m not sure how much weight his opinion will carry. But he’s a good man to have at your back in a fight.”
Katarina grimaced. “Good. Because a fight is exactly what we’re headed for.” No one could argue with her. The feeling of an onrushing confrontation was something they all knew too well.
Zarador sighed. “Bright Lady preserve us,” he muttered. “We’re going to need all the help we can get.”