And for those of you who've been waiting on pins and needles for the conclusion... this isn't it. Sorry. There's one more chapter to go! But I've already gotten to work on it, so it'll be out soon. Honest!
"Yes," Bugenhagen said, "I do know Zordon of Eltar. A truly brave and admirable being, so dedicated to his cause."
"How...?" Billy started.
"Ho ho hooo," Bugenhagen chuckled, "Zordon is famous throughout the universe, young man. I'm surprised he sent you both here without telling you he had spent several months studying with me in Cosmo Canyon."
This shocked Billy and Zack even more. "Zordon... studied with you?" Zack repeated.
"Indeed. Zordon may be a highly skilled telepath and wizard, but when he came to me he was still lacking a deep understanding of the harmony of nature. That understanding is as necessary to the keeper of the Zeo Crystal as air is for you Earthlings."
"What?" Zack said suddenly, "How did you know we are from Earth?!"
"Perhaps I should start from the beginning," Bugenhagen decided, hovering off the ground, "You see, the Eltarians were selected by Roma, the Omniversal Majestrix, to protect the Zeo Crystal, which is a shard of the M'Kraan Crystal. I'm sure you know that much by now."
Billy and Zack nodded mutely.
"Good. Well, Zordon became the Zeo Crystal's guardian, and he was destined to form a team of young humans to wield the awesome power of Terra. As you know, the Terra power is the force of nature itself, focused into six forces of nature: fire, wind, earth, lightning, water, and light. Yet Zordon, who was a brilliant wizard, lacked the philosophical knowledge of the delicate harmony of nature, and he realized how important that understanding was to truly comprehend the power of Terra. So he came to Midgar after learning of my famous studies of nature. I was the one who helped connect the wise warrior to the power of nature. That enabled him to fully grasp the power of Terra, and create the Morphin Grid from it. My my... that was several centuries ago. How time flies..."
Zack and Billy were still overwhelmed by this revelation. "Small universe," Zack muttered.
A toothy grin crossed Bugenhagen's face. "Zordon's fame has touched all the corners of this galaxy. Even a backwater planet like this one..."
Bugenhagen leaned forward, as if to tell the two young men a guarded secret, "...but I'm the only one on Midgar to know he's from another planet. Everyone else assumed he was simply visiting from some other country. Most of the planet is in the dark about the rest of the universe, because we have enough problems of our own. Eventually, when this civilization is united, then we can more aptly deal with existence on a larger scale."
An ironic smile appeared on Billy's face. Midgar sounded so very much like Earth... torn with civil wars to such an extent that humanity in general is completely unprepared to deal with alien existence. That's probably why most people don't really believe in the invasions of Angel Grove. It's far more comforting to believe life is more or less predictable.
"I still don't get it," Zack suddenly said, an expression of complete and utter puzzlement wrinkling his features, "How did you know we were Zordon's students?"
"The power signature of Light is within you, Zack," Bugenhagen replied, "I sense the Zeo shard isn't with you just now, but its energies won't leave you completely until your ultimate mission is complete."
That said, Bugenhagen tapped his chin in thought. "Enough small talk, though. We have a crisis on our hands. So, what is the matter with your friend?"
"Well, she has come down with a Space Virus," Billy answered, "Are you familiar with diseases?"
"Yes, I am. Almost every other planet capable of accommodating life has harmful bacteria or viruses, yet this planet does not. As a matter of fact, the Space Virus is a terrible plague, deadly to almost all humanoid species, like Earthlings, Kerovans, Aquitians, or Midgarians, to name a few. A similar disease struck the homeworld of the Cetra, or Ancients, and wiped out much of their population. That's why a small number of them fled the planet, hoping to find a world in which they could find a cure to the disease that slowly killed their entire species. They made a home on Midgar."
"So, there is a cure to the Space Virus here!" Zack uttered in excitement.
"Well, that's a little tricky," Bugenhagen said, scrunching his nose in thought, "The planet is the cure. The energy of the Lifestream is like a purifying bath, creating a cleansing aura throughout this planet and keeping its inhabitants safe from deadly plagues and the like. If you had brought your friend here, eventually the energy of the Lifestream would have cured her. Yet, I'm afraid it will be far more difficult to bring the cure to her."
Billy frowned. "Aisha is far too weak to be transported here, Bugenhagen. She is dying at an alarming rate."
Zack felt the desperation building within him. "Isn't there anything we can do? Can't we bring Materia of some kind?"
"Well... Materia taps into the Lifestream, so it wouldn't usually work separated from the planet."
Billy perked up a bit. "You said 'usually,' so when can it work separated from the planet?"
"A very rare kind of Materia is enclosed within itself, and is capable of the purification that the Lifestream itself does. It is called Holy Materia."
A smile of relief crossed Zack's lips. "Perfect! Now, all we need to do is find this Holy Materia."
"That's not as easy as it may sound. Could you please fetch Nanaki and the others?" Bugenhagen requested, "They need to be here for this."
Billy and Zack returned to the platform, while Bugenhagen slightly altered the programming of his observatory image. Hovering in the center of the dome, about ten feet above the platform, was an enormous three-dimensional hologram of the planet Midgar. Bugenhagen then floated into the air, until he was at about the same height as the hologram.
Moments later, the crowd of young heroes arrived within the darkened dome.
"Wow..." Yuffie muttered, "This is amazing!"
"Careful not to watch the planet rotate," Cid mocked, "You might hurl or somethin'."
Yuffie fixed her penetrating gaze on Cid as he laughed hysterically at his rude comment.
"Take it easy, guys," Cloud whispered, turning his attention to Bugenhagen, "What did you figure out?"
"Well, we've determined that the key to saving Billy and Zack's friend is the Holy Materia," Bugenhagen summarized, "But now, it is time to see what the Huge Materia can show us."
"Hurry it up already," Barrett muttered, "We're not getting' any younger here."
Bugenhagen ignored the bitter man's impolite order, and held his hands out towards the red Huge Materia. The materia began to glow faintly with red light, until that inner light intensified, creating a warm, steady glow. Then, a tight beam of red light fired from the apex of the large crystal to the direct central point of the Huge Materia square, stopping at the center. The laser beam remained fixed, just about a foot above the team's heads.
Then, the blue materia began to glow, and fired its own tight beam of energy. The same happened to the yellow and green stones, and four beams of colored energy collided at the focal point. That energy built, until it formed a white sphere with a diameter of about two feet. The sphere began descending towards the ground, causing the assembled heroes to spread out, giving the sphere room. It halted at about eye level with the team, and solidified into a clear glass orb.
"What's this?" Cait Sith asked quietly.
"No doubt it will show us," Vincent responded.
The sphere's clear center flashed once with an eerie green light, about the size of a marble, just off the center. Then, a matching green light appeared almost beside it, and they remained glowing for a short while. Cloud's eyes widened when he realized what he was seeing.
"Sephiroth," he whispered in contempt, as the obscure form took shape. Bright green eyes contrasted to the pale face that formed around them, noble and flawless in appearance. Flowing locks of thick white hair framed his face in soft, ordered waves. Yet, a cold grin was painted on the man's lips, sending chills up both Billy and Zack's spines.
There was a polished malevolence that this being exuded just from this simple image, that made Rita and Zedd's bothersome evil pale in comparison.
The image continued to zoom out, giving the audience a better view of Sephiroth. He was standing tall upon some precipice, his hands held high over his head with his palms facing each other. In the center between his hands, a small opal sphere hovered.
"That is the Black Materia," Vincent explained, "It is the magical force allowing Sephiroth to summon the Meteor spell."
"...and if it weren't for me, he wouldn't have it," Cloud said quietly, his bright blue eyes cast to the floor. Tifa lay her hand gently on his shoulder, but Cloud didn't respond to her attempts to comfort him.
"No point in cryin' over it," Barrett huffed, "It's in the past, and ya can't undo it. But, we can stop him from winnin' in the end."
Then, the image of Sephiroth faded, leaving only the bright green eyes. Then, another image took shape around the eyes. Zack and Billy could make out a new face, decidedly feminine, with a creamy complexion, pink cheeks, and a warm, disarming smile. Two locks of fawn brown hair hung by her ears, while the rest was fashioned in a long braid. As the image pulled back, they were treated to a more complete image of the young woman, wearing a rose-petal pink dress and red jacket.
Whereas Sephiroth exuded pure evil, corruption, and hatred, this girl had an air of purity, calm, and love. She was, in a word, beautiful... and inspiring.
"Who's she?" Billy asked.
"Aeris," Cloud answered quietly, sadness in his voice.
Tifa immediately pulled her hand from Cloud's shoulder. He didn't seem to notice.
The image continued to zoom out further, and the heroes realized that she, just like Sephiroth, was standing atop a precipice, her delicate hands held high over her head, and her long braid and the hem of her dress flapping in the breeze. Between her hands sat a small sphere... milky white in color.
Suddenly, the two images alternated, for an instant flashing Sephiroth, and then immediately after flashing Aeris. The two images continued to change, yet the eyes always remained the same.
"I don't understand..." Zack muttered. He gazed at Yuffie, who was standing behind him. She had an equally befuddled expression on her face.
Tifa's expression wasn't of confusion. Rather, it was of concern. Her tawny gaze watched the sphere for a few moments, and then instantly turned to Cloud.
On some level... she knew what it meant. And she knew Cloud did too.
Cloud's huge blue eyes were wide with alarm. He stood tall, yet completely motionless. His mouth hung open slightly.
"Yo, you okay, Mophead?" Barrett inquired.
Cloud made no response. He continued to watch the image as the shifting grew faster and faster, until it appeared to be one superimposed image. Then, both individuals faded at once, leaving a single crystal orb. It was clear as glass. The orb hung in the air for a few moments, and then fell to the ground, shattering once it made contact.
"Uh..." Yuffie muttered, her brow wrinkled, "Yeah, that made sense."
"Cloud?" Tifa asked gently, watching his motionless form, "Are you okay?"
"No," he said quietly, "No, I'm not. It's all my fault!"
"Here we go again," Cid mumbled, exhaling loudly.
"Don't you see?" Cloud asked, whirling around to face his teammates, "Sephiroth and Aeris were opposites! He was the Cetra of Darkness, she was the Cetra of Light. He had the Black Materia, and she had the Holy. She was the only one who had the ability to stop him! She was supposed to save the world! And it's my fault she's dead!!"
"Cloud, don't do this to yourself," Tifa said quietly, "It's not your fault--"
"If I hadn't let Sephiroth take the Black Materia, then Aeris wouldn't have gone after him alone," Cloud pointed out, "and then, Sephiroth wouldn't have run her through with his saber."
Billy and Zack winced. From the pained tone in Cloud's voice, it was clear that he had witnessed everything he spoke. It must have been a horrible experience to live through.
Vincent watched Cloud for a moment, discerning his leader was on the verge of a breakdown. His crimson gaze even, Vincent turned to Bugenhagen, who still floated in the air above. "Is that what the vision means?" he inquired, "Was Aeris the only one with the capacity to stop Sephiroth?"
Bugenhagen tapped his chin. "Aeris was the only one of Cetra blood left, besides Sephiroth himself. As a consequence, she had power over materia unlike the natives of the world. And, she apparently knew how to find the Holy Materia. So, it was her responsibility to stop Sephiroth. She knew that, which is why she went after him when she did. But she wasn't ready yet for the conflict."
"So, there's nothing we can do?" Cait asked, a pleading tone in his voice, "Tell us there's another option."
"I don't know," Bugenhagen said finally, "The Holy Materia is a very powerful weapon... and it is extremely dangerous to use. I don't know if a non-Cetra can handle the power it contains."
Suddenly, the sphere flashed with energy, and vanished from existence. The four beams of light continued to fire, but instead of merging in the center, they all reached toward the holographic image of Midgar suspended above. The four beams all struck the same point on the globe.
"What's going on?" Zack asked.
Bugenhagen floated up higher, and examined the point on the globe that was indicated. It was on the southern end of the northernmost continent, covered with icy mountains and snowy plains. He tapped his chin again.
"It's pointing to the Sleeping Forest," Bugenhagen announced.
Cloud shuddered. "The City of the Ancients!" he declared.
"But... it's deserted," Red XIII stated, "Isn't it?"
Cloud closed his eyes, cutting away the outside world in order to reflect upon his inner world. He searched his mind for the one vivid memory he had, that he so wished he could expel from his mind for all eternity...
It was only the two of them on the platform, suspended over a pool of clear water. She gazed at him pleadingly, such hope shining in her large green eyes just at the sight of him. He would protect her, just like she always knew he would.
But nothing he could have done would have been fast enough to prevent the sharp steel blade from slicing through her abdomen, tearing through flesh and organs, and ripping through the soft pink of her dress. A stain of dark blood was left to grow as more and more seeped from the mortal wound, absorbed into the material of her garb.
A faint gasp... the last utterance that would ever pass through her soft lips... echoed through Cloud's mind like a somber knell. Then her body, limp and lifeless, slid off the sharp blade, collapsing to the stone floor of what had become a sacrificial altar.
As she fell, her hair ribbon untied, letting her light brown hair cascade around her body in a shining aura.
From her hair bow, a small, pearly white sphere fell to the stone platform, bouncing several times before rolling off the edge. It fell into the pool of water collected below...
"Yes it's deserted," Tifa said, folding her arms, "We searched the entire place when we followed Aeris there."
"Let's get going," Cloud said, opening his azure eyes, "I just hope we're not too late..."
Her eyes wide with surprise and confusion, Tifa followed with her tawny gaze as Cloud stood on the platform, and descended into the laboratory below. She blinked several times, faint anger on her face.
"What was that all about?" Zack wanted to know.
"One never knows with Cloud Strife," Tifa grumbled, "We'd better hurry, before he leaves without us."
With a daring mid-air somersault, the Blue Ranger narrowly missed a stream of blazing energy spouting from Rito's mouth. Rito pounded on his chest, belching.
"Woo," he gasped, shaking his head, "where are my manners? You'll have to excuse me... burping in front of a lady--"
Rito's snide remark was cut short by a monstrous sneeze, pushing the villain back several yards, and causing the breeze nearby to pick up.
Katherine had landed a good twenty yards from Rito's position, and spun around just in time to witness Rito's heavy sneeze.
He's clearly ill, she deduced, extending her arms at her sides, Perhaps I can wear him down a bit more...
Kat clenched her gloved hands into fists, building an aura of aqua-blue energy. She then pulled her arms inward, bending her elbows, until her elbows brushed at her waist. She then tensed, and thrust both fists outwards, opening her hands towards her opponent.
From her palms streaked a clear blue energy, which Rito deflected expertly with his sword. The energy built around the weapon, encasing the sharp blade in a thick bed of solid ice.
"No fair!" Rito groaned, staring at the frozen blade, "I'm gonna.... Ah.. ah... Ahh-CHOOO!!"
The force of this sneeze knocked the villain clear off his feet, sending him sprawling to the manicured grass just outside an outlet store.
"Bless you," Katherine said, a smile on her lips, "If I didn't know better, I'd say... that Space Virus infected you a whole lot more effectively than it did me."
Rito frowned, scratching his head. "We'll see about that."
Without warning, Rito's head vanished from his body. Katherine warily watched his body as it rose to its feet, clenching its fists.
"Ice Daggers," she commanded, holding her hands out. Twin daggers with silver blades formed at her hands, and she held them at a 180 degree angle, one dagger pointed at Rito's body.
"Gotcha!" Rito suddenly exclaimed, his head materializing behind Kat. Swiftly, Katherine poised one dagger at the skull, mustering a frozen stream of energy from both at once.
At once, both Rito's head and body were encased in solid ice.
"No," she said, spinning her dagger at the hilt, "I got you."
To her surprise, both of Rito's halves vanished, still encased in their frozen prison.
The bright silver saber, glowing with a rippling flame along its sharp edge, chopped through the air mightily, collided with the golden long sword for what seemed like the hundredth time.
Perhaps it was.
Yet this time, something almost impossible happened.
The golden sword was knocked from the not-so-firm grip of its master.
Stunned, the Red Ranger kept his blade at Goldar's throat, his eyes, masked by the crimson helmet, moving from the feral beast he battled to the sword that flew clear off the cliff.
"What's with you today?" Tommy asked, his sword not even quivering, "Since when have I been able to break your grip?"
Goldar snarled, his entire body trembling. From Tommy's perspective, it almost looked like the mighty warrior was... afraid.
What Tommy didn't know was the chronic itch that plagued the villain. It had begun as a slight irritation, but over the drawn out battle, it continued to steadily increase in intensity, until it was nearly a blinding sensation. It was all Goldar could do not to pull his hands to his snout, despite Tommy's threatening position, and scratch the burning skin beneath the azure fur.
Goldar was almost blind with raging fury. He was so close! He had the chance to destroy the Power Rangers, but it slipped through is itching fingers.
He knew, without a doubt, that he wasn't going to triumph over the Red Ranger that day. Whereas the pair were just about evenly matched at their peaks, his debilitation due to the Space Virus was markedly greater than Tommy's. The Red Ranger seemed almost completely unaffected by the powerful illness.
"This isn't over, Power Ranger," Goldar growled, his body vanishing from existence in a bright gold flame.
Tommy stared at the spot Goldar had stood upon moments before, lowering his saber. His thoughts instantly turning from the creature to his allies, Tommy lifted his wrist to his mouth.
"Rocky? Are you there?"
^I read you, Tommy. Good job against Goldar.^
Tommy all but ignored the compliment. "Today wasn't his best day. Frankly, one of my students probably could've beaten him in this condition. Anyway, how are the others?"
^Jason and Kim are holding their own against Blaze and Nirvana, and Alexis...^
Tommy frowned, discerning from Rocky's tone the urgency of the matter. "How is Alexis?"
^Not good. You'd better get over there. I'll send Katherine to meet up with you. She's at the school, in the baseball field.^
Alexis crumbled to the dirt ground, gasping for air as her senses once again adjusted to reality.
She decided then how much she hated Shade, and her infernal dimension-shifting cape. The maddening black void was empty and cold, and each time the Dreadkin knight sucked the helpless Purple Ranger inside, she grew weaker by leaps and bounds.
At this point, Alexis couldn't even bring herself to stand up. Instead, she lay motionless on the dusty baseball diamond, silently berating herself for proving to be so unworthy of the Power.
"Weak," Shade growled, lifting Alexis by the collar of her golden shield. She brought the limp Purple Ranger to eye level, piercing her with evergreen eyes. "You're hardly worth the energy it'll take to kill you."
Alexis thought of a witty reply, but she couldn't muster the strength to utter it. Instead, her body shivering with effort, she thrust her gloved hands forward, enclosing her weak fingers around Shade's neck. Instantly, sparks of purple energy wove through Alexis' body, channeling into Shade.
Her green eyes widened with disbelief as the purple energy coursed faintly through her body.
Alexis collapsed to the ground, to weak to even sit at this point. Through blurry, half-closed eyes, she watched Shade tremble slightly at the very weak, yet still mildly painful, energy bolt. After a matter of seconds, the effect wore off completely, and Shade shook off the disorientation.
"For that," Shade muttered deeply, "I'll make your end slow and painful..."
The last thing Shade had expected was for an arch of flame energy to smash into the small of her back, tossing the warrior clear over the fallen Purple Ranger, and crashing head-first into the cage behind the home base. But that's what happened.
"You mess with a Power Ranger, you mess with all the Power Rangers!" the Red Ranger bellowed, racing onto the diamond. Shade pulled herself out of the chain fence, ignoring the tears in her skin caused by the sharp links scratching her when she went through.
"You'll regret that," Shade growled, her body vanishing. Tommy blinked, turning around warily, only to receive a powerful kick to the side of his helmet. Tommy's neck whipped back painfully, letting the Red Ranger fall dazedly to the ground.
Tommy blinked in astonishment as Shade rematerialized, towering above him. Anger building, Tommy swung his legs along the ground, intending to sweep Shade to the grass. To his surprise, his legs passed harmlessly through hers.
Her smile widened. "Oh dear," she mocked, "what will the little man do now?"
Her answer came as an aura of blue energy surrounded her body. She turned around in surprise, and her eyes narrowed as she saw the Blue Ranger standing beside the Purple Ranger, holding up the limp girl with one hand, while firing the blue aura with the other.
Katherine gasped as the blue energy had no effect on the Dreadkin.
"That beam was supposed to freeze her," she muttered, stepping back in surprise, "Why didn't it work!"
"She's... intangible when she wants to be," Alexis replied weakly, "And invisible. But she can't do both at once."
Katherine startled when Shade once again disappeared from the scene. Tommy slowly rose to his feet, keeping a careful eye on the entire field for any movement.
"Alexis," he said, cautiously moving toward the girls, "teleport to the CAC pronto. Kat and I will take care of this monster."
Alexis was about to protest, but the words caught in her throat. She knew she could barely stand up, much less prove useful in the fight.
Grudgingly, Alexis obeyed the order, disappearing in a faint purple flash.
Meanwhile, not too far away, the Gold X-Ranger continued her hand to hand battle against the villainess Nirvana. After the arrival of the telepathic Power Ranger, Nirvana was able to discern that her unique perception-distorting ability wouldn't be very advantageous. Kimberly easily saw through the illusory civilians that had kept the Black Ranger occupied, and no holographic energy attacks would phase her.
For once, Nirvana had to fight her own battle.
Not that she wasn't very capable of doing so.
Dodging a ferocious round-house from the Gold Ranger, Nirvana dropped to the ground, positioning her hands flat on the ground. Pushing up with all her might, she swung her strong legs into the air, smashing into Kim's chest with brutal force. Kimberly was momentarily stunned, yet recovered quickly enough to catch Nirvana's foot as she attempted to pummel the downed Ranger with her heel.
"The first rule of any sport is to keep your balance," Kim said, tightening her grip on Nirvana's ankle. Nirvana growled darkly, trying to pull her leg free from Kim's grasp. Yet, she was unable to match the heightened strength of a Power Ranger.
Grinning beneath her helmet, Kimberly twisted the creature's ankle, and thrust her backwards, throwing her through the glass doors of the office building, back into the abandoned parking lot.
Nirvana howled with rage, throwing back her thick ivory hair and fixing Kimberly with a violet stare that would freeze the blood of the craven.
The cold glare had little effect on Kim.
"Brat," Nirvana growled, her eyes glowing, "let's see how long you can fight my hypnotic suggestion."
Kim quivered as the ground beneath her feet seemed to melt and ripple, as if she were suddenly standing on an ocean. Her eyes narrowing beneath her helmet, Kim concentrated her powers, telekinetically lifting her body into the air.
Nirvana discontinued her draining manipulation, and leapt out of the way of a powerful force burst of telekinetic energy. She recovered quickly, and suddenly began bounding back towards the building.
My only chance is to use some of the weak humans against her.
*Not so fast!* came a resoundingly loud voice in Nirvana's head. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, her legs stopped moving. She cried out in frustration as all the strength in her legs gave out, causing her to fall on her face.
"I just discovered something," Kimberly said smugly, planting herself on the ground near the creature, "You Dreadkin aren't too much unlike humans. The brain structure is very similar, as a matter of fact. Sure, you've got more powers, but the functions of the brain are the same. It just took a bit of effort to accustom my telepathy to it."
Nirvana felt the fury building within herself. Here she was, at the mercy of the puny Gold Ranger! Not only were her abilities useless, but they didn't afford her any skill that could combat the telepathy that kept her on so short a leash.
There was only one thing she could do.
Nirvana stared up at the Gold Ranger, a cold smile on her dark lips. "What are you going to do now?"
Kimberly was startled by the question. No creature had ever asked her that before. "What?"
The smile deepened. "You won't kill me. You can't! You're one of the 'good guys.' You can't kill a helpless being!"
Kim grimaced. "The Power Rangers have destroyed more of Finster's and Zedd's monsters than we can possibly count!"
"True," Nirvana conceded, "but you said it yourself: we Dreadkin are simply too much like humans. You just can't be sure... that I'm just some magical husk given life. How do you know I'm not as alive as you are?"
Kimberly was thunderstruck. What would she do? Could she bring herself to kill this villain? True, she was clearly evil... but isn't killing her shameless murder anyway?
For a brief moment, Kim's thoughts turned to her experience in the Age of Apocalypse, when the monstrous being Dark Beast was murdered by the heroes. It sickened her to think that the only way to uphold justice was to revert to the murder of other living beings. Other humans. Evil monsters weren't alive, so they couldn't really die. But evil people... did she have the right to pass judgement?
Nirvana saw her chance, and once again fixed Kimberly with a mind-numbing assault. This time, she manipulated Kim's sense of touch, placing in Kim's head the pain of thousands of needles digging deep into her skin.
Kimberly screamed in agony, collapsing to the ground. Through tear-filled eyes, she saw Nirvana rise triumphantly.
"Puny human," Nirvana's deep voice rumbled, "so easily confused..."
Weary and disoriented, Kimberly sealed her eyes closed. She forced herself to push past the searing pain in every inch of her body. Sweat beaded on her brow, and her entire body trembled with exertion, but she managed to do it... to block out the illusory pain Nirvana had created.
Then, instinct kicked in.
Kimberly immediately erected a cocoon of telekinetic energy around Nirvana, encasing the villainess within, and preventing her from moving. Nirvana growled under her breath, smashing her fist into the barrier. Moving quickly, so as not to afford any time for Nirvana to prepare a new attack, Kimberly reached for her Thunderbow, and took aim.
"You're dangerous," Kimberly decided aloud, "You won't rest until you've littered the ground with the blood of the innocent. I think I'll take my chances."
Nirvana's eyes widened as she saw a rather bright, powerful bolt of lightning form as Kim drew back the string.
"It's been awhile since I've trashed one of Zedd's creeps with my Power Bow," the Gold Ranger reflected, tightening her grasp on the bow. To Nirvana's horror, the lightning bolt increased in intensity, creating an aura of bright yellow power that surrounded the petite Ranger entirely, making her almost too bright to gaze upon.
"Yes, the monsters have gotten stronger," Kim continued, dropping the shield from Nirvana, "but so have I..."
Nirvana was too stunned to move as the massive energy cascade sliced in her direction, electrifying the very air it streaked through.
In one fatal moment, the power crashed full force into the Dreadkin, searing her with the heat of the heart of a star.
In milliseconds, she was reduced to the magic dust of the clay Finster used to spawn her. Kim released the nervous breath she was holding, once ensured that she hadn't committed an irreparable sin.
Suddenly, a wave of dizziness crashed into the exhausted Gold Ranger. Swaying slightly, Kim balanced herself on her Thunderbow, taking a quick survey of the surrounding area. Although the citizens were still mostly unconscious, they seemed unhurt.
Satisfied, yet still fighting for lucidity, the Gold Ranger vanished in a carrier wave of gold light.
Jason threw himself to the grass once again, just barely dodging the tracking missile that was Blaze's Black Flame. The burning focus of intense heat energy sailed only inches from his black helmet, and the proximity let the heat penetrate the protective armor of the Black Terran Ranger.
Jason's eyes narrowed behind his helmet, as his attention returned to the huge ball of fire that was already turning around to strike again. While he was otherwise occupied, the crimson-haired Dreadkin's ruby eyes flashed, creating a stream of black fire headed in Jason's direction.
Unable to move in time, the fire crashed into his back, burning his flesh through the sturdy black armor and golden shield that protected him. With a painful yelp, Jason fell to the ground, digging up grass beneath him.
"You're not doing much better than your little friend," Blaze laughed, brushing off her multi-toned catsuit, "Actually, I think she's a lot quicker than you."
Jason groaned, trying to focus his mind again. Unfortunately, he didn't get the chance, as the powerful Black Flame finally hit it's target, pummeling Jason further into the ground and singing his armor.
For a few moments, the Black Ranger lay motionless at the bottom of a six-foot deep hole in the ground of Angel Grove Park. Every inch of his body was screaming to him in pain, making it nearly impossible for him to form a coherent thought.
I've... got... to... focus... he yelled at himself, Use... my... Terra... powers...
His arms trembling because of the effort it took to move them, Jason lay his palms open on the singed dirt beneath him. A faint glow penetrated the ground from his palms, and the earth shook.
Blaze stumbled at the minor earthquake, and grimaced when the Black Ranger was raised from the heart of the earth, on a pillar of stone and soil. He was still clearly disoriented, but he had managed to pull his flighty consciousness together for a clear assault.
For a moment, Blaze chastised herself for not finishing him off quicker.
"Earth Sword!" Jason cried, holding up his right hand. A large sword with sharp silver blade appeared in a flash of black light. Jason leapt down from his perch, pointing his sword at the villainess.
She laughed. "You can barely stand up, Boy. You think you're getting close enough to me to use that?"
Jason didn't answer, although a faint energy built on the length of the sword. Blaze frowned at Jason's failure to reply, and her hands began sparking again with heat energy. "I think I've got enough in me for one more really good Black Flame. Say hello to your ancestors for me."
Jason felt the wind pick up as Blaze concentrated her powers. Gritting his teeth with determination, he fought against the wind currents and held his sword high in the air. It flashed with an intense display of black light, causing the ground to quake yet again. Then, he twisted the blade downwards, and thrust it into the ground, burying it almost to the hilt.
He removed his left hand from the hilt, while his right was still tightly grasping his Terra weapon. Then, with a cold grin hidden behind his mask, Jason raised his arm halfway, and tensed his fingers.
Blaze cried out in shock as an earthen hand erupted from the ground beneath her, holding her in its grassy palm. She completely lost balance, falling onto her back as she was lifted further into the air.
Then, Jason began enclosing his fingers, forming a fist.
Blaze shrieked as the soil fingers began to squeeze. Hard.
"You may be able to evaporate all the water thrown at you," Jason muttered, his gaze turning to the lake only a few yards away, "but I don't think you can escape the bed of wet soil beneath the water."
Then, he thrust his hand towards the lake, causing the earthen hand to do the same. It plunged the screaming Dreadkin mercilessly into the lake, pushing through the water, and pressing her firmly through the first layers of saturated soil.
The Black Ranger watched as thick steam poured out from the lake. It didn't take long before the steam stopped, and the lake as calm once again.
Jason waited for a few moments, to make sure he was successful. Then, he slowly pulled his hand back, causing the large, muddy hand to retract. It lowered until it was at eye level with Jason, and then the fingers stretched.
Jason was greeted to the sight of a gray mud, clearly water-saturated clay.
A weak smile on his face, Jason extracted his Earth Sword from the ground. He made as if to sheath it, causing the powerful weapon to blink out of sight.
Then, he tiredly did the same.
Zack absently stared out into the distance. He saw the ocean pass beneath the Highwind, whipping by at a phenomenal speed. Yet, to his constant amazement, it didn't feel like the ship was moving very quickly. The wind didn't bruise his skin, or even cause more than slight discomfort, which he quickly adjusted to.
Pushing himself off the railing, Zack continued walking toward the front of the ship. Cid himself was at the helm, taking over for the pilot for the time being. He was engaged in an argument with Barrett, probably over something trivial by the look of it. On the other end of the bridge, Billy and Red XIII were busy discussing something. Zack decided to approach them.
"...and because of human limitations, a Summon materia can only be used a handful of times in a particular battle."
Billy nodded, glancing at the red orb seated on his lance. "Then, how am I supposed to know how many times I can use the spell?"
"It depends on your physical health and experience," Red answered, "Summoning a magical creature requires a great deal of focus and energy, so if you are wounded or even distracted, it will be very difficult to cast that spell. Also, since you've never used a Summon before, I'd wager that, even in the best of health, you'd only manage to pull it off once. If you tried again, it would draw too much energy out of your body."
"Are all Summons this dangerous?"
"The more powerful the Summon, the more dangerous it is. Knights of the Round, the materia Cid found earlier, is the most powerful Summon known. An amateur attempting to utilize it would easily kill him, and even a skilled materia user would be very spent. Summoning thirteen mythical knights is tiresome work."
At that, Zack stepped beside Billy. "Then, it's probably not worth using a Summon."
Red shook his head. "It depends on the circumstances. Typoon is powerful enough to do a great deal of damage to an opponent, yet simple enough for an amateur to use without too much danger. That's why we decided to give one to Billy. But still, only use it as a last resort, for you will surely need recovery time after its use."
Both Zack and Billy nodded. "I hope it doesn't come to that," Billy commented. Red nodded his agreement.
"Um, Red, do you mind if I talk to Billy for a minute?" Zack asked. Red shook his head, rising to his four feet.
"That's perfectly all right," he answered, "I should go check on Yuffie anyway. She still gets motion sickness."
With that, Zack watched the red wolf bound towards the steps leading to the upper deck. Then, after glancing around to make sure that no one else was within earshot, Zack turned his attention to Billy.
"Zack," Billy said, eyeing his friend carefully, "You don't look too good. Perhaps you should rest some more?"
Zack brushed the advice aside. "I feel fine. I think the Mako energy in the air has pretty much cured me. I'm not tired at all. But... I am worried."
"...about Aisha," Billy finished for him. "Anything specific?"
Zack nodded. "Remember that image on the sphere we saw at Cosmo Canyon? Well, nobody said anything about the ending, and what it meant."
"You mean when Aeris and Sephiroth disappeared, and the two materias merged into a single, clear one?"
"Exactly. And then, that clear materia fell to the ground and shattered. I may be wrong, but I interpret that as meaning the two materia will cancel each other out or something. Holy Materia is the only way to stop the Meteor spell, because it cancels out the power of the Black Materia. But, once its used, it'll be inert or something. It'll lose its powers..."
"...and we won't be able to help Aisha with it," Billy concluded, "Yes, Zack, I've had similar concerns."
"Well, what do we do?" Zack asked.
Billy shrugged. "I don't know. We certainly can't expect Cloud and his friends to risk their entire planet by giving us the Holy Materia. What if, after we use it to cure Aisha, we can't get it back to Midgar before the Meteor strikes? We're talking about billions of lives lost."
Zack sighed quietly. "I know that, and believe me, I don't intend to place an entire planet on the path to destruction. But, there must be something we can do! I'm not giving up on Aisha yet."
"And neither am I," Billy added, rising to his feet, "Perhaps we should speak to Cloud about this now. Maybe he'll inform us of his plan. We still don't know why we're going to the City of the Ancients."
Her delicate body crumpled to the floor, the stain of red growing along the pink cotton of her dress. Bright emerald eyes gazed at him pleadingly... desperate for any help he could give.
He couldn't give it.
Slowly, the brightest eyes in the world... so full of hope and energy... faded. The illumination behind them died, like the lights going out that cast light through a stained glass window.
Her eyelids dropped like shutters, forever enclosing those pools of color from the world...
Cloud's eyes sprung open, slightly moist from fresh tears. Forcing a breath through his lungs, his fist clenched tighter around a simple pink ribbon. He swallowed hard, his bright blue eyes falling upon the ribbon.
How many times would he have to relive Aeris' death? How many times would he see the light die out in her eyes, over and over again in his mind? How many times would he suffer... knowing full well that it was his own fault that she died?
The same vision flashed in his mind almost every time he closed his eyes. He didn't even need to be sleeping to experience the nightmare.
It marred his waking thoughts as relentlessly as his dreams.
"Cloud?" came a soft voice, "Are you in there?"
Cloud glanced at the door to the conference room, his trance broken by that familiar, coaxing voice. "Yeah. Come in, Tifa."
Cloud took a seat at the head of the long rectangular wood table, his fingers still running the ribbon between them. The door opened slowly, and Tifa peaked inside. Her eyes narrowed slightly in confusion as they fell upon the pink slip of material that Cloud cradled in his hands.
"What's that?" she asked, closing the door behind her.
"Aeris' hair ribbon," he answered absently, his eyes never wavering from the object. Tifa blinked in surprise, and stopped short clear across the room from Cloud.
"You... you kept it?" she all but whispered.
"It fell from her hair when Sephiroth murdered her," Cloud said flatly. Although his voice didn't display the emotions the thought inspired, Tifa could see the guilt and pain in Cloud's expression.
The haze over Cloud's eyes faded slightly, and he glanced up at Tifa. "I'm sorry... did you want something?"
"Um..." Tifa muttered, her mind searching back for the reason of her visit, "Actually, the crew's been wondering why we're going to the City of the Ancients. Is there something you know that we don't?"
Cloud rose from his seat, his gaze locking with Tifa's for a moment. Then, he approached his childhood friend, gently took her hand, and lay the pink strip in her palm. Tifa's eyes widened slightly, and her tawny gaze fell to the material again.
"You weren't with me when I first met Aeris," he began, leaning against the table, "We were fighting off some of Shinra's soldiers, who were hunting her down because of her Cetra abilities. She had a weapon, but I didn't think it would be enough against all the soldiers, so I offered her a sphere of Fire materia, to boost her strength. She hesitated, saying she didn't know how to use materia. I explained that it was easy, and then she pulled off a white stone from her hair bow, and held it out to me."
Cloud broke off his story, locking eyes with Tifa yet again. "She told me that she had that materia all her life, but it never worked for her. It never told her what it was meant to do, and it never reacted to anything. She kept it as a memento of her mother, who died when she was a child."
Tifa gasped quietly, realization kicking in. "Aeris had the Holy Materia the entire time?!"
Cloud nodded. "She carried it with her everywhere she went. I don't know if she realized it or not, but it was on her head the entire time."
Tifa blinked, glancing back at the ribbon in her hand. "But.. where is it now?"
"When she died, it fell into the pool beneath the platform," Cloud explained, "I saw it fall, but it didn't really register... until Bugenhagen explained that the Holy Materia is our only hope.
"We need to get to the City of Ancients as quickly as possible, and hopefully the Holy Materia will still--"
A sharp knock on the door interrupted Cloud's train of thought. "Come in!" he called, as both he and Tifa turned to see the visitor. Zack and Billy entered the chamber, each with a grim expression upon his face.
"What's the problem?" Tifa asked, discerning their troubled state by their expressions.
"The problem is Aisha," Billy said, stepping forward, "We were thinking about that image Bugenhagen displayed for us earlier, and we've come to the conclusion that the Holy materia is the only thing that can save Aisha's life... but it's also the only thing that can save this planet from the Meteor."
"And in the vision, the materia transformed into a ball of glass, as if the Black and Holy materias will cancel each other out in the final battle," Zack continued, "If that's the case, then we can't use it afterwards to save Aisha, and I know we can't take the materia from the planet while the Meteor is still out there."
Cloud's expression hardened, and he ran his fingers through his unruly blonde hair once again. "I didn't even consider that," he admitted weakly, "The fact is, the Holy materia is a mystery. We have no idea how it's used, or even if any of us can use it. I guess the only thing we can do now is find it, and pray that it'll guide us in how to use it."
Zack sighed. "It doesn't look like we have another option."
"So, have you discerned where to find the Holy Materia?" Billy inquired, "Is that why we're going to the City of the Ancients?"
Cloud nodded grimly. "The last time I saw the Holy Materia was there." His voice lowered into a weak whisper when he added, "...when Aeris died."
"Move!" Tommy shrieked, diving at Katherine. The two Rangers sprawled to the ground, just in time to miss Shade, who flew passed them like a missile, her magical cape spread wide.
"Thanks," Kat whispered, shaking her head, "The last think I need is to be trapped in that void again."
The Blue and Red Rangers leapt to their feet again, gazing around urgently. Once again, their enemy had vanished from sight.
"Gone again," Tommy observed, stating the obvious.
"There's got to be a way we can inflict some damage!" Kat muttered, leaning against Tommy's back. The two warriors each clutched their weapons, the silver blades glinting in the dim light.
"Our best bet is when she's invisible," Tommy stated, holding his saber in the air as high as he could, "She's vulnerable when she's invisible. Get on the ground, Kat."
Kat obeyed, and backed away slightly as a red aura built around Tommy's body. He trembled slightly, as the fiery energy channeled along his body, into the silver blade. The blade glowed brightly, and then the energy extended, sweeping through the air in a dome pattern.
At first, all was silent. Then, a shriek of pain sliced through the Rangers' ears.
They both turned to the source of the agonized cry, and saw Shade plummet to the ground, plainly visible and perfectly tangible. Her black clothing was smoking and sparking with the fire energy, and she rolled along the grass to urgently put out the dangerous flames.
"Looks like we hit the jackpot," Tommy observed, lowering his sword.
"And let's make sure she doesn't go anywhere," Kat said, aiming her daggers. Blue energy this time extended, bathing the sore villain in its cold power. She cried out again, although this time her vocalizations were drowned out as a thick block of ice formed around her body. Her expression... of anger and fear... was frozen on her still face.
Tommy pointed his saber at the ice block, the metal glowing once again. He stepped forward, extending his sword as high as he could, and spun around, building momentum. Then, with a deep battle cry, Tommy plunged the sword into the ice, slicing through the center like a hot knife through butter, and coming out the other end. The ice smoked with dark energy, and then shattered like glass.
The only sign of Shade was darkened dust trapped by shards of ice.
"Yes!" Kimberly shrieked excitedly, high-fiving Jason, who was standing behind her, in full view of the Viewing Globe.
"They did it," he said quietly, a wide grin on his face.
The room was then lit with bright blue and red energy, as the two Terran Rangers materialized within the CAC. In an additional, equally intense ripple of energy, the armor had vanished, leaving teenagers where the morphed warriors stood.
"How is everyone?" Tommy asked, opening his arms wide to welcome Kimberly as she rushed to embrace him.
"Tired, but functioning," she replied, giving him a peck on the lips, "but Alexis is..."
"Alexis is fine!" the Purple Ranger practically growled impatiently, still lying on a cot. Rocky rolled his eyes, pushing the scanner from above her forehead to clear the way for her to rise.
"Well, there really isn't anything I can do for you," Rocky sighed, helping Alexis sit up, "I recommend rest. A lot of rest."
Alexis muttered unintelligibly in reply, standing up and snatching her morpher from the nearby countertop.
Katherine glanced passed the assembled Rangers, and looked towards Aisha, who was still closely monitored by both Adam and Tanya. She quietly moved to Jason's side, and clasped his hand tightly.
"How's she doing?"
"She's getting worse," Jason answered, glancing at Adam and Tanya, "They're trying to stabilize her now. But there's nothing they can do to save her. All they can do is keep her alive as long as possible, in the hopes that Zack and Billy come back with a cure in time."
"In the meantime," Rocky said, turning his attention from the irked Purple Ranger to the entire assembly, "may I suggest you all get some rest? You can use the rooms in the back of the CAC. There're twelve total, so each can take a room and just relax."
"Relaxing is kinda tough, considering the circumstances," Tommy muttered.
"Yeah, but you are all recovering from that Space Virus," Rocky reminded them, "You're all for the most part cured, but your bodies could use all the rest they can get. And standing around here will only get you guys in our way."
Tommy gazed at Rocky for a few moments more, and then nodded his head. "Okay, guys," he sighed, "let's take a breather." His eyes narrowed. "But, you're going to alert us the minute there's any change... good or bad. Right?"
"Yes, Sir!" Rocky said with a mock military salute.
Still yawning slightly, the disoriented Finster hobbled into the throne room. His eyes narrowing behind his spectacles, he gazed at Rito's head, propped on the throne. There were chunks of crystalline ice all over the area, and another huge piece, encasing Rito's body. Finster smiled in amusement as he saw Baboo and Squatt continue their torturously slow labor of hacking the ice away with picks.
"What happened here?" Finster asked, gaining the attention of the laborers.
"The Blue Ranger froze him," Squatt answered, hefting the pick for another swing.
"Yeah, and the ice is... ah... ah... ah... CHOOO... magical," Rito's head sniffled, "We couldn't figure out how to melt it. Too bad Blaze is toast... she coulda done it."
"Blaze is toast?" Finster repeated, his eyes wide, "The Rangers defeated her?"
"And the other Dreadkin, too," Baboo chimed, "Goldar's really mad at you."
Finster shrugged indifferently. "I warned him not to underestimate the Power Rangers. There was no guarantee that the virus would incapacitate them." A powerful yawn escaped his lungs. "In fact, I'd venture to say that the virus incapacitated us instead."
Finster shook his head slightly, trying to shake off the intense exhaustion that the Space Virus caused. "Where is Goldar anyway?"
Baboo smiled. "Taking a bath."
Finster blinked. "Excuse me?"
"He's itching all over," Rito explained, "so we recommended he take a bath."
Finster sighed. "Well, I suppose I should whip up some lotion for him. Soap and water won't stop a viral infection."
"Well, it won't hurt either," Squatt commented innocently.
Hidden deep within the magical Sleeping Forest is the City of the Ancients. Once upon a time, it was bustling with life as the Cetra lived disconnected from mankind. However, the time of the Cetra had ended, and now, the city was only a hollow memorial of the powerful, knowledgeable race that no longer lived on Midgar.
The heels of their shoes tapping along the clear glass steps, Cloud, Tifa, Zack, Billy, and Barrett descended a spiral staircase, leading to a large chamber hidden underground. The ceilings were incredibly high, despite the fact that the structure was underground, and the greenish-white walls glimmered from reflected light. In the center of the chamber was a pool of clear water, with a platform suspended above it, with several pillars of stone to be used as a walkway toward the platform.
Barrett groaned quietly, his hand nervously rubbing his gun-arm. "It's too quiet."
"Yes," Billy observed, "we haven't seen a single creature here."
"Maybe this will be a simple mission," Tifa said, hopping off the final step and moving toward the pool, "The Holy Materia must be in here somewhere."
"Finding a white marble in a lake this big seems a bit... difficult," Zack commented, following Tifa to the body of water. Billy and Barrett were right behind him.
Tifa kneeled at the edge of the pond. "Hopefully, it'll emit some kind of visible energy. Cloud's the one who saw it fall, and since materia is very dense, likely it would have fallen straight down. This is a still body of water, so there's no current to push it."
Tifa turned around, noticing their leader wasn't with the congregation. "Cloud?"
The young man didn't seem to hear her. He stood at the foot of the glass staircase, his crystal eyes wide and focused on the platform.
It had been several weeks since he was last in this construct... and he still felt Aeris' warm blood on his hands when he cradled her limp body.
He blinked, snapping out of his torturous reflection. He turned around, and noticed his friends all watching him worriedly. Chewing on his lower lip, Cloud approached the pool, unsheathing the mighty Ultima Weapon from his back.
"I'll find it," he said, lying the blade on the stone floor. He walked passed the assembled heroes, took a deep breath, and dove into the pool.
Tifa's tawny eyes watched as Cloud descended into the pool. She unconsciously held her breath, as if to gauge how long he could remain beneath the surface without a fresh supply of oxygen.
When she felt her lungs burning for air, Cloud resurfaced, a grimace on his face.
"No luck?" Billy inquired.
"Not yet," Cloud answered, wading closer to the platform, "I think... it fell from this side."
Taking another deep breath, Cloud plunged under once again.
"This place is really starting to give me the creeps," Zack muttered, rubbing his arms, "It feels so... hollow and dead."
Barrett nodded, glancing around the high pillars and cold, reflective walls. "I hear ya, Kid."
"There he is!" Tifa exclaimed, a smile lighting up her features. Billy, Barrett, and Zack followed her gaze, and saw a faint white light rising closer to the surface. The light illuminated the surrounding area, and the team was able to make out Cloud's face once he was near the surface of the pond.
"Got it!" Cloud gasped, breaking out of the clear water. He swam to the edge, allowing Tifa and Barrett to pull him from the water. Cloud pushed his soaked locks out of his face, and set his azure gaze upon the pearly white gemstone seated in his palm.
"So, now what're we supposed to do?" Barrett asked, watching as Cloud lead the team from the pool. Cloud stopped in front of the platform, staring at the blood-stained tiles once again.
He didn't know the answer.
"Perhaps I can make a suggestion," said an airy, smooth voice, echoing in the mostly empty chamber loudly. All the heroes inclined their heads towards the source of the voice.
Floating high above the platform, with his dark cape and flowing white hair flapping in the air currents created by his magic, was an intimidating figure. A cold smirk was painted on his flawless face, and his cold, bright green eyes glimmered with cruel mirth.
"Somehow, little Puppet, I knew you couldn't resist coming back here," the figure mocked, "You keep clinging onto this frail hope of yours. I'm here to make sure it doesn't get past this room."
Cloud's own eyes glimmered with something else: intense hatred. His mouth opened, his voice a cold, raspy whisper.