Listening to one another, however, did not give the answers that they sought. One leaned her short-cut black hair as far out her cell door as possible, and sighed with resignation. "No sign of her," she spoke no language that was known to any human of Earth who might have heard of her, but her companion knew well the tongue, as it was their native speech.
"Astronema either has her under her thumb still, or she has escaped," her friend had her eyes closed, leaning against the back wall of the cell. "If she has escaped, then our own death sentences have been passed."
The first shrugged. "That I know not, dear friend. Should Astronema truly keep her word, then we indeed have less time than we have thought since first we were incarcerated in this place."
Silence filled the cell for some long time. Both of them were thin, almost emaciated. One had hair cut almost short to her scalp, in a deep black shade, and was quite probably six feet tall, by Earth measurements. Her eyes were an odd violet color, deep and full of wisdom and mystery and pain all merged. It was easy to see the strength in her body, but it had weakened since she had arrived here. She lived every moment with the belief that she would not be here forever.
Her companion was much smaller, topping five feet by a single half of an inch, and even thinner, though her slenderness was more due to her genes than to the starvation both of them had suffered. Her hair had been shaved to her scalp, as was the custom of her particular family line, but her eyebrows showed that her hair would have been a brilliant gold, and her eyes resembled sapphires in their blueness. Both of them were clad only in thin gray tunics.
"If she did get away. . .," the first spoke suddenly, and her friend glanced over at her.
"Then I wish her all the luck in the universe in her new life," the second said quietly. "She'd be a fool to try and come back here, and she knows that as well as you and I do, Phoenix."
A long, drawn out breath echoed all around the cell. "I know, I know, Midori, but you can't deny that you would go in a heartbeat if she came here with a foolproof way to get us out of here."
"I know," Midori nodded. Hope was perfectly all right, but she also preferred to be realistic. She and Phoenix were prisoners of evil, and had been for quite a while. They wouldn't be going anywhere except possibly different prisons, as they had been transferred from the incarceration planet to this Dark Fortress, unless a miracle happened, and she had given up on miracles quite a while earlier.
Both of them were still silent for some moments. "Do you blame her for doing what she did, to keep us alive?" Phoenix asked again. Midori, who had been sliding towards a fitful sleep, opened her eyes half-angrily.
"Of course not! Either one of us would have done the exact same thing if we were the one Astronema had picked, and you know it!" Midori growled the words out. "And she left when she had the chance, I know she did. If that costs us our lives, then so be it," she jerked the tunic down from her shoulder, displaying a brand burned deep into it to her companion's eyes. "Remember the oath, my sister. It still remains strong."
Phoenix smiled briefly, touching her own shoulder where her brand interrupted the smooth flow of skin. "Strong forever," she held her hand out to Midori, and their fingertips touched. It was a ritual as old as time on their homeworld, and as sacred a bond as that of the family, if not more so. Both of them felt a pang at the memories that flowed up to them just then, memories of a time when a third would have been with them, to touch her own brand and her own fingers to theirs, completing the circle and binding it forever. They knew that since Astronema had come to the jail and taken Blanche away, they would likely never see her again, save in death.
But for the freedom of even one of them, the life of the others was a small price to pay.
"I should have known better than to trust one like her," Astronema, Princess of Evil, growled, her eyes flashing with a fury Ecliptor had seen only rarely during their lifetime together. "Ones like her are always looking for a chance to get out of their bargains."
"Perhaps she felt their lives were a low price to pay for her personal freedom," the crystalline guardian spoke softly. He wanted her to calm down, so she could think about what was going on and exact the appropriate revenge, then get back to their mission. He would have preferred she ignore the incident entirely, but that would set a very bad precedent for anyone else whom she had dealings with. They might get the idea they could betray and break bargains arbitrarily, and that was counterproductive.
The young woman shrugged briefly, then resumed her seat, once again the flawless and unflappable being she had always been. "If Blanche has chosen to side against me, then so be it. She's nothing but a normal person these days, and I can easily handle her."
"You did say if she betrayed you, then her two friends would pay the price," her guardian reminded her. It was best to keep one's word when the greater cause of evil would not be harmed or delayed by the breaking of it. That was one thing that defined Ecliptor: his powerful sense of honor. It didn't stop him from being one of the most fearsome warriors of darkness in the known universe, but most of his opponents knew that he would not betray his given word. Of course, getting him to give that was the key. In all his life, he had done it but twice: when he had sworn to Dark Spectre to raise Astronema in the ways of evil, and once when he had promised to serve her faithfully, no matter what.
She nodded quietly, glancing briefly towards the door that would lead to the dungeons. To destroy them would be an appropriate vengeance against the woman she'd been using as a tool. . .but at the same time, it would eliminate any further bargaining chips. Perhaps she could regain Blanche. . .no, not possible, and not worth it. If she had proven traitor once, she would again, and Astronema didn't want that. She wanted to teach the girl it wasn't wise to break a bargain, and even if Blanche returned to her, there was no guarantee that she wouldn't be a double agent.
Then, she knew. The perfect plan, one that would give her tools she needed, plus the most excellent revenge possible. "Ecliptor, have the two of them brought to me at once. I've got a little something in mind that will solve all my problems, perfectly."
"As you wish, my princess," he bowed low, then left the room. He didn't know what Astronema had planned, but something told him it was of the darkest of evils.
Zhane was sitting in one of the chairs, his head in his hands. All the joy seemed to have drained out of him once they had returned here, and it was no surprise why, with Blanche having bluntly told him that the only reason she'd ever talked to him was because she was under Astronema's orders. The minute they had returned, the young woman had wrapped herself up in a cloak of calm indifference, ignoring everyone but Arion and anyone who gave her instructions to the places she needed to go to take care of those physical things she longed to partake of: a shower and decent food. After several days of being camped out in an abandoned house, she truly needed all of that.
"I wonder just what the whole story here is," T.J. mused. "why would Astronema use someone like her, and her in particular?"
Andros shrugged, he was as confused by this as any of them were. Blanche of Eltar. . .the name kept running through his mind and he couldn't figure out why it sounded so familiar. He stared at the Synthetron for a moment, wondering if some food would help him think, when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He knew who it was. "What is it, Ashley?"
"Are you all right?" the Yellow Ranger asked her boyfriend. "You look kind of. ..confused. More than usual for what's going on."
"I think I've heard her name somewhere before," he admitted after a moment's consideration. "I can't place from where, though. I haven't went to Eltar in quite a while, so I know it's not from there. But it's nagging at me."
Zhane's voice startled them all when he spoke, half-interrupting his best friend. "What's taking her so long?" he had turned around and was gazing at the hallway where she'd be coming from. "She'd better be all right. .." his voice trailed off again, and he sighed, a sound that seemed to come from the very bottom of his soul.
"She'll be fine, Zhane," Cassie reassured him. "Arion will make certain of that."
Everyone had been rather startled by the depth and ease of the relationship between the Pink and Phantom Rangers. It had almost literally formed out of thin air, but when they gazed at each other, it was as if they were seeing a fundamental law of the universe being upheld: two who had been born to love one another.
Carlos and T.J. glanced momentarily from one of their friends to the others. Andros and Ashley were a solid couple, it was evident to all. They hadn't actually kissed yet, but they weren't in a hurry. Their relationship was one best forged over time and with care. Cassie and the Phantom were the same way, though they had kissed. Frequently and often, though never knowingly in public.
Zhane and Blanche. . . it was hard to say if they were a couple or not. Zhane had thought they were, until the horror of what Blanche was doing had come to light. Now. . .who knew what would happen next? The Silver Ranger certainly didn't. He wasn't certain if anyone else did. . .and if they did, they certainly weren't telling him.
He stared down the hallway again, a hunger and need so evident in his eyes it was almost painful. Blanche. . .please at least be my friend. . .
Her fingers slowly traced the design of an eagle upon the wall. Once, in a past so far gone that she could hardly remember it, a vast gulf that spanned months, it had been her totem and the source of her powers. She took a deep breath. She had to remember that those days were past and over with. It was time to deal with the future now. What future she had.
The best thing for me to do is come clean totally to the Rangers, as much as I feel I can stand, and ask for their help to rescue Midori and Phoenix. If I can save them, then the three of us can go back to Eltar and. . . .her thoughts drifted off. The resistance there would possibly welcome her friends as heroes returned from captivity, and it would be a large boost to Eltar's forces for them to return. But in her case, they would probably put her in shackles themselves! Either that or kill her outright for collusion with Astronema. It didn't matter that she'd had no choice, because in the end she had. She had sacrificed their lives for her freedom. It had been a lose-lose situation.
She sighed. There was only one way to get out of this with everyone alive and on the side they had been born for. She returned her friends to Eltar, while she herself went into exile. Maybe she could make up for what she'd done, fight alone against Dark Spectre's forces. She probably wouldn't last long. . .but who knew? At least if she perished, it would be with whatever scraps of honor she had managed to regain by that point.
Slowly she started to run shampoo through her hair, her mind drawn now to Zhane and to what she felt for him. She'd been very rude to him, to all of them, since they had arrived on the MegaShip. She'd done it deliberately, almost heartlessly. It was her way to hiding from feelings she knew that she shouldn't be having, and of withdrawing enough so she could think clearly on things, and could deal with them without her emotions being involved. She wasn't entirely positive if she even wanted them to know everything that she was, or had been, despite the fact Arion knew.
Arion. The Phantom Ranger. It had been some time since she had seen him. When they had first met, she had been shocked that the powerful and mysterious Ranger was a teenager like herself. But they had become friends, though never more than that. She had been considering asking him to join their rendar, the bond of family that was not born as one, when he had left to go to Earth, pulled by something he couldn't explain. The Queen of Eltar had hinted that his destiny was drawing him, but had said no more of that.
At the thought of the Queen, a single tear sparkled on Blanche's cheek, and a memory burst so clearly into her mind that it might well have been playing on a holo before her. Slowly she sank to the floor and curled up, ignoring the spattering of water on her shoulders, not caring how much time passed as the Rangers waited for her. . .the memory and all that followed were the only things that were important. As she sank into it, she wondered for the briefest of moments if this were Linar's way of punishing her for all she had done.
The three of them clenched hands, trying to halt their shaking from being noticed. Phoenix pushed her wealth of black hair out of her eyes in a habit as old as her life, and glanced around the corner, trying to see into the throne room.
"Still nothing?" Blanche's voice shook just the tiniest bit. Of them all, she was the most nervous, and she had the most right to be. After all, in just a few short moments, she would be a full Power Ranger, and not just any Ranger: the leader of the entire Eltarian team. Though the oldest of them was barely eleven years old, they would spend the next few years in intense training and learning of the use of their powers, to add to the defense maintained and headed by the Ranger team made up of their parents.
Phoenix shook her head. "The doors are still shut. When is this going to get started?"
"Be patient," the third member of their group replied quietly. "The rest of the guys haven't gotten here yet, anyway."
Blanche tried to calm herself, only to find her nerves were rising even more. She had known all her life she was going to be a Power Ranger, it was nothing she could escape from, nor had ever wanted to. She didn't know what color or what creature her power would be drawn from, but she knew that it would happen. They all had.
A door swung open behind them, and all three turned at once, their hands falling automatically into defensive postures. Five kids of their own age came in, and the one in the lead chuckled a little. "On the edge a bit, Blanche?"
"Funny, Jeffers, funny," Blanche said dryly. "Have you ever considered going into a comedy career instead?"
The son of the current Black and White Rangers, and her twin brother, laughed dryly. "I've thought about it, but I just don't think it's me."
"No, making bad jokes is you. And comedians are supposed to do good ones," one of his companions, clad in yellow as her mother would be, noted, sitting down in one of the chairs available in the antechamber. "Wild guess, there's been nothing from inside?"
Midori nodded. "I guess they've been waiting for all of you to get here, Kiroma."
"Well, we're here now!" a second boy, dressed in purest shades of blue, was balancing reading a thick historical novel with a brief dagger fight with his companion, the red-clad Briona.
Blanche smiled briefly, glancing around at each of them. She and Jeffers were twins; she was the elder by a good five minutes, and their parents were the Black and White Rangers of Eltar. Phoenix was the daughter of the Green Ranger, while Midori and Briona were the offspring of the Purple and Red Rangers respectively. As a general rule, a Ranger's offspring assumed their color, and when Rangers wed other Rangers, the offspring's color designation was determined by the Power itself. Blanche and Jeffers had equal odds of being either the Black or White Ranger, but regardless, Blanche would be the leader of the team, as the eldest, as their mother had been, and her mother, and her father, and so on back to the very founding to their family line.
The doors swung open suddenly, and a tall man entered the chamber. "Dulcea has arrived," he said calmly, and all of them paled at the name. They had spent six months of each year since they were three years of age upon Phaedos, and knew well the strength and skill of the Master Warrior. Only on this one day could she leave the Sacred Grounds, and then only for a short time. They would be leaving with her shortly. "Come."
The eight of them fell into a line, and slowly followed the functionary into the throne room. The pure beauty of it surrounded them, but not one bothered to look, they'd seen it all before, and the thought of what was about to come upon them was already more than enough to take their breath away.
Seated upon a throne at one end was a woman of middle years, not beautiful, but with wisdom and care evident in every line of her face. She bore neither crown nor scepter, but everyone knew that she was the Queen of the entire planet.
To one side of her was a tall, sunbronzed woman wearing naught but a green leather bikini outfit and boots. There was the beauty of the warrior about her, and as one, the eight children knelt before her. "We have come, as our ancestors have before us, to claim the power which is our birthright and our heritage."
"Then so shall you come with me to the Ninjetti Temple of Phaedos," Dulcea spoke formally. She was glad that these children, as those before them, would not be attempting to journey to the Monolith. They would gain the power of the Ninjetti, but Eltarian biology could not handle the Great Power itself. Instead, their powers would be enhanced into full Ranger power on their fifteenth birthday, when their parents formally retired and handed the task of defending the planet to them.
The Queen cleared her throat briefly, unnecessarily, and the children rose to gaze at her. "Children of my Rangers," she spoke gently and firmly. "I bless you with all the courage and love that your ancestors have always shown, and I know that in the years to come, you will defend our world as those ancestors have. May Linar bless and keep you."
"And you, Majesty," Blanche spoke for them all, then they were whisked to Phaedos by Dulcea's power. All of them stood automatically in a half-circle around the fire, and Dulcea stood at one end of it, looking at them all. Slowly, she began the ancient mantra.
"Buried deep within each of us is an animal spirit waiting to be released. Close your eyes and look deep inside."
As she spoke, she blew something into the fire, causing it to rise higher and higher in a burst of flame. Each of the Eltarians closed their eyes, and sought the power that was within their souls. They barely felt their clothes shifting around them, as each was involved in their own mental quest. Moments later, as one, their eyes opened, and they gazed at the colors they had received.
"Ranac," Dulcea came to the first of them, clad in sky-blue. "You are the Hawk, cunning and skilled in flight."
She stepped next to Difan, wrapped in the fairest of pinks. "Gentle and graceful Difan, you are the Leopard."
Jeffers, clad in black, was next. "Jeffers, wise and full of care, you as one with the Kestrel."
"Briona, the Fox is your guide and guardian in your life," Dulcea told the next young one. She stepped then on to Kiroma. The young one in yellow smiled broadly as Dulcea told her, "And you are the Wolf, fierce and free."
Phoenix's heart was racing as the ancient warrior woman came over to her next, and she plucked nervously at the purple sleeve of her Ninjetti garb when Dulcea said, "The Ferret is your spirit, Phoenix, quick-witted and agile."
"Midori," the Green Ninjetti was next to the last, "you are under the watchful eye of the Dragon."
Everyone was looking at Blanche as Dulcea came to her next, still in her pristine white. "The Eagle shall bear you upon his wings, Blanche, the gracious queen of all birds."
The new White Ninjetti smiled, sensing the barest edges of the awesome responsibility that she and her friends had been granted by right of birth. "Thank you, Dulcea," she said, her voice sounding the slightest bit more mature. "For everything."
"It is what I do," the warrior woman smiled, then stepped back to look at them all at the same time. "To be in harmony with the sacred animals is to have the force of the Ninjetti. To those who are Ninjetti. . .anything is possible. Defend your world well, as your ancestors have, and trust your animal guides. Farewell, Eltarian Ninjetti."
Then with a simple gesture, she had teleported them back home. It was the beginning of their lives as Power Rangers.
Peace had reigned on Eltar for many centuries, with only the occasional attack by some foolish minion of evil that didn't know of the reputation of it's warriors and mages and Rangers. These were normally dispatched within a short period of time, and life returned to as usual. Blanche and her team fought when they had to, but since their parents were still active with full power, that was seldom.
Four years after the trip to Phaedos, tragedy struck. Jeffers, Briona, and Ranac had been dispatched to investigate a bomb threat in one of the southern regions. It wasn't normal Ranger duty, but rumor had it that this had been placed by one of the warriors of Lord Zedd, who every now and then would send his fighters to attack, hoping to lure Zordon of Eltar back from his post on Earth. They never succeeded, but it was still enough to bring in at least lesser Rangers. The three of them had separated to search around, and Jeffers had discovered the device planted right in the center of a vast amusement park. It was more than powerful enough to destroy it and kill thousands, and there wasn't time for all of them to get away in time.
The Black Ninjetti had made a fateful, and fatal decision. With only a quick communicator call to Blanche, asking her to forgive him for leaving her after a lifetime together, he threw himself on the bomb, seizing it in an unbreakable grip, and teleported himself and it to the highest mountain of Eltar, where he knew no one would be. It had exploded only seconds after the teleport, and with it had perished Blanche's brother.
They sent Sili, the younger sister of the twins, to Dulcea to claim her Black Ninjetti spirit, and she returned to bring the power of the Bull with her. She joined in the training, but it was never the same, and they all knew it. The years rolled on.
When Briona, the youngest of them, passed her fifteenth birthday, their parents did as their parents had for years before them, and passed the right and duty of defending Eltar in full to them, increasing their powers to full Ranger status, and retiring to powerlessness. This was always the most delicate time for Eltar, with mostly untried Rangers in their tasks, but since their defenders trained for most of their lives in how to fight and defend, it was not as risky as it might have been to have somewhat inexperienced ones there.
Unknown to the forces of Eltar, someone was watching them with a careful eye. The powerful Dark Spectre, lord and monarch of all that was evil, supreme overlord of all the other evil empires, who paid little to no attention to their infighting, so long as they obeyed when he commanded, had sworn that the peaceful world would fall to him. He only waited for one thing, and then it happened: Lerigot, the wizard of Liara, returned Zordon to Eltar. The attack began almost at once, though they didn't know it then, for it was a subtle and venomous one, designed to poison the very Rangers who defended Eltar. And like so many of Dark Spectre's plans it succeeded. . .and the world of freedom and strength fell, and Zordon was taken prisoner.
Only three of the Rangers of Eltar were captured. Phoenix the Purple Ranger. Midori the Green Ranger. Blanche, the White Ranger and leader of the team. They were sent to Dark Spectre's dungeons, there to remain as examples of how not even mighty Power Rangers could stand up to the forces of all evil.
"The Green and Purple Rangers of Eltar," she half-purred the words out. "How does it feel to know that your leader and your friend betrayed you?"
Phoenix calmly returned Astronema's gaze. "Blanche is no traitor," her voice was calm. "You have no notion of the sanctity of family, nor of the true honor of a Power Ranger. Do what you will to us, but we know that our sister is no traitor."
Midori agreed. "She agreed only out of fear and love, then broke free from courage and determination. There is no taint of treachery in her soul, regardless of what you think or even of what she thinks. Speak your lies all you will. The truth is stronger than all of them."
Astronema only smiled at them, fingering her staff. "So you think now. But I believe I can change your minds."
She leaped up suddenly and sauntered around the table to look at them both. "I know she's going to come here and try to rescue you two. But she's not going to succeed. You two will capture her for me."
Phoenix and Midori exchanged glances, and laughter filled both pairs of eyes, pealing out from their lips. "You have got to be kidding!" Phoenix declared when she was able to speak again. "Kill us if you want to, but we aren't going to do that for you or for anyone!"
Astronema's smile grew just the faintest bit wider. "Let me show you something," she motioned Ecliptor over to her, and then passed a hand over the two of them. There was a flicker of violet light, and twin images of Phoenix and Midori stood there! "I learned a little something from an experience I had not that long ago with my Body-Switcher monster," the duplicate of Midori spoke in Astronema's voice. "The Rangers can't always tell the difference between truth and reality."
With another flicker, Astronema and Ecliptor returned to their normal forms. The evil princess resumed her seat behind the planning table. "So you see, you are going to capture her, and it will appear to her that you have betrayed her willingly. That will be just the beginning of my vengeance upon her for betraying me."
She turned to Ecliptor. "Take them to the cells next to the laboratory. I have a few spells I want to test on them once I have their friend back, and they can wait there for me. I doubt it'll be long before she returns here."
"As you command, my princess," with the Quantrons following, he dragged the two girls away, and Astronema smiled with satisfaction. This was going to be very interesting.
"I would imagine you all want to know just how I came to be working for Astronema and that sort of thing?" she asked, not looking in particular at any of them. As Arion went to stand beside Cassie, her indifference and calm seemed to triple. She was very much by herself here, and she knew it, and she longed for it.
"Yes," Andros' answer was succinct. "Please tell us everything."
She nodded briefly, though she knew it was a lie. She'd tell them what she had to, what they needed to know, and no more. Anything else they found out about her, would not be from her.
"My name is Blanche Seldros," she began. "I was born and raised on Eltar, and I was to follow in the family business, along with my brother and my two best friends, Phoenix and Midori. We had trained for it all our lives. We had just started working for ourselves, when the first attacks of Dark Spectre came."
Her voice almost faltered, but a caress of her fingers across the brand beneath her clothing restored the courage. "My brother had died some years before, and his place was taken by our younger sister. Apparently she felt jealous or unappreciated or something, I don't know, I've never known. But it opened her heart to evil, and Dark Spectre poisoned it freely. He corrupted my baby sister, and turned her into one of the darkest minions of evil possible," a tear did escape, but she wiped it away swiftly. No more tears. Not ever again. Slowly, she kept going. "She knew quite a bit about the defenses of Eltar, more than anyone should have in retrospect. Because of her, the entire planetary defense system collapsed, and Spectre's forces rushed in. She. . .she was the one who captured Zordon for him."
Silence filled the room. Never before had they heard of a tale of family treachery such as this. Slowly, Blanche spoke again. "The Rangers of Eltar at the time were young, not fully tried, and taken much by shock by Sili's defection. They couldn't organize an adequate defense in time, and were . . .disposed of. My two best friends and I were taken captive, and thrown into Dark Spectre's dungeons. We had been there ever since the fall of our world, until Astronema came. She told me she had a 'special job' for me, and in return, Phoenix and Midori wouldn't be killed. That job was you, Zhane," she glanced only momentarily at the Silver Ranger, who looked back at her with his warm eyes. "She wanted me to get close to you and then to kill you. But I couldn't do it. I couldn't walk that far away from my roots," she half-whispered the last phrase, then spoke louder. "I could have cost my rendar sisters their lives. I tell you this: with or without you, I am returning to the Dark Fortress to get them out of there. I won't let Astronema kill them without a fight. I know I don't deserve your trust or your help, but I ask at least for your help. Will you go with me there, and will you help me rescue the only family I have left?"
When no answer came, she stood up, perfectly poised and not showing one hint of any emotion. "If I might be shown to a room where I can rest, you may discuss what you do without my hindering presence," she deliberately spoke in a more formal manner than she was used to, to impress on them the seriousness of the situation. She needed their help, but she was also going to go without it, no matter what she had to do.
"We have a couple of spare rooms," Andros said, glancing over at Arion, who had shown no inclination to leave or remorph since Blanche had revealed her true nature and identity. "Ashley, do you think you could show Blanche one?"
Blanche sighed. The last time she'd seen Phoenix and Midori had been when Astronema had shown her an image of them chained to a wall in the Dark Fortress. The evil one hadn't specifically stated that was where they were, but she knew the prison they'd spent the last few months in very well, and that hadn't been it. "They are," was all she said, going into the room and shutting it behind her, deliberately cutting off anything Ashley might have said. She didn't want to hear the other girl's assurances that they would help; they still had to talk things over. She had deliberately avoided telling them she was . . .or had been, she didn't know what terminology applied to her anymore. . .a Ranger. She wanted them to help because they thought or knew it was the right thing to do, not because they were fellow Rangers.
Glad of the peace and the silence, she sat on the bed and twisted her wrist slightly, causing a black coin to appear in one hand. Upon it was the symbol of the Eagle. This was her Power Coin. Powerless now. Sili had introduced a powerful corrupting influence to their coins, rendering them incapable of morphing. It was how they had been defeated. They had been allowed to keep the coins, since they were useless. She rubbed her wrists briefly, remembering the chains that Sili had bound the surviving Rangers in before bringing them before Dark Spectre.
The moment of betrayal still was clear in her mind. Sili had asked that they all gather in their headquarters for a training session. None had suspected anything, Sili had concealed her hatred and her treachery perfectly for many years. Something about how she had gained her office had curdled into jealousy and hatred in her soul, and none had noticed. The moment each entered, Sili had cast the spell of corruption upon their coins, and then had revealed herself as a traitor and a minion of Dark Spectre, and Quantrons had come from the shadows, attacking them and restraining them swiftly. Eltar's Rangers had fallen to one of their own.
She flicked away the coin, no longer able to bear gazing at it, and laid on the bed, her eyes almost literally shuddering shut. For the first time in half a year and more, she permitted herself to relax and to sleep deeply. She knew even if they chose not to help her, the Astro Rangers would not hurt her, and she could sleep deeply in this place. She was safe here, and soon she was wrapped up in a deep sleep.
As she slept, she didn't notice the door sliding open, and Andros silently stepping in to look at her. Quietly, he murmured, "DECA, scan her completely, but don't let her wake up. Find out everything you can about her and Eltar, and check her story. I don't think she lied, but I don't think she said everything either. I want to know what she left out."
"Yes, Andros," the shipboard computer responded, a faint scarlet light beginning to play over Blanche. Andros stepped back out, sealing the door behind him, and headed back to the main room. The Rangers had quite a bit to talk about.
To Cassie and Arion, it looked as if she were failing, but they had something they were talking about here. "What do you think?" she looked at him calmly. It was obvious that though she would make her own decision on what to believe or not believe of their strange acquaintance, she wanted to temper her decision with his own thoughts.
"I believe that Blanche of Eltar is a strong woman who has been through things that would terrify many folk," her boyfriend replied calmly and serenely. There was a distance in his eyes similar to that of Zhane, but as the Silver Ranger was lost in his thoughts of what could be and what had been and what was, his distance was that of the past and things he had seen many years earlier.
Cassie frowned briefly. "Do you know her?" she finally asked after some moments of intense scrutiny. "Dimitria told us your powers come from Eltar."
"Yes, as I told you, the Queen of Eltar gave me the Power Ruby and pledged me not to reveal my identity until I found you," a tiny, unaccustomed smile played about his lips. "An event which I was not certain would occur."
"Do you know her?" Cassie repeated the question, she didn't want him to rehash what she already knew, as glad as she was that they had found each other. Arion almost seemed to sigh.
"I knew of her is a more appropriate way to say it," he said, carefully planning on how to answer without revealing anything that he had pledged he would keep to himself. Blanche's secrets were her own to reveal, and if she chose not to tell the full truth, that was her right. "She said nothing that was a lie. The Rangers of Eltar did their best, but there was nothing that could have stopped their fall, or that of their world. Many people were taken captive. It was. . . a tragedy."
A tragedy. Such a simple pair of words to use for one of the greatest catastrophes in galactic history. But there was nothing else that they could say about it. The full extent of the horror wasn't known even now, six months afterwards. Something told all who searched for the truth that it never would be known.
"What do we do?" the team turned around at the sound of Andros' voice. He was standing in the doorway. "Do we help her or do we not?"
His team, plus one, glanced at each other. It was something that had been on their minds for hours now, and with the revelation of what Blanche had told them, things were starting to slowly come clear.
"She hasn't said everything that she knows, but that's her decision," Arion spoke softly. "I do not see how we can turn down the need of her companions. It would be wrong to leave her friends in Astronema's clutches. Regardless of what Blanche has or has not said or done, they do not deserve it."
Carlos turned to look at the Phantom Ranger. "Do you know them?" they'd once spent some time in speculation, wondering just who the Phantom knew and didn't know. To find that he knew a stranger from Eltar wouldn't be that surprising, really.
"As I told Cassie, I know more of them and Blanche than I truly know them personally," he said. "But what I know of them is purest good."
The six other Rangers, even Zhane, thought of what was being said here. They knew they could trust Arion, he was a fellow Ranger, but what did they truly know of Blanche or her friends?
The answer was obvious to them all: all the answers. They knew nothing, but it didn't matter. Carlos was the one who uttered it. "When do we tell her that we're going to help?"
"As soon as she wakes up, she's asleep now," Andros said, putting an arm around Ashley. "I had DECA scan her to see if she's physically all right, and to find out anything we can about her. I know it's her right to keep her secrets. . .but it's also our right to find out what sort of situation we're going into, and who we're going into it with.
T.J. winced faintly. "I hope she doesn't get upset when she finds out."
"I never said I was going to tell her," the Red Ranger said, smiling faintly. "That would depend on what we find out about her. Her health situation, I am going to let her know that I had DECA check her out on. She should know if she's in any condition to fight or not."
Nods responded to that, and Zhane stood up. "It could be a few days until we're ready to go after her friends. I don't think we should do that without some sort of plan. The Dark Fortress isn't a pleasant place, from what I've heard."
Arion shuddered briefly. "You have no idea," he murmured, and a flash of pain crossed his face. Cassie glanced worried at him, wondering what was up. There was still a great deal about his past that she didn't know, he had deliberately left great gaps in what he had told her. It was obvious that anything from the moment he had become the Phantom Ranger until they had met were topics he didn't feel comfortable with discussing, and she was more than willing to let that lay in the past. But this was something different.
"Are you all right?" she reached out to touch his hand, taking pleasure in the fact that he didn't jerk away, as he had a tendency to do upon occasion. She took it to mean that he was growing more used to physical contact with her.
Arion didn't answer for a moment, then finally spoke. "Yes, I am. I know some of the interior of the Dark Fortress, but not much. If we go. . .I will help you."
Andros gazed for a long moment at the Phantom Ranger, wondering what secrets lay behind the dark and shrouded eyes. Finally, he spoke. "Not if we go. When we go. We'll make up a full battle plan once Blanche has rested and is at her full strength. Until then, we'll keep an eye out to see what Astronema is up to."
The Rangers nodded, and Cassie held her hand out to Arion. "I think we should go do some talking," she said quietly. "I know there are things you don't want to talk about. . .but. . ."
He looked at her, then took her hand. "There are things that I should talk about. Yes." The two of them left the main room, leaving most of their team behind them.
Ashley glanced at Andros and Zhane, both of whom were strictly avoiding looking at each other. She nodded briefly to herself. "I need to get some things from Earth," she said a bit too loudly. "Carlos, T.J., come on. We're going shopping."
The look she gave them brooked no denial, and when they saw where her eyes flicked, to the Red and Silver Rangers, the three of them were gone in moments.
"Zhane," Andros knew what Ashley was doing. "We need to talk."
"You're in love with her," Andros said after a moment, looking at one of the monitors instead of at his friend. "You're in love with Blanche."
Zhane sighed, sitting for a moment on the medical bed that had been his resting place for months. "I don't know," he replied. "I thought I had back when we were seeing each other, before I knew the truth. . .now. . .," he shrugged. "Now I don't know what to believe. The person I thought I knew, isn't there anymore."
"I think she is," Andros demurred. "I'm not trying to poke into your love life, you know I'd never do that----"
"Because you were always too busy trying to figure out how I had one when you didn't," Zhane retorted, a hint of a smile on his face. Andros half-glared at him, then grinned.
"As I was saying, I'm just trying to help you," the Red Ranger continued. The slight disagreement that had come between them when he had thought that Zhane had designs on Ashley had vanished, and only the desire to help his best friend through what had to be one of the more trying times of his life remained.
Zhane looked down at his fingertips. "Thanks, Andros," he said quietly. "I really appreciate it. But this is something I'm going to have to figure out on my own, I think."
Andros put a firm hand on his best friend's shoulder. "Not quite on your own. You might want to talk to Blanche, to see what she feels about you." he noticed at once that Zhane flinched under him at that. "What is it?"
"What if she's not in love with me?" Zhane burst the words out, not caring who heard or anything. "What if I was just an assignment, and because of that, she doesn't care about me for real? I know that she was forced to do what she did, but that doesn't mean she really had any feelings for me at all. . .does it?"
Andros shrugged. "I don't know. But she refused to flat out kill you. That could mean she cares about you. . .or that she just didn't want to kill someone who didn't deserve it," he grinned suddenly. "Of course, if she knew how rotten of a cook you are, she might think differently. . ."
"Oh, and you're any better?" Zhane quickly rose to the bait, more out of a desire to change the subject than anything else. The air in the room had grown very serious, and that was something neither young man could stand any longer. "Spending all your time getting your meals out of the Synthetron doesn't exactly do wonders for your cooking skills, you know!"
Andros snorted. "Even before we had the Synthetron, you couldn't boil a terso egg for half an hour without it coming out just as raw as when you put it in!"
"You couldn't either," the Silver Ranger said dryly, standing up. "We've got to make some preparations for her being here for a while, you know. She's got a room, but there are a few more things I think that would make her stay more comfortable."
It was unspoken among all the Rangers, though they'd already come to accept it, that Blanche, and eventually her friends, would be staying with them for an indefinite period of time. Zhane and Andros started to figure out just who would go there, and other details of new arrivals.
They had given her a few things to make her stay nicer. Her room sprouted a few amenities, courtesy mostly of Ashley's shopping trip to Earth, and with her help, they made rooms available for Phoenix and Midori. Also she had minor access to the Simudeck, and it was there she went on the third day. DECA had pronounced her fully fit, and the next day, they would be preparing for the invasion of the Dark Fortress. The day after that, with luck, Phoenix and Midori would be freed.
Beyond that, Blanche refused to hope, or to even think. She refused at the moment to even think about the planning. She had something else she wanted to look at and think of, something that had been gnawing at her mind during her recovery. Something she wanted to see one last time before hopefully getting her near-sisters back.
Zhane and she hadn't talked once in the last three days, and she actually asked DECA to make certain he wasn't anywhere near her when she came to the Simudeck. She was hoping to make a clean break from him once the others had been rescued, to get them back to Eltar and then to go wherever she could by herself.
Zhane was a determined young man, however, and he was fully intent on having a long conversation with her. "Where is Blanche, DECA?" he asked, glancing up automatically to the small camera just outside the visitor's room.
"She is on the Simudeck," the computer reported. Blanche had forgotten to request that her whereabouts remained unknown. Zhane smiled briefly, then headed over there, wondering in the back of his mind just what it was she was doing there.
The room wasn't sealed off, though the 'in use' sign was there. Blanche couldn't seal it completely off, her clearance wasn't high enough, but she did hope that no one would interfere with her. Zhane's desire to talk to her was too great, however, and he asked, "Would any special protective clothing be required to enter her program?" of DECA. The last thing he wanted was to walk into desert heat or arctic cold in his normal shipboard attire.
"Negative," was the response, and he flicked the door open, carefully peeking inside. What he saw surprised him. It was the Grand Palace of Eltar, traditionally one of the most peaceful places in the universe, but in this scene, the peace had obviously been most rudely shattered.
Ships of unknown design filled the sky with their shadows, and the air with lasers of every imaginable color. The trees were burning, and there was a powerful odor of death and destruction all around. The palace had been half-turned to rubble already, and he could see a few members of the royal court, being escorted away by Quantrons and Piranatrons, in chains.
A dark and deep laughter echoed over everything, and he looked up over it all to see Dark Spectre there. His booming voice spoke. "You have done well, Sili. I knew I was wise to cultivate the darkness in your soul."
A figure, dwarfed by Spectre's girth, bowed briefly before him. "I owe all that I truly am to you, my lord," the voice was female, and held faint echoes of Blanche's own in it. "It was an honor and privilege to hand this place of weaklings to you."
"Traitor!" Zhane was startled to hear Blanche's voice, and saw her striding up. She looked much the same as she always had, though now she was dressed in Eltarian garb, and her hair was much longer. She didn't look half-starved, nor have the air of defeat and resignation around her that he had known, yet ignored, since first meeting her. "How could you, Sili? You disgrace our family, you disgrace the memory of Jeffers! Remember him, sister? Our brother, my brother, my twin, half my heart and soul!?"
Sili, who had been two years younger than Blanche, now looked fully grown, a mature woman in her twenties, with the stamp of evil clearly upon her. She smiled winsomely. "Oh, yes, I remember. I remember watching as he teleported his fool self away with that bomb and wound up decorating half the landscape. I've never laughed so hard in my life."
The words obviously struck Blanche deep in her soul, and she tried to leap forward, her hands outstretched with manacles on her wrists. Sili backhanded her, knocking her down. "You're a fool, sister," the traitor laughed, then looked up to Dark Spectre. "What is to be their fate? Should it be that of their comrades?"
Now Zhane saw there were two others near-by, one clad in garments of green, the other in garments of purple. Both were staring in shock at three piles of ash, and Zhane noticed there were others scattered around. They weren't large enough to have been buildings, and then with a sick feeling in his stomach, he realized that they had once been people. Quite probably people Blanche and her friends knew.
"No, Sili," Spectre shook his head. "Have them escorted to the high security prison planet. There they will rot, a symbol to their world and all worlds that I, Dark Spectre, cannot be stopped! Now, I must go. I have a meeting to attend at the Cimmerian planet. Sili, you are to supervise clean-up operations here, and come to me afterwards."
"As you command, Dark Spectre," she bowed before him, and then he vanished. Quantrons, Piranatrons, mutants, and other soldiers began to wander around, doing this and that. Sili gestured for Blanche to be brought in front of her, and she glared directly into her elder sister's eyes. "I win, big sister. I win."
"Simulation end," a voice whispered brokenly from behind Zhane, who by now had wandered all the way into the room. He turned to see Blanche there, crumpled onto the floor, her face buried in her hands and her shoulders shaking with tears. He was over beside her a moment later.
"Blanche," was all he said, as she wept and he held her. Long moments passed while she cried, and he did all that he could to comfort her. When she leaned back and looked at him, he could see the horror of the loss of her world still was as fresh and powerful in her memory as the loss of KO-35 was for Andros. He rocked her back and forth as her tears shook her entire body, and he wondered briefly if she had ever cried when the actual battle had happened.
Suddenly, she went one hundred per cent stiff, and jerked back to look at him. As her brain processed the information that it was him there, she turned away calmly. "Was there something in particular you required, Silver Ranger?"
"Yes, I wanted to talk to you!" he couldn't keep the shaking out of his voice. "I wanted to know why you've been avoiding me the last few days."
She turned back to him, raising one eyebrow calmly. "What are you talking about? I haven't been avoiding you."
"You have. You were just about to do it now, leave here before we could actually talk. We had something before, Blanche. I want to know if it was real, and what we should do about it either way."
"It wasn't," her voice was clipped. "Anything you felt was because of the perfume I was wearing, something Astronema gave me. It activated your hormones and made you think you cared. You don't, you're probably just feeling some aftereffects of it. Stay away from me for a while, and you'll be just fine."
Zhane shook his head. "I had DECA scan me after you told us everything. All my hormonal levels are doing just fine. I don't know quite what I'm feeling, but I do know that I at least would like to get to know you better. I think we could be friends, if nothing else, and I think you seriously need a friend."
"I have friends," her voice was cool, almost to the point of frostiness. "They're the ones we're going to rescue in a day or so, remember?"
He sighed. "Blanche, please listen to me. Do you or do you not want to give us a chance to become friends? Possibly one day more than friends, but let's just come to that when we do?"
The two of them stared at each other for a moment, her eyes distant and dark, his caring and loving. "Please?" he whispered softly, reaching out his hand towards her.
She turned away from him. "I can't, Zhane," her voice was firmer than steel. "I just can't."
"Why not?" his hand on her shoulder made steel seem soft. "Please talk to me, Blanche! Do not turn away, and just because what we had is gone and was fake to start with does not mean that we can't start something!"
Blanche quite literally whirled around on him. "Zhane, I can't have a relationship with a Ranger," she was speaking swiftly, not thinking about what she was saying, a burning desire for him to understand rising within her instead. "I betrayed everything that makes a Ranger a Ranger, that I lived and breathed all my life until less than two weeks ago, I willingly served evil to save my friends, then threw their lives away for my own stupid one. I can't even go back to my own world with that hanging over me, they'd never take me back!"
Zhane stared. He wasn't quite certain just what she'd said just now, but something unusual was going on here. "You had no real choice, Blanche," he found his voice a moment later, but it was too late. She'd already twisted out of his grip and was out of the Simudeck, running down the hall.
He sighed. "Blanche," he whispered softly. "Why won't you talk to me? What are you hiding?"
"The fact she used to be a Power Ranger. Still is, actually, I think," Andros said, stepping from around the corner. In his hand was a small link to the MegaShip's main computer.
"What?" his best friend looked confused. "She what?"
Andros came over to him, holding out the miniature computer. "Look here. She was the White Ranger, the leader of Eltar's Rangers."
Zhane paled for a moment as he looked down to see a computer-generated image of Blanche in a strange Ranger uniform, helmetless. A list of abilities and powers, plus a listing of the rest of her team. Somehow, he wasn't surprised to see Midori and Phoenix listed there. "Why wouldn't she tell me? Tell us! And what do you mean was?"
"I don't know why she doesn't want to tell us, but from what I could hear, she's convinced herself she doesn't deserve any new friends, or just about anything else, because she didn't have any choices with Astronema. She did the only thing she really could, I think."
The Silver Ranger nodded. "And what about her powers? Does she still have them?"
"That's not really certain. No one knows exactly why, but the Eltarian Ranger powers stopped working just before the final attack on the place by Dark Spectre. If she knows why, she's not telling."
Zhane frowned. "DECA, could any of your scans of Blanche tell why?"
"Scientific scans reveal nothing," the computer reported obediently. "If the blocking of power is magical in origin, however, then I could not detect it."
Andros and Zhane both sighed. "Come on," the Red Ranger said. "We've got some planning to do. Let's keep this to ourselves. It's her secret, really."
"You're right. Let's get moving."
"Phantom Ranger," Andros opened the planning session. "You said you know something of the Dark Fortress' design?"
He nodded quietly. Whatever he and Cassie had talked about the other day had remained between them, as a secret. With a flick of his hand, an image of the Fortress appeared between them all. He indicated one dark opening. "That's the easiest way to get in. It's a half-finished cargo bay, but it has access to the rest of the fortress. Quantrons aren't very smart, so the place has to be easy for them to find their way around in. Where do you think the others are, Blanche?"
She glanced over, then thought of the image Astronema had shown her. "Do you know where the dungeons are?"
"Here," he indicated a place almost on the far side of the Fortress from the cargo bay he had first shown them. "It's about a twenty minute walk, uninterrupted, between there and the bay. And we wouldn't be uninterrupted."
Blanche shrugged. Whenever Andros had encountered her in the past day, he'd always looked at her rather oddly, and whenever he tried to say anything, she always hurried along elsewhere. She only wanted to get the others and vacate the premises as soon as humanly possible.
"The faster the better to get them out," she said. "The longer we're in there, the more chances Astronema has to do something that could hurt them. If she hasn't already."
Zhane shook his head. "She won't have. Not as long as you're out here free." he deliberately stopped to see if she would ask him what he meant. When she said nothing, he sighed. "They're not just hostages. They're bait. Not just for you, but for us too. She's going to know that we're coming. The only thing is, she doesn't know when. We'll have to hope we take her by surprise, and get in and get out with them before she notices we're there."
"And what are the odds on that?" T.J. wondered. Blanche barely gave the Blue Ranger a look.
"Roughly the same chance an ice cube has of surviving in a supernova. Slightly worse."
Everyone winced at that, and Carlos leaned forward. "How many of us are going in there? Some should stay behind, in case Astronema sends an attack of some kind."
"Good thinking, Carlos," Andros appreciated such wisdom in his teammates! "Phantom, you said you're going. . ."
"Yes," he nodded, then turned at once to Cassie. "And you should remain here. I am more accustomed to being on my own should anything separate the team. You work better in a team."
She had her mouth open to say something, but then shut it. "You're right," she finally admitted. "But if you don't come back to me, I'm going to come looking for you," she said bluntly. He blushed faintly. He knew she meant it.
"The Phantom Ranger, Andros, Zhane, and myself," Blanche spoke suddenly. "The rest of you watch over your world. I don't think I'll be coming back. Thank you for not killing me outright. I'll be ready to leave in one hour."
There were no doors to dramatically slam, but all of them got the feeling she had as she swept out of the room and down the corridor to her quarters.
"There it is," Andros whispered, motioning ahead of them. The gaping emptiness that was the cargo bay and their destination almost floated in the darkness of space before them. Blanche felt herself tremble a little, she'd never seen it from the outside like this before. When she had arrived on it after agreeing to Astronema's offer, she had been teleported directly into it. She kept herself thinking about the others, and about how she had to rescue them.
Andros was speaking again. "If anything happens and we get separated, then find your way to the dungeon area as fast as you can. We'll try to regroup there, if not, get back to the cargo bay and wait for whoever isn't with you. We're going to be leaving with your friends or not at all, Blanche."
She said nothing, only nodded. She didn't know why she had wanted Zhane to come along, it had been a pure instinct, and she hadn't acted on instinct in months. He's a fighter, she reminded herself harshly. And that's what you need here. The others are good, but these two are the best.
Silently, the three of them slid into the cargo bay. The two gliders vanished, to be summoned again at need, and the three of them slid inside. Despite only being half-finished, there was air enough for them to breathe, and gravity. All three made their way to the door on the far side, with Blanche glancing around constantly for any sign of the Phantom Ranger.
"Look," Zhane motioned out the door, which was cracked open. "I think he's been here."
Blanche dropped very low to the floor and peeked one eye around the edge, looking this way and that. Seeing nothing, she pulled back and shrugged briefly, motioning them to start outside. They all would be making the very least amount of noise possible, to avoid being caught.
That didn't stop the troop of Quantrons that turned the corner just as Zhane, the last of them, shut the door to the bay behind them and all three were in full view of the robotic things. For a moment, it was hard to decide just who was the most surprised: the three humans or the twelve robots.
Blanche settled that decision very quickly. With a scream of pure rage, she leaped forward in a martial arts kick, slamming her foot directly into the throat of a robot. It's head splatted against the back wall, and she was kicking and punching another one as fast as she could.
"Should we let her have all the fun?" Zhane asked, grinning momentarily. Andros shrugged.
"She does sort of deserve it, those things trashed her home. But they did a number on KO-35 too, so let's get in there and rip them apart!"
Things grew rather confused after that, with blows flying everywhere and no one really able to keep an eye on who was going where or doing what. When the dust and confusion died down, Andros and Zhane found themselves side by side in a pile of Quantron parts. . .and no sign of Blanche anywhere.
Astronema looked barely half-curious. She was making some plans for various things to do to each Ranger once they were captured, and she didn't like to be interrupted. "This had better be good, Elgar. What is it?"
"The Quantrons down by Docking Bay 32 sent up a message, they saw Power Rangers! Two of 'em, and that girl you brought here!"
Both Ecliptor and Astronema looked curious, and pleased, at that. "Where are they now?" Ecliptor wanted to know.
"Uh, I dunno," Elgar shrugged. "They didn't say."
"Never mind," Astronema sat up a little straighter. "Lessen the guard around the laboratory section, Ecliptor. And increase it around the prison area."
Her bodyguard looked confused. It was hard for others to see his emotions upon his face, but she knew how. She'd grown up with him, after all. "My princess? You have the two Eltarians captive in the lab cell, not the prison."
"I know that," Astronema nodded patiently. "But the Rangers don't know where I have them, and the logical place for them to be, and for the Rangers to look, is in the dungeons. If there's extra guards around the laboratory, then the Rangers will know something's up there."
Ecliptor nodded, understanding her cunning now. By not guarding the actual area the prisoners were being kept in and having the guard increased in the dungeon, the Rangers would be walking directly into a trap of Astronema's devising.
The princess stood up, clasping her Wrath Staff in one hand and fastening one of her boomerangs to her waist. "Come on, Ecliptor. We've got Power Rangers to go play with."
With a faint sweet smile, one that held just a touch of a barb, she headed out the door. Ecliptor followed, his sword in his hand. He was rather looking forward to pounding on the Red Ranger for several days. . .
That was not to be the fate of Phoenix and Midori, however. They were there to be used as Astronema's test subjects, and it was an open question as to which fate was the preferable. The two of them sat in the cell adjacent to the lab, looking out every now and then at the Quantrons who were on guard.
"Something's going on," Phoenix murmured, pacing back and forth. They had been escorted here after their 'interview' with Astronema, and both of them knew something unusual was going on. They had been fairly heavily guarded, but only moments earlier, over half had left, marching somewhere out of sight.
Midori was gazing out the tiny window. "Something's always going on here," she replied. "I hate this place."
"The prison was better," Phoenix sighed. "At least we were with Blanche, most of the time."
"Yeah," the former Green Ranger sighed, pulling her own coal-black coin out of her pocket. The dragon symbol on it was just barely visible through the corruption introduced there. Her heart had almost stopped when Sili had done that. It was as if her entire soul had been halved suddenly.
Phoenix's hand touched hers lightly. "We should just forget about it. We aren't what we were."
"We are," her partner said softly. "We are Power Rangers, forever. It's not something that can be taken away simply because we can't morph anymore. It's something in the heart and the soul. That's what Blanche always sai-----"
Her voice broke off and she sat up suddenly. Phoenix also paused in what she was about to say, and both of them turned to the celldoor. They could see nothing with their eyes, but suddenly the brands on their shoulders began to pulsate.
Blanche. Both of them spoke the mental word, and they could hear something they had not in weeks.
Phoenix? Midori? It was Blanche. The bond of the rendar wasn't simply some flummery of oaths, it was a bonding of the heart, soul, spirit, and body in a way and fashion that simply could not be explained by any mortal means. It was why agreeing to work for evil to spare their lives had been a simple decision for Blanche, and why in the end, abandoning it to save her own had racked at her. In a very real sense of the word, the three girls were one. The word rendar was loosely translated as 'not-born family'. In the strictest sense of the word, it meant 'one soul, many bodies'. To betray one of them, meant to betray them all and one's self at the same time.
Blanche, where are you? Phoenix and Midori touched hands briefly, combining their mental powers and boosting their signal strength. What are you doing?
I'm here on the Dark Fortress. I got separated from Andros and Zhane, we're all looking for you. The Phantom Ranger should be around here somewhere too. I don't know where he is, though.
Phantom? Arion is here?
Yes. I'll explain all the details later, I have to get you two out of here.
What about you? Aren't you leaving?
Yes. But I'm not coming with you.
A sharp explosion might have erupted between them, if Phoenix hadn't overridden them both. We'll discuss that later. The important part is getting out of here. You didn't tell them that you can speak with us, did you?
Something that might have been a flush echoed throughout the bond. Emotions were as much a part of the link as anything and everything else was. You didn't, Midori groaned. Of course not. There was a pause, and both the prisoners suddenly groaned. You went and fell in love!?
I'm. . .Blanche fell silent after the first word; she might lie with her mouth, but there was never any way she could lie with her heart and soul. She did love Zhane, and there wasn't anything she could do about it. I'm coming for you guys. Where are you, the dungeon?
NO! Both of them near-shouted the words. Do you know where the laboratory is? Where Ecliptor and Astronema practice their . . .things at?
Blanche thought for a moment. I think I do. You can guide me, anyway. The others are headed for the dungeons, though.
They should be able to handle anything they find there. Come on, we need to get out of here.
"I think the dungeons are this way," Zhane pointed down a corridor guarded by a pair of Quantrons. Andros glanced over, tilting his head to indicate his slight confusion.
"What makes you think that?"
The Silver Ranger chuckled for a moment, then motioned to a map on the wall. "Oh, just this," the entire Dark Fortress was clearly marked out on it, and the indicated corridor did indeed lead to the dungeons. Andros half-groaned. Zhane was irrepressible.
There was no real way to be subtle about this. The two Rangers slammed into the Quantrons on guard and took them down with a pair of powerful kicks. Both piles of junk were quickly shoved out of the way and side by side, the Red and Silver Rangers raced down the corridor.
"Andros, question," Zhane paused suddenly. "Ummm. . .how are we going to know which two are the two we're looking for, without Blanche? She didn't exactly give us a description."
His friend paused. "Good question. We'll have to hope they're the only two there. Or that we can overhear something."
There were two more Quantron guards outside the door to the dungeon, and those two were disposed of just as fast as their compatriots outside had been. Zhane tried the door, and started in surprise. "It's not locked."
"We'd better be careful," Andros was at once in an alert crouch as he opened the door smoothly. "This could be a trap."
"Of course it's a trap!" a female voice drawled. "What else do you expect when you follow one of my servants into my own home?"
The two Rangers somehow weren't that surprised to see Astronema and Ecliptor standing in front of them, fully armed and with a platoon of Quantrons behind them. "What are you talking about?" Zhane was glad he was morphed, so his face couldn't betray his emotions. He had always been able to control his voice when necessary. "Blanche doesn't work for you anymore!"
"That's what she told you?" the evil princess laughed harshly. "And you believed it, and that little farce we produced the other day? I'm certain she told you all about how her two little friends were being kept here to make her work for me, too! Well, she lied!"
Andros and Zhane looked at each other, each knowing that they really couldn't be certain of what was going on. Blanche had vanished without a trace, would she saunter up in a few moments and declare that Astronema was right? She might have been a Power Ranger, but no one truly knew how the Rangers of Eltar had lost their powers. How much of the tale she had told them was true, and how much was false? What if she had been the true traitor?
On the other hand, could they trust Astronema? The princess of evil and darkness, who had been attempting to defeat them and keep them away from their mission almost since it had begun? She wasn't capable of telling the truth. . .was she?
The only thing that even seemed to make sense was the order she gave the Quantrons. "Attack them! I want them alive!"
The same thought went through both Rangers' minds as they started to fight. At least this is reasonable!
"Sorry for taking so long, the traffic was sheer murder!"
Phoenix and Midori both grinned, reaching their hands out through the cell bars to touch fingertips with her. "You're here now," Phoenix whispered. "Come on. Let's get out of here."
Blanche nodded, glancing around and frowning when she saw no key. "Going to have to do this the hard way, I guess," she shrugged. "Stand back, girls, I think this is going to be loud."
"When have you ever been quiet?" Midori said flatly, but with a grin. Phoenix whacked her lightly against the head; the good humor and joking that had always been rampant among the three of them had returned once they were reunited and with a way out.
The redhead took a deep breath, taking up her stance, concentrating and focusing all of her mental and physical energy into one tight movement. She then delivered the most perfect spin kick against the cell door she ever had in her life. The entire door collapsed, as did Blanche.
"Th. .that. ..hurt," she whispered, feeling a throbbing pain shoot up from her foot. She was almost positive that she'd broken something in there, but they didn't have time for weakness. Slowly, she dragged herself to her feet. "Come on. We're supposed to meet the others I came in with at the cargo bay. Let's get out of here."
Phoenix and Midori glanced at their leader, then at each other. They had plenty of experience with her before, and they both knew what was going on. Without having to say a word, they picked her up each by an arm and started carrying her out. "You don't have to do this," she grumbled softly. "It'll slow you down."
"We don't leave anyone behind," was all Midori said, and Phoenix only smiled. She gave them instructions and directions as they slithered through the hallways, corridors, and rooms back to the cargo bay. When she had been separated from the others, the Quantrons she had been fighting had come near to capturing her, knocking her through room after room until she was so confused it was easier just to strike off on her own than to try and find them.
"Rangers of Eltar," the voice was vaguely familiar to the two former captives, and somewhat more so to Blanche. They all recognized the armored figure that shimmered into appearance ahead of them however, as the Phantom Ranger. "Andros and Zhane are in danger. They went to the dungeons, not knowing that the two of you were not there. Astronema and Ecliptor ambushed them with many Quantrons."
"How are they doing?" Blanche felt a pang of guilt for that. If she'd just told them that the three of them could hear and speak to one another mentally when they were within a certain distance, that might not have happened. The thought of anyone being hurt because of her actions twisted in her soul like a knife.
"I will be going to aid them in a moment. I would ask you to join in, but I can see you are in no condition to do so," he glanced at her foot. "Get to the cargo bay. I will bring them there."
He was gone before any of them could say or do anything else, and Blanche sighed. And I screw up yet again. They probably think I did it deliberately. She closed her eyes and blocked off the guilt before it could overwhelm her, or become evident to the others. "Let's get moving," she said. "We don't want to get trapped on here. It's not where I want to spend the rest of my life."
Together, the three of them headed for the cargo bay, and the freedom they had longed for ever since the fall of Eltar.