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Casual Effort
by: Cynthia

Golden sunlight, with all it's strength, could not penetrate the darkness that surrounded the new fortress of evil that hovered over the Earth. The Shadow Fortress, home of the newest maniac to attack the planet, could never be brightened save at the command of the Dark Queen who ruled it. That would never happen; Mera enjoyed the shadows too much, to the point she had named her home after them.

She quietly stretched her awareness out throughout the palace, touching the minds of the various beings starting to awaken there. She herself slept only when she had to, and not for long at that. She preferred to walk the Fortress at night, or the hidden pathways of whatever world she was currently involved in conquering. She had been inspecting the Fortress that night, making certain it was still in pristine condition after so long out of circulation. Soon enough she would befoul the Earth with her presence. All things in their proper time.

With a grace so innate she didn't even notice it anymore, she returned to her throne room, gazing at the twirling blue orb as she had from various views throughout the palace. Earth, defended by Rangers who had never lost. Setbacks they had suffered, but never for long. Allies they had from all over the universe, supposedly very powerful ones. She wasn't impressed by Trey, the Aquitian Rangers, or the Phantom Ranger. The thought they had once been mentored by Zordon was only an occasion for laughter to her. The respected sage was gone, replaced by some simpering Inquirian. Mera made a note to herself that Inquirius would be the next planet on her agenda once she had crushed Earth.

She considered battle-plans for a few moments. Once the sun came up over Angel Grove, she would be sending her Demons there. She had to test the strength of these Rangers, to determine how they functioned and what would be the easiest way to destroy them. She considered just flooding her Demons all over town. . .then shook her head. It would be more amusing to toy with the Rangers for now, to send relatively small troops. Perhaps she would even get in on the battle.

A chilling smile curved her lips as she moved to the center of the floor before her throne. It was almost time. The sun was nearing the horizon in Angel Grove, and there was something she had always done with the coming of the sun that created the darkness she had sprung from. That had created it, and would be extinguished by it when she was done.

She clenched her fists for a moment, moving her arms in an age-old pattern of combat readiness, using the Staff of Aegis as a weapon. It could morph into any weapon she desired, as she had done when she had dispatched the various other foes who had dared to lay their hands on her new property in the past. She quietly licked her lips as she leaped from the throne and spun into a complicated series of maneuvers that would have sent anyone who watched her into convulsions of fear. The maneuvers bespoke not only complete control of her body and the Staff, but patterns of the purest evil and hate.

Everywhere her feet moved, lines of thin red light appeared behind them, rising to hover a few inches off the ground as she moved past. A thick gray mist began to fill the throne room, with the lines of light the only illumination there. If anyone had been watching, they could possibly have sensed a thickness of evil paralleled by none in all the universe. Mera's movements were a strange merging of battle-tactics and a dance of purest evil celebration. They reached back to the very beginning of time and space itself, and as the power she was stirring with the dance began to rise, it focused itself around the Staff of Aegis. The red lines rose higher and higher, sliding themselves into the Staff and causing it to glow a sick and twisted scarlet.

Then she was still, the dance/combat ended. Mera's eyes pulsated the same shade that her staff did, and she seated herself upon the throne. In that fashion had she begun every day since as far back as she could remember. It was good to do the old things again, to remember where she had come from and the habits she had forged in her youth.

Her lips twitched a bit. Her youth. She couldn't even remember when she'd been young. Or her parents. She wasn't even certain if she had any. Her first memory, which was as clear as the events of only a few moments ago were, was of rising to her feet on a long-gone world, full grown and fresh, untouched by the destruction that was to come. Anything before that. . .was simple blackness. She shrugged for a moment. Whatever had come before, if anything had, was unimportant. All that mattered now was completing the task at hand: destroying the Power Rangers, conquering Earth, and bringing back the Shadow Empire.

She raised one finger, causing the air in front of her to literally rip apart, displaying a view of Angel Grove in front of her. The sun was just peeking over the horizon there, and she could feel the energy caused by her dance stirring in her veins. It was time to begin the battle once again. Destroying the forces of evil who had been in her way had been a mere prelude. Now it was time to get down to business.

It was time to destroy the Power Rangers.

* * *
Faint streaks of rose light touched the horizon, a warning of the dawn to come. In five houses around Angel Grove, five people were already awake. None of them had really been able to sleep the night before at any rate. How could one sleep when the greatest danger ever known was literally hovering over their town.

T.J. slammed a leg into the punching bag in his bedroom, working out earlier than he ever had before, and glad his aunt and uncle had had soundproofing installed just before he'd come to live with them. He was able to work out and not disturb them; since they tended to sleep late on weekends like this.

Carlos bounced his soccer ball repeatedly in his back yard, trying hard not to think about the coming attack. He kept his mind on Ashley instead, even though that disturbed him just as much as the thought of Mera did, only in an entirely different way. The Yellow Ranger was just so beautiful! He doubted he'd ever have the courage to tell her how he really felt about her.

Ashley was daydreaming, despite having awakened less than thirty minutes earlier, about Carlos. He was gorgeous, brave, and fascinating, and she dreamed about him every night, daring to believe each day that she would tell him that she loved him. She never did, though. She wondered if she ever would. With the coming of Mera, she wondered now if she could, before it was too late.

Cassie cleared her throat, humming a little under her breath, staring at the sheet music before her. She practiced singing and playing her guitar every day, and kept looking for any gigs anywhere she could. She liked playing at the Youth Center as she had been, and the little bit of extra money Mr. Stone paid her took care of her pocket money needs. But even though she'd put some of her ambitions on hold because of being a Ranger and having to go to school, she wasn't going to quit dreaming. Not even the threat of Mera could do take those dreams from her.

Justin had awakened smiling, after a warm and loving dream about his parents being together. He had loved having both of them there when he was younger. He missed his mother now, and he had missed his father all those long months while he was gone. But now Dean was back, and though things were different than they had been, they were still good. He never wanted this moment of peace to end.

* * *
The Power Chamber's computers buzzed and hummed as Dimitria and Alpha-6 scanned and searched for any hints of the first attack by Mera. The Inquirian sorceress could tell something was in the air. She had felt the rising of evil energy from the Shadow Fortress, and she didn't like it. It brought memories back to her that she wanted to forget so badly.

"Yo-yo-yo, Miss D, if these readings are right, then only the heads of the empires were killed. Their servants are on the Shadow Fortress!"

Dimitria nodded; the tears that had marred her cheeks after the Rangers had been sent home the night before were gone. Only diamond determination remained now. Mera had destroyed enough in the past. She would not destroy this world. "It does not surprise me, Alpha. Mera craves new servants, all those who served her in the past would be gone now."

"What do we know about her, D?" the robot asked, tilting his head back and looking up at her. The ancient wise woman thought for a few moments.

"Not much; it has been so long since her reign that most of those tales concerning her have devolved into myth and legend. But it is plain she is powerful, determined, and evil," Dimitria thought of those tales she had been told as a child, and shivered. The ruthless murder of Rita, Zedd, Divatox, Momma D, Havoc, Gasket, and Archerina had proven that she would destroy anyone who stood in her way, or had even considered standing in her way. "Her staff is the source of some, but not all, of her powers, and makes her all but invulnerable to the spells of enemies. Only she is able to use it, as well."

Alpha fiddled around with a few more controls. "It's almost sunrise, and I think there's some activity around the Shadow Fortress, Dimitria!"

"Are the Rangers awake yet, Alpha?" Dimitria winced at the thought of sending out half-asleep warriors into battle, but if whatever Mera sent wasn't stopped, half or more of Angel Grove would be crushed.

Alpha checked quickly and wasn't certain if he should be relieved or annoyed. "They're all awake, and it doesn't look as if they got very much sleep last night, either!"

Dimitria's lips quirked; she wouldn't have been able to sleep either, not with the spectre of a massive attack hanging over her head. She reached out with her magical senses, touching each of them gently to ensure they were fit to fight. There were spells and serums in the Power Chamber that could boost their energy levels if that were necessary, but she wanted to be certain first. "They are fit for combat if necessary," she said at last. "But I think a little something to make certain they sleep deeply tonight will be in order." She wouldn't normally interfere in their sleeping patterns, or any other aspect of their lives, but on occasion things became necessary.

Both the robot and the sorceress went stiff suddenly as the alarms started blaring noisily. Alpha checked the scans quickly. "There's a batch of Demon Warriors in Angel Grove Park, Dimitria!" he declared. "They're causing some serious damage!"

"Summon the Rangers, Alpha," Dimitria instructed. "This is the beginning."

As he sent out the call, Dimitria could only hope with all her soul that this didn't also turn out to be the end of the Power Rangers.

* * *
Weirdness abounded in Angel Grove, as did horror upon occasion, but nothing had ever before been seen like the hideous creatures that burst out of a rip in space that had opened out of nowhere to destroy the post sunrise peace of Angel Grove Park. The few people that were there, the occasional jogger or martial artist who wanted somewhere quiet to work out, were startled into fleeing by the force that was suddenly there. These things were totally unlike anything else that had ever been sent down to Earth. Instead of being clay or metal, humanoid fish or birds, these things summoned up images from the depths of human fears: they were almost mirror images of the traditional demons. The shortest of them was a good seven feet tall, with muscles to match, eyes that glowed a deep and hideous yellow, spiked tails and saw-edged wings, bodies covered with red fur, and the only clothing they bore was a brief loincloth. People were running screaming before the Demons even raised a talon. Fighting such things was not the job of the average Angel Grove citizen.

It was the job of the Power Rangers, who appeared in their usual fashion mere moments after the enemy did. Those few who still remained to watch wondered just who was going to win. "Dimitria said they're called Demons," the Red Turbo Ranger said quietly, glancing at the things that had drawn up into an attack formation not that far away. "And I believe it."

"We can't attack unless they do first," Justin reminded them. He had often been thrust into the position of keeping them aware of the rules of the power. "But I don't think they're going to wait very long to do that!"

Ashley was about to say something, but it was forever lost when the first row of the Demons lifted into the air and swept towards them, almost blurring in it's speed. The Yellow Ranger almost didn't have time to dodge out of the way before it clawed her, and landed on her side in the dirt, grunting in pain.

"Those things are fast!" Cassie shouted, diving towards one that was coming towards her and punching it in the face. "I think I miss the Piranatrons already!"

Those were the last words that the Rangers were able to speak for a while, as they were plunged into a melee of fists, knees, feet, wings, tails, claws, and who knew what else. Everyone was too busy fighting for their lives to bother with words.

T.J. grabbed one Demon by the throat and slammed it as hard as he could into a tree, almost giggling when he realized just how similar the move was to a batter's swing. Managing to get some air into his lungs, he muttered, "Strike one!"

His opponent didn't seem very fazed, however, and it was still trying to claw at him with talons that looked like they could possibly be sharp enough to penetrate his suit. He wouldn't normally have held even an enemy like that, but in some fights, you just did what you had to do. With all the strength he could muster, he slammed the Demon into the tree again, then threw it right into the cluster of the rest of it's fellows.

"Is it just me," Carlos panted, "Or did I see something like this on the Late Night Horror Show last week?"

Ashley shrugged, gathering as much breath as she could. "They're tough. Very tough!"

"No kidding," Cassie grumbled, wishing she dared demorph to figure out why her left arm felt like it was on fire. One of those things had raked it's talons down her arm, and though the suit was unpenetrated, it still felt like there was something trickling down her arm.

T.J. quickly took stock of the situation, trying to figure out what their next move could be. Okay, beating the daylights out of them isn't going to work. "Turbo Blades!" he shouted, remembering the next level of their armament. "Let's see how these things like the taste of steel!"

The Demons didn't appear overly impressed as the five of them rushed towards the foot soldiers, swords out and ready to do whatever it took to protect their town and their planet. The Rangers were only seconds away from striking what could very well have been fatal blows, or at least disabling ones, when the Demons proved their wings weren't just for show.

"Whoa," Carlos would have said something a lot stronger, if he'd been able to think of anything past his shock as the whole group of Demons lifted in the air and started sweeping down towards them, claws and tails ready to strike.

T.J.'s mind was working faster than it ever had before. He had never thought of doing anything like this against the Piranatrons, but there had never been a need for it, either. They hadn't been able to fly. "Auto Blasters!" he ordered, pulling his out and blasting as swiftly as he could at the onrushing things. Four other lasers joined his, lancing among the group of enemies as quickly and sharply as they could. He noticed one of them was wavering a little, and made a mental note, someone was injured.

This appeared to be what was necesssary, as every time one of the Demons was hit by a laser blast, it shrieked, then vanished in a puff of sulfurous smoke. The Rangers twisted and dodged to avoid the strikes of those remaining, but managed at the same time to keep firing, until the last of them were gone.

T.J.'s eyes flicked over the team as he holstered his weapon, checking them for any obvious injuries, trying to see who needed help. He frowned when he saw how Cassie was favoring one arm. "Cassie? You okay?"

"One of those things clawed me," she shrugged. "Several of them did, actually, but this is the only thing that's really hurting."

He was starting over to attempt to check on her when the air seemed to split again, and what came through this time sent chills down all their spines.

* * *
Mera watched the fight on Earth with great interest. Her emerald eyes were filled with something that might have been surprise, had it not been muted by the force of her will. "They are good fighters," she murmured, barely paying attention to the gathered troops beneath her.

Rygog, Elgar, Scorpina, and Goldar, the four warriors of the court, were gathered in a circle and watching the battle on the screen Mera had created. All of them had faced Rangers had one time or another, but even they were surprised at the violence of the battle between the Rangers and the Demons.

"I think it's time to up the stakes a little," the dark queen chuckled. "They have faced my Demons and done well. I did not think they would do this well, actually."

She turned her attention to the beings beneath her, wishing again for the old days when she had ruled over a court of true warriors, not these . ..things. "But I will not underestimate them again. The Demons did well in wearing them out, if nothing more, and you all should be able to defeat them."

Scorpina glanced at the others, then lifted her head to catch her queen's eye. "Majesty, we will fight and die for your pleasure, but we are outnumbered. There are only four of us, and five Rangers."

"So I see," Mera considered for a moment. She could always go down there with them, but she wanted to wait before making her grand debut on Earth. Besides, it simply made more sense to wait until the Rangers were worn out completely before showing up, it would put even more fear in them when she could toss them around like toothpicks.

I have not fought in some time, however, she reminded herself. She knew she would have to work to get back into her peak fighting condition. Though the crystal she had been trapped in had preserved her youth (though she didn't as a rule age anyway), her muscles and reactions had faded somewhat over the last several eons. Therefore, unless I can swiftly destroy them, I will only engage them for short times, to learn their weaknesses and find a way to destroy them with the least amount of effort.

She growled softly at the necessity of conversing her resources when she was used to the vast wealth of her empire at her fingertips, then shook her head. She would have it all back, and then some, before long. "Jayna," she snapped, her voice echoing in the chamber where Scorpina's sorceress sister was working. A few moments passed before she entered the throne room.

"You summoned me, my queen?" Jayna asked, bowing low.

"I did," Mera gestured for her to join the warriors. "I know you're here mainly for your magical prowess, but your sister has pointed out that there are five Power Rangers and only four full fledged warriors among you. You are in the main a sorceress, but you also stated you had some fighting experience?"

Jayna bowed again. "I have trained in combat, Majesty, but I am not as skilled as my sister."

"No matter," Mera shrugged. "The five of you go to Earth and attack the Rangers. Don't kill them. Just wear them down. Make them think you're going to kill them."

All five lined up before her, bowing so low they almost scraped the floor. Mera smiled; at least they could do that properly. She knew that while they had served her opposition, some of them had been unmitigated morons. She intended to alter that, when she had the time and the spare magical energy.

For now, she raised her staff and pointed it at them. A bolt of emerald light left the tip of it, and a moment later, only Mera was in the throne room. With an interested glint, quickly suppressed, she turned back to the viewscreen. This fight was merely for research on how to best defeat her enemies. She wasn't really expecting her warriors to win, but if they could inflict some unexpected damage, all the better. She leaned back in her throne and watched.

* * *
"This is bad," Carlos muttered as he and the rest of the Rangers stared across the battered expanse of Angel Grove Park to where their newest adversaries were waiting. "This is very bad."

They hadn't even had a full five minutes to rest after the Demons had finally been defeated before the air had ripped apart and these five creatures had appeared out of it. Only two of them were familiar to the Rangers, Rygog and Elgar, and even those two looked more ferocious, as if their evil had somehow been expanded on. With Mera in charge now, that was very possible.

The other three, two females and a male, were enigmas to the Rangers. The male was a burly ape-like thing encased in golden armor, with a sword almost as large as he was, and he looked like he knew how to use it too. One of the females was beautiful in a weird, evil way, also in golden armor, though hers was more geared towards a scorpion theme. The other resembled her in some respects, though her hair was a deep blonde and her eyes a sparkling blue. She wore a silver robe that morphed into silver armor with a feline design even as the Rangers watched.

The first female stepped up. "Greetings from Mera, Queen of Darkness!" she proclaimed. "I am Scorpina, right hand to Her Majesty, and these are the warriors in service to her! I assume you know Elgar and Rygog," she gestured towards the two who had been in Divatox's service. "That's Goldar," she indicated the large simian warrior, and this is my sister Jayna. Together we are going to destroy you all."

T.J. felt ice locking into his spine, the ice of purest fear. "Why doesn't the great and powerful Queen Mera come down herself?" he tried to cover it up. His question was two-edged: to get their opponents off-guard by asking something they probably didn't expect, and to see if Mera actually would come. He didn't like not knowing what his enemy looked like.

"Oh, she will," Scorpina smiled, raising her sword. "Once we've taken care of you. She doesn't bother with the likes of puny Rangers."

There was no cry of attack, the five warriors just raced directly towards the five Rangers. T.J. found himself in the path of Scorpina's blade, and kept just enough presence of mind to call the Turbo Lightning Sword in time to block her strike. Carlos wished that the Turbo Thunder Cannon wasn't as heavy and bulky as it was, he might've had better odds against Goldar. Ashley twisted and dodged away from Elgar as quickly as she could, doing her level best to keep his sword from vital parts of her anatomy. Justin didn't know what Jayna was capable of, but from the way she handled the long, slender sword she carried, it would probably be extremely dangerous and extremely painful to him if she managed to make contact with him. Cassie held back vile oaths of pain as she spin kicked Rygog with what strength she had left, and wished that almost any other part of her anatomy had been injured, so she could call up the Turbo Windfire bow.

"You're going to be lucky if you survive your planet by a few seconds!" Scorpina hissed into T.J.'s helmet as she slammed her sword against his with incredible force. "Mera will crush your world and from it's ashes will rise the new and improved Shadow Empire! Everything you hold dear will be lost, and you will know that you and all your silly Rangers have failed before it's over with!"

"Talk is cheap," T.J. growled, snap kicking her in the stomach and following it with a powerful thrust of his blade to the arm. She parried quickly, and he made a note to find a sword-teacher as soon as he could, if he was going to be fighting her on a regular basis. She was good. She was very good.

"What's a girl like you doing in company like this?" Justin had pulled out the Turbo Hand Blasters and was trading kicks and the occasional blast with Jayna.

"Hurting you," she replied calmly as she blasted a bolt from her sword at the ground in front of him. Justin dodged quickly, then jumped over, aiming a kick at her head. She fell back, whirling around in a side strike to his legs that he avoided. "What's your excuse?"

"Defending my planet."

Elgar laughed harshly at Ashley, who had the Star Chargers out and was hoping she'd be able to do her best to make him wish that he'd never come to her world. "What's the matter, Yellow Ranger? Can't stand up?"

Ashley, who was indeed having troubles staying on her feet from a bad night of sleep and a major fight, just glared at him from behind the shadows of her helmet. "What's it like working for the stone-hearted slime who killed your aunt, your grandmother, and your uncle?"

"Not so bad!" Elgar giggled insanely, and Ashley made a note; he might be more evil, but he was still a moron. "She's got a great benefits plan!"

Cassie's arm felt like it was ready to melt off her body in pure pain; she could only hope that there would be something in the Power Chamber that could help her. She didn't know what that Demon thing had done to her, but she hoped it wasn't permanent. The last thing she wanted was to be sidelined right now. The way Rygog was pounding on her, though, she wouldn't be all that surprised if she was put on temporary inactive duty for at least a couple of days.

"Awww, are you all hurt, Pink Ranger?" Rygog laughed, punching her hard. She backed up, then flipped feet first towards him, ignoring the pain to slam a powerful kick into his shell.

"Hurt, sick, or dead, I'm still more than a match for you, creep!" she growled harshly.

Goldar circled around Carlos like a shark circling tasty prey, and laughed. "You are no match for me, human! I have faced many Rangers in the past, and you are the least of them all! You know nothing of fighting, you merely play a stupid human game!"

Carlos wished he could say something in his defense, but the rather harsh truth was that none of the current Rangers, except Justin, knew the first thing about the martial arts, as compared to their predecessors. That's something we need to fix, he thought, backflipping away long enough to give himself some room. "Maybe I don't know how to fight like the other Rangers, but I'm still a Power Ranger, and I'm still not going to let you mess with my planet!"

He pulled out the Turbo Thunder Cannon, pointing it straight at Goldar. "I wouldn't take another step if I were you," the Green Ranger growled. "This planet isn't big enough for the both of us." I can't believe I actually said that.

* * *
Dimitria watched with growing fear and trepidation the scenes flowing across the Viewing Globe. She knew that by claiming the servants of the forces she had crushed, Mera had gained access to enormous mental, magical, and physical might, but she hadn't thought the dark queen would send them all into battle against her Rangers.

I should have thought so, however. Without saying anything, she began a database search of all the fighting teachers on Earth and their location. Just as her Rangers had, she had noticed how their fighting skills lacked somewhat. She intended to remedy that if she could.

Alpha looked concernedly at the monitors; he didn't like the way the fight was starting to look. The Rangers were doing all right, he thought. But Cassie looked as if she were injured, and the others were all gasping for breath and hurting in various body parts.

"We need to get them back here, Dimitria," he said. "They're not going to win!"

Dimitria scanned each of the Rangers quickly, and shivered at the thoughts inspired by her scan. They were in bad condition. She hadn't expected the fight to be this bad so quickly, most of the evil empires led slowly and gradually up to their worst attacks. If that was the way Mera was going to be working, then the things that lay ahead were horror beyond horror.

"They will win, Alpha," she declared. "They must win. The fate of Earth depends upon it. They have never left us down before, and I do not believe they will again."

Alpha turned back to the view of the Rangers, hoping his ancient friend was right. How could the Rangers win in their condition? They were almost literally on their last legs, and if the fight continued much longer, they would be done for.

Dimitria wished she could say some words of comfort to her long-time partner, but she knew none. She had no idea why she was so certain that the Rangers would come out on top. It was just something that she felt in her soul, much as she had been sensing the coming of Mera. An offshoot of her sorceress senses, she believed it was. Not true foreknowledge, but just at times a powerful certainty of things that would happen.

Her other scan was already complete. There were no teachers of fighting on Earth who could bring her students up to the required level of competence in any amount of time. But she wasn't limited to Earth. This would require Alpha's help, however.

"Alpha, check the database for all those who study and teach the fighting arts in the known universe," she requested. "Let me know if you find any who can teach the Rangers how to fight the Demons and the monsters Mera is sure to be sending with the skill they need."

The little robot would've been surprised if he could be, she knew. He probably was, after all, the Alpha series did have high levels of emotions. "'Dis could take a while, Dimitria," he reminded her even as he started the search. "And who knows what Mera could do while we're looking for a teacher?"

"I know, Alpha," she admitted. "But the Rangers must be prepared before it is too late."

He nodded quietly, hoping as she did that there would be time for them to prepare. Dimitria turned to the Viewing Globe, watching the fight, such as it was. She winced as each of the Rangers took hits that could have killed them if they hadn't been morphed, and was almost considering going out to join in the combat herself if it continued much farther.

"Alpha, prepare the medical beds," she said suddenly. "And all the infirmary equipment. The Rangers are going to need it very soon."

"Looks to me like they need it already," he grumbled a bit, but he started getting the things out anyway. Dimitria watched the Globe intently, sensing in that same part of her that had told her they would be all right that the fight was almost over with. I just hope that. ..the blood drained from her face as the alarms blared loudly all of a sudden, and the Viewing Globe displayed someone new on the battlefield.

* * *
This wasn't shaping up to be one of the greater days in Power Ranger history. The five of them could barely stand on their feet, they were getting themselves trashed by their opponents, and that was the good news. The bad news was standing casually at ease in the center of the field, between them and the five evil warriors.

She was beautiful beyond mortal measure, with long, perfectly kept cascades of midnight black hair and eyes as old as mankind or older, so green they made emeralds pale. Her skin bore a light tan, and she was garbed in what appeared to be a medieval-type gown of teal green. In her hand she carried a staff almost as long as she was tall.

"Return to the palace," she glanced over one shoulder to look at Scorpina and the others. "You have performed well this day, and shall be rewarded upon my return."

She inclined the staff towards them for a moment, and in the same teleportation rip the Rangers had been seeing all day, the five of them vanished. The woman turned her attention back to the Rangers, a tiny smile on her face.

"So you are the Power Rangers. T.J. Edwards, the Red Ranger. Carlos Alvarez, the Green Ranger. Ashley Hammond, the Yellow Ranger. Justin Stewart, the Blue Ranger. And Cassie Chan, the Pink Ranger."

T.J. limped to the front of the group, deliberately placing himself so any attacks would get to him first. "And you are?"

"Mera, Queen of Darkness and conqueror of Earth, once I've disposed of the mosquitoes like you," she replied urbanely. "Do you wish to surrender now and save yourself the trouble of being crushed into paste or do you want to do this the hard way?"

"If the hard way means fighting to the death, then so be it," Carlos' voice was firm. "We're not going to just let you trash our planet."

Mera smiled silently, and something about her ivory teeth couldn't help but remind the Rangers of the way a vampire might smile just before it sank fangs into your throat. Carlos felt a chill race down his spine at that mental comparison. "I won't make you this offer again. I'm more than capable of rendering your world and you into nothing but a memory. Oppose me, and you won't even be that. In the space of a year, no one will even know that you lived."

T.J. shook his head. "You can threaten us all you like, you can offer us anything you like. We're not going to back down. If you want this world, you're going to fight us every step of the way for it."

"Then so shall it be," Mera declared, her staff flashing as she spoke. "Beware, Power Rangers. Nothing and no one that you or your predecessors have ever faced can compare to the horrors that will be coming. This is not a threat."

She paused for a moment, and they weren't certain if she were done or if it were just for dramatic emphasis. Her last sentence was delivered in a tone that seemed likely to make the very rocks quake beneath them. "This is a promise."

Then they alone were on the battlefield. Several moments passed before they dared to even begin to relax. A soft cry of pain by Cassie, suppressed so no more weakness than they could avoid would be shown to Mera, seemed to signal that everything was over with. T.J. ran straight to her, catching her before she flat out collapsed.

"Cassie?" the worry in his voice was fully evident to everyone there, but none of them could really react to it. Their own injuries were too severe at the moment. "We'd better get back to the Power Chamber. We're all hurting."

"Tell me about it," Carlos groaned, not daring to demorph even now. He wasn't getting out of his armor until they were back in the Power Chamber. He wasn't taking any chances.

* * *
While Mera was discussing matters with the Rangers, her henchpeople were watching things on the viewscreen and debating amongst themselves. As was usual in the evil courts they were used to, this debate took on the form of slapping one another, screaming insults, and other such inanity.

Rygog and Elgar were sniping at each other, debating on which had been closer to destroying the Ranger they had been fighting. Goldar was literally leering at Jayna, making vile innuendoes that had her cheeks flame-red and her blood-pressure rising high. Scorpina stood apart from them, arms folded and her attention fully on the viewscreen.

"Silence!" she declared suddenly, turning to the rest of the fighters. "I will not have the lot of you acting like a batch of idiots while I'm in charge!"

"Who said you were in charge, anyway?" Goldar growled, trying to look imposing. Scorpina wasn't impressed. She'd seen everything he had centuries earlier, and it simply didn't interest her.

Quietly, she walked over to him, and delivered a kick that could have put a dent in solid steel to a specific portion of his anatomy. "One: Queen Mera put me in charge of you idiots, stating specifically that I'm her right hand. Remember? Two: normally I let Jayna handle her own romantic affairs, but if I'm right, she wants nothing to do with you."

Jayna nodded. She wasn't a total innocent; no one who served in Master Vile's armies as she had would be, but some of the things Goldar had been suggesting to her while whispering in her ear had turned her stomach. She preferred to pick and choose her lovers, and he just wasn't to her type and taste at all. "I'd rather bed down with a Zelixian serpent!" she growled. Both Rygog and Elgar chuckled, a Zelixian serpent was one of the deadliest of reptiles. A single drop of it's venom was said to be so potent that the victim was often dead before they had registered the fact they had been bitten.

Scorpina nodded quietly. "Queen Mera said that she was pleased with our efforts. I'm not. The battle never technically ended, when Her Majesty came down it was put on hold. But when we fight the Rangers again, barring royal orders otherwise, I want us to flatten them. I only want there to be a smudge on the ground where they used to be. From now on, this is how it's going to be."

She proceeded to outline a rigorous series of training exercises that looked practically designed to almost break every bone in their bodies. Goldar stared at her as if she'd lost her mind. "You expect me to do this?" he growled.

"I don't just expect you, I know you're going to," she snapped, glaring directly into his ruby eyes. She didn't feel the need to add any threats in case he didn't, the implications in her steel-cold eyes were all she needed. He would do it, and he knew he would, and she knew that he knew it. Finally he just grunted something that was probably an insult, and shuffled off to his quarters, most likely to sulk. It was going to take him some time to get used to no longer being 'top warrior'. Scorpina smiled frostily at his retreating back. That had been well worth the wait.

The others were dispersing already, going off to whatever amusements or whatever held their attention. Scorpina remained in the throne room, awaiting Mera's return. A glance at the viewscreen showed that she was just finishing up her confrontation with the Rangers, and was about to leave. Scorpina drew herself up to full attention, ready to greet her Queen. She could really get into being the right hand to the Queen of Darkness, she thought. Yes, she could.

* * *
There were only five people and a droid in the Power Chamber, but as Dimitria watched nervously, there seemed almost to be a hundred of each running around, using all the medical technology they had to save each other's lives.

"That is nasty!" Ashley stared in shock at Cassie's arm. Once she had demorphed, upon returning to the Chamber quite literally in T.J.'s arms, the first thing they had seen was what looked like a third-degree burn on the Pink Ranger. "How did it do that?"

"It was holding onto my arm while I was trying to get it off," Cassie winced as Alpha brought over one of his devices and started to wave it up and down her arm. Cool blue light was emitted, and she could literally see the injury healing. "I don't know how it got through my armor and to my skin!"

Dimitria shook her head. "There are things about the power and about Mera's dark forces that are unknown, and will likely remain that way for some time. With Alpha's help, all of your injuries should be healed soon, however."

"We didn't do that well, though, did we?" T.J. didn't raise his eyes to Dimitria; he didn't think he could look his mentor in the face right now. "They went through us almost as if we weren't even there."

The sorceress's voice was clear and proud. "T.J., you did your best. No one can expect more from a person. Mera is a deadly enemy, and the evil that makes her what she is now feeds her lesser warriors, making them stronger. The battle is just beginning, I fear."

"Can we win?" the Red Ranger's voice was so small and meek that everyone stopped what they were doing to turn and look at him. Dimitria left her tube and came down to stand in front of him.

"T.J., you can only lose if you let yourself lose faith in your friends, yourself, and what it means to be a Power Ranger. Never lose that, and no matter what, you will come through in the end."

The smile that she got from that was worth worlds. The team's leader then returned to seriousness. "We are going to need more training, though. As a group, we're just not strong enough, and if she gets the idea to attack while we're out in public, we need to know more fighting techniques. I think we should look for a teacher."

"I've already begun a search, Rangers," Dimitria surprised them by saying. "There is no one on Earth who is good enough to give you the fighting skills you need. I've expanded the search to other planets, but it could take some time. Until then, I would suggest you all spend as much time as you can in the training rooms. From the scans we did of your fights so far, we should be able to set up 75% accurate holographs that will aid in your training."

The Rangers all nodded; foreseeing quite a bit of loss of free time ahead of them. Thankfully summer vacation was less than a month away, and if they could just survive that, then they would be able to devote practically all of their free time to both training and Rangering. It wasn't exactly an ideal way to spend the three months of freedom from school, but if it bought them the freedom of their world, then it was well worth it.

A rough form of silence fell around the Power Chamber as Alpha shuffled back and forth between them, getting wounds healed and lesser injuries tended to. This had to have been the worst battle physically that the team had been in since they had been formed.

"Also, Rangers," Dimitria spoke again. "Tonight, do not remain awake worrying about the moves that Mera might be making. Worrying accomplishes nothing and drains your energy. I will be making certain you all sleep. A good part of the reason you were injured as you were was because you lacked proper rest. The power increases what you already have, but if you're not at full strength, then it's not as effective."

With varying expressions of shame and agreement on their faces, the Rangers all agreed. But all of them held a secret worry in their heart, and a conviction that today's battles were not yet over with.

* * *
Mera was already deep in thought as she reappeared in her throne. Scorpina thought about mentioning Goldar's insubordinance, but decided it would probably be a better idea not to; the queen didn't look as if she were really concerned about it at the moment. Better to wait.

Indeed, Mera wouldn't have cared less about Goldar at that moment. Her thoughts were all on the Power Rangers. She hadn't truly been surprised by their refusal of her offer; Rangers tended to do that sort of thing. Not all of them, she smiled briefly at the thought. But enough so that this didn't surprise her.

They were injured, however. Badly so, and obviously exhausted for some reason or another. A quick glance to the viewscreen showed they were already off the battlefield. Knowing them, they were in their Power Chamber already, getting fixed up from the two fights they'd already went through. Which meant that they were probably not in the best condition for another battle.

She rose silently and turned to Scorpina. "Come with me," her voice was crisp and eager. Her warrior jumped to attention, following along behind her as she crossed the throne room and went through a half-hidden door in one side. It led to a long corridor with another door at the far end, which flew open as she drew closer to it.

On the other side was a wide room at least twice the size of the throne room, with crystals of varying sizes stacked in neat rows. "This is the Crystal Chamber," Mera informed her. "Here I keep samples from the worlds I once ruled," there was a growl in her voice at the tense she was forced to use, but she kept going. "These are some of the finest warrior-creatures in the universe."

"Are they all loyal to you?" Scorpina wondered. Mera shook her head, a faint gleam in her eyes.

"Unfortunately, no. Some are, but some are either too wild or too stupid for me to truly claim their loyalty, others are, or were, warriors of the light, which means they can't be trusted at all," she walked down the crystal rows, finally pausing in front of one of them. "I think this should do nicely for the first of my creatures to be released upon the Earth."

Scorpina walked up beside her and took a look. The creature in the crystal had it's eyes closed, as did they all. It was roughly eight feet tall, with blue-scaled skin, a furred loincloth, and muscles in places Scorpina would have taken a bet had never been designed by nature to have muscles. "It is most impressive, Queen Mera," Scorpina stated.

"Evrian is just a fighter," Mera shrugged a little. "He was literally designed by the environment of his world to destroy and crush things. He's not exactly the brightest creature here, but that's not a real problem. The Rangers are too tired and injured to fight properly against him, and he'll easily destroy them."

She reached out with the Staff of Aegis, touching it to the crystal. The orb in the center glowed pale green for a moment, then the crystal vanished, releasing the creature. The eyes opened, revealing they were a deep brown with yellow slit pupils. Mera spoke at once. "Do you remember who I am, Evrian?"

The creature dropped to one knee. "Thou art Mera, Queen of Darkness, and my mistress. What is thy bidding?"

"I am conquering a new world, Evrian. It has defenders, but they are weak and pathetic. You are to go down and destroy them."

Evrian's grin was hideous, with more teeth than any creature had a right to possess. "As thou say, Dark Majesty!" he bowed low, a long staff appearing in one hand, then with another gesture from the Staff, was gone.

"Do you really think he'll destroy the Rangers, m'lady?" Scorpina wondered. She'd seen the Rangers going up against impossible odds before and win. She knew Mera had reviewed the history of the Earth Rangers and had to know that as well. I don't think she's that overconfident.

Mera shrugged. "If he does, then my conquest is secured. If he doesn't, then I'll just do something else. Sooner or later, this world will be mine."

* * *
The current Rangers may not have been as much into the fighting and martial arts as previous generations had been, but they knew more than enough, when coupled with the enhanced affects of the Power, to give Evrian a serious fight when they came down to deal with him a few minutes after he first set foot on Earth.

It circled around them for a few moments, making minor strikes, tapping it's staff against various body parts of theirs, annoying them. "Art thou the best this world doth offer to rise against me?" it cackled. "Thou art naught but childen! Send against me true warriors, of skill and knowledge, that my prowess and reputation might be greatly renowned when I defeat them!"

"Sorry, ugly, but we're going to be taking you down personally!" Cassie shouted, glad that they had been able to at least lessen the pain her arm was suffering. She felt like she could fight now without screaming mindlessly every time she moved.

Evrian only laughed, then leaped towards them almost too fast for them to see, seizing Ashley in it's tight claws. "Oftimes hath I slain female warriors," it hissed. "Ne'er hath I slain one that be as toothsome as I see thee to be 'neath thy helmet! Had my queen not given me orders, thou might become one of my mates!"

The Yellow Ranger felt like upchucking at the very thought, and slammed a foot as hard as she could into the anatomy of the monster. "You've got to be kidding!" she told it, her voice inches from a scream as it's claws tightened on her. "You're not my type.'re not even my species!"

"'Tis true," Evrian admitted. "But it matters naught, for thee and thine doth be under Royal death sentence!"

With a powerful push, it threw her against a tree, and they could hear a solid crack as she hit her head. They knew she'd be all right, she was protected by her armor, but the sight and sound of her sliding down to the ground in semi-consciousness was more than Carlos could take. A wild yell burst forth from his lips as he pulled out his weapon.

"You're going to pay for that, creep!" he roared, firing the Turbo Thunder Cannon. Evrian flew back several feet, then leaped back up, shaking off the effects.

"Thou'lt have to do better than that, mortal!" it declared, and leaped on top of him from clear across the park, driving him back a good ten feet and starting to slam his head into the ground with one hand, while clawing at his chest and stomach with the other. "Much better!"

Carlos struggled as harshly as he could, twisting his head around momentarily to see Ashley still trying to get up as fast as she could. She was still disoriented as far as he could tell, and he turned his attention back to the matter at hand: keeping his own self alive and in one piece.

Taking his eyes off Evrian proved to be nearly fatal, however, as a strike he hadn't seen coming and couldn't block landed directly on top of his helmet, burying his head deeply into the ground, and causing blackness to envelop his entire mind.

"Get your hands off him!" Ashley's sudden wild cry startled all of them, especially the monster! It barely had time to look up before a flying yellow armor-covered form landed on it's back, Turbo Star Chargers slamming directly into his neck and releasing a major electrical charge. She'd finally managed to get herself back on her feet, and what she had seen had infuriated her. "You don't hurt my friends, and you most especially don't hurt Carlos!" she hissed. She was about to charge towards it again when T.J. put a hand on her shoulder.

"He's going to be okay, but it looks like he's out of it for this fight," Cassie called over to them as they circled around Evrian. "We're going to have to finish this without him."

"Get him back to the Power Chamber," T.J. instructed. "Ashley and I can handle this."

Neither Justin nor Cassie argued with this, vanishing in a streak of pink, blue, and green as they got Carlos to the medical attention he needed. Ashley turned to her leader, and he could almost see her eyes burning with fury behind her helmet. "Let's take this thing down."

T.J. nodded quietly. "Turbine Laser!" he summoned one of their tougher weapons. Normally they used this on things like the Freeze Key, but they knew this qualified as a special occasion. They were temporarily down one member, so if it grew to gigantic size, they wouldn't be able to deal with it with either the Turbo or Rescue MegaZords. Calling Lightning Cruiser or Storm Blaster just wouldn't do, the two sentient cars didn't quite have the firepower to deal with this thing. The Turbine Laser was the only way.

"Thy toy doth put no fear in me, the greatest of Queen Mera's warrior creatures!" Evrian scoffed. "Soon thou shalt join thy green comrade in pale death!"

T.J. turned to his teammate. "Would you care for the honors, my dear Ashley?"

"With pleasure," Ashley made no dramatic moves, poses, or speeches. She simply unleashed the power of the Turbine Laser directly at Evrian. As he crumbled to dust, she lifted her head to where she knew Mera would be watching. She said nothing for a moment, then turned to T.J. Without another word, both of them teleported to the Power Chamber.

* * *
The entire court had wandered back into the throne room during the fight, and had been cheering for Evrian the entire time. When he fell to the Turbine Laser, however, the entire room found itself silent, eyes all on Mera.

"Interesting," was all she said. It appeared that this conquest wasn't going to be easy, or at least not a quick one. She was beginning to think she didn't mind, however. To have a challenge so soon after her re-emergence was rather entertaining. And nothing truly worth having was ever gained effortlessly, at any rate. Let the humans put up a fight. It would make things so much more pleasurable when she finally did rule them.

She extended one hand, summoning something from her personal library. One might think it would be easier to simply go there, but considering the fact it extended throughout three-quarters of the Shadow Fortress, that would have been a bit impractical. With this, things were simplified.

As Mera began to leaf through the pages, her thoughts were not just on the fight she had just witnessed, but on how she could turn certain things to her advantage. Their emotions are their greatest weakness, she mused. I seriously doubt I could turn all of them towards the darker emotions, as entertaining as that would be. I could probably do it temporarily, but not forever, they'd break free sooner or later.

But, she reminded herself, the Rangers had those dark emotions already. They just didn't give in to them. She, on the other hand, didn't indulge herself in any emotions whatsoever that she could avoid. The Rangers possess the dark emotions, the phrase rang over and over in her mind, and she quickly turned to the index of the book.

This book wasn't a normal book. To look at it, it was a slender volume of barely a dozen pages. That was the outside. On the inside, it was a complete and detailed listing of every monster and magical artifact in the Shadow Fortress, as well as what their capabilities were. She'd penned this little volume for quick reference, something she could look through when she felt more in the mood for taking consideration of her next scheme.

"Majesty?" her eyes flicked up at the sound of Finster's voice. "Have you completed your attacks for today?"

Mera shrugged. "I might as well," she didn't sound very interested. "The lot of you can do whatever it is you do. I have a plan to work out and I don't really need your assistance."

Her attention was back on the book before she'd finished saying the last word, and she ignored it as they all shuffled out. A slow and cruel smile touched her lips suddenly as she paused at one particular page. The design of one of her artifacts was traced onto one page, with the description next to it. As she slowly read through it, she nodded. This was exactly what she needed. As she headed for her Artifact Chamber, she couldn't help but chuckle. The Rangers were going to turn out to be her best friends in this conquest.

* * *
Ashley was standing beside the med-bed, her eyes totally focused on the still figure of Carlos. He had been that way ever since she and T.J. had returned to the Power Chamber and she was starting to get severely worried.

"Why hasn't he woke up yet?" she spoke without even looking at either Alpha or Dimitria.

"Though being morphed, he was protected from most of the force caused by his striking against the ground, apparently enough residual damage was left to render him unconscious," Dimitria replied. "Alpha has repaired all he could; he should be waking up soon."

Cassie nodded. "Let's hope so; we don't need to have to explain anything to his parents about why he's in a coma!"

"Don't say that!" Ashley's voice was harsh. "He's going to wake up!"

The other three Rangers moved a little apart as Ashley held Carlos' hand and stared at him as if she had never seen anything quite like that in her life. "Is he really going to be all right?" Justin cursed the quaver in his voice as he looked up at Dimitria, by whose tube they had gathered.

"He will be, Justin," Dimitria reassured him. "He will be."

"I didn't think any of us could get hurt while we were morphed," Cassie murmured, striking to the heart of what was disturbing all of them. First her arm injury, and now Carlos being unconscious. It looked almost as if the power had deserted them.

A gentle hand on her shoulder caused her to look up into the dark eyes of her mentor. "Remember, Cassie, that while your powers make it harder for you to be hurt, it is not impossible. Mera's minions are stronger by several degrees than what you are used to, and as I said, there is still much that is unknown about them and the power that is yours as Rangers."

"Is there a way to find out more? Enough to help us in these fights? I know you're looking for a teacher for us, but if we could somehow enhance or upgrade the Turbo powers, then that would hold us until then."

Dimitria looked thoughtful for a few moments. "It might be possible, but it would take a great deal of time and effort, as well as deep research into the nature of the Turbo powers themselves. We can try, however, Justin."

The Blue Ranger nodded, his mind already working towards the research that would be entailed in it. He leaned back a little bit, his eyes half-closed and his thoughts vanished into various directions. The other two Rangers glanced at one another; they'd seen this on a couple of prior occasions.

Cassie sneaked a glance over her shoulder to where Carlos still lay and Ashley still watched him. "Remember that bet we made yesterday about how fast Carlos and Ashley would be dating?" she whispered softly to T.J. When he nodded, she continued, "Want to rethink terms? It hasn't been two days yet, which means you don't win just yet, and it hadn't happened by the next time we saw them, which means I technically lost, but only technically."

"What were you thinking?" T.J. raised an eyebrow. They weren't normally given to betting on their friends' love lives, but a chance like this was just too great to ignore.

"Whether or not one of them will say something about how they feel when Carlos wakes up," Cassie could see the Green Ranger starting to move a little, and from the look in Ashley's eyes, she intended to do something about their near-relationship once he was capable of speech. She continued. "I think Ash is going to admit it."

* * *
As the Rangers discussed, or thought, or waited, or did the things they did, Dimitria withdrew back to her tube, reviewing not only the records of the battle, but the search that was still going on for the teacher. So far, no one had yet been found who was suitable.

Then, her eyes widened. Why hadn't she thought of it before!? There was one person who could train the Rangers to a level never before dreamed of. There was just one flaw with her plan, but it might be something she could take care of.

"Rangers, I shall return. There is something I must deal with," was all she said before lifting her eyes and vanishing. She traveled through the universe as quickly as a thought, heading for a planet far from Earth.

Two moons hung in the skies over it, as did a sun similar to Earth's. In many respects it was Earthlike, with jungles, mountains, and oceans. But it was far, far, older than Earth, as the ruins on one particular mesa showed.

In the center of the ruins, in a wide clearing, a tall, muscular woman was moving in an elaborate and deadly kata. She was working unarmed, but every step she made detailed out strength and skill that would have sent fear into the heart of Mera's Demon Warriors.

"Dulcea," Dimitria spoke quietly and firmly, and the Master Warrior of Phaedos turned swiftly to see the mentor to the Power Rangers behind her.

"Dimitria!" she smiled broadly, coming over and embracing the Inquirian with strong arms. "It has been too long, sister!"

The sorceress smiled. "We are but half-sisters, Dulcea. But as much as I wish it could be for pleasure I've come here, it is for business."

Dulcea frowned at once. "What do you mean? The last I heard from you, you had taken on Zordon's post on Earth, guiding the latest generation of the Rangers."

"True," Dimitria nodded. "And it is on their behalf that I have come here."

She hoped Dulcea would agree to her request, or at least think about it. Something on the order of forty thousand years earlier, Dimitria's mother had died in the birthing of her daughter, and apparently in the mysterious twin sister that Viseron had told her about. Her father had done his best to raise her for five years, until he had fallen in love and married a warrior woman from the planet of Phaedos. Less than two years after that, Dulcea had been born. The two girls had grown up together, with Dulcea taking after her mother in learning the arts of combat and Dimitria studying sorcery and skills of knowledge. Shortly after they came of age, both their parents had died in an attack by the combined forces of Dark Spectre and Ivan Ooze on Inquirus. The attack had been repulsed in the end, though it had cost many lives, and it had solidified into a firm determination in both girls to fight the forces of evil in any way they could.

Dulcea had delved even more deeply into the arts of the Ninjetti that her mother had taught her, and had wound up going to her ancestral homeland of Phaedos, there to become the Guardian of the Ninjetti Temple. Her aging process stopped because of the magic of the place, she was no longer able to leave, but she did train other warriors in how to fight the forces of darkness.

Dimitria had reveled in magic as she had grown older, and her own aging process had halted as a result of her immersion in the pure arts of sorcery. The two of them had met infrequently over the years since attaining adulthood, but they kept in touch as often as they could. One of the greatest joys of Dulcea's life had been to hear that her sister had been selected by Zordon to take his place guiding the latest batch of Rangers from Earth. Though the ones she had met had all went on to other things, she knew that these had to be of equal strength.

"You have?" Dulcea raised an eyebrow. "What is your need?"

With quick words, Dimitria outlined the recent events; Mera's return, the death of the varied forces of evil, and the savage, brutal attacks on the Power Rangers. "They are fine fighters, but they just aren't skilled enough to deal with Mera's Demons and her monsters. Already they have been injured. If they do not learn skills of combat beyond what they have now, I fear for their safety, and their lives."

"You know I can't leave here," Dulcea reminded her. "I would die if I did."

Dimitria nodded. "There might be a way to change that, however."

Her sister's eyes widened. "How?"

* * *
T.J. couldn't keep his eyes away from the empty tube. He couldn't help but feel a certain sense of helplessness at the possibility that Mera might launch another attack before they were ready to deal with it. If they ever were, he though, shivering at the memory of how powerful the Demons and the warriors had been. That monster hadn't exactly been a pushover either. Sure, the Turbine Laser had taken him down, but that was no guarantee that the other things she would send would be taken care of just as easily.

He knew that Evrian was quite literally the tip of the iceberg. Whatever else Mera sent would likely be large, dangerous, and deadly. His imagination painted scenarios in which nothing he did was good enough to save his friends and the entire planet paid the price for his failure.

Once again he forced the thoughts away from his mind. He couldn't think about failure now, or he would fail. He refused to be responsible for the end of the world.

Without really knowing how or why, he found himself wandering down to the garage where the TurboZords were kept. Despite having used them for close to a year now, he couldn't believe that cars were the weapon of choice for the major line of defense of the planet. He ran a hand across the roof of Red Lightning, smiling a little to himself.

Beep, beep. The sound made him turn, and his smile widened to see Lightning Cruiser behind him. "Hey, buddy," he patted the sentient car on the head. "What have you been up to?"

Silly, really, expecting a car to answer him. But from the way the headlights flashed and the horn sounded, he got the impression the Cruiser was saying `nothing but the usual'. He had talked with Justin about this before, and the Blue Ranger got the same feeling from Storm Blaster, that he could understand what they were saying. What had made these two vehicles decide they wanted to stay with them and join in the fight, he didn't know, but he had often been glad they had.

"You know what's going on, don't you?" he asked, sliding in behind the driver's seat. "You know about Mera and what she's been doing," a noncommittal beep. "I don't know if we're good enough. I know Dimitria's looking for a way to get us some training, and Justin's probably already figuring out forty different ways to upgrade our powers. ..but I just don't know."

A sharp beep and a flash of the headlights this time. Quite clearly, the Cruiser was telling him that he was good enough. He smiled. One of the best things about being a Ranger was you got some of the best friends in the cosmos. Friends who would never let you down, or who would let you get down on yourself. He had to admit, however, that he'd never thought one of those friends would turn out to be a car.

* * *
Carlos' eyelids felt as if they were weighted down as he tried to open them. He thought he could see something or someone beyond them, but he wasn't certain. His head felt as if someone were pounding a drum on the inside, and every muscle in his body ached in more ways than he wanted to think about. He wondered why he hadn't died; the monster's grip on him had been tight, and he still remembered the sound his helmet had made when it had hit the ground.

Thank goodness for Ranger healing, he thought vaguely. He could feel something on his right hand now, it felt like fingers. Human fingers, so it wasn't Alpha trying to take his blood pressure or something. He made a massive effort, and his eyes made it all the way open this time, clearing as they did so.

What he saw. . .or rather, who he saw, was not what and who he had expected. Ashley was sitting there, her hand in his, and her eyes full of worry as she leaned over him. "Carlos?" she murmured. "Are you awake?"

"Either that or in heaven," he heard himself say, then flushed four different shades of red. "Ummmm. .."

Ashley smiled quietly. "Carlos, are you feeling up to talking? Cause I really think we should."

His head was clearing already, and he blinked several times to clear the sleep caked in his eyes. Aside from a few assorted aches and pains, he felt more or less back to normal. He made a note to never take for granted his powers or whatever it was Alpha was currently waving over him; it looked like an upgraded version of the same device he'd used to heal Cassie's burnt arm earlier. "Thanks, Alpha," he said, rubbing his forehead. "I needed that."

"No sweat, Carlos," the robot almost seemed to be grinning as he walked away. "You two talk!"

Carlos frowned, then glanced over to see what Dimitria was doing. Shock filled him when he saw her plasma tube empty. "Where's Dimitria?" he wondered, hoping something hadn't happened and she hadn't left them. ..No, Dimitria would never do that!

"She went to take care of something, she didn't say what it was," Ashley shrugged a little, then moved to what she was really thinking about. "Carlos, we've known each other a while, right? About a year and a half or so, I think."

He nodded; remembering their first meeting back when he'd just been the hot shot of the soccer team and she'd been a peppy cheerleader. He would have gone out of his way a thousand times over to talk to her, and a seemingly random Piranatron attack had given him the opportunity he'd sought. They'd talked for a while, but nothing had come of it.

Or had it? They now were Power Rangers together, laying their lives on the line on a daily basis. They'd come to know and trust each other, and their teammates, in a way few people ever could or would.

"Ashley, what are you trying to say?" he asked, looking at her and surprised to see her cheeks were flame-red and her head was down, looking at the floor. "Ashley?"

"Carlos," she whispered. "I've wanted to say this for a while, but I never had the guts. But when you got hurt, I realized I couldn't stay around you and not say it anymore. When it was just Divatox, I could've. We weren't in any real danger, nothing we had to worry about or couldn't handle. But Mera's different. Mera's dangerous. I couldn't live with myself if. ..if something happened to you," she was trembling, and he reached out to take her hand quietly. For a moment, Ashley fell silent, then continued. "Carlos, I love you."

The words hit him like a lightning bolt. More than that, like an entire lightning storm! Slowly, he picked up her hand, and used it to draw her closer to him, sitting up on the med-bed. "Ashley," he said, gazing into her sparkling eyes and watching as fear and worry began to fade. "I love you too."

The two of them drew closer together, and their lips met in a kiss of such power and passion that it almost set off alarms of it's own. Alpha, peeking from where he was scanning for any movements by Mera, chuckled to himself. Took them long enough.

* * *
Far from Earth, far from Phaedos, in the center of what had once been Mera's palace and was now the residence of her successor Master Vile, that sorcerer was marching up and down in his throne room, cursing in languages that made the servants who were in earshot wince and turn pale.

How dare Mera steal his two best servants away from him? Was there no end to the woman's perfidy? She had not only returned from what should have been her eternal slumber in crystal, she had killed a group of the most evil beings in the universe, including his daughter and son!

Losing Rito wasn't that big of a deal, really. He was disappointing when it came to grand schemes of evil, pretty much all he was good for was either comic relief or to be screamed at. The best thing he'd ever done was bring a batch of Tengas from M-51 to Earth, and they still hadn't been enough.

But Rita. ..Rita and Zedd, Vile ruefully admitted to himself. They were indeed a great loss. He might not have liked Zedd all that much, but he had sensed the love between him and his daughter, and they had made a semi-effective team. Regardless of his personal feelings, they were family, too. He could've been a grandfather, if Mera hadn't interfered. The thought of raising up another generation to be wicked and cruel as he was appealed to Vile.

He reminded himself there was still a chance, however. If his last remaining child ever had offspring. He doubted she would, though. He was just glad she still lived; she had been born long after Mera's defeat, and she had kept an extremely low profile since she had went out on her own.

Vile paced more, trying to concentrate and figure out a plan of action. He couldn't just sit back here and wait for his enemy to come to him. He knew Mera, he knew that she wouldn't come back to M-51 until and unless she was at the head of an army that at least equaled the one she had possessed in the old days. Equaled, if not surpassed it. He had won by a fluke, and she wasn't going to rest until she had reclaimed what she believed was rightfully hers.

I need something to make certain her plans fail or are at least delayed until I get things in position so I can take out her troops here, he didn't even consider the possibility the Rangers would defeat her. She'd literally eaten Rangers for breakfast. She would wipe this batch away in no time. I need a spy, he decided. A spy in her ranks. But who could he send that she wouldn't suspect, and who if they were found out, it wouldn't be a great loss?

He glanced through the reports that had been sent to him. Mera sent reports to the United Alliance of Evil, just like every other evil monarch in the universe, but hers were slanted more towards a subtle gloating that indicated not even after all these centuries had she lost her touch. Suddenly, the perfect answer occurred to him. Already in place, needing only to be contacted and persuaded. Vile didn't expect that to take long; from the reports he'd seen and from what he knew already, they would be jumping at the chance before he had finished his spiel.

Vile headed swiftly for the communications room, his anger over the death of Rita and her entourage forgotten, his fury over the defection of Scorpina and Jayna gone. Only the burning need for revenge remained. Revenge he would have, no matter what it cost him. Revenge, and the death and frustration of the so-called Queen of Darkness.

* * *
The Youth Center was it's usual crowded, noisy self later that day. Alpha had practically ordered the five teenagers to go there and relax, if there was an attack, he'd let them know, and if Dimitria wanted them when she got back from wherever she was, she'd let them know. Until then, they were under strict orders to stay out, have fun, and sleep!

Carlos and Ashley were sitting next to each other, holding hands. He had already recovered from his brush with death, and the emotional bliss of finding out the girl he loved, loved him. Cassie and T.J. had decided not to continue the bet; it was getting too difficult to determine just who had done what when.

T.J. was feeling a little better himself after his `discussion' with Lightning Cruiser, and the smoothie and burger he was currently having another form of discussion with were making him feel even better.

Justin had thought hard and long about how to adjust the Turbo powers, but there wasn't much he could really do until Dimitria returned and they could get into an in-depth discussion of the power and how it worked. He wondered where she'd went; Alpha didn't seem to know, and this wasn't really like her. He had faith she would return, however.

Cassie was watching Carlos and Ashley as they gazed into each other's eyes, and felt a slight twinge of jealousy at them. Been months since I saw the Phantom Ranger. I don't even know if that was love or just infatuation or what. . .but regardless, she's got a boyfriend and I've got nothing.

"Hey, look everyone! Angel Grove News has the footage of the Rangers' latest fight!" Lt. Stone turned the television on the counter around. The Rangers themselves just glanced over, not really all that eager to see themselves get trounced again.

As the footage played of the fight, T.J. made a note to himself that he needed to put up some form of a press release about their new enemy. As team leader, that was sort of his job, and it wasn't one he truly relished. But there were some things that just seemed to go with the territory.

"Man, the Rangers were really getting trashed out there," Skull's voice was unmistakable as he and his best friend Bulk watched the show. "I wonder what's going on. Those things really aren't Divatox's style."

Bulk shrugged. "There's rumors about some new evil lady in town. Really dangerous."

"Glad we don't have to deal with her," his thin friend declared. The two of them wandered off to whatever it was they were doing today. All the Rangers had winced when they had heard that. With the luck those two morons had, they'd probably wind up wandering straight into the middle of whatever it was that Mera planned next.

A reporter stepped in front of the camera. "It has been reported that the Rangers were also involved in another battle early this morning with something that did not look like the familiar Piranatrons we have come to know over the last several months, but were far more dangerous. Though nothing has been confirmed, if it is true, then we could have a new foe for the Power Rangers to fight. Nothing has been heard from the Power Rangers on this situation, but we are expecting some sort of report."

T.J. winced again; he knew he was going to have to face the reporters for this one, and confirm Mera's existence. I wonder how Tommy handled this, he wondered. Then he shrugged. He would deal with it. He was a Power Ranger, and they dealt with everything. From reports on television to fighting alien evil queens. And they would win.

* * *
Mera was almost grumbling as she rummaged through various parts of the Artifact Chamber. It was one of the few areas in her base that wasn't perfectly kept up, and she was thinking deadly seriously about organizing it one of these days. She had to find what she was looking for.

She sat back on her haunches for a moment, glancing at all the things there. Every item in here was magical in some form or another. Flying carpets, wands and staffs of power, though none that could compare to her own Staff of Aegis, gemstones and jewels, some free, others set in various pieces of jewelry, statues said to hold great magical power. She was a collector and a gourmand of sorts of these sorts of things, and had been for centuries.

A faint sparkle caught her eye, and she almost literally dived for it, glad she had come alone. It just wouldn't do to let any of her troops see her acting so undignified here. She jerked a tapestry reputed to have a thousand ghosts trapped in it aside, to stare at the fully revealed mirror in front of her.

It was a thing of purest beauty, with a frame of gold and a surface that looked to have been polished for a thousand years. According to the legends, it had been. In itself, it looked no different from many other mirrors, and would have not been out of place in some wealthy person's drawing room or bedroom.

The true value of this was it's hidden power, however. Mera smiled coldly, touching the glass for a moment with one finger, while keeping a firm grip on her Staff. She was immune to it's effect as long as she kept the Staff with her.

"You are going to work just perfectly," she smiled. "Beware, Power Rangers. I've got something you might just want to reflect on!"