The axe sank deeply into the trunk of the felled tree. Pulling the blade free with little effort Solan sent the tool whistling down into the bark again, widening the cut he had made. Another two dozen chops split off this portion from the main body of wood and with one hand he tossed it over into the pile with the others. Once he had finished sectioning the tree he would quarter each piece before loading them into the cart for transport back to the village.
He had volunteered for this task in part because had never performed it before. Kaleipus had always maintained that chopping down trees for firewood was work for men, not children. There was thus a faint sense of pride and fulfillment in his current undertaking.
Mostly, however, he had chosen this job because he wanted very much to kill something.
Actually he wanted to kill someone, but with Archon beyond his reach this tree was the substitute target for his wrath. For a time the challenge of bringing it down had actually relaxed him, but no longer. Now his thoughts were turning back to his grim reality.
Over the past few weeks he had struggled to come to terms with the fact that Archon was really . . . him. Or a version of him, anyway. He was not Archon and would never become like the evil god; the very prospect sickened him.
He couldn't deny that his alternate world self had helped him. Without Archon he would be dead, and forever ignorant of the truth about himself and who he was.
Yet Archon had also brought about the deaths of good people, such as Jo and Josh. The god had deliberately lied to try to get him to kill Justin, all in an attempt to manipulate and shape Solan into Archon's own grotesque image. And when that endeavor had failed Archon had stranded Justin here, on Solan's world.
The terrible malice of that final act still horrified the young Warrior Prince. In some ways it seemed an even crueler punishment than giving the Ranger over to death. To be forced to live on a strange Earth, knowing you were forever separated from everyone and everything you had known and loved . . . that wrong alone would have been enough to turn any gratitude Solan might have felt toward Archon into hate.
Considering what Justin was suffering brought Solan's spirits lower than the downed tree. The auburn-haired adolescent had thankfully not slipped back into that frightening period of non-responsiveness, but what had followed was almost worse: never in his life had he seen anyone so dejected, so shrouded in misery. Throughout the tournament Justin had given the rest of them hope; now hope had deserted him. He spent much of his time sitting on the edge of his bed, thinking or perhaps mourning. He said very little and his every movement seemed overshadowed by a kind of listless despair.
Of course there was little he could say, to anyone except Solan. They'd learned that on the second day here, the twelve year-old recalled with a grimace.
After he had awoken and gently disentangled himself from Justin he had set about preparing their meal. When Justin had arisen he had offered it to the teen apologetically. Bread dipped in wine was the customary breakfast here, but he knew it was poor fare compared to what Justin was used to. The Ranger had consumed it without complaint, though his expression had told Solan much.
Most of the village's inhabitants had already gathered outside the door by the time they had finished. Solan had considered going out to speak to them alone, but keeping Justin hidden would only make him a greater object of interest and curiosity. He had quickly explained this to Justin, asking him to come with him and perhaps say a few words. Justin had made no objection and they had emerged together.
He had kept his explanation brief, stating that after his death his soul had been tested by a foreign god, and by passing those tests he had returned in this new form. He had introduced Justin as a friend from a distant land who had also passed the god's tests, but who was unfamiliar with their ways. He had implored them to treat the teenager as their guest.
He had thought there had been a spark in Justin's eyes as the boy looked out upon the sea of centaurs, but if so it had quickly died. Justin had thanked them for their hospitality, and they had looked from one to another in confusion. Several had asked what language Justin was speaking.
He had been confused himself at this, but Justin had soon grasped the truth. In a quiet voice the Ranger explained that whatever Archon had done to his captives at the beginning allowed them to understand each other's words. By extension Justin could also understand anyone else who was speaking Greek; but no one aside from Solan could understand the language which the teenager spoke.
Solan had urged Justin to go inside and had continued to speak with the crowd, answering their questions as best he could. He had known most of them for his whole life, but they now seemed fearful of him and even a bit awed. Understandably so, given that they had apparently burned his corpse days ago, only for him to return changed and telling tales of divine tests. He didn't know how Archon could have left them a body to burn, nor did he wish to know. What was of interest to him was the fact that his "body" had not been placed on that funeral pyre alone.
The little girl who'd almost killed him, Hope, had died as well, a victim of Gabrielle-her own mother. He didn't understand how that could be, but he was told that his death and Hope's had split Gabrielle and Xena apart. That at least was good news; when he did eventually confront his mother, he didn't want Gabrielle getting hurt.
After the questioning had finally ceased he had spoken more privately with the village elders. They had agreed to allow him and Justin to live in Kaleipus' hut and to partake of the village's store of food, water and firewood. In turn Solan had vowed to do the work of two, avoiding the need to press Justin into service.
Since then the Prince of Warriors had faithfully lived up to his promise, toiling from sunrise to sunset six days out of seven. He did not begrudge the time and energy he spent, but the tasks themselves reminded him that this was neither the life he desired nor one he was suited to.
Another circular section of the tree dropped away, and seconds later was sent spinning through the air into the pile. Solan began hacking away at the next portion.
He was a fighter, not a farm boy; he had learned that beyond doubt. Picking olives, grinding wheat and operating the wine press all now seemed to him boring and tedious chores. He longed to know again the thrill of battle, the challenge of overcoming an enemy and the joy of victory! His nightly practice sessions were only serving to whet that hunger.
Of course he would sooner die than repeat the tragic mistake he had made with Justin. He would fight only those like Archon, Kenny and Dagnine, people who threatened others and needed to be slain. The weak and innocent he would defend, like his father had at the end.
Like Power Rangers did.
It was the Power Ranger here, however, who was keeping him bound to the village. After a few days Solan had hit upon the idea of teaching Justin written Greek and then sounding out the words in order to allow the teen to communicate with others. Sasparion had taken on the job of instructing Justin, doing so in the evening hours after dinner. Solan left them alone, making the excuse of bathing in the river.
Which he always did, once he had practiced his swordsmanship, hand-to-hand combat, chakram throwing and after he had performed the necessary exercises to keep himself fit. The entire regimen took hours, but so too did Justin's instruction. The Ranger was learning slowly and Solan did not wish to take him away before he had been taught all that he needed.
Or so he had been telling himself. All of the times he'd been lied to, and now he was the one lying to himself. Violently embedding his axe in what remained of the tree the twelve year-old faced openly what he had been hiding from.
Justin's schooling was important, but the reason he had not broaching the idea of leaving was his fear that Justin wouldn't want to come with him, either out of despondency . . . or because he didn't wish for Solan's company.
After the first day Justin had ceased sharing his grief with Solan; he had ceased sharing anything at all. Their meals and the hour they spent together before bed were largely filled with tense, uncomfortable silence. He knew how much Justin was hurting, but he was at a loss as to how to help the teenager, especially when Justin wouldn't talk to him. His replies to Solan were generally no more than five words and he seldom began a conversation.
On the days of rest he had tried to get Justin to come swimming with him at the lake, or climbing trees, or hiking in the woods. He was painfully aware of how pallid such activities would be to someone who had known the marvels of television and video games, but they were all that he had to offer. Justin had always refused, preferring to sit quietly on the edge of his bed. The neighbors had told him that Justin rarely left the hut during the day.
He had tried repeatedly to apologize to Justin, to let the other boy know how sorry he was and how much he regretted having believed Archon. Each time Justin had quickly cut him off. That, and the looks the adolescent sometimes gave him, made it clear that Justin could not forgive him for what he had done.
Wrenching the axe loose he cut into the tree with a hithero-unseen force and vigor. Once again he was awash in that feeling he despised above all others: helplessness. It seemed there was nothing he could do to alleviate Justin's agony or to atone for his wrongdoing. He had lost so many people he had cared about to violence in the past. Now that he was at last ready to face down any physical threat, he was losing Justin to something he couldn't fight.
And that, he knew, was why his thrice-damned alternate self had chosen to strand Justin here. Not simply to punish Justin, but to punish him as well. This way he could witness Justin's torture and he could know for certain that his actions had destroyed their friendship.
He had lost everything. That was the thought that kept echoing endlessly through Justin Stewart's mind, day after day.
He had more than half-expected that Archon would kill him if Solan didn't, but he'd nonetheless clung to the forlorn hope that he might actually be allowed to go home. In his worst nightmares he hadn't envisioned anything like this.
He would never see his dad again. He would never see his planet again. He was trapped for the rest of his life on this primitive alternate Earth.
It was an existence utterly alien to the twentieth century teen. There was no technology here, no modern conveniences. His bed was made from sheepskin, light at night was provided by fire and his toilet was a hole in the ground. Water came from a jug filled at the communal well, and the food was distasteful at best. Now he could better comprehend why Solan had received his stories about everyday life with such wide-eyed wonder.
Of course since his return it had been Solan himself who had been looked upon with wide-eyed wonder, Justin reflected bitterly. He had seen how the centaurs regarded the magnificently built Grecian boy, and he could well imagine how Solan must be showing off while doing his labor. Personally Justin still doubted it was biologically possible for an early pubescent boy to be so physically developed and gifted. More likely Solan's other self had augmented him beyond what nature would permit.
But then that had been the whole point of the tournament, hadn't it? To improve Solan and Solan's life, regardless of the cost to everyone else present. He was the only one who had mattered, and the rest of them had been sacrificed purely for his benefit.
Contemplating the monstrous callousness and injustice of it all drove Justin to fits of near-screaming fury. He hated Archon profoundly, with a fire and passion he had never known before. The hot, unfamiliar emotion hung like a lead weight in his chest; it was always with him whatever else he was doing.
Sometimes he had vented his feelings on the bed, punching and kicking it until he collapsed in exhaustion. Other times he had fantasized in graphic detail about slaughtering the tyrant. He wished desperately that could have somehow killed the fantastically cruel creature, but Archon was gone and the chance to take vengeance with him. Only Solan remained.
Solan, who had been so quick to believe the lies and turn against him. Solan, who had nearly killed him more than once. Solan, the one person to gain from Archon's hellish contest. Now when he gazed at the twelve year-old he could see the adult's face in the child's, and it was hideously easy to imagine how the coming years would shape it into Archon's visage.
Thinking of Archon (or should he call the being by his true name, Solan?) was the only thing which could rouse Justin. The rest of the time he spent remembering what he had lost or doing nothing, simply letting time slip by. Often after Solan left in the morning he would go back to bed and sleep for another six hours. Why should he do anything else? What did anything he might do matter now?
Part of him recognized that he was in the throes of a deep depression, like that which had claimed him after Mom had died and Dad had put him in the orphanage. It had been by far the worst time of his life up until that point, with his entire world collapsing around him. It was only through discovering the Power Rangers and becoming one of them that he had finally managed to break out of his despair.
Here, though, there were no Power Rangers and no father to come back for him. He had nothing.
Justin had always tried to watch out for little Solan, protecting the younger boy from schoolyard bullies like Colin and Kenny. They had played together often through the elementary and early middle school years. Then when he was twelve Justin had been skipped ahead two grades to high school.
The work there was more difficult, but it was nothing he couldn't handle. Much harder to deal with was the feeling of being out of place, as though he didn't belong there. Being about a foot shorter and much smarter than everyone else, there was no way for him to fit in. His grades were excellent, but he was always alone.
The harassment started in his second month. Kids tripping him, knocking his books out of his hands and shooting spitballs at his back. Reggie and Junior were two of the worst offenders, and one morning Justin had asked them, "Why are you doing this? I haven't done anything to you!"
"The king of the jocks says you don't belong here, little man," Reggie taunted. "He wants us to give you a hard time."
"What are you talking about? Who's the king of the jocks?" Justin queried.
Reggie and Junior both burst out laughing. "Man, for someone who's supposed to be so smart you sure are dumb!" Junior crowed. "You don't know who the star of the school's track team is? Go to A lunch right now and you'll see him. He be the one with all the cheerleaders around him!"
Justin had C lunch, but he had to get to the bottom of this. When he walked into the lunchroom and looked over the tables he saw one did have a bunch of cheerleaders and athletes. He strode over to it, eager to get this resolved.
One of the kids saw him and said something. Another figure stood up and turned to face him. Justin stopped dead in his tracks.
It was Solan.
He had grown a lot since the last time Justin had seen him. He was a full head taller than the Turbo Ranger and much broader. He had on a pair of two hundred dollar sneakers, stone-washed blue jeans and a red letterman's jacket, half unzipped to reveal his bare, very well-muscled chest.
"Hello, Justin," he said in a deep, unfamiliar voice.
"Solan?!? But what-how are you here?" he asked in bewilderment.
"You got skipped ahead for your brains; I got skipped ahead for my brawn," Solan explained smugly. "Why should I be wasted in middle school sports when I can be the king of the jocks here?"
"You-you've been the one telling people to bully me?" Justin questioned plaintively.
"You don't belong here," Solan said coldly. "This is my domain. My world, and soon enough my universe. You'd only get in the way of me reaching my full potential."
And he lashed out with a fist to the jaw, followed by a punch to the stomach.
"Fight, fight, fight!" the other kids chanted as they got up from their tables and gathered excitedly around the combatants.
Justin tried to defend himself, but Solan was quick as lightning and strong as steel. Worse, he was obviously a high-degree black belt. He mercilessly battered Justin all the way across the lunch room as the other kids enthusiastically cheered him on.
Justin stood panting, bleeding, and desperate. He was never supposed to morph in front of others; guarding his secret identity was one of the foremost rules of being a Power Ranger. If he didn't do something, though, Solan was going to kill him.
"Shift into Turbo!" he called, but his morpher didn't appear in response to his movement.
"Shift into Turbo!" he cried again, but still nothing happened.
Solan laughed. "Don't you get it, Justin?" he taunted. "You're not a Power Ranger anymore. I'm the one with the power now! Shift into Turbo!" he called out confidently as a morpher appeared on his wrist.
From out of nowhere he pulled a key and inserted it into the device.
"Red Lightning Turbo Power!" he exclaimed, and before Justin's horrified, disbelieving gaze Solan morphed into a six foot five Red Turbo Ranger.
The Red Ranger's white-gloved hands closed inexorably around the teenager's neck.
Justin screamed as he sat bolt upright in bed. He was panting and perspiring, his heartbeat quick with terror. He took rapid breaths, feeling as thought he couldn't get enough air into his lungs.
"Justin? Are you all right?" a concerned voice asked. From the bed in the corner, the one which had been brought into the hut during his second day here, a shape arose and started toward him. At the approach of that threatening figure, the same one who had destroyed him in his dreams, Justin panicked.
"No! Get back! Stay the hell away from me!" he shouted.
Solan froze immediately. For a moment he stood there, as if paralyzed. Then he turned around and returned to his bed without a word.
Justin lay back down on his own bed, trying to calm himself, trying to get back to sleep.
Solan could not return to slumber. He didn't even try.
He'd been right all along: Justin couldn't forgive him. He had heard the fear and hate in the older boy's voice. There was no longer any point in waiting. He would leave tomorrow evening.
There were few possessions for him to gather, but he would need to talk to Sasparion, both to announce his departure and to see if it would be possible for him to pay for Justin's continued care. Hopefully the centaur would be willing, and would give him a couple of months before requiring any payment. He didn't know how he would earn the money, but he would find a way.
When first light dawned Solan slipped quietly out of his bed and out of the hut. He didn't pause for breakfast.
He was far too nauseous to eat.
Try as he might, Justin hadn't been able to get back to sleep. After Solan left he got up and got dressed. He started to pour water into his cup, but found the jug was practically empty. He frowned in consternation before deciding to refill the container himself.
As he left the hut he felt a prickle of unease. It was dawn and the centaurs would all be emerging to begin their jobs for the day. He was never out at this hour; in fact he was rarely out at all. He quickened his pace, wanting to finish and get back to the hut.
Sure enough, centaurs were emerging from every doorway, many of them looking curiously at him. Up ahead Sasparion, his tutor, was engaged in conversation with Solan.
Were they talking about his progress in learning to read and speak Greek? He could have done better, he knew that. He was a genius and a very fast learner. Under the circumstances, though, he hadn't been able to muster the motivation. He'd only started the lessons in the first place because it was the path of least resistance.
As he drew nearer he could heard what Solan was saying.
". . . send back the money for his care as soon as I can. Just give me a couple of months to find a way to earn it."
At first the words made no sense to him. Then they did.
The water jug dropped unheeded from Justin's suddenly limp fingers. Sasparion saw him and said something in a low tone to Solan. The blond youth whirled around and took a step forward. He opened his mouth to speak as the teenager came charging at him.
His first punch was blocked by Solan's forearm, and half an instant later the hand at the end of that arm closed around Justin's wrist like an iron manacle. His left fist, however, hit home on Grecian boy's jaw. His right hand was released and he began striking with both fists. He hooked his right leg behind Solan's ankle and shoved the larger boy to the ground.
Sitting on his opponent's torso he hit furiously at that oh so handsome face. Solan's face; Archon's face. He needed to smash it, to pound it beyond all recognition. He was striking at both of them, at the god who had kidnapped them, who had tortured them, who had forced Justin to lose friends and to kill, all for the gain of a single individual. And at the boy who had gained, who had pushed him to the edge of death repeatedly, who had gotten to return to his own world, and who was now going to abandon him, leaving him to rot alone.
Then he was being yanked up and away by strong hands clutching his shoulders. He struggled wildly, writhing to get free, but he couldn't manage to break the grip.
"Let him go," he heard a voice gasp.
"Let him go!" the voice repeated, more commanding and with an undertone of menace.
The grip on his shoulders slackened and Justin wrenched his way free from Sasparion.
In front of him stood Solan, blood spilling from his nose, one eye half-closed, and bits of soil falling away from his dirt-encrusted hands.
It was the sight of those hands that confused Justin and gave him pause. They hadn't been that way a moment ago. The hand that had seized his wrist had been perfectly clean.
Justin glanced down at the ground and saw two areas of gouged-out earth, widely separated. While he was down Solan must have dug his hands into the dirt. Instead of bringing them up to defend himself he had-he had held himself back.
He had let Justin hit him again and again and he hadn't retaliated. He hadn't even tried to shield himself, not after that first blocked blow.
Somehow they'd switched places yet again. Now he was the violent aggressor, and Solan was the peaceful victim, determined not to fight back.
Justin shook his head, as though to dislodge that thought, but it couldn't be expelled so easily. He didn't-he couldn't . . . .
The fourteen year-old turned and ran.
It had been one of the hardest things he'd ever had to do. To lie there and allow Justin to punch him, when he could have so easily overcome the older boy! There had been no technique or skill to the teenager's assault, just pure blind rage. Subduing the Turbo Ranger would thus have been no more difficult than restraining a tantrum-throwing toddler.
Why hadn't he done it, then? Partially because of the shame-filled memory of how badly he had beaten Justin up before. After they had been sent here he had several times seen the vast network of bruises he had left covering the teenager's body. It was only natural that he should shy away from using force against Justin after that.
There was also the unshakeable sense that he deserved this and more, in repayment for his misguided actions. Finally he had been striving in vain for something, anything, which he could do to make Justin feel better. This had been something he could do.
Solan had a lot of time to work through the reasons for his response. He had followed Justin, taking to the treetops to do so. He couldn't simply let the Ranger run off, especially like this. Fortunately Justin hadn't gone too far. He had stopped, gasping for breath, at the edge of the lake.
He was woefully out of shape, Solan observed critically. He clearly hadn't been keeping up on his karate practice.
From the edge of the woods he had watched as Justin regained his breath, afraid the result would be renewed flight. Instead Justin had stayed there, looking out over the lake. He sat still for so long that the Warrior Prince started to worry about a return to that strange trance state, but then he shifted slightly and turned his head to the right. He remained sitting on the shore, watching the lake and a few times throwing stones into the water, as the sun slowly inched its way across the sky.
Solan kept to his place as the hours passed, ignoring his increasingly sharp pangs of hunger. He didn't want to leave Justin unsupervised, but approaching the adolescent might do more harm than good. So he simply watched, until Justin spoke without bothering to turn around.
"I know you're there," he announced, his voice calm and steady.
Solan hesitated for another moment before stepping forward. It struck him then that this was the exact same place he'd talked to Xena, really talked to her, for the first time. This was where he had vowed to let the past go, where he had announced that he didn't want to be a warrior, where he had cast his father's sword, the sword now in the sheath on his back, into the lake.
Given its past history this site was the last place he would have chosen to speak to Justin, but the choice had been taken out of his hands. At least this time there would be no lying or deception in the conversation.
Justin turned to look at him as he moved to the older boy's side and winced. "I'm sor- " he began before Solan cut him off.
"Don't apologize! I did far worse to you, and you won't let me apologize." Some of the frustrated hurt and bitterness he felt had unintentionally leaked into his tone on that last part. For so long now he'd wanted to apologize at length, and Justin had continuously denied him that.
"You're right, I haven't let you apologize," Justin admitted. "I didn't want to hear what you had to say." He paused. "I didn't want to forgive you."
Solan clenched his teeth together so tightly that the pain redoubled all along his bruised and aching jaw. To actually hear it said, to hear Justin admit that the Ranger wouldn't forgive him, affected him more deeply than he had anticipated.
"I wanted to stay angry at you, not only because of what you did, but because it was like staying angry at him."
There was no need to ask which "him" Justin was referring to.
"I hate him so much," Justin confessed, his voice breaking "and I've never hated anyone before! When I found out that he was an alternate version of you and that the entire tournament was for your benefit . . ." Justin trailed off, and Solan could keep silent no longer.
"But I'm not him! I never want to be him! He tried to make me follow in his footsteps and he failed, thanks to you! Can't you understand that?" Solan demanded in anguish.
"You're not grateful for what he'd done for you? How he's helped you?" Justin asked intensely.
Solan gazed back, thunderstruck. "No! Not after he lied to me about you! Not after I found out he was only helping me to control me! I hate him too!" the Warrior Prince insisted. "You saw me try to kill him when he threatened you!"
"I did," Justin acknowledged, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. "I did."
"Justin, I'm sorry I believed him over you. I'm sorry I thought you were going to kill me. I'm sorry for beating you up and almost killing you. I'm sorry I didn't listen when you tried to talk to me and I'm so, so sorry that you're trapped here in my world. If I could change any of it I swear I would, but I can't!"
It was freeing to finally be able to say the words he'd rehearsed so long in his head, to at last give voice to his regret and remorse. Even if Justin wouldn't accept it, it felt good to apologize.
"I know you can't," Justin said softly. "And I know you're sorry. I've known it all along."
He stared directly into Solan's eyes and the twelve year-old had to force himself to maintain eye-contact.
"You aren't him, and I shouldn't act like you are. Solan . . . I forgive you."
A sharp pain went through Solan's chest, through his heart, as he heard the words he had never expected to hear. He clasped Justin's right hand in his own, his arm trembling.
"Thank you," he said hoarsely.
Justin squeezed his hand in response before breaking the grip.
"So where are you going?" he asked with forced lightness.
"I don't know. I only know I can't stay here." He dropped his gaze, uncertain of how Justin would take what he had to say next.
"It was wrong of me to fight you, Justin, but it's not wrong to fight. Not against those like Morthos, Kenny and Archon. I was born to be a warrior and I will be one, but in the cause of good. As I travel I'll keep watch for the oppressed who are in need of a champion, and for those who need to be defeated."
He finished and saw to his dismay that Justin had gone very still.
This was it! This was the answer, or at least as much of one as he could hope to find.
Justin's mind flashed back to the day he'd given up his super-strength so that he could stay a Ranger. He recalled what he'd told the others in response to their sympathy.
"Being strong was good, just for me. Being a Ranger means helping others, and nothing could be better than that."
He remembered the day he'd been selected for Archon's tournament, when he had gone into Angel Grove with Storm Blaster to try to head off the attack and save as many people as possible.
He revisited the realization he'd had on the last night of the tournament, the revelation that he needed to help others and that by doing so he helped himself become better and happier.
Finally his mind went back over the past few weeks, all the time spent wallowing in his own grief and sorrow. He hadn't helped anyone in all that time and he had hurt Solan.
This was his chance to help people again, and not just by fighting. There was so much knowledge he could share once he learned how to speak Greek, things like basic hygiene, unknown farming techniques, physics, an entire host of subjects. He would have to be careful, of course, but he could actually make people's lives better!
If Solan would let him come along.
"Would you," he stopped, swallowed, and started again. "Would you take me with you?"
For the first time since the transformation Justin saw the Warrior Prince smile. Not a smirk, not a cruel grin, but a full-fledged, astonished smile.
"I always wanted you to come," Solan said, almost shyly. "I just didn't think you would."
Nor could he be blamed for thinking that, Justin realized sadly.
Justin's sudden euphoria was tempered by a dose of realism. He knew that traveling like this wasn't a cure-all. It wouldn't magically make everything better or remove the grief from his heart. It was, however, a way forward. It was a chance to give purpose and meaning to his life, a chance to start helping others again. It was what a Power Ranger should do. He might not have his powers anymore, but in a way that didn't even matter. He had accepted the responsibility and taken the oath.
Once a Ranger, always a Ranger.
It was another two months before they finally departed. During that time Sasparion confided to Solan that Justin's progress had accelerated to nothing short of remarkable. By the day they were ready to leave Justin spoke Greek as well as any of the younger centaur children.
Justin had also gotten back into shape under Solan's strict supervision. The Warrior Prince had told the Ranger about his nightly sessions and to his relief Justin was not angry about being kept in the dark. In fact he had suggested that they spar together. Solan had flatly refused initially, only reluctantly giving in after repeated entreaties.
The first time they had sparred he had taken it so easy and been so careful to avoid making Justin feel bad that the frustrated Turbo Ranger had ended up deliberately landing a powerful kick to his stomach. After that he had resumed doing his best and consequently he had continually kicked Justin's ass. The teenager took it well and had even requested that Solan begin teaching him the latter's style of unarmed combat. In return Justin had taught him the meditation that went with the martial arts. Then, too, Justin had joined Solan in performing the labor which needed to be accomplished for the good of the village.
It wasn't all work. They had gone swimming in the lake every rest day and Justin had learned to climb trees. The time they spent together no longer passed in silence, but was filled with animated conversation. When Justin's sorrow got to be too much for him Solan was always there to offer a sympathetic ear, a shoulder to cry on and a reassuring presence. The strong foundation of friendship which had been laid the day they met, only to be damaged by subsequent events, was repaired, built on and reinforced.
When they left, each wearing a pack full to bursting with food, water and other supplies, all the centaurs turned out to bid them farewell. As they passed the village's borders Justin felt a trace of his old optimism return. He knew that what they were doing was right, and he believed things would work out.
Solan's thoughts were also on the future. He saw the road stretching out before them and he couldn't guess where it would lead. He didn't know what dangers they would face or what enemies they would battle and overcome together.
He was sure of only one thing: no matter what it took, someday he would indeed become a god.
And on that day he would send Justin home.
Notes: I have put an enormous amount of time and effort into this story. If you've read all the way up to this, the last chapter, you must have an opinion on my tale to share. Please, PLEASE review!
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