THE ICARUS REVERSAL
At first Jason Todd thought he'd been struck blind for his act of defiance. Then torches set in the twin wall brackets on either side of him flared to life. When his eyes adjusted to the light he saw that he was standing in the middle of a ten by ten stone passage running straight both ways, at least as far as he could see by torchlight.
Walking over to the nearest wall he slammed his right fist into it, pulling the blow just enough to keep from breaking anything. The instant pain he felt at the physical expression of his anger and frustration was nothing, not compared to what the Joker's crowbar had done to him. It seemed like only minutes ago that the madman had broken who knows how many of his bones and had left him writhing in agony. Now he was fully healed, but if Archon expected him to be grateful then he was just as crazy as the Joker was.
He'd finally found his mother, his real mother! He didn't care that she'd been working with the Joker or that she'd betrayed him to the arch-criminal; none of that mattered. When he'd crawled over to release her from her ropes afterward she could have run for it and left him behind. Instead she'd stayed to help him, to make sure they both got out of the warehouse before the bomb went off. She had stayed for him!
And in doing so she'd sacrificed her own life. His last action had been to throw himself in front of her, trying to shield her from the bomb blast with his own body. Yet if Archon had snatched him away right before he died, then his Mom had died alone, unprotected. He had only just found her and now, thanks to the Joker and Archon, he had lost her forever
Who had asked Archon to interfere?!? If he wanted to save people who were about to die, then why hadn't he saved Sheila Haywood?
Of course the answer to that was that he didn't care about saving people. It sounded like he'd only brought Jason and the other kids here so he could have the sick fun of watching them kill each other. Archon was just another psycho, no better than the usual crazies he and Batman fought.
Admittedly, teleportation and healing did put Archon outside of the class of villains they usually dealt with; someone who could do those sorts of things was really more in Superman's league. Instead of bothering the Super Boy-Scout, though, this creep had for some reason chosen to play games with him, and Jason was going to make Archon pay for that mistake.
Neither Archon nor the Joker would get away with what they had done to him, and to her. As Robin he had spent the last few years dealing out justice to wrong-doers and he'd gotten very good at it. Of course here there didn't seem to be any authorities to hand Archon over to once he was beaten. Then again, when had it ever done any good to hand the Joker over to the authorities? No, he would have to deliver their punishments himself, but he could do that.
He'd done it once before.
First, though, he needed to find a way out of here. The second Robin removed a miniaturized flash-light from his utility belt and switched it on. He started down the corridor, the powerful beam from his device piercing the shadow beyond the torches. To his surprise when he reached the edge of the torches' effective range another pair ignited further down, illuminating the new section.
So this was Archon's Battlefield. What a stupid name for an underground complex!
Jason strode forward impatiently. He had no idea where he was going, but sitting still was not part of his nature or temperament. Maybe if he looked around he could find a hidden access hatch, some way in to Archon's control room. All these “powers” were probably the result of advanced technology. If he could surprise the sonofabitch, rip the psycho away from his toys . . . the dark-haired teen smiled grimly, his blue eyes carefully scrutinizing the walls.
On the far side of the maze another contestant was moving with markedly less speed. Partially this was due to the odd construction of the corridor he was navigating. It continually zigzagged, going five feet forward, then five feet to the right before returning to its original direction and repeating the pattern. The passage was also quite narrow, barely three feet wide.
The rest of the reason for Solan's slower progress was that his mind was still reeling from his recent experiences. Nothing made sense anymore!
Xena had said that Callisto had wanted to kill him. But the little girl who had found him couldn't possibly have been Callisto! Who was she, and how could she nearly slay him by staring at him?
His right hand slowly crept up to his throat as he relived the terrifying feeling of suffocation. So close to dying . . . Archon had said he WOULD have died, if he hadn't been brought here. To spirit him away in time, to make him disappear and reappear elsewhere, this Archon had to have powers akin to those of a god. Or perhaps he was a god in disguise. Bringing all of these kids together to fight actually did sound like something Ares might do. But the God of War never would have included him in this because Ares would have known that he wasn't a fighter.
Once he had fancied himself such, a warrior who would avenge his parents' death by killing Xena. That was before he discovered that she hadn't murdered his father; Dagnine had. When he was captured by Dagnine' men Xena had come to rescue him, even thought he'd tried to kill her. She had saved his life and struck down Dagnine herself. She had proven how much she had changed from her days as a ruthless conqueror.
After that he'd realized that he wasn't a warrior and had no longer wanted to be one. In the end he had even thrown away his father's sword, the only thing of Borias' he had possessed.
If only he had that sword now! Then at least he'd have something to defend himself with. Or better yet, his staff; he'd been learning how to use one ever since he had met Gabrielle. As it was, however, he was completely unarmed, with experienced opponents out for his blood.
It might have been wiser to stay where he had appeared, but the close quarters of that dead end had felt too much like a tomb-which is what it would have become if anyone had come along and found him there. He was NOT going to die like a cornered rat! By moving he would at least gain some room to maneuver.
Another turn back to the left and the tunnel abruptly opened up, expanding out to around ten by ten feet. A little further on there was a darkened opening to another passage in the right wall. Straight ahead the magically firing torches were already lit as far as the eye could see. Which wasn't very far, since the menacing form holding the shining blade was near enough to block most of Solan's view.
The Grecian stopped dead, surprise and fear washing over him. This figure was about his height, but that was all which could be said for certain; the strange outfit it wore covered and concealed everything else. Its predominant color was blue, with a white belt, boots, gloves and bands around the upper arms. A yellow rectangle was at the center of the chest and another just under the neck. The helmet was all-encompassing, with a smooth, shiny black substance where the eyes should be and up on the forehead, and silvery metal patches over the mouth and ears. The short sword clutched in the right hand was up and at the ready.
Solan's step backwards was entirely instinctive, as was the shameful, quickly-stifled urge to flee. Trying to run was pointless. The way he had come could not be traversed quickly and it led nowhere. Ahead his adversary was closer to the junction than he was. Standing fast was his only choice.
The other person reacted to his abortive retreat.
“Wait!” he urged in a light but unmistakably masculine voice. “I'm not going to hurt you.”
Solan's eyes flicked from the faceless one to the sword, a cue not missed by the speaker. Moving with slow, exaggerated care he set his weapon down on the stone floor. Straightening he held his upturned hands out in a gesture of peace, an action which slowed Solan's hammering heart considerably.
“What's your name?”
“I am Solan. Who are you? You weren't at the table with the others.” None of the other kids had been attired in this fashion.
“Yes, I was,” the stranger insisted. He reached up and removed his helmet, revealing himself to be the brown-haired boy who had been seated on Solan's right.
“Justin Stewart,” he announced, tucking his helmet under his left arm and extending his right with a friendly smile.
Hesitating only slightly, Solan took a few steps forward and clasped the offered forearm in his right hand, in accordance with the custom. The other boy's smile faltered, giving way to a questioning expression. Freeing his forearm he took hold of Solan's hand and pumped it up and down. The action was decidedly strange, as was the gloved hand itself. The texture of the glove was remarkable; it was incredibly smooth. Now that Solan was closer he could see that the material of Justin's garment was unlike anything he was familiar with. It exhibited firmness foreign to cloth or skin whilst displaying a flexibility metal could not possess.
And those colors! Had he ever beheld such a vibrant blue or pure white in a manmade object?
His curiosity now in the forefront he had to ask, “Where did you get those clothes?”
“This is my uniform. I'm a Power Ranger!”
Something of Solan's incomprehension must have shown on his face, for the other boy was quick to elaborate.
“The Power Rangers are an order of warriors who defend the innocent and protect peaceful planets from conquerors. We battle beings like this Archon.”
“You fight gods?!?” Solan demanded in open disbelief.
“He's not a god,” Justin contradicted firmly.
“How else could he do all of this? See us about to die and prevent it? Make us appear wherever he wants?”
“That's just monitoring and teleportation. Rangers can do that too.”
“Then . . . you could make yourself reappear at your home? You could escape from this place?” Solan asked in awe, his heartbeat accelerating once more.
“No,” Justin admitted, biting his lower lip. “I can't teleport. I can't even fully access the Morphin Grid from here.”
Again Justin launched into an explanation. “The Morphin Grid is the source of our Ranger powers. It creates our costumes and weapons, allows us to teleport and enhances us physically when we morph. Usually when I morph I grow over half a foot taller and about ten times stronger, with armor that's almost impenetrable. But this time I didn't grow at all, I only feel a little stronger than normal, and except for my helmet my armor is no better than ordinary spandex.”
“Archon spoke to me right after I morphed,” he continued grimly, “and told me that my full powers would give me too much of an advantage. He said this would be fair.”
“So you're trapped too.”
“Right now I am, but I will find a way to escape.”
“Are you going to kill the rest of us to win your freedom?” The answer seemed clear, given his behavior so far, but it would still be good to hear it.
“I'd never do that! I want to free everyone Archon has kidnapped if I can. Saving people is what being a Ranger is all about!” He eyed Solan cautiously. “Would you kill the other kids?”
“I don't want to hurt anyone,” Solan replied honestly. “I don't even know why I was brought here.”
“Where did he take you from?”
“I lived in the Centaur village northwest of Athens .”
“Wait, you lived where?”
“In the Centaur village. My mother gave me to my adoptive father Kaleipus when I was just a baby.”
A confused expression had settled onto Justin's face. “But Centaurs are mythical. They don't exist.”
“Of course they exist!” Solan countered indignantly. “I've lived with them my whole life!”
“Then unless the history books and archeologists are completely wrong, you're not from the past at all; you're from a parallel world,” the other boy exclaimed softly after a brief stretch of silence.
The interest which had previously enlivened Solan's face was now more than mirrored in Justin's. He looked ready to ask a dozen more questions, but abruptly shifted to a different topic.
“I want to find the other kids like us, the ones who won't play Archon's game. If we all get together we can protect each other. We can fend off the violent ones and maybe even convince them to stop. What do you say? Do you want to team up?”
The other boy did seem sincere. And two would certainly be safer than one. Moving around was dangerous, but the more kids they could get to join them, the less danger they would be in. It was a good plan under the circumstances. If he was going to be a part of it, though, he had to be honest.
“I'll go with you, but you should know that I'm not a warrior.”
“What do you mean?”
“I've been learning how to use a staff, but except for that I haven't been trained in how to fight.”
Solan felt his fair skin redden with embarrassment. “I can still take care of myself!” he asserted almost defiantly.
Justin eyed him for a second and nodded. He donned his helmet again.
“Was your passage a dead-end too?”
“Then there's only one way for us to go.”
Picking up his sword Justin started down the third corridor, with Solan following closely behind him.
Strange. No scent; no prey anywhere. A frustrated growl escaped the black-furred monstrosity's muzzle. There had to be prey! It would find them. Breaking into a run the werewolf loped down the corridor.
This was getting him nowhere. He'd been going over every inch of the tunnels he explored and there was no sign of any secret way out, just an endless expanse of gray, featureless stone. It was enough to make a guy sick! And the whole maze layout was getting petty damn frustrating too. He'd already had to retrace his steps four times and now this looked like yet another dead-end. Careful examination failed to yield anything out of the ordinary and Jason swore under his breath as he headed back toward the last intersection. Then someone turned the corner ahead of him.
It was the alien, the freak with the ridged forehead and rough brown skin. He was holding a very large crescent-shaped blade with both hands, and seemed prepared to use it. He actually snarled as he closed in.
Jason's hand darted to his utility belt and he flung a gas pellet at the thing. It turned to take the impact on the shoulder and the subsequent explosion of vapor hid it from view. That oughtta take care of whatever it was.
Then the creature barreled out of the gas cloud like a freight train, heading straight for the second Robin with that wickedly sharp weapon extended out in front of him. The pointed ends of the blade made Jason think of a bull's horns.
He dove down and to the right, deliberately entangling his extended left leg with the alien's as the latter raced toward him. The creature fell forward onto the blunt side of his weapon, grunting at the impact.
In a flash Jason was up and on top of the thing, wrapping his left arm around its throat in a choke-hold. His grip loosened when an elbow slammed back into his midsection and his stranglehold was subsequently broken by his foe. Then the alien bit down hard on his arm.
Bellowing Jason slammed his right fist into the back of the bastard's head and yanked his bleeding limb free. The form beneath him bucked violently, throwing Jason to the floor. Both combatants quickly scrambled to their feet and Robin kicked out, connecting with his foe's stomach. His follow-up kick caught the alien under the chin, snapping its head back and seemingly stunning it.
Abandoning brawling Jason pulled out one of his razor Batarangs, drew it back . . . and hesitated.
Not killing was Bruce's cardinal rule, one which Jason had always obeyed except for that time with Felipe. Bruce wouldn't want him to end this alien's life. In fact, if he made it back to Earth, Bruce would even expect him to spare the Joker, his mother's murderer.
Screw that! The only reason he had let Dad's killer keep on breathing was because of Bruce. The Joker wasn't going to get off so easily. The psychotic clown wouldn't be sent back to Arkham Asylum for a few weeks or months or however long it would take him to escape this time. No, the Joker was going to die!
And so was anyone else who got in the way! If they tried to kill him he would kill them instead, and to hell with Bruce's rules! He was through playing around with murderers.
His choice made Jason slashed the Batarang towards the alien's throat but the creature had been given enough time to recover. It caught hold of his wrist and twisted his arm out to the side before head-butting him directly in the face.
The heavily-ridged forehead hit his face like a sledgehammer! Jason staggered unsteadily back, his nose broken and his eyes unfocused. The Batarang tumbled from his suddenly limp fingers and he felt the alien let go of his wrist. The creature grabbed his head instead and brutally slammed it into the stone wall behind him. Jason saw stars, bright red ones. The pain was overwhelming and his body refused to obey his commands. He couldn't even fight back! His head struck the wall again, and again, and again.
Alexander stopped after his enemy's skull shattered. Breathing heavily he released the limp dead form, allowing it to flop down in front of him. Despite the ridiculously brightly-colored garb this human had proven a challenging opponent. Of course the boy had clearly possessed no honor, since only a coward would use gas as a weapon. What glory was there in a victory achieved by such means? None! Nonetheless he was fortunate that the gas apparently hadn't been intended for Klingon physiology.
Hopefully his other opponents would show more pride. Then again, given that they all seemed to be human, perhaps not. Humans in general had about as much honor as House Duras, whose craven assassins were responsible for sending him to this place.
Whether his enemies fought honorably or cravenly though, he would show them what an aspiring Klingon warrior could do.
Alexander Mogh, adopted son of Kurn and shamefully one-fourth human himself, took a few moments to catch his breath. Then he picked up his bat'leth and returned to the last darkened passageway he had seen.
Fourteen year-old Thomas Coventry had been exploring the strange tunnels he found himself in for hours, the magical torches doing nothing to lessen the young squire's overwhelming fear and confusion.
His last clear memory before this madness began had been of standing over Sir William's body, defending his knight from the foul Saracens. He hadn't known then and didn't know now if his lord still lived, but the knowledge would have made no difference to his actions. He was Sir William's squire, and it was his duty to both protect his knight and to ensure that Sir William should receive a proper Christian burial.
Tears pricked his hazel eyes at the thought of the latter duty and he wiped them away impatiently. This was no time for crying like a maiden; he was a man now, had been since first seeing battle in the taking of Acre . Arsuf had been their next target in their quest to free Jerusalem , but Saladin's men had attacked them on the road. One of their thrown javelins had pierced a joint in Sir William's armor, and then a Saracen had knocked his lord from the saddle with a slice of a curved sword.
He had been carrying his lord's flag and he had thrust the end of the pole into the attacker's eyes, knocking the man from his horse. He had defended Sir William against another two men with his own sword, cutting one deeply on the arm, and then . . .
He had found himself seated at that table, with the voice seeming to speak from everywhere around him. “Archon” claimed he had saved them from death, only to command them to fight each other to the death now!
Father Martin had always said that God put trials before men to test them, but the good Father had never mentioned anything like this! Who was this Archon? Why was he subjecting Thomas and the other children to this trial by arms, and from whence did he derive his power and authority? Was he an agent of God? Or was he in truth a servant of the Adversary?
His thoughts were interrupted by the sight of light ahead of him. Perhaps it was a way out, an opening to the daylight!
No, he realized with bitter disappointment. It was merely the torches firing ahead of him, as another person approached.
Thomas held his sword in readiness as he went forward to meet this individual.
He looked to be about Thomas' age, but his skin was darker, like a Saracen's. His hair was black as midnight and his clothing was exceedingly strange, looking to be a suit of cotton armor. In his right hand was a wooden sword, with fragments of sharp black rock embedded along the length. The boy sneered at him, and Thomas felt his own lip curl in an answering expression. Then the other adolescent charged toward him.
Thomas parried the first strike, his blade of fine steel shattering one of the black-rock shards. He threw the other boy's sword back and struck at his enemy's head, only to find his own strike blocked. Their weapons clashed a few more times as they tried to get around each other's guard.
Then the wooden sword caught him above the left knee, the sharp rock slicing into his flesh. He dropped to one knee, the other boy looming over him.
Desperately Thomas thrust forward with the tip of his blade, seemingly taking his enemy by surprise and driving his sword deeply into his foe's chest. His enemy collapsed with a wet, gurgling sound and as Thomas knelt panting he saw life leave those dark eyes.
Tearing off strips from his tabard Thomas bandaged his wound as best he could. It hurt, badly, but he had suffered worse in his training. The question was whether or not it would still bear his weight.
Slowly he stood, wincing. His wounded leg trembled, but held beneath him. Sighing with relief he began to limp forward. He got about five feet further down the tunnel and stopped, glancing back at the body behind him.
It was the first time he had killed someone, and it bothered him that his feat of arms had been done in this context. The Kings' Crusade was a holy quest, whereas this strange contest lacked both the Crusade's noble goal and its clarity of purpose. Judging by what Archon had said they didn't seem to be fighting for anything; they were only fighting to preserve their own lives from each other. And that was only because this Archon had forced them into conflict!
Nonetheless he couldn't suppress a feeling of pride in having triumphed in battle. He was sure that Sir William would have been proud of him.
Over the last few hours Justin had kept up a steady flow of conversation with his new companion. It'd been clear that the younger boy was freaked out, and who could blame him? This experience had to be especially scary for someone whose culture had no concept of teleportation or of technology in general.
Not that things weren't frightening enough even for a Power Ranger. The situation was as bad as any from the good old days against Divatox, and talking didn't only reassure Solan.
It was honestly fascinating listening to the other boy detail his world! Lingering doubts about his veracity were soon laid to rest; Solan really did come from a reality where the supposed Greek myths were true.
Of course twentieth century Earth sounded equally fantastic to the Grecian, who showed a gratifying awe and wonder at tales of everyday life in 1998.
Frequently their excited dialogue was enough to push thoughts of the current predicament into the mental background. When was the last time he had spoken with someone at this length? Probably not since T.J., Carlos, Ashley and Cassie had gone off into space. Friends hadn't been easy to come by at the new school. He just couldn't seem to connect with any of his peers, not that he'd ever been great at that to begin with. His intellect separated him from those his own age, while older teens saw him as just a kid. Terrific as it was being with Dad again, he was much lonelier than he had been in Angel Grove.
When they came upon the first already-lit passage at a four-way junction they both abruptly fell silent. Then Justin thought better of it. What was the point of being quiet?
“HELLO!” he shouted. “Can anyone hear me?”
“What are you doing?!?” Solan demanded in a frantic whisper.
“We need to find the others, not hide from them,” Justin explained. “This is the fastest way to bring whoever lit these torches.”
Solan didn't look convinced and when Justin saw who his shout had brought, he began to have misgivings as well.
About fifty feet to the left a teenager appeared from around a corner. He was tall, with fiery red hair and tanned skin. He wore a simple white tunic and sandals. In his left hand was a net with weighted ends; in his right, a trident. He gazed appraisingly at them. Then he moved forward.
Shifting himself deliberately to stand in front of Solan Justin called out to the boy, “We're not going to hurt you.”
There was no reply.
“We don't have to do what Archon says. We don't have to kill each other!”
The steady advance continued unabated.
Finally the red-head spoke. “You are a fool,” he proclaimed scathingly.
Abandoning any hope of a peaceful resolution Justin took action. His foe's probable tactic here was obvious and might well succeed if something wasn't done to change the odds. Reaching out with his free hand Justin snatched a torch from its bracket at his left and threw it underarm at the other boy.
The torch landed in the net and the redhead instinctively dropped his now-alight weapon. Justin charged forward in the interim, parrying a hasty trident thrust with his blade. Twisting the head of the trident aside he pivoted on his left heel and kicked his opponent hard in the arm. With a grunt the teen let go of the weapon, sending it clattering to the floor.
Justin brandished his sword threateningly and his foe retreated several feet. The redhead's gaze went to a torch on the right side of the tunnel and he darted toward it. Justin ran to stop him and leapt into a flying kick which knocked the redhead sprawling. The subsequent stomp on the solar plexus and palm strike knocked him out.
Rising Justin turned back toward Solan and said, “Let's get going. We don't want to be here when he wakes up.”
Solan stared wide-eyed at Justin for a few seconds before hurrying up to him. “How did you do that?” he asked in a hushed voice.
“Karate and my Ranger training,” Justin answered. “My Dad started teaching me the martial arts when I was five, and I learned a lot from Tommy.”
Justin glanced down at the redhead and sadly concluded, “No one he met would be able to join us. We're better off heading down the unlit passage. Come on.”
Justin once more took the lead, Solan trailing behind him.
Incredible! Watching Justin was almost like seeing Xena in action again. Different moves, yes, but the same speed and confidence. And this warrior wasn't much older than he was! Justin's father and his mentor, Tommy, had both taught the boy very well.
Thank all the gods that Justin was friendly! The Fates had truly smiled on him when he had met the teenage Ranger. If he hadn't run into Justin, what would have happened when he eventually encountered the trident-bearing boy?
He tried to shut that thought out, but he couldn't. It kept wriggling its way back into his consciousness. What would have happened to him, if he had been alone? Perhaps he might have gotten away or knocked the youth out. It was possible; he could take care of himself. That was what he had assured Justin of . . . and what he had told Xena, when she had first warned him that he was in danger.
The black wolf/human hybrid began to salivate when it caught the scent of prey. Its speed increased as it followed the human scent back to its source. Closer, closer . . . there! The werewolf pounced on the startled two-legged creature, slashing with its claws, ripping and tearing with its jaws.
The animal died quickly and the werewolf settled down to feed.
This flickering torchlight was not ideal illumination for reading his sacred book. Offhand he knew of only a few spells which could help him here and most of those required components he did not possess. He needed to sit down and make a through study of the tome, something he had been meaning to do since Enos' death. It would be difficult to triumph in this place, but Morthos was grateful for even the opportunity to try.
For the second time his desperate pleas had been heard and his life spared. He had been delivered from immolation at the hands of those blind fools and brought here to prove his worthiness to live. It was the most he could expect, given his abysmal failure.
His old master had kept the townsfolk cowed with terror. They never would have dared to act against Enos and he had assumed the same would be true for him. Was he not Enos' successor and heir? The mob assault which had come in response to Sarah's kidnapping had been a complete surprise. He had not been prepared to face such numbers and that was his failure.
He should have been ready! With Enos gone it was natural for the common rabble to feel more courageous. If he had anticipated their reaction he could have thwarted it or at least escaped in time.
Here he would redeem himself. He would appease his Lord with further offerings and when he returned home the insects who had tried to burn him would themselves writhe in flame!
Lanius awoke with a pounding migraine. Though the sudden motion made his aching head swim, he quickly snatched up his nearby trident, glancing around fearfully for enemies. There were none; he was alone in the corridor.
It was a surprise to still be alive; the blue warrior must have really believed what he was saying. He actually thought it was possible to survive without killing! It wasn't. Every Roman gladiator learned that during the first month. You had to kill to live. Defiance brought only suffering and death. Even great Spartacus' rebellion hadn't been able to change the way things were.
It was a lesson he had since taken to heart. The prospect of disobeying his new master, this unknown god, was unthinkable; it was a wonder that a fighter as skilled as the blue one had been such a fool. Perhaps Archon had already slain him for his impudence? The idea was a comforting one, but it was also unlikely. Good gladiators were seldom discarded so easily.
As he wandered up and down the endless, dismal corridors Josh couldn't help comparing this situation to his adventure through the time-stream. On the bright side there was a lot less at stake here. Instead of all of time, it was only his life which was in danger. The downside was that before he had a clear goal and friends to help him achieve it. Now he was alone, with no clue what to do.
When the giant boy had taken them captive and forced them to fight they'd managed to get by on play-acting. That wouldn't cut it here. Archon didn't just want to see them fight; he wanted them to fight to the death.
Josh had killed before. In the battle at the castle, when he was trying to rescue Azabeth, he'd cut down the men opposing him. But could he kill kids like him? Kids who'd also been kidnapped by Archon, who didn't want to be here any more than he did? He didn't think he could.
He couldn't escape either. His first thought on being deposited in this maze had been to use his Time Warrior powers to return home. When he had tried, however, he had felt something blocking him. He had concentrated with every atom of his being to overcome the unseen barrier and he had still gone nowhere. Only then had Archon smugly informed him that he wouldn't be allowed to get away that easily; only victory or death would free him from this tournament.
So . . . powers exhausted, escape impossible, no friends and a captor who insisted that he kill everyone or be killed. And he'd thought things were bad LAST time!
Shin Ren utterly despised the magical torches. By lighting at his approach they betrayed his presence to his enemies. Ninjitsu was the art of invisibility, but how could he practice it if the Archon-god meddled in this way? Silence and stealth were of no use when your coming was heralded by light.
Breathing deeply the thirteen year-old Japanese sought the serenity which was the necessary state of mind for an assassin, brushing aside his anger and physical hunger. This additional burden would not defeat him. When the nightingale floor had alerted the samurai of Lord Tsien to his intrusion he had still managed to slay three of them before being overpowered.
None of his enemy here were samurai; they all seemed to be gaijin, foreign devils. Three of them were actually female! And he would probably not be required to fight more than one of them at a time. If he ended up having to face every one of them directly rather than through stealth, then so be it. He would still triumph, proving himself a true adept of his craft and atoning for his shameful failure to kill Lord Tsien.
More than his miraculously avoided death, it was his failure which haunted him, tortured him. Father had entrusted him with that task, treating him as a man. His first mission, and by not completing it he had dishonored his entire clan. Winning a tournament held by a god would erase his shame and restore his family's pride. He would not-could not- fail again.
Kenny stood up and irritably shook his limbs out. His legs had almost gone to sleep on him. No wonder, since he'd been sitting in this lighted corridor section for hours now. His knapsack lay on the floor beside him, unzipped just enough so he could draw his short sword from it if he had to.
Hopefully he wouldn't have to. If his competitors truly were children, some of them might be stupid enough not to instantly slay anyone they met and credulous enough to buy his innocent act. If so he could wait, catch them off-guard, and decapitate them at his leisure.
Archon, however, had said that those he selected were warriors. If that was the case they might be ready to kill on sight and then his only advantage would be his Immortality. None of his enemies here were Immortal; there had been no hint of the telltale tingle when he had been sitting with them. They wouldn't know about his power to return from the dead. Yet how many times could he hope to revive before someone got smart and dismembered him? He had his sword; how many of the other kids had edged weapons with them?
Damn it, damn it, damn it! Weren't his chances in the Game slim enough without being forced to participate in this junior death match? He would have to outlast nineteen others just to get back to where he had been! And all because of some stupid MORTAL! An idiot attorney who hadn't lived a twentieth of the time he had! If he ever did make it back he was going to slice Robert Venders into a dozen pieces.
In the meantime he would sit here and do one of the things he hated most: he would wait. If someone should find him he was ready as he could be. And if not then he would be safe here while his enemies reduced the odds against him. By the end of the day there should be a lot fewer people in his way.
Kwame thought he might go mad with fear. This morning he had risen alive with eagerness to shed the blood of his tribe's enemies. He was the largest and strongest of the young men and this was his chance to know the glories of war. He had impaled one of his foes on his spear, tripped and kicked another, and then suddenly he had been in a strange room, listening to “Archon”. No shaman had ever mentioned such a being in any tale he had heard. Nonetheless this Archon must be a very powerful spirit indeed, to snatch so many from Death's embrace.
Archon had put them to a test of worthiness, like the trials Kwame had passed through to become a man. Memory of his success in those rites did nothing to reassure him now; he had been brought to the spirit world and that knowledge alone threatened to unman him with terror.
He had prowled all around this confusing mystical cave and had not yet found any of the ones who were with him in the spirit's room. Once he did, however, his course was clear.
Was there . . . yes! There was light up ahead! Kwame broke into a trot as he caught sight of the figure striding toward him. It was an ivory-skinned boy with very short yellow hair. The boy had no tribal markings and wore garments which were exceedingly strange. No matter. Snarling Kwame raised his spear and lunged at his enemy, thrusting straight for the heart.
Swift as a striking snake the boy seized the spear below the head and, with one hand, effortlessly snapped the weapon in two. Kwame stood agog at this impossible feat. His spear had been made of blessed hard wood! How could this boy destroy it so easily?
Smiling the blond boy kicked out at Kwame's right leg, breaking the bone with sickening snap. Biting back a scream Kwame tumbled down to the stone floor. He was trying to push himself to a sitting position when his enemy broke his other leg.
Now Kwame could not hold back his howl of pain. Laughing delightedly the boy dropped to his own knees, grabbed one of Kwame's flailing arms, and broke it in two places.
Tears ran down Kwame's cheeks as he screamed again when the boy repeated the treatment on his other arm. Rising up the boy grinned down at him, before viciously kicking in three of his ribs.
Kwame's unending scream degenerated into a breathless, wheezing cough. Everywhere his broken body was in utter agony. All that was left in his mind was raw, primeval fear, the kind which the lions had always stirred within him.
The lion was a symbol of strength, of manhood. To fear it was cowardly, yet Kwame always had. The sight of one made him shudder and he dreaded being torn apart by a lion. In a strange way his dread had been realized, for what was this boy but a lion in human form? In his fevered imagination his enemy's blond hair became a mane as the boy leaned over and clamped a hand on either side of Kwame's head.
The pressure started at once and spiraled rapidly upward from unpleasant to unbearable. The African warrior's eyes bulged in their sockets, his mouth open wide in a soundless bellow. Instinctively he tried to resist with his arms, but moving them only brought fresh suffering. Blood spurted from his ears and nose. At last a horrible cracking sound filled the air and everything went dark.
What fun! It was so satisfying to use his strength in this way, so . . . fulfilling. It was well worth the boring hours he had spent walking these tunnels.
Why hadn't Archon let them fight one-on-one from the start? What was the point of putting them so far away from each other and making everything take so long? He could have won by now, if he had only been given the chance!
The set-up was unpleasantly reminiscent of some of the more complex tests Will had been put through in the past. Of course then he had always been forbidden to kill; here he was being encouraged to kill! That alone was reason enough to cooperate. He would find and finish off as many of his competitors as he could before this day was done. And for the ones who escaped him, there was always tomorrow.
Harmful as the presence of the torches might be to him, they nonetheless assisted in tracking the movement of others. At the four way junction up ahead the torches were already lit both on the left and on the right. There was no other sign of anyone in either direction, and after a brief pause Shin-Ren turned right.
He followed the trail of already ignited torches for a considerable distance before his patience was at last rewarded. His target was moving away from him and quietly as he could he closed the distance between them. From behind it seemed this enemy was dressed in some type of pelt, with boots of animal skin and a metal helmet which imprudently protected his skull only from the forehead up, his long blond hair spilling out from under it.
The gajin abruptly turned left to go down a new tunnel and Shin-Ren froze. The boy stopped in his tracks and turned his head to stare directly at Shin-Ren. Raising a large axe overhead he charged down the corridor, bellowing the whole way.
Being seen by this barbarian was bad enough, but it was the unexpected and unwelcome noise which truly disturbed the young ninja. There was no reason for the foolish gaijin to be so loud! His screaming would alert everyone in the area!
Shin-Ren sent a shuriken spinning into his target's right thigh and was surprised by how little that slowed the screaming lunatic. The throat, torso and upper body were protected by the pelt, so he aimed his next throwing star at the head. It would have taken the left eye as Shin Ren had intended had not the boy twisted his head to the side. Instead it sliced the boy's left ear almost in half, yet the only effect seemed to be to increase the volume of that cursed screaming!
Shin-Ren drew his ninja-do as the gajin rushed up to him, but he knew better than to try to directly parry the powerful blows of that axe. He dodged and retreated, avoiding the weapon and slashing at the boy's left arm as a too-wide swing exposed it.
The howling gaijin released the axe with his left hand and it was too heavy to wield solely with his right. Shin-Ren took advantage of the opening to drive his ninja-do into his enemy's throat, at last silencing the insane barbarian! As the boy died his helmet tumbled off his head, hitting the stone floor with a loud ringing sound.
Scowling down at the corpse of his defeated enemy Shin-Ren cursed him before moving off swiftly down the corridor, eager to get as far away from the origin of the warning scream as he could.
The lit torches showed someone had come this way already. Colin took a deep sniff of the air, memorizing the scent of the human who had passed by.
His senses were the equal of any other vampire, though his physical ability was far less. He had the form of a ten year-old, and the strength to match. Among the Order of Aurelius that hadn't mattered; he was the Anointed, spoken of in prophecy, and the others had obeyed him without question.
Spike had not. At first he had thought the white-haired vampire's arrival might work to his advantage. With the failure of the resurrection rite and the loss of Absalom he hadn't quite known what to do next. Sending this powerful, disrespectful newcomer after the hated Slayer had seemed like a perfect plan. Let them destroy each other!
Except they hadn't. Spike had failed, yet he had also survived. And when he returned . . .
Colin hissed at the memory. He would be dust now, if not for Archon. Who WAS this being?!?! To snatch him and the others away right before their deaths, out of the time stream, would require an unbelievable amount of power! Far, far beyond even what the Master had possessed when he had opened the Hellmouth.
Such unimaginable power could not be defied. All he could do was try to win this contest, if he could. He was a vampire, yes, but what were the other kids? What had made them suitable to be chosen? There was no way of knowing until he faced them, one by one.
Colin followed the scent unerringly, his pace quickening to a jog as he realized the other person had come this way some time ago. He trailed his unseen enemy for over half an hour before catching up with the other boy.
The child was sitting down against a wall about twenty yards ahead. He wore a black robe and had dark, wavy hair. The head swiveled in his direction and Colin beheld a pock-marked face and yellow eyes. The figure scrambled to his feet and in his right hand Colin saw . . . a book? Why would he have a book here?
As he darted forward Colin's face shifted, morphing into the terrifying visage of a vampire about to feed. He expected his prey to scream in fright, or at least flinch in surprise. Instead there was a quick intake of breath and the boy began frantically flipping through his book.
All at once Colin thought of the ancient text from which he had taken the resurrection rite, and with that memory everything fell into place. The book was a spell book, the boy a sorcerer!
Colin dashed frantically at his enemy, who now seemed impossibly far away. The rustling of pages ceased; the boy had found what he wanted.
Snarling Colin threw himself the last few feet in a flying tackle, knocking the boy down and sending the book flying to one side. Pulling himself up along the child's midsection Colin bared his fangs in triumph and went in for the kill. He sunk his teeth into the warlock's neck at the exact second the winded boy managed to spit out an invocation.
Colin froze. He couldn't even suck the delicious blood from the wound he had made. “Release me!” the boy gasped and Colin felt compelled to obey. Against his will he withdrew his fangs from the boy's neck and stood up.
His hand held over the twin puncture wounds the boy rose as well. His sickly yellow orbs were alight with fury, but his mouth was curved into a smug smile of satisfaction.
“I am Morthos, and you are mine, soulless one,” he whispered tauntingly. “You will be my sword and my shield in this battle, for the greater glory of our Lord.”
Colin ached with the desire to finish tearing the warlock's jugular out, but he couldn't. The spell restrained him completely.
“Walk before me,” Morthos commanded, and Colin did.
Okay, Archon had said they were fighting each other, hadn't he? And while he'd seen a lot of other kids gathered in that room, Josh definitely hadn't seen this.
It was vaguely man-shaped, but covered in fur, with the face and claws of a wolf. It was coming toward him very fast, on all fours, and when it got to him it almost certainly was NOT going to lick his hand and roll over to be petted.
Josh turned and ran, but he knew he couldn't possibly outdistance this thing, especially considering how tired he was. He'd been walking for hours now on an empty stomach and after just a few seconds of sprinting he was already out of breath. Behind him he could hear the wolf-thing closing the gap.
The fourteen year-old swerved toward the left wall and grabbed hold of the nearest torch. He took it from its bracket with both hands and held it in front of him as he turned.
The wolf creature slowed suddenly, its paws slipping on the stone beneath it. Growling deeply it padded slowly around Josh in a half-circle, just out of reach.
“Go on! Get!” he shouted, swinging the torch in a threatening arc. The beast snarled and snapped in reply. Then it lunged for his right leg.
Everything happened too fast for Josh to think about what to do. He reacted purely on instinct, stumbling back against the wall and bringing the flaming end of the torch down on top of the creature's head.
It pulled back at once, howling its pain. Josh thrust the torch into its face and the sickening smell of burning hair and meat filled the air. The wolf creature whipped about and raced off down the corridor.
Josh watched it go with enormous relief. The creature had almost gotten him, and he doubted it was gone for good. The last thing he wanted was to have to face it again, but without his Time Warrior powers what could he do to stop it?
The teenager stood thinking for a moment before a grin spread across his face. First he experimentally set his torch down on the floor. It burned on without pause. Then Josh began taking other torches from their brackets and laying them all on the same floor section. He made a line of a half dozen torches on the floor and a short distance behind them laid another six.
Stepping back he admired his handiwork. The wolf-thing wouldn't want to come through the flame and it couldn't jump over the first line of torches without landing on the second.
“Now that's what I call a firewall,” Josh whispered. He turned and moved slowly through the pitch darkness he had created, but his heart was lighter than at any time since he had first arrived here.
Wasn't there anybody else in this stupid maze?!? Jo McCormack wondered. Hour after hour spent exploring and she had yet to see another soul!
Every minute she was here was that much longer for her teammates to worry. What had her brother and Roland thought when she disappeared, and never reappeared? Poor Drew had to be going out of his mind by now! He had always tried so hard to take care of her. And there was no way to talk to him, to let him know that she was all right. Well, maybe not “all right”, but at least that she was still alive.
Archon may have saved her, but that didn't give him the right to enter her into some kind of real life “Mortal Kombat” game! The whole idea was disgusting! If she could only get her hands on him, she'd show him exactly what she thought of his contest. Then she'd make him send her and the other kids home.
Late in the afternoon (or at least she thought it had to be late in the afternoon) Jo came upon a passage leading to a lighted section. Someone had already been through the area up ahead. The realization brought her to an abrupt halt.
She hadn't actually considered what she would do when she did meet up with another kid. Acting as Archon wanted wasn't possible; she wasn't about to commit murder. That didn't mean she wouldn't fight to defend herself. Anyone dumb enough to attack her was going to get slammed into the floor, walls, and ceiling and that was just for starters!
It'd have been a lot better all around if she could have assumed her Beetleborg form. The sight of Platinum Purple would have been warning enough to everyone not to mess with her. When she had called for her Beetlebonder, though, it hadn't appeared, and immediately afterward Archon had declared that her Beetleborg form would give her an unfair advantage over the other contestants.
What was unfair was him limiting her that way! It had been a tremendous relief to discover that she still had her civilian power; when she had cracked her knuckles she'd experienced the same warm, comforting surge of super-strength as always.
So she was probably still stronger than anyone else here, but she didn't appear intimidating, and that fact could easily lead to a fight. Well, bring it on then! She was more than ready for battle . . . but should she be seeking it out? Was that what she was doing, looking for trouble?
Still, what else could she do? Just sitting around on her butt wasn't going to help anything. Jo headed into the illuminated passage.
Five turns later she heard something up ahead, audible even over the incessant rumblings of her stomach. Voices! She quickened her pace, trotting along the tunnel's curve to the right. Up ahead two figures were walking away from her.
Two people, together. Why? Did they know each other from before this? Would they team up against her if she let them know she was here?
“Hey!” Jo called out, and they both whirled around. The one nearest her was wearing funny-looking clothes and skin boots instead of sneakers. He had on a red headband and his blond hair was really long, especially for a boy; it went down well past his shoulders.
The second one pushed his way in front of the first, holding a sword in his right hand. He was-he was wearing the uniform of one of Angel Grove's old Turbo Rangers, the blue one! There was only one thing wrong.
“Aren't you a little short to be a Power Ranger?” Jo asked skeptically. On TV the Power Rangers had always looked so tall, but this one was the same height she was.
“I can't access my full powers,” the boy replied, a touch of irritation in his tone. “How do you know about the Rangers?”
“I live in Charterville and I see you guys on the news all the time.”
“Charterville? The Beetleborgs' home town?”
“Yeah, I see them a lot too,” Jo allowed. It was the truth, just not the whole truth.
The response was unexpectedly quick and to the point: “Are you a Beetleborg?”
“What if I am?” Jo asked defiantly.
“I hope you are. I heard the Beetleborgs were heroes, protecting Charterville the same way the Rangers protected Angel Grove. A hero wouldn't do what Archon wants.”
“Aren't you doing what he wants?” Jo challenged, nodding toward the sword he held.
“No! This is only for self-defense. Otherwise I'd have attacked you already.”
“And you'd be sorry you had!”
A wordless sound of frustration emanated from the junior Ranger. “I'm not your enemy! I'm trying to gather the kids who won't fight together so we can protect each other, and stop the ones who are willing to kill! Don't you want that too? ”
Jo paused and took a deep breath. What the Ranger proposed did sound like a good idea, like something Drew would have come up with if he'd been here. There was no real reason to turn the boy down unless he couldn't be trusted, and if you couldn't trust a Power Ranger then who could you trust?
“Yes, I do. I'm Jo McCormick.”
“Justin Stewart,” he said, shaking hands with her. Half-turning he indicated his companion, who had said nothing up until now. “And this is Solan.”
“Solan?” she asked as she shook his extended hand, bemused by both his odd name and the awkwardness with which he performed as simple a task as shaking hands.
“Yes,” the blond boy confirmed, and fell silent again.
“Solan isn't from our time,” Justin explained. “He isn't from our universe. He comes from the ancient Greece of a parallel world.”
“That's why you're dressed like that,” Jo blurted out. Oops. That didn't sound quite the way she'd meant it to.
“This is the only kind of clothes I have,” Solan answered, a quiet dignity in his voice and bearing.
“So you are a Beetleborg?” Justin jumped in, changing the subject.
“I'm the Platinum Purple Beetleborg.”
“Are your powers being blocked too?”
“I can't make my Beetlebonder appear, if that's what you mean, but I do still have my civilian power.”
“Super-strength,” Jo said replied with a self-satisfied smirk.
“Really? How strong are you?”
“Strong enough to snap chains, push a truck around, and knock over a lamppost,” she boasted proudly. “How strong are you?”
“Not nearly that strong,” the Ranger admitted, “but I am a second degree black belt and the Power is still enhancing me a little.”
“What can you do, Solan?” Jo asked, trying to bring him into the conversation. The boy's face flushed at the question.
“I'm quick and agile for my age, and I've had some practice with a staff.”
Jo waited for him to go on. As the seconds ticked by she realized he wasn't going to. That was it? That was all he could do?
“Come on,” Justin urged. “We should get moving. Jo, did you find any places where the torches were already lit before you got into our area?”
“No, I didn't.”
“Then I think we should keep going in this direction. Does everyone agree?”
Solan nodded his assent and Jo gave a “Yeah.” The three moved on, Justin and Jo in the lead and Solan following right behind.
Her presence seemed to have a chilling effect on conversation. For some time they went on in an uncomfortable silence. It was annoying! These two had been talking up a storm before, when she first came upon them. Now all she was getting was this stupid silent treatment. She was on the verge of saying something sharp when she thought of the last Turbo Ranger battle she'd seen on the news before that new group had shown up. She asked Justin about the fight and after a little prodding he was soon talking a mile a minute. The two fell into easy conversation about giant monsters, super-advanced vehicles, arch-enemies and the usual pitfalls of being a kid superhero. Solan trudged along behind them, saying nothing. He was so quiet Jo almost forgot he was there.
He came upon his enemies without warning. After fighting the persistent fear that his last foe's shouting had warned everyone near him to flee, he turned a corner to find opponents coming the opposite way.
They were too close for him to use his shurikens; he would have to face them with his blade. He unsheathed his ninja-to as the one in the lead charged him. The gaijin was unarmed, but his face . . . his face was that of a monster!
For an instant Shin-Ran faltered, fear freezing his blood. The creature's mouth opened and he could see the set of fangs it had on its upper and lower jaw. Breaking his paralysis and cursing his hesitation he brought his sword up to protect himself. To his astonishment the monster ran right onto his blade! It impaled itself, the tip emerging from its back.
The creature sagged down in death and the weight made Shin-Ren lose his grip on the blade. He grabbed the pommel again and screamed as the monster returned to life and seized his arm! Shaking free he jumped back in horror and confusion. W-what WAS this creature?!? How could it could be run through and not die?
With a deep moan the monster pulled his sword from its body. As it did so Shin-Ren kicked it in the face, sending it sprawling on its back. He brought his right foot down on its wrist and leaned over to wrench his weapon back. He spared a quick glance for his second opponent, who had moved no closer. The yellow-eyed gaijin was reading aloud from a book of some sort, and though Archon had said they would be able to understand each other, none of the words made sense.
He regained his ninja-to and took a step forward as the words ceased. Immediately a debilitating sense of weakness swept over him. He stood there trembling, barely maintaining his balance. What had this ugly gaijin done to him?!?
The second figure approached with a smile, a wavy-bladed dagger clutched in his right hand. The monster sought to regain its feet, but fell back with a groan; apparently the vast gash in its chest was at least hurting it.
Shin-Ren himself was in no shape to press his attack. The horrible feverish feeling actually seemed to be getting worse instead of better! He needed to escape and give himself time to recover. If he tried to run now, though, they'd catch him.
Leaning his blade against the left wall he fumbled with the lid in the pommel. Forcing it open he felt rather than saw the oval item inside drop into his left hand. The yellow-eyed boy was almost close enough to touch now. In another instant he would seek to plant his knife in Shin-Ren's chest. With more effort than it should have taken the young ninja threw the item in his hand underarm at his attacker.
The egg still came in low, striking the boy on the chin and breaking. But instead of yolk a cloud of pepper powder, metal shavings and nettle extract erupted from the shattered shell. Screaming the boy staggered backward, his hands going to his eyes and his dagger clattering to the floor.
It was tempting to stay and try to finish his foe, but there was too great a chance of failure in such a course. He felt terribly sick and weak, he didn't know how to kill the demon, and the other boy might still have the power to slay him.
Shin-Ren sheathed his ninja-do, turned and moved off down the corridor as quickly as he could, stumbling and almost falling in the process. A swift glance backward showed that neither of his enemies was following him at the moment. The demon had risen to its knees, while the other boy was still preoccupied with his eyes.
After turning the corner Shin-Ren took care to scatter a handful of his caltrops behind him before staggering on.
Stymied by the fire the werewolf prowled the passages in search of a different way to reach the prey which had harmed it. Not out of physical need; its hunger had been more than satiated by feeding on its two previous kills. It simply longed to slay the creature which had caused it pain. The scavengers could have the carcass.
Eventually it reached a point where the scent of its prey lingered, faint but detectable. It began following the trail, its nose twitching eagerly. Then it stopped, smelling yet another prey very close by, one which was already wounded.
The creature deviated from its quest, turning and racing down a side tunnel. Ahead the animal spun awkwardly to face it, moving slowly on a wounded leg. The prey froze in place, as they sometimes did, and it leapt, heedless of the long, sharp metal object in the prey's right hand.
Its weight bore the creature to the stone floor and even as the metal bit into its side it was biting savagely at the throat of its newest kill.
Once it had finished it returned to hunting for the scent of the creature it truly wanted. It was getting close when-Jamie abruptly found herself once more human and fully clothed, standing in a place she had never seen before.
To be continued in Chapter 3
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