THE ICARUS REVERSAL
The computer's insistent beeping pulled Madeline from the depths of slumber. Yawning and stretching she glared at the offending device. It promptly flew off the desk and into the wall, smashing itself in a shower of sparks.
“ YOU HAVE ONE HOUR BEFORE I TRANSPORT YOU TO THE BATTLEFIELD ,” Archon's voice explained.
Slowly, resentfully, Madeline climbed out of bed and stomped into the bathroom. She relieved herself and turned on the shower, adjusting it to a comfortable temperature before stripping off her pajamas and stepping inside.
It was so infuriating being ordered around again! On the planet of Tigris she and the other native-born children had been in charge for years now, as was only right. None of the teenagers or grown-ups had telekinesis, so why should they be allowed to set the rules? It was the kids' world; the others were just allowed to live on it.
Of course the telekinesis wasn't perfect; you needed physical touch or to be able to clearly see the object you were trying to move, and you could only lift so much for so long. Even with those limitations, however, the power was more than enough to let the kids dominate the planet.
If only she were still on Tigris ! She had gone to sleep as usual and had woken up in this unknown world, where some stupid grown-up (he had to be a grown-up) was trying to make her battle other kids to the death! How dare he?!?! He couldn't tell her what to do! She had shown him, though. She hadn't moved a single inch yesterday, virtually daring Archon to do something about it. He hadn't, but it had been crushingly boring to simply sit there for eight hours. She hadn't seen anyone else until she was moved to the dining hall.
Then she had taken a good look at all of the other kids and had confirmed that none of them were from Tigris ; she would have recognized them at once if they had been. They therefore lacked her gift, and they also seemed to lack any desire to work together, with the exception of Justin and his friends.
Justin had the right idea in general, but he was wrong about not killing attackers. That had been the thinking on Tigris too, at first. But the adults just wouldn't keep to their place! They kept trying to take back control, and in the process a lot of kids had gotten hurt. Some had even died! The children HAD to start killing grown-ups then. After the deaths of the first few dozen the remainder had stopped resisting. It had been understood from that point on that any physical attack on a kid would be punished with death. There were still occasional problems, but for the most part the oldsters now did as they were told.
The same principle applied here. She would have to kill anyone who attacked her; it was the only punishment which worked.
Madeline turned off the shower and dried herself with a towel. Slipping on the new clothes she'd found in the bureau she went to the sink and brushed her teeth before flying down the hall to the dining room, in the process passing directly over the tall red-head.
How in Jupiter's name could she do that?!? How could a little girl . . . fly? If she sported wings he would have thought her a young harpy, but she had none! What was she?
Although his stomach was empty, Lanius' appetite had gone and a sour taste filled his mouth. In the arena he had learned swiftly to control his fear, but there he had always known who he would be facing. It was different here, where his enemies were strange beyond belief. First there was that boy in the odd blue clothing and now this! How could he do battle with someone who could fly ?
His net was the answer. If he still had it he would have been able to bring her down easily, but that cursed Justin boy had burned his weapon! All he had left now was his trident. Could he throw it well enough to impale her the first time? If he missed he doubted he would get a second chance.
Still brooding over that problem he stomped into the dining room with a scowl. Aside from the flying girl, there were five other people present: the beast-boy with the brown skin and ridged forehead, the small dark-haired child, the pale, very well-built blond, the slant-eyed teen and Justin. There were two people at each table and, like yesterday, there was no conversation between them. Also like yesterday the beast-boy had his chair facing away from the table, his plate on his lap and mug in his hand.
Heading over to the magical wall he took his meal of eggs and roasted pig meat. The tantalizing aroma helped to revive his appetite and his plate was clean before a dozen chairs were filled. Resisting the temptation to go back for more, he let his eyes roam over his opponents. Some were fully at ease; others, like Solan and the dark-haired girl, were clearly nervous. Their lack of confidence marked them as less important targets if he should come across them in a group.
Groups! What insanity led them to think they could defy the god in such a way? It was his will that they fight and slay one another until only one remained! The punishments exacted by the Romans for rebelliousness had been horrifying enough; what suffering could a god visit upon mortals for disobedience?
He would not court such a fate. He would do as he was told, as he had always done before joining Spartacus' cause. That choice had almost brought him death; this one might save his life.
Josh leaned back contentedly in his chair, his bowl of oatmeal lying empty before him. The food here was pretty good, he had to admit. It didn't make up for being kidnapped and forced to fight to the death, but bright spots are where you find them.
Everyone at the table seemed down today, in marked contrast to the laughter and camaraderie they'd shared last night. Jo and Justin both looked tired, while Solan was visibly on edge. Oddly enough it was Kenny, currently tucking into his pancakes with a vengeance, who seemed most relaxed. Josh envied the younger boy's composure.
He'd had a tough time keeping his own composure when Jo told them all about her encounter with the big blond guy. The fact that she'd out-muscled him was some comfort, but the thought of there being someone on the other side who had super-strength still made him shudder.
“Remember, our first priority is finding each other. Try to avoid the others if you can and to talk your way out of a fight if you can't. We need to make them see that we shouldn't fight each other.”
Justin's last minute instructions washed over him like some of his teachers' lectures: he would remember the words later, but currently his mind was focused elsewhere, on a different matter. If they were going to out in the Battlefield until dinner time . . . well, why not try it? It couldn't hurt anything.
Rising Josh walked over to the food dispenser and asked apples, bananas and Three Musketeers bars. A plate of each materialized and with a little finesse he took hold of all three and brought them back to the table with a grin.
“You're going to eat all that for breakfast?” Jo asked disbelievingly.
“Nope, but I figured we might need a snack for later,” Josh explained.
He caught Justin's eye and the boy's serious expression lightened. Reaching out Justin stuffed two apples and two candy bars into the pockets of his blue jeans.
“Good idea, Josh. Thanks.”
Catching on Jo grabbed a few bananas while Solan was turning a silvery Three Musketeers bar over in his hands, looking confused.
“It's a candy bar. Take a few along. You'll like them, trust me.”
Still looking uncertain Solan took one candy bar to go with the apples and bananas he had. Meanwhile Kenny dumped the remainder of the food from all three plates into his backpack.
“Why have you got a backpack?” Josh suddenly asked. Kenny had taken the backpack with him from under the table when he had left the dining hall yesterday. There had been no chance to ask him about it then, but now Josh was curious.
“I was on my way home from school when the accident happened and I was wearing my backpack.”
Okay, that made sense. But then why had Kenny bothered to bring it with him from his room? He hadn't thought of using it to carry food until just now. So what purpose would have been served by taking an empty backpack into the Battlefield?
Before Josh could ask Archon spoke.
“ READY YOURSELVES FOR TRANSPORT! ”
Justin smiled and looked each of them in the face. “I'll see you all soon,” he promised. “Stay strong and we'll get through this, together.”
Josh had just enough time to answer with a nod and a hopeful grin. Then they were gone.
When he realized where he was Colin threw himself to the sand in a total panic, his arms instinctively and uselessly covering his head. He curled into a ball as he anticipated the awful agony he would feel when every cell in his body ignited. He expected each second to be his last.
And nothing happened.
Slowly he raised his arms and lifted his head. He was in a desert, facing a range of sand dunes. Behind him and to his sides the terrain consisted of a flat and featureless plain. Above him the sun shone down from a cloudless, deep blue sky, bathing him in its deadly radiance.
At least it should be deadly. None of his kind could survive exposure to open sunlight (assuming the Gem of Amarra was indeed a myth). Yet here he was, completely unaffected. It was almost like being mortal again, an altogether disturbing sensation.
“ YOUR VULNERABILITY TO SUNLIGHT WOULD BE TOO GREAT A DISADVANTAGE, SO I HAVE REMOVED IT FOR THE DURATION OF THE TOURNAMENT,” Archon explained.
So that was why he was still among the undead! He should probably be grateful for the consideration.
“ CONTESTANTS , THERE IS WATER TO BE FOUND” Archon advised, and Colin assumed that now their captor was speaking simultaneously to everyone present.
He didn't need water, of course, but the same couldn't be said for the others. Putting them in this environment and holding out the promise of water was certainly one way to keep everyone on the move, at least until they located the water source. It would likely get pretty bloody there; maybe the resulting conflict would wipe out Morthos.
Colin certainly hoped so, since in his books, formerly the Master's texts, he had been unable to find any way to shield himself from the warlock's magical control. He hadn't even found any references to the existence of such a spell! That was surprising, and more than a little worrying. What other unknown magic did the warlock have in that book?
Colin started toward the sand dunes and abruptly stopped. It was time to do something unexpected. Turning on his heel he headed in the opposite direction. Within six steps he ran into an invisible barrier. Experimentation revealed that the barrier stretched as high as he could reach, and curved to embrace the area just outside of the sand dunes.
He stood silently for a moment. Then he turned to his right and started walking, following the perimeter of the barrier.
Madeline shot up into the air, relishing the feeling of flying. The heat was a pain, but this was still so much better than being locked in that rotten maze!
She barely had time for that thought before her head slammed into something with a shock that rattled her teeth. She fell back toward the ground and hit the sand hard, feet first. There was a loud cracking sound and she screamed at the terrible flash of pain from her left leg. Darkness consumed her.
She awoke to a throbbing migraine and a steady pulse of agony from left leg. The shifting of her limb which accompanied sitting up nearly made her black out again. Looking down she saw that shortly below the knee her leg was bent to the right at an unnatural angle. It was bloodied, heavily bruised, and was that . . . was that a fragment of broken bone sticking out?
Quickly turning her head to one side Madeline vomited up her breakfast, her stomach continuing to heave spasmodically even after it had emptied itself. Spitting to get the worst of the taste out of her mouth she turned back away from the mess and started to cry. She couldn't help herself.
“I HATE YOU!” she screamed up at Archon furiously. “I HATE YOU!”
When at last she had regained control of herself she rose up into the air, taking the greatest care to keep her shattered leg stable. She floated forward about two feet above the ground, looking for someone else, for anyone else.
The heat didn't bother Jo too much. Summer had always been her favorite season, and this wasn't much worse than one of the hotter July days. She did wish she'd worn some lighter clothes, and wished even more that her team had stocked up on water instead of food.
What troubled her was the revelation she'd had last night. Since they got their powers she, Drew and Roland had just been playing at being heroes. They'd never understood how much danger they were in, that they really could fail and die.
She knew better now. She hoped fervently that back home Drew and Roland had finished off Mega-Nukus and his minions. The fact that they weren't here among the other kids snatched away from death made her think that they had indeed won. If so they were safe, and with Mega-Nukus gone no one would endanger them again. That thought made it easier to keep going.
When she saw a figure ahead emerge from behind the cover of a dune Jo sprinted forward, at least as best she could in this sand. She was ready to fight, but it wasn't an enemy: it was Solan.
Her first reaction was disappointment. She'd been hoping to run into Justin, or maybe Josh, not Solan or Kenny. The former two could be partners; the latter two could only be burdens.
It was a horrible thing to think, and her feeling of guilt only deepened when she saw the naked relief on Solan's face.
“Jo!” he exclaimed happily.
“Hi, Solan,” she replied, forcing a smile. “Have you run into anyone else yet?”
He shook his head, his long blond hair whipping from side to side. “No, you're the first person I've seen.”
Jo nodded, unsurprised. Solan's path made a right angle where it met hers, so she split the difference by heading off from the point of the angle. He fell in beside her.
“Ever been in a desert before?” she asked him.
“No. I've never traveled outside of my village,” he admitted. “Have you?”
“Mom took us to the Eureka dunes once. It was kind of like this: hot, huge mounds of sand, way bigger than these.”
The conversation gradually petered out as they saved their breath for walking.
For this terrible place his garb made sense. The other contestants might well be roasting in their strange clothing, and if so all the better! A wise gladiator seized every advantage he could get.
It was midmorning when he heard the howl, coming from somewhere to his left. He stopped and turned in that direction. A moment later the source of the howl came into view.
It was a beast of some kind, black-furred, looking like a combination of wolf and man. Though fearsome to behold, its appearance also betrayed signs of weakness. The dark fur was damp and matted down. The creature's maw hung open, its tongue lolling from its muzzle. Its forelegs seemed to tremble as it walked forward.
Gladiators had sometimes fought lions in the arena for the pleasure of the Romans, but he had never witnessed such a battle himself. He didn't know what tactics to use, how to fight it. Sweat rolled down his forehead and he tightened his grip on his trident as the creature padded toward him.
His weapon was head down to fend off the creature. It snarled at him, and seemed to sink back onto its haunches. He realized almost too late what it was about to do and reversed his trident as it sprang.
The creature slammed into him, its claws ripping at his shoulders. Blood spurted from the deep slashes and he bellowed as he fell backward. The butt of his trident hit the sand before he did and his hands slid down the shaft, tightening their grip near the base. Directly above him the monster snapped madly, its jaws flecked with reddish foam. Its paws waved wildly in midair, its entire weight supported by the three tines of the trident piercing its chest.
Lanius struggled to keep the trident upright, desperate to keep the thing off him. Bloody drool fell on his face and his wounded shoulders screamed with the effort. The creature's thrashing proved too much for him to handle and he let it fall to his right side. It scrabbled at the sand, but the weapon effectively pinned it to the ground, the long shaft keeping it from rolling onto its stomach. Staggering to his feet Lanius watched the beast's efforts weaken. Its head thumped to the sand, the tongue still lolling out. Its chest heaved one final time and did not rise again.
His shoulders had been shredded, the wounds as bad as anything he had suffered in the arena, and he could not move his arms without pain. Yet his dominant feeling was elation. He had done it! He had killed this creature all by himself! None of his previous victories in combat had ever been half as glorious! He could triumph here-he could win!
This heat was insufferable! He had been forced to strip down to almost nothing to avoid collapsing. His padded leather armor lay in the sand back where he had first appeared. He retained only his undergarments, his boots, his bat'leth and his d'k tahg.
But he was a Klingon warrior; he would triumph no matter what obstacles were placed in his way. Now if only he could find a foe to triumph over! This wasteland seemed empty of opponents.
A half-mile later what he saw gave the lie to that statement. There were tracks in the sand before him; an enemy! Alexander turned to follow the tracks, loping along now. It would cost him in energy, but he had to catch up with whoever had made these footprints.
He followed the trail around half a dozen sand dunes before glimpsing his prey just ahead of him. The human was wearing blue shorts that ended raggedly above his knees. He had on a blue shirt and had brown hair. With decidedly mixed feelings he saw that it was Justin, the boy who had spoken out against fighting yesterday.
From this distance Alexander could probably have thrown his d'k tahg into the human's back, but he would never do such a cowardly thing.
“Human!” Alexander yelled.
The boy reacted quickly, whirling around and twisting his left wrist to make some kind of device appear on his arm. He inserted a key into the device with his right hand and turned it. His clothes transformed into a form-fitting blue and white spandex suite and a helmet literally assembled itself around his head. In his now gloved right hand a sword appeared.
It was a flashy display, but not truly impressive. Dropping his d'k tahg to the sand he gripped his bat'leth in both hands and advanced toward his enemy.
“I don't want to fight you!” Justin shouted.
“Because you're a coward?” Alexander sneeringly asked, not checking his forward movement.
“Because there‘s no reason for us to fight!” Justin insisted. “I don't even know you! Why should we try to kill each other just on Archon's say so?”
It was a good argument, one which had given Alexander pause yesterday when it was first presented. It was galling in the extreme to be forced to do battle in this way. A Klingon warrior fought for his House and his honor; he did not fight at the whim of extra-dimensional aliens. Saving his life in no way gave Archon ownership of it. Had the being been accessible Alexander might well have challenged him for his arrogance in assuming he could dictate to a Klingon warrior. With Archon remaining hidden, however, such an action was impossible. Their captor's cowardly refusal to meet with them face to face was a sign of weakness and an additional reason to hold him in contempt.
Alexander had halted while he considered Justin's words and the boy seemed to have taken encouragement from that. Lowering his sword he leaned forward and spoke with greater enthusiasm.
“You stayed after most of the others left. You must agree with me a little!”
“I thought your defiance of Archon might mean you were worthy of respect,” Alexander admitted. “But then you talked of sparing those who attack you! No true warrior would speak so! Those are the words of one who fears battle and the bloodshed which goes with it.”
“I've killed before, when I had to,” Justin admitted quietly. “I won't kill here. We're all Archon's prisoners, and we need to join together instead of murdering each other like he wants.”
“To kill when battle has already been joined is not murder. You are a fool, human,” Alexander judged harshly, moving his bat'leth into attack position. “Defend yourself!”
Justin's straight sword barely blocked Alexander's cut to his right side. At once he saw his advantage. The greater weight of his weapon and the superior strength of his arms made it difficult for his foe to parry his strikes. He struck at the left and Justin blocked again. He feinted at the boy's legs and then brought his bat'leth up and down in an overhead blow. Justin's sword rose, almost too late, to halt the weapon with a clang. Alexander grinned fiercely as he exerted himself, forced the locked blades lower and lower. He would split that helmet open with his enemy's own weapon!
Suddenly Justin dropped to one knee and tilted his sword diagonally down and to the left, allowing the bat'leth to scrape along the edge and go into the sand. Next he brought his sword around and down onto Alexander's right hand, striking with the flat of his blade.
Instinctively Alexander drew back his hand, leaving him holding his bat'leth with only his left hand. Though the effort might well have strained something in his arm, he used his hold to whip the blunt back part of his bat'leth into the kneeling boy's head, knocking Justin sprawling.
Alexander gripped his bat'leth with both hands again, but before he could use it he tumbled onto his back in the sand, courtesy of Justin's leg sweep. The boy flipped athletically to his feet, while Alexander had to use his right hand to help himself rise.
Again Justin struck with the flat of his blade, this time hitting Alexander's left hand. The bat'leth fell from his grasp, but he reacted by seizing Justin's right wrist and twisting it unmercifully. The sword rotated in a half circle before his enemy was forced to release it, the weapon imbedding itself point first in the ground between them. Alexander immediately relinquished his hold to take the blade, but at almost the same instant Justin grabbed his wrists! The human fell backwards, pulling Alexander onto his boots and incidentally knocking the standing sword over. His coiled legs launched Alexander over his head and the three-quarters Klingon hit the sand hard!
Scrambling up as quickly as he could he was surprised to see that Justin had not taken the sword or bat'leth; both weapons lay forgotten behind him. Instead the human whipped his left boot across Alexander's face in a powerful roundhouse kick. Alexander staggered back, blood oozing from his cut lip. Justin moved in with a quick one-two punch which rattled his skull. Alexander's return punch was blocked by his foe's left arm, while Justin right fist hit him in the gut. An instant later Alexander's left fist struck Justin in the temple.
Both boys reeled, but Alexander seized the initiative. With a certain vengeful satisfaction he executed a leg sweep of his own, dropping the surprised human. Throwing himself on top of his enemy Alexander locked his hands around the boy's neck and began to throttle him, snarling in excitement.
The human's hand scrambled ineffectually at his own before closing around his thumbs. Alexander snarled again, this time in frustration, as his stranglehold was broken. Then Justin's hands balled into fists and smashed themselves into Alexander's throat.
Gagging Alexander tumbled off Justin as the latter lurched upward. He was struggling to his feet when a white-gloved palm smashed itself down between his eyes. Dazed, he couldn't avoid the second palm strike or the subsequent plunge into unconsciousness.
After a couple more hours without finding anyone or any water, Jo was starting to get irritated. Yesterday's wandering had been bad enough; walking in this hot sun sucked! Her gaze turned to the nearest sand dune. They could climb it to get a better view, spy out the lay of the land. She knew from experience, however, that climbing a sand dune was a frustrating experience. You hardly seemed to get anywhere for the effort you put in, and scaling this one would require more energy than she wanted to spend. Unless . . .
“What are you looking at?” Solan asked, having stopped right along with her.
She glanced from him, to the sand dune, and back again. Slowly a grin spread across her face. “I was thinking that one of us needs to get to the top of that sand dune and take a look around.”
“I'll do it,” he volunteered.
“Have you ever climbed a sand dune before?”
“It's hard work, but I've got a quick way to get to the top.”
Cracking her knuckles, she took a running jump and soared into the air, landing almost at the peak of the dune. Scrambling up the final few feet she looked eagerly in every direction.
There was no sign of anyone else around, but off about sixty degrees to their right-palm trees, standing around a pool of water. An oasis!
The sight very sight of it seemed to double her thirst and she scrambled down the dune as quickly as she could.
“Did you see someone?” Solan asked.
“No, but I did see water! Come on!”
She took off at a run, leaving it to Solan to catch up.
The pool was about twenty feet wide and fifty feet long. The water was clear and just looking at it kicked her thirst into overdrive. She knelt down at the edge and hesitated. Archon had said there would be water; he hadn't said anything about it being safe to drink. It could make her sick, or worse.
It was a chance she'd have to take. Drawing in a deep breath Jo scooped up water in her cupped hands and drank. It tasted wonderful! She downed mouthful after mouthful, finally quenching her thirst. Beside her Solan was sipping directly from the oasis, his face hidden by his hair.
Jo sat back and dug out the bananas she had taken along. Peeling the first one she wolfed it down in about a minute. She ate the second banana at a slower pace, while Solan bit into an apple. Should she save the third and last one? No, it was better to eat it now and have the energy. She looked over at Solan when she was done and saw that he had finished two apples. Now he was trying, with some difficulty, to figure out how to eat a Three Musketeers bar.
“Here, let me open it for you,” she offered, taking the candy from his unresisting hand. She split the wrapped in two in one brisk motion, but the heat apparently hadn't done the chocolate any good; it had melted. Solan stared at the sticky mess doubtfully.
“Try it,” Jo urged.
Hesitantly he took a bite. His eyes widened as he chewed and he took another bite before he had even swallowed the first. He wolfed down the gooey candy bar much faster than she had eaten her first banana, finishing up by licking the remaining chocolate from the wrapper.
“Good?” Jo asked, already knowing the answer.
“It's amazing! This must be what ambrosia tastes like!” he enthused. “Is it rare in your world?”
“No, it's really easy to get,” Jo assured him. “Mom usually buys Drew and me candy whenever we go with her to the supermarket.”
“A market which sold food such as this would be super indeed,” Solan observed solemnly, and Jo couldn't help giggling.
Abruptly he turned away from her, looking out toward the far end of the oasis. Had she hurt his feelings?
“Solan?” she asked. He whipped back toward her, glaring at her.
“I don't come from your world! I couldn't have imagined any of the miracles you and Josh and Justin have told me about! In my village we tilled the fields and harvested grain so we would have food for the winter. We had meat only when the hunters are successful and we never had it more than three times in a month.”
He snatched up the discarded wrapper and held it before her in his clenched fist. “This candy bar, which you say is so common on your world, tasted better than anything I've ever eaten. Think on that.”
Surprised by his burst of ferocity, Jo took her time replying. “I wasn't making fun of you. It just sounded funny the way you said it.”
Solan said nothing for a few minutes. Then he asked, “Do you think the others will find us here?”
“I don't know,” Jo answered honestly. From the right angles the oasis was visible from a considerable distance; their own view had been blocked a line of sand dunes. “I hope so. In a bit I'll go up on one of the dunes and look around.”
Solan gave a brief nod and his expression softened. They sat and rested together, the only two with full bellies and without thirst in the entire Battlefield.
He had left the alien lying unconscious in the sand. He had considered waiting for his opponent to awaken and trying once more to persuade him, but in the end had decided against it. He had no desire to get into another fight if the kid still wasn't willing to listen to reason; better to talk with him at dinner tonight, where violence was forbidden. Also, he didn't really think he could afford to sit and wait around. He needed to find water, and more importantly, he needed to find his friends.
The bruises he'd picked up, combined with the heat and his thirst, meant he was moving more slowly toward those goals than he would have liked, but it would have been stupid of him to overexert himself.
His initial plan, after seeing the terrain when he had first appeared, had been to bring his friends to him. He had tried to summon his Hand Blasters with the intention of using them as flares. The sight of those blue bolts soaring into the sky would have been visible for miles around and would have hopefully brought his friends racing to his location. Of course it might have brought everyone else in as well, but that was a risk he'd have been willing to take. Like all teams they were strongest together, and he figured that together they would have stood a good chance of defeating their mutually antagonistic enemies. That in turn would have been a great example to the others of the power of teamwork, and of the benefits of joining together.
When he'd tried to make his Hand Blasters appear, though, they hadn't. Archon hadn't specifically mentioned them yesterday, but he could only assume that their absence was part of the downgrade of his powers. He could have found that out if he'd tried summoning them before, but they would only have been good for blowing fist-sized holes in people in the maze, so he'd had no reason to call for them then.
How would his teammates be doing now, without him? Of the four, Solan was the one he was most worried about. The Greek boy's lack of training and the relative primitiveness of his world put him in the greatest danger of any of them. They'd all seen that last night, including Solan, who had nonetheless kept the same tight lid on his fear which he'd maintained ever since Justin had met him.
That was pretty impressive. One of the many things he'd learned as a Ranger was that courage wasn't the absence of fear; courage was carrying on in spite of your fear.
Kenny had been pretty brave too, given that he was only a boxer. In fact being willing to leave their group so soon last night put him ahead of Justin! He hadn't wanted to leave the others; talking with them and learning about them had helped push away the fear and anxiety. Maybe Kenny didn't appreciate how dangerous their situation actually was? It had to seem like some kind of science fiction story to him. Hopefully nothing had yet happened to bring the reality of their situation home to him.
Jo would be doing all right, he was sure. With her super-strength she was probably the best-equipped of any of them to live through this madness.
Josh would almost certainly survive his first encounter with an enemy, but after that he he'd be in as much danger as Solan and Kenny.
Without consciously meaning to Justin quickened his pace.
Thank goodness he'd thought to bring some food along! He wouldn't have wanted to have to march in this heat with nothing to eat.
Of course, if he'd been just a little smarter, maybe he would have thought to bring along some WATER too. Then he might not feel like he was about to keel over and die. Where was this water Archon had talked about? And where was everyone else?
Not that he had any desire to run across one of the killer kids; walking alone was way better than that. By the same token, though, he would much rather meet up with one of his allies than continue his cross-desert trek by himself. Just the presence of another person would be comforting. Yesterday had reminded him of the thrill and satisfaction of being part of a team, working together to beat the bad guys and save the day. Besides, conversation would give his mind something to focus on. Trudging alone through the desert gave him too much time to think, and none of his thoughts were particularly cheerful.
The worst of them concerned the immediate future. If they couldn't win over everyone to their side . . . what were they going to do with the hold-outs?
Even if they did manage to get everyone to cooperate, they still had no way to escape. If they all refused to play, would Archon let them go? Or would he subject to some punishment even worse than this?
There must be a surer way out of this, if he could just think of it. A brainstorming session after dinner would be a good way to go. If they put all of their heads together they should be able to come up with a better plan.
It was early afternoon when he spotted a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned in that direction just as whoever it was disappeared back behind a sand dune. It seemed his alone time was over.
He approached the dune with care, ready to defend himself with his fists or, if necessary, his Time Warrior powers. There was no movement from either side as he closed in. The kid could be running directly away from him, using the dune as cover, but he doubted it. It wasn't like he was that scary, especially to someone determined to murder all opposition.
Of course he could always take this chance to run. The idea did have a certain superficial appeal, except for two things: First, he didn't have much energy left; he wouldn't be able to run for long without exhausting himself. Second, the thought of leaving an enemy at his back was even more unsettling than the prospect of facing one head on.
So, left or right, left or right . . . only one choice, really.
Josh scrambled determinedly up the face of the dune. He eventually reached the summit just as the person he was trying to sneak up on did, from the other side.
“Kenny!” he exclaimed in a mixture of surprise and relief. The smaller blond boy's expression was so startled it was almost comical. He seemed to be in good shape, not looking as tired as Josh felt. Instead of wearing his backpack he was holding it by its straps in his left hand. There must still be food in it judging by the way it hung and Kenny probably meant to use it as a bludgeoning weapon against his enemies. Not a bad idea, although he should have zipped it up first; there was still an open gap at the top.
“Why'd you hide instead of coming out to join me?” Josh asked.
“I didn't know it was you. I ducked back behind the sand dune as soon as I saw there was another person around,” Kenny explained with some heat. “Have you used your powers yet today?”
“No,” Josh answered, a bit taken aback.
“Good!” Kenny declared as he begun down the dune.
A little nonplussed, Josh followed him.
He came into view about two hundred feet to her left, and she saw him only seconds before he spotted her. He was bare-chested, giving her a clear view of both his unnaturally pale skin and his extremely powerful musculature. Across the distance their eyes locked, her warm brown meeting his cold green. Very slowly he smiled and the predatory leer sent a shiver down Jo's spine. He broke into a sprint toward her and she reacted by retreating down the far end of her sand dune, back into the bowl of the oasis.
Solan hurried to her side, asking, “Who did you see?”
“It's the blond guy with the short hair,” Jo told him. “The one I met him in the weight room last night.”
Solan paled and his Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed nervously. “Which direction is he coming from?”
Jo turned and pointed toward where she had seen Will. “He should be coming straight through there.”
And what would they do when he arrived? They could try running, but he'd certainly chase them and even if she could outdistance him, Solan couldn't. She didn't think there was any point in trying to talk to him. That left facing him head-on, without her Baton or blaster, just her raw strength against his.
Caught up in her thoughts she almost missed what Solan said next. “I can hide behind that dune there and charge him from the side. Maybe I can distract him long enough for you to knock him out.”
She stared at him in shock. He was serious ! He really meant to charge their attacker, even thought he didn't know anything about fighting. Solan started toward the dune and she grabbed him by the arm, bringing him to an abrupt halt.
She couldn't let him do it. Even if he did manage to distract the crew-cut kid, the danger was too great. Solan would be lucky to survive a single punch from their enemy. She wouldn't sacrifice his life for a momentary advantage. He was her teammate and she had to protect him.
Just like she'd had to protect her brother against Mega-Nukus. Yet it was coming to Drew's defense which had almost gotten her killed. If she had to split her attention here between fighting and keeping Solan safe she risked history repeating itself, especially if Solan tried to help her. And he would, she knew that now. So what could she do?
“I want you to run!” she ordered, releasing his arm and indicating the direction opposite the one their attacker was coming from. “Go to the other side of the oasis and run. If I stop him I'll come after you, and I'll shout “Beetleborg.” Don't stop running until you hear me shout that word. Got it?”
“I can't leave you to face him alone!” Solan protested angrily.
“You can't help me,” she countered sharply. “You can only get hurt, and I can't protect both of us.”
Over Solan's shoulder the threat came into view. He skidded to a halt at the other end of the oasis and began to approach more cautiously. They were out of time to argue.
“GO!” she shouted in Solan's face, shoving him behind her and hoping to God he would do as he was told.
Solan stared at her, an indecipherable expression on his face. Then he turned and ran.
The other boy had stopped his advance and stood watching them intently. His eyes followed Solan as the latter went around the end of the water and headed back off into the desert. Jo was ready to cut him off if he tried to go after Solan, but he didn't. She hadn't really thought he would; she was the one he wanted.
Steeling herself for the fight of her life, Jo cracked her knuckles and went forward to meet him.
He fled the impending conflict as swiftly as he could, not letting his ambivalence slow him down. A part of him was glad to go. The thought of trying to fight a super-strong enemy was terrifying! Yet running away brought shame to equal his fear. They were supposed to be a team, helping each other out whenever possible. To abandon Jo this way seemed so cowardly, so wrong. He didn't have to go, just because she had told him to. He could have disobeyed her and stayed. In the end it wasn't his fear or her orders which had led him to retreat; it was what had happened in his past.
Two years ago he'd stayed to fight when Dagnine' men came to capture him, ignoring Gabrielle's desperate cries to run. He'd been sure that by staying he could help her defeat them! Instead they'd defeated Gabrielle and had captured him with ease. It had fallen to Xena to rescue him, since he certainly couldn't break free on his own.
A few days ago he'd insisted to Xena and Kaleipus that he could take care of himself. Almost immediately afterward that strange little girl had nearly slain him, and he hadn't been able to stop her.
Only moments ago Jo had bluntly told him that he couldn't help at all in the battle. Her words were insulting, humiliating . . . and true. Painful as it was to admit, she was right. Every time he'd tried to fight in the past he had lost. Every time! He had neither the skills of a warrior like Justin, nor a superhuman power such as Jo or Josh possessed. He wasn't even trained in boxing like Kenny! Perhaps with a staff he could have done a little good, but without one he was worse than useless, and Jo had known it. That was why she had sent him away
So once again, he was retreating and allowing a woman to fight his battles for him. No, not even a woman this time-a girl ! A girl who was only a year older than he was!
He had protested to Xena indignantly that he wasn't a baby and now that denial rang mockingly in his ears. He couldn't protect himself and he had to depend on others to take care of him. So what truly separated him from a mewling infant?
They circled each other warily, neither willing to make the first move.
It was frustrating to have to be this cautious. Normally he would simply charge in and tear his victim to pieces, but he couldn't risk that here. She was almost as strong as he was, and could do just as much damage. In an all-out fight there was every chance that they would both be killed.
How to strike at her without taking a blow in return? Perhaps if he were to uproot one of these trees and use it as a club? No, she would simply catch it and they would have a tug of war over the trunk. That would accomplish nothing. He needed something which would put her at his mercy.
That was it! Will held his hands with his palms facing her and his fingers spread. “Ready to test your strength again?” he taunted.
Jo frowned at him and didn't respond.
“Come on!” he challenged.
Slowly Jo stepped up before him. She was tense, clearly ready to react if he attacked, but he simply kept his hands in the same position. Distrustfully she interlaced her fingers with his and the next second both of them were pouring everything they had into forcing the other's hands back.
It was exactly the same as last night. Then he had been tired from his work-out and so had lost. Now she once again held the advantage, having located this oasis and rested here before he arrived. As before her strength began to overwhelm his. This time, however, Archon wouldn't interfere with his actions.
Will's right knee shot up and impacted the junction of her legs. The blow was less effective with females, but it still worked. Jo gasped and began to crumple as the strength suddenly went out of her hands. Will was able to break them both without difficulty. Then he shattered her wrists as well before ramming her down to the sand and mounting her.
Sitting securely atop his victim he eagerly tore away her shirt and bra. His smile widened as he admired the swell of her breasts and the pleasing creaminess of her skin. Here was an opportunity to do again what he had only done once before. This was going to be so much fun!
The pain from the wounds in his shoulders was excruciating. With every step he took the wounds seemed to throb and he could barely keep hold of his trident. He needed water, and he needed it now. He couldn't go on like this.
He stumbled around a dune and looking left he saw it: WATER! He lurched eagerly toward the crescent-shaped body of water, hardly noticing the surrounding trees and grass. Reaching the edge at last he dropped to his knees at the shore and drank long and deeply. He choked trying to drink too much at once, but even that felt good. At last he had cooled his parched throat, and here was a place for him to rest and recover. A good place, since those arriving after him would certainly be weakened by thirst. They would thus be easier opponents, a boon which he was not ungrateful for.
He had been there for some time when she came into view. She was floating in mid-air, but the fear and awe inspired by that sight was mitigated by her clearly broken leg. The sight of it heartened Lanius, until he realized that she must have triumphed over whoever had inflicted the injury on her, just as he had triumphed over the beast.
He didn't hesitate, but raced straight toward her. When he closed to within ten feet he slid to a stop and with every ounce of his strength hurled the trident at her chest. The pain in his right shoulder flared at the effort and he couldn't help screaming.
His weapon flew straight and true toward her—halting in mid-air. It hung there, just as she did. Then it flipped around and shot back toward Lanius! It occurred too quickly, and was too unexpected, for him to dodge.
The tines drove deep into his chest, the unbearable agony blotting out the pain from his other wounds. He dropped to his knees, coughing up blood when he tried to scream. He pitched over onto his side, trying without success to make his hands grip the trident so he could pull it out. Then, mercifully, all of his pain was gone.
This wretched desert made him long for the cool shadows of the tunnels. The sun beat down on him incessantly and walking on the sand was more tiring than walking on a stone floor. His long, flowing robe had proven too warm and he carried it slung over his left shoulder as he soldiered on. Even holding onto his blessed book had become a strain.
After what seemed like centuries he saw a glimmer of hope up ahead. There, in the distance, there was a flash of greenery. Shifting course he soon saw that it was some odd kind of tree, placed with several others around a circular pool. Water, at last!
There was someone standing beside it, dressed in a very strange blue garment. A sword and an odd-looking helmet lay on the ground by his feet. It was the brown-haired boy, the fool who had called on them not to kill anyone! What was his name? Justin, that was it!
“There's no reason for us to fight!” Justin called out, having noticed his approach. No reason? What about winning their freedom? Wasn't that reason enough? Why had Archon included such an idiot in the contest?
“I don't want to hurt you. What's your name?”
“Morthos of Northshire,” he said, trying to keep his feelings from his voice. His gaze flicked past Justin, to the calm pool. He needed water, but he would have to deal with this wretch first.
“Go ahead and drink,” Justin offered, moving off to one side. “We can talk afterwards.”
It sounded like a simple-minded ruse, but he saw the boy's gaze linger on his spindly frame and pock-marked visage. On Justin's face was an expression of . . . pity. Pity! How dare this simple-minded insect pity him! The weakness of his body meant nothing , not when he had the support of his Lord! That aid was worth far more than the pity of “good” people, an emotion which had never helped or changed anything! Pity hadn't saved him from death by smallpox; only the true God's grace had.
Still, this fool's misguided compassion would be useful; it would make him vulnerable to mesmerism.
Approaching slowly he gave his enemy a wide berth, deliberately going to the far end of the pool to drink. Justin watched him closely, but made no other move, content to let him drink at a place of his choosing. With the black robe draped over his left side his kris dagger and its sheath were fortunately hidden from view; only the belt they were attached to was visible. Nor did the presence of his book seem to bother Justin.
The cool water was indescribably delicious, slaking his burning thirst. He drank long and deeply before raising his head from the pool. Deliberately biting his tongue hard enough to draw the necessary blood, he muttered an enchantment he knew by heart. Justin didn't react, but then he was too far to hear away what Morthos was saying.
Standing up he looked over at Justin, who immediately began babbling something about defying Archon.
“So you don't want to hurt me?” he asked, his voice layered with hypnotic power.
“Of course not!” Justin replied indignantly.
“You want to help me.” This time it was a declaration rather than a question.
“Yes,” Justin answered, speaking more slowly than before.
“You want to save my life,” he declared.
“Yes,” Justin responded sleepily, his eyes half-closing.
“I can help you too. If you listen to me we can save everyone!” Morthos' lip curled involuntarily with contempt, but his expression shouldn't matter now. Justin had been mesmerized and such a trance could rarely be broken by the victim. The difficult part was catching the victim's mind in the first place; the presence of any negative emotion toward the caster would prevent the target from succumbing. Against a trusting fool like Justin, though, the spell was a wonderful weapon.
It was actually the first bit of sorcery Enos had ever taught him. At the old warlock's direction he had often used it to ensnare travelers on the road, bringing them back to the tower. Such people were as fine an offering to the Lord as anyone, and they were considerably easier to capture than the villagers. He suspected now that Enos had also preferred travelers because he wanted to avoid too greatly depleting the population, or alternatively driving the villagers to acts of desperation. The latter was a factor Morthos should have considered himself.
The village's inhabitants had never been as completely cowed as he had thought. They had instead lived in a balance of terror and hate. Enos' death had greatly diminished the terror, while Sarah's abduction and sacrifice had spiked the hate.
After Enos took him in Sarah was the only one of his former friends who would still talk to him. At night, without her parents' knowledge, she would sneak out to see him. She didn't flinch from his face, or make the accursed sign of the cross at him. She had still trusted him. That was what had made her so easy to mesmerize.
Morthos walked off the grass and back onto the sand. “Come over here, Justin,” he urged. Lethargically the boy moved to obey. Morthos unsheathed his Kris dagger and drew a pentacle in the sand, six foot in diameter. Then he set the book down and opened it to the last few pages. With exquisite care he began etching the appropriate symbols, but the sand was too fluid to hold the shapes. Morthos stopped, frustrated. How could he . . . ?
“Justin, give me your helmet,” Morthos ordered. Using the helmet as a bucket he scooped up water from the oasis and poured it between the lines of the pentacle, hardening the sand enough for his purposes.
This would not be an ordinary blood offering. No, this boy's life would go for a far greater purpose. He would use Justin to summon one of the lesser denizens of the Pit to his side, and he would then send that malefic being out to claim the lives of the remaining children.
Morthos' hands shook as he inscribed the final runes. This was a ritual of such risk and power that even Enos had never dared to attempt it. To ask so much of his Lord was bold indeed, dangerously so. Could he take such a chance? He, who had already failed once and who was now on trial for his life? Perhaps it would be better to simply give Justin as an offering of thanks for this second chance.
On the other hand, how could he hope to pass his test if he did not use the full extent of his abilities? Maybe his Lord wanted him to demonstrate how much he had learned, what an apt pupil he had been. Succeeding in summoning a demon would surely prove him worthy of being Enos' successor.
“Step into the circle, Justin, without disturbing any of the symbols.” Again the boy complied. Reaching out Morthos touched the other-worldly material of Justin's garment. It was like nothing he had ever felt before and he wondered if his knife could penetrate it.
“Take off the rest of your armor,” he ordered. In the blink of an eye the entire suit vanished, replaced by clothing equally strange in appearance, but far more normal in texture.
How had the boy done that? Clearly he was greater than the simple-minded fool he appeared to be, which made disposing of him all the more imperative.
“Lie down inside the circle,” he ordered. As Justin did so Morthos knelt down just beyond the edge of the pentacle, in line with Justin's head. Reading from his book he began the chant. For almost half an hour he invoked his Lord's name, begging for the strength to serve Him. As his spell reached its apex he positioned his kris dagger over Justin's heart. With both hands he raised the sacrificial implement above his head before brining it down with all the force he could muster.
The tip of the blade never even reached Justin's garment. The boy brought both of his hands up and caught Morthos' wrists as the latter was making the killing thrust. From the wide-eyed, wide-awake look on Justin's face it was clear that he was no longer ensorcelled. He had broken the trance!
Morthos strained desperately to finish the sacrifice, trying futilely to overpower Justin. He began mouthing words of the sickness spell but before he could finish Justin yanked on his wrists, tossing him to the right. Hitting the sand knocked the wind out of him and his left hand came off the knife. Almost instantly Justin was on top of him, one hand pinning his dagger down and the other hammering at his head. His nose broke at the first blow and that was only the beginning. Once again he was helpless. He couldn't escape, couldn't fight back, he couldn't even speak! He could only lie there until the darkness rose up and embraced him.
Even after Morthos passed out Justin kept hitting the boy. He couldn't stop himself. Fear and anger and revulsion were all roiling around together inside him, and the only way to deal with it seemed to be to crush Morthos, just as he would a particularly loathsome insect.
Blood flowed freely from the child's nose and mouth, staining the teenager's pistoning, white-gloved fist. As he drew back for yet another punch a few drops of blood flew off his hand and onto his face. He wiped at it impatiently, and only succeeded in smearing more blood on himself. That was when he really looked at his hand. Then he looked down at the person he'd been hitting.
He threw himself off the body as though it were red-hot. Running to the edge of the oasis he washed his hands frantically, vigorously scrubbing away every trace of the red liquid. Next he began splashing water on his face. Some of it went up his nose and made him cough, but he continued until the blood was gone from his face as well as his hands.
Sitting back on his haunches the fourteen year-old started to tremble. Almost dying was bad, but he could handle that. This wasn't the first or even the twelfth time he'd almost died. Being a Ranger was dangerous; he knew and accepted that fact, because the job was worth the risk.
Having his mind violated was harder to shake off. He'd been the victim of mental influence before, but not to the point of cooperating with his own murder. The dirty feeling of having his will overwhelmed clung to him more tenaciously than the blood.
The worst part, though, was what he'd done himself. After all his talk about subduing the aggressive kids and making them see that Archon was their real enemy, he'd come within a hairsbreadth of beating one of those kids to death.
That wasn't him! He didn't go into frenzies like this. Since infancy he had learned about self-control and self-discipline through Dad's martial arts instruction. Becoming a Ranger had only reinforced those teachings, especially since one of the cardinal rules of the Power Ranger Code was to never escalate a battle.
The closest he'd come to striking anyone in anger before this had been in his freshman year, when Reggie and Junior had been picking on him. The two just wouldn't leave him alone and when they had gone after him in the park he had come very close to punching Reggie out. It was only the older boy's genuine look of fear which had humanized and saved him.
Things had actually ended up working out after that. When he had responded to Reggie's taunt about his mother by revealing that she was dead Reggie had confided the same thing. They'd even bonded a little over their losses. Reggie had gotten Junior to leave him alone and he'd never had a problem with either of them again. Later Tommy had told him what Jason had once said about how making a friend out of an enemy was the highest form of martial arts.
That was the feat he had to repeat here, but so far he had failed in every attempt. His team-up with Jo, Josh, Solan and Kenny didn't really count as a success; they had never been his enemies in the first place. The kids who were, the ones he needed to reach, he couldn't get through to. None of them would listen.
And why should they? After what he had just done, why should they believe a word he said? How could he persuade them to stop trying to kill each other if he couldn't even follow his own advice? Right now Morthos looked to be in worse shape than a lot of the victims of Divatox's attacks. The boy could have died from the beating Justin had dished out if it had gone on much longer. He could have died.
Colin had to walk around the periphery for quite a long time before he came across anything of interest. The line of footprints in the sand let him know he'd found the starting point of another contestant. He sniffed at the scent that had been left behind. It was the red-headed boy who had appeared here.
Following the red-head's trail brought him to the corpse of the werewolf, a female werewolf. Finding her dead was a relief; she could have torn him apart if he'd encountered her while she was alive. How had the boy managed to take her out? What powers did he have?
Maybe being alone hadn't been so bad after all. As company Kenny left a lot to be desired. Try as he might, Josh couldn't draw the other boy into a conversation. Kenny spoke only in response to direct questions and even then his answers were brusque and to the point. This went on for a while before Kenny stopped and turned to Josh, his expression irritated and angry.
“I don't want to talk, okay?” he snapped.
“Okay!” Josh conceded. “We'll just walk together through the desert in total silence,” he added sarcastically.
In return he received not a smile, not a grin, not even a crack in the glare. Kenny merely turned around and kept walking.
What was his problem? Well, aside from the fact that he'd almost died, had been taken off to who knows where and was in the second day of a fighting contest which only one of those involved in was supposed to survive, not to mention that he had been walking for hours now in a desert without water. But hey, they were all dealing with that! Kenny didn't have to be such a jerk about it.
Maybe he was upset because of how vulnerable he was. Boxing wouldn't be much good against that werewolf, for example. Of course his Time Warrior powers should let him handle the first real threat they came across. After that . . . well, they would see.
“Hold up, I gotta rest,” Josh said. He flopped down, breathing hard. Kenny sat down as well, his expression stony. Josh's passion for biking had really come in handy here; you needed strong legs for all of this walking. Still, walking through sand took a lot more effort than riding his Schwinn, and the lack of hydration was starting to get to him. This was probably his third rest stop in the last hour. Where was the water Archon had mentioned? He didn't know how much longer he would be able to hold out without it.
Fortunately he didn't have to put himself to the test. Right after they'd started again he saw the greenery, standing out like a zebra against the golden landscape. And beyond the greenery . . .
“Water!” Josh shouted. He and Kenny both broken into a run, dashing for all they were worth toward that cool, clear pool. Josh was definitely pulling ahead when he saw the girl on the far side of the pool.
There were tear tracks clearly visible on her face and her leg, well, just the sight of it made him want to cry too. Her pain was obvious through her tight-lipped grimace and Josh's first instinct was to try to help her in some way, maybe find something that he could use as a splint for that leg. That natural, charitable impulse died an abrupt death when she rose into the air and floated across the water toward them. It didn't look like she wanted help; it looked like she wanted blood.
He had put on the brakes the instant he saw her and Kenny had gone a few feet further before halting. They were about six yards short of the water's edge. He stepped up right behind his teammate.
“We don't want any trouble. We just want a drink,” Josh offered. She didn't seem impressed with that, and Kenny shot him a glance which was the equivalent of an eighteen volume set of books about contempt. Well, what did he expect Josh to say? They were here to try to make peace with the other kids, not to start something. Besides, this girl had stayed for Justin's whole pitch. She had seemed at least somewhat open to the idea of working together. Maybe they could swing her over to their side.
Now hovering over the center of the oasis, the dark-haired girl turned and looked back to the shore she'd come from. A long object lifted itself up into the air and shot over the water, flying straight at Josh and Kenny. Josh's first absurd thought was that this trident would make an excellent splint. His second thought was, “Down!”
He threw himself to the sand and Kenny did likewise. The trident responded by changing its course, dipping downward and driving its tines straight through Kenny's backpack and into his back. The blond boy screamed horribly, pinned to the desert floor by the weapon. It made Josh think of the entomology samples Mr. Rickman had shown him, insects pinned by needles to cardboard. They had always grossed him out and now he felt the gorge rise in his own throat at the sight of something a thousand times worse.
The trident jerked out of Kenny's back and oriented itself toward Josh. Frantically he called on his Time Warrior powers, focusing not on the trident, but on the girl. He concentrated on freezing her in time, just as he had done to the bank robbers. The trident leapt forward, and fell at his feet.
The girl made no movement, nor would she for the next eight hours. She was isolated from the flow of time. She could do nothing, nor could anything be done to her. Otherwise Josh might well have tried to tag her with that fucking trident.
Instead he went over to Kenny. The boy was dead, his crystal-blue eyes staring straight ahead at nothing. Josh gently closed them, feeling almost as bad as he could remember. If only he'd acted quicker, frozen her before she could get that trident moving . . . he could have prevented this. He could have stopped her! Kenny didn't have to die here today, and it was Josh's fault that he had.
He stayed there for a few minutes, praying for Kenny, before he went to get water from the oasis. After he had drunk his fill he noticed another body on the far side of the pool. Running over to it he found it was the red-headed teen, sporting a now familiar wound in his chest. The corpse was cold and stiff; he had clearly been dead a while.
Wearily Josh started to walk back toward his side of the oasis, trident in hand, wondering grimly if there really was any hope at all of getting out of this, of saving himself or anyone else.
Then he stopped dead. Bringing both of his fists up Josh rubbed his eyes and looked again. He couldn't be seeing this. It wasn't possible; he had to be hallucinating. This was exactly the kind of place where people hallucinated, right? In the burning desert, when you were weak from thirst? Except he wasn't weak from thirst anymore; he'd just had a gutful of water, yet Kenny's dead body was moving .
He sprinted toward the no longer still form, running as fast as he ever had in his life. Kenny had sat back up and was looking around. He saw Josh running toward him and their eyes met.
And just like that Josh went back in time. Not literally; his powers were gone for the next twelve hours, and he couldn't travel through time here anyway. But mentally he found himself once again reliving Irwin 1138's betrayal. The stunned disbelief, the chagrin and humiliation at having been taken in and manipulated, the hurt at having been considered nothing more than a useful puppet by someone he had thought was an ally, and the anger at having been mistreated so.
Maybe Justin, Jo and Solan had never experienced a betrayal like that. Hopefully they hadn't; it was a painful thing to go through, something he wouldn't have wished even on his enemies, much less on his friends. If they had been spared such an ordeal then their being fooled was understandable, but he of all people should have known better! He should have seen the warning signs. The way Kenny didn't appear shocked by his new teammates' powers or lives. How he felt comfortable enough to leave and go to his room hours before Josh and the others. The complete absence of fear he had displayed when Josh had found him. Finally there was this miraculous resurrection of his and his reaction to it. In his face there was no hint of disbelief or confusion, just cool calculation. His sudden return to life apparently hadn't surprised Kenny at all! Josh still didn't know who or what Kenny really was, but one thing he was sure of: Kenny had been lying to them. The boy was no more an “ordinary kid” than Josh was.
Kenny wasted no time on talking and explanations. He shrugged off his backpack and brought it around to his lap. He started pulling out what looked like an actual sword, but he wasn't fast enough. Arriving on the run Josh reversed the trident and used it as a bat, slamming the metal shaft into Kenny's skull. The boy collapsed again, unconscious this time. For how long, Josh had no idea. Kneeling down he pushed up Kenny's shirt. The boy's chest was stained with blood, but was otherwise smooth and unmarred. He rolled Kenny over and checked his back. Same thing. There was blood, but no wound.
Taking custody of the short sword as well Josh rose to his feet and stared down at the other boy, thinking. Apparently Kenny had some kind of hyper-regeneration, powerful enough to allow him to heal even fatal wounds. In that case he'd probably be waking up a lot sooner than Josh would have preferred. And what to do with him when he did wake up? Josh was considerably taller and heavier than Kenny, and he had both weapons; he supposed he could keep knocking the kid out if he had to. Not exactly the most brilliant plan he'd ever come up with, true, but you worked with what you had.
Josh sat down to watch and wait, wishing that one of his trustworthy teammates was with him. Where the heck was everyone else? Getting up he ventured out beyond the dunes he and Kenny had passed through. There was no sign of anyone coming behind them.
Josh jogged to the far end of the oasis, literally following in the footsteps of the red-headed boy. The path curved around a dune and as he followed it he ploughed right into someone. He knocked whoever it was down and fell on top of him or her.
It was the little dark-haired kid. He glared up at Josh and then his face shifted. Ridges appeared on his brow and his eyes changed to yellow. Josh gaped at him and with a snarl the boy struck, burying his face in the teenager's neck. Twin piercing pains shot through Josh and his scream trailed off into a gurgle. Holy hell, it was a freaking vampire!
Releasing his weapons he grabbed hold of the creature's head, trying to force it away from him, but the boy hung on like a pit-bull. Shifting his hands lower he could feel the vampire's throat moving as he sucked hungrily at Josh's jugular. He was losing blood fast. He needed to get this thing off him! He fumbled for the hilt of the sword (he was in too close to use the long trident effectively), but as he took hold of it the creature's left hand seized his arm, keeping it out and away from both of them. He couldn't seem to break its grip; his strength was fading fast. He attempted to stand up, thinking to slam the bloodsucker beneath him, and failed. He collapsed back on top of the monster. His vision was starting to blur now and his hands weren't working right anymore. Time was running out fast, but he could still get out of this; he just needed a second to think how to do it. Then . . . then . . . he . . .
Water, at last! This cursed place was as hot as one of the Hells. Archon had probably sent them here as a test of endurance in addition to the greater test of trial by combat.
The presence of water would be a test of prudence. The natural instinct would be to immediately rush to such a pool and quench one's thirst. But a prudent man did not act in haste. Letting his eyes carefully roam the area he spotted the boy sitting on the dune to his left. He could hardly miss such a bright blue, standing out like a sparkling sapphire gemstone against the gold of the sand.
From his position the boy could observe everything. Did he also have a ranged weapon to use? Shin-Ren tensed, approaching the dune cautiously, but the only weapon he saw was a sword clutched in the boy's right hand. The strangely garbed child was descending the sand dune now, heading toward the young ninja.
“I don't want to fight you! We don't have to kill each other!” the kid insisted, his voice hoarse with emotion. Shin-Ren let his enemy get within ten feet of him. Then, with an underhanded throw, he sent a shuriken spinning toward his foe's throat.
His aim was off by just a fraction and his throwing star struck the base of the helmet, skipping off and flying into the sand. He whipped the next one at the boy's chest. Now the child was moving, dodging aside, but not quickly enough; the shuriken struck high near the left shoulder and stuck there. His strangled scream brought a tight smile to Shin-Ren's face. The third shuriken was actually deflected by a wild swing of the boy's straight-bladed sword. The fourth struck him in the midsection and immediately fell out. It had probably hit a rib.
Unsheathing his ninja-do Shin-Ren charged his opponent and the battle truly began. It ranged all over the area, from one line of dunes to the other. The blue boy's skill with weapons and the martial arts soon became clear. He was a difficult opponent, one who had not been weakened by hours of unrelieved thirst. Shin-Ren, however, was unwounded; his foe could not say the same. Before they had crossed swords the boy had managed to reach up with his left hand and pluck out the shuriken, hurling it down into the sand with a pained cry. A bright ribbon of crimson still trailed down from that hole, and from the wound in his torso.
While his enemy's defense was strong, the offensive moves were less so. The boy seemed to eschew strikes toward the chest or head, focusing instead on peripheral areas such as arms and legs, along with several unsuccessful attempts to disarm him. This fool really was trying to subdue him without hurting him, in accordance with the madness he had previously given voice to.
Shin-Ren couldn't help but marvel at the delusion that the god who had placed them here could be successfully defied. His own strikes gained in confidence and power as he exploited his foe's weakness. The blue boy gave ground before him and Shin Ren's soul sang in exultation. Striking low and then swinging up toward the neck he almost sliced his enemy's head off. Only a last-minute block caused the ninja-do to strike the side of the helmet instead. Sadly the helmet was proof against his blade, but the blow did cause his enemy to stagger back.
He followed up quickly, pressing his advantage. He could almost taste his foe's desperation. Victory was within his grasp!
Then the blue boy unexpectedly lunged forward and to the right, striking at Shin-Ren's side as he went. He blocked and whirled to face his adversary, who lunged at him with astonishing ferocity. The blue boy's blade was now aimed at his head and heart, and Shin-Ren fell back before the unexpected assault. It was all he could do to parry the frantic, powerful blows as he retreated. He could have killed his enemy, but not without taking a fatal hit in return. No matter; the boy's fury was already spending itself. In seconds he would be able to separate the child's head from-
Without warning pure agony lanced up from his right foot. He instinctively jerked his right leg back up, screaming, his arms wind-milling as he tumbled forward, almost impaling himself on the blue boy's sword. He was shoved to the sand and just before his enemy knocked him unconscious he realized what had happened. He had been maneuvered back to where the blue boy had once stood. He had accidentally stepped on one of his own shurikens, which was sticking up out of the sand.
He had kept running until he collapsed, completely exhausted. For a long time he had simply lain there. When he could move again he had continued forward, walking slowly and painfully. He saw no one. Behind him were only his own tracks.
For the first couple of hours after leaving the oasis he had listened intently, hoping at any moment to hear Jo's shout of “Beetleborg!” It never came.
Jo wasn't going to rejoin him. Not now, not ever. She was dead. And she had died because he was too weak to help her.
Returning to life after being killed was often a disorienting and uncomfortable experience. This time was no exception. Kenny's first sensation was of something pressing in on him, completely covering him. Even after he opened his eyes the darkness around him was total. And he couldn't breath!
He thrashed around, rearing up from the extremely shallow grave he'd been buried in. Gasping for air he saw that he was at the base of one of the dunes surrounding the oasis. Apparently he'd been dragged there and covered with sand. Rooting around in the sand he found that his backpack had been buried with him, but his sword was gone.
That bastard Josh was going to die! Not only had the idiot teenager killed him, but Josh had stolen his sword , the blade he had carried for the last two hundred and thirty-two years! It had been specially made for him, scaled down to fit his size and strength. The weapon was a gift from one of his guardians, Frederico Martinez, so that he would be able to protect himself as best he could if need be. And he had used the sword for exactly that; when he had beheaded Frederico he had protected himself from the Spaniard ever turning against him.
He had slain over forty Immortals with that blade. He couldn't afford to be without it, especially now! His Immortality would be useless if he lacked the means to kill his enemies.
Anxiously his eyes searched the oasis. That telekinetic girl was hovering over the water, but she wasn't moving. He deliberately walked forward and she didn't turn toward him. She'd probably been frozen by Josh. Frozen and rendered harmless, after Kenny had already been killed! So Josh had betrayed him first. How could he not have seen that coming? He should have kept a closer eye on the boy! He was lucky to still have his head, though if Josh came at him with his sword, he'd probably lose that as well. But where was Josh?
For that matter, where were the footprints and drag marks leading to his “grave”? The sand around him was smooth and unmarred. Even their footprints leading into the area seemed to have been brushed out. Why would Josh do that?
Wait, there! On the edge of the sandy area before the greenery began, on this side of the oasis. There was something lying on the ground: Josh's shirt!
Curiously he approached the discarded garment. It was rolled into a cylinder and covered in sand; clearly it was had been used to brush away the marks of his and Josh's passage. As he leaned over to pick it up he felt rather than saw movement from behind. He whirled around as a figure surged up from its own resting place beneath the sand. It was the short, dark-haired kid-and he had Kenny's sword!
The boy's face had changed into a nightmare and that, along with the shock of his appearance, paralyzed Kenny. He'd always feared that an adult Immortal would confront and kill him. How ironic that he was instead going to die from an ambush by an apparent kid, like him.
Yet the child creature did not strike. Instead it started at the sight of Kenny's face, as though he had been the one to suddenly jump out at it. His hesitation gave Kenny a couple seconds to think. The creature had his sword, his sole means of defending himself. He couldn't give up that weapon and have any hope of survival. He needed to get it back, and he had to do it now!
Grabbing the thing's right arm, Kenny bit into its wrist as deeply as he could. It howled and dropped his sword to the sand. Kenny then used his grip on the monster's arm and a month's worth of judo lessons from 1988 to toss it over his shoulder. Whirling back around Kenny snatched up his sword as the thing scrambled to its feet. It backed off a bit, hissing in rage and revealing its fangs in the process.
A vampire! Maybe it shouldn't have come as such a shock, after hearing Josh talk about the werewolf creature, but it did.
When he first became an Immortal he'd still harbored fears of the dark and the creatures which lurked there. His mentor, Amanda, had helped him overcome that. She'd told him that vampires and ghosts and werewolves didn't exist, had never existed. The only thing there was to fear in the dark were fellow Immortals.
She'd been wrong. He was facing a vampire, and in broad daylight! All of the stories agreed that sunlight would kill a vampire! Yet here the creature was. What else that he thought he knew about vampires was false?
Even worse than his ignorance about his enemy was the fact that this monster probably already knew too much about him. Why had it hesitated upon seeing him, unless it had been the one to bury his body? The vampire did have his sword, after all. Maybe it had killed Josh and taken it. If the vampire did know that he had returned to life, he couldn't risk letting it kill him again. The chance of being decapitated was simply too great.
Kenny edged back away from the vampire. The bloodsucker watched him suspiciously, but did not advance. When Kenny reached the outlying edge of the oasis, he turned and ran.
How many hours had he lain senseless in the sand? If anyone had found him, he could have been killed in his sleep. IN HIS SLEEP! That was no way for a Klingon warrior to die!
Justin had defeated him. The boy who wouldn't kill had somehow contrived to best him in battle . . . and then had just left him there.
Since he awoke he'd been doggedly following the boy's footprints, stoically ignoring his own hunger and thirst. Now up ahead he saw greenery. Grass, and trees, and water !
Alexander moved in cautiously, his bat'leth held at the ready. There was another set of footprints coming in from the left up ahead. That trail intersected with Justin's right before the grass began. He couldn't see any sign of whoever the other person was, but he saw Justin sitting at the edge of the circular pool. The human quickly got to his feet, taking up his sword from the ground. Alexander strode forward and as he neared the other boy he saw that Justin was wounded. Dried blood trailed down from near his shoulder and his torso. Whatever other contestant he'd faced had hurt him, but apparently the human had still managed to win.
“You can't want to fight again!” he protested, disbelief in his voice.
“You left me helpless!” Alexander snarled in reply, his hands tightening around his bat'leth.
“Because I didn't want to kill you! There was nothing else I could do!”
“You should have killed me! A warrior slays his enemies!”
“Why do we have to be enemies? Just because Archon says so?”
“Do you shrink from killing solely to defy him?” Alexander asked in genuine curiosity. That was a novel idea and one at least worthy of respect if not emulation.
“No, not just to defy him!” Justin said. The boy paused, frustrated. Then he asked, “Don't you want to defy him? Are you happy being his slave?”
Growling Alexander hefted his weapon and moved forward.
“It's true! He kidnapped you and you're doing exactly what he wants! How is that different from being his slave?”
Now it was Alexander's turn to pause. He couldn't fully deny the human's words. By participating without protest he was submitting to their captor. To so meekly acquiesce was not the Klingon way. At the same time refusing to kill attackers, as Justin was doing, was even more alien to his people. What was the honorable course here? What should he do?
“I won't spare those who attack me,” he announced firmly to Justin. That was beyond question.
“What about those who don't? The ones who are defying Archon? If you don't fight them you'll be defying him too!”
Sparing those who didn't want to fight . . . he could do that. Those who had joined with Justin were few in number. Their actions in refusing to eliminate their enemies would seal their doom regardless of what he did. By refusing to kill them himself, though, he would indeed be offering defiance to their captor. And despite his strange ideas, Justin had proven to be a warrior worthy of his respect.
“I will not kill any who refuse to fight me, not while other aggressors live. This I swear,” Alexander promised.
The point of Justin's sword touched the ground and he sighed heavily.
“Thank you. Thank you!”
Alexander shook his head in bemusement as he lowered his own bat'leth.
“You are strange, human. What world do you come from, that warriors think as you?”
“I'm from Earth.”
“Earth? You are from the Federation?” That seemed unlikely. The Federation uniforms were nothing like this boy's garb.
“No, I'm not from any Federation; I'm not even from your universe. Archon has brought us all here from different realities. In mine it's the late 20 th century and our world has been under attack from interplanetary criminals for years. I'm a Power Ranger, one of the defenders of my world.”
“Different realities ? Are you certain?”
He'd assumed that Archon had snatched them from different worlds within the galaxy. If he had actually been able to reach other realities, then his power was much greater than Alexander had thought.
“I'm sure. My friends and I talked a lot about what our worlds are like last night. You could join us tonight,” he offered hopefully.
Alexander snorted. “I said I would spare you and your allies, for now. That does not mean I will associate with you.”
“Even if it might help us figure out a way to defeat Archon? Pooling what we know is our best shot at that.”
Why did it seem that this human was outmaneuvering him at every turn?
“Fine,” he grunted. Brushing past Justin he knelt down at the oasis and drank.
This gave him hope. It wasn't the success he'd wanted, but it was a success! He COULD have an impact! He could turn some of the other contestants away from Archon's bloodshed!
He tried to talk more with his new companion, whose name he soon found to be Alexander, but the alien wasn't especially communicative. He got up to walk the length of the oasis and Justin followed behind nervously. Alexander could hardly miss the bound forms of Morthos and the ninja. After he'd knocked them out he had cut strips of cloth from their garments and tied them both to slender trees. He'd also bound up the ninja's wounded foot as best he could. A few feet away the sword, shurikens and a garrote lay in a pile next to Morthos' book.
Morthos he'd had to gag; the boy was some kind of wizard and he couldn't risk allowing the child to speak. The ninja's mouth he had left free. Unfortunately, all the ninja had done was to curse him for being a foreign devil. Beyond that the boy had refused to say a word.
When Alexander saw them his eyes lit up and he started toward them with his bat'leth. Justin quickly interposed himself between his captives and his new comrades.
“What are you doing?”
“They attacked you, did they not? They are not your allies,” Alexander argued.
“So you're going to kill them?”
“How did you ever manage to protect your planet with such a cowardly attitude toward death? Do you spare all those who attack you?”
“No, I've killed plenty of Piranhatrons, but that's different! They were choosing to attack us; these are kids kidnapped by Archon!”
“And have they not made their choice as well? The opposite of the choice you made?”
Justin had no ready answer to that.
Alexander moved to go around him and the teen again got in his way.
“Would you fight me to keep me from them?” the alien queried with a gleam in his eye.
The trap was clear; fortunately it was also easily avoidable.
“No, I refuse to fight you. You said you wouldn't kill anyone who refuses to fight you, right?”
“Well, they refuse to fight you too! They're not going to attack you, not now. So you'll spare them, right?”
For a second it looked as though Alexander would go for him in spite of their agreement. Instead the boy wheeled about without a word and stomped off. The last forty-some minutes until 5:00 P.M. passed in a tense, uncomfortable silence.
To be continued in Chapter 5Back to the Academy