One instant Madeline was confronting the two blond boys who had come to her oasis; the next she was floating in the cafeteria. Was the day over already? No, that was impossible; there had been hours to go yet! So why was she here?
Looking around only increased her confusion. The smaller blond boy, the one she was sure she had killed with the trident, was standing next to the same table she was! But there was no sign of the taller blond anywhere.
The Asian boy was the third person at their table and he was already sitting down in one of the chairs. He had brought his right foot up to his lap and was unwinding a strip of black cloth from around it.
Theirs was the table nearest the food dispenser, while the other two were closer to the door. All of the tables now had only three chairs.
The table on her left as she looked toward the door had that ugly kid with the pock-marked face, but he looked a lot worse now. His cheeks were bruised, both of his eyes were blackened, and his nose was broken and bloody. On top of that he was practically naked, wearing only a belt and black briefs. The muscular blond boy with the short hair was there as well, and so was the brown-skinned thing with the ridged forehead, who had likewise discarded most of his clothing.
The last table had the little black-haired boy, Solan, and Justin. The former seemed fine; the latter two did not. Solan was practically prostrate across the table and his expression was one of purest misery. Then he looked toward the other table and the unhappy exhaustion fell away from his face. He stared hatefully at the muscle-bound boy.
Justin wasn't staring at anyone, but was instead sweeping his gaze from one end of the room to the other. His mouth fell open and his skin paled before her eyes. He was trembling as he sank down into his chair.
The large blond went over to the food dispenser first, ordering a rare steak and something called "Coca-Cola". Then Solan bolted up from his own chair and placed himself in the bigger boy's return path.
"What did you do to Jo?" he rasped angrily.
"I killed her. Just like I'd have killed you, if you hadn't run away."
Solan's answer was a punch directly to the jaw, a blow which barely moved the teen's face. There was no white flash, no concussive blast. The crew-cut kid locked eyes with Solan before speaking.
"That's it? That's the best you can do?" he asked contemptuously. Then, instead of striking back, he began to laugh.
His face going red Solan tried to shove his foe over with both hands, and failed. The other boy set his plate and glass down on the table behind him before turning back to Solan.
Justin had jumped up when Solan first struck, but hesitated when there was no corresponding punishment. Now he sprinted toward the two even as the taller blond sent a fist rocketing into Solan's face.
Now there was a white flash, occurring right before impact would have, and knocking the attacker to the floor.
"You let him hit me!" the boy shouted furiously at the ceiling as he regaining his footing.
"YOU WERE IN NO DANGER OF BEING HARMED," Archon replied placidly.
The angry teen's attention then shifted back to Solan.
"The next time we meet in the Battlefield you won't get away," he swore.
Solan said nothing. He merely stood trembling, his fists clenched before him. Reaching out Justin took him by the left arm.
"Come on," he urged and gently led Solan back to their table. With the drama apparently over most of the rest of the room's inhabitants were now making their way to the food dispenser. Madeline waited until her path was clear before floating over to it and selecting her own dinner. Taking up the plate and utensils with her telekinesis she slowly descended into her chair, hissing in pain as she let her shattered leg down.
It just wasn't FAIR! It would have been one thing if another kid had broken her leg, but this injury was solely Archon's fault. He was the one who had set up the invisible barrier in the sky, who had let her fly into it without warning. His stupidity and thoughtlessness had crippled her!
What a joy it would be to kill him, like she had her father! With Archon, though, she wouldn't make it so quick. First she'd see how HE liked having a ruined leg. Then she'd break as many of his bones as she could before he finally died.
Madeline finished her meal quickly and without really tasting it, her mind focused primarily on her vengeful fantasy. When she was done she floated out into the hall and into her room, easing herself down onto the bed. Again a new surge of pain flared along her aching leg.
Madeline bit her lip, holding back tears. Once more she went through the line of reasoning she had come up with at the oasis, as though hoping to find a flaw in it. Archon needed to die for what he had done to her. Killing Archon was impossible as long as he remained hidden; her telekinesis required touch or line of sight. And there was no reason to believe Archon would ever come out of hiding, except maybe to congratulate the tournament's winner. So as much as she wished otherwise, she really had no choice. She had to kill the other kids. It was the only possible way for her to punish Archon and get out of here alive.
Kenny wasted little time in getting to the food dispenser. As usual coming back to life had left him ravenously hungry, though not so much that he ignored what was happening around him. While carrying his pork chops, apple sauce and coke back to the table he made sure to keep an eye and ear on Solan and the bigger boy. It sounded like the latter had finished off Jo, just as the vampire had apparently killed Josh.
It had been a relief to see that Josh wasn't among today's survivors, though he had pleasurably anticipated that fact. Josh could have killed him and then buried his body in the sand out of misguided sentimentality, but there was no reason for the teenage Time Warrior to wipe away all the footprints around the oasis, or to leave his shirt lying near where the vampire was hidden. For the vampire, on the other hand, concealing both his and Josh's corpses would be a way to keep from alerting anyone else who stumbled upon the oasis. Wiping away all the nearby footprints was suspicious, given the various trails leading into the area, but it was necessary to keep the nosferatu's hiding place a secret. Leaving the shirt used to smooth out the sand right by his impromptu lair was an excellent touch, since it would attract potential victims to that spot. Assuming vampires really didn't need to breathe then the blood-sucker could remain underneath the sand for the rest of the day. If he did feel the vibrations of someone approaching he could rise up and pounce, using Kenny's sword as his weapon.
Overall it was quite a clever little trap and Kenny couldn't suppress a twinge of genuine admiration. Whatever the vampire's physical abilities (and he was beginning to suspect that those were less than he had feared; otherwise why would the thing have needed his sword in the first place?), the creature was obviously quite cunning.
How many years had the vampire had to develop that cunning? Decades? Centuries, even? Every story said that, like Immortals, vampires did not age. If that was true, then for however long the vampire had existed, he had done so in that small child's body.
Just like Kenny.
The eight hundred and twenty year-old shifted his attention back to his meal. His pork chops were as tender and delicious as any he'd ever tasted. If there was one good thing about this place, it was the food.
After he finished Kenny glanced over at his remaining "teammates". Justin and Solan were both picking halfheartedly at their dinners and from their expressions you would have thought that they were about to die, instead of being safe and sound after surviving a second day of this lethal contest.
Kenny had to fight hard to keep a sneer from his face. Had those two fools really thought that all of the members of their group would survive? Especially after handicapping themselves with that suicidal decision not to kill? Justin and Solan should be grateful to be alive themselves, not mourning the dead!
If anything, the pair should be glad about the deaths. Every contestant who perished today was one less opponent tomorrow, one fewer obstacle between the remaining kids and freedom. It was amazing how that simple fact seemingly still hadn't occurred to either of them. At this rate they were going to die before they faced reality, an outcome which suited him perfectly; it meant two fewer enemies to worry about. In the meantime they might again be of use, as they had last evening with the information they had provided.
So he waited for the remaining diners to leave, gleaning what he could from watching them. The junior ninja departed limping, not putting any more weight than necessary on his bandaged foot. The floating girl's leg was still hideously broken, but unfortunately the injury didn't seem to affect her telekinesis in the slightest. The ugly kid had clearly gotten the crap beaten out of him and that might or might not impair him, depending on his special talents. The big blond glared at Solan while he walked out and the little vampire gave nothing away visually.
The last one left was the alien, who again ate facing away from the table, with his plate in his lap. Whatever meaning there might be in that act eluded him. Standing up the alien took hold of his chair and dragged it across the floor to Justin and Solan's table.
The latter started in surprise; Justin did not. With his right hand he motioned Kenny over. Picking up his backpack Kenny took the chair vacated by the vampire.
"This is Alexander," Justin said, handling the introductions. "Alexander, this is Solan and Kenny."
The Grecian boy extended an arm and Alexander seized him by the hand, pumping the arm up and down violently. Solan flinched in pain and the alien's already unfriendly expression darkened further. When he turned to Kenny the Immortal was ready. He bore Alexander's crushing grip without reaction, not even massaging his aching hand afterward. He was rewarded with a brief nod from the alien. A sign of approval?
"What can you do?" he asked bluntly, cutting a surprised Justin off just as the latter started to speak.
"I am a Klingon warrior. My people are the greatest fighters in the galaxy!"
"How do you fight? What weapons do you use?"
"We use bat'leth and d'k tahg. What do you use to fight,
"I fight with my fists," Kenny lied, and the Klingon snorted, clearly unimpressed. Good, exactly the impression he wanted to give the alien. He was about to ask for a description of the two oddly-named weapons, but Justin jumped in before he could.
"Alexander is here because he's agreed to a truce with us. As long as we don't attack him, he won't attack us."
"Not while there are other competitors alive," the Klingon amended, and Justin's already gloomy expression drooped a little further.
"Right," he agreed, taking a deep breath. "Alexander's also agreed to help us against Archon if we can find a way to confront him."
A brief silence fell over the table before Justin broke it.
"We have to talk about what happened to us today," he asserted, though his tone of voice suggested that was the last thing he wanted to do. "Who wants to go first?"
Justin's gaze slid over to Solan, but the Grecian was staring down at the table; clearly he had no intention of speaking first. Then Justin looked at him and Kenny quickly shook his head. He couldn't tell them the whole truth and he hadn't yet worked out exactly what he would say. He needed at least a little more time to think.
"Alexander, did you meet anyone today beside me?" Justin asked the alien.
"No," the brown-skinned boy replied shortly.
After a last glance around the group Justin began. He spoke only briefly of his meeting with Alexander, during which the Klingon noticeably glowered. Then he mentioned finding a pool of water.
Wait, when had Justin reached the oasis? Had he met Colin? Had he talked with the vampire at all or seen Josh's body?
Enmeshed in his own anxious questions he missed seeing Solan's head come up until the latter spoke.
"When did you get there? Did you-did you see Jo? Did you fight him?" the preteen demanded.
"I found it after a few hours, and I didn't see Jo all day; you're saying she was there?"
"We were both there! We found it before noon. Then that blond boy found us, and . . . ," Solan didn't finish the thought, his vehement voice abruptly trailing off.
"When I got there no one else was around," Justin claimed. "And there were no footprints leading to the pool except for mine! You and Jo took a drink from your oasis, right?"
"Yes, we did," Solan agreed.
"When Archon said we could find water I thought he meant there was only one source, but there must have been at least two, maybe more. Kenny! Did you reach an oasis today?"
It was a question he should have anticipated and been ready for, but he hadn't. And so he did something he hadn't done for over three hundred years: he froze.
Each nanosecond which passed felt like an hour as his mind raced frantically through his choices. The simplest one was just to say no, but that might well make them suspicious, especially since he didn't look like someone who had gone all day in the desert without water.
If he said yes and admitted that Josh had been with him, he opened himself up to too many questions about why he had survived and Josh hadn't. It didn't sound like either one of them had visited his oasis, the one with the floating girl and the vampire. It'd be best to admit he'd found an oasis and claim that no one else had been there.
"Yeah, I found an oasis," he answered, painfully aware that Justin's query had been posed at least three seconds ago. "No one else was around, so I stayed there for the rest of the day."
Fortunately no one appeared to have taken too much note of his delay in replying. Justin's eyes were lit up with excitement at having figured out something new, while the animation was gone from Solan and had never been present in Alexander in the first place.
Then the animation faded from Justin as well as he began to tell them about the first person he had met at the oasis.
"The dark-haired kid with the pock-marked face showed up about an hour and a half later. I told him I didn't want to fight him, and that we needed to work together to survive this. He told me his name was Morthos and I offered to step away to let him drink from the oasis. Afterwards he started telling me about how he wanted to save everyone too, and there was something about his voice . . . it put me in a trance, like being hypnotized. I had to believe everything he was telling me."
Justin stopped and looked at Solan and Alexander.
"Do you either of you know what hypnosis is?"
Solan shook his head listlessly, and Alexander grunted negatively.
"It's-basically it's a special way of talking to someone that puts them into a deep sleep. They can still hear you and they'll follow whatever orders you give them. You can only hypnotize someone if they're willing to be hypnotized."
"Why would even a human be willing to allow such a thing?" Alexander demanded.
"Hypnosis can help you remember stuff that you wouldn't otherwise. It can also be used to help you stop smoking or to eat less."
"If you're too weak of will to do such things for yourself," Alexander concluded contemptuously.
"So Morthos hypnotized you?" Solan asked.
"No, it was like hypnosis, but that wasn't it." Justin hesitated. "I think he cast a spell on me."
"What is a 'spell'?" Alexander asked.
"Magic," Justin clarified. "It's the ability to make things happen that couldn't happen naturally. Like shooting lightning from your fingers, or growing living beings to the size of giants in seconds."
"Sorcery," Solan whispered. "Morthos is a sorcerer."
"Yes," Justin confirmed.
"There is no such thing as magic!" Alexander angrily protested.
"Yes, there is! Magic might not exist in your universe, but it exists in mine, and in Solan's."
"So whatever Morthos wishes becomes reality? Why are you still alive, then?"
"It doesn't work like that. It's like cooking; you have to do the right things and combine the right ingredients to get the effect you want. I never fought any bad guys that used magic, but the past Rangers did and I read their accounts of what Rita and Zedd could do. I don't think Morthos is as powerful as they were, but he was strong enough to get me."
"Once he had me under his power he drew a circle in the sand with symbols around it. He made me lie down in the center and chanted for a long time. After he finished he tried to stab me in the heart."
"When I saw him about to use the knife I was able to break free of whatever he'd done to me. I stopped his thrust and threw him down on the sand. I got on top of him, pinned him down, and then I . . . I lost it. I started punching him in the face, and I couldn't stop!"
So it was Justin had given that beating to Morthos! Now there was a surprise! Who would have thought Mr. Make-Love-Not-War even had it in him? Of course he had been too weak to finish the job, and that was unfortunate; it sounded like Morthos was a serious threat.
Justin had seemed ashamed as he related the part about battering Morthos. Now he raised his head again.
"I got control myself back under control before I killed him. I cleaned him up, and then I tied him to a tree. I had to gag him to make sure he couldn't do anything else to me. I didn't try talking to him again; after what I did to him and what he tried to do to me I didn't think it would do any good."
Justin paused, taking a drink from the glass in front of him to wet his throat.
"A few hours later the ninja arrived. He's the boy all in black that you saw limping after dinner. A ninja is a hired killer from the Eastern part of my Earth's past. He had about the same technology as from your time, Solan. He used a sword and shurikens, metal throwing stars. He got me with a couple of those and then we fought. I was tired and wounded; he was neither. He was also really fast and good with his blade. I don't think I'd have been able to beat him, except I managed to get him to step on one of his own throwing stars. That's why he's limping."
"After I knocked him out I tied him to a tree too. I tried talking to him when he woke up, but he just kept calling me names. I met up with Alexander again and we agreed to a truce, right before we ended up back here."
No one said anything after Justin finished. Seeing that there weren't any questions the auburn-haired teen turned to Kenny.
"You said you didn't see anyone all day?"
"Right," Kenny confirmed.
Slowly, almost reluctantly, Justin turned to Solan.
"Who did you meet today, Solan? What happened?"
"I don't want to talk about it," the Grecian insisted.
"Solan, I know this is hard for you, but you have to talk about it. We need to know what you saw today, what happened with you and Jo."
The boy flinched at the mention of her name, but still didn't speak.
"You'll feel better once you've talked about it," Justin promised.
"How will I feel better?" Solan demanded roughly. "Will telling you change anything?"
"You and Jo ran into that big blond guy, didn't you?" Justin asked gently.
When Solan spoke it sounded as if he was trembling between tears and rage.
"We found the oasis before noon. We had lunch and we waited, hoping you or Josh or Kenny would arrive. Jo was up on one of the sand dunes as a look-out, and she saw him first. It was the boy she'd arm-wrestled last night, the one who was super-strong, like her."
He stopped for a few seconds; then the words seemed to explode out of him.
"I wanted to help! I offered to jump him when he got to the oasis, to distract him, but Jo said no. She said-she told me to run. To run, and keep running until she came after me and shouted the word "Beetleborg."
"So I ran, until I couldn't go any further. No one came after me. When I saw Jo wasn't here, I knew . . . I knew he'd killed her."
The dead silence which fell after Solan finished was shattered by a snort from Alexander.
"So you fled and left your ally to die alone and unaided," Alexander summed up in visible disgust. "Is this how warriors behave on your world?"
"Alexander!" Justin snapped angrily. Solan flinched, but didn't try to answer his accuser. He didn't even look at Alexander, his gaze fixed solidly on the table before him.
"That's enough!" Justin all but snarled at the alien. Alexander returned an equally heated stare to Justin and the quiet anger in his voice matched and exceeded what was in the Ranger's. Kenny came perilously close to smiling. This was getting good.
"Never presume to dictate to me, human!" he warned dangerously. "You sought MY presence here. If you and your kind are so weak you cannot bear to hear the truth, then there is no point in my remaining."
He rose to his feet and Justin glanced quickly to Solan, then back again, before standing up as well. "You don't understand! Solan isn't a warrior; he doesn't have any experience in fighting."
Alexander regarded Justin doubtfully, but made no move to leave. "Archon said he had gathered together warriors. Everyone here should be a fighter!"
"Solan isn't," Justin assured the alien. "Kenny really isn't either," he added, with an apologetic glance which took the Immortal by surprise. "He knows how to box, but he's never been in a life-or-death battle."
Yes, let Justin keep on thinking that, and the alien too. Solan was keeping quiet, but his changing body language spoke volumes to Kenny. His once slumped posture had grown tense and rigid. His face was flushed and his formerly open hands were closed fists, clenched so tightly that his knuckles were beginning to whiten. The little spat between Justin and Alexander couldn't hold a candle to the fury clearly building within the Grecian preteen.
Alexander's next comment did nothing to help matters.
"That's why they joined with you, why they agreed not to kill!" he announced in the tones of one experiencing a sudden revelation. "They cannot! Their only hope is to somehow end this tournament before they are killed!"
Obviously pained by the Klingon's blunt and cynical assessment Justin began to explain that the important thing was that the contest was wrong, that Archon had no right to kidnap them all and force them to murder each other.
Halfway through his heartfelt speech Solan abruptly stood up, knocking his chair back, and started for the door.
"Solan, wait!" Justin called after him, but the boy didn't slow. He paused at the door of the cafeteria, trembling minutely, and turned around.
"Keep talking with them," he instructed the Ranger. "I have nothing more to say."
Then he was gone.
Justin seemed set to go after Solan when Alexander spoke again.
"You are the only one of your group who can fight," he observed in bemusement. "Do you truly hope to defeat Archon alone?"
"No!" Justin shouted, whirling back to the alien. "That's my whole point, he CAN'T be defeated alone! If we spend all our time and energy fighting each other he'll win. He'll get exactly what he wants: a blood-sport with a single survivor. The only way we can beat him is by joining together into a team!"
Alexander regarded Justin thoughtfully before returning to his own chair.
"And if everyone here did as you say, what then? How would you best Archon?"
Justin sat down as well. "I don't know," he admitted dispiritedly. "I don't know what he would do if we made peace with each other, how he would react. All I know is that to have even a chance of winning against him we need to stop playing by his rules."
Then Kenny did a double take because the alien was laughing, actually laughing! He clapped Justin heartily on the shoulder.
"You have spirit, human!" he said, still chortling. "I don't know if you are sane or not, but you do have spirit!"
"Thanks," Justin replied with a tired half-smile of his own.
"So tell me of your world. Are people like you common there?"
Kenny tuned out of the conversation at that point. Now they were going to get into stories about each other's lives and worlds, none of which would help him. It was time to go.
"I'm going back to my room," he announced. "I feel like lying down for a while."
"All right," Justin agreed. "But before you go, did you want to talk? About anything? I'm sorry we haven't had a chance to before. You've been holding up great, as well as anyone here, but I know you've never been in a situation like-"
"I'm fine," Kenny cut him off abruptly, a hint of his sudden rage seeping into his voice. Being patronized by this decade and a half old infant was simply too much for him to take! What did the naïve, nauseatingly sweet karate kid really know about what situations like this? Had Justin the Ranger ever been trapped in a life-and-death struggle with a host of enemies larger and more powerful than he was? Of course not, not when he had that damn morpher of his to empower him! How wonderfully convenient it must be, to have a technological way to transcend the physical limitations of a child's body! How easy life as a Ranger must have been for the boy!
And that would be his undoing. Justin had been spoiled by his advantages, to the point where he had lost touch with reality. He had let his idealistic fantasies lead him down a path which was certain to end in his own destruction. If he had ever once had to struggle, really struggle for his life, the way Kenny had, he would know better. He would understand that in the real world only one thing mattered: survival. You did whatever you had to, killed whoever you had to, in order to survive. Sooner or later every Immortal realized this fundamental truth-assuming they lived long enough. Kenny himself had cut short the careers of dozens of Immortals who hadn't quite made it to that vital realization in time.
Justin was exactly like those fools he had slain, Kenny concluded as he passed through the cafeteria door. He dearly hoped he would meet up with the teen in the Battlefield tomorrow. He could take advantage of the boy's protection and, assuming no one else finished the Ranger first, he'd have the distinct pleasure of taking Justin's head at the end of the day.
The level of technology which Alexander described his society as possessing enthralled the techno-geek side of Justin. Unfortunately Alexander was not a technician and could give only cursory explanations about the Klingon machinery, rather than the in-depth schematics the teenager would have preferred.
It bemused Justin more than a little that he could still take an interest in such matters, given his current circumstances. Maybe that was why he was interested, so that he could distract himself.
If so, the technique didn't work for long. Right after he said good-bye to Alexander his mind flipped back to the situation they were in. Yesterday had been awful, but today was surpassed only by the day his mother had died as the worst day of his life. He had lost two friends today. No, more than just friends; he had lost two teammates.
He had asked them to join him. They had willingly come together under his leadership, and now they were dead. Power Rangers were supposed to protect the innocent, but he sure hadn't protected Jo and Josh. The last time he had seen them, now the last time he would ever see them, had been at breakfast. Where had he been when they were attacked? When they were murdered?
The soothing blue of his room's décor did nothing for Justin's mood as he entered and slumped down on the bed, wincing slightly as his wounded shoulder and torso flared with pain. Neither injury was really serious, but they were both pretty painful. Right now, though, he needed to think about those he had lost, not himself.
Jo had been an active super-hero for even longer than he had. She and her brother and his friend had defended Charterville for years. And Josh, he had saved his entire timeline! That was an achievement far grander in scope and importance than anything Justin ever hoped to accomplish himself.
That Jo and Josh should both die here was so wrong that he couldn't properly express the depth of it. The first of many tears to come that night glimmered in his brown eyes. Jo and Josh didn't deserve this, damn it! They'd been heroes!
No Ranger Justin had known had ever died. Maybe subconsciously he'd come to believe that they couldn't, that being on the right side made one invulnerable. Oh, he'd still gotten scared sometimes. When they lost their Ranger powers and had Divatox and her minions right outside, he'd admitted as much to Carlos. Looking back now, though, he saw that even then he hadn't really understood, hadn't fully grasped and comprehended the possibility that this could be it; that their lives could all be over.
He might have come to this realization yesterday, if he'd only spent a little time thinking about how he'd ended up here. But yesterday his mind had been one hundred percent focused on looking forward, on doing and planning for the future. He hadn't spent a single instant in reflection on what was behind him.
Now he did. He'd been brought here because he had been about to die in his world. As a Ranger, in the line of duty, he had been about to die. Not in danger, not risking death, but confronting it as an absolute certainty. They were all here because they had faced certain death, and if Archon had his way, all but one of them would do so again.
What on Earth was wrong with their captor? How could he even imagine saving children's lives, only to force them to kill each other? What possible point was there to such a thing? What purpose did it serve, except perhaps, to entertain him? Could that really be the reason? Had Archon done all of this just to get some kind of vicarious, voyeuristic thrill out of watching them fight and die?
He'd never hated anyone before, not even Divatox, but God, how he hated Archon! Leaving them to die on their own worlds would have been kinder than this.
The teenaged Ranger stayed huddled on his bed for almost an hour. He mourned for his friends, cursing himself bitterly for failing to save them. And perhaps he mourned, too, for the loss of something within him: for the death of his innocence.
When at last the tears stopped Justin stood up, went into the bathroom and washed his face. He scrubbed away all visible evidence of his crying; that was the last thing Solan and Kenny needed to see.
He had to seem strong for them, even if he didn't feel that way. They were still relying on him to protect them and get them through this. He didn't know if he could, but that didn't change his obligation to try. It was what he was bound to do as a Ranger and simply as a human being. Aside from that, he wanted desperately to save them, especially Solan.
Admitting that cost Justin a pang of guilt. It didn't seem right for him as a Ranger to care more about one than the other, but that didn't change the way he felt. During their hours of conversation yesterday he had shared a great deal with Solan and the younger boy had reciprocated. Like Nico, Solan was open, friendly, and honest. Justin respected Solan's courage in the face of their situation, enjoyed the boy's wide-eyed wonder at the details of 20th century Earth, empathized deeply both with the loneliness Solan had felt growing up as the only human in a centaur village (which even beat out his own experiences as a twelve year-old high school student) and with the sorrow he had endured from the loss of his mother (another pain Justin was all too familiar with). Of course Solan had also lost his father, and recently his adoptive father. And unlike Justin, Solan had never been accepted into a group like the Rangers. Actually, check that last one. Solan had said he would have begun traveling with his friend Xena, the Warrior Princess, who sounded pretty close to a Ranger herself. Seeing the way his whole face had brightened when he talked about going with her and Gabrielle made it clear how much her being willing take him in had meant. But he had wound up here before he could even leave the village with her.
Solan's life had been hard enough before he'd been brought here; his abduction merely added insult to injury, since he had no real way of defending himself in this murderous contest. That the preteen had held up so well in spite of his vulnerability was a testament to his fortitude and inner strength. The additional burden Jo's death had obviously placed on him, however, might be too much for him to bear. It was natural for him to feel guilty, but Justin doubted there was anything Solan could have done for Jo if he'd stayed, aside from dying with her.
Kenny had toughed things out pretty spectacularly too so far, but whereas Justin knew Solan and deeply liked him, he knew virtually nothing about Kenny. The smaller blond boy simply hadn't spoken about himself, nor had he stayed to talk yesterday. Or today.
That was odd, now that Justin came to think about it. Aside from his boxing skill, Kenny was in the same boat as Solan; a normal kid who'd been dragged into this bloodbath without warning. So why hadn't Kenny freaked out, gone into denial, or spoken with the rest of them for emotional support? Was he still in shock, after two days? It seemed unlikely.
Maybe he was trying to hold everything inside, not letting any of his emotions out. That was a recipe for disaster; he'd have a break-down for sure if he kept it up. Such an effort might also explain why Kenny was abrasive at times. If he wasn't dealing with his feelings about being here perhaps his anger and frustration were leaking out in his social interactions.
Justin needed to talk with both of them, and right away. He had waited too long already, but at first he'd been busy trying to reach out to Alexander. He'd had to make Alexander understand their side, and he thought the alien did now, at least partially. Alexander had been much less hostile, almost jovial, by the time Justin left. Even better, he seemed to really be thinking over the arguments Justin had made for why and how they should oppose Archon.
Then Justin had spent time dealing with his own feelings about today. Now it was time for him to support what was left of his team, both of whom were probably feeling even worse than he was.
He went to Solan's room first. The door didn't open automatically for him, as the door to his own room had, so he tried slapping the metal and calling Solan's name. A few seconds later the door did slid aside, with Solan standing just beyond.
He refused to meet Justin's gaze and his face was long and drawn. Surprise at Justin's presence showed briefly before fading back into sadness.
"Can I come in?" Justin asked.
Solan didn't reply, simply nodded and stepped aside.
In terms of furniture Solan's room was the same as his. For decoration it naturally lacked Justin's blue theme and instead seemed to feature a mix of red and black. Yes, this atmosphere should do wonders for anyone already suffering from depression.
"May I?" Justin asked, gesturing to the edge of the bed. Solan nodded again and Justin eased down onto the crimson comforter. He'd hoped Solan might sit down next him, but the other boy remained standing.
"Is there anything you'd like to talk about?" Justin asked, and almost kicked himself. That was the same stupid question that all of the concerned, well-meaning people (including Kat) had asked him after he lost his mother and Dad sent him to the orphanage. It hadn't worked on him, it hadn't worked when he'd tried it on Kenny earlier today, and he was willing to bet it wouldn't work on Solan now.
"No," the Grecian answered, tensing up a bit. "I told you, I have nothing else to say."
He needed to be more direct, while avoiding being blunt enough to offend. Maybe he could ease into this by addressing a lesser, related issue.
"Solan, Alexander was being a jerk. He seems to come from an entire race of warriors, so he doesn't understand-" Justin said, beginning his explanation.
"Doesn't understand what?" Solan interrupted angrily. "How anyone can be so useless?"
"Don't say that! What happened to Jo wasn't your fault!" Justin assured him, diving into the heart of the matter.
"It was my fault!" he insisted, his voice breaking. "If she'd been with you or Josh she could have beaten him. Instead she was with me, and all I could do was run away," he concluded bitterly.
"Throughout my whole life the people I've cared about have died," Solan confided, turning away from Justin and beginning to pace the floor of the room. "After I lost Kaleipus I told Xena that maybe I was the reason for their deaths. She said I wasn't, but she was wrong! My father was murdered by Dagnine' soldiers and my mother perished from grief over his loss. Gabrielle could have died defending me from Dagnine' men and Xena might have died rescuing me! Kaleipus was killed because he was trying to protect me from Callisto, and I'd have died at the hands of that little girl if Archon hadn't taken me. Then Jo was murdered today, while I ran. All of these deaths were because of me, because I wasn't strong enough to fight at their sides, or for myself!"
The sheer self-loathing in Solan's voice tore at Justin's heart, and he didn't know how to counter it. What could he possibly say to fix this? He grabbed at the first point of argument he could think of.
"Solan, you told me you were just a baby when your parents died. How could you have fought then?"
For the first time Solan met his gaze. "Yes, I was a baby then. But what's my excuse now?" he demanded harshly.
"You told me that you became a POWER RANGER when you were my age!" he shouted down at Justin, an almost accusatory tone in his voice. "I saw you fight yesterday. You're only two years older than me and you already fight like Xena, even without most of your Ranger powers!"
"That's only because my Dad taught me karate!" Justin qualified, and he didn't miss the look of pain on Solan's face at his response. Then something else became visible there: a sudden dawning hope.
Solan came over and sat down next to Justin on the bed, staring at the Ranger in the way Justin imagined he must have stared when he first caught sight of the oasis in the desert. Being the recipient of such a look made him feel intensely uncomfortable.
"I need you to teach me," Solan said pleadingly. "Please, Justin, teach me how to fight like you do!"
The request floored the teenager. For a long moment he could only gape at Solan, uncertain of how to respond. He'd like to say yes, to agree to help his friend, but it simply wasn't possible. They had about twelve hours until they found themselves back in the Battlefield, and that wasn't enough time to teach Solan anything of real value. Not to mention that they were both exhausted from a day spent roaming the desert. Nor was the Grecian in the right frame of mind to learn. He was angry and upset, not calm and clear of mind. He'd probably insist on spending all of the time they had left being instructed, and pulling an all-nighter could cost both of them their lives. Lastly, instructing Solan at all would increase the odds that he would decide to try to fight instead of running, and doing that would only get him killed.
Justin took his friend's hands in his own and looked the Grecian boy directly in the eye.
"Solan, I wish I could, but I can't! The level of skill you want takes years of practice. I've been learning karate most of my life to get to where I am now. The little I could teach you tonight wouldn't do you any good."
"You-you won't help me?" Solan asked, as if he couldn't believe it.
"I can't help you," Justin clarified. "There just isn't enough time. I'm sorry," he apologized. The unarguable truth of what he was saying did nothing to mitigate Justin's own guilt and sense of failure.
The wild, desperate hope which had so lit up Solan's face flickered and died. He pulled his hands free of Justin's and turned half away from him on the bed. Justin struggled within himself to find something to say, the right words to comfort his friend.
He could think of nothing.
Finally Justin spoke, giving voice to the most positive news he had.
"Alexander is considering what I said and I think he might join us for good. I'm sure we can trust him to keep his word tomorrow. If you encounter him, stay with him, okay?"
Solan just sat there, his head bowed, his expression horribly empty.
Justin put a hand on the preteen's shoulder and felt it tense under his touch.
"I swear, I'll do everything I can to protect you tomorrow."
"Justin, please go," Solan requested quietly.
Just as it had felt wrong to let Solan leave the cafeteria earlier, so it felt wrong to leave him now. But what else was there to do or say?
Justin walked slowly to the door, which opened at his approach. He turned back to look at his friend, hating the slumped, defeated posture he saw.
"Try to get some sleep," he urged. When no response was forthcoming, he said, "Good night, Solan," and departed.
Justin headed down the hallway toward Kenny's room in an even bleaker mood than when he'd left his own chambers. He'd visited to try to raise Solan's spirits, and instead he had only succeeded in making the younger boy feel worse. Some team leader!
Working with technology was so much easier than working with people.
He slammed his hand on Kenny's door and announced himself. The door slid open slid open and shorter blond boy eyed Justin in a distinctly unfriendly way.
"What do you want?" Kenny asked peremptorily.
Though somewhat taken aback by the rudeness, Justin forced a smile and said, "I wanted to talk with you. I was hoping to find out more about what your Earth is like."
Having to think about home could worsen Kenny's feelings, but it might also bring them out into the open so he could deal with them.
"I don't feel like talking," Kenny shot back and retreated further into the room.
"Kenny, wait!" Justin urged, holding his arm out to stop the door from closing. "You're trapped in this nightmare like we are, but you've kind of cut yourself off from the rest of us. You don't have to go through this alone."
"No? Won't we all be alone tomorrow?" Kenny asked.
"I hope we'll be able to find and defend each other tomorrow, and I'm here now if you'll talk to me."
"I'll look for you tomorrow. Right now I want you to leave me alone!"
To Justin's surprise, Kenny grabbed his arm and shoved it away from the doorframe. The door slid closed, separating them.
Justin stood there for a moment, a sense of abject failure again washing over him. Slowly he turned and walked back to his room.
What was the blond boy with the sword? That was a question which had occupied Colin's mind, off and on, since their meeting at the oasis.
He had drained the unconscious boy dry before burying the child in the sand dune. There hadn't been nearly enough blood left in those veins to sustain life, and there certainly hadn't been any air under that sand dune to breath!
Yet somehow the kid had dug his way out of the grave Colin had put him in and started walking around the oasis. How?
There was no trace of demon or vampire in the child; he'd have smelled that in an instant. Nor did he know of any supernatural being which could return to life after being killed. The boy was something else, a type of creature unknown to Colin, and all the more dangerous because of it. That was why he hadn't followed when the child had retreated from the oasis.
Still, during their fight the boy had demonstrated no other special abilities, and had fled after regaining his sword. Perhaps his uncanny power to resurrect himself was the only one he possessed? Which still left the question: how could he be permanently killed?
A few possibilities had occurred to the Anointed, which he would try if given the chance. Of greater concern to him at the moment, however, was the problem of Morthos. It had been a vast relief for him not to run into the boy today, and a grave disappointment when Morthos had appeared alive at the dining hall. He had hoped feverishly that someone else would finish the boy. Unless he was able to kill Morthos before he could mouth the enchantment, or unless someone else took the warlock out before they met again, there seemed to be no way for him to avoid falling once more under the mortal's control.
Will enjoyed the spray of the shower-head washing over his body, cleansing it of the sweat from his work-out. He had relished having the weight-room all to himself, especially when he recalled what he'd done to the girl he'd had to share it with last night. Hurting her . . . and then doing that other thing before he killed her . . . it had been wonderful! And who knew what fun tomorrow would bring?
Shin-Ren had spent the entire time since his return from the Battlefield trying to contain his feelings, to control himself. He refused to bear the shame of being mastered by his emotions. He would be calm and serene tomorrow when he met his fate and so, even in failure, bring some degree of honor to his clan.
And fail he surely would. While he could hobble on his injured foot, he was unable to put his full weight upon it. Such a disability would make it almost impossible for him to succeed in slaying all who opposed him the next day. So he would die, but die well, taking as many of his enemies with him as he could.
After dinner Morthos basted in his own anger and frustration. He still had not thoroughly gone over his book. He had meant to do so last evening, but his tome had been taken from him when he was brought to the dining hall, along with all the other "weapons". This morning he'd been too intent on finding water to sit studying his spellbook, and that had led to his encounter with Justin, and the loss of the rest of the day. Now, of course, the book had once more failed to appear with him at the dining hall.
He doubted there was much in there which could be of great help in the present circumstances, but to be denied the chance to make certain of that was torment! Such mental anguish was, however, certainly less hurtful than the physical battering he had endured today.
Even now his bruised face and broken nose ached abominably and to the depths of his soul he thirsted for vengeance on the author of his suffering. The indignity and humiliation were actually worse than the pain. Since he had begun training with Enos no one had treated him like that! Even the peasants who'd overcome and bound him had not dared to abuse him in such a manner. To be beaten like . . . like a common street urchin! It could not be borne.
He wouldn't just kill Justin tomorrow; he would return tenfold what the "Ranger" had done to him. Before he was finished the impudent dog would beg him for death!
Of the nine children who remained, only Will slept soundly. All of the others rested fitfully, tossing and turning even after they had at last found temporary refuge in sleep.
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