Alexander awoke grudgingly, dragged from his slumber by the incessant beeping of his computer. He snarled out a heartfelt curse as he rolled over and got out of bed. The instant his feet touched the floor the abominable machine finally fell silent.
Being roused when he was still tired was a minor irritation; far worse was what the alarm symbolized: control.
Archon thought he could control those he had taken, and everything in Alexander rebelled against the notion. A Klingon warrior served his House and the Empire, but he did not submit to anyone, certainly not to some unseen alien! He needed to make that clear to Archon, for the sake of his own honor and the honor of the House of Mogh. Justin might be human and a bit insane, but he'd been right about defying their kidnapper.
As he went through his morning routine Alexander's thoughts turned to his odd ally. The Ranger remained a puzzle to him, in spite of their hours of talking yesterday. The other boy was undeniably a great fighter. That he'd been beaten by Justin rankled badly, but it also gave rise to genuine respect for the human. The adolescent had a good mind, keen and sharp. Unfortunately he also had that absurd human softness!
Alexander understood sparing those who agreed not to fight in order to spite their mutual captor. That was sensible and honorable. But sparing those who tried to kill you? What kind of a warrior did that?!?
A voice in his head whispered that if Justin hadn't believed in sparing attackers, he wouldn't be here right now. He couldn't deny that shameful truth, but it didn't mean Justin's course was correct. He had only acquiesced to Justin's plan for reasons of honor; how many of the others, all humans, valued honor so highly? Would the two boys Justin spared yesterday return the favor? Would they swing over to his side?
Alexander had looked into their eyes while they were bound and he already knew the answer to those questions. Neither one would hesitate to kill the Ranger or the pathetic pair Justin was protecting.
Alexander snorted as he finished dressing himself. He was glad he had learned the truth about Solan and Kenny before meeting them in battle; there was no honor to be found in slaughtering those too weak to defend themselves. Still, it was hard not to feel contempt for them, especially that coward Solan. Why were they even here in the first place if they couldn't fight?
Alexander was the third to arrive at the cafeteria this morning; already present were Justin and that small, dark-haired human, each seated at a table near the door. Justin had a plate of bacon, scrambled eggs, sausages, and a glass containing orange fluid; the other boy had only a large mug. The child didn't acknowledge him, but Justin seemed positively relieved to see him.
A bit curious now Alexander pulled out the chair nearest the door and sat down next to the Ranger.
"Good morning," Justin told him, and he barked out the Klingon equivalent in response.
"How'd you sleep?" the boy asked and Alexander felt his irritation rising with this stream of inanities.
"I slept well," he answered curtly, but Justin's eyes were fixed on the dark-haired boy, not him. The child appeared intent on draining his mug dry; he seemed to be paying no attention to them.
His gaze still on the dark-haired boy, Justin asked softly, "Alexander, do you know what a vampire is?"
"No," he answered, equally quietly. "What is a vampire?"
"In human myth, a vampire was a monster. It looked like a human, but it was undead."
"Undead?" Alexander asked.
"A dead thing that's still alive. Vampires didn't age. They were super-strong and they could turn into a wolf or mist. They could hypnotize you with their gaze and they lived on human blood."
"Why are you telling me all of this?" Alexander asked impatiently, though he suspected the reason.
Justin turned to look directly at the Klingon now.
"I didn't sleep well last night. I woke up at six and I couldn't get back to sleep. I came down here about fifteen minutes before eight and I saw him go in ahead of me. I was right behind him to get my breakfast and I heard him say "Blood", very quietly. The mug appeared and he covered the top with his hand as he turned around, but I was close enough to smell what it was."
"So he's a vampire?"
"Do you ever remember seeing him eat anything? Or have you only seen him drink from that mug?"
"I wasn't watching him," Alexander said dismissively.
"I wasn't either, not really, but I've got a great memory, and I remember seeing him drink, nothing more."
"So you think he was the wolf that Josh met on the first day?"
Justin visibly winced at the name of his dead ally. "I don't know. Like I said, I thought that was a werewolf, but now . . . I don't know."
"And you told me yesterday a werewolf could be killed by
silver, a metal we do not have. How can a vampire be
"Sunlight is supposed to do it, for one."
"Then how did he survive yesterday?"
"I don't know! I don't seem to know anything that can help us or save us!" Justin practically shouted, running his right hand distractedly through his hair.
Alexander stared at Justin uncomprehendingly for an instant before realizing what the outburst was really about. He eyed the discomfited Ranger with more sympathy than he had ever expected to feel for a human. Klingons understood loyalty and fellowship.
"Warriors fall in battle. You cannot change that," he observed.
"You don't understand. I'm a Power Ranger! Keeping people from getting hurt is what we do!" Justin insisted empathically.
"And Power Rangers are perfect? They never fail?"
Justin energy seemed to ebb as he sank down in his chair. "Not like this," he whispered.
Alexander shook his head in wonder. "You are the strangest warrior I've ever met," he admitted.
"Why? Because I want to protect people? Don't Klingons ever do that?"
There was an edge of challenge to the words and a barb to the tone which made Alexander scowl.
"You are strange because you deny the truth that warriors must deal in death, because you seek to "protect" people by sparing those who would kill them!"
"They're other kids who were kidnapped by Archon, just like we were!"
"And they have chosen to slay at his command. Do you think the "sorcerer" or "ninja" you spared will do the same for you? Will they spare Kenny or Solan, if they meet either one today?" Alexander demanded.
Justin flinched, as though Alexander had struck him. He sat in silence for several seconds. Finally he softly repeated, "They're kids."
"They are warriors," the three-quarters Klingon corrected harshly. "They are old enough to fight and kill. Why then do you believe they are too young to die?"
With that parting shot Alexander rose to get his breakfast. The sight of Justin's conflicted expression before he turned away sent a thrill of triumph coursing through him. He'd finally gotten the better of the human, beating him unmercifully with cold, hard reality, and the experience was deeply satisfying.
While Alexander was walking back from the replicator the door slid open and the large, light-haired human entered the room. He walked straight toward the back wall, and it seemed he would ram Alexander with his shoulder, but he twisted aside at the last second. Alexander growled warningly at him and received a confident sneer in response. The sight of such arrogant defiance awoke an instant desire to at the least break the human's nose, but he knew better than to try. Archon would know he was a threat to this boy, unlike pitiful Solan, and his blow would never land. Contenting himself therefore with a dark look which promised much Alexander sat back down at Justin's table while the blond sat with the "vampire".
Justin looked no better than before; in fact he almost appeared ill. Why was this so hard for him to accept? Even Starfleet, cowardly though it often was, would kill when absolutely necessary. What was wrong with Justin that a warrior of his skill should quail before the most basic necessity of war?
Alexander started to rotate his chair to face the wall and stopped in mid-motion. Since coming here he had always turned away from those sitting at his table before eating, obeying the Klingon proverb to drink not with one's enemies. It hadn't mattered who else was at his table, since everyone here was his enemy.
Now, though, things had changed. He had made an agreement with Justin, Kenny and Solan that they would no longer be his foes; there was no longer a reason for him to turn away.
Leaning back over the table he tore into the roasted meat enthusiastically, fueling himself for the battles to come. By the time he had finished three more contestants had entered the room. The "ninja" limped in first, sitting at the only empty table after getting his meal. After him came Kenny and almost at the same moment the "sorcerer" entered, his face and eyes black and blue with bruises. He stared at Justin with undisguised venom as he got his food and took his place at the ninja's table, but the Ranger didn't seem to notice.
Solan and the floating girl came in last and neither looked good. The girl's face was gaunt with pain, her broken limb wrapped in some kind of make-shift bandage made from a bed blanket. She passed through the air with stilted, deliberate care. That was definitely a hopeful sign; maybe her pain would impair the use of her telekinesis. She eased herself into the chair at the ninja and sorcerer table.
Solan's blue eyes were dull and had bags under them. He moved with a listlessness and lethargy which betrayed a lack of sleep, a lack of hope, or both. When he saw there was no chair left for him at Justin's table he turned toward the remaining empty chair and hesitated, probably in fear. Then he moved with more speed and decisiveness than he had displayed thus far, grabbing the back of the chair and dragging it toward Justin's table.
"Too afraid to sit with me?" the big blond asked tauntingly. "Get away while you still can, then," he finished with open contempt. Solan looked toward the other boy, but his back was to Alexander and the expression on his face was therefore unseen. Whatever it was, it didn't seem to worry the large blond, whose smug, satisfied smile merely widened.
Solan sat down at the table after getting his breakfast and Justin, who had offered no more than a perfunctory greeting to Kenny, somehow managed to dredge up a smile. Solan's answering expression, however, was more of a grimace than anything else.
In low tones Justin explained what had discovered about the dark-haired boy, his suspicion that the child might be this "vampire" creature. Solan and Kenny both seemed familiar with the term, so stories about these beings must be common on all three Earths.
Sunlight was mentioned again in the discussion as one of the supposed ways to kill a vampire, and also piercing the heart, preferably with a weapon of wood, and decapitation. His bat'leth should work well enough for that last method, at least.
Then Justin urged them to get food and bottled water from the replicator. Why on Kronos hadn't he thought of that himself yesterday? It would have saved him from much hunger and thirst in the desert.
After they had taken supplies from the replicator almost everyone else in the room quickly did the same, stuffing food and water bottles into pockets when possible and carrying them when not. The only one who didn't get anything from the replicator was the small, dark-haired boy, the suspected vampire.
Justin was busy giving last minute advice to his two hangers-on.
"Run if anyone else finds you, and if you can't get away, scream. If Alexander or I are close enough to hear it, we'll get to you as quickly as we can. Don't shout unless you have to, though; there's too great a chance of attracting one of the others."
That was an opening which Alexander couldn't resist.
"Why is that wrong? Shouldn't they try to attract other warriors, in order to win them to your side?"
The tone of his question wasn't quite openly mocking-but it was close. Justin's features tightened in reaction, and his subsequent words emerged as though they had been ground out of him.
"They don't need to take that risk. I'll talk to whoever I can find who will listen."
"Because you can fight back when they attack you, while Kenny and I would just be slaughtered," Solan stated bitterly.
Justin bit his lip as his gaze shifted to Solan. "Solan," he began, and didn't continue. Several seconds passed and still the Ranger said nothing. Maybe he recognized that there was nothing to say, that there were no words he could use to soften the harsh truth.
The air was clear and crisp, and much cooler than it had been either in the desert or the tunnels. Fluffy white clouds overhead moved lazily across the blue sky, though none of them obscured the blazing face of the sun. Beneath him was solid rock, tilted at an angle, which caused him to flail for a moment before regaining his balance.
Feeling a renewed stab of pain from his injured foot Shin-Ren sank down into a sitting position. To his left a very large outcropping of rock blocked his view, while a few hundred feet to the right the stone surface dipped down into a crevasse before rising back up again. Above him the sheet of rock ran as far as he could see, maintaining the same angle, while a few yards down was a very abrupt drop-off.
The teen quickly took stock of his possessions. His weapons had been returned to him and he still had food and water he had brought from the dining hall to sustain him.
Leaving his provisions where he had appeared, Shin-Ren slowly and carefully made his way to the edge and peered over. A vertical wall of rock stretched down to the indistinct ground far, far below. Immediately he fell back, his suspicion confirmed. He was on the side of a mountain, in an area not too steep to be traversed on foot.
It could be traversed on foot, but he would not do so for long. Walking on the uneven surface was even more painful than walking on the flat floor of the living quarters. He would make his way to the top part of the outcropping on his left, meeting it at the point where it emerged from the surface of the mountain itself. That would give him the best vantage point in the immediate area to watch for his foes. Picking up his provisions and gritting his teeth against the pain, he began his journey.
Once again Morthos found himself longing for the underground labyrinth. The heat and extra effort required to walk in the sand yesterday had been all but unbearable. Now the heat was thankfully absent, but the slanted surface was as difficult to walk on as the sand had been. The gaps, protrusions of rock and other vagaries of the environment actually made it even more taxing to move through than the desert had been.
Also it made him decidedly . . . uncomfortable to be on a mountain. Not just physically, but spiritually as well. Often it was to mountains that the servants of his master's enemy had gone to commune with Him. Here Morthos was nearer to the heavens than to the Earth, and that fact repelled him. While underground he had felt almost at home; now he had the definite sense that he was in enemy territory. The sooner this day ended and he got away from this place, the better pleased he would be. In the meantime, however, he had numerous enemies to slay.
When he had first arrived here he had seized the opportunity to at last go over his sacred text. Unfortunately prolonged study of the book had, as he feared, disclosed little which could aid him. The spells either took too long to take effect, required items he did not possess, or were simply of no use to him in this matter. Cursing a cow so that it would cease giving milk and become barren was hardly helpful in the current situation, nor was the hex which would cause crops to fail.
He could always employ the evil eye, which brought ill fortune to the victim, but its actual effect was wholly unpredictable and not necessarily immediate. It wasn't a weapon to rely on when your very life was at stake.
If only he'd been able to summon the demon! Then all of this would already be over. Instead he was stuck on a mountain, where he was already feeling dizzy and developing a nasty cough to boot.
Madeline knew better than to risk trying to fly at any height again. So she cruised along gently about a foot above the surface. A large portion of her concentration was invested in keeping her leg steady; that reduced it to dull ache instead of a sharp jolt of agony.
She wanted to badly to be done with all of this and go home! The problems she and the other kids faced on Tigris in keeping the adults under control were nothing compared to the trials of this place. In fact it made her think of the Hell her parents had warned her of when she was little. Surely that place couldn't be any worse than here?
There was still no sign of anyone. Given how many of the other people on this mountain would try to kill him on sight that was probably a boon. Being alone, though, didn't make it any easier to fight down the fear, especially when you didn't know how to defend yourself.
Solan grimaced as he continued moving along the gentle slope. Kaleipus had told him more than once that there was no point in self-pity. Instead of feeling sorry for yourself, you should go out and do something to improve your situation.
It was advice he had sought to heed, but his all efforts had been in vain; first Justin and then Kenny had adamantly refused to teach him how to fight.
He could still feel the shock he had experienced at the brown-haired boy's answer. It hadn't even occurred to him that his new friend might not be willing to help him. Of course he had realized that he couldn't hope to approach the teenager's level of skill in a single night's lesson, but surely Justin could have taught him something. Was the Ranger's style of unarmed combat really that complex? Or did Justin think that any attempt to instruct someone like him would be a waste of time?
After all, he was two years younger than the Ranger, and he came from what to Justin would be millennia in the past. How primitive and ignorant he must seem to the twentieth century teen! Jo had opened his eyes to that yesterday. Maybe his friend didn't believe he had what it took to learn karate.
Whatever the older boy's reason, Justin had denied his plea. Some time later it had occurred to him to try to learn about boxing from Kenny. Boxing wasn't nearly as good as Justin's karate but it would be an improvement over what he knew now, which was nothing. Kenny, however, hadn't even let him finish his question before shutting the door on him. He hadn't bothered trying to go to Alexander for help; the alien had already made his opinion of Solan clear.
So there was no one who would teach him how to fight unarmed and the one weapon he had some knowledge of how to use, the staff, was nowhere to be found. What was there left for him to do but despair? And hide, like a coward.
Solan grimaced again. Hiding hadn't saved him from that strange little girl, and he doubted it would save him now. Besides, where was he supposed to hide? He could duck behind one of the occasional rock outcroppings, but that would only conceal him from one direction, and then only until someone drew even with him. He thought of sitting down where he was and waiting, but lack of activity increased his nervous tension and besides, he hated the idea of being any more passive than he already was. At least while moving he had some control, while by waiting impotently to be found he would have none.
In the end he had decided to make his way as far up the slope as he could, to the very point where it changed into a sheer cliff. He felt safer right up against rock and it gave him an excellent view of the surrounding area. That was how he was able to spot the distant figure walking well below his level, almost out of sight, and coming the other way. With decidedly mixed feelings he saw that it was Kenny.
He made his way down toward his teammate, having to catch himself at his second step to keep from falling; there was a lot loose rock around the base of the cliff. Kenny stopped and waited for him, not looking particularly glad to see him. He didn't know whether Kenny disliked him specifically or just disliked everyone. Either way he couldn't help resenting how the blond has so rudely dismissed him last night. Still, it could have been worse-it could have been Alexander.
The look Kenny gave him held no warmth and his question was terse.
"Have you seen anyone?"
"No, have you?"
"No," Kenny replied shortly. Then he continued in the direction he'd been going. Without a word Solan fell in with him.
Alexander had appeared on a gentle mountain slope, which continued to his left while falling away in a stark cliff to his right. He began walking at once, but barely an hour later realized there was something wrong with him. He was rarely ill and he had felt fine at breakfast, but he was starting to feel dizzy. That, combined with the uneven surface, was slowing him considerably, and there had been times when he'd had to sit down rather than fall down.
Alexander shook his head in frustration. Whatever this ailment was, it was an unneeded additional burden while he was fighting for his honor and his life. He would simply have to rise above it, to show his enemies the fortitude and endurance of a Klingon warrior.
This resolve was shattered shortly afterwards by a great heaving in his stomach. He dropped down to the stone, trying to control himself, to fight down his rising gorge, but it was useless. He grew violently sick, expelling his stomach's contents onto the side of the mountain.
Alexander quickly moved away from the spot, but went no more than a dozen feet. Contrary to what he had expected, he felt no better than before. What sickness had he caught?
Will had awoken this morning refreshed and determined to do better than he had yesterday. His experience with Jo had been fantastic, yes, but she had been the only one he had killed. At the time it had seemed like such sound strategy to stay and guard the oasis rather than wander the desert. Everyone would be seeking the water Archon had mentioned. They would be drawn to the oasis and then he would slaughter them.
Contrary to his expectations, however, no one else had arrived. He had wasted his time doing nothing while the day's opportunities had passed him by.
Then, when he got back to the dining hall, he'd been challenged and even attacked by that Solan kid, the one who got away while he was busy with Jo.
Of course Solan had proven to be no threat, but he never should have been permitted to hit Will if Will wasn't allowed to hit him back. If the wimp was stupid enough to start something, instead of being grateful for his escape on the Battlefield, then he should have to take the consequences!
Hopefully he could find the boy before someone else finished him off. It would be a special pleasure to show Solan what happened to people who deliberately got in his way. No one attacked him without paying the price; no one.
Contemplation of what he would do to Solan was a good diversion from the unexpected discomfort he was feeling. His head was pounding and there was a persistent ache in his gut. He hadn't felt this lousy since . . . since he couldn't remember when. It was really starting to get to him.
Again Justin shook himself from his thoughts and looked around. He kept getting lost in his own interior debate and walking forward more or less on auto-pilot. Twice now he'd stumbled and fallen on the uneven surface, once when he tripped over a small rock and the other time at an abrupt foot-deep drop off. He needed to get his head in the game before someone ambushed him while his mind was elsewhere.
The problem was that this wasn't a game. It was real, literally life or death. His choices had the potential to save lives or to take them, and he no longer had any faith in his own ability to make the right decisions.
It had all seemed so simple the first day: Find everyone who didn't want to have to kill another person. Gather them into a team for cooperation and mutual defense. Physically subdue the ones who remained aggressive and convince them that it was Archon they should be opposing. Once everyone had joined together and refused to fight each other, Archon would hopefully see the futility of his mad scheme and return them to their homes.
He'd found the contestants who didn't want to kill easily enough, but their numbers had been far smaller than he had anticipated. They hadn't been able to protect each other on the second day as he'd hoped and so half of his team had died, leaving only Solan and Kenny, neither of whom stood much chance of overcoming an attacker. He had achieved partial success in persuading Alexander to join them, but that had been more than overshadowed by his complete failure with Morthos and the ninja.
"Will they spare Kenny or Solan, if they meet either one today?" Alexander had asked him in regards to those two. He hadn't really answered the question, because he knew the answer was no. They wouldn't hesitate to kill the kids under his protection, or to kill him if they got the chance. Try as he might, he couldn't envision either of them suddenly changing course and joining his resistance to Archon. Nor could he imagine the boy who killed Jo and whoever murdered Josh deciding to defy their kidnapper.
His entire plan had been premised on the theory that even the aggressors could be brought around and made to see the error of their ways. Recent events, however, seemed to show that his theory had been invalid from the start. If that was indeed the case, then his plan was unworkable and he had to . . . what? What on Earth was he supposed to do instead?
He could always continue subduing attackers and trying to reason with them, but at this point he feared that was a fool's errand, an idealistically willful denial of reality. Moreover, as Alexander had pointed out, taking attackers prisoner ended their threat only for today. Tomorrow they would be free to try again. To keep them from killing he would have to encounter them first each day and defeat them every time; they would only have to defeat him once, or come across one of his teammates before meeting him.
His only other alternative, though, was . . . was what Alexander had said. No, he couldn't do that! He couldn't kill other kids, kids who had been kidnapped just as he had been.
Kids who had chosen to follow Archon's sick orders. Kids who had already killed Jo and Josh, and who might still kill Kenny and Solan. He needed to protect what was left of his team. He'd already failed twice; he couldn't stand the idea of letting yet another person who depended on him die. The question was how far he could morally go to protect them.
How could he justify killing kidnapped kids his own age? How could he justify not permanently stopping aggressors who had already murdered two of his teammates and were out to slaughter the rest?
During his stint as a Turbo Ranger the line between right and wrong had been clearly defined; here it was so blurred he wasn't even sure if he could tell which side was which.
At first Justin assumed the splitting headache he was getting was caused by stress from the insoluble dilemma before him. When it was accompanied by a wave of nausea, however, he reconsidered his diagnosis.
Was he getting sick? That was just what he needed! Wait a minute, though; would Archon allow germs free rein in his controlled environments? That seemed unlikely. Any being who had the power to pluck them from their various times and universes surely had the power to make sure they didn't get sick.
Could he have been coming down with this when he was taken? Maybe, but hadn't Archon said that they had all been fully healed before starting this contest? That would include making sure they were all in good health, wouldn't it? So what was this?
Justin's near-photographic memory soon supplied him with a possible answer: acute mountain sickness. It was a condition which often afflicted people at an altitude over ten thousand feet. It could bring on a variety of symptoms, two of which were headaches and nausea.
There was no way of knowing for sure that AMS was what he was suffering from, but it was his best guess. Since he could hardly descend to a lower altitude, he would just have to ignore the symptoms as best he could. Besides, he had bigger things to concern himself with than his own physical well-being.
If she hadn't seen him move she might have missed him entirely. He was well off to her right and she hadn't been expecting to find anyone just sitting on one of the spurs of the mountain. She swerved and flew toward the black-clad figure, at the same time lifting him up into the air about two inches above the rock outcropping.
Probably the easiest way to handle him would be to float him over the edge of the cliff and drop him. Even that would be a bit of a strain on her at this point. Flying usually didn't take much effort, but flying and keeping her leg held motionless at the same time was exhausting.
She stopped about fifteen feet from him and that was when his right hand dipped into the sash he wore. He flung something shiny at her and she instinctively stopped it and sent it hurtling back at him. In the time it took her to do that, however, he threw two more of the spinning objects her way. She stopped one.
The other impacted at the base of her throat, its sharp points tearing through her windpipe. Gasping, choking, bleeding, she lost her concentration and fell toward the ground.
It took all of his self-discipline not to make a sound as he removed the shuriken from his chest. Once more his own weapons had been turned on him. This time, however, they had also brought him victory.
Or had they? Would she recover? He loped over to the fallen girl as quickly as he could, unsheathing his ninja-do on the way.
He didn't waste any time examining his fallen foe; he simply ran her through as soon as he was close enough.
As the morning wore on Solan exchanged less than twenty words with Kenny. The other boy was practically mute and curt to the point of rudeness when he did speak. While traveling with Justin he had almost been able to forget their situation, such was the interplay of excited questions and stories between them. While traveling with Kenny he couldn't think of anything else.
They had just finished lunch when Kenny pointed ahead of them and hissed, "Look!"
A figure was surmounting a rise a few hundred feet away, someone with short, blond hair. The only living contestants left with blond hair were him, Kenny . . . and Jo's murderer.
Solan's fists clenched instinctively. Here was the person he most wanted to kill-had he but possessed the power to do so. Instead all he could do was run, just like he had last time. Just like he always did, except when he tried to stay and fight, and lost. The sheer disgust he felt for himself at that moment was almost palpable.
Kenny apparently suffered from no such internal turmoil. "Run!" he shouted, shoving Solan down the slope. He then whirled and began sprinting up toward the unseen peak. The big blond broke into a sprint of his own, moving as fast as he could on the uneven surface.
Solan began making his way down the slope as rapidly as possible. At least this way Kenny would have a chance to escape. He knew better than to think he could; their opponent was coming straight for him, as Solan had known he would.
It looked as if he might be able to make it to the cliff's edge first and for just a split second he considered not stopping. This momentary impulse was immediately smothered by a wave of deep shame. He had done enough to disgrace himself without taking the coward's way out in the end. Even if he couldn't win, he could still fight back. He would give Kenny as much time as possible, and perhaps, just perhaps, make Kaleipus and his father a little proud of him in the process.
Jo's killer had swung in right behind him, grinning as he quickly narrowed the gap between them. Solan came to a halt, then turned and ran directly towards his pursuer! The smug smile dissolved into surprise as Solan slammed into the larger boy shoulder first. They both went down in a heap, with Solan on top, and the Grecian followed up by punching his foe in the left eye.
Solan's wild feeling of triumph and elation was short-lived; with a snarl his enemy shoved him, sending the smaller boy flying back.
Solan came down hard, cracking his head on the stone. He browned out for a moment while his attacker moved to stand looming over him.
"You stupid little wimp," the boy breathed, his green eyes spitting venom. "Did you really think you could beat me?"
Solan got to his feet and tried to punch his foe again, but this time his right cross was blocked by the other boy's left forearm, and in return he took a right jab to the stomach which dropped him right back to the mountainside, where he lay hugging his midsection.
"I could have broken your spine with that punch," his attacker informed him in a casual, almost conversational tone. "I didn't because I want you to feel what I'm doing to you."
Solan stared hatefully up at his tormentor, not quite able to keep the tears of pain out of his own eyes. The sight brought another smile to the crew-cut boy's face.
That smile was still there when his head suddenly seemed to jump from his neck and tumbled down next to the prone Solan. Even as he screamed the decapitated corpse, spurting blood from the stump, took a trembling step forward and collapsed on top of him.
Panicking now Solan screamed again as he fought frantically to get the body off him. Fueled by adrenaline he managed to shift it to the left, inadvertently dumping it onto the head. Sick, shocked and wearing a fair amount of blood he scrambled away. Only then did he notice the person standing where his attacker had been.
It was Kenny! He was holding a blood-stained short sword, though a couple of drops seemed to have splattered onto his right hand. On his face was an expression of . . . amusement?
Solan tried to ask one of the half-dozen questions jostling for space in his mind, but could only stutter and mumble incoherently. Fortunately Kenny seemed to need no prompting.
"As soon as I saw he had his back to me I changed directions and came down after him. He was too focused on you to check behind him, and I've had a lot of practice sneaking up on people."
"The sword," Solan finally managed to say, rising unsteadily to his feet.
"I had it in my backpack," Kenny explained, casually flicking some of the blood from the blade.
"Why didn't you tell me you had it? How-you're a boxer! Why do you have a sword?"
"I'm not a boxer," Kenny sneered. "I'm a survivor. That's why I joined you idiots; I knew I could use you for protection," Kenny explained, raising his sword to guard position.
"But-but you saved my life," Solan protested, not quite able to believe what was happening, how quickly he could go from being in mortal danger to being safe and then back again.
"I didn't save your life; I took his! Being super-strong made him a threat. You, well, you're almost not worth killing. Almost."
The insult snapped Solan out of his disbelieving daze, leaving him free to act, but he had no idea what he could possibly do. In his current state he couldn't hope to outrun Kenny, and how was he supposed to fight the backstabbing traitor without losing his own head?
As he backpedaled frantically before Kenny he heard a whispered question.
"WHY DON'T YOU TAKE THE SWORD FROM HIM, AS A WARRIOR SHOULD BE ABLE TO DO?"
What in Tarterus . . . ? Archon was asking him this now? When he was about to die?
"Because I don't know how!" he shouted at the top his lungs, his fear and frustration and rage all erupting out of him at once. "I'm not a warrior, damn you!"
The words had scarcely left his mouth when a shimmering wall of light appeared before him, separating him from Kenny. The radiance surged forward to engulf him and he vanished from the mountainside.
Kenny lowered his sword in confusion. What had just happened? That couldn't have been Solan's doing! So-Archon?
"Archon! What happened? Where is Solan?" Kenny demanded.
"HE THOUGHT HIMSELF UNSUITABLE FOR MY CONTEST, SO I HAVE REMOVED HIM."
"What did you do with him?" Kenny questioned out of curiosity rather than concern.
There was no answer, although Kenny could certainly hazard a guess. The prospect of such casual termination sent a chill through him, considering his own thoughts about having been included in this tournament. He was glad now that he had never given voice to his feelings, as Solan had. What had led him to shout out like that? It sounded like he was answering a question. Had Archon communicated with him?
Kenny hadn't really hated Solan the way he hated Justin, but in killing the big guy he had unavoidably tipped his hand. There was no way to explain having a sword, so there had been no choice for him but to silence the Grecian boy. Archon removing Solan actually served his purpose just as well as beheading the child would have.
What was truly disturbing and frightening was this unexpected proof of Archon's capriciousness. If he could suddenly remove Solan like that, who might he remove next, and for what reason? Staying alive was hard enough without their captor killing contestants on a whim. Then again, this could end up working in his favor. If Archon happened to remove some of the more powerful, aggressive competitors it would certainly increase his own chances of victory.
It hit him with no warning at all. One second he was gamely coping with the headache and nausea; the next the headache blossomed into a skull-splitting migraine and the nausea grew so intense he could barely hold down his rising gorge.
He dropped his knees, the Turbo Blade falling from his hand as he wrenched off his helmet. The cool mountain air on his face did nothing to alleviate his symptoms, and now he was feeling weak and feverish as well.
He huddled in a heap, trying not to cry from the pain or lose the lunch he'd eaten an hour ago. He didn't try to rise back up; in his current state he doubted he could stand.
What was wrong with him? Acute mountain sickness didn't work like this! Had it always been something else entirely, some illness of this alien environment?
The harsh bark of a cough coming from somewhere to his right alerted him to the presence of another. Grabbing the sword he swung it frantically, the weapon almost flying out of his grasp in the process. He was rewarded by a curse, though his blade didn't connect with anything.
Justin continued swinging with what little energy he had left as got his legs under him and rotated to face his enemy, Morthos. In the dark-haired boy's right hand was his wavy-bladed kris dagger and on his bruised, pock-marked face was a look of evil glee and unholy anticipation. He stood just outside the scything arc of Justin's Turbo Blade and his intentions were clear: he was going to dart in when he saw an opening and deliver the death blow with his dagger.
The warlock wouldn't have to wait long for his chance. The pain in Justin's head was incredible, nausea rolled through his body in waves and he felt drained of strength. His arm shook as it swept his sword back and forth and the light Turbo Blade seemed to weight fifty pounds. Morthos' yellow eyes were fixed tightly on his blade and the boy's body was tensing, preparing for a forward rush.
Justin's mind whirled frantically, seeking an escape from his predicament. There had to be some way out of this, a way to subdue Morthos, but whatever it might be he couldn't see it. He was almost out of time, he knew; any second Morthos would be driving that dagger into him. He had to do something, and he had to do it now!
For all of his prodigious intellect, Justin's next actions were not the result of any conscious deliberation or thought; they were instead the product of pure desperation and instinct. He lurched to his feet to face his foe, but he had been right to doubt his ability to stand. Immediately he pitched forward. He brought his left hand up to keep from hitting the rock face first, while his right hand, the one holding the Turbo Blade, thrust the weapon out in front of him as he fell. There was a wet, meaty sound as the sword hit and cut into something, and was almost immediately torn from his grasp.
As he lay there Justin slowly inclined his head and took in what he had done. Morthos stood over him, his Turbo Blade having pierced the small boy's chest. It was still lodged there, and the child was gazing down at it with an expression of bewildered disbelief. Slowly the boy's own head rose and his gaze met Justin's. The disbelief faded in an instant, to be replaced by the most intense look of loathing Justin had ever seen. Morthos coughed repeatedly, bringing up blood in the process. The bright red liquid streamed out of his mouth and spilled over his chin, further staining his dark robes. He had dropped his kris dagger and instead of reaching down to retrieve it his trembling hands closed around the hilt of the Turbo Blade. With convulsive strength he tore the weapon out of his body and raised it overhead, just as he had his dagger yesterday.
Though suffused with horror over what he had done and in terror for his own life, Justin was no longer acting on blind emotion and instinct. He saw at once that, given Morthos' reach, the boy could not stand upright and still plunge the sword down into his prone form; the warlock would have to get closer. He made the conscious decision to reach out and scoop up the fallen kris dagger with his left hand. And when Morthos dropped to one knee, Justin chose to stab upward with the dagger, driving the tip of the wavy blade into Morthos' heart.
Alexander could have stayed where he was. He could have curled up and not moved, conceding to both his dizziness and being repeatedly and violently sick. He could have simply sat and waited, knowing that he would be at a substantial disadvantage if he did meet up with any of the other contestants.
Such a course of action never even occurred to him.
Step by step Alexander made his way forward, slowly, but relentlessly. When he would stumble and fall, he would soon pick himself back up again and continue. His symptoms did not lessen and his weariness increased and still he continued on his way.
Colin had first tried ascending the slope and had ended up at the sheer cliff. He had been about to turn away when he took a second glance at the loose rock lying around the area. Sifting through it he had found three small stones and had put them in his pocket. As a human this form had once been a fine Little League pitcher and he figured he might be able to make good use of these rocks.
From there he moved down to a more central position, keeping both his eyes and his nose open. Eventually he came across Justin's scent and began to follow it. He tracked the brown-haired boy well into the afternoon before Justin's scent was almost overpowered by the odor of blood.
Moving more slowly and more cautiously Colin continued his approach. He soon spotted a figure lying slumped on the stone ahead of him. There was no sign of anyone else around.
Drawing closer he was able to identify the body by both sight and smell: Morthos! A stunned feeling of joy shot through the vampiric ten year-old at this unexpected gift. The warlock who had taken control of him was dead! No longer would he need to fear enslavement at the hands of another!
Smiling broadly in pleasure and relief Colin knelt down to examine the corpse. The flesh was still warm; clearly he had died only a short time ago. There were two chest wounds, both of which looked fatal, and one of which still held Morthos' kris dagger. Tugging hard on the handle he managed to wrench the weapon free. This was an unexpected bonus, and one he heartily appreciated. Pockets in the robes also held apples and a small canteen of water, but of course those were useless to him. Curiously, water mixed with traces of blood had been spilled in an area next to the body.
Wait, though, where was Morthos' spell book? Sniffing the air, he followed Morthos scent about fifty feet further on, where it crossed again with Justin's. At the intersection lay Morthos' precious tome, but Colin's unbeating heart sank when he saw it.
The book lay open in the middle of a small puddle, next to a couple of empty water bottles. Floating around it were a few torn-out pages which had been shredded into virtual confetti. The main body of the text had been liberally doused with water and then hacked and slashed repeatedly with a sharp instrument. The end result was to leave the volume a torn, sodden, and illegible mess.
Apparently after killing Morthos Justin had caught sight of the warlock's spell book and had made sure that no one would ever be able to use it again. Scowling at this thoughtless waste of a potential asset, the young vampire considered his options.
He could keep following Justin, but then there was the danger of actually catching up with the teenager. The boy had finished Morthos, and that meant he might well be too much for Colin to handle.
Or he could turn around right now and head the other way. Then he would avoid Justin, but he would be going off into the unknown; he could end up facing someone who was even worse.
Better to keep following Justin, he decided. The human would most likely meet anyone in the direction they were traveling in first. Whoever won the ensuing battle would be weakened and thus easier prey for Colin when he did encounter the victor.
Colin resumed following Justin's trail, his new kris dagger out and at the ready.
Kenny marched on, his sword once again concealed in his backpack. It wouldn't do for Justin or Alexander to find him carrying it, and there should be enough time to draw it if he saw anyone else.
For about an hour he was alone. Then he spotted a helmeted figure wearing distinctive blue garb in the distance, coming toward him at a higher point on the slope. Kenny grinned in delight. Just the person he wanted to see!
As he approached Justin he noticed that the boy offered no welcoming words or motions. He strode forward almost mechanically, without any noticeable enthusiasm, and he seemed to be clutching his Turbo Blade quite tightly.
Did he know? No, that was impossible! How could he know? The only ones who had seen anything incriminating were Josh, Solan, and the vampire; the first two had died before they had a chance to tell anyone and the last wouldn't be sharing information with Justin in any case. Would he?
Kenny felt himself breaking out in a cold sweat. He actually thought of going for his own blade, but dismissed the idea immediately. If Justin didn't know anything, then he would be blowing his cover completely by pulling out his sword. If Justin did know something, then not only would he never get to his weapon in time, but it would do him no good even if he could manage to draw it; he hadn't won a single face-to-face duel in his long, long life.
"Hi, Justin," he greeted the other boy, not letting the fear he was feeling show in his voice. He was close enough now that Justin could decapitate him with one swipe of that sword, and he wouldn't be able to do a thing to stop it.
"Are you all right?" Justin demanded. His tone was devoid of his usual passion and earnestness; it was forceful and yet somehow brittle.
"I'm fine," he replied, his tension ebbing. If Justin knew anything, he wouldn't be bothering with conversation. "I haven't met up with anybody else yet."
"Do you feel sick in any way? Do you have a headache or stomach-ache? Are you dizzy at all?"
"No," Kenny answered, completely at sea now.
"Good," Justin said, still sounding odd. He began to move forward again. He was going back the way Kenny had come!
"Let's keep going my way," Kenny suggested, indicating the other direction.
"NO!" Justin screamed as he spun back around, his sword visibly trembling in his hand. Kenny could only gape at him in astonishment, wholly taken aback by the Ranger's reaction. It was like being savaged by a puppy!
"We're going this way," Justin asserted after a few seconds, more calmly, but still with the impression that he was only tenuously keeping himself under control.
Clearly something was very wrong with the boy. Kenny had no idea what the problem might be, but he did see that trying to argue with Justin about which direction they would travel in was futile. He would have to go along with the boy if he meant to keep his cover intact and keep Justin within reach of his blade.
It was like the various times in the past when he had needed to comply with whatever ridiculous rules his new "guardian" had set for him. He had suffered all manner of indignities in doing so, everything from bedtimes to restrictions on what he could eat. Somehow such submission never got any easier, and his rage at the adult Immortals' do-gooding arrogance and thoughtlessly assumed superiority over him never lessened.
Such incidents did, however, spark in him additional satisfaction when it came time to sever the relationship.
"Okay," Kenny quickly agreed.
Justin resumed walking and Kenny fell in behind him, his mind racing. How long before it hit five? What if they did make it to the super-strong kid's corpse? Would Justin believe him when he claimed to have no idea it was there? While there was nothing at the scene to connect him to the killing, it was inherently suspicious for there to be a dead body behind him and no sign of the killer.
His first instinct was to wait and try to brazen it out if Justin got suspicious. Now, though, Justin's apparent emotional instability had him wondering if the Ranger would still be as easy a mark for a con.
He could try to get the sword out of his backpack while they were walking and take Justin from behind, but that seemed at least as risky as trying to claim innocence. If he made any noise, attracted Justin's attention in any way, then that would be it. Not to mention it was much easier to decapitate someone who was standing still rather than walking ahead of you on an uneven surface.
He needed more time to weigh the risks involved in each course of action. He also badly needed to rest his legs, and so he called out to Justin.
"Can we stop for a little while? I have to take a break."
Justin regarded him from behind the black visor and the nodded assent. Kenny sank down into a sitting position, as did Justin. Taking off his backpack he reached in and withdrew a water bottle. Unscrewing the cap he drank deeply, giving the impression he simply needed to rest and rehydrate.
Justin drank no water. He sat silent and unmoving. Kenny was reluctant to say anything to him in case he set the Ranger off again. After a few minutes Justin raised his hands, hit the release clasps and removed his helmet.
You didn't have to look at the whole face, to take in the set of the jaw or the downturn of the lips; you needed only to look into Justin's eyes to confirm that he was deeply disturbed about something.
"Kenny, I'm sorry I shouted at you earlier. It's nothing you did. It's me," he finished bleakly.
Kenny licked his lips. Should he try to get Justin to speak further or not? He was curious as to what had caused this change in the Ranger, and playing the sympathetic ear could only add to his credibility when they came across the corpse. Besides, if Justin was apologizing for shouting, he probably wasn't going to lose it and get physical with Kenny, no matter what sore spot was poked.
"Are you all right? Did something happen?" he asked, with just the right touch of innocent concern.
Justin didn't immediately answer, instead drawing in a deep breath, as though he needed to prepare himself for what he was about to do.
"No, I'm not all right, and yes, something did happen. A while after I got here I started suffering from what I think is Acute Mountain Sickness. It's a condition that sometimes affects people when they're above ten thousand feet. I started getting a headache and feeling nauseous. I let myself get distracted by how I was feeling and by-other things," he paused, visibly swallowing.
"I wasn't as alert as I should have been. I didn't even see him until it was too late!"
"Didn't see who?" Kenny questioned.
"Morthos, the same boy I ran into yesterday. He didn't try to mind control me again. I don't know why not; maybe because I broke out of it last time. He did something, though. My headache got a lot worse and so did my nausea. I felt feverish and weak, like the last time I had pneumonia. I fell down and I didn't think I'd be able to get back up again."
Now Justin started to speak more quietly and at a slower pace.
"He came at me from my right. I heard him coughing and I used my Turbo Blade to keep him back, but I couldn't keep doing that forever! He was standing just outside my reach, waiting for me to get tired, holding up that dagger of his. I didn't know what to do!" he insisted desperately.
"I tried to stand up, but I fell and while I was falling I-I thrust out with my sword."
Kenny's interest was really piqued now. He leaned forward eagerly as Justin paused, seemingly searching for the right words.
"I looked up at him and my Turbo Blade . . . it was embedded in his chest."
"I didn't mean to do it, I swear! I wanted to stop him, but I didn't mean . . . He pulled my sword free and raised it overhead. I think he was already dying, but he still could have killed me before he went."
Tears were rolling unheeded down Justin's cheeks as he continued to tell his story.
"He'd dropped his dagger so I picked it up. When he got down on one knee to stab me, I stabbed him first. I did it on purpose, to save my own life."
He raised his face to look directly at Kenny, still crying.
"I killed him. I killed him and do you know the first thing I felt when I saw him fall? I felt relieved. I was glad, I was so glad that he was dead and I was still alive."
Now Justin broke down completely, openly sobbing. It took considerable effort for Kenny to maintain his sympathetic expression, to keep his contempt and disgust from showing on his face.
"Oh, boo hoo, I killed an enemy and survived without a scratch! Oh, woe is me! How much happier I would be if only I were the one lying dead instead of him!"
What a stupid little drama queen! It was amazing that anyone as sheltered and naïve as Justin had even made it past the first day, much less to the third. The boy was quite simply a waste of oxygen.
He waited with barely concealed impatience for Justin to finish crying, trying to think of some appropriate words of comfort.
"It wasn't your fault," Kenny assured him when the waterworks petered out, inching forward to lay a hand on his shoulder. "You did what you had to do."
Justin stared back at him with red-rimmed eyes.
"I should never have had to do that; none of us should!" he asserted forcefully. "I'm responsible for what I did; but it's Archon who's responsible for putting us all in this situation. He's the one who really deserves to die!"
If asked earlier, Kenny would have bet that he would never see Justin display real hate, true murderous fury.
He would have lost.
It looked like the little boy was finally starting to grow up. Which made it all the more imperative that Kenny finish him off today.
"So are you still feeling sick and weak?" Kenny questioned, not quite hopefully, as he withdrew his hand.
"No," Justin answered. "After I . . . killed him, most of it went away. All that's left is the headache and nausea that I had before I met him."
"It must have been one of his spells, something to threaten the health of the target. I saw where he left his book when I started walking away. I took it away from him yesterday, but I didn't do anything more than that. Now that he was . . . was dead, I didn't want to just leave it there, and I read a little of it."
"What did you find out?"
The teenager's features twisted in clear disgust.
"Nothing I want to repeat. It was horrible! It was evil. I don't understand how he could think that way, how he could worship-," Justin broke off.
"I made sure no one would be able to use that book again. I'd have burned it if I could have started a fire, but I did a pretty good job on it anyway," he commented absently.
Then he focused on Kenny again.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have dumped all of this on you," he admitted to the blond. "I'm the one who has to deal with what I did, not you."
"It's okay," Kenny answered.
Justin nodded gratefully and grabbed his helmet. Then he paused, a look of embarrassment flitting across his face.
"Do you have any more water? I used up all of mine."
Reaching into his backpack Kenny got out a second water bottle and leaned over to hand it to Justin.
"Thanks," Justin said as he took the bottle from Kenny's right hand.
Instead of unscrewing the cap, however, he stared at Kenny's hand, a quizzical look on his face.
"Is that blood?" he asked disbelievingly, pointing with his left hand at two brownish dots on Kenny's right hand. Two drops of blood which had landed there when he had killed the super-strong boy.
In spite of his best effort to control himself Kenny's hands shook slightly as he picked up his own water bottle and uncapped it again.
"Kenny, is that blood?" Justin asked again, more insistently this time.
Kenny's answer was to swing the bottle in Justin's direction and splash water directly into his eyes.
Justin shrieked as his hands instinctively came up to shield his face, his eyelids blinking madly in an attempt to flush away the liquid and regain his vision.
Kenny dropped the water bottle and took out his sword as the temporarily blinded teenager rose up. He bolted to his own feet, the sword going back in preparation for his decapitation swing. He could do this if only he was fast enough, he could kill Justin face-to-face while the other boy was still vulnerable, still blinded!
Even as these thoughts flashed through Kenny's mind Justin acted. He kicked out with his right leg, striking directly in front of him. It was literally a shot in the dark, since Justin still couldn't see, but he could hear and anticipate.
His boot caught Kenny in the stomach. It hit like a hammer blow, knocking the wind from him and knocking him backward. Kenny wheezed, trying to draw in air as he struggled up again. Meanwhile Justin had snatched the Turbo Blade from where it lay on the mountain and stepped back into a defensive position, his left hand still rubbing the last of the water from his eyes.
Kenny faced him down for an instant, fuming in frustration; then the Immortal turned and ran. Admittedly, he wasn't in the best of shape for a race. He still couldn't seem to fully catch his breath, he needed more time to rest his legs, and his stomach ached, but he figured surprise at his action would give him at least a few extra seconds head start.
Behind him Justin yelled for him to stop, an instruction he ignored. Small though his chances of escaping might be they were much better than his chances of confronting and defeating the Ranger in open combat.
A quick glance over his shoulder showed Justin pursuing him, helmet off and sword out. Ahead of him-was someone else?!?
A few hundred feet away and closing was the vampire he had fought at the oasis, the one Justin had belatedly identified this morning.
He was caught between a rock and a hard place.
His pace slowed unconsciously and the next thing he knew something thin and metallic smacked him hard on the right side of the face. Losing his footing he tumbled forward and narrowly avoided opening his forehead on his own sword. He landed badly on his left wrist and thought he might have sprained it.
He rolled over to see Justin looming above him, panting with exertion and glaring down at him. The Ranger struck again with his sword, smashing the fingers Kenny's right hand with the flat of the blade. With a yelp Kenny instinctively released his own sword, which hit the mountainside with a clang.
"Don't move," Justin ordered darkly, leveling the tip of his weapon at Kenny's chest.
"I won't," Kenny assured him. "But how are you going to stop the vampire?"
He pointed with his right hand in the direction he'd been going. Justin's suspicion was evident, but he risked a quick glance upward and his brown eyes widened.
"You can't keep me pinned and fight him at the same time," Kenny warned, a note of smugness leaking into his tone.
Justin's gaze flicked again between Kenny and the presumably still approaching vampire. His uncertainty and apprehension seemed to be warring with his fury. Nonetheless his weapon didn't waver.
"Do you want us both to die?" Kenny demanded.
"You tried to kill me!" Justin yelled back.
"So are you going to kill me, then? Murder me in cold blood?"
The accusation was his best shot, and he knew it had hit home when the Turbo Blade dipped down slightly before quickly returning to its previous position.
Justin shifted around to where Kenny's sword lay and without looking kicked it further down the mountain. Then he raised his own weapon and took several paces down the slope, standing over Kenny's blade.
"Come anywhere near me," he threatened, "and I will attack you."
Kenny rose again and put Justin between himself and the oncoming vampire, who was now only about ten feet away. The bloodsucker was approaching cautiously, his gaze shifting between Justin and Kenny. In his right hand was a wavy-bladed dagger and as Kenny watched he transferred it to his left hand. Then his facial features flowed into the nightmare Kenny had seen once before.
Justin kept most of his attention focused on the vampire, but turned to face up toward the peak, a position from which he could keep both the vampire and Kenny within his field of vision.
Kenny responded by slipping further down the mountain and out of Justin's view, gaining a furious look from the latter as he moved down the slope. While his attention was diverted the vampire's right hand reached into his pocket and pulled out a small rock, which he immediately hurled at Justin.
It caught him above the left ear and the brown-haired teenager fell with a cry.
Kenny and the vampire moved as one, both racing toward Justin. Kenny got there first and snatched up his sword, great relief sweeping through him at being armed again. The vampire arrived an instant later and the two faced each other in a frozen tableau over Justin's body.
In that split second either one could have slain the stunned Ranger; a single sword slash or dagger thrust would have done the job. Yet neither of them struck, because making such an assault would have completely exposed the attacker to the weapon of the third person present.
Kenny might have taken the chance regardless, had he been facing anyone other the bloodsucker. The vampire, however, was the only contestant left who knew he had come back to life before; he could not risk dying at the creature's hands.
They seemed to face each other like that for an eternity, each on the defensive, yet also ready to attack as soon as an opening presented itself.
Then Justin swept out with his right leg, toppling the vampire and kicking the child of the night viciously in the side of the head as soon as the latter hit the mountainside. At least Kenny thought that was what had happened. It was hard to be sure, because at the same time Justin swept his Turbo Blade back and stabbed Kenny deeply, just above the right knee.
Kenny screamed as his leg folded under him. He toppled over onto his right side, trapping his sword beneath his body. Justin was up and gone by the time he could painfully drag himself into a sitting position. In the process he forgot about his sprained left wrist and nearly screamed again when he mistakenly tried to put his weight on it.
He squeezed his eyes shut in a vain attempt to stem his flow of tears. Oh, Justin was going to pay for this! Thankfully the Ranger seemed to have missed the femoral artery, so he wouldn't have to worry about bleeding out.
That fact took on new importance when the vampire rose up, apparently having recovered from Justin's attack. Those dark, dead eyes focused first on Kenny, before looking past him and further down the slope. That must be the direction in which Justin had fled.
Then the eyes returned to Kenny, and he could actually see the cold calculation in them. Unable to stand, he brandished his sword threateningly. The vampire backed off a bit . . . then reached down and picked up the rock it had thrown at Justin.
Kenny's blood ran cold in his veins at the sight. He knew what came next.
"Wait, you don't want to do this. We can help each other!" he offered.
"I don't need your help," the vampire replied. The sound of his voice shook Kenny; it was clearly unnatural, with an unsettling reverberation.
"Then why was I able to take my sword back from you at the oasis? Why weren't you able to kill Justin just now? Why do you need to rely on rocks and knives as weapons?" Kenny asked quickly.
The vampire wound up to throw the stone.
"You'll never kill Justin alone!" Kenny insisted. "He's a black belt in karate, he's spent a year fighting monsters and he'll be ready for your rock-throwing now. If you go after him by yourself he will kill you. The only way we have a chance against him is to hunt him down together."
The creature regarded Kenny thoughtfully.
"You aren't going anywhere," he observed, gesturing at Kenny's leg and raising the rock again.
"It will heal!" Kenny explained, wincing inwardly as he did so. The last thing he wanted to give more information about his abilities to the vampire, but it didn't look like he had a choice. "Just give me a couple minutes and it'll be good as new."
"Why should I trust you to come with me?" the vampire demanded. "Weren't you Justin's ally too?"
"He thought I was. He also thought we should refuse to kill each other and dare Archon to do his worst to us. You walked out on him when he said that on the first day; I stayed because I thought I could use him."
"And now you're trying to use me," the vampire concluded with tight-lipped anger.
"I'm trying to help both of us!" Kenny insisted. "You know you can't take most of these kids in a straight-up fight. If you could you wouldn't have bothered setting up that ambush at the oasis, and you wouldn't need to collect stones to use as weapons."
"We're both in the same boat. The only edge we have over the others is that we're smarter than they are. Yeah, one of us could kill the other right now, but how would that help against the bigger threats out there? If we work together, though, our odds get a lot better."
"Except that there can be only one winner," the vampire noted.
It was almost like talking to himself, Kenny admitted reluctantly.
"So in the end one of us will have to kill the other. We both know that, but if we don't team up now I doubt either of us will make it to the end. As long as there are other contestants alive, we've got more to gain by cooperating with each other than by fighting."
Slowly the undead child nodded his agreement and Kenny had to suppress a sigh of relief. He'd thought this was similar enough to the Kincaid situation for his offer to be accepted. There the adult Immortal who'd been hunting him had been more interested in getting revenge on MacLeod than in taking Kenny's head, so he'd been able to ally with the seaman for that purpose. Here the vampire was more interested in making it to the end of the tournament than in eliminating Kenny, so once again a temporary alliance was possible, with gain for both sides.
Of course he'd always intended to finish off Kincaid while the fool was still weak from MacLeod's Quickening. With the vampire it would probably be best not to wait til the end to try to take him. Maybe he could do the job while they were fighting the final contestant; the bloodsucker wouldn't be expecting it then.
When his wound had fully healed Kenny stood, his sword held down at his side.
"Let's go get Justin," he urged with a grin.
The vampire pointed in the direction Justin had apparently gone.
"You go first," he said, and it was clear that this wasn't a request; it was a statement of how things would be.
Kenny's grin quickly faded as he set off in the lead. This vampire truly was like him.
And that was what worried him.
At his slow pace Alexander thought that the day might end before he encountered any of his competitors. The sight of a crumpled body ahead proved him wrong.
It was the girl. Looking around further Alexander spotted the ninja sitting on an outcropping of rock. He moved up the slope and the human watched him, those dark eyes revealing nothing.
Alexander's stomach was heaving again, but it had long since emptied itself. He moved onto the rock outcropping, his bat'leth facing forward and just below his chin. Immediately the human's right hand whipped toward him, releasing a spinning metal object.
Alexander had expected this and moved even as the ninja did, turning his crescent-shaped weapon upward and using it to shield his face. The thrown object skipped off the blade and Alexander charged forward with a roar, desperately trying to keep his balance amid his unending dizziness. Another thrown weapon embedded itself in his leather vest, directly over his heart, though the point was too short to reach his skin.
A third hit the middle finger on his left hand, causing him to half-drop the bat'leth and stopping his advance. Recognizing his newfound vulnerability he ducked, but not quickly enough as a fourth spinning weapon struck him on his uppermost forehead ridge, cutting open the flesh to expose the bone.
As his own blood flowed down his face Alexander saw his enemy coming toward him in a kind of lurching run, blade in hand; if not for the wound Justin had inflicted on his foot the ninja would be upon him already.
Alexander remembered how good Justin had said this human was with a sword. And he was wounded in two places, with blood obscuring his vision and his left hand impaired, in addition to his dizziness and dry heaves. He had to end this fight quickly.
Dropping his bat'leth and drawing his d'k tahg Alexander flung the dagger underhanded. It flew straight and true, directly into his surprised enemy's chest.
The ninja fell to his knees as Alexander rose unsteadily to his feet, picking up his bat'leth with a grimace of pain before striding forward and decapitating his enemy.
Justin didn't know how long it had been since his confrontation with Kenny and the vampire. He did know that the blood had stopped seeping from his head wound, although the continued throbbing from the stone's impact had joined the pain of his headache.
A while ago he'd stopped to demorph and then remorphed, thus regaining his helmet. Too late, though, much too late.
What was that new Nintendo 64 game he'd wanted? It had been coming out next month, right?
He kept himself moving, but he wasn't going nearly as fast as he would have liked. He was more jogging than running and he kept slipping.
He would have liked to have seen Dad again. Just one more time would have been nice.
He was moving down near the edge of the cliff now. There was still no one in sight.
Did he have a concussion? Was that why it was so hard for him to think?
It was good that he'd become the Blue Turbo Ranger. Blue was a much cooler color than green or yellow or pink. It was most people's favorite color!
How much time was left before this nightmare ended for the day? It had to be almost five by now.
Why hadn't any of the guys contacted him? It had been months since Storm Blaster had brought him in to save them. They could have called, sent a letter, done something! They had to know how much he missed them, how lonely he was.
He couldn't keep going anymore. He was too tired, he had to stop. He collapsed onto the mountainside, panting. There was still no one ahead of him. He looked behind him and saw Kenny and the vampire coming up fast.
Was he hallucinating now too? He'd stabbed Kenny right in the leg! He'd felt the blade pierce the boy's flesh!
Just like with Morthos. Remember that, feeling your sword and then his dagger cut into his flesh? Remember the blood you got on your clean white gloves, his blood? Again? Remember how you washed it off with some water from one of your water bottles?
Justin stared down at his right glove. He did remember washing the blood off, but his glove was still flecked with reddish-brown spots. How could that be?
It was because he'd stabbed Kenny, he had, so why was Kenny up and running? Had he been made into a vampire too?
They were close now, not chasing each other, but coming together, coming for him. Kenny, someone he had tried to protect, was coming to kill him.
His legs trembled as Justin got up, took up his sword and moved to within a foot of the edge. They had slowed down and were approaching more carefully. They stopped about eight feet away and then Kenny swung around to flank him. Soon he had his back to the edge, the vampire about eight feet to his left and Kenny about eight feet to his right, both of them grinning.
"Whoever I can't kill with my sword is going over the edge with me," Justin warned.
That at least wiped the smiles from their faces. They exchanged glances and the vampire pulled a stone from his pocket. His mind was starting to wander again, and he couldn't let it, not now, not here, he had to concentrate, he had do something . . .
The impact of the stone on his helmet actually seemed to help focus his thoughts. As the vampire pulled out a second stone Justin turned and ran at him.
He could see the surprise in those inhuman features and he was glad, because his legs were screaming and it was more of a clumsy rush than a controlled sprint. The stone hit his chest and bounced off, and then the vampire's left hand was coming up, raising a kris dagger, the same one he'd used to kill Morthos, it must be, and its wicked tip was gleaming in the sun.
With a scream Justin brought his Turbo Blade down toward that dagger like an axe and chopped off the hand holding it.
Now the vampire was screaming too, clutching at his spurting stump and crumpling to the mountainside, they were both screaming, and there was something he had to do, someone he had to stop, and he spun around, his Turbo Blade out, and it struck Kenny's sword with such force that sparks flew.
And what would have happened next will never be known, for at that instant it hit five o'clock and all four of the contestants remaining in the Battlefield were teleported back to the dining hall.
Back to the Academy