THE ICARUS REVERSAL
Alexander awoke in a state of unaccustomed doubt and uncertainty. As he completed his morning rituals he couldn't help questioning the decision he had made last night. Was he doing the right thing in committing himself to sparing Justin?
The human had previously defeated him in combat. That was a wound which cried out for bloody redress, and Alexander was sure he would win a second confrontation. Aside from the human's physical injuries, it seemed to Alexander that Justin had lost a warrior's most precious possession after his honor: his fighting spirit.
That impression was reinforced when he saw Justin in the dining hall. The human was virtually mute all through breakfast, with his eyes constantly downcast and his shoulders slumped. It was a sight which both repelled and saddened the young Klingon. It was akin to viewing a warrior who had been physically crippled and had decided to live on in shame instead of dying honorably.
It was Justin's loyalty to his ridiculous beliefs which had reduced him to such a state, which only proved how wrong those beliefs were in the first place. He thought he had made a breakthrough with the human yesterday, but perhaps facing the truth had been too much for the Ranger. If so there would be no real vindication in slaying him. What honor could be accrued in beating someone who had already defeated himself?
His only other reason to strike down Justin was out of concern for his own life. Winning the tournament meant returning to Kronos, where he would be able to aid his House in the fight against the House of Duras. It was a battle he longed to join, especially since the enemy House was responsible for sending him here in the first place. Defying Archon in all probability meant death.
Yet as Justin had pointed out, and as Alexander had come to see more and more for himself, meekly complying with their cowardly kidnapper's orders was in itself the height of dishonor. It reduced him from being a proud Klingon warrior to being a slave doing his master's bidding out of fear of punishment. The prospect was abhorrent to him, and would be equally so to his adopted father, Kurn.
Kurn was the one who had raised him after his mother died. Kurn had instructed him in the Klingon way, taught him what it was to be a warrior. Kurn would want him to return-but not at the price of his honor.
He had explained to Justin yesterday how important it was to die well. For him to choose to perish in proud defiance of a time-traveling alien who sought to break his will would be an end worthy of story and song. That no one living would ever tell or sing of it mattered not; when he arrived in Stovok-Kor they would know what he had done, and he would be greeted as a true hero in the afterlife.
At peace now Alexander finished his breakfast, ignoring the twinges of pain which came from using his wounded finger. Across from him Justin had ceased even pretending to pick at his food, while the little vampire had downed two mugs of blood. A shirt stained red with gore was tightly tied over the stump of his left wrist. Kenny sat hunched over his half-full plate, apparently having lost his appetite.
Their morose demeanors proved that humans lacked true understanding of the way of the warrior. In Justin's case this was actually cause for regret. The boy was a skillful fighter and with the proper instruction would have made a fine warrior-for a human.
Alexander hoped that when the time came Justin would be able to meet Archon's punishment with the proper stoic defiance. It would be disappointing if the Ranger lowered himself to beg for his life. He didn't think that would be a problem, however; Justin had spent his whole time here seeking to defy Archon. He wouldn't break at the last, especially in his current state, when his life seemed to hold little value for him.
Alexander got up to take his day's rations from the replicator. He made his order-and the requested food and water failed to materialize.
“ YOU WILL NOT NEED YOUR SUPPLIES YET,” Archon asserted suddenly. “ TODAY YOU HAVE ANOTHER TASK TO COMPLETE BEFORE I SEND YOU TO THE BATTLEFIELD.”
What was he talking about? What “other task”?!?!
Behind him he could hear the humans stirring. Ahead of him the entire replicator was rising soundlessly into the ceiling, revealing a blank wall broken only by a single steel door. That door, too, rose up into the ceiling.
“ GO TO THE CENTER OF THE ADJOINING ROOM AND YOUR WEAPONS WILL BE RETURNED TO YOU ,” Archon promised. “ YOU WILL NEED THEM FOR WHAT IS TO COME.”
For an instant Alexander thought of refusing, but he could picture no possible circumstances under which he would be better off without his weapons. He stomped angrily through the doorway, with the humans following behind him.
The room they had entered was roughly thirty feet by thirty, and completely bare, with no furniture or distinguishing marks. Snarling in frustration Alexander strode swiftly to the center of room. His bat'leth appeared in his hands and he almost dropped it in surprise. He also felt his dak'tagh appear in its sheath in his armor.
There was a flash of light from directly behind him and he turned to see that Justin had morphed into his Ranger form, Turbo Blade in hand. Kenny stood next to the teen holding a short sword, while Colin was to his other side. Looking beyond them Alexander noted that the door through which they had entered had already closed.
“ THE FOUR OF YOU HAVE DONE WELL TO COME THIS FAR IN THE TOURNAMENT. YOU HAVE EARNED YOUR SURVIVAL UP TO THIS POINT, BUT NOW THERE IS ANOTHER INDIVIDUAL THAT I WISH TO ALLOW TO COMPETE.”
Another competitor? Now ?!? It was absurd! Worse, it was unfair! Instead of being one of twenty this newcomer would be one of only five. He would also be coming in fresh and rested, without having endured the previous three days of risk and exertion. It was blatant favoritism and it tainted the whole tournament. Why on Kronos was Archon doing this?
“ SINCE HE HAS NOT COMPLETED THE FULL THREE DAYS THAT THE REST OF YOU HAVE, IT IS ONLY FAIR THAT I OFFER YOU THE OPPORTUNITY TO PREVENT HIS PARTICIPATION. IN A MOMENT HE WILL ENTER THIS ROOM, AND YOU MAY SLAY HIM IF YOU CAN. YOU MAY HARM ONLY HIM, NOT EACH OTHER. IF HE CAN OVERCOME YOUR COMBINED AGGRESSIVE EFFORTS HE WILL BE ALLOWED TO TAKE HIS PLACE IN THE CONTEST.”
That made even less sense than before! How could one contestant hope to outlast all four of them? Unless-
He glanced over to Justin, who had gone completely still. Alexander suppressed a groan of frustration. The Ranger wouldn't be willing to go along with this. He would try to defend the new kid regardless of what the latter was like, and that would give the boy a chance to live.
Wait, though, if they weren't allowed to harm each other, then how could Justin possibly protect the new kid?
Alexander's increasingly confused musing was cut short by the door opening again. All eyes turned to it and the figure standing behind it. There was something very familiar about him . . .
Ahead of him Justin gasped and stammered a single word in a tone of mingled wonder and disbelief.
It took a full three seconds for Justin to realize who he was staring at, and then he immediately began to doubt both his eyes and his sanity. What he thought he was seeing was impossible, in more ways than one.
It was Solan, but not as Justin had known him; the preteen had changed a great deal in the past twenty-four hours.
The first and most striking difference was his obvious increase in size. He had grown a couple of inches and stood half a head taller than Justin. He also boasted an astronomically better build than he had possessed yesterday. This was especially evident given his altered attire; he was garbed like a barbarian, wearing only leather and deeply tanned muscles.
In place of his modest vest and tunic two thin cross-belts visibly strained to contain his exceedingly broad shoulders and proud, cannonball-sized pecs. Those straps arced down to join with a leather belt, neatly framing the youth's chiseled, eight-pack set of abs.
From a hook on that belt hung a circular blade, a chakram. A pair of leather briefs and boots completed the outfit, leaving his very muscular arms and legs bared for all to see, and admire.
Even his face was subtly different, his features more mature and more handsome. His long blond hair fell down past his neck as before, but headband his adoptive father Kaleipus had given him was gone. His eyes, which had once shone with the warmth of a summer sky, were now an unfamiliar, icy blue.
With his new clothing and truly spectacular physique Solan looked like a young Greek god rather the ordinary twelve year-old he had been. He put Justin in mind of a teenage Zeus, or perhaps an adolescent Apollo.
As the four of them stared at this transformed being he smirked confidently and strode into the room. He moved with a liquid, feral grace, like a tiger about to pounce. His body language was relaxed and self-assured, without even a hint of his former fear and nervousness.
Justin could only stand there motionless, virtually paralyzed by his shock. Everyone else seemed equally immobilized, until Kenny started screaming.
“NO! No, you were supposed to kill him! He said he wasn't suited to your contest, so why didn't you KILL him?!?! WHY?!?!”
What was he talking about? What did Kenny know about all of this? Was it-was it really Solan before them?
The thought brought an overwhelming surge of joy and relief, almost more than the fourteen year-old could bear. One of his friends was alive ! He hadn't failed his team, not all of them! Solan was still here, was still alive!
Solan halted about ten feet from Justin and his right hand flashed to the circle of steel at his belt. He flung the chakram like a Frisbee, directly at Alexander!
Justin whirled to see it pass above Alexander by less than an inch. The lethal disc bounced off the back wall and ricocheted off the east wall, flying right back into Solan's grasp. With a smug smile he returned the ring to its hook and reached behind him, unsheathing a sword which must have been held in a back scabbard. The long, mirror-bright blade was clearly a two-handed weapon, but Solan held it effortlessly with only one hand.
What was he doing ?!?! By some miracle Solan had come back alive, but his insane aggression was going to get him killed if Justin didn't act fast. Alexander was already hefting his bat'leth, his alien face showing what Justin believed to be outrage.
Quickly Justin moved to the forefront of the group, deliberately blocking Alexander with his body. He held up his hands placatingly, regardless of the fact that one of them still held the Turbo Blade.
“Solan, it's all right! You don't have to try to fight us! I won't let anyone hurt you.”
In response Solan leapt high into the air, performing a perfect somersault and landing right in front of Justin. Before his feet even touched the ground he lashed out with his sword, catching the edge of the Turbo Blade and sending it flying. An instant later he landed a devastatingly powerful kick to Justin's chest.
From his new resting place on the floor Justin was vaguely conscious of motion around him and the sounds of fighting, but he was primarily concerned with trying to draw in another breath. It felt like he'd been kicked by a mule! Though the incredible size and definition of Solan's muscles had amply foreshadowed the fact, Justin was nonetheless amazed at how strong the other boy had grown! There had been more force behind his mighty kick than there had ever been behind any of the blows delivered by Divatox's minions.
Then there was his astonishing agility to consider. His ten-foot leap and midair flip had been worthy of a professional acrobat! It had to be Archon's doing. For whatever reason he must have physically enhanced Solan, increasing the Grecian's size, strength, swiftness and coordination.
A myriad of question concerning his transformed friend clamored for his attention, but they were all firmly set aside. There would be time to seek answers later. Right now his first priority had to be safeguarding Solan's life. Even with whatever Archon had done to him it seemed doubtful that he could survive against the remaining three kids alone. The Blue Turbo Ranger staggered unsteadily to his feet, ready to save Solan, but he soon saw that it was Alexander, Kenny and Colin who needed saving.
Alexander told him later that after his dramatic downing Solan had backflipped out of range. Alexander had charged forward with the bat'leth, but Solan's bastard sword had easily parried every thrust and chop. It had been almost like the traitor was playing with him! Eventually Alexander had tried a full chest cut, but the center of his crescent weapon met his opponent's down turned blade. A quick movement sent the bat'leth high and Solan had followed up by slamming the pommel of his sword into his foe's ridged forehead. Justin regained his feet at the same time Alexander slumped to the floor, unconscious.
In the meantime the vampire had run over and seized his Turbo Blade, while Kenny circled around behind Solan. As Justin watched in stupefied amazement the blond warrior-boy confronted Kenny, taking the latter's short sword away from him with two strokes and shattering his jaw with a backhanded punch. Kenny collapsed and curled up into a ball, weeping.
Solan then turned his back on Kenny and disarmed his undead opponent with his chakram, knocking the Turbo Blade from the dark-haired creature's hand. The young vampire hesitated, unsure of whether to advance or retreat. Solan solved the problem by throwing his great sword like a spear, skewering Colin through the stomach.
Justin searched Solan's face, hoping to spot something that would explain his friend's behavior. Some sign of remorse, perhaps, suggesting that he was being forced to do this. Instead what he beheld was an expression of pure, unabashed exultation. He had never seen his friend look happier or more excited. Then the blond boy's focus shifted to him.
Solan stalked confidently toward the Turbo Ranger, grinning in apparent anticipation of what was to come. That cocky, evil grin scared Justin more than anything he had seen so far.
Hesitantly the teen black belt assumed a defensive stance, reluctantly preparing to fend off his friend's assault. The last thing he wanted was to hurt Solan, but it didn't appear the feeling was mutual; the overgrown, strong as an ox twelve year-old was clearly ready to rip him apart.
"Solan, stop!" Justin shouted desperately. "I don't want to fight you! I'm your friend!" The only reply from Solan was a heart-stopping glare, and the gloating voice of Archon once more filled the room.
" I'M AFRAID THE SOLAN YOU KNEW ISN'T HERE ANYMORE, JUSTIN. MEET THE WARRIOR PRINCE !"
Justin's eyes widened in partial recognition of the title, but there was no time to consider its implications; his attacker was upon him. Justin launched a snap kick at his friend's face, hoping to end things quickly. The Warrior Prince easily dodged the kick and seized Justin's upraised ankle in his left hand. His iron-hard right fist slammed into the teenager's solar plexus, and he viciously twisted Justin's leg before contemptuously flinging the Ranger to the floor.
With the wind knocked out of him Justin could only stare fearfully up at his proud conqueror. The hefty young Hercules looming over him looked literally capable of crushing him underfoot!
" THE TEST IS OVER, " Archon declared. " THE WARRIOR PRINCE HAS WON ."
The great Grecian sneered down at Justin and flexed his tremendous muscles in triumph. Even the brave Blue Turbo Ranger couldn't keep from quailing at the sight of those softball-sized, strength-filled biceps.
“ YOU WILL BE GIVEN TIME TO HEAL BEFORE THE CONTEST RESUMES ” Archon went on. " FOR NOW YOU MAY RETURN TO YOUR QUARTERS ."
The door slid open and the victor departed at once, pausing only long enough to retrieve his sword from a moaning Colin and his chakram from the floor. Justin tried to stand, but his twisted ankle would not support him and he sank back down with a sob. Then he called out to his only remaining ally.
"Alexander! Alexander, wake up!"
The prostrate Klingon stirred and opened his eyes, groaning as he did so. "Wha . . what happened?" he asked woozily.
It was a damn good question, and at the moment the confused and bewildered teenager had only one answer to give.
"The Warrior Prince happened," Justin responded grimly.
When Alexander had regained his feet and his senses he came over and helped Justin up, allowing the Ranger to lean on him for support. Slowly they began to move toward the door, but he couldn't leave yet, not without talking to Kenny. When they had reached his traitorous teammates side he asked Alexander to stop. Then, with his left arm still slung across the Klingon's shoulder, he leaned down as far as he dared.
“Kenny, why were you shouting? What do you know about what happened to Solan?” Justin demanded.
Kenny raised his head and through his tears and broken jaw mumbled something unintelligible.
“I can't understand you,” the teen admitted.
Kenny repeated himself, and this time Justin was able to make out what the smaller boy was saying.
“Go to Hell.”
Barely resisting the overwhelming urge to punch Kenny, Justin straightened and he and Alexander resumed moving toward the door. As they passed the threshold Justin involuntarily demorphed.
They reached the hallway and Alexander turned to the right.
“No, wait, go left! We have to talk to Solan!” Justin insisted. They had to find out what Archon had done to him!
“You and I need to talk,” Alexander growled, continuing without pause.
After they had reached Justin's room Alexander carefully eased him onto his bed. Staring down at the Ranger he bluntly ordered, “Tell me what happened after I was struck.”
Quickly and concisely Justin related how he, Kenny and the vampire had been beaten. When he had finished he hesitated, knowing that asking what he wanted to would once again be treading on dangerous ground. There was no help for that, though; he needed as much information as he could get on how Solan had acted and fought. So he questioned Alexander about what had happened after he had been knocked down.
With a worrying amount of anger Alexander described how Solan had backflipped away and adroitly parried every one of Alexander's attacks before rendering the Klingon unconscious.
“Next time he will not be so fortunate!” Alexander finished vehemently, a vow which fueled Justin's growing fears.
“Alexander,” he began carefully, “there shouldn't be a next time. Solan isn't an enemy, he's one of us!”
“He attacked us!” Alexander snarled. “Just as Kenny attacked you! Is Kenny “one of us” too?”
“It's not the same!” Justin protested, knowing he should have seen that one coming. “Kenny chose to lie to us and use us; Solan didn't. This is Archon's doing. He's changed Solan somehow. You can tell that just by looking at him!”
Alexander scowled in response. “Archon might have improved your pet, but it was his choice to challenge us.”
“I don't think it was his choice! Archon probably has him under some kind of mind control, like Morthos did with me. We need to break him out of it somehow without hurting him.”
Justin's passion and enthusiasm were evident in his voice, but they didn't seem to impress Alexander. On the contrary, the Klingon's reaction was one of disgust.
“How do you know this is true?” he demanded.
“Because it's Solan! He wouldn't turn on us like this!”
“Enough!” Alexander bellowed. “You have learned nothing! You'll still seize hold of any fantasy to keep from having to kill one of your own species.” He whirled around and headed for the room's exit.
“Alexander, wait!” Justin called. He leaned forward on the bed, his sprained ankle keeping him from getting up and going after the furious Klingon.
Alexander paused in the doorway, turning back toward Justin.
“I swore that I would not attack those who did not attack me. Solan has broken that pact, and I will kill him for it. If you try to stop me, you too will have violated our pact, and I will kill you as well.”
Speechless, Justin could only watch helplessly as Alexander disappeared into the corridor and the door slid shut behind him.
By the time he got back to his room Kenny was in too much of a rage to even think straight. He cast about destroying whatever he could, smashing the computer monitor, tearing the clothes in the bureau, ripping his pillow and overturning his desk.
Once his jaw had mended he began screaming obscenities at Archon, cursing the unseen being in profane terms both modern and archaic. Intermixed with the steady stream of vilification were heartfelt threats and bitter pleas.
“I'm not suitable for your contest either!” Kenny howled, so loudly that the effort seemed to tear at his throat. “Why don't you change me the way you did Solan?”
“ YOUR CUNNING, STEALTH AND IMMORTALITY HAVE MADE YOU A FORMIDIBLE COMPETITOR, KENNY. SOLAN POSSESSED NONE OF THOSE TRAITS AND SO WAS IN TRUE NEED OF THE AID I OFFERED.”
Not expecting an answer, Kenny fell silent for a bare instant before exploding again.
“And you gave all that help to him right when I was about to kill him!” Kenny accused. “Why? Why did you even bring him in to begin with?”
“ MY REASONS ARE MY OWN. I HAVE MAINTAINED FAIRNESS BY GIVING YOU AND THE OTHERS THE CHANCE TO SLAY HIM TOGETHER. I UNDERSTAND, THOUGH, THAT YOU FEEL UNFAIRLY USED. THEREFORE I WILL OFFER YOU AN ADDITIONAL REWARD: WIN MY TOURNAMENT, AND BEFORE I RETURN YOU TO YOUR WORLD I WILL TRANSFORM YOU INTO AN ADULT IMMORTAL, WITH ALL OF THE PHYSYCAL SKILS AND ABILITIES YOU WOULD HAVE OBTAINED FROM LIFETIMES OF RIGOROUS TRAINING.”
The impact of those words upon Kenny was greater than any others he had ever heard. He was suddenly short of breath and slowly sank down to his haunches, his trembling legs no longer able to support him. After all of these centuries trapped as a child, Archon was offering . . . to make him an adult?
Colin was the last one to emerge from the chamber, and he didn't go far. As soon as he entered the dining room the replicator lowered itself to the floor. His desperate rasp for blood brought a mug full of the crimson, life-giving substance. He gulped it down so quickly that some spilled on his cheeks and dribbled down his chin.
He asked for another, and again emptied it almost immediately. The blood would help him heal, but it would do nothing to assist his understanding of what had happened. He knew by the scent that the boy they had fought was the same one who had been involved in the tournament since its inception; otherwise he would have never believed it. The Solan Colin had observed before had been prey; this Warrior Prince was an extremely dangerous predator.
The transformation had to be Archon's doing. But why? Why had he interfered with his own tournament, just as it was reaching its climax?
After his disastrous encounter with Alexander Justin began breathing deeply. He conscientiously employed every one of the relaxing techniques he had learned in the course of his martial arts training. Gradually he managed to calm himself. Once that was done he strove to marshal his thoughts and bring them into some kind of coherent order. If ever he needed to think clearly it was now, when everything had been upended without warning.
Getting Solan back alive should have been like a dream come true, but Archon seemed determined to twist it into a nightmare. Bad enough that he had deliberately set Solan up against the rest of them; much worse was his warping of the innocent boy's body and mind.
From what Justin had seen only Solan's long hair remained unchanged. Facially his jaw was firmer and his cheekbones more defined. He was tanned, noticeably taller and far more powerfully built than a twelve year-old boy had a right to be. The physical prowess he had displayed was remarkable, his strength and quickness also exceeding what Justin imagined was biologically possible for a normal preteen.
In addition he had demonstrated new skills, such as his acrobatics and the swordsmanship which had allowed him to best Alexander. Given that his only previous training had been with a staff, Solan's sudden expertise with a blade could only be the result of Archon meddling with the Grecian boy's mind. If their captor could implant knowledge, wasn't it logical to assume he could also control the consciousness? Mental coercion was certainly the simplest and most likely reason for Solan's actions.
Presumably he had been told they would try to kill him, but that alone hardly explained his behavior. Justin and Alexander were his teammates, his friends! He must have known that they wouldn't hurt him! Yet there had been no spark of affection or companionship in his artic eyes as he had coolly surveyed them. He hadn't asked them for help, nor had he betrayed any visible apprehension at the prospect of facing four opponents at once. The strained courage which Justin had so admired in him had disappeared, replaced by a demeanor of utter fearlessness and complete self-confidence. The difference in attitude was in its own way every bit as discordant and jarring as the physical modifications.
The results of the subsequent battle, however, had suggested the new mindset was justified. Solan-unschooled, helpless Solan- had taken all of them down without any apparent effort. The whole experience had been so surreal, so unexpected. Getting his ass kicked by Solan was something he never could have envisioned happening.
No, not by Solan- by the Warrior Prince. Archon himself had made that distinction. He had said that Solan wasn't here anymore, and this was the Warrior Prince.
It was practically a confession to having used mind control! Why else would he say that Solan was gone, unless he had overwritten Solan's true personality?
As a Power Ranger Justin was no stranger to mental manipulation. Divatox had once managed to make Ashley's newly designed suit influence him to become angry and cruel when he wore it. From reading the Command Center archives he was familiar with a score of other incidents where mind control had been used against the Earth's Rangers over the years, and of course he had recently fallen prey to Morthos' hypnotic spell.
The actual effects on the victim of such control varied greatly depending upon the magical or technological method employed. In Solan's case he had obviously not been turned into a mindless automaton. On the contrary, throughout the fight he had been smirking and showing off, openly reveling in his physical supremacy. That could mean that Archon had greatly amplified his friend's aggression, or it could be that their captor had programmed in a new consciousness entirely.
Either way a loss of memory regarding his former life was a distinct and distinctly worrying possibility. Was that why Solan hadn't responded to him? If so the situation was even worse than he had thought. Everything he had read indicated that an emotional appeal from the victim's friends was the most reliable way of shattering mental conditioning, but how could he appeal to a friendship that Solan (or rather the Warrior Prince) didn't remember?
Was there any insight to be gleaned from that particular choice of name? Justin vividly remembered Solan's tales of his friend Xena, the Warrior Princess. What did it mean that Solan had been given the male equivalent of the title? Was Archon implying Solan was now as good a fighter as Xena was? Or did it apply to character, indicating that he had made Solan as ruthless as Xena had once been? Perhaps it was simply intended to differentiate between the false persona and the real Solan.
Because the Warrior Prince was surely a product of Archon's mind control and thus separate from Solan. To believe otherwise, as Alexander did, was ridiculous! Solan was his friend . He wouldn't turn on Justin by choice.
Not like Kenny had. It had been wholly unreasonable of Alexander to try to link the two. Aside from the fact that they had both seemed in need of help, they had nothing in common. Kenny had deceived them from the start, concealing both his weapon and his apparent rapid healing ability. He had been sullen and uncommunicative, telling them very little about himself. Solan had been exactly the opposite, sharing so much about his life and his world with Justin. He hadn't concealed anything about himself.
Including his desire to learn how to fight. Of course, in their current situation, who wouldn't want to know how to defend himself? It was completely natural, especially for Solan. He had already lost so many people he cared about to violence, most recently Jo. The guilt and shame he felt over being unable to prevent any of those deaths had been virtually palpable when they had spoken two nights ago.
That was the same night Solan had asked Justin to teach him karate, a request the Ranger had refused. It wasn't as if he'd wanted to say no! He would have loved to teach his friend the martial arts; it just hadn't been feasible then, for so many reasons.
But had Solan understood that? Maybe he should have tried to explain his decision better, but his friend had practically ordered him out of the room.
Then at breakfast the next day Solan had been bitter and fatalistic. Not that Justin blamed him; he couldn't imagine what it was like to go through this tournament when you were so ill-prepared for it.
Perhaps the limits of his imagination were keeping him from understanding other things as well.
Closing his eyes Justin shook his head angrily. This was how the tournament had changed him . Before coming here he wouldn't have considered this possibility. Now, try as he might, he couldn't keep his mind from it, and all of his efforts to reassure himself just seemed to twist into new doubts.
He was letting his shattered faith in people get the best of him, and in the process he was stupidly overlooking the most important fact of all. Back there in the battle room, the Warrior Prince hadn't killed anyone. He could have taken the life of one or all of them, but he hadn't !
What better proof could there be that he was being mentally forced to fight them? If he had wanted to win the tournament he could have done so already. So he was being controlled, and the extent of that control was limited, not enough to make him kill.
Sitting up Justin put all of his weight on his good ankle and slowly rose to his feet. It was time for him to stop thinking about the situation and do something about it. He needed more information about whatever Archon had done to Solan and he needed to begin his verbal efforts to break through the brainwashing. That meant talking directly to the one involved, and he was going to make it to Solan's room even if he had to crawl there.
Justin hobbled determinedly to the door, steeling himself against the continuous bursts of pain from his leg. The door slid open and he began making his way slowly down the passage, leaning on the wall for support.
Talking here would have the added advantage of protecting him from any violence on the Warrior Prince's part. Injured as he was, he wouldn't last two seconds in a fight. Even if he had been whole he would have to seriously question his chances against the Warrior Prince. Admittedly he'd been practically in shock during their last confrontation, and that counted for a lot. On the other hand even the brief time they'd battled had been long enough for him to see that Archon had made his friend into a formidable opponent.
Justin stopped at the crossroads as the most fundamental question of all belatedly burst into his consciousness: WHY? Why had Archon changed Solan? What was his motive?
Archon had affected the combat abilities of his captives before this. He had limited Justin's access to the Morphin Grid and he had prevented Jo from assuming her Beetleborg form. Those changes were to hinder them, to bring them down to the level of the other contestants. With Solan, however, Archon had done exactly the opposite! By making Solan a physical paragon he had enormously empowered the Grecian boy, upgrading him from the weakest contestant to almost certainly the strongest. Why?
And why now? Justin and Jo's restrictions had been put in place from the beginning. Why had Archon waited until the third day to transform Solan?
Could he have acted out of pity? Seeing how hard things were for Solan and trying to help in his own sick, twisted way? No. Any being that would set in motion a sadistic blood-sport such as this one couldn't possibly be moved by pity.
Had it been done to deliberately fracture Justin and Alexander's alliance? That seemed like a much more plausible explanation. The circumstances of Solan's return had already dealt a near-fatal blow to their partnership, which heavily increased the odds that the tournament would end with but a single survivor. Furthermore, Archon must have realized that returning an aggressive Solan would open this rift between him and Alexander over how to handle the situation. It was a cruel and elegant way solution to the problem of him and Alexander refusing to cooperate with the tournament.
The one flaw in this reasoning was that Kenny had apparently witnessed Solan being taken. Since Kenny had been with or hunting Justin for the last portion of the day, Solan must have been removed in the morning or early afternoon. That would have been well before Archon could have known that he and Alexander would both survive the day.
Could the motivation have been pure whimsy? As the tournament wound down perhaps it had gotten too predictable for Archon. He could have introduced this new element simply to shake things up and make the endgame less predictable.
Justin couldn't wholly dismiss that possibility, but he doubted it. Archon didn't give the impression of being a creature of impulse; his other choices, such as the handicapping of him and Jo, making sure they were all healed at the beginning, etc, all seemed logical and well thought-out.
Except for his choice to bring Solan here in the first place. Archon initially claimed he had selected young warriors, but Solan hadn't been a warrior, not really. His only skill was with a staff, and Archon hadn't even bothered to provide him with one.
Earlier he had assumed that both Kenny and Solan were in the same boat, unfairly brought here for their minor combat talents. Now that he knew Kenny had a sword and some kind of healing factor, Solan's selection stood out as uniquely anomalous.
Justin shivered as a sudden chill went through him. He was missing something. He knew it; he could almost feel it. There was something here he wasn't seeing, and he wasn't sure if that was because he couldn't see it, or because he was overlooking it.
He needed to talk to the Warrior Prince now . He resumed his course toward the room, almost not noticing the pain from his ankle.
Until it ceased.
The absence of pain brought Justin to a dead stop. He gingerly tested his right ankle. It felt as good as new.
He looked up-and found himself standing on an overgrown path in a dense forest. The canopy of branches and leaves overhead filtered the sunlight through in tiny cracks, making the woods appear gloomy and forgotten. The path he was on had knee-high grass stretching as far as the eye could see in both directions. There was no sign of anyone else.
“ALL OF YOU HAVE COMPLETED YOUR HEALING FROM THE WARRIOR PRINCE'S TEST. THERE IS NO NEED TO FURTHER DELAY MY TOURNAMENT, ESPECIALLY SINCE WE ARE SO NEAR THE CONCLUSION .”
Justin could have sworn he detected smug self-satisfaction in the electronic voice, but the frustrated anger he was feeling could have distorted his perceptions.
Ignoring his own feelings for the moment he took out his Turbo Key and activated his morpher. With a cry of, “Shift into Turbo!” Justin transformed once more into the Blue Turbo Ranger.
Now somewhat better protected, he was able to fume at Archon's abysmal timing. He had been so close!
Maybe that was the point. Could Archon have returned them to the Battlefield at this moment to prevent him from speaking with the Warrior Prince? Was his entertaining such a suspicion being paranoid or being sensibly cautious, and how much difference remained between the two at this point?
After he summoned up his Turbo Blade Justin picked a direction and started to walk along the path. He would have to speak to the Warrior Prince without the benefit of an anti-violence shield, assuming he could find his friend. If he should run across Alexander first he would try again to reason with the Klingon, citing the new proofs of mind-control that he had thought of. And if he found Kenny or the vampire . . . he would kill them.
Alexander's plans were similar, although he had no intention of speaking with the treacherous human child. The indignity and shame of having been defeated by one whom he had considered beneath contempt burned fiercely in his breast. Only the traitor's heart's blood could quench that fire.
Of course Archon had unfairly aided Solan. Why he had done this Alexander could not begin to guess, but the reason was unimportant. What was important was redeeming his honor by slaying the impudent, ungrateful upstart. He had no doubts about his ability to accomplish this task. No matter what physical changes Archon had wrought in Solan, he could not give the fundamentally weak boy the fighting spirit of a true warrior. When next they met Alexander would prove what a difference that spirit made.
Stomping down the tall grass which infested this path was an easy way to vent some of the fury he felt toward this “Warrior Prince”, and toward Justin.
The Turbo Ranger had greatly disappointed him. Alexander had thought Justin had at last won free from his distorted views of his own species and the role of a warrior. Instead the Ranger had immediately fallen back into his old pattern of making up excuses for other humans and refusing to deal with his enemies as a warrior should. He insisted on blaming Solan's actions on mental control, when in fact they fit exactly what Alexander would have expected of the boy.
The pathetic child had attached himself to Justin in the first place because he couldn't survive here. And he had proven his survival was all that mattered to him when he had abandoned the human female to her death. Leaving his ally to die alone had been an act of unforgivable cowardice and dishonor, something no Klingon would ever think to do.
Predictably once Archon had bafflingly gifted him with some degree of power Solan had immediately shed the bonds of loyalty and comradeship, just as Kenny had. He had seen victory in the tournament was his only chance to live and so he had betrayed his oath at once to seek it. His was an all too disgustingly human course, one which would not be rewarded. Alexander would make sure of that.
The path twisted and turned through the forest. He came across a couple of alternating branches to the left, but Alexander ignored them and continued straight on. About twenty yards ahead another figure appeared around a bend in the path. With a pang of disappointment Alexander saw that it was the crippled dark-haired child Justin had called a vampire rather than the boy he was longing to kill. Ah, well: an enemy was an enemy. Lifting his bat'leth Alexander charged forward with a shout.
The Anointed froze when he saw the brown-skinned alien barreling toward him, fear locking his joints in place. The sight of that enormous, crescent-shaped blade terrified him and increased his awareness of the ever-present pain in the stump of his left arm.
For long seconds he merely stood there as the shouting warrior raced toward him. Then he regained control of himself and darted off the path, into the trees. They had grown close together, and there was little space between them. Certainly not enough to wield the large weapon his enemy possessed.
Once he got a little way into the forest he stopped and turned back around. Digging his remaining hand into his pocket he pulled out the third stone he had found yesterday, the one he'd never had a chance to use. Unlike the dagger and the other two rocks, this one had materialized with him when he had appeared here, perhaps because it had still been on his person when he was teleported away yesterday.
He had only one chance.
His enemy came in after him, without the crescent blade, but holding a wickedly-shaped dagger. He threw the rock and for an instant flashed back to memories of playing baseball as a human. Sometimes he could tell a pitch was good almost before the ball had left his hand. This was one of those times.
The rock smashed into the scabbed-over cut on the alien's ridged forehead, reopening it and filling the air with the strange scent of his blood. He staggered, grabbing onto a tree to his left for balance and inadvertently dropping his dagger.
Colin virtually flew forward and buried his fangs in the creature's neck. He began to drink the foul-tasting blood, hoping it wouldn't prove harmful. The alien made a choked-off cry and sat down abruptly, dragging Colin along to the ground.
The Anointed felt his foe's left hand tightly grasp his hair, while the right brought the recovered dagger up and jammed it into his neck. The agony was overwhelming, and only increased as the sharp blade began to saw through bone and flesh. Colin tried to grab for his enemy's wrist, forgetting that he no longer possessed a hand to seize it with. He disengaged his fangs and attempted to fling himself away, but the alien's firm hold on his hair held him in place.
The dagger severed his spinal cord and he felt the rest of his body drop away from him as everything went dark.
Once they were separated both parts of the creature exploded into dust, covering Alexander and choking him as he inhaled. He spat several times to purge the worst of the taste from his mouth.
The cuts on his forehead and finger had reopened, he had twin puncture wounds in his neck, and he had lost an unknown amount of his blood. Regardless he savored yet another triumph on the field of battle.
Kenny stumbled through the untamed woods, making his way with difficulty through the undergrowth. The paths would have been much easier, but he couldn't risk being detected.
His hands were clenched tightly around his sword. The first thing he had done upon arriving here was to remove it from his backpack. There was no longer a point in keeping it hidden, though failing to have it ready could lead to his death.
The blade still trembled periodically. Not because it was too heavy for him to hold, but because he could barely control his anxiety. Had he ever felt this tense, this nervous before? He didn't think so. Even when he had sought to deceive and behead his first Immortal he had been calmer than this. Then, however, it had been only his life at stake; now so much more hung in the balance.
Thousands of times he had furiously cursed the fate which had condemned him to Immortality in this child's body. His first death had come at the age of twelve, when he was on the very cusp of manhood. And so there he had always remained, almost within reach of adulthood, yet forever denied its benefits. Everywhere he went he was regarded and treated as a child. He would never be old enough to live on his own, never be old enough to fight as other Immortals did, never be old enough for a woman! He had been cheated of the myriad of pleasures and advantages Immortality allowed others of his kind to enjoy, simply because it had come to him when he was too young.
For over eight hundred years he had endured this tortured, freakish existence. The idea of finally being able to leave it behind, to grow to true physical maturity at last . . .
Admittedly, once he was a man he would be forced to abandon the tactics which had served him so well over the centuries. The innocence which had lured Immortals to their doom like moths to a flame would be snuffed out and extinguished by his ascension to adulthood. That was a frightening reality to face, and he would be lying if he had said it didn't scare him. As serious a loss as it was, however, it paled into utter insignificance in the face of what he would gain.
Besides, as he had realized last night, he couldn't hope to prevail in the Game like this. If he wanted to win the Prize he had to be able to compete on an equal basis. He needed to be able to match the skill, strength and physical prowess of the other Immortals. Then he could see how MacLeod liked facing someone his own size. Or even bigger! The possibility of being able to literally look down on that smug, self-righteous Scotsman was intoxicating! It was almost as tempting as the prospect of making Amanda his.
He would be unrecognizable to her as an adult, and he knew her well. He could lead her to fall in love with him. And if she didn't come to him willingly, well, there wouldn't be any real problem in taking her by force.
Breathing heavily now, Kenny stopped for a moment to regain his emotional balance. He was getting ahead of himself again. It was so easy to slip into fantasies of what he would do after the tournament, but this was not the time to daydream! He had to be one hundred percent focused on the task before him. His new life depended on the deaths of his four competitors, and the difficulty of achieving that goal had not diminished. Perhaps then he should have been mired in despair, but the emotion which most filled him at the moment was exactly the opposite: it was hope. For the first time since he had been betrayed by Frederick , he had hope.
Justin figured he'd been walking for a little over an hour. He had seen no sign of any of the others, or indeed of any life other than trees and plants. There were no birds chirping, no squirrels scampering about, no insects buzzing through the air. This was as dead and quiet a patch of forest as one could imagine, and the absolute stillness unnerved him.
Although he had never been to a desert or mountain, he'd visited a number of forests while camping with Dad. They'd often made a game out of seeing who could spot the most animals. Here there was absolutely nothing to spot, which proved that these woods weren't natural.
Presumably the forest, like the other areas of the Battlefield, had been constituted solely for this sick game. That would explain the meandering nature of the overgrown path, which twisted and turned through the trees without any discernible pattern or logic. He had already proceeded straight through a four-way junction. Shortly after that the path had opened up into a large clearing where the grass was unexpectedly only ankle length. He had considered remaining there, but in the end had decided to press on.
Now he was approaching another intersection and once again none of the grass on the other paths had been trampled down, indicating that no one had yet come this way. As he neared the center of the crossroads he heard a rustling of leaves from above him. Before he could look up something hit him in the side of his neck. His legs collapsed under him and he barely managed to tumble back into a tree instead of forward onto his face. His body had ceased responding to his commands. He tried to take a breath, and failed. His lungs felt like they were going to explode!
Far above Justin saw a shape hanging upside down from a tree branch, its long hair trailing downward and its right hand extended down to where Justin's neck would have been. The figure somersaulted to the ground, his muscular legs easily absorbing the impact of his landing. Rising he swaggered toward Justin and once more stood looming over the fallen Ranger, his brilliant sapphire eyes screaming with power.
“I've blocked the flow of blood to your brain. You'll be dead in thirty seconds,” he explained calmly. His voice was deeper than before, resonant with strength and self-confidence.
Justin tried to argue with his friend, to plead with him, but he had neither the breath needed to speak nor control over his vocal cords. He could only lie there, his racing mind able to do nothing more than count down the seconds remaining until his death.
At fifteen an expression of frustrated disgust abruptly crossed his assailant's handsome visage.
“This is just too easy,” he muttered. Kneeling down beside Justin he expertly jabbed the stiffened fingers of his right hand into a specific point on the teenager's neck. Suddenly Justin could breathe again. He sucked in air greedily, gasping like a landed fish. The vast relief he felt was mingled with fear and bafflement. What had the Warrior Prince done to him? What kind of hand strike could have that effect? He had never even read of such a technique! Its use worried him, though perhaps the more important consideration was that he had been spared for the second time. Solan was still in there; if Justin could only reach him!
He couldn't do that via threatening. So he left his Turbo Blade on the ground where it had fallen, rising slowly to his feet.
The Warrior Prince had withdrawn to a little way beyond the cross-roads, standing on the path opposite the one Justin had followed. When he saw the Turbo Ranger was ambulatory he advanced.
“Wait!” Justin urged, throwing his hands up. “It's me, Justin! Don't you remember me?”
His adversary paused a few feet away and Justin was forcibly reminded of how much his friend had changed. Before they'd been almost the same height; now, even with only a few extra inches, the twelve year-old seemed to tower over him. This impression was reinforced by the fact that the golden-haired boy's flawless, fantastic physique utterly dwarfed the Ranger's own. His sheer physical presence was overwhelming, and increased the fear Justin was fighting down.
“Of course I remember you! But I'm no longer the pitiful Solan you remember! I'm the Warrior Prince, the person I was destined to be!”
“What do you mean?” Justin asked urgently. “What did Archon do to you?”
“He helped me, more than you ever would have! He told me the truth about myself and he returned to me my birthright!”
The cryptic explanation made no sense to Justin. What was the Warrior Prince talking about? What kind of nonsense had Archon pumped into his head? He considered pursing the matter further, but decided instead to strike at the heart of the problem.
“Solan, why did you attack Alexander and me? We're your friends!”
“I told you, I'm not Solan anymore!” he snarled. “The worthless weakling you “befriended” is gone. I've become so much more than the child who once cowered in your shadow. You're going to be the one cowering before me now,” he promised menacingly.
Aware that the situation was deteriorating the Turbo Ranger abandoned questions and launched into his appeal to his friend.
“Listen to me! Archon has done something to your mind. He's trying to control you, to make you fight us, but I know he can't change who you are. Inside you're still the same person, you're still Solan! Fight what he did and remember your true self!”
“I am not Solan!” the preteen titan roared. “I'll never be your little pet again! This is who I am! You've already seen how I've surpassed you, but I'll give you one final demonstration.”
He moved to within striking distance, emanating an air of invincible self-assurance. He didn't reach for either his sword or chakram, leaving his hands open and empty.
That was a definite blessing. A battle with weapons would have been considerably more dangerous, especially since the Warrior Prince had proven he could outduel Alexander. He had deliberately not summoned his Turbo Blade in the hopes of avoiding such a conflict, and his gamble had paid off. Whether he could overcome his friend in an unarmed affray was another question. The long-haired, most muscular youth had already won against Justin barehanded this morning, but then the Turbo Ranger had been operating under the handicap of shock.
That wasn't the case this time. Justin was wholly focused on this fight and the necessity of winning it. He had to triumph, not only for his own sake, but for Solan's as well. Darting forward he unleashed a double punch, one fist rocketing toward his opponent's nose while the other homed in those defined, eight-pack abs.
The lightning fast Prince batted both blows aside before retaliating with a savage kick to the midsection. The force of the impact doubled Justin over, almost breaking him in half. He reeled back, already cringing in expectation, but the feared follow-up never materialized. Justin took advantage of the reprieve and, after catching his breath, threw himself back into the fray.
Unfortunately he was disadvantaged in more than one respect. This setting allowed little space to maneuver, hemmed in as they were by the surrounding trees. Then, too, he was functioning under the burden of two shuriken wounds, a concussion, and the combined effects of three days of constant exertion.
He adapted to these difficulties as best he could, adjusting his moves to compensate for the lack of room and using his determination and will to make up for his body's shortcomings. In hindsight Justin did not believe the limitations he suffered had dictated the course of the battle. On the contrary, he imagined the ultimate outcome would have been the same if they had fought on an open plain while he was in perfect condition.
The teenager fought conservatively at the beginning, seeking to assess his foe's capabilities. The Warrior Prince was not a simple brawler, but his style of fighting matched no martial art Justin could identity. Its economy of movement was amazing; there were no wasted motions. Defensively it was nigh impenetrable; almost every strike Justin made was either dodged or blocked. Offensively he curiously lacked follow-through, often failing to take full advantage of his attacks and missing every opportunity to deliver a truly disabling blow.
This blind spot was the sole ray of hope for Justin, since nothing else gave him any reason for optimism. The younger boy was a total physical powerhouse, far stronger than Justin and a great deal swifter. His reflexes and coordination were phenomenal, while his agility and flexibility belied his muscle mass.
Not since becoming a Turbo Ranger could Justin recall being so completely outclassed by an opponent. The closest he had come was when he fought the ninja, and there he had at least managed to hold his own. Here he couldn't even claim that much.
Unbidden his mind flashed back to that old Charles Atlas ad from the comics. Now he knew how the bully must have felt when the wimp had returned as a muscle-bound He-Man and flattened him. The difference was that unlike the bully, he had never “kicked sand” in Solan's face; he had done his best to help the Grecian boy, something the Warrior Prince seemed unable or unwilling to recognize. Another difference was that the bully's comeuppance had been over in an instant, while his own showed no signs of ending. The teenager was beginning to feel like a human punching bag, one continually battered by the Warrior Prince's sledgehammer punches and pile-driver kicks.
An observer might have likened the Warrior Prince to a machine, but Justin would have disagreed. He had battled machines before, such as the chromites, and they bore little similarity to his current opponent. No machine he had yet encountered had possessed such smoothness and grace of movement. Nor did they exhibit the passion and emotion of his preadolescent adversary.
The twelve year-old's obvious enjoyment of what he was doing rubbed metaphorical salt in Justin's increasing number of wounds. He was grinning fiercely, his excitement and delight self-evident. The Ranger's increasingly desperate efforts to gain the advantage only seemed to widen that grin.
Once . . . twice . . . three times Justin was knocked to the ground. As he painfully pulled himself up for the third time, again without interference, he wondered why his opponent was so cavalierly ignoring the opportunity presented. Was Solan maintaining enough control to keep his alter-ego from finishing Justin, as had occurred this morning? Did the Warrior Prince have some sense of honor, not wanting to hit him while he was down?
No. In a moment of insight the answer came to Justin, accompanied by a sickening sense of certainty. The Warrior Prince's restraint and refusal to follow through on his attacks had nothing to do with Solan or honor; it was all about flaunting his abilities. He was deliberately refraining from ending the fight in order to allow his opponent every possible chance to defeat him. He didn't just want to win; he wanted to prove beyond doubt that Justin was no match for him. He was toying with the Turbo Ranger, in the same way a cat might toy with a mouse. And it was only a matter of time before the cat, a Bengal tiger in this case, went in for the kill.
In the face of this despairing realization Justin's resolve and determination collapsed. He could no longer force his thoroughly bruised and aching body to continue the one-sided fight. What was the point? When the next ax kick slammed into his shoulder and dropped him he literally could not bring himself to rise. He made it only halfway before he fell back with a groan.
Looking up he saw the Warrior Prince standing tall, hands on hips in an intimidating power pose. The large, splendidly muscular preteen was barely winded, while Justin was wheezing like an old man. The younger boy's striking features bore a look of savage triumph and angry contempt.
“You can't defeat me,” he sneered proudly. “I'm a better fighter than you could ever hope to be!”
“Then fight what he did to you!” Justin begged. “I am your friend ! Since we met I've done everything I could to help you! You don't want do to this!”
The Turbo Ranger's heartfelt words only seemed to infuriate his foe.
“Don't you dare call yourself my friend,” he hissed. “Was it out of ‘friendship' that you refused to teach me karate? Is that what you call keeping people weak and dependent on you? You tried to keep me helpless, just like she did, but you failed. You both failed.”
Kneeling down the Warrior Prince seized Justin by the throat. Using only his very muscular right arm he easily hoisted the helpless older boy high overhead.
Justin kicked and writhed in a panic, rapidly depleting his small supply of oxygen. Nothing he did, however, could break the viselike grip on his neck.
The pain was overwhelming, the feeling of strangulation terrifying. His vision was starting to darken, but he could still see the unmitigated fury in his killer's brilliant blue eyes.
He managed to rasp out a single fragment of a sentence, a final plea to the one he had thought was his friend.
"Saved you from gladiator," he whispered brokenly.
As Justin started to lose consciousness he experienced the sensation of falling, which abruptly ended when he hit the ground hard, sending a dozen different jolts of pain through his body. He would have screamed if he had the breath, but there was none in his lungs to give voice to his cry.
Again he gasped for oxygen, this time tearing off his helmet to expedite the air flow. A little voice in the back of his mind whispered that he was still recovering from a concussion and removing the item protecting his head in the presence of an aggressor was an unnecessary risk.
The rest of his brain dismissed the concern as absurd. The brutally strong He-boy above him had literally beaten him into submission, without even breaking a sweat! If the Warrior Prince still wanted to kill him, he would die, and whether he was wearing his helmet or not wouldn't make a damn bit of difference.
“You did help me then,” was the grudging admission Justin heard from on high. “So I'll do for you what Alexander promised to: I'll save you until last.”
From Solan such an arrogant guarantee would have been laughable; from the Warrior Prince it was a promise to be seized upon, temporary surcease from the fear and despair he had inspired in the Turbo Ranger.
Justin struggled with how best to respond. His first instinct was to vehemently deny the accusation that he had wanted Solan to remain helpless, to explain in detail the factors which had led him to refuse to teach the latter karate. He was afraid, however, that such a defense might only reignite the other boy's temper, and he honestly didn't know if he would survive such an occurrence, promise or no promise.
His next thought was to explain how Alexander had chosen to join the team fully after all, but this morning's events seemed to have invalidated that decision. Going into how Alexander had sworn to kill Solan would hardly help matters.
What would help, though? If he couldn't appeal to Solan on the basis of friendship, how was he supposed to reach his friend?
Justin realized he had launched into his attack too early, proceeding on the basis of insufficient information. He had been so eager to get Solan back that he had rushed things, failing to first obtain the knowledge he needed to succeed.
It was time to question again instead of arguing, and there was probably no time the Warrior Prince would be more likely to answer than after he had proven his superiority.
“You said Archon gave you back your birthright. What birthright?” Justin croaked rather than spoke. Trying to speak intensified the pain in his throat, but he ignored it as a minor distraction.
Silence followed the question and Justin worried the Warrior Prince wouldn't respond. Then he replied in a harsh tone.
“My mother and father were both famed warriors, but as the creation of their union I was fated to eclipse them; I was born to be the greatest warrior my world has ever seen!”
Solan, of all people, meant to be some kind of uber-warrior ?!?! Impossible! The very idea was ridiculous! There was no way it could be true! Archon had fed him this absurd lie to give some veneer of plausibility to his unnatural transformation.
Justin's naked disbelief must have shown on his face, since the Warrior Prince favored him with a brief, cynical smile.
“This doesn't mesh with the weakling you met in the tunnels, does it?” the twelve year-old Adonis asked sardonically. “That's because after I was conceived my parents visited the Oracle at Delphi . She told them of my destiny. My father, Borias, was overjoyed.” He paused for the span of two heartbeats. “My mother was not.”
He started to speak faster, growing anger bleeding through his words. “She could not abide the prospect of being overshadowed by anyone, not even her own son. She and my father quarreled over what to do with me. They separated and Dagnine struck while they were apart. He murdered my father, but she was the one who gave him the chance!”
The younger boy's fists were clenched, his tensed, defined biceps and triceps standing out in bold relief. The urge to shrink back from sitting to a prone position swept through Justin, an impulse he resisted. At the same time his memory belatedly threw up a red flag, a contradiction between what Solan had told him previously and this litany of insanity. It burst out of him before he could remember that he was trying not to be confrontational.
“You just said your mother and father were both warriors, but you told me on the first day that your mother wasn't a warrior. You said she was kind and gentle, remember?”
“I remember, fool!” the Warrior Prince snarled, his ire momentarily refocusing on Justin. “I've gained knowledge, not lost it.”
“Kaleipus always told me my mother was a gentle woman who hated no one. He lied.” A new expression flitted across his face, one encompassing not only anger, but hurt. The sight lifted Justin's heart, since it was the first hint of vulnerability that this juggernaut of a boy had shown so far.
“When my father died my mother was free to do with me as she pleased. She could have killed me, but she felt some affection for me,” the Warrior Prince proclaimed, infusing the word with more venom than Justin had ever heard before. “So she gave me to the Centaurs. I grew up in a village full of horse-men and was taught nothing! She relied on that. She knew without training I could never approach her level of skill. So there would be no one to rival Xena, the Warrior Princess,” he finished bitterly.
His friend Xena? He thought she was his mother? So that was why he was calling himself the Warrior Prince!
“I've mourned for my mother all of my life,” he admitted in a low tone, one nonetheless replete with an unsettling intensity. “I missed her, longed for her, dreamed of her! I spent hours imagining what she was like, picturing her in my head. I would have given anything for just a few moments with her.”
“And all this time she'd betrayed me!” he roared. “She let my father die, and she abandoned me! I grew up alone and defenseless because of her! She took everything away from me, everything but my life, and why? For the sake of her own envy and pride!”
The bronzed, ripped to the bone youth was openly trembling with the force of what he was feeling. His magnificently muscled chest heaved, his breathing much more labored than it had been during his fight with Justin. His singularly good-looking and manly countenance was twisted into a rage-filled rictus of hate-and grief.
Down on the ground Justin remained absolutely still. He didn't move. He didn't twitch. He didn't even blink. His hindbrain insisted he do nothing to attract the notice of this lethal predator.
Gradually the preteen Prince of Warriors succeeded in regaining his self-control. His shuddering ceased, his breathing slowed and his hands fell open. When next he spoke his voice held only a trace of unsteadiness.
“Archon saved me and entered me in his tournament because he was curious to see how I would fare in my untrained state. You know the answer to that,” he noted dismissively.
“Yesterday he rescued me again before I could be killed. He told me the truth about my parentage and my destiny. Then he offered to undo the effects of my mother's meddling, to turn me into the fighter she so feared. He said he could make it as thought I had been trained by my mother and father for all of these years.”
“He gave you a choice?” Justin asked, somewhat incredulously. He'd assumed Archon had altered his friend regardless of the latter's wishes. That Solan might have consented to the change was a possibility which hadn't occurred to him.
“Yes, and once I accepted he followed through with what he'd promised. He didn't make excuses for why he couldn't teach me, or tell me that my “mother” wouldn't want me to be a warrior. He transformed me!”
The Warrior Prince focused his penetrating gaze on Justin, who struggled to return the stare without flinching.
“The pain was awful, like being burned everywhere at once, but by the time it ended the weak little boy I had been was gone; at last I was my true self.”
“ This is how I always should have been: supremely skilled in the arts of war, strong beyond belief, swift as the wind, and enduring as marble Now I'm finally ready to walk the path laid out for me, to eventually become my world's greatest warrior, just as the Fates planned.”
“And when I ascend Xena will fall! I warned my mother when we first met that I was her greatest enemy. Within three years of my return she'll see how right I was.”
There was considerable contrast between this icy resolve and the near-rage of earlier, but beneath the surface the only real difference was the degree of control displayed; the motivating emotions were the same.
“I didn't warn you, but now you know the truth about the useless “primitive” you so pitied. Goodbye, Justin,” he finished and began to turn away.
Up until this point Justin had remained silent as best he could, absorbing the information he was given and trying very hard to avoid doing anything provocative. Given what he had witnessed his fear of triggering the emotionally unstable, immensely powerful preteen's wrath had only grown, but he could remain silent no longer. He could not simply let the Warrior Prince leave; right now he at least had a promise to save him for last protecting him. If they separated then by the time they saw each other again that protection might no longer exist. Better to take a chance here than wait and risk everything. There was no time to sort through and analyze what he had learned, so he spoke from the heart.
“So now that you've got the power you're going to kill everyone? How can you turn on us like that?” Justin demanded.
The Warrior Prince spun back toward the adolescent, his long blond hair flying. “Us? You mean how can I turn on the arrogant alien who promised to leave me until one of the last he'd kill? Or on the liar who tried to butcher me with his sword? Or on the Power Ranger who thought I was beneath him and wanted to keep me that way? What would have happened to me at your hands if I hadn't been restored? How much longer would it have been before you would have killed me?”
“I never would have killed you!” Justin denied indignantly, unable to believe the question. How on Earth had this gotten turned around on him?!?
“Like you didn't kill Morthos?” the younger boy taunted.
The question rocked the Turbo Ranger, leaving him speechless. How could the Warrior Prince possibly know about that ?!?! Could he have witnessed it? But if he had seen what happened why hadn't he come to Justin? Did he really think Morthos' death meant the Turbo Ranger intended to kill everyone?
In any case slaying Morthos was something he had hardly come to terms with himself; how could he explain what he had done to the Warrior Prince? What could he say?
The Warrior Prince's face hardened at Justin's silence.
“You can't fool me again, Justin. I'll see you soon,” he promised before turning his back on the Ranger. He walked to the base of a tree, leaping up and seizing a thick branch with both hands. He acrobatically swung to the top of the branch and then took off through the tree-tops at a speed Justin couldn't hope to match, ignoring the Ranger's calls to wait.
The tunnels, the desert and the mountain had all been unfamiliar terrain, strange and unsettling. A forest, though; that was like coming home again. He couldn't think of a better environment in which to test his many skills.
When he had first appeared he had ignored the path and immediately sought the leafy heights. He had always enjoyed climbing trees. It was something none of the centaur children had been able to do, and so had made him feel accomplished and special. The newfound ease with which he had scaled and leapt between these soaring oaks had only added to his gratification.
Then there were the tactical advantages to be gained from being able to look down on the others. Of course he would always look down on them now, wherever he was. The four remaining contestants were beneath him in more ways than one.
Justin in particular seemed unable to grasp that; the Turbo Ranger persisted in acting as though he were still the same naïve, useless child he had once been.
Correcting that impression was one of the main reasons he had released the artery blockage before it proved fatal. There had been a fleeting sense of satisfaction in successfully using the technique, but winning that way would have been empty and meaningless. He didn't want to slay the Turbo Ranger by surprise, from ambush. No, he needed to crush Justin in a fair fight, to thoroughly demonstrate his vast superiority to the older boy.
So he had released the blockage, and they had fought. That had been his other primary reason for saving Justin: so he could have the pleasure of fighting the teenager.
This morning, while facing the other four contestants, he had learned something important about himself, something he had not hitherto suspected: he had learned that he LIKED fighting! The inherent challenge, the excitement, the primal feeling of combat-all of these combined to make for an intense and wonderful experience. Nothing he had done before could compare to those feelings, much less equal the intoxicating rush of victory! Overwhelming his opponents felt so good , especially when linked to the vengeful thrill of thrashing those who had wrongly thought themselves his betters.
The day's first conflict had awakened and whetted his appetite, so against Justin he had gone slowly, pulling his blows and avoiding any crippling strikes. It had been a considerable exercise in self-control, since his instincts and training urged him to finish his foe at once. He had to constantly restrain himself, but the reward for his willpower had been twofold. First, he had forced Justin to realize how much better in battle he was than the Ranger. Second, he had been able to savor the extended conflict, to relish every second of it. By the time their clash concluded and the Ranger lay beaten at his feet, he had known to the depths of his soul that fighting was what he was meant for.
In that instant his ever-present hatred for his vile, treacherous mother had surged. She had tried to deprive him of this, to keep him from ever learning of his purpose in life! And so had Justin! The Turbo Ranger had pretended to be his friend out of pity, but hadn't dared to teach him karate. No, just like Xena, he wouldn't risk giving little Solan the means to actually stand up for himself! It was as Archon had told him: he was a tame pet to the teenager, and possibly a future victim.
Or he could have been a victim, if Archon hadn't aided him. As it was he had been on the verge of killing Justin when the Ranger had brought up the gladiator. That one had taken him completely off guard. Whatever had happened since then, Justin had saved his life that first day. He remembered the gratitude and thankfulness he had felt towards the blue-garbed adolescent . . . and he couldn't bring himself to strangle the Ranger.
He had dropped his prey to the ground, struggling with himself as Justin struggled to breath. What should he do? What could he do?
The solution had soon come to him: after Justin had spared Alexander, the latter had agreed to not kill Justin or any of his team until no one else was left. He would do the same, saving Justin for last.
He'd been about to go seek out the others when Justin had asked him about his birthright, and he had found himself eagerly relating the entire story. He had wanted Justin to understand who he really was, that he was far more than merely an ancient orphan boy. He had wanted the Ranger to be aware that the physical prowess he now possessed was rightfully his, not some unearned gift from Archon.
He had wanted badly to share his story with another person.
Not that doing so had made any difference to the way the Turbo Ranger treated him. Justin had continued to browbeat him, to try to get him to go back to being the Ranger's subservient lesser.
That wasn't going to happen. He was through with relying on others to protect him, and done placing his trust in those unworthy of it. From this day forward he would stand alone, and personally slay whoever tried to harm him!
Justin's sheer gall in trying to make him feel guilty for his independence fueled his rage at the adolescent. Hadn't he made it clear that he knew what Justin really thought of him? The Ranger couldn't seem to accept that he had seen through the facade of friendship.
He had also seen Justin kill Morthos, thanks to Archon. Now that Justin had begun slaying competitors, why should he trust that the Ranger wouldn't eventually turn on him?
He did wonder what had prompted Justin's decision, though. Archon had said Justin had learned that warriors must kill, but hadn't gone into any detail. Maybe Justin had realized what he was doing would never work and so had decided to save himself? Or he might have killed Morthos because the latter hadn't joined him after being beaten the first time.
In any case he would have been in grave danger had he lost to the Turbo Ranger, but there had been little chance of that happening. In light of his victories today he couldn't help wondering about Archon's advice this morning to wait a few years before he faced his foul mother. Was that truly necessary? Yes, Xena was a great warrior, but so was he, and she would certainly be shocked and off-balance when she saw how he'd changed.
Movement below and ahead caught his eyes and he paused on his current branch. He hadn't expected to find anyone here, in one of the areas between the paths. Yet soldiering on toward him was Kenny, sword in hand.
The Warrior Prince smiled wickedly. He could probably inflict a lethal wound from here with his chakram, but he had no intention of letting the lying traitor off that easily. Next he considering drawing his own sword, but dismissed the idea. He didn't need a weapon to deal with Kenny, not now.
He jumped to another branch, caught a third with his hands, and dropped to the ground about ten feet from the smaller boy. Kenny recoiled, his eyes widening with surprise and fear.
Rising the Warrior Prince slowly, confidently closed in on his foe, the anticipation already building within him.
“Come on, Kenny. You were ready to cut my head off yesterday. What are you waiting for?” he asked mockingly as he approached.
The blond boy licked his lips nervously and didn't reply. His sword was held in both hands far up and to the right, the knuckles visibly whitening.
The posture was more suitable for one armed with a club than a sword, and the Warrior Prince took full advantage, darting in quickly and low. His left hand wrapped itself around Kenny's wrists before the latter could move, his right first hammering at Kenny's nose, followed by a knee to the stomach. As Kenny began to collapse he squeezed hard and twisted with his left hand. The blade dropped point first into the ground, but the tip wasn't even fully buried by the time his right hand snaked around the handle.
It was too fast and easy to really be any fun, but the contrast with yesterday was most pleasing. Looking down at the boy who would have killed him, nose broken and arms wrapped around the midsection, a sudden wave of fury washed over the Warrior Prince. He hated that he had ever been weak enough to be in danger from such a novice, but what he truly despised was the way Kenny had deceived and betrayed him. Wasn't there anyone he could believe in, anyone who could be a true friend?
He savagely kicked Kenny once, twice, three times, angrily pleased at the feel of the traitor's ribs breaking. As Kenny tried to scream, he sneered, “Pathetic. You're almost not worth killing. Almost.”
Then he stomped on Kenny's throat. The boy thrashed about wildly under his boot, but he held his position until at last his prey went limp.
Stepping back he closed his eyes for a moment. He had actually done it; he had killed his first person. It was reassuring to know his enemy was gone, and coldly satisfying to have succeeded in taking his vengeance. Still, for all of the hatred and anger he had felt toward the other boy, killing Kenny hadn't made him feel good, not the way that fighting did. Maybe it would have been different if he'd done it in battle, but killing someone helpless in cold blood felt . . . troubling. Wrong.
He'd have to get used to it.
Tossing the child's sword disdainfully aside, the Warrior Prince returned to the trees and headed back to check one of the paths he'd passed over earlier on his way to where he'd found Justin.
Kenny's corpse lay quietly for six and a half minutes before life abruptly returned to it. With a gasp he sat up, his memory prompting him to feel at his now-mended ribs and nose.
His sword, where was his sword?!? Getting up he began searching the area. Surely his killer wouldn't have taken his sword. He didn't need it, and he thought Kenny was dead. There was no reason for him to-there!
Snatching up the weapon Kenny clutched it thankfully. Now he could relax. As much as he could after having been murdered that way.
Damn Solan! He was so close . . . he wouldn't let this puffed-up, buffed-up bastard get in his way! Solan would go the same way the other muscle-boy had, the same way so many Immortals had. It made no difference how skilled or strong your opponent was, not if you could take him from behind.
He had to get to that coveted position, and do it without letting Solan know he was alive. There was simply no other option.
Justin thought he might be in more pain now than he'd ever been in before. He felt like a piece of meat which had been tenderized with a jack-hammer.
Instead of standing up he had scooted back against a tree and summoned his Turbo Blade to his side. He didn't don his helmet again. He merely sat and thought.
What had he learned? Most obviously, that the Warrior Prince was one of the finest hand-to-hand combatants he had ever faced. Even his mentor, Tommy Oliver, would have great difficulty defeating the twelve year-old; there was no way Justin would be able to do it, especially in his current condition.
In terms of swordsmanship this morning had shown that the Grecian boy was at least Alexander's equal. Maybe, if Justin were in top form, he could outduel his former friend, but frankly he doubted it.
So overall the chances of him being able to physically subdue the Warrior Prince were minute, and the chances of bringing back Solan verbally didn't look to be much better.
Archon had been much more subtle than Justin had anticipated. He hadn't used amnesia, nor had he induced a generalized feeling of psychotic rage. Instead he seemed to have shifted a few key beliefs, presumably by altering specific memories.
So the Warrior Prince was convinced that Justin had always looked down on him as an inferior and had merely feigned friendship with him. He also believed that Justin's refusal to teach him karate was an attempt to keep him down, and he even seemed to think that Justin would have eventually killed him!
That last accusation was the most wounding, and the most absurd. The day they met he'd saved Solan from the gladiator! He had gathered everyone who didn't want to kill into a team so they could defend each other! He had passed up numerous opportunities to murder other kids during his time here and his first words to the Warrior Prince had been an assurance that he would protect the boy. There was no reason to believe he would ever kill Solan!
Or was there? Somehow the Warrior Prince had known about him killing Morthos. That action ran counter to everything he'd said and done since he got here, and it had taken place the day after Jo and Josh had fallen. Solan had known very well by then how unsuited he was to the tournament, and it had been clear that Justin's plan wasn't working. Plus on the third day Kenny must have met him and tried to kill him, judging by what he'd said earlier about the liar with the sword. And on top of everything else Solan was aware that Alexander had only promised to spare him until all of the aggressors were dead.
There was no one left for Solan to trust, to rely on, except Justin. What would seeing Justin kill Morthos do to that trust? Might he really assume that this meant Justin had given up on saving anyone but himself, throwing aside his principles and partners in an effort to win the tournament?
Wasn't that in part what he'd done? Given up on his principles to save his own life?
Justin closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. He couldn't think about that now. This wasn't the time for self-flagellation. He was beaten up enough as it was, he thought, with an ironic bark of a laugh.
Okay, so there had been some reason for Solan to suspect him. Still, shouldn't their friendship have allowed Solan to maintain faith in him? It was true that he felt sorry for Solan, the same way he would have felt sorry for anyone in this situation who couldn't fight. More than pity, though, he had felt empathy for the younger boy, and liking. There had been a sense of connection between them that he hadn't experienced in a long time. How could Solan doubt how much Justin had cared for him?
Of course through altered memories Archon could make Solan think whatever he wanted; that was the whole point. Although if specific memories had been changed, why had the Warrior Prince still remembered Justin saving him on the first day? That memory was what had caused him to release Justin and to promise in the mold of Alexander to leave the Turbo Ranger for last.
Why would Archon leave a memory like that intact? It could only get in the way of the Warrior Prince performing in the tournament. It should have been the first recollection Archon modified! There was no reason for it to have been left untouched, unless . . .
. . . unless Archon had never altered Solan's memories at all.
No. No, that couldn't be! Archon HAD to have altered Solan's memories! He had to have, because Justin had already eliminated virtually every other form of mental coercion he could think of.
The Warrior Prince remembered his time as Solan, so there was no foreign implanted persona. He had not been subject to imposed psychosis because he had spared Justin more than once. That fact also disproved the hypothesis that he might be under the direct mental control of Archon, like a puppet. He had evidenced great rage, yes, but he had been able to control it, so he wasn't the victim of an irresistible emotional state.
Maybe he was under an imperfect mental and/or emotional influence, one he could at times overcome through willpower. Wasn't that what Justin had hypothesized as the explanation for the Warrior Prince sparing everyone this morning?
Yet if that was indeed the case, Justin had to ask himself why Archon, a being capable of time and dimensional travel, had bothered using such a flawed form of mental control.
He was grasping at straws, the adolescent realized bleakly. He was straining the facts to find a justification for the conclusion he wanted to arrive at, rather than letting the data dictate his conclusion.
At that moment he was reminded of the first science book he'd ever owned, one his parents had bought for him when he was in third grade. He'd loved that book when he was little; he still had it packed away somewhere in his closet at home. One section of it had explained the principle of Occam's Razor, which was basically that the simplest explanation for a given phenomena was usually the correct one.
The simplest explanation wasn't that Solan was acting this way because of some devious manipulation of his psyche by Archon. The simplest explanation was that Solan was acting this way because it was how he had chosen to act. Of his own free will he had attacked Justin again and again, nearly killed the Ranger twice, and pounded him to a pulp with a smile!
He almost couldn't take it in. That Solan could act like that and treat him that way . . . Alexander's scornful charge of his bias toward humans rang in his ears. He'd been right. He'd been right, and Justin had been wrong. Solan had betrayed him, just like Kenny had. The two of them had both used him. They'd taken advantage of his misguided faith in humanity for their own benefit. Then, as soon as the opportunity arose, they'd turned on him.
Since the first night he had considered Kenny and Solan as symbolic of all the innocent people Power Rangers were sworn to protect. He'd tried to keep them safe from harm, and how did they reward him? How did they thank him? By stabbing him in the back!
What was wrong with them? Didn't they have any conscience, any feelings? If they really were emblematic of the people Justin had been defending as a Turbo Ranger, then why had he ever bothered to risk his life opposing Divatox in the first place?
Alexander had followed the path Colin had blazed back to its beginning, to where the grass stood straight up. He continued on that way and eventually came to a four-way junction. Within that small area the grass was almost completely flat, much more matted down than if someone if someone had simply passed through from one of the traversed paths to another.
There had been a fight here. That would explain the condition of the grass, though it didn't explain why there were no bodies.
Which path should he follow? The question was answered when he heard a voice scream from the path down his right.
Hurrying down that trail he soon spotted the Blue Turbo Ranger up ahead. He was walking-no, he was lurching onward. From the way he was moving and holding himself it was obvious that he had been badly beaten.
“Justin!” he called, running to catch up. The teenager turned around, the Turbo Blade clenched tightly in his gloved hand.
“What are you doing?” he asked. Clearly he was calling the traitor, but his tone wasn't what Alexander had expected. Rather than a beseeching plea it had sounded alive with anger.
For an instant Alexander allowed himself to hope that Justin had seen sense. Then he firmly dismissed the idea. Justin had disappointed him too many times already.
“I'm looking for Solan. I'm not going to just lie there and wait for him to come back after me! Not now that I know . . .” Justin trailed off.
“Know what?” Alexander demanded.
“You were right, okay?” the Turbo Ranger all but screamed. “It's him! He's doing what he wants to do!”
“You've fought him already,” Alexander noted. It was a statement, not a question.
“Yes,” the Ranger breathed. “After he beat me he promised he would save me until last.”
He had promised-? Then Alexander got it. Clenching his teeth loosed a snarl. So the traitorous, dishonorable human was imitating him! Was it mockery? Or did he think that copying what a real warrior had done would somehow make him one as well?
No matter. When Alexander caught up with him, he would show the imposter what a real warrior was.
He slipped around Justin and saw that the grass on the path ahead was untouched. Not understanding he turned back to the Ranger.
“If he came this way, why isn't the grass trampled down?” Alexander asked.
“He didn't walk on the path,” Justin explained. The near-hysteria he had displayed earlier was gone; the
Turbo Ranger sounded old and tired.
“He was jumping from tree branch to tree branch.”
Now that was unexpected. Alexander would have to be careful to watch the trees, lest the human try to slay him from above with that throwing blade. Such a move would be perfectly in keeping with what he would expect from the coward.
Behind him Justin called out, “Alexander, wait! What are you doing?”
Over his shoulder he called, “I'm going to take care of our traitor, just as I took care of the vampire.”
“You killed the vampire?” Justin asked, and Alexander didn't care for the faintly surprised tinge to his voice.
“Yes, and Solan will soon join him,” Alexander promised.
“I-I don't think you should go looking for him,” Justin stated.
Ah, now that was more like it. The irritated Klingon whirled to face the trailing teen.
“Still trying to protect your fellow human, Justin?” he sneered.
“I'm trying to protect you !” Justin surprisingly claimed.
“What do you mean, ‘protect me'?” Alexander questioned, his eyes narrowing and his voice dropping.
The Turbo Ranger stood silently, shifting from foot to foot. Then he blurted out, “I don't think you should fight him. I don't think you can beat him!”
In a pulse of fury Alexander brought his bat'leth up and extended it, Justin's neck in the center of the crescent formed by the blade. “I have promised to spare your life. Continue to insult me and even that promise will not protect you,” he hissed warningly.
“I'm not trying to insult you,” Justin swore. “But I've fought him more than you have. He's very, very good.”
“So I should leave it to you to fight him?” Alexander asked sarcastically, lowering his bat'leth back to his side and gesturing to Justin with his left hand. “You think you can defeat him instead?”
Justin seemed to sag, almost to deflate. “No,” he admitted quietly. “I don't.”
Why was Justin trying to attract Solan then, when he had always insisted that the preservation of life was one's highest goal? The Turbo Ranger was repeatedly throwing him off balance here, and Alexander was getting sick of it.
“Stay here then. I will find him and kill him.”
Whirling back around Alexander stomped down the path, ignoring Justin's calls to wait.
It was the noise which had drawn him to them. Moving toward the sound of the yelling he slipped behind a tree adjoining the path he reached. Then he cautiously peered around it.
Further down the path Alexander was proceeding at almost a run, while Justin limped along in his wake, crying after him and falling further and further behind.
The temptation to dash up behind Justin and finish him was strong indeed, but Kenny stayed his hand. It was evident from the way he moved that Justin was already injured, while the speed with which Alexander was walking suggested he was at full strength. If he killed Justin now and Alexander heard or saw him, he would be finished himself. He couldn't beat Alexander in a straight-up fight, he couldn't outrun the alien, and Alexander had already expressed his desire to cut Kenny into pieces, before Justin had presumably told the brown-skinned freak about Kenny's miraculous “healing”. Sweet as Justin's death would be, it wasn't worth his own life, any more than MacLeod's death would have been.
Instead he would follow them. With luck they would run into Solan before he did, and in the melee that followed his enemies would reduce their numbers by themselves, potentially leaving him in a position to deliver the coup de grace to whoever won.
Moving slowly so as not to overtake Justin and keeping to the edge of the path, Kenny trailed the Turbo Ranger.
Justin's occasional cries came faintly to Alexander now, and that was a relief. He was weary of the Turbo Ranger's blindness, his tendency to repeat his mistakes over and over again. He was also stung by Justin's insult to his fighting prowess. How dare Justin question his ability? What did he expect Alexander to do, cower in some corner of this forest? Out of fear of SOLAN? He would prefer to die!
Ahead of him the path opened up into a sizeable clearing, where the sun shone bright and the grass barely came up past the soles of his boots.
Standing in the center of the clearing was Solan.
Alexander charged forward with a howl, ready to doge the circular blade. Yet Solan did not throw his blade. He hadn't even drawn his sword and rather than strike down an unarmed opponent Alexander halted a scant four and a half feet away.
“Draw your weapon, coward,” he ordered.
“I don't need a weapon to deal with you either,” the insufferably arrogant and overconfident human boasted. “You can use yours, though. Maybe it will give you a chance against me.”
Alexander came within a hairsbreadth of simply cutting down the worthless human. Instead he dropped his bat'leth and hurled himself upon the traitor, determined to slay Solan with his bare hands.
Justin started running as soon as he heard Alexander's howl. He cursed himself for letting the alien get so far ahead of him, but Alexander had deliberately set a killing pace which he couldn't match. He never should have said he didn't think Alexander could beat Solan, but what else could he do? He needed Alexander to understand how dangerous Solan was. Despite the morning's demonstration, Alexander still didn't seem to realize that Solan was an opponent to be wary of, not simply an enemy to be annihilated.
Justin ran as fast as he could in his exhausted, injured state. It took him a total of two minutes and thirty four seconds to reach the edge of the clearing. The sight which greeted him made him gasp.
In his earlier fight with Justin the Warrior Prince had proceeded slowly, pulling his punches and purposely prolonging the conflict. With Alexander he had apparently held nothing back.
The Klingon was staggering like a punch-drunk boxer. His left arm hung uselessly at his side, broken in at least two places that Justin could see. The cut on his forehead had reopened and blood was pouring steadily down into his eyes and across his face. It even looked as thought one of the bony ridges of the alien's forehead had been cracked in half.
As Justin watched in horror an apparently unmarked Solan unleashed a textbook-perfect roundhouse kick, which brought a wet, snapping sound from Alexander's jaw.
“STOP IT!” he screamed, charging toward the long-haired blond boy even as Alexander collapsed.
Solan pivoted to face him and Justin slashed at his side and legs, blinking away the tears which threatened to blind him.
The Warrior Prince backpedaled before Justin's Turbo Blade, seeming to dance just beyond its reach. Stopping at the far tree line, he adroitly evaded yet another cut and caught the Ranger's wrist. He twisted until Justin was forced to drop the sword. Then he took hold of Justin's shoulder with his right hand and used his hold to whip Justin bodily through the air and into the nearest tree.
The incredible impact nearly knocked the adolescent unconscious. Blackness loomed at the edge of his vision, threatening to overwhelm him. With a great effort he managed to banish the darkness, only to find that he was once again lying helplessly at the feet of the Warrior Prince. The horrible familiarity of his position and situation made him feel like he was trapped in a repeating, never-ending nightmare.
“Haven't you learned yet that you can't beat me, Justin?” the Warrior Prince proudly asked.
This was it! This was the moment he'd been waiting for!
Kenny quickly and quietly stole across the clearing. His heart was singing with anticipation and he could hardly believe his luck. He couldn't have planned a more perfect situation if he'd tried! He could win this contest! He could kill the three of them, dispatch Colin, and return to Earth as a full-grown man!
Kenny's eyes were locked on his intended target's broad back. One cut was all it would take. Next he would run Justin through. After that it would be child's play to dispose of the alien, assuming Alexander wasn't dead already.
Alexander had been critically injured, but his tough Klingon physiology was keeping him alive and aware, after a fashion. His mind was clouded by the overwhelming pain. All he knew was agony and the desire to kill whatever had done this to him. A blurry shape moved across his field of vision and, guided by the savage instincts of his ancestors, he attacked.
Kenny swerved to jog past the heap which was Alexander. His surprise was total when the Klingon snarled and grabbed him by the ankle. Kenny fell, stretched out full on the grass.
NO ! He couldn't be stopped, not now! Not when he was so close! Acutely aware that every second increased his odds of detection, Kenny frantically tried to pull free from Alexander, with no success. As he stared back at the alien teen's ugly, bleeding face, Kenny saw everyone who had ever tried to thwart him, all those who had gotten in his way and kept him from what he wanted. Enraged beyond measure, the Immortal drew back his sword in a two-handed grip. Then he decapitated Alexander.
Through the space provided by Solan's spread legs Justin saw Kenny fall. He witnessed Alexander's final moment and when the Klingon's severed head tumbled to the ground his horror and anguish burst forth from him in a scream. “Alexander!”
Alerted by Justin's shout, the Warrior Prince glanced behind him and instantly took in the entire tableau: Alexander's headless corpse, the impossibly alive Kenny surging up and rushing toward him. Shocked, confused, even afraid, he reacted wholly on instinct. His right hand dropped to his belt and an instant later his chakram was whistling through the air. Flung with lethal accuracy the razor-sharp disc cut cleanly through Kenny's neck, finally putting an end to the ancient child Immortal.
A hush fell over the clearing at the instant of Kenny's death. A ghost of shapeless mist rose up from Kenny's body and the unnatural stillness was shattered by a jagged bolt of lightning. It arced down out of the clear blue sky and discharged into the ground a scant ten feet from the remaining two contestants. A second bolt struck beyond Kenny's cooling corpse and a third impacted at the eastern edge of the woods. The fourth bolt of lightning was attracted to the steel pommel of the Warrior Prince's sheathed sword and earthed itself by passing through his frame. With a choked-off scream he collapsed, the electrical charge leaving him twitching uncontrollably.
Justin watched disbelievingly as the towering youth toppled forward like a felled tree beside him. The Blue Turbo Ranger stared down disbelievingly at the spasming, muscle-bound twelve year-old.
His gaze immediately focused on the back of Solan's neck, a place covered by the latter's golden locks.
He could strike at that spot and sever the spinal cord. With a single punch he could kill Solan. He could end this hideous travesty of a contest immediately, this instant! He could return home to his Dad.
He raised his clenched, shaking fist to shoulder height.
One blow was all it would take. This would all be over.
What was he waiting for?
With all the strength he had left in him, with all the force of his fear, his disappointment, and his rage, he brought his fist smashing down on the side of the ground next to Solan's neck.
He couldn't do it. He just couldn't.
Four second had passed since Solan was hit by lightning. As the Turbo Ranger slumped back the fifth second ticked by and a familiar voice came out of nowhere.
“ CONGRATULATIONS, FINALISTS!” boomed Archon. “THE LAST ROUND OF THE TOURNAMENT WILL COMMENCE TOMORROW, AFTER YOU HAVE BOTH HAD AN OPPORTUNITY TO REST AND RECOVER .”And once again the Battlefield was empty of all save the dead.
To be continued in Chapter 9Back to the Academy