He had vowed not to interfere in the boy's battles. He had provided as much aid and guidance as possible up to this point, and now it fell to his protégé to prove worthy of all that effort. He could not solve the boy's challenges; that would be an obscenity almost as foul as the one he was seeking to undo. No, the son of Xena needed to prevail over the difficulties he would face on his own-or not at all.
He knew this, understood it, and accepted it-and still every bit of his self-control had been required to keep from acting when he saw the Ranger ready to deliver the death-blow. Fortunately the adolescent's fundamental softness had won out, but the physical reprieve had only opened the door to a different danger, one which under the circumstances would have almost certainly claimed his pupil.
So he had acted, prematurely ending the day's conflict under the pretext that since they were the last two remaining contestants, the final battle would begin tomorrow.
It was intervention of the sort he had sworn he would not do, but he could not allow everything to fall into ruin because of such a freak coincidence. The odds of being downed by the lightning from an Immortal Quickening were infinitesimal!
He would not mollycoddle the boy again; he was righting a wrong here, not engaging in charity. The two would of course be kept apart tonight, since it would be unfair to allow Justin to speak where violence was prohibited, but tomorrow he would accept whatever outcome the new day brought. Now he would content himself with emphasizing and elaborating on the lesson he had intended for Kenny to teach.
The shift from the forest floor to the top of his bed was over in a matter of seconds. It took considerably longer for the electrocuted preadolescent to unsteadily raise himself to a sitting position. "Archon!" he shouted. "W-what happened?"
"KENNY WAS AN IMMORTAL, A BEING ABLE RETURN TO LIFE EVEN AFTER BEING KILLED. THE ONLY WAY TO TRULY SLAY AN IMMORTAL IS TO BEHEAD ONE, AND WHEN AN IMMORTAL PERISHES THERE IS A LIGHTNTING-STORM OF THE KIND YOU SAW."
The recovering lad absorbed this startling new information in silence. He had never head of Immortals before, but then neither had he heard of Power Rangers or Klingons until coming here.
"You never told me what he was!" the Warrior Prince pointed out accusatorily, his anger beginning to mount at the hideously familiar feeling of betrayal.
"IT WAS NOT MY PLACE TO TELL YOU. I WILL NOT BE THERE TO WARN YOU OF EVERY ENEMY YOU WILL FACE IN YOUR LIFE. I URGED YOU YESTERDAY TO ADD CONFIDENCE TO YOUR CAUTION; I DID NOT SAY TO DISCARD CAUTION. YOU TOOK MANY RISKS TODAY: SPARING THE RANGER, LEAVING HIM UNTIL LAST, AND FACING THE KLINGON WITHOUT A WEAPON. YOU ARE ALREADY A PRINCE AMONG WARRIORS, BUT YOU MUST NOT ALLOW YOUR ABILITY TO BLIND YOU TO THE DANGER POSED BY YOUR FOES. YOU ARE STILL MORTAL, AND YOUR STRENGTH IS FAR FROM FULLY FLOWERED."
"REMEMBER TOO THE WAYS IN WHICH YOU ARE AS VULNERABLE AS ANY MAN, AND GUARD AGAINST THEM! KENNY COULD NEVER HAVE CLAIMED TO BE YOUR EQUAL IN COMBAT, BUT WHAT WOULD HAVE HAPPENED HAD HE SUCCEEDED IN CREEPING UP BEHIND YOU? "
The Grecian boy flushed at the question and the implied rebuke. He had begun to feel almost invincible, and he had more than welcomed that feeling; he had basked in it! To have it so suddenly torn away from him by the day's events was akin to a physical wound.
Kenny's return to life and sneaking up on him would have been enough by themselves to destroy his illusion of invulnerability. Much worse was what had happened after Kenny had died.
The thunderbolt which had struck him had stripped away everything he'd gained. In an instant he had been reduced to less than what he'd been before. Unable even to move, he could only lie there facedown in the grass, and wait to die.
And all the while (it had seemed to last for years) intense fear had been surging through him. He had truly believed that he would never feel such awful, gut-wrenching terror again, that he had left the very possibility behind along with his old, unmourned self. Now he knew otherwise, and the knowledge infuriated him.
He had accepted Archon's offer so he could become someone better than who he was! Someone strong and skilled, free from fear and shame! His transformation had improved him so much, yet it seemed he was not as far removed from the helpless weakling he had been as he thought.
He hated that realization worst of all.
He sat up slowly on the bed, his body aching and sore all over. Why was he feeling this way? It had to be some kind of aftereffect of being hit by Zeus' spear. He hoped it would wear off soon; he had a long list of exercises he needed to perform to maintain his physical prowess. In the meantime he had a good idea for how to soothe the ache he was experiencing.
Not deigning to respond to Archon he walked painfully to his bathroom. With the hesitance of one doing something still new to him, he sealed the tub's drain and turned the metal knobs that controlled the hot and cold water.
Bathing in hot water was an unheard of luxury in his village, and he wanted to enjoy it while he still could.
When the hollow was nearly filled the Warrior Prince pulled off his boots, briefs and cross-belt and slipped into the steaming water, submerging himself up to the neck. Some of the liquid rose and spilled over the sides, which it had not done yesterday morning. Then again, yesterday morning he hadn't been the size he was now.
The immersion helped his body, but did nothing for his pysche. Still troubled over the day's events he allowed his mind to flash back to yesterday, to the end of his old life and the beginning of his new one. . .
He tumbled out of the portal onto a cold metal floor. Rising he saw that the room he was in was a tiny ten by ten square of dull, gray steel, with no apparent entrances or exits. Renewed apprehension welled within him as he glanced about the empty, dingy space.
"SO YOU BELIEVE YOU ARE AN UNSUITABLE CANDIDATE FOR MY CONTEST?" Archon asked.
"Yes!" Solan shouted defiantly, his overwhelming frustration eclipsing any fear of the consequences of his response.
"You know I can't do this, gods damn you! I'm not a warrior! I don't belong here!!"
"YOU DO BELONG HERE, BUT YOU SHOULD NOT BE AS YOU ARE NOW."
This bizarre assertion did nothing to calm the highly agitated preteen. "What in Hades' name is that supposed to mean?!?"
"YOU ARE AWARE THAT I HAVE TAKEN YOU AND THE OTHERS FROM DIFFERENT TIME PERIODS. KNOW THAT IT IS WITHIN MY POWER TO VIEW ALL THAT OCCURS IN THE TIME STREAM. I SAW THE GRAND DESTINY THE FATES HAD CHOSEN FOR YOU, AND I SAW YOU TREACHEROUSLY RIPPED AWAY FROM THAT PATH WHEN YOU WERE BUT A NEWBORN BABE. IT WAS THAT FIRST BETRAYAL WHICH LED TO YOUR LIFE IN THE CENTAUR VILLAGE AND YOUR DEATH AT THE HANDS OF DAHAK'S DAUGHTER HOPE-IF NOT FOR MY INTERVENTION."
So that was her name. Repressing a shudder at the memory of the girl who had almost killed him, Solan sought to dispel his rapidly growing confusion. "What are you talking about? What destiny, what betrayal?"
"BEFORE YOU WERE BORN THE ORACLE AT DELPHI FORETOLD YOUR FUTURE TO YOUR PARENTS. SHE TOLD THEM THAT UNDER THEIR CARE YOU WOULD GROW TO BECOME THE GREATEST WARRIOR THE WORLD HAD EVER SEEN. EVEN BY YOUR CURRENT AGE YOU WOULD BE KNOWN THROUGHOUT GREECE AS THE WARRIOR PRINCE AND FEW MORTAL MEN WOULD BE A MATCH FOR YOU.
"That's insane!" Solan burst out. "You're mocking me with your lies! I could never be like that!"
"WHY DO YOU DOUBT WHAT YOU ARE CAPABLE OF, SOLAN? YOU ARE THE SON OF TWO GREAT WARRIORS IN THEIR OWN RIGHT. WHY SHOULD YOU DISBELIEVE THE TRUTH THAT YOU WOULD HAVE SURPASSED THEM, WOULD HAVE BECOME GREATER STILL?"
"BECAUSE I'M NOT!" he screamed at the top of his lungs. Tears trembled at the corners of his eyes. How much longer would Archon go on? What was the point of taunting him like this?
"I can't fight! I'm useless in a battle! The only reason I'm still alive is because Justin and Jo helped me!"
"YOUR IGNORANCE OF THE ART OF WAR IS THE FAULT OF YOUR BETRAYER. SHE WAS THE ONE WHO THWARTED YOUR DESTINY, CONDEMNING YOU TO A BRIEF, LONELY EXISTENCE AMONG THE CENTAURS."
"THAT TRAITOR WAS YOUR MOTHER."
Solan gave a scornful, bitter laugh. No other response was warranted.
"SHE WAS DISPLEASED BY THE ORACLE'S PROPHECY, JEALOUS OF THE POWER AND GLORY THAT WAS TO BE YOURS. SHE HAD NO INTENTION OF BEING OUTSTRIPPED BY HER OWN OFFSPRING. SHE AND YOUR FATHER QUARRELED VIOLENTLY OVER THE MATTER AND REFUSED TO SEE EACH OTHER. THEIR SEPARATION GAVE DAGNINE THE OPPORTUNITY TO MURDER YOUR FATHER. AFTER BORIAS WAS SLAIN YOUR MOTHER FELT FREE TO ABANDON YOU TO THE CENTAURS."
"Why didn't she just kill me?" Solan asked sarcastically.
"THOUGH IT WAS OUTWEIGHTED BY HER PRIDE AND AMBITION, SHE DID FEEL SOME AFFECTION FOR YOU. SHE DIDN'T WANT TO TAKE YOUR LIFE, ONLY TO DEPRIVE IT OF PURPOSE AND MEANING. SHE KNEW WITHOUT THE TRAINING SHE AND YOUR FATHER WOULD HAVE GIVEN YOU, YOU WOULD NEVER RISE ABOVE HER. NO ONE IN THE WORLD WOULD THEN BE ABLE TO EQUAL THE WARRIOR PRINCESS."
"XENA?!? You're saying that XENA is my mother?" Solan demanded in shock. That couldn't be true! And then he actually thought about it. For the first time, he considered the possibility that Xena was his mother.
He remembered the bond he had felt with her once he had stopped hating the tall, dark-haired woman. He remembered the feeling of contentment he had when she had sung to him. He remembered how much the thought of traveling with her had thrilled him, even in the tragic wake of Kaleipus' death. He remembered how she had assured him his mother would not want him to be a warrior . . .
"YES, SOLAN" Archon answered with an obscene gentleness. "XENA IS YOUR MOTHER."
Solan tried to deny it and failed, the words dying in his throat. His thoughts were centered on the similarity of his and Xena's facial features. They even had the same eyes! Why hadn't he noticed that before? Looking back he could see other things he had missed, subtle hints which he had failed to catch. Incredible as it seemed at first, there was substantial reason to believe this. But what ultimately convinced him was not his mind, but his heart. Deep inside, he knew that Xena was indeed his mother.
And she had never told him. He had opened up to her, spoken of how he wished he could have known his mother, and she had not said one word. He had valued her as a friend, but to know that she was his mother, the woman he had longed to meet . . . it would have meant so much to him!
How could she have kept this from him? Worse, how could she have visited him only twice in twelve years? Had she felt so little for him? The possibility went through him like a spear, making him catch his breath in sudden pain.
"But she rescued me from Dagnine," he protested in a small, dazed voice. "She tried to keep me safe from Callisto. We were going to travel together!"
"AS I SAID, SHE DID FEEL AFFECTION FOR YOU. ONCE THE DANGER THAT YOU WOULD GROW BEYOND HER WAS PAST SHE WAS WILLING TO PROTECT YOU, AS ONE WOULD A FAVORED PET. IN DEPRIVING YOU OF THE ABILITY TO PROTECT YOURSELF, HOWEVER, SHE SEALED YOUR DOOM. EVEN IF YOU HAD EVADED HOPE, YOU WOULD NOT HAVE LONG SURVIVED TRAVELING WITH YOUR MOTHER. ATROPOS WOULD HAVE CUT YOUR THREAD WITHIN A MONTH."
Affection. His mother, the woman he had dreamed of being with, had felt affection for him. The awful weight of that revelation was too much for the emotionally fatigued boy to bear. Falling forward onto his hands and knees he broke down sobbing, releasing years of pain. He wept for the perfect image of his mother which he had carried with him all his life, now shattered into a thousand pieces. Drawing in a breath he literally howled his grief to the unseen heavens.
When at last he finished he felt drained, as tired as he had ever been. Inside he was barren and lifeless, filled with a kind of bleak hopelessness. Even the angry, frustrated self-loathing he had felt earlier could not begin to compare to this. He had come to his lowest point, his emotional nadir.
Archon had remained silent all throughout Solan's ordeal and, caught in the throes of his own misery, the twelve year-old had virtually forgotten about his captor. He was forcefully reminded of the other's presence when Archon called his name. Though startled, he didn't react. He kept his gaze on the floor, as if the secrets of the universe were to be found in that smooth, gray surface. Repetition of his name brought no response.
"SOLAN, I UNDERSTAND THAT THE TRUTH COMES AS A GREAT SHOCK TO YOU, BUT YOU NEEDED TO BE TOLD. YOU MUST KNOW OF THE LIFE YOU WOULD HAVE LED WITHOUT YOUR MOTHER'S BETRAYAL."
Now the bowed head slowly rose, revealing a flushed, tear-streaked face and reddened, watery eyes. "Why?" he whispered. "Why did I have to know? What purpose did it serve except to feed your cruelty?" The ashes in his heart were stirring, igniting into a cold wrath, a hate as icy as it was implacable.
"Are you satisfied now, Archon? Was my pain enough to bring you the pleasure you sought? Have you hurt me sufficiently with the knowledge that my mother did not love me? Or is there more? Will you torture me in other ways before you finally allow me the death you stole from me? Why didn't you let me die on Earth? Why did you have to bring me here?!?"
"I TOOK NO JOY IN YOUR SUFFERING, SOLAN. I SAVED YOUR LIFE BECAUSE I WAS CURIOUS TO SEE HOW FAR YOUR NATIVE ABILITY WOULD TAKE YOU WITHOUT TRAINING TO HONE AND DEVELOP IT. YOU WERE THE UNCERTAIN ELEMENT IN MY TOURNAMENT."
"So you took me just to see how long I would last before dying?"
"I GAVE YOU A CHANCE TO PRESERVE YOUR LIFE, TO FIGHT FOR YOUR SURVIVAL."
"What chance? You knew that I didn't know how to fight!"
"YES, I OVERESTIMATED WHAT YOU WOULD BE CAPABLE OF WITHOUT THE PROPER TRAINING. STILL, YOU DID WELL IN ATTEMPTING TO SEEK OUT SUCH TRAINING; IT IS A PITY THAT JUSTIN REFUSED TO TEACH YOU. IN ANY CASE, I HAVE THE POWER TO MAKE YOU WHOLE IF YOU WISH."
"I weary of your riddles, Archon. Tell me plainly what you mean, or be done with me."
"YOUR MOTHER'S CHOICES DENIED YOU THE YEARS OF INTENSE TRAINING YOU WOULD HAVE RECEIVED IF YOU HAD BEEN PROPERLY RAISED BY HER AND BORIAS. IF YOU WISH IT, I WILL WITHIN A FEW HOURS BESTOW UPON YOU THE PHYSICAL AND MENTAL BENEFITS OF A DECADE'S WORTH OF INSTRUCTION IN THE ARTS OF WAR. I WILL GIVE YOU THE POWER WHICH HAS BEEN STOLEN FROM YOU. I WILL MAKE YOU WORTHY OF THE TITLE "WARRIOR PRINCE"."
"W-Why would you do that? What do you want in return?" Solan asked warily.
"THERE IS NO PRICE, SOLAN. I OFFER THIS GIFT AS A REWARD FOR YOUR DETERMINATION IN MAKING IT THIS FAR, AND FOR THE COURAGE YOU DISPLAYED IN FACING A BOY YOU KNEW WAS MANY TIMES STRONGER THAN YOU. THEN, TOO, I HAVE SEEN YOU AT YOUR WORST; I WOULD ENJOY THE CHANCE TO OBSERVE YOU AT YOUR BEST. OF COURSE THE CHANGE WOULD NOT BE PAINLESS, BUT YOU COULD ENDURE THE PROCESS WITHOUT LASTING HARM. THERE WOULD ALSO BE A TEST OF YOUR ABILITIES, WHICH I AM CERTAIN YOU WOULD PASS. WHAT IS YOUR ANSWER?"
"What if I refuse?"
"THEN I WILL RETURN YOU AT ONCE TO THE BATTLEFIELD AND YOU MAY CONTINUE IN THE CONTEST AS YOUR MOTHER MADE YOU. THE CHOICE IS YOURS."
The devastated Grecian pulled himself together as best he could and considered what he should do. His first instinct was to reject Archon's aid. He didn't want to take anything from the foul creature who had subjected him and the other kids to the torments of these past few days. If he declined, though, nothing would change. He would remain the youngest one there, a child unskilled in any form of combat, a burden to his allies and an amusement to his enemies. Like that traitor Kenny! If he went back as he was, Kenny would surely kill him. Even if Archon was kind enough to place him somewhere else, away from Kenny, his main problem remained the same: He couldn't defend himself, and he couldn't stand to go on like that any further. He was sick to death of being afraid all the time, of knowing each second in the Battlefield could be his last. Even worse was feeling so powerless, like a little ewe lamb in a circle of wolves. Kenny's cruel words echoed in his memory. "You're almost not worth killing. Almost."
Kenny would have killed him already if Archon hadn't taken him away. Which just went to prove the blond boy's point, Solan admitted in self-disgust. It was pathetic for him to have to rely on others to rescue him, yet it seemed that was all he had done his whole life. No wonder Alexander held him in contempt.
Given the amount of assistance he'd already accepted, why should he draw the line here? Especially if taking the offer meant he would finally be able to stand up for himself in the future? Archon had said he would have been a famous fighter by this age if he had been raised by his parents.
Thinking of his parents gave him another reason to say yes. This was what his father had always wanted for him, and what his mother had never wanted. She had been willing to forsake him and ruin his entire life rather than see him trained as a warrior.
Xena had effectively deprived him of both his natural parents. Two years ago her actions had persuaded him to bury his detestation of her and to give up on the very idea of becoming a warrior. Her return this year had cost him his adopted father, slain by her enemy Callisto. He would have died as well if Archon hadn't brought him into this strange gladiatorial game, where his own impotence had been brought home to him time and again.
As he looked back at what his mother's jealousy and fear had cost him, Solan felt his past hatred of Xena return and multiply tenfold. All of the unhappiness in his life could be traced back to his mother's callous betrayal. His terrifying near-death experiences here were ultimately Xena's fault, for having kept him from learning the combat skills he needed to survive. She had even encouraged him not to become a warrior!
This experience had opened his eyes to the flaws of that decision. Spurning the ways of battle only made you vulnerable to those who embraced them. He should never have renounced the way of the warrior. In doing so he had defied reason and common sense, had unknowingly defied the Fates themselves.
Here was his chance to correct that error. He had to take it.
Ignoring a twinge of foreboding, Solan voiced his acquiescence. "I accept your offer, Archon. Please, make me the warrior I could have been."
"EXCELLENT," Archon said, and there was no mistaking the satisfaction in his odd voice.
"PLEASE DISROBE AND LIE DOWN."
Embarrassed at the thought of taking his clothes off before Archon, Solan was slow to comply with the order. Eventually he did remove his garments and piled them in a small heap, crowned with the headband Kaleipus had given him. He then stretched out on the floor, the cool metal almost immediately raising goose-bumps on his arms, back and legs.
"REMEMBER THAT THE DISCOMFORT YOU ARE ABOUT TO EXPERIENCE WILL BE TEMPORARY. THE IMPROVEMENTS WILL BE PERMANENT."
These less than reassuring words were followed by shooting pains throughout Solan's body and a terrible burning sensation. At the same time his mind was immersed in a flood of new information, pouring in too quickly for him to comprehend. Though frightening, disorienting and confusing, it was actually a welcome distraction from the intensity of the agony.
Solan tried to scream, but he had lost control of himself. His eyesight blurred and darkened as he entered a semiconscious state. When full consciousness finally returned his first thought was of escape.
He surged up at once, but froze when he saw another person a few feet in front of him. Then he realized that the gloomy gray walls, floor and ceiling had been replaced with polished, mirrored surfaces. He was looking at himself, but the image he beheld was that of a stranger.
The most noticeable alteration was that his muscles had grown beyond belief, easily tripling in size. His pecs were a pair of small boulders, joining together shoulders which seemed two yards wide and overshadowing cobblestone abs and wing-like lats. His legs were thick as tree-trunks with muscle and his arms were enormous, his biceps bigger than most men's calves.
Although he had deeply loathed the contestant who had killed Jo, Solan had also envied the other boy's amazing build. Now his own physique was even more awe-inspiring than that of his fallen nemesis. Slowly he begun to genuinely smile as he took stock of the other visible changes he had undergone.
His skin was deeply tanned, approximating the color of bronze. His cheekbones were more prominent and his jaw was firmer. His face had lengthened and had lost much of its childlike roundness. He looked like a man rather than a boy, especially with the extra couple of inches of height he had gained.
The splendor of his new form made Solan think of the story of Narcissus, the boy so gorgeous that he had fallen in love with his reflection. For the first time Solan understood how that could be so. He was all but entranced by his utter physical perfection. The embarrassment he had felt before about being naked was gone; it was clear he had nothing to be ashamed of and a great deal to be proud of.
"WITH THE CORRECT FOOD AND EXERCISE THIS IS THE DEGREE OF DEVELOPMENT YOU WOULD HAVE ACHIEVED. SINCE YOUR OLD GARB WOULD NOW NO LONGER SUIT YOU, I HAVE PREPARED MORE APPROPRIATE CLOTHING."
Ahead of Solan the wall split horizontally and a shelf holding several objects extended itself into the room at waist height. Moving forward he saw a pair of leather boots and breeches sitting on the shelf along with a thin leather cross-belt. There was a scabbard with a sword attached to the rear junction of the cross-belt and a chakram hung from a metal hook at the torso belt.
The presence of the weapons surprised him at first, especially the chakram. Chakrams were his mother's signature weapon. He hadn't so much as touched one in his life. Yet the sight of that circle of steel brought forth memories of untold hours of practice. Though he knew the recollections to be false, they seemed as real as to him as any of his other memories. He lifted up the chakram and was able to tell at once that it was flawlessly balanced. It felt familiar in his hand and his mind insisted he was exceedingly proficient in its use.
Swallowing hard, he replaced the chakram on its hook and turned to examine the sword. Grasping the pommel he half-unsheathed the blade and recognized it immediately. It was Borias' sword, the only thing of his father's that he had ever owned. When he had decided not to be a warrior he had discarded the weapon, casting it into the lake. Archon must have retrieved it for him. The symbolism of the sword's return was not lost on Solan, though this affected him less than the realization that he knew exactly how to wield it.
He remembered so much now that he had never known before. He remembered years upon years of training in archery, acrobatics, strategy, strength and endurance, horse-riding, javelin throwing, swordsmanship, chakram throwing, wrestling, hunting and hand-to-hand combat.
This was all in line with Archon's offer, but it was difficult for him to believe that he had truly acquired all of these skills. He needed to experiment, to see if he could actually do everything he "remembered" doing.
Solan slipped on his new attire, bemused at how well it fit and how comfortable it was. The cross-belt didn't restrict his movements in the slightest, nor did it conceal his extremely formidable physique. He turned toward the unbroken wall at the left and again marveled at his new appearance. His first defiant thought was that he looked to be every bit as much of a warrior as Xena did. Now it was time to see if he could match her on more than a superficial level.
He concentrated first on hand-to-hand combat. His mind contained an exhaustive amount of knowledge on the subject, derived from a number of different martial systems, and he had memories of winning dozens of fights using his own personal style of fighting. He shadow sparred against his image, trying out a variety of kicks, strikes and blocks. It all came so easily to him, as though he had practiced these techniques all of his life. He executed each move correctly and with blinding speed. His natural quickness had developed into something greater, making him swifter than the wind. In a fight his blows would land almost before his enemies saw them coming.
And they would land with bone-crushing force. It was fairly obvious that he had grown far stronger than he had been before. He "recalled" doing ever more strenuous daily work-outs for the purpose of improving and strengthening his primary weapon, his body. Now even his smallest, most casual movements made him acutely aware of the physical might he possessed. He wished ardently that there was something in the room he could use to test his newfound brawn, an inanimate object for him to lift, hurl or break. He remembered Jo talking about the heavy metal bars with weights in the exercise room and resolved to go there as soon as he had the chance.
After another few minutes Solan concluded his close combat practice. He had verified that his level of skill was indeed in accord with his new memories. This proof of his lethal prowess thrilled and delighted him beyond measure. He basked in the wonderful realization that his days of being a defenseless victim were finally over. No one would ever be able to kick him around again! The next person who tried would get a firsthand demonstration of how deadly he was.
"IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO EXPLORE YOUR ABILITIES FURTHER I CAN GIVE YOU A LARGER AREA IN WHICH TO DO SO," Archon declared.
The walls and ceiling began retreating, expanding the room from a ten by ten cube to a fifty by fifty chamber. Solan's old clothes also vanished, though their owner failed to note their loss. He was too busy looking around. The vast amount of space which had become available clinched his decision as to what to do next.
He would try out his agility and coordination. His mother was well-known for her use of acrobatics and he had seen her in action while she was rescuing him from Dagnine. He easily performed all of the leaps, flips and somersaults he had seen her do, adding his own thoroughly impressive improvised moves. He soared through the air like an eagle and really did feel as though he were flying. It was an exhilarating experience and upon its conclusion he laughed aloud with joy.
Next he took up his chakram and flung it at the wall opposite the shelf. It struck his reflection's neck, exactly where he had aimed it, ricocheted off the wall on the left and sped straight back toward him. He caught it without difficulty, his reflexes as sharply honed as the circular blade itself. He threw it again and again it struck his target. He found he was able to hit whatever he aimed at, and was usually able to make the disc return to him. Satisfied he put the chakram back on its hook and drew out his father's sword.
The two foot long bastard sword felt light and alive in his hand. He went through a complex attack routine with it, wielding the flashing blade as though it were a part of him. Nothing further was needed for him to be certain of his mastery. With this weapon in his possession he would prevail over any opponent. Reaching back he smoothly reinserted the sword into its scabbard.
"A STRIKING DISPLAY," Archon acknowledged. "TELL ME, HOW DOES IT FEEL TO GO FROM THE PUNY CHILD YOU WERE TO THE FORMIDABLE FIGHTER YOU WERE MEANT TO BE?"
The question was followed by a long pause as the subject of the inquiry searched his soul for the answer.
"It feels right," he replied. And it did. His sense of disbelief and dislocation had worn away as his impromptu practice session progressed. Confirming what he was capable of had made his new memories less alien and artificial to him, more familiar and believable. It had begun to seem almost natural for him to be able to do the things he had done. He knew that this was the way he was supposed to be; it was how he had been before which was the aberration.
"IT IS RIGHT, YOUR RIGHT," Archon insisted. "THIS IS WHAT YOU ARE ENTITLED TO, SOLAN. THE HOUR IS VERY LATE AND SOON I WILL LEAVE YOU TO REST. FIRST, THOUGH, I WISHED TO TELL YOU OF THE TEST YOU WILL FACE ON THE MORROW."
Brief incomprehension was followed by a recollection of Archon mentioning a test of his abilities as part of the price for them. Another broad smile brightened his comely visage. After seeing what he could do today he had trouble envisioning a test which would present any real difficulties for him.
"SIMPLY RETURNING YOU TO THE TOURNAMENT AS YOU ARE WOULD PRESENT YOU WITH AN UNFAIR ADVANTAGE OVER THE REMAINING FOUR CONTESTANTS. JUSTIN, ALEXANDER, KENNY AND COLIN MUST BE GIVEN AN OPPORTUNITY TO END THE THREAT YOU POSE. AFTER BREAKFAST YOU WILL FACE THEM IN COMBAT, ALL AT ONCE. YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO KILL ANY OF THEM, BUT THEY WILL BE ATTEMPTING TO KILL YOU. IF YOU SUCCEED IN SUBDUING THEM, THE TOURNAMENT WILL RESUME. "
Momentarily caught off guard by the surprising form of the test, the sobered youth considered the implications.
Previously he would have been terrified at the thought of facing four opponents simultaneously. Now, however, the knowledge of how much he had learned and changed acted as a bulwark against his fear.
He had "memories" of fighting and winning against multiple opponents to draw upon for solace, in addition to the welcome new sense of pride and self-confidence he had gained. Part of him actually looked forward to the fight, to demonstrating how powerful he had become.
Yet he still couldn't help wondering if he was overestimating himself. Was it truly possible for him to survive taking on Justin, Alexander, Colin, and Kenny at the same time?
Wait, who was Colin?
"Who is Colin?" he questioned Archon.
"COLIN IS THE VAMPIRE YOU WERE WARNED OF THIS MORNING."
"The vampire?" Solan asked his voice edged with uneasiness as the despised feeling of fear began to get the better of him. Tales credited vampires with so many supernatural abilities. To beat one down without killing it while he was beset by three other warriors . . .
"DO YOU DOUBT YOUR ABILITY TO OVERCOME HIM?" Archon inquired. Not giving Solan a chance to answer Archon continued speaking. "BEING WARY OF WHAT YOUR OPPONENTS ARE CAPABLE OF IS A TRAIT WHICH WILL SERVE YOU WELL, ESPECIALLY WHEN THEY ARE MORE THAN HUMAN. DO NOT DISMISS YOUR CAUTION, BUT TRUST IN YOURSELF AND YOUR ABILITIES. EVEN WITH THE DISADVANTAGES YOU MUST LABOR UNDER, YOU ARE MORE THAN A MATCH FOR THE YOUR COMPETITORS."
Archon's reassurance heartened Solan as he thought about each of the individuals he would soon be confronting.
He knew nothing about the vampire. He could only be cautious and keep faith that he would be able to overcome it.
Then there was Kenny. He had never seen Kenny fight, but the image of Kenny holding that bloodied sword over him was one which had been seared forever into his memory. Looking back on that moment with new eyes he immediately noted that Kenny had held his blade incorrectly, as though it were an ax to chop wood. His demonstration of so basic a flaw made it unlikely that Kenny had any real training in swordsmanship.
Thus the most difficult part of facing Kenny might well be keeping himself from killing the lying traitor. After what had happened this morning he felt like tearing the blond boy's head off.
Next came Alexander, whom he had never seen fight either. He did know, however, that Justin had defeated the Klingon, and he hungered to do the same. Alexander hadn't bothered to mask his disdain and contempt for Solan, and it would be a pleasure to put the arrogant alien in his place. He would show Alexander who the better warrior was once and for all!
That left Justin. He had watched Justin fight and at the time the experience had left him awed, admiring, and envious. Analyzing what he had seen again from his newly enlightened perspective brought none of those feelings. Yes, Justin was good . . . but he, Solan, was markedly better.
Drawing such a bold conclusion from one brief incident was dangerous, yet the truth of his judgment seemed inescapable. He was incontestably much faster and almost certainly two or three times stronger than Justin. Even without those advantages his new knowledge of swordsmanship and hand-to-hand combat led him to believe he could've bested the trident-bearing boy in less than half the time it had taken the Ranger to do so.
Justin, however, was the only one of the four kids left whom he didn't want to hurt. The teenager had been his friend and protector from the start, and although he had ceased needing anyone's protection, friends were still something to be treasured. The Ranger's refusal to instruct him had hurt, but with Archon's unexpected assistance he had nonetheless surpassed Justin in the practice of the arts of war. He had every intention of making that fact crystal clear to the Turbo Ranger, perhaps by engaging the older boy in a practice battle. After he'd had a chance to thoroughly assess the teenager's style of combat he might even offer Justin a few tips on how to improve. Still, vigorous sparring was as far as he meant for it to go; he did not wish to truly fight his friend.
And he wouldn't have to, he realized with a measure of relief. Why would he? Justin would never try to kill him! They were friends, and the brown-haired teen wouldn't even kill his enemies! Justin would refuse to take part in this test. Involuntarily the corners of Solan's mouth turned upward in a relaxed grin.
"WHAT ARE YOU THIKING OF?" Archon asked, apparently reading his expression.
"Only that Justin won't participate in this. He won't try to kill me," Solan explained confidently.
"ARE YOU SO SURE?"
"Of course I am! Justin wouldn't do that; he hasn't killed anyone here."
"BUT HE HAS. BEHOLD!"
Before him the mirrored wall ceased showing his reflection and instead displayed Justin, lying on a mountainside. Over him stood the warlock Morthos, a bloody wound in his chest and Justin's Turbo Blade clenched in his hands. Morthos dropped to one knee and Solan gasped as he saw Justin plunge a wavy-bladed dagger into Morthos' heart.
Then the image vanished and Solan saw only his own stunned, changed countenance staring back at him. Justin had killed someone! Did that mean he'd abandoned his plan? Had he decided to try to win the tournament after all?
"JUSTIN HAS FINALLY REALIZED THAT A WARRIOR MUST KILL. IT IS THEREFORE FORTUNATE THAT YOU NO LONGER HAVE TO RELY ON HIM FOR PROTECTION."
Was Archon implying . . . ? No, Justin wouldn't hurt him!
"He wouldn't hurt me!" Solan insisted, clinging to that certainty.
"HE WOULD NOT IMMEDIATELY SEEK TO HARM YOU, NO," Archon conceded. "TO HIM YOU HAVE ALWAYS BEEN SOMEONE TO PITY, A PRIMITIVE WHOLLY DEPENDENT UPON YOUR BETTERS FOR YOUR SAFETY. IN HIS EYES YOU ARE NOTHING MORE THAN HIS TAME PET, SUSTAINED ONLY BY HIS GENEROUSITY."
Was-was that really how Justin viewed him? It was accurate, he conceded with bitter self-loathing, but he had thought the Turbo Ranger was his friend! Then again, he had thought the same thing about Xena, hadn't he?
"WHY DO YOU THINK HE WOULD NOT EVEN TRY TO TEACH YOU KARATE? HE TOLD YOU THERE WAS NO TIME TO TEACH YOU ANYTHING OF VALUE, BUT WITH YOUR NATURAL TALENT YOU COULD HAVE QUICKLY GRASPED MUCH WHICH WOULD HAVE AIDED YOU. JUSTIN WRONGLY DEEMED YOU INCAPABLE OF LEARNING, BUT MORE THAN THAT, HE DID NOT WANT YOU TO LEARN! HE DID NOT DESIRE FOR YOU TO GROW AND DEVELOP OUTSIDE OF THE PLACE HE HAD ASSIGNED TO YOU, FOR FEAR THAT YOU MIGHT BECOME A THREAT."
Just like Xena, Solan thought, his fists clenching. Once more he had given his trust and friendship to someone unworthy of either, another arrogant false friend who wished to keep him weak and helpless. The sharp, aching hurt he felt at the revelation was quickly drowned out by a rising tide of hate.
"I FEAR HE WOULD HAVE EVENTUALLY TAKEN YOUR LIFE TO SECURE HIS OWN VICTORY IN THE TOURNAMENT. NOW WHEN HE SEES YOU AGAIN HE WILL SEEK TO PLACE YOU BACK UNDER HIS CONTROL. HE WILL NOT ACCEPT THE COMPETENT, INDEPENDENT INDIVIDUAL YOU HAVE BECOME. HE WILL TRY TO MAKE YOU RETURN TO WHO YOU WERE AND ONCE MORE SUBMIT TO HIM AS HIS HUMBLE, OBEDIENT FOLLOWER. WILL YOU? ARE YOU STILL THE SAME FEEBLE, SUBSERVIENT SOLAN THAT HE KNEW?"
"NO!" the Grecian boy bellowed furiously. "I've grown far beyond what I was! The Solan that he knew is dead; I am the Warrior Prince!"
The words were voiced without forethought, springing entirely from his pain, rage and injured pride, but they were nonetheless true. Today he had experienced a physical and mental rebirth. He had been given a superb new body along with the skills gained from a decade spent learning the ways of battle. For all practical purposes he was the boy his parents would have raised, and rightfully deserved the title he had claimed. He was worthy of it now, just as Archon had promised, and it was a much more fitting sobriquet than the name his despised mother had given him.
"WELL SAID, WARRIOR PRINCE!" Archon complimented him. "THERE IS NO NEED FOR YOU TO BIND YOURSELF TO OTHERS AND AGAIN COURT BETRAYAL. YOU HAVE GAINED WHAT YOU NEED TO STAND ALONE, AND TO TRIUMPH! ARE YOU READY, THEN, TO SLAY THE COMPETITORS WHO HAVE TREATED YOU AS A LESSER BEING?"
Archon was talking about winning the tournament, something which truthfully hadn't even occurred to him. He'd been so busy rejoicing in his new self that he hadn't thought beyond the proposed test. Yet . . . if he could indeed withstand his rivals' united assault, as he hoped, then what chance did any of them have against him individually? He loomed head and shoulders above them now, literally and figuratively. All of this time they had looked down on him in amused contempt, but soon they would be forced to look up to him in frightened respect, knowing that he could easily crush them. He had the physical prowess to do it-and moreover he wanted to do it!
Let them learn what it felt like to be helpless! Let them experience the terror of facing a far superior foe! Let them cower before his mighty wrath! He had become his true self at last, and he would strike down all who dared to stand against him!
Including Justin! He wouldn't wait for his condescending "friend" to turn on him; tomorrow Justin would discover exactly how ferocious his "tame pet" had become!
He would triumph in this tournament, but even that was only a prelude to his real goal: Xena. In her unforgivable envy and pride she had done her best to ruin his life; the pain and suffering he had endured throughout his twelve years was almost entirely due to her meddling! For the many wrongs she had done to him she would die, and die horribly. Her last sight would be of her own warrior son slaughtering her without mercy!
"Yes," he answered in a voice resolute with conviction. "I'm ready."
The long soaking had eased the ache in the Warrior Prince's muscles, but his mental and emotional disquiet persisted. For the moment he continued to take refuge in reminiscing.
Archon had opened a portal back to his room and apologetically informed him that it was nearly midnight. The transformation process had taken over seven hours. He had missed dinner, yet he hadn't felt hungry, or tired. Archon explained that his biological needs had been met during the procedure, but still advised that he get some rest. To facilitate that goal the entity had provided him with what looked like a small pebble. Archon had claimed this "pill" would help him get to sleep if swallowed.
Whatever it had been, the Warrior Prince mused, it had worked quickly. He had hardly closed his eyes before he lost consciousness. The next thing he knew he was being awakened by the 8:00 A.M alarm. Archon had brought him breakfast in his room so as to preserve the surprise for the other contestants. He had approved, reasoning that startling his opponents with his new appearance just before the battle would give him a mental edge over them.
Their shocked expressions when he had made his entrance had validated that belief. To his surprise he had found that they looked different to him as well; they seemed smaller and scrawnier than he remembered. It had been hard to believe that he had ever feared any of them, and elation had welled up in him at the realization that soon they would fear him.
His opening chakram throw had been intended to shock and intimidate. The first real attack had been directed against the Blue Turbo Ranger, his most skillful opponent. Next he had shown up Alexander in swordsmanship and knocked the Klingon kid out. Kenny and Colin were then disarmed and overcome in a matter of seconds.
Subsequently the Ranger had recovered enough to try to take him in close combat. He had contemptuously trounced the teenager with a single move, effortlessly crippling his inferior enemy. Archon had pronounced the test over at that point, and he had been the first to stride from the chamber--and the sole one immediately able to do so.
His head had been held high as he left and he'd thought he might burst with pride from his accomplishment. He had faced the other contestants alone and had torn through them like a wolf through a herd of sheep! They hadn't had a prayer of even slowing him down, much less stopping him. Only Archon's prohibition against killing had kept him from slaughtering them all.
He had expected to prevail, but he hadn't dared to imagine he would triumph so easily. The resultant sense of empowerment and freedom had opened his eyes to what he had been missing all of his life.
Back at his room Archon had professed to be quite impressed with his performance. The Warrior Prince had accepted this praise as his due and after prompting had divulged his feelings to Archon. The strange being had assured him that such sensations were normal. He was built for battle and the exuberance he had taken in exercising his talents was to be expected. Archon had extolled caution, however, advising the Warrior Prince to wait for three more years of growth before seeking out Xena.
Eventually he had recalled his earlier desire to assess his strength and had gone to the gym. Shortly after he returned from a gratifying session he was teleported to a path in a forest, of all places, and told the tournament would now continue. The news had filled him with an excited anticipation.
His skirmish with Justin had been exhilarating, but also unsettling. Remembering that Justin really had saved his life had made him feel guilty, forcing him to sternly remind himself that the teen thought of him as little more than a dog and would kill him if given the chance. Nevertheless when Justin had removed his helmet he had found that he could not bring himself to even hit the boy, no matter how patronizing and manipulative the Ranger persisted in being. It was definitely better to fight him when that helmet covered his face.
The confrontation with Kenny had been much easier, physically and emotionally. It had been disturbing slaying the boy at the end, but he was still adjusting to all of this.
He had scoured about half the woods after that, noticing how much smaller this environment was than the others they had been placed in. With such a limited amount of space it would be almost impossible NOT to conclude things today!
He had proceeded to one of the clearings, certain he wouldn't have to wait long to be found. Alexander had proved him right and he had swiftly bested the arrogant alien. Then Justin had arrived. The teenager had been in no condition to face him, but had charged forward anyway. He had defeated the Ranger with ease, and then-but he didn't want to think about that anymore.
Was there any feeling more soul-crushing than helplessness, the Warrior Prince wondered bitterly. To not even be able to move! He was fortunate indeed that Archon had chosen to play out the final conflict tomorrow. Otherwise Justin would have killed him.
It was surprising that the Ranger hadn't killed him anyway, given how long it seemed he had lain helpless. His perception of how much time had passed must have been distorted by his circumstances.
When he reappeared in his bedroom Justin Stewart didn't scream and throw things. He didn't beg and plead. He didn't curl up in a corner, trembling with fear.
He just sat there on his bed, and did nothing.
He wondered idly if all of the emotional anguish and physical punishment he'd endured over these past four days might have finally broken him. Because what he was experiencing now was an overwhelming sensation of numbness and disengagement. It was like someone had stuffed his head with cotton.
The hours flitted by until his hunger grew too great to ignore. Rising he felt a dozen different twinges of pain flare up from various points on his thoroughly battered body. Slowly he made his way down to the dining hall.
There was only one chair at the table now.
Justin sagged abruptly against the door frame, shutting his eyes and taking deep, shuddering breaths as his sense of detachment vanished. When he had at last regained a semblance of control he walked to the food dispenser and ordered steak and fries. As he carried his plate to the table the old custom about how a condemned man was always entitled to a hearty last meal passed through his mind.
Technically this wasn't really his last meal; that would come in the morning. But he was indeed a condemned man, as surely as any death row prisoner, and unlike them he could entertain no hope of a last minute reprieve.
Tomorrow Solan was going to kill him.
It was inevitable, unavoidable. Since this morning the message of the other boy's newfound superiority had been literally and repeatedly pounded into him. In light of what he had learned he doubted he could take the "Warrior Prince" on his best day, and tomorrow would be far from that. Already he was utterly exhausted, beaten in more ways than one.
The food Archon provided his victims had always been above reproach, but tonight Justin had to force himself to choke down enough to fill his stomach. Then he had to struggle to keep it down.
He was going to die, and there was nothing he could do to prevent his death. He'd had his chance earlier, and he had thrown it away.
Giving up on eating anymore Justin put his head in his hands. He had known even as he let the opportunity slip away that it wouldn't come again. And still he hadn't been able to kill Solan. In spite of everything, he couldn't bring himself to cold-bloodedly murder a helpless enemy-especially when that enemy was someone he had once considered a friend.
Thinking back on the reasons for his restraint now Justin felt like screaming, but he was afraid he might not be able to stop.
From the moment of his arrival here he had tried so hard to live up to his ideals and adhere to the Ranger code. And what had been the result of his efforts? What was the reward for his virtue? All of his new friends and allies had died, all except for the one who had betrayed him.
So he sat here alone, waiting for new day and for his execution.
Justin walked listlessly back to his room, stripped down to his boxers, and slid under the covers. Unfortunately the peaceful oblivion of sleep eluded him, and every time he opened his eyes to glance at the computer clock he was angrily amazed at how little time had passed.
God, why couldn't this be OVER already?!?! Hadn't he suffered enough in this hell? Why hadn't Archon let them finish the contest instead of pointlessly dragging it out another day? Did the sadist imagine he was building suspense or something? It wasn't as if there was any real mystery left about who would win, not after Justin had failed to take advantage of his foe's brief window of vulnerability.
Ha, wouldn't it have messed up Archon's plans if he had, the teenager reflected in a bit of gallows humor. He could have killed Solan before Archon announced that the final fight would be the next day.
Justin sat bolt upright in bed, his eyes flying open. There was only one problem with that: Solan had been put at his mercy by the bizarre electrical discharge which had followed Kenny's demise. Kenny, who had been the last contestant left except for the two of them. If Archon had truly intended for his final contestants to fight it out tomorrow, he should have teleported them away the instant Kenny died. Instead he had waited what? Ten, fifteen seconds? Long enough for Justin to have killed Solan if he'd been so inclined. It was only after Justin had failed to do so that Archon removed them.
His mind warned him that he was grasping at straws, making too much of a delay that probably wasn't as long as he thought. Subjectively time slowed down in a crisis, didn't it? And he'd certainly been in a crisis.
Yet however long it had really been, it was certainly long enough for him to hit the grass with everything he had in him. If his punch had landed on Solan's neck it would have snapped like a twig and the contest would be over, without this "tomorrow is the last battle" crap.
Okay, so maybe Archon had simply been careless. He had accidentally given Justin the chance to end things early and had been lucky that the Turbo Ranger didn't follow through.
Justin didn't buy that one either. He'd concluded only a few hours ago that Archon's actions were on the whole logical and well-thought out. Would someone who had gone to the extent of learning about Ranger color affinity really allow his contest to be screwed up by such a basic failure as not teleporting people back on time? And it wasn't as if Kenny's death could have been a surprise. They'd all been in the same place, and wasn't the whole point of this contest to give Archon the voyeuristic thrill of watching them battle each other? He and Solan should have been out of there before Kenny's head touched the grass!
At least they should have been if Archon had truly planned for the final battle to take place tomorrow. He'd never given them any reason to think that, not before announcing it today. That, and the time delay, told Justin that it hadn't been his plan; it was simply a spur of the moment improvisation.
Why, though? So he could be sure Solan would win? No, if that was what he'd wanted they would have been removed before Justin could act. Archon was apparently willing to let Justin kill Solan; it was when Justin had failed to kill the Grecian boy that Archon had declared the day over.
If he had left them there Solan would have eventually recovered enough to act. He would have killed Justin then. Why not wait for that? Why draw things out further? Unless . . .
. . . unless Archon was afraid that by sparing Solan he might actually lead the twelve year-old to make peace with him.
But that was ridiculous! Solan was a monster, no better than Kenny! The two blonds were the same, both liars who had used and betrayed him without a second thought! If anything, Solan was actually worse than Kenny, because he had pretended to be Justin's friend.
Solan had probably planned to kill him from the first day they met! He must have! Look at how he had acted after being altered! He'd nearly killed Justin twice and had beaten him worse than anyone else ever had!
Justin's mind replayed the scene in the forest, his eidetic memory providing every detail. He remembered the cowardly sneak attack, the frantic feeling of suffocation, and his futile fight against the younger, bigger boy.
The recollections stoked his anger, sending it soaring ever higher, but at the same time he remembered the accusations Solan had made. The charges that Justin only made a show of being his friend out of pity, that Justin had wanted to keep him weak, that Justin would have killed him to win the tournament.
Obviously this was a projection of his feelings onto Justin as a means of self-justification. Yes, that explanation made sense. Justin felt momentarily reassured-until he remembered that Kenny had never bothered with anything of that nature. The blond had simply gone for the throat, unapologetically and without explanation, once his cover had been blown.
Did this difference really matter? It was a minor variation, wasn't it? They were still pretty much the same.
They were both killers. Kenny had murdered Alexander today, had killed someone else that third day, and had killed who knows how many other kids in the previous two days.
And of course Solan . . . had killed Kenny. He hadn't killed anyone in the morning, although he could have. He had almost killed Justin a couple of times in the afternoon, yes, but he had deliberately chosen not to. He had practically crippled Alexander, but he hadn't killed the alien either. The only one he'd killed was the traitor Justin whom had been willing to kill himself.
What about deception, though? Kenny had lied to him from the start, covering up his healing ability and the fact that he had possessed a sword. Clearly he had always intended to backstab Justin and win the tournament.
His heart insisted that Solan had lied too, but his head was having trouble figuring out when. Solan hadn't lied to him about his background; the new beliefs he'd shared about his past had been told to him later, by Archon. Nor had Solan lied to Justin about his abilities; everything he had demonstrated today had been the fruit of Archon's interference.
Well, then, hadn't he lied about his character, about what kind of person he was? How else could he doubt the truth of the friendship Justin had offered him?
Except he was doing the same thing, wasn't he? He was thinking that Solan must not have ever really been his friend, exactly what Solan had claimed about him.
Was it possible they were both wrong?
Unable to sit still any longer the brown-haired fourteen year-old climbed out of bed, shielding his eyes against the light as it clicked on. He began to pace, his mind going a million miles a minute as he tried to rationally consider this.
From almost the second the "Warrior Prince" had appeared Justin had been fixated on the idea that Solan was being controlled by Archon and thus was not responsible for his actions. When circumstances had finally forced him to discard that hypothesis he had let his own outraged hurt control him. He had immediately lumped Solan together with Kenny as an irredeemable traitor and enemy, without stopping to consider if that characterization was accurate.
His anguish from Solan's choices hadn't gone away, but he couldn't let it color his perceptions anymore. He had to get past it and use his intellect to try to understand Solan, if he could.
He knew that Solan had been feeling helpless prior to today. No, he knew that Solan had been helpless. Judging by their conversation the night before last he had blamed himself for Jo's death, and apparently for the deaths of other people he had lost as well. So he'd felt horrible about himself, and Alexander's open insults surely hadn't helped matters. He had wanted desperately to learn how to defend himself so that he could stop being helpless! Justin's refusal to teach him the martial arts, however sensible, must have felt to him like a betrayal.
Yesterday morning Solan had been openly bitter and depressed, and sometime during the day it sounded like Kenny had tried to take him. He also must have seen Justin kill Morthos, contrary to everything Justin had been preaching. Had it seemed to him like there was no one he could trust?
Then Archon had taken him away and told him that story about his mother and his destiny. Justin had initially dismissed the tale as a fabrication, but looking back he could see no real basis for his conclusion. On the contrary, which made more sense? That Solan had indeed been destined to be his world's greatest warrior? Or that Archon had snatched a random kid with no combat ability, let him flail around for a few days, and then told him an outrageous lie just before turning him into a fantastic fighter? Solan was the only contestant whose reason for his selection had been a mystery. If this tale was true, that question was answered.
Why had he been so quick to brand the story a lie? It wasn't that he had wanted to keep Solan weak, but maybe-maybe he hadn't been ready to accept that Solan could be so strong. He'd formed a picture in his head of his friend as an innocent civilian, someone dependent upon him for protection. That perception had added to the crushing weight of his responsibility, but it had also given him someone who needed him.
That contribution had made a difference. He needed to be needed. Knowing that he was helping others, being strong for them, gave him a purpose and courage that he didn't otherwise possess. It wasn't just that aiding others was the right thing to do, or that he enjoyed it; it literally made him a better person.
The insight surprised him, and sent his thinking down a wholly unexpected path. Before this he had always thought of his acceptance into the Power Rangers as the luckiest accident of his life. Rocky had been injured, he'd overheard the other Rangers talking to him, and when Rocky found out he had sent Justin to Zordon in his place. It was all a one in a million fluke, like winning the lottery, and it could have happened to anyone.
Maybe so, but he had never once considered how astonishingly right he was for Rangering, and it for him. Prior to Rocky's accident he had been a twelve year-old genius black belt who was stuck in an orphanage and mired in depression. The Rangers had all been high-school students skilled in the martial arts, who'd recently lost the genius of their team. The fit was better than he had ever realized.
Was that chance? Or was it fate? And if fate could guide him, then why not Solan?
Justin had stopped pacing, slowly sinking down to a sitting position on his bed. He felt a bit overwhelmed. He needed to think about this more fully, but not here and not now.
At the moment his focus had to be on Solan.
So Archon had told Solan that he was meant to be a terrific fighter, if only his Mom hadn't given him away, out of jealousy. And his Mom was a friend he had trusted who had lied to him, just like his adoptive father had lied. Add on top of that Kenny's betrayal, Alexander's insults and pointedly temporary truce, and Justin's killing of Morthos and refusal to teach Solan. Not to mention Jo's death and everything else Solan had endured these past few days.
And he'd thought his own burden was heavy.
After Solan accepted Archon's offer he hadn't reappeared for dinner or breakfast. They'd deliberately been given no chance to talk with him, not before the fight. And afterwards the contest had been resumed right before he could reach the door to his friend's room.
Solan had ignored Justin's pleas then, but that was to be expected if he thought Justin was a false friend.
The teenager wondered briefly at the evident joy Solan had taken in brutally beating everyone up, but that actually wasn't difficult to understand. First, he had thought they all wanted to kill him, even the teammates he had trusted. Second, he was carrying around an amount of emotional baggage which Justin could scarcely comprehend, and like all bullies he had discovered he could lighten his load by picking on those weaker than him, a category which everyone else happened to fall into. Violence had become his means of expressing his negative emotions, an outlet for all the rage he was feeling. Finally, Justin knew firsthand how seductive and intoxicating raw physical prowess could be, especially for someone who was feeling physically inadequate. His own brief brush with enhanced strength two years ago had shown him that.
An unconscious smile crept across the teenager's face as he recalled how wonderful it had felt to be so powerful. No longer had he been the baby genius, the little freak of the freshman class. Instead he had taken his place as the star of the track team! He was the school super-jock, and the other athletes hadn't even been good enough to kiss his sneakers! The acceptance and admiration had been addictive and the welcome sense of superiority his athletic performance engendered had been a great ego boost, especially after feeling weak and out of place for so long.
How much worse, Justin wondered with an ache, were Solan's feelings of uselessness and alienation? How much more of an ego boost had it been for him to suddenly be able to kick the crap out of the kids who'd scorned and pitied him?
Justin flushed as he looked back on what he had done with his own ant-bite-derived might. After the try-out he had resisted the others' efforts to make him return to the Command Center for examination. He had insisted that he had just been training really hard, though inside he had known full well that what he was doing wasn't natural. He just hadn't wanted anyone to probe at the reason for his strength because he was afraid that the knowledge gained might somehow lead to him losing it.
After the artificial nature of his empowerment had been confirmed he still hadn't stopped showing off. He had opened that jar for Stone, and he had relished beating that big senior at arm-wrestling, purposefully drawing out the match to toy with his opponent. He had gone so far as to gloat over his victory and had even been ready to teach Carlos a lesson if the other Ranger didn't get off his case! Perhaps most significant of all for the present situation, though, was his one-sided fight with the Piranhatrons, which remained one of the best experiences of his life.
It had been such a rush pounding them, showing them just how inadequate they were against his new super-strength. He hadn't merely defeated them, he'd humiliated them, and he had loved it! The whole time he had been smiling and taunting, openly reveling in his absolute physical supremacy. The five of them had been nothing compared to him, and he had made sure they knew it.
And that had been in circumstances far, far better than Solan's. He could not truly condemn the younger boy for his aggressive actions, not when he had fallen prey to the same temptations and feelings.
Justin was reminded of a special he'd once seen on the Discovery channel about the dynamics of wolf packs and the similarities to human interaction. Solan had spent his whole time here as the puny, picked-on runt of the litter. Subsequent to his transformation it was not only natural, but inevitable that he would forcefully assert his new status as the dominant alpha male. He had needed to make them submit to him, to implicitly or explicitly acknowledge that he had indeed risen above them.
Part of the motivation had been revenge, but if he was anything like Justin, the greater part had been vindication of himself in his own eyes. He was trying to restore his sense of pride and self-worth, both traits which had been severely damaged by his time here. Justin remembered how excluded and looked down upon he had felt when he had entered high school at the age of twelve; how many timed did you have to multiply those feelings to get how Solan had felt about being the only one who couldn't fight in a group of kid warriors battling each other to the death?
In hindsight maybe that explained why he had reacted as he had to Justin's use of his name. When he had begun calling himself "Warrior Prince" he could have been taking on a new identity to supplant his old one. It'd be one way to distance himself from all of his negative feelings about who he had been.
The hypothesis drew a small groan from Justin. The teenager had repeatedly urged Solan to remember who he was, when that was the last thing the Grecian boy wanted to do! He didn't want to be Solan anymore; he wanted to be the Warrior Prince.
His whole approach had been deeply flawed from the beginning. He needed to rework his entire appeal based on what he had learned.
Correction; what he thought he had learned. He was making multiple assumptions, ones he had no way of proving or disproving. Was he finally, finally on the right track? Or was he completely off base, relentlessly rationalizing Solan's behavior in order to give himself some modicum of hope?
Alexander had charged him more than once with being unfairly biased about his own species, and Justin had seen for himself the truth in the alien's harsh words. In his idealism and naiveté he had not only treated humans differently from non-humans, but he had clung to an overly flattering view of humanity. Was he doing so still?
It seemed impossible, given how much this place had taken from him. It had taken his innocence, his faith in mankind, and many of his ideals. He didn't think he had enough light left in him to unduly influence his viewpoint.
If he was wrong, if he was deluding himself again, then so be it. He chose to spend his last few hours in the belief that Solan was not evil, and that Justin could reach him with the right words and actions.
He chose to hope, even if it was a fool's hope.
So consumed was Justin with thinking and planning that he didn't fall asleep until well after five.
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