|A Mirror of Dark Glass
Author: SilvorMoon PM
Ecliptor meets someone who changes his life forever.Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Ecliptor & Karone - Words: 22,007 - Reviews: 18 - Favs: 26 - Follows: 2 - Published: 10-02-00 - Status: Complete - id: 84875
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
By the flickering light of torches, a row of frightened captives was forced to march down the rough stone hall. They were bound hand and foot by thick steel cuffs and chains, too heavy for them to try to run, even if there was somewhere to run to, even if they had not been guarded by a horrible creature out of nightmares. The younger ones cried out in fear and pain, while the older ones struggled futilely at their bonds or walked with heads bowed in despair. Their guardian, a fearsome, insectoid being with wicked claws and glowing eyes, chuckled at their plight as he prodded the slower ones with his sword. He knew where they were going, and he knew that most of them would all be dead in a matter of days. Those were the lucky ones. The ones that lived would never be the same.
"Move it along!" he laughed. "Go on, pick up the pace! You aren't afraid of the doctor, are you?"
Doctor Leander Deadmoon was a scientist in the worst way. He was cruel, heartless, willing to sacrifice anyone and anything to increase his knowledge and power. The very best any of his subjects could expect was a swift execution before he dissected them. The worst . . . most people couldn't even comprehend the worst until they saw it for themselves. He was one of the very few people Darkonda respected and admired, and not just because he gave him a profitable and relatively easy line of work.
"Excellent job, bounty hunter," rasped a voice from the shadows.
Darkonda turned his attention from the prisoners long enough to look at the doctor. Perhaps once Dr. Deadmoon had been almost human, or at least humanoid, but he had been almost as unsparing with himself as he was with his subjects. He was a frightening specter now: seven feet tall but skeletally thin, with his skin so horribly scarred and stained that it was impossible to guess what color it might have been originally. There was no hair on his malformed head. His teeth were all twisted, yellowed, broken, or missing. One eyelid was set permanently at half-mast, torn in an explosion and never properly healed. The other eye, nearsighted after too many years squinting through a microscope, surveyed the world through a monocle. His voice was nothing more than a harsh whisper; his voice had been ruined by breathing noxious fumes.
"It was my pleasure, Doctor," Darkonda replied with a small bow and a chuckle.
"Indeed, you are an excellent workman. I applaud you," said the doctor. "These specimens will do quite nicely, so, as I promised . . ." From a pocket in the long white lab coat he wore, he removed a small pouch and tossed it to the bounty hunter. Darkonda loosened the drawstrings and made a quick estimate of the worth of its contents. The amount he came up with was more than worth the trouble it had taken to capture Dr. Deadmoon's latest subjects.
"You know I'm always glad to help," he said, laughing cruelly. "The great cause of science must be served!"
"Of course," said Dr. Deadmoon. "And since you feel that way, would you mind doing me another favor?"
Darkonda gave him a speculative look. "What's in it for me?"
"The usual payment, of course. It's a very simple job. I'd do it myself, but I have more important things to think about. I need you to capture for me a human."
"A human?" Darkonda repeated. "Of what use to you is a human?"
"I am doing research," answered the doctor patiently, having expected the question. "They are very strange creatures, humans. They possess little or no inherent magic, and yet they have managed to survive and flourish. I want to know their secrets. If I could learn how they function, discover their strengths, and then apply those talents to something that is already equipped with magic, well . . . I can think of several possibilities, all quite interesting."
"So you want me to go catch you a human so you can cut it open and see what makes it tick," Darkonda simplified, bored by the technical explanation.
"Not just any human," Dr. Deadmoon corrected. "A female human, preferably under the age of maturity. I was able to acquire a few older humans at a slave market in one of the space ports on Nemesis Twelve, and I captured a young boy a few weeks back, but so far I haven't gotten around to catching the girl I need. There are differences between younger and older, male and female, and I can't leave anything to chance. I have to have one of each, at least, so I can compare."
"Fine, fine. Leave it to me," Darkonda replied. "The nearest place to find humans would be . . . let me see . . . KO-35. It shouldn't be any problem at all to find what you need."
"Very good," said Dr. Deadmoon. "I will look forward to seeing what you bring me. Go now, if you like. I'll take care of the prisoners."
Darkonda nodded and left the cavern, still chuckling to himself. He always enjoyed visiting the doctor, and as for this mission, well, it would probably be the easiest one he ever had.
Early in life, there is a time where the world is perfect. Almost everyone is friendly and trustworthy, problems are easy to solve, pain can be washed away by a kiss from a caring mother, and you know that you will always be happy and you will never get old or die. For some people, this phase of life lasts for several years before they grow older and begin to see the flaws and ugliness of life. For some, it ends early and abruptly, marked by some tragedy that changes life quickly and totally. Thus it was for Karone.
It happened on the wrong sort of day for such a thing to occur, one of those beautiful days when it seems like nothing bad could ever happen. The sun was shining as if it had just been polished, and the sky was smudged with wispy white clouds, as if God had been using it for a chalkboard to write lessons for the angels. A gentle breeze made the bright green leaves of a stand of hardwoods whisper to each other and stirred up the cool scent of the pines. This was how the scene was in the little park near the comfortable two-story house where Karone lived with her brother Andros and her parents. The park was her favorite place to play, and she and her brother had spent many happy hours there. There was no indication that this day would be any different from the others.
The two children sat cross-legged, facing each other, with a strange spiky spheroid sitting between them. As they focused their mental energies on it, it slowly rose into the air and unfolded itself, more than doubling its size. Andros gave the ball a mental push to set it spinning, making Karone laugh with delight. She gave the ball a push, too, but her control was not as good as her brother's, and it went flying off into the grove of trees that lay behind them. Andros quickly scrambled to his feet to retrieve the toy, while Karone waited patiently for his return.
Suddenly, there was a rustle in the bushes, and Karone barely turned around in time to see the approach of a horrible, unnatural being, like something barely humanoid encased in an insect's carapace. She screamed in terror as it scooped her up and carried her away.
"Andros!" she cried.
"Karone!" her brother shouted back. He raced back to the clearing as quickly as his feet would carry him, but all he had time for was a fleeting glimpse of some strange, shadowy creature retreating into the bushes. Andros began to pursue it, thinking in the way that small children have that he could do something to save his sister, but as he ran, he caught a glimpse of something small and shiny. He paused to pick it up and inspect it. It was the small pocket recorder that Karone had always carried; he had one just like it. They recorded the events of their days, like a diary that wrote itself. It must have fallen from her pocket when the monster attacked her. Parted from its owner, it had shut itself down. Andros picked it up and opened it, removing the coin- sized super compact disc that would hold the last images of Karone. Maybe it would provide a clue to who had kidnaped her. If it didn't, it might be the last Andros ever saw of her. Carefully, he tucked the disc inside his locket, the locket that carried her picture, and ran home.
Darkonda reappeared in the dark, shadowy halls that made up Dr. Deadmoon's laboratory, still clutching his struggling captive.
"Let me go! Let me go!" she screamed.
"Yell all you want, but it won't do you any good," Darkonda replied. "Don't worry. You won't be staying here very long!"
Darkonda was right, but not for the reason he had thought. There are very few things harder to hold on to than wiggly small children, and this small child was no exception to that rule. Spurred by fear, she managed a final twist and slipped out of the monster's grasp. She landed on the floor and shot down the tunnel at a speed surprising for her small size. Darkonda tried to go after her, but luck was on her side. On one side of the hallway, there was a small round window to let in air. It was too small for a full-grown person to fit through, so it had not been considered as a potential escape route, and thus had never been barred. However, it was just the right size for a little girl to squeeze through, and with a running leap, she managed to grab the window ledge and squirm through. She fell out and landed in a heap on the hard, dusty ground outside. Scrambling to her feet, she ran off into the night.
In the meantime, Darkonda was doing his best to catch up to her. There was no way he could fit through the window, so he was forced to run back to the front door and try to track her from there. She had a head start, but he was faster and knew his way around better. She would quickly get lost in this dark city, especially at night. Catching her shouldn't be too difficult, and he was determined that she would not escape him.
Karone ran and ran, not daring to look behind her as she imagined her monstrous captor gaining on her with every step she took. At last, her strength gave out, and she collapsed in a doorway set deep into the side of a large rock formation. It was very dark there, and she made herself as small and still as she could, trying to lose herself in the deepest part of the shadows, hardly even daring to breathe. For a while - an eternity to the little girl, but only a few minutes by the clock - nothing happened. Then, she heard the sound of footsteps crunching on the sandy, gravely road. In the faint moon and starlight, she could just make out the shape of the monster who was hunting for her. Only his eyes were visible, two malevolent golden slits. He paused, surveying the area, and his gaze rested on her for a moment. Her heart seemed to freeze in her chest, and she was terribly afraid that those glowing eyes were piercing the shadows that protected her and seeing her hiding there. Then, miraculously, he decided that she wasn't there, and moved on. She sat and waited, heart pounding with fear, certain that he would realize his mistake and come back for her . . . but nothing happened. Still, Karone was a long way from home and anyone she knew, and she had no idea how she would ever get back. Lost and frightened, there was nothing for her to do but lean her head against the door and cry.
Suddenly, the door was pulled open, and she was spilled onto a cold stone floor.
"Who are you?" a voice demanded. "What are you doing here?"
Karone looked up, and a very strange creature looked back down at her.
Earlier that night, Ecliptor had been sitting in silence, in darkness, in his own rough hole in the wall on that desolate planet that was home only to monsters and creatures of darkness. He lived alone, and his personal belongings were few. He owned very little more than some weapons of various sorts, a small selection of salves and potions of healing, some basic furniture, a dilapidated shelf with a few even more dusty and dilapidated books, and a mirror. That last was pure vanity on his part, since there was no real reason for him to need to see what he looked like. His appearance was as unchangeable as if it were carved in stone - for indeed, it almost was. He was an odd, crystalline creature, all black planes and green lines and angles, with a face that could be stern and noble and fierce and sad without ever changing expression. He was a created creature, but designed by someone with a sense of artistry as well as economy, for his looks had a certain aesthetic appeal, in a geometric-mathematic sort of way.
He was a living, thinking, rational being, but that was not what he had been created to be. He was created to be a tool, and as such, he fulfilled his duties admirably. His sole purpose in existence was to kill as many people as possible without getting killed himself. Most creatures in the universe have evolved in similar ways, developing way to defend themselves from enemies while taking what they need from those weaker than themselves, but Ecliptor's design surpassed that of most natural beings. Instead of fragile skin and bone, he was built of hard crystal, nearly impossible to do more than scratch, and which could regenerate itself within minutes of the time it was damaged. He possessed strength and endurance that was incredible by human standards, and had been able to wield a sword like a seasoned warrior since the day he was brought into being. His eyesight was keen enough to pick out faint movements from great distances or in almost total darkness. But above all, he was intelligent, and that was what had set him apart from the others he competed with for survival. That was how he had been made, but his creator had not foreseen what would come of such intelligence. Once Ecliptor had learned enough to realize that he could be more than just one man's tool, that he could act independently for his own benefit, he had escaped from his master and creator and set off on his own. Since then, he had proven himself so well that he had become a Personage in the court of the Dark Specter. Only a minor one, to be sure, but ironically, he was trusted far more than those of higher rank. He could acquire knowledge, but he could not deny his nature, and his nature was not to seek power and prestige. He was ruled only by the double urge to kill and survive.
He was alone in the universe. This was true for him more than it might be for others. He was the only one of his kind, and when he was gone, that would be the end. He did not delude himself with any high-minded notions of life after death. It was his experience that when people died, they stayed dead. However, he was not bothered much by this. His life was not especially interesting, and he didn't think he would be very sorry to see it end. In the meantime, he liked his solitude, and the other monsters and creatures that lived in his general vicinity avoided him as much as they could. Therefore, he was surprised to hear a commotion on his doorstep late one night.
Irritably, he went to the door to give a good tongue-lashing to whoever was disturbing his peace and quiet. When he opened it, however, he didn't find what he expected. Instead, there was a flash of gold in the dim candlelight that lit his room as a blonde-haired child tumbled to his floor. It seemed to be female, and young-looking, though Ecliptor had never really bothered to find out how to tell among humans. Humans were of little consequence, and now Ecliptor was annoyed to find one right outside his home.
"Who are you?" he demanded. "What are you doing here?"
The little girl looked up at him, and then she screamed in mortal terror and began trying to back away from him. He dropped to one knee and clamped a hand over her mouth to silence her. His annoyance turned to grudging amusement when he felt her try to bite him.
"Stop that," he scolded. "You can't hurt me, and I might not hurt you if you behave. On the other hand, if you keep on screaming, you will be hurt - if not by me than by one of my neighbors who like being disturbed less than I do. Now, if I take my hand away, are you going to scream?"
The girl shook her head, indicating a negative answer. Ecliptor took his hand away.
"That's better," he said. "You seem to have a measure of courage, whoever you are, but I don't appreciate being bothered this late at night, especially not by strangers. You had better be able to give a good reason for being here, or you are going to regret disturbing me. Now, who are you and why are you here?"
"There . . . there's a monster after me," she quavered. "He took me away from my brother. I want to go home!"
"You've come to the wrong place to get help," he said. "I don't help anyone."
"B-but there's a monster out there!" she protested.
"In case you haven't noticed, there's one in here, too," answered Ecliptor. His interest in her was quickly wearing off; he wanted her gone. He was debating wether it would be easier to throw her out again or simply to kill her when a thought struck him. There were very few humans on this planet, and even those lived miles from where he was and tended to keep to themselves, and none of them were likely to have any small children. Someone had gone through a lot of trouble to bring her out here for some purpose, so evidently she was valuable. It might not be a good idea to go killing or abandoning her out of hand, at least not until he had a better understanding of who was pursuing her and why. Very well, then. He would keep here there for the night and turn her over to the officials in the morning. If they couldn't find any reason to keep her, they could do the dirty work for him. He found it rather distasteful to go killing people in cold blood, anyway. It was more satisfying to both his deepest instincts and his sense of honor to destroy someone on the field of battle.
"What is your name?" he asked at length.
"Karone," she replied.
"I am known as Ecliptor," answered the monster. "You will call me that."
"You aren't going to send me away?" she asked hopefully.
"I am still trying to decide," said Ecliptor. "I do not like visitors or small children or humans. I would prefer to be left alone."
"I won't be any trouble. I promise!" Karone said pleadingly.
The conversation was interrupted by a knock on the door.
"Now, who in blazes is that?" said Ecliptor irritably.
The knock was repeated, louder and more insistently.
"You hide," Ecliptor commanded the girl. She quickly darted into the nearest hiding place beneath the simple wooden bed. Ecliptor went to answer the door. This time, he found himself face to face with one of his least favorite neighbors.
"Good evening," said Darkonda in his annoying, patronizing voice.
Ecliptor would have scowled if he could, but his face was never meant to show emotion. He had often seen the boastful, swaggering bounty hunter moving about the small cluster of caves and caverns on his own devious business, and Ecliptor did not like him one bit. Darkonda was the very lowest and most notorious kind of criminal. He would do anything, no matter how vile or deceitful it might be, if there was anything in it at all for him. He would even go one step further and commit various larcenies and atrocities just out of spite, and then brag about it. Though some people considered these qualities admirable, Ecliptor could see no purpose in such actions.
"What do you want here, Darkonda?" he demanded. "You are not welcome here, so state your business quickly and go away."
"I only want a moment of your time," Darkonda replied smoothly. "It's just that I seem to have mislaid a human child, a little girl. She is worth a great deal to me, so I'd appreciate it if you would tell me if you've seen her."
In her hiding place, Karone held her breath.
"What are you talking about?" asked Ecliptor. "You've lost your mind. There are no children here. If there were, I would exterminate them. Go away. You're wasting your time."
"There is a child here," Darkonda insisted. "I kidnaped her, and she will be worth a high price when I sell her. If you helped me find her, Ecliptor, I might be willing to give you a cut of the profits . . ."
"You should know by now that I cannot be bought," snapped Ecliptor. "Unlike some people. If I wanted money, I could have been a wealthy man by now, but what good is money to me? I don't eat, I need no clothing, I was not designed to take any physical pleasures, and I have all I need."
"And it would offend your sense of honor to take a bribe." There was a sneer in Darkonda's voice.
"Yes," Ecliptor answered calmly.
"Well, everyone has their faults," said Darkonda airily. "Anyway, if you do see her, give me a call. I'll be around." The monster gave Ecliptor a mocking bow before he turned and continued his search through the darkness. Ecliptor shut the door in an attitude of disgust.
"That insufferable son-of-a-cockroach," he muttered to himself. "He makes me want to change sides long enough to do him in . . . Karone? You can come out now."
Karone scrambled out from under the bed and shook the dust from her hair.
"Is he gone?" she asked.
"I certainly hope so," was Ecliptor's emphatic reply. "Is he the one who captured you?"
"Yes," Karone said. "You aren't going to let him get me, are you?"
"I wouldn't give him the time of day," answered Ecliptor. "Let's see if we can't find you a meal and a place to sleep. You can stay for the night, and then we'll decide what to do tomorrow."
"Thank you, Ecliptor," she answered politely.
Ecliptor was a little surprised, but he only gave a small shrug and went to see if there was anything in the general vicinity that a human could eat. *Thank you?* he thought to himself. *Now, when was the last time I heard that? These humans are strange creatures . . .*
Early the next morning, Ecliptor awoke to find a pair of bright sea-green eyes staring at him. His first instinct was to attack, and he made an involuntary movement with one hand to strike out before memory caught up with reality and he realized who he was looking at. He relaxed again.
"Don't do that," he said. "It is hazardous to your health to surprise a warrior, young one."
"Sorry," answered Karone. "I was waiting for you to wake up. I couldn't sleep."
"Well, you can sleep while I'm gone," Ecliptor said, raising himself from the simple pallet on a wooden frame that passed for a bed.
"You're leaving me?" she asked, sounding frightened.
"I have things I must do," said Ecliptor, "and I trust you to behave while I'm gone. I have to speak with the officials to find out what to do with you."
"But I want to go home!" she protested. "I want to go back to Mommy and Daddy and Andros!"
She sounded so close to tears that it gave Ecliptor reason to stop and think. The last thing he needed now was for her to go into a case of hysterics and rouse the whole neighborhood, not to mention alerting Darkonda to the lie of the previous night.
"I will see what I can do," Ecliptor replied. "Remember, there is still a monster looking for you. You will be safer if you stay here a while."
Karone thought about that for a while.
"All right," she said. "You're going to take care of me?"
"We'll see. In the meantime, stay here. As long as you stay in my home and stay quiet, no one will bother you, but if you go outside, you're liable to run into all kinds of trouble, and I won't be there to save you. Understand?"
Karone nodded. "I'll be good."
"Fine." Ecliptor took his sword down from the rack where it hung on the wall, and he went out, leaving the little girl alone in the shadowy cavern.
There were very few who would attempt to do what Ecliptor had in mind for today. Even the more powerful villains in the universe would be shaking in their shoes (or what have you) if they even considered such a possibility, but there was very little that frightened Ecliptor. There were other, less dangerous options, but he wanted quick results, and that meant he would have to go straight to the top of the chain of command. He was going to go speak with the Dark Specter.
Following a path that few dared to travel, Ecliptor made his way to the pinnacle of a tall promontory of rock, and there he waited. In a few moments, there was a wavering in the air, and then Ecliptor was suddenly staring into one of the Dark Specter's glowing eyes. The temperature grew noticeably warmer with the arrival of the fire entity.
"Why do you seek me out, Ecliptor?" hissed Dark Specter through his malformed jaws.
"I have something to report, majesty," Ecliptor replied. "Late last night, I found a human child hiding on my doorstep. She is evidently being pursued, for reasons I know not. She could be of some importance. I thought it best to tell you about her."
"Hmm," Dark Specter mused. "A human child? What did you do with her?"
"I kept her for the night. It seemed better if I let you decide her fate."
"Yes," said Dark Specter thoughtfully. He considered a while before saying, "Ecliptor, how many of my minions would you say are trustworthy?"
"In my own humble opinion," Ecliptor replied, "I would say there are few, if any, that I would trust not to stab me in the back if they thought they could get away with it. How many do you trust?"
"You are one of the very few," answered Dark Specter. "They are ambitious. Any one of them would gladly destroy me and take my place, but I must grant authority to someone. I cannot control them all myself."
"What has this got to do with the girl?" Ecliptor asked.
"Humans live short lives," said Dark Specter, "but when they are young, they are easily influenced. This girl could be raised to fear and obey me, and be trained to rule over the rest of my subjects. She could be the answer to my dilemma."
"But who will train her?" Ecliptor asked, suddenly alarmed but trying not to show it. He didn't want to have to be stuck with her for the rest of her life.
"I will find someone," said Dark Specter. "Until then, you keep an eye on her."
"Yes, Dark Specter," answered Ecliptor with a formal bow. With the meeting concluded, Dark Specter vanished once again, causing a rush of wind as air moved to fill the space he had just vacated.
Well, now what? Ecliptor thought to himself. He was now in charge of this little girl for the time being, whether he liked it or not. The truth was, he didn't like it, but he could deal with it for a few days. Still, he knew almost nothing about humans, and certainly not how to care for one for any length of time. He needed information. He needed advice. Fortunately, he knew just where to go for both of those things.
Ecliptor had many enemies in the universe, but he also had a few allies. Having made his way as close to the top as he cared to get, he seldom bothered with his old friends unless he was faced with a crisis, as he was now. The person he intended to speak to now was one of his oldest and most valued of these allies.
At the very furthest edge of the mazy, mixed-up set of dwelling places that made up the monster city, there stood an old, old building called the Lybrari. It was supposed to have been called the Library, but the creatures who had constructed it were rather inept at spelling, and had carved the name wrong on the sign over the door. Fortunately, they had been better at architecture than they were at writing; the Lybrari had survived for centuries and remained in good condition. It was to this place that Ecliptor went.
Even though the outside of the building looked clean and well-kept, the inside was a mess. Though the books and desks were still where they ought to be, everything was covered in dust and cobwebs. Ecliptor walked slowly among the shelves of thick, leather-bound books, stirring up clouds that almost made him choke. At last, he came across a large desk, the better part of which was covered by what appeared to be a perfect statue of a coiled serpentine creature with a pair of rectangular glasses perched on its reptilian nose. Ecliptor prodded it with the tip of his sword.
"Wake up, Wyrm," he told it. "I have need of your help."
"Hhhhhhhh . . ." sighed the reptile. "Call? Someone calls me? It hhhhhas been a long time since anyone has needed my service. Hhhhhow can I hhhhhelp you?" Its voice was a soft hiss, like the sound of thin paper being torn.
Slowly, the Wyrm uncoiled itself, shedding its thick cloak of dust as it moved. Beneath its grey-white coating, it was a creature of midnight-blue scales with a long, snakelike body and a pair of clawed limbs attached to the front. A ridge of spines ran from the tip of its tail to the middle of its forehead, which also sprouted a pair of short, stubby horns. It's eyes were luminous azure. Opening a drawer in the desk, it took out an ancient rag and began to polish its spectacles. Once they were clean, it put them carefully back on its nose and looked around.
"Ecliptorrrrr!" it purred in surprise. "What brings you hhhhhere? So lonely I hhhhhave been. No one hhhhhas come, not even you anymorrrrre."
"Interesting things have been happening, Book Wyrm," Ecliptor replied. He quickly told the Wyrm about the newcomer in his home. It listened silently and with interest.
The Book Wyrm seemed an odd choice of mentor for a warrior, but when Ecliptor had first begun to insinuate himself into the society of other monsters, the Wyrm was the first creature he had sought out. As the keeper of knowledge, the Book Wyrm was a seemingly inexhaustible source of information and wisdom. Ecliptor had been created with natural talent for fighting; the Wyrm had helped him to refine his talents. He had come knowing nothing of the ways of men and monsters; the Wyrm had instructed him. From the Book Wyrm, Ecliptor had learned how to heal himself, how to set a trap and track an enemy, how to read and write, and the rudiments of magic. Others had scoffed, but Ecliptor had never had any regrets about his relationship with the Wyrm.
"Hhhhhhhh," sighed the Wyrm again, somehow making the hiss communicate his understanding of the situation.
"So you see what my predicament is," Ecliptor replied. "Can you help me?"
"Hhhhhumansssss . . ." said the Book Wyrm. "Strange creatures. Yes, I will hhhhhelp you, Ecliptorrrrr, on one condition."
"If you can, ask the Dark Specterrrrr to let me help teach the child. I am lonely, and she will benefit from my knowledge. We can help each otherrrrr."
"I'll do what I can," Ecliptor replied.
"Mirrors," said the Book Wyrm abruptly, blinking its intense blue eyes. "Mirrors are not the source of light, yet even a mirror of dark glass will reflect light if light is shined on it."
Ecliptor didn't feel called to reply to that. For all its wisdom, the Book Wyrm's mind was filled with strange ideas that only made sense in its own inner world. Ecliptor was used to the Wyrm's riddle-speeches, and usually ignored them.
The Wyrm slithered slowly off of the desk, coiling and uncoiling to stretch his stiff muscles. Then he began to crawl thoughtfully up and down the aisles until it finally paused to take a book from its shelf. Having found what it wanted, it returned to Ecliptor and placed the dusty tome on the desk.
"Read this," it said.
"The whole thing?" asked Ecliptor in dismay.
"Complex creatures, these hhhhhumans," the Book Wyrm answered.
Ecliptor sighed. Nothing was ever easy.
Some time later, Ecliptor returned to his home, thinking of nothing more than going back to sleep for a few more hours. An hour or two of reading had left him more exhausted than he would have been after a hard battle. He was built for that, after all. Reading, however, had not been considered when his design was being made. He was not meant to sit still for long periods of time, nor were his eyes meant to focus on a page. It took a good deal of concentration just to keep his gaze fixed on those little black lines. Now his eyes felt sore, his shoulders were stiff and strained, and he had the beginning of a headache settling in. He felt entitled to a long rest.
On his arrival, he found Karone sitting on the floor with one of his own battered old books lying open in front of her. It was a gift from the Book Wyrm himself, an old guide to battle lore that Ecliptor had read and reread until he knew it all by heart. Now the little girl was sitting there, staring at the pictures.
"Hi, Ecliptor," she said cheerfully. "Do you mind if I look at your book?"
"Right now," said Ecliptor, "I don't care if you decide to climb up the walls and hang from the ceiling, as long as you do it quietly."
Karone giggled. "You're funny. What's this a picture of?"
"What you have there is a book about how to fight," Ecliptor said.
"Like the Power Rangers?" she asked.
"Well, yes, something like that."
"Can you do that?"
"Well, yes, but . . ."
"Show me!" she said. "Please? Pretty please?"
Ecliptor looked down at the little girl, and she looked back with a hopeful, pleading expression.
"You're a lot of trouble. You know that, don't you?" said Ecliptor resignedly. "Very well. Watch this."
He went through a series of fluid movements in a flashy display of swordsmanship. He was surprisingly agile for a creature that seemed to be made of stone. Karone laughed and cheered.
"You're great!" she enthused. "Do more!"
Ecliptor obliged her. Actually, it felt good to be moving around after his long period of inactivity. It was what he did best, what he enjoyed most, and it was a blessed relief to feel his cramped muscles loosening again and his headache fading. Besides, he had never had such an appreciative audience to show off for. Having limbered up, he tried a few more complex maneuvers, much to the delight of Karone.
"I wish I could do that," she said wistfully.
"I could teach you." The words found their way out before Ecliptor had time to consider them.
"You could? Really?" asked Karone excitedly.
"Well . . ." Ecliptor was trying to find some way of getting out of the promise he had just made. It wasn't a real promise, of course, but what difference would that make to a child? He was saved from having to answer by the sound of someone banging on the door.
"Now who could it be?" said Ecliptor in exasperation. "There have been more people at that door this week than in the last ten years put together!" His previous good mood having evaporated, he stomped off to answer the door.
"What do you want?" he demanded grumpily as he pulled the door open.
"Oh, you know what I want," answered a familiar voice.
"You are not welcome here, Darkonda," said Ecliptor. "There is nothing here for you. Go away."
"I think you are mistaken," said Darkonda. "I heard a very strange sound coming from here . . . it sounded like a child laughing. You can't convince me that it was you I heard giggling like a little girl."
"The child is no longer your concern, Darkonda," said Ecliptor. "I have already told Dark Specter about her, and he has ordered me to keep her under my protection. If you want her, you will have to ask the Dark Specter. Somehow, I don't think he would give her back to you."
"So, you told Dark Specter about her?" Darkonda repeated. "That means she really WAS here last night!"
"So what?" asked Ecliptor derisively.
"So I think you have stolen something that is rightfully mine," Darkonda replied, "and if you don't give it back, I may have to take it from you."
"You couldn't," Ecliptor said. "Just forget about her. Like it or not, she belongs to the Dark Specter now. Do you dare to challenge him?"
"No, not yet," said Darkonda, "but I do challenge you. You stole what is mine and lied to me about it, and now you've handed the girl over to curry favor from Dark Specter? Is this how your honor works, Ecliptor?"
"You are beginning to make me angry, Darkonda."
"Oh, I'm so scared," said Darkonda sarcastically. "If you want the girl so badly, fight me for her."
"I don't want her. I was ordered to take her," Ecliptor replied, "but I will fight you if it will make you go away."
"Fine." Darkonda raised the dagger he carried, and it glowed faintly as it lengthened into a full-sized sword.
"Have it your way, then." There was a flash of metal that was almost too fast to follow as Ecliptor swung his sword and struck Darkonda on the shoulder. Taken by surprise, the injured monster staggered backwards. Ecliptor leaped forward to press his advantage, and the two began to battle each other in earnest.
Sparks flew as enchanted blades clashed, and the narrow street was filled with battle noise. Attracted by the sound of a fight, other creatures came crawling out of their holes in the wall to watch the excitement. Darkonda fumed inwardly. He and Ecliptor were fairly evenly matched, much as he hated to admit it, but Ecliptor had earned himself the advantage of a surprise attack, putting Darkonda on defensive right from the beginning. Furthermore, Darkonda hadn't been anticipating a fight, but thanks to his performance a moment ago, Ecliptor was warmed up and in top fighting form. Still, Darkonda wasn't going to give up easily. The moment he saw an opening, he struck out with his blade and raked a long slash down one side of Ecliptor's sword arm. Ecliptor cried out and involuntarily dropped the weapon. In a swift, fluid motion, Darkonda made a dive and a roll past Ecliptor, snatching up the sword he had dropped. Brandishing both his and his opponent's weapon, he faced Ecliptor and laughed.
"So, you still think you can beat me?" Darkonda jeered.
Ecliptor was about to shout back a scathing retort, when he suddenly seemed to change his mind.
"You're right, Darkonda. You're just too much for me. I give up." Ecliptor hung his head and covered his eyes, as if deeply ashamed.
"That's more like it," said Darkonda. "Now, if you'll just hand over the girl, I'll . . ."
Before he could say another word, Ecliptor suddenly raised his head and uncovered his eyes. Twin bolts of green energy flared from them, hissing through the air and striking Darkonda, producing a colossal explosion. Darkonda dropped both his weapons as he was hurled through the air and slammed into the side of a stone building. Ecliptor caught his sword as it fell, and then went to have a word with his fallen foe.
"Learn this, Darkonda," he said sternly, aiming the point of his sword at Darkonda's throat. "I never surrender. Now, admit that the girl is no longer your own and promise not to bother me anymore, and maybe I'll let you live."
"All right, all right, whatever you say," Darkonda promised hastily. "The girl is yours."
"She is the Dark Specter's," Ecliptor corrected. "You had better learn who the authority is around here if you want to survive." He turned and stalked away from the place where Darkonda lay, every line of his body communicating disgust. For some reason, he found himself disliking Darkonda more every time he saw him. He went back into his house and slammed the door.
"This isn't over, Ecliptor," muttered Darkonda. "We will meet again. You'll see."
In the meantime, Ecliptor had returned to find his small charge waiting for him, wide-eyed in amazement.
"Were you watching that?" he asked her.
She nodded. "I never saw anything like that before. Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," said Ecliptor, a little surprised at her concern.
"No, you're not," she said. "I saw him hurt you. Let me see." She pulled at his arm, the one Darkonda had slashed during the fight. There was a six-inch gash on it, oozing a slow trickle of the clear, sticky substance that passed for blood in his alien body.
"It's nothing, really," he insisted. He knew it would heal quickly and be gone in a matter of minutes, and in the meantime the pain was minimal.
Karone shook her head with childish stubbornness. "No. You're hurt. I've got to kiss it and make it better." She kissed the tips of her fingers and then gently touched the wound. "There. Better now?"
Ecliptor was startled, but had the presence of mind to say, "Yes. Thank you very much."
The little girl smiled and nodded, glad that she had been able to do her job.
"Now," said Ecliptor, "didn't you say you wanted me to teach you how to fight?"
"Like you did out there?" Karone asked, wide eyed.
"Not right away. It takes a lot of practice, but if you really want to try . . ."
"Yes, yes!" she cheered, clapping her hands.
"All right, all right! Settle down, little warrior. Now, first things first . . ."
As Ecliptor began his lesson, he decided that maybe his injury really did feel better, after all.
Two weeks passed, and they were the most confusing, frustrating, and interesting weeks Ecliptor had spent in a long time. His first day with his new charge had been just a small sample of what the next few would be like, and he stayed very active. Humans, he discovered, or at least this particular one, required a lot of taking care of. He was thankful that this one at least knew how to feed and groom itself, because he had no idea how to go about such tasks. He was kept busy enough trying to come up with basic necessities like food and clothing. However, since the Dark Specter was backing this undertaking, coming up with what was needed wasn't too terribly difficult, and the Book Wyrm's advice was a great help. Actually, Karone stayed very busy as well. Ecliptor had learned early on that this was a necessity if he wanted any peace, because when she wasn't kept busy, she got bored and lonely and begged to be sent home. Ecliptor did what he could to avoid such unpleasant scenes.
"But when can I go home?" she would ask.
"I don't know," Ecliptor admitted. "It's all up to the Dark Specter. If he says you have to stay, then you have to stay. No one disobeys the Dark Specter."
"Not even you?" asked Karone.
Ecliptor laughed mirthlessly. "Why should I be different from anyone else? I'm no one important here. But even the important people are frightened of Dark Specter."
"Does that mean . . . I might never go home?"
"Be patient," said Ecliptor. "I don't know what's going to happen. In the meantime, I'll keep you safe."
It occurred to him sometime later that he had lied to her about that. He was not going to keep her. It was completely unthinkable. He had as good as told Dark Specter that he was going to give her away as soon as someone was found who could train her according to Dark Specter's wishes. Besides, what did she matter to him? She was a nuisance, and there was no way in the universe that he could keep her indefinitely. He wouldn't, and that was that. When the summons from Dark Specter came, he answered with that thought firmly in mind.
Once again, Ecliptor stood on the tower of stone, not quite at eye-level with the dragon- like overlord of darkness.
"I came as soon as I received the call," he said. "What did you want to tell me?"
"There have been several volunteers to take over the raising of the child," answered Dark Specter. "If you are ready, you can turn her over to them immediately."
"Hmm," said Ecliptor thoughtfully. "Your majesty, might I make a small request?"
"It depends. What do you want?"
"I . . . have been thinking," he said slowly. "The child is still uncomfortable in these surroundings, and easily frightened, but I have been working with her. She trusts me where she might not trust another. I have already begun training her in the arts of a warrior, things she will need to know if she is to be a strong leader someday. I was wondering if it might not be best if I kept her a while longer?"
*Now, why did I go and say that?* he scolded himself. *I don't want to keep her. She'll be nothing but trouble. What do I know about raising a child?*
Dark Specter frowned, considering. He seemed to be having similar doubts.
"You are a great warrior, Ecliptor, and I trust you could teach her those skills. But she will need to know more than you can teach her."
"Dark Specter, do you remember the Book Wyrm?" Ecliptor asked. "He has asked me to speak to you on his behalf. He wishes to instruct the child in those areas where I could not."
"Is he competent?"
"There is very little the Book Wyrm does not know. He is one of the few creatures I trust completely. If he cannot teach her, no one could."
"I will trust your judgement. Make it so," the Dark Specter replied. He was preparing to leave when a new thought struck him. "Ecliptor, what name are you calling this child?"
"She calls herself Karone," answered Ecliptor.
"That will not do," Dark Specter replied. "See to it she is given a name suitable for a princess."
"It will be done," Ecliptor replied. He bowed to his monarch as the fire entity vanished. Then he turned and walked thoughtfully back down the hill.
Well, now he had gone and done it, jumped right out of the frying pan and into the hot water. What in the world was he going to do now? The idea of rearing a child, a female human child, was as alien to him as the idea of deserts was to a fish. Children were outside of his frame of reference. It all came back to the issue of how he was designed. His only purpose in existing was to destroy. To create, to nurture, to care for anything in any way was almost inconceivable, yet he had just volunteered to spend the next several years taking care of this little girl. He wished she had gone to someone else's door. He wished he had never found her. He wished he had killed her or thrown her out when he had the chance, so he would never have ended up in this predicament. There was trouble in the near future, he was sure, because he knew he was completely unsuited for the job at hand . . . and he wanted to do it anyway.
*No!* he told himself. *I don't want to keep her. I want to be left in peace.* But he couldn't lie to himself. As much as it pained him to admit it, he had gotten attached to her in an odd sort of way, and now he didn't know how he could go back to the way things were knowing that she had been sent to be raised by someone else.
He went home and found the child - his child, now - waiting anxiously for him.
"What did he say?" she asked.
"It seems you're going to be staying here for a while," he admitted. "The Dark Specter was planning on sending you somewhere else, but I asked if you could stay with me until it's time for you to leave. In the meantime," he added, "you are going to play princess. My friend the Book Wyrm tells me little girls like to play princess."
Karone nodded. "But I can go home later, can't I?"
"One of these days," Ecliptor lied, "but you have to remember that it is still dangerous for you out there. That monster is still looking for you, and he might catch you again if you go home too soon. You need to hide for a while. We are going to give you a disguise and a new name - a princess name. Is there any name you would like?"
"You pick," she said.
"Hmm," he considered. "Very well then. We can call you . . . Astronema, maybe. Princess Astronema."
"Astronema," she repeated. "That's a pretty name. I like that."
"Good," answered Ecliptor. "Well, if you are going to be a princess, you have a lot to learn. Where should we begin?"
"Show me that book again, the one we were reading last night," said the child.
Ecliptor made a slight bow.
"Yes, my princess."
Later that evening, there came a knock at the door once again. Ecliptor was not inclined to open it. Despite the fact that lessons that afternoon had gone rather well, he was still suffering from faint uneasiness with the whole situation. He didn't feel up to dealing with any more complications in his life, and it seemed like new problems arrived every time the door was opened. Still, the tone was not the urgent raps that announced a messenger, nor the impatient pounding that would mean another visit from Darkonda. It was just a light tap, someone requesting but not demanding entrance. He went to answer the knock, and was surprised to find the Book Wyrm.
"What brings you here?" asked Ecliptor. It was seldom, if ever, that the Wyrm left the Lybrari, yet here it was on his doorstep with its claws full of books.
"I thought you might need some hhhhhelp," it said. "I hhhhheard about what you said to the Dark Specterrrrr."
"How did you find out about that?"
"Word travels fast, even to a Book Wyrm. Hhhhh!" The sharp hiss was his way of laughing.
"Well, don't just stand there," said Ecliptor. "Come inside before everyone sees you."
The Book Wyrm slithered into the cave-house, and Ecliptor quickly shut the door behind him. Most of the old jeers about his association with the Wyrm had died down now that he was in such high favor with the Dark Specter, but Ecliptor didn't want them to get started again.
The minute the little princess laid eyes on the Book Wyrm, she shrieked and ran to Ecliptor for protection. She latched on to his arm and tried to hide behind him, but he peeled her off and pushed her gently forwards to face the strange reptile.
"Don't be frightened," he said. "You're going to be seeing a lot of strange creatures from now on, so get used to them. They aren't going to hurt you. Remember, you are a princess. Everyone has to obey you, so you shouldn't be afraid of them."
"Child," hissed the Book Wyrm softly, "come here where I can see you."
After a questioning glance at her protector to make sure it was all right, Astronema stepped bravely forward to be inspected by the beast. It dropped itself down so it could see eye to eye with her and adjusted its glasses. Very gently, it ran one claw through her curly blonde hair.
"What a beautiful child," it sighed. "She is like a ray of light in this dark place. It will be a pleasure to teach hhhhher. Child, I am the Book Wyrm."
"I am Princess Astronema," she said.
"Are you?" The Book Wyrm looked surprised. "Well. That is interesting. Little princess, I am going to be yourrrrr teacherrrrr."
"I thought Ecliptor was going to be my teacher."
"I was Ecliptor's teacherrrrr. Now I will teach you what I taught hhhhhim." The Book Wyrm turned to the monster. "You hhhhhave studies to attend to as well, Ecliptorrrrr. You read. I will take care of the princess."
Ecliptor didn't feel like arguing. He took the books from the Wyrm and settled down at the table to read by the light of a candle. The Book Wyrm took Astronema to another room, where he began his quiet instructions. With a sigh of resignation, Ecliptor opened the first book and began to read.
Some time around midnight, the candle went out with a tiny sizzle of hot wax. Ecliptor put one hand over his aching eyes. There was so much he had to know! These humans were more complex than he had ever imagined, even when young, and as they got older, they began to change in very strange ways and act in unfathomable manners.
"I just cannot do this," said Ecliptor to himself. He rested a moment, thinking glumly that he had made a mistake. How could he ever hope to make this work?
His attention was caught by a tiny clattering noise, the sound of something small being dropped by his elbow. He uncovered his eyes and stared at the table. The Book Wyrm's reading glasses had been folded neatly and left next to his book. The Wyrm itself stood nearby, waiting for its contribution to be noticed.
"Remember, you are not alone in this," it said.
Ecliptor gave the Wyrm a curious look, and then looked back at the glasses. The Book Wyrm waited expectantly. With an air of surrender, Ecliptor found a new candle, lit it, and then picked up the folded spectacles. Wincing inwardly at how silly he must have looked, he put them on. He had to admit, it was an improvement; the letters no longer bent themselves out of shape and danced all over the page the way they usually did.
"This is undignified," he said. He turned to Astronema, who was curled up and sound asleep in her bed nearby, her golden tresses shining in the candlelight. "I hope you realize how much trouble you are."
As if in response to his voice, the little girl stirred slightly and muttered something in her sleep. Ecliptor could only catch one word:
"Andros . . ."
Ecliptor sighed and looked back at the Book Wyrm.
"We have our work cut out for us," he said.
They didn't do too badly, the three of them. The Book Wyrm was an invaluable help, coming nearly every day to tend to the little princess in every way that Ecliptor couldn't. Not only did it teach her lessons of history, magic, science, and other such things (usually interspersed with bits the Wyrm's poetic nonsense), but it also had the patience and humility to tend to her more basic needs. It didn't seem to mind cooking and cleaning; in fact, it seemed to enjoy them. It was also the Book Wyrm who introduced her to such feminine wonders as makeup and jewelry. Ecliptor sometimes suffered twinges of jealousy seeing them together as they spent hours in front of a mirror while the Wyrm carefully brushed and styled her hair, but he comforted himself with the knowledge that it was always HIM she ran to in moments of fear or excitement.
At first, there was a small problem trying to convince Dark Specter that things ought to stay that way. At least once a month by that planet's calendar, Ecliptor was called to give a report on the progress of Astronema's education, and every time, Dark Specter asked him when he planned to give her up. At first, Ecliptor continued to foster the charade that he would willingly hand her over to someone else as soon as some lesson or another had been completed to satisfaction. After a while, though, it became evident that he couldn't keep the act up much longer. Dark Specter was catching on.
"I'm beginning to think," he said to his servant, "that you are planning on keeping her indefinitely. What do you have to say to that?"
"It is no longer a matter of what I plan to do," answered Ecliptor carefully. "Astronema was meant to be a princess, and the Book Wyrm and I have raised her as such. She is used to getting her way, and is willing to fight for it if necessary. I think it is now more a matter of where she wants to be, and somehow I do not think she would leave willingly."
"And this suits you?"
"She may be young, Dark Specter, but she already has more sense than most of your other high-ranking minions. If you have no objection, I would like to act as her servant and protector permanently."
"Rrrrr . . ." said Dark Specter thoughtfully. "So be it. I proclaim you to be Princess Astronema's general, and you will answer to no one but her and myself."
Ecliptor bowed low. "Thank you, Dark Specter. You won't regret the decision."
"See that I don't." The Monarch of Darkness shimmered and vanished.
Ecliptor turned and trudged back home. That was one obstacle cleared, at least, but there was still one more thing he had to do before the child would be completely his. It was not a pleasant thing, but unavoidable if he wanted to keep her. He paused in front of the door to steel himself for what would come next, and then went in.
"I'm home," he called. "Astronema, where are you?"
"I'm here," she called back, coming out of her room. "Did you talk to the Dark Specter?"
"I did," said Ecliptor. "Where is the Book Wyrm?"
"He went back to the Lybrari," Astronema answered. "Ecliptor, what did Dark Specter say? Can I go home yet?"
"No, princess," said Ecliptor quietly. "I . . . I'm afraid I have some bad news. It seems your planet has been under attack. It has been completely destroyed. Your family is dead, killed by the Power Rangers."
Astronema froze, unable to comprehend what she had heard, her face blank with shock. Then the full impact of the words sunk in, and her eyes began to fill with tears. She bit her lip, trying to stay in control.
"I'm not going to cry," she said shakily. "I'm not going to cry."
For a moment, she stood silently, struggling to get her emotions under control as she had been taught. Then the dam broke, and she flung herself against Ecliptor's side and sobbed. Very gently, he put a protective arm around her.
"Don't worry," he said softly. "I will take care of you. No matter what, I will be here to protect you. Always."
Time went by, just as it always did, and the little princess began to grow up and show signs of the beautiful young woman she would one day become. Ecliptor, used to creatures of magic who could live for centuries and show virtually no signs of aging, was amazed at how quickly she seemed to grow, like a mushroom sprouting up overnight. By the age of thirteen, she had exchanged much of her childish mannerisms for adolescent confidence. She was learning to act more like a true princess, asserting herself and occasionally issuing orders. Still, she was a good student, studying as avidly under the Book Wyrm's tutelage as she did when learning weaponmastery from Ecliptor. Now that she had grown older, she was beginning to desire some independence from her odd little family, and had been begging her guardian to allow her to walk alone to the Lybrari. At first, Ecliptor had protested. It was dangerous for her. The outside world was no place for a young girl to wander around alone. Most of the creatures out there would attack her at the slightest provocation, and Ecliptor wasn't certain that she was ready to defend herself from them. However, she continued to plead, and then demand, and the Book Wyrm supported her wishes. He was old, and he did not enjoy making the long journey carrying heavy loads of books. Finally, Ecliptor relented, and Astronema went.
Even though he had made up his mind not to, Eclptor spent most of that first day fidgeting. He knew what kind of people - if you could call them people - lived in that city, and he knew what they were capable of doing. His mind came up with a dozen things that could have happened to her, so while he waited in his room, trying to convince himself that he wasn't worried, he was relieved to hear the door open and the sound of her light footsteps.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her walk in, and he knew immediately that something was wrong. She was moving with a limp, and she was keeping her head bowed and half turned, obviously trying to hide her face. She was moving as quietly as she could, evidently hoping he wouldn't hear her, even though she knew he could.
"Astronema," he called, "what have you done?"
She stopped in mid-step and sighed resignedly, knowing she had been caught. She stood staring at her feet, waiting for Ecliptor to come and lecture her. He obliged, coming to stand before her. With one hand, he gently tilted back her chin, forcing her to look him in the eye. One of her own eyes was bruised and puffy, and the skin was scraped as if she had been hit by something rough . . . or, more accurately, as if a scaly fist had been thrust with considerable force at her face.
"You got in a fight," Ecliptor said.
Astronema nodded sullenly. Ecliptor gave a sigh of exasperation.
"Sit," he said, pointing in the direction of his medicine shelf. Astronema did as she was told, seating herself in a chair borrowed from a nearby desk. Ecliptor dragged one in from the kitchen and sat across from her.
"Now," he said, pulling the lid from a jar of healing salve, "I seem to remember you saying something today about how you wouldn't get in trouble if I let you go out alone."
"I didn't mean to get into any trouble," Astronema protested. "It was an accident!"
"I see. And tell me, how do you accidentally get into a fight?" asked Ecliptor as he carefully doctored the princess's wounds. His stone fingers were surprisingly gentle and dexterous.
"The other guy started it. I had to fight him, Ecliptor. He was saying things about you."
"In case you have forgotten, I can fight my own battles."
"I know, Ecliptor," sighed Astronema. "I guess I just lost my temper."
"You lose your temper too often," Ecliptor answered sternly. "You are a princess, and . . ."
". . . and a princess must never lose her composure, I know," Astronema finished. "You've told me that a hundred times, and I really try, but I can't. I'm not like you."
"No," said Ecliptor, shaking his head, "no, you're not." He closed the jar and put it back on the shelf. As Astronema got up to leave, something occurred to him. "By the way, who won the fight?"
Astronema flashed her winning smile. "I walked home," she said. "His friends had to carry him."
Ecliptor tried to suppress a chuckle at that, but Astronema caught it anyway and winked at him.
"Well," he said, "I suppose you've had your battle practice for today. Perhaps there's something else you'd prefer to do this afternoon. I do believe the market is still open, if you feel like doing some shopping without one of us dull old men around . . ."
"Thanks, Ecliptor! You're the best!" said Astronema. She hugged him quickly, and then hurried off to get her purse.
Ecliptor watched her go with mixed emotions. There was pride, of course. How could there not be? His student had proven herself a match for a warrior presumably much older and more experienced than she. Ecliptor would have liked to have been there to see how she had pulled it off. The Book Wyrm had said that the greatest strengths of humans lay in their ability to learn quickly and adapt easily to their surroundings, and his experience with Astronema had backed up this theory. She was a clever girl, and getting more so all the time. The other monsters would hear of her victory, and word would spread that Princess Astronema was not someone to be trifled with.
However, there was the matter of how the fight had started in the first place. She had lost her temper, and it wasn't the first time. Despite Ecliptor's careful training, Astronema was still too much a subject to her emotions. She was what the Book Wyrm had called her, a ray of light in a dark place. That kind of light would never go unnoticed in a place as dark as this, and she simply didn't seem to be able to hide it. She would never have the kind of cold iron core she would need to survive as a princess of evil if she continued to allow herself to be ruled by her heart.
"I think it's time I had a talk with the Book Wyrm," he said to himself.
That night, while Astronema slept, Ecliptor made his way to the Lybrari, where he explained his worries to the Wyrm.
"How can I get her to change?" he asked.
"Hhhhh . . ." hissed the Wyrm. "How do you get winter to follow spring? How do you stop the planets from spinning? How would I get you to lay down your sword and mind the Lybrari?"
"I don't need your riddles, Wyrm," Ecliptor snapped in irritation. "Give me an answer, for once."
"Give yourself answers," answered the Book Worm mildly. "Light is powerful. No matter how dark the night is, it cannot stop a candle from shining."
"If you're saying its impossible . . ." Ecliptor began.
"Even if it were," said the Wyrm, "would it be fair? You fight, I write, she is light. That is all we are, and she is the greatest of we three. She could be so great, Ecliptor. Hasn't she changed you?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," said Ecliptor gruffly.
"No," said the Wyrm sadly. "So few people do. I cannot shine. I am only a poor Book Wyrm, and no one listens to me."
"That's because you don't speak sense," Ecliptor snapped.
"I do," the Wyrm said. "The child understands me."
"She's not a child anymore, in case you haven't noticed. She is well on her way to becoming the princess she was meant to be."
"Meant to be?" repeated the Wyrm. "Are you sure about that?"
For a split second, Ecliptor had a sudden memory of the bright, laughing child he had first brought into his home, and he felt a strange pang of regret at the thought of trying to hide that inner light. He pushed the thought out of his mind.
"I have to do this," he said, "for her own protection. If the others knew her for what she really is, they would never agree to follow her. They would rise up and destroy her."
"Are you sure?" asked the Wyrm again.
"Would you stop saying that?" asked Ecliptor in frustration.
The Book Wyrm blinked. "Even a mirror of dark glass will reflect light if light is shined upon it," it said portentously.
"And just what is that supposed to mean?"
"Think about it."
"Your head is full of dreams and nonsense," said Ecliptor irritably. "I thought you were going to help me, but I suppose I'll have to go to someone else." He turned and started out of the building.
"Who else is going to help you?" asked the Wyrm.
"Dark Specter," Ecliptor replied, and slammed the door behind him.
The next afternoon, Astronema, dressed up in her best princess-warrior garb, fidgeted nervously as she waited for Ecliptor to come join her.
"I'm not sure I want to do this," she said. "Are you sure I'm ready? What if I do something wrong? If I make a mistake and Dark Specter gets angry . . ."
Ecliptor sighed. This, he thought to himself, was exactly why she had to go through with this. She had too many weaknesses, too many characteristics someone could use against her.
"You aren't afraid, are you?" he asked.
She considered a moment, and then nodded. "Yes."
"Are you going to do this anyway?"
"That is all you need, then. Stick with what I've taught you. Address him with the respect he deserves, and he won't do anything to harm you. Remember, he chose you to be a princess, and someday you will be queen and rule his empire for him. He holds you in high regard. Be proud of that."
"I will. Thank you," Astronema said. "I'm ready to go, now."
Ecliptor led her through the crowded streets of the city, and the various monsters and mutants respectfully moved out of the way for them. Gossip spread quickly, and everyone knew that the diminutive princess was to meet with the Monarch of Darkness today. If Dark Specter wanted to take her seriously, then his subjects would, too.
They didn't go to the pinnacle. It was too public a place for what Dark Specter had in mind for today. Instead, Ecliptor took Astronema to the entrance of a deep cavern that led far below the earth. It was dark, and the tunnels twisted and branched in every direction, but Ecliptor knew where he was going. At last, he paused before a pair of elaborately decorated double doors.
"This is the entrance to Dark Specter's private conference room," said Ecliptor. "He has requested that you speak with him alone."
"You can't come with me?" she asked.
"I am to guard the door and make sure you are not interrupted," Ecliptor replied. "Go now. You must not keep him waiting."
Astronema nodded. Ecliptor opened the door, and she went in.
An hour later, the doors were pushed slowly open again. Ecliptor, by nature sensitive to magic, could feel the smoldering traces of Dark Specter's power tinting the princess's own aura. She looked tired and pale.
"What happened?" he asked.
"I don't want to talk about it right now," she said, her voice filled with weariness. "Come on, Ecliptor. Let's go home."
Evening came. Astronema had slept most of the afternoon; evidently whatever she had been through had been quite an ordeal. However, Ecliptor didn't realize the full extent of what had happened until he went to call her to her evening meal and found her sitting on the edge of her bed, staring thoughtfully at the pictures in the locket she wore.
"Ecliptor," she said, in a tone of vague puzzlement, "who is this?"
"That is your brother," answered Ecliptor, somewhat taken aback.
"Oh," she said. "Where is he now?"
"He is dead," Ecliptor replied.
"Oh," she said again.
Remembering the tearful outburst she had gone through the first time she had heard that news, Ecliptor asked, "Does that not bother you?"
Astronema shrugged. "I am a princess. A princess must never lose her composure."
Ecliptor experienced a sudden sinking sensation as he suddenly realized what had been done to her.
"Eat your dinner," he told her. "I am going to speak with the Book Wyrm."
If the Wyrm was surprised to see Ecliptor again after the argument of the night before, it didn't show it. It only gazed at Ecliptor curiously as he entered.
"Mirror of dark glass," it said softly, "what has become of your light?"
"I think I gave it away," answered Ecliptor.
"I am sorry," said the Book Wyrm.
Ecliptor sighed and sat down at one of the tables. The Book Wyrm coiled itself on the table top and rested its head on his friend's shoulder in the best gesture of sympathy it could manage. They stayed there for a long time, lost in thought.
The next few days were unhappy ones for Ecliptor. Astronema was recovering slowly from the trauma of being placed under such a powerful spell. Humans did not always react well to magic, and she was obviously feeling a strain. She was quiet and withdrawn, never smiling and hardly speaking, spending hours doing nothing but staring off into space. Her lessons were neglected, though they had once been her greatest enjoyment. Other than reminding her to take her meals, Ecliptor didn't bother her. In a way, she was ill, and she needed time and space to heal.
After a week or so had gone by, she began to come around again. Though it was still seldom that she laughed or smiled, she became more responsive to the world around her, as if she had just remembered it was there and was trying to figure out what had been going on in her absence. She spent more time practicing her weapons training and made occasional forays outside. Ecliptor was relieved. Perhaps, in time, she would make a recovery.
The first real problem came when Astronema finally decided to pick up her lessons again. She set out to the Lybrari, only to return a few minutes later carrying a few books and looking puzzled.
"What's wrong?" Ecliptor asked.
"The Book Wyrm sent me away," she replied, her voice sounding confused and hurt.
"He did what?" repeated Ecliptor. If she had said what he thought she said, he was going to be very angry.
"He told me he isn't going to tutor me anymore. He'll give me the books, but he won't teach me."
"Wait here, Astronema," he said. "I'll get to the bottom of this."
He stormed off to the Lybrari and threw open the front doors with a sound like a thunderclap that shook the building. The Book Wyrm, dozing on a table, glanced up in curiosity.
"What were you thinking?" Ecliptor demanded. "How could you do this? How could you send her away?"
"I will not serve a stranger, Ecliptorrrrr," said the Book Wyrm mildly.
"What are you talking about?" snapped Ecliptor. "Astronema isn't a stranger! Haven't you been taking care of her since she was a little girl? She's been like a daughter to you! How can you call her a stranger?"
"My princess was a child of light," the Wrym said wistfully. "She was a beautiful, beautiful thing. I cannot live with this shadowed person who came to me. She reminds me of what I have lost."
"You hurt her, Book Wyrm. She trusted you."
"She will get over it. No emotion will last long with her."
"That's not true! She is hurt, and she needs time to heal. She will return to what she was, I know it! But it will only hurt her worse if you won't help her."
"HHHHH!" hissed the Wyrm in sudden anger. "Can you understand nothing? The light is gone! Gone! My child is dead, and nothing is going to change that. I sympathized with you, Ecliptorrrrr, because I thought you realized what you had done, but if you are going to cling so stubbornly to this lie to try to prove your innocence . . ."
"I did what I had to do! I was trying to protect her! Don't you see that?"
"She could have done so much," said the Book Wyrm sadly. "It is you who do not see. Light cannot be overruled by darkness! I tried to make you see that. She could have changed everything for the better. A light shining on all of us, bringing brightness to everyone and driving the shadows away . . ."
"You wanted her to overthrow the powers of darkness? You wanted her to depose the forces of evil?" Ecliptor exclaimed. "You traitor! You were going to use her for that?"
"I see nothing wrong with that," the Book Wyrm replied. "Even you could agree that this government is unfair and riddled with flaws and run by fools. Why should I not try to help the child reach her potential?"
"I can't believe I'm hearing this," Ecliptor said. "To think I trusted you. I can't believe you would sink so low as to use her for your own interests. Well, I'm through with you, Wyrm. I don't ever want to see your face again."
As Ecliptor turned to leave, the Book Wyrm called out to him.
"Ecliptorrrrr . . ." it said softly, "don't go. Please. It is bad enough to have lost my daughter. I do not want to lose my son as well . . ."
Ecliptor paused and looked back at the Wyrm. A single slow teardrop was marking a dark path across the Book Wyrm's dusty scales. For a moment, it looked like he was ready to change his mind, but then Ecliptor simply turned around and walked quietly out of the building.
The little tavern was somewhat more crowded than usual. It was really one of the more respectable establishments of its kind - meaning that you were less likely to be stabbed or poisoned there than in one of the sleazier dives on the planet. On an ordinary day, it was quiet there, with only a few solitary creatures seated around the tables as they talked or drank or perhaps played games of chance. However, today was a holiday of sorts, and people who didn't normally patronize the tavern had come to celebrate.
At least, most of them had come to celebrate. One incongruous dark figure lurked alone at a table in a shadowed corner, sipping thoughtfully at his drink. It was extremely seldom that Ecliptor ever felt the need to eat anything, except perhaps out of politeness at some social function (the only reason he had been given the capability to ingest anything was in case of the event that he might need to medicate himself) but he did appreciate a cold drink on occasion, and today felt like one of those days. He wanted a place to think in solitude - not the lonely solitude of his home, though. Here, amid the general clamor and excitement, he could be among others and yet be alone. That suited him.
Time had gone by so quickly, he mused. It seemed like such a short time ago that Astronema had been a laughing little girl. Now, at age sixteen (or close to it; not even she was sure of her exact age) she was getting ready to start a real life of her own. Ecliptor had mixed feelings about that. There was, of course, that vague feeling of something good coming to an end. Like it or not, his little girl was growing up. He had no doubts about her abilities. He knew better than anyone that she was capable of handling just about anything that came her way. Brave, intelligent, quick-thinking, poised and deadly, she was everything a princess of evil should be. Whether it was with a projectile weapon or in close combat, she could outfight almost anything that dared to challenge her. She couldn't beat him, yet, but he knew it was only a matter of time. Yes, she was definitely ready, and the Dark Specter had evidently agreed. That was the reason for today's celebration: today she would make her formal debut as a true princess. There would be a ceremony in a few hours, where she would be officially given her title and everything she would need to start raising her own empire. Ecliptor had seen the preparations being made, and he was rather impressed with the Dark Fortress and the legions of shiny silver-and-black robot warriors that had been built as her servants and soldiers. It was just all happening so fast, and Ecliptor felt like he needed some time to stop and mentally catch his breath.
After having considered his options, he decided that the tavern was the best place to go. He had shoved a handful of rough gold coins to the surly bartender, and had been given in exchange a goblet of clear, blue tinted starspirits. Watching the other monsters in the tavern gulping their own strange concoctions of choice, he couldn't help feeling a measure of disgust. Foolish creatures, poisoning their bodies and minds with such vile potions. His own drink was the strongest thing he would allow himself to consume, and even it was so mild that he had allowed Astronema to sample it on occasion. He would never let her or himself lose control due to some intoxicating beverage. It was, in his opinion, simply foolish, and as he watched the noisy crowds carrying on with their merrymaking, he wondered how they had ever kept themselves alive. No true warrior would ever abuse his body like that.
As he watched, one person detached himself from the main crowd and began heading toward Ecliptor's table, moving a trifle unsteadily and taking swigs from a tankard of something Ecliptor didn't even care to guess at. In the haze and confusion that dominated the tavern, it took a moment for him to figure out who was coming to disrupt his peace and quiet. When Ecliptor could finally see clearly, he got an unpleasant surprise.
"Damn," he muttered.
"Come now, Ecliptor," said Darkonda, taking a seat at the table, "that's not very ladylike."
"Did you come over here just to annoy me?" Ecliptor replied.
"Just making sure you're doing your job," said Darkonda. "Who's babysitting your little girl?"
"Princess Astronema is more than capable of taking care of herself," Ecliptor answered coldly.
"Oho, princess, is it?" Darkonda chortled. "You mean to tell me you would bow down and serve a human child? How pathetic! And I always heard you were supposed to be so tough."
"Who I choose to serve is no business of yours. Suffice it to say that Astronema is a better leader than anyone else you could name. Since I must serve someone, why not her?"
"Human," scoffed Darkonda, draining his mug. "You won't catch me serving any humans. Weak, pathetic creatures. I'm not doing a thing she says, Dark Specter or no Dark Specter."
"You're not in you're right mind," said Ecliptor. "If you were sober, I'd have you dragged before Dark Specter and accused of treason. If you don't leave me alone, I may just have to do that anyway."
"There's nothing wrong with me. I'm p-perfectly sober. Know 'zactly what I'm talking about. I'm not afraid of her, and I'm not afraid of you, and I'm not afraid of Dark Specter. So there."
"I'm leaving," Ecliptor announced. "Go home and sleep it off."
"You'll never catch me bowing and scraping to a human," continued Darkonda, as if he hadn't even heard Ecliptor. "She's nothing without you to protect her. She can't take care of herself. If you left her alone, she'd be dead within a week."
"Goodbye, Darkonda," said Ecliptor with finality. "If I ever catch you saying things like that again, I'll kill you."
"Nice talking to you, too," said Darkonda.
Ecliptor made his way to the exit, abandoning his half-finished drink. Somehow, the sight of the other creatures's excessiveness, especially Darkonda's, made him lose interest even in his own innocuous beverage. Pausing at the door, he glanced back, just to make sure he wasn't being followed. He need not have worried. Darkonda seemed to have fallen asleep on the tabletop.
"Disgusting," Ecliptor muttered. There, he thought to himself, was one monster who would never amount to anything.
Once outside, Ecliptor glanced up and checked the position of the sun. It had just reached its zenith, and was now slowly making its way back to the horizon. There was still quite a bit of time before Ecliptor was expected to report to the ceremony. Oh, well, he would be early. He certainly didn't feel like spending any more time hanging around town. He began making his way through the city, heading toward the wide open public area where the ceremony would be held.
On the way there, he came upon an unusual situation. A large number of various monsters and soldiers were gathered excitedly around one of the official buildings, milling around and shouting in expectation of something.
"What's going on?" Ecliptor shouted over the hubbub.
A hulking bug-eyed creature turned around long enough to answer the question.
"Hish Majeshty the Dark Shpecter hash declared war on KO-35," it explained. "All ush monshtersh are getting shigned up. You should shign up too, Ecliptor. Dark Shpecter ish looking for experienshed sholdiers and generalsh."
Eclitptor stared thoughtfully at the beast. It was no one he knew, but he recognized the type: one of a million other amiable idiots who would gladly run off to a war and destroy a planet without ever really understanding why. It would, however, remain unswervingly loyal to its master. At least its indistinct speech was not due to any overindulgence in holiday cheer, but because of an overabundance of teeth that made talking difficult. Ecliptor mentally compared it to the company he had just left, and found that he far preferred this monstrosity over Darkonda. It looked at Ecliptor, evidently expecting some sort of reply to its helpful suggestion.
"Thank you. I'll think about it," said Ecliptor, and continued on his way.
Although he hadn't intended to, he did think about it. As much as Ecliptor tried to push them out of his mind, Darkonda's words continued to echo in his mind. Did others think as he did, that Astronema could not survive in this community of monsters because she was human? Would they think that the only reason she was surviving at all was because she had Ecliptor to stand up for her? If that was the case, she could never have any control, no matter what Dark Specter said or did. They wouldn't serve anyone they didn't respect.
If that were true, it left Ecliptor with a decision to make. He had sworn always to protect Astronema, but perhaps . . . perhaps the best way he could help her was to back off and let her take care of herself for a while. He knew she could; it was only a matter of her proving it to the rest of the universe. People were talking about him, too. He had heard them himself, time and again, but he had usually ignored them. However, this might be a good time to get out and prove that he was still a hardened warrior, and not just the baby-sitter of a human child, as Darkonda had called him. The timing of the war was convenient. It would give him and Astronema chances to prove themselves, show the universe that they were both people to be reckoned with. Then, with that accomplished, they could be reunited. It was a good plan. It would hurt Ecliptor to have to leave, but it would probably be for the best. He sighed. Complications, complications.
After the ceremony was over, Ecliptor set off in search of the princess. He found her wandering around her new fortress, trying to acquaint herself with its many corridors and confusing layout. She was still dressed in her warrior-princess garb, the form-fitting black suit worn under silvery armor. Though she still had the razor-edged boomerang she wore at her side, she now carried a more formidable weapon, a spear-tipped staff marked with her royal insignia. Unequipped with the magical sight that Ecliptor had, she couldn't see the aura of power that surrounded it, but the cloud of lavender light was clear to Ecliptor, and he was impressed with how much the Dark Specter had trusted her with.
"Astronema," he called, by way of a greeting.
"Oh, Ecliptor!" Astronema exclaimed. "I didn't hear you coming. Isn't this place incredible? I found my room. Where are you going to stay?"
"That's what I came to tell you," said Ecliptor slowly. "I'm not staying."
"What? What do you mean?" asked Astronema, not quite believing what she was hearing.
"I've already spoken to Dark Specter, and he agrees with me on this matter," Ecliptor said. "There is going to be a war on KO-35, and I am going to be in it. The planet is guarded by powerful protectors, and Dark Specter has asked me to help lead his soldiers."
"I thought . . . I thought you were going to help me," Astronema said, sounding as close to tears as Ecliptor had heard her in a long time. Ecliptor gently rested a hand on her shoulder.
"You don't need my help," he said. "You have everything you need inside yourself. But not everyone realizes that. This is your chance to prove what you can do WITHOUT my help. I promise, I will come back, and when I do, I know you will have made me proud."
"I'm going to miss you," she said.
"I'll miss you, too," he replied, "but this is the way it has to be. Don't worry. I'll be back before you know it."
There was an awkward moment of silence, neither person being comfortable with sentimental partings. At last, Astronema said, "I'm going to start moving my things in. I had probably better start now, or I won't be done before nightfall."
Ecliptor nodded. "I'll see you another time then. Good luck, princess."
"Good luck to you too," she replied, and then she turned and hurried away.
Ecliptor left feeling an odd mix of sorrow and joy.
*She really does care about me, after all,* he thought to himself.
War was about like he remembered it: a little excitement, a lot of tedium; a little fighting and a lot of planning; hurry up and wait. The big difference was that he was no longer a foot soldier, but an experienced warrior with responsibilities. These duties had been outlined to him by the Dark Specter, and they began on the very next morning as he inspected the troops that had been put under his supervision. He was somewhat displeased to find that there were none that he knew to have any promise, and most of them still seemed to be recovering from their partying the day before. One of these, he was annoyed to discover, was Darkonda, who was acting more irritable than usual and seemed to be dealing with a headache. Ecliptor took malicious enjoyment in putting him through his paces.
The attacks began slowly, with little exploratory strikes launched here and there, testing the planet's defenses and probing for weaknesses. It didn't take long to discover that the defenses were fairly formidable; Dark Specter hadn't warned his general that the planet was guarded by Power Rangers. Experience with Astronema aside, Ecliptor didn't have a very high regard for humans - they seemed like such fragile creatures - but these Power Rangers were something else. They were a little more than human . . . or maybe, he thought, more like himself, less than human, things designed only to fight. Whatever they were, they were as powerful as their name implied, but they were not invincible. By careful planning, hard work, and a little luck, Ecliptor and other generals like him were able to reduce the size of the team down to two. Unfortunately, they were the two most powerful, most skilled, and the most stubborn. Ecliptor was sitting in his own room, going over various plans and trying to think of a way to get rid of these last obstacles, when he suddenly noticed a sound.
There were lots of sounds being made that night, shouts and laughs and the occasional crash or scream; monsters seemed to have a hard time being quiet for any length of time. However, it was not these noises that caught Ecliptor's attention, but the quiet sound of someone humming to himself, cheerfully and off-key, and occasionally chuckling to himself. Ecliptor recognized the voice of Darkonda, who had evidently gotten away with something and was very pleased about it. Ecliptor didn't really want to know what it might have been. He only hoped that whatever Darkonda had been amusing himself with would keep him from thinking of coming to annoy his leader. However, instead of walking on to his own quarters, Darkonda paused to lean against Ecliptor's doorframe, continuing to laugh quietly. Ecliptor got the distinct impression that it was he who was being laughed at.
"Would you mind telling me what is so funny?" he asked irritably.
"I know something you don't know," jeered Darkonda with a wicked grin.
"I find that very hard to believe," Ecliptor replied.
"Well, if you aren't interested in what I know, maybe I can find someone who'll listen . . ."
Something in Darkonda's voice suggested that perhaps this was something Ecliptor wanted to know after all.
"All right, Darkonda," he growled. "What is it?"
Darkonda chuckled. "Come down to KO-35 with me for a little while. There's something I want you to see."
"This had better be important," muttered Ecliptor.
"Oh, don't worry. I think you'll find this to be very interesting."
Night had fallen on KO-35, a good time for monsters to be moving about. Darkonda led Ecliptor to a garden, where they hid themselves behind a stand of bushes.
"This is ridiculous," Ecliptor grumbled. "Darkonda, why are we . . ."
"Shh!" Darkonda cautioned, raising one clawed finger in a request for silence. "Here they come now!"
Ecliptor listened. Sure enough, he could hear the sounds of footsteps crunching on the gravel pathway that led through the garden. A few seconds later, two people came into view. In the lead came a serious-faced young man with long hair in alternating streaks of gold and brown. Following him came a second young man, fair-haired and more heavily muscled than his companion. They both moved with the confident, easy grace of those who have worked all their lives to gain mastery over their bodies. It was the mark of a real warrior. To Ecliptor's magic- sight, they both showed faint auras of light, red for the first and silver-white for the second - not their own magic, but a spell that had worked itself into their beings so deeply that it had become an inseparable part of them.
"Power Rangers," Ecliptor whispered to himself.
As he watched, the young men stopped and seated themselves on a stone bench. The Red Ranger stared thoughtfully off into the starry sky, while his companion sat in respectful silence.
"What are you thinking about?" the Silver Ranger asked at last.
"It was ten years ago today," the other answered softly. "Almost half my life. Kind of strange to think about it . . ."
"Do you think she's still out there?"
"I know she is, Zhane. She has to be. She's my sister, my own flesh and blood. I would know if she were dead. Don't you think I'd know?" the Red Ranger finished imploringly.
"Of course you would," his friend answered. "I really believe you'll find her again someday. You and me, we can do anything together!"
"I sure hope you're right. I keep thinking about her, wondering where she is, if she's safe, if she's happy. Every time something good happens, the first thing that runs through my mind is a wish that she was there to share it with me, and every time something bad happens, it makes me think of the times when she must have felt alone and frightened and I wasn't there to comfort her."
"Don't worry, Andros," said Zhane. "You will find Karone again. Come on, now. I promised to get you to Kinwan's meeting on time tonight."
"I'm coming," answered Andros. As he was getting up, he carefully took the locket he was wearing and slipped it into its hiding place beneath his shirt. Then, the two boys began making their way out of the garden.
Ecliptor, meanwhile, had listened to the conversation with increasing amazement. Here was the one person he had wished most never to see, the brother of his precious child. It just couldn't be true . . . but the proof was there. Here was Andros, searching for Karone. He even had the locket, exactly the same as the one Astronema wore every day. And then another thought occurred to Ecliptor: Astronema's brother was a Power Ranger, and he was looking for her! A worse situation was hard to imagine. Ecliptor was pulled out of his state of shock by the sound of laughter.
"Well, that was educational, wasn't it?" Darkonda said. "I can think of quite a few interesting things I could do with that kind of information. Maybe I should tell a few of the other monsters about this. I'm sure they'd be interested to hear about Astronema's family tree."
"Why, you treacherous worm!" Ecliptor snarled. He tried to strike at Darkonda, but he had been expecting the move and ducked out of the way, still laughing.
"Who are you calling a traitor?" Darkonda replied. "I could just as easily say you were a traitor, infiltrating the Red Ranger's sister into our ranks, trying to overthrow Dark Specter!"
"No one would ever believe you," said Ecliptor. "Dark Specter trusts me."
"No one here trusts anyone. We all know that anyone could turncoat at any time and stab their best friend in the back," Darkonda replied. "Or here's an idea: what if I told Princess Astronema that she's no princess at all? How would she like to know her brother is a Power Ranger, that she's fighting on the wrong side? How would she feel if she knew how you lied to her?"
"Darkonda, I'll destroy you for this!" shouted Ecliptor in fury.
"Not my fault!" Darkonda replied, laughing hysterically. "If you had left her to me, none of this would have happened, but no! You had to go and try to keep her. All of this is your fault! You built her up. Now you'll have to watch her fall!"
"Nothing will happen if you keep your mouth shut," Ecliptor said, "and I know how to make sure you are permanently silenced!"
"I don't think so," Darkonda replied. "I'm not going to hang around and fight with you. If you make one false move, I'll vanish, and then go tell everyone everything I know. Your precious princess will be destroyed, and she'll have you to blame."
"What are you getting out of this?" Ecliptor asked. "What is it you want that you would torment me like this?"
"What I want," said Darkonda, "is to see you suffer. That, and to keep from having to degrade myself and other true monsters from having to serve a human infant."
"I'll get you for this," said Ecliptor. "No matter what it takes, I will destroy you!"
"You'll have to catch me first. I'm out of here!" With a final laugh, Darkonda vanished in a swirl of light.
For a moment, Ecliptor was frozen, too overcome with rage to act or think. Slowly, he began to regain possession of himself. Now was not the time to lose control. Now was the time for careful thought and planning. If he moved swiftly, he could still outwit the treacherous monster. Darkonda would not get away with this. Already, Ecliptor was getting ideas of what he would have to do. He left the planet filled with determination. Astronema would be protected, and Darkonda would be destroyed.
By dawn the next morning, everyone had heard the news. A double agent had been captured lurking around the camp, trying to spread false rumors about the new Princess of Evil. They included, among other things, the preposterous idea that she was the sister of the Red Ranger! Imagine anyone being so foolish as to believe that! The traitor, it was said, had been immediately put to death. No one felt sorry for him.
Ecliptor was rather pleased with his handiwork. Only he and Dark Specter knew how the matter really stood. It had taken a measure of courage to tell the whole story to the Monarch of Darkness, but Ecliptor had felt it wise to let his leader know the truth of the situation, rather than let it surprise him later. For a while, Dark Specter had ranted and raved enough to make even the usually imperturbable Ecliptor take cover until it was all over. Once he had calmed down, however, the two of them had worked out a plan. Dark Specter was not willing to lose his prize servant, especially not under such circumstances, so he had given Ecliptor permission to start the rumors. As for Darkonda, he had been a useful operative in the past, and Dark Specter didn't see the point in destroying him . . . yet. Monsters were constantly squabbling among each other, trying to gain places of power, and actions like this were common. It served its purpose, keeping only the strongest and craftiest villains in power. If Darkonda continued to interfere, THEN he could be killed. Ecliptor reluctantly agreed.
However, there was nothing wrong with destroying the Red Ranger, and that was exactly what Ecliptor intended to do. He could not be allowed to discover the truth about what had become of his sister. If he did, it could mean the end of everything Ecliptor had been working for. Ecliptor wouldn't allow anyone to take his princess away from him, not after all he had gone through. Yes, the Red Ranger had to die.
Some time later, in the midst of a particularly intense battle, the Red Ranger was surprised by the arrival of a strange sort of monster. Within the last few months, Andros thought he had seen just about everything, but this solemn dark creature was something different. He felt it before he saw it, as if those fierce red eyes were boring into him. As soon as he could, he turned his attention away from the mutant he was in the process of thrashing, and found himself being glared at by the most dangerous looking thing he had ever had the misfortune to meet. Once it realized that it had been seen, it glanced at the other monster that had previously occupied the Ranger's attention.
"Get out of here," it ordered. "This fight is mine."
The monster obeyed instantly, leaving Andros alone with this new crystalline thing.
"Who are you?" asked the Red Ranger.
"I am called Ecliptor," it replied. "I am your sworn enemy. That is all you need to know."
Andros was momentarily confused. "What have I ever done to you?"
"You are alive . . . a situation I intend to remedy. Prepare to die!"
With lightning-strike suddenness, Andros was thrown off his feet by twin bolts of green light that shot from the monster's eyes. He twisted in midair and managed to turn his fall into a gymnastic tumble and spring back into an upright position. Calling on his Spiral Saber, Andros charged the creature, and they went toe to toe in an intense sword fight, and sparks flew as they stuck at each other. This monster, whoever he was, was very strong and very skillful, and Andros felt an inner sense of worry. Somehow, this went beyond the struggle between Good and Evil, into something deep and personal, and Andros had the feeling of being pulled into something he didn't understand.
Suddenly, there was a flash of eye-searing light, and the monster cried out in pain as the Silver Ranger's sharp blade raked a long slash across his back. He staggered, his concentration broken, as the new arrival put himself between him and the Red Ranger.
"You stay out of this," Ecliptor hissed. "This is between him and me."
"Wrong," answered the Silver Ranger. "You mess with one of us, you mess with both of us." He turned to his companion. "You ready to take this guy out?"
"No, Zhane," was the surprising reply. "Wait a while. I . . . don't think I'm ready to do this just yet."
Zhane shrugged; he had done enough ridiculous things in his lifetime to go along with this, too. "Whatever you say, but you'd better have an explanation. Let's get out of here."
The two Rangers teleported away in a pair of shimmering streaks of light.
"Coward!" Ecliptor shouted. "Come back and fight!"
But it was no use, and he knew it. Seething with frustration, he kicked the side of a building, putting a fair-sized hole in it.
"You will see me again, Red Ranger," he promised. "I'll get you, somehow."
Meanwhile, the two Rangers had returned to the relative safety of their base of operations.
"Okay," said Zhane as he took off his helmet, "would you mind telling me what that was all about?"
"I don't know what it was all about," Andros replied, following his friend's example. "There's something . . . I don't know, different about that monster. Ecliptor, he said his name was."
"What do you mean, different? A monster's a monster, isn't it?"
"This guy's not quite like them. Couldn't you tell? He's not here fighting just to be malicious. He came and hunted me down. Just me. Zhane, he hates me, and I don't know why."
"He's supposed to hate you . . . and me too," Zhane replied. "We're Power Rangers. That's how it works. The monsters try to blow us to bits, and we try to blow them to bits."
"You're not listening to me. I don't know how or why, but somehow, I did something that hurt him. Or maybe he just thinks I did. But what he's fighting for is something a whole lot stronger than just the usual Rangers-versus-monsters stuff. He's been hurt, hurt badly, and he's got a score to settle. He's not going to be easy to get rid of." He paused, and shivered faintly. "That look in his eyes . . . I wonder what happened to make him look like that."
"Don't try to empathize with monsters," advised Zhane. "It'll only get you into trouble."
Andros sighed. "You're right, I guess."
"I'm always right," said Zhane cheerfully. "You thirsty? I know I am. Come on. I think we have time to get something to drink before we get back to work."
Without waiting for an answer, Zhane turned and ambled down the hall, motioning for his friend to follow. With a small shrug of resignation, Andros trailed along behind, thinking.
Ecliptor didn't ever get around to destroying the Red Ranger. He tried, of course, but the odds were stacked against him from the beginning. First of all, he hardly ever had time. Keeping track of a group of monsters, even a small one, was a difficult task, and one that required much time and patience. Furthermore, whenever he actually had time to go hunting for the Red Ranger, he was usually thwarted. The young warrior called Zhane seemed to trail Andros wherever he went, following behind him like a silver shadow, and Ecliptor could never get his quarry alone. It was frustrating.
Within months, the war was over. The city had been almost completely destroyed, and all of its inhabitants had been killed or driven away. The news was circulated that the mighty Silver Ranger had been severely injured, possibly killed, and that the Red Ranger had fled in terror. With the war over, there was very little left for Ecliptor to do. He was sent on various missions, none of them worthy of his skill and expertise, until he was finally handed a medal of honor and papers of discharge. He had fumed about that for weeks, but there was nothing to be done about it. At last, he made a decision. As long as he had time on his hands, he might as well use it to some purpose, so he decided to strike out in search of the Red Ranger.
The search was not an easy one. Sometimes he got lost or took false leads. Sometimes he came close to finding what he sought, only to find that the Ranger had already been and gone. Sometimes they would meet and fight, only for the battle to end in stalemate. The year he spent wandering the universe was the worst time of his long and often unpleasant life. At last, weary of his extensive and unproductive search, Ecliptor returned home in a vile mood.
The cave was just as he remembered it, save that it was emptier of objects and filled instead with old memories. It was also dusty, reminding Ecliptor of the Lybrari and the Book Wyrm, which didn't help his mood any. He prowled around and around in circles like a caged tiger, fuming because he had been unable to complete his mission.
"Stop that," said an unexpected voice from the shadows. "You have no idea how foolish you look stomping around like that."
"Speaking of looking foolish . . ." Ecliptor replied. He knew who was talking without even having to see him. "What are you doing in here, Darkonda? This is my place."
"Aren't you happy to see me? I'm hurt," said Darkonda melodramatically. "I thought perhaps you would like someone to fill you in on what's been going on while you were gone. Did you enjoy the rewards of your loyalty, Ecliptor? Years of playing lackey to Dark Specter, and what did it get you? Discharged and shoved out the back door."
Ecliptor clenched his fists in fury, but said nothing. He had voiced the same complaints, differently phrased, when he had received word of his dismissal.
"Would you like to know what I've been doing while you were gone, Ecliptor?" asked Darkonda. "You really ought to hear about it."
"I couldn't care less," Ecliptor replied.
"Oh, but I think you might," said Darkonda. "I've been doing your job! While you've been off on your wild goose chase, I've been traveling, learning things . . . and getting back in Dark Specter's good graces. You'll find I'm quite a respected person here, these days. Not one it would be a good idea to be damaging."
"Why you miserable, sneaking wretch . . ."
"What are you so angry about? I haven't done anything wrong," said Darkonda innocently. "You should learn, Ecliptor. My way is the best way. You could go a long way in this universe if you'd forget this business about honor and loyalty and start looking out for yourself."
"One more word out of you, Darkonda, and I will destroy you, even if Dark Specter and all his armies come to punish me."
"Fine. Don't take my advice. See if I ever try to help you again," said Darkonda, heading toward the door.
"You've never done a thing in your life to try to help me," Ecliptor replied.
Just as Darkonda was leaving, he paused long enough to add, "Oh, by the way, Dark Specter sent me to tell you to report to the secondary conference room. Something about a fighting force being rallied to help catch a spy. I haven't been paying much attention. I've had more important business to attend to." With that, he turned and wandered away, laughing his irritating laugh.
After a moment or two of consideration, Ecliptor decided that there was really nothing to be done but to go see what Dark Specter wanted him to do now. Make-work, most likely, some menial chore that wasn't worth giving to anyone of any importance. After all, what else could be done with an ex-general who had been out of the loop for more than a year? If it had been anything of any real importance, wouldn't Darkonda have known something about it? Ecliptor grumbled to himself as he walked, not at all happy with the situation.
Finally, he reached the conference hall to which he had been told to go and shoved his way past a few idle loafing monsters who were hanging around waiting to see if anything interesting was going on. Inside the room, there was a much larger crowd milling around a small table. Elciptor couldn't see through the mob to tell who was in charge here, but . . . were those Quantrons lurking in the shadows there? Not quite daring to hope, Ecliptor pushed thorough the crowd until he finally found himself face to face with the leader of the operation: Princess Astronema.
"Ecliptor!" she exclaimed in surprise. "What are you doing here?"
"I was sent to assist with a mission . . . something about catching a spy. Nothing was explained to me."
"I'll tell you everything, once I get these monsters out of the way," she promised. She raised her voice, addressing the crowd. "All right! Report to me tomorrow morning. Anyone who's late gets left behind. Now, out!"
The assembled creatures made a scramble for the exit, leaving the princess alone with Ecliptor.
"Looks like you've got everything well under control," he remarked.
"I had to teach a few lessons, in the beginning, but they caught on fast," Astronema replied. "You taught me well."
"What's all this about a spy?" asked Ecliptor, nimbly dodging what might have turned into an awkward conversation.
"The Dark Specter held a conference to discuss his plans for Zordon . . . you heard about the battle on Eltar?"
"Vaguely," Ecliptor replied. "I was busy at the time."
"The Red Ranger sneaked into the conference in disguise and overheard Dark Specter's plans. He's gathered friends, and they're trying to find their mentor before Dark Specter can destroy him."
"How hard can it be to destroy Zordon? Shouldn't he disappear forever if we destroy his tube?"
Astronema shuddered. "If we did that, the results would be catastrophic! It would release a wave of power, pure Good energy. It would destroy us all!"
"Hmm," said Ecliptor. He had known the wizard was powerful, but he hadn't had any idea that Zordon's power went as far as that.
"Dark Specter has a much better idea. He's going to drain all of Zordon's power first and take it for himself. Zordon will be destroyed just as surely, and then Dark Specter can wipe out the rest of the forces of goodness . . . but not if the Power Rangers find Zordon first. It's my job to see that they don't."
"I will help you in every way I can."
"I know," Astronema replied. She paused. "You know, Ecliptor, I kind of missed you while you were gone."
"I missed you, too, princess," he replied. "Not a day went by that I didn't think of you."
Astronema smiled. "Come on, Ecliptor. Let me tell you what else has been going on." She led him out of the room, and he followed with a feeling that everything was going to be all right, after all.
And for a while, things were just the way they were supposed to be. Despite all the aggravations and complications that came with trying to destroy the Power Rangers, Ecliptor was reasonably happy. It was good to be back where he belonged, serving his princess, and fighting for such and important goal. Once the Power Rangers were destroyed, evil would take its rightful place. More importantly, no one would be left who could tear Astronema away from him. He was optimistic that everything would work out. However, it didn't take long for things to fall apart.
"You've been keeping secrets from me."
"What? What do you mean?"
Astronema stared in shock at her guardian, who stared back at her sternly. It was late at night, and she had just been preparing to go to her room for some sleep after a long, hard day before Ecliptor had come and surprised her with his accusation.
"I said," he repeated, "you've been keeping secrets from me. Why, Astronema? Don't you know by now that you can trust me?"
"I don't know what you're talking about." Astronema said. "You know I would never . . ."
In reply, Ecliptor held up a piece of paper. It was a glossy color photograph, covered in creases but carefully smoothed. It showed a picture of the Silver Ranger, resplendent in his silver and gold costume and smiling cheerfully. Astronema gave a small gasp of dismay.
"Where did you get that?" she asked.
"I found it in the throne room," answered Ecliptor, "hidden, I suppose, so I couldn't find it. If you want to hide something, you should be more careful where you put it."
"Ecliptor, surely you don't think that I . . ."
"I don't think anything except that you will tell me the truth. I am waiting to hear it."
Astronema sighed. "I . . . I don't really know how to explain it. I can't even explain it to myself."
"All right. Earlier today, I was watching the Rangers battle the Horror Bull. When the Silver Ranger arrived, I conjured a monster to attack him, but it turned on me. It hurt me badly. He could have just left me there in the street to die, and I don't know why he didn't, but he saved me. He took care of me. He even cooked soup for me!" She paused. "It was awful soup, but he tried."
"You feel something for him, then?"
"No . . . yes . . . I don't know," Astronema replied. "I've been trying to figure that out. I know he's my enemy, but he was so nice to me! I wanted to talk to him again, learn more about him, but he didn't come. He gave me some excuse about a monster, as if I wouldn't know there hadn't been one . . . and yet he brought me flowers. Roses. Nobody ever gave me any roses before," she finished wistfully.
"So," said Ecliptor quietly, "you have fallen in love with your worst enemy."
"Ecliptor, I couldn't help it! It just sort of HAPPENED," she protested. "You aren't angry at me, are you?"
"No, princess. I can't be angry at you for this. You can't cheat your nature," Ecliptor said. "But we must keep this to ourselves. Don't let anyone else find out."
"I won't," she replied. "Thanks for understanding."
"Not understanding. Only accepting."
As they parted their ways, something occurred to Ecliptor, and he called to her, "He didn't lie to you about the monster."
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"There was a monster. I sent it, because I didn't know where you were. The Silver Ranger didn't lie to you."
"He didn't?" repeated Astronema.
"Not at all. I am truly sorry for disobeying your orders. If I had known it would hurt you, I never would have done it."
Astronema smiled. "Thank you, Ecliptor. That means a lot to me."
As she left, Ecliptor thought to himself. He couldn't blame her for falling in love. Things like that happened, he knew. After all, he had fallen in love once, with a little girl left on his doorstep . . .
Much as it pained him to think about it, he knew things were coming to an end. He watched helplessly as the truth slowly came to light. That stubborn Red Ranger finally did find his sister, and there was nothing Ecliptor could do about it. He watched his princess struggle with her emotions, and he tried to keep her from straying, but he secretly knew he was fighting a losing battle. Maybe he had known it all along. Still, it was a painful shock when he found the letter. It was left in his room, written in neat, large script that would be easy for him to read. He didn't read it though, at first. He just stood there staring at it, trying to comprehend what it meant. After all that work, all that effort and pain, she had still left him. Finally, with trembling hands that had been steady in a million life-and-death situations, yet could now barely hold the paper, he unfolded the letter and read:
Dear Ecliptor, I hate to have to do this to you. For as long as I can remember, you've taught me to think, to be calm and logical, but somehow I've never been able to do it. There's something calling me that I can't explain. I want to know what it's like to have family and friends, to not have to worry every day that Dark Specter is going to come destroy me in my sleep. It's more than that, though. I can't explain it, but I feel like I'm being called home. Maybe they'll destroy me. Maybe Dark Specter will. Still, this is something I've got to do. No matter what happens, though, I'll never forget you.
There followed Astronema's signature with its usual flourish, but a little blurred, as if perhaps a drop of water had fallen on it.
Ecliptor didn't cry; he couldn't, but he felt a deep sadness. His child, his precious princess, was gone, taken by the light, and he might never see her again . . .
*Gone! My child is dead, and nothing is going to change that . . .*
The Book Wyrm's words were so clear in Ecliptor's mind he almost thought he could really hear them. He had a sudden urge to speak with the Wyrm again, to tell him everything that had happened . . . and to apologize.
Ecliptor carefully folded the letter again and set it back where he found it. Then he vanished in a blink of green light.
The Lybrari was in worse shape than he remembered it. The dust lay thickly on everything. Shelves had fallen into disrepair, and some had come apart, spilling their contents across the floor as if flung in anger. It was deathly quiet.
After making a brief exploration, Ecliptor finally found the Book Wyrm. It was coiled on the desk, covered with as much dust as everything else. It looked as though it hadn't moved from that spot since the day Ecliptor had last seen it . . . but that was impossible, wasn't it? It was sitting perfectly still.
"Book Wyrm?" asked Ecliptor hesitantly. "Book Wyrm, wake up! Say something!"
For a few moments, there was silence. Then, incredibly, the Wyrm stirred.
"Hhhhhhhhhh . . ." it sighed, stirring up clouds of dust. "Who is there? Go away. There is nothing left here, nothing but dust."
"Book Wyrm, it's me, Ecliptor."
"Ecliptorrrrr?" asked the Wyrm. It opened one eye to stare at him. "Is that you Ecliptor? Or is this just some dream? I had long since given up hope."
"I am here, old friend. I wanted to talk to you," Ecliptor replied. "I wanted you to know what has become of the princess."
"Ah, yes. My light died the day she left me," said the Wrym sadly.
"She has left the darkness, Book Wyrm. She has gone to be with her brother, with the Power Rangers. You were right all along, and I was foolish not to listen to you. The light in her was too strong to be extinguished, even by Dark Specter in all his power."
"My child . . . is alive?"
"Alive and well."
The Book Wrym blinked back a tear. "So I was wrong then. I shouldn't have turned her away . . ."
"And I shouldn't have tried to force her to be what she was not. We both made our mistakes. I wanted to apologize and ask your forgiveness."
"It is always granted, Ecliptor. And do you forgive me, also?"
"Hhhhhhh . . ." the Book Wyrm sighed. "That is as it should be. Now I can rest in peace."
"What do you mean?"
"I am old, Ecliptor. I have outlived my use. It will not be long before I become just another part of the dust that fills this place. I do not regret it. I am thankful that you came. You have let me see the light one last time."
"You did not need me to show it to you, Book Wyrm. You have shown it to me. It shines in you, as it always has."
The Book Wyrm smiled. "Thank you, Ecliptor. There is nothing better you could have said. We are friends again, and the princess shines. All is right with the world I leave . . ."
He sighed quietly, and closed his eyes.
"Goodbye, old friend," said Ecliptor quietly, and left the Lybrari for good.
Ecliptor didn't get any sleep that night. He stayed up and thought a long time, partly about the Book Wyrm, but mostly about Astronema. Somehow, he had to see her again, if only to say goodbye. That was all, though. He had learned his lesson too late, but he was going to act on it now. No matter how much you love someone, there comes a time when you have to let them go . . .
There was total chaos on Utoba as the Power Rangers and Astronema struggled to escape the hordes of Pirhanatrons that sought to capture them. Darkonda, still suffering from the blasts Astronema had dealt him, struggled to stand, seeing that the girl who had eluded him so many years before was about to escape him. For an uncertain moment, Astronema and the Rangers hesitated, wondering what he might do.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, there came a rapid-fire pulse of light, green light that struck Darkonda over and over until it finally sent him falling to the ground, where he expired in a burst of intense light and fire. Everyone, good and bad, stopped and stared, and in that stillness, a voice could be heard:
"Get-out-of-my-way, you tin monkeys!" it gasped. As the onlookers watched in surprise, Ecliptor staggered painfully on to the battlefield. He had been injured badly by Darkonda in a surprise attack . . . but now he had taken his revenge, and all he wanted now was to be sure his princess was safe.
"Ecliptor!" Astronema cried, and ran to the side of her guardian. The Rangers ran to encircle her and Ecliptor to protect them from the Pirhanatrons. As they neared each other, he dropped on one knee before her - not in a gesture of subservience, but because his strength was giving out and he could hardly stand. Astronema tried to help him to his feet, begging him to follow her to safety.
"No," he replied. "You must go. Dark Specter will be back for you."
"I can't leave you like this!" she protested.
"No. Get going," answered Ecliptor. "I'll survive."
"No . . ." said Astronema, but there was no time to argue. Her brother was already trying to pull her away before their enemies overpowered them.
"Get her out of here," Ecliptor shouted to Andros.
They ran, and Ecliptor watched them go even as the other monsters mobbed him, ready to destroy the traitor who was helping the rebellious princess escape. He hardly noticed their attacks. He was remembering something from a long time ago. Once, the Book Wyrm had called him a mirror of dark glass, but somehow he wasn't so sure it had been right. The last thing that went through his mind as he felt the stab of a pike that sent him plunging into darkness was a feeling of certainty that for a while, just a little while, he had shone.