Deep underground, in the coldest, wettest, darkest part of the Machine Prince's castle, a dejected prisoner hung limply from the wall. He was shackled hand and foot, barely able to move, even if he'd wanted to. What was the point of moving, though? There would be no escaping this cell; the walls were solid stone, without even mortar to chip at, and the steel door seemed to have more barring than it did empty space. The lock could only be opened by Gasket himself. Tommy hung his head, closed his eyes, and wished it would hurry and end. He had not been able to get through to Jason - if anything, he'd pushed him further away than ever. He'd been betrayed by someone he'd thought he could trust. No one knew where he was. There was no one left to rely upon for a rescue. He was sore all over, covered in bruises and a few cuts dished out by his mechanical captors when he'd attempted to free himself from them. He was dirty, hungry, thirsty, and completely disheartened. He was beaten.
From somewhere beyond the cell, there came a sound of footsteps, and Tommy managed to raise his head to look. With a dull sense of foreboding, he realized that Gasket had finally come to claim him. Now he would have to meet his fate. He found himself getting annoyed, and since that was better than depression, he nurtured the emotion. He was still a Power Ranger, after all, even if he was something of a displaced one. Let him die on a battlefield if he had to, but not in a mechanical prison being taunted by a walking junkpile!
Through the dark, two yellow eyes became visible. Tommy scowled.
"What do you want, Gasket?" he asked.
The robot prince chuckled. "You're a fine one to talk. Do you really think you can scare me? Or are you just trying to cover your own fears?"
"You should talk about fear. At least I don't have to chain my enemies to the wall before I can face them."
"More fool you. I, for one, don't intend to take any more chances," Gasket answered. "You're not escaping this time, my friend. I've made sure your Ranger friends don't know where you are. Not even your lizard friend is going to help you out of this one."
Tommy was shocked. "How did you know about Tridor?"
"That's elementary. You two obviously planned your escape together - neither one of you could have done it alone. Certainly he's the only one who would have been able to free you without me noticing. However, I've given him ample time to come for you, and we haven't seen so much as a scale of him. I'm assuming he's no longer here." Gasket paused. "A pity. I don't like letting prisoners escape unscathed. Perhaps you'd like to help me catch him?"
"I'm not telling you where he is!" Tommy snarled. "You're not getting anything out of me!"
"Oh, but I already have!" Gasket chuckled. "I know you know where he is, now. You need to watch what you say."
Tommy was about to make another angry outburst, thought the better of it, and snapped his mouth shut. He would have crossed his arms across his chest, had he been able to move them at all, but he was forced to settle for a silent glare.
"The silent treatment doesn't work, either," said Gasket. "I can do without answers, so don't think you're doing anyone any good by keeping quiet. I suppose you've heard about my memory machine? Don't you think I can't drag anything out of you that I want to know? You will tell me what I want to know eventually. The difference is whether or not I torture you first."
Tommy remained silent. Torture didn't sound like any fun, but the more time he kept Gasket occupied with him, the more time his friends would have to work. Sooner or later, someone would come. The Rangers would make another trip to Gasket's world to look for their friends, or Tridor would return with Trey. He just needed to buy them some time.
"All right, be that way," said Gasket. "I need someone to take my frustrations out on, anyway. It's been a dreadful week so far, and you're as much responsible for it as anyone else."
"I'd say it's all your fault for starting this whole thing in the first place," said Tommy. "If you'd stayed at home and minded your own business, none of this would have happened."
"This is my business!" Gasket shouted back at him. "It's not my fault! I should have been the one to inherit my father's throne, not my whining little brat of a brother! If Father had just understood the situation... I have to get everything under control now, before Father gets back, or I'm going to lose all of it! And all because he wouldn't let me marry the woman I..." He caught himself in mid-sentence, cleared his throat, and stared at the floor.
"So let me get this straight - you're doing this just because you're mad at your dad for not letting you marry your girlfriend?" asked Tommy.
"I said nothing of the sort," Gasket answered stiffly. "Besides, it's none of your business anyway. You couldn't possibly understand." He continued staring at the floor, muttering indistinctly: "... lifetime of training, and for what? ... told me I was more important... never meant anything... just a trophy... never cared... wanted me to kill her..."
"Are you going to torture me, or are you going to sulk?" asked Tommy.
"I am not sulking," the prince replied. "I'm just thinking."
"You're sulking," Tommy replied.
"Well, maybe I have a right! I was supposed to be a prince, rule galaxies, command armies, and I got turned out on my ear with nothing but what I could carry. I had to start all over again from nothing. And you know what? I've done a better job than he ever could, and he won't even let my name be spoken in his presence! You know what my father had when I was built? Nothing! I helped him build what he got from the time I was old enough to raise a sword! He wouldn't have that Empire of his without my help, but he's not going to give a scrap of it to me if I don't fight for it! And now that I've finally made something for myself - now that I've finally got a chance to succeed - I'm going to lose it all to a human! Don't you think I have a right to be angry?"
"I think your feelings have been hurt."
Gasket's eyes blazed. "Listen, I am a Prince of Evil! I don't get hurt feelings. I don't have any feelings to hurt, all right?"
"If you don't have any feelings, why are you so upset?" asked Tommy. "For that matter, why does a Prince of Evil marry a Princess of Good if he doesn't have any feelings, huh?"
"Where did you find that out?" Gasket snapped.
"That's it! I've had enough of you and your impertinence!" snarled Gasket. "You are going to tell me what you know and how you found it out if I have to-"
"Maybe you'd better talk to him about it, first," Tommy interrupted.
Gasket turned around and saw a dark-garbed figure moving towards him.
"Oh, no, not him again," Gasket moaned.
"Gasket, what's going on down here?" asked Jason. "I thought I heard you shouting."
"Just questioning our captive," said Gasket, gears grinding in frustration. "He was being difficult, and I'm afraid I lost my temper a bit."
"You didn't hurt him, did you?" asked Jason, with a warning note in his voice.
"No, sire, nothing like that," Gasket assured him. "I've quite learned my lesson; I don't intend to do anything to him that will be physically debilitating."
"Fine," said Jason. "Keep a close watch on him, though. He's sneaky."
"Don't worry about a thing. He's quite secure. He won't get out of that cell unless one of us lets him out."
"That's not going to be any time soon," Jason replied. "There's something about this one I don't like."
"Trust me, sire, the feeling is mutual," said Gasket.
"Anyway," added Jason, "I felt like going to pay another visit to those Ranger people, but I still don't feel completely recovered from whatever's been done to me. I was wondering if you wanted to come along - you know, for backup. I understand you're a good fighter."
Gasket hesitated only a split second, but in that time, quite a few thoughts went through his mind. He wasn't aware that his machine had any side-effects. Then again, he'd never had to use it on a human, either. Had his memory-erasing really done something to Jason, or was this something else totally unrelated? He would have to investigate this more closely later. In the meantime, going into battle with an ailing king - one he wished to have removed from his life - was an offer too tempting to resist.
"Of course, sire," he replied graciously. "I am, after all, your humble servant."
Trey knew he was undertaking a serious operation. Journeying into the uncharted catacombs of a volcanic civilization was not the safest thing in the universe, and the fate of his world might rest on whether or not he could do it and get out again safely. Even more than that, the fate of his friend might be depending on whether Trey could get to him, and whenever a Power Ranger was in danger, so was that Ranger's entire world, perhaps the entire universe. As a ruler, Trey had learned to keep such things in his consideration at all times. Despite all that, he couldn't quite help grinning, and his courtiers were giving him some strange looks, as if they thought he might not be in his right mind.
Even more interesting were the looks that were being given to the lizard-man, Tridor. The people who served in Trey's palace were used to having a routine, a set of iron-bound protocols that moved each day along with a steady, uninterrupted pace. Tridor, on the other hand, cared very little for good manners. He cared about results and the quickest way of getting them. When Trey had asked for traveling supplies and maps to the volcano, his servants and advisors had given him excuses and reminded him of the dangers involved, and given him long dull sermons about a lord's duties to his people. With Tridor involved, though, it was a whole different matter. As soon as someone had begun to complain, the warrior had simply seized the speaker by the shirt collar and lifted him effortlessly into the air, letting him hang there with Tridor's dark eyes boring into him until he'd stammered out an agreement. The supplies had been produced in moments.
"You wouldn't really hurt someone, would you?" asked Trey of Heart.
"No," said Tridor. "It is not the way of my people to attack without provocation. If I am threatened, yes, I can be a dangerous enemy, but I wouldn't be so rude as to harm your followers. Of course, I'm not sure they know that," he added with a wink.
Trey laughed, and the lizard-man flashed his teeth in a grin.
*I wish he'd shown up in my court a long time ago,* Trey thought. *Preferably under less pressing circumstances. He could have done a lot of good around here, I think.*
Of course, most of his effect was due to intimidation - nobody had ever seen anything quite like Tridor before, and they were unsettled by something with the intelligence of a human and the fighting instinct of an animal. Faced with something that smiled like it would happily rip their throats out if they angered it, most people were likely to comply. However, Trey felt no fear of the alien warrior. His talks with Tridor had shown him that this was definitely a formidable enemy, but also a staunch friend. Tridor had shown himself capable of strong depths of loyalty already by coming this far on the strength of his bond with Tommy, a human he had only known for a few hours at most. Tridor had explained to Trey in detail how he and Tommy had met and their plans to escape, and the young lord had been impressed, not so much with their plans but with their courage and trust in each other. That the lizard-man would risk his life without hesitation for the human who had helped him spoke to Trey of a degree of honor that few of his noble courtiers possessed. Strange at Tridor was, he was truly a creature of Good.
"Are we almost ready?" asked Tridor, looking at the supplies that had been collected. His expression showed no emotion beyond a faint glitter in his dark eyes, but the tip of his tail twitched, and he was absently folding and unfolding his claws as if anticipating sinking them into something.
"I think we are," said Trey of Wisdom said, eyeing the packs judiciously.
"The sooner we set out, the sooner we'll be able to go help Tommy and Jason," Trey of Heart added.
"We're ready to go," Trey of Courage finished. He and his counterparts began picking up their packs and putting them on. "I wish my stewards didn't feel they needed to burden me with all this. Most of it probably won't even be necessary. Your pack isn't too heavy for you, is it, Tridor?"
Tridor lifted the heavy pack with one hand, tossed it into the air a few times to test its weight, and casually shouldered it. "Not at all. Remember, I'm even less human than I look."
Trey laughed quietly. "Very well. I shall try not to underestimate you again. I intend to ride as far as the city limits, but beyond that, we will be walking. This is considered to be something of a spiritual journey, and I am expected to complete at least part of the trip on my own strength - something about proving myself worthy. Anyway, we couldn't bring a mount inside the Fire Mother. I hope you don't mind."
"Not at all. I think you'd find it hard to get a mount that would carry me," Tridor replied. "Your domesticated beasts tend not to care for my kind." He grinned at a servant who was beginning to enter the room, and he immediately scuttled around a corner and out of sight.
"I can see that," said Trey. "This isn't going to be a problem, is it?"
"I doubt it," Tridor replied.
They set out. Trey made his way to the stables, where there were a number of llama-like quadrupeds that served as his planet's favored mode of local transportation. These were well- trained and normally calm creatures with soft fur and affectionate dispositions, but the minute they caught scent of Tridor, they began whuffling and pawing nervously, rolling their eyes and flicking their long ears. Tridor moved swiftly out of the barn and into the yard beyond, and the beasts soon settled. Still, Trey decided to choose the gentlest, sleepiest ones he could find - he was determined that Tridor would accompany him on his quest, but he wasn't eager to make any part of said quest on a crazed pack-beast.
However, once they got out into the city, there didn't seem to be much to worry about. The animal felt safer out in the open than it did in its enclosed box, and it didn't seem to notice the scent of the lizard-man so much amid the myriad other city smells. Indeed, it seemed that Tridor himself was more bothered than the beast was. He was uncomfortable amid the swarms of people who filled the streets, nearly overwhelmed by the sounds of people shouting, pots and pans clanking, and animals barking and grunting. His nose was assaulted with a million scents, everything from flowers and perfume to the earthier odors of living bodies, not all of them well- washed. However, he did travel well enough without a mount; people simply moved out of his way when they saw him coming, and he trotted along tirelessly on all fours.
After a while, they reached the outskirts of the city, passing through the walls and into the farmlands that sprawled outside them. Here, the land had been carefully irrigated and cultivated, filling what had once been a rugged and inhospitable land into a garden. Tridor relaxed more here, seeing no other living things but livestock and the occasional farmer. The primary scents here were of plants, reminding him of his home jungles and putting him at ease.
"You rule a good kingdom," he said, sounding almost surprised. "My people generally frown on farming. We fill our needs by hunting and foraging, never by taming wild beasts or plants. We do not like to take from the earth what it is not willing to give, and we have seen what others, like the Machine Empire do, ripping up everything they can make use of for their own needs and leaving the land ravaged and empty. But this place is different. The land here is... what? Peaceful. Tamed, but not destroyed."
"We try to be careful," said Trey. "The land here is fed and watered carefully, and we rotate the crops so every patch of earth has a chance to rest. My people are not like yours, but we are closely linked to the earth. We were born of earth and fire and return to the earth when we die, so it behooves us to respect it and care for it."
"Interesting," said Tridor. "Perhaps you would educate me in these methods of yours."
"Do you think your tribe would be interested in learning?"
Tridor pondered. "Perhaps some would. There might be advantages to such a system... but it would require changes to our culture. I'm not sure whether that would do more good or harm. But it would be worth considering."
"You're a wise man," said Trey of Wisdom. "Were you a leader on your world?"
"A warrior, only. My village was ruled by a head woman and a priest, who in turn answered to a king from another part of the jungle. I never saw him, myself. I believe he's dead now," he added as an afterthought.
"Gasket. Do you think he would stand for another king on a world he conquered? No, the king and his closest followers are dead. I only live because he wanted me for his amusement, to see me fight in his cursed arena."
"When this is over," said Trey, "I will help you win your world back."
"I cannot ask that of you."
"You aren't asking. I'm offering," said Trey. "Partly from respect, partly to repay you for helping me... and partly because a Ranger gets very bored without any evil to fight, and there hasn't been anything usefully evil on Triforia in a long time. That's part of the reason why I went to help the Rangers of Earth in the first place."
"Hm," said Tridor. "I will consider your offer carefully."
They reached the edge of the pastureland, a place that was clearly demarcated as the irrigation ditches reached their limits, leaving nothing but bare earth stretching toward the horizon. Off in the hazy distance, partially obscured by dancing waves of rising heat, there was a dark smudge that stood out against the clear blue sky and the sun-baked ground.
"That is where we're going," said Trey, pulling his mount to a stop. "The Madera Encida and her sisters. This is the part where I get down and walk."
"That's right, my lord," answered Tridor, flashing his grin. "Come down and join the commoners."
"You could be royalty as well as I could, and you know it, too," Trey replied, as his respective parts climbed to the ground.
"Better than some, at least," Tridor agreed carefully. The look on his face was not entirely comfortable; Trey guessed he was still attached to his place in his society. What little the young lord had divined of his new friend's society spoke of a world where custom and a strict social order were both strongly enforced.
Some time later, the pack beasts wandered back into town, making their way riderless towards their home stables. Their riders continued onwards into the desert, leaving all other traces of their palace life behind, returning to the fires of their birth.
Tanya stared. One minute, she had been standing in the park holding an odd white crystal. Now she was still standing in the park, but the crystal had vanished. She waited for her eyes to clear; her vision seemed to be dancing with shimmering, pearly lights that vanished as soon as she looked at them. It took her a moment to realize that the problem was not with her eyes, or at least, not just because she had been recently subjected to a blinding flash. Her entire vision seemed to have changed, so that the lights she was seeing were not so much obscuring as enhancing everything she saw. Everything around her seemed to have sharpened to an amazing degree, so that from where she stood, she could pick out the individual veins on the leaves of trees and see each grain of sand in the earth separately. Everything from the rocks to the living things had its own light shining through it - yellow-green through the grass, emerald for the trees, rainbow shimmers of varying intensities around the clouds, and deep blue-black specks marked insects. Finster, who was watching her with a look of surprise, as if not even he had realized exactly what was going to happen, was surrounded by an aura of soft blue-green light. A part of her mind tried to tell her the colors had meanings if she would just pay attention to them, but she pushed it away for being too much to deal with at once.
"What just happened?" she asked.
"You've morphed," Finster explained. "Sort of."
"How can you sort of morph?" asked Tanya.
"The Apieron," said Finster. "It has decided to protect you, as much as it can. Since it is incapable of speaking to you directly, it has taken the form of a power-suit. It thought you would find that form familiar and comforting, compared to other things."
"Oh," said Tanya. For the first time, she looked down at herself. She was now clad completely in pure white armor similar to what she'd worn as a Power Ranger. It still had the faintest trace of the prismatic glimmer that the Apieron had held. She raised her hand to her face and met a helmet, and she traced her finger along the outside of the visor, outlining the shape of a hexagon. "Why is my vision all funny?"
Finster stared off into nowhere a moment, listening to a voice that she couldn't hear.
"It says you're seeing the world through its filter, so to speak. The lights you're seeing are... I think the word you use is 'aura'. They reflect the true nature of things. With a little practice, you should be able to interpret what they mean."
"I see," she replied thoughtfully. She stared at him a moment, evaluating the soft aqua light. A vague inner voice nudged the idea of gentle and intelligent inter her mind. She could have guessed that without the Apieron's help, but it was interesting all the same. "I'll have to practice. This could be useful."
"It thought so," Finster replied. The light around him darkened, as if a shadow had been thrown over him, and she realized all over again how difficult it was for him to give his greatest treasure to her.
"Don't worry; I'll give it back as soon as Jason is safe with us again," Tanya promised.
Finster brightened a little. "I know you will... because you can't tell lies while under the Apieron's influence. I'd remember that, if I were you."
"I will," she said, smiling wryly.
She might have said more, but the conversation was interrupted by a familiar and unwelcome chiming noise. Looking startled, Finster reached beneath his apron and took out what looked like a pocket watch on a long gold chain, marked with a lightning bolt on the lid. He flipped it open, revealing, not a watch, but a grille and some buttons reminiscent of the communicators.
"Where'd you get that thing?" Tanya asked.
"Billy gave it to me. He thought it would suit me better than those things you all wear," he said. He tapped the communication button, and instantly, Billy's rather harassed voice came through.
"Finster, where are you?" he called. "Why aren't you in the Power Chamber?"
"I just stepped out for a walk," he replied.
"Well, could you come back? Jason's back and Gasket's with him, and I'd really feel better if you were back here. We might need all hands on deck if things get ugly."
"I understand. I'm on my way." He snapped the communicator shut and turned back to Tanya. "I think you ought to be on your way, too. Go surprise your friends. They'll be happy to see you, I think."
He was surprised to have her suddenly throw her arms around him and hug him.
"Than you so much! I won't let you down!" she said.
"Oh... well..." he stammered, blushing modestly.
As she turned to go join her friends, he thought, *I think it just might have been worth it, just for that.*
A very small voice replied, *Told you so.* Then it, and Tanya, vanished from sight.
After a few minutes to get used to it, Tridor decided he liked the desert. True, he was used to areas that were densely forested, but once he managed to reassure himself that there was nothing out here he needed to shelter from, he found he rather enjoyed the sense of space, particularly after his long stay in Gasket's prison and even the Lord of Triforia's luxurious palace. Likewise, the heat and strong sunlight didn't bother him. He was essentially reptilian, and the warmth stirred his blood and made him feel properly awake for the first time since he had arrived in the city. Even the occasionally rough and rocky terrain didn't bother him, not with his sharp claws and powerful tail to keep him steady. If he had thought the young lord could keep pace with him, he would have gladly gone to all fours and started running.
However, it was clear that Trey was having trouble keeping up with him, even at what was to Tridor a fairly easy pace. The man was not in bad physical shape, but he was still humanoid, warm-blooded and soft-skinned. He was not well suited to the strong sunlight, and was perspiring profusely, leaving dark marks across his fine clothing. He was also starting to look a touch sunburned, though Tridor was unfamiliar with that particular malady. It was becoming increasingly evident that Trey's fine clothing, though simpler than what he'd worn in his palace, was not as well suited to the desert as it could be. The dark cloth absorbed the heat of the sun, but did little to protect him from stinging, airborne particles of sand.
"Are you going to make it?" asked Tridor, feeling concerned. They had been walking almost an hour now, with the midday sun directly overhead.
Trey of Courage shook his head, but said, "We don't have any time to waste. Our friends may be in danger every minute we spend traveling."
"I am beginning to think you are in danger now," said Tridor. "Your body isn't meant for heat the way mine is. I begin to wonder, too, if the strength you might have had as a single man might not be divided when you are in pieces like this."
"I'm all right," Trey of Heart insisted. "I'm more worried about what may be happening to Tommy and the others. An entire night has already passed since you left him..."
Tridor said nothing. He wasn't sure his friend was being entirely wise, but it was clear the other two parts of Trey's personality had Wisdom outvoted. Despite feeling a bit worried about Trey's health, Tridor found himself admiring his tenacity.
However, not even the young lord's stubbornness could win a battle against the desert's overpowering sun. Not long after the fiery orb had passed its zenith, Trey of Wisdom stumbled, and the other two moved to catch him. Both of them dropped under the sudden addition of his weight, their knees buckling and sending them to kneel in the sand. Tridor stopped walking instantly and hurried to their sides.
"I think you have been out in the sun long enough," he said with authority. "Wait here a moment."
Before anyone could react, Tridor was gone, seeming to vanish in a green blur and a sudden stirring of sand. He was only gone a few minutes before he returned.
"I have found shelter," he said. "You will rest there."
His tone left no room for argument, so Trey dragged himself to his feet and did what he could to follow Tridor over the dunes. Fortunately, it was only a short walk to their destination: an outcropping of rocks that jutted out of the sand like a reef in the ocean. Behind the rocks, there was a small, sheltered cove with an overhang just small enough for the four of them. Trey collapsed gratefully in its shade, enjoying the coolness beneath the stones. He lay with his eyes closed for a while, listening to Tridor rummaging through the bags. Moments later, all three of his parts were awoken, one after the other, as Tridor handed them each a canteen.
"Drink," said Tridor. "You've lost water."
"Dehydrated," said Trey of Wisdom, and drank deeply. The others followed his example.
"I see now why your advisors wanted you to take a companion on this trip, sh'zasheh. You are rather too noble for your own good."
"That's true," Trey of Heart admitted. "Though in this case I think it may be that I am simply tired of waiting. This has been an awkward situation, and it has gone on an uncomfortably long time."
"What is that thing you called me?" asked Trey of Wisdom. "Sha-za-sha?"
"Sh'zasheh," Tridor repeated. "It is a word in my language. I'm not sure it translates perfectly in yours. Not friend,, exactly... comrade, perhaps. One on whom you rely and are relied upon by. It literally refers to the supports of a tent, leaning on each other for support."
Trey tried again to imitate the hissing, almost voiceless sounds, and Tridor chuckled a bit.
"We will work on your pronunciation," he said. "It will be a long time before you are proficient in my native tongue, I think."
"I would be interested to learn," answered Trey. "You speak mine very well."
Tridor bowed a little at the compliment, and then smiled. "I had to do something while I was locked away all those years. It was no fun insulting my captors if they didn't understand what I was saying."
Trey laughed a little at that himself. While the sun was still high in the sky, they stayed hidden, while Tridor tutored his friend in the basics of his mother tongue. Trey eventually caught on, more or less, enough to manage a few sentences in the strange language, though Tridor informed him that his accent was atrocious. Nevertheless, the practice was preferable to being out in the heat.
When the sun had passed its zenith enough that its heat was closer to bearable, the strange traveling group set out again. They were now drawing closer to the volcano, enough so that Tridor could catch fain whiffs of brimstone riding on the air. The ground became rougher and rockier the closer they got. Tridor climbed easily, even with his pack, following his leader. The Treys were fairly agile climbers, but even that was not enough to make the climb precisely safe.
"Ahhh!" cried Trey of Heart, as the rock he'd been using as a foothold suddenly gave way.
"I've got you!" Tridor shouted. He reached out with his human hand and was just fast enough to steady Trey until he could get his grip again.
"Thank you. I owe you another one," he said.
"Think nothing of it," Tridor replied.
Nevertheless, Trey did think of it. He had not fully realized, until now, just how weak being separated like this made him. Tridor was right - with his strength divided like this, he was not as able to take care of himself as he would be in his proper, singular form. He hadn't needed to physically exert himself while he was in his palace, with little to do but hear grievances and sign paperwork, but now...
*This had better work!* he thought vehemently, staring up at the volcano above him. *This had just better work!*
Despite feeling very sure that the five color-coded personages who had just arrived were fully able and willing to kill him, Jason felt fairly good about the situation. After all, he had some backup with him, this time, and he doubted that, in the unlikely event that the Rangers were able to subdue him, they would be able to subdue Gasket at the same time. They wouldn't be able to pull any more surprises this time, either. Last time, the girl Emily had caught him off-guard, but she couldn't do that again. This time, he was completely prepared.
At least, he thought he was. In the battle that ensued, he found himself with the initial upper hand, easily handling the three Rangers who came to battle him while the other two tackled Gasket. It was almost too easy, and as he batted the Pink Ranger away with a flourish of his staff, he found himself fighting a creeping feeling that the Rangers were holding back. But why would they do that? Was this some sort of a trap, trying to lull him into a false sense of security? If so, they were going through an awful lot of trouble just for a trap. The cries of pain he heard behind him as Gasket hacked away at them with his sword were almost enough to make him cringe. He hadn't wanted to kill these people, after all, just beat them back enough to make them surrender. Even if they were his enemies, he didn't think any living thing should be made to suffer but so much...
Even as the thought crossed his mind, something seemed to explode inside him. For a crazy moment, he thought his heart had burst, as a sensation of something spilling ran through him. He could feel his strength running out of him, a sickening feeling that was somehow worse than pain. His world went dark, and he let out a hoarse scream that was only vaguely concerned with the fact that someone's pistol had just struck him, because even that pain didn't compare with what was going on inside him...
Gasket watched in astoundment as Jason, for no apparent reason, suddenly screamed and crumpled to the ground. The Rangers were equally baffled; all of them froze like statues, staring at their fallen friend, then at each other, as if inquiring which of them was at fault.
As for Gasket, he didn't care whose fault it was. All he cared about was the fact that Fortune seemed to have favored him once again. He had been desperate for any excuse to get rid of this annoying Gold Ranger, and now the opportunity had been dropped into his lap. All he had to do was kill him while he was down. No one would ever have to know; he could tell the troops their precious "king" had been slain in battle, and that would be the end of their little rebellion. He just had to strike while the Rangers were still shocked...
Just as he began to move, something appeared in front of him, bursting into view with a flare of light that momentarily overloaded his optical sensors. When he could see again, he was staring into the faceplate of a strange white-armored personage, who had abruptly manifested approximately twenty-four inches away from him. He didn't get a good look at the details of its appearance, because the person behind the mask took one look at him and decided they wanted him as far away as possible. The next thing he knew, he was soaring through the air, propelled by some force he had felt but not seen. He landed heavily on the ground, sinking into the soft earth with a thunk.
As for Tanya, she had teleported herself to the general area where she felt her friends should have been, following the odd sixth sense that she guessed was the white crystal's input. She had not, however, expected it would drop her only two feet away from a monster, and her reaction had been momentary panic. She had felt something flare away from her, and she had only a momentary image of a pearly-white wave of power rolling outwards, slamming into Gasket with enough force to send him flying.
*Did I do that?* she wondered. *This is really going to take some getting used to.*
Meanwhile, Jason was slowly coming around. The sickening feeling was subsiding a bit, but his head still spun, and he felt weak and short of breath. He levered himself up on one elbow and looked around. The sight of Gasket lying fallen, plus, not five, but six, fully functional Rangers, made him decide a strategic retreat was in order.
"I don't know how you're doing this," he muttered, "but you can bet I'll put a stop to it. Until then..."
He vanished in a swirl of black and gold. It took a moment longer for the Machine Prince to collect himself and pry himself out of the mud. The Rangers were rather amused at the sight, and gathered around him to watch. He struggled a few moments, trying to work the dirt out of his gears, picking a stone out of his joints. Then he looked up and found himself surrounded by unfriendly masks. Snarling insults, he, too, vanished.
"Glad he's gone," said Tanya. "I suppose I should say that was too easy, but somehow..."
"Tanya?" asked Adam, his voice squeaking with surprise. "Is that you?"
"The one and only," she replied, with a grin they could hear even if they couldn't see.
"But..." Billy began, and then stopped. "You really recover fast, don't you, Tanya?"
"Well, I had help," she replied. "And it's just a temporary thing... but still, you should have known I couldn't leave you guys forever. Let's get back to the Power Chamber, and I'll explain everything."
"That sounds like a good idea," said Adam faintly.
Tanya grinned. Through the lens of the Apieron, she could see that all of her friends were surrounded by a shining golden glow. She didn't have to ask what it meant.
*Happy. Very, very happy.*
"Here it is," said Trey of Courage. "The doorway to the ancient city."
As inane as it sounded, the announcement was actually necessary. Tridor alone would have missed the so-called doorway, had he been sent to look for it. To a casual observer, it would have looked like just another crack in the rock, narrow and ragged, not at all what one would expect the opening to a legendary civilization to look like. Tridor stared at it doubtfully.
"It doesn't look like a door to me," he said. "I'm not even sure I'll fit through it."
"Well, it's not precisely a door," answered Trey of Heart apologetically, "but it is the only way in. I'm told the ancients had a true doorway, a great arch standing five times the height of a man, wrought with the usual spells and precious metals. We know that much from ancient artifacts, but the gateway itself was destroyed when the volcano erupted. There's nothing left of it now."
"Well, I've followed you this far," said Tridor. He continued to eye the crack with distrust, and Trey felt a stab of pity for him; he knew, by now, how Tridor felt about enclosed spaces.
"You don't have to come, you know," said Trey of Heart. "You've already done more than was required of you, getting me this far. You will suffer no dishonor by waiting for me here."
"No," Tridor replied. "I would not leave a friend on the most dangerous part of a journey because of my own fears. I'll manage."
Nevertheless, his voice didn't sound quite as steady as it normally did. Trey of Courage led the way, slipping sideways through the narrow opening, followed by his other two selves. Tridor came last, squirming to slide his spiky scales through the crack in the earth. The look on his face suggested he was going to the executioner's block, but he showed no indication of changing his mind about staying behind.
At least it was not as cold and damp inside the cave as he had feared. His brief exposure to the paralyzing cold had not left him eager to have the experience again, but this cavern was actually quite warm. Heat radiated from the stones themselves, and from time to time, a gust of warm air found its way through an opening, often carrying with it a faint hint of hot stone and superheated metal.
The going was difficult, at first. The tunnel they were traveling through was not a manmade pathway, but simply a split in the ground that had opened at some point long ago, and no one had ever smoothed it out enough to make it easily traversable. Trey of Courage led the way, guarding for danger. He didn't have his staff of office, having left it in Jason's care, but he did have a slim sharp sword with which to defend himself if need be. Behind him came Trey of Wisdom with a map, checking their location. Trey of Heart carried a glowing stone that filled the cavern with warm golden light. Tridor brought up the rear, frequently glancing over his shoulder as if he expected something to sneak up on him. For a while, he confined himself only to that - the terrain was too rough for him to pay any attention to anything but where he was putting his feet.
Then they came to the end of the crack and reached the main tunnels. These were not much higher than the passage they'd been crawling through, and only marginally wider, but they were at least smoother and more pleasant to look at. Traveling swiftly now that they had reached even ground, the Treys began to relax, feeling completely at home. His people might be far removed from the dark years that bred them, but he still had a feeling of comfort, being close to the heart of the planet, safely surrounded by the solid stone...
It took him a while to realize the footsteps behind him had stopped. Trey of Heart stopped and looked over his shoulder, then beckoned for the rest of him to see what had caught his attention.
Tridor had frozen. He stood stock-still, trembling slightly, his eyes traveling frantically as if searching for an exit. Now that they had stopped walking, all the Treys could hear that his breathing was coming fast and shallow. He wasn't physiologically built for sweating, but Trey got the feeling that if he was, his scales would have been sodden by now.
"Tridor, what's wrong?" asked Trey of Courage urgently.
"I can't go any further," said Tridor in a whisper. "There's no room... I can't breathe..."
"Stars and comets!" Trey of Heart swore. "He's claustrophobic! And here I was thinking he just didn't like being shut in!"
"Don't talk about it, deal with it," said Trey of Wisdom.
Suiting action to words, he ripped off the hem of his shirt and wrapped it deftly around Tridor's eyes, blindfolding him. No longer able to see the tunnels that had been distressing him so much, Tridor relaxed a fraction.
"Is that better?" asked Trey of Heart.
"Some," Tridor replied. "I'm sorry. I don't know what came over me..."
There was a trace of shame in his voice. Trey understood. It was the confusion of a man who knew he was no coward, trying to understand why his courage had abruptly failed him.
"It's not your fault," said Trey of Courage. "It's called claustrophobia. It means..." He paused, trying to find words that would be easy for a frightened and confused jungle beast to understand. "It means your brain doesn't like closed places, so even when you know in your mind that you're safe, your brain still makes you react as if you were in danger. It doesn't mean you're a coward."
"It's really something akin to an instinct," said Trey of Wisdom. "Probably bred into your people from eons of learning that getting caught in small spaces where you can't move to fight can get you killed."
"I think I understand," said Tridor. "Well. I am learning a lot about myself on this journey. I will have to remember this claws-tro-pho-bya you speak of."
"You know," Trey of Heart offered, "according to this map, the tunnel widens not far from here. According to what I've read, we'll eventually come to a cavern big enough that you can't even see the far wall from the entrance. Will you be all right once we make it there?"
"I will. Nevertheless, I think I'll follow you by sound for a while," Tridor replied.
"Good idea," Trey of courage replied.
They continued. Just as the map indicated, the tunnel gradually joined a second, larger passage, which in turn led to a wide cavern - not the giant one Trey of Heart had spoken of, but certainly large enough to drive two or three carriages alongside each other. Trey of Wisdom consulted the map. According to it, they were going to have to cross a bridge spanning a river of lava. He felt a stab of worry; the map had been current millennia ago, and it was not likely that the bridge would have survived all those years intact.
Finding the bridge confirmed his fears. Though it was a good ten feet wide, it didn't appear to be well-supported; if it had ever had any braces, they had long since worn away. Now all that was left of it was an impossible-seeming arch, looking from afar like nothing more than a ribbon spanning a vast gulf. The river of fire splashed and gurgled below it, occasionally throwing up plumes of liquid lava and blasts of heat.
"I think you're going to have to take off your blindfold sooner than I expected," said Trey of Courage.
They made their way cautiously to the foot of the bridge, and the Treys looked speculatively across the distance.
"I think it best if we go one at a time," said Trey of Wisdom thoughtfully. "I don't know if it would take all our weight at once."
"It suddenly occurs to me to wonder," Tridor replied, "what happens to the rest of you if one of you dies."
"We all die," answered Trey of Heart simply. "One of the many reasons why it is so perilous to remain in this state for any length of time."
"I will go first," said Trey of Courage.
With no more ado, he turned and walked confidently across the arch. Tridor took off his blindfold to watch. He had to admit, the young man had good cause for confidence. He moved with a lightness of step that Tridor associated with the silent-footed predators of his world. He doubted Trey would have so much as stirred the dust on the ground, had there been any.
Trey of Wisdom went next. He moved more carefully than his counterpart had, looking for cracks in the stone, testing his footing before trusting it with his weight. He, too, reached the far side unscathed.
Finally, it was Trey of Heart's turn. Tridor couldn't help noticing that the final third looked rather nervous, but what could you expect of the facet of Trey's personality most concerned with emotions. He had the same physical grace the others had, but he lacked their confidence. Halfway across the span, his foot caught in a crack, and he stumbled.
There was an ominous groan from the bridge. Trey struggled to free his foot, but panic made him uncoordinated. He couldn't get free. He had an impression of increasing noise, a sinking feeling as the rock began to give way...
Then something solid collided with him, jerking him free. There was a feeling of speed and a rapid patter of footfalls, and the next thing he knew, he was being deposited on the ground with his counterparts.
"Well," Tridor was saying calmly, "No one will be using that bridge again for a while, will they?"
"You saved me," said Trey of Heart, still trying to get his pulse to steady.
Tridor shrugged. "I told you that you'd be needing me. Besides, I may not like closed spaces, but heights don't bother me at all."
"That makes three times," Trey of Wisdom said thoughtfully.
Tridor gave him a blank look. "Three times, what?"
"Three times you've rescued me," he explained. "Once when you came to my aid in the desert, once when I fell from the rock, and now rescuing me from the bridge."
"What did I come here for, if not to protect you?" Tridor replied.
"Nevertheless, debts must be repaid," said Trey of Courage. "You know that the number three has significance on this world. We say here if you help someone once, it is because it was your duty. The second time, it is because of personal honor. The third time can only mean true loyalty and friendship. Such debts must be repaid. Kneel."
Tridor had no great grasp of court manners, nor did he have a great deal of respect for a crown. He had met kings and princes before, and they hadn't impressed him. Now, though, he suddenly got a flash of what true royal nobility was like. He knelt. Trey of courage raised his sword and touched it lightly to his skin three times: once on his human shoulder, once on the reptilian one, and once over the crown of his head. As he did so, he spoke a grave intonation. Tridor thought he felt a tremor run through the stone as the young lord spoke.
"Life for life, blood for blood - all debts must be balanced in the due course of nature. He to whom I owe my life, let him be now of my own blood and the blood of my people. From this time henceforth, you are my brother, nobility of Triforia. All will honor you for your bravery and loyalty. Rise."
Tridor stood. He felt mildly dazed.
"So I'm royalty now, am I?" he asked. "I wish my village elder was still alive to see this. He always said I would never amount to anything."
"Don't take it lightly," Trey of Wisdom admonished. "By that pronouncement, you're considered my brother, as surely as if we'd been raised together. If I died tomorrow, you'd be my heir... at least until I marry and produce children."
Tridor looked faintly shocked. "Well. I'd better keep you alive a while, hadn't I?"
"Don't worry," said Trey of Heart, taking pity on them. "I have a bride of state all picked out for me already. This is really just a formality."
Tridor saw the funny side of it all and grinned. "Your courtiers are going to have fits."
"I know," answered all three Treys, grinning as one.
They pressed on. Beyond the broken bridge, they found a massive archway, its edges elaborately carved with images of triangles, triple spheres, and at its peak, the six-pronged figure that was the Triforian symbol of royalty. There was evidence that it had once had a pair of doors barring it shut, but they were long gone now. It marked the entrance to a broad passageway, one wide and high enough that even Tridor had no problems with it - just as well, since he'd left his blindfold on the other side of the bridge. When they reached the end, Trey of Heart put out the light-stone. There was no more need for it.
They were standing at the entrance to an underground city, one so magnificently designed that Tridor, who didn't like cities much more than he liked tunnels, was only able to stand and stare. The living spaces seemed to have been carved directly out of the living rock, lining the black stone streets and climbing up the sides of the walls, so high that it was impossible to see where they stopped. Graceful bridges leaped overhead, connecting the structures in a lacy lattice. Even more impressive than the buildings were a series of channels resembling aqueducts that ran along both sides of the street. They did not carry water, however, but fire, in the form of glowing rivers of lava that provided both warmth and light in what would have otherwise been a dark, chilly place. The glow of the pyroducts was caught and refracted by a crystal-like covering that served the dual purpose of both enhancing the light and protecting living beings from the heat.
Tridor was pulled out of his daze by a light tap on the shoulder, and he pulled himself together enough to trail after his guide, though he continued staring around at his surroundings. It seemed that the ancient Triforians had made up for their monochromatic choice of building materials by carving designs into everything from doorways to the streets themselves. Frequently, the crosswalks were marked with statues of former nobility or great wizards and warriors. Though no plants could grow so far from the sun's light, brightly colored mushrooms still grew here and there, still drawing life from the earth long after their attendants had gone to dust. The further they went, the more elaborate the decorations became. Finally, they reached a street whose entire length was spanned by decorative arches and lined by statues, each of a different figure holding the Triforian staff of royalty. At the far end stood a massive palace that must have been the home of the ancient kings. Tridor felt sure that this was his young friend's destination, but Trey surprised him by turning off of the grand street and onto a narrow alley that was nearly hidden in the shadows.
"This is where I need to go," said Trey, indicating a building at the end of the alley.
Tridor stared at it without comment. If he'd been in a city of gardeners, he would have sworn it was a toolshed. As things stood, he couldn't decide what it was, other than a singularly small and unadorned shack. It was dome shaped, with a single door in front, and no decoration at all save for two replicas of the Triforian staff flanking the entrance. The lizard-man looked to his friend for information.
"This is called the Forge of Kings," said Trey of Wisdom. "According to what I've read, all those who wished to become king had first to step into this building. Apparently it holds a powerful magic that purifies prospective rulers and makes them more fit to rule. If one is utterly unsuited to the work, or are trying to hold the throne through unfair means, it destroys them."
"And you believe its power can put you right again?" asked Tridor.
"There is a chance," Trey of Courage replied. "You will understand, I hope, why I must enter alone."
"Of course," Tridor replied. "I don't have any desire to test what kind of king I'd make.
Trey smiled a little. "All right, then. Wish me luck."
"Zesh'larreh," said Tridor in his own language. It was a warrior's blessing, a wish for the powers of the universe to keep a young soldier safe.
Trey took a deep breath and opened the door. Instantly, Tridor was blinded by a burst of golden light. He tried to squint into it, to see what was happening, but he could see nothing but swirls of light, bright enough to make his eyes water. He could see no sign of what had become of Trey, and had a creeping fear that he might be burned alive by the source of whatever this light was. But no, that couldn't happen - Trey was a worthy king; he had to come out all right...
Finally, the lights dimmed. Tridor blinked, trying to readjust to the sudden darkness.
"Trey?" he called uncertainly.
"I am here, sh'zasheh," answered... one voice? More than one? It was hard to tell; there was a strange echoing quality to it. It sounded, he realized, like three voices speaking as one. Tridor's vision finally cleared. Standing in front of him was Trey - and only one Trey.
"So it worked?" asked Tridor.
Trey smiled. "Perfectly. It feels good to be completely myself again."
Tridor smiled back. "I'm sure it does. Now what happens?"
"Now," answered Trey, turning serious again, "we travel to Gasket's accursed arena, and we reclaim my badge of kingship."
Klank, who had taken it upon himself to look after things in the absence of both the prince and the king, was surprised to see Jason suddenly materialize out of nowhere in the middle of the throne room floor. The young man was without his armor, Klank noted, and though he didn't seem to be physically damaged, he was still lying flat on the ground and panting as if he could barely breathe.
"Your Majesty, what happened?" asked Klank urgently. If Jason died now, there would be no rebellion, and that would leave Klank in something of a tight spot. He didn't think Gasket would take kindly to his act of rebellion.
Jason tried to find words to speak. His strength was coming back now that he was de- morphed, but he still felt tired and drained. It was hard to string his words together. It occurred to him to wonder where his advisor was, and whether he had made it away from the Rangers in time.
"Atttacked... Surprised me..." he managed to gasp. "Gasket...?"
"It's all right, sire, you're safe now," said Klank. "Cogs! Help His Majesty to his rooms! Keep a tight guard over him. Don't let anyone in!"
The Cogs saluted smartly and half-dragged Jason back to his rooms. Klank watched him go, sizing up his options. He decided on a course of action that suited him.
"Did you hear that?" he called to the onlookers, which consisted of a variety of monsters who stood watch over the throne room entrances. "King Jason has been backstabbed!"
"He has?" asked Orbus. "I thought he said..."
"Weren't you listening?" asked Klank loudly. "He just said he was attacked from behind by Prince Gasket! It's obvious the prince has gotten word of our plans. He intends to kill Jason before we have a chance to install him as the true king!"
This pronunciation was greeted by rumbles of anger. Now that Klank had spelled it out for them, it was obvious to all the monsters that this was exactly what Jason had been trying to tell them.
"Are we going to stand for this?" asked Klank. "Are we going to let that so-called prince kill off anyone who he sees as competition?"
"No!" bellowed voices around the room.
"Shouldn't we have a choice in who rules over us?"
"Yes!" shouted the monsters.
Klank would have smiled, if he'd had a mouth. These creatures were so easy to rally - they'd follow anyone who acted like a leader. He'd built them that way.
"Do we want the treacherous prince as our ruler? Or do we want a king?"
"A king! King Jason!" shouted the mob.
"Long live King Jason!" someone in the group shouted. "Down with the prince! Long live King Jason!"
The cry was taken up by others. Soon, other monsters came rushing into the throne room to see what the commotion was all about, and soon they found themselves drawn into the crowd. Klank, watching the crowd swell, carefully stepped away from the throne and slipped into the back of the crowd. Later, if this went wrong, it would be harder to pin anything on him if he wasn't seen at the scene of the crime.
Meanwhile, the hubbub in the throne room was rising to a deafening pitch. Just at the moment when it sounded like things were about to get out of control, Gasket appeared. He began brushing mud off of his armor, then stopped and looked around. There were an uncommon number of monsters packed into the room. They were not supposed to be there. They were supposed to be at his posts. Well, good, he was in the mood to give someone a good telling-off. He collected his thoughts and prepared himself to lecture them. Then-
"Get him!" someone in the back of the room shouted.
The response was instantaneous. Every monster within attacking distance suddenly lunged at Gasket. He was too startled to dodge, and was dealt a number of hefty bashes before he finally managed to retaliate. He shoved the nearest soldier out of his way and tried to make a break for it... but where could he go? He was surrounded by wall-to-wall metal, metal that hacked and slashed and blasted in every direction he turned. He couldn't even stand still long enough to gather his thoughts for teleportation. He suddenly wished he was back with the Power Rangers - at least they fought fair!
Suddenly, there was an explosion, and several of the nearest monsters toppled over. Looking up, Gasket saw Archerina perched on a window ledge. She was holding her bow, and a second arrow was already strung.
"Run!" she ordered. "I'll hold them back!"
Gasket didn't bother to think, he just ran, making a break for the nearest exit. Explosions burst here and there, keeping his way clear just enough that he could escape. As soon as he reached the thin edge of the crowd, he pushed himself into his fastest sprint, which was considerable considering his weight, and tore down a side passage. Some of the soldiers tried to follow, but Gasket knew his way around the palace better than the lot of them put together. He ran for a grating in the ceiling and ripped it open, pulling himself inside and shutting the grille behind him. Seconds later, his pursuers ran beneath him, never realizing that they had been eluded. Gasket gave a mechanical sigh as his inner springs relaxed, and he crawled into a shadow to collect himself.
A few moments later, the searchers walked by again. They were talking to each other. They seemed to be of the opinion that Gasket had fled the planet altogether, and from the tone of their voices, they viewed this as a great improvement. They left Gasket's hearing range, but he guessed they must have passed that news along to the other machines, because moments later, there arose a great cheer. Distance blurred the sound, but Gasket could hear enough to tell that one name was being repeated over and over, and he was smart enough to realize what it meant. Within the space of moments, Gasket had been chased out of his own throne room by his own soldiers, and now Jason was truly King of the Machine Empire.