Dark Paths

By: SilvorMoon

The conversation Andros overheard that afternoon gave him an eerie feeling of deja vu... and a strange sense of apprehension. He had heard a conversation very like it before, and it had more or less ruined his morning, but this was another time and a whole different situation. Still, it was not the positive kind of thing he had hoped to hear.

Male voice: "Come on! You can do it! Just concentrate."

Female voice: "Oh... I just can't do it!"

Male voice: "Sure you can! Just relax, focus your mind."

"Sounds like they're at it again," Ashley remarked to Andros.

"Yeah," Andros replied. "Doesn't sound like things are going too well, though."

"Let's drop in on them and see if we can help," suggested Ashley.

Entering a small room, they found Zhane acting as patient teacher to Kerone, an impatient student. She, like Zhane and her brother, had grown up learning telekinesis along with reading and writing, but long years without practicing had reduced the former skill to nonexistence, and she was trying her best to recapture her former ability. It was not an easy task, and she was getting very frustrated.

"Hi, guys. How are the classes coming?" asked Ashley.

"Not too well," Kerone said tiredly. "I'm just not getting this! Sometimes I think I'm never going to learn."

"Don't say that!" said Zhane. "It's just going to take some time. It takes everybody time, even me and Andros. You shouldn't feel bad."

"That's right," Andros added. "Learning telekinesis isn't something that you learn gradually. For a long time, you won't be able to do a thing, and then one day it just comes to you and you know."

"Maybe it came to you," said Karone. "I don't know about me...but I really want to learn this!"

"You shouldn't be so hard on yourself," Ashley said. "Look at me! I've been trying to learn this for way longer than you have, and I still haven't gotten it."

"But I used to know this!" Karone insisted. "It just makes me so frustrated."

"Don't get frustrated," Zhane suggested. "Get dinner instead...or am I the only one here who's hungry?"

"Dinner sounds like a good idea," Andros replied. "After all, you can't concentrate on anything when you're hungry."

"Great!" said Zhane. "Last one to the rec room has to program the synthetron!" Laughing, he dashed out of the room.

"Hey, wait for me!" Andros shouted, and took off after his friend.

The girls followed at a more leisurely pace.

"You know," Ashley said, "you're taking this whole telekinesis thing way too seriously."

"I know," Karone replied. "I just can't seem to help it. I've just set my heart on learning it, and it's been really disappointing."

"You've got to learn how to lighten up. Take things as they come, and don't worry so much."

Karone sighed. "I know, I know. Zhane says the same thing. He told me I think too much, but I can't really help that, either. Before I got to know you all, I was always alone, and when you're alone all the time, you start to think about things so you don't go crazy listening to the emptiness. It's a hard habit to break. Still, thinking is very useful sometimes." She smiled suddenly. " And you know what else?"

"What?"

"You're fixing dinner!" Karone laughed as she sprinted down the hall, leaving Ashley to try her best to catch up.

~*~

Blackwind paced the floor of an empty room, thinking about why he had not yet left Divatox's space base. It seemed a rather strange puzzle. He certainly didn't need a place to live; he was, despite convincing visual evidence to the contrary, still little more than an insubstantial being. He need not fear the elements, not heat nor cold nor any kind of physical danger. He could not be burned or frozen or hurt. He could not be hungry or get tired. As long as his crystals were safe, so was he. No, he didn't need a place to live.

He didn't need any help, either. He could do what he needed to do on his own - and, indeed, he probably would. Though the pirate queen had offered to do whatever she could to aid his cause, the truth was that there was really nothing she could do for him. His task required nothing more than secrecy and careful planning, and this was best managed by himself.

It didn't seem likely that he should need her for anything. True, he had been known in the past as a woman chaser, and it was not unusual for him to have a new girlfriend every two or three days. Compared to those he had romanced in the past, Divatox was not anything special to look at; most of his former inamoratas had been far more beautiful. The fact that she was obviously attracted to him shouldn't have made any difference. He was a handsome man of power and wealth, and could easily attract any woman who caught his eye.

And yet...

And yet, she was unique, earthy and fiery, without fear or shame, and more completely alive than anyone he had ever know. Much as he hated to admit it, he knew he would stay where he was for an eternity if it meant he didn't have to leave her.

Surprisingly, the realization left him feeling elated.

~*~

At the end of a long day, Karone fell gratefully into her bed and closed her eyes to prepare to fall asleep. Still, she had never been able to simply drop off; her overactive mind always wanted to stay up just a little while longer to review the events of the day, and one thing usually led to another, so that it was often hours before she finally drifted into true dreaming.

Sometimes she thought her mind was like a forest. She hadn't thought much about forests, metaphorical or real, in her old life, but her change in perspective had made her more aware of forests and mountains and oceans...and herself. Now that she had seen and duly noted all of those things, she had decided her mind was like a forest full of twisting paths. Some led to bright places full of life and beauty, while others were dark and dangerous where it was easy to become lost. Some of the paths were barely explored, but some she traveled every day. The picture in her imagination was so clear that sometimes she could almost feel the cushion of dried leaves under her feet, smell the scents of flowers and pine needles, and hear the calls of birds. Some people had an inner sanctuary, where they could go to reflect and find peace, but Karone had an inner forest. There she walked, retracing her steps along favorite old trails. When at last she did sleep, she dreamed of following friends, some known to her in waking, and some only figments of her dream, through a stand of gigantic trees the size of skyscrapers. Strangely, she had a feeling that someone was watching her, and even though her dreams shifted and changed, the feeling stayed with her until morning.

~*~

It was a rose and three little words that changed the relationship between Blackwind and Divatox. Not the usual three words, of course. Blackwind seldom ever said exactly what he meant, and it probably would have been something of a blow to his pride to have to say, "I love you." Anyway, he doubted she would have believed him. It was too much of a cliche, too hollow to be convincing. It would take something a little different to communicate his message.

That same night, Divatox found Blackwind still hiding in the shadows.

"There you are!" she said impatiently. "I've been looking everywhere for you."

"I've been here all evening, thinking."

"About what?"

"Many things," Blackwind replied. "I believe I've found the right person to carry my Mind Crystal."

"Fine. Who's going to get it this time?"

"Not one of the Rangers, this time. The Red Ranger's sister is the one... I think they call her Karone."

"Fabulous! It's about time that little traitor got what's coming to her," said Divatox vehemently.

"What did she ever do to you?" Blackwind inquired. "She doesn't seem as if she could be of much consequence."

"If it wasn't for her meddling, I would have been Queen of the Universe by now!"

"Really? Then I know how you feel," said Blackwind. "If it hadn't been for Dark Specter's trickery, I would have been king."

"Were you really that powerful?" asked Divatox. It was clear that he had just risen several points in her estimation. Even now that he was gone, Dark Specter's memory still commanded a lot of fear and respect. If Blackwind had been strong enough to pose a threat to Dark Specter, he must have been awesome, indeed!

"I was... and I will be again when this crystal is recharged," Blackwind replied, holding up the topaz stone. "The Mind Crystal will return my magical powers, and the Blood Crystal..."

"I can hardly wait," she purred.

"Then I will begin preparations at once," said Blackwind. He looked at the crystal speculatively. "I have to wonder what it will do to her. She is not as strong as the others, and the process seemed to weaken them badly enough. I don't know if she will have the power to withstand its effects."

"Who cares about her?" said Divatox. "She deserves whatever she gets."

"Well, I will go deliver the crystal to her," Blackwind replied. "Will I be seeing you in the morning?"

"I don't know. You tell me," said Divatox bitterly.

"What's the matter? Don't you trust me?"

"I know better than to trust anyone. Men especially."

"I detect an old grievance. Care to share?"

In reply, Divatox recited a dismally long list of near-hits and total misses. Blackwind listened with increasing amazement.

"You poor thing," he said sympathetically. "You're a one-woman true-story magazine.But you have no reason to doubt me. I will return."

"I don't know about that," she replied. "As far as I know, I'll wake up tomorrow and find out you're long gone, or were never here."

"Have no fear. I will return." He was gone in a swirl of dark mist. Divatox sighed and walked glumly away.

Blackwind reappeared in a small, dark room aboard the Astro Megaship. Before him was his chosen carrier, Karone, deep in slumber. Even in her sleep, she had not removed the necklace that was forever around her neck. Perfect. Blackwind held up the Mind Crystal and studied it briefly, seeing it glow ever-so-faintly in the darkness. Focusing the meager powers he presently possessed on the stone, he shrank it down until it was not much larger than a dime. He carefully opened Karone's locket and slipped the sparkling disc inside. He smiled, quite pleased with his handiwork. She would never guess that her most precious possession would be the source of her undoing. Satisfied that all would be well for him, Blackwind vanished again. He had another task to complete.

The next morning, Divatox awoke to find a single, perfect red rose lying on her pillow. It was accompanied by a note that contained the most touching message she had ever received. In three words, it summed up everything Blackwind wanted to say: "I'm still here."

~*~

"It's time to wake up, Karone," a voice announced.

"Leave me alone, DECA. I'm still sleepy."

"The other Rangers are already awake. Do you want me to tell them to go to Aquatar without you?"

"All right, all right, I'll get up," said Karone. "Sometimes I wonder how my brother put up with living with you for two years."

"He did not have any choice."

Karone dragged herself out of bed, rubbing sleepily at her eyes. "You are the most arrogant machine I've ever met," she said, "and that includes the entire Royal House of Gadgetry."

Abruptly, all the lights in her room went out.

"All right, I take it back," said Karone. The lights came back on. Under her breath, she muttered, "You're only the second most arrogant machine I know."

"I heard that."

"What do you expect this early in the morning?"

Later, having dressed and groomed herself, Karone reported to the recreation room, where the other Rangers were just finishing up breakfast.

"There you are!" T.J. greeted. "We were wondering if you were going to show up."

"I guess I overslept," said Karone. "I was having this really intense dream..."

"You can tell us about it later," Andros interrupted. "Right now, you've got to finish eating so we can get ready to travel. The Aquitian Rangers are expecting us in a little while."

"I'll try to hurry," Karone promised. "I'm looking forward to meeting them. Do they know...you know, who I am?"

"I didn't see any point in telling them," said Andros. "As far as they're concerned, Astronema has vanished for good."

"That's good. I'd feel much more comfortable if they only thought of me as the Red Ranger's sister and not a former evil princess," Karone replied. "You know what they say about first impressions. I'd rather they didn't have any preconceived notions about me."

"They'll like you," Zhane assured her. "How could they not?"

"Thanks," said Karone. "Could someone please pass the toast?"

All conversation was ended as the Rangers made preparations for their excursion to the watery planet of Aquatar.

~*~

Aquatar was, in its way, a beautiful planet. Yet, like a plain but good hearted person, its true beauty was beneath the surface. Above sea level, there were only a few tiny scattered islands that overlooked thousands of miles of featureless ocean. However, beneath those miles of ocean were great and wonderful cities full of amazing people who breathed air but drew their life from the water that was all around them. It was into one of these cities that the Power Rangers traveled.

The city was a fantastic place. Much of it was made of material like super-strong glass, transparent so that a person could look out at the fish and ocean life. Even the parts that didn't offer a view of the ocean had an aquatic feel to them: a popular building material was a kind of shimmering blue crystalline substance that gave the illusion of shifting waters. At first, staring at it made a person dizzy, but it didn't take long to adapt so that the effect wasn't noticeable unless you happened to be thinking about it.

The Power Rangers were met near the entrance of the underwater city by the Aquitian Rangers, who introduced themselves as Delphine, Cestro, Tideus, Aurico, and Corkus. They were also accompanied by a shy-looking Aquitian girl they called Cestria. The Aquitian Rangers all wore identical serious expressions, and their companion looked both worried and frightened.

"It is good you have arrived," said the leader, Delphine. "We have a problem we hope you can assist us with. We have been meaning to attend to it ourselves, but the recent attack on our planet has left us vulnerable, and we feel the most urgent need is to rebuild, so that all our people will be protected."

"We'll help you in any way we can," Andros replied, "but we also have a mission that we can't possibly abandon. We were told that your friend Billy could help us, and we came here to speak with him."

"I am afraid that is impossible," said Cestro solemnly. "That is our problem: Billy has disappeared."

"Disappeared?" T.J. repeated. "When? How?"

"Two days ago," answered Tideus. "He was doing research on something he thought could become a new and stronger source of power, and he left in search of it."

"He said he was going to come back in a few hours," said Cestria. "He brought a communication device with him; he would have called if he were only delayed. I fear something must have happened to him."

"We are all worried," said Delphine, "but we cannot leave our people in their time of weakness. Will you help us?"

"Of course," Andros promised. "A Ranger is always ready to help a friend in need."

"We thank you," Delphine replied. "Cestria is more familiar with Billy's plans than the rest of us. She will tell you what you need to know. We will leave you to her guidance. Good luck to you, my friends, and may the Power protect you."

"Thank you," said Andros.

"Don't worry," said Cassie. "We won't let you down. Wherever Billy is, we'll find him."

"I hope so," Cestria said. "I just hope it isn't already too late."

~*~

A small submarine carried the Rangers and their guide to the surface and set them ashore on a larger-than-average island. Cestria led the team along a paved walkway that brought them to a small house located near a spectacular waterfall. Its mists made bright rainbows in the sunshine.

"That's his house over there," said Cestria. "He preferred to live on the land." Her tone sounded faintly bemused, as if she couldn't quite comprehend how anyone could want to live out of the water. "Perhaps it was because of the waterfall."

"It is beautiful," said Ashley.

"It is more than that," Cestria explained. "Those are the Eternal Falls, a literal fountain of youth. Those who drink their waters are given life and strength. I am one of the guardians of the falls. It is my job to make sure that only those who truly need the water receive it."

"Including him?" T.J. hazarded.

Cestria nodded. "An accident caused him to age much faster than the normal rate. The powers of the water of youth are healing him, but the process takes time. Until he is restored to normal, he needs to have regular access to the falls. That is one reason I am so concerned. If the effects of the magical water wear off, he could die of old age in a matter of hours."

"Well, then, we'd better stop talking and get to work," said Zhane in his usual forthright way.

"Follow me," Cestria said in reply, and led the way toward the little house.

Most of the house seemed to be in an unusual state of organized clutter. There were books, papers, and every kind of gadgetry strewn over all available surfaces. Still, they had a look as if someone had been sorting through them, and they were all in their proper groups, if not in the correct spot. The Rangers had to move carefully to avoid stepping on something or knocking something over.

"Forgive the mess," said Cestria. "When he is working on a project, scientific inquiry takes precedence over cleanliness."

"What did she say?" whispered Ashley.

"I'm not exactly sure," Cassie replied.

The only room in that little house that showed any evidence of real order was evidently a workroom or laboratory of some sort. Crammed between shelves of computers and other machinery was a desk covered with a number of papers, maps, and charts, as well a couple of dusty and battered old books. One book, lying open, showed pages of faded script and a rough illustration.

"His research," Cestria explained. "Here, read this." She offered the book to Andros.

"What's it say?" asked Carlos. The Rangers crowded close, trying to read over his shoulder.

"It's a history book," said Andros. "The words are hard to make out, but I think I can read it... It says something about the war between the Ryrians and the Yatreh-homir."

"Didn't we study that way, way back in school?" asked Zhane.

"That wasn't exactly part of our curriculum on Earth," Cassie said.

"We learned a little about the war on KO-35, but no one knew all that much," Andros replied. "They've been gone for centuries, totally wiped out - back when Zordon was young, if you can imagine that."

"I remember them," said Karone. "The Ryrians nearly decimated the Yatreh-homir, but the Yatreh-homir discovered the Ryrians' secret weapon and overthrew them."

"That's right," said Cestria. "The weapon used by the Ryrians has been a mystery for thousands of years, but Billy thought he might have found a clue to where it might be, and he went to Ryr to look for it."

"Ryr has been uninhabited for centuries," said Andros for his terrestrial friends' benefit. "The Ryrians were a warlike race, and they eventually destroyed themselves. There's nothing left on that planet but barren wastelands and crumbling ruins."

"Doesn't sound like a friendly place," Cassie commented.

"It isn't," Karone replied. "I went there once, briefly. A human without supplies and protection could not survive there for long."

"Billy carried emergency gear, enough to last him this long," said Cestria. "Provided that he hasn't lost them, that should not be a problem."

"We shouldn't assume anything," T.J. replied. "We had better get out there as soon as possible."

"Bring his notes with you. They will help you to locate him," Cestria said.

"Thanks," said Andros. "Don't worry, Cestria. We'll find him."

"I know you will try your best," she replied. "I should go now. I have been away from my duties for too long. Good luck." Though her voice was controlled, her eyes still showed deep worry. All of the Rangers left the island of the Eternal Falls haunted by the memory of her soulful brown eyes.

~*~

As soon as they returned to the Astro Megaship, the Rangers set a course for the planet Ryr. It was a journey of several hours, an opportunity to plan...and, for Karone, an opportunity to practice. She really had set her heart on learning telekinesis, and planned to use every opportunity that came up. She stood at one end of a small workroom. At the other end was a table, littered with tools. On either side stood her eager spectators: Andros, Ashley, and Zhane.

"Come on, you can do it!" Andros encouraged.

"Shh!" hissed Zhane in a surprising streak of seriousness. "You'll distract her!"

Karone stared intently at a small pocket scanner that rested on the table, letting the rest of the world drop out of her mind until there was only it and her. At first, nothing happened, and she felt the old sense of frustration welling up in her. Part of her still felt like she could stand and stare at that machine until she was cross eyed, but it was not going to move. She did her best to ignore the little voice, to concentrate, to focus...

And suddenly, something in her mind seemed to shift and slide everything into a new perspective. She realized in that instant that she didn't have to think about anything. She knew with total certainty that she could tell the scanner to move and it would, just as she could move her own hands. She willed it to move, and it did! Just like that, the little box lifted itself obediently off the table and floated in midair.

"I did it!" Karone exclaimed excitedly. "I really did it!"

The scanner dropped an inch, and Andros cautioned, "Don't stop concentrating!"

Karone turned her attention back to the scanner. Small as it was, it seemed heavy, and she realized she would loose her grip on it if she wasn't careful. Gently, she set it back in its place.

"Congratulations, Karone! We're proud of you," said Ashley.

"That was amazing!" Karone said excitedly. "It was just like you said, Andros. I suddenly just knew!"

"Now all you need is practice," said her brother, smiling."I'll have start playing tug-o-war with you, like I did when we were kids."

The next hour was spent helping her hone her newfound skill, as Andros and Zhane coached her through exercises practiced on KO-35 designed to strengthen telekinetic abilities. Eventually, though, a halt was called so that she could rest.

"It isn't good for you to strain yourself," Andros cautioned her. "You look like you need a break."

"He's right," said Zhane. "You do look kind of pale. Are you sure you're feeling all right?"

"I'm okay, really," she assured them. "I'm just a little tired, that's all. And I have a little headache. I guess it's the excitement."

"It's time for lunch, anyway," Zhane added.

"Don't you ever think about anything but eating?" Ashley teased.

"I'm with him on this one. Breakfast was a long time ago," said Andros.

The Rangers went to take their noonday meal. Karone ate hers quietly, staring off into space without really looking at anything. The other Rangers noticed this and were concerned.

"Karone, are you sure you're feeling okay?" asked Andros worriedly. "You don't look so good."

"I don't know. My head hurts, and I feel sort of dizzy," she admitted.

"I hope you aren't getting sick," said Zhane. "Maybe you'd better go lie down for a while."

"That sounds like a good idea," Karone agreed. "I feel like I could use a nap."

She stood up and walked unsteadily toward the door. Five paces from the table, she fell to the floor, unconscious.

~*~

Many intrepid adventurers had vanished without a trace in the labyrinthine ruined cities of planet Ryr. Billy, not as adventurous as some, had a nasty feeling he was going to be one of them. The Ryr had been, as Andros had mentioned earlier, a warlike and violent people, and their buildings were full of all kinds of traps to prevent intruders. He hadn't mentioned that to Cestria or any of his other friends when he had left. He hadn't wanted them to worry, because he knew they wouldn't let him go alone and they wouldn't leave their planet in a time of need. They would have tried to make him stay until it was safe for someone to come with him, and he hadn't wanted to wait that long. Now he could have kicked himself for his impatience if there had been room to stand up.

He had been walking along a corridor of some ancient structure, searching for a sign that he was going in more-or-less the right direction, inspecting the walls, and feeling just the tiniest bit silly, as if he had somehow wandered by mistake into and Indiana Jones movie. However, his inspections must have shaken a weakened foundation somewhere, because he had suddenly heard the scraping of stone, and he had dived out of the way just in time to avoid being crushed as the ceiling caved in.

The place he had ended up in was a tiny room, either unfinished or partially destroyed; he couldn't tell which. It was too dark to see, for he had dropped his flashlight in his wild dive for safety, as well as his emergency communication device. He assumed they had both been reduced to scrap metal by the fallen masonry, so he didn't waste his energy trying to reclaim them. It was a stroke of good fortune that he had been carrying his food supplies in a backpack, so that they remained safe. They had kept him from going hungry until now...but now his food was nearly gone, and his water was already depleted. He was thirsty... and frightened, which didn't help matters any. Fresh air was being channeled into the chamber somehow, so there was no danger of suffocation, but he was getting claustrophobic in the dark, cramped room. There was nothing for him to do here but sit and think, and his mind conjured up all kinds of terrible images. In other parts of the ruins, he had seen the pitiful remains of those who had come here before, and he feared he would end up like them, nothing more than dried-out skeletons...

He shoved the thought out of his mind. That wasn't going to happen, he told himself. Cestria knew where he had gone, and she would get worried when he didn't come back. She would get someone to come help him. He would be found. All he had to do was wait.

Unfortunately, he didn't think he could wait but so long.

~*~

"What's wrong with her? Is she going to be all right?" Andros asked worriedly.

"I really don't know," Alpha replied. It was clear that he was almost as worried as Andros. "I've never seen anything quite like this."

Andros, Zhane, and Alpha 6 were all gathered in the sick bay, keeping a worried vigil over Karone's still form. Also keeping watch were the cold, impersonal machines that monitored her vital signs. The readouts were not good.

"Some kind of stroke, maybe?" Zhane suggested uncertainly.

"Nothing like that, as far as I can tell," said Alpha. "All tests say she is perfectly healthy, but for some strange reason she has fallen into a state of intense sleep. You can see, she is dreaming very vividly. But that kind of dream-state shouldn't last more than a few minutes, and it shouldn't have this kind of effect on her systems...at least, not this strongly. Her heartbeat is too fast and too weak, and her breathing is nearly twice what it should be, and still rising. I don't know how much of this she can take. It's not natural."

"We've got to do something!" Andros exclaimed.

"I'm doing everything I can," said Alpha sadly, "but so far, nothing has worked."

"Well, keep trying!" said Andros angrily. Alpha only nodded, knowing that the anger wasn't directed at him.

The two Rangers were silent for a while, staring at the paralyzed form of the young lady who meant so much to them. She looked terrible, flushed and sweating, and her eyes fluttered rapidly, following the movements of dream-images. Her breathing was fast and shallow. Medicine meant to slow her overactive heart and lungs was being funneled through tubes into her veins. It was not a pleasant picture, and both had the feeling that she was never going to rise again from the table where she now lay.

"Andros?" a voice called uncertainly. Andros looked up to see Ashley standing in the doorway. He got up and went to her.

"How is she?" Ashley asked.

"Not good," said Andros. "Alpha hasn't said it in so many words, but..." his voice broke, and he paused to regain control. "Ashley, she's dying."

"Oh, no!" Ashley gasped. "Oh, Andros, I'm so sorry." She put her arms around him, and he held her tightly. She couldn't see, but she could feel that he was crying.

At last, she said, "We're orbiting Planet Ryr now. The others are getting ready to go down, but I'll stay with you if you want me to."

"No, you'd better go," said Andros, pulling himself together with difficulty. "There's no telling what kind of danger Billy might be in. He may need all of you. Anyway, I kind of want to be left alone right now."

"I understand," said Ashley. "You'll tell us... you know, what happens, won't you?"

"Of course."

Uncertain of what else to do, Ashley kissed him quickly on the cheek and left. Andros returned to his vigil.

"What about you?" he asked Zhane. "Are you going to go with them?"

"You aren't getting me to leave," said Zhane. His normally smiling face was grave; he seemed to have aged ten years in the last hour. Andros could see there was no use in arguing. Together, they sat in grim silence, hoping and fearing.

~*~

Karone was back in her forest once again, wandering its twisting pathways. It seemed rather too warm there. The sun felt too bright, and the air was humid and hard to breathe. From where she stood, there seemed to be a brightly lit road leading uphill to a sunny meadow full of flowers and butterflies. Downhill, the forest grew thicker, dense, green, and shady. She wanted to go to the meadow; she had a vague dream-feeling that someone was waiting for her there. It was someone important, she knew, someone who would be worried if she did not come. She tried to make it up the hill, but the way was rough and steep, and the heat sapped her strength. Collapsing by the side of the road, she tried to think what would be best to do.

It would be so much easier to go down the hill, she thought. It would be cooler there, and perhaps there would be a stream of cool water to drink. She could stay there until she felt stronger, and then return to the hill. It seemed so right and sensible that she got up to carry out her plan.

The deep forest was indeed cooler, and the trees were fantastic, towering giants. She stopped to lean against one, feeling the solidity of the wood and the coolness of the moss. Already, she felt better. Her mind was clearing, and she felt more awake. She stared upward, amazed as always at how something that seemed so immobile could sway in the faintest breeze like that. It was pleasant in the green forest, and she wondered if it was really worth the effort of trying to climb a hill in the intense heat. It would be so hot and dry there, with no trees for shade. The deep forest seemed far more tempting. Whoever was waiting for her could wait a little longer, she decided. She set out along the shadowed path that would lead her into the heart of the woods.

~*~

Meanwhile, back in the sick bay, the watchers heard a change in the rhythmic beeping of one of the machines.

"Her heartbeat is weakening," said Alpha. "We're losing her!"

Andros gripped her hand. "Please, Karone! You've got to pull out of it!" He choked as his tears began again. "Please, I can't stand to lose you like this...again..."

~*~

Many miles below, four uneasy Power Rangers were carefully picking their way through the rubble of a centuries-old structure. T.J. walked in front, alert for any dangers. Cassie followed close behind with a map, acting as navigator. Ashley came next, and finally Carlos, acting as a rear guard. There hadn't been anything living on that planet for thousands of years...but it didn't hurt to be careful.

"Which way?" asked T.J.

"Over there," Cassie replied, gesturing in the direction of a half-fallen wall. "There should be an entrance of some sort just beyond that."

"Better watch your step," Carlos advised. "This place looks like it could fall down if you just looked at it wrong!" He pointed to a deep hole, where the ground had evidently caved in years ago.

Taking the warning seriously, the small group moved as cautiously and quietly as possible. Just as Cassie had said, there was a downward-leading staircase hidden by the wall. It had once been sealed by doors (the metal hinges were still in evidence) but it was now open to anyone daring enough to enter the passageways below. It looked as if someone had entered not too long ago: dust lay thickly on the stairs, and footprints were still visible. They were so clear, one could even read the word "Reebok" reversed in the dust.

"Looks like we're headed in the right direction," said T.J. "Ashley, got a flashlight?"

Ashley clicked on the light and handed it to him, and gave a second one to Carlos, and they made their way into the darkness below. Inside, it was less dusty but still dry, and the air was surprisingly fresh. The people living below the planet's surface had not only been cunning at trapping their enemies, but at making sure they themselves would survive, and the tunnels had been designed to be safe - for them, anyway. For a missing scientist - or for four Power Rangers - there could be any number of dangers. They were thankful that they would at least not have to worry about suffocation.

T.J.'s light traced careful arcs across the floor, checking the floor for trip-wires, pitfalls, and other traps. The others kept their eyes peeled for signs that someone else had passed by, searching for clues to what direction he had gone. At least, they seemed to be; the reality could have been different. As much as she tried to concentrate, Ashley could not concentrate on the task at hand when she knew that one of her best friends was lying near death somewhere above her. Cassie also seemed subdued, unlike her usual cheerful self. It was hard to tell with Carlos - he seldom looked happy unless he was truly elated - but it was well known that he had been close to Karone. T.J., of course, was a good leader in any situation. He would do what had to be done to prevent anyone else from coming to grief needlessly, but that didn't mean he didn't feel the tragedy as keenly as everyone else.

Ashley should have been paying more attention to where she was going. The others had seen and avoided a crack in the floor. She didn't, and in the next instant, a hole opened up with a roar, and she shrieked as she dropped out of sight.

~*~

Karone was cold. It was dark in the forest, and no sunlight penetrated the thick boughs of the immense trees. She felt tiny and lost in this shadowy, frigid place. What had seemed so welcoming moments ago - Had it been moments? She wasn't so sure - now seemed threatening, and she longed for the warmth and light of the sunny meadow. Compounded with that feeling was the increased sense that someone was waiting for her, was frightened beyond reason that she had not come.

"I've got to get out of here!" she said to herself. Her soft voice was swallowed up by the all-pervading stillness.

She turned around to retrace her steps...and froze. The path she had followed was gone. The hill was gone. The sunny meadow was gone. Even the brighter part of the forest was gone. All that remained was the dark forest full of thick underbrush and thorn bushes that scratched at her as she tried to move through them. She was trapped!

"Help!" she called. "Somebody help me!"

"There is no help here," a voice replied.

Karone jumped. That voice was familiar, dreadfully familiar, and she did not dare turn to see who had spoken.

"Look at me!" the voice demanded coldly. "You have chosen darkness, and darkness is what you must have! Look at me!"

"No! Go away!" Karone cried.

From somewhere in the shadows, a dark gloved hand reached out and grabbed her face, forcing her to look upward into a pair of penetrating green eyes. Karone felt hear heart skip a beat and the breath caught in her throat. "No!"

"Yes!" The speaker smiled, a sweet smile that chilled Karone more deeply than the cold air of the forest, more than anything she had ever seen before. It was its familiarity that frightened her: the smile was her own.

"Who are you?" Karone asked in a terrified whisper.

"You shouldn't even need to ask," the other person replied. "But I see you don't believe your senses, so I will give you a clear answer: I am that which you once were. I am Astronema, Princess of Evil!"

"No! It isn't possible!" cried Karone.

"Anything and everything is possible," Astronema replied. "If you had stayed in the sunlight, I never would have found you, but you came back to me because you are too weak for the light. Now you will be mine forever!"

"No! No! I won't!" Karone turned and ran deeper into the dark forest, hearing the laughter that was her own and not her own ringing in he ears.

"You have sealed your own fate! You can't escape me like that! The forest will take you and keep you, and you will be mine for all time!"

~*~

Far removed from the forest, Andros had no way of knowing what was happening. He could only watch in horror as the readings of his sister's heartbeat grew fainter and fainter until...

"No!" he whispered. "Oh, please, no!"

The machine wailed its mournful siren, and Andros broke down and sobbed.

~*~

The Power Rangers gathered around the hole where Ashley had fallen.

"Ashley!" T.J. called. "Can you hear me? Are you all right? Say something!"

"Could you guys hurry up and get me out of here?" came the reply. "I think there might be spiders down here."

Carlos shined his light down into the hole. Ashley crouched amid piles of rubble, dusty but unhurt. The drop had only been about six feet, not enough to do more than bruise her.

"Don't scare us like that!" Carlos admonished.

"Sorry," Ashley apologized. "I think I found a shortcut! What does your map say, Cassie?"

Cassie checked the chart. "I think you're right. This says there should be a staircase leading down to where you are now. You just saved us some walking."

With a series of thumps, the remaining three Rangers dropped down next to their friend. T.J. and Carlos beamed their flashlights all around, searching for anything that might indicate they were near their goal.

"Oh, great," Carlos muttered. "The whole end of the hall is blocked up ahead."

"That means Billy couldn't have gone past it," said T.J., "unless..."

Suddenly, they heard a faint voice: "Is somebody out there? Help me! I'm trapped!"

~*~

Karone stopped running and looked around in puzzlement. She had a feeling as if she had just awakened from a dream. She couldn't quite figure out how she had gotten into this forest. It shouldn't have been real...but it was, and she couldn't find any way out. It was dark and the air was cold, like a winter night, and she was chilled to the bone. She wandered around, half blind, tripping over roots and scraping herself on bramble bushes. Suddenly, she saw a flash of light. Curious, she drew closer to investigate.

Up ahead, there was a clearing in the forest, and in that was a girl. No, Karone corrected herself, a young woman, perhaps in her early twenties. Her hair was yellow-blond and pulled back in a ponytail to keep it out of her eyes, which were dark brown. She had a pretty, sensitive face, and though she was not exactly beautiful, she looked attractive and strong, and her movements were quick and graceful. She was wielding a sword, evidently practicing, and it flashed as it carved swift arcs through the air. Despite her obvious skill as a warrior, she did not seem to Karone to be threatening. Rather, Karone felt as if this person was a friend. She knew instinctively that she could trust this woman with her life.

Karone cleared her throat. "Excuse me, ma'am. Could you help me? I'm lost, and I need to find my way back to my friends."

"Lost?" repeated the woman. She turned to see who had spoken. "Karone! Oh, my stars, what are you doing back again so soon? You know you don't belong here!" She stared at Karone, looking shocked and worried.

"I don't remember ever being here," said Karone, puzzled. "Who are you? How do you know my name?"

"You don't remember? No, I guess you don't," the woman replied. "You are a long way from home, dear child. I hope I will be able to guide you back where you belong."

"You do know me, then?"

"Yes. I know you very well. I've known you all your life, though I'm sure you don't know me. My name is Ilsabette."

"Ilsabette. That's pretty," said Karone. "Do you know the way back to the meadow? Somebody is waiting for me there, I think."

"I know the way to all places," Ilsabette replied, "but I don't think you have the strength to travel that road. Your brother and your friend Zhane await you, and are frightened by your absence. They believe you are lost forever...and they could be right. You have wandered along dark paths, and the way back will be difficult. I feel an evil force draining your strength. It will be dangerous, more dangerous than you could possibly imagine, but I may be able to guide you back. You can choose to stay here, if you like. You will be safe here, but I do not think this is where you belong. Still, the decision is yours."

"I want to do back to my friends," Karone said.

Ilsabette nodded. "A good choice. You have gained much wisdom of late."

"Yes. Thank you."

Ilsabette brushed the remark aside. "I do not mind talking to you, but if you want to return to the place from whence you came, you will have to hurry. There is not a lot of time. I know you do not feel it, but you are losing strength rapidly. The dark force drains you, and it will not be long before you are too weak to escape."

"Lead the way, Ilsabette."

Ilsabette sheathed her sword, and set out into the deep shadows of the forest. Karone trailed behind. Soon, they struck a path, and Karone tried to strike up a conversation.

"You say there is a dark force draining my strength," she began. "I ran into someone like Princess Astronema back there, and she said I was too weak to escape, too. Can you explain that?"

"This is a place on the boundary of two planes of existence," Ilsabette replied. "It is a world composed partly of reality and partly of dreams. What you saw was a manifestation of your own self-doubts. What you believe often becomes real, here, or a least seems to."

"Are you real?"

"I am. I came here much as you did, and wandered deep into the shadows. But I did not get lost as you did. I found my way to the end of the labyrinth and could have gone beyond, but I chose instead to remain as a guide for other lost souls...like you."

"You seem so familiar to me, but I can't place you."

"We have met before, but you do not remember. I think I only seem familiar to you because I remind you of someone you know," Ilsabette replied.

"That could be it." Karone looked around her nervously. "I don't like this place, Ilsabette. How much farther do we have to go?"

"I'm not exactly sure," admitted Ilsabette. For the first time, she seemed to soften a little, seem more human. She almost smiled."This is not the kind of thing I usually do, you know. I'm much better at helping people in than guiding them out again."

"There's something moving in those trees," said Karone suddenly.

"Don't look at it!"

"But what if it attacks us?"

"If you think about it too hard, it will attack you!" said Ilsabette. "Remember what I just said? This is a place where fears come to life! I see now, something is tampered with your mind. You must get control of it if you want to escape this place!"

"I don't know if I can!"

"You must!"

Suddenly, there was a flash of silver, and then another. A swarm of metallic creatures carrying blades with serrated edges came leaping out of the darkness of the forest.

"Quantrons!" Karone exclaimed.

"Tell them to leave," Ilsabette ordered.

"I can't! They won't obey me anymore!"

"They are only manifestations of your own fears. Banish your fear, and you banish the monsters. If you do not conquer your fear, it will destroy you, and you will be trapped here for all time!"

Karone watched the silver-and-black robots, and they stared back at her with dark and malevolent eyes. She stared at them and thought of her brother and her other dear friends waiting for her beyond the dark forest. Thinking of them made her feel secure again, and she spoke.

"Get out of my way, Quantrons," she said. "You can't keep me here! I'm a Power Ranger, whether you like it or not, and I'm coming through!" She took a determined step forward. The robots backed off. She took a few more steps, and they fled back into the shadows.

"Very good, Karone!" said Ilsabette. She was smiling, making her seem much less formidable than she had moments before. "I am proud of you."

"Thanks," Karone replied. "Can we get out of here now?"

Ilsabette nodded. "We can try. I must admit, I will be sorry, in a way, to see you go. I would like for us to get to know each other better."

"I thought you said you knew me already."

"I do know you, in a way. I have watched you. I have tried to help you when I could, but my power is limited beyond this place," Ilsabette replied.

"Hmmm," said Karone, for want of a better reply. "I think I'd like to know you better, too. For some reason, I feel like you are a friend."

"I am, and more than that," Ilsabette replied cryptically. "Come along, now. Time is of the essence."

Karone followed along obediently, and together, they trekked ever deeper into the dark forest.

~*~

It took only a short while for the four Power Rangers to dig away the rubble that had trapped Billy in the tiny room. Very soon, he was free again, looking dusty and bedraggled but otherwise healthy.

"I've never been so glad to see anybody," he said to his rescuers. "I was afraid I'd be trapped down here forever!"

"We're glad we could help," said T.J. "Did you find what you were looking for?"

"Not yet," Billy replied, "and I don't know if I'm going to. This place is just too dangerous. I don't think it's worth the risk."

"Hey guys!" Carlos interrupted. He was shining his flashlight into the tiny chamber. "Look at this! I found some kind of door, and there's writing on the wall."

"Let me see!" Billy exclaimed. He moved in for a closer look. "I think this could be what I'm looking for!"

Illuminated by Carlos's flashlight, a door could be seen, pushed slightly ajar but half- buried in fallen stone. From it, a small stir of fresh air could be felt. It was what had kept Billy from suffocating, but he had been unable to see it in the dark. Now he was pushing the rubble aside, trying to make it open.

"Hey, you don't know what's down there!" T.J. protested.

"This will only take a second," said Billy. "I only want to look."

Before anyone could stop him, he had shoved the door open wide enough to squeeze through. The Rangers had no choice but to follow him into the darkness.

~*~

As Karone and Ilsabette progressed through the forest, it seemed to become more and more dreamlike, and yet Karone felt as if she were waking up, becoming more alert and focused. A thin mist rose up that steadily thickened, until the trees were almost blocked out by a nearly impenetrable fog.

"We are nearing the way out," Ilsabette explained. "Look, up ahead! You can see the gate from here!"

Karone strained her eyes, trying to see through the fog. Ahead of them, the path seemed to be blocked by a tall white wall that seemed to stretch off into infinity and become lost where the mist met the clouds. It's only distinguishable feature was something that looked like a round metal door. At first, she thought it was only a trick of the light, but as she drew nearer, she realized that the door was glowing faintly gold around the edges.

"Is that what we're looking for?" she asked.

Ilsabette nodded. "Your journey is nearly at it's end. All you have to do now is open the door and pass through."

"Thank you so much for helping me, Ilsabette," Karone said. "I don't know how I could ever repay you."

"No payment required," said Ilsabette. "Do you know why I chose to act as guide and guardian in this place?"

"No. Why?"

"Because I knew that you would be needing me someday. I chose to be here because of you."

Karone was too surprised to think of a reply, so she continued walking in silence until they reached the gate. Ilsabette reached out and tried the handle.

"It is locked," she said softly.

~*~

Andros felt someone shaking him. He looked up and saw Zhane looking back at him with a strange mixture of fear and excitement.

"Andros, look!" he exclaimed. "Her heart's started again!"

Amazed, hardly daring to hope, Andros looked at the little machine that had been measuring his sister's heartbeat. It had been unresponsive a moment ago; now it was registering a very faint pulse of life.

"Come on, Karone!" he whispered. "Come back to me! Please, try to come back..."

~*~

"Locked!" Karone exclaimed. "You mean I can't get out? Am I going to be trapped here forever?"

"Perhaps...perhaps there is still a chance," said Ilsabette. "It is only locked on this side. Andros could possibly open it for you. He has the key."

"What key?"

"The locket," Isabette replied. "It is an object of greater power than you know. Even when you lost everything else, you never lost your locket."

For the first time, Karone realized that her precious necklace was missing. "I don't have it anymore! It's gone!"

"It is not gone, only changed, like so many other things in this place. But Andros can help you. You must call to him and make him unlock the door."

Karone faced the gate again. It's golden light seemed to have brightened. "Andros! Andros, do you hear me! I need you to open the door! Use the locket and open it!" She screamed as loudly as she could, and the words seemed to be snatched up by a wind and blown away.

~*~

"...Andros..."

Andros heard the softest of whispers calling his name.

"Karone?" he asked anxiously. "Karone, can you hear me?"

"Andros..." she whispered. "...open...the locket...open it..."

Puzzled, Andros did as he was told. Carefully, he took the gold disc and opened the lid. Something small and shiny fell to the floor with a clink. Andros picked it up and studied it.

"A crystal! Of course!" he exclaimed. He checked the machine again. "Look! I think she's coming around!"

~*~

Karone saw the gate open, and the forest was suddenly flooded with light. It was too bright for anything to be clearly seen. Ilsabette, standing full in the light, was almost invisible.

"Go! Hurry!" she was shouting.

"Ilsabette! Will you come with me?"

"I cannot...this is my place. I belong here, and you belong in your own world."

"At least tell me I'll see you again!"

Ilsabette's voice sounded almost sad. "I promise, Karone. Go now."

"Goodbye! I'll never forget you." With those final parting words, Karone passed through the gate...

~*~

It was dark. Her head hurt. Someone was calling her name.

"Karone! Karone, can you hear me? Wake up!"

"Andros..." she said weakly. She realized the darkness was due to the fact that her eyes were closed. When had she done that? She opened them with difficulty. "Zhane! Andros! Where am I? What happened to Ilsabette?"

"Ilsabette?" Andros repeated, looking worried. "Where did you hear that name?"

"She was with me...I was lost, and she rescued me..." Karone trailed off. She sat up and looked around. "It was all just a dream, wasn't it?"

"No..." Andros replied. "You really were lost. But the important thing is, you're back, and you're all right."

"I was scared I would never see you again," said Karone.

"So were we," Zhane replied. "I'm glad you're back!"

Karone received hugs and kisses from both her favorite men, and even got a hug from Alpha 6. The celebration was cut short, however, by the arrival of an unwanted visitor.

"Very touching," a voice said. Everyone turned to see Blackwind lurking in a corner. He moved smoothly over to where his Mind Crystal had fallen and picked it up. "Fully charged! It seems your stamina is greater than I thought, young lady."

"You monster! You nearly killed her!" Andros shouted angrily.

"Regrettable, but it couldn't be helped," answered Blackwind. "I consider her well-being secondary to my own."

"You're going to pay for hurting Karone," Zhane threatened. He and Andros leaped forward to attack Blackwind...and passed through him as if he wasn't even there.

"You two are very foolish," said Blackwind. "You can't hurt me. I can hurt you, though... but I won't." He looked thoughtfully at the crystal. "I have more important matters to attend to." With a swirl of dark mist, he vanished.

"Don't worry, Andros," said Zhane comfortingly. "We'll get him some other time."

"The sooner, the better," Andros replied.

"Andros, can I ask you something?" Karone inquired. "Who is Ilsabette? You acted like you knew her."

"I don't really want to talk about it," answered Andros. "It's too much, right now. Maybe later." He glanced at his watch; he had lost track of time. "The others should have been back by now. We ought to call them and make sure everything is okay... and let them know you're all right."

Andros turned to leave, and Karone began to follow him, only to have Zhane stop her.

"I can tell you who Ilsabette is," he said.

"Who?"

"Andros told me about her once," Zhane replied. "She's your sister. She died in an accident before Andros was born."

~*~

"It's dark in here!" Ashley complained. The thin beams of the flashlights didn't do much to illuminate the stygian darkness.

"Well, you're the one carrying the tools," T.J. answered. "Set up the lantern."

"Oh, yeah. Right."

There were sounds of a zipper being unzipped, and then a few metallic clicks and squeaks. Suddenly, a brilliant ball of light seemed to explode into being, and everyone had to shade their eyes for a moment. In a minute or two, however, the blinding light seemed to dim to a reasonable level. Now, they could see everything clearly in its bright golden glow. They were in a large room full of shelves. Resting on the shelves, still intact even after all those centuries, were dozens of books. While the Power Rangers made a systematic search for dangers, Billy made a systematic search of the books.

"Find anything?" Carlos inquired.

"Almost," Billy replied. "I'm looking for the records they made of the war. There should be something that tells what happened to the weapons they used. It's got to be around here somewhere...aha!" Carefully, he pulled a thick book from the shelf and leafed through it. The dryness of the subterranean room had left it in remarkably good condition. "This is it! It will take some time for me to fully translate it, but I think this will tell me what I need to know."

"Great," said T.J. "Now that that's taken care of, we really need to get out of here."

Everyone nodded, remembering Karone.

"I agree," Billy said. "Uh...do you think you could give me a lift back to Aquatar?"

"Sure thing," T.J. replied. "Prepare to teleport!"

The five teenagers vanished in multicolored streaks of light.

~*~

Upon reaching the Megaship, the first person they encountered was Andros, on his way to the bridge.

"You're back!" he exclaimed. "I was just about to call you."

"Everything went smoothly," T.J. replied.

"So...how's Karone?" asked Ashley anxiously.

Andros smiled one of his rare smiles. "Why don't you ask her?"

Just then, Karone came around a corner and saw everyone standing there. "Hi, guys!" she greeted cheerfully. "What's up?"

"You're alive!" Carlos exclaimed.

"Of course I am! Bad habits are hard to break!" she said playfully.

"Uh...did I miss something?" asked Billy.

"Never mind," Andros replied. "We had a problem, but it's over now. By the way, I'm Andros. You must be Billy."

"Right. I'm pleased to meet you." They shook hands. "This ship is incredible! You wouldn't happen to have the plans for it, would you?"

"No. Ask Zordon. He's here, and he's the one who designed it."

"I'll do that," said Billy. "I haven't had a chance to talk to him in a long time."

"Speaking of designs," T.J. interrupted, "tell him about your idea, Andros."

"Oh, yes, of course," said Andros. "Billy, we were told that you were good at inventing machinery. Would you be willing to help us design a new home for Zordon? He isn't safe here on the ship; it's too vulnerable to attack. What he really needs is a permanent hiding place, fortified against attack."

"Hmm," Billy mused, looking thoughtful. "That might be possible. I've studied the plans for the Power Chamber and the Command Center. I think I could manage something suitable for your requirements."

"We've got some rough plans worked out already," said Andros. "We'd appreciate it if you would take a look at them."

"Lead the way," Billy replied.

Moments later, the Rangers were gathered around the table in the rec room, watching as Billy perused the papers spread out before him.

"This is a good start," he said. "Now, what I would suggest is..." He took a pencil from his pocket and set it scratching across the paper in swift, sure movements. Everyone watched closely as his plans took shape in the margins and blank areas of the paper. The eraser went to work, too, subtracting superfluous details as the necessary ones were added. The rough sketches were soon honed into smooth and complete-looking diagrams. Though Andros and Carlos watched with understanding, the less technical-minded Rangers eventually wandered away, leaving their other friends deep in discussion over solar panels and geothermal energy converters.

"It's been a wild day, hasn't it?" Zhane remarked to Karone. "I was really scared back there. We thought you were a goner for sure."

"I thought so, too, for a while," Karone replied. "I don't know what I would have done if it hadn't been for Ilsabette."

"Did you really see her?" asked Zhane. "Not that I don't believe you or anything, but..."

"I know what you mean. She was real, though. She told me I would see her again, someday. I have to wonder what she meant," Karone said thoughtfully. "I can't believe I have a sister! I wish you could have met her, Zhane. I know you would like her."

"Maybe I shouldn't," Zhane replied, feigning seriousness. "One of you is all I can deal with!"

Karone laughed. "Leave it to you to put things in that perspective!"

"You shouldn't take life too seriously," said Zhane. "That's how I feel, anyway."

"You could be right," Karone replied. "Anyway, aside from meeting Ilsabette, I did get one benefit from carrying Blackwind's crystal."

"Oh? What was that?"

Karone fixed her gaze on a cup sitting on the table, and smiled triumphantly as it rose into the air.