Lord Randus and Lady Inimonia swept through the doors of the Hall of Learning, pausing briefly to admire the surroundings.
"It hasn't changed a bit," Randus remarked. "They do a remarkable job of preservation."
"We did not come to admire the scenery," his wife replied. "We came to visit our daughter. Let's not waste time."
"Right as always, dear," answered Randus. "Hello! Where is everyone?"
In answer to his call, there came a clatter of booted feet against the hard tiled floors, and Headmaster Ossodil came scampering into view, his hands clasped before him, head bobbing in bows of subservience.
"My lord and lady, welcome! Welcome to the Hall of Learning! Truly we are honored by your presence. Anything I may do for you..."
"We wish to see our daughter, of course," said Randus. "I believe we sent a missive to that effect some days ago."
"Yes, of course. She is enjoying her free period at the moment, but I will have her located and brought to you at once."
"No, no," said lady Inimonia. "We wish to see her quarters, to see how she lives. How else are we to ascertain whether or not she is being treated according to her station?"
"I assure you, my lady, we have taken every possible step to ensure-"
"We wish to see her in her rooms," said Randus.
The headmaster bowed. "As you wish."
Meanwhile, Delphine sat at her desk, delicately nibbling at a fingernail, being careful not to damage the laquer she had painted onto it that morning. Never had she been so nervous about encountering her own parents. Normally, she was the perfect daughter - obedient, deferential, always careful to live up to their high standards. Now she suffered from a crawling sense of... guilt? It couldn't be guilt; she had done nothing wrong. Still, imagine if they found out that her roommate and - yes - her dear friend was a commoner of one of the most lowborn families in the pod-cluster? What if they found out that the only suitors she had collected were a pair of boys who were destined to become a soldier and a painter, respectively? Her mother had boasted - privately, when her husband was not around - that she'd had no fewer than fifteen offers for her hand while she was studying here at the Hall of Learning, most of them noble and all of them wealthy, or with potential to become so. She would be disappointed to learn that Delphine hadn't even made an attempt to curry favor with the noble boys who studied here.
*And just imagine if they found out that I have taken up fighting!* she thought, and suppressed a shudder. If that little scrap of information got out, her parents would drag her home so fast, they would probably pull her right out of her boots!
*I will not go home! I am needed here. I need to stay here...*
The door opened. Only years of careful self-training kept her from showing any emotion; otherwise she would have jumped.
"Mother, Father," she said smoothly, "I am pleased to see you."
She rose and curtseyed, bowing her head. Her father extended a hand and let it rest lightly on her shoulder, which was her signal to rise and meet his gaze. She tried to read something there - some expression of disapproval, perhaps, but his mask was even more carefully constructed than her own.
"It is we who should be pleased," her mother said. "Pleased to see our daughter in such an exalted place as this. You make us proud, my child."
"Thank you, Mother," she said, without any particular enthusiasm. The words were part of a scripted dialogue, and told her nothing of how her mother really felt.
"I expect you are doing well here," said her father. A slight shift of expression made the comment a question.
"My grades are flawless."
"I was speaking of more than your test scores, my daughter," he replied. "How are you being treated?"
"My teachers are quite fair," said Delphine. "I do not sense that they favor me because of my noble blood."
"And the students?" her mother prodded.
"I have had no problems."
"My dear," said her father, "I sense that you are not being entirely candid. Come. If there is something wrong, tell us, and we will see to it that it is repaired."
"You cannot repair everything," Delphine answered. Instantly she wished the words hadn't been spoken. She had gotten entirely too used to speaking her mind, spending time with ordinary people!
Her father's mouth twitched in an almost-frown. "Now we're getting somewhere. What manner of problem is it? A personal difficulty, I'd wager. There are always ways of dealing with such things. If nothing else, we can advise you."
Delphine fought to recover her composure and formulate an appropriate reply at the same time.
"I know, Father," she said, schooling herself into a rigid calm. "What I mean is, part of the reason I am here is to learn to conduct my own affairs. That is one thing someone else cannot do for me. If you please, Father, I would prefer to deal with this problem a bit longer before I seek outside help."
"An admirable sentiment," said her mother, not looking completely convinced. Her eyes roved around the room. "You have a comfortable room. Things have improved here since I was a student. Where did you acquire these lovely works of art?"
"They were gifts," said Delphine. "A young man who studies here drew them for us."
"Us?" her mother repeated.
"My roommate and me."
"I see." Once more, her gaze traveled around the room, as if expecting the aforementioned roommate to be hiding in a closet or under the bed. "To be frank, I had expected that they would give you a private dormitory."
"I requested one," Delphine answered, "but there are so many students here this year, there was no room. Some students are staying three and four to a room as it is. I was lucky to have only one."
"Where is she? Surely she knew we were coming," said her mother. "It would only be polite to come meet us."
"I believe she had a class at this hour," Delphine lied. "I am certain she will be here as soon as she can."
"Ah. I see." That was her father speaking. "You two are... compatible?"
Delphine guessed that was his way of saying, "She is like us, isn't she?"
"I am lucky to have her as a roommate," answered Delphine carefully. "She is a young woman worthy of respect."
Her father gave that half-frown again, and once again, Delphine felt sure he was seeing right through her.
"You are becoming a diplomat," he said slowly. "You give replies that sound like answers and tell me nothing of what I want to know."
"Perhaps," said Delphine delicately, "I am misunderstanding your question. Please state your questions plainly, the better that I might answer them."
Her father gave a sigh of exaggerated patience.
"Very well, then," he said. "You will tell me, right now, the station of the young lady you claim as your roommate. Now. Plainly."
Well, there she had it. Delphine realized belatedly that she had just talked herself into a corner. Her only choice now was to give her father the answer he wanted. She steeled herself, took a deep breath, and...
The door burst open, and Cestria dashed in. Her clothing, which had been neatly cleaned and pressed that morning, was now wrinkled and pulled askew. She was breathing in a way that suggested she had been running at top speed for some distance.
"Delphine!" she gasped. "You have to hear - Kaya - he's vanished, he..." She trailed off, catching sighed of Delphine's parents.
"Oh, hello," she said weakly.
"Good afternoon," said Randus. The windows should have frosted over at the tone of his voice. Cestria quailed.
"I hope," said Inimonia, "that this is not your esteemed roommate."
Delphine hung her head. "Yes, Mother, she is."
"This will not do," said her father. "It is a mistake, and it will be corrected at once. Really, Delphinia, you should have reported this to us the moment it happened. We would have had it straightened out in an instant..."
"I did not want you to straighten it out," said Delphine quietly.
"Neither did I," Cestria answered defiantly. "I like Delphine. And she likes me, or at least, I think she does."
"I do," said Delphine. "Mother, Father, please listen..."
"I will not hear it!" said her mother indignantly. "To think that the flower of our family should have sunk so low as to associate with a common garden weed such as this..."
"I am not a weed!" Cestria snapped. "Don't you slander my family that way! Maybe they were just farmers, but they're the ones who slave away to grow the food you eat. Maybe you should try it. Then you'd have something better to do with your time than look down your nose at people."
"Quiet, Cestria, you're not helping," Delphine hissed.
"I don't care," said Cestria. "I'm going to be a Healer someday - if either of them get sick, it would be people like me that they'll call on. Their lives might depend on me someday, and they have no right to go calling me names for it!"
"This has gone far enough!" Randus snapped. "It is obvious a grave error has been made, and justice shall be meted out accordingly. Until then, you, Delphinia, are to be taken home and given some proper instruction, away from this kind of common rabble."
"I will not go home!" Delphine shouted back. "I am staying here! My friends are here. I'm happy here, I belong here. I've learned so much from these people..."
"You have learned bad habits," said her father, "and obviously, defying your parents is one of them. You are going home right this instant, and we will begin looking for a proper tutor for you the moment we get there."
"But - but - but!" There was a clamor as both girls tried to object at once. Randus began shouting things that were largely ignored, and Inimonia gasped inarticulately. At the height of the hubbub, the door opened again, and Cestro appeared in the doorway. Everyone froze. He stood quietly for a moment, sizing up the situation.
"My lord, my lady," he said, bowing smartly to both of the adults. He turned to his friends. "Lady Delphinia, Cestria, we have a problem. Your assistance is needed. Excuse us, please."
Before anyone on either side could stammer a protest, Cestro had taken both girls by the wrists and dragged them out of the room. The door swung softly shut behind them. The lord and lady stared.
"Well!" said Inimonia.
"Who was that?" asked Randus, frowning.
"I do not know, and I do not want to know," his wife replied.
"This is more serious than I had first anticipated," Randus said. "We will speak to the headmaster at once and let him know what we think of his methods of controlling his students."
They swept out of the room and began marching at their fastest swift-yet-dignified pace to the headmaster's office to let him know they were withdrawing their daughter from his care.
They never accomplished their objective.
As soon as they were out of the room, Cestro pulled his friends into a headlong dash, not minding that Cestria had not properly recovered from her last run and that Delphine was hampered by her best dress.
"Where are we going?" Delphine managed to ask between breaths.
"We are searching," he answered tersely. "Kaya has vanished. The lock on my laboratory door was forced - forced by something that left scratch-marks in the metal around the lock. I suspect something more than just a curious fellow student."
"Razorfins?" Cestria guessed.
"Why would they be interested in Kaya?" asked Delphine. "Even as a slave, he cannot be worth very much."
"I begin to have suspicions that he is more than a slave," Cestro replied. He led them around a corner and stopped in a large hall that had smaller passages leading off in several other directions. "We will split up. Even in his improved condition, I doubt he could go far."
The girls nodded and set off down separate corridors. Cestro continued moving forwards, trying to fight the suspicions that were forming in his mind. Kaya had seemed so innocent, so pitiful... of course they would take him into their midst, look after him, take him into their confidence...
*He was so grateful for our help,* he thought. *He was so frightened by the enemy, so happy to be away from him. He wouldn't betray us... not unless the Hydro Hog gave him no choice.*
He dashed around a corridor and nearly collided with Aurico.
"There you are!" he said. "We've been looking all over for you! Corcus found him. He's in a bad way - come and see."
They hurried along the maze of corridors, eventually turning up in one of the lesser-used rooms, a large warehouse primarily used for storing assorted supplies like fabric for clothing and extra light crystals. Corcus and Tideus were crouched on the floor next to a crumpled figure and several rolls of undyed cloth. There was a sizeable dark puddle on the pale floor, and Cestro thought bitterly that no matter how this episode ended, the school's only care would be that Kaya had stained their clean fabric. He knelt next to the fallen figure. His chest was rent with deep gashes, and his breathing bubbled ominously. Cestro shook his shoulder.
"Kaya! Kaya, can you hear me?"
Kaya's eyes flickered open.
"Too late," he whispered. "They've come. I'm sorry..."
"Who has come?" Aurico demanded. "Talk!"
"Razorfins... Told them... the lady's... her parents. Came for them..."
"Delphine's parents?" asked Corcus, aghast.
Kaya nodded. "Told them... were coming here... today. I'm sorry... No choice. He... would've killed... my family... my mate... my children... No choice. I'm sorry. I didn't want...."
He gave a kind of hiccup, and his eyes rolled back in his head. He slumped. The boys watched him a moment, but he didn't move again.
"We will hear no more from him," Cestro pronounced gravely.
"They killed him," Corcus whispered. "Lured him here and killed him so he wouldn't try to warn us..." He looked up, his dark eyes suddenly flashing fury. "I will not allow this!"
"We can do nothing for him now," said Aurico. "What we must do now is get to Delphine's parents before the Razorfins get to them."
"Right," the others agreed. There was a pause.
"Does anyone know where they are?" asked Tideus.
Cestro considered. "The way things were going... I would wager they want a talk with Master Ossodil by now."
The others nodded. They took to their feet, suddenly more anxious than they had ever been to get to the headmaster's office.
Delphine's only warning was a distant scream, making her halt her search for the missing se'kanan and instead look for the source of the cry. It rang out again with new intensity, and she felt her stomach clench as she realize that it was her mother's voice.
*Where would she.... Master Ossodil's office!*
She turned and ran, dashing recklessly around corners and up corridors, and within moments, she had stumbled onto a scene of panic.
A gang of six Razorfins, all of the particularly nasty green variety, were standing in a circle around her parents. Lady Inimonia was looking paralyzed with fear, staring round-eyed at the horrors that surrounded her; her husband was trying ineffectually to shield her with his arm. The Razorfins hadn't appeared to have caused any damage yet - they were having too much fun enjoying the terror they were causing by their mere presence, but it was clear to Delphine that they weren't going to stop at just gibbering and making face.
"Leave them alone," she commanded.
The Razorfins stopped what they were doing, and instead looked up at Delphine with their goggle-eyes bulging and their toothy mouths hanging open as they pondered whether or not they ought to listen to her. Razorfins had been trained to obey an authority figure, and Delphine had quite a commanding presence.
"Delphine! What do you think you are doing? Get out of here?" her father shouted.
"No," said Delphine. "I am going to handle this situation here and now." She closed her eyes and drew herself up to her full height. "Powers of Water, powers of Light, powers UNITE!"
There was a burst of searing white light that made the staring Razorfins suddenly howl in agony as their eyes were assaulted by the blaze. Clamping their clawed hands over their faces didn't help matters any. Their confusion lasted only seconds, but it was all the time Delphine needed. Two of them were destroyed in a single sword stroke before they even had time to realize what was going on. Her parents stared.
"Delphine?" said her father in a strangled voice. "What - what?"
"Later," she answered.
A claw was lashed in her direction, and she jumped - jumped in front of it, taking its force on her armor instead of letting it strike her parents. She parried it with her sword and drove in for a quick kill, but was halted as two more monsters moved in behind her, forcing her to deal with them. She grimaced behind her mask; four against one were still very bad odds, considering they had two hostages to play with.
*Rangers,* she thought fiercely. *I need you here now!*
There was a faint, very faint response: *We are coming.*
Delphine dashed in a fast circle, trying to keep her parents protected on all sides at once, batting Razorfins out of the way as quickly as she could. Without time to aim, she was unable to land any of the devastating blows that would have rid her of her problems, and being everywhere at once was an exhausting task.
A claw slipped past her defense and raked her father across the arm, and he bellowed in pain and shock as blood welled over his fine clothing. Delphine snarled and lunged - and got a foot rammed into her stomach. She staggered backwards...
...and someone caught her.
"Looks like we arrived just in time," said Aurico, propping her back onto her feet. Tideus leaped past them both to ram his sword down the monster's throat, making it explode in a startled burst of sparks.
"You did indeed," she answered.
Corcus dove into the fray and slashed at a second Razorfin, sending it the way of its comrade. The final two tried to escape, but Cestro jumped to intercept them.
"Not today, I think," he said calmly. "Get by me if you can."
Finding themselves caught with fighters on all sides, they did they only thing they knew how to do: rush forward in a helpless charge. Cestro ran one through and tripped the other, sending it sprawling. Corcus walked over and put it out of its misery. Delphine's parents continued to stare. They didn't snap out of their daze until Cestria walked over with her first aid pouch in her hands.
"You are injured," she said to Lord Randus. "I believe gashes like that need a Healer's care."
"I can afford better Healers than some backwater girl!" he snapped. "Delphine, what is this all about? Why - how - how did...?"
"Father," she said, "I have been chosen as one of the Five Lights. I am a Power Ranger now, a defender of the people. All the people - rich and poor, noble and common. My friends and I are as different as the colors we wear, but our purposes are the same. You cannot deny my place here."
"You... are a warrior?" asked her mother faintly. "Couldn't - couldn't someone else do it?"
"No," said Delphine. "Even if they could, I would not back down. You cannot make me. I am learning that. Mother, Father... my destiny is to save the world. Could anything be more noble?"
There was a moment of silence. Delphine waited.
"I understand none of this," said her father at last, "but I can see that there are indeed forces at work that are beyond my control. If this is your choice and you are happy with it..."
"...then I will not try to stop you, much as I might wish matters had fallen out differently. I do not approve of this, but... nevertheless..."
He didn't finish his sentence, but he shifted his feet and looked uncomfortable.
"Thank you, Father," said Delphine. She turned to her friends. "Can we go now?"
"Let's," said Cestro.
There were six flashes of light, and then Lord Randus and Lady Inimonia found themselves standing alone in the hallway. They stood in silence a moment before turning around and walking out of the building.
The Rangers manifested themselves in the inner chamber of Ninjor's hideout and powered down to their everyday selves. They found the mage himself standing before his viewing circle, presumably reviewing their exploits.
"Hello, all," he said. "I had a feeling you might come back here and regroup."
"It has been rather an exhausting morning," said Tideus, finding a projection from the wall and sitting on it.
"I'm all confused," said Cestria. "What just happened here?"
"The long and short of it is, we had a spy in our midst," said Cestro.
"A spy?" Cestria repeated. "Who?"
"No!" she exclaimed. "He wouldn't - he couldn't..."
"He did," Cestro replied. "He managed to tell us some things. From what I gather, he was being forced to spy on us by the Hydro Hog. If he didn't do as he was told, his family was to be killed."
"That's awful!" Cestria exclaimed. "Where is he now?"
"Gone," answered Cestro.
Cestria blinked. "You mean... he escaped?"
Cestro lowered his gaze. "In a manner of speaking."
"The Razorfins got him," said Aurico. "They wanted to make sure he didn't turn on them before they got to Delphine's parents."
"No! You can't mean - he isn't - dead?"
"I am sorry," said Corcus. "There was nothing we could have done. His injuries were too severe."
Cestria closed her eyes, tears trickling down her cheeks.
"I should have been there," she said. "I'm a Healer - I could have done something..."
"Even if we had gotten there at the moment he was injured, nothing could have saved him," said Cestro. "Do not burden yourself with things you couldn't have helped."
Cestria sniffled. "I liked him."
"As did we all," answered Corcus. "All we can do for him now is fight to make sure nothing like this happens again."
"I would be very glad if nothing like this ever happened again," said Delphine.
"You performed admirably today," said Ninjor. "You stood up for what you knew was right, and at a great cost. I am proud to have you as a Ranger."
Delphine smiled weakly. "Oddly, I find your words mean a lot to me... though why I should take you so seriously, I have no idea."
Ninjor laughed. "You're the same as always."
"It would have gone better if I hadn't shouted at your parents," said Cestria.
"You were right to shout. I wish I had shouted a bit more, myself," Delphine replied. "I am proud of you, too, my friend."
Aurico was leaning against a wall, staring off into space, deep in thought.
"The Hydro Hog is growing rather more daring," he said. "Placing a spy in our midst - attempting to capture hostages - or worse. Whatever he comes up with next is going to be worse. We must all be on our guard."
"We were on our guard already," said Tideus. "Look what happened."
"Well, we're just going to have to try harder," Aurico replied.
"What we need," said Cestro, "is a way of communicating with each other and moving quickly from place to place, even when we aren't morphed."
"Such a thing can be done," Ninjor replied. "It's been done quite successfully in the past. You can help. If you aren't doing anything, we can start right now."
"The sooner the better," Cestro agreed.
"Right this way, then," said Ninjor. "Have I ever shown you my workroom? No? Well, then, you're in for a treat! Come on!"
He waved vaguely at a swirl on the wall, which suddenly unraveled itself and turned into a passageway. Ninjor marched through the doorway, with Cestro trotting behind, trying to disguise his eagerness at the prospect of seeing the tools and machines used by a Gridmaster.
Delphine, meanwhile, was striking up a conversation with Aurico.
"Thank you for coming to my rescue earlier," she said.
"It was the least I could do."
"Perhaps," she said. "Perhaps I have been unfair to you... You are worthy of esteem, no matter what my parents would have to say about the matter."
"Do you care what they say?"
"I care about the opinions of my friends more."
"I don't think we want to hear the rest of this conversation," Tideus whispered to Corcus and Cestria. "What do you say we head back home? It won't be very cheerful, but we do have to deal with Kaya's remains. We should be the ones to do it - I think we three knew him best."
Cestria nodded silent agreement. Corcus did likewise. It would be a painful task, he knew, but he had a feeling it would be a lot less awkward than hearing the rest of what Delphine and Aurico were saying to each other.
The next few days were subdued ones for Cestria. She was still feeling down about the death of Kaya - as a Healer in training, she had known objectively that she wouldn't be able to save everyone she treated, but there was a difference between knowing that she had done everything she could and feeling that she could have made a difference if she had just been there. Again, too, it was hard knowing that he would have survived if the Razorfins hadn't come to dispatch him. The worst part was that she had to go through her mourning privately. There was no way she could tell anyone outside her small circle of friends what was wrong.
Cestria wasn't the only one who was less than ebullient. The other Rangers, Tideus and Cestro in particular, were feeling Kaya's loss. On top of that, Corcus was also fretting over the developing relationship between Delphine and Aurico. All of them knew that there had been a shift in the way the two treated each other, though it would have been difficult for an outsider to see. Delphine, proper to the end, was always careful to maintain a cool facade as long as she was in public or even among her friends. That was probably a good thing; it was doubtful just how Corcus would have reacted if they had been more public with their blossoming romance.
To top it all off, the Rangers were now spending more time than ever worrying about what the Hydro Hog's next move would be. Whatever it was, they were sure they weren't going to like it, and they weren't entirely sure they could make any accurate guesses as to what it would be. Aurico spent a lot of time brooding, Tideus stopped making as many jokes, and the girls began suffering from nightmares.
It was a tired and somewhat grouchy Cestria who heard a knock on her door late one afternoon. She had been wrestling for an hour with her homework and getting nowhere with it; the anti-infection cream she was supposed to be concocting was not coming out at all the way the book said it should have, and she was at a loss to figure out what had gone wrong with it. At the sound of the interruption, she shut her book in disgust.
"What is it?" she sighed.
"Cestria? Have I come at a bad time?"
"Oh! Corcus, I didn't know it was you," she said, softening her tone a trifle. No matter how bad her mood was, she could never bring herself to be sharp with him. "Come in. I needed a break anyway."
The door opened, and Corcus peered shyly in. He eyed the collection of jars, bottles, dishes, powders, and liquids that were strewn across her desk.
"Having trouble?" he asked.
"A bit," she answered. "I'm stymied. Don't worry - I think I would have quit soon anyway, if you hadn't come along."
"Oh, good. I mean, not that you're having trouble, but..."
She laughed a bit. "I know what you mean. Don't just stand there in the door like that; I'm not going to bite. Come in. Sit down."
He shook his head. "I don't think so. I mean... actually, I came to ask if you'd like to go somewhere with me."
"Yes." He took a breath and released it, with the air of one who has just finished doing something difficult. "If that's all right with you, I mean."
"I'd like that," she said. "I think that might be just what I need. Where are we going?"
Corcus smiled. "It's a surprise! Come on - we've got to hurry, or we'll miss it!"
He took her hand and began leading her out the door and down the hall, while she scrambled to keep up. By the time she got her feet properly organized beneath her and had adjusted her breathing to running at top speed, she realized they were headed for the aquacraft docks.
"The surface?" she asked between breaths.
"Right," he said. "It's the only place to see it."
"See what?" she asked. "Never mind, I can guess. The surprise, right?"
"Right," he agreed. "Don't worry. This won't take long."
They found a spare aquacraft and climbed aboard. Corcus studied the controls a moment; he didn't use the vehicles as often as Tideus did, and it took him some thought to control them properly. Cestria deemed it wisest to stay silent during the trip - not that she minded. Perhaps it was just the amount of time she had spent helping him with his artwork, the silent hours during which she sat perfectly still and let him draw her, but she was comfortable being silent around him. If it had been anyone else she was traveling with, she might have felt a bit awkward at having nothing to say, but she was never uncomfortable around Corcus.
Just as he promised, the journey to the surface did not take long at all. They were heading for the island closest to the city, no more than a fifteen minute trip. Cestria watched the changing light with interest as they rose closer and closer to the air above. The last time she had come this way, the water had been much brighter than it was now. She also thought the water was moving differently; the plants she saw were tossing vigorously in strong currents. When at last they reached land and stepped out on the beach, Cestria was further surprised at the strength of the wind, and its coolness. The sky, once gloriously blue, had turned an ominous-looking gray.
"This doesn't look good," she said nervously. "Shouldn't we come back some other time?"
"Of course not," he said. "This is what we came to see! There's going to be a storm today, and I wanted to watch."
"Storm?" she repeated. She thought she'd heard of such things before, but...
"Yes," he said. "Water evaporates, collects in the air, and then falls. When there's a lot of it at once, you get a storm. Tideus could explain better how it works, but I'd rather look at it than talk about it, wouldn't you?"
There was a distant roar, like the rush of the waves on the beach, but louder. Cestria jumped closer to Corcus and eyed the sky apprehensively.
"What was that?" she asked.
"Thunder," he said. "It's the sound of the water moving in the sky. It can't hurt you. Just watch, now - watch out there where the clouds were thickest."
Cestria watched. For a moment, she saw nothing but swirling dark vapor, and she wondered briefly if this was all some kind of strange joke, or if it were something that only an artist would appreciate. She certainly saw nothing - and then she saw, and barely stopped herself from jumping again as the cloud shot off a spark of light. There was another crash of thunder.
"Lightning," said Corcus. "Amazing, isn't it?"
Cestria nodded, keeping her eye on the clouds. They seemed to be moving closer. Every few seconds, they would throw down another bolt of lightning, glowing lavender-white against the black clouds, and the whole sky would light up. In a few moments, there was a pattering as water began falling in drops from the sky - Cestria could actually see it as it left rows of pockmarks up the beach, coming closer and closer until they were falling on the two of them. She laughed. The falling drops were pleasantly cool, and they tickled where they touched her skin. Tearing her eyes away from the light show above her, she saw that Corcus was smiling, too, clearly enraptured by the display of natural power. She had to admit, it was a little bit scary being out in the middle of all this, with the wind whipping around her and the storm crashing overhead - but it was undeniably beautiful.
Within a few minutes, the storm had blown itself out, drifting back out to the open ocean and leaving behind only a few puffy pale clouds in its wake, like footprints across the sky. On the beach was a quantity of churned-up sand, a few seashells tossed ashore by the waves, and a pair of students, both soaking wet and breathless.
"What did you think?" Corcus asked.
"I never imagined anything like it," she answered, still watching the retreating storm. From time to time, she could still hear a soft rumbling and see a streak of lightning. "Does it happen often?"
"During certain times of the month, yes," he answered. "This was the first one of the season. I'm hoping to paint one after I see enough of them... but I wanted you to see this one. I hope you liked it."
She met his eyes a moment, then blushed and looked away. "Yes. I did. Thank you."
"Oh," he said. "Good. Um... You know, I've been thinking..."
"Well, this was fun," he said. "I thought it would be nice if we got together to do fun things more often."
"That would be nice," she agreed.
Corcus opened his mouth to say something more, but he never got the chance. Just then, there was a rustling in the shrubbery, as of some large animal, and both of them turned to see what was causing the disruption and hoping fervently that it was nothing dangerous. They were disappointed.
"Well, what have we here?" said the Razorfin. "A couple of young lovers out for a stroll? Aren't you cute!"
"I wish I could say the same for you," said Corcus. "What are you doing here? Go bury yourself in the sand with the rest of the beached fish."
The Razorfin stared hard at Corcus. It began to laugh.
"Wait a minute! I know who you are! You're that stupid Black Ranger! I thought we put you out of commission weeks ago! Well, this is a nice surprise. We knew somebody was dumb enough to come up to the surface, but we never guessed it would be one of you."
"What am I, dried kelp?" Cestria muttered.
"I don't know what you are," said the Razorfin, "but both of you are coming back home with me! Now!"
There was a greenish flash, and a dozen other Razorfins of assorted colors appeared out of nowhere to back up their comrade. Swiftly, Corcus morphed into the Black Ranger. He gave Cestria a push.
"Get back to the aquacraft. I'll protect you," he said.
"I can't just leave you!"
"I'll be fine, now get out of here!"
He gave her another push, and she began running as best she could. The wet sand was slippery and shifted under her feet, and she had never been a fast runner to begin with. Corcus did what he could to hold off the Razorfins, but their numbers were too great for a lone warrior to deal with at once.
*Ninjor, wherever you are, now is a good time for you to come and help!* he thought fiercely.
He wasn't really sure what he was really expecting - he wasn't even totally sure the mage was really going to be able to help in a situation like this. Therefore, he was startled when a small explosion rocked the area, and Ninjor himself appeared in a burst of blue light.
"You called?" he asked. He glanced around the battlefield at the collection of confused- looking Razorfins who were staring at this strange new arrival. "Yes, I see, we do seem to have a problem here. Well, let's see how much I've forgotten in the last few centuries. Come and get me, you lacustrine cretins!"
The Razorfins looked puzzled, but evidently assumed that any words they didn't understand were insulting ones, and those closest to Ninjor moved to attack. He let them get within striking distance before abruptly dropping out of sight, straight down through the ground. The Razorfins ran into each other and toppled backwards in a tangle of arms and legs. Several of them got their hooked fins tangled up, adding to the confusion. Ninjor sprung up again a few yards away and looked at the result.
"Looks like I haven't lost my touch," he said proudly. "All right, enough playing around! Try this on for size!"
Corcus almost forgot to put up his own defense as he watched Ninjor unsheathe his blade and dive into the crowd of monsters. For all his casual attitude, it appeared the mage did know how to put up a real fight. Several Razorfins went up in sparks, dispatched to whatever afterlife there might be for monsters by the edge of his sword.
Even so, the odds were stacked against them, and there was only so much that even the legendary Ninjor could do against so many. There were so many, in fact, that neither of them noticed that the tally was short one monster. The original Razorfin, the green one who had been talking to Corcus earlier had slipped away. Corcus couldn't have known - in the midst of a battle, one Razorfin looked more or less like another - but Cestria recognized his voice when she heard it.
"And just where d'you think you're going, guppy?" he asked.
"Home," she said. She tried to find a way past him, but the beach was narrow, and she had a choice between wading into deep water or trying to escape into the thick forest. She doubted she could get very far either way... and wouldn't a fishy thing like a Razorfin be able to outswim her any day? She wasn't willing to bet it couldn't.
"Right," he said. "My home. The master will be happy to take you in! You'll make an excellent hostage. Come here!"
He made a lunge at her. She evaded his reaching claws, but her feet skidded in the wet sand, and she overbalanced and fell. Immediately, a pair of rubbery arms wrapped around her and scooped her up. Her nose was assaulted by a smell of rotting fish.
"You're coming with me, guppy," he said.
There was a feeling of pressure, as of being beneath a great wave. Then her world went dark.
Cestria came around slowly. She was in a dark place. The air was cold and slightly stuffy. Her head hurt. She was lying on something flat and hard, like metal or stone. She could distantly hear water running. That was as much as she could gather through her confused senses. For a while, she simply lay there, hoping her headache would let up a bit. When it didn't, she decided she probably should get up anyway. She slowly opened her eyes and looked around.
The first thing she saw was a wall. That in itself shouldn't have been very informative, as it was only a roughly carved chunk of gray stone, slick and damp, with growths of blackish-green moss, but it told her all she needed to know. There were no walls like that anywhere near the Halls of Learning, and certainly none like it at Ninjor's temple hideaway. Seeing this wall meant she was in the wrong place, and its grim solidity was a warning that she would not be seeing the right place anytime soon, if she ever saw it again.
Denial born of horror made her close her eyes and curl up in a protective ball. She did not want to believe she was here, that the enemy had her and that she was far away from anything that might protect her. She wanted to think that if she opened her eyes again, she would be somewhere safe - hidden in the temple, maybe, where horrors like the Razorfins would never come. She would be all right, so there was no point in opening her eyes until help came...
She opened her eyes, disgusted at her own foolishness. She pulled herself to a sitting position and forced herself to look around, to orient herself in her new surroundings so she would have no choice but to accept them and deal with them. She was surprised to see that she was not, as she'd first guessed, in a prison cell. True, there was a heavy door between her and whatever lay beyond this room, but who would fill a prison with tables and bottles and tools? There was even a shelf full of books, carefully sealed off from the damp by glass doors. The whole scene was lit from above by glowing glass tubes full of light - rather garish, but effective. To Cestria, it looked unsettlingly like the rooms where she and her fellow students studied the making of medicines. She remembered the stories of how the Hydro Hog had experimented on the se'kanan and shivered.
*No wonder they didn't put me in a cell. They're going to cut me up and use me as spare parts for Razorfins...* she thought giddily. She felt her head spin, and leaned back against the cold wall with her eyes closed, waiting for the faintness to subside.
*This is no time to get hysterical,* she told herself. *Razorfins are stupid. Think fast, and maybe you can still get out of this, or at least stay out of trouble until the others come looking for you.*
She took deep breaths of the stuffy air, trying to get herself back under control. While she was still doing that, the door swung open, and its crash startled her into opening her eyes again. General Coldtooth was standing there, grinning at her with his serrated teeth.
"Well, so, you're awake at last," he said. "Welcome to the home of our master. What, don't you like it? Your people thought it was good enough - good enough to drive our master here and lock him here for centuries. It's about time you were forced to accept what you delivered."
"What do you want with me?" she asked in a near-whisper. She would have liked to sound proud and defiant, but nearly being choked earlier had made her throat sore. Coldtooth took her quietness for fear and laughed.
"What's the matter, girlie - scared we're going to eat you? Well, we might, and we might not," he said. "While you slept, we did a little investigation, finding out who you are. We found a few interesting things in your pockets." He opened a clawed hand, showing her a length of ribbon with a bronze medallion hung on the end. "Things haven't changed much in all these years - they still give out the same old things as badges of qualification. You're a Healer-in-training, aren't you?"
"Give that back!" said Cestria, making an uncoordinated grab for the medallion. Bad enough this slimy thing had been picking her pockets, but she had worked hard to earn that medallion!
"Keep it," Coldtooth said, flinging the medallion contemptuously to the floor. "It won't do you any good here, anyway. You aren't going back to school anymore."
Cestria picked up her medallion. The ribbon had trailed on the damp floor, and it was now discolored in spots where it had gathered mold and slime.
"What's the point of keeping me?" she asked. "I'm no good to you. I'm just a student, no one special..."
"On the contrary," said Coldtooth. "You're a friend of those Rangers. When they find out you're missing, they'll want you back. They'll be willing to bargain."
"They won't do anything stupid just to get me back," she said. "They're too smart to trust you."
"Then they'll leave you here," answered Coldtooth, grinning. "Then it'll be your problem, won't it?"
Cestria bit her lip and stared at the floor. She would not be baited by this fish!
"But that's not why you're here," the general continued. "The master has a special task for you. See, for the longest time, he's been trying to build warriors for himself. So far, he's got one decent specimen..." He paused to buff his armor in a show of mock-modesty. "But he needs more, and going is slow. You're a Healer; you know about how creatures should be put together. You're going to help him design the next wave of soldiers."
"You must think I'm crazy," she said.
Coldtooth shrugged. "Suit yourself. If you don't want to be helpful, we'll just cut you up and dissect you. It's been a while since we've had a genuine Aquitian to work with instead of one of these spineless slaves. Either way, you'll still be a help."
"I - I need a moment to think about it," she said.
"Oh, no you don't," he said. "What you mean is, you want time to see if your friends are coming. No. Either you choose to help us now, or you die. Choose."
There was no arguing when the situation was laid out like that. Cestria took a deep breath, knowing what she had to do.
"I'll help," she said.
The last of the Razorfins went up in a burst of light. Panting, Corcus sheathed his sword and let himself fade from a legendary warrior to an everyday art student. He looked around and saw Ninjor standing some yards away, apparently surveying his work with satisfaction. There was nobody else in sight.
*Cestria must have gotten away,* he thought. That was good. It would be annoying getting back to school without the aquacraft, but at least she was safe.
"Thank you very much for your help," he said, walking over to where Ninjor stood. "I thought I was in trouble for a minute there."
"Think nothing of it," answered the mage with an airy wave of his hand. "It's been a while since I've had a real battle. I rather enjoyed it."
"I was impressed," said Corcus. "I've never seen a real battle-mage in action before. I wish I could learn that."
"Maybe someday I'll give you some lessons," Ninjor answered vaguely. He was looking around as if something had just occurred to him. "By the way, where did Cestria go? She was here a minute ago."
"I believe she must have fled when the Razorfins attacked," Corcus replied. "I lost track of her during the battle, but when I last saw her, she was heading for the aquacraft."
"Hm," said Ninjor. "It wouldn't hurt to double-check. I have a feeling..."
Exactly what he felt was never said, but he began striding up the beach at a speed that was surprising, considering how much weight in armor he was carrying. Corcus had to jog to keep up. The two of them dashed up the beach - and then stopped. The aquacraft was still sitting innocently beside the water, untouched.
"I don't think she's gone home," said Ninjor.
"Well, she couldn't have gone far," Corcus answered, looking around as if he expected her to come walking out of the trees. "We'll have to look for her." He started to move towards the jungle, but Ninjor stopped him with an outstretched hand.
"Wait. Let me finish looking here, first," he said.
While Corcus watched, puzzled, Ninjor began walking slowly along the beach, staring at the sand.
"What do you see?" asked Corcus finally.
"Footprints," Ninjor replied. "A Razorfin stood here." He tapped the ground with his sword. "A body fell here. These appear to be clawmarks. It looks as if she fell, and the beast picked her up and removed her."
"Removed her? Removed her to where?"
"That would be what we need to find out," Ninjor replied. "Come on."
He grabbed Corcus's shoulder, and the next thing the boy knew, he was falling into a vortex of blue light and was gone.
By the flickering, eye straining light that flooded her cell, Cestria tried to read the books she had been left with. Despite her words to General Coldfin, she had no intention of helping these monsters do anything, but she needed time for her friends to find her and rescue her, and in the meantime, she had to look like she was keeping busy. In the meantime, the reading material, though disagreeable, was at least enlightening. She had discovered that the books on the shelf were actually the records of how the Razorfins had been designed. Presumably whoever was in charge of this operation felt very confident about their ability to keep her from escaping to her friends, or else they never would have given her such a rich source of information about how her enemies were constructed. She was determined that she would escape somehow, but in the meantime, she needed to learn as much about them as she could.
So far, though, she had done very little but make herself thoroughly disgusted - and amazed that anything as cobbled-together as those Razorfins didn't fall apart as they stood. The Hydro Hog might be a deadly dangerous foe in combat, but he didn't know the first thing about how a living being ought to be put together. All the major pieces were there - heart, brain, stomach, muscles, and so on - but smaller, more obscure things had been downsized or skipped entirely. Looking at the muddle that had been made of their glands and nervous system, she wondered all over again how the things managed to survive.
*It's a lucky thing I don't plan to stay,* she thought, as she paused to rub her tired eyes. *These creatures don't need a student-Healer; they need a miracle worker. It would take me the rest of my life to undo half this mess.*
She sighed and went back to looking at the book again. No matter what her opinion on the Razorfins' creator was, the fact of the matter was that the beasts did seem to survive, and do so over extended periods of time. How was that? By the pure magic that allowed some mages to bring inanimate objects to life? If that was so, why bother creating life at all? Why not just animate statues or somesuch? No, these things had to have been created with a form of self-sustainment that would allow them to survive without their master constantly pouring more power into them. If only she could learn what it was, maybe she could find a way to break it off...
*What am I thinking? Do I think I can wipe out the Hydro Hog's entire army single handed? That's crazy...*
A wave of dizziness rocked her, and she closed her eyes and pressed her face into her hands. She had been feeling woozy ever since she'd awakened from her involuntary nap, but she'd expected to be over it by now. She was healer enough to know that she hadn't been badly damaged - it had been more shock than anything else that made her faint - so why wasn't she recovering? She swallowed, trying to moisten her dry throat, and rubbed her itching eyes.
*I need to rehydrolize,* she realized. She would have laughed at herself if it hadn't been so serious. Most of the time, living close to the water as she did, the process of drawing strength from the water happened so naturally that she didn't even have to think about it. The only time it needed a conscious effort was when she ventured deep into the city, further from the ocean walls, and had to replenish her strength by the side of one of the many public ponds or fountains scattered around for the purpose.
*There must be water nearby - I can hear it. So why am I not rehydrolizing?*
Puzzled and a bit worried, she folded her hands and attempted to draw the strength from the water she knew must be nearby - and something rocked her, nearly making her topple out of her chair in surprise. Her stomach rebelled as if she had eaten something noxious, and she could feel her eyes and nose begin to stream. Immediately she broke out of her meditative stance to attend to her more immediate problems. Breathing fast and fighting back nausea, she tried to get herself back under control.
"Poison?" she whispered.
Unsteadily, she got to her feet and began making a methodical search of the room. The entire time she'd been there, she'd been hearing the regular dripping of water. Water was such a part of her life that she barely thought about it, and had blocked out the sound while she'd worked. Now she searched for it. At last, she found a drip from the ceiling, and she held out her cupped hands to catch a bit. It puddled in her palms, and she stared at it, frowning. Then she carried it over to the light and looked again. The water was black. Not darkened by the room's shadows, as she had thought at first, or polluted by grime or mold, but black, black as ink. She didn't know how such a thing could be, but she was willing to bet her diploma that the stuff wasn't wholesome.
She dumped the pernicious stuff on the floor and wiped her hands vigorously on her skirt, leaving behind a set of dark stains, but that was the least of her worries. She went and rattled on her door.
"Guard! Guard!" she shouted. Her voice sounded thin and weak in her ears. Already it rasped a bit from thirst. It would be a wonder if anyone heard her.
The door, at least, rattled and clanged loudly enough to catch anyone's attention, and soon, an irritated-looking greenfin soldier came slogging up the hall to see what she wanted.
"What's all that noise, prisoner?" he grunted. "You're waking us up."
"I need water," she said.
"You've got water," he said. "It's all over the place. Use it."
"I can't. I mean, I need clean water, like from the outer ocean," she said.
"You can't have it. Get back to work."
"Please," she begged. "If I don't get it soon, I'll be too sick to work."
The greenfin stared at her through the barred window, and she waited, afraid to look too eager lest he decide to refuse out of pure malice. Luckily, either he was too stupid to think of such a thing, or he just didn't want her to die before his master decided whether or not to kill her, because he grunted and said, "If you have to have it..." and shuffled off.
Cestria went limp with relief. There was one hurdle cleared, at least. With a sigh, she went back to her books to try to concentrate on her work until he returned. She wouldn't let herself think he would change his mind, or forget, or be unable to...
Her eyes stung her again, and she blinked furiously.
*You can't cry now,* she scolded herself. *You'll waste what water you've got, and for what? Feeling sorry for yourself? That's fair stupid, and you know it. Work!*
She shook her head at her own foolishness and went back to her studies. All around her, the dark water dripped and gurgled, becoming ever harder to ignore the drier and thirstier she felt. It was torment being so surrounded by water and being dehydrated at the same time! Further down the tunnel, she could hear the mutterings and grumblings of the Razorfin soldiers.
*I could almost feel sorry for the brutes,* she mused. *How do they ever stand living down here?*
Many miles away, one of Cestria's schoolmates was also deeply involved in his studies. Tideus was sitting in his room, his nose buried in a book as he tried to extract the most pertinent points for a paper he was writing. He'd never enjoyed writing, being more inclined to do things than to want to tell people about them, and he was torn between wishing everyone in the school would be quiet so he could concentrate, and wishing something would come up so he wouldn't have to do this anymore.
The door flew open, and Tideus looked up and glared at Corcus.
"This had better be good," he said.
"It's bad," Corcus panted, clutching at a stitch in his side. "Cestria's gone. The Razorfins got her."
"What?" Tideus yelped. "When? How? For goodness' sakes, why?"
"For ransom, or something like it, I'll bet," Corcus replied. "I've already told most of the others. Do you know where Aurico is? We've got to get to Ninjor right away and figure out how to rescue her!"
"I'll find him. He's probably at the training yard," Tideus replied. "We'll meet you at the temple."
Corcus nodded his understanding and raced off again. The sooner they were all together and working on the problem, the sooner he could relax a little. Unproductive as he knew it was, he couldn't help mentally berating himself for letting this happen. If only he hadn't brought her to the surface... if only they'd had someone with them... if only he had called for help sooner... if only he'd kept a closer watch on her...
Well, too late for that now. Now the only option was to find her, find her before her time ran out. He didn't want to even think about what might be happening to her now. She was probably locked up in some cold, dark cell right now. Could they be torturing her, or...? Breathless as he was, he pushed himself to run faster.
He reached a courtyard where Delphine and Corcus were already waiting for him, fidgeting.
"I found Tideus, and he says he'll bring Aurico soon as he finds him," Corcus gasped.
"Then we can leave at once," Cestro replied.
The others nodded. In a flickering flash, the three of them vanished.
An eyeblink later, they reappeared in the secret chamber beneath the temple. Ninjor was already waiting for them, pacing the floor in impatience or frustration. Seconds later, Aurico and Tideus joined them.
"What's going on?" Aurico asked. "Tideus only said there was an emergency."
"Cestria's been kidnapped," said Corcus bitterly. "I tried to protect her, but..."
"We'll have none of that here," said Ninjor, cutting him off. "Doubt and self-blame are as much tools of the enemy as their guns and swords. You did everything you could be expected to do, under the circumstances. I won't hear you telling us how it's all your fault when we all know it isn't."
Corcus stared at him a moment, startled. Then he relaxed.
"I know, you're right," he said. "I just feel like I ought to have done something..."
"Do something now," Delphine suggested. "Have we made any attempt to ascertain where Cestria is now?"
It was Ninjor's turn to look dejected. "Some, unfortunately."
"Why is that unfortunate?" Cestro asked.
"Because it wasn't good news. I was able to trace the energy trail left by her teleportation... and it leads directly to the Black Ocean."
Uneasy looks were exchanged. The Black Ocean was a place out of legends, said to be home to every kind of monster imaginable. It was said any Aquitian who ventured into that place would never return. It was the place where all their childhood nightmares resided, the punishment threatened when they had been disobedient as children. "If you don't behave, I'll send you to the Black Ocean!" "Unless you want to live in the Black Ocean, you had better clean your room!" Even now that they were supposed to be too old for that kind of nonsense, the name was still synonymous with every horror, real and imagined, they had ever heard of.
"The Black Ocean," said Tideus slowly. "Well, why not? Every other kind of unpleasant legend seems to be coming true. Why not that one?"
"I am speaking of the Ocean of legends," said Ninjor, "and like every legend, it has some basis in fact and a great deal in exaggeration. The Black Ocean covers an area of deep water, marked by a trench reaching deep into the planet's crust. Over the years, toxic chemicals have leached out of this rock, turning the water black and poisoning nearly everything that lives there. A natural reef has blocked off most of this black water, and generations of spells have helped to prevent the poison's spread. Your people no longer have to worry about it, these days... except that it was chosen as the place where the Hydro Hog would be imprisoned. They thought he would eventually be poisoned by the black water, but he seems to have adapted to it."
"What about Cestria?" asked Delphined.
"I am afraid she won't fare so well. Without clean, fresh water, she won't last long down there."
"Then we have to go get her now, before she gets too dehydrated," said Aurico.
"And how would you rehydrolize there?" Ninjor asked.
Everyone glanced at each other. Aurico scowled his chagrin.
"You won't be able to survive there for very long," said Ninjor, "so it is imperative that you plan your movements before you try anything. Your power suits will protect you from the poison's effects for a little while, and I can offer you some magical protection, but it will take most of what I can muster to get you past the Hydro Hog's warning spells without triggering them. I can't promise you'll be safe there for more than, say... the equivalent of one of your marks."
"That little time?" asked Tideus. "Some of my classes last longer than that!"
"It's the best I can do! I'm a Gridmaster, not a deity," said Ninjor in frustration. "I can do a great deal given enough time to prepare, but if you want to hurry, you'll have to settle for a bit less than my best."
"I'm sorry," said Tideus. "I didn't mean to insult you."
Ninjor nodded acceptance of the apology.
"Now, I'll tell you what we need to do," he said. "Somehow, we're going to have to work out exactly where she is, so you can be transported as close to her as possible, grab her, and get her out in a hurry. You'll have to be careful. No doubt there will be guards posted, and she will probably be in a weakened condition by the time you get to her. If that's the case, you might have to revive her before you can transport her - otherwise, the shock of teleporting might be too much for her. Does everyone understand?"
The others nodded. Tidues muttered softly, "Just when we could have used some healing expertise... wouldn't you know it would be for our Healer!"
Cestria was alerted to the fact that she had company by the sound of something sloshing. She looked up from her studies to see the green Razorfin standing outside, holding a large jug of water.
"Is this enough?" he grunted.
"I - yes, that will be fine," she answered, a little surprised.
"Good. I wasn't gonna go back and get you any more," the Razorfin replied. He opened the door, quickly shoved the jug inside, and slammed it again. "Disgusting! Don't know how you people stand this stuff."
Cestria pounced on the bottle eagerly and uncorked it. Sure enough, it was full to the top with clean, cool water. She rehydrolized as quickly as she could, then carefully poured out a bit for her to drink and wash her hands. Anyone as closely linked to water as her people were appreciated being clean.
*It's puzzling,* she mused, as she carefully resealed her precious water supply. *Who would have thought that anything as fishlike as the Razorfins would be averse to water? They're linked to us, somewhere far back along the line - you'd think they would depend on it as much as we do...*
Something sparked in the back of her brain. Immediately, she dashed back to the books she'd been flipping through and turned all the way to the back of the nearest volume. As she'd hoped, there was a rough index, and she ran her finger down the columns until she found the word "water." She turned rapidly to the page number indicated and began reading the entry.
"...been having trouble keeping the kinus-paric together," she muttered, reading aloud from the book. "Let's see here... tried to find a way to make them draw power from the water like those Aquitians do... need a way to make them work with the black water... That's it! The Razorfins take their power from this black stuff like we draw power from water! They have to have it to survive... When we attacked that Razorfin back at the jewelry shop, even its blood was black, like the water here. I wonder what it would do if I introduced them to some real water?"
She stared at the water jug thoughtfully. It was possible that they didn't like plain water just because they had always known the black water and considered anything else strange... but there was also a slim chance that they might have some kind of adverse reaction to it... maybe even enough to do real damage.
*No point in taking risks,* she told herself. *Patience. Make sure you know what you're doing before you try anything fancy.*
She knew what that meant: more research! She thought she might qualify for a journeyman-Healer's silver medallion just for surviving this. If she survived. Oh, well... back to work!
Time slipped by. It was uncomfortable in the cell, penetratingly cold and too damp for even an Aqutian's comfort. Her fingers were beginning to stiffen up from the chill, and she rubbed her hands together to try to warm them. It didn't help much. It was difficult to even turn the pages of the book, much less read it. Much of it was in an antiquated script, and the language was equally difficult to read. Delphine had taught her a little of the old speech - it was commonly used for legal terms and other formal terminology - and it was still used for most medical terms, but even so, there were still whole sections she couldn't make heads or tails of. It didn't help that whoever had written this had meant his works as notes to himself, not to be easily read by a frightened student-Healer.
After a time, there was a rattle of keys, and Cestria turned, expecting to see Coldtooth returning, or perhaps one of the other soldiers checking up on her. She hardly dared to hope it would be her friends. Would they bother with keys? She stared intently at the door as it swung slowly open.
"So, this is the best hostage my slobbering soldiers could dredge up," said the Hydro Hog, fixing her with a goggle-eyed glare. "Huh! I've seen more impressive stuff washed up on the beach!"
Cestria was speechless. She had never seen this creature before, but she knew just by his speech and bearing that he was no soldier. He had the swagger of someone in authority, and despite his repulsive appearance, there was a coherency to him that his lesser creations didn't have. She tried not to grimace as he plodded inside, bringing a heavy, fishy odor into the room. Confronted by this hulking, bloated figure, Cestria felt she was being pressed against the wall. The monster set his pudgy fists on his hips and stared down at her, and she cringed away from him.
"Looks like you're having fun," he said, surveying the heap of books on her table. "Having fun, are you? Learning a lot, I'll wager. Aren't you?"
She managed a timid, "Yes?"
"Finding out everything you can about my Razorfins, are you?"
"Planning on helping me improve them, isn't that right?"
With a brusque movement, he swept his arm across the table, scattering the books and instruments. Cestria ducked out of the way, squeaking in fright, as his hand came dangerously close to striking her. The Hydro Hog laughed soggily.
"Yeah, sure, I believe that!" he said. "The best friend of the Power Ranger is gonna help me - voluntarily! That's a good one!"
He reached out and grabbed her by the chin, jerking her head around and up so she was staring him in the face. He was grinning, showing off badly-aligned sets of jagged teeth.
"You listen," he said. "You might fool my stinking soldiers with your act, but you aren't fooling me! You're in here trying to figure out how to undo all my hard work, aren't you?"
Cestria remained silent; his massive hand had her jaw immobilized.
"Well, I'm wise to your tricks, little girl. You're gonna sit here and do your work. Find out whatever you want - but... I'm gonna keep an eye on you. In a few minutes, I'm gonna send somebody in here to check on you, and you'd better have something good to tell him, understand?"
She gave a tiny nod.
The Hydro Hog laughed. "I know what you're thinking. You're gonna just make something up, aren't you? Just make any old thing up to try to keep me in murky water. You're gonna forget that I made all these Razorfins myself, and I'll know if you start lying to me. Got it?"
It was on Cestria's tongue to say that if he really had known exactly what was and wasn't good for the Razorfins, he would have built them better in the first place. She concentrated on making it look like she was taking him seriously. It wasn't hard; the way he was twisting her head was painful, and she was sure he could snap her neck like she would break a sewing thread, if he took a notion.
"You're gonna behave, girlie," he said. "Just so you know, anything you decide to try on my soldiers, you're gonna have to prove is safe. Do you know how you're gonna do that?"
She shook her head.
"Anything you dish out, you'll have to take yourself first! How about that, huh?"
He didn't wait for an answer. He gave her a shove that sent her toppling to the floor, banging her elbow on the stone floor. She yelped in pain, and he laughed.
"First lesson," he said. "That'll be the least of what you feel if you haven't got something to show for yourself soon."
She remained silent. Slowly, she got to her feet and climbed back into her chair. The Hydro Hog glared at her suspiciously, as if still suspecting rebellion, but he said nothing. With many a glance over his shoulder, he plodded out of the room and slammed the door behind him. Cestria devoted her attention to re-gathering her notes. If his visit had been meant to scare her into obedience, he was mistaken. One part of his warning stuck in her mind: she was now on a time limit, and probably a short one. In the next few minutes, she was going to have to find a way to stop a Razorfin.
"I think we've found her."
The other Rangers, who had been fidgeting at one of the tables or aimlessly pacing the floor, looked up at Cestro. He and Ninjor had been hard at work scanning for Cestria's exact location. It was proving to be a difficult task. Between the spell that held the Hydro Hog captive, the monster's own magic, and the influences of the Black Ocean itself, locating anything down there took a certain amount of finesse. Even now the readings they were getting were fuzzy.
"You have?" Corcus was on his feet in an instant. "Where? Where is she? Is she all right?"
"Yes, we have," said Cestro, "and she appears to be in a containment unit not very far from the Hydro Hog's own lair, so we shall have to be very careful about how we go about rescuing her. The last thing we want is to catch his attention."
"To answer your last question, she seems to be holding up well," said Ninjor, noting that Corcus did not look especially comforted by Cestro's explanations. "Her energy signature is still strong, even through all this interference. She's probably all right."
"But her chances of staying that way are diminishing the longer we stay here," said Delphine. "Are we ready to depart?"
"I am," said Aurico.
"I think you are," said Ninjor. "I will transport you as close to Cestria's location as I can manage. I've done what I can to boost your power suits' protection, but don't stay there a minute longer than you have to, understood?"
The Rangers nodded.
"Fine," he said. "Make your transformations. I'll take care of the rest."
"Thank you," said Delphine, nodding to him. "Now, to work! Powers of Water, Powers of Light, powers unite!"
There was a burst of light, just as always - but the light turned to darkness, and their vision filled with impressions of blue-black waves and swirling shadows. For a moment, they felt as if they were lost, floating in some bottomless space, and then...
Then they were spilling out onto a cold stone floor. They landed badly, bumping knees and elbows as they were unceremoniously dropped from a foot or two off the ground. Had it not been for their protective suits, they would have been badly bruised. They carefully picked themselves up and looked around.
"Am I still here?" said Corcus vaguely.
"It was rather a difficult trip," Cestro answered, sounding breathless, "but we still seem to be in one piece."
"Where are we now?" asked Tideus, looking around. The scenery was uninformative; they were standing in a long, shadowed hallway, made primarily of curved walls bolstered by arches, like the ribcage of some strange animal. There were no visible lamps, but the walls had a blue sheen to them, as of some type of fungus, which cast faint illumination. There were no doors, and both directions looked exactly the same.
"Judging by the maps we were studying," said Cestro, "I believe this is a secondary hallway, just off the hall that leads to the Hydro Hog's inner sanctum. If we follow it in one way, it will lead us there; the other way will eventually bring us to the passage where Cestria is being held."
"Well, which was is which?" Aurico demanded.
"That's just it. I don't know."
"A fifty-fifty chance," Delphine murmured. "We'll just have to choose. Tideus - your luck is usually good. Which way would you go?"
The Yellow Ranger glanced one way and the other.
"Behind us," he said. "Considering the way things have been going, it would have been too much to hope we'd land pointing in the right direction."
"Fair enough," said Delphine. "We'll go that way. Quiet, now."
Moving as softly and stealthily as they knew how, they began inching their way down the dark passage.
The labels on the bottles of chemicals, at least, were easy to read. A thousand years hadn't changed the symbols the Aqutiains used to identify things like silicon or carbon. Cestria wanted neither, so she passed by the jar of purified sand and another full of black powder, before finally choosing a large vessel full of some brilliantly white substance. She lifted it carefully - it was made of smooth glass, and was too large for her small hands to manage easily - and set it down on the table, where she could pry it open. Already set out on the desk was a large bowl full of some faintly pinkish substance. She checked her notes again; the amount of chemicals needed had been figured out precisely. Too much of the white stuff in the jar, and it would be deadly. Carefully, she began spooning white powder into the bowl and stirring it.
There was a knock at her door. She looked up, feeling her stomach clench.
*Let's hope this works!*
"Hey, you!" barked the authoritative voice of General Coldtooth. "You ready in there yet?"
"I'm just finishing," she said.
"Humph. I'll believe it when I see it," he said, shoving the door open.
"You'll see it, you'll see it," she said. "Look, there it is, right there, see?"
Coldtooth eyed the mixture she had made. The pinkish stuff in the dish didn't look all that impressive, and Cestria knew it.
"And what," he growled, "is that supposed to be?"
"It's like - it's like medicine," she said, trying desperately to think of ways to explain medical terms to this creature. "I've been going over the plans for the creation of the Razorfins, and there are some problems with hormonal imbalances that need to be corrected for you to function at your best."
"So you say," Coldtooth muttered.
"It will work," she said. "It just has to be injected into your bloodstream to do its work."
"Oh, no you don't," he said. "I don't trust you for one minute. You're trying to pull a fast one on old General Coldtooth, aren't you?"
"No, never! Don't you think I know you could bite my head off if you felt like it? I'm just trying to stay alive," she said.
"Well, then," he said, "I suppose you know what the master said - whatever you concoct, you have to take it first. Right?"
She nodded. "I'll prove its safe. Just watch."
With a hand that shook slightly out of nervousness, she reached for one of two sterilized needles that were resting on the desk, filling it partway with some of the pink mixture. Then, gritting her teeth, she pressed the needle into her skin and injected the liquid. Coldtooth watched her carefully. Nothing bad seemed to happen.
"See?" she said. "Harmless."
Coldtooth still did not look particularly impressed.
"It probably doesn't do anything," he said.
"You won't know if you don't try it," she said.
"You watch your mouth. This is General Coldtooth you're talking to."
"I'm sorry. If you don't want it, I can try to fix something else..."
"Never mind that - give it here! And no funny stuff, or..." He flexed his claws meaningfully.
Cestria hurriedly took the second syringe and filled it. Coldtooth watched her suspiciously.
"You put more in this time," he said.
"You're bigger than me," she said. "I only took a little, to show you it wouldn't hurt, but it will take a lot more to show any real difference."
"You're up to something," he said.
"If that's what you want to believe," she said. "Maybe your master will let someone else try it instead?"
"Hey, are you saying I'm a coward?"
"Of course not. I'm just saying you don't have to try it if you don't want to."
I said I was going to take it and I'm going to take it! Go on - do whatever it is you have to do, and make it snappy!"
"All right. Hold your arm out, please."
Coldtooth held out his arm, and Cestria carefully pressed the needle to the vein in his arm, watching as the pink liquid slowly drained out.
"That should do it," she said.
"I don't feel any different," he said. "Are you sure that stuff worked?"
"It might take a minute to have any effect," she said. She tried not to let her nervousness show - or at least, to let him think that her nervousness was about fear of not pleasing his master. According to her carefully made calculations, the concoction she'd injected him with should have been enough to send him into shock, if not kill him outright. Unfortunately, the records she'd been left with had not been concerned with the making of the Hydro Hog's most advanced creation - either he didn't want such information falling into her hands, or it was only the greens and silvers he felt needed improving. If it turned out that he was sufficiently different from them that her potion wouldn't work...
In that moment of silence, there was a sound. It was not a very loud sound - in fact, if the two of them had still been conversing, they wouldn't have heard it at all over the constant trickling of water. However, they did hear it, and both of them turned their attention towards it. It was a soft annoyed mutter, as someone might make if they had stumbled and bumped into something when they were trying to be stealthy. Both Cestria and the general could tell it hadn't been made by a Razorfin or a se'kanan.
"So," Coldtooth whispered, his voice a sibilant hiss, "they're here."
"Oh no," said Cestria.
The general laughed. "The fools! They're here to try a rescue! As if they could get away with it right under our master's nose! Well, we can't have that. Come on!"
"What? Why me?"
"I want you where I can see you, that's why! You'll try something if you know your friends are nearby, but they won't do a thing as long as I've got you in my clutches. Quit arguing! Move!"
One clawed hand was clapped on her shoulder; she could feel his talons pricking her skin, hard enough to draw blood. She staggered forward, beginning to feel faintly panicky. There was still power in that grip, more than a mere Aquitian ever had. If her potion hadn't worked...
The door to Cestria's cell was flung open with a reverberating crash, and the Rangers looked up in alarm. Just moments ago, Cestro had slipped in an invisible patch of dampness on the floor, and all of them had been waiting to hear if anyone had heard the noise from that misstep. The clanging door affirmed their worst fears.
"They've heard us," said Corcus in a panicked whisper. "We're never going to find her now. They're going to come and get us..."
"Stay calm!" Delphine snapped, not even bothering to stay quiet. "We've come this far, and we are not going to back down now!"
"That's right," said a distant - but rapidly nearing - voice. "Go ahead and swim into our nets like the good little fish you are."
Aurico tensed; he remembered that voice. "General Coldtooth!"
The general oozed out from around a corner, grinning at them all with his sharklike teeth.
"That's right. Nice of you to remember my name. Can't say I bothered to do as much for you. It's not like I'll be needing it for much longer, anyway. Come to bargain for your little friend, have you?"
"We make no bargains with the likes of you," Delphine replied. "You stole her, so we've come to steal her back. That is fair, is it not?"
"Oh, I don't think you're going to be doing any stealing," said Coldtooth, widening his grin. From behind the corner, he hauled Cestria, jerking her in front of him and laying his claws to her throat. Corcus tried to move towards her, but the others held him back.
"That's right," Coldtooth sneered. "One false move, and no Healer alive will be able to save her. You're going to bargain, all right, if you want her alive at all."
Delphine regarded him warily. "I should have expected tactics like this from one such as you. What do you want from us?"
"Oh, I don't know," he said. "We'll have to talk it out with my master. Maybe he'll have you trade one of your own for her, or maybe he'll just have you turn over your powers to him, or..."
He trailed off suddenly, frowning. To the observing Rangers, it seemed that he was feeling uncomfortable. He swallowed a few times, as if his throat was dry, and his hands were beginning to tremble. Now that all was silent, they could hear that his breath was rasping in his throat.
"What... what is this?" he stammered. He glared at Cestria, eyes bulging. "You! You did this, you..."
At that moment, Cestria performed a quick twist, wrenching herself free from his grasp, at the same time elbowing him very hard in the stomach. He gasped as the breath was knocked from his lungs, and he sank to his knees, clawing vaguely at the air. Cestria scooted for the safety of her friends.
"Aurico taught me how to fight, too, you know!" she shouted back at him.
He didn't answer; he no longer seemed to have any breath in his body. He stared at her a moment longer, his gaze one of pure hatred. Then he slumped to the floor and lay still, until he finally broke up into blue sparks and vanished. The Rangers stared, first at the place where he used to be, then at Cestria, who was standing and trembling, breathing as if trying to hold off a fit of hysterics.
"Cestria?" asked Delphine gently. "Are you all right?"
Cestria remained still for a moment longer, biting her lip and shivering. Then the dam broke, and she flung herself at her friend and buried her face against her shoulder.
"I want to go home," she said.
"I think we can manage that," answered Cestro. "Let's get out of this nasty place so we can regroup."
The others agreed wholeheartedly, and in a flash, they were speeding back to the safe white haven of the temple.
Ninjor was pacing the floor when the Rangers returned from their trip. He was rather startled by this - largely because they almost didn't have enough power to make it back to the temple, and landed by falling from some five feet off the floor. Cestria reappeared by falling almost on top of him, and he almost couldn't react fast enough to catch her. The others did not have such easy landings, and fell in undignified heaps on the floor. That was as much as their abused power systems could take, and they reverted back to their ordinary selves.
"Warn me before you do that!" said Ninjor.
"Believe me," said Tideus, getting up stiffly and rubbing at his bruised backside, "we didn't do it on purpose."
"Um. Well," said Ninjor. "But I see you did indeed accomplish your objective. Hello again, young lady. Welcome back."
"Thank you," she answered, still sounding somewhat shaken. "Um... no offense, but could you put me down, please?"
"Oh! Of course." He carefully placed her back on her feet. She immediately headed for one of the nearby benches and sat down.
"Are you all right now?" asked Corcus anxiously. "They didn't hurt you, did they? You didn't get dehydrated, did you?"
"I'm fine," she answered. "I'm just a little... a little tired, is all. Really."
"Don't pick on her," said Delphine. "She's had a difficult afternoon. She needs to collect herself."
"Can she tell us what just happened, while she's collecting herself?" asked Cestro. "I won't be happy until I know why General Coldtooth dropped dead for no evident reason."
"General Coldtooth is dead?" asked Ninjor, sounding surprised. "How in the name of all powers did that happen? I didn't think you all were up to starting any battles down there, especially with the likes of him."
"They didn't kill him," answered Cestria. "I did."
Ninjor's blink of surprise was almost audible. "You?"
She nodded. "I poisoned him."
"Poisoned him? With what?" asked Cestro. "I can't imagine they'd just let you have poisons down there, not if they thought you would be going around killing Razorfins with them."
"They didn't know," Cestria explained. "The Razorfin constructs... well, whoever made them didn't know much about biochemistry, and he did a bad job of it. He wanted me to fix the problems, because I'm a Healer, and I do know those things. He gave me some of the plans he used to make them, and I used them to learn where the Razorfin's weaknesses are. It turns out, they had to be made to withstand the toxic water they have down there - they're dependent on it. On the other hand, plain old ocean water is as toxic for them as it is healthy for us. I mixed up a batch of salt water, with a little harmless coloring to make it look better, and convinced him it was good for him, and he took it. For a minute, I thought it wouldn't work, but I guess it just took a little while to take effect."
She finished her explanation and looked around. Everyone was staring at her with blank amazement. Tideus broke the silence by laughing.
"So much for us needing to rescue you!" he said. "You've outdone all of us today!"
"I have?" she asked.
"Absolutely," said Ninjor. "For one thing, you single-handedly defeated our enemy's most powerful and intelligent soldier. It will take him a long time to replace such a loss. For another, you've learned valuable information about how to battle the rest of his forces. Your bravery and intelligence has in all probability saved your friends many difficult and dangerous battles. The world of Aquitar is in your debt."
Cestria blushed vividly. "I wasn't thinking about any of that. I was so scared, I just wanted to get away..."
Delphine set a hand on her shoulder. "You behaved as a true hero. We are all proud to have you among us."
"The battle isn't over yet," said Ninjor solemnly. "The Hydro Hog is still out there, and he won't take any of this kindly. He will try to retaliate. The day may even come when he escapes his prison entirely. You must all continue to be on guard. However... if what I've seen today is any indication, I believe you will triumph."
"We will," answered Delphine, "with the help of our friends."
She smiled at Cestria, who smiled back. Just now, she could believe Ninjor's words were true. These people, her dear friends - proud Delphine, gentle Corcus, brave Aurico, clever Tideus, wise Cestro, and of course their eccentric mentor - they would prevail. Even more importantly, she was sure now that she'd be helping them every step of the way.