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By Etcetera Kit

Chapter Eleven: Searching Starlight III

It is time…

She smiled, raising her face to the warm sun. The five had come together—the time had come for them to know their calling, know what they were up against. The animal spirits had gathered in the field before her, as their humans were sleeping. Her gaze went from the bear—the largest and most fearsome—to the turtle—the smallest. The five had to learn to use their animal spirits, both as protectors and pieces of themselves. The wolf and the tiger stood serenely, side by side, already acknowledging the kinship between their humans. The hawk flew amongst the trees above them, a joyful shriek being heard every few moments.

Souls hesitant of attachment…

Who was it shouted with joy when blue was born?

Princess, the tiger said, stepping forward. We are prepared. We will do what we must.

"I know," she replied, a sad smile on her face. "They have a long journey to make and time is growing short."

They already feel the lost time.

"Their elements are warning them—there is still time to train them. As the moonlight is awakened and the fire is brought to the Light, they will feel the balance regain."

But that is not all.

"No, it's not." She turned to the wolf. "You know what to do if the worst should happen," she said softly. "You have protected many… you know where to find the ancient warrior?"

The wolf inclined his head towards her. Yes, Princess.

"He will help you." She let out a long breath, hoping that it would not come to that. Merrick—the ancient warrior, the lunar wolf—he would know what to do if the five could not succeed, if the chaos shattered the fragile magic. There was another way, but it was a dark road of destruction, not the healing balm that the five could offer. "I must descend to the earth," she continued.

The protectors fell into a bow. Holding out her hands, five animal crystals appeared there. While the animal spirits dwelt with their humans, the crystals were the ultimate attachment. For an animal to bestow his crystal on a human was the bond that kept them together for life or until the crystal was passed on. The five animals disappeared, to rejoin their humans on the earth below. She stared at their spot in the meadow for a moment. This had to work—they were the last and only hope.

Closing her eyes, she saw the five, gathered around a breakfast table. Most were eating. Wolf was pushing food around on his plate, while Tiger paced, cup of coffee in hand. The trust and friendship would come, but it would be slow. So many of them were afraid of losing those dear to them, afraid of unspoken words and afraid of… living.

The Animarium was her home, her sanctuary. She had not left it in many years. During the latest org uprising, she had only left a handful of times—most were related to Merrick, but the other was due to the orgs. The orgs were gone, defeated… She had nothing to fear, except for the five and the earth. If they failed, Merrick would do what had to be done. He was familiar with the twisted roads of evil and madness. He wouldn't rise from that madness, but the earth would be saved. No…

She couldn't think of that. The five had just met. They had fledging control over their elements, most of them. They were slowly turning the pages… She still had some of her powers as a princess of Animaria. Opening her eyes, she concentrated on the specific geographical location that she had to find. The enchantments on the ninja school were similar to the ones the ancient warriors of Animaria used on their camps, concealing the locations from the orgs. The ninjas had extended the charm to include all who were not ninjas.

Unraveling the charm to gain access for just herself, she felt herself being transported from the Animarium to the bluff that overlooked the ninja school. It was still early morning, the sun had not yet come up. One person was awake in the fading moonlight. His haggard face showed signs of little or no sleep. He had just taken a drag on his cigarette, the smoke exhaling forcefully as his blue-gray eyes alighted on her.

Tiger… I have come.

"Tate, out of bed! Now!"

Sky groaned as someone shook him forcefully awake. The light in his room was still gray, meaning that it wasn't time to get up. Rolling over, he took in Billy standing over his bed, looking like he hadn't slept at all. He picked up the travel clock. "It's five thirteen in the morning," he pointed out, his voice thick from sleep.

"I'm well aware of the time—get up."


"We have a breakfast guest."

"Ethan and Tori have class at eight today," he mumbled, pulling his blankets around his head and burying his face in his pillow.

"It's not them—it's the princess from last night."

"You lie."

"Generally, no, I don't lie. Get your ass out of bed." There was a pause. "Weren't you saying just yesterday that you had to get up at this hour for some of your shifts at SPD?"

Damn—when he was right, he was right. Sky sat up, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes and searching over the side of the bed for some of his abandoned clothes. He was getting into a bad routine here. Granted, he was still up by seven or eight, but five had been his usual wake-up time for years. Now that he thought about it, he wasn't sure what he thought he could accomplish at five in the morning that he couldn't accomplish at night.

"We'll be in the kitchen," Billy told him.

"You're putting a princess in the kitchen?" Sky called after him.

"Sue me!" came the retort as the door to his room was shut.

He sat in bed for a moment, blinking and trying to bring his mind into total awareness. A time frame for when he had to be in the kitchen hadn't been given—and he needed to shower and shave before thinking about going into public. Not that Billy cared. Chad wouldn't say anything, but it'd be polite. Throwing off the blankets and fighting a shiver, he got out of bed and padded across the semi-dark room to the bathroom.

Under the warm spray of the shower, he felt the grogginess leave him. So Chad and Billy had gotten here yesterday and both had managed to make lasting impression. Billy flat-out didn't seem to care. He was intelligent and willing to do work to find out what was happening to them, but interpersonal relationships were lost on him. One had to respond to his sarcasm and cynicism in the like to get him to take one seriously. That much was on the surface, although Sky suspected there was something more going on.

Chad, on the other hand, hadn't said much, looking almost lost. Something was going on there as well, but he had a feeling that it wasn't going to come up in a conversation over coffee, like something with Billy might. He had never been comfortable point-blank asking people what was bothering them—and hated it when people took that route with him. He'd talk eventually, when he didn't feel threatened. Time… this whole elemental thing meant they'd have to work together, probably more closely than they ever had with their original ranger teams. They'd all have to learn to open up more. Personally, that scared him.

Convinced that he was clean and didn't smell weird, he turned off the water, wrapped a towel around his waist and got out of the shower. Between brushing his teeth and shaving, he realized that this actually scared him more than not becoming Red Ranger, while, at the same time, it didn't.

Once he was dressed, he went downstairs to the kitchen. The building was dark—the only light and noise came from the kitchen. That much he expected. Kanoi and Cam might have been ninja masters, but before six in the morning was a little ridiculous, even for them. The smell of perking coffee hit him—God, he didn't know where SPD would be without the coffee stand they had in the common room every morning.

In the kitchen, Chad was taking toast out of the toaster. He looked like he was pretty with it at the ungodly hour. A woman with long brown hair, wearing a white dress, was seated at the island, politely sipping at a mug of tea.

"Good morning, Wolf," she said with a smile. "I'm Princess Shayla."

He blinked. She had used the animal he had seen in his dream. So far, in the collective dreams, none of the animals came into it. He wondered what, exactly, that meant. Chad shook his head slightly from the toaster as he spread jam over the toast. "Morning," Sky replied, not sure what else to say.

"Hawk was saying that he and Tiger arrived yesterday," the princess said in a pleasant tone, like making small talk over breakfast was perfectly natural.

Sky shot Chad a look as he moved to the coffee maker. The other Blue Ranger made a small flapping motion with his hands, and then pointed at himself. He nodded, grabbing a mug and pouring some coffee. So that meant that Chad was Hawk—and, by process of elimination, Billy was Tiger. Were the animals supposed to be some kind of extension of themselves? He could almost equate himself with a wolf, but the hawk and tiger were lost on him.

"Yeah," he replied shortly to her statement. Where's Billy, he mouthed at Chad. He held up an imaginary cigarette. Smoking… that explained that.

"You two don't have to do that," the princess said conversationally. "I know perfectly well what all the vices on Earth are. And I also know that you five are unaware of most of each other's animal spirits."

"Oh." For whatever reason, he felt like his mother was sitting in the kitchen. Granted, his mother would have probably smacked him for that. Chad just grinned and screwed the lid back onto the jelly jar.

"Hawk," she continued. "Who was the young lady you fancied from your dream?"

Chad, who had just sat down at the island, paused, looking like a deer caught between the headlights. Sky snickered into his coffee. "Oh…" he started. "That was Kelsey. We're dating… sort of."

"How can you 'sort of' be dating someone?"

The look Chad shot him clearly said to "shut-up." Sky joined them at the island. Having Princess Shayla around was going to be entertaining if she kept making comments like that, while sounding completely innocent.

Ethan held on for dear life as Tori careened the van around a corner. He was going to die—Tori was going to kill them before they got to the academy. The dirt roads to the academy's parking lot were already treacherous enough. Theoretically it would have been faster to ninja streak, but their automatic response had been to jump in the van. A vague part of him was glad to have an excuse to skip Physics today, if he survived.

"Tori, it isn't like they're going to disappear if we don't get there on time."

"We have been waiting for something like this and I don't feel like poking around."

"Right." He just didn't want to be walking towards a white light.

Things were slowly coming to a head—this would be the point in the video game where the ethereal mentor read their quest from the mystical scroll, after a few levels spent collecting life and experience with the game. Then they would embark on their heroic quest, collecting the parts they needed to defeat the ultimate evil at the end. Ethan smirked to himself, but stifled a yelp as Tori swung the van into the parking lot. Somehow, she got it neatly parked between Dustin's Volkswagon Beetle and someone else's champagne Sportage. He really wanted to know how she did that—he didn't have a car and it had been a while since he drove.

"Who's got the blue sports utility?" he asked as they got out of the van.

He watched as Tori paused. Neither of them had seen the car before and that said something since Tori, at least, knew which cars belonged in the parking lot and which ones didn't. "It's a rental car," she said after a pause, pointing to the Enterprise logo.

"Oh." He would never understand how he could pick up things like that in video games and movies, but never in real life. "Who's got a rental car?"

She shrugged. "Probably Chad or Billy." She glanced at her watch. "It's nearly nine, I'd assume most places like that open at eight or so."

"Or a student got in a wreck."

Tori smirked and started jogging down the rough path towards the portal. "We have just ninja-streaked," he called after her. His dino-gem had been responsible for the majority of his fighting skills and super-powers. When the gem's power was depleted in their final battle with Mesogog, most of his prowess as a fighter went with it. He'd been slowly gaining some of that back in his training with Dustin, but not like it was when he was a ranger. For a while, he'd been resigned to the fact that he'd only be a good defender in video games.

The past week felt much longer than it had actually been. Dustin had pronounced himself amazed at Ethan's progress, having him sit in on the more advanced classes. He couldn't quite describe the feeling, like the earth was his ally and, when he used that, things like dirt-diving and manipulating the earth came naturally. Each day he felt himself embracing it more and more. He could see the same thing happening to Sky, except that he had to exercise a greater amount of control. If the fire went out of control, there was not a lot to stop it. So far, he'd kept his efforts confined to bonfires and candles, but Ethan knew he'd have to branch out.

The attraction and repulsion between the elements also fascinated him. He'd noticed that earth welcomed water to a certain extent. Too much water overwhelmed earth and Ethan found himself wary of water. It was not because he believed that Tori had nefarious intent, but because he wanted to keep his element in top shape. Fire also had a fear of too much water, but it was not in excess—it was that water could thoroughly extinguish a fire. Earth also interacted, but in a more subtle way. Earth feared fire, but for the devastation. On the other hand, earth could also stamp out fire. It was a give and take, a push and pull. In balance, each had nothing to fear from the other and could work in harmony.

But they had yet to see how air and moonlight would enter that blend.

Before he knew it, they were standing before the portal. The grounds were fairly quiet, except for one samurai class running through their katas in the practice field. "Took you long enough," Billy called from the porch as they approached.

The original Blue Ranger was smoking—again. "Smoking is bad for you, you know," Ethan commented.

Billy snorted. "I can do this without alcohol or without cigarettes." He shrugged. "I figure that smoking is the lesser of two evils." He paused. "And I am well aware of how bad smoking is—I did a lung model complete with the spaghetti stuff in community college."

"Bear! Turtle!"

They turned to see a tall, lithe woman, with brown hair and a white dress coming onto the porch. She smiled didn't falter as she took in Billy smoking. She focused her attention on them, beaming.

"Princess Shayla?" Ethan asked, suddenly feeling like he was in a bad video game.

"Yes," she said with a grin.

She seemed… way too innocent. This was going to be interesting.

Tori watched as Sky lit a match, holding it under the tinder in his fire. He gently blew on the tiny flame, the fire catching and spreading. She had a feeling that he'd be able to get wet wood to remain lit if he had a mind to. He seemed satisfied that the fire had caught, because he added some of his kindling. A wry smile spread over her face as she remembered his comment about having been an Eagle Scout.

They sat around the fire, on low benches situated in the fire circle. The morning and subsequent afternoon had been a little chaotic. Billy had become their de facto leader, giving orders, setting up his own computer network and generally sounding like he was going to die of lung cancer. He looked haggard in the flickering light. Princess Shayla had been insistent that the explanations happen after dark when "Tiger's power was strongest." Chad was sipping a mug of hot chocolate—quiet as always, but Tori had a feeling that his laconic speech hid something else, sharp eyes that seemed to observe everything.

Ethan just appeared anxious to hear their explanations, no doubt equating it to a computer game in his mind. Shayla just appeared serene and calm, although Tori had no idea how she kept up that façade.

"Rangers," she began, standing up as Sky moved to one of the benches. "You all know about your elements and animal spirits. I have heard the murmurs and groaning of the earth. Ancient magic is breaking up and the earth will soon fall to chaos."

"That was vague," Billy said under his breath.

The princess studiously ignored him. "You all know that long ago the warriors of ancient Animaria and the ninjas communed with the Faerie. This is the spiritual force that protects and guides the earth—it was so named for the fantastic creatures that it manifested." She paused. "Ancient Animaria fell and the animal spirits retreated to the clouds with me. The ninjas slowly stopped communing with the Faerie as too few of their number sang to the moonlight." She paused again. "Volatile and following codes in their own hearts, the fire ninjas stepped to the ways of the Shadow and abdicated from the ninja order."

"We know all that," Sky said.

"Without that, the elemental balance is off."

"We know that too," Sky continued impatiently. "What we don't know is what that means for us."

The princess frowned at that. Tori felt her heart constrict. People always paused before delivering bad news. "You five, as Blue Rangers, have worn the universal color, the vivid color that all the world knows. Because of that, you have been chosen by the animal spirits to heal the earth, bring balance to the elements."

"Nice to know about the chosen part," Ethan piped up. "But how are we supposed to bring balance to the elements?"

"You each must train and learn about your elements. Once you have mastered your elements and learned to use the elements in harmony, you must descend into earth's dreamscape and bring the balance there."

She waited, probably waiting for a dramatic gasp or click of understanding. Tori fought the urge to smirk. Five faces stared blankly at her, each distorted oddly in the firelight. Princess Shayla let out an imperceptible sigh.

"In order to heal the earth, you must heal yourselves. The dreamscape is in chaos. When you descend to it, it will try to stop you," she paused, then added, "Those of you who study science will know this as the Law of Entropy."

"Things automatically descend towards chaos," Billy muttered.

"It will always be slightly chaotic, but the balance must be restored. Fire must be brought from the Shadow to the Light. Wolf, you will be working against centuries of fire ninjas that placed the fire in the Shadow. You will not be alone, but the path of the fire is yours to follow. Tiger, the moonlight is sleeping. You must commune with the Faerie once more, awaken the moonlight and restore its protective balm." She shook her head. "Air, earth and water are not used to the balance of five. They must be adjusted and accept their missing elements once more. The path is long and hard."

"That doesn't sound so bad," Chad ventured tentatively.

"They say that in video games and look what happens," Ethan shot back.

"You are the balm to heal the earth," Shayla said softly. "The other option is a dark road of destruction and sorrow. You were all Power Rangers—you defended the earth. Now you have the chance to heal it, preserve it for generations to come."

"What if we don't? I haven't lived here. It doesn't matter," Billy spat.

"Tiger," Shayla said sadly. "You must have faith. You care about the earth as much as the others, but you have closed your heart. You all must heal yourselves. It will not be easy—I will be here to help and guide you." She paused. "If you do not heal the earth, the ancient warrior will destroy the Faerie, the protective magic. Earth will be thrown into a period of chaos as nature tries to restore the balance. I will not say that your way of life will be obliterated, but subtle changes will grow, ripples will affect others, nothing will be the same."

She looked around the small circle. "Please, if not for yourselves, for the others."

To be continued...

Author's Note: I don't wanna go to Girl Scout camp! Gee Mom, I wanna go back where the toilet flows! Gee Mom, I wanna go home!