A/N - Here it is. I hope you have as much fun reading it as much as I did writing it! Updated 8/17/13.

Only a week had passed since they'd rescued Nick and Vida and dealt a harsh blow to the Underworld, but it felt like so much longer. It had been a perfect week - no school yet, gorgeous weather and no attacks whatsoever. That in itself was a small miracle, but understandable. Losing the Master, Koragg and Necrolai in one fell swoop wasn't something they could recover from so quickly. Morticon was still out there, of course, along with his armies of Hidiacs and Styxoids, not to mention Leelee. Nick didn't believe that she was truly evil, and the others were beginning to doubt it, some more than others, after what he'd told them. Convincing as his arguments were, seeing was the best form of believing in this case.

A little thing like that wasn't about to ruin their last days of summer though. School started in a couple days, but no one could tell by how they acted. Since their victory, it seemed like a dark cloud had been lifted from their group. Xander was a flirting machine, hitting on every girl that came into the store. Well, all except Gracey. She'd visited Nick at work a few times and, having heard about Xander's lingering visual excursions, tried his best to make his friend feel awkward and uncomfortable whenever she showed up now.

Aside from that bit of fun, Xander had easily fallen back into their odd state of normalcy alongside the others. Chip had been bouncing off the walls, more exuberant than ever despite letting his harsh and calculating side show in the Underworld. Though he made no attempts to deny it, they still took a backseat to his usual personality. Serious attitudes only emerged in serious situations for Chip. Life was too short for anything else.

Vida gladly fell back into her regularity. Her turntables had been working almost nonstop for the past seven days, and her music seemed to carry more energy now than it had in weeks. For the most part, it was because the team was whole again and her sister no longer having a reason to be on the verge of thinly veiled self-destruction. Of course, not being the unwilling servant of the Queen of the Vampires helped.

Nick, though, had to be the happiest that everything was normal again. He'd been constantly busy working the hours he'd picked up for Vida, Chip and Xander for the first few days, but Toby had finally told him to go back to his regular hours and wouldn't take no for an answer when he saw how exhausted the young man was. That left him more free time, but most of it was devoted to hanging out, being with Madison and getting acquainted to his new family.

They fit together surprisingly well as a family, considering he'd known Udonna for a few months and Leanbow had been Koragg since they'd first fought. Over the past week, they'd spent a lot of time together getting used to how things were know, with both Nick and Leanbow in their rightful places once again. Udonna had wasted no time in helping both settle in, finally removing the untouched baby furniture from the room that had been Nick's for only a few months all those years ago. She even let him decorate it as he pleased, a secondary home should he ever need it. The transition for Leanbow was a bit more difficult, as he'd never been in a completed Root Core, but he was managing. He had only a vague knowledge of the layout, having helped design it before the war.

Aside from that, Leanbow was probably faring the worst out of all of them, though that by no means meant he was doing poorly. He couldn't remember anything he'd done as the Knight Wolf, and they were wary of telling him more than he asked, knowing how much it already plagued him. Though he was generally quite lively and normal around them, sometimes he drew into himself, caught up in the shame and guilt of the actions he couldn't remember but feared the worst of. Sometimes he doubted his patron Ancient, Fortis, even watched over him now, though he hadn't chosen another to be his avatar. It was hard to imagine that even through the score of years he'd been under the influence of a power he'd long abandoned, he still lay under the protection of such a powerful being.

Udonna, on the opposite end of the spectrum, was simply overjoyed to have her family back again. The last time she could remember all three of them being together was the day before the final battle of the Great War. Leanbow marched on the Dark forces the very next day and Udonna followed, leaving Nick behind with her husband's apprentice, Daggeron, and their friend Calindor. They had been tasked with taking her son somewhere the Darkness could not find him, far away if necessary. She knew now how that had turned out, though she still didn't know the fates of Daggeron and Calindor.

Nearly twenty years had passed since then and, even under the power of a memory altering spell, it had been much too long for her. Being with her family again had brought her happiness beyond words and her desire to hold onto them was fiercer than ever. Twenty lost years was more than enough for her.

Since the decisive battle, the Rangers had been more determined than ever to study and practice their magic. Though they'd won the battle, it had been nearly deadly for many of them, and whatever they faced next would not be any easier. They had been especially interested in the Ancients, and Udonna had been glad to give them all the material she could find. There were hundreds of books on each Ancient and their branch of magic, going into greater detail than their mentors could.

All the information they were offered was absorbed quickly, whether it was cold hard facts or the author's speculation and opinion. Some was strange to read. The numerous mentions of the 'Legendary Warrior of Ignos' or the 'Knight Avatar of Levitas' were the oddest to see, though, because they knew it was themselves being written about.

As for Madison, she'd had the easiest time falling back into her old habits, and had been having a fantastic week. She and Nick had been on a handful of dates ranging from the romantic to the weird to make up for the lost time, and, with the whole gang back together, life had been chaos. Their personalities, unrestrained and expressed to their fullest in the heyday that was the last days of summer, created the perfect energy that meant pandemonium for everyone around them and absolute fun for themselves.

The pure ecstasy of the last week was something they didn't want to ever end, but, somewhere in the backs of their minds, they knew it had to. Not only did school start soon, but they knew the darkness wouldn't rest forever. It would be back, but they'd be ready. This war wasn't over yet.

Fifty-eight... fifty-nine... sixty. Sixty! Vida did the math quickly in her head and proudly laid the money back in the register.

"Ha!" she shouted, raising her fists in victory. "I've outsold you by twelve dollars, o Xander the Great. You owe me lunch."

For a moment, the young man didn't respond, only standing in the corner where he'd been stocking comics, but then she could faintly hear him mutter, "Oh man, oh man, oh man..." She turned to him, a questioning look in her eyes as she rolled them.

"Oh, it's not that bad. Don't be such a drama queen," she quipped. He didn't respond, simply standing frozen in his spot, a hand resting over his nose. Arching a wondering eyebrow and moving out of Chip's way so he could ring up a customer, she approached her friend. "Are you okay?" Still he remained in his spot, lost in whatever was wrong. Serious but becoming fed up, she put a hand on his shoulder and spun him around. This seemed to revive him, as he sprinted to the spot next to Chip, grabbing one of the many decorative guitar-shaped mirrors that were scattered around the store. Finally, she saw what he was freaking out over. She stifled a giggle as he examined every inch of his face with a critical eye.

"Oh man," he uttered again, touching the tip of his nose gingerly. "This can't be real. Nothing this big can be real."

"I'd beg to differ," she joked, but he was too absorbed with himself to notice. He gave his nose a harder prod, yelping a bit as it proved itself very real. "Okay, so maybe it is. And it totally ruins my perfect profile." Vida was grinning ear to ear, but put a comforting hand on his shoulder.

"Aww, come on," she coaxed, walking up behind him to get a better look at his nose. "It's not that bad." It actually was pretty bad, but she wasn't about to tell him that.

Not looking at her, he replied seriously, "This zit is like having a second nose." She rolled her eyes and gave him a pat on the shoulder.

"Don't be so melodramatic," she said, a playful gleam developing in her eyes. "C'mon, it just gives you another title, doesn't it? Xander the Great, Big Pimple!" She busted out laughing at her own joke, but he simply ran to the chair designated as his own by a guitar placed on it, took the instrument, and leapt on the DJ platform. Taking a seat against the far wall, nearly hidden by the turntables, he began to tune the instrument. For a moment, Vida watched, amused, then rolled her eyes for the third time in so many minutes and went back to work, ignoring the pathetic heap of Aussie behind her tables.

Nearly an hour later, the small bell above the front door rang, drawing the DJ's attention. She smiled when she saw it wasn't just another customer, and dropped her headphones down around her neck.

"Hey Maddie," she greeted happily. "Where's the boy?" The question was asked with a smirk and playful tone, and was answered with a stuck out tongue.

"We aren't attached at the hip, you know," Maddie added, pulling on her purple work shirt.

"Could've fooled me."

"Oh, ha ha. You're soooo funny."

"I know," Vida replied brightly. The twins shared beaming grins and went to work. Relative quiet enveloped the store, at least vocally, with the regular store mix was playing while Vida worked the floor, but something else caught Maddie. A soft strumming tune floated faintly above the hum of general noise. Giving the room a quick once-over, Madison glanced quizzically to her twin.

"What is that?" Vida looked up from her spot behind the counter, a small smirk on her lips.

"You mean blues boy over there?" she asked, gesturing toward the built-in platform. "He's all depressed over some zit. Hasn't moved for an hour - he just keeps playing that same sad song." Maddie turned to where Vida had indicated and, craning her neck to see around the turntables, saw what she meant.

Xander was leaning against the corner behind the turntables, acoustic guitar in his hands. His eyes were shut and his hands were busy plucking out the notes, but he remained still otherwise. Every so often, his lips would form a few words, but he was only singing in his mind. The tune was slow and sad, a dead giveaway of his mood.

Maddie rolled her eyes and went to work where Xander had left off, putting up new comics on the shelves behind the register. She didn't need to comment on the situation to make obvious how funny and yet strangely normal it was.

With her there to cover more of the work, Chip finished up what he was doing and pulled something out of his work shirt, a torn piece of parchment. At the same time, Toby burst out of his office, something that looked like an artsy, pyramidal lampshade in his hands and an odd set of goggles pushed up into his wild hair.

"I did it!" he exclaimed as Chip quickly hid the paper. "I solved this entire crypto-angular pyramid in just under forty minutes!" He beamed proudly, his employees grinning back.

"Way to go, man," Vida said, putting a CD into a bag for the customer she'd just rang up.

"I'm the greatest puzzle-solver in all of Briarwood," he boasted proudly. "I should work for the FBI, or the CIA or, better yet, the Power Rangers!" They gulped sheepishly, smiles momentarily faltering, and he gave them a meaningful look. "What? Did I say something?"

"Oh, nothing," Chip stuttered, trying to recover what could become a bad situation very quickly. "You should, uh, give them a call." The other two nodded enthusiastically, not liking the look they had been receiving, and his words seemed to do the job. Like an epiphany had just struck him, Toby scrambled back into his office, muttering something about forgetting to call the comic book company.

The trio managed to stifle their giggles until he was gone, and then let loose. Working for Toby was... interesting, to say the least. Without much else to keep them away from working again, they each drifted back to their jobs. Chip pulled out the piece of parchment again and began studying it intensely.

"What are you doing?" Maddie asked, glancing over her shoulder as she moved a crate of new records to the platform for Vida. Not looking up, the youth shook his head.

"Still trying to solve our half of the Fire Heart scroll," he responded. "But I'm not getting too far." He looked up at her sharply, an idea hitting him. "Do you think Nick knows what the other half looks like? He did help steal it from us." For a fraction of a second, Maddie winced, remembering his time in the darkness, but that was gone as all the results it had brought for the light, and for herself, flooded her thoughts. He'd truly embraced the fact that he had a dark side, and it no longer lay rejected and suppressed in his personality. It was in the open, perfectly blended with his light side to create the balance he'd been destined to live with. It was hard to admit, but she really liked how his dark side affected him. It was kind of... sexy.

"I'll see if he knows anything," she responded, eyes already closed. Though her mind no longer remained a magically reinforced fortress, as there was no threat of mental intrusion and sabotage, she tore down the thin walls she kept up as she reached out to Nick.

'Hey, I have a question,' she probed, gently reaching out to his mind with her own. Pausing for a moment, she waited for the mental echo, but received nothing. 'Hello?' she ventured again, still getting no answer. What was he doing? There was no chance he was still sleeping - it was almost noon and it wasn't in his nature to sleep the day away. So why wasn't he responding?

Then, from behind her came a pleased, "Hi." Doing a quick one-eighty, she saw Nick standing behind her, a small grin on his face and the fading light of a seal under his feet. "You had a question?" She rolled her eyes at the blatant display on magic, thankful that no customers had noticed, or were surprised if they did see it. Since their appearance as Rangers, an astounding amount of people had admitted to believing in magic, but it wasn't surprising considering how weird the forest could be. Everyone knew the tales of what really went on in there, whether they believed them or not.

"Yeah, I did have a question," she replied. "Did you ever get a good look at the half of the map to the Fire Heart that Leelee got?" She'd barely gotten the question out when he began shaking his head.

"Sorry. I never did. She gave it right to good old Morty, even though he'd never be able to figure it out. Hell, I don't think he could solve a two-piece puzzle. Good general, complete idiot." He grinned reminiscently at the last thought, glancing up again a moment later. "Why do you want to know?"

"Chip's trying to figure it out. We've been at it for weeks, but we haven't gotten anything. We just thought you might've seen it. It would've been a lot of help."

"Sorry I can't help," he responded with a shake of his head. "That all?" She nodded, grin growing as he placed a quick peck on her forehead and grabbed a magazine. He wandered over to an empty chair and flopped down, flipping to a random page. "So where's our Xander the Great? I thought he was working today." Vida and Maddie rolled their eyes for what felt like the millionth time that day.

"He's being a drama queen" the Pink Witch answered. "Nothing new." Nick grinned knowingly.

"What is it today? Couldn't get his hair the way he likes it?"

"No, worse. He has a huge zit." The Red Magician winced mockingly.

"Ouch. The poor guy." Both laughed and, as if on cue, their subject of discussion popped up from his hiding spot and was across the room in seconds. Decorative mirror in hand, he was back to his facial study, picking up where he'd left off nearly an hour ago by examining his face from every angle.

"Oh, man," they could barely hear him mutter. "This totally ruins my perfect profile. How am I supposed to pick up the ladies when I look like a freak?" From across the room, Chip's face lit up, distracting Vida, Madison and Nick, who were all having a good laugh at their friend's narcissism..

"I think I've got it, guys," he exclaimed, drawing their attention to him and his epiphany. "I know what the other half of the map looks like!"

A week. A whole damn week had passed, and she still didn't know what she was going to do. Even with seven day's worth of introspection, she wasn't sure which path she was supposed to take now. One was more appealing to her, feeling like the right way to go, but the other seemed to be her destiny, what she was born to do. The second path was only an option because of her powers, passed through, ironically, her bloodline. She'd never wanted them or the life that came with them, but she'd never had a choice. Since she was a child, she'd been raised for the life she led now, but it had never been a life she wanted or liked.

Now her mom was gone, killed by the Yellow Magician, which left her with the powers she'd never wanted and always been destined for. Unlike the others, the legions of followers that had worshiped at her mother's feet and now at her own, she wasn't bitter about her mother's death; no, it was quite the contrary. She wasn't happy about it, of course, but she understood why it happened. In a way, it was her own fault - it had been her plan to lure them here, to turn one of them and use them as bait, and it had gotten Mom killed in the end.

So here she was, Leelee Pimvare, teenage Queen of the Vampires, with little to no direction to her life. The forces of Darkness had taken a nigh-deathblow in the last battle, losing four capable warriors in the process, and that wasn't including the new vampire queen who wasn't sure who she served. She'd been raised evil, but it wasn't something she'd enjoyed. She tried the whole evil shtick and it just didn't work for her. Look how well it had done for her mom.

Her new powers were evil powers, though. They were born eons ago by way of dark magic and they'd been used only for such since then. Vampires had always been viewed as evil creatures, at least in the magical realm, and stereotypes were hard to change, let alone fight against.

But who was stopping her from going against them anyway? She'd been experimenting with them for the past week, what with all the free time she had, and she had gained a slight mastery of them. She didn't really care whether or not Morticon cared or even knew that she was down here; he was too busy stomping around and trying to regroup his armies to notice someone he'd considered less than a pest. These were her powers, as unskilled with them as she still was, and he didn't control her like he had her mother.

She rose resolutely from her throne, mind settling on a solid decision for the first time in a week. The traditional body armor of the vampire queen shifted into a regular outfit, at least by magical standards. She knew where she had to go.

"So are you going to show us this big revelation of yours, or did we skip out on work for nothing?" Vida asked impatiently, tapping her fingers on the table she was leaning on. Chip remained stalwart across from her, shaking his head.

"I was waiting for Xander, but I think he's too absorbed by himself." They took a moment to give each other knowing smiles, and he then continued, tired of waiting for his friend. "So anyway, I think I've got it. While Xander was staring at himself, and I was staring at the map, the answer was staring at me: what if the map was like two halves of a face, minus the zit?" As they nodded, he summoned the mirror out of Xander's hands, much to the Green Wizard's chagrin, and held it up to the map. Paired with its reflection, the full image was finally created - that of a twin-peaked mountain, a dragon holding a shield standing before it and few lines of the Ancient's language around it. "What mountain does that look like?"

"Mount Asgreth!" the other three exclaimed in unison, stunned by how simple the answer was.

"We have to get it now," Nick added quickly. "The longer it's there, the better chance we have of losing it." The others nodded.

On the other side of the room, as Chip explained his revelation, Xander had been continuing his self-analysis, a new mirror within his hands. At least, he had been until Chip snatched that mirror away. Now he was just leaning against the bannister across from his friends, watching Clare stare at a potted plant almost as intently as he had been staring at himself.

"Come on, little plant," she muttered, spraying it again with a bottled yellow liquid. "Don't you die on me." Though he was almost mesmerized by her efforts, a squeal of joy pulled him out of it and his gaze snapped to her. She was jumping around gleefully, and he looked back to the plant. Where the dying fern had once sat was now occupied by a bright green, lively looking plant, a few sparks of magic fading away on its edges.

"What'd you do?" he asked confusedly as she hugged him. Her face lit up more, if that was even possible, and she stepped back.

"I made a potion that's supposed to turn sad, dead little plants into perfectly gorgeous living plants. I can't believe it worked! I've been working on it for weeks!" Her words struck a chord in his mind - perfectly gorgeous. Already, the hint of an idea was forming in his mind as he smiled along with her.

"So it's a perfection potion, then?" he asked slowly, not wanting to seem too anxious or reveal his intentions. For a moment, she thought about it, then nodded enthusiastically.

"Yeah, I guess it is," she replied. "But it was mostly to test my potion-making skills. It's not like some great potion master brewed it or anything." She giggled giddily a bit. "At least I know I can do this much right." She looked to her plant once more, smile growing wider again as she walked, or more accurately, skipped away. Eyes drifting back to the unattended potion, the plan in Xander's mind was ballooning. Just a single spritz, hardly a dent in the contents of the bottle, and he could be on his merry way. If it worked, it worked and all was good. If it didn't, so what? It wouldn't kill him. It had worked for the plant, and he was basically a human plant himself, so why not try?

His hand was wrapped around the bottle already, enticingly light in his strong grip, and he'd raised it most of the way to his face when another hand landed on his shoulder.

"Come on, man," Nick said, turning the young man around. Xander quickly set down the potion and smiled.

"Yeah, we should get going," he hastily replied, garnering a suspicious look from the leader.

"Right," the Red Wizard said slowly. "We decided we're going to ride our brooms there instead of teleporting because it's not that far away. On board with that?"

"Works for me."

"Okay then. Let's go." Nick began to walk away, eying his friend warily, but left through the dragon's mouth nonetheless.

Once he was out of sight, Xander grabbed the potion and sprayed his face once. Setting the bottle down, he waited a moment for the potion to absorb into his skin, and to make sure that there were no immediate adverse effects. When nothing immediately happened, he jogged to catch up with the others, snatching his broom as he left.

His movements were abruptly ended when he ran into Vida's back, knocking her forward. She went tumbling to the ground, breaking the silence that had fallen over the group. Everyone looked to the pair as he helped her up again, apologizing profusely, and he confusedly looked to them.

"What's going on, you guys? Why'd you stop?" All of them, including Vida, looked up and forward, realizing once again that they'd stopped for a reason. Xander too looked up, and then he knew why they'd stopped.

Leelee stood nervously before them, chewing her lip absently.

"Umm... Hi, guys," she said. She received only a quiet "Hey" from Nick, who seemed the least stunned to see her. "Am I interrupting anything?" She fussed with the hem of her white long-sleeved shirt in a fidgety manner, looking like she barely knew why she was here.

"Nothing much. What are you doing here?" Vida snapped, eying the half-vampire mistrustfully. The blonde looked down shyly, watching the grass with devoted intent and for all the world seeming like she wished to be any place but there right now, silence pressing in on her.

"I-I'm not really sure," she responded, deflated. "I don't think I should be here, not now." She began to walk away, shoulders slumping. Before she could teleport out, a hand caught her arm.

"Yes, I think you should be here," said Nick. "You can at least explain why you're here in the first place." He turned her around and revealed the Rangers once again, each holding a broomstick in their hands. While Nick seemed to be okay with her presence, Maddie and Xander were wary, Xander more so, and Chip and Vida didn't try to hide their distrust in her, visibly agitated by her presence. She breathed a slight sigh of relief knowing that she wasn't being entirely shunned or, at the worst, attacked. Butterflies still reigned in the pit of her stomach, though.

"I just thought that I could, you know, join you guys or something. It's just - I don't want to be apart of the darkness anymore. It's not where I belong." The words tumbled out of her mouth all at once, bubbling up and spilling over before she lost her nerve. She stared at the ground and wrung her hands nervously.

"Amen," Nick muttered under his breath. This eased her tension a bit, knowing he was on her side. Unfortunately, the others weren't quite as receptive. She could feel the daggers Chip and Vida were staring at her.

"You're one of the bad guys. What makes you think you can just join us?" Vida spat, accompanied by a vehemently agreeing nod from Chip. Before it could go any further, Nick held up his hands in a halting gesture.

"Listen, can we do this later?" he asked rhetorically, as there was no room for question in the tone of his voice. "First, we need to find the Fire Heart. She can wait until we get back." He glanced to her. "Can't you?" She nodded without hesitation. "Good. I'm sure it'll be okay with Ud–Mom, if she stays here while we run our little errand." Taking the young woman's arm gently, he ducked back into the base with her.

"Hey, Mom?" he shouted, growing more accustomed to calling her 'Mom' as the days went on. His voice drew the elder woman out of a second floor room above them. Her smile quickly turned to one of questioning as she saw Leelee.

"What is it?" she asked, descending the stairs as she studied the pair with interest.

"Leelee needs to stay here while we go get the Fire Heart. Is that okay?"

"Of course it is, but why is she here?"

"She can explain it all to you while we're out," he said, placing a quick peck on her cheek. "See you soon." Like that, he was out with the other Rangers again, each one giving him their own odd look.

"What are you doing?" Vida asked sharply. "You're just going to leave her here?" He shrugged.

"Why not? I trust her, and I left her with Mom, anyway."

"Exactly. You left a vampire princess with your mother! Doesn't that make you nervous at all?"

"No, it doesn't," he replied, matching her glare. "She only has magic, like us, no vampire powers. And anyway, Dad and Clare are there too."

"She's Necrolai's daughter, for Titan's sake!" Vida shouted, throwing her arms in the air. "It was her plan that nearly got Maddie and I killed!"

"And I agreed with it! Does that make me as bad as her?"

"Hell no! You saved us. If not for you, we'd be dead. The plan was hers, so she's the one to blame."

"If you're going to blame her, then blame me, too, because I'm just as responsible."

"I'm not going to blame you when you weren't in your right mind anyway! She wasn't under a spell! She's naturally like that. Being half-vampire makes her naturally evil."

"But I was in my right mind. That was part of who I am, and it still is. Does being half dark make me evil, too?"

"Don't try that shit with me. You're a whole different case."

"How so? She's evil in your mind just because she was born half-vampire, so unless you've got some stupid double standard going, I'm evil too!"

"She was raised that way! Why can't you get that through your thick skull?"

"Because there's nothing to get! She's not evil, not any more than I am."

"But you weren't raised that way. She's been trained to be evil since she was born. Do you not remember how easily she held off three of us back in the Cimmerian Forest, or were you too busy sucking my sister's face?" This time, he only responded with a glare. Neither backed down until a hand met each of their chests and pushed them apart. Maddie rolled her eyes, tired of doing so today.

"Guys, can we drop it? We can argue all we want later, but right now we really need to find the Fire Heart. We've wasted enough time already." Both looked at her for a prolonged second, then nodded reluctantly, anger still evident in their features.

"Let's go," Nick said, mounting his transformed broom, now in its Mystic Racer form. The others followed suit, tearing off into the skies when each was ready.

The trip lasted less than fifteen minutes, enough time to let Vida and Nick cool down, and then they were back on the ground and staring up at the stunning sight of Mount Asgreth for the first time with their own eyes. It was amazingly tall, taller than Xander in Titan mode. The peak was split, creating two points as the top of the mountain. A few clouds hovered around and between these tips, creating an almost mythical aura.

"Man, that's a big mountain," Chip commented.

"Do we really have to climb that thing?" Xander asked, a bit reluctant. It wasn't that he liked a good outdoor jaunt - quite the contrary, actually - but climbing a mountain in a magical dimension that could possibly be swarming with monsters and the like just wasn't the same as a walk through the woods. Plus, his zit still hadn't gone away, and that was a huge downer.

"Yeah, we do. Shouldn't be a problem for you, though, should it?" Nick answered, still surveying the mountain. "Anyway, I think we should split up. Chip and Madison, you guys take the left peak. Vida and I will take the right one. Xander?" He finally turned to the Green Wizard. "Seeing as you can do that full-body elemental trick, I think you should check out everything from the inside. Look for any caverns or weird spots, okay?" Xander nodded, liking the idea of not actually having to walk across the mountain for what could become endless hours. "Good. Let's get going." The two duos went off in their own directions, leaving just a wary Green Wizard behind. He watched the two groups disappear over small hills and beyond foliage, then sank into the ground below him, taking on an earthy form as he did so.

Gliding through the ground, one with his element, he felt completely at peace, like perfection. It was hard to keep focused on his task when his attention kept drifting to other things, like how cool and sturdy everything around him felt. It was intoxicating, and he could see why many magicians could get lost in this ability. It took all of his will to concentrate on finding caves.

Every so often, he'd come across one and pop right in, not bothering to drop his earthen form. Most turned out to contain nothing more than a lot of dirt and rocks. A few, though, were the living quarters for an assortment of animals.

During his first encounter with one such cave, the den of a fox kit, he was so startled by their bright red fur and low growls that he forgot he could easily escape into the ground and simply stumbled backward, tripping on a small stone underfoot. Arms windmilling, he fell onto his back hard, head snapping onto another larger stone. Cracking and shattering sounds reverberated through the small cave, and gave the foxes good reason to run.

For a moment, he simply laid there, neither breathing nor moving an inch. Then, stiffly, he sat up, a hand on the back of his head. It seemed perfectly fine - hurt like no other, though. Maybe you couldn't get water from a stone, but he was willing to bet that he could get blood.

Checking for just such a substance, he was relieved to find that there was none. So where had the cracking noises come from? A disturbing thought struck him, and he turned around slowly, silently praying that he hadn't accidentally landed on a fox. Fortunately, he wasn't met by a broken, dying baby fox like his imagination presented, but the stone his head had landed on, a large fissure running down it. He nearly laughed out loud. His head had broken a rock. A rock! Of all the people to have a hard head, he didn't consider himself one of them. Nick or Vida, maybe, but not himself. Of course, this situation was a bit more literal.

From there he'd continued his search, in and out of each cave and crevasse he ran across endlessly. All proved to be devoid of any interesting objects, and tedium had set in by his twenty-sixth. That, of course, meant that excitement was about to rear its ugly head, just when he had stopped expecting anything of interest.

True to itself, the thirty-third (or was it thirty-fifth? He'd lost count) cave was different from the others, consisting of one larger chamber and two smaller, sealed off rooms. Obviously they were special, having sealed doors blocking them off from the larger anteroom, but which one should he check out first? He had a good feeling about them overall, but he wasn't the luckiest guy around, especially when it came to these kinds of things. Chance decisions weren't exactly his thing.

He had to make a decision, though, so he moved into the right chamber. There was no light, but he noted that it was incredibly warm for a cave. Moist, humid air smothered him, coming at his face in slow puffs. It only took him a few seconds to realize that it wasn't a strange draft but the heavy breathing of a creature of some sort. He panicked as silently as possible, not wanting to give away his presence, but it was too late. A low growl echoed through the room (if you could even call it that) and Xander suddenly found himself crashing painfully through the door and onto the ground. Rock shrapnel fell down around him, battering him harshly for a second time as the jagged bits of what had been a door were caught by gravity. The creature he'd temporarily buddied up to stormed out, scanning for its new prey. As the empty eyes landed on Xander, he scrambled up, morpher in hand.

"Time to show you who's boss," he said confidently, swinging his arms in the familiar morphing fashion. "Magical source, Mystic Force!" He waited for the almost instantaneous change to Ranger form by way of a green spell seal, and a dull green sparkle lit up the crystalline tip of his wand without pizzaz, but nothing else happened. He shook the device desperately as he realized it wasn't working, adding, "Come on, little wand. Not now." The monster wasn't about to wait for Xander to try again or make an attempt to fix what was wrong, and grabbed the distracted young magician by either side, smashing him against the wall the now destroyed door had once been apart of. He managed to catch only a glimpse of something etched into the stone face before he was thrown into another wall without mercy.

There, he was left for a few seconds, long enough to get his thoughts together amidst the immediate reaction to run away or fight back. Why couldn't he morph? He hadn't put in the wrong code - the motion had become fluid and flawless by now, no way to make a mistake. Glancing down at the device in his hand, a thought hit him: maybe it was his rocky exterior. It did absorb the vicious blows the monster could deliver, but his Ranger uniform offered much more protection, strange as that seemed.

Feeling himself thrown against yet another wall, he mentally instructed his body to drop the stone, but it refused to. The impact of his body hitting another wall barely jarred him as he tried once again to drop it. This time, it melted away reluctantly, dripping like water off his body, just in time for him to feel the full force of landing outside the cave on his side.

Bright sunlight blinded him temporarily, but that didn't stop him from scrambling up and holding out his wand, shouting, "Magical source, Mystic Force!" for the second time that day, simultaneously thumbing the digits 1-2-3.

Thankfully, it actually worked this time, magically coating his body in the thin armor with the flash of a green seal traveling down him. The monster barreled toward him, but now he was ready for it, Magi Staff in hand. Before it could reach him, he smirked and pointed his wand at its chest.

"Visc majula!" he shouted just as it raised its fist in preparation for its attack. Stone pikes shot up from the ground underneath it, some grazing it and drawing the monster equivalent of blood, and others simply surrounding it, creating a cage from stone. When it realized what was going on, it began to throw itself at the jagged spikes, shaking them only slightly. Xander wasn't satisfied with just this, though, leaping through the air to land in his self-made prison. In the blink of an eye, the natural pikes all around descended into the ground and burst up again, all under the monster this time. Each speared and battered it brutally. With a tiny explosion and thousands of little green sparkles, it was gone, nothing left but the few drops of blood it had shed from Xander's initial morphed attack.

Letting out a deep sigh of relief and dropping the morph, Xander turned away from the spectacle and jogged back into the cave. He stepped gingerly over rubble, narrowly avoiding a trigger-activated load of slime that ate through every rock it hit almost immediately, to get to the far wall, the one bearing the inscription he'd barely glimpsed earlier. It was written in the language of the Ancients, something they'd learned long before they knew who the Ancients were, and he easily translated it.

"The Fire Heart is close as hand. Those who find it will rule the land, but take good care, for there is no clue: is it door number one, or door number two?" Glancing to the demolished door on his right, he threw open the other without hesitation. Inside sat a lonely treasure chest, tarnished silver edges glinting in the fresh light and looking like something straight out of a fairy tale or pirate movie. A small red ribbon held a piece of parchment firmly in its place over the lock, but he decided it would be better to wait until the others showed up to read it. With the possibility of curses always looming, the more people there, the better. Speaking of which...

He pulled out his wand and held down the call button, opening a line to each Ranger.

"I think I found it, you guys," he said. "Can you meet me back where we started?" The general replies of assent came in, individual wands beeping out moments later.

With that task done, he stowed away his own wand and looked at the chest. It looked like it was fairly heavy and he needed to get back to meet the others quickly. While they could teleport, or, in Chip's case, run, he was without either ability, which left him with either walking or taking his Racer. It would've been much easier to travel through the ground like before, but he wasn't sure how the chest would do on such a trip.

Taking his Racer was the better of his two options, but hauling the Fire Heart along somehow was going to be an issue, both in weight and size. Cautiously, he picked up the chest, hoping there were no booby traps under it, and was pleasantly relieved when there were none. It proved to be surprisingly light, shooting one problem down.

Again he took out his wand and summoned his broom back from Root Core, appearing at his side in its Racer form in a shower of green sparkles. Now came the task of strapping it to the vehicle. He couldn't hold it himself while flying, not if he wanted to live. Steering was something generally required to keep yourself away from a fiery death.

Some ingenuity and a few vines later, the chest was strapped haphazardly to the back of the Racer and he was off, flying away only slightly slower than usual to assure that his cargo stayed with him.

The trip barely bordered on two minutes, but he was still the last to arrive. Chip, Madison, Nick and Vida watched as he hopped off his ride and busily began untying the vines.

"You need some help with that?" Nick asked, motioning to the chest. Xander nodded, sending the last of his vine-ropes away with a flick of his wrist. The Red Wizard put an arm under each side of it and hefted upwards. Or, more realistically, he tried to. He managed to get it a few inches in the air, but the strain was evident in his face. Rolling her eyes, Vida joined in, and together they managed to carry it about twenty feet from the vehicle, setting it gratefully on the ground. This allowed Xander time to send his Racer away once again and join the moved group, Nick and Vida seeming overly tired considering the shape they were in.

"Man, how did you get that thing on your bike?" Vida asked. "It weighs a ton."

"Yeah, it does. I'm starting to think that the Fire Heart is just a bunch of cement," Nick joked, smiling a bit. "So how'd you get back there, anyway? Levitation spell?" The Green Magician inwardly rolled his eyes.

"You guys are just over exaggerating," he replied, bending over and easily picking it up with one hand. "See, not that hard." He set it back down, but was met with no words, only gaping mouths. "What?"

"How did you do that?" Vida asked incredulously, eyes wide. "It took me and Nick to carry it over here, and we barely made it." A voice to their right cackled.

"That won't matter soon, Rangers."

His sword trembled in his hand, itching to see battle once more. It had been a week since the stunning defeat his armies had faced, and he'd spent the entire time trying to gather the scattered factions once more. Without Koragg or Necrolai, his job became all the more difficult. He was the sole general left, and even the Master wasn't there to guide him now. No, he'd been destroyed by the Light, that annoying son of the traitor Koragg. The accursed boy had destroyed their leader like he was just another Hidiac, and now the forces of Darkness were without guidance in the middle of war.

Not so, whispered a voice from the ether. The cyborg looked hastily around the pit for the source of this voice, but found none.

"Who are you?" Morticon demanded, startling a nearby group of Hidiacs.

A powerful ally to you. The one you called the Master was simply my avatar, it responded. And I am here now to guide you in his place.

"How do I know that you are not a trick of the Light?" asked the cyborg sharply. Black smoke roiled from the empty air around him, shrouding his body quickly and absorbing into every part of him. Waves of unimaginable pain washed over him as the voice answered him.

Do not question me. Your 'Master' was nothing compared to the power that I have. He was a fool, and was destroyed because of it, but I shall not be. You are in my service now, so act accordingly, you robotic husk of a damned soul.

"I apologize," Morticon rasped. Instantly, the black smoke dissipated, and the angry reverberations throughout the room with it.

Good. Then we can begin striving for our goal once again - conquering the kingdom of light and breaking through the barriers created around the human realm. Our forces long past were foolish to retreat to this world when we had the power to rule theirs, but we shall rectify our past mistakes. Morticon fell to one knee, bowing to the unseen force.

"You speak the truth, master. But what can we do now? Our forces are scattered, lost, and our allies are gone." Harsh laughter echoed throughout the cavern, condescending in all its glory.

Yes, our forces are next to depleted and unready to fight a war again, and those we thought to be our allies have deserted us, but hope is not lost. For all light, there must be a darkness to balance it out, and many new allies await us in the future. For now, though, a great power source is within our grasp. You are familiar with the Fire Heart, no? Morticon's eyes, if they had been able to, would've widened. I see you do. Good, good. The Rangers have found it, and you must intercept it. If it comes into our possession, this war will become much easier.

"I understand, master. I will send as many soldiers as I can to retrieve it."

Good. Now go, it commanded. The cyborg general nodded and retreated from the room hastily. All that remained were a few scattered Hidiacs, confused by what had just happened, and the echoes of a deviously pleased smirk.

A/N - Yeah, a second Author's Note. So sue me. Anyway, I hope this first chapter lived up to your expectations. It looks like it's going to be a three-parter. A good way to start this story off, I guess. This one is going to be much longer than Child of Darkness, not just because I have more episodes to work with, but because I have so many ideas in my head to work with. Some I'm still trying to work out (like what I'm going to do exactly with the Fire Heart since I'm not keen on the battlizer idea), but I'll cross that bridge when I get to it.