Lily fell to one knee and released her Cheetah spirit as Eric fired his quantum blaster 2.0 straight at Fenrir's eyes. The beast laughed and knocked Lily's spirit away with so much force that she fell back. She staggered to her feet, knowing she couldn't take much more. She couldn't release her spirit again, which meant she was bound to physical attacks. Luckily, Merrick's Wolf zord was refusing to do his master's bidding and was instead fighting Merrick some distance away. But that was the only good news. Fenrir was more powerful than anything she'd ever faced. Even with Drómi still on him, Fenrir was easily beating them. They had arrived at the snowy mountain to find Merrick bowing before the wolf, who had apparently decided not to keep up his end of the bargain by staying in his cave. Now, to avoid an early apocalypse, they had to somehow stop Fenrir. He leapt into the air to take a bite out of the Eagle zord and the rangers scattered, none of them eager to be too close when he came back down. Lily watched the Eager wing into the nearby forest and was shaken to her core by the sight of those massive snow-covered trees being knocked down.
"Lily!" Theo's voice brought her attention back to the battle and she had only enough time to register Fenrir sprinting straight at her before she was hit -- in the right side. She fell into a patch of snow and Shayla rushed to help her up.
"What?" Lily asked, clutching her head.
"He always did know how to make an entrance," Taylor said.
"Show off," Eric muttered and Taylor laughed. That, more than anything else, was what forced Lily to shake off the stars clouding her vision.
Fenrir was talking and his voice echoed deep into her bones. "You think to defeat me, puny mortal?"
Who was he talking to? Lily squinted to see through the falling snow and her breath caught when she saw Zen-Aku. But there was something different, there was a humorous glint in his eye that was so decidedly RJ.
"Whoa," RJ said and Lily couldn't help but let out a small laugh of relief at the familiar tone of his voice, "you cannot be talking to me."
Fenrir let out a low chuckle.
"We're very much alike," RJ said, walking slowly around Fenrir, his arms open wide, "we're both wolves, we both know what it's like to bring pain and destruction to the world. What makes you think you can beat someone so much like yourself?"
Fenrir lowered his head to look in RJ's eyes. "What makes you think you can?"
RJ smiled and leapt forward, delivering a nasty roundhouse kick to Fenrir's muzzle. There was a distinct crack when he connected and Fenrir's head turned to the side. He smiled back at Lily and Shayla before lunging at RJ, attempting to bite the man in half. Taylor and Eric rushed forward, attacking Fenrir from behind and Lily could see that his shoulders were shaking. He turned slowly and with great effort and soon she could see that RJ was grasping the wolf's massive jaws in either hand. His arms shuddered with the weight and his legs were about to give out. If Eric and Taylor didn't seriously injure the beast soon he would be done for. Lily started to get up to help but Shayla held her down.
"You're in no condition to fight anymore and with RJ here," she added, "I doubt the battle will last much longer."
Lily turned away from Shayla's shining eyes just in time to see Theo's Jaguar slam into Fenrir's side, throwing the wolf off of RJ. While Fenrir was momentarily down RJ rushed forward and leapt into the air faster than even Lily thought was possible. He vaulted off of Fenrir's neck and landed in a crouch. Fenrir howled to the heavens and reared up in an attempt to break Gleipnir but RJ held it tight. Eric and Taylor appeared at his sides, helping him grasp the ancient ribbon. The three of them somehow managed to pull the wolf back into his cave.
Theo collapsed into the snow bank beside Lily. "RJ's back," he said.
Lily nodded and put a hand to her head, the stars were still there but she was too happy to complain. Shayla stood suddenly and the cubs tilted their heads back to see the Wolf zord holding Merrick in its jaws.
"Good boy," Shayla said, patting the beast's muzzle. She looked down at the cubs. "I think we're done here. Give my best to Taylor and Eric?"
"Of course," Theo said, scampering to his feet. He bowed and Shayla laughed lightly. She curtseyed before climbing on the Wolf's back. The zord gave a mighty leap and was gone.
"Those two don't waste any time," Eric called and Taylor pushed him into the snow.
Lily and Theo rushed forward to greet RJ but he stepped back quickly, holding up his arms as if to defend himself. His earlier Zen master attitude was gone, replaced by a look of fear and sadness.
"Guys," he said, his words heavy in the air, "Casey's dead."
Casey walked slowly through the woods. He'd already circled the mountain's entire perimeter and was actually surprised that he hadn't been attacked yet. Who knew the Mountain of Lost Ninjas would be so mellow?
"There is no way back," a kind voice behind Casey said.
Casey didn't turn. "I know. But I'm pretty sure spending eternity here is gonna be boring."
The boy whirled and Master Mao stepped back in shock. "Don't! Don't treat me like a cub! I understand. I know what's going on, I took on the responsibility knowing perfectly well that the end result might be this." His voice fell. "This is no more your fault than it is RJ's."
Master Mao stepped forward and laid heavy hands on the boy's shoulders. "I cannot stay here long, this mountain would like nothing more than to keep my soul here forever, but I will visit you when I can."
Casey smiled, allowing his earlier anger to dissipate. "On the upside, there are a lot of ninja masters here." He put his hands behind his head and started walking away. "I'm gonna learn a lot."
Master Mao smiled but it faltered quickly. The newest of his cubs certainly did not deserve such a fate, but it had been dealt him. He wondered how the others would fare, how RJ would fare.
RJ sat in his chair, his face haggard as he looked up at his two students.
"I understand," he said, "if you want to go. Master Phant lives close enough to the city and I'm sure Master Swoop would be willing --"
Lily's hand rested gently on his shoulder, forcing him to stop. "You are our master and we have been through way too much in the past few days for that to change too." She smiled at him but in her eyes he could see other emotions: sorrow -- for Casey he was sure -- and fear. He looked quickly away.
"Lily's right," Theo said, his voice thick with emotions he refused to acknowledge. "You're our master. You may not be perfect, but who is? And anyway," he shifted uncomfortably and RJ was glad he wasn't the only one having trouble with this situation, "you're trying and that's all we can ask."
Lily nodded enthusiastically. RJ gave her a small smile.
"Thank you both. I am honored." He attempted to give a half-bow from the chair but Lily jumped forward, wrapping her arms around him and crying.
"I'm sorry," she said into his shoulder. "It's just --"
RJ hesitantly wrapped an arm around her and motioned for Theo to join them. The boy did and RJ said, "It's okay to cry. It's the right time for that." Over his cubs' heads RJ's eyes drifted to Lily's door and a new wave of sorrow swept over him, causing tears to fall silently down his cheeks. He could feel Theo's sobs though the boy wasn't making much sound and squeezed the two tighter. They would have to move forward together, if they could at all.
Lily stood in her doorway. Casey's body had been returned to the academy and would be laid to rest in the temple. The washer downstairs moaned angrily. This was the third time she was washing her bedclothes, despite the fact that Taylor had bought her new ones before leaving. Lily walked forward and ran her hand along the new yellow comforter. She was sure it would be comfortable to sleep in but she just couldn't bear to climb into that bed. She was about to turn off her nightlight when something on the pillow caught her eye. It was a curve of white on the pale bedspread. She lifted it closer to the light and saw that it was a talon. She pocketed it, deciding to ask RJ about it in the morning. They all needed their rest now. As she left to join Theo on the hammocks in the common room, she didn't notice the shimmer of Camille's disappearance in the corner.