Title: "Tomb of the Dark Ones"
Chapter (1)
Written by: Shawn

Summary: The decade-old treaty that held together the fragile peace in the land of Mystique is threatened by rumors of a group of dangerous vigilantes calling themselves "Rangers" invading the Highlands in search of an ancient, evil artifact. Before risking another catastrophic war, King Zordon secretly dispatches his "Knights" to learn the truth. But nothing is as it seems...

Category: Action-Adventure/Romance/Drama/Mystery Rating: M

Timeline/Spoilers: None. This is my AU-verse. I consider it a hybrid of sorts, similar to the worlds of King Arthur or Dungeons and Dragons: a medieval land of magic and mystery Expect the unexpected.

Characters. Tommy, Kim, Jason, Trini, Zack, Billy, Aisha, Rocky, Adam, Katherine, Tanya, Zedd, Goldar, Zordon, Dulcea, and Rita - I will honor the heart and souls of the characters as we know them, tempered only by this new world that they inhabit. Some of their names will be changed slightly, but trust me, you'll have no trouble at all knowing who they are.

Special Note: While those here at and my Yahoo Group will see the full story, I'm creating a very special addition of each chapter that can only be found in the Tommy/Kim story section of the "Perfect Chemistry" forum. I've updated my FF fanfic profile and you can find the link there.

Authors Notes 1: All will be revealed in the story. Trust me.

Special Thanks: To Liz and Missa, my wonderful amazing art creators who inspire my imagination in this universe. And to Vivian for her insight and help in the fantasy world I'm trying to create. You're priceless.


"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change." Charles Darwin

"A great war leaves the country with three armies - an army of cripples, an army of mourners, and an army of thieves." German Proverb

"Above all things let us never forget that mankind constitutes one great brotherhood; all born to encounter suffering and sorrow, and therefore bound to sympathize with each other" Albert Pike


"Crucifer Cave"
Twenty-miles Northeast of the Highlands

Midnight

"This is a dwelling of ancient evil. I can feel it," Zedd muttered to himself, the scowl he wore hidden behind the thick metal-mask burned onto his face. Followed closely by his ape-beast second-in-command and thirteen Draconian warriors sworn to die on his orders, their grueling trek into this hellish place continued deeper into the cave. The thick hide of their boots dug into the wretched sludge they marched through, ever mindful of the wide-open trench beneath the creaking bridge that was filled to overflowing with the rotting corpses of ogres and men. An ungodly stench filled the musky air. "Madness dwells here."

"Then I hope our stay is brief," Goldar growled behind his captain as they made their way across the old, rocking bridge into the vast interior of the dark, shadowy cave. Jagged, limestone rock formations closed in around them like a living entity, stalking them. The torch bearer's flames cast shadows about the cave walls like devil-ghosts, adding to the howling winds that played ominously from all sides. Blood dripped steadily from the ceiling, its origin unknown. Just one of the countless mysteries of Crucifer Cave. "Lord Rancore's insistence that we search each and every one of these accursed caves is an insult. For weeks we've been secretly scouring King Zordon's territory without ever being told why."

"Lord Rancore's mystics whisper fables in his ear," Zedd noted as the walls drew narrower... the stench even stronger now than before. "He's drawn to pathetic tales of yesterday. He's much like a child in that regard." Zedd's men chuckled at their captain's bravado. He might have faithfully served their Lord Rancore, but he was certainly no fan of the man. "What he seeks here is a mystery to us all."

"Then why not remind him that you and your men, his most faithful warriors, are outnumbered behind enemy lines and running out of supplies? I've been sniffing at the grass, I'm so hungry!" Golder roared in his deep voice, with his dirty long-blade raised high at the ready. The caves were known for the bloodiest of sneak attacks. "You're one of his most revered..."

"I am a scarred creature!" Zedd halted dead in his tracks to address his second-in-command. His yellow eyes burned with fury. "When you and your kind were killing each other for scraps, I was a High General in his army until Sir Thomas tore my face in half during the great war. That transgression cost me favor in Lord Rancore's eyes."

Goldar spat sideways, and then adjusted his helmet, forged in the likeness of demons. "That was thirteen years ago. Have you not proven yourself a hundred times over since then?"

"This mask is a constant reminder of my failure, no matter my victories since." Zedd gently ran his hand over the smooth silver plate that covered most of his face. "And the Lord is not the forgiving kind."

Having fought alongside him for nearly ten seasons, Goldar knew Zedd didn't fear the Lord Rancore. In truth, he doubted Zedd feared anything. He was a most unique human, if that. The part of him that was human surely died many years ago. But Goldar was certain that even after all these years of service, his captain had a plan. And one day, a new Lord would rise. Afterwards, Rancore's body would burn on a stake to ashes, and then nothingness. "Time..."

"Time, my old friend. It is on my side, I assure you of that." Though few would ever suspect it, Zedd cracked a smile behind his mask. "All things in due season." Up ahead he heard shouting. The voice of one of his scouts sounded. He must have found the inner sanctum. Perhaps weeks of suffering through this insulting mission would finally yield something useful. "Upfront and center. Keep your eyes open!"

The rocky passage ahead grew narrower, drawing their ranks closer as the air thickened. They were all starving, exhausted, and weary from the countless battles of the last eight weeks. Battles against the unpredictable weather itself, which had already claimed several of Zedd's men. Against the creatures that hunted near this great gorge, disgusting, fowl beasts that bore hides so thick they couldn't be burned for food. Against thieves, villagers, and anyone that might alert King Zordon of their presence.

Thankfully, they hadn't encountered those so-called phantoms, the vigilantes calling themselves "Rangers," who were quickly becoming living-legends in the Highlands. They were fast becoming an unpreditcable element he found troublesome to a growing degree.

Barely able to breathe the further into the cave they trekked, Zedd swore under his breath. He endlessly detested this region. But that aside, he stormed inside the small cave at the end of the dark corridor. With each step he took, he followed the ethereal glow of light that grew ever more luminous. He knew that wasn't the torch's flame. No, this was... more. Something ancient.

Something evil.

Rounding a corner, Zedd found his scout standing before a small mound of bones set in the middle of the cave. All around them were rusted broad swords, knives, and shields. Atop the bones sat a single shimmering blue jewel, as sparking as Lake Vecian's waters on a sunny day. He knew not what this was, nor where it came. But he felt its power. "Take it."

The young scout nervously knelt by the bone mound, his throat swallowing hard. They all felt it, the utter dread and hopelessness that surrounded this jewel. It stank of mongrels and hate. Nonetheless he did as he was told, extending a shaking hand and clasped the jewel.

At first, the scout felt nothing but the surprisingly cool surface of the jewel. And then a tingling feeling grew from his fingertips to a burning sensation cascading throughout entire his body. His mouth opened to scream before falling away to ashes... it was as if his body had caught fire from the inside out... his skin blackened, hardened, cracked, and then withered away... until he was no more than a mound of ash and bones.

"A mound of bones..." Zedd thought to himself. "The jewel was never placed there. Those are the remains of others who tried to take it." Whatever it was, it was extremely powerful. Retrieving this would gain him great favor in Lord Rancore's eyes. Keeping it for himself... No. Whatever his fate, this demonic jewel wasn't attached to it. At least not directly. "Vores, give me your helmet."

The black-bearded swordsman removed the helmet from his head and handed it to Zedd.

Taking a unlit torch from his back-pack, Zedd hooked the handle end through the helmet's chin-strap, effectively creating a shovel of sorts. Holding the other end of the torch, he used it to scoop the jewel off the ground with the helmet. He waited, his breath caught in his chest. Nothing. He felt nothing. So the key was that you couldn't physically touch it, he mused. Turning to Goldar, he extended the handle of the torch. "Take this outside and mount it on one of our dead warriors' horses, then tie it to my own."

"As you wish. Just so long as we leave this fowl place." Golder took the torch, summoning the others to follow. He knew his captain often needed a moment alone to gather his thoughts after a successful mission.

Zedd's eyes fastened on something. In the corner of the cave rested a Drexel shield barring a highly reflective surface. He was drawn to it even as the sight of himself gnawed at his senses. Hairless and scarred for life. Doomed to wear this smooth, silver mask to hide the horrors of what was left of his face after Sir Thomas nearly killed him. Shamed him.

It always came back to that.

The young Knight who he underestimated in battle. Zedd paid a heavy price for his ego at the time. He was far too sure of himself, being the youngest general in Lord Rancore's army at the time. While the healers stitched together what was left of his face, he silently swore that vengeance would be his someday. He would die seeking to attain it. Nothing would stand in his way. And as that young Knight's name and legend grew famous all over the continent, his own died with the stain of his demotion and ridicule.

But Zedd was a patient man. Rage didn't govern his actions. He understood the need to grow stronger. Become a better warrior. Grow his underground network. And build secret alliances among the Lord's army. Several hundred warriors swore allegiance to him in private, but they were not nearly enough to overthrow Rancore. All things would be accomplished in the fullness of time.

The years had hardened him... removed any fear he had... and stroked the flames of his burning vengeance.

But first, Zedd knew he would need an empire. And an army, the likes of which could take Castle Bastion and all of Eltar by force.

Then he would own the entire world. Lord Zedd did indeed have a nice ring to it.

But sitting upon a throne with the world at his feet wouldn't compare to the feeling of delivering his final revenge. One day, he would find something that Sir Thomas cherished above all else. Something he loved more than his own life. And on that day...

... he would tear it apart piece by piece.


"The Forest of Pylia"
Ten miles west of U'selade village

The Highlands

Midnight

With the blackest cold imaginable gripping her heart, she watched from the apex of a small dirt hill, as they blindly approached her in the dead of night.

Four large swordsmen on armored horseback led a old, wooden-frame carriage filled with newly abducted slaves. Ten of them, by her estimation. They were huddled together in rags, cold and likely wounded and were no doubt victims of the recent brutal raid on Jashiek she'd heard about a short time ago ago. The small, peaceful human village near Berla lake was already suffering from a deadly outbreak of Cameria plague and groups of roaming thieves had been preying on their dwindling numbers for weeks now. The village had been burned to the ground by outlaw raiders tonight. Thick billowing clouds of smoke were still visible if you looked skyward to the west. Most of the villagers were slaughtered, their belongings stolen and divided amongst the monsters who killed without mercy. The remaining strong men and attractive women were shackled and "given" to those who felt pillaging wasn't enough and wanted slaves as well.

They'd be sold at one of several lawless cities in the surrounding Highland territories. Many years ago, slavery was explicitly outlawed in this part of Mystique. That was the law of Eltar. The will of the so-called just King Zordon that sat atop the throne of this land.

She'd kill for him to experience just one day of the miserable, suffering life of a slave. A life she had known all too well for nearly two years. Perhaps then he would truly enforce the law and order his kingdom was supposed to stand for. Or perhaps not. She feared... no, she felt... she knew that he no longer cared about the people. He'd washed his hands of those beneath his notice long ago. King Zordon and his brave and noble Knights...

Worthless, all of them.

Nonetheless, a new justice had come to the Highlands. Ranger justice. The poor, the sick, and the defenseless would no longer suffer the consequences of a uncaring King's reign. From now on, things were going to be different. Very different. Criminals would intimately know fear again. The dark shadows they laid in wait to attack from would rebel against them now, forcing them into the light of justice.

"By the Gods!" Grissom shouted, drawing his horse to a full stop. His brows narrowed at the terrifying vision before him. His men did the same as all eyes were drawn the heavily cloaked figure awaiting them at the top of the hill. Seated on the back of a black horse, its clothing appeared so dark it melted into the very night itself, offering no evidence of the height or weight of the person. Its hood and cowl completely shrouded the rider's face as if it had none at all. The vision remained eerily still, as if the wind itself refused to blow in its presence. "That's one of those demons I heard about!"

The other four riders quickly drew their swords, immediately leaping from their horses. They assumed fighting stances around the carriage, ready to face the dark creatures they'd heard ghastly rumors about for months now. Supposedly, they attacked without warning or provocation. They ate their victim's hearts and could vanish in the blink of an eye. There were supposed to be hundreds of them... moving faster than the eye could see. They were no sex at all, a new being in this world. And they never, ever said a single word to anyone they attacked.

Bloated and fowl, gripping his long broadsword with both his large hands, Kalen began stalking towards the phantom, who did not so much as tilt its head. His heart beat a primal drum, preparing him for battle. "I've heard of your kind, demon!" he spat out, edging ever closer to the creature. "I do not fear you. I have killed over a hundred men in my lifetime. AND I SHALL ADD YOUR HEAD TO MY COLLECTION!"

The cloaked figure gracefully swung its right leg over the horse, a black boot crushing against Kalen's skull with a sickening thud. The hulking man twisted on his feet before quickly regaining his footing. His head wound wept steadily, coating his grimace in crimson. "I'm going to kill you now!" With renewed rage, he wildly slashed his broadsword sword with such force his entire body lunged at his enemy. He swore his eyes betrayed him when the creature simply faded sideways out of the reach of his attack and then parried his next strike with a sword he'd hadn't even seen it carrying. Before he could attack again, agonizing pain tore through his legs courtesy of the creature's sword slicing across his kneecaps, tearing the flesh. "Arrggghh!! Kill it!! Kill it before it kills us all!!"

The four swordsmen felt the gusting winds produce an animalistic howl around them as the full moon suddenly hid behind the clouds above, drowning the forest in utter darkness. With hatred and fear pounding in their chests, they quickly advanced toward the phantom...

... not one of them made it.

From the towering birch trees around them descended three more phantoms, swords raised, their voluminous black cloaks rippling in the wind. They attacked with such fierce speed and blunt force that the slavers were overwhelmed. Kalen, Jackel, Murse, Grissom, and Faul nearly hit each other while trying to defend themselves. The creatures were barely visible and furiously fought as if they were one living entity bred to inspire fear and hopelessness.

Days later, while filled with ale and vigor, the mending swordsmen will spin exaggerated tales of facing the so-called phantoms and besting them to a draw. None will speak of being knocked unconscious, hog-tied together, and waking up on the side of the road in the morning. None will speak of the sheer, uncanny skill the phantoms displayed as magnificent warriors, reducing their fight into a lopsided defeat that was over before any of them even knew it began.

Shivering and huddled together, several slaves strained their eyes in the dark to witness the battle, hoping to capture sight of the phantoms first-hand as they had become living legends in the Highlands. The slash and cut of swords, coupled with the grunts and moans of intense pain, were all that any of them would be able to describe days later. They would regale all who would listen that the phantoms fought without making a single sound. That they moved like ghosts, their swords a blur of silver slashing through the night.

And finally, the phantoms were their saviors.

"Please help us!" begged an elderly female near the front of the carriage. The phantom who stood atop the small hill pointed towards them. Two others broke ranks, quickly approaching the carriage. The slaves backed away, praying they weren't delivered from one master only to be captured by another. Fortunately, fate smiled on them this night.

The two phantoms assaulted opposite sides of the carriage, fiercely cutting through two metal chains that held the back doors together. When they were opened, the slaves helped each other out, still very worried about what was to come. The nocturnal music of the forest played with their minds as they huddled together once more. They could see the "Leader," for lack of a better term, and another phantom binding the swordsmen's arms and legs up ahead.

Suddenly, all eyes fell at the sound of a dirty satchel being tossed at their feet. Gold coins peeked out even in the dead of night, more than any of them had seen in their lives. A modestly taller phantom walked up to one of the men, his arm shielding a young girl behind his back, mostly likely his daughter. He was bloodied and beaten, but alive. It was obvious he needed a healer in the worst way.

"Take," ordered the phantom in a clipped, deep voice. It pointed to the satchel, and then swordsmen's horses. "Take and go. Now."

The man cautiously gathered the satchel in his hands. "Thank you, phantom."

"Rangers," it corrected the man, a single black-gloved finger pointed at him. "Rangers," it repeated. "Tell everyone."

The male slave nodded before urgently ushering the slaves toward the horses. Taking two to a horse, they wasted no time reaching a full gallop, the ground quickly pelted with hoof prints as they fled into the night, possessions no more.

"Slaves freed with no casualties," the taller of the two Rangers commented upon removing the dark cloak and cowl covering her lovely face. "Not a bad night's work."

"I couldn't have said it better myself, Trinity." A beautiful Nubian woman appeared from beneath her cloak, acknowledging her good friend. "If the slaves continue north, they'll hit Vici City by sunrise. Hopefully, they'll find a new start there."

"From your mouth to the Gods' ears, Tetanya." Brushing her luxuriously long dark hair aside, Trinity found her other two friends struggling to drag the four swordsmen towards the carriage. Her arms crossed her chest, amusement lifting her lips into a smile. "I don't suppose you two require assistance?"

Dropping one of the thick binds from her hand, another beautiful Nubian woman appeared from beneath her cowl. "Trinity, I swear sometimes I just want to shove my sword..." The three uncloaked females began laughing before she even finished, all working together now. Trinity quickly offered her help in dragging the swordsmen into the carriage. "Let's see how these cretins enjoy life behind bars for a while."

"They certainly deserve that and more," noted the final phantom, removing her cowl and revealing the long chestnut tresses hidden beneath. Though shorter than her sisters-in-arms, her stature towered as their leader. The creation of the Rangers was a group decision, the subterfuge and creation of mystery were all her grand design. "The slaves will do their part in keeping the Rangers' name out there with the people. As for those slavers, I'm sure those worthless dogs will spin their own version as well. Just so long as word spreads."

"No matter," Kaiesha added. "Lives were saved and I'm sure Lord Rancore's men will learn of our efforts. They'll come looking for us someday soon and once we're able to capture one of them, we'll learn what they're searching for in the Highlands. Their presence here continues to trouble me greatly."

"Agreed," Trinity added. "He's breaking the treaty and risking a war he can't possibly win."

"That makes finding out what he's seeking our top priority." Ignoring the chilly night air, Kimberly locked the carriage's back door, sealing the slavers inside. "Tetanya, ride the carriage east to the outskirts of Seseel village. Their hunting parties will find this trash before long."

Climbing aboard the carriage's horse, Tetanya grabbed the reigns. "If any of you eat all of Skullovich's duck soup before I arrive home, I assure you there will be hell to pay." When they all rolled their eyes, she smiled and then gave the horse a mild nudge, brokering it forward.

Kimberly of Hart watched her beloved sister ride off, mindful of the good work done tonight. Slavers were growing in numbers and boldness recently, something that the Ranger's leader detested, as she herself had been held captive against her will for nearly two years. Her crippled spirit soared like a Crane bird these days, but she recalled the horrors and beatings of not long ago. Although Kimberly and her sisters were spared the horrors of prostitution, as their masters weren't human, but many other slaves were not so lucky.

Sold into a grotesque life they never chose, female slaves often had to sell their bodies to provide sustenance for their families - never mind the slow death of their souls. Kimberly often worried that man's lust bordered on unquenchable at times. Nonetheless, the slaves freed tonight wouldn't share that fate. So she inhaled the brisk air of victory. Every good deed was a balm for her broken heart.

Had Olum Bayward not come into her and the girl's lives at their lowest point as slaves, teaching them the legendary skills that made him a master swordsman and hunter, she feared what they would have had to become in order to survive. His tragic death still marked her to this day, the kindly old man who gave her the ability to take her freedom back. And now those skills were being used to save lives and bring justice back to the Highlands. Her life, now her own again, had meaning.

And purpose.

Kimberly strode with Trinity and Kaisha towards their horses. "We're done here. Let's return to Elpis and get a good night's sleep."

"A good night's sleep, dearest Kimberly?" Trinity teased her. "Still searching for your sweet dreams, aren't you?"

Mounting her dark horse, Kimberly's brown eyes searched skyward. "There's nothing sweet about them, Trinity. My dreams are filled with white falcons. Therein my destiny lies."


"Castle Bastion"
The grand balcony of the castle

Overlooking the Capitol City of Eltar

Sunset

"Winged lord of the sky," Sir Thomas whispered and extended his arm against the burnt-orange sunset, lost in appreciation of the graceful white falcon soaring towards the castle walls. The pure freedom of flight had enchanted him ever since he was a small boy. And though he would never be able to fly himself, becoming a falconer at least gave him a bond to those who could. As the white falcon glided toward his wrist-brace, landing with its beautifully thin tapered wings spread, he felt young again, just as he had before the Great War had robbed him of his youth. "Welcome home, Saba. What wild adventures do you have to regale me with this evening?"

The proud falcon perched patiently and then was rewarded for its loyalty with small tidbits of bright, red meat. It hungrily ate from its master's fingertips.

Sighing peacefully, Sir Thomas fed his partner of the last six seasons. "Perhaps you aren't in the mood to share the tales of your journeys. I'm not always in a talkative mood either." The falcon flapped its wings, giving a squawk of sorts that he took as a yes. There were days when he swore this animal was as wise as any human he'd ever encountered; other times he was sure Saba saw him as a sure meal and nothing more. Nonetheless, his presence was always welcome. "Have you heard? The Knights have been called from across the land for a meeting tonight. It seems something has stirred the King."

Sir Thomas smiled when the falcon angled its head, signaling it wanted more food. He complied, reaching with his free hand into a small silver plate resting nearby. "Do you have any idea why I've enjoyed your kind so much through the years?" The falcon ate heartily and then faced him head on with something resembling a stare. It was as close to a reply as Saba ever gave. "I don't know what became of my parents when I was born. I was abandoned at a church called Elpis in the Highlands, and then raised here in a Eltar orphanage. I used to sit on the window ledge in the room I shared with three other boys and stare out at a huge Mendocino tree behind the orphanage where many different birds flocked daily. I would watch them, marveling at their freedom of being able to go anywhere they wanted in all the world. I wasn't adopted until I was thirteen, so I spent many seasons coming to admire your kind. All I ever wanted was freedom and adventure. Thankfully, a kind couple who couldn't bear children of their own took me in and loved me. They encouraged me become a falconer when they learned of my interest in birds. Who knew that interest would someday lead me into becoming a Knight?"

"You talk to that bird far more than you talk to me."

The unmistakably familiar voice drew Thomas' attention. "It's because he's better company."

Sir Jacen walked out onto the balcony, his hand covering his chest in mock outrage. "You wound me deeply," he laughed, reaching his fellow Knight as they stood together for the first time in three weeks. "Although many times I've preferred the company of my horse to your forgetful antics."

"You're free to go back to those haunted catacombs if you'd like," Thomas noted with a grin, and then watched Saba take off for parts unknown, soaring skyward. "I suppose he isn't interested in whatever the King has in store for us."

"But I am," Jacen commented, his tone growing serious. "Something's amiss."

Thomas nodded. "I assume you've heard the rumors as well?"

"They've reached Eltar?" Thomas gave another nod. Jacen grazed his chin with his hand, looking out over the sweeping vista of Eltar. "I pray the rumors are false."

"As do I. Lord Rancore doesn't possess the men or the resources to wage another war. And even if we won, we'd never be able to hold the country together with what would be left."

Jacen silently agreed, the dire dread in his best friends voice matching his own. "Rumors are just that until more evidence is gathered. More than likely, that is why the King has summoned all the Knights. Who has gathered so far?"

"Adama and Rockford arrived late last night, while William made it here mid-day. Dulcia and Zachary are with the King and his High Council as we speak."

"Then we should join them." Jacen turned to walk away when a hand caught his forearm for a moment. Without saying a word he knew the conversation to come, dreading it greatly. "I do not wish..."

"Jacen, something has to be done and soon. My wedding is two months away." Thomas came around to face his best friend. "I am your brother as surely as if we shared the same blood. I will not marry the woman you love, who loves you endlessly in return, while you stand by my side. This is madness. For the Gods' sake, run away with her."

Having thought of little else since he was summoned to return to the castle, Jacen looked profoundly troubled. "What would you have me do, Thomas? Disappear with the Duchess and lose the vast acres, farming lands and medicine the Sutherlands are offering for free if you marry their only daughter? How could I be so selfish as to cost our people such a prize?"

Exhaling deeply, Thomas shook his head. "I cannot marry Catherine. I adore her, but I do not love her, nor does she love me. Surely you must protest to her father personally."

"I have." Jacen watched his friend's face fall as he hadn't been aware of that. "He feels I lack the name recognition you enjoy. You're the face of the Empire, Thomas. With King Zordon having no heirs, you would be on a short list of candidates to become King when he is no more."

"Your name would be on that list as well; your accomplishments equal my own," Thomas argued. "We are co-leaders of the Knights. We fought side-by-side at age seventeen in a war and made it out alive. We are Generals in the Eltarian Army. Your name is spoken of with the greatest respect and awe throughout the land. Your character is impeccable. I would have words with any man who said otherwise."

Cracking a small smile, Jacen rested a hand on Thomas's shoulder. "And yet her father sees only you as worthy. But rest assured, I appreciate the argument."

"I will not consummate the marriage if it takes place at all. I won't. I swear it." Thomas watched Jacen close his eyes in frustration, and then brush his feelings aside as a gentle night air blew past them. "I could disappear..."

"No," Jacen was quick to cut him off. "Brother, for the time being, we must focus on whatever assignment the King brings before us. I have a feeling it is of the greatest importance for us all to be gathered on such short notice. When it is done, when shall revisit this talk. Until then..."

"Until then," Thomas agreed, sharing a smile with Jacen. "Besides, there's one good reason I could never marry Catherine."

"What, pray tell is that?"

"She's a swan," Thomas explained while casting a last gaze to the heavens. "And my dreams are filled with cranes."


White and red robes of the highest quality silk were worn by the eight Royal guards posted outside the huge oak doors of the "War Room" as Sir Jacen and Sir Thomas approached. All bowed before the Grand Generals, and two of the guardsmen opened the heavy doors for them to enter.

Clad in black boots and pants with loose-fitting white and red tunics bearing the "Eltar" Capital crest above the right shoulder, Sir Thomas and Sir Jacen strode into the magnificent chamber and were announced before the assembly. Both acknowledged King Zordon by drawing their jeweled swords in salute. The King favored them with a respectful nod, seated at the round table he presided over.

Bleached white walls fitted with Royal Eltarian flags and golden torches gave a majestic, radiant glow to this hallowed hall. Ornate candlesticks bearing the crest of the King lifted the comforting scent of burning cedar in the air. Ancient, priceless paintings of Kings past hung from the high ceiling, lording over those present even in death. The legendary mahogany round table, created so that all who served the kingdom were counted as equal, was designed as a ring with a hollow center. Simplistic and symbolic at the same time best described its decor. Twenty-four chairs circled the table, seating the King, his High Council, and the other Knights.

Thirteen chairs remained vacant, symbolic of the Great War and the valiant Knights who sacrificed their lives for the kingdom. Gone, but never, ever forgotten

Due to the immense size of the kingdom, it was a truly rare occurrence that found the entire ruling body of Eltar assembled together at the same time. Sir Jacen, Sir Thomas, Sir William, Sir Adama, Sir Rockford, Sir Zachary, and Lady Dulcia were the last of the Great Knights of Eltar. Also present were the King's trusted High Council, Lady Angelica, Lady Melyssa, Lady Vivienne, and Lord DeSean.

As the Royal guards and the announcer quietly exited the chamber, King Zordon peered around his round table while wearing a most serious, dire expression on his face. Worry lines that appeared not long after his fiftieth birthday months ago seemed to have deepened in recent days. His crown felt heavier now than ever before. These were troubling times indeed. "Forgive my lack of beginning this meeting with our holy grace, but I shall get to the point. Dreadful rumors have begun to spread throughout the kingdom. And while I am adverse to giving mere gossip any notice, this one in particular must be addressed and refuted," he punctuated when his fist pounded atop the table. The sound echoed about the chamber. "As I'm sure some of you have heard, there's word that Lord Baron Rancore has sent warriors into the Highlands searching for something. If true, then he is in direct violation of our peace treaty. With the wide-spread infighting in his own kingdom draining his already depleted resources, to risk war with us can only mean one thing. What he seeks must be incredibly powerful and deadly. Something worth risking his entire kingdom over."

"What of the reports of this so-called outlaw gang calling themselves Rangers, your majesty?" Sir Adama inquired, his eyes scanning the assembly. "The tales I've heard about them are vastly mysterious. There's talk that they aren't even human. They could be spreading rumors to further their own name and recognition. This might not be the work of Lord Rancore at all."

"I have considered that," King Zordon thoughtfully replied. "It is an issue I shall address later in this meeting. For now, I have new orders for you all." Turning to address his High Council, the King continued. "Lady Angelica and Lady Melyssa are to leave at first light for the city of Caravine."

Sharing a fretful look with Lady Melyssa, the supervisor for the capitol city of Eltars Healers Academy commented, "Your majesty, Sir Rockford and Sir Adama were just there calming the people's fears over the raiders plaguing their lands. Surely our presence won't bring them the same comfort as a Knight?"

"Lady Angelica, when you arrive with three battalions of soldiers as well as a personal message to the people from me, they will be comforted and assured of their security."

Not one to usually bite her tongue, Lady Melyssa chose her words carefully as she sensed the stress the King was under. "Your majesty, the construction of the Bremilin Alchemist Society temple is in its most critical stage. I am needed to oversee its final design. We are on the cusp of a number of new discoveries that will benefit the kingdom for many seasons to come. Forgive me, but I question the wisdom of this move. Certainly, a Knight's presence would soothe the people's fears more. The citizens of Caravine see members of the High Council as little more that glorified politicians."

Under any other circumstances the King would agree with her. But not tonight. Not under 'these' circumstances. "Milady, I apologize for the inconvenience, but at this time you are needed elsewhere. I assure you the resources and additional manpower needed to complete the temple will be available to you upon the completion of your mission. For now, you must secure that region as it is vital to the kingdom. My orders stand."

Sighing, Lady Melyssa gave a bow. "Yes, your majesty."

"With that matter settled," the King proceeded, "Lord Desean and Lady Vivienne, you will will travel to Fahlor Valley to meet with the regional governors there. I want a full progress report on the rebuilding of Vangress dam and an on-site assessment of the recent flood damage to the Costler crop fields."

Ever perceptive, Lady Vivienne offered no rebuttal to her new assignment, as she felt the King was dealing with something more than he was letting on. He was a wise and just King, one she trusted absolutely. But with this new task, it didn't play to her strengths as the High Justice of the Eltarian Court system. Nonetheless, she was sure the King had his reasons. "Has word been sent of our impending arrival, your majesty?"

"No. And no word will be sent beforehand. In addition, two heavy battalions will escort you."

Having faithfully worked in the the King's service for nearly twelve seasons as the High Governor of Eltar, Lord DeSean sensed far more was to this unexpected trip than was being addressed. "Your majesty, respectfully, you would not send us to that region with two whole battalions unless you expected trouble. Traditionally, a single Knight's presence would suffice."

"I am..." the King paused, considering his options. "I am of the mind that these days I require those I trust the most to first-hand witness the actions of those I'm coming to question. My friend, I value few as I do you and Lady Vivienne. For now my word will have to be enough."

"It is, your majesty," Lord DeSean accepted without further debate.

"Now that the matter is settled," King Zordon said, "My High Counsel is dismissed. Good journey. May the power protect you."

As the High Counsel bid their respectful farewells, Sir Jacen and Sir Thomas shared a look of deep concern. Sir Adama and Sir Rockford were shocked by their emergency summons from Caravine, further sign that dark events were unfolding. Sipping a cup of Drollen tea, Sir William sensed the ominous mood of the King. So did Lady Dulcia, whom many considered closer to the King than either would ever admit. Sir Zachary grazed his hand over the hilt of his sword, worried that very soon very soon he'd need to use it.

No doubt matters of the kingdom were far darker than even they feared.

"My Knights, grave days are ahead," the King warned, his hands folded on the table, his gaze piercing. "As you all well know, if Lord Baron Rancore, or any under his rule, enter Eltarian lands unannounced it is a direct violation of the peace treaty that holds this fragile world together." He continued after a moment's pause. "Dark rumors continue to mount by the day. I fear that the Highlands have fallen beneath our notice."

"Governess Divatox is a viper," Lady Dulcia spoke up, offering no favor to the regional governor of the Highlands. The only living female Knight felt her anger rising at the mere mention of the Governess. "I have suspected she possessed a treacherous nature for many seasons. And with all due respect, I never felt she deserved her position as regional governor. Power and fame drive her interests."

"I'm inclined to agree, " Sir Jacen said, and then bowed his head. "Spies are reporting something of a dictatorship growing in the Highlands. The Governess sends reports of peace and tranquility, while we hear of child prostitution, rape, violence, and outlaw gangs rampaging the area. I no longer believe we can take her word for anything."

Sir Thomas gave a nod before addressing the assembly. "She's been left to her own devices for far too long. If anyone is to blame for the lawlessness raging throughout the Highlands, it is..."

"Me." King Zordon's authoritative voice boomed throughout the chamber. His hand lifted before any could argue his claim. "My kingdom is massive, while my most trusted are few. We are stretched thin at every corner of the world, and the recent terrible weather seasons have begun to strain even our resources. To put it bluntly, things have slipped through the cracks under my watch for some time now. And while I can't change what has happened, it doesn't mean I will allow it to continue any further."

"Say the word, your majesty," Sir Rockford interjected, a sly smile tugging at his lips. "By morning I could summon ten battalions of men. We could be in the Highlands within six moons."

"No, Sir Rockford." Slowly shaking his head, King Zordon took a moment to gaze at each of his beloved Knights... perhaps lingering on the lovely Lady Dulcia a moment more. "While the order of Eltar must be restored to the Highlands should the rumors prove true, the greater most concern lies with Lord Rancore and the prospect of war."

"He's surrounded himself with mystics, if word rings true," Sir William offered. "There's talk of his keen interest in the dark arts and the arcane underworld. If he has secretly engaged his forces in the Highlands, then we must promptly ascertain his intentions."

"Agreed." Sir Adama sat up straighter. "The Highlands are no staging ground for an invasion of Eltar. As a strategic territory, its practically worthless, militarily. He's searching for something deadly, I assure you of that."

"I have said this before, and I shall say it again," Sir Zachary began detailing his thoughts. "While my truest nature enjoys fun and a bit of ale at times..." All present shared a smile. "I feel the time has come to end Lord Rancore's existence."

"Assassination?" King Zordon questioned.

Pausing momentarily, Sir Zachary nodded. "There are other leaders in Despera who would be open to real talks with us that might produce something far more amicable than the peace treaty. Imagine a united world."

"A united world? In our lifetime..." Lady Dulcia tried to wrap her mind around the concept. "It seems like a myth."

"But one worth fighting for," Sir Jacen replied. "Your majesty, what are your orders?"

"Under the guise of traveling swordsmen, all of you will journey in secret to the Highlands. No one must suspect you are Knights. Find the truth about Lord Rancore's interest in the area. And while you're there, judge Governess Divatox's rule first hand. If she needs to be removed, I want to do it swiftly. But only if the rumors are true." King Zordon rose to his feet, followed by all his Knights. "Sir Adama and Sir Rockford, make the necessary preparations for the long journey. Sir William, plot the fastest course to the Highlands. As for the rest of you, head to the capitol city and leave word that each of you are being reassigned across the land. We will use rumors to our advantage while we work in secret. Report back to the castle by sunrise to begin your journey. You leave at first morning's light. Good journey and may the power protect you."


"Horde" Castle

The second capital city of Mystique

Despera

Late night

"The power will not protect them this time," Lord Baron Rancore's deep voice slithered coldly over the souls of everyone present. "In fact, it will be the very blade that slits King Zordon's throat."

Seated atop a marble throne outfitted with the crushed bones of his enemies, his harsh grey-black gaze roamed his tremendous chamber. Grissom and Mase, his right-hands, withering mystics sworn to die in service of their Lord, awaited his command. The incredibly alluring Empress Ritalia, his deadly sorceress wife, looked on. "My ascension is at hand. The Great Oracle has spoken of the path I must follow. King Zordon's rule will crumble before his very eyes!!"

Lifting a single black-gloved hand, Lord Rancore gave a silent order to the hulking Ogre guards stationed on the other end of the black-stone throne room. The towering, old iron frame doors slowly creaked open, flecks of rust falling from their hinges. Zedd and Goldar swiftly entered the chamber and then fell to their knees alongside the others. Silence reigned, as no one dared speak unless first spoken to by his excellency. Mindful as he was of Zedd's distaste for him, Lord Rancore took particular pleasure in seeing the human bowing before him. "Show me."

Reaching inside his dark vest, Zedd removed a small brown satchel. Upon opening it, the demonic blue jewel lifted ominously into the air, drawn towards Rancore's bare, outstretched hand. Zedd's heart raced, begging for the jewel to reach his hand and end his disgusting life. As if the sight of the bastard hybrid of a female slave and an ogre wasn't enough to turn even his strong stomach, that he had to kneel before this fowl thing was a further insult. Someday though... someday.

Rancore's eyes widened as he realized the mystics had been right; Lord Rancore halted the jewel's progress just before it reached his hand. He swore that for a brief heartbeat, Zedd had scowled that he hadn't taken the jewel into his grasp. Such a thought wasn't surprising. Many wanted him dead. Prayed, wished, and plotted his demise while even smiling in his face. The lot of them were eventually torn apart, their bones used to make his throne even more imposing to look at.

None defied Lord Baron Rancore and lived.

The shimmering blue jewel was suspended in mid-air before Lord Rancore's outstretched hand. He hadn't believed the "Eye of Zion" had even existed, yet now proof positive levitated before him. Further evidence that his destiny was at hand. "Grissom, is this the genuine article?"

Rising slowly to his full height, modest as it was, the one-hundred and twenty-four year old mystic carefully approached the jewel. The ancient books he'd consulted about the jewel when the Great Oracle began detailing its importance to Lord Rancore were older than him, older than almost anything in the known world. And now a powerful relic from a forgotten age sat before him.

Grissom raised a pale, wrinkled hand to his scalp, brushing through the long gray strands of his hair. Crystal blue eyes scanned over the jewel. He could feel its immense power in his very bones. Ancient, evil magic created it, the likes of which was not thought to exist anymore. "My Lord, it is. The Eye of Zion is yours, just as the Great Oracle predicted."

Nodding, Lord Rancore drained his goblet of Despera Blood Ale before he spoke. "Mase, report?"

Unable to resist sending a cold glare Zedd's way, Mase scurried to his feet to stand beside Grissom. The black dwarf drew back its dark cowl while inspecting the jewel. Such power... it reeked of horrible potential. The Great Oracle, silent for ten generations past, began whispering to Lord Rancore weeks ago... chanting fables of omnipotent power... and a dire warning should he pursue this power. "It is the Eye, my Lord. I am certain of it. But grave danger accompanies this jewel. To touch it with a mere bare hand would bring instant death, should the legend hold true."

With his magic holding the jewel in place, Lord Rancore's stare favored it with the utmost curiosity. "Such a small trinket, and yet it can hold limitless power." Turning his head, he addressed those that brought him this prize. "Zedd and Goldar. Wretched though you both are, your abilities are worth the high praise my soldiers regard you with. You have done well."

Wishing for nothing more than the chance to shove his sword through Lord Rancore's throat, Zedd held his tongue lest it be cut off. He bowed modestly, ever patient in his ultimate pursuits. "Thank you, my Lord. But I must warn you that my forces engaged in battle five times in the Highlands. Surely word of our presence will reach the kingdom of Eltar. And if that happens, war will follow."

With a sole finger grazing over the tattooed mark of Lordship on his neck, Lord Baron Rancore rose from his throne. He slowly approached those assembled, his cursed, living cape swirling around his broad shoulders. Tall and imposingly powerful, he hated that Zedd was his equal in stature, even though he was certainly no match for his brilliance. After all, Lord Rancore was above all else, a visionary. "King Zordon does not want a war with us, no matter that he knows he could win. His kingdom has grown too fast and he's lost touch with his people. He can no longer see the forest for the trees. I know this man well, Zedd. He will investigate the rumors throughly and then ask to meet with me to discuss his findings in hopes of avoiding war at all costs. Diplomacy rules the Kingdom of Eltar. Such frivolousness will buy me weeks, if not months of time to accomplish my goal."

"And what if you don't?" Zedd could not drag the words back inside his mouth if he tried. Standing tall in the face of a man who could have him killed with but a raised brow, he could no more appear like a whipped dog than he could hold the sun in his hands.

"Failure does not exist to me," Lord Rancore explained. "The Great Oracle has spoken. I am meant to drown Eltar in its own blood and rule this world." His voice rose to a booming noise. "This is my destiny! Just as remaining a mangled shell of a man forever trapped behind a metal mask is yours." Turning his back, Lord Rancore swept his cape in a billowing fashion, appearing swallowed by its dark specter. "Empress, I have offered you any jewel that exists in this world, but I cannot offer you this one. Would you like to know why?"

Rising to her feet, Empress Ritalia bowed her head. "I live for your will, my Lord. I do not question."

Lord Rancore rarely allowed his human side to emerge, but Empress Ritalia's tight-fitting gown of dark velvet so complimented her stunning frame, he swallowed hard in the back of his throat. Nonetheless, he knew of her treacherous spirit. He allowed her secrets, as she was powerful and able to exhaust his carnal desires. She was a viper better kept close than at a distance. "This jewel is called the Eye of Zion. Legend speaks of it being used to imprison the Dark Ones!"

"BLASPHEMY!" screamed Goldar at the mere mention of the Dark Ones.

"Silence," Lord Rancore whispered before taking his throne once more. "Or be silenced."

Gritting his teeth with all his might, Goldar bowed his head once more. "Forgive me, my Lord."

With Lord Rancore preoccupied for a time, Zedd risked a gaze toward Empress Ritalia. Lord Rancore's wife she may be, but her passions were sated in his bed alone. She swore at the height of every single climax that she belonged to him. Just as someday this entire kingdom would. The most subtle curling of her lips both aroused him and assured that she knew what he was thinking. Their elicit affair, if it became public, would see them hanged. But for a woman such as her, death was an easy risk.

"It was said that the Dark Ones once burned our world until the surface was like glass," Lord Rancore began with a rousing tone of voice. "They massacred the living almost into extinction. And when the remaining population of the entire world numbered into the hundreds, it was said that a powerful group of sorcerers hailing from Zion imprisoned the Dark Ones for all time. They were trapped in Crysis, the forbidden land no one can ever find. And then the sorcerers disappeared without a trace, leaving a single journal behind of their exploits that volumes of books were written from."

"Nearly two thousand years have passed," he continued, now circling the throne room, his hands clasped behind his back. "This is a new day and age. The secrets of Zion await me. The Great Oracle has provided the information I need to continue/succeed in my divine quest. I will discover the way to Crysis."

Zedd growled, "It is said that the spirits of the dead dwell there. It is the land of the lost. This is madness!"

"No... Destiny." Lord Baron Rancore shut his eyes to the assembly, exhaling a deeply held breath. "It is said that this very jewel absorbed the powers of the Dark Ones almost to the point of killing them, so that they could be imprisoned forever. But I will discover the way to release the Dark Ones. And then I will use this jewel to steal their powers and merge them with my own. I will becoming a living God on this planet and no King... no army, or Knights, or anything living or dead will stand in the way of my absolute rule. I WILL BECOME A GOD!!"


The End of Chapter 1

PS: Massive, massive thanks to Vivian, Liz, and Kim for all their help and support.