Disclaimer--- They ain't mine, wah!

Author's note--- This story is another chapter in my long-running Dragon Chronicles. Not every story in this series will be listed on FF.net, but all of them are listed in chronological writing order on my webpage. If you'd like to find out more about Zelda or other characters that will appear later in this series, visit my website at http://members.fortunecity.com/zeldathedragon and go to the information page. The rest of my stories can be found in the fanfiction section.

Rating- PG 13 violence and the red stuff.

The Spiritfall Saga

Part Four

A Harder Heart

Written by Zelda

                It had been longer than he would have liked to think. Wildwing would have liked to think this all away, but he never had a very bright imagination. It had been almost a month, and with every passing day since that last battle with Dragaunus, since she had left, the team had sunk into some sleepy coma, each one of them slowly withdrawing from the other, the Pond echoing only in silence. Wildwing knew where they all were, most of them anyway.

                Dive was locked in his bunk, half-heartedly reading old comics and living mainly on junk food. He was rarely seen, and avoided conversations even with him.

                Mallory was either in the Rec. Room or practicing alone on the ice, but the lack of noise above didn't support the latter. She too, was almost always alone.

                Sometimes Duke joined her in the empty activity of practicing their slapshots, but he was almost never in the Pond. Always "out", Wildwing noted.

                Grin wavered between the rooftop or his bunk, a meditation crystal always at his feet.

                Tanya fidgeted nervously in her lab, tinkering with Puckworld knew what.

                And he, well he was no better. Wildwing sat up at the console of Drake 1 and ran his fingers over the keyboard, in empty boredom. There had been little if anything to break the stillness. A few minor calls, some robberies, a gas station holdup, little things. Their standard runs out in the Migrator were now becoming mechanical with repetition. In fact, Klegghorn had taken care of most things himself. The only other thing to occupy the team was their games, and they were not even playing whole-heartedly. The Ducks were currently in a 6 game skid, the longest in their history. With their playing rival Los Angeles in just a few days, the tension around the fans could be cut with a knife, and the thought of facing the pre- and post-game media gave Wing a headache. It had been almost a month, and not a peep from Dragaunus. Wildwing would have liked to pass it off as the Saurian's recovery time. Zelda had really taken him out, and Wildwing had never thought her able to do that much damage single-handedly. Still, he couldn't shake the feeling that Lizard Lips was up to something. He felt, at times, the Saurian's beady yellow eyes laughing at him. He hated that feeling... it was the same feeling he got when he thought about Canard...

                Suddenly, a light started to blink on the console. Wildwing looked up slowly before he realized just what it was: an incoming com message, from Silver's com! "Team, look's like there's news on Zelda, get to the Ready Room ASAP." he ordered shortly into his own com.

                It was only a couple of seconds before Grin popped his head in.

                Tanya and Mallory walked in together, and then Dive.

                Duke brought up the rear.

                "Where have you been?" Wildwing asked.

                "Hanging around." Duke replied lightly.

                Wing turned and activated Drake 1's screen. "Silver? Is there news?" he asked. But Silver didn't appear on the screen. It was actually a dark gray lion, and an old-looking one at that. He stared back in some surprise.

                "Hello?" he asked.

                "Ebony?" Grin replied. "Is that you?"

                Wildwing turned around. "Who's Ebony?"

                "An elder." Grin whispered back.

                "Hello?" Ebony repeated, tapping the com in confusion. "What is this thing?"

                "Ebony, this is Wildwing." Wing answered. "You've picked up one of our communicators."

                "Oh there you are..." the lion got a visual, and stared at them curiously. "I don't know how this thing got in here, but I smelled it a mile away..."

                "Actually, I'm glad you stumbled across it." Wildwing continued. "Silver took the com in case he had any news to tell us about Zelda. He hasn't been in touch with us for a while."

                "Because there has been no news." Ebony shook his head wearily.

                "Nothing? She hasn't come back?" Wildwing said hopelessly. "It's almost been a month..."

                "And we have counted every day." the elder nodded. "But there is no sign of her, nothing at all."

                "Not even in your mind?" Grin broke in.

                Ebony stared back at him curiously.

                "I know a little of Zelda's sense, and yours must be much more refined. Have you or the other elders no knowledge of her state?"

                "Not even we can say for sure." he replied slowly, still cautious. "Such things must run their course, it is the will of fate."

                "Ebony, I hate to put you on the spot like this." Wildwing asked. "And I know it may make you uncomfortable. The leaders have been very short with us in talking about Zelda. They won't tell us what a 'spiritfall' is. But they did say that they've consulted you, maybe you could help us out."

                The lion shook himself gruffly, melted snow flying off in droplets. "It's not so much as they're concealing." he mumbled. "But you would not understand."

                "Any information you could give us..." Wildwing trailed off.

                "I will explain it as well as I can." Ebony replied wisely. "But it won't make things clearer for you, if anything."

                "Please." Wildwing said.

                Ebony peered at them with aged curiosity. "You desire to know everything, don't you?" he asked. "Knowledge does not give you control Ducks. If anything, it will make you more helpless. You are not part of this."

                "I can't help thinking that we are." Grin spoke up again.

                "Very well, as you requested." Ebony shook his head and sat back. "My memory goes back for a long time, and I am one of the few elders who remembers stories about the last spiritfall."

                "But what is it?" Wildwing asked.

                "A spiritfall? Dangerous, yes, and at the same time prophetic. We are certain of that now, that is why we worry. We can't lose her, not so young."

                "Lose her?" Wildwing interrupted. "What do you mean?"

                "Spiritfalls are known only from the last one remembered, and that resulted in the death of that nameless creature that went through it. That's the dangerous part. We have lost her mentally."

                "She's gone crazy?" Wildwing translated.

                "Not quite the proper terminology." Ebony grunted. "More like lost us, lost herself, lost her instinct. We believe a spiritfall to be the last basal instinct that we have."

                "And what instinct is that?"

                "The instinct to go home." Ebony said. "That is all that it is."

                "So she's going home..." Grin mused. "That's what I thought... with the north..."

                Ebony growled lowly. "So she had let you know that much." he frowned. "You know too much already."               

                "Why are you keeping this from us?" Wildwing asked, losing his patience. "She's just as much our friend--"

                The lion cut him off with a loud snarl. "Never, Duck, never put her mere friendship over her place here." Ebony snapped. The outburst calmed both of them, and Ebony regained himself after a few moments. "We keep our secrets to prevent them from being destroyed. Especially this one. A spiritfall, even if it is deadly, must not be tampered with. It is the way of fate." he repeated.

                "We apologize." Wildwing said sincerely. "We know it's not our place to interfere... we just want her to be safe."

                "She knows what's best." Ebony corrected. "You see Ducks, there is a place for every one of our kind here. When one leaves it, another will emerge to fill it. It has always been that way. And the same goes for the leaders. Fate has told us there will always be a thinker, a strongheart, a guardian, and a healer to lead us." He sat back wisely.

                "Let me guess then." Mallory spoke up. "Diamond is the healer, and Northstar is the thinker... no, the strongheart."

                "The leader of leaders." Ebony nodded.

                "Silver is the thinker, yes."

                "And Zelda." Ebony bowed. "Is the guardian. That is why she's been driven to the edge. It can happen to any and all of the leaders. It's like a cycle, a long cycle, and it has happened again now."

                "And it's our fault." Wildwing shook his head.

                "It is a combination of things." Ebony corrected. "Zelda will tell you when she gets back."

                "But you said it's dangerous." Wildwing reminded. "What if she doesn't come back, because of us?" Ebony closed his eyes.

                "Then that is something you, as well as we, will live with for the rest of our days." he replied. "Now Ducks, I have told you all that is useful. Am I not right? This gives you no control, you never had any." The lion leaned back wisely. "Now, you and I are equals. You know what I know. Still, we can do nothing. It is beyond us."

                "Still, thank you Ebony." Wildwing said sincerely.

                "And to you Ducks, good luck. No doubt we will see more of you in the future." With that, the connection was suddenly cut off.

                "Hey!" Dive stepped forward. "What's with hanging up?"

                "That was Ebony's doing." Wildwing turned around. "Guess those elders don't talk freely."

                "Freely enough." Grin mumbled, and turned around.

                "So Ebony was right?" Mallory asked after him.

                "Yes." Grin replied darkly, not looking back. "The worst, and only, thing we can do, is nothing." Moping, he left the others in the Ready Room.

                Ty would have been disgusted with him. Grin walked out into the Anaheim twilight and sat, looking over the horizon with a sour taste in his mouth. What Ebony had said, had raised some important issues. Why did he need to know everything? Why didn't he trust Zelda to work this out on her own? Was it a control issue? A power issue? He didn't feel this way when he was being trained. He didn't question Ty Quack Do as he did the situation now. What was the matter with him? The whole team had lost their heart, but it wasn't only over Zelda, or Dragaunus. There was something lacking that took the energy out of them, some void to be filled. Grin pondered over whether it was purpose. With Dragaunus out of commission for so long, and nothing to do, had the Ducks just lost their edge? The thought suddenly dawned upon Grin that Dragaunus could actually be dead. He had always thought of the Saurian as some immortal nightmare. But Zelda did hurt him badly, perhaps he was finally gone. That would explain a lot of things... perhaps even explain Zelda's spiritfall. Nothing else seemed to be wrong. The earth she drew power from revolved as it should. The only reason for such a radical change in her would be Dragaunus, but she herself had denied that. So what was it? Grin didn't understand. He wouldn't even try to reach her now, he knew that it would do no good. Perhaps it was too late for her, and she was dead already. Grin got a chill down his spine whenever he thought of that possibility. Wouldn't her kind know? Wouldn't he know? Frustrated, he huffed into the coming night and turned back inside.

                "Wing, I'm sick of this!" he yelled, pounding the console.

                "Hey watch it!" Wildwing snapped, sitting up. "You'll break something."

                "You're not listening to me bro." Dive continued angrily. "It's been almost a month, we've gotta try and find her!"

                "You have a short memory." Wildwing shook his head. "You said that she never wanted to be found."

                "That was weeks ago!" Dive argued. "She's either dead or near it by now." He leaned over, resting on Drake 1's console. "Bro, I thought she'd make it outta this easy... until I saw her." There was a long silence in the room as Dive was lost in thought. "But that's not the only thing!" he started suddenly.

                "What else is there?" Wing asked.

                "Closure." Dive looked at him solidly. "Worst case scenario, she's dead. How long are we going to wait around for her to come back? This team is falling apart from boredom, or something."

                "Can't disagree with you there." Wildwing nodded. "But Zelda's absence isn't the cause of our lethargy, it's something else..." he trailed off.

                "What, Draggy hasn't been killing enough of our team off to keep you amused?" Dive snarled in bitter sarcasm.

                Wildwing stood up angrily. "Now that's enough---" he was erupted in mid-sentence as the console suddenly lit up, the screen blazing red, alarms blaring to rattle their eardrums.

                The two forgot their fight and went to the keyboards, tapping away. It was only seconds before the rest of the team came running in.

                Mallory was first to the computer. "What's wrong?" she asked.

                Wildwing stared up at the screen and frowned. "Dragaunus is back."

                Flames erupted before him, sending splinters and glass everywhere. He felt the heat surge around him, and closed his eyes in malicious glee. Yes, it was good to be back. Not wasting any time, the Overlord swiveled his arm up, reaiming his wrist laser, and shot out the second floor of windows.

                "Careful M'Lord." Wraith eased up behind him. "We don't want to damage--"

                "The designs?" he turned around and asked scornfully. "Those are merely secondary Wraith. I want some attention." He shot out the third floor of the building's windows before he waved to his henchmen behind. "Now! You all remember what you've got to do." he snarled. "Chameleon, don't botch it this time, I want those weapons blueprints as fast as you can get them! Now go!" Dragaunus's bellow sent the little green lizard scrambling into the blown-out building.

                "What about me?" Seige stomped up, shouldering a large gray bag on one shoulder.

                "The Ducks will be here in no time." Draguanus narrowed his eyes and grinned. "You set all this up as we planned, then leave your teleporter where I told you. We'll be long gone by the time the trap is set."

                "Aw yeah!" Seige clicked his fat heels. "If it's one thing I love, it's a Duck barbeque!" He hustled off into the building after The Chameleon as fast as he could go, fumbling with the bag.

                Wraith still remained at his Overlord's side. "It is a brilliant plan, M'Lord, of course..."

                "Don't question me Wraith, you sniveling little wretch." Dragaunus turned on him, growling. "I've had too long to simply plan this one. We'll kill two birds with one stone, and literally kill all of those Ducks!"

                "But what is my part in this?" Wraith ventured.

                "Have you forgotten already?" Draguanus shot out another floor of windows in frustration. "Senile old fool. You'll have command of the drones, we'll teleport them in just at the right moment and buy us some time."

                "But... M'Lord..."

                "Don't tell me you've gotten rusty Wraith." he warned. "I won't accept failures, not anymore. I'll complete my revenge here and now!" With that, Dragaunus turned tail and charged into the building, still sparking in places with flame.

                Nervous, Wraith's eyes darted around the Anaheim streets, lit only by streetlamps and the lights from the other dormant buildings. Suddenly there was a squeal of tires, a flash of headlights, and the Migrator came roaring up into the parking lot. Wraith panicked. The Ducks piled out of their vehicle with launchers ready, blue pucks whizzing past him. Wraith fiddled with his teleporter, and suddenly a line of ten hunter drones materialized before him. This evened the odds a little! Now, he could have time to work.

                Wildwing frowned as he started shooting, hitting two drones on the first two shots. The line went into chaos as the Ducks shot the machines full of holes, the drones collapsing into piles of debris as they ran. He ducked and rolled on the pavement as a fireball ricocheted near him, Wraith's doing without a doubt.

                "Take Wraith down!" he ordered with a shout, and started to cover for the others as Wraith tried feebly to defend himself.

                Getting pummeled by an onslaught of pucks, Wraith suddenly vanished into a cloud, and disappeared.

                "Yeehaw!" Dive cheered. "That's one down, three to go!"

                "Behind us!" Mallory suddenly cried out, and a fireball caught Duke with his back turned, throwing him to the asphalt. Wraith had materialized again behind them!

                Furious, Wildwing raised his shield and ran around the Migrator, helping the others to encircle him, closing in.

                Wraith drew a sword of flame, using his staff to block the Ducks' shots. With surprising quickness, he swiped for Mallory, and she ducked and kicked his legs out from under him. Wraith rolled away and stumbled back up.         

                "You fowl are losing your edge!" he taunted in his ragged voice. "And as I count, you've lost a team member! Hope we didn't hurt her too badly." he sneered.

                "Eh, none of your concern Wraith!" Duke bit back, standing again and drawing his sabre to spar off.

                Wraith threw his head back and laughed. "Don't think I don't know!" he cackled, grinning. "I've got a good memory, I know."

                Wildwing frowned. He couldn't have known... not about her...

                Wraith raised his staff, the eyes on the impaled Duck skull glowing red.  "I know." he repeated. "She won't be coming back to save you Ducks, she's long gone." He slammed the staff to the ground, two powerful red beams shooting from the eyes. One glanced Tanya, spinning her around, but the other hit Wildwing fully in the chest, slamming him against the side of the Migrator.

                Nosedive didn't waste any more time, he fired off a shot that hit the old Saurian in the shoulder, knocking him over.

                Grin ran in, fist ready to slam Wraith through the pavement, but he didn't get the chance to strike before Wraith teleported away, a sneer on his face. Grin went through with the punch anyway, out of anger.

                Wildwing pulled himself up gingerly as the team regrouped quickly around him. "You okay Tanya? Duke?"

                "Fine here." Tanya dusted herself off.

                "Just singed the suit." Duke coughed, nodding.

                "Good, thank DuCaine for this armor..." he shook himself. "We can't waste any time Ducks, who knows what kind of weapons are stored in that building?"

                "You'd think a weapons firm would have better security." Tanya miffed.

                "But it's probably crawling with drones, and the other henchmen." Wildwing nodded. "Let's stay together and watch each other's backs."

                With that, the team charged off together across the parking lot, ramming through the blasted doorframes. There was nothing inside but a charred lobby.

                "Which floor is it?" Duke asked.

                "Fifth! Let's take the stairs!" Wildwing waved them into a gray cinder-block stairwell, narrow and unpainted. As the team charged two-by-two up a flight, a hail of lasers came down from above! Crammed into the tight space, the team was trapped! "Easy!" Wildwing yelled as he was jabbed by his brother's elbow. "Fire up, watch the walls!"

                Duke and Tanya, who were in the front, ran forward with their launchers up, firing at anything that moved on the landing several floors above.

                Tanya tripped and was nearly trampled by the others before Mallory hoisted her up, one hand still firing. There was an animal howl from above, and the hailing stopped.               

                "Good shooting!" Duke threw his hands up, and ran up the rest of the way to the second floor, quickly throwing open the door.

                Chameleon stood in the middle of the office area, rummaging through a file drawer. He spotted the Ducks and froze in panic.

                "Not a move Chameleon!" Mallory barked, launcher already locked on target. "Or I'll repaint these walls with you!"

                "Aaak!" Chameleon cried, holding a fistful of papers. "Hey Boss!" he called. "I think ya'd better speed things up!"

                Wildwing frowned. "And just do you think you're going to do?" he asked, approaching the frozen Chameleon with his launcher drawn.

                "Ummm.... this!" Chameleon punched down on his teleporter and dematerialized.

                Wildwing dashed for him, but was just too late. He pounded the file cabinet in frustration.

                Tanya came up beside him and opened a drawer, thumbing through it.

                "We've gotta find a way to catch him." she breathed. "He's stolen weapons design plans! Ones for thermonuclear weapons!"

                "Wonderful!" Duke snorted. "Just wonderful, how are we going to find that little runt now eh?"                 Wildwing dropped his guard and activated his Mask, quickly sweeping the room. Suddenly he started. "There's more teleportation energy coming from the inside... near the elevator!" he yelled, pointing. As the team started to move, Wildwing caught sight of something else through his Mask, and froze. "Wait, it's a trap!" he cried out suddenly. The team stopped in their tracks. "Get to the stairs!" he yelled. "This whole place is wired!" He didn't have time to even drop his hands before flames erupted all around him, and a blast knocked him back, against something hard.

                There was a throbbing heat, pulsing around him, licking him with a forked tongue, lashing radiantly at him across his shoulder, then his chest, as far as whatever was pushing down on him could let it go.  There was a searing pain spreading slowly, and Wildwing slowly, sleepily opened his eyes to see burning red all around him. It took a few seconds for him to realize what it was, as the heat grew quickly around him. Fire! Wildwing snapped to the nightmarish reality that his side was being burned! He shot up, slowed by a pile of debris on his back, and that was slowly catching as well! Panicking, he shoved himself away from the flames, an office desk rolling clumsily off of his back, sending hot embers into his hair and face. If the heat hadn't goaded him to, Wildwing very well might have been burned alive! Still terrified, he backed away from the growing flames, knocking a garbage can full of paper over. There was suddenly a yell, and a spray of foam, and the flames hissed to their death with an angry sputtering and oozing smoke.

                Tanya stood only a little distance away, shooting foam from her Omnitool.

                Wildwing jumped over the smoldering chaos of an office cubicle to get to her. "Are you okay?" he called out, stumbling.

                She was charred, with a gash across the side of her head that was bleeding slightly. Tanya checked her Omnitool and nodded soberly.

                "Just got knocked over.." she coughed, smoke growing around her. There was a hiss overhead, and fire sprinklers began to switch on, spattering water everywhere, letting off more smoke.

                "All in one piece Ducks?" Wildwing called out. The whole blasted, blackened office seemed to answer a ghostly silence.

                Slowly the stairwell door creaked open, and Mallory and Duke peeked out. They both crept out into the smoldering waste.

                "Okay here Wing." Duke nodded.

                Mallory crept over to a blasted-out window and looked down. "Those Saurians either botched up the job, or only wired this floor." she remarked. "Thank goodness, or we'd have to dig ourselves out from under four more floors..."

                Wildwing wasn't listening though, not everyone was accounted for. "Grin? Dive!" he called. Again, a ghostly silence as the water sputtered down, making the ruins of the office hiss. There was a light shuffling from somewhere, and then again, as a file cabinet shifted up from a stationary heap of charred furniture and drywall. Finally, Grin's hand shoved the cabinet aside with a grunt.

                "Here!" Dive coughed, pushing up a plank of drywall.

                The team picked their way over quickly to help them. Wildwing pulled another desk up to reveal the two of them under the ruins, Grin's big shoulder being the only thing that prevented a stack of file cabinets from crushing his teammate. He had taken the brunt of the blow.

                Dive sprung up, unhurt, and helped to shove them off.

                "Easy Grin." Tanya pulled him up. The big Duck shuffled his heavy shoulderpads and tried to look unphased.

                "Wow... thanks for saving my tailfeathers Grinster." Dive patted his other shoulder.

                "Think of it as nothing, little friend." he bowed, but did so grimacingly. Wildwing sneezed and shook the soot out of his wet hair, in tired relief.

                "Thank DuCaine we're all okay..." he breathed. "If this building went..."

                "I know whatcha mean." Duke held a plastic tray over his head like an umbrella. "We must have given those slimeballs too little time to rig the whole building."

                "But we're not lucky in one aspect." Tanya reminded them, pulling out a wad of gauze from a belt pocket and pressing it to her forehead. "They still got those weapon plans."

                "Which is still pretty darn bad." Duke nodded. "If those really are nuclear weapons."

                "How can you be sure if you didn't see them?" Wildwing asked Tanya.

                "If he picked those files out from the folder I thought he did..." Tanya started.

                Mallory had already crouched by a file cabinet, and was digging through it.

                "Thank goodness..." she muttered. "These are only prototypes... that's why they aren't under lock and key..." She picked out one folder and opened it. "Tanya's right... stuff's missing from here." she nodded. "He took the blueprints, but most of the weapon supply lists and descriptions are still here---" Mallory suddenly stopped talking.

                "What is it?" Wildwing asked.

                "This is bad." Mallory thumbed through the folder again. "He took the blueprints for the R-36..."

                "What's an R-36?" Dive stumbled forward.

                Mallory shielded the folder from the sprinklers, and finally put it back. "I'll fill you guys in on the way back. We've gotta catch those Saurians before they can strike next."

                Mallory fidgeted in her seat as the Migrator rounded a corner. "Is that scan up yet?" she asked.

                "Yes, yes, it is." Tanya replied. "Nothing yet."

                Mallory still was dissatisfied. Wildwing sensed her nervousness.

                "Now Mallory, what is an R-36?" he asked. "Why is it so important?"

                "It's just a prototype weapon." Mallory started, running a hand along the shoulder strap of her seatbelt. "The governments of several major countries had let out grants for developing portable thermonuclear weaponry during the Cold War, but projects were quickly scrapped as peace was made."

                "Thank goodness." Grin noted quietly.

                "But private weapons companies continued to build on original ideas." Mallory continued. "I've heard stories on the Internet about the R-36."

                "What kind of stories?" Duke asked. "How bad could this thing be, if it's not a bomb?"

                "It's worse." Mallory looked at him. "It's a portable thermonuclear ray, they named it R-36 because it was a ray gun. A ray gun that could take out it's target and any structure within a 36 block radius."

                There was a silence in the Migrator.

                "Wow." Dive said simply.

                "Not to mention fallout and exposure." Mallory shook her head.

                "But wait a minute." Wildwing didn't take his eyes off the road. "This was only a blueprint. There's never been any weapon built, right?"

                "None that's known of." Mallory nodded.

                "That means the Saurians would have to build it... and it might not even work." he mused out loud.

                "We can't take that risk Wing." Tanya leaned over from the scanners. "Technically, thermonuclear energy could be focused into a beam."

                "Of course we won't take that chance." Wildwing nodded. "I'm just thinking. It would take a lot to build it from scrap. Not even Seige could handle thermonuclear physics..."

                "I see where you're going kiddo." Duke nodded. "The Saurians can't be the only ones in on this, they have to have an expert."

                Wildwing's eyes darkened behind the Mask. "An expert in mechanics... or a machine himself."

                He peered over his shoulder, watching carefully at the proceedings on the dimly-lit table before him. He needed something to lean on... to help take the weight off of his broad feet. Dragaunus shook himself a little, and noticed as Wraith turned, watching him. Dragaunus pretended not to notice, and scrutinized even more ahead of him. He was tired... too slow, and it made him furious. He stretched the scars across his chest simply by standing, his scales pulling tight. His hand still didn't work quite right, after all of this time. He still felt Wraith's eyes on him, and it made him even angrier despite the fact that the old Saurian's magic had probably saved his life. That miserable dragoness...she'd pay for what she had done to him...Wraith had kept mentioning that he never saw her at the fight. Why was that important? Perhaps she was dead! Perhaps he'd finally taken down another one of those accursed Ducks. Perhaps he had finally shown her where disobeying him would get her. But he had bigger concerns. Thinking about her, the fight at the building, anything, would make him only more angry. Everything seemed a huge and sickening failure! What incompetence he worked in! Dragaunus shook himself again and tried to focus.

                "You've been just looking for a long time Droid." he snarled quietly.

                "That's Dr. Droid to you." the machine responded, not turning around. "I didn't go through seven years of proper education at the Institute for Technologically Gifted Mad Scientists not to be called doctor!"

                "Fine! Dr. Droid, I was saying that you're taking too long. Can you build this or not?" Dragaunus growled.

                Droid turned around, focusing his one greenish mechanical eye on the Overlord. His pieced-together humanoid frame hissed with pneumonic and hydraulic noises. "Are you questioning my genius?" he started. "I am the master of machinery, there is nothing that my brothers and I cannot accomplish!"

                "All well and good." Wraith broke in from the corner. "But we want that weapon. Can you build it or not?"

                "What do you wretched organics plan to do with it?" Droid asked in the same keen, peering manner.

                "Smash the Ducks, of course!" Seige threw up a fist.

                Dr. Droid turned up his mechanical nose and sniffed at the lot of them. "A good cause no doubt, but we're dealing with a thermonuclear device! You'll have to promise me that no machines will be harmed!" The henchmen all sighed in various degrees of frustration.

                "Who are ya now? Robocop?" Chameleon hopped up.

                Dragaunus rubbed his forehead and tried to reason. "Listen doctor, think big." he started. "We plan to use this device not only to destroy the Ducks, but to conquer the city! And..." he edged higher. "Radiation affects only living matter. Imagine it doctor, with your help, Anaheim could be as lifeless and bleak as the grounds of Chernobyl."

                Thinking about this made the robot clap with delight. "You paint a wonderful picture, for an organic." He granted. "I will help you build this ray, but it's not going to be easy, no." he waved a pneumonic finger. "No, these parts don't come easy at all."

                "We'll take care of that." Dragaunus nodded. "And keep those Ducks off of your trail. Start with what you can."

                He and the henchmen turned to leave, but Dragaunus had another sudden thought.

                "Remember." he growled lowly. "Time is of the essence. Finish quickly, and both of our goals can be met sooner." He left through the metal doors of the abandoned old factory, and the crazy laughter and babble of the robot echoed high throughout the building.

                Seige covered his ears and winced. "What a nutcase!" he snarled. "These humans... crazy!"

                "But he's not human, not totally." Wraith reminded him.

                "And not at all in mind." Dragaunus nodded. "That's just what we're looking for."

                The four stealthily snuck aboard their nearby scout ship, and activated their cloaking device.

                "Yes that's right... yes I know you've been watching the news." he rubbed his forehead and leaned on the console heavily. "Thank you, yes we're just letting you know. Keep your security systems on high--- yes I'd recommend police involvement... no we haven't spoken to them... Alright then, please call the police if you have any problems... Thank you." Duke nearly slammed down the phone. "Tanya, this is driving me nuts." he seethed.

                Tanya was busy flipping through a phone book a few feet away. "Does it look like I'm having a ball here either?" she raised an eyebrow. "That's three down for each of us. Who knew there would be so many nuclear-related businesses around here?"      

                "Why can't we just alert the plants?" he grumbled.

                "Because you know Dragaunus." she shook her head. "He might not stop at just the R-36. If there are other blueprints out there, chances are he'll go after them."

                "We're wasting our time." Duke growled. "We should be out patrolling those three power plants near here. Uranium or plutonium are prerequisites for building a weapon, so why not concentrate there?"

                "Because Dragaunus may already have that prerequisite." Wildwing's voice answered him. They both turned to see him entering through a side door, walking up to them. "I just got off the phone with Klegghorn."

                "Wonderful, now what?" Tanya asked.

                "It's hard to figure out." Wildwing shrugged. "No recent security problems at any of the area plants, but there are a few 'stock errors' that go back a ways, a few weeks."

                "Stock errors?" Duke raised an eyebrow. "That means they lost some glowing junk, right?"

                "Not only that, but the timing means that if Dragaunus was the one that stole it, he was planning this for a while."

                "Zel didn't even slow him down." Tanya shook her head quietly.

                Wildwing frowned at her. "As I was saying." he edged. "We can't even be sure Draggy was behind those thefts. If he's working with Droid, they could get nuclear material from anywhere... even mine it themselves."

                "As well as other parts." Duke nodded. "I don't like how this is going. There are too many things that we don't know, and things are moving too fast. We need to shut this operation down now."

                "You're right." Wildwing nodded. "We can't even be sure that Droid's in on this." He shook his head in frustration. "We've got Drake 1's scanners working to their max. I hate to say it, but all we can do at this point is wait."

                Sparks buzzed in his face. Most of them skittered, unfelt and unnoticed, off and back to his hands below. But some flared up against bare flesh, and into his eye. Each one of those sparks brought a restrained response, barely noticable to any observer. Droid stood back to admire his handiwork for a few seconds, and then leaned in closer, using a small torch in one of his fingers to weld on a small part.

                "Oh, you will be a magnificent little thing!" he muttered to the scraps of metal before him. "You will be so small, and yet so powerful! The power to destroy!" he marveled in silence for a few moments, before he went back to welding. He began to mutter incoherently again, overspoken by the welding and the flash of sparks in the otherwise dark warehouse. "Yes... you will be a marvel." he spoke louder. "And you will speak for me, won't you, little thing?" he handled it almost tenderly. "You'll carry my message... even if it is in the hands of an organic.... wretched things." He had a sudden thought, and leaned up. "You know, I wonder what's in it for them. Why a lifeless planet? Wouldn't it hurt them?" Droid suddenly started to laugh. "Stupid organics, and their oversights!" he cackled. "Let them rot! I will rule in the end." Almost dancing with glee in the corner of that dark warehouse, Droid's eyes nearly glowed with opportunity. "Yes, those organics will crumble and fall with their age and their stupid battles. I will rule in the end." His maniacal laughter slowed to a chuckle, and Droid finally regained enough hold of himself to start his work again.

                Duke thumbed the sleeve of his jumpsuit uncomfortably. His feathers just seemed to itch, and he knew that something bad was afoot. Surely the Saurians were out tonight, scampering around Anaheim like cowards. But why no teleportation energy? Before, they weren't able to take a step out of their ship without setting off Drake 1's alarms. But now, nothing! He continued to fidget and scan the sidewalk on his side of the windshield. Wildwing steered the Migrator slowly off onto a sidestreet, quiet and sleepy in the Anaheim night. Periodically he took a hand from the wheel and activated his Mask to scan the skyline. But still, nothing.

                "This is impossible." he muttered.

                "Tell me about it." Tanya threw up a hand. "No matter how I fine-tune Drake 1's scanners, it's coming up with nothing! Not even through the satellite."

                "I don't like this Wing." Duke shook his head. "They could be teleporting in China, and we'd know about it."

                "But we're not just looking for teleportation energy." he shook his head. "Not anymore. If I were Dragaunus--"

                "And thank goodness you're not!" Dive broke in.

                Wildwing frowned, not taking his eyes off of the road. "If I were Dragaunus." he repeated. "I'd be purposely lying low now. Whether or not he has Droid working for him, he's got materials enough to start on that weapon."

                "Or finish it." Grin noted.

                "Maybe." Wildwing shook his head.

                Tanya sat up suddenly from her console.

                "You've got something?" Mallory looked over.

                "It's a long shot, but something just came over the police reports about a hardware distribution center being broken into..."

                "Droid going to pick up some extra nuts and bolts?" Dive shrugged.

                "Well, we've got nothing else to do." Wildwing had already patched up the directions, and floored it off for the warehouse.

                He almost thought he heard sniffling as he crouched down. This whole place was littered with crates, forklifts, and stacks of lumber. They hadn't even gotten into the storage yard yet! But it was clear that someone was inside. The gate's chain had been severed, and one door was now swinging in the slight breeze. Still, Grin could hear voices... noises not too far inside of the dark yard.

                Wildwing stood up slightly from behind a large crate, and waved the team into the yard.

                Grin rose from behind a forklift and followed him. It was sniffling... strange. Who or what could be in there? The team flanked out slowly as they squeezed through the relatively tight gate. Because of the building, the storage yard lay in shadow, cutting off the silvery moonlight. It was going to be tough to locate whoever had broken in, but the sound was helping.

                Already Mallory had her puck cannon raised, focusing in on the noise.

                Wildwing paused and raised his hands, activating the Mask. He did a quick sweep and looked confused. Raising his com, he addressed his teammates with a whisper. "Don't get it... not reading any organic life." he muttered.

                "That seals it." Duke replied over the line. "It's Droid."

                "Let's move in..." Mallory signaled the rest of the team to follow her, and they all raised their arms and crept towards a corner of the large yard. There were plenty of hiding places. Crates of smaller devices were stacked in neat rows, along with heavier machinery from lawn mowers to small tractors. But the noises continued. As the Ducks began to take cover behind the machines, that noise slowly became a voice!

                "...how terrible, yes." it muttered.

                They recognized it instantly as Droid.

                "To be kept in cages, like organic animals! And what will you do when you're bought, like some object? Mow lawns! Menial work for even the most powerful machine... my poor brothers."

                Nosedive waved a finger around his ear, causing him to smirk.

                Wildwing nodded and waved them in, carefully.

                Grin took his cannon and crept around a crate, before he finally spotted Droid in the dark corner of the yard. He had the top off of a crate, rummaging through it, pausing every now and then to survey the machines around him with a sad eye.

                Grin paused and locked his cannon into place. If he could just take him out from here... He froze as Droid leaned up again. Did he suspect he was being watched? He didn't seem to show it... he didn't seem to notice. As Droid looked down again, Grin relaxed, but there was suddenly a burning hiss, a whoosh of air, one flash of light, and there was a missile speeding strait for him! Grin yelled and flung himself to the ground, just as the missile flew overhead, into a crate. The explosion was instant, throwing shrapnel all over the place, violently lighting the yard. A side of the crate fell down on Grin, shielding him from the pelting metal.

                "Pesky ORGANICS!" Droid trumpeted, climbing on top of the crate. "You don't think I have scanners!? I knew you were here the whole time!" He flung out a hand and shot out another missile, which skimmed right over Tanya's head, as she was directly opposite Grin.

                Their cover blown, Wildwing ran out into the clear and began shooting. Letting Droid hit any more crates was suicide! He was now laughing hysterically, watching the Ducks scramble beneath him, the pucks simply bouncing off of his metallic body.

                "Foolish Ducks!" he cried out. "You will never stop me!"

                Grin felt his wooden cover lifted off, and Mallory helped him up.

                "You okay?"

                "I'll be fine!" he grunted, and rummaged around for his cannon.

                Wildwing was beside them as another missile flew and exploded towards the front of the yard. "This isn't working!" he yelled. "Use your freeze pucks!"

                "Freeze pucks?"

                "There could be propane tanks here!"

                "Tell that to Droid!" More missiles flew by.

                Tanya's OmniTool laser shot through the air, a sign of her last weaponry resort. They had to get in closer to take Droid out!

                Wildwing broke from the two and darted across the yard, running as fast as he could. There was another explosion somewhere behind him. Where was his brother, and Duke? He ducked behind a farm tractor to see Droid lean back into the crate. Wildwing quickly took his shot and fired, icing the machine's legs in place. Droid struggled for a few seconds, but broke free with surprising strength. He scooped something up into his hands and fired off another missile.

                "Well it's been fun, filthy creatures!" he snarled. "But I've got some tinkering to do elsewhere!" With that, he activated rocket boosters in his feet, and shot off into the sky.

                Mallory's shots followed him up, knocking him off balance. Glaring with fury, Droid used the better viewpoint of the yard to his advantage, and fired another missile. On the ground, the entire team was thrown back by a blast of heat as a propane tank in the opposite corner of the yard erupted into flame.                 Wildwing rolled to a hard stop on the ground as a lawnmower crashed to the ground only feet away. He turtled under his armor as the heat surged over him, and more crashes resounded nearby. Finally, he looked up to see the gas-fed flames slowly fizzling out. He stood up and called for his teammates. "Coms up Ducks! Anyone hurt?"

                Grin and Tanya staggered out from behind a singed stack of crates.

                "Okay here Wing!" she called, rubbing her head. "He sure knows how to make an exit."

                "Wing! Here!" Mallory called. She waved to him from farther back in the lot.

                Wildwing ran over, a lump rising in his throat. He rounded the remains of a forklift to find Mallory tugging at Dive, who's foot was caught beneath the smashed machine.

                "Easy!" he ordered, squatting down. "What happened Dive?"

                "What does it look like!?" he winced, trying to pull himself out. "Doesn't hurt too much..."

                "Lie still." Tanya ordered, coming around the wreckage. "We'll have to dig you out."

                "Blown up twice in one day... that's gotta be a record." Duke shook his head as he emerged from behind another crate, pulling screws out of his hair. He stood with Grin and Mallory as Wildwing and Tanya started to try and free Dive's foot.

                Tanya popped her sonic metal cutter from her OmniTool and began gently sawing away at the metal hull of the forklift.

                "Hey Duke." Dive winced. "Where were you? You told me to follow you, and you just disappeared!" Duke frowned, looking accused.

                "What do you mean? I tried to get you behind that crate." he pointed to his hiding place.

                "Thanks for bringing me along." Nosedive said sarcastically.

                "Enough." Wildwing growled.

                Tanya finished sawing and gently eased Dive's foot out of the debris.

                Nosedive hopped up, taking off his boot and tiptoeing on it gingerly.

                "Wow.... I actually think it's okay..." he muttered.

                Tanya grabbed it and looked it over. "Yeah... just bruises."

                "Good boots." Mallory nodded. "Special Forces standard."

                "Now down to the dirty work." Wildwing shook his head. "Apparently we let Droid get away with what he wanted... but what was it that he wanted?"

                "Who cares." Mallory turned around. "We didn't stop him. Now he's gonna build that thing and-"

                "We don't know that." Wildwing cut in. "It's key that we find out what it's going to take for him to build this gun. The more information we can get, the better. Now all of you." he ordered. "I want a search for anything suspicious around that crate." He pointed, and the others slowly followed his order. "Careful for boobytraps!" he called. As Tanya stood, Wing grabbed her shoulder. "Not you Tanya, I need you to get back into the 'Grator and see if you can't track Droid somehow. If he's flying, we might be able to pick him up."

                Tanya dusted herself off. "I'll see what I can do." she turned around and headed back out of the storage yard.

                Wildwing took a moment to survey the place. The entire inventory had been damaged in some way by the fight. So much for no collateral damage. He sighed and thought of what would happen when Klegghorn and the cops would show up.

                "Hey fearless leader!" Nosedive called. "You takin' a vacation back there?"

                Wildwing rolled his eyes at his younger brother. "Coming!" he replied, and went to join his teammates.

                She couldn't sleep, not like this anyway. Mallory punched her pillow in frustration, and rolled over. She looked up at her alarm clock, and couldn't believe her eyes. 3:30?! How could it be 3:30 in the morning already!? Mallory punched her pillow again. This was incredible. She couldn't get to sleep because her shoulder ached so badly. In getting into that stairwell to protect herself from the blast in the weapons building, she had thrown herself against the wall in haste. Now her left shoulder ached in protest, and simple asprin didn't do a thing. She was getting soft, she knew it. Back in the Forces she'd bite the bullet with anything and still be up with the sun. Now a scratch sent her to the infirmary with the rest of the team. Mallory rubbed her shoulder and grimaced. She hoped that she hadn't pulled anything major. Frustrated and sleepless, she leaned up and turned on her dim nightstand light. What could she do? An icepack? A heatpack? Her eyes scanned around the room and fell upon a small trunk in the corner, hewn out of an old log. It was Zelda's trunk. Wildwing had put in in her bunk, with her rolled up hammock, just after she had left for the Territory. Now that trunk haunted her. Mallory stood up and walked over to it, crouching beside it. Something made her want to open it. Shoulder aching, Mallory pulled up the lid and peered inside. All of Zelda's few and favorite material possessions were inside: there was a wooden bowl for cooking, old shells and feathers, dried plants and flowers, and a clutter of small musical instruments. Her favorite lay on top of the pile, her wind flute. The sound of that wooden pipe came back to Mallory as if she were in a dream... or more truthfully, a nightmare. Would she ever hear that sound again? Zelda loved to play that flute. Mallory picked it up and turned the light wooden instrument over in her hands. Tears started to well up in her eyes. None of them had really mourned for her.

                "But she's gone..." Mallory whispered out loud. "She's gone... and nobody's missed her..." Mallory began to look through the dragon's other things. "I'm sorry Zel." she began to talk again. "I'm sorry. We've been so busy lately..." She pulled out a bundle of leaves, wrapped around things. Folding the large maple, palm, and banana leaves open, there were several kinds of berries and flowers in all stages of drying. At the bottom of the pile was a kind of whitish paste, with a distinct pine smell to it. Mallory recognized this, Zelda had used it before several times on herself. It was a kind of botanical novicane, something to numb the areas around wounds, or over burns and bruises. Curious, Mallory smeared some on her own shoulder. Within moments, she could flex it normally without pain... and she could sleep! The Duck folded the leaves back up and put the bundles gently back in their place. Tears spilled over her cheeks silently. "Thank you friend." Mallory nodded. "I never got to say that, did I?" she wondered aloud. "No... I never even got to say goodbye." Soundless, she sat for a few silent moments. And quietly, she got up, and climbed back into her bed.

                Wildwing was awake for a different reason. He leaned on Tanya's shoulder as the Duck yawned, peering lazily up at Drake 1, and then down at a handful of hardware components. Wildwing frowned at her.

                "I'm sorry Wing." she sniffed. "It's just so late..." Her leader sighed and sat down in a chair beside her.  

                "I know, I know." he nodded, putting his head in his hands. "I'm just angry that we let Droid get away. Have you been able to sort out what he could have wanted with those parts?"

                "They're nothing special really." Tanya stared up at the screen. "Just basic components... every type of machine has them."

                "But that means the weapon would have to have gears...." he mused. "Some kind of internal power source, a motor."

                "It would take lot of energy to be able to focus thermonuclear energy into a ray." Tanya nodded. "And with only a little bit of nuclear material..."

                "Yeah." Wing nodded. He sat up. "I just wish we could find him. We're getting a better picture of this weapon... it's scary. But we need to stop him in his tracks."

                The Ready Room fell silent for a long time, save for the steady whirr of Drake 1.

                Tanya scanned over the screen with eyes burning from fatigue. Why was Wildwing keeping her up this late? She couldn't do anything more. Droid had never appeared on the scanners, even after his escape. Why would he now, in the middle of the night? Tanya closed her eyes and let her mind wander.                 Wildwing had also drifted off into empty thought. This was turning into a real headache. He heard a sniff, and looked over to find Tanya not suffering from her allergies, but actually crying! He got up immediately and came over to her. "Tanya? What's wrong?"

                "I'm alright." she pushed him away, taking off her glasses and mopping her face. "I'm alright."                 Wildwing frowned with concern. "I'm sorry." he said. "I know it's late."

                "It's not that." Tanya looked up, sniffing again. "It's just... things have been so hectic... this is the first time I've had to remember..."

                "About Zel?" Wildwing nodded.

                "She's really gone, isn't she Wing?" she asked sadly.

                Wildwing didn't answer her. "I don't know." he looked away.

                Tanya frowned at him, then shook her head. "It's terrible." she said. "We'll never know... what we could have done... how we could have helped."

                "You think we could have prevented that?" Wildwing asked her.

                Tanya let another tear slide down her beak, but her gaze was stony and cold. "I know we could have. Grin was right. We should have protected her..." her voice faltered. "Like she protected us..." Slowly, Tanya buckled over, and put her head in her arms on Drake 1's console.

                Wildwing was affected by her tears. Was she right? He felt tears of his own welling up beneath his Mask. He shook them away and leaned Tanya up. "Go to bed." he said gently. "You need your rest."

                Tanya looked up at him sadly. "What about you?"

                "I'll stay up a little longer." he nodded. "Go on."

                Tanya slowly got up, and looked back for a few seconds, before she walked off for her bunk.                 Wildwing didn't see her go. He kept a purposeful watch on Drake 1 until she left. As the door closed, he sat down and took off the Mask. He laid it down on the console, to think. He had never had the time to think, not for the whole day. But he had never seen Tanya cry... not even with Canard. He shook his head again. Why didn't he want to think this over? Why did he try to ignore it? Wildwing relented to the fact that this was simply bigger than him. The whole situation made his head spin. The truth was, they were just too busy to worry much about Zelda, cruel as that sounded. Why was all of this happening at once? It was too much for the team. He felt tears welling up in his eyes, purely out of frustration. Something deep in him needed to know what had happened. Ebony was right. There was a need to understand everything... but it was a good reason. He needed to know who or what was responsible. Had the team failed Zelda, in her time of greatest need? Had he failed Zelda? Angry at himself, he got up, grabbed the Mask, and walked out of the Ready Room. Sleep would be his only escape from reality, if he could get any tonight.

                Something snapped him from his bed, like he had forcefully been torn from sleep. The alarm! Duke's eyes raced around his room until he found his clock, 6:32 AM. Crazy, everything was crazy. The alarm kept blaring in his ears, like a noisy electric shock. He slapped his com on his wrist and opened it.

                "Now what?" he asked, his voice dry.

                "We're reading more teleportation energy!" Wildwing responded. "This time it's coming from a battery factory, just outside of town."

                "Awww, aren't they not open this early?" Nosedive whined.

                "All of you just suit up and meet me in the Aerowing." Wing ordered shortly.

                Duke rummaged through his drawers to find his jumpsuit, and tried to blink his groggy vision clear. This was crazy.  Everything seemed to be a whirl until he had sat again in the Aerowing, strapped in, mindless of the pre-dawn. He still was trying to stay awake... trying to think. He truly was a demon, Dragaunus. Nobody that Duke knew could have survived the injuries Zelda had dealt him. But that Saurian always seemed to rise above estimation. He was a monster. Duke closed his eyes as he recalled that last fight in his mind, both Dragaunus and Zelda covered in blood and leaves, eyes blazing, teeth bared like animals. That's what scared him. There was something overpowering in Dragaunus, in his very existence, in his very presence, that made Duke's blood run cold. And in that fight, he had seen that very same thing in Zelda. For a few moments, when they were both so blurred and smeared with blood and dirt, he couldn't tell the difference between them. Those few moments would be the last of her that he would ever see. Duke shook his eyes open again and tried not to let himself fall back into sleep. He pressed buttons mechanically at his console, watching through the windshield as the Aerowing tilted up, the roof opening above them to reveal a starry sky, only beginning to tint pink in the east with the sunrise. He was jolted back as the thrusters came online, the ship shoving itself from the landing platform and out into the open air.

                Wildwing was all business, bringing Drake 1's scans onto the Aerowing's computers. "The factory is about five miles from the city limits." he started, steering the ship off and heading in that direction at full blast. "It's a manufacturing plant."

                "Predictable." Mallory rubbed her beak.

                "Predictable in hindsight." Grin corrected quietly. "We should have known they would go after a power source of some kind."

                "Well I didn't hear you saying that last night..." Mallory snarled, crossing her arms.

                "Enough, both of you!" Wildwing snapped. "I know it's early. The sooner we get this over with, the sooner everyone goes back to sleep."

                Apparently satisfied with that prospect for differing reasons, Grin and Mallory fell silent.                 Wildwing looked back out of the windshield and sighed. "But we should have suspected something... this proves that the R-36 has some kind of alternate power source, a motor, something other than the radioactive material itself."

                "If I can get info of how big a power source..." Tanya muttered.

                Duke glanced over at her.

                "I'm beginning to get a rough picture of just what this ray entails." she explained. "There's just a few more components and---" she was cut short as the Aerowing quickly stopped, hovering over the silent plant.

                "There." Wildwing pointed down to a particular building. "That's where the alarm's from." The building was long and gray,  roofed with ridged sheet metal, nestled between chemical holding tanks. Wildwing landed the ship quite a distance from the building itself, and joined the others in arming himself to the hilt. As he went to open the hatch, he took a look back at his team. Scruffy, baggy-eyed and obviously unenthused, they looked blankly back. Wildwing sighed. "Remember, we've got a lot riding on this." he started. "We've let Droid get away once, we've let the Saurians steal those plans and sneak out that plutonium. If we keep giving, we'll end up with them destroying Anaheim. We stop them here and now, got it?" The team seemed to perk up. He smiled a bit. "Be careful out there." he nodded. "And follow my marks. Let's go!"

                The hatch swing down, and the team filed down the ramp, running out onto the pebbly ground. They crunched together, almost single file, running for the building.

                Wildwing aimed for a chained set of metal bay doors, and sent them flying with one explosive puck. The team flanked out as the smoke blew past them, staring into the blackness of the unoperating factory. "We've got you red-clawed!" he announced into the dark. "Come out or fight!"

                There was a scuffling noise, and Wraith slowly floated into view, at least a hundred feet away. The Ducks instantly had their launchers poised at his skull, and his hands flew up, staff clattering to the floor in panic.

                "Wait!" he pleaded. "I give up!" Miserably shaking, he tried to stand the Ducks down.

                Wildwing didn't budge. "Hold it right there Wraith! What are you up to?"

                "I knew this plan wouldn't work..." the Saurian moaned aloud.

                Wildwing frowned, slowly breaking from the group and stepping forward. "Don't move an inch, or else your buddies are going to have to piece you back together scale by scale." he growled. "And don't think of teleporting. Now what are you doing here?"

                Wraith fumbled for words, trying to back away into the darkness.

                Wildwing followed him.

                "I don't know!" he stammered. "Dragaunus sent me to get one of these batteries... I don't know any of this mechanical stuff!"

                "A likely story." Nosedive frowned.

                "There are hundreds of kinds of batteries here." Wildwing continued. "You're not fooling me."

                "No, really!" Wraith panicked. "That's the only reason why you featherbrains caught me. I would have been here and gone in a breath if I knew what he wanted."

                Wildwing kept on edging him further back. "I can literally see right through you." he shook his head. "Don't test my patience, or you'll end up with a hole in your crest."

                "But that's all I know!" He insisted, backing away more quickly. "Please, I swear!"

                Suddenly, There was a flash of light, and Wildwing started as a puck flew past him. It hit into a rack of small chemical tanks, which toppled over and rolled over the floor. Wildwing was shocked to find Siege struggling his way up through them! It had been a trick! He raised his launcher and spun for Wraith when there was a blinding flash of white light. As Wildwing waved blindly, Wraith floated up and out of his reach.

                "Waste both of them!" Duke yelled.

                The team charged forward, unleashing a hail of fire at Wraith and Seige.

                The orange lizard reared up, a cylindrical tank gripped in his two hands. He hefted it at Grin, who nimbly caught it and tossed it right back, striking Siege on the shoulder. He fell back and rolled over more tanks.

                Wildwing rejoined the fighting beside his brother, hammering Wraith back towards the end of the factory building.

                "That's it!" Mallory yelled. "Pin them both down!" She cocked the dial on her launcher to bring up her clip of explosive pucks, but Tanya suddenly grabbed her arm.

                "Not here!" she yelled. "Those tanks are full of hydrogen! Set them on fire and this whole place is totalled!"

                "Did someone say FIRE?!?!" A yell echoed from behind them. Chameleon stalked through the doors they had blasted through, dressed like a circus clown.

                "The last thing we need is his funny business!" Tanya sighed.

                Chameleon pouted. "Awww, but I got you a present!" he reached into an oversized pocket and produced a round bomb, fuse lit! "Haaappppy doomsday!" he cried, and tossed it strait for them!

                Instinctively, Mallory pivoted her arm and shot the bomb with a freeze puck, the ball landing in a coating of ice. But the fuse was still going!

                "Duck and cover!" Tanya yelled.

                The team all poked their heads up, quickly spotted the bomb, and dove behind the nearest structure.

                Wildwing raised his shield and dove in front of the tanks themselves! Seconds later, the fuse ran out! There was a fizzle, a pop, and the Ducks opened their squinted eyes to find confetti raining down on them!

                "It was a dud!" Duke snarled.

                "Not quite." Wraith grinned sickly. He hefted up a battery in his arms and vanished in a green wave.

                "You've gotta be kidding me!" Nosedive wailed.

                The Ducks started returning fire on the Chameleon, who was pummled out the door, and retreated through teleportation.

                Siege reared up from underneath the tanks, throwing them at anyone who was close enough.

                "Don't let him get away!" Wildwing commanded.

                The other Ducks simply held their fire!

                Thinking quickly, Wildwing rushed in and nearly grabbed the Saurian by the throat.

                Siege struggled, and then punched him powerfully away.

                As Wildwing staggered back, Siege also managed to escape. He turned around angrily to face the team. "Why didn't anyone fire! I gave an order!" he snapped.

                Tanya pointed meekly to the tanks. "They've got hydrogen in them Wing." she reminded him.

                Wildwing smacked his forehead. "What was I thinking?" he asked himself aloud. "Ugh. Thanks for not listening to me." Disgusted with himself, he sat down on one of the tanks. "How could I have forgotten?"

                Duke stepped in, a battery in his hands. "We're forgetting the bigger picture Wing." he reminded, tossing him the battery. It was rather large, just smaller than the blade of a goalie stick, the kind used to power old flashlights.

                "Great. We let 'em get away again." Nosedive huffed.

                "First the plutonium." Mallory nodded. "Then the plans, then the parts, then this. That's gotta be a record."

                "More like a losing streak." Grin noted solemnly.

                Tanya took the battery from her distracted leader and looked it over. "This goes with my theory." she adjusted her glasses.

                "You had a theory this whole time?!" Dive asked.

                Tanya frowned. "I was thinking it up on the way over here." she edged. "But the power source was a major piece of the puzzle."

                "So tell us what you think we're looking at." Wildwing asked.

                Tanya paused to gather her words for a moment. "Well the key is the power source, really. That's a standard flashlight battery, actually a little old fashioned... so that means the ray would have to recharge for a while after it was fired. A long time, really. The way it works is this: the battery would power the motor, you know the pieces that Droid stole? That's what it's made of. The motor would ionize the plutonium, make it reach some kind of core temperature, and then it could fire. Like a little nuclear power plant."

                "Which goes off like a nuclear bomb." Wildwing nodded. "Great."

                "But there's one last piece of the puzzle. I don't think we're roasted yet." Tanya broke in.

                "But I thought the power source was it." Mallory started.

                "So did I for a while." Tanya nodded. "But I've been doing a little research on those thermonuclear design plans. There's one thing the Saurians don't have yet."

                "A brain larger than a peanut?" Dive cracked.

                "A lens." Tanya answered. "They need a lens to focus the nuclear energy into a ray. Otherwise it would explode in all directions."

                "But they could get a lens from anywhere." Duke folded his arms.

                "Not one specialized enough. It takes a powerful lens to handle thermonuclear energy."

                "Something like a lens from a telescope?" Wildwing started.

                "A big telescope." Tanya nodded. The team knew where they were headed next.

                "You've gotta be joking." Nosedive sat down on a canister.

                "What?" Wildwing asked.

                "Bro, it's like seven in the morning." he ran a hand through his knotted blonde hair. "I know for a fact that nobody has slept a wink since, like, last Tuesday. Don't these guys ever quit?"

                "Apparently you want to." Mallory loaded another clip into her pucklauncher.

                "You gonna blame me?" Nosedive bit back.

                "Hey, ease off kid, we're all tired." Duke sighed. "But we're not through this yet."

                "Duke's right." Wildwing frowned. "I understand that... a lot... has been going on lately."

                "A lot indeed." Nosedive muttered. "It's only been---"

                "I know Dive." his brother growled, the eyes of the Mask flashing red for a moment as he glared.                 Nosedive backed away.

                Wildwing sighed and put his head in a hand. "I know, okay?"

                "We all know." Grin said quietly.

                There was a silence amongst the group, as they all stood emptily, staring off into nothingness.                 Wildwing shook himself from it. "But we can't just stop now." he stood up. "We're not out of this... if Dragaunus gets that lens."

                "Kiss Anaheim goodbye." Mallory nodded.

                "And the rest of this planet, possibly." Wildwing shook his head. "We can't stop now."

                "But what's next?" Duke asked.

                "That lens, the observatory could be the only place Draggy could strike next." Tanya answered.

                "Then it's our job to head him off. Come on Ducks!" Wildwing sprung up and started off in a slow jog for the Aerowing.

                Mallory fell in behind him, mechanically. She'd been through tougher things than a few sleepless nights. But there was something sad, something desperate and hopeless in his tired lope back to the ship. She followed him up the hatch to find Wildwing staring in disbelief at a red light on the console, blinking.

                "An alarm from Drake 1?" Mallory asked.

                Wildwing plunked himself down in a chair as the rest of the team filed in.

                "What's wrong now?" Nosedive whined.

                Wildwing stared for a moment, then slowly sat back in his seat. "We're already too late."

                "We're lucky." the old mage said gloomily. He floated up higher into the air, away from the work below. "We're lucky that we delayed them so long, and got out of there with all of our scales intact."

                "Quit your whinin'!" Siege shouted up. "Now that the boss cleared out the place, we've gotta get this lens outta here!"

                "Yea, and we could use a little help down here!" Chameleon barked from below.

                Rolling his eyes, Wraith didn't move. "I'm the lookout, remember?" he sneered.

                The three cut their bickering as Dragaunus himself stalked into the room, with Droid behind him.

                "What a display of slavery!" the doctor cried, pointing to the huge telescopes that ringed the observatory floor. "Slaves, all of them! I'm sure if my brothers here had their own free will, they'd flip their lenses and fry the eyes of the next human to try and order them around!"

                "Lenses indeed doctor." Dragaunus frowned. "I need to know which is the one we've got to steal!"

                "Stealing?" Droid sighed. "Yes, stealing. We will rob the very function from these machines." he spread his arms wide and addressed each telescope in turn. "My brothers! Who will be so brave as to give their function, to save all of machine-kind?! Who will---"

                "Shut up, you maniac." Dragaunus snapped. "We don't have much time. Which one?"

                Droid folded his arms and recomposed himself. "My calculations indicate that we need to cut the central piece of the biggest lens from that one, there." he pointed to the largest telescope in the room.

                Dragaunus growled, raised his wrist laser, and shot the entire device. As the telescope went up in smoke, the huge lens, as big as he was, clattered to the floor.

                Droid started to panic, babbling about the machine.

                Dragaunus ignored him coldly, stalking up to the lens. He got his claws under the lip of the glass and hefted it up, only getting it to chest-level before his brooding sneer became twisted with pain, and he let out a snarl.

                Siege frowned with concern and trotted in to help the Overlord.

                Draguanus recovered and gave everyone in the room a growl. "Let's get this thing out of here." he said quietly.

                "I'm afraid we'll have to hurry." Wraith called from above, peering from the hole in the ceiling. "We have visitors."

                "Impossible!" Draguanus yelled.

                "No, it's not them." Wraith shook his head, panic in his eyes. "It's different."

                Not enough time, they would never have enough time! Duke was beside himself with frustration as the Aerowing shot through the sky, full throttle again. They would never get there in time, they were already too late! And when they got there, the place would be empty. Draguanus would have the lens, and Anaheim would be a glowing green crater. He felt sick. Wildwing was still at the controls, some of the others already gearing up for the fight, armed to the teeth. But fatigue was starting to catch up to Duke. He didn't want to battle, not now. He couldn't face Dragaunus with that weapon, with his victory, already in his claws.

                "Ready team..." Wildwing spoke. "We'll be there any second..."

                Duke frowned and closed his eyes. Too late! The Ducks had let him get too far! How could they have simply let Dragaunus and Droid steal all of those parts!? How many failures had they been through? This wouldn't be any different. Duke sat back and thought with a dry humor. He never thought it would come to this. He always thought there would be some giant, unexpected battle. He expected the team to be at its best, not frazzled as they were now. This war would end with a bang, but it began with a whimper... a whimper on their part. They had let it come to this. The team had failed. The ship slowed recklessly, and planted itself in the field beside the observatory dome.

                Wildwing pulled himself from the cockpit and opened the ramp. As the team filed out, he yelled to them. "Remember team, it's gotta stop here! One more failure and we're all fried. Let's make it count!" But the team skidded to a halt midway down the ramp, seeing lasers shooting out of the telescope holes.

                "Looks like the fight started without us..." Mallory said.

                "But how?" Grin asked.

                "The police... must have tripped an alarm." Duke reasoned.

                "Then let's give them some backup!" Wildwing nearly shoved them all down, and they scampered across the grass and right through the blasted-out front doors. As the team flanked out, something small was thrown at their feet. Shadowed in the black of the observatory, it sprung up and darted out of view. Chameleon? Wildwing wasn't going to let him get away twice. There was a flash of laser light from the corner, and Wildwing ran for it. "Flank out and take 'em down team! Watch your backs!" He sprung into that corner, and Tanya followed him.

                Siege thundered out into the light, shooting wildly.

                Tanya ducked behind her leader as he curled his arms over his face for protection. When there was a break,  he coiled back and started shooting. As Tanya joined him, Siege was pinned. All it took was a few pucks to the head to knock the Saurian unconscious.

                "That's one down!" Tanya celebrated. But suddenly an explosion ripped up before them, the wave of heat knocking them both clean over. What was that?! They scrambled backwards as something emerged from the flames.

                Palm out and another missile ready, Dr. Droid himself stalked through. "Haven't seen you in a while Ducks!" he snarled. "Too bad you won't be around long enough to regret coming here." He fired another missile, and barely missed, blasting the wall behind the two.   

                Wildwing started shooting back, but the pucks again merely bounced off of Droid's metal body. The robot simply grinned, metal talons shining in the flames, green eye whirling to lock on to his target. There was a howl from the distance, and something came crashing through the flames, slamming into Droid. As the fire began to close in around Wing and Tanya, Droid arched his back and sparks erupted from his neck. Trailing wires, something leapt away and left the robot to collapse, mechanical parts whirring and spinning aimlessly.

                "What was that?" Tanya asked.

                "Must be a police dog." Wildwing scratched his head. "Let's get outta here before the wall collapses." He held his shield over his head and escorted her back out into the dome, away from the flames. But the light from the fire was essential, it was the only light in the entire place. The shadows made it hard for Wildwing to discern just what was going on. But the Saurians were here, and so was Droid. He and Tanya split and ran in opposite directions.

                Tanya scampered over to the blasted telescope, looking up. The lens was gone! Were they too late? As she thought, Mallory nearly slammed into her.

                She toppled to the floor, getting up slowly.

                "Mallory!" Tanya helped her up and tucked her beneath the telescope's frame.

                The Duck pushed her back, picking up her launcher again. "I'm fine!" she stood again, pointing.

                Wraith was not far off, using his flaming sword to parry with Duke. He started using his free hand to toss fireballs at the two behind the telescope.

                Tanya loaded up her launcher as well. "We can take him down from here!" she yelled.

                "Just watch where you're shooting, we don't want to hit Duke!" Mallory reminded, and crouched beside her.

                Duke looked up from his swordfight just long enough to see what was going on, and sprung away from Wraith.

                The old lizard grinned obliviously. "Something wrong, featherbrain?" he cackled.

                Duke smiled and pointed over Wraith's shoulder.

                The Saurian spun around in time to receive a hail of pucks to the face. He collapsed, and Duke delivered a final kick to the head that knocked him out cold.

                Tired, he leaned over as Mallory and Tanya jogged up to him.

                "That's two down, at least!" Tanya patted Duke's shoulder.

                He shook his head and looked around. "Dragaunus is here..." he started. "With the lens... And, there's something else here too."

                "Yeah, the cops must be." Tanya looked around with him. The shadows cast by the flames all leapt crazily. It was like a twisted funhouse in here!

                "No, I haven't seen one in the place." Duke frowned.

                "Then what--" Mallory was cut off as she heard yelling in the distance. It was Dive!

                The three instantly headed off in his direction. They saw Chameleon first, laser blasting away, into a small storeroom. Dive and Grin must have been trapped!

                "Hang on guys!" Mallory yelled back. "The cavalry's here!"

                Hearing this, Chameleon spun around and morphed into a Civil War general, complete with shotgun. "Cavalry?" he said gruffly through a grizzled beard. "Why, you the sorriest bunch 'a fowl I seen since north of tha Mason-Dixon!" He shouldered his gun and didn't waste any time in blasting holes in the floor.

                The three scattered and tried to surround him.

                "Keep running!" Duke encouraged. "He'll run out of ammo!" Indeed, Chameleon's advantage was lost within seconds.

                He tossed his overheated gun to the floor and huffed.

                "Now! Nail him!" Mallory yelled, and opened fire.

                Duke tossed a bola puck at the squirming lizard, and tied him up completely. He wrenched to get free, but to no avail. As Duke lifted him up off of the floor by the back of his neck, his last defense was to try and bite him.

                "Yeow!!!" Duke crudely dropped the Saurian and withdrew, rubbing his hand. "You little punk... wait until this is over."

                "Yeah, he'd make a great soccer ball." Tanya frowned.

                "Or a nice pair of shoes!" Nosedive seconded. He and Grin emerged from the blasted, storeroom, their armor pitted with laser burns.

                "You still in one piece?" Mallory asked.

                "My auora is whole." Grin offered. The others frowned in confusion. Grin sighed. "We're fine."

                "Great, that's three down." Tanya nodded.

                "But where's Wing?" Dive looked around.

                The others fell silent, listening for him above the crackle of the flames. There was noise back towards the center of the room.

                "Wildwing?" Dive called out.

                "Guys, clear outta here!" he ordered from a distance.

                "That sure dosen't sound normal." Duke frowned, and headed out to see what was going on. Rounding a bend and coming back into the central dome, things became all too clear.

                His arm ached from holding it up so long. But Wildwing wouldn't budge, and Dragaunus wouldn't either. He stood only a dozen or so feet away, the huge telescope lens propped against one leg, and the unfinished R-36 in both hands, braced against his shoulder, ready to fire.

                "Bro!" Wildwing looked over as he saw the group come running up, Nosedive in the lead.

                "Dive, get out of here!" Wildwing repeated desperately.

                Dragaunus's wry grin spread from ear to ear. "That's right, you chickens." he snarled. "Run, or die."

                "But you can't fire that." Tanya frowned. "Without the lens, the R-36 isn't finished!"

                "I can't fire the radioactive beam." Dragaunus nodded, not taking his blood-red eyes off of Wildwing for a second. "But I don't have to. I pull the trigger, I set off a thermonuclear reaction that will make this a three-mile wide hot zone."

                Tanya realized he was right, and it froze her with panic.

                "Yeah... but you'll blow yourself up too!" Dive tried.

                Dragaunus simply laughed. "I've got the teleporter, remember? I really can't lose, you know." he grinned. "I can take you out in one fell swoop, and I can always build another gun after you're gone."

                The Ducks slowly fell silent as they realized that he was right. He was in control... he had won.

                "Ducks." Wildwing started again, his voice growing more desperate. "Get out of here."

                "We cannot simply leave you." Grin protested.

                "That's an order!" He yelled, eyes snapping back to Dragaunus.

                The Overlord locked him in a fearless stare. "It's your choice Ducks." he cackled. "Die now or die later. Either way, I win."

                They all stood motionless, Wildwing still with his launcher poised to Dragaunus, the rest of the team paralyzed with indecision. The only thing that moved were the shadows from the fire, leaping crazily. There was an increasingly helpless look in Wildwing's eyes. Everyone could see it. There was no choice! If they let him go, Dragaunus would total them and the city. If they stayed, they were goners, and Dragaunus would have free reign of the planet. They all slowly realized that they had lost it. After this series of defeats, they had come to the end. The shadows still continued to crash in the eerie silence. There was another shadow that suddenly passed above them, crossing through the light from a telescope hole. And suddenly, there was a howl, a swish, a crash. Something came down and tore Dragaunus and his gun apart. He went crashing to the floor, the glass lens whirling to a stop. The R-36 skidded a few feet away. Dragaunus howled, kicked, and threw something off of him, rolling up as it landed a few feet in the opposite direction of the gun.

                Zelda, her eyes nearly blazing blue, let out a roar so loud that it nearly shook the ground.

                Silver, Diamond, and Northstar came into being from the shadows, bristling as they grouped around her sides.

                Draguanus scrambled up, backing away. "Impossible!" he howled, jaw hanging. "Back from the dead?"

                Zelda remained speechless, her silhouette stark against the glow from the flames.

                Dragaunus was furious. "No matter, dragon." he spat raggedly. "I still have my victory..." he spun around for the gun, only to find it in Wildwing's hands. He froze.

                Zelda continued to stare him down. It was a cold, powerful stare. All four of the leader had ruffled and fluffed themselves to full, looking bigger by several feet, shadows stretching jaggedly before them, eyes blazing. Everything in the room seemed to be suspended.

                Instead of boiling over with rage as he usually did, the Saurian was calm as the other Ducks locked their launchers onto him. He looked at the dragon over his shoulder. "I still have it." he growled. "One day you'll know that." With a flick of his wrist, Dragaunus and his henchman faded, the observatory glowing in green. And in seconds, he was gone. There was a long pause in the room, the crowd simply staring at the spot where Draguanus had made his retreat.

                Wildwing broke the silence by turning, handing the R-36 to Mallory as she and the others came up behind him.

                Zelda didn't seem to notice, she was still looking at the ground. But she slowly raised her head, her friends rumbling beside her. Together, they stepped towards the Ducks, and became clearer in the growing light.

                The Ducks looked nervously at each other as Zelda sat down, looking up at them.

                "My friends..." she smiled, her voice soft but grateful. "How I've missed you!" In an instant she leapt up onto Wildwing's shoulder, billowing her wings around the others as if she wanted to hug them all at once. All anxiety seemed to disappear in an instant. Zelda was back, and the crisis that been on their shoulders was now suddenly gone! The other leaders sat and smiled.

                Nosedive pulled her off of his older brother, and into her arms. "You're alive!" he gasped. "I don't believe it!"

                "I'll be fine kiddo." she ruffled his hair. "I know I have a lot of explaining to do."

                "Not here Zel, let's get you back to the Pond." Tanya silenced her gently.

                Zelda hopped down, rejoining her fellow leaders. There was another silence as she padded up to them. "Come with me." she whispered to them. "Please?"

                "We couldn't leave you." Silver nuzzled her.

                Zelda rumbled deeply in gratitude. "It's so nice to be back." Turning, she lead the group out of the blasted observatory. They seemed to be indifferent.

                The breeze batted his hair back and forth. Duke swept it out of his eyes as he watched the four leaders on the roof ahead. He still was coming to grips with what he was seeing. Zelda was alive... It was nearly impossible, spending over a month in the artic with nothing. But worried him even more was her status now. After Nosedive had told Wildwing about his seeing her, Wing had related her state to the rest of the team. And... there were echoes of that state in her now. She looked healthy, certainly not the rack of bones that he had hopelessly pictured her as. But there was a wistfulness in her eyes. She seemed tired, maybe just relieved. But she stood before them on the roof of the Pond, listening to them chat. Apparently she hadn't been recovering for very long. Northstar suddenly turned and approached Wildwing, and Duke snapped back into reality.

                "Wildwing." he began in his deep voice. He bowed his head to him lightly as he spoke. "I must thank you, and your team,  for your patience. It's been a rough time on all of us." He paused for a moment. "And I'd like to apologize."

                "For what?" Wildwing asked. He kneeled down to meet the griffon at eye level. "I understand why you did what you did." He lowered his voice. "You have your places. You were just protecting her, and yourselves."

                "We know now that we didn't need to." Northstar smiled. "I trust you Ducks. And I trust you, Wildwing." He nodded. "She looks up to you as her leader, but she will not follow the path you want to create for her."

                "What do you mean?" Wildwing was confused.             

                "She'll explain it to you, better than I can." Northstar sighed, looking over his shoulder as the other leaders conversed indifferently. "Let her follow her heart. She was meant to help you." he said. "She trusts you. Trust her, from here out." Without a chance for Wildwing to question him further, Northstar turned back and rejoined his friends.

                Wildwing stood and gave Duke a puzzled look.

                Duke shrugged in reply.

                Slowly, the leaders began to break away from the Ducks. It seemed that it was time to go.

                "We'll keep in touch, we promise." Silver bowed to them as he backed away.

                "But the Territory is leaderless, we must get home." Diamond nodded.

                Zelda followed them to the roof's edge. They all grouped again for one more goodbye.

                "You'll be safe here Zel, I know it." Silver rumbled to her.

                "Heh, don't worry about me!" she chuckled back. "You belong home. Go! I'll follow you strait."

                "That's what you said over three years ago!" Diamond laughed.

                "And I keep my promises." Zelda nodded back.

                Silver picked Diamond up by her shoulders, and he and Northstar lifted their feathery wings, soaring skyward.

                It hit Duke that Silver's wing had healed! How long had it been? They drifted off slowly, fading into the cloud banks in the distance. As they did, they let out a goodbye roar. Zelda replied, and there was something sad in that voice. Duke pinpointed it instantly. She wanted to go home... or did she? Zelda remained at the edge for a few moments, before she turned, gave a beaming grin, and charged into the group. They laughed and nearly collapsed on top of her, as she squirmed out from beneath.

                She perched on Grin's shoulder like a hunting falcon, grinning like a Cheshire cat.

                "Good to have you back Zel." Tanya folded her arms.

                "Good to be back." she nodded. "I missed you all, you have no idea."

                "Zelda, I still have no idea what went on with you." Wildwing smiled. "But having you back to normal is a relief to all of us." Zelda's smile suddenly faded.

                "Not normal." she sighed.

                "What?" Wildwing asked.

                "I have a lot of explaining to do." she hedged, looking back at the coming dawn. "Perhaps... now is the best time."

                "Zel." Mallory began. "You've been through a lot, we can understand if--"

                "No." she said gently. "Now is the best of times. I know you all have questions. I still have questions myself. It's time to end this."

                Grin walked slowly inside as she climbed up onto his shoulder. It was wonderfully strange to have her back. Why hadn't he sensed her coming back to help them? It didn't seem to matter now, all of his questions would be answered. But Zelda still felt uncomfortable. Hoping to settle her back in, he walked further down into the Pond, past the Ready Room door. The R-36 still lay, unfinished, on Drake 1's console. Tanya would see to its destruction later. But he continued on until he reached the Rec. Room, and swung the door open lightly.

                "I still can't believe how it all turned out." Duke shook his head. "How on Puckworld did you survive?"

                "I don't know." Zelda shook her head. She pawed the Rec. Room floor for a moment in thought. "I don't remember a lot of it."

                Nosedive ventured. "Did you remember me?"

                Zelda looked up at him quietly. There was a pause in the room. Most of the Ducks stared at her curiously. "Yes. Every word." she confessed. "You don't know what that did to me..."

                There was another pause, as the focus shifted to Dive.

                "I'm... sorry Zel." he lowered his eyes.

                "No, don't be." she shook her head. "You could have saved me... you made me think about going back more than anything else. But... I couldn't."

                "But I don't understand it Zel. Why did you come back here? You still don't look 100%, why didn't you rest?" Tanya asked.

                At this, she looked unnerved. "I'll be okay." Zelda assured. "But I knew you were in trouble. It has to do with what I learned out there." she closed her eyes.

                "Which comes to our biggest question." Wildwing leaned forward. "Why did you go? You put yourself through a lot out there. I don't mean to make you feel bad, but you put us through a lot too, and the other leaders." He sighed. "Why did you think we couldn't help you out?"

                Zelda couldn't look back at him. "It was bigger than you, or my kind. It was bigger than me. I had to do this on my own."

                "Huh?" Duke asked.

                "Something was calling me. Some question. I learned what that was... and the answer." she started. "I'd lost my place here... and at home... that's why I had to leave."

                "But why didn't you tell us, even your kind?" Grin pressed.

                Zelda looked hurt, and it took her a few moments to form an answer. "I thought... I could stay." she blinked. "I thought I would be stronger... I was wrong."

                "You nearly died out there." Wildwing frowned.

                "I would have died if I hadn't gone." Zelda told him firmly. "I would have lost myself."

                "But what does that mean Zel?" Dive asked her, a little frustrated. "What was your big question?"                 Zelda looked at him, thinking hard. Her eyes looked the same as they did when he confronted her in the barren snow. She looked as she had when confronted with death. "I wanted to know... what I was doing here." she finally answered. "And not just here... at home.. everywhere. I questioned my place in life... I started a long time ago."

                "And the events in the last few months just made it worse." Tanya nodded.

                Zelda was still thinking. "It's more than the recent past." she mumbled. "When Dragaunus demanded my alliance almost four years ago, and I refused, it touched off a lot of controversy at home. No one wanted to help him, of course, but there were different ways to handle things. Many approved of taking the battle away from our small clan. We realized that we would be cannon fodder if we tried to fight the Saurians."

                "And so you agreed to come out here."

                "Alone." Zelda nodded. "It was not a popular decision. Many didn't want me going out there on my own. Many more didn't want me leaving." she paused and closed her eyes. "It took a lot to convince some of them... as time has passed... I may have proven them right. Ever since I left, I've put my place here over my duties as a leader... it's not easy."

                "I know how that feels." Wildwing nodded. "You were worried that you weren't doing the right thing."

                "The consequences of mistakes are too great at this stage." she nodded. "I slowly lost my place here... and there as well...."

                "So you left." Grin continued.

                "Without telling any of you." she nodded sadly. "I realize how wrong that was now... and what strife it created." The others, for once, let her continue to speak. "But I didn't want you to worry about me. I thought that if I went along, it would spare me."

                "What would?" Dive asked. "What's it?"

                "A spiritfall." Grin answered.

                Zelda looked up. "I've heard much of the conversations that you've had with the other leaders." she nodded. "You know all there is to know from them. They were right."

                "On both counts?" Duke asked. "How can that be?"

                "A spiritfall is prophetic. I got my answer, enigmatic as it is." she shook her head. "But it's also deadly... I nearly died... I can't remember how close I came, or how I recovered, but that's all I know. I was there." To this point, Nosedive agreed sadly. "But I found the ancestors... My answer was in their dust."

                "I know this'll be tough to explain." Tanya started. "But... what was this answer? No doubt it changed you."

                Zelda took a deep breath, as if it was a strain for her just to say it. "My ancestors gave me a moment of truesight." she started. "An unfiltered look into fate, dreams, infinite paths down which the world can tread. It's hard for me to understand it myself... that flash... but I saw my answer... why I needed to be here."

                "And why is that?"

                "Because I know now, that the defeat of Dragaunus cannot come by me, nor by the humans. It's you." she looked up at the team as they stared back in awe. "You Ducks are destined to fell the Saurian Empire."

                "You know that?" Duke frowned.

                "Let me clarify." Zelda continued. "For this is what I merely suspected before. Now I know the details. That fact is clear, but nothing else is certain. I don't know if you'll even succeed at all. Draguanus could kill one of us, or all of us, or none. We may still fail." She looked up at them with a reproachful glance.

                "But... how does that relate to you?" Mallory asked.

                "I know my unique role here now." she smiled back. "I am a guardian to my kind, I will be the same for you. My heart pulled me back here... I knew you were in trouble. My fate is to protect you. Everything points to it."

                "I think I understand..." Grin started.

                "But that's what you've always done for us girl." Duke said gently. "You said you've changed."

                "Things can never go back to normal... not completely." she agreed. "But I can't put my claw on what's different. Perhaps I've just learned, I've grown. I approach Dragaunus now with a harder  heart. That's what will be his undoing."

                Duke leaned back and sighed.

                Zelda followed him with her eyes.

                "Sorry girl." he said. "It's not that we don't believe you... it's just confusing... a shock." Some of the others nodded slightly. "I mean, we all thought you were dead. Now you've had some revelation? Something that changes your life and you just come back and everything's fine again?"

                Zelda shrank. "I... I don't know." she growled. "I'm confused too... it's hard for me to make any sense of my experiences. But I do know what I saw up there."

                "Wait a moment." Grin cut in. "You said that your problems had nothing to do with us. Now all of your answers have everything to do with us." He leaned forward on a chair. "Why is that?"

                Zelda was silent.

                Grin frowned. "Did you lie to us?"

                Zelda looked up at him darkly.

                Somewhere in the back of his mind, Grin felt something. Was she back again? Did he feel normal again? He hadn't felt normal in a month... he had forgotten what it was like. But he had hit a nerve, he could see it in her stare.

                "No." she answered firmly. Her eyes sharpened as she looked at all of them. "This has nothing to do with you, it's me." she pointed to herself. "My role has been outlined here. You already have yours."

                "Heh, come on Zel." Dive smirked. "Lighten up a bit. You really think each of us has a life laid out for us? Like our destiny or something?"

                "I never said that." she answered. "But of course, you all have talents that outline your places here. Your specialties are what makes this team work. Now, I'll be what makes this team safe." She folded her arms and sat up, smiling. "I know this is tough for you. You've been racking your brains about why I left, I can tell. I'm sorry... that's all I can say... I didn't mean to drive you to that. But trust me. Things are better now. I have no problems weighing me down anymore!" She flared her wings to make her point. "Now, I can focus. We can all focus, hm?"

                Mallory smiled too. "Yeah, okay kiddo." she patted her on the snout. "Just one thing: promise you'll never do that again?"

                Zelda grinned and leapt up onto the arm of the couch beside her. "It's a promise, to all of you." she nodded. "Now why the long faces? You just saved the world, again. And don't we have a hockey game tomorrow?"

                "Man.. the game!" Tanya sighed.

                "Think you're in boardrunning shape?" Wildwing looked at her doubtfully.

                "Are you kidding?" Zelda laughed. "I'd run you through three periods of a penalty kill if I could!"

                "Hah, that's my girl." Duke smiled. "She's back to normal alright."

                "What can I say?" Wildwing said. "What a relief. Now you know what? We can get some sleep!"

                "Sleep? Really!?" Nosedive jumped up. "Race you to the bunks Mal!"

                "A race you'll lose, featherbrain!" she sprung up.

                "I don't think so!" Dive vaulted over the couch and darted off.

                "No fair!" Mallory was scrambling after him. The two bounded out of the room, laughing.

                They others smiled as they watched them go. It seemed as if some gloom had been lifted off of all of them. Was it just Zelda's return, or was it something bigger?

                Zelda reared to their eye level, folding her arms and smiling too.

                "We should all get some sleep. You'll be okay for tonight Zel?" Wildwing asked.

                The dragoness nodded.

                He stood up and patted her on the head. "It's great to have you back, and that's an understatement. You rest up." He watched her over his shoulder as he walked out.

                Duke and Tanya caught up to him in the hallway, whispering.

                "Can you believe it?" Duke asked.

                "Not a bit." Tanya shook her head.

                "But she doesn't look normal." Wildwing turned and slowed to let them catch up.

                "You're right, she does look tired." Tanya nodded. "But she's not starving anymore, not like Dive said. She'd have to make quite a recovery."

                "She must have gone home." Duke nodded. "But why didn't she tell us that she was safe?"

                "Maybe they destroyed the com?" Wildwing asked. "They were never too fond of it."

                "Or maybe." Duke said darkly. "She didn't know if she was coming back."

                There was a pause as the three of them just walked.

                "She's here now, that's good enough for me." Wildwing finally said. "Her babble about fate concerns her. What I know is that we may owe the safety of Anaheim to her tonight."

                "And the other leaders." Duke nodded.

                They reached the bunk corridor and stopped.

                "Get a good sleep, both of you. I think we may be able to win tomorrow's game after all." Wildwing smiled.

                The trio broke, and disappeared behind their doors.

                Grin looked at her with a tired curiosity. "I don't know where you will sleep tonight." he began. "Your things were stored in Mallory's bunk."

                "The floor isn't that uncomfortable." she shrugged, and hopped onto the back of the couch beside him. "What's wrong? Something's distant about you."

                Grin turned his head to look her in the face. "None of us expected you to come back." he started. "Why... why was I one of them?" Zelda started to say something, but he spoke first. "I don't know anymore Zel. Things seemed so calm and even before all of this happened. Now, none of us are the same."

                "Change." Zelda nodded. "Is never easy."

                "It's more than change." Grin frowned. "You say that you learned something about your role here... I think we all did, about ourselves."

                "What did you learn?" Zelda smiled.

                Grin continued to be serious. "I wasn't as close to you as I thought. Our senses are of a different nature."

                "But the same base." she elaborated.

                "You don't understand Zel.. I lost you totally. It felt like it did when I first came to this planet... I had lost everything, even the presence of my master." He sighed. "It didn't hurt Zel... don't think that."                 The dragoness shrank from his gaze. "I'm just coming to grips with what I've done... leaving you here... abandoning you."

                "You had no choice." Grin shook his head quietly. "Not how you describe it. I don't think you should have ignored it, that's what got you into this mess."

                "There are a lot of things that I did wrong."

                "Not like you were in a careful state of mind." he said.

                "That still doesn't justify it..."

                "I will not lie to you Zelda." he turned to her. "Things have changed around here. But with you back, I think they won't change for the worse anymore."

                Zelda smiled at him. "I don't think I'll change for the worse either."

                He stood up and yawned, she leaping up onto his shoulder. He stepped out of the room and began walking down the hall with her.

                "You know who surprised me though?" she said. "Nosedive. When he found me..." she was lost in thought. Grin looked up at her. "I don't remember anything... just him, then the cave, then waking up at home again. But he nearly brought me back..."

                "Was that a bad thing?" Grin asked.

                Zelda shook her head. "He could have saved my life. Maybe he did... that shock reminded me of all of you, of where I should have been instead of running around in the snow. Maybe that's why I came back..."

                "You really don't remember, do you?"

                "I couldn't think strait." she sighed. "But he made things so clear... he told me everything about what was happening with you. He told me what risks I was facing out there. I couldn't see that myself. "

                "Maybe he was the right Duck for the job after all." Grin nodded. "But please, your mind is still in chaos. Things will settle themselves in time, and you will understand. We don't need the answers, it's you that does."

                Zelda drew a wing around his other shoulder. "Thank you." she said. "I've got a lot of thinking to do... but this is over." Slowly, a smile spread across her face.

                Grin opened the door to his bunk, and it closed behind him, leaving the corridor in silence.

                Nosedive cringed as the door opened, the noise sounding incredible in the relative silence of the corridor, and the track lighting blaring into Grin's darkened bunk. But it didn't seem to disturb anyone, and after a long pause of holding his breath, Nosedive stepped in. The light from the hallway spread across the floor, glinting off of a few of Grin's meditation crystals. He was asleep, back to Dive, breathing regularly. And across from him, curled up on the floor, was Zelda, sleeping just as soundly. Nosedive's shadow crossed her face as he walked up to her, and she shifted slightly. Again, Dive held his breath, and again, she wasn't disturbed. He quietly squatted down to get a better look at her. He didn't think the pictures would ever fade from his mind. Even though she was hardly in the shape he'd seen her in before, he could still look over her body and see the bones jutting out from beneath her skin, the scales ragged and windburned. Even through her closed lids, he could still see the look of utter hopelessness that he had given him in the Artic. Nosedive stayed like that for a long time, crouched at her side, watching her slow breathing. He slowly was able to convince himself that Zelda was back for good, that this was the end of things. He stood again, but before he turned to go, he draped a moss blanket over her, that he had gotten from the infirmary before. Again, Zelda stirred. She snorted gently and nuzzled into the folds of the moss. Dive stood again and let out a sigh, before he walked back out into the hallway, and let the room return to darkness.

The End

Mighty Ducks-The Animated Series, including all logos and characters (except me) are copyright and property of Disney. You may copy, print, or whatever with this document, so long as it is not altered and I (Zelda) am credited. Thanks!