Disclaimer: See Prologue for proper disclaimer.
Author's Note: Esa and I would like to thank everyone who has been sticking with the story! (And, I'd like to thank Esa for being such an excellent and patient co-writer! And for pretty much saving my butt from writers block! As well as for writing some of the scenes in this chapter) Also, I apologize if there are bits that might seem confusing in one of the earlier chapters. I'm really sorry. But, hopefully there's bits in later chapters that will have some of it make some sense.
Special Note: In memoriam of Justin, "JewWario" Carmical, who passed away on January 23, 2014. I never knew him as well as others did, having never met him in person, and only occasionally watching his videos, but I know that he will be missed dearly by those whose lives he brightened with his presence. May he, and his characters, live on in the hearts, memories and stories of others.
I know that this is probably not a proper tribute, but I'm currently unsure about whether or not to make a more proper tribute following my original plans (Which was going to be a separate three-to-four chapter crossover fic with one of series in the canon Power Rangers universe).
Chapter 5: Shadow of a Doubt
An arctic fog cut through Spoony's thin t-shirt, filling his lungs with burning shards of frost as he blindly stumbled through the blackness that surrounded him. This was obviously wrong, every synapse in his brain screamed at him. It hadn't been this cold, or this dark outside the building.
In fact, he had been pretty sure that it had like any other morning. Well, except for the fact that it seemed like almost half the state was convinced that he was the most dangerous wanted criminal in Arizona for reasons that he couldn't quite explain. Later, he would learn that most of the people who were chasing him were actually disguised Synthspectors. Those that weren't, he guessed had probably been manipulated into believing the lie, through some means or another.
He remembered feeling his heart beating in his chest as he and Burton hid. Police sirens wailed over the muffled thunder of booted footsteps, their owners yelling muffled commands to one another as they stormed past.
It was only a small comfort to him, he sighed as he looked up to the sky that they hadn't yet called in helicopters. But, he knew that it would only be a matter of time before someone ordered before this place started looking like the set of a summer blockbuster or a disaster film.
Burton blipped quietly as data flashed across his sensors swept across the area, mapping out the quickest and possibly safest escape routes he could. Suddenly, his cyclops eye lit up as something unusual appeared on his radar.
"What is it?" Spoony asked, sneaking a peek around the corner of the alley they had ducked into to avoid being caught, "Pretty sure you're not going to be telling me that these guys all suddenly realized that this was just bullshit, and decided to go home."
"I picked up an unusual energy distortion coming from nearby," the blue robot replied.
"And," the gamer asked, "You're guessing that this distortion is that wormhole thing that Insano's message was going on about, right?"
"I'm not sure." Burton said, "It's not my fault that Insano forgot to download any sort of coordinates into my memory banks. And it's certainly not my fault that a certain someone failed to take into the account the usefulness of me being able to differentiate various types of energy distortions."
"Well," Spoony rolled his eyes, "it's not like we've ever needed something like that. This whole 'energy distortion and wormhole' stuff's more of Linkara and Pollo's thing—not ours. Ours is mad scientists, crazed ex-wrestlers, the undead, and Hell's janitorial services. But, whatever—where's this distortion coming from?"
"That construction site downtown," Burton said, "the strongest point seems to be coming from near the of the building."
"Great," Spoony sighed, "That's totally one of the things I wanted to do today; wake up, eat breakfast, and climb a freaking tower."
"Something doesn't seem right about this," the blue robot said, "I'm not sure that it's safe."
"I don't like it either," the gamer replied, "but we don't have a choice."
Giving only a robotic, mechanical sigh in response, Burton followed his master and friend down the street towards the construction site.
Thinking back on it, Spoony realized he should have listened to him. Sure, he would gladly admit that he would have rather have dealt with stumbling through the void contained within the building than run the chance of a potentially messy end at the hands of a firing squad.
But, at the same time, everything here made his skin crawl. The coldness seemed to intensify with each step he took; biting at him until it almost felt as if it had become heat again, burning at his skin as its invisible talons raked across his skin. Not helping this intense burning feeling was the scent of burning leaves that filled his nostrils with their earthy, smoking scent.
Sounds, like the chirping of a bird and the rush of wings, bounced off the distant walls, it's sound magnified by the echo, caused the hairs on his neck to stand on end as he constantly looked over his shoulder, only to find himself staring into even deeper darkness.
That sound—it felt as if came from everywhere, making it almost impossible for him to know which way was which. As far as he was concerned, the room could have been constantly shifting and he would have never known unless he ran face first into a wall.
Another sound, this one the sound of distant footsteps, echoed from behind him, causing him to stand still, his muscles tensed as his ears latched onto the sound like a drowning swimmer to the side of a capsized boat.
Spoony's heart pounded louder in his ears as the footsteps grew louder. Sweat beaded on his skin, somehow managing to not immediately freeze into ice crystals as he steeled himself, slowly turning around to face the unknown visitor, praying that whoever they were that they were friendly.
"Noah?" a familiar deep voice asked hesitantly behind him, "Hello? Is anyone in here?"
Immediately, Spoony allowed himself to relax a little as he and Burton turned toward the source of the voice. The light from Burton's eye fell upon the figure of man, roughly around the same height as Spoony himself, with short dark hair.
"Miles," Spoony asked, halfway between surprised and relieved, "What are you doing here, man?"
"Well," Miles explained, "You try waking up and finding your brother missing and the only thing he's left was a note that doesn't explain anything, and then hearing all this stuff about how he's some dangerous, wanted criminal. Yeah, you'd probably want a few answers too."
"Believe me," the gamer replied defensively, "If I even knew what was going on or why the hell half the state wants me dead, then you'd be the first person to know. Right now, I need to figure out where Insano's gone off to, and if he knows anything about what the flying hell is going on here, and both of us need to be trying not to get caught by the crazy mob outside."
A wolfish smirk twitched at the corners of Miles' lips, made all the more sinister by the deep shadows falling across his face. Every warning signal in the gamer's brain that was capable of going off at that point should have been flashing with panic at that moment.
Spoony, unfortunately, didn't seem to notice this.
"Oh, don't worry about them," Miles replied, "Let's just say that they won't be following us for a while."
"Dude," Spoony smirked, "I'm not even sure I want to ask you what you did. But, thanks anyways. Now if we could just figure out how to stop running around here completely blind and get up to the roof…"
The two fell silent as they looked around them, straining to see past the night-like emptiness that surrounded them. No clues on just how deep into this void they were existed. All that they were sure of was that they were not walking on the ceiling, as that the ground below them carried the distinct texture of tiled floor, and that above them they could still hear the faint maddening bird-song echoing around them.
The younger man's eyes seemed to focus upon something, as if he noticed something that Spoony had not.
"This way," he said in flat montone as he began walking off, leaving the gamer to blink confusedly as he tried to catch up.
"Whoa, hang on there," Spoony said as he caught up with his younger brother, "What makes you so damn sure that that's the right way?"
Miles glared at him, with a look that simply suggested that questioning him at that moment would have ranked up there with sticking a fork in an electrical socket or taunting a grizzly bear in terms of things that would be very dangerous to do at moment. However, before either of them could say more, a distant rumbling of footstep and distant shouts echoed from somewhere behind them, rapidly growing louder and more thunderous by the second.
With a hesitant nod, Spoony followed the younger man, reasoning that while he still had his doubts, it was probably better than risking certain death at the hands of an armed mob.
The rest of the trip, the gamer noted, was fairly easier, but none the less nerve wracking. While they had been lucky enough to find the stairs, the blindness, disorientation and coldness that Spoony only gradually lightened with each new floor they advanced to.
Perhaps it was the near sensory deprivation levels of blindness that were causing him to hallucinate, but he swore that he could always see something moving out of the corner of his eye. But, no sooner would he turn his head to look, it'd disappear into the ether as if it had never existed.
Not helping matters in the least was the sounds. Faint echoes of voices he could have sworn he recognized, sounded all around him, mocking him with their impish laughter. What they were laughing at, Spoony wondered, feeling his cheeks involuntarily grow hotter with rage to the point he could almost swear that he could see steam around him.
Even that bird, its chirping call ever present amongst the laughter, seemed to be delighting in his confusion and anger as he wandered about blindly.
What, he wondered, did these voices know something that he didn't? Or did the sight of a grown man stumbling around in complete darkness seem to amuse them to no end? He shouldn't have let it bother him he tried to tell himself as he breathed deeply. It wasn't real—they were just figments of his imagination.
Nothing to worry about.
What felt like hours later, the two had finally climbed their way to the roof of the building. The gamer squinted as sunlight suddenly hit his eyes like a punch being thrown at his face by a professional boxer. Although he had often complained in his past about the unbearable heat in Arizona, he couldn't help but feel just a bit relieved to feel a warm wind kiss his cheek as his lungs took in a deep breath of fresh air as it were the first breath he'd taken in years.
And yet, he couldn't help but notice that the air here felt strange against his skin. He couldn't place what it was, as that it felt as if it was constantly shifting in density, but he assumed that they must have been close to whatever wormhole or distortion that Insano had been talking about.
No sooner had he thought this, did he see a flash of light from just below the edge of the building's flat roof. Without a thought, the he and Burton ran towards the source of the light, stopping as they peered over the ledge at the swirling portal that danced before them.
"So Burton," Spoony asked, "You think that you can get a more accurate read on this, now that you see it?"
Burton, his voice now seeming to work again, began to speak, when a bleeping alarm emitted from him, drowning out any words. Spoony's eyebrows almost disappeared into his hairline as they raised themselves in a look of concern and surprise.
"What's going on?" he started to ask, "What-?"
Another cold, mocking laugh, this one clearer and louder than the ghostly echoes from the abyss, rang in his ears, sending an uncomfortable chill crawling down his spine, like ice water being poured down his back.
"I can't believe it," he heard his younger brother's voice laugh, "I can't believe that it's really that easy to fool you."
Slowly, Spoony turned around. His eyes had to be playing tricks on him, he thought, as he caught a flash of sliver in his vision.
Miles leaned against the doorframe, grinning slyly as if he imagined the gamer to be a rat trapped within the clutches of a hungry lion, as he aimed a pistol at the gamer's head. This wasn't possible, Spoony thought shaking his head furiously; there was no way that his own brother had turned against him.
"No," Spoony stammered "It—it can't be! But, you—?"
"—Tried to help you?" Miles finished for him, "For a guy who spends too much of his time nitpicking video games and movies, you sure don't seem to notice the obvious don't you?"
"So," Spoony frowned, "You're telling me that this was a setup, huh? You sent those guys on a wild goose chase so that you could finish me off yourself."
"Exactly," the younger man replied, "And you want to know why? It's because you're a dirty coward. You're so desperate to escape one mess that you blindly stumbled right into another."
It was as if the gamer's shoes had melded into the concrete as he clenched his fists in rage. Part of him wished that the firey rage within him burned bright enough to blind him. At least that way, he could act foolishly without a care. But, alas, he seemed to have no such luck, as he reminded himself that this was not any random person on the street, or even any of the anonymous trolls on the internet—this was his brother; the same guy that he'd known his entire life, and who he thought was the one guy in the world he could trust not to turn against him.
"Face it," Miles laughed, "you're no better off than the rest of the so-called 'bad guys'."
The words felt like repeated punches to the gut for the gamer, as he continued to stand there, his face steadily growing redder and redder with suppressed rage, until one was sure that, much like boiling water, it would bubble over and spill everywhere.
Meanwhile, Burton, not affected in the least by the younger human's taunts, scanned the situation with a critical eye. Something wasn't right about this, his sensors indicated. On one hand, while his visual and auditory sensors were telling him that he was indeed looking at and hearing something, every other sensor in his robotic body was strongly telling him that Spoony was being threatened by nothing more than a shadow.
"Let him attack you," Burton whispered to the gamer.
At this, Spoony's eyes flew open as he gaped at the blue robot in disbelief. Seriously, he wondered, was Burton now turning against him as well? Was there anyone here that didn't want him to see his brains splattered against the walls like chunky salsa?
"What?!" he practically shouted, "Don't tell me you're going to pull the same shit Brutus did on Caesar. Because seriously, there are, like hundreds of Shakespeare plays that are way better to be ripping off than that one. "
"No," the blue robot assured him, "I'm just testing a theory. If I'm correct, you won't be hurt at all."
Spoony, although skeptical, nodded as he tried to face his younger with a mask of calmness that he wasn't sure he had the energy to make at that moment. This was stupid, his shaking hands tried to tell him; everyone knew what was inevitably going to happen. He was going to feel the piercing ache of at least six bullets tearing through his skin, snapping his bones like brittle candy, as the force of the shots propelled him backwards far enough to knock him off the building, where gravity would take it's turn with him, shattering the rest of his bones as his lifeless body was propelled into the concrete below.
"G-go ahead," he tried to say calmly but found the words feeling like sandpaper against his throat, "S-shoot me."
As Miles' fingers curled around the trigger, Spoony's eyes squeezed shut, anticipating the high-pitched whine of the bullets as they streaked through the few feet of air between them. While he did hear a very loud bang, as if the gun was fired, the bullets never seemed to reach him.
Instead, a loud rush of noise, and a heavy, cold wind filled his ears. Cautiously, the gamer opened one eye, daring to look at why he was not yet dead.
Within seconds, the other eye was open as he gaped at the spot Miles had been standing. Only, this time, his younger brother was no longer there; and neither was the seemingly endless void of shadows that filled the inside of the open door behind him.
"What the-?" Spoony started to speak, but quickly found the words lost as something hit him hard in the back of his shoulder blade, sending him crashing into the concrete roof below him. Stars danced in his vision as he slowly picked himself up of the ground, wincing as he accidentally agitated the newly forming bruise on his back.
"Hmph," A voice—much higher and far too girlish and chirpy to have been his brother's, huffed angrily as the gamer stood, "I should have known that your little toy would have picked up on simple illusion techniques like that."
His first impression of the owner of this voice was that he'd finally snapped and was officially hallucinating. He always knew that that one time in his past when he wrote a fanfic was going to come back and bite him some day. But, what he couldn't figure out was why exactly his hallucination would take the form of a ninja-girl, when he was pretty sure that logic would have suggested that it would have been more Highlander based.
The woman appeared to be considerably young, perhaps not far outside of her late teen years. Short, feather-like strands of pinkish-gray hair poked out from underneath the dark hood atop her head, framing her pointed, bird-like face. Or rather, he guessed her facial features were bird-like, as that the lower half of her face was covered by a dark, cloth face-covering.
Strangest of all, was probably the two small, brownish-grey bird wings that seemed to be quickly disappearing into her back as she landed before him, her booted feet tapping gently against the concrete.
"So, let me guess" Spoony said, "You're a cosplaying as someone's lame Naruto Mary Sue?"
"Uh, excuse me?" The bird girl replied haughtily, "But who was it that had you wandering around in total darkness for like hours? And who had you convinced that your brother had betrayed you? Um, pretty sure that was me. Name's Retsukagi, for your information."
"Yeah," Spoony smirked, "Sorry, but I'm not going to bother remembering your name. I've got to see a doctor about some dreams I've been having. So, if you could just kindly just piss off and never bother me aga—"
Faster than he could comprehend, the woman teleported out of sight, only to reappear closer to him, knocking him down again with several quick attacks, before teleporting back to her original place.
He coughed, his eyes widening in alarm as he felt warm blood trickle from the corners of his mouth, as he struggled to stand as his muscles lit themselves on fire in protest.
"You're lucky that I only wounded you," Retsukagi said, "I like making little worms like you squirm before I kill them."
Before Spoony could even have a chance to respond, the bird girl teleported again, hitting him with another bout of swift jabs. She must have been part humming-bird, he thought as he tried to swing at her. She flittered about him, appearing one moment, only to disappear seconds later.
But, her laugh—high pitched and mocking—always hovered about the air like the fog that rolled across the floors within her illusion.
Burton, having now remembered the fact that Spoony had installed a death-laser on him, began firing toward the constantly moving bird woman, just barely missing her before she teleported out again. However, much to the relief of both of them, he did finally manage to land a decent shot upon her.
With a startled screech, the girl toppled to the ground, clutching her side as she glared at the two of them with sharp, golden eyes.
"F-fine," she huffed, clutching at her chest, "Go ahead and try to escape. But, even if you do make it out of here, what about your friends? It's not like your any use to them. I've been watching you for a while, and if there's two things I know you're good at, it's screwing things up, and letting people down. Why do you think that Insano abandoned you?"
Spoony tried to open his mouth to speak, but found himself unable to speak, as if some invisible, gremlin was clamping his throat shut with its strong, clawed hands. Why had Insano just left him here, he wondered, when he could have at the very least told him where he was? But, if what this Retsukagi woman was saying was even half-true, why was he bothering rescuing him now? Was it just for the mad-scientist's sick amusement?
Yeah, he almost laughed bitterly, that sounded like something Insano would do.
"What about the others?" Retsukagi hissed, "They might like you now, but trust me—sooner or later you're going to screw it up and they'll turn on you faster than you can blink. Well, given that you don't accidentally get them killed."
"Spoony," Burton said, "Let's go. The portal could close at any minute. We're wasting our time with this ninja-wannabe."
Although his thoughts still buzzed as scattered, vaguely interconnected thoughts latched onto one another like mountain climbers in a blizzard, Spoony nodded, turning away from the fallen ninja.
"Yeah," Spoony agreed distractedly, "a wannabe…right."
However, he should have realized that this was a bad move, for no sooner had he turned his back, had the bird-girl managed to clamber to her feet.
"A wannabe?!" the bird girl shrieked, "Argh! How dare you!"
What happened next had happened far too fast for him to have comprehended. A gale of cold wind hit him hard in the back. A gurgled gasp escaped his throat as he felt something, like several blades, piercing into his back. His vision darkened and the scent of blood filled his nose as he fell forward, toppling off of the concrete ledge.
He wasn't going to make it, he thought as the light of the slowly shrinking portal filled his dimming vision.
And then, with a gasp, Spoony woke up.
Cold sweat dripped down his face as he sat up. He gritted his teeth a little as a small, but brief pang shot through his chest, leaving a dull aching soreness in its wake. Cautiously, he looked down at his chest. Most of the bandages that had been wound so tightly around him in an effort to keep his fractured bones together had been removed, and now only a faint bruises and pinkish scars remained.
"Good morning, Spoony!" Nurse's voice chirruped sweetly as she materialized across the room from him, "I see that you're capable of movement. That's a good sign."
Spoony blinked at her through his slowly focusing vision. For a moment, he was unsure if the woman that was talking to him was the same holographic humanoid that called herself Nurse. Today, where long flowing light-brown hair cascaded down her back, shorter blonde locks framed her face. She also seemed a bit taller, and just a bit curvier than the petite young woman she had been when they'd met. However, the outfit she wore remained much the same.
Of course, he reminded himself, Nurse was technically a computer construct. Her appearance was nothing more than a series of code projected into a semi-corporeal form, so it wasn't exactly beyond her capabilities to change her appearance on a whim.
"We managed to speed up you and Marz's recovery over the night," Nurse continued as she walked around him, giving him a quick examination with her hollow blue eyes, "But you still might not want to try not straining yourself too extensively. At least not for another 3.8 minutes."
Spoony sighed as he slowly swung his legs over the cot. He noticed that Nurse still watched him as he moved, but the furrow in her eyebrows did not seem to be out of concern for his physical condition so much as something else.
"What?" he joked, flashing a mock grin, as he ran his hand through his hair "Not used to seeing an attractive guy like me in a place like this?"
"No," Nurse replied bluntly, "Given that currently four other males reside within this dimension, each of which could be considered 'attractive' according to any individual's subjective standards and definitions of the term. And given that you, and the others, have visited the infirmary before, I assure you that I am quite accustomed to having visitors. My concern is in regards to the confrontation between you and Linkara last night."
At the mention of the fight, the gamer's face fell. He sighed as he looked down at his hands, which were now absently playing with the edge of the cot.
"Oh," Spoony said, his voice low "You heard all that?"
"Even my diminished operating capacity during sleep mode," Nurse explained, "my auditory receptors were still able to pick up some of the conversation. Rest assured, however, that any eavesdropping on my part was not done intentionally."
Spoony said nothing as he sheepishly tried to avoid eye contact with her. His stomach squirmed uncomfortably as he remembered the argument between him and Linkara. Perhaps he should apologize, he thought. After all, he felt terrible for snapping at his friend, and he felt even worse for having to burden him with his self-pity.
On the other hand, the left over anger reminded him; Linkara had called him a coward. And, while perhaps there was a little bit of him that felt that perhaps the comic reviewer was right to some degree, he still felt a bit irritated by it.
"It's not true," Nurse said quietly, "What you said about you planning on quitting and abandoning the team?"
Abandoning—the word felt like sour taste in Spoony's mouth, like biting into a grapefruit or a lemon, but without the sweeter aftertaste, as he mouthed the word to himself. That wasn't what he was thinking about doing was it? It wasn't like they actually needed him or anything. It was more like how when a plane starts to go down over the ocean, people tried to remove the excess dead weight in order to keep it from sinking.
So why did he feel so horrible about it?
And why, he wondered, did Nurse actually sound slightly upset by the thought of him leaving? He had to have been imagining it, he thought. After all, she herself had told him that she was incapable of feeling or expressing emotions that were unnecessary to her duties.
"Perhaps," Nurse speculated, "This relates to these feelings of 'fear' and 'loneliness' that you discussed with me the other day?"
"Maybe," he sighed, leaning back as he stretched his arms, "Or it could have more to do with the fact that getting our assess handed to us tends to put me in a bit of a pissy mood."
"I see." Nurse replied, "While psychological examination may not be one of my primary functions, I suggest possibly consulting with Doctor Tease regarding that. Also, I might suggest that you could talk with Linkara again, possibly explaining the reason for your thoughts. I could have Nimue locate him for you. But, I believe that you can find him in the library, as that he appears to recently be spending most of his time there."
"Resarching, I'm betting." Spoony replied
"Would you like for me to contact him?" Nurse asked
"No," the gamer sighed, "I'm pretty sure that I'm the last person he'd want to see right now."
"Understood," Nurse replied, "I won't relay a message to Nimue, then."
At that moment, a flashing light and a loud, wailing siren filled the room. Every time Spoony had heard that siren; he couldn't help but feel his skin crawl with dread. Like the others, he knew that that sound would never herald anything less than some trek into some strange and unknown universe that would inevitably try to screw them over in the most dangerous and humiliating ways possible.
But now, that shrill, shrieking sound felt as if it carried deeper, more ominous warning this time around. They knew that he—the dark, armored figure that had so easily done what his two allies had failed to accomplish—would probably be out there, waiting for them. What if this time, he didn't hesitate to kill them?
And what about Retsukagi? He wondered. She worked for Malachite, didn't she? Where had she gone after she attacked him on the rooftop so long ago? Had Malachite, or someone else destroyed her? Was she still out there, traveling from world to world, collecting and eliminating his missing colleagues before he and the others could find them? Or had she always been following him, hidden out of sight, waiting for him to slowly drive himself insane as she plotted her next move?
"I have a message from Doctor Insano," A second voice, this one belonging to Nimue rather than Nurse spoke, bringing the gamer back to reality "He says, and I quote 'Spoony, you dribbling pile of rat-filth, quit wasting your time and get to the Command Center, or so help me, I will fry your lazy ass with my death ray.'"
"You'd better go," Nurse replied, tossing him a shirt, "I must go make preparations for the inevitable damage repair that will be necessary after you and the others return. I hope that this time, I might be have the burden of accommodating for running diagnostic scans on any additional persons you might aquire."
"So," Spoony said as he hastily pulled the shirt on over his head, "In English; you hope we succeed, and bring back another reviewer?"
"Was there a malfunction in my vocal transmitters?" Nurse asked, the faint, almost unheard traces of a laugh echoing faintly in her words, "I thought I was clear."
Spoony smirked a little, despite himself as he left, sprinting down the hallway as fast as his feet could carry him. However, his smile did not seem to make it past the door of the infirmary, before once again the ever hungry gremlins of doubt and despair began to gnaw at his consciousness like a dogs chewing on a bone.
Everything he knew about the universe and himself, they reminded him, told him that the chances of things going smoothly were always incredibly slim. He just hoped that, maybe he'd get lucky and this mission would be among the very miniscule percentage where things went alright.
Whoever said that the deserts were the hottest places on Earth had clearly never been in the jungle before.
Thick, invisible clouds of hot damp air clung to her skin, weighing her down as if a pile of wet wool blankets had been thrown on top of her, slowly suffocating her as her lungs struggled to process the heavy air. Her movements felt labored and sluggish as her aching muscles struggled to maneuver the untamed and overgrown terrain.
Her heart pounded heavily in her chest, working double-time to pump blood and oxygen through her body under these new restrictions, making her feel as if she were going to faint with each step she took.
What was worse, MarzGurl couldn't quite shake the feeling that there were eyes hiding in the thick canopy of trees, watching their every move. She couldn't help but fear that the General had followed them here, and was now waiting for the moment to attack.
About the only small relief that she was glad of, was that this dimension happened to be a prehistoric-esque one, which meant that her disguise only required the bare minimum of clothing to pass as a native here , while still keeping her from running around embarrassingly nude. So, at least she didn't have to deal with that unpleasant feeling of her damp denim jacket and her t-shirt clinging to her..
Still, she thought as she looked down at the outfit her morpher had chosen for her, she kind of wished that they would have had something a little more complex than the crude cloth and animal skin dress she wore. A pair of pants would have probably been a little nicer.
Well, it wasn't like she could complain, she thought as she glanced behind her toward Spoony and Linkara, at least it was a little more than the meager, but still modesty preserving, coverings that the two of them currently wore.
She noticed that the two were unusually quiet, even to the point of refusing to even look at one another. Whether it was their own paranoia acting up, or something else, she couldn't be certain of.
Quite frankly, she added, it wasn't something she was dying to ask. She feared that, judging by the fact that the two of them looked even surlier than if they had been deprived of sleep for three days and forced to marathon through the worst and most soul-destroyingly offensive works ever committed to any form of media, that asking them the simple question of "what's wrong" would probably result in snapping what little sanity they may have been using to hold themselves together at the moment.
And given that every sound that echoed through the exotic flower scented labyrinth made her feel like her skeleton was trying to leap out of her body, she probably would have felt like snapping as well.
She tried to keep herself calm as she thought back on the mission at hand. The base's computers' had picked up a reading from this dimension. An additional scan had identified the source of the signal to have been Paw. While they were thankful that this dimension would be scarcely populated, thus making it easier to pick him out in the crowd, the fact that the reading had been very unspecific about where he was.
Actually, she thought, that was something that always bugged her about the scanners at the base. They could always pinpoint who or what was creating the distortion, but they could never pinpoint a location that wasn't at least a two or three mile wide radius.
Either way, they had decided that it would be better for them to split up, and cover more ground. As such, Chick and Critic had taken one half of the area, leaving Spoony, Linkara and herself with the rest. Eventually, they would meet in the middle of the area.
She just hoped, she thought as she tapped her morpher, bringing up a map of the area, that they were having better luck at finding anything in this overgrown tangle of leaves and vines.
"Any readings on the tracker?" Linkara asked as he pushed another thick, rope-like vine out of the way.
"Yeah," she replied, smiling as she pointed ahead of them, "Just ahead and moving. Keep your eyes open, though. I'm willing to bet that he's not alone."
"Any sign of Devafen, Tegon or the General hanging around?" Linkara asked, looking straight ahead, as if he were expecting them to be hiding in the trees.
"None," the Blue Ranger shook her head, "Either their still disguised, or we might have actually gotten lucky enough to have beaten them to the punch. Spoony—contact Critic and Chick and let them know what's going on. Linkara and I will try to make sure Paw doesn't manage to slip out of our sight before they can catch up to us."
The Yellow Ranger's eyes narrowed as a chirping bird call echoed through the tree tops around them, causing him to jolt as he looked around him with sudden alertness. However, he sighed and summoned his morpher and contacted the other two.
The conversations was relatively short, as that Critic and Chick had also gotten a lock on Paw's location, and were already heading in that direction. In fact, the two of them were probably a lot closer to the musical reviewer's location than they were.
In a matter of minutes the group had gotten close enough to have caught sight of Paw and his companions. It was almost amusing, she thought, as she and the others hid behind a thick cluster of nearby bushes, seeing the very lanky and lean figured Paw hunting along side the large and brutish cavemen as if it were nothing out of the ordinary for him.
Moving quietly, as not to attract unwanted attention by rustling leaves, the Blue Ranger pressed a button on her morpher, aiming it toward the cavemen figures. The air rippled as an invisible shockwave shot from the device and passed through the group. Insantly, flecks of orange flickered on the bodies of the five larger hunters, before vanishing, while a few spots of magenta hovered above Paw's skin. In the distance, also obscured by a few bushes, she caught a brief, firefly like glimmer of pink and red, meaning that Chick and Critic had already arrived.
Once more her attention went back to the orange-marked hunters. Although she knew that they were disguised Synthspectors, she was still surprised how few there actually were around Paw. At the very least, the five of them alone could easily take out the group, provided they separated them.
She exchanged a quick look with Linkara and Spoony. The comic reviewer returned her look with a knowing nod before looking back toward the group. The gamer did not make eye contact with her, but the subtle shift in his posture indicated that he had heard her.
Immediately, she started rustling a few of the leaves in front of her, trying to simulate the appearance of a small animal scurrying about in the bushes. Apparently it worked, as one the brutish cavemen Synthspectors nudged his other companion, pointing and grunting under his breath toward where she was hiding.
She held her breath as the two Synthspectors drew closer, their spears drawn. On one hand, she knew that one of them at least would be caught off guard when she managed to attack him, and that the other would probably be easily knocked out by either Spoony or Linkara. On the other hand, that still left three to deal with. And while it was probably considerably easier for all five to deal with, the few remaining ones were more than likely going to have their guard up. Plus, it was always likely that the two knocked out Synthspectors wouldn't remain so for long.
Before she could change her mind, she leapt out of the bushes, tackling the armed hunter as she rolled forward. Nearby she heard another thud as the second one was stunned and Spoony and Linkara emerged into the clearing. Following shortly behind them, Critic and Chick emerged from the clearing.
The remaining three, sensing that this was probably more than just a typical ambush by a rival group of hunters, drew their weapons, forming a circle around Paw, who looked on slightly confused.
However, before any of them could react, the air suddenly became deathly still, causing all parties within the clearing to look toward the sky. It felt as if night were rapidly approaching as the shadows within the already dimly lit jungle rapidly grew heavier and thicker, shrouding the small clearing under its veil.
The last thing the reviewers caught sight of before being plunged into the void, was the group of Synthspectors reeling backwards and collapsing onto the ground as if they'd been hit on the back of the head with a blunt object. Immediately, their disguises faded, briefly revealing the creatures' true forms, before those two were whisked away in a swirl of fog and dust.
The five Rangers blindly pushed through the darkness as they grouped around where they believed Paw was. Of course, given that they were staring at pitch blackness, it was difficult to tell exactly how close to him they were, had it not been for them being able to hear the sounds of Paw's voice.
"What the heck?" Paw asked, "It's way too soon to already be nightfall!"
"Gee," Chick muttered under her breath, "whatever led you to that brilliant observation?"
Nearby, Critic let out a frustrated growl, swearing to himself as a faint, faltering bleep and a static met their ears. It must have meant that, once more, an error was messing with their communications, leaving them temporarily stranded.
Figures, MarzGurl rolled her eyes. If she didn't know any different, she would have sworn that it seemed like the base's monitoring systems malfunctioned in the middle of a crisis on purpose, as if Insano and the others were intentionally leaving them there to fend for themselves. Of course, she tried to tell herself that was stupid—the only thing that could be blamed for everything going wrong at once was Murphy's Law deciding that it had to take affect.
"Well damn," Chick said, "Just when we think everything couldn't suck worse. Seriously, screw this mess, you guys. We've got Paw, and those Synthspector freaks are gone. I don't see a reason to still be hanging around here."
"I agree with Chick," Linkara said, "Chances are that whatever spell they've cast over this place is interfering with our communicators. We'll probably have a better chance once were out of whatever spell was cast over this place."
"Excuse me," Paw said, "As fascinating as I find this discussion to be, I think I'm more curious about who you are and how you seem to know my name when I obviously don't know any of you."
"We'll explain later," Critic said, following the musical reviewer's voice until he was sure that he was close enough to him to take him by the arm, "Right now we gotta focus on trying to keep our heads on our shoulders."
Critic thought he sensed a faint movement, indicating that Paw agreed with him. However, they had not managed to get even a few yards before they found themselves being swept off their feet as a tornado-like blast of wind rolled through the area with the swiftness and force of a raging river.
A musical, almost mocking bird call, echoed hauntingly through the air as yet another gale cut at them with its blade-like sharpness. The next few moments moved far too quickly for them to get a clear grasp on what happened. All they could know for certain was that they could hear the shouts of their formerly missing co-worker as something, or someone appeared within the darkness.
Faster than they could snap their fingers, Paw's screams were muffled, before fading into silence as both he and the figure disappeared. It was probably only a small relief that not soon after that had happened the darkness was lifted, allowing them to see again.
"Everyone alright?" MarzGurl asked as she helped Chick get back on her feet.
Only annoyed groans and grunts were given in response, as if to silently say: No, we're not okay! Paw just got kidnapped while we just sat around chatting like idiots!
Although at first glance it seemed that everyone was equally roughed up, judging by the dirt and scratches that covered their faces and bodies, this might not have been the case. While all of them were a bit shaken up, none seemed more so than Spoony. The Yellow Ranger's face was abnormally pale as his body trembled, just barely able to keep itself from collapsing into a ball. His lips moved, but only the sounds of heavy breathing and a few barely audible, mouse-like squeaks escaped.
However, none of them noticed this as a more immediate concern brought itself to their attention at that moment. The thick, nearly impenetrable jungle of vines and trees had given way to a more open and rockier plane. It was strange and a little unsettling, they thought, that none of them could recall running far enough to actually have even escaped the small clearing they had been in. So how, they wondered, could they now be so far outside of it?
A screeching roar echoed through the air, freezing the reviewer's blood as cold terror crept down their spines. Slowly, they turned their heads to catch a glimpse of the creature that had had created such a horrible sound. And, almost immediately, they wished that they hadn't.
Two rows of pointed teeth glistened high above them in the morning light. Attached to that razor-sharp maw was the leathery, reptilian face of a giant Tyrannosaurus Rex. Had any of them not felt their minds being clouded with the sudden urge to run, they would have pointed out how cliché the entire idea of having a deadly encounter with a T-Rex would have seemed in one of these "heroes get sent back to prehistoric times" scenarios.
"I don't want to state the obvious," Linkara said, "But I think it might be mad at us for trespassing into its territory."
"Oh really," Critic managed to snark, "Are you sure that it wasn't just having a bad day?"
The towering dinosaur roared again and stalked a few feet forward, causing Critic to grab Chick behind the shoulders as he ducked behind her in an effort to put whatever he could between him and the fifteen foot tall carnivore staring at him with it's beady orange colored eyes.
The Pink Ranger's body went rigid with fear as she felt the creature's hot breath bear upon her as its deafening roar filled her ears. Thankfully, as it stomped closer, the 'Fight or Flight' instincts in her brain had kicked in, and she and Critic scrambled out of the way just seconds before the beast's feet could trample either one of them.
"Oh that is it," Chick said as he prepared to morph, "I've had enough of Barney the Dinosaur over here. It's time to morph!"
"No," Linkara said, "Our Ranger powers were designed to fight Malachite and other magical bad guys. We shouldn't be just wasting them on anything."
"Um Linkara," Chick said as she rolled out the way just as the dinosaur's tail swiped across the field, "I get the point you're trying to make, and I agree with it—I really do. But, just for the record, I'd like to point out that being chased down by a raging T-Rex does not qualify as 'just anything'."
"Well maybe not in normal circumstances," Linkara corrected her, "But, compared to what we've been up against lately, this actually is relatively tame."
"Less talking. More getting the hell out of here!" Critic said as he started running as far away from the rampaging creature chased after them again.
"Right," the Pink Ranger replied as she tapped her morpher, making another attempt at trying to contact the mad scientists. This time, fortunately, the call connected properly, and soon she could hear Insano's voice echoing from the device.
Although the animation reviewer expected the mad scientist be screeching at her upon hearing that the mission had failed, again. However, only an agitated huff, as if he were trying to keep himself from exploding, was heard. Followed by that was a very loud clacking of keys, as if he were practically slamming his fist down upon each individual key.
Nearby, Linkara had noticed that Spoony still stood there, lost somewhere in a daze. However, it seemed that this daze was only somewhat lifted long enough for him to look up to see the towering carnivorous dinosaur rushing at him, its jaw open and ready to rip him apart with it's teeth.
"Damn it," the comic reviewer swore as he began running toward his paralyzed friend as fast as his feet and panic could carry him.
It felt as if time had slowed dramatically as the reptile's massive face leaned forward, less than a foot away from Spoony's body. With a shout, the comic reviewer leapt the remaining distance between himself and the gamer, catching him by the waist as he rolled out of the way of the ancient lizard just seconds before it could ensnare either of them within its razor-sharp jaws.
Before either of them could see the giant dinosaur storm past them, a flash of light filled their vision just as they were whisked away from that dimension and everything that happened in it.
Or at least, that's what Linkara wished that it could have done.
To say that the team was in the worst of spirits when they returned to the base would have been an understatement. The team looked as if they had fought through hell and back, as they shambled back to into the base. Even Insano, as much as the agitated twitch with his muscles suggested his irritation over their failure, seemed reluctant to actually berate them; for fear that one of them might actually decide to rip his face off with their fingernails.
But even so, they knew that it was inevitable that they would find themselves gathered around a cramped table in order to discuss the long list of things that went completely and utterly wrong with today's mission. Had the group's mood not been quite as sour as it was at that moment, Critic would have jokingly suggested that they make up a slide show with graphs and charts to go along with it.
But, as much as they needed even the briefest of chuckles, none of them felt much in the mood for any sort of levity at the moment.
They looked like a pack of animals who just found themselves soaked to the bone after coming in from the rain as they gathered around the command center with grumpy frowns. Nurse flittered about silently, quickly checking them over for injuries, and tending to the ones that she could treat most easily.
"So," Insano said, trying his hardest to restrain himself, "What happened out there?! That's twice in a row that you've let them get away!"
"Look," MarzGurl sighed "We can't figure out what happened. One minute, we'd gotten a lock on Paw, and then the next, we were suddenly hit in the face with this wall of darkness. Next thing we knew, Paw was completely off our radars, and we ended up right in a T-Rex den."
"How?!" Insano nearly shouted, "We never picked up anything on the radar,"
"Don't ask us," Chick said from the corner as she retied her loose pigtails, "Ask our brave and fearless leader over there. Oh wait…I seem to remember him wetting his pants in fear the whole time."
"Hey!" Critic shot back defensively, "You try looking into the jaws of a 30-foot tall death machine with razor sharp teeth."
"You tried to use me a shield, you jerk!" Chick shouted, which earned her annoyed eye-roll from the Red Ranger.
"Well I had to do something," Critic replied, "The thing was going eat my pancreas as a light snack. What did you expect me to do?!"
Chick rolled her eyes, giving an exasperated sigh in response. MarzGurl, trying to keep herself calm, tried to ignore the squabbling pair as she turned her attention to the mad scientists.
"Are you sure that you scanners didn't pick up anything?" she asked.
"Of course we are," Celluloid tried to explain, "Of course, we did seem to be having a minor glitch in the systems, but it was too brief for it to have affected any of our sensors."
"…Except for the fact that you spilt coffee on the console," Tease sighed, "Seriously, I thought we told you about eating while on duty, already."
"Not my fault," the orange haired scientist whined, "It's not like I can get five minutes to myself to eat or sleep. You and Insano always have me running errands for you. And then you have the nerve to complain about it when I do it!"
"Excuse me," Tease huffed, "But I've never complained! If anyone's been complaining, it's Insano. Always acting like he's better than us…"
"Insano," Nurse interjected calmly, "While I don't intend to call your methods into question, I believe that Celluloid makes an accurate statement. The heavy workload and stress placed upon yourself and the crew, combined with a lack of outlets to properly channel this stress besides the training room, could have dire mental and physical side effects upon th—"
"—We'll discuss that later, Nurse," Insano said, his voice having much more of a hard edge to it than he intended, "Right now, we've got other matters to discuss. Like, how is it that somehow a group of complete imbeciles can repeatedly foil my plans for world domination, but somehow you can't figure out how not to completely screw up an easy mission!"
"Oh, that's simple" Linkara snarked, feeling hot anger bubbling in his throat, "Malachite and his goons actually have some power behind them. You on the other hand, are a bumbling idiot in a cheap Halloween costume who can't even program the clock on a VCR without blowing it up!"
"He's got a point," Chick added, "I mean, if Insano's inventions didn't crap out every time someone plugged in a hairdryer, they probably could have given us a little advanced warning about that blackout."
"How dare you have such disrespect for SCIENCE!" Insano all but shrieked, "After all we did to try to save you from that wizard killing you and all!"
"Look," Critic said, "If there's anyone at fault here, it's clearly Spoony for leading us right into such an obvious trap."
If Critic had been looking at the gamer at the time, he would have probably thought twice about making that comment. Spoony's cheeks flushed red, as his knuckles turned white from gripping the table. Every second his confident smile faded away a little more as thoughts he'd fought so hard to keep down bubbled forth, burning his mask like acid.
"What the hell is your damn problem?!" Spoony practically yelled, "Why is it every time something goes wrong, you always automatically blame me? Do you ever get tired of that?"
Critic knew that this should have been the point where he'd take a few breaths and try to calm himself down. But, as it was, his own frustrations had hijacked his brain, spewing forth the words before they could be stopped.
"You want to know why?" Critic said coldly, "It's because you are a screw up! Every time something goes wrong here, it's been because you get in the way! Paw would have been with us if you hadn't choked out there. It's not like you even wanted to be part of this team. For crying out loud; Marz and Linkara practically had to trick you into it! And, I almost wish they hadn't—because, we don't need you!"
The silence that fell over the room could have leveled a large city and left no survivors, had it been able to be weaponized. Where this would have been the place where the gamer would have replied with an angry retort or a sarcastic comment, there was none to be heard. Instead, he looked like a lost puppy that had realized it'd been abandoned by his owner.
"What're you saying?" the gamer asked.
"I'm saying," Critic said each word with pointed emphasis, "You. Are. A. Coward."
Spoony's eyes were downcast, and his shoulders slumped—not at all like the usual confidence had he normally carried himself with.
"I see," he said quietly, "So, you think I'm useless and a coward too, huh? Maybe you and Linkara are right. Hell, maybe I was right."
Spoony stood up slowly, as if in a trance, as he walked out of the room. Although a tiny part of Critic wished that he could apologize, his frustrations at the situation still held control over his words, and Spoony's reaction to them had only fueled his anger. He wanted the two of them to yell at one another, to exchange blows with one another until all their pent up anger burnt out of their systems, leaving them as laughing, and exhausted mess on the floor.
"Go ahead," Critic shouted after him, "just run away like that, you bastard!"
Linkara felt an uncomfortable knot in his stomach as he looked between the glowering Red Ranger and the rest of the room. Everyone's expressions were written with the same thing: a look that said "we knew that this was going to end badly, but we don't know what to make of this."
There was still a part of him that couldn't deny that Spoony was indeed acting childishly. But, at the same time, seeing the utterly defeated attitude that floated around his best friend like a bad stench, he couldn't help but fear that perhaps there was more to this than something as simple and childish. He just prayed that, hopefully, things would resolve themselves before anyone did something that they regretted.
The darkened halls of Malachite's palace were unusually quiet as Malachite paced about his study. Sometimes he didn't know what had possessed him to establish a base within a castle. Perhaps he had become far too accustomed to wandering aimlessly during his centuries long search for the gauntlet that the mere idea of being in one location for too long made his skin itch with wanderlust.
Perhaps it was something of a relief, he thought, that this dimension was vast enough to allow him the liberty of taking long enough walks to alleviate his uneasiness and organize his thoughts more clearly.
His eyes fell upon the brown book that lay atop the desk, almost blending in with the polished dark wood of the elegantly carved table. Despite himself, the faint traces of a smile appeared on the corners of his lips as his fingers traced over the book's worn leather cover. While perhaps the magic gauntlet he'd spent centuries trying to recover had been lost somewhere in time and space, at least his conquest of Earth had reunited him with something just as valuable to him—his spellbook.
Maybe it was all but useless to him, as that he'd memorized nearly everything contained within its worn and yellowed pages. But, there were still some notes hidden deep within that had not managed to commit themselves so easily to his memory as they once had.
Perhaps he couldn't find the lost stone that had once given him unlimited power, but he knew that hidden within the pages of that ancient spellbook laid the blueprints to recreate it, and perhaps make it even more powerful than before.
Why hadn't he simply located the spell book before, rather than bothering with a long, dangerous search for the missing gauntlet? He wondered. The answer was actually quite simple, he reminded himself. The process of creating such a powerful magical object, such as the stone and the gauntlet, was very complex, dangerous and very draining.
He shuddered as his mind flashed back to centuries ago, back when he had been still a somewhat young mage. The feeling of cold death surrounded him, pulling him down into an endless abyss like a monster carrying away its victim before devouring it's flesh, as he poured his very heart and soul into the creation of that gem.
Aeon had warned him about this, centuries ago. Though it felt like trying to recall a dream one had had back when they were younger, he could still hear the ghostly echo of his friend's voice, warning him of the possible, gruesome fates that could befall those who tampered with such magics.
Just as technology had its dark sides, magic also did not come with out its thorns. However, where the lines of technology were more restrained by the laws of natural physics, the lines of what qualified as 'forbidden magic' was slight fuzzier. Even magic that could cause damage was not necessarily considered forbidden, considering the fact that darker and deadlier magic existed.
However, Malachite no longer feared such dark magic. Perhaps that part of him had died eons ago, leaving him as nothing more than a shell of bitterness and vengeance. Or maybe it was still there, much like the souls of those that he and his minions enchanted and cursed, but was lost somewhere among layers of corruption.
Either way, he wasn't sure that the state of his humanity truly mattered anymore. He was probably better off without it, he reasoned. Surely centuries of wandering the world, watching everything of you knew and love wither and die, only to be replaced by something else, would have driven him insane a lot sooner than it already had.
He caught glimpse of movement within the shadows in the rafters of the ceiling, telling him that he was not alone in the room. However, his instincts told him that he had no reason to believe that this was any intruder, or that said visitor had they even been in the room long enough to spy on them.
"Hello, Retsukagi," His voice rasped as he smirked up at the hiding figure, "There's no need to hide; I heard you enter."
Another rush of beating wings was heard as the bird-like girl landed from the rafters, hovering just inches from the floor. She stumbled as her wings vanished, dropping her the remaining distance.
"Oh, you're such a killjoy!" Retsukagi pouted, crossing her arms, "And, the only reason you spotted me was because I wasn't trying to hide!"
"As if," another voice, this one clearly belonging to Devafen, said, "The only reason that he heard you is because you're just terrible at hiding."
The sorcerer and the ninja turned as Devafen and Tegon stalked into the room. While an amused smirk painted the lips of the catwoman, seeing the offended glare that her comment had sparked in the half-avian woman, the lizard-like man was not amused in the least.
"Where have you been?" Tegon asked, "We could have used you're help in a couple of fights, you know."
Retsukagi grinned as she casually stretched, leaning back against Malachite's desk.
"Hooray!" she giggled, "The scary lizard admits he's not as strong as he thinks he is! Isn't that adorable?"
"Quiet!" Tegon hissed, "And you still didn't answer my question."
"Well," Retsukagi playfully stuck her tongue out at the reptilian man, "How can I do both? Either you want me to be quiet, or you want me to answer your question, silly."
"I've given her another task," Malachite explained, "One that should help in dealing with the critics."
"Lord Malachite," Devafen asked, bowing a little, "Might I ask what sort of mission? Surely, you don't think that Tegon and I are incapable of defeating the critics? Yes, I know that we have been unsuccessful in previous battles against them, but I assure you that we shouldn't fail again."
At this, the faintest smirk crossed Malachite's lips, as if he found something about the idea of Tegon and Devafen actually being successful for once was incredibly amusing. Then again, considering that in all the battles the pair had fought against the Rangers, not once had they successfully defeated them.
"Well," Retsukagi replied, answering for Malachite, "The problem with your method is that you're way too into spell-slinging and fist throwing. You really should try freaking them out a little bit. Once you got them good and paranoid, and the team starts falling apart, then we can get to the really fun stuff!"
She giggled, kicking her legs out from under her as she rolled across the desk, landing gracefully on her feet behind it. Her high-pitched laugh made Tegon and Devafen's skin crawl involuntarily as it echoed off the stone walls of the study. It was as if she considered the mere idea of brutal death and destruction as something as delightful as kittens or rainbows.
"I assume," Malachite said, ignoring the still giggling bird-girl, "That you're both here for a reason."
"My Lord," Tegon began, bowing, "I have a few questions that I must ask."
"Go ahead," Malachite said, "But make it brief. I don't have all day, and this crowd in here is starting to make me feel restless."
The lizard man could not help but feel himself shudder as he saw himself reflected in the void of the sorcerer's sunglasses.
"May I ask," Tegon continued, "Why you've allowed our captives to live, even though they shown signs of awareness? And, what of this new guy you've recruited? Forgive my suspicions, but I find his actions questionable."
"Oh," A rasping, metallic voice mocked from the doorway, "I didn't realize that I was supposed to be making myself appear trustworthy to you. And the name is Vanmir. General Vanmir the Deathbane to you."
"Perhaps he hasn't earned my full trust," Malachite explained, "But, like you, General Vanmir has proven his worthiness. He's already managed to secure something that could be very useful to us."
Now the trio of the cat-woman, bird-girl, and lizard-man stood at attention. Each of them looked slightly intrigued by the notion of something that could possibly be considered useful to them.
"While Devafen only managed to cut off access between Linkara and his spaceship," General Vanmir explained, "I've managed to take the ship into my own possession."
"And how does that help?" Retsukagi asked, "So, we've got a big floating space thing that can shoot lasers? Never mind, I just like, totally saw the positive in that."
"Setting aside the part where I point out the obvious hypocrisy of us using super-advanced technology," Devafen said, "Please explain exactly how having that rusting hunk of cosmic debris is going to help us."
"That 'hunk of cosmic debris' as you call it," the General said, "Contains a computer system, which holds vast amounts of information and data over various universes, as well as information regarding the comic reviewer's arsenal—much of which could be the basis of the weaponry being used by the reviewers and the scientists."
"And again," Devafen replied, "This doesn't help us. You realize that I disconnected that ship from the Artificial Intelligence unit that controls it? Even if I hadn't, there's still no way for any of us to be able to access any of it."
"The ship itself is of little value to me," Malachite interrupted, "I was speaking of those two scientists that he captured. I understand that you were able to persuade them into working with us?"
"Not entirely true," the General corrected, his words sounding clipped and formal, "I've 'persuaded' them to work primarily for me. However, if you remember, we agreed that they, and myself, would offer our services, in exchange that you allowed us to deal with removing the captive critics as we wished."
Malachite's frown deepened, as he continued to stare at the masked General. Had anyone other than the half-humanoid trio been observing the stare down between the two, they would have been almost surprised that a black hole hadn't been created between dueling voids of Vanmir's mask and Malachite's sunglasses.
"I remember," Malachite replied, "But don't forget that I also can easily choose to destroy both them and yourself should you act in any way that appears to be too suspicious, or should you test my patience with failure."
Sharply, he cast a warning glance across the room at his minions. As if compelled by some sort of spell, the group fell still, meeting his eyes with fearful expressions. It was as if they were afraid that the wrong movement would cause them to be obliterated on the spot. Even General Vanmir, despite the rigidness in his posture, shivered just slightly as Malachite's cold gaze fell upon him.
"The same goes for the rest of you," Malachite continued, "Remember that you were all nothing more than common criminals and outcasts before I rescued you. Don't continue to disappoint me."
"Understood, my lord," Tegon said, "But, if I might be so bold as to ask about our next strategy in undermining the critics? Every minute that they are left undefeated is another minute that they could potentially release another of their friends from your spell."
Before Malachite could reply, Retsukagi hopped up, teleporting a few feet before, landing in the center of the room.
"Between me and General Vanmir," she said, "The critics' confidence should already be weakening. I believe that the critic known as Spoony is already close to breaking. Hell, I already had him pretty shaken up during our first encounter a few months ago. And that's nothing compared to when I ambushed them earlier today. Pity I was only there to collect that reviewer guy. I could have had so much fun tearing that cute little gamer apart!"
The General covered his mouth, pretending to cough as he stifled a small chuckle. However it seemed that the other members of the group were far more interested in discussing battle strategy than they were about paying attentions to the sounds of their shark-like comrade.
"So," Devafen asked, yawning "What's the plan? Same as always—turn their friend into a monster, then throw a bunch of Synthspectors at them? 'Cause that always works. And by always I mean never."
At the mere mention of the Synthspectors, the lavender haired bird-woman's face darkened. Whatever traces of the giggling, perky young woman that existed in within her instantly vanished as her amber eyes narrowed and her fingertips trembled slightly.
"I'd rather we didn't have to rely on those puppets," she said, her voice heavy with disgust, spitting out the last word as if it were a piece of bad food.
And yet, there was a faint note of something else that existed, hidden somewhere in the undertones of her voice that suggested that perhaps her dislike extended beyond simple disgust. But, what it was that she felt, one could not be entirely sure.
"Like your little illusions aren't puppets?" Tegon snarked.
"At least whatever I construct in my traps isn't real!" Retsukagi replied, her voice rising "At least they aren't—"
"Enough!" Malachite said, his voice breaking above the usual rasping whisper that it usually was.
Insantly, the lizard-like man and the bird girl fell silent, both of them staring at their leader with wide eyes. None of them had ever heard the sorcerer's voice ever rise above a growl, even in his angrier moments.
"I have a plan," he continued, his voice now back to its usual unnervingly calm coldness, "And this time, I will oversee it myself in order to insure that it your incompetence does not mess things up."
"But m'lord," Devafen said, "You used a lot of magic during our conquest three months ago. I don't want to question you're capacity for handling magic—but even a highly skilled sorcerer as yourself would probably still be somewhat drained. Are you sure that you are able to handle fighting now?"
"I'll be fine." Malachite said, "I won't needlessly expend my magic in defeating them."
As Malachite began laying out the details of the plan, another rapt silence fell over the room. With each word he spoke, his followers became more and more confident that if this plan didn't ultimately destroy the critics, then it would at least damage them far beyond the point of recovery.
Back in the Ranger's base, the frustration of the failed mission and the subsequent fallout had softened into little more than an aching weariness or dull agitation, as the residents in of the dimension retreated to the various corners, each attempting to put the events of earlier out of their mind in their own ways.
Listlessly, Spoony lifted his face away from the pillow on his bed, glancing over at the alarm clock. He had tried sleeping in hopes that the rest would bring him even a semblance of peace of mind. However, his mind refused to let itself drift anywhere past a restless state on semi-consciousness, as it replayed the events of the past few hours over and over in his head. If one were to diagram the Yellow Ranger's train of thought at that moment, they would have probably said that it looked more like a tree branch than a train.
Sure, there was a central line of thought that all points connected back to, but most of his thoughts splinted into small lines. Why hadn't he saved Paw when he had the chance? He was the only one who even had half an idea what was going on. Everything logic and previous experiences should have said that he'd be the most calm and collected out of all of them in this situation. So, why did he freeze? What made this different than anything else he'd faced before?
Was it because he realized the actual weight of what could have happened if they failed? This wasn't like Insano or any of his other usual rogues that they dealt with (barring the ones that typically bothered Linkara)-if they failed, there was more than a good chance that death would be the kindest and most forgiving fate that awaited any of them.
No, he thought—that was only part of the reason. He shook his head as he heard the others words—Critic's, Linkara's, that illusion of his brother—echoing in his head, as loudly as if they were there, mocking him in his own quarters with him.
They were right, weren't they? He was a coward—too afraid to take action, on the risk that he might actually get hurt. He'd tried to convince himself that they were wrong. That was why he'd even accepted Insano's request to become a Power Ranger in the first place, wasn't it? And that was why he'd so foolishly tried to be a distraction for Chick when they were dealing with the pirates during their adventure in that world?
But, these efforts were meaningless gestures. Much like a dog pretending to be fierce, his bark was much worse than his bite. No matter what he did, or how he tried to act, nothing could ever change the fact that he had always been a selfish coward.
Maybe they had a point, he thought as he rolled over, staring at the ceiling. Maybe he didn't deserve to be in charge of the Yellow Ranger powers. It was only a string of complete luck, or misfortune that had put him in this situation.
No, he tried to tell himself as he sat up, that wasn't true. They needed him just as much as he needed them. Malachite's forces were tough enough against a five-person team. Surely, if he had never accepted this then the others would have been wiped out in their first battle.
But then again, who was to say that any of the other reviewers wouldn't have been a better choice? Critic was right, after all—in their last few missions, all he'd done was get in the way, and get everyone else in trouble. How many times had one of them gotten injured or put in a situation where they needed rescue? Had to have been at least three times now, wasn't it?
There's you're problem, another part of his brain said, It's just like Linkara said; you're spending way too much time moping around and feeling sorry for yourself. This shit right here is why you shouldn't be a Ranger.
Besides, it added, why would you want to be a Power Ranger? All this running around in stupid looking spandex, fighting monsters and all this 'fate of the world' bullshit? You know that it's stupid! You wouldn't be feeling miserable if you hadn't gotten involved in this.
This wasn't working, he thought as he climbed out of bed and began pacing about the room. He couldn't keep letting himself keep going on with this type of thought.
His pacing led him to a desk in the corner of the room. Upon the desk lay a small stack of paper and a few pens. Thinking a little he sat down and started writing.
I'm leaving. I need some time alone. I'll come back when…
Spoony trailed off, pen pausing over the paper. When what? When this was over? It would never be; there was no chance anymore. The Rangers were outmanned and outmatched. And the sooner the others could see that, the better. Shaking his head, he crumpled the paper and tossed it aside. He tried again.
I knew all along this wouldn't work. The sooner you can all see that, the better. I'll be…
He paused again. He didn't know where he was going. Didn't really care, as long as it was away from here. He tried to tell himself that he was doing the right thing. He had to look out for himself; he couldn't just stay here and be killed. Or risk getting anyone else killed because of him, either. He was more of a liability to the team than an asset. And even more so while he was in a state like this.
What are we doing? What are we accomplishing? You may call me a coward, but…
Spoony blinked at what he'd just written, and felt his stomach sink. But? But nothing. He was a coward, and this was him running away. There was no point in denying or trying to sugarcoat it anymore. For the last time, Spoony crumpled his paper and started over.
You're right. I'm a coward. You're better off without me. I'm sorry.
Not long afterwards, the gamer found himself in the control room. He cursed under his breath as he fiddled with some of the knobs and buttons upon the console. Where to go? He wondered. Going back to his home dimension was out of the question. It was far too dangerous of a place to be—especially when that would probably be the first place that the others, as well as Malachite's army would go looking for him once they realized he was gone.
He needed to go somewhere no one would ever go; somewhere where he could be ignored, forgotten. Somewhere he could start over. The gamer cocked his head to the side, almost smiling as he punched in a few coordinates.
As he readied himself on the platform, hoisting his duffel bag onto his shoulder and about to activate the transporter, when he heard a timid squeak come from the doorway.
SOI bounced uncertainly into the room. The poor creature looked as if he had just woken up from a nightmare. He'd probably had a bad dream while taking a nap, the gamer guessed, and was probably just passing by on his way to find his dad, before hearing some noise in here.
Swallowing a curse, Spoony tried to smile. "Hey, buddy," he said, patting the creature on the top of his head, "Run along, alright?"
"Rikki!" the pink creature chirped, "Rikki-tee-tikki?"
"Well, uh… to the store!" Spoony lied quickly, "We're out of… toaster strudel."
Spoony' smile began to feel fake, even to him. They both knew that that was a flimsiest of flimsy lies. Insano and the others had created food-replicators and synthesizers within this dimension—so even a normal child would have been able to call him out on an excuse like 'I have to go to the grocery store'. He felt his heart sink lower in his chest as he saw the wide-eyed, almost sad look on the child's face as it stared back up at him. For a moment, he almost considered picking up the orb-shaped child and leaving, putting all thoughts of even leaving out of his mind.
He couldn't lie and leave SOI like this, he thought. The little creature thought of him like family—like he was the cool adopted uncle or something. It'd be kind of terrible of him to just leave like this.
I'm sorry, He thought as he sighed, I don't mean to hurt you, either. But hopefully you'll understand.
Thinking quickly, Spoony pointed to the console, where he'd left the note.
"Hey, buddy. I have a mission for you," he said, "I need you to go take that paper to your dad, alright?"
SOI practically purred, grabbing the note in his mouth and hopping towards the door. Spoony sighed, but his stomach plummeted once more as he turned back around.
The pinkish creature's eyes were wider than he'd ever seen them, staring at him with a tearful expression as if he'd witnessed the gamer kicking a puppy.
The note fluttered to the floor as Spoony hurriedly shushed the little creature, praying that Insano hadn't been close enough to hear him. SOI's frantic squeaks were like daggers to the gamers' heart as they grew more frantic and demanding.
"Leaving?" he said hurriedly, "No! Why would I be-"
"When in the hell did you learn how to read?!"
"Riiiiii…." The little creature trilled, it's tiny tendrils flaring out in a motion that suggested he was saying 'Look at me; I might be a child, but, I'm the son of a mad scientist. I'm not stupid.'
SOI began to bounce in place agitatedly, squeaks getting louder and more pleading. "Rikki-tikki?!"
Spoony rolled his eyes, holding up his hands to calm SOI. Yet, he could feel his heart sinking even lower as he listened to the pink orbs mouse-like sobs.
"This has nothing to do with me not liking you!" He said gently, "Of course I like you!"
"….Riiikiii?" SOI sniffed.
"I don't hate the others either," Spoony tried to explain, " It's just that I… just need some time alone. You understand, right?"
SOI, in three large bounces, cleared the room and ended up in Spoony's arms. He buried his face in Spoony's chest, squealing pleas at him. Spoony patted his head as he hugged him.
"I'm sorry." He said, "I HAVE to. It's just not…"
Why couldn't he tell him the truth? He thought bitterly. Why couldn't he tell him that he was fleeing for his life because he was too afraid to face the fact that for once in his life he was more terrified than he'd ever been? Terrified not just for himself, but for everyone around him as well? That for once in his life, he didn't know if he could handle this much responsibility and pressure?
From down the hallway came the sounds of padding feet, and Insano's voice echoed into the room.
"Son? Is everything alright?"
SOI and Spoony froze, and the gamer swore under his breath. He began to pry SOI off of him, but the pink ball wouldn't be budged. It chirruped loudly in protest, and Insano's footsteps grew louder.
"Son? What's wrong?" Insano asked, the panic in his voice rising as his footsteps hastened, "Daddy's coming!"
Spoony looked around, nervous sweat running down his forehead like He had to do something; he thought wildly punching in a few buttons on the control panel. He couldn't let Insano know that he was in there; it'd just lead to too many questions that he wasn't sure that he could answer easily.
Just as Insano entered the room, it was in time to see his son and The Spoony One vanish into thin air.
The mad scientist could only stare at the empty spot in which the gamer and the pink orb had stood only moments ago. Had it been scientifically possibly for his jaw to have actually hit the floor, he was positive that it would have crashed through the floor.
No sooner had the expression of disbelief passed across his face was it replaced with another expression. Immediately, his normally twitching hands steadied as they clenched into two angry fists. His lips curled into a stern, furious frown as he stalked over to the console, slamming his hand down upon the controls.
"Nimue!" Insano shouted,
"This unit is now online," Nimue's calm voice echoed through the speakers, "But for future reference, I would appreciate it if you did not yell at me to get my attention."
"Nimue," Insano said, the giggling manic quality having evaporated from his voice like water on hot sand, "Sound the alarms and have everyone meet in the command center, immediately. We've got an emergency on our hands."
"Understood," the artificial intelligence unit said. Almost immediately, a loud wail echoed through the room as the sirens were activated.
In a matter of minutes the others had gathered into the room. While the serious expressions on their faces suggested that they assumed that the alarm had indicated that the computers had found another missing reviewer, they were given pause as they noticed two things wrong with this scene.
For starters, The Yellow Ranger was clearly absent. That, and a furious redness painted Insano's cheeks as his fingertips flew over the buttons and knobs on the control panel. Without a word, Doctor Tease and Professor Celluloid began assisting their spiral-goggled leader.
"Insano," Linkara asked, "What's the problem? Where's Spoony?"
"Spoony is the problem!" Insano yelled, "The damned idiot just kidnapped my son, and jumped out of here!"
Once more, Linkara felt the uncomfortable feeling of his stomach sinking, threatening to drop onto the floor below. Damn it, he swore to himself, he should have known that this was going to happen. Part of him wanted to call his dark-haired friend childish and selfish for running away like that, but a little part in his mind could not help but feel a twinge of sympathy.
He knew Spoony well enough to know that he wasn't the type who just easily gave up without a reason. Heck, he almost laughed, the man had gotten over being dead more than once. So, for Spoony to have left them like that, he reasoned that something about the last few missions had really shaken him up a lot worse than any of them had thought.
The others didn't seem to be handling the news much better than he was. Chick rolled her eyes and gave an exasperated sigh as if to say 'Really? And he took Insano's kid with him? What an idiot.'. Nearby, MarzGurl's hands were clenched into trembling fists as she took deep breaths, as if she were focusing every ounce of her energy into keeping herself from beating a hole into the nearby wall. Critic, on the other hand, was doing considerably less to even mask his emotions.
"Son of a bitch!" Critic fumed, "Why?!"
"I don't know!" Insano shouted, over the frantic clicking of keys "But if I had to make a hypothesis—I'd say that it was because of that argument that you and he had earlier today, combined with the fact that he's a colossal idiot. Don't know why he felt the need to drag my son into this, however."
Critic huffed, grumbling a string of curses under his breath. However, his furrowed brow and downcast gaze seemed to say more than what his words did. Part of him was worried about Spoony, it hinted. Sure, he might have often put his friends in dangerous situations in the past, he reasoned, but he was different now. He didn't want to see any of friends get hurt.
"Well," Chick said, "Spoony still has his morpher on him. So, why don't we just re-trace the last location the transporter beamed to, and then use his morpher to pinpoint his signal? Shouldn't be a problem, right?"
"That's true," Professor Celluloid replied, "But just because we find the morpher, doesn't mean that we find Spoony. So, if we're just sorting through regular bio-rhythmic signals, it's going to take a while."
Doctor Tease was about to speak, when once more the alarm blared, sending the lights in the room into a brief frenzy before being shut off by the blonde doctor.
"Damn it," she swore instead as she pressed a few more buttons, "As if we didn't have enough trouble before. Give me a second, I'm running a more thorough analysis right now. Ah, there we go."
The data that appeared on the screen was enough to make Critic look as if he'd seen a ghost. His hands and feet felt numb as he nearly stumbled into the console on his way to more closely read the data. It couldn't possibly be true, he wondered, could it?
It couldn't have been telling him that they had found The Other Guy.
The Red Ranger didn't know how to take this news. On one hand, this was probably the best news to happen all day. His brother was alive and well, waiting for them to rescue him. On the other hand, this more than likely meant that, whatever dimension The Other Guy was in, he'd probably have had his memory altered and thus wouldn't recognize Critic or the others.
Plus, he added bitterly, this probably meant that it was likely that Malachite's minions would be nearby, and the whole thing would end with The Other Guy getting turned into a raging monster that was set on destroying everything in its path.
He wasn't sure that he could handle being forced to fight against his own brother.
"Hmm," Tease said, biting her lip as she read over the information, "From what I'm reading here, this universe isn't all that much different than our own in structure."
"Wow," Celluoid remarked, adjusting his glasses, "That's the most solid reading we've had in ages. I can probably teleport you guys pretty close to where he is."
Linkara crossed his arms as he also examined the information. Something didn't feel right about any of this. Professor Celluloid was right; the reading was incredibly strong. Perhaps it was a little too strong. It could have been a trap set up by Malachite's forces to capture them and possibly kill them. On the other hand, if this was real, then they couldn't just sit around and let Malachite take him again.
"I don't like it," Chick said, "This is obviously a trap. The only way that this could be more obvious is a flashing neon sign that has the words 'This is a trap' written on it in huge letters."
"What if it isn't?" MarzGurl replied, "There's no way that I'm letting that General creep or any of his pals take anyone else."
"If it's a trap," Critic said, "Then we'll just have to go in and bust it up like we always do. I say we go."
"Wait a minute," Insano said, "You're not going anywhere until we get my son and Spoony back here!"
The shade of red that Critic's face flushed matched the color of his morpher as he felt a vein of agitation twitch in the corner of his forehead. Insano had a point—they didn't stand a chance against Tegon, Devafen and The General while they weren't at full strength. Damn it, Critic swore to himself, why had Spoony chosen now to be more difficult than he normally was?
"Forget it, Doc," Critic said, "This is my brother we're talking about here. I'm not going to let myself lose him again, damn it!"
"And I can't allow myself to lose my family!" Insano replied, his voice rising angrily.
A stunned silence fell over the room as the mad-scientist began shaking, turning his back to the team as he fought back a small stream of glistening tears
"I can't bear to go through that again," he whispered in a trembling voice.
The orange haired professor gently patted his colleague's shoulder as he exchanged a brief, sympathetic look with his female colleague. He remembered how Linksano and Doctor Block's disappearance had all but crushed their spirits. After all, for them, not only had that been their first real mission, but also their first failure. But more than that, he knew that to his two colleagues had been closer to the two missing scientists than he had ever been. After all, while Linksano and Insano argued a lot, they were still brothers. And Tease and Block had been more like sisters than best friends.
"Insano," Critic said, "I'm sorry. But, Celluoid's right—it'd take too long for us to find Spoony or your son. If this isn't a trap, then we might not have that much time before we lose Rob forever."
"Besides," MarzGurl added, "We know Spoony's a moron, but he's not stupid enough to do anything to get your son hurt. They'll be okay."
"How about this," Chick said, "We get in there, bust up the bad guy's plan like we always do and if Spoony hasn't snapped out of this and decided to bring your son back, we'll go find him and kick his ass for you."
Insano's shoulders relaxed as he swallowed back some spit and regained enough composure to look up again. A small smile, not quite as confident or sly as his usual grin but still reassuring, spread across his lips as he looked back at Rangers and the other two scientists.
"Alright," He said, "But you'd better get it over with quick, okay? I'm not going to sit around and let my son be lost out there forever, you know."
The Rangers said nothing, instead only choosing to give a quick nod as they readied themselves for teleportation. With a few quick taps on the control panel, the Ranger's morphers began to blink, as they felt themselves being teleported away from the base.
Had they know what was to await them once they arrived in this new dimension, however, they probably would not have been eager to so quickly and foolishly venture headfirst into this mission.
A faint scrabbling noise echoed through the cavernous tunnels, a mangy-looking rat sprinting across the stone floor. It ducked left, dodged right, and let out a high-pitched squeak as it barely avoiding colliding with a blue-clad leg. Marzgurl flinched out of the way, shivering.
"Lovely," she snarked.
The Rangers had found themselves inside a nightmare- long, curving passageways with almost no light. Condensation dripped from the ceiling, the dampness of the air making the hair stand up on their necks. And nicest of all, a weird, inhuman thrumming was echoing through the space, almost below the range of their hearing. They unconsciously drew closer together.'
"What kind of universe is this?" Chick muttered. "Charles Manson's fever dreams?"
"Whatever it is, my brother is down here somewhere," Critic answered shortly. "We need to start moving."
Shoving down his misgivings, he began to walk and was slightly gratified to see his team following him. Their footsteps echoed oddly, mixing together and bouncing down the passage.
"This is just creepy," Linkara whispered. "It's like we're the last people on Earth. Or… whatever this is."
"I don't think so," Critic answered. He raised a hand to point down the way, and sure enough a thin figure could be seen shuffling towards them. They walked slowly towards it, with more than a few hands creeping unconsciously towards their morphers.
As they drew closer, goosebumps rose on their arms.
The man looked like he had lost twenty pounds that he couldn't afford, as his clothes were soaking wet and pooling over his emaciated frame. All the pigment seemed to have faded from his skin, and light blue veins were visible in his face. His eyes were deeply set in his skull, blinking slowly within red, irritated eyelids. He walked with a limping gait, one leg dragging uselessly behind him.
The team stopped a few feet away, and the man ground to a halt. His mouth worked noiselessly for a moment, and then he was still. There was a long silence.
Critic stepped forward.
"Uh… hello." He said, tepidly
The man didn't respond.
"Right…." He continued, "We're… we're looking for someone. My brother is somewhere down here. About my height. Brown hair. Glasses."
The man made a low, keening noise deep in his throat. The other reviewers took a collective step backwards.
"Critic, we should go," Linkara muttered, eyes glued to the figure in front of them.
"Look, have you seen him?" Critic wouldn't be deterred. "We could use some help."
The man blinked lethargically, eyes taking on a new, hungrier look. "Help…" His voice was like sandpaper on rough stone, sending chills down their spine.
Critic swallowed against a dry throat. "Yeah. Help."
"Help," the man echoed, tilting his head to the side. He reached out a hand, gripping the sleeve of Critic's jacket.
"Help," he repeated, voice growing louder. "Help… Help."
"Okay… thanks for everything. Gosh, it's getting late," Critic stammered out, attempting to wrench his arm away from the man's grasp. "We really should be going, guys." The man didn't let go, dirty fingernails digging into Critic's arm.
"Help," he rasped, reaching the other arm out as well. "HELP."
Critic strained backwards, almost falling as Chick lunged forward and pushed the thin man to the side. The team took off running, the man's frenzied cries urging them on. The Critic led the pack, sprinting. He flinched with every raspy plea, the voice seeming to bury into his ears.
They had been running for almost ten minutes before they slowed to a walk. It was thirty more minutes before they couldn't continue- not from exhaustion, but because they could feel their minds beginning to crack.
The caverns were never ending, winding up and down with no pattern. Strange noises would resonate from all sides, reminding them of anything from the whines of an injured dog to the screams of children- sometimes, both at once. They had seen several more shadowy figures, but no one dared to approach them. At one point, a faint stroke of daylight had been visible up ahead, growing further away as they approached it.
The team sat in disarray, curled up to the side of the cavern. Chick and Marzgurl had their arms wrapped around their knees, shivering. Linkara knelt, scratching a line into the dirt on the floor. And furthest away was the Critic, furiously rubbing at his arm. He could still feel the man's thin fingers wrapped around his wrist.
Chick cleared her throat, voice oddly thick. "I want to go home." Five simple words, but her empty stare said so much more.
Marzgurl nodded slowly. "Me too."
Linkara straightened up, glancing at the two girls. He couldn't help but think that if Spoony was here, he'd know what to do. What to say. Some quip to lighten the mood, or a perfect cheesy joke to make the Critic groan while the others laughed. But he was gone. And all Linkara could think to do right now was agree with them. He pushed up his sleeve, starting to tap the buttons on his morpher.
"Put it away." Critic's tone was dangerous. His eyes were fixed on the wall, fingernails tearing at his arm.
"This is hopeless," Linkara argued faintly. "We can't stay down here any longer. We're going to lose our minds." His gaze flicked down to the older man's forearm- the nails were tearing it red and raw.
"We're not leaving without my brother," the Critic answered, "We can't. Not when we're so close."
"Close?" Linkara could feel a little force returning to his voice, "We're not close- we're not anywhere. We can't take any more of this. If we stay down here, we might end up like them."
He pointed in front of him, as down the hallway a new pale figure slumped into view. Linkara swallowed hard, but the next volley of words died in his throat as he got another look at the new figure.
A familiar profile.
A porkpie hat.
Critic followed his gaze, eyes widening in recognition. He pushed himself up, heading towards the figure. The rest of the Nexus team followed, slower. As they approached, the figure raised his head to meet their gazes. His skin was significantly paler than before, and his eyes bloodshot and deeper within his skull, but there was no mistaking him.
The Red Ranger swallowed hard, taking a step forward. "Rob?"
The Other Guy's head tilted slightly, but his face remained impassive. His eyes held no hint of recognition. Critic stepped a bit farther forward.
"We came to get you," he said in a tone none of them had ever heard him use. "I know you might not remember us… but we're taking you home."
The Other Guy swayed a bit on the spot. After a long minute, he raised a thin hand in front of him. Linkara thought it looked like he was shielding himself, but the Critic's face relaxed slightly.
"Do you remember me?" He asked as raised a hand to meet his brother's.
And that was when everything- quite literally- started to fall apart.
The Other Guy's fingertips blackened, and started to crumble, falling apart like dry sand. His face remained impassive, but his eyes widened slightly in apparent panic. The darkness spread up his arm, and the man started to fall apart, piece by piece.
The Critic panicked- his eyes wide, he reached out both hands to his older brother but grabbed nothing but black dust. With a low, keening groan, The Other Guy dissolved. The last to go was his face, eyes piercing them in sheer terror.
And then he was gone, and everything was quiet.
The Critic made no noise; he didn't move. His hands were still held out in front of him, stained with black dust. He took a shallow, trembling breath. And then he took another breath.
A scream- angry, animalistic- erupted from his throat, and with no warning he threw himself forward and slammed a fist against the stone wall nearby. He swung wildly over and over, blood soon starting to trickle down his knuckles. All the while, he screamed, stopping only to gasp for breath.
The Rangers didn't move. Marzgurl's wide-eyed gaze was fixed solidly on the ground, arms wrapped around herself; she was shaking. Chick's unblinking stare, on the other hand, was only on her boss and counterpart, flinching slightly with each punch. But Linkara's eyes were closed, trying to block out what had just happened. He couldn't take any more of this.
And then, from the back of his head, a small voice spoke to him.
Open your eyes.
He jumped slightly as he recognized the voice; faint, girlish, comforting. The Girl in the Gun was speaking to him. But why did she sound so strained? Why was her voice so quiet?
Open your eyes. Partner. Friend. Open your eyes.
But he couldn't. Not when all that was waiting for him was stone and blood and death and madness. If he opened his eyes, he'd lose his mind.
Open your eyes, The girl laughed at him, See the truth.
And somewhere, deep in his mind, something clicked.
The sinking feeling he'd gotten once he landed; the almost unnoticeable drain on his energy. The atmosphere of the cave? Or someone tapping into the magic in the area? Crawling around, unbidden, in his head?
Linkara took a deep breath, focused, and opened his eyes. He squinted immediately, shocked at the bright sunlight surrounding him. After a moment, he looked around, and his stomach sank.
The cave was gone. Everything was, in fact. The stones, the darkness, even the hideous black dust that had been previously drifting through the air. The reviewers were standing in an empty space, in what looked like a desert. The air was dry and the sun beat down uncomfortably, and dust coated every inch of their clothes.
In front of him, his teammates stood in the same positions, unmoved. The Critic was swinging wildly at empty air, howling in unintelligible rage. Marzgurl and Chick didn't move, eyes staring, unseeing, into the distance. In front of all of them, perched casually on a boulder, was a feminine figure, smiling widely. His eyes widened as he took in the birdlike features, the unabated interest she had in his suffering friends in front of him. Linkara bit the inside of his cheek to keep himself from cursing.
As he watched, the woman raised her wrist to her mouth, and tapped a few buttons.
"Come in, lizard-head." A burst of angry-sounding static erupted from the commlink. Linkara couldn't make it out, but the girl smiled cheerfully, "Phase One of the plan is complete!"
"Such language!" she teased, "You might change your tune when you hear this." She skipped lightly off the rock, and walked towards Critic, who stared right through her as if she weren't there.
She held her wrist towards him, as he let out a fresh burst of hatred. There was a short silence, and then a shimmering nearby formed into a familiar shape. Tegon faded into view, brow furrowed in irritation. He blinked, unimpressed at the Rangers, eyes snapping to the girls, to the Critic, and to Linkara. Feeling the eyes on him, Linkara sunk to his knees, holding his arms over his face as though he couldn't bear to watch any longer.
The lizard man looked at him for a moment longer, before striding forward and tracing one, menacing claw along the Nostalgia Chick's face. A small line of blood dripped down her cheek.
The Pink Ranger didn't bat an eye.
Tegon turned to the bird-girl, looking even more irritated than usual. "Good work, Retsukagi."
She batted her eyelashes at him.
"Now how did that make you feel?" she asked
"Like I drank poison," Tegon spat. He snapped his fingers, and the dirt ground around him erupted into four golems of mud, forming themselves quickly into Synthspectors. The bird-girl shivered dramatically.
"Cree-pyyyyyyyyyyy…." She drew out in a long whine, and Tegon growled low as the Synthspectors moved around the group, surrounding them on all sides.
"Devafen," Tegon barked into his commlink. "Six to transport."
Linkara felt a hot stab of panic erupt in his stomach, and he frantically punched a few buttons on his morpher. A burst of static, and then the muffled voice of Insano was audible.
Linkara slammed his hand over the speaker, hissing into the mouthpiece.
"Stop talking. Stop talking now. Did you load Spoony's coordinates into the Nexus mainframe yet? Yes or no?"
"What? Yes, of course. I haven't forgotten him; the smug bastard still has my-"
That was all Linkara needed. He began furiously typing at the morpher, as quietly as he could. Nimue was still the controller of the mainframe, and she had always had a decent grasp of difficult situations. Of course, Insano would probably be concerned why his transporter was operating without him, but there was no time to worry about that. He had to get away, and there was only one other person on his team that could help now.
He flicked his gaze upwards to check on his friends. Critic had run out of steam, and was kneeling on the ground, slumped. Retsukagi was walking in a circle around Marzgurl, who had sunk down to sit, crosslegged, on the ground, hands over her face. Chick was pacing back and forth, staring down passageways that existed only in her mind. Tegon was typing away, but seemed to feel eyes upon him- his gaze snapped up, and met Linkara's.
"Nimue, now! Do it now!" Linkara snapped, standing up and backing away. Tegon snarled, and Retsukagi's eyes snapped up, her focus broken.
Immediately, the Critic's head snapped up, eyes wide as he looked around in disbelief. Marzgurl jumped, letting out a shout of surprise, and Chick stumbled like someone had pushed her. Synthspectors closed in, gripping them tightly and painfully. One moved in to grab Linkara, but he disappeared in its grasp.
In a flash of ozone, the Green Nexus Ranger was gone, leaving his team behind.
Linkara wasn't sure where he'd landed when he woke up, blinking wearily.
Brown. Brown everywhere. Every inch he could see was covered in a thick layer of dirt. He stood up, dusting himself off.
He was standing in the middle of a ghost town. Every building seemed to be deserted, and nothing made a sound. As he watched, an empty hamburger wrapper made a sad loop in the wind before being snatched up by a rail-thin cat.
The Green Ranger's head was swimming, and he looked down at his morpher. The lights were dark; he was alone, with no way to get out of this… well, shithole if he was being frank. Dizzy, he staggered over to nearby pile of cardboard and slumped down to think.
A loud voice startled him alert, and he was pushed bodily to the ground. The cardboard was occupied, and out of it emerged…
Linkara blinked in surprise.
"What the hell?! That was my house! " A dirty looking man in tan jacket yelped, "I'd just gotten the new bathroom retiled! Do you know how hard it is to tile the floor of a cardboard bathroom?!"
Linkara stared at him in disbelief. "Chester?"
"How do you know my name?"The Bum cocked his head to the side, curious. Are you from the govern-na-ment?"
Linkara shook his head, and the Bum's eyes widened as though seeing him for the first time.
"Say… that's a nice coat."
Linkara looked down. His coat was torn, bloodied, and burned from his fight with Malachite's forces. "Uh… yeah?"
Chester nodded fervently.
"Uh-huh. HEY! Lester!" Behind him, a new figure excavated itself from a pile of garbage and slumped over. Linkara's mouth fell open; it was him. As a Bum. What the…?
"Look at this guy's coat," Chester was saying, and Not-Linkara's mouth opened wide enough to see all thirteen cavities.
"OMIGOSH, that is the nicest coat I've ever seen in my life!"
"Where?" a new voice asked, and yet another figure waddled over. Familiar eyes stared him down, framed by greasy pigtails. "Ooh! Fancy-shmancy!"
Linkara figured if his mouth fell open one more time, he was going to get lockjaw. "Chick?"
"Hey, mister," Not-Chick asked craftily. "What would it take to get that coat from you?"
Linkara thought fast. "Welllll…." He said, "Do you guys have someone in charge?" The three of them nodded.
"You'll get the coat, if you take me to your leader." He blinked, laughing slightly, "I have always wanted to say that."
Chester and Lester nodded, but Not-Chick folded her arms.
"Coat first." She said, holding out her hand,
After a brief internal struggle, Linkara shrugged off his coat and tossed it to them. Not-Chick lunged for it but her much taller companions got there first. The two Bums each held a sleeve, tugging at the coat until- to Linkara's horror- it ripped loudly in half.
The Bums didn't seem worried, happily pulling on their own half over one arm before waving him after them down the street. Not-Chick wandered away, grumbling loudly about coat-thieves and fluoride.
Linkara followed the Bums, trying to avert his eyes from the legions of homeless that seemed to populate every street corner. Wide eyes begged him to stop, and more than once the cry of "Spare change?" reached his ears.
Eventually they reached a liquor store with broken windows, shelves long empty. The Bums stepped casually through the window and waved him inside.
"Your High-mi-nuh-ness!" Chester called out, " We bring you a stranger with a nice hat!"
From the shadows in the back of the store emerged a figure. A familiar figure, wearing a dirty Burger King crown and a humorless smile.
"Hey, Linkara," Spoony said. "Welcome to my kingdom."
Linkara and Spoony retreated to a back room, where a few cartons of flat beer still resided. Spoony slumped down in the center of a pile of empty cans, cracking a new one open. He offered it to Linkara, who didn't move. He merely stared around the room, taking in the scarred walls.
"What is this place?"
Spoony smirked. "The Bum Universe," he replied, "Poverty at an all-time high. Around ninety percent. World-wide. Basically, the closest thing to our own universe I could think of."
Linkara felt his stomach sink. "So that was-"
"You as a Bum." Spoony took a swig of beer, swallowing with effort. "They call him Lester, or something. Spooky, huh?"
"And you're their king?" Linkara couldn't help but grin, "That's gotta be a huge boost to your ego."
"Yeah, as if my ego wasn't already the size of a planet," Spoony grinned back, "Pecking order is based off of money, here. I'm the richest person they've met in years; they crowned me in minutes."
"How much do you have on you?"
Spoony smile slipped. "Seventeen dollars and twenty-three cents."
The tension that perfumed the silence in the air could have knocked out an elephant, as the two stood, their eyes focusing on everything but each other. They felt as if the two had a wall of glass around them. It was as if they knew their words would be like throwing stones, crashing the fragile crystalline barrier until every emotion they'd kept bottled within came spilling out.
Yet, at the same time, both of them wanted to be the first to break that barrier for the sheer fact that, once it was broken, they wouldn't feel as if they were drowning anymore.
"You realize that everyone hates you right now," Linkara said bluntly, "Insano thinks you kidnapped his son, dude."
Spoony whistled, and from a stack of empty crates emerged a dirty-looking SOI. He chirped happily at the sight of Linkara, bouncing over and burrowing into his neck.
"He's fine," Spoony smiled. "He made himself a nice little fort over there." SOI purred in agreement.
The room fell silent, until Spoony cleared his throat. "Where's everyone else?"
"Captured," Linkara said, only a little bitterly.
"What?" Spoony gasped, choking on beer.
The story didn't take long, and Spoony stared off into space, shaking his head.
"Shit," he whistled. "I'm not even gone for a day and you guys lose it. I knew it."
There was another long silence. Finally, Linkara swallowed and started to speak.
"Spoony…" he said, "I'm sorry for what Critic and I said. You-re not-"
"Yes, I am," Spoony interrupted. He crumpled the can in his fist and threw it over his shoulder. "A coward. I'm a dirty coward, and an asshole, and a dickish dick. So don't apologize; you had it right."
He paused, then let out a dark chuckle.
"You know why I really picked this place? I thought it would make me feel better about myself. A king among paupers. But Jesus… this place is like living in one of those sad Sarah MacLachlan commercials with the sad puppies. It started making me miss Oreo even worse. I mean, look out there."
Linkara risked a glance out the window. Across the street, a five-year-old in a too-big shirt was trying to eat a rock. Nearby was an old man, staring into space. Linkara winced, pulling away from the window.
"God Almighty." Linkara sighed, "this is just…."
"I know," Spoony said, "And you know what I realized? That's us, or worse. This is our universe if I don't stop feeling sorry for myself and get off my ass. So don't apologize to me."
He paused, and then murmured. "I'm sorry."
Linkara felt a smirk pass over his face.
"Good," he said, "Keep saying that. But, for the record, none of us were right about any of this. Maybe we both should have been a bit more careful. I mean, tensions are high and we're both terrified—"
"Hey now," Spoony winked, "Let's not turn this into some after-school special, hurt/comfort fic, okay?"
The two looked at one another, barely able to keep themselves from laughing. Soon, their laughs filled the dirty, run-down room with warmth that both of them felt had been gone far too long.
"Now," Linkara asked, "how do we get out of here?"
"I believe I can help with that."
The raspy voice made them turn in shock. General Vanmir stood in the doorway, helmet tilted casually to the side and arms crossed. SOI let out a screech and ducked behind the two Rangers as they stood up. In one swift motion, Linkara drew his Magic Gun, aiming it at the General's helmet.
"You have five seconds to piss off," Spoony growled, "before I shove a hammer up your shiny metal ass."
"Just tell us what you want," Linkara said, still aiming at the General, "And leave. In case you forgot, we've got a few friends that we've got to rescue because of you and you're little group."
"Easy there," The General said, holding up a hand, "If I was going to kill you, I'd have done it already. You want to help your friends, right? Then listen carefully."
The two, though still not convinced of the man's trustworthiness, they lowered their defensive stances just slightly.
"I've heard that you've been up against Retsukagi's illusions before," General Vanmir said, looking over at the gamer, "Right, Spoony?"
Spoony nodded slowly, suspiciously eyeing the masked man with uncertainly. What exactly was this man getting at, he wondered? Of course he'd fought against it, he thought—he'd fallen for it a little too easily.
"What do you remember about it?" The General asked.
"Hmm," Spoony bit his lip, "I remember it being really dark when I was running around. And, I think I remember her breaking her concentration at one point."
Immediately, the gamer's green eyes sparked as an idea came through his head. It was as if suddenly as if he had been only looking at half of the picture before. The answer seemed painfully obvious to him, now that he thought about it.
For what felt like the first time far too long for the gamer, a smile spread across his lips. This smile, didn't weigh heavily on his face as if it were only there as a barrier for less happy thoughts that he'd rather not express.
"Linkara," the gamer said, grabbing the comic reviewer by the arm, "I think I know how to get everyone out of this mess."
"That's great," The Green Ranger replied, "But, would you mind sharing with the rest of the class, please? Some of us don't operate on the same wavelength you do, remember?"
"Sorry," The Yellow Ranger said, jerking his thumb in the direction of the General, "But, I still don't trust Heavy Metal over here not to snitch on us to his buddies. No offense, pal."
The General said nothing in response, choosing instead to only tap his foot impatiently as if he thought that would make the two Rangers move faster. Immediately, Linkara reached for his morpher, only for Spoony to shake his head.
The comic reviewer quirked his head just slightly, giving the gamer a quizzical look. However, the gamer could only flash him a look that silently reassured his friend that, for once, he knew exactly what was doing.
"Linkara," Spoony said, "Contact Insano. Let him know that his son is fine, and teleport him back to the base."
Nearby, the pink orb let out an excited chirp as he leapt from his hiding place behind a cardboard box and landed on the Green Ranger's shoulder. No words of protest were spoken before Linkara punched in a handful of coordinates.
Spoony held is breath as his mad scientist double's voice echoed through the static of Linkara's morpher. He could already imagine the heart attack Insano would have when he knew that Linkara had found Spoony and SOI. And, he was almost positive that the mad scientist would probably be using him as a guinea pig for whatever crazy, dangerous experiments that he could think up of as punishment. But, at this point, part of him was pretty sure that being mutated into a radioactive sea slug probably wouldn't be enough punishment.
A brief flash of light and a surprised squeaky giggle heralded SOI being teleported back to the base, leaving the two Rangers and the General alone in the room. Now, the two looked at the black-masked man, eyeing him with the same suspicion as they would had they been cornered by a rabid dog.
"I'll drop you two as close as I can," The General said, "But, I ain't throwing my ass into the fire for you. I'm already risking too much just being here."
As the General stalked past the two of them, typing something into the device on his wrist, the two reviewers looked at one another, their eyebrows raising as their eyes darted between the man's wrist and their own.
That device, they noticed, looked similar to the morphers they wore around their wrists. However, where the mini-computer their wrists were decorated with white and their Ranger color, this one was black and gold.
They remembered something that was said back whenever they'd first been given their morphers. Insano had mentioned that they'd originally designed six morphers, but the last had been lost when Linksano and Doctor Block had disappeared during a mission. Was it possible that either the General or Malachite had been able to steal the morpher and was now using against them?
And what about Linksano and Doctor Block? They wondered. Was it possible that the General had found them and captured them? Or had had they killed them and taken it from their cold, dead hands?
Either way, neither one was exactly enthusiastic about the prospect of asking, lest they risk meeting the same possible fate. However, even if they were willing to ask, it would have been difficult, as that the armored man's morpher started blinking. Almost as if responding to the other device, the other two morphers began to flash rapidly.
"Spoony," Linkara said as the green energy of teleportation began to surround his body, "You owe me a new coat, by the way."
"If we make it out of this alive," Spoony smirked as his body started to become engulfed in sparking golden light, "I will personally learn how to sew and make a coat for you."
The Green Ranger was not given a chance to reply, as three bright flashes of light filled every square inch of the tiny room, whisking away the former inhabitants from that dimension.
Outside, the three bums, Chester, Lester and Not-Chick, as well as a few others, had gathered around the window, trying to remain hidden as they eavesdropped on their "king's" conversation with the two strangers.
Like the dirty carboard boxes they stood upon, the group toppled backwards into an unsightly heap as they were momentarily blinded by the sudden flare of light.
Once the light had faded, and their vision had returned, they dared to peek into the room again. Now, however, the room had been as empty as it had been long before Spoony's arrival. Upon noticing the now vacant room, the group was left speechless.
However, it was Chester that was the first to break that silence.
"Oh my god!" he shouted, flailing his arms about in the air as if he were a sports fan at an exciting football game, "That was the greatest—whatever that was—I've ever seen in my life!"
Meanwhile, back with the others, Critic could almost feel a new wave of panic rising within him. Like boiling water in a pan, the uncomfortable waves of panic rose within him, boiling and growing hotter until he was afraid that it would bubble forth and spill everywhere as he let out another horrifying shriek.
He wanted to start running, but his feet felt numb, as if encased in three feet of solid concrete. But, even if he could run, it wasn't like he knew where he was going. While the imagined caves that he had perceived around him had vanished, he was left in nothing more than total darkness.
What was he fighting for? He wondered. Sure, part of it had been pure revenge for Ma-Ti's death. But, there was this small part of him that also decided to become a Ranger so that he could have a chance of saving his brother from having the same possible fate from befalling him as well.
But, he'd failed at that, if Rob's rapidly rotting corpse was anything to go by.
What good was revenge, anyways? The bitter voice within him asked. Sure, he could beat Malachite into a bloody pulp, but that wouldn't solve anything. Just like ranting and raging at bad films, nothing would change. Killing Malachite wouldn't bring anyone back.
In fact, the voice added, it would probably just make things worse. The others still weren't free. And, given that he would have just killed their leader, he'd be willing to bet that his remaining forces would be furious. What was to stop them from just outright killing the others that they still hadn't found, regardless of whether they were showing signs of awareness or not. After all, unlike the Rangers, Malachite's allies already knew where the other reviewers were being held.
Cold sweat trickled down his forehead as he the distant sounds as silence pressed against his ears. Even his heart felt as if it had stopped beating as a painful tightness seized his chest. It felt as if all the air had been sucked out of his lungs as now the rhythmic pounding of footsteps now filled the air. A hollow clicking, tapping in time to the booted steps drew closer only served to strengthen the fear that gripped Critic's body.
Somewhere in the depths of his fear-riddled brain, he couldn't help but vaguely remember something from a biology class he'd taken in high school. The teacher had once offhandedly mentioned something about how the sounds of certain types of beetles usually warned of death. Of course, the teacher had said, this was just superstition and had clearly been proven false over the years.
Now, the Red Ranger couldn't help but imagine that soft tapping must have been almost identical sound. However, where the beetle's hollow clicks were only speculated to herald death, this sound was a known harbinger of someone who may have well been the Grim Reaper himself.
It was almost as if the shadows had shifted, forming the hatted figure of Malachite himself. For a brief moment, Critic wondered if perhaps this was yet another illusion designed to undermine the reviewer's confidence. However, there was something about the menacing aura that emanated from his presence told the Red Ranger that this was no illusion.
"Hello again," Malachite's voice rasped, "Nostalgia Critic."
"Hello again to you too," Critic spat, "You shit-eating son of a bitch."
The next thing Critic knew, he was on his back as a blue fireball from Malachite's staff collided into his gut with the force of a speeding bus.
"That's not a very nice way to greet me," Malachite replied in an eerily quiet voice, as he slowly drew closer.
"Well," Critic managed to smirk as he shakily clambered to his feet, ignoring the screaming protests of his bruised muscles, "Calling you a second rate Merlin would have been too much of a damn compliment."
Immediately, Critic regretted opening his mouth as he was once again thrown onto his back. Through his star-clouded vision, he saw Malachite now stood over him, one foot planted firmly on top of the reviewer's chest, while his staff hovered less than an inch above Critic's throat. The reviewer tried swearing to himself, but found his mouth unable to form the words. In fact, most of his body seemed paralyzed, he noticed as panic began to bubble within him.
With a jolt, MarzGurl and Chick snapped out of their frozen trances and helped the Red Ranger to his feet. As if on instinct the three raised their fists into fighting positions..
"I see," Malachite sneered, "that I shouldn't have been concerned about you or your friends. Devafen, Tegon, Retsukagi—you handle the girls. I'll deal with Critic."
With a quick shimmer, Malachite's minions appeared. At that moment, the Pink and Blue Rangers seemed to forget their fear as they quickly nodded at one another before charging at the trio. Although they knew that it wasn't a good idea to take on three of Malachite's toughest allies by themselves, they didn't really have a choice.
Linkara was nowhere to be found, and Critic had already been singled out for attack by Malachite. Yet, at the same time, a deadly fire burned in the two women's veins, replacing their fear with a fury far deadlier and more dangerous than anything they had previously felt in any of their missions.
Critic could only make a low, growl as he bared his teeth like a wild dog in response. A faint trace of a smirk passed across the sorcerer's lips as he looked at the reviewer with the same disdain that one has before crushing a bug underneath their feet.
"Critic," Malachite asked, "What do you think of the twenty-first century?"
It was now that Critic could feel himself able to talk again.
"The hell kind of question is that?!"
"Did you think," Malachite continued, ignoring the critic, "that your scientist's technological gadgetry would actually protect you? That it would actually allow you to stop the inevitable? Your team is in shambles, Critic—two of your own have abandoned you, and at least two more will most likely die on this battlefield. You see—your technology and science are worthless. In the end, you are still nothing more than a sniveling, pathetic shell of a man filled with useless impotent rage."
Critic wanted to open his mouth to protest, but once more he found himself unable to. However, this was no spell-bound paralysis, but rather one born of an overwhelming feeling of fear. Of all the possible ways to die, for some reason, he'd never imagined having his windpipe crushed by a bo-staff, while a guy crushed his ribcage with his foot would be the way that he would go.
Involuntarily, he closed his eyes, blocking out the sight of Malachite raising his staff, as he braced himself for the inevitable agony of his throat being crushed like a soda can. Damn it, he didn't want it to end this way, he thought as hot, bitter tears began to pool in the corner of his eyes.
He couldn't accept that he'd failed. He wished that he could have been the fearless, wise leader that the others could genuinely look up to and trust, rather than a deluded fool that they only tolerated out of some sort of fear or obligation. In the span of one day, what had he done? Allowed Paw to get taken to god knew where, said and done things that probably contributed to Spoony deserting the team, and the others into certain doom.
Some leader he turned out to be, he thought. What kind of leader—no, what kind of decent person in general—kept letting people close to him get hurt or killed because of his desires and goals? Ma-Ti, The Other Guy, his friends—it wasn't like he'd meant for any of them to ever get hurt.
Maybe, he thought, if reincarnation was a thing, he'd come back in his next life as someone who knew better than to get his friends and family involved in his insane schemes and adventures.
Suddenly, a loud twinkling crash followed by a loud shrieking wail, like fireworks being shot through a window, filled Critic's ears. The reviewer coughed and opened his eyes as he felt the pressure on his chest slacken as Malachite looked up towards the sky.
Several small pinpoints of greenish-light glimmered over-head, streaking through the darkness above them as they barreled toward the ground, sending shards of glass raining down on the field like glimmering snowflakes.
For a brief moment, through his peripheral vision, it seemed as if the darkness slowly began to break, like a dissipating fog, as patches of dim sunlight began to filter in from above. His ears strained as they picked up the faint sounds of movement, possibly coming from the platform behind him. However, he had no time to wonder what it could be as a blinding radiance filled the abandoned warehouse, showering the area in a mix of golden and greenish light. Faster than Critic could blink he felt something rush by his body, slamming into Malachite with enough force to throw him off of Critic's body.
The Red Ranger blinked as the light faded and the rest of the world came back into focus. The heavy shadows that had shrouded the empty room were gone, revealing only the rusted and dilapidated walls of an abandoned warehouse. Nearby, He could see MarzGurl and Chick, both considerably roughed up but still standing, looking confused as their three opponents had suddenly stopped fighting.
Across the room, at least a good four feet away from Critic, Malachite staggered to his feet and adjusted his sunglasses. Shakily, Critic climbed to his feet as his eyes too, fell upon where everyone was staring.
Spoony and Linkara, both of them morphed into their Ranger outfits, stood, their weapons drawn and ready to fight. Or rather, the Green Ranger's weapons were drawn, as that the large, staff-like battle hammer that the Yellow Ranger typically wielded was currently laying across the room, having been clearly been thrown at Malachite.
Without a word, Critic and the girls regrouped, morphing as they joined the Yellow and Green Rangers, while Malachite's minions surrounded their leader.
Once again the fight continued around them, filling the air with the clanging cries of metal on metal filled the wide space of the warehouse.
For every slash and hit that Malachite and his allies gave, there was at least one Ranger there to receive and return an attack. And, while the battle might not have been much more even in terms of strength and skill, the reviewers were at least glad of the absence of both Synthspectors or any transformed versions of their colleagues.
Without even a word, Spoony rushed at Retsukagi, skillfully dodging a flurry of attacks as he picked up his weapon, countering just as the bird-girl bore down upon him with a fierce kick.
"So," she frowned, "You're still around? Wow, you must be an idiot! You really would have been better off just kept cowering in whatever dirt-hole you'd crawled into."
"You really might want to try a new tactic" Spoony said between blows, "'Cause this mind-game shit is really starting to bore me. Okay, kid?"
Retsukagi's face flushed red as a she leapt into the air. A pair of large, bird-like wings sprouted from her back, allowing her to hover a few feet above the gamer.
"OH," the bird-girl shrieked, "HOW'S THIS, THEN?!"
Her face became even more bird-like and twisted as she let out a high-pitched screech that could have shattered glass. The Yellow Ranger groaned, doubling over in pain as he clasped his hands around his ears. Even with the protection of his helmet, her scream was deafening. He shivered as he involuntarily imagined that, had it been just a little louder, her scream could have probably literally caused someone's head to explode like a popped zit.
Quickly, however, the bird-girl's piercing scream was cut short as a green blast of energy darted through the air, clipping through one of her wings, causing her to tumble to the ground. Spoony looked up to see Linkara, currently dueling with Devafen, give him a brief nod and a thumbs up over his shoulder before returning to his fight.
Taking advantage of the distraction, Spoony decided to help, carefully stepping in between the Green Ranger and the cat-lady and deflecting an attack that would have surely hit his friend, had he not stepped in.
However, the two were unable to catch even a moment's breath as Retsukagi had recovered, also managing to intercept an attack as she joined her feline-esque comrade.
"Retsukagi," Devafen warned, "We may be fighting against the same opponents, but don't get in my way,"
"Sheesh," Retsukagi replied, grinning "Alright. Just leave the cute Yellow Ranger for me. I've got plans for him."
"Why does the way she says that," Spoony commented as he dodged and countered a few more attacks, "sound really creepy?"
"I dunno," Linkara replied sarcastically, alternating between shooting and hand-to-hand combat "Maybe because it is really creepy?"
Meanwhile, Chick and MarzGurl were across the room, dueling with Tegon. Naturally, the lizardlike man was mostly ignoring the Blue Ranger in favor of his usual opponent. Thankfully for MarzGurl, this gave her the advantage of being able to deliver more serious attacks to him than he was to either of them.
That wasn't to say, however, that he was making it easier for either one of them. Occasionally, there would be a momentary lull in the girls' defenses, allowing him to counter with another swift strike.
"Do you mind," Tegon shouted, pushing the Blue Ranger aside as he deflected another of her attacks, "I'm trying to settle a score with your pink friend, here."
"What score?" Chick asked, "If you're meaning that running count of the number of times I've kicked your ass? There's really no need to be keeping count; you're going to have to start calculating that in scientific notation, if this keeps up. What's your deal, anyways?"
The lizard man only responded with another lunging attack, which was promptly side-stepped and countered by a strong kick in the gut by Chick.
However, Tegon was quick to recover, as he maneuvered snake-like around the Pink Ranger, grabbing her arm. The Blue Ranger was about to intercept, but she found herself being blocked as a figure clad in onyx armor materialized before her.
Without even breaking stride, the cartoon reviewer dived at the General, knocking him off his feet as she slammed into him. Quickly, the two got back to their feet; Vanmir summoning his spear as MarzGurl twirled her axes in a threatening display that told her opponent that she was not going to hold back.
"I just realized," the General said, as their weapons clashed with one another, "That I never introduced myself last time. The name's General Vanmir. Vanmir the Deathbane. I've got other names, but I can't tell you any of 'em, yet."
"It doesn't matter if you called yourself 'Princess Rainbow Fluffypants the Third,'" MarzGurl snarked between strikes, "After you kidnapped Sage, as far as I'm concerned you're just another of Malachite's monsters to me."
Although his pace did not slow, nor did he relent in his attacks, MarzGurl almost sensed a subtle change within the helmeted villain. A sudden, restrained rigidness in his posture and movements suggested that perhaps her words had hit him far harder than she realized. And yet, his calm, measured breaths told her that he may have been trying to convince himself not to let it bother him.
"Don't assume," General Vanmir replied, as he hit her with a sweeping kick, "That you've even got me figured out for a second. I'm much more deceptive than you think."
Before she could hit the ground, the Blue Ranger threw herself into a roll, just narrowly avoiding another attack as she countered him, knocking him to his knees
"Likewise, pal," she said as she stood up again, "Don't assume for a second that me, or any of the others, as stupid as you seem to think we are."
Meanwhile, Critic barely seemed aware of anyone existing around him, besides Malachite. Like two vicious lions fighting over prey, The Red Ranger and Malachite charged at each other, their weapons clashing loudest amongst the other fights currently breaking out around them.
Critic's vision tunneled, tinged with a hazy red as he brought down his sword upon the leather coat wearing sorcerer. With only a casual swipe of his staff, Malachite casually deflected the blow, knocking Critic across the room.
"Haven't you figured it out yet," Malachite asked, "That no matter what you do, it's useless to fight? I can defeat you with my eyes closed."
"With those shades," Critic shot back as he lunged at the sorcerer again, "You'd kind of have to."
"You dare to keep mocking me?!" Malachite hissed as he sidestepped past the Red Ranger's blade.
"Why should I 'dare'?," Critic replied, ducking out of the way of a swipe from Malachite's staff, "You're already mocking yourself pretty well without my help."
Without a word, the sorcerer stretched his hand out, flinging another blue fireball in Critic's direction. Thinking quickly, the reviewer planted his feet into the ground, holding his sword like a baseball bat as he hit the oncoming orb of magical flame. The smell of heat on metal filtered through his helmet, filling his nostrils with a sickening scent that made his eyes water. A searing heat, like that of a furnace, pounded against his body, accompanied by a force that threatened to rip his limbs from their sockets.
With a fierce grunt, Critic pushed forward, nearly dropping his sword as he batted the fireball back toward its caster. A shrieking hiss, like a screaming firework or a missile, filled his ears as the ball zoomed across the space before colliding with the sorcerer, sending him crashing on his back.
Blinking, Critic looked between his sword and the fallen wizard. Thankfully, he noted with a sigh of relief, while trails of smoke drifted lazily from the blade, the weapon itself was still mostly in tact, and relatively undamaged.
A frown overcame is face as he pressed the side of his helmet. Lines of red light shot from the spot, crawling across his helmet before fading, revealing Critic's bearded and bespectacled face. His blue eyes sparked with a deadly lightning, and his brow furrowed as he approached his fallen enemy.
He wanted him to see his face before he destroyed him. He wanted him to see the rage and pain in his eyes. He wanted him to look at him and see the faces of those he had hurt and killed. More than that, he wanted him to look at him and see the face of those who were left alive to deal with the pain of these deaths—all of them angry and bitter and wishing revenge.
Most of all, The Red Ranger wanted Malachite to see his face.
The face of his enemy.
Yet, something stayed Critic's hand, holding the sword just inches from the sorcerer's form. As if under the thrall of some powerful spell, the reviewer's body remained frozen, his fingertips trembling just slightly as they held tightly to his weapon.
For a moment, the Red Ranger was almost sure that the man he was looking at wasn't the same sorcerer that he had fought against only moments ago. The sorcerer's sunglasses had fallen off of his face, and now two flickering voids, like miniature black holes, stared at the Red Ranger. And yet, that was not the soulless voids that caught his attention.
It was in the few moments in which the unholy void faded, revealing a pair of brown eyes staring back at him with a pleading, haunted expression. These were not the eyes of a centuries old sorcerer who had killed millions in the name of eradicating technology and conquering the world. These were not the eyes of the being that had kidnapped Critic's friends, and killed his closest friend, and possibly destroyed his brother.
These were the eyes of a man capable of feeling emotions other than seething anger and a vengeance colder than a winter's rain.
Time seemed to slow to a halt as the two stared at each other. For a brief instant, a vision flashed through the reviewer's mind, taking him back to the grey, shadowy forest from his nightmares. Standing before the edge of the forest was Malachite. Much like the before, this version of Malachite seemed more human, at least in appearance.
Again, the swirling shapeless beast that was the swirling vortex of darkness hovered before them, its tentacles whipping wildly, like blades of grass caught in the winds of an oncoming tornado. The sorcerer seemed oblivious to it as he continued stared silently at Critic, slowly extending his hand toward the reviewer, as if beckoning him to take his hand.
Again, Critic wanted to speak, but found the words trapped within his mind.
What are you doing?! He wanted to ask, Why are we here? Where is here?
Roaring white noise filled Critic's ears as the shifting vortex moved faster and more violently. Rapidly, the dancing tendrils stretched and twisted, slowly attempting to wrap around Malachite's body.
Once more, pure panic shot through Critic's veins, as he tried to move his feet, only to find that his movements were slow, as if his body were wading in quicksand while weighted down by concrete blocks.
Why aren't you running? A small part of Critic wanted to ask Malachite, Are you blind or something? There's a freaking huge-ass black blob hovering behind you, possibly trying to strangle you!
A calming but brilliant, blue-green aura began to glow around Malachite as the creature's tendrils circled around him, growing brighter and stronger with each passing second. Instinctively, Critic tried to shut his eyes against the blinding light; he found that confusion and terror had rendered his eyes just as paralyzed as his legs.
Before he realized it, the light struck him in the eyes, blinding him. Once the light faded, Critic found himself once more back in the abandoned warehouse with the others. It felt as if nothing had happened, as he suddenly awoke from this dream. The sorcerer's eyes no longer glimmered with the faint spark of humanity, but rather had become the two pupil-less inhuman voids of shadows
A displeased scowl returned to Malachite's countenance as he hastily put his sunglasses back on, and stood up. Around them, the sounds of battle began to die down as the Rangers and Malachite's henchmen had regrouped, now lining up on either side of their respective leaders.
"M'Lord," Tegon asked, "Are you alright?"
"I'm feeling a little drained," Malachite replied, "But otherwise I'm fine. Perhaps it would be wise to retreat for now."
The sorcerer's minions, although skeptical, nodded in agreement. Silently, a glowing aura surrounded Devafen's claws as she tore open a portal in the thin air.
"You're lucky that I let you live this time," Malachite said over his shoulder as he turned toward the glowing portal, "Don't expect to be quite as fortunate the next time that we meet."
The Rangers did not move as the sorcerer and his minions crossed through portal, which immediately vanished in a dazzle of white-blue light, leaving the group alone in the darkened abandoned warehouse.
With a sigh of relief, the other four rangers dismissed their helmets and weapons. Although they felt safe enough to be unarmed and unmasked, the tension that hung in the air like an unpleasant scent, made them unable to lower their guard completely.
"So," Chick said after a long silence, "Is anyone going to talk about how Critic almost had Malachite there for a second? Seriously, what stopped you?"
Critic sighed as he shook his head. What had stopped him, he wondered? Had that dream been yet another illusion that Malachite had created to distract him? Or was there something more to this that he couldn't figure out?
"It doesn't matter," he replied, "Malachite's right; we were lucky. However, he got lucky too. Next time I'm not going to let him walk away so easily."
Back at the base, hours had passed and nightfall had once more settled over the dimension. However, unlike the last time that the group had all gathered together, no heated tensions danced in the air like smoke from a fire.
As Critic walked down the busy streets of the holo-city an uneasy feeling swirled in the pit of his stomach. But, for once, this feeling had little to do with Malachite, or the fate of the universe. No, for once this was a task that much more mundane, but all the more unpleasant for the reviewer. It was something that he hated doing, even if it was something he absolutely had to do.
He had to apologize.
Of course, apologies weren't the main reason that he was walking along this street. Professor Celluloid had sent out a message gathering everyone together for some reason. But, he figured that since he and Spoony were inevitably going to be in the same place, one of them might as well bring up the elephant in the room.
That was to say that the gamer would be willing to talk to him after spending the last few hours waiting for Insano to stop scolding him about accidentally almost putting his son in danger. Critic could almost still hear the echoes of the mad scientist's shrieking rants echoing throughout the dimension.
Soon, he had found himself standing outside a small, octagonal building. The building kind of reminded him of a space-ship or futuristic building from one of those late-eighties children's cartoons. He was almost sure that if he stepped inside, the entire building was going to fly off and whisk him away on adventure about learning shapes and the names of planets.
Alas, he sighed, as he stepped in, no such event happened. However, the scent of pizza hit his nostrils, making him forget all about his silly notion, as well as whatever worries had plagued his mind.
The first thing he noticed was that the inside of this building, while not only reflecting the vaguely '1990s perception of the future' cheesiness with the neon-lights and back-lighting on the ceilings and walls, but also sort of vaguely resembled a clubhouse and an arcade.
The others were already there and scattered around the room. Doctor Tease's voice carried throughout the room, laughing as she and Linkara (now wearing a newer brown coat) were engaged in a discussion over science in comic books. At another table, Celluloid was talking with Insano over pizza, the latter of the two occasionally shooting a dirty glance toward Spoony, who was currently across the room, engaged in a Dance Dance Revolution match against MarzGurl.
Even Nurse and the bots, who were currently listening to Chick talk about film editing techniques, had decided to take a break from their usual tasks.
Celluloid excused himself from Insano as he saw Critic enter, bounding over toward Critic like an excited puppy.
"Hey, Critic," he said, grabbing Critic by the arm and leading him inside, "I was kind of worried you weren't going to show up. Anyways, do you like the place? Doctor Tease, the bots and I have been constructing it for a little while now. We'd figure that, with all the stress that we're always under, everyone could use a place to unwind."
He waved toward a few of the doors, hidden away in the corners of the room.
"Of course," the professor explained, "We connected it to the training rooms, as well as one of the extra holodecks that Burton and Pollo helped retool for recreational use."
"Well, the place looks great," Critic replied, biting back the urge to add 'if Star Trek and Miami Vice were thrown in a blender'.
Actually, he had to admit that the place didn't actually look too bad. They had put a lot of work into the place during such a relatively short amount of time that he couldn't help but be slightly impressed. Besides, he thought to himself as Celluloid wandered back toward Insano to continue their conversation, after everything that had happened between their last few missions, they needed a place like this.
The last notes of the song had ended, as Critic reached them. The Blue Ranger grinned as the screen read out their scores, determining that she was the winner of that match.
"Oh c'mon," Spoony whined, "I was just getting warmed up there. Next round I'd totally have beat you!"
"Yeah, yeah," the purple-haired woman replied, "That's what you said three rounds ago."
"Hey, Marz," Critic asked, tapping her on her shoulder, "You mind if I take the next round? I kind of need to talk to Spoony."
MarzGurl nodded, giving an understanding look toward both her male colleagues. Both of them seemed as if they wanted to flee and hide in opposite corners of the room, but were only managing to keep themselves from doing so by sheer force of will.
"Sure," she replied, stepping off the platform, "Besides, I figure that I better retire while I'm still undefeated. I think I'm gonna go get a drink or something. If you guys need me for anything, just ask."
Once she had walked away, the two were left in awkward silence. With only a shrug, the two started the next round. For a few seconds, they followed the arrows that flashed on the screen in silence, avoiding eye contact with one another. Soon, however, the silence could not be maintained any longer, and Critic was the first to break it.
"So," Critic said, his eyes still focused on the screen, "How're you doing? I guess Insano's punishment hasn't caused you to grow a third eye and gills, yet."
"I think he was getting some sick enjoyment out of using me as a guinea pig for his experiments," Spoony replied, also still focused on the game, "Nurse is still pretty ticked at me as well, even though she denies it. And, I'm pretty sure Burton's a bit miffed too, but more 'cause I forgot to take him with me than anything else."
Critic chuckled to himself as he once more went silent. Unlike the last time, this awkward silence didn't last very long before the Red Ranger spoke again. This time, his voice was quieter, with no hint of malice or sarcasm that typically gave tone to his voice.
"Listen," He said, "I'm sorry that I kind of went nuclear on you—I was just stressed, you know? About this whole Malachite business and Rob and well, everything."
The Yellow Ranger was quiet as he continued focus on following the steps on the screen. However, his steps had slowed, and his gaze lowered just slightly, as his mind recalled things that he'd wanted to forget.
"Dude," he replied after a while, "You don't have to apologize. I'm not exactly proud of myself, either. I really should have talked with you guys before just deciding to just abandon you like that."
"You realize that that kind of freaked us out, right?" Critic said.
"I know," Spoony said quietly.
"So," Critic asked, "Now that things are kind of back to normal, are you planning on leaving again? I mean, don't feel like you're obligated to stick around 'cause of us, y'know."
Once more, the gamer said nothing as the two finished the last steps of the song. Now that the two were no longer distracted, they were able to meet each other's eyes. This time, neither angry glares nor downcast reluctance existed in their expressions.
"Look," Spoony said, his tone calmed and measured, "There's still a lot about this whole mess and how I fit in this team that I don't get—that's probably not ever going to change, no matter where I go. But, you guys are my friends. Hell, you're probably a bit more like family, sometimes. And I can't just sit around and let you guys get hurt. So, I think I'm going to stick around for a while, and try to figure this stuff out I go along."
"Well," Critic said, playfully punching the gamer on the arm "I'm glad you're staying. But, you're still an idiot."
"And you're still a raging jackass," Spoony winked, returning the punch with one of his own.
The two reviewers stared at each other for a moment, as if they were about to attack each other once more, before they started laughing. Nearby, MarzGurl had retuned. Her brow furrowed at the sight of the two men play-fighting with one another, exchanging witty insults with one another. However, her expression softened into a smile as she heard the warmth of laughter in their voices.
"Oh you two," she sighed, grinning as she caught the both of them in a hug that seemed more like a playful headlock, "What are we going to do with you? C'mon, you two—let's go get some pizza."
Laughing, she dragged them away to join the others. For once, she couldn't help but feel like this was more like the old times that they all had missed so much. Sure, there were still the threats of Malachite and his forces, and several of their co-workers were still missing, but right now none of it mattered.
Right now, all that mattered to them was that, for a moment, they were having fun just relaxing and talking. They knew that things would never be like they were before, and that this was the closest thing to their normal lives that they'd be able to know until this was over with.
That's why, she thought to herself, she wanted to enjoy this moment as much as she possibly could.
Who knew when they'd be able to have a moment like this again?
Trivia: Retsukagi is based very loosely on the Japanese Yokai (mythical creature) known as the Yosuzume, or Night Sparrow, which is a sparrow that is believed to be capable of causing night blindness. She is also very loosely based on Mystia Lorelei of the Tohou series of video games (another humanoid Night Sparrow based character, who is capable of causing confusion by singing). However, I tweaked up the blindness ability to be able to also create illusions for those affected by her blindness spell, so long as she's focused on creating the illusion.