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Destined for Death
The First Test
The dawn found Jayden Shiba kneeling on a remote beach. He closed his eyes and breathed the salt-laced sea breeze deep into his lungs. Antonio, Emily, Kevin, Mia and Mike watched through the Lion Zord's windshield. They just finished a meager breakfast. Jayden let Emily re-bandage his side but refused to eat anything. Their grief for Ji was like a sword against their throats. The others didn't believe Jayden and Antonio's story when they picked them up at the mall. One fly-by over the demolished Shiba house erased all hope. Their mentor was gone. Their leader, wounded. The Tengen Gate Guardians were gone. Their home and everything in it was gone. Antonio completed Jayden, Kevin and Mia's morphers but the other three were still out of commission.
Jayden's eyes were still red when he entered the Zord. "It's time," he announced, all business. "It's time to use the Sealing Symbol. No more lives will be lost on our watch."
Kevin spoke to Jayden like he was a lost infant. "Are you sure you're strong enough?"
"I will be. I have to be."
"That's not good enough, Jayden," said Mia.
He ignored her and flipped open his morpher. "If I'm not back by noon I want you to find a safe place and lay low until your morphers work again."
Emily and Mike shared the same bewildered look. "Back? Back from where?" Emily asked.
"I have to go find the symbol."
"Find it?" Mike gulped. "What are you talking about? Don't you know it?"
Jayden held his chin high and looked at each of them as he spoke. "I know half of it. Shiba's are born with the knowledge. But, to keep the secret safe from the Nighlock, our ancestors decided long ago to hide the second half in a secret location that only a Red Ranger could reach. That way, if one of us got tortured or brainwashed into revealing the secret we wouldn't know all of it."
Antonio looked out the window. "It's here, isn't it? That's why you brought us to this beach."
Jayden nodded. He looked more than sad. He looked… deflated. "There's an opening to a cave hidden among the rocks. It's marked with the Samurai emblem."
"Coolio," said Antonio. "That's great – we'll go spelunking for five minutes, take a nap, and beat the bad guys."
"It's not that simple," Jayden sighed.
"I knew he'd say that," Mike whispered to Emily.
The Red Ranger pocketed his morpher and rolled up his sleeves. He got that look on his face – that focused determination. His jaw set and his eyes narrowed. "The security is complex. My father told me that the Red Ranger has to endure three tests to reach the symbol, and he has to do it alone. I remember when he went on the quest. He was gone all day and when he got home…" Jayden shook his head. "I was just a kid. He didn't want to scare me with the details."
"So we have no idea what we're up against?" Mia asked.
"There's no us!" Jayden snapped. "I'm going into the cave, you five are staying here. I don't want to hear another word about it, understand?" Jayden turned on his heel and went back down to the beach.
Each Ranger looked at the other. Expressions shifted from bewilderment to annoyance, anxiety to anger and, finally, determination. Kevin spoke first. "I'm not letting him go in there alone. We'll follow him at a distance and back him up when he needs it – agreed?" The others nodded and followed Kevin out the door.
Jayden found the Samurai symbol carved into a stone halfway up the cliff face. He rubbed his fingers over it and wondered how many other Red Rangers had touched the same spot. Legend had it that some entered the cave and never returned. One supposedly emerged two weeks later and died from starvation before his team found him. Another went mad and a third was so badly wounded when he escaped that he died before he described what bit him. The cave was built to keep out the Nighlock. It was built to keep the secret power safe but that power was useless if the Red Ranger didn't survive to use it!
"I wish you were here," Jayden whispered to the memories he had of Ji and his father. "I don't think I can do this without you… but I'll try." He pressed the symbol as if it were a doorbell. The rocks before him opened like a curtain and Jayden entered the cave. Striated crystals in the dome-like ceiling let in just enough sunlight to illuminate four or five feet in front of Jayden. The rocks smelled old, like the pages of the lost archives. The air was dry and humid and Jayden started to sweat after the first fifty yards down the hallway. Every moment he expected to trip over a Nighlock skeleton or feel a monster grab his ankle. Maybe the cavern would flood with water or the ceiling would cave in. Every conceivable danger entered Jayden's mind. Suddenly he felt ten-years-old.
The hall curved left and led to a dead end. Jayden found himself in a circular chamber of smooth marble with no visible exits. Spread equidistant around the room were six wooden levers embedded in the wall. Jayden slowly pulled down on the first one to his left. He heard a creaking sound and winced. When he opened his eyes he saw that a six-by-six section of the far wall had moved on hidden hinges. It was a door.
Jayden sighed with relief and left the lever behind to walk through. The moment he let go, though, the hidden door slammed shut. Jayden backtracked and pulled the lever again. Once more the door opened but immediately shut when he stepped away. Jayden was a wise, patient man. A wise, patient man who shouted, "Shit!" and kicked the wall.
"I bet you have to pull down every lever at the same time," said a voice behind him. Jayden whirled around and found Antonio leaning against the wall with a world-class smirk. "Looks like you need six people," he said with an innocent voice while he pretended to check his nails. "Now where are you going to find five friends to help you?" Kevin, Mike, Mia and Emily joined him.
Half of Jayden was enraged that they disobeyed his orders and risked their lives. The other half, the half that felt hopeless a second before, had never been so happy to see them. He offered them a tired smile that communicated several things at once: sorry I yelled at you, sorry I haven't learned that I need your help, sorry to drag you into this situation. What he said aloud was "Thanks, guys."
The six Rangers pulled on the levers. When all six were in the down position they locked with a loud metallic click and the door remained open. "Interesting first test," Antonio said as they walked toward the next chamber. His self-righteous sarcasm was still there. "It's like the ancient Samurai knew that Red Rangers tend to be too independent for their own good."
Jayden's relief was like cold water in a desert. "I bet that they also thought Red Rangers are too proud and stubborn to admit when they're wrong. I'm not. Thanks for your help."
Mike patted Jayden on the shoulder. "You know, that was a pretty easy test. I was expecting a rogue Zord or a pissed off Sasquatch or –"
"…or a giant, eight-headed snake?" Emily whispered from the front of the group.
"Yeah, exactly, like a… a…" Mike saw what she saw. "Oh boy," he said in a voice two octaves higher than usual.
The hallway led to a bigger, taller, wider chamber. The sleeping, Hydra-like creature in the center appeared to be as long as a dozen school buses and as thick as the Washington Monument.
It heard them coming.
Sixteen green eyes opened and eight fanged mouths roared.
To Be Continued