Disclaimer: Skull, Lord Zedd, Andros, Zhane, Ecliptor, Darkonda, Dark Specter, and various
other things belong to Saban. How did I get them all in the same fic? Read and find out!

Hero in Training
by: SilvorMoon

Even the sunsets looked dull on Oryllia. Skull watched as the sky shifted from blue to a
dirty yellow color as night began to draw nearer. Outside of Zedd's city, the sky would have been
a breathtaking sight, but the fog and grime that hung in the air gave everything a sickly look.
What little color did manage to seep through was unpleasant, bloody reds and moody purples.
The fiery colors made Skull think of the Firebird and his missing powers, and he was doing quite
enough of that as it was.

"Aren't you going to come down, Eugene?" asked a small voice.

Skull looked down. He was sitting on the top of one of the slag heaps that were all that
was left of the king's old palace, hoping that the relatively fresh and cool air might help his brain
processes a little - they needed all the help they could get right now. He had been there most of
the day, lost in thought, and it seemed his sidekick was getting worried about him.

"Sure, I might as well," he sighed, beginning his descent. "I wasn't doing much good up
there, anyway."

He picked his way down the side of the hill, searching for secure footholds amid the
jumble of broken rock. Halfway down the slope, a stone slipped out from under his foot and sent
him bumping painfully to the ground. With angry exclamations, he spat the sand out of his mouth
and began berating the world in general, while Cedar looked on unhappily. She couldn't have
known the definitions of half the words he was using, but the tone of his voice was clear enough.

"Are you all right?" she asked.

Skull sighed. "Yeah. Sorry. I'm just so frustrated, you know?"

"You've had a bad day. Should come inside and rest a while. Think about something else,"
Cedar encouraged. "Can't think when you're upset."

"Can't think at all," Skull muttered. "Man, I feel like such an idiot. What kind of a hero
lets his so-called friends steal his powers and take off with them?"

"Is that all you've been thinking about?" asked Cedar.

"Mostly. Why?"

"How do you expect to think of an answer if that's all you think about?"

Skull blushed. "Good point. I guess it would be a good idea to come in for a while. If
someone found me out here, we'd be in more trouble than we are already."

They went back inside, into the dark underground city that was known as the Court of the
King. It was pitch black for the first few dozen yards, but that didn't make any difference. Skull
was still so wrapped up in his problems that he probably wouldn't have noticed if someone had
been shooting off fireworks. Despite Cedar's scoldings, he couldn't help but berate himself for his
failure. One day, he'd thought he had everything under control, and now everything was suddenly
falling apart. As a matter of fact, they were worse than they had been before he had started.

*I knew I'd be no good at this job,* he thought. *I wish it had been someone
else. Someone else would have done better. Even if they hadn't, I still wouldn't be in this mess
right now. It wouldn't hurt me so much. I wish I had someone here who knew what they were
doing - a Power Ranger or something, a real hero. Better yet, I wish I could back up and make it
so none of this ever happened...*

Those last two thoughts rattled around in his head until they crashed into each other, and
an idea exploded out. Skull was mildly amazed. Cedar must have sensed his shock, because she
turned and looked at him expectantly.

"Did you think of something?"she asked.

"I might have," he replied. "Cedar, how does that crystal of yours work, exactly?"

"Who knows?" Cedar answered. "It is magic, after all. Can't say how it works. It just does
what I tell it."

"Could anyone use it?"

"If they wanted to," said Cedar, after a second of thought. "Takes some concentration,
and you have to be careful. It will do exactly what you tell it, not what you want it to do. Have to
think about what you're going to ask first. Why?"

"Could I use it?"

"Maybe... Do you really want to use it? Might be bad idea," Cedar warned. "Takes a lot of
practice to learn how to ask it right. Might make a mistake if you tried to use it, and this is bad
place for mistakes. Would be better if you let me use it."

"Oh, I don't want to do anything dangerous," Skull assured her. "I just wanted to check
something. Would you mind if I borrowed it?"

"If you make a mistake and send yourself somewhere, I won't be able to bring you back,"
Cedar warned. "What are you up to?"

"Nothing much," Skull replied. "If you don't want me to try, I won't."

Cedar studied his face for a moment, trying to get some sense of what he was thinking,
but whatever expression that was behind his eyes was too complex for her to read. She looked
away again.

"I'll trust you," she said.

Skull nodded. "I won't let you down."

And that should have been the end of the experiment... but it wasn't.

That night, Skull found himself unable to sleep. His accommodations were better than they
had been the previous night - actually quite comfortable, if you didn't mind sleeping underground.
Cedar didn't seem bothered by it, and she had fallen asleep almost at once, curled up in a ball of
feathers. Skull watched her from his own bunk on the other side of the room, sitting cross-legged
with his chin propped on his hands like some kind of frustrated guru. He'd spent a full day in
Oryllia, and the only thing he'd managed to change was to bring his enemy some dangerous
friends and his powers. He could tell himself that he wasn't the Dark Falcon anymore, but
his heart refused to believe it, and the thought of one of Zedd's sleazy minions putting their slimy
paws all over his amulet made him grit his teeth in revulsion. He had to get it back, but
how? How was he - not even a hero anymore - going to get that necklace away from the king of
the world? He needed help, and he wasn't going to get it on Oryllia. Again, his thoughts went
wistfully back to the Power Rangers. They would have known how to handle a situation like this -
they could do anything, couldn't they? If only he could get to them to come help him, or at least
give him some advice.

*But I can't get to them without the Crystal, or Cedar's help, or the Thunderbird,*
he thought. *I can't exactly make the Thunderbird come when I call him, so that's out, and I
don't know if Cedar understands. She really believes I'm up to this... I don't want to disappoint
her, but she's wrong. If I'm going to look for help, I'll have to do it without her.*

That wasn't a very settling idea. The last time he'd tried to do something without Cedar's
help, it had ended rather messily, and it had taken a great deal of effort to straighten everything
out.

*But that was the Firebird trying to make life difficult for me. I knew it was the wrong
thing to do. This is different. I've gotta try, anyway.*

Moving carefully, quietly, Skull tiptoed over to where Cedar slept, the amber pendant still
hanging at her throat. He gently undid the clasp and slipped it off. The stone was dark when he
first picked it up, but when he touched it, it glowed softly and warmed his hands. Cedar stirred a
little and murmured something.

"Don't worry, Cedar. I'll bring it back safe," Skull promised. He stood a moment, feeling
suddenly awkward. Impulsively, he leaned over and gently kissed her cheek.

"That's a promise," he whispered. Then he slipped back to his side of the room, hiding
himself in the deepest shadows of the room.

He turned his attention back to the crystal. Cedar had said that it would take him wherever
and whenever he wanted to be, if he just asked the right way. Now was his time to find out.

"I need help," he told it, and the stone's light seemed to shift in response to his words.
"Bring me to someone who can help me. Take me to the Power Rangers!"

The light seemed to explode, filling his world, driving off all the shadows and slipping
under his closed eyelids to burn his eyes. The floor fell away, the walls disappeared, and
everything around him was spinning in amber fire. There was a nauseating sensation of spinning
wildly across the universe as something tried to pull him in a million directions at once. He tried to
scream, but there was no air, only fire and light and himself spinning, spinning, spinning....

******************************************************************

Skull came around an indeterminate time later, suffering from the worst headache he'd
ever had. Every muscle ached, as if he'd been rolled down a rocky hill in a barrel. He seemed to
be lying on his back, resting on something prickly, and beyond that, he had no idea what was
going on. After a few minutes, he managed to pry his eyes open and look around.

The first thing he saw was an expanse of blue, streaked with wispy clouds. A few spiky
green things were on the fringes of his vision. His brain still felt like someone had run it through a
blender, but he was eventually able to realize that they were trees. Encouraged, he pulled himself
into a sitting position and took a more thorough look around. He seemed to be in a meadow or
perhaps a park of some sort, lying on the grass. In the distance, he could make out buildings of
red brick and white stone built into graceful geometric shapes, but there was evidence that they
had been badly damaged in the recent past. A chill crept over Skull as he realized that he'd never
seen anything like those buildings - not on Earth.

"Stupid!" he scolded himself aloud.

Now he was just remembering what he should have thought of a while ago: that the
Rangers he knew from Earth were not the only Rangers there had ever been. Certainly he knew
about the ones from Terra Venture, but he dimly remembered something about there being other
worlds involved, as well. Hadn't some from that last batch been from distant planet? He was sure
someone had said as much on one of those interminable talk shows that had been filmed after the
last battle. Not only that, but they were spread across a gap of thousands of years, the first ones
appearing as early as Cedar's time. That must have been why the trip was so rough - the Crystal
hadn't had any idea where to put him down. The question was, where and when was he now?

He was still sitting the ground wondering what to do with himself, when he became aware
that he wasn't alone. Someone was back in the bushes, watching him with a gaze that made his
back prickle. He turned and saw a flash of movement as his observer headed for safer territory.

"Hey, come back!" Skull called. "I need some help!"

The eyes reappeared, two bright glints attached to a vaguer shape in the shadows.

"Who are you?" asked a cold voice. "I'm warning you, if you're one of Dark Specter's
men, you'll wish you never set foot on my planet!"

"Dark Specter?" Skull repeated, momentarily perplexed. *Oh, yeah, wasn't he the one
that blew up during that war?*

He called back to the suspicious stranger, "You got it all wrong! I'm just lost. I don't
want any trouble." On an inspiration, he added, "When I fight for anyone, I fight on Zordon's
side. See?"

He fished around in his jeans pocket and pulled out the medal Zordon had given Skull
after his battle with Lord Zedd. The ribbon was a little crinkled from being stuffed in his pocket a
few days, but the gold still glittered in the sunlight. The owner of the eyes looked impressed.

"Zordon, huh?" he said thoughtfully. "Well, I guess you're all right, then. All of Dark
Specter's people are too proud of being villains to think of using his name." The eyes
disappeared, and the stranger's voice could be heard shouting, "Hey, come see what I found!"

There was a rustling in the bushes, as if someone was running through the underbrush, and
then two young men stepped into view. In the lead came the one Skull had first spoken to, a dark-
eyed, serious faced boy with long hair banded in brown and gold. His face was graceful and soft-
lined, but his expression was fixed in stony serious. His companion was in direct contrast, being
muscular and grinning where his companion was slender and solemn. His hair was blonde, but it
glittered like metal where the sun touched it, and his clothing was made of something that gave
off a muted silver gleam, whereas his friend was dressed in something plainer and sturdier, a
simple suit of bright red trimmed in black.

*Wait a minute, I know these guys...* Skull thought. His memory drifted back,
back to when the forces of evil had nearly destroyed his world and all other worlds, when
darkness had been washed away forever in a wave of golden light, when the Rangers had finally
taken off their masks... Skull had seen these faces then, both dark with tears and bright with
victory. These faces were younger, less careworn, but definitely the same ones he'd seen then.

"You're Andros," he said to the young man in red, "and you're Zhane."

Andros's dark eyes flashed again. "How did you know that? Are you sure you're not a
spy? The truth, now."

"Easy, Andros!" said his friend, laughing a bit. "Just because he knows who we are
doesn't make him an enemy. Our identities are no secret among our friends."

"Maybe," Andros replied, "but I still want to know who he is and what he's doing here."
He turned and faced Skull. "Well? Can you explain yourself?"

"I can't even do that when I'm not in trouble," Skull muttered, but kept it quiet so
the suspicious young Ranger couldn't hear him. It seemed the Crystal had delivered him to the
Rangers, after all, even if not the precise ones he'd been thinking of. It surprised him to realize
that he was actually older than them by a few years. Not only that, but there only seemed to be
two of them - not quite what he'd been hoping for. Then again, he'd also asked it to bring him to
someone who could help him, and it must have known what it was doing.

"You can call me... Eugene. Eugene Truebird," he said. He wasn't entirely sure they'd be
willing to trust a stranger who called himself Skull, and he wasn't sure he wanted them to ever
connect him with Skull Skullovitch when they met him. If he never told them, they'd probably
never recognize him. Anyway, he liked the name of his Oryllian ancestor, and he had gotten used
to Cedar calling him Eugene. It wasn't such a bad name, really...

"Well, it seems like you already know our names, so we shouldn't have to introduce
ourselves," Zhane replied. "How'd you find them out, anyway? We've been trying to keep a low
profile, lately."

"You couldn't keep a low profile if your life depended on it, Zhane," said Andros, eyeing
his friend's glittery garb.

"Well, you're Power Rangers, aren't you?" said Skull. "I'm sort of a hero myself... or I
was up until a little while ago," he added dejectedly. "That's why I came out here. I was trying to
find some help, and I guess I got lost."

"You're a hero?" asked Zhane doubtfully.

"I was," Skull replied. "Things sorta got out of hand after a while, but... I used to be the
Dark Falcon."

There was an, "Ahhh!" of understanding from both boys, and Skull tried to read the
expression that lit up behind their eyes.

"You've heard of me?" he asked, without much enthusiasm.

"Of course! Everyone around here knows about him," said Zhane. "He's on the history
books and everything."

*Oh, man, did I mess up that bad?* was Skull's first reaction, but Zhane continued
talking.

"Considering your reputation, maybe we ought to be the ones asking you for help," he
said. "They say you've been in the business of fighting evil for thousands of years. Is that true?"

Skull considered. Thousands of years? Well, if you considered the gap between the time
he'd spent on Tien and on Terra Venture... "Yeah, I guess that's one way to put it."

"You don't look thousands of years old," Zhane opined.

"Well, you don't act your age," Andros shot back, "so don't pick on him."

"I'm not," Zhane replied. He turned back to Skull. "Sorry for my friend - we've been
under a lot of stress lately, and he's getting a little strung out."

"Yeah, you said you needed help," said Skull, puzzled. "What's with that? I didn't think
Power Rangers ever needed help. They're kinda unbeatable, aren't they?"

"You've been listening to rumors," said Andros. "We all have our problems once in a
while... but lately we've been having them all the time. Dark Specter himself has decided he wants
KO-35 destroyed. If it had just been one of his minions after this world, even the lesser nobility,
we could have handled it, but we just don't have what it takes to hold him off. Look at us! There
are supposed to be six of us altogether. What have we got? Him and me."

"What happened to the others?" asked Skull.

"Well, there never were any Pink and Yellow Rangers," Zhane explained. "When we had a
small problem, we didn't want any girls to join, and once the problem got big, none of them
wanted to join. As for Blue and Black, we had them for a while, but they eventually had to
leave. We still see them sometimes, but..." He shrugged. "Things aren't so good."

"I see," said Skull slowly. "Sorry. Man, I know how that is when everything goes wrong.
Everything's gone wrong for me, too, and I don't know where to turn. I guess you guys have too
much going on to help me out, though..."

"Hey, we didn't say that!" said Zhane. "What good is a Power Ranger if they can't help
out a friend once in a while? At least come back to the base, have a snack, and tell us what's
wrong."

"Sounds like a great idea to me," said Skull. "Thanks. I'll owe you one for that."

"Think of it as a favor between friends," said Zhane.

Skull trotted obediently along behind the Silver Ranger, feeling a dizzy sense of disbelief:
the Power Rangers were treating him as an equal.

If he had not had that to distract him, perhaps he would have noticed that something else
was also moving in the bushes. Andros sensed it, though, and felt a chill run down his spine as he
was suddenly flooded by a sense of deja vu. He glanced over his shoulder as he caught an orange
glimmer out of the corner of his eye.

"Did you see that?" he asked his comrades.

"See what?" asked Zhane, looking around. "I didn't see anything."

"Must have been my imagination," said Andros with an uneasy shrug. "All this
excitement's got me jumping at shadows. I've never been entirely comfortable in this park,
anyway."

"You'll feel better when you're back on your own territory," Zhane assured him. "Come
on! I want to introduce Kinwan to our guest."

"All right, all right," Andros replied. He continued walking, but not without a few
suspicious looks behind him. Despite his words to Zhane, he knew he was right. He had seen
something. Someone had been spying on them.

**************************************************

A ring of fire hovered in the tent of the general. Dark Specter preferred to make his
addresses in person, when he could, or at least as an illusionary projection that would give the
impression of his actually being there. However, even the fairly sizeable tents that were provided
for the dark lord's generals were hardly big enough for one of his feet. It was much more
convenient for Dark Specter to communicate by means of a communication spell.

"Your progress has slowed," he accused, narrowing his fiery eyes at the creature who
watched him. "You have only two Rangers left in your path. You should be picking up the pace,
not slowing down!"

Ecliptor regarded his ruler with a steady gaze. All of the Dark Specter's employees were
expendable, to an extent, but he wasn't likely to harm Ecliptor any time soon. He was a valuable
helper: honest, loyal, intelligent, skilled in the arts of battle and strategy, and, most importantly,
utterly unambitious. He was content to be a general and nothing more, and that meant he was
unlikely to turn on his master. Someone with his particular qualities was harder to replace than
one of the many boastful and scheming nobles who grudgingly served the Specter for fear of his
power. That, plus his relationship with the young Princess of Evil made Ecliptor a valuable
monster, and Dark Specter wouldn't harm him for anything more than an out-and-out revolt.

"The reason there are two Rangers left," Ecliptor replied, "is because the two who didn't
want to fight in the first place have given up. The two that are left have been the real problem
from the beginning. Considering that, we haven't done badly."

"You haven't done well, either," Dark Specter insisted. "It shouldn't take an army the size
of what you have this long to take out a single colony! What have you been doing?"

"Trying to take over the planet and still have something left for you to rule over once
we're done," answered Ecliptor tersely.

"That doesn't matter. I don't care if you turn the whole planet to dust, just get rid of those
Rangers!"

"As you wish, Dark Specter," Ecliptor replied.

"He won't be able to do it," interjected a new voice. It laughed hoarsely. Ecliptor didn't
even turn around.

"What do you know, Darkonda?" he muttered.

"More than you," the bounty hunter replied, grinning his toothy smile.

"I seriously doubt that," Ecliptor replied. "Must you intrude? I'm conducting some
important business here."

"You mean you're trying to save your hide," answered Darkonda. "Why don't you admit
it?"

"Would you two save your bickering?" Dark Specter interjected. "You can fight each
other after you're done fighting Rangers! I order both of you on the job, now! If I don't
see some progress soon, I'll have the both of you marooned together."

The two monsters looked at each other and shuddered.

"There will be no problems," Ecliptor assured his master.

"You had better hope so," the Dark Specter growled. His image vanished in a swirl of
smoke.

"Well, that went well, didn't it?" Darkonda chuckled.

"That's right, laugh," muttered Ecliptor. "What did you come in here for, anyway? Just to
make me look bad in front of Dark Specter?"

"I just like to see you suffer," answered Darkonda. "Things aren't going well for you, you
know, and they're going to get worse soon."

"If that was a threat..." said Ecliptor threateningly.

"Nothing of the sort," Darkonda replied. "Consider it a warning. There's a new boy in
town, and the Rangers are getting friendly with him. He's one of Zordon's men."

"Just what I wanted to hear," Ecliptor sighed. "Where did you find this out?"

"Playing in the park," the bounty hunter answered airily. "I was playing in the park, and I
saw a little bird."

"It must have hit you on the head. What kind of nonsense is that?"

"Not nonsense. The Dark Falcon is on KO-35," said Darkonda.

"Dark Falcon? Last I heard, he was busy bothering Lord Zedd. What's he doing here?"

"Bothering you, most likely," Darkonda answered. "I just wanted to deliver that bit of
news to brighten your day. Have fun."

He turned to walk out, but Ecliptor clamped a stone hand on his shoulder and held him in
place. Darkonda turned to glare at his rival.

"What do you think you're doing?" he demanded.

"I could say the same to you," Ecliptor replied. "In case you've forgotten, I am the
authority here, and you are my soldier. You do not leave if you are not dismissed, and I haven't
dismissed you yet."

There was just enough iron in the tone that Darkonda, realizing he wasn't going to get
away without a fight, decided listening wouldn't be a bad idea.

"What do you want?" he asked.

"I want you to obey orders," Ecliptor replied. "In case you didn't notice, Dark Specter
ordered us both on the job. Since you were so helpful in delivering your little message, I thought
you would like the honor of eliminating the problem. Get down there and get rid of the Dark
Falcon."

"Are you crazy? He's dangerous! He's been the downfall of creatures with twice my
power and more. You can't be serious."

"Consider yourself on assignment," Ecliptor replied. "If you aren't afraid of Power
Rangers, you shouldn't be afraid of Dark Falcons."

"And what are you going to do?" asked Darkonda. "Dark Specter ordered you on
the job, too, you know."

"I am. I'm going back to planning how to destroy the Power Rangers," he replied blandly.
"That's what generals do. Soldiers like you fight battles. Don't worry; I'll bail you out if you get
in trouble."

"Stick a knife in my back, more likely," Darkonda grumbled.

"That's your department," answered Ecliptor. "No more arguments. Get going."

"Oh, all right," Darkonda replied, "but I'll get you for this later!"

"Not until you get the Dark Falcon," Ecliptor replied. He pointedly turned his attention
back to his charts, leaving his rival to wander off muttering. The general would have smiled if he
could - there went one less problem to worry about.

*****************************************************

"And that's how I ended up here," Skull finished, polishing off the last of his sandwich. He
and the Ranger boys were sitting around a table, having a snack while Skull told them his story.
No details had been spared - everything that had happened to him from his first meeting with
Cedar and missing his flight to Terra Venture had been revealed. Now he sat back and watched
his new-old friends to see what they would think of it.

"Well, I can see why you're upset," said Zhane, "but what do you want us to do about it?
Not that I wouldn't be glad to go kick some sense into that Firebird of yours, but we can't leave
KO-35."

"But I don't want you to. That's just it," said Skull. "I want to do this by myself."

"Then why-" Zhane began, but Andros cut him off.

"So what you're really asking for," he said, "is hero lessons."

"That's it!" said Skull. "Can you help?"

"We can try," Andros replied. "What do you want help with?"

"I dunno. Anything. If I knew how to be a hero, I wouldn't be asking you."

"Well... how are you at fighting?" Zhane asked.

"So-so," said Skull. "Actually, I don't know anything, but the Dark Faclon does, so I just
follow him... Did that make any sense?"

"Kinda. Our Ranger powers work sort of the same way," Zhane replied, "but if you'd like
me to give you a couple of pointers..."

"Don't do it," said Andros.

"Well, I could use the help."

"You'll be sorry," said Andros.

"Great!" cheered Zhane. "Right this way."

"I'll patch him up when you're done," said Andros.

That didn't sound very encouraging, but Skull got up and followed Zhane down some
hallways and through some doors until they found themselves standing in a large room with
padded floors, clearly some sort of gym. Zhane walked confidently into the center of the room
and beckoned for his new student to follow him. Skull did so with reluctance, suddenly becoming
wary of the glint in his friend's eyes.

"Let's see what you can do," Zhane said.

With no more warning than that, he moved in a silver blur, and Skull reflexively jumped
out of the way. Zhane aimed a punch at him, and something in the back of Skull's brain flickered
awake in time to tell him that if he moved like this, the blow would be blocked, and since
he didn't really want to be hit, he moved. Memories moved through his mind, images burned into
his senses when he'd fought for his life in smoky streets, and with them came the sudden
realization that his opponent was open right there, and again he moved, and the next thing
he knew, Zhane was lying on the floor.

"How'd you get down there?" Skull asked.

"I thought you said you didn't know how to fight," said Zhane.

Skull shrugged. "It looks like I picked up a few things while I didn't know I was learning
them."

"Well, there are still a few things you have left to learn," Zhane replied. "Hey, give me a
hand, would you?"

"Sure... Like what?" Skull replied, reaching down to help Zhane up.

Zhane gave Skull's arm a pull, and he flipped upside down and fell onto the matt next to
Zhane.

"That," said Zhane.

"Oh," Skull replied. He closed his eyes and sighed, thinking that this was going to be a
long afternoon.

********************************************

Some hours later, Zhane left a slightly bruised and battered Skull to recover himself and
went looking for Andros. He found his teammate in a control room, going over some maps of the
city and marking out defense strategies.

"How's it going?" Zhane asked.

"Not bad. How's your student?"

"He's not."

"He's not?" Andros repeated. "Not what?"

"Not my student," said Zhane. "I mean, sure he's not this invincible fighter or anything,
but he's still not that bad even without those powers he's moping about. I can't teach him
anything. He's your student. Teach him."

"What do you want me to teach him?" asked Andros. "What do I know, anyway?"

"How to be a hero," Zhane replied. "Go talk to him. He's in the training room... and I've
gotta jam before Kinwan comes looking for me. I told him I'd work on getting the computers in
the secondary control room working again, and I was supposed to do it yesterday."

"What were you doing yesterday?"

"Wouldn't you like to know?" Zhane replied, grinning. "Bye, Andros. Have fun talking to
Eugene."

"Bye, Zhane," Andros replied.

He watched with a bemused look as his friend ambled away, then shrugged and went
looking for Skull. He found the young man sitting in a dejected heap on the floor, playing absently
with his medal of valor. Skull didn't even look up when Andros came in.

"Things not going well?" Andros asked.

"Not exactly," answered Skull. He flicked the medal and made it swing on its ribbon,
spinning around like a tiny gold sun. "You know, I should be really proud of this thing. You'd
think I would be, wouldn't you? Well, I hate it!"

With a sudden movement, he flung it across the room. Andros jumped to try to catch it,
but it hit the wall with a clang and bounced off. The Red Ranger scooped it up and glared at
Skull.

"What did you do that for?" he asked.

"Because it's all a lie, that's why," said Skull. "I didn't earn it. I don't deserve it."

"I don't believe that," Andros replied.

"But you heard what happened. They gave me this medal for destroying Zedd, and I
didn't! I let all those people think they were safe. I let them down."

"So what do you think you are? Psychic?" Andros retorted. "You told me yourself you
were sure Zedd was gone. You didn't lie to anyone."

"But... but I..."

"Listen," said Andros. "What is this thing, anyway? It's a medal of valor. It means you did
something no one else was brave enough to do, and you came out alive. That's why you have a
medal now. Do you know how rare this thing is? Zordon doesn't just give out medals for little
things. I don't know anyone else alive who has one of these."

Skull didn't look convinced. "Maybe Zordon misjudged me."

"Zordon doesn't misjudge people. If he says you deserve a medal, you do."

"Even after all the messes I've made? I keep making mistakes!"

"And you think the rest of us don't?" Andros asked. He shook his head. "Okay, let's try
something else. What do you think a hero is supposed to be like?"

"Um..." Skull hesitated, trying to find words for his image. "I just always thought they
wouldn't mess up like I do. They'd know how to do things right."

"They wouldn't lose fights, either, would they?" added Andros. "And never get scared.
And never wish they could give it all up and go home. Right?"

"Yeah, that's it," said Skull glumly.

"A real hero would be just perfect," said Andros. "Well, let me tell you something. They
don't exist."

"Huh?"

"That hero you're telling me about doesn't exist," Andros repeated. "There's no such
person. And if that's who you want to be, you're setting yourself up for disappointment. You're
never going to manage all that. No one can."

"Then how am I going to get anything done?" Skull demanded. "I can't win like this!"

"You're not listening. I told you, none of us is that kind of hero. All of us make
mistakes and get scared and wish we could just hide somewhere until it's all over. Don't you think
I wish that all the time? Look, have you noticed that there are only two Rangers here? Doesn't
that seem strange?"

"Well, now that you mention it..."

"You know where they are? They quit. They gave up and walked away, because they
couldn't take it anymore. They couldn't stand getting hurt, and seeing other people get hurt. Now
it's just Zhane and me, just trying to hold on. And you know what? We're losing." Andros
spat the word out the way Skull had thrown the medal. "Sooner or later, we are going to lose this
fight. All we can do is stall for time and try to get as many people away to safety as possible."

"But - but - but..." Skull tried to stammer out an objection, but then decided not to even
bother. He kept forgetting that this was what he'd consider the past, and that he knew what the
future of this Ranger would be. He'd heard the story a million times on TV - how Andros had left
KO-35 after it was overrun by monsters, only to eventually meet the rest of the Space Rangers
and become the force that would finally overthrow the Dark Specter so they could take the planet
back.

*So it's going to work out for the best,* Skull realized, *at least for him,
anyway. I wonder if I should tell him?*

"Doesn't sound very heroic, does it?" Andros asked.

"Maybe not," he admitted reluctantly. "But... I don't know. You've got me all confused
again."

"Well, maybe you need to think about it."

"I'm starting to hate that word think," Skull muttered.

"Try it anyway. Sometimes it works." Andros walked over to Skull and put the medallion
back in his hand, then walked away. Skull looked at the medal, noticing that the soft gold had
been dented against the wall, one side slightly flattened.

*I need to learn to stop throwing things,* he thought. *That's what got me
into this mess. Then again, if I hadn't, Hemlock would have died. That wouldn't be so good,
either. This is all confusing.*

He decided he couldn't even think about it, and turned his mind to other thoughts,
especially that business Andros had given him about how the heroes he imagined didn't exist. But
that was silly, wasn't it? He'd seen them on TV all the time when he was in high school, tough,
competent beings in sleek armor with high powered weapons... Well, all right, he'd had some
pretty cool armor and weapons, too, when he was the Dark Falcon. He'd never seen the Power
Rangers lose, except for that one awful battle at the end when everything had gone wrong.

*I remember that. We were all fighting in the streets. I fought. Bulk and I were the first
ones to stand up and say that we were Power Rangers. I did that with no powers at all. And then
there was the time we met that Tridor critter and fought with the robots. He said we were going
to be legends on his planet. Okay, maybe I can do something on my own.*

And what about the Power Rangers? Hadn't he gone to school with most of them? They
weren't his image of perfect heroes; they were just ordinary kids. Maybe they were a little more
athletic or talented than some, but still, he'd seen Cassie get in trouble for forgetting her
schoolwork, seen Carlos get stuck in depressions it took extension ladders to get out of, and even
TJ struck out sometimes. Hadn't Kimberly told him she got frightened when she was still a
Ranger? If she was a Ranger, did that mean the friends she'd hung out with were, too? Even that
dorky kid he and Bulk used to drop in trash cans? If that was true, then...

His thoughts were interrupted by the wailing of a distant alarm. Skull forgot all his worries
and headed for the door, following the noise. Along the way, he ran into Andros and Zhane, who
seemed to have the same idea he did. They looked at him with faint puzzlement, but he just
shrugged and said nothing. They reached their destination together, a metal room bounded by
rings of computers, presided over by an elderly man with a white beard and stern eyes.

"What's up?" asked Andros.

Instead of replying, the man gestured to one of the screens, and it obediently lit itself up,
showing a dark figure marching through the streets of an already battle-scarred portion of the city.
At intervals, its eyes would flash, and whatever was resting under that burning gaze would
suddenly go up in a flare of fire and smoke. Skull stared at it, realizing it was familiar.

"Ecliptor," he said.

"You know him?" asked Zhane quizzically.

"I will, in a couple of years," Skull replied. "The time travel thing again."

"That part of the city is already ruined," said Andros, frowning. "He's up to something."

"I bet I know what it is," said Skull. "I bet he's looking for me. Remember what I said
about Terra Venture? When I went there, monsters started coming out of the woodwork hunting
for me."

"And what do you want to do about it?" asked Zhane.

"I think," Skull replied, "I want to let him find me. Are you guys going to fight him?"

"We don't get much choice. We can't just leave him there," said Andros.

"Then take me along," said Skull.

Zhane quirked an eyebrow. "Aren't you afraid of getting blown up without your powers?"

"I've managed before."

"In that case, maybe we can help you out," said Zhane. "Hey, Kinwan, c'mere."

He beckoned the old man over to him and whispered something. Kinwan nodded and
walked away, returning moments later carrying a box, which he handed to Zhane.

"What color do you like?" asked Zhane. "Blue or Black?"

"Black," answered Skull.

Zhane opened the box and tossed something out of it, making Skull jump to catch it. It
turned out to be a small metal box on a strap, with a lid that flipped open and an enticing array of
buttons inside. Skull stared at it, wondering why it looked familiar.

"What do I do with this?" he asked.

"You put it on," said Zhane, "and you say, 'Let's Rocket!' and push 3-5-5-ENTER."

"Wait a minute - you mean this thing...?"

"Is a morpher, yes." Zhane finished.

"For turning into a Power Ranger?"

"If that's what you want to do," said Andros. "We won't make you, but you really will be
more help this way."

"I'll do it!" Skull eagerly strapped the morpher onto his wrist, grinning like a kid at
Christmas, and the two more experienced Rangers smiled at each other.

"Okay, then," said Andros. "Ready? Let's Rocket!"

Something shifted in the air, and Skull followed it, hardly having to think about the next
movements he made, typing in the code he'd been given. What he thought about was the sudden
flash of light, the rush of energy, and remembering all over again what it felt like to be a hero.

****************************************************

Not for the first time, Skull was wishing he could fly. Lately, though, he'd been able to
actually make that wish come true, and now he was getting annoyed that even as a Power Ranger,
he was having to get around on his own two feet. Furthermore, he was annoyed at being annoyed;
he should be grateful that his friends had entrusted him with this kind of power, but instead he
was thinking longingly about his oddly hued costume and his purple wings and Cedar on his
shoulder giving him advice. Andros was a good leader, but Cedar was his friend. She was prettier,
too.

"So, here's here's the plan," Andros was saying. "Ecliptor doesn't know that we've given
Eugene the Black Ranger powers. If we go out first and fight Ecliptor, he'll think we're alone and
trying to protect Eugene."

"Don't you trust me to fight along with you?" asked Skull, disappointed.

"Sure we trust you! That's the whole idea!" said Zhane. "We're just the diversion, get it?
We keep Clippy busy, and you jump out when he least expects it and zap him good. He'll never
know what hit him!"

"Ah! I gotcha!" said Skull, grinning behind his helmet. "I can do that!"

"Great! Just head on up to the rooftops and keep an eye on us until we signal. Got it?"
asked Zhane.

Skull nodded. "Sure. Just one thing - how do I get up on the roof?"

"Just jump," Andros informed him.

"I can do that?"

"Sure, just try it," said Zhane. "We do it all the time. It's fun."

"Okay, if you're sure."

Skull stared up at the top of a building for a moment, then gathered himself up and sprang.
Sure enough, he rose effortlessly to the top and landed on the edge of the roof. He teetered there
for a moment, found his balance, and scampered to firmer ground. Then he turned around to look
down at his friends.

"That was pretty cool!" he said. "I never did get the hang of taking off from a standstill
before. See ya at the battleground!"

He vanished again. The other two Rangers looked at each other, and Zhane shrugged.

"That wasn't exactly how we planned this," said Andros.

"It's close enough," Zhane replied, "and it was what he needed to hear. Do you think he'll
let us down?"

Andros thought it over for a while. "No, I don't think so. I think he has more going for
him than he knows. Come on, let's go find Ecliptor."

At that moment, the Rangers' quarry was simply standing in the middle of the street,
waiting. He knew he had made enough noise to attract his enemies' attention. Now he just had to
bide his time and wait for them to come. They would not bring their friend with them, of course,
not when he was without his powers, as Darkonda claimed he was. The two Rangers would come
alone, and he would fight them just as he always did. Maybe he would be beaten - that had
happened before, and would probably happen again. If he couldn't get the upper hand in this
battle, Darkonda was waiting in the wings to step in and take the Rangers by surprise, and no true
hero would leave his friends in a fight they couldn't win. The Dark Falcon would come, and if he
didn't, two Rangers destroyed was two fewer problems he needed to worry about. It was a well
thought out plan. Now, if Darkonda didn't mess this up...

"There you are, Ecliptor," said Andros's voice. The monster turned around to face him
with his usual calm red-eyed stare.

"We meet again, Ranger," he said.

"What are you doing here?" the Red Ranger asked. He and Ecliptor exchanged glares;
years of practice had taught them to be very good at conveying emotions without facial
expressions.

"I'm under the impression that you've hidden something," Ecliptor replied. "I'm here to
find it."

"Yeah, well, you might not like what you wind up finding," said Zhane. "Us, for example.
I'm ready for a fight. How about you?"

"Nothing would please me more."

Ecliptor sprang, and the Rangers leaped away in separate directions, reaching for their
lasers to fire a few parting shots. They landed, tumbled, and sprang to their feet, ready to attack
with blades and fists.

High above, Skull watched the battle, feeling more than a little nervous. After all, the
Rangers had given him a job to do, and he was only half sure he knew how to do it. Saying, "Just
drop in and fight," was fine, but the practical applications were a little more difficult. He glanced
up at the sky for a moment, trying to gather his resources, and as he glanced back down again, he
noticed something moving. He looked closer. Yes, there was definitely a shape moving around on
a rooftop, across the street and up the block a little from where he was. It was slinking along in
something like the way he would have moved in the old days, when he was trying to keep Ms.
Appleby from noticing him and asking him about the homework he hadn't done.

*Definitely not good,** Skull decided. *Well, I never got a break, and neither
will he.*

Feeling very grateful that he had opted for the darker, less noticeable costume, he leaped
across the narrow gap of the street and onto the roof of the building across from him. Quickly, he
darted into the nearest shadow and crouched there, watching. The shape, whatever it was, didn't
seem to have noticed him. It was crouched over the edge of the building, intent on the battle that
was going on in the streets. Skull spared his friends a glance; at the moment, the fight seemed to
be evenly joined. It didn't look like they'd be needing him. However, sneaking closer only
confirmed Skull's belief that the watching stranger was looking for trouble - nothing that ugly
could be friendly! As a matter of fact, he was getting the sneaky feeling that he had seen a brute
like this on television once or twice.

*Well, if I've seen him in the future, I can't destroy him,* Skull thought, *but I
sure can give him a run for his money. Let's see how he likes this!*

Second later, Darkonda was startled by a series of laser bolts raining down around him,
and he nearly fell off the roof in surprise. Looking up, he was met by a menacing figure in black
armor, casually holding a smoking pistol.

"Where did you come from?" Darkonda managed to splutter. "You were supposed to be
washed out a long time ago?"

"Don't I know it," Skull said. "Funny how that works out, isn't it?"

Darkonda's eyes narrowed. "Wait a minute. You're not him, are you? I know that voice -
you're the Dark Falcon. I see your pathetic friends managed to scrape up some powers for you,
huh? Well, having them and knowing how to use them are two different things."

"Maybe so, but I happen to know I'm going to outlive you."

"Cocky, aren't you? Well, why don't you put your morpher where your mouth is? Come
and get me if you're so tough!"

Seeing no other real choice at the moment, Skull shrugged and fired a few more rounds
from his pistol. While the monster was still dealing with this, Skull dove through the smoke to
attack. Darkonda saw the move at the last possible movement and struck out half-blindly, but it
was enough to throw his opponent off balance. Skull staggered back, and the monster moved in
to press his advantage, leaving the inexperienced Ranger no point but to take the blows and
defend himself as best he could.

Suddenly, there was a burst of light that shot up into the sky. Three more followed it, and
Skull realized that this was the signal his friends had mentioned, and that they were in trouble. He
had to get down there and distract Ecliptor somehow, but at the moment, he was a little tied up.

"Worried about something, Falcon?" Darkonda sneered.

"Like you wouldn't believe," Skull replied, "but maybe you can help me out."

"And why would I want to help you?" asked the monster.

"I never said you wanted to."

"Huh?"

The next thing Darkonda knew, his opponent had jumped at him in a flying tackle,
knocking him off his feet. There was a brief scuffle, ending with Skull actually picking up the
monster and throwing him. Darkonda bellowed as he plummeted several stories, narrowly missing
Ecliptor. Skull looked down with satisfaction at his enemy, who was now plastered to the
pavement in a way that reminded him of a squashed bug. Ecliptor glared at his partner in crime.

"You blundering idiot! What do you think you're doing?" he growled.

Darkonda muttered something incoherent, spitting out a mouthful of gravel and a tooth.

"Got a problem, Ecliptor?" asked Zhane, laughing.

"Looks like your friend there bit the dust," Andros commented.

"Hey, good one, Andros!" his friend replied. "I've gotta remember that."

Ecliptor kicked Darkonda. "Get up! You're making a fool out of me!"

"Not my fault," Darkonda managed to mutter. "It was that Falcon, or Ranger, or whatever
he is! He got in a sneak attack on me!"

"You call that an excuse?" Ecliptor growled. "Some warrior you are, letting yourself get
fooled by a-"

The rest of the tirade was cut off as laser bolts fell from the sky, narrowly missing him.
Skull grinned behind his mask; he had gotten pretty good at aerial attacks.

"You were saying?" Zhane teased.

Ecliptor stared at the Ranger with murder in his eyes, but he knew when he'd been beaten.

"Laugh all you want," he said. "Next time, you won't be so lucky - and you won't have
your annoying friend with you, either. Until then..." The monsters vanished in shimmers of green
and copper.

Skull bounded down from the top of the building to join his friends, and they greeted him
enthusiastically.

"You were great!" said Andros. "I told you you had it in you."

"It was nothing," Skull replied bashfully. "I just saw him hanging around and figured he
was up to no good."

"Well, you were a big help," the Red Ranger replied. "I'm glad we had you on our side.
Was Ecliptor right, that you're not going to stay and help us?"

Skull sighed. "Yeah. I wouldn't mind helping you guys, but... this isn't where I belong.
Oryllia needs me, and I promised Cedar I'd come back. I'm meant to be the Dark Falcon, not a
Power Ranger."

He made a movement, and his armor vanished with a feeling of setting something free.
Skull handed the morpher back to Zhane.

"I guess we knew that," said Zhane. "But we are going to see you again, right?"

Skull grinned. "Right. We'll meet again, sometime soon. I promise - you may not see me,
but on the day when Dark Specter is destroyed, I'll be right there fighting with you. Oh, and
Andros, about your sister... I've met her. She's a nice girl."

"You've met her? ... No, I'm not going to ask," said Andros. "The future has to happen in
it's own time, but thanks for giving me hope. I'm glad to know she'll be all right... her and my
world."

"Welcome. That's better than anyone did for me." Skull sighed. "I don't think I'm going
to get over Tien being destroyed."

"Tien was destroyed?" asked Zhane.

"I dunno. Wasn't it?"

"Not as far as I know," Zhane replied. "At least, I don't think it was. It's hard to be sure."

"What he's trying to say," said Andros, "is that nobody knows for sure what happened to
Tien."

"But - but I was told..." Skull stammered.

"Some people think it was destroyed. Some of them don't," said Andros. "The truth is, it
just disappeared one day, and nobody's heard from them since. It's uncertain what's
happened to them, really."

Uncertain. Something about that word was like a weight lifting off of Skull's
shoulders. *It's uncertain. Maybe I can change what happened. Maybe nobody knows
because the real battle's not over yet. I still have a chance.*

"Thanks," he said. "You can't know how much that means to me."

"Fair trade," Andros replied. "Now, get going! Your world is waiting for you, remember?
Don't worry - the Power will go with you."

"Right." Skull took the Crystal of All times in his hands, closed his eyes, and concentrated.
When he was sure of what he wanted to say, he spoke the words aloud: "Take me back to the
time and place I came from!"

And then everything was lost again in swirling lights.

************************************************************

When he came around, he found himself in darkness. It took a moment for his eyes to
readjust, showing him only the faint light of a candle that had not burned down even an inch from
the time he had left. Cedar was still sleeping peacefully; she hadn't even moved. Nothing had
changed... nothing but Skull himself. He tiptoed over to where his partner rested and carefully
slipped the Crystal back where it belonged. Then, after a moment, he shook her shoulders, and
she came awake, blinking sleepy amber eyes.

"Eugene?" she murmured. "What's happening?"

"We're going out. We're going to find that Firebird and that fake Falcon so I can give
them a piece of my mind."

"Now? Why not in morning?"

"I'll chicken out if I wait 'till morning. We've gotta do this now, before I can change my
mind."

Cedar nodded and began crawling out of bed with no further complaints. They made their
way out into the hallways, picking their way quietly through the shadows.

"Once we get outside, can you make sure they can find us?" Skull whispered.

"Easy," Cedar replied. She tapped the Crystal with one finger. "This is for fire magic. Can
make sure anyone notices us."

"Good."

The streets were cold and silent, and though they tried to be silent, they could hear their
footsteps crunching on the gravel of the streets. Skull tried to keep from shivering and told
himself it was only the cold that was doing it. Once they had gotten far enough from the King's
lair that they deemed it safe, they paused in the middle of a wide street. Cedar bowed her head
and touched the Crystal of All Times, murmuring softly, and Skull watched as a bloom of light
rose up over the city. All around them, other lights came on, those of people realizing that
something was happening and waking up to see what it was. And in the heart of the city, within
the dark castle, someone else also noticed.

"I sense a disturbance," said the Firebird, ruffling his feathers nervously. "If
you ask me, something's about to go wrong."

"Nothing is going to go wrong," said Charla tartly. "You've been fidgety all night. What's
the matter with you?"

The Firebird drew himself up. "Just because I happen to have senses developed
beyond those of mere mortals-"

"The featherduster is right," said Thorald, looking out the window. "Get a look at this,
why don't you?"

The other conspirators gathered around the window and looked out. Hanging in the sky
were a row of symbols written in golden fire, glittering gently.

"What in blazes?" Charla muttered.

"It's a challenge," the Firebird replied. "And since it's written in Tienese, I
can only say that our friend Eugene isn't taking the loss of his powers as quietly as I'd hoped.
What a pity."

"Little upstart. What does he think he's going to do to me?"" asked Thorald, fingering the
Firebird medallion. "Without this, he's nothing."

"Should we accept the challenge, then?" asked Charla.

"Do as you please," said the Firebird. "I'm not having any part of it."

"Well, I for one want to see what this thing can really do," Thorald replied. "Not that he'll
be much of a challenge, but it'll be a start."

With a word of command, he transformed into the Dark Falcon and jumped out the
window. Charla and the Firebird watched him go.

"This shouldn't take long," said Charla. "Thorald will reduce them both to dust in no
time."

The Firebird stared at the sky seriously. "Knowing what he's up against, I'm not so
sure."

Meanwhile, Skull was fidgeting.

"Do you think he's coming?" he asked.

"He'll come," Cedar replied. "Don't worry too much."

"I can't help it. I want this to be over."

"Oh, it will be," said a voice from the darkness of an alley. "Very soon."

Into the light stepped... Skull didn't even want to put a name to him. There was the
familiar black armor with its red feather patterns, the violet gloves and boots, the purple wings
and mask, but the face was all wrong. It struck him as a perversion, and for a moment he thought
he might be sick. He gritted his teeth and fought back the reaction, and it passed. That small
victory was enough to make him feel he could face this adversary, and he heard himself start to
speak.

"You have a lot of nerve showing up here like that," he said.

"You have a lot of nerve calling me here," Thorald replied.

"No," said Skull, shaking his head, "I don't have a lot of nerve. I just know when
something's wrong, and you're wrong. You're not the Dark Falcon, and you never will be. Those
powers are mine. Now, give them back."

Thorald grinned wickedly. "Why don't you try taking them from me?"

He moved quickly for his laser and shot a few pulses of red energy, but Skull remembered
his training and dodged. He turned to face his attacker with a calm that the impostor found
unnerving.

*I can do this,* thought Skull, grabbing at the thoughts that rose up in the back of
his mind. *Andros said the Power would go with me, and it will. It's been with me all along,
even before I became the Falcon. It was there all along, and I don't need an amulet to use it.*

"You're wasting your time," said Thorald. "You can't fight the Dark Falcon."

"That's right," said Skull, "but you're not him."

Thorald laughed. "You think so? You're crazy."

"No. You're the one who's crazy," said Skull. "The Dark Falcon is the champion of Tien.
He fights for what's right, not to help some selfish king keep his hold on a planet that isn't really
his. Let me tell you something. I never wanted this job. I agreed to be the Dark Falcon because I
didn't want to see anyone else get hurt. I've been attacked, and I've been insulted. I've nearly lost
the best friends I have in the universe. I've fought when I was hurt and scared stiff. I've bled and
I've cried and I've done the things nobody in their right mind would do, just so I'd be worthy to
call myself by that name. Now let me tell you something else - it doesn't matter what you or the
Firebird or anyone else does. I am Eugene Truebird, Son of the Skull, and I am the Dark
Falcon!"

Without even thinking what he was doing, he flung up his hand, and the falconer called to
the falcon, and it came. While Thorald watched in amazement, his armor dissolved into red-purple
flames and rose up into the sky. For an instant, it flashed through the air, a bird of fire more
brilliant than the Firebird ever was. Then it dropped to Skull's outstretched hand and wrapped
him in flames, and when they were gone, there was a steely-eyed winged warrior standing there
who suddenly looked very, very dangerous.

"These powers are mine," he said softly, "and no one is ever going to take them away
from me again. Understand?"

Thorald apparently understood nothing of the sort. With a furious snarl, he pulled a knife
from a sheath at his belt and rushed at the Dark Falcon. Skull's hand moved to grab his attacker's
wrist and twist it painfully, and the knife slipped from Thorald's nerveless hand. With his free
hand, Skull drew his sword and put the tip to Thorald's throat.

"You surrender?" he asked.

Thorald nodded vigorously, eyes wide with fear.

Skull glanced at Cedar. "I think he thinks I'm going to kill him. I can't really do that,
though, I don't think. What are we going to do with him?"

"I'll take care of it. Just hold him still," Cedar replied.

She walked closer, her fingers brushing gently against the Crystal of All Times. Skull
heard her muttering gentle words of command in Tienese. "Ara chii, kikara chii. Aria chii, cria
veer!" If one is a man, he must walk like a man. If you are a man, be unchanged!

Thorald shrieked as orange lights swarmed around him like fireflies, lighting on his skin
and clothing one by one. The lights became thicker until he was invisible, and then the mass
slowly shrank, smaller than they should have been able to become without revealing their captive
again. When they were finally gone, all that was left was a ragged bird with a bald head.

"Is that him?" asked Skull, eying the buzzard dubiously.

"It is," Cedar replied. "That was a spell for casting things into their true form. He was not
a very good man."

"Sure looks that way," Skull replied. He waved his sword at the buzzard. "Go on! Get
outta here! Scat already!"

The buzzard flapped its wings clumsily and fluttered off into the night. Skull watched him
go, grinning to himself.

"I'm glad that's over," he said. "But it's not going to happen again. I think the Firebird's
going to have a tough time getting my powers away from me again. I didn't realize 'till just now
how important they are. I feel like... I feel like they're part of me now."

"Because you finally accepted them," Cedar replied. Impulsively, she flung her arms
around him and hugged him tightly, and he hugged her back. "You were wonderful, Eugene."

"Thanks, Cedar. I feel pretty wonderful right about now."

"What happens next?" she asked.

Skull's eyes turned toward the horizon, where Zedd's dark castle showed against the
violet sky like a tear.

"Next," he said, "we find that Firebird, and we teach him a lesson."