wildforce71: Clare from PRMF (Clare)
[personal profile] wildforce71
Somewhere, all wishes come true.

In a world a breath away from the one we know, the darkness overwhelms Udonna before she can bring the Mystic force together. Fleeing from the Master’s Herald, Koragg, Clare meets a familiar stranger. Old Rangers rise to meet new enemies. Four teens cling together as their world falls apart. And throughout the magical community, sides are chosen for the final battle…

“You don’t need a morpher to be a hero. Heroes become Rangers.

Not the other way around.”








035 Shattered

When Xander woke, it felt like he hadn’t slept. Every part of him ached, and despite the fire close by he was shivering.

“It’s the shock, still,” Clare said from somewhere close by. He couldn’t bring himself to open his eyes and see where she was.

“Still?” he asked, clenching his teeth to keep them from chattering.

“Yeah. It should get better in a little while, now that you’re awake. Can you sit up? I have soup.”

“Yay, soup,” he muttered, getting his elbows under himself with some difficulty. “Haven’t you run out yet?”

“Soup’s easy. The wall’s behind you.”

Xander eased back, wincing at the pain in his side. “How’s Maddie?”

Clare glanced over her shoulder. “She hasn’t woken up yet.”

Xander blinked. “Nick said she was awake last night.”

“Um…” Clare blinked. “Oh! Right. She was, for a while, but she went back to sleep and we can’t get her to wake up. We’re just keeping…What are you doing? Come back here!”

Xander ignored her, though he was careful to prop the bowl of soup so it wouldn’t spill as he moved. Maddie was flushed, though that might have been the fire, and there was a slight catch in her breathing.

He didn’t look up when Nick crouched beside him. “You lied.”

“Yeah,” Nick agreed easily. “We don’t need you sick as well, man.”

“She never woke up.”

“No.”

Xander brushed a lock of hair off Maddie’s forehead. “She’s warm.”

“Yeah. The girls think she’s sick.”

“And you didn’t tell me.”

“No, cause you would have sat up all night with her and then you’d be sick too. Look at you, man, even after…” He squinted up at the window, frowning. “Six hours sleep, you can’t sit upright.”

“That’s not the point, I need to know about…”

“It is the point,” Nick interrupted. “You’re a great leader, Xander, but you have to lean on us. You’re not on your own in this.” Xander didn’t answer, and Nick added, “Let us carry some of it. You’re angry at yourself for not getting Maddie in earlier, but you couldn’t have, Xander. She’d have been caught and so would we.”

“She’s sick…”

“She’s free. We can handle the rest of it.” Nick glanced down at Maddie, sighing. “Let the girls do what they’re doing. Come and eat something, you’re upsetting Clare.”

“Well, there’s enough of us upset.” Xander held out a hand; Nick rose, helping him up and supporting him back to the pallet. Clare was still there, patiently holding the bowl of soup.

“Thanks, Clare,” Xander murmured, leaning his head back against the wall. He was absolutely shattered, barely able to keep his thoughts straight.

“Xander, eat before you sleep,” Clare coaxed him. “You’ll sleep much better, I promise.”

“Why, did you lace it?” he managed, taking the bowl.

“N…no!” Clare didn’t look at him, though, and he could sense Nick looming in case he needed to intervene again.

“Shame,” he muttered, scooping up some of the soup. “Apparently I need sleep.”

Clare smiled, a little uncertainly, and left him to finish the soup. Xander managed about four more spoons before he couldn’t hold it up anymore.

“Good thing none of us hold grudges,” he said idly.

“Why?” Nick asked, taking the bowl away before he could upset it.

“None of us would be talking to any of us.”

“Get some sleep, and then try that again. It’s not making much sense.”

“Doesn’t make sense in here,” Xander agreed, slumping down a little further. “Ni—morning.”

Nick laughed softly. “Morning.”






003 Somewhere in between

“Don’t you ever sleep?”

Ryan jumped, backing away from the forcefield. “Eric, hey. I thought you were going to rest.”

“I did. That was hours ago. What about you?”

Ryan shrugged, turning away. “I don’t need much sleep.”

Eric watched him for a minute, idly tapping his headset against his leg; the Titanium Ranger was trying to ignore him, focusing on the forcefield and the scanner in his hand.

“You know, those work better if you turn them on,” he pointed out after a minute.

Ryan glanced down at it, grimaced, and shoved it into his pocket. “Did you want something?”

“Just walking the field. Checking things out.” His gaze drifted downwards, and he added, “You know you’re leaning against the field.”

Ryan took an automatic step away from it before he could catch himself; Eric brushed two fingers over the field, nodding at the familiar not-quite-pain.

“It doesn’t hurt me,” Ryan said after a minute.

“I figured,” Eric said dryly.

Ryan flinched, looking away. “It doesn’t hurt me because I’m not—quite human. Diabolico…humans can’t live in Skull Cavern, so he changed me.” He glanced at his morpher, adding, “Humans can’t carry this. It’s too powerful.”

Eric nodded. “Not quite human. Not…” He blinked, thinking quickly back over the files Wes had tossed him on Lightspeed Rescue. “Demon?”

“Somewhere in between. I’m stronger than a human, but that’s the only difference—except sometimes I can sense things. Mrs Rawling’s been getting weird readings from up here, she asked me to come check it out.”

“Did you get anything?”

“Something’s missing,” he said distantly. “I don’t know what, though. It’s almost like Jinxor’s spells…”

“Something important?” Eric asked when he trailed off. He didn’t recognise the name Jinxor from his admittedly sketchy knowledge of Lightspeed Rescue’s enemies.

“Not something we can use. But if the Darkness took it away, there has to be a reason.” He pulled out the scanner, turning it on and staring at it. “I’ll see you later,” he added distractedly.

“Might hang around for a while.” Eric stuffed his headset into his pocket. “I’m not on duty yet.”

Ryan snorted, keeping his eyes on his scanner. “Dana sent you, didn’t she.”

“Carter,” Eric corrected him.

“They’re as bad as each other,” he muttered. “Stay if you want, but it’ll be boring and you can’t talk to me.”

Eric spread his hands, leaning against the nearest tree. “Whatever you say, chief.”






072 Diamond in the Rough


“It’s the weather,” Chip murmured. “If it’d clear up she’d be better.”

“It’s not the weather,” Nick said flatly. “Maddie’s sick, Chip.”

“Well, what are we going to do?”

Nick glanced at Xander who was sitting with the girls, talking quietly to Maddie.

“Leave him,” Chip said. “They’re special, him and Maddie. Don’t disturb him.”

“Ok. You head up to the field, see if the Guardians can give you anything.” He looked past Xander, catching Clare’s eye.

“What are you going to do?” Chip asked. Clare hesitated beside him, looking from him to Nick uncertainly.

“I’m gonna go look for Koragg,” Nick said grimly. “Clare, can Slannen give us anything to help?”

“No. Nothing we don’t already have.”

“Ok. We’re gonna go look. Keep the others inside.”

“Be careful,” she said quietly. “Koragg still belongs to the Master.”

“We will.”

“We won’t be long,” Chip added.



The easiest way to find Koragg was usually to find the loudest fight, but Nick was afraid to be gone for too long. He headed for the town square instead.

Leelee was there, as usual, surrounded by her boys; Nick plunged through without seeing them, focused on the blonde. “Where’s Koragg?”

“Hey! Don’t you know who I am?”

“Yeah. You’re the person standing between me and Koragg. Where is he?”

Most of Leelee’s court were in varying stages of panic; one of the boys caught at Nick’s arm. Nick let go of Leelee for long enough to break his attacker’s hold and shove him back.

“Leelee, I don’t have time for this. Where’s Koragg?”

“Why?” Leelee had recovered some of her bravado now that Nick wasn’t standing so close, and she smiled coyly at him. “What can the Wolf boy do for you that I can’t?”

“My friend is sick. I need medicine.”

She frowned. “There’s no more potions. And even if there were, Koragg can’t make them.”

“Not potions, medicine. Antibiotics.”

Her face cleared. “There aren’t any. At least, not in the Underworld.” Nick cursed softly, turning away. “Where are you going?”

“Up to the Silver Guardians.”

“The field’s closed. Someone didn’t kowtow to my mother, or something. Nothing in today or tomorrow.”

Nick cursed again. Leelee rose to her feet, watching him. “This friend…”

“Maddie.”

“Maddie,” Leelee repeated, raising an eyebrow. “Who is she?”

“I’m sorry?”

“She must be something special if you’re willing to risk death for her.”

“You haven’t killed anyone lately.” Leelee only smirked, and he added, “And she is. You might not understand this, Leelee, but she’s a good person.”

Leelee flinched, turning away from a moment before looking back at him. “Come with me.”

“What?”

“Come with me.”

“Look, Leelee, you don’t scare me.”

“I’m not…” She scowled, turning her attention to the cowering boys. “Go away!”

“But…” one of them protested.

Leelee stamped her foot. “Go!”

The boys scattered, glaring at Nick as they went. Leelee waited until they were gone to hold out a hand to Nick; when he took it warily, she used the support to jump down from the stage.

“I’ll help your friend. Come on.”

“Why?” Nick demanded.

She shrugged. “Because I can. Because I’m bored. Because you’re cute; whatever. Come on.”

Nick glanced at their hands, still joined. “I’m not afraid of your mother, either. Hurt me, I’ll hurt you right back.”

“Yadda, yadda. Do you want my help or not?”

He smiled suddenly. “Maybe you do understand. Yes, I want your help.”

“Let’s go, then.”




They passed Chip on his way back from the field; Leelee didn’t object when he turned back to follow them, only strode right up to the field. “Hey!” she yelled.

“Nick, what’s going on?” Chip whispered.

Nick shrugged helplessly. “She’s helping.”

Leelee stepped through the field; Nick blinked, stepping forward to touch it. The field didn’t react, not letting him through but not hurting him or forcing him back either. “Why is it…”

“Necrolai’s daughter, remember? She can get through any time she wants.”

Nick looked back at him. “You don’t have to wait.”

“I’m not leaving you alone with her.”

“I don’t think she’s gonna hurt me.”

“I thought Vida was the one on Leelee’s side.”

“I’m not on her side, I just…” Nick shrugged. “I think she’s not so bad.”

“First Koragg, now Leelee. They’ll be helping us rebuild before long.”

“I wouldn’t go that…hello…”

Leelee stepped back through the field, tossing a small white bag to Nick. “Antibiotics.”

Nick passed them to Chip without looking at them. “Thank you.”

She shrugged, brushing her hair back. “Filled in half an hour.”

Nick eyed her, turning abruptly to Chip. “Get those back to Maddie.”

“Nick…”

“I’m gonna hang out with Leelee for a bit,” he continued, ignoring Chip’s attempts to speak. “I’ll be back in a while.”

“That’s not a good idea,” Chip said carefully.

“Don’t worry,” Leelee said, draping herself over Nick’s shoulder. “I won’t damage him. Not permanently, anyway.”

“Get the stuff back to Maddie,” Nick repeated quietly. “I’ll be behind you.”

Chip glanced at the bag in his hand, backing away. “Don’t be long. We’ll come looking.”

“Got it,” Nick agreed easily.

Leelee watched him leave, letting go of Nick so she could move around to see his face. “You want something else?” she asked, tone surprisingly bitter.

“No.”

“I know why people pretend to like me. I’m not stupid.”

“Then why let them do it? Leelee…you’ve got to know this is wrong.” He gestured to the burned and gutted buildings around them. “You could stop this.”

“Yeah, you’d think,” Leelee scoffed. “My mom barely even knows I’m around. She never listens to me. And the others hate me.”

Nick didn’t answer, staring at the road, and Leelee stopped walking. “Look, I know this sucks, ok? I’m sorry for everything that’s happening, but I can’t stop it. I have no power. I just…am.”

“Where were you before this, Leelee? Before the Darkness?”

“Down there,” Leelee muttered. “My mom killed my dad when he tried to take me away. I’ve been down there for years.” She looked up, holding his gaze. “If they leave here, if your Rangers defeat them, I’ll have to go back there with them.”

Nick shook his head quickly. “There’s other places…”

“I’m bored,” Leelee announced loudly, cutting him off. “You should go back to your friend, before my mom finds you out here. She usually comes to check on me around now.”

Nick glanced up, noting the sun just setting. “Thanks,” he murmured again.

“Run,” she whispered.

Nick ran.



Xander caught his eye when he came in, silently mouthing, “Later.” Clare passed him a cup of water and smiled. Chip was leaning over Maddie, talking softly, and it was Vida who came to sit beside him.

“Was it worth it?” she asked quietly.

Nick thought back over the conversation, over the girl he’d caught glimpses of beneath the hard veneer. “Yeah,” he said quietly. “It was worth it.”






031 Broken

Ryan was right about one thing. Watching him was very boring.

Eric had pulled his headset back on after a while; Ryan glared at him the first time he tried to report in, but he could keep track of what was going on, at least.

Ryan surged to his feet just as the Guardians on duty began yelling about a breech. “Where?” he demanded, stuffing the scanner into his pocket.

“This way.” Eric turned, barking quick orders into his headset.

Ryan overtook him without looking back; Eric halted at the edge of the loose circle that had formed around the incursion. “What’s going on?” he demanded, pulling his headset off again.

“It’s the blonde,” Kelsey said from beside him. “She wants antibiotics.”

“Why?”

“Didn’t say.”

“If they can get sick…”

“It’s not for them.”

Eric frowned, looking at Ryan. He was standing near the centre of the circle, watching the blonde; Eric could see Carter and Dana across the open space, ready to come to Ryan’s aid if necessary.

“It’s not for them,” he repeated. “Leelee’s helping some civilians.”

“Say it a little louder, why don’t you,” the girl complained. “If my mom finds out about this there’ll be big trouble.”

“Sir,” a Guardian at Eric’s elbow murmured. “This is everything we have.”

Eric took the small packet, weighing it for a second before calling, “Ryan!”

Ryan caught the packet without looking away from Leelee. “Don’t go,” he said when she took it.

“Hello?” She waved the bag at him. “They’re waiting for this? Even if they weren’t, if my mom figures out I’m gone, there’ll be trouble.”

“Come back, then.”

“Why, so you can get all the news straight from the violent oppressor’s mouth?”

Ryan moved so fast Eric missed it, catching Leelee’s arm and pulling her close. Carter and Dana both broke through the lines, stepping forward. Leelee didn’t retaliate, though, just listened to Ryan’s whisper and then stomped towards the barrier as soon as he let go.

Carter and Dana immediately joined him, talking urgently. Eric watched for a moment, until he realised Carter was supporting Ryan; then he turned, ordering the Guardians to disperse, yelling at them for as long as he could manage.

“Thanks,” Ryan muttered when he joined them. He was too pale, even for him, and still leaning heavily into Carter.

“Is she worth it?” Dana asked, ignoring him.

“Yeah. She’s not…she’s like me. Raised there, not born from it. She’s not evil. She just doesn’t know how not to be.”

“Worry about it later,” Carter said firmly. “Right now you need to sit down for a while.”

“I’m working,” Ryan protested. “For Angela.”

“It can wait. Come on.”

“Wes didn’t stay last night,” Eric offered. “The command tent’s empty.”

Carter nodded, steering Ryan towards the command tent. Eric watched them go, only realising when he turned to leave that Dana was still there.

“You need something?” he asked, pausing.

“No.”

“He ok?”

“Yeah. Ryan gets…intense, on things like this. It’s personal.”

“Tommy Oliver’s the same.” Eric risked a light pat on her arm. “Your brother’s a good man. But if he tries something like that again, he’s likely to get shot.”

Dana grinned, ducking her head. “I’ll tell him. Thank you.”

Eric watched her follow her brother, smiling faintly.






074 Healing

“They’re horrible,” Maddie protested, trying to push Vida away.

“Yes, and they’re making you better, so take them anyway,” Vida said patiently, offering the pills again.

“No.” Maddie rolled over, yanking at her blanket.

Vida glanced up, meeting Chip’s eyes; he sighed, pulling the blanket back down. “Come on, Mad. You know you’re going to take them. Just get it over with.”

Maddie glowered, snatching the pills from Vida. “I don’t need them anymore,” she muttered, dry-swallowing them.

“They’re nearly all gone, anyway,” Chip promised. “Just another two doses.”

Maddie sat up, wrapping the blanket around herself. “I should be helping. I’m fine.”

“Enjoy the time off,” Vida advised her. “Xander’ll put you back to work soon enough.”

“Talking about me behind my back?” Xander dropped down beside Maddie. Chip laughed softly, turning away to help Nick.

“Ego, Xan.” Vida grinned. “I’m gonna go help Clare.”

Maddie watched her go, frowning. “Is she angry at you?”

“Maybe. How do you tell?” Xander didn’t meet her eyes when she turned. “I’m sorry I couldn’t get you in earlier, Maddie.”

“I’m glad I didn’t get caught.” She touched his leg, startling him into meeting his gaze. “It’s not anyone’s fault. Except Necrolai’s, maybe. Not yours.”

“That’s what Nick said, more or less, but…” he looked away again, playing with the edge of her blanket.

“Why is Vida angry with you?” Maddie prodded gently.

“I was angry with her,” he said distantly. “She wouldn’t hide, she was watching you, and they’d have seen her. I…” He looked up, forcing himself to hold her gaze. “I hurt her. I’m pretty sure I scared her.”

“Vida’s pretty tough. And she’s not scared of you now.” Maddie glanced away, smiling as Vida laughed at something Clare had said.

“Yeah, but I didn’t…” Xander looked at his hands again. “I was so angry with her, Maddie, I just wanted to…I couldn’t help you, I couldn’t help them…if they’d gotten in…”

“They didn’t,” Maddie reminded him. “And I’m fine. Xander, you can’t control everything. Things happen.”

“Yeah, but…”

“No buts. We’re all fine. Let that be enough for now.”

He laughed softly, leaning over to kiss her forehead. “I love you.”

“Yeah. I love you too.” Smiling, she curled into his arms, waiting for his breathing to even out into sleep before following suit.






032 Fixed

Carter was on duty with Chad and Kelsey late in the evening when Leelee stepped through the field. The Guardians on duty surrounded her, but she ignored them, watching Carter.

“Stand down,” he ordered quickly. The Guardians took two precise steps back, lowering but not holstering their weapons. Carter stepped past them, Chad and Kelsey on his heels.

“Where’s Ryan?” she demanded.

Carter glanced at Chad, who eased back a step or two before hurrying away. “On his way.”

“Good.” Leelee glanced over her shoulder. “That’ll stay open as long as I’m on this side,” she added idly.

Kelsey brushed against Carter’s side as she turned, scanning the nearby Guardians until she found the squad commander. “Let’s get started! We don’t have long!”

Ryan stepped past Carter, pausing just out of Leelee’s reach. “Hi.”

“We’re not the same,” she snapped.

“We’re close. I grew up with evil, but I didn’t belong there either.”

“You’re talking about my mom.”

“You’re not a vampire, Leelee.”

“I am,” she said defiantly. “I’ll be the next Queen of the Vampires.”

“I would have been Lord of the Demons,” Ryan offered.

Dana leaned against Carter from one side; on his other side, Chad was watching intently.

“You’re a Ranger. A hero.” Leelee gestured vaguely to Ryan’s morpher. “We’re not the same.”

“You don’t need one of these to be a hero,” Ryan said patiently. “Heroes become Rangers. Not the other way around.”

“I’m leaving,” Leelee announced. “Get your men away.”

Carter turned to catch Kelsey’s eye; she was already calling the Guardians back. Wes had arrived at some point and was standing behind her, silently backing her up.

“Leelee,” Ryan said quietly.

“My mom’s gonna be looking for me.”

“You don’t have to go back.”

“I can’t…” Leelee shook her head. “She’s my mom, Ryan. I can’t leave her.”

Ryan studied her for a minute before nodding. “Yeah. Ok. Just remember, you can come here if you need to.”

“Ryan!” Eric protested, but Wes caught his arm, cutting him off.

“Your friends don’t like me.”

“My friends don’t know you. Let them.”

“No.” Leelee stepped back, towards the field. “I’m bored with this. I’m going home.”

“Don’t…”

She was gone before Ryan could finish the sentence.

“You want them to know everything we’re doing?” Eric demanded.

“They already know everything we’re doing. We’re handing out supplies and trying to get through the field. They’re not worried about us, or they’d have run us off.”

Dana left Carter’s side to join Ryan; Carter didn’t move, aware that he couldn’t take sides in this. Wes hadn’t moved, either, but Kelsey was coming back to join them.

“You don’t know she’s not evil. She could be spying.”

“She’s not.” Ryan shook his head. “You weren’t evil; you don’t understand. She’s not evil, she’s just…she’ll be good. We just have to show her she can.”

Dana touched his arm lightly. “Hey, let’s go eat something, yeah? I’m hungry. Been sitting with you.”

Ryan blinked, looking down as though he’d forgotten she was there. “Yeah. I’m coming, little sister.”

He looked back at Eric. “We can help her. She’s not totally lost yet, we can save her. Maybe we can fix this.” He gestured vaguely around.

“Come on,” Dana said again. Kelsey went to join them and between them, the girls led him away.






096 Writer’s Choice: Wisdom to Lead


“Commander Collins, you have visitors.”

Wes nodded at the Guardian, grinning cheerfully at Ryan. “You’ll have to finish by yourself, I’ve got visitors.”

“Hey, you want paperwork, go ahead. Why do you even have these forms? How much use can you possibly get out of…” He turned the form over, looking for the header. “ ‘Former enemy offering aid; ally status unknown.’ How much use can you possibly get out of a form like that?”

“You’d be surprised,” Wes said absently. “You want me to get someone to give you a hand?”

“No. Go ahead.”

Eric caught Wes’ eye on his way across the camp, raising an eyebrow; Wes shook his head, halting by the main entry.

“Wes!” Cole clasped his hand, grinning. “Good to see you!”

“You too.” He nodded to Tommy, not surprised when the older man didn’t offer his hand. “Thanks for coming.”

Cole was inspecting his newly grey sweater. “That’s creepy,” he said cheerfully.

“Yeah. We’ve been rotating the Guardians in and out for a while.” He looked at Tommy again. “Leelee came to us today.”

“Leelee,” Tommy repeated. “The vampire’s daughter, right?”

“Yeah. Ryan thinks she might defect.”

Tommy hesitated, glancing around, and Wes added, “We can talk in Command—Ryan’s the only one there.”

As it turned out Dana was there too, leaning against her brother and heckling him cheerfully about the paperwork. Wes waved her to stay where she was, quickly introducing Tommy and Cole.

“Where’s Carter?” Cole asked, glancing around.

“Back at base.” Ryan signed the report, pushing it aside and rising to face them. “It’s his night off. We’ve been taking it in turns.”

“Good idea,” Cole agreed easily.

“We can call him back,” Dana offered.

“No.” Tommy turned away from the board holding the map of Briarwood. “Let him get some rest. Tell us about Leelee.”

Ryan frowned, glancing at Wes. “Leelee’s—there might not be anything there yet.”

“What do you mean?” Cole asked.

“She knows what’s happening is wrong. But she still loves her mother, and she doesn’t want to betray her. Besides, she’s terrified of their Master. I don’t know if she’ll go against him.”

“Can you get her back here? Let Cole talk to her?”

Ryan shook his head. “She won’t talk to anyone else.”

“Literally,” Wes added. “She only talks to Ryan.”

“I don’t need her to talk to me,” Cole told them.

“She comes when she wants,” Dana said quietly. “We can’t call her.”

“She doesn’t trust us yet, not really,” Ryan added. “We can’t push her into anything.”

“Count her out for now, then,” Tommy told them. “What about this field?”

“Miss Fairweather thinks she can bring it down. But she’s not ready yet.”

“We’ll get her help. Hayley can be here tomorrow, and Cam wouldn’t take much longer.”

“I’ll let her know,” Ryan agreed, but he didn’t move.

“My team’s ready to come and help you guys out,” Cole offered.

Wes shook his head. “There’s nothing to fight, not until we get that barrier down. All we’re doing is throwing supplies in, and I have plenty of hands for that.”

“Sure? We’d help.”

“No. When we’re ready to bring that field down, we’ll need you then.”

Tommy nodded. “We’re ready. You have help, when you need it.”

“You turned,” Ryan said abruptly. “You were evil.”

“I was under a spell,” Tommy said carefully. “Leelee’s not, as I understand it.”

He glanced at Cole, who shook his head. “Merrick was possessed. Leelee’s more like you, Ryan.”

Ryan stiffened; Dana looked at him in alarm, but he didn’t seem to see her. “That’s not…”

“That’s what you said,” Dana reminded him quietly. “Raised in evil, not born from it. You turned.”

“I had something to come home to.”

“Give her something, then,” Cole suggested. “Let her know there’s something worth fighting for on this side as well.”

“That how it worked with Merrick?” Ryan muttered.

Cole laughed. “Merrick? Not exactly, no.”

“I can stay,” Tommy offered again.

“No. We can handle it. Thanks.”

“We’ll keep you updated,” Wes promised.

Tommy nodded, glancing at Cole. “We’re nearby if you need us.”






100 Writer’s Choice: Perchance to Dream

Clare had trained herself not to make noise when she woke. The others slept so little, she didn’t want to disturb them. So when the nightmares came, three or four times a week, she just opened her eyes and closed them again, lying without sleeping for the rest of the night.

Nick knew. Nick always knew, even though she’d swear he didn’t wake up with her. He’d learned very quickly that she wouldn’t talk about it, though, so he paid her a little more attention, telling her through his actions that he was worried about her and wanted to help.

She thought Maddie might know as well. If she did, she never spoke of it either, but she never complained when Clare’s attention drifted away. She just took over the cooking duties with a smile, letting Clare sit and think.

The others didn’t know, she was pretty sure. Xander wouldn’t have let it go, and Chip would have been more awkward around her. Vida would have bluntly asked her what was wrong. If anyone was going to know, she was glad it was Nick and Maddie; they at least understood that she didn’t want to talk about it, didn’t want to admit to the fear.

Eventually, though, Nick got tired of tiptoeing around it. He waited patiently until Xander and Chip had gone to the field; Vida was sleeping, curled up by the fire, and Maddie was very carefully ignoring them to study a book she’d read at least five times before.

“Clare,” he started, sitting beside her.

“Yes, Nick.”

Nick hadn’t actually planned beyond that. “You alright?”

“Yes, Nick.”

“Clare,” he protested.

“What? Nick, I’m fine.”

“You haven’t slept a night through for a week.”

“Hands up anyone who has,” she retorted. “Nick, I’m fine.”

He studied her for a moment. “What happens if Necrolai finds you?”

“Nick!”

“No.” He caught her arm. “Tell me.”

“Why, you want nightmares too?”

Nick shook his head. “Tell me. Who’s the Gatekeeper?”

“My mother was.”

“Clare, c’mon. Don’t make me drag this out of you.”

“It helps,” Maddie offered, laying her book aside. “Makes it easier.”

Clare shook her head, biting her lip. “It’s not…”

“We will drag it out of you,” Nick threatened mildly.

“It’s not as bad as you think,” she said carefully. “My mother raised the gates the Master is trapped behind. They still have magic, but we don’t. He can use me to raise the gates again and free himself.”

“What happens to you?” Nick asked.

At the same time, Maddie said, “Your mother died.”

“Yes,” she told Maddie. To Nick, she added, “I don’t know. Maybe nothing. It’s never been done.”

“This spell killed your mother?” Nick repeated. “With stronger magic, and actual experience, it killed her?”

“Yes. But they won’t want to kill me, in case…”

“They need to try again,” Maddie completed, one hand pressed against her mouth. “Clare…”

“I’m alright,” Clare said again. “Slannen and the others are facing worse if they got caught. And it’s a big city, and no one knows where I am or who I’m with. They won’t find me if I stay inside.”

“That’s not going to work forever,” Nick pointed out.

“It doesn’t need to work forever. It needs to work for today.” She smiled faintly, looking from one to the other. “I’m alright.”

“The nightmares?”

“Well, I know I’m alright. My subconscious is not so sure. I’m sorry I wake you.”

“I’m surprised you don’t wake the others,” Maddie said, deliberately lightening her voice. “How come you don’t scream?”

“Because I don’t want to wake the others. They have enough problems of their own.”

“Doesn’t work like that. We’re friends. Your problems are our problems.” Maddie nodded firmly. “You should tell them.”

“No,” Clare said immediately, almost tripping over Maddie’s words. “None of us are telling them.”

“Maddie’s right,” Nick said quietly. “Share the burden, make it lighter. Tell the others, Clare.”

Clare studied her hands for a moment before nodding. “Alright. Tonight.”

“We’ll help,” Maddie promised.

“Good, cos the magic thing? I’m not sure the others are going to take it so well.”






094 Lost

Ryan was staring intently at the scanner in his hand, occasionally making a note on the pad at his elbow, and he didn’t register Kelsey until she actually poked him in the shoulder. Once he would have flipped anyone who approached him like that; he tensed, reaching towards her hand, but he recognised her before touching her.

“Kelsey, hey. I didn’t hear you.”

“I know,” she said cheerfully. “You haven’t been answering your headset.”

“I took it off. It was giving me a headache.”

“And your morpher?”

He glanced down at his wrist. “I didn’t notice it.”

Kelsey picked up his notes; they were scrawled in the blocky, mostly symbolic language of the demons. She couldn’t read it—none of them could—but she knew it was a bad sign; Ryan had worked hard to leave everything of that life behind, and it only resurfaced when he was really worried about something.

“What are you working on?”

“Magic.” She made a face, and he insisted, “No, really. This area should have very strong natural magic.”

“I didn’t think you could do magic.”

“I can’t, but I can sense it. This whole area should be high in magic, but it’s gone.”

“Where does magic go?”

“Well, that’s the problem. It shouldn’t go anywhere. Magic doesn’t get lost or used up, it just is.”

Kelsey nodded, still studying the notebook. “Any theories?”

“Maybe.” He glanced in the direction of the field, though it wasn’t visible from here. “That’s dark magic, and it’s strong. I think all the magic changed, from light to dark, and it’s in the field.”

He pushed abruptly to his feet, shaking his head. “But that doesn’t make any sense either. Magic doesn’t change.”

“Can someone change it?” Kelsey asked doubtfully.

“Maybe. I wouldn’t have any idea how, though—that’s well beyond anything even Queen Bansheera tried.”

She grimaced. “So I guess we can’t reverse it, then.”

“No. Even if we get the field down, if we destroy the Darkness, I don’t think we can fix this.”

“Maybe it’ll fix itself?”

Ryan smiled at the hopeful tone. “Maybe. I hope so.”

“Right.” She bounced to her feet. “Can you do anything about it tonight?”

“No. I don’t think…”

“Then let’s go,” she interrupted him.

“Go where?”

“Back to Lightspeed for the night. Your father wants a full debrief. Wes and Eric are going to stay here, and we’re all going back. Tomorrow night they’re going to debrief.”

“How organized. I’m coming, Kels, don’t pull my arm off.”






069 Family

For the first time, Slannen didn’t offer Nick and Chip anything. He’d been perfectly polite—yes, we’re all fine; the White Witch is well; Necrolai hasn’t found any of us yet, thank you—but he hadn’t offered them anything, and Nick wondered how badly they were doing if they couldn’t spare a handful of berries.

Chip slid through the hedge, glancing back at the house. “They must be doing really badly,” he said idly, echoing Nick’s thoughts.

“Well, they can’t go get the Guardians’ handouts like the rest of us.”

“I guess.” Chip frowned, looking around. “It’s so dark.”

“You’re surprised?”

“It’s May. It should be bright for hours yet.”

“The weather’s been so weird, though.”

“Yeah, I guess. Let’s get…whoof!”

Nick spun; someone had tackled Chip, sending them both to the ground. Nick ducked his own attacker, catching the collar of the boy of the ground and heaving him off Chip.

“Get up,” he said quickly, holding out a hand to help him. Three or four more strangers had melted out of the shadows and both their attackers were back on their feet.

“We don’t want trouble,” Nick said, feeling Chip move to stand back-to-back with him. “Let us pass.”

“You’ve got food,” a boy—only fourteen or fifteen—said accusingly. “You’ve always got food when you come back from there.”

Nick spread his hands. “No food. We have nothing. Now let us pass.”

“They’re lying,” a girl hissed. Chip swung around, yanking down his hood and staring at her; ignoring him, she continued, “They always have food.”

“Zoe?” Chip demanded.

“Who?” Nick asked. Chip waved him to silence, eyes on one of the figures.

She stepped forward, pulling her hood down. “Chip?”

Chip made to step forward; Nick caught his arm, wary of being separated. “Zoe, what are you doing?”

The girl’s chin went up. “Surviving,” she said defiantly. “Like you. Did you find a stash up there, Chip? Going to share?”

Nick blinked; the accent was clearer that time. “You’re Xander’s sister.”

Zoe glanced at him, dismissing him and turning back to Chip. “We’ve been watching you guys for a couple of weeks. You go up there, you come back with a bag. We tried to get in but we couldn’t.”

“You picked a bad day to jump us. We don’t have anything.” Nick spread his hands again.

“Zoe, we know where Xander is. Come with us,” Chip offered.

“Xander?” Zoe faltered, for a moment looking her age.

“Yeah.” Chip held out his hand. “Let’s go.” Nick didn’t say anything, aware that he had no real place here, but he could feel the tension in Chip’s body.

Zoe turned to the boy beside her, who shook his head. “No.”

“It’s my brother.”

“It’s some guy you used to know, and a stranger. No.”

Her chin went up again. “Stop me, then,” she challenged him, taking a step back. “Chip?”

Chip followed her and Nick went after them, turning to watch the boys. No one made a move after them and as soon as he’d cleared the circle they ran.

Zoe slowed a couple of blocks down the road, looking back over her shoulder. “We don’t come down this far,” she said as Nick caught up. “They won’t follow us now.”

“Zoe,” Chip breathed, hands on his knees as he caught his breath. “Xander’s been so worried about you.”

“You really know where he is?” Zoe asked.

“Well, yeah. He’s…”

“With us,” Nick interrupted. “Why did you come with us if you didn’t believe him?”

“I wanted away from them.” She gestured back the way they’d come. “I couldn’t get away on my own, but I can get away from you guys.”

“And then what? You don’t wanna be on your own out here,” Nick said quickly.

“Come see Xander?” Chip asked, holding out a hand.

Zoe stared at him. “This isn’t a trick?” she asked finally.

“It really isn’t,” Chip promised. “We were with Xander this morning. We’re going back to him now. Come with us?”

“I don’t mean to hurry you,” Nick said distantly, “but Koragg’s coming.”

Chip looked around. “Is…no, he isn’t.”

“Yes, he is. Let’s get off the street, ok?” He reached for Zoe’s arm; she ducked him and he transferred his grip to Chip’s arm instead, yanking him into the nearest alley. Zoe deigned to follow them, crouching near the entrance.

“Zoe!” Nick hissed. “Back.”

She rolled her eyes, but she did get up and move back five or six feet. Apparently satisfied, Nick began counting softly, beginning—for no reason Chip could see—at seventeen and counting back towards one.

At six Zoe cursed quietly, burrowing further into the mess around her. At three Chip could hear voices in the street. And just as Nick breathed “One,” Koragg strode by.

Nick started counting back up; he was at eighty four when Zoe stirred, untangling herself from the debris around her. Chip scrambled to his feet, going to help her up.

Nick stepped back onto the street without bothering to look around. “Are you coming?” he demanded, looking at Zoe.

“Yes.” The close call had scared her; she was clutching Chip’s sleeve, staying close to him.

“Nick,” Chip said slowly, “how did you…”

“Later,” Nick said over him. “Let’s go.”







042 Blind

“He’s such an idiot,” Leelee muttered to herself, pacing across her room. “He thinks demons are bad? He should meet my mom in a dark alley. I can’t believe he thinks I’m not evil. Doesn’t he know who I am?”

She glanced up sharply at a noise outside. Koragg’s ugly little servant was passing by, and she strode to the door.

“Hey! Where are you going?”

“Message for Koragg.”

“What message?”

“One that Koragg asked me to do.”

Leelee frowned. “Do you know who I am?”

“Necrolai’s daughter.”

“Tell me what message!”

“Sorry. It’s for Koragg.” He eyed her for a moment. “Is there something you need?”

“No. Get lost.” She stalked back into her room, flinging herself across her bed. “Maybe Ryan’s right,” she thought out loud. “If I can’t intimidate one stupid…whatever he is…maybe I’m not evil.” She sat up, staring unseeingly at the nearest wall. “But then what am I?”

“Daughter!” Necrolai swept in. “Your toys have been looking for you.”

“I’m bored with them,” she said absently.

“Really? Since when? You were having so much fun.” Necrolai brushed Leelee’s hair back; the girl flinched, covering it by rising from the bed.

“I’m so over this darkness thing. This whole black and white is depressing. Can’t we go somewhere else?”

“When the Master rises we will be at his right hand, my daughter. You must just be patient a little longer.”

“I wish I was with Dad,” Leelee muttered.

Necrolai’s voice sharpened. “That can be arranged.”

“Mom…can’t I just go? It’s not like you’d miss me.”

“No. We must be united. Go and find your toys, turn someone. That always cheers you up.”

She swept away before Leelee could answer; frustrated, the girl threw herself back over her bed.

“She can’t let you go.”

She sat back up, glaring at the servant in the doorway. “What do you want?”

“It’s like Koragg. He can’t let the White Witch go, it would weaken him. If Morticon thinks you’re becoming weak he’ll blame it on Necrolai. She’ll lose her place.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Leelee said dismissively, moving forward.

For a moment she thought he wasn’t going to move out of the doorway, but he did back up. “Be careful. Necrolai can’t afford to lose face. She’s already in trouble because she hasn’t found the Gatekeeper.”

“The Gatekeeper died in the War.”

“She had a daughter. The Master wants her to raise the gates. Necrolai’s supposed to be finding her, and she hasn’t yet. Big trouble, little vampire. Watch which side you’re on.”

“When the Master rises we’ll be leaving anyway.”

“No.”

She stopped, turning back to look at him. “What?”

“When the Master rises, the whole world will be like this. No colour, no music, no laughter.” The servant turned away, calling back over his shoulder, “Be sure you’re on the right side, Leelee.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Leelee yelled after him. Turning away, she repeated fiercely, “We’ll be leaving. We will. My mom wouldn’t do that to me. She wouldn’t.”

The more she said it, the less convinced she became.






045 Attitude

Xander was just starting to get worried when Chip came back, out of breath and dragging Vida in with him. “Xander, c’mere.”

“What?”

Chip deposited Vida by the fire, saying firmly, “Stay.”

“Woof,” she muttered, rolling her eyes.

“Xander, come on. You really have to see this.”

“What’s wrong?” he asked, rising from sitting beside Maddie.

“Nothing. Oh, nothing’s wrong. Come on.”

Giving up, Xander followed him out into the hall. Nick passed him, heading in, and Chip pointed him towards the nearest door, grinning.

The figure inside spun when he entered and he found himself staring at his sister.



Xander took two steps forward; Zoe took a step back before catching herself, letting him hug her. She didn’t hug him back, and as soon as he let go she backed away.

“Zoe,” he protested.

“You live here?” she said, looking away. “You and those guys?”

“The girls, too. Zoe…”

“I went looking for you,” she interrupted him. “We were in school when the Darkness rose. I went to the shop.”

“We went home. I went home. Zo, where’ve you been?”

“Around.”

“Aro…Zoe.”

She turned back to glare at him. “What? Not all of us found shelter, Xander. People are starving and dying of exposure out there. I wasn’t…” She stopped, looking away again.

Xander didn’t answer for a moment, studying the floor. “Do you know about Mom and Dad?” he asked finally.

Zoe lifted her head, startled into meeting his eyes. “No…they’re missing.”

Xander shook his head. “No.”

“Yes. Xander, yes, they’re just missing, they’ll be back, they…”

Xander caught her arm, tugging her against his chest. Two fists clenched in his shirt; Zoe muttered into him, “They’re coming home.”

“We can go see them,” Xander offered quietly. “But they’re not coming back, Zo. It’s just you and me now.”

The fists pounded at him. Xander hung on grimly, keeping her pressed against him, muffling her yells as best he could.

Not well enough, apparently; Clare appeared at the door, looking scared. Xander shook his head at her, trying to gesture her away without letting go of Zoe, but she didn’t move, watching carefully.

Zoe’s yells changed to sobs, lost power, and died away; Xander risked letting go, and Clare came forward with a glass of water. Zoe took it dully but didn’t drink.

“Nick told you?” Xander asked quietly.

“A bit.” She smiled at Zoe, leaving the room.

“Who’s she?” Zoe asked uninterestedly.

“Clare. Nick’s…Nick’s.”

Zoe laughed softly. “Yeah. I was Juan’s Juan’s, for a few minutes.”

Xander tensed. “Zoe…”

“Aw, don’t worry, big brother.” She patted his cheek, smiling. “My virtue is safe. It wasn’t my turn. You don’t live in this room, do you?”

“In the kitchen,” he muttered. “Zoe…”

“Yeah?” She paused by the door, looking back at him.

Giving up, he brushed a hand over her cheek. “Bit of dirt. You’re fine now.”

“Oh, good.” She rolled her eyes. “Cos, you know, going into the dirty room full of dirt with dirt on me…not the kind of impression I wanna make.”

“It’s not dirty,” Xander said, feeling vaguely insulted.

Zoe shrugged carelessly, pulling the door open and stepping out into the hall. Realising that she wasn’t going to stop, Xander hurried after her, feeling slightly wrong-footed.

The others were sitting casually around the fire, looking not as all as though they’d been eavesdropping. Xander grimaced, dropping a hand to Zoe’s shoulder to guide her in. Zoe jumped, stepping out from under him.

“You know Chip, and Maddie and Vida,” he said anyway. “This is Clare and Nick.”

“Hi,” Zoe said, slightly breathless. Xander looked at her in time to catch her eyelashes fluttering.

“Stop that,” he said warningly.

“What? I’m not doing anything.”

“This is Zoe,” he added, looking back at Clare and Nick.

“We met,” Nick reminded him.

“Didn’t really have time to get to know each other, though.” Zoe dropped down beside Nick. “How’d you meet my brother?”

“Uh—“ Nick looked to Xander for help, but the older boy had checked out and gone to talk to Maddie. “We came to share the fire one night.”

“Wow,” Zoe breathed, leaning against him.

“Uh…” Nick looked at Xander again, who shrugged helplessly at them.

“Are you hungry, Zoe?” Vida asked, gesturing her towards the fire. As soon as she’d moved, Nick mouthed ‘Thank you’ in Vida’s direction.

“She ok?” Maddie murmured.

“I’m not sure yet.” Xander watched Zoe cast a glance back at Nick, smiling at him. “I don’t think so.”

“She’ll get there,” Maddie assured him.

“I hope so.”






027 Fight

“I’m going to kill her,” Nick said grimly.

“No, you’re not,” Maddie told him. “You’re going to let Xander deal with it.”

“I’d be happy to, but he isn’t. He’s just letting her get away with it.”

“She always did have him wrapped around her finger.”

“If it was just—you know, how she is with me—but she’s upset Clare, Vida’s ready to kill her…she’s even upset Chip, and I didn’t think that was possible.”

“Well, she’s known us a while. She knows a lot about us.” Maddie looked down at her hands. “That was low, though.”

“I said something as nasty to Xander, but I was sorry.”

“You talked about Zoe because you were angry. She talked about Chip’s parents because she wanted to hurt him. There’s a difference.”

“He has to do something. This small a space, we can’t be fighting, Maddie.”

“I know,” Maddie agreed.

Across the room, Zoe’s voice rose angrily. “I am!”

“No, you’re not,” Xander said more quietly.

Nick grimaced; they all automatically kept their voices down inside. Even without the security aspect, it was the only form of privacy they had.

“I had more freedom in the gang!” Zoe yelled.

“You had more danger in the gang,” Xander answered levelly. “You’re not going outside.”

Nick glanced back as movement caught his eye; Vida had woken and was sitting up behind Maddie. Clare, just beyond her, was ignoring the entire altercation.

“I wish I’d never found you,” Zoe spat, low and dangerous. Xander flinched, lowering his head, and he kept it down when she launched herself at him, screaming and hitting any part of him she could reach.

Nick scrambled to his feet, but he was too late. The door to the kitchen burst open, and Chip took in the scene in one glance. Catching Zoe’s shoulder he hauled her around; she managed to hit him once before he slapped her across the face.

The screams cut off and she stared at him, one hand pressed against her cheek. Xander looked up, reaching out to touch her shoulder; Zoe shoved him away, trying to stand, but Chip was too close and she couldn’t get past him.

“Someone will hear you,” Chip announced. His voice was suspiciously calm, but Nick could see his hands shaking from across the room.

Zoe was very quiet. When Xander touched her shoulder again she didn’t react, sitting passively while he hugged her.

Chip moved, pushing jerkily to his feet. Vida slipped out of her blankets, moving past him to go take up the watch, and he sat down next to Maddie, trembling.

As though the movement were her trigger, Zoe suddenly spoke. She wasn’t yelling, but in the silence of the room her voice was very clear and absolutely flat.

“I hate you.”

Xander shuddered, but he didn’t let go of her. “I know.”






091 Birthday

“Are you sure?” Vida asked, frowning.

“I’ve been keeping track. It’s tomorrow.”

“That’s not really long enough to do anything.”

“I know. I lost some time while I was sick.” Maddie glanced across the room. “Clare and I saved some chocolate.”

Vida laughed softly. “He’ll love you forever.”

“I thought so. So can you take him outside, distract him for a bit?”

“Yeah, we’ll head up to the field and see what they’re giving out today. How long do you need?”

Out of habit, Maddie glanced at a watch that had stopped working weeks ago. “An hour or so? Longer if you can manage.”

“Got it.” Vida grinned, clapping a hand on her shoulder. “Have fun, sis.”

“Yeah,” Maddie agreed. “Bossing the others around.”

“Their own fault if they won’t let you move. Hey, Chip! Let’s go walkabout, huh? See if we can get supplies?”

Chip bounced to his feet, grinning. “Sure! Want something nice, Maddie?”

She smiled, nodding. “That’d be good, Chip, thanks. Don’t be too long, ok?”

“We won’t.” Chip kissed the top of her head, grinning at her, and followed Vida out of the room.

Maddie waited until the sound of their footsteps had died away before clapping her hands. “Right! Let’s get to work, shall we?”

“Doing what?” Zoe asked. She was currently sulking because Xander wouldn’t let her leave…or because Nick had shot her down? Because she’d tried to take food and been refused? Maddie couldn’t keep up with the younger girl’s sulks.

“Decorating.” She ignored Zoe’s disbelieving snort, looking at the others. “It’s Chip’s birthday tomorrow. We should try and do…something. Make it nice.”
-
“Right, that’s gonna happen,” Zoe muttered, just quietly enough that Xander couldn’t complain about it.

“We won’t know if we don’t try,” Clare said, deliberately bright. “Zoe, Xander told me you’re really good at org…origin…paper folding. Think you can make something pretty? I have some coloured paper.”

“Origami,” Zoe said pointedly.

“What are you doing saving paper when I can’t find enough wood to keep us warm?” Nick protested lightly.

“You can burn them afterwards. Come on, guys, let’s get going.” She passed a sheaf of paper to Zoe, half-watching her sort through the sheets, and began directing the boys in moving the furniture.

“Do you have string?” Zoe asked a few minutes later.

“String?” Maddie repeated.

“Thin. Thread, I guess.”

“I have a little sewing kit,” Clare offered. “Nick, where’s your jacket?”

“Is that what this is?” Nick pulled a tiny black box from one pocket and tossed it to Zoe. “I knew it wasn’t mine.”

“I had it with me in the woods that day,” Clare said. “I was always catching my dress on things. Will that do, Zoe?”

“Perfect.” Zoe cut a length of the thread, bending back over her work. “Thanks,” she added absently.

“You’re welcome,” Clare said airily, grinning triumphantly at Xander.



“Vida, haven’t we been gone too long?” Chip asked nervously.

Vida shook him off. “Chip, hush.”

“You can’t even see him properly.”

“I can hear him fine.”

Chip sighed, shifting his bag to the other shoulder. At least Vida had let him shuffle her to one side, out of the queue, and Ryan’s teammates seemed to be able to manage without him.

Eventually they said their goodbyes and Vida came to join him, taking her bag back. Everyone was very careful not to take anything extra from the Rangers outside; they didn’t want to get attacked over what was, really, just a few encouraging words.

“He was asking about Maddie,” she explained. “I guess Leelee told them who the ‘biotics were for. He wanted to make sure she didn’t need any more.”

“You should have said yes. One of us will need them some time.”

Vida shook her head, steering him down an alley. “Ryan says their techs think they’re close. Soon, a week maybe.”

“Really?” Chip grinned. “That’s great!”

“They’re not sure yet. So don’t tell the others, ok?”

Chip mimed zipping his lips and throwing the key away. “Yr cm trs m,” he mumbled.

Vida grinned, shouldering her bag again. “Let’s go.”



The fire had been banked down and partially covered over. That was the best Nick could manage without actually putting it out, but it threw the room into semi-darkness.

Chip hesitated in the door; Vida planted one hand between his shoulders and shoved, sending him into the middle of the room. Maddie jumped to her feet, torch in hand, and the others joined her to yell “Surprise!”

Chip blinked, looking around at the strings of stars hanging from the ceiling, the paper flowers, the two bars of chocolate on the table and the grins on everyone’s faces. “Wow, if this is what you do when I leave I should go away more often!”

Maddie laughed, coming to hug him. “Happy birthday, Chip.”

“Is…it’s not my birthday.”

“Yes it is. Well, tomorrow. I’ve been keeping track.”

“Huh. Time flies when you’re having fun.” He eyed the chocolate over her head. “Is that for me?”

Maddie grinned, letting go of him. “All yours. Go for it.”

Chip grinned, picking up the two bars and breaking each into four. Tossing one to Nick, he offered the other to Vida and Maddie.

“To birthdays,” he said, when Nick had passed out the chocolate. “May we all have many more.”

“Hear hear,” Xander agreed. The others murmured variations on “To birthdays,” raising the chocolate in a toast, and he grinned around at them.

“Thanks, guys.”

“Any time,” Maddie promised, leaning comfortably against him.






063 Hours

“I’m so bored,” Zoe complained, throwing herself down beside Clare.

“You can stir this,” Clare offered.

“Oh, wow. Stirring stew.” Zoe glanced towards the door. “I wanna go out, but Xander won’t let me.”

“Well, it’s dangerous outside,” Clare said placidly.

“I lived out there for months.”

“In a gang. Which you abandoned. Won’t they come after you if they realise you’re outside?”

“God!” Zoe threw the wooden spoon into the bowl, hard enough to splatter stew everywhere. “I just want out of here for a little while. Breathe some semi-clear air. You’ve been in here longer than I have, doesn’t it drive you crazy?”

“A little,” Clare admitted. “But I don’t much want to be caught, so…” She shrugged. “I make do. Why don’t you ask Xander if you can go up to the field with him in the mornings?”

“I have. But I’m too little and delicate. I might stub my toe.”

“Or you might be hurt. Xander’s afraid of losing you again.”

“He didn’t lose me the first time!”

“Yeah. He did.”

Zoe looked away, fishing the spoon out of the stew. “That should prove I can take care of myself.”

“He doesn’t want you to have to. You’re Little Sister, he’s Big Brother. He didn’t protect you the first time, so he’s not letting anything happen to you this time.”

“Hey, little tip, Zo?” Xander crouched beside them, smiling. “Don’t bother the chef. She will make you sorry.”

“She wasn’t bothering me,” Clare said quickly. “She was just helping out.”

“I won’t bother next time,” Zoe said angrily, scrambling to her feet and stalking off to the furthest corner.

Xander buried his face in his hands, breathing several curses. “What am I doing wrong?” he demanded, lowering his hands. “She was smiling with you!”

“I don’t have any authority over her. It’s easy to smile with me,” Clare told him. “She needs to get out of here for a bit.”

“You’ve been inside longer than she has.” Clare studied him, and he smiled uncertainly. “What?”

“You two are more alike than you think. That’s what she said as well…it’s not as dangerous for her. Let her go get food. She’s bored, that’s why she’s so angry.” She thought for a moment. “Maybe let her keep watch with Vida some night. When you’re that bored, minutes feel like hours. Let her be useful.”

“She doesn’t sleep enough. She has nightmares.”

“Don’t we all. I can give her something, let her sleep for hours. No dreams.”

Xander was looking at her oddly. “Are you having nightmares still, Clare?”

“Stop that. I’m not talking to our leader, I’m talking to her brother. What did she like to do? Before?”

“Mostly outdoors stuff. Sports. She was into swimming…good at it, too, she won prizes. She didn’t read, much…she did like that origami stuff. That’s about the only indoor thing she did.”

“Ok. So get some more paper, ask her to brighten this place up. There must be somewhere in town you could get it.”

“If it hasn’t been burnt,” he muttered, but he was nodding. “That’s a great idea, Clare. Thanks.”

“Outsiders see more clearly sometimes.”

“You’re not an outsider.”

She shook her head quickly. “Outside you two, I meant. You can’t see her for guilt; she can’t see you for grief. Let her be useful, and she won’t have as much time to be angry at you.”

“Yeah,” Xander sighed, looking over at his sister. “Better go make up. I’m coming back to talk to you,” he added.

“Nick’s got you covered. I’m alright. Go talk to Zoe before she swings back around to being angry at you.”

Xander nodded, crossing to sit next to Zoe. Clare watched them murmur for a moment, until Zoe leaned against Xander; then she turned her attention back to the stew.






044 Reluctant Hero

Leelee strode into Koragg’s room, glaring around. “Where’s the troll?”

“Troblin,” Udonna corrected her without thinking. “He’s gone to fetch something.”

“Troblin,” Leelee repeated softly. Glancing at Udonna, she added, “My mom hates you.”

“Your mother hates everyone. I’m not sure I’m special in that regard.”

“She thinks you and Koragg are trying to overthrow her.”

Udonna smiled faintly. “I’ve no wish to take Necrolai’s place.”

“No.” Lowering her voice, Leelee admitted, “Me either.”

“Careful,” Phineas said from behind her. “You don’t want anyone to hear you say that.”

“You’re in the Resistance,” Leelee said quickly.

“Me? Nope. Just helping out my buddy Koragg. Yup, good old Koragg.”

“My mother found an Elf child in the town.” Leelee looked from Phineas to Udonna. “She knows they know Udonna’s alive. And you’re the only one who could tell them that. You’re in and out of here all the time.”

“Not into town. The field’s up.”

“No.” Leelee shook her head. “It doesn’t stop you, any more than it does me.”

“Leelee,” Udonna said, brushing absently at her dress, “may I ask what has brought this on?”

She flushed, tossing her hair defiantly. “I’m sick of black and white. I want some colour back. I can’t even paint my nails. And…” She looked away, suddenly unable to hold Udonna’s gaze. “One of the Rangers…”

“Outside?” Udonna said carefully.

“He said I was good. I didn’t…want him to be wrong.”

“If you let Koragg hear you, he’ll turn you in,” Phineas warned her. “He’s loyal to the Master.”

“He’s loyal to her,” Leelee said impatiently, gesturing to Udonna. “Otherwise he’d have handed her over.”

Udonna blinked, looking at Phineas; the Troblin was avoiding her gaze, staring intently at the Snow Staff. “Phineas?”

“The Master wanted to use you to try and raise the gates, because Niella was your sister,” Leelee said when Phineas only shook his head. “Koragg argued that we knew you couldn’t do it, the attempt would kill you, and we’d lose our leverage over the magical beings.”

“I see,” Udonna said slowly. “That must have weakened his standing somewhat.” Catching Phineas’ eye, she didn’t add No wonder you were so adamant about my obeying.

“A bit,” Leelee agreed. “My mom’s close to getting rid of him.” She sighed, looking from one to the other. “You guys have a plan to fix this, right?”

“I am a prisoner,” Udonna said mildly.

“And I’m a servant,” Phineas agreed. “No secret plans here.”

Leelee slumped, staring at them. “But you…”

“Leelee,” Udonna said carefully, “what would happen if I were to escape?”

“Koragg would be dismissed or destroyed. Depending on whether or not my mother got her way.”

“It does not suit us to give your mother any more power. At the moment Koragg controls the Hydiacs. Were Necrolai to gain control over them, the town would cease to exist.”

Leelee stared. “You’re deliberately not escaping.”

“You must go back to the surface. Be Necrolai’s daughter.”

“We have no contact with the Rangers,” Phineas explained. “And I can’t get near the townspeople. You’ll have to.”

“Oh. Um…I was thinking more of cheering you guys on! From far away.”

Udonna took a couple of steps forward. “Leelee, there is no more time to choose sides. You must decide, now. If you’re standing with your mother, turn us in. If not, help us.”

Leelee shook her head, eyes wide. “But I haven’t thought hard enough!”

“The people outside—your toys—had no time to think. They simply chose. You must choose.”

“What if I choose wrong?”

“Then you choose wrong. Pick the one you think you can live with,” Phineas advised her.

Leelee closed her eyes, drawing a deep breath. “How can I help?”






066 Enemies

“So Chip told me something interesting this morning.”

Nick didn’t look up, focusing on the desk he was breaking to pieces. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. He said that while you guys were out rescuing Zoe, you sensed Koragg coming. Before he was visible.”

Nick kicked the desk a couple more times before looking up. “And?”

“Should I be worried, man? If you can find him, can he find us?”

“No. I don’t think so. It doesn’t seem like he knows anything about me; we’ve only spoken to each other once.”

Xander nodded, eyes dark as he remembered that conversation. “You couldn’t find him before that?”

“I can’t find him now. I just know when he’s close. That’s it. I swear.”

“Alright.” Xander turned to leave, hesitating at the door. “Nick.”

“Yeah?”

“I like you a lot, man. But if I think you’re a danger to us, to the girls, I’ll put you out. Got it?”

“I’m not your enemy, Xander.”

“No. I don’t need any more enemies than I have. But if you threaten us, if you threaten the girls…”

He left it hanging, and Nick nodded; he didn’t doubt for a second Xander would do it, too. “I got it. If I even think he might have an inkling where we are, I’ll tell you. And then I’ll run. I don’t want Clare or Zoe in danger any more than you do.”

“Good. Listen, can you take Maddie up to the field? Chip twisted his ankle, I don’t want him moving around.”

“Yeah. Just give me a few minutes, finish up here.”

“Thanks.”



It was Maddie’s first time outside since she’d been sick; Nick kept an eye on her in case she got overtired, but apart from that he was happy to let her chatter on. It was curiously stress-free, walking with a pretty girl, even if they were walking through a war zone.

So naturally, it all went wrong.

Halfway back to the school, rations in hand, Nick froze with the sudden awareness of Koragg, very near. “Maddie, hide,” he said thickly, pushing his rations into her arms.

“Nick, what…”

Hide,” he insisted. Maddie stared at him for a second before darting into the nearest building; Nick kept going, careful not to look up as he sensed Koragg round the corner onto the block.

“Stop!” Koragg called. Nick halted, keeping his head down. “What are you doing?”

“I went up to the field.” He hefted the sole bottle of water he’d kept hold of. “That’s allowed.”

“This area is closed. No one is allowed here.”

Nick looked up, finally. “Why not?”

Koragg considered him. “You’re the boy who asked about the bodies.”

“Yeah.”

“Your curiosity will get you in trouble.”

“I’ve been told.”

Something clattered behind them; Nick didn’t turn, didn’t even let himself react, but Koragg took a step past him, one hand on his sword. “Who is there?”

“No one’s there,” Nick said quietly. “Just another building falling in.”

“Someone is there.”

Nick studied him for a moment. “Koragg.”

The being looked back at him, and he added more firmly, “No one’s there.”

“You’re protecting someone,” Koragg murmured.

“She wouldn’t be any match for you anyway. No honour in a kill like that.”

“This area is closed. Anyone on the streets here is to be detained and taken to the mines.”

Nick held his gaze until he turned away, hand leaving his sword. “Consider this your last warning. Next time you will not be so lucky, understood?”

“I understand,” Nick agreed quickly. Koragg turned away, and he added quickly, “Koragg?”

Koragg hesitated, looking back at him, and he continued, “We’re not enemies. You know that, right?”

“Necrolai will kill you if she finds you here,” Koragg told him, walking away and turning the corner without looking back.







062 Zords (Vehicles)

Xander’s grip was tight enough to raise bruises, but for once Zoe wasn’t complaining. She crouched beside him, eyes wide and hands pressed to her mouth.

Xander shifted very slowly, easing to his left. Zoe followed blindly, eyes still locked on the other side of the street.

“Zoe, come on,” Xander breathed, eyeing the nearest alley. They were only a few feet away from it.

“Not that one,” Zoe murmured, following his gaze. “That’s a dead end.”

“It’s closest.”

“No.” She gestured to the next one, some twenty feet away. “There.”

“That’s too far, they’ll see us.”

“It has to be that one. Trust me.”

Xander cursed softly. “There’s no cover.”

“We’ll be fine once we get in.”

“Alright. Just…stay down for a second, alright?”

Zoe nodded, sinking lower against the car in front of them, and Xander slipped past her to eye the alley.

“Right. When I tell you? Run. Don’t look back.”

“Don’t get lost, big brother,” she murmured.

“I know what I’m doing. I’ll be behind you.” He picked up a chunk of metal, weighing it in one hand. “Ready?”

She nodded, watching as he rose for just long enough to pitch the debris up the street. It crashed through a window, making enough noise to echo along the street; before she could react Xander’s hand was on her back, pushing her towards the alley.

True to his word Xander was just behind her; Zoe glanced back at him once and then concentrated on finding her way through the maze of alleys and backstreets.

“Stop,” Xander called after a few minutes. “They’re not following.”

Zoe took another corner into a more open area, leaning against the wall and trying desperately to catch her breath. “Xan…?”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t think I want to leave anymore.”

He laughed shakily, tugging her close enough to plant a kiss in her hair. “I’m not sure I ever want to leave either.” He let go as he got his breathing under control. “You know where we are?”

“Yeah.” She glanced around the area. “We can go that way, back to the school, or that way, up to the field. The last one will bring us out near the library.”

“How do you know? I’ve never been down here.”

“You never bunked off school, either.” Zoe grinned at him. “Where are we going?”

“Up to the field. We still need supplies.”

“Aye.”

She glanced back the way they’d come, face darkening; Xander touched her arm, turning her bodily away.





Behind them, Leelee stood, arms crossed, supervising the loading of yet another truck full of new slaves for the mines.






034 Shadow

Two days after Leelee’s last visit Ryan was still trying to explain it to the others. Eric was having the most trouble; Ryan caught himself wishing the Quantum Ranger had been evil, instead of just chronically bad tempered. He might find it easier to understand, then.

But Ryan’s team had fought to bring him back from the edge, and Wes was willing to trust him. The Time Force Rangers hadn’t had an evil Ranger, but he’d been there when Ransik changed sides.

“Do you think she’ll do it?” Dana asked quietly.

Ryan didn’t bother pretending not to understand; his sister was supporting him unquestioningly in public, but in private she kept coming back to it, over and over. “She will. When she’s thought about it.”

“How can you tell?”

“How did you know I would?”

“You’re my brother,” Dana protested.

“I’m not Carter’s brother. Or Kelsey’s. They were just as sure.”

“Ryan?” Wes leaned into their tent. “Sorry. Leelee’s back. She says it’s important, but she’ll only talk to you.”

“Coming.” He glanced at Dana. “Want to come?”

“She won’t talk to me. Go on.”

Wes stepped aside to let him out, ducking in once he was gone. “You ok?”

“Yes, of course.” Dana smiled brightly at him.

“Dana…”

“I’m fine, Wes. Honest. Go back to your watch.”



Leelee was standing, arms folded, totally ignoring Angela’s attempt to talk to her. Ryan strode up, easing her to one side without apology.

“You know, you can talk to any of my friends.”

“No.” Leelee shook her head. “Just you.”

“Alright. Excuse us,” he added to Angela. She grimaced, but she stepped aside and let them pass.

He walked in silence, waiting patiently for Leelee to begin. She didn’t seem any more eager, though, and eventually he turned, pausing them both and leaning back against the nearest tree.

“I wasn’t sure you’d come back.”

“I wasn’t going to.” She folded her arms across her chest, looking away.

“I’m glad you did.”

“I’m not,” she muttered. “How much do you know about us, Ryan?”

Ryan frowned. “Not much. There’s your mother, and another, one in armour. And the Hydiacs.”

“Koragg. They both follow Morticon, more or less, and he follows the Master.” Ryan nodded, listening intently. “Koragg has a prisoner…well, she was a prisoner. I’m not sure what she is now. Her name is Udonna, and she’s the leader of the magical beings.”

“Magical beings,” Ryan repeated.

“There’s this whole other dimension just outside the town. Nearly all the magical beings live there. Morticon and the Master are there, too, but the Master’s trapped for now. Udonna’s the leader of the good magical beings, and they’re ready to rise up. I’m supposed to make sure you know what’s happening and that you’re ready.”

“When’s it happening?”

“Not yet. If Udonna leaves Koragg will be destroyed, and that’ll put my mother in power. She’ll destroy the town.”

Ryan nodded slowly. “Alright. What about the town?”

“I don’t know. If I tell any of them, they’ll probably go straight to my mother…or Koragg.”

“Koragg won’t help?”

She shook her head. “He’s loyal to the Master. He’ll give Udonna up if he thinks she’s planning something.”

“But she trusted you.” Ryan smiled, dipping his head to catch her eye. “See? I was right about you.”

“Maybe.”

“Are you sure Koragg can’t be persuaded to switch sides? He’d be useful.”

“He’s totally loyal. He won’t…” she hesitated, thinking rapidly. “He protects Udonna.”

“Then try and persuade him to help her. Let her go.”

“No. My mother’s out for her. If he lets her go she’ll be killed before she can do anything.”

“Then he has to switch sides, or we need to make sure your mother can’t hurt her.” He was watching her carefully as he said it.

“My mom’s a vampire queen. There’s no way to…” Leelee choked on the word; Ryan nodded easily.

“Alright. Look, is there anyone in town you trust?”

She bit her fingernail, thinking. “There’s the boy I got the medicine for.”

“Good. Who is he?”

Leelee shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know. He was a boy.”

“I’d see if I could find him again,” Ryan suggested gently.

“Yeah.” Leelee dropped her hand, sighing. “Udonna said I should be Necrolai’s daughter. Like I was. Hurt people.”

Ryan thought for a moment. “Maybe not hurt them. Can you yell at them, be angry all the time?”

“Hello?” Leelee fluffed her hair, smiling dangerously. “I am angry.”

“Good. That’s good.” He pushed away from the tree. “What about these magical beings?”

“They’ve no more power. When the Darkness came, all the magic slid to evil. No good being can use it anymore.”

“Can we get to them?”

“No. You’ve no…”

She stopped, studying him. “Except you do, don’t you.”

“Do what?”

“Have magical potential.”

Ryan shook his head. “I can’t do magic.”

“No. But you’re a little bit magic. You could probably get there, if you wanted to. They might not talk to you, though; my mom goes hunting when she’s bored. They’ll think you’re one of hers. But Phineas is talking to them, anyway.”

“Phineas?”

“Koragg’s…manservant, or whatever. Or Udonna’s. I’m not sure who he’s actually following.”

Ryan laughed softly. “Your world is complicated, Leelee.”

“Yeah. Very.” She hesitated, watching him. “How did you decide?”

“Which side? It wasn’t as hard for me. My sister and father were on one side, and I was on the other. All of my life, everything I believed, was all built on lies. Once I figured that out, the rest was easy.”

“My mom lies to me,” Leelee murmured. “But she still…she’s my mom, Ryan.”

“I understand,” Ryan agreed quietly. “You can still go back and join her.”

“But she’s wrong. Isn’t she?”

“Yeah. But you can still go back to her.”

“No.” Leelee folded her arms again. “Don’t tempt me.”

She glanced over his shoulder, frowning, and he turned to follow her gaze. Eric was watching them, ignoring Chad and Joel as they tried to lead him away.

“Did they trust you?” she asked quietly.

“Yeah. But it was easier for me.”

“Your sister.”

He nudged her lightly. “The Rangers aren’t perfect either. Not all perfectly light.”

“Not all dark, either,” she retorted.

“You’re not dark. A little shadowed, maybe. Hey, I tried to kill Dana. You’re alright.”

“I have to go back,” she murmured. “I’ll be back when we know something more.”

“Thanks,” Ryan said sincerely.

“Yeah. See you later.”







053 Green

Zoe leafed slowly through the pack of paper Xander had found for her, automatically measuring thickness and quality. It had been a while, even before the Darkness…her swimming had been taking up more and more time…but she could fold origami in her sleep.

Picking out a sheet of green…bizarre how adept they’d all become at judging colour, even in a black and white world…she began to fold, paying little attention. Sometimes her best work came when she just let her fingers move.

“What are you doing?” Chip asked, dropping beside her.

“Not sure yet.”

Zoe liked Chip, always had; he was about the only one of Xander’s friends who’d never treated her as ‘Xander’s little sister’ but actually seemed to listen to her.

“Is it a dragon?” Chip asked, frowning as he studied the shape.

Zoe glanced down. “Basilisk.” She grinned at the look on his face. “That’s what the book I learned out of called it.”

“Looks like a snake,” he decided as she finished, holding it up for his inspection.

“Basilisks do. Didn’t you see Harry Potter?”

“Why a basilisk?” he asked, reaching out to brush a finger along its’ back.

“I don’t know. I was thinking about Xander.”

“And you came up with an evil creature? Family dinner in your house must be fun.”

She laughed softly, pretending his words didn’t send a spike of pain through her. Mom, Dad… “No. Xander protects me from the monster. He always has. He holds on.”

Chip nodded. “He was trying to find you, the whole time. Right from the start.”

“I know.”

Vida passed by, pausing to look. “Nice snake. Like the colour. I guess.”

“Yeah?” Zoe smiled. “I’ll do one for you, next.”

“Here.” Chip bounced to his feet, carefully lifting the basilisk and placing it on an empty shelf by the door. “Now it can protect us.”

“It doesn’t have to.” Zoe turned back to the paper, already knowing what she wanted to make for Vida. “Xander already is.”






055 Pink

There was a perfect sheet, pink with a slight sheen. Zoe grinned, carefully beginning the folds.

“I tried origami once,” Maddie said from the fire. “Could never get it right.”

“Takes practise.” Xander held out his hands, eyeing them. “And small hands.”

“Not small hands,” Zoe corrected him. “Just the ability to be gentle.”

He was grinning when she looked up, and she flashed a smile before bending back over her work.

“This is Vida’s, right?” Maddie asked, watching. “What is it?”

“You’ll have to wait and see,” Chip told her. “Zoe never tells.”

“How do you decide what to make?” Clare asked curiously.

“Colours,” Zoe said absently. “They all mean things. So I pick colours for people, and make things the colours will work for.”

“You picked green for Xander.”

“Green is safety, stability and hope. And growing things, but that didn’t count.”

“And pink?” Maddie asked, laughing soundlessly at the fierce blush burning in Xander’s cheeks.

“Pink is friendship and fun and acceptance.”

“And that says Vida to you?” Chip said doubtfully.

“Chip!” Maddie protested, throwing a cushion at him.

Zoe ducked out of the ensuing wrestling match, settling near Clare to finish what she was doing. “They’re beautiful,” Clare told her, watching the sure movements.

“Well, they make it a little better in here.” She considered the one completed piece, sitting on an otherwise empty shelf, and added, “Or they show up the dirt. I’m not sure yet.”

“You’ll have to make plenty, then, won’t you?” Clare said lightly. Zoe grinned, making the final fold and turning the piece over, and Clare laughed out loud.

“What is it?” Maddie asked, looking up from where she was comfortably nestled against Chip.

“It’s a pterodactyl,” Zoe said proudly, displaying it.

Chip grinned, leaning over to poke Vida. “Wake up, Vee. Look what Zoe made for you.”

“Let her sleep,” Zoe said quickly, rising to put the pterodactyl beside Xander’s basilisk. “She can see it later.”

Xander smiled as she came back to sit beside him. “They’re good, Zo.”

“Not my best,” she said critically, “but they look good together, don’t they?”

“They look great.” Lowering his voice, he added, “You’re doing really well, Zo. I’m so proud of you.”

She smiled, leaning back against him. “You too, Xand.”







039 Missing

“Leelee!”

Leelee tossed her hair. “Yes?”

“The White Witch’s Snow Staff is missing.”

“And?”

“You were seen in Koragg’s quarters yesterday.”

“So?”

“Be careful, daughter,” Necrolai warned her.

“I’ve been trying to find the Gatekeeper’s daughter. She’s joined up with some kids in the town, and they won’t hand her over. I’ve been trying to make Udonna tell me something I can use to prove to them we have her. The kid might hand herself over.”

“And the Snow Staff?” Morticon demanded.

“That tacky thing? Didn’t touch it, didn’t want to.” She turned to her mother. “Can I go now? I’m so bored.”

“The only other being who walks unchallenged in your quarters is the Troblin,” Necrolai pointed out.

“The Troblin was not here yesterday,” Koragg said distantly. “He had no opportunity.”

Mom,” Leelee insisted.

“Yes, yes,” she said impatiently. “Go.”




Outside Leelee leaned against the wall, breathing fast. “Too close,” she murmured, pushing away from the wall and heading to her room.

It took twenty minutes before Phineas arrived, carrying a bowl of something. “Did you get away with it?” he asked urgently, voice low.

“Yeah. Sometimes being brainless is the best defence. What now?”

“Do you know where Rootcore i—was?”

Leelee frowned, taking the bowl. “Sort of.”

“Get the Snow Staff there, it’ll find the Mystic Wands. If we can find people to carry those, we’ll have a chance.”

“Alright.” Leelee jerked her head towards the door. “You should go. My mom’s trying to put the blame on you.”

“Shame I wasn’t here the day it went missing, isn’t it?” He grinned, turning away.

“Where do you go?” Leelee asked suddenly. “When he sends you away.”

“I’m working on something different. Sort of a back up plan.”

Leelee nodded quietly. “Something you won’t tell me. Alright. I’ll get the Wands. Hurry up before my mom comes to check on me.”

Phineas nodded, turning to leave. Leelee gave it ten more minutes—that was as long as she dared wait, sure her mother would come after her—before flouncing out and declaring to the nearest guard, “I’m out of here. Tell my mom I’ll be back sometime.”

She didn’t wait for an answer, stalking off and breaking into a run as soon as she was out of sight.





Nick and Zoe were standing in line, waiting patiently to reach the field, when she stopped next to him. “Come with me,” she ordered.

“Whoah. Why?”

“Because I’ve just told you to. Come on!”

“Leelee.” Nick dug his heels in, jerking her to a halt.

Leelee glanced past him at Zoe, dismissing her. “I need your help with something.”

Nick studied her for a minute, frowning. “I can’t leave Zoe on her own. Can you wait for me?”

“No, she’ll have to come. Come on.” Leelee stalked up to the field, reaching back to catch Nick’s sleeve as she walked through. Nick was clinging grimly to Zoe’s hand, and she came through after them.

“Who’s on duty?” Leelee asked the nearest Guardian. “Go find them.”

“Leelee, what are we doing?” Nick asked, keeping one hand on Zoe’s arm.

“I have to go find something,” she said absently. “And once we find it I have to hide it. My mom won’t look with you, she doesn’t know where you live.”

“Leelee!” Carter called, hurrying up with Dana on his heels. “Ryan’s not here.”

“Get him,” she said shortly. “I need him. And someone take care of the girl, she can’t come.”

Zoe’s eyes widened and she gripped Nick’s arm tighter. “Why not?” Nick asked, glaring at Dana when she tried to approach.

“Because she doesn’t have any magical potential.”

“Neither do I!”

Leelee only glanced at him without bothering to answer.

“Ryan’s not magic either,” Dana pointed out.

“He’s magic enough. Is he coming?”

“Yeah, he’s coming,” Carter agreed. “Who…”

“Zoe,” Nick said quietly. “Zo, you’re gonna havta stay here, ok?”

“I want to go back to Xander.”

“Yeah. As soon as I come back, you can.”

“Don’t leave me here,” Zoe murmured.

“It won’t be for long.” Nick glanced up, catching Leelee’s eye as he added, “Promise.”

Ryan was obviously still half asleep when he stumbled towards them, tugging his jumper over his head. “Leelee. I…hello.” Nick nodded vaguely and he looked back at Leelee. “What’s wrong?”

“I need your help. You and him. We need to go find Rootcore.”

“Rootcore?” Ryan repeated.

“Udonna’s headquarters. There’s something there we need. And only you and he can get in.”

Ryan nodded slowly. “Alright. Where’s Rootcore?”

“It’s in the magical dimension. We can only get in from this side of the field.” She glanced at Nick. “I’m sorry about the kid.”

“Yeah,” Nick muttered, gently urging Zoe to let go of him. “Little late now, Leelee. Zoe, it’s ok. I won’t be long. Promise.”

Carter crossed to hunker in front of them, smiling gently. “Hey, Zoe. I’m Carter. Wanna come with me? We’ll get you something to eat, yeah?”

Nick nodded gratefully at him and joined Leelee and Ryan. “Nick,” he said absently.

“Ryan. Where are we going, Leelee?”

“This way. Come on.”






037 What was that?

“For the record? I hate woods.”

Nick ducked under another branch, avoiding the shower of water. Ryan, behind him, laughed softly.

“Oh, you can laugh. You were probably a Boy Scout.”

“No. I was definitely not a Boy Scout.”

“He was evil,” Leelee said absently.

“Suddenly I feel much less confident about this outing. Leelee! Where are we going?”

“I don’t know. Exactly.” She paused, looking around. “Udonna lived in Rootcore. We need something that’s there.”

“So where’s Rootcore?” Nick asked.

“Well, that’s why you’re here. You should know.”

“Why am I here?” Ryan asked.

“Rootcore was damaged. We might need to…” she gestured vaguely. “Lift things.”

“Right,” Ryan said slowly.

“Leelee, I’ve never been here before,” Nick protested. “How am I supposed to know where this place is?”

“Your magic is like hers. Just concentrate.”

“I don’t have magic!”

“Try holding this.” She tossed something at him; one hand shot out to catch it.

“What is this?” he asked, twirling it.

“Udonna’s Snow Staff. How does it feel?”

“Feels like a staff. Leelee, seriously, what is…”

“What was that?” Ryan interrupted him. “Do that again.”

“Do what?”

Ryan gestured. “Twirl it. Like…look! It’s lighting up, do you see that?”

“No? It’s a stick, man.”

Ryan looked at Leelee, who shook her head. “I don’t see anything.”

“It’s just a stick.” Nick twirled it a couple more times before threading it through his belt. “Are we going?”

He headed off without waiting for them; Ryan sighed. “Leelee, I don’t know about this.”

“I do. He’ll find it.”

“He’s not even looking.”

“He doesn’t need to. The Staff can’t find Udonna from here, so it’ll look for the…for what we want.”

Ryan caught her arm, halting her. “You need to tell us, you know.”

“Are you coming?” Nick called from somewhere up ahead of them.

“Coming!” Leelee agreed quickly, pulling away from Ryan and hurrying after Nick.

Ryan caught up to them as they crossed a shallow stream. “What did you say we were looking for, Leelee?” he asked deliberately.

“The other staffs,” Nick said absently. Ryan hesitated, staring at him, and he glanced up. “What? It’s the other staffs.”

“Yeah,” Leelee said slowly, “but I didn’t tell you that.”

“Of course you did.”

“No, I didn’t.” She glanced at the Staff at his waist. “That might have. I didn’t.”

“Other staffs?” Ryan asked.

“Five.” Nick’s voice was slower this time. “Fire, Earth, Wind, Water and Lightning.”

“Red, Green, Pink, Blue and Yellow,” Leelee agreed. “They were in Rootcore, and that thing’ll find them.”

“What do we need staffs for?” Ryan asked patiently.

“They’re meant for the Mystic Warriors. Rangers, I guess you’d call them? But no one claimed them before the Darkness came, and the magic all flipped to the evil side. The staffs won’t have a fraction of their real power, but if we can find people to hold them, they’ll help a bit.”

“And how do I know about them?” Nick asked, idly twirling the Staff again.

“You have…” Leelee gestured vaguely. “Repressed magic. But it’s just like Udonna’s. Not as strong, but very like hers. The Staff recognises that, and since it can’t find her it’s looking for the other staffs.”

“Why don’t you hold it?”

“Because I don’t have any magic. Neither does Ryan,” she added before he could ask. “It has to be you.”

He sighed, twirling the Staff again. “It feels…weird.”

“Weird how?” Ryan asked, holding out a hand.

Nick passed him the Staff. “Familiar. Like I’ve held it before.”

Ryan turned it slowly, one hand ghosting over its’ edge. “There’s power in it,” he said after a moment. “Doesn’t feel like anything I know, though.”

“Your demons used icons, right?” Leelee took the Staff from him, holding it out to Nick. “Udonna and the Mystics use incantations. Potions, sometimes, but mostly incantations.”

“Icons,” Ryan repeated slowly. “They had cards with the spells on them.”

“Icons,” Leelee agreed, nodding. “Incantations are easier to cast in a hurry, but they’re preset, there’s only so many. You can make icons for whatever you want.”

“Where is Udonna?” Nick asked, looking up from the Staff.

“In the Underworld. She’s Koragg’s…well, he thinks she’s a prisoner. She’s running the Magical Resistance, such as it is.”

“How’s she manage that if she’s a prisoner?” Ryan asked, following Nick as he started off again.

“Phineas is carrying messages for her. He’s Koragg’s…or Udonna’s…servant, he’s got the run of the place, and he’s been keeping in touch with the magical beings.”

“We met Slannen in town,” Nick agreed absently. “He told us Phineas had told them Udonna was alive.”

“Slannen’s an elf name,” Leelee said curiously. “How did you find an elf?”

Nick considered her for a moment. “Clare found him.”

Leelee stopped dead; Ryan pulled up sharply to keep from bumping into her. “You know Clare?” Laughing softly, she added, “Unbelievable.”

“What is?”

“I told my mom the Gatekeeper’s daughter was hiding with some kids in the town. I thought I was lying.”

“Why were you lying?” Ryan asked.

“I needed a reason to go talk to Udonna. To steal that.” She gestured at the Snow Staff. “You know she’s the Master’s Most Wanted.”

“Yeah, she doesn’t go out anymore.” He eyed Leelee for a moment. “You know I can’t tell you where we are. If you want me to hide the Staffs…”

“Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. They have to be hidden.”

“We could hide them,” Ryan offered.

“No. The staffs come into contact with Rangers, we won’t be able to hide the power surge. Nick’s got power but no knowledge. The staffs won’t react to him.”

“I’m right here,” Nick protested, halting. “There.”

Leelee frowned, studying the mess in front of them. “That doesn’t look like anything. Are you sure?”

“Yeah. It was…” Nick traced a shape in the air. “It was bigger. But the magic held it up. Once it was gone…” He shrugged faintly.

“Alright. Let’s go.” Ryan led them towards the destroyed tree, already searching out the safest places to stand.






097 Writer’s Choice: Honour

Udonna was mediating when Phineas burst in, out of breath and obviously upset.

“We gotta go,” he told her, leaning out to glance up and down the corridor.

“What? Phineas, we are not yet ready…”

“Doesn’t matter. Koragg’s in big trouble. We have to go.”

She rose to her feet, suddenly wary. “What trouble?”

“Something threw something at Leelee. Necrolai demanded Koragg kill him and he refused. Wasn’t honourable. Now she’s claiming you’ve impaired his judgement, and she wants both of you gone.”

“Necrolai has risen so far?” Udonna murmured.

“Yes! Yes. If Koragg gets out of this alive, I’ll be very surprised. We have to go.”

“Can we do it?”

“Leelee’s making enough fuss up there to keep every Hydiac in the place busy. We can do it.”

“You’ll have to come back.”

Phineas studied her for a moment. “You’re sure? He’s loyal to the Master.”

“It wouldn’t be honourable to leave him here.” Udonna smiled faintly. “Can you do that?”

“I can try,” Phineas promised. “But we have to go, now, or we won’t make it.”

Udonna nodded, letting him lead her out.




Koragg was standing in the room when Phineas came back in. His sword was braced against the floor and he was staring at Udonna’s bed.

“Uh…boss?”

“Have you been working against me all this time?”

He didn’t sound surprised. Phineas frowned, thinking rapidly.

“Not against you. For her.” Koragg nodded slowly. “She sent me to ask you to come.”

“Fight against the Master?”

“Fight against the things who did that to you.” Phineas gestured to his damaged armour. “We don’t turn on our allies.”

“I cannot turn my back on my Master.”

“Your Master has turned his back on you by allowing this to happen.”

“You forget your place!” Koragg snapped, pacing away.

“No. I know my place, it’s with the White Witch, and that’s where I’m going now. You can come, but you only have one chance.”

“And what would I do, were I to join your rebellion?”

“Protect the town,” Phineas said immediately. “The civilians. You’ve been doing that for weeks anyway.”

“How long have you been fighting against the Darkness, Phineas?”

“Since it rose,” he answered honestly. Koragg deserved that much from him. “But Udonna could have left a long time ago. She stayed to protect you.”

“She was protecting me?” Koragg repeated disbelievingly.

“Preventing Necrolai from claiming you were incompetent to let her escape.” Phineas glanced out into the passage. “I have to go. Your decision?”

“You’ve been the Rebellion all along? You have allies…here? In town, with the Rangers outside the field? With the magical beings?”

“Yes.”

“You stole the Snow Staff? Without suspicion falling on you?”

“I didn’t. But I knew it was being taken. You stole it, by the way. We recovered it.”

Koragg nodded. “I will come.”






054 Yellow

“Zoe, are you sure you’re not hungry?”

Zoe shook her head without looking up; she was focused on the contents of her pack. Most of it was the supplies she and Nick had gotten only a little while before, but she was sure she’d…

Yes. Tucked neatly into a side pocket to keep it clean was a single sheet of paper. She pulled it out, automatically flattening it against her knee.

“Do you want more paper?” Carter asked earnestly. She’d only known the man for twenty minutes, but she’d already figured out that he did almost everything earnestly. “I can get some more if you’d like.”

“No. Just this one.” She considered the sheet for a moment before making the first fold. “Do you have a Yellow Ranger?”

“Yellow? Yeah, sure. Kelsey. Do you want her?”

“No. I just…no.” She bit her lip, considering the paper carefully.

Carter was quiet for a moment before asking, “What are you making?”

“Griffin,” she murmured. Raising her voice, she said more loudly, “For Chip. I’ve been making them for everyone.”

“Why a griffin?”

“It’s yellow.” She made another fold, looking up to meet Carter’s eyes for the first time. “It matches.”

“Matches what?”

“Chip. Yellow is energy and cheerfulness and loyalty.”

“Kelsey,” Carter murmured.

“Chip,” she added, making the last fold and holding it up for him to study.

“Griffin,” he said with a smile. “Very nice.”

She shrugged, putting it carefully to one side. “Passes time.”

“I’ll get you more paper,” Carter offered gently.

“No. Thank you. I’m finished now.”

“Sure?”

“Yes.”

“Alright. Will you eat something?”

Zoe considered for a moment. “They’re not back yet?”

“No. Chad’s watching, he’ll let you know the second he sees them. I promise.”

She nodded quickly. “Yes. I would like to eat.”

“Great.” Carter pushed to his feet, crossing to the door. “Hey, Kels? Grab a tray, please?”






064 Time Warp

“Careful where you step,” Ryan murmured, catching Leelee’s hand to steady her. “It’s all collapsed.”

Leelee nodded, watching her feet. “I didn’t think it would be this bad.”

“Koragg didn’t talk about it?”

She laughed softly. “Koragg doesn’t talk. Not to me, anyway. But no, he didn’t talk about this…just that he captured Udonna.”

“He didn’t take Clare?” Nick dropped the remains of the book he’d been looking at, rising from his hunker.

“The Master didn’t know we needed Clare then. My mom came back to look for her, but she was gone.”

“Yeah, she ran into me on the road. We got into town before the field went up.” Nick took a couple of steps, looking around. “If this is…and that’s where the table…”

“Nick?” Ryan said warily.

“There.” Nick lifted the Snow Staff, studying it for a moment before plunging it into the air above the middle of the table.

Leelee threw up her hands to shield against the flash of light, stumbling backwards. Ryan lifted one hand, squinting to see Nick standing, unmoving, in the centre of the room.

“Nick!” he yelled.

“What the hell…” Leelee whispered, catching at his sleeve to keep her balance.

The light pulsed out, washing over the furnishings and restoring them to their original glory. The Snow Staff was now hovering over a table inlaid with the element symbols, a pattern repeated all over the room.

Nick half-turned, tracking the waves of lights as they reached the lectern at one side of the room.

“Nick, what did you do?” Ryan asked, taking a step forward.

“Not me, man. The Staff did that all on its’ own.”

Leelee glanced around at the restored room. “Nice. It going to stay like this?”

“No. It’s just for us. To find what we need.”

“Ok. Where are they?”

Nick glanced back at them. “How are you with the language of the Ancients, Leelee?”

“Not great. I know some of it.”

“Good. C’mere.” He held out a hand, leading her up the steps to the lectern.

“This is the Xenatome,” Leelee said slowly. “Everything we do not know.”

“Diabolico wanted that, but he couldn’t track it down,” Ryan offered from the table below.

“Yeah. Can you read it?” Nick asked, flicking through the pages apparently at random until he found a particular one. “Don’t touch it.”

“Show me.” She scanned down the page, frowning. “Ok. I think…damn.”

“What?” Ryan asked, coming to join them.

“We need to bring people who can use the staffs here. They can’t be found unless there’s someone to hold them.”

“Can we take this?” Ryan asked, reaching curiously to touch the book.

“No.” Nick caught his wrist. “We can’t. It’s not…really here, or we’re not here…something.”

“Right.” Ryan turned his wrist; Nick let go, and he backed away from the book. “Leelee, is there anything else here we can use?”

“No. We needed the staffs.”

“Alright. Nick? D’you want to undo this?”

“It’ll undo itself,” Nick said, turning to go back to the table. “All we have to do is leave.”

“Nick,” Leelee said curiously, “do you know what this stuff is for?”

“Bits of it,” Nick said absently. “You guys should probably leave first.”

Ryan nodded, catching Leelee’s elbow to guide her out. “Don’t be long,” he said warningly.

“I’m right behind you,” Nick promised, reaching for the Snow Staff.



From outside there was no difference; Rootcore looked just as abandoned and broken down as it had when they’d arrived.

“I’m sorry we didn’t find anything,” Ryan said quietly.

“At least we know my mom won’t be able to find anything, either,” Leelee said with a shrug. “Thanks for coming with me.”

Ryan smiled. “You’re welcome.”

Nick picked his way out of the tree, Staff safely in his belt. “Leelee, what about this?” he asked as he reached them.

“Keep it.”

“I’d rather not.”

“Why?” Ryan asked, frowning.

“It’s…creepy. It knows things.” He shook his head. “I can’t explain.”

“We can store it,” Ryan offered. “Give it to the Guardians, no one’ll touch it.”

“No, we’re going to need it,” Leelee told them. “Nick, can you hide it somewhere else?”

“Slannen might take it,” he said doubtfully.

“That’d work. Don’t tell me where he is either, then.”

“I don’t know the address anyway. Just how to find it.”

“Probably better that way,” Ryan pointed out.

“Yeah. I guess.” Nick glanced back at the remains of Rootcore. “Let’s go.”






083 Dinner

“How’s the kid doing?” Chad asked quietly.

“Go and ask,” Kelsey suggested.

Chad turned to glare at her, and she laughed. “She’s alright. Carter got her to eat, anyway. She just really wants Nick to come back.”

“Do we really trust Leelee?”

“We don’t need to trust Leelee,” Dana said, joining them. “We just need to trust Ryan.”

“No sign of them yet?” Kelsey asked.

Dana shook her head, and Chad offered, “They’ve only been gone a little over an hour.”

“Yeah, I know.” Dana smiled faintly, heading into the tent where Carter was still trying to coax a smile out of Zoe.

“Is Nick back?” the girl asked as soon as she saw Dana.

“I’m sorry, not yet. We’ll know as soon as they get back, there’s Silver Guardians watching. Do you need anything?”

Zoe glanced at Carter and then away, folding her arms. Carter caught Dana’s eye, saying brightly, “Zoe, I’m just going to get rid of the plate, if you’re done?” She didn’t react, and he picked up the plate and headed to the door of the tent. Dana trailed him, glancing curiously back as she went.

“Is she ok?” she asked quietly.

“I think so. She doesn’t trust us much.” He looked back at Zoe. “At least she ate dinner.”

“Are we really going to send her back there?”

“No. Not if she’ll stay.”

“Dana!” Chad yelled from outside. Carter pulled back the flap, grinning.

“Hey, Zoe! Nick’s back.”

Zoe dashed past him, burying herself in Nick’s arms; he stumbled as he caught her, and Ryan supported him until he caught his balance.

“You ok?” he asked softly, attempting to push her back to get a look at her. She wouldn’t let go, though, and he gave up and held on, waiting for her to calm down.

“Any luck?” Carter asked Ryan, watching Leelee glare at them.

“No. What we were looking for is hidden, somehow. But at least we know it’s there.”

“What were you looking for?” Dana asked, frowning.

“Something to help bring the Darkness down.”

Carter studied him for a minute before accepting that. “Alright. You ok?”

“Yeah. It was…interesting.”

And thatwas an understatement if Carter had ever heard one, but if Ryan wasn’t ready to talk about it he wasn’t going to push. Dana would do that for him.

“We were going to offer to keep Zoe here,” he said more quietly, watching Nick. Zoe still hadn’t let go, but she was talking now, at least. “Or send her away somewhere, safe. I’m not sure she’ll agree, though…she’s been pining for Nick since you left.”

“Nick’s friends with her brother,” Ryan said slowly, “but I think he’s sort of…protector to the group.” He grinned suddenly. “They’ve got Necrolai’s Most Wanted with them, and she has no clue. Leelee nearly fainted when she found out.”

“Nick!” Leelee called. “We have to go.”

“Offer,” Ryan told Carter quickly, finally letting Dana pull him into their tent to check him over.

“Nick?” Carter called, moving to join him. Zoe had stopped hugging him but was still clinging tightly to one arm. “Listen, we can find somewhere safe for Zoe if you want. Somewhere well away from all this.”

Nick looked down at her. “Zo?”

“No.” She shook her head without looking up. “I want Xander.”

“Yeah, but you’d be safe out here.”

Zoe shook her head again and he sighed, looking back at Carter. “Thanks, but no thanks. I’ll take her home.”

“Sure?”

“Do more harm than good to leave her here. Anyway, if we can talk her into it later Leelee’ll let us back through.”

“Alright. Offer’s open.” He glanced around. “Guardian, get some rations for these two.”

“Thanks,” Nick told him.

“I’ll need to talk to Clare later,” Leelee said as she joined them. “Not today. Get rid of the Staff before you go back to her.”

Carter blinked, glancing at the ornate Staff thrust through Nick’s belt. “What is that?”

“That might win the war for us,” Leelee told him. “Nick, are you ready? My mom’s bound to be looking for me by now.”

Nick took the packet the Guardian offered him. “Yeah, we’re ready.”

“There’s a place on the field no one goes,” Zoe offered. “We can go back that way and no one will see you.”

“Can you find it on this side?” Carter asked.

“Yeah. It’s up that way.” She gestured out of the tent city.

Leelee nodded, turning that way before glancing back at Carter. “I’ll be back in a couple of days.”

Carter nodded, watching the little group make their way up along the edge of the field.






033 Light

Slannen looked…old, when he answered the door, worn out and almost haggard. Nick glanced over his shoulder at Zoe, waiting at the base of the stairs; she was carefully not watching him, staring out across the garden.

“Slannen, we need you to do something,” he said quietly.

“Greetings, Nick. How are we? We’re fine. Thanks for asking. How’s the Gatekeeper?”

Nick grimaced, shaking his head. “Yeah; sorry. Clare’s fine. Has Phineas been here?”

“The rebellion? Yes. We know what’s happening. We will be ready to fight.”

“Ok. Leelee swiped the Snow Staff. I need you to hide it.” He pulled the Staff from his belt, holding it out.

Slannen took two steps back. “You want us to hold that?”

“It needs to be hidden, somewhere we can get it when we need it. And I don’t want it. It keeps talking to me.”

“It talks to you,” Slannen said slowly, reaching out to touch the Staff.

“It doesn’t actually talk. I just know stuff. It’s creepy as hell, and I don’t want it near the girls.”

“This is Udonna’s Staff. It should speak only to her.” Slannen was studying him intently.

“Well, I can’t explain it. Will you take it?”

“Who are your parents?” he asked suddenly.

“My…what? They’re not in town. I was just passing through.”

“But you know who they are?”

“Slannen…”

“It’s important.”

Nick sighed, glancing back at Zoe before answering. “Yes, I know who they are.”

“Your real, true parents.”

“I’m adopted. What does that matter?”

Slannen smiled, taking the Staff from him. “When you need this, it will be here. Nick.”

“Slannen, what…”

“Later. Take your girl home. The Staff will be here, ready, when it’s needed.”

Nick studied him for a moment before turning away, jumping the steps to join Zoe.

“Nick?” Slannen called after him. “Ask Clare about the Light.”

“The light,” Nick repeated. “I will. Thanks, Slannen.”

“He’s creepy,” Zoe muttered.

Nick smiled faintly. “Little bit, yeah. He’s a good…Elf, though.” He eyed her as they walked. “You should have stayed out with the Rangers.”

“No.”

“Zoe…”

“It’s just him and me now.” Zoe looked up at him. “He told me that.”

“Yeah. Alright.” Nick nodded. “Maybe we just won’t tell him you could have stayed outside.”

“Maybe,” Zoe agreed. “What was he talking about, the light?”

“I don’t know. But I’m going to find out.”






048 Life

“We were about to send out the rescue party,” Xander said in relief when Nick and Zoe came back in. Zoe went straight to him, wrapping her arms around his waist; he blinked in surprise, awkwardly returning the hug. Zoe was thawing, but she was not usually tactile.

“We had a little adventure,” Nick said wearily, passing the supplies to Maddie and slumping onto the nearest flat surface.

“Well, the rescue party was me and Vee, so I’m glad you’re alright,” Chip said cheerfully. “Drink?”

“I would kill for something to drink. Thanks, man.”

“What adventure?...Zoe, you wanna let go? You’re crushing me a bit.”

Zoe shook her head, still firmly attached, and he glanced at Nick, who shrugged helplessly. “Alright. I’m gonna sit down, so can you work with me?”

“Leelee nabbed us up at the field,” Nick explained. “There was some super secret mission for the rebellion, and she wanted me and one of the Rangers from outside.”

“You took Zoe on a mission for Leelee’s rebellion?”

Nick winced, glancing at Zoe, who volunteered, “One of the Rangers stayed with me. A Red Ranger.”

“Carter?” Chip asked.

“Yeah, I guess.” She’d relaxed her hug some, but she was still gripping tightly to Xander’s top.

“Clare?” Nick said thoughtfully. “What’s the light?”

Clare knocked over the saucepan, flushing. “Oh! I’m sorry, Maddie, I didn’t mean to…”

“Clare,” Nick repeated.

“Slannen said it was important,” Zoe said quietly to Xander. “He said to ask Clare.”

Clare was staring unseeingly at the mess on the floor; Maddie had risen slowly from her crouch, watching her. “Nick?” she murmured as softly as she could, taking one very careful step backwards.

“Is it that big a deal?” Nick asked, hunkering to begin sweeping the pieces of saucepan together.

“The Light’s dead,” Clare said hesitantly, watching him without moving. “Why did Slannen…”

Nick explained the mission, the Staff and Rootcore, tidying all the time. Maddie came back with a cup that she pressed into Clare’s hand, tugging her closer to the fire to sit down.

“The Staff talked to you,” Clare said, staring at the cup. “Slannen’s right, there’s no way…”

“Who’s the Light?” Xander asked. “Or, what’s the Light?”

Clare sighed, taking a drink before saying, “Udonna was married before the War, the first War. Her husband was called Leanbow, and he was the greatest warrior in our land. And Udonna was the greatest witch. Their son had the potential to be stronger than either of them. But Leanbow died in the war, and Bowen was lost.”

“Your mom died too,” Nick murmured. Realising they were listening to him, he raised his voice to add, “Leanbow’s sister?”

“Udonna. Niella was Udonna’s sister.”

“Ok, that’s interesting,” Chip said slowly, “but why would Slannen want us to know?”

“He asked if my parents were really my parents,” Nick added sharply.

“Udonna’s Staff should respond only to her. Even my mom couldn’t make it work.” Clare was watching Nick steadily.

“I have parents.” Nick’s voice was low and warning.

“Adopted,” Zoe said quietly. “That’s what he said,” she added defensively when Xander twisted to look at her.

“Look, hang on,” Vida said quickly. “What happened to—Udonna’s son?”

“She gave him to another knight, a man she and Leanbow loved dearly, while Leanbow led the Knights and Niella and Udonna to battle. Daggeron was to protect him and bring him back afterwards, but the Knights and Niella fell and Udonna never saw Daggeron or Bowen again. There was no trace of them, anywhere.”

Vida turned to Nick. “You’re adopted?”

“I was adopted out of Reefside. That’s four hours north of here.”

“Adopted out of Reefside doesn’t mean you weren’t found here,” Vida insisted.

“No! I have parents, alright? I have a family.”

“Bowen’s my cousin,” Clare said softly.

“Clare…” Nick groaned.

“Alright,” Xander interrupted. “Nick may or may not be Bowen; it doesn’t really matter now. What about the rebellion, Nick?”

“It’s on hold. Until Leelee and the others find out who’s supposed to be holding the wands. She’ll let us know what’s happening.”

“Right.” He glanced down at Zoe. “You ok?”

She nodded, still nestled against his side, and he looked up at Nick. “Nick, can you go break up a few more tables? We’re running low on wood.”

“Yeah.” Nick nodded, pushing to his feet. “I can do that.”

“I’ll come help you,” Clare offered, but Xander shook his head.

“Chip, you go. No, Clare. Stay here for now.”

Clare glared at him, stalking into the furthest corner. Chip slipped out after Nick and Vida shifted to sit by the fire.

“Maddie,” Xander murmured, and she moved around to sit next to him, on the other side from Zoe.

“Help me,” Xander said softly.

“You’re doing fine.”

“Nick won’t hear any more.”

“He won’t hear any more now. He might later, when he’s settled.” She glanced at Zoe, raising an eyebrow; Xander half-shrugged, careful not to upset her.

“Explains a few things, though,” he said idly.

“What? Oh, Nick? Yeah.” Maddie nodded, looking away towards the door.

“I didn’t mean to make him angry,” Clare said, dropping beside them. “I just…it’s like Bowen’s come back to life. Udonna would be so happy.”

“We still don’t know for sure it’s true,” Xander warned her. “And you’d better leave Nick alone until he’s processed it.”

Zoe wriggled out from under his arm suddenly, heading for the stack of paper on one shelf. Xander frowned, watching her, and Maddie said quietly, “Is she ok?”

“It’s the quiet that’s bothering me. Zoe doesn’t get quiet, she gets even.” He shook his head. “Yeah, she’s fine. You ok, Clare?”

“Well, I’m kind of angry,” Clare said lightly. “But we’ve all agreed not to hold anything against each other, right?”

“If you’d gone with Nick, you’d have made him angry enough to run,” Xander told her. “Not deliberately, I know, but you’ve just turned everything he knows to be true on its’ head. He needs to think about it for a while.”

“He’ll be lucky to think about anything with Chip along,” Maddie pointed out.

“He doesn’t have to think about Chip. Chip’ll provide both parts of the conversation.” He looked back at Clare. “I’m sorry I yelled at you. He’ll come to you when he’s ready; just wait for him until then.”

Clare nodded, rising and dusting off her skirt. “I should get something cooking. Nick and Zoe haven’t eaten yet.”

“Yeah,” Xander agreed with a sigh, scrubbing at his face. “Zo! Clare’s just getting you something to eat, alright?”

Zoe nodded without looking up from her paper and Xander turned to Maddie. “I’m going to get some rest. If anyone else turns out to be anyone’s long lost son or cousin or brother or parent, make them wait for a while, alright?”

Maddie laughed softly. “I will. I promise.”






056 White

“Zoe?”

“Just a second,” Zoe murmured, flipping the paper to finish the last folds.

“It’ll go cold.”

“I just need a second.”

Clare put down the dish beside her. “Don’t knock it over.”

“Wait.” Zoe turned the figure right side up, eyeing it critically before offering it to her.

Clare took it, balancing it lightly on her hand to study it. “It’s a hawk?”

“I think it’s a falcon.” Zoe shrugged, picking up the dish.

“What does white mean?” Clare asked quietly, stroking one wing lightly.

“White is goodness and innocence and faith.” Zoe smiled faintly. “All the good things.”

Clare ducked her head, studying the paper some more. “It’s beautiful.”

Zoe shrugged, leafing idly through the stack of paper. “If Nick really is Bowen…I mean, you have no magic, right?”

“He wouldn’t have magic,” Clare agreed. “It doesn’t matter. Bowen’s…we don’t have royalty, but Bowen would be our Prince. Every magical creature would follow him.”

Zoe frowned. “I’m trying to picture Nick as a leader…it’s not working very well.”

“He’d be alright.” Clare looked at the falcon again. “This…you think white? When you think of me?”

“Goodness, purity and innocence,” Zoe said again.

“Maddie,” Clare murmured.

“No. Maddie’s not white. Wasn’t there something about you and the moon?”

“The moon’s not white.”

“Clare,” Vida mumbled into her blanket, “take the bird and thank her.”

Clare laughed, nodding. “Thank you, Zoe. May I put it with the others?”

“Sure.” Zoe turned back to her dish as Clare pushed to her feet, going to place the falcon next to the other little animals.

“What colour is Maddie?” Vida asked around the blanket.

Zoe grinned, burying her face in the bowl.






073 Agony

“Where are we going?” Koragg asked for the fourth time.

“To Udonna,” Phineas said again.

“How much longer?”

Phineas looked back at him. “Not far. Why?”

Koragg didn’t answer, and Phineas frowned, studying him. “You’re hurt.”

“I’m fine. How much further?”

“You know what? Why don’t you wait here? I’ll just go let her know we’re here. Just so we don’t surprise her.”

He ran before Koragg could answer him, darting through the trees until he reached Rootcore. He’d offered to find Udonna somewhere better—Rootcore was only habitable if you compared it to the town below—but she’d refused. The first War had been won from here, and she was determined the second would be as well.

“Udonna?” he called cautiously. Several twigs rained down on him, dislodged by the noise.

“Over here, Phineas,” Udonna said from behind him. “Koragg did not return with you.”

“Well, yes and no. He’s not here, here, but that’s because he’s over there.” He pointed back into the woods.

“You left him there?”

“He’s hurt, but he’s pretending he’s not, and he’s still not sure this is the right side for him. I didn’t want him to see Rootcore until you agreed it.”

Udonna nodded. “Very well. Show me, please.”

Phineas led her back through the trees. Koragg hadn’t moved except to brace his sword against the ground; he was leaning heavily on it to stay upright.

Udonna stopped several paces away from him. “Koragg.”

“Udonna.” He glanced around. “This is your kingdom?”

“Are you injured?” she asked, ignoring the question.

“No.”

She didn’t bother protesting the lie. “Come with me, please.”

“Are you to be my warder now?”

“No. You are free to leave.” She waited patiently until he took a couple of steps towards him.

The journey back to Rootcore took twice as long as it should have; Koragg refused to stop, so Udonna slowed her pace and forced him to match her. Phineas hovered beside her; if he’d been this obvious in the Underworld, she thought wryly, it was surprising Necrolai hadn’t killed her much earlier on.

“How goes the rebellion?” Koragg asked suddenly.

“We’re waiting for the Snow Staff. One of our allies has gone to retrieve it. When it’s returned to me I will be able to retrieve the Mystic Wands.”

“The Rangers outside the field think they’re close to bringing it down,” Phineas added.

Koragg nodded slowly. “I see. Impressive.”

“Yes.” Udonna paused as they entered the clearing. “Please sit. Phineas, some water?”

Phineas studied her for a moment, troubled, but finally he turned away, disappearing into the ruin.

“He does not trust me,” Koragg noted.

“He’s concerned about me,” Udonna corrected him, inspecting one of the burns. “Can you remove your armour, Koragg?”

“Remove…” Koragg shook his head. “I am as you see.”

“I see.” She traced the edge of the burn, and he shuddered, lowering his head. “Koragg…”

He threw his head back abruptly, screaming. A wave of energy burst out of him, throwing Udonna backwards; she crashed into a tree and was only vaguely aware of Phineas yelling.

Koragg was still screaming.

She pushed herself upwards in time to see his armour flare and disappear. Phineas was crouched on hands and knees, battling through the waves of energy still pouring out of him; he lifted his head to yell something, but she couldn’t hear him over the noise.

Noise that was suddenly gone, as the scream and the energy cut out at the same moment. Koragg’s body collapsed limply; Phineas, straining against a force that wasn’t there, almost fell on top of him.

“Stay there,” he told Udonna sharply, backing up a little.

Well, that wasn’t going to be a problem. Even sitting upright was making her dizzy. “What’s happening?” she asked anyway, trying to see.

Phineas didn’t answer, and she frowned. “Phineas?”

“Stay there,” he said again. “It’s a human.”

“Koragg’s not human,” she said, confused.

“It’s not Koragg anymore.”

The man stirred, groaning softly. Phineas backed up a few more steps, watching warily.

“Goblin,” he murmured, sounding unsurprised.

“Troblin,” Phineas corrected him.

Udonna eased to her feet, leaning heavily against a tree. “Phineas?”

The man startled, pushing upwards enough to see her, and she gasped. “Leanbow?”






066 Friends

“I hate this,” Leelee muttered, stalking through the field. “This is not my idea of fun,” she told the nearest Guardian, who backed away hastily. “I’m going to get caught,” she added to Wes as he approached.

“Caught doing what?” he asked carefully, glancing around for Ryan even though he knew the Lightspeed Rangers were back at their base. Leelee generally refused to even talk to anyone else.

“Carrying messages, what do you think? Stupid Phineas stuck me with everything! Stupid little Troblin.”

“Uh, I’m not…”

“Never mind,” she snapped. “Get me someone who knows something.”

“Ryan and the others aren’t here. They went back to their base to debrief.”

Leelee sighed impatiently. “Right. Think you can remember a message, if I give it to you?”

Wes smiled easily. “I can try.”

“Koragg left the Master. He and Udonna and Phineas have all run off back to Rootcore, and now they’ve got me carrying all their stupid messages, because of course they can’t get through the field any more, so it all depends on me, and I can’t even find the guys inside the field, so it’s really…”

“Breathe,” Wes interrupted. She glared half-heartedly at him, but she did seem a little calmer. “What’s this do to the rebellion plans?”

“Speeds them up. But we’re not ready yet. Still have to find some people.”

“Ok. Do you need anything from us?”

“Be ready. Phineas thinks this’ll happen fast, when it happens.”

Wes nodded. “I’ll call the others back straight away. Thanks, Leelee.”

“Yeah. I’ve got to go; I really can’t risk my mom figuring this out. I’ll be back as soon as we figure out what’s gonna happen next.”

Wes nodded, tapping his headset as she walked away. “Get the Lightspeed base on line. Leave’s been cut short.”




Xander and Zoe were heading back from the field, almost at the school, when Leelee called “Stop!”

Zoe winced; Xander pushed his rations into her arms and said quietly, “Run.”

“She’s on our…”

Run,” he repeated, and she did.

“Aw, come on!” Leelee protested.

“What do you want?” Xander asked, turning to face her.

“Nick.”

Xander eyed her for a long moment. “Who?”

Leelee took a deep breath. “Nick. I know he lives with you; he was with your sister last time I saw him. I have to talk to him.”

“Leelee, you’re Necrolai’s daughter. How can…”

“I’m fighting against her!” Leelee hissed. “Give me a chance, ok? I’m trying.”

Xander sighed. “Walk away.”

“Look…”

“Down to the end of the road,” he interrupted her. “If Nick didn’t tell you where we are, I’m not either. He’ll find you.”

Leelee stared at him. “I won’t bring harm to anyone here.”

“You won’t have the chance,” Xander said grimly. “Walk away, or we’ll stay here all day.”

She turned, walking swiftly away and disappearing onto the next block. Xander stood watching her until she was gone before hurrying after Zoe.




“Leelee?”

“Your friend is horrible.”

“My friend has kept seven of us alive during this war, including a kid and your most wanted. He’s entitled to a bit of horror. What’s up?”

Leelee briefly summarised the changes in the Rebellion. “We need the Staff back, and the Elves need to know.”

“I can get it, but they won’t talk to you and if I take you there, they won’t talk to me either. You’ll have to meet me.”

Leelee scowled. “When are they gonna realise I’m good now?”

“When you prove it, I guess.” Nick shrugged helplessly. “We can’t scare them off now, Leelee.”

Leelee scowled. “I’ll be up where we came back through the field last time.”

“Alright. I’ll met you there when I’ve gotten the Staff.”






095 Found

Nick ducked back into the school long enough to tell Xander what was happening.

“Udonna’s escaped?” Clare said happily.

“So Leelee says. You can’t come,” he added, anticipating her. “Not until we’re sure.”

“Thought you trusted Leelee,” Xander said neutrally.

“I trust her enough to go with her. I don’t trust her enough to put Clare in her hands.” He looked back at Clare. “I’m sorry. Do you want me to take a message?”

“No. Just…tell her I’m alright.”

“I will.”

Xander caught his arm as he turned away. “Nick, are you sure about this?”

“We can’t afford not to. Look, can you go find Toby? If this gets going, we’ll need everyone to know about it.”

“Yeah.” Xander nodded slowly. “Yeah, I’ll go look for him. Vee, will you go with Nick?”

“Why?” Nick asked, frowning.

“Just in case.” He glanced at Chip. “You’ll be alright?”

“With three beautiful girls? I’ll manage.”

Xander smiled faintly, turning to look at Zoe. “I won’t be long, ok?” She nodded, and he looked back at Nick and Vida. “Let’s go.”



Slannen handed over the Staff without question, promising that they’d be ready when needed. He didn’t mention light once, and Nick deliberately didn’t bring it up.

Vida was waiting out on the path when he came back through the fence, Staff once more thrust through his belt. “This it?” she asked, reaching out to touch it.

“That’s it. Come on, we’ve got to get across town.”

It took them longer than it should have; Necrolai was attacking anything that moved, and there were far more Hydiacs in the streets than normal. For once, the destroyed city worked in their favour; they were able to dodge or hide enough to get to the edge of the field, where Leelee was waiting.

“Took you long enough,” she grumbled.

“Well, there’s sort of a war going on. Can’t you get your mom to calm down?” Vida demanded.

“Who’s this?” Leelee asked, eyeing her up and down.

“Vida, Leelee, Leelee, Vida. Can we just go?”

“Staff talking to you again?” Leelee asked, rising to her feet.

“Yeah. Let’s go.”

Leelee shrugged, turning to step through the field. Nick caught Vida’s hand and latched onto Leelee’s sleeve just in time.

On the other side of the field Nick took three quick steps forward, looking down in surprise. “Whoa…”

“What?” Vida asked.

“I think the Staff knows Udonna’s around.” He took it out of his belt and it dragged him another couple of steps before he planted his feet. “It’s pretty eager.”

“Let’s not keep it waiting, then,” Leelee said, gesturing for him to go ahead.

The trip to Rootcore was much quicker this time; the Staff was pulling in Nick’s hands, eager to return to its’ rightful owner, and it almost pulled him off his feet several times. Vida stayed just off his right shoulder, silent and watchful.

Nick stopped just inside the clearing, wrestling the Staff to a halt. “They inside?” he asked Leelee.

“Udonna is.” Phineas vaulted over a fallen tree trunk, landing in front of them. Both startled, taking a few steps back in surprise. “She’s occupied.”

“Where’s Koragg?” Leelee asked.

“Koragg’s not here,” Nick murmured.

“He’s gone,” Phineas agreed.

“You let him go back to the Master?” Leelee demanded. “He’ll tell him everything!”

“No. Koragg’s gone. Gone gone.”

“Is he human?” Nick said in surprise. The Staff jerked at him again and he took three quick steps forward.

Phineas frowned. “You’re…”

“Nick.”

“Or Bowen,” Vida added. “Depending on who you ask.”

Vida!”

“Bowen’s dead,” Phineas said warily.

“That’s what Clare said,” Nick agreed, “but the Elves in town think I’m him.”

“Who’s Bowen?” Leelee asked curiously.

“Udonna and Leanbow’s son.” Phineas shook his head quickly. “I’ll go tell Udonna you’re here.” He turned away, hesitated, and looked back. “I wouldn’t mention Bowen to her if I were you.”

“I don’t want to mention it to anybody,” Nick said pointedly, glaring at Vida.

Phineas nodded, disappearing into the mess of branches at the base of the tree. “Bowen?” Leelee said carefully.

“No. Bowen died in the war. I’m Nick.” He stared at Vida. “Got it?”

“Got it,” Vida agreed, sounding mildly bored.

Phineas reappeared, ducking back through the tangle. “Udonna’s coming. Just a minute.”

Nick nodded, pulling the Staff from his belt. “There. Happy?”

Leelee smirked, settling on an uprooted tree. “The Staff wants to get back to Udonna,” she explained.

It flew from Nick’s hand as Udonna appeared around the base of the tree; she snatched it out of the air in front of her face, smiling.

Leelee rose to her feet again. “Udonna, this is Nick and…”

“Vida,” Nick filled in.

“Whatever. This is Udonna.”

“The White Witch,” Phineas added, “and the leader of our rebellion.”

“Such as it is,” Leelee muttered under her breath.

“Did you carry my Staff here, Nick? Some days ago?”

“Yeah. Leelee said it would find the other staffs, but the book said we had to bring people to them.”

“The book,” Udonna repeated, glancing at Phineas.

“Xenotome? Leelee read it.”

“You saw the Xenotome?”

Nick shrugged. “Is that important?”

“No,” Phineas said before Udonna could answer. “It’s not.”

“Where is Koragg?” Nick asked suddenly.

“Not here,” Udonna said without blinking. “How is Slannen?”

“Slannen’s fine…and so’s Clare.”

“Clare,” Udonna breathed. “You know where she is?”

“She’s with us,” Vida said quietly. “Nick’s been with her from the beginning.”

“I see. Thank you.”

“She’s fine. She’s strong.” Nick took a step forward. “Who is Koragg now?”

Udonna turned to glare at Phineas, who lifted his hands. “It wasn’t me.”

“Your Staff talked to him,” Leelee said off-handedly.

“Which is really not the point, here. What do you need us to do, Udonna?”

“Hmm?”

“For the rebellion?” he reminded her.

“Nothing, for now. I can retrieve the wands, and we’ll find people to carry them. Simply be ready; Leelee will let you know when it’s time.”

Nick nodded slowly. “We can do that. Vee, let’s go.”

Phineas came to stand beside Udonna, watching the three leave. “If the Staff talked to him, a wand might,” he said quietly.

“Perhaps. The girl seemed willing, too.” She turned away as they disappeared. “Come. I must retrieve the wands, and Leanbow needs tending.”






052 Blue

There wasn’t a blue that looked right. They were all quite dark; Zoe wanted a light blue for her next piece.

“Something wrong?” Maddie asked, sitting beside her.

“I can’t find the right blue.”

“How can you even tell?” Maddie picked up several of the sheets, leafing through them.

Zoe shrugged, picking one of the sheets. “Don’t know. Can’t you?”

“I suppose.” She put the sheets back down, watching Zoe consider it. “Who’s this one for?”

“You,” Zoe said absently.

“Oh? Why blue, then?”

“You’d rather a different colour?”

“I like yellow.”

“Yellow’s not for you. Blue is trust and confidence and tranquillity and understanding.”

Maddie blinked. “All that?”

Zoe laughed, beginning the folds. “All that.”

“So who’s yellow?”

“One colour at a time. You’ll confuse me.” She made another fold. “What do you think?”

“It doesn’t look like anything yet.” Zoe turned it around, and she blinked. “It’s a wolf?”

“It’s not very good,” Zoe said disapprovingly. “It’s not…fierce enough.”

Maddie blinked at the implication. “Am I very fierce, Zoe?”

She smiled faintly, eyes still on the wolf. “Like a mother tigress.”

“Or a wolf,” Maddie said, grasping it. “I see.”

“I could do another,” Zoe offered.

“No. I like this one.” Maddie carefully took it from her, studying it for a moment before going to place it with the others.

“Like a mother tigress?” Xander murmured into his blanket.

“Sleeping people don’t talk, Xander,” Zoe said primly, gathering her paper together and going to help Clare with the dinner.






088 Summer

“I remember all my life…raining down as cold as…Oh, no, that’s wrong. We’re all going on a summer holiday…”

“Chip, keep it down a little.” Xander rolled over, tugging his blanket up. “Vida’s asleep.”

“Why are you singing about the summer anyway?” Maddie asked.

“I could sing Christmas carols if you’d prefer,” he offered brightly. “More seasonal.”

“It’s May,” Xander pointed out.

“Yes. It’s also below freezing.” Chip shifted, pulling a corner of Xander’s blanket over his shoulder. Xander rolled towards him to give him more slack, wrapping his arms around Maddie.

“Hi,” she said, amused.

“Hi,” he sighed, curling against her. “Chip, no more singing.”

“Spoilsport.” His voice was more serious when he continued, “What do we do if it gets colder?”

“We keep burning fuel, we keep eating, we stay alive,” Xander said easily.

“Ryan says that less people are going for supplies.” Chip knew Xander knew this, they’d been sitting together when Nick had reported it, but he couldn’t stop speaking. “He says they’re using less supplies every day.”

“More for us,” Maddie said lightly, brushing a hand through Xander’s hair. He was tense, but he wasn’t trying to get away, and she was glad. He seemed to spend all his time running away from them lately.

“It’s like grave robbing,” Chip murmured.

“If that’s what it takes,” Xander said sharply.

“We don’t do that!” Chip swallowed hard, looking absolutely horrified.

“Chip…”

No, Xander. There are things you don’t do.”

“Right, you don’t starve or freeze if you don’t have to.” He softened in the face of Chips’ terror. “I don’t mean actual grave robbing, Chip. We’re not going looking. But if the guardians have more to spare, we can’t turn it down. There’s too many of us, and the Elves’ berries aren’t going to last much longer.”

“No grave robbing?” Chip asked warily.

“Do you honestly think my sister would ever talk to me again?”

“Well, no,” Chip admitted.

“Right. We’re not doing anything like that. But we’ll take any extra help the Guardians can give us, got it?”

“Got it,” Chip agreed quietly, ducking his head.

“Good. Can you go let Nick come in, please?”

Chip nodded, letting himself out; Maddie smiled at Xander, squeezing his shoulder before going to help Clare, and he settled himself back beside Vida.

“You’re totally going grave robbing,” she mumbled into her blanket.

“If that’s what it takes, yeah. Go back to sleep.”

“Xander?” Nick was leaning around the doorframe. “Can you come here for a second?”

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Just need you for a second.”

Vida started to rise; Xander put a hand on her back, holding her until she stopped moving and then rising to his feet. “This better be important,” he said, just loudly enough for Nick to hear him.

Toby was standing out in the hall.






084 Drink

The day Toby found himself considering drinking the water that dripped through the Rockporuim’s wreckage to puddle on the floor, he finally made the decision he’d been putting off.

He’d left the kids because they couldn’t afford to keep feeding him too. He’d been planning it almost since the beginning, but when Nick and Clare arrived he couldn’t put it off any longer.

He thought Xander—and maybe Maddie, sweet insightful Maddie—knew why he’d gone. In a bizarre way this War had been the making of Xander; he was leading and protecting his little flock unhesitatingly, taking responsibility in a way he’d only pretended to before. Toby had been very careful not to go near the school, but even incognito those kids were incapable of blending in and he heard things muttered around the town.

The kids had a secret source of food, somewhere uptown. The kids were raising an army. The kids had fought Koragg for the bodies of the mine hangings. They’d taken a girl from another group without throwing a punch.

Toby knew they’d retrieved the bodies. He knew Zoe had been running with a bad group—he’d tried to save her a couple of times—and he knew she wasn’t with them now, or at least wasn’t coming out into the open.

He didn’t know about the other two rumours. It would be very unlike Xander to hoard. At the same time, he would do whatever it took to keep the others alive.

The last rumour—that they were raising an army—he didn’t believe at all. Xander would not risk the others that way.

The kids went up to the Guardian’s handouts in the mornings. Toby went in the afternoon, not wanting to run into them; he knew he wasn’t strong enough to refuse if they asked him to come back to them. Unfortunately the Guardians tended to be running out by the time he reached them; no matter how much stuff they brought, it was never enough. Every day they told him to come earlier, and every day he promised he would, knowing he wouldn’t.

But now he couldn’t manage on his own any more. The groups roaming the streets were getting increasingly desperate, and too many people knew where he lived. Alone he was vulnerable. With a group he’d have a chance. And there was no other group he trusted.

Sighing quietly, he pulled on the second jumper that was the only thing he’d acquired since the War began, and left the shop. He didn’t look back.






078 Sun

“How long?”

The low voice startled Udonna and she spun, dropping the cup in her hand. “Leanbow!”

“How long?” he repeated, voice rough from disuse.

She sat carefully on the side of the bed, smoothing the sheets convulsively. “You’ve been ill for three days.”

“No.” He lifted a hand to her hair, touching the silver strands threaded through it. “How long?”

“Twenty years.”

His hand stilled. Udonna almost turned to look at him, but she caught herself; turning would mean losing his touch and she couldn’t bear that yet. “Leanbow?”

“Have I been so long in the dark? So long tied to him.”

“Koragg did not appear until after the Darkness rose.” Udonna didn’t flinch at the name. “If he was active before that he did no harm.”

She turned, finally; Leanbow moved with her, apparently no more eager than she to give up their touch. He was studying his other hand, turning it back and forth.

“No harm,” he echoed. “I injured our niece—as good as your daughter—I terrorised you, I…”

“Did I seem terrorised, husband?” Udonna asked mildly. “I never felt at risk from Koragg.”

His fingers began to wind through her hair again. “No. He couldn’t understand that. I think that’s what kept him from harming you, at first.”

“Only at first?” Leanbow didn’t answer, and she continued, “How much did he know of what we were doing?”

“Nothing. Almost nothing,” he corrected himself. “He knew that you drew strength from Phineas, and that he had not joined them for love of the Master. He knew it was dangerous to keep you alive, and he knew he could not let you go.”

“More than we thought,” Udonna mused. “But the Rebellion? Leelee?”

“No. Nothing of that.” He sighed, scrubbing a hand over his face. “But Necrolai suspected us. If I don’t return, she’ll know we’re plotting.”

“She already does. Necrolai has command of the Hydiacs. As soon as you’re well, husband, we must fight back, or she will be too deeply entrenched to defeat.”

Leanbow nodded. “In two days, perhaps less, I will be able to fight.”

Udonna didn’t bother asking if he was sure; he’d been a warrior too long not to know his own body. “Good. I will bring the candidates for the wands here tomorrow, then.”

She rose to leave, but he caught at her arm. “Udonna…is the sun up?”

She smiled brilliantly, turning to the nearby window and drawing back the curtain. Sunlight spilled over the end of the bed and Leanbow reached eagerly for it, laughing in delight as it played over his fingers.

“It seems so long since I’ve seen the sun,” he murmured. “Where is Phineas?”

“Around.”

“Waiting outside the door for me to jump you?”

She smiled again. “Something like that.”

“He doesn’t trust me.”

“He’s worried about me. Did you want him?”

“He was engaged on a project for Koragg. Please ask him to check on it.”

“What project?”

“Something to help your Rebellion, I hope.”

“Our Rebellion,” she corrected him gently.

“Our Rebellion,” he agreed.

“Rest now. I’ll speak to Phineas.”

He nodded obediently, but when she looked back he was still playing with the sunlight.






086 Winter

It was snowing lightly. Nick brushed idly at the nearest car, dragging his finger through the thin coating while he waited for Chip to catch up with him.

“It’s freezing!” the younger boy said in surprise, pulling up his hood as he joined Nick. “It’s like winter out here. I didn’t think it could get any colder.”

“Temp’s been dropping the last few days,” Nick agreed. “You sure you’re up for this, man? I can do it myself.”

“Nah, we need two. ‘Specially now Toby’s back. Let’s go, moving will warm us up.”

“Dodging Hydiacs will warm us up,” Nick muttered, but he started towards the field anyway.




As well as the regular food parcels, the Guardians were distributing gloves, scarves, jackets and chemical heat packets. Nick sent Chip to collect them while he was waiting for the food.

“Nick!” Wes was waving from the other side of the field.

Nick sighed, shifting out of the food queue. Wes paced him on the other side of the field, waiting until they were out of hearing range.

“Leelee’s been by every ten minutes. Where’ve you been, man?”

“Drama back at base. What’s going on?”

“Beats me. She doesn’t talk to us, you know that. Can you hang around?”

“We’re freezing to death, man. I gotta get this stuff back. Tell her I’ll be back in a few, ok?”

“Your funeral,” Wes muttered.

“She can come after us if she wants. She knows where we are.”

Wes nodded, passing him a package. “Six of you, right?”

“Eight, now. Nevermind,” he added when Wes turned as if to get more. “We’ll manage. I’ll see you in a while.”

Chip was still queuing; Nick waited patiently, package in hand, until he was done. “Leelee’s looking for me,” he said quietly. “She might follow after us, but if she doesn’t, I’ve got to go back up to find her.”

“What’s she want you for?”

“Who knows. Complain about her mother, probably. Let’s get this stuff back.”

They were almost back to the school before Chip spoke again. “Is it smart to keep jumping every time she tells you to?”

“Leelee’s the only link we have to the Rebellion. She’s the only hope we have of getting out of this.”

“She says she’s working for the Rebellion. We don’t know she is.”

“Slannen vouched for Phineas, and he trusts her. What’s wrong?”

Chip shrugged, eyes on his feet. “It wasn’t a war before.”

“Nick!”

Nick rolled his eyes. “Timing!” He raised a hand to wave to Leelee. “Do you want to go, Chip?”

“No.” Chip shifted his bundle. “I’ll wait for you.” He took Nick’s package, taking two or three steps away.

“I told them to tell you to wait!” Leelee said as soon as she was in range.

“I had to get this stuff home.” He gestured vaguely towards Chip. “What’s wrong?”

“Udonna wants you. She wants to see if the Staff will respond to you.”

“We know the Staff reacts to me.”

Leelee shook her head. “The other one. One of the Mystic Warrior’s staffs. Udonna’s almost ready to go, but we need people to carry them. Where’s Vida?”

“Why?”

“Udonna thinks she might be able to use one as well.”

“How many staffs?” Chip asked suddenly.

“Five,” Nick told him. “Why?”

“Five?” Chip repeated pointedly.

Nick blinked. “That doesn’t make sense. Leelee…anyone can use these staffs?”

“No. There has to be potential.”

“It couldn’t be,” he told Chip.

“Why not?”

“What is it?” Leelee asked.

“There’s eight of us. Zoe’s too young, and there’s Clare. That leaves six.”

“Clare doesn’t need a staff.” Leelee nibbled at a nail. “Will they come?”

Nick looked back at Chip, raising an eyebrow. The younger boy shrugged helplessly. “Wait here,” Nick told her, taking his supplies back from Chip.

“Nick,” Chip muttered.

“Wait,” he told him, scrambling through the gap in the school wall. Chip scowled, following him.






071 Heart

“This is it,” Nick said, looking around at the others. “I can walk out there alone, or we can all go and try and end this thing.”

“You want us to sign up to their war?” Xander asked. Zoe, huddled against him, looked up in surprise at the anger in his tone.

“We’re already in their war,” Nick said quietly. “And even if we go, we probably won’t be able to help.” He looked at Clare. “Are you coming?”

Clare nodded. “Udonna will need my help.”

“Right.” He looked at Chip. “Chip?”

“Wait,” Xander said quickly. “We need to think about this.”

“No. There’s no more time. Come with us or don’t.” Catching Xander’s eye, he added quietly, “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t,” Zoe said quietly.

“Clare,” Xander said carefully, “will your Udonna take Zoe if we join up?”

“It won’t be safe there. Morticon knows where Rootcore is, and as soon as we rise he’ll send troops. The Rangers would take her.”

“No!” Zoe let go of his arm to throw her arms around him. “No. You’re not to go.”

“Zo…”

“I’ll stay with her,” Toby offered. “I don’t think I’d be much use as a fighter anyway.”

Xander nodded thanks to him, carefully loosening Zoe’s grip. “Zoe, here or the Rangers?”

“No,” she said quietly.

“Yes. Here or the Rangers?”

“Here.”

“Ok.” He carefully put Zoe’s hands into Toby’s. “I’ll be back, Zo.”

“He will,” Nick agreed. “Chip, are you coming?”

“Dangerous quest? Oh yeah!” He frowned suddenly, turning to Vida. “Dangerous?”

“Perilous,” she agreed. “Me too.”

“And me,” Maddie added. “One for all, and all that.”

“Right now?” Xander asked, looking at Nick.

“She’s waiting.”

“Right.” He crouched beside Zoe, murmuring softly to her. Nick rose to his feet, offering a hand up to Clare.

“Let’s go, guys,” he said softly, offering a hand to Maddie.

Xander was vaguely aware that they were moving, but he didn’t care much. “I’m coming back, Zo.”

“Don’t go.” The hopeless tone made it worse.

“I have to. We have to…we can’t live like this. If I can make it better for you I have to. Understand?”

Zoe nodded slowly, pulling away from Toby to scramble to her feet. Xander stood, slowly, watching her shuffle through her paper.

“I’ll look after her,” Toby murmured.

“Thanks, Toby.”

Zoe came back, holding a scrap of paper in her hand. “Good luck charm,” she said seriously, pushing it into his pocket. “Don’t look at it.”

“I’ll be back. Soon. I promise.”

She nodded quietly, sitting back down beside Toby, and Xander turned to leave.

Leelee was outside with the others, arguing over something; Xander wasn’t listening, wandering up to join them. Maddie slipped her hand into his, smiling at him.

“Right,” he said, interrupting Nick without apology. “Are we going?”

“Are you ready?” Nick asked, waving Leelee to silence when she started to complain.

“Yeah. Let’s just go.”

Nick nodded, turning to Leelee. “Where are we going?”

“Rootcore. Do you remember the way?”

“Yeah.”

Xander reached into his pocket, pulling out the scrap of paper and smiling faintly.

Zoe had cut it into a heart.






051 Red

“Hungry?” Toby asked brightly. Zoe shook her head, bent over her work, and he sighed. “You haven’t eaten all day.”

“You can have it.”

“Zoe…”

“No.”

He grimaced, tossing the spoon back into the pot. “What are you doing?”

She held up the paper without a word, and he studied it. “Tyrannosaurus?”

“Nick.”

“This is Nick?” Toby took it gently, turning it over in his hands. “How is it Nick?”

“Red is passion and determination and strength.” Under her breath, she added, “And war.”

“I see.” Toby carefully put the little figure back into her hands. “Well, I’m pretty sure Nick wouldn’t want you starving yourself to make him a dinosaur, so…”

Zoe sighed, laying the figure and her paper aside and taking the plate he passed her. “Can I come to the field with you tomorrow?”

“Xander won’t be there.”

“Don’t care. They might know something.”

“Eat it. All. And if it’s not raining tomorrow, and you eat breakfast, you can come.”

“Slave driver.”

“Here.” Toby picked up the little dinosaur, putting it on the shelf with the other pieces. “You don’t want to sit on it.”

Zoe took an absentminded bite, looking around the room. “Maybe we could pick up afterwards. So it’s nice when they come back.”

Toby glanced around. The room was pretty grimy, he had to admit, wood piled into every corner and dirt on every surface. “No water,” he said on principle.

“No water,” she agreed docily. “But we could tidy, and maybe wipe up some of the dirt. We don’t use all the blankets.”

“Yeah,” Toby agreed. “We can do that.” She started to stand, and he added quickly, “After you eat.”

“Spoilsport,” she muttered, dropping back down beside him.






005 Dead Last

“How long’s he been back?” Dana demanded.

Wes glanced past her, frowning. “An hour? I wasn’t really watching. Why?”

“He’s not supposed to be back until the shift change tonight.” Dana glared at her brother, currently absorbed in a discussion with Angela.

“You’re on stand-down too,” Wes pointed out.

“I’m not working.”

“Ryan!” Eric yelled from behind them. “Leelee,” he reminded Wes. Ryan waved a hand to acknowledge them, still talking.

“What about Leelee?” Dana asked curiously. They were all fairly confident by now that the blonde didn’t mean them any harm, but Ryan was still the only one on their side who trusted her fully.

Wes started to answer, but he paused when Ryan started jogging towards them.

“My bike broke down,” he said as soon as he saw Dana. “I hitched a ride with the Guardians. That’s why I’m early.”

“Nice try,” Eric murmured. “Leelee was here earlier.”

“Why?” Ryan asked.

“She took Nick and a bunch of his friends, five or six of them, off that way.” Eric gestured. “She wouldn’t tell us why, but they didn’t seem too worried, so we let them alone.”

“That’s Rootcore,” Ryan said, almost to himself. “Why is she…Dana, where’s Carter?”

“I’ll get him,” she said immediately, recognizing the tone of his voice.

“We have to go for a bit,” he told Wes.

“Why?”

“She’s calling the Staffs. That’s the signal for the Rebellion. If Nick and his friends can hold them, we’ll be ready.” He glanced around. “Miss Fairweather!”

“Shouldn’t she have told us this?” Eric protested.

“The good guys are always the last to know,” Ryan said absently. “Dead last.” Angela joined them, looking questioningly at them, and he continued, “You thought you could bring down the field. Are you ready to do that?”

“We haven’t tested it,” she protested.

“No tests. They’ll know.”

“It’s ready to go,” she said doubtfully. “But without testing…”

“We trust you.” He smiled quickly at her. “Be ready.” To Carter and Dana, he added, “Let’s go.”

“Where are we going?” Carter asked.

“Rootcore.”

“Why?”

“Do you never talk to him?” Ryan asked Dana. “I’ll tell you on the way; we really have to go.”

“Carter!” Eric pitched his headset over; Carter slung it around his neck, saluting quickly before following the others.






087 Spring

Leelee was silent for most of the journey, speaking only to guide them. Clare was so eager to see Udonna again that she kept drawing ahead; Nick called her back four times before finally taking her hand firmly in his.

“I’m sorry,” she offered. “I just want to see Udonna again so much.”

“I’ll bet she wants to see you again too, but there’s who knows what in these woods and you’re not getting ahead of us.”

“I grew up here,” Clare pointed out.

“You grew up here in peace,” Xander said. “There’s a war going on and they’ve had plenty of time to dig in. Nick’s right; stay with the group.”

“They can’t get in here,” Leelee said quietly. “Or at least, Morticon can, but he won’t leave the Master unless he has to. Koragg’s the only other one who could cross the barrier, and since he’s defected, we’re safe enough.”

“You’re here,” Vida pointed out. “How’d you cross it?”

“Nick let us through.”

“I thought the Underworld was in this dimension,” Chip protested.

“It is. But the Gate between their side and this side is still holding. It’s the Gate between their side and your world that’s the problem.” She glanced ahead. “Nearly there.”

Nick pulled Clare’s arm suddenly, knocking her backwards and blocking Xander in the same movement. “Wait…”

“Phineas!” Leelee called. “It’s just us!”

Phineas dropped, head first, to hang at their eye level. “Just checking. Can’t be too careful. You know why you’re here?”

“To carry the Staffs,” Nick said, letting go of Clare.

“If we can,” Xander added.

Phineas nodded, bouncing out of the tree and saluting to Clare. “Greetings, Gatekeeper.”

Clare automatically dipped a shallow curtsy. “Thank you.” Straightening, she added, “but I’m not the Gatekeeper.”

“If you say so,” Phineas agreed lightly. “Udonna is waiting.” Clare laughed, hugging the Troblin before whirling and plunging through a strand of trees.

Nick cursed, hurrying after her, but she hadn’t gone far. Just beyond the trees she was standing stock still, hands out to her sides; Nick really didn’t notice that, though, because his attention was on the man with the sword.

“Hey!” he yelled; the stranger hesitated, assessing him in one quick blink.

“Oh. It’s you.” He lowered the sword, taking a step back.

“Koragg,” Nick spat. He pushed Clare gently towards Chip, who backed her away several steps.

“Leanbow,” Phineas corrected him, deliberately stepping past him to stand beside the warrior.

“Leanbow’s dead,” Clare protested.

“Leanbow’s Koragg,” Nick said grimly. “Phineas, what the hell?”

“He was under a spell. The Master twisted him all around.”

“So we trust him now?”

“You trusted Koragg,” Leanbow pointed out. “You told him you weren’t his enemy.”

“He won’t leave Udonna again,” Phineas added.

“Leanbow,” Leelee said carefully, “meet Bowen.”

“Leelee!” Nick protested.

“Bowen’s dead,” Leanbow said at the same time.

“Yeah. That seems to happen a lot,” Nick agreed. “Clare, let’s go find Udonna.”

“Bowen, wait,” Leanbow said quickly, holding out a hand.

“My name is Nick.”

“That wasn’t helpful,” Xander told Leelee, moving to follow Nick.

“It’s who he is!” Leelee yelled after them, deliberately loud. Nick didn’t react, heading apparently at random for one of the trees.

“Udonna!” Clare pulled away from Nick again, throwing herself into Udonna’s arms.

“Clare. Oh, my dear one. Are you alright?”

“Fine, I’m fine, Udonna, oh…” She let go, stumbling back a step or two until Maddie steadied her. “Are you?”

Udonna’s eye flicked to Leanbow and back. “I am very well, my dear.”

“You remember Nick,” Clare said quickly. “And our friends, Xander, Chip, Maddie and Vida.”

Udonna nodded, studying them. “Yes. Nice to meet you.”

“Udonna.” Leanbow came to stand beside her, eyes on Nick. “That boy is Bowen.”

“No,” Nick said automatically. “I’m not.”

“Clare?” Udonna said breathlessly.

Clare bit her lip, looking helplessly at Nick. Finally she murmured “I’m sorry,” to him, taking a step away from him towards Udonna. “We think it’s possible. But he doesn’t remember anything. If he ever was Bowen, he’s not now.”

Udonna crumpled, gripping Leanbow’s arm, and Nick took an instinctive step forward. “I’m sorry for what happened to you and your son. But my name is Nick.”

“I understand,” she agreed quietly, taking a step forward to cup his face in one hand. “Oh, but you have power…”

Nick glanced from her to Leanbow, face hardening. “Let’s just get the Staffs,” he said, taking a step back away from her hand. Clare shifted uncomfortably as he strode past her into Rootcore.

“He is Bowen,” Udonna said quietly, looking after him.

“We’re pretty sure,” Clare agreed quietly. “But he just won’t accept it.”

“Springing Leanbow on him didn’t help, either,” Xander said. “No offense, but who wants to find out your long lost dad is the bad guy?”

“Xander,” Maddie protested, but Leanbow was nodding.

“Yes, I understand. I’ll stay out here until we know if the Staff will accept him or not.”

“It won’t reject him. The Snow Staff recognized him, the Fire Staff won’t do any less,” Leelee reminded them.

“It doesn’t matter,” Xander said impatiently. “Let’s just get the Staffs. We can worry about your family dynamics later on.”






080 Star

“Phineas, how much further?” Nick called.

“It should be right around here.”

“Should be?” Xander took three quick steps, catching Phineas’ arm. “Are we lost, Phineas?”

“No, I know where we are. He just keeps moving around.”

“Who does?”

“You didn’t all have to come.” He glanced back at Chip and girls, trailing several feet behind them. “I only needed Nick.”

“We agreed to fight in your war, but you’re not splitting us up. You want Nick, you get all of us.”

“It’s your war too.”

Duck!

Nick started to turn towards Chip; Xander, with slightly more presence of mind, caught his arm and dove for the ground. Phineas was yelling, but they couldn’t hear him over the sudden wind howling around them.

Nick happened to be looking at Xander, or he wouldn’t have realised the other boy was talking. He read ‘Holy shit…’ from his lips and turned awkwardly to follow his gaze.

There was a dragon standing over them.

Nick could hear Phineas yelling at it. He could hear Chip telling him to stay still, and he could feel Xander tugging at his leg, trying to get him to edge backwards. He was aware of all of it, but none of it mattered, because the Fireheart was standing over him.

He kicked free of Xander and rose to his feet. He was standing almost in the dragon’s jaws; if he stretched, he could reach it’s muzzle.

“Bowen,” Phineas said, suddenly very clear. “You should come out of there.”

“Fireheart won’t hurt me,” Nick said absently.

“You’re scaring the girls, mate.” Xander was harder to hear. “You’re scaring me. Come on.”

Nick stroked the dragon’s neck, once, before quite casually turning his back on him to rejoin Xander.

“Ok. How did you do that and where can I learn?” Chip asked eagerly.

Nick shrugged, glancing over his shoulder. “Beats me.”

“Fireheart is allied with the Red Warrior.” There was an odd tone in Phineas’ voice. “We weren’t sure it would work, since Koragg raised him.”

“You called him Bowen,” Maddie murmured.

“That’s his name.”

“My name is Nick,” he said sharply.

“No,” Phineas said just as sharply. “Only the Light could step so effortlessly into his powers. Only the Light could tame Fireheart with a look. Only the Light can rally all the magical beings to our side.”

“I thought they were following Udonna,” Xander protested.

“Most of them will. But if it becomes known that we have found the Light and he stands with us…no one’s forgotten how badly things have gone since you were lost.”

“Bowen was lost twenty years ago, and you won that war,” Nick pointed out. “I don’t know how to be him.”

Vida glanced back at Fireheart. “Trusting your instincts seems to be working pretty well.”

Nick grimaced. “Alright, Phineas. I’ll be your mascot. But they’re not my parents, understand? I have parents.”

“Yes, their names are Udonna and Leanbow.”

Xander clapped his hands loudly, cutting Nick off when he would have retorted. “Good. Everyone happy? Great, let’s go then. Unless you have any other surprises for us?”

“Nope, that’s it.”

“Nick, can we ride back?” Chip asked hopefully.

“No, he needs to get used to yo—us. Next time, maybe.” He looked back at the dragon. “Go on, Fireheart. We’ll call you when we need you.”

Fireheart snorted, pushing off. The kids threw up their arms against the downdraft; Chip nearly went flying, bracing himself against a tree. Nick was supporting the girls.

Fireheart cried once, an oddly mournful sound; Nick glanced up, but he didn’t speak. Xander was about to ask Chip about dragons—anything to break the silence—when there was a whoosh and a thousand tiny sparks, shining like stars, rained down around them. The sparks were too small even to burn, winking out as they neared the forest floor.

Maddie laughed, linking arms with Nick and drawing him on ahead, chatting quietly. Xander slowed, falling into step with Phineas.

“He’s very strong,” he said casually, gesturing vaguely towards Nick. Phineas grunted noncommittally, and he continued in the same casual tone, “Why does that scare you?”

“We knew the Light would be strong. But he’s beyond anything we dreamed of. It’s great for us, but if he’s turned…”

“Can he be?”

“The Master turned Leanbow. It can be done. Nick grew up in a world without magic, without knowing who he was, and now…he’s not learning anything, he’s just remembering it.”

“We’ll just have to make sure he doesn’t turn, then.” Xander clapped his shoulder, lengthening his stride to catch up with Chip.

“Yeah. We will,” Phineas murmured.






068 Lovers

“Udonna?” Clare ducked out of the tree—hard to reconcile the ruin with the home she’d grown up in—and surveyed the clearing. Leanbow was watching her and she flushed slightly. “I’m sorry, I was looking for Udonna.”

“I’m here, Clare.” Udonna stepped through the tree line. “What’s wrong?”

“Um, I finished the…” She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and started over. “I thought I’d go collect some stickleberries. We don’t have much actual food.”

“That’s fine, Clare. Don’t go too far.”

“Yes. I mean, no.” Clare scowled, scooping up a mostly intact basket and vanishing into the trees before either could speak.

“Your niece is a little excitable,” Leanbow observed neutrally.

“Our niece is the best apprentice I ever had,” Udonna retorted. “And one of the best people I know. But all of her life she and I have lived here alone. Now it’s the seat of the Rebellion, not the home she remembers, and I am not the aunt she knew.” She smiled. “She’ll adapt.”

“I’m sorry I missed so much of her life.” Leanbow glanced after her. “And that I make her uncomfortable now.”

Udonna smiled faintly. “Husband, we are alone together for the first time in twenty years. Do you really want to discuss Clare?”

Leanbow smiled, sheathing the sword he’d been practising with. “We could discuss…the Rebellion. The health of its’ leader, perhaps? How are you feeling, my love?”

Udonna smiled, brushing two fingers over his cheek. “Better than I have for some years.”



Clare stayed away as long as she possibly could; when she came back, basket full of the little berries, Udonna was alone in the clearing, face tipped back to the sunlight. “Udonna?” she asked hesitantly, pausing just inside the tree line.

“Yes, Clare.” Udonna looked across at her, smiling.

“Where’s Leanbow?”

“Resting.”

“Oh.”

Anything else she might have said was lost as the other teens arrived back from their outing, all chattering at once. They grouped around Udonna, talking excitedly about whatever it was they’d seen; only Nick paused beside her, absently stealing a berry from the basket and nibbling it. “Something wrong?”

“He’s her husband,” Clare blurted without thinking, blanching at the look on his face. “I’m…I mean, no. I’m sorry. I was thinking about something else.” She looped one arm through his, drawing him across to a fallen tree on one side of the clearing. “Tell me where you went. Why is Chip so excited?”

Nick considered her for a moment before nodding and launching into his story.






004 First

Ryan was quietly relieved when they reached the clearing where Rootcore stood; he hadn’t been sure he remembered the way. The clearing was empty apart from a man approaching middle age, practising sword forms.

“Excuse me, sir,” Carter said politely. “Is Leelee here? Or Nick?”

“Who are you?”

“Carter Grayson.” He held up his morpher.

“From the field.” The man eyed them before turning away. “Bowen!”

“Nick,” Ryan murmured to Carter and Dana.

Nick ducked out of what looked like a solid tree, blinking in surprise. “Ryan. Hey, man. We were getting ready to come see you.”

“She did do it, then.” Ryan gestured vaguely towards Nick’s belt. “That one talk to you too?”

Nick glanced down at the Staff. “No. This is the Fire Staff.”

“Are you a Ranger?” Carter asked.

Ryan shook his head. “That’s not morphing energy.”

“No. If these things were working I’d be Red Ranger.”

“First and strongest,” the man said, apparently to himself.

Nick threw him an annoyed look, continuing, “But they’re basically very heavy symbols. Phineas says all the magical creatures will rally when they see us.”

“Your friends?” Carter glanced at the tree.

“Yeah. Weird, huh? Udonna thinks our—“ He gestured vaguely. “Innate magic might have pulled us together.”

“Where’s Zoe?” Dana asked.

Nick made a face. “Hiding in town with a friend of ours. Clare didn’t think it’d be safe here, and she wanted to stay there rather than with you. If things get bad, we’ll get her to you.”

Carter nodded. “We’ll be evacuating anyway. Ms Fairweather’s ready to bring down the field.”

Nick hesitated. “Let me get Xander. We’re talking strategy, he needs to be in on it.” Visibly steeling himself, he added, “Leanbow?”

“Yes, son,” the man said.

Nick scowled, but his voice was even and calm when he said, “Join us?”

“Certainly.”

“Get Leelee, too,” Ryan suggested. “She knows her mom better than anyone.”

Nick nodded, disappearing back into the tree.






092 Holiday

Xander sat back, stretching. The end of his Staff caught in a rut in the ground and he jerked it free, scowling. “I think that’s as much as we can do for now.” He glanced at Leelee. “You know your part?”

“Get the civilians out.” Her voice was very small.

“What’s wrong?” Ryan asked.

“My mom will know.”

Ryan winced. “You don’t have to fight, Leelee.”

“But if you don’t,” Zander added, “we can’t let you go back to her. It’s gone too far.”

“If I don’t go back, she’ll think I’m with you anyway,” Leelee protested.

“She won’t announce you’re a traitor if she can avoid it,” Leanbow told her. “It weakens her. Morticon will be looking for ways to discredit her, with the Master so close to rising. She won’t disclaim you.”

“There are worse things,” Leelee murmured.

“So let it mean something,” Nick urged her. “Stand with us against the Darkness.” Leelee shuddered, but she nodded. “The sun’s setting,” he added more gently. “You should go; she’ll be looking for you.”

“Don’t come back here,” Leanbow added. “It’ll be within two days. Watch for the signal.”

“Xander, are we done?” Nick asked. “I’ll walk her back.”

“Yeah. Take Maddie or Clare with you. Buddy system,” he added when Nick started to protest.

“I’ll go,” Dana offered uncertainly. Xander nodded, and she stood quickly, following Nick.

Xander waited until they were gone before leaning forward, watching Carter and Ryan intently. “Is this plan gonna work?”

“It’s a good plan,” Carter assured him.

“I hear a but coming.”

“Necrolai has nothing to lose,” Leanbow told him. “Most of the able-bodied of your town are already gone to the mines. She doesn’t need your infrastructure. If she thinks she’s losing, she’ll just destroy the town and move to another.”

“The mines.” Xander ground the heel of one hand into his eye. “Even if we win in the town we’ve got to move on the mine. God, this is never going to be over, is it?”

“Worry about the town first,” Ryan advised him. “We have some favours we can call in. You won’t be alone.”

“Favours?” Xander repeated.

“Other Rangers. We haven’t called them yet because Rangers are warriors and we’ve had nothing to fight. But they’re ready.”

Xander nodded. “Alright. Good to know.” He glanced up as Nick and Dana came back into the clearing. “Ok?”

“Yeah, it’s fine.” Nick paused behind him. “Are we done?”

“Yeah. We’re looking at the day after tomorrow.”

“Why not tomorrow?”

“Day off. A little holiday.” He shifted, trying to see Nick without turning his back on the others.

“Once you start fighting, you can’t stop,” Leanbow said abruptly. “Not in this War. Enjoy one last day.”

Nick had tensed at his voice but he didn’t acknowledge him, only nodded to Xander. “I’ll tell the others,” he offered, barely waiting for his nod before heading back into Rootcore.

“Leanbow, can you grab Chip and the girls for a bit? Try and get some kind of training done. Vee should be ok, I think, but…just keep ‘em occupied for a while, ok? I’m going to walk the Rangers back.”

Leanbow nodded, but he didn’t move. Xander sighed, rising to his feet and looking at the others. “Ready?”






089 Fall

“Xander?” Ryan said carefully as they walked.

“Yeah,” Xander said, slowing his pace slightly. Dana breathed a quiet sigh of relief; the boys had longer legs than she did and she’d been struggling.

“Who’s Leanbow?”

Xander shook his head, and Carter said quietly, “We need to know, Xander, if we’re going to fight with him.”

“He’s Udonna’s husband,” Xander said after a minute. “He fought in the first War; he forced the Master back behind the gates. He’s why they won. But the Master took him, and turned him.”

“Into what?” Dana asked, slipping her hand into Ryan’s. He smiled quickly at her, attention on Xander.

“Into Koragg.” Xander was very carefully not looking at them. “As punishment for fighting against him, the Master twisted him to fight against everything he believed in. The only part of him that survived was his honour; that was all Leanbow.”

“You guys trust him?” Carter asked.

“Nick doesn’t,” Ryan added.

“Nick’s…that’s personal. Udonna says that he’s good now, that she’d know. Phineas agrees. No matter who he is, Leanbow will not betray Udonna.”

“What’s wrong with Nick?” Dana asked, tightening her grip on Ryan’s hand as they stepped over a fallen tree.

Xander grimaced. “Udonna and Leanbow may be his parents. Phineas persuaded him to agree, to help bolster support and morale, but he’s faking it. He doesn’t believe they are, or he doesn’t want to believe, I don’t know which. Nick’s alright with Udonna, but he just can’t stand Leanbow.”

“Actual parents?” Dana said in disbelief, pausing. Ryan tugged lightly at her hand, bracing her as she slid in the mud.

“Nick’s adopted, but they think that’s where his magic came from. Apparently he’s better at it than he should be, even though we don’t have any. Or something. He has aptitude.” Xander shrugged, waving it away. “He listens to Leanbow, even when he’s pretending not to, and he’ll fight with him. I’m not going to look for more than that. Not this side of the fight.”

“If he’s not…” Carter started, but Ryan interrupted him.

“How’s Leanbow?”

“Leanbow doesn’t really talk to any of us, so I don’t know.” Ryan raised an eyebrow, and Xander sighed. “He calls it his Fall. He says he Fell from the Light into the Darkness. He’s not…I think he’s as well as he can be, really. He’s back with Udonna, that makes up for a lot.”

“If he’s Koragg, he’s been back with Udonna for a while now,” Carter pointed out. “Wasn’t he holding her?”

“He thought he was. Phineas was ready to break her out early on.” He shook his head when Dana started to ask. “I don’t know. Something about keeping Necrolai out of power. I wasn’t really following.”

Carter glanced at Ryan, but neither spoke again until they reached the edge of the field. The camp was still some distance away, but there was no way they could get lost now.

“You guys need anything?” Carter asked.

“No. We’ll see you day after tomorrow.” He hesitated for a moment.

“What?” Dana asked gently.

“If Zoe comes to the field…”

“What do you want us to tell her?” Ryan asked.

“That we’re safe. We’re ok. And to follow Leelee, no matter what.”

“Got it,” Dana promised. “We’ll tell her.”

Xander nodded, turning away and vanishing back into the trees.

Dana slipped her arm through Ryan’s. “You ok, big brother?”

“Hmm? Yeah, of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”

Dana shrugged, looking after Xander. “That story was a bit familiar.”

“Oh. No.” He shook his head quickly. “I’m fine.”

“Sure?”

“Dana.” He looked down at her, smiling. “I promise I’m fine, ok? I’m going to go talk to the Guardians on duty. Circulate Zoe’s description.”

“We’ll find Wes and the others,” Carter agreed.

“I’ll catch up with you in a few minutes,” Ryan promised, heading towards the line at the edge of the field.






057 Black

Nick stood, arms folded, and watched Leanbow training the others. He’d been standing there since they’d begun practising, ignoring Leanbow’s invitations to join in.

He didn’t react when Leanbow dismissed the others, either, only watched them head inside. He smiled at Maddie when she caught his eye, but the smile vanished as soon as she passed him.

Chip paused beside him. “Nick, are you coming in?”

“In a minute,” he said absently.

Chip followed his gaze to Leanbow and started to say something, but Vida was pulling him away before he could get the words out. “Let them deal with it,” she told him firmly.

“They’re not dealing with it,” he protested.

“Then let them not deal with it. You can’t get in the middle of this.”

“Can you still do it?” Nick demanded. He was peripherally aware that Chip and Vida had halted, but all his attention was on Leanbow.

“Can I still do what?” he asked calmly.

“Wear the armour. Be Koragg.”

“I will never be Koragg again.”

“Not really what I was asking.”

Leanbow frowned. “What were you asking?”

“Koragg’s armour is intimidating. If we could turn that against them…”

“We’re fighting Hydiacs, son. They don’t feel fear.”

“Don’t call me that,” Nick snapped. “You’re telling me it wouldn’t throw them at all?”

“They don’t have brains. They just obey orders.”

“So they’d obey Koragg?”

“No. When I defected their obedience was redirected to Necrolai. Wearing the armour would only give them a target.”

“How do you know unless you try?”

“I have my own armour. I won’t wear his.”

“You’re a coward,” Nick said as though surprised.

“You will believe nothing else of me,” Leanbow said quietly. “I will not endanger myself, and thus Udonna, to earn your good graces.”

“With Koragg’s armour…”

No!

“Nick?” Phineas said warily.

Nick whipped around; Phineas was standing half a pace in front of Chip and Vida. “He’s a coward,” he said hotly, pointing accusingly back at Leanbow.

“Leanbow is the bravest warrior our world has ever known,” Phineas said evenly.

“Yeah? Well, twenty years as the Master’s plaything haven’t done him any favours.”

Vida shouted a warning, but Leanbow was faster and had Nick pinned against a tree before he could react. “Is this what you wanted?” he gritted, and it was Koragg’s voice, Koragg’s featureless visor staring at him from only inches away.

Nick laughed breathlessly. “It’s honest, at least.”

Leanbow let him go, taking a step or two back as the armour vanished. “You think I’m lying?”

“I think you’re afraid of Koraag! Big bad boogyman in the black armour. But he could help us.”

“No. Only Leanbow will stand by Udonna’s side.”

“Then I was right about you all along.” Nick turned away, pushing past the others without stopping.






090 A New Year

“That’s not a plan,” Eric said flatly.

“Yes, it is. It’s a good plan,” Carter said patiently.

“You’re counting on too many outside things. You can’t be sure it’ll happen the way you need it to, and as soon as one thing goes wrong you’re screwed.”

“The only thing we’re counting on Miss Fairweather, and she’s never let us down,” Ryan told him.

“And Leelee?”

“She won’t let us down either. This is going to work.”

“Wes?” Eric demanded.

“It’s not any worse than our last stand.”

“Which we were losing until your team came back! And even then we didn’t defeat Ransik, he turned himself in.”

Wes started to argue, changed his mind, and turned to Carter instead. “I can get more Rangers here. Cole’s team is ready, and Tommy’s passed word to most of the others.”

“Cole’s team have no powers,” Dana reminded him.

“Neither does Xander’s,” Carter said, troubled. “And Wild Force have experience.”

“We can’t change the plan now,” Ryan told them. “It’s Xander’s team. It’s his fight. He makes the decisions.”

“He’s seventeen,” Eric protested. “He works in a music shop.”

“No. He keeps people alive.”

“He’s not a Ranger.”

“As good as, and Udonna and Leelee are answering to him. He wants to keep the other Rangers for the mine assault, so that’s what we’re doing.” He glanced at Wes. “You could ask them to be ready, though.”

“You think they can do it?” he asked, glancing from Ryan to Carter to Dana and back.

“Xander asked that too,” Carter said thoughtfully.

“They’re pretty determined,” Dana told him. “And they’ve raised the magical community, on both sides of the field. If we keep up our end, we can do it.”

Kelsey bumped into Carter, rebounding and almost falling before Eric caught her arm. “Thanks. Sorry,” she added. “Dana, the Guardian’s head medic is looking for you. He wants you to sign off on the requisition before he sends it.”

“Triple everything,” Eric told her quietly.

“I will,” she agreed.

“Why?” Kelsey frowned, looking around the loose circle. “What’s going on?”

“We’re ready,” Ryan said simply.

She got it straight away. “When?”

“Day after tomorrow.”

“Wow. Ok.” She turned suddenly, skating away, but she was back before they could react, arms full of bottles and Chad and Joel behind her. “Toast?” she suggested, offering her armload to Carter.

“To what?” Eric asked, taking two and passing one to Wes.

“Success,” Kelsey said with a shrug. “Health, wealth, the new Rangers…”

“Not Rangers,” Ryan corrected her automatically. “Well, they’re not,” he added when she glared at him.

“How about…” Dana’s lips moved for a moment as she considered. “A year where no new evil rises.”

“Hear hear.” Ryan reached to tip his glass against hers.

“A new year,” Carter echoed, lifting his drink.

“A new year,” the others repeated.

No one was surprised when the Guardians nearest them picked up the toast; it passed rapidly back and forth, echoing around them as the camp prepared for the final battle.






058 Morph! (Change)

Leelee paced back and forth on the dais in the public square, eyeing the people huddled in front of her. Even with Toby’s help, there were barely half as many people as there should have been, and she wondered quietly how many were hiding and how many—weren’t.

“Leelee,” Toby said quietly from in front of the stage. She glared at him out of habit; there were only two of her boys left, and in a few minutes it wouldn’t matter anyway. “People are going to start slipping away. You have to give them something.”

“I can’t tell them what’s happening! My mom can’t find out yet!”

“Do something,” he advised her. “Fast.”

Leelee closed her eyes for exactly two seconds before raising her voice. “Hydiacs!”

The beings appeared all around the square, hemming in the crowd, and she smiled lazily. “Her,” she added, gesturing towards the front of the stage. The two closest Hydiacs shoved Toby aside, snatching Zoe and pushing her up beside Leelee before the crowd could react.

“Down,” she said almost absently. One of the Hydiacs caught Zoe’s shoulder, forcing her down to her knees. She was shaking, Leelee noted.

Raising her voice, she declared, “This girl’s brother is leading a rebellion against us, against our Master and his representative, my mother. Xander, wherever you are; your rebellion will fail. Show yourself! Or your sister, and your friend, and all these people will pay!”

The crowd surged, but the Hydiacs held and they quieted back down, some sobbing quietly. Zoe was shaking harder, watching her with real fear, and below them, Toby was fighting to get to them. He was screaming at them, abuse at Leelee and reassurance at Zoe, but he hadn’t forgotten himself so much as to call her a traitor or even imply it. That was good; they might get out of this yet.

“You have half an hour, Xander,” she said out loud, watching as Zoe’s eyes widened. To give the girl credit, she kept right on screaming without missing a beat.

“Then we’ll have some fun,” Leelee murmured, settling in to wait him out.




Clare was shaking. The girl had refused to stay behind—literally wouldn’t even discuss it, changing the subject every time Udonna brought it up. Both Phineas and Leanbow had promised to watch over her during the battle, easing Udonna’s mind a little.

“Cold, my dear?” she asked quietly.

“Yes,” Clare said, far too quickly. “Yes, it’s cold.”

Leanbow draped his jacket over her shoulders as he passed, pacing along the ragged line of their defenders. Clare called a soft thank you after him, pulling it tightly around herself.

“You don’t have to fight,” Udonna said quietly.

Clare didn’t answer for so long Udonna thought she wouldn’t; when she looked sideways the girl was murmuring under her breath. “Clare?”

“It’s about me,” she said without looking up. “Some of it. How will it look to our people if Niella’s daughter, Udonna’s apprentice, is hiding? We do not run, and I will not be the only one of our family who hides.”

It took Udonna a moment to find her voice; she was suddenly struck with the realisation that Clare, while she looked the same, had grown up during the months they’d been separated.

“Niella would be very proud of you.” Clare smiled, eyes bright, and Udonna added, “I am so proud of you, my dear one.”



Further along the line Phineas stood with Leanbow, eyeing the Trolls. They hadn’t tried to eat anyone yet, but neither they nor the Goblins would listen to Phineas and all their instructions had to come through Clare.

“Leanbow?”

“Yes.”

“Can we win this battle?”

Leanbow didn’t answer. Phineas didn’t bother repeating himself, just watched the old warrior pace away again. Mid-step his outline shimmered, clearing into an odd mix of Koragg’s old armour and Leanbow’s even older Mystic Warrior armour. Phineas had heard Leanbow’s argument with his son and he recognised the compromise, even if Nick would most likely never see it.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” he murmured, settling against the nearest tree to wait.




Wes studied the little machine. “It doesn’t look big enough.”

“It’s not the size that matters, Wes,” Kelsey said solemnly, spinning to clap a hand over Joel’s mouth before he could say anything.

“This’ll work,” Angela promised him, making a couple of adjustments.

Wes nodded, touching his radio. “All squad leaders, sound off and status.”

He could see Eric roll his eyes, but the Quantum Ranger didn’t protest despite the fact that they’d already sounded off twice.

Further along the field Carter was half-listening, watching Ryan and Dana talk to Captain Mitchell. Chad wandered up to stand beside him, headset pulled down around his neck. “Feels odd, doesn’t it?”

“Hmm?”

“Well, it’s our biggest battle since Silver Hills. But we’re taking orders from someone else. It’s weird.” He watched Ryan insisting on something and Dana trying to stay out of it. The Mitchell siblings were two of the most physically expressive people he knew, and even without hearing anything they were saying he could follow the conversation well enough. “Must be really weird for them.”

“Yeah,” Carter agreed absently. “Are we ready?”

“Final checks are in. We’re ready.”

Carter nodded, catching Dana’s eye and gesturing; she nodded, laying a hand on her father’s arm and speaking quietly. Captain Mitchell froze for a moment before nodding, pulling both his children into a hug; the move turned him so he could see Carter and Chad, still watching.

Carter drew himself up as tall as he could and saluted. Chad hastily followed suit. Captain Mitchell nodded, releasing Ryan and Dana and watching them join their team.

Joel glanced up as they gathered around the machine, absently passing Carter a flare gun. “You’re on the first bus out of here, right?” he insisted, continuing a conversation he’d been having.

“I have a personal Guardian escort waiting to take me away,” Angela assured him, leaning over the machine to kiss his cheek. “I’ll be fine.”

Carter looked down at the flare gun, offering it to Ryan. Light flared as he reached for it and it was the Titanium Ranger who took it from him, weighing it for a moment before aiming it upwards. He waited for the others to morph before firing it.

“Ten,” Carter said, watching it arc over the field. “Nine. Eight.”




“That’s it.” Xander turned his back on the flare to look at the others. “Last chance.”

“Seven,” Nick said, almost under his breath. “Six.”

Somewhere behind them Toby was yelling, calling for someone to help him (“Won’t someone please help me?”) None of them had reacted, to him or to Zoe’s sobs; Leelee would protect them, or she’d pay for her failure.

“Five. Four.”

“We’re with you,” Maddie told him.

“Three.”

“No matter what,” Vida agreed.

“Two.”

Chip didn’t speak, just grinned.

Nick caught his eye, smiled grimly, and raised his voice. “One.”

Xander pulled out his Staff, holding it over his head. “Magical Source!”

“Mystic Force!” the others answered, and the call was taken up by Slannen and his people, echoing around them and filling the air.

They charged.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-05-01 09:57 am (UTC)
silvercaladan: (Default)
From: [personal profile] silvercaladan
buh.

just buh. Did i just mention I stayed up all night rereading this again, it was that good?

:D

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