Wind and Thunder: Chapter Twenty-three
Mark of Sorrow
Justin sat in the deserted gym of the Angel's Haven Children's Shelter as Simon walked in.
"Hey," Simon said as he walked towards his friend. "Ashley told me you were here...do you need to be alone, or do you want some company?"
Justin shrugged. "It doesn't really matter."
Simon walked over and took a seat next to Justin. They sat silently before Justin spoke. "I used to live here," he said. "Now it's just...look at it."
Simon's empathic senses, a mysterious ability that had nothing to do with The Power, could feel Justin's guilt and pain pouring out in waves.
"At least Erika was safe," Simon said of Justin's sister, who had suddenly moved to Africa nearly a year ago.
"Yeah..." Justin said. "Yeah."
Their communicators toned, and Simon answered. "This is Simon, go ahead."
"Hey, it's Rachel," she said. "We're here with Gozen, ready to go when you guys are."
The situation in Angel Grove didn't improve after the defeat of the undead. If anything, the situation got worse. Tommy and Ashley sat in Ops and watched a news report of riots and looting breaking out across the city. The broadcast was by Lynn Holtkamp, who had survived the undead attacks.
"The city is in panic," she said. "Although individual quarantine zones within the city are no longer in effect, Angel Grove itself remains a quarantine zone, cut off from the rest of the state, country, and world. Riots around city borders have left 67 dead, after the National Guard was forced to open fire on a group of civilians that rushed the quarantine gate. Multiple cases of looting have been reported citywide, overwhelming law enforcement agencies that haven't been able to maintain order."
The monitor showed images of short-tempered crowds at the city's borders, where the National Guard had built a tall, gated fence complete with lookout towers. Center for Disease Control and military vehicles were parked around the gates, where soldiers dressed in riot gear tried to calm the crowd. People shouted and cursed, some cried, and several threw bottles at the gate.
The view shifted to Angel Grove's Crown Point neighborhood, which had been one of the quarantine zones within the city. A group of men broke through the window of an electronics store and grabbed all the blue-ray disc players and flat-screen televisions they could carry.
Ashley leaned back in her chair. "We can't fight something like this..."
Tommy shook his head as he leaned forward. "As long as the quarantine's up, people can't get back to their normal lives. At least what passed as normal. They're panicking." His knuckles whitened from clenching his fists. "Why haven't they lifted the blasted quarantine."
Ashley arced an eyebrow. "Blasted?"
Tommy shrugged. "Trying to watch my language for Tyler's sake." He scoffed at himself and shook his head. "Which is pretty ridiculous when you think about what I put him through. I'll let him see all that carnage in Demon City, but heaven forbid he hear the f-word."
"It's not ridiculous," Ashley said. "You did what you had to do."
Tommy sighed. "Subject change...how are Simon and the others? We haven't heard from them in a while."
Ashley pulled up a data window on one of her side monitors. "They're still with Gozen."
Gozen's pocket dimension looked like a small garden from feudal Japan, with paths of rock winding around a creek, next to a hut with sliding doors made of wooden frames and rice paper. The five rangers followed Gozen along the path towards the hut.
"So...explain something," Rachel said. "You're from another planet, yes? Why the Japanese motif?"
Gozen kept her gaze ahead, her stare cold and emotionless. "Do you really think the gods that influenced your cultures limited themselves to one world?"
Rachel shook her head. "I don't think the 'gods' had anything to do with it."
Her father was a Bible-thumping Baptist, and although she resented his attitude and rejected his organized religion, she believed in one God.
"You would be surprised," Gozen said. "All religions, belief systems, across the stars, share more similarities than differences. Yet it is those differences that define us."
Blake scoffed. "Religion is a joke."
Rachel shot him a look, and Blake immediately regretted saying anything. "To...you know...some people," he said. "Which is unfortunate."
"Why are you taking us here?" Hunter asked Gozen.
"Training," Gozen said. "Your progression with the Ninjetti arts has stagnated. You have mastered too few techniques."
Simon narrowed his eyes defensively. "We've done fine so far."
"You will need to do better than fine," Gozen said. "Ninjetti allows you to tap into all aspects of your being. Body. Soul. Spirit. Mind. Yet you limit yourselves..."
Her voice trailed off as she and the rangers entered her small fortress. None of them noticed a pair of eyes watching from the shadows.
A large tree grew from the center of Gozen's hut. The tree was made of twisting, wooden vines that reached towards the ceiling, where the branches arced downward, covered with white leaves tinted purple.
"A tree inside?" Blake said.
"This is no ordinary tree," Gozen said as she walked over and placed her hand along the bark. "This tree is all that remains of my homeworld."
"What happened?" Rachel asked.
"I was only 16 of your years when Sauron attacked my world, four of your years ago," Gozen said.
"Whoa," Justin said. "You're twenty? I thought you were, I don't know, one of those ageless, thousand-year-old people I keep hearing about."
Gozen looked at Justin, stared silently, and looked back at the tree. "My family was strong with magick. They were targeted by Sauron, not only because of their power, but because of something they possessed. The ter'an'geal. A mystic medal, said to be forged by the One Power before the Wheel of Time. It's been passed down in my family for countless generations."
"What does it do?" Hunter asked.
"It unlocks a weapon," Gozen said. "The Arrow of Althai'lael. In myth, long forgotten by those outside of my family, the Arrow had the power to slay the gods. Sauron wanted it. But my father, he gave the medal to me, and sealed it...inside of me."
"Why are you telling us this?" Simon asked.
"So that you understand," Gozen said. "I too have known loss. I too have known the responsibility of great power. And yet I persist. You must persist too. For your greatest battle-" She suddenly narrowed here eyes and looked towards the door. "We are not alone."
Simon and his team armed their bracers.
“Ninjetti change! Ha!”
Energy twirled and crackled around them as they morphed into their Ranger forms.
Feral smiled and purred with amusement. She pounced forward, burst through the wall, and landed on the grass outside the hut with a tuck and roll.
The villain leapt towards the nearest shadow to escape into its darkness, but the Wind Power Rangers snapped a volley of Gyro Blade that sparked against her armor and knocked her from the air.
Feral landed in a crouched position, and the five Power Rangers leapt from the hut to face her.
Suddenly, a 6-foot-tall shark fin cut through the ground and slashed past the Rangers with bursts of spark. The fin retracted beneath the dirt, and Vexacus leapt from beneath the surface. The villain jumped through the air and landed next to Feral.
The Seventh Spear of the Jakanja Seven Spears of Darkness laid a hand on the crouched cat warrior's head. "Feral is my eyes and ears," he said. "That foolish Gozen has betrayed her own secret. The Arrow of Althai'lael will belong to the Jakanja."
Shurikenger suddenly somersaulted through the air and landed between the Power Rangers and villains. The Green Ranger unsheathed his sword and faced the Jakanja. "Yamero! Your foul taint will not touch her!"
"It will do more than that," Vexacus said. "It will penetrate her. And it will feel good."
Lothor sat back in his throne and stared at a viewscreen that displayed an image of Gozen's pocket dimension. He was able to view the dimension through a link provided by Vexacus, who infiltrated the area through the shadows along with Feral.
"The Arrow of Althai'lael..." he whispered. A weapon powerful enough to destroy gods. Could the arrow be the key to revealing the Final Prophecy? To tapping into the Ultimate Secret and all its power? Either way, an arrow powerful enough to destroy gods was too tempting to resist. "That arrow will be mine..."
Feral extended her hand and produced a wave of shadow that washed over the Rangers and slid across the ground behind them. The shadow spread across the ground like a blanket, and six duplicates of the Rangers arose from the darkness. Each duplicate wore a belled collar around the neck.
Hurricane Red turned towards the new opponents and groaned with annoyance. "Why are there always evil duplicates. I hate evil duplicates."
The duplicates dashed forward to attack, and the Rangers returned the charge.
Hurricane Red chopped his blade at his clone, but the copy blocked the blow and slashed across the Red Ranger's chest with a butterfly pattern that sparked on impact.
Nearby, the Crimson duplicate charged his staff with shadow energy and swung hard enough to knock the Crimson Ranger's staff away and slash across his chest with a burst of spark that whipped him off his feet.
Meanwhile Hurricane Yellow swung his sword low towards his duplicate, but the copy Ranger used a Lion Hammer to knock the sword away and bash against the Yellow Ranger's chest with a burst of spark.
The Yellow Ranger crashed against the ground, next to where Hurricane Blue faced off with her duplicate.
The Blue duplicate thrust her hands forward and fired a Hydro Blast that splashed against the Blue Ranger with a shower of sparks that knocked her off her feet.
Navy Thunder would have dashed to help her if he didn't have his own problem to deal with. He speared his staff against his copy, and the duplicate chopped a staff against the Navy Ranger's collar bone. The blows sparked on impact, and the duplicate leaned forward and fired a burst of lightning from his forehead. The lightning lashed out across Navy Thunder's armor with bursts of spark that forced him backward.
Nearby, Shurikenger pulled a small sphere out from behind his back. “Sonic Style! Sound Barrage Jutsu!”
Shurikenger charged the ball with jade-tinted energy and hurled it at his duplicate. But the Green copy armed his sword and scabbard like a club and spun like a tornado to bat the energy sphere back at the Green Ranger. The sphere separated into dozens of bolts that exploded against the Green Ranger's chest with bursts of spark that knocked him off his feet.
Shurikenger crashed against the ground and rolled back to his feet as the other Rangers regrouped around him.
Vexacus laughed as he and Feral watched from the sidelines. "How is it that you six Rangers have survived for so long?"
Navy Thunder aimed his staff at the villain. "By killing assholes like you!"
The five copied Rangers combined their weapons. "Thunderstorm Striker!" the duplicates shouted with eerie, echoed voices. "Fire!"
The blast exploded against the Rangers with a concussive, explosive force that burst into flames and knocked them off their feet.
The duplicates moved to attack again, but a wave of Holy light twisted around them and vaporized them with bursts of power. The Rangers and villains turned to see Gozen standing with her palm extended.
Gozen looked at the villains with a face as expressionless as always. "Leave this place."
Vexacus laughed, a rumbling, metallic noise from the back of his throat. "I want what you have."
"You will not take it," she said.
"I won't," Vexacus said. He looked to the Rangers. "But they will."
He nodded a silent command for Feral to strike, and the cat creature extended her hand and fired strands of shadow that wrapped around the six Rangers' necks and formed belled collars. The collars let Feral take control of the Rangers' bodies, and they were powerless to stop her.
Hurricane Red struggled as his body turned, and his arm raised a sword towards Gozen. The other Rangers did the same. "Gozen..." Hurricane Red said through a clenched jaw. "Run!"
A slight look of panic flashed across Gozen's face. It was at that moment Vexacus sensed a power within her stir, as if made vulnerable.
Against their will, the Power Rangers surrounded Gozen and chopped their blades at her. She ducked, weaved, and used her dagger to parry their blows, but she dared not strike back.
Vexacus took careful notice of the fear in her eyes, which became stronger with every strike. And the more scared she became, the more vulnerable she seemed. "Her demeanor..." the villain whispered. "Could it be? Yes..."
Vexacus charged forward, and one-by-one, he hacked the Rangers aside with bursts of spark that knocked them off their feet. He turned his attention to Gozen. He could nearly taste her fear.
Gozen extended her hand to hurl a bolt of Holy energy. But nothing happened.
Vexacus laughed mockingly at the girl. "It's as I expected. As long as you stay calm, emotionless, the medal is protected and gives you power," Vexacus said. "But when you know fear, you are vulnerable."
Shurikenger struggled to reach up from the ground, but Feral's collar held him down. "Get away from her!"
Vexacus kicked the Green Ranger upside the head. "Silence." He turned his attention back towards Gozen.
The villain lunged and chopped his massive blade at Gozen, and the girl sidestepped away while slapping her dagger against the villain's weapon. She moved in and swung her dagger towards the villain's chest, but Vexacus grabbed her wrist and twisted, and the dagger fell to the ground.
Vexacus slammed the hilt of his sword across Gozen's face and knocked her from her feet.
Gozen collapsed onto all fours, and a pulse of golden energy flashed within her forehead. Vexacus snarled with delight at what he saw- it was the medal.
The villain lifted Gozen by the throat, and he phased his free hand through her head. Gozen opened her mouth wide with a silent scream as Vexacus pulled the medal free and dropped Gozen to the ground.
Vexacus laughed mockingly and turned towards Feral. "Come," he said. "We're leaving."
Feral leapt to the villain's side, and she placed a hand on Vexacus' shoulder. They sank into the shadows and vanished.
The collars around the Rangers' necks snapped off and fell to the ground, and the Rangers regained control of their movements.
"Gozen-sama!" Shurikenger shouted as he ran to her side and kneeled down next to her while cradling her head in his arms. "Gozen-sama!"
His cried were no use. She was dead.
Lothor sat back in his throne and laced his fingers together. The corner of his mouth lifted with an evil, lopsided grin as Vexacus entered the bridge of the Jakanja ship.
Vexacus kneeled at Lothor's throne and extended his hand, which held the medal. "The medal is yours..."
A feral grin spread across Lothor's face. "Yes..." He rose from his throne and stared down at the medal. "With this, the Final Prophecy will be fulfilled...and I will become the most powerful creature in the universe."
Lothor reached down to take the medal. And Vexacus unsheathed his sword, lunged forward, and plunged the blade through Lothor's midsection. Lothor opened his eyes wide with pain and fury as he grasped the blade. "You..."
"Master!" Zergain unsheathed his swords and lunged at Vexacus, but a black bolt of energy struck the villain in the back with a burst of spark that knocked him to the ground.
Kapri unsheathed her sword, and Marah pulled a pair of stakes from behind her back. But blasts of black energy sparked against the women and knocked them off their feet.
Satora'kura screamed and leapt for cover behind Lothor's throne, but a spinning blade of red energy sparked against his back and knocked him to the ground.
Zergain stumbled to his feet, gripped his blades, and swung the weapons at the red-clad fighter. Red Python swung one dagger to block the sabers and swung a second dagger to slash across the villain's chest with a burst of spark. She snapped a spin kick that bashed across Zergain's helmet.
Near his throne, Lothor tried to crawl back to his feet as he grasped the gaping wound in his gut, which was soaked with blood and black ichor. The villain looked up to see a man step onto the bridge.
The stranger wore a long, black jacket that matched the color of his long hair. His skin was pale, and he appeared Asian.
"Who..." Lothor hacked and coughed up blood.
"I am Akuma," the Dark Man said. "These are my Marauders."
Vexacus stood behind his true master and swung his sword casually over his shoulder. Shadow Blade crossed his arms over his chest and slumped his shoulders as if annoyed. Red Python tilted her head with amusement and leaned her hands over Shadow Blade's shoulders. And Feral dropped from the shadows and crouched next to the feet of Vexacus.
Akuma reached down, grabbed Lothor by the throat, and lifted him from his feet. "You've been slowing things down, Lothor...I am here to speed things up." He sat the injured villain on his throne and stepped back. "I've been watching you. I know about your...unique personality. The persona you developed in your own mind. Tao Zento."
Akuma slightly lifted his hands, and invisible strands of energy stabbed through Lothor's mind like hot needles. The villain opened his mouth to scream, but only a gurgling escaped his lips. Akuma smiled with amusement at the sight of Lothor's torment. Such a simple creature. "Time for Tao Zento to wake up."
To be continued...Chapter 24