Friday, 29 February 2008

Cymru - Chapter 6


The first Saxon was running low. She kicked him in the face. Two more appeared to either side; she used the face of the first as a launch pad and somersaulted back, drawing her daggers as she did so. The two new Saxons ran at her, and she launched herself at them, twisting her body neatly in the air so that her dagger met the throat of the one and her heel the throat of the other. Before she could land, the first, nose bloodied and broken, leapt at her. Her second dagger stopped him.

As she landed, a few more Saxons hit the ground to her left, and Aerona realised that Briallu had entered the fray of her own accord. Her hooves clove a pair of Saxon helms in two, and her wings flattened a group of others. Without thinking, Aerona jumped off of a Saxon corpse to land neatly astride Briallu’s broad back, and spun the mare to face the enemy.

Which was nearly a mistake. Aerona was feeling too territorial, and hadn’t yet fastened the flying harness – a losing combination. Briallu picked up on her mood and reared up defensively, spreading her wings wide to either side in a classic display of meraden intimidation and forcing Aerona to grip her long mane hurriedly to stay on. Forty Saxon faces peered at her through the trees in front of them, momentarily at a loss. They were eyeing the Saxon corpses lying in front of them, and Aerona could almost see the hesitation in their eyes as they marked that a single Rider had already done all that.

Behind her, the airbus began to lift slowly off the ground, and the Saxons hefted their swords, bursting out of the forest. Aerona kicked Briallu at those closest to the airbus, desperate to keep them away. She was vaguely aware of the children shouting inside – Bronwen was trying vainly to restore order, while Morgan’s voice had become a stream of noise. As Aerona felled two more Saxons she shouted back to them without looking.

“Morgan, sit down on that seat and get your belt on! If there’s not quiet in the next thirty seconds there’ll be trouble!”

The Saxons snarled something, their language incomprehensible and guttural. Out of the corner of her eye, Aerona saw more of them emerge from the trees, running madly, and she wondered what had spurred them on until three arrows hit the backs of the Saxons in front of her, and she looked up.

Wrexham’s Alpha Wing swept overhead, armed and ready. The Saxons in front of her turned and ran, heading back frantically for the cover of the trees. The children were cheering, led by the driver, and Aerona had to fight the urge to cheer herself, which would have been a terrible example to set. The airbus cleared the ground at last, its ascent steadily gaining speed, and Aerona took off with it, Saluting the Northriders as they repositioned. Madog Saluted back, and flew in close.

“Get them home safely,” he told her, his expressionless face hard. “We’ll deal with these.”

“Thank you,” she said back; and then he wheeled away, rejoining the Wing in a perfect sweep. Dylan Saluted her, and then they were gone amongst the trees. Aerona pushed Briallu up and peered inside the airbus windows, belatedly fastening her harness as she did so. Ten faces were staring out at her in wide-mouthed admiration, all pressed against the windows. As she drew level, Siona seemed to remember the seatbelt order, and hastily leapt back into her seat. It acted as a catalyst for the others, who all did the same in a scramble of activity.

“Hey!” Aerona demanded, putting on her Cross Face. “I told you all to be sitting quietly and properly belted in!”

“You weren’t wearing your harness, Miss,” Morgan supplied.

Bugger. No, she hadn’t been. Mentally, Aerona cursed six-year-old acute ingenuity.

“That’s neither here nor there,” she said sternly, and they all looked remorseful. “I’m a trained Rider and I gave you all an order! You don’t ever disobey a Wing Leader like that, or you’ll never make Riders.”

They looked positively crestfallen at that, which made Aerona feel instantly guilty. Briallu snorted loudly.

“Good shelters before we were interrupted, though,” she said cheerfully. “Now, let’s try and have a quiet return ride, eh?”

“Miss?” Carys put up her hand.

“Yes, Carys?”

“Miss, that was amazing! The way you fought those Saxons, and you reared and it was really cool and – “

Inwardly, Aerona groaned. It was never going to be a quiet ride. What had she been thinking? They were six years old. They’d be doing this for days.

Still, she may not be there for days. She had to find Awen somehow.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Cymru - Chapter 5


“Morgan, that’s for the merod! Not you!”

“I’ve kept some for the merod, Carys, it doesn’t matter.”

“But that’s not enough! I’m telling!”

Aerona sighed, and nudged her meraden closer to the airbus’s windows. As she did so, two indignant faces appeared out of them, Carys’ round face red with frustration as she shouted, Siona expressively silent. Siona so rarely spoke.

“Miss!” Carys whined. “Miss, Morgan ate his apple but he was meant to save it so we could give them all to the merod!”

“It’s alright, Carys,” Aerona called over the sound of the wind. “If Morgan wants to eat his apple himself he can; he’s just not allowed to feed anyone else’s apples to any of the merod. Understand, Morgan?”

She raised her voice for the last two words; they were greeted with a muffled ‘Yes, Miss,’ from inside the airbus. Carys and Siona withdrew again, Carys looking smug and Siona looking wistfully at Aerona’s meraden.

Aerona shook her head contentedly, and flew around to where the Driver sat at the front of the airbus, expertly controlling the merod pulling it.

“How are we doing?” she asked, eyeing the horizon. Saxonia sprawled beyond the edge of the mountains, flat and shaded under cloud cover in an ironic pathetic fallacy. Cymru, by contrast, was gleaming in the early sun, the wind clear and crisp. Wrexham’s walls glinted to the north, Trallwng’s to the south.

“I was about to call you,” the Driver answered. He was the kind of old man that seemed to have been hewn out of a coal face, wrinkled and old even when he’d been born. He grinned gummily at her. “We’re descending now. Best get the kiddies strapped in.”

“Splendid!” Aerona pulled lightly on Briallu’s reins and fell back to hover beside the bus windows. “Okay, gang! All listening?”

Ten eager faces turned towards her, instantly silent. Morgan still had an apple pip on his face; Aerona wondered if he’d been showing off his ability to eat the entire apple again, core, stalk and all.

“We’re about to descend, so I want everyone sitting in their seats nicely with their seatbelts on properly. Bronwen, you’re in charge. Don’t forget your own.”

As she rose to check on the gas valves, Aerona heard the disappointed ‘Ahhhh’s’ from half the class as Bronwen merrily started giving orders.

“No, Siona, you do sit there, you do…”

The gas valves were working perfectly. As Aerona watched they changed from their steady hiss to regular bursts, slowly starving the canopy to lose altitude. The merod did the rest, gliding smoothly downwards toward the broad swathes of meadow and woodland sitting near the border. Aerona dropped again to see how the children were getting on.

She let Briallu’s black hooves drop slowly into view first. The result was that when Aerona could look in, the children were sitting perfectly like little angels, their arms folded and index fingers of one hand on their lips. Bronwen looked radiantly proud of her efforts.

“Oh, well done everyone!” Aerona called in. “And good girl, Bronwen! Good job! Five minutes, now; let’s see if you can keep this up until we land.”

As they flew on, Aerona found herself thinking about Wrexham. Their Wing wouldn’t be heading for Tregwylan until tomorrow morning. What would Lady Gwenda say to them? Would her message convince them to join in Flyn’s cause? Aerona wasn’t sure what to think – although she still couldn’t quite make the thought of Marged as an evil genius fit in her head. Even now, Aerona was wearing gloves made by Marged, under her leathers. Last year after a state visit, she’d sent the children cookies. Aerona was fairly certain Morgan was hoarding his.

The landing was smoothly done onto a large patch of meadow land, and Aerona felt a flush of pride as she landed Briallu perfectly and the Driver cheered. She patted the mare’s neck affectionately before dismounting. Briallu snorted softly at her and started cropping the grass, her wings hanging loosely at her sides, the tips almost touching the floor.

The children poured out of the bus, and Aerona grinned at them all.

“Okay!” she said happily. “Here we are! First of all, then, stand in your pairs.”

They did so, each pair innocently holding hands so as not to drop each other or something, and looked up at Aerona solemnly. Siona looked around instead, her eyes often returning to Briallu, who seemed to be eyeing up a patch of ground to roll on.

“Now, first thing’s first!” Aerona rubbed her hands together eagerly. “We’re in the middle of nowhere. What do we do?”

To no one’s surprise, Morgan’s hand shot into the air. Aerona decided it was probably safe to start with him.


“We stop and calm down and check for any injuries.”

“Excellent!” Aerona looked at them all meaningfully. “Well? Are you all calm?”

“Yes, Miss,” came the answering chorus.


“Yes, Miss.”

“Siona, you didn’t check. What if your arm was falling off right now?”

“Your meraden is rolling, Miss.”

Aerona sighed, and glanced at Briallu. The meraden had finally chosen her spot on the ground and had collapsed onto her back, wings sticking straight up in the air, rolling around with every sign of enjoyment. Aerona shook her head and turned back to the class.

“Yes, Siona, she is. Focus now, please. What’s the next step?”

Siona looked thoughtful for a moment. “Shelter,” she said.

“Yes!” Aerona nodded enthusiastically. “Good girl! So, gang, let’s start there! Make a shelter for yourselves, you and your partner. If you go into the trees, don’t go beyond the first stream. Understand?”

There was another chorus of ‘Yes, Miss’, and then the children scampered off happily to make dens. Aerona wandered over to Briallu and sat next to her happily, leaning against Briallu’s massively muscled shoulder. She loved this job.

She was just about to get up and do her first round of checks when Aerona saw a flash of black against the sky. She looked up, shielding her eyes with one hand. A pair of Riders was gently gliding toward the meadow. Aerona stood carefully, gently tugging on one of Briallu’s reins to pull her to her hooves. A quick glance told her that the Driver had simply gone to sleep inside his airbus, the merod neatly tethered around the other side. Aerona waited.

They were Northlanders; she noted the distinctive Wrexham livery as they landed neatly and trotted towards her. Inwardly, Aerona braced herself. This had the potential to be Political. Behind her, Briallu whinnied at the approaching merod, eager to play. One of them answered, the lead meraden, and the Rider on her laughed. It relaxed Aerona considerably.

They halted and dismounted, and as they Saluted Aerona realised with a start that they weren’t just Riders. The man closest to her wore the markings of an Alpha Wingleader, a tall man approaching thirty with a ruggedly handsome face and the blue and gold beads of a Healer Rider. To his right walked a man with the curliest hair Aerona had ever seen, unplaited and wild. Through the front curls she could just about make out a glimmer of white, suggesting a Marksman; the bow slung across his back confirmed the theory. He was looking all around them as he walked, his eyes quick and watchful. Aerona wondered what direction the wire on his beads spiralled if only she could see them.

She Saluted back, and went straight into Greeting New People mode.

“Hello!” she said merrily. “I’m Aerona!”

The Wingleader smiled, a genuine smile that nevertheless didn’t give much away. Aerona guessed he didn’t express his emotions easily.

“Madog,” he said. “Alpha Wingleader of Wrexham. This is Dylan, my Deputy, although presently it seems he’d rather be staring at that tree over there than introduce himself. I do apologise.”

It was entirely deadpan. Aerona giggled.

“Hey!” Dylan defended. “I was about to talk, you square. I’m Dylan, and don’t listen to Madog; he’s a loser.”

Madog’s expression didn’t even flicker. He simply shook his head sadly.

“He has a brain disorder – he doesn’t know what he’s saying.”

“That’s terribly sad,” Aerona giggled.

“Anyway – I’m assuming you’re the class from Tregwylan?” Madog said. Dylan stopped looking at the woodland and turned to look at Aerona. As he turned his head, she got her first clear look at one of the beads. Aerona clapped herself mentally. The spirals were anti-clockwise.

“Yes – they’re all in there, building shelters at the moment,” she said out loud. It was fairly evident – now that the children were actually building the sounds of quarrelling and laughter could plainly be heard drifting out from the trees. Silently, she watched Madog. There were roots to his question. He exchanged a look with Dylan, who nodded imperceptibly.

“There’s something you should know,” Madog sighed. “This area may not be safe.”

“Oh?” Aerona asked. Dylan went back to looking around.

“For the past few weeks now we’ve been getting increased Saxon activity around here,” Madog said quietly. “Abnormally so. It tends to focus around Wrexham, so you may be okay, but there is a risk.”

“We can take off quickly,” Aerona said. She nodded to the airbus. “It’s pretty fast. I can hold off any scouts until it’s airborne and we’re away.”

“Except you’re relying on a border warning, there,” Madog said, looking at her intently. “And we’ve been getting them too late.”

Aerona stared at him. “Too late? I… are the Saxons moving too fast or -?”

“Possibly,” Madog said, but his dry tone implied otherwise. He paused for a moment. “Occasionally, Dylan has his uses,” he said. Dylan snorted. “He’s somehow good at picking out whom to trust, which is why I’m telling you this. But I think the border warnings are coming deliberately late.”

On top of everything else… that had to be connected. Aerona closed her eyes briefly in silent frustration.

“Ooh, a small human,” Dylan said. Aerona looked at the trees. Morgan and Carys were happily making their way back over, smears of mud around their faces and twigs in their hair. Aerona smiled for them.

“Miss, Miss! We made our shelter! We beat everyone,” Morgan said happily. Carys jabbed him in the ribs, her eyes wide.

“Hello Riders,” she said politely. Dylan looked surprised; Madog, however, Saluted them. Their little faces flushed with pleasure as they Saluted back.

“Hello Riders,” Madog told them sombrely. Aerona felt a rush of affection towards him. She liked people who were good with children.

“Well done,” she said aloud. “Does it protect you from the weather?”

“Yes, Miss,” Morgan said happily. “And it’s away from the stream so all animals can’t get to it and it’s made with resin to keep out the rain and it’s got moss for the floor.”

“Moss is an excellent shelter floor,” Madog said, nodding his approval. “Where are you putting your fire pit?”

“Away from it so that all animals and Saxons and things don’t see the shelter,” Carys said importantly. Madog smiled, stood and pulled something out of the storage pouch on his flying harness. It was a long strip of leather embroidered with Wingleader markings. Carefully, he drew one of the curved swords from his back and sliced the strap cleanly in half. He handed half each to the children, who beamed as though Mayday had come early.

“You are now Captain Hat,” he told them sincerely as they tied the straps on like bandannas. “Good work. When you see someone else in your Wing do well, pass Captain Hat on. Understand?”

They nodded enthusiastically, and ran off back into the trees. Aerona beamed at him; Madog shrugged, looking faintly embarrassed.

“We always had Captain Hat,” he said. “I liked it.”

“You should reintroduce it,” Dylan said. “You could give it to whoever killed the most Saxons.”

“You wouldn’t get it, then,” Madog said, deadpan once more. “Anyway; just be on your guard, Rider. I don’t understand what’s happening with these Saxons, but I don’t want to see you getting caught up in it.” He glanced at the trees. “Or them,” he added.

Aerona nodded. “I think we’ll cut this trip short,” she agreed. “They’re only six and seven years old, they need to be home –”

With bad timing that was almost comical, the shriek of a claxon reverberated through the trees from the border, stirring the merod into a near frenzy and bringing the children running. Madog and Dylan mounted so quickly Aerona could have sworn they’d teleported, and they buckled their harnesses with a slick efficiency. Briallu neighed loudly, agitated. Aerona ignored her, almost throwing the children into the airbus as the Driver appeared on its seat.

“How long until you’re in the air?” Madog asked, strangely calm despite the urgency. Dylan took off and flew over the trees.

“Five minutes at most,” the Driver said grimly. “Quickly enough; the claxon’s only just started.”

Aerona paused long enough to exchange a glance with Madog, whose jaw tightened briefly before he, too, kicked off the ground. Above them, the canopy of the airbus warmed, and the Driver finished hitching up the merod.

“Just waiting on the canopy,” he said as the last children buckled their seatbelts and Aerona locked them in. “Don’t worry: we’ll be gone before they’re –”

The scout group of Saxons burst out of the trees, swords ready.

Aerona smiled.


The revoltingly ornamental yet sadly traditional clock clanged out midday. Gwilym looked longingly at the woodshed in the courtyard below his window. Woodsheds contained axes – and, usually, people who weren’t predisposed to sneer at him slightly as they tactfully explained precisely why he wasn’t allowed to pass a piece of legislation in the city while silently adding, ‘If only you were your father.’ As if by some arcane magic, Watkins materialised behind him, coughing his quietly intrusive whistling cough that informed people he was in the room and a human being and not, in fact, a kettle.

Gwilym plastered his best political smile onto his face and turned.

“Yes, Watkins?”

“It’s twelve o’clock, sire,” Watkins stated politely.

“Yes, Watkins,” Gwilym stated back. “The clock told me. Efficiently.”

“Quite so, sire. I mention it, however, because the Wing from Casnewydd is now ready to meet with you in the Long Drawing Room.”

“Ah.” Bugger. He’d been half hoping they’d get lost along the way and end up telling some backwater mayor all their important state secrets. “Very well,” Gwilym sighed, and strode out of the door.

Striding was important. It made you look as though you were in control even when you weren’t.

A pair of formally attired guards saluted to him neatly and stepped aside, opening both doors to the Long Drawing Room as they did. Somewhere, presumably around some corner or other since Gwilym couldn’t see whoever was responsible, a garish fanfare started up. He controlled his wince masterfully, and silently vowed to melt down every trumpet in Aberystwyth as scrap.

Gwilym strode into the Long Drawing Room and came face to face with the Wing.

He’d met his own Wings, of course; Aberystwyth had them just as all other cities did, but Riders had rigid allegiances. Gwilym’s Riders called him ‘My Lord,’ which was reassuring when you had to meet their eyes.

Meeting a full ten-strong Wing was always an intimidating experience. Riders were dedicated to the Union at birth, and raised to be what they were. They were all as lithely muscled as cats; their fighting skills could rout armies; they could survive indefinitely in any wilderness; they were well-versed historians with intimidatingly strong intellects. All of it showed in their eyes. There was just… something about Riders.

Of course, the uniforms and flying leathers they wore were close fitted and insanely cool, and that probably helped their self-esteem no end. Facing ten of them at once, however, was a daunting prospect. But there was something else again about a Wing. These were people who’d specifically been raised together for their whole lives. There was a pack mentality to them.

And these ones wouldn’t be calling him ‘My Lord’. They owed him nothing.

“Riders,” Gwilym said as cheerfully as he could. “Welcome to Aberystwyth! I hope your journey wasn’t too taxing?”

“As pleasant as could be, thank you, Sovereign,” a young man said, stepping forward and doing that slick Rider-to-Sovereign bow that they did. He had a slightly strange quiff, Gwilym noted. “I’m Owain, Deputy Wing Leader. Thank you for seeing us.”

“You’re welcome,” Gwilym said, and glanced around them all. In actual fact, there were only nine Riders now that he counted. “Can your Wing Leader not be with us?”

“She is en route, sire,” Owain said. His voice was slightly oily; Gwilym resisted the urge to wipe his hands on his revoltingly ornamental yet sadly traditional cloak. “She is travelling from further a-field. She begs an audience with you once she arrives, however.”

Damn. That would be the Secret Meeting of Doom that Gwilym really didn’t want to have, then. He smiled. This part, on the other hand, should therefore be a traditional meeting between Wing and Sovereign.

It was. It was a slightly surreal experience as it turned out, since the basic function of these meetings was to avoid actually saying that you promised not to sabotage the Archwiliad or start another war whilst promising you wouldn’t sabotage the Archwiliad and start another war. He also promised to turn up on pain of pain, although again, this was unspoken. Then Gwilym explained his proposals so the Wing could take them back to Casnewydd. That part became unfathomably dull.

Finally, affairs of state concluded, Gwilym stood. The Wing stood with him, and he resisted the mad urge to sit down again to see if they’d copy.

“Well, thank you, Riders,” Gwilym said. “You are guests in Aberystwyth for as long as you wish to stay. Watkins will see you to your quarters, I’m sure.”

He wasn’t sure. He didn’t look at Watkins.

The Riders saluted him again, which Gwilym graciously accepted with a nod of his head, and were just filing out when he heard Owain’s oily voice say “Awen!”

Apparently, the Wing Leader had arrived. Gwilym forced himself not to groan, and nodded to the servants left in the room. They scurried out after the Riders, probably glad that they wouldn’t have to sit through any more tediously traditional greetings. The door briefly swung shut, and Gwilym braced himself.

“Rider Awen, Casnewydd Alpha Wing Leader.”

The fanfare started again, and the door opened.

She was beautiful. It was the first thing he noticed about Awen as she stepped into the room, rolling her eyes slightly and wincing at the intrusive trumpets before hurriedly smiling to cover the reaction. Her Rider-styled hair was longer than Gwilym had ever seen in Aberystwyth – to her elbows, in fact – and a brilliant dark auburn that was almost physically warming, and glimmered briefly gold as she stepped through a patch of sunlight. She looked to be about Gwilym’s age; he wouldn’t have put her beyond late twenties.

Her smile lifted her face. It brought out her cheekbones.

“Sovereign,” she said. Her voice was fluid, like water. “My apologies for being late. Thank you for seeing me.”

She bowed. Gwilym smiled hurriedly.

“Not at all,” he said. “Welcome to Aberystwyth. I’m sorry about the fanfare; I’ve been trying to find whoever’s doing it, but I think they’re posing as a statue.”

Incredibly, Awen laughed at that. Gwilym had thought it was pretty weak himself.

“Threaten to redecorate and see which ones run away,” she advised. “It should work if you say it loudly enough with a mad gleam in your eye. And a sledgehammer.”

“Ah,” Gwilym said mock-morosely. “I think my mad eye gleam needs work. None of my advisors take me seriously about these things.”

“Probably because you’re forgetting the sledgehammer,” Awen told him sagaciously. Her eyes were amazing – a very dark green that twinkled merrily as she joked. There was something strange about the way they looked, though. Gwilym couldn’t quite put his finger on it.

“Anyway,” Awen sighed, “I’m afraid I’m here to talk to you about something other than how to become a mad statue-destroying dictator.”

“Ah, yes.” Gwilym waved her to a chair and sank glumly into one himself. Awen obediently took the proffered chair, perching gracefully and fixing him steadily with that slightly off-putting look.

“You know your histories,” she told him without preamble. “Cymru was at war for a very long time because of its lack of political structure. People grabbing Chieftain or King status and going to war all over the place until they were usurped and then the next war began.”

“Yes,” Gwilym said. Everyone knew their histories. “The Union rose up, created the Senedd and chose the Sovereigns. No more power struggles and no more rivalries.”

“And we finally got peace,” Awen nodded. “Which we can all agree was a bloody good thing, because if nothing else we get a free holiday to celebrate it. Everyone loves a holiday.”

It was so unexpected – not to mention at odds with her completely serious and deadpan delivery – that despite his general misery with the situation Gwilym laughed. The corners of Awen’s mouth softened slightly. Her gaze didn’t waver.

“We owe our peace to the Sovereigns, you see? They’re what’s kept the entire country sane for forty three years, now.”

Gwilym raised a hand, stalling her.

“The Senedd,” he said. “Not just the Sovereigns. If it had just been the Sovereigns, in fact, there would have been no peace – the same rivalries would have continued, the same power struggles… It’s the Archwiliadau that have kept us going.”

She froze, her face carefully blank but for that odd expression in her eyes, which intensified. Gwilym was suddenly struck by what it was. Awen didn’t just look at things: she watched things. It was like there was a part of her brain analysing everything she encountered. He fought the urge to squirm.

Finally, Awen glanced at the door, and then back at Gwilym. Very deliberately, she stood up, reached into a pouch on her belt and drew out a small, delicate tablet of birch bark, thinner than paper almost. She placed in on the table and slid it toward him with one finger. Her eyes watched him.

“Well, thank you for seeing me, my Lord,” Awen said clearly. “It was a pleasure to meet you. Enjoy the Archwiliad.”

Gwilym stood and swept the fragile tablet under his cloak just as the guards opened the doors, and the irritating fanfare started. Awen bowed formally, and Gwilym smiled politely.

“It was a pleasure meeting you as well, Rider,” he said. “Please consider yourself and your Wing guests in Aberystwyth for as long as you wish.”

She inclined her head, making her hair rustle and shimmer before sweeping out, her gait graceful and confident. Gwilym followed and scurried back to his study as quickly as propriety would allow.

Once inside, the revoltingly ornamental yet sadly traditional clock screamed one o’clock. Gwilym ignored it, and examined Awen’s tablet.

Midnight, the Landing Tower.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Day of the Dumpster - Part Four of Four

It seemed to William Cranston that there was a natural pecking order to the world, and that he was chosen specifically to be at the bottom. In elementary school, he'd always been pushed around by his classmates, and was left friendless and alone by the boys who chose to play soccer and baseball during recess. In middle school, even though he managed to make some friends, he was still a figure of fun for the rest of his grade, and a target for bullies, who often stole his rucksack and hid his possessions around the school building.

High school had been even worse, as even his friends turned against him. It had taken years for him to realise that they'd been making fun of him behind his back, until they eventually started to ignore him completely, moving on to a larger group of friends.

Upon arriving in college, William had innocently thought his days of being bullied were over. But even college was full of the same old thing. Football teams and fraternities ruled society, and if they weren't bad enough, one guy in particular had chosen William as his favourite victim.

Farkas Bulkmeier. A party animal, and twenty stone of pure muscle. He never got physical, but he made William's life hell. He'd invite him to parties, and never failed to embarass him. Mind games were his favourite; he'd managed to get William to turn up to three separate parties in costume, none of which were costume parties. Twice, he'd managed to get him drunk by spiking his drinks with spirits. And once, he'd pantsed him in front of hundreds of guests. There had been photos.

And then William Cranston received a Power Coin. A magical item that transformed his body to its physical peak. And to restore the balance, hideously strong putty soldiers from hell had turned up to give him concussion.

But that hadn't been a problem. The Power Coin had another property. It could power a morpher – a bulky grey device that created an advanced suit for William and four others he'd met barely an hour ago. The suit didn't look like much – mostly blue, with a white diamond pattern around the torso, a helmet with a stylised triceratops design, with white boots and gloves.

However, the suit had secrets of its own. It was remarkably strong – far stronger than any of the five of them, even at the peak of their potential strength. Unlike the coin itself, the suit even gave the wearers fighting skills they previously didn't possess. William was able to move gracefully and purposefully, as well as focus his superhuman strength and fight with great dexterity.

And with a tragic inevitability, an eight-foot tall humanoid feline had appeared, clad in a tough golden suit of armour, and challenged the five of them to a battle. His name was Goldar.

It didn't take long for William to realise that Goldar was more than a match for his new-found abilities. He'd performed a tornado kick, hitting Goldar's midriff twice. The giant didn't even flinch – he merely swiped at William with a paw the size of a breeze block, knocking the wind from William's lungs, even through the suit.

It took a moment for William to recover sufficiently to even check what the others were doing. Trini wasn't wearing her suit, having handed her morpher to Jason, and was standing defiantly to one side. The others were all battle ready.

In his red suit, Jason was doing his best to surprise Goldar with a variety of different moves, capitalising on his diverse knowledge of martial arts. He was doing a good job of avoiding Goldar's own attacks, but was hardly leaving a mark in return either.

Zack, like William, had no martial arts training at all, and was a reluctant fighter. He nervously tried using his artificially-developed skills to distract the creature from Jason.

Finally, Kimberly was going nuts. She'd found her way between Goldar's legs, where he struggled to hit her. She was clinging to his hip with her legs, and hitting him at crotch lever with all her enhanced strength.

"This is a joke," growled Goldar, lifting an enormous foot, and pushing Zack forcefully onto his back. "You are the Power Rangers? You are children." He tried to push Kim down his leg, but decided it wasn't worth the effort, and aimed a punch at Jason's head, which he managed to duck.

William stood up again. He was feeling much better already – the Power Coin also healed its owner rapidly. He ran behind Goldar, managing a suit-enhanced cartwheel to avoid being hit along the way, and jumped to hit the back of Goldar's helmet.

"This armour is a titanium alloy from my home planet," said Goldar boastfully. "The strongest alloy in this entire galaxy. And you think you can hurt me with a tap to the head?"

He turned around, the ground shaking with each enormous footsetp. He was now facing William.

"You are a fool, Blue Ranger. I was told you would be the clever one."

And a huge paw connected with the side of William's head. For the third or fourth time that day, William collapsed to the ground.

Jason launched himslf at the golden warrior, hoping he'd remain distracted. Goldar moved his head a fraction, and struck Jason with one colossal wing. Jason fell to the ground, dropping Trini's morpher.

Next, Goldar turned around, grabbed Zack's left arm, and raised him up. He drew him back, and threw him across the park.

Zack landed halfway across the park, landing against the sentinel statue. A sharp pain shot through his back, and he knew that his black power suit was all that had saved him from lifelong paralysis.

Back in the field, Jason was considering his options. He remembered despairingly that the creature had a sword. He'd sheathed it early during the battle. As though he'd decided he wouldn't need it. And with two Rangers down, and a third refusing to fight, it appeared increasingly likely that the creature was correct.

Suddenly, Goldar launched himself into the sky. He flapped his enormous wings forcefully, and surprisingly quickly considering their size. Kim grasped his legs harder, now keeping hold with her arms as well as her legs. And then, Goldar stopped flying. He dropped like a stone, turning as he did so, to land on Kim's arms.

She cried out. She managed to keep hold of his leg with her own legs, but her arms felt numb. She tried to move one, but could barely control it – it felt like the worst pins and needles ever.

Burning with rage, she released Goldar's legs, and dropped to the ground.

"One left," said Goldar, facing Jason. "One on one. My preferred means of battling."

Jason said nothing. He remained standing, prepared to fight to the end.

"You are very funny," said the giant. "I have defeated your friends with ease, and still you stand, as though you alone will pose a greater threat than four of you working together."

"I will fight you," said Jason simply. "You were right – we are children. Children who were chosen to protect the planet from you. I take it you're compensating for something, fighting the kids and all."

Goldar stepped forwards, landing one foot on Jason's. He pressed down, and Jason gritted his teeth to avoid crying out.

"I had forgotten that humans taunt," he said. "You have many traits in common with the honourable warriors of Titan."

"Human soldiers don't taunt," said Jason. "We don't waste our warriors on you. I work in a leisure centre."

Whether or not Goldar knew what a leisure centre was, this taunt certainly hit a nerve. He unsheathed his sword.

"Red Ranger of Earth," he announced. "I name you my nemesis. Once I kill you, I will own all your worldly possessions and blood relations." He grinned and snarled simultaneously. "And now, I will kill you."

He lifted his sword, slowly, with indulgence.

As he did so, Jason felt strange. His fatigue was wearing away, and far more quickly than before. His injuries, already healing thanks to the suit, faded to nothing. He felt stronger than ever before, and somehow elated. Light-headed. Goldar seemed to be moving more slowly than ever.

He examined the sword with curiosity. He saw it swing towards him, so painfully slowly. It seemed laughable that he'd need to move out of its way, but move he did. He smiled behind his helmet. Not a satisfied, smug smile, but the gentle smile of the truly content. He was vaguely aware of the Blue Ranger helping the Pink Ranger to her feet, and of the Black Ranger returning from the opposite side of the field.

The giant seemed confused and angry. Jason giggled. Funny cat man. Cat bird man.

"This is nice," he heard himself say. He realised that the deep hum in the background was Goldar's growling.

"My arms are all work-y again," came Kim's voice. "I think I will hit the big man."

"Can you teach me how?" asked William. "I want to be good at this, like you."

"Oh, shush," said Kim, nudging him playfully.

"I stopped laughing," said Zack, and Jason felt like he hadn't heard his voice in weeks. "But it's funny again now. I like to laugh."

Jason was aware of the funny cat bird man toppling forward. Behind him was a Ranger. A Power Ranger. The Power Ranger who'd knocked him to the ground.

The Yellow Power Ranger.

"Trini," said Jason, and the entire world disappeared.


The world was hard again. Jason's hand shot to his face. He wasn't wearing his helmet any more.

"Well done, Rangers," came the ancient voice of Zordon. "You have defeated Goldar in accordance with his own rules. His pride will not allow him to lay down the same challenge a second time."

"This is probable," agreed Alpha Five, the small red robot.

The Rangers were in the command centre again.

"What happened?" asked Jason. "I tried ... I was going to fight him."

"It was me," said Trini, sounding slightly embarassed – maybe slightly ashamed. "I worked it out. At first, when I morphed, I thought that's what it felt like. Like you can do anything."

"It doesn't," confirmed William. "May I guess?"

Trini nodded.

"When all five of us are wearing our suits, it completes a circuit. Makes all of us stronger still."

"You know," said Zack thoughtfully. "That might have been useful to know."

"There was not enough time to explain everything," said Zordon.

"Okay," said Zack. "For future reference, priority should go to 'morphers make you strong, all five make you stronger, beat monsters or get killed'. We can pick up the origin story down the line."

"Nonetheless, you fared admirably," said Zordon. "You will continue to serve as Power Rangers until the threat of Rita Repulsa is over."

"I'm up for that," said Kim. "But, y'know, try to schedule world-threatening monsters for free periods if you can. I've got kids to teach."

"Now," said Alpha Five. "You must be told the three laws of being a Power Ranger."

"Yeah, sure," said Zack. "We won't injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human to come to harm."

"The first rule is that you may not use your power for personal gain," said Alpha.

"I knew it!" said Kim. "Superpowers suck."

"Secondly, never escalate a battle unless Rita forces you to."

The group looked blankly at him.

"That means no suits unless there are monsters, and use minimum necessary force."

Trini seemed interested in this, but said nothing.

"And finally, keep your identity secret. From everyone."


Everyone looked around in surprise at Zack.

"No," he repeated. "I'm telling my girlfriend, or I'm off the team."

"You cannot tell anyone," said Alpha.

"Then I'm off the team."

"You were chosen specifically!" insisted the robot. "To turn this down would doom the entire world."

"Then I'm telling my girlfriend," said Zack stubbornly. "No way am I going to be on a secret team without her knowing. We want to get married some day. I've never kept secrets from her, and I'm not starting with super powers."

Alpha seemed fidgety. Jason took Zack to one side.

"Are you sure you can't make an exception here?" he asked.

"Are you in a relationship?" asked Zack.



Jason frowned.

"I don't want to be on a team with anyone who thinks they can balance this with any sort of meaningful relationship," Zack explained. "I'm not changing my mind on this."

Jason nodded. He moved to face the pipe at the edge of the command centre.

"Zordon," he said, feeling strange greeting this being by what sounded so much like a first name. "May we have some time to think about this? To decide whether or not we want to be on this team?"

Several minutes passed. The others looked at one another, but Jason kept looking towards the pipe.

Finally, Zordon spoke.

"You have twenty-four hours to decide."

And the world returned.


"Where have you been, Miss Hart? We've been looking everywhere."

Kim opened her eyes. It was Mr Oliver, her teaching assistant.

He helped her to her feet. She was surprised to find that she still had her enhanced strength. She placed her hand against her pocket, and found that she still had her Power Coin, still in its morpher.

"Are the kids alright?" she asked.

"Yes," said Mr Oliver. "They're all fine."

She smiled. "Good."


William got to his feet shakily. He was several yards from the science block, which was now in ruins. The emergency services were busily searching the area.

He looked around, and saw Trini.

"Do you want to talk about this?" he asked, feeling awkward.

"Yes," she said. "No. Yes." She rubbed her head. "Not now."

She smiled weakly, turned around, and jogged away. William stayed where he was, and for the next few hours, watched the emergency services going about their business.


Jason checked his watch as soon as he arrived back in the leisure centre. Midday. So short a time since he'd been here last, and so much had happened.

Checking he still had his morpher, he walked out through the door, and headed back to his apartment. Alone.


Zack walked through the door of his building. He dashed up the stairs, and opened the door to his and Angela's apartment.

"Zack." Angela threw her arms around him. "Thank God. I couldn't find you. You weren't answering your phone."

Absent-mindedly, Zack felt the cell-phone in his pocket. He hugged Angela back, and for five minutes, neither of them said a word.

Finally, she let him go, and smiled, giggling emotionally.

"Angela," he said. "I love you."

"I love you too."

"Now," he said. "Let's grab a seat. We need to talk about something."

Cymru - Chapter 4


Madog placed the stethoscope against the meraden’s side, breathing in the soothing smell of hay. He nodded to the Rider on her back.

“Can you make her hover for me?” he asked. She nodded and nudged the meraden’s shoulders. Black wings of almost three metres each unfurled and swept downwards once as the mare kicked off the ground, trying vainly to hover a foot in the air. Something was definitely wrong – her hind legs dropped again almost instantly, leaving her semi-rearing and panicking slightly. Madog listened carefully. For a split second, as the meraden had kicked off, he’d heard the rush of air filling her hind flight bladders. Now a very low hiss was a tell-tale sign of deflation.

“Okay, bring her down,” he said thoughtfully, straightening up again. The Rider leaned back, and the meraden fell back down, her hooves clattering in the stable yard, wings still outstretched and waving slightly. Madog patted her absent-mindedly.

“Well?” the Rider asked. Madog didn’t know her or the meraden – she must have been from one of the visiting Wings. “What’s wrong with her?”

“It’s strange,” Madog said. “I thought at first that her hind flight bladders weren’t working, in which case she’d never fly again. But they are actually inflating. Something’s making them deflate again.”

“Can you cure her?” the Rider asked anxiously. It was a good question.

“It depends on what the problem is,” Madog said slowly. “But, if it’s just a simple matter of air retention, then yes, we should be able to find a cure for her. We’ll try medication first, if that’s okay – garlic, yarrow and chamomile,” he added over his shoulder. The apprentice girl behind him nodded and scuttled off. “In the meantime, try not to let her get distressed.”

“I knew this would happen,” the Rider said bitterly. “Are you even a Medical Specialist? How can you not know what’s wrong with her?”

Madog looked at her steadily, allowing the blue and gold beads in his hair to swing forwards.

“No,” he said, his voice deadpan. “No I’m not. But you’ll admit that as jokes go, pretending to be one is hilarious. Especially where the life of a meraden is concerned. So, you know; evidently, I’m not a Rider, either.”

The Rider dropped her gaze, realising the social faux-pas. She mumbled an apology and trotted the meraden back to the stables. Madog watched her go. She was just upset, he knew, but in Rider terms she had just delivered a hefty insult. Still, he hoped the animal would recover. He hated to see merod lose the ability to fly – they were generally destroyed, which was an upsetting end to a Rider.

He was crossing back over the courtyard to check on the apprentice when the claxon sounded.

Instantly, activity erupted around him. The apothecarists raced for the shelter of the Castle, their arms filled with whatever basket of herbs had been closest. Stable hands appeared laden with harnesses, some still slick with the leather oil they were being treated with. Riders poured out of every doorway, heading straight to their stables. Madog joined in – his feet had taken him halfway to Calon’s stall before he even realised he’d moved at all. Instinct took over.

As he arrived at the door, she threw her head out, whinnying to him impatiently. Her bridle was already on, and as Madog pushed her nose back to slip inside the stable he saw a stable hand was already inside, expertly buckling on the harness. Calon was standing like an angel for it, Madog noticed with a swell of fondness; despite her flared nostrils and pawing front hoof, she kept her wings down and her back still.

The last clasp was closed, and Madog grabbed Calon’s reins, already pulling her out into the chaos.

“Thanks!” he threw over his shoulder. He didn’t listen for an answer. Already the ten-strong Wing was half assembled, and Madog vaulted onto Calon’s back as he looked for who was ready. Dylan landed and Saluted him, and Madog replied as the stable hand fastened Calon’s harness to him properly.

“Any word yet?” Madog asked urgently.

“Saxons, east,” Dylan said shortly. “Lots of them. They’re marching on the city and taking out anything on the way. Not cool.”

“Invasion?” Madog scanned the Wing. The final Rider was mounting up, her meraden skittering anxiously.

“Another raid, I think, but it’s big.”

Madog nodded. It was still very much a problem, but the number of Saxon raids had increased alarmingly over the past few weeks, and Madog could tell they weren’t coincidence. Something was brewing. The final Rider saluted, and Madog turned Calon.

“Riders, fly!” he called clearly. The beautiful sound of twenty powerful wings opening and beating downwards in unison filled the courtyard, bouncing off the walls and echoing back as the Wing rose as one, falling naturally into v-formation. Calon’s legs curled cleanly up beneath her, tucking carefully under her body. Madog grinned. He loved flying.

They cleared the buildings by two hundred feet and started to turn. Madog’s mind ticked over strategic points. They were flying east at midday, so away from the sun; if they turned south east and attacked the Saxons from the south, however, they would have a visual advantage, especially attacking from the air. To their left, the Beta and Gamma Wings were heading straight for the raiders. Madog signalled. Alpha Wing turned with him, a slickly oiled machine.

It took barely two minutes to find the several-hundred strong raiding party, and that was worrying, because unless they’d learnt to tunnel they could only be this close to the city with help to cross the border. Madog winced as they flew to meet the Saxons, already engaged with the other Wings. It was a thought to save for later; the Saxons were hardly going to fight amongst themselves as he pondered it.

Their formation changed as they closed the last few hundred yards at speed, going from v-formation to ‘tower’ without any signal from Madog. The heavy fighters dropped down as the ranged fighters went to the top of the Wing. Madog looped the battle reins around the pommel of his saddle and drew the pair of curved swords from their places on his back. The Saxons nearest them finally saw them, and belatedly shouted out a warning.

They were too late. The front three heavy fighters, their merod armoured and bladed, swept into the Saxon ranks like a hand through foam, the barbarians falling instantly. Madog led the second wave in just behind them, his blades and Calon’s well-shod hooves felling any Saxons they’d missed. Above them, the rangers began the aerial assault: arrows and cross-bow shafts rained down with perfect aim, missing the Riders but each hitting their Saxon mark. Most of the raiders had been fighting the Beta and Gamma Wings, and never even saw Alpha Wing coming. They sliced a swathe through the Saxons, and reformed on the other side, turning to check their success.

No one had survived the initial sweep. Madog smiled to himself as the Wing swung around to attack the back of the Saxons. The raiders saw them this time, and turned to face them hurriedly, readying their own bows and missiles. As the Wing swept in to attack, the Saxon’s fired their first catapult.

The boulder shot straight at Madog. The rangers on either side of him split off to the left and right to avoid it, and Madog weighed his options. It was a bit close to the left; as he started to command Calon right, another catapult fired towards him, blocking that exit. Up would be no good anyway –

Calon folded her wings back and plummeted downwards like a javelin. They had only been twenty feet up, but it had the desired effect. The missiles missed, and the Saxons immediately below were suddenly looking at the business end of Calon’s metalled hooves, descending far too rapidly for them to move. She hit three as she landed, killing them instantly, and as two mounted Saxons rode up to either side she simply swept her wings outward, crushing both before leaping forward to the next. Madog looked around for the catapults quickly. With those out, the Saxons wouldn’t stand a chance.

There were two, both being rewound. He spun Calon toward the first, spurring her into action. She spread her wings and with down downward sweep she leapt over the heads of the Saxons, landing squarely in front of the catapult. As she kicked back at the first new attackers, Madog swept one curved sword in a tight arc. It sliced the ropes holding the machinery together; the arm loosened automatically, and having not been fully wound, it merely took out a line of Saxons. Madog kicked Calon back into the air and aimed for the second.

As they were airborne, he suddenly felt the harness give way. Madog cursed violently. One of the Saxons must have cut the girths: he could feel himself slipping off of Calon, the harness suddenly a hindrance as it acted like a roller. He sliced the straps around both legs expertly and pushed Calon down into a swoop.

She obeyed perfectly, and at her nadir Madog sprang from her back into the waiting Saxon throng. They roared and leapt at him, blades out and shields up. Instinct again took over.

He ducked neatly under the first swords, slashing out with his own and severing several legs before the Saxons lowered their aim for him; Madog’s body reacted, and he was springing over their heads, arms sweeping and slicing at the unprotected faces. He leapt from shoulder to shoulder as nimbly as a cat, arcing from one Saxon to the next, cutting them down in the elegant, balletic Rider style. He reached the catapult and whistled shrilly, the high sound carrying easily over the screams of battle, and landing lithely on the fully-wound firing mechanism Madog cut straight through the ropes. The arm discharged forcefully, sending both missile and Madog into the sky. As his descent began, Madog whistled again, and Calon’s broad back appeared beneath him. He landed neatly astride her, and flew up to join the Wing as they wheeled back into formation.

Dylan flew into his right.

“Only losers don’t use harnesses,” he yelled, the wind whipping his curly hair wildly, hiding his beads from view. Madog grinned.

“Whereas some people have harnesses and are still losers,” he called back. “You see those? Those are Saxons down there, attacking Wrexham. Why aren’t they dead yet?”

“Because you ran off to kick their faces,” Dylan said, loading his bow again. Three arrows clipped onto the string, and glinted in the sun. “We should kill them now.”

The battle was intense, but with the catapults out it was also short. They swept the battlefield once it was over, looking for survivors to question. There were none; the Wings had been efficient and thorough. They flew back to the city at a more leisurely pace, calming the merod down from the adrenaline rush. Calon was sweating awkwardly, making it slightly tricky to hold on without a harness. Madog mused over the battle in his head.

No Saxon should have come this far without border warnings. Madog shuddered, and focused on the flight.


The Sovereign’s Residence in Tregwylan was the most elaborate building Awen had ever set foot in, and she’d been to many elaborate buildings in her time. The Residence was in the centre of the city’s top level – the farthest away from the sea below with the most escape routes toward the stables. People on the Archipelago knew their histories: they were mindful of the sea. Nonetheless, it featured prominently in their decorations – the walls now surrounding Awen were covered in a beautiful mosaic of greens and blues, waves tumbling into silver merod as they peaked. There was a fountain in the centre of the reception room. It was clearly a decadent sign of wealth and importance.

At this time of night there was only one clerk about, scratching details onto a long roll of parchment with a fancy quill in that tiny writing clerks always used. He’d barely glanced at Awen as she’d entered; as he wrote, he informed her that the Sovereign was readying herself, and would soon be present. The minutes stretched.

After fifteen, the clerk raised his head like a dog hearing its master and looked over at Awen.

“Her grace will see you now,” he informed her in a voice that was either sneering or naturally repulsive. “Just through the doors there. No need to knock.”

“Thank you,” Awen told him. She resisted the urge to squint pointedly at his tiny writing, and strode past him to the magnificent double doors set into the back of the reception room. With a small effort, she worked one open and slipped inside.

Lady Gwenda sat at her desk, a middle-aged woman in her sixties feigning thirty with her hair and make up absolutely impeccable despite their intricacy. She’d set out to impress, clearly; her dress was a glorious fusion of russets, browns and golds that had skirts wider than the table and a tightly corseted bodice that left far too little of her slightly wrinkled bosom to the imagination. It was possible the colours of the dress were supposed to high-light her red-dyed hair. In fact, it clashed slightly; and as Awen stepped into the light the Sovereign’s eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly as she noted Awen’s own hair colour. It was a tiny lapse that would have gone unnoticed by most; but Awen was highly trained.

She smiled at the woman, and bowed the Rider-to-Sovereign bow that always pleased Sovereigns. It had the desired effect.

“Good evening, Sovereign,” Awen purred. “I am Leader Awen of the Casnewydd Alpha Wing. Thank you for seeing me.”

“Not at all, Leader,” Lady Gwenda simpered. Evidently she was also pleased by Awen’s rank – most would have continued to use ‘Rider’ as a title. “Welcome to Tregwylan! And thank you for coming.”

She waved one overly-ringed hand at a plush velvet covered chair in front of her desk, and Awen neatly took her cue to deliberately misunderstand and stand behind it as formally as the situation allowed. Over-familiarity with Gwenda would be a mistake.

“I bring news from Lord Flyn, Sovereign,” Awen said. She watched Gwenda’s face as casually as she could. “Lord Pedr has pledged Abertawe’s support to the cause, and both Lord Peredur and Lady Ienifer are considering his proposition.”

“I assume Trallwng and Wrexham are behind this also?” Gwenda asked. Her tone implied that asking was merely a formality to obtain the obvious answer.

“Trallwng was first to pledge support, Sovereign,” Awen nodded. Gwenda snorted.

“Of course they are,” she said, more or less to herself. “Border cities sticking together, eh? And Flyn comes from Old Family border stock. They still believe in all that, you know. Some of them.”

Awen tried not to think about that. It was a hideous thought.

“Here, though, Sovereign, we have some potentially problematic news,” she said. Gwenda looked up at her sharply. “Wrexham has yet to pledge. Lord Iestyn is deeply uncertain about my Lord’s proposition.”

Gwenda laughed, a short, unpleasant bark of a laugh.

“Really?” she said, her expansive skirts rustling as she shifted position, leaning forward to put her elbows on the table and prop her chin on her hands. “Well, the Wrexham Wing arrives here tomorrow, doesn’t it.”

It wasn’t a question. It was, in fact, the whole point of Awen’s presence there in Tregwylan at night alone. Secretly. She said nothing.

There was a pause as Gwenda stared off into space momentarily, her eyes shrewd and calculating.

“Tell Flyn,” she said slowly, “that I shall inform Wrexham of Tregwylan’s support.”

Awen bowed. “Thank you, Sovereign,” she murmured. She wondered what she’d just done.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Cymru - Chapter 3


Tregwylan’s corridor-streets were almost exotically beautiful. The walls were made of smooth sandstone that was inlaid with marble patterns that swirled along the walls, reminiscent of the sea that pounded the city’s foundations. Intricately arranged clay pipes ran down the walls carrying water from the Rain Harvesters to the lower levels, and at evenly spaced intervals small ornamental fruit trees grew out of squares of earth cut into the stone floors. A richly-woven carpet runner covered the centre of each street, making them look far more like corridors.

“Like I say, the lower levels look nothing like this,” Aerona said conversationally. “You probably won’t be shown them. Although I notice that your flying leathers may need re-waxing.”

“Oh yes,” Awen said sincerely. “I’d much appreciate getting them done here before I leave. Are your specialists on the lower levels?”

“Naturally,” Aerona said. “I’ll show you to them afterwards; although first, you simply must see our fishing tower.”

“I’d love to,” Awen said lightly. It was a decidedly pleasant charade all round; Awen found herself instantly liking Aerona, who seemed to have personality oozing out of her very skin. She wore the standard Rider’s uniform, but a Tutor’s sash over the top and the beads she wore were the deep green glass and amber of a Woodscrafter. She wore them well; her complexion was unusually dark, like bark and honey. The greens contrasted beautifully.

They came to a slightly curved oaken door with the words ‘Fishing Tower’ carved elaborately into its surface and inlaid with gold leaf. Aerona pushed the door open and gestured Awen through; once in, she closed the door again hurriedly. Above them, seated on perches around the round tower walls, were hundreds of cormorants, their necks carefully ringed. A set of spiral stairs led up, and Aerona led Awen swiftly up them.

They reached the top, where a giant archway window opened onto nothing. Aerona leaned against the wall beside it.

“Safe room,” she said. “No one can get in here through anywhere but the door, which we’ll hear, or this window, in which case they’re a cormorant. And I’m fairly sure we’re safe from them.”

“I don’t know,” Awen said mock-doubtfully as she eyed the nearest bird. “You hear funny things about Archipelagan birdlife.”

Aerona chuckled softly, and looked out over the moonlit water below them.

“Other than ornithology,” she said. Awen sighed.

“I’m from Casnewydd,” she said, watching Aerona carefully. It was habit: she automatically found herself trusting the girl, but she could never quite turn that part of herself off. “Over the past two years, Lord Flyn’s behaviour has been… concerning. Something at the last Archwiliad worried him, I think. Either way, I’ve been sent here to speak to Lady Gwenda before the Wrexham Wing arrives tomorrow.”

“Oh, I was so hoping I was wrong,” Aerona sighed. She looked resigned as she glanced at Awen. “What’s he really planning?”

“I’m not absolutely sure what his ultimate goal is, yet,” Awen confessed. “Though I’ve a pretty good idea. He thinks – or says he thinks – that there’s some kind of conspiracy going on to overthrow the Senedd and de-power the Sovereigns.”

Aerona winced. “Oh,” she said. “That’s not good.”

Awen smiled slightly, knowing what effect her next sentence would have.

“It’s led by Lady Marged.”

Aerona nearly choked. “Marged? Knits scarves for all visiting Riders Marged?”

“The very same,” Awen said dryly. “Though we both know there’s an awful lot more to her than that.”

“Well, yes, but…” Aerona trailed off, staring at the sea. “What could she possibly gain from de-powering herself? From starting the Wars again?”

“Well, she wouldn’t be de-powering herself – just everyone else so she can gain power. Archipelagan cities do need an awful lot of supplies to survive, after all; even when twinned with Aberystwyth like Caerleuad is. And if every other city hands power ‘over to the people’ and becomes a disorganised anarchic mess, she’s essentially ruler of the land.”

“How exactly does she plan to do this?” Aerona asked.

“I have no idea, actually,” Awen said frankly. “Lord Flyn wasn’t utterly clear on that. By dressing it up as some impressive and important new governmental system, I think. Although I do know that she’s already been spreading Dissenters into other cities. Travelling as bards, mostly. Telling people that only they should have the power, and not the Sovereigns.”

Aerona seemed to muse over the whole thing for a few seconds, and then looked back at Awen.

“So what’s Lord Flyn doing?”

“Launching his own counter-conspiracy,” Awen grimaced. “And here’s the thing. What he’s suggesting is that we can only keep Cymru out of war and how things used to be by cementing the power of the Sovereigns. He wants a single power – bigger than the Senedd, just one person – to be responsible overall for selecting the Sovereigns of each city. The Sovereigns would become regents, and they’d all answer to him.”

“And he wants to be the person in charge of that?” Aerona asked. Awen nodded.

“Difficult, isn’t it?” she said wryly. “Because on the surface of it the choice is anarchic war-profiteering under Marged, or monarchy and order under Flyn.”

“But you think there’s more,” Aerona said. It was more a statement than a question.

“Flyn is ambitious,” Awen said quietly. “And I can’t help but feel that this could just be some elaborate power play on his part.”

“Does he have proof of Marged’s power play? Or anti-power play, or whatever.”

“Yes,” Awen said heavily. “Apparently she spoke to a few Sovereigns two years ago about it, and we have caught several Dissenters sent from Caerleuad. However, the details are all terribly vague.”

“Gwilym’s father,” Aerona murmured. “The last Sovereign of Aberystwyth. He was behaving very strangely with Marged last year before his death.”

“I’m flying to Aberystwyth tomorrow,” Awen said. “As part of the Wing. I may have to see how much Gwilym knows.”

Aerona stared down at the sea for a few moments, her expression clouded.

“I just can’t see it,” she said at last. “Not Marged, you know? She bakes biscuits for her servants. She knits hats for the orphaned children in Aberystwyth. I just don’t see this without some ulterior motive that’s inherently lovely and full of kittens.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Awen grinned. “Or, well, not exactly maybe, since I didn’t think of kittens, but that’s certainly the gist of it.”

“Can you get out to speak to her?” Aerona asked. Awen shook her head.

“Not without drawing suspicion. It rests on Gwilym. I’m hoping he’s impressionable as well as young.”

“Yeah.” Aerona sighed, probably at the thought of the kittens in specially knitted hats actually being war-profiteering spies. “What are you telling Lady Gwenda, by the way?”

Awen pulled a face. “That Wrexham will join the cause as long as she has. They’re already mostly convinced by Flyn because of his bloodlines – he’s border stock. And that she’s to help convince as many Archipelagan cities as she can to join in.”

Aerona sighed as the clock on the Landing Tower chimed midnight.

“Alright. I think I’d best get you to Gwenda, or she’ll start getting suspicious,” she said gloomily. “You’re going to have to let me know how it goes with Gwilym, though.”

“I will,” Awen promised. She meant it.

Map of Cymru

Yay! Fantasy Map! No good fantasy is complete without one. Anyway, it's largely the same but with added Cantre'r Gwaelod Archipelago and Newport and Milford Haven have both been slightly relocated for better narrative purposes. Holyhead is part of the Archipelago, by the by. In case you were trying to find sixteen and kept coming up one short.

The Loneliest Guy: Part 2 of 8

My name's Peter Donaldson.

I had an accident in two thousand and eight and woke up in a fantasy world.

It's like I'm living the best dream ever. They say that if you wake up in a dream you can take control and change it. Maybe that's what's happened to me.

I'm surrounded by people I know, people I've hurt from the real world, now maybe if I make amends I can send us all home.

Peter stared down at his reflection in the pool. He looked the same. Exactly the same, even down to the spot he tried popping the day before yesterday.

He looked up from the water and cast his eyes round the others. They were laughing, joking and eating together as if they were all friends.

Peter looked down again and he saw someone standing behind him in the reflection but when he shot a glance over his shoulder there was no one there.

"Trick of the light." The stranger said with a grin. He recognised him as the figure who had waved at him from the Inn that morning. He was a curious fellow with an old-young face and silver hair; he looked disturbingly like Jon Pertwee.

"Who are you?"

The stranger looked up at the group and back down at Peter. "I'm the Dungeon Master. Or at least, I was. "

"Good one. Well, I'm a Dungeon Master too on weekends."

The apparition ignored him, "You're going to ask what has happened to you and what's going on – unfortunately, if I tell you those things I'll give you the tools you need to restore yourself to your realm."

"My realm?" Peter hissed, trying not to make it look as if he was speaking to a puddle.

"I will, however, give you some advice." The Dungeon Master warned, "Your companions aren't the people you knew. They are something else. Trying to extract information from them will only bring tears."

"Get me out of here."

"Sorry. I need you. This world needs you."

"Who're you talking to?" A voice muttered. Peter sat up and looked around. It was Bobby. Or at least he looked like Bobby's ghost. He was stripped to the waist, scarred and tanned and had a hollow look about him. Slung over his back was a club.

"Nobody. Just the voice in my head."

"Do all Mages have voices that speak to them?" The Bobby doppelganger asked, "Is that where your power comes from?"


"You are strange." Bobby replied leaning over with his hand in greeting. "We have not been properly introduced. I am Id."

Peter laughed, "Haha! That's good. I do psychology. I know what Id means. Very clever. Well, my name is Presto. Apparently. "

Confused, Id tried to explain, "It is a shorter form of Idjian. It is my race. I have no name, so I have adopted the name of my ancestors. This offends you?"

"No!" Peter replied sharply, "No. Id is fine by me."

"I hear you have not long joined this group also."

"You could say that."

"I have not travelled in these parts before. I like your world."

"Is that meant to be a joke?" Peter asked sharply, "Sorry. I didn't mean to snap."

"Are you feeling well? You look unsettled."

"I'm fine. You just look a lot like someone I know."

"You know more 'barbarian' warriors?"

"Nah, he's more of a dorky kid with greasy hair and communication issues." Peter replied, trying to picture Bobby as an image in his mind. Bitterly, he wondered whether doing that would make the world implode and send him home.

No such luck.

"Like me." Peter finished with a grin.

Id laughed at the top of his voice. It was rich and confident and totally unlike Bobby's wobbly-voiced cackle. "You are funny." Id affirmed, clapping him firmly on the back.

"What's going on over there?" the Frank doppelganger called from across the clearing. He was standing on a log and looking quite a bit like Errol Flynn. Oh God, Peter cursed inwardly, he was even wearing the Elseworld equivalent of green tights.

"Nothing." Peter replied.

"Presto is a funny man." Id said as he walked back towards the group.

"Yes he is," Frank said with a smile. "Here!" he called, chucking over a satchel of bread and cheese.

Peter looked down at the pool again, hoping to see the Dungeon Master there. He wasn't. Of course he wasn't. What were you thinking? That he'd turn up inbetween conversations? Please. Peter shook his head and reminded himself emphatically that an internal monologue was the last thing he needed. The psyche versus reality issues here were already convoluted enough. Besides, the internal monologue was the bane of most comic book heroes. Remember Spiderman, he reminded himself soberly. Remember Spiderman. Brand New Day? More like Brand New Crap.

Peter opened the satchel and picked out a lump of bread. If this really is a fantasy this bread and cheese will taste of air. Unless my head is making it taste like bread and cheese, in which case I won't be be able to tell the difference. You're doing it again.

As he munched on his lunch, which did taste of bread and cheese, he mused that trying to fathom the hithertos and the wherefores might not be that productive. The Dungeon Master had been kind enough to leave him some clues – maybe this farce had some kind of logical conclusion.

He didn't have time to ponder it much further as a volley of arrows soared overhead and struck the ground with shocking intensity. Random battles certainly weren't like this in Warcraft.

"To arms!" Frank bellowed. Peter's body went onto auto-pilot and he found himself darting back towards the group.

Steedman, who was huge and armoured, took to the front and brandished his shield. "Behind me comrades!"

Frank had already loosed three arrows and was notching a fourth when a posse of angry Orc-like creatures burst out of the surrounding forest. Id and Steedman surged forward to meet them. Peter looked around to Sarah and Dione – Sarah had her eyes closed and was standing very still. Peter blinked and when he looked again she had disappeared. He looked over at Dione and saw that she was sneaking off into the woods, armed with a short staff and a long knife.

"Presto!" Frank yelled, "Some magic would be nice!"

Aye, now there's the rub. Do you happen to know any magic? The Monologue teased. Peter shook his head and tried to think of something. Terrified and at a total loss for what to do, he concluded that he didn't have anything to lose so he raised his arms and screamed the first thing that came to mind.

"Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles!"

As a second volley of arrows descended, he closed his eyes and felt something soft and wet hit his face. When he opened them again he found that the arrows had somehow been transformed into flowers.

The battle didn't last much longer. Sarah and Dione made short work of the archers hidden in the trees and Steedman and Id made even shorter work of the Orcs dumb enough to come into close range.

When he was assured the Orcs were dead Peter took a closer look. Fantasy or no, he wasn't going to pass up an opportunity to examine a dead Orc.

"Damn, they really smell." Peter coughed as he got a bit too close. He looked up at Steedman who gave him an impenetrable stare.

"Yes. They do." He replied, "Not only this, but their blood never washes off." At first Peter thought he was being funny but in the corner of his eye he watched Steedman polishing his armour vigorously with a cloth.

"What were those strange words you spoke?" Id asked.

"Magical words. From an ancient language." Peter shrugged, trying not to think of the boxset DVDs in his house.

"You are strange. I cannot tell if you are jesting or being truthful"

"Well, you aren't the only one." Peter replied, his face flushing at the memory of how he'd got into this mess.

Later, Frank came up to Peter and spoke with him privately. "That was bravely done. I have never seen magic such as yours before. Any other Mage would have just erected a shield."

Peter shrugged, how could he explain or justify something he didn't understand? He tried to discern from Frank – if that even was his name – what kind of connection he held with his real-world counterpart, if any. But the man was unreadable.

"This might sound like a stupid question, so I apologise in advance, but am I pronouncing your name wrong? Is it Frank?"

"Frenic." He replied, smiling, "Last night really was a bit rough for you, wasn't it?"

Peter nodded, cursing his brain for deliberate use of irony.

"In case you were wondering," Frenic continued, "Saraii is a bit touchy about her name and Dionae is even more so."

"Who are you all?" Peter asked, unable to resist the need for answers. Besides, what possessed a bunch of teens to run around killing Orcs, even if it was a fantasy?

"Adventurers, mostly. Runaways and thrill-seekers in some small measure." Frenic explained. "I think it's safe to say we're all driven by some need to move on. We all have ghosts in our past. Come, we must make Ealdwic by nightfall."

They collected the horses and talked a while together. Peter observed their easy manner and collective spirit. They avoided all personal matters instead they concentrated on the here and now.

"Are the idols safe?" Frenic asked Steedman as they got onto their horses.

"They are," the Knight replied, passing over a satchel to Frenic. Peter tried to peer over to see what was in it.

"Here," Frenic said, passing the satchel to Peter. "You're a Mage, see if you can gauge the magical value of these items."

Peter opened the bag and he nearly dropped it. Within was Sarah's diary and Bobby's Xena toy.

"As far as we've been able to discern, one is an idol of the war goddess Xenia and the other is a text in a language none of us recognises. What do you think? Presto?"

Peter closed the bag quickly and forced a smile. "Where did you find these?"

"Along our travels." Frenic explained, "We found ourselves drawn to them, which is why we thought they might have magical properties."

Peter considered his next words carefully, "They're very powerful. I should probably look after them" He stuffed the satchel into the saddlebag of his horse.

For the rest of the day they travelled in easy silence. The journey along the road to the distant, tiered city of Ealdwic was an easy ride. It was dusk by the time they arrived.

Outside the gate they were stopped by a series of guards in black armour.

"Travel passes and official documents please." One of them said in a monotone.

"We're adventurers." Frenic said, as if this would explain everything.

"Sorry. You're going to have to join the queue." The guard pointed to a column of carts and travellers that extended for a mile around the moat. Peter looked aghast at the scale of the backlog.

"Excuse me, what's going on?" Frenic demanded, his cool demeanour beginning to fray.

"Read the leaflet." The guard said, passing him a sheet of paper before walking away. The group huddled in close and listened to Frenic as he read the note aloud:

"By order of Venger, the city of Ealdwic is now a subject of the Black Crusade. The Royal family have been detained and will be put on trial for war crimes. All visitors must justify entrance to the city. - - The Office of the Gatekeeper."

Venger? Peter wondered, staring down at the crudely mass-produced pamphlet. Where had he heard that name before?

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Cymru - Chapter 2


In the corner of his study, the revoltingly ornamental yet sadly traditional grandfather clock clanged midnight noisily. Gwilym leapt awake with a start, adrenaline hammering at his heart and leaving him feeling slightly sick. He sighed. One of these days he was going to take an axe to that clock, and his court advisors could either deal with it or find a new Sovereign to bother.

Although that said, he really shouldn’t have fallen asleep. Blearily, Gwilym rubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands and tried to stare at the official form with the tiny, tiny writing on the desk in front of him. It was probably an official political tactic, actually. If you wanted another Sovereign to sign something, just get a baby to write it in the tiniest hand it could and send it late at night. That way either their eyes would melt or they’d become legally retarded while trying to read it, and would end up signing the damn thing just to get a decent night’s sleep. Gwilym made a mental note to ensure that Watkins used the smallest font possible on every future note to Lord Flyn.

Guiltily, Gwilym considered the possibility of simply making Watkins read the forms for him and giving him the gist, but decided against it. If nothing else, Watkins looked somewhat like a kettle. Gwilym’s late father, rest his soul, had always been very clear on not trusting men who looked like kettles, which was logic Gwilym couldn’t coherently argue with.

He was on his tenth attempt of reading the letter when Gwilym remembered the magnifier in the desk draw; another revoltingly ornamental yet traditional piece of the study furniture. In this case though, Gwilym was ready to accept it as a treasured and oft-used piece of stationary that, five years and a thousand tinily-worded letters down the line, he’d happily make into his Grand Vizier. And it didn’t look like a kettle, which Gwilym was given to believing was probably a bonus.

My Dear Lord Gwilym,
I hope this letter finds you both in good health and well-settled into your new position as Sovereign of Aberystwyth.

Gwilym paused. It seemed like an inordinately expository opening to him. He wondered if his official letters were supposed to be encyclopaedic – he’d never thought to check.

As you are aware, soon the Archwiliad will be starting. The Casnewyddian Wing will be arriving in Aberystwyth with you shortly. However; they will raise certain matters with you that you may need to hear in private.

Gwilym blinked. That was unexpected. The city Wings were merely a formality these days – they’d done little more than go through the motions for almost thirty years. They certainly never said anything that required privacy.

For two years now, I have been keeping a careful watch upon certain other Sovereigns throughout Cymru – and I have become convinced that their intentions toward our country have become less than noble. I can say no more in this letter; but I beg you to listen carefully to my Wing Riders. I am certain you shall act as the patriot I know you to be, however, and make the right choices when the time comes.

What followed was a complicated list of instructions to give Watkins on the arrival of the Wing, but Gwilym barely skimmed it before putting it down and staring off into space.

The news was… alarming, to put it mildly. There had been no conspiracies that anyone knew of for almost forty five years. Not since the Wars had ended and the Senedd formed. If there were Sovereigns acting against Cymru it could feasibly tumble the country straight back into war, and the last one hadn’t ended well.

Of course, it seemed that Lord Flyn was suggesting a conspiracy of his own to counter it. Gwilym got up and went to the window, placing his forehead on the glass to cool. From here he could see all of Aberystwyth glittering below him, from the torches on Great Darkgate to the Landing Tower and stables on the seafront. Across the water, deceptively close, the Archipelagan city of Caerleuad winked back. Gwilym wondered what Lady Marged was doing at this hour. Sleeping like someone sensible, most likely. Was she one of the people Flyn’s letter had mentioned? Gwilym hoped not; quite aside from the massive economical and political advantages to Aberystwyth being twinned with Caerleuad, he rather liked Lady Marged. She was like a very eccentric aunt, and insisted on knitting him socks every time they met purely because he’d once told her that he liked the colour green. Apparently, Caerleuad made excellent green dyes out of its native seaweed.

Not for the first time, Gwilym wished his father could have had the foresight to leave him with a convenient book on how to run a city before his untimely death. Gwilym had been Sovereign for almost a year now, but at twenty six he was still a long way off the usual age of ascendancy, and he had no clue what he was doing beyond securing cheap green dyes for Aberystwyth and avoiding men who resembled kettles.

Which he’d failed at. Watkins really did look like a kettle.

Day of the Dumpster - Part Three of Four

Kimberly Hart couldn't quite believe her eyes. Twenty men that seemed to be made of rock, standing in formation. Putty Patrollers, the pipe voice had called them.

They started to advance, and Kim ignored her doubts. She'd think about this later. For now, it was time to fight.

Not that Kim had ever been in a proper fight. Kicking and hair-pulling with her cousin when she was growing up, but not an actual brutal fight. But then, punching seemed pretty straightforward, didn't it? As the patrollers reached within an arm's length, she formed a fist, and punched the nearest one in the chest.

"Jesus, that hurts!" she cried.

"Are you alright?" came Jason's voice.

"Yeah," said Kim curiously. Her hand had been in tremendous pain, but it was suddenly calming down. The coin, she remembered – the dragon coin that gave her her additional strength.

Remembering this, Kim smiled. And tackled two of the patrollers to the floor, kicking at a third as she did so.

"Good work, Kim," called Jason. Inspired by her display, he attacked another patroller. Kicking and slicing expertly, neatly avoiding the patroller's attempts at fighting back.

"Okay, guys," he said. "They're strong, but not skilled. Let's talk resources."

He looked behind him. Zack, William and Trini were standing back – only Zack seemed anything approaching willing to take on one of the creatures.

"My speciality's Thai Kickboxing," said Jason. "But I've got a fair bit of Taekwondo and Judo, as well as Shenkito and Kenpo."

"Dude," said Zack, sounding panicked. "You know five different martial arts?"

"Fourteen," said Jason, deflecting a patroller's blow. "That's how many I've studied, anyway." Another jab. "I didn't get very far with Hakko Denshin Ryu."

"Mate," said Zack. "I don't know about the others, but I've never even heard of most of those." He backed away as two patrollers approached him. He tried to kick one, but misjudged the angle and mised.

"Really?" Jason kicked his patroller's legs from under him, and aimed a blow at its chest. "I assumed that's why we were chosen for this – because we're all trained in martial arts."

"I'm not," Kim called. Her voice was muted by a pile of patrollers she'd pulled down on top of herself. "Used to be a gymnast. Maybe their notes are out of date."

"I've never done anything," said William. He was backing away, allowing Jason to become a barrier between himself and the patrollers. "Hated sports in school."

"I have a sandan in Shangdong Praying Mantis," said Trini. She was standing stock still, as though frozen in place.

"Wasn't that made up for films?" asked Zack, optimistically kicking one of the patrollers at crotch level. "Not found any weaknesses yet, by the way."

"That'll be great, Trini," said Jason. "Are you in or out."

"I don't fight," she said.

"Mate, if you just stand there, you won't have much of a choice," said Zack. He cried out in pain as a patroller punched him in the head. "And why is it always me who gets crippled by these things?"

"Anyone free to help?" called Kim. Half the patrollers had jumped onto her by now.

"Help her out, William," instructed Jason.

"I've never fought before!" insisted William.

"You'll pick it up," said Kim. "It's mostly about ignoring the pain long enough to kick them in the teeth."

William closed his eyes for a second, and inhaled deeply. Then, he opened them again.

"Alright," he said.

He ran towards Kim, and the mountain of patrollers. As he did so, a new patroller stepped in front of him, and swung at his head. William collapsed, like a dead weight.

"What's happening?" called Kim. Her arms were now visible – she was digging her way out.

"It knocked him out cold!" cried Zack, somewhat hysterically.

And then a patroller reached Trini.

It swung its arm towards her. She suddenly thrusted her hand forward, connecting underneath the patroller's ribs. It slumped forward, and Trini side-stepped to let it fall to the ground.

"This from the girl who won't fight?" said Zack.

"I don't fight," said Trini innocently. "That was self-defense. Which is the whole purpose of my training."

"Right," said Zack. "No chance of you generalising the concept of 'self' to include me, is there?"

"I don't fight."

Jason had managed to knock three patrollers to the ground, and crossed over towards Kim. It was difficult to tell how well she was doing, but she had at least managed to free herself from the knot of patrollers. She was now sitting on them, slamming their heads against each other.

"Need any help?" he asked.

"Might be nice," said Kim thoughtfully. "Don't really know what to do after getting them pinned. Kelly just started crying at this point."



"Their chests seem to be a weak point," said Jason. "Hitting their heads doesn't seem to make a difference."

"You could have mentioned that earlier!" said Kim. "Some leader you are."

"Hey, you're the tactician."

"Yes, and I've taken out eight patrollers. That's twice my recommended daily allowance."

William opened his eyes. Sky? Oh, yeah, the field. He stood up, most disappointed that he'd woken up in time to enjoy the pain of the impact to his head.

He looked over at the patrollers. His vision was blurred, and the sunlight gave him a headache. There was a ringing in his ears.

"Guys, I think I'm concussed."

Immediately, Trini ran towards him.

"You lost consciousness," she said. "But it can't have been for more than a minute or two. Are you suffering from amnesia?"

"I can't remember much of what the guy in the pipe said."

"That's not saying much. Do you remember being hit?"


"Good sign." She checked over her shoulder to make sure there were no patrollers near them. "Get plenty of rest."

"And leave the others?"

"Dude, that gives us seven each!" called Zack.

"That's nothing," said Kim. "I've already knocked out four, and I think I've made this one blind."

"Hang on." William removed something from his pocket – the bulky grey device Zordon had called a morpher. "I forgot all about these."

He'd been holding his coin tightly all along. He slotted it into the device with a satisfying click, and held it by the strap, at arm's length. He closed his eyes, and pressed the button on the left.

Trini had to back away as William was engulfed by a bright blue light. Intense heat emanated from him, as well as a sound like the rumbling of thunder.

Suddenly, the light, sound and heat faded away, and William fell to his legs.

"Oh," he said. He looked at his hands. He was wearing tough white gloves. He could feel it all around him – an outfit. A suit, but more than just a suit – it was a part of him. Strengthening him, giving him endurance, and ...

He swung his hand out. He launched himself into the air, aiming at one of Zack's patrollers, and landed, taking the patroller out with his feet.

"Guys, use the morphers," he said. "This is amazing."

Jason looked over his shoulder. William was wearing a tight blue outfit, with white gloves and boots. A blue helmet completed the look – the whole thing looked as though it was from an entirely different culture.

And the change to William's abilities was remarkable. His arms were swinging with greater precision and dexterity than Jason had ever seen.

As Jason reached for his morpher, he felt the air heat up around him. Kim had already used hers.

"Wow!" she said, as she examined her suit. "I get the pink one!"

"Didn't have you pegged as someone who'd like pink," said Jason.

"Hey, it's a colour."

While Jason used his own morpher, Zack examined his own suit.

"I've got a black one?"

"Don't you like black?" asked Kim, enjoying a new-found ability to spin on the spot, kicking up towards the patrollers' faces.

"I'm the black guy!" said Zack. "And I've got the black suit! That's just wrong. If Trini gets a yellow one, I swear I'm off the team."

Trini, however, was stubbornly standing where she was, making no movement to take her morpher.

"This is amazing!" said Jason. His own physical abilities were magnified by the suit, and he managed to take out several of the patrollers with ease. "I can't help but think we should have done this before leaving."

"Pipe guy's an idiot," confirmed Kim, who was endeavouring to beat down her opponents in the most flashy way possible. She grabbed one by the arm and somersaulted backwards, causing it to fall to the ground.

"I have to admit," said Zack. "These suits know what they're doing. Which is good, because I really don't."

One of the patrollers broke away from the empowered crew, and tried its luck with Trini. As before, she struck it with a single blow, and it fell.

"You really ought to try this," said William. "It's amazing."

Trini smiled. "I really don't fight."

"Okay, but you could still stand there with a bit more power."

"No," she said simply. "These aren't clothes – they're weapons. Their only purpose is to better your ability to hurt people."

"Big killer rock-stroke-putty monsters!" said Zack. "Which you have to admit is a fair counter-argument."

"And I'll tackle them if they come near me," said Trini earnestly. "But you can play at being superheroes if you like. Fact is, it comes down to the same thing. You're not superheroes. You're soldiers."

Zack chose not to reply, focusing instead on trying to emulate Trini's own jab to take out a patroller.

"The fact that there are aliens and robots doesn't change the fact that this isn't a fight," Trini continued. "It's an invasion. A war. And maybe five of us, with our magic suits, can take out the invaders. But that doesn't mean we should. I will fight in self-defense, but otherwise, I won't."

"You get that these guys will probably take over the planet or something, right?" said Zack.

"Yeah, because we know all the facts," said Trini irascibly.

During the conversation, Jason had manouvered himself around to Zack's side.

"This is a bit intense for everyone," he said quietly. "Don't pressure her."

"I don't think she needs much support," said Zack. "Didn't you see what she can do to John Q Putty?"

"Yeah, well, remember she's the only one of us who's still standing there unprotected," said Jason. "She doesn't need us gloating about how strong and cool we are."

"I wasn't!"

And suddenly, there was a calm. Kim had knocked the last of the patrollers out with an uppercut.

The adrenaline still pumping, the four in the suits looked around them, counting the grey bodies to make sure there were still twenty.

"We need to tell someone," said William. "Get the authorities here. They can study them – find weaknesses in case there are more."

"There are more," said Zack. "Endless legion, remember?"

But suddenly, all around them, the bodies started to crumble. eventually, all of them became mounds of dust, looking like unmixed concrete.

"You killed them," said Trini quietly.

"I see your point," said Zack. "But I think you have to concede that they were, after all, big killer rock-stroke-putty monsters."

William was bending over one of the piles, searching through the dust.

"Nothing left but the dust," he confirmed. "Which implies that they aren't organic in the way we understand the term. Wonder what kept them alive."

"Right," said Zack. "Enough of this. How do you get these suits off."

He checked his suit, and found that the morpher had been secured into the belt. He removed it.

"Hang on," said Jason. "Shouldn't we wait in case more turn up."

"I have to find my girlfriend," said Zack. "And I'm not waiting to hang around a monster murder scene in my monster killing suit."

"Me too," said Trini. "I'm going, I mean. Not to find a girlfriend."

"Did you just make a joke?" asked Zack, whose grin could be heard in his voice.

"I make jokes!" said Trini. "You don't know me."

Zack's suit vanished as he pressed the button on his morpher.

"You're right," he said. "I'm sorry. Lovely meeting you."

"Yes," said Trini. She approached Jason, and retrieved her own morpher from her pocket. "Here's my thing. The coin, too."

"Why are you giving me these?"

"I won't ever use them," she said. "I don't want them. Find someone else to give you your damned spirituality or whatever it was I was meant to do."

She turned to leave.

"Pleasure meeting you," said Jason, wincing immediately when she didn't reply.

Suddenly, the ground began to rumble again. The five of them froze in place, preparing themselves for a repeat of the earlier quake, but it stopped soon enough.

"I won't be able to sleep for a week," moaned Kim. "I'll have to take up boxing or something to work off the adrenaline."

"I don't think you'll need to," said William. "If the earth quakes whenever ..."

He didn't need to finish his sentence. A figure had arrived in the field.

He was enormous – easily eight feet tall – and clad in tough, golden armour. All they could see of him was his face, which resembled a puma's, and covered in scars. Each footstep he took towards them caused him to sink into the ground. He carried a brutal-looking sword, and behind him were two enormous wings, the armour extending over the topmost edges.

Zack wasted no time in using his morpher to return to his suit.

"Power Rangers," snorted the golden giant. His voice was gruff, and the shape of his lips gave it an odd quality, as though he was spitting. "You stand as the defenders of this planet, and the enforcers of its law?"

For a second, none of them responded. Jason wondered how to respond, but before he got the chance, Kim called out, "Yeah, that's us. Power Rangers." She paused. "I'm the pink one!"

"We will battle," said the giant.

"Aw, we've only just met," said Zack. "That's bad xenia."

"We will battle according to the ancient laws of combat as established on Titan," he replied. "I will announce the combat. This is battle G-seventy-four dot four-nine-two, the Five Power Ranger of Earth versus Goldar, First Henchman to Queen Rita Repulsa. We begin."