Now the Nightmare King turned and faced them. Here in the top of the Tower, a normal sense of scale had been restored, and at nearly seven feet high and as gaunt as a tree in the dead of winter, the Nightmare King would have been an imposing specter to anyone who faced him, and was doubtless even more so to chipmunks, mice and bats. But his lofty height was only a part of the impact of his physical presence. He was the popular personification of evil: coarse black robes with a deeply hooded cowl that revealed no more than his smoldering red eyes, and the sinewy claws that lurked at the ends of his sleeves, like ferocious beasts waiting to pounce from their caves.
“In a way,” the Nightmare King’s voice assailed them over the winds, “your presence here makes my victory complete. After all, what is a triumph without an audience to witness it?” A chuckle followed that would have sounded ingratiating, if it had not sounded rather more like a ground tremor. “Now I will make a new world, a perfectly ordered world under the rule of law. My law.
“You demonstrate great resourcefulness in coming so far. Even the Forest of Visions could not break your spirit. Truthfully, I would rather have such people as allies than as adversaries. In light of my previous associates’ failure to stop you, I have openings available. Wouldn’t you rather be among the victors than the vanquished?”
“Are you asking us to join you?“ asked Monterey incredulously.
“I am offering you the only chance you have of saving yourselves,” the Nightmare King intoned. “I await your decision.”
“No!” said Chip. “We’ve already seen your law in action, and it’s madness. . .”
“NOT MADNESS,” the Nightmare King lashed out at him, “GENIUS!”
“The rule of law without the temper of justice is madness!” Chip asserted, shouting to be heard over the storm. “We will never be a part of it, and we won’t allow you to subject anyone else to it!”
A pause hung in the swirling air like the fabled Sword of Damocles. “I see. And what of your friends, do you speak for them as well?”
“Yeah!” said Dale without hesitation, standing beside Chip. Foxglove followed and lent her support with her presence.
“Too right,” added Monty, baring his teeth into the wind.
“We decided a long time ago that we would always stand together, no matter what the challenge,” said Gadget. “And even if we hadn’t, I still wouldn’t join you.”
With a crash, the door by which they had entered the Nightmare King’s chamber slammed shut behind them. “Heroes to the end? As you wish then.” The Nightmare King’s voice was neutral and emotionless. “Since you can’t hope to oppose me or to escape, you won’t mind waiting while I put off destroying you until it is convenient for me to do so. I am very busy, after all.” With this casual dismissal, the Nightmare King turned and glided across the chamber towards the circular console. With his robes no longer occluding the strange machine in the center of the chamber, its sickly green light now washed over them, blinding in its intensity. The Rangers were forced to shield their eyes from the glare as the light cast surreal shadows behind them.
Gadget, squinting against the light, reached up for her goggles and pulled them down over her eyes. The tint in the lenses allowed her to see a little better. Deciding that their surest hope of success lay in destroying the machine, she forced herself to look into the glaring radiance and study its construction.
The machine rested atop a squat foundation that also supported a large vertical iron ring that circled the interior of the machine slowly, in time, Gadget realized, with the rotation of the giant clockwork below. The two were linked somehow, perhaps the larger machine’s impending destruction was the answer. But would that be enough to stop the Nightmare King, or would he merely start over again? The answer, she decided, must lay within the machine itself, so she continued her study.
Inside the iron ring was a complex pedestal that supported a helical structure, that twisted like a DNA chain wound into an atomic model. This bizarre construct was the source of the machine’s green light. As she studied the formation, she could see that the helix was composed of thousands of green crystals.
Gadget reached into her pocket, and her paw closed around the mysterious object that had illuminated their way in the underground tunnel; the object that she had brought all this distance from the mine on the mountain. She withdrew the red crystal from her pocket. Its ruddy glow felt warm and comforting in her paw.
“Let’s level the playing field,” Gadget said. Bracing herself against the wind and winding up, she threw the red crystal at the core of the machine with all of her strength.
The red crystal arced towards the green crystals in the core of the machine.
The Nightmare King, standing now beside the console, grasped a lever and thrust it upwards.
The slowly rotating iron ring that encircled the machine began to spin, quickly building up to a speed faster than the eye could follow, now just a blur about the machine.
The spinning ring intercepted the red crystal, knocking it away into a far corner of the room.
Again, that dark, patronizing chuckle rumbled. “Didn’t I tell you, you couldn’t hope to oppose me?” mocked the Nightmare King. “Tsk, tsk, how desperate. The reaction would have destroyed you as well.” The Nightmare King returned his attention to the console.
“Now what do we do?” asked Dale, as they turned away from the emerald glare.
“I think Gadget had the right idea,” said Chip, “No matter what he says, we’ve got to get to that red crystal and use it to destroy the machine.”
“Right,” said Monty. “And we’d better act fast, who knows what he’s got up those sleeves of his.”
“Let’s split up, keep him occupied chasing us around. Whoever gets to the crystal first, use it!” said Chip.
“Right,” Gadget agreed, and turned to go. She stopped suddenly as she felt an icy hand close about her arm. Whirling about to face her assailant, Gadget came face-to-face with her shadow. That is to say, it was her shadow, but it was clearly not under her control. In her shadow’s face two red eyes, an evil mirror image of her own eyes, shone in the otherwise blank countenance. The shadow also had a painfully firm grip on her arm.
“Run for it!” yelled Monty, following his own advice. But of course, one can never outrun one’s shadow, and Monty’s brought him crashing to the floor with a flying tackle.
Foxglove cried out in pain as her shadow closed its icy grasp on her broken wing. Dale was immediately beside her. “You let Foxglove go!” Dale said, swinging at the shadow’s head. He threw himself off balance, because there was nothing there to hit. Whatever hit him, however, felt very solid indeed, as his own shadow clouted him across the muzzle.
Chip’s shadow shoved him roughly to the floor. As he scrambled away, trying to regain his feet, he felt his shadow’s chilling grip on his ankle, and suddenly found himself suspended upside-down by one foot. He didn’t have long to wonder what was going on before he was roughly flung to the ground, some distance away. His shadow was there to meet him of course, and as he tried to go after the red crystal, his shadow clamped onto his neck and began to throttle him.
The storm built in intensity and a bolt of lightning again illuminated the twisting funnel of clouds. As the clap of its thunder roared in his ears, Chip felt the icy grip on his throat fade, as the shadow Chip shrank before the glare of the violent electrical discharge. Chip was nothing if not quick to recognize an opportunity, and seized it at once, dashing across the chamber. “C’mon Rangers!”
As their shadows shrank before the lightning, Dale helped Foxglove to her feet. “Are you alright?”
“I’d be better if I could fly,” Foxglove winced, nursing her injured wing. “I could keep away from my shadow that way.”
“C’mon Gadget, we’re not out yet!” Monty cried, also taking advantage of his shadow’s absence to make his own dash. The Rangers made it nearly a third of the way across the chamber before their shadows pounced on them once more.
The Nightmare King watched their struggle with amusement. “Rather like a metaphysical game of Red Light, Green Light, don‘t you think? Your time is up.” The Nightmare King extended a claw, its shadow descending over the Rescue Rangers as though to crush them in its ghostly grasp.
And then the whole Tower, indeed the whole Citadel shook, as if some sleeping giant far below had become restive and begun to stir. At the same time, a pair of red lights set atop the control console began to flash in time with a clangorous bell. The Nightmare King turned towards the sudden distraction, the flash of his eyes echoing the unexpected alarm. “What’s going on?” Rapidly, almost with haste, the Nightmare King glided over to the console and tugged at a lever, which stubbornly refused to budge. The Nightmare King yanked at the lever repeatedly, but it remained obstinately stuck. “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE!” he bellowed.
Atop the clockwork on the maintenance platform where Fat Cat had tried to kill them, the large control panel indicated that the huge mechanism was beginning its death throes. All of the gauges were now solidly into the red, and had anyone been there to read them, they would have been seriously scalded by the roiling steam that now filled the chamber. Where Fat Cat had thrown Monty into the control levers, the linkage for the master control that the Nightmare King was trying to operate from far above was bent out of shape, and binding hopelessly against its guides.
The giant stirred again, more forcefully this time. With a low growl the Nightmare King abandoned the obviously useless lever and turned towards the Rangers. “Perhaps you thought your petty sabotage would thwart me?” he said in a voice like thunder. “I’ll take the Master Gate and observe the results of your pathetic heroics from a safe distance. It will be the work of only a day to rebuild the tower and continue my plan. Farewell Rescue Rangers, you have traded your lives for a mere setback!” The Nightmare King operated a series of levers and started for the machine as the outer ring began to slow down.
“This is hopeless,” Foxglove moaned as despair overtook her. “How do you fight someone who can compel the shadows to do his will?”
Dale struggled with his own shadow. “By never giving up, no matter what!” he said.
“That’s the spirit pally!” said Monty. But for all their encouragement, the outcome seemed decided, the deck stacked hopelessly against them, but for one small wild card.
“Where is Zipper?” Gadget asked. A thunderous cry of rage and a series of small explosions gave them the answer.
Zipper had the red crystal and was making for the machine like a World War Two torpedo bomber. Distracted first by the others and then by the alarm, the Nightmare King had not noticed the fly as he made his way across the chamber and retrieved the crystal. As flight had helped him evade his shadow and his diminutive size had aided him in escaping the Nightmare King’s attention, they now aided him in escaping destruction as he easily dodged the energy bolts that the Nightmare King flung at him.
Zipper zeroed in on the machine, a fly on a mission. The Nightmare King ceased firing on him, now fearful of hitting the machine. Zipper concentrated closely on the machine and its spinning defensive ring, getting the timing just right, and pulled out of his dive at the very last instant, releasing the red crystal as he did so. Obeying the laws of Newtonian physics, the crystal continued on its trajectory as Zipper flew clear. His judgment of the ring’s timing had been impeccable, and the crystal sailed past the protective barrier and alighted almost innocently in the heart of the winding nest of green crystals.
At once, the green crystals’ blinding radiance dimmed, and jagged discharges of energy engulfed the crystalline helix, leaping off the structure to the ring and the pedestal, with spectacular orange blossoms of sparks erupting wherever they struck. Likewise, the swirling maelstrom above also spewed forth great bolts of lightning that scorched the Citadel and the surrounding landscape wherever they struck. The green luminescence began to fade from the churning clouds.
“No-o-o-o-o!” howled the Nightmare King, as the green crystals dimmed and the red crystal grew painfully bright. Wild energy bolts from the machine now flew across the room, scoring where the Nightmare King had missed and scorching Zipper’s wing.
Zipper flew to his friends, who were suddenly released from the shadows’ malevolent grip as the darkness shrank from the pyrotechnic display that the machine and the sky above were now putting on. Gadget caught the injured fly, cradling him gently as he lay exhausted. “Outstanding job pally!” Monty enthused.
A jagged bolt of energy blew away a chunk of the floor uncomfortably close to where they were standing, prompting Chip to offer a more practical sentiment. “Take cover!” Aside from the machine itself, the only other feature in the room was the circular control panel, so they ran for that, and sheltered behind its supports as best they could.
The red crystal grew white hot, as bolts of energy as large and as dangerous as lightning leapt from the machine to the walls of the room and the open sections of the Tower roof. Over the tremendous din of the machine’s demise rose the anguished scream of the Nightmare King. “No, no, no, no . . .NO-O-O-O-O!!”
The giant stone bud that was the Tower blossomed suddenly with a brilliant flash, blooming into an orange fireball that spread, twisting, up into the whirling vortex of the Maelstrom. The storm lost all cohesion with the explosion and the clouds ceased to whirl in their mad dance, settling down to dark gray thunderclouds that hung ponderously over the angular fortifications of the Citadel.
The Muse, seated on the red velvet Chesterfield sofa in the middle of his prison, looked up from his tea, as the playing field shifted.
“Checkmate,” said the Muse.
The sudden metallic screech drew the guards from the Belfry garrison at once, but when they burst into the room they found only the cage, its bars peeled back by some incredible force. The Muse was gone.
Dr. Chen awoke with a start, feeling confused and disoriented until she sat up and realized that she was on the lawn in front of the entrance to the hospital. The last thing she remembered clearly was stepping outside for a breath of fresh air, because she had felt light-headed. Then . . .
With some trepidation, Dr. Chen retrieved her glasses from where they had fallen and resettled them on her nose, then looked up into the sky.
There was nothing there more threatening than the moon and stars.
Did I fall asleep and dream all of that? Even now, it seemed vague and indistinct. Shaking her head, she stood up and turned back to the hospital entrance. I’ve been working too hard, she told herself. But as she turned, she caught sight once more of the ambulance, still resting against the side of the building with its lights flashing and its engine idling. The sight brought back the memories in a rush; the sleepiness, the crash, the terrifying green fissure in the sky. . .
The driver’s door of the ambulance opened and the driver emerged, shaking his head to clear it. “Are you guys alright?” he asked.
“I’m okay,” answered a voice inside the ambulance.
“Aw man,” said the driver, surveying the crumpled fender and hood, “the Captain’s gonna kill me.”
“Don’t worry about that now,” said another voice in the ambulance, “help us with the patient!”
The driver went to the rear of the ambulance and opened the doors, then helped the attendants extract the stretcher and their patient, an elderly man who’d apparently slept through the whole incident.
Dr. Chen gazed into the silent, starry sky again. What’s going on here?
Where once the wild winds of the Maelstrom had howled, now only a peal of rolling thunder disturbed the stillness that hung over the Tower like the leaden gray clouds that had given birth to the sound. Where once the Nightmare King’s Master Gate had stood, there was now only a charred hole in the floor from which a lazy wisp of smoke drifted, disturbed by only the merest of zephyrs. Where once the Tower had seemed unassailable and impregnable, it now stood in near ruin. A jet of escaping steam hissed at the rumbling clouds, daring them to speak again.
Monterey Jack emerged first from the behind the twisted ruins of the circular console. His ears were still ringing from the explosion, his coat and whiskers were singed, but they were all alive, though dazed by the blast. “Crikey,” he observed, surveying the wreckage, “nice mess. Everyone all right?”
“Not really,” said Gadget, “but nothing’s broken at least.” Gadget turned and helped Chip stand up.
“I think so,” said Dale, helping Foxglove up. “Did we win?”
“Looks like it,” said Monty. Suddenly the remains of the machine were wrenched into the air and flung down with a crash on the opposite side of the room, as though by the hand of a giant. The Nightmare King, tattered now but still very much intact, looked down on them, his eyes blazing with rage.
“You’ve ruined everything. YOU ALWAYS RUIN EVERYTHING!!” From the destruction around them shadows began to emerge, surrounding the Rangers. “By the time I’m through with you, you’ll wish you had perished in the explosion. I’ll lock you into your own worst nightmares for a thousand years!”
The menacing shadows closed in on the Rescue Rangers. Inside the shadows were horrible things best left unspoken of.
The shadows abruptly melted away as a new radiance entered the room. The Nightmare King jumped back in alarm as the Muse silently took shape before him. Gone was the cuddly rabbit appearance; this was the Muse as Chip, Monty and Gadget remembered from the journey to the dream world: luminous, beautiful, and formidably otherworldly. “I do not think you will be able to do that,” said the Muse gently. “Thank you for your help,” the Muse said to the Rangers. “No further harm will come to you.”
The Nightmare King leapt across the room. “We shall see about that!” he growled as he hurled an energy wave at the Muse and the Rangers which, though it did an impressive amount of damage crossing the room, evaporated harmlessly before reaching them.
“Without the crystal matrix to amplify your will, I’m afraid you’ll find your domain somewhat limited,” the Muse explained. “The power you stole from me has been returned, and I am no longer your prisoner. It‘s time now to end your game.” The Muse spread his wings, and the chamber was instantly filled with a screaming banshee wind, though nary a breath stirred the Rangers at all. The Nightmare King put up his arms and braced himself against the tremendous gale, even as it tore shreds from his cloak and flung them into the sky.
“What’s happening?” asked Chip.
“This Nightmare King is no more a product of this world than you are,” said the Muse. “The world is not so simple as to require a constant balance of good and evil. I want to know who this is who thinks they can alter nature to suit their own ends.”
“Look!” Dale exclaimed, pointing.
The wind blew back the Nightmare King’s hooded cowl, revealing . . . nothing. Only the burning red eyes, which were quickly extinguished by the shrieking winds. The sleeves of the robe were torn away, revealing only the claws hanging in the air with no visible means of support. As though ashamed of the revelation, the claws turned an ashen gray and disintegrated before the wind, blown away like so much dust. Now the body of the Nightmare King bent at the waist as the winds increased in intensity, and finally the entire top cracked off like a rotten branch, leaving only the bottom of the cloak which began to emit a thick, black smoke. As suddenly as they had come the winds subsided, leaving only enough to blow away the smoke. When it cleared, they saw at last who the Nightmare King was
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