*"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust..."*
The somber scene played out in the viewing globe, observed by a pair of jewel-toned feline eyes. The snow-white cat reclined regally on the dark throne, watching the proceedings taking place on the planet that hovered beyond the balcony of the lunar citadel. Outwardly, there was no sign that the sleek bundle of fur was at all moved by the funeral. She climbed to her feet, yawned, stretched indifferently then nimbly leaped down the stairs of the dais, padding softly towards the pedestal housing the orb. However, on the inside, Katherine Hillard mourned the passing of a friend.
Time ceased to have any meaning for the young woman the day Rita closed the collar about her throat. Though she retained her human faculties, the passage of years had no affect on her; she had become as ageless as her mistress.' The only way she had kept from getting lost in the timeless haze was by watching the globe that had replaced the sorceress' old telescope. (*"The picture is much better, and I don't have to squint to see!" * had been the rationale.)
Surreptitiously, Kat had followed the parade of years, vicariously living through her friends --in particular, Tommy and Kimberly. She had watched their lives unfold, sharing in their joys: the birth of the twins, Jason and David, Rose's marriage, the birth of their first great-grandchild ... and their sorrows: the loss of parents, friends, and the untimely, crushing death of their infant daughter Katie. She had observed them in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad. She watched them grow old together, growing happier in each other's company until death parted them.
Kat touched the curve of the glowing sphere as the focus tightened on one of the mourners. Time had been kind to him. His face had weathered the decades well; though wrinkled and silver-haired, Tommy's frame was still strong, and his still-warm eyes, normally sparkling with laughter, were bright with tears of grief.
*"Good-bye, Beautiful,"* he murmured, placing a pink rosebud on the casket. Then he joined the circle of his children and surviving friends who held him for a long time. Kimberly's death had been unexpected; she had passed away in her sleep. Though saddened, the family called it a blessing, sparing everyone the possibility of a lengthy and emotionally taxing physical and mental decline.
Kat's heart ached for Tommy; he loved Kim so, and she knew that while his children and grandchildren would help, they would not be able to alleviate the loneliness in his heart. Still, as her paw brushed at the tears which trickled down Tommy's still-handsome face, she wished with all her might that she could ease his pain somehow.
"Ding dong, the bitch is dead. Which ol' bitch? The cute pink bitch. Ding dong, the cute pink bitch is dead...."
Cringing at the horrendous warbling, Kat backed away from the globe, her hackles standing on end as Rita swept into the chamber. With the agility and speed only a feline possessed, Kat attempted to flee before the witch caught sight of her. She loathed it when Rita picked her up and petted her.
Part of her wished the sorceress had used the same spell she had the first time she had snared her ... the one that made her evil. Not that she wanted to be evil again, but if she had been turned to the darkness, she wouldn't have minded her captivity so much. Or Rita could have made her all cat, so she wouldn't have to know what was going on ... but no. This witch's familiar doubled as a spy once again. Though a white cat with azure eyes was unusual, the denizens of evil were so supremely self-confident that they paid a harmless kitty no mind, even if she was Rita's latest oddity. Kat always had the impression that Rita's adversaries would have been more wary if she had been a black cat instead.
She hadn't wanted to do the shrill sorceress' dirty work (at least Rita hadn't tried turning her against later generations of Power Rangers!). In fact, Kat had stubbornly refused. Tail held high, she would saunter out of a conference room she was supposed to be casing, or she'd fall asleep when she was supposed to be eavesdropping in someone's private chamber. However, she had learned --to her *extreme* discomfort-- that there was still data to be gleaned from even the briefest of impressions. Rita never bothered turning her human to collect her information, but extracted what she wanted directly from Kat's mind. It became a matter of survival to cooperate; however, over the decades, she had found ways to confound the would-be empress of evil's plans.
At least she didn't have to contend with Lord Zedd as well; Kat was grateful for his conspicuous absences. He rarely put in an appearance, and no doubt he had found some other dimension to beleaguer --and with him Goldar and the rest of his lackeys, leaving her and Rita alone. Sometimes, Rita didn't care one way or the other if Zedd was around, but lately, her grumblings had given Kat the impression that the witch was not at all happy with her husband.
"Here kitty-kitty...." Rita summoned, and somehow she managed to lay hold of Kat before she could find a concealing niche. Kat suffered herself to be stroked by those icy --a cold she could feel through her fur-- hands.
"Poor little Kimmie finally bit the big one," Rita sneered, glaring at the viewing globe. "Good!"
The venom in the sorceress' tone caught Kat's attention. She had never heard Rita sound so ... completely and utterly hateful. She raised her head inquiringly.
"Too bad she didn't waste away," Rita hissed. To Kat, this sounded like more than her blanket dislike for the Rangers; it seemed personal somehow, but what had Kim done to the witch lately? "She'd have made a lovely living skeleton, don't you think?"
The screeching cackle had Kat's fur standing on end.
"Poor Tommy," Rita all but spat. "Now he can be as wretched and miserable in his loneliness as I am in my marital bliss!" Then, her tone became sly. "What do you think, Kitty-Kat? I bet you'd *love* to console your precious Tommy, wouldn't you? You can't stand the thought of him being all lonely and sad because Kim's left him again; can you?"
Kat did her best to tune out the witch's rantings. Never again would she let the sorceress get into her head.
"Maybe I should send him a kitty as a sympathy gift. Yes ... and he could name you Kim, and you could keep him company ... curl up on his lap and sleep ... that'd get you into his bed...!"
Rita laughed uproariously, and Kat shuddered. She wouldn't ... she couldn't...!
"Or better yet, I could make you human again and send you back to earth," Rita continued thoughtfully. "You've become such a willful kitty of late. Oh yes, I know who tipped off ol' Crater Face about my little scheme to swipe the wraith crystals."
The malevolent tone made Kat shrink back nervously. Suddenly, she felt Rita slip a finger under her collar, and Kat overrode her feline instinct to struggle; she had no desire to be choked again.
"Ah, get off me, you flea-bitten feline; you're getting hairs on my gown," Rita growled, abruptly throwing Kat away from her. That pretty much amounted to standard procedure for the witch: gloat and taunt a while, then toss the cat. Kat landed on all fours and started sprinting for a hiding place when pain ripped through her body like wildfire, so intense it dropped her where she stood. In her mind, Katherine screamed; in reality she meowed her agony. Then came the fire, and she felt her body uncoiling ... expanding.... Her inarticulate mewlings became all-too-human cries of agony. The transformation had never been this difficult before, but then, she'd never been a cat for so long either.
For the first time in seventy years, Kat was human. She slowly sat up, straightening her arms and legs. As she stretched out her cramped muscles, she wondered if she'd remember how to walk ... talk.... She caught her reflection in a polished obsidian slab. She looked exactly as she had seven decades ago, down to the fuchsia tank dress. Tentatively, Kat moved her arms, shaking some life into them. She rubbed her bare upper arms to get her circulation going. She'd never noticed it before, but it was freezing in the throne room!
Kat unsteadily climbed to her feet. Her knees buckled, and she fell. Rita cackled mockingly. Ignoring her captor as best she could, Kat made a second attempt. This time, she remained erect. Gingerly, she essayed a step. Then another. Haltingly, she made her way towards the glimmering sphere, which was still focused on Angels Rest Cemetery. The mourners were at last leaving.
*I really am sorry, * Tommy, Kat tried to say, but the sound would not come. Her hand came up to touch the crystal. The image went dark.
"You want to be there for him, don't you?" Rita sneered. "You want to hold him and tell him everything will be all right ... that his friends are there for him ... just like you did the last time his precious Kimmie left him."
*Lord, what did I do to deserve this? * Kat implored the heavens, eyes closed and fingers slowly clenching into fists. *Haven't I suffered enough? *
"... only this time, his precious pink love isn't coming back," the witch snidely continued. "Say, I bet even *you* would stand a chance with Tommy now."
"Just ... shut ... up," Kat forced out, her voice raspy from disuse.
"Oh, so you remember how to talk, do you?"
Kat turned to glare at the sorceress.
"You want out of here, don't you?" Rita needled. "You'd like nothing better than for me to send you home. Well, why not? I'm in a generous mood today, and you have served me well --for the most part."
Kat's eyes went wide with astonishment at Rita's words. She couldn't possibly be serious, could she?
"However, there's one small, teeny tiny problem. Where would you go? Your parents ... most of your friends ... are dead. Hell, even *you* were declared dead decades ago. And the surviving power pukes you call friends are old geezers. But, on the plus side, Tommy's available."
*Would you just stop going on about Tommy! * Kat seethed inwardly. Yes, she loved Tommy --probably always would in some way-- but she had laid that particular ghost to rest long ago.
"Can't imagine that he'd want you ... although, they say older men like younger women. Naw, I can't see it. You're not Kimmie; I doubt he ever really cared for you. If he had, why didn't he try harder to find you when you turned up missing? I bet when he heard you had disappeared, he said good riddance to bad rubbish."
"That's ... not ... true!"
Tommy had tried to find her ... all her friends had! They had missed her ... mourned her at the memorial service. Tommy and Kim had even named Katie after her.
"They cared," Kat asserted, her voice stronger now. "They did their best; how could they know *you* had abducted me? After all, they thought Mondo had sent you running with your tail between your legs."
"But they should have thought about that possibility. Tommy was the leader of the Power Rangers; he should have considered the notion that an old foe could have been behind your disappearance. He still had access to the Rangers' technology. He didn't use *every* resource at his command. Face it; he had Kim and the baby and abandoned you to your fate, and you still stupidly pine for him."
"I do not," Kat insisted. She wasn't *that* pathetic.
"You mean to tell me that if I told you I could send you back to earth and fix it so you could have a chance to live happily ever after with Tommy, you wouldn't leap at it?"
Kat felt her pulse quicken at the thought, but she maintained her skepticism.
"You don't believe me? With magic, anything is possible. Erasing the seventy years between you and Tommy is easy enough. The Fountain of Youth spell is so simple even *you* could cast it ... as long as the subject was willing."
"So what's the catch?" Kat demanded coolly.
"Does it matter? How can you put a price on freedom and the opportunity to spend the rest of your life with the man you've always loved?"
For the briefest of moments ... less than a heartbeat ... temptation reared its ugly head. However, Kat immediately squashed the impulse. What Rita was offering was too good to be true, and with the witch there was always a hefty price to pay.
"No deal, Rita."
"Ahh, but you thought about it," Rita tsked in a singsong voice.
It shamed --and angered-- Kat that the sorceress had picked up on her moment of weakness. However, who wouldn't be tempted, if only for a second? After all, she was only human.
"No one would blame you for being tempted," Rita purred oily, as if reading Kat's thoughts. "It's not easy to say no to your heart's desire."
"Even if you managed to manipulate me like you did when you captured me, whatever you're up to won't work," Kat declared defiantly. "You said the spell would only work if the subject was willing. Tommy would never have anything to do with something that came from you."
"Even if I could give him Kim back?"
That gave Kat a moment's pause, but she was able to answer with conviction, "He'd die first."
"Not that he's that far from the grave these days anyway," Rita remarked with an indifferent shrug. "Of course, he wouldn't have to know; there are ways to cloud the mind --as you well know."
"I'd know," Kat retorted. She would rather never have Tommy's love than to coerce him with one of Rita's spells. It wouldn't be right. It wouldn't be real.
"Oh well, you had your chance, Kitty-Kat," Rita concluded curtly. She turned to exit the chamber; however, when she reached the doorway, she turned back and looked expectantly at Kat. "You coming or what?"
"Are you just going to stand there staring at a blank ball, or are you going to come and find out where your room is?"
"You don't think I'm going to put you down in the dungeon, do you? It's too far to walk, and I don't have Squatt or Baboo to fetch and carry for me. Besides, I can keep a better eye on you up here. It still have plans for you, Kitty-Kat."
Seeing as how she had no other choice, Kat followed.
* * *
Kat checked the corridor; the coast was clear. Not that she expected to see anyone; she and Rita were the only souls in the castle, and for the past several months, the witch had rarely left her private quarters. Still, it never hurt to be cautious in enemy territory.
Since the day she had been made human again, Kat had felt more like a guest than a prisoner. She had clothing (all black and not exactly her style), food (nothing recognizable but at least edible) and could come and go as she pleased. Over the long months, she had explored virtually every nook and cranny of her home.' Though she had searched, she had never found a way to escape. For starters, she had learned almost at the cost of her life not to venture beyond the citadel's walls. The castle's magic did not extend past them, and after all, this was the moon. And even if she *had* found a way out, Rita would be able to track her down no matter where she went. Kat's fingers lightly skimmed the seamless band still encircling her throat. There had to be some reason the sorceress hadn't removed her pet' collar.
Gathering her trailing skirts, Kat slipped into the dusty hallway and made her way unerringly to a staircase hidden at the end of the maze. The musty passage led to a tiny library that had seen little use over the centuries, unless she missed her guess. Something about the collection contained therein had fascinated her, beginning with the way she had discovered it. It was almost as if she had been drawn to the study, but the geas didn't feel like Rita's. Kat knew the taste of her jailer's particular brand of magic all too well. Then, there were the tomes themselves ... not that she could read any of them. Still, there was something about them that called to her.
She lit the massive candle in its ornate, wrought iron stand. Melted wax dripped down the white cylinder looking for all the world like layer upon layer of icicles. Then, she turned to the shelves. She was meticulous about placing everything back the way she had found it lest Rita come upon the room and discover what she'd been about.
Her selection was a volume bound in white leather embossed with gold. It was a curious book insofar as it was the only one in the collection that hadn't been sealed in some fashion. The characters on the cover and the gilt-edged pages were complete gibberish to her, yet she felt compelled to thumb through the beautiful tome. As she examined the mysterious text, she couldn't shake the feeling that somewhere within the pages was the key to unlock the secret of the glyphs ... a way to translate the words.
Kat became so engrossed in puzzling over the book that she had lost track of time (easy enough to do about the castle anyway). The only reason she noticed the passage of hours was the twinge of hunger making itself known.
*The morning's gone already? * she mused, yawning and stretching. She was loath to leave the surprisingly comfortable room; however, the stillness was suddenly shattered by a rumbling quake.
"What the...?" Kat gasped, falling out of her chair. The tremor was followed by a loud explosion.
Was the palace under attack? Kat hurried from the secluded study. As she raced into the castle proper, the ruckus ceased, but the tension in the air was thick and heavy. *Something* was going on, and the best place to find out what was the throne room.
"You're what?" she heard Rita shout as she drew nigh the central chamber of the citadel. Thinking it best to be discreet, Kat paused in the doorway. To her surprise, she found the long-absent Lord Zedd reclining on his throne. Rita faced him, absolutely livid.
"I'm getting married," Zedd replied to her charge.
Kat blinked in astonishment.
"Think again, Zeddy," Rita hissed. "Last time I checked, you were still married to me, and unlike humans, there's no such thing as divorce for us."
That was an interesting tidbit of information. Kat pressed closer, not wanting to miss a thing.
"We're bound, body and soul --I made sure of that when Finster married us," the sorceress ranted on. "I was determined that even if I couldn't rule the universe through you, I'd at least get your powers when some goon offed you."
Zedd waved her words aside nonchalantly. "True, but since you haven't provided me with an heir, I'm within my rights to take a second wife."
"*I* haven't provided* you *...? I think you've got that backwards, Zedd-boy. You're the one shooting blanks. I know all about your mistresses over the years; you haven't been able to get any of them knocked up."
"Oh, no? Then who's child is my twisted little J'bel carrying?" Zedd taunted.
"You mean that pathetic piece of trash is pregnant?"
"Yes, and don't get any ideas; J'bel knows enough magic to protect herself and the baby."
"And I was hoping she'd end up like all the rest of your little tramps: dead."
Kat shivered at the deaths-head smile Rita flashed her husband.
"You didn't...?" Zedd hissed, a red aura rising about him in his fury.
"Every last one. My little kitty and I found Ysmi's heart rather tasty."
It was with Herculean effort that Kat kept herself from retching. All those unidentifiable dinners....
"No matter," Zedd responded with much effort. "They all failed me, and the price of failure is death."
"I thought it was being shackled to you for all eternity."
"Stuff it, Zeddy."
Kat found herself inching ever closer even as she knew she should flee to the far side of the palace. Lord Zedd was making a serious mistake; he was treating Rita as if she were the same ineffectual buffoon she'd once been. She wasn't. Rita hadn't been anybody's fool for a long time now.
"I'm not sharing your powers with anyone. They're mine by right!" Rita's voice, instead of climbing shrilly, had become low and dangerous. "The only way anyone else gets them is over my dead body."
"With pleasure! Once I'm rid of you, I'll infuse my lovely J'bel with your powers and make her the queen she was meant to be!"
With that, Zedd struck first, leveling his staff at Rita and releasing a bolt of energy. The sorceress brushed it aside with a wave of her hand. The lethal flare struck the keystone of the archway Kat cowered in, sending a shower of crumbling stone crashing to the ground.
"You've been practicing," Zedd remarked with affected nonchalance. The blast should have fried his irksome wife.
"It's not like I had anything better to do, since I didn't have to spend all my time bowing and scraping at your feet," Rita sneered.
The witch unleashed her own volley, and the deflected magic once again sent Kat scurrying for cover. As the contest raged in earnest, instead of being driven further from the chamber, Kat inexplicably found herself driven closer to the battleground. In fact, a wayward burst sent her flying from her most recent shelter, and she went sprawling to the floor between the combatants.
"I see you've let the cat out of the bag," Zedd mocked darkly as Kat tried to scramble out of the way. "Getting careless, my putrid peanut. The only good Ranger is a dead Ranger; I thought you'd learned by now."
"Ah, she's harmless ... too stupid to get in trouble," Rita said dismissively. "After all, she still thinks I'm to blame for her predicament when it's all Kimmie's fault that she was out wandering the streets feeling sorry for herself."
Kat glared at Rita but didn't rise to the bait. There was no sense in getting into a pointless bout of contradiction.
"Besides, letting her roam around has had its uses. After all she found Xereth's library, and she even opened the Dammerung Grimoire."
The very name made Kat feel inexplicably cold. Dammerung ... it sounded familiar somehow. Then she recalled her flatmate Julie; she loved opera, and one weekend she'd watched the entire *Ring of the Niebelung.* The fourth part of Wagner's cycle had been titled *Gotterdammerung* ... Twilight of the Gods.
*Lord, please tell me this doesn't mean the same thing!* Kat tried to quell her rising panic. The only book that she had easy access to was that white volume, but it hadn't been sealed or anything. Surely it couldn't be....
"The Book of Twilight is yours? Impossible! Xereth's spell insured that only one of pure heart could turn those gilded pages, but she's tainted with your evil."
"I wish!" Rita snorted. "My spell making her evil doesn't count. The taint was never in Kat, just like it never was in Tommy --which was why he could hold the White Ranger Powers and steal the Zeo Crystal from us-- the darkness was imposed on them. But who cares? The grimoire is open, and its spells are mine.
"First you, oh wicked husband, then the tramp and Zedd Junior," the witch vowed malevolently.
"No!" Zedd roared and launched himself at Rita, engaging her physically.
As the two grappled, their magics continued to rage throughout the chamber. Rita's crackled about her like lightning while Zedd's rose up in a swirling cyclone that howled like a banshee through the throne room. Kat stayed low and covered her ears against the shriek of arcane energies unleashed. The lunar citadel quaked, rocked by the tremendous force of the dark powers battering its walls. Kat was afraid the palace would come crashing down on their heads before either evil mage gave way.
She felt as if she should do something, but what? It was taking all her concentration to keep from being squashed or fried. Besides, who would she help? Both were her sworn enemies.
Above the wail of magic-gone-wild, Kat could make out Rita's voice, as shrill and grating as ever. She didn't know how the witch could concentrate on her chanting with the world gone mad around them and Zedd trying to choke the life out of her. However, the sorceress's incantation finally ended, and she grinned up at Zedd triumphantly. She ceased struggling, and Zedd's fingers tightened about her throat.
*"Dak-tor!" * Rita gasped out.
Zedd suddenly reared back, releasing her.
"What have you done to me, woman?" he thundered. Suddenly, his red musculature was engulfed in black flame. The fire rose high above him, swirling about in a tight column that pierced the arcane maelstrom raging above them.
"Calling forth your powers," Rita sneered. "*Tsu't! * I'm draining you, Zeddy, and when there's nothing left, I'll claim what is mine!"
"Do that," Zedd dared her. "Do that and be burned alive from the inside out. You can't absorb all that raw energy at once; you're already filled with magics of your own. The only way for you to take mine is slowly ... and you don't have the time. Once unleashed, if uncontained, my powers will destroy you, this palace, the moon ... everything!" Zedd cackled with malevolent triumph.
"You know, Zedd, for the first --and last-- time in your life, you're right." So saying, Rita snatched up his staff. "Say good-bye, Zeddy."
Horrified, Kat watch as Rita skewered her husband just as the last of the black flames flickered and died. Zedd made no sound as he slumped lifeless to the floor. A massive bolt of obsidian lightning crashed down. In its wake, all that remained of the evil lord was a charred outline. Kat stared at the blackened floor numbly.
"Here, kitty-kitty," Rita called.
Kat gaped at her, incredulous. Did Rita honestly think she'd come?
"Come on, Kitty-Kat; repeat after me...*Dak-tor*...."
"Are you out of your mind?" Kat gasped.
"There's too much power for me to absorb at once," Rita explained, actually sounding desperate. "If we don't find an empty vessel to contain it, you can kiss the pair of us good-bye."
"I doubt anyone would miss us," Kat snorted, then she realized what Rita was saying. The witch wanted to use *her* to hold Zedd's rampant magics.
"Maybe not, but they'd sure miss this moon and a good chunk of your precious Earth," Rita continued, and Kat's gaze shifted to the panorama of the peaceful blue orb hovering beyond the balcony. "That's right. If we don't do something about all this power floating around here, the moon goes kablooey and then what happens to your planet ... your friends...?"
Kat knew Rita was serious. The lightning was growing wilder by the minute, and the tremors threatening to upend her originated deep within the moon. But she couldn't absorb Zedd's magic ... all that evil.... Every fiber of her being recoiled at the thought of becoming evil again.
But could she let the Earth die?
Rita spoke again. "*Dak-tor*!"
"Dahk-tor," Kat repeated mechanically. She tried not to look, but the darkness above her began swirling in a new direction. Wispy tendrils snaked down from the whirlpool towards her.
The smoky fingers touched her, caressed her like hands both hot and cold. The mist surrounded her, penetrated her. She wanted to run screaming from the chamber ... from the sensations. The energy crawled about her, slithering serpentine-like, but Kat forced herself to endure. Unknowingly, she raised her arms in supplication to the storm roiling above her.
Lightning danced about her, the bursts striking the floor close to her, exploding and dispersing their energy into her waiting form. The winds grew fiercer, whipping her hair about wildly as the energy vortex spun faster and tighter with Kat as the eye in the calm of the storm. She could feel the darkness flooding her senses.
*"... ney!" *
The last syllable came out as a shout, a primal cry torn from her heart and soul. The madness continued building in intensity, the universe spinning chaotically, tearing mercilessly at Kat's slender frame, which stood strong against the onslaught. Then, from the roiling heavens streaked an enormous ebon bolt, accompanied by a deafening roar of thunder. It struck.
And Kat screamed.