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Kyle was in a cramped cage that was hung deep within a cave. Cold droplets slid down her neck. Beetles scurried across her numb fingers that still limply clung to the cage bars. The acrid smell of decay made her physically ill. Her entire body ached. She had no concept of time in the absolute darkness of the cave. Whispers rose up around her, seeming even to emanate from within her, drawing secrets from her heart and swarming her mind. They revealed her most carefully hid insecurities, laughed at her, confirmed her greatest fears. The whispers slowly and skillfully broke her spirit. “No one is here to save you. Why do you think that is?” “Because no one loves you. Because no one cares if you die. Because no one even notices you're gone. No one cares because you're so boring. You're so plain.”
“No, you're disgusting. They can't stand the sight of you. They're glad you're gone. You were just a burden to them, always having to support you. Always having to pretend to listen to your incessant rambling. Always having to pretend to like your ridiculous gifts, your stupid ideas. You're so annoying. You're an embarrassment. You've done nothing important. You're a waste.”
“Disgusting. Embarassing. Idiot. Not worthy.” Tears spilled down her cheeks as she forced out, “Shut up.” Her throat was hoarse and she could barely form the words. Shrill cackling erupted and echoed, building in volume until it was piercing her ear drums. She used what little energy she had to move her hands over her ears, which barely blocked the sound. She squeezed her head as tight as she could and silently begged for it to stop.
All at once everything went silent. Kyle collapsed against the bars, barely conscious. She heard the crunch of footsteps on the rocky cave floor. A pale glow slowly became visible, and she could start to make out an elegant man in flowing blue robes with long lustrous brown curls falling past his shoulders. He was holding up a wand, at the end of it blue light illuminating the way. Behind him was a shimmering white unicorn whose mane and tail were every bright color of the rainbow and whose gold spiral horn sparkled. Beside them walked an impressive-looking man in an all black ninja costume. Only his icy blue eyes were visible and he carried a large knife in each hand. Following them was a man in a yellow lab coat wearing glasses that projected screens and data readings in front of him, and one with a rocket pack and gold helmet, a leather-clad werelion wielding a raygun, and a giant android with glowing red eyes.
She heard one of them whisper, “There she is! Let's get her down.” But before they could make a move, a black mist enveloped the crusaders. It swirled lazily around them making the air thick and toxic. A scarred and wicked face appeared before the wizard. “You can't have her,” the Wizard of Darkness hissed before darting away. The Great Wizard of Light, Derek, readied his wand. “Seamus, you and your boys get Kyle out of that cage. Andrew and Burt will help me contain the Dark Wizard Treznor.”
The man in the lab coat, Seamus, pressed several buttons on a miniature console on his armband. His body disintegrated and disappeared. Kyle felt electricity dance across her skin as Seamus rematerialized clinging to the chain holding the cage. “It's ok, Kyle. We're going to get you out of here.” He pulled a pen out of his coat pocket, clicked the top igniting a small torch from the other end. He reached the torch down to the bars. The flame bent away from the cage at every attempt. Green sparks hissed and cracked threateningly. Seamus clicked the pen again and the flame extinguished. He was in the process of punching more buttons when he was knocked from the cage from an unseen force and sent flailing through the air.
Seamus heard the roar of a rocket speeding toward him. Before he knew it Paul caught him and was soaring back toward the others. He dropped low and set Seamus safely on the ground before ascending and returning toward the cage. Before he even got close he too was knocked through the air. His rocket sputtered, damaged by the impact. It slowed his fall just enough he wasn't severely injured, but he hit the ground with a jarring thud.
Derek sang an incantation under his breath. Andrew and Burt stood at the ready searching the darkness for any sign of the dark figure. A ball of blue swirling light formed from one of Derek's palms and grew in size as he continued. When it had grown larger than his own head, he flourished his wand and sent it skyward. When it hit the ceiling of the cave it burst apart, forming countless snakelike trails of light that darted around illuminating every corner of the cave. Derek spotted Treznor lurking above them in a crevice. Derek raised his wand, a blinding white beam shooting from it and trapping Treznor as though he were in a net. Andrew aimed his golden horn and another beam shot into the air and circled the Dark Wizard.
Ninja Burt leapt spryly from the wall of the cave, twirling and somersaulting past Treznor, thrusting his blades into the vaporous cloud of a body with faster-than-the-speed-of-light reflexes. “Ow. What was that? Stop that!” Treznor began to struggle against the beams that held him.
Harry, the giant android, had climbed his way up the cave wall to where the chain was attached. He ripped the chain free and lowered the cage to the ground. Martin, the werelion, searched for a door or a lock. He climbed onto the top, grabbed a corner and attempted to peel the roof of the cage open as though it were a can of sardines. Harry joined him. They pulled as hard as they could. Seeing how hard they were trying, Kyle momentarily had hope that it might actually work. She imagined herself finally free of the cage.
The roof of the cage began to give. “It's working!” Paul and Seamus scrambled to join in the effort. It made Kyle so grateful. The roof gave a little more. Treznor spotted what was happening below. “NO!” He conjured all of his magic and strength and with a loud bang, broke the hold over him. The cave was darker than ever. The whispers returned, spreading hopelessness over all of them. The lid of the cage clamped back down. “She's mine!”
The crusaders slumped to their knees, despair overwhelming them. “Look at what you've done Kyle. Because of you they are suffering,” the whispers hissed. “Because of you they will now share the same fate.” Kyle looked up at them, their silhouettes barely visible in the darkness. They'd shown her such kindness without even having known her. It had been so long since she'd experienced that. She envied their friendship and connection, admired their strength and resolve.
“No,” she said quietly but firm. The whispers redirected to Kyle only. “You're trying to fight us. That proves you are useless if you think you can stop us.” “No,” she said again, louder. The whispers quieted in the face of Kyle's growing boldness. Treznor's face hovered near the cage. She lifted her head to meet his gaze with determined eyes. “I'm not perfect. I make mistakes. I say and do dumb things. A lot.” Admitting to these things made her heart sink. The dark wizard felt it, and smirked in triumph. But Kyle swallowed her self-doubt.
“But I am kind. I am generous and loving and thoughtful. I am willing to admit my mistakes and always open to learning and growing.” Treznor's expression turned to one of rage. “I may not be perfect, but I am beautiful. I am unique. I am worthy. There is a place for me in this world.”
“NO!” the dark wizard's tortured scream echoed through the cave as his form faded. The cage that held Kyle disappeared, leaving her collapsed on the cold stone floor. “Is he dead?” Seamus asked, still on guard. “No, not dead,” Derek answered. “Just weakened. His strength is connected to Kyle now. He'll be back.” Kyle looked up into the kind wizard's face, fully understanding what battles lie ahead of her. His eyes conveyed empathy and solidarity.
He raised his fist. “But we'll be ready.”

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