Not enough...not...strong enough...need more...power...
Blues charged forward, his sword flashing. Enzan staggered back, a surprised scream dying on his lips as the crackling sword slashed at his face.
A crackling Batarang whizzed past Enzan's face, deflecting the electrosword with a clang and a shower of sparks. Enzan, his honed reflexes kicking in, hopskipped away from Blues, dropping into a light, flexible aikido stance. "Blues!" he snapped. "What's gotten into you?"
"I don't think your friend is himself," Terry said as he shed his borrowed civilian clothes and pulled his cowl into place.
Blues attacked again; Batman parried his sword with the blades of his gloves, then threw a brace of bat shuriken which bit into Blues' armor. He ignored the attack and pressed forward, his sword cutting a wide, glowing arc that sent Batman flying.
Enzan shook his head. "It's no good," he said. "His sword attacks are too strong to counter."
"We'll see about that," X said as he powered up his X Buster. "Stand clear."
"WAIT!" Enzan cried, holding out a hand. "If...if you do too much damage, I don't know if I can restore him..." He bowed his head. "Blues is my partner. I can't..."
X frowned and stepped back, powering down his Buster. "Wakatta," he said. "We'll have to find some way to contain him, thoAAHH!" Blues swept in, striking hard at X's shoulder. The blade bit in, purple arcs snapping along its crimson length. X screamed as the purple arcs coursed up and down his body, which began to blur and warp.
"X!" Brook yelled, dashing in and slashing at Blues with his sword. Blues glared at him, pulled his sword out of X, and swiped at Brook, driving him back. As the two fenced back and forth up and down the jawbridge, X doubled over, clutching at his head.
"What's going on out here?" Sunset Shimmer yelled as she ran into view. She espied the doubled over X, then the battle on the bridge, and her eyes finally landed on Enzan, who was watching the whole scene with tension and anxiety in his eyes. "You! Who are you, who's that armored guy, and what did you do to my friend?"
Enzan shook his head. "We came here to join your group," he said. "I don't know what's wrong with Blues, this...this isn't him. He just suddenly turned..." He pursed his lips, then shook his head. "I think he said he's being infected by a virus, except that's not possible. Not with my programming."
"Virus?" Sunset asked. "He's a robot?"
"Not exactly," Enzan said. "He's a sentient computer program. We don't know why he has a physical body since arriving in this world, but..." He shook his head. "If he's damaged, I can't do anything to repair him. Not in this state."
Sunset's eyes softened. "And you're worried because he's your friend," she said gently. "Alright, we'll..." She glanced at X. "What happened here, though?"
"Nngh...!" X grunted, clutching his head as his body warped again, his eyes snapping between their normal color and a violent blood red.
Enzan bit his lip. "Blues cut him, and...and then he got like this." He frowned. "He is a machine, isn't he?"
"Yes." Sunset approached X, a magic field writhing around her hand. "X? Can you hear me?"
"Stay...back..." X growled. "Virus...trying to...control me..." He dropped to his knees, squeezing his eyes shut tight. "Dangerous...!"
The commotion drew even more of the group out of the castle. Blues overpowered Brook, sending him sprawling in a heap, and went after Batman again. His sword crackled with purple lightning, which he released as a directed plasma attack which lifted Batman off the ground and blew him into the front wall of the castle.
"TERRY!" Sarada screamed. She glared at Blues, drawing a kunai from her hip pouch. "Kono...!"
"Ngh...!" Terry grunted. "Something's wrong...the suit's systems aren't..." His eyes widened. "Oh slag."
Red lines traced up and down the arms and legs of the Batsuit. The red bat emblem on the chest erased itself, line by line, and was replaced with a burning red symbol identical to the one on Blues' helmet. The suit's boot jets fired, and Batman launched himself into Sarada, knocking her to the ground.
"Terry?" Sarada asked as she hit the jawbridge. "What—?"
"Not me," Terry said tersely. "Suit's compromised. I'm locked up, it's..." He sighed. "This isn't the first time this has happened. Dammit..." He leapt off Sarada and took off into the sky, glide wings spread.
"Oh no you don't," Miles muttered, firing web lines that wrapped around Batman's boots. The suit struggled, but Miles' enhanced spider strength and the tensile strength of the webbing kept it from escaping. Marinette and Jasmine looked at each other, nodded, transformed, and added their own strength and unbreakable yo-yos to the effort. Together, the three of them were able to drag the Batsuit to the ground.
"This is embarrassing," Terry moaned.
"Hang on, dude, I'll see if I can shut it down," Ryan said as he walked up, his brother Mark at his side. His eyes lit up a brilliant blue.
Meanwhile, X staggered away from everyone as a blinding white light shone from between his joints. He threw his head back and screamed; a ghostly black column of energy, wreathed in angry, snapping purple plasma, shot from his mouth, dissipating into the air. X collapsed to the ground, panting and gasping. Sunset rushed over to him.
The glowing lines on the Batsuit dimmed, then died, and Terry sagged in relief. "I'm good now," he said, taking off his cowl and tossing it aside. He sat up as the others released him, glancing at Ryan. "How did you—"
"Technopath," Ryan explained.
"Oh," Terry said. "Schway." He glanced at Blues. "Think you can shut him down too?"
"I don't know," Ryan said with a frown. "Whatever took over your suit was really fighting back." He clutched his head and winced. "Sorry. I get these headaches sometimes..."
"BLUES!" Enzan yelled. "FIGHT IT! Remember our training! Remember everything we've been through together! You're stronger than any virus! Don't give in!"
"Let me," X said, stepping forward. "I think I can cure your friend now." His armor changed colors; the darker blue parts turned black, while the white and lighter blue parts turned gold. He aimed his buster at Blues, who was currently fending off both Ladybugs, Miles, and Sarada. "Everybody get clear!" he yelled as a ball of white light built up in his Buster.
"Don't hurt him!" Enzan cried, alarmed.
"Don't worry, this won't hurt your friend," X said as the other heroes jumped clear, leaving Blues standing there, sparking and blurring as he lurched toward the castle.
"Executing new tactical program..."
X fired, a lance of blinding white light erupting from his Buster and slamming into Blues.
"RETURN TO THE PAST NOW!"
The light enveloped Blues, who threw back his head and let loose a distorted digital scream. A black shadow shot skyward from his mouth, writhing as it dissipated. His armor returned to normal, and Blues dropped to his knees, momentarily wreathed in a faint blue aura.
As everything fell silent, Blues looked up, frowning. "Enzan...sama?"
Enzan let out a sigh of relief. "Yokatta."
Sunset shook her head. "Well, that was a hell of a way to make a first impression," she said. She frowned. "What the hell was that?"
"It called itself XANA," X reported, scowling. "It's some kind of malignant artificial entity. Well, it was," he amended. "I've purged it from myself and Blues." He glanced over at Terry, who was standing up and brushing himself off. "I...would not reactivate that suit if I were you. If XANA still resides in its systems..."
Terry sighed. "Great. Guess I'm going old school then."
Enzan shrugged. "This is our fault, so we'll do our best to help you make a new suit if you want." He looked around at the group. "Umm...if we're allowed to stay here after this fiasco."
"It wasn't your fault," Sunset said. "Everyone, come on inside. Anybody I haven't met yet, we can do the introductions..." She glanced over the group at large. "Actually, I think a full round of introductions is in order while we rest up and eat. So many new people here, we kind of need to go around and...yeah..."
"Sounds good to me," Terry said. "Just let me get changed first. I am not wearing a compromised suit any longer than I have to..."
* * * * *
The most eclectic assortment of individuals anyone could ever have imagined assembled around a group of pushed-together school cafeteria tables covered with pizza, fries, fried chicken, chips, and all manner of unhealthy snacks and finger foods.
"If we're going to be holed up in here long-term, we'll need to do something about healthier food," Fluttershy said.
"The kitchen's in one piece, the power's still on," Pinkie said. "If we can get some grocery deliveries, maybe we can, y'know, actually cook for everyone instead of just getting all this junk?"
"You, making a case against junk food?" Rainbow asked, raising an eyebrow.
Pinkie shrugged. "I don't live on junk food," she said. "I like junk food, but I eat regular food too, and besides, I can only eat as much sugary stuff as I do because I'm Pinkie Pie. Everybody else here...kinda needs a real balanced diet, you know?"
"Oh gurl, it's not so bad," Pony Head said as she chowed down on a bucket of popcorn. "I mean, it's like all one big crazy party up in here, am I right? You know I'm right."
"Well..." Sunset Shimmer said, suppressing a laugh. "Yeah, it kind of feels that way, but we need to remember that all our worlds are in a lot of trouble, and things are getting more out of control all the time. Sure, we can kind of enjoy ourselves while we get to know each other, but we can't afford to treat this situation like one big party. We're in deep shit here." She sat back in her chair. "Which is why, for the moment, we all need to step back and take stock, get to know each other."
"So, big group introduction thing?" Kim asked, arching an eyebrow.
"Yep, big group introduction thing." Sunset nodded. "And I'll start, since this is all my fault.
"My name is Sunset Shimmer. I'm a student at Canterlot High School, but I'm originally from a parallel world called Equestria, where I'm actually a unicorn. I was the personal student of Princess Celestia, the ruler of that land. My greed and ambition got the better of me, and I had a falling out with Celestia. When she dismissed me as her student and banished me from her castle, I fled through the mirror portal into this world, where I spent thirty moons plotting my revenge. I returned to Equestria to steal the Element of Magic from Princess Twilight Sparkle, planning to use it to raise an army here to invade Equestria and depose Celestia." She chuckled ruefully. "Princess Twilight defeated me with the help of her friends in this world, and then offered me redemption and friendship. Since then, I've been learning how to be a better person and understand friendship." She took a deep breath. "The, uhh...the situation we're all in is kind of my fault." Her cheeks darkened. "This, well...sex toy I bought on the Internet turned out to be an artifact of powerful chaos magic, and it absorbed Equestrian magic from my body when I, ahem...used it." Her face flushed more severely.
"Oh my," Elsa said. "If...if I understand you correctly...?"
"You caused all this with a dildo?" Terry asked incredulously. "Whoa."
"Y-yeah," Sunset said, looking away. "Anyway, after reality broke down, I got my unicorn magic back while still remaining in human form, so...so I've been doing my best to help deal with the chaos." She coughed, then glanced at Twilight.
Twilight, whose face was also quite red, coughed into one fist and adjusted her glasses. "Umm...my name is Twilight Sparkle," she said. "I'm not the same Twilight Sparkle Sunset was just talking about. You see, Equestria's a parallel world, so...so there's..."
"A lot of people who exist in this world as humans also exist in Equestria as ponies," Sunset explained briefly. "Except for me, nearly every native of this world sitting at this table has a counterpart in Equestria, and some of them are Princess Twilight's friends."
"Oh, like that one old TV show," Kim said. "Ron loved that show."
"A-anyway," Twilight said, "up until recently, I attended Crystal Prep Academy, but I was investigating strange energy readings from this school. Back then, I had no idea what I was picking up was all the magic that's been released in this world, but ever since I came here to take part in the Friendship Games, I've learned that magic exists, and...and how you have to be careful messing with it if you don't understand it." She shuddered. "I wanted to know everything about magic, but I was careless. I built a device that absorbed the magic from Sunset Shimmer and her friends. Then, my old principal pressured me into using all that magic to help us win the Friendship Games. I caved in and..." She bowed her head. "The magic corrupted me, turned me into a twisted, evil monster...Midnight Sparkle. I nearly destroyed this world and Equestria, but Sunset Shimmer talked me down and brought me back to myself." She smiled at Sunset. "After that, I decided to transfer to CHS and learn about the magic of friendship here, with Sunset and...and my new friends."
"Aww," Marinette said. "That's so sweet."
"Me next!" Rainbow said. "I'm Rainbow Dash, I'm an awesome soccer star and guitar player. Ever since Princess Twilight came here, I can grow these sweet wings when I pony up, and flying is so awesome! Oh, and I've been stuck in pony-up mode since Sunset broke reality."
"Umm...I'm Fluttershy, and...and I'm stuck in pony-up form too," Fluttershy said when Sunset nudged her. "I, umm...I love animals?" She wrapped an arm around the neck of the red chocobo at her side. "And this is Tomato. I kind of adopted him during that whole mess earlier, you know, with all the big scary birds."
"KWEEEH!" Tomato declared.
"I'm Pinkie Pie!" Pinkie Pie said cheerfully. "I provide everyone at CHS with parties and party accessories!"
"And she's ridiculously random," Rainbow added. "Seriously, if Pinkie Pie does something cartoony, just roll with it. She doesn't need a magic dildo to break reality."
"Yepperooni, pepperooni!" Pinkie agreed, reaching into her hair and pulling out a slice of pepperoni pizza which she began eating.
Everyone stared at her.
"Like I said," Rainbow added in a bored tone.
"Ahem." Rarity cleared her throat. "I am Rarity, aspiring fashion designer and rising star, and I bring grace, elegance, refinement, and style to our motley little crew." She paused. "Oh, and I...I play keytar in the band."
"Ah'm Applejack," Applejack said. "Reg'lar ol' country girl. Ah help out on mah family's apple farm an' Ah play bass." She drummed her fingers on the table. "Uhh...do we keep goin' with th' local folk, or...or what?"
"That'd be logical," Twilight said. "I mean, if it's okay with you all, we maybe finish introducing everybody who's originally from here first, then...?"
"I shall go next then," Octavia said. "I am Octavia Melody. I play cello. I'm not usually involved in the crazed magical shenanigans that go on at this school, but..." She sighed. "I'm involved now, so I'll help out in any way I can."
"Vinyl Scratch. Tavi's roommate, school DJ." Vinyl scratched her head. "I...guess after that whole mess with the demon skeletons, I'm our expert on sonic weaponry?" She shrugged. "I dunno. If you need sick beats, I'll hook you up."
Flash coughed. "Uhh...Flash Sentry," he said. "I'm, uhh...I'm just a guitar player. Um...yeah."
All eyes turned to the Shadowbolts. They looked at each other and shrugged. Sugarcoat rolled her eyes and pointed to each of them in turn. "Sugarcoat, Sunny Flare, Sour Sweet, Indigo Zap, Lemon Zest. This guy over here gave us morphers that let us turn into Power Rangers to fight monsters."
All eyes turned to Tommy. He waved. "Uh, hi. Tommy Oliver. Paleontologist, martial artist, and Power Ranger. I, uhh...well, my backstory's way too long to get into, let's just say I've been fighting evil since I was a teenager and I'm in my thirties now."
"Did we get all the locals yet?" Sunset asked. "What about Principal Celestia? Or Luna? Or Sweetie Belle?"
"Ahem, yes, well...Sweetie Belle and her new friend are safe at home," Rarity said. "Vice-Principal Luna is having a bit of a lie-down after meeting her new, improved sister. And Principal Celestia, well..." She grimaced. "She seems to have become somewhat...elusive."
"What, she can't deal with a little thing like her school turning into a castle?" Shego asked flippantly.
"Err...not as such," Rarity said. "She changed along with the school. She's become some sort of ancient sorceress that can transform into a bird."
"Oh." Shego blinked. "Huh. Well then."
"Okay, let's start with the newest bunch first," Sunset said, turning to Enzan.
Enzan nodded his head. "Ijuuin Enzan. Back home, I'm an official NetBattler, an elite who investigates and solves various net crimes. The Internet in our world is...very different from what you have here. Most people have an artificially intelligent digital assistant called a NetNavi, which manages everything from shopping to e-mail to home security. Almost every electrical device in our world is connected to the Internet, which means security programs are an everyday necessity, and viruses are a constant problem. In our world, viruses manifest as..." He frowned. "I suppose you could call them monsters, or mindless beasts, that show up in the Internet. NetNavis are often equipped with special tools for destroying viruses, and we have program chips called BattleChips that we use to boost a Navi's virus busting abilities temporarily." He gestured to Blues. "Blues here is my Navi. Normally, he lives in this device—" He held up his red PET. "—and only exists in digital form. When we were transported to this world, he took on a physical form. It's been...an interesting experience, but also a dangerous one, because without the link between my PET and Blues, we can't use BattleChips."
X frowned. "You mean you're stuck using the basic weapons you're programmed with?"
Blues nodded. "Hai. Of course, I was designed as a virus battling Navi by Enzan-sama, so my own personal weapons are far beyond what most NetNavis have. I do not feel disadvantaged without access to Enzan-sama's BattleChips."
Tommy tilted his head. "You mind if Twilight and I take a look at that device? I think between the two of us, we can find a way around your problem."
Enzan shrugged. "I have no objections. Just be careful, it's a custom build." He handed his PET over to Tommy; Twilight scooted closer and they began examining it intently.
"So you and your buddy are like, Internet supercops?" Pinkie asked.
Enzan snorted. "That's a rather dramatic way of putting it." He paused. "Ah, sumimasen...Blues and I did not come here alone. There is another member of our party, but due to his size, he's remained outside." He gestured to the Great Hall. "The vehicle parked out front with the rather unusual paint job is a sentient alien robot named Rodimus Prime. I know that seems difficult to believe—"
"We believe it," the Power Rangers chorused in unison. Then, they blinked, looked at each other, and pointed at Enzan. "WAIT!"
Lamia stood up. "Rodimus Prime, you said?! He's the one who turned our MechAnimals into sentient robots!"
Enzan winced. "Ah...you're the partners of those robots," he said. "That was an accident, and it wasn't actually Rodimus Prime, it was another robot named Wreck-Gar who did that. We, umm...lost track of Wreck-Gar while everyone was refueling on Energon."
"He's a bit eccentric," Blues added.
Tommy blinked. "Wait, what happened to your Zords now?"
"MechAnimals," Jack corrected. "They're called MechAnimals. And, well..."
"They talk now," Hatoko said. "Turn into robot all by self. Have names, like person, but robot. Still combine for fighting."
"They've all developed independent pesonalities they were never designed to have," Esteban explained. "As well as the ability to transform into robots independently of each other, which was also never in their original design specifications."
"It's actually pretty cool, eh," Forrest said with a grin. "Far as I'm concerned, it just makes 'em that much more awesome."
"It...does seem like it's a win-win," Lamia said. "Still, it's not exactly something we were expecting to have to deal with on top of everything else."
Enzan sighed. "My apologies. As I said, the situation was beyond our control. If it helps, my ally Rodimus Prime supplied them with enough Energon to sustain them for some time."
"Energon? That sounds like some crazy energy drink," Kim said.
"It's a highly concentrated fuel designed specifically for use by sentient transforming robots," Blues said. "And, apparently, also computer programs that acquire a physical form. I'm using a low concentration of Energon as my own power source at the moment."
"Hmm," Twilight said. "If you could spare a sample of this Energon, I'd like to analyze it. It might give me some ideas."
"Of course," Blues said. "I have a half-full canister outside, I can spare some of that later."
"Okay then, I guess we move on to you guys next, since we've been talking about your robot problem for a while now?" Sunset suggested, turning to the Power Rangers.
The five Rangers looked at each other and shrugged. Lamia spoke up. "I'm Lamia Cruz, this is Esteban Castille, Jack Franklin, Forrest Green, and Hatoko Momokaze." Each Ranger introduced in turn raised a hand in greeting. "Up until a while back, we were all regular people living regular lives, until a secret government agency recruited us to serve as a special task force to fight these creepy aliens which invaded Earth."
"Boy that sounds familiar," Tommy muttered. His gaze swept over the five, his brow furrowing. "Each of you has a different accent...you're all from different countries, right?"
"That's right," Jack said, his accent more pronounced now. "I'm from Melbourne."
"I'm Canadian," Forrest said with a grin.
"I'm from Barcelona," Esteban said.
"Ano...Nihonjin desu," Hatoko said nervously.
"And I'm from California," Lamia finished. "The Director explained that since the Archons are the whole world's problem, they wanted each Ranger to be from a different place." She shrugged. "I guess it makes sense, but I honestly get the feeling it was just an accident it ended up like this."
"Well, it's better than the way this usually works back home," Tommy said with a chuckle. "Where I come from, when it's time to put together a new Ranger team, it always seems to boil down to 'recruit teenagers with attitude'."
Sugarcoat raised an eyebrow. "Is that why you recruited the five of us?"
"Well, you certainly have enough attitude," Tommy retorted. "Some of you more than others," he muttered. Everyone laughed except Sour Sweet and Sugarcoat.
"Anyway, our life's pretty much become a routine since then," Lamia said. "We take out patrols of alien foot soldiers, their general sends out a big, tough monster for us to fight, we fight it, we beat it, then it grows into a giant and we call on the MechAnimals to fight it again using a giant robot this time."
"Yep, that's very familiar," Tommy said with a wistful grin.
"That...sounds awesome," Rainbow said.
"Is scary," Hatoko said. "Better at fighting now, do okay and be brave when monster show, but after monster, go home, shake all over."
"Hey," Tommy said gently. "Being brave doesn't mean you're not afraid. It means not letting your fear get the better of you."
Lamia coughed. "So, uhh...other than our MechAnimals suddenly coming to life and having minds of their own and...all that other business we already covered, that's pretty much our story." She looked around. "Who's next?"
"Actually, I was, uhh...I was kinda wondering about the floating horse head," Sunset said with a shudder. "I just...I didn't want to call attention, but, sorry, you've been creeping me out ever since I saw you. No offense."
"Oh, it's okay gurl," Pony Head said. "I know I am too much fabulous for most people to handle..."
"Umm...actually, I think it's more the fact that you're a floating severed unicorn head and Sunset Shimmer is, well...a unicorn," Fluttershy said softly. "Umm...you do see how that...how that's a little weird for her, right?"
"Okay first of all, I am not a severed head, okay?" Pony Head snapped irritably. "This is me, this is all there is to me, my whole family, my papa and my mama and all my sisters, we're all just heads, okay, that's why we're called Pony Heads."
"Oh! S-sorry, I didn't mean to offend you—"
"Nah, it's cool, I just get so tired of explaining it," Pony Head said.
Starco cleared her throat. "Pony Head here, or should I say Princess Lilacia Flying Pony Head—"
"Oh you did NOT need to go there, B-Turd—"
"—is the Crown Princess of the Flying Pony Heads. They're one of the magical tribes on Mewni, which is also where I'm from. Err...where half of me is from. The Star Butterfly half."
Pony Head grinned wickedly. "And this confused mess over here is my two best besties, Princess Star Butterfly and Marco EARTH TURD Diaz. Star is the Crown Princess of Mewni and owner of the most powerful magical wand like, eh-vurr, and Princess Marco Turdina Diaz—"
"Peanut Butter Jelly Silence Spray," Starco muttered sourly, negligently aiming her wand at Pony Head. A spray of peanut butter and jelly shot forth from the wand, striking Pony Head full in her open mouth and gumming it up. She worked her stuck jaw soundlessly for a moment, blinking, then gave a weird, bodiless midair shrug and nommed happily on her sticky gag.
"Okay, so basically, Star was trying a new spell, only it blew up in both our faces," Starco said. "That happens a lot, Star Butterfly is kind of a walking disaster area sometimes and at least she owns it, so there's that. And, well, Marco...ugh, this is getting so weird, talking about myself in the fourth person!"
"Uhh, yeah, this is...way confusing," Kim said, brow furrowed.
Rainbow snickered. "They kindasorta explained it to me earlier, so I'll take over," she said. "Okay, so like, Star is this magical girl princess who screws things up all the time, and Marco is like, her dork of a boyfriend from another dimension. Oh, sorry, crush, not boyfriend," she added as it looked like Starco was about to go off. "Or was it the other way around? Anyway, point is, they're best friends and hang out together all the time, and one time they were hanging out, Star pulled off some kind of epic fail with her wand and fused herself and Marco together in the same body." She waved a hand at Starco. "Starco here is both of them, but the way they're mixed together is kind of all weird, so she—he—whatever is kind of all confused and stuff half the time, and the rest of the time is just like, resigned to this. Oh, and Pony Head loves teasing them about it." She grinned. "And apparently Starco is a dickgirl."
"Reverse Exit Beam," Starco said tiredly, aiming the wand at Rainbow. A solid rainbow shaft of light shot out, with the word "EXIT" written on it in backwards, and launched Rainbow out the nearest door.
"And moody!" Pinkie said brightly.
"Ano...what is mean, 'dick girl'?" Hatoko asked, blinking. Everyone at the table shifted uncomfortably...except Forrest, who grinned and stage-whispered, "Do you know what 'futanari' is?"
Hatoko's eyes widened. "Oh!" She glanced at Starco. "Oh." She shuddered. "Kimochi warui..."
"LET'S—move on," Starco said loudly.
"Yes, let's," Sunset said, turning to Terry and Sarada. "I haven't met either of you yet."
"You go first," Sarada said.
"Alright." Terry sat up straighter. "My name is Terry McGinnis. For the past year, I've also been Batman. The new Batman, I mean. You see, way before my time, I'm talking back before my parents were born, Gotham City was protected by a legendary superhero. Batman didn't have any superpowers, just his own skills and smarts, but there wasn't a villain around he couldn't outthink or outfight. Even the ones with superpowers learned to watch out for the Batman. But that was a long time ago, and when he got to be in his fifties or so, his body quit on him and he retired.
"In the time since Batman quit, Gotham's gotten worse than ever. The streets are overrun with gangs that model themselves on Batman's old enemies, like the Joker. There's also new supervillains cropping up from time to time, especially since I took up the cowl. A year ago, my dad was murdered by his boss, the guy who took over Wayne Industries, Derek Powers. The night Dad was killed, I found out Bruce Wayne used to be Batman. I went to him for help, but all he did was tell me to go to the cops, so I broke into the Batcave, stole the Batsuit, and went after Powers myself." He looked down at the table. "I got the guy who actually murdered my dad, but Powers...I ended up turning him into an even bigger monster than he already was. I exposed him to the nerve gas he was using Wayne's company to make, and somehow it turned him into a walking nuclear meltdown. We've had a couple of fights, but I think he's done for good now.
"Anyway, after that night at the docks, when I stopped Powers' gas from getting to his clients, Mr. Wayne decided to let me keep the suit and take a 'night job' as Batman. I've been busting up gangs and fighting a new crop of supervillains and freaks ever since." He glanced at Sarada. "Your turn."
"Hai." Sarada bowed to the group at large. "Uchiha Sarada desu. I'm a kunoichi from Konohagakure, currently a genin. I'm aiming to become Hokage, the top shinobi in our village, who looks out for and protects everyone. Umm...because Nanadaime-sama is my idol and role model, and I want to be like him." She ducked her head and blushed faintly. "I don't really have much else to say about myself."
"Nana...damn what now?" Rainbow Dash, having walked back into the room halfway through Terry's story, asked.
"It means...eto...is seven of..." Hatoko pursed her lips. "Seventh...?" She glanced at Lamia quizzically.
"Seventh Hokage," Tenten supplied. "Which I guess brings us around to me, since Sarada-san is from the same village as I am, but apparently from the future. Err, relative to me anyway." She stood and bowed. "My name is Tenten, I'm also a kunoichi from Konohagakure, current rank chuunin. My specialty is ninja tools and weapons. I...honestly don't stand out much in my peer group, because all the other shinobi my age are so much more amazing and can do incredible things." She laughed, then added, "And apparently one of them is Hokage in the future. In my time, well...right now, Tsunade-sama is the Fifth Hokage, but we're about to go to war and there's been talk that we might have a Sixth Hokage replace her as a wartime leader soon. I...I've been hearing that, anyway. I don't know for sure." She glanced at Sarada, who shook her head.
"I shouldn't say anything about your time I haven't said already," she said. "Besides, anything I say might be completely wrong since I don't know exactly how far ahead of you I am or what was happening right when you were pulled here."
"Probably a good idea," Tenten agreed. "I do have one question, though. Do you have...that yet?"
Sarada smirked, pushing up her glasses. "Hmhmm...there's one way for you to find out, isn't there?"
Tenten giggled. "I'll pass," she said. "I'm not Lee-kun. I don't like being used for a punching bag." She turned to the four teenage boys who had been watching everything happening with goofy grins and gaping jaws. "Okay, so you guys...you just got here, right? How about you go next."
"Huh?" Ryan said. "Oh, well. Yeah. Okay, so I'm Ryan Walker, this is my brother Mark, these are our friends Harris and Spyder. Spyder, stop drooling."
"Hey," Mark said with an easy, self-assured grin.
"Wassup," Harris said with a nod, trying to look and sound casual, but failing.
"So...what to say?" Ryan said with a shrug. "I'm a technopath, I can control technology with my mind. And we have our own giant robot that we use to fight monsters and stuff."
Hatoko gasped. "AH!" she cried, pointing. "Blue robot from other day! Was you!"
Ryan chuckled, rubbing the back of his head. "Ah...yeah, that was us." He shrugged. "We kinda left the robot parked on the roof of the mall, camouflaged. I can call it from a pretty good distance, so we usually leave it someplace nobody will bump into it."
"Technopath, huh?" Kim asked. "Don't suppose you can do something about getting my Kimmunicator to get a signal here," she said with a rueful chuckle, tossing her inert Kimmunicator on the table.
"Let's find out," Ryan said, his eyes glowing. A few seconds later, the Kimmunicator suddenly gave off its signature four-tone chirp. Kim stared at it, stunned.
"Uhh, thanks," she said, picking it up and answering it. "Wade?"
//Kim! Where the heck ARE you?! It's like you've disappeared off the face of the earth! Ron's worried sick! I'm worried sick! EVERYONE'S worried sick!//
"Chill, Wade. I'm fine. Well, no, I'm in a bad sitch, but I'm physically fine. I'm kind of in another universe. Don't try to send anybody after me, it's a one way trip. The people I'm with are working on a way to fix this so we can all go home, but it's getting crazier here. I'll keep you posted. Tell Ron I love him."
"Yeah, and tell Drakken I'm fine, I know he's freaking out by now," Shego added.
//Shego's there with you? That explains a lot. Okay, umm...fill me in when you have time, right now I need to make some calls...//
"Please and thank you," Kim said, hanging up. Seeing as everybody was watching her, she flipped her hair. "Guess it's our turn now, huh? I'm Kim Possible. I just graduated high school, and ever since middle school I've been going on missions to save the world from bad guys, evil scientists, generally crazy psychos, and such. It's no big, really, I just do what I do, you know? Usually my boyfriend Ron is with me for the big save-the-world stuff, but he had his own thing going on, so when I went to handle a mission in England, I took Shego with, and..." She gestured helplessly. "Well, we ended up here."
"Yeah, and thanks for that," Shego said sourly. She shook her head. "I'm Shego. I hate doing the whole backstory thing, but basically, I used to be a superhero from a family of superheroes, then I got sick of my brothers and started rooting for the bad guys to kick their butts. Then I quit the family business and started hiring myself out as a mercenary to criminals and supervillains. I wound up working for this maniac Dr. Drakken, and I guess I mostly stuck with him because every time he hatches a big scheme it means I get to fight Kimmicakes here, we've got kind of a rival thing going..." She sighed. "Ah, good times...anyway, at Kimmy's high school graduation, there was kind of this alien invasion, and somehow me and Dr. D got involved in saving the world, and..." She shrugged. "The whole thing, Dr. D kinda lost his taste for world domination, so ever since then we've mostly just been kinda...I dunno, taking a step back, trying to figure ourselves out. I do freelance antihero work now. You know, show up, do some good in a really bitchy way, get my cut from it, go blow it on day spas and mini-vacays. It's a good life."
"As long as she gets to beat somebody up on a regular basis, she's happy," Kim said with a smirk.
"When you're right, you're right," Shego admitted with a lazy shrug.
"That's what I'm talkin' about, get PAID, son!" Harris said.
"Yeah, even if we got paid for what we'd do, we'd have to pay it back double in damages we've caused," Mark said. "Like, you know, blowing up the high school...SPYDER..."
"So you're superheroes?" Spyder asked excitedly. "Cool, what superpowers do you have besides, y'know, being super hot?"
"Whoa-ho-ho-ho, don't even go there," Shego said, holding up a hand wreathed in green flames. "Trust me. Just don't."
"Shego has her green glow and her mad martial arts skills," Kim said. "Me, I don't have any superpowers, I just..." She shrugged. "I can pretty much do anything."
"As much as it frustrates me to compliment Red here," Shego said with a faint growl, "the plain and simple truth is the girl's perfect. Martial arts, cheerleading, skydiving, swimming, extreme sports, search and rescue, firefighting, you name it, she can do it. She always wins because, well..." Shego shrugged. "She's just all that."
"Aww, shucks," Kim said coquettishly, batting her eyelashes.
"Unf," Spyder said. "I ship it. I ship it like FedEx."
Shego shot him an annoyed glare. "How about I ship you to the South Pole? Without any pants."
"I'mgood!" Spyder said in a hurried rush.
"Okay, I'll go next, then I wanna know about this Arabian girl who apparently has the same powers as Ladybug," Miles said, drawing everyone's attention. "So, hi, I'm Miles Morales, better known as Spider-Man in my own universe, or as Kid Arachnid in the universe I was actually in when I got pulled here. When I was younger, I always looked up to Spider-Man—the original Spider-Man, Peter Parker—and wanted to be like him. Then I got bitten by a spider that I found out later was created by the same experiment as the one that gave Spidey his powers. It gave me the same powers as Spider-Man, but I hid my powers for a while until..." He bowed his head. "Until Spidey was killed. After that, I...I made my own suit and took up his mantle. I mean, the world needs Spider-Man. I'm doing my best to live up to his legacy.
"Then I got involved in this whole thing with a parallel universe and a Peter Parker who was still alive, and I joined his team of Web Warriors, and that's what I was doing when all this happened." Miles paused. "Um, so anyway. I can stick to walls and ceilings, I have the agility and strength of a spider, I have a Spider-Sense that warns me of immediate danger, and I have these web-shooters—" He rolled up his sleeves. "—that let me shoot biodegradable webs with the tensile strength of steel." He demonstrated by firing a web line at the ceiling and rapidly swinging around the circumference of the cafeteria before landing back in his seat.
"Dang, son," Harris said.
"Dude, that is so cool," Spyder said. "Where can I get some of that?"
"Right, like you can get spider powers from any old spider bite," Mark said.
"Well you got buttknuckle powers from being bitten by a buttknuckle," Spyder retorted.
"Oh, you want some? Cuz we can go right now—"
Miles webbed both of their mouths. "Time out, guys," he said. Ryan cackled, slapping Mark cheerfully on the back. Mark rolled his eyes and sighed, slumping in his seat.
"Wow, I know a lot of jerks I wish I could do that to," Terry said.
Anna blinked. "That...that'll come off, right?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah, they'll be able to get it off in a few minutes," Miles said. "Body heat accelerates the breakdown of the webs. They'll lose stickiness in a few minutes, and even if they left them alone, they'd break down in about thirty minutes or so."
"Anyway, that's about it for me," Miles said. He glanced at Jasmine and Aladdin. "Now, what's your story?"
Jasmine straightened up. "I'm Jasmine, Princess of Agrabah," she said. "This is my husband Aladdin, future Sultan of Agrabah. He would be Sultan now, but we have much work to do in our kingdom and beyond, so my father is continuing on as Sultan until such time as Aladdin is ready to assume his responsibilities."
"We met under some really crazy circumstances," Aladdin said with a chuckle. "I used to be a poor street rat, stealing from merchants to survive. Jasmine was sneaking around in the marketplace in disguise one day, and..." He sighed dreamily. "It was love at first sight. But, I was arrested by the guards and thrown in the dungeon, and this creepy old man helped me escape and asked me to go out into the desert with him to find this magic lamp." He chuckled. "Well, it turns out the creepy old man was really Jafar, the Sultan's Vizier, and he was after the lamp so he could get three wishes from the Genie of the Lamp and make himself all-powerful and ruler of Agrabah. But, well...things went south for all of us, but I ended up with the lamp and the wishes.
"I, uhh...made some mistakes, lied to basically everyone I know and love, had the lamp stolen from me before I could use my third wish, then Jafar got everything he wanted." Aladdin shook his head. "It would've been the end of everything, but I realized I had a chance to beat Jafar if I could trick him into making a wish that'd doom him."
"Ooh, I've read a lot of stories about genies and magic wishes," Pinkie Pie said. "Genies are really really good at screwing people."
"Yeah, well, our Genie is nice, kind, and a good guy," Aladdin said. "And even he didn't get what I was going for when I gave Jafar the idea for his final wish." He grinned a sleazy, confident grin. "It was pretty amazing, if I do say so myself."
Jasmine rolled her eyes. "Aladdin tricked Jafar into wishing to be a genie himself," she said. "He used Jafar's lust for power against him by pointing out that no matter how powerful he was, the Genie was still more powerful. Jafar used his third wish to become a genie, not realizing that the wish would enslave him and bind him to a magic lamp."
"Then we just buried him in the desert, and that was more or less the end of it," Aladdin said. "I mean, yeah, some idiot found the lamp and Jafar used him to try to get his revenge, but it backfired." He shrugged. "Not too bright, that Jafar."
"Anyway," Jasmine picked up the tale, "Aladdin and I were married, but during the celebration of our union, the Genie, who Aladdin wished free of the lamp with his third wish—" She gazed fondly at Aladdin. "—returned to Agrabah in something of a panic..."
* * * * *
Aladdin adjusted the fine fez perched atop his head and straightened his vest.
"Aladdin, my boy, you are to become Sultan," his father-in-law said. "You should start dressing more, well...like you did when you were masquerading as Prince Ali!"
"The whole Prince Ali thing is part of why I don't dress like that," Aladdin said, smoothing out his bangs. "Besides, it'd be a crime to cover up this hair with a turban."
The Sultan made a noise that was halfway between annoyed and amused. "Well," he grunted at length, "I suppose it's fine for now. But for Allah's sake, when the time comes for you to take my place—"
"Yeah yeah, I'll go back to wearing the Prince Ali getup," Aladdin said dismissively.
"Aladdin? They're waiting for us." Aladdin turned to see his wife, Princess Jasmine, in all her finery. He smiled and ambled over to her, his monkey companion Abu perching on his shoulder and munching on a date.
They strode out onto the balcony of the Palace, looking out over the masses of Agrabah—the merchants, the fakirs, the wives, the workers, the children, the street rats, the guards. It had been two days since they returned from their honeymoon, and all of Agrabah had turned out to welcome their Prince and Princess back.
"I'll never get used to this," Aladdin whispered out of the corner of his mouth as he smiled and waved.
"Yes you will," Jasmine whispered back.
Fireworks went off above the crowd, whizzing and banging, filling the sky with color and sound. The crowd applauded in appreciation. Aladdin frowned. "I didn't know fireworks were scheduled."
"They weren't," Jasmine replied. "What's going—"
"AL! JASMINE! Good to see you, you crazy kids!" A long plume of blue smoke soared through the sky over the crowd, the jovial voice booming out of it. When it reached the balcony, it resolved into the Genie, dressed in Chinese silks and holding a steaming straw basket. "I brought Chinese takeout!"
Aladdin gaped like a fish, then shook his head and grinned broadly. "Genie! What're you doing here? I thought you were going on a world tour!"
"Oh, and I did! I did! Well, I toured part of the world." Genie chuckled. "I can always see more later, right? I mean, I've got a whole lifetime of freedom to enjoy. Got wind you lovebirds were back from your honeymoon, just wanted to swing by and say hi, catch up, share vacation photos, drop off some souvenirs..." He looked out at the crowd below. "Oooh. Did I come at a bad time?"
"Not at all," Jasmine said. She leaned on the balcony railing. "Thank you all for coming! Prince Aladdin and I bid you all a pleasant evening!" With a final wave to the crowd, she turned to retreat into the Palace, Aladdin and Genie behind her. The Sultan shuffled in place for a moment, hopped up in the air, turned to wave to the crowd, bristled his beard, and shuffled off after them.
Once inside and behind closed doors, Genie conjured up a large, low table and a veritable army of plush cushions, plopping down and spreading out a foreign feast. Bemused, Aladdin, Jasmine, and the Sultan joined him at the table.
"My word, this smells marvelous!" Sultan said, uncovering a dish.
"Careful, there's pork," Genie cautioned. "I know it's a no-no, but once you've tasted it..."
The Sultan paused, hand halfway to a steamed dumpling. He shrugged, grabbed it, and took a big bite.
Aladdin shook his head and began helping himself, as did Jasmine. "It's good to see you again, Genie," he said. "I mean, it's only been a week, but it's good to see you again."
Genie chuckled. "Well, with friends like you guys, am I right?" He poured cups of green tea which floated around the table, landing in front of each of them. "Actually, I didn't just come back to chew the fat—" He frowned and pulled a huge wad of fat out of his mouth, frowned at it, and made it disappear with a snap of his fingers. "I actually have...kind of a wedding present for you kids." With another snap of his fingers, two black lacquered boxes with crimson engravings appeared in his hand. He placed one in front of Aladdin and the other in front of Jasmine. "You should open yours first Al," he said. "You kind of have experience with this sort of thing, know what I mean?"
Aladdin frowned, but opened the little box in front of him. Inside was a glossy black ring with a bright green cat's paw in the center. "It's a...ring?"
A green flash erupted from the box. Aladdin jumped back, Abu chittering wildly on his shoulder, as a tiny black cat-like creature appeared, curled up in a sleepy ball. The cat yawned, opening glowing green eyes sleepily. "Ah, hello," it said. "So you're Aladdin, are you? Not bad." He turned slowly, looking around the room. His eyes landed on Genie. "Huh. Somebody set you free, huh? Can't imagine anybody foolish enough to do that. No offense."
"Uhh...none taken?" Genie said. "Forgot you were kind of a jerk," he muttered sotto voce.
"Genie? What...is this?" Jasmine asked.
The creature turned to face her and smiled. "I'm Plagg. I'm a Kwami. I give whoever wears the Black Cat ring superpowers." He looked back at Aladdin. "You've been chosen, congratulations."
"Super...powers?" Aladdin echoed. "You mean like...magic? Because, heh, we've kinda had it up to here with magic lately." He glanced at Genie and winced. "No offense."
Genie shrugged. "None taken. After that whole thing with Jafar I'm pretty fed up with it too. But this is good magic, Al, trust me. And you're gonna need it." He looked at Jasmine. "Well? Your turn."
"Umm..." Hesitantly, Jasmine opened the box in front of her. In a pink flash, a pinkish-red, buglike Kwami appeared. Bright blue eyes blinked open, and the Kwami smiled at her. "Hello, Jasmine! I'm Tikki! I'm happy to meet you!"
"H-hello, Tikki," Jasmine said uncertainly. She looked inside the box and saw a pair of red earrings with black spots. "A-and...you'll give me superpowers too, I suppose?"
"Oh, yes!" Tikki said. "The Ladybug Miraculous grants you the powers of good luck and creation! When you transform, you'll be virtually invincible and have an indestructible weapon! You'll have the power to save a whole lot of lives!"
"Good luck and creation," Aladdin mused. "And...what about me?"
"The power of destruction," Plagg said. "Tikki and I are balanced. Halves of a whole. Yin and yang." He frowned. "Well, that's a Buddhist thing, don't worry about it. The important thing is, use our Miraculous and you'll be superheroes."
"Superheroes?" Sultan asked. "What a strange concept..."
Aladdin turned to Genie. "I don't understand," he said. "Why us? Why bring us these...these things?"
"Al, listen," Genie said. "You already know you're a diamond in the rough, right? I mean, after the whole thing you just went through with the Cave of Wonders and my lamp and Jafar and...and getting the girl in the end? You're special, kid! And so is Jasmine." He rose up into the air, darkening the room. "Bad stuff's coming, kids. Stuff that makes Jafar look like a rude kid in the marketplace. I have some really old friends in China, and they told me all about what's coming, and that new heroes are needed. Well, right away, I thought of you two, and when I told my friends all about you, they asked me to bring you two these Miraculous." He floated down, returning the room to normal. "You've been chosen, Al, Jasmine. Chosen to save the world."
"Oh...oh dear," Sultan said worriedly.
Aladdin and Jasmine looked at each other. Their eyes shone with determination. "Alright," Aladdin said, turning back to Genie. "We're in." He took the ring from the box and put it on, noticing that it had turned silver. Jasmine took the earrings, which were now black with silver edges, and pinned them to her ears.
"Great!" Genie said. "Now, let's finish eating, because you kids have a carpet to catch, and it's a long flight..."
* * * * *
"And ever since then, we've been busy fighting all kinds of nasty threats to the world," Aladdin said once Jasmine finished.
"Wow," Adrien said. "You know, when you said you'd met the genie in the lamp, I thought you were kidding, Plagg!"
"He still owes me cheese," Plagg muttered.
"Plagg and I were with Aladdin and Jasmine until they were both very old, then they returned the Miraculous to China," Tikki said warmly, smiling. "It's so good to see both of you again after all this time."
Miles blinked. "Wait, wait. So...you're all from the same world, then?"
"So it seems," Jasmine said. "Apparently, these two children hail from several hundred years in the future, from our perspective."
"And Aladdin and Jasmine are just one of many pairs of Ladybug and Chat Noir that have fought together throughout history," Tikki said.
"Makes sense," Tommy said. "There've been Power Rangers for as long as anyone can remember, protecting the world from evil."
"Marinette and Adrien are our current partners," Tikki said. "They were chosen when the lost Butterfly Miraculous was activated by a wicked man calling himself Hawk Moth, who's using its powers for evil."
"I'm...guessing it's not supposed to be used like that," Terry said.
"No, it's not," Tikki answered sadly. "Poor Nooroo, being forced to create supervillains against his will..."
Jasmine gasped sharply. "The Butterfly Miraculous is being used for that?!"
"We didn't tell you?" Marinette asked.
"I don't think we got around to talking about that," Adrien said, scratching his head. "I mean, so much else has been going on, you know?"
"Oh man," Aladdin said. "I've seen what those butterflies can turn normal people into. Somebody using that power for evil..." He shuddered. "Yikes."
"I suppose my sister and I should make our introductions next," Elsa said. She drew herself upright. "I am Elsa, Queen of Arendelle. This is my sister, Princess Anna."
"Hi," Anna said with a wave at everyone and a bright, sunny smile.
"I must admit to being rather surprised by the broad variety of cultures and unique abilities on display here," Elsa said. With a wistful smile, she added, "Perhaps if there were more unusual and magnificent people like you all around when I was growing up, our parents would not have sheltered me so and forced me to conceal my magic." Her eyes took on a haunted look. "It would have averted a tragedy..." Anna took her hand and squeezed it, smiling warmly.
"What kind of magic are we talking here?" Kim asked.
In response, Elsa held up a hand, palm-up. Frosty mist swirled around her hand, and a perfect, crystalline rose made of ice flash-condensed in her palm. Then, with a slightly impish smirk, she waved her other hand in a broad gesture. A chill wind rippled across the cafeteria, and every drink cup clinked as fresh ice cubes appeared in them.
"Spankin'," Kim said, raising an eyebrow.
"Elemental magic, huh?" Terry asked.
"Ice magic, specifically," Elsa said.
"So how frosty can you get?" Shego asked. "Is it good for anything other than party tricks?"
Elsa looked away slightly. "My power is...unlimited," she said.
"She...sort of accidentally plunged Arendelle into an eternal winter once. In the middle of summer," Anna said. "Froze the fjords, holed herself up in an ice palace in the northern mountains, conjured a blizzard..."
"Whoa," Terry said.
Kouta, who had thus far remained silent, gasped sharply, sitting forward. "It was you," he said. "You're the one who froze Helheim."
Elsa and Anna looked at one another. "Helheim? Do you mean that creepy evil forest full of monsters?" Anna asked.
"Yes, the home of the Inves."
Elsa nodded. "We found ourselves in that horrid place and were attacked. I felt such wrongness and evil all around us, I..." She shook her head. "I could not abide such a place to continue. I froze the forest." She frowned. "Should I...should I not have done so?"
Kouta was quiet for a moment. "No," he said at length. "You did us all a favor. With everything else going on, the Inves were one problem we didn't need. And the forest itself survived your magic. It will recover in time, but for now, it's neutralized."
"I see," Elsa said. "Well...then I am pleased to have helped."
"So what about you?" Shego asked, tilting her head at Anna. "If she's ice, you're fire, right?"
"Huh? Oh, no, I...I don't have any powers," Anna said. "All I have is a cheerful outlook and a sunny disposition! And pluck and determination."
"Anna and I depend on each other," Elsa said. "She reminds me to live in the moment, and I keep her from acting on every flighty impulse she has."
"In other words, you help her keep a cool head?" Rainbow said with a smirk.
Elsa laughed. "Yes, I suppose one could look at it that way." She turned to Kouta. "That forest is significant to you."
Kouta nodded, taking a sharp breath. "I guess it's my turn, then," he said. He looked around the table. "My name is Kazuraba Kouta. Up until last year, I was a member of Team Gaim, one of the Beat Riders teams in Zawame City." He paused. "Beat Riders are street dancing teams. Street dancing is a major part of youth culture in Zawame City. Recently, the Inves Games have taken over and made Beat Riders forget why they're in crews to begin with." He shook his head. "Anyway, I quit Team Gaim to focus on finding part-time work to be a responsible adult, but recent circumstances led me to rejoining Team Gaim on the sidelines after..." He closed his eyes. "After my friend Yuya turned into an Inves and...and I killed him."
"Inves..." Enzan frowned. "Are you talking about those strange monsters that were appearing everywhere a few days ago?"
"Hai." Kouta bowed his head. "I didn't know at the time that the Inves I killed that day was Yuya. I learned the truth later."
"Ouch," Terry said. "That...that's gotta suck."
"In any case, I was the first Beat Rider to obtain a Sengoku Driver, and become an Armored Rider. Armored Rider Gaim." Kouta frowned. "The Inves Game had already overtaken the Beat Riders' performance, but once Sengoku Drivers started showing up in other Beat Riders' hands, everything has become about Armored Riders fighting each other for control of stages. Of course, we're also fighting the Inves, at least, those of us who care about more than themselves." He looked around the table. "I recently learned that the Yggdrasil Corporation was responsible for the Sengoku Drivers, and knew more about Helheim than they were letting on. They were also responsible for starting the Inves Game—they were using kids to collect data."
"That's just wrong," Tommy said darkly.
"Aa," Kouta agreed, nodding. "So I'm...caught between Team Gaim, Yggdrasil, the truth about Helheim, and trying to save as many people from the Inves as I can." He squeezed his eyes shut. "I can't do anything on my own, but I don't know who I can trust anymore..."
A long, uncomfortable silence fell. Kouta eventually looked up. "Gomen nasai," he said. "My problems back home...they don't matter right now. Right now, what matters is helping everyone deal with this situation, and I promise you can count on me."
Elsa bit her lip. "This Yggdrasil Corporation you mentioned...did they have people working in that place, investigating it?"
Kouta winced. "...yes," he said after a long beat.
Elsa bowed her head. "How many people did I kill?" she whispered.
Kouta shook his head. "Don't blame yourself," he said. "When Helheim first attached itself to this world, I should have checked the Yggdrasil camp and evacuated it. I forgot all about them. If anything, you did them a favor. The Inves would have slaughtered them all, or they'd have succumbed to the temptation of the Dark Fruit and become Inves." He looked down. "Suman."
"From what you've told us, anybody screwing around with that forest deserves what they got," Miles said. "They were taking their lives in their own hands and they knew it."
"Miles!" Marinette snapped, scandalized.
"Look, I'm sorry, but if these guys have been using kids as guinea pigs? I officially don't care if they got themselves killed," Miles said. "You got any idea how many kids from my own hood I've watched get strung out on drugs because of guys looking to make a quick buck?" He shook his head. "There's a special place in hell for people who prey on kids for selfish reasons."
Marinette relented. "You're...probably right," she admitted. "Sorry, I'm just not used to...used to thinking about things like this. The part of Paris we live in, other than fighting Hawk Moth, we mostly see the occasional robbery or rowdy drunk. We've never had to deal with anything really sick."
"You're lucky then," Miles said softly.
"So uh, what exactly is a...that thing you said, driver, what is it? Are you like, a golfing knight or something?" Spyder asked.
Kouta gave him an odd look. "Golfing...?"
Mark slapped Spyder upside the head. "Ignore this dingus," he said. "But yeah, what is it you do again? I don't think we quite got that."
"Aa," Kouta hummed, nodding. "I use a device called the Sengoku Driver and another device called a Lock Seed to transform into an Armored Rider. The transformation gives me armor and weapons and makes me strong enough to fight Inves...and other things that need superhuman abilities and unconventional weapons to fight."
"So, transforming superhero," Spyder said, nodding. "Cool. Cool. Can I borrow it?"
"It only works for the first person to activate the Driver," Kouta said.
Sunset looked around the room. "Hmm," she said. "So I guess the only ones left to introduce are X, Brook, and the weird half-naked loli harem."
"Oh! Oh! Me next!" Flonne said, standing up and smiling. "Hi everyone! I'm Flonne! I'm a Fallen Angel! I used to be an Angel Trainee, until I was sent on a mission to assassinate the Overlord of the Netherworld! Then I ended up tagging along with Prince Laharl, and we found out...we found out one of the Archangels was doing some bad things. We ended up having to fight Angels, and because of that, I got demoted to Fallen Angel. But it's okay, because now I stay with Laharl, and he's a lot of fun to hang around with! Teehee!"
Etna facepalmed. "Good grief," she muttered. "I'm Space Demon Queen Etna—"
"I thought it was Battle Beauty Diva Etna?" Flonne asked, tilting her head. "Or was it Dark Hero Etna? Beauty Queen Etna? Super Dimensional Mistress Etna?" Her eyes lit up. "Oh! I know! No-Panties Idol Etna—"
Etna whipped out a giant handgun and emptied the clip point blank in Flonne's face. Flonne went silent, one finger still up, a vacant expression on her soot-covered face. Twirling her pistol and holstering it again, Etna cleared her throat. "As I was saying, I am Overlord-Apparent Etna, Supreme Vassal to Prince Laharl! I'm one beat of the prince's poor, pathetic heart away from becoming Overlord and subjugating the entire Netherworld beneath my boot heels!" She threw back her head and unleashed peals of demonic laughter which frightened Fluttershy, made Pinkie's hair frizz out, and made everyone else stare at her in disbelief, apprehension, and confusion. Once she was done, she added, "Oh, and I'm also super-lazy, so...yeah." She sat back down, leaning back in her chair with her eyes closed, smirking.
"Oh...kay then," Lilith said slowly. She looked around at everyone. "I'm Lilith Aensland, I'm a succubus, and I know what you're thinking, but I'm hundreds of years older than I look. I'd tell you what my hobbies are, but..." She laughed cutely. "Again, succubus. Odds are you really don't wanna know." In a throaty stage whisper, she added, "But if you ever do wanna know...hmmhmm...all you have to do is ask..."
Sunset facepalmed. So did many of the other girls present. A lot of the boys shifted awkwardly in their seats, looking everywhere that wasn't a girl.
Brook coughed. "Well, while you guys all try to get rid of your boners, I'll talk about myself." He paused. "Because I'm a boner." Another pause. "Get it? I'm all bones..."
"WE GET IT," everyone said tiredly.
Brook chuckled. "My name is Brook, the last member of the Rumbar Pirates. A long time ago, I ate the Yomi-Yomi no Mi, a Devil Fruit that prevents the user from dying. When our crew was attacked by a rival crew with poisoned weapons, we all slowly died off. My soul returned to my body from the afterlife, but our ship was lost in the fog, so it took a year for my soul to find its way back. By that point, all that was left of me was my bones, my clothes, and my hair." He chuckled. "So now I'm a living skeleton with an afro. YOOOOOOHOHOHOHOHOHOHO!"
Anna shuddered. "That...is legitimately creepy."
"I agree," Elsa said, eyes wide and wary.
"He also has a bad habit of asking girls to show him their panties," Sunset warned. "Just...be wary of that."
"I don't mind!" Lilith said, standing up...
"NO," every other girl said. Marinette shot up, grabbed Lilith, and forced her back into her chair.
"Aww, you're no fun," Lilith pouted.
"Umm...and I'm X," X said. "I'm a Reploid, an advanced artificial lifeform. I was originally created by Dr. Thomas Light over a hundred years ago, but placed in stasis while my systems underwent decades of testing to ensure it was safe for a robot with free will to live among humans. I was activated by Dr. Cain, and an entire race of Reploids was created based on Dr. Light's technology. Since then, I've been working as a peacekeeper. There's a...virus, of sorts, the Sigma Virus. It's actually fragments of programming from a powerful Reploid who turned evil...Sigma. When the Sigma Virus infects Reploids, they become dangerous Mavericks. I'm a Maverick Hunter; my job is to hunt down Reploids infected with the Sigma Virus and eliminate them."
"Hmm. It sounds like what you do is almost identical to what Blues and I do," Enzan said.
"It...does sound similar," X said. "In fact, a lot of things about you two are familiar, somehow." He frowned. "Do the names Dr. Light, Dr. Wily, or Rockman mean anything to you?"
Enzan and Blues looked at each other in surprise. "The name Wily is very familiar," Enzan said darkly. "He's the world's number one Net criminal, the leader of the terrorist organization World Three. As for Rockman..."
"Enzan-sama's friend and rival Hikari Netto, his Navi is Rockman.EXE," Blues said. "I suppose in a way, you could say Rockman.EXE is my friend and rival also. He's one of the most powerful Navis in the world."
"Hmm," X mused. "I wonder if perhaps our worlds are direct parallels of each other..."
Enzan smirked. "That's an interesting thought."
Rainbow Dash stood up and stretched, yawning. "Well, I don't know about you all, but I could use a break," she said. "This is a lot to take in, and I haven't gone home in days. I need to grab some fresh clothes, maybe take a shower."
"That sounds like a good idea," Sunset said. "I think we should take shifts staying and leaving to freshen up and take care of other things. Since I just got here, I'll explore the castle, see what's going on, maybe find places where we can put everybody that we can have a little privacy. Anybody who needs to head out and do something, go ahead and do it. Everybody else, sit tight for now."
"I should go check on Mech-X4," Ryan said. "I'll be back later in the day."
"Need a hand, bro?" Mark asked.
Ryan shook his head. "Nah, it's cool. Chill out here, keep Spyder from making too much of a pest of himself. I won't be long, I'm just gonna check something."
As Ryan left the castle, his eyes lit up with the bright glow of his technopath powers. His pupils changed into the concentric Eye of XANA.
He smiled wickedly.
* * * * *
Rainbow Dash, wrapped in a towel and scrubbing her damp, glossy hair dry with another towel, padded barefoot into her bedroom. On her way to her closet, she grabbed her gym bag, planning to throw a spare change of clothes or two into it. She grunted at the unexpectedly heavy weight of what should have been an empty bag. "Oof," she muttered. "What in the...?" Wrapping the towel around her neck, she dropped the bag on her bed and unzipped it. A soft, steady green light spilled out from inside, bathing her in its iridescence. "Whoa," she breathed. She opened the bag wide, peering inside. "What the heck is that?" She reached inside to examine the glowing object. "How'd that get in there?"
Her fingers brushed against something small, cool, and metallic. She pulled it out to examine it, frowning curiously. It was a green ring with a strange symbol on it. Tilting her head, she idly slipped it on.
Her rose-colored irises began to glow a bright, fiery jade...