"Did you..." Zack Fair wheezed, holding up a hand to stall as he leaned against the corner of the wooden building. "Did...you see...that sheriff's face?!"
Sephiroth snorted. "Sheriff," he grunted contemptuously. "He's an actor and a buffoon, and not especially remarkable at being either one."
"But—!" Zack gasped out between laughs. "They! Thought! You! Were! The! New! Outlaw!"
Sephiroth pinched the bridge of his nose. "Simply because of my attire..."
"I've never seen a grown man squirt shit out of his pants before," Zack continued, wheezing and chortling.
"Mmm...perhaps I overdid it slightly," Sephiroth allowed indifferently. He shook his head. "Nevermind. We've learned all I care to from this sad little tourist town. We should move on now."
Zack finally got control of himself and let out a weary sigh. "Yeah...you're probably right." He squared his shoulders and ran a hand through his spiky black hair. "So, where to next? That big city south of here, Canterlot?"
Sephiroth mounted his bike and gunned the roaring engine to life. "Canterlot," he agreed firmly. Dust and grit sprayed from his tires as he took off, revving the engine. Zack chuckled and jumped onto his own bike, gunning it to life and trailing after his partner.
* * * * *
Dean Cadance's cheeks flushed red as Rainbow Dash looked her up and down with a smirk. "S-stop," Cadance said. "Seriously, this is worse than the hula girl outfit..."
Dash snickered. "Man, what is with you and bein' naked? And—" She trailed off. "Wait a minute. You're FLYING."
"Umm...yeah," Cadance said. She held out her right hand; the ring she wore flared, a circular violet shield of energy spreading out from it. "I found this ring, and I just...I felt compelled to try it on. Next thing I knew, this." She gestured to all of herself. "And then I started being able to just do stuff. I'm headed over to see Twilight to see if she can help figure it out."
Rainbow nodded thoughtfully. "Sounds like you found somethin' a lot like what I got," she said, indicating her own green ring. She aimed it up into the sky and fired off a blast; a green energy shockwave spread across the sky with a tremendous sonic boom. She blinked. "Huh. It actually did what I was thinkin' that time. Cool."
Cadance's eyes widened. "What in the—"
"Anyway, I'm headin' home to grab some clothes an' stuff before I go back to the castle," Rainbow said indifferently. With a smirk, she added, "Maybe you should too?"
Cadance growled and blasted her with a purple energy ray. Rainbow let out a cry of surprise and started to fall. Cadance's hands flew to her mouth, her eyes wide in horror. "Oh my gosh! Rainbow Dash, I'm so sorry!"
A giant green feather appeared in front of Cadance and began mercilessly tickling her bare front. She doubled over, giggling helplessly.
Rainbow Dash rose in the air, standing perfectly still, arms folded and smirking. "Oh, it's on now," she declared.
* * * * *
As soon as the Power Rangers returned to Castle Grayskull, they rounded up Tommy and the Shadow Rangers and found a large, empty conference room.
"Do you remember that monster woman you told us about?" Lamia asked.
"Oh, definitely," Tommy said. "I've been wondering where she disappeared to. I figure that Inves that showed up today was her doing."
"We think so too," Lamia said. "The thing is, the last couple of giant monster attacks have been, well...kinda pitiful." She combed her fingers through her long honey-brown hair. "We think this monster woman's down to scraps, just randomly growing whatever she happens to find wandering around the city."
"It does seem that way," Tommy agreed. "I kinda got the impression she's an enemy of the Safari Rangers, but I've never even met them, so I have no idea. If she is, though, then she's not the one who makes the monsters in the first place, just the one who makes them big. That's how it works with a lot of these bad guys we fight. Sometimes there's a bad guy who makes monsters and another who makes them grow, sometimes there's one who does it all. Sometimes the monsters just come from wherever the bad guys come from, and there's only the one that makes them grow. It's different each time."
"Well this is all so fascinating," Sour Sweet simpered. "But what does it have to do with us?"
"Well, we were thinking it's time to hunt this woman down and stop her," Jack said. "But it'll be a lot easier to find her if both of our teams work together."
"That sounds logical," Sugarcoat said, adjusting her glasses. "Eleven of us searching the city are more likely to find her. And if we can stop her, she won't be able to make any more giant monsters."
"Yeah I vote for less giant monsters," Lemon Zest agreed. "I mean, if we had our own robot, then I'd love to fight them, it's awesome, but...sitting on the sidelines kinda sucks."
"Okay, so it's agreed then?" Tommy said. "We'll all morph and spread out, search for the monster woman?" The Rangers all nodded. "Good." He smacked his hands together and rubbed them.
"So what happened back here, anyway?" Jack asked. "Looks like there was some excitement while we were out."
"Oh yeah, it got wild here," Indigo said. "Most of us missed it because we were exploring the castle, but apparently some retards tried to break in."
"Tardigrades," Sunny Flare corrected, pinching the bridge of her nose.
Esteban blinked. "Water bears? As in, microscopic, feed on algae, can survive the vacuum of space and radiation?"
"Yeah, except they were the size of cows," Lemon Zest said. "At least, that's what I heard from the ones who saw the whole thing."
Hatoko's brow furrowed. "Tiny animal...get big? Is...monster woman doing?"
"Doesn't seem like it," Sugarcoat said. "Twilight said there was a black storm in the sky and it shot out red lightning. Then the giant tardigrades showed up. The monster woman uses some kind of coin and only makes one monster big at a time."
Tommy did a double-take. "Wait. Did you say a black storm and red lightning?"
"That's what Twilight said," Sugarcoat repeated, pushing up her glasses.
Tommy paled, taking a step back. "No..." He shook his head. "No, it couldn't be."
Lemon Zest tilted her head. "You okay, Tommy?"
Tommy took a deep breath and shook his head. "Just...just a really bad feeling all of a sudden. And some serious deja vu..."
* * * * *
The swarm moved north.
Its migration carried it through the industrial sector of Canterlot City. Warehouses, chemical storage tanks, and processing plants exploded and smoldered as the swarm ripped through them.
The individual members of the swarm had begun to change. What had begun as something resembling horseshoe crabs with stingray tails were now furious, deadly beasts, larger than a man. Each monster scuttled on six thick, segmented, armored legs, with a fourth pair of legs raised in an aggressive posture in front of it. The beasts' carapaces were thick, scaly, and angry red in color. Four wickedly curved tusks extended from their mandibles, and their heads were raised away from their bodies, exposing a pulsing segment of body armor on the "chest" comprised of bone-colored, segmented chitin that fit together like a camera shutter.
As the swarm grew, whatever its members couldn't cut through with claws, mandibles, or acid venom, they blasted through with erratic subatomic energy blasts that caused the oxygen atoms in anything they touched to explode violently. The swarm was not consciously aware of this power or what it was doing; the swarm merely knew that it could destroy almost anything that blocked its path.
The swarm sought a beacon to the north, far from the city where it had spawned. A beacon that generated unfathomable energy.
The swarm would feed on that beacon. Then the swarm would grow stronger. Then the swarm would be invincible.
The swarm would destroy all.
The swarm would be all.
* * * * *
"Flowers for sale! Oh, please, would you like to buy a flower? Oh..."
A young woman with long brown hair stood on the curb, feeling more than a little out of place in her bright blue-and-white sundress and breezy sandals. The bright, cheerful wagon full of colorful, fragrant flowers next to her only heightened her sense of out-of-placeness amid the gritty, dark environs and dreary people who came and went wearing flat, drab colors and hard expressions.
Aerith Gainsborough sighed, bowing her head. "This city just doesn't want anything beautiful," she said softly.
"I believe I'll take a flower, miss," a somewhat raspy voice said. Aerith looked up to see a man dressed all in black, with a sweeping black cape and dark glasses, smiling at her.
"Oh...!" Aerith jumped slightly, feeling her body tense for reasons she couldn't understand.
"One of the yellow ones there," the man said, pointing.
"Oh! R-right," Aerith said, carefully selecting a flower and offering it. The man dropped a few gil into her hand and gently threaded the stem of the flower through his buttonhole. With a smile that held no warmth, the man doffed his hat and bowed slightly, then went on his way.
A sudden icy chill ran up Aerith's spine. She decided to pack up, and hurriedly returned to the church with her flower cart.
* * * * *
With a few hours' work, Sunset, Vinyl, and Twilight had converted what used to be the faculty lounge into a sort of makeshift nerve center slash crashpad. There was a comfortable sofa for napping on, several plastic chairs around a cheap particleboard table, and a medium-sized flatscreen TV hooked up to the cable feed, as well as a few laptops. As soon as everything was set up, they turned on the news.
They immediately wished they hadn't.
//—creatures are extremely dangerous, and all residents are encouraged to evacuate the area. Take shelter immediately if the swarm enters your area. The National Guard has been mobilized north of Canterlot, along the migration path of the swarm.//
"Man, it never ends," Vinyl said with a mild frown.
"What do we do about that?" Twilight wondered, clutching her hands to her chest. "Who should we send?"
Sunset bit her lip. "Nobody," she decided. "They're headed in the opposite direction of Grayskull. We need to protect the castle at all costs." She sighed. "Let the National Guard deal with it."
"And if they can't?" Octavia asked.
Sunset frowned. She opened one of the laptops and pulled up a map. She grimaced. "It looks like they're headed for that weird metal city that showed up around the same time the castle did," she said. "I guess..." She shook her head. "I guess it's their problem."
"Man, that's cold," Vinyl said.
"I know, but we can't deal with every crisis that comes along," Sunset said. "We just don't have the manpower..."
* * * * *
A heart-shaped violet energy blast slammed into Rainbow Dash's viridian shield, knocking her back several feet. An entire herd of miniature ponies made of hard green light, each sporting flared, feathery wings and windswept manes, galloped through the air, buffeting Cadance, who surrounded herself with a nimbus of pink-violet light. As the emerald pegasi faded away, Cadance held up a hand, puffing for breath. "T-time," she called.
Rainbow Dash folded her hands behind her back, drifting lazily through the air. "Hah! That all you got?" she said cockily.
Cadance rolled her eyes. "I'm not as young as I used to be," she said. She giggled, examining her ring. "This is actually kinda fun," she said.
"Yeah it is!" Rainbow agreed. After a moment, in a quieter voice, she added, "Hey, Dean Cadance? Thanks for, y'know...this. Honestly? I...kinda hadn't really figured out how to use this ring yet." She ducked her gaze. "We just fought a bunch of big ugly monsters at the school, and...I was useless. I couldn't do anything because I couldn't figure this out." She looked up. "Sparrin' with you, just now? I think I've got the hang of it now. So...thanks."
Cadance smiled. "Don't mention it," she said. She stretched. "Alright, want to keep going, or—?"
"Nah, need to go to my place, get some stuff, head back to the castle," Rainbow said. With a smirk, she added, "Race ya!" With that, she shot off in an emerald blur.
"H-HEY!" Cadance called after her. "I don't even know where your place IS! Ooohhhh....!" She took off after Rainbow, a hot pink streak in the sky.
* * * * *
Hatoko looked over at Lemon Zest as they ran through the city. "Anou...sumimasen kedo, I still not understand why I partner Yellow and not Pink. Ah! Gomen, it just—"
Lemon laughed. "No worries, I getcha. The Reds went together, the Greens went together, our Black went with your Blue, but we swapped the last set. That's what's bothering you?"
"Yeah, Sunny thought it'd be better to send you with me than with Sour Sweet. You seem like the kind of kid who gets her feelings hurt easily, and Sour, well...she's kinda like drinking vinegar mixed with battery acid sometimes, you know?"
Hatoko tilted her head. "I...sorry, English not that good. No follow."
"She's kind of a bitch."
"Aa, sou ka. Bitch is word I know." Hatoko nodded. "Glad bitch is Jack problem and not mine then."
Lemon snickered...then stopped running, looking up. "Okay, that's not normal," she mused.
They had entered the business district. Two office buildings had been pushed aside on their foundations, tilting at odd angles. The tower that stood between them, Lemon knew was the headquarters of Canterlot's second largest bank. Except, it no longer resembled the familiar black glass and slate tower most residents recognized.
The entire building had been twisted, like clay on a potter's wheel, and stretched upward, forming a tall spiral tower of glass, steel, and speckled stone. The top of the tower expanded outward, its penthouses molded into the shape of a clawed hand grasping for the heavens. Directly beneath the hand, perfectly square granite slabs framed a section of the tower which had large, ponderously turning ventilation fans embedded in the sides. The very air around the tower seemed to be dark, heavy, and ominous.
"AH! What THAT?!" Hatoko cried, pointing at the base of the tower. A dozen men and women in drab business suits milled about on the sidewalk. Lemon frowned behind her visor.
Something was off about them.
The way they moved was inhuman, unnatural. More than that, their faces were covered with thick, cancerous-looking clay masks which had a stylized letter Z carved into them. They lurched around, gibbering unintellibly.
The two Rangers looked at each other, nodded, and activated their communicators.
"Guys?" Lemon said. "We found something you might wanna see..."
* * * * *
The thunderous report of assault rifles was deafening.
The main highway leading north out of Canterlot had turned into a literal war zone. Barricaded behind troop trucks, jeeps, and two heavy tanks, men and women in dark gold uniforms battled the scuttling, screeching swarm of crustacean monsters. The swarm responded with lethal force, cruelly and mercilessly destroying everything in its path. Charred, mutilated bodies stretched out for half a mile from the Guard perimeter. The burnt shells of vehicles smoldered and smoked.
"It's no use," the lieutenant said as he loaded a grenade into a shoulder mounted launcher. "Nothing we've got is working!"
"No excuses, Lieutenant!" the captain barked. "We have a job to do, and we're gonna do it!" He unclipped a radio from his belt. "Where the hell's my air support? We need an air strike!" After listening to the garbled response, he waved back his troops. "Fall back! FALL BACK!"
The Guard withdrew. High overhead, two planes streaked through the sky. A volley of missiles rained down. The highway erupted in a massive fireball. Smoke and debris spread for over half a mile in every direction.
The troops watched, tense and wary.
The swarm emerged from the debris cloud. There were fewer creatures by about half.
But they had grown in size. What had previously been man-sized crab monsters were now larger than the tanks shooting at them.
The last gun fell silent a full ninety seconds later.
The swarm moved on.
* * * * *
"Okay, I think that's enough crap to last me a while," Rainbow decided.
"What, you're planning to hole up in the castle? When you can just fly home and do whatever you need to do here?"
Rainbow shrugged. "You ain't seen the kinda stuff we've been puttin' up with. We could be like, under siege or somethin'. Might as well be prepared. Besides, I'm not gonna bail on my friends when they need me just to take a shower or grab some clothes if I can stash my stuff there. The locker room showers still work."
"I can't even begin to imagine a castle swallowing a high school," Cadance said with a shudder. "I mean, I was there for the whole Midnight Sparkle thing and I still can't imagine..."
Rainbow stared at her, slack-jawed. "You were kidnapped by a mad Hawaiian bomber, the city's been overrun by monsters, and you're a half-naked flying superhero with a magic ring. Are you seriously saying the whole castle thing is any weirder than all that?"
Cadance bit her lip. "Okay, fair point," she conceded. "So...should I gather some things, relocate to CHS?"
"I think you should look out for Crystal Prep," Rainbow said. "I mean, we've got enough superheroes on our end now, but all your school's got are the Shadow Rangers, and they're kinda goin' back and forth now, right?"
"True." Cadance sighed. "Alright, but I really do want to talk to Twilight first. In person." She blushed. "This is gonna be a heck of a costume to try to explain..."
Rainbow snickered. "Hey, you've got a bikini model body. You might as well own it. Y'know, rock the sexy."
Cadance grimaced. "I put my modeling days behind me when I got into education," she said. "I want to be taken seriously."
"Oh, I'm sure the boys at CPA would take you seriously right now," Rainbow said. "Seriously hot."
Cadance blinked, tilting her head. "Umm, Rainbow Dash? You're not...you're not gay, are you?"
Rainbow shrugged and made a so-so gesture with one hand. "Maybe a little," she said. At Cadance's expression, she laughed. "I'm kidding! I just, y'know...I guess maybe I don't mind oglin' a really hot girl. I mean, we're nice to look at, y'know?"
Cadance raised an eyebrow. "Yourself included?"
"Well duh!" Rainbow grinned and shouldered her bag. "Okay, let's go."
The two left Rainbow's house and flew across the city. They were halfway to CHS when they were impeded by a massive, glowing yellow grid that hung in the sky and stretched dozens of yards in either direction. Rainbow drew to a halt, Cadance just behind her. "What the hell?!"
"As I suspected," a deep, rich, gruff male voice said from above. A tall, muscular youth in his late teens slowly descended into view, his massively muscled arms folded across his broad chest. He wore a sleeveless black-and-yellow bodysuit with black boots and yellow bracers on his forearms. A broad golden emblem, similar to the one on Rainbow's chest and ring but more elaborate, covered his chest. His skin was dark red. His long, shaggy hair and short, gruff goatee were bright silver. His irises glowed yellow against black sclera.
Neither Rainbow nor Cadance missed the broad yellow band that rested on his right ring finger, nor the shimmering golden aura that surrounded him.
He extended that hand, palm upturned, and beckoned. "Ladies," he said cordially, "give me your rings." His own ring glowed with power. "Don't make me take them by force."
* * * * *
Sephiroth abruptly brought his bike to a halt. Zack braked alongside him, idling his engine. "What's up?"
"Something feels wrong," Sephiroth said. "A foulness in the air..." He opened his Materia case and sorted through it, slotting a new Materia into his sword. He closed his eyes and focused. A web of milky green-white magic spread out from him, seeping into the ground.
A moment later, his eyes snapped open. "They come," he said.
A thundering rumble shook the ground. A cloud of dust billowed on the horizon. Zack rested his hand on the hilt of his Buster Sword. "What's coming?" he asked.
The swarm appeared over the rise, hissing and screeching. Zack's eyes widened. "What the hell?!"
Sephiroth drew his blade and sent a wave of hellfire sweeping through the swarm.
None of the creatures were harmed.
"Uhh...so...are we gonna fight these things?" Zack wondered.
Sephiroth kicked his bike around and gunned the engine. "It would serve no purpose," he said. "Let us return to Midgar for now. Canterlot isn't going anywhere. We will wait until these creatures are gone, then return."
Zack frowned. "Yeah...I guess that makes sense." He fell in behind Sephiroth as they headed back the way they'd come.
Neither of them missed the fact that the swarm was right behind them, headed for Midgar.
* * * * *
All eleven Rangers convened on the corner down the block from the twisted tower.
"Whoa," Indigo said. "What happened to the Rockfoot Tower?"
Tommy took off his helmet, looking the tower and its strange, gibbering guards over with a growing sense of dread. Sweat beaded on his forehead. "That bad feeling I've had since we started this search? It just got worse," he said. He swallowed heavily. "I really, really don't like the look of this."
"Our city's biggest bank turned into a towering fortress of evil," Sugarcoat said. "More than it already was, I mean. There are gibbering inhuman monsters in suits wandering around outside. There's nothing to like about this."
"You guys, something's up," Lamia said suddenly, tensing. "The freak patrol is getting all worked up."
The masked businessmen suddenly charged en masse, wading into the Rangers like an angry mob. The Rangers were forced to defend themselves against what turned out to be inhumanly strong, if clumsy, attackers; every counterstrike was met with a resounding clang like steel striking stone rather than the impact of flesh.
"This..." Lamia grunted as she tucked and rolled out from under the reach of an enemy, "...reminds me of fighting the Arquilons back home..." She drew her sidearm and fired a thin, fiery red laser directly at her foe's mask. The foe staggered, hands flying to his face as he gibbered and screamed. Seizing the opportunity, Lamia swept his legs and delivered a quick, sharp strike to his head.
The mask shattered, revealing a dazed, unconscious blue-skinned man underneath.
Lamia gasped. "Guys! Be careful! They're people!"
The Rangers drew back. "They must be bank employees," Sunny Flare said angrily. "Damn..."
A cold, chilling laugh rang out. "I trust you're enjoying playing with my master's pets?"
The gibbering bankers parted, bowing and swaggering, as Naria stalked through their midst.
"Naria," Tommy growled. "What's going on here? What did you do?"
Naria laughed. "White Ranger," she said coldly. "It's a pleasure to meet you. It would be an even greater pleasure to kill you, but...that honor is reserved for one person only."
A burst of red fire erupted from the ground beside Naria. A figure formed in the flames.
Tommy drew back in shock.
"Well, well, well," a gravelly voice chuckled. "We meet again, Tommy Oliver. Aren't you getting a little old for this?"
Tommy paled. "Zedd," he whispered. "No..."
Lord Zedd threw his head back and laughed. "Zeddheads..." He thrust his staff forward. "DESTROY THE POWER RANGERS!"
The Z-marks on the Zeddheads' masks flared, and they attacked.