- Job Details:
"How much longer before we reach the canyon?"
"Wouldn't know for certain... maybe an hour?"
"Will there not be the risk of our target reaching the capital before we arrive then?"
"Won't make us go any faster. We began to move as soon as we were called, can't be blamed if we were alerted too late for us to do any good."
Itori couldn't disagree with that argument, but it still bothered her. They could argue about who would be to blame if they failed but regardless of whose fault it was the results would be catastrophic. At times like these she wished that Fiore had organized systems for taking care of emergencies rather than depending on mages and adventurers to take care of oncoming disasters. They did have the Rune Knights, but they were always understaffed and the kitsune had the sneaking suspicion that most of the time the Rune Knights were in the same position as the mages that belonged to the guilds: mostly called upon when things were already getting out of hand. Or maybe that wasn't so much the fault of the government as it was the fact that things tended to escalate very quickly so unless you were on top of everything you couldn't hope to be quick to the party unless you were extremely lucky.
The current situation, after all, was a situation which had gone from nothing to emergency with very little warning. Should she be blaming the higher ups for always informing the mages of the issue too late, or should she just bemoan the fate of the world that things always developed to the point of trouble without anyone being able to foresee it? She herself could divine the future to some extent by looking at signs and portents, but that certainly didn't mean that she could actually accurately anticipate everything that would happen. Even if there were people with more accurate methods of foresight they probably also were limited in scale and scope. And most forms of foresight were also difficult to control...
She and her phoenix friend Nenet were heading towards the canyon which had been named the Mysterious Canyon (Itori assumed that this wasn't an official name, just that nobody had ever thought of a good name that stuck). They had been back at the guild enjoying a meal (with Itori doing most of the eating while Nenet took care of the drinks) when they had been called upon to help resolves a critical situation. According to the reports a dark mage had gotten his hands on a superweapon and was heading straight towards the capital Crocus with it, and it didn't need a genius to figure out what kind of intentions he might be having with that action. At first Itori had been stunned, but Nenet had shaken her out of her surprise and the two had left for where the target was believed to be as quickly as they could.
Which in itself was a problem for the seven-tailed kitsune. Because they were in a hurry they didn't have the opportunity to inquire after details behind the situation, such as how the man had gotten hold of a superweapon in the first place. Fortunately they'd been given a summary so they weren't going in completely blind, but it still made her uncomfortable that their information didn't go much further than 'go there and beat that guy up'.
The story that had been told to them is that the dark mage was believed to be one called Markov Shazinski, and that he'd infiltrated two different technological giants. While the reports had been vague regarding the exact details it appeared that he had first gone to Masenko Tech and done his best to impress them until they chose him as the one to infiltrate their longstanding rival and see if he could steal some of their technology. With Masenko Tech creating that opportunity for him Markov had then gone to Isayev Heavy Industries and unlocked enough secrets until finally he'd arrived at his target: the Tesseract.
Itori was a person who had lived for millennia, and while she'd done her best to not get stuck in the past it would be a lie to say that she was fully adapted to all the modern contrivances and developments. She could get by but stuff like the latest technological advances went beyond her field of expertise. While she wasn't limited in her ability to learn like those old humans whose physical brain simply no longer functioned well enough there was the fact that she had years and years to help shape who she was as a person, so something completely new took quite a long time before it sunk into her and became something truly familiar. So with something like modern tech the best she could do was keep paying attention and eventually she'd get the hang of it.
But in this scenario this meant she didn't know much of the Tesseract other than that it was a merging of magic and technology which was meant to be one of the greatest weapons of the modern age. The Etherion was the infamous weapon of the Magic Council which they could employ to eliminate nearly any target even if it was the size of a nation, but according to the reports the Tesseract could be seen as even worse than the Etherion. For all its power the Etherion was gated by its simple application: accumulate massive amounts of power and unleash them in a blast that would eradicate anything in its path. Meanwhile this technological miracle would have the same amount of raw power but all of it channelled into performing a wide variety of functions, from the straightforward blasts of energy to the spontaneous creation of lesser machines and complex controls.
You didn't need to be a tech wiz to realize that was bad news. The ones who contacted the two of them about the oncoming threat had designated it as an anti-nation weapon, just as the Etherion. Something which was meant to decimate entire armies and come out virtually unscathed. Under normal circumstances that was not the kind of weapon that you sent a single mage again, or even two mages. While weaker folk wouldn't be of much help you'd still want to assemble as many powerful mages as you could to improve your odds of defeating such a thing. Unfortunately Itori and Nenet were the only ones, with little explanation for why. The excuses that had been given were that all the powerful mages had their own issues to take care of or that if they sent too many sources of power the one driving the Tesseract would become alarmed and become more destructive than if a small force was sent in to sabotage his attempts.
Another issue they were facing was that they had no idea why Markov was doing this. Of course as a dark mage he could just be doing it for the kicks but it didn't feel like something done by someone who had no other purpose than to sow chaos. For one thing he had to infiltrate two large corporations and earn their trust before he could steal this thing, and even if he was enthralled by the raw power it promised him you'd still expect him to use other methods if he really wanted nothing more than to throw around destruction. Although on that issue she couldn't really blame the Magic Council...
"While I do not share the lamentations of those old ones who believe that humans are nothing more than a plague I have to admit that the current situation makes me wish they would be less inclined to follow their basic instincts. As it is we barely have any useful information."
"You mean how both of those groups refuse to share anything they see as secret?"
"Yes. They even refused to provide the personal files of mister Shazinki. Hypothetically speaking he could be doing this on behalf of either company and we would have no way of telling."
"I doubt it's that bad but yeah, they're being stubbornly insistent on saving their own asses rather than cooperating."
Both Masenko Tech and Isayev Heavy Industries had refused to release any information beyong that Markov had been a part of their organization and that he'd stolen valuable (and dangerous) technology. Nothing about his psychological state, possible motivations, abilities: none. The best the investigators had been able to pry out of them was that he was very good at getting machines to execute complicated orders which might require adaptation depending on the circumstances. While that did reveal that he wasn't just your average power hungry fool that didn't actually help think of a way to defeat him when you already knew that he was driving one of the strongest weapons ever seen on the continent.
"You also have to wonder why they even had that weapon. Were they planning to fight a war or something?"
"Both companies deny any involvement in the actions of mister Shazinki. While they could be lying I do not believe that is the case."
"That's nice and all but that doesn't answer the question."
"My apologies. If I had to hazard a guess for why such a weapon exists I would say that they were testing whether they could build such a thing." While Itori wasn't good with technology she was aware of the phrase 'proof of concept': something which was made just to prove that it was possible to make it. Of course it helped that such a phrase wasn't entirely new to modern technology: those who researched magic also sometimes had to create something just to see if the rules of magic allowed for it. Some of the most powerful types of magic and magical artefacts existed for no other reason than that someone wanted to see if it was possible.
"So... reckless human spirit to strive onward?"
"That is one way of phrasing it. It might also be that the Magic Council itself ordered for research into such weapons to be performed in case they ever needed them. There are more nations than Fiore after all and while currently international relationships are stable there is no guarantee that such a thing will last. More importantly while the Etherion is a great deterrent due to the threat of annihilation that it provides realistically speaking you cannot base your entire military might on a weapon which has no other ability other than to completely destroy whatever you aim it at."
"Too unwieldy I'd say."
"Unwieldy is one issue. I doubt it can be used often either so if another nation manages to find a way to defend against a single strike it would leave Fiore defenceless afterwards. But that is not the main issue that I was referring to. Assuming that even if you do get to fire it before the other nation can stop you or defend themselves against it, Fiore would become known as the nation which can do nothing but completely annihilate any country that it finds itself at odds with. The other powers of the world would band together to eliminate it: nobody wants to deal with a player whose only move is to break the playing board in half."
"Yeah that does make sense. There've been plenty of monsters who were known for being very good at wrecking things but they've always been put down by groups if nobody could do it alone."
"Precisely. A purely destructive power is a liability to anyone, not just your enemies."
"And you'd say that is why they wanted this Tesseract thing, which could do more than just blast everything to pieces?"
"From what we have been told it still has immense destructive power but can channel those powers a lot more productively and with much more variety if needed. If the Magic Council had access to weapons which could be wielded with more precision and care it would be more beneficial for both Fiore and other countries, as while it might not prevent war it at least would mean that there are options beyond peace and all out destruction."
"That makes sense I guess. Still, looking at what we're dealing with now I feel like that's a bit of a silly line of reasoning. I mean there's plenty of things which are dangerous enough to threaten entire nations but most things can't be hijacked by anyone. This weapon just got grabbed by some nobody who happens to be a bit smart!"
"I agree that you do not want such powerful weapons to be accessible to everyone, but mister Shazinki has the reputation of being talented in the field. Beyond that, there have been a lot of threats on a national scale which were not any less dangerous just because they were not easily accessed."
"Well, yeah, but it's still better. Imagine if they started creating a bunch of these Tesseracts and they got grabbed. This time it's only one but that'd be even worse. Most of those threats at least are rare and unique, so once you've taken care of them they're done for or sealed away or whatever. Oh, and idiots who destroy themselves trying to use them. Doing the world a favour really."
"Maybe. We are in agreement that accessibility is an issue, even if lack of accessibility does not prevent the forming of such threats entirely. For now rather than argue about the wisdom of creating such a weapon we should be prioritizing preventing misuse of the current weapon."
"Yeah yeah. Hey, I'm guessing one of the reason they wanted such a weapon was so if some of the bigger mages ever rebel they have something to counter them with."
"Hmmm..." Itori actually blinked at that. She was surprised, although mostly at herself for not having thought of that until Nenet pointed it out. "That... is actually a very real possibility. Most of the powerful mages either work with the Magic Council or stay out of the way, but the government would want to have a way to enforce order even without those mages."
"Especially since most mages like to do their own thing so they're not exactly reliable."
"Yes. The creation of such a weapon would mean that you could let it be controlled by someone who you trust, rather than hoping that you have someone in your employ who naturally has access to such power. From the perspective of the Magic Council, who would not want to be left at the mercy of others, it would seem like the sensible course of action."
"And that's why they'll get turned into glass together with the rest of Crocus unless we get in the way~"
Itori looked at Nenet, who shrugged unapologetically. The kitsune was aware that the phoenix wasn't actually happy about the idea of the capital being taken out: the issue was more the callousness with which Nenet was talking about the possibility.
However this wasn't the time to start arguing about how behave regarding sensitive topics. Nenet was a very upbeat and outspoken person who wasn't afraid to voice her opinion. She wasn't one to be very careful with her wording just to avoid sounding rude or blunt. Even if she didn't actually want the Magic Council or Crocus destroyed she wouldn't withdraw her comment: from her perspective the Magic Council had brought this situation upon their own heads (if their hypothesis was true) so she didn't need to pretend otherwise or avoid mentioning it.
"Let us make sure that it does not come to that. While it would be a valuable lesson for them to not take what appears like the easy solution to a problem the price would be too high. Especially since it would also involve a lot of innocents paying that price."
"I know, I know... I'm not going to cry if they get signed a little though."
"Given that the one in control of the Tesseract is a dark mage I doubt he would limit himself to attacks which would merely singe."
"Whatever. Also, we're nearly there!"
Looking forward Itori saw that Nenet was right. They'd been flying over rivers and plains for a while now but the vegetation was giving way to rougher landscapes, with mountains jutting out of the ground ahead of them. And right in front of them was the entrance to the Mysterious Canyon, a path through this rocky and unwelcome environment. While it wouldn't directly lead to Crocus it was one of the least treacherous methods of getting past this portion of Fiore, after which the rest of the route would be without much issue. As such it could be considered vital to stop Markov Shazinki and the Tesseract before they made it out of the canyon.
And wonder above wonder it looked like that option was still on the table. Itori didn't know why or how, but as they arrived the giant machine was still setting out. Given her lack of technological prowess she wasn't the best for hazarding a guess as to why, but maybe for all its combat prowess the Tesseract wasn't actually a very mobile weapon? Or maybe there were limits to how you could move it but once it moved it was quite fast. She had never seen or heard of this weapon before so she couldn't say for sure.
"Huh. That's odd. Why's it still here?"
The two women were now hovering in place, studying their opponent from a distance where he shouldn't be able to attack them just yet.
"I do not know. We theorized that this weapon was meant as a more controlled weapon than the Etherion so maybe its main purpose is to be defensive? It could still have the power to destroy most armies without needing to be as mobile as something oriented towards aggression."
"Maybe. Either way I think that it's-WATCH OUT!"
Nenet pushed Itori to the side before flying in the other direction herself. The kitsune was caught by surprise but reacted as she had trained to do, which was let herself be carried by the momentum at first rather than immediately try to correct her flight. This proved to be the correct option as where the two had been flying a beam of energy tore through the air, accompanied by a loud bang which signalled that the air had been heated with such intensity and speed that it had generated a shockwave. Carried away by said shockwave both Itori and Nenet righted themselves in the air, then stared at the weapon they were supposed to dispose of. One long mechanical limb, looking like some kind of segmented tentacle with a hole at the end, was aimed towards them.
"That's some range!"
Itori nodded without answering. While flying here they had the luxury of discussing the situation, but right now they needed to get serious. She hadn't expected the Tesseract to be able to attack them from such a distance but now that they knew that this was the case they couldn't afford to be careless.
"We need to get closer. Stay behind me."
The phoenix flew over even as Itori began to fly straight towards their target, a shimmering barrier forming in front of her. Ethereal figures swirled and spun over the surface of the barrier, making shapes that nearly looked like something before the thought was lost and new shapes began to push themselves to the front of the mind. It was quite the display, even if it was nothing more than a ward against powerful attacks.
In response to their fearless charge the giant mecha aimed two of its tentacles at the approaching women, energy visibly gathering in the tubes attached to the end of the tentacles as it prepared another shot. Narrowing her eyes Itori prepared herself for what would most likely be a very unpleasant collision. However she didn't swerve from her course even as she headed straight for those two threatening balls of light.
Two more beams were shot straight at the kitsune and rammed into her shield. As she had expected the force of these attacks was immense, the barrier threatening to burst and melt away even as she concentrated on maintaining it. Stretching out both hands in front of her she willed the barrier to hold and endure, the beams lasting for several seconds before they finally died off. Shortly after the barrier fell apart as well, the nearly invisible forms that had acted as components disappearing into the aether.
"That's some monstrous firepower as well! What kind of army were they thinking that they needed to fight?!" The phoenix girl was clearly shocked and impressed at what she had just witnessed. Itori had managed to block Nenet's own most powerful attack with that barrier, so seeing it nearly get torn apart by those beams definitely left an impression on the woman.
"Stay focused. Once we are close it should not have as easy a time attacking us with those beams. We will have to find a way to damage it but it will be better than hovering at a distance where it can take its aim."
As it to answer the seven-tailed fox's assumptions two large plates slid aside on the Tesseract's back and out came several small metal orbs. Although when one called them small that was mostly in comparison to the Tesseract, which in itself was a mecha so tall it stuck out over the canyon despite its feet being firmly planted at the bottom. In truth these flying devices were several meters in diameter, large enough that they could crush most people just by ramming into them. They moved quickly as well, zipping towards Itori and Nenet with such speed that they made whistling sounds as they ripped through the air.
Grabbing her sword with both hands Itori struck at the first one once it came close, but despite her fast strike it nimbly moved aside and put itself at a safe distance away from her. The other three orbited the two women as well, not getting close enough for any melee attacks to hit them. Neither kitsune nor phoenix spoke as they prepared themselves for a fight: with how fast these things were moving it was clear that they couldn't afford to distract one another with idle chatter.
Each of these metal spheres had what looked like an eye at the front, and after several seconds of harmlessly orbitting around their targets suddenly each sphere released a series of blasts. While not nearly as powerful as the beam from those tentacle cannons the mecha itself was using they still had the force to burn a hole clear through a wall, and as both women quickly learned they shot in quick succession.
Itori formed another shield to block the attacks while Nenet flew up, allowing all the beams to crash into the ethereal barrier without harming either woman. However two of the orbs began to orbit Nenet, repeatedly firing at her while the other two kept blasting away at Itori's shield. When Itori tried to move they smoothly kept moving with her, keeping her trapped between the two of them as they orbitted around her and slowly but surely began to chip away at that barrier keeping her from being burned full of holes.
Nenet wasn't doing much better. She didn't have the ability to create a shield like Itori did, so the phoenix had to resort to dodging the old fashioned way. Thankfully she was much more talented at flight than Itori so she wasn't immediately in trouble, but the spheres were just as persistent with her as they were with the fox. At first the phoenix was still grinning as she easily dodged the shots, but that grin turned into a more fierce expression as she noted that the shots were becoming more accurate.
"Stupid piece of metal!" She swore as she swiped with one hand, a blaze erupting from it to strike out towards the sphere. It didn't evade the attack, being consumed by the fiery cloud, but after the flames had faded away it still looked unharmed, leaving Nenet gritting her teeth as she realized that these metal targets weren't going to burn so easily. "Okay, guess I'll have to try a little harder then!"
Itori meanwhile already had a plan for how to take care of these enemies. While they had a solid tactic, namely evade harmful attacks with their blurring speed and keeping firing away at the enemy until they hit, it was simple. And she didn't think these robots could do anything much more complex. And she didn't think they were equipped to deal with the more tricky kind of magic either. While she kept the barrier up she shaped the fake reality that she was still there being bombarded before slipping away invisibly, letting the spheres harmlessly shoot away at the fake self. Given that her illusions had already advanced to the point that she was causing alterations in reality itself rather than directly influencing the input of the brain it affected the mechanical opponents as easily as it would have affected something sentient. Which meant that they were now effectively defenceless.
Moving out of the entrapment and to a position where the spheres kept flying right past her as they encircled the fake Itori she closed her eyes and drew her sword, her ears sharp as she listened to their movements. They way they moved combined with their appearance meant that if you relied on your eyes you would be confused: it was subtle but they were actually constantly vibrating. That wasn't a problem when they were standing still, but if they were moving that helped create that blurring effect which would mess with your sight so you had a hard time judging their exact position, including distance.
For her ears that vibrating meant that their outline was a bit fuzzy, but she still had a better idea of where they were. More than that like all machines they had a very steady rhythm so once you got the hang of it it was easy to predict they were going to be. Holding her breath and waiting for the perfect opportunity Itori let them orbit several more times before suddenly strike with her sword. One of the spheres that had been trying to breach the non-existent spirit ward flew straight into the unusually sharp sword. Even if it was made of hardened steel it couldn't match up against that sharp edge, and the sphere got cleanly cut in half. With most of its internal components also cut in half the sphere faltered, but when Itori tried to take advantage of the situation to strike the other sphere as well it still managed to avoid her blade. The best the fox could do was nick its side. At least she'd eliminated one of the spheres.
And then promptly had to evade another blast from the mecha itself. At first Markov had been content to let the drones take care of the two females, but it looked like having one of the four beam spammers get taken out meant he no longer would be acting as merely a spectator.
Nenet was meanwhile snarling as she kept striking at her opponents with her flames. They kept ignoring the heat, their metal exterior allowing them to keep firing away as if nothing was happening. This served to infuriate the phoenix even more. The only advantage she was having right now was that she was flying fast enough that the spheres couldn't just keep orbiting her: they had to chase around and move in odd ways to try and get a clean shot at her, and she kept dodging them even as the air was beginning to heat up from the amount of fire that was being thrown about.
"Stubborn machines! Think you can just shrug off my fire?" She yelled as she gathered more flames in both hands, then smashed them into one of the spheres... which still didn't react. "Well then, let's see if you can keep a cool head." Suddenly halting her movements Nenet dove back towards her enemies, ramming a fire-covered elbow into one of them. The beams missed her by a hair as both spheres reacted quite well but not quite fast enough to catch the nimble phoenix. More flames surged forth as Nenet's entire body was set ablaze, her expression one of someone who was planning to do something reckless with a lot of enthusiasm. "I'll just melt you from up close!"
Grabbing the metal ball with both arms she began the centre of a small firestorm, making sure that none of her body parts were in front of the beam shooting eye. The ball began to spin and fly around in an attempt to shake her off but Nenet grinned and held on, clawed hands beginning to dig into the hardened and tempered metal.
This lasted several seconds until she was blasted from behind by two barrages of beams: both of the surviving spheres had opened fire on the phoenix now she was no longer dodging. She gritted her teeth and let out a groan as she felt her skin and flesh get torn away by the assault, only to then grin and look over her shoulder. "Thanks for that. Now for your friend to die!"
Releasing a shriek reminiscent of her true form the firestorm that had already been surrounding her turned into an outright explosion, a shockwave ripping through the air as for a moment there was a miniature sun where there had been a phoenix. After that moment Nenet was still there, all her wounds gone and holding onto the molten remnants of the sphere. Of which there wasn't a lot left: most of it was falling towards the ground as a hail of hot shrapnel. She threw the glowing hot scraps she was holding onto at the two remaining spheres, which predictably evaded.
"Hah! Not so tough now are you?" Her expression was wild as she'd finally taken down one of the two nuisances. Readying herself for the other two Itori suddenly appeared in front of her and created another barrier, which almost immediatey got blasted apart by three beams from the mecha. While the spirit ward didn't last it managed to create an opportunity for the two friends to evade, although Itori had to stiffle a yelp as she felt the heat blister her skin.
"We should hurry. I do not think this is the only weapons it has."
"Probably. Now at least we've only got two of the nuisances to deal with."
Nodding in agreement Itori flew towards one of the spheres, the one she'd scratched before it dodged. Nenet meanwhile raced towards the other.
Now that there were two orbs left it became clear that these things were limited in their ability to adapt: the only advantages they had were their speed and their ability to rapid fire beams. If they didn't have numbers to help suppress their target then anyone who wasn't blindsided by their speed had little to fear from them. While they did execute evasive maneuvres and kept shooting their beams Nenet had no issue dodging them and Itori simply healed her way through the onslaught, blistering skin already replaced by fresh undamaged skin.
The fight with the orbs ended without much else to say about it: Nenet caught hers and melted it like she'd melted the other one, repeatedly bashing it with a fire-enhanced fist until the metal could no longer stand either heat or force and turned into smoking trash. Meanwhile the autonomous orbital unit that had been trying to shake off Itori found itself once more firing at something which wasn't real before it was grabbed by Itori. However instead of destroying it the metal flyer just stopped moving before dropping down: after several seconds one could hear the dull crash of it impacting with the ground where the rest of its brethren already lay strewn about.
"What did you do with that one?"
Itori shook her head as she instead dodged to the side, evading another cannon shot that would have torn her in half if she had waited to answer Nenet. The phoenix also evaded a shot, although more gracefully than Itori. While the kitsune was an experienced combatant and knew how to move with grace and minimal movement there was no avoiding the fact that the phoenix was simply better when it came to nimbleness in the air. And her fighting instincts were also excellent.
"I stole the mana that fuelled it. Now back to the task at hand." Speaking curtly Itori once again began to fly straight for the mecha, now accompanied by an essence orb that glowed with a ghostly light. She still didn't know how the two of them were meant to disable such a weapon as this, but she still thought that getting closer would be the better option. Nenet, having no better plan available to her, followed the kitsune closely.
Suddenly a voice rang out from the mecha. While distorted by the devices that transferred and amplified it there was no doubt that this was the voice of the one steering the mecha, Markov Shazinki.
"Don't you think that just because you defeated the drones you'll have an easy time defeating me. I've gotten my hands on the weapon needed to take out those corrupt royals and their lackeys, and I'm not going to be stopped by two of you outsiders who have nothing to do with this!"
Not having expected the voice Itori hesitated a moment befoe answering. "Is that why you are doing this? You believe the higher ups to be corrupt?"
"Of course that's why I'm doing this you imbecile! The royals have done nothing to deserve their position other than being born as descendants of the person with the biggest weapon at the time! And the Magic Council is not a gathering of talented mages, it's a bunch of gibbering idiots who only got their position through politics and bribery!" All four of the cannon-tipped tentacles were now tracking Itori and Nenet. When the two of them spread up they each got two cannons each following them, clearly gathering energy even as Markov kept talking. "None of them have any accomplishments worth mentioning! Why would we let them remain at the top!"
"Alternative is having madmen who think they're clever take control?" Nenet suggested even as she eyed those cannons warily. So far they'd been able to deal with them but Itori couldn't keep blocking them forever... and just like those drones it seemed like they were getting more accurate. Markov really was good at having his machines adapt.
"Is that the best you can do? Point at the obvious bad guy and say they're worse? Letting things remain twisted and messed up as they are because the alternative takes too much effort? What a lazy monster you are."
"You say that but that doesn't actually make your actions any more reasonable."
Instead of a verbal response the next thing Nenet got was two giant beams trying to erase her from reality. Dodging to the side the phoenix took that as a sign that Markov was done talking (although she doubted that he had really been trying to convince them: he sounded more like he just wanted to rant a bit). Itori also had to evade the next shot, after which the two women found themselves together again. It took Itori a couple of seconds to realize that rather than coincidence their opponent had purposefully aimed his cannons in such a way that they would find this place to be the easiest place to dodge to.
Before she could warn Nenet that they needed to spread up the mecha suddenly released a massive grey cloud which rushed towards the two friends. The cloud didn't behave like a natural cloud: on closer inspection it behaved more like a massive swarm of bugs, rolling in waves as it moved with a purpose even if that purpose was difficult to see amidst the chaos of the swarm. Before the two could escape they were suddenly surrounded. Itori created another spirit ward but could already feel the swam begin to eat away at it.
"Nenet! Burn them away!"
"You got it!" Smashing fist into palm the phoenix began gathering a large amount of fire while Itori tried to maintain the spirit ward for as long as possible, the ethereal barrier's decay slowing as she tried to repair it even as it was eaten away. Fortunately Nenet was ready for her attack before the barrier completely gave way, and with another phoenix cry she released a wave of heat that roasted the thousands and thousands of tiny machines. While these nanomachines were very advanced and dangerous their tiny form meant that they were very vulnerable to high temperatures: they couldn't dump excess heat and with such tiny systems the smallest amount of heat-influenced warping already rendered them useless. The result was that the swarm quickly began to fall apart, leaving a triumphant phoenix and a panting kitsune.
While Itori had managed to keep the shield from simply breaking apart it had been a very dangerous affair: it was easy to defend your barrier against a single powerful attack, it was a lot harder when it was literally being disassembled from every side. This wouldn't be a problem if the omnidirectional attack was weak but these nanobots had been designed with the plan of being able to eat their way straight through metal (both as a weapon and so they could gather spare materials on their own). Put simply it had drained her more than she would have liked.
Staring ahead her eyes went wide as she was met with a brilliant glare. All four the tentacled arms had bundled together: while they were fighting off the swarm Markov had been gathering power for a blast that would be a lot more of a problem than those cannon blasts that he had been using so far. Those had been capable of turning either fox or bird into a bloody scorched smear: this thing looked like it would take out the entire countryside.
"Can you dodge?"
Nenet nodded, her expression a lot more serious and worried than usual as she also looked towards what could be their doom if they didn't do something about it. "There's no way to defend against that."
That was all they got to say before the entire world went white.
In the brief timespan available before utter annihilation Nenet grabbed Itori and dove towards the ground, the annhiliation cannon passing right overhead and, as they had feared, it pretty much removed a large portion of the land. Nenet managed to get the two of them to a spot closer to the canyon where there was still actual ground to stand on.
Itori for her part stared behind her with wide eyes before staring back up at the mecha which was now really close. There was still a bit of distance between them but with how ridicously tall the Tesseract was it felt like it could just step on them from this distance. While she was definitely awed, shocked and worried at their chances of survival now Itori noticed something: her ears twitched as she picked up on the song of the machine. The way it whirred, the way its parts turned and spun, the way the mana flowed through it. After the first couple of seconds of intense listening she looked at Nenet and actually smiled. "Thanks for saving me. And for bringing me closer. Now that I can listen to it I get the feeling that this thing is not as frightening as we have been led to believe."
Nenet stared back with some surprise, then grinned. "Got a plan then?"
"Yes, but I will be relying on you to prevent me dying before I get to execute that plan."
"Got it. Let's do this!"
"You can barely stand! How do you think you will be 'doing this'?"
"With more balls than you!"
An annoyed growl could be heard from the speakers before the mecha threw something at its two opponents. Hitting the ground the oddly-textured ball turned into a sea of flames, engulfing the two fighters. However before there was any sign of them getting burned by it the flames all suddenly smashed right back into the mecha, after which they scattered harmlessly.
"Seriously? Fire against a phoenix?"
"Oh, and you think that means you're safe? Fine, let's see you deal with this!"
Another cloud of nanomachines escaped from the predesignated gaps in the mecha's body. However this time before they even got close to Itori and Nenet they all suddenly disappeared as if they'd never been. There was a stunned silence before Markov gathered himself.
"Those are more useful against weaker targets anyway. Or as a distraction. Let's give you something you haven't seen before!"
More objects were dropped to the ground: drones which rolled themselves up into balls and began to roll. While not as fast as the flying drones they still approached at high speed, to which Nenet responded by charging straight for them with fiery fists and a wide grin.
"Oh goody, more toys to melt!"
Reaching the first drone she punched it hard, thinking that this time at least it didn't dodge. Which was why she wasn't in a position to dodge or defend herself when the drone exploded, throwing the phoenix backwards. Fortunately given that Nenet hadn't taken any serious damage yet (that hadn't been healed) she could recover midflight and catch herself, although her expression was now less gleeful.
"Okay... that's not nice."
"Will you be all right?"
"Oh yeah just fine. Just focus on your own thing!"
With that the phoenix began a dance with the drones. Dancing around them she made them follow her by throwing bursts of flames towards them, causing them to prioritize her as the real threat.
The kitsune meanwhile grabbed her essence orb with both hands and began to concentrate, facing the mecha directly as she stared straight at where she could hear the heartbeat of the person sitting inside. "This is a prototype is it not? I can hear that it is not complete. It is lacking in many ways, all you have got is overwhelming power."
Inside his control room Markov was stunned for a moment, but he recovered quickly. "A prototype is good enough for my purposes! The magic council and the royal family don't have any way to defend against this! I'll get the completed version after I've seized control. It should be easy: both tech companies would be all too happy to have someone of intellect in charge!"
"But we have already revealed how easy it is to defend against its attacks. You have yet to inflict any serious damage: all you have managed is to drain me, and that was because I did not yet know how to deal with the swarm. Do you really think this will be as easy as you claim when you cannot even take care of me and my friend?"
"It's true that you've been more persistent than I'd hoped for. However you're wrong: you still haven't found a way to stop my real weapon." All the four tentacled cannons once more bundled together, all aimed at Itori. "Your friend helped you dodge this the last time, but you're already too exhausted to do anything else. And she's currently busy trying to avoid being blown up isn't she?" There was a humming in the air as a massive amount of energy was channelled towards the four cannons, a by now familiar light forming at the end of that deadly tunnel. "You can't defend, you can't dodge and your friend can't help you. And by the time she's done with those drones she won't have the time to get out of the blast area either!"
It was true that Nenet couldn't actually take the drones out that easily. While she could make them blow up with her flames the fact that they exploded meant that this hurt her as well, and they were encircling her. Normally she'd just take to the skies but she doubted that the drones would keep following her if she was airborne... and she doubted that her fox-tailed friend would fare well if she was rammed by these suicide bombers.
Itori meanwhile closed her eyes as she focused. From her throat came a soft humming as she listened, matching her rhythm to a deeper, heavier hum that also filled the air. Between her hands the essence orb began to shine brighter, the flow of mana within speeding up.
"Time's up. Goodbye. You could have left me to my business, so it's all your own fault really."
With those words Markov fired the Quad-Barrled Mega Blaster, a massive beam of nothing but utter destruction once more blinding everyone in the area...
Holding up her orb Itori kept her eyes closed, focusing everything on the harmonization. As the beam smashed into the orb the ground around her feet cracked and got torn apart, her skin was burned away, and she was pretty sure her bones were going to shatter. However before that could happen suddenly all that energy was being drawn into her essence orb, which became bigger and bigger as it glowed brighter and brighter. What had been a ghostly sphere, something that could be held between two hands, turned into an orb the size of a large house: the air was filled with the sound of an excess of mana and essence, a solid hum which could also be interpreted as the voice of some spectral entity.
"W-wait, what? WHAT? HOW?!"
"Your prototype has no protections against its energy being stolen. While that is always tricky to defend against this machine has no shielding at all, no complicated rhythm to its energy attacks that would make harmonizing with it difficult." Itori's wounds disappeared as she opened her vermilion eyes, once again staring straight at where Markov was hidden away behind layers of metal and wiring. "As a proof of concept shielding would not be a high priority in the construction until it was time to make it fully functional."
As this exchange happened Nenet let out a victorious and gleeful cry as she grabbed the last of the drones and threw it straight at the mecha's leg, where it exploded. The explosion wasn't enough to cause sincere damage, but it did help make the Tesseract stand still as it tried to avoid losing balance as one of its legs was suddenly pushed back with unexpected force.
"That doesn't mean that-"
As Markov tried to deny what was happening Itori discharged all the energy that she'd absorbed. A thousand tiny ghost flames flew out and surrounded the mecha: a thousand dancing ghost lights which would guide the dark mage to the afterlife. Given that she didn't want Markov trying anything else Itori didn't give any speeches, she didn't delay the attack: once she'd turned all that energy into a sea of foxfire she enveloped the mecha in it, and tough as it was it quickly began to fall apart as not only the metal was burned and melted, but the mana that fuelled the machine turned into more fuel for the flames.
Markov screamed and yelled, calling out for how this didn't make sense and how this couldn't be the end. However the speakers soon failed as well, his last cry of defiance turning into a warped static before that also disappeared. The mecha swayed, then fell over backwards, the burning remains smashing into the bedrock of the canyon where it kept burning away freely.
Itori meanwhile released her control over the ghostly flames once she could feel that Markov's soul had been sent to the afterlife. She had feared that at the end he could still have used some last ditch effort to get away, so it was only after she was completely sure that he was death that she relaxed. She also promptly sat down on the ground, exhaling heavily and closing her eyes as she supported herself with her hands.
Nenet walked over to the kitsune and sat down as well, her pose remarkably similar as she also looked like she'd had enough for the day.
For several minutes neither of them said anything, breathing and recovering from what had been a very hard-fought battle. In the end it was Nenet who spoke first, giving Itori something of a smirk.
"So... a drink then?"
TWC: 8,140/7,000 (Completed)