A/N: You think your fanon is safe. You are not. Like the mythical phoenix, we rise from the ashes obscurity to make our triumphant return. Project: Arashi is back, and better than ever. A few notes. It will likely come across as chaotic and jumbled, and feel like there's a different writer every few sections. That's because there was a different writer every few sections. This chapter will be the last to employ the ill-fated venture of writing in a round robin style. From here on out, I will return to being the sole author, only taking dialogue and suggestions from the other creators for their characters. So I apologize for what I perceive to be the poor quality of this, the final chapter of Mages vs. Mars. On that note, I've learned my lesson about wall-to-wall combat for four damn chapters. Never again. That said, try to enjoy the conclusion of Project: Arashi's take on that glorious final-day event of Mahorafest. It only gets crazier from here.


"For all their power and endurance, droids are amazingly predictable."
- Marcus Darklighter; 'Mages vs. Mars: The Complete Visual Encyclopedia'

Chapter XXIII:
The Strength of Everyone, To Save the Future

June 24, 2007
Airspace over the Combat Area
1900 hours, local time

Whether the condition of the battle looked worse from the ground or from the air was truly debatable. From her altitude, Stephanie could clearly see the two captured defense points of Charlie and Delta, the two gigantic robot creatures standing in the center of the resonance locations, surrounded by equally-massive pillars of blindingly-brilliant light that partially obscured them from view. The remaining defense points were swarmed by the droids of Chao's army, thousands still remaining, looking all the more like ants scurrying from a kicked nest, with the beleaguered and rapidly-dwindling defenders being pushed back steadily almost to the final defense lines.

Stephanie banked her fighter and turned toward the World Tree, intent on strafing down the droid ranks assaulting Defense Point Alpha to relieve pressure and keep the most important position in the fight. But as she completed her turn and started to angle down, she caught movement out of the corner of her eye, and turned to see what was causing it.

Above the center of the World Tree Plaza defense point, storm clouds were roiling in a decidedly unnatural pattern; Stephanie, being completely mundane, had no idea what to make of it. Lightning flashed at random intervals from within the clouds, which soon began to coalesce and create a shape, that shape being a massive draconic figure, easily as large as the giant 'boss demon' robots, black as night with razor-edged leathery wings that literally sliced the air as it pumped them, generating a shrieking sound in its wake.

"Command, this is…" Stephanie began, but then stopped as she recalled that central command had fallen along with the rest of Defense Point Charlie. She switched her radio setting to broadcast in the open. "To any Mahoran personnel within range of this transmission, there's a new beast on the field, in the vicinity of the World Tree. It doesn't look like it's here to watch the festivities."


World Tree Plaza, Allied Main Camp
The Same Time

The chaos of the renewed battle didn't even register to Yuuna as she charged directly through the droid ranks, her sights locked on that commander. She'd already felled three different droid commanders in battle, but this one was different, far more sophisticated and, by extension, important in the enemy's chain of command, than its lesser kin.

Close behind Yuuna followed Hotaru, Matsunaga, and Katsuki, the two ersatz Helljumpers taking advantage of abundant cover to harass the droids as Hotaru directed her firefly swarm, trying her best to both keep up with Yuuna and avoid getting shot. She stabbed the blunt end of her lantern staff into the center mass of one droid as she spotted another lining up on her out of the corner of her eye. With a wave of her hand, the swarm redirected itself into the droid's path, dozens of fireflies falling victim to the effects of the time displacement, but ever more flying from the open ends of her lantern. Almost as soon as it had fired, Matsunaga and Katsuki both shifted their fire onto it, the combined streams of 7.62mm fire shattering its head and primary core.

Both men noticed that, for reasons unknown, their accuracy and coordination was operating at even higher than the normal peak levels for Cleric Team, but only Hotaru truly knew why. Just as had occurred moments before she'd initiated the pactio, Hotaru could sense a supernatural boost to all her combat abilities, a combat buff with the specific magic signature she could now recognize as belonging to her magistra. The gunslinger girl possessed some sort of innate leadership ability that increased the effectiveness of her allies, presumably activating automatically whenever she was pumped up.

So much the better, Hotaru thought as her swarm completely engulfed another droid that was moving—to her perspective, buffed as she was not only by Yuuna's leadership talent but also by the contract with her—almost at a snail's pace.

Ahead, Yuuna was close enough to the commander for its bodyguard to regard her as a sincere threat. The short-haired female model stepped forward, flinging its cloak off with one hand even as it twirled that six-foot staff around the other, activating through some unseen method the twin energy arcs at either end of the staff, generating a hissing crackle audible even over the noise of battle. Snarling beneath her visor, Yuuna adjusted her path to deal with this threat first, but before she could engage it, a blast of fire, concussion, and shrapnel exploded on the droid's center mass, severing it nearly in half and sending it flying back through the plate glass windows of an electronics store display.

"Nice shot, Matsunaga!" Katsuki's voice crackled in Yuuna's ear, spelling out what had happened to the bodyguard droid.

Saving her words of gratitude for later, Yuuna spun to her left to avoid colliding with the sparking hulk of droid, and recovered with a clear line of travel to the droid commander. The droid stood regarding her stoically, looking all the more eerie for its male countenance that otherwise almost perfectly resembled Chachamaru. Just as Yuuna raised her pistol to take the opening shot, a flurry of movement from the corner of her eye caught her attention, and she glanced over and up to see the massive draconic summon swooping down the plaza.

She would later be annoyed with having frozen up in the face of two overwhelming foes in the space of an hour, but in the moment, she came skidding to a halt as the dragon roared long and loud, drawing the attention of all but the most dedicated combatants. She shifted her aim to level her pistol with the dragon's head, considered that course of action, then thought better of it. Shaking her head, she mumbled to herself, "Nah, I don't think so," and then set off in the opposite direction, scanning the buildings to find a good source of overhead cover.

Hotaru, caught in a weapon lock with another droid, spotted Yuuna running back toward her, grit her teeth, then took a step backwards, the momentum shift causing the droid to overbalance for just an instant. In that instant, Hotaru manipulated her staff to send the droid's electro staff into an arc, driving one tip into a concrete bench, momentarily lodging it in place. That moment was all the girl needed to engulf the droid in her firefly swarm, melting it down to its circuits.

With that threat eliminated, she looked around to see what had caused Yuuna, who had seemed so intent on taking on that droid commander, to be running the other direction. Her eyes fell on the incoming dragon circling around the building that half of Cleric Team was holed up in, and she figured that would have been a good reason to be going the other way.

"Get out of the streets!" Yuuna was shouting as she ran, waving her arms frantically. "Overhead cover now!"

Gripping her lantern staff, Hotaru trotted to catch up with the gunslinger girl, watching as the dragon came to a hover over the street between those two buildings that the majority of Cleric Team were harrying the droids with. A tiny pinprick of blue energy began to form in front of its mouth, soon coalescing into a basketball-sized sphere, which roiled in place and continued to grow in size and intensity.

Watching as the formerly-emboldened humans once again turned and fled from an obviously-superior foe, ITSUki smiled cruelly and gestured with his left hand, ordering the machines nearest him forward toward the plaza. Before he could join in the assault, the radio mounted on his left wrist crackled. "Mission update, Unit Thirteen," Chao's voice emerged from the device. "Set Yuuna Akashi as your primary target. Your new primary objective is to eliminate Yuuna Akashi-yo."

Without hesitation, ITSUki responded, "Clarification, Master," he said. "Do you wish for the elimination to be permanent?"

Chao did not chuckle. "No. She must remain alive. Do what you must to ensure she remains alive, but remove her from this conflict-yo."

"As you command, Master." His grin grew even crueler, and he flexed his right arm, twisting it in a particular manner. Two panels on either side of his wrist slid open, allowing small tube-like devices to extend out to either side and then begin to loop around, both tubes coming to a stop at a point even with the first 'knuckle' of his thumb digit. There came a hiss of energy, and two purple-violet blades of plasma energy formed from the tubes, arcing together in the shape of a Covenant plasma sword.

Knowing of his Master's distaste for all things Covenant, he had at first been confused why she had installed one of their weapons on his frame. Soon, he swiftly realized the justification that it would be poetic justice that he, his Master's assassin, would be turning the Covenant's own fearsome weapon to use against them. Now he had no qualms about the use of the weapon.

It didn't take Hotaru long to catch up to Yuuna, who was sprinting back toward the main plaza for reasons that she couldn't fathom. Yuuna wasn't afraid of the dragon; Hotaru could sense no fear in her magistra's emotional state, only frustration at the seemingly-endless bad luck and the frantic pace of a mind struggling to come up with a plan for the situation at hand.

Over the panicked cries of the defenders and the spectators a few hundred yards away, Hotaru called out to Yuuna, "It's not chasing us, is it?"

The black-armored gunslinger girl shook her helmeted head and called back, "I ain't lookin'!"

By now, the sphere of gathered energy was twice the size of a wrecking ball, and looked to be about to perform that job as the dragon powerfully beat its leathery wings several times, causing a shrieking sound to fill the air as it gained altitude over the two apartment buildings. Inside the left building, Hartley and his team were already halfway out of the building as the squad's former commander ordered into his radio, "That thing's targeting the buildings, we have to get out no-!"

"Fuck, it's firing that shit!" Uno cut in from five feet behind Hartley. "Incomi-!"

The energy ball hit the ground with the impact of a multi-ton bomb dropped from high altitude. Its concussive force obliterated the two buildings, and from within the blast itself emerged an expanding field of those black spheres that the defenders had come to recognize and hate, engulfing everything within its reach. Only Hartley escaped the entrapment sphere, having been hurled through the glass windows of a convenience store by the blast.

Far up the street, even Hotaru and Yuuna were picked up and tossed by the combined wind and shockwave, and a short distance behind them, ITSUki rode the wave up the street toward them, that cruel smirk still present on his mechanical features.


Location Unknown, Somewhere Within the Battle Area
1903 hours

An uncomfortable silence had fallen over Chao and Satomi as they observed the dragon demon's attack against the World Tree over a holographic monitor. The wind was the only sound until the distant boom of the dragon's energy attack finally reached them. Satomi's expression was a study in shock, while Chao watched through the back of the holographic screen with her lips pressed into a thin line.

"Chao-san..." Satomi finally voiced. "Is it supposed to be doing that?"

"No," the Chinese genius answered. "It isn't responding to commands-ne, but thankfully, at least the technological inhibitor is limiting its lethality as intended."

A third voice joined the conversation, masculine and equally-flabbergasted at the turn of events. "Perhaps we should mark this down as a lesson in why you should not accept unknown magic items from suspicious strangers, Lady Lingshen," the voice deadpanned.

"I had to have taken leave of my faculties," she murmured, glancing away. "Pheidippides, have we any spare Komodo units?"

"Seven that were not fully-fueled or otherwise were in maintenance when you gave the order to begin Operation: VALID."

"Are they ready for combat now?"

Satomi furrowed her brow at the line of discussion between Chao and her ludicrously-advanced artificial intelligence. Seven of her spider-like walkers, though dreadfully powerful in their own right, would hardly go any further to tip the balance against the defenders.

"They are, but there are no crews available to operate them," Pheidippides answered.

"That doesn't matter-ne. Disable the combat limiters on all seven and bring them to real combat readiness. Prepare one for manual operation and slave the other six to the first."

"Is there a reason that you wish to enable full combat ability to an anti-Scarab weapons platform?" the AI asked, faint alarm apparent in his voice that Satomi was also feeling.

"A precaution," Chao answered, looking away from the holographic screen of the dragon demon's attack. "For now, that demon is serving its purpose by throwing the mages into disarray. But if it starts to threaten lives, and Negi-bozu and the others can't deal with it, then I'll take the Komodos myself and destroy it the hard way."


City Streets, En Route to Defense Point Alpha
1904 hours

The party that Negi had departed from Library Island with had already been reduced by contact with the enemy. They had run directly into a special forces assault force heading toward the World Tree, a dozen female Chachamaru replicas supplemented by light and heavy armor. Kaede and Ku Fei had remained behind to combat the enemy force, cutting the two most potent warriors out of his group. Several streets down from that engagement, with the rattle of weapons fire still ringing loudly in their ears, Nodoka had been lost to a rooftop sniper, having thrown herself into the path of the displacement rounds to prevent Negi from suffering that fate.

Now only Haruna and Yue remained with him, neither of whom were the most capable combatants; Haruna's artifact made her a wild card in terms of combat prowess, but she lacked the skill and experience necessary to control and wield her summoned creatures for the duration this battle would require. And all three of them were terrified of what they had just seen, the dragon creature's devastating attack against the World Tree Plaza.

Terrified, but still knowing what they had to do. "Negi-sensei, we have to stop it," Yue said calmly as she struggled to keep up with her teacher and fellow library assistant.

"I'm not exactly sure how we can," the boy mage replied. "Even Takamichi couldn't permanently destroy the one that he fought. Even so, we'll do everything in our power to stop it."

Up ahead, the trio could hear the clatter of weapons fire, real weapons fire, which at first led Negi to believe that they'd gotten lost and ended up in Fireteam Charlie's defense area, but the volume of fire was low, that of perhaps four individuals, and he also knew that they had not traveled so far. Motioning for Haruna and Yue to follow closely, he dropped his pace down to a fast walk and pressed himself up against the wall of a building, creeping toward the corner to investigate the situation.

What he found was a quartet of armored Fireteam Charlie 'Marines' in cover at one of the local train stops, under siege by over six times their number in droids, with two crab droids for support. From what he could see, there was no reason for those four Marines to fight so hard to protect their position against such a superior force, but whatever their reason, they needed every able body in the fight right now. "Rastel maskir magister…"

Across the street, the four Fireteam Charlie members knew they were in a bad position. They had started with seven and had been in the process of joining the main body of the fight at the World Tree when they'd come across one of the various medics attempting to treat one of the Hero Unit figures for some pretty nasty beating injuries, and so had dug in to buy the long-haired girl time to finish her work. They'd already been running low on ammunition to begin with, and that hadn't been helped any when they'd been discovered by the droid patrol. At least their three comrades who'd been shot had the sense to throw their weapons and spare magazines clear before those weird black spheres had transported them to wherever it was that they were going.

The ranking member, a corporal, drilled the final three rounds in his battle rifle into the optical sensor of a Tanaka droid, watching the mechanical unit spasm in place a moment before collapsing backwards. He ejected the empty mag and reached into his ammo pouch for a new one, cursing to find only one left. "Randy, last mag!" he called out to the 'Marine' nearest him as he shoved the magazine in and slapped the bolt release. Just as he brought his battle rifle back into line to sight a new target, the droid lines exploded.

"Holy shit!" another student remarked. "What the hell was that!?"

Three figures strode through the field of smoke and debris left in the wake of the droids' destruction, two in fanciful costumes and one wearing a tattered white mage's robe. With the hood of the robe down, the corporal recognized the bearer as the child-teacher from the martial arts tournament of the day before. From what he'd seen of the tournament, he doubted this kid would have any trouble taking on that Lingshen's droids.

No other foes presented themselves as the trio of obvious Hero Units made their way toward the besieged cosplayers, and the student who had spoken previously muttered, "You know, I only signed on to this for a college credit and a down payment on my car, but that was pretty exciting."

The corporal looked toward the student who'd spoken, then shook his head, sighed, and turned back to Negi, Haruna, and Yue as they reached the barricade. "Thanks for the help," the corporal said. "We barely had enough ammo for those clankers, let alone the armor."

It was Haruna, not Negi, who answered with a grin and a thumbs-up. "No problem, trooper! We were happy to help out! You probably oughta get organized and get yourselves back to the main force before more droids show up."

The corporal shook his head, then nodded back toward the medic. "Can't. Gotta stay here at least until this medic girl gets her job done."

Negi looked over and noticed the distinctive 'nurse girl' outfit that Konoka had worn as she hunched over a figure in a dark blue hakama and white gi. "Setsuna-san!" Negi exclaimed as he immediately recognized the figure, pushing past the hastily-erected barricades to get a better view of his injured student, the various burn markings that her clothing and exposed skin sported. "What happened?"

Setsuna cracked one eye open and focused it on her homeroom teacher. "Asuna-san and I…we ran into Chao-san…She defeated us with utter ease…"

Negi looked around, noticing that Asuna's heavily-armored form was not present. "Where's Asuna-san?"

This time, Konoka answered, not looking up from treating Setsuna's injuries, "Asuna wasn't hurt as badly as Secchan. She went ahead back to the plaza to rejoin all the fighting."

"Then that's where we're going next," Negi said, punching a hand into his fist. "Haruna-san, will you be okay to fight?"

The mangaka grinned and pulled out her artifact sketchbook. "Just leave it to me, Negi-kun! I've got something special cooked out to give all those Fireteam Charlie guys a treat!"

Before they could take off, Yue stepped forward and said, "Wait, Negi-sensei! Before you go, I have a message to deliver…"


Mahora Gakuen All-Girls' Academy, Exterior
1905 hours

The plan had been to wait until the battle had been well under way, for them to arrive fashionably late to save the day. That plan had backfired terribly, and now the Mahoran defenders were on the defensive, two defense points captured, the remaining number of combatants in the fight dwindling at a steady pace, and morale at an all-time low. Thus the original plan had failed, but now they were presented with a unique opportunity, the chance to perform an eleventh-hour rescue, turning the tables with a perfectly-delivered morale boost.

"The whole fucking plan's out the window!" Seno shouted as he ran down the front steps of the academy, moving toward the cluster of vehicles that the crew had used to arrive at this gathering point. "Just mount up and go somewhere and cause as much havoc as you can! I'm still going to the university to mop up there!"

"I'll go with you for support!" Mutsumi called out, reaching his motorcycle moments after him and climbing onto what little of the seat was available as he revved the vehicle to life and kicked back the support stand.

As the red Ninja roared out onto the street and in the direction of the university, Naru turned and called out, "Motoko, we're the two fastest left, so let's get over to Foxtrot!"

"Got it!" Motoko answered, turning and climbing onto her own dark blue motorcycle.

Stepping in as the group's unofficial leader, Haruka moved toward one of the parked Warthogs and said, "The rest of us are going to the World Tree Plaza. Either ride with Sabashii or me." She climbed into the driver's seat, but instead of finding a standard ignition, the steering column was bare.

At that point, one of the Fireteam Charlie members came running down the stairs. "Hold on a second, ma'am!" he called out. "These things use a biometric device to startup, that way nobody can steal them from us. I'll have to drive."

Haruka stared at the man for two seconds, then shrugged and got out of the driver's seat, calmly and very sedately climbing into the bed of the truck, hauling the shoulder braces of the turreted M2 heavy machine gun onto her shoulders, and racking the bolt of the weapon. "Then drive," was all she said.

The call to mobilize had finally come, and not a moment too soon. With a mix of anger and joyous excitement, Hiroyuki quickly gathered Yuriko, placing his faithful weapon on his shoulder as he leaped from his perch on the second floor to the cobblestone entranceway below. His fiery cape trailing behind him, accentuating his free-flowing hair as the rush of air blew both carelessly. He rolled after his impact and used his trademark momentum to propel him forward into a sprint.

Hiro could feel his blood rush as it boiled beneath his skin, his weapon in hand, and his overwhelmed home before him. It was epic. But there was no time to stop and think such thoughts, they had forced him to wait too long for this moment. It was full speed ahead, no stopping now. Reaching the stairway he leapt clear past the stairs, aiming to land on the railing.

Such a move while in shoes would seem stupid, and he was wearing getas. Hiroyuki grinned; defying gravity was such a rush. Just before impact with the railing however, Hiro could be seen tapping his belt and to the trained ear, a small beeping could be heard. They became skates, at least in a crude sense. Wheels extended forth from his custom geta sandals, hissing as they made contact with the sloped cement, allowing him to grind all the way down to the street area below.

Skidding to a stop upon reaching the base of the stairs, he looked around to see which transport he'd be taking. Someone earlier said it would be "prudent" of him to team up with the butterfly boy Masaru. He scanned the area for a second before spotting the flamboyant tight-wearer getting into Sabashii's car. Wanting to waste no more time than he already had, he rolled over to the car.

The white haired man appeared busy, so he didn't bother asking him about how many were to ride in the car. Instead, Hiro decided to clear room for more people and to make more fun for himself. He looked up at the elegant blade of Yuriko, and gave it a look akin to one a child would give a parent when begging for ice cream. "Please, a freebie just this once?" Then the weapon pulsed with the first aura to be felt by his new comrades, and glowed a gentle yet powerful emerald. He kissed the blade, "Green, baby, go."

Smirking to himself he laughed a little, then turned to a passing marine who happened to transporting a sturdy looking rope. "Yoi, soldier boi! You mind mind lending me that there rope you're carrying so well?"

In answer, the marine looked down at the item in question, and looked suprised he was carrying it. He looked up at the fire head, nodded, and tossed him the coiled material. "Sure, I'm not why I'm carrying it, I didn't even know we had any," he spoke with half a laugh before running off to continue his duties.

Hiroyuki gave an overdramatic salute and answered as the young soldier walked off. "You've got me man, maybe I'm just lucky."

Kaolla and Nealla had been prepared to both leap into the same vehicle when they turned, shaking their heads at one another in unison, as if the same plan had come to mind all at once. The two split up, Nealla instead moving with Haruka, while Kaolla had gone to join Sabashii.

Nealla moved past Haruka where the woman sat in the back of the Warthog, and pulled herself up into the passenger seat of the vehicle, shaking her head at the driver. "I don't think there's been a vehicle that Kaolla-sama cannot hijack."

She got settled into the seat properly and adjusted the two scimitars that were belted to either hip. Strange as it was, she'd been looking forward to the coming fight since she'd first learned of it. One wouldn't usually think of her as blood-thirsty. Or would that be oil-thirsty, considering they were going to be fighting droids?

Sabashii turned his head as all those going with him got in his vehicle. He stood then, and whispered something to his...car. Yep. The white haired man hopped onto the hood as it began to drive itself, his gaze aimed straight ahead. The odd man's head shifted, tilted ever so slightly to the right as he spoke down at his various passengers.

"The car will take you to your individual stops. Get out as quickly as you can and find whatever cover you need to do your duty. I'm going to go right in, and do as much damage as humanly possible in the state I'm in now. Even that's pretty dangerous though, so don't hesitate to stay the hell out of my way."

He chuckled. This brought back memories. When was the last time he'd actually fought in a war? This may seem like a game to a lot of the students, but he knew the truth. It was a shadow war, being fought by a shadow master. Sabashii would simply play along. This was a war that had nothing to do with him, but fate had placed him as one of the many pieces in this play. How fitting that this war was being fought not for any kingdom, but for the fate of magic as they knew it. He could show off a little.

"How long has it been since I've used this kind of magic? I don't even know if I remember how. I guess I'll just have to deal with being a little rusty."

As the car sped to his destination, the assassin leapt upward into the sky to observe his battlefield from above. He floated there for a moment, eyes closed, and enjoyed the feeling of being weightless. It was heaven. This is what the inhuman side of him loved. The power that was at his command. The weightlessness of the sky. Yes, this was beauty. He didn't even have to open his eyes.

The low buzz of an incoming aerial Chachamaru unit could be heard to his right side, and it didn't seem to care much about the floating man as it made as if to pass him by. Sabashii only opened one eye as it began to pass him, and saw what it was headed for. An overhead attack on the outgoing units to Bravo. That was Seno and Mutsumi's group. They'd have enough problems with the units incoming, much less one from above and behind. It was troublesome, but he'd help out.

The movement was a blur as his golden-gloved hand snapped out and gripped the face of the flying unit the moment it was within arm's reach. With just a twitch his hand, he created a burst through simple muscular action that tore across the entire body frame of the mechanoid assault unit, and sent it into shrapnel dotting the sky that rained down on the battlefield. The man chuckled, and shook his head. It wasn't like him, but he figured this was payback for letting him hang around rent free in the Hinata for a while.

"Hydra Calla Aster Narcis..."

The magic was active then. Power gathered around his body with a visible aura and an audible hum. So he was going to show off a little. Hey, he was entitled. He didn't use Western magic all that often. He needed to show these upstart prodigies that there was still a few good things about being old other than the right to drink yourself stupid or being able to love to smoke. He'd have to thank Eva later. After all. She'd taught him this version.


Above the Combat Zone
The Same Time

Evangeline peered closely at Sabashii from her lofty vantage point, her expression screwed up in surprise and confusion. "What…Why the hell is he here, and helping those kids playing at adventurers, no less?"

Konoemon, though he also recognized Sabashii, did not seem as surprised to see him. "The call to adventure casts its net far and wide, as even you are aware, Evangeline."

"Pah," the diminutive vampire scoffed, dismissing the thought outright. "That hate-filled man who once took to learning dark magic from me would not so lightly throw in his lot with a bunch of children playing at saving the world."

"Even still, I do think that this is going to become interesting, soon."


City Streets, En Route to Mahora University
1906 hours

The roar of engines more than announced the presence of the Hero-led reinforcements on their way to Defense Point Bravo. Shortly after departing from Mahora Academy, Seno had nearly run headlong into a troupe of differing types of Warthogs on the way to help out the University, to recapture it from the enemy before the resonance point could be activated.

Fully aware of the high-profile nature of his participation in the battle, Seno drew Shinaijou from the mounted holster on the right side of his motorcycle and thrust it skyward, the folded steel blade catching and reflecting the waning light as he guided his motorcycle up and down the column, drawing cheers from the student-soldiers and boosting their morale. After several of these passes, Seno moved to the head of the column and revved the engine, leading the pack toward the university.

Ahead, enemy forces were reacting to the incoming reinforcements. Infantry droids and armored units began to trickle out of the buildings and side-streets, opening fire at maximum range. Bullets, strip-beams, and explosive shells chewed up the asphalt around and amongst them, catching several of the dozens of Warthogs in displacement spheres.

"Centum Septenonaginta spiritus obscuri, coeuntes inimicum concidant. Saggita magica, series obscuri!"

And there it was. A Macross missile massacre rained down on the battlefield, one hundred and ninety-seven arrows of crystallized darkness. All of them came down with a scream of their sheer movement speed, and all of them immaculately struck their targets, leaving not even a shockwave that would hinder the students fighting. They also accomplished their true intention, and tore through the forward ranks of the enemies that were blocking Seno and Mutsumi's way further into their destination. Even the larger enemy tanks were battered and crushed under the onslaught, and Sabashii grinned and with two fingers to his forehead, saluted the two as he fell from the sky in a controlled dive. This kind of thing? This is what he lived for.


Defense Point Alpha
1907 hours

A strange quiet had fallen over the World Tree Plaza in the wake of the summoned dragon's massive energy attack. Dozens of defenders had been hurled in all directions by the blast wave, and the two apartment buildings had been partially-destroyed. Even the droid forces were not safe from its attack, as both the Mahoran and Martian forces caught within the radius of the energy sphere were gone, eliminated by the time displacement effects.

He had missed, of all the times to make a miscalculation, it had been with his main target. "I suppose my targeting and probability still need some tweaking," voiced the mechanical giant, staring hungrily with golden eyes at his target, and the one other who had barely saved her. It had only been by inches but Hotaru had managed to pull the still recovering Yuuna out of the lunging stab of ITSUki. With his blade sunk in the concrete where Yuuna had been seconds ago, his cruel grin still managed to remain on his synthetically smug face.

Chortling ominously, he retrieved his blade, the hot plasma sizzling and melting the penetrated concrete like butter. He then stood, his towering height casting a shadow over the two. He rolled his shoulders and and tilted his head ever so slightly to the left, allowing the hair that had fallen over his eyes in the lunge to cascade to the side. ITSUki's hands had dropped to his side, but he gripped his blades tightly, wary of a sneak attack.

"Commentary: That's quite the good fortune on your side, Akashi Yuuna. Not many organic meatbags would lay themselves in harm's way to save another worthless pile of sloshy flesh." ITSUki grinned fully to display neat steel teeth, he wanted to savor as many fights as possible. "Query: I must know however, you've spent all this time playing soldier. Having fun yet?"

Yuuna, who had been starting to recover as the droid approached and had remained down on her hands and knees, facing away, to present the image of still completely out of it, now suddenly propelled herself up and backwards at the droid, her boot aimed for its center mass as she snapped in response, "The time of my life!"

She immediately pressed the assault as she regained her balance, following the initial kick with a high-momentum diagonal pistol-whip from the remaining pistol in her right hand. As her stance shifted from the momentum of that attack, she turned and rammed her left shoulder out toward her foe in a shoulder block, then spun to aim a high crescent kick at the droid's temple.

Itsuki had fully anticipated some form of sneak attack and casually dodged Yuuna's boot, but the girl reacted faster than expected and was quick to continue her offense. Again, he dodged her attack, reckless lashing out he thought, but he was not prepared for the shoulder block. Never would he have anticipated a female meatbag of Yuuna's build to attempt to beat him through force, and thus he was knocked back a step or two. He did, however, expect a follow up attack and leaned backward to dodge the kick, retracting his blade and turning his dodge into a backwards somersault.

Yuuna was not finished though, she spun again, aiming a straight roundhouse to Itsuki's cranium. It collided dead-on with his right forearm, halting her attack and leaving her off balance. The android smirked, deciding to return the favor as he cast her leg aside and lashed out with a roundhouse of his own. The kick barely missed her, but missed her it did as she fell backward attempting to regain her balance. For that she was grateful, for if it had hit her, a cracked skull might have been the least of her worries.

She was not so lucky on his second attack though, as the martian commandant capitalized on his momentum and delivered a spinning straight kick to the young girl's sternum. There was a slight cry to be heard by Yunna as she slid across the street and crashed into a nearby wall, but in truth, the kick had knocked every bit of wind from her lungs. Itsuki chuckled in his usual manner as he watched his target gasp for breath and clutch her chest, but then it occurred to ITSU that this girl was just his only target, not his only opponent. A realization that came too late as he turned to see Hotaru release an overdrawn arrow in his direction, its head wreathed in flame.

Without enough time to fully dodge the enraged girl's attack, Itsuki powered his shields, raised his right arm, and initiated an evade. Though too fast for a human eye to track, the scene was set in slow motion to the droid's advanced sensors. Hotaru's arrow plowed through, eating through her foe's shield and stabbing deep into the palm of his hand, burning off two of the fingers on Itsuki's right hand as though he was made of hot butter. Itsuki's eyes widened in surprise, darting back and forth between his 'injury' and Hotaru's longbow.

Impossible, not even the strongest human could hope to put enough power behind an arrow to scratch his barriers. His backwards jump had landed him on top of a nearby rooftop, and he estimated he was at a safe distance from his attacker. He had underestimated another human, and a mage no less, and his pinky and ring fingers suffered for it. Gazing down at Hotaru, he saw the fire blazing in her eyes and the anger she had for him. He didn't understand her, nor did he rightly care, but this meatbag was intent on dismantling him, and she had effectively issued her challenge. He was not about to back down.

His plasma blades once again unfolded from his arms and into his hands, Itsuki cocked his head to the side, "Statement: You are very interesting female meatbag. Query: A mage? Why does it not ally itself with master Chao? Answer: Because it is blind to humanity's needs," spat Itsuki. "Offer: I shall leave you unharmed, human guard dog, if you give me the girl and the location of Negi Springfield. If you do that, it'll be the end of everything."

Yuuna and Hotaru exchanged looks, and the gunslinger girl scoffed at the droid's offer. "Negi, schmegi. What's so important about the half-pint teacher anyway?"

His smile gone, Itsuki adopted a look of anger. "My master has deemed him worthy, and insulting her choice is as though insulting her!" growled Itsuki, leaping down to face the offensive pair. As he rushed them, his blades dragged along the ground, causing them to hiss as they burned through street. With his left and uninjured arm he swept upward in a crescent arc from the street, sending sparks at the faces of the duo. Both girls leapt to the side, a swarm of fireflies erupting from Hotaru's lantern to assault the droid commander. It was all a mere distraction of course. In the movement of crossing his arms for a follow up attack he quickly clicked his wrist transceiver, calling a handful of MagnaGuard Chachamarus to his position.

As he pushed the offense with his reinforcements, ITSU sneered, "Mean creatures, I shall kill the spare and drag the other's mangled body back to my master!"


Mahora Central Clock Tower, Bell Tower Gantry
1906 hours

Breathing slowly, Mana watched through the scope of her Remington 700 bolt-action rifle as Negi, Haruna, and four armored members of Fireteam Charlie dashed through the streets in order to rejoin the main body of the fight. As she observed them, she silently pondered on the surprising amount of resistance and willingness to fight on in the face of overwhelming odds that the students of Mahora were displaying. Previously, she had stuck to her assigned mission of only eliminating mages and others who were serious threats to Chao's plan, but she now saw that those charismatic leaders, even amongst the mundanes, were as much a threat as the mages. Chao evidently saw this as well, hence her ordering her assassin droid to take out their classmate, Akashi.

As was her tradition, Mana pressed her trigger finger gently against the outer housing of the trigger guard, signaling her readiness to begin firing, and then lightly rested her finger on the trigger, settling herself and closing one eye as she selected her target. "I'll have to have you and your friends leave the picture now, sensei," she murmured.

City Streets, En Route to Defense Point Alpha
The Same Time

The leader of the small squad of Fireteam Charlie members caught a glint of light reflecting into his eye from the last rays of the sun, and looked toward its origin, instantly aware of what it represented. However, he didn't have time to call out a warning before a displacement sphere suddenly enveloped his form, quickly spiraling down to nothingness and taking him away with it.

The others were not unaware of the implications. "Sniper!" shouted one of the others, prompting the three of them, as well as Negi and Haruna, to dive for cover. A second shot rang out suddenly as the group scattered, catching one of the Marines in the foot. As the sphere erupted into existence, his comrade grabbed him by the arms, as though he could be pulled to safety. The displacement sphere let out a sound akin to a growling roar and then doubled in size, taking the would-be rescuer as well.

"Damn, droid snipers now?" Haruna hissed, thumbing through her notebook. "I didn't want to reveal this now, but…"

The last of the Fireteam Charlie members raised his assault rifle over the low wall he was using for cover and fired blindly in the direction the shots came from, then wisely crept away from the spot he'd fired from. Moments later, a bullet ricocheted off the ground and into the backside of the wall he'd previously occupied. Observing this as he reloaded his weapon, the faux Marine remarked, "The hell? That was an obscenely-high angle. Where the hell could they be shooting from…?"

Risking her neck, Haruna crawled along the ground behind the lattice-fence of a small café, looking through the fence to see what was high enough to conceal a sniper that could fire from that high of an angle. The answer was revealed almost immediately, as the only building remotely high enough was the city center's clock tower, the very clock tower which had initially pealed the bells to sound the invasion. "Clock tower!" she called out. "The sniper's gotta be there."

"Got it!" the Marine responded, then signaled over his radio, "Echo Command, this is Bravo-Twelve. I've lost everyone in my squad, am traveling with precious cargo en route to the World Tree. We are pinned down by an exceptionally-skilled sniper located in the city center clock tower. Requesting support."

"Be advised, Bravo-Twelve. All available support has been tasked elsewhere. You're on your own for now, over."

"Shit, we're going to have to do something else, then." The Marine sat still for a few moments as he pondered, then dug around in the pouches of his armor and produced a flash bang grenade. "Okay, here's the plan. I toss this out there, and it'll either temporarily stun the sniper if he's staring down the scope at it, or the light will draw his attention. Then you guys haul ass on out of here and I'll keep him busy."

More self-sacrifice for their sake. Negi nodded, but there was a sour taste in the back of his throat. He glanced to Haruna to gauge her readiness, noting that she had returned her artifact to card form in preparation to run. He then turned his attention back to the Marine across the street from them and nodded.

The Marine nodded in return, set his rifle down long enough to pull the pin, and then threw the flash grenade out into the open. As it was flying, he scooped his rifle back up and tensed, ready to move. As soon as the device burst, the Marine launched himself up and into the street, spraying his assault rifle toward the clock tower, knowing damn well that none of his shots would even threaten the sniper. "Go, go, go!" he shouted to Negi and Haruna as he sighted down his weapon toward the bells atop the clock tower.

Not needing to be told twice, Negi and Haruna broke and sprinted from building to building, moving in the direction of the sounds of battle coming from the World Tree. Behind them, as they ran, they heard a single shot ring out, followed by the inimitable thump-whir of the displacement sphere activating.


The Clock Tower
1907 hours

The smooth metallic clicking sounds of her bolt cycling kept Mana's nerves calmed as she waited for the spent shell to eject before locking the bolt closed again, sighting into the breaks between buildings where her teacher and classmate had fled. They had good tactical sense to randomize their movements, but she had their location now, which meant that she could make use of her improbable aiming skills once more.

She swept her crosshairs out into the open between the building that Negi was currently taking cover behind, and the building he would move behind next. The distance was sufficient that she could fire as soon as she saw him, and time to target would accomplish the rest.

"No more war games for you, Negi-sensei," she murmured, her finger tightening on the trigger.


Command Point, Defense Point Echo
1906 Hours

The command trailer was a hotbed of activity, reports going here and there, sub-commanders, kids and students who never led anything but their buddies, either manning up or shutting up. Those who shut up tended to end up being sent to the front lines. Maria was constantly walking in and out, advising the artillery crews and looking over the railgun, and taking over an emplacement when someone got hit by the displacement rounds. It seems that the only thing keeping them at bay were the artillery and railgun fire. As well as the massive amount of mages there. And the fact that they've all but abandoned the defense lines except the last two. There really wasn't enough people to defend not only the main lines, but their flanks. The other defense points falling left them open, and they had to follow or else they'd be pincered and divided.

Lorenzo stood in the center of the command trailer, his command warthog having long since been disabled in an enemy wave. They were doing well. For now. The bleeding out of FTC forces to other defense points and into guerrilla units greatly reduced their effectiveness in holding further lines past the last few, but it also allowed for better communication between the command trailer and the crews outside. What few tanks and tankettes remained continued to rain fire at droids, who took up entrenched positions, for any that showed up were often picked off by the remaining students, who at this time numbered close to 3 companies.

Taking a break from running a knotted shoelace through his weapon's barrel, Lorenzo looked over his assets. The two captured enemy walkers, his remaining men and women in the defense point; five 15cm howitzers, three of them with replacement crews pulled from the front and were technically walking wounded; seven of the 47mm Mountain Guns, three in the right flank, four on the left; three reserve tanks from the Artillery Platoon; all eight of the 75mm guns, but he only had 4 crews to spare for those, the rest having been wiped out by the special forces raid. The rest were whatever universal carriers and warthogs he had, a few hull down tanks, although not much help since they were constricted to house to house fighting, so they provided direct fire support. It was bloody amazing how much one can learn in a short amount of time. Dividing his crews up, the targeteer and gun captain were all experienced, but loaders and whatnot were green troops, well, green in the sense they never did artillery. So their effective fighting force was...still damn small compared to the droid reinforcements Chao continuously sent at them.

"God this is annoying," Lorenzo said to no one in particular, waving off the report. The problem was their limited ammunition, but having since learned from the first few shots, infiltration teams tried to come up to the sides, only to meet strong resistance. Lorenzo was there was well, providing marksman fire alongside Katerine and Koike, the girl providing the brute strength and agility they needed, and Koike acting in place of an XO, proving his skill in matters like these.

"Echo Command, this is Bravo-Twelve. I've lost everyone in my squad, am traveling with precious cargo en route to the World Tree. We are pinned down by an exceptionally-skilled sniper located in the city center clock tower. Requesting support."

The communications officer looked up the priority fire list, noting that their front was still needing lots of support from the artillery battery. They managed to find more people for the two disabled guns, but they were still undergoing training. And even then, they were horrible.

"Wait..." Maria interrupted, which got Lorenzo and Koike's attention. "Drone A6-1, feed on the tower. Drone A6-2, feed on that transmission."

"Transmission is gone ma'am," the wet behind the ears computer science major called. He thought he had an easy time, just flying drones. It was what he was good at; flight simulators anyways.

"...Koike, relieve this idiot," Maria said, she had no time for stupidity. "Get to the artillery training crews. We need a loader for gun four. Move it!" she said, picking up an MA5B mockup, checking to see if the magic cartridges are loaded, and tossed the gun at the still yammering guy, as Koike manipulated the controls. He may had almost led the drone to crash, but after avoiding a power line, got to the area in question.

"I got the tower," the operator next to Koike said, and there was a brief glimpse of the sniper, a flash of light, before contact was lost. The frame was frozen, just as the high value cargo was seen in the other screen, Lorenzo grimaced as he realized who exactly was the cargo.

"Fire mission on clock tower. Move it up the priority queue. Fifteen centimeters. Maria, go out to guns four and five and help with their aiming. Katerine, organize a Warthog force of two, rescue high priority targets or escort them, up to your discretion and then head underground," Lorenzo barked, and finished his field cleaning of the gun. He reassembled and loaded the weapon before stepping outside to observe his men in their task, already seeing the heavy 15 cm howitzers being towed around to train on the distant clock tower.


Artillery Pit, Final Defense Line, Defense Point Echo
1910 hours

The universal carriers moved away as the guns were once again elevated. Firing coordinates and the needed information had been printed out and sent to the crews, while Katerine, claymore and SMG in hand, ran ahead of the two Warthogs, a troop transport filled with marines and one with a minigun. They rumbled off, and Lorenzo smiled. Katerine came clean with her heritage to the AMS mages after her terrific flank attack. Fun to have one of her here. He stared at the crews, the 75mms kept at the suppression of the enemy reinforcements, and it looks like a doll maker's hell, robotic limbs littered the beach along with impact craters. The demon was dazed, staying put for now.

"Battery! Load High Explosive!" Maria called out, as the guns were braced. It was roughly pointed at the clocktower. "Covering Fire! 6 per tube!"

Lorenzo looked at Maria, and accepted a few pieces of parchment from another mage. "Maria. You're in charge."

"Battery! Commence Firing!"

With the first of the shots on their way, Maria, looked back. Lorenzo had already disappeared, the teleportation parchment torn in half where he stood. Back in the command center, the freeze frame of the sniper, magnified and enhanced, was matched with a preexisting profile, not only from Mahora, but from AMS. She was well known as one of the more proficient mercenaries in the community. And no mere artillery bombardment will stop her.


Central Clocktower, Mahora
1911 Hours

Those who know it best, sometimes the best way to deal with a sniper is another sniper. Lorenzo knew that. And besides, it's probably the best way to settle their little duel from earlier. Those in the Kuro crew with an ear piece would be updated on the situation, being told to try and avoid the clocktower area as much as possible.

Why? Because after the first few thumps, Mana would wonder why they seemed closer, then the whistling came, seconds before a boom and her nearly falling off the ledge she precariously sat on. She sat there mainly to try and get a proper angle to snipe Negi and Katerine's convoy. The first few impacts were low, demolishing the building underneath, and sending the massive clocktower to lean precariously to one side, half of its support structure destroyed, then came the second volley, and the tower started to fall. Mana grabbed a teleportation scroll, and activated it, holding her rifle and whatever she needed for the remainder of the day. Seconds after she teleported out, an errant shell landed and exploded in the very section of the crumbling tower she was sniping from.


Some Random Rooftop
Moments Later

Both Lorenzo and Mana landed on the same, pipe and machinery filled rooftop. They were away from Echo, like, ways off. Actually nearer to the modern sections of the city. The carnage was basically nonexistent. While Echo, and Viertel am Zee, resembled Stalingrad near the banks of the Volga river, this area was practically untouched.

"I propose-" Lorenzo started, only to be cut off by Mana raising her rifle. A time displacement sphere captured a bird that had flown near Lorenzo, who had instinctively dived and rolled out of the way the moment he saw her make her move. And looking back, Mana was gone, her cloak fluttering to the ground. Lorenzo started to run, pushing the lever safety to bring the rifle to safe. Rounding a corner where he saw a flash, the two stared each other, the muzzles of their rifles merely inches form each other's faces.

"Check."

Both pulled the trigger at the same time.


World Tree Plaza, Defense Point Alpha
1912 hours

Hiro needed no signal that they had reached his and Masaru's designated defense point, and wasn't going to wait a minute longer to jump into the fray. Still gripping Yuriko as a knight would his lance, Hiro swung himself from side to side down the street as they sped along, ready to separate as soon as the chance presented itself. The drum beats and base pulsed in his head as he spotted his first target: a heavy Tanaka who had just mowed down several fleeing students. Sabashii's car turned sharply and Hiroyuki released the rope, sending him skidding into an imminent crash with stacks of rubble and depris. Hiro just grinned, a spiritual pulse was felt, and a house to his right exploded, catapulting it's front door directly into Hiroyuki's path, providing a ramp.

The next thing anyone saw of Hiro was him sailing through the air, a look of total excitement on his youthful features. He spun in the air, straightened his body and held his trusty naginata horizontally above his head, assuming a laying back pose as he began falling directly towards his picked droid. He tensed his muscled and positioned himself into a missile dropkick. The droid lazily gazed up at the fastly approaching human and began to bring his spooling minigun to intercept the fool. However, Hiroyuki's momentum was much too great, and the only thing that could be heard before the crunch of Hiro's sandals against the Tanaka was Hiroyuki declaring his attack, "ORE GA DARE DO OMOTE YARU!? KIIIIIIIIIICK!"

The impact sent the Tanaka into a headfirst skid across the concrete and stone with Hiro planted on top. As though in celebration, his song's vocals throbbed into his ears as he leapt off the droid, spinning Yuriko with one hand and drawing Yamato with his other.

With a bang, Hiro fired his first shot into a turning Tanaka, the double bullets ripping its face completely through it's head. He swept Yuriko in a follow up arc that decapitated three more units.

Another pair of bullets exited Yamato, blowing out the left knee of a field commander, dropping it into a kneel. Spinning his blade with on hand, Hiro holstered his firearm and sliced vertically at the commander, cleaving it in twain before it could defend itself. He then turned to an infantry Tanaka attempting to get the jump on him. "Too slow, idiot!" laughed the hot head as he skewered Yuriko's blunt end through it's mouth, causing it to twitch and spasm to the ground.

Turning in search for more droids to kill, he spied a squad of Tanakas moving to support a heavy as it pinned down another group of students. Again, energy pulsed from the young man and he grinned, he tossed Yuriko into the air, and kicked his weapon with a spinning roundhouse, launching it. Although with no aim placed in the kick, the soaring weapon precisely impaled the heavy through the back, who turned and slumped to the ground with it's grip still tight on the trigger, firing all the while.

With uncanny fortune, the falling arc of the firing minigun sent bullets into every member of the Tanaka squad, enveloping them in the very black spheres they had been using on Mahora's defenders. The weapon then turned skyward, buzzing away into the darkened air above, shooting down two air Tanakas that just happened to fly by. All of which, caused the Mahoran to laugh heartily. "Wooo, jackpot on that one!" He held out his hand, and Yuriko dislodged itself from the heavy, flying into his grasp.

He turned to the hiding students, took a deep breath and yelled, "I, HIROYUKI MURAKAMI HAVE ARRIVED! AND WITH ME I BRING HEROES TO KICK SOME ASS! THIS IS NO TIME FOR HIDING! FUCK 'EM UP!"

At that, a number of students broke from cover, cheering in agreement, or raising their own battle cry. "About damn time!" "Get those clankers!" "We're not beaten yet! Damn metal bastards!" "I love you Hiro-senpai!"

Students began charging the Martian lines once more without the fear of elimination or of the beast flying above, and at the heart of it was Hiroyuki leading the charge. Explosions, gunfire and screams filled the air of the Alpha defense point once more. Hiroyuki was too busy cutting a swath through the Martian main line to notice anyone else at the moment, droid limbs flying left and right. Amongst the carnage, a walker tank caught Hiro's eye. "Hoi, hoi, hoi that one's mine Yuriko!" he exclaimed to his weapon, performing a complete leapfrog jump over a deadlocked martial artist and Tanaka commander, and rolling under a smaller droid tank. "Over, under, onward!"

Having recognized his threat, three field commanders moved to intercept Hiroyuki. In perfect unison, they lunged at him with blades drawn from three separate angles. Yet another pulse, and Hiroyuki dove feet first into a baseball slide under the three commanders, who collided with each other, each one stabbing another in the collision. Hiro snickered, kipped up, and resumed sprinting directly at the Komodo tank.

It was then that the turrets of the Komodo itself targeted Hiro, and immediately began to open fire on the new menace. Showing little concern for the threat his foe displayed, Hiro practically danced around its rapid fire and hurled Yuriko like a javelin into the side armor of the Komodo as it charged its main gun. Prepping his legs, he lunged once, twice, and then jumped.

The Komodo fired, blasting a crater in the ground where Hiro had been seconds ago, the force sending Hiro spiraling head over heels into the air. The blast launched him almost forty feet skyward, when he regained sense of where he was, he found himself falling head first towards the roof of the tank. Hiro couldn't contain himself, this was gonna look so cool.

Hiroyuki put his hand forth and Yuriko sprung forth from the Komodo's armor shooting into his grasp. Quickly he released a flash of burning emerald ki into Yuriko, which blended with the existing ki within the weapon itself. Yuriko throbbed in his hand, and it's blade burst into flames. Un ga ii Nageyari!

He launched it. Yuriko bore a stark resembelence to a meteor as it plummeted through the air, crashing into the unaware Komodo, melting it's hull and frying the crew inside. The tank exploded outward in a grand fireball, setting nearby Tanakas ablaze. Quickly defending himself, Hiro released his ki, forming a shield from the flames as he fell to the ground. The explosion was not the only result of the attack, as was made clear by large shrapnel bits shredding an arriving locust squad and its Tanaka escorts.

Having already landed within the explosion, Hiroyuki exited the smoke, cinders falling all around him, hair and cape fluttering in the breeze, and Yuriko burning her beautiful green. "Whoooo! Shit, I hope someone got that on tape!" laughed Hiroyuki. He gazed up down at his weapon in hand. "Yes, you were very beautiful..." the young man gazed around the battlefield, so much still to do. Mahora's hero raised his blade to his lips, kissing it. "Come on, we're not big damn heroes yet!"


Lower World Tree Plaza
The Same Time

The situation at the World Tree was vastly different now than it was when Asuna had left previously with Setsuna to join the mage teachers' defense at the University. Now the defenders were greatly reduced in number, what few were left were pushed back to the two tiers of the plaza itself, and that dragon creature was stomping around in the large intersection down the hill at the base of the plaza, causing general terror among the defenders. Up near the upper plaza, she could see Yuuna, recognizable only because her ODST helmet was removed, and some other girl who was familiar but not immediately recognizable fighting against a droid commander. On the plaza level below them, her classmate Natsumi's cousin was having a grand old time clearing out the current Tanaka infestation.

She nodded upon seeing this; the defense point itself was well-covered, which freed her up to work on taking out that monster. Anger at being swatted aside so casually by Chao was overriding her usual fear of something that damn huge and menacing, or 'that many levels above her own,' as Evangeline would've said. Reaching past the massive hole punched into the armor over her stomach, Asuna plucked her pactio card from its storage space and held it out before her, quietly murmuring, "Adeat," beneath the noise of battle. The card flashed brilliantly, replacing itself with the humongous black sword that was fast becoming her trademark.

Twirling the sword twice around her hands, she held it back in her left hand and charged toward the dragon, ignoring the frantic combat taking place all around her. As she charged, a ruined Tanaka collapsed into her path, but she nimbly vaulted it. The loud chatter of an automatic rifle rang in her ears as she shot past the backside of another enemy unit firing on the defenders.

The dragon was close, less than thirty meters away, and it seemed to become aware of her presence. It turned toward her, roared, and advanced on its own, its posture suggesting that it intended to make a crunchy meal out of her. She intended to prove that no amount of ketchup in the world would make her go down easy.

But before either foe reached the other, a heavy, green-gauntleted hand fell onto her left shoulder, checking her momentum. She turned to give the interloper a piece of her mind, but fell abruptly silent when she found herself staring up into the golden visor of the iconic Master Chief of Halo series fame. She was familiar with the various cosplaying individuals going around, but she could tell that this was no cosplay. This was the real deal.

As soon as she had stopped, the seven-foot, quarter-ton Spartan-II hauled an AIE-486H triple-barreled heavy machine gun up into a firing position and unleashed a fusillade of 7.62mm rounds into its face. The damage dealt was likely negligible, but despite this, the dragon flinched and broke off, flapping its massive wings to backpedal from the green-armored juggernaut.

Master Chief paused in his firing to glance back at Asuna and commented, "It's generally a bad idea to take on this kind of thing alone. We'll back you up in this."

Asuna had no response as the Chief turned back to the dragon and resumed firing. She merely stood agape, her mouth like that of a fish, as she watched the Spartan stalk forward, still menacing the dragon. Even when Kotaro shot past her right side with a feral roar and leapt up onto the dragon's head, gripping one of its horns and raking his claws over its face, she still was stuck trying to process how a video game character had come to life to join their fight.

Then, behind her, she heard the inimitable cackling of her class' resident insane artist. She turned back to see Haruna standing at a safe distance from the battle, her new pactio notebook and pen held in her hands. A perfectly-detailed drawing of Master Chief and several weapons were visible on the open page. "YES!" the manga-ka exclaimed, pumping the fist clutching her pen into the air. "My Mister Chief golem is invincible! Go, my greenie minion of carnage and destruction!"

At this, Asuna buried her face in one gauntleted hand. Count on Haruna to troll the whole damn battlefield like that.

Meanwhile, up on the head of the dragon, Kotaro growled as the summoned beast rocked its head violently from side to side, trying its best to buck him off and keep him from doing what he intended, which was to reach into that eye socket and rip the organ completely out. Finally, the beast twitched one direction when he was expecting it to go another, and his grip on the ridged horn failed. Sailing through the air, he righted himself and hit the ground with a three-point landing, skidding backwards a few feet to disperse the momentum.

Now sensing him at a disadvantage, the dragon beast turned on him, letting out a keening roar as it settled to the ground, advancing menacingly on him. Never one to back down from a fight, Kotaro immediately charged right for it, but before he could reach it, a coherent blast of red light smashed into the dragon's face from the side, bowling it over and sending it grinding back into the center of the intersection. Reacting instinctively to avoid the potential danger of the blast, Kotaro altered his course and shot around the side of the fallen beast, moving to another position from which he could launch an attack.

At the edge of the street, Haruna's summoned Master Chief stood with a large boxy energy weapon over his shoulder, smoke emitting from the front of the weapon pegging him as the culprit of the laser attack. Growling in anger, the dragon rose back to its feet and scrambled across the courtyard on all fours, intent on making the armored human pay for its transgressions. Like the true character that the golem was modeled after, this Spartan stood its ground and charged a second blast from the Spartan laser it held, though the charge time might prove fatal in this instance.

Before it could strike, however, a massive four-pointed shuriken as large as the Spartan struck the side of the dragon's head, staggering it long enough for the laser to finish charging and deliver a second blast to its upraised chin, knocking it onto its back, once more in the center of the intersection. Asuna and Haruna, both surprised by that sudden attack, looked up in time to see Kaede drop into a kneeling crouch in front of them, her right hand shooting up to snatch the pinwheeling weapon out of the air.

The ninja stood up, regarding the draconic foe before her with one eye cracked partially open, then she turned back toward her two classmates and gave them her usual serene smile. "Negi-bozu will be here shortly, yes? I think we should all take care of this summoned beast ourselves, to show him what we're capable of, de gozaru."

Hoping to take advantage of the temporary pause of the heroes, four Tanaka field commanders jumped at Asuna and Haruna, blades drawn.

"TOURRRRRIAH!" was heard as loud as thunder above the commanders, and a blade like lightning cut into the head of the middle-most. Hiroyuki spun his blade, as though casting a fishing line with the commander's body into the other three. The clustered commanders were thrown like dirty rags into a pile, as a nearby shop conveniently toppled down on top of them.

"Yoi, yoi! Watch your back girlies, even gnats can be trouble in numbers," stated Hiro with a confident smile, looking up at winged beast above. "Hiroyuki Murakami, chosen hero or somethin'," he said without sounding any less bit confident. Hiro lazily brought Yuriko up to rest across his shoulders. "You girl's in Natsumi's class? Count me in on this beastie."

"I suppose I'll get involved here as well," a new voice remarked. Asuna turned to see a man she didn't recognize, wearing what at first appeared to be a mage robe save for its black color rather than white. Barely visible through the folds of the robe, she could see what appeared to be white, plate-like armoring of a style that seemed maddeningly-familiar to her. He wasn't obviously armed, but as he walked, she caught a glimpse of what looked to be a forearm-length metal cylinder hanging from his belt.

With no other words to any of them, he made straight for the battle that was drawing away from the World Tree Plaza. Asuna and Haruna exchanged confused glances, then looked at Hiroyuki, who seemed just as perplexed. "He's not with you guys, is he?" Asuna asked.

The wild child shook his head. "Nope. But hey, all the more merrier, right? Let's do this!"

He immediately took off after the strange cloaked man, leaving the two girls staring in their wake. A thump to Asuna's right drew her attention once more, to find that Negi had finally showed up. His expression was troubled, obviously unhappy that his students were putting themselves at risk to fight the greater demon.

"About time you got here, Negi!" Asuna grinned, clapping the boy on his shoulder with her free hand.

"Asuna-san, please have everyone get back and-"

He never finished his words. Dropping her blade to the street with a loud clatter, she gripped him by the front of his robes with both hands and hauled him up until he was at eye level with her. "Don't you even say it, Negi!" she growled. "Everyone has been putting their all into this for hours, so don't you think you can come in here and tell us not to keep helping! Like it or not, we're going to help you take that thing down! Now let's get over there and beat it!"

The boy mage quivered for a moment, looking as though he wished to press the point further. From behind Asuna, Haruna grinned and shook her head. "Face it, Negi-kun, she's right for once. You can't go around expecting people to fight for you when it's convenient, then tell them to back off when you want."

Negi sighed. "You're right, of course. I just don't want to see anyone getting hurt on account of me."

Smiling, Asuna set him back on the ground and dusted his shoulders. "We know that, dummy. But don't worry about it. Everything's going to be fine. You'll see."

Nodding, he maneuvered his staff into position and then seated himself on it, leaving room for the two girls to climb on before he lifted into the air and took off to join the pursuit of the dragon demon.


Defense Point Foxtrot, City Streets

Motoko sent her motorcycle into another sideslip, avoiding a direct collision with yet another crab droid. The black blade Youto Hina sang out as she passed, cleaving its two near legs off at the knee joint, sending the walker crashing to the ground. More droids filled the street before and behind her, a situation that seemed to be repeated across this entire defensive region. She and Naru had not seen any human defenders, which meant this location's capture was imminent.

A barrage of white energy blasts rained down from above, clearing the street ahead for a considerable distance. From above and behind, Naru flew down beside Motoko, easily keeping pace with the swordswoman's motorcycle. "There's no one left here," she said, confirming Motoko's own thoughts. "All the defenders are gone, and that demon's approaching the resonance point."

"Together, the two of us do not have the power to defeat that monster," Motoko called over the wind. "We will need the help of the others."

Naru nodded her assent and Motoko, being as her radio transmitter was protected from wind interference by the helmet she wore, called out to the other members of their group, "Naru and I are at the international high school. There are no defenders left aside from us and the demon is close to capturing the resonance point. We will need everyone's help to face it."

Almost immediately, Seno's voice answered, "Got ya, hon. Me and Mutsumi are on the way."

"Kitsune here. If we can get this crazy car of Sabashii's turned around we'll be on our way to give you a hand! Hey, whoa! Watch out for that tank!"

Kitsune's transmission broke off in a burst of static, prompting the two women to exchange glances, concerned for their friends' safety, until the fox's voice returned, "Whew, that was close. Okay guys, we're on the way!"

"Inbound," was all Haruka said, her voice barely audible over the roar of the machine gun mounted to her vehicle.

"Hiro here! I read ya but I'm a little busy-" Hiro's voice was interupted by the roar of the dragon they had seen earlier, followed by static. A second later he crackled back audibly, "Ohohoho SHIT! Gotta fly, have fun, take pic-" and he was cut off again.


Some Random Rooftop

A black sphere engulfed the space behind Lorenzo, while behind Mana, a section of the building suddenly blasts outward, the power of the enhanced electrical round shattering the brick and mortar of the building. Lorenzo had spoiled her aim, at the cost of spoiling his.

"No chance for a parlay is there?" Lorenzo called out, as he swung his rifle down, Mana bringing her's up in a block, dodging a kick from Lorenzo.

"..." Mana kept silent, as Lorenzo started to press in, denying her any chance to safely put her rifle away. Unlike Lorenzo's magically reinforced rifle, Mana's precision engineered rifle wasn't really meant to be use as a club. And she didn't have the book of teleportation and speed scrolls to really aid her. High strike countered and followed up with a shove, only for Lorenzo to roll and come at her head. Mana ducked under him. This continued for awhile before Lorenzo delivered a strong downward strike that bent the receiver of Mana's PSG-1, and bringing her to her knees, a kick from Lorenzo was barely kept in check by Mana, but she was pushed back, a strength scroll floating lazily down from Lorenzo's side.

"You rely too much on those," Mana said, managing to gain some space, and disappearing, a brief glimpse of a boxy black PDW in hand.

Lorenzo shoved his rifle backwards, half turning in the process. He had guessed more or less, where she would be. Her aim spoiled, Mana shot to the air, a flurry of displacement spheres exploding above the two of them. A kick to the gut here, both gained some space once more. Lorenzo had slung his rifle, and pulled out his standard issue Berettas.

"I have this whole box of em, those can't be really cheap for you to toss em around like that."

"No, but you're in the way of a job, so I guess it's worth it."

"Glad to know I'm worth something."

Lorenzo pressed in with his Berettas, shooting at close range, Mana dodging them, throwing kicks and attempting to hammer-strike Lorenzo, while Lorenzo dodged her kicks, swatting her hammer strikes away, countering and counter-counters flew, arms and legs got bruised, while little grunts of pain were uttered from both combatants. With a bold mule kick, Lorenzo was thrown in the air, Mana managed to get close, and ripped half the book containing Lorenzo's scrolls. Taking one, she disappeared, with Lorenzo following suit the moment he landed from the kick.


Defense Point Echo, Viertel-am-See Plaza

"Fire!"

The deafening roar of the Railgun punctured the air, and once more it impacted on the Demon, which had already moved close. All around defenders continued to fire, many running low on their ammunition.

The student defenders, I think, knew they were doomed. But where another group would surrender to despair, they only fought back with even greater strength.

Maria looked on at the casualty lists, and her heart dropped, she barely had enough, and the demon was inching ever closer.

"Start evacuating the wounded!"

"We need to fall back!"

"Keep the fire on the demon!"

The cacophony of orders was punctured by sporadic bursts of fire and the ominous march of the droids. She kept kept her eyes glued to the screen, when a droid well, more filled it, while the black spheres started to dot up with increasing frequency. The thumps of the mortars were gone now, as were the cannons. Heavy machine gun fire kept the enemy back, but even then, they were failing. Her vehicles were gone, left with the wounded, what reinforcements there were, or disabled.

She looked outside, as her walkers, already out of ammunition, charged headlong into the melee, only to be recaptured. She smiled. They were at least away.

"Walker 1! Fire!"

"All clear!"

The walker, the last few packs of high explosive attached to their legs, exploded, taking out the group that had taken out its occupants. The other walker, having been overrun at the same time, went out too, but its effects were mitigated by the fact the demon had stepped on it. The demon would stumble, before a railgun shot pushed it back. Cheers erupted as the demon fell on its back, and the Mahorans unleashed another volley of fire that broke this push.

They made the droids fight for every inch of that destroyed street. In my life, I have never seen anything like it. They would weep, they would pray, they would say goodbye to their loved ones and then throw themselves without fear or hesitation at the enemy.

In the rear areas, walking wounded were being treated by mages, healers, who loaded them up into what surviving vehicles there was. A girl grasped the hand of her boyfriend, who held her close, kissing her, he was wounded, just less so than her. Donning a spare chest armor, he took her rifle, only one magazine left. Hugging her close, he sprinted out of the evacuation area to join the fight.

Never surrendering. No one who saw them fighting against the inevitable could help but be moved to tears by their courage…their stubborn nobility. When they ran out of mortars, they used guns. When they ran out of guns, they used rocks and sticks and bare hands.

A recon drone had glimpsed a burly student try and wrestle a droid before he was thrown off and shot. His partner grappled as well, before being thrown down. Punching the droid in the head, he was greeted with a punch back, dazing him. The droid pulled two displacement rounds from a storage space, and stabbed him, before tossing his body, now engulfed in the sphere, over the parapet. The temporary reprieve the stumbling demon had given them was over, and with renewed vigor, defenders were being shot at and their guns became silent. Many had gone with no more ammo, and had chosen to swing at their foes with their weapons as clubs.

The command post was nearly empty. Maria walked with one arm in a sling and a pistol in hand. All of her command staff were injured, having repelled a flanking maneuver, and only a few had returned.

They were magnificent. I only hope, that when it is my time, I may die with half as much dignity as I saw in their eyes at the end. They did in face of insurmountable odds. They never ran out of courage. But in the end…they ran out of time.

"We're at the last defense line!"

"Everyone get out! Secure our wounded!" Maria called. "Arlington Mages! Hold them off! Everyone, this is a general retreat!" She called out over the airwaves. The people in the command center got out of their seats, while an AMS mage, the one that had been stripped. He was finished priming the charges.

"This is Echo Point, to all remaining allies and Defense Points, we are sounding a General retreat. We're being hammered! We're sending all available combat strength to all other points. The railgun only had one more shot, and the Demon had only been stopped!"

"The thing is coming back up!"

"Oh God why?!"

"Lay it on!"

"Take this! Get some! AUGH!"

It became a rout. Defenders running over barricades, wounded fighting back, disappearing under the spheres. The enemy forces rushed forward, having finally brought this enemy down. Having spent the balance of Chao's forces. Underneath the demon and the current wave, were the bodies of so many previous droids, crushed underfoot.

"To all Fireteam Charlie members, this is FTC Acting Commander, Maria Shimuzu. We're fast going to lose this defense point. These droids are just outside out final line of defense. They'll come soon enough. To any defenders still able to hear this, this is your final order: Defend until you can defend no more. Rally behind our leaders. Our friends. Show these Martians that the human spirit can't be beaten! Echo Defense Point, signing off!"


Elsewhere

The two reappeared in mid air, hundreds of feet from the ground. Lorenzo watched a platform scroll swept away by the wind. He was more or less standing on small magic circles underneath his boots that allowed him to walk on air, while Mana herself was standing on a larger circle. He rushed forward, running at her before rolling to the side, losing altitude but dodging her shot. Holstering his pistols, he unslung his rifle and fired back at the stationary mercenary, who jumped from her platform, activating another, at which time Lorenzo closed in on her.

"Nice view from up here, ne?"

"You talk too much."

Lorenzo and Mana traded blows, knocking them off their feet, getting close to a row of skyscrapers, they used speed scrolls and started running along the side, Mana shooting up at Lorenzo, who dodged her shots, before boosting in and delivering a riflebutt at her stomach. This blow knocked her and would've resulted in her squishy splat on the ground if Lorenzo didn't also use a teleportation scroll that took them to the top of a high-rise construction crane.

Lorenzo bounced off from Mana as she hit the top of the control cab. Slinging his rifle and drawing his pistols. He waited for Mana to get up, clutching her abdomen.

"Sorry, I normally don't hit girls."

"..."

Lorenzo rushed in, guns blazing. Mana closed in and it became another melee. Lorenzo dodging and spoiling Mana's aim, while at the same time trying to shoot her with electrically-charged magical rounds. This stopped as the two resorted to various kicks and hammer strikes as both couldn't get in a shot. Sadly, Lorenzo wasn't as quick as Mana, who managed to once again kick him, into the crane's arm. Ready to fire, Mana would notice something nice and shiny heading towards her.

"Augh!" Mana twirled one of her guns, grabbing the barrel and knocking the bayonet out of the way with the grip; the blade embedding itself into the roof of the cab. Lorenzo was back on his feet, running in on top of the crane's arms, once again pressing the advantage. Only to be roundhouse kicked by Mana, who had been ready for him. Thrown off the side of the high-rise construction crane, Lorenzo was easily sniped.

"I expected more," Mana said, only to turn and see Lorenzo running at her. Her eyes widened as he solidly kicked her in the head, causing to momentarily black out, her grip slackening on her pistols. Barely seeing a doppleganger scroll floating lazily down into the bustling city street below. She would land on an unfinished floor below, only to see Lorenzo come down on her, fist ready. She managed to roll away as he landed, punching and denting the floor, before shooting at him. Spheres engulfed her view of Lorenzo, but none of them contained him, just a 7.62x51mm NATO chalk round. Lorenzo had replaced the magazine on his M14 and had extracted a number of the ammunition to take the hits. But that also had them separated by a good deal of distance.

"Why not take a break?" Lorenzo quipped, as the two took a slight breather, calling out through the tactical comms, ready for all to hear.

"I wonder, was it really worth it to leave your Defense Point, Colonel?"

"Naw, it was bound to fall. I got to say, those kids have heart, I hope the SDF takes a good look at em. I have a question for ya. Was it wise to continue standing like that when I used this?" Lorenzo raised a scroll, and suddenly Mana's legs wouldn't move. Her eyes widened in shock as Lorenzo assumed the stance that normally said 'bayonet to the gut'.

"A barrier might be nice to put up."

Mana dropped her two Desert Eagle airsoft guns and pulled out her actual guns, shooting at Lorenzo. Spheres erupted before him as he dashed forward, countersniping the bullets as Lorenzo's enhanced senses and speeds led him to see her shots. Seconds before Lorenzo struck with the bayonet tipped rifle, Mana put up a barrier. Didn't help much as Lorenzo pierced through that, lifting Mana via her barrier and above his head.

"Bayonet Strike," he said, staring at the shocked mercenary, as the M14 started ejecting cartridge after cartridge, each had been 'blank' per se, but actually contained an enormous amount of magical energy, enough to amplify the latent magical energy Lorenzo himself was feeding into the weapon, each time a cartridge was ejected, the chamber glowed and even more intense white, while particles started being drawn into the muzzle break of the rifle, sticking through the barrier Mana had erected with the scroll, and was stuck to.

"You wouldn't dare."

"SHOOOOT"

Mana's hair briefly turned white before Lorenzo pulled the trigger, engulfing her in pure white light fired from his rifle. The skies darkened in comparison to the stream of energy emitted from Lorenzo, which shot up into the skies, empowered by the latent energy of the world tree. As the beam of energy disappeared, Mana, or her barrier, was nowhere to be seen. Lorenzo lowered his rifle, only have his senses prick up. Jumping off the building, he spied Mana sniping back with her M40...one handed...while standing on a flagpole. Jumping against the sides of buildings, countersniping her attacks, he dashed forward at her.

"HOW THE HELL DID...you..surv..WHAT THE."

Lorenzo dodged several well placed shots as he ran down the side of the building, teleporting to her, and looking the smiling middle-school mercenary in the eye, which was devoid of all but the faintest of color, her hair shockingly white. Lorenzo's rifle was locked against Mana's dual pistols, he was standing on the two magic circles, looking as he's trying to push against an immovable wall that was Mana, who stood precariously on the flagpole.

"You can't be-"

"You pulled your trump card~"

"We'll see about that."

Mana merely shoved him off. Grabbing the cord that held the flag, he readied a Talisman and swung around, fist ready as she turned to face him, a sly smile and a pistol at the ready.

"I've got you!"

"What?"

Lorenzo punched, the front of his fist containing the sealing talisman, and the magically enhanced punch threw Mana off the flagpole they had met in and onto the top of a delivery truck. The onlookers watched as the two Gunslingers abandoned their guns and took to fists, weaving and ducking as Lorenzo got a flurry of punches from the girl, pushing him back and spitting blood. Only to see the barrel of Mana's pistol, ducking from her shots, he closed and gave Mana a riflebutt to the chest, right where the Talisman was. As she was pushed back from the strike, the Talisman activated and sealed her once more, evening the odds.

"You're no ordinary girl."

"And your dossier does you no justice, Cleric."

"To all Fireteam Charlie members, this is FTC Acting Commander, Maria Shimuzu. We're fast going to lose this defense point. These droids are just outside out final line of defense. They'll come soon enough. To any defenders still able to hear this, this is your final order: Defend until you can defend no more. Rally behind our leaders. Our friends. Show these Martians that the human spirit can't be beaten! Echo Defense Point, signing off!"

Both paused as Maria's last transmission echoed in both their ear pieces. Taking the opportunity, Mana rushed Lorenzo. He had been surprised at her sudden movement, as she took hold of his rifle and shoved a pistol into his face. Letting go of the rifle, he dropped down to see his rifle disappear into a magic circle, before doing a sweeping kick to Mana's ankles, who predicatively jumped up into the air, gun ready, only to see Lorenzo disappear, and smacking into the low bridge. Barely catching onto the guard rail and dangling above the ground, she climbed up onto the bridge only to spot Lorenzo taking aim with his two pistols. She let go as he shot, the screams of people cutting short she disappeared by way of teleportation scroll. Jumping over the side, Lorenzo followed her to wherever the scrolls would link.


Defense Point Echo, Central Plaza
1915 hours

The last of the wounded had left, Maria stood in front of the railgun as the last of the AMS mages were taken down by sheer force. The Demon had crawled its way back up, and now loomed over her. Around her, in an act of 'mercy', or maybe, the commander of the droid forces sent to attack Echo stood over her, its escorts starting to dismantle the various denial measures the AMS mages had planted. IEDs, booby traps, and mines, and the railgun was being gutted.

"Any last words, meatbag?"

"Yes."

"Say it. My commander gives you this one humane request." The droid looked, as his advanced teams started to tear at the outer panels of the railgun that had protected this point for so long.

"Hadohou, h-" Maria said, before she was interrupted by the commander's rifle. As the black sphere containing Maria disappeared, the droids handling the IEDs and explosive traps were blown apart. The commander would turn to look around, as the entire enemy HQ was mired in explosions. Something connected in the droid's programming, and had started to move, to order his force when the railgun, seemingly gutted, started to draw particles of light towards it. Droid forces started to move, but it was too late, the railgun fired, atomizing the commander, its escorts, the amassed portion of the droid forces at Echo, and finally at the demon. The stream of energy would push it back, before it reacted with the magical shielding it had and pierced it, knocking the thing back and down the street with a huge gaping hole in its chest. The railgun, expending the energy it had, exploded with the charges planted in it, taking out the remainder of the last wave.

It would be awhile before Echo was fully captured by the remainder of the droid forces, the reserves kept behind the Demon that weren't crushed as it fell flat on its back and dazed from the Railgun's energy shot.


Elsewhere
The Same Time

"I've achieved my goal."

Lorenzo and Mana landed on opposite ends of a tall skyscraper, having used up the last of their teleportation scrolls. They had been fighting since jumping off the bridge, Mana having confiscated his rifle in the process. Both were bleeding from various cuts, while the sealing talisman was still firmly affixed on Mana's chest.

"I think I just blew the society's yearly budget in this fight. I commend you." Lorenzo said, crumpling the last of his scroll and tossing it into the wind. Mana did the same.

"I'm sure I'll be paid enough to recoup my losses."

Both took up a pose, and their fight erupted once more. Nowhere to go, each had again taken to close combat, but time wasn't on Lorenzo's side. Minutes went by as the sound of gunfire mixed with the thunderous booms from Mana's magnums. Unlike Mana who had only started to use her real-steel weapons, he had been using his since the first wave at Echo and in the process of firing what was effectively hundreds of rounds of ammunition, the Berettas somewhere had to give in. In this case, it was a failure to feed.

"Oh shi-"

Mana merely grinned, as she turned and delivered a strong mule kick to Lorenzo's gut, sending him flying and forcing him to let go of his Berettas. She followed this up with several shots, and when the spheres disappeared, there was no sign of the Gunslinger. Mana sighed, it was a long and hard fight that stretched for miles, and as she stood on the top of the building, listening to the dying clatter that came from Echo.

"I ain't that easy to get rid of you know."

Mana turned, Lorenzo stood, crouched behind her and rifle out, having recovered it. Mana brought her guns up and a single shot knocked one out of her hands.

"How did you...wh.." She started to say, as she knelt down and flexed her fingers, the tingle of the electric shock coursing through the arm that had been shot.

"Hot spring turtles. They pull off miracles." Lorenzo merely responded. This would puzzle Mana slightly, until she saw two pocket pistols behind Lorenzo, thrown on the the ground unceremoniously.

"I thought all AMS gun mages only used their standard issue weapons." She remarked, dropping her last gun and putting her hands in the air. Lorenzo approached her cautiously, kicking her other gun out of the way.

"Not all of us, decided that if I was gonna go against you, pocket pistols might be handy." Lorenzo got close, but something in the far off distance made his head instinctively turn around, a flash of light, a massive boom, and a ground shaking affair. The Railgun had fired its particle beam ammo, effectively turning it into something akin to the Wave Motion Gun. That momentary distraction was all that Mana needed. A coin, launched at high speeds, went after Lorenzo, who barely blocked it with his rifle. Several more shots, and he lost his grip. Pulling another knife from his sleeves, he sliced downward, deflecting a coin, upwards, another.

"That's it, Echo's fallen. You've lost, Gunslinger," Mana said, having run out of coins, she had managed to grab one of her pistols. Lorenzo too dove for another. Their dance started, but this time, Lorenzo managed to step in, and in a classic throw, pinned the middleschooler down on the ground, and pressed a muzzle of her gun into her stomach, the moment she did the same.

"One for one." Lorenzo merely said, as the sphere engulfed the two of them. By the time Echo was captured, the two had long since disappeared.


Defense Point Alpha, Central World Tree Plaza

Hotaru pushed Yuuna backwards with her free hand as she stepped in between her magistra and the droid commander, instinct causing her to bring her lantern staff into line to block the downward swipe of the enemy's plasma sword. Sparks shot from the contact point between the two weapons, raining down around the combatants as though a testament to their warrior's souls clashing together. She recognized the shape of the droid's blade, knew the heat it produced to be sufficient enough that it was a plasma sword, regardless of how impossible it was to produce such a thing with current technology; there was no way that her wooden stick should be able to stop that thing. Was this the power of magic that that Stromric had spoken of?

Up the central roadway of the plaza, moving through an area thought previously-secured, a large number of the special forces guard unit-type Chachamaru began to infiltrate, disengaging their active camouflage as they neared. Of the three other members of Cleric Team still fighting, Hartley was the first to spot them. "Sarge!" he yelled back to Yuuna.

Halfway to pulling herself back to her feet, Yuuna looked up to see what he was pointing to, then scowled as she saw the dozen-plus hostile elite droids coming their way. Unfortunately, Hotaru couldn't help but glance that way as well, and in the moment of distraction, Itsuki's right hand snapped forward, clamping around the archer's throat and hauling her bodily into the air. The droid unit stared in contempt at her for a moment, then pitched her bodily into a nearby concrete barricade. She struck the obstacle head-first and hit the ground, unmoving.

Hot rage surged through Yuuna at this sight, electrifying her nerve endings and flushing the onset of fatigue from the hours that she had been fighting at her all. She turned back to Hartley to issue a final set of orders: "Take care of those elites!" Setting her sights back on the droid commander, she snarled mostly to herself, "He's mine."

Recognizing her challenge, Itsuki chuckled menacingly and turned fully to face her, the components that made up the right-arm hilt of the plasma sword snaking out of his forearm to create the weapon in his right hand, which he activated with a steady pulse of pressure. "Statement: There will be no female to save you this time, meatbag," he taunted.

The gunslinger girl's eyes darkened, but before either opponent could launch an attack, a ruined Komodo walker slammed into the droid commander at sufficient velocity to knock him from his feet, pinning the droid between the wrecked walker and the concrete wall nearby. A few feet away, at the origin point of the projected vehicle, stood the robed form of Stromric, his back to the conflict taking place and looking back as though he'd sent the vehicle flying into the enemy commander by total accident. "Oh, didn't see you there, Yuuna." Picking up a discarded MA5C mockup nearby, he tossed the assault rifle to her. "Here, looks like you need this." With that, he turned his attention toward the downed form of Hotaru.

Catching the weapon deftly, an idle thought flickering to the front of her mind about the similarity to having been tossed an AR like this back when she first fought with Fireteam Charlie in a simulation mission, she charged the weapon and advanced toward the wrecked walker.

Meanwhile, Hartley, Matsunaga, and Katsuki moved into a line across the path of advancement of the group of elite droids. None of them bore any ranged weapons, and the trio of Cleric Team survivors were, unknown to them, emboldened by Yuuna's anger, and thus felt they could be a bit flashy. In the center of the line, Hartley unslung his shotgun and racked the slide, feeding an 8-gauge Magnum shell into the chamber. To his left, Matsunaga readied his assault rifle while on the right, Katsuki gripped a pair of submachine guns.

"Let's make a name for ourselves, boys," Hartley said, then shouldered his weapon and fired. The heavy slug cratered the chest and face of the nearest charging droid, sending it collapsing at his feet.

Matsunaga and Katsuki rushed into the fray, the elder of the two staggering one droid with heavy fire from his assault rifle long enough to reach it and smash its head in with a powerful melee blow. Beside him, Katsuki leapt up and powered a droid to the ground, firing his submachine guns into its head the whole way down. The next advancing droid attempted to spear Matsunaga with its electrostaff, only to have the man grab its haft with one hand and tug. At the same moment, Katsuki fired a burst into that droid's head, stunning it long enough for Matsunaga to yank its weapon away, flip it, and use its length to trip its previous owner.

A fourth droid attempted to spear Katsuki, but the smaller man nimbly stepped out of its path, swatting the electrified head away with one submachine gun and subsequently dropping the energized weapon. He spun to come around behind the droid while it was overextended, emptying the last of his remaining weapon's magazine into its spine. Yet another tried to axe its electrostaff down onto Katsuki's head, but the man ducked and caught the weapon on the haft just beneath its energized head. Matsunaga turned his appropriated electrostaff to cleave that one in half, and as the Chachamaru knockoff pondered its predicament, Katsuki dropped the expended submachine gun, turned, and drew his sidearm, putting two slugs into the droid's head.

With that first batch of droids eliminated, Katsuki and Matsunaga stepped back into line with Hartley, who calmly dispatched the very last of the first wave's Chachamaru-replica droids with another 8-gauge slug, then racked the slide to chamber another in preparation for the second wave. Katsuki and Matsunaga exchanged glances over the stolen staves, shrugged, then hauled back and hurled them at the next wave, impaling two of the charging droids.

Yuuna quickly but cautiously approached where Itsuki had been pinned, wary of any tricks that the droid commandant may still have up his sleeve. With her rifle ready, she moved around the wreckage to where the droid should have been. Should being the optimal word. However, there was nothing but an empty crater of rubble. A mixture of anger and fear ran through the gunslinger's mind, if only for a moment. Her instincts wouldn't allow such. As she turned to re-assess the battlefield, her vision before her blurred. She didn't have to see the silhouette to know to dodge. Itsuki's left blade swung in a left hook, simmering some of her ponytail as she ducked the swipe. The blade entered the damaged wall, halting his assault momentarily. Yuuna capitalized.

With a newfound strength that surprised both combatants, Yuuna struck forward with the stock of her AR against his forearm. The resulting force smashed the sword's exit port, severing the hilt connector and causing the left blade to short circuit and sputter out in a shower of sparks. Not wasting a second, Yuuna followed up with a kick to the droid commandant's abdomen, forcing him back a few steps. No normal human should have been able to do that with such ease, and this slightly piqued Itsuki's interest. However, as far as he was concerned, he still had the upper hand against such a small opponent. He spun, bringing his right arm around in a slash. Yuuna, spurred by her new momentum, rolled under his attack; and hoping to take his back, spun and opened fire with her AR against the droid. Unlike her previous attacks though, the shots from the rifle harmlessly pinged off his energy shield. Regardless, she kept up her fire, hoping to overload them. Her hopes were dashed when the rifle jammed, a result of the force used to smash Itsuki's forearm doing the same to the gun's stock.

Grinning, Itsuki vertically slashed at Yuuna, who held up her rifle in defense. The gesture was in vain, as the superheated blade cleaved her AR in half with ease. Returning the favor, Itsuki kicked the girl in the abdomen and she flew against the wreckage of the Komodo. She crumpled to the floor and spit up over the stone and concrete below her.

"So only point blank attacks will work, huh?" she managed to whisper between coughs. She looked up enough to see the feet of her foe approaching her, and took a breath, reaching down to her holstered pistol. The mechanical assassin chuckled and readied his blade, raising it above his head; but as he did, Yuuna called forth her strength and dove at him in a tackle. She felt something pop in her shoulder and she knew full well that this attack hurt her more than him, but she had surprise and momentum on her side again.

Itsuki had been knocked off his feet and Yuuna now straddled his chest, but he looked ready to counter. To discourage him, she blocked his incoming right arm from the inner elbow with her own, and followed up to fire two rounds into his face. The bullets did little more than tear the false-flesh around his eye, exposing the metal hardware beneath, but the audacity did wonders in the way of shocking the commandant.

Yuuna continued her assault by pressing her pistol against his right forearm and unloading the weapon into the unshielded hilt connector. As the second blade sputtered out, Yuuna heaved a mental sigh in the back of her mind. This reaction was cut short however, as Itsuki roared in anger and threw off the much smaller gunslinger. She fell parallel to him on her back, allowing him to finally counter-attack. He threw a single right punch which connected with her gut, breaking at least one rib and forcing a scream of pain and frustration from Yuuna.

Though damaged and crippled weapon wise, Itsuki was no less dangerous unarmed. He snickered cruelly and grinned from antenna to antenna as he rose to his feet and neared the now crawling gunslinger. "Statement: Like the rest of your fleshy and emotional allies, you are weak and undisciplined. Battling in vain with those infinitely your greater," ITSU was not finished, and gripped her by the skull. She violently flew through the air and crashed into the collapsed wall around the Komodo.

He rolled his shoulders and removed two time-placement rounds from his pocket, clutching them between his index and middle fingers. Yuuna clasped her side and gasped slowly, each breath more painful than the last. She could feel ribs broken, her left arm hung limp from the shoulder, and her throat burned. Even still, she would not lose, she refused to go out with a whimper. "Why don't you look me in the eye and say that?"

As his heavy footfalls approached, she spotted a discarded caster pistol near her. She reached, and as she did Itsuki's own free hand grasped the back of her neck. "Acknowledgment: As you wish."

She grimaced in pain as he lifted her, but she kept her arms limp, to maintain appearances. He needed to believe her crippled. The droid turned Yuuna to face him, staring contemptuously into her defiant eyes, and preparing to jam the bullets into her chest. "Taunt: My face will be the last thing your pathetic eyes will ever see of this doomed future. When you next awake, be quick to thank your betters for sparing your life." And with that final insult, he reared back his free arm for the final blow.

However, as he did, he found his uncovered eye staring down a fully charged caster pistol barrel. Yuuna said nothing, but gave a small smirk of her own, relishing the look of surprise on his face as she pulled the trigger.

The blast was greater than it should have been from a simple caster weapon, it was something Yuuna willed with all her anger and frustration. The magic entered straight through his eye into his central processor, overloading many of his systems and forcing others into critical mode. He released both Yuuna and the bullets as he fell to one knee, with his eyes sparking and body making strained servo sounds. "Warning: Error...sys-em! IF-F...n-t resp—ng..o-rloa-.."

Yuuna didn't waste a single second, and rushed Itsuki, scooping up the two bullets from the ground, and driving them into the head of the commandant. A medium black sphere engulfed him as he whirred and sparked. "And for the record, I woulda kicked your ass quicker if Hotaru hadn't stopped me!" spat Yuuna. The sphere shrunk, and soon popped into nothingness.


Downtown Mahora, Outside the Battle Area
1917 hours

A steady stream of machine gun fire filled the air over the city, hammering against the side of the dragon and keeping it from focusing its murderous power on the civilians in this sector of the city. Shell casings littered the rooftop from which Haruna's Master Chief stood barraging the demon, ensuring that the occupants of the building had plenty of time to get away from what had become a rapidly-uncontrollable battlefield. Striding sideways along the rooftop, the SPARTAN continued to lead the dragon as he moved to a higher vantage point, one that kept his line of fire well clear of the numerous high-rises and apartment complexes in the area.

After a time, it seemed that the dragon had taken exception to the continuous harassment, turning in a smooth arc to line up on a strafing run against the Master Chief's rooftop. Taking a moment to scan his surroundings, Chief moved to position himself so that an under-construction building was directly behind him, then dropped the machine gun turret and switched to the laser, charging the weapon as its red targeting beam flashed onto the dragon's chest. The flying demon got its attack out first, a roiling sphere of blue energy erupting from its toothy maw at the SPARTAN.

Unperturbed, the Chief re-angled his weapon to center it in the oncoming energy blast just as the laser's charge completed, a coherent beam of red flashing out into the center of the dragon's energy blast. Unfortunately, the laser had no effect at either canceling out or altering the flight path of the enemy attack. Slinging the laser back onto his magnetic backplate, the SPARTAN grabbed the machine gun turret by its carrying handle and leapt away from the rooftop, landing with a crunch of metal and ceramic tiles on the top of an adjacent apartment building.

The energy blast careened into the construction scaffolding that the Chief had placed himself in front of, the explosion chewing out a massive gouge in the side of the structure and threatening to topple it as flames spread across its surface. From seemingly within the flames themselves, the black-cloaked man rose into the sky, interposing himself directly in the dragon's flight path to present himself as a challenge to it. Spinning in midair to face the monstrosity, he lifted his arms up from his sides, currents of energy coalescing around his hands. He flung his hands toward the beast three times in sequence, sending pressure waves of focused force energy to smash into the beast's side and knock it off its initial course. Landing atop the damaged construction scaffolding, the man rolled out of the way as the dragon flew in and attempted to claw him with its massive hind legs, then rose and continued to hammer the beast with his magic-like blasts.

Banking away from the man's threat, the dragon gained relative altitude to coordinate an attack against him. Unbeknownst to it, its flight path took it past a high-rise on which Hiroyuki had stationed himself, allowing the red-haired spearman to take a flying leap, rotate once in midair, and then come down on the creature's spine, embedding Yuriko halfway up the haft into the dragon's neck. Roaring in pain and anger, the dragon immediately began to thrash in every direction to try and dislodge the Mahoran, who merely laughed at its attempts to shake him and drew his revolver with his free hand, firing a steady stream of heavy, armor-piercing rounds into the back of the dragon's head.

The dragon's erratic flight path brought it back around into a full circle, angling back once more to the skyscraper under construction that it had already damaged with its energy blast. Snarling in determination, it set its course directly for the hole it had blasted in the side of the scaffolding, intent on plowing straight through and crushing the boy off its back in that manner. Hiroyuki, for his part, either was unconcerned or just didn't care, turning to put a few bullets into the dragon's wings for good measure. Just moments before impact, Kotaro leapt in from the Master Chief's rooftop and snagged Hiroyuki by his collar, hauling him off the dragon's back and depositing him safely on an adjacent rooftop.

For its part, the dragon smashed through the hole in the scaffolding, the impact causing the entire building to shudder and list dangerously to one side. After a few moments, construction debris exploded out the other side of the building, raining down on the streets below as the dragon crawled out of the scaffolding, its emergence knocking free even more steel girders. Once it had completely extracted itself from the building, it released a bellowing roar of anger, its claws raking deep furrows in the scaffolding before it extended its wings and pushed off the building, taking to the skies once more.

The black-cloaked man leaped down from the top of the damaged construction scaffolding in pursuit, a well-timed burst of focused energy staggering the dragon in midflight. Not letting up on his assault, the man continued to hit the beast with more blasts of pressurized force, slowly attempting to push the thing back in the direction of the main fighting.

Sensing this attempt to corral it, the dragon demon turned and flew in the opposite direction, prompting Kaede to fling her giant shuriken at it, the impact force turning it partially back toward the fighting. This moment of imbalance on the dragon's part allowed the cloaked man to reach out both hands in a grasping gesture at the dragon. Across the distance, the flying beast froze as though it had struck a solid obstacle, and then hurtled out of control back in the direction that the allied warriors were attempting to send it in.

Roaring in anger, the dragon recovered its balance and careened directly toward the cloaked man, raising one massively-clawed hand to strike the man down. With an ease that made it look like a passing fancy on his part, the man jumped clear of the claw attack, an updraft billowing his cloak out to reveal the white, plastic-looking armor he wore that was made in the style of the clone troopers of Star Wars fame. Reaching down to his hips, the man drew a forearm-length metal cylinder into either hand, moments before a golden pillar of light three feet in length erupted from the open ends of the cylinders.

As the dragon reached out to swat him from the sky, he nimbly evaded its attacks and landed on its outstretched right arm. He parried its attempt to strike him with its other hand with the energy blade in his right hand, leaving a cauterized burn scar where he struck. The dragon roared in pain and reeled back, allowing him to leap first onto its shoulder, then on top of its head, where he inverted his energy weapons and drove them repeatedly into its skull. After his third strike, with both blades embedded in its head, he charged his entire body with electrical energy, discharging the lightning attack directly into the demon's brain.

The resulting energy overload stunned the creature, sending it sailing down toward the ground. It managed to recover itself at the last second, landing on top of a multi-story department store just inside the World Tree Plaza defense area. Even as it righted itself, the man ripping his energy blades out of its head and leaping away with a parting blast of focused energy, Kaede launched herself from the wall of a nearby building, hurling her oversized weapon while in the invert.

The combined effects of the force blast, her shuriken striking it across the face, and Kotaro once more leaping onto it in an attempt to tear its eyes out knocked the demon off-balance, sending it faceplanting into the street. As it fell, Kaede grabbed the railing surrounding the upper patio deck of the Starbooks, balancing in a handstand for a moment before pushing off and propelling herself to the roof of the coffee store, snatching her pinwheeling shuriken out of the air as she did so.

Behind her, the demon rose to its feet once more, shaking its head several times in a vain attempt to dislodge the wolf-boy. Sensing the futility, it began to charge another one of its energy blasts, counting on either the backblast to knock Kotaro off or for his proximity to trigger the blast and get caught in the temporal displacement. As it charged its attack, it spotted Kaede on the roof nearby and angled its head toward her, intent on taking out two birds with one stone.

Before it could complete its attack, however, Hiroyuki sailed in from above, green energy wreathing his form as he announced his presence with a wordless shout. He landed directly on the beast's nose, driving Yuriko down into the dragon's face before using the haft of the naginata as a lever, pushing backwards to aim its deadly attack away from the ninja girl. This came not a moment too soon, the blue sphere of energy sailing over Kaede's head and decapitating a church bell tower several streets away.

Directly beneath the falling structure were Haruna and her Master Chief golem, the mangaka directing her summoned minion's fields of fire against stray enemy droids, having figured that his attacks weren't damaging enough to the dragon to contribute to the battle. Caught up in the moment, Haruna was oblivious to the danger she was in, but the SPARTAN noticed the stray bricks beginning to fall around them. Looking up to see the collapsing church steeple coming down on their heads, the Chief dropped his heavy machine gun, grabbed Haruna, and hurled her out of the way of the danger, uncaring and unconcerned when the rubble crashed directly on his head.

Flailing in midair from the throw, which launched her up and away a considerable distance, Haruna cursed and brought out her artifact to try and sketch herself some means of landing safely, but that became a non-issue as Negi shot past on his staff, snatching the back of her artist's apron and depositing her safely in the allied lines up near the World Tree.

This action didn't go unnoticed by the defenders, many of whom drew ever more attention to the airborne form of the child teacher. For the most part, Negi was beyond caring right now, taking a glance over the defense forces that remained. From a cursory glance, it looked like there were only about five or six hundred left, barely enough to fight the remaining droids, let alone that dragon demon. It had to be taken out, and quickly.

As he made his observations, Asuna caught up and turned to regard the dragon demon, currently in a staredown with the black-cloaked man, Kaede, and Hiroyuki. "What do you think, Negi? Can we take it out?"

The boy teacher nodded. "I'm confident we can. We've dealt-"

A massive explosion and blinding flash of light from the direction of the high school interrupted his sentence, the shockwave of the explosion knocking everyone off their feet, and even staggering the demon. Everyone turned to look, hoping that the blast was someone managing to stop one of the other demons. "What the hell was that!?" Asuna blurted.

"That must have been onee-sama and the other Heroes," Mei remarked from nearby, standing beside Shinobu as the white mage aided Konoka in treating the injured, Yuuna and Hotaru among them. "They went to fight the other demon. It looks like they managed to kill it."

That news made Haruna grin wickedly. "Then that means we can kill this one!" she remarked, flipping open her artifact sketchbook. "This time I'll whip out two, no three! Three Mister Chiefs!"

"Negi-kun!" another voice interjected. The team turned to see Kazumi half-off her broadcast platform, waving her arms frantically to get the boy teacher's attention. "We got a hit on Chao! She's four thousand meters above us on a blimp!"

Finally, a breakthrough! Negi nodded, and began to look toward the sky when the class reporter called out to him again.

"Negi-kun! Do you know what it means to do this?" she asked.

The young mage nodded his head solemnly. "I think I do."

Kazumi nodded in return. "Then I have nothing I need to say. Go get her!"


Intra-City Highway Overlooking Mahora International High School
Four Minutes Earlier

"This thing looks like the bastard child of one of the new Scarabs and Ultima Weapon," was Seno's first remark.

The members of the crew that weren't otherwise neck-deep in droids had gathered atop a nearby highway to plan their assault against the summoned demon. Mutsumi and Seno had arrived from where they had been about to launch a counterattack against the droid fortifications at the university. Kitsune, Kaolla, and Nanao had returned with Sabashii's car, while Shinobu, Masaru, and Hiroyuki had remained out in the fighting at the World Tree Plaza.

And true to Seno's words, their opponent bore a fearsome appearance. It took on the shape of a massive demonic centaur, only with no human upper body. Instead, its upper body tapered to a triangular 'head' with no discernible features aside from a recessed opening covered with a lens that was apparently the focus of its beam attacks. Its overall color was a bluish-purple, and its movements were punctuated by unusual hybrid mechanical/animal screeching.

"As we saw earlier when the mage teachers went after the demon at the university," Mutsumi explained, "any damage we cause to this thing will eventually be recovered."

The one 'normal' individual in the group, the Fireteam Charlie driver for Haruka's Warthog, looked pale. "How do we stop it, then?"

The anemic woman pointed to the demon's head, where an obviously-foreign device was bound around most of its face. "That is a technological inhibitor," she explained. "It provides the regenerative power for this demon. Destroy it, and we can deal fatal damage to the demon. However, it is still an inhibitor, which keeps the demon rigidly in Chao Lingshen's control and prevents it from using attacks that could be fatal to civilians."

"So we knock off the inhibitor and take it out real quick, then," Kitsune suggested.

Haruka nodded and snuffed the cigarette she had been smoking. "If we attack it from all sides, we can keep it distracted long enough to whittle away that inhibitor, but do we have a massive magical attack that can deal enough damage to kill it?"

"Perhaps not individually, but if we combine several of our attacks, then we should be able to sufficiently damage it," Motoko noted.

Kitsune turned to Sabashii. "Hey, what about that crazy negative ultima thingawhatsit you did the other day? Got another of those handy?"

Sabashii shook his head in response. "A spell of that magnitude actually takes more mana than it would appear. I overdid it then, showing off. My affinity is darkness, but that's why I could do it so well. I lost my affinity to light some time ago, you see. But, I am not a monster. Loss of life is a devastating thing. After some thought, I decided that I should repair damages. I restored life to the man that was killed."

The white-haired man took just a moment to let the impact of those words sink in with everyone, though he shook his head again in a negative motion right after stating it. "Before you ask, yes, I have that power. But it is not a simple thing. I can't wave my hands and just make it happen. Human souls are difficult to call back from the other side, and the body had to be reconstructed from memory alone. Doing so cut my reserves considerably. It's why I used a basic attack spell a moment ago. But you may be right about attack combinations. Still, this is a demon, even if it is a technological one. Naru, you and Motoko will do the most damage, I think. But Motoko. You aren't compatible with me.."

He chuckled then, and reached out to take Naru's hands in his own. When he met her eyes, what would display itself to her was not the lecherous man who did his best to flaunt his conquests or his wealth. These were the eyes of a man that had seen too much. The seriousness of his gaze showed how world-weary he was. For a moment, it was as if she could see his age with eyes not her own, and that age was heavy indeed. Sabashii pressed his forehead against Naru's, and whispered.

"All is right in the heavens. You are a chosen of the One Above, and are gifted with Light. Your power is so much greater than you realize. But it is not yet time. Just this once, I'll do this for you. Close your eyes. Reach out to me. And awaken."

His hands took on a soft white glow, which seemed to grow brighter the longer he held tightly to her. The feeling that came from him was one of strangely, gentle warmth. Past the blackness he had nurtured in his spirit, there was a tiny spark of light. And that spark grew into a brilliant glow the moment it touched Naru's body, or more accurately, her spirit. Along her arms, long lines of gold lit, and it created something almost like a spell-pattern on her body as it spread. There was a feeling of something glorious opening up in her. Something that seemed to meld with her being. It would give her a feeling as if to say, 'You have come home'. As if it was a part of her all along. It was a suffusion of energy. He'd temporarily opened her Mana circuits, and transferred his Holy Light to her. Or rather, he had infused a tiny bit of his own into her, to awaken her own Mana circuits, so she could produce the power on her own.

"That..is your true nature. Do not deny it. But once you use it, the circuits will close again. I apologize. When they close again, you may feel the loss of something wonderful. But sadly, you are not yet fully ready. You might however, find traces of that energy from now on, in your own attacks. Once a Mana circuit is opened, it does not close all the way. However, this gradual opening is best. I have done all I can."

From near the guardrail, Seno regarded the transferal of power from Sabashii to Naru and calmly scratched his nose, then adjusted the crescent-moon-adorned helmet he wore. "Man, that would've been pretty awkward if this was one of those romantic harem comedy manga," he murmured offhand.

Beside him, seated on her own motorcycle, Motoko glanced over toward him with her arms crossed and gave him a faint smile. "Give it a rest, husband. You're starting to wear the humor thin."

Nodding, he reached down and turned on his motorcycle, letting the engine warm back up. "Yeah, I just haven't been feeling it as of late," he agreed. "I guess I'll let the new crazy take care of the fourth wall gags for a while."

Behind, the others were returning to their vehicles, securing themselves and readying their weapons for the coming battle. Turning to his left to watch out of the eye that wasn't covered by an eye patch, the swordsman watched as Kaolla removed her personal missile pods from her arms and legs and attached them to the sides of Sabashii's prized vehicle with the help of some well-placed fire spells from Nealla. In the passenger's seat, Kitsune looked dubiously at her own daggers, evaluating their worth from a vehicle. Mutsumi boarded the back seat of Sabashii's car, her retractable quarterstaff extended, clearly intending to use the vehicle as a mobile support platform. Naru flexed her wings in preparation for some hard flying, Haruka flexed her fingers around the grips of the heavy machine gun she was manning, and her 'Marine' driver just shook his head slowly at the ridiculousness of what he was about to partake in.

Seno looked to his wife last, who adjusted the way her sword rested against her leg before noticing his attention, smiling, and reaching out a hand toward him. He leaned forward on his bike enough so that he could reach her hand, twining their fingers together and giving a gentle squeeze. Reluctantly, he released her hand, then manhandled his motorcycle to face the nearest off ramp from the highway, twisted the accelerator, and set off toward the battle ahead of them.

His mirrors showed the others likewise moving out, Motoko coming up on his left, Sabashii's car directly behind them, and Haruka's Warthog behind that, the tea shop proprietor scanning their surroundings with the heavy machine gun in the event of ambush. As they passed under the highway on a four-lane road leading to the high school, a deeper rumble of engines filled the air as the remaining A6M Zeroes flew overhead. The group's radios crackled, "This is Red Leader. We won't cause much damage to that thing, but we can keep it distracted for you."

"Copy, Red Leader," Haruka's voice answered. "We appreciate the assistance."

Feeling the wind on his face, their enemy looming ahead of them as the road widened out into a large courtyard, Seno jammed down the throttle as he called out, "Let's get the party started!"

The enemy met them, droid infantry and light armor by the hundreds moving to attack, strip beams and bullets zipping past the fast-moving vehicles. The large demon itself even turned, regarding them as a serious threat. A shrill shrieking sound filled the air as the lens at the demon's head glowed a pale green before sending a massive beam of energy toward the oncoming convoy.

Due to the slow nature of the beam, the vehicles had plenty of time to scatter to avoid being hit. Seno and Motoko broke to either side of its path, following the direction of the street as both riders drew their blades, striking down individual droids that they passed. Naru and the Zeroes split like a blossoming flower, the Zeroes immediately angling back in to rain caster fire onto the demon as Naru swept down and impaled a local droid commander on her energy blade, throwing the ground units into disarray. Haruka's driver threw the vehicle into a power slide and accelerated in the direction Seno had gone, leaving a tail of spent shell casings in its wake as Haruka poured the .50-caliber weapon into the ground forces.

On the right side of the battlefield, Motoko led a charge through the droid ranks, the black blade Youto Hina sweeping back and forth and cutting down dozens of droids. Behind her, Sabashii's automated car came on heedless of the enemy numbers, crushing their metal carapaces beneath its frame as its occupants attacked in all directions to thin their numbers. One droid leapt from atop a nearby building to grab onto the side of the car, bringing its sidearm to bear. Before it could fire, Kitsune stabbed it in the face with her high-frequency dagger, the rapidly-vibrating energy modulation shattering its head and sending the destroyed machine crashing to the ground.

Despite the rapid advance through the droids by the Kuro crew, however, it was a race against time, with the demon edging ever closer to the resonance point while keeping its primary armament aimed out at the attacking heroes. In the skies above the fighting, aerial droid units moved to engage the allied aircraft, but most importantly to keep Naru from getting within range of the demon. A dozen aerial units crashing to the ground in various states of disrepair indicated the futility of staging direct assaults on the winged Tokyo U student, forcing a shift in tactics. A number of droids stayed just out of her range, engaging her to keep her distracted while others focused their firepower on the Zeroes.

For their time, in the early stages of World War II, the A6M Zero was regarded as one of the most powerful fighters in the world, with a flight range, maneuverability, and speed unmatched by any of the other major combatants. However, as the United States entered the war and ramped up its production of new types of aircraft, the Zero soon was rendered obsolete by newer and better-designed fighters such as the P-38 Lightning or the F6F Hellcat, which featured more powerful engines and superior armoring. In fact, one of the greatest deficiencies of the Zero, which on the one hand allowed for its great maneuverability, was its complete lack of armoring. This has led some to disparagingly refer to the Zero as being built of papier-mâché.

Under normal circumstances, an airborne Zero at attack speed would be under minimal threat from small arms fire. In the given situation, however, the enemy possessed not only a flight ability almost equal to that of the Zeroes, but advanced tracking and targeting computer software. Mimicking what had just taken place on the ground a moment ago, an aerial Tanaka infantry unit intercepted Johnson's Zero, slamming into the side of the fighter with such force that it threw it into an uncontrolled aileron roll. Unperturbed by the effects of the inertial spinning, the droid aligned its rifle and fired through the cockpit at the pilot. The temporal displacement effect took place immediately, snatching the pilot out of the timestream and sending him into the future. The Zero, left unmanned, continued to spiral out of control before crashing to the ground just before the demon, scattering debris in a wide arc.

Naru swore as she watched the plane crash, its erratic movement having drawn her attention. A flicker of the last vestiges of sunlight reflecting from black armor caught her eye, and she saw another droid attempting to do the same maneuver on another of the Zeroes. Gathering holy energy in her left hand, she shattered a nearby droid with an orb attack, and as the others scattered in anticipation of further attack, she flexed her wings and soared through the opening in the droids' formation.

As she neared, she adjusted her trajectory so that her collision with the offending droid wouldn't hamper the Zero or inadvertently cause it to crash. Her energy blade impaled the droid, and the moment she felt contact, she flexed her wings again to lift the ruined machine away from the Zero before her momentum carried them both into the fighter. Coming to a halt in midair, she shook her right arm, causing her energy blade to cut completely through the droid. She heard the hum of a high-frequency blade, turning to find a special forces commander unit coming at her with one of the potentially-lethal swords. Striking out with her energy blade before it could reach her, the holy energy that comprised her immaterial weapon severed the enemy's sword midway up its blade, and as the destruction of its weapon caused it to overbalance, she recentered herself and impaled the droid through its power core.

It wasn't until she saw the glare of the demon's beam attack that she realized the trap she had fallen into. The droids had studied her pattern of attacking, noted that she didn't evade often if she wasn't directly under fire, and had contrived an attack that would put her back to the demon and allow it to fire its beam weapon at her while she wasn't expecting it. Spinning to face the oncoming beam, she released the held energy of her energy blade and brought her wings around in front of her to shield her from the beam.

The impact shoved her backwards several feet, but her wings successfully shielded her from the worst effects of the beam. Rolling her shoulders, she pushed outward against the beam with her wings, but the pushback force of the beam was immense, and she wasn't exactly able to brace herself to fight it from midair. As she knew would inevitably happen, the force of the beam overpowered her ability to maintain her position, flinging her backwards uncontrolled until her flight was interrupted by a two-story arcade building that she crashed through, landing in a tangled pile amidst a number of pinball machines.

"Damn, this must be how Keitaro always felt..." she muttered to herself, touching a hand to a sore spot on her forehead to ensure that she wasn't bleeding from the crash landing.

Back on the ground below, Seno witnessed the terminus of Naru's impromptu flight as he power-slid through a line of droids, the spinning rear-wheel of his motorcycle tripping up a Gatling-equipped droid and leaving him perfectly positioned to sever its head as his vehicle continued its rotation. He clearly wasn't the only one to have seen Naru crash, as the Marine driver of Haruka's Warthog reported, "Angel is down. Repeat, Angel is down!"

Ahead, the demon continued inexorably onward, quickly reaching what must have been the key resonance spot, as without warning a magic circle flared to life beneath it, followed by a blindingly-brilliant pillar of light reaching into the sky. Its attention left its attackers entirely at that point, its head turning toward the sky as it centered itself in the middle of the magic circle, its role in the creation of the resonance point complete.

From her position in Sabashii's car, Mutsumi observed these events with concern, then cupped her free hand over her ear to protect her radio transmitter from the wind and called out, "Keep attacking! If we can take this thing out fast enough, we might be able to reverse the resonance and turn it off!"

That was all that Seno needed to hear. Turning in the direction of the demon, he mounted a sidewalk and accelerated toward the boss, weaving in and out amongst the droid forces. Spotting his action, Motoko likewise slipped past the defenses and drew near the demon, which remained unconcerned with their actions. The swords-couple began to circle around the beast's front legs, and at almost the same moment, drove their swords into what passed for its ankles all the way to the hilt, remaining in their orbits until they had completed a full revolution, effectively hamstringing the demon.

Letting out an animalistic shriek of pain, the demon collapsed to the ground, immobilized by the attacks. Sensing the blood in the water, all parties immediately focused all their firepower on the inhibitor on the demon's head, from the remaining Zeroes' strafing runs to the concentrated firepower of the Warthog's light machine gun to ranged ki attacks from Seno and Motoko. In the back seat of Sabashii's car, Nealla waited and watched carefully as Kaolla launched another volley of missiles at the demon's head, gathering magic energy in her hand and waiting for the right moment. The very instant that the missiles began to detonate against the control unit, she released a Gravija spell over the explosive radius, effectively tripling the effective gravity at the point of impact.

With a cascade of blue sparks and a metallic groan, the inhibitor failed spectacularly, the pieces raining from around the demon's head.

"There, the control unit's down!" the Marine called out. "Now's our chance to take this thing out!"

At nearly that exact moment, Naru explosively propelled herself out of the building she'd been thrown into, her wings extended completely back for maximum airspeed. Reaching the demon's position, she angled herself into the sky and began to spiral to reduce her forward momentum. At a hundred feet above the demon's head, she came to a halt and unfurled her wings to their full length, then threw her hands out to either side and began to gather holy energy in each hand.

On the streets below, Motoko drew her motorcycle to a stop at the edge of the plaza the demon occupied, stepping off and striding toward the vulnerable demon with the Youto Hina held loosely in her right hand. Her ki aura rose up in a visible wave around her, radiating across her body and into the black-bladed sword. As she raised her weapon above her head, thunder rumbled in the distance, before a bolt of lightning arced out of the cloudless sky and struck the blade, charging it with immense energy.

She closed her eyes and brought her sword down vertically in front of her, taking hold of it in a two-handed grip. Nearby, a droid commander, having leapt aside to avoid a strafing attack from one of the remaining Zeroes, noticed the apparently-vulnerable swordswoman and rose to its feet, drawing its high-frequency sword in the same motion and charging toward Motoko. It didn't get two steps before another woman in tattered-looking garb appeared from a flash step directly in its path, her gleaming sword severing its upraised right arm at the elbow before she spun to her left and, in the same move, decapitated the droid.

The message was clear: Attempt to engage Motoko and one's existence was forfeit.

Turning her head to glance in the direction of the engagement, Motoko smirked a moment, then turned her attention back to the demon and intoned, "Shinmeiryu Kessen Ougi..."

Thunder once more rumbled over the battlefield, and above the demon, Naru brought her hands together, slamming the two individual orbs she'd been coalescing into a single globe of energy before turning her entire body so that she was parallel to the ground, releasing her hold and sending the energy surging in a blindingly-white beam down toward the demon.

Sensing this, Motoko snapped her eyes open and took one step forward, slicing the Youto Hina through the air toward the demon as she exclaimed "Shin Raikouken!"

The charged energy in her weapon recoalesced into another lightning bolt, arcing in an angular path through several clusters of droids, the sheer heat and energy of the bolt ablating them away in an instant, before striking the demon at the same instant as Naru's energy wave. The contact point of the two energy attacks vanished in a flash of white, Motoko's attack erupting into a one-hundred foot diameter sphere of roiling destruction that engulfed the demon. A split-second later, Naru's energy synergized with the Shinmeiryu maneuver and detonated with a thunderclap of pressurized air, releasing triple the force of either of the two attacks alone.

On the heels of the concussive blast came an ear-splitting shriek from the greater demon and as the light faded, the demon collapsed sideways onto the International High School, crushing a significant chunk of its facade beneath its mass. The creature thrashed for a moment, then fell still. Almost immediately, blue arcs of energy began to cascade across its form.

"Get away! It's going to blow!" Mutsumi's voice came across their shared radio net.

The response was unanimous. Naru immediately put her back to the demon and flew away, propelling herself through the sky with slow, powerful flaps of her wings. Motoko quickly mounted her motorcycle and tore into the streets, quickly catching up with Seno, who had doubled back to meet her. Just ahead of them, Kitsune had taken manual control of Sabashii's car and was driving at a breakneck pace alongside the Warthog, which was keeping up by sheer dint of the fact that its driver was just battering the now-fleeing droids out of the way rather than attempt to avoid them as Kitsune did.

Over the sounds of their engines, the retreating crew heard a high-pitched whine build in volume. All at once, the whine vanished inside the thunderclap of the demon's violent detonation, accompanied by a blue-white flash that momentarily blinded even people who were facing away from it. If nothing else at the entire event had drawn international attention, the explosive death of the demon, visible to the orbiting International Space Station, would definitely do the job. Yet for an explosion of that luminosity, however, the overpressure wave of it was surprisingly-limited, the head start of the Kuro crew allowing them to be far beyond the blast zone and out of danger.

Once they'd made it out onto actual streets and were heading back toward the World Tree on the abandoned roadway, Seno turned slightly and looked back toward the defense point behind them. As the light of the explosion faded, it was replaced by the pillar of light that marked the active resonance location, still remaining stubbornly active. He was sort of hoping that killing the demon would turn it off, a keystone boss, if you will, but they didn't have time to stick around and try to figure out how to turn it off. They needed to get back to the World Tree, as now they only had one point left to defend.

Shaking his head at their failure, the swordsman turned his attention forward, quick glances to his immediate surroundings ensuring that he wasn't about to crash into either Motoko or either of the larger vehicles. With that immediate concern settled, he expanded his attention wider just in time to catch a flicker of movement from the roof of a building ahead. Looking toward it, he saw a Tanaka infantry droid with its rifle aimed directly at him, the fading flash from the front of its weapon indicating it had already fired.

He didn't even have time to think through a conscious response to the threat, not with the muzzle velocity of a FAMAS rifle. With his position on the motorcycle, he couldn't even draw a sword to try to swat the bullets away. Sheer primal, human instinct compelled him to jerk the handlebars to the left and lean away, beginning to send his bike into an uncontrolled spin that would likely end with him eating pavement.

In the last moments before the bullets hit, something removed him bodily from his motorcycle by way of blunt force, knocking him halfway across the street in the process. He had just enough time to glimpse his motorcycle in the middle of collapsing to the street, Kazue perched on its side with one hand held out to her side for balance and the other extended out toward him. In the next instant, he saw her flinch as one of the bullets struck her, the swirling black sphere beginning to spiral into place around her.

Then he hit the asphalt at an overall speed of fifty miles an hour, the friction of the impact stripping away the shoulder armor on his left side and pitching him down the rest of the way to the street. Fortunately, the helmet took most of the blow as his head struck the road, the black-and-gold headgear snapping its chin restraint and flipping back into the air. The swordsman half-skidded, half-rolled another ten feet down the road, further shredding parts of his costume, before he finally managed to get his feet under him and come up in a roll, his hands reaching automatically for swords that were still strapped to his motorcycle, leaving him defenseless in the face of the next volley of shots aimed at his chest.

All this happened in the space of less than two seconds, the others remaining unaware of the event until Motoko nearly drove off the road in alarm, gasping in pain as she clutched her chest with her left hand, her other manipulating the brakes to bring her motorcycle to a screeching halt. The rear wheel slung out to the left from the momentum as she looked up at where her husband had been moments ago. There was no sign of the swordsman, his spirit-bound ninja, or his motorcycle except for the helmet that had been knocked off his head, bouncing haphazardly down the street with the upper half of the crescent broken off.

She stepped off of her motorcycle completely, uncaring as it fell onto its side, and caught the helmet under its brow-lip as it rolled up to her. The utter absence of his familiar presence through their bond was like a hole in her heart. Anger swiftly rose to overtake the melancholy, however, and she turned to face the droid on the rooftop. At the moment, it was busy trying to clear a jam in its weapon, unconcerned or unaware of the lethal attention directed at it. Drawing the Youto Hina in her right hand, she dispensed with her usual inclination to use proper form and simply drew the blade back over her head and behind her shoulder, charging her ki before unleashing a spiraling pattern of three blade-like waves of energy at the droid in a Zantetsusen attack, specifically-intended to defeat armor and metal objects. The droid barely had time to look up and register the danger it was in before the ki attack struck it and shattered it as though it had been flash-frozen.

Down on the street, Motoko stared at where the droid had been with her teeth still clenched in anger, fresh tear tracts cutting down through the sweat on her face from the battle. Hisato shimmered into being beside the swordswoman, laying a comforting hand on the young woman's shoulder. Once Motoko's gaze turned toward her, the spirit woman gave her a faint smile. "I can only begin to imagine the pain you must feel," she said. "But it is temporary pain. The affects of the displacement will end in three hours. You are strong, Motoko. You will make it."

"I know," Motoko answered. "It will not be easy, however."

Hisato's smile turned predatory. "Just take it out on the droids."


Defense Point Alpha, Near the World Tree Plaza
1919 hours

"Do you know what it means to do this?"

The young mage nodded his head solemnly. "I think I do."

Kazumi nodded in return. "Then I have nothing I need to say. Go get her!"

Negi nodded once more, this time in determination, before turning his attention to the dragon demon that had not moved from its face-off with Hiroyuki, Kaede, and the mysterious cloaked man. "But before I do that..." he murmured.

"Just leave that to me, Negi!" Asuna called out, taking several prodigious leaps to get on top of a nearby building to gain a height advantage against the dragon which, for now, was staying on the ground. "That thing's a summoned monster, so it'll have no chance against me!"

Before Negi could say anything, she took a bounding leap from the rooftop, drawing her sword back over her shoulder as she sailed through the air toward the dragon. The demon seemed to sense her presence, as it turned away from the three it had been in a standoff with to face the sword-wielding redhead. Letting out a low grumble, it surged forward to meet her charge, and to the surprise of everyone present, caught the swing of her sword by snapping its fangs shut on the blade, halting her swing in midair.

Shaking off her own shock, Asuna used her pinned blade as an anchor point and shoved her body forward, kicking the dragon square in its eye. The dragon snapped its head up and back, tossing her away as it screeched in pain, but she didn't let up on it. Bouncing off the side of another building, she came back at it and attacked while it was still disoriented, hammering blows onto it that opened great gashes in its head, filling the air around her with leaking magic.

To her horror, however, the blows that she inflicted rapidly sealed themselves up, an effect of having such an overabundance of magic in the air that allowed the demon to resist her normally-banishing strikes.

Growling in frustration, she stabbed her blade into its face and used the pommel of her sword as a stepping stone, propelling herself high into the air before rotating in place, angling herself feet-down toward the ground. She applied all her prodigious strength and the meager amount of ki she had been learning to manipulate into the kick she delivered onto the pommel of her sword, driving the massive weapon completely through the dragon's head.

The creature didn't even let out a shriek as it collapsed brokenly to the ground, taking out a small bookstore and half of the attached coffee shop in the process. Asuna landed on the roof of the building directly adjacent, looking over her handiwork for a moment before turning back to where Negi was still watching, stunned. On the ground near him stood an equally-flabbergasted Setsuna.

"Don't just stand there!" she yelled out. "Get up there, Negi! Setsuna-san, go with him!"

"R-right," Negi responded, before angling his staff upwards and rocketing skyward. With a nod and a flap of her wings, Setsuna rose immediately after him. She watched as, from several other points around the plaza, other mages capable of self-propelled flight also headed to support Negi. Good. That would increase the odds of him making it up to fight Chao.

"Hey, Asuna!" she heard Yuuna's voice yell above the rest of the fighting. "That thing ain't dead yet!"

Before the armored girl could respond, the familiar roar of the dragon echoed across the plaza, and the building she stood on shook as the demon rose from the ashes of the building it had landed in, the massive—and to anything else surely fatal—wound in its head already almost stitched shut. Asuna swore; she hadn't seen where her sword had landed, and the thing had already taken to the skies again, the familiar blue glow of its devastating breath weapon clearly visible, and was steadily gaining altitude. To the girl with the giant sword, it seemed as though it was going after Negi.

"Damn! What does it take to kill this thing!?" she demanded of no one in particular, then looked around to see if there was anybody left she could hitch a ride to the next stage of the battlefield with. After a moment, she spotted the familiar form of one of her classmates standing in an alley with a broom in hand. "Hey, Misora! Get over here! I need your help!"


4000 Meters Above the World Tree Plaza
The Same Time

"…O de Kosmos kineitai en to aioni, o de Chronos peraioutai en to Kosmo, e de genesis ginetai en to Chrono." Pausing in her incantation, Satomi turned an eye toward several status monitors observing the battle going on below. "Chao-san, Negi-sensei and a number of others are heading in our direction."

A dozen feet away, standing in the center of the magic circle scrawled on top of the dirigible they'd commandeered for this purpose, Chao simply stared off into the distance, the winds at this altitude tugging the ends of the form-concealing white mage's cloak she wore, having not removed it since broadcasting to the defenders earlier. At Satomi's report, she turned her head marginally in her classmate's direction, then nodded slowly.

"Excellent-ne," she responded, reaching up her left hand and tearing the mage's cloak from her body, allowing the wind to take it and reveal her battle armor beneath. From where they had been hovering on her back, her four self-propelled Spartan lasers drifted slowly into the air. "Let's not make things easy for them. Throw all the air units we have left at them."

Satomi nodded, keying a short command into the holographic keyboard hovering in front of her before returning to her incantation. All around the dirigible, the dozens of aerial units they had kept near for close-in protection, both Tanaka and Chachamaru-based, flared their jet boosters as they lifted from the dirigible before heading down to engage the airborne Mahoran forces.

Turning away as they departed, Chao resumed staring off into space, waiting for the fated battle she knew was ahead. "Come then, Negi-bozu," she whispered, almost to herself. "This will be our final confrontation-yo."


Airspace Above the World Tree Plaza

Negi's lightning spell shattered the Chachamaru-based flight drone at the exact same time that the droid cannoned into him like a linebacker, the impact force knocking him from his staff and sending the wooden implement flipping away to the ground below. Unable to help himself, he let out a short scream of surprise and alarm as he felt gravity begin to reassert itself on him and pull him inexorably back down to the Earth's embrace.

A short distance above him, Setsuna heard his cry and turned to see him falling back toward the ground. "Negi-sensei!" she called, turning to go after him and halt his fatal descent.

Before she could move, a strip beam shot almost across her nose, her instinct stopping her forward momentum. She turned to look for the source of the shot and saw a flying Tanaka commander coming straight for her, a high-frequency sword held active and drawn back for a strike at her as it surged in. Narrowing her eyes in irritation, she charged her blade with ki and flew forward to meet the enemy, the clash of their blades releasing such energy that it erupted into an opaque sphere that completely surrounded them.

Negi watched Setsuna clash with the droid as he fell, and saw two more charge into the energy sphere, firing strip blasts as they went in. A cursory glance showed that the other airborne mages were either engaged themselves or otherwise unaware of his plight. Inverting to turn his feet toward the ground, he began to cast a spell to disperse his momentum just before impact when he saw Hiroyuki leaping from rooftop to rooftop, moving on a clear intercept course with him.

The spearman met the boy mage in midair between two buildings, extending his naginata and catching Negi on its haft, serving as a makeshift platform of sorts. "Giddyap!" the wild child exclaimed, using his grip on the naginata to hurl Negi back into the sky.

Unfortunately, the act of being in the air meant that Hiroyuki had nothing to brace against, and consequently his action provided just enough force to get Negi going back in the right direction. It seemed that his thought had caught on with others, however, as in the next moment he felt a strong hand grip the back of his robe, and looked back to see Kotaro holding onto him, a pair of swirling shadows at his feet providing his lift ability.

"Get up there, Negi!" the hanyou shouted, hurling the boy mage skyward with significantly more force.

Above, the demon put on a burst of speed and continued to rise. At first, he had thought it had come up to chase him, but it had completely blown past him while still gathering energy for its breath weapon. He could only conclude now that it was intending to make an attack, a more powerful attack than it had attempted at this point, which meant that he would have to kill it before moving on to deal with Chao.

But, he mused as he felt his momentum begin to fade, that would be easier to do if he could get his staff back. With all the magic power in the air, however, he couldn't pick out his staff's signature from the background noise. That concern soon faded as he felt his foot brace against something solid. He looked down to see Kaede below him, grasping his foot in both hands.

She gave him a smile, solidified a platform of ki beneath her, and then called out, "Good luck, de gozaru!" as she shoved upward with all her prodigious might, boosting him up once more.

Looking back up to the sky, Negi saw that the dragon had changed position; it was still moving up, but now it had turned and was facing back toward the ground, and worryingly, that energy it was gathering was growing even thicker. He tried once more to locate his staff, but the effort proved futile. He was just going to have to make do without. At least he would still be able to cast thanks to the focus ring that Evangeline had given him.

As his stomach did another flip as his momentum began to bleed away again, he saw the mysterious black-cloaked man maneuver into position to keep Negi going up what he was beginning to think of as the 'people ladder.' The man's right hand was stretched out, and the boy mage reached up to grab it. The man warned, "Brace yourself," before turning and throwing him into the air.

That wasn't so bad... Negi thought, then heard a rush of air behind him. He glanced back to see the man gathering energy around his hands in that same strange way that he had been using to fight the demon earlier. Quickly facing forward again, Negi clenched his entire body just before the released blast of force from the man hit him full on in the back, propelling him skyward at incredible speed.

It seemed as though the demon had finally reached its intended altitude, or even surpassed it, as it looped over backwards and began to descend, though much more slowly than it had previously risen. Caught up contemplating how he was going to deal with the thing, Negi almost missed Asuna entering his field of vision, her right hand reaching out and grabbing Negi. Pulling him in close, she said, "Remember Negi, no giving up!" and threw the boy with all of her strength.

Smiling at her words, Negi glanced back to see her landing gracefully on the front of Misora's broom, then a dull boom and a rush of air drew his attention back to the dragon.

It had fired its breath weapon, but where before the sphere of energy had been only a few meters across, this one swiftly expanded to encompass several hundred meters, enough to completely engulf the World Tree Plaza and end the battle in one fell swoop. Knowing that he had to stop that attack from hitting the ground, he layered over a dozen barriers over himself and crossed his arms in front of his face, then plowed directly into the center of the energy sphere.

The initial impact with the attack instantly shattered three of his barriers, and the shock of the sudden onslaught of energy caused him to lose his protective stance, allowing the energy to batter down another barrier. He quickly re-crossed his arms and began to shove magic outward into the surrounding energy, hoping to disperse its cohesion and break up the attack that way.

The gathered energy resisted his efforts however, ripping apart another barrier as he moved deeper into it. In moments, he reached what he believed to be the sphere's center, and in an effort to disable its cohesion, he explosively detonated three more barriers, but their power had no noticeable effect. As he passed through the core, the pressure in the very center of the attack burst two more of his barriers, leaving only two left protecting him from being shredded by the energy.

His second-to-last barrier crumpled, and he felt the last begin to weaken as well, desperately pouring more magic power into it. Then, just as the last barrier fell, the oppressive presence of the energy attack vanished, as well as the faint blue glow of the energy surrounding him. In its place was a bright, almost-blinding white light, and as he looked up, his eyes widened in shock as one more hand reached out to him.

It was as though he was staring into an aged mirror of himself, an older man with wild red hair and a cocky grin, his left hand reaching out to grasp Negi's own as his right passed the familiar lightning bolt-shaped staff into his right. As the man's hand met Negi's own, he felt energy, both magic and spiritual, flow back into him, restoring everything he'd expended in the night's fighting so far. If at all possible, the man's grin widened even more as he queried, "Ready?" And then the world around him faded to white.

On the other side of the breath attack, the dragon hovered in place as it watched its attack descend, a sense of smug satisfaction filling its mind as it had seen the boy mage plunge headlong into the center of its vastly-overcharged breath weapon. Surely there would be nothing left of the boy to bury in a thimble after the energies of that attack got through with him.

But then, to its amazement, the boy burst through its side of the energy flare, his passage causing the entire thing to collapse in on itself and disperse behind him. Roaring in indignation and anger, the dragon swooped down toward the boy, intent on making a crispy snack of him in retribution for preventing its finishing attack.

For his part, rising to meet the demon on his returned staff, Negi freed his left hand and began to incant. "Rastel maskir magister... Kenotetos astrapsato de temeto..."

As their paths crossed, the dragon snapped at him, but a deft application of his staff as though it were a rudder pulled him out of the beast's reach, and he extended his left hand up behind him. "Dios Tukos!" he exclaimed, cutting in at an angle to drive the supercharged lightning axe attack directly through the dragon's center.

The power of his attack cleaved the beast completely asunder, its upper body collapsing back toward the surface as its other half began to disintegrate entirely. He watched a moment as the upper half of the demon crashed, still screeching in pain, into the early grave Asuna had attempted to put it in earlier.

He had no time to concern himself with whatever remained of it, instead rocketing skyward toward the dirigible with the glowing upper surface still half a mile above. Everyone, thank you, he thought as he ascended in silence. I couldn't do this on my own. Without all of you, this wouldn't have been possible. I've come this far thanks to everyone's strength!

In short order, the bottom of the dirigible loomed before him. He swung wide around it, wary of any traps that Chao might have laid, and rose high above the upper half, looking down on the glowing magic circle, Satomi in one corner of it casting the incantation, and in the very center, staring directly at him with a faint smirk on her face, was the student he had come to face.

"Chao-san!"


World Tree Plaza
1923 hours

Wild and raucous cheers had filled the plaza when Negi struck the finishing blow against the dragon demon, but they hadn't lasted. The impact of the upper half of the demon with an already-demolished building deflated the celebratory atmosphere, and in the lull that followed as the droids retreated temporarily, the state of affairs for the defenders left was pretty obvious.

Leaning against the railing at the upper plaza, Yuuna looked over the small patch of real estate she'd been fighting so hard to defend for almost two straight hours now. Over a dozen buildings had been completely demolished in the fighting, and of those left standing, every single one had been severely damaged in some way. Debris from both the buildings and the droids they had defeated littered the ground, making it treacherous to walk in some places. A fire burned somewhere on another street, the acrid scent of the smoke and flame stinging her nose.

And while all that was bad, the human toll was even worse. She'd had about five hundred people at the outset of the fight, and the introduction of the guns used by the droids had taken a huge toll on that force. Stragglers and reinforcements from the other defense points had bolstered them again, but there were too many people moving around for her to try to judge how many they had left, even from her vantage point. Worse still, the fighting especially here had been so intense that almost no one was uninjured in some way. The field aid tent sitting just off the plaza was swamped with people. At least none of the injuries had been really life-threatening, and no one had died.

A faint smirk passed her lips as she mused on the fact that this event made last year's tag competition—and the ensuing casualties from rough play—look like a sandbox scuffle amongst children.

Even her own team had been seriously pared down. Only Hartley, Katsuki, and Matsunaga were left out of her squad of ten, the rest lost to those black spheres when the dragon had destroyed the buildings they were fighting out of. The trio had been banged up a little fighting off those special forces droids, but nowhere near as bad as Yuuna herself and Hotaru had been. From the thrashing she'd gotten from that commander droid, she knew she'd be a mass of welts and contusions in the morning.

Movement to her side drew her attention, and having contemplated the devil, her three remaining squadmates had made their way to her side, with Hotaru looking positively miniscule in the middle of the three armored men. The young archer's head was partially-bandaged from getting thrown into that bench, and she hugged Yuuna's damaged helmet to her chest. As the group reached her, Hotaru held out the headgear toward the shorter girl. "I couldn't find your other gun..." she said apologetically.

Yuuna smiled and accepted the helmet, holding it in her left hand as she idly hoped that it had gotten dark enough that the color rising to her face couldn't be seen. The chuckles of Hartley and Katsuki informed her of how well that was working out. Ignoring the two clowns, she told Hotaru, "It's okay, I've still got one. And if I really need it, there's plenty of magic guns laying about."

Nodding, Hotaru turned to take in the same view that Yuuna had been contemplating a moment ago. "Even with that dragon thing dead, we're still outmatched, aren't we?" she asked.

"Much as I hate to admit it," the gunslinger girl replied in deadpan. She glanced inside her helmet to see that its systems were powered down, then reached in and turned its internal power on, setting it upside-down on the railing as it booted up. She looked over her shoulder at the others. "What's the latest on what we've got?"

She watched as faint, almost-invisible flashes of light flickered across the interior of Hartley's visor, indicating he was perusing tactical feeds from the visor uplink. "We're still looking at about two to three thousand droids, so about the same as they launched in the first wave, but now they're all concentrated here. We've got about a thousand left for us, but there's more injured than not, so realistically I'd give us about seven or eight hundred combat-able bodies."

"And speaking of combat-able, I still object to your new friend here being up and moving around," Matsunaga said, nodding his head toward Hotaru.

Yuuna looked at him silently for a moment, and he stared right back, and in that time some unspoken message passed between the older military veteran and the gunslinger girl. Trusting his assessment, she turned her attention to her ministra. "Hotaru, are you more hurt than you're telling me?"

"No!" the archer huffed, turning a moment to shoot Matsunaga a dirty look. "I'm fine."

"Spinal injuries are not 'just fine,'" the older man said.

"Hotaru!"

Rolling his eyes beneath his visor, Hartley stepped forward to interject. "Okay, okay, let's not do the clankers' job for them," he said. "The triage medics said that when she hit that bench, the impact compressed some of her vertebrae and that they were going to have to get her to a hospital for more evaluation. Well, little Hotaru here proverbially flipped a table on them, almost set the tent on fire, and wasn't going to have any of that. Raised a hell of a scene."

With every additional word that came out of Hartley's mouth, Hotaru seemed to shrink into herself and turn a deeper shade of red. Yuuna suppressed a smile with great difficulty.

"Some girl in a white mage getup came over to see what the fuss was about," the sniper continued. "After hearing the whole story, she pulls these two fans out of nowhere and waves them around, and all of a sudden Hotaru's got no more spinal injury. The girl said she was a classmate of yours, and said to keep up the good work. So I guess that she healed her with magic or something."

Yuuna nodded in contemplation as she listened to the story, rubbing her chin with her left hand. "Yeah, that sounds like it was Konoka-san." And then it hit her exactly what Hartley had said at the end. "Wait! How do you... I mean... What do you mean, 'magic'? There's no such thing!"

"Yeah, and I watched Hotaru stop a fricken plasma sword with a stick." Hartley rolled his eyes. "You forgot to turn your comms off when you did that whatever it was-"

"Pactio," Matsunaga helpfully supplied.

"-Yeah, that thing. When you did that back in that building after the droids started using real guns. So we all heard the whole thing."

Both Hotaru and Yuuna paled considerably and exchanged sheepish glances. "Well, we're not so good at the 'secret' thing, are we?" Hotaru asked.

"Well, in your defense, that's not the strangest thing that's happened tonight." Hartley turned and looked toward one of the large holographic screens that was showing the battle taking place in the sky above them. He couldn't make sense of what was going on, the way it seemed as though the boy mage and that Chao girl were moving from place to place faster than he could follow. "So, those two are fighting, but those droids didn't seem intent on giving up. Regrouping, more like."

The four students all turned to take another look out over the immediate area. A lot of the people there looked as though they were content to watch the fight taking place high in the air, as though they felt their part in the event was over. Others appeared to know that there was still fighting to be had, but the adrenaline and excitement that had been carrying them so far was fading, and doubts about their ability to continue were creeping in.

"Tell you one thing," Hartley said, nodding toward the road that ran across the bottom of the plaza. "Those guys look like they know it ain't over."

The people he referred to had just arrived, spread between one of Fireteam Charlie's Warthogs, a bright red convertible, one woman riding a motorcycle, and another woman with wings who seemed to have flown the distance. Yuuna didn't know any of their names off the top of her head, but she knew that Negi and some of the other girls in the class had met up with these guys a few days ago, and Sakurazaki-san seemed to be related to one of them. As she watched, that Hiroyuki guy—Murakami-san's cousin—wandered over to chat with them.

It seemed that they weren't the only ones to have noticed the lax attitude of the remaining defenders. "Now's not the time to let up, Mage Knights!" Kazumi's voice echoed across the city. "Though the final boss fight has begun between the boy teacher Negi Springfield and the evil genius Chao Lingshen, the Martian army has no intention of stopping their attack! We've all seen in the movies and manga where the supporting cast has to fight off-screen while the story follows the main hero. Well, today, each and every one of you are the heroes of that other story!"

To the chagrin of Yuuna, her team, and the others who knew the battle wasn't over, the responses of many people were lukewarm at best. They could hear complaints about not getting to watch the final battle between Chao and Negi, and others about how hard the fighting was and that they deserved a break.

"Jesus, what happened to all the crazy bastards I've been fighting with this whole time?" Yuuna asked no one in particular.

"Morale runs out after a certain point," Matsunaga answered with a shrug. "And you have to remember that most of these people are just kids. No offense to either of you, of course, but they just wanted to play a game. They didn't expect it to be this harsh."

Katsuki shook his head sadly. "Guess it's just us and the dozen or so other crazies that get to go out in a blaze of glory, huh?"

For a long, sober moment, no one answered. Then Yuuna raised her head from where she'd been scowling at the ground. "No. Fuck that."

With no further explanation, she picked up her helmet and strode across the plaza, weaving in and out amongst the gaggles of people to make her way over to Kazumi's broadcast platform. Once there, she paused a moment to look at the highly-futuristic setup that Kazumi was using to give her play-by-play commentary of the event, then set her mind back on what she had come there for. "Hey, Asakura-san, can I borrow your mic?"

Having not noticed the gunslinger girl's presence until she spoke, Kazumi turned to look at her classmate. "Huh? Why? What's up, Yuuna-san?"

"This fight's not over yet and half of these people either don't care or are too scared to keep in it," she explained. "So I thought I'd try my hand at giving a pep talk."

Grinning widely, the reporter nodded and tossed the futuristic device down to her classmate. "That sounds like just what we need! Go knock it out of the park."

Yuuna smiled faintly. "Yeah, right. I don't even know what I'm doing. But it can't hurt to try, right?"

Kazumi nodded in agreement with the girl's words, and as she wandered off, discreetly checked to make sure Sayo was still following her; this was something that would definitely be perfect for that documentary.

Holding the microphone tightly in her right hand, Yuuna became aware of her heart pounding as she made her way back to the upper level of the plaza. She'd given brief pep talks to Cleric Team before, during their training war games, but she was about to try to convince hundreds of people she didn't even know to keep fighting when they felt that their part should be over.

Oh God, what the hell am I doing? she thought briefly, feeling a cold bead of sweat trickle down her back.

She suddenly felt hands on her shoulders, arresting her momentum as well as her doubtful thoughts. Looking up, she stared into the face of Hotaru, who smiled encouragingly at her. "Hey, you'll be okay," the girl said simply.

Those four simple words echoed within Yuuna, chasing away her doubt and filling her with the resolve not only to give this little pep talk, but also to take whatever came from it and keep moving forward. From this point, there was nothing else they could do.

Smiling gratefully at Hotaru for her words, Yuuna leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek, then stepped up to the railing she had been leaning on previously. She situated her helmet so that it was upright and its darkened visor was facing out toward the crowds she'd be speaking to. That done, she bounced on her toes a few times and turned toward the other three remaining members of Cleric Team. "You boys ready?"

Hartley nodded. "Okay, guys, let's make it look good. Buckets on, visors dark, formation line and high carry."

As he was giving those orders, Yuuna pulled herself up to stand on the wide concrete railing. Behind her, the trio of armored men arranged themselves in a perfect line behind her, spread with a foot of separation between them, and held their weapons across their chests at a port arms carry. Hotaru, not wanting to stand out from the image they were trying to project, stood off to one side and summoned her artifact, holding the lantern's staff in the same pose as they were.

Yuuna grinned at Hotaru's actions, then blanked her expression and looked down at the microphone, unsure if it operated like a normal one or if it had some weird procedure to go through. She glanced over toward Kazumi's broadcast platform, where a thumbs-up gesture from the girl indicated that she was apparently good to go.

Taking a deep, calming breath, Yuuna raised the microphone. "Everyone," she said, her voice carrying clear and loud throughout the city.

All around, the area fell silent as those in the vicinity turned toward the upper plaza. They were used to the loud and boisterous tone of Kazumi, and curiosity, if nothing else, was drawing their attention to the girl in the Halo armor standing on top of the plaza's railing.

"I know we're all tired and hurt," she continued, looking around at the faces now staring up at her. "And many of us are exhausted and running on empty, but...

"We have held."

Maybe it was the words. Maybe it was the quiet, solemn, and prideful tone that she delivered them in. But where the people around her were curious about the new person talking before, now they wanted to know what it was that she had to tell them.

"We've been bruised and bloodied, but we've taken the best that those clankers have thrown at us, and we've given them back twice as much. For the first time in this battle, the initiative is in our hands. They're on the retreat now, but soon they'll be back. And they're going to crush us."

Murmurs began to run through the crowd. A few were indignant tones about that remark, but her words were starting to awaken the realization in the rest: That this battle was far from over.

"Our only hope now is to smash into them before they're ready," she continued. Raising her left hand, she gestured toward the collapsed buildings that the upper half of the dragon demon that had given them so much trouble still lay unmoving in. "Negi-kun bought us this time we needed to breathe by defeating their dragon, and even now, he's up there..." At this, she shot her hand straight up, pointing to the battle going on high above their heads, visible from here only as intermittent flashes of light. "...Fighting against their leader. And if we lose here, everything he's done..."

She paused a moment to lend additional gravity to her next words, and spoke more emphatically to boot, "...Everything we have sacrificed, will all be in vain."

It wasn't until then that she realized she'd leaned forward quite a bit, almost to the point of overbalancing, and her leaning backwards lent the impression to her audience that she was taking a moment to re-think what she was saying to them. She wasn't; she sort of had the rough framework planned out before she'd started, but it made a good impression anyway.

"I don't want to look back on this day and have regrets," she said, a hint of sadness creeping into her voice. "I don't want to look back and say, 'This was the day that we failed.' I want to look back, and proudly recall that on this day, five thousand of Mahora's best and brightest gave absolutely everything they had."

An electric tingle made its way through the atmosphere, and Hotaru recognized it. It was exactly what she had felt earlier in the battle, when she had determined that Yuuna possessed some supernatural leadership ability. The archer couldn't help but grin, even knowing that it was Yuuna's unconscious power, even though she already agreed with the girl, the will to fight was growing in her, as she could tell that it was with everyone within the sound of Yuuna's voice.

Yuuna couldn't help the slow grin spreading across her face. She was being affected by her own ability, pumping her up and getting her ready to fight. "For ourselves," she stated firmly, clenching her left hand into a fist.

"For our friends," she added, opening her hand and making a sweeping gesture out to the crowd, even as she stepped to the side so that the crowd could better see her three troops that she had left.

"For our honor and dignity," she said, moving back to her central position, and taking a deep breath for her strong finish.

"And for Mahora!" she all but screamed, shoving her fist into the sky.

The plaza exploded with exuberant cheering from everyone who had listened to her speech, their fighting spirit restored by the gunslinger girl's impassioned words. Fatigue vanished, doubts evaporated, and everyone with a weapon in their hands thrust it into the air as they added their voice to the chorus.

As though their voices had hit a wall and were echoing back, an even louder, answering cheer rose from the rest of the city. It took a moment for Hotaru to realize why; having been made through Kazumi's broadcast platform, Yuuna's speech had gone out over the entire city, to every sports bar, library, news center and television that was showing the event live, and her speech had moved even them, and though they were not fighting themselves, they were letting their support for those who would carry on the battle in their name be heard.

Then, Hotaru watched something truly amazing happen. In the other parts of the city, those not directly involved in the fighting whose festival banners and flags had been left undamaged, she saw those flags and banners start to be taken down. "Look!" she exclaimed as loudly as she could, drawing the attention of everyone, first those who could hear her voice, then those who wanted to know what everyone else was looking at, to what she was seeing.

In every part of the city, on every flag pole, street sign, and other standing object that had previously displayed individual banners of certain schools or events during the festival, those banners were being systematically removed. In their places were rising the universal flag of the city of Mahora, a rousing display of the ultimate community spirit.

From where she stood on the railing of the plaza, Yuuna watched the Mahora flags go up, and bit her lip to stop the tears she could feel threatening the corners of her vision. She had always been a sucker for these kinds of things, and watching the entire city rally behind this last great act of resistance made her more proud than she had ever been to be a citizen of Mahora.

And in an act of extremely-coincidental timing, a brilliant flash of light from overhead signified a change in the battle above. Responding immediately to this change, the large holographic screen hovering over the plaza that was being used to broadcast the event changed to show that Chao was in dire straits, smoke issuing from what appeared to be a shattered glass capsule on the back of her armor as she climbed out of a gaping hole that had been blasted into the top and through one of the exterior surfaces of the dirigible. Electricity arced across her body, and she seemed to be stunned by whatever had hit her.

"Look, the boy teacher's got her on the ropes!" someone in the crowd called out.

"We can still win this!" another shouted.

As she and the remnants of Cleric Team moved toward Kazumi's broadcast platform to return the borrowed microphone, Yuuna was intercepted by Haruka and Naru. "Hell of an impressive speech up there," the tea shop owner praised. "You got a strategy to go with it or just winging it?"

"Winging it mostly," Yuuna answered with a grin, then sobered and pointed several streets down to where the first buildings that had been occupied by the absent members of Cleric Team had been destroyed by the droids. "That's going to be our zero line, right there. We can't let them past that point." She shrugged. "The building debris will offer some decent cover and the other apartment buildings in the area will be good points to fight from, but other than that it's going to be hit them with everything we've got left and pray."

Even as she said that, however, she frowned, glancing off to the side as wheels began to turn in her head.

Nodding slowly, Haruka answered, "There's plenty left. We just needed to know-"

"Actually no, just came up with a better idea," the gunslinger girl interrupted, then turned to her second-in-command. "Hartley, you said that you've observed them basing their tactics on how we fight them, right?"

The American man nodded. "That's right. At the start when our guys were just lining up to shoot at them point blank, they were pretty much doing the same. After we started using more advanced strategies, that's when they started getting creative."

Haruka looked between the two students, tilting her head to one side as she contemplated their words. "You're inferring that they respond in kind to what they're presented with?"

"I certainly hope so, otherwise my plan's going to fall apart faster than it should," Yuuna answered. "Assuming that their combat strategy is actually dictated by what we do first, here's what we do..."


Nearby, Nanao had gathered up the other members of her band, having not seen most of them since they'd all gone to battle at different defense points. Now that the focus had moved fully to the World Tree, they were all finally back in the same place. And with the looming confrontation with the rest of the droids having all the feeling of the climactic final battle, the singer had something special planned.

"Well, fortunately the stage we were going to use to perform at the end-of-festival party hasn't been damaged, and all our equipment is set up," she said. "I say we get our concert off to an early start."

"In the middle of a battle?" the bassist asked. "Isn't that kind of asking for it?"

Shaking her head strongly, Nanao shrugged and remarked, "Nah, I doubt it. We're pretty far back here so I'm sure we'll be fine."

The drummer crossed his arms. "Yeah, that's all well and good, but what about the score? We won't be getting any points sitting in the back playing music."

Standing next to Nanao, though with his back turned to look out over the activity going on in the defense point, Masaru glanced back over his shoulder. "Actually, the rules specifically stated that points aren't just achieved by direct combat with the enemy. Assisting allies and contributing in other ways to the allied forces also awards points, and rumors have it that a support action that drastically changes the face of the battle awards higher points per capita than the highest killstreak bonuses."

The singer grinned and threw an arm around Masaru's neck, tugging him sideways against her. "See? We can get mad points if we perform and get everybody pumped up to fight. Because everybody knows that power music gets people amped up."

Tilting her head to one side, the guitarist remarked, "I'm about to play something that's gonna make my fingers fall off, aren't I?"

"Yep. I know just the song."


Airspace Above the World Tree
The Same Time

The pain of the lightning crackling across her body barely factored to her mind. She was familiar with pain, and in comparison to taking flesh-melting bolts of magnetized plasma to the legs, a few arcs of electricity were nothing, even as she felt her heart fluttering, the natural rhythms of the organ temporarily thrown out of whack by the currents passing between contact points on her armor. Note to self for the next upgrade: Catastrophic energy failures channel energy away from the body.

Across from her, Negi was saying something, but she couldn't hear him for the ringing in her ears. The only noise she could make out was her own harsh breathing, echoing dimly in her head as though someone had stuffed her ears full of cotton. As she pulled herself out of the hole her great ancestor had blasted her into, sound began to slowly return, beginning with the incessant beeping indicating that her personal energy shield was depleted. That didn't surprise her one little bit; it wasn't a particularly powerful shield in the first place.

Attempting to pull herself to her feet, her knees shook and her left leg gave out, sending her back to her hands and knees. The faint, almost melodic sound of a small piece of glass hitting the top of the dirigible shook her out of her mental haze, reminding her of exactly the sequence of events that had just occurred. Seized with sheer panic, she reached up with her right arm to the raised portion of armor on her back that contained her Cassiopeia, that now held nothing more but broken glass, shattered machinery, and leaking mana.

She tugged at a protruding piece of metal, but to her growing horror and frustration, the damage to her suit seemed to have bent the housing of the destroyed Cassiopeia, blocking her from easily freeing what she was reaching for. Dropping almost to a seated position, she jiggled the metal back and forth several times, feeling it slowly begin to slip away from the pinching effect of the damaged housing, then pulled with all her might.

After several moments, a small square of metal approximately as long and wide as a deck of playing cards pulled free of the housing into her hand. A circle cut out of the middle, replaced with a crystalline glass-like material, bore several large cracks from the damage it had received, and two of the seven data transfer prongs at the bottom were missing.

Her throat thickened as she looked at the damage that Pheidippides' data crystal chip had sustained in the destruction of her Cassiopeia. It wasn't like this was a fragment of himself that the AI had shaved off while the majority of him was elsewhere; no, he had deemed it necessary to dedicate almost his entire processing power to controlling the Cassiopeia and her self-propelled Spartan lasers, and insisted on jacking himself directly into her armor to ensure maximum combat power.

And now he had paid the price.

In her palm, the crystalline circle in the center faintly glowed red, a dim flickering light indicating that it was still powered. "Pheidippides?" she whispered, hoping against hope that he was merely trapped in a damaged chip, surly and irritated at being stuck in that situation.

This hope dwindled when the AI's Grecian avatar failed to materialize above the surface of the chip, instead projecting a static-filled column of hazy red light at less than a third the normal height. "Lady...Lingshen..." Static garbled his voice, the distortion making abundantly-clear the depth of his damage. "I'm sorry...for my...failure... If I had ...only shaved...two cycles..."

She shook her head fiercely, "No, the fault is mine-yo. We should have tested the system better. I should have fought seriously..."

"You fought splendidly... Lady Lingshen... Even...with this setback...our success rate stands above..."

"Save your cycles-ne. I can fix you. I can fix this."

"The operation takes...priority..." The amount of static was now to the point that it was hard to hear his actual words. Despite being an artificial intelligence, Chao could all but feel him dying in her hands. "For...all...manki-"

With an ear-piercing screech of noise, Pheidippides fell silent, the light slowly fading from the center of the data crystal chip. Slowly, she slipped backwards to sit heavily on her legs, head lowered as she gripped the chip in both her hands. Across the top of the dirigible, Satomi struggled to continue the incantation, fighting to clearly enunciate the words without sobbing at the loss of the AI, whom she had come to view as a friend over the past two years.

"For all mankind," Chao whispered, pushing herself to her feet and raising her head to stare at her great ancestor. She lowered her left hand down to her side, her right still gripping the data chip, and her chromed Magnum materialized in her hand. "For the sake of the future, I can't let you stand in my way, Negi-bozu."

Lifting herself back into the air with her anti-gravity device, she snapped up the Magnum and opened fire, displacement spheres bursting into place around the boy mage as she charged forward.


World Tree Plaza
1930 hours

All eyes were on Yuuna and her squad as the gunslinger girl moved to the back of the milling crowd of defenders and looked down the long road toward the lake shore, woefully empty but for the debris of the battle: crumbled remnants of half-broken buildings, discarded weapons scattered about, and in the distance, milling idly, the last vestiges of the droid army. The area the enemy occupied was shrouded in darkness; whether it was from a power grid failure or—more likely—just the battle damage having destroyed everything down there that gave off light was unknown, but the glowing of their optical sensors in the darkness and the muted thumping of their moving about made their presence all the more chilling.

"Ahead lies the soulless army of science and malice," Stromric's voice said from almost right in her ear, prompting her to jump and nearly crawl out of her armor. "Behind, the battered warriors of nobility and humanity. And here you stand, leader of that army, caught in between. Such a weight has broken lesser men."

Turning to her left, Yuuna depolarized her visor and fixed the blond man with a sour gaze. "Are you just here to show me up again? Got a bigger army hiding up your sleeve?"

Smiling innocently, the man shrugged. "I simply want to see what you'll do now that you've put yourself in such a high-profile position."

The gunslinger girl smirked, then turned the rest of the way and caught the eye of a student running about towing a wheelbarrow full of magic weapons, busily ensuring that everyone who was going to fight was armed. "Weapon!" she called, holding out her left hand.

Stopping in his tracks, the student regarded her for a moment, then dug through his pile of magic weapons and selected one of the wide-barreled grenade-type magic pistols, tossing it at Yuuna. Catching it by the barrel in her free hand, she twirled it until she had a comfortable, proper grip on it, then glanced back toward Stromric, polarizing her visor as she simply said, "I aim to misbehave."

With that, she turned and began to stride purposefully down the road, with Hotaru, Hartley, Matsunaga, and Katsuki following her closely. Nodding his approval, Stromric followed in their wake, and several dozen more of the defenders, having been watching and waiting for this moment, were soon following after.

Below them, the droids had noticed their advance, and were beginning to form up to move up the street on their own. Discreetly, Yuuna picked up her pace to a fast walk, enough to get her moving faster than the droids, but not enough to trigger them to start running as well. The wreckage of the Arcadia-Maison apartment building that was their 'zero barrier' was closer to their origination point than the droids, and they would reach it first presuming the enemy didn't rush.

As the two forces drew closer together, Yuuna watched the droids' formation change, with the heavier units and the bulk of the infantry loitering while several hundred lighter-equipped units continued to advance. "They're sending a skirmisher force," she remarked. "Plan Charlie."

Beside her, Hotaru nodded and readied an arrow in her yumi. From within the lantern on her artifact, hastily affixed with a length of rope to serve as a sling over her back, a green-glowing firefly drifted out to alight on the head of her arrow, engulfing it in flame. As the first ranks of the Mahoran defenders reached the rubble of the collapsed buildings and took cover behind the debris, she stopped and aimed her longbow directly up, releasing the arrow into the sky. The flaming implement shot up several hundred feet and then burst into a bright green starburst, a signal flare to indicate to the others which of the variations on Yuuna's plan they were going to enact.

The droids below looked up to follow the path of the arrow, but otherwise didn't react to it, as they lacked strategic knowledge of what it signified, other than it being a signal of some kind. Stopping close to fifty feet from the collapsed buildings, the first rank of droids took sight on the debris with their rifles and opened fire, peppering the front of the Mahorans' makeshift barricades with displacement spheres. The vast majority, striking nothing but buildings and debris, had no effect, but a handful of lucky or well-aimed shots struck students through weaker debris or openings, eliminating about a dozen from play. With their rifles empty, the first rank stepped back to reload, replaced by a second rank that stepped forward to fire another volley.

Standing on top of a roof nearby, Nealla observed from out of view of the droids as they made their attack. Closing her eyes, she raised her hands and focused on the intersection immediately behind the skirmish force. "I think that will be quite enough of that..."

Without warning, a wall of flame exploded into existence behind the droids, cutting off the path they had come up and forestalling any reinforcements. As the droids looked back in surprise at this turn of events, the Mahorans took advantage of their distraction. From back near the main defense line, seventy defenders who had stayed back for just this purpose—both students armed with magic casters and a large number of Fireteam Charlie remnants—unleashed a volley of magic and rifle fire of their own into the droid skirmishers. Dozens crumpled under the sustained fire before they were aware of their danger, and behind the barricades, Yuuna smiled beneath her helmet. "The battle begins..." she murmured.

She was the first on her feet, and almost the exact moment she leaped from cover and began to charge forward, the sound of guitars and drums exploded over the city, Nanao choosing her exact moment to begin her musical addition to the battle. Yuuna didn't recognize the song immediately, but it sounded a bit familiar, and judging by what she could hear, was firmly centered in the 'power metal' category of music. And strangely enough, the sudden intrusion of music—though catching her off-guard—didn't make her stumble or lose focus; if anything, she felt empowered by the song.

The entire main force of Mahorans charged along with Yuuna, many either just naturally faster or not weighed down by armor quickly pulling ahead, firing their magic casters at the droids as they went. It didn't take long for the droids to recover from the sudden one-two surprise attack and take note of the several hundred defenders charging at them. As Yuuna had been hoping for, instead of take cover and hose the attacking students, the droids immediately counter-charged at their full, terrifying speed, closing the distance in seconds. They collided with the fastest of the students with all the force of a head-on collision, but every remaining defender had been equipped with a Jammer ring, and the crash of the forces was not the rout the droids were hoping it would be.

Flying over darkened skies, the battle will call
Distant angels crying in the eye of the storm
And the world falls under the starlight
Shining from heavens below

Yuuna shoulder-blocked a droid charging at her, her own speed and momentum allowing the impact, having caught the droid in mid-step, to pitch the machine back to the ground, where a quick shot from the magic caster in her left hand put it down. Around her, the clash quickly descended into chaos as both forces struggled to throw the other off-balance and gain some semblance of momentum. To their great credit, the defense forces gave not an inch, even when the droids began to resort to using rifles as clubs due to the increasing difficulty at getting clear shots off in the mayhem.

To the gunslinger girl's left, Hotaru had quickly abandoned any pretense of using her yumi in this chaotic environment, wielding her shepherd's staff artifact and the full swarm of one thousand fireflies from the chouchin lantern. Testing her concentration and ability with the magic item, she split the swarm first into two halves, then further split each half, tasking two groups to protect herself and Yuuna from stray rifle fire, and the other two to set fire to the droid ranks. Parrying a rifle thrust from an attacking droid, she stepped back and converged her defensive swarm—the closest one to her—on it, the two hundred and fifty fireflies immediately obscuring it from view and reducing it to a charred pile of metal in nearly the same amount of time. "I'm not cut out for this type of fighting..." she muttered to herself.

Long years of pain and sorrow, searching for more
Cry for the touch of angels never before
And the stars fall on the horizon
Onwards and up through the pain

Even despite all the noise of battle, Nanao's song could still be heard by all the participants, its effects on the combatants subtle but sufficient. The students were finding themselves more accurate, slightly faster, stronger, and able to take more hits, with the reverse being true for the droids. But even that didn't change the fact that the droids were machines built for war, and their opponents were only human. Whether by displacement round or sheer brutal force, the edge in strength the droids possessed was beginning to play in their favor.

Several feet from Matsunaga, a droid crashed to the pavement with its head a smoking hole, courtesy of the older man's assault rifle. Standing up from the crouch he'd taken to get his sneak attack in, he glanced around to gain his bearings. As he did so, he spotted a droid lining up to take a shot at Yuuna, who was busy stomping another droid's face flat beneath her boots. Shifting his aim, he sighted up the offending droid and squeezed the trigger. The assault rifle in his hands chattered loudly, sending the droid staggering from the force of the rounds, but then almost immediately fell silent following the rather subdued-in-comparison sound of the bolt locking back.

A glance down at the LED counter on the rifle showed a glowing red '00' and he cursed, tripping the magazine release lever. Reaching for a replacement magazine, he kept his gaze locked on the droid. Sparks cascaded from the bullet holes in its frame as it regained its footing, tracing the trajectory of the bullets back to Matsunaga, and bringing its own longarm to bear. The next few moments would be decided by whether or not man was faster than machine.

The series of dull impacts that struck him in the chest did not feel like getting shot, even by training rounds. Still, the transfer of energy rocked him backwards, nearly overbalancing him to the point that he fell backwards, and should have sent him stumbling, but his feet felt rooted to the ground. The deeply-resonant thump-whir sound that he had become far too familiar with heralded the appearance of the roiling black sphere that had surrounded him; outside it, the droid had already turned its focus elsewhere, deeming him to be no longer a threat.

Determined to prove the fatality of that error, Matsunaga slammed in the magazine he had retrieved but didn't bother to release the bolt catch, shifting his hand forward to the underbarrel grenade launcher. With a brief check to make sure that there weren't any friendlies too close to the enemy combatant, he launched a 40mm grenade at the droid. Unimpeded by the sphere or any of its effects, the grenade crossed the distance almost instantly and struck the droid high on the torso.

The unyielding metal chassis of the droid, unlike the flesh and clothing of a human target, was more than sufficient to trigger the impact fuze of the projectile, the resultant explosion shattering the droid's upper body. Just moments afterward, the displacement field surrounding Matsunaga collapsed, taking with it yet another desperately-needed source of skill and experience in the battle.

Ride the wind and fight the demons, steel shining bright
Standing together forever onwards, flames burning strong
Hot wind in hell of pain and sorrow, now and ever onwards
We stare into the dawn of a new world

Yuuna looked up from the destroyed droid underfoot when Matsunaga's tracker vanished completely from her HUD. She could already figure out what had happened to him, but Katsuki remarked automatically, "Damn droids got Matsunaga. He had the signal flares."

Knowing that the gunslinger girl's entire strategy hinged on using the signals to communicate with the other elements in lieu of more traditional methods, Hotaru swapped her lantern staff for her yumi and announced, "I can do it!"

The pause that ensued as the remaining three members of Cleric Team exchanged looks was only barely long enough to be noticed, then Yuuna nodded. "Alright, we'll do it that way."

Cry out for the fallen heroes
Lost in time ago
In our minds they still belong
When the sands of time are gone

A series of brief but powerful explosions drew their attention across the intersection, where the last of the remaining crab droids had tried to simply pass right through the flame barricade. Unfortunately for them, the flames were magical in nature, and possessed far more energy than they expected; the explosions had been the machines combusting violently under the stresses of the heat. Despite this, those explosions had managed to open several long stretches of the barricade, allowing more of the main force of droids through.

Some of the defenders panicked at the sight of more enemy forces, but not Yuuna. She simply turned to her ministra and said, "Stage two, yellow signal."

Nodding, the archer ducked down behind an overturned tram car and reached for an arrow as the three black-armored students advanced to provide her cover. The choice to use flares fired from Matsunaga's grenade launcher had been one of expediency: it was faster and exposed the user to less enemy fire than it would have been for Hotaru to use a firefly-enhanced arrow. She had always been considered for backup use should this situation occur, so at the very least the plan wouldn't unravel with the older man's loss.

With the arrow readied, she directed a firefly, this one glowing yellow, to the tip of the projectile, then aimed it in an arc that would carry it over the tops of the nearest buildings and across several streets. "Covering fire!" she heard Yuuna yell, then it seemed like every defender within twenty feet of her unleashed their weapons at full blast on the droids, pushing them back behind cover and leaving her the opening she needed.

Standing up partially from her cover, she lifted her bow and fired into the air, then immediately dropped back down with such speed that she lost her balance and fell back on her butt. Her eyes remained glued to her arrow, however, watching as it arced into the sky. As it cleared the buildings, the firefly riding it began to burn brilliantly, illuminating a glowing yellow signal for the rest of the embattled defenders for several moments before bursting into an even brighter yellow starburst. If that hadn't gotten the attention of the next stage unit, then nothing would.

Rise over shadowed mountains blazing with power
Crossing valleys, endless tears, in unity we stand
Far and wide across the land, the victory is ours
On towards the gates of reason
Fight for the truth and the freedom
Gloria!

At first, the intervention of the second stage unit wasn't noticeable over the noise of the battle, not right away at least. Even having foreknowledge of their arrival, the speed and suddenness with which the last of Fireteam Charlie's Warthogs—sixteen in total—swept around the curve of the road took Hotaru by surprise. At the forefront of their charge, Hiroyuki crouched on the hood of the lead Warthog, gripping the edge of the hood with his left hand to maintain his balance. With his right hand, he raised his naginata into the air shouted something that the archer couldn't make out. His voice was answered by the war cry of the newly-arrived forces, their combined voices carrying even across the roar of engines and gunfire.

The rapid assault vehicles plowed into the back ranks of the droid forces, skirting the edge of what flames remained from Nealla's attempt to channel them into a kill box. The .50-caliber machine guns in the beds of the trucks opened fire, each gunner firing into extremely-precise avenues of fire in order to avoid hitting any friendly forces. That aside, the mass and speed of the vehicles themselves were more than weapon enough, at least in this first pass where the droids were still caught off-guard.

Laughing heartily at the battle he found himself engrossed in, Hiroyuki twirled his polearm above his head, then lashed out in wide, sweeping arcs, decapitating droids to either side until the Warthog he was riding broke free to the other side of the droids, coming about in a power-slide that turned it completely around. As the last of the marauding vehicles broke through and began to split for separate passes, Hiroyuki's driver sent the transport back into the thick of things.

This time, unfortunately, the enemy was prepared for them. An infantry droid set itself directly into the path of the Warthog and hunkered down, electronically locking its joints and armor, effectively rooting itself to the spot. And though the Warthog massed nearly twice that of the droid, it was still a car, and cars were designed to give way against things that didn't want to move. The entire hood crumpled when it struck the droid, the transferred inertia crushing the droid as well, but the catastrophic damage to the vehicle rendered it completely out of the fight.

As for Hiroyuki, the impact launched him into the air, but far from being deterred by the loss of his mount, he oriented himself in midair and landed blade-first on another droid, then rose and batted aside a sword thrust with the haft of his naginata. Without missing a beat, he brought the blade head down onto the droid's neck, then shoved it back to trip two of its fellows, lifted his weapon high, and decapitated them before they could recover. Looking about, he spotted a droid preparing to fire into the defending forces, then reared back and hurled Yuriko into the unsuspecting enemy's backside, spoiling its shot while removing it from the battle.

Searching through the memories to open the door
Living on the edge of life like never before
And the crowd chants under the moonlight, facing their fears all the same

The other Warthogs had already adapted their tactics against the droids, no longer plowing directly through the ranks, with half circling to streets controlled by their allies at a higher elevation from which they could pour down blistering fire, and the rest bravely moving down streets that paralleled the droid-controlled areas, seeking to thin their numbers by way of attrition. This had the added benefit of drawing away many of the walkers to deal with the marauding transports.

As Yuuna and Hotaru finished dragging the gunner of the Warthog that Hiroyuki had ridden to safety—the driver likewise assisted by Stromric and Katsuki—they heard another war cry go up from the direction of the plaza. Pausing to look, they saw almost a hundred more people—none of whom Yuuna recognized from any of the previous fighting—rushing to their aid, armed and equipped with fresh robes and weapons.

"Who the hell are those guys?" the gunslinger girl huffed in half-annoyance, turning back to shoot an onrushing droid in the head.

It took Hotaru as long as noting that all of these newcomers looked fresh and unharmed. "It's people from the city!" she answered, unable to stop either her grin or the swell of emotions in her chest. "You must have inspired them to come fight!"

"Good, we need the reinforcements." Yuuna paused to check on the gunner, then reached up and snagged the sleeve of a passing newcomer. "Hey, how many more of you are there?"

The young girl—even younger than Yuuna and Hotaru—thought for a moment, scratching her head with her free hand. "I think I saw about six or seven hundred more? Not entirely sure."

"The rest are staying up by the plaza?" the gunslinger girl grilled.

"Yeah, it looked like it."

Letting go of the girl's sleeve, Yuuna let out a sigh and nodded. "Good," she said, more to herself than anything. "They didn't fuck up my plan."

Heavens fear, now open wide and up for the call
All in stark reality, the angels will fall
And the world cries out for the silence, lost in the voices unknown

Buoyed by the fresh wave of reinforcements, the defenders renewed the battle with vigor, hammering the dwindling droid forces with everything they had. The two Fireteam Charlie soldiers who had been in the destroyed Warthog, unwilling to be counted out, picked up two discarded firearms that had been dropped by ruined droids, checking the weapons over once before turning the droids' own munitions against them. The first set of displacement spheres bursting in the droids' ranks were assumed to be lucky accidents by many of the Mahorans, but as the trend continued, it became clear that their own were behind it, and the idea spread.

At the center of the renewed charge, Yuuna smiled as she saw the idea finally catch on to turn their devastating weapons against them, bringing up both guns and unloading against a group of droids ahead of her. Fireflies from Hotaru's artifact swarmed ahead of her, catching the droids' return fire and absorbing the displacement effects before they could reach Yuuna. All around her, the reinforcement defenders charged headlong into the droids' ranks, more than a few suffering the obvious consequences from such foolish actions, but the effect they were having on taking down the opposition. Their lack of experience compared to their compatriots was clear, more brawlers than the warriors their fellows had become, but they were doing their part.

From his position at the overturned tram car, Hartley settled his scope over the head of a commander attempting to organize the droids, putting the kibosh on that plan with half a pound of pressure. Zooming out, he took a moment to scan the battlefield for more targets of high priority, when his scope crossed over something that always caused dread to any sniper: heavy armor. He could count at least six of the Komodo-type walkers tromping out of the darkness, intent on turning back the gains that the Mahorans had made. Testing the radio waves to see if they'd cleared up, and finding them still jammed, he tagged the walkers in his HUD and uploaded the data packet.

Yuuna looked up when the walkers illuminated in her visor, a cold shiver running up her spine despite knowing the battle would eventually come to this. Turning quickly, she spotted Hotaru and called out, "Red signal!" As the archer nodded and reached for her yumi, she cranked up her external mic and yelled as loudly as she could, "RETREAT!"

By the time she'd gotten that far, the walkers were visible to the others, and no second order needed to be given. The Mahorans immediately lost all cohesion and fled back toward the plaza, an unruly crowd very nearly stampeding over themselves to get away from the all-but-unbeatable heavy walkers.

Blinded by the force of evil, cries into the night
Never before have they seen the darkness, now they're all gone
Out from the shadows, storming on the wings of revelations
Your soul will feel no mercy come the dawn

At first, Yuuna thought that the blazing red arrow that Hotaru had sent into the air was whistling like a rising firecracker, but the blast of an artillery displacement sphere ahead and to her right, engulfing four of her fleeing comrades, put paid to that thought. Holding back from a full-on flight just slightly, she glanced about, then moved through the crowd to meet up with Hotaru, Hartley, and Katsuki, before the quartet continued fleeing uphill.

Behind, the droids were content to let the walkers lead their charge, the six-legged monstrosities moving with a startling amount of speed as they fired up at the retreating defenders. Many of their shots strayed wide, to the annoyance of their processors. Even after adjusting their aiming parameters, however, they still were confounded by vastly more misses than hits, unaware that their aim was being stymied by the affects of Nanao's song, and even more subtly by a black-cloaked man standing out of sight atop a nearby apartment building.

Setting aside their seeming inability to land accurate fire, the walkers continued to charge forward, battering aside whatever barricades remained from earlier in the battle, crawling over low plaza walls, and clearing the way for the rest of their army to move up unopposed. Passing the last of the accessible roadways that ran perpendicular to the main thoroughfare, the droids watched as the last of the retreating defenders cleared the tallest set of stairs, and the last set, that remained between their position and the World Tree Plaza; clearly, the humans were so broken that they were set on fleeing the battle entirely. Without pause, the droids charged up the stairs in preparation to catch the humans on relatively-flat ground, but what they saw waiting for them caused them to hesitate.

The last of her first wave group to reach safety, Yuuna slid to the ground beneath the platform that Nanao and her band were still performing their power ballad on, turning to face back at the droids who had come to a complete stop. The gunslinger girl grinned.

All around her, every single remaining defender she had left lining all levels of the plaza and several surrounding buildings besides—over a thousand regulars and every name of power they still had—aimed their charged weapons and readied abilities at the droids.

Hold on for the morning after
Never to let go
In the fires burning strong
When the tides of time roll on

Standing at the edge of the first plaza level, a blazing sword of holy energy raised in her right hand, Naru pointed toward the stunned droids and yelled, "FIRE!"

The noise was tremendous.

Thousands of waves of magic energy and rifle fire swept over the droids, slaughtering the first waves in an instant. The walkers, made of sterner stuff, refused to go down as easily, but that was where the others came in.

On the rooftop above and to the right of the droids, Sabashii spread his hands out, finishing his incantation, "Malleus Aquilonis," as a giant block of ice materialized in the air and smashed down into the droid ranks. Beside him, magic energy swirled around Nealla as she willed her Manafont ability into play, coalescing rapidly in her hands as she flung one double-charged Ultima spell after another at the walkers. Next to her, Kaolla unleashed a full volley of micro-missiles from the packs on her arms and legs before hefting a minigun she had stolen from one of the Heavy droid units and scything fire down into their ranks.

Opposite that building, Motoko struck out with the Youto Hina, her Zantetsusen's three spiraling blades of energy seeking out separate walkers, cleaving the machines in half at the mid-point. Haruka calmly and efficiently fired down into the droids' ranks with her Beretta, the 9mm rounds dealing negligible damage on their own, but far more importantly, inflicting each droid she struck with an array of status effects, not only slowing their actions, but rendering them more vulnerable to physical and magical attacks. That vulnerability was something that Mei was more than willing to take advantage of, blasting Flagrantia Rubicans spells onto the afflicted droids as fast as she could cast them. Next to her, Kotaro made repeated punching motions toward the droids, summoning his shadow wolves to sweep in and assault the weakened droids.

Down on the ground, Yuuna watched as one of the front-rank walkers that had escaped the barrage of firepower from all sides shuddered, then lifted slowly into the air. Its legs scrabbled at the ground in an attempt to gain purchase, but it was quickly lifted higher than its limbs could reach. The frame buckled, then in almost the blink of an eye the thing crushed down to the approximate size and shape of a basketball. From atop a building far down the road, a bolt of blue lightning zapped the crushed walker, igniting its fuel source into an explosion.

Reacting to the sudden opportunity, Nealla chained Gravija spells onto the epicenter of the explosion, successively increasing the gravity at its core until she triggered a micro-singularity, feeding on the energy of the explosion until it collapsed on itself, releasing a cascade of energy that obliterated anything that remained of the front ranks.

"Charge!" Yuuna shouted, pushing herself to her feet and rushing through the remains of the droids' front line. All said, her plan had gone spectacularly well, this last trap even more successful than she had anticipated.

Now, victory was within their grasp.

The war cry of the army at her back was loud enough to force her helmet systems to automatically dampen the sound to protect her hearing, but she overrode the protection to listen to that glorious, wonderful sound. Stepping up on top of a smoldering Komodo walker, she paused and lined up her SOCOM on the closest droid to her, the armor-piercing round cratering its head and sending it collapsing to the ground.

Looking back as her fellow defenders swept past her and crashed into the droid army, she grinned and lifted both hands into the air, waving her comrades ever forward. "No prisoners!"

"NO MERCY!" everyone within the sound of her voice roared back, completing the reference.

The carnage was on.

Jumping down from the wrecked walker, Yuuna hurled the magic caster in her left hand at an oncoming droid to disorient it, then double-tapped it in the chest with her other pistol. As it staggered, she kicked it back into its comrades, raising her weapon again as a swarm of fireflies swirled around her and engulfed the quartet of droids in front of her.

Deciding that now was as good a time as any to throw caution to the wind, she dove through the mass of flames and melting droids, firing half-blind at the red outlines on her HUD, and was rewarded with two droids dropping while a third stumbled before her, half its head blown away and its spine revealed by her blind fire. She tackled the droid to the ground, firing another shot into its chest as she grabbed the exposed spine in her left hand and yanked with all her might. The damaged connectors sheared away, electricity sparking and hissing as she tore the head and half the spine out of the body cavity, then raised her gory trophy to the skies.

Around her, a dozen defenders who happened to see her hoisting the remains of the droid cheered her actions, but Hotaru grimaced as she caught up with the gunslinger girl. "A little bit over the top, aren't we?"

Chuckling, she tossed aside the spine and took a moment to take a breath, watching the others swarm forward. "Maybe," she admitted, "but that felt cathartic as hell."

Ahead, the droids had begun to regroup and counter-attack, slowing down the momentum of the charging defenders. Unfortunately for them, however, in this battle they had the full might of every remaining mage and other supernatural individual left in the battle to contend with. Circling the skies over the street in search of an opportunity, Naru spotted several droids that had taken good defensive positions clustered around several buildings on the edge of the plaza, effectively creating a barrier against further advancement.

Coalescing energy into her left hand, she dove out of the sky and into a parallel path above ground that sent her sailing over the heads of Yuuna and Hotaru, the pair passing in less than an eyeblink. As she approached, one brave or foolhardy droid stepped out of cover, apparently intent on finishing whatever defender he'd been shooting at, and earned the energy blast to the chest for its troubles. The power of the attack shattered the droid entirely, its assault rifle flipping up into the air.

She snatched the weapon out of the air as she angled her body down to a standing position, her feet not touching the ground as she continued to propel herself forward, firing the rifle in her left hand at a surprised droid crouching behind a broken window. Another droid leaned out of the nearby door in an attempt to get a shot at her, but she gestured with her right hand and a spike of holy energy impaled it to the opposite wall. Flowing the gesture into a full spin as she slid onward, she fired the rest of the magazine into a third droid that was hiding deeper in the building, then came around and drove the weapon completely through another droid, using her momentum and strength to haul the thing up and over her head, then slam it down to the ground in her wake, discharging a small energy blast from her hand to finish it.

Completing another spin, she summoned a glowing blade of holy energy to her right hand and bisected the next droid at the waist. Its compatriot attempted to tackle her to the ground, but she surprised it by grabbing it by the head and lancing her blade through its core before tossing it away, without even breaking her momentum. She backfisted the next closest machine, and her eyes fell on a commander unit that had been directing these forces, already lined up to take a disabling shot at her. She flapped her wings once, powerfully, sending herself diving forward as the bullets passed beneath her. Her wings absorbed most of the impact with the ground as she rolled up to a standing position, discharging all her previous energy and cocking her right arm back.

The impact of her fist with the chassis of the droid was the crack of thunder, and in the next instant it was simply gone, lost to upper-level wind currents.

With that last band of resistance eliminated, the path opened for both sides to press forward. Over a hundred droids leaped high into the air, leaving behind the bulk of their forces to stem the tide of Mahorans surging forward. Their momentum checked, the charge ground to a halt, devolving into a chaotic melee that filled the streets of the plaza.

Several of the droids, starting to become aware of the fact that it was Nanao and her band's song that was providing such an advantage to the defense forces, charged forward to engage what they perceived to be a easy pickings, battering aside the surprised fighters standing in their way. Looking back, Hiroyuki caught sight of these attacking forces and spun to face in their direction, rearing back and hurling Yuriko through the air. Erupting into green flames, the naginata flew straight and true, striking the back of one droid with such speed and force that it lifted it from the ground entirely, impaling the metal man to the sign across the back of the plaza wall that read 'Velvet Firefly.'

Chasing through the crowd after the droids, Hiroyuki drew his revolver and jumped into the air, a pair of shots from the stacked double-barrels sending a destroyed droid to the ground in a heap. While in midair, a nearby droid lunged at him, the impact sending him skidding sideways into the wall of a confectionery building. Swearing, he brought the gun forward and fired into the droid's chest, then quickly looked back at the band under siege.

As it turned out, Velvet Firefly wasn't nearly as defenseless as he had thought. As the first droid dropped onto the stage, Nanao—currently not engaged in the face-melting guitar solo taking place—stepped forward and brought her guitar around like a literal axe, the steel reinforcing of the instrument crushing the droid's frame with a squelch of notes. Spinning through the strike, she came back around and planted herself in the path of the rest of the droids, picking up immediately on her next part in the song, and channeling her power through the notes to hit the attackers with waves of pure sound—less damaging than actually bashing them to death, but sufficient to keep them at bay temporarily.

"Quite rude," Masaru sighed from beside the stage, leaning back and reaching into the banana hammock that consisted of his Papillion costume. From the impossible location of within those briefs, he produced a large toy replica of a Star Wars Republic attack gunship as big as his entire upper body, crewed with ten five-inch clone trooper action figures. "Ati Me Peta Babka. Let's show these clankers the power of the Grand Army!"

Blue flames erupted from Masaru's hands, climbing up the sides of the toy and engulfing it completely. Rather than melt away the plastics and rubber, however, the vehicle and figures seemed to simply evaporate, disappearing into a puff of smoke that dissipated more rapidly than the air currents would dictate. Breathing heavily now, Masaru stepped backwards and took a knee in the shadow of the stage, focusing his attention on maintaining a steady flow of magic energy from the overflowing World Tree into the summon he had just created. The rest was in the hands of technology and a few good men.

Without warning, a brilliant streak of light flashed into the midst of the handful of droids still struggling against Nanao's sound waves, the bright explosion completely obliterating the enemy units. On the heels of the blast dying out came a sound not immediately recognizable outside of a movie theater, a deep, reverberating bass thrum that resonated in the chest. From beyond the rows of businesses that surrounded the plaza, a real, magically-created gunship soared into the battle, dropping down to hover a few scant feet off the ground. Four of the ten troops in the bay jumped out, taking up defensive positions around the stage to provide security against another marauding attack by the droids. The moment the troops had disembarked, the gunship lurched into the skies once more, heading down the path toward the greater concentration of enemy forces.

Back down the road, the other members of the Kuro crew who had engaged from the rooftops had reached the plaza area that Naru's overwhelming attack had cleared, leaping from their buildings into the crowd of droids trying to get to the upper level. Sabashii's kick smashed flat the droid that he landed on, a dull thud heralding his presence in the group as he went immediately on the offense, an initial right cross shattering the enemy to his left before he followed up with a crossing left to smash the one to his right. Behind him, two droids turned and reached for their high-frequency swords, but he hopped forward half a step to get enough distance to drive a rising super-kick into the first's head. As his foot came back to the ground, he grabbed the other droid and slammed its head down into his other knee, then channeled lightning mana into his hands and discharged the energy into its face, shutting the thing down entirely.

Nealla rushed past that battle, tossing an ether bottle to the white-haired man as she passed, then fired a burst of wind magic in a cone in front of her to clear her some breathing room. Half a dozen droids stumbled back from the attack, but they were nothing if not quick on the uptake. The closest attempted to stab her in the head with its blade, but she gracefully leaned back and away from the attack, turning her momentum into a complete backflip that kicked the droid in the chin with the same motion. Recovering, she blasted it with a dual-casted fireball from both hands, then glanced to her left in time to see another droid about to fire on her. With a twist of her fingers, a barrier of ice formed in front of the rifle's barrel, prematurely triggering the time displacement back onto the droid.

Still kneeling, she reached up above her shoulders and brandished the scimitars she had left previously untouched in the battle. Supportive magic cascaded over her like a warm shower, increasing her speed with a haste spell as a hexagonal, blue shield flashed into place before her and then vanished. Glancing back over her shoulder, she gave a nod to Shinobu before leaping forward, her blades screaming through the air and decapitating the nearest droid to her. She skidded past the last of the ones she had knocked back with her initial attack, coming to a halt behind them and swinging her blades up and over herself, shearing the nearest one in half at throat and waist. Another loomed behind her, but she merely completed her spin and decapitated it as well.

Learning from the battle at hand, a droid charged from behind while she was facing away and slammed into her, pinning her arms against her sides. Before she could begin to retaliate, another droid careened into her from in front, trapping her between half a ton of metal and circuitry as a third droid lined up a shot to eliminate her from the battle. In a flash of light, Kitsune slid beneath the droid's arms and slashed her blades through the joints at the shoulder, severing the signals from its brain. Standing upright, the trickster rammed her daggers into its head and spine, then darted forward to engage other targets.

Taking advantage of the moment to breathe, Nealla pulsed magic energy through her body, wordlessly casting a float spell on herself. Her feet left the ground, but the weight of the droids nearly negated the effects of the spell. Unperturbed, she continued to spam-cast the spell, its effects stacking with each successive cast. After several moments, the front droid's grip slipped, giving her the opportunity she needed to drive her knees up into its torso. The sudden movement loosened the grip of the one behind her as well, and she struck instantly, the scimitar in her left hand slashing open the droid's chest before her, then inverting and driving backwards into the core of the one behind her. As the two droids fell away from her, she canceled her float spells and hurtled back to the ground, swinging her scimitars in an arc in front of her and beheading another pair of droids on landing.

Its drive engines roaring over the noise of battle, the Republic gunship soared in low over the street, unleashing its devastating arsenal on the large masses of droids just beyond the front lines of the battle. The heavy bass thrum of the forward laser cannons thundered in the chests of the defenders, the bolts themselves ablating away whatever droids they hit and bursting into powerful explosions upon striking more sturdy objects. From the remote ball turrets in the wings and the manned, swing-mounted ball turrets to either side of the craft, particle beam composite lasers flashed out, sweeping across the droids with lethal, surgical precision. Where the blasts from the forward lasers exploded and obliterated droids at a strike, the thinner, directed-energy particle beams cut through armor and weapons like hot knives through butter. Droids crashed to the ground in flames, the heat of the lasers igniting fuel cells, as the gunship circled back to hover above the plaza.

Through this storm of destruction, Motoko made her attack, flanked by Setsuna to the left and Hisato to the right, the three swordswomen driving deep into the enemy. In a continuation of her earlier fighting method alongside Asuna, the youngest Shinmeiryu maiden exuded grace in all her movements, sliding between foes as though she wore skates on her feet, the sixteen blades of her artifact pinwheeling between her wings when they weren't lashing out, striking droids that attempted to blindside her as she moved ever onward, the rising blade of Yuunagi literally disarming the droid directly in her path. Amped by the song and the battle, and still secretly wishing to impress her adopted older sister a bit, she smacked the pinwheeling arm to turn it back toward its owner, then shoved it with all her might, ramming it—and the rifle still held in its grip—into the droid's chest cavity. The droid collapsed, and she stepped past it, ki swirling into the edge of her blade as she spun in a full circle, her Zanmaken crushing half a dozen droids in front of her.

Just ahead of Setsuna, Motoko looked toward her younger sister's activities, a tight smile gracing her lips for just a moment before a sword-armed droid stepped into her reach. The black blade Youto Hina gleamed in the light of explosions and street lights, deflecting aside the high-frequency sword as she simply stepped past the offending enemy. Stumbling forward with its momentum deflected, the droid turned to re-engage her, but simply got the blade of Hisato's Shinaijou copy through the core for its troubles.

Moving to the next enemy, Motoko swept aside a droid's rifle with a slash from her sword, then focused ki into her left hand and did her best impersonation of Naru delivering one of her famed punches. The droid's chassis practically disintegrated under the force of the ki, but the blow still stung her unprotected hand, slowing her momentum as she shook her hand in an effort to lessen the pain. In that moment of vulnerability, a droid nearby turned to get her in its sights, but before it could fire, a hailstorm of brilliant blue blaster bolts shredded the humanoid machine.

Looking back toward the plaza, she saw the remaining six clone troopers that had still been aboard the gunship sprint across the street she stood on, moving toward the cover offered by parked cars and the outdoor patios of the eateries and shopping buildings beyond. One trooper rolled into the cover of a car and came up clutching a beeping, metallic sphere in his right hand. The armored man hurled it forward into the mass of droids, the resultant explosion taking out close to a dozen droids.

The trooper that trotted up beside her was clearly the leader, being the only one not wearing the stock white armor. His armor bore blue rank stripes, a large pauldron on his left shoulder, and a tattered-looking flexible half-skirt covering the back of his legs that she had heard Seno refer to as a 'kama.' As if that wasn't proof enough of his seniority, being the only one wielding something other than a blaster rifle added further testimony; his weapon looked similar to the miniguns that some of the droids were using, and he was probably the source of that hail of fire that had saved her a moment ago.

"Let's go, move it up!" he ordered his soldiers in that unmistakable accented voice that Motoko associated with the clone troopers due to watching the most recent two Star Wars movies more than a few times with her husband.

More disturbingly, she felt a very faint stirring in her soul when the trooper stopped beside her, taking half-cover behind a burned-out car before hefting his minigun over the hood and—there was no other way to describe it—hosing the droids immediately before him with the high-speed weapon. The staccato repetition of the blaster bolts firing reverberated in her chest, but that was not the cause behind the sudden constriction of her heart and she knew it.

A glance to Hisato's confounded expression confirmed what she had felt: this trooper bore the residual sensation of Seno's soul.

Seeming to notice her attention on him, the trooper's helmeted head turned slightly toward Motoko, but before he could say anything, an explosion directly on the other side of the car forced him to turn his attention back to the battle. The droids, none too keen about this new intrusion, had moved three of their Heavy-type minigun troopers onto a balcony that gave them a commanding view over the battlefield. All three opened fire before any of the defenders noticed them, and three of the white-armored troopers disappeared immediately within the displacement vortices as the droids began to walk their fire back toward the road where Motoko and the trooper commander were taking cover.

Out of practically nowhere, Shinobu appeared in front of Motoko and the commander, magic energy emanating from her body as she waved her war fans out in a broad sweep away from her body. A massive, translucent geodesic shield materalized five meters in front of her, covering the entire street front and protecting her allies as the displacement rounds burst uselessly against the face of the shield. Due to the disorganized nature of the battlefield, there was no way to ensure that there would be no droids on their side of the shield, and one of the ones that was reacted immediately, charging toward Shinobu and firing its assault rifle in her direction.

The young domestic engineer manipulated the fan in her left hand, generating another blue hexagonal shield some two meters between her and the gunfire, protecting herself from the immediate attack, but between that and sustaining the other shield against the Heavy units' ceaseless fire, she was left unable to otherwise retaliate. Sensing her weakness, the droid switched the rifle for a high-frequency sword, moving around her dissipating barrier and charging toward her with the weapon raised.

Before it could reach her, Kaolla charged in from the side and leaped over Shinobu's head, delivering a punishing kick to the droid that sent it sprawling backwards. Before it could recover, the MolMolian princess fired a burst of minigun fire into its core, then turned her attention to the balcony that the enemy heavies were stationed on. A glance to Shinobu confirmed their strategy, then Kaolla dropped the minigun, lined up the missile pods on her arms and legs and fired a barrage of rockets toward the balcony. Shinobu snapped the fan in her left hand shut, and the shield on that side of the street vanished, allowing the rockets through. In the blink of an eye, the missiles traversed the distance and detonated against the side of the building, the explosive force more than enough to destroy the droids, but also collapsing the balcony and half of the building on them just to make sure.

With that immediate pressing threat contained, and the laughter of Kaolla carrying over the battle as she merrily moved forward to terrorize the enemy, Motoko returned her attention to the blue-striped trooper, tapping him on the shoulder with the flat of her sword to get his attention. Once his helmeted head turned in her direction, she demanded, "Who are you?"

His head shifted marginally to one side, as though he expected his identity to be common knowledge. "Advanced Recon Commando, Alpha-37."

Of course. Out of all of Seno's Star Wars toys, his favorite was undoubtedly the clone trooper that matched the appearance of this ARC, upon whom he had bestowed the name 'Alpha-37' and an exhaustingly-extensive list of weapons, equipment, and backstory. Her husband had poured a little bit of his soul into this trooper, and that was why Thirty-Seven gave an impression that matched the missing bond of the swordsman.

Anger suddenly surged up inside her, and she gritted her teeth against the tears she felt stinging her eyes. Was it not enough that the universe had taken her husband from her—in body and soul—for the climax of this battle, however long it still lasted? Were the gods so wantonly cruel that they concocted the notion of giving this toy life, just to taunt her with the hollow shade of her absent husband's soul?

The battle wasn't willing to come to a stop for her to curse the events of the evening, as demonstrated by a droid charging at her, intent on getting too close for her to parry its shots. Instead, she batted the point of its rifle aside as it reached her, then, her eyes flashing with anger, she lifted the Youto Hina high above her head and struck down with all of her might. The droid attempted to use its rifle to block the strike, but it may as well have been using a sheet of paper for all the good the weapon did, her ki-reinforced blade—fueled by her surging emotions—cleaving the metal polymers of the rifle in half before continuing on to split the droid's head in half.

Overhead, the noise of the gunship's drives as it made another attack run down the road obscured the sound of a droid that jumped on top of the car that Thirty-Seven was covering behind, kicking the ARC trooper in the side of the helmet and knocking him back before diving at Motoko, its entire weight smashing into the side of her leg. Pain flashed through her body as she felt her femur give, dropping her to one knee. She screamed in agony as the impact ground the split ends of her thigh bone together, the droid who had attacked her standing back up to its full height to savor its imminent victory as it reached for a sidearm to finish her with.

A blur of white and blue cannoned into the droid before it could complete its draw, the pistol flipping off comically into the distance as Thirty-Seven bore it to the ground, then began to bash it into submission with his bare hands. Gasping for breath, Motoko looked up as another pair of droids charged at her, swords humming with energy.

Not like this, she thought to herself, clenching her left hand into a tight fist. Her wedding band bit into her finger, that minor discomfort giving her a focus. I won't let it end this way!

Her ki erupted around her in a glowing white aura, rapidly focusing down into her left hand, giving her the protection she needed to swat aside the first droid's blade. Hitting it with far more power than she expected, her blow sent the droid spinning away, in time for Kitsune—coming to her friend's aid—to stab it in the head and core. As the other came in, she brought the Youto Hina down on top of the droid's sword, parrying it into the ground. Reversing her momentum, the strike she delivered across its throat sprayed hydraulic fluid out onto her.

The threat dealt with, and recognizing the bright colors of her compatriots closing in around her, Motoko's second wind gave out, and she fell to a kneeling position, her sword clattering to the ground as she levered her weight off her broken leg and onto her hands and other knee. Shinobu was at her side immediately, holding her up with one hand as her other weaved healing magic into the broken limb. Warmth radiated out of the damage area, and the swordswoman felt like crying with relief.

Kitsune and Nealla formed two more walls of a protective echelon around her, the steady chatter of Kaolla's appropriated minigun a few steps away keeping the droids back and opening new avenues of assault for their comrades. Hisato dropped down from the adjacent rooftop, half of her face coated in hydraulic fluid. Her expression was impassive as she watched Shinobu heal Motoko, but the sense of failure weighing on her mind was as clear as a neon sign to the heiress.

"I think that's enough for the evening," Hisato spoke quietly.

Before anyone could reply, the hairs on the back of Motoko's neck rose, and a moment later, a blazing sphere of blue energy roared over the rooftops, striking the side of the gunship as it was in the middle of a turn for another attack run. The explosion pitched the aircraft to the side, smoke filling the skies as the pitch of its engines whined several octaves higher and then seized entirely. Secondary explosions wracked the gunship's frame as it fell from the sky like a puppet with its strings cut, crashing into—and through—a convenience store.

Back toward the plaza, Yuuna spun back as she watched the energy blast shoot down the gunship, coming around in time to see the dragon demon that everyone had presumed dead pulling itself the rest of the way out of the building it had crashed into after Negi had shot it down, the smoke issuing from its maw giving mute testimony to the source of the attack that had downed the gunship.

"Damn it, how many times do we have to kill that thing!?" the gunslinger girl swore, running for the stairs that would lead to the upper level of the plaza where the dragon was, dangerously close to the World Tree Plaza.

Hotaru and Katsuki, along with two of the clone troopers and a dozen other assorted defenders, likewise made their way to challenge the demon, and as she reached the stairs, a heavy weight that could only be a droid slammed into Yuuna from behind. She smashed into the stairs at speed, only her helmet stopping her from splitting her head open on the concrete. The impact dazed her and sent her pistol sailing down to the stage below.

Turning back at the sound—and the sensation in her soul—of Yuuna's distress, Hotaru saw the droid standing over her and called out, "Yuuna!" as she directed her full swarm at the droid. This one, aware of her shenanigans, lifted its rifle and sprayed into the mass of fireflies, scything its fire to catch the maximum number of insects in the displacement spheres.

Yuuna took advantage of the droid's distraction to crawl away from it, her eyes darting about for anything she could possibly use as a weapon. A blue outline appeared on her HUD, and she turned back toward it to find that it was a SOCOM pistol lying discarded on the ground. Without hesitation, she dove for the weapon, snatching it up in her right hand and rolling over onto her back. It wasn't until she saw the other blue outline of the pistol she'd just lost on the stage that she realized this had to have been the one she had lost earlier in the battle. Setting that thought aside, she centered her HUD crosshair over the droid's head and fired until the thing collapsed over backwards, a smoking hole where its head used to be.

Hotaru was at her magistra's side in an instant, helping Yuuna to her feet as her artifact lantern tirelessly disgorged more fireflies to replace the ones affected by the droid's displacement rounds. "Doesn't your armor have a radar?" the archer teased.

"I get distracted too easily..." Yuuna grumbled.

Before Hotaru could tease further, a blindingly-brilliant pillar of light flashed into existence behind them, centered on the World Tree Plaza. Both girls turned to see what had happened, but the light was so bright that it forced Hotaru to look away. Dialing up the light filtering in her helmet allowed Yuuna to look at the plaza, seeing that the dragon demon had planted one massively-clawed hand onto the grounds of the plaza, that apparently being all it needed to do to capture and activate the point the same way they'd seen all the others fall.

"Damn it!" the gunslinger girl cursed, punching the ground with all her might and flinching at the pain; she'd hurt herself, but not broken anything. "We had it! We had it!"

Hotaru laid a calming hand on the other girl's shoulder, turning her gaze up toward the battle in the skies. Up until a few moments ago, it had been a dazzling display of light and magic, but now, it had become disconcertingly quiet up there. She glanced to a nearby holographic display that was showing a live feed of the battleground almost two miles up. The two combatants hovered in the air in a face-off beside the dirigible that was the enemy commander's base of operations, separated by dozens of meters of distance. It looked like they were talking, and from her brief look at the situation, the last act of this war was about to commence.

"I guess we have to leave it up to Springfield-sensei after all..." she murmured.


Airspace Above Mahora Academy
1938 hours

"You're right-ne," she whispered, though she knew he could hear her, a softness in her voice not previously heard by the boy. "I didn't think very hard about that part. What surprised me most about the last two years was the fact that I enjoyed my time here very much-yo." She smiled wistfully, a serene expression on her face, and reached up a hand to brush tears from her eyes. "But now, it's nothing more than a faraway dream..."

But then her head lifted, her own determined face back, and she narrowed her eyes at her ancestor, calling out to him, "The time for talk is over-ne."

A warm breeze flowed past the battlefield, signifying the point of no return, the end of any attempts to end this battle by any means other than completely destroying the opponent. This would be the final, last hurrah of the encounter, and that meant it was time to pull out the biggest weapons in the arsenal. Negi sighed and resigned himself to this, knowing full well that at the end of the next few minutes, one or both of them might be dead or, at best, grievously injured.

Chao raised her left hand high above her head and pointed her right out in front of her, drawing such energy into herself and channeling it into her spell that the skies above roared and swirled like a volatile lion. "Ras teil mai magicscir magister! Come, Tyrant of Flame! Heed the contract and serve!"

Negi reached his hands down toward the ground, the wind howling around him like a miniature hurricane as he gathered the power of the winds and lightning in his hands. "Rastel maskir magister...Veniant Spiritus Aeriales Fulgurientes!" Twin orbs of swirling, virulent silver-and-blue energy formed in his palms, the elemental aspects of the sky heeding the call of the magical prodigy in his time of need.

Miniature flames formed in Chao's hands as she spun backwards in a theatrical gesture, causing the trailing edges of the flames to spiral and snap around her like fiery ribbons. "Rheusanton Pur kai Theion, ha Epephlegon Sodoma..."

"Cum Fulguratione Flet Tempestas Austrina!" Silvery bolts of lightning snapped into being between the two orbs held by Negi, joining them together into a single roiling sphere of lightning, sparking runoff bolts of lightning that flew all around the boy mage, whose eyes were locked unerringly on the glowing form of Chao.

The flames in Chao's hands burst into roaring conflagrations, engulfing both her arms to the shoulder and spinning in a saw-like motion as the Chinese girl flew forward, closing the distance between herself and her target. "Hamartolous, Eis Choun Thanatou!"

By now, Negi's incantation had been completed, and he was ready to unleash his spell, but he held off on doing so until Chao had likewise completed hers. This was not due to any sense of misguided chivalry, but due to practicality; the extra time he allowed her to complete her spell would allow him more time to charge additional power into his own spell which, on its own, could not stand against her Blazing Heat in the Sky. As she neared and continued chanting, he met her chant with a wordless cry of his own, pouring every last bit of his magical stores into the charging spell.

"OURANIA PHLOGOSIS!" Chao roared with every ounce of anger, rage, and fury she could muster, bringing her hands together, crashing the roaring flames into one another, and unleashing a raging torrent of fire twenty meters wide toward the boy mage.

Negi's answering cry was no less furious, screaming out, "JOVIS TEMPESTAS FULGURIENS!" as his palms set loose a silvery-white beam of wind and lightning six meters across, condensed and powerful, to meet the torrent of flames.

The two spells collided directly in between the two mages, the backblast of light blinding the observers on the ground. Negi's spell blasted the leading edge of the firestorm into a parabolic bowl, forcing it to arc out an additional fifty meters to either side, causing it to harmlessly pass by the boy. Were it not for the additional power boost creating that affect, Chao's spell would have easily overwhelmed Negi's and incinerated the mage, but as it stood, the two spells were deadlocked, forcing each other into a standstill.

Unwilling to give ground, Chao and Negi leaned into their efforts, funneling all the magic they had left in their bodies, and drawing in additional magic from the charged air as rapidly as they could. In this, the two combatants were equal, and their actions would have the result of completely depleting all the magic from the World Tree were it to continue.

However, Fate and science intervened at this point, and the amount of magic that Chao was channeling simply overloaded the spell sigils scrawled over her body, causing them to begin to forcefully explode one by one, beginning at her feet and working their way up. Glancing down to notice this, Chao gritted her teeth and stubbornly held on, holding her left arm steadily and forcing even more magic through her body and into her spell. Finally, the sigil in the center of her forehead exploded, snapping her head back and momentarily stunning her, breaking her concentration on her spell.

The wall of flames she had been projecting split open in the middle, allowing the concentrated piercing beam of Negi's lightning storm to power through and slam into her with full force, engulfing her in a brilliant white light as the last of her body's stored magic energy flushed itself in an apocalyptic explosion that resembled a small nuclear detonation, mingling with the remains of her spell and Negi's to create a roiling fireball that filled the evening sky.