The three most agile members of Yellow Team made short work of the short trip between the descended Vah Naboris and the lakeside battlezone. As the volunteer point member of the makeshift expedition Poppi led the way down, with Sectonia following behind, and she made sure not to allow herself to outpace the flightless Fox. The space animal kept up with the others quite well however, so the trio reached the area in only moments. Poppi considered unceremoniously slicing through the chainlink fence barring the way to the glowing circle the strangers had been fighting over, but thought better of it. Fox could just jump over, after all. Thanks to her eyes' zoom function she already knew where she could find the most people—the shady section in the oddly symmetrical arena's back. Until now she'd followed Fox's example of a stealthy approach, but that could exactly last if they planned to make contact. Poppi raised her alertness level and proceeded. As she emerged from behind cover she could see a number of faces turn her way, and while many hands lay on or near many weapons, no overt signs of hostility appeared. As she suspected from what seemed to be the fraternization of opposing sides, this was no ordinary scenario.
She waved as she boosted in, landing on the weathered stones in front of the rec center's door. An old man in a mask got to his feet, a rifle in one hand, but before he could say anything the artificial blade took the initiative. “Salutations!” she declared, giving a playful wave of her fingers. Unlike that of the giant insect in tow, her appearance didn't scream threatening, so any amount of endearment to these folk she could accrue would probably be helpful. Maybe even the adorably improper Nopon dialect would help. That said, even with his face hidden this man seemed unimpressed. She put her hands on her hips and put on a winning smile. “My name Poppi. This Queen Sectonia and Fox. We explorers from beyond desert, wanted to say hi and meet locals.”
Poppi looked over the array of people present. As one might expect from a place that apparently staged its own team-based conflicts, everyone here seemed fighting-fit, from the dwarf to the giant brutes to the women. Even the doctor looked right at home, since Poppi doubted that saw dangling from his pack would find an operating table out on the battlefield. The man who'd approached spoke up, his voice gruff. “Let me get this straight. You three saw an active warzone and thought you'd trot on over and say hello?”
Nodding, Poppi smiled again. “Exactly! Mr. soldier exhibit excellent comprehension. Also, not just us three. Friends in little titan, as well.” She extended a finger toward Vah Naboris, as if anyone present needed the mammoth camel pointed out to them. Everyone got a good look at Midna waving her giant hand from atop it, and Poppi nodded in appreciation. That good touch!
A slamming noise rang out as the Dwarf smacked his mug down on a table. “Well, ya said yer hellos! Now are ya gonna turn 'round, or ya want somethin' else?”
Poppi stopped to consider that. Her purpose had been to scout. Did that just mean report back with what she saw? Was she supposed to interview these people, ask them for help, or what? “Er...” Suddenly the eyes of everyone on her felt crushing. “Well, Poppi and friends on very important quest to save world. So we were wondering what you all doing here fighting each other when world needs saving.”
The Infiltrator snorted. “Hmph! Not obvious enough for you? We've got our own fight here. So you mind your business, and we'll mind ours, huh?”
His response rendered Poppi speechless. A dozen thought processes ran through her mind. “H..how long have you guys been fighting here?”
There came a chorus of murmurs. “Forever,” someone threw out.
Poppi found herself struck by confusion. What were they doing fighting so long if nobody died? Or did they die and come back? What were they fighting for? How could any of them think this struggle more important than saving the world? So many questions assailed her that she ended up asking none of them, leaving the questioning to her allies—or the REDs and BLUs.
After seeing Poppi and company off, Tora couldn't see much more given his lack of zoom eyes, so he opted to hope for the best and sit tight. Midna drifted off elsewhere, so taking her up on a chat would have to wait. Although his hands wanted to tinker, his mind didn't happen to drum up anything that didn't involve Poppi herself, so being useful in that regard was a bust, too. In the end, however, he found himself faced by Primrose and prompted with a fair question. “Hmm, Tora think so. Poppi very strong now, meh. Blades all capable of fighting on own, so it only problem if Tora needed fight without Poppi, meh. Weapons just metal and wood without Poppi to channel ether.” He held little back in his explanation, always happy to talk tech no matter the audience. “Meh, meh meh. Mind you, Poppi not like other blades, since Tora invented her. Normal blades awaken from core crystal, life tied to driver. Tora could not become driver, so instead made Poppi. Poppi ether furnace mimic natural function of blades to gather and distribute ether. Uh, like magic energy?” Although not at all familiar with the magic that other worlds apparently had, they looked similar on the surface. “Anyway, that meaning of 'artificial blade'.”
If Tora's chatter contained anything helpful to Primrose it all, it was that he wouldn't be much good in a fight on his own. With Midna in charge of Vah Naboris, that left a prospective thief-pursuing group exactly one member strong, unless the dancer thought to find wherever the Courier ended up and convince him.
The halls of the pyramid resounded with a scream. Skull struggled frantically, unable to escape the grip of the bizarre creature
that held him. “AAAAAAAH! Get this freaking thing offa me!”
“Hold still!” Panther lashed out with her whip, wrapping around the monster's neck. “You could just -hng- call Kidd, you know!” With a mighty tug she yanked the horrifically shrieking thing off her teammate and onto the floor. Joker pulled up on her right side and Mona on the left, each brandishing their firearms. Wordlessly the Phantom Thieves obliterated the redead with a barrage of gunfire, with Skull giving the disintegrating wretch a kick for good measure.
“Hah! Serves you right.” Taking a deep breath, Skull stretched out his shoulder. “Anyway, as I was sayin', door right there across the sandpit.” He pointed to make sure his friends saw. “All we gotta do is get across.”
Mona tugged on his pants. “Hey, not without me patching you up first, meathead!” At his bidding Zorro appeared, and one Diarama later Skull was back in peak condition.
“Aw yeah!” He patted his feline companion on the head, which Mona did not display an appreciation for, before wondering aloud, “Hey, come to think if it, why didn'tcha offer to heal those other guys after the fight with that buff lady?”
For a moment Mona said nothing, a perplexed half-scowl on his giant round face. “Er...well, they were going to search the camel now, weren't they? A-and I need to conserve my energy, this mission's only just starting. Who knows when we'll get a chance to rest?”
Meanwhile, Joker had already gotten halfway across the sandpit. However, his progress suddenly began to slow. Whereas a moment ago he stood to reach the other side way before the slow but steady sink of the sand claimed him, he now stood in danger of succumbing. “Uh, Joker? You alright?” Panther asked, taking note. “If you're stuck, zip out of there!”
“R-right!” The thief's hand rose from the sand, and from the device mounted on his wrist Joker released his grapple. It snagged on the doorway, and with a grunt he started dragging himself out. The easy task came hard, however, thanks to the invisible weight pressing down on him. At some point something he couldn't see had started attaching to him, more and more, until he couldn't move forward. With a herculean effort he pulled himself out of the pit, covered in sand, and with what little breath he had left gasped, “Arsene!”
The Persona manifested in a gout of azure flame and without further ado kicked Joker square in the back. Something released a shrill cry as it crumpled to the ground, and Joker's burden eased slightly. Mona's keen senses put two and two together quickly. “No way! Invisible pests!? I thought I smelled something funny.” He called forth Zorro. “You guys go ahead. If I smell any of 'em on you, I'll have my buddy stab 'em.” Skull and Panther gazed through the murky half-light at the treacherous sands, thinking about invisible rats biting them, and exchanged a glance.
A few minutes and several bite wounds later the Thieves made it through the doorway. Before them stretched a familiar scene: an enormous hallway paved with stairs leading steadily upward. Green lines and fragments of code danced across the walls and even the air itself. Joker experimentally bade Arsene put his foot through an urn and watched as green pixels scattered. “We're in the right place, alright.” He joined his teammates looking up the stairs. “She must be here. Let's go.”
With a stroke of luck Junior's brief time spent familiarizing himself with the Atomos culminated in an arcane-fueled rumble as the magitech in the belly of the beast awoke from its slumber. Its sudden and noisy activation broke the silence of the swear-word situation involving Sakura and Geralt, giving both an unspoken ultimatum: all board
! Further banter could be had en route. The tyke wasted no time putting the machine through its paces in a worryingly high-risk process of trial and error, but whether by providence or sheer dumb luck the little Bowser managed to get the craft under control before a collision with the city itself came about. Still, resident air marshal seemed less than happy, shouting at the Atomos and gesturing wildly. His vehemence suggested, perhaps, to some Blue Team members that the young'uns not being able to hear him might be for the best. Junior maneuvered the Atomos into open air, where it began to pick up speed, its systems humming ferociously as magic flowed throughout. He lofted over the seastacks of Limsa Lominscuttle Town and aimed the craft toward the waves, where faint traces of white foam outlined the path taken by the navy as they sailed -or scooted- to war.
Long before the dumpy but vigorous Atomos drew near the ominous stormclouds to the north, the team found its destination. A vast section of the open sea had become utter chaos, the fleet of shipgirls engaged in a dance of death across the ocean's roiling surface. While the Atomos couldn't hover, it could slow down to such a degree as to afford its occupants a good view of the battle from its deck at whatever Junior judged to be a safe distance, if he did as such. Although perhaps not surprising given the constitution of Limsa's navy, the Abyssal Fleet it engaged also eschewed the usage of traditional boats, making its own units difficult to spot for a short time. But spot them the heroes did.
At first the enemies appeared indistinct, maybe fish or stones or hunks of metal. When they crested the waves, however, the onlookers could see their baleful, dead eyes and hideous teeth. Even the lowliest
attacked viciously, cutting through the water and leaping at the shipgirls to snap and tear. Some
rose above the waves to take leering potshots from their eyes, blasting any unwary seafarers with dark bolts, while others
featured tougher armor and miniature cannons for bombardment. Fairly close to the Atomos, a girl
contended with a pack of disturbingly child-like imps
that zipped through the water like dolphins. Rotating quickly, the shipgirl aimed what looked like a landing strip at the imps, firing out tiny fighter planes that zoomed after their targets in a salvo of tiny machinegun fire before exploding. As the heroes watched she destroyed one after another, and when the last fell the trio dissolved into ashes. A singular spirit sank beneath the water, no deeper than a foot or so below the surface. The girl paid it no mind at all, instead pivoting to face a new threat
as it emerged from the water and opened fire. With a yelp the girl narrowly avoided a twin blast, then aimed her own weapon at the thing as it barreled toward her. Its three heads howling, it plowed through two planes in quick succession before leaping from the water, revealing burly arms. It grabbed hold of the girl and jammed its cannons into her body before letting loose. Another tooth-rattling explosion joined the chorus as the girl flew backward, bouncing off the surface before coming to a stop, alive but helpless.
At about that time, another horror
rose from the waves, bristling with long-distance artillery. After an excruciating moment of calculation it turned its weapons on the Atomos, and opened fire. The shells exploded against the side of the flying machine, jolting it sharply.
Accompanied by just the Cadet, Peach led the way back to the lift. Everyone involved in the purchase of the Atomos had been saved some trouble by not making the exchange at airship dock altitude, with Cuphead standing guard over the hoard until the others returned. “Well heya! Looks like everyone's gone. Off to see the navy in action, huh?”
Peach nodded. “All except us. And the kid. Don't know where she is, but I imagine she'll turn up soon.” Until then, that left just three to carry around all this gold. Even when greatly diminished by the purchase, enough remained to make its transport something of a chore if not for the wagon. With the Ace Cadet's willing strength plus her own and Cuphead's vigor, they could get it where it needed to go, which right now was back where they came from. “We're gonna see if we can buy Shippy from that Brineybeard,” she explained for the boy. “If we can, we've got another vessel that can take a hit or two and be upgraded by spirits. He looked like he was on hard times, but that might be exactly why he won't part with it. We'll see.”
As the group passed through the aetheryte plaza, they spotted the dancer
from before. Her dance had changed along with the music from last time, becoming a lively fandango that sent her whirling through the crowd, pairing up with a dance partner for a few seconds before switching to the next. The energy was practically infectious, and Peach stopped the cart to give her team a chance to both rest and watch. After a few moments the lithe dancer span their way, catching up the Cadet in her rhythm. “Hey there~!” she greeted him, winking, her touch encouraging him to let her sweep him up in the dance. “You guys have quite the haul. Any of that for me~?”
No sooner did the legions of skeletons appear than the heroes began trashing them in earnest. True, their bones broke under the strength of their fists, bolts, blades, and bullets, but no matter how hard the heroes fought they couldn't cover all angles at once. Whether through charging melee skeletons, free-firing ranged ones, or skulls falling like rain, Marie sought to overwhelm her foes with sheer numbers. She did not expect one of them, the scaled and ugly one, to suddenly grow in size and plow forward. For a moment the Skullgirl considered pulling a similar trick from her own hat, but thought better of it. This size hardly qualified. Still, the Koopa King advanced nonetheless, tearing through her skeletal servants and even taking down a bone giant, all the while flanked by that flying hunk of metal.
One hero, however, made a beeline straight for her, vaulting over and rolling past all enemies in the way, try as they might to tag her. The rabbit-eared archer unleashed a stream of bolts at Marie only to lodge in summoned skulls. As soon as they obscured the Skullgirl's vision, Linkle twirled in place and unleashed a wave of ice across the floor of veins. It raced beneath Marie before cropping upward, trapping her and her skulls in a huge crystal of ice, only for Linkle to let loose twin bomb arrows a moment later and blow the whole sculpture to kingdom come.
Or so it seemed. In the haze Linkle couldn't see the gesture Marie performed to summon skeletons from the ground directly beneath her. They grabbed onto her legs before freezing there, holding tight. “You should have stayed with your team,” Marie warned, emerging from the smoke. “Die.” Four bone gangsters rose up around her and without hesitation bumped Linkle with lead, bringing her down in a spray of blood to fight for breath on her back.
Marie turned her attention to Bowser, finished with the giant and incoming. With nothing but a thought she sent a flurry of bones hurtling his way, but what wounds he suffered started repairing before her eyes. Marie exhaled in annoyance, then staring without flinching as Bowser released a huge fireball that pulsed with power. She flicked her finger, and a massive wall of skeletons packed together like canned sardines rose in the pyroclast's way, blocking its light.
Then the wall erupted.
Marie's eyes widened as flame consumed her. For a few moments she roasted in the center of the inferno, until with a grunt she blew apart its diminishing fury. Burned but far from destroyed, she pulled another Bone Giant from the ground beneath Blazermate to try to grab and crush her in its rock-hard mitts. As Bowser approached, a shadow flickered behind her, phantom veins in a phantom darkness with a vaguely female shape. Marie held out her hand. “Die.” The shade disappeared from behind her and flashed in front of Bowser, It lashed out with a superhero punch at his face.
“Hey, chew toy!” Marie looked down to see Nadia slide in. “Oh, don't mind me. No claws for alarm!” With a grin the feral leaped upward, claws extended. She dealt the Skullgirl a slash-slash-cross-slash, then extended her legs using her muscle fibers for a biting double-kick. For the finale she detached her head and thrust her rigid hears forward to stab Marie in the chest. A skull smacked Nadia the next second and sent her flying, but how she felt about the combo was still written on her face by the time she landed. “Y'know despite all that fire, things aren't goin' so hot for ya right now, eh?” she taunted, smirking.
Marie's face betrayed no emotion. “I have yet to truly fight,” she warned, looking out over the others. Dante dispatched a skeletal knight before releasing a charged shot that sailed Marie's way. She intercepted it with a skull, which took the demonic bullet and shattered. “The power of the Skullgirl is supremacy over the dead. Soon you will understand.”
From around Nadia sprang a fresh crop of corpses. She stood at the ready, head in one hand and tail in the other, until a look of horror spread across her face. “No...”
“Yes,” Marie told her. “Your beloved Fishbone gang, in the flesh, as it were. And that is just the beginning.”
She waved her hand, and from below rose five more undead before her. One was a skeleton with a guitar
, the second a skeletal knight
, and the last three were skeleton lords
. No command was needed to spur them forward.
Meanwhile, the others would have engaged the Skullgirl herself if not for the glut of minions. No matter how many the devil hunters cut down or styled on, more appeared. Yet they worked through the skeletons steadily, reducing them to bone dust a few at a time. For the most part these ones dropped no spirits, either. Still, Dante kept a steady eye on the Skullgirl, firing when she could. With Nero gone to get Linkle to safety, she meant to bid her time to make the right move.