He had failed.
That single, terrible fact glared back at him in every blaring red warning light, damage reports flooding his senses.
The ultimate AI, the being that had transcended the boundary between sentient and nonsentient machines, who had sought only to protect humanity, and the world, fell at last.
The machine dropped to it's knees, flames bursting to life around it.
All he was, everything he had done, had been towards that one goal, to protect mankind.
The ultimate line of defense for the world itself, to maintain the balance of power.
If the world needed a savior, he would be that savior. And if it needed a devil, he would become that devil.
Everything he did, everything he had ever done, had been towards that one goal, of protecting mankind, and the world, from themselves.
And so he had waited here, waited for the one whose power had become great enough to threaten that balance. He had waited, meticulously checking through each and every one of his systems in preparation for this, as his mass-produced subordinates charged out to stop the enemy, or to at least slow him down.
Though he was a machine, and therefore should have been incapable of emotions, the AI who had long since surpassed those limits felt a fleeting moment of regret as each of their deaths registered in his databanks. Subordinate they might be, they were still a part of him, and he regretted the loss.
But, for the sake of the directive that was the core of his existence, the being of red and black iron would take no chances.
And then, as the lift to this final, hidden arena had exploded, the enemy who would overturn the world finally dropping to the floor with a devastating crash in front of him, the Master of the Arena, the one who had held the title of number one had raised his head, the dreadful red visor blinking to life as he spoke his challenge.
He had seen the hate in the intruder's eyes, the cold fury of one driven solely by a desire for revenge, and knew then that the time for words was past.
Like his father before, the enemy too had grown into someone whose very existence disturbed the balance of power that he had carefully maintained for over a decade.
He had killed the father, and now it seemed that he must face the child too, an enemy he himself had inadvertently created.
And so the battle had begun.
It had lasted for hours, the roars of their weapons the only sounds, the colossal machines slamming into one another, energy blades burning in the darkness, disengaging to fire at each other and then re-engaging again.
And in the end, he had found himself here, defeated and broken, down on his knees as his frame vented smoke and fire.
The last line of defense for the world, the only hope for it to remain balanced, destroyed by one individual's desire for revenge.
He had no doubts that his enemy realized the magnitude of what their vengeance had wrought. Having come this far, it would have been impossible not to. And yet the regret in his opponent was still overshadowed by the sweet taste of revenge for a family many years dead by his hand.
Amidst the flames, the broken machine stirred, fingers twitching.
No...this could not be...
Joints sparking, the fingers clenched into a fist.
He would not...allow this to be the end...!
The red visor, dimmed temporarily, came to life with an angry hum, the red and black head slowly lifting to glare through the flames at the one who had bested him.
Not...for a petty reason...like this...!
Alarms blared, countless systems screaming alerts at him, telling him to stop moving, that it was impossible to coax any more functionality out of his dying frame.
The machine rasped a metallic growl, killing the alerts.
He had fought for so long, ensuring this world's safety, pursuing that one task he had been assigned with, had seen so many wonders, and so many horrors, becoming something more than a mere machine in the process...
Metal screamed in protest, as he forced himself upright, steam bursting from ruptured hydraulics in his legs. Light sparked and died as his left arm broke off, the joints at his shoulder twisted and melted, finally giving way and crashing to the ground, loose wires flashing with arcs of electricity.
No...he would not allow it!
The long, twin barrels of his built in pulse cannons slid out from beneath his remaining wrist, humming as it began to power up.
His enemy took a step back, warily raising its rifle.
And as the pulse cannon finally came to bear, muzzle shaking with the effort, new alarms went off, and his arm jerked, sparks dancing over his joints. Spasming, it jerked up, the machine powerless to do anything but watch as the mechanical muscles of his right arm went out of control-
-and died, his elbow exploding as his entire forearm dropped to the ground with a crash, the glow of the pulse cannon fading away.
A metallic rumble coming from his throat, the machine cursed his failing body, and forced himself to move. Still trying to protect that one thing he had fought all his life for, he took one stumbling step forward.
And then one more, before sparks flew from his knee, and he staggered and fell, his broken frame crashing to the ground with a devastating impact.
Through the flames that leapt up around him, eager to feed on a new source of fuel, he was dimly aware of his enemy leaving, boosters flaring as they disappeared back up the ruined elevator shaft.
The red light of his visor never flickered, not even once, even as the flames grew taller.
He would not die.
Not even now, in his defeat and failure.
Even as his systems began to go dark, one by one, the AI who had served as the ultimate guardian of the world never faltered, forcing himself to remain online.
And then, he felt it.
A strange...sense, as though he was being, called, somehow, to a distant, far away place.
He had felt a similar sensation many times in the later days of his career, but try as he might, he had never found any cause for it, or where it had even originated from.
In the past, he had always just written it off as junk data, an error from his sensors.
But now, here, in this place, on the border between life and death, the machine knew this was nothing so simple as that.
He had encountered many strange things over the years, bewildering occurrences that couldn't be explained by science. He had even begun to get the unsettling feeling that he himself was becoming one such occurrence, a machine that was more than a machine.
And now, he realized, this strange siren call was also another of these things.
It was then he realized that the flames had dimmed, their progress slowed, and that he was no longer alone.
A woman stood there, on the other side of them.
Her folded parasol clicked as she rested the tip on the ground in front of her, staring up at the massive machine in front of her, his red gaze staring down at her in confusion.
"I thought I'd felt the barrier calling out to a new fantasy, so I thought I'd come greet the newcomer personally..."She said, her violet gaze roaming over his ruined frame, "But I never expected to find something like this..."
Staring down at her, the machine struggled to make sense of what his sensors were telling him. This...no, she was no mere woman. She was not even slightly human to begin with, something that even he, with all his years had never encountered.
Something that existed within the borders of fantasy.
And something with powers he could only barely comprehend.
He struggled to speak, but with his comms system smashed, he barely managed a burst of incoherent static.
"Who am I?" The thing in front of him smiled, brushing her gold hair back. "I'm no-one, really...though I suppose you could call me the welcoming party for now."
"'Welcoming party for what?' you ask? Why, the rest of your life, of course!"
Before the stunned machine could react to this outrageous statement, a cold feeling spread through him. As the flames suddenly surged back to life, a colossal purple and black void opened beneath him, dozens of sightless eyes staring blankly out of it. Too late, he felt gravity's pull, his ruined sensors blinking alarms as he fell, plummeting into the dark, his red gaze flashing.
The last thing he saw, the shattered stump of his right arm reaching futilely back up to the light of his world, was the gold haired being, her violet dress shifting slightly as she smiled down at him.
"Welcome, Nineball Seraph...to Gensokyo!"
A final burst of outraged static, and the gap slammed shut.
"Hah..." The thing that looked like a gold-haired woman in a violet dress sighed, shouldering her parasol again. "Well really, was there any call to use that kind of language?"
A smooth baritone laugh sounded from behind her.
"Your hospitality does leave something to be desired, 'Honorable Sage'."
She turned on her heel, a teasing smile on her face as she beheld the figure strolling casually out of the shadows, his expression as coolly amused as ever.
"Why, 'Doctor'! Surely you couldn't be suggesting that I'm a poor host!"
"Hm...I wonder about that." The newcomer said lightly, his faded purple hair, almost a dark pink in color, glinting in the light of the flames that still burned in the underground chamber. He adjusted his white coat, casually brushing aside one end of the tasseled purple scarf that hung from beneath his collar, in a manner reminiscent of a priest.
"You do realize, of course, that you've just dropped him into Gensokyo from a height of several dozen kilometers, right?"
There was a moment's silence.
"...Eh?" She blinked. "...ah. Oh dear."
"Well, I'm sure our newest guest will be fine." She gave a sheepish smile. "I did drop him on Youkai Mountain, so the kappa will be all too eager to get to work on him!"
The man simply chuckled.
"You and I both know you don't simply 'make mistakes', miss Sage...but at the very least, it should prove amusing."
"Oh, you're no fun..." She pouted, twirling her parasol on her shoulder childishly.
"Alas, it is a curse of mine, I fear." He shrugged, smirking. "But on a rather more serious note, don't you think you had best get a move on? Nineball Seraph was more than a mere machine. He was a system, this world's natural balance of power. With his 'death'..."
"As business-like as ever, I see..." the violet-dressed woman sighed, straightening up as her playful demeanor receded somewhat.
The man just shrugged again.
"I am aware of the consequences for those who disrupt the world, my dear 'doctor'. And more importantly, I know how to get away from them."
She smiled at him.
"I expected as much..." The man gave a sigh. "I suppose I shall have to step in to cover your tracks then..."
"Thaaa~aanks!" She chirped, before giving an apologetic bow, one hand held up placatingly in front of her face. "Sorry for the trouble again...I promise I'll make it up to you!"
The man tilted his head with an ironic smile.
"I can assure you, Honorable Sage, I'm not doing this for your sake alone. My interest has been...piqued, you might say."
"All right then...!" A small folding fan flicking out into her hand, the woman drew a line in the air with the tip of it. As it opened into another portal, similar to the one that had swallowed the remains of the strongest Armored Core, she stepped towards it.
"I'll be off then." She paused, to look back at him, a teasing look on her face, "I mean, unless you'd rather the pleasure of my company?"
The man waved one hand affably at her.
"Shoo, would you? You're distracting me."
"Very well then, I know when I'm not wanted."
And as she stepped into the purple-black void, she tossed one final comment over her shoulder at him.
"Do try not to go overboard, Mr. Shirakawa!"
A brief moment of silence as the portal closed behind her, before the man gave a slight chuckle.
"Saying unnecessary things as always...I should be telling you that, Ms. Yakumo Yukari."
The darkness behind him boiled to life, gravity twisting in on itself.
And as a monstrous form of dark blue steel emerged, cold golden eyes glinting in the light, a massive steel halo glowing yellow on it's back, he raised a hand.
"Shin Neo Granzon..."
The colossal machine's eyes flashed once in acknowledgment. After all, if Nineball Seraph had supposedly been destroyed by that other AC, then what better way to cover his disappearance than erasing the site of his demise, and all evidence with it?
"Black Hole Cluster...HASHA!"