"Are you sure it's down there?" Plantman whispered as he balanced precariously on Burstgirl's makeshift floating platform.
"Of course, blub." Replied Bubbleman.
"Because it looks more like nothing." He followed up, slightly nervous. It felt like ages since they had sunk below the lowest walkway and they could no longer see the Undernet above them. There was only pitch blackness in all directions as they continued slowly into the abyss.
"It's supposed to seem that way. That's what makes it a hideout, blub." The floating scuba hamster thought for a moment, then held up his hand towards Beastman and Burstgirl, signalling them to stop. "This is far enough for now. Don't blubbin' move. I need to scout ahead."
"You what!?" Plantman exclaimed without raising his voice. "Well what happens if you don't come back? How long am I supposed to wait without some actual solid ground here?"
"Blub, I'm jetskiing outta there at the first sign of trouble. I don't wanna even think about not coming back...but five minutes, tops. Just head straight down to rescue me if it takes that long, blub."
"Are you sure you want to go alone? It sounds dangerous." Burstgirl interjected, concerned for her new friend.
"Just relax, blub. I'm the one that knows my way around this place." Bubbleman waved her off, masking his own uncertainties. There was a part of him that was still inclined to run away from the slightest challenge, and that cowardly nature was clashing with his own desire for payback. He wouldn't even admit it to himself, but it was mostly the encouragement from his new brigade that was pushing him over the edge to the adventurous side. That, and a newly acquired 'confidence booster'.
As Bubbleman left his crew behind to sink deeper into the darkness, he discreetly revealed the DarkChip that he kept from his recent purification. When Burstgirl somehow rejected all the Dark Power his merger offered, the remnants of that power coalesced into this 'Dark Wrap' chip, an anchor to his Darkloid form in the shape of the perfect aqua-elemental defense ability. When he held this chip, Bubble could feel the same mind-staggering power he once wielded, and it was calling out to him to be unleashed. He had no desire to relinquish his freedom of mind again for the sake of power that was more trouble than it was worth, but he felt like he had to keep that thing around anyway. Someday he might need it again, but he hoped he would only have to keep an eye on it. At least for the time being, he knew he was going to need it to open the door into his former hideout. He wouldn't need to activate the chip, but its very presence and the Dark Power it radiated were all he needed to trick the black veil protecting the Darkloids' hideout into letting him through.
It worked. A murky portal opened as he drew near, like the Dark Chip was a keycard. Fighting the urge to keep holding it, Bubbleman returned the chip to his folder and peeked into the cavernous, unlit room beyond. It was empty, as far as he could tell. He knew it was quite likely the two remaining Darkloids could be busy elsewhere in the Undernet, picking up the slack left by their three lost members. If not, they would hopefully be too engrossed in their creepy machinations to notice him slipping in, and failing that...well, all hell had to break loose at some point either way. Bubs wasn't exactly relieved to find out he would have to keep waiting for that moment.
The Darkloid's base was more off-putting to Bubbleman now that he was back to normal, even though he could remember it feeling cozy and comforting as recently as three days ago. The environment was a surreal, amorphous, patchwork landscape formed from the combined powers of the original five Darkloids. Mounds of dust across the room mad the ground appear lumpy and twisted, with black puddles of water settling into the lower points between the ridges. Scattered about were large spikes that jutted from the ground, tilted at odd angles, some lit at the top with purple flames. The few stalagmite torches formed the only faint light in this area, bathing the entire mess in hazy indigo and creating ever-shifting shadows crawling over the dunes. In the center of the room was a circular metallic platform that stepped up over the muddy sand and then down again through a craggy hole in the middle. The cracked edge of the abstract-shaped hole flickered with electric glow but the inside was pitch black.
Bubbleman gulped and glanced around nervously, taking cover behind one of the spires once he drifted closer to the ground. His memory told him that if the Darkloids were anywhere nearby, they would be gathered on the clearly empty central platform, and logically, they had to be out. His gut had different feelings on the matter, ready to jump at every dim shadow that surrounded him. He trepidly moved from spire to spire in an indirect path towards the center. Then, regrouping his confidence, he ventured onto the platform itself and leaned over the edge of the hole to verify its contents.
Meanwhile, outside in the silent abyss, Beastman, Plantman, and Burstgirl anxiously waited away the seconds since their guide disappeared below them. Beast was restless as ever, but actually managed to keep it together better than the out-of-his-element Plantman, whose patience for floating around on fragile bubbles was already well past expired. "I swear I'm going to jack out if this goes on any longer..." he murmured, his eye twitching.
"Weren't you the one that wanted to come here in the first place?" Beast snickered. He was usually the impulsive one in the Acid Hackers, so the opportunity to make fun of his normally stoic leafy teammate helped him stay in control in this case.
"I'm allowed to have second thoughts, you know. I didn't think I'd have to suffer indignity like this just to take out a competitor." Plant groaned.
"It's only been a minute. You only have to wait four more." Burstgirl whispered reassuringly. "Just stay calm...and quiet until then."
This only ruffled his petals more. "Would you stop being so...so...vapid?! You can't really think this is just a nice stroll through the park. Are you insane, or stupid, or are you deliberately trying to infuriate me?!"
Beastman felt compelled to get in between and stop Plant from being so harsh on the sensitive girl, but before he could say anything, she was already calmly responding for herself. "I'm well aware of how serious this is. I also know that if we want to survive, we need to keep cool heads and work together. You don't want to be the one that blows our cover, do you?"
As Plantman struggled to think of some way to rip through her composure and vindicate his own irritability, they were interrupted by the sudden reappearance of Bubbleman. "Blub blub blub guys! Hurry!" He waved his little arms in a panic.
The other three jumped defensively. Beastman brandished his claws and Plantman reflexively sprouted some thorns. As he might have predicted if he had a second to think it through, Plant's thorns popped the bubbles holding him aloft and he began to fall with a scream, but Burstgirl lunged forward and grabbed the vines hanging off his back to save him. Beast's head whipped back and forth from Bubbleman, to the close call with Plant, back to Bubble, then all around, then back to Bubble again. "Wh-what? Where are they? Are we running? Fighting? What?" Beast jabbered excitedly.
"Blub no, they're not here. I'm sayin' get the blub down here so we can do some sabotage before the get back!"
Plantman, dangling upside-down, had had enough. "I'll kill you slowly, you fat little piece - AGH!" His growing rage had caused more thorns to shoot out of his body, including the vines with which Burstgirl was holding onto him. She couldn't stop herself from letting go.
Even though there seemed to be endless nothingness below him, Plantman only fell for a split second before vanishing into the shade Bubbleman had emerged from, and faceplanted in the soft muck that made up much of the floor of the Darkloid's hideout. Bubble, Beast, and Burst floated down through the portal immediately to check on him. Burstgirl was already apologizing profusely even as she painedly dug the thorns from her palms. As Plantman pushed himself out of the purple mud, his pride more bruised than his body, he grumbled a quick "I'm fine" and immediately dropped his issues with his teammates. He would fume silently for the time being.
Bubbleman waved the others over to the center platform, hoping not to give them enough time to get as creeped out by their surroundings as they could be. Beastman perched at the edge of the hole and looked inside. "Okay...so you want to put plastic wrap over the Darkloid's toilet seat? That's what I'm looking at, as far as I can tell." he shrugged.
"No blub, that's a Dark Hole, a special one crafted to store and convert navi souls into a hellish engine of destructive power!" Bubbleman gestured to the swirling mass of multi-colored lights in a vortex of inky black tendrils. "It's already filled up a lot more than the last time I saw it, blub. I thought they'd slow down without me to lure in more victims, but I guess the traps they'd been setting up elsewhere picked up the slack."
"So this is what's been happening to my customers?" The indignant Plantman asked, still wiping the mud from his face.
Bubs nodded with a frown. "Hope you didn't actually intend to rescue them. There's not much left here to restore, blub. They'd be just be Darkloid zombies if you could. Whatever goes in there is helplessly corrupted."
Burstgirl felt sorry for the lost souls, but stayed focused on saving more navis from sharing their fate. "So how are we supposed to sabotage this?" she asked, downcast.
"Well there's one particular soul here that's worth saving, blub." He peered through the hole, searching for something. "There!" He pointed to a spot between the tendrils, a larger orb than the others, but harder to see since its dim violet hue blended with the surrounding atmosphere. "Existing Darkloids mix well with the engine. That's mainly why we were conditioning the victims with Dark Chips before capturing them. That guy there was our biggest catch. If we can remove him from the hole, it'll set 'em back and make it easier to finish them off."
Beastman wagged his tail. "Great. How do we do that?"
"I realize it just looks like abstract masses of energy down there blub, but it's as simple as reaching down there and grabbing it. The navi should regain physical form once it's out. The hard part is going down there without getting digested along with everything else. That's where you come in." He turned to Plantman.
"Easy enough." Plantman reached his vines down into the hole to grasp at the big purple soul. He could feel the corrosive Dark energy attacking his appendages, the unusual current buffeting them off his intended course. The semi-physical nature of the soul orb made it difficult to touch, much less cling to with his stretched and dissolving vines. With grit teeth and uncomfortable pain, Plantman was soon forced to give up and reel his vines in.
"Yeah, I figured it wouldn't work like that, blub." Bubbleman shrugged in disappointment.
Plantman's eye twitched again. "Urgh, why did you even make me do that then?"
"I was actually thinking of using your vines as an anchor. You stay up here and root in while one of us flyers goes down with you as the lifeline. It's easier to grab the soul up close with bare hands, not to mention fight the current with our own Airshoes."
"Oh. Well as long as you make it quick. I doubt you're personally volunteering, so...Beast?"
Beastman held up the long blade-adorned clubs that were his paws. "I dunno if these bear hands are best for grabbing things. Normally I'd bite things to carry them, but nothing down there looks very appetizing..."
"Leave it to me." Burstgirl offered. "As long as you watch the pricklies this time." She smiled at the frowning flower.
"Actually, she's probably the best one for the job, blub." Bubbleman nodded. "If I'm right about her being incorruptible, she'd be the most safe from the Dark energy. I gotta say though blub, I don't feel...great about putting you at risk..." he trailed off, not sure what he wanted to say.
"Yeah, I know you already owe me one for the other day. You can just owe me two now, that's not that bad, ha ha!" Burst chirped jokingly as she wrapped one of Plantman's vines around her waist.
"Blub...That's not exactly what I meant...blub..." The diminutive navi shifted nervously. He wasn't accustomed to genuinely worrying about someone else, and Burstgirl wasn't giving him much time to wrestle with that feeling.
"Whatever, let's just get this over with." Plantman huffed as he let the aquamarine adventurer dive bravely into the Dark Hole, trailing his vine with her. Again he could feel the mysterious force eating away at him, but for her part, Burstgirl appeared fine. An angelic aura seemed to glow around her, keeping the swirling tendrils at bay. She still had some difficulty steering herself toward her goal, and it was as if some additional gravity was pulling her down, but with Plantman's green rope for stability, she stayed on course.
Bubbleman was so anxious about the retrieval, he didn't notice Beastman wasn't even watching until he heard the low, threatening growl. He spun around to see the feline navi crouched low and inching towards the edge of the platform, sniffing the air. Bubs couldn't see what Beastman was sensing, but it wasn't hard to guess. He quickly drew his harpoon gun.
"You have a lot of balls to come back here." Dark Bowlman spoke with barely contained rage as he trudged forth from behind one of the spires made in the image of his own exaggerated bowling pins. In his left arm he carried his massive mortar cannon, while his right hand dragged the limp body of a Heel Navi captured from somewhere in the Undernet. His ashen face now glared directly at Bubbleman, the broken mask having been completely discarded since the last time they saw each other. "I don't know how you got in here, or what happened to Desertman, but for betraying us and desecrating the altar, I will make sure you and your friends suffer the longest and most brutal demise imaginable."
"Do we have the advantage now?" Beast asked excitedly.
"N-not n-nearly b-blub." Bubbleman quaked in place, the horror of his situation finally dawning on him. In his recent memories, Bowlman was a brother and an equal. Seeing him now through his non-Dark-empowered eyes was like beholding an angry god.
"Good enough! RAR!" Beastman wasted no more time and leapt high with a Jumping Claw attack. Bowl dropped his kill and took his cannon in both hands, using it as a club to smack Beast away with surprising speed before he could even make a scratch.
Plantman was stealing glances over his shoulder while trying to concentrate on the operation with Burstgirl below. "If nothing else, tell me you can at least keep that guy off my back for a few more seconds!" He shouted, masking his own fear with anger and frustration.
"Bl-bl-no promises!" Bubbleman stammered. This would be the moment to typically make good an escape. He was rooted to the spot though. He couldn't abandon anyone. Not now. Not her. As that thought ran through his brain, his knees stopped shaking and his lip stopped quivering. His eyes narrowed on the sight of his harpoon gun. "Blub...a few seconds, right? Yeah sure." He stomped his flippered foot, prompting a Bubble Parade to rise from the various puddles scattered throughout the room. "Yeah bring it the blub on, bro!"
A hail of bubbles and Aqua Shots began to assault the stoic Bowlman. Determined and wrathful, he aimed his Pin Cannon back at the intruders into his home. It was going to be a long few seconds.
* * *