The balance of the battlefield had shifted somehow. The ghost army of darkness still outnumbered the makeshift coalition of Officials and Underdwellers, but their strength was diminished. Only Metalman and Bowlman had the sheer firepower to keep their enemies at bay through force alone. The others were little more than fodder for the more adept and free-thinking warriors that were rapidly learning how to out-maneuver their zombie-like opponents. The Children of Vengeance had failed to avert the loss of some of their strongest assets and were regrouping to attempt to regain control of the situation, but the challenge was already well beyond what they were told to expect.
Dragoon and Magister were out, possibly for good, though it was likely they could be revived quickly. Mistman had built up a sizable cloud over the lower region of the battlefield, but Shademan's screech was blowing through it quickly now that he was back on the opposing side. The more agile fighters on each side were keeping each other busy as Overdrive and Beastman dedicated their speed to disrupting Jester and Archer's hit-and-run tactics. Executioner was just slow, and even slower with a screen of Bubbleman and Burstgirl's bubbles in his way. With the Queen's guard distracted, the way to the resistance's target was clear.
The airspace around Metalman remained a bullet hell of missiles and orbitng sawblades. Nobody get close, friend or foe, at least without an ability like Drillman's. Just as he did against Shademan earlier, Drill popped up right behind the two-fisted flying artillery, but due to Metal's armor he couldn't just be stunned by a surprise attack. Steel punches were exchanged in mid-air as the two accomplished shield-breakers squared off. The melee at least put a break in Metal's long-range attacks, giving Flamechick and Plantman a chance to move in. Drill only needed to draw Metal close enough to the ground for Plant's vines to catch him. It wasn't going to hold him as long as it did Shademan though, as Metal had the advantage of razor-sharp Metal Blades in his chest to cut through the green ropes. Anticipating that, Plantman needed only to spread some WoodPowder under the target and for Flamechick to follow up with a fully-charged FlameBlast. Armor or not, Metalman was on the verge of deletion after that assault. With another set of vines and Drillman pinning his drills into Metal's back to keep his blades from regenerating, Flamechick moved in towards the reeling hulk to take their one chance.
"Metalman, I understand now why you said you could relate to me." Flamechick said into his cold and empty eyes. "Though I'm afraid while you may remember me, I couldn't remember you..." She realized there was no sense of recognition in the mindless shell struggling to keep fighting in front of her. "I suppose at the moment we do have that in common. I should leave the talking to your operator."
Hoshiko handed her PET off to Lyric, who took a deep breath and made her statement. "Metalman, I know somewhere in there you can hear me, so listen up..." She glanced side-to-side, then surreptitiously whispered: "Günther Penguin."
Metalman's eyes went wide and he let out a sharp scream, a sound unlike anyone had ever heard from the hard-skinned navi. He cut himself off and stiffened his body, no longer fighting Plant's and Drill's holds. His ghost form flickered, but unlike the others, he did not immediately disappear to be replaced by the original. His voice came through the shadowy avatar distant and distorted. "S-standing by..."
"What the hell was that!?" Moe sputtered in bewilderment. The others mostly didn't even catch Lyric's speech, but they were at least expecting the process to last a little bit longer.
Lyric casually shrugged and explained. "Post-hypnotic trigger phrase to reset Spider's consciousness. I mentioned our job involves deep cover ops? Voluntary mental manipulation is the sort of thing that's useful when a navi has to blend in with Underdwellers so effectively that even he doesn't know he's an Official. I actually wasn't sure it would work in this case, but it did. More importantly, he's regained control without ejecting from Blackbelt's server."
"Isn't that bad?" Hoshiko asked, worried. "Is he still stuck there?"
"Metalman, re-eastablish PET link." Lyric ordered, retrieving her own PET from her pocket. A small chime indicated the command's success. She returned Flamechick's PET to Hoshiko. "There, no problem. I can pull him out at any time. Before we do that, he's our back door into Blackbelt's system."
"Seriously? You can turn the tables on him just like that?" Tricia was intrigued, but skeptical.
Lyric plugged her PET into the main console and brought up a network interface on the all the adjacent workstations. "Maybe not on my own, but hopefully I'm not the only one in this room with some hacking know-how?"
Shou cracked his knuckles and approached the nearest station. "Now this is a little more my speed. Want his credit card number?"
"Let's focus on acquiring the castle controls and the server's real world location." Darklight reccommended, taking his seat at another station.
"Metalman, darkness level analysis." Lyric requested succintly. Her navi appeared to be in a painful state of flux, but she had no doubts about his capabilities. After coming in to the Center as a nervous and flustered stranger, she easily slipped back into her unshakably focused state of mind when in operation mode.
"D-dark influence at 78%...d-dropping..." Metalman responded as aptly as he could. His own state of being would drive many navis to madness. He couldn't feel his own body. The eyes he was seeing through were not his own. Even his interior diagnostic had an alien and unnatural feel to it. Nonetheless, he had been trained to adapt to a variety of difficult situations. He did his best not just to remain conscious, but to understand his newfound abstracted existence enough to be of use to his operator.
Lyric skimmed through all the data Metalman returned with focused attention. "Everyone, our first goal should be to identify the mystery factor that's causing that drop."
Just as Drillman, Flamechick, and Plantman started to relax, they were all caught off-guard by a Bowling Bomber that rolled right onto the platform and exploded, sending them all flying along with Metalman. The faster-flickering form of Metalman caught itself in mid-air while the others scrambled to get in-between him and the rapidly approaching Bowlman. A horde of other ghost navis trailed behind the enslaved Darkloid. It was clear they were aware of the plan and were making Metalman their primary target.
"I have t-to c-concentrate..." Metalman stuttered, remaining motionless just off the side of the platform. "You'll have t-to k-keep them b-busy while our operators work through my link..."
"Draw aggro away from the tank?" Plantman groaned as he launched thorns for suppressing fire. "Of all the things that have gone wrong today already, I believe this one bothers me the most."
"Really, blub?" Bubbleman swam in to join him, rapidly firing aqua shots at the approaching army. "Are you forgetting how you you came to the Darkloid hideout?"
Plant shot back an irritated look. "...That was yesterday."
Bubs looked surprised. "Really? How long was I out, blub?"
"It's been a long night...Hey, weren't you dealing with the big armored guy?"
"He's preeetty slow, blub. I figured I could help here while he's busy catching up."
"That's how I feel all the time!" Beastman laughed while bounding in. His claws were all replaced by an array of special battlechip swords. "Whaddaya say, boys? Shall we finish what we started with that oversized pinhead?" He pointed his sword-claws at the inbound Dark Bowlman.
Bubbleman smirked and nodded. "I have a feeling it's going to be much easier this time, blub. Let's go, Bubble Brigade!"
"Stop calling us that!" Plantman griped as the three of them surrounded and let loose on the rampaging Darkloid ghost.
While the Bubble Brigade took on the enemy's champion, the remaining Official forces rushed in to join Drillman and Flamechick in deleting as many lesser ghosts as they could without succumbing to their numbers. Bowlman's cannon fired pins in multiple directions, but Bubbleman's bubbles threw them all off-course. It did little to reduce the damage as those stray pins flew into the crowd and exploded on whatever and whomever happened to be in the vicinity, but at least it gave Beastman and Plantman enough room to reach their optimum range. With Beast once more clawing and biting at the larger navi's heels, he switched to wielding his cannon as a club. Despite having experience fighting a smarter version of the Darkloid, Beastman was caught off guard by a surprisingly fast downward swing that slammed him hard into the panel. Plantman brought in the vines to tangle him up, but Bowl snapped out of them fairly easily. It seemed like Bowlman's power was increasing -- perhaps the result of a last-ditch effort on Blackbelt's part to keep the last of the powerful Darkloids in his possession.
None of the three navis were in the mood to be humiliated so close to the moment of truth. With doubled determination, Plantman put all his energy into growing flowers around Bowlman's feet. Beast regained his bearings just in time to jump out of the way from the explosion of potent pollen from the seemingly innocuous weeds. Bowlman was on his guard as well, but was not agile enough to avoid every cloud and didn't get far without getting covered in a fine pink powder. At that point it didn't matter that he was just a ghostly avatar, or bolstered by a massive reserve of dark energy, he was instantly disoriented as the pollen attacked his motor functions.
Undaunted (being mindlessly incapable of distress), Bowlman adapted by stopping in place and firing his Pin Cannon heedlessly, which wasn't much different from how he fired it normally. One significant difference was that his disorientation made him unable to notice the Bubble Parade weaving in. Bowl couldn't aim, but Bubble could. While most of his bubbles weren't fast enough to get through the hail of missiles before getting popped, his best Urchin Bomb was able to take just enough hits to get in close enough for Bubs to direct it right into the cannon's barrel, plugging it up. It even took Bowlman a couple seconds to notice he had stopped firing, but by then it was too late. The bomb exploded, taking the Pin Cannon with it and hurling the weapon's owner to the ground several panels away in a tumbling heap.
Short his main weapon, but still driven to slay his enemies, Bowlman got to his feet and began summoning spires from the ground under the Bubble Brigade's feet. Beastman leapt over all of them to resume slashing at the Darkloid directly. There was now less Bowl could do about it besides lunge out with his fists. Plantman and Bubbleman moved in. Their allies were starting to push the rest of the dark army back. The castle was respawning them slower and slower. Metalman remained still and undisturbed, protected by the quick maneuvers of the Bubble Brigade and the Officials. Somehow they were winning.
"I've found the data aggregator Metal's vitals are feeding through..." Lyric announced, bringing a new set of data up on the main screen for the sake of the other operators. "That big number that's getting smaller..."
"That would be the Dark Energy pool." Darklight observed. "My probes are showing that energy is going somewhere off-server, but it does not register anywhere local."
"Wherever it goes, better there than here, right?" Shou beamed devilishly.
"I wouldn't be too sure..." Moe said worryingly.
"Right, unlocking folder restrictions!" Shou proclaimed triumphantly as he entered the security-breaking command, completely ignoring everyone else's concerns. The rate of darkness drop began to accelerate as whatever was absorbing it moved freely through the invisible doorways that has once been locked. In the cyberworld, the tentacles on the underside of the castle began to wither and break off as they were the manifestation of the control Blackbelt's server had over its captives.
"You did it!" Hoshiko pumped her fist in the air. "They don't stand a chance now!"
"Don't get too excited yet." Lyric warned. "We really should have held out to identify that draining factor. That may have been a mistake."
"Hmph." Shou crossed his arms a leaned back in his chair, indignant. "You're just jealous I actually did something. Let's let the outcome determine who's right."
"Neither. You're all just wasting your time." A disdainful voice from the computer interjected.
"Blackbelt!?" Moe shouted, recognizing the voice. "What's your game now?" Everyone at a workstation looked at each other nervously and switched from exploring Blackbelt's server to examining their own, trying to figure out where his voice was coming from.
Blackbelt's sigh echoed from multiple speakers throughout the room. "The game's over, I'm afraid. I wish I was saying that as the victor, but it turns out we all lost this time."
"If that's your way of discouraging us from capturing you?" Tricia scoffed. "That's happening regardless of whatever cryptic BS you're going to try to sell us."
"Prepare to be disappointed then. I'm going to remain free -- I've ensured that much. This call has nothing to do with that. I just wanted to let you know that you couldn't hack into my server without me both noticing and returning the favor."
Lyric confirmed that Blackbelt was connecting to their computer through Metalman's PET. She could cut him out by recalling Metalman from the server at any time, but for the moment this was a valuable conversation. "So you're just letting it happen then? You're letting us know we've fallen into your trap?"
"I let it happen because I tried to stop it before you even got in here and it wasn't working. The plan of the day is already shot." Blackbelt couldn't quite mask his bitterness. "You can go ahead and pat yourselves on the back for that...at least until you have to deal with what really stopped me. I hope you keep in mind that if I had maintained control over the Dark Power, at least it would have been controlled for once. For everyone's sake, I'll just have to try again some other day."
There was a mix of reactions throughout the room. Some were satisfied that the enemy was making a concession, passive-aggressive or not. They didn't see any need to take his vague warnings seriously. Others wondered what they had been fighting for this whole time if they couldn't even make a definitive arrest. How could they be so sloppy as to let it end with the one they were hunting watching and taunting them through their own computer? Then there were those that put the unanswered question first. Moe was the first to voice that concern while they had the chance to ask. "Do you at least know what it is that really stopped you? Or are you just acting like you know to avoid looking like you're at a disadvantage?"
Blackbelt chuckled over the speakers. "You think you know me so well, huh? Well, I can't deny my disadvantage after everything that's happened, but at least I can say I have a guess. Maybe you should do your own headcount ... Who's the one Darkloid that didn't show up for duty?"
In all the chaos between the clashing armies, nobody was concerned with taking attendance. It hadn't even occurred to the Officials that some navi they expected to see wasn't there. Bowlman was there, clearly. The other former Darkloids included their allies, Bubble, Metal, Flame... The identity of the missing member slipped most everyone's mind as they scrambled to summon a mental checklist. However there was one voice that cut in to put an end to the speculation. Shademan could scarcely forget the one Darkloid that made him suffer the most, the one Darkloid he had been hoping to glimpse on the battlefield for the sake of revenge ever since he was restored and made aware of the situation. "Desertman." He said through grit fangs.
"I don't know why he was exempt, or where he is, or what it has to do with the leak, and I don't care any more." Blackbelt continued flippantly. "I'll let you guys worry about it from here on out. Until next time then, fuck all of you." With that he disconnected and Metalman was simultaneously booted from the Vengeance server. His real form materialized abruptly in the place of his ghost. The Officials lost their connection to the castle systems and all the screens in the room besides the displays of the battlefield went blank.
"Was it a good idea to keep him talking so long?" Hoshiko wondered aloud. "Who knows how much more of our data he could have stolen while he had access to our systems..."
"After what he got away with in the archive battle, I doubt there was anything else in this facility that interested him." Lyric reasoned, attempting to justify the decision that may have put her Metalman more at risk than anything. She carefully examined the readings on her PET to make sure he was sufficiently stabilizing after that gambit. "How are you feeling now, Metal?"
"I'm fine." Metalman stated. Though he couldn't hide all the signs of exertion, he composed himself as resolutely as possible. "I'm ready to go back into action. What's our next move?"
* * *
"Unacceptable! We do not retreat!" Queen Majesty protested when Blackbelt informed her of the plan to cut his losses. She stubbornly maintained her bravado in the face of her ghost army vanishing and her castle crumbling even as the enemy forces battered the outer dark energy force field that was also weakening every second.
"Let it go. The castle's support has been ripped out from under you. You can't will a comeback at this stage." Blackbelt explained sardonically. "Jack out and I'll build you a nice new castle for my next plan."
The Queen was livid. Her porcelain complexion actually began to turn red. "How dare you address your Queen like a child? You are Our subject! You will obey Our orders! We will not lose face among the people We have conquered!"
"Maybe you should not have declared them conquered before the battle was actually won. That's your fault for getting ahead of yourself." Kingman intoned, slightly bemused. He did not even meet his consort's murderous glare, he merely looked out over the balcony at the approaching oblivion and the imminent end of such a short-lived wonder as their glorious castle and welcomed the folly with self-satisfied abandon.
Blackbelt rolled his eyes at his navi's insubordination. "Look, it was me that programmed you with that imperious attitude. It suits you for the supervising role you were designed for. However if you can't recognize the actual chain of command, I'm just going to have to debug that out of you."
"Y-you wouldn't dare!" Enraged and now slightly fearful, Queen drew her sword in defiance. Kingman laughed in response, finally turning from the balcony to engage in the conversation directly.
"What do you expect to do, my dear? Regardless of how you view your status, consider what actually enforces it. Your subjects all obey you either by fear or by programming. The programming originates from Blackbelt and the fear only extends as far as the boundaries of this world. He is beyond your wrath and he holds all the chips, quite literally."
Frustrated and flailing, Queen Majesty turned her sword on Kingman, if only for something to hit. He made no move to resist her angered strikes. His armor absorbed the pain, and he knew the HP was meaningless now. She struggled to assert her dominance both physically and logically. "It is Our right to rule!" She shouted between thrusts. "One does not have the right without the means! You cannot tell Us that it is impossible, for the means to conquer even the real world must be Ours!" She stopped attacking Kingman and looked into his eyes imploringly. "We...we must simply determine those means...Even this day must be won."
Kingman's eyes met hers with pity. "If it is true that you cannot have the right without the means, then if you cannot determine the means, perhaps you never truly had the right."
The very idea was devastating to the Queen. She slid back in shock, dropping her sword on the floor of the balcony, which had lost its marble luster and was now rife with growing cracks. "We cannot...we must not...not accept...h-how could you betray me like this?"
"I'm not betraying you. If anything, I'm saving you." Kingman sighed. "Learning humility is certainly not the end for navis like us. That's something you helped teach me, remember?"
"I...I did?" She tried desperately to understand. Though she had conquered Kingman earlier, she didn't consider him her subject. She sought only to bring them both to greater heights of glory. Though admitting defeat was agonizing to the strongly determined leader, she could almost recognize the strength in adapting. In adapting she could faintly realize the advantage in persevering. In persevering she saw the opportunity to bide her time. In time she could imagine no end to the victories that would avenge this day and her first humiliation. "I...I understand...Very well." She lifted her head and stiffened her lip. She took one last look around the balcony of the palace that was supposed to be hers and let out a heavy sigh. "We will retreat for today. Jacking out." She teleported away.
"That was refreshingly cooperative of you." Blackbelt mused to Kingman who remained on the balcony for the moment. Blackbelt had remained silent while letting King do the talking. "I could have just forced you both out but watching you break her was pretty entertaining."
"Well I live to serve, do I not?" Kingman hid a slight smile beneath his oversized mustache. Being mistaken for unthreateningly servile was the one ray of hope he had found in the last few days. If anyone had just exposed weakness, it was Blackbelt, but he continued to wear the mask of unwavering control and omniscience. Kingman's sharp analytical mind refused to stop even in defeat, and he saw more promise in hiding ambition behind surrender than hiding fallibility behind confidence. "One good break deserves another. Jacking out."
With the balcony abandoned and the power behind the castle drained, it was all over. The barrier shattered. The Underdwellers greedily swarmed over the walls looking to loot the enemy's stronghold, but in a few moments they wouldn't even find any souvenirs left behind. The Officials picked off the remaining ghosts, causing the original bodies of each captured navi to rematerialize unconscious on the platforms and walkways surrounding the castle. They were all removed more violently than the first few, leaving the ground around the battlefield littered with drained navi bodies. Some of the Officials received orders to begin collecting the bodies so they could eventually be repaired and returned to their original operators. It looked more like a mass arrest than a rescue, but the assembled Officials were trained more for the former.
Soon only Bowlman remained. The castle crumbled to dust behind him and disappeared, but aside from the irate Underdwellers scrambling out of the debris cloud like rats from a sinking ship, one last stream of energy flowed out of the castle base and into Bowl's body, replacing the ghost with the original Darkloid. Something was wrong with him though. Bubbleman, Beastman, and Plantman stopped attacking when they noticed he had stopped moving. He merely stood with neck and shoulders slumped, seemingly catatonic. His mask and gun did not return from the server with the rest of him, suggesting that the damage that he had been dealt was very real.
The castle had been built out of the captured navis' souls. Bowlman's was the last soul remaining, and it appeared for a moment before its collapse, he was supporting the structure entirely on his own. The burden weighed too heavily even on his massive strength and much of the Bowlman that once was had been lost forever in the wreckage. Yet thanks to his unintended sacrifice the souls of all the other navis that he and the other Darkloids had taken in the last several days would be almost completely recovered in the aftermath.
Though there was one more aspect of the mostly restored Bowlman that drew the attention of the allied navis and their operators -- he was still clearly infected by the same Dark Energy that had trapped him. All the other navis to return from Blackbelt's server had apparently been purified in the transition, not counting Shademan's and Darklady's pre-existing conditions. Was Bowlman exempt because he was a full-fleged Darkloid going in?
They wouldn't have long to contemplate it. The ground beneath his feet warped and sank, forming coiling tendrils that wrapped around his unresponsive form. As he quickly disappeared into the terrain, every navi in the system that might have done something about it was instead paralyzed by a booming voice that spoke directly through their minds. "DARKNESS. IT RETURNS. I AM COMPLETE." It was not the kind of voice that could be heard with ears, leaving the operators confused and worried at the eerily transfixed mass of navis on their screens. The voice that penetrated their souls did not seem to address any of the navis personally. It felt to them as if the telepathic message was not meant to speak to them, but that they were now helplessly tuned to the thoughts of a being awakening with a presence too great to be contained within itself.
"BOWLMAN. FAITHFUL. YOUR END WAS NOT NECESSARY. UNFORGOTTEN. YOUR VENGEANCE SURVIVES. THE GOAL PERSISTS. I AM COMPLETE."
Bowlman's body was gone. The ground continued to warp. The entire sector of the Undernet was writhing as if alive. From beneath the cloud of ash that was once a flying castle, a mountain arose from the darkness. The mound ballooned and flowed outwards, taking the walkways and platforms into itself, all disintegrating into a single mass of purple sand. The mound shifted into a top-heavy shape. Arms extended from the side. A head formed on top. Carved-out faces opened on the head, the chest, the hands, and on every other part of its surface. The navis that could fly took off and away terrified from the rising giant, taking their friends with them if they could. Those trapped on the ground were quickly swallowed up in the rising tide of sand beneath them. The rescue of the missing navis did not get very far before their bodies were lost once again. The surviving navis still couldn't jack out even if they wanted to, and could only fly to what seemed to be a safe distance and behold the frightening dark deity that emerged from the abyss.
"I AM THE DESERT. I AM THE DARKNESS. DARK SOULS UNTETHERED. JOINED. COMPLETE."
The newly ascended form of Desertman raised one of his gigantic arms high into the air. A ghostly light glowed from the numerous faces that lined it so everyone could still see how high it reached even as its mass otherwise faded into the overhanging black sky.
"JOINED DARKNESS. JOINED WRATH. ONE GOAL. ONE END."
With shocking speed, the arm swung downward. Dozens of strong, skillful navis were deleted in that instant. Everyone beneath the giant's blow was crushed by the rock-hard sandstone column it had become. Many more were lost in the explosive cloud that spread out from the desert below the impact zone. The sound of a thunderous earthquake shook to the core all the navis that were lucky enough to be outside that area.
"DEATH. DEATH TO THIS WORLD. ONLY THE DESERT REMAINS. DEATH."
* * *