Annihilation

Reasons

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"Who...what the hell is that!?" Shou exclaimed, almost in tandem with several of the Officials in the room as panic mounted. They were almost prepared to relax up until something much worse than Blackbelt's flying castle of darkness reared its nearly-impossible-to-perceive head. Even those that were ready to get back into the fight were not sure how to fight the giant cyber-entity that was quickly laying waste to the Undernet.

"It's Desertman, the last of the Darkloids." Moe explained with no more assuredness than anyone else. "Somehow he avoided getting captured like the rest and got...impossibly huge?"

"It's...what we planned, blub..." Bubbleman timorously communicated from the battlefield. "The Darkloids were amassing dark souls for...this."

"You knew this was going to happen!?" The highly-strung Tricia admonished. "When were you going to warn us?!"

"I-I didn't! I mean, not exactly, blub. If anything, I thought the whole plan went to hell as soon as Blackbelt took over." Bubble babbled, as surprised as everyone. "Even before that, the last time I was privy to the plan there were still three of us to split all that dark power between. Even then I didn't know using that power would turn Desert into a multi-headed man-mountain, but it sure looks like he got the whole pot in the end so who knows what I was supposed to expect?"

"For what it's worth, we tried to prevent this." Burstgirl added. "We tried our best, but we were too late..."

"So Desertman was the one siphoning off the dark power from Blackbelt's server..." Darklight surmised. "Such a massive amount of data needs a server. Darkloid or not, one navi should not be able to contain that much force alone. Bubbleman, what was the Darkloids' storage plan?"

"Blub, we had them buried in a subspace pit -- an exploit in the Undernet servers -- but we were eventually going to merge with it ourselves. We were going to get around the personal storage limit problem by increasing our numbers. That's why we wanted Shademan and Darklady on our side, blub. I have no idea what Desert did to cram it all into himself."

"Maybe he got himself his own server-sized PET like Blackbelt." Lyric suggested. "If so, we should switch all our resources out tracking Blackbelt's server to tracking Desertman's instead."

"You mean let Blackbelt get away?" Moe snapped. "No, this is what he was counting on. He's using this as cover. We need to get him now, before he gets a chance to slip away again!"

"While letting Desertman go on a rampage?" Hoshiko questioned doubtfully. "I know it's important that we stop both of them, but do we really have a choice any more?"

Moe was deflated. He couldn't deny that it made more sense to focus on the more immediate threat. It seemed he was destined to defeat one way or the other. "Well...we'll still need to figure out how to contain him before we know whether or not we can pull the plug on him. Any ideas how to fight him like this? At least Blackbelt gave our navis opponents that were navi-sized."

"We'll keep our distance. Use long-range arsenal." Lyric stepped up to offer a stretegy. "I've studied up on Desertman enough to know that he merges with terrain to form a body, so ground-based attacks and stage-altering battlechips should prove useful. The sand absorbs shockwaves and can alter density for offensive and defensive purposes, but those abilities are slowed by water. Aqua, snipers, weather-breath, panel-seeds...Anyone equipped for that, spread attacks around the body and we might even find a weak point."

The nerves in the room began to settle. At least someone was making it sound straightforward, even if it wasn't. The navis that were still online after the behemoth's initial attack were at least now slightly more prepared to avoid his movements. It was an advantage that would last until the strange being revealed any more of his powers. They may have been like insects buzzing around Desertman, but at least they would be hard to swat.

"Alright, I think I can handle digging through this guy better than I could the castle at least." Drillman announced as everyone prepared their plan of attack. "Just curious though, can anyone out there hear what Desertman is saying?"

The operators looked confused. Moe cocked his head. "Um...we're hearing ominous rumbling, but we're not picking up any dialogue. What's he saying?"

Drillman let out a nervously held breath. "Oh...nothing important. Statement of intent, I guess. He wants to destroy everything, but you probably figured that out. It's just the way he's...'talking'...it's some kind of telepathy. It's being shouted into my brain. It's unsettling. Does anyone know what that's about?"

"I'm receiving the same message." Flamechick added, seemingly less fazed than Drill. "It might be some kind of mass telepathy." There was a quick acknowledgment among other navis within earshot that they were all hearing Desertman's loud thoughts.

Darklight pondered for a moment and recalled a possible explanation for the phenomenon. "As a being of concentrated darkness, Desertman may have manifested something like the SoulNet, allowing his soul to communicate with other navis on that plane. There was another incident with such a being on record, but that one needed pre-existing infrastructure to form. It makes no sense whatsoever that the Undernet could suddenly become a Soulnet, so I'm thinking there has to be another explanation..."

"Well, do you know how to tune him out?" Beastman implored. "It's all 'KILL DEATH DARKNESS DEATH' with this guy. It's getting really annoying."

"Again, I had no idea that would be part of the deal, blub." Bubbleman said apologetically.

"Afraid I can't help you with that..." Darklight shook his head. "...aside from the obvious solution -- shut him up yourselves."

"Well, we were going to do that anyway." Beastman growled.

* * *

"What am I doing?" Nijubu asked himself as he perceived himself thrashing uncontrollably in unfamiliar place. He was in a dream state on the verge of lucidity. His world was shifting around him but he had lost the understanding of time necessary to realize it. One moment he was on a foggy plain under a grey sky surrounded by monstrous barbarians. Another moment he was in a grungy, dimly lit alley with hungry eyes peering out from every shadow. A cold bedroom with the only other occupant a man of indeterminate identity with his back turned. A cramped cage floating in a dark ocean with a swarm of insects biting at him despite his best efforts to brush them away. He felt the same in every scene -- hateful of the other parties, lost in a world other than his own, stressed, anxious, violent. Yet there was a sense of abstraction as well, of indifference, like the other feelings weren't really his own, but those of the roles in which he was being placed. From this abstraction came curiosity and questions as his mind pushed at the edges of awareness. "Why am I doing this?"

"It is my right." Desertman answered himself. He felt like he had been in this dream much longer, like it was the only reality he had ever known. Yet he knew there were worlds beyond, floating above his own, always out of reach. They were visions and lost memories, painted over the desolation of his reality like taunts. His reality was an empty wasteland of no past and no future. The moments he struggled against were lies. They were pieces that could never fit, people that could never be. "I will not suffer this mockery."

"Who's mocking me?" Nijubu asked again. He didn't see the desert as his own world. It was as foreign to him as any other. In every case he saw something that was meant to make him feel lonely and afraid, but he had already dealt with those problems. He had put it all aside to find Desertman, and now he could tell he found him. "Everything is fine. Why continue to fight?"

"It was not that easy for me." Desertman told himself, rejecting the promise of peace as well as the alien visions. "I am trapped. There is no other world for me."

"I can see more than that." Nijubu followed with mounting clarity. He was awakening and learning. He began to notice the transformations of himself and his surroundings. He still couldn't remember how he came to be in that state, nor was he certain he was then or ever had been separate from Desertman, or if one of them was just the manifestation of the rampant madness of the other. Either way he could tell he was seeing more as Nijubu than as Desertman. If one was the other, then he only had one eye open. He tried to open the other. "I've been to other worlds. I know there's a way out. I know I'm not alone either."

Desertman tried to look away, but he was surrounded by the visions that denied him. He continued to vent his rage at the images, reveling in the death and destruction he felt occur in response to his attacks. "I will prove it. I will prove there is nothing by reducing all to nothing!"

"That's...incredibly stupid." Nijubu responded frankly. "Enough of this crap, what happened to you, Desert? You're smarter than this."

"Lies...just lies...what do I...What do...you? Who are you?"

"I'm you now. Sort of. Not entirely enough that I'm stuck with the same fixed idea that's got you lashing out like a spoiled kid."

"I...absorbed Nijubu...Why?"

"Shoudn't you be the one to answer that?"

"Yes...I could sense something else beyond the desert...I wanted to reach out, but I ended up pulling you in with me. Something is wrong..."

"For someone with the power to be one with everything, how do you manage to feel trapped and isolated?"

"Something is wrong..."

* * *

"Something is wrong!" Shademan screeched just before fading into shadow to avoid the sandstorm created from the gigantic Desertman's latest attack.

"You mean other than what's been going on for the last five mintues?" Beastman responded sarcastically, unsure if the vanished vampire even heard him as he tucked himself under a weakening Barrier200.

"The 'wrong' started much earlier than that, I'd say." Plantman remarked as he took cover behind a wall of foliage. It felt like an eternity since they first rushed Desert and nothing anyone did seemed to have mush effect while more of their navis were being lost by the second in the maelstrom of dark sand. Terrain chips had the effect of converting chunks of his body to different panel types, but it only took seconds for the sand to swallow it up again. Water, wind, and earth were just as wasted as the effects that might have dealt serious blows to the old Desertman were absorbed in the constantly shifting mountain of sand.

"I speak of his dark essence!" Shademan resumed, reappearing in the wake of Desertman's onslaught. For the moment, the beast's attention was turned to eradicating the navis on the other side of the system. "Up this close I can sense it. There is no server, and that is more than a navi. Something alien is at work here."

"You saying there's no chance of finding the real world counterpart for this guy?" Overdrive panted, running through the deep sand with great difficulty.

"I do not know what it means, but that it defies our knowledge, so we may not know how to overcome it."

Plantman began spreading grass as far as he could to slow the sand. He wasn't very impressed with Shade's prediction. "Well to be fair, that's some kind of vague sense you're going on, right? Can we rely on something a little more substantive until then?"

"I am quite attuned to the nature of the dark soul. You would be wise to heed my words on the matter." Shademan said indignantly.

"Well so am I!" Announced Darklady. "And I say you're full of it." There was little doubt among the others that she was saying so just to be contrary and annoy Shade.

Overdrive did a double-take. "You're alive? When did that happen?"

"I've been here the whole time!" Dark raised her axe gallantly. "I'm kicking butt, too. What have you been doing?"

"You haven't been kicking any more butt than the rest of us." Plantman deadpanned. "There is only one butt, it's invincible, and it's turning this way again."

"At least I'm trying! Come on, back to the fight! Or are you ready to give up because this guy had an unfamiliar feeling?" She didn't wait for a response before flying off to attack Desertman again.

Beast was the first to shrug and follow after her ready for action. The rest looked a little unsure, turning to Shademan for his response. For his part, Shade actually looked slightly amused. "Well, I never said I was going to give up either. Wheee!" He raised a BatCannon to make his point and set flight for Desertman as well. There was nothing else to be said. The other navis followed suit.

* * *

"Y'know what? I think we're not alone here."

The composite being of Nijubu and Desertman continued to struggle to understand his actions and his entire state of being. Everything around him was distant and unreal, but he could tell he was involved in a real struggle at the same time. He continued to attack the unwelcome visions, despite neither half having any interest in continuing to do so. With every attack, the cries of pain of real souls reached his mind. Cries that he couldn't decide whether to shut out or relish in.

"I am being deceived...Not by Nijubu, but by another..."

"Our friends are here, somewhere. I think they want to help us...But yeah, other than them, there's this other asshole..."

"Making it impossible to see...to think...Clouding my mind..."

"I bet if we look real hard, we can see that cloud..."

Nijubu exerted every ounce of will he could muster to stop the mad flailing in what he perceived as his body. He sheathed his sword and began to walk down the plain, past the violent barbarians. Desertman slipped his particles through his cage and ignored the insects. Nijubu touched the wall of the building and stepped towards the light at the end of the alley. Desertman turned his gaze upwards to the starry sky above the desert until the ground was nowhere in his field of vision. Nijubu stopped looking at the man in the room and stepped past him to the door without looking back.

One by one the imprisoning visions shattered and the pieces sank into a black cloud, all merging and coalescing into the very face of rage and bitterness. His oppressor stood revealed. "Oh, it's you. I thought you were helping me." Nijubu and Desertman said to the darkness.

"I am."

"But you're lying to me."

"I am you. I'm lying to myself."

The cloud began to swell again, surrounding him, obscuring everything he had struggled to see.

"You may be me now, but you're not supposed to be. The dreams and memories I can live with. You're the unwelcome one!" Nijubu and Desert strained to reject the darkness.

"I am not just some virus that hitched a ride. I am all the pain you've been carrying with you since long before it came to this. Even then I had just as much claim to this existence as you. Now I have more. I have earned it." The darkness began to suffocate Nijubu and Desert. "Go back to your dreams now. This is how I am helping you. We will live out our darkest fantasies and feel no guilt or doubt. That is my gift."

"I don't want that! Get out of my head!"

"Anger and frustration are my lifeblood. By all means, hate me more as I consume every part of you."

"No...we are done with you..." Nijubu and Desert ceased struggling and adopted a new tactic: letting go.

The darkness was unimpressed. "You can't win this life back. I am now greater than both of you combined."

"Well if we're not getting our life back, we can still make sure you don't keep it."

"You can do nothing."

"And I am you."

* * *

The outstretched arm of Dark Desertman loomed menacingly over the valiant remaining fighters that opposed him, blocking out what little light the Undernet had, and raining crushing amounts of loose sand over those scrambling to get clear. The sand and stone were a nuisance, but everyone was primarily anticipating the ground-heaving slap that would follow. The colossus' movements had been as agonizingly slow as they were inescapable, but in this moment he seemed frozen. Only the falling flow of particles from the surface of his body indicated any motion as his hand hovered almost tauntingly over the battlefield, giving his opposition just enough time to get out of the way.

"I AM."

At last the arm fell. The shockwave was every bit as devastating as everyone had come to expect, but the delay meant that all navis had managed to escape to a safe distance this time. Even afterwards, Desertman remained bent over the same stretch of land with his arm embedded in the ground. Some took it as a good sign. "Is he actually slowing down?" Bubbleman exclaimed. "Blub! He's running out of juice! We're going to win this after all, blub!"

"Perhaps Shademan was right." Metalman added, hovering nearby Bubble, Burst, and Drill. "This...construct or whatever it is should not be able to exist without a server. It's burning itself out just being here."

"Shade's assessment sounded a lot less optimistic to me. More like a warning." Drillman countered, still wary.

"I AM...LYING."

"Did everyone...um...'hear' that?" Burstgirl trembled. "What's he thinking now?"

Drill had his guard up, wanting to believe he was ready for everything. "He's toying with us for some reason! Don't let him draw you in!"

"If he's trying to play possum, he's not doing a good job of it by loudly broadcasting his deceptive intent..." Metalman scoffed.

"GO BACK. NO GUILT. MY GIFT."

Baffled expressions spread among the navis. "...Okay now I have no idea what's going on in his head." said Drill, shaking his head at a loss.

Desertman began moving again, reaching his arms around towards where most of the navis had since amassed. He was just as fast as he was in the beginning, lending doubt to the theory that he was getting weaker. Only now his many mouths began opening, dimly illuminating the Undernet with the ultraviolet glow from within the monster's body. Many navis braced themselves, anticipating some new devastating attack, though nothing followed the unusual signal.

"ANGER. FRUSTRATION. CONSUME. YOU CAN DO NOTHING."

Burstgirl's eyes widened as she came to a realization. "You think maybe he's talking to someone else?"

"Agh, I've had enough of this!" Darklady shouted as she dove in ahead of the other more cautious flyers wielding a bug-enhanced Static blower. She was flying straight into the mouth of one of the Desertman heads near his left shoulder.

"What are you doing!?" Drillman yelled, racing after her. "You're just going to get eaten or something!"

"Yeah, or maybe..." Darklady stopped just inside the gaping sand maw and unleashed the Noise Storm upon the pulsating purple orb that they could now see inside the head as the source of the blacklight glow. Chaotic winds tore through the soft sphere, sending released fumes of dark energy splashing everywhere. The crackling hiss of the weapon almost drowned out the demonic roar from Desertman himself. However there was no missing the response broadcast directly into their heads.

"PAIN?"

Dark and Drill pulled back just in time to see the head she was inside slump and crumble, the light from within flickering and fading. The other faces turned in unison, glaring in rage at the miniscule pest that dared to draw blood.

"...or maybe the boss just exposed its weak point!" Darklady announced triumphantly, not nearly as intimidated by the beast bearing down on her as she should have been.

The spot on Desertman's shoulder where the head had been suddenly exploded and a jet of sand shot directly at Darklady. It came too fast for her to react and she was sent careening out of the sky, but Metalman was prepared to catch her. She shook it off quickly enough, mainly annoyed that she was hit by a cheap shot. It wasn't over though as more sand geysers erupted along the Desert's surface. The streams curved through the air like tendrils as they aimed for Darklady and all the other navis that surrounded her. While not as immediately lethal as the crushing blows he had employed previously, these jets were much faster and harder for everyone to avoid.

"Great! Way to get him mad, blub!" Bubbleman yelled as he and Burstgirl scrambled to build a Bubble Parade big enough to shield them from the precision sandstorm.

"It is great!" Drill exclaimed, less sardonically. "It means we finally figured out how to hurt him! Everyone needs to concentrate their fire on the open mouths!"

A sense of renewed hope rippled throughout the resistance forces, but Shademan remained worried. "It seems too easy... Why would he expose his unprotected cores? He was perfectly invulnerable until those mouths opened, and opening the mouths appears to serve no other purpose other than to give us something to attack."

"I say we worry about that after we make him bleed some more!" Beastman howled and streaked his way into another opening, launching TwinFang shots at the orb within. Desertman was not amused.

"PAIN!"

Drillman looked over at Shade and shrugged. "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth? ...Or in this case, do look in the mouth because that's where the gift horse...is...Whatever, just everyone pick a mouth and blast it!" He then transformed into his flight mode and rocketed in alongside several other navis with a resounding battlecry. Again, Shademan's caution gave way to peer pressure and he joined the charge with a hearty screech.

Just as Darklady suggested, it was a development that only made sense as if it were a game that they were supposed to win. Desertman attempted to shift to the defensive, deliberately shifting his sand to form new shields around the orbs that represented the physical containers for the massive amounts of dark energy he had amassed. Yet for every window he closed, another inexplicably opened up. His opponents did not have to look far to target another weak point.

Beastman's slashing frenzy was eventually halted by the sand pouring around him, covering his body and even his head and arms after he tried to detach them, and hardening. He was trapped, but eager to show his old friend just what a cornered animal could do. "Grrrr...You think you can stop me? I got yer scent, buddy! There's no escape!" As Beastman let out a mighty roar, tall grass sprouted from the sand walls around the core and shadowy viruses struck it with SideBamboo. The pierced orb released a wave of energy and the sand around Beastman slackened, allowing the vicious hunter to free himself. "Come, my virus friends! It's feeding time!" With his summoning battlechips, Momogras burrowed up from the sand, followed by Garuus and Rabiris. They swarmed on the unprotected core, burning and tearing it to shreds. Beast and his viruses soon emerged from another fallen Desert head.

The shifting sand proved to be more of an impediment to Shademan. His greater skill in aerial maneuvers and evasion kept him from getting buried like Beast did, but he wasn't getting any closer to his target, even blasting through barriers with his Noise Crush. Any holes his dug were quickly filled. "Well...as long as we're throwing everything we have, let's see if that sand regeneration counts as healing. Samuel?" Moments later, Shade received the Bad Medicine trap chip. This time he dove right into one of the holes before activating the chip. As luck would have it, the trap was triggered immediately by the sand's defensive actions. The healing effect was sabotaged and sand began to dissolve away as quickly as it had been moving to block him before. The chip wasn't powerful enough to spread the effect farther than the one head, but it was enough to expose the core momentarily. Shade seized the moment with four more battlechips tailored for his specialty. The first three were Pulsars that combined into the Big Noise Program Advance. The fourth was the diminutive Big Noise standalone chip. They manifested as sonic cannons on each of his arms. He flew up to the core at point-blank range and unleashed them simultaneously, bolstering the destructive sound with his own blood-curdling screech. It was an overlapping scream loud enough to make the entire Undernet jump in fright, but there in the focal point of the sound waves it was enough to rupture one of the great monster's hearts. The screams gave way to explosions, then silence. Bats swarmed out of the collapsing cavern that was once a mouth.

Having seen Shademan turn the tables with the Anti-Recovery trap, others that kept that particularly nasty trick up their sleeves were quick to exploit it, Alia and Darklady among them. "Any more Dark Chips handy to land the killing blow?" Dark asked her operator as she flew past Desert's recoiling defenses. "I like the idea of shutting this guy down with his own power."

"That's nice, but let's actually not run the risk of that making him stronger..." Alia rained on her navi's parade. "You've got plenty of arsenal to lay waste to this upstart without going the pointlessly poetic route."

"Aw...fine. What do I get then?" ElementDark blasters materialized on her arms in response. Designed to be powered by swamp panels, the purple glow emanating from the weapons indicated that the corrupted desert all around her served the same advantage. "Huh...well as long as he knows who came calling!" She unleashed the full searing might of the elemental flames on the core in front of her. The black sand bearing down on her rapidly vanished as it was absorbed by the chips and converted into further fuel for the destruction of its master. The orb burst into purple flames. Darklady grinned wickedly as she raced to her next target.

If there were a race to crush the most cores, Metalman would already be winning. Although he had an unfair advantage going in since he was one of the last navis to be restored from the Vengeance server, so he had full HP and a freshly loaded folder to unload all at once. After piercing striaght through some heads with DashCondor, he decided he didn't even have to get very close to his targets. As Spider, he had trained a lot with VariableSwords, mastering all the hidden techniques. As Metalman, swords didn't suit him like they used to, but Lyric still kept some on hand because neither of them wanted all that practice to go to waste. Besides, he was more concerned than ever about getting rusty. From a high vantage point hovering above the writhing sand-mass, he unleashed the Sonic Boom skill of his VarSwords. The slicing waves cut through the sand's weakening defenses and ultimately pierced the buried spheres, but he wasn't doing as much damage as he had earlier.

"Looks like this body demands to get its hands dirty." He commented, letting his operator know he was heading inside the nearest mouth. Desertman was adapting and managed to bite down on Metal just as he passed the threshold, hardening the sand enough that even the boulder-breaking powerhouse was doing all he could just to hold off getting crushed. Help came in the form of Drillman, whose own drill-enhanced DaskAttack was enough to cut through the wall just below Metalman, allowing both navis through into the cavern that housed the core.

"I was going to break free on my own. It would be best to stick to one target each." A passive-aggressive Metal said to Drill.

"Heh. Fine. This one's yours." Drillman flipped around and tunneled through a wormhole. "I can be in two places at once without harming efficiency."

Metal's poker face was well-maintained. He occasionally still thought of himself as Spider, and his web abilities once gave him just as much enviable mobility. He was trained to adapt though, and he wasn't about to give up. He embraced the brute force of his new form by punching through the core with a GoldFist. He was still winning the race.

Drillman emerged right in front of one of Desertman's eyes. Columns of sand lanced from below to knock him out of the sky, but he fired up his jets and managed to push his speed enough to stay just ahead of them. He continuously dodged the sand tendrils for a while, drawing more and more in pursuit as he weaved his way into the mouth and towards the core, until he finally stopped cold, whipped out a Tornado chip, and sucked up all the sand chasing him to power up the maelstrom against the weak point. Sand and dark energy sprayed out from the cyclone. Satisfied, Drill dove into another wormhole towards another target. Their strategy was winning the day.

On the ground, the navis that carried terrain chips were gradually gaining ground as Desertman focused his sand control on the flyers buzzing around his heads. Flamechick led a contingent of incensed fire-elementals along the beast's right side, converting the desert to lava that they tread across easily. Plantman and the wood-elementals climbed from the left, with GrassSeeds and WoodPowder to cut across the grey wastes with a green road of victory. From Desert's back, Overdrive charged ahead with PanelReturn and MetalStage, solidifying the chaotic terrain that had been so frustrating in which to run. She was trailed by the ragged remains of the Undernet and Officials' alliance, who couldn't hope to keep up with the lightning-fast special operative, but moved as fast as they could, to activate more terrain Repair chips ahead of her as she made her way up to the orbs shining out from the faces on the lowest points of the giant Darkloid's mountainous body.

Overdrive was the first to enter one of the mouths in Desertman's lower back. The dark energy seemed to be more concentrated as they moved upwards, so the orb she found was much smaller than the ones her allies had dealt with above. One slash from he sword and she was dashing out of the crumbling cave. "That's all there is to it? Huh, but there about a hundred of these things. Guess I'll just have to take them..." She entered another mouth and cut the core to pieces with an ElemSword. "...one-" She strafed two more mouths from outside with MachineGun3. "-by-" She targeted three more adjacent cores with CircleGun3 and raced by as the shots rained down. "-one." She launched a Boomerang3 that cut through the core in one mouth and emerged through another core on the way out of Desert's body. Desertman's entire body was quickly arching backwards painfully as the energy supporting him was released.

Plantman and his followers made it to their targets, taking advantage of Desert's stunned state to spread the grass in and around the mouths, and then unleashing a coordinated combo of BadSpice, GreenWood, and ElemLeaf to turn all the plantlife they had cultivated on their way up into pure destructive force against the cores along Desert's left side. Just as they were spreading more WoodPowder for the second wave, fiery explosions erupted from within the body, from which Flamechick and her followers leapt out, much to the recoiling amazement of the wood-elemental navis outside.

"Where did you come from?" Plantman posed to Flame, his fire-resistant Barrier making him one of the few green navis that didn't instantly back away from the blaze.

Flamechick answered dryly. "We used simultaneous VolcanoCannon shots from the lava field we created on Desertman's right side. It seems we generated enough force to blast a hole straight through his body." She turned around to see the flames continue to burn across the grass field the other navis had created. "Good timing."

"You went right through?!" Plantman strained to look through the fire and smoke. "So...what's left?"

Desertman's entire midsection sank away. His arms appeared to melt, raining grey dust on the vacant desert below. His upper body was almost entirely leveled by the flyers. All that remained after hours of fierce, non-stop fighting was a floating dark purple sphere. It was once Desertman's chest, but its shape had simplified, the sand had hardened, it had become smaller and more compact in an effort to shield its remaining cores from his enemies.

"WHY...HOW..."

"You might as well give in. They've got you on the ropes. It's over." Nijubu and Desertman taunted their dark half.

"You made this happen. You gave them targets. You killed me. You killed yourself." The dark half turned all its rage inward on the self-destructive sparks it harbored.

"Yeah, we're all one and the same right now. We killed us. Don't ignore your share of the blame. I don't think you can be a creature of pure hate if that hate can't apply to yourself."

"So we...I...just had a change of heart?"

"That's how it manifested in the end, but it was joining with Nijubu that provided that change. Desertman's rage fueled the will of the Dark Soul, but adding one more voice to the mix tipped the scales in the other direction." Nij and Desert gloated in tandem.

"No...Nijubu's soul was just as tainted. It could not have countered my karmic weight..." The Dark Soul floundered for explanation.

"It wasn't about karma. It was about breaking the pattern. As Desertman, some small part of me knew this. The decision to seek out Nijubu was mine. It was an attractive prospect to you as well, but deep down, we all knew it wasn't going to be you that benefited from the reunion with my old operator."

Something strange began to happen in Dark Desertman's mindscape. Something even more strange than everything that preceded. Gradually, the broken amalgam psyche fractured further until it had spun apart into three distinct portions. One took the form of a human male with wings of light extending from his back, the second was a golden humanoid figure with glowing pink eyes, and then there was the chaotic black mass of a hundred screaming faces flickering through dancing purple flames.

"Why...How?..." The darkness pleaded.

The soul of Desertman continued. "Whatever happened, Nijubu and I were going to support each other. That was the chink in your armor that I found a way to exploit even as your slave."

Nijubu's soul smirked. "As for how we're separating from you now...let's just say I have a history of breaking the rules." The two humanoid figures began to float above the writhing darkness that sank and faded into abyss. Light and clouds seemed to form in the perceived sky beyond them. "In that moment Desert pulled me into the cyberworld, you thought you were getting something out of that deal, right? You thought you were gaining the power to cross dimensions. The power to invade the real world. Heh. Nice try. We've had other plans, and they don't involve dying in this world here with you."

"You...can't...leave..." The darkness whimpered as it found itself alone.

The sandstone sphere trembled in the sky above the Undernet. Grains shook loose and sprinked the dead mound of dust beneath it. Cracks formed across one side of the sphere and rays of purple light beamed through. One last massive three-eyed face formed from the cracks, an expression of maddened anguish. The oversized central core, the monster's beating heart, protruded from the widening mouth like the face was sticking out its tongue. There was no other movement. Desertman practically beckoned the navis surrounding him to finish the job.

Plantman and the other non-flying navis craned their necks upwards, only able to watch in awe. "Well, this is just...messed up." Plant murmured, taking the last possible moment to wonder what was going to happen to his old teammate.

"What do we do?" Beastman asked among the flyers. He wasn't anywhere near Plant physically, but their sentiments were being shared by their operators' PET links. He was more eager to fight than anyone, but he was on the same page as Bubble and Plant now that they had a chance to consider sparing a friend.

Shademan's eyes were closed and his ears were twitching. He was deeply contemplative for a moment before opening his eyes again and shaking his head solemnly at the former Acid Hackers. "Apologies, but you know what must be done. There is nothing left of Desertman in there. There is only a cursed soul that wants to die."

"Well, I think most of us are happy to oblige." Darklady held out her hand, expecting another NoiseStorm to be sent, but Alia had other ideas.

"Hold on! This is the chance I've been waiting for! That dark energy has to be harnessed and studied! Talk them out of it!"

Dark stopped cold, and panicked when she realized the rest of the flying navis had already moved in for the kill. "Eep! Uh, wait! Let's not do something too hasty! He's harmless! Let's talk about it!"

Yet there was no stopping the coup de grâce. Almost every navi still in the air that had been manipulated, mentally bombarded, and nearly consumed by the hateful mass was finally determined to pay it back in full. From the Underdwellers defending their territory, to the Officials upholding their honor, to friends avenging their comrades, they all unloaded the last of their weapons on the rapidly pulsating orb. Shademan's BigNoise, Metalman's SuperVulcan, and Drillman's C'monSnake ultimately converged and caused the membrane to rupture. There was rushing roar in every navi's mind, a blinding flood of violet light, and a wave of force that shook the entire network to its foundations, and when the smoke cleared, it was over.

All trace of Desertman was gone. The Undernet had mostly regained its original form. The navis that once stood in endless desert were back on solid platforms and walkways suspended over the abyss. Just as the Darkloid vanished, so did the effects of his space-warping powers. The damage wrought by the dark castle remained, and would likely never be repaired. It was just like any other desolate Undernet ruins again.

Amidst widespread rejoicing, there were some mixed emotions. Darklady sighed, partly because she knew Alia was going to be upset, partly because she didn't get to join in on the final bloodbath. She teleported away before Drillman or anyone else could approach her. Bubble, Burst, and Beast caught up with Plant on the ground. None of them had participated in delivering the final blow, but they all acknowledged the necessity of it. "That voice sorta faded out towards the end, but..." Burstgirl started. "...Well, it seemed like you guys still understood it up until the last moment. Did you?"

Bubbleman look between the other two, none of them looking very sure. "Blub...It stopped being words and more like...just feelings? But there was a familiar feeling, that nobody else seemed to notice."

Beast shrugged. "The feeling to me was like...Desertman...the real Desertman, not the crazy Darkloid Desertman..."

"He was there, but then he was gone, only the Darkloid was left, just as Shademan said." Plantman finalized the thought.

"I'm so sorry...he was your friend." Burstgirl put her hand on Bubble's shoulder in sympathy. He didn't seem to need it though.

"Naw, blubbed as it sounds, I don't think Desert's dead-gone...just gone-gone."

"That's the feeling I got too." Plant added. "Like he's still out there somewhere. Maybe it's just optimistic sentiment though."

"Yeah, because that's so characteristic of you." Beast said sarcastically.

Plant crossed his arms. "Hmph. Well, either way, I'm not actually broken up about anything. Just...bewildered. This day hasn't been anything like I thought it would be. At any rate, the important thing is that the Dark Chip trading ring is finished, and business should return to normal for me and Stuart. Thanks, everyone, for your help. I'll be seeing you around."

Burst was taken aback. "You're just leaving? Now?"

"I'm not one for needless celebration...especially with this many Officials around. It's for the best that none of us hang around here too long...Farewell." With that, Plantman teleported out.

"Ahh, I dunno if the Officials are a big deal right now." Beastman looked towards the main crowd of reveling navis. "I mean, look at 'em over there. Dancing hand-in-hand with UnderDwellers."

"This adventure brought together whom you least expected." Burstgirl smiled.

"Blub, yeah, no kidding, blub." Bubbleman blushed as he looked up at Burst.

Beast cocked his head, then rolled his eyes. "Yyyeah, come to think of it, I just wanna go back to my PET and get some rest. Catch you guys later!" Then Beast was gone too.

Burst sighed and shrugged. "Well, we don't have PETs to return to, so at least we can enjoy the party, right?"

"Uh...sure, blub! No way the Officials are bothering us anyway, if they know what's good for 'em!"

The rest of the crowd was full of elation well into the night. It was probably the most upbeat the Undernet had ever been.

* * *

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