The cylinder opened and revealed itself to be a massive arm cannon. With machine-gun speed, the weapon began to fire missile after missile in a widespread grouping mowing down the remaining spires. Shademan attempted to dodge the large, black, spike-shaped bullets while preparing to fade into the darkness again, but the onslaught was too quick and all-encompassing. The mercenary navi shouted in pain as he took several hits, holes punched right through his lean frame. One projectile wedged into his chest, pixels away from being the stake in this vampire's heart. Shade fell to the ground, helpless.
"WOAH!" Drillman yelled angrily as his flight mode speared into the Darkloid's back, digging through the formidable armor and bringing the monstrous warrior genuine pain. Spires appeared in a defensive effort but Drill transformed back to normal mode and kept close to his target with DrillArms spinning. "That's enough out of you! Now that I'm ready for ya', I'm not letting you get a shot off! Overdrive, help Shade!"
The operators were just beginning to grasp the gravity of the situation. Samuel Darklight's nervous look betrayed his usual stoic demeanor. "Shademan is heavily damaged, if we don't get that transmission block down..."
Moe nodded gravely. "Yeah, he won't be coming back. Don't worry, he may not be our favorite ally, but we won't let that happen to him."
"Actually it's not deletion I'm worried about." Darklight clarified. "Shademan's an Immortal, he'll just regenerate somewhere in the Undernet if he can't return to the PET, but there was something unnerving about what the Darkloid said..."
"whatever we do, we'd better do it quick!" Tricia interrupted. "I'm picking up another signal and this one's all around them!"
Drillman continued to thrash away at the armor of the powerful enemy who was now using his large arm cannon to block and to attempt to club the smaller orange navi away. "You'd be wise to escape while you can. Shademan is the only one we want right now, but that doesn't mean I'll show you any mercy!" The enraged Darkloid threatened.
"Well thanks for the advice." Drillman responded sarcastically while puncturing a DrillArm into the large gun barrel and pushing it down and out of the way so he could aim the drill on his other fist at the slits in his opponent's visor. "What makes you such a considerate villain, anyway?"
The Darkloid twisted his head to avoid the possibly fatal blow, but the tip of the drill still caught the edge of his mask, tearing half of it free from his helmet and revealing part of his white, wooden face and piercing yellow eyes. His head turned back to his attacker with a contemptuous glare and Drillman fell back in shock when he recognized the Darkloid's cold, pale visage.
"Bowlman? How in the hell...?"
"You're just recognizing me now? Typical. For teammates we were never very close to begin with." Dark Bowlman sneered and kicked the stunned digging navi several panels away and into a group of spires, which Drillman now recognized as stretched and twisted black bowling pins. "That much was obvious when you, the other Net Guardians, and our own operators didn't lift a finger to search for us after Gamma was destroyed!"
Drillman activated a Mole chip and burrowed underground to avoid another dark Pin Cannon attack. "But you came back!...As Jon's original navi..."
"And what do you suppose happened to the Bowlman component? Well here's the answer to the question you never bothered to ask. We found a new home in the Darkness, and soon the rest of the net can join us there."
Overdrive meanwhile had her hands full trying to escape the range of the transmission blocker, carrying an immobilized Shademan over her shoulders. Since the vampire navi was larger than she was, she couldn't run at her top speed with his long legs dragging awkwardly behind. "Damn, I'm out of Recovs for you." She hissed, straining under Shade's burden. "You have to move! Whatever came along with the big guy is catching up with us!" Overdrive looked nervously back where she could see ominously rippling terrain between them and Drillman's fight.
Shademan groaned, barely conscious. "I...could heal...if...I could...just a taste..." He then began to move his fangs toward Overdrive's neck.
"Woah! Knock it off!" She yelled, pushing his face away with her free hand. "I think you could recover without resorting to bad habits!"
"It's not a habit, it's what he is." Darklight explained through the comm. "He won't suck you dry or turn you into an entranced servant, he'll just borrow enough of your energy to get moving again."
"Yeah, I'll believe that after seeing the kind of restraint he's shown on any of his victims I've seen these last couple days!" Overdrive caustically shot back.
Tricia chimed in apprehensively. "Look 'Driver, we're out of options. I think you'll have to bite the bullet and...let him bite you."
"You can't be serious!" Overdrive looked back at Shademan uneasily. He was fading fast and the pitiful drained look on his face was a far cry from the creepy leering smirk she was used to from him. She grit her teeth, turned her head away, and closed her eyes. "Alright, just...do it quickly."
There was a brief delay, then she felt the pinching pain of fangs puncturing her throat, followed by the rapid decrease of her life force. It was much more sudden than she expected, and after just a second she wanted it to stop, but before she could say anything, she was overcome by a sinking feeling that didn't have anything to do with her falling HP.
The mysterious ripple had made its move. Shademan and Overdrive were being pulled underground by an unknown force and dark energy began to envelop Shademan even as he was regaining the strength to struggle against it. With her own strength fast disappearing, Overdrive only found the power to scream.
The cry caught Drillman's attention. He abruptly broke off from his standoff with Bowlman to rocket towards his partner's location. He could hear the Darkloid's laughter mocking him from behind as he flew, but he ignored it. When he saw that Shade and Overdrive were being drawn underground by some kind of purple whirlpool, he prepared to dive underground to stop whatever was down there, only to have it stop him. A giant hand shot out of the ground and clamped around Drillman like a vice, putting a halt to his would-be rescue.
"Skrraschh iiraachhazhaaaahhh." proclaimed a ghostly demonic voice from all around them. Straining against the sandy grip, Drillman caught a glimpse of a grinning face glowing beneath the ground. The entire terrain was shifting and pulling at the three helpless navis.
"I had it under control, you didn't need to intervene." Bowlman stated while walking up to join the group. "Just as well though. You can have Shademan, and the others are fine for dessert."
"Is that...?" Drillman gasped. His drills were gradually churning through the hand's rocky composition, but he wouldn't make it in time. Shademan's body was almost completely consumed by blackness, and it was beginning to spread to his companion in the dark hole.
The situation was hopeless, but then something changed in Overdrive. Her desire to live and her need for freedom awakened something she didn't know was there. She stopped screaming as she felt a resurgence of energy waiting to be harnessed. The thought of being silenced, that the secrets they uncovered there would be lost with her incensed her with a feeling of duty. She had to survive this for the sake of everyone depending on her, at any cost. It seemed for a fleeting moment something was telling her that cost, but she didn't care. She latched onto that power and began to move. The Darkloid's vortex gave her no room to gain leverage, so she twisted and squirmed, faster and faster. Dust began to fly from the hole as every vector in her frame began to vibrate at the speed of light.
"Hhsshchhrrr?" The all-encompassing Darkloid muttered quizzically.
"Overdrive, what-" Drillman started to ask what was happening, but as he spoke she blurred and faded from sight, leaving a small explosion of sand from the hole to indicate that somehow she broke free.
Shademan's enclosed form was not so fortunate, once Overdrive was gone, the black cocoon that held him sank rapidly into the vortex, which subsequently disappeared along with a satisfied guttural hiss from the sand beneath.
Drillman finally broke free from the hand and quickly flew upwards out its reach. He then stopped in a hover, turned, and trained his missiles back on the two Darkloids on the ground. "Enough! Release Shademan at once! I won't let you get away with this!"
Bowlman responded by taking aim with his arm cannon, but a sound from his invisible companion stayed his trigger. "Echhrach. Smuucsh chra rrechhsss."
"Hmph. I know we have what we came for, but this one doesn't stand a chance. We should take him now."
"Macshh...Szeechh rhl chhrlleh fshihh."
"...I see. Then we'll settle this later, Drillman." Bowlman lowered his weapon and turned away, walking off into the shadows. "Perhaps by the next time everything will be out in the open."
"Where do you think you're going!" Drillman launched his Drill Missiles into the ground where Bowlman and the other Darkloid were standing, but the distortion in the terrain had vanished and Bowl along with it. The entire system seemed to become slightly brighter with the Darkloids gone.
"Drillman...the area is empty." Moe reported. "Shademan, those Darkloids, even that Heel navi from earlier, there's just no trace of them."
Drillman began to sink into despair once again. "No...and Overdrive?"
Tricia responded. "Actually, she's back in my PET...I don't know how to explain it but one second she was trapped by the Darkloids and the next she was collapsed in the next system over, outside the blocker's range. She's drained and stuck in sleep mode, but I think she'll be fine."
"Uh, yeah." Moe affirmed, just as confused as everyone. "The blocker went down when the Darkloids vanished by the way...you might as well jack out too."
"...What the hell just happened..." Drillman sighed before returning to his PET.
Moe and Tricia harnessed their PETs and turned to the silent Darklight, still staring at his own dead Terminal, lost in thought. At one point he took a hip flask from his pocket and took a quick chug.
"Darklight...Sam...I'm sorry, we did everything we could." Moe apologized uncomfortably.
The mercenary sighed and closed his PET and his flask. "I'm not sure what those things intend to do with Shademan, but there may yet be a chance...Either way we have something more important to worry about right now. We need to get to an ONBA lab in this city."
Moe and Tricia were taken aback. "You just lost your navi. I figured you'd...be done now. What do you have in mind?"
"I may not have a navi, but I still have something you need for this case." Darklight explained while leading the pair of Officials back up the stairs. "I'm going to tell you everything you need to know about Darkloids."
* * *
"Nuh uh. I told her last time. Bitch damn near took my head off."
"But you gave her good news yesterday."
"My point exactly! You do it."
The Jester and the Dragoon paced back and forth outside the doorway to their mistress' inner chamber. There was bad news to report and dispute over who should do the reporting.
"YOU were the one on monitor duty. I was just passing by. If anyone deserves to get punished for this, it's you!" Dragoon stated angrily.
Jester crossed his arms and pouted. "It wasn't my fault! There was no warning thanks to that sneaky mercenary. Besides, if you're so sure you don't need to be here, why don't you just fly away, chicken-wings?"
"Because YOU tied my tail to an anvil! I'm still not sure how you did it." The reptilian warrior gestured furiously to the large metal object tethered behind him.
"So you'll do it? 'Kay thanks!" The Jester then kicked open the door and ran off in the other direction.
"Hey! Get back here you backstabbing clown!"
"You have something to report, Dragoon?"
The voice from within the chamber made Dragoon freeze with terror. He looked back for a moment to notice the anvil had conveniently disappeared, though his tail was now tied in a bow for some reason. He would worry about that later. Flying away certainly wasn't an option any more, and a broken tail would be the least of his worries if he couldn't figure out how to deliver the news just right.
"Uhm, yeahhh. I just had to inform you...daaamn, you're looking extra-hot today, ma'am! You did something with your hair, am I right? Drillman's team met the Darkloids, by the way but oh man, you are one fine matriarch, my lady."
The Dragoon froze up again as eight swords jabbed at him from every direction, each one just slightly digging into his scales and gradually pressing in further. "Never waste Our time. When We desire transparent flattery, We will demand it! Now go back to the part about the Darkloids!"
Dragoon took a deep breath and delivered the news straight. "W-we thought they were on another aimless patrol, but Shademan quietly led them right into a confrontation with Desert and Bowl. The Darkloids devoured Shademan, but the other Officials got away. It-it all happened too fast, there was nothing we could do to stop it!"
"Worthless Children!" The guards shifted positions and herded the Dragoon off to the torture chamber by the tips of their blades. The lizard's pleas for mercy fell on deaf ears as the woman had once again turned to her monitors to begin planning her next move. "If those do-gooders learn the Darkloids' secret, it will be only a matter of time before they go the way of Flameman. We must accelerate our plans!"
"I suppose it was inevitable as soon as the Officials began their investigation." The disembodied male voice accompanying her surmised. "The Darkloids have been getting bolder as well, and I think they're aware of us now. I will do what I can to complete preparations in time."
The woman smiled. "Meanwhile, We shall personally reclaim the final member of Our court."
* * *