When Queen Majesty observed the Bubble Parade return in force, but now advancing against her army, she was livid. "What is this!? That navi was supposed to be fixed! Why is it turning against us?"
"That...should not be possible." Blackbelt said with his long-running confidence finally slightly shaken. He returned to the server console where he had moments earlier initiated a reboot in the Bubbleman.exe program, and was baffled by what he saw, or rather what he didn't. "He's gone. Removed from the server. The energy levels for the darkness assembly have decreased by the amount he had stored as well...It couldn't just disappear...but the control program can't find the missing energy."
"Treason! It makes a mockery of our authority!" Queen seethed with rage. "Hunt the bubble maker down and execute him on the spot! Let there be nothing left for the server to reclaim. He must not continue to exist!"
Kingman was comparitively unmoved, but the events had him thinking. "Hrm...Are you sure it's wise to continue? This plan relied quite a bit on the assumption that all navis added to the server would stay there. I believe it would be best to ascertain the nature of this fault in the system before advancing. One aberration could lead to many, and our entire defense could be compromised."
"Unacceptable! To retreat now would expose weakness!" She glared at her new consort. "Do not let your empathy for the navis of this world cloud your resolve. We are conquering them for their sake in the end!"
Blackbelt's certainty of direction was upset by the revelation. He considered King's and Queen's assessments like they were the angel and devil on his shoulders. "King has a point, I don't like the risk...but shutting down and logging out means the enemy will have more of a chance to track the server before we can cripple their resources...I'm afraid we have no choice but to continue. Have the CoV engage the search for Bubbleman. I'm going to figure out what went wrong."
Queen didn't like having to tolerate her operator's failure, but for the time being there was nothing she could do about it, and she needed him to pull the switches and press the buttons in the real world. She acquiesced and relayed the order to her underlings. As she did this, Kingman spotted something over the edge of the balcony and beckoned for her attention. "It looks like he's not even hiding."
The melee had exploded once more, and Bubbleman was surprisingly right in the middle of the fray, although he wasn't going down easily though. He was encased in his Bubble Wrap barrier, swimming quickly between the hordes of dark ghosts. The swift Beastman was running interference for his teammate, knocking aside each enemy that tried to capture him with a flying detached body part. Bubble, Beast, and Burstgirl moved determinedly through the crowd towards a shining beacon in its midst, the one navi surrounded by an aura of flickering fire, the phantom Flamechick. As single-minded as the other soldiers, she attacked the oncoming trio directly with her Flame Breath, but the regenerating Bubble Wrap was an effective defense against the slow and recharge-dependent flame blast attack. A few Aqua Shots were enough to stagger the mindless shell, and Burstgirl and Bubbleman worked together to create a concentrated cage of bubbles to keep her doused and unmoving. Beastman zipped around, keeping the other navis at bay until Flamechick was contained and then traded places with the Bubble duo. They put their bubble-summoning power to work on crowd control while Beast moved in close to Flame, but not to finish her off.
While that was happening, Overdrive and Plantman were making a similar play in another direction on the ground. Up in the air, Drillman made a surprise wormhole jump under Shademan's feet. The twice undead Darkloid was stunned long enough for Drill to follow up with a RockArm punch that forced them both to plummet to the ground, right where Plant and Over had cleared an area. Shade was pounded into the ground with a resulting crater, but was undaunted and began to fade away in shadow form. Overdrive was quick to abort that with a slash from her new sword that managed to cut through even his vaunted defense. He next tried to split into a trio of bats to escape, but Plantman's vines caught each of them before they could really get off the ground. Forced to return to his normal state, Shademan tried to fight back with his Noise Crush, but wasn't strong or clever enough in his corrupted state to stand against the three navis that were clearly determined to take him down. Within moments he was held fast in a tangled mass Plant Weed with Drillman hanging ominously over him, also not finishing him off.
Back in the Officials' dispatch room, things were already much more organized than earlier. Thanks to Darklight's information relayed by Tricia to the Commanding Officers, they were able to assess the threat and appropriately mobilize much more quickly than they had with the archive attack. Much of the agents that had crowded in when the initial alert went out had been directed to other posts, some were in the monitoring center attempting to trace the power and data transfer between the Undernet and Blackbelt's server. Others were already out on the street, chasing leads on Blackbelt's possible access points. Many more had spread out to other access points in order to join the battle in the Undernet while easing the bandwidth stress. A handful of operators remained in the dispatch room, including Tricia, Moe, Darklight, Hoshiko, and Shou. Tricia was taking the lead in coordinating the the other groups for their hastily devised operation.
"Squad 5, keep the northwest road clear of the green. Squad 9, we need support on the area below the torch. It looks like the Dragoon and Archer are on the move. Deletion Squad, please engage the watchers. Just slow them down!" Tricia barked intensely through her PET communicator while keeping her eyes glued to the large monitor on the wall before the group displaying a complex map layout of the area. She was so engrossed in managing everyone else that she was trusting her own navi to fend for herself for the time being. If anything, Overdrive was at least fast enough to get out of harm's way if she ran out of chips. After a tense moment, Tricia took a breath and turned to her teammates. "We might only have a few seconds, better make them count!"
Nervously, Moe passed his PET off to Darklight and Shou tossed his to Hoshiko. "Welp, it's all on you now." Shou shrugged, not even remotely apprehensive about leaving his navi in the hands of someone he'd barely met. He even started to wander out of the room while everyone else's attention was on the rescue operation.
Hoshiko gulped and brought the mic on Beastman's PET close to her mouth. "Um...alright. Flamechick, c-can you hear me?" She wanted to speak quietly, privately, but it was impossible in this situation. Even with the other operators doing their best to give her the space to concentrate, she still had to use Beastman as a medium to talk to her lost navi. She did her best to pretend they were alone. There was no time to be shy. "Flame, it's Hoshiko. I know we haven't had a lot of time to bond, but you're all I have, and I'm all you have, so this has to work..."
"Shademan, it's Samuel." Darklight was straight to the point as he did the same thing through Drillman's audio feed. His and Hoshiko's PETs had lost all connections to their navis as soon as the castle formed, so the only way they could reach them again was indirectly. It was a plan frought with uncertainty, but they came far enough just by capturing their navis' ghostly avatars. They believed it could be their only chance. "It's been a while, hasn't it? I knew I could count on you to survive. I know you'll survive this as well. I hope you won't mind if I help you out this time though, for old time's sake."
The Flamechick and Shademan ghosts struggled against their bonds, still very much in the thrall of Blackbelt's program. Plantman and the Bubble Brigade did their best to keep them subdued, but the more Flame was drenched and Shade was strangled, the more risk there was of deleting them and losing the chance to free the originals. It was a precarious balance, especially for warriors that were not used to holding back.
Hoshiko watched the writhing form of Flamechick in sadness. The PET screen showed her through Beastman's eyes, but Hoshiko's image wasn't visible from her end. Her voice would have to be enough. "I'm so sorry you're stuck like this because of me. Maybe it's not just that I used the dark chip, but that I used it without considering you. I've been keeping you at arm's length because...because I do want Ice Chan back and you've been a painful reminder. But that was wrong. Whether or not you're Ice Chan, you're still Flamechick. You're your own person, and from now on I promise to respect that."
Darklight couldn't help but overhear her. He had been at a slight loss of what to say, himself. Emotional outpours were no more his thing than Shade's. Nonetheless, Hoshiko reminded him that whether they wanted to admit it or not, there was always a time to start thinking of each others' feelings. "So...maybe you thought I abandoned you. Maybe it was just time for us to part ways again. We're not exactly bonded for life like the typical operator-navi duo. We're just allies that partnered up for work. Well, just so you know, I didn't give up anyway. I've been searching for you every day. Even if you were going to free yourself, I wanted to make sure you were okay. I'm at least that responsible."
Hoshiko overheard Darklight as well. She had looked up to him for a long time, but she was starting to realize they were pretty much on equal footing, at least in trying to relate to their navis. "I can be more responsible, Flame. I can be the kind of operator you deserve. I don't have to rely on others so much. So you're free to be yourself, and I can support you instead of just making you support me."
Darklight cracked a rare smile. He was increasingly thankful Hoshiko was there. "You will always be a Darkloid, but a Darkloid of your own. Return to your coffin, my friend. I will be there to greet you when you rise again. You thirst. You live."
Hoshiko's heart swelled. "Don't accept your fate. Don't just hide behind the mask. Underneath is the real you. Let it out! Ignite!"
There was resonance. As their operators continued to appeal and encourage them, their bodies began to stop struggling. Shademan's soul was quick to awaken once he heard his partner's voice. From there, it was his own formidable dark power versus the altered darkness that had infected him. Desertman's healing had given the latter the advantage in quantity, but the original dark soul at the heart of it was rapidly growing in strength and pressure. Flamechick was different from Bubble and Shade in that she was never an autonavi, she never had the built-in sense of independence that spurred them to reject control. But she did have a will of her own, and though she was constantly reserved, she was not dead inside. To hear that her operator understood that at last gave her soul newfound power. Beyond that, the remnants of one thought lost filled Flame's spirit in a way she would not even realize with a sense of faith and determination that drove her to return to Hoshiko no matter what.
From his lab, Blackbelt took notice as the dark energy stockpile on his server began to drop again. He saw that the Flamechick.exe and Shademan.exe programs had engaged in an unauthorized transfer to a destination he couldn't track. Rather than even attempt to stop the transfer, he focused on finding out where it originated, and of solving its puzzle. As far as he knew, he was witnessing something impossible. The files taken from the Officials backed up the tested hypothesis that navis could not remove an infection of darkness by any method short of a long and arduous period of karmic correction, yet here it was happening all at once in defiance of his pojections. Could the Officials have discovered a vaccine for dark possession in the last ten minutes? Unlikely. Was there a flaw in his control program? Even more unlikely. Was there an unknown factor at play? Then what? The result of Bubbleman's escape left him with little question where Shade and Flame would next turn up. The Darkness they were leaving behind was a greater concern. Where would that power end up?
As the form of Flamechick curled up into a flickering ball inside her bubble prison, a sudden burst of light appeared above her and the teleporting Flashman spread his Spark Arm around her and Beastman, destroying the bubbles and stunning the navis that made them. "You guys just had to make us do things the hard way..." Flash sighed before gravity took over and he began to fall back towards the lower platforms. Flamechick was released but unmoving and was falling as well, but Dragoon swooped in and started to carry her back to the castle.
In the other location, Plantman was rapidly pierced by three flaming arrows from the incoming Archer. Shademan slumped to the ground as the vines disappeared. Drillman turned to intercept Archer, but got blindsided by the Jester's hammer instead. Magister materialized beside them and caught Shade in a levitation spell. "Nice try, cheaters." She said smugly, before her face and voice shifted to stone cold malice. "Face it, there's no escape."
Overdrive and Beastman were quickly overcome as the secure zones their groups tried toset up collapsed and the battle had come to them once more. But just as it seemed like the plan had failed, a fiery explosion briefly lit the sky between the fighters and the castle like a miniature sun, and the charred, limp body of Dragoon was seen catapulted away from it, right back over the battlefield and plummeting into the abyss. Magister's attention, along with most everyone's, was drawn to the spectacle for a moment, just long enough for the ethereal body floating beside her to fade away, and a less ethereal counterpart to fade into its place. Before she knew what was happening, a clawed hand shot to her throat and the real Shademan lifted her off the ground.
"Yeesss...I hadn't realized just how hungry I was..." Shade rasped. Foregoing any pleasantries, he sank his fangs into his former captor's neck.
Magister struggled furiously. "Vile creature! Get! Off! Me!" Then her body relaxed and face was merely frightened, yet blushing. "Oooh...you...you're hypnotizing me. You're turning me into your obedient thrall, aren't you?"
Shademan abruptly dropped her in a heap and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "Don't be absurd. This is hardly the time or place for that. Thank you for the energy pick-me-up though."
Weakened, but fueled by rage, Magister got back up and leveled her sparking scepter at Shade with one hand while applying pressure to her neck with the other. "You don't think I even warrant a vampiric seduction!? You'll regret that when you're back to serving MY undead army! Kyaaahahahaha-!" Her manic laughter was cut off by the burning fist of Flamechick, who crashed onto the scene like a meteorite directly into Magister's cheek.
One woman went flying off the platform as the other took her place before an amazed assembly. Flamechick remained leaning forward with her clenched fist outstretched inside a smoldering crater for a moment, then slowly returned to a relaxed standing position. She met eyes with Drillman and Overdrive and nodded assuringly, evoking relief in her embattled teammates. Along with Plantman, they had been clashing with Jester and Archer until her sudden and dramatic return inspired them all to freeze in place. The two remaining Children of Vengeance on the platform hesitated for a moment before pushing forward with their attack. Then Beastman, Bubbleman, and Burstgirl barreled through the crowd of dark ghosts to regroup with their allies. Archer and Jester hesitated again, then bolted.
"Welcome back, good sir." The voice of Darklight spoke into Shademan's ears. "It seems you're back to being connected to my PET and everything. That was easier than we anticipated."
"Wheeee! Quite a strange experience. I feel even better now than when that Darkloid healed me. Of course, that may be the snack I just had..."
"I'm not sure what's happening, but..." Flamechick began. "I knew I had to fight, and I knew I had to find you guys...Hoshiko? Are you there?"
"Yes! My PET's back in business too!" Hoshiko exclaimed happily. "Did you hear us calling for you before?"
"I'm sorry? ...I don't remember anything after jacking in..." Flamechick looked around, unsure. Shademan stroked his goatee, equally perplexed.
Darklight chuckled. "It's okay. Part of you heard, I'm sure. We'll go over it all again in-person later. For now, we have to get back on the offensive."
* * *
Elsewhere, almost unnoticed within the chaos of battle, the ghost avatar of Darklady reeled out of control. Dark energy crackled around her more than any of her fellow enslaved soldiers, and it drove her to fight stronger and faster, though with less precision. For every miserable Heel Navi out of their depth she bisected with her axe, one of her ostensible allies became the victim of friendly fire. As long as every fallen navi was absorbed by the castle and resurrected as another of Blackbelt's servants, this wasn't much of an issue for them. It did make those that saw her rampage quite confused though.
Finally, the Darklady ghost's wrath turned inwards. She stopped fighting and seemed to soundlessly scream in a mix of rage and terror. Her body writhed in agony as its image distorted, faded, and flickered out of existence, only to be replaced moments later by the the true Darklady, hovering still with a harrowed expression. After a second, she began to come to her senses and realized with panic that a violent battle was raging around her. She didn't know what to do, but the Invis chip sent to her in that instant told her enough. She instinctually activated it a split second before getting caught between a WideShot and a CustomBolt. She quickly flew upwards, far above the other combatants, stopping when she noticed the baffling floating castle looming behind them.
"Dark. It's Alia." The voice came to the stunned Darklady once she was clear of the action. "Are you all back in working order?"
Dark looked around, bewildered. "I guess? I don't know what happened. One second I was back at the base, then..."
"The netcriminals that attacked the archive also surreptitiously infected you and many others with a type of Dark Power that they could remotely control. Darklight and his Official clients are heavily involved. They've figured out how to reclaim the affected navis by establishing communication with their suppressed psyches and giving emotional pep-talks that help them reject the foreign programming from within."
"Holy...wait, does that mean you gave me a pep-talk?"
"Yeah, right." Alia scoffed. "I used a more scientific approach. This 'Blackbelt' may have stolen Darklight's notes, but not mine. I've been analyzing your Dark Power from day one, and had isolated the code corresponding to the control program fragments already without knowing what they were supposed to be. Now that I had a clue, I was able to re-engineer the program, tap back into your signature, and regain control."
Darklady rolled her eyes. "Oh, I should have guessed. So I'm still a puppet, just yours now?"
"Since when did you think you ever weren't my puppet?" Alia cleared her throat. "Seriously though, the act of transferring you back to my PET seems to have removed all traces of the infected energy. How does that feel?"
"Um...I don't think I feel any different? It's hard to say since all I'm feeling right now is anticipation for the big fight down there." She materialized her Shadow Axe and prepared to fly into action. "That's what's next, right? Payback?"
"By all means." Alia looked off to the side pensively. "Although...there is one target I want you to keep an eye out for as you work your way through those ghosts..."
* * *