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"I have faced death...countless times...Kk-keeeaagghhh!"
Shademan writhed in agony as his unseen bindings tightened around his throat and wrists, and unknown daggers dug deeper into his sides and skull. It had been a long time since he could sense his legs.
"K-kuh...It...holds no power...over me...wh-wheeeee..."
The deep, menacing voice of Bowlman spoke from what seemed to be uncomfotably close-by. "You continue to say that. When will you admit to yourself you're being consumed by the very power on which you once depended?"
Shademan could not see his surroundings. Even his sense of echolocation revealed endless emptiness. There was only darkness and pain. Every time the formless torture device increased the strain, he could feel more of his programming, his very being wrenched away.
"Darkness is not meant to be your servant. You are meant to be the servant of Darkness. Accept that and this can be much less painful."
"...I...have faced death....Hee...Heeeee...EEEeegghhh!!"
"Fool. Join us as an ally or join us as raw power. It makes no difference to us." Bowlman scoffed and left what remained of Shademan to the singularity.
"Krrshhaa kheeaachha rrchhahh." The voice of Dark Desertman countered Bowlman with a sense of concern.
"I know...Bubbleman has fallen as well. We are getting close though. We won't need any others."
"Mnnrrcshh. Eyeckahh shihghh hackhahh."
"Once unleashed, the combined power harvested from our victims will be unstoppable. Bubble, Flame, Metal, Darklady, they will all rejoin us soon enough."
Desertman agreed, yet could not ignore the sense that something was missing from the equation. It was almost inconceivable that they would come so close to their destiny at the cost of over half their brethren. At this point there could be no relying on presumed certainties. Failure was not an option.
As their hidden sanctuary returned to silence, Desertman sank into the ground, extending his presence, reaching out across the Undernet. With their gatekeeper Bubbleman lost, they were effectively losing ground and it was more important than ever to remain vigilant of their remaining territory. As the Darkloid master of space and time spread throughout the network terrain, a kaleidescope of images and sounds filled his senses. The cacophony would drive lesser navis to madness, but the gifts of the Darkness allowed him to understand the pattern on a level beyond mere observation of present events.
The Undernet told him of its past and future. He could see the imprisonment of great beasts, the rise and fall of legendary warriors, the corruption of all souls that tread its cursed pathways. He could see his own imminent ascension to godhood, with the world laid waste beneath him. These events were as inevitable and unshakeable as the Undernet itself.
Then, through the noise of global communication he could hear beyond the bounds of the cyberworld. The people of the overlaying reality, all blissfully ignorant of the struggle with their livelihoods at stake. All equally safe from and powerless to abate his wrath. Almost all. He sensed one that was significant to his fate, one that possessed the potential to cross the boundary between worlds, one that could be his key to a higher ascension or to his final downfall.
Bowlman sensed the unexpected development. "Desert, where are you going?"
"Ehhchhaahasss..." Desertman's voice offered vaguely as it faded from the Darkloids' lair.
"Unbelievable. You'd better not end up getting defeated too! Hmph. Whatever. I will enact our vengeance even if I have to do it on my own."
Desertman's excursion took him through the Undernet's most distant and mysterious fringes, to a place where the digitally determined map fades into unwritten code and the world of science breaks down into a kind of magic -- a place that even Desertman's uncontested mastery of Undernet terrain failed to perceive until he ripped the knowledge of it from Shademan's memory. Desert came to a platform adorned with an arcane circular pattern, a ritualistic symbol meant to bring the power of light into this world of darkness. One of Shademan's many resurrections had taken place on this spot, and an agent of light had crossed the gulf of dimensions in attempt to abort it. Such inexplicable crossings were brief and fleeting in the cyberworld, but opened doorways all the same. All it took was a navi whose powers over land were amplified many times over and a connection to the worlds beyond to find and reopen those doors, if only enough to answer the call of one that was searching for him.
Nijubu had not crossed such a boundary in a long time, but his eagerness to find closure was taking him close. Earlier that day he followed his impulses to DNN Stadium, a western installment of an arena designed and built by an Electopian entertainment company for one of their international NetBattle tournaments. It also happened to be the same place he first met Desertman. Though it was currently vacant and locked off due to its seasonal use, Nijubu had entered the property the same way he did back then -- by breaking in.
Thunder rumbled in the distance as wire cutters tore a neat motorcycle-sized hole in a fence. Nij climbed back onto his bike and walked it through the gap, parking it alongside a humming power station several hundred feet from the stadium. He gazed silently at the towering black dome before him. Nij needed no further bidding. If Desertman was alive, this was where he would be.
Anyone else would say it was crazy. Kingman did, back when Nijubu still had him to confide in. "I know he's there." Nij had told the navi. "A few weeks ago I was talking to him about home. He told me the only home he ever had before merging with Templar.EXE was the network. He loved to battle, his operator made sure of that, but DNN was sanctuary to him. He's there, and I'm going to find him."
This time there was no voice of cold logic hold him back, to keep him from risking arrest over an assured dead end. So that was that.
After entering the stadium, Nijubu's memory is blurred. There was not much he could do without a way to jack in to the arena's systems. He never had much of a plan and realized going in that his time trespassing would probably mostly be spent wandering the stage steeped in nostalgia. Whether or not that was actually the case, he couldn't remember, but at some point he found himself somewhere else.
This was a world of no time and no space, where an infinite number of stars hang in the night sky above, spiraling in countless galaxies and nebulae, shining in more colors than mortals have names for. Below, the black desert sands stretched to the horizon. This was a world of stillness. There was no wind across the land, no sound of life in the distance. This was the antithesis of change, the antithesis of life itself.
A small column of sand began to rise from the desert. Roughly human sized, it grew, and coalesced into a rough human shape. The sand changed and turned colors as it became flesh and cloth and glass. A second mound arose nearby. Much larger than the first, it had no discernable form or substance. Three pink dots represented its eyes, the rest of it blacker than the sky above.
Nij breathed out in wonder as he looked around. He had never been here, yet he had heard many legends of the desert. The stars provided a dull glow to the world around him. There were mountains in the distance, and nothing else but the sand below and the figure before him.
"Why did you bring me here?" he asked Desertman, understanding in some sublime way what had transpired, but little beyond that.
The dark navi's reply passed his ears and went straight to his mind.
In an instant, memories of a tortured rebirth and a life of unprecedented willful cruelty flashed through the young man's unprepared mind.
Nij was apprehensive. He had found Desertman, but his old friend was infected. The navi had been changed by Gamma's dark energy into something even he didn't quite understand. And now they were here. The desert that lay between life and death.
The screams of the innocent filled the young man's mind.
"You killed them. Those people, they were weak, and they...they had no chance to defend themselves. Yet you--"
AS I CONSUMED THEM I SET THEM FREE.
"Consumed? They couldn't...they weren't just--"
JUST NAVIS? EVEN NOW, MASTER, YOUR ARROGANCE PREVENTS YOU FROM VALUING LIFE AS YOU SHOULD. I WILL SHOW REASON. I WILL SHOW POWER. POWER OVER LIFE ITSELF. I WILL SHOW.
Nij felt the air change around him. The dull surroundings took on new light as the stars in the sky began to glow. Nij looked up and suddenly felt very small. He exhaled slowly, stunned.
Constellations appeared. Leo prowled across the sky, tail flicking from side to side. Ursa Major and Minor reared their heads, the larger stretching across the black on its hind legs. Cygnus spread its wings, Cancer scuttled through Aquarius' stream, and Pisces circled around itself as Aries and Taurus and Capricorn and the others cavorted through space, mere outlines connecting the stars in increasingly complicated forms. The world above spun around the earth below.
As the majesty of the scene spread across his vision, Desertman's words echoed in Nij's mind. Power over life itself. The very destiny of an entire world at his hands. Nij could feel it, at the edge of his thoughts. The darkness creeping across his mind. The shadow taking control once more. The shadow he had fought off for so long. How many centuries, spent staying just on the side of the light? How many lives abandoned to the zealots of the day, as the sages of the night were damned and lost? And now the shadow spoke to him once again. He heard and turned to it and let it come.
Nij closed his eyes and fell to his knees. A chill swept across his body, quickly turning to a warmth that filled his lungs and spread through his mind. A black hand reached up from the desert, swept across him, and enveloped him.
WELCOME HOME, MASTER.
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