It felt like an eternity. Bubbleman was giving all he had to keep the Darkloid Bowlman at bay and it wasn't working. For every bubble he produced for the wall between them, there were two more bowling pin-shaped missiles to punch through them. He only got a brief reprieve whenever Beastman managed to get up and pounce at his oversized opponent again, only to momentarily distract the unassailable killer before getting beaten down again, just barely enough time for Bubbleman to bolster his defenses. It wouldn't last. How long had it actually been? A few seconds was all Plantman asked for. It really didn't seem like it could last any longer than that, but time insisted on standing still.
Bowlman was even more impatient and was also the one in the position to break the stalemate. He finally stopped just shooting and instead opted to stride straight through the bubbles. Normally, the aqua-elemental explosives would do a lot more damage to a navi than one would expect from harmless-looking bubbles, but to the heavily armored Darkloid they were about as effective as a bunch of soap bubbles in the real world. He paid about as much attention to Beastman, who leapt onto his back and began clawing and biting as fiercely as he could. Bowl's grim expression remained unflinching while he reared back his cannon like a baseball bat, ready to swing right through both a terrified Bubbleman and a preoccupied Plant.
"Duck!" Bubbleman shouted at the last moment while flopping down and pressing himself as low to the ground as possible. For whatever reason Plantman decided to respond to his cover's warning by doing the exact opposite and jumped over the dark hole by quickly extending the vine he had used to anchor himself to the ground, turning it into a spring to launch to the other side of the platform while his other vine holding onto Burstgirl remained dangling in the pit. Bowlman's slow, giant swing was aimed low, but not low enough to touch the diminutive Bubbleman when he was flattening himeself on the ground. It did, however, swipe right through Plantman's vine, cutting his anchor just as he landed on the other side of the hole, forcing him to try and regain his footing on his own while frightened shrieks from the destabilized Burstgirl emanated from below.
"I'm not as short as you! That totally would have hit me if I ducked, you ass!" Plantman shouted angrily at Bubbleman, fighting to keep stability and pull up Burstgirl.
"I panicked, blub! It's a good thing you don't listen to me then!" Bubs yelled back as he got back up.
"Duck!" Plantman rejoined, prompting Bubbleman to roll to the side, narrowly avoiding Bowlman's follow-up attack, a crushing downward swing with his club that cracked the ground where Bubs had been standing. "There. Good thing you don't listen to me either!"
"Oh blub you."
"All of you, just DIE!" Bowlman roared. He plucked the pesky Beastman from his back and hurled him at Bubble, sending them both tumbling off the platform and back into the purple mud below. He then made a large leap, betraying his size, over the dark hole and landing over Plantman, who wanted to move out of the way but was effectively rooted to the spot. The large Darkloid scooped Plant up in his crushing grip. "None of you impure surface-dwellers deserve to set foot on this altar!" He puncuated his hate-filled words by throwing Plant with all his might into one of the twisted spires beyond the platform. This carried his vine along with it, yanking Burstgirl out of the dark hole. She cringed as they flew, closely clutching the dim purple orb she had managed to rescue while curling into a protective ball. Plant collided with the spire, breaking it beneath him. Burstgirl rolled relatively safely into the mud with the orb.
"Hah! Success! Ow." Plantman groaned as he crumpled under the shattered debris. As Burst got up, the orb dissipated from her hands and a ghostly navi began to materialize in front of her to her amazement.
Bowlman noticed what had happened and somehow became even more enraged. "What!? What have you done? How!?" He thundered towards Burstgirl. She tried to run with the other navi in tow, but it was somehow harder to hold onto now than as an abstract soul. Without any weapons but still determined to protect the appearing navi at any cost, she finally threw herself in Bowlman's path with outstretched arms in a brave attempt to hold him off. He batted her out of the way effortlessly. He reached out to take back the released soul but found that his grip was as tenuous as Burst's had been. It wasn't the incomplete nature of the physical manifestation either. It was the navi's special ability to become an intangible shadow.
"Never again...wh...wheeee..." The raspy voice of Shademan barely gasped out the words as he floated away from Bowl in his shade form. However his chance at emancipation and escape fizzled away as he dropped to the ground and became visible again just a short distance from his captor. The vampiric Darkloid was looking worse for wear, with most of the color drained from his body, several dimly glowing holes riddled his exterior with some chunks of limbs entirely missing, and what was left sparked and pixellated every few seconds like it was struggling to remain in cohesion. He sagged into the ground, his little energy almost spent. Bowlman shook his head in contempt and approached to reclaim his prisoner.
"Delete him!" Bubbleman shouted as he scrambled out from under Beast and tried to intercept.
"Ugh. What do you think I've been trying to do?" Beast grumbled as he got back up and followed suit.
"No, Shademan! Delete him and Bowl won't be able to put him back in the hole, blub!" Bubble tried to shoot at Shade from afar as he air-swam as fast as he could to catch up.
Burstgirl popped out of the pool she landed in, horrified. "What!? No!" Before either Bowlman or Bubble's Aqua Shots could reach Shademan, she encased his limp body in her floating bubbles that quickly lifted him up above their heads. "There has to be another way. We can save him!"
Shademan wanted to explain that by deleting him, they would be saving him. With his data freed he could be reincarnated in his old coffin at the far fringe of the Undernet. Unfortunately for him, he was so weak from his ordeal trapped and tortured by the Darkloids that he could neither speak louder than a whisper nor finish himself with his own claws. His fate was in the hands of the foolish misfits tossing him around like a rag doll.
Bubbleman didn't really know about Shade's immortality. Many had heard the rumor, few had seen it proven, fewer knew how it worked. He didn't actually care. He didn't want to take any chances. He encased himself in a BubbleWrap to help float higher, trying to catch up to the bubbles carrying Shademan. "Don't be squeamish, blub! He'll probably be fine anyway! Better than if...oh blub!" He stopped in mid-air when he realized Bowlman wasn't pursuing Shademan directly. The heavy earthbound artillery master would have no way to return the high-floating target to his level without deleting him, so he would naturally focus his efforts on the source of egress. Burstgirl.
Bubble spun around, heading for her first. Bowlman was again firing Pin Missiles at a staggering rate, aiming for Burstgirl, who used her own airborne agility to weave between the shots while forming more small bubbles to intercept those she couldn't as Bubbleman himself had tried earlier. Plant and Beast were back on their feet and drawing fire where they could as well. Beast was quick enough to dodge the missiles and Plant had his vines and leaves to shield himself. Both seemed eager to take their grudges out against the enemy and leave the distasteful business of killing the one they rescued to the one who suggested it, not realizing their tiny teammate was in the middle of sabotaging his own plan by rushing to join the fight instead.
Bowlman began to fire in a high sweeping pattern, forcing Burst to float lower to dodge. Then with a stamp of his foot in the mud, several more twisted spires jutted from the ground around the other navis, curving inward as they stretched up and over their heads, forming dome-like cages. Beast was quick to hack through to freedom while Plant and his vines wrapped around the bars and pulled them apart, but while they were busy freeing themselves, Burst had no weapons to do anything. The warped pins sank back down into the ground enough to compress her maneuvering space to almost nothing as Bowl lined up a bowling ball pulsating with explosive dark power. He reared back, then rolled with such strength that the ball plowed through every dune and pit in its way without any apparent loss of speed. A wake of dust and muck flew to either side as the dark-powered Bowling Bomber shot in a straight line to the immobilized and terrified Burstgirl.
The ball would crash right through the cage, splatter the navi inside, and just keep going. Except it stopped. There was the deafening crash of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object and the fragile terrain spread outwards in a thick cloud with the resounding shockwave. When the smoke cleared, the bowling ball fell to the ground and disintegrated, its energy spent. Burstgirl hesitantly opened her eyes to see Bubbleman floating just in front of the cage facing Bowlman with his arms outstretched. He was surrounded by a glowing pink force field that still rippled from the object it deflected. Bubbleman then dropped to the ground, convulsing slightly. The dark BubbleWrap flickered out of existence and he turned with a nervous smile to face the girl he saved. "I...I did it blub?" He wasn't just surprised he made it in time to help, but that he managed to use the dark chip he kept without losing control. It was a strange sense of relief.
"Yeah...you did it. Thank you." Burstgirl smiled. The significance of the chip he just used didn't register with her as it did with Plant or Beast, who beheld the scene with unease, but she did notice that Bubbleman seemed to come around to her side in the matter of protecting Shademan. Then it hit her. "Oh no...I couldn't maintain it."
Shademan was falling like a rock. The bubble that carried him was gone. Everyone was now too far away to reach him and he was too damaged to move on his own. Yet before he could collide with the ground, the ground came to him in the form of a quickly rising pillar of purple sand that formed a hand at the top to grab him, softening the fall while also holding him fast. Bubbleman, Burstgirl, Beastman, and Plantman all winced. Bowlman nodded with satisfaction. "It's about time you got back here, Desertman. Where did you run off to, anyway?" Bowl casually asked his partner, not even regarding the other navis now that the property they tried to steal was back under his and Desert's control.
As the hand of Desertman brought Shademan back down to the surface, another mound of sand grew next to it, forming Desert's three-eyed, grinning face. He said nothing, but looked at each of the assembled navis with a cold gaze that pierced their souls. The shape of the hand shifted and spread sand completely over the limp body of the vampire until it disappeared within a sandy cocoon. A clump of vines then sprouted from below Desertman, wrapping around both mounds with digging thorns, trying to rip them open. Desert made no reaction to the attack.
"I've come too far to lose now!" Plantman yelled angrily and attacking Dark Desertman heedless of the danger.
Bowlman once more took aim at the overworld trespasser. "You lost the moment you decided to challenge us, cretin!" Before he could fire, Beastman was back on him, focusing his ferocious slashing on the cannon that was Bowl's primary weapon. Bubbleman had meanwhile freed Burstgirl from the cage of warped spires and the two of them were headed towards Desertman in another attempt to rescue Shademan.
Desert would not yield to Plant's vines. After a few seconds of motionless endurance, a shockwave of dark force burst from his third eye, shredding and scattering the green ropes and knocking Plantman off his feet. Then he let the other mound of sand melt away, letting Shademan's body slump to the ground again, but the Shademan that could now be seen surprised everyone.
"What? Why would you...?"
All the damage that Shademan had sustained as a side-effect of his ordeal in the Darkloids' pit had disappeared. He was looking as healthy as he ever was, albeit still groggy as he regained consciousness. Shade looked up at Desert's face, not sure whether to be grateful or angry. The strength he could feel rapidly returning to him was the result of an infusion of dark power, the reverse of the painful soul draining process they had subjected him to over the past few days. Did the zealous monster have a sudden change of heart? Shade looked into the burning triad eyes of Desertman and could only feel more malice. Somehow he knew that the reason for saving him was not for his own sake, or for anything good for that matter. Desertman remained silent and still, keeping those reasons out of anyone's grasp.
Bowlman was unsatisfied. "We needed that power for ourselves! What was the point of coaxing it out of him if...don't tell me they've gotten to you too!" A Darkness Aura swelled around Bowl as his rage grew. "Do I have to do everything!? I'll put you all back in the hole and claim the Dark Harvest for myself!"
Shademan sprung into the air and faded from sight. Putting distance between himself and the Darkloids, he re-appeared with Bubbleman's group, who were preparing to defend themselves from Bowl's next relentless attack. "I must express my heartfelt gratitude for all the effort you put into attempting to rescue me at your own great risk, regardless of how...incomplete your role in ultimately saving me. Wheeeee!"
Plant scoffed at the backhanded compliment as he generated his personal barrier. "Don't go thinking we're here for your sake. I just wanted to shut these miscreants down and it turns out they need you to do whatever it is they're doing."
"To be honest, I was down with just deleting you." Beastman admitted with a shrug.
"You guys!" Burstgirl protested. "We're just glad you're alright, mister...Shademan, right?"
"Charmed, my dear." Shademan smiled and bowed, effortlessly sliding back into his suave persona as if the ordeal he had been through never even happened.
"Save the greetings, blub!" Bubbleman nervously squeaked. "We're about to get slammed by Bösergeist! Get ready to shoot things out of the air! Barriers aren't going to cut it blub!"
Bowlman was holding a glowing sphere of energy over his head. It was growing and causing multiple spires around him to lift out of the ground and hover while shivering violently in anticipation of the coordinated telekinetic assault to come. The air was overcome with a palpable surge of power. The pit in the center of the area heaved and an unsettling ray of luminescence rose from the depths. Dark Bowlman roared, but what started out sounding like an incensed battlecry quickly recontextualized as a cry of pain as the Böser ball flickered away and the floating spires dropped like lifeless rocks. Bowlman clutched his head as he screamed in a way no one had heard from him before, even when he wasn't an invincible Darkloid. The world began to rumble.
As this was happening, Desertman didn't seem the least bit surprised. He wordlessly sank back into the ground and disappeared once more from the scene. The others were understandably confused. "Okay...new plan, blub!" Bubbleman finally spoke up over the din. "We make a break for it while he's...I'm gonna say distracted?"
"Well, we got what we came for, didn't we?" Plantman was already scrambling to head back to the spot they came as he justified the retreat to himself. In truth, he couldn't tell if his business competition was finished or just beginning.
"Good riddance." Shademan muttered as he split into several bats and fluttered away. "You creatures gave Darkloids a bad name."
"Yeah, it certainly wasn't a bad name before." Beast said sarcastically, taking to the air himself.
With Burstgirl once again giving Plant a lift with her bubbles, everyone was out through the hidden portal just as the Darkloid's hideout appeared to collapse around them, apparently leaving the still writhing Bowlman behind. They rose quickly into the Undernet, unable to shake the feeling that whatever happened to bring the conflict to an abrupt end wasn't finished with them yet, and there would be no escaping what came next.
* * *