Chapter One: Unexpected Visitation
"You're in big trouble NOW, Mister!" Karma yelled, holding up the tattered remnants of her hair ribbon.
"Look... if you're going to leave your hair accessories in the same place I leave my fanbelt apparatus, you can expect some mix-ups. I don't make a habit of checking my tools and equipment for your things," Ludwig von Koopa retorted, setting his jaw and standing his ground against the hybrid. On most occasions, he allowed himself to be intimidated by his Met... mostly due to his mother's idea that it was wrong for future kings to come to physically fighting their ladies-in-waiting. He thought it was a stupid rule and that Karma was anything BUT a lady, but he was getting tired of being sent to the dungeon every time Clawdia happened to catch them in a shoving match. Today, however, was another matter.
"You can't tell the difference between a rubber belt and a satin ribbon?" she spat, throwing the tatters of purple to the floor and lifting one lip in a snarl.
"As I said, I tend not to look." he replied, biting back the slight burning in his throat as a fireball caused by his anger began to form.
"No kidding." Karma growled acidly. "What's next? Is that oven you fixed in the kitchen yesterday going to fall apart because you were too stupid to read whether the squeeze bottle said 'bonding glue' or 'honey'??"
"ONE mistake! It was ONE mistake out of the many successes I've had! And all it was because of your stupid hair ribbon!" he yelled at her. No sooner had the words left his mouth than there was a faint FOOM! sound followed by a loud clatter. A moment later, several Goomba chefs ran past, covered in smoking batter and nursing their flaming behinds.
Karma was silent a moment before a snide grin uncurled across her lips. "No no, go on... keep talking," she grinned. "Let's hear about your other successes... quick before THEY blow up too."
"You know something? A week in the dungeon is starting not to look so bad..." he grumbled, a thin ribbon of smoke curling from one nostril as he released his restraint on the fireball in his throat.
"I dare you..." Karma challenged, narrowing her eyes to a leer. Ludwig needed no further prompting as he parted his jaws, releasing a thick stream of fire at Karma. The hybrid dropped to the floor, allowing the attack to pass harmlessly over her head and out of the open door of his laboratory. "Your aim stinks!" she yelled, laughing mockingly, followed shortly by a scream of surprise and pain from the hallway.
A moment later, King Koopa entered the laboratory, looking singed and angry as tendrils of smoke rose from his shoulders and perfumed the laboratory with the unsavory smell of burnt scales. "What in the wide world of sports is going on?!" he demanded, glowering at his son and the hybrid angrily.
"He was trying to kill me again," Karma replied matter-of-factly as she stood, brushing dust from her shoulders.
"In that case, he missed," Bowser retorted, flicking a small fireball from the tip of his tongue and catching Karma's tail ablaze. "And as for you..." the Koopa King continued, ignoring Karma's yelp of pain as she frantically tried to put her tail out, "I want you back in that kitchen pronto, and this time I want that oven FIXED! My lunch is already late as it is!"
"Right away, King Dad." Ludwig nodded, cringing a bit as his father yelled. Nodding once stiffly, Bowser retreated from the laboratory, muttering obscenities under his breath and nursing his burnt shoulders and face.
"Always can count on your dad to be a big cuddly ray of sunshine," Karma grumbled, succeeding in finally extinguishing her tailtip and rubbing at the blistered skin irately.
"You started it," he spat, picking up his toolbox and shoving past her to head to the kitchen.
"I started it?!" Karma cried angrily. "You were the one who ruined my hair ribbon!"
"And you were the addlebrain who left it on my workbench!"
And so it continued as Karma followed him down the hallway and out of sight, their voices dissolving into a duet of dischord against the stone walls. Business as usual.
The gnarled and dark woods that surrounded Dark Land stood in stoic silence, pinpricks of afternoon sun creeping through the branches and casting a tallow glow over the trees and shrubs. Now and then the twisted wood would rattle dryly as one of the forest's inhabitants scuttled by, heading someplace else, but otherwise there was silence.
That may have been the reason that it frightened the wandering beasts and insects so badly when a glowing blue orb pierced the dimness and expanded with a soft bzzap into a spiraling azure portal. One looking into the portal would see a landscape very similar on the other side, save for, perhaps, a few differences. The sky was much darker and the trees were thicker and more daunting.
A moment later, two reptilian figures leapt from the confines of the portal, landing squarely in the blanket of broken pine needles and dead branches that covered the floor of the woods as the portal vanished behind them, leaving them cloaked in shadows.
"Are we home?" the female asked, readjusting her grip on a small bundle in her arms.
"Seems that way," her male companion muttered, flaring his nostrils and sniffing at the air. "I hope we went back far enough..."
"Well... the sky hasn't gone black yet, that's a good sign," she whispered. He nodded absently.
"Seems I worked all of the bugs out of my time-traveller after all... the question is, how do we go about this, precisely? We can't just waltz up to the front door and ask them to let us in."
"Why not?" the female asked. "Whether they believe us or not, we ARE Koopas. They'll at least let us in as messengers of warning if nothing else."
"If you'll recall, this point in time is still intolerant of your kind," he replied coolly. "And I don't want to put yourself or Aislynn in danger if and when they get uptight about it." His female companion snorted faintly with disgust at his added sentiment.
"Well, we can't lurk in the bushes all day... the guards will find us here sooner or later and then we'll have some real explaining to do," she pointed out.
"Mnnh... I guess you're right," he sighed, peering out of the tangle of bushes longingly at the upper floor of Koopa Castle, wishing he had brought his hoverpack so that he could creep into one of the more obscure rooms and introduce himself to, really, the only person he thought would understand this mess and cushion the blow of his arrival. "Alright..." he said in a defeated voice at last after a moment more of hasty mental debate. "I'll go first. After I've gotten them calmed down, I'll call for you so we don't-"
"FREEZE!!!" a burly voice ordered, cutting him off as they both whipped their heads in the direction of the large Sledge Brother that was standing not three feet away from them, holding a hammer threateningly over his shoulder, his beady eyes scrutenizing them both. "What're you doing here, intruders?" he demanded sharply.
"We're not intruders," the male explained. "And I must speak to King Koopa. It's a very urgent matter."
"Urgent... heh, I'LL be the judge of what's urgent. Start talking," the guard commanded.
The reptile blinked, unsure of where to start or what to say in terms that the Sledge Brother would understand. "He's in danger. His entire kingdom is, in fact. I can't say more," he said at last.
"Not good enough," the guard sneered, jabbing the head of his hammer at the tip of the stranger's nose. "But don't worry... you'll get a chance to relay him your whole story from the castle dungeon. BACKUP!!! I NEED BACKUP OVER HERE!!!" he bellowed over his shoulder. There was a faint stampeding noise as other guards began to file toward the location. "Now you and your friend just come along quietly and everything'll be- HEY!!!" he cried as the female darted forward suddenly, shoving the Sledge Brother over and making a dash for the castle.
She was captured easily by a waiting cluster of Boomerang Brothers who did their best to hold her despite her struggles. From her arms, a baby's cry filled the air as she looked frantically over her shoulder at her male companion.
"Don't just stand there! GO!!! MOVE!!!" she commanded urgently. He needed no further prompting as he leapt from the bushes and ran for Koopa Castle. The minions that would have stopped him were already busily restraining his partner and had no choice but to let him go as he hurried across the drawbridge, hefting his shoulder against the front door and shoving it open, slipping inside before slamming it shut behind him again. Within seconds there were the angry mumbles and scratches against the wood of several guards that had been chasing him and had fallen too far behind.
Panting, he slid the large deadbolt into place and shambled forward, his eyes skating over the main chamber and staircase leading upstairs. Memories began to flood back in a warm wave of nostalgia as he recalled spending his childhood behind these very walls... it was all just as he remembered it... the sights, the smells, everything. He paused slightly, looking over his shoulder and feeling torn about leaving his mate outside but then, remembering the ineptness of the guards, knew she would be safe. If anything, she would be a tad angry and have a couple of bruises when they finally let her go free.
He hurried toward the staircase and started to ascend it, determined to find someone to explain things to.
"Hey! Who're you?!" a rough voice he instantly recognized demanded. He whirled on his heel, peering over his shoulder down the stairs where Bowser Koopa stood, glaring up at him. "Nobody tromps around in my castle uninvited!" he roared. "Speak up!!!" Instead of speaking, however, the stranger scurried down the stairs and skidded to a stop in front of the Koopa King, smiling and clearly delighted to see him. "... You look kinda familiar..." Bowser remarked, narrowing his rheumy eyes.
"I'd hope so," the stranger smiled, placing a clawed hand on Bowser's shoulder. "It's good to see you again, Dad."
Quite suddenly, everything clicked into place for the Koopa King. The unkept blue hair, the way the stranger's voice was a few pitches higher than that of a normal male Koopa, the protruding single fang over the stranger's top lip...
The mental impact of seeing one of his sons as he might look ten years in the future was quite too much for Bowser as his eyes rolled back in his head and he fainted dead away on the cobbled floor of the main chamber.
Chapter Two: Explanations
"Huh? Whuzzit?" Bowser groaned an hour later as Clawdia applied a cool damp cloth to his brow while he regained consciousness.
"Just relax, dear..." the Koopa Queen whispered. "You took a nasty spill." Bowser, recovering his senses, sat up briskly and swatted the cloth away, looking around wildly and not seeing anyone else. "Where is he?!" he demanded to know.
"The... newcomers are out in the courtyard with the kids," she said, choosing her words carefully to keep from upsetting him all over again. "They've been released from the guards' custody on my order and say they come with a very important message. They need to speak to y-" but Bowser was already up from the couch and stumbling in the direction of the back door.
In the courtyard sat seven children and two adults amid the grass and flowers of Clawdia's modest garden. Ludwig, his younger self, sat slightly away from the group, looking dazed and deep in thought. It wasn't often, after all, that your older self came back from the future to talk to you, and he found the whole affair to be rather disquieting. Was that really what he was going to look like when he grew up, he wondered? The futuresque version of himself looked much more like Bowser than he was comfortable with, though with younger features and a gentler slope to his face... also, of course, the distinguishing mane of hair and fang arrangement.
On the other side of the group sat Karma, looking incredulously at her older counterpart as well, her eyes shifting suspiciously from the hybrid herself to the small baby she held. She wasn't buying this... not one bit. It had to be a trick of some sort.
"Wow... and we'll actually team up with the Mushroom Kingdom?!" Larry asked, slack-jawed as he listened to the adult Koopas speak.
"About a year from now, yes," adult Ludwig nodded solemnly at his younger brother. "We'll start taking all the allies we can get... unless we interfere now and stop certain things from happening," he added with a sigh.
"Soooo... I don't get it," Roy spoke up, crossing his arms over his chest. "You're sayin' Plit's gonna go to war with itself and that we're gonna pretty much eat each other alive... you're not sayin' how."
"That is a matter I have to discuss with Dad himself," Ludwig replied. "It's why I'm here."
"So why didn't you just ask us to come to the future and help out?" Wendy inquired, quirking a brow.
"We would have if you stood any chance at all of actually being a help," adult Karma explained. She sighed deeply, withdrawing a small bottle of berry juice from the bundle of blankets she held that Clawdia had fixed for her, tapping it with one claw to get rid of the air bubbles and then replacing it in her daughter's mouth. "We were the last survivors," she added quietly.
"Karma..." Ludwig began and was silenced with a stern look from his mate.
"They deserve to know," she replied reproachfully. He paused, looking at the child-versions of his siblings and then reluctantly nodded, settling back and letting her speak.
"Once the attacks started, your parents were the first to go..." she said quietly. "Then each of you..." There was a gasp from the children. "Larry went last," she continued, her eyes growing glassy and her voice sounding choked. "Yesterday morning, actually..." Her eyes fell on the youngest Koopaling, whose eyes seemed to take up his whole face as he listened in mingled interest and horror. "After Aislynn hatched, what was left of us all hid in the caves that run under Yoshi Island... there's some water between the land and the caves so it confused the searchers pretty well... but Larry had gotten it into his head that he could follow the caves back to Dark Land and rescue some ammunition from the storehouse so we'd be able to defend ourselves. We'd been telling him it was a bad idea but after we'd heard that Lemmy and Iggy had been killed during a war rally, he didn't care anymore and left while we were sleeping."
"What happened?" Iggy squeaked, not wanting to hear but unable to stand the suspense.
"He- he got as far as Pipe Land and then he was found," Karma went on, a single tear trickling down her nose. "They chased him all the way back to where we were hiding before they finally got him. They didn't think to look for the rest of us... they thought he was the last one. We tried to save him after they were gone, but..."
"The entire thing is nasty business," Ludwig cut in so she wouldn't have to finish. "Which is why we need to stop it before it starts."
"But how can we do that?" Iggy and Lemmy asked at the same time. The future version of their brother looked at them with gravest seriousness.
"We have to keep Mario and Princess Peach alive." There was a pause of puzzled silence so great that one could have heard a Buzzy Beetle in the palace catacombs sneeze. It was broken rather roughly a few seconds later as Bowser burst out of the castle and stormed toward the small gathering.
"YOU!" he yelled. "I want BOTH of you freaks away from my kids and after that you've got some explaining to do!"
"Yeah, he sounds like he's in a nice rational mood..." younger Karma grumbled, glaring at her older counterpart once more before getting up and trudging off with no particular destination in mind. As the Koopa King approached, the rest of the children dispersed and made themselves scarce, not wanting to be around for the impending explosion.
"Dad..." Ludwig stated, drawing himself into a standing postion as Bowser approached. "Listen, we need to talk and we need to do it soon."
"No, YOU listen!" Koopa yelled. "I dunno how they do things in the future, boy, but back here in the past no upstart of mine tells me how to run MY kingdom!"
"I'm not telling you how to run anything," Ludwig protested, holding his paws up in a show of peace. "But this family's life and death depends on a very important situation that's about to crop up. And you'll be the center of it."
"He's right," Karma chimed in before Bowser had a chance to launch himself off on another tirade and moved to stand beside her mate. "To put it bluntly, there's a lot of dung about to hit the fan, so if we could just go someplace and talk like rational adults, we-"
"You stay away from me! AND my son!" Bowser bellowed, pointing accusingly at the hybrid. "I don't like the little version of you and I'm pretty sure I'll like the big version a lot less!" In Karma's arms, Aislynn awoke and began to cry. "And what's that thing?!" he demanded to know as Karma shifted the infant to her shoulder and began to comfort her.
"That 'thing' is your granddaughter," Ludwig replied stiffly, beginning to lose patience. "As a matter of fact, let's air all the personal dirty laundry right now so we can get to the facts without it rearing its head. Karma and I were married four years ago, shortly after we went into hiding when we could no longer fight. Or if you want to look at it from a grimmer standpoint, it was right after Morton's demise to lift a bit of the depression," he stated, lifting a hand to show the gold band resting there. "Aislynn's egg was laid roughly six months ago and hatched just three weeks after. She's five months old and sickly because we can't feed her very well." He paused, regarding the outrage in his father's eyes with casual contempt. "Now that you've been brought up to speed, can we get on with it please?"
"How dare you?!" Bowser bellowed. "Somewhere along the line you obviously forgot how to respect your elders!"
"I imagine it happened after said elder caused the downfall of our civilization with his temper," Ludwig replied with the same coolness as before, watching as Bowser trembled with rage and brought one clawed hand back, holding it in the air as though he meant to strike him. "I understand your anger, father, but this is no time for it. I'll ask you one more time to put aside your differences and listen to what we have to tell you. Everyone's life depends on it," he added, his eyes focusing on the hand poised in mid-air. It wavered and then, slowly, fell back to King Koopa's side.
"Fine," Bowser snarled, whirling and storming away from them. "You get one hour..." he shot over his shoulder at them. "So it'd better be good." Ludwig and Karma exchanged a look and then followed him into the castle. Without a word, Koopa led them down a series of hallways and into a room Ludwig well-recognized from his youth, the courtroom where his father used to hold "trials" for his captives that were almost always fixed so that they were not in the prisoner's favor.
Without hesitating, the reptile king strode behind the judge's podium and climbed the small ladder behind it, seating himself regally at a ridiculous 15 feet off of the ground.
"Is that really necessary?" Karma muttered.
"QUIET!" Bowser commanded, pounding the gavel against the stand. "Start talking! Move it or lose it!"
Karma rolled her eyes, starting to remember why she hadn't been terribly broken up when Bowser had been reported dead a few years in the future. As she seated herself at one of the defendant benches, setting aside the near-empty juice bottle and shifting Aislynn back into her arms to nap more comfortably, Ludwig stepped forward and cleared his throat.
"Having looked at a calendar, Father, what I am about to describe will take place in roughly two days. We must stop it from happening at all costs."
"I hate it when people talk in riddles," Bowser snapped. "Get on with it." Taking a deep breath, Ludwig began...
Chapter Three: Visions Of Darkness
"This is it, Koopa! This is the final straw!" Mario yelled, dodging out of the way as Bowser hurled a Chain Chomp at him from where he perched on an out-of-reach platform. The plumber jumped, watching as the minion skittered beneath him and harmlessly struck the wall. Nearby, the seven Koopa Kids stood in a line, barring Mario and Luigi's way from moving any closer to where their father stood.
"Final straw? I just got started, plumb scum!" Bowser mocked, uncurling the arm that held Princess Peach captive and dangling her dangerously over the chasm of lava below. "Any last words, cutie?" he asked her.
"MARIO, HELP ME!!!" Peach cried, kicking her feet uselessly in the air.
"Those were your last words? Wow, eloquence sure has gone downhill," Bowser sneered, beginning to loosen his grip on her. Under ordinary circumstances, he would have done so just to scare her and then retreated with her through the warp drain and back to his palace... but today something different had taken hold of him. A crazed and determined look stood out in his eyes, one that said he was tired of being thwarted and embarrassed constantly, one that said it was time to finally end it. "Give my regards to the big guy," he chuckled, kissing her on the cheek before letting her go fully.
"PRINCESS!!!" Mario and Luigi cried simultaneously as she vanished from sight with a shriek. For a moment, time seemed to stand still as the enormity of what Bowser had just done began to sink in for everyone. The Koopalings' expressions dropped from etched determination and spite to blank dumbfoundery. Up until now, things had been like big game of capture the flag as far as kidnapping the princess and making her heroes slog through all sorts of traps to retrieve her went... but in the years that they had been alive, their father had never actually hurt anyone.
Bowser, after a long moment, broke the stillness with a peal of chilling laughter, seeming to shake Mario out of the stunned trance he'd fallen into as his eyes narrowed to slits and the grip on the plunger he had been fending off attacks with tightened.
"Bowserrrr..." he growled through gritted teeth, trembling uncontrollably with rage. Before Luigi had a chance to restrain his brother, Mario lunged for the platform, jumping higher than even HE had thought possible and landing squarely in front of the Koopa King. "Come on!" he yelled, his voice cracking with grief as he swung the plunger blindly at the giant turtle. "There's nobody left for you to hide behind now!"
"And even then you're a lousy shot!" Bowser cackled, dodging Mario's tear-blurred attacks easily before leaping into the air and coming down hard on the platform, the stones quaking violently beneath his weight and causing the plumber to lose his balance as he fell to his belly, his forward motion sending him skittering toward the edge of the platform. At the last possible moment, he saved himself by hooking one gloved hand around a jutting piece of stone and preventing himself from falling as King Koopa approached, placing a foot on the small of Mario's back to hold him in place.
As the human struggled a moment before realizing it was futile and falling still, Bowser laughed again and crouched slightly. Mario winced as the reptile seized the back of his head and forced him to look into the blinding fire of the churning lava below.
"You see that?" Bowser asked him. "Take a good long look, Mario... it's the last thing you'll ever see. You've given me grief for the last time... and now that your precious princess is gone, just think of this as me doing you a favor. You couldn't even save her when she needed you most, you washed-up draincleaner. Now you won't have to hear the Mushroom people yelling it at you on the street. You won't have to tell all those sobbing kiddies why Peach is never going to ride on the Mushroom Pride Parade float again. How's that grab you?"
"You're going to pay for this..." Mario said, trying to sound strong but already having broken down in tears at Bowser's words.
"Wrong again," Bowser chortled, giving his foot a shove forward. Mario gave a choked cry as he plummeted off the end of the platform and tumbled past the veil of steam hovering above the lava, where he vanished from view forever. Satisfied, Bowser turned to look out at the sea of pale and astonished faces below him of both his children and the remaining Mario Brother. "What're you looking at?!" he demanded. "All of you, back to the castle! Move!" he barked, breaking the Koopa Kids' paralysis as they scuttled for the nearest warp drain without protest.
"You wanna join the rest of your pals?" Bowser asked Luigi, crooking his claw in a come-hither motion. Luigi, however, looking as though he was in a trance, slowly turned and walked away, shoulders slumped and trembling weakly, King Koopa's laughter ringing in his ears as he went.
As Bowser celebrated his victory that evening by taking his clown copter for a spin over the Mushroom Kingdom and mocking all of the mourners that had gathered around the Mushroom Palace to hold a candlelit remembrance, the Koopalings stayed home, all of them sitting in the castle library soundlessly... even Morton.
"He really did it..." Roy muttered after nearly an hour of silence.
"Well no DUH!" Wendy snapped, hurling a book at her older brother angrily. The novel glanced off of Roy's temple, leaving a faint red mark, but he seemed unaware of it.
"It's just... wow, man... this is heavy stuff. Mario AND the princess gone," he continued. "No loopholes or last minute catches or nothin'..."
"What do you think this is, a videogame?" Larry asked in disgust, looking up from where he'd been sitting.
"Something obviously isn't right with King Dad," Ludwig spoke up from where he'd been sitting at one of the reading nooks, his head propped on his arms. "He's never acted so irrationally before..."
"Irrational?" Karma asked from where she was sitting across from him. "Color me idiotic, but wasn't this the idea from the start? All I ever hear him talking about is getting rid of the Marios this and taking over the Mushroom Kingdom that..."
"He's never KILLED anybody, big nose," Roy sneered.
"Excuse me for living," Karma snorted.
"You're excused. Bathroom's down the hall and to the left. Do us all a favor and get ALL of you in the toilet this time before you flus-"
"Will you both shut up?!" Wendy demanded. "You're giving me a headache!" Silence fell again for a moment.
"Wendy's right. This isn't solving anything," Lemmy sighed.
"What's there to solve?" Ludwig inquired. "The only thing that is painfully obvious, brother, is that our father has become dangerously unstable."
"Hey, I wouldn't go so far as to say DANGEROUSLY," Larry pointed out. "He got rid of a couple of our enemies... it's not like he shoved one of us off of that platform."
"But what if that's next?" Iggy countered worriedly. "I mean... King Dad looked scary..."
"That's not what I was implying," Ludwig sighed, looking put-out. "Surely you don't think that this is the end of the conflict... the Mushroom Kingdom will almost certainly avenge their lost hero and princess and we'll be right in the middle of it. And given these new developments, King Dad can't be trusted to make rational choices when it happens."
"So what're you saying? We should take over? Yeah right..." Karma grumbled.
"Not at all," he countered, favoring the hybrid with a nasty look that quietly suggested she shut up and let him explain. "But it would be in our best interest for one of us to scout out the palace and find out what their plans are... and if we cannot persuade father to act accordingly then we must do it ourselves."
"Yeah... like I said, you want to stage a takeover," Karma snapped.
"No I don't!" he retorted angrily, gritting his teeth. "'Acting accordingly' meaning that we would likely go into hiding and take those interested in avoiding the conflict with us until they've calmed down."
"Real courageous," Karma nodded. Ludwig, losing patience, leapt up from where he was sitting, pointing an accusing finger at her.
"If you'd like to take on the entire Mushroom Kingdom with sparse arms and an off-the-rocker commander, be my guest!" he yelled at her, whirling on his heel and storming out of the library. One by one, the other Koopalings followed his example... leaving the library until it was empty, deciding they'd seen enough for one day.
A week later, Iggy would scuttle into courtyard, announcing to his siblings that an evening of lurking in the air vents of the Mushroom Palace revealed that the ruler appointed to take Peach's place, her uncle Rdeca, was holding nothing back in his outrage at the tragedy that had befallen his people. He and his newly-appointed advisor, Luigi Mario, had told the Mushroom Kingdom's general to prepare his soldiers for war... and that the first attack was to befall Darkland in two days and not to publicize it as it was to be a surprise. They would strike when the Koopas' defenses were down.
Bowser, expectedly, was outraged to learn of this and began to rouse his best battlers to counter the attack when it came. When all was said and done, he had rallied together a ridiculously large arsenal to meet the Mushroomers' attack on his castle.
"Sire? Are you sure this is necessary?" Kamek asked in his stern, yet somewhat subservient way.
"Funny, that sounded like a challenge," Bowser snarled, taking his attention away from counting the stockpiles of Bullet Bills, Snifits, and specially-ordered Missile Mikes that now took up most of the receiving chamber of the palace.
"Oh... n-no, not at all sire," the elderly Magikoopa simpered, fidgeting a bit. "I just think that... well...t he Mushroom Kingdom's army is a ragtag bunch at best... this is a bit of overkill..."
"I'll decide what's overkill, you old prune!" Bowser growled, sending Kamek running for the shadows and out of sight as the king returned to taking inventory of his ridiculously-large arsenal.
"What'd he say?" Larry asked anxiously as Kamek rounded the corner, looking flustered.
"No dice, Prince Larry. He means to go through with this no matter what." The sorcerer panted, mopping his brow. Larry's face fell as he hurried off to where the others were hidden in a cluster beneath the main stairwell.
"It's gonna happen," he told them worriedly.
"Right... then we need to get out of here," Lemmy said reasonably.
"Can we do that? Just walk out on Dad like this?" Iggy fretted.
"It's either that or we all go up in a puff of smoke along with 'im." Roy shrugged, though his sunglasses did little to hide his own turmoil on the subject.
"It's still hard to turn your back on your parents... your flesh and blood... your reason for existing," Morton rattled off, though more to himself than to the others.
"I don't know if I can go forth with this venture," Ludwig muttered, ignoring his mouthy younger brother.
"You were the one who suggested it in the first place," Karma pointed out, elbowing him as she readjusted her backpack.
"Saying and doing are two different things," he countered, smoothing his bangs out of his eyes.
"Let's go if we're going," Wendy spoke up, irritated at her brothers' indecision. "If I leave it to you clowns, you'll still be arguing about it when the Mushroomers are dropping bombs on our heads." The brothers and hybrid shared an uneasy look and then, slowly, began to file out from beneath the stairwell toward the door, each carrying a knapsack of personal belongings and provisions.
Not a half-hour after the children had left, would the attack begin. At first, Bowser would hold his own rather well against the invading Mushroomers who had not been expecting him to be ready for them yet refused to retreat, but then tragedy would strike. A single Bob-omb from their side would travel through one of the palace windows, landing amidst King Koopa's vast array of weapons and, quite effectively, setting all of them off at once.
When all was said and done, the blast had obliterated Castle Koopa, taking King Koopa, Clawdia, and the guards right along with it, not to mention a large portion of the invaders. The survivors would limp back to their own kingdom and explain to King Rdeca that the Koopa family was no more. Rdeca, however, would not be satisfied and demand that the blast site be searched and a count of bones be taken. When not a trace of the Koopalings could be found, Rdeca commanded his remaining guards to scour the land, searching for and destroying any surviving member of the Koopa clan they discovered.
And so it had begun, the deadly game of cat and mouse. Wanted posters of the Koopalings were posted throughout the land with rewards for their capture, dead or alive. When concerns arose that Rdeca had invested so much time in his quest for revenge and so little seeing to the well-being of his kingdom, he turned on those who opposed him; the peaceful Mushroom Kingdom quickly became a dictatorship until the Mushroomers could no longer stand it. Underground uprisings began to form as citizens sought ways out of the trap they'd found themselves in.
When push came to shove, those wanting peace broke away from Rdeca's kingdom and sought their own fortune living off of the land. The king let them build their own village away from his palace in peace, promising them that his fight was with the Koopa Clan alone and that he would not turn against his own people. This, unfortunately proved to be a promise he could not keep.
"I can't walk any further..." Wendy complained as they walked the border of Grass Land. "I think I'm gonna faint," she added, elbowing Lemmy sharply. "You catch me." And with that, threw herself backward in a dramatic enactment of passing out. Lemmy, however, ignored his younger sister's theatrics and continued walking, leaving Wendy to sprawl to the ground with a thud, followed by an outraged cry. "You jerk! You did that on purpose!" she raged.
"Shut... up..." Roy growled, pausing to glower dangerously at Wendy. "All you've been doin' today is complaining... we're ALL tired, okay?!"
"Hmph... I'd almost rather take my chances with those stupid Mushroom people than wander around in the wilderness like an animal," she huffed.
"We'll stop as soon as we find suitable cover." Ludwig sighed deeply, clearly tired of the entire situation. He'd tolerated a lot from his siblings in their time as wayfarers and, as the oldest, often had been saddled with duties he hadn't wanted. If there was a guard shift to fill, he got it. If someone needed to scout out suspicious-looking areas, he was volunteered. If someone needed to stay up late and keep an eye out for intruders, he ended up being the one shorted on sleep. It was clearly starting to take its toll on him as the bags beneath his eyes would tell anyone who looked at him.
He had liked to think he'd kept a long fuse about everything... all things considered, he felt any child psychologist would say he was doing very well. Only thirteen and already picking up the baggage for his six siblings after having lost his parents, dodging headhunters, and playing bodyguard... oh yeah, things were just great.
"You alright?" Karma asked, sounding very far away though she was walking alongside him.
"I'm fine," he nodded stiffly. "Nothing a nap wouldn't cure."
"You'd better take one soon then. You look like you're going to keel over any minute," she pointed out.
"This I am aware of," he grumbled, stifling a yawn behind his hand. "See anything? Thickets, caves, thick fields?" Karma's eyes skated the scenery a moment and suddenly she drew in a breath and stopped. Behind her the other Koopalings did the same. There was a mumble of disgruntled fatigue and confusion as they did so until the hybrid angrily shushed them. When they looked at her expectantly, she pointed at a small pillar of grey smoke over an upcoming rise.
"What is it?" Iggy asked.
"I'm not sure," Ludwig replied, squinting at the smoke. "It, in all honesty, could be anything..."
"What if it's a guard camp?" Karma whispered, drawing a frightened gasp from a few of the Koopa Kids.
"Impossible," Ludwig waved off the suggestion. "They wouldn't have come this far out of their appointed route on a whim."
"That's the same thing you said when they caved in the roof of that embankment we were hiding under in Pipe Land and almost caught us last week," she shot back.
"I never claimed to be omnipotent," he snarled, his need for sleep shortening his usually long string of temper. "If that's how you feel about it, why don't we just give this area a wide berth... does that sound alright to you?"
"I just said it MIGHT be a guard camp," Karma retorted. "And don't talk to me like I'm a little girl. I know my way around just as-"
"There they go again..." Larry sighed, slapping his forehead and shaking his head as the two older reptiles began to argue.
"Pssht... and they call ME the brat," Wendy snorted, pulling her cosmetics mirror out of the front pocket of her backpack and looking at herself in it. She was repelled at once by her pale complexion and lack of makeup and silently vowed that the first thing she would do when they found civilization again was take a long, theraputic trip to the nearest beauty parlor.
"Look, YOU try worrying day in and day out about seven other people besides yourself and see how hot YOUR judgement is after a couple of months!" Ludwig raged, clenching his teeth.
"Oh, like you're the only one under stress!" Karma shot back. "In case you haven't noticed, Kooky, we are ALL in just as much danger of getting gunned down like deer as you are, so don't think for a minute you're anything special!"
"Now you listen to me... just because..." he trailed off, his eyes suddenly going vacant.
"Just because what?" Karma goaded. "And it had better be good, otherwise... er, Ludwig?" she asked, looking at him oddly as his body tensed. He didn't answer; he, instead, fell to the ground with a thud, his eyes rolling back to the whites as he began to shudder violently.
"What is it? What's wrong with him?!" Larry asked as Wendy shrieked, backing away.
"I don't know!" Karma snapped, dropping to her knees and turning the convulsing Koopaling onto his back. He'd bitten his tongue and a small runnel of green blood trickled from the corner of his mouth as his eyes stared with horrible intensity at the noonday sky, seeing nothing. His body continued to shake.
"Is he dying?" Lemmy asked, leaning forward.
"I don't know!" Karma said again, frantic tears beginning to sting her eyes as she reached for his mouth, trying to pry his jaws apart to help him breathe.
"Back off 'im!" a voice boomed, making everyone jolt. "Back off 'im and keep away from 'im!" Someone was running toward them, and as he neared, the large spotted cap on his head gave him away as a Mushroom citizen. He looked to be passing middle age and around his neck was a patchwork sling, out of which berries and nuts were spilling as he approached. He must have been harvesting them and heard their commotion, Karma thought just seconds before she was given a mighty shove backwards and away from Ludwig.
The stranger gave the eldest Koopaling a hurried glance-over and then nodded once. "He's just havin' a fit," he told Ludwig's siblings in his thick country accent. "Comes of not eatin' or sleepin' very well... he'll come around in a minute." He swung his head in Karma's direction and added, "Ya can't go pokin' fingers in his mouth when it happens, Missy... he's not in his right mind right now and if he clamps down, he could bite ya pretty bad." Karma said nothing, her eyes never leaving her Met.
A moment later, as the Mushroomer had promised, the shaking stopped and he laid still, panting thickly as life slowly stirred in his eyes again. Ludwig coughed after a moment and sat up slowly, holding his head in his hands as it throbbed painfully. "Wha... What happened?" he asked, his voice distant.
"That's all right, son... you're okay," the stranger assured him, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Just take it easy for a few minutes." The Mushroomer wiped his mouth on his shirtsleeve and then looked up, his eyes scrutenizing the rest of the Koopalings. "I'm not gonna play dumb because I know exactly who you kids are," he said at last. "Take it Rdeca's guards are still ridin' your tails?"
"And lemme guess, you're gonna call 'em and let 'em know right where we are now, right?" Roy snorted. The Mushroomer looked at him a moment and then smiled thinly.
"Yer not my favorite bunch of people, but unless you're hatchin' plans against my friends and family, I've got no beef with ye. And from the look of things, it's been weeks since you kids had a roof over your heads let alone sat down and tried to hatch one of those hair-brained schemes of yours." He paused and then lowered his voice a little. "One thing bugs me though... why weren't ya in the castle with your parents when it went up in smoke?"
"Things... they started getting out of hand..." Larry spoke up at last. "After Mario and the princess, I mean..."
"Mnnh... yeah, people kinda started to speculate on that after the whole attack tragedy. Rumor had it you kids weren't terribly happy with your dad's latest antics and that's why ya weren't around for it," he muttered thoughtfully.
"Look, it's not like we don't care about Dad, okay?" Roy growled defensively.
"Never said you didn't. It's perfectly natural for kids to love their dad. I'd think something was wrong if ya didn't," he shrugged. "But that was just me satisfyin' my own curiousity."
"You're not gonna tell anybody you saw us, are you?" Karma asked, her voice a combination of worry and threat. He shook his head.
"Not iff'in ya want to get out of here with no trouble. But I was thinkin' mayhap ya'd want to follow me back to the village for a couple days. At least to get a decent meal in ye. I'd feel bad sendin' ya off to play around in the ozarks when you all look like death warmed over and one of ya's convulsin' in the back fields." He shrugged again, eyeing the children.
"Yeah right... just waltz on in and expect nobody to have a cow when they see us. Izzat what you're sayin'?!" Roy asked incredulously.
"You'd be surprised how forgivin' we can be," he replied calmly. "We have a basic code... you don't trouble us, we won't trouble ye. If ye think you can behave yerselves, ye'll find that ye'll fit in just fine until yer ready to be on yer way again."
Finding themselves not really in a position to refuse hospitality of any sort, the children agreed and were taken in by the Mushroom Village. Their residence there was hotly disputed at first, but when it became apparant that, without the presense of their father, they left nothing that needed any serious worrying about, people settled down and simply accepted them. Given how much the Mushroom people had tolerated over the years, it was not terribly farfetched to live amongst Koopas, after all.
Differences aside, the Koopalings blended well with the villagers, doing odd jobs in exchange for supplies and favors. Rdeca's search tapered off as the months went on and his interests slowly turned back to tending to his much-neglected kingdom. The villagers were often invited to rejoin the Mushroom Kingdom and, each time, the invitation was kindly turned down as they had come to enjoy their independency... not to mention, few would admit, their Koopa neighbors. As all good things must, however, their peace came to an end one hot August night when, quite unannounced, several of Rdeca's knights stopped by to seek lodgings for the evening, having just finished an exhaustive quest across Desert Land.
They were horrified and angered at the idea that the very creatures they had been hunting for months had been right under their noses the entire time... not to mention, lodging in right alongside their own flesh and blood. After a heated argument with the appointed mayor of the village, they seemed to have been subdued by the idea that the Koopalings had been living amongst the mushroomers for nearly a year with no trouble.
"We mustn't forget that they, despite their past trouble, are people too. We wouldn't turn away lost and starving Mushroomers, would we? Why should this be different?" the mayor had reasoned. And so, peace had seemed to have won out... until the third night of the guards' stay.
"Uff... heavy!" Isabelle, a young Mushroom girl grunted as she hefted the wooden pail off of the lip of the well, its contents sloshing and threatening to spill into the grass. She took three steps before her feet tangled beneath her, sending her sprawling to the ground and her water pail clattering in front of her, the water dumping out in a dark fan. She sat up and bit her lip, tears stinging her eyes. She was at the awkward gangly stage between being a girl and a woman at fourteen and it had left her feeling rather clumsy at times. From beneath her pink-spotted cap, several honey-colored curls of her hair stuck out in flyaways and her matching pink dress was wrinkled from the fall, the hem marred with grass stains. She was grateful for the darkened evening. If it had been daytime and everyone had seen her, they would have laughed for sure.
"Heh... way ta go, Cinderella," a mocking voice said from behind her. She turned to see Roy Koopa leaning against the split-rail fencing of the crop garden, chewing a blade of grass.
"Oh! Mister Roy..." she breathed. "I thought you went in for dinner by now."
"Eh," he shrugged. "I was just finishing up haulin' some crates back down to the stockhouse." He left the fence and approached the well, tossing the bucket back in and listening as it splashed into the water below before turning the crank to bring it back up filled. As Isabelle watched, he refilled her empty pail and offered it to her.
"Thank you..." she blushed, accepting it.
"Feh... don't mention it. Better than watchin' you stumble all over the place like Klutz of the Decade." She flushed a bit at his words and then smiled again.
"We're really lucky to have you around," she said after a moment, grunting slightly as she carried the water. After watching her struggle a minute, Roy took it back and carried it with no visible effort as they started on their way back to the village. "You're so strong, Mister Roy!"
"You can drop the 'Mister Roy' junk... I'm not yer grandpa," he grumbled. "I'm like... what? A year older than you?"
"Sorry..." she muttered.
"Do like my brothers do and call me Bully if you're not smart enough to deal with the name Roy," he added, straightening his dark glasses on the bridge of his snout.
"Okay, Ro- Bully," she said, her smile instantly returning. Roy, really, didn't feel one way or the other about the Mushroomers... but Isabelle had been a special case these days. He'd caught her staring at him several times and just lately she'd followed him around like a worshipping puppy whenever she'd been given the chance. He supposed it was her idea of a crush, not that he reciprocated it. How could anybody find all that smooth skin attractive? Ugh... she didn't even have any spikes!
A moment later they reached her parents' dwelling and she paused at the door to grin at him again, her cheeks glowing with pink blush. Roy shifted his weight uneasily.
"Thank you for helping me, Bully," she whispered.
"Like I said, it was no big de-" He was cut off as she leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek suddenly. No sooner had the notion passed through his head to push her away from him than there was a loud KRAK-BOOM! and everything went black for the last time.
Isabelle's shriek filled the night as the knights came out of hiding, one of them holding a smoking rifle to stand over the dormant body of the fallen Koopa.
"This ends..." a stockier one with a salt-and-pepper mustache announced. "We've fought them for years and I will NOT have them corrupting our young people." Turning to Isabelle, he spoke again. "Go inside," he ordered. "Stay there. The streets are not safe tonight." Still crying, the Mushroom girl disappeared inside with a slam of the door, her pail of water forgotten on the doorstep.
"Here now! What's going on?!" a passerby demanded to know, pausing slack-jawed as his eyes fell upon the body. Before the knights could stop him, he had run from the scene, screaming at the top of his lungs.
"He'll have them all on us in a minute," the knight who had fired spoke up.
"I had suspected he might... and us with no men to back us up. We must work quickly in that case. There are six others if memory serves... it shouldn't be hard to pick them out in this crowd," the stocky one replied, motioning his men to spread out, which they did soundlessly. As they began their search, heavy news was being delivered nearby...
"He's what?!" Larry demanded to know, fighting the urge to shake the elderly Mushroom woman standing on the doorstep of the home he and his siblings had built and shared for the past few months.
"Dead, young Larry," she said quietly. "Keep your voice down... they may still be around," she warned. The youngest Koopaling bit his lip as he tried to let the horrible news sink in and then impatiently motioned her inside, closing the door and latching it firmly when she had stepped through the threshold.
"What happened? Tell me," he said curtly. The others, roused by the commotion, had gotten up from the dinner table and were clustered hesitantly in the doorway of the living room listening.
"I don't know the details," she said, shaking her head and keeping her eyes focused floorward. "Only that Roy is gone... and that Rdeca's men mean to do the same to the rest of you." Larry looked sickly pale and turned to look over his shoulder at his siblings who looked equally horrified. "You needn't leave if that's what you're thinking," she added hurriedly. "We're already rallying the town together to chase them off and-"
"They're still after us..." Larry interrupted, his voice angry and distant. The Mushroom woman opened her mouth to speak and thought better of it as the Koopaling suddenly lashed out with one fist, slamming it noisily against the wall with a growl of frustrated anguish. A moment later his siblings were at his side consoling him, though they looked rather rattled themselves.
"You said they'd forget!" Morton said suddenly, his accusation cutting through the murmurs of grief and oncoming sniffles as he pointed at Ludwig. The eldest Koopaling, taken aback by his brother's sudden anger, blinked twice and said nothing. "You said if we just laid low and let everything smooth over they'd stop chasing us but now they're back and they killed Roy and they're after us and..." he continued to babble for several moments, his coherancy lost in a fresh flood of tears.
Ludwig's shoulders stiffened at the implication that the current bad news was his fault and turned, padding out of the room briskly. Karma called after him and when he failed to pause or even to slow down, she trotted off in the direction he had gone. A moment later there was the slam of a door and silence.
"You'd do well to hide yourselves," the Mushroom lady told the remaining Koopalings. "I doubt they'll hurt any of the villagers, but if they see you... well... I needn't say what will happen."
"It might be better if we just-" Lemmy began.
"Hurry! Go!" she interrupted, motioning frantically for them to hide. The children exchanged an uneasy look and then scattered, selecting various places to take cover as she scurried back outside. For the rest of the evening, the Koopalings remained in their chosen hiding places, listening to the fiasco taking place outdoors. Twice, the front door slammed open and there were heavy footsteps. The second time, a blast of gunfire shattered the north window in the den, and it was followed by a long stint of eerie silence.
Nearly four hours after they had recieved the news of Roy's passing did the front door open once more and a tentative voice called out to them that the knights had been cleared out of the village.
"We've no doubt they'll return in greater numbers, children, but for now they've gone," the mayor assured them the following day. "Given the way my people rushed to avenge your brother, I think it's safe enough to say that we will stand beside you and defend you for as long as we're able."
Thus began the uneasy and shortlived alliance between the Mushroomers and Koopas against Rdeca...