"Brother Silvershell," the cultist manning Predator's gunnery post quivered with excitement as he spoke, "we have them. Kamek's ship is on fire, and we're prepared to open fire again on Archangel."
"Target her bridge," Silvershell ordered, "full weapons."
The gunner started to carry out this order, but his attention was drawn once again to Fallen Angel as her breaker beams struck the parascope, rendering it useless. "Blast it," he snarled. "Switching to computer targeting."
"Was that Fallen Angel again?" Silvershell queried.
"I thought you said that hunk of scrap metal was beaten."
"She should be," the gunner replied indignantly. "She can't possibly have strength for another attack after this one."
Silvershell glanced suspiciously at his radar display. "Something isn't right," he murmured. "Why would Kamek waste his ship's last bit of power on a useless attack?"
"Lord Fortinbras," Julius examined his radar display closely, "I think Kamek has an idea what we're doing. He's drawing their fire."
"I never thought I'd say it," Fortinbras grinned as he responded, "but thank the stars for the Guildmaster. Gunner, status of the LN cannon?"
"Prepared to fire," Hinopio confirmed.
Fortinbras lowered his head aggressively as he glared out the window at the enemy submarine. "Let's see how effective that thing is when it's immobile. Fire!"
"Baron," Ludwig's commandant cried in jubilation, "the stealth system has been repaired. We can power down and fire at your command."
"Superb!" Ludwig leapt from his chair. "Power down stealth and give that abomination everything we have!"
"Targeting engine vicinity," Hinopio reported unnecessarily. "Firing liquid nitrogen." There was a hissing sound for a few moments before a grinning Hinopio gave his assessment of the attack. "Direct hit to the water around her engines. Her propeller's blocked in ice, sir."
"That should even things a bit," Fortinbras growled. "Evasive pattern Delta three one. Make sure she tries to follow us."
"Commencing evasive action," Raz repeated Fortinbras's orders as he carried them out.
"We got their attention back," Brutus confirmed. "They're trying to follow."
"Status of their engines?" Fortinbras inquired with anticipation.
"Heavy stress on the sub's main propeller," Brutus answered. "In a few moments she'll go critical."
"Prepared to fire conventional weapons," Hinopio noted. "Should I fire?"
"No!" Fortinbras answered quickly. "Wait."
"The propeller's buckling," Brutus added, his voice rising.
"Wait," Fortinbras repeated.
At that moment there was a cascade of water in all directions from the sub's aft section as the propeller, unable to break through its icy prison, blew itself free from the pressure inside it, taking a large chunk of the hull with it.
"Target that explosion," Fortinbras exclaimed, leaping from his seat, "and hit it with everything!"
"Great Belome," Martine chanted, "Devourer of the bodies and souls of men, your servants gather today to witness your glorious rebirth."
"Rise, Great Belome," Raini and Cassius recited.
Martine turned to Cassius, who handed him the ivory dagger. Martine took the weapon and held it in both hands high above his head. "With this blade, a tooth taken from the very form of the Devourer, will the world be restored to Dark Peace: the peace of many through the offerings of few, and the sacrifice of one."
"Rise, Great Belome," Raini and Cassius repeated.
Martine lowered the dagger and, taking the hilt in his left hand, slowly drew the blade across his right palm, leaving a crimson trail on the blade's edge. "O Great Belome," he intoned again, "alive before the dawn of man, accept this, the blood of your priest, as an offering: a reminder to all the Brotherhood that only through sacrifice can we restore the world to Dark Peace."
"Rise, Great Belome," Raini and Cassius repeated a third time.
Martine held his hand over a silver bowl on the altar, allowing a few drops of blood to fall in before handing the dagger to Cassius. "Brother, Cassius," he said more softly, "the Devourer awaits your offering."
"Brother Silvershell," screamed the cultist at the First Officer's post, "we have a massive hull breach in the aft port and starboard quadrants!"
"Seal the water-tight bulkheads," Silvershell commanded. However, before the cultist could carry out this order the ship shook so violently that the entire bridge crew were thrown from their seats. "Report!"
"It's Amadeus," the cultist screamed in horror as he scrambled to return to his post. "I don't know where it came from, but Amadeus is firing on us, and she's pierced our armor." As Silvershell cursed himself for not remembering Amadeus and its sister ships, the cultist brought him an even more disastrous piece of news. "Damage to the bulkhead control system. We're taking on water on all decks, and we're sinking!"
"Seal off the bridge, quickly," Silvershell shouted over the noise. The First Officer's fingers flew over his control panel, attempting to seal the water-tight bridge doors: a last-ditch attempt to keep the bridge pressurized while the crew desperately searched for a way to raise the ship again. However, before the doors could be shut, there was a faint trickle of water from between the magnetically-sealed doors already in place. The noise died down as every eye on the bridge turned toward this new sight.
Silvershell laughed. "It must have been fate," he thought. "Only unwavering, unchanging fate could have brought us to this end. What were the odds of two mortal enemies joining to combat us?"
"B...brother Silvershell," the first Officer interrupted his thoughts, "what do I do now?"
"The same thing as the rest of us, Good Brother," Silvershell responded. "You die." Those twelve words were the last words ever uttered on the Belomite Submersible Ship, Predator.
"Target destroyed," Hinopio cheered. "The enemy sub is going down!"
"Yes! Excellent work," Fortinbras joined in the celebration for only a moment. "Now, radar, I want to know how we managed not to see the Amadeus until now."
"I don't know, sir," the radar operator looked as confused as before. "One minute there was nothing there and the next, there was the Amadeus."
"Speaking of Amadeus," Julius noted, "we're receiving a transmission from Baron von Koopa."
"On speakers," Fortinbras ordered.
"Lord Fortinbras," Ludwig's voice cut short the remaining celebration on the bridge. "Although I congratulate you for your valiant effort, I am curious to know how you became involved in this fight. The Koopa Empire considers this a matter of internal security."
"Then the Koopa Empire," Brutus responded for Fortinbras, "obviously doesn't appreciate the full magnitude of the situation, and we have a bigger problem than that submarine."
"Please elaborate," Ludwig insisted.
"The Cult is here to complete a sacrificial ceremony to revive Belome, and I have..." he clutched his right hand as he searched for the proper words, "I have good reason to believe that some of them are conducting the ceremony even as we speak. If we don't stop them within minutes then all our military power won't be able to save us, and neither will yours."
Apparently, Ludwig believed it. "What do you suggest?"
"Great Belome," Martine chanted as the first phase of the ceremony neared completion, "your priesthood awaits your return. Accept this offering," he held up the bowl containing the mixed blood of the three, "and the sacrifice we now make, and appear to us once more."
The black altar shook, and a cold wind blew from seemingly nowhere, extinguishing the torches the trio had brought with them. Instantly, the torchlight was replaced by light from a dim blue light. This light came from a blue flame on the larger torches at the ends of the altar.
"Belome approves of the offering," Cassius announced quietly.
"Let us prepare..." Martine began, and stopped short, suddenly dizzy.
"High Priest," Cassius leapt to his side to steady him. "Is everything alright?"
Martine staggered to his feet, his face white. "Our Brethren are dead," he gasped.
"What?" Cassius denied, "Are you certain?"
Martine nodded. "I have felt their descent into Dark Peace," he spoke slowly.
Cassius sighed deeply. "Then their woes are finished, High Priest. But we must complete our work.
Martine paused, and nodded. "Let us prepare the sacrifice," he commanded.
"Baron Ludwig," Kamek cautioned the Koopa Prince as he prepared an armed team of Amadeus' Rocky Wrench Marines for deployment, "I strongly advise against you going in person. We don't even know if we can trust Fortinbras."
"We have little choice, Guildmaster," came Ludwig's instant and expected reply. "From what Brutus' second tells us, there are Cultists inside that temple only minutes away from reviving the Dark Beast." Ludwig checked the last Marine's parachute, found it intact and prepared, and turned his attention to arming himself.
"Yes, I agree," Kamek nodded as he struggled to keep up with Ludwig on his way to a weapon locker nearby. "But you, Karma, and Jazzman all three should remain on your ships. It's safer for you, and makes more sense should the ships encounter a crisis."
"Kamek," Ludwig attempted to convince the Guildmaster of his logic as he loaded a sub-machine Bill-Blaster, "let me ask you this. If the Cultists revive that walking sacrilege, will I alter the certainty of my death by being here?"
Kamek did not respond. It was a rhetorical question.
"I am going," Ludwig replied, ending the discussion, "and so are Karma and Jazzman, and we have a rendezvous to make with Fortinbras' team at the temple entrance." With that, Ludwig closed the chamber of his Bill Blaster and stepped in front of the assault team. "Move out," he ordered, and the team made their way swiftly to the deck.
"Lord Fortinbras," Raz announced, "we have landed. Preparing to power down engines, and open airlocks."
Fortinbras nodded. "Brutus," he addressed the Legionnaire, "you're coming with the assault team. Julius, you're in command while I'm gone. Hinopio, you're with me."
Hinopio and Raz turned toward Fortinbras, confused. "Sir," Raz inquired, "I'm normally the one who goes on off-board assignments, and Hinopio's the only one here qualified to man the gunner's post if those Imperial ships change their minds."
Fortinbras hesitated. He had really hoped Raz wouldn't make an issue of this. "There are circumstances this time that you don't know, Ensign. You will stay here."
"Sir, with all due respect," Raz rose from his seat, "Hinopio knows nothing of infantry tactics, and I know nothing about the ship's guns. Everyone on this ship is accustomed to following your orders without question, Sir, but you haven't given one that makes sense since we left Sarasaland, this one least of all."
Fortinbras winced. Obviously, there was no way to talk Raz out of this, and he couldn't afford to tell him the real reason why he didn't want him along. "Very well," Fortinbras announced to the bridge crew. "Ensign Dayweather's services will be needed on the assault team. Hinopio, you stay and man the guns. Julius, command from the helm. And, that having been said... Ensign, Legionairre, you're with me." With that, Fortinbras rose from his seat, followed by Brutus and a very confused Raz."
Ludwig stood on the deck of the Amadeus and looked out over the side rail. "It must be done," he reminded himself, keeping his fear of heights in check.
"All personnel report ready, Baron," reported the Rocky Wrench staff Sergeant in command of the small team. "Awaiting your orders."
Ludwig drew a deep breath, glanced over the edge one more time and ordered, "Para 1, go!"
On command, the first of the Rocky Wrenches stepped toward the side rail, climbed over the side, and leapt into the great sea of air below. As he leapt, the second Rocky Wrench approached the side.
"Para 2, go," Ludwig ordered, and the second followed suit, and so it went until the seven Rocky Wrenches including the sergeant had gone. Pushing his fear to the back of his mind, Ludwig approached the rail, leapt over the side, and mouthed a silent prayer that his parachute would open properly.
The airlock opened, the sun shone in, and a Sarasi assault team, led by Fortinbras himself, stepped off the Air Juggernaut Archangel to await a rendezvous with their past and future foes, presently their comrades. As the team stepped into the brutal sun of Land's End Fortinbras turned his eyes toward the sky, shielding his eyes with his hand, and a chill came over him for a moment. Even knowing he had nothing to fear for the moment, the mighty vessel was a fearsome sight. "But that kind of thinking," Fortinbras reminded himself, "will have to wait." Turning to face his team, he began his last pep-talk before they plunged into their fateful conflict. "I know most of you have seen very little ground combat, but the Koopa assault team will be paradropping in a few minutes and they came to fight, and so will we. Once they're here, we'll be underway, with all possible speed. We're going to go in Ranger File formation, just like you were trained. The Koopa team will guard our flanks, and we're on point and rear guard, just like we discussed on the bridge. Any questions?"
Raz spoke up. "How many men will be in this assault? I mean, we only have ten, counting you, sir."
Fortinbras nodded. "And Baron Ludwig said 'one team'. If their army is organized the way we are that's half a squad- roughly six men- and Ludwig himself. This was setup to be a small operation, because time is of the essence. Anything else?"
A member of the team wearing the rank of Chief Petty Officer spoke up next. "How will we get into the hidden corridors? I thought you said that the only entrance was underwater."
This time it was Brutus who answered. "There was once another entrance," he explained. "It was sealed off by Thalidian Fundamentalists after the Cult Wars a millennium ago, but with modern weaponry it should be possible to blast our way through."
"Now, if there are no more questions," Fortinbras cut in, "check your Flower-Rifles. Make sure they're loaded and ready, and you have enough petals to reload."
Each soldier removed the rifle slung over his shoulder, checked to make sure the Super Flowers were properly loaded and ready to fire, and locked the loading chamber. "Thalidian Fire Flowers would work better," Raz muttered. However, no one heard him, because at that moment the voice of Ludwig von Koopa interrupted the briefing.
"Fortinbras," Ludwig called as the first of the parachute team landed, "are your men prepared to depart?"
"We're ready, Baron," Fortinbras replied, locking the chamber of his Flower-Rifle. "Let's get moving."
"Agreed," Ludwig answered as his team members one-by-one cut their parachutes upon landing and rushed to assume their pre-set place in formation. Once the team leader landed, followed by Ludwig, Fortinbras turned toward his right-hand Legionairre. "Which way, Brutus?"
"Right this way," Brutus answered, pointing toward the pipe leading to the temple. With that, the joint team made for the entrance with speed that was a credit to either of their homelands.
"High Priest," Raini announced subserviently, "I am ready."
"Not yet," Martine corrected. "The sacrifice is the last stage of the ceremony. There is one thing left to do." Having said this, he stepped forward toward the altar, throwing his arms out to his sides as if making an offering of himself. "Great Belome," he said fervently, "the world awaits your return. There is none to oppose you. But if there is one who would attempt it, let his name be known to us, that we might bring you his blood as an offering."
The priests were silent. As they waited there, eyes closed in concentration, lowering themselves into a trance to hear Belome's dark voice, a wave of darkness washed over the chamber. The blue torches burned brighter, as though the raging flames atop each of them wanted to break free and fly about the room with a will of their own. All at once, a fell voice spoke the same word into the minds of the three Cultists, inside their minds as though they had spoken it to themselves.
"Luigi," Martine repeated this name, opening his eyes. "Luigi, brother of Mario. Of course."
"It was Mario who defeated the shadow of Great Belome during the war against Smithy," Raini recalled. "It is only right that his brother should be the one chosen to resist the Devourer when he returns."
"We must not allow this," Matine glowered. "Come, gather around the altar. We will attack this Luigi's very soul."
"How will we do that, High Priest?" Cassius questioned.
"Need you ask? Can't you feel it?"
Cassius looked around for a moment, attempting to see if he could "feel" what Martine meant.
"Let Great Belome's power flow through you," Martine instructed. "Dark power is amplified in this place. Focus on Luigi, and on destroying him. Don't think about it, just feel it."
Tentatively, Cassius and Raini stepped toward the altar and closed their eyes.
"Luigi will not live to see the Devourer's rise," Martine declared triumphantly.
"Brutus, how much farther?" Fortinbras' voice cut through the murky dark of the temple passages.
"We're close," Brutus assured him, "but keep on your guard."
Fortinbras nodded. "Now, when we get there, how are we going to break through? You said this tunnel was sealed off, but how?"
"Thalidian Fundamentalists built a six meter thick stone wall over the tunnel, not only blocking it but hiding it from anyone who doesn't know exactly where to look," Brutus explained. "Mario and Bowser came through this temple during the war against Smithy, and they never knew it was here."
"Six meters?! How in the…" Fortinbras' shout was cut short by the cackling of a nearby Shy-Away. As soon as the creature gave away its position through its noise, the seven Rocky Wrenches took aim and hurled a hail of iron wrenches at it. The monster never had a chance.
"Vill you please, keep your woice down?!" Ludwig hissed, unable to mask his thick accent due to agitation.
"As I said," Fortinbras continued in a whisper, "how are we going to blast through six meters of stone?"
Brutus, in response, held up a Bob-omb he had produced from the inside pocket of his uniform.
"You don't honestly think you're going to blast through with that glorified firecracker, do you?"
"We'll soon find out, Chamberlain," Brutus replied neutrally as the team approached an open room at the end of their tunnel, "because the entrance wall will be on the far right of the next room."
Fortinbras tightened his grip on his Flower-Rifle and shouldered it. "Thanks for the warning," he muttered. As the team approached the opening he held up his fist silently, and the team stopped, taking firing positions where they were. Fortinbras made a motion with his hand indicating "forward", and the Koopa flank guards one by one moved into the opening, weapons at the ready and pointed outward as they entered the room. As the last of the six, not counting the team leader and Ludwig, cleared the opening, the first one to enter the room looked back toward the team leader and nodded. The team leader acknowledged, and he and Ludwig entered the center of the wedge-shaped formation formed by the team.
"Clear," Ludwig announced quietly, and the Sarasi men quickly ran into the room to complete the wedge, with Brutus following and lastly, with a quick look behind to ensure they weren't being followed, Fortinbras.
As Fortinbras stepped into the wide room, however, and glanced at the wall where Brutus had told him the entrance would be hidden, he found only a cloud of dust and an enormous hole where the wall had apparently been blown away. The edges of the hole were scarred, apparently by some extreme heat.
"This looks like the work of one of our plasma cannons," Ludwig said under his breath, "but I've never seen one small enough to keep from bringing the entire cavern down around whoever fired."
"It was a Super Scope," Fortinbras said as though a ten-ton weight had been dropped into his stomach. "Cassius did this, and he has a Super Scope."
Ludwig spat, recognizing the name. "How can you be sure of that?"
"Just trust me," Fortinbras sighed.
"Well, Super Scope or not," Brutus reminded them, clutching his right hand and gritting his teeth, "we're running out of time."
"Right," Fortinbras nodded. "Let's go."
"No, Lord Bowser," Kamek apologized to the air around him as he stood in Amadeus' empty cargo hold. "I was unable to stop the Baron from plunging himself into the fray, and Fortinbras is with him, along with several of his finest soldiers."
The air in front of where Kamek stood seemed to glow for a moment, as if in flames. "And what of Jazzman and Karma?" Bowser's voice inquired out of the air.
"They are still on their ships, unable to drop from stealth mode," Kamek reported. "And Adept Kammy is unconscious. What is your bidding, Milord?"
"Return to Fallen Angel," Bowser replied. "If you see the first sign that Baron Ludwig has failed, you are to order whoever is commanding Amadeus to destroy the temple at all costs."
"As you command, Lord Bowser," Kamek said, bowing as the fames in the air in front of him dissipated.
"What now, Guildmaster?" a nearby Magikoopa Aide asked nervously. "Without the other ships, how will we destroy the entire temple in time?"
"We have another option that I neglected to mention to Lord Bowser," Kamek responded distantly.
"What do you mean?"
"There is a strange aura around that temple," Kamek answered, "an aura of fathomless darkness. A sufficiently powerful dark sorcerer would have almost godlike power here."
"A sorcerer such as yourself?"
"I can only hope," Kamek answered and stalked out of the room. "We will return to the Fallen Angel," he called over his shoulder to his aide.
"Did it work?" Cassius asked impatiently.
"No," Martine replied irately. "Someone is resisting us."
"Who?" Raini hissed. "And how?"
"I don't know," Martine shook his head. "But we must focus. Luigi must not be allowed to rise against Great Belome."
"I can't focus, High Priest," Cassius complained. "I try to clear my mind of all but the desire to destroy him, but there's… there's…"
"A light," Raini finished for him. "A blazing light that fills my mind, like staring into the sun."
"I feel this as well," Martine replied. "And I know who causes it." His eyes opened enough that they became sinister slits, revealing his red pupils. "The Guardian."
"The Star Road Guardian," Raini asked in dismay. "The heavens themselves resist us."
"As does the world," a voice from behind interrupted their ceremony. Raini and Martine turned and gasped in shock, and Cassius slowly turned around, laughing.
"Lord Fortinbras," Cassius laughed darkly as he stared down a joint Koopa and Sarasi assault force. "This is indeed an unparalleled delight."
"I'm glad you're delighted, Cassius." Fortinbras tightened his grip on his Flower-Rifle as he spoke. "Perhaps it will make your time in Rosengrad prison more pleasant. Now stand down."
"Or what?" Martine spat.
"Or the only three people in the world to find Dark Peace here will be you three," Brutus announced as he emerged from behind Fortinbras, his Flower-Rifle pointed directly at Martine's heart.
"Ah, Brutus," Cassius turned his attention to the Legionairre. "I guess I should have expected to find you following at Fortinbras' heels. I didn't expect a Koopa escort, however. My, my, my," he shook his head in mock surprise. "You really did surprise me on this one."
"Enough talk," Ludwig cut through the crossed words. "Hand over the dagger."
"Dagger?" Martine raised his eyebrows. "What dagger?"
"Don't play games with us, Martine," Brutus shouted, cocking his Flower-Rifle. "I have sixteen shots in this thing, there are nine more of these rifles pointed at you, and there are only three of you. It's over. Hand over the tooth."
"Three," Raz whispered too loudly for his own good. "I only see Cassius and Martine."
"Oh yes," Raini answered, slowly stepping out from behind Martine into full view, "there are three of us, Raz."
"Raini," Raz gasped.
"Yes, me," Raini grinned. "Your beloved wife. And I believe this is what Legionairre Brutus is referring to." She removed her hand from behind her back to reveal the Ivory Dagger.
"Raini," Raz pleaded, "if you're about to do what I think you're about to do, don't."
"Lieutenant," Brutus stated firmly, "drop it. This is your final warning."
"I think not, Legionairre," the Priestess answered defiantly as she backed toward the altar, stopping in the very center of it. "I had hoped to eliminate Luigi before my sacrifice was complete, and so be of even greater service to the Devourer, but I suppose my sacrifice will have to be service enough." She held the dagger high above her head and began to chant. "Great Belome, accept the life of your Priestess…"
"Take her down!" Brutus' shout echoed through the chamber and the Sarasi men, except Raz, all opened fire. However, it was too late. No sooner had the first fireball poured forth from a barrel than Raini plunged the dagger into her heart and fell upon the altar, a willing sacrifice, completing the ceremony of Belome's reawakening.