"Ready?" Rio asked, surveying his partner with a grin.
"Yes, I believe so," Rejini answered, rubbing the length of his arms and making several quick strides in place.
It was early morning in the city of Juagan, and only a half hour or so before the The Trek was due to start. The sky was incredibly clear; with no cloud cover, the surface of the high-altitude town was quite frigid. The frosted grass crunched under the feet of the thousands of tourists that surrounded the starting line, which was where Rio, Rejini, and the other competitors were currently stationed.
"So," Rio said after a moment's pause, "who's going to be our main competition?"
Rejini mulled the question over for a moment. "There are three that stand out in my mind," he said finally. "The first one is Dartshi, last year's big winner." Rejini motioned a gloved hand toward a maroon-colored Yoshi, who appeared to be going through a very complicated stretching routine several times over.
"His top speed isn't all that impressive, really," Rejini continued, "but for this race you don't really need it. It's all about endurance and your mental strength. The Trek can't be won on speed alone. With four wins under his belt, Dartshi is easily the most seasoned runner on the course."
"Right," Rio said, nodding as he added the maroon dino to a mental hit list. "Who else?"
"Spee D. can always put up a fight," Rejini mused, nodding toward a peppy Mushroomer who was hopping up and down in place. "What he lacks in skill he definitely makes up in spirit. He's placed in the top ten of the the last five races, which is something Dartshi hasn't even done."
"Interesting," Rio lied. "And the last one?"
"Gorshi," Rejini replied in a tone seething with distinct loathing, sticking a thumb over his shoulder toward a gray Yoshi who was conversing with a Lakitu bearing a navy blue shell. "An overhyped idiot, to be sure, but still incredibly fast. He got second last year, and first the year before. Those have been his only two races, though. He kind of came out of nowhere."
"You expect some foul play?" Rio questioned, giving Gorshi a distinct look-over.
"A bit," Rejini said, "but nothing I can't handle. He only got me by twenty meters last year."
It took a moment to fully register this. "Wait, what? You got third last year?"
Rejini cocked his head. "You didn't know that?"
"Well, I do now," Rio answered. "I also know now that ninja Terrapins make for good runners."
Rejini raised an eyebrow. "Who told you I was a ninja?"
With nearly ten minutes before the start of the race, Rio wished Rejini good luck, and sped off to prepare his subtle race sabotage. As the ghost cruised the town, making sure to swipe a map from a street vendor, a flash of navy blue caught his eye. Cocking his eyes back to where his vision encountered the brief splash of color, Rio found himself gazing at the shell of the Lakitu the Yoshi racer Gorshi had been chatting with.
Forming a quick change of plan, Rio began to stalk the Lakitu at a distance, carefully monitoring his every move and keeping himself out of the cloudriding Koopa's view. Pursuing the Lakitu proved to be more difficult then the Boo had bargained for, though; keeping a constant eye on the Koopa was impossible due to the dozens of multicolored ads and banners and hundreds of swarming tourists. Twice Rio thought he had lost the Lakitu for good.
And then he had. A gaggle of female Mushroomers had quickly tangled his vision, and as soon as he had righted it, the Lakitu had disappeared completely. Cursing loudly, Rio began a frantic visual scan of the packed street and came up with nothing.
Increasing the amount of vulgar language issuing from his mouth, Rio turned and was about to float off in a different direction when the splotch of navy blue appeared once more. It had come from a shabby ally that branched off from the main road. Smirking, Rio dodged by an elderly Yoshi and positioned himself to the side of the ally in a very spy-esque manner.
After a few seconds, Rio peeped into the ally and saw that the coast was clear. The Boo quickly spun ninety degrees and streaked down the ally, avoiding random bits of garbage and dumpsters that littered the pavement.
The ally continued straight for several hundred meters, then took a sharp right into a narrow street. This road, like the main one Rio had branched off of several minutes prior, was very populated, and the ghost found it easy to navigate without being spotted by the Lakitu.
It continued this way for quite some time. The road eventually led up and out of the Juagan, where the population of tourists was much less thick. Navigating discretely was still easy for the Boo, however, owing to the large quantities of pine trees that had begun to appear on either side of the street, which had seemingly morphed into a narrow dirt path.
After twenty more minutes of travel, the Lakitu halted and glanced around, barely missing Rio, who had slid behind a tall bit of brush in the nick of time. Letting out a sigh of relief, Rio took advantage of the Lakitu's halt by withdrawing his map and attempting to locate the area that they were approaching.
It didn't take long for Rio to confirm his suspicions of foul play via Lakitu. The path they had been following led to Juagan River, a wide and powerful mountain stream that sloped down the Xittzi Mountains and into a small body of water that rested by the Juagan the city. The path of The Trek, which was marked clearly on Rio's map, passed over the river on a bridge that had been built in an area nearby.
Rio nodded and stowed his map as he spied the Lakitu taking off in the direction of the bridge. Pursuing him further, the pair of hovering creatures soon arrived at the edge of a tall, jagged canyon. Below, the Juagan River roared mightily, sending a fine mist floating up in the direction of the pair. A few meters off hung the bridge Rio's map had indicated; a sturdy, wooden structure that hung between the two sides of the canyon.
The Lakitu, wasting no time, went quickly to work. Flying under the bridge, the blue-shelled Koopa produced a handful of small explosives and began latching them to the bottom of the bridge. After setting over half a dozen exploding devices in this fashion, Lakitu admired his work for a moment, then darted behind a nearby pine tree, withdrawing a small electronic remote while doing so.
Frowning, Rio contemplated his next action. He knew that the Lakitu would destroy the bridge after his man, Gorshi, crossed it. That meant that any runners who were behind Gorshi at the time would automatically find themselves in a winless situation, and that made Rio worry. He could either cross the bridge and attempt to warn Rejini beforehand with the risk of being seen by the Lakitu, or he could simply wait it out and hope to DAD that Rejini would cross the bridge before Gorshi.
Before Rio could make a concrete decision, though, a figure appeared at the far side of the bridge. Squinting to determine the runner's identity, it was not until the figure was halfway across the bridge that Rio identified him as Dartshi, the maroon Yoshi who had won last year's Trek. Relieved for the moment, Rio slid back behind a nearby boulder as Dartshi plodded by, unaware of both Rio and the Lakitu's existence.
Another five minutes passed before another figure appeared at the bridge. This time is was Spee D, the Mushroomer athlete Rejini had mentioned earlier. Just as Spee D. reached the other side of the canyon, Rio's nerves pulsed once more; two more figures could be spotted darting toward the bridge, and both were neck-and-neck.
The larger figure was clearly Gorshi, while the other - it took a moment for Rio to identify him because he was fairly small - was Rejini. As both stepped onto the bridge, Rio watched in horror as Gorshi stuck a booted foot in Rejini's way, causing the Koopa runner to trip and slam face-first onto the wooden surface. Nodding in the hidden Lakitu's direction, Gorshi quickly pounded the length of the bridge while Rejini staggered to his feet and continued after him in a burst of furious speed.
It would be in vain, however; Rejini's fall had put him too far behind the cheating dino. The gray Yoshi was now only a few feet from the canyon's edge, and Rio spotted the Lakitu's hand twitch toward his remote. Snarling, the yellow specter shot toward the Lakitu from behind, and smoothly snatched the remote from his hand just as the Gorshi stepped off the bridge.
"Hey!" the Lakitu shouted, as Rio darted away in a quick retreat. "What are you-"
"Leonard, what the-" Gorshi began as he passed the Lakitu, who had lunged after Rio.
"What in blazes is going on?!" Rejini interrupted from the bridge. "Rio, I told you you couldn't-"
"It's not me!" Rio yelled, swooping under the Lakitu as he dived for the remote. "It's this idiot! He's planning to- ACK!"
In a sudden flourish, Gorshi had leapt off the course and slammed into Rio with his shoulder, causing the remote to fly from the his hand. Leonard, the Lakitu, glided forward and snatched it from the air, just as Rejini finished the length of the bridge.
"Rejini!" Rio shouted, somersaulting backwards as he took another hit from Gorshi. "Just keep going! I'll deal with these guys!"
"Too late!" Leonard snarled, slamming down a large button on the remote. Within a second, the bridge had been torn apart in a flume of crimson flame. Debris flew from the explosion, tumbling down the sides of the deep canyon and littering the surrounding area.
Dodging flying pieces of bridge, Rio swore as Gorshi left him and bolted after Rejini, who had taken the Boo's advice and continued down the path. Turning, Rio spotted Leonard pursuing his partner, taking a less visible path through the thick pine trees that lined the running trail.
"Not so fast, pal!" Rio yelled, darting after the escaping Lakitu. "You've done enough cheating for one day!"
Leonard ignored him and continued to fly forward, skillfully weaving through the mountain plantlife. Rio quickly stowed his map and withdrew his blade, slashing a thick branch that was hanging in his way as he continued to follow the cloud-using Koopa.
It didn't take long for Leonard to notice that Rio had been following. Glancing back, the Lakitu produced a Spiny bearing a shell that matched his own in color, and lobbed it in the pursuing ghost's direction. It had been a quick assail, and the Boo was in no possession to dodge as the Spiny sailed toward him. Barely avoiding it by making himself briefly transparent, Rio swooped over another hanging branch and upped his speed.
As nimble as the Lakitu was, Rio was quickly gaining. Leonard noticed this, and began a continuous wave of Spiny projectiles. Dodging and ducking, Rio closed in on Leonard and was about to knock him from his cloud when the Lakitu swooped upwards and snatched the branches of A dying evergreen tree. In a very acrobatic fashion, Leonard made a full midair flip while his arms were latched onto the branch, and Rio sailed right under him.
There was one fatal flaw with the Lakitu's plan, however; the momentum caused by the flip had caused Leonard's cloud to continue forward through the air without its rider, leaving the Lakitu dangling stupidly from the tree branch. Grinning wickedly, Rio performed a one-eighty in THE air and swooped toward the branch Leonard was clinging to. With a great slash of his blade, the branch detached itself from the side of the tree and plummeted, the Lakitu still holding on.
Not waiting to see the results of his assail, Rio stowed his blade and pressed forward toward the running path.
As Rejini passed The Trek's final mile indicator, Gorshi was still only fifty feet behind him. Both runners had overcame Spee D's early lead a half-mile back, and Rejini knew that Dartshi was probably a few hundred feet ahead. The Koopa athlete turned once more and noticed Gorshi's pace increase considerably. Not wanting to BE within Gorshi striking range, Rejini matched his speed. Legal or not, the gray Yoshi had tripped Rejini early, and the Koopa was in no hurry to repeat the experience.
With a quarter mile remaining in The Trek, Rejini rounded a corner and spotted Dartshi in the distance, some twenty of thirty yards ahead of him. The maroon dino turned just in time to to see Rejini increase his pace and also get smashed in the side of his face by a stone that had been hurled from behind him. As the Koopa collapsed, Dartshi skidded to a halt and saw Gorshi turn the same corner Rejini had seconds prior, wearing a very smug look on his face. Scowling, Dartshi turned and strode toward Gorshi, who was approaching at a jog.
"I knew you weren't a legit racer," Dartshi said in an accusational tone as Gorshi stopped a few feet away, "but throwing rocks? That's a low I didn't even think you could achieve."
"Can it, old timer," Gorshi growled, stepping forward and shifting his neck quickly to both sides. "I don't need you to preach about running ethics, okay? So move it or lose it."
Dartshi responded with a quick kick toward his rival, but, though he hit Gorshi square in the chest, managed only to skid the younger Yoshi back a few inches. The gray dino, apart from being nearly ten years younger, stood over a half-inch taller than his racing competitor.
"You're past your prime," Gorshi said tauntingly, tilting slightly to dodge another blow. "I'll make this quick so you don't have to suffer for too long."
Dartshi answered with another punch, only this time Gorshi blocked the assail and latched his hands to the maroon Yoshi's arm. Twisting it roughly, Gorshi forced Dartshi's body to twist downward, allowing the gray dino to deliver a hard head-shot with his boot. Pain overtaking his aged form, Dartshi fell to the ground with a raspy curse.
Grinning wildly, Gorshi threw Dartshi's arm aside and was about to continue forward when he felt a wave of pain spread across the back of his cranium. Suddenly feeling very lightheaded, the gray Yoshi crumpled to ground, only a few feet in front of the Yoshi he himself had felled. Over his collapsed form, a smirking Rio was throwing a hefty rock aside.
"What goes around comes around, mate," Rio exclaimed cheerfully, noticing in the distance that Rejini was rising to his feet. Without another look, the specter swept from the trail and into the thick groves of trees, paying no attention to a pair of neon-yellow orbs that were scanning him from above.
Broshi stood in front of a large boulder crafted from volcanic rock, arms folded and a look of perplexion etched across his face. A few feet behind, Mario had his cocked upwards, gazing towards the Firehole Crater, Plateaus's largest active volcano. The diameter of the massive mountain's base was over several miles, and the top of the volcano itself was fogged by a constant shroud of clouds and billowing sulfur.
"Well," Mario said after a moment, "we have our work cut out for us, that's for sure."
"Yes, I imagine we do," Broshi agreed, slinging his bag of supplies from his back and wrenching them open.
"Looking for something?" Mario asked, stepping forward and peering over Broshi's shoulder.
"Yes, Mario," Broshi replied with a twinge of annoyance. "You may not've noticed, but there happens to be a large boulder blocking the entrance into the volcano."
Mario glanced up and spotted the boulder. "Ah yes. So there is."
Rolling his eyes, Broshi withdrew a sleek, round bomb and a pack of matches. The black dino strode toward the boulder, lit a match using the surface of the rock itself, and lit his explosive. Placing it down gently, Broshi turned and broke into a mild jog that led him away from the volcano's entrance, motioning for Mario to do the same.
Once a safe difference from Broshi's explosive, both heroes watched as the tiny flame traveled the length of the bomb's wick and reached its shiny edge. A half-second passed, then the small explosive erupted into a powerful explosion. As the smoke and fire cleared, the sturdy boulder that had sealed the entrance was nothing more then a steaming pile of rubble.
"You got any more of those?" Mario questioned as he and Broshi strode toward the volcano's now open entrance.
"Of course," Broshi answered. "They were cheaper in bulk anyway. Figured we might need 'em, so I made a quick supply trip back in Ashton."
"Good thinking," Mario praised as both heroes picked their way through the charred rubble and crossed into the volcano.
Mario and Broshi had entered a small, narrow corridor, and the heat was almost unbearable. Shooting each other an uneasy glance, the two heroes continued forward, pressing towards the volcano's center. After a few hundred meters, Broshi noticed that the tiny corridor, which had been winding in a random, snakelike pattern, began to drop into a decent.
"Good," the Yoshi said, digging into his pack once more and retrieving a lantern, which he lit with another match. Apart from beginning a decent, the corridor had also become considerably darker. "We're heading downwards."
"That is good," Mario agreed. "Merlox said that the Fire Gem was hidden in the volcano's deepest cavern."
Broshi nodded, and the two friends continued forward in silence. Minutes crawled by as Broshi and Mario continued downward, the heat steadily increasing. The traveling pace also began to slow, owing to the more frequent water breaks and more difficult terrain. With Broshi's lantern as their only source of light, it wasn't easy for the heroes (Broshi especially, with his large feet and constant fear of hitting his head on the low ceiling) to continue forward without tripping on stray rocks or slamming into the outside walls.
Finally, after several hours of painstaking travel, the tip of Broshi's nose slammed painfully into something hard and rough. Cursing, the back Yoshi rose his lantern to eye level and identified what had halted his movement; another boulder, similar to the one that had sealed the entrance, stood in their way.
"Move back," Broshi warned his companion as he retrieved another bomb and lit it. Placing it down, he quickly hiked back up the small corridor a few dozen meters, and joined Mario at a safe distance. The bomb exploded a few seconds later, and flames, dust, and chunks of stone engulfed the narrow hall. As the debris cleared, a powerful stream of light possessing a reddish hue expanded from the newly cleared passage.
Frowning slightly, Broshi trotted down to the source of light and stopped dead in his tracks upon reaching it. Mario, who had been following, let out an audible gasp as he gazed upon the opening.
Past the destroyed boulder, the narrow corridor opened up into an enormous cavern. There was a huge pool of molten magma fed by numerous cascades that fell from openings in the walls at the center of the room. It was surrounded by a narrow walkway that lead into dozens of different caverns on either side of the main area. Perhaps the most surprising were the stone houses; crafted of volcanic rock, they had been built on chiseled inlets in the smooth rock walls that surrounded the entire cavern. Rope ladders hung from the tiny inlets, allowing swift access to the lava pool and the pathway that circled it.
Then there were the Spinies. Dozens of them, flooding from the cliff dwellings and dropping to the cavern floor like a swarm of angry bees. Very similar to the creatures that dwelled in the Barrel Volcano, these Spinies stood upright and possessed shells of a dark maroon. Most were armed with short daggers though some, ones that were considerably larger, had armed themselves with small axes. In less then a minute, the mob of creatures had formed a line, three by seven thick, that blocked entrance to the cavern. Broshi and Mario, shocked by the sudden appearance, had done nothing to prevent this.
"You are not wanted here!" a Spiny at the back of line, large, crown-wearing, and presumably the leader, shouted. "Leave at once or be destroyed."
"We mean no harm," Broshi said quickly, eyeing the leader Spiny's crown carefully. Attached to it, a spherical, blood-red jewel had caught his eye.
"Then why are you here?" the leader questioned.
"We're looking for a-" Mario began, but Broshi stopped him by elbowing him in the face.
"We're explorers," Broshi lied hastily, ignoring Mario's look of displeasure.
"What was that for?!" Mario hissed quietly to Broshi.
"Look at the leader's crown," the dino answered in a whisper.
"You are still not wanted here!" the leader repeated, louder this time. "Leave at once!"
"You have a plan, then?" Mario whispered back, shooting anxious glances towards the line of blade-bearing Spinies.
"Yes," Broshi replied quietly. "It's one of my favorites. I like to call it... SURPRISE ATTACK!"
Upon yelling the last two words, Broshi had leaped toward the crowd of armed Spinies and delivered a crushing kick to a group of four, knocking several into the nearby pit of oozing magma. Mario followed suit, planting a punch on a Spiny that charged him, and slamming his boot into two more.
"Kill them!" the leader shrieked, unsheathing a long, jagged sword and joining the fray.
Though outnumbered, Mario and Broshi were putting up a decent fight. Using hit-and-run tactics, the two comrades would leap into the mass of Spinies, take several out, and retreat quickly back before the small Spiny Blades could sink into them. Eventually though, after nearly half the Spinies had fallen, the group cornered Mario and Broshi at the far end of the cavern.
"We've got you now," the leader Spiny taunted, brandishing his blade forward.
"Get the crown," Broshi hissed quietly to his partner. "I'll finish these guys off."
"Think you can?" Mario whispered back, unsure.
"Yes, idiot!" Broshi snapped. "Now go!"
Without further persuasion, Mario nodded grimly and, bending his knees and taking a small running start, leapt over the small squadron of Spinies. He felt the edged of their small blades barely missing the tips of his boots, and actually had to dodge to the left of a dagger thrown by one of the creatures. Clearing the Spinies by a foot or so, Mario darted forward and entered combat with the Spiny leader.
Meanwhile, Broshi, making sure that the Spiny leader had captured Mario's complete attention, pulled his arm back as the volcanic creatures charged him and released a wave of black energy toward the right side of the Spiny force, killing them instantly. The left side continued forward, however, and Broshi was forced to weave through several dagger slashes before tapping into some more magic. This time he released a ray of dark-violet energy, hitting a Spiny square on and covering him in a purple hue. The dino then began to swing his arms around like a demented conductor, forcing the magic-plagued Spiny to weave through the air and unwillingly smash into his comrades.
Not noticing Broshi's use of magic, Mario swung a fist forward, only to be met by the Spiny leader's rough blade. Yelping, the plumber pulled his hand back and ducked a quick horizontal sword slash via the Spiny leader. Stepping back, Mario retreated directly into a wall of stone as he avoided another slash, vertical this time. Grinning devilishly behind its charred-white mask, the Spiny thrust its blade quickly forward. Using his keen jumping ability, the chubby plumber was able to leap the attack, forcing the sword to stick directly into the rock wall. Clever as the move was, it didn't prevent Mario from landing, legs spread, onto the flat surface of the blade. Letting out a tiny squeak, the plumber dropped from his uncomfortable position on the blade and slid to the floor.
Finally able to release his blade from the stone, the Spiny leader was seconds from stabbing the downed plumber when the magically controlled Spiny hurtled out of nowhere and slammed into the leader, halting his attack. Growling, the leader turned to face Broshi, who had made an inhuman leap over a wide river of magma and landed a few feet in front of Spiny leader.
"I will ask you once more," the leader hissed. "Leave now or die."
"You're in no position to make threats, I'm afraid," Broshi said in an icy voice very different from his own. "You stand no chance against me."
"You are mistaken," the leader said forcefully. "My skills in combat are much greater then those you have felled earlier."
A vile grin spread across Broshi's face. "Think so, do you?" In a flourish, Broshi shot his arm to the side and released a shimmering bolt of darkness. The blast of magic, moving at near-light speed, crashed into the opposite wall of the cavern, causing any Spiny homes placed there to tumble down to the lava pit bellow in an avalanche of rubble and debris.
The Spiny stepped back, horrified. "How-?"
Broshi snorted an interruption. "That does not concern you. Now hand over the Fire Gem."
"Fire Gem?" the leader echoed in confusion. "What-?"
"The jewel on your head," Broshi cut in, his icy voice pulsing with annoyance. "Hand it over or I will kill you in a very painful manner."
"Y-yes of course," the leader said, any confidence in his voice now completely absent. He quickly slid the crown from his masked head and plucked off the jewel. As the Spiny offered it toward Broshi, a light-green hue surrounded the Gem and the blood-red jewel flew effortlessly into the dino's open hand.
"Thank you," Broshi said coldly, stowing the Gem in his bag. "Unfortunately you've seen a little too much for my tastes. I believe I'm going to have to kill you anyway."
"N-no!" the Spiny shouted, stumbling backwards. "Please! I won't-!"
But Broshi never heard what the Spiny wasn't going to do, because he had shot the Spiny into the sea of frothing magma with a lazy flick of his wrist. Wearing a satisfied smirk, Broshi stepped confidently over to the unconscious Mario and pondered for a moment. Shrugging, the Yoshi bent down and hoisted the plumber onto his back. Turning about-face, the black Yoshi strode purposely toward the cavern exit.
Snow dropped lazily to the ground below from an unpenetrated blanket of murky gray clouds that smothered the sky. Several mountains, their highest peaks lost in the sea of murk, surrounded a white, snow-covered valley. The plane of consolidated water was unnaturally unaltered; the surface was completely clean from any marks or footprints.
Stationed at the very center of the desolate valley was Rio. His left hand was latched tightly to his Locator Orb, which was throbbing at a steady pace while his right glued to his long stalking cap, which was constantly being torn at by the winter winds. Glancing around in disgust, Rio made spurts in different directions, seeing how his Locator Orb would react. Satisfied with the result of quick right turn, Rio swooped in a rightward direction, keeping his red eyes on his magic orb.
To Rio's great advantage, the numbing winds favored him, carrying him like a sailboat in the direction indicated by the the Locator Orb. Soon, the valley of white was long behind him, and the yellow specter had entered a deep, icy canyon which began to narrow as the Boo progressed.
The canyon came to a sudden stop. In Rio's way stood a solid sheet of translucent ice, covering the entrance to what appeared to be a wide tunnel that led into the surrounding mountains. Giving the Boo equivalent of a shrug (it looked strange owing to the ghost creature's lack of shoulders), Rio stowed his magical possession and made his body transparent. Swooping forward, the Boo slipped easily through the sheet of blockading ice.
The inside of the mountain was nothing like Rio had ever seen, especially considering the Boo was expecting a tunnel coated in dull, brown rock. Instead, however, the ghost had entered a maze of icy, see-through passages. Above and below him were miles upon miles of winding ice-coated corridors, and on either side there were thousands more.
Baffled, Rio turned to examine the wall of ice he had passed through to enter. Upon close inspection, he noticed traces of stone as well as the consolidated water. Glancing upwards, he noticed too that the outsides of the mountain sported thick traces of stone as well. Curious and still transparent (the continued transparency would spend a lot of energy, but Rio didn't care) the ghost swooped upwards, eager to examine the top of this peculiar mountain.
Upon swooping up hundreds of feet and finally spotting the highest point, the realization hit him like an avalanche. The top, barely seeable through miles of transparent corridors, was a small, circular opening. Small from where Rio floated, at any rate. In reality, the Boo figured that opening could be over a mile wide. This meant the mountain he had entered was really an extinct volcano, one weathered with perhaps over a million years of freeze-over.
With his energy beginning to fail him, Rio made himself fully visible. Stuffing his hand into his stocking cap, the ghost retrieved his Locator Orb, which had nearly doubled its pulsing speed. Frowning, Rio shot another glance at the maze of translucent ice above him and came to sickening realization; the Ice Gem, which was nearly the exact same color as ice itself, would take weeks to find in the frozen interior of the extinct volcano.
Shaking his head, Rio glanced about at his more immediate environment. The passageway of ice he was currently occupying appeared to be fairly open, though it was difficult to see owing to the see-through nature of the ice that surrounded him. Wanting a clear understanding of the passage's dimensions, Rio slid to the side and felt his way around the edge of the passage, finding that it was jaggedly pentagonal in shape and was about ten feet across.
Fairly certain that the larger passages were better to be in than the smaller ones (larger passages usually lead to the more important places, Rio reasoned), the Boo began to slowly follow the hall of ice. Traveling along the ice passage proved to be plenty difficult for the ghost, through; constant ups, downs, and other changes that were difficult to see constantly hampered his progress and forced him to slam face-first into unseen walls.
Then the blessing came. A pair of dim, neon-yellow lights had appeared some hundred feet away, illuminating an area forward and down a hundred feet or so from Rio's current position. Squinting, Rio noticed that the area also seemed to be connected to a large tunnel that led out from the 3D jumble of icy passages. Surging with delight, the Boo felt out a branching passage that led in the direction of the light and followed it.
...Until the passage shifted upwards. Cursing, Rio's face rammed forcefully into an unseen wall ahead, so forcefully, in fact, that the impact created a large wave of cracks upon the icy surface which began to expand rapidly to the sheets of ice that were stationed near it. From there, new waves of cracks shot off like bolts of lightning down new walls of the fragile ice, expanding greater and greater as they bloomed downwards, upwards, and outwards.
Twitching his left eye in a wave of panic, Rio began to frantically feel around for a new passage that led downwards, fully aware of the pain thousands of falling ice shards could cause. Finally locating one, Rio shot down it just as he heard creaking ice from above begin to break apart. Upping his flying speed, the frantic ghost barely avoided smashing into another sheet of ice as his passage made a sharp left turn.
Shards were falling now, and Rio knew it was only a matter of time before the entire icy interior would come crashing down with them. Still, he kept a keen eye on the glowing yellow light, which he drew closer and closer to when the passage shifted once more, forcing the yellow ghost to smash through its edge at a hair-raising speed. He continued forward, blasting cleanly through several more walls of ice before slamming into something much more solid.
With his head pounding, Rio glanced forward to see that he had found the outer edge of the ancient volcano itself. Peering quickly downward as a cascade of icy shards rained down on him, the Boo spotted the tunnel opening that had been lit by the neon light, only now, the light was gone. Giving his head another shake, Rio quickly stowed the Locator Orb and used the last of his energy reserve to become transparent once more, allowing him to swoop through any remaining ice barricades and falling shards.
Floating gracefully into the tunnel, Rio made himself completely visible and gazed back toward the falling sheet of icy shards that hammered the sides of the ancient volcano's interior. Grinning for the first time in the last hour, Rio took out his Locator Orb once more and examined it. It was pulsing at a rate of extreme quickness, and Rio's grin widened as he punched the air in a fit of celebration.
Pressing forward and allowing no further thought concerning the lack of neon light, Rio noticed the tunnel opening up. Soon he had entered an enormous, circular cavern lined with large, gaping holes and flaming torches. At the center of the room was the Ice Gem, perched gently on a small funnel-shaped mound of snow. Behind the Gem, which was sparkling innocently in the flickering torch light, another large, dark hole was situated ominously.
Taking great caution, Rio eased forward toward the Gem when a loud, steady voice, almost like a robot, pierced the icy air.
"STOP, THIEF," the voice, which seemed to be coming from the hole nearest to the Ice Gem, called. "LEAVE NOW OR SUFFER THE SAME FATE AS THE ONE BEFORE YOU. GREAT DAMAGE HE CAUSED, SO LOCKED FOREVER IN THE TOMB OF ICE HE IS."
Rio tilted his head unknowingly, overcoming the immediate shock of the sudden voice. Could whoever this "one before me" guy is be the one who caused the neon light? he thought, frowning slightly.
"WHY DO YOU NOT SPEAK?" the voice rang, causing the icy walls to shudder. "LEAVE AT ONCE OR BE DEVOURED!"
"I'll take my chances, I think," Rio said quietly as he bolted for the Gem. He got halfway there when he felt something cold and prickly snatch on to his tail end. Letting out a yelp, Rio turned to see a frost-blue vine, which had shot from one of the surrounding holes, curled around his back side. Growling, Rio drew his blade and hacked the vine off of him. He then turned back toward the Gem just in time to be smacked in the face by a flying ice chunk.
Recovering his vision, Rio quickly located the source of the frozen projectile. From the hole in the center of the room, the bulbous head of a gigantic Frost Piranha had appeared. Surrounding it, dozens of thick, pointy vines had sprouted from the other holes that circled the cavernous room and were barreling toward Rio. Before the mass of icy plant life had completely obscured the ghost's vision, though, Rio noticed that a good half-dozen vines had already been singed away. Giving a mental shrug, the yellow specter lunged toward the nearest vine and sliced it in two.
The skirmish was excruciating. Rio felt like a small, cap-wearing weed-wacker as he slashed at the mass of approaching vines. Often, though his weak body would physically screech in pain, the yellow specter was required to enter brief transparency in order to avoid being strangled. Finally, when the ghost's energy was dropped to its lowest possible functioning point, the jumble of flailing vines had backed him into a far corner of the cavern.
"FOOL!" the wicked Frost Piranha bellowed. "YOU SEE WHAT BECOMES OF YOUR PATHETIC MEDDLING? NOW FEEL THE FULL EXTENT OF MY THORNS!"
The vines then swarmed toward Rio all at once and the ghost made a quick, rather risky decision. Taking swift aim, the ghost pulled back his arm and hurled his blade in the direction of the Frost Piranha's enormous head. A split-second later Rio heard a horrible screech echo through the room and knew instantly that his assail had been successful. Smiling grimly, Rio wove through the sea of vines, which had been halted in a fit of shock, and swooped toward the Piranha's head, where his small blade was protruding out of the plant's skull.
Upon yanking the blade away from the plant's head, the Frost Piranha shot its vines toward the ghost once more. Prepared for this, Rio dove nimbly under the advancing plantlife, ducked a flying chunk of ice shot from the Piranha's head, and made a blinding slash at the frosty plant's skinny neck.
After another howling screech, Rio could see the head of the Frost Piranha slide from its stalk and tumble forward... right towards the center of the cavern, exactly where the Ice Gem was placed. Cursing loudly, Rio dove for the Gem, keenly avoiding the avalanche of dead Piranha vines. With a half-second to the spare, Rio snatched the Ice Gem from its snowy perch and dodged to the side as the Frost Piranha's head collapsed next to him.
Avoiding the last of the falling vines, Rio let out a long sigh and hovered toward the exit. With one last glance toward the beaten plant, the yellow specter swept out of the room. Following the exit tunnel, Rio quickly emerged into the now hallow inside of the ancient volcano. As he flew through the grand cavern, the ghost could see the massive pile of broken shards resting at the cavern's base.
"Close shave," Rio muttered quietly to himself, "...again."
Back at the site of the defeated Piranha, a loud explosion pierced the air, and a wave of crimson energy blasted through one of the surrounding walls. From the newly created entryway, a sinister rasp of a laugh drifted ominously through the icy cavern.
"Well, well," Lemmy said, eyeing his raindow-haired sibling as he strode toward the Front Gate of Castle Koopa. "Seems that we're the last Koopas standing, huh?"
"What were you expecting?" Iggy asked his brother with a toothy grin as he stopped next to him and reached his clawed fingers for the door.
Lemmy nodded, and paused a moment before asking, "So, what are you using?"
"Why don't you come and see?" Iggy replied, motioning for his brother to follow him as he creaked open the large steel door. Outside, Iggy withdrew a remote from his shell. Lemmy rolled his eyes.
"What?" Iggy questioned, eyeing his brother.
"Oh, nothing," Lemmy answered. "It's just that idea of a remote isn't exactly original."
"I suppose," Iggy muttered, plugging in a command.
The sound of soft rumbling, increasing in volume over time, began to pierce the inky Dark Land air. The large open patch of powdery brimstone began to shake, and a large, metallic hatch appeared beneath. Lemmy wore a motionless expression as he gazed upon the large metallic figure that arose from the charred ground.
A robot, crafted of stainless steel, standing at over thirty feet tall, glared down at the ball-riding Koopa with large, rectangular eyes covered by enormous glasses. The mechanical behemoth's feet and hands were thick and formidable; each sported rows of gleaming metal claws over five feet in length. Similar spikes of steel lined the metallic blue shell of the giant Iggy Robot, which provided lethal armor for the massive machine.
"Impressed?" Iggy asked, pushing another set on buttons, causing a small hatch to appear at the robot's left heel.
"Pretty cliché, Bro," Lemmy replied, smiling as his brother stepped toward the inside of his machine. "But yes, it's fairly impressive."
Iggy snorted. "Just wait 'til I get all the bits of it running, Lem. Only then will you grasp its full awesomeness."
Lemmy choked back a laugh. "Yeah, I'll be watching all right," the older Koopaling said truthfully as his sibling disappeared into the mechanical monster.
Soon, the Robo Iggy's eye-lights fired up, displaying a bright neon-red. Two massive fuel-powered rocket boosters lowered from the base of the robot's shell. Quickly igniting, the boosters thrust the giant machine into the air, where it hovered for a moment. Waving farewell, Lemmy watched as the Robo Iggy rocketed away into the horizon.
Wasting no time, Lemmy quickly hopped into a nearby Koopa Copter and revved up the engine. For his own weapon to succeed, he was going to need to tag along this time. Against the rules, yes, but that had never stopped the cunning Koopaling before...
"Oh... my... God..." Luigi gasped, taking a step back as the shadow of a certain flying robot eclipsed him, Yoshi, and Mecha Guy.
"God?" Yoshi asked, turning to Luigi as the two enormous metal feet of the Robo Iggy slammed roughly into the ground.
"Earth Deity," Luigi explained shortly, keeping his eyes glued on behemoth machine.
"I am so over robots," Mecha Guy muttered to himself, frowning slightly behind his mask.
"Greetings, fools!" Iggy's vile voice boomed from the robot as the machine version of himself flexed its mechanic muscles. "Welcome to your untimely doom!"
"Oh, shut up," Yoshi growled, as the giant robot thrust its right arm back. "Your stupid tin can doesn't scare us!"
Without commenting, Iggy flung the cocked fist of his machine down toward the group. It was a quick assail, but the three heroes were able to duck out of the way, forcing the metal fist to slam into the street bellow. As the arm lurched back, the three comrades could clearly see the desolating effect of the fist via a large crater in the street's asphalt.
"Any ideas regarding the defeat of this 'stupid tin can'?" Mecha Guy asked Yoshi mildly as the robot winded another punch.
"How about we run?" Luigi suggested, eyeing the fist that was once again flying toward the group.
"Good idea," Mecha Guy agreed, darting away from the mechanical punch with Yoshi and Luigi on his tail. "We can formulate a plan while we beat feet."
"Think so?" Iggy's magnified voice roared, seemingly coming from directly above the group of heroes. Glancing up, Mecha Guy was the first to notice that Robo Iggy was soaring above them by using its powerful shell propulsion. The robot slammed into the ground a few meters in front of the group, who quickly skidded to a halt and dashed the other way.
"Nuh uh!" Iggy yelled, entering a command from his control center in the machine's cranium. The spikes on the robot's mechanical shell quickly detached and shot into the air, where they arched forward and made a beeline for the dashing heroes.
"What a copycat," Lemmy muttered, leaning slightly from the shadow of a nearby building. In the confusion, the crafty Koopaling had been able to land his chopper and enter the city without notice.
"Heat-seeking," Mecha Guy explained to his companions as the missiles approached. "I've dealt with this kind of stuff before. We need to-"
"Idea," Yoshi interrupted, spotting a Mushroom that was hiding himself behind a bush.
Quickly, the dino leaned forward and stuck out his tongue, which shot toward the hiding Mushroomer and snatched him up by his left foot. Using his tongue like a whip, Yoshi hurled the Mushroomer toward the oncoming explosives. The flying Shroom barely missed grazing the missiles as he flew by them, smashing through the window of a nearby house seconds later. The close encounter was enough to redirect the missiles toward the new source of heat, though, and forced the explosives into a direction that targeted the house walls. Several explosions filled the air and, seconds later, the house was naught but a steaming pile of charred debris.
"Well that was very noble of you, Yoshi," Mecha Guy said sarcastically. "Way to get the citizens involved."
Yoshi shrugged. "He looked bored anyway."
"Not really," Mecha Guy responded with a snort. "I think he looked ready to wet his pants. Now I don't think he'll be able to do that, I'm afraid..."
"Um, guys?" Luigi said, stepping backwards. "I think we need to move."
Glancing above them, Yoshi and Mecha Guy let out identical yelps as the Robo Iggy, which was standing quite near and above them, tilted its metallic head forward and released a sizzling wave of flame toward the group of heroes. Mecha Guy and Yoshi leapt cleanly out of the way, but Luigi, who had a seemingly worse reaction time, caught the back of his green shirt on fire as he was diving away.
"AAAH! HELP ME!" Luigi shouted, running about frantically in a demented figure-eight.
"Stop, drop, and roll, you moron!" Mecha Guy roared, making a lunging dodge to the left in order to evade another punch thrown by Robo Iggy.
"Fine, fine!" Luigi squealed, throwing himself to the ground and thrashing about, eventually causing the flame to be snuffed.
"Move!" Yoshi yelled suddenly, diving at the seemingly senseless Luigi as the plumber stumbled to his feet. Catching Luigi in the stomach, he and Yoshi tumbled several feet to the right just in time to avoid a crushing foot-stomp performed by Iggy's robot.
"Over here!" Mecha Guy said loudly from the left, waving frantically toward his comrades. Yoshi, carrying the dumbfounded plumber on his back, made an enormous leap over a stream of spewed flame, and followed Mecha Guy into a narrow ally nestled between two large shops.
"You have a plan yet?" Yoshi asked, setting Luigi gently down on the cold cement.
"I thought that's what you were doing!" Mecha Guy snapped, shooting a nervous glance toward the entryway of the alley.
"Well, I figured you'd be thinking about it too!" Yoshi retorted.
"Fine," Mecha Guy growled, slamming open his toolbox. "I think I do in fact have a bit of an idea. Pyro Plumber is going to have stay put, though. He's just getting in the way."
"What?!" Luigi snarled savagely, getting to his feet with rage-inspired strength. "I'll have you know that I'm one of the greatest heroes the Mushroom Kingdom has ever seen, and furthermore-"
"Fine," Mecha Guy snapped, yanking out a long, metal cutting device from his toolbox. "You can help Yoshi distract Iggy while I infiltrate his stupid machine."
"So that's your plan?" Yoshi asked irritably. "For me and Luigi to dance around as bait while you break into the robot?"
"You have a better idea?" Mecha Guy questioned as he began to embark from the alley. Following in distaste but saying nothing, Yoshi pursued the Shy Guy mechanic with Luigi bringing up the rear. The Robo Iggy, which has been stomping its way to the Mushroom Kingdom Castle, turned its large metallic head toward the group as they sprang from the alleyway.
"So you've decided to finish our skirmish?" Iggy asked rhetorically as he swung his robot around and lumbered it toward the heroes. "Fine by me."
"Well, go on, then," Mecha Guy urged, shoving his comrades toward the approaching robot. "Give him a right old show."
"Very well," Yoshi agreed fiercely, cracking his knuckles and flying out in front of the Robo Iggy.
"Mmm..." Iggy's voice boomed. "Yoshi flambé! My favorite!"
"Is it possible for him to use more cliché lines?!" Lemmy stammered, gazing up from his hiding place. "I knew Iggy had a sheep-like personality, but this is getting ridiculous..."
Tilting forward once more, the Robo Iggy sent forth another mighty stream of fire toward Yoshi. The swift dino sprung back from and dodged the assail easily, the grips of his bright-red boots sliding roughly on the asphalt as he landed.
"Let's get a little more creative here, shall we?" Yoshi taunted, sidestepping out of the way as Iggy forced the robot to perform a forward kick.
"Creative, huh?" Iggy echoed, plugging in a command. "I can do that..."
Without further warning, a thick stream of gasoline spewed from an aluminum pipe that stuck out from the robot's left knee. With a swift circular motion the Robo Iggy lay down a ring of gas, nearly twenty feet in diameter, that surrounded Yoshi. Cursing, Yoshi gazed up in horror as a new stream of flame erupted from the maw of the Robo Iggy and made contact with the gasoline, instantly ignited the thick ring that circled him.
"Good riddance, dino-breath!" Iggy snarled, lurching his robot forward and shooting the tip of his own claw once more toward the button that allowed fire-breath. Centimeters before reaching it, however, he heard something small and metallic slam into the mouth of the Robo Iggy. Shaking the sound off, the Koopaling smashed his hand onto the fire-breath button. After a second or so, nothing had happened.
"FLAME RELEASE POINT BLOCKED," the voice of Iggy's main computer came. "VISUAL ACQUIRED."
A large monitor positioned in front of Iggy flickered on, showing the Koopaling a diagram of the fire-breath system. Seething, Iggy noticed a small metallic tool, one that looked very much like a screwdriver, had lodged itself in the release point.
"How'd you like that, nerd boy?!" Luigi called from below.
"Shut up!" Iggy hissed, flinging a mechanical limb toward Luigi, who avoided it easily.
"Where'd you get that metal thing, anyway?" Yoshi asked from inside his flaming prison.
"Mecha Guy left behind his toolbox," Luigi answered with a shrug. "Come to think of it, I'm not quite sure where he ran off to..."
"Great," Yoshi said bitterly, eyeing the Robo Iggy warily as its controller contemplated its next move.
"Hold still!" Mecha Guy snarled as the the back side of the Robo Iggy's right leg shifted out of the Shyster's reach. Irritated, Mecha Guy lunged after the leg and swiftly inserted his metal cutting device. In a matter of seconds, the Shy Guy had created a small, rectangular opening with a few quick slashes. Satisfied, Mecha Guy quickly stowed his tool into his yellow robes and crawled into the newly created opening before the metallic leg could shift once more.
Mecha Guy immediately found the space inside the leg of the Robo Iggy not only extremely cramped, but quite disturbingly dangerous; hundreds of brightly colored wires ran helter scelter on all sides of him, and the leg often swayed violently from one side to the other. Avoiding a sparking, unidentified piece of machinery, the Shy Guy crawled slowly upwards, following a narrow shaft. This, he reasoned, would get him closer to the control area, where Iggy awaited.
And so it seemed this was the case. After a few long minutes full of curses, bruises, and tangled wires, Mecha Guy reached what appeared to be a sealed hatch that led upwards. Withdrawing his cutter tool once more, the Shyster quickly sliced through the covered opening and launched himself upwards, slamming his upper body into the weakened metal, which dislodged upon contact, allowing the Shy Guy mechanic through the opening.
Wheeling around in his plump, spinning command chair, Iggy let out a soft growl as he heard the entrance of the new arrival.
"Clever," Iggy hissed, raising to his feet. "Very clever of you indeed to allow those two buffoons to distract me while you infiltrated from behind."
"Skillfully cunning, wasn't it?" Mecha Guy agreed with a grin. "I'm glad you appreciate finely executed work."
Iggy sneered and stepped forward. "Don't flatter yourself, Shyster scum. You're little Mission Impossible Fantasy Trip ends here!"
Mecha Guy stared at the Kooplaing blankly, blinking several times before repeating, "Mission Impossible Fantasy Trip?"
"How convenient," Lemmy Koopa said slyly as he dashed quickly toward the Robo Iggy's right leg, which remained stationary on account of Mecha Guy's command area intrusion. Reaching the opening Mecha Guy had created, the small Koopaling silkily slipped in after him.
"I've got water!" Luigi yelled happily as sprinted forward brandishing a long, green hose that was surging out the aquatic substance in high amounts.
"Where-?" Yoshi began, gaping at the hose.
"This Mushroomer guy Wee D. lives nearby," Luigi gasped, nearly out of breath as he halted near his comrade and began to hose down the flaming ring that was trapping the dino. "Turns out he had a spare hose with ultra extension that he uses for his garden."
"Are you serious?" Yoshi asked. "Man... maybe us good guys really do catch all the breaks..."
Mecha Guy gracefully leapt over Iggy as the Koopaling lunged for him, and landed smoothly an arm's length away from a large red button marked "Delayed Self-Destruct".
"You villain types really are dense," Mecha Guy said with a brief chortle, slamming his right hand firmly on the button. Immediately, a shrieking siren began to sound and cone-shaped warning lights began to flash a burning bright red.
"THIS VEHICLE WILL SELF-DESTRUCT IN TWO MINUTES," the main computer informed. "ALL OCCUPANTS SHOULD EVACUATE IMMEDIATELY."
"Don't mind if I-" Mecha Guy began cheerfully but halted himself as he eyed Iggy, who was making a mad dash toward a large switch labeled "Emergency Power Shutoff".
"Wait a moment!" Mecha Guy called, withdrawing his metal cutting device and slinging it with a twirling frisbee-like motion as he made his own dash toward the switch. Iggy screeched to a stop just in time to watch the metal cutter whiz in front of his face, missing his head by inches. Growling, the nerdy Koopa swiftly dove for the switch, only to be checked in the side and thrown off course be a fast-moving Mecha Guy.
Iggy was knocked toward the metal wall of the control area, where his head made fierce contact with the steel accompanied by an ominous thud.
"ONE MINUTE AND COUNTING!" the computer barked as the sirens continued to screech.
"I hear ya!" Mecha Guy shouted, snatching up the fallen Koopaling by the foot and yanking his metal tool from the steel wall. Working quickly, the Shyster hacked a new opening in the metal wall and roughly chucked Iggy through the new opening, the Shyster himself following suit after stowing his cutter.
"Move!" Mecha Guy urged frantically as he landed with a stumble, hurling the unconscious Iggy in Yoshi's direction as he began to dash down the street. "The Robo Iggy's due for a very violent and fiery end!"
"Meaning... it's going to blow up?" Luigi questioned as Yoshi swung Iggy onto his back and pelted after Mecha Guy.
"YES!" Mecha Guy bellowed.
Needing no second ushering, the plumber in green ran full-bore after his comrades.
"So we do get a second chance, then," Mario exclaimed, a smile spreading across his determined features. "Even if this evil Watcher character does show up, all we have to do his kill off whoever summoned him and he'll go down with him!"
"That's right," Aid confirmed with a nod.
The trio of companions, Mario, Aid, and Broshi, were stationed high in the skies of Plateaus, discussing recent events in the sleeping quarters of the Mecha Chopper with the controls set on autopilot. Aid's wounds were still wrapped in thin bandages, and Mario sported several cuts and bumps that he'd obtained from his previous venture into the Firehole Crater.
"Well, it does certainly make things easier," Broshi said, his tone suggesting that he found this news rather irksome.
Aid shot the dino a concerned glance. "You all right, Broshi? I thought you'd be happy to hear that we have a bit of a safety net."
"Perhaps," Broshi murmured. "But this information of yours has me a tad worried. Taking care of the Watcher seems simply too easy now..."
"Too easy?" Mario echoed. "We're still going to need to secure all five of the other Gems that are still out there! That certainly isn't going to be easy."
"I suppose..." Broshi muttered. "Incidentally, which Gem are we heading for next?"
"The next closest one, of course," Aid informed. "The Light Gem, that is. Merlox said that his information led him to believe that the Gem was being kept at the Watching Shrine."
"Fitting," Broshi said. "The Watching Shrine is one of the largest buildings in all of Plateaus; it was built hundreds of years ago to worship-"
"The Watcher?" Mario finished.
"Yes, that's correct," Broshi confirmed. "Now Aid, did Merlox specify in which part of the building the Gem was in? As I said, the Watching Shrine is an extremely immense structure."
"Yes," Aid replied. "He said we would find it on a decorative pedestal in Grand Worship Hall located on the first floor right by the entrance."
"Hm, well that's easy enough," Mario said. "How did Merlox know all this stuff, anyway?"
"He said he had a niece that works there," Aid answered. "Her name's Merlinite, or something to that effect."
"Figures," Broshi said with a snort. "That bunch of Shamans certainly aren't going to win any awards for naming skill, are they?"
Corrigen was a large harbor town situated on the eastern shore of the Earth Region. Being one of the largest cities in all of Plateaus, Corrigen was an immensely populated trade town, swarming with proud merchants and back alley dealers. It was here that the trio of baddies, Lord Bowser and his two Magikoopa sorcerers Kamek and Kammy, trudged slowly down a smelly, polluted street surrounded by factories.
"No wonder they have a parking hub here," Kamek growled, sniffing the air with distaste. "This land must have cost next to nothing."
"Who cares?" Bowser snarled in annoyance. "This entire trip turned out to be a disaster. I mean, jeez, we spent half as much time as I wanted on the beach, we got lost in that stupid forest, and we got trounced by Mario and a new group of his stupid buddies."
"Cheer up, Your Lethalness," Kammy said brightly, motioning toward a massive concrete strip that was lined with a plethora of aircraft vehicles. "Soon we'll take to the skies in that chopper of yours and we'll be back at Castle Koopa before you know it."
"Yeah, all right," Bowser grunted.
The setting sun cast a crimson cascade down on a huge, pearly white castle of a building. Marble statues crafted in the shapes of a large angelic figure, mostly likely the Watcher himself, perched from the top of dozens of spiraling towers. Surrounding the enormous white building were ruins; also crafted of marble, they surrounded the weathered ring of decimated civilization.
"That's it," Rio murmured to himself in awe as he drifted toward the building, his pulsing Locator Orb clutched in his right hand. "The Watching Shrine. Makes me almost glad that old coot of a Magikoopa's anti-teleportation spell is still in effect. This view is kind of hard to beat."
The yellow Boo continued forward toward the shrine at a lazy pace as the sun continued to slowly dip behind the horizon.
"THIS UNIT WILL SELF-DESTRUCT IN TEN SECONDS!" the main computer of the Robo Iggy blared in an agonizingly loud voice.
"Yes, thank you!" Lemmy Koopa growled in a sarcastic manner, pulling himself into the control area and quickly darting his eyes about the room.
"FIVE... FOUR... THREE... TWO-"
The Koopaling quickly leapt toward the Main Power Switch and hurriedly switched it off. Letting out a sigh of relief, Lemmy glanced up as the computer's voice muted, the sirens ceased, and the red-colored lights shut off. Waiting a moment, the Koopa shrugged and pulled the switch in the other direction. A loud whirling sound filled Lemmy's ear, and all the lights and computer screens began to flicker on.
"ROBO IGGY, BACK ONLINE," the computer informed.
Lemmy smiled toothily.
"Um, guys?" Luigi said warily as he peaked out from behind a thick brush. "The Iggy Robot isn't exploding..."
"What?" Mecha Guy questioned, turning and following Luigi's gaze and narrowing his eyes. "That's... not right. I swear to DAD that it was about to blow. I pushed the button myself..."
"Don't look now, but I think the thrusters are firing up," Yoshi, who had joined his comrades, pointed out.
"What's going on?!" Mecha Guy yelled, watching as the Robo Iggy lifted itself into the air and began to fly towards them.
"Autopilot?" Luigi suggested just as the robot flew over them.
"Hardly," came the voice of Lemmy Koopa with aid from the microphone of the Robo Iggy. "It's just little old me, doing a little hijacking!"
"Hijacking?" Yoshi echoed. "But why-?"
"It won't be long now, fools!" Lemmy cackled as the Robo Iggy streaked away. "You're just one day away from a bit of eminent destruction!"
Mecha Guy folded his arms with distaste as the Robo Iggy disappeared into the clear afternoon sky. "I have a feeling we may have our hands full with that one."
"Why thank you, Master of the Understatement," Luigi said testily.
"Luigi's right, Mecha Guy," Yoshi supplied. "DAD only knows what kind of psychotic death-bringing that Koopa will have cooked up."
"No need to worry, fellas," Mecha Guy said, grinning slightly. "I've been putsing around in the shop a little lately, and, well, let's just say that we aren't going to be completely unarmed this time around."
"Holy son-of-a-Lakitu!" Mario exclaimed as he, Broshi, and Aid approached the Watching Shrine at a distance, the Mecha Chopper parked some twenty meters behind them.
"I guess that's one way of putting it," Broshi said dully.
"Beautiful as it is, gentlemen, we still have to stay focused," Aid reminded them. "You may recall that our last two excavations haven't exactly been cakewalks."
"And how would you know about our second one?" Mario teased as the three heroes stepped briskly up a long and extremely wide set of stairs that lead up to a the shrine's main entrance.
Aid snorted. "I'm afraid, Mario dear, that I might have been unconscious at the time."
"And whose fault was that, exactly?" Mario pressed with a smirk.
"Drop it, Mario," Broshi growled, reaching the entranceway of the Watching Shrine, which appeared as an enormous wooden door that was painted a light gray.
"Right," Aid said briskly, stepping forward and attempting to wrench open the doors. After a few seconds of tugging, the sorceress stepped back and put her hands on her hips.
"Locked?" Mario asked.
"Looks to be that way, brain boy," Broshi replied with a half sigh.
"Move back," Aid ordered, rolling up the sleeves of her robe and stepping back. Obeying, Mario and Broshi stepped hurriedly backwards as Aid thrust her hands forward and shot a gleaming ray of Light Magic toward the door, which smashed open easily. Moving forward without another word, Aid stepped over the splintered pile of wood and strode into the shrine, Broshi and Mario following closely.
The group of heroes had entered a room that seemed simply too large. Dozens of marble pillars stood on either side of them, stretching up hundreds, perhaps even more than a thousand, feet, where they met a dome-shaped ceiling decorated with numerous paintings and designs. At the center of the room, surrounded by a fleet of wooden benches with red-colored cushions, was a circle of elevated floor where the pedestal Merlox had mentioned stood. Placed humbly upon it was a smooth, circular jewel.
"Wonder where everyone is?" Mario questioned, his voice echoing through the room as the group made their way toward the pedestal.
"Elsewhere, obviously," Broshi answered. "Wait... I think I see-"
Broshi suddenly stopped dead in his tracks, causing Mario and Aid to turn and look at him just in time to see his large eyes widen considerably and his lips mouth a word that clearly ended with an 'O'. Following his gaze, the plumber and sorceress quickly located the source of Broshi's shock; a Boo, yellow in color and wearing a long brown hat, was sweeping down toward the Gem, a greedy look evident in his crimson eyes.
Stepping quickly forward, Aid raised her right hand and sent another ray of magic billowing toward the new arrival.