The next night, as the Brothers stayed in a nearby inn, Mario could not get to sleep. He kept imagining that he could hear voices in the wall. Their conversation went somewhat like this: "K-quick, g-go grab the p-p-portrait!" Next there would be a brief scuffling noise and a second voice, heavily accented, would say, "S'lent, ye fool! Tha fat one's still awake! Ye can see the whites of 'is eyes!" After that there would be a pause and the first voice would pipe up, "I-I-I think he-he-he's awak-k-k-k-e now!" Finally, a third voice would emerge, vaguely feminine, "Quiet, you clowns! Stop talking or he'll realize we're here!"
Mario sat up. He hadn't imagined that last voice, at least. He crept out of bed (he slept in full Mario-esque clothing every night) picked up his hammer, and slipped towards the wall he'd heard the whispering from. The next moment, the second voice spoke up again. "He's seen us! Scram!"
A hidden panel in the wall fell open, releasing a pair of Crooks and a small white and gray Pokey holding a spear. As the first of the Crooks passed Mario, he extended a hand and grabbed the Jolly Roger Bay portrait from his hand. Mario leaped at him and struck him with his mallet, sending the lightweight thief flying into a wall. His bag of loot burst, scattering the room with a torrent of gold coins and other odds and ends. As Mario leaped towards him, the Pokey raised her spear and chanted. Snow began to unnaturally fall from the ceiling of the room, and in each corner, a shining saw constructed of pure ice formed itself. The pair of deadly missiles flew at Mario, who melted one with a stream of fire from his hand and dispatched the other with his hammer. The Pokey pulled off one of its segments and attached it to the spear, which it swung at Mario and knocked him to the floor, where he slid on the snow before he came to a crashing halt against the bed. As he was about to get up, the other Crook gave him a glancing blow in the head with his sack. The Pokey muttered arcane spells to her staff- Mario was sure she was a female now- and a vast sphere of bright light appeared inches from his nose. Similar spheres appeared all around the room, and a flash of brilliant light filled the room. Invisible spheres bludgeoned his body and sent him hurtling out of the window.
The Pokey turned to the two Crooks. "Get the portrait! We need to get out of here before the thin one wakes up!" The motley troupe sped out the door, not seeing the five-pointed yellow being that swooped down and caught the falling Mario as they left.
As the remaining lights faded, Luigi returned to the waking realm. Seeing the Star outside flying up with Mario in tow, and looking at the snow and the coins that littered the room, he groaned. "Mamamia, can't he do anything without me?"
Mario awakened to see lights spiraling around him. He sat up and rubbed his groggy head, and the lights materialized into familiar shapes- the shapes of the Star Spirits. A large star with a white mustache, known as Eldstar, started as he sat up. "Ah! Mario! It is good that you are awake. We cannot keep you here for long. But we are here to warn you."
Mario scratched his head groggily but managed to keep awake. "M-hm. Warn me. Of what-a?"
Eldstar sighed. "A great evil stalks the land."
Mario thought for a few moments. "You mean like a story that has Luigi in a more important role than me?"
Eldstar glanced at him in befuddlement. "Um... that too. But the main evil is far worse than that. Skolar, I believe you may takeover for me now."
A bespectacled, blue star with a brown mustache nodded. "Thank you, Eldstar. You see, Bowser has a brother."
"Very original-a," Mario said to himself.
"He and his brother quarreled violently for a long time, each furiously attacking each other and their forces, until finally Bowser buried him alive. However, recently, Jester Koopa, Bowser's brother, was released. We believe that he was working with an ancient race whose power rivals our own, and has awakened a force better left alone. He and his ground-dwelling forces are currently approaching Bowser's castle, intent on revenge. They are to be surprised, however. Bowser is currently at war with the Bob-ombs of Fahr Fahr Outpost," Skolar continued.
Mario, now almost completely awake, scratched his head. "And?"
Skolar coughed dryly. "Well, his servants seem to be hunting down the portraits. AbyssNess and the mage you observed earlier, Pokieletta, are two of those."
Mario nodded. "Go on."
"The power that Jester Koopa and his servants have awakened is weak still. It needs artifacts of power to increase its strength. And we believe that the chosen targets are the Power Stars encased within the portraits. Mario! Journey to Bowser's Castle and stop Jester Koopa before the power he has awakened grows more powerful!"
A pink, female spirit called Misstar floated towards Mario. "Our power is fading. Your brother is attempting to reach Star Haven by way of Shooting Star Summit. We will transport you there."
A Star carrying a thick tome who was adorned with a bow tie leaped forwards. "Wait! Before you go, here's a Nexus Stone. It'll help you see when a strong source of power is near."
Mario glanced at the blue, perfectly round stone he had been given. It was crisscrossed with white lines, and currently seven glowing points of light that bent the lines towards them were arranged in a circle around the red dot that symbolized himself. Mario placed it in his pocket, then opened his mouth to thank Klevar. "Th-"
"anks." Mario appeared in a flash of light behind a green-suited form he recognized as Luigi. Luigi whirled around. "Mario! How did you get here?"
Mario rushed to explain. "After I was knocked out of the window, I was knocked-a unconscious. I woke up in a dark void, with the Star Spirits in a circle around me."
He recounted the rest of the story quickly. As he came to a finish, Luigi eyed him critically. "Are you sure? Maybe you got a concussion when you fell out of the window. I thought I saw a star lift you into the air when you fell, but it was probably just a trick of the light."
"But I was there!" Mario protested. "Look! Klevar gave me this-a stone!" Reaching into his pocket, Mario discovered nothing there. He frowned quizzically and checked the other pocket, to discover a small mouse nesting inside, but nothing else. Luigi sighed and turned away, beginning to walk off Shooting Star Summit.
As he turned around, Mario felt a weight in his pocket. Reaching in, he pulled out the bulky stone. Looking at its surface, Mario saw small dots of light that represented the shooting stars moving across it. As Luigi turned towards back towards him, the stone vanished. "Mario? You coming or not?"
"Oh, very funny, guys," Mario muttered. Racing towards Luigi as fast as his stubby legs could carry him, he asked, "If you think the Star was just a mirage, why did you come here in the first-a place?"
Luigi laughed bitterly. "Because there was no other place you could be! We searched everywhere!" he chortled. "Wait," the emerald plumber said with the air of somebody making a great discovery, "How did you get here anyway?"
Mario groaned. "That's what I've been trying to tell you! Look, here's proof. Turn around and put your hands behind your back."
Luigi complied. "Mario, this had better not be like the time with the psychotic Alley Rat."
Mario removed the now-solid Nexus Stone from his pocket. "No, nothing like that," Mario said firmly as he placed the stone in Luigi's hands. "Now, do you feel something heavy-a?" Luigi nodded. "Now, put your hands in front of you," Mario instructed. The green-clad plumber obeyed, and gasped as the weight vanished. "Put them behind you again." As Luigi did as he was told, Mario picked up the stone and placed it in his pocket. Luigi turned around. "Do you-a believe me now?" Mario said in an extremely self-satisfied manner.
"No!" Luigi replied cheerfully.
Mario fell over.
"Or at least," Luigi continued, oblivious to the drama at shoe level, "not until you tell me what it is."
Mario stood up and dusted off his overalls wearily. "A Nexus Stone. Klevar gave it to me. It detects sources of power." As Luigi turned away, Mario inspected the stone and saw with surprise a glowing orb nearly as strong as those of the Star Spirits crossing the stone rapidly.
Storing the orb in his pocket, Mario glanced to the side. An all-too familiar Pokey and its two Crook cohorts sped past him. Disregarding Luigi's shout of surprise, Mario leaped off the summit and landed in a crouching position on the ground. "It's the jerks who-a ransacked our room! After them!"
Bowser's son, the prodigious Koopa prince Ludwig, sat on a chair in his room, ignoring the thunder and lightning outdoors. Staring at the chess set in front of him, he moved his bishop sideways and intercepted an escape attempt by his opponent's king. The Koopa prince leaned back in his chair. "Check and mate. Better luck next time, Kamek."
Kamek, the blue-robed Magikoopa who had served as Bowser's caretaker, smiled wryly. "I'll need it. Now, young prince, I must leave. Intercepting your father on his way to the castle is a necessity." Picking up his wand, the Koopa exited by way of the door.
Ludwig waited until the wizard's footsteps had faded away. Then he forced a steel, razor-sharp comb through his unruly mop of hair in order to look more sinister, and pressed a button concealed on the chess board. The chair swiveled around to face the window. "Now. Who are you and what do you want?"
A small, vaguely star-shaped form slid under the windowsill into Ludwig's chambers. The floating shape glided downwards until it hovered a few feet above the ground. Then it spoke. "Greetings, mighty Prince of Koopas." The star-shaped being swept itself into a stiff bow. Ludwig scrutinized it carefully before replying. "And the same to you."
The being was paper-thin, shaped into the form of a star, and seemed to be constructed of a stained gray metal. It sported six blunt points, and hovered above the ground horizontally as it spun languidly. There were various curlicues and spirals etched on its surface, and they pulsed slightly as if they were filled to bursting with liquid. Upon what seemed to be a face were seven fierce ruby eyes that seemed to suck in the light around them, causing the surrounding air to be darker even as the eyes themselves grew brighter.
"Thank you, Prince," the being replied. "I am Bering, squire of The Many's leader. I am the representative of The Many. We have lived underground where we were imprisoned, but were recently released. We now serve he who released us, and have marched here to speak with you."
Ludwig was unperturbed by this admittedly surprising torrent of information, and chewed a claw idly. "And who is this leader?"
The young Many creature glanced at him with all seven eyes. "Your uncle."
For the first time, Ludwig's face was marred with puzzlement. "I don't have an uncle."
One of the curlicues twisted at the edges in what Ludwig theorized was a smirk. "Indeed you do. Your father buried him alive. I believe you do not know his name?"
Lightning flashed. The window burst into shards and an enormous metal star Ludwig realized was a fully grown Many burst inside. Ludwig managed to glimpse long, spiked tentacles flailing in the confined space and twenty eyes rather than seven before its passenger leaped off and the Many whipped off into the distance. Another lightning flash revealed a lean form far thinner than Bowser's own. The passenger wore an outsized plush hat with traditional bells on the edges, a green, spiked shell, and a grin filled with mania. It bore three small horns poking out of a ragged mane of crimson hair. Using its staff, upon the end of which was a carved wooden jester's head, to stand straight, it saluted mockingly.
"Bow in the presence of the future King, Jester Koopa!"
To Be Continued...
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