The day was bright, though the sun's rays were starting to take on the rosy color that preceded the night. Soon enough the entire sky would be ablaze with the colors of the sunset, and another peaceful night would begin. The Mushroom Castle, home of the King of the Mushrooms and his daughter, Princess Peach, shone with the sunlight. Life in the kingdom around it was going on as usual, Mushroom people walking about their business, children playing, birds chirping. It was an absolutely perfect evening after a wonderfully perfect day.
In one room, several stories up in the castle, Peach sat at a table along with Mario. He was listening to her, concentrated on what she was saying, nodding once in a while.
"...And that's what we're going to do. That's how security will be set up for the banquet. We don't think there will be any trouble, really. The Koopas wouldn't dare. But still, it's best to be safe. After what happened some years ago..."
Mario nodded. How could anyone forget the time Bowser's children had stolen the wands from the kings of the Mushroom Kingdoms only to turn them into animals? Certainly not the kings... certainly not Peach (who had been kidnapped again during the chaos that resulted)... certainly not him. He had, after all, been the one who'd chased down the Koopa children and reclaimed the wands.
"So here is the list of invited guests. Take a look!" Peach said, handing Mario a scroll.
"Mmm...hmmm... The King of the Grasslands... great! The Desert King... mmhmm.... mmhmmm... oh, that will be impressive. King of the giants! And him... oh, good, he's always fun.... mhmm.... Oh no. Princess, I think there's some mistake here. It says here King Koopa and family."
"That... is no mistake." Peach sighed.
"But why King Koopa?" asked Mario, rereading the list that had been handed to him. He had a raised eyebrow, an incredulous look on his face. Peach gave an apologetic smile.
"The royal shaman's prediction... My father requests that King Koopa be invited." She sighed.
This certainly complicated matters. The Mario Brothers had expected that this banquet would be fairly uneventful. But who knew what would happen now that Bowser was to be invited? Then again, would he be foolish enough to kidnap Peach or do something along those lines when security would be so tight and there would be so many people and kings from all seven Mushroom Kingdoms? And yet... this was such an opportunity to create chaos. What a risk! There was simply no way Mario could feel at ease until it was over, no matter what the shaman had said.
It had actually been quite an interesting prediction, but it had been vague. All that had been said is something about the stars aligning... something about a great event coming to pass... and a great evil force turning over a new leaf. All related to royal blood. It had been that last part that had led everyone to think it related to Bowser. The banquet was a great event... and this would make an evil force turn over a new leaf? Who would pass a chance at having Bowser stop his evil ways for once? The times he had brought chaos into the world, kidnapped poor Princess Peach, and otherwise engaged in acts of questionable morality... Mario had lost count long ago. He must have shown some kind of worry in his face, for Peach placed a hand on his shoulder.
"It will be fine. You will be here to protect us in case something bad happens."
Mario nodded. It was true. He'd be there, and already the role of hero had fallen to him many times. Once more... what difference would it make?
"It'sss thisss way!" a hissing voice whispered from the darkness.
A scurrying sound, a flurry of grey fur, a soft sound as the jumping creature landed. Mouser saw the red scales first and then looked into the six eyes staring back at him, two from each of Triclyde's heads. None of them blinked, all of them looked at him expectantly.
"Yeah, yeah. I have it here. I have them both here," Mouser whispered, taking out two flasks from a small bag. One of them contained a bubbling red potion, the other a bright blue one. "Now we mix them... and it should take us there."
"Do it," one of the heads whispered.
Mouser nodded, opening both flasks. He then carefully poured the contents of the blue potion into the red one. Sparks were given off by the mixture, which quickly became purple, then burst into flames and became a sickly, glowing green. Mouser grinned and poured half of this new mixture back into the now-empty flask. "Just in case." He grinned.
"Let'sss go, then," the serpent said.
Mouser tossed one of the flasks to the floor. The sound of the shattering glass pierced the silence of the beautiful, starry night, and smoke filled the area. As the smoke began to clear, a door of a sickly green color rose from the ground. Mouser turned the handle of the door and pushed it open. He walked through it, Triclyde slithering behind him.
Although the night had fallen a while ago, work had not ended for the matron of the Saint Lewison Orphanage. She still had to make sure all the children were asleep, and she had long ago given up on expecting this to be easy, short work. Most children tried to sneak out of bed in order to steal a few more moments of freedom, a few more moments in which they could romp around outside, perhaps catch a cold, and certainly have a lot of fun. Others simply preferred to wander about in the hallways and talk or play. There also were those who liked to bully the other children about, though these instances were not as numerous as they certainly could be, for which the matron was forever thankful.
Today was quiet, and she let out a sigh of relief. For once, she might actually get done with this earlier than usual. This wasn't something she was going to complain about. Quietly, she walked into the dormitory the boys used. One... two... three... yes, all of the boys were definitely there. She was relieved she was not going to need to hunt down a bunch of children from every corner of the building. It was impressive, really, how even a small building offered so many places to hide for wayward children. She made her way to the other dormitory, the one where the girls slept. She counted the children already in bed and sighed. One empty bed. How unsurprising. She had figured that having all the children be in bed was simply too good to be true. It was only fortunate that the child in question was not going to be too hard to find.
The matron walked to the hall where an old grandfather's clock was kept. There was the missing child, sitting quietly in front of it. Her straight blonde hair was somewhat unkempt and her brown eyes were fixed into a vacant stare.
"Eris?" the matron called.
She got no response. She hadn't expected it, but she knew the child had heard her.
"Eris...?" the matron called again. "Come on, dear. You really should be in bed now."
Eris didn't say anything, staring fixedly at the clock.
The matron held out her hand so that Eris would take it and get up. But the child didn't. The matron knew that trying to pick the child up by force was not a great choice, not if she could just persuade her to get up and go to bed on her own. It wasn't exactly easy, really. She never was sure when Eris was listening. Or even if she could listen. It seemed sometimes that she could. But the child lived in a world inside her own head, only barely reacting to the world outside.
"You want one of your watches?" the matron asked. Those watches were the only thing Eris owned, and the child seemed very, very attached to them.
"You want one of your watches?" the child's quiet voice echoed.
The matron sighed. It was hard, really, to make sense of the child's strange ways. However, she had figured out that when Eris echoed a question, it generally meant "yes", or some kind of agreement.
"Come on, then. If you promise to get to bed, I'll give you one of your watches," the matron said, holding her hand out again.
Eris's tiny, pale hand took the matron's outstretched hand and she stood up. Never did the child's brown eyes meet the matron's kind blue gaze.
The matron led Eris into her office and walked over to an old-looking safe. She hid the combination lock's view from Eris with her body as she crouched to open the safe. It was true that she wasn't sure how aware the child truly was of her surroundings, but it was best to be safe. Not that she thought the child would steal anything if she were able to open the safe, but it simply wouldn't do to have her take her watches whenever she wanted . What if they got lost? They didn't look very valuable, but they still were the only things Eris really owned. She dug through the contents of the safe... mostly a few toys and other such things, nothing valuable. She found the watches: seven of them. What a strange number of watches to own. She placed them on her desk.
"Well, I'll let you keep one tonight. So take your pick."
Eris's hand attempted to take all seven of them. The matron kindly placed her hand on the girl's to stop her.
"No, Eris. One. Only one."
Eris hesitated, then settled on choosing an octagonal watch that hung from a chain. She placed it around her neck, smiling.
"There, do you like that?" the matron asked, relieved when Eris repeated the question. It meant a yes. "Well, then, let's go to sleep, shall we?"
Eris followed the matron back to the room and went to bed obediently. The matron, relieved, went to her own bed. This hadn't taken too long. All was good.
The two intruders looked around as they came out of the magic doorway. They were on a pretty large lawn with a huge fence around it and an old, battered-looking building in the center. There were some trees on the lawn and some shrubs. They couldn't make out too many details since it was nighttime, but they didn't really care. Mouser held a glowing compass in his hand, and the compass pointed to the building. That was all they really cared about. They made their way to the building. Quietly they circled it, trying to find a way in and eventually finding it in the form of an open window. Not that the owners had been foolish enough to leave the windows entirely open for anyone to get through: there were bars impeding the way for most large creatures.
"Great," Mouser muttered.
Triclyde said nothing. The bars were no match for his serpentine body, and he slithered through without any problem. "Back door," one of Triclyde's heads whispered.
Mouser nodded, scurrying off towards the door on the other side of the main entrance. Convenient, really, how most buildings had an entrance that wasn't quite in perfect view, an entrance where one could get in without anyone really noticing. It made everything so easy.
There was a click and the back door opened. Mouser went in, Triclyde watching him carefully. He held out the glowing compass and the two of them followed the path it indicated. This led them to a sort of office where a safe stood, its door ajar. The compass pointed to it. Mouser roughly went through the contents. Nothing of value in there. No wonder it wasn't locked.
"Ah... here they are..." Mouser muttered, finding and removing several old-looking items.
They were watches. Not unlike the horrible stopwatches of Sub-con, they looked useless enough. But they wouldn't be useless for long. He grinned, putting them into a small bag that glowed much like the compass did. The compass' needle turned around several times... and then pointed out of the office.
"I thought that thisss would be all..." Triclyde frowned.
"Yeah, me too. Seems like we missed something, though. Well, come on, let's find it."
The two of them walked out, in the direction the compass pointed to. It was strange. The item they were looking for was... moving?
When the matron had left, Eris had stayed awake. She knew she had to stay in bed. The matron had said so. But she couldn't sleep. She wound up the old watch and listened to its ticking. The sound filled her head. It echoed. It felt loud, clear, rhythmic. It wasn't too loud that it would bother her, though, and rhythmic sounds were much to her liking. But after a while, she heard something rather annoying: a sound, like some kind of hiss, that was barely audible. That was wrong. Nothing here ever hissed. And then another voice. That was wrong too. That wasn't a voice that she knew. The urge to know what this new thing was, and how it would affect her routine, filled Eris. She stood up quietly and headed towards the sound.
Triclyde struck faster than any human could have possibly reacted. One of his heads swung and quickly wrapped itself around the little girl's head, covering her mouth. She had time only to gasp.
"Oh, man. And I thought we'd make a clean getaway, and here's a little brat." Mouser groaned.
"The compasss..." Triclyde's right head hissed quietly, his eyes fixed on the glowing artifact.
"Huh?" Mouser said, looking at the compass. It was pointing straight at the girl. "Oh, hey, look. It's pointing at her. This makes things easier. We take her and then we don't have any problem."
Triclyde's free heads nodded, and he began to slither away, dragging the child with him. The girl struggled, but Mouser pushed her along. Once they were outside, Mouser tossed the flask he had saved before onto the ground. The glass shattered and another magic door appeared. Mouser opened it, and Triclyde went through, dragging his prisoner along. Mouser hesitated, looking back at the school, where there were lights and the voice of a woman. They had been seen. He ignored Triclyde's complaints and the girl's struggles and muffled yelling, and turned towards the building. He took out a bomb...
"Forget the clean getaway..."
A horrible explosion, screams, fire...
He went into the magic door and closed it behind him.
Though most of the Mushroom World consisted of lush grasslands, forests, and other places that were full of life, there were areas that simply were not like that. And this was no desert that, though desolate, had beautiful pyramids and sand dunes. This was the land known as the Wastelands, or the Dark World. Instead of water, most of the rivers carried lava. Instead of animals, there were bones, animated by bitter magic. Fortresses dotted the landscape and tanks patrolled the lands. The few bodies of water that were in the wastelands hardly looked like lakes and rivers. Not only was the water tinged with the red glow of the surrounding lava, but there were warships. The land was imposing, frightening, uninviting. These waere the lands that Bowser, king of the Koopas, ruled.
He was pacing around his throne room, angry. Kamek was late. He'd sent for him almost half an hour ago and he was still waiting. And he really needed to talk about something with his top sorcerer. Oh, when Kamek showed up, he was going to show him to be late when the King of the Koopas called him.
There was a crash outside the throne room, followed by the laughter of several children.
"No, no! Stop it! Stop it, I say!" came Kamek's voice.
There was another crash and more laughter.
"Ah! No! Ouch!" Kamek's voice was closer. There was a thud at the door.
The door opened at last, revealing Kamek. The Magikoopa was in a very sorry state: his robes were soaked, there was a mop protruding from the back of them, a bucket on his head, and his glasses were broken. Bowser's eyes widened somewhat. "What happened?"
"Nothing, your Highness. Simply... ah... playing with the children..."
Bowser laughed. He had no idea which of his eight children had left Kamek in such a state, but whoever it had been certainly took after him. Soon enough, they too would be able to think up great plots to kidnap Princess Peach. And once Princess Peach was married to him and therefore their stepmother, they'd be able to go and kidnap other maidens for themselves. They were growing up fast, those children. He could hardly be more proud of them.
"You're late, though!"
"My deepest apologies. I am, however, at your service, Your Highness."
"Yeah, yeah. I need to talk to you. Not here. Too many fools listening. I'll get the Clown Copter," Bowser said, quickly starting to stomp away towards the back of the roomm which led to the tower, where he had left his vehicle of choice. Not too long later, he was flying away in it, followed by Kamek, who rode a magic broom.
"You fool! What were you thinking?!" Triclyde growled at Mouser. "Help me here!"
Without Mouser to keep the child still, Eris had finally slipped away from Triclyde's grip. Mouser reacted quickly, making a grab for the child. Horrified, Eris screamed. She struck out at Mouser's hand, where he still held the glowing compass. The artifact went flying out of his hand, landing on the floor. There was a shattering sound and it glowed no more.
"Heey! Look what you've done! You stupid little brat, that was a valuable artifact!"
Eris stepped back from the furious giant mouse and the terrifying three-headed serpent. She wished, more than anything else, to go back home, to the matron, to the orphanage. But she knew she could not head that way. The monsters were between her and home. She had to run away and hide. She turned to the side. Her peripheral vision quickly revealed several large, green tubes. She made a mad dash towards the one closest to her, Mouser at her heels.
It was only by a split hair that she was able to get into the pipe. "Darn it!" Mouser growled.
"Go after her!" Triclyde commanded.
"Are you mad? We'd never find her! These pipes are a maze! Who knows where we'd end up, I have no idea how the people in this world manage to not get lost. We have most of what we need, anyways. That will be enough."
Triclyde muttered under his breath, but didn't really have much of an argument against this. His right and left heads nodded. Mouser took out another flask, this time a red one, and tossed it on the ground. After the glass shattered and the smoke cleared, a door appeared, as red as the potion that had been in the flask. Mouser opened it and he and Triclyde went through it.
The matron was trembling, trying to explain, through tears, sobbing, and shock what had happened. The policeman listened politely.
"You didn't recognize the strangers?"
"No! I didn't. They... I'd never seen them... The ground wall is high, it wasn't open, we have broken glass on it..." she sobbed, then looked at the policeman, a pleading look in her eyes as if the policeman would know what happened. "How did they get in?"
"We don't know, ma'am. But we'll find out."
"She was so young... so young..." The matron burst into tears and sobs again, unable to continue talking.
It had seemed like some kind of dream. She'd seen two figures in the darkness, unable to recognize them. And then the explosion came. She had given no more thought to the strangers... she had to save the children. The noise had woken the older ones up, and they were already tending to the little ones when she'd run into the dormitory area. Orders. She barely thought of them as she yelled out orders and instructions, herding the children as calmly as possible out of the burning building. Someone had called the fire department, and the firemen were already there when she was counting children. She could barely breathe under the shock when she realized there was one less girl than there should have been.
She'd taken off running towards the building, hysterical. Eris. The child must have gotten up again, no one had seen her! A fireman stopped her. "She's in there, she's still in there! There's a little girl in there!" she'd shrieked and spat at the fireman.
"Ma'am, if someone's still in there, we'll get her out. You can't go in though, it's too dangerous!"
It had taken two men to finally restrain her. But they never found Eris. They hadn't even found the child's body. It was as if she'd vanished without a trace during the fire...
She didn't even scream, despite being completely terrified. She had expected only to be able to hide in the pipe like she was able to hide under a table back home. But instead, the pipe had seemingly swallowed her. She was falling, farther and faster than she'd ever fallen before. She didn't know when it would stop, either. Perhaps she would continue to fall forever. Or perhaps she'd just wake up. This had to be some kind of dream. There had been too many strange things that day. Giant mice and slithery... things... just didn't exist. But at the same time, this didn't feel like a dream, more like a nightmare. And there had been such a loud noise as she was taken from the orphanage. What had happened there? It was a noise she'd never heard before... but it had been followed by one she did know. No. She couldn't think of that. She tried to concentrate on her surroundings, which was the only really stable thing at the moment. Darkness. Slippery, humid, cold surface. But then... no longer so cold.
That slight temperature change was the only warning she had before she saw the light, and, a moment later, the surface disappeared from below her and she was sailing through the air.
Then she did scream.
To Be Continued...
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