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<Clu> no nsfcd is basically a ghost town, it should be killed behind fences

Super Mario Bros. 9: The Phoenix Salvation (Chapter 32 + Epilogue)

Started by shadowmarioguy, December 03, 2010, 08:12:26 pm

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December 03, 2010, 08:12:26 pm Last Edit: September 20, 2011, 07:56:32 pm by shadowmarioguy
NOTE: The chapters are best viewed with the 'Core Theme'.  Otherwise, the quotation marks seem to change into strange symbols.

After avoiding yet another disaster, the Mushroom Kingdom has lived in peace for four months.  However, this peace has come at a huge price: the lives of Luigi, Mario Jr., Luigi Jr., Wario, Waluigi, and many others have been lost.  Meanwhile, as Mario and Princess Peach finally prepare themselves for marriage, the Grimnexes of the Nightmare Vault have decided to strike.  Their attack will begin a struggle that will bring each of our remaining heroes into the heart of enemy territory.  With each 'hero' having his own reasons for entering this war, the Super Mario Bros. series will reach its heart-wrenching conclusion.

This is the ninth and final part of my Super Mario Brothers series.  There is no need for you to go back and read 1-8 because I have spent a great deal of time writing Character Bios to bring you up to speed.  It may seem kind of silly to read the final part of a series without reading anything else, but previous parts in the series aren't written as well, especially the earliest ones.  If you're new, I'd recommend reading all of the bios and the first few chapters to see if you're interested.  From there, you can decide if you want to go back and read everything or just continue reading the current story.

If you're interested, you can read/download SMB1-8 here.

If you're new to the series, you should absolutely read the information below. Otherwise, you probably won't understand most of what's going on.  Even if you are familiar with the series, it couldn't hurt to brush up on your knowledge. Also, keep in mind that my writing skills have developed from 1-8, so earlier parts of the series will have poor quality compared to more recent parts.

Character Bios and Other Information:

(Note: Even if you know who the character is, you should still definitely read his/her bio.  There is a lot of information that is exclusive to this series.  Also, some bios are especially long because they contain important information.)

Terranean Division

Long ago, at the very beginnings of time, before the difference between life and death was established, everything in existence was a part of one colossal kingdom known as Terranea.  The kingdom lived in peace for many centuries, until the first traces of evil the world has ever known began to emerge.  A brutal civil war between the beliefs of good and evil broke out.  Those who represented 'good' were labeled the Olympians, and those who were the 'bad' were informally known as demons.  The Terranean War lasted for centuries, until a group of twenty four indescribably powerful demons were developed.  These experimental demons were known as Grimnexes.  Each was assigned a letter of the Greek alphabet based on his rank, with Alpha being the strongest.  However, before the Grimnexes could turn the tide of the war, the Olympians succeeded in defeating the demons.  A man named Zeus became their leader, and they divided Terranea into two parts, sealing the demons- and the Grimnexes- away in the second part that later became known as the Nightmare Vault.  A curse was placed upon the Nightmare Vault's citizens that caused their skin to burn if they were ever exposed to sunlight.  The Nightmare Vault became a kingdom of darkness, an everlasting prison that fostered hatred and bitterness.

The leader of the demons, simply known as the Phoenix, swore revenge upon Zeus and the other Olympians.  Though he met his demise at the end of the war, his people dedicated themselves to finding a way to break out of the Nightmare Vault to seek revenge.  Over time, some demons began to blame themselves for their punishment.  They thought that the Olympians did the right thing by sealing the demons away.  Soon, these people began openly protesting against the demons of the Phoenix.  In an era that became known as the Bellum Era, demons blindly slaughtered each other because of their conflicting beliefs.  It wasn't until much later that the Dimidius Era began.  In this era, demons separated into two distinct sides, greatly reducing confusion and meaningless murders.  These opposing sides were known as the Phoenix, and the Demon Resistance.  Up until recently, their 'civilization' was devastated by a gruesome civil war.

Meanwhile, back in Terranea, Zeus was faced with more problems.  Another force of evil arose, and nearly succeeded in destroying all of Terranea (For more specific details, see Lord Shade's bio below).  After the catastrophe ended, Zeus decided that it would be best if he split Terranea up once again.  A vast land known as the Universe would exist as a judgment phase, where Zeus would evaluate a person's character.  Depending on a person's actions during his or her lifetime, he would either be sent to the Underwhere, a place where unworthy beings would reside, or the Overthere, a land of peace similar to Terranea before it was devastated by war. 

Five realms now existed.  The Universe was a world where people could be evaluated, branching off to the Underwhere and Overthere.  Far below the Underwhere was the Nightmare Vault, a place where demons fought viciously amongst themselves.  Towering above the Overthere was Mount Olympus, a place where Zeus could govern over the events of all the other realms.  Each of these realms was held together by a binding dimension known as the Nexus, a place where one could travel from one dimension to the next.  And in the dimension known as the Universe, on a small planet called Earth, our story begins...

Lord Shade (Deceased):

Many ages ago, the Universe, Overthere, and Underwhere were united as a single kingdom called Terranea. There were many groups of people, and bitter rivalries between races. Two childhood friends, Shade and Inoni, were of two different races. Shade, a member of the Dark Tribe, went against his parents orders and became friends with Inoni. However, the two of them were soon separated. Thrown into uncontrollable rage, Shade attacked. It took Terranea's strongest forces to defeat him. The ruler of the kingdom, Zeus, split Terranea into three parts. The Universe would be designed as a judgment phase, where he could watch over people and decide whether they were good or bad. Whenever a person died, he'd be brought to the Underwhere. If he was good, he could advance to the Overthere, where he'd live in an eternity of peace. Those who were not pure would remain trapped in the Underwhere, where they'd be unable to do harm to those who deserved tranquility. With all of his might, Zeus sealed Shade in the Underwhere. For years, Shade studied the Dark Prognosticus and eventually found a way to escape.

Instead of ending up in the Overthere, he found himself in the Universe. Vowing that Zeus was a terrible leader and that he would someday take his place, Shade set out to prove himself by conquering the Universe. He formed a group called the Shadow Shrowds, an elite fighting force that contained warriors from around the Universe. By using methods of trickery and deceit, Shade forced hundreds of civilizations to fight by his side.  Shade once attacked the earth, but Mario's father, Anthony, managed to drive him away at the cost of his life. Recently, Shade came back stronger than ever. At last, through events that will be listed later on, Mario put him to rest.

Dante (Formerly known as: Crimson)

His real name is Dante, and he is both Anthony's brother and Mario's uncle.  When he was young, he strongly believed that justice would always prevail.  When he fought alongside Anthony against Lord Shade, they were no match for him.  After witnessing the death of his brother, Dante began to question his beliefs and morals.  He ultimately joined Lord Shade's military, bringing his infant son with him.  Years passed, and Dante began to develop a second personality.  While Dante struggled to hold on to his morals, Crimson, his second identity, embraced the darkness within him.  One day, after being taken over by Crimson, Dante drank from the Fountain of Lust, allowing him to unlock his true potential in exchange for throwing away his humanity.

With total control of Dante's body, Crimson became even stronger than Lord Shade.  Refusing to obey someone weaker than himself, Crimson gathered a group of Shade's strongest warriors and deserted the Shadow Shrowds.  Glaive and Lorne (see below) were both members of this gang.  Now no longer being bossed around by Lord Shade, Crimson was free to do whatever he wanted.  He had only one thing in mind: finding someone who could challenge his might.  Working together with his other personality, Dante, they hatched a scheme that would satisfy them both.  Crimson learned that he was part of a bloodline that possessed extraordinary powers.  Therefore, if he tracked down a relative, he would likely find the challenge that he was searching for.

After hearing that Mario had defeated Lord Shade, Crimson suddenly became very interested in the Mushroom Kingdom.  Unfortunately, Mario was not quite strong enough to face him.  Crimson resurrected many of Mario's old foes and used them to try to open a gateway between the Nightmare Vault and the Mushroom Kingdom, referring to this operation as the Demonic Trials.  The main purpose of these trials was to put Mario through grueling hardships that would put his abilities to the test.  Mario triumphed, proving to Crimson that Mario is the one he has been searching for.  Satisfied, Crimson launched an assault upon the kingdom, effortlessly killing nearly all of Mario's friends and family members.  When Mario and Crimson finally met in combat, Dante's motives for the battle against Mario were revealed.  As Mario and Crimson fought, the same struggle between good and evil was happening within Crimson, between Crimson and Dante.  The victor in the bout between Mario and Crimson would also decide which of Dante's personalities would triumph.  In the end, Mario defeated Crimson, and Dante regained control of his body.  Feeling remorse for his sins, Dante has vanished without a trace.

Velno (Deceased):

He was created by Lord Shade's top scientists.  When Lord Shade first attacked Brooklyn, he captured a human being and used him for a wicked experiment. Project V.E.L.N.O., or Vicious Energy Lacking Nasty Organism, was meant to be a creature that was naturally strong, but could also take the strength of others by devouring them.  The human that Lord Shade captured had his organs replaced with mechanical parts, and his body was covered in metallic armor.  When no one was around, a man named Crimson snuck into the laboratory and modified Velno's programming so that he would obey him instead of Shade.

As soon as he was able to think, Velno escaped from Shade and fled into Brooklyn's sewers. Years later, he emerged in the Mushroom Kingdom, looking to kill Lord Shade for leaving him behind. He was destroyed by Wario, Waluigi, and Luigi in Mushroom Castle, but Crimson revived him in SMB7.  It is later revealed that Velno keeps himself alive by feeding off of the flesh of dead human beings, to Mario's great disgust.  Eventually, Velno is permanently destroyed by Mario.


This mysterious figure appeared briefly in SMB8 when he assassinated Botis, the leader of the Grimnexes.  In the struggle for power that followed, Zagan was able to emerge as their new leader.  His plan, motives, and true identity are all a mystery, but one thing is certain: his sights are set on Mario!  With the Grimnexes planning to make their move any day now, Mario is about to face the greatest struggle of his life.


When Mario first entered the Mushroom Kingdom, he didn't care deeply about it or even suspect himself to be its true hero.  Once the Mushroom Kingdom was targeted by a galactic army called the Shadow Shrowds, however, Mario came to realize who he truly was.  He finally accepted the Mushroom Kingdom as his true home, and in the end, he gave his life to protect it.  In the afterlife, Mario met with an Elemental God named Skulleon, who revealed that the Shadow Shrowds had not been entirely defeated by Mario. Skulleon bestowed Mario with the Iceball ability, and after many trials, granted him another life.

Later on, Mario met another Elemental God, Raiden, who revealed that Mario is from the Hero bloodline.  This bloodline was created long ago to keep the world safe from evil, and was bestowed with tremendous power from the Zeus.  Mario's father was the previous Hero, and was born with immense powers locked deep within him. Mario inherited 75% of these powers, though they could only be unlocked through brutal training.  After this revelation, Raiden taught Mario the Thunderball technique.

After learning to use all 75% of his inherited power, Mario was ready to fight Lord Shade- the leader of the Shadow Shrowds. After winning in an all-out duel, Mario disappeared for two years.  During the events of SMB7, Mario returned to find that the kingdom was in danger once again.  As he ventured across the kingdom on yet another adventure, Mario slowly began to realize that an alternate personality was developing within him- one that represented pure evil.  After battling demons, past enemies, and the like, Mario finally faced off against the leader of the operation, known as Velno.  During the final battle, Mario went through a strange transformation and lost control of his actions, accidentally killing Glaive, one of his comrades.  Feeling guilty for this manslaughter and wanting to learn the reasoning behind the strange new evil growing within him, Mario left the Mushroom Kingdom to visit the homeland of the demons- the Nightmare Vault.

Once there, Mario learned that he possessed the soul of an ancient demon within his body.  He began to train with a demon named Swift in order to help suppress the demon soul within him.  Finally at peace, Mario fought with the Demon Resistance against the demons of the Phoenix, or so he thought.  He and his comrades eventually discovered that the Demon Resistance had been defeated long before Mario had even entered the Nightmare Vault.  The entire time he had been fighting in the Nightmare Vault, Mario was actually being manipulated by Botis, the leader of the Grimnexes.  Botis' goal was to obtain the Nexus Pass, a key that would allow the demons to escape from the Nightmare Vault.  Mario confronted Botis, but was no match for him.  Luckily, while Mario was unconscious, a mysterious figure appeared and assassinated Botis.  Now left in a state of depression, Mario could feel the demon within him beginning to resurface.  He began to train with Swift yet again in order to obtain inner peace, but they were soon interrupted.  After learning that the Mushroom Kingdom was under attack from Crimson, Mario departed from the Nightmare Vault to help defend his kingdom once again.

After learning that most of his friends and family had been killed, Mario blamed himself.  Once he finally finished grieving for his loved ones, Mario and Crimson met in battle.  Though he only possessed 75% of the Hero's Power, he was able to borrow the final 25% from his father after witnessing the death of Luigi.  As he learned more about Crimson's motives, Mario realized that they had more in common than he originally thought.  After gaining a trace of respect for Crimson, Mario showed him mercy and allowed him to live.  Now living in peace, Mario plans to marry Princess Peach.  However, in the back of his mind, he knows that a battle with the Grimnexes is imminent.

Luigi (Deceased):

Luigi is Mario's younger brother. He deeply respects his brother, and often worries about him. Luigi can be a bit cowardly sometimes, but deep down he is very courageous and heroic.

Since Mario is from the Hero bloodline, and the two of them are brothers, Luigi has also inherited unusual powers.  There are a few rules that one must keep in mind in regards to the power of the Hero Bloodline.  The first child of a Hero inherits his powers and his title as the Hero, which is why only Mario is recognized as part of the Hero bloodline.  However, the younger sibling of a Hero possesses the same amount of potential strength as the first born.  While he possesses the same potential, Luigi cannot master more than one element like his brother has.  In addition, the second-born child's power is not purified at birth.  The choice to be good or evil is his to make.  If he should choose to be tainted with evil, the effect could be deadly.

In SMB7, Luigi discovered that he had a hidden power known as the Emerald Flame.  Because of the rules mentioned in the previous paragraph, Luigi's body absorbs any nearby evil like a sponge.  This evil slowly builds up over time, and is harmless as long as Luigi continues to fight for the side of good.  However, at certain times in the past, Luigi's body has instinctively used the power of the Emerald Flame.  When activated, it can only be described as an aura of dark green flames that surrounds Luigi.

In SMB8, Luigi managed to live through the majority of Crimson's assault on the Mushroom Kingdom.  However, during Mario's duel with Crimson, Luigi threw his fears to the wind and fought alongside his brother in order to protect him.  Though he was killed by Crimson, his sacrifice was not in vain.  After witnessing the death of Luigi, Mario found the strength to challenge Crimson in one final bout.


Glaive is a demon from the Nightmare Vault that eventually ended up joining Mario's side. During his childhood, his only friend was a girl named Sara.  The Nightmare Vault had been in a civil war for thousands of years, and their village was often plundered by enemy forces.  The demons were divided among those who wanted to annihilate the human race, and those who wanted to make peace with them- the Demon Resistance.  Glaive's village was a part of this resistance.  When Sara was taken away and brainwashed into a heartless soldier by a demon named Botis, Glaive blamed the Demon Resistance for his losses and vowed to end the civil war- and kill Botis- with his own two hands.

Lord Shade, leader of the Shadow Shrowds, once came to the Nightmare Vault to recruit soldiers for his army.  Glaive was one of these recruits.  In exchange for Glaive's help, Shade promised that he would lift the curse on the Nightmare Vault and end the civil war.  When Glaive realized that Shade was lying, he joined up with Crimson and abandoned the Shadow Shrowds.  He was then ordered by Crimson to travel to the Mushroom Kingdom for a surveillance mission.  When Mario and Luigi bumped into some trouble during the Shadow Shrowd invasion, Glaive came out from seemingly nowhere to rescue them.  From then on, he became a part of Mario's group in order to seek vengeance upon Lord Shade- and to spy on the Mario Brothers for Crimson.  After Mario defeated Lord Shade, a friendly rivalry formed between Mario and Glaive.  Because of this, Glaive decided to cut his ties with Crimson and to stay in the Mushroom Kingdom.
The demons within the Nightmare Vault were cursed with the inability to live under bright lighting.  To counter this, Glaive wore heavy armor to block out the sunlight of the Mushroom Kingdom.  In SMB7, Glaive learned that many demons had managed to become immune to sunlight.  Through long and grueling training, Glaive finally was able to live in the Mushroom Kingdom without his heavy armor weighing him down.  Later on, in the final battle with Velno, Mario went through a stunning transformation and unwillingly killed Glaive.  His final request was for Mario to end the civil war in the Nightmare Vault in his place.  This dream has finally been fulfilled, but not in the way he had originally hoped for.  The Demon Resistance has been crushed, and soon, the Grimnexes will attack all other realms of existence.

Ace Spades

Ace, much like Glaive, is a demon that has joined Mario's side.  He fights by carrying a deck of cards that, when crushed, transform into various forms of weaponry such as bombs, swords, whips, and shields.  He is extremely intelligent and became the leader of Poker Face- the main military of the Demon Resistance- at a very young age.  Years prior to this, when he was only five, everyone in his family except for his brother and himself was slaughtered by the Phoenix's Assassination Force.  Ace's brother, Jack, escaped and later became the first leader of Poker Face.  Ace, however, was not so lucky.  He was taken in by the Assassination Force and raised to be a ruthless warrior.  One day, he was given the task of assassinating his brother, Jack.  Ace did not realize the impact of this assassination until it was too late.  He had murdered his own brother. 

Afterward, Ace left the Assassination Force and joined the ranks of Poker Face to atone for his crimes.  By the time he reached his late teens, Ace rose to the top of Poker Face and became its leader.  When the Mushroom Kingdom was attacked by Velno, Ace was sent to the Mushroom Kingdom to help prevent a demon invasion.  It was then that he met up with Mario.  Much later on in their quest, Ace disobeyed a direct order from Poker Face and lost his job.  Still eager to help in any way he can, Ace journeyed to the Nightmare Vault alongside Mario.

Once there, he continued to fight alongside Mario, but not as a member of Poker Face.  He entrusted Mario with his Nexus Pass and set off to visit his brother's grave.  However, once he reached the cemetery, he met with a demon who called himself King.  This demon explained that it was his responsibility to guard the bodies of the Zepar tribe.  He continues to reveal that Ace is a part of this clan, and that the two of them are the only survivors.  Long ago, the Assassination Force eliminated the Zepar tribe for betraying the Phoenix, but they decided to recruit Ace because of his unusual talent.  Now, with little time before the Grimnexes make their move, Ace is training day and night with King to unlock the hidden powers of his forgotten tribe.

Lorne (Deceased)

Lorne is the son of Crimson (Dante).  When Lord Shade attacked Brooklyn, Anthony and Dante fought side by side against him.  After deciding to join Shade's military, Dante brought his son with him to work under Lord Shade.  Unfortunately, Lorne was often abused and mistreated due to his lack of combat skills.  When Crimson led a small group of warriors away from the Shadow Shrowd hideout, Lorne left with him and became a part of his gang, not knowing that Crimson was actually his father.  Through years of personal training, Lorne became strong enough to be involved in Velno's assault on the Mushroom Kingdom.  Eventually, Mario and Lorne ended up fighting each other.  After a fierce exchange of beliefs, Mario was able to break his cold exterior and convince him to join the side of good.

After Crimson personally attacked the Mushroom Kingdom, Lorne did not know who he should side with.  He ultimately decided to fight for Mario's friends.  Still not realizing that Crimson was his father, Lorne battled against many of his former comrades.  Eventually, Crimson revealed his identity to him only moments before killing him.  Now spending his days in the Underwhere, Lorne is burning to question his father's motives.


Slade is much like Lorne in the sense that he used to work for Crimson, but now fights on Mario's side... sort of.  As a child, he was abandoned by his hateful parents.  He was discovered by demons and taken back to the Nightmare Vault, where he was raised to be a ruthless warrior.  Eventually, he returned to the human realm to seek revenge.  He could not find his parents, and instead met up with Crimson's gang.  He joined up with them to accomplish a common goal- to release the demons of the Nightmare Vault into the human realm.  Mario and Slade crossed paths many times, and Mario eventually convinced Slade that not all humans are evil.  In order to sharpen his skills and possibly gain information about his parents' whereabouts, Slade accompanied Mario in his journey to the Nightmare Vault.

Although he has decided to help Mario battle against the Grimnexes, his top priority is to find his parents and kill them.  He has spent the last six years training for the war against the Grimnexes.  Though he feels some loyalty to Mario, he will not risk his life unless it is to further his own goals.

Princess Peach:

Peach is the ruler of the Mushroom Kingdom. Time and time again she has been kidnapped by Bowser, though she has been looking after herself quite well during Mario's past few adventures. She constantly worries about Mario, who often disappears after his adventures.  When Mario returned from the Nightmare Vault, she was overjoyed.  Now that Crimson has been defeated and the kingdom is at peace, Mario and Peach plan to get married.

Mario Jr. and Luigi Jr. (Deceased):

For the sake of simplicity, Mario Jr. was nicknamed Mark, and Luigi Jr. was nicknamed Luke. They are both Mario's children (brought by the stork), but Mario forced them to move to Yoshi Island when the kingdom was attacked by Bowser. Up through the Shadow Shrowd's attack, they stayed there, waiting for Mario to return for them. Mario refused to bring them back until he defeated the Shadow Shrowds and their leader, Lord Shade. After the battle was over, they left Yoshi Island to live at the Mario Brothers' house.

During Mario's subsequent adventures, they gradually became more involved in their father's battles.  They have come a long way, and though they have not inherited the Hero's Power, it is clear that they possess great strength.  Unfortunately, during Crimson's assault, Mark, age 16, and Luke, age 13, died in combat.  Now preparing to journey from the Underwhere to the Overthere, they are not yet aware that their adventures have not come to an end.

Just to clarify, there are two methods of 'reproduction' in this fanfic series.  In the human world that is parallel to the Mushroom Kingdom (Brooklyn, and the world we live in), children are born through the same methods that we are familiar with.  In the Mushroom Kingdom, the stork brings children to a parent or parents.  Mark and Luke were brought to Mario by the stork, and therefore have not inherited Mario's Hero powers.


Wario is a hefty man who holds a grudge against Mario. As you most likely know, Wario is extremely greedy.  During the Shadow Shrowd invasion, he and Waluigi decided to form a temporary alliance with the Mario Bros. to save the kingdom. But Wario only wanted to help so he could become more famous than his rival.  Although they did not play much of a role in Velno's attack, they fought bravely against Crimson and his henchmen.  Wario met his end after a great display of selflessness in which he protected Luke from Smithy.


Waluigi is almost the complete opposite of his plump brother, Wario. Waluigi is tall and skinny, and looks very sinister. Waluigi loves to cause mischief, although he was once forced to work with Mario and Luigi in an attempt to become as famous as the Mario Bros.  Years later, he worked alongside Mario and his friends in an attempt to protect the Mushroom Kingdom from Crimson.  Waluigi, much like his brother, died a hero's death, taking on dozens of Lord Shade clones while his friends fled to safety.


Although he looks fierce in the above picture, he is actually on the side of good. He is the Ice God, one of three Elemental Gods, and looks over the Ice Orb. After Mario's death in SMB3, Skulleon notices that Mario has much hidden power locked away. When Mario dies, Skulleon takes Mario under his wing and helps him become stronger. At the end of Mario's many trials, Mario earns the right to touch the Ice Orb, giving him the powers of ice. Through a sequence of strange events, Mario is given life once again. Skulleon warns Mario to stay away from Lord Shade, but Mario challenges Shade anyway. As a god, Skulleon can speak to anyone he wants using his mind, no matter how far away that person may be. He is always watching over Mario and his friends.


This is the Thunder God, Raiden! He watches over the Thunder Orb, and is even more powerful than Skulleon. As you might have guessed, he wields the element of thunder. When Mario first requested to learn from him, Raiden turned him down. But he soon learned that Mario had already mastered the elements of fire and ice. It is considered impossible for one to contain more than one element within their body, with the only known exception being Grambi, the very ruler of the Overthere. Puzzled at Mario's abilities, Raiden agreed to let Mario touch the Thunder Orb- after he went through some bone-breaking trials.  Much like Skulleon, he continues to watch over Mario and his friends.


He may look old, but he's really the king of the Overthere. He possesses the Capacity of Elements, meaning he can wield Fire, Ice, and Thunder. Grambi first appeared in Super Paper Mario, when Mario and his friends went to the Underwhere to search for a Pure Heart. They met Grambi's wife, Queen Jaydes, who allowed them to pass into the Overthere to search for a Pure Heart if they agreed to escort their daughter, Luvbi, back to Grambi. A monster by the name of Bonechill had attacked Grambi, and Mario was forced to stop him. Afterward, it was revealed that Grambi had turned the Pure Heart into a living being to hide it from evil years ago, and this person was Luvbi. Knowing that it was her destiny to help stop Count Bleck, Luvbi became a Pure Heart once more.

However, much more is revealed about his past when the Shadow Shrowds attack. Grambi's real name is Anthony, and he was Mario's father during his lifetime. Long ago, Lord Shade assaulted Brooklyn. Anthony sent his infant children, Mario and Luigi, to the Mushroom Kingdom while he tried his best to fend Lord Shade off. Anthony was killed, but Shade was so worn out from the battle that he had to go to other planets to recruit more soldiers. One day, he swore that he would return. Meanwhile, in the afterlife, Anthony was given the title of Grambi, and he became ruler of the Overthere.


Although few know the full truth behind the Grimnexes, most know that they are a group of demons that are believed to be nearly unstoppable.  Many believe that they were created in an experiment that went horribly wrong.  Regardless, they are the leading force behind the Phoenix's military, and Mario has yet to enter a full-scale confrontation with them.  They are feared by even Zeus, the governor of all realms of reality.

There were once 24 Grimnexes, but their numbers have decreased over the centuries.  Each Grimnex each assigned a Greek letter, which serves as their rank.  The Alpha Grimnex is the strongest, and the Omega Grimnex is the weakest.  To counter their decline, the Grimnexes have been known in the past to bestow an ordinary demon with a vacant Grimnex rank if he proves himself worthy.  Here is a list of the Grimnex ranks and the status of each of them as of the end of SMB8:

(Note: If a rank is crossed out, either the Grimnex holding the rank has died, there is no one who currently possesses this rank, or both)

1.   Alpha- Mysteriously vanished years ago, believed to be alive
2.   Beta- Considered the leader of the Grimnexes
3.   Gamma
4.   Delta
5.   Epsilon
6.   Zeta
7.   Eta
8.   Theta
9.   Iota
10.   Kappa
11.   Lambda
12.   Mu
13.   Nu
14.   Xi

15.   Omicron
16.   Pi
17.   Rho

18.   Sigma
19.   Tau
20.   Upsilon
21.   Phi
22.   Chi
23.   Psi

24.   Omega

Obsolete Grimnexes

In the past, there have been a few Grimnexes who have been deemed unfit to hold the rank of a full-fledged Grimnex.  Those who betray the Phoenix's goals or act out of line are often stripped of their ranks and assigned an obsolete Greek letter.  The Digamma Grimnex was killed by Glaive six years ago, and the Sampi and Stigma ranks are not currently being occupied.  Also, these Grimnexes are not ranked in any particular order.  Here is a list of their 'ranks' anyway:
1.   Digamma
2.   Heta
3.   Quoppa
4.   Stigma
5.   San
6.   Sampi


Prologue: Wedding Vows

Four months.  It had been four months since that fateful day.  It was the day that marked the end of the Mushroom Kingdom's most recent crisis.  However, this disaster had been very different from those that the kingdom had grown accustomed to- there were casualties.  And not just a few.  From ordinary civilians to heroes that had been defending the kingdom for years: no one was excluded from the carnage.

Still, the number of casualties was not the only issue that troubled Mario.  It was also the motive behind each of these massacres.  Unlike previous battles with enemies such as Lord Shade and Velno, Mario found himself facing an enemy that was not interested in power.  And once he learned more about Dante's motives, no matter how hard he tried, Mario could not hate him.  Even with the knowledge that Dante was the sole cause for the deaths of countless innocent people, including his own brother, Mario was unable to find it in his heart to finish Dante off once the battle had ended.  Weeks later, Mario continued to question himself.  Why feel sympathy for such a cruel man?  And then the answer finally came to him.  It was because they were the same.

Years ago, Dante had developed a second personality named Crimson.  Dante struggled to suppress Crimson, but to no avail.  As time passed, Dante developed a plan to free himself from Crimson's grasp.  By assaulting the Mushroom Kingdom and triggering an Armageddon, he could resolve the struggle between good and evil within himself by watching how the very same battle unfolded in the outside world.  Many lives were lost, but in the end, Mario rose to the challenge and defeated Dante.  His plan succeeded, and Crimson faded away.  Despite this, Dante felt remorse for the many crimes he and Crimson had committed in the past.  He ultimately decided to live a life of solitude until he could find a meaningful purpose for his existence.

Similarly, Mario has been facing his own inner conflict.  He has recently learned that he is distantly related to an ancient demon whose soul lives on within him.  For the past six years, Mario has been fighting to drive this demon from his heart.  Because of this, Mario was able to understand Dante's desire to be free from Crimson's influence.  Although Dante was successful in ridding himself of Crimson, Mario has had little luck with his demon ancestor.

Though his battle with Dante was indeed noteworthy, Mario's thoughts have lately shifted to a different event: his own wedding.  More specifically, he is worried if his wedding will be interrupted by an upcoming crisis that will prove to be even more lethal than Dante.  Six years ago, Mario had traveled to the Nightmare Vault to end the civil war between the Phoenix and the Demon Resistance.  Much to his dismay, there were a few setbacks, and the Phoenix crushed the Resistance.  Mario was nearly killed by Botis, the leader of the Grimnexes, but a mysterious figure appeared and assassinated Botis.  When Mario awoke, the war was over- for the time being.  Ace, one of his comrades, estimated that it would take the Grimnexes about four months to choose a new leader.  Once they had accomplished this, they would seek revenge upon the world for sealing them within the Nightmare Vault.

Mario began training with a demon named Swift in order to suppress his ancestor's soul, but he decided to leave the Nightmare Vault early once he heard news of Dante's assault.  After helping Dante free himself from his alternate ego, Mario spent the next four months living in peace and helping to rebuild the kingdom.  The date of his wedding was approaching, but something else crowded his thoughts...  He was haunted by the fear that the Grimnexes had found their new leader.  Day and night, he worried that the most precious day of his life would be interrupted by the Grimnexes.  Most of all, he feared that if the Grimnexes did decide to strike, he would be powerless to stop them...

"By the power vested in me by the Mushroom Kingdom Church, I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may now kiss the bride."

Mario and Princess Peach gazed into each other's eyes.  At last, the moment that they had waited for had finally arrived.  As he prepared to spend the rest of his life with the woman standing before him, Mario's eardrums were pierced by a shriek of terror.  He looked down and saw that his shirt had been stained with blood.  His eyes returned to Peach, and he gasped in terror at what had become of his bride.

Standing beside her with a blade held tightly in his grip was a menacing, pale-faced demon.  Without even thinking, Mario understood that it was a Grimnex.  He closed his eyes, hoping that the gruesome image would fade away once he reopened them.  Instead, as his eyelids fluttered open, he saw something far more horrid.  The blade that had previously been held by the Grimnex was now in his own hands.  Lying at his feet was the corpse of his bride.

The sight of his fallen bride was too much for him to bear.  For the second time in his life, Mario had slaughtered a woman that he was prepared to marry.  Suddenly, as if controlled by some profound force, Mario pointed the blade at his own throat.  Though he struggled with all of his might, he could not stop the dagger from inching closer to his throat.  With a violent thrust, the plumber ended his own life.

Mario's eyes widened as he rose to a sitting position, frantically gasping for air.  He looked around and let out a sigh of relief.  "Not good," he muttered to himself as he leapt out of bed.  "This isn't the first time I've had that dream.  What does it mean?"  He glanced at the calendar.  "And on the day of my wedding, too?  Fantastic."

As he prepared to leave the room, he turned around and gazed at the green-blanketed cot at the bottom of the bunk bed he and his brother once shared.  "Bro...  I have a feeling that we'll all be seeing you sooner than you think."

Princess Peach heaved an impatient sigh as she gazed longingly at the sunrise.  "It's finally here...  The day I've awaited for so many years..."  She suddenly snapped from her dreamy state.  "Oh, what am I doing?  I need to finish the wedding preparations!  And I still need to consult Toadsworth...  He's probably still a little uncomfortable with the thought of me getting married..."

She rose to her feet and scuttled toward the marble double doors that led out of the Royal Chambers.

"Hold it, Princess Peach."

Black Heart

Only four words had been spoken to her, and yet they were enough to paralyze her entire body with fear.  She slowly turned around, her body trembling.  Standing before her was a tall, pale skinned man.  He was dressed in entirely black clothing, except for a white chest plate of armor.  He wore baggy black pants and a long-sleeved shirt, and his hair was a mop of gray.  Strapped to his waist was a long dagger sheathed in a jet black scabbard.  His sapphire eyes casted a cold, stoic glare upon the frightened princess.

"Who... who are you...?" Peach whispered through trembling lips.

"My name is Ipos."  As the princess prepared to speak yet again, Ipos silenced her with an impatient wave of his hand.  "Silence.  Princess Peach, you have been chosen to aid the Grimnexes' cause.  You are to come with me to the Nightmare Vault."

"...And if I refuse...?"

"I will give you until the end of today to think it over.  If you tell anyone else about this conversation, I will interrupt your wedding and slaughter everyone."

"I'd hardly call this a conversation," the princess grumbled as she rolled her eyes.  "Besides, how would you possibly interrupt my wedding...?  Mario would stop you..." she hissed, quivering with defiant rage.

"Mario?  You mean the Mushroom Hero?  He could never hope to stand up to a high-ranking Grimnex such as myself.  Tell me, has Mario seemed restless these past few months?  Has it seemed as though something was troubling him?  He was not nervous about the wedding that will be taking place today.  Rather, he fears that it will be interrupted by the Grimnexes.  This is because he knows that he cannot hope to stop us."

"You're wrong..." Peach murmured, though it sounded as if she was trying to convince herself rather than Ipos.

"Regardless, if you do not meet me with a positive response by tonight, Mario will die."  With that, Ipos turned and began to walk away.

"Wait!  Why not just kidnap me now?" she called after him.

Ipos stopped for a moment, but did not turn around.  "Because you would resist, and I might be forced to injure you.  It would be preferable if I brought you to the Nightmare Vault unharmed.  If I give you time to think and the proper motivation to come with me, there won't even be a struggle."  He vanished into the depths of the dim Royal Chambers.  Peach gazed pensively in Ipos' direction until she could no longer hear the echoes of his footsteps.

[End Music]

Recently, a wave of excitement had rushed through the Mushroom Kingdom and its previously depressed citizens.  Since the Dante incident, there was little for them to be cheerful about.  Now that the day of the wedding between Princess Peach and Mario had arrived, they finally had something to celebrate.  Indeed, a great deal of effort had been put into the reconstruction of Mushroom Castle so that it would be rebuilt in time for the wedding.

Not a single soul in the entire kingdom dared to miss this event.  The only exception was Bowser.  Mario had gracefully set aside their rivalry and offered him an invitation, well aware of the assistance that Bowser had provided during Dante's invasion.  However, the Koopa King declined, likely because of his own feelings for Peach.

Gathered in a church built within Mushroom Castle, the spectators whistled as Mario and Peach entered.  Mario wore a fancy black jacket with a rose protruding from the collar, a white buttoned shirt beneath it, black striped pants, and a seamless pair of black shoes.  Peach giggled.  Mario appeared to be a completely different person without his usual plumbing attire.

"Dear friends and family, we are gathered here today to witness and celebrate the union of Prince Mario and Princess Peach in marriage. In the years they have been together, their love and understanding of each other has grown and matured, and now they have decided to live their lives together as husband and wife.

"To all present I say: We are gathered here, not to witness the beginning of what will be, but rather what already is. We do not create this marriage, because we cannot. We can and do, however, celebrate with Mario and Peach the wondrous and joyful occurrence that has already taken place in their lives, and the commitment they make today.

"True marriage is more than joining the bonds of marriage of two persons; it is the union of two hearts. It lives on the love you give each other and never grows old, but thrives on the joy of each new day. Marriage is love. May you always be able to talk things over, to confide in each other, to laugh with each other, to enjoy life together, and to share moments of quiet and peace, when the day is done. May you be blessed with a lifetime of happiness and a home of warmth and understanding."

The officiant turned to face Mario.  "Do you, Mario, take Princess Peach to be your lawfully wedded wife, promising to love and cherish, through joy and sorrow, sickness and health, and whatever challenges you may face, for as long as you both shall live?"

Mario remained silent, slowly taking the officiant's words in.  At last, he grinned and nodded firmly.  "I do."

The officiant's eyes shifted to the bride.  "Do you, Princess Peach, take Mario to be your husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do you part?"

Silence.  Peach swallowed hard, remembering Ipos' threat earlier on.  Would she be able to keep such a vow?  Seconds seemed like hours as everyone eagerly awaited her response.  At last, her eyes met Mario's, and she could not deny that she loved him.  No matter how much danger this decision would put her in, she would not allow Ipos to drain the love from her heart.   "I do."

"I give you this ring as a symbol of my love for you.  Let it be a reminder that I am always by your side and that I will always be a faithful partner to you," Mario said with a gentle smile as he slid a golden ring onto her finger.  He chuckled to himself, remembering the script that he had rehearsed several times with the Master.

Peach pulled out a ring of her own and placed it on Mario's finger.  "I give you this ring as a symbol of my love and faithfulness.  As I place it on your finger, I commit my heart and soul to you.  I ask you to wear this ring as a reminder of the vows we have spoken today, our wedding day."

The officiant nodded.  "By the power vested in me by the Mushroom Kingdom Church, I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may now kiss the bride."

The entire church exploded with cheers and applause as the two newlyweds embraced.  Tears of joy flooded down the princess' face.  "Oh, Mario...  Can we finally live in peace together?"  Mario nodded with a warm smile, and she wrapped her arms around her husband.

Broken Vows

Suddenly, Peach felt a deep sorrow building within her heart.  Somewhere, deep down, she knew that this would most likely be their final embrace.  How she yearned to tell her husband all about Ipos' threat!  This was the perfect opportunity to warn Mario about what was to come, but her love for Mario and her desire to protect him prevented her from speaking.  After all, Ipos had described the consequences for such a betrayal in vivid detail.  She held Mario closer to her, never wanting to let go.

"Attention all guests: The after-party will be held on the second floor of the castle in fifteen minutes.  If you wish to attend, please follow the designated escorts."

"Mario... I need to freshen up before the party begins," Peach lied, her mind made up.

"That's fine.  I was actually going to change into some more comfortable clothes anyway," Mario replied with a grin.  He turned around and jogged toward the dressing rooms, a red shirt and a pair of overalls tucked beneath his arm.

"Please forgive me..." the princess whispered glumly.  As all of the guests filed out of the room, Peach was left alone.  "I have to do this...  It's for your own good..."  Her cheeks damp with tears, the bride descended the steps leading outside of the castle.  After a moment of hesitation, she firmly pressed the double doors open and stepped outside.  The sky was gray.  The change in weather that day seemed to symbolize the emotional rollercoaster that Peach had been through.  When she first awoke, the sun was shining, and she eagerly anticipated her wedding with Mario.  As the day went on, her depression grew and the sky became dark and gloomy.  Before long, it began to rain.  Scuttling through a downpour in her wedding dress, Peach felt her whole world crumbling to pieces.

"Regardless, if you do not meet me with a positive response by tonight, Mario will die."

"It would be preferable if I brought you to the Nightmare Vault unharmed.  If I give you time to think and the proper motivation to come with me, there won't even be a struggle."

"This is... for the best..." she reassured herself, the world around her growing dim and cold.  Now soaked with rain and tears, the shivering princess spotted a dark silhouette approaching her from the distance.  "This wedding... it was never meant to be...  Mario...  I'm so sorry..."  She buried her face in her hands.

"Wise decision," the shadowy figure sneered.  "I was on my way to Mushroom Castle.  If you had been even a few minutes later, everyone attending your wedding ceremony would have died."

"Ipos..."  The princess fell to her knees, unable to control her sobbing any longer.  "Please... please let me stay...  I don't want to leave him..."

"Quiet," Ipos demanded unsympathetically, looking down upon her with disgust.  "Dry your tears.  We're going to the Nightmare Vault.  Face it.  Your marriage was not meant to be.  Mario is of demon origin.  He even killed his previous fiancé.  What makes you think that man was worth marrying?"

"Shut up!" Peach howled with resentment, rising to her feet in anger.  "Don't you dare talk about Mario that way!  You don't know anything about him!"

"I know more than you ever could," Ipos replied coldly.  He seized the princess by the hand and pulled her toward him.  With his free hand, he removed a silver cube with an 'N' engraved on each of its faces.  With a flourish of the cube, a swirling purple vortex formed in front of him.  "That's enough of your senseless prattle.  We're going."

"But... how can you travel between dimensions without a Nexus Pass?" Peach inquired, her eyes wide with terror.  "Have the Grimnexes finally found a way to enter the human realm?"

"This is a forged Nexus Pass," Ipos informed her.  "Its abilities are severely limited compared to the real thing.  It only allows the user to make one roundtrip to any dimension he chooses.  Also, the user must complete his trip within one day, or the pass will deactivate and become useless.  Besides, one of these fake passes takes nearly a year to create.  In other words, it would not be practical for the Grimnexes to launch an invasion with forged Nexus Passes.  You can breathe a sigh of relief for now, I suppose."

As Ipos explained this to her, Peach tried to wrench herself free.  For a moment she managed to get away, but the Grimnex soon caught up with her.  "Enough questions.  It's time for us to go."  With Peach's arm held tightly in his grip, Ipos placed one foot into the portal.  Peach closed her eyes, suddenly burning with a desire to hold Mario one last time.  As Ipos began to place his second foot into the vortex that led to the Nexus, he was blinded by a flash of red light.  From out of seemingly nowhere, a Fireball struck the portal with pinpoint accuracy, causing it to close before Ipos could use it.

Mushroom Hero

"Don't let him get to you, Peach," Mario chuckled, clenching his fists as he sprinted onto the scene.  "You should've told me about this guy sooner.  If I had gotten here ten seconds later, you would've been long gone."

Ipos turned around and glared at the defiant plumber.  "And just who are you?"  His eyes scanned Mario's body, and a smirk spread across the Grimnex's face.  "Wait a minute...  Those overalls...  That mustache...  You must be Mario."

"Mario!" Peach gasped as she wept the tears from her cheeks.

"I'm flattered.  It looks like I've become a celebrity even in the Nightmare Vault," Mario snickered, confidently walking toward his opponent.  "I'm not sure who you are, but it was pretty cowardly of you to try and lure Peach to the Nightmare Vault without confronting me.  How could you toy with someone's emotions like that?"

"Is that a challenge?" Ipos inquired, his tone calm and stolid.  It was evident that Mario's arrival had not shaken him up at all.  "If it is, I'd be happy to accept.  I've heard a lot about you, Mushroom Hero.  In fact, I'm so impressed by the rumors that I've heard that I'll let you make the first move.  Don't disappoint me."

Mario took a fighting stance.  "As you wish."  Who is this guy?  He went through all of that trouble to capture Peach without facing me, and yet he doesn't even seem surprised that I caught up with him.  Am I missing something?  ...Oh well, I guess there's only one way to find out.  If he's giving me a free hit, I might as well go for it.

"Mario..." Peach whispered frightfully as her husband charged at Ipos with his fists raised.  "Don't..."

With a cry of determination, Mario sprang at his foe as his right fist began to glow with the power of a Fireball.  Interesting, Ipos thought as he prepared to defend himself.  As the plumber's fist was inches away from his face, Ipos caught the punch in his right palm.  "That's a clever technique.  You charged up a Fireball in your palm, but instead of releasing it, you used its power to augment one of your punches."

"There's more where that came from," Mario grumbled, struggling to free his right fist from Ipos' grip.  With his free hand, he formed an Iceball and lunged at Ipos with yet another punch.  Once again, Ipos blocked the attack with little effort.  Both of the Mushroom Hero's fists were now in the Grimnexes grasp.  Mario was trapped.

Black Heart

"My turn," Ipos muttered, his voice stoic and indifferent.  In the blink of an eye, Ipos' knee collided with Mario's chest, sending the plumber soaring into the air.  Clutching his wounded chest as he descended, Mario's eyes widened as he felt a gust of wind rush past him.  Mario glimpsed upward and saw Ipos hovering above him, his blade moving in slow motion.  Before he could comprehend what had just happened, Mario tumbled onto the solid cement of a nearby sidewalk.  Running diagonally across his chest was a bloody gash. 

His body trembling, Mario looked up at his opponent.  "What... What just... happened...?"

"What a disappointment..." Ipos sighed.  "Is this a joke?  After kneeing you in the chest, I slashed you with my sword while you were still airborne.  By the time you landed, you had already been cut."  He sheathed his sword.  "That was rather anticlimactic."

"Heh... you think it's over...?" Mario inquired, slowly rising to his feet.

"Mario, stay down!" Peach pleaded.  "He's a Grimnex!  You'll never survive against him!"

Mario's eyes shifted from Peach to Ipos.  "A Grimnex...  Really...?  That explains it..."

"If you wish to back down, now is your chance," Ipos informed him as he drew his sword.  He paused to give Mario time to think.  Barely able to stand, the plumber clenched his fists and prepared for more.  "Didn't you hear her?  I'm a Grimnex; you don't stand a chance.  Don't be a fool.  Your own wife is asking you to back off."

Broken Vows

Although his entire body was numb with pain, Mario grinned.  "Heh... are you even listening to yourself...?  My own wife is asking me to back off...?  Of course she is...  She wants to protect me...  But I'm not going to stand down... because I want to protect her, too...  I made a vow... that I'd always protect her... through joy and sorrow... through sickness and health... through whatever challenges we may face..."  His eyes gleaming with determination, Mario sprinted at Ipos and lunged at him with another right hook.  "Even if you take her back to the Nightmare Vault, I'll still save her... even if I have to fight every last Grimnex by myself!"

Ipos swiftly veered to the right, dodging Mario's punch with ease.  He retaliated with a fierce blow to Mario's jaw, knocking the plumber onto the cement sidewalk with a lifeless thud.  "Hmph.  Such arrogance.  You won't even lay a foot in the Grimnex Palace until you can strike me in the face like that."  He turned to face Princess Peach.  "It's time for us to go.  This man isn't worth our time.  Your true destiny will be revealed once we reach the Nightmare Vault."

"Don't... don't listen to him..." Mario murmured, his voice barely audible.  Though he could not stand any longer, the Mushroom Hero had not lost his will to fight.  Lying face-down, he called to Ipos, "Grimnex... I'm not finished with you yet...  You're the new leader of the Grimnexes, right?  Then if I take you out, it'll take them another four months to choose a new ruler..."

"Not quite," the Grimnex informed him coldly.  "My name is Ipos.  I am the Delta Grimnex."

"No..." Mario whispered in disbelief.  "That means..."

Ipos nodded.  "Exactly.  You didn't even land a single hit on me, and I'm not even the highest ranking Grimnex.  Not only that, but I wasn't even trying.  I didn't even use my Final Smash."  He held his blade above Mario.  "Now do you understand?  No matter how strong your desire is to save her, Princess Peach belongs to us now.  You could never hope to take on the remaining Grimnexes by yourself."  With a powerful thrust, Ipos stabbed his dagger into Mario's arm.  The plumber howled in agony as Ipos slowly brought his blade upward, resulting in a vertical gash that ran up Mario's entire forearm.  "Keep this scar as a reminder of the impossibility of Peach's rescue.  And remember that if we ever meet again, you'll lose that arm."

Defeated, Mario could only lie down as he slowly bled to death.  Is this really how it all ends...?  Slaughtered by a Grimnex on the day of my own wedding...

Peach gazed at her husband, who was lying face-down in the rain, a pool of blood forming beneath his body.  As the plumber looked up at her, she averted her eyes.  She could no longer bear to see her husband in this broken state.  "Goodbye, Mario..." she whispered, turning around as she followed Ipos into the portal that led to the Nexus.

Amongst the pouring rain and crackling thunder, Peach's farewell had been the loudest sound to enter Mario's ears.  As she said her final goodbye to him, he realized his defeat.  He looked up at his wife one last time.  She turned her head away from him.  Too weak to stand, Mario reached toward Peach as his vision began to blur.  At last, the portal closed, and they vanished without a trace.  His head fell to the soaking wet sidewalk as tears streamed down his cheeks.  Blood continued to pool out of his wounds until his entire world became black.  Peach was gone.  And she was never coming back.


Chapter 1: Regaining Momentum

Demonic Plot

Deep within the Nightmare Vault, a calm, eerie stillness swept through the land.  The war between the Phoenix and the Resistance had ceased, and the land seemed to finally be at peace.  Ordinary demon citizens had begun to come out of hiding, thinking that the Resistance had won and that they were safe.  However, there was an area within the Nightmare Vault that only a small number of people knew about: the Nightmare Abyss.  It was within this cold, wretched wasteland that the wicked Grimnexes lurked.  They resided there for countless centuries, manipulating the war from behind the scenes.  In truth, the Resistance had been entirely eradicated.  It wouldn't be long before the Grimnexes set their plan for vengeance in motion.

At the center of the Nightmare Abyss was a colossal tower, known as Grimnex Palace.  On the top floor of this palace, all of the remaining Grimnexes had been gathered for a meeting.

"Now then, has everyone arrived?" the new Beta Grimnex inquired.

Ipos nodded.  "All except for the three that have been deemed obsolete."

"Good.  Now that I have officially been chosen to lead the Grimnexes, I feel that it is necessary for me to properly establish my role as your leader.  I am Zagan, the Beta Grimnex.  As you know, the Demon Resistance has been defeated for quite some time.  However, we were unable to put the next phase of our plan into action due to the lack of a leader.  Today, that is going to change.  Everyone, please bring your attention to Ipos."

Ipos gestured toward Peach, who was currently tied up and surrounded by three lower-ranking Grimnexes.  "This is Princess Peach, the ruler of the Mushroom Kingdom."

"Why did you bring one of those disgusting humans here?!" one of the Grimnexes protested.

"This isn't just any human.  She possesses the Phoenix Link," Ipos explained, causing the other Grimnexes to gasp.  "She will be a crucial asset to us in the near future."

"What's that supposed to mean?  If you think I'm going to help you, you're sadly mistaken!" Peach exclaimed defiantly.  She was silenced when one of the Grimnexes guarding her held his blade to her throat.

"Princess Peach, you are going to be a sacrifice for a ceremony known as the Phoenix Salvation," Ipos answered icily.  "That is your true destiny.  Though you may refuse now, I'm certain that you'll grow comfortable with your purpose soon enough."

"Well done, Ipos.  Is there anything else worth mentioning about your trip to the human realm?" Zagan asked with a smirk.

"No.  I did have a brief encounter with Mario, but you asked me if there was anything worth mentioning.  I see no reason to waste my breath speaking of such an enormous fool.  In case you were wondering, he isn't a threat to you or any of the Grimnexes, especially in the condition he's in now."

"Of course.  That will be all.  Still, I want everyone to maintain their usual posts until preparations for the Phoenix Salvation are complete."

"!" Mario screamed as he abruptly sat up and clenched his fists.  Sharp pains erupted throughout his right arm, causing him to wince in pain.  He looked around and realized that he was in the hospital.  Bandages were wrapped around the wound on his chest, but his right arm, which had been severely cut, was left untouched.

"Finally awake, huh?" Grambi inquired with a weary smile.  "I was worried you weren't going to make it.  When everyone at the after party realized that both the bride and groom were missing, they all went looking for you.  They eventually found you bleeding to death on the sidewalk and brought you to the hospital.  When I saw how slow your recovery was coming along, I paid you a visit and used my powers to speed things up a bit.  But your injuries... what in the world happened?

Mario closed his eyes, trying to recall the events that had unfolded leading up to his wounds.  "There was this Grimnex named Ipos...  He kidnapped Peach, and I tried to stop him, and then..."  His eyes widened, and he leapt to his feet.  "Peach!  He took Peach to the Nightmare Vault!"  He began to sprint toward the exit, but Grambi caught him.  "Don't be a fool, Mario.  If you went head to head with a Grimnex, it's a miracle that you're even alive.  Not even I know about the origin of the Grimnexes.  All that I know is that they're known as the most dangerous life forms that have ever existed, aside from the Phoenix himself.  That's why they were sealed away in their own section of the Nightmare Vault, known as the Nightmare Abyss."

"I don't care who they are...  They took Peach, and they're gonna pay for it!" Mario exclaimed, angrily clenching his fists.

"Mario, the Grimnexes were sealed away by Zeus because he was unable to stop them with brute force.  At that point in time, Zeus was commanding an entire army.  For you to even attempt to take on the Grimnexes by yourself...  Not only is it something I'd advise against...  It just simply isn't possible."

"That's what everyone said when I took on Lord Shade and Dante, but I still found a way to beat them...  Besides, I won't be alone.  I have a few comrades in the Nightmare Vault who are waiting for me."

"It might be a different story if you had Luigi, the Wario Brothers, and all of your other friends, but they were killed by Dante and his men!"

"Wait a minute, you're Queen Jaydes' husband!  The Underwhere is just another dimension attached to the Nexus, right?  If you talked to her, I'm sure she'd let my friends and comrades use the Nexus to travel to the Nightmare Vault.  If we banded together, I'm sure we could get the job done!"

Grambi shook his head.  "I'm sorry.  It doesn't work like that.  Besides, there's something about Luigi and the Wario Brothers that I'd like to tell you...  When they died, they were not sent to the Underwhere."

"What do you mean?!" Mario thundered.  "They're still alive?!"

"No, that's not it.  They're dead; we have a record of them passing through the Nexus about four months ago.  However, we have no record of them entering the Underwhere.  It's as if they just vanished once they reached the Nexus."

"Well, what about everyone else?  There are still a few people in the Underwhere that could help me.  There's Mark, Luke, and this other guy named Lorne, and-"

Grambi sighed.  "As much as I'd love to go along with your plan, Zeus forbids it.  I didn't want to tell you this, but Zeus sent me a message earlier today.  He must've known that you would try to rescue Peach.  He said that as long as the Grimnexes don't have the Nexus Pass, none of the outer worlds are in any danger.  If you used the Nexus Pass to enter the Nightmare Vault, and one of the Grimnexes got his hands on it, it would all be over.  As such, you are forbidden to enter the Nightmare Vault under any circumstances."

"You think I care?" Mario inquired angrily.  "I'm not going to let some old geezer tell me what to do.  He doesn't think Peach's life is worth the risk because she's not his wife!"

"That's not the only reason," Grambi informed him.  "Haven't you been wondering why the doctors didn't bandage your arm?  Roll up your sleeve and take a look at it."

Black Heart

Mario complied, slowly pulling his sleeves up to reveal his arm, which had been severely wounded in his battle against Ipos.  The plumber's eyes widened with fear.  Over his arm, a black, bone-line substance had begun to form.  "What... what is that?"

"It's just as I feared.  Your Demon Exoskeleton has already started to form," Grambi stated grimly.

"My what...?"

"Each day, the demon soul within you is coming closer and closer to seizing control.  The Demon Exoskeleton is a skeletal structure that begins to form in the later stages of this process.  Ultimately, it will cover your entire body, and your demon ancestor will take control," Grambi explained solemnly.

"I thought I got rid of him, but I guess not..." Mario whispered, terrified at the skeletal material that was growing on his arm.

"Previously, the struggle between you and your ancestor was mostly psychological.  However, the appearance of a Demon Exoskeleton means that this battle will also start to become physical.  If a particular body part is entirely covered by the Demon Exoskeleton, your inner demon will be able to control it at will without even taking control of your mind.  When the transformation is complete, you will resemble a black skeleton, and your demon ancestor's flesh will begin to cover the bones.  Once that happens, it will all be over.  You will become a permanent prisoner in your own body."

"Why... why are you telling me this...?" Mario inquired fearfully.  "I mean, what does this have to do with Zeus prohibiting me from entering the Nightmare Vault."

"Isn't it obvious?  The Nightmare Vault is the home of the demons.  The air is thick with Inequity, an energy that demons feed of off.  Within the Nightmare Abyss, the concentration of Inequity is even greater.  If you enter the Nightmare Abyss in an attempt to rescue Princess Peach, the demon within you will become stronger, and the Demon Exoskeleton will grow at an even faster rate."

"I see..." Mario mumbled, staring blankly at the wall.  It's just as I thought...  I could feel my demon ancestor growing closer each day...  This Demon Exoskeleton is proof of it...  It's only a matter of time before I lose control...  "This demon inside of me...  Isn't there any way I can get rid of it...?"

Tension filled the air.  Grambi did not respond.  "Forgive me...  Our demon ancestor has chosen you as his host...  There's nothing we can do..."

A feeling of dread began to overwhelm them.  Hoping to change the subject, Mario returned to the matter of Peach's rescue.  "Even so, I still have to try-"

"Don't be a fool, Mario!  You've got too many things working against you!  Peach is being guarded by over a dozen Grimnexes, most of your comrades are dead, and entering the vault would only strengthen your demon ancestor!  And above all, Zeus, the governor of all realms of reality, has ordered you to stay put!"

Mario hung his head in defeat.  "It just isn't fair...  We were so close...  We could have lived the rest of our lives in peace..."

"I'm sorry," Grambi apologized, his conscience weighing heavily with his son's sorrow.  "I may have sounded a bit harsh, but you have to admit that attempting to rescue Peach would be suicidal.  Please, Mario... give up on her..."  He patted his son on the shoulder before approaching the exit.  "I'll give you some time to think things over..."

Now sitting alone in his hospital room, Mario sighed with frustration.  "Why...  What do they want with Peach...?  I feel so helpless..."  He closed his eyes and remembered Ipos' cold expression as he took Peach away from him.  "That Grimnex... Ipos...  They way he looked down on me... The way he treated Peach...  He thinks that she's just a tool to further the Grimnexes' goals..."

"You didn't even land a single hit on me, and I'm not even the highest ranking Grimnex.  Not only that, but I wasn't even trying.  I didn't even use my Final Smash."  He held his blade above Mario.  "Now do you understand?  No matter how strong your desire is to save her, Princess Peach belongs to us now.  You could never hope to take on the remaining Grimnexes by yourself."

"Keep this scar as a reminder of the impossibility of Peach's rescue.  And remember that if we ever meet again, you'll lose that arm."

With images of Ipos flooding his mind, Mario slowly rose to his feet.  He opened the window and gazed at the horizon.  Ever since Peach's abduction, the sky had been covered with a layer of thick, gray clouds.  As Mario glanced at the golden ring on his finger, he remembered the vows that he and Peach had exchanged.  At that moment, Mario understood what he had to do.


"This is a joke, right?" Bowser inquired hesitantly.  "Could... could you repeat that?"

"I need your help," Mario reiterated sincerely.  "Trust me, if it was for anything else, I wouldn't ask.  But there's no one left in this kingdom for me to turn to!  Crimson wiped almost all of my friends and family members out.  We're the only ones left.  And while you may not be the toughest person who has ever kidnapped Peach, out of all of them, you still have the biggest heart.  I know that you're always trying to act like my rival, but deep down, you're really not such a bad person."

"...Seriously?  You mean it, don't you?  I never thought I'd see the day...  The legendary Super Mario is actually groveling at my feet!" Bowser cackled.  "You can complement me all you want; there's no way I'm joining up with you.  Haven't I helped you enough already?  Whether it was against Smithy, Fawful, Count Bleck, or Crimson, I've always ended up shouldering most of the burden whenever your precious kingdom was in danger.  What is it this time?"

Mario grinned.  He's just as arrogant as ever.  This'll be easier than I thought.  "Well, you see, I just wanted to let you know that your role as my rival is most likely going to be replaced.  The other day, this demon came along, beat me, and took Princess Peach away- and on his first try, too.  Things aren't looking too good for your reputation, especially considering how easily your army was beaten by Crimson's."

"Wait, what?!  The princess has been kidnapped?!"

Mario nodded.  "Yeah, and I don't think I can rescue her alone.  I was going to ask you to come with me, but if you're too busy..."

Bowser raised his eyebrows with suspicion.  "I see what you're trying to do...  You think I'll fall for the same cliché as always, don't you?  I've got a better idea.  Why don't I just let you rescue Princess Peach?  Then, once you get back, it'll be the perfect opportunity to make my move!"

"Yeah, but... aren't you supposed to, uh... not tell me that?  Besides, your plan is useless if I can't even manage to retrieve Peach.  Think about it this way.  If you come with me, you can steal the spotlight from me, prove that you're a better villain than the Grimnexes, and impress Peach all at the same time," Mario explained. 

The Koopa King remained silent.

"Please, Bowser...  I don't know what they're planning to do with Peach...  She might not have much time left..." Mario pleaded, determined to persuade Bowser to assist him at all costs.

At last, Bowser answered.  "Well...  If you're going to be so pathetic about it, I guess I can go with you.  But don't think for a minute that I'll be your obedient little sidekick.  If you end up slowing me down, you'll be on your own."

"Right.  I'll keep that in mind," the plumber chuckled triumphantly.

"So, when do we leave?"

Mario shrugged.  "I was hoping we could go right now.  There are some people that don't exactly approve of my plans to rescue Peach, so I'd like to get going as soon as possible."

Final Mission

"Mario, are you sure you want to go through with this?" the Master inquired.  Deep beneath Mushroom Castle, many of Mario's closest friends had gathered to see him off.  At last, the time had come for Mario and Bowser to face off against the Grimnexes.

Mario nodded.  "For these past four months, I've been trying to ignore the threat of a Grimnex invasion.  Peach's kidnapping has reminded me that my duty as the Mushroom Hero isn't over yet.  Four months ago, I promised Ace that I would meet him in the Nightmare Vault.  Now it's time for me to keep that promise."

"Can we get on with this?" Bowser grumbled impatiently.  "It's not that big of a deal.  Nothing's going to happen to us.  After all, I'll be assisting Mario."

Mario reached into his pocket and removed a golden cube with an 'N' engraved on it.  "Right.  Let's get going."  With a wave of the Nexus Pass, Mario caused a swirling purple vortex to open in front of them.  "Once we jump inside of that portal, we'll be in the Nexus.  You aren't having any second thoughts, are you?"

Bowser shook his head.

"Wait!" an elderly voice called from the stairway that connected to Mushroom Castle.  Grambi emerged from the darkness, a faint grin on his face.  "I had a feeling that you'd be here.  You were never one to play by the rules."

"Don't worry about the Nexus Pass being stolen.  That's why I brought everyone here," Mario assured him.  He tossed the Nexus Pass to the Master.  "Guard this with your life.  I want all of you to take turns monitoring the Nexus.  Once every hour, I want you to use the Nexus Pass to open the gateway to the Nightmare Vault.  If I'm not there, close the gate immediately and wait for another hour to pass.  This way, there won't be a risk of the Nexus Pass being stolen, and I won't be trapped in the Nightmare Vault after I rescue Peach."

"I can see that you've thought of everything," Grambi sighed with a nod.  "Very well.  I won't stop you.  As long as the Nexus Pass isn't taken into the Nightmare Vault, I suppose Zeus won't mind."

Mario smiled.  "Thanks, Dad.  If you could, show them how to use the Nexus Pass.  The success of this rescue counts on all of you.  After all, even if I manage to rescue Peach, it will all be for nothing if we can't return from the Nightmare Vault."

"Good luck, you two."

Bowser entered the portal, and Mario began to follow.  Just before departing, he turned around and gave them a thumbs up.  "Don't worry about me.  We'll be back in no time.  Peach is going to be just fine.  And once we get back, this kingdom can finally live in peace, just like it was meant to."  With a firm nod, he turned and leapt into the vortex that led to the Nexus.  The war with the Grimnexes was about to begin.

Ruined Landscape

"I can't believe four months have already passed," remarked a tall demon with jet black hair.  He wore a long white coat and black pants, and a deck of cards was strapped to his waist.  The demon smiled.  "It's been a while, Slade."

"You're awfully cheerful, Ace, considering the circumstances," Slade replied grumpily.  He wore a tattered red cape, black pants, and a silver vest.  A sword was sheathed readily at his waist, and his arms were covered in bandages.  He had spiky brown hair, the bangs of which partially hid his bitter gaze.  "So, have you gotten any stronger in these past four months?"

Ace nodded.  "Of course.  I learned a lot about the abilities of my nearly-extinct clan, the Zepar tribe.  How has your stay in the Nightmare Vault been treating you?"

"Meh.  I still couldn't find my parents," Slade grumbled.  "The only place I have left to search is the Nightmare Abyss.  Though I doubt I'll find them there, it's the only place I haven't checked yet, besides the Underwhere.   They've done well to avoid me for this long, but I'll find them, and when I do..."  His body began to tremble with rage at the mere thought of his parents.  "I'll make them suffer for what they did to me...  They treated me like trash... and then left me to die..."

"Slade, I understand that you've made it your life's goal to find and eliminate your parents, but is it really worth it?  What will happen once you've satisfied your thirst for vengeance?  It will only cause you to feel more emptiness."

"Enough.  I'm tired of waiting.  Where is Mario?  He was supposed to be here."

"I suppose he's running late."

Slade began to walk away.  "I'm going ahead.  You can catch up with me later."

"Wait, Slade!" Ace called after him, but he was too late.  Slade had already vanished into the distance.

"Maybe I should have gone with Slade," Ace sighed impatiently.  "It's already been a few hours since he went off on his own.  Maybe Mario isn't going to show up after all."  Just as he was about to give up hope, two silhouettes appeared in the distance.  They were approaching him, and fast.  Ace peered at the oncoming strangers.  "Who could they be...?  It couldn't be Mario; he was supposed to come alone... Are they Grimnexes?  No...  They're coming from the wrong direction..."  His confused frown curled into a relieved smile as he finally recognized the two figures.

"Sorry I'm late," Mario apologized, out of breath.  "I had to convince this lug to come with me."

"I'm not the one who spent all of that time saying his goodbyes," Bowser retorted.

"I thought we could use some backup," Mario explained.  "It's good to see you again.  Where's Slade?"

"He went off on his own a few hours ago.  If we hurry, we might be able to catch up with him."  Ace glared at Mario in astonishment.  What happened to him?  He's changed...  He's not the same depressed plumber that I knew four months ago.  He seems... focused...  "So...  What happened with Crimson?"

Mario began to stroke his chin.  "Hmm... Where to begin...?  It's a pretty long story.  I'll explain it on the way to the Nightmare Abyss.  You know how to get there, right?"

Ace nodded.  "Yes.  Follow me."


Chapter 2: Guard at the Gate

Ruined Landscape

"And that's pretty much the full story," Mario concluded as he, Ace, and Bowser jogged through the depths of the Nightmare Vault.  Even as he spoke, Mario could feel the air around them growing colder.  Soon, they would be in the Grimnexes' territory.

"How awful...  I'm sorry I couldn't have been there to help," Ace apologized, the death of Mario's friends and family weighing heavily on his conscience.  "If I hadn't been so preoccupied with the Grimnexes, I... "

"Don't worry about it.  It's not your fault," Mario assured him, noticing the pained expression on the demon's face.  "First Glaive, and now Luigi...  I know it's hard to lose a comrade...  But right now, we can't afford to dwell in the past.  We need to focus on the Grimnexes.  Ace, how close are we to the Nightmare Abyss?"

"We're here," Ace replied as the three unlikely allies stopped dead in their tracks.  "Did you notice the severe temperature drop?  The Grimnexes are the most powerful demons in existence; the Inequity emanating from their bodies has created an imbalance in the Nightmare Abyss.  In some areas, the concentration of Inequity is greater, and therefore the temperature will be higher. We are in an area where only a few Grimnexes reside, which is why the temperature is much lower."

"So basically, the Grimnexes in this area are weaklings," Bowser chuckled.  "Good to know.  Let's get started."

Ace held his arm in front of Bowser.  "Wait.  The Grimnexes aren't as dumb as you think.  Their security has to be better than this."

"You should listen to your friend, foolish turtle," a menacing voice whispered.  The ground quickly froze over, and a pillar of ice began to rise in front of them.  The trio gasped as the column of ice began to take the shape of a demon.  "What an interesting group of intruders...  There's a demon, a turtle, and a human."

"He's huge..." Mario muttered in astonishment.  The Grimnex that had appeared before them was at least nine feet tall.  His muscular, powerfully built body only added to his voluminous structure.  This Grimnex wore a suit of ice, likely for protection.

"Welcome to the Nightmare Abyss.  I am Cerberus, the Omega Grimnex.  As the gatekeeper of the Nightmare Abyss, it is my job to prevent unworthy life forms from entering," the Grimnex informed them.

Bowser stepped forward, grinning from ear to ear.  "The Omega Grimnex, huh?  Give me a break.  Who was the idiot who thought that the weakest Grimnex would be best suited for scaring off trespassers?"

Cerberus sighed.  "You should keep your mouth shut, turtle.  You aren't making a very good first impression.  If you enter the Nightmare Abyss with that frame of mind, you'll never make it out alive.  If you live to see another day, remember this: judging a Grimnex solely by his rank is a fatal mistake.  When up against a Grimnex, you must always consider what his or her Final Smash is, among many other things."

"I'm not a turtle," Bowser hissed, ignoring Cerberus' advice.  "I'm a Koopa.  And I'm not just some underling like you are; I'm the Koopa King."

"In that case, you must not be a very good king if your Koopa underlings weren't even powerful enough to bring here.  A strong soldier with reliable comrades is always superior to a feeble king with useless minions."

Bowser roared with frustration before charging angrily at the Grimnex.  Cerberus merely smirked before pressing his palms to the frozen ground.  Ace opened his mouth to warn his ally, but it was too late.  Hundreds of ice shards rose from the ground and surrounded the trio of heroes.  In a flash, the fragments connected and formed a colossal dome of ice around Mario, Ace, and Bowser.

"Hey!  Let us out, you creep!" Bowser screamed, bashing the icy walls with his fists.

Grimnex Theme

"Is there no end to your stupidity?" Cerberus inquired with a sigh of disappointment.  "Didn't you hear what I told you before?  If you want to get out of the Nightmare Abyss alive, you must understand that a Grimnex's abilities and Final Smash can, if used properly, allow him to defeat a Grimnex ranked above him.  I may be the weakest in terms of basic strength, but don't think for a second that I was chosen for the eternal duty of guarding the Nightmare Abyss because of my rank."

"Wait a minute... Of course!" Ace gasped in sudden realization.  "It all makes sense now...  I was wondering why he'd bother to tell us his rank before fighting us!"

"So, you've finally figured it out.  It is traditional for a Grimnex to tell an opponent his name and rank at the beginning of a fight.  However, it isn't because we feel like being nice.  It's because we know that our opponents will make assumptions about us as soon as we tell them our rank.  The one called Bowser is a prime example.  As soon as I told him that I was the Omega Grimnex, he assumed that I was weak just because I was the lowest ranking Grimnex.  He didn't even bother to think about what my Final Smash might be, and that's why your group ended up trapped inside of my Igloo Prison."

"Ah, so it's an igloo.  Not bad, but you forgot to add the exit," Mario remarked, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

"Mock me while you can.  This isn't any ordinary igloo.  As long as you remain trapped inside, it will drain you of your strength and use it to fortify the walls of ice," Cerberus explained.  "That is why I was chosen to guard the Nightmare Abyss.  I can easily trap enemies and drain their stamina, rendering them helpless.  Plus, this is the perfect location for me to use my abilities.  Because none of the Grimnexes besides me reside in the outskirts of the Nightmare Abyss, the concentration of Inequity is extremely low.  That's why this area is so cold.  Conditions like these may be bothersome to you, but they are perfect for using my Igloo Prison."

Ace hung his head in defeat.  "We've underestimated the intelligence of the Grimnexes..."

"Maybe so, but that doesn't mean we won't be able to find a way out," Mario stated optimistically as he formed a Fireball in his palm.  "For someone who just ranted about how dumb we are, you're not so clever yourself.  So what if you trapped us inside of a giant igloo?  It won't do you any good if your foe has any sort of fire-based technique under his belt."  He planted his flaming fist into the icy wall, causing it to begin to melt.  Before even the tiniest hole could form, a new layer of ice froze over the area that had been thawed.

"Gwahahaha!  That was pathetic!" Bowser cackled, stepping in front of the plumber.  "Lemme try!"

"You're just wasting your energy," Cerberus informed them smugly.  "The Igloo Prison isn't made up of just any ice; it has my Inequity flowing through it.  As long as I continue to channel my Inequity into the igloo, any damage done to the walls will be instantly repaired."

After Bowser's flame breath failed to create an exit, Mario stepped forward once again.  "In that case, I'll just have to try a little harder.  Stand back, Bowser."  He cupped his hands together and formed a much larger Fireball than before.  He aimed his opened palms at the wall, releasing a wave of flames that made Bowser turn his head in envy.  This opened a hole in the igloo, but it was only slightly larger than Mario's fist.  Before he could do anything to expand the breach, it was quickly repaired with ice created from Cerberus' Inequity.

"If your Ultra Fireball didn't work, we're in trouble," Ace sighed.  "We need to think of something, and fast."

"Don't worry; give me some time and I'll make a hole big enough for all of us to escape!" Bowser declared, furiously pummeling the wall with his fists.

"Hey, Cerberus.  You may want to reconsider this.  After all, you've trapped one of your own comrades," Ace informed the Grimnex calmly.  "That's right.  Besides me, one of us is actually a demon.  Can't you feel his Inequity?"

"I'll admit, I did feel something abnormal coming from one of you," Cerberus replied, holding his ear to the outside of the igloo.

"That's right," Ace continued.  "He might even be a Grimnex.  How would your superiors react if you killed such an important ally?"

"Nice try, but I don't care who I kill.  My job is to guard the entrance to the Nightmare Abyss.  Human, demon, Grimnex, or even turtle- those who are unable to defeat me are not allowed to enter the Nightmare Abyss.  It's as simple as that."

Mario began to pace back and forth.  "It's no use.  Bowser is gonna keep hammering at the walls until he collapses, and Ace is busy playing mind games with Cerberus.  I might as well try to find a way out of here on my own."  There has to be something we can do...  He's the weakest of the Grimnexes, after all...  He's got to have some sort of fatal flaw...  Suddenly, an idea struck him.  "Wait a minute...  It feels colder over here..."  He dashed to the opposite end of the ice dome.  "And over here, it starts to get warmer...  In fact, the temperature fluctuates drastically in different areas of the igloo...  But what does it mean?" 


Mario's eyes widened.  "Of course!"  The words that Ace had spoken earlier flowed into his mind:

"Did you notice the severe temperature drop?  The Grimnexes are the most powerful demons in existence; the Inequity emanating from their bodies has created an imbalance in the Nightmare Abyss.  In some areas, the concentration of Inequity is greater, and therefore the temperature will be higher. We are in an area where only a few Grimnexes reside, which is why the temperature is much lower."

Next, he remembered something that Cerberus had told him:

"The Igloo Prison isn't made up of just any ice; it has my Inequity flowing through it."

"It all makes sense now!" Mario exclaimed.  He scuttled to the coldest area of the dome.  "Yeah, this might actually work...  Hey, Bowser!  Come over here for a second!  Try hitting this spot with your flame breath!"

"Uh...  I'm not sure what the difference is, but okay..."  The Koopa King took a deep breath before exhaling a column of flames.  To his surprise, the inferno melted through the wall of ice with ease, creating a gap large enough for each of the heroes to fit through.  With a triumphant cry, the three heroes dove through the breach and escaped from Cerberus' Igloo Prison.

"Mario...  How did you know which part of the igloo to strike?" Ace inquired in astonishment.

"No matter what his abilities may be, he's still the Omega Grimnex.  Because he can't control his Inequity as well as higher-ranked Grimnexes, the flow of Inequity inside of the igloo wasn't uniform.  In some parts, the concentration of Inequity was extremely high, causing the temperature to increase.  Likewise, certain areas inside of the igloo were enforced with less Inequity, causing the temperature to drop.  It was all thanks to you, Ace.  What you told us before really came in handy."

"Ingenious..." Ace breathed.  "Once he figured that out, all he had to do was find the coldest area of the igloo.  Because the coldest part would have the least amount of Inequity reinforcing it, Mario knew that it would be the perfect spot to attack."

Bowser scratched his head in confusion.  "I'm not really sure what you're talking about; I'm just glad that I was the one who got us out of there."

"I'm impressed...  Few have deduced the weakness of my Prison Igloo," Cerberus commended them.  "You may have overcome my Final Smash, but you still haven't faced me in combat."

"If you insist on fighting us, I'll take you on," Mario declared boldly.

"Alone?  Are you sure that you won't need any help from your friends?" Cerberus inquired with a smirk.

Mario shook his head.  "If I can't even beat the weakest Grimnex on my own, how can I expect to rescue Peach?"  He closed his eyes, and an image of Ipos appeared inside of his head.  "Besides, I still need to prove myself to someone...  I have to show him that I can take on the Grimnexes..."

Grimnex Battle

"Whatever you say," Cerberus chuckled as he smashed his fists against the ground, sending a wave of jagged ice toward the plumber.

"Stay back, you two.  I'll handle this on my own," Mario warned his companions.  After receiving a nod from both Ace and Bowser, the Mushroom Hero turned his attention to Cerberus' approaching attack.  He looked up at the ice wave and immediately understood that it was too tall to jump over.  Instead, he created a Fireball in his fist and sprinted at the oncoming wall of ice.  With a flaming right hook, the plumber melted a hole through the ice, causing the wave to pass right by him.

"You're pretty good at using the Fireball technique, aren't you?  Very well; let's see how you deal with multiple ice waves," Cerberus declared, pounding the ground with his fists yet again.

"Too easy," Mario snickered, creating a Fireball in each of his palms.  The Mushroom Hero punched holes through every ice wave that got close enough to him, all the while drawing closer and closer to Cerberus.  Once he finally reached the Grimnex, Mario leapt at him with a mighty flaming hook.  However, just as his fist was about to connect with Cerberus, the Grimnex shattered into hundreds of ice shards that fell to the ground.

"Nice work, Mario!" Ace cheered from a distance.

"I didn't do that!" Mario shouted back, staring at the ice fragments in confusion.  After a few moments, the shards began to levitate above the plumber's head.  All at once, the sharp ice fragments launched themselves directly at Mario, creating several minor cuts all across his body.  The ice shards then began to merge, causing Cerberus to reform.

"Did I happen to mention that I possessed the ability to separate my body into tiny ice crystals?" Cerberus inquired with a sarcastic leer.

"It must've slipped your mind," Mario remarked dryly as he rose to his feet.

"Mario, are you alright?" Ace called, a concerned look on his face.

"I'm fine," Mario replied.  "These cuts aren't deep or fatal."  He glared at his opponent.  This Grimnex...  I can tell that he's a lot weaker than Ipos.  He's slow, and his attacks aren't that dangerous...  Even so, his unique abilities still make him tough to beat.  If I get too close, he'll just separate and attack me with his ice fragments.  If I attack with Fireballs from a distance, he'll counterattack with those ice waves.

"What's the matter?  Is something on your mind?" Cerberus sneered.

"Not at all," Mario responded, charging up another Fireball in his palm.  "I've got an idea...  First, I'll test it out..."  Just like before, Mario sprinted directly toward Cerberus.  He lunged at the Grimnex, who split himself into ice crystals once again.  The shards attempted to injure Mario once more, but this time, the plumber was ready.  With a swift roll to the side, Mario narrowly dodged the majority of the ice fragments.  He watched the crystals intently as they reassembled themselves to form Cerberus.

"You said it yourself: if you can't even defeat the weakest Grimnex, how can you possible save Princess Peach?  As the guardian of the Nightmare Abyss, it is my job to keep out those who are unworthy of setting foot in the land of the Grimnexes.  If this is the best you can do, I'm afraid I'll have to send you back where you came from."


"Sorry about that.  This time, I'll make sure I hit you," Mario chuckled as he cupped his hands together.  Confident that his plan would succeed, the Mushroom Hero created an Ultra Fireball.  For the third time, Mario charged at the Omega Grimnex.  Just as expected, Cerberus split himself into tiny crystals of ice.  Mario stopped dead in his tracks and focused his attention on the approaching ice fragments.  With his free hand, the plumber lunged forward into the flurry of ice shards, managing to grab a handful of them.  Next, he sprinted at the cluster of ice crystals, which had already begun to rebuild Cerberus.

"And what did that accomp-" Cerberus stopped in midsentence to gasp for air.  He looked down and saw a gaping hole in his chest.  His entire body trembling, Cerberus pointed angrily at the shards in Mario's hand.  "How did... you know...?"

Mario grinned triumphantly.  "Well, when I saw you reassemble for the first time, I figured that you'd probably need all of your ice fragments to reform properly.  That's when it came to me: the best way to defeat you was to steal some of the ice shards that make up the structure of your body.  The only problem was, I didn't know which ones to take.  I decided to conduct a little experiment when I attacked you the second time.  I watched the ice shards carefully this time and tried to determine if specific shards fit into certain places.  I kept my focus on one crystal in particular, and when your body reassembled, the crystal ended up in the same exact spot on your body as when you separated.  With that knowledge, all I had to do was keep my eye on the shards that were in the general area of your vital organs.  When you separated for the third time, I nabbed them, and, well, you know the result.  Like a puzzle that's missing some of its pieces, you can't function properly."

"Brilliant..." Ace gasped as his mouth curled into an astonished smile.  "It's been a while since I've watched him fight.  I don't know why, but there's just something about him...  It seems as though there isn't anything he can't do...  I swear, that man never ceases to amaze me.  Every time I see him, he proves not only his strength, but his ingenuity as well."

"Eh, I guess he's kind of cool," Bowser admitted.  "But that was against the weakest Grimnex!  I could've beaten him in half the time!"

An Ultra Fireball still gleaming in his palm, Mario sprinted at the vulnerable Cerberus and dealt a deadly flaming punch to his gut.  The Grimnex toppled onto the ground with a cry of agony.  "So, what's the verdict?  Have I earned your approval?  Am I worthy of entering the Nightmare Abyss?" Mario inquired.

Looking Forward

Cerberus nodded weakly.  "You've... proven yourself...  Now... finish me..."

"I didn't come here to kill the Grimnexes," Mario replied.  "I came here to rescue Peach.  I'm not afraid to eliminate a Grimnex if necessary, but I don't see much of a reason to finish you off if you aren't planning to stand in my way anymore."  The plumber dropped the ice fragments beside Cerberus.  "These are yours."

"Mario, what are you doing?!" Ace thundered.  "As usual, you're being too soft!"

Cerberus used the ice shards to fill the gap in his chest.  "I thank you for your kindness.  Mario, you are a man of true character.  Your focus is clear.  Perhaps you can rescue Princess Peach."  He turned to Ace.  "However, I am sure that you came here for a different purpose.  I can tell that you are a member of the Zepar tribe.  If you wish to obtain vengeance, I will offer you my life."

There was a long silence as Ace contemplated his next move.  "Don't be ridiculous," he answered at last.  "Maybe it's just Mario's softness rubbing off on me, but I don't want to kill you.  It wouldn't feel right.  Besides, we already have an avenger among us.  I wouldn't want to take that title away from Slade."

Cerberus began to stroke his chin.  "Slade?  You wouldn't happen to be referring to the human that passed through here not too long ago?"

"Yeah, what happened to him?" Mario asked eagerly.  "Did you fight him?"

"Well, I tried, but he ran right past me.  He asked me if I knew the location of a certain couple.  After pointing him in their general direction, he sped off before I could say another word.  I could have tried to pursue him, but when I saw the look of pure hatred in his eyes, I could tell that he would be able to defeat me with ease.  I decided to let him slip by, but I had no idea that he had reinforcements behind him."

Ace thought for a moment.  "If you helped him, maybe you could help us too.  Do you know where Princess Peach is being held?"

"In the center of the Nightmare Abyss is the Grimnex Palace.  Right now, she is being held at the top floor.  But as soon as preparations for the Phoenix Salvation are complete, she will be used as a human sacrifice.  If you intend to rescue her, you'd better do so before the ceremony begins."

Mario nodded.  "Okay, what can you tell me about Ipos?

Cerberus gasped.  "Ipos...  He's a sketchy one...  He's not very friendly, but his loyalty to the Phoenix is unquestionable.  Not many people know much about him, but I've heard some refer to him as 'he who slaughtered a thousand angels'.  He's one of the most powerful Grimnexes, and there's a rumor going around that he's tougher than the Beta Grimnex.  But that can't be right.  If that was the case, why didn't he become the leader of the Grimnexes instead of Zagan?"

"That's interesting; thanks for the info.  Before we go, I have one more question.  Some of my friends died recently, but they didn't go to the Underwhere.  You wouldn't happen to know what could have happened to them, would you?"

The Grimnex scratched his head.  "Hmm...  There is a possibility that they were taken to the Purgatory...  It's a research facility northeast from here.  I've never personally been there, but I've heard that it's a place where banished Grimnexes conduct all sorts of twisted experiments.  It's your best shot at finding them, I suppose."

Ace gulped.  "The Purgatory...  I never thought I'd be paying that place a visit..."

"What's wrong?" Mario asked, sensing Ace's anxiety.  "Have you heard of the Purgatory before?"

"It's nothing..." Ace sighed, gazing off into the distance.  "Let's keep moving.  We can't waste any more time."

"Yeah, let's go!" Bowser urged them.  "Mario has had his share of the spotlight.  The next Grimnex we encounter is mine!"

As Ace and Bowser began to jog toward their next destination, Mario turned to Cerberus.  "Are you sure it's okay for you to just let us pass?  Won't you be accused of treason?"

"I have spent the past few centuries alone, rarely speaking with other Grimnexes.  Unlike the majority of my comrades, I am not entirely loyal to the Phoenix or his underlings.  My true passion lies in my eternal duty as guardian of the Nightmare Abyss.  You have shown me that you are capable of holding your own against a Grimnex.  Therefore, I am obligated to permit you to enter.  It's as simple as that."

Mario began to walk away.  "I see...  In that case, wish me luck."

"Farewell, Mario.  Perhaps we'll meet again someday."

The plumber grinned.  "Of course we will; you'll see me while I'm on my way out- after I save Peach, that is."  With that, the Mushroom Hero sprinted off to catch up with Ace and Bowser.

As Cerberus returned to his post, he did not notice a thirst for blood looming nearby.  Someone had been watching his battle against Mario.  "Traitor," the Grimnex hissed, clutching a tall axe in one hand.  Mario... the Mushroom Hero...  I'll have to keep an eye on him... but first, I must deal with Cerberus' betrayal and file a report to Zagan.  Yes, then I'll be able to spill a human's blood for the first time in decades...


Chapter 3: The Purgatory

Demonic Plot

"A traitor, you say?" Zagan inquired with feigned interest.  "The Omega Grimnex...  In truth, I had forgotten about him.  He didn't seem to be as enthusiastic about the Phoenix's cause as the rest of us.  So, Ares, have you taken any action against him?"

"Cerberus breathes no more," Ares responded with a grin.  "As expected, he went down quickly.  He refused to tell me anything, but I had already witnessed enough.  In total, he allowed four outsiders to enter the Nightmare Abyss.  One entered by himself, followed by a group of three.  So far, I've identified two of them.  One is the former leader of Poker Face, Ace Spades.  The other is Slade, a human who made quite a name for himself in the Nightmare Vault after being raised by demons."

"So, Slade has returned?  How interesting.  I'm sure he'll be surprised once he finds what he's looking for. So many things have changed since he left...  By the way, was one of them garbed in blue overalls and a red shirt and cap?"

Ares thought for a moment.  "Yes, I believe so."

"Ah, so Mario took the bait after all.  Ares, I'd like you to keep an eye on Mario."

A wicked leer spread across Ares' face.  "Don't worry; I was already planning to.  I haven't had the opportunity to fight a human in decades.  I can't wait to spill his blood."

"Not yet.  I want you to spend some time studying Mario's group," Zagan commanded firmly.  "I'm sure that Mario will be paying a visit to the Purgatory.  I want to see how he handles the horrors that await him inside..."

"Fine, but if another Grimnex attempts to finish him off, I'll be forced to step in.  As of right now, Mario's head belongs to me."  With that, Ares slung his axe over his shoulders and stormed out of the throne room.  "No one will deny me the pleasure of this kill."

Zagan sighed.  "Hmm...  Everyone seems so eager to eliminate the Mushroom Hero.  I'm beginning to question the wisdom of informing Ipos about Mario.  He'll likely take this matter into his own hands, and I doubt Mario is ready to face him...  If Mario dies before the Demon Exoskeleton is complete, all of my efforts will have been for naught."

"Judging by how you reacted to Cerberus' mentioning of the Purgatory, Ace, I'd say you've heard of it before," Mario recalled as he, Ace, and Bowser jogged in the direction that Cerberus had pointed to.  "What can you tell me about it?  Do you really think Luigi, Wario, and Waluigi might be trapped inside?"

Ace gulped.  "I've only heard rumors, but either way...  Nothing good can come from visiting that place...  It's an abandoned laboratory that is rumored to be the dwelling of some of the most twisted and insane Grimnexes in existence.  I've heard that they often intercept the dead as they travel through the Nexus to the Underwhere.  If a person interests them enough while they are alive, these Grimnexes will actually wait for his or her time of death, and just as their prey is being transported from the living world to the Underwhere, they nab their victim and return to the depths of the Nightmare Abyss.  Once there, the victims are confined within the walls of the Purgatory, never to be seen again.  They are doomed to spend all of eternity as prisoners and test subjects of the merciless Grimnexes that dwell within the Purgatory."

"That's awful," Mario replied with a grimace.  "Even if Luigi and the Wario Brothers aren't trapped inside, I still feel obligated to free all of the prisoners.  No one deserves that kind of torture."

"Getting distracted already?" Bowser inquired, abruptly stopping dead in his tracks.  "If you want to waste your time saving the helpless captives of the Purgatory, go right ahead.  But don't expect me to lend a hand.  I already told you that I wouldn't be your obedient little sidekick.  I came here to steal Peach for myself, not to take part in community service."

"But Bowser," Mario protested, "if we free Luigi and the others, rescuing Peach will be a cinch.  I don't know how much farther we can get with just the three of us."

"I don't need anyone's help to take care of the Grimnexes," Bowser answered stubbornly.  "You two are just along for the ride.  I'm the brawn of this operation.  I could slay all of the Grimnexes at once, but they're all hiding inside of their little palace.  First, I'm gonna knock down their puny fortress with my bare fists, and then I'm gonna show them how a real villain builds his hideout."

Without further argument, Bowser stormed off in the direction of Grimnex Palace.  Mario attempted to go after him, but Ace stopped him.  "Face it, Mario, he's gone.  His stubbornness and arrogance would have only gotten in our way.  He's just going to have to learn his lesson the hard way.  Once he gains an appreciation for how powerful the Grimnexes are, he'll be back."

"I guess you're right," Mario agreed.  "He'll be okay, at least until we catch up to him.  If we're lucky, he might even find and team up with Slade."  He gulped.  Just as long as he doesn't encounter one of the higher ranking Grimnexes...  If he bumps into someone like Ipos, he's screwed...

"Princess Peach, I've brought you a glass of water," Ipos informed her nonchalantly as he entered the princess' cell.  The cubicle was cold and built out of dull, gray stone.  Iron bars blocked the exit and the single window on the rear wall of the cell.  The second floor of Grimnex Palace, the Confinement Hall, was silent.  The Grimnexes were not in the habit of releasing their prisoners; most had died of malnutrition years ago.  As such, the scent of rotten flesh pervaded the hallway.  Princess Peach had been revolted by the scent at first, but she quickly grew accustomed to it.  The smell of death was the least of her worries.

The princess turned her head in defiance.  "I'm not thirsty."

"I don't care.  It is Zagan's will that you remain healthy for the Phoenix Salvation."  Ipos held the glass in front of her face.  "Drink it."

"I won't.  I have no wish to comply with the will of your heartless leader," Peach responded bitterly.  "I don't care what you say; I'm not going to help you."

"I know what you're thinking.  Give it up.  You are not going to escape.  You do not have the power to resist the Grimnexes," Ipos informed her icily.  He placed the glass of water on the floor beside her.  "In addition to providing you with hydration, I also came to tell you that Mario has entered the Nightmare Abyss in an attempt to rescue you.  In fact, as soon as I'm done here, I'll be taking care of him."

Peach's eyes widened at the mentioning of her husband's name.  However, her despair only grew once she realized the unlikelihood of Mario's success.  She shook her head.  What am I thinking?  I can't afford to hope anymore...  I saw Ipos crush Mario with my own eyes.  He doesn't stand a chance against the Grimnexes...

"Since your imprisonment, you've held on to a small sliver of hope.  I came here to erase that hope, to inform you that Mario's days are numbered."

"No... Please... Don't hurt Mario..." Peach pleaded, tears forming in the corners of her eyes.

Ipos exited and locked the cell door behind him.  "Mario will die, and there's nothing you can do to stop it from happening.  You should give up on your false hopes of freedom.  By the time I finish eradicating the Mushroom Hero, that glass of water beside you will be empty, and the reality of your fate will have sunken in."

Now alone, Peach buried her face in her hands.  Deep in her heart, she knew that Ipos was right.  It was time for her to accept her fate.

"This must be the place," Mario affirmed, gazing up at the dilapidated, two-story building that stood before them.  The Purgatory was constructed from worn, gray bricks, contributing to its decrepit appearance.  The sky was entirely shrouded by black clouds, but the area was occasionally lit by a flash of lightning.  "I can see why you were hesitant to come to this place."

Ace cringed with terror.  "The Purgatory...  People have described it to me countless times, but I never could have imagined it would appear this foreboding..."

Mario stepped forward.  "...We have to press on.  Is that the entrance?"  He jogged over to a set of stone double doors before giving them a firm shove.  "They won't budge.  It looks like we'll have to use force."

"No!" Ace scolded him, keeping his voice to a whisper.  "If we did that, our cover would be blown!  We can't afford to face more than one Grimnex at a time.  We'll have to move about stealthily and pick off the Grimnexes individually."

"That's great and all, but how are we supposed to get in?" Mario inquired.

Ace pointed toward an air vent near the roof of the building.  "We could use that to get in.  The only problem is... well...  I don't think I'll be able to fit through it...  You would have to go on your own..."

"True, you are a lot taller than me," Mario admitted.  "Even if you could squeeze into it, I doubt you'd be able to jump high enough to reach it."

"Fair enough.  What about you?  Should I give you a boost?"

"Nah, jumping is my specialty," Mario snickered, taking a few steps back.  He sprinted toward the wall at breakneck speeds, jumping twice to build up his momentum.  As his feet touched the ground after the second jump, Mario took a great leap into the air, flipping forward as he ascended.  The plumber gained just enough air to grasp the bottom of the air vent.  He pulled himself up and climbed inside.  "How was that?"

"Not bad," Ace replied with a smirk.  "Just make sure you remember to unlock the front doors from the inside so I can join you."

Mario nodded.  "Of course.  Let's just hope I don't get lost along the way."  Determined to liberate his friends from the Purgatory, the Mushroom Hero crawled through the vent and into the worst nightmare of his life.


"Whew, it's really hot in here," Mario observed, wiping the sweat from his forehead.  At last, he reached the end of the vent and found himself within the walls of the Purgatory.  The plumber calmly took in his surroundings.  He stood on a thin, stone walkway that bordered the mazelike hallways of the Purgatory.  Lining both sides of the corridor were dozens of prison cells, most of which contained motionless, decrepit bodies that were the result of some twisted experiment.  In the center of each hallway was a pool of lava that expanded the entire length of the corridor, though Mario could not understand why.

The plumber grimaced at the horrors that lay before him.  He began to tremble, now overwhelmed with a sudden feeling of anger.  "Who would do something like this...?  To think that so many people were deprived of an afterlife just to be trapped inside of this hell..."  Eager to find his comrades, he began to sprint down the corridor, glancing at the prisoners trapped within each cell that he passed.

I had no idea the Grimnexes were kidnapping the dead to such an extent, Mario thought to himself.  It's worse than I thought it would be...  I don't know how much longer I can bear to look at these prisoners...

As he searched through hallway after hallway, Mario began to understand the task that he had undertaken.  Each cell held a different horror to be witnessed.  Not one of them could be overlooked, because that one cell just may have belonged to Luigi.  As he plunged deeper into the nightmarish Purgatory, the atrocities grew more severe, as did his desperation.  He feared that he would be lost in the labyrinth forever, doomed to become one of the Grimnexes' eternal test subjects.

After what seemed like hours of searching, Mario stopped dead in his tracks.  In the corner of his eye, he had caught a glimpse of a disfigured but familiar body.  He turned around slowly, his body trembling with shock.  The prisoner's clothes were rugged and bloodstained, and his body was covered with cuts and bruises.  On the floor beside him was a worn cap inscribed with a green L.  Mario had found what he was looking for.

"Luigi!" Mario gasped, his eyes widening with horror.  He grasped the iron bars that stood between him and his brother.  "Bro!  Wake up!  It's me!"

No response.

"Hold on, Bro, I'll get you outta there!" Mario screamed, his fist glowing with the power of a charged Fireball.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you."

Grimnex Theme

Mario whirled around to see a tall, female demon standing before him.  She wore a ragged, baggy violet robe and had blood red hair.  Her face was cold and unsympathetic.  She was unaffected by the hundreds of suffering prisoners scattered around them.  "You are trespassing on forbidden grounds, human."

"Who are you?!" Mario challenged, advancing toward her with his fists clenched.

"It's impolite to shout while on someone else's property, but...  I am Leviathan, the Quoppa Grimnex," she informed him.  "As you can tell by my rank, I am not a conventional Grimnex.  I have been deemed obsolete, but I believe traitorous would be a better adjective to describe myself."

Mario's body was quivering with rage.  "So... This place belongs to you...?"

"Yes, and if you don't mind, I'd like to begin my newest experiment on that worthless creature in the cell behind you.  He was quite a rare find.  I've been told that he is the brother of the Mushroom Hero."

Mario could not tolerate her heartless words any longer.  His fury now at its boiling point, he sprinted at the Grimnex with his fists raised.

"I really wish Mario would hurry up," Ace sighed.  "I hope he doesn't try to liberate the Purgatory on his own.  If he gets caught, it'll all be over."

"Shouldn't you be worrying about yourself?" a wicked voice inquired.  "You were so busy wondering if your friend was discovered that you forgot to keep yourself hidden.  Fools like you won't last very long in the Nightmare Abyss."

"Ah, I was waiting for one of you to show up," Ace chuckled.  "I need someone to test my new abilities on.  So, what's your rank?  Or are you an Obsolete Grimnex?"

"My name is Kobal.  I am the only Grimnex in the Purgatory who has not been deemed archaic.  My rank is Omicron."  The Grimnex was about Ace's height and wore white pants with a black shirt.  He had long, messy blue hair, and handcuffs were strapped to his wrists, though he did not seem to mind.

Ace heaved a sigh of relief.  "Good; I was getting worried for a moment.  As long as you aren't one of the top five or ten Grimnexes, I should be able to handle you on my own."  He gestured toward the cuffs around Kobal's wrists.  "Besides, you can't even use your hands.  Are you sure about this?"

Kobal nodded.  "I'm touched that you're so concerned for my safety, but I've worn these handcuffs for centuries.  No matter how hard I try to remove them, they continue to cling to my wrists.  But I'll cut you a deal: if you can shatter the chains that bond my handcuffs together, I will lead you to the Purgatory's master release switch.  Once pressed, all of the prisoners will be freed simultaneously.  I'll even give you one free shot at breaking them."  With a tantalizing grin, he held his handcuffs in front of his body.

"I accept your challenge," Ace replied with a smirk.  He reached for the deck of cards at his waist and placed one of them in the palm of his hand.  With a swift crush, Ace crumpled the card in his fist, causing a blue energy saber to materialize in his grasp.

"I see...  You must be the lone survivor of the Zepar tribe," Kobal observed.  "I didn't expect you to be so well equipped.  Even so, I'll still let you have a free shot at my cuffs."

Ace complied, dashing at his foe with his blade gripped in both hands.  With a cry of determination, Ace struck the chains on Kobal's handcuffs with a deadly downward slash.  The demon's eyes widened.  Not even a scratch.  He used all of his might to press the blade against Kobal's chains, but to no avail.

"See?  I was telling the truth," the Grimnex taunted.  Before Ace could react, Kobal delivered a swift upward kick to his jaw, sending him soaring backward.  Ace quickly regained his footing by performing a backward handspring.  "Wow, you're pretty nimble.  I'd expect nothing less from the former leader of Poker Face."

Ace wept a small stream of blood from his chin.  He's a lot tougher than I thought he'd be.  Those handcuffs barely slow him down at all.  Ace drew another card from his deck and crushed it in his palm, creating a second energy saber.

Cursed Grimnex

His fists engulfed with flames, Mario charged at Leviathan with malice in his eyes.  He lunged at the Grimnex before unleashing a furious barrage of Fireball-enhanced punches.  Now on the defensive, Leviathan frantically caught each of her opponent's blows in her palm.  After dozens of unsuccessfully attacks, one of Mario's right hooks finally connected.  Struck in the chest, Leviathan tumbled onto her back.

"How could you do something like this...?  To think that someone could sink so low..." Mario growled, his eyes flashing red with hatred.  "My brother honorably sacrificed his life to save countless others...  And you have the nerve to deny his right to a peaceful afterlife?  Doesn't he at least deserve to rest in peace?"

Leviathan chuckled softly as she rose to her feet.  The burns on her hands and chest began to fade away.  "So, the stories about you are true.  Those punches were quite painful.  It's a shame that I am practically invulnerable to fire."  She began to cackle maniacally as her body was surrounded in an aura of flames.  "As for your brother, I couldn't care less about what he deserves.  In his lifetime, he displayed quite an impressive growth rate.  It's unbelievable how much his powers have grown since before Lord Shade's invasion of the Mushroom Kingdom.  Of course, I would have preferred to capture you, but you managed to survive your battle with Crimson.  Fortunately, fate has brought you into my hands, still alive and well.  I can't wait to examine that cursed body of yours.  You're the descendent of the Hero bloodline and a demon.  What an ironic mixture."

"Shut up..." Mario hissed, trembling with fury.  "You sicken me...  You think everyone is just a guinea pig for your twisted experiments..."

"Yes, yes I do!" Leviathan cackled as she burst into insane laughter.  She pointed her opened palms at the plumber, creating a blaze of fire that scorched everything in its path.

Caught off guard, Mario was knocked onto his back by the force of the flames.  When the inferno faded away, his body was covered with minor burns.  "That was a close call...  If I hadn't shielded my body with a thin layer of ice, my injuries would have been far more severe."

"Not bad, Mushroom Hero, but I'm going to capture you even if I have to scorch you a thousand times!"

"No," Mario answered firmly, slowly rising to his feet.  "I'm gonna free every single one of your prisoners.  Maybe you'll learn to respect the dead once I've killed you!"  His body was surrounded with a bright blue aura as he cupped his hands together, forming a colossal Iceball.  "Usually I hesitate to take away my opponent's life, but against someone as heartless as you, I can make an exception!"

"No...  Wait... anything but ice!" Leviathan shrieked as the plumber dashed toward her.  With a howl of detestation, Mario hurled an Ultra Iceball at the Grimnex.  Leviathan cried out in agony as her body became encased in ice, one of her only weaknesses.

"How intriguing," a demon from the shadows whispered to himself.  "A human that can wield fire and ice...?"  The Grimnex grinned.  I'll wait for Leviathan to finish him off, and then I'll make my move.  That human is as good as mine.


Chapter 4: A Brotherly Plight

Cursed Grimnex

Meanwhile, Ace and Kobal continued to duel around the exterior of the Purgatory.  Ace ducked under yet another roundhouse kick before retaliating with a slash of one of his energy blades.  Kobal blocked the sword with the chain connecting his handcuffs, wrapped the chain around Ace's blade, and yanked his opponent into a deadly upward kick.  With Ace's sword still gripped by his chain, Kobal attempted to pull his opponent back for another kick.  However, Ace released his blade and regained his footing.

"Those handcuffs...  Instead of accepting them as a weakness, you've turned them into a valuable asset," Ace observed with a grin.  "It seems as though I was wrong to doubt you.  Those cuffs don't slow you down at all."  He drew another card from his deck and crushed it, materializing a new energy saber to replace the one Kobal had stolen.

I see...  Without those cards, he's helpless, Kobal thought with a smirk.  If I can steal them, he won't be able to fight back.  With newfound aggression, the Grimnex sprinted toward Ace with his arms outstretched.

"What's he up to?" Ace wondered aloud as he took a fighting stance.  Without even attempting to defend himself, Kobal lunged at the deck strapped to Ace's waist.  Ace slashed downward with both of his blades, wounding each of the Grimnex's shoulders.  However, Ace failed to notice Kobal's true intention: to steal his supply of weaponry!  It was too late.  Kobal had succeeded.

Kobal leapt backward, the deck of cards in his grasp.  "Fool, did you really think I'd rush at you without even bothering to properly guard myself?  I never intended to injure you.  I just wanted these."  He triumphantly waved Ace's cards in front of his face.

"Was it really worth it?" Ace inquired with a grin.  "Those wounds on your shoulders look pretty painful.  Besides, I still have these two blades.  As long as I don't lose them, I won't even need those cards."

"Heh, you're awfully confident.  Let's just hope you don't lose your grip on those swords."

"I've met some pretty sick people in my life, but you're one of the worst," Mario spat with disgust as he looked down upon the severely injured Leviathan.  "What kind of person imprisons the dead for experimentation?"  He turned around and approached his brother's cell.  "Bro...  Just hold on a sec; I'll get you outta there."

"...I already told you...  Stay away from my test subjects!" Leviathan howled as she rose to her feet.  Mario's eyes widened as Leviathan's body began to heal itself at an alarmingly fast rate.

"What are you...?" Mario gasped, taking a step back.

"I am a human who has been scientifically combined with the corpse of a Grimnex!" Leviathan cackled, her wounds now fully healed.  "I cannot die... because this body is already dead!  No matter how many times you injure me, I'll always bounce back!"

"If I can't kill you, I'll just have to destroy your body," Mario declared boldly.  "You may be nearly invincible, but you still aren't tough enough to fight me on your own."

Leviathan grinned.  "I couldn't agree more.  I am a scientist, not a fighter.  Luckily, my Final Smash forces others to fight my battles for me."

"What do you mean?" Mario inquired, angrily clenching his fists.

Leviathan aimed her opened palms at the cell behind Mario.  "My Final Smash allows me to gain complete control over the dead.  Why do you think I surrounded myself with the bodies of so many deceased creatures?  My Final Smash allows me to waken them from their slumber and use them to do my bidding.  Allow me to use your brother as an example."

"Leave him out of this!" Mario growled as he dashed toward Leviathan.  An explosion from behind caused him to stop dead in his tracks.  He whirled around and saw that Luigi's cell had been blown open.  Mario gasped as Luigi emerged from the smoke, his body surrounded with a violet aura.  "Luigi, wanna lend me a hand?"

Mario charged at Leviathan, but Luigi leapt over his head and landed between the two of them.  "What's wrong, Bro?" Mario asked.  "Leviathan's the one who locked you up in this place.  Don't you want revenge?"

"It's your fault," Luigi replied mechanically.  "I died because you couldn't defeat Crimson on your own."

Mario's eyes shifted to Leviathan.  "You... What did you do to him?"

Desperate Struggle

"I already told you.  My Final Smash gives me complete control over the dead, and I've chosen your brother to fight this battle for me," Leviathan explained.

"Give him back!" Mario demanded, furiously sprinting toward the wicked Grimnex.  However, Luigi intervened with a right hook to his brother's face, knocking Mario onto the floor.

Leviathan smirked.  "I'm afraid Luigi isn't going to let you come near me.  Unless you're willing to kill your own brother, who has already died because of you, you'll never be able to reach me.  So, Mushroom Hero, what are you going to do now?"

His body trembling with rage, Mario slowly stood up.  "You... I didn't think you could sink any lower...  But now, you're actually using my dead brother as a shield...?  I swear... As soon as I find a way to bring Luigi back to normal, I will kill you..."

Luigi rushed toward his brother and threw another right hook, but Mario dodged it with a back-flip.  When his brother pursued him, Mario blocked all oncoming punches in his palms.  Even when he had the opportunity, the Mushroom Hero did not retaliate.  He continued to dodge Luigi's attacks, which were growing more and more dangerous by the second.  At last, Luigi struck his brother in the face, causing Mario to stagger backward.

"Luigi, you've gotta listen to me," Mario urged him, wiping the blood from his lip.  "You're being controlled...  Please, I need your help..."  Luigi responded by hurling a Fireball at him.  Mario leapt out of the way, but did not notice his brother approaching from behind.  Distracted by the explosion caused by Luigi's Fireball, Mario was taken by complete surprise when his brother struck him from behind in midair.  The Mushroom Hero tumbled onto the ground in pain before struggling to his feet.  "Bro...  Stop this...  I'm not your enemy..."

"It's your fault," Luigi repeated, his voice still monotone and emotionless.  "You weren't there for me...  When I was up against Crimson, you didn't protect me...  I died because of you...  It's your fault..."

"Luigi died because he wanted to protect me," Mario angrily informed Leviathan.  "Get your facts straight.  Luigi would never blame me for his death."

"But I'm not making him say that," Leviathan chuckled.  "I've only awakened his inner conscience and told it to fight for me.  I have no control over his physical movements or his speech.  The words that he has uttered must come from the depths of his conscience.  They are his true feelings.  So tell me, how does it feel to be hated by your own brother?  You came all this way to rescue him, and he doesn't even want to be saved.  He prefers living in this hell to returning with you to the Mushroom Kingdom.  And do you know what else?  Princess Peach feels the same way!  Your friends are growing tired of your inability to save them!  Think about it: how many people have died because you weren't there to protect them?  Come to think of it, nearly all of them perished during Crimson's invasion.  Princess Peach was one of the only survivors who truly mattered to you, and now she is gone as well.  All of your friends deserted you, so you teamed up with whoever you could find: a demon failure and an old rival- who, by the looks of it, has already abandoned you.  And it won't be long before even Ace decides to leave you behind.  Face it; you're all alone."

Mario hung his head as Leviathan's words sunk in.  Luigi took advantage of his brother's guilt and delivered a flaming uppercut to the Mushroom Hero's gut, sending him soaring above the lava pool that ran down the center of the corridor.

A wicked leer spread across Leviathan's face.  "Ah, I see that you've stumbled upon my river of magma!  Without it, the Purgatory would probably freeze over.  The only Grimnexes that live here are my husband and me.  Kobal occasionally comes by to deliver new prisoners, but he doesn't stay for long.  None of us are particularly strong; Even with the three of us, the concentration of Inequity in the air is fairly low.  That's why we need magma to flow throughout the hallways of the Purgatory.  Oh, and it also makes an excellent method of torture, as you are about to find out."

Leviathan and Luigi peeked over the edge of the platform to see if Mario had been burnt to a crisp by the river of lava.


"Leviathan, you may be onto something," Mario murmured, standing atop the frozen lava.  He leapt onto solid ground and locked eyes with the Grimnex.  "I've been pathetic.  I spent six years away from my kingdom, giving Crimson the opportunity to take away the lives of everyone I cared about.  I failed to defeat the Grimnexes, and then I returned to my kingdom to find that I had failed as the Mushroom Hero, too.  That's why I'm here.  I'm going to make things right.  I'm going to shut down this factory, and then, once I've reunited with all of my friends, we'll storm the Grimnex Palace as a team.  And whoever stands in my way, whether it'll be you, or Ipos, or the king of all Grimnexes, I'll find a way to bring Princess Peach home.  You Grimnexes can forget about your revenge...  I'm not gonna let it happen."

"That's touching, but I've already told you... you're friends don't want to be saved!" Leviathan cackled, hurling a blaze of fire at Mario.

"You're wrong," Mario shot back, blocking Leviathan's attack with the same Iceball that he had used to freeze the magma.  "I know what the Grimnexes are trying to do.  You want to plunge my friends into darkness, to make them think that they belong in the Nightmare Abyss.  But you can't erase their true feelings, you can only hide them.  I'll dig them up, no matter how deep you've buried them."

"Hmph.  If that's what you think, fine.  Luigi, I want him dead."

Luigi complied and sprinted toward his brother.  He unleashed yet another flaming punch, which Mario made no effort to dodge.  The Mushroom Hero struggled onto his feet yet again.  "Heh...  The real Luigi's punches hurt a lot more...  Yours almost tickle..."

"Fight back!" Leviathan demanded as Luigi continued to pummel him. 

Mario didn't even raise his fists to defend himself.  "I won't.  Luigi isn't my enemy; you are.  Unless you come over here and hit me yourself, I won't feel a thing."

How can this be...?  No matter how many times Luigi hits him, he bounces back onto his feet for more.  Perhaps Luigi isn't as powerful as I thought, Leviathan thought, aiming her opened palms at Luigi.  "Very well.  If Luigi can't eliminate a foe that won't even fight back, he's worthless to me.  You Mario Brothers are a disappointment."  With a flourish of her arms, a tower of magma rose from the ground and hurled itself at Luigi.

"Watch out, Bro!" Mario exclaimed as he dove in front of his brother.  He formed an Iceball into the shape of a shield and held it in front of his body in an attempt to repel the lava.  However, much of the magma melted through the ice and struck the Mushroom Hero's body, severely wounding him.  He collapsed onto the ground, his body smoldering.

Luigi gazed at his brother in confusion.  "...Why...?"

"Bro... I'm not your enemy... Leviathan is...  Can't you understand that...?  Let's work together... just like the old days...  We can take on the Grimnexes as a team...  Or would you rather be left behind... while I go off on another journey to rescue Princess Peach...?"

"What a fool!  You risked your life to save the man who tried to kill you!  Your brother belongs to me, now.  He's tired of you letting him down," Leviathan snickered.

Agonizing Desperation

The color began to return to Luigi's face as his wounded brother lay before him.  "You...  You did this to us...?" he inquired, his body quivering with hatred as he turned to face Leviathan.  "You turned us against each other... didn't you...?"

"I only awakened your innermost feelings," Leviathan responded smugly.  "You were the one who desired this outcome... to see your brother lying dead at your feet.  I was the one who made it all possible.  You should be thanking me."

"Shut up," Luigi snapped, his body flaring up with a dark green aura.  "You don't know anything about us...  You say that this is what I wanted, but I'm not buying it...  It's like Bro said, you can't eliminate our true feelings.  You can only bury them with your dirty lies...  You don't have any respect for the dead...  You're just the kind of demon that makes me sick...  Demons like you deserve to be sealed away..."

"Such rebelliousness...  How did you break free from my control...?"

"It was Mario...  His words finally sunk in.  He reached out to me, even though I was too busy pummeling him to listen," Luigi explained bitterly.  "You could learn a thing or two from him."

"And just look at where your brother's softness got him," Leviathan chuckled, gesturing toward Mario's body.  "Now he's lying on the ground in pain.  He was a fool, and you're following right in his footsteps."

"That's enough; I'm not gonna let you talk about my brother that way anymore!" Luigi howled as he charged at the Grimnex.  He jumped, weaved, and ducked past dozens of flaming spheres before he finally reached his target.  His eyes gleaming with hatred, Luigi lunged at Leviathan and unleashed a ferocious assortment of flame-enhanced punches and kicks, all of which connected with the Grimnex's frail body.  To top it all off, the plumber released an Ultra Fireball at pointblank, engulfing Leviathan in green flames.

Screaming in agony, Leviathan toppled onto the stone floor.  Her body still smoldering, she rose to her feet.  "Did you not learn from your brother's mistakes?  I am immune to fire!  You do not possess the Capacity of Elements, so you cannot wield more than one element!  You're limited to those puny Fireballs!"

His rage overcoming all logic, Luigi's body was lit with the very same flames that had previously engulfed his fists.  With a furious howl, the plumber hurled himself at Leviathan once again.

Something isn't right, Leviathan thought with a frown.  My wounds from his attacks... They aren't healing... But flames cannot hurt me!  What's going on...?  ...Those flames...  Could they be...?  Of course...  He's using the power of the Emerald Flame!  It's an ability that only the brother of the Mushroom Hero can wield...

Once again, Luigi overwhelmed Leviathan with a series of blows augmented with the strength of the Emerald Flame.  After dozens of bone-crushing strikes, Luigi ended the combo with a fierce uppercut that sent Leviathan tumbling across the corridor and into a stone wall.  "That was for my brother..."

"This is taking longer than I thought it would," Ace whispered to himself, breathing heavily.  One of his energy blades had already faded away due to prolonged usage.  "It won't be long before my other sword fades away, too."

"You're running out of time.  The weapons that you materialize don't last forever; they have a limited lifespan," Kobal sneered.

Ace angrily rushed at his foe, grabbed the chain connecting his handcuffs, and viciously pulled Kobal toward the point of his blade.  Just as Kobal's throat was mere inches away from the energy saber, Ace's blade vanished in a blue puff of smoke.  Stunned with shock and irritation, Ace released his triumphant opponent from his grip.

Kobal threw his head back with laughter.  "I warned you!  It looks like you're helpless without your cards after all!"

Ace's Theme

"Not quite," Ace replied, grinning from ear to ear.  "If we had fought four months ago, I'd probably be screwed right about now.  But thanks to my training with King, this battle's far from over."  Ace held out his palm, which had begun to glow with a blue aura.  After three blinding flashes of light, a brand new deck of cards materialized in his palm.  He proudly strapped the new deck to his waist.

"This doesn't make any sense!  You can't just pull a new deck out of thin air!  Only experienced members of the Zepar tribe can pull off something like that, and you're just a rookie!  I can tell by the fact that you still use cards to create your weapons.  Cards like those are given to the children of the Zepar tribe because they are too inexperienced to summon objects on their own!"

"That's true for ordinary members of the Zepar tribe.  The only problem is, all of the 'ordinary members' were slaughtered by your kind," Ace retorted bitterly.  "I was one of the only survivors.  I grew up knowing nothing about my tribe's powers.  I thought that I was the only person who possessed the ability to conjure weapons by crushing cards in my palm.  That was before I met King, the last known master of the Zepar tribe's art of Conjuration:

"Ace, two months have already passed since you began my training regimen.  Your rate of progression far surpasses even mine when I was a boy.  Now that your skills have reached a new plateau, the time has come for you to learn the art of Conjuration.  It's not as simple as you may have previously thought.  Even I cannot pull objects out of thin air.  There is a limit to what you can summon, and each time you conjure something, a great amount of energy will be consumed.  At your level, creating something as simple as a sword would drain nearly half of your energy."

"That's not going to cut it!  How is the art of Conjuration supposed to help me if I barely have enough strength to use it?"

"Ah, you didn't let me finish speaking.  The time has come for you to develop a Chosen Conjuration.  Even the most experienced members of the Zepar tribe have a limit to what they can conjure, with one exception: their Chosen Conjuration."

"What's that?"

"A Chosen Conjuration is sort of a loophole, an exception to the rule.  At some point in their training, every Conjurer must choose an object that he or she wishes to create an infinite amount of with minimal energy consumption.  For some, it may be something as simple as a sword or a whip.  For others, it could be something more practical, like a clock or a pair of shoes.  It can be anything, but you must choose wisely.  Try to pick something that will be useful in all possible scenarios."

"...I've made my decision.  My Chosen Conjuration will be a deck of cards."

"A deck of cards?  Doesn't that defeat the purpose of this training?  I thought you were trying to learn how to conjure objects without the use of your cards."

"You're wrong.  Before, I was limited to the contents of one deck of cards that was shuffled randomly.  By using cards as my Chosen Conjuration, I can have an infinite supply of various different weapons.  Instead of limiting myself to conjuring one weapon, such as a sword, I can have various weapons for all sorts of different situations.  On top of that, I can conjure the cards in any order I want, so I know the exact contents of my deck."

"So simple, and yet... so brilliant...  I never would have thought of that..."

"I've used cards to supply me with weapons for my entire life.  This way, I can continue to fight with a method that's familiar to me."

"Kobal, are you familiar with the term 'Chosen Conjuration'?  Well, I chose to be able to conjure an infinite number of cards at any given time.  It allows me to summon a wide variety of different weapons, and I don't even have to change my fighting style.  All I have to do is conjure up another deck of cards once I run out," Ace explained.

"Fascinating," Kobal gasped.  "That may be the most ingenious Chosen Conjurations I've ever heard of."

"I'm glad you approve," Ace chuckled.  "Now, where were we?"

Grimnex Theme

Smoke still emitting from her body, Leviathan gradually pushed herself to her feet.  "You...  You wretched plumber...  You'll pay... for each and every wound that you've inflicted upon me..."

"You still haven't had enough?" Luigi inquired with feigned confidence.  In truth, Leviathan's endurance was beginning to worry him.  With his brother too injured to assist him, he was on his own.  If Leviathan overpowered him, the Mario Brothers would spend the rest of their days locked away in the nightmarish Purgatory.

"Up until now, I've been rather sporting to the both of you...  But no more...  This time, I won't hold anything back...  My Final Smash allows me to control the dead, but I am not limited to just one body.  I can manipulate any corpse within a one mile radius.  If I wanted to, I could even turn every prisoner in the Purgatory against you..."

Luigi gulped.  "You wouldn't...  You're bluffing..."

"Not at all...  If you have any doubts, why don't I show you...?"

"There's no need for that," a voice from the shadows whispered.  From around the corner, another Grimnex emerged.  He wore a dark red tunic with a black cloak and had long, flowing gray hair.  His piercing red eyes shifted from the shivering Luigi to the barely conscious Mario, and finally to the overjoyed Leviathan. 

"You've arrived, dear..." Leviathan greeted him with a smile.  "Allow me to introduce you to Crocell, the San Grimnex.  He's my husband."

"I apologize for being so late.  In truth, I spent a great deal of time watching from the shadows...  I have to say, such extreme measures aren't necessary to deal with these maggots.  Think about how long it would take to ensure that each prisoner returned to his cell.  Besides, they don't deserve such an easy death.  Allow me to lend a hand, and we can make them suffer together."


Chapter 5: The Immortals

Grimnex Theme

"...Another one...?" Luigi gasped, his eyes shifting from Leviathan to Crocell.  "How am I supposed to take on two Grimnexes all by myself...?"

"Simple: you run away," Crocell sneered, gradually approaching the battered Mario Brothers.  His eyes were gleaming with bloodlust.  "It's been so long since we've had guests...  I can't even remember the last time we had a live intruder in the Purgatory."  He licked his lips as he observed the brothers' fatigue.  "I wonder how long they can last before we put them out of their misery...  They look pretty tired, but I don't want this to end too quickly."

"We'll just have to keep them alive for as long as possible- but just barely," Leviathan answered with a wicked grin.

"These creeps... They think that we're just puppets for their own amusement..." Luigi grumbled, slowly rising to his feet.  His body quivering with newfound rage, the plumber charged at Crocell.  He unleashed several flaming hooks, but the Grimnex effortlessly blocked each of them in the palms of his hands.  At last, Crocell grasped each of Luigi's arms, pulling him closer until their faces were only centimeters apart.

"Aw, what's the matter?" Crocell taunted with mock sympathy.  "Can't you do anything without your brother's help?"  Cackling maniacally, he opened his mouth and sunk his teeth into Luigi's shoulder, causing the plumber to cry out in agony.

Leviathan grinned.  "Dear, I thought you said that you didn't want this to end?  If you use that move, well..."

After a few more moments, Crocell released his grip on Luigi, causing him to fall lifelessly onto the floor.  "I'll do my best not to kill him, but there's no point in allowing him to live unless he's suffering."

Clutching the wound on his shoulder, Luigi stood up once again.  "Ugh...  A vampire...?  Couldn't you be a little more... original...?"

"Such an ignorant presumption," Crocell spat, glaring at his injured opponent.  "Do you honestly believe that I'd enjoy drinking the blood of a filthy human?  Your blood is not what I was after.  I intended to ingest some of your skin cells, a method for activating my special abilities.  However, I don't necessarily have to bite you to unleash my powers- I just need to obtain some sort of DNA sample.  I could have taken a strand of hair from you, or perhaps even a piece of your clothing would have done the trick."

Luigi's eyes widened.  "Wait...  What are you planning to do?"

"It's amazing what I can accomplish once I've analyzed the DNA of my opponent.  Of course, this is instantly accomplished once I ingest their DNA sample.  Now that I've swallowed some of your skin cells, my brilliant scientific mind understands everything there is to know about your body.  With that knowledge, I can begin to make a few minor modifications.  Let's start with your left arm."  His eyes glowing with anticipation, Crocell aimed his opened palm at Luigi.  "You've certainly got your work cut out for you, fighting against two Grimnexes and all.  I just hope your arm doesn't break."

At that same moment, Luigi fell to his knees as he heard a sickening crack.  He clutched his left arm, crying out in anguish.  With a simple wave of his hand, Crocell had broken Luigi's arm.  "What did you do to me...?" Luigi inquired, wincing in pain as he spoke.

"After I've consumed a DNA sample from my opponent, I gain complete control over nearly every cell in his body.  I can't control your physical movements- that's Leviathan's specialty.  Instead, I can gain sovereignty over many of your bodily functions by manipulating your cells.  It was a simple task for me to take control of the bone cells in your left arm, and you know what the result was."

"No way... he can break every bone in my body with a snap of his fingers..."  Luigi muttered in disbelief.  "Damn it... If only I had known earlier..."

"It wouldn't have made a difference," Crocell assured him.  "Sooner or later, I would have managed to steal a sample of your DNA.  But just remember, I want your death to be slow and painful.  You've still got a long way to go before I decide to end this."  Crocell flourished his palm once again, causing a stomach-turning snap in Luigi's right leg.

Once again, Luigi screamed in pure misery.  Falling to his knees, his eyes widened with fear as he gazed upward at Crocell.

"What bone should I break next?" Crocell snickered.  "Or perhaps it's time for me to move on to your internal organs?  Yes, I think you'll be able to survive if I only take away one of your lungs."  As he began to raise his palm, a Fireball struck him from behind.  The Grimnex slowly turned around to see Mario standing on his feet once more.

Desperate Struggle

"Get away from him, you freak," Mario admonished, his fists clenched.  "Now I understand why you both became Obsolete Grimnexes...  You have no regard for anyone but yourselves.  You have no loyalties, not even to your own kind.  All of the other Grimnexes are fighting for a cause that they think is right, but you two only mistreat others for your own amusement."

"That's true," Crocell responded, making no attempt to deny Mario's words.  "Even among a race that is renowned for its cruelty, we are two of the most despicable demons that have ever lived.  However, deep down, every living creature is just as wicked as we are.  The only difference between demons and humans is the fact that we do not try to hide our true evil nature, while humans do.  The life of an Olympian is filled with nothing but lies.  That's why my wife and I abandoned the deplorable lifestyle of the humans."

"You know that he's right," a voice echoed from within the depths of Mario's consciousness.  Suddenly, the Mushroom Hero winced as he felt a sharp pain in his right arm.  "Humans are just like demons...  As hard as you may try to suppress your darker nature, the fact that I still exist within you proves that Crocell is right.  Why don't you drop the act and set me free?  With me in control, you can slaughter every last Grimnex and rescue your precious wife.  Come on, Mario.  What's stopping you?  You know that I'm going to take over eventually.  Can't you feel your Demon Exoskeleton growing?"

"No... I've already told you...  I'm through with you...  I don't want your help anymore!" Mario shouted, clutching his head.  Inequity began to pour out of Mario's body as he was surrounded with a red aura.

"Then why don't you banish me from your consciousness?  Why haven't you gotten rid of me yet?  I know why.  It's because deep down, you know that you still need me.  You understand that without me, you cannot accomplish anything.  How many times have I been forced to clean up your mess?  I've surfaced during your battles with Velno and Crimson, not to mention the handful of other skirmishes in which I've awakened.  Once you realized how powerful I made you, you decided that you would never be able to turn me away."

"Shut up!  I don't need your help!" Mario cried, rising to his feet.  "I'll handle this on my own!  I'm not gonna let Leviathan and Crocell turn me into one of their test subjects, and I'm sure as hell not gonna let you turn me into your puppet!"  The red aura encasing Mario's body quickly died down before being replaced with a swirling blue one.

"Very well.  If that's how you feel, I'll leave you alone for now.  But just remember: your body will belong to me someday."

His eyes gleaming with willpower, Mario charged at Crocell.  To his battered brother's amazement, the Mushroom Hero was putting up a decent fight despite his injuries.  Still unable to stand, Luigi watched the battle in awe.  Bro...  First, you took a direct hit from Leviathan to save me...  And now, you've refused the powers of your demon ancestor to fight for my sake...

Desperate to prevent Crocell from injuring his brother any further, Mario assaulted his foe with a nonstop barrage of punches and kicks.  Just as long as I don't stop attacking, he thought to himself as Crocell blocked each and every oncoming attack.  Just as long as I keep him busy...  Bro will be safe...  With a devastating roundhouse kick, Crocell knocked Mario onto his back.  Without even stopping for a break, the plumber bounced back onto his feet and hurled himself at the Grimnex.

"Now I understand," Crocell chuckled.  "You think that our fight is distracting my attention from your brother.  How clever.  But in truth, I could crush each of Luigi's internal organs with a flick of my wrist.  Watch this!"  Just as Crocell expected, Mario lunged at him out of desperation to save his brother.  Unfortunately, it was only a fake.  He quickly turned away from Luigi and drove his razor-sharp nails into Mario's chest.  "You're just as gullible as I've heard.  That was the oldest trick in the book."

Mario coughed up a mouthful of blood as the Grimnex viciously tore his hand from his prey.  He stared at Crocell, realizing the grim fate that awaited him.  "No... I shouldn't have let him..."

Tainted Soul

A sinister leer spread across Crocell's face as he observed the hand with which he had pierced Mario's chest.  "Blood... tiny bits of flesh...  Yes, this will be perfect."  He opened his mouth and licked every last drop of blood from his hand.  After shuddering in disgust, he gave Mario a cold, wicked stare.  "Do you know what this means...?"

Before he could respond, Mario let out a shriek of anguish as his left arm and right leg simultaneously broke.  "...There's nothing I can do now..."

"I'm sure that you're familiar with this technique," Crocell snickered triumphantly.  "My abilities aren't limited to just one person.  In fact, once I ingest a DNA sample from a subsequent enemy, the injuries that I've inflicted to my previous foes are immediately applied to my newest victim!  That's why your leg and arm are broken just like your brother's."

"No... It can't end this way...  Not now... Just when I've finally reunited with Luigi..." Mario murmured, his entire body trembling with fear.  He felt the Demon Exoskeleton that encased his arm begin to expand.  "Will I have to resort to using my demon ancestor's power again...?  No...  I can't keep relying on him..."

"Talking to yourself?  Have you already gone insane?" Crocell inquired, laughing alongside Leviathan.  "Look at this dear.  I've caught them both.  Now it's time for the fun part to begin.  We can slowly torture them, breaking each individual bone and organ in their bodies, until they finally perish long after their hopes and dreams have dwindled away!"

His vision beginning to blur, Mario could only gaze at Crocell's feet as he gradually drew closer.  I've gotta think of something...  If I don't hurry up, Luigi and I are gonna die... Think, Mario...  If Crocell has such a powerful ability, why hasn't he become the leader of the Grimnexes...?  Why is he being confined to the Purgatory...?

With the Mushroom Hero kneeling before him, Crocell brought his heel down upon his foe.  "Now do you understand your own foolishness?!  You and your band of misfits could never hope to rescue Princess Peach!  And do you know what else?  She doesn't want to be saved!  Tell me: how does it feel to know that all of your efforts have been nothing but a waste?"

Mario did not respond.

"Answer me!" Crocell demanded as he extended his opened palm toward Mario, causing several of his ribs to break.

His body quivering, Mario slowly got up onto his knees.  He raised his right arm, and spoke softly, "Crocell, can you do me a favor...?  Ipos once promised me that he'd cut this arm off...  But since I didn't even get a chance to have a rematch with him, I'd like you... to fulfill Ipos' promise..."

"You're asking me to amputate your arm?  It seems as though you've gone insane, but who am I to deny such a request?" Crocell cackled as he extended both of his palms toward the plumber.  Luigi winced, bracing himself for the pain of his arm being severed.  Several seconds passed, and nothing happened.


"What...?  Why hasn't your arm fallen off?!" Crocell thundered, his mouth wide with shock.

"It's called a Demon Exoskeleton, you should try getting one!" Mario retorted in sarcasm as he used his uninjured leg to propel him off of the ground at Crocell.  With a fierce right hook, the Mushroom Hero sent his fist directly into the Grimnex's opened mouth.  Next, he released his grip on a few silver hairs that he had unintentionally collected while fighting Crocell, forcing them down his throat.

"What have you done?!" Crocell roared in a mix of rage and confusion.

"Exploiting your only weakness," Mario replied with a triumphant grin.  "It turns out that my theory was correct.  You aren't immune to your own technique after all."

"No...  You didn't!  How did you know?!"

Mario's smirk widened.  "You said it yourself.  Once you swallow someone's DNA, the injuries you've already inflicted upon your previous foes are instantly applied to your newest victim- in this case, yourself.  After I figured out how to beat you, I just needed to find a DNA sample to ram down your throat.  Luckily, I inadvertently managed to pick up a few hairs when I was trying to distract you from hurting Luigi earlier on.  You know, you really should get a haircut.  The last thing I needed was to figure out a good way to surprise you.  The pain I felt in my right arm reminded me of my Demon Exoskeleton, and that's when I decided to fool you into attempting to sever my arm.  The shock that was caused when my Demon Exoskeleton repelled your technique gave me the perfect chance to make my move."

Crocell fell to his knees, his left arm and right leg now broken.  "Damn... you..."

"Ingenious...  And he came up with all of this in a matter of seconds..." Leviathan gasped.  "This Mario is really something else..."

That's my Bro for you... Luigi thought with a grin.  And to think that I actually doubted him for a moment...

"You can keep using your powers if you want, but you'll be affected as well," Mario declared.  "Of course, I'm not going to give you that opportunity."  He pulled his right fist backward, gathering electricity for a colossal Thunderball.  Sparks emitting from his entire arm, he lunged at the Grimnex and dealt a critical blow to Crocell's torso.  Leviathan's husband tumbled onto his back, his body thrashing wildly about.

"He's dead," Luigi uttered in disbelief.  "He's really dead..."

"My arm... and my leg...  They're back to normal," Mario observed with relief.  "The effects caused by Crocell's ability must've been negated now that he's dead."  He and Luigi stood up on both legs and wearily turned to face Leviathan.  "Now, where were we?"

Luigi clenched his fists.  "Give up, Leviathan.  We may be a little fatigued, but as long as we're able to stand, there's no way you'll survive."

Grimnex Theme

"Not bad, but I'm afraid you've killed us in the wrong order," Leviathan cackled, waving her arms toward Crocell's corpse.  "Or did you forget entirely about what I'm capable of?  For one, I can resurrect the dead to fight by my side.  And since Crocell is already allied with me, reviving him will be a cinch!  Yet because I am already dead, it's impossible for you to kill me!  Unless you can find a way to get rid of me first, I'll simply continue to revive Crocell to fight by my side!"

"There's no way we can keep this up," Mario cursed as Crocell's eyes fluttered open.  "We're in no shape to fight them again...  It's almost as if we're back where we started..."

Luigi fell to his knees in defeat.  "No...  They're immortal...  The only way to defeat Crocell is to somehow kill Leviathan, but she's already dead... "

"Quite a bind, isn't it?" Crocell taunted as he rose to his feet.  "Not only that, but my death has caused my bones to return to their former state.  You see, the only way to reverse the effects of my technique is to kill me.  That stunt you pulled before won't work a second time unless you can find a way to prevent my wife from reviving me."

"I see...  So this is what you've both become...  No wonder I had such a difficult time finding you," a voice declared from a distance.  As the sound of footsteps drew closer, Slade stepped out of the shadows.  "I never thought that you'd both become Grimnexes..."

"What's wrong, Ace?  Feeling a bit tired?" Kobal teased as he parried yet another one of his opponents slashes.  "You don't want to disappoint Mario again, do you?  You always seem to let your friends down...  You were powerless to prevent Glaive's death, and you weren't even around to help Mario's comrades during Crimson's invasion.  You were too busy training, and we can both see how much good that did you!"  He landed a kick on Ace's chest before lunging forward and pinning him to the front doors of the Purgatory.  He viciously pressed his chains against Ace's throat in an attempt to strangle him.

Ace had released his grip on his blades after being tackled by Kobal.  Now defenseless, he scooped up a handful of explosive cards from his waist.  Desperate for air, he placed the cards between their chests and crushed them, causing an explosion that neither of them could escape.  Both of them were sent soaring in opposite directions, and a hole was blown open on the doorway that led into the Purgatory.

"Have you gone insane?" Kobal inquired as the smoke cleared.  "You could've killed both of us...  But since you just showed me your explosive powers, it's time for me to reveal mine."  He pointed his finger at Ace and fired a thin red beam of light.

Unable to dodge in time, Ace was struck in the arm by Kobal's ray.  Nothing happened.  "What was that supposed to do?  I don't feel a thing..."  Moments later, blood spurted from Ace's arm as dozens of cuts and bruises formed along the limb that had been struck by the Grimnex's beam.  "Wha... what did you do to me...?"

"It's my Final Smash, the Sin Detonator, and it usually isn't very effective against demons.  However, ironically enough, your exposure to the lifestyle of the humans has made you vulnerable to my abilities.  Humans, or any species of Olympians for that matter, attempt to live peacefully by concealing their negative feelings within them.  Every once in a while, these feelings come out, and the result is known as war.  This is proof that the Olympian lifestyle is a false one, and that demons were always meant to rule.  My Sin Detonator allows me to search the depths of my opponent's conscience for any signs of hidden 'evils', such as guilt, hatred, or despair.  It then turns these feelings into a 'bomb' that destroys you from the inside out.  Most demons do not try to hide their sins, which is why this technique is ineffective against them.  But against someone like you, my Final Smash cannot be overcome!"

"Damn..." Ace muttered, clutching his wounded arm.  After a few moments of silence, he turned around and dove through the hole he had created in the Purgatory's front doors.  He frantically sprinted through the dim, mazelike hallways in an attempt to escape.  With a Final Smash like that, there's no way I can fight him head on.  I need another plan of attack...


"Who are you...?" Leviathan inquired, staring at Slade in puzzlement.  "Crocell, do you know this young man?"

Crocell shrugged.  "I've never seen him before in my life.  Hey kid, how do you know Leviathan and me?"

Slade sighed.  "Leviathan...  Crocell...  Those are your Grimnex names, huh?"

Mario and Luigi dashed to their comrade's side.  "There you are, Slade!  We've been waiting for you to show up!  So have you found your missing parents yet?"

"You're looking at them," Slade murmured, his eyes glowing with hatred.  "Leviathan is my mother...  And Crocell is my father...  Their bodies are different, but I can tell...  Their voices, their attitudes...  They're exactly as I imagined...  Of course, I wouldn't be able to recognize them even if they were in their original bodies...  They abandoned me when I was only a toddler...  They left me to fend for myself, until I was found by demons and taken back to the Nightmare Vault..."

Luigi grimaced.  "No wonder you've spent so many years trying to find and kill them.  These two are low, even for Grimnexes.  And now that we know they're your parents, we have yet another reason to slay them."

"Ah, now I remember!  You're the little brat who ran away," Leviathan recalled.  "How tragic...  You actually believe that you once lived in the human realm with us, just like an ordinary family?  Crocell and I separated ourselves from humanity long before you were born.  We worked for years conducting scientific research for the Grimnexes.  I can still remember the discovery that made us famous...  We found a way to scientifically merge a live being with the corpse of a Grimnex.  This process would preserve the might of the Grimnexes, rescuing them from the impending threat of extinction.  Unfortunately, this discovery was made before we had earned the Grimnexes' trust.  No demon was willing to be used as a test subject in our experiment.  Thus, we resorted to having a child together, a child whose sole purpose would be to function as our guinea pig."

"That child was you, Slade.  The day that we prepared to operate on you, you abandoned us," Crocell continued.  "You managed to escape, and you grew up with a family of demons who believed that you were one of them.  As you were raised to despise human beings, we were busy creating another offspring.  This time, the experiment was a success.  Your brother was merged with the body of the fallen Eta Grimnex.  We became famous for our brilliance, and our human origins were quickly forgotten.  To reward our success, we were given two more Grimnex corpses.  I became one with the Pi Grimnex, and Leviathan united with the Rho Grimnex."

"But we still weren't satisfied," Leviathan added with a grin.  "We were members of the elite demon fighting force, the Grimnexes, and yet we still wanted more power.  That's when we began to take advantage of our Final Smashes.  We teamed up and began to slaughter Grimnexes that ranked above us.  Because I have the ability to control the dead, it only makes sense that killing the Xi Grimnex would be beneficial to me.  And Crocell, with the Final Smash that he has yet to reveal, stole the bodies of the Nu and Mu Grimnexes.  We thought that we could rise to the top, but once the most powerful Grimnexes caught on to what we were doing, we were overpowered and deemed obsolete.  That is why we have been confined to this wretched prison, with nothing to do but continue our experiments on the dead."

"Now do you understand why so many of the Grimnexes have been taken out?  It was because of us," Crocell informed them smugly.  "The Psi and Chi Grimnexes were the only Grimnexes to die in combat, and they were too weak to even matter.  Stolas was the Phi Grimnex before he defected from the Nightmare Vault to wreak havoc among the humans.  But from what I heard, he met his match against Glaive.  That leaves the Tau Grimnex, who was killed by his brother out of jealousy.  Oh, I almost forgot...  Partially due to your actions, the Omega Grimnex has been executed for his betrayal.  ...And that concludes our history lesson for today."


Chapter 6: Slade's Retribution

Cursed Grimnex

"This place... it's worse than I thought," Ace whispered, his back pressed against the inner walls of the Purgatory.  "It's despicable...  Just how many people have they imprisoned...?"

"Give me a break...  The Olympians have committed far more heinous crimes..." Kobal whispered as he emerged from around the corner, causing Ace to jump in fright.  "They sealed every demon within this wretched vault...  Think of the Purgatory as our way of giving the Olympians a taste of their own medicine.  If you think about it, this building is quite similar to the Nightmare Vault.

"What do you mean?" Ace inquired, slowly backing away from his foe.

"Zeus didn't just trap us inside of the Nightmare Vault; he deprived us of our afterlives.  Once a demon dies, he immediately follows the cycle of reincarnation and is reborn into an Olympian who remembers nothing of his previous life," Kobal explained bitterly.  "That's why I believe that Olympians are unworthy of their afterlives."

Ace clenched his fists in frustration.  "That's your reason for torturing innocent people inside of this hellish prison?"

"That's right, Ace...  Hate me...  Despise me...  You'll only increase the effects of my Sin Detonator," Kobal taunted, extending his index finger toward his opponent.  "Give it up, Ace...  How can you hope to face someone who can wield your own sins against you...?"

Ace leapt backward in an attempt to put some distance between him and Kobal.  I can't get too close...  As long as I have some time to react, I should be able to dodge his Sin Detonator...  My only chance is to stick to long range attacks.  In the blink of an eye, he drew several explosive cards and hurled them at the Grimnex.  Explosions, diversions, and sneak attacks...  They're my only options at this point...

The cards detonated beside Kobal, creating enough smoke to mask Ace's escape.  He frantically sprinted in the opposite direction, desperately brainstorming some sort of counterattack.  He looked over his shoulder and gasped as he saw Kobal emerge from the explosion unscathed.  The Grimnex aimed his index finger at his fleeing prey and fired a red beam of light, which struck Ace in the leg.  The former leader of Poker Face cried out in pain as his leg was covered in bruises and gashes.  He fell to his knees, watching helplessly as Kobal prepared to fire another Sin Detonator.  Out of options, Ace grasped his deck, scooped up a handful of cards, and tossed them at his oncoming enemy.

"Is that the only trick you have left?" Kobal cackled as the cards struck the ground beside him moments before detonating.  Once again, the corridor was lit with a chain of explosions.  Ace hopefully peered into the smoke.  He squinted and made out a faint silhouette approaching him.  Ace hung his head in defeat.  His leg was far too injured for a quick getaway.

"Tell me, Ace: why are you even here?  For what reason are you helping Mario?  After learning about the tragic fate of your clan, you swore revenge upon the Grimnexes.  Yet when you had the chance to smite the Omega Grimnex, you hesitated.  Therefore, you cannot be here to avenge the Zepar tribe.  What is it that you're after?  There was a time when your name was feared among the masses of demons that served the Phoenix.  Now you're nothing but a tool to further the Mushroom Hero's goals."

Ace remained silent, the sins of his past weighing heavily on his conscience.


"Come on, Ace, you're not really gonna let him talk to you like that, are you?" a familiar voice inquired from behind Kobal.  "Just listening to this creep makes me want to ram my fist down his throat."

"Is... is that you...?" Ace gasped as Wario stepped between him and Kobal.  "But I thought...  Didn't you die during Crimson's attack on the Mushroom Kingdom...?"

"Did you already forget what this place is?" Wario responded impatiently.  "After I died, this jerk locked me up in this dump, and I've been trapped ever since.  Thanks to those little explosions of yours, my cell was blown open.  Now it's payback time."  The overweight plumber cracked his knuckles and began to stretch.

"I'm surprised that you're healthy enough to stand," Kobal stated, unshaken by Wario's arrival.  "Even when given an opportunity to escape, most prisoners aren't well enough to make their move."

Ace grinned wryly.  Heh, I never thought I'd be glad to see Wario...  "...Wario, are you sure you feel up to this?  His Final Smash is-" Wario was already sprinting toward Kobal with his fists clenched.

"You're even more foolish than Ace!" Kobal snickered as he fired his Sin Detonator at his oncoming foe.  The beam struck Wario directly on the chest, but it had no effect.  Left completely vulnerable, Kobal could do nothing to defend himself as Wario nailed him in the cheek with a right hook.  The Grimnex tumbled onto his back, blood dripping from his nose.  "What just happened?  I made a clear hit with my Sin Detonator!  And you're clearly not pure of heart, so there's no way you could be immune to it!"

Wario shrugged.  "Beats me...  I'm just doing what I do best!"  He reared his fist back, which was then encased with metal.  "It's time for my Final Smash: Metal Wario!"

"Of course!" Ace exclaimed.  "Kobal, you said that your Sin Detonator searches a person's conscience for any traces of hidden negative feelings.  Wario may have his flaws, but your Final Smash cannot harm him because he doesn't make any efforts to keep his sins bottled up inside. He openly expresses his greed and his desire to beat you to a pulp.  However, deep down, Wario is truly a good person.  Because of this, your Sin Detonator couldn't harm him even if you fired a thousand shots."

"A human without fear or regret...  I never thought I'd see the day..." Kobal gasped, gazing up at Wario in fear.  With a triumphant laugh, Wario used his metallic fist to deal a crushing blow to the Grimnex.  Just like that, the battle was over.  Thanks to Wario's unique personality, Kobal- and his Sin Detonator- had been defeated.

Ace heaved a sigh of relief.  "Wario...  Do you realize that you're one of the only humans with the ability to defeat Kobal?  Can you believe that I was lucky enough to unintentionally free you from your cell with my explosives?"

Wario flexed his muscles.  "Yeah, yeah, I'm pretty cool.  So why are you here, anyway?  And what happened with Crimson?"

"I'll tell you everything later.  First we need to find a way to free all of these prisoners, including your brother," Ace replied.

"Wait...  Please, listen..." Kobal murmured, still barely alive.  "Before I die...  Listen carefully...  Go to... the far end of the corridor... that branches to the right... from this one...  There... you'll find... the master release switch..."

"Why are you telling us this?"

"I owe you..." Kobal replied, holding up his arms.  Tears of joy flowed down his cheeks as the chain connecting his handcuffs shattered.  He was finally free.  "The fat one's... final attack... broke the chains... that I struggled for years... to sever...  You see... the Purgatory used to be... a prison for ordinary demons...  I was captured as an infant ..."

"So that's why you wanted me to break your chains..." Ace mumbled.  "It's no wonder you were so cynical."

"There's... no point... in feeling sorry for me...  You fight for the Olympians... I fight for the demons... Our struggle was inevitable...  It's been this way for thousands of years...  One of us had to die..."  Ace and Wario prepared to leave, but Kobal called out to them.  "Wait... Ace, you never answered my question...  Why are you here...?"

Ace thought for a moment.  "Not only do I still feel responsible for helping the Olympians, but... I want to assist Mario in any way I can.  He's saved my life countless times, and I still haven't finished paying him back."

"I see...  All that time... you spent in the human realm... really changed you... didn't it...?  It's too bad... maybe it could've changed me, too..."

Nightmare's Theme

"Thanks for the lecture, but I'm sure you understand that I didn't come all this way just to talk," Slade stated impatiently as he unsheathed his dagger.  "Whether you abandoned me or I ran away, my mind has been made up.  The undeniable truth is that both of you were neglectful parents that deserve to die.  You didn't care about me.  You were too concerned about your experiments and your research."

"What an ungrateful brat!" Leviathan spat.  "If it weren't for us, you wouldn't have even been born.  If you hadn't decided to run away, you could have become one of the most powerful Grimnexes in existence.  But instead, you selfishly abandoned us and forced me to go to the trouble of giving birth to another son."

"Do you have any idea how miserable my life was because of you?" Slade inquired, his eyes flashing red with hatred.  "If you had treated me as a normal human child, and not as your guinea pig, I would've had no reason to leave.  I was all alone, until I was adopted by an abusive family of demons I didn't even know.  Living with them was hell...  Each day was a struggle for survival.  I had no friends; I didn't even know where my real family was."

"None of this really matters to us," Crocell yawned with disinterest.  "You mean nothing to us now.  We haven't even thought of you since the day your brother was born."

"Well I've certainly thought about you," Slade retorted bitterly.  "I've spent my entire life seeking revenge."  He took a step toward his parents.

"Wait!" Mario stopped him.  "You must've seen part of our fight with Leviathan and Crocell, right?  Unless we put a stop to Leviathan's Final Smash, we'll never be able to permanently kill Crocell."

"In that case, I'll leave my mother to you two," Slade whispered.  "On her own, she won't be too difficult to defeat.  Mario, you and your brother are the only two people I can trust with something this important.  I'm counting on you."

Mario nodded.  "No problem.  Bro, do you think you're up for another round?"

"If it's just that hag, I think I can manage," Luigi chuckled.  The Mario Brothers nimbly sprang into the air and landed on either side of Leviathan.  "Besides, I still owe her one for trying to use my body as a puppet."

"Stay away from her!" Crocell demanded, turning to strike the plumbers.  His attack was brought to a halt when he felt a sharp pain in his back.  He glanced over his shoulder and gasped.  Slade had stabbed him in the back.

"No one's going to protect you this time," Mario declared as he and his brother took another step toward Leviathan.  "There's no way Slade will let Crocell escape from here alive."

Leviathan formed a flaming sphere in each of her hands.  "Still, how do you plan to kill an immortal?"

"I've got an idea," Luigi whispered.  "Bro, can you see that faint purple glow surrounding her body?  I think Crocell has it, too."  Mario shook his head.  "Maybe I'm the only one who can see it, then.  Regardless, I think that's the same aura that surrounded me when I was under Leviathan's control.  Do you know what that means?"

"She's not really immortal at all," Mario concluded.  "You may be on to something."

"Do you think you can keep Leviathan busy while I take care of things?  You look pretty beat," Luigi observed with a smirk.

"Just make sure you hurry up."

Meanwhile, the struggle between Slade and his father began.  "Perhaps you do not understand just how much I loathe you," Slade hissed as he viciously tore his blade from the Grimnex's flesh.  "Never turn your back on me.  That's your first and only warning."  He swung his sword at Crocell once again, who caught the blade between his thumb and forefinger.

"You're quite the hostile one, aren't you?" Crocell snickered as he dodged several more of his son's sword slashes.  "Your vile glare... the aggressiveness behind your attacks...  I can practically feel your hatred..."

"Hating things was my only method of comfort while growing up," Slade answered icily as he skimmed his father's chest with his dagger.  "At first, I despised the human race...  But then, Mario showed me that not all humans were innately evil...  He helped me understand the source of all of my misery: you two."

"And what have these 'good' humans done for you?  Have they helped to ease your pain?"

Slade's eyes narrowed as he stabbed his father in the torso.  "Your demise is the only known cure for my disease."

"Fair enough," Crocell chortled as he grasped the blade wedged in his chest.  With a firm yank, he removed the blade from his flesh- and from Slade's grip!  The sword now in his possession, he took a moment to admire its exquisite design.  "Ah...  It's truly a remarkable sword...  I wonder if I could find a small sample of your DNA on its handle..."  He glared at his son, daring him to try and retrieve his weapon.

Vengeful Showdown

"Oh well," Slade sighed, calm and cool.  "You won't be alive long enough to treasure it, so it doesn't really matter..."  He casually rolled up his sleeves, revealing his heavily bandaged arms.  "I've spent the past six years preparing for this day...  I've waited my whole life for this moment...  Did you really think I'd come unprepared?"  He began to unwrap the bandages, revealing his heavily scarred, blood-red arms.  "So, 'Dad', have you ever heard of a demon known as Nightmare?"

Crocell thought for a moment before nodding slowly.  "Yes, he's the one who can control the Nightmare Haze, correct?  Why do you ask?"

A slight smirk appeared on Slade's face as a red fog began to rise from his arms.  "I am Nightmare.  Or at least, I was.  Controlling the Nightmare Haze is my specialty, but this ability only works in areas that have an abundant supply of Nightmare Haze.  I have since overcome this weakness by learning to seal the haze within my body.  Not only can I release the Nightmare Haze whenever I choose, but I also have even better control over it than I did before."

"That's fascinating, but it won't matter once I ingest some residual skin cells from the handle of your blade," Crocell cackled, raising his son's weapon to his mouth.  As the handle was only inches away from the inside of his mouth, a wall of red haze formed in front of the Grimnex's face.  "What's this?!  You can solidify the haze as well?!"

"I can do much more than that," Slade replied stoically as the Nightmare Haze formed the shape of a colossal fist and dealt a severe blow to Crocell.  "Your clumsy abilities won't work on me...  At a moment's notice, I can block the entrance to your mouth to prevent you from swallowing my DNA."  Crocell angrily rose to his feet and tossed his son's blade at him.  Before the sword could strike Slade, he was surrounded by a barrier of Nightmare Haze.  "I can form a shield in the blink of an eye.  And because the haze is toxic, I could even use it to poison you."

"Impressive..." Crocell muttered, beginning to grow irritated.  "You must have gone through many years of painful training in order to master such a technique...  This body is no match for you and your hatred..."

"This body...  What do you mean...?" Slade inquired with his eyebrows raised in suspicion.

"I'll show you," Crocell sneered, his body becoming transparent as it emitted a faint yellow glow.  "This is my Final Smash...  Few people have ever seen it and lived to tell about it.  You see, once I use this technique, I become my opponent."  With a maniacal shriek, he flung himself at his son.  Slade attempted to cut him in half, but his blade passed through Crocell, who quickly used his ghostlike powers to enter Slade's body.

His body beginning to tremble, Slade coughed up a mouthful of blood.  "What... are you... doing...?"

"My Final Smash enables me to enter my foe's body and make it my own," Crocell's voice echoed from within Slade.  "How do you think I survived for so long?  If I had still been a human, I would be far too old to put up a fight against you.  But thanks to my Final Smash, I have obtained something close to immortality.  Whenever I begin to grow old and decrepit, I simply abandon my body and take over a new one!  Alternatively, if I find myself up against a superior foe, I can increase my own strength by stealing his body!  That is why I was deemed obsolete!  I continued to assault Grimnexes that ranked higher than me in an attempt to steal their bodies and further my own power!"

"So that's your plan...?  Even now, you want to use me for your own selfish purposes," Slade growled as he struggled against Crocell's takeover.  "It's too bad...  You do not possess immortality...  As long as I can maintain even the slightest bit of control over this body, and you're still inside of it, I have the advantage."

"What do you mean?  You will not be able to resist for much longer!" Crocell cackled.

Slade raised both of his arms toward the ceiling, signaling for his Nightmare Haze to return to his body.  The haze complied, condensing into tiny puffs of smoke before seeping into every pore on Slade's arms, causing them to turn red once again.  "You've just made a fatal mistake.  My body is immune to the Nightmare Haze, but you are not.  Now that I've absorbed the haze back into my body, it will undoubtedly infect you."

"I- Impossible!"

"I've already told you: controlling the Nightmare Haze is my specialty.  I can manipulate any nearby haze, even if it's inside of my body.  The Nightmare Haze is far superior to antibodies...  It can cover a vast amount of space, and it is far more deadly."

Shrieks of terror could be heard within Slade's body before Crocell finally tumbled out of his body and solidified.  His body now frail and withered, Crocell looked up at his vengeful son, quivering in fear.  "Listen to me, son..."

"You've lived long enough," Slade replied coldly.  "It's time to end this."

From across the corridor, Leviathan knocked Mario onto the floor with a burst of flames before rushing to her husband's aid.  "You can kill him as many times as you want; I'll simply revive him!"  She lunged at Slade, whose back was turned, her body lit with flames of aggression.  However, as she was only moments away from striking her target, she collapsed onto the ground- dead.

"How...?" Crocell murmured in confusion.  "How did you...?"

"That wasn't her real body," Mario explained with a triumphant smirk.  "The entire time, the Leviathan that we were fighting was only a dead body that the real Leviathan was manipulating from a safe distance.  That's why we couldn't kill her; we weren't attacking her actual body.  Luigi noticed the same aura surrounding you and Leviathan.  That's how we knew."

"We already knew that Leviathan used her Final Smash to bring you back to life," Luigi continued as he entered from around the corner of the hallway.  "That same aura also surrounded me after I had been revived.  From that, I concluded that any person she used her Final Smash on would be surrounded with a purple glow as long as it was still in effect.  That led us to believe that Leviathan was somewhere else in the Purgatory, battling us from afar by using a dead body as a puppet."

"Luigi decided to test our theory by conducting a thorough search through the Purgatory.  We believed that Leviathan's powers would work best if she was closer to the battle, so we didn't think she'd be very far.  It turns out that we were right.  Luigi managed to find and eliminate the real Leviathan, which caused her puppet to stop functioning."

"Impressive, as usual," Slade commended them as he turned to face Crocell.  "Now that that's settled, your death is assured."

Unbearable Suffering

Slade scooped his blade off of the ground and pointed it at his father.  With a vicious stab, he drove his dagger through Crocell's heart.  "Why...  What was the point of all of this...?  You spent your entire life searching for more power...  Why...?"

"Because... the humans... deserve to die...  Your wife and I... were once one of them...  We understood that... our way of life is filled with nothing... but falsehood and lies....  That's why... the demons and Grimnexes are so determined... to escape from the Nightmare Vault... and overthrow Zeus....  Under the leadership of the demons... the world will be restored... to the chaotic state that it was... always meant to be in..."

"Then why did you betray the Grimnexes as well!  You don't believe in their cause, either!" Slade spat, driving his blade deeper through his father's torso.

"The demons... they're almost as bad...  A world with nothing but chaos and disorder... could never flourish...  This is a war... in which neither side deserves to win...  When I lived among the Olympians... I grew to despise them... but the more time I spent with the demons... the more I understood why it was necessary for them to be sealed away...  Both demons and Olympians... I truly hate them both... the only person I can truly rely on... is myself..."

"You're wrong, 'Dad'.  There's something that Mario once told me.  Long ago, I believed that all humans deserved to die.  To this, Mario responded that you cannot judge an entire race based on the actions of one or two individuals.  I hated you and my mother, which led me to despise all humans.  Mario understands that some humans are selfish and greedy, but not all of them.  The same is true for demons.  Father, you cannot judge a group of people until you've taken the time to accept and understand them.  You were always too quick to find reasons to despise others, and then you used these reasons to justify your selfish quest for power."

"Heh...  Perhaps you're right...  I just hope... that you're finally satisfied... now that your mother and I... are dead...  Even now... I can see the confusion in your eyes...  What will you do next...?  Either way... I have... no regrets... Except for... just... maybe... being... a... terr...ible... f...a..."  Crocell's eyes rolled back as he toppled onto the floor in a pool of blood.  The immortal Grimnexes had finally met their demise.

"He's dead," Slade stated simply, unable to find words to describe his feelings.  "My father is dead.  After all of this time..."

"Do you want to be alone?" Mario asked softly. 

Slade nodded slowly.  "Yes...  I think that would be best...  I'll catch up with you when I'm ready..."

"No problem," Luigi replied as he and his brother wandered off into the mazelike Purgatory.  "That was rough.  I wonder what Slade will do now...  Killing his parents was his primary goal in life.  Now that they're dead, what does he have left to live for?"

Mario sighed.  "He has to figure that out for himself.  Once he's done that, I'm sure he'll join back up with us.  For now, we should try to reunite with Ace and the Wario Brothers.  While we're at it, we should help the other prisoners find a safe place to stay until this conflict blows over."  He dreamily stared ahead, thinking about the words that his ancestor, the very first of the Hero bloodline, once spoke to him:

"Mario, I know what you've been thinking.  You are starting to wonder if the conflict between the Olympians and the demons is truly black and white.  Let me answer your question by saying that the world has done some terrible things in order to maintain peace.  All is not as it seems, and you will one day face off against many of your own kind..."

No... I can't afford to get distracted, Mario thought, reminding himself that the death of Slade's parents was supposed to be a success.  "Now we can finally get out of this place...  I just hope I haven't kept Ace waiting for too long..."


Chapter 7: The Fallen Kings

Grimnex Theme

"This is the intruder that we've all been warned about?" a portly Grimnex with the head of a boar wondered aloud.  His skin was sea green and covered in diamond shaped markings.  He had long, flowing orange hair, on top of which he wore a tarnished bronze crown.  "And just who are you?"

"Heh, you don't know who I am?!" Bowser inquired, throwing his head back with laughter.  "I'm only the greatest villain ever!  I'm Bowser, the Koopa King, and I'm here to teach you smalltime henchmen how a real antagonist should operate."

"Never heard of you," the Grimnex muttered with disinterest.  "Though, I doubt you know who I am, either.  I am Argyle, the Upsilon Grimnex."

Bowser groaned.  "That's it?  When are they gonna start sending in their strongest soldiers?"

"Who knows?" Argyle replied with a shrug.  "It's obvious that they don't think you and your pals are a big enough threat to send out their upper ranking Grimnexes.  Most of them are inside of Grimnex Palace, lounging about while they wait for the ceremony to commence."

Bowser gazed upward at the foreboding palace that towered above them.  "So, they're all inside, huh?  And you're the only thing standing between us?  Gwahahahaha!"

The Koopa King charged at his equally bulky opponent, pulled his right fist back, and connected a bone-breaking hook with the Grimnex's chest.  He looked up at Argyle's face, eagerly awaiting his pained expression.  However, Argyle remained nonchalant, even with Bowser's fist still wedged in his torso.

"Hmm...  I misjudged you," Argyle yawned.  "You looked like you could punch a lot harder."

To this, Bowser responded with a barrage of blows equal in strength to his first punch.  Why isn't this guy in pain...?  It feels like I'm punching a tractor tire...
"Have you finished 'teaching' me yet?" Argyle asked with a sarcastic grin.  "I'm guessing the focus of this lesson was to not overhype yourself before a fight?"  He clenched his fists and retaliated with a blow that knocked the Koopa King onto his back.  "The muscles that I've trained for years to acquire make my body as solid as a rock.  Your feeble punches could never put a dent in me."

Looking Forward

"Well, it looks like we're finished here," Mario sighed wearily.  After successfully directing the prisoners of the Purgatory to safety, Mario, Luigi, Ace, Wario, and Waluigi had regrouped to mount an assault on Grimnex Palace.  "Can we finally put this place behind us?"

Ace nodded in agreement.  "If we survive long enough, I'll certainly have nightmares about this place for years to come."

"On the bright side, the Princess Peach rescue team has gained a few new allies," Luigi stated cheerfully.  "If only Glaive could be here...  That would truly have made this a perfect team."

"I wonder why he wasn't brought to the Purgatory...  He was pretty tough," Wario recalled.  "After all, even a coward like Luigi was brought there.  Why would they ignore Glaive?"

"It's difficult to say...  Maybe it's because Glaive was a demon, just like them..." Ace mused.  "Or maybe because Glaive died inside of the Nexus, and Kobal didn't have enough time to intercept him before he was taken to the Underwhere.  Regardless, we'll have to work with what we have.  Bowser should be somewhere up ahead, providing he isn't dead, and Slade will catch up with us eventually.  That leaves, Mario, Luigi, Wario, Waluigi, and me."

"Hold on...  Who said that we were going to help you on another one of your rescue missions?" Wario inquired gruffly.  "After all of the time I spent inside of that hell, I'm going home to spend some quality time with my television!"

Ace sighed.  "I suppose it's not my place to give you orders...  If that's really how you feel, then I can't stop you..."

"Of course we'll help," Waluigi chimed in, ramming his fist into the back of his brother's head.  "He's just acting this way for old time's sake.  Right Bro?"

"Yeah, right," Wario replied with an awkward laugh.  "Besides, based on everything you told us about what's going on, the Grimnexes are planning to use Peach to somehow obtain their revenge.  This is more than a simple kidnapping.  If we don't start cracking some Grimnex skulls, they'll eventually attack the Mushroom Kingdom.  It's my only chance to redeem myself for my embarrassing loss against Crimson's henchman."

"Whatever your reason may be, I really appreciate the help," Mario thanked him.  "There's just one thing that's been bothering me...  Are Luigi, Wario, and Waluigi still dead?  And what would happen to them if they were killed by a Grimnex?"

"Actually, 'death' is simply the act of being sent to the Underwhere," Ace explained.  "If you escape, you are alive again.  Since Kobal intercepted Luigi and the Wario Brothers before they entered the Underwhere, they are technically still alive.  They were probably in such bad shape when we found them because of their poor treatment at the Purgatory.  In short, if they died in an upcoming battle, they'd simply be sent to the Underwhere.  Now, the true problem arises when someone dies while in the Underwhere or Overthere.  Once that happens, the person follows the cycle of reincarnation, and his spirit is recycled into that of a new creature.  The demons undergo the same process, except they do not have an afterlife.  Once they are killed, they are instantly reincarnated."

"Is that why Glaive wasn't taken to the Purgatory?" Mario inquired.  "Has he already been reincarnated?"

Ace shook his head.  "It's difficult to explain, but...  Remember how Glaive could not be exposed to sunlight at first?  That is the curse that all demons must bear.  The lack of an afterlife is also part of this curse.  However, by spending enough time in the outside world, a demon can overcome his cursed fate.  Glaive is one of the few demons who have managed to fully lift this curse.  I personally only spent a few months in the human realm.  While I have enough experience to tolerate sunlight, I still do not have an afterlife to look forward to."

"Well, you'll just have to spend some more time in the Mushroom Kingdom after this is all over," Mario suggested.

"You're certainly optimistic," Ace chuckled.  As the group began to make their way toward Grimnex Palace, Ace concealed his despair with a faint smile.  Mario...  As usual, you're brimming with the innocent confidence of a child...  I'd give anything to return to the Mushroom Kingdom to live a life of peace...  If it only it were that simple...

Broken Vows

After tumbling onto the ground once again, the Koopa King slowly rose to his feet.  His body was covered in scrapes and bruises, and he was breathing heavily.  "You said my punches don't hurt you... but yours are nothing to brag about..."

"Have you looked in a mirror?  You won't be able to last much longer at this rate," Argyle shot back.  "This is a battle of brute strength, and you clearly can't measure up.  It was foolish of you to come this far on your own.  It's obvious that you can't accomplish anything without the help of your friends." 


"Are you alright?"

"We're here to help!"

"Ah, speak of the devil," Argyle chuckled as Mario and the others could be seen approaching from a distance.  "You're in luck."

"Stay out of this!" Bowser roared, raising his arm toward his oncoming comrades.  "I'll handle this on my own!"

"Wha...?  Bowser, it doesn't take a genius to understand that you're no match for him," Mario called out to his ally. "Let us help you!"

"How many times...  How many times have you fought against someone, even though the odds were against you...?  Even when your friends and family told you to back down, you never listened..." Bowser recalled, his emotions beginning to pour out.  "I'm gonna show you... that you're not the only one who can fight a Grimnex all by himself!"

Ace frowned.  "What do you think, Mario?  Are you going to let him risk his life just for the sake of his pride?"

"If we stepped in now, Bowser would never forgive us.  Most of all, he's lost confidence in himself as my rival...  We need to let him handle this on his own..."

"So, how does it feel to fall behind...?" Argyle inquired bitterly.  "I know all about you...  Long ago, Mario considered you to be a threat.  You could battle with him on equal footing, and you even came close to conquering the Mushroom Kingdom...  But, as time passed, you began to lose your role as the kingdom's greatest threat...  Villains such as Lord Shade and Crimson came along, and your enemies were quick to obtain more strength in response to these crises.  All the while, you've stayed the same...  Mario, Luigi, Wario, Waluigi, Ace...  I suspect that each of them could defeat me on their own."

"Shut up!" Bowser growled as he rushed toward Argyle once again, only to be knocked down by another blow to the face.

"It's not as though I don't understand your pain," Argyle stated glumly.  "You see, both of us are fallen kings...  I was once the Beta Grimnex, the esteemed leader of all the Grimnexes...  However, the years passed, and while I was busy hiding behind my throne, the lower ranking Grimnexes were on the frontlines...  It wasn't long before I fell behind, and my rank quickly dropped.  And here I stand before you... as the Upsilon Grimnex..."  He extended his palm toward Bowser as his body began to glow with a rainbow aura.  "I'll end this with my Final Smash...  Once I kill you and your friends, I will reclaim my throne..."

In a flash of light, a colossal wad of rubber appeared in Argyle's hand.  With a snap of his wrist, the rubber formed into the shape of a colossal green snake.  Wielding the rubber snake as a whip, he flung it at his opponent.  Bowser, who was still struggling to stand up, could do nothing to prevent the whip from wrapping around his body and pulling him back toward Argyle.

"Let's wrap this up... heh," Argyle sneered, using the rubber properties of his whip to pull Bowser directly into one of his punches.

"That's it!  We have to step in!" Luigi cried, rushing toward the battle.

"No," Mario said sternly as he held his brother back with his forearm.  "Haven't you been listening?  These two were made to fight each other...  They're both fallen kings, struggling to prove their worth to their comrades..."

Argyle could not contain his laughter as he used his rubber whip to smash the Koopa King into the ground and back into his fist.  After several bone-crushing blows, Argyle released Bowser.  "Your fortitude is admirable, but you really should let your friends lend a hand."


"Funny," Bowser laughed weakly as he struggled to his feet.  "Your Final Smash... is almost as pathetic... as your punches..."

"Is that so?" Argyle hissed, tossing his whip toward Bowser yet again. 

This time, the Koopa King caught the whip before it could reach him.  "You call this a weapon...?"  He reached into his shell with his free hand and pulled out a Pocket Chomp.  He broke the capsule, freeing the Chain Chomp, and tossed it at Argyle while still holding on to the end of the chain.  The Chain Chomp ran circles around the Grimnex, wrapping him up in chains.  With a cry of determination, Bowser yanked the tied up Argyle toward him before spitting out a mouthful of flames.  "Snakes are lame... Real villains use Chain Chomps as whips!"

"I told you he'd pull through," Mario chuckled.  "Good job, Bowser..."

"ACK!  My rubber!" Argyle shrieked as his body was lit by his opponent's flames.

Bowser cracked his knuckles.  "Heh, that was a pretty clever trick.  Once you started using that rubber snake, though, it didn't take long for me to figure it out.  You can produce and control rubber, which is what you were using to shield your body from my blows.  All I needed to do was use a little fire to get rid of your protection."  He released Argyle from his Chain Chomps grasp.  "Now, let's finish this the way we were supposed to: with our bare hands."

"Fine," Argyle agreed, clenching his fists.  Bowser and Argyle sprinted at each other in one final rush, both of their right fists held behind their bodies.  With all of their strength gathered into one last blow, they lunged at each other and struck each other in the face at full force.  Dazed and severely injured, they both struggled to stay standing.  At last, one of them fell.  Bowser heaved a sigh of fatigue.  The Upsilon Grimnex had fallen.

"Nice one, Bowser!" Luigi cheered as the Koopa King's comrades rushed to his side.

"Heh, that was... nothing... I didn't even... break a sweat..." Bowser mumbled before collapsing from exhaustion.  Try as he might, he could not hide the tears that had formed in the corners of his eyes.

Mario placed a hand on his rival's shoulder.  "You can rest for now, Bowser.  You've already done enough."

They really do care, the Koopa King thought before finally allowing his eyes to shut.  These guys... they're not so bad... after all...

"Now what?" Waluigi asked, glaring at Bowser's unconscious body.  "We can't carry him.  Should we stay with him, or just leave him here?"

Mario glanced at the fortress that stood before them.  "It looks like Argyle was the only Grimnex guarding the palace's entrance.  Another Grimnex is bound to show up eventually, so we'll have to act quickly."

"Too late, Mushroom Hero," a cold, stoic voice echoed from the entrance to Grimnex Palace.  Mario's group stopped dead in their tracks and turned to face their next opponent.  Mario gasped, recognizing the tall, pale-skinned figure that stood before them.  The Grimnex's icy, sapphire eyes scanned each of Mario's comrades.

"Bro... have you two met before?" Luigi inquired frightfully.

"This is Ipos," Mario whispered, his body beginning to tremble.  "He's the Delta Grimnex, the one who kidnapped Peach.  I've been waiting for this."

"The same one who nearly killed you back in the Mushroom Kingdom?" Ace gasped.  "Mario, we're not prepared to face a Grimnex of this caliber.  The Grimnexes we've faced so far are nothing compared to him."


"I know, but we'll have to face him sooner or later," Mario reasoned, stepping forward to accept Ipos' challenge.  "Let me handle this alone.  We have a score to settle."

Ipos frowned.  "I don't understand.  You were blessed with enough luck to survive our first encounter.  I know that I clearly demonstrated your incapability of defeating me.  And yet... even after my threats... without even knowing the limits of my power... you've stormed into the land of the Grimnexes, knowing all too well that you would have to face me again at some point.  Why?"

"A heartless demon like you could never understand," Mario replied bitterly.  "You have no right to question my motives."

"Even with your friends by your side, you still opt to challenge me alone," Ipos observed.  "Interesting.  You're an even greater fool than I thought.  If you couldn't strike me down before, what makes you think you'll be able to now?  What could have possibly changed?"

"Let me show you!" Mario exclaimed, rushing at full speed toward the Grimnex.  He lunged at Ipos and unleashed a devastating combo of flaming right hooks, all of which were blocked in Ipos' left palm.  When the Grimnex saw an opening, he drew his sword and slashed at the plumber.  Quick to react, the Mushroom Hero abruptly ended his assault and leapt backward, narrowly dodging the tip of the blade.  The moment his feet touched the ground, the plumber hurled himself at Ipos once again.  He drove his fist into the ground, causing a wall of stone to rise in front of him.

"What a childish trick.  You put a wall between us to mask your next attack," Ipos predicted, stabbing his blade through the wall and into his target.  However, as the wall crumbled away, his eyes widened.  His sword had plunged into an ice statue of Mario, no doubt created by an Iceball.  As the Grimnex struggled to yank his dagger from the ice, Mario approached from the Grimnex's blind spot and drove his fist into Ipos' face.

Ace gasped.  Mario... You never cease to amaze me...

"Well, Ipos, it looks like I just earned the right to enter Grimnex Palace," Mario chuckled, remembering Ipos' words from their first encounter:

"Hmph.  Such arrogance.  You won't even lay a foot in the Grimnex Palace until you can strike me in the face like that."

Ipos glared at Mario as he wept the blood from his chin.  "Hmm...  You've gotten a little faster... But that's not all...  Something else about you has changed..."

"If you really want to know why I came here, I'll tell you," Mario declared, charging at Ipos once again.  "I didn't travel all this way for you; I'm here to bring Peach back to the Mushroom Kingdom!"  He attempted to land another hook on the Grimnex's face, but Ipos caught the punch in his right palm.

Uphill Battle

"...Really?" Ipos inquired, his normally stoic expression shifting to one of moderate surprise.  "That's unusual...  A group of Olympians risking their lives to save a single human being...  I've never heard of such a thing.  The craven Olympians I once knew would have forgotten about the princess in order to avoid a conflict with us."

"Now that you mention it, Zeus did say something like that," Mario recalled, still struggling to free his fist from Ipos' grasp.  "We aren't following Zeus' orders...  We came here on our own accord."

"Imbecile," Ipos hissed, drawing his blade with his free hand.  "You cannot hope to win this war without the support of Zeus!"  Mario freed his hand and took a step back to avoid one of Ipos' slashes.  With another thrust of his sword, Ipos lunged forward at the plumber.  The point of the blade only centimeters away from his forehead, Mario managed to parry Ipos' dagger by molding his fire element into the shape of a sword.  They fiercely pressed their blades against each other, but neither of them budged an inch.  It was a stalemate.

"I bet you didn't know I could create a sword with my fire element!" Mario chuckled in a strained voice, still pressing his dagger against Ipos'.

Ipos sighed as his blade began to shine with a bright yellow glow.  In the blink of an eye, an identical sword materialized in his free hand.  Swift and deadly, Ipos plunged this new dagger into the Mushroom Hero's chest.  He then put all of his might into his original blade, causing it to slash through Mario's flaming sword and severely wound the plumber's torso.

"Did you see that?!" Luigi cried out in shock.  "Did that Grimnex's blade just... multiply?"

"Hmph.  You could never hope to match my superior sword with such a delicate blade," Ipos lectured the injured Mario.  His torso covered with two severe gashes, the Mushroom Hero fell to his knees.  Ipos held his blades to the plumber's throat.  "Now, your 'heroic' journey comes to an end."

Just as the Grimnex was about to deliver the final blow, he felt a gust of wind come from behind him.  "Bro!" Luigi shrieked, still soaring through the air toward Ipos.  Before he could reach his target, Ipos caught his foot and slammed him into the ground.  Before their scuffle could continue, Wario and Waluigi entered the fray and attacked Ipos from both sides.  The nimble Grimnex blocked each of their attacks with his dual swords before knocking them onto their backs with a swift elbow to each of their guts.  With only one opponent left, Ipos looked up to see Ace descending from above with an energy saber in his grip.  Ipos blocked Ace's blade with one of his one, and then used the hilt of his other sword to bat him away.  Even after attacking as a group, they had failed.

"Now I understand why you wanted to fight me alone.  These friends of yours are even weaker than you are," Ipos stated as Mario's comrades rose to their feet.

"What'd you say?!" Wario roared, charging recklessly at the Grimnex.

"Wait!  Don't challenge him by yourself!" Waluigi cried, pursuing his impetuous brother.  "You're gonna get yourself killed!"

"Such ignorance...  I will relieve you of your stupidity," Ipos declared as his duplicate sword faded away.  He extended his free hand toward the oncoming Wario Brothers before releasing a colossal blue annihilator beam, engulfing them both.  The two brothers cried out in pain as they were sent flying into the distance.  "Now, which one of you would like to be next: Ace, or Luigi?"

"You forgot about me..." Mario muttered, laughing weakly as he stood between Ipos and his remaining comrades.  "I'm not... gonna let you lay a hand on them..."

"Fine.  I'll simply eliminate them without using my hands," Ipos agreed with cold sarcasm.  He raised his palm toward the three heroes.  "If I aim carefully, I should be able to take out all three of you with one blast."  His hand began to emanate a bluish glow.

Before Ipos could fire his annihilator beam, a blue axe came from out of seemingly nowhere and struck the ground in front of Mario.  Another Grimnex descended from high above and landed beside the axe.  "Back off, Ipos," he admonished, pulling his weapon out of the ground.  "This one belongs to me."


Chapter 8: Falling Apart


"Ares, what are you doing here?" Ipos inquired coldly, turning to face the Grimnex.  "Zagan has given me specific orders to take care of the intruders by myself.  Your presence here is in direct violation of Grimnex tradition."

"So?  Do I look like I care about our 'sacred' customs?" Ares retorted dryly.  He was about Ipos' height, with spiky black hair and bloodshot eyes.  His black leather pants contrasted his bright turquoise vest, gloves, boots, and axe head.  With a sigh of impatience, he slung his axe over his shoulder and began to approach Mario, Luigi, and Ace.  "I've already made up my mind.  No one will stop me- not even you, Ipos."

Mario took a step back, his body quivering with fear.  His wounds from Ipos' blade were severe.  He was in no condition to fend off two Grimnexes.  Who is this...? And why is he so bent on challenging us?

Ares grinned wickedly, now only a few yards away from the Mushroom Hero.  "Prepare yourself, plumber."  He raised his axe above his head and brought it down toward his target.  However, as the blade was at a forty five degree angle with the ground, Ares' axe was brought to a halt with a metal clang.

"This is your last warning: step away from the intruders," Ipos admonished, having parried Ares' axe with his sword, "unless you're willing to strike me down first."

Ares' smirk widened.  "Really...?  You're willing to accept my challenge after all these years?  Are these intruders really that important to you?"

"You misunderstand.  Each time that you've challenged me in the past has been for your own selfish desire to satisfy your bloodlust.  I had no motive to kill you back then.  Now that you have defied the will of the Phoenix, you are nothing more than a traitor.  It is my duty to deal with you appropriately."

Ares turned toward Ipos.  "In that case, the intruders can wait."

"Are you sure you want to go through with this?  On the Grimnex hierarchy, I am ranked far above you," Ipos informed him calmly.

"You always have to bring up that darned hierarchy!" Ares growled.  "It's finally time for me to claim your rank as the Delta Grimnex!"

Mario, Ace, and Luigi gradually inched away from the confrontation.  "What are they talking about?" Mario whispered.  "Why is Ipos so offended by Ares' desire to kill us?  And what is this 'Grimnex tradition' they keep talking about?"

"I'm not entirely sure," Ace replied.  "I do know that the Grimnexes revere the late Phoenix as their only true leader.  If I had to guess, I'd say that the Phoenix once enforced some sort of honor code under which his subordinates were not allowed to gang up on an opponent.  Because Ares does not wish to comply with the Phoenix's will, Ipos sees him as a defector."

"Shouldn't we use this opportunity to escape?" Luigi suggested, slowly backing away from the fight between the two Grimnexes.  "This might be our only chance."

Ace remained silent as he considered his options.  Ipos and Ares...  Who will win, and which victory would benefit us?  Ares doesn't seem to care about anything except for seeing Mario dead, while Ipos is a bit more civil.  Yes, perhaps it would be best for Ipos to win.  On the other hand, given the fact that he ranks higher than Ares, he'll undoubtedly be more difficult to take down.  Even if Ares wears him down, will we be able to finish the job?  He carefully analyzed Ipos' battle with Ares, not letting even one motion escape his view.

Neither Grimnex had landed a blow on the other.  Up to this point, they had only parried each other's weapons.  Regardless, it was clear that Ipos had the advantage.  While Ares was aggressively lunging at his foe with wide and powerful slashes, Ipos effortlessly blocked each oncoming attack without even breaking a sweat.  Even when he had the opportunity, Ipos did not counterattack.

"What's wrong?  Afraid to hit me?" Ares taunted, still on the offensive with his axe.  "After all, you do know what happens when someone strikes me.  You'd better not waste any hits."

"That's true," Ipos replied nonchalantly.  "Your abilities are quite unique.  However, that is not my primary concern.  You see, even though you have disobeyed the laws of the Phoenix, I am hesitant to strike you down.  The Phoenix forbade the Grimnexes from killing each other.  If I eliminated you, I would be nothing more than a hypocrite.  Are you positive that you aren't willing to compromise?"

Ace frowned.  Just as I feared...  They aren't taking each other seriously...  This will not be a fight to the death.  Ares does not have the power to kill Ipos, and Ipos does not wish to disobey the will of the late Phoenix.  At some point, they will have to reach a compromise, which means that we're back where we started.  I wish I could be as optimistic as Mario... but against two high ranking Grimnexes such as Ipos and Ares, we don't stand a chance in hell.  Our only option... is retreat.

"Compromise?" Ares parroted, ceasing his assault.  "What do you mean?"

"Instead of killing Mario, what if I imprisoned him?  Then, once granted permission by the Beta Grimnex, you could carry out Mario's execution," Ipos offered.

"I like the way you think," Ares chuckled as he lowered his axe.  "As long as I am the one who ends Mario's life, I have no complaints."

"Very well," Ipos sighed, turning to Mario, Luigi, and Ace.  "Mario, it seems as though you will have the opportunity to enter Grimnex Palace after all- as a prisoner, that is.  Come with me."

Without a second thought, the three heroes turned and began to sprint in the opposite direction.  They stopped dead in their tracks as Ares appeared in front of them.  "You weren't thinking about running away, were you?  Mario, I have already set my sights on you.  One way or another, you will die by my hands."

"Gee, aren't I lucky?" Mario inquired with a sarcastic smirk as he was surrounded by Ipos and Ares.  "Ipos, if I go with you, will you promise me one thing...?"


Calm Heart II

"Let Luigi and Ace go..." Mario pleaded.  "Just let them walk away.  Allow them to return to the Mushroom Kingdom, where they can live in peace until the time comes for the Grimnexes to launch their assault..."

"Hmm...  You mean these two?  They're hardly worth your clemency, let alone ours.  But in this case, their lack of power has saved their lives.  In short, they are harmless.  Without you to guide them, to hold their hands until the very end, they aren't a threat to us."  With Mario walking between them, Ipos and Ares turned and began to walk toward the entrance to Grimnex Palace.  "Go.  Save your meaningless lives.  Just get out of my sight."

"C'mon, Ace, what are you doing?" Ace whispered to himself, his body quivering with frustration and anxiety.  "If it were me being taken away, Mario would have charged at them without a second thought...  Why can't I bring myself to do the same...?  Why can't I be like Mario and Bowser...?  This is my chance..."  He sprinted after them, but just as Ipos began to turn around, he fell to his knees.  After gently shaking his head, Ipos turned and vanished into the darkness of Grimnex Palace alongside Mario and Ares.

"Bro..." Luigi mumbled, tears forming in the corners of his cheeks.  "Bro... is this how it's all supposed to end...?"

"Again... It happened again..." Ace muttered, smashing his fists against the ground in aggravation.  "Mario sacrificed himself to save us... and I was powerless to do anything to help him...  Nothing has changed...  I'm still unworthy of calling myself his comrade..."

"Here we are, Mario.  You will remain here until Zagan decides what to do with you," Ipos declared coldly.  He opened the cell door and gestured for the plumber to step inside.  His wounds greatly hindering his mobility, Mario sluggishly complied.  "It's ironic.  You've come all this way to rescue your precious princess, and while you may have been captured, you've ended up trapped in the very same corridor.  So close, and yet so far.  By now, Princess Peach has surely accepted her fate.  Even if you could reach her, she would refuse to leave."

"Say whatever you want," Mario grumbled as Ipos chained him to the stone wall, his legs and arms in shackles.  "She won't break so easily."

"Watch him carefully," Ipos ordered another Grimnex, ignoring Mario.  "I need to report the Mushroom Hero's captivity to King Zagan.  I will return shortly."  He focused his cold glare on the battered and imprisoned plumber.  "In the meantime, I would suggest trying to clear your mind of all that optimism.  It will make the end much less painful."

With that, the Delta Grimnex turned and walked away, leaving Mario to contemplate his fate.  Further down the corridor, Ipos stopped at Princess Peach's cell.  "Princess?"

"I heard voices," Peach stated mechanically.  "Who was it?"

"It was Mario," Ipos replied in an equally emotionless tone.  "He remains alive for now, but he'll be dead soon enough."  He paused, taking note of the princess' impassive expression.  "Judging by your calm, stoic manner, I'd say that you've had a change of heart."  He glanced at the cup of water he had given to her earlier on.  It was empty.

"Change of heart?  I suppose you could call it that."

"Come with me," Ipos commanded, opening the princess' cell door.  "We're going to pay a visit to King Zagan."

"So, what are you going to do next?" Luigi inquired, the palace of Grimnexes locked in his gaze.  "Just so you know, I'm going after them regardless of whether or not you decide to accompany me."

"It's a tough call," Ace sighed.  "Bowser hasn't moved since he collapsed after his fight with Argyle, the Wario Brothers were blasted away by Ipos, and Slade is nowhere to be found.  Logically speaking, the chances of us being able to free Mario and Peach are slim."

"Coward," Luigi spat, beginning to walk away.  "And that means a lot coming from me.  If I can set aside my fear of death, you can certainly do the same for your logic and reason."

"You didn't let me finish," Ace chuckled, his eyes gleaming with determination.  "Our chances of success are small, but Mario's both a comrade and a friend, and it would be shameful to desert him after we've gotten so far.  If we turned back now, we would not only lose the right to call Mario a friend, but we would also be abandoning our duty as the only force still standing in the way of the Grimnexes' vengeance."

Luigi's face brightened.  "Good to hear.  I wouldn't last very long without your intellect.  Speaking of which, do you have any bright ideas about how we could sneak into Grimnex Palace."

"Hmm...  A replacement for Argyle hasn't come by yet, so I don't think there's anyone guarding the entrance," Ace speculated.  "Still, we are completely unfamiliar with the fortress' layout.  Getting lost inside of the tower that houses the most powerful Grimnexes would be asinine."

"What do you suggest?"

"I- Wait, I hear voices," Ace whispered, frantically attempting to pinpoint the source of the voices.  The Nightmare Abyss' terrain was mostly flat, but the Grimnex Palace was built on top of a deep depression in the ground.  From a distance, the palace appeared to have partially sunken into the dirt, and one would have to travel down a steep incline in order to reach it.  Ace realized that the voices had not come from within the fortress, but from over the top of the nearby slope.  "Follow me, quickly!"

Without a second thought, Luigi dashed after Ace into the pitch black entrance of Grimnex Palace.  A wall of darkness struck Luigi in the face.  Unable to see a thing, the plumber searched to and fro for a place to hide.  Instead, an arm reached out from his left and pulled him to the ground.

"Don't say a word," Ace commanded, his voice barely audible.  "Stay completely still."

"-come to think of it, we haven't been given an assignment in nearly six years," a cheerful, manly voice recalled.  "This has been our first mission together, Venus- err, would you prefer to be called by your former demon name?  After all, before you joined us and became the Gamma Grimnex, you were just an ordinary female demon."

"Call me Venus," the other Grimnex replied coldly.  "You should know better than anyone that I have cut all ties to my former life, Joker.  You've only been a Grimnex a few years longer than I have."

"Unlike you, I haven't forgotten about my previous lifestyle," Joker snapped, his voice suddenly filled with bitterness.  "I prefer to be called by my given name, to remind me of my purpose for becoming a Grimnex.  But since I am only the Zeta Grimnex, you can call me whatever you want."

The two Grimnexes, walking side by side, entered the palace and began to navigate the pitch black foyer.  His heart beating uncontrollably, Ace slowly rose to his feet and gestured for Luigi to follow him.  Keeping a safe distance between themselves and the Grimnexes, Ace and Luigi began to trail them.

"Why did you bother to bring me along, anyway?" Venus inquired.  "Our objective was to verify the deaths of Crocell and Leviathan.  Even if there were some stragglers waiting to ambush us, they would have been too fatigued to put up much of a fight.  Why did you ask me to accompany you for such a simple task?"

"I simply wanted someone to talk to," Joker answered with a shrug.  "You're one of the only Grimnexes that I can relate to.  We have a lot more in common than you may think.  We were both born as ordinary demons, led tragic lives, and were then accepted into the upper ranks of the Grimnexes."  There was a long silence as the two Grimnexes began to ascend a flight of stairs.  Luigi and Ace followed sluggishly behind, cautious not to alert their foes.  At the top, Joker heaved a steel door open, and the stairway was filled with light.

Ace gulped.  The light would make them easier to spot.  All Joker would have to do is turn around, and- where was Venus?  Hold on...  Where'd the other Grimnex go...?  He whirled around to see Venus standing on the bottom step, blocking their exit.  Likewise, Joker hadn't budged from his position at the top of the stairwell.  They were trapped.

"Venus, it seems as though these intruders were eavesdropping," Joker chuckled.  "In that case, I'm sure we don't need to tell them our ranks.  You two were wise to attempt to stay hidden, but we knew from the moment we entered the palace that you were here."

In the blink of an eye, Ace determined their nonexistent chances of victory and began to climb over the railing.  Just as he was about to jump off of the staircase, his entire body went numb.  "I... can't move...  What did you do...?"

"You just got here; why don't you stay for a while?" Joker sneered.  Luigi sprinted up the stairs toward Ace, but Venus appeared in between them.

She's so fast...  The Gamma Grimnex...  That means she's ranked above Ipos! Luigi thought, his eyes widening with fear.  His body moving faster than his thoughts, the plumber lunged at Venus with his fists clenched.  The next thing he knew, Luigi was tumbling backwards down the staircase with sharp pains erupting all throughout his body.  He did not even remembering being hit.  His vision began to grow dark.  "...Bro......"

The prison chambers were deathly silent, except for the sound of rattling chains.  His wrists and ankles bloody and torn, Mario continued to thrash about in an attempt to break himself free.  "You might as well give up.  You'll never escape as long as I'm watching over you," sighed the Grimnex put in charge of guarding Mario.

"Shut up...." Mario growled, refusing to heed the Grimnex's advice.  He continued to struggle until a familiar voice came from across the corridor.

"Helios, open the door.  I wish to speak with Mario for a moment," Ipos requested.  "There's someone that would like a word with him."  With an obedient nod, Helios complied.  The cell door screeched open, and two figures stepped inside.  "Mario, I've brought you a guest."

Black Heart

Mario froze.  His eyes widened in shock.  Princess Peach emerged from behind Ipos, her face as cold and emotionless as Ipos'.  She wore a dark purple dress, a red broach, and red earrings, all of which reminded Mario of his battle against the Shadow Queen many years ago.  Her skin was paler than usual, and her eyes were a dull gray color.  She was no longer a human.  She had been transformed into a demon.

"P- Peach...?" Mario whispered, trembling at his wife's appearance.  "What's going on...?"

"Princess Peach is no longer our prisoner," Ipos informed Mario.  "She is now a willing member of our society."

"You're lying," Mario hissed through clenched teeth.  "Peach would never join up with you."

"He's telling the truth," Peach assured him.  "I am one of the demons, now.  But that isn't what I came here to tell you.  We just got back from a meeting with King Zagan, who has decided upon your fate.  You will be executed by the end of the day.  Ares is in charge of carrying out the death sentence by whatever means he may deem necessary."

Mario gasped.  Without even the slightest expression of sympathy, his wife had just given him a death sentence.   "...What do you mean?  Peach...  I came here to bring you home...  You can't be serious..."

"You're so naïve," Ipos sighed.  "She belongs to us, now."

"What the hell did you do to her?!" Mario howled, furiously lunging at the Grimnex before his restraints stopped him.  "I swear, if you even laid a finger on her, I'll..."

Peach extended her palm toward Mario, silencing him immediately.  "Stop this, Mario.  Idle threats will do nothing for you.  You're making a complete fool of yourself.  You, the Mushroom Kingdom, and all of its citizens...  They all mean nothing to me.  And all the time and effort you've spent trying to rescue me...  It was all a waste."

Mario's eyes shifted to the princess' ring finger.  "Peach...  What happened to your wedding ring?"

"My what?"

"You mean this?" Ipos inquired, removing a golden ring from his pocket.  "Oh, your ex-wife asked me to hold on to it.  She said that it no longer meant anything to her, but it was too expensive to just throw away."  He glanced at Mario's ring finger.  "I see...  You wear the very same ring...  It is a symbol of your love for each other."  In a flash, he dealt a crushing blow to the Mushroom Hero's chest, knocking the wind out of him.

"What... are you... doing...?"

Ipos reached for the incapacitated plumber's finger and slid his wedding ring off.  "There.  Without your wedding ring, you no longer have any connection to Princess Peach.  Consider this an official divorce."  He pocketed the two rings and began to walk away.  "Now you can finally forget about her."

"Give... that... back!" Quivering with rage, Mario threw himself at Ipos once again.  This time, his right arm broke free of its shackles, and he was able to launch a Fireball at the Grimnex.

Ipos swiftly turned around and caught the blast in one hand before effortlessly crushing it.  Smoke emitting from his palm, Ipos proceeded to exit the cell.  "You should at least know when to give up.  Your ex-wife has openly admitted that she does not wish to leave us.  You've failed.  Peach will not return to the Mushroom Kingdom."

Mario fell to his knees in defeat.

"You should be thanking me," Ipos muttered.  "Now you can die without any regrets.  Princess Peach has been freed, and you will die knowing that she is living happily among the Grimnexes."

"Wha........My head..."  Luigi grumbled as he regained consciousness.  He sat up and scanned his surroundings.  It didn't take long to recognize that he was in a jail cell.  Looking to his right, he noticed that Ace was just beginning to awaken as well.

"Where are we...?" the demon wondered aloud.  He groggily looked up at the Grimnex responsible for guarding them: Joker.

"Finally awake, are you?" Joker snickered.  "Sorry, but we had to knock you out as soon as possible.  Otherwise, Venus might've unintentionally killed you.  I'm just watching over you while Venus informs the prison guard of your arrival.  It's my job to ensure that you don't escape, so let's try to remain civilized."  For the first time, Luigi and Ace got a good look at Joker.  He was a few inches shorter than Ace and wore a black tuxedo with a red tie.  He also wore a black and blue striped top hat, white shoes, and a pair of white gloves.  His face was covered with scars, especially his closed eyes.

Ace suddenly began to sweat.  "No, that couldn't be... but...  Your voice does sound kind of familiar...  And now that I look at you..."  He gasped.  "Joker, you told Venus that you preferred to be called by your given name!  Tell me, what is it?"

Joker's face grew serious.  "My real name... is Jack Spades."


Chapter 9: Lost Purpose

Tainted Soul

With Ipos and Peach gone, Mario sunk to the floor in defeat.  His primary motive to fight against the Grimnexes had been shattered to pieces.  "Why...  Why did I even bother...?"

"Helios, we've captured two of the intruders," a female voice reported, breaking the somber silence of the corridor.  Without moving a muscle, Mario peered through the metal bars of his cell.  Standing beside Helios was a young woman with flowing black hair and silver body armor.  Her cold, black eyes reminded Mario of Princess Peach, as if she had also been mentally broken through the cruel methods of the Grimnexes.  "I need you to watch over them.  They seem especially feisty."

So they've even imprisoned Luigi and Ace...  I thought I told them to leave, but I guess I was a fool to think they'd abandon me... Mario thought, his despair growing.

"I'd love to, Venus, but I've got my hands full guarding their leader," Helios replied, kneeling before his superior.  "I'd be happy to help once Mario has been appropriately dealt with."

"Go," another Grimnex commanded from the shadows.  "I can handle everything from here."  Ares stepped into the light, his axe slung over his shoulders.  "I'm the one in charge of his execution."

"Master Ares, how long have you been here?" Helios asked with a bow.

"Never mind that.  Just go do your job somewhere else," Ares barked, his eyes bloodshot and his body quivering with what seemed to be anticipation.

"They're in cell B-1003," Venus informed him.

Helios scurried off into the direction of Luigi and Ace's cell, and Venus departed after receiving a nod of respect from Ares.  Now alone with Mario, a wicked grin spread across Ares' face.  He opened the cell door and stepped inside.  "Now it's just you and me.  I've been waiting for this ever since your fight with Cerberus."

No response. 

"Stand up."

Mario did not budge.

"In case you aren't already aware, I'm here to execute you.  Do you know what that means?  E-X-E-C-U-T-E."

The Mushroom Hero nodded.

"Aren't you gonna try to defend yourself?  Do you even care about your own life?  What about Princess Peach, the reason you came here in the first place?  If I slaughter you here and now, she will be lost forever!"  His frustration building, Ares charged at the plumber, who was still helplessly shackled to the wall, and delivered a right hook to his face.

Blood trickled down Mario's chin.  The Mushroom Hero slowly lifted his head and glared at him with cold, lifeless eyes.  "What's wrong...?  You were so eager to kill me before...  If you're gonna finish me off, do it now..."

Unable to control his rage any longer, Ares lifted his axe above his head and brought it down upon the plumber's right shoulder.

Cursed Memory

"Wait, your name is Jack... Spades?" Luigi inquired, giving the Grimnex a sideways glance.  "That means...  You and Ace are... brothers?"

"Liar!" Ace spat at last, having remained silent since Jack had properly introduced himself.  "You're playing a cruel game, Grimnex.  I saw Jack die before my very eyes years ago."

"Of course you did.  After all, you were the one who 'killed' me," Jack recalled bitterly.  "You assaulted me, your own brother, and then brought me to the graveyard of the Zepar tribe after you thought I was dead.  Imagine my shock when I awoke, buried deep beneath the soil of the Nightmare Vault.  I frantically clawed my way up before bursting out of my grave, gasping for air.  However, even as my eyes were filled with light, the only thing I saw was black.  You thought you had taken my life, but in reality, you only stole my light."

"Ace would never murder his own brother!" Luigi cried, enraged by Jack's accusation.

"No, I did kill Jack Spades," Ace corrected him solemnly.  "I explained the full story to Mario, but you weren't around at the time.  When I was a child, my village was attacked by a group of demons known as the Assassination Force.  They massacred everyone in sight, except for me.  I possessed exceptional talent for my age, so they decided to recruit me.  I was raised to be a cutthroat warrior, and I was sent on various assignments to murder key figures in the Demon Resistance.  I later learned that my brother survived the attack on our village as well.  He had become the leader of Poker Face, the primary militia of the Demon Resistance.  I was sent to assassinate him, and being a ruthless member of the Assassination Force at the time, I carried out my mission without hesitation.  It was only after Jack's death that I felt remorse, which led me to switch sides and fight against demons of the Phoenix."

"Heh, you never felt sincere regret for what you did for me," Jack sneered.  "If you had cared about me even a tiny bit, you would have visited my grave after returning to the Nightmare Vault with Mario six years ago.  If you had bothered to pay your respects to me, you would have noticed that my grave had been dug up."

"But I did plan to stop at your grave," Ace protested.  "Along the way, I met the only other survivor of the Zepar tribe, and I became preoccupied..."

Jack frowned.  "Exactly.  Your Conjuration training took priority over me."  To this, Ace did not respond.  "You never cared about me.  That's why you eliminated me without a second thought.  Don't try to use your involvement with the Assassination Force as an excuse."

"It's him," Ace decided at last.  "It has to be him..."

"How can you be sure?" Luigi whispered, not taking his eyes off of Jack.

"I think I know my own brother!" Ace snapped, glaring angrily at Jack.  "Despite your accusations, I stand firmly beside my reasons for fighting against the Phoenix and the Grimnexes.  But you still haven't explained your motive for swapping sides!"

"Heh, I just want to kill you," Jack explained simply.  "But not just your physical body.  I want to eradicate everything that holds proof of your existence.  I will crush your friends, your beliefs, everything that you fight for...  That was the decision I made after digging myself out of the ground.  And the only way for me to do that was to join the force that opposed the Demon Resistance, the Phoenix."

"If you want my life, you can have it.  But you'll have to wait until after I've finished assisting Mario!" Ace declared boldly, his eyes glimmering with resolve.  He reached for his deck of cards, but found that it was no longer there.

"Sorry about that," Jack snickered.  "I confiscated your cards while you and your friend were busy napping.  I know all too well about our tribe's powers.  Leaving those cards in the position of a Zepar is a recipe for disaster."

Ace grinned.  "Well then, you'll be happy to know that I've spent the past six years training.  I've even decided upon a Chosen Conjuration."  In a puff of smoke, a new deck of cards materialized in Ace's palm.  He quickly tossed a handful of them against the floor, resulting in an explosion that created a hole for them to escape.  "Quickly, Luigi!"  They prepared to dive into the hole and flee to the floor beneath them, but they were stopped by an unknown force.

"I'm afraid I cannot permit you to leave," Jack sighed.  "I'd rather kill both of you, but I cannot do so until given permission by King Zagan."

"Actually, you can leave now," Helios called as he came jogging from around the corner.  "Venus told me everything.  I'm here to take over."

"Ah, you've finally arrived.  Then I suppose the time for Mario's execution has arrived.  In that case, there's no reason for me to linger here."  With a snap of his fingers, Jack released whatever supernatural ability he had been using to restrain Ace and Luigi.  "You should take a look into that hole before you try to escape again.  Beneath each of these cells is a pit of spikes.  You can thank me for saving your lives later."

"But why?" Ace called after his brother, who had begun to walk away.

"Trust me, it wasn't out of brotherly love," Jack assured him sternly.  "You heard what I said before.  I'm not allowed to kill you until I receive further orders from King Zagan.  I may be leaving for now, but we'll meet again in the near future.  The next time we face off, I won't be so merciful."

"Hey...  Can you get up...?  Wake up, Bro..."

Wario sat up and rubbed his eyes.  "Ugh...  My body aches all over...  What happened?"  Waluigi held out his hand, and Wario eagerly pulled himself up.  Both brothers were soaking wet.  They stood knee-deep in water and were surrounded by two solid walls of rock. 

"I think we were blasted away by that Ipos guy," Waluigi recalled.  "We must have landed in some sort of gorge."

"Gah, I hate water!" Wario cursed, his teeth chattering.  "Now what?"

Waluigi stroked his chin.  "Whether we want to catch up to Mario or leave the Nightmare Abyss, we'll need to find a way out of here.  But these walls are too steep to climb, especially for you."

"You calling me fat?!" Wario roared, wrapping his hands around his brother's throat.  He tackled Waluigi into the water, nearly drowning both of them.  "Take that back!  At least I don't look like I'm from a freakin Paper Mario game!"

The two brothers wrestled underwater, both desperate for air.  "Alright, alright, I'm sorry!" Waluigi gasped after his head emerged from beneath the surface of the water.  "How am I supposed to apologize if we're both underwater, ya tub of lard?!"

"What's the point of saying you're sorry if you're gonna insult me again?!" Wario retorted, raising his fists to attack his brother again.

As the Wario Brothers bickered, they did not realize that they were being carried by the flow of the stream.  The ravine's walls began to grow farther apart until they came to a dead end.  "Wait a minute...  How'd we get here?" Wario wondered aloud, no longer quarreling with his brother.  Observing their surroundings for the first time in several minutes, they found themselves in a lagoon surrounded by a circular rock wall.  The water current was too powerful for them to turn back.

"Who's... there...?" a deep voice gurgled from underwater.  The center of the lagoon began to bubble, and the Wario Brothers instantly knew that it was a Grimnex.  "Finally... they've sent me a meal...  It's been too long..."

"Who are you?!" Wario challenged, cracking his knuckles in anticipation.

"My name is Poseidon...  The Kappa Grimnex..."

A metal clang echoed through the silent corridor.  Ares continued to apply pressure to his axe, but it did not pierce the plumber's shoulder.  His eyes hidden behind the tip of his cap, Mario sluggishly rose to his feet.  "What...?  How...?" Ares stammered, withdrawing his axe.

Mario answered by stretching his collar, revealing his jet black shoulder.  "This is the Demon Exoskeleton...  I know what you're thinking...  I'm just some kind of freak...  Well, now that you know where to strike, you can finish the job.  What's wrong?  What happened to your desire to slaughter me?"

"What happened?" Ares parroted.  "You're asking me that question?  What happened to your unwavering determination to liberate Princess Peach from the clutches of the Grimnexes?  What happened to your passion, your desire to protect your friends?!"  He furiously slammed his axe into the ground and grabbed Mario by the throat.  With a cry of frustration, he smashed the Mushroom Hero against the stone walls of the prison chamber.  "When you fought against Cerberus, you wouldn't shut up about how badly you wanted to rescue Peach.  Were those just empty words?!"

With Ares' hands wrapped around his throat, Mario halfheartedly attempted to break free.  "Peach... doesn't want... to be... saved..."

Finally getting somewhere, Ares released the plumber from his grip.  "...Is that all?  Or is there something else bothering you...?"  His voice was now calm and patient.

After catching his breath, Mario responded, "It's just that... what if I'm the one who's at fault?  There's some kind of monster inside of me, desperately trying to take control of my body...  Sometimes I just... feel as though everyone would be better off if I died..."

"Mario, I won't lie to you.  I'd love nothing more than to spill your blood here and now.  But that's not good enough.  Even a bloodthirsty demon like me has his pride...  You see, I understand how it feels to be a prisoner in your own body...  Ever since I can remember, I have had an insatiable lust for blood.  But in a place as lonely as the Nightmare Abyss, this hunger is rarely satisfied.  I am prohibited from assaulting a fellow Grimnex, and the lower class demons in the Nightmare Vault are too weak to be of any excitement.  When I spied on your battle with Cerberus, I was overjoyed.  Human blood was just what I needed to quench my thirst for carnage.  But when I noticed your dedication, your seemingly limitless willpower, I could hardly control my excitement.  Murdering helpless foes does not thrill me nearly as much as assassinating a skilled, tenacious warrior.  I was expecting so much from you, and this is how you repay me?  As you are now, you're hardly worth killing.  But if you're not going to put up a fight..."

Ares swung his axe at Mario, who mechanically stepped back.  The Mushroom Hero winced.  He could feel the Demon Exoskeleton forming over his left leg.  I didn't mean to dodge that...  Is my ancestor somehow... controlling me?  He gasped as he recalled the words of his father:

"Previously, the struggle between you and your ancestor was mostly psychological.  However, the appearance of a Demon Exoskeleton means that this battle will also start to become physical.  If a particular body part is entirely covered by the Demon Exoskeleton, your inner demon will be able to control it at will without even taking control of your mind.  When the transformation is complete, you will resemble a black skeleton, and your demon ancestor's flesh will begin to cover the bones.  Once that happens, it will all be over.  You will become a permanent prisoner in your own body."

"If I can't fight you, I'll surely end up fighting the creature inside of you," Ares observed.  "You may be ready to die, but it seems that the demon within you refuses to do so.  Unless you begin to fight back, your demon ancestor will take over.  What kind of hero would that make you?  He would use your body to find and slaughter your friends and family!"

He's right, Mario thought, his mind racing.  My Demon Exoskeleton never grew this fast before...  Even if I can't help Peach, it's still my job to suppress my ancestor's soul.

Ares swung his axe at the plumber yet again.  Mario dodged, only this time, he did so of his own free will.  "That's right!  You're beginning to remember...  Your friends, your family, your wife...  Remember them!"  He lunged at Mario with another slash.  With almost no time to react, the Mushroom Hero leaned backward, only receiving a narrow slice on his chest.  His axe too massive to stop mid-swing, Ares was left vulnerable for a split second.  Mario capitalized on this opportunity and delivered a flaming hook to the Grimnex's exposed torso.  Ares did not even flinch.  "That was your first hit.  You shouldn't strike me unless you plan to kill me.  Now you only have two hits left."  A red three appeared on his chest and quickly changed to a two.

"Until what?" Mario inquired, though his foe only responded with a thrust of his axe.

"Until you activate my Final Smash," Ares answered after Mario dodged his weapon.  "Each time I am struck in battle, my bloodlust grows.  Once I am hit a third time, it will be all over for you.  My hit counter will reset only after I've massacred my foe or if I am knocked out cold...  Mario, how about we make a deal?  If you can defeat me in two more hits, this battle will be yours.  And I won't even try to defend myself.  You can attack me in any which way you like.  However, if I am still conscious after the third blow, you will die.  This will be a good test of your resolve."

All or Nothing

"You've got a deal," Mario chuckled, creating a sword of flames in his right hand.  "You're gravely underestimating me if you think I can't kill you."  He sprinted at the Grimnex and thrust his blade at Ares' heart.  However, the sword did not even pierce his flesh.  Mario's dagger of flames dissolved into thin air, leaving behind only a few small burns on Ares' upper torso.

"That's two," Ares informed him gravely as the number two on his chest became a one.  "Just remember, you're staking the lives of yourself and everyone you care about on this final blow."

"Alright, so I can't end this simply by stabbing one of your vital organs," Mario observed, wiping beads of sweat from his forehead.  "At this point, there's only one attack worth using.  And since he's already been so kind as to show me his Final Smash, it's only fair that I reveal mine."  His right fist glowing with the power of an Ultra Fireball, Mario sprinted toward Ares at lightning-fast speeds.  Thanks to his thunder element, his speed and agility had been enhanced drastically.  The gap between Mario and Ares quickly closed, and the Mushroom Hero hurled himself at his target.  He struck the Grimnex's face dead-on with his flaming fist, displacing the air around them and creating hundreds of wind bullets with equal strength to the original punch.  Mario landed several feet from his enemy and admired his handiwork.  With a pained grimace, he clutched his bloody fist- not even he was entirely safe from the might of his Final Smash.

As Mario's attack died down, Ares remained motionless.  During the onslaught of wind bullets, the Grimnex had not once cried out in pain.  Though his body was covered in mild bruises and scrapes, he did not show any signs of being severely injured.  He turned his body, which had twisted to one side as a result of the impact of Mario's Final Smash, to face the plumber.  His eyes were wide with what appeared to be bewilderment.

"I don't understand..." Ares muttered, his eyes bloodshot.  "Did you truly intend to risk your life... and the lives of your loved ones... on such a feeble attack...?"

Mario gulped.  "W- What...?  That was the Nova Strike, my Final Smash...  I mean, people have survived against it before, but no one has ever called it weak..."

The counter on Ares' chest changed to the number zero.  His body began to quiver uncontrollably as he nearly doubled in size.  "...I can tell that it was meant to be a finishing move, but your heart just wasn't in it.  Unless you can attack with the intention to kill me, and the determination to endure any and all hardships for your comrades, even a technique as deadly as the Nova Strike will become useless...  But it's too late for that...  My Final Smash has been activated..."


In the blink of an eye, Ares kneed Mario in the chest, struck him in the chin with an uppercut, and slammed him into the wall with a roundhouse kick.  The Mushroom Hero struggled to his feet, only to be knocked down by another brutal combination of blows from Ares.  "This is pathetic, even if I consider all of the Grimnexes you've faced prior to this fight.  You don't even have a purpose to fight me anymore."  He uttered a furious roar as he slammed his axe at the grounded Mario.

Mario wearily rolled to the side, narrowly avoiding death yet again.  He bounced onto his feet and made his best effort to counterattack, but to no avail.  It felt as though he was punching a brick wall.  "Your punches are emanating nothing but fear and hesitation," Ares informed him somberly.  "You don't want to kill me.  You're not even sure if it's worth it to continue fighting against the Grimnexes...  You're playing right into Ipos' hands, you darned fool!"  With a vicious shriek, he slashed diagonally across Mario's torso with his axe.  Blood seeping from his wounds, Mario fell to his knees.  "Don't you understand?!  Ipos is a master of both physical and psychological warfare!  He knew that if Peach snapped, you wouldn't have the will to continue fighting!  And do you know what?  He was right!"

Losing blood fast, Mario collapsed onto the floor.  Why... is he telling me all of this...?  Even now, as I'm dying at his feet...  Why does he almost seem to be... rooting for me...?  His vision began to grow black, but he could still faintly here Ares' words.

"Your friend, Glaive, suffered a similar loss many years ago!  Remember his beloved childhood friend, Sara?  She was turned into a Grimnex by the merciless Botis!  Just like Princess Peach, she was brainwashed!  To this very day, she continues to suffer deep down because of her involvement with the Grimnexes.  Are you just going to stand idly by and watch them suffer?  Deep down, the Peach you knew, and the Sara that Glaive knew, are both still alive.  From what I've heard, you've saved countless people from despair in the past.  If that's the case, then why can't you do the same for your wife and your deceased friend's true love?"

Just as the Grimnex's words had finally begun to sink in, Mario blacked out.  Misery welling within his heart, images of his friends and family flooded his mind.  Luigi, Wario, Waluigi, Bowser, Slade, Peach...  And before his very eyes, they vanished with a scream behind a splash of blood.

Mario awoke from his nightmare on the streets of Toad Town.  He breathed a sigh of relief.  Was that... was that all a dream...?  But before long, his hopeful smile curled into a melancholy frown.  It was a frigid winter night.  Snow was falling gently from the starry sky.  The town had been set ablaze, and most of the buildings had already burned to the ground.  Not a sound could be heard.  Mario was alone.

"What... what is this...?" he whispered, gazing up at the full moon.  Squinting into the sky, he spotted the fiery silhouette of what appeared to be some sort of bird.  He could hear a voice calling to him.

"Mario, do you want to live?"


Chapter 10: Prison Break

"I'll ask again.  Do you want to live?" the silhouette repeated, his voice growing impatient.  "It's a simple question."

"It makes no difference to me," Mario replied at last, his tone firm and resolute.  "I'll do whatever it takes to protect my friends and family.  If that means that I have to die, then so be it.  If I could just eliminate the threat of the Grimnexes... my duty would be fulfilled, and I would accept death if need be."

"You wish to protect those who are dear to you...  But who will protect you?"

To this, Mario did not respond.  The question had dumbfounded him.  He had never given this matter any thought.

"I will," the shadow answered, breaking the melancholy silence.  "It may be your duty to protect the Mushroom Kingdom, but it is my job to protect you.  Stand up once more, Mario.  You are not yet ready to search for death."

"But... who are you?!" Mario called, reaching for the moon as his vision began to fade.

"Now that I have salvaged you from your despair, you must do the same for the woman you love most.  Mario, if you want to survive, you must cast your uncertainty to the wind and fulfill your role as the Mushroom Hero!  Or will you cower away from this challenge, and prove that all of your efforts up to this point have been in vain?  The choice, my child, is yours."


"You have no business continuing to live on in this world," Ares spat, beginning to walk away from Mario's unconscious body.  "If you've already given up on the one most important to you, you died long before this execution.  Farewell, Mario.  In the end, you were not the hero that you claimed to be."

"Where... do you think... you're going...?" Mario whispered, his voice barely audible.  Lying face-down in a pool of blood, he slowly began to rise to his feet.  His body began to quiver as it was surrounded with a vibrant blue aura.  The dim corridor now lit by his determination, the Mushroom Hero stepped forward to challenge Ares once more.

"I see you've still got some fight left in you," Ares commented as he turned around to face Mario.  "I sincerely hope that you've thought of a decent reason to stand up."

"You shouldn't talk to me as if you're the only person standing in my way.  I don't have time to waste on the Iota Grimnex.  Your rank is too low," Mario informed him, charging at the Grimnex with newfound strength.  Ares replied with a swing of his axe, which Mario made practically no attempt to dodge.  The slice drew blood from his already severely wounded torso, but this did not stop him.  Mario lunged forward and delivered a right hook to Ares' face, sending him staggering backwards.

What just happened...?  He didn't even try to dodge my axe...  It's almost as if he allowed me to hit him, just so he could create the perfect opening for an attack of his own.  But that's ridiculous!  In his condition, it won't be long before...  Ares gasped.  "No...  You're bleeding has already stopped!  But how?!"  His eyes widened with sudden realization as he saw a black, bone-like structure through the rips in Mario's clothes.  "It couldn't be...  The Demon Exoskeleton is actually protecting him...  It's preventing Mario from bleeding to death!"

"Just this once, my demon ancestor has decided to protect me!  In exchange, I had to stand up once more, to fight for those who I wish to protect!  Princess Peach, Luigi, and all the citizens of the Mushroom Kingdom...  As the Mushroom Hero, it's my obligation to protect them!"  He rushed at Ares once again, leaping over his axe and delivering a kick to his head.

"That's more like it...  This is the man that I came here to kill!" Ares howled, wiping his bloody nose.  "Don't hold back!  I want you to die while fighting with everything you have!"

"Weren't you listening?" Mario snapped, Ares' axe wedged in his right shoulder.  "I already told you; your rank is too low for me to lose against you.  I've still got too much to do...  Ipos, King Zagan, and any other demon that dares to stand in the way of me rescuing Peach...  I'll beat down every last one of em!"

"Now you're crossing the border between determined and arrogant!" Ares cackled, batting the plumber away with his elbow.  "Why don't you test your newfound tenacity by finishing me off?  How about you try that technique that you seemed so confident in?  Let's see if this newfound resolve of yours is genuine!"

If only I could...  There's no way I could muster enough Elemental Energy to execute the Nova Strike...  Breathing heavily, Mario leapt onto his feet and gathered the last of his strength into a single Fireball.  His blue aura expanding, the Mushroom Hero charged at Ares without even augmenting his speed with a Thunderball.  His Elemental Energy had been completely depleted.  This last Fireball was all he had left.  Images of Peach, Luigi, and all of his other friends and family members flashing in his mind, Mario tossed his left arm above his body to block Ares' axe.  His Demon Exoskeleton cushioned the impact, knocking Ares' weapon to the side.  With Ares left vulnerable for a split second, Mario lunged forward and struck the Grimnex with a flaming punch that was empowered by his resolve.  Just as the blow connected with Ares' face, the Grimnex tightened his grip on his axe and slashed his opponent across the chest.

In a splash of blood, Mario fell to his knees.  He instantly knew that the fight was over.  Not even his willpower would enable him to stand in his current condition.  Struggling to keep his eyes open, he summoned enough strength to turn his head.  Ares was still standing.

"Now... you understand... the power of determination... and fortitude..."  A faint smile spread across his face, and the Grimnex began to fall forward.  "A Nova Strike without any feelings behind it... is no match for an ordinary punch thrown for the sake of an important purpose..."  Ares collapsed onto the ground with a thud.  He did not rise.

Mario grinned triumphantly before falling to the floor and slipping into unconsciousness.

Luigi awoke to the quarreling of two figures standing outside of his cell.  He rubbed his eyes and turned toward Ace, who was wide awake and watching the conflict intently.  "Who is it...?" Luigi whispered groggily.

"One of them is definitely the Grimnex that was put in charge of guarding us," Ace replied, peering into the dim corridor.  "But I can't make out who the other one is."

"This is your last warning, human.  Leave this palace, or you'll be detained and likely executed," Helios admonished.  "I don't know who you think you are, but you've got a lot of nerve to give me orders."

The other figure sighed and unsheathed a long, blood-red dagger.  "It's a shame...  If you would have simply released those two and told me the location of the Heta Grimnex, I would have let you live."

"Slade!" Luigi called, finally recognizing his comrade.  "I knew you'd come through for us!"

"I'm not doing this for you," Slade grumbled.  "I simply came here to search for clues to the whereabouts of my brother.  As the only remaining link to my wretched parents, he cannot be allowed to live.  You two would facilitate my search, but unfortunately, this imbecile refuses to cooperate with me."

Helios responded by drawing his sword and stepping forward.  His entire body, with the exception of his head, was covered in thick armor that was stained with the blood of his previous foes.  He had a mop of white hair, but he had the face of a young man.  "You will refer to me only as Helios.  You'll find that I am just a bit tougher than the Grimnexes you've faced earlier on.  My rank is Lambda, which means I am among the stronger half of the Grimnexes."

"So?  Mario has already defeated the Iota Grimnex, and he's two ranks above you.  I saw it myself on the way here," Slade recalled.  "The Grimnexes have underestimated the power of human emotions.  Mario's determination to rescue Peach, and my desire to eradicate what's left of my miserable family...  Nothing will stop us, especially not you."

Grimnex Battle

"Let's put that theory to the test," Helios suggested, engaging Slade in a swordfight.  Metal clangs echoed throughout the silent corridor as Slade skillfully parried each of his opponent's sword swings.  When he saw an opening, Slade went on the offensive, swiftly deflecting Helios' blade before striking with his own.  Helios nimbly shifted to the left, narrowly slicing Slade's shoulder as his foe's dagger grazed his midsection.  Having each received a minor wound, the swordsmen leapt backward, putting some distance between them.

"I'm way faster than you, but your blows are more powerful," Helios observed.  "Does that mean that we're even?  Not quite."

You'd be singing to a different tune if we weren't inside of this crammed corridor, Slade thought.  If I released my Nightmare Haze, it would surely kill him, but I can't risk harming Luigi or Ace.  I'll just have to rely on my blade.  He rushed toward Helios with his dagger held high, but the Grimnex vanished before his slash could connect.  Slade whirled around to see Helios' sword inches from his throat.  He ducked, only losing a few strands of hair in the process.  Slade prepared to counterattack, but Helios had disappeared yet again.  "He's fast..."

"What's the problem?  Having trouble keeping up?" Helios taunted, his face a mere blur as he sprinted circles around his infuriated enemy.  Slade attempted to attack, but his sword passed through an afterimage.  At the very same moment, he felt a sharp pain in his back.  Helios tore his blade from Slade's flesh and dashed to a safe distance before his foe could counterattack.

"Coward..." Slade murmured clutching his wound.  "I don't understand... how are you able to move so quickly with that heavy armor on?"

"I suppose there's no harm in telling you.  In addition to being a Grimnex, I also used to work as a blacksmith.  As you already know, we demons are cursed with flesh that is extremely sensitive to sunlight.  To counter this, I devised a special kind of armor that would repel sunlight.  However, this armor is quite heavy.  As such, one is required to undergo extensive training in order to move about while wearing the armor.  Being the one who invented it, it should come as no surprise that I have completed the necessary training."

"Then you were the one who provided Glaive with his armor!" Slade gasped.  "But why?"

"I was ordered to do so by Botis, the former Beta Grimnex.  For whatever reason, it seemed as though Botis wanted Glaive to leave the Nightmare Vault with Lord Shade.  Regardless, most of the Grimnexes have already become immune to sunlight.  My armor is used mostly by lower class demons who serve as pawns."

"Interesting," Slade yawned, his voice thick with sarcasm.  "You may be fast, but don't let it get to your head."  He placed the tips of his fingers on his blood-red dagger and slid them up to the tip of the blade, causing it to shatter into hundreds of razor-sharp fragments.  With a wave of his hand, Slade sent the shards zooming toward Helios.

"That's not a bad idea," Helios mused, fleeing from the oncoming blade fragments.  "I know all about your ability to control the Nightmare Haze.  By channeling it into your sword, you've broken it into hundreds of tiny pieces that you can control independently of one another."

And because the Nightmare Haze is inside of the fragments, there's no risk of Luigi or Ace inhaling it, Slade thought, gesturing toward Helios.  The shards swirled around the speedy Grimnex, surrounding him with a cylindrical barrier that would slice him to pieces if he touched it.  Slade clasped his hands together, signaling for the splinters to converge and slash Helios to death.

"This is actually somewhat entertaining," Helios chuckled, leaping out of the cylinder through the opening at the top.  "These shards are much faster than you are.  Perhaps they can give me a good workout."  He began to sprint toward Slade, the sword fragments hot on his tail.  "There's just one problem!  Without your weapon, you're left completely vulnerable!"

"As if you could outrun my Nightmare Haze," Slade sneered as the shards of his blade sped past the oncoming Grimnex and formed a wall between them.  "You may be faster than me, but you're not even close to matching the speed of the Nightmare Haze.  Face it; you've lost your advantage."

Helios stopped dead in his tracks and darted in the opposite direction.  He sprinted up and down the corridor as he weaved, jumped, and ducked past the blade splinters while Slade commanded them with lightning-fast hand motions.  After several minutes of this, Helios finally stopped in front of Ace and Luigi's cell, gasping for air.  His friends now in potential danger, Slade gestured for the shards to halt.

"That's right...  You wouldn't want those razor-sharp fragments to harm your allies, would you?" Helios snickered, reaching for the ring of keys at his waist.  He swiftly unlocked the door to the cell and stepped inside.  Slade dashed after him, but Helios had his blade pressed to Luigi's neck in the blink of an eye.

"Ack!  How'd you get in here so fast?!" Luigi shrieked.

Ace reached for his deck of cards, but Helios glared at him.  "If any of you make even a single move, I'll slit this plumber's throat."  Although they were trembling with frustration, neither Ace nor Slade dared to budge an inch.  "Slade, I want you to restore your blade to its original shape, unless you want to endanger this man's life."

Slade irritably complied, holding out the hilt of his dagger.  In a flash, the fragments gathered around the hilt until each individual piece fit back into place.  Grumbling to himself, Slade sheathed his reformed sword.  "A hostage.  How original.  I hope you're proud of yourself."

"Shut up," Helios spat, edging his weapon closer to Luigi's throat. "Now, if you want your friend to live, you'll have to do exactly as I say.  First, I want you to-" He was silenced as a blade of ice plunged into his back.  His weapon clattered to the floor, and he coughed up a mouthful of blood.  Falling to his knees, he turned to see who had struck him from behind.  He saw an icicle-shaped structure protruding from the ground, which connected to a trail of ice that snaked out of the cell and into an adjacent one.

"And you call yourself a guard?" a cold voice inquired from the nearby cell.  The door creaked open, and a young man with snow-white hair and sapphire eyes stepped outside.  He wore a bright blue vest and slightly torn jeans.  Luigi recognized him immediately.

Lorne's Theme

"Lorne!" the plumber called cheerfully as he darted away from Helios.  "How are you?  It's been a while.  I haven't seen you since- wait, I thought you were killed by Crimson!  Were you trapped inside of the Purgatory with the Wario Brothers and me?"

"It's good to see you, too," Lorne replied with a smile.  "The truth is, I'm still technically dead.  As for Crimson, there's no need to try and hide his true identity from me.  I'm already aware that he is Dante, both my father and your uncle.  That's actually the reason I came here.  You see, after a long discussion with Queen Jaydes, she decided to let me leave the Underwhere for a week to search for my father.  I want to talk to him firsthand... to hear the truth from him in person.  I want to know why he betrayed me, his own son..."

"So... if you're looking for Dante, why'd you come here?" Luigi inquired.

"By the time Jaydes gave me permission to leave the Underwhere, I already knew all about your journey to rescue Princess Peach.  I also heard that my father had somehow been reformed, and I thought that he might have come with you.  If nothing else, I'd at least be able to repay my debts to you, Ace, and most of all, Mario.  I've got a full week before the time comes for me to return, and besides, if the Grimnexes escape from the Nightmare Vault, no one will be safe, not even the residents of the Underwhere."

"I bumped into Lorne on the way here," Slade explained.  "From there, we formulated a plan in which Lorne would hide in a nearby cell, waiting for the perfect moment to strike."

"This is all very fascinating, but I'd like to get back to the task at hand," Helios groaned impatiently.  "Now that we've all gotten to know each other, I think this would be a swell time to unveil my Final Smash."

Wario Brothers vs. Poseidon

"What is that?" Waluigi asked, grimacing at the grotesque figure that stood before them.  Poseidon, the Kappa Grimnex, could only be described as a walking green blob with eyes that gleamed with hunger and greed.

"How'd a disgusting tub of lard like you become the Kappa Grimnex?!" Wario cackled, flexing his muscles.  "You'd better sink back into that puddle, tubby!"  His arrogance getting the best of him, Wario waded through the water toward the Grimnex.

"Such an ignorant species.  You should take note of your own prodigious girth before you speak ill of others," Poseidon hissed, his eyes flaring red with anger.  He made no attempt to dodge Wario's punch to his gut.  Much to the overweight plumber's surprise, Wario's fist passed through Poseidon's stomach with a splash.  "I'm afraid that ordinary punches and kicks will have no effect on my body, which is composed entirely of liquid.

"Whaddya mean?!" Wario exploded, struggling to pull his fist out of Poseidon's chest.  Poseidon's body had solidified around the area that had been struck, trapping Wario's entire right arm.

"You might as well punch a bucket of water," Poseidon chuckled.  "Except the water can freeze the instant you touch it, ensnaring you in an instant.  Once I capture my opponent, it's all over.  Let me show you what I mean."  Poseidon liquefied and molded himself around Wario before returning to his previous state- only this time, Wario's entire body was trapped within the Grimnex's stomach.

"He'll drown!" Waluigi exclaimed in horror, a purple Fireball glowing in the palm of his hand.  Before he could fire it, he was surrounded with a column of water that doused his attack.

Poseidon threw his head back and laughed.  "You'll have to do better than that!  I can control all of the water in this lagoon.  Putting out a little fire is nothing for someone like me."  His victorious moment was shattered as he felt a burning sensation in his stomach.  Wario had formed a Fireball from within the Grimnex's innards, melting the ice that held him in place. 

Gasping for air, Wario tumbled out of Poseidon's body.  "You shouldn't have done that..." the plumber growled.  "Now I'm mad..."  He turned to Waluigi.  "And as for you... stay out of this!  This punk insulted me, and I'm gonna make him pay..."

"I think it would be in your best interest to accept any assistance you can get," Poseidon advised him.  "That Fireball may have freed you, but it had no effect on me.  In fact, my body acts as a sponge that can absorb Elemental Energy.  Your Fireballs are only effective when trying to escape from within my body."

"I'm not buying it," Wario declared, sprinting at his opponent with a Fireball in each of his hands.  Poseidon didn't budge an inch as Wario unloaded dozens of flaming punches, each blow causing a tiny splash after connecting with the Grimnex's body.  Eventually, Poseidon swatted Wario away with a wave of his arm.  After taking one look at the Grimnex, Wario knew immediately that his assault had been ineffective.

"Is this enough proof for you?  There's not a scratch on my body," Poseidon informed him.  "Your Fireballs are only making me stronger."

"Ordinary punches pass right through his body, and any sort of elemental attack will be absorbed.  How are we supposed to hurt him?" Waluigi wondered aloud, watching his brother slowly rise to his feet.  Even if I went against Wario's wishes and fought alongside him, what could we possibly do?  Nothing can hurt him...  But he has to have some sort of weakness...  Otherwise, he'd be ranked much higher...

After another series of Fireball enhanced attacks, Wario was knocked onto his back yet again.  "Ah, thanks for the meal.  Now I'm full," Poseidon snickered.  "You should understand by now that I can absorb Elemental Energy.  Why do you continue to fight?"

"Because I'm still gonna win," Wario announced, wearily standing on his feet once more.  This time, he formed his Fireball into the shape of a sword.  He slashed at Poseidon several times, but dealt no significant damage.

"That's enough!" Waluigi cried, begging his brother to stop.  "Don't use your fire element!  Feeding him all of your Elemental Energy won't solve anything!"

"You're wrong!" Wario insisted, continuing to slice at the Grimnex, who didn't seem to be injured in the least bit.

Quickly growing impatient, Poseidon frowned.  "You poor, poor man.  I'll put you out of your misery."  He attempted to strike the plumber with his fist, but Wario lunged at him and stabbed his blade of flames into the Grimnex's chest.  The sword instantly dissolved as it was absorbed into Poseidon, who had begun clutch his stomach in pain.  "What...  What have you done to me?!"

Wario grinned triumphantly.  "Finally...  That took a lot longer than I thought it would..."

"My body...  It's... evaporating..." Poseidon hissed, beginning to vanish into a green mist.

"I never graduated middle school, so I'm no expert when it comes to these things, but... if your body can solidify and melt, shouldn't it also be able to evaporate if I add enough heat?  I figured that my best shot at beating you would be to force you to absorb as much heat as possible," Wario explained.

"I never thought he'd come up with something so brilliant," Waluigi chuckled.  "He couldn't hurt him with punches or Fireballs, but with enough heat, he actually caused him to evaporate...  Of course, it was pretty risky...  If he had run out of Elemental Energy before Poseidon reached his boiling point, he would've been screwed..."

Wario collapsed from exhaustion.  "Don't feel too bad, Poseidon.  Maybe you'll turn into a nice raincloud someday.  It's rare to find someone as strong and intelligent as I am, but you'll get over your loss eventually."

"Don't worry; I won't lose any sleep over it," a voice echoed from above.  The sky began to grow darker as rainclouds formed overhead.  In the blink of an eye, the Wario Brothers were being drenched with rain.  "Heh, you're just so powerful and so brilliant...  It's too bad that you completely forgot about condensation."

The downpour grew heavier as Poseidon's maniacal laugh echoed throughout the lagoon.  The water level was rising fast; Waluigi's feet could no longer reach solid ground.  He peered into the darkness and saw his brother floating lifelessly on the surface of the water.  Soaked and shivering, Waluigi furiously swam against the water flow toward Wario.  As he was only inches away, a column of water rose and formed into the shape of a hand.  With Wario wrapped tightly in its grip, the hand descended into the depths of the murky water.


Chapter 11: Passionate Greed

Now there are four of them...  I don't like these odds... Helios thought, his eyes shifting from Luigi, to Ace, to Slade, to Lorne.

"You'd better start coming up with an escape plan," Slade declared, drawing his sword.  "With the help of my Nightmare Haze, I could effortlessly defeat you alone.  With Lorne at my side, it'd be over in seconds.  I'll give you one last chance to comply with my demands.  Tell me where I can find the Heta Grimnex.  If you don't know anything, scram."

"Hold on a second!  We're still shackled to the wall!" Luigi shrieked.

"Don't worry.  I won't allow him to hold you and Ace hostage again," Lorne affirmed, stepping between Helios and Luigi.  "I'll be sure to free you two once we take care of this guy.  I could probably cut your restraints right now, but fighting him two-on-one would be much less hectic than four-on-one."

"Good call," Ace stated with a nod.  "There's no need to make the situation more complicated than it needs to be."

"Your arrogance is astounding," Helios hissed, gradually inching closer to Lorne.  "You haven't even seen my Final Smash, and yet you're already claiming superiority over me?"

"Fine.  Use your Final Smash so we can prove your inferiority," Slade grumbled impatiently.  "It doesn't matter what special technique you have hidden up your sleeve.  Until I meet with my brother, I simply cannot fall in battle."

Helios placed a hand on Slade and Lorne's shoulder.  "We'll see about that.  How about we play a little game?"  In a flash of rainbow-colored light, Helios, Slade, and Lorne vanished into thin air.

"Where'd they go?" Luigi wondered aloud.  "Great, now we're back where we started: trapped without anyone around to help us."

Slade opened his eyes and found himself standing in the midst of a pristine, gently rolling plain that seemed to expand for miles.  The sky was pure blue; there wasn't a cloud in the sky.  The grass was about six inches high, and a lone tree stood atop a nearby hill.  Lying against the trunk of this tree was Helios, who rose to his feet after being spotted.

"Welcome," Helios greeted him.  "Before you ask, this is an entirely separate dimension.  Isn't it beautiful?"

"Cut to the chase.  Why are we here?" Lorne demanded, appearing beside Slade.

"The prison corridor is far too cramped for my taste.  Besides, this territory is my Final Smash.  Up until now, the Final Smashes that you've went up against were probably used in combat.  Mine is much different; you see, my Final Smash is essentially a game of tag.  When I tapped your shoulders earlier on, the technique was activated, and the three of us were brought here.  Now, the two of you are it, and you only have one hour to tag me if you want to escape."

"Do you honestly think we'll agree to play your little game?" Slade inquired, charging at his foe with his blade raised.  "You just brought two superior opponents to an isolated battlefield in which there aren't any other Grimnexes to assist you.  This is the worst move you could have possibly made."  Holding nothing back, Slade swiped his sword at Helios, who made no efforts to defend himself.  The dagger halted with a metal clang as it connected with the Grimnex's flesh.  Not even a scratch.

"Don't feel bad, Slade.  Everyone always has the same reaction when I explain my Final Smash," Helios scoffed.  "Inside of this dimension, brute force cannot harm me.  The only way out of here is to tag me within the time limit."  Slade lunged at the Grimnex, who quickly darted out of his reach.  "It seems that you've forgotten about my speed.  I'm still the faster of the two of us.  And since you'll have to tag me with your hand, this could take a while.  You'd better start running if you want to catch me within an hour."

"We're gonna have to work together," Lorne whispered, noting Helios' speed.  "It'll be just like old times, back when we both used to work for my father."

"Meh, how dull," Slade yawned, sheathing his sword.  "I don't really feel like chasing after you right now.  Lorne, you can play his childish game if you want, but I think I'm going to take a nap."  He stretched and found a comfortable patch of grass to lie down on.  "Wake me up if you manage to tag him."

Wario Brothers vs. Poseidon

Drenched with rain, Waluigi peered into the depths of the murky lagoon as the image of his brother swirled and faded away.  He took a deep breath before plunging beneath the surface of the water in a desperate attempt to save him.  Frantically, the plumber paddled his arms and scanned the black abyss for any signs of movement.  At last, he located Wario, who was ensnared in the grip of colossal green hand.  Waluigi reached out to his brother, but his lungs could not hold out much longer.  His body sore and his lungs screaming for air, he had no choice but to retreat to the surface of the lagoon.

"Damn... it..." Waluigi cursed, gasping for air.  "The water current... is too strong...  And I'm too fatigued... to hold my breath long enough... to reach him..."  Quickly running out of time, the plumber dove after his brother once again despite his condition.  This time, he saw neither his brother nor the demonic hand of Poseidon.  Furiously searching for Wario, Waluigi saw nothing but a void of darkness.  Poseidon... I swear...  He had better be alright. 

After what seemed like an eternity, a metallic figure zoomed past him and broke the water's surface.  Waluigi raised his head from the water and heaved a sigh of relief.  "Ah, now I understand.  I almost forgot that your Final Smash also enables you to breathe underwater."

"Yeah, so did I.  It's a good thing I remembered at the last second, or I would have drowned," Wario gasped, coughing up a mouthful of water as the metal armor that encased his body faded away.  "I'm not sure how, but my Final Smash is even more awesome than before.  Now I can cover my entire body with metal, whereas I could only metalize a single limb during the war with Crimson.  I guess my battles against the Grimnexes have made me stronger."

"That still doesn't explain where that giant hand came from," Waluigi mused, glancing back and forth to avoid being caught off guard.  "This obviously has something to do with Poseidon, but that's about all we know."

"So the chubby one escaped by using his Final Smash," a wicked voice gurgled from underwater.  "How fitting.  It seems that your only chance at countering my Final Smash was to use your own."

"That was your Final Smash?!" Wario cackled.  "You think a little rainstorm is going to hurt me?  Or maybe that puny 'water hand' was supposed to drown me?"

"The rain was simply a means of returning to my liquid form," Poseidon explained, still unseen by the Wario Brothers.  "My Final Smash enables me to fully liquidize and become one with any body of water.  It's difficult to put into words, but your opponent is essentially this very lagoon!  All of it is a part of my body!  Escape is impossible; the rock walls surrounding you are too tall to climb!  Face it. You're surrounded!  And very soon, you will both become my first meal in weeks!"

"Now what?" Waluigi inquired, both brothers still bobbing on the surface of the lagoon.  "How are we even supposed to hurt him?"

"Beats me," Wario replied with a shrug.  "Until he comes out of hiding, we can't even lay a finger on him."

As if on cue, a long, snake-like body of slime lunged out of the depths of the water and struck Wario, pinning him to the towering rocky walls that enclosed the lagoon.  The hefty plumber thrashed wildly about in an attempt to break free, but to no avail.  His eyes gleaming with hunger, Poseidon opened his mouth and revealed several rows of razor-sharp fangs. 

"You look delicious.  I'll start with you," Poseidon declared, his mouth watering.

"Bro!" Waluigi gasped, swimming furiously toward the Grimnex.  He didn't get very far, however, as the water solidified around him, encasing the lower half of his body in some sort of ice-like substance.

"I'm afraid I cannot allow you to interfere with my meal," Poseidon sneered, preparing to swallow Wario whole.  "Don't bother trying to melt yourself free with a Fireball.  That's not ice; it's a special mixture of my own liquefied body and the water in this lagoon.  Your Fireball cannot generate nearly enough heat to melt this new substance!"

Then I'll just have to aim for you, Waluigi thought, pointing his opened palm at Poseidon.  In a radiant flash of violet light, he launched a colossal purple Fireball at the Grimnex.  As the blast was only moments away from striking Waluigi's target, a massive column of water rose from the surface of the lagoon and doused the flaming projectile.

"Did you already forget?  I have total control over all of the water that surrounds us!  Your Fireballs are useless!" Poseidon cackled, his jaw opening wide enough to swallow Wario with one bite.

"There's no way I'm getting eaten by someone so ugly!" Wario howled, flailing his arms and legs.

Waluigi could feel his heart pounding in his chest.  In mere seconds, his brother's life would be over.  With no other option, he pointed his index finger at Poseidon and fired a thin, purple Fireball.  Just as it had before, a tower of water protruded from the lagoon's surface to block Waluigi's Fireball.  Only this time, the Fireball pierced through the water barrier and shot Poseidon in the back.  Wario opened his eyes, and for just a moment, he saw the Grimnex's weakness: a red sphere roughly the size of a soccer ball floating inside of Poseidon's gelatinous body.

"Gotcha!" Wario cried, lunging forward at the stunned Grimnex and striking his core with a fierce right hook.

Poseidon roared in agony as he retreated a few steps away from Wario.  "Human scum!  No man has ever laid a hand on my core and lived to tell about it!"  His eyes flaring red with rage, he turned to face Waluigi.  "And you...  I can't believe you had the audacity to strike me while my back was turned!  For that, your suffering will be unparalleled, even for a man who has already died in battle.  I just have one question...  How did you get past my water barrier?"

"It was my Final Smash.  Because my body is so thin, my Elemental Energy can flow from place to place faster than it could in a normal person.  This allows me to concentrate Fireballs into the tips of my fingers.  Since these Fireballs are more concentrated, their strength and speed is enhanced greatly.  And evidently, they can also travel through water without being doused."

"I see... but because these Fireballs are more 'concentrated', you must be packing an awfully large amount of Elemental Energy into them.  Try not to overexert yourself," Poseidon snickered.  "Either way, the lower half of your body is still trapped inside of my special substance.  And because it is a part of my body, I can control all of its properties... even its density.  I know that you two aren't the brightest bunch when it comes to science, but... Waluigi, tell me, do you know why some objects sink, while others float?"

Waluigi's eyes widened.  He immediately understood what Poseidon was getting it.  He gathered a Fireball in each of his palms and frantically attempted to melt the solid that encased his lower body.

"The answer, my friend, is density.  If a substance is less dense than water, it will float, just as you are now.  However, if I alter the substance so that it is denser than water... well... Let's conduct a little experiment."  The cruel Grimnex waved his hands toward Waluigi, who instantly began to descend into the abyss below.

Wario dove in after him without hesitation, but his rescue attempt was short lived.  Before long, he found himself caught in the tide of a ferocious whirlpool, no doubt created by Poseidon.  With some help from the Grimnex, the current had become so powerful that it was creating cuts and bruises all across the plumber's body.  Eventually, the force became so strong that Wario was hurled out of the water.

"Nice try," Poseidon taunted.  "It's too bad.  He's going to drown, and there's nothing you can do about it.  But what's wrong with that?  You're both thieves, aren't you?  If he dies, that simply means that you can have more money for yourself."

Ignoring Poseidon, Wario dove after his brother yet again, only to be ejected from the water once again by the almighty current.

Only Human

"I don't understand you two," Poseidon declared, observing Wario's desperation.  "This entire battle, you've both been looking out for each other.  Whenever you were in trouble, Waluigi would give his all to protect you.  How can such a greedy bunch of people care for each other so much?"  His tone grew solemn and bitter.  "Greed is one thing that can never be shared amongst friends; greed is a disease that will push everyone away until you're the only one left."

"Shut up..." Wario grumbled, encasing his entire body with metal as he challenged the whirlpool's might yet again.  Though his Final Smash augmented his resistance, the violent current would not be overcome so easily.  The water around him began to turn red with blood as Wario's metal armor was gradually torn from his body.  His lungs ready to burst, Wario finally reached the bottom of the lagoon.  He shattered the material that imprisoned his brother with one punch, and the two brothers hurriedly retreated to the surface.

"It doesn't make any sense," Poseidon insisted, watching the two brothers gasp for air.  "They're both consumed by greed... but they can also be compassionate and even heroic..."

"You're talking as if you know all about us," Wario observed.  "How do you know so much?  And why are you so confused by our desire to keep each other alive?"

"A background check is performed on every prisoner to be admitted to the Purgatory.  These reports are often sent to other Grimnexes, and while reading through them, yours caught my interest.  Don't ask me why...  Maybe it's just because...  I can relate to a couple of greedy thieves like you two...  While your greed has brought the both of you closer together, mine has only brought me despair and isolation...

"I've always been the Kappa Grimnex.  In numeric terms, that makes me the tenth strongest Grimnex.  To be in the top ten of any group is almost always considered extraordinary.  Lower ranking Grimnexes envied the respect that I earned, and they were always quick to point out my flaws, hoping that I would be demoted and that one of them could replace me.  One such flaw was my excessive hunger.  Looking at me now, I'm sure it comes as no surprise that I am overweight.  Back then, I was no different.  During the Terranean War, our food and supplies were meager.  In such tough times, my never-ending hunger was viewed as a hindrance.  One by one, my comrades pushed me away, and even as the years passed and we were confined to the Nightmare Abyss, my isolation only grew.  I was ultimately forced to live all alone in this miniscule gorge on the outskirts of the Nightmare Abyss."

"I see..." Wario mumbled, beginning to sympathize with the Grimnex.  "Greed may have brought upon your downfall, but it was what saved us from starvation many years ago...  Waluigi and I have no memories of our parents.  We were orphaned before we were even old enough to walk.  Our life was so miserable back then... We had so little...  Food was scarce, so we had to steal to survive...  That's how it all began...  Since then, we've both become obsessed with money... so that we would never have to live such a meagerly life ever again."

"Wario...  You've never revealed our past to anyone, not even Mario..." Waluigi whispered, tears forming in the corners of his eyes.  "You must truly feel sorry for him..."

"I hate to do this, but I'm gonna have to put you out of your misery," Wario declared, beginning to approach Poseidon.  The Grimnex hastily retreated beneath the water, and Wario activated his Final Smash, covering his body with a thick metal coating.  "Waluigi... I want you to stay on the surface and prepare your Final Smash.  Keep an eye out for his core.  Once you spot a red light, shoot at it."

"Bro...  Are you sure you want to do this?" Waluigi inquired, shivering as the downpour grew heavier.

Wario smiled sadly as he began to sink into the depths of the lagoon.  "It's the only way...  A couple of greedy guys like us are too stubborn to admit defeat."  With that, he vanished beneath the surface of the water.  His feet clanking against the lakebed as he walked, Wario analyzed his surroundings in search of his foe.  He spotted the faint red glow of Poseidon's core and began to chase after it.

"Stay back," Poseidon commanded in a gurgled voice.  Fleeing in the opposite direction, the Grimnex attempted to repel the hefty plumber by sending violent currents of water in his direction.

"Not a chance," Wario retorted, clenching his teeth as he braved the water flow.  After having most of his metal armor stripped away from him, he finally broke through the current and reached Poseidon.  With a gurgled cry of determination, Wario unleashed a series of punches and kicks that pushed the Kappa Grimnex closer and closer to the surface.

"That's it!" Waluigi exclaimed as he caught a glimpse of Poseidon's core.  He took aim and fired a series of concentrated Fireballs through his fingertips.  The blasts struck their target with pinpoint accuracy, causing Poseidon to burst onto the surface of the water with screams of anguish.  Seconds later, Wario emerged with a splash and struck the Grimnex's exposed core with a deadly, Fireball-augmented right hook.

"I don't understand... how greed can... benefit anyone..." Poseidon murmured, his core beginning to dissolve.

Wario, floating wearily on his back beside the Grimnex, chuckled softly to himself.  "Heh, you moron... Greed alone won't bring happiness to anyone, not even me...  To be sure, greed is a disease, but coupled with passion and love, it can become a person's greatest asset."

A slight smile spread across Poseidon's face as his core faded away entirely.  "Now I understand...  You humans are much more complex than I once thought..."  He turned his head and glanced at Wario and Waluigi, who were soaking wet and gasping for air.  The rain began to lighten, and the storm clouds overhead were replaced by a vivid sunset.  "When I first saw you...  I thought you were just a pair of heartless thieves... but now, I can see... when pushed to the brink of death, even a pair of bandits like you two can demonstrate compassion and understanding...  Perhaps... humans aren't as evil as we've been led to believe..."  The rainfall came to a complete stop, and a ray of radiant light shone down upon the Wario Brothers as Poseidon liquefied and became one with the lagoon.

Slade sat up, yawned, and stretched.  "Hey Lorne, did you catch him yet?" he asked, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

"Not... yet..." Lorne replied, breathing heavily.  "Way to wait until the last second...  We've got less than five minutes until we run out of time..."

"Actually, you only have about three minutes left," Helios corrected him with a smug grin.  "The clock is ticking..."

Mind Games

"Are you sure about that?" Slade inquired, beginning to approach the Grimnex.  "Are we really being constrained by a time limit?  Or was that simply a bluff?"

"What do you mean?" Helios growled, beginning to lose his composure.

"I've been thinking...  And I've come to the conclusion that there is no time limit- for us, anyway.  In reality, the one hour time limit is for you; it's the amount of time that you can sustain your Final Smash.  But if you told us that, we'd simply wait for an hour to pass so we could return to a place in which we could inflict damage upon you.  So instead, you tell your opponents that they must catch you within one hour, sending them into a state of panic and desperation.  The dread of a time limit looming in the back of their minds, they'll spend the next hour frantically exerting themselves in a fruitless attempt to catch you.  And once they finally tire themselves out, you come in for the kill.  But instead of falling for your childish bluff, I decided to bide my time and attempt to understand your Final Smash.  It's over, Helios."

"You're quite perceptive," Helios grumbled.  "Time is such a precious thing.  Even the most patient of warriors cannot resist its allure.  You are the first man to ever discover the true nature of my Final Smash.  However, you're both still going to die.  Lorne is too fatigued to be of assistance, and your little 'blade shards' trick won't be able to keep me at bay because I'm invulnerable in this dimension.  We may have less than two minutes left, but without your cheap tricks, you cannot hope to match my superior speed!"

"Heh, what do you think I've been doing for the past hour?  Sleeping?" Slade inquired with a sarcastic grin.  "Did you honestly think I'd be foolish enough to completely drop my guard inside of a Grimnex's territory?"  He threw both of his arms upward, and a cloud of Nightmare Haze rose from beneath Helios' feet.  After clasping his hands together, the haze solidified around the lower half of the Grimnex's body, immobilizing him.  "While I appeared to be napping, I was actually seeping my Nightmare Haze into the ground, preparing for this moment.  And now that you can't move..."  He gently tapped Helios on the shoulder.  "You're it."

"Gee, I really wish they'd show up," Luigi sighed.  "They've been gone for almost an hour...  Where do you think they went?"  As he finished his sentence, he was blinded by the same rainbow-colored light that Slade, Lorne, and Helios had vanished into.  When the light died down, he saw Lorne standing beside Slade, whose sword was wedged in Helios' heart.

"You're back!" Ace exclaimed.  He spotted Helios' fatal wound, and his excitement was replaced by confusion.  "What happened...?  Where did you go...?"

"Don't ask.  It was pretty boring; I just slept the whole time," Slade answered dryly, yanking his dagger from the Grimnex's chest.  "Such a risky Final Smash.  Once I tagged you, you were too exhausted from the prolonged use of your technique to even defend yourself."

Tainted Soul

Blood pooling out of the wound on his torso, Helios fell to his knees.  "Tell me... why have you all come here...?  You humans... blindly label us evil, yet you know nothing of the truth...  You justify this label by referring to us as monsters who mercilessly slay anything in their path... But under what grounds... have you earned the right to storm into our home... and slaughter any demon you come across...?  What makes you so different...?  What gives you the right to declare us evil and kill us without hesitation...?"

Slade smiled softly.  "It's a shame.  There's a friend of mine who would have loved to answer your questions.  But since he's not here, I'm on my own.  There are some humans out there who deserve only the most grueling and painful of deaths.  The same goes for a couple of Grimnexes I once knew.  However, if you look hard enough, there are some people out there truly worth saving.  Most of us are here to help those who deserve to live, but personally, I'm here to eradicate those who deserve to die.  That's why I'm searching for the Heta Grimnex.  I don't suppose you'd be willing to tell me where he is?"

"I... see...  Go... Nexus... day of... execution... Heta... there..." Helios murmured, his life fading away.  "Tell... Beta... I'm... sorry..."

"Thank you," Slade whispered, kneeling beside the fallen Grimnex.  "Your dedication to the demon race is admirable, even to someone like me.  You spent your life forging armor for demons, both friends and enemies alike, that would allow them to overcome their dreadful curse.  You served as the Grimnexes' prison guard for decades, always performing your duties as instructed.  Never have I seen a demon who believed so strongly in his cause.  For you to assist me during your final breaths...  I am truly grateful.  Rest in peace."


Chapter 12: Preparations

Demonic Plot

"This had better be important," King Zagan grumbled, shifting impatiently on his throne.

"It is," Ares assured him, his body covered in bruises and scrapes.  "I have an important status report.  Both the Kappa and Lambda Grimnexes are dead.  In addition, two prisoners attempted to escape from their cells after the death of Helios.  However, I have successfully carried out the execution of all apprehended intruders, including Mario.  That only leaves the two brothers that defeated Poseidon, whom I plan to capture as soon as this meeting is adjourned."

"I see... Both Helios and Poseidon were killed..." King Zagan muttered.  "Interesting.  Including the Alpha and Heta Grimnexes, only ten of us remain.  These intruders have certainly proved themselves to be an even greater nuisance than we anticipated.  Ipos, you've failed to eliminate this oppression twice now.  Coming from you, even a single failure is a rarity.  Is something troubling you?"

Ipos bowed before the Beta Grimnex.  "My apologies, King Zagan.  I was unaware of Mario's Demon Exoskeleton during our first encounter, which undoubtedly saved his life, and Ares interfered during our second battle, preventing me from finishing the job."

"Ares, is this true?" Zagan inquired.

Ares nodded.  "Forgive me, my liege.  As punishment for my mistakes, please allow me to replace Helios as the prison guard.  It's the least I can do to make up for prolonging the deaths of Mario and his friends..."

"This is a surprise.  It seems as though you are finally taking responsibility for your actions, Ares.  Good for you," Zagan commended him.  "Very well.  You are now in charge of the detainment floor.  In addition, I expect you to terminate the ones who slaughtered Poseidon.  You are dismissed."

"Thank you, my lord," Ares said with a bow before hurriedly exiting the throne room.

That was quite convincing, Ares.  Had I not anticipated your betrayal, your act might have actually fooled me.  You'd better hurry, though; the execution will be taking place in only a few more days.  Train him well; after all, the resurrection can't happen until we have all the necessary components, Zagan thought, now alone with Ipos.  "Ipos, how is the princess faring?"

"She now accepts her fate.  In fact, she told Mario in person that she did not wish to be rescued.  Her loyalty is unquestionable."

"Good.  You're only assignment at the moment is to ensure that the execution runs smoothly.  Mario and his friends may have been dealt with, but don't let your guard down.  The Phoenix Salvation will alter the face of every realm in existence; we cannot afford to be careless."

Mario shielded his eyes from the light shining through the single, barred window of his dim cell.  Rubbing his eyes, the plumber sat up and yawned.  Noticing that his torso was heavily bandaged, he frantically scanned the area for Ares.  Instead, he saw five figures hovering over him.  Assuming the worst, the Mushroom Hero leapt to his feet and clenched his fists.

"Calm down, Bro, it's only us," Luigi whispered as he, Ace, Lorne, and Slade stepped into the light. 

Mario dropped his fists and heaved a sigh of relief.  "Hey guys, what's up?  I see that you've decided to return to the battlefield, eh Slade?  And Lorne too...?  But weren't you, uh... kind of, ya know... dead?"

"We'll explain all of that later.  For now, you have a guest," Slade declared, gesturing to his left.

Standing in the center of these four familiar faces was a woman with wavy, violet, shoulder-length hair.  She wore a sleeveless indigo tunic and baggy silver pants.  A sword and shield were strapped to her back, and her deep purple eyes were clearly those of a warrior.  "I don't believe we've met before, though I've heard much about you.  My name is Rhea."

"Nice to meet you," Mario replied, still half-asleep.  "I'm Mario, but you probably already know that.  So... um..."

"I'm sorry; this must be rather confusing, especially since you just woke up.  Where should I begin...?"

"She may be a demon, but like me, she's on our side," Ace informed Mario.  "I just wanted to let you know that before you became suspicious."

"To be frank, I've known all about you for quite some time," Rhea admitted.  "I've been watching you, Mario...  Your battles with the Grimnexes have inspired me to fight alongside you.  That's really all you need to know."  She flashed an exaggerated smile, and Mario understood that prying any deeper would be useless for the time being.

"What a second... Where's Ares?!" Mario thundered, remembering his bout with the Iota Grimnex.  "Shouldn't he be here?"

"He's decided to work with us," Rhea answered with a grin.  "I offered him my assistance, and-"

Battle Plan

"You're being too vague; let me explain," Ares grumbled, appearing at the entrance to Mario's cell beside Bowser and the Wario Brothers.  "You should all probably get out of that cramped cell.  After all, we have this entire floor to ourselves.  Zagan just appointed me as the new prison guard."

"Ares... Wario... Waluigi... Bowser..." Mario mumbled, scratching his head.

"Everyone's here," Wario announced.

"But most importantly, I'm here," Bowser chuckled.

"I can't believe you actually brought this trash with you," Slade groaned, referring to Bowser.  "He's hardly worth the amount of space that he takes up."

"Mario, much like you did for Rhea, you've inspired me," Ares explained, Bowser and Slade quarreling in the background.  "I originally wanted to face off against you to satisfy my bloodlust, but I've been thinking... I'm really not too fond of working for the Grimnexes.  If I joined up with you, there'd be plenty of action, and I'd finally be able to spill the blood of those cocky jerks that rank above me.  It doesn't sound so bad...  Besides, I have plenty of inside information that could surely be of some use to you."

"Ares...  You aren't very loyal to the Phoenix at all, are you?  Is that why Ipos attacked you before?" Mario asked.

"Sort of.  You see, even Grimnexes have an honor code.  We're too stubborn and proud to gang up on intruders like you, so we maintain our positions even while under attack.  Grimnexes are forbidden from straying too far away from their posts when intruders are lurking about.  Whatever Grimnex is lucky enough to stumble across the trespassers gets the privilege of finishing them off.  There is one exception to this rule.  If a Grimnex has a score to settle with an infiltrator, he is allowed to 'claim' him.  This was the case for Ipos.  He had claimed you as his target, and when I interfered, I directly disobeyed the Grimnex honor code.  This was a severe insult to Ipos, which is why he attacked me."

"I see... So this isn't a big deal, considering you were never truly devoted to the Grimnexes' cause in the first place."

"Exactly.  And now that I'm in charge of this floor, you can all rest here without arousing suspicion.  There are only four days until Princess Peach's execution, and in your current states, none of you are much of a match for the upper ranking Grimnexes."

Mario and his friends gasped.  "You mean... They're gonna execute Peach?!"

"I'm afraid that I have more bad news.  Nearly all of the small fries have been dealt with.  Excluding myself and the Alpha Grimnex, only eight Grimnexes remain.  Seven of them are even stronger than I am.  Moreover, King Zagan will be dividing his forces into two groups as Princess Peach is transported to the top floor of the palace, the Colosseum.  The top five Grimnexes will oversee the execution, while the remaining three will be sent to the Nexus."

"The Nexus?" Bowser parroted in confusion.  "You mean that dimension we passed through to get to the Nightmare Vault?  What a bunch of morons.  They don't even have a Nexus Pass!"

"Artificial Nexus Passes have been constructed several years in advance in preparation for the assault.  If the attack on the Nexus is successful, all realms will be altered beyond repair.  That's why we'll be sending a team to the Nexus to head them off.  Slade, Lorne, Bowser...  You three will use the Nexus to enter the Underwhere.  Once there, you should reunite with Mario's two sons.  Between the five of you, you should be able to defend the Nexus."

"Why would they storm into the Nexus during Peach's execution?  Wouldn't it weaken their defenses?" Waluigi wondered.

Ares shook his head.  "A handful of the top ranking Grimnexes is more than enough security.  Anyway, I've told you everything I know.  I was not given specific details because I am already suspected of treason."

"How are we even going to enter the Nexus?" Lorne asked.

"I've already got that covered," Mario chuckled.  "The citizens of Toad Town are periodically opening the gateway to the Nexus, eagerly awaiting my return.  Wait near the Nexus Access Point, and they'll eventually open it for a routine check.  While you're at it, you should explain the current situation to them.  They deserve to know.  I'm sure Toadsworth is worried sick."

Looking Forward

Ares nodded.   "In that case, Lorne, Slade, and Bowser should head for the Nexus right away.  They'll have plenty of room to prepare for battle there.  As for Luigi, Ace, and the Wario Brothers, look around for a place to train.  These chambers are far more spacious than you may realize.  Mario, you'll be staying with Rhea and me."

"See ya, Bro," Luigi said with a wave as the heroes dispersed to prepare themselves for the upcoming battle.

"I'll see you in about four days," Mario called back.  He turned to Bowser, Slade, and Lorne.  "As for you three, I don't know when I'll be seeing you again.  Bowser, don't lose that burning passion of yours.  Once I rescue Peach, I'll be sure to tell her how much you helped me."

"That is, if you actually manage to save her," Bowser snickered.  "In the end, I'll probably be forced to defend the Nexus all by myself.  Then, once I hear about your defeat at the hands of the top five Grimnexes, I'll have to come all the way back here to singlehandedly rescue the princess."  The two rivals laughed, and Bowser started off on his journey.

"Mario, I haven't forgotten about what you did for me," Lorne thanked him.  "My father...  You showed him mercy even after all of the crimes he committed...  Tell me, is it wrong for me to want to see him again...?"

Mario smiled and shook his head.  "Not at all.  Your father isn't as evil as you may think.  When I fought him, I could see that part of him felt remorse for his crimes.  It might be hard, but just give him a chance."

"Perhaps I will...  Thank you again for all the advice you've given me.  I will do my best to keep your children safe."

"That means a lot to me.  I'm leaving them in your hands."

Slade held out his hand, and Mario gladly shook it.  "It's been a pleasure working alongside you, Mario, even if it was only for a short period of time.  This is the moment we've been waiting for ever since we first started fighting demons together.  The final battle will soon be at hand.  Don't let that demon inside of you bring you down."  He turned and began to follow Lorne and Bowser.

"Slade...  If you continue down the path of vengeance... you'll die," Mario informed him solemnly.

Slade stopped, but did not turn around.  "I know...  I've already accepted my fate.  Don't run away from yours."  He continued to walk forward without saying another word.

"Goodbye, my friend," Mario whispered, struggling to hold back his tears.

Without stopping, Slade raised his right arm and waved at his comrade before fading into the darkness of the dim corridor.  That was the last time they ever saw each other.

Royal Guardian Theme

Now alone with Ares and Rhea, Mario heaved a deep sigh.  "Four days, huh?  That doesn't leave us much time.  No offense, but how exactly am I supposed to improve by sparring with someone I've already beaten?"

"Ares will be your sparring partner, and I will oversee your training," Rhea answered. 

"What could you possibly teach me?" Mario inquired, stifling a giggle.  "I mean, you're just an ordinary demon.  You're not even a Grimnex."

"Even better.  I'm a Royal Guardian," Rhea informed him with a grin.  "We are a noble family of knights that protected Zeus during the Terranean War centuries ago.  Only one other Royal Guardian remains: Swift, the demon who attempted to train you not too long ago.  Unfortunately, when your kingdom was attacked by Crimson, you ended your training early to aid your friends in battle.  Swift specializes with finding inner peace and strengthening the mind, whereas my training will enhance your physical skills."

"Really?  I had no idea you were one of the Royal Guardians!" Mario exclaimed, his face beaming with excitement.  "If that's the case, let's get started."

"As you wish.  For starters, I want you to do pushups.  Now," Rhea commanded in a low voice.  "You will continue until I tell you to stop."

"Pushups?  Isn't that a little... old fashioned?"

"If you want to reach Ipos' level, we'll have to start with the basics," Rhea insisted, her arms crossed.  "Unless this is too easy for you.  Ares, fetch Mario some cinder blocks.  We can use them to 'improve' his training environment by weighing him down."

"Ugh...  I think I'm already lost," Luigi sighed, wandering alone through the dark depths of the prison chambers.  "Ares is right: this place is a lot larger than I thought.  I hope I can find my way back...  Otherwise I'll end up missing the entire battle... and then everyone will go back to the Mushroom Kingdom and I'll be left alone with a bunch of dead demons and then..."  He took a deep breath.  "Calm down, Luigi... Stay positive...  It's not like I'm going to run into a demon or anything-"

He was silenced by a violent tremor that originated from a nearby cell.

Luigi gulped.  "Uh... Maybe I should go..."

"You...  Come closer..." a low, raspy voice commanded.  Trembling with fear, the plumber instead chose to back away.  "Come here...  Or I'll kill you."

"Of course!  I just love talking to strangers," Luigi yelped, peering into the opened cell from which the voice was beckoning.  "Yup, especially very ominous... very tough-looking strangers... that hang out in abandoned jail cells..."

"I haven't seen you around here before.  Who are you?"  Lazing about on the cold stone floor, Luigi spotted a muscular, middle-aged man with a mop of black hair and a five o'clock shadow.  He wore tattered black sweatpants and a bloodstained, sleeveless white shirt, and his dull, brown eyes never opened more than halfway. "My name's Gaea," he said with a yawn after clearing his throat.

"My name is L- Luigi.  I, uh... just got a promotion, so, um... I guess we'll be seeing each other a bit more often..."

"Ah, good.  I'm glad that you're a comrade; I really wasn't in the mood for a fight," Gaea sighed with relief.  "S'been years since I've had to do any work around here... and I'd like to keep it that way.  See, most of the Grimnexes and other miscellaneous demons hang out either above or below this floor, which is entirely made up of prison cells.  There really is no need for anyone to be here, so this is where I come when I want to avoid Zagan's assignments.  Of course, this has to stay between us.  Don't tell the boss."

"Wouldn't dream of it," Luigi chuckled, beginning to feel at ease.

"So why are you all the way out here?"

"Well, I guess I'm here to be alone, just like you," Luigi answered with a shrug.  "Only, I'm not trying to run away from my responsibilities.  The princess' execution is only a few days away, and King Zagan's plan is going to require all of us to fight...  I just want to be prepared.  Right now, I'm too weak to protect the people I care about..."

"You know what, Luigi?  I'm starting to like you," Gaea declared with a friendly smile.  "I feel like we have a lot in common.  Deep down, we both want to avoid our duties.  The only difference is that you resist the temptations of indolence, while I do not.  I know I can trust you with what I'm about to show you.  It's the second reason why I'm here all alone."  He curled his right hand into a fist, and it began to glow with a green aura.  His right arm now quivering with power, he gently touched his supercharged fist to the floor.  All at once, an earsplitting boom reverberated throughout the corridor as chunks of debris shot upward from the point that Gaea's fist had made contact with.

Awestruck, Luigi remained silent for several moments before collecting his thoughts.  "Incredible...  How did you do that...?  You barely touched the floor, and yet..."

"There's not much time left...  In only four days, not even I will be safe from Zagan's orders.  I've gotten rusty over the years, so I decided to spend the next few days in seclusion to practice my aura manipulation."

"Your... what?  Could you, uh... teach me?" Luigi requested, clearly impressed by Gaea's talent.

Gaea was taken aback by this inquisition.  "Teach you...?  Eh, I doubt I'd be a very good instructor...  Besides, not just anyone can learn to wield this technique..."

Luigi fell to his hands and knees.  "Please...  Unless I find some way to become useful during these next four days... my brother... and all of my comrades are going to have to pull my weight...  I don't want to be a burden to them...  I want to be on the front lines, fighting side by side with them in what may be the most crucial battle in history."

"You...  You have a brother?" Gaea inquired with sudden interest.

Luigi nodded.  "An older brother...  He's always two steps ahead of me, taking on greater challenges and facing off against tougher opponents...  It's almost as if I'm constantly being left behind...  I just can't keep up..."

"I see...  I was correct.  We have much more in common than you could ever realize.  I would be willing to teach you about aura manipulation, but... in only four days, how much progress could you possibly make?"

"I'll practice nonstop until the day of the execution!  Please, just teach me..." Luigi pleaded.

Deep in thought, Gaea did not speak for several minutes.  At last, he came to a decision.  "...Very well.  This is seriously going to cut into my relaxation time, but for someone like you, I don't mind putting forth a bit of effort.  Listen carefully.  Whether it may be Elemental Energy or Iniquity, all living creatures have some form of energy coursing through their bodies.  When used, this power circulates around the outside of the body.  This is called an aura.  You may have noticed such an aura in previous battles, especially when experiencing extreme emotions.  In truth, you can actually learn to manipulate the flow of your aura to perform feats that would be otherwise impossible.  For example, if you concentrate your aura into the smallest amount of space possible, its striking power is enhanced substantially.  That's why my fist did so much damage despite how gently it touched the floor.  Do you follow me?"

"I think so," Luigi responded with a hesitant nod.  "Maybe it'll make more sense when I actually try it.  So, how do I do this whole 'aura manipulation' thing?"

"It cannot be put into words.  You'll have to feel it out for yourself.  Whether or not you can figure it out within the next few days is up to fate.  You'd better get started.  I'll offer you whatever guidance I can."

After several hours of intense preparation, most of the heroes retired for the night.  Only Mario, Ares, and Rhea remained awake. "I think that's enough for now," Rhea declared.  Mario exhaled a deep breath and fell flat on his chest, his arms throbbing with pain.  Ready for a good night's sleep, his eyes gradually began to shut.  "Mario, what do you think you're doing?  You just finished warming up. Stand on your feet so the next phase of your training can began."

"Rhea, shouldn't he get some rest?  If he doesn't sleep at all during these next few nights, he'll be too exhausted to put his training to good use," Ares reasoned.  "Perhaps we should allow him to rest for a bit."

"Given the severity of our predicament, we cannot afford to waste any time until Mario has completed the training program," Rhea stated firmly.  "Mario, think back to your battle with Ares.  Don't you find it strange that your wounds have healed so quickly?  It was my healing expertise that got you back on your feet.  We're going to take advantage of my talent and work you to the brink of death for the next four days.  There will be no time to sleep, rest, or even eat.  Your only luxury will be a single glass of water per day.  On the night before the execution, I will heal your body of its fatigue and injuries, and you will even be permitted to sleep.  But until then, stand up!"

His arms trembling with exhaustion, Mario had to summon all of his might just to push himself onto his feet.  He grinned wearily.  "These next few days are gonna suck..."

"Yes.  Yes they are," Rhea agreed smugly.  "Now, it's time for you to spar with Ares.  Don't finish each other off, but don't hold back, either.  You will both continue until Mario can go for an hour without being struck by Ares.  Begin."


Chapter 13: The Execution

Impending Battle

"And that basically sums up the situation," Slade concluded, walking beside Bowser, Lorne, Mark, and Luke through the depths of the Underwhere.

"Your father is putting his faith in us," Lorne added.  "We cannot allow the demons to take control of the Nexus.  With access to every dimension in existence, there's no telling what kind of damage they could do."

"I can't believe Mario thought that these two brats could actually be of use," Bowser grumbled.  "They didn't even live through Crimson's invasion of the Mushroom Kingdom.  What makes him think that they can do any better against the Grimnexes?"

"We lasted a hell of a lot longer than you did," Mark retorted angrily.  "You and your entire army were wiped out way before Crimson defeated us at Mushroom Castle.  The only difference was that you managed to survive, likely because you deserted your men to save your own hide."

"And we're not brats.  Mark is sixteen, and I'm thirteen.  We're old enough to take care of ourselves," Luke reminded him.

"But did you two beat the Upsilon Grimnex?" Bowser inquired, throwing his head back with laughter.  "I didn't think so."

"Upsilon?  That's hardly worth gloating about.  Slade and I defeated the Lambda Grimnex with relative ease," Lorne recalled with a smug grin.  "Besides, Mark and Luke haven't even had the chance to fight a Grimnex yet.  For all we know, they could be the strongest out of all of us."

"I guess we'll know in a few days," Bowser grumbled bitterly.

"Ugh...  Why did Mario leave me with such an immature group?" Slade muttered under his breath.  "The sooner the day of the execution arrives, the better."

It was the dawn of the third day, and Mario's relentless training continued.  Breathing heavily, he weaved, ducked, and jumped past the ruthless axe swings of his opponent.  Ares, having every intention of striking Mario, began to mix in a few punches and kicks as well.  The Mushroom Hero took a step backward and found himself up against a stone wall.  He was cornered.  With a triumphant roar, Ares lunged at the plumber and swung his axe horizontally.  He blinked in confusion.  The plumber had vanished.

"Over here," Mario chuckled, standing on top of Ares' axe.  Before the Grimnex could react, Mario delivered a swift kick to his head.  Ares toppled onto the floor, and Mario landed nimbly beside him.  He turned to face Rhea.  "Time's up.  It's been an hour, hasn't it?"

Rhea nodded.  "Excellent.  You've gone an entire hour without being struck once.  Congratulations; you have surpassed Ares."

"It only took ya 36 hours," Ares groaned, gasping for air.  "Don't you ever get tired...?"

Everything is going as planned.  I doubt Mario has ever been in a combat situation for this long.  The extreme demand for energy has caused him to instinctively learn to control his breathing and conserve energy, Rhea thought.  "Now, we shall begin the final step of your training.  This exercise is almost exactly the same as the previous one."  She drew her sword and took a fighting stance.  "The only difference is that you'll be fighting Ares and me."

His fist beginning to emit a greenish glow, Luigi smashed his fist against the stone floor and created a dent that was merely half the size of the one Gaea had made a few days ago.  It was undeniable that he had made progress, but Luigi was not satisfied in the least bit.  He winced in pain, his knuckles bruised and bloody.

"You're not very good at this, are you?" Gaea inquired with a yawn.  "I barely touched the ground, and you hit it with full force.  Yet the crater I made was twice the size of yours.  Maybe you should just give up."

"No," Luigi refused, clenching his teeth as he punched the floor yet again.  "I'm not gonna stop... not for you... or anyone else...  Nothing's gonna prevent me from helping my brother..."  He raised his fist once more and slammed it into the crater he had made with his previous punch.  Again and again and again, Luigi did not relent.

I've never seen someone as cowardly as him demonstrate such tenacity.  I didn't tell him this, but he's mastered the technique to a degree that took me three years to reach, Gaea thought.  If he keeps this up, he may just be the first to fully master aura manipulation in a matter of days.

Mushroom Hero

During the next 36 hours, Mario braved the most grueling hardships of his life.  He had been brought to the brink of exhaustion, fighting against a Grimnex and a Royal Guardian without any breaks to eat or sleep.  His clothes were rugged and full of rips, and his body was covered in cuts, scrapes, and bruises.  Yet, even as his fatigue grew, so did his accuracy, his striking power, and his skill.  Nearly an hour had passed since he had last been hit.

"Don't give him any slack, Ares!" Rhea demanded, rushing at Mario with her blade held high above her head.  She hurled herself at the plumber, slashing at him with the pinpoint accuracy that only a Royal Guardian could possess.  Ares joined in on the scuffle, keeping Mario on his toes with his furious axe swings.  With the two demons swinging at him with everything they had, Mario gracefully dodged each individual strike with ease.  His movements were narrow and precise, wasting as little energy was possible.  When he saw an opening, he lunged at Ares and dealt a right hook to his gut.  He then wrenched the axe free from the Grimnex's hand and hurled it at the oncoming Rhea, buying him some additional time to beat down Ares.  He struck the Grimnex with countless blazing-fast punches and kicks before turning around and sidestepping a sword swing from Rhea.

"Time's up," Mario chuckled, gently tapping his fist on the back of Rhea's head.  "Neither of you could even touch me once in the past hour."  After receiving a nod of approval from Rhea, Mario collapsed onto the floor from exhaustion.

"Tomorrow's the day," Princess Peach breathed, admiring the rain from a balcony at the peak of Grimnex Palace.  The black sky was occasionally lit with flashes of lightning, and the rainfall grew heavier with each passing minute.  As she gazed into an abyss of nothingness, her dull gray dress soaking wet, her mind was filled with muddled memories of the past.  "Rain...  It reminds me of that day, the first day we ever met...  Bowser had kidnapped me for the very first time, and then he came to save me..."  She closed her eyes, struggling to remember the identity of her rescuer.  "Who... who is he...?  Every time I close my eyes, I see him..."

"Princess, how are you feeling?" Ipos inquired, emerging from a nearby staircase.  "You know what tomorrow is, don't you?"

She nodded.  "Yes.  I will serve as a sacrifice for our fallen king, the Phoenix."

"Correct.  Now, please return to your room.  You wouldn't want to catch a cold the day before the ceremony, would you?"

"Ipos...  This hand, is there something missing on it...?" Peach asked, waving her ring finger in front of the Grimnex's face.  "This finger...  It feels... empty..."

"You're simply imagining things," Ipos assured her, quick to dismiss her suspicions.  "That's enough small talk.  Return to your room immediately and get some sleep.  Tomorrow, we will change the face of every realm in existence."

Royal Guardian Theme

That morning, Mario and his comrades awoke especially early.  Their minds were all focused on one thing: Princess Peach's execution.  Four days had come and gone, and now it was time for them to test their might against the remaining Grimnexes.

Mario sat up and yawned.  "That was great...  I can't remember the last time I slept so peacefully.  And my wounds are all healed, too.  Thanks, Rhea."

"So, you're finally awake?" Rhea groaned.  "I still don't understand how humans can remain dormant for such extensive periods of time.  Two hours of sleep was more than enough for the two of us."

"Today's the day," Ares informed Mario solemnly.  "There isn't much time left.  Ipos came by only a few minutes ago with orders to assume my position.  Rhea was able to use her magic to hide the both of you, but regardless...  The Grimnexes are preparing to strike.  Now is not the time to falter."

"If the Grimnexes are gathering their forces, then we'd better assemble ours as well," Mario affirmed.  "Luigi, Ace, and the Wario Brothers should be standing by at their designated locations.  Aren't you two going to meet up with them?"

"Ares will, but I'm afraid that this is where we must part," Rhea apologized.  "Before I can assist you any further, I must locate Swift.  As the only other remaining Royal Guardian, his presence is crucial to our success."

"Now Mario, are you sure that you don't want us to send someone with you?"  Ares inquired with a frown.

Mario shook his head.  "That won't be necessary.  You of all people should understand that I won't let anything stand between the princess and me."

Ares grinned.  "Of course."

The Mushroom Hero kneeled before Rhea.  "Thank you for all that you've done."  Having said their goodbyes, Mario and Ares turned and marched off into the depths of the prison chambers.

"Do not waver, my child.  End the nightmarish curse that we have unwillingly passed down," Rhea whispered, gazing off into the distance long after Mario and Ares had departed.

"I'm impressed by how much you've progressed," Gaea commended Luigi, who was making preparations for his departure.  "To master aura manipulation to such a degree in such a short period of time... you must truly care for your brother's safety.  Farewell, my demon comrade.  I look forward to fighting alongside you in the near future."

"Yeah... heh, me too," Luigi chuckled nervously.  "Thanks for everything.  Hopefully I can finally be of use to my brother..."  With that, he turned and walked off in search of his allies.

"Such an honorable man," Gaea mumbled, now sitting alone in his cell.  "He understands true bravery.  Despite his fears, he still has the courage to stand up for his loved ones.  If only all demons could follow his example..."

"There you are, Gaea," echoed a familiar voice.  "I've been looking all over for you.  You really shouldn't be down here, considering what day it is.  From now on, you should try to set a better example.  You may be ranked as the Epsilon Grimnex for the time being, but your irresponsibility may just come back to haunt you someday."

"Take it easy, Ipos," Gaea yawned.  "I was just giving one of our demon soldiers a few lessons."

"Very well.  Now come with me."

The Phoenix Salvation

Grimnex Palace, a fortress built atop the ruins of the battle in which the Phoenix had been overthrown, stood in the very center of the Nightmare Abyss.  The first floor was one of absolute darkness, an area that only Grimnexes with the most refined senses could traverse.  The second floor, a colossal labyrinth of prison cells housing those unfortunate enough to have been captured, was a place in which Grimnexes rarely dwelled- with the exception of Gaea and the designated prison guard.  Above these two floors was the Colosseum, a massive, circular stadium that spanned upward for the length of four floors.  For the most part, its design was true to that of the Romans, with its overlaying architectural arcades in which windows were placed at constant intervals.  There were no spectators to witness the upcoming ceremony; thousands of unoccupied seats lined the middle two floors.  The bottom floor was clearly a battlefield, and the top floor- the highest point in all of Grimnex Palace- was the throne from which King Zagan waited patiently for the ritual to commence.  Etched into the stone floor before the mighty Beta Grimnex was a circle bordered with strange markings and symbols.  A triangle with a phoenix at its center was inscribed within this circle.  It was on top of this peculiar drawing that Princess Peach stood, surrounded by three other Grimnexes: Venus, Gaea, and Jack.

A gradient of pink, purple, and red was visible through the hundreds of windows bordering the Colosseum- the closest thing that the demons had to a sunrise.  "It seems that we are all here.  It is time for the Phoenix Salvation to begin," King Zagan declared, his face illuminated by the incoming light.  His cold, foreboding presence struck fear into the hearts of even the highest ranking Grimnexes.  He was a tall demon covered entirely in bloodstained armor, with only two slits in his helmet that revealed his soulless black eyes.  "To begin the ceremony, Princess Peach must perish while standing atop the mark of the Phoenix.  Venus, why don't you carry out the execution?  After all, you are my second in command."

"As you wish, my lord," Venus obeyed, removing a dagger from a pouch strapped to her waist.  She was a beautiful young woman with flowing black hair and silver body armor.  Her emotionless, black eyes were nearly identical to those of King Zagan and Princess Peach, as if they had all somehow shared the same tragic fate.  "You should feel honored to die in the name of the Phoenix.  Do you have any last words?"

"Consider this not an execution, but a sacrifice," the princess replied.  "Let it be known that I willingly accept death for the sake of our lord.  I have chosen to embrace death as a demon, rather than struggle to live on as a human.  That is all."

Venus nodded.  "Farewell, brave princess."  She pressed the tip of her blade to Peach's heart and gradually applied pressure.  As the knife began to draw blood, a burning sensation scorched the back of Venus' hand.  The blade clattered to the floor, and the five of them whirled around.


Standing at the main entrance to the bottom floor of the Colosseum was Mario, smoke emitting from his opened palm.  He cupped his hands over his mouth and called out to the group of demons, who towered several floors above him.  "Hey guys, nice party!  I really wish I didn't have to crash it."

"Who is this imbecile?" Venus inquired, glaring at the Mushroom Hero.

"Ugh, I told you to leave me alone!" Peach screamed in disgust.  "I don't want to be rescued, you jerk!"

"Ouch, that was pretty harsh," Mario chuckled.  "Well, it doesn't really matter to me whether you want to be saved or not.  I'm coming up there, and as soon as I'm finished with your new demon pals, I'm gonna take you home."

"Demon pals?" Venus parroted.  "Whoever this man is, he isn't very bright.  Who does he think he is, interrupting the ritual in such an arrogant and insolent manner?!  He's mocking us, and I don't like it one bit."

Zagan stifled a giggle.  "Ah Mario...  He's just as brazen as always.  I was eager to see how he'd make his grand entrance, but I must admit that I was expecting something a bit more... subtle."

"He really doesn't know who he's dealing with, does he?" Gaea wondered aloud.  "Even so...  That was actually kind of cool..."

"He won't get very far," Jack reminded them.  "Or did you forget who was guarding the stairway?"

As Mario approached the long and winding staircase that led upward, a pale-skinned demon dressed in baggy black pants and a silver, long-sleeved shirt emerged from the second floor and stood firmly in his path.  His hair was a mop of gray, and his bangs partially hid his heartless sapphire eyes.  Strapped to his waist was a long dagger sheathed in a jet black scabbard.  "This is as far as you go.  Did you honestly think you could halt the Phoenix Salvation without first defeating me?"

"Nah, that's one of the reasons I came here," Mario declared.  "I wouldn't dare set foot outside of the Nightmare Vault without first settling the score with you."

Ipos heaved a deep, disappointed sigh.  "Fool.  You claimed that you would save the princess, but here I stand before you.  How could you possibly hope to reach her before she is executed?"

"What are you talking about?  I can't do all the work," Mario snickered, gazing upward at the top floor of the Colosseum.

"What a moron," Venus mumbled, bending down to pick up her knife.  "What did he expect to accomplish by warning us of his arrival from all the way down there?  Even if Ipos hadn't been there to stop him, we still could have easily pierced her heart before he climbed all of those stairs."  She turned to face Peach and gasped.  "The princess!  She's gone!"

"A distraction?" Zagan realized, his eyes widening slightly.  "Not bad, Mario.  Not bad at all.  You even caught me off guard by acting in accordance with your past displays of arrogance."  He pointed at Luigi, who was sprinting away with Peach tucked under his arm.  "Gaea, take care of the green one!  Don't let him escape with the princess!"

Gaea peered at the familiar figure.  "Could that be...?  No..."

"Release me, this instant!" Princess Peach demanded, flailing her arms and legs.  "What will it take to get you to listen to me?!"

"Should I pursue them as well?" Venus inquired.  "After all, I was the one who allowed the princess to slip away.  It is my mess to answer for."

"None of you are going anywhere," Ares called, emerging from behind a nearby column with Ace, Wario, and Waluigi at his side, "at least, not until you get through us."


"Ares, it's so nice of you to join us," Zagan greeted him with mock friendliness.  "I was wondering when you'd show up with your band of misfits."

"Then...  Y- You knew all along?  B- But how?" Ares stammered, clutching the handle of his axe.

"Even if I hadn't foreseen your betrayal several months ago, the fact that Mario is still alive is more than enough proof," Zagan explained.  "You were always so rebellious, wanting to shed the blood of anyone who possessed even the slightest bit of power.  I knew that Mario would bring at least one Grimnex to his side, and when you volunteered to become the prison guard, I understood exactly what you were up to."

"If that's the case, why didn't you stop me?!" Ares exploded, shocked by how much King Zagan knew about his treachery.  "What could you have to gain by-?"

"More than you could ever understand," Zagan answered with overwhelming confidence.  "It's amusing, how little you all know about me.  All will be revealed very soon, but until then...  You'll just have to do your best to compete with Venus and Joker, who, as I am sure you are well aware, far outrank you.  In the meantime, I think I'll sit back and watch as these battles unfold before me."

Meanwhile, Luigi stopped at the opposite end of the Colosseum and gently placed Peach on her feet.  "This is as far as we can go.  Otherwise, we'd just be running closer to King Zagan.  Now, I just need to find a staircase that leads below...  Before you try to escape, just listen to me.  The Grimnexes are just gonna kill you.  Why wouldn't you want to come with us?  What did they do to you?"

"They showed me who I truly was," Peach responded bitterly.  "It is my duty to give my life for the Phoenix.  I know that trying to escape from you is fruitless, but rest assured, someone will come after me.  And when he arrives, you'll be sorry."

"I'm not here just to cower in the corner, you know," Luigi snapped.  "If a Grimnex comes looking for you, it'll be up to me to stop him."

"Those are pretty bold words coming from such a deceptive coward," Gaea hissed through clenched teeth.  "I can't believe you would shamelessly lie to me just to obtain more power.  I thought you were better than that, Luigi.  All of that garbage about protecting your brother... it was all a ruse...  You even had me convinced that we were comrades...  I never thought it would come to this."

Luigi turned around to see his former mentor towering above him.  Slowly backing away from the Grimnex, he attempted to explain himself.  "Listen, Gaea.  I wasn't lying to you.  Look at the man down there standing before Ipos.  He's my brother, Mario."

"Mario..." Peach whispered, closing her eyes in an attempt to remember the face behind that name.  "Why does that name... bring back so many memories...?"

"I know we may be on opposite sides, but that doesn't mean that we're not still friends.  Please... just let Peach go..." Luigi pleaded, falling to his hands and knees.  "I don't want to fight you, but I will if I have to..."

Gaea remained silent for a moment.  At last, he sighed as he made up his mind.  "Because you both seem to harbor such deep feelings for this Mario, I think I'll permit you to watch this battle to its conclusion before escorting you both back.  I want to see if the legendary Mushroom Hero is worthy of his reputation."

Luigi thanked him and leaned over the edge of a nearby balcony.  "Hey, Bro!  We're all watching you from up here, so don't let us down!" he called to his brother, who was about to square off against Ipos.  "Peach is safe for the time being, so just focus on Ipos!"

Mario locked eyes with his coldhearted adversary.  "Looks like it's just you and me, Ipos.  It's time for a little payback."